The player who leads the American League in hits is batting .341, and if he continues on his current path, he’ll finish the season with something in the range of 240 hits and 80 extra-base hits. These are numbers that will put him in the conversation for an All-Star selection and the top 10 of the MVP award.
But the player's name is Melky Cabrera, who was suspended for use of performance-enhancing drugs two seasons ago.
What should we think about this?
In short: anything you want.
If you choose to take his performance at face value and prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, and want to believe that he is playing clean, well, that's your prerogative. If you choose to think of Cabrera as a player merely bouncing back from injury -- a tumor was discovered in his spine in the midst of last season -- then that's reasonable. Because of the new rules pushed by the MLB Players Association, Cabrera -- like every other player -- is subject to far more tests, random and otherwise, than ever before. You can choose to trust that Cabrera's early-season accomplishments are legit.
But if you want to be skeptical and wonder if he’s cheating, well, that’s perfectly reasonable. Cabrera has been a journeyman outfielder for much of his career, cut loose by the Braves when he was 26 years old before he suddenly made a miraculous climb into the elite echelon of hitters, at the same time Cabrera -- a good friend of Alex Rodriguez -- became a Biogenesis client. In his second season of stardom, Cabrera tested positive. Rather than to immediately own up, he tried covering his tracks.
He got a two-year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays and now, as he prepares to go into the free-agent market in the fall, he’s off to an incredible start. His numbers very closely resemble those he put up the summer he was suspended.
So if you want to think the timing of his performance is more than a coincidence, and you prefer to believe he's cheating, he has earned that suspicion. While the union deserves much credit for ramping up the testing and toughening the penalties, the fact is that under the current system, the reward for cheating still can heavily outweigh the risk.
If Cabrera gets through this season with big numbers and no positive drug test, maybe he would get a three-year, $30 million deal -- possibly more. If he tested positive again and was suspended again after he signed that contract, he’d face a one-year ban as a second-time offender and still walk away with two-thirds of the money.
Imagine a bank robber getting nabbed as he walked out the door, his arms full of cash -- and he faced probation with no jail time while being allowed to keep two-thirds of the loot. This is the biggest loophole in the drug-testing policy, and it won’t be closed any time soon because the players' association does not want to consider any compromise that would allow teams to void contracts, out of concern for the precedent that would be set.
But if a player in Cabrera's position signed a multiyear deal following a suspension, nobody should feel sorry for the team involved. They'd have the same information the rest of us do, maybe more, and they’d be making their Faustian bargain. The New York Mets gave Bartolo Colon a two-year, $20 million deal knowing that it makes no sense that a pitcher who turns 41 in 18 days could have a better fastball than he did eight years ago. The St. Louis Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract, in the winter after he was caught up in the Biogenesis scandal -- a calculated gamble that his strong 2013 performance was more about Peralta than the drugs he took. Peralta is hitting .232 with seven homers and if it turns out that Cardinals don’t get what they paid for, well, maybe they’re getting exactly what they paid for, with eyes wide open.
Other players are looking at PED cheaters with more anger and enmity than ever before, viewing them as being guilty of essentially trying to steal money and opportunity from their brethren. Even if Cabrera approaches a .400 average, there will be players who say privately that they will never consider voting for him in the players' poll for the All-Star team. Cabrera probably won't get enough support from fans to be chosen. It may fall on John Farrell, the manager of the Red Sox, to make the complicated decision of whether to include Cabrera on his list of reserves.
If Cabrera makes the team, he will have earned his selection through his production. If Cabrera is left off the team, he will have earned that, too.
Around the league
• On Monday's podcast, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti discussed the return of Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig's development and Don Mattingly's daily outfield quandary; Jerry Crasnick discussed Jay Bruce, Nolan Arenado and Derek Jeter's early struggles.
• The Pirates had their guts ripped out Monday, blowing an 8-0 lead.
If the Giants again make the playoffs, they will look back on this current road trip as a pivotal time for the team. Following their sweep in Atlanta, they posted this tremendous comeback.
[+] EnlargeTroy Tulowitzki
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Troy Tulowitzki hit two home runs in an 8-2 win over the Rangers on Monday.
• Troy Tulowitzki is off to a ridiculous start in his home performance, and he hammered two more homers Monday.
From ESPN Stats & Information: Tulowitzki won April’s NL Player of the Month and NL Player of the Week on Monday and then celebrated by hitting two home runs in an 8-2 win over the Rangers, continuing a blistering start to the season. While Tulowitzki leads the majors this season with a .408 average, he's been otherworldly at Coors Field, hitting .596.
• Max Scherzer’s bet on himself continues to look great: He shut down the Astros on Monday.
From the Elias Sports Bureau: Max Scherzer threw eight scoreless innings and struck out nine batters in the Tigers’ 2–0 victory over the Astros. That lowered Scherzer’s earned run average this season to 1.72 and raised his strikeout total to 60. He’s the first American League pitcher since Mike Mussina in 2003 with at least 60 strikeouts and an ERA below 2.00 through his first seven starts. (Mussina had 63 K's and a 1.70 ERA for the Yankees, while winning each of his first seven starts that year.)
Scherzer finished the eighth at 111 pitches and three outs from his first career complete game. Scherzer has made most career starts in modern MLB history (172) without a complete game.
From ESPN Stats & Info, how Scherzer dominated the Astros:
A. Astros hitters were 0-for-13 with six strikeouts in at-bats ending with a Scherzer off-speed pitch. It's the first time in his past 13 starts Scherzer didn’t allow a hit with his off-speed stuff.
B. Scherzer recorded eight outs on his changeup, including four outs via strikeout (both tying season highs). Three of those four strikeouts came on changeups out of the zone.
C. Scherzer threw 64 percent off-speed pitches with two strikes, his third-highest percentage in the past six seasons. So far this season, Scherzer is throwing 58 percent off-speed with two strikes, which would be by far the highest percentage of his career.
• Jeff Samardzija pitched great Monday, but again did not get a win. From ESPN Stats & Info: Samardzija allowed one run (none earned) in nine innings Monday but did not record a win. He is winless in his first seven starts this season while allowing three or fewer runs in each.
• Laz Diaz angered the Yankees in their loss to the Angels.
From David Waldstein’s story:
Girardi also said that he had only argued one previous call to the [Brett] Gardner at-bat, and that was when Kelly Johnson struck out looking to end the second inning. Girardi said Diaz responded to that by wagging his finger back and forth at Girardi like a stern grade-school teacher.
He likened the gesture to the finger wave displayed by the former NBA player Dikembe Mutombo after an opponent’s rejected shot.
"I'm not a little kid," Girardi said. "I don't need to be scolded. Obviously, we're trying to work together, and I just felt there were a lot of inconsistencies tonight."
Asked if he thought Diaz had been the instigator, he said, "Yes."
Asked if he thought any of the balls in the ensuing six walks that the Yankee pitchers issued in the bottom of the inning were retribution from Diaz, Girardi said, "I would hope not."
Here’s video of what happened with Girardi.
Here’s video of what happened with reliever Shawn Kelley.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Jay Bruce will be replaced by a trio of outfielders.
2. Robbie Ray makes his debut tonight against Houston. It’s a smart move by the Tigers to line him up against the Astros, who are averaging little more than three runs per game.
3. Raul Ibanez, hitting .144, was benched and offered a classic response.
From Mike DiGiovanna’s story:
"Shoot, I wouldn't put me in right now, either," he said after taking early batting practice Monday. "I'll be ready if they need me."
4. Outfielder James Jones was promoted, as Bob Dutton writes.
5. Xavier Nady was designated for assignment. The Padres hope that Kyle Blanks jump-starts their offense.
Dings and dents
1. J.J. Putz has dreaded right forearm tightness.
2. Edward Mujica won’t need a stint on the disabled list.
3. Jason Grilli and Russell Martin are closer to coming back.
4. The Royals are hoping that Lorenzo Cain takes a cautious approach.
5. Brandon Morrow may have thrown his last pitch for the Jays, writes Richard Griffin.
6. Yasiel Puig was out of the Dodgers’ lineup.
7. Matt Cain talked more about his weird injury.
8. Tyler Chatwood was shifted to the 60-day disabled list.
[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Chris Gardner/Getty Images
Atlanta second baseman Dan Uggla, batting just .190, was benched Monday.
1. The Braves' free fall continues. Dan Uggla was benched.
2. The Mets squandered a late lead.
3. The Nationals waited through a long rain delay to finish off the Dodgers.
4. Eduardo Escobar hoisted the Twins.
5. John Axford gave it up again.
6. J.A. Happ led the Jays.
• There's plenty of room for the Red Sox to improve, writes John Tomase.
• Tommy Hunter strives to be better, writes Jon Meoli.
• Buck Showalter is concerned about bullpen burnout.
• Derek Jeter is still batting second, and he had two hits Monday. Jeter presents a conundrum, writes Joel Sherman.
• Desmond Jennings' approach is delivering results.
• Jose Abreu has a chance to reinvigorate the White Sox-Cubs rivalry, writes Rick Telander.
• Martin Perez was hit hard.
• Scott Kazmir got his first loss.
• The Marlins are a fun team, and they provided the perfect birthday present for manager Mike Redmond.
• There are too many holes in the Phillies' lineup, writes David Murphy.
• Milwaukee's offense broke loose.
• The Cardinals have pieced together back-to-back wins. I talked to a couple of scouts on Monday who see the same thing in Allen Craig: a struggling hitter who is using the upper half of his body far more than in the past couple of seasons, and using his legs much less.
"It's like he has no base at the plate," said one scout.
Craig missed the last weeks of the regular season with a foot injury, and I asked him over the weekend whether that had had any impact on him, and he nicely dismissed that suggestion. Craig said he felt completely healthy just before the start of spring training.
• A catcher wrecked in a home plate collision finally found some relief.
• A high school pitcher drew praise from Nolan Ryan.
• Tom Seaver had a special day, as Tyler Kepner writes.
• Mariano Rivera says he’d take Dustin Pedroia over Robinson Cano.
Homer Bailey's career ERA is 4.30, and he has had two seasons in which he has thrown over 200 innings. He has not pitched to the level of a Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, or even a Matt Cain. He's never had any kind of a vote for the Cy Young Award, and has never been picked for an All-Star team.
But Bailey has managed to shift perceptions in the market, when he got a six-year, $105 million deal from the Reds in February. To agents and players, this deal seems to represent a new benchmark that has ratcheted up their expectations. For some club officials, the Bailey contract represents one giant wrench dropped right into the middle of salary machinations.
So if you're sitting in Jon Lester's position, as a star left-hander with two championship rings just five months from free agency, a $70 million offer from the Red Sox might appear almost ridiculous, within the context of the Bailey contract. If you are in Jeff Samardzija's spot, more than a year from free agency, the Bailey deal might redefine the range of what kind of deal you seek.
In the end, the Bailey deal may prove to be the domino that eventually leads to Samardzija being traded before July 31.
Samardzija, 29, is off to a great start, with a 1.62 ERA in seven starts. Working as a reliever in 2011, Samardzija went 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA. When converted to a starter in 2012, he posted a 3.81 ERA in 174 2/3 innings, with a 1.22 WHIP; last year, he had a 4.34 ERA in 33 starts, with 214 strikeouts and a 1.35 WHIP.
The Cubs are at a crossroads: Pay Samardzija what he wants, which may be a Homer Bailey-like deal, or trade him this summer, probably as the best available starter in the market.
It's not a sure thing that Samardzija is dealt, writes Jesse Rogers. From his piece:
Samardzija wants to be paid like an ace -- in the neighborhood of a $100 million deal -- but the Cubs won't budge. While Hoyer indicated recently there are no trade talks currently going on with any players, that's expected to change with Samardzija as he drives up his value. The Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves are among the teams expected to be interested. Samardzija pitches against the Braves on Saturday.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have asked about Samardzija in the past, but they aren't expected to be buyers after an awful start to their season.
Maybe the White Sox can take their place.
"It wouldn't be a bad thing, anytime you can grab an arm like that," first baseman Paul Konerko said before Samardzija shut down the Sox on Monday. "He's a No.1-type of guy."
For the readers: Would you pay Samardzija a Bailey-like deal? Or trade him?
The guess here is that they will deal him.
The Cubs are singing Jeff Samardzija's praises, writes Gordon Wittenmyer.
Around the league
• One leftover from the weekend: When we brought up the idea of possible promotion of Oscar Taveras with Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny in our meeting before the Sunday night game, he shut down the conversation (without necessarily rejecting the possibility).
“We've got plenty of guys here,” said Matheny, who said he didn't want anybody to think that Taveras is a “silver bullet” who is going to solve St. Louis's offensive troubles; that would not be fair to the current players, Matheny said, or to Taveras.
A rival evaluator who saw the Cardinals recently believes an overriding question about defense complicates the timing of any Taveras promotion.
“They don't have a single plus defender other than [Yadier] Molina,” he said. “They wanted to make their defense better by bringing in Peter Bourjos. Taveras is not a center fielder; he is a corner outfielder who would be playing center field.”
In the eyes of the evaluator, the best way for the Cardinals to create room for Taveras would be to eventually swap first baseman Matt Adams, sometime during the offseason -- and there definitely would be a lot of interest in Adams in the trade market -- and shift Allen Craig from right field to first base.
Derrick Goold has more on the Super Two issue and Taveras.
• On Tuesday's podcast, Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington on Jon Lester, the early play of Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr., plus his favorite baseball book; Keith Law on Laz Diaz and Max Scherzer; and Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer on what we have learned about the Phillies.
Today we have the Rockies' Nolan Arenado -- who extended his hitting streak to 26 games last night in a moment of drama, in yet another Rockies' win.
From ESPN Stats and Info: The Rockies as a team are hitting .355/.401/.600 at Coors Field this season with 33 HR and 136 RBIs in 715 plate apperances. Essentially, the Rockies at Coors Field have fielded a lineup of Stan Musials circa 1951, who batted .355 with 32 HR over 678 plate appearances that year.
Troy Tulowitzki just keeps slugging, writes Nick Groke.
• The Braves ended their losing streak, with help from Gavin Floyd. Dan Uggla was back in the lineup.
• The opinion of one evaluator: “The injury that's hurt [the Nationals] the most is Wilson Ramos. He's a very underrated catcher.”
Washington is being cautious with him, writes James Wagner.
• Watched a lot of Robbie Ray's start and he was impressive, in the Mark Buehrle pace he pitched with and his command, in his first big league start. His delivery reminds me a lot of Bruce Hurst's, the former Boston and San Diego left-hander -- who happened to be traded for Brad Ausmus, now Ray's manager.
Here's Ray talking about his debut.
• Starling Marte goes down in history with the first walk-off via review ever. Marte is a fan of replay, he said with a laugh.
• Clayton Kershaw: Same as it ever was. He was outstanding in his first start off the disabled list. ESPN Stats and Info has a lot more on Kershaw's dominance.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Pirates tried to sign top prospect Gregory Polanco to a long-term deal back in spring training. This news will only increase the pressure on the organization to summon the outfielder, who has an OPS of 1.070 in Triple-A -- but he probably won't reach the big leagues until sometime next month.
2. Derek Jeter may be replaced on defense late in games.
3. The Mets are getting closer to that time when they'll promote their young pitching.
4. Jesus Aguilar may or may not be able to help the Indians' offense, as Paul Hoynes writes.
5. Danny Duffy will get another start.
6. Drew Pomeranz will likely start today, writes Susan Slusser.
7. Mike Redmond is struggling to find a day off for Giancarlo Stanton.
1. Hiroki Kuroda looked much better.
2. Gordon Beckham had a great day.
3. Grady Sizemore got it done.
4. The Royals snapped their losing streak.
5. The Jays beat a shift.
6. The Mariners climbed back over .500.
Dings and dents
1. Matt Wieters is going to see Dr. James Andrews about his right elbow. Earlier this season, during Baltimore's series in Boston, it was striking to watch Wieters throw to second base in between innings; he just didn't look comfortable.
2. Joe Mauer can put his shoes on, and that's an improvement.
3. Josh Willingham is pain free.
4. Pedro Strop is likely headed to the disabled list, writes Gordon Wittenmyer.
5. Aroldis Chapman had a rough outing.
6. Billy Hamilton is still hurting.
7. Brandon Morrow doesn't need surgery.
8. Joe Smith felt tightness in his side.
9. Scott Feldman felt good.
From ESPN Stats and Info, how Henderson Alvarez shut down the Mets:
A) Alvarez threw 71 percent strikes, his highest percentage in the last two seasons. He threw only 53% percent first-pitch strikes but recovered to throw 85 perent strikes when he was behind in the count.
B) Twenty of the Mets' 27 outs came via strikeout (7) or ground ball (13). Alvarez has the 10th-highest ground-ball rate in the NL this season (56 percent).
C) Alvarez had three strikeouts on his fastball, two on his changeup and two on his slider. It's only the second time in 65 career starts -- and the first since 2011 -- that he had at least two strikeouts on three different pitch types.
• David Murphy wonders: Is this the start of Cody Asche's breakout?
• The Phillies are succeeding with shifts on D, writes Ryan Lawrence.
• The Brewers aren't drawing walks, as Michael Hunt writes.
• Pat Neshek has rediscovered his fastball.
• Yasmani Grandal caught back-to-back games.
• Matt Moore is coping well with reality.
• Royals GM Dayton Moore is stressing patience, writes Andy McCullough.
• Josh Tomlin had a strong outing.
• Ernesto Frieri had another rough outing.
• Houston just keeps losing.
• Mitch Moreland pitched for the Rangers.
• Texas will have tough decisions to make on Robbie Ross and Alexi Ogando, writes Evan Grant.
• If the Diamondbacks trade some veterans, they would have to eat a lot of money, rival execs tell Nick Piecoro.
• The Madoff settlement situation has gotten better for the Wilpons, writes Adam Rubin.
• The Mets changed up signs playing in Miami.
• Joe Girardi on Laz Diaz: No one comes to the park to see the umpire.
• Robinson Cano responded to what Mariano Rivera had in his book.
Henderson Alvarez isn’t the best starter on the Marlins, obviously. He isn’t the second-best either, unless you really dislike Nathan Eovaldi. Tom Koehler has his supporters, and a lower ERA. Andrew Heaney is coming, and so is Justin Nicolino. If you’re looking for young pitching, the Marlins have lots of it, some younger than Alvarez, others with more talent. And yet here we are, in our second Marlins-related post of the last 24 hours — let it never be said that we only love the big-market teams — focusing on Miami’s mid-rotation starter, because he might just be the most fascinating player that no one seems to know about, for just so many different reasons.
Alvarez, of course, shut out the Mets on Tuesday night, his second shutout of the season, his third in his last eight starts, and we’ll get to that in a second. But first, think about what we knew about him already. He is, so far as I can find, the only player in the history of professional baseball to have the first name of “Henderson.” He’s one of the only players to participate in a political protest outside his own clubhouse. (Not against the Marlins, as justifiable as that would be.) He is, I imagine, the only pitcher to have a novelty windup for the first pitch of every game:
(“I invented it myself,” said Alvarez. I suppose that’s better than “I lost a bet.”)
He threw, as you most likely remember, one of the most unlikely games any of us have ever seen, tossing a no-hitter against the Tigers on the final day of the 2013 season, a game that ended not with his teammates rushing him on the mound as he got the final out, but in the on-deck circle, where he’d been waiting to hit before his teammates broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the ninth.
There’s also this: Henderson Alvarez throws really, really hard, somehow strikes nobody out, and now joins Adam Wainwright as the only pitchers in baseball with shutouts in each of the last three seasons. Alvarez has two shutouts this year. Martin Perez, inexplicably, also has two. 28 other teams have either one or zero. There may be no more likely pitcher to be tossing up zeroes than the guy with an approach like just about no one else.
Remember, Alvarez was part of the massive Toronto / Miami trade in the winter of 2012-13. Maybe he was lost in the midst of everything that trade meant for both franchises, and because his name wasn’t Josh Johnson or Jose Reyes or Mark Buehrle or Adeiny Hechavarria or Yunel Escobar. But if you knew him for anything before that, it was most likely this: his one full season in the Toronto rotation ended with numbers that just shouldn’t be possible. In 187.1 innings, he struck out 79. That’s a 3.80 K/9 rate.
Since 2000, we have 953 pitcher seasons of at least 180 innings in the database. 941 of them featured a higher K/9 than Alvarez’ 2012; of the ones that didn’t, Kirk Rueter and Carlos Silva accounted for three apiece. Nate Cornejo threw five more major league games after his low-whiff season. Brad Penny threw 28 more innings. And, it should go without saying, since hitters strike out more than they did a decade ago, that Alvarez was doing this in 2012 and not in 2002 is even less impressive. Missing an extreme lack of bats is generally a good way to not be in the majors for much longer.
Penny, of course, was cooked at the end of a decent career. Silva and Rueter were notorious soft tossers. Alvarez doesn’t belong with them. He has 56 pitches in the PITCHf/x database at 95 mph or above in 2014. Six are swinging strikes. On the television broadcast last night, he hit 97, though PITCHf/x doesn’t totally back that up. He’s not a junkballer; he has real major league heat. We know, of course, that there’s a sizable correlation between strikeout rate and velocity. Alvarez managed to buck that trend to a hilarious extent, yet without the impeccable control and zero-tolerance home run rate (in 2012, at least) one would expect he’d need to survive.
Clearly, he’s changed. But how? Back in 2012, Carson Cistulli surmised that Alvarez was either abandoning his change or just throwing it harder. Carson was right, as he most usually is. A year and a half later, we can see that he’s throwing everything somewhat harder; what is considered a “change” is actually at 90 mph. His zone percentage is a bit higher. His swinging-strike percentage is slightly higher; his other major zone peripherals haven’t changed much.
But what we can see is that he’s begun to get some separation between his pitches, as shown in his vertical movement chart below. Starting last year, his slider started coming in differently from his other pitches. So far this year, his four pitches have four very different amounts of vertical movement, indicating that his slider actually slides, rather than presenting a reasonable, if unintentional, facsimile of his change:
Also, consider the effects of control that don’t necessarily manifest themselves in walk rate. As a sinkerballer, Alvarez has to live low in the zone. Compare his 2012 low pitches to this year — obviously, he threw far more pitches in 2012 than he has so far in 2014 — and note that so far, when he’s missed, it’s been close to the zone, rarely far outside it as it had been.
If you know you don’t have elite swing-and-miss stuff, then painting the corners is a good way to survive that, if you’re able. So far, that appears to be Alvarez’ plan. As he said last night, “I just concentrated on keeping my breaking ball down and letting the batter swing.” Down is good, and Alvarez only just turned 24 last week. An unimaginable rookie season doesn’t preclude the ability to improve.
Back to Tuesday, Alvarez carved up the Mets, throwing this to Juan Lagares, notable mainly for the way the Marlins broadcast described it as a “a super sinker which is actually a change-up that darts down at 91 miles per hour, if you can believe it. He throws that with a semi change-up grip.”
Later against David Wright, Alvarez threw a slider that made Keith Hernandez audibly exclaim “ooh,” saying that a pitch like this was “lights out”:
Against Chris Young, Alvarez busted this out:
He also made a bit of his own luck:
These are quality major league pitches. He’s still primarily a sinkerballer, of course, from which he collected 13 outs last night. His groundball rate is 55.6% since 2012, among the highest in the game. But now, it seems, he’s got the secondary pitches to back it up, and even if the four-seam fastball doesn’t necessarily fool anyone, the ability to throw it at 95 mph means that hitters can’t forget about it.
Alvarez isn’t suddenly a strikeout king, obviously. We’re still talking about a guy with a 6.8 swinging-strike percentage and a 5.84 K/9. Neither is particularly impressive, yet they’re at least improved above the laughably terrible numbers he had in 2012. Remember, also, that the three shutouts in eight games have come against the Mets, the Mariners, and a last-day-of-the-season Tigers team that had no interest in competing and offered a grand total of one plate appearance from Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Avila, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez. Those are valid reasons to question what he’s done, but not at all valid reasons to ignore the fact that, hey, three shutouts in eight games. Most pitchers can’t do that; most pitchers will never do that. Then again, most pitchers don’t throw pure heat and find they can’t strike guys out in a game where everyone strikes out. Little about Henderson Alvarez seems to follow the path we’re familiar with. Why should this?
Acquired in the deal that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta, Drury has continued to build off an impressive 2013 campaign.
It’s been a disappointing season for the Diamondbacks organization to date but there are some good news stories to be found in the minor league system. Third base prospect Brandon Drury continues to blossom.
The 21-year-old infielder was originally drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 13th round of the 2010 amateur draft. After three inconsistent seasons, he was dealt to the Diamondbacks in the six-player deal that saw Justin Upton land in Atlanta. Drury had a breakout season in 2013 at the Low-A ball level where he produced an .862 OPS with 51 doubles to go along with his 15 home runs in 134 games.
The Oregon native continues to show that 2013 was no fluke. Promoted to High-A for the ’14 season, Drury has a triple-slash line of .297/.359/.563 with eight home runs in 31 games. He’s an aggressive hitter (although he’s doubled his walk rate since moving from the Braves to the Snakes), but he’s also done a decent job of making consistent contact — especially given his power output — and his strikeout rate sits at 16%.
Incumbent third baseman Martin Prado — also acquired in the Upton deal — is signed through 2016. Drury projects to be ready for the Majors between late 2015 and mid-2016, which puts his minor league graduation date close to when the veteran infielder will be ready to move on.
The organization has some time to be patient with Drury and let things work themselves out. He doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster (and protected from the Rule 5 draft) until after the ’14 season and that will then buy him three minor option years so doesn’t have to officially stick in the Majors until after the 2017 season.
Entering the 2014 season, I ranked Drury as the 11th best prospect in the system and, based on his season to date, he’s continuing to slowly move up the rankings.
Cam Bedrosian, RHP, Los Angeles Angels (Profile)
Level: Double-A Age: 23 Top 15: N/A Top 100: N/A
Line: 14.2 IP, 5 K, 31/4 K/BB, 1.23 ERA, 0.48 FIP
Already the beneficiary of a promotion this season, Bedrosian has proceeded to strike out about half the Double-A batters he’s faced.
Bedrosian has been one of the most dominating relievers in the minor leagues in 2014. Originally assigned to High-A ball as a 22 year old, he struck out 15 batters in 5.2 innings of work. In other words, of the 17 outs he recorded — 15 came via the strikeout. The gaudy strikeout rate earned him a quick promotion to Double-A. He hasn’t been quite as dominant — his rate has dipped from 23.82 to 14.63 K/9 — but he’s recorded another 16 Ks in 9.0 innings of work.
Bedrosian is the son of former top closer Steve Bedrosian and was the 29th overall selection in the 2010 amateur draft out of a Georgia high school. Originally a starter, he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011. He came back in 2012 with diminished stuff and posted a 6.31 ERA in 21 starts.
Things began to turn around for him in 2013 but few, if any, people saw his ’14 breakout coming. Even in a weak Angels system, I failed to ranked Bedrosian on the club’s Top 10 (+5) prospects list prior to the beginning of the season. I ranked him 15th overall prior to the ’13 season.
With a little more development, Bedrosian could be ready to help out the Angels at the big league level — perhaps in September of this year. Now in his fifth pro season, he’ll have to be added to the 40-man roster this November anyway to protect him from the Rule 5 amateur draft. His arm is not one that the Angels can afford to lose.
Ken Giles, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies (Profile)
Level: Double-A Age: 23 Top 15: N/A Top 100: N/A
Line: 14.0 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 27/5 K/BB, 1.29 ERA, 0.60 FIP
After a somewhat difficult 2013 season, Giles has begun to demonstrate again the requisite command to complement his electric fastball.
Speaking of impressive relief prospects, Giles has once again raised eyebrows in the Phillies organization. The hard-throwing right-hander caught the attention of scouts and analysts alike when he struck out 111 batters (but also walked 50) in 82.0 innings of work in 2012. I personally ranked him as the 12th best prospect in their system prior to the ’13 season.
Unfortunately, injuries, inconsistencies and command issues reared their ugly heads and he posted a 6.31 ERA with 19 walks in just 25.2 innings. As a result, he was nowhere to be found on the pre-2014 prospect list. Luckily for the Phillies, though, the ’13 season appears to have been an aberration.
In 12 Double-A games in 2014, Giles has struck out 27 batters in 14.0 innings of work. What’s just as impressive is the fact that he’s been inducing a lot more ground-ball outs and doing a better job of pitching down in the zone.
Like the two players listed above him, Giles will need to be added to the 40-man roster after this season. With the state of the Phillies’ bullpen, it’s quite possible that he may see big league action by the end of the year. He likely has the ceiling of a set-up man in the Majors.
n the interest of showing some accountability, I’d like to remind you of something. Before the season started, the Marlins projected to be worst in baseball at catcher. They projected to be worst in baseball at first base, and they also projected to be worst in baseball at second and third base, and they projected to be second-worst in baseball at shortstop. They were, basically, projected to be Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez, and 23 members of the community in good standing. At this writing, the Marlins are third in baseball in position-player WAR, and they’re tied in third in wRC+. It’s not quite like if the Astros were good, but it isn’t dissimilar.
A fifth of the way through the season, feelings about the Marlins are complicated and conflicting. On the one hand, they’re an easy, appealing team to root for, with a lot of young, energetic, lesser-known talent. They’re a feel-good story and an obvious bandwagon candidate. On the other hand, it can be tricky to separate a team from its ownership, and for certain reasons it might work to baseball’s greater benefit to have the Marlins fall flat on their faces every year. You want to root for the Marlins, but you don’t want to side with Jeffrey Loria. It’s a good and bad thing when sports make you think.
But as long as we’re thinking about the Marlins, let’s address all that hitting. Just a year ago, the Marlins were an offensive catastrophe, and a catastrophe offensively. They were supposed to be bad again in 2014. They’ve been anything but, to this point, so one has to wonder: what does this mean? Just how wrong have we been?
Maybe the most interesting and telling way to put it: of the eight Marlins with the most plate appearances so far, the lowest individual wRC+ is 108, belonging to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. One season ago, two Marlins finished in the triple digits. They were led by Stanton’s 135. This year Stanton’s at 151, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is at 169. The Marlins don’t just have an above-.500 record — they’ve earned that record with an outstanding team performance, after coming in looking like one of the worst teams in the league.
So what is there to be made of all the runs? As usual, we’ll turn to history, and to make things simple, we’ll focus on April hitting and hitting over the rest of the season afterward. This cuts off what the Marlins have done so far in May, of course, but that shouldn’t change very much of the message. Below, a graph of data from between 1974-2013, excluding 1995 due to tiny April samples. The first month of this season, the Marlins posted a 104 team wRC+.
Naturally, there is a positive relationship. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the strongest positive relationship, as April performance tells you only so much about the performance to come. There are scheduling inconsistencies. There are personnel inconsistencies. There is the amount of noise that can show up in samples that are really just some hundreds of plate appearances grouped together. What we can say is, hey, there’s reason to think the Marlins might actually be a fine-hitting team. But there’s absolutely no certain conclusion to reach.
I mentioned that the Marlins put up a 104 wRC+. Let’s look at the performance of teams around that. There are 177 different teams who have posted an April wRC+ between 101 and 107, over the time window described. They averaged an April wRC+ of 104. Here now is a somewhat informative histogram of how those team offenses did upon the beginning of May.
Shift the x-axis numbers a little to the right, if you will. You’re looking at bins. Zero of the teams the rest of the way put up a wRC+ under 70. One came in between 70 and 75. Four came in between 75 and 80, and so on and so forth. The biggest group is between 95 and 100, and the overall average is 98. The total league average is 97. All teams over the window described averaged a 97 wRC+ between the start of May and the end of the year. The teams that began with a wRC+ between 101 and 107 averaged a 98 wRC+ between the start of May and the end of the year, with the message being that the start didn’t really mean very much, going forward. It was only the slightest indication of the group being above-average.
The thing you want to believe in with the Marlins is the youth. We’re always pretty aggressive with our beliefs that young players are improving, and besides the fact that Stanton is healthy again and doing what he’s done before, Marcell Ozuna has been a major contributor. Christian Yelich has been a contributor, and Hechavarria has been a contributor. But then you have Saltalamacchia having the best season of his life. Casey McGehee is blending Mike Trout‘s BABIP with Ben Revere‘s power. Garrett Jones is above his projections, separated from last year by BABIP. Almost everyone has been getting the job done, and while that’s only a handful of lucky flips of the coin, a month of mostly good breaks isn’t the same as six of them. The Marlins are on their way to being the impossible juggernaut, but they’re still barely out of the gate.
Right now, Marlins non-pitchers have a .347 wOBA. The depth chart projects them at .315 from here on out. Average this year is .319; average last year was .318. The Marlins last year were at .285. Throw in a park effect and maybe the Marlins really do have a roughly average lineup. Working in their favor is they get to start with Stanton in the middle. If you believe some of the young players have stepped forward, then there’s a real unit here, even if McGehee drops off, and even when Saltalamacchia drops off. The downside is we can’t conclusively say the Marlins are set for big things. The upside is a lot of the evidence points to the idea that the Marlins’ lineup is at least all right, which makes it one of the most upgraded components in the majors.
Since 1950, the biggest season-to-season team improvement in wRC+ is 27 points. The 1977 Brewers finished at 90; the 1978 Brewers finished at 117. The Marlins can eclipse that if they finish the season with a team wRC+ of 100. That would represent an improvement of 28 points, and right now they’re at 110 through 32 games. If they can hang around 97 or 98 the rest of the way, they’ll make some history. And if they manage to do better than that, they might end up something of a modern miracle. I wouldn’t bet on the 2014 Marlins sneaking into the playoff race, but some weeks ago I wouldn’t have bet that some weeks from then I’d even be writing this kind of sentence.
An essential aspect of any projection system that’s worth a damn is the integration of minor-league data into same — and the translation of that minor-league data to its major-league equivalent (MLE). The Steamer projection system, being worth several of damns, produces MLEs for what appears to be almost every minor-leaguer who exists — and probably some who even don’t.
Yesterday, I asked Steamer owner and operator Jared Cross for the MLE hitting data that’s currently being utilized for the production of Steamer’s rest-of-season and updated forecasts. What follows are four leaderboards featuring that data — specifically, of the MLE batting leaders by various, hopefully useful, criteria.
The first two leaderboards feature minor-league batting leaders (first all of them, and then just prospect-aged one) by translated wOBA. The second pair of leaderboards feature minor-league leaders by translated FIB* — a wOBA estimator (discussed here) which accounts only for home runs, walks, and strikeouts and which has some value insofar as those metrics become stable at least 1,000 plate appearances before BABIP (which metric influences wOBA considerably).
Below the aforementioned leaderboards, followed by some brief comments of varying quality.
MLE Leaderboard: All Minor-League Hitters by wOBA
Below are the top-20 minor-league batters by translated wOBA, according to Steamer (min. 50 PA).
# Name Age Org Lev POS PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP wOBA
1 Kyle Roller 26 Yankees AA 1B 73 .376 .428 .768 .426 .493
2 Gabriel Noriega 23 Mariners AAA SS 55 .435 .435 .580 .490 .442
3 Cole Gillespie 30 Mariners AAA OF 68 .320 .395 .617 .327 .432
4 J.D. Martinez 26 Tigers AAA OF 71 .262 .303 .692 .230 .415
5 George Springer 24 Astros AAA OF 61 .314 .397 .563 .410 .413
6 Joey Butler 28 Cardinals AAA OF 88 .352 .446 .489 .417 .407
7 Ernesto Mejia 28 Braves AAA 1B 88 .316 .366 .584 .390 .407
8 Gregory Polanco 22 Pirates AAA OF 118 .354 .399 .536 .422 .401
9 Eugenio Velez 32 Brewers AAA OF 91 .353 .405 .498 .406 .396
10 Donald Lutz 25 Reds AA OF 82 .324 .362 .573 .369 .395
11 Tyler Ladendorf 26 Athletics AAA SS 97 .342 .421 .455 .418 .387
12 Allan Dykstra 27 Mets AAA 1B 95 .276 .402 .481 .339 .386
13 Audry Perez 25 Cardinals AAA C 54 .348 .367 .512 .393 .383
14 Taylor Teagarden 30 Mets AAA C 63 .257 .336 .547 .313 .381
15 Mookie Betts 21 Red Sox AA 2B 120 .338 .380 .496 .353 .380
16 Chris Taylor 23 Mariners AAA SS 119 .336 .360 .518 .392 .375
17 Johnny Giavotella 26 Royals AAA 2B 82 .345 .381 .472 .358 .374
18 Micah Johnson 23 White Sox AA 2B 128 .336 .395 .454 .403 .373
19 Wade Hinkle 24 Angels A+ 1B 57 .326 .374 .483 .479 .371
20 Shawn Zarraga 25 Brewers AA C 69 .387 .432 .428 .425 .370
MLE Leaderboard: Prospect-Age Minor-League Hitters by wOBA
Here are the top-20 minor-league batters aged 24-or-under by MLE wOBA, according to Steamer (min. 50 PA).
# Name Age Org Lev POS PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP wOBA
1 Gabriel Noriega 23 Mariners AAA SS 55 .435 .435 .580 .490 .442
2 George Springer 24 Astros AAA OF 61 .314 .397 .563 .410 .413
3 Gregory Polanco 22 Pirates AAA OF 118 .354 .399 .536 .422 .401
4 Mookie Betts 21 Red Sox AA 2B 120 .338 .380 .496 .353 .380
5 Chris Taylor 23 Mariners AAA SS 119 .336 .360 .518 .392 .375
6 Micah Johnson 23 White Sox AA 2B 128 .336 .395 .454 .403 .373
7 Wade Hinkle 24 Angels A+ 1B 57 .326 .374 .483 .479 .371
8 Joc Pederson 22 Dodgers AAA OF 132 .287 .388 .451 .387 .368
9 Elmer Reyes 23 Braves AA SS 61 .331 .356 .500 .380 .368
10 Jon Singleton 22 Astros AAA 1B 126 .249 .333 .554 .277 .367
11 Nick Franklin 23 Mariners AAA SS 78 .292 .363 .488 .343 .366
12 Ryan Rua 24 Rangers AA 2B 105 .291 .363 .467 .323 .364
13 Rangel Ravelo 22 White Sox AA 1B 96 .291 .387 .444 .332 .362
14 Zachary Wilson 23 Yankees A+ UT 57 .352 .360 .472 .423 .360
15 Cameron Perkins 23 Phillies AA OF 106 .335 .360 .480 .394 .360
16 Peter O’Brien 23 Yankees A+ C 104 .276 .293 .567 .314 .360
17 Gioskar Amaya 21 Cubs A+ 2B 58 .362 .412 .376 .436 .353
18 Taylor Featherston 24 Rockies AA SS 124 .327 .374 .418 .389 .350
19 Willians Astudillo 22 Phillies A UT 81 .351 .359 .436 .372 .349
20 C.J. Cron 24 Angels AAA 1B 122 .274 .313 .494 .314 .348
MLE Leaderboard: All Minor-League Hitters by FIB*
Here are the top-20 minor-league batters by MLE FIB* — i.e. a wOBA estimator which accounts only for home runs, walks, and strikeouts — according to Steamer (min. 50 PA):
# Name Age Org Lev POS PA HR% BB% K% BABIP FIB*
1 J.D. Martinez 26 Tigers AAA OF 71 11.3% 3.2% 25.1% .230 .460
2 Kyle Roller 26 Yankees AA 1B 73 9.5% 8.8% 23.2% .426 .459
3 Cole Gillespie 30 Mariners AAA OF 68 5.7% 10.3% 13.5% .327 .429
4 Jon Singleton 22 Astros AAA 1B 126 7.1% 11.5% 27.4% .277 .418
5 Rob Segedin 25 Yankees AA OF 91 3.8% 12.5% 11.6% .264 .411
6 Taylor Teagarden 30 Mets AAA C 63 6.9% 10.6% 30.9% .313 .400
7 Kennys Vargas 23 Twins AA 1B 106 4.6% 9.7% 17.1% .261 .397
8 Francisco Pena 24 Royals AAA C 69 6.6% 5.5% 23.0% .211 .396
9 Kyle Blanks 27 Padres AAA 1B 95 6.5% 8.1% 27.9% .227 .393
10 Bryan Anderson 27 Reds AA C 77 4.7% 9.2% 18.8% .289 .393
11 Nick Evans 28 D-backs AAA 1B 91 5.4% 5.6% 17.9% .233 .391
12 Ty Kelly 25 Mariners AAA 2B 85 1.8% 18.3% 16.8% .267 .388
13 Dan Johnson 34 Blue Jays AAA 1B 114 2.7% 13.6% 15.3% .268 .387
14 Joey Butler 28 Cardinals AAA OF 88 2.8% 14.0% 17.0% .417 .386
15 Jhonatan Solano 28 Nationals AAA C 75 3.1% 8.2% 10.4% .281 .385
16 Jake Goebbert 26 Athletics AAA OF 100 3.6% 8.9% 14.3% .283 .385
17 Ernesto Mejia 28 Braves AAA 1B 88 6.4% 6.1% 27.3% .390 .384
18 Braeden Schlehuber 26 Braves AA C 51 3.4% 7.1% 10.7% .186 .384
19 Allan Dykstra 27 Mets AAA 1B 95 2.3% 17.1% 19.3% .339 .383
20 Justin Bour 26 Marlins AAA 1B 119 2.7% 7.9% 7.9% .305 .383
MLE Leaderboard: Prospect-Age Minor-League Hitters by FIB*
Here are the top-20 minor-league batters aged 24-or-under by MLE FIB* — i.e. a wOBA estimator which accounts only for home runs, walks, and strikeouts — according to Steamer (min. 50 PA):
# Name Age Org Lev POS PA HR% BB% K% BABIP FIB*
1 Jon Singleton 22 Astros AAA 1B 126 7.1% 11.5% 27.4% .277 .418
2 Kennys Vargas 23 Twins AA 1B 106 4.6% 9.7% 17.1% .261 .397
3 Francisco Pena 24 Royals AAA C 69 6.6% 5.5% 23.0% .211 .396
4 Ryan Rua 24 Rangers AA 2B 105 3.6% 9.7% 16.4% .323 .383
5 Travis Shaw 24 Red Sox AA 1B 107 2.6% 9.4% 10.2% .262 .382
6 Jesus Montero 24 Mariners AAA C 96 5.7% 5.7% 23.4% .275 .381
7 Jabari Henry 23 Mariners A+ OF 66 4.4% 10.2% 22.5% .165 .381
8 Nick Franklin 23 Mariners AAA SS 78 4.0% 10.0% 20.9% .343 .377
9 Jesus Aguilar 24 Indians AAA 1B 113 3.6% 11.4% 21.3% .310 .376
10 Peter O’Brien 23 Yankees A+ C 104 6.7% 2.4% 26.1% .314 .376
11 Craig Manuel 24 Nationals A C 65 2.6% 6.0% 7.3% .263 .375
12 Oscar Taveras 22 Cardinals AAA OF 112 3.7% 5.5% 13.4% .299 .375
13 Joey Gallo 20 Rangers A+ 3B 119 5.3% 11.0% 31.6% .285 .374
14 George Springer 24 Astros AAA OF 61 4.4% 11.2% 26.6% .410 .374
15 Mookie Betts 21 Red Sox AA 2B 120 2.4% 7.2% 8.2% .353 .374
16 Rangel Ravelo 22 White Sox AA 1B 96 1.9% 12.6% 13.6% .332 .373
17 Jabari Blash 24 Mariners AA OF 110 3.2% 13.7% 24.0% .249 .371
18 Anthony Garcia 22 Cardinals A+ OF 106 4.0% 6.2% 18.1% .173 .369
19 Jose Ramirez 21 Indians AAA 2B 105 2.2% 6.5% 8.3% .276 .368
20 Max Muncy 23 Athletics AA 1B 127 1.2% 13.3% 12.7% .288 .368
Brief Comments of Varying Quality:
With regard to overall MLE wOBA leader Kyle Roller, here’s who Kyle Roller is: an eighth-round selection by the Yankees in 2010 out of East Carolina University. And here’s who else: a prospect who’s always (a) been old for his levels and (b) produced above-average offensive lines relative to his leagues.
Despite leading all prospect-age hitters by translated wOBA, Seattle infield prospect Gabriel Noriega‘s line at Triple-A Tacoma is also mostly informed by batted-ball outcomes. Indeed, he hasn’t recorded an above-average offensive line since 2008, in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
That said, other Seattle infield prospect Chris Taylor — 16th among all minor-league hitters by translated wOBA and just fifth among prospect-age minor-league hitters — received the 38th-best WAR projection among rookie-eligible players before the season.
Among the top prospect-age hitters by translated FIB* is Jose Ramirez, which Cleveland infield prospect (a) was recently promoted to the majors and (b) JD Sussman considered briefly in Monday’s edition of the Prospect Watch.
Do you even Mookie Betts?
We’ve all heard an announcer harp on the importance of throwing first pitch strikes. They ramble about the tone of the at bat, the aggressiveness of the hitter, and most importantly – the data. We’ve studied the importance of first pitch strikes for a long time. Nearly 10 years ago, Craig Burley found only eight percent of first pitch strikes were converted into hits during the 2003 season. Meanwhile, the difference between a 1-0 and 0-1 count is about 20 points of average, 90 points of on base percentage, and 40 points of slugging. Based on linear weights, Burley finds the value of a first pitch strike to be 0.07 runs. So, we accept the importance of first pitch strikes. Let’s put a pin in that for now.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have received adequate pitching from their starters. Over 30 games, Angels starters have a 3.87 ERA, 4.04 FIP and 4.01 xFIP. They’re not world beaters by any means – they’re 17th in starter WAR and 11th in RA9-WAR. Adequacy can take you far in the majors, especially when your offense features Mike Trout. The Angels have managed a 15-15 record, and they trail the Oakland Athletics by just 3.5 games.
Now you have two paragraphs – one about the importance of first pitch strikes and one about Angels starters. Can you guess where I’m going with this?
The Angels currently trail all of baseball with a 51.4 first pitch strike rate. The second lowest first pitch strike rate belongs to the Colorado Rockies at 56.1 percent. Not only have Rockies starters thrown nearly five percent more first pitch strikes, they may have a strategic reason to nibble early in the count (it’s starts with a watery beer and ends with “Field”). For the curious, the Yankees lead baseball with a 64.6 first pitch strike rate. Their entire staff is very serious about starting with an 0-1 count, led by CC Sabathia‘s 70 percent rate.
Not only are the Angels bad at generating first pitch strikes, they’re historically bad. We have first pitch strike data going back to 2002. The 2004 Tampa Bay Devil Rays hold the distinction for the worst full season first pitch strike rate. It’s 54.4 percent. If the Angels don’t improve, they’ll have the worst first pitch strike rate in recent history.
Let’s apply Burley’s run value of .07 to see how many theoretical runs could have been saved if the Angels had the league’s median first pitch strike rate (currently the Chicago Cubs at 60 percent). The Angels starters faced 759 batters and threw 390 first pitch strikes. A 60 percent rate would yield 455 first pitch strikes. Multiply .07 times 65 and you get 4.55 runs. So the Angels starters have “lost” four or five runs by failing to reach a typical first pitch strike rate. If we project linearly for a full season, we’re talking about 2.5 wins.
Of course, linear projections don’t often work in reality. Let’s take a look at the individuals involved by comparing their current first pitch strike rate to their career rate. We should get an idea if my favorite hashtag #RegressionIsComing is in play.
Angels First Pitch Strike Rates
Name 2014 F-Strike% Career F-Strike% 2014 minus career
Jered Weaver 49 61.4 -12.4
C.J. Wilson 55.4 56.8 -1.4
Garrett Richards 45.8 53.9 -8.1
Tyler Skaggs 59 58.4 0.6
Hector Santiago 47.2 55.7 -8.5
Skaggs doesn’t have enough data to really say much, but he’s also the only Angels pitcher near the league average rate. Wilson has made a career of being slightly wild on first pitches, although his last three seasons have been between 57.3 and 59.8 percent.
And now we’re left with the weird ones. Weaver, Richards, and Santiago have shown huge decreases in first pitch strike rate. We could spend some time guessing why, but I don’t have enough scouting knowledge to be confident in my guesswork.
Richards has been the team’s best starter despite a pitiful first pitch strike rate. He’s used his 96 mph fastball and heavy sinker to work out of unfavorable counts. He’ll either improve his early count rate or else he’s likely to see less favorable outcomes. Weaver has been in decline for years – perhaps early count nibbling is a response to lesser stuff.
Santiago is fringy as a major league starter, but his performance to date is the easiest to rationalize. He’s managed to outperform his FIP the previous two seasons with timely strikeouts. Currently, his swinging strike rate is way down – as are the strikeouts – perhaps because he’s rarely ahead in the count. According to Brooksbaseball, he’s throwing 66 percent fastballs compared to 58 percent last season. The predictability of his repertoire may be hurting his whiff rate, and it may stem from his terrible first pitch strike rate.
Ultimately, the Angels’ rotation probably won’t be historically bad at generating first pitch strikes. We’ve only seen 30 out of 162 games. Between regression with the incumbents and the inevitable sixth, seventh, and eighth starters, better strike rates should be on the horizon. However, much like the Twins seemingly conscious decision to stop swinging, we’ve found another “weird” data point to watch.
The sport of baseball, at the major league level, is changing in many ways. The quickly escalating trend in strikeout rate has been well documented, and we’re now several years into a cycle where pitching and defense rule the day, but the league is evolving in other ways as well. Catchers are now hitting better than ever, for instance, and the lack of offense combined with the simultaneous shift in what teams value behind the plate may be leading to a renaissance of the stolen base.
As I noted in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, the success rate of stolen bases in 2014 is currently higher than it has ever been in MLB, and this isn’t simply a continuation of a shift towards conservative baserunning and the protection of precious outs. League caught stealing rates have been trending down for several decades as teams have learned that the hyper-aggressive running of the 1980s was likely counterproductive to run-scoring, but stolen base attempts are actually up this year relative to last year, even while the rate of runners getting thrown out continues to drop.
But even looking at league wide trends can obscure things a bit, as a large majority of players have no interest in attempting a stolen base no matter who the pitcher/catcher tandem might be, and changes in base stealing will be concentrated within a small subset of the player population. So, let’s just look at what we’ve seen among those who run the most.
Last year, Starling Marte was the league’s most aggressive base stealer (among qualified hitters) in terms of stolen base attempts as a percentage of his plate appearances; he ran 56 times and hit 566 times, giving him 9.9% stolen-base-attempts-per-plate-appearance. Eric Young and Jean Segura were also over 9%, while Leonys Martin, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Gomez were each over 8%. This year, however, the most aggressive runners are destroying those totals.
Dee Gordon has attempted 22 stolen bases on just 128 plate appearances, a whopping 17.2% SBA/PA. Billy Hamilton (15.7%), Rajai Davis (13.7%), Eric Young (11.1%), Ben Revere (10.6%), and Emilio Bonifacio (10.2%) are also attempting more than one steal per 10 trips to the plate, and Ellsbury, Martin, and Segura are continuing on right near last year’s marks. The average of the top 10 SBA/PA runners this year is 11.3%, with a median of 10.8%; the average of the 10 SBA/PA runners last year was 8.2% with a median of 8.1%.
Now, early in the season, you’re always going to have bigger spreads in rate stats than you will over an entire season. This is just the nature of smaller samples, as the spread from top to bottom shrinks as you get more data. But even isolating for just one month of data, we still see some pretty big changes from 2013.
Last April, Nate McLouth — yeah, I wasn’t suspecting that either — led MLB with an 11.5% SBA/PA rate, while no player attempted more than Ellsbury’s 12 stolen bases, at a rate of 10.6% SBA/PA. In any single month last year, the most aggressive base stealing belonged to Eric Young in July; he attempted 17 stolen bases on 121 plate appearances, a 14% SBA/PA month. Gordon already has five more stolen base attempts in just seven more plate appearances than Young’s month of July, and Hamilton is running more frequently as well despite rarely getting on base.
How about putting these marks in historical context? I pulled every player season from 1964 to 2013, giving us 50 years of seasonal stolen base attempt rates. Here is every season in the last 50 years with an SBA/PA north of 15%.
Season Name SBA SBA/PA SB%
1982 Rickey Henderson 172 26.2% 76%
1981 Tim Raines 82 22.6% 87%
1974 Lou Brock 151 21.5% 78%
1983 Rickey Henderson 127 20.4% 85%
1991 Otis Nixon 93 20.2% 77%
1980 Ron LeFlore 116 19.8% 84%
1985 Vince Coleman 135 19.5% 81%
1988 Otis Nixon 59 19.3% 78%
1986 Eric Davis 91 18.7% 88%
1987 Vince Coleman 131 18.7% 83%
1986 Vince Coleman 121 18.1% 88%
1965 Maury Wills 125 17.6% 75%
1980 Rickey Henderson 126 17.5% 79%
1990 Vince Coleman 94 17.4% 82%
1980 Omar Moreno 129 17.3% 74%
1988 Rickey Henderson 106 16.4% 88%
1980 Dave Collins 100 16.3% 79%
1983 Rudy Law 89 16.2% 87%
1991 Vince Coleman 51 16.0% 73%
1990 Eric Yelding 89 15.9% 72%
1988 Vince Coleman 108 15.9% 75%
1981 Rickey Henderson 78 15.8% 72%
1999 Roger Cedeno 83 15.8% 80%
1985 Davey Lopes 51 15.7% 92%
1991 Marquis Grissom 93 15.6% 82%
1976 Billy North 104 15.4% 72%
1984 Dave Collins 74 15.0% 81%
1996 Tom Goodwin 88 15.0% 75%
1986 Rickey Henderson 105 15.0% 83%
1978 Omar Moreno 93 15.0% 76%
Not surprisingly, Rickey Henderson comes out on top, and his 1982 season stands a good chance of never being dethroned as the most aggressive base stealing season in baseball history. And then there’s a whole bunch of years from the 1980s, when the league as a whole attempted a steal every 30 or so trips to the plate. Today’s league average is closer to one steal for every 50 attempts, and with teams valuing outs as baseball’s version of a clock, I don’t see a scenario where we get back to the days of Henderson, Coleman, and the rest.
But keep in mind that the uptick in stolen base attempts at the top end has not come with an offsetting rise in caught stealing rates. The 14 players with 10 or more stolen base attempts so far this year have a combined success rate of 83%. Gordon’s stealing bases at an 86% clip so far, despite a stolen base attempt rate that would rank right between Maury Wills and Vince Coleman. The average success rate for the aggressive runners on the list above was 80%, a few ticks below the success rate for the most aggressive runners in 2014.
This doesn’t mean that today’s runners are better runners, of course. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that league caught stealing rates are declining quickly while offense from catchers is up substantially, as teams have essentially had a two decade run of not needing to care too much about controlling the running game. As the game got bigger and slower, the need for rocket-armed catchers diminished, and it would be perfectly rational for teams to trade out defensive skills for improved offense as stolen base attempts declined.
But if that is the trade-off that the league has consciously made, and we now have a pool of catchers who aren’t being as heavily selected for their ability to stop opposing runners, guys like Gordon and Hamilton are going to have a disproportionate advantage, because they’re the ones who can consistently take advantage of a tenth of a second here or there. At the league level, we’re not going to see massive shifts in stolen base totals — though we are on pace to see about 300 more attempts this year than a year ago — because of the small slice of players who can exploit the change, but for those who can, the advantage could prove significant.
If we set 1994 as the beginning of the era of big offense in baseball, there have only been two seasons since where a runner posted a 15% or higher SBA/PA over a full season: Roger Cedeno in 1999 (15.8%) and Tom Goodwin in 1996 (15.0%). More recently, Rajai Davis and Jose Reyes have put up seasons in the 13% to 14% range, but that’s been the upper limit for a while now. Gordon is unlikely to be able to sustain his current mark, simply because he’s not going to keep getting on base this often, but this isn’t just a Dee Gordon thing.
With less power in baseball, teams are going to look for offense where they can find it, and if the league success rate on stolen bases continues to hang around 75% or even continue to climb higher, base stealing is going to become a viable way of generating real amounts of offense again. We’re not going to go back to the 1980s, but a combination of all these strikeouts and a high success rate on stolen bases could lead us back towards an era of smaller, faster baseball.
When discussing the positive surprises of the first month of the 2014 baseball season, the words “Milwaukee Brewers” and “Charlie Blackmon” are sure to come up very early in the conversation. While Blackmon has clearly not been the most valuable player on his own club – Troy Tulowitzki says hi – he does deserve every bit of attention and scrutiny that has come his way. Who is Charlie Blackmon? Where did he come from, figuratively? What is he, and where might he be going? Let’s look at the track record and attempt to make some educated guesses.
When the Rockies selected Blackmon in the second round of the 2008 draft with the 72nd overall selection, it was considered an overdraft by most. He was recruited by Georgia Tech as a two-way player out of Young Harris Junior College, but wound up pitching only two innings at Tech, finding a home as their leadoff man and a regular outfielder, though not their everyday centerfielder. He was about to turn 22 when he was drafted, and despite a very strong junior season, had yet to establish the type of proven track record with the bat – wood or aluminum – that teams search for high in the draft. Despite this fact, the Rockies, to their credit, were undaunted, and pulled the trigger on Blackmon.
At his relatively advanced age for a college junior, the Rockies were hoping for early minor league success, and quick advancement. While his .307-.370-.433 line, with 30 steals, in his first full pro season at High-A Modesto was respectable, it took place in a hitters’ league, and didn’t exactly scream “prospect”. Neither did his .297-.360-.484 season at AA in 2010, when he celebrated his 24th birthday on July 1.
His closest thing to a “breakthrough” occurred in the summer of 2011, when he tore up the hitter-friendly AAA Pacific Coast League at a .337-.393-.572 clip over 58 games and earned his first major league opportunity. Not only was the league hitter-friendly, but so was his Colorado Springs home park. If PCL stats in general are to be taken with a grain of salt, Colorado Springs numbers should be taken with a full tablespoon.
Each season, I utilize a system that evaluates minor league prospects both by their performance and age relative to their minor league level. Performers with respect to either criteria qualify for the list, which usually numbers around 300 position players, and extreme performers with respect to both reside at or near the top. Virtually every major league regular qualified for this list at some point during their minor league career, with the occasional exception of an all-glove, no-hit catcher or shortstop. The list is basically a master follow list for professional scouting coverage – and Charlie Blackmon never made the list. He barely missed in 2011 – by a day age-wise, and fractionally, performance-wise, but miss it he did. He never made a Baseball America Top 100 list, either, an admittedly more stringent criteria.
Blackmon continued to fly well beneath the radar in his first two major league trials in 2011 and 2012, before doing just a bit better last season. Though his .309-.336-.467 2013 line appears quite solid on the surface, there are two major cautionary factors that must be taken into consideration. First, there’s his awful 49/7 K/BB ratio. While his K rate was acceptable, his BB rate was off-the-charts bad. It should not have been a surprise, as he had never walked more than 39 times in a minor league season. His K rates had always been better than league average in the minors, but were never so good that warning bells would signal this as an area of future strength at the major league level.
The other significant factor is the Coors Field effect. I discussed this in detail in my preseason article on the Rockies – yes, I thought the Rockies had the potential to contend, and no, I didn’t see the Blackmon thing coming – Coors makes average hitters into stars, and can fool you into thinking well below average ones deserve their everyday jobs. Based on my own calculations utilizing granular batted-ball data, the overall, fly ball and line drive park factors for Coors Field (by field sector) in 2013 were:
Now there’s some help for lefties. All of Blackmon’s accomplishments must be placed in this context.
So what happened to turn Blackmon from the reasonable contributor he appeared to be last season to 2nd-in-the-NL-in-wOBA-guy in 2014, with a .359-.398-.590 line entering Monday’s games? Look no further than his K rate, which for no apparent reason has plunged from 19.0% in 2013 to 7.7% in 2014, the second best in the NL. This has been keyed by a startling plunge in his swing-and-miss rate from 8.7% last season to 4.4% thus far in 2014. Yup – he has cut his swing-and-miss rate in half, and his K rate by almost 150%, in a very short period of time. These things do not happen every day.
To become more familiar with relative variability of swing-and-miss rates of high-contact players, I identified players who had seasonal swing-and-miss rates of 5.0% or better in three or more batting average title-qualifying seasons over the past decade. They appear below:
# QUAL <5% CAR AVG HI LO
L.Castillo 4 2.6% 4.2% 1.8%
Pierre 6 2.8% 4.8% 2.0%
Scutaro 5 2.8% 4.8% 1.5%
Eckstein 4 3.1% 4.1% 2.2%
B.Giles 5 3.5% 5.0% 2.5%
Span 4 3.5% 4.4% 2.7%
Polanco 6 3.6% 5.7% 2.5%
Hatteberg 3 3.6% 5.0% 3.0%
Jm.Carroll 3 3.7% 6.1% 2.6%
Callaspo 5 3.7% 4.4% 2.5%
Vizquel 4 3.8% 5.4% 3.0%
Prado 5 3.8% 4.6% 3.2%
Kendall 4 3.9% 5.3% 3.2%
Theriot 3 3.9% 5.6% 2.9%
Pedroia 5 4.0% 5.2% 2.7%
Podsednik 3 4.1% 5.4% 3.2%
Loretta 3 4.2% 5.8% 3.4%
Mauer 5 4.2% 5.9% 3.1%
DeJesus 4 4.6% 5.6% 3.7%
B.Roberts 4 4.7% 6.0% 3.0%
Andrus 4 4.7% 5.2% 4.3%
Furcal 3 4.8% 5.5% 3.7%
V.Martinez 4 5.0% 7.0% 3.1%
I.Suzuki 5 5.1% 6.2% 4.0%
Markakis 3 5.1% 6.6% 3.7%
Figgins 3 5.2% 6.4% 4.0%
Helton 3 5.4% 8.5% 3.0%
Rollins 4 5.4% 7.2% 3.6%
——— ——— — — —
Kinsler 2 4.9% 6.4% 3.1% 14 = 3.5%
Brantley 2 3.3% 3.8% 2.7% 14 = 3.4%
Aoki 2 4.1% 4.9% 3.3% 14 = 4.9%
——— ——— — — —
Lucroy 6.0% 7.0% 5.4% 14 = 4.3%
Lowrie 6.7% 7.7% 5.4% 14 = 4.9%
Blackmon 7.0% 8.7% 6.1% 14 = 4.4%
The players above are sorted by career average swing-and-miss percentage, going back to 2002. The left-most column indicates each player’s number of qualifying seasons over the past decade with a swing-and-miss rate of 5.0% or better. The “HI” and “LO” columns indicate each player’s highest and lowest seasonal swing-and-miss rates, with a minimum plate appearance threshold of only 100. Even with such a low threshold, no player on this list ever had a single season with a swing-and-miss rate as high as Blackmon’s 2013 level of 8.7% – which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that high. The vast majority of these players’ high seasons were nowhere near 8.7%.
Thinking a bit more about the players on this list, they can be divided into a few basic categories. There are stars, like Brian Giles, Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Ichiro Suzuki, Todd Helton and Jimmy Rollins, for whom a low swing-and-miss percentage was simply part of a multi-faceted offensive package that included at least some home run power. On the other extreme end are some players whose contact ability represents the sum total of their batting ability. Ryan Theriot, late-career Jason Kendall and some of the speed players like Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik fit here.
Another group of players rely more on minimization of negative outcomes than on generation of positive ones for their success – Marco Scutaro, Placido Polanco, Scott Hatteberg and Elvis Andrus fit best here. The last category includes players whose contact ability combined with a very favorable home park environment turns them into above to well above average performers. The clearest example of this is Dustin Pedroia – he makes consistent contact, not much of it authoritative, especially in the air, but Fenway gives him enough help on fly balls to make him appear to be a star hitter. This is what Charlie Blackmon has done so far in 2014 with the help of Coors Field, and is pretty much what he can aspire to be going forward.
Below the main table, data has been added for three players, Ian Kinsler, Michael Brantley and Norichika Aoki, who are on pace to add their third season with a swing-and-miss rate below 5.0%. Also, three other players – Jonathan Lucroy, Jed Lowrie and Blackmon – were added, all of whom are on pace for their first sub-5.0% swing-and-miss season, and whose drop to that level must be considered significant compared to their career norms.
For a little more perspective on what Blackmon is right now, and where he might be headed, let’s compare the 2013 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for Blackmon and Michael Brantley:
Blackmon AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.315 0.778 115 62
LD 0.698 0.925 114 90
GB 0.280 0.307 141 82
ALL BIP 0.382 0.578 136 88
ALL PA 0.306 0.325 0.464 118 78
— — — — — —
Brantley AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.187 0.463 41 55
LD 0.605 0.832 88 97
GB 0.277 0.277 128 104
ALL BIP 0.318 0.443 87 91
ALL PA 0.280 0.328 0.390 102 107
To put Blackmon’s 2014 K rate decrease into perspective, consider that his 2013 K rate percentile rank of 68 for 2013 would drop all the way to 3 in 2014 using the same methodology. This would actually bring the plate appearance outcome frequencies for these two players closely in line. Both walk infrequently, have shown the ability to maintain a high line drive rate, and now, in 2014, strike out relatively infrequently.
The production by BIP type tables exclude the OBP effects of HBP, and count all SH and SF as outs. The “REL PRD” column measures actual production on each BIP type relative to MLB average, scaled to 100, and the “ADJ PRD” columns adjust for context, weeding out the effects of ballparks, speed, luck, etc., to isolate a player’s true talent level.
First, consider that simply changing Blackmon’s K and BB rates to their 2014 levels transforms his 2013 line to .346-.386-.525, just his exaggerated Coors Field performance this season (all six of his homers are at home) away from his current numbers. Secondly, notice the similarity of the two players’ ADJ PRD on all BIP in 2013 – 88 for Blackmon, 91 for Brantley, both due to well below average fly ball authority. Blackmon’s fly balls got pumped up by the Coors effect from 62 to 115, while Brantley’s are further discounted by Jacobs Field from 55 to 41. That’s basically all that separated these players in 2013.
Michael Brantley stands 6’2″, 200, and turns 27 next week. Charlie Blackmon stands 6’3″, 210, and turns 28 on July 1. Both bat lefthanded, and virtually all of their power is to dead pull. There are many similarities here. There are also many differences, however.
Brantley has an established track record of minor league performance, where he was always one of the youngest performers at each level. 2014 is very likely to be his third consecutive season with a swing-and-miss rate below 5.0% – this isn’t a shocking new development for Brantley. He has never hit more than 10 homers in a professional season – he reached that number last season, after hitting only 16 in 2477 minor league at-bats over six seasons. He has five already this season, playing in a relatively pitcher-friendly environment. Jimmy Rollins hit all of 36 homers in 2259 minor league at-bats, never hitting more than 12 in a season, and was always among the youngest at each minor league level. He has gone on to hit 202 MLB homers, including 30 in an MVP season. Brantley fairly closely fits the Rollins profile, and just might be morphing into a star as we speak.
Blackmon has come out of nowhere to post his microscopic 2014 swing-and-miss rate. History suggests that players who perennially post such swing-and-miss levels don’t come out of nowhere to do so. He has made a very impressive adjustment to major league pitching – and their adjustment back is forthcoming. Blackmon will need to prove he can lay off pitchers’ pitches out of the zone, ones on which weak contact is the best possible outcome, and there is nothing in his history to suggest he will successfully do so. He doesn’t need to be this good to help the Rockies, however. He simply needs to continue his Garrett Atkins impression – he of the 4.6% swing-and-miss rate in 2005 and 4.3% in 2006 – in the short to intermediate term.
Blackmon hits the ball just hard enough to take advantage of the Coors effect, plays solid enough defense in the middle of the field to add real value, and – most importantly in Coors – has learned to make contact his friend. In the near term, he projects as the prototypical average player made to look quite a bit better than that by his unique home park. He’s probably no Michael Brantley, though.
Frank Montas, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: High-A Age: 21 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 4/1 K/BB, 1.80 ERA, 2.20 FIP
Part of the Jake Peavy bounty, Montas combines premium arm speed with a few other developing skills.
Reports of Montas reaching triple digits abounded early in the 2013 season, but I wasn’t able to get a look at him until the final weeks of the campaign. By then, his electric arm had gotten him included in the return for Jake Peavy, and some considered him to be the best minor leaguer Chicago received in the deal. However, after the trade, he merely worked in the 91-96 range, his offspeed pitches were fringy, and his mechanics and control looked shaky, making him a less exciting pitcher than one would hope.
Montas tore his meniscus in the offseason, and thus, the 21-year-old Dominican missed the month of April, but he made his 2014 (and High-A) debut last night and looked much more like the intriguing, high-upside arm the White Sox no doubt believed they were getting. Aside from a few scattered 92s and 93s, he worked at 94-97 mph for five innings, touching 98 once in the first here:
Montas’ velocity is generated through pure arm speed from an overhand slot. His delivery isn’t ideal–his arm action is stabby in the back, he doesn’t use his lower half well, and he tends to land stiffly–but unlike in my past looks, the mechanics didn’t seem to hinder him from throwing quality strikes last night. His walk rate before the trade last year was a reasonable 8.4% (jumping to 15.9% after, including my three viewings of him), so it’s not entirely new for him to show some control.
While his velocity was only slightly improved from last August, his slider has clearly taken a major jump forward. In my viewings last year, the pitch came in anywhere from 83-91 mph and looked the part of a cutter, with almost no vertical action whatsoever. Last night, however, it still came in hard–84-88–but now features impressive tilt and depth, making it grade near plus.
Montas also tosses a changeup–in 2013, it usually came in at 82-84 mph (a big separation from his fastball velocity) with big fading action, but he’d dramatically slow his arm, telegraphing the pitch. Last night, the arm speed issues weren’t present on the offering except on this pitch at 83…
…but almost every other changeup Montas threw (mostly at 85-86) lacked the fading action, and he showed little feel for it, usually spiking it in the dirt. Still, he’s shown some intriguing raw ingredients for a good change in the past, and if it can be an intermittently effective offering to complement the fastball-slider combo, that may be enough for Montas to be a quality starter.
All in all, it was a pretty impressive showing from Montas, and if he can keep up this sort of form, he could be recognized as one of the top couple of arms in the Chicago system by season’s end.
Jose Leclerc, RHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: High-A Age: 20 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 11.1 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 19/5 K/BB, 2.38 ERA, 2.32 FIP
A fireplug with two plus offerings and an aggressive mentality, Leclerc is one of the better relief prospects in baseball.
I’ve seen Jose Leclerc no fewer than eight times over the past two years, and I’ve never come away unimpressed. A smallish, animated righthander, he’s an aggressive competitor who packs an electric arm. Early in 2013, his velocity jumped from the 91-93 range to the mid-90s, also taking a previously loopy curveball and turning it into a mid-70s powerhouse.
Last night, I got my first look at Leclerc as a High-A pitcher, and it was perhaps the most impressive performance I’ve seen from him:
That’s consistent 93-95 mph heat, with a 96 at the end for good measure, backed up by a consistently plus curveball at 74-76. I’ve seen Leclerc more consistently reach 96 in the past, and even got several 97s on him in a July 2013 outing. And that’s plenty of fastball to have when he can snap things like this off:
It’s a very loud, impressive duo of pitches. At times in 2013, the curve would lose its shape and turn into more of a rolling pitch, but there was no evidence of that sort of inconsistency last night, a welcome improvement. Leclerc also has a cutting changeup that came in at 86-87 last night and didn’t look that great; in 2013, it was anywhere from 83-87 and occasionally flashed up to average–actually, toward the end of the season, he was using it more than the curveball, a decision that he thankfully seems to have reversed this year.
Note also that Leclerc has a habit of “quick-pitching”–going into his motion with barely any set and catching the batter off guard. I’ve seen him utilize the technique several times (often drawing the ire of opposing managers). One can debate the utility of this, but along with his demeanor on the mound, it speaks to his aggressiveness and competitive nature. If this all sounds like a future closer…I’m not going to disagree.
Jandel Gustave, RHP, Houston Astros (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 21 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 18.1 IP, 24 H, 18 R, 20/5 K/BB, 4.91 ERA, 2.62 FIP
Gustave hits 100 mph as a starter; there aren’t many who can. As for the rest of his game…did I mention he throws 100?
Here’s a confusing one.
That’s a 100 mph fastball from last August 16. In that outing, Jandel Gustave worked consistently at 95-99 mph and hit 100 twice–he’s the only pitcher I’ve ever seen live who hit triple digits more than once in an outing. And yet, he didn’t get out of the fourth inning in that start, allowing eight hits and five runs, including a homer, in three-plus frames.
So, Jandel Gustave throws hard, but he doesn’t dominate the inexperienced bats of the low minors the way you’d think someone with his grade of heat (easy heat, I might add) should. Over the past two seasons, he’s allowed 41 runs in 62 innings–eighteen of those were unearned, so it’s propped his ERAs up. You could chalk the results up to awful command (in each of his first three professional seasons, he walked more batters than he struck out), but that’s not really the answer–his walk rate has declined for four straight years, going from 28.8% to 19.7% to 11.9% to an actually good 5.7% in the early going of 2014. He’s no pinpoint control artist, but he’s also not Jason Neighborgall.
Clearly, then, Gustave has 8-grade arm speed and can at least find the plate, which means blame for his statistical mediocrity must be assigned somewhere else. Well, really, it should be assigned everywhere else, as that was the sum of his skills last August 16, and reports from this spring have little new to add to that description. First, the secondary pitches are problematic. Gustave has a slider that ranges from 85-90 mph and occasionally has some sweeping bite, but it needs a lot of work, and his changeup is basically a flat 91 mph fastball that he barely uses. Second, his fastball doesn’t have much life–a touch of armside run at times, but that’s about it–and he’s not very deceptive. Without secondary stuff to worry about, even low-minors hitters can sit on the fastball and wait for Gustave to leave one out over the plate, at which point, things like this happen.
Gustave’s just 21, he has rare heat, and he should be applauded with his massive control improvements. He’s the sort of guy who’s going to get looks forever because of those attributes, but he has a lot of work ahead of him in bringing the rest of his game to a level where he can start missing barrels. It’s easy to dream on him as a flamethrowing closer, but time will tell how well he can make his arsenal play up.
No one in baseball history has ever been better at closing out games than Mariano Rivera. Armed with an unhittable cut fastball and incredible command, Rivera cemented himself as a legend in New York, spending his entire career as a Yankee and becoming the first active player ever enshrined in Monument Park. His farewell ceremony last September was one of the most memorable moments in recent baseball history, but retirement hasn't taken Rivera out of the spotlight just yet.
In an excerpt from his new book, appropriately entitled "The Closer," Rivera comments on the active crop of second basemen; most notably, his long-time teammate Robinson Cano and his counterpoint Dustin Pedroia, star of the hated rivals up in Boston. While one might expect Rivera to side with his teammate, or simply to side with any player wearing the vaunted pinstripes, Rivera instead espouses affection for his rival.
"If I have to win one game, I'd have a hard time taking anybody over Dustin Pedroia as my second baseman," Rivera noted.
Rivera is certainly familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of both players, but on-field greatness doesn't always equate to a tremendous ability to build a roster; just ask anyone who has ever cheered for a basketball team built by Michael Jordan. So, with all due respect for Rivera's experience, let's see what the numbers have to say about Cano and Pedroia.
One of my favorite features of the FanGraphs leaderboards is that you can filter by calendar years, so we can look at what Cano and Pedroia have done over the past three full seasons, including their start to the 2014 season. Because we don't want to overweight recent performance, going back three years should give us a good sense of each player's present abilities. Let's just start with their primary offensive numbers over the last 1,095 days.
Name AVG OBP SLG
Robinson Cano 0.309 0.371 0.521
Dustin Pedroia 0.302 0.369 0.449
In terms of batting average and on-base percentage, it's essentially a dead heat, though Cano has hit for significantly more power. While Pedroia is an excellent hitter in his own right, Cano has simply been better, perfecting the same high-contact approach that Pedroia has mastered while also adding in even more extra base hits.
And while rate stats like these can be misleading when comparing an injury-prone player to a workhorse who takes the field every day that is not the case here. Over those last three calendar years, Cano has played in 482 games and hit 2,071 times, while Pedroia has played in 461 games and hit 2,085 times. In terms of playing time, they're near equals, so one cannot argue that Pedroia would be more likely to be healthy for Rivera's "one game" scenario.
Of course, there's more to baseball than just hitting. What about base running? After all, Pedroia thumps Cano in base stealing 62 to 18 over those last three years, so perhaps he makes up for the difference at the plate by scoring more often when he does get on base? Well, no, that's not true either. To get those extra 44 stolen bases, Pedroia has had to sacrifice 14 outs due to getting thrown out on stolen base attempts, nullifying most of the additional value added from those successful stolen bases. And when it comes to the kinds of baserunning that aren't measured by stolen base attempts, Cano has actually been slightly better according to our calculations, so there's no real advantage on the basepaths for either player.
However, there is one area where Pedroia does have a decided edge, and that's in the field. Despite Cano being a two time Gold Glove winner, advanced defensive metrics greatly prefer Pedroia, with Ultimate Zone Rating judging Pedroia to have made enough plays in the field to equal 30 extra runs saved relative to Cano's fielding over the last three years. That's a big gap, but there is more uncertainty surrounding estimates of fielding value than there is of batting value, so it is possible that metrics like UZR are overstating the difference to some degree. Still, Pedroia likely makes up a good chunk of the offensive difference in the field.
But he doesn't make up the entire difference. While Pedroia's defensive edge is estimated at 30 runs, the value of Cano's additional power has created an extra 41 offensive runs over the last three seasons, so even if you give Pedroia full credit for the defensive gap, Cano still comes out as a slightly better player. To be sure, 11 runs over three seasons is hardly any difference at all, and both are excellent players, but the numbers do not suggest any real advantage for Pedroia. One could argue that they've performed similarly in recent years, but there isn't much of a case to be made that Pedroia has clearly performed better.
And there's an extra wrinkle to this argument, because Rivera made the case for Pedroia on the basis of trying to win a single game, which forces us to consider the environment in which that game may be played. While Yankee Stadium is certainly a nice place for left-handed hitters, Cano has shown no real variation in performance based on ballpark, posting an .856 OPS at home and an .858 OPS on the road. Regardless of where that one game was played, you could essentially expect Robinson Cano to hit like Robison Cano.
Pedroia, on the other hand, has taken full advantage of the Green Monster in Fenway Park, posting a .876 OPS at home and a .764 OPS on the road throughout his career. At home, Pedroia has averaged one double every 12.7 trips to the plate; on the road, that falls to one every 20.7 plate appearances. As a right-handed pull power guy, Pedroia's skillset is a perfect match for Boston's home park, and he simply isn't the same offensive force when the team is made to travel.
So, if you're trying to win one game in Fenway Park, you really could build an argument for Pedroia; his swing is tailor-made for the giant wall in Boston. In any of the other 29 Major League ballparks, though, you're probably better off with Cano. Rivera might not see the same kind of "passion" in his attitude, but personality really only matters to the extent that it improves your results on the field. Maybe Rivera is right and Cano could be better if he tried a little more, but even at his current effort level, Cano has been as good or better than Pedroia.
He might not yell and scream, but he takes the field every day and hits the crap out of the baseball. There's no shame in loving Dustin Pedroia and everything he brings to the table, but let's not diminish Robinson Cano in the process; the numbers suggest he, and not Pedroia, is the guy you'd probably want at second base if you were trying to win just one game - as long as that game wasn't held in Boston, anyways.
He might not yell and scream, but he takes the field every day and hits the crap out of the baseball. There's no shame in loving Dustin Pedroia and everything he brings to the table, but let's not diminish Robinson Cano in the process; the numbers suggest he, and not Pedroia, is the guy you'd probably want at second base if you were trying to win just one game - as long as that game wasn't held in Boston, anyways.
Josh Tomlin will be on the mound tonight for the Indians. It will be the 29-year-old right-hander’s first start in a Cleveland uniform since he underwent Tommy John surgery late in the 2012 season. The opportunity is well-earned. Tomlin has thrown 17 scoreless innings in his past two outings for Triple-A Columbus and has a 2.06 ERA overall.
Tribe fans can expect to see a revamped-velocity version of the pitcher who went 12-7, 4.25 in 2011. Tomlin still relies on cutters and command – he’ll never be confused with a fire-baller – but he’s throwing harder than he has at any point in his life. More importantly, he’s throwing free and easy.
“The injury prevented me from doing the things I need to do,” Tomlin said. “In 2011, maybe a month after the All-Star break, I started feeling like something wasn’t right. I tried to pitch through it late in 2011 and early 2012, but couldn’t command the ball and couldn’t cut it when I wanted to. I didn’t have the extension to get the ball down and away to righties. Subconsciously, I knew it was going to hurt when I did that, so I kind of cut the ball off trying to get it there. It got to the point where righties could eliminate a pitch away and sit middle in, and lefties knew I was going to work away. When a hitter can take away one side of the plate against me, it’s going to be tough for me to compete. Now I’m able to get the ball to that side and move pitches around to keep hitters off balance. That’s my game.”
Tomlin’s radar gun readers are also healthier. His fastball sat in the upper 80s before the surgery. Now it’s north of 90 mph.
“My velocity has crept up a little bit,” Tomlin said. “I’ve been 91-93 throughout the game with my fastball. My arm speed is better since the surgery. The crispness of my pitches is back to what they were before. Right now I feel like I’m a 15 or 16-year-old kid playing catch again. It doesn’t hurt, I don’t feel it, I don’t think about it. I just take the ball and pitch.”
Tomlin was reminded in spring training that he still has to “pitch” to be effective. He’s never been a power guy and a little extra octane isn’t going to change that.
“I got myself hurt against that Abreu guy with the White Sox,” Tomlin said. “I got him down 1-2 and tried to blow a fastball by him, in. I basically tried to throw the ball too hard – I guess I was overconfident – and left it over the plate. He hit it pretty good. That’s something I had to learn in spring training: How to hone in my new-found velocity and new-found feeling. I can throw pretty hard right now – at least for me – but throwing the ball by someone isn’t my game. I need to set them up to where 89-90 is still effective. It’s about making a quality pitch and missing a barrel, not lighting up the radar gun or trying to get too cute with my fastball.”
Tomlin’s cutter is his most attractive offering. It is also the shapeliest. Thanks to his rebuilt arm, he can tempt hitters with it in two different ways.
“I’m able to do things with my cutter now,” explained Tomlin. “I’m able to make it move horizontally if I want it to. If I get a guy 1-2 with a fastball, I can make it a little bigger. I also have one with more of a slider depth to it. Basically, I’m throwing two different cutters – one more horizontal to miss the barrel and one with a little more depth to try to get ground balls, maybe even a swing-and-miss. But for me, the cutter is a pitch to get weak contact early in the count to keep my pitch count low.”
Tomlin’s repertoire includes a curveball. It’s his third-best pitch and yet another that’s been rejuvenated by his surgery.
“My curveball is the pitch that’s probably been helped the most,” Tomlin said. “Again, I’m not thinking about it. I can grip it without that feeling of ‘I hope it doesn’t hurt.’ The conviction I have behind all of my pitches is the biggest change. It’s not like it was when I was struggling and my arm was bothering me a little bit. Not to make excuses, or anything like that, but the conviction I had then is nothing near what I have now.”
Understand, immediately: Mike Trout is currently first in the American League in WAR. In the majors, he’s sandwiched between two Rockies, one surprisingly healthy and one surprisingly awesome, and Trout’s current season pace puts him at 13 WAR, which would eclipse what he’s already done, and what he’s already done has been basically impossibly good. That Mike Trout doesn’t lead the majors in WAR isn’t a reflection of Trout; it’s a reflection of, hey, sample sizes, and also, don’t forget about Troy Tulowitzki, who is also amazing.
But let’s talk about something, just because it’s interesting. Trout is so good, so almost perfect, that we’re at heightened awareness when something might not be right. At the moment, he’s running an extraordinary 161 wRC+, which is an almost exact match for his career mark. But behind that summary number is another number that doesn’t look like the numbers that’ve come before it. What I’m referring to inspired an article in the LA Times.
From Mike DiGiovanna:
“I think you worry about strikeouts when they aren’t balanced by walks or production, and I think he’s doing OK in those departments,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “For guys who work counts, strikeouts might follow.”
Trout, who finished second in AL most-valuable-player voting in 2012 and 2013, has two three-strikeout games and had the first four-strikeout game of his career in Detroit on April 19.
“It’s not a concern for me,” Trout said. “My last couple of years, I’ve had over 100 strikeouts. Sometimes I’m chasing pitches, trying to do too much, like I did in the first month last year, when I was too anxious. I have to look for my pitch and hit it. Pitchers are throwing good pitches too. You have to give them credit.”
This is about Mike Trout and strikeouts. In his first full season, he struck out about 22% of the time. Last year, he struck out about 19% of the time. This year he’s struck out about 28% of the time, showing up on the first page of the strikeout-rate leaderboard. At the same time, his walk rate has gone a little down, so it’s not simply a matter of ending up in a lot more deep counts. For Trout, this obviously isn’t a thing that’s killed his productivity, but it’s a thing that’s different.
There are 153 players who have batted at least 100 times this season after batting at least 250 times last season. Trout’s strikeout-rate increase is the third-greatest, behind only Edwin Encarnacion and Brad Miller. Miller has whiffed his way almost out of favor, and Encarnacion is deserving of a post of his own, but he, at least, has struck out some in the past. Trout has a track record of not doing this so much. So what might be driving the strikeouts?
It’s not simply swinging and missing. Trout’s contact rate is down, but it’s down only a few percentage points, so that doesn’t seem to be enough of a factor. His swing rate, also, is above last season’s, so it’s not like he’s watching more strikes. His chase rate isn’t up, and there’s no clear difference in the way he’s been pitched, in terms of pitch selection. He’s seeing a characteristically low rate of first-pitch strikes.
Something one notes, though: Trout has hit a lot more foul balls. So far, 45% of his swings have resulted in fouls. The two years previous, that rate was 39%. Fouls, before there are two strikes, are no better than whiffs, and fouls are specifically not balls in play. So you can combine the dual facts that Trout has hit more fouls while also making a bit less contact.
Here’s what you end up with: 33% of Trout’s swings this season have resulted in a ball in play. His career rates:
2011: 44% balls in play
Between years, Trout has seen a drop of 8.4 percentage points. That’s the largest drop in baseball, barely bigger than Justin Upton‘s but considerably bigger than everyone else’s. Justin Upton, of course, has an even higher OPS than Trout does. This is a marked change for Trout, and in-play rate usually holds up pretty consistently season to season. So you wonder if there’s something Trout’s been doing differently, on purpose.
And there might be. First, for the sake of reference: the difference between this year’s rate and last year’s rate so far is about 20-21 balls in play. This year, Trout has put 82 balls in play. At last year’s rate, by now he’d be up to 103. I’ll leave it up to you to decide on the significance of 21 swings. But, last season, Trout had an even distribution of pulled balls and balls hit to the opposite field. In his first full year, Trout’s ratio was 1.1. So far this year, he’s at 1.7. That is, Trout has hit fewer balls the other way, and he’s pulled more of them toward left. There’s also a very slight increase in balls hit up the middle.
So Trout’s pulled the ball a little more, and he’s missed the ball a little more, and he’s fouled the ball a little more, while swinging more aggressively. It could be that there’s something up with Trout’s swing. Or it could be that he’s trying to hit for more power. It stands to reason Trout’s home-run totals will climb as he gets older, and this could be the beginning of a transition to Trout becoming more of a true slugger. Alternatively, this could be a bunch of noise — no matter what you do with the data, it’s still looking at season-to-date data at the beginning of May. You can’t make it not a small sample.
What we know for certain: Trout’s strikeouts are up, a byproduct of putting the ball in play less often. What we don’t know for certain: the why. You can’t actually worry about Mike Trout right now. There are other prominent hitters with changes in their profiles who aren’t on pace for a 13-WAR season. But if Trout was just about perfect before, then the strikeouts change the look of that perfection, which makes them of interest to monitor. If Trout’s just becoming more strikeout-prone, that’s fascinating. If Trout’s becoming more strikeout-prone as a part of his development into a slightly different kind of superstar, that’s fascinating, too.
As promised a while ago, our Playoff Odds page is, in time, going to feature the old Cool Standings functionality, where you’d be able to click on a team and track its past odds day by day. That way you’d be able to monitor winning and losing streaks, as well as, somewhat indirectly, the impact of injuries and acquisitions. I suspect that it’s going to become one of FanGraphs’ more popular tools.
As promised a while ago, the Cool Standings functionality is coming in time, and that time remains in the future. It’s a priority, but it’s not a top priority, and the result is posts like these, periodic check-ins on how the odds have changed since the start of the season. On April 4, when I did this the first time, the Mariners’ odds were up about eight percentage points, and the Angels’ odds were down about ten. What does the picture look like today, on May 5? Let’s dive right in.
Surprise! There are bigger swings after a month than there are after a series. Previously, only the Angels had seen their odds shift by at least ten percentage points. Now a dozen teams have seen their odds shift by at least that much, and five teams have had shifts of at least 20 percentage points. As a complete and utter non-shock, the strongest swing belongs to the Brewers, who own baseball’s best record after projecting as maybe an average roster.
The Brewers’ odds are up about 35 percentage points, from under 15% to over 49%. They aren’t yet to where the projections believe the division is a coin flip between them and the Cardinals, but they’re getting mighty close, as they’ve achieved a five-game lead while crossing out a fifth of the regular season. Given what we know about numbers, we know better than to assume the Brewers are the best team in the league based on a month, and the projections don’t particularly love them, but the projections still think they’re as likely to make the playoffs as they are to miss them, and if you like the Brewers more than the projections, the math is even more in their favor.
The Brewers’ gain is the Pirates’ loss. And also, the Pirates’ loss is the Brewers’ gain, as the Pirates stand at 12-19 and 8.5 games back of first place. Here’s an interesting thing: between now and the end of the season, our projections think the Brewers will win 48.3% of the time. Meanwhile, they think the Pirates will win 50.2% of the time. In other words, the projections here think more highly of the Pirates than the Brewers, but the Brewers have substantially higher playoff odds because they’ve built a massive early edge. Pirates fans can clamor for Gregory Polanco all they want, and he would presumably represent an improvement, but he can’t change that much, and this is why people say you can eliminate yourself in April. It’s incredibly difficult to dig out of a deep early hole, and it’s not like the Pirates were ever considered among the league elite.
If this weren’t about the Brewers and Pirates, this might be about the Giants and Padres, who find themselves in somewhat similar situations. The Giants have more than doubled their odds of winning the division, while the Padres’ odds have been devastated with regard to both the division and the wild card. Then one also notes some interesting presumed contenders — the Indians and Rays are both down about 18 percentage points. The Cardinals are down about 14. The A’s are up, of course, and the Tigers are up almost as much, and right now they have the clearest path to the postseason by far. Of all the divisions, the AL Central might look the closest to expectations, as you have the Tigers and then all the rest.
Not real visible in the chart: the Twins and the Astros. But let’s not ignore what the Astros have done — they’ve dropped from 0.2% odds to 0.0% odds. Now, of course, those aren’t real 0.0% odds. They might be 0.0499999999% odds. Making the playoffs is not an impossibility, as they could conceivably win all of their remaining games! But right now, the Astros are the first team in baseball to achieve the big Zero. It’s May 5.
As things stand today, 23 different teams have at least a 1-in-10 shot at the playoffs. Of those, 16 different teams have at least a 1-in-5 shot at the playoffs, and nine teams are at least 1-in-2. The odds aren’t perfect, due to the human-controlled depth charts, the limited number of season simulations, and the general unpredictability of life, but the numbers provide at least a good overview, and if Brewers fans needed any more reason to be pleased, there you go. Always remember that, when you’re trying to figure out the future, you have to take into account what’s already happened. It matters what you think of the Brewers, but it also matters what the Brewers have already done to opponents.
Real quick, I thought it might be additionally interesting to look at the teams who’ve changed the most in terms of projections. At the start of the year, we have an expected winning percentage. Now we have an updated expected rest-of-season winning percentage, which is essentially based on updated projections and updated depth charts. This doesn’t take into account wins and losses that have already happened. This is just about how differently the teams project, and here’s a full table:
Team Win%_diff Per 162
Marlins 0.021 3.3
Braves 0.015 2.4
Tigers 0.012 1.9
Phillies 0.010 1.7
Astros 0.010 1.6
Blue Jays 0.010 1.6
Orioles 0.008 1.3
Brewers 0.006 1.0
Giants 0.005 0.8
Athletics 0.005 0.8
Rockies 0.003 0.5
Royals 0.003 0.5
Red Sox 0.003 0.4
Twins 0.002 0.4
Angels 0.000 0.0
Indians -0.001 -0.2
Diamondbacks -0.002 -0.3
Reds -0.003 -0.4
Cubs -0.006 -1.0
Rangers -0.006 -1.0
Nationals -0.006 -1.0
Mariners -0.007 -1.1
Yankees -0.007 -1.1
Pirates -0.007 -1.2
White Sox -0.007 -1.2
Cardinals -0.008 -1.2
Dodgers -0.009 -1.5
Rays -0.011 -1.7
Padres -0.013 -2.1
Mets -0.018 -2.9
The Marlins project as a better team than they did, which makes sense, since before they looked like one of the worst teams in the league, and now they’re over .500 with one of baseball’s better offenses. The Braves, too, project better, perhaps in part because of improved projections for Ervin Santana. They’re also starting to get healthier. At the other end, it’s interesting to see the Mets at the bottom considering they’re also over .500, but that’s an investigation for another post. It could be something, it could be nothing, or it could have to do with their April and remaining schedules. It’s not a surprise the Padres project worse, and a big part, probably, if the Rays’ reduction is the season-long loss of Matt Moore.
Most projections haven’t changed very much, which shouldn’t surprise, since a month should never do much to alter a good projection system. On the one hand, it could be a lesson in maintaining perspective despite whatever might’ve happened over five or six weeks. On the other hand, it could be a lesson in how projections can lag, and how the eye might be able to spot things first. I’m not going to get involved in that, but I am going to stop this post here, to encourage you to think conflicting thoughts.
In one way, CC Sabathia is having the best season we’ve seen him have in years. In another, much more real way, he’s having the worst season of his long and valuable career. Baseball is a weird game sometimes.
When you look at the current ERA standings, from worst to first, a few things jump out at you. (Yes, besides, “ERA is dumb,” because for the moment this is more about what has happened than what might have happened.) You see Kevin Correia and Ricky Nolasco showing absurdly low strikeout numbers (along with Kyle Gibson, the Twins have the three lowest K% pitchers, because Twins) and you understand that pitching to contact in front of a lousy defense might not result in runs being prevented. You see a lot of high BABIP (I see you, Homer Bailey‘s .385), and guys who have had a disaster start or two that inflate the number (Bartolo Colon), and guys who either can’t miss bats (John Danks) or throw strikes (John Danks) and find that the end result is poor (John Danks). As it turns out, there’s a lot of different ways to allow runs to score in Major League Baseball.
But there’s also Sabathia, stuck in third-worst with a 5.75 ERA, and what stands out for him is the 9.74 K/9, along with the 1.99 BB/9, resulting in a 4.89 K/BB, his best since his Cy Young season of 2007. When two of the three things that a pitcher has the most control over, taken together, are the best since the best year of a great career, and it’s still not working out, well, that seems like something you might want to look into further. Remember, this is the same Sabathia who was supposedly cooked coming off a career-worst 2013, thanks to velocity issues, and I’m pretty sure that the Yankees would have taken a greatly improved K/9 rate (up from 7.46 last year), K% (24.0, up from 19.3) and a better walk rate (down from 2.77) in a heartbeat. His xFIP, for what it’s worth, is 2.95. So… what gives?
There was an endless amount of hand-wringing over Sabathia’s 2013 velocity, and for good reason. After more than a decade in the bigs and over 3,000 professional innings on his arm, Sabathia’s velocity dropped from the 95 mph range to around 92 last year. After a winter of stories about how much weight he’d lost in an attempt to get back into better shape, he’s down even further to an average of 90.54 mph. Though that should improve somewhat — for most pitchers, April velocity is lower than the following months, and he has improved in his lone May start — he’s thrown only 10 pitches that have even reached 91. He’s thrown zero at 92 or, obviously, above. His velocity isn’t going to return, nor should anyone have expected it to.
Of course, that was never the plan this year. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte talked in the spring about how adjustments needed to be made as a pitcher aged and velocity was lost. In March, they worked on adding a cutter. After Sabathia was knocked out in the fourth inning against the Rays on Sunday, Joe Girardi said, “I still think he’s evolving into a different type of pitcher.”
Before Girardi said that, he had to actually make the walk out to the mound and tell Sabathia he was leaving before the end of the fourth for the first time since 2009. Sabathia may not have agreed:
Though Sabathia was indeed lousy on Sunday — pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Sabathia “was out of sync from the get-go,” and that he “didn’t warm up particularly well” –Girardi is right. Sabathia’s response to a fastball that was arguably the worst pitch in baseball last year is to simply not throw it so much, in favor of a sinker and change:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his groundball percentage is up to a career-high 50.8 percent. His flyball rate is down to a career-low 25.8 percent. Last year, 45.1 percent of the 1,314 fastballs he threw were high in the zone. This year, plenty of those fastballs are turning into low sinkers. On lots of teams, that’s a good thing. On a team with an ever-revolving infield and Derek Jeter looking every bit of his soon-to-be 40-years-old at shortstop, it’s turned out to be less useful. It’s not the only reason that Sabathia’s BABIP is .361, far above anything he’s ever had before — a career-worst line drive percentage plays into that as well — but it’s certainly part of it. He’s also throwing first-pitch strikes 70 percent of the time, third-best in baseball, and we know that first-pitch strikes are worth over 100 points in both batting average and on-base percentage.
It’s really because of the sinker that the strikeouts are coming. Sabathia has thrown it 208 times this year, and picked up 66 strikes (44 called / 22 swinging) on it, good for a 31.7 rate. Of his 44 strikeouts, 19 have come via the sinker, more than any other pitch, including his slider, which has always been his go-to. For a pitch he’s relying on for the first time, the results have been surprising. It’s not perfect — seven extra-base hits on it — but it’s worth exploring further.
So far, these are mostly positive data points. More strikeouts. Fewer walks. More groundballs. More first-pitch strikes. A new pitch that seems to play. But still: the runs.
If there’s a problem here, it’s the home run and the big inning, which are understandably intertwined. Sabathia’s HR/FB percentage is 21.9, tied for the most in the majors. That is, objectively, bad. But also, it’s maybe not as bad as it sounds. Remember that he’s allowing fewer flyballs, meaning each homer hits this percentage harder. Note also that he’s tied with Masahiro Tanaka and Homer Bailey, each very well-compensated and productive pitchers. He’s also tied with Brandon McCarthy, less compensated and productive, though still valuable. Zack Greinke is in the top 10. So is Gerrit Cole. So is Jenrry Mejia, who has his share of fans, and Tim Lincecum & Shelby Miller, who used to. David Price isn’t far behind. Johnny Cueto is on the first page. It’s obviously not great to give up homers, but it doesn’t have to be fatal, either, and either way it’s difficult if not impossible to keep that kind of rate up all season. Over the last 10 seasons, only four pitchers have even been at 18 percent or higher.
Obviously, that comes with some selection bias. If you’re allowing homers on 20 percent of your fly balls for very long, you’re either going to fix that or no longer be a big league pitcher. I’m not sure we’re ready to say that about Sabathia, particularly with the increasing reliance on sinkers and grounders, so one would think that number is likely to come down. One might also notice this about Sabathia’s homer problem – one of them, to Wil Myers yesterday, didn’t even leave the park. The ball was smoked and very nearly did get out, so we’re not going to absolve Sabathia of all blame, but you can also time Carlos Beltran‘s journey to the ball in weeks rather than seconds, followed by an underwhelming throw that killed any chance of a play at the plate:
Here’s another, off the bat of L.J. **** on April 1: http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/6479266/v31744897/nyyhou-****-hits-a-solo-homer-in-second
With a true distance of 344 feet, only 11 other homers have been shorter this year. 819 have been longer. It still counts as damage, because baseball, but obviously not all homers were created the same. In Sabathia’s case, he hasn’t actually had a ball leave the park in his last three starts. As mentioned before, a HR/FB rate north of 20 isn’t sustainable. This is the beginning of that coming down. When it does, you’d expect the “one terrible inning” — helpfully illustrated on the YES broadcast below — to come down as well.
Because of his name, his salary, and the fact that Tanaka is the sole Yankee starter who is currently both healthy and productive, Sabathia isn’t going to run out of chances in the rotation any time soon. It should go without saying, of course, that he’s never going to be the elite ace he used to be. It’s as likely that the Yankees would prefer to have the $83 million they owe him between 2015-17 (assuming a likely 2017 vesting clause activates) available for other purposes. The new Sabathia isn’t doing enough right to win, but he’s doing a certain amount of things right, more than the “third-worst ERA in baseball” would indicate. As Sabathia gets more comfortable with who he is, and gets a little more batted ball luck, there’s enough happening here for a useful pitcher to emerge. That might not be want the Yankees want or need. It’s what they have, and considering how the rest of the rotation is going, they’ll have to take it.
A decade ago, current FanGraphs managing editor, ESPN contributor and man-about-web David Cameron, along with others at the popular U.S.S. Mariner blog, gave a Mariners prospect a nickname: "King." That's quite a nickname to give a prospect, especially a 17-year-old Venezuelan pitcher in his first professional season. Calling someone the king has been dangerous throughout human history, frequently ending with a head forcibly disconnected from the rest of the body.
Pitching prospects in baseball are more likely to meet their end looking at an orthopedic surgeon's scalpel rather than a headman's ax, but Felix Hernandez has justified his moniker in his first decade in the majors. Of course, there is one aspect of his résumé that leaves a little to be desired. Despite a Cy Young award and four All-Star games (so far), his win total (113 through Tuesday), on its face, won't blow you away. By virtue of dominating at a young age, Hernandez fits the profile of a 300-game winner, but because he's pitched in front of such an anemic offense his entire professional career, his odds of reaching 300 wins are slipping every season.
In fact, we can calculate just how many wins he's lost by virtue of playing for Seattle, and what his odds of winning 300 would look like if he played for a team such as the Yankees.
No sock in Seattle
The win statistic has been marginalized in the eyes of fans and scribes in recent years, but a large career total usually paints a good picture of overall dominance. Hernandez's 110 wins through his age-27 season is a more-than-respectable total, 34th all time, but it also looks anemic next to his performance. The four pitchers above him in WAR from 2005-2013, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia, averaged eight more innings and the same ERA+ over that nine-year period as Hernandez but averaged 139 wins, with Sabathia leading the pack with 154.
From 2005-13, these pitchers lost the most wins based on run support alone.
Pitcher Missing Wins
Matt Cain 13
Jarrod Washburn 13
John Danks 12
Jeremy Guthrie 12
Felix Hernandez 11
Hiroki Kuroda 10
Kevin Millwood 10
Doug Fister 9
Jhoulys Chacin 9
Roger Clemens 7
Looking at the top 25 pitchers by WAR over the period, Hernandez ranks sixth in ERA -- and 21st in wins per games started. ZiPS projects the King to finish with 241 wins and gives him an 18 percent shot at 300 wins. Those are excellent numbers, but not numbers of the type that will get him the first-year Hall of Fame induction he's likely to deserve, sometime around the year 2030.
The area the Mariners have most cost Hernandez is in the run-support department, and it's not something the organization can simply blame on Safeco Field, one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in baseball. By OPS+, which looks at OBP and SLG with park factors included, Seattle's offense ranked 25th out of 30 teams over the 2005-13 period, dead last in the American League, and the Mariners managed an OPS+ higher than 100 -- which represents league average -- just once in that time frame (2007). Hernandez had to climb Mount Everest in 2010, winning the Cy Young with a 13-12 record thanks to a Mariners offense that scored just 3.1 runs per nine innings when he was in the game, a rate at which being deemed anemic would be excessively kind.
Going year by year, you'd expect a Felix Hernandez with an average offense in Safeco to win 121 games from 2005-13, rather than the 110 he actually won. When looking at all starting pitchers, that discrepancy puts him fifth in baseball, behind Matt Cain, Jarrod Washburn (who also was saddled with some lousy M's offenses), John Danks and Jeremy Guthrie (see table).
That's more than a win per season, and over the length of a career, a missing win a year can really add up. A player realistically needs 20 seasons to have a good shot at 300 wins, and knocking off 20 wins eliminates more than one-third (nine) of the 24 300-game winners in baseball history.
A world in pinstripes
Hernandez losing 11 wins only assumes ordinary offenses. What if the Seattle ace actually played in front of a potent lineup? The Yankees had the best offense from 2005-13, with an OPS+ of 108. With that run support, you'd expect Hernandez to have a .658 winning percentage or 132 wins through the end of the 2013 season. Even assuming the same Mariners offense and regression toward league average in the future, those 22 extra wins move his career projection to 263 wins and nearly double his chances of catching 300, at 35 percent.
If Hernandez fails to win 300 and falls short due to run support, he won't be the first pitcher to suffer such a fate. Repeating the methodology with pitchers close to 300 wins, two more pitchers, Robin Roberts and Bert Blyleven, also fall short due to playing on below-average offenses over their careers.
With league-average run support, the estimate for Roberts' wins hits 300 on the nose. Luckily, Roberts was inducted into the Hall relatively quickly, getting majority support on his first ballot and making it to Cooperstown on his fourth try. Blyleven wasn't quite as lucky, with average run support his expected win total jumps to 315. Passing the magic 300 barrier would have proved useful for Blyleven, given he got minimal support his first time on the ballot and it required a grassroots campaign and 14 years of ballots to send the "Frying Dutchman" on a summer trip to upstate New York.
With Hernandez tied to the Mariners until at least the 2019 season, his best hope to start boosting that win total and get that second (!) 15-win season in the books is for the M's to start turning around a moribund offense. Signing Robinson Cano was a good start, but the team's offensive woes aren't fixed with the addition of one star, nor were they fixed by bargain hunting for players such as Corey Hart and Logan Morrison.
In nine full seasons in Seattle, Felix Hernandez has been a part of seven losing teams and is yet to make a single playoff appearance, ranking him second among active pitchers in batters faced without October overtime (after Aaron Harang). Seattle has the finances to support the franchise, so maybe next winter will be the winter the Mariners finish giving the King his court and increasing his odds of reaching 300 wins.
During a May 2 showdown with division rival Detroit, Kansas City’s ace James Shields put up a horrible start. After mostly dominating batters through the first month of the season, Shields allowed eight runs in just over six innings, a dent in an otherwise good-looking seasonal line. Without analyzing the start in detail, it is fair to say that no matter how bad it was for Kansas City, in itself it provided no obvious cause for concern with regard to Shields. Shields has been one of the top ten or fifteen starters in baseball the last few years, and one game by itself does not change that.
Still, just how bad can it get for good pitchers? Every pitcher puts up a bad start now and then, but how bad have the best been in recent years?
This might be seen as a cousin to my earlier posts on hitters having bad months in good seasons (and the flip side), although it was not intended that way. I simply saw Shields and other pitchers having good seasons and then having one terrible start out of nowhere and wondered just how bad it could get in a great year.
Wanting to narrow the scope, I found at the three best seasons by WAR since 2003. In each of those seasons, I found each of those pitcher’s worst game by Game Score. It is not a scientific method, but the point is not some precise ranking. I was simply looking for three interesting anecdotal examples. So here are the worst starts during three of the best seasons by starting pitchers in the last decade.
3. Justin Verlander arguably has had better years since 2009 (according to RA as opposed to FIP), but either way, 2009 was the first season in which he moved from being good being elite. Verlander dramatically improved both his walk rate (down under seven percent when he had been around eight to ten percent in earlier seasons) and strikeout rate (up to over 27 percent when he had only been above 20 percent once in his prior seasons, Verlander has not really come close to that rate since). Whatever one makes of Verlander’s improvement on balls in play since, in some ways Verlander has never been better than he was in 2009.
Verlander’s 2009 did not start out all the well, though. The Tigers opened the season in Toronto on April 6, and Verlander had trouble right from the start. After getting two outs in the bottom of the first, he gave up a walk, a double, another single, hit a batter, and then another double leading to four runs. He made it through the third without giving up anything more, but in the fourth Verlander gave up a homer, a triple, a double, and a walk before being replaced. Verlander ended up going three and two-thirds, and while he did strike out four batters in the short appearance, he also gave up two walks and eight hits, including a home run. He was charged with eight earned runs. His Game Score ended up being 15. It was a dreadful start to the year, but he seemed to end up being all right.
2. After a few up and down years, in 2008 Zack Greinke showed that he could be an excellent, perhaps ace-level starter. However, I doubt anyone anticipated what he would do in 2009. Greinke was clearly the best pitcher (and arguably the most valuable player period) in baseball during 2009, sporting a 2.16 ERA and 2.33 FIP over 229 dominating innings. Greinke has mostly been very good since then (and is off to an awesome start this seasno), but has not come close to that year since, an issue that might be interesting in itself. No matter how one looks on it in the context of Greinke’s career trajectory, Greinke’s 2009 was one of the best seasons by a pitcher in the last decade. Greinke winning the Cy Young in 2009 seemed almost anticlimactic, given the obviousness of the choice.
Coming into his start in Toronto on June 5, Greinke had pretty much destroyed everything in his path. He had stumbled a bit in his previous game against Cleveland on May 31, giving up four runs (three earned), if one considered going seven innings, striking out seven, and giving up no walks or home runs “stumbling.” Things definitely went off the rails against the Blue Jays. Greinke at least managed to get through five innings, but that is pretty much where the good news stopped. Greinke was let down by some errors (ah, remember the Jose Guillen years for Kansas City?), but he also gave up multiple extra base hits, including home runs to Lyle Overbay and Adam Lind. In those five innings, he struck out three, walked one, and gave up nine hits (including those two home runs), resulting in seven runs (five earned) for a Game Score of 27.
Side note: we had tickets for the game in advance, but I woke up the day or two before with a a big of “indigestion” that turned out to be appendicitis. Needless to say, we did not make it to the game. My wife called the Blue Jays later and told them what had happened. The Jays ticket office actually gave us games to a game later in the season, which was very nice of them.
1. Randy Johnson had a few good years after 2004, but 2004 was his last truly great season in a career that had many of them. Despite being in his late thirties as the decade began, Johnson was still arguably the best pitcher of the 00s. Johnson had a disappointing, injury-marred 2003, but came back with a vengeance the next year, pitching 245 innings with a strikeout rate over 30 percent and a walk rate under give percent. his ERA- was 57 and his FIP- was 48. Given that Johnson had at least three or four other seasons just as good or even better earlier in his career, readers probably do not need to be told that Johnson is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Fun fact: Johnson did not win the National League Cy Young in 2004, some guy named Roger Clemens did.
Even during the perhaps the best season by a pitcher in recent memory, Johnson threw up a clunker. And it was not exactly against the 1927 Yankees, either. On June 18, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays came to town. That’s right: not the Rays, but the Devil Rays. It is not as if the 2004 Devil Rays were totally hapless at the plate. Aubrey Huff was a pretty good hitter, and even Tino Martinez had a decent year. But they still ended up in the bottom third of the the majors in wRC+.
Perhaps Johnson’s start was not as disastrous as Verlander or Greinke versus Toronto, but it was pretty bad. He managed to go six innings, which probably disqualifies it from being a total disaster. Striking out four and walking one over six innings might be terrible by Johnson’s standards, but for most pitchers that would not in itself be terrible. He only gave up one home run. Still, when one adds in eight hits and five runs over those six innings, it was definitely a bad start for any pitcher: a Game Score of 39.
If even a Hall of Famer in one of his best years can have a start like that, anyone can.
The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced last April by the present author, wherein that same ridiculous author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own heart to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.
Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from all of three notable preseason top-100 prospect lists* and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. Players appearing on the midseason prospect lists produced by those same notable sources or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.
*In this case, those produced by Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, and our own Marc Hulet.
In the final analysis, the basic idea is this: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.
Taylor Cole, RHP, Toronto (Profile)
Probably wrong math by the author indicates that no prospect both (a) omitted from a preseason top-100 list and also (b) currently pitching at High-A or above has recorded a regressed kwERA (a metric occasionally referred to as SCOUT in these electronic pages) better than Taylor Cole’s. One finds that Ben Lively (featured below) has actually produced both a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate in more innings than Cole. What else one finds, though, is that relative to league Cole’s performance is superior. Indeed, the average strikeout rate in the Florida State League (to which Cole’s Dunedin Blue Jays belong) is considerably lower than any other league’s, as the following table (which also includes walk rates) illustrates.
# League Lev IP TBF K% BB%
1 National MLB 4362.1 18379 21.1% 7.8%
2 Carolina A+ 1945.0 8398 21.0% 8.8%
3 California A+ 2879.2 12472 21.0% 9.0%
4 International AAA 3666.2 15835 20.8% 9.6%
5 American MLB 4188.2 18048 20.1% 8.9%
6 Pacific Coast AAA 4302.2 18878 19.9% 8.8%
7 Texas AA 2205.0 9403 19.7% 9.1%
8 Southern AA 2705.0 11578 19.6% 9.3%
9 Eastern AA 2954.0 12713 19.0% 8.5%
10 Florida State A+ 3207.2 13750 18.1% 8.5%
As for Cole, himself, here’s a fact about him: he was a 29th-round selection by Toronto in the 2011 draft out of Brigham Young. Here’s another fact: before attending BYU, he participated in a two-year Mormon mission, which is why he skews old for his level. While no video of Cole exists from a start this year, reports from the internet suggest that, after reaching the mid-90s during college, Cole’s fastball sits at ca. 90 mph now. According to Cole himself, he’s focused on improving his slider of late — which perhaps is (and also maybe isn’t) an explanation for his improved numbers.
Ben Lively, RHP, Cincinnati (Profile)
It doesn’t constitute actual analysis, but is still pretty relevant to note, with regard to Ben Lively, that he currently leads all of every qualified minor-league pitcher in strikeout rate, at 38.4%. A fine distinction, is what that seems to be. “What” the author asked himself, however, “might that mean for Lively’s actual future?” — because it seems (anecdotally, at least) like some pitchers find some success in the minors by means (deception, polish) which don’t translate to the majors that well.
To get the most basic sense of the answer, what I did was merely to identify the top-three qualified minor-league starters by strikeout rate between 2006 and -08 (i.e. the earliest three years for which FanGraphs has complete minor-league data) who also recorded at least half their innings at High-A or above. Here are the players who meet that criteria, from 2006: Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, and Phil Hughes. And from 2007: Clay Buchholz, Gio Gonzalez, and Jake McGee. And from 2008: Tommy Hanson, David Hernandez, and Henry Rodriguez.
And here are their respective career numbers, sorted by WAR per every 150 innings (except for relievers, who are sorted by WAR per 65 innings):
Name IP K% BB% BABIP FIP- ERA- WAR WAR150
Gio Gonzalez 973.2 23.0% 10.4% .285 91 89 15.8 2.4
Clay Buchholz 776.2 18.1% 9.0% .282 94 84 12.3 2.4
Yovani Gallardo 1140.2 22.9% 8.9% .295 91 92 17.4 2.3
Matt Garza 1224.1 20.0% 7.9% .289 97 94 18.6 2.3
Phil Hughes 815.0 19.7% 7.2% .295 101 107 11.7 2.2
Tommy Hanson 708.0 21.6% 8.3% .292 98 97 9.4 2.0
Jake McGee 165.1 29.1% 7.8% .276 77 82 2.8 1.1
David Hernandez 380.2 23.2% 10.0% .275 101 98 3.6 0.6
Henry Rodriguez 148.2 22.2% 15.1% .277 104 109 0.0 0.0
Average 703.2 22.2% 9.4% .285 95 95 10.2 1.8
Median 776.2 22.2% 8.9% .285 97 94 11.7 2.2
The results: a not very bad collection of pitchers. All nine, for example, have pitched at the major-league level. Six of the nine (including Hanson) have averaged at least two wins per season. One of them (Rodriguez) never really had, and still doesn’t have, command. In summary, the data bodes well for Lively, should he continue his current pace
Michael Reed, OF, Milwaukee (Profile)
It’s probably true what Socrates says — about the unexamined life being not worth living. What he omits to mention, however, is that some lives are probably more interesting to examine than others. The author’s? Not so much. Michael Reed‘s, however? Probably moreso — insofar, at least, as he’s produced one of the absolute best defense-independent batting lines in the minors relative to his league. Here, first, is that line: 127 PA, 23.6% BB, 15.0% K. And now here’s how his age (21) compares to the average age of other batters in the High-A Florida State League: below it. And here’s a defensive position he’d probably be playing more of (and playing competently) were he not teammates with Tyrone Taylor: center field. Finally, here’s a notable fact with regard to Reed: he was omitted not just from the relevant top-100 lists, but also even Baseball America’s top-30 organizational list (for a Brewers system, it should be noted, ranked second-to-last).
Ryan Rua, 3B, Texas (Profile)
Originally a 17th-round selection in the 2011 draft out of whatever the opposite of a Baseball Powerhouse is, Rua surprised probably everyone last season by hitting 29 home runs in 430 plate appearances before earning a late-season promotion to Double-A. That he did so as a 23-year-old in the Class-A Sally League was cause merely for subdued (as opposed to “very raucous”) enthusiasm; however, as documented in some depth by Nathaniel Stoltz last June, Rua — who made the majority of his starts in 2013 at second base — was not without promise, either. A year later and playing third base exclusively, Rua surprisingly hasn’t regressed at all. In fact, whatever he’s conceded in terms of home run, he’s compensated for by a considerable improvement in his plate-discipline numbers. After recording walk and strikeout rates of 11.4% and 21.2%, respectively, last season, Rua has preserved his walk rate (11.9%) in 2014 while reducing his strikeouts (16.1%).
In the event that the reader were interested in consuming footage of Rua hitting a home run during a recent game, then this animated GIF would seem to be the metaphorical ticket:
Thomas Shirley, LHP, Houston (Profile)
Despite producing less-than-dominant numbers in one of the two starts he’s made since last week’s appearance among the Five, Shirley continues to possess one of the best defense-independent lines among minor-league pitchers, having recorded strikeout and walk rates of 28.9% and 5.5%, respectively, in 33.2 innings. An inspection of video from those two most recent starts — which corroborates other footage of Shirley to have appeared in these pages — reveals that Shirley generated a lot (maybe all?) of his strikeouts by means of the fastball.
Like this one strikeout against Yeison Asencio from his most recent start:
Shirley FA Asencio SS K 4th
And like this other strikeout from that start — in this case, against Lee Orr:
Shirley FA Orr SS K 5th
An entirely helpful interview with Shirley conducted by Jayne Hansen of Astros prospect site What the Heck, Bobby? addresses Shirley’s fastball usage very tidily:
WTH: Can you tell me a little about your pitch repertoire?
TS: I throw obviously a fastball. My fastball has a natural cutting movement to it. Velocity in the first part of the season was probably 88 to 91 or 92, but maybe two months into the season, my velocity really jumped up and I was [sitting] 90 or 92 to 94 and hit 96 a few times. I also throw a changeup and a curveball. I use the curveball more as an out pitch than the changeup, but guys, for whatever reason, have a tough time with my fastball so I [use that as an out pitch a lot].
It is not an instance of groundbreaking analysis to suggest that using a fastball as one’s primary outpitch tends not to be an entirely successful strategy in the majors. Were Shirley to develop either of his secondary pitches to the point where they induced swings and misses reliably, that would be of some benefit to him.
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Andrew Aplin, OF, Houston (Double-A Texas League)
Adam Duvall, 3B, San Francisco (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Robert Kral, C, San Diego (Double-A Texas League)
Billy McKinney, OF, Oakland (High-A California League)
Danny Winkler, RHP, Colorado (Double-A Texas League)
Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here are all the players to have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season. For mostly arbitrary reasons, players are assessed three points for each week they’ve appeared among the Fringe Five; a single point, for each week among the Next Five.
Name Team POS FF NF PTS
Josh Hader Astros LHP 4 0 12
Robert Kral Padres C 3 2 11
Jace Peterson Padres SS 3 0 9
Thomas Shirley Astros LHP 3 0 9
Ben Lively Reds RHP 2 1 7
Jose Ramirez Indians 2B/SS 2 0 6
Aaron West Astros RHP 1 2 5
Adam Duvall Giants 3B 1 1 4
Cameron Rupp Phillies C 1 0 3
Dario Pizzano Mariners OF 1 0 3
Michael Reed Brewers OF 1 0 3
Ryan Rua Rangers 3B 1 0 3
Taylor Cole Blue Jays RHP 1 0 3
Tsuyoshi Wada Cubs LHP 1 0 3
Andrew Aplin Astros OF 0 2 2
Billy Mckinney Athletics OF 0 2 2
Bryan Mitchell Yankees RHP 0 2 2
Tommy La Stella Braves 2B 0 2 2
Billy Burns Athletics OF 0 1 1
Brett Eibner Royals OF 0 1 1
Chris Taylor Mariners SS 0 1 1
Danny Winkler Rockies RHP 0 1 1
Darnell Sweeney Dodgers MI 0 1 1
Edwar Cabrera Rangers LHP 0 1 1
Roberto Perez Indians C 0 1 1
Seth Mejias-Brean Reds 3B 0 1 1
Stephen Landazuri Mariners RHP 0 1 1
Tim Cooney Cardinals LHP 0 1 1
Tyler Goeddel Rays 3B 0 1 1
Race, racism and sports have been at the top of the news cycle for several weeks, thanks to Donald Sterling. But if you look deep enough, they’re in the news cycle every day.
The undercurrent bubbled to the surface among baseball writers this week, when San Francisco Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area penned a column lamenting the Atlanta Braves’ decision to leave 20-year-old Turner Field in downtown Atlanta at the end of the 2016 season for a shiny new ballpark to built at considerable taxpayer expense in Cobb County, a suburb just north of the city limits. Baggarly didn’t pull punches.
If the grading and construction and everything else goes to schedule, the Braves will make their white-flight move – and yes, that’s precisely what it is — in 2017.
This is outrageous. I don’t live within 2,000 miles of Atlanta and I am outraged.
Why are the Braves moving? Braves president John Schuerholz, in a taped statement that sounded thoroughly vetted and polished, cited difficulty with fan access at Turner Field along with lease that is expiring in three years and explained how millions in upgrades wouldn’t have come close to “improving the fan experience.”
“We wanted to find a location that is great for our fans, makes getting to and from the stadium much easier, and provides a first rate experience in and around our stadium,” he said.
I’ll leave you to wonder which fans they care about.
The Braves’ new ballpark might make financial sense. It might be too sweetheart to turn down. But every baseball ownership group should see itself as stewards for the franchise and the community, both those who are economically important and those who are less so. And that’s what makes this wasteful flight to Cobb County such a disappointment. It just feels wrong.
Strong words from an outsider, albeit one with some family ties to Georgia, as Baggarly explains, but not an unreasonable take. The Braves are the only MLB franchise in the Old South, and with a broadcast area that covers all of Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, most of Alabama and part of North Carolina and Tennessee as you can see on this map.
The Braves say they recognize the importance of Atlanta to the Civil Rights Movement and of baseball in advancing the cause of racial equality. That’s why the team now holds it’s own Heritage Weekend — separate from the MLB’s annual Civil Rights Game — which includes seminars and clinics for local youth featuring Braves players. The team celebrated Heritage Weekend last weekend with the Giants in town, and the teams wore throwback uniforms honoring the teams from the Negro Leagues.
Still, while players wore the uniforms, the Braves public address system pumped in the music for the Tomahawk Chop, the faux “war chant” Braves fans make with a chopping arm motion when the team has done or is about to do something good on the field. And as much as the Braves celebrate their connection to the Civil Rights Movement, they embrace the Tomahawk Chop.
There’s not a hint of irony in that video, not even a recognition that the Tomahawk Chop is seen and felt as racially insensitive by many Native Americans, as a caricatured imitation of a culturally and ethnically important part of their history. Look closely at the video, and you’ll see white fans dressed in the kind of Native American “costumes” that used to be popular on Halloween. Today, in 2014, we’re much more sensitive to the pain such “war paint” and “war chants” cause our fellow citizens — and yet, they persist. We only have to look as far as Cleveland on Opening Day of the Indians season, when this photo made the rounds on Twitter:
Here’s one of those times when the phrase “Only in Cleveland” is actually an understatement. #Cleveland #Indians pic.twitter.com/rFlzrqNz4q
— Cleveland Frowns (@ClevelandFrowns) April 4, 2014
Several readers have probably skipped to the comments by now to lambaste me for calling the Braves a racist organization. I do not believe Braves executives or the owner — the media conglomerate Liberty Media — have acted with intent to harm African-Americans or to exclude them from the Braves community. But there’s a question of whether the Braves’ move to Cobb County will have that effect, unintended or otherwise.
Craig Calcaterra of NBC’s HardballTalk had his take on Andrew Baggarly’s column and, while sympathetic to Baggarly’s view, concluded that the Braves were like any other sports franchise in following the money trail.
Beyond that, though, what the Braves are doing is remarkably similar to that which other teams have done and will always do, the San Francisco Giants (which Baggarly covers) included: they have gone to where the money is. Or, at the very least, to where the people with the money are. And where those people happen to be and what those people happen to look like are a function of forces far more powerful than that which any one baseball team can muster or control.
That’s true to a point, if you accept that a team has done all in its marketing and outreach power to build fanbase that reflects the racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity of its surrounding communities. Maybe the Braves have done that. Maybe they haven’t.
And it’s not entirely true that the San Francisco Giants “went where the money was” when they moved from Candlestick Park to AT&T Park in 2000. Calcaterra claims the Giants moved to SOMA (South of Market) just as the first tech boom was bringing young people with cash to that part of the city. In reality, the Giants identified the site for AT&T Park in 1994 and announced their intention to build a ballpark there at the end of 1995, according to Staci Slaughter, the Giants’ senior vice president of communications and senior adviser to the CEO. Netscape Communications — the company behind the first publicly available web browser — had just gone public. The commercialization of the web — which became known as the Dot Com Boom — hadn’t yet materialized, certainly not in Mission Bay, the neighborhood surrounding the AT&T Park site. When the Giants broke ground on the park, that part of the city was still largely undeveloped, post-industrial property.
The Giants chose that location for a variety of reasons, not the least of which included several failed attempts to move to Santa Clara County, a move voters rejected multiple times. But once the team decided to stay in San Francisco, Slaughter says, they wanted a location that would be easily accessible via public transportation for their entire ethnically- and racially-diverse fan base, something Candlestick Park never offered.
Did the area surrounding AT&T Park blossom into a high-tech corridor? Yes, for a period of time, during the Dot Com Boom, and again with what folks here called 2.0, with the Dot Com Bust and the Great Recession sandwiched in between. But the Giants didn’t chase money that was already there. Arguably, they brought at least some of the money to the neighborhood when they built the ballpark without much in the way of government funds or help.
This is not a post to criticize the Braves and applaud the Giants or to set those two franchises on opposite ends of a racial-sensitivity spectrum. The Giants are in the business to make money and win championships as much as the Braves are. And in pursuit of those goals, the Giants haven’t acted charitably toward their neighbors, the Oakland Athletics, as the two continue to fight over whether the A’s can move to San Jose. At the same time, the Braves showcase an outfield of three African-American players (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward) at a time of dwindling numbers of African-Americans in professional baseball. The Giants have no African-Americans on their roster, a noticeable absence for a team that has featured Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Barry Bonds.
Still, as the Donald Sterling situation highlights, there is an inter-connectedness between race, economics and sports. And it’s fair to question whether sports teams should take that inter-connectedness into account when making decisions that will significantly affect the franchise, the fans and the community.
Santiago (or really any pitcher who does this) is a ******* moron. You have a guy on second with two outs and a speedy guy like Gardner on base. Gardner hits a slow roller in front of home plate. Why risk even throwing it? Guy isn't scoring from second and most pitchers are such horrible fielders, they're going to **** that up at least 50% of the time. Run the risk of getting your first baseman hurt.