Justin Masterson’s Immaculate Inning (And Then Some).Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Last summer, I saw Joey Votto pop out.
I traveled to Chicago, as I do every summer, to enjoy the city and catch a couple Cubs games at Wrigley Field. The Cincinnati Reds were in town and Jeff Samardzija was pitching for the Cubs. In Votto’s first at-bat against Samardzija, he doubled. In his second at-bat, Votto walked. But in the fourth inning, Samardzija got Votto to pop out to third base. I immediately recognized what had happened. Nobody I was with quite understood why I was so excited. I explained to them how Joey Votto doesn’t pop out to the infield. It ended up being his only infield fly of 2013. He did it one time in 2012. He did it one time in 2011. He didn’t do it at all in 2010.
I’ve been to a ton of baseball games. I’ve never seen a pitcher throw a perfect game, or even a no-hitter. I’ve never seen a batter hit for the cycle. But I have seen Joey Votto pop out. And as lame as it may sound, I contend that pop out is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen at a baseball game in person, alongside Greg Maddux‘s 3,000th strikeout, Manny Ramirez hitting three homers and Lou Pineilla kicking his hat all over the infield.
After attending Monday’s game in Cleveland between the Indians and the Boston Red Sox, I can add another statistical quirk to the list of coolest things I’ve seen in person at a baseball game: an Immaculate Inning.
Unlike Votto’s pop out, I didn’t even notice it had happened. Justin Masterson had struggled mightily with his command in the first three innings, needing 28 pitches to get out of the first and 21 more to get through the second. After three innings, he had already thrown 62 pitches and just 31 of them had been strikes. Though he hadn’t conceded a run, it was apparent to anyone watching the game that, up until that point, Masterson didn’t have his best stuff.
Before the start of the fourth inning, I turned to my buddy Casey and said, “He could really use about a nine-pitch inning right now.” It looked like he might not even make it through the fifth with how high his pitch count had climbed and I simply implied that he needed a quick inning if he were to work deep into the game. Though I failed to realize it when it happened, lo and behold, Justin Masterson granted my wish:
Facing Jonny Gomes, Masterson leads off the fourth inning with a sinker in the strike zone. This was big for Masterson, because he basically hadn’t done this all game. This was the 31st sinker Masterson had thrown in the game, and just the second one that was actually in the strike zone. See for yourself Masterson’s sinkers through the first three innings, thanks to Baseball Savant:
Masterson throws his sinker more than any other pitch – about half the time – so establishing the ability to command it for a first-pitch strike, or a strike at all, is important.
Masterson comes back with his bread-and-butter pitch: the slider. Masterson’s slider ranks as the sixth-most valuable pitch since the start of 2013 season, and this is pretty much exactly what he wants to do with it.
Again, the intent is a slider low and away and, again, Masterson executes it perfectly for the first strikeout of the inning. This pitch is unhittable to a right-handed batter and the leading reason Justin Masterson is a successful, rich athlete. To a right-handed batter, it looks like a slow meatball right down the middle of the plate until the moment you start to swing and it falls off the table. As long as Masterson puts it right there, he’s going to get good results.
Next up is Grady Sizemore and Masterson, again, starts him off with a sinker in the zone for a called strike. This brings his total of sinkers in the strike zone to 3-out-of-32.
Masterson mixes it up and throws a four-seam fastball up and in to Sizemore, who fouls it off his oft-injured right knee, momentarily stopping the heart of all those within the Red Sox organization. 0-2.
Masterson throws the same pitch to Sizemore that he threw to Gomes for strike three and its just as effective on the lefty as it is the righty. From 2010-2012, Masterson struck out just 13.3% of left-handed batters he faced and allowed a .346 wOBA. In 2013, Masterson upped his K-rate to 19.4% and allowed just a .316 wOBA, largely due to his improved use of his slider against lefties. This is essentially the very pitch that helped turn Masterson from a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher into a front-end starter last season.
Another four-seam fastball spotted perfectly for strike one against Stephen Drew, who was making just his second plate appearance of the season.
On an 0-1 count, he throws a back door slider, the first of its type in the inning, and it catches the outside corner of the plate to put Drew behind 0-2. At this point we’ve more or less seen Masterson execute every pitch in his arsenal: low sinkers and elevated fastballs for strikes to get ahead in the count, sliders both back door and out of the zone to put them away.
Then, for the third consecutive batter, Masterson throws a two-strike slider in the exact same location for a swinging strike three. Yan Gomes makes a nice block to ensure that Masterson’s three strikeouts actually end the inning, and Justin Masterson successfully makes history, despite both him and I not yet knowing it.
Per MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian:
“I didn’t know it was nine pitches,” he said. “I knew I punched out the side. [Pitching coach Mickey Callaway] said, ‘I think you should do that every time.’ That sounds great. No, in the moment, I didn’t realize it. I just realized it was strike, strike, see you.”
But Masterson wasn’t done there.
Following his nine-pitch immaculate inning, Masterson got Jackie Bradley, Jr. down in the count 0-1 before he lined out to center field. Next, Brock Holt got down 0-1 and fouled off two pitches before grounding back to the pitcher. Xander Bogaerts struck out on four pitches after fouling one off and Justin Masterson had another 1-2-3 inning, this time with just one strikeout, but still needing only 11 pitches – all strikes.
In the sixth, Masterson started things off by striking out Dustin Pedroia on three pitches. He then got a first-pitch swinging strike on a slider against David Ortiz before this happened:
After 25 pitches, the streak was over. Masterson threw an 0-1 sinker to Ortiz and it just missed the outer edge of the plate. The research is a little foggy, but according to Bastian, Masterson’s 25 consecutive strikes are the most since Scott Diamond‘s 26 on June 24, 2012. That same year, Bartolo Colon threw 38 consecutive strikes.
But Bartolo Colon throws strikes as often as any pitcher in baseball. Masterson doesn’t have great command to begin with and this was a game in which he threw 31 of his first 62 pitches for balls. Then he just rattled off an immaculate inning plus 15 more strikes like it was nothing. Take a look at this plot of his pitches from innings 1-3 and then 4-6 and you clearly see two different Justin Mastersons:
Through the first three innings, Masterson couldn’t throw his main pitch for a strike and it looked like he might not make it out of the fifth. He ended up striking out 10 batters over seven scoreless innings and became the 70th pitcher in MLB history – and first Indian – to throw an immaculate inning.
Go to a baseball game. You might not see a no-hitter or a player hit for the cycle, but you could see Joey Votto pop out! And even if Joey Votto isn’t playing, you’re always just nine pitches away from seeing an immaculate inning.
Sinkers, Change-ups and Platoon Splits.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
You’re a pitcher? You need a change-up.
That automatic response seems reasonable enough given the state of modern pitching analysis. You’ve probably heard it plenty of times about pitchers like Justin Masterson or Chris Archer. After all, the change breaks away from opposite-handed hitters and helps pitchers neutralize platoon threats.
But you know what? There’s another pitch that breaks away from opposite-handed hitters: the two-seamer or the sinker, whatever you want to call it. And yet lefties love sinkers from righties. So why do two pitches with similar movement have such different results?
It’s not that change-ups and sinkers are exactly the same, but arm-side run is a rare thing, and they share it. In fact, look across the league at the average horizontal movement, and you might notice something.
RHP Two-Seamer Cutter Splitter Sinker Slider Curve Change
X-Movement -8.2 0.6 -5.4 -8.5 2.6 5.6 -6.5
The sinker and the change-up are the only pitches that have arm-side run, really. The splitter is a change-up for all intents and purposes (often called a split-change), and the two-seamer and sinker are similar if not the same pitch.
And yet the platoon splits on the two pitches are fairly different. Lefties had a .767 OPS against sinkers from right-handers last year, while they only managed a .713 OPS against change-ups from right-handers last year. Here’s the long version, with the league average platoon split added so that you can see that these two pitches work differently in practice.
AVG OBP SLG OPS
Sinker v RHB 0.245 0.329 0.364 0.693
Sinker v LHB 0.258 0.363 0.404 0.767
League Ave v LHB 0.259 0.329 0.412 0.741
Change v RHB 0.231 0.314 0.380 0.694
Change v LHB 0.240 0.330 0.383 0.713
I thought I’d ask a few pitchers about the phenomenon.
Rick Porcello actually developed a curve ball last season because he saw that his sinker and change-up were so similar. Having two primary pitches with the same movement “just makes it easier for hitters to hang out over the plate and go the other way,” Porcello said before a game with the Athletics in May. “It just looks too much like the same thing all the time.” Developing the curveball gave him a different break, and a pitch that was 10 mph to 14 mph slower than his fastball (his change-up only comes in 6-8 mph slower).
Sean Doolittle has been dominant with one pitch, and he’s throwing the slider a bit more this season, but the A’s new closer would still like to throw a change-up. Yes, both pitches run away from the opposite hand (in Doolittle’s case, the righties), but there’s something different about the way batters see the change-up. They try to get out there with their bat, and then… “they run out of bat,” said Doolittle. The combination of speed and movement means that they can’t wait long enough, and there’s no contact to be made once the pitch gets to the plate.
Brandon McCarthy has long sought a change-up ever since he dropped his original change-piece and went over to a steady diet of sinkers. He thought the main difference was the change in speed. “A change-up is still a change-up — it’s just supposed to be not there, whether it’s missing completely or it’s just off the end.”
Could a pitcher just throw the two-seamer slower? McCarthy thought that his teammate Trevor Cahill does that with some success, and the velocity chart on his sinker does show an eight mph spread on the pitch. But that’s a singular skill, as McCarthy himself admitted. Maintaining similar arm speeds on different pitches is hard enough to do without actively trying to throw one of the pitches at two different speeds.
It’s obvious that change of speed is part of the equation, but not every change-up and fastball pairing features a large gap in velocity. Felix Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg both own top-five change-ups, and their gaps (3.0 and 6.4 mph respectively) don’t fit the conventional wisdom that desires a ten-mph gap between the two pitches. Of course, Harry Pavlidis has shown us that hard, firm change-ups have their place (ground balls), but it goes to show that velocity doesn’t explain everything.
Brian Bannister says the y axis is a big part of the change-up’s success: “A two-seamer usually is a flatter spin-axis derivative of a pitcher’s standard four-seam fastball. A change-up can be a completely different pitch entirely.” But two-seamers are tough to throw effectively, Bannister adds. “Hitters like pitches with backspin because they want to hit the bottom half of the ball,” he says. “Very few pitchers who try to throw two-seamers are able to put the necessary sink on the ball to be successful at the major-league level. To most hitters, an average two-seamer is just a slower four-seamer. The pitcher doesn’t gain much of an advantage by throwing it because it only adds some lateral movement. However, almost all pitchers are eventually able to develop some form of change-up that reduces velocity, reduces spin, and/or adds random movement to the ball, and this can drive hitters crazy.”
To Bannister’s point, let’s look at the vertical movement for those same pitches from righties. That same table from above, revisited for the y axis.
RHP Two-Seamer Cutter Splitter Sinker Slider Curve Change
Y-Movement 6.3 6.1 2.9 4.3 1.4 -5.6 4.3
Another surprise. Change-ups, on average, have the same vertical movement as sinkers as well as similar horizontal movement.
Back to velocity, then? Even the average change-up goes 83.2 compared to today’s average fastball at 91.6.
Porcello felt the change-up’s excellence was about that difference, about timing. Thinking about hitters, the Tigers’ pitchers said that “all their timing comes off the fastball — you’re timed to hit the fastball.” And it’s no surprise there’s a bigger platoon split on the fastball, according to Porcello; “Overall, hitters hit fastballs better than any other pitches — but when they’re worried about your good fastball, they can’t sit on your offspeed stuff, because then they can eat you up with fastballs.”
Let’s add one pitch back into the equation that should help put all of this into focus. The four-seam fastball. The most-thrown pitch in baseball actually has six inches of arm-side run on average, meaning that the difference between a two-seamer and a four-seamer is maybe less than we assume.
That similarity, and perhaps the hitting approach that is timed to the fastball and doesn’t leave enough bat for a change-up on the outside, seem to suggest that the change of speed — with the same arm speed — is the major separator between the two-seamer from the change-up.
To some extent, that’s surprising. After all, when you think of the best change-ups, you think of the darting, diving, off-the-table movement. But the (relative) number on the radar gun might be even more important, especially if you’re a righty pitching to a lefty.
Prospect Watch: NL West Prospects.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Recently, I wrote about the Diamondbacks’ intriguing third base prospect Brandon Drury. He’s not the only young player worth monitoring at the hot corner. Jake Lamb‘s bat has woken up after a slow start to the 2014 season at the Double-A level. He’s now up to a triple-slash line of .307/.385/.545 and the left-handed hitter is producing a .900+ OPS against both left- and right-handed pitching.
Of his 62 hits to date, 21 of them have gone for doubles and another seven have gone over the fence. Lamb has been steadier on defence than the aforementioned Drury (who’s currently one step behind in High-A ball with an .884 OPS). The off-season trade of yet another third base prospect Matt Davidson has helped to clear some of the log jam at third base. Drury is due to be added to the 40-man roster this November (to protect him from the Rule 5 draft) while Lamb doesn’t have to be added until after the ’15 season despite being one step ahead on the depth chart.
Both top pitching prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler continue to pitch well at the Double-A level. Gray has a 3.86 ERA in 10 starts but the fly-ball-heavy approach (39 GB%) is a little worrisome considering his home ball park will be in Colorado once he reaches the Majors. Butler, on the other hand, has been a little bit more durable while producing his 2.49 ERA in 11 appearances. He’s also utilizes the ground-ball a lot more effectively (47 GB%).
Shortstop prospect Trevor Story entered the 2013 season as one of the top prospects in the system but he fell on his face at the High-A ball level before rebounding a little bit at the end of the season to pull his OPS up to .700. He returned to the same level in 2014 and it’s been a totally different, er, story. The infielder is now slashing .323/.410/.543 through his first 43 games and a promotion should be in the near future. Story doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2015 season so the Rockies have some time to figure out exactly what the club has with the 21-year-old prospect.
Los Angeles Dodgers
With the 2014 amateur draft just a day away, all eyes are on the new crop of draft picks. The Dodgers’ ’13 draft class, now in the rearview mirror, is off to a slow start. The club’s top pick — college pitcher Chris Anderson, selected 18th overall — has been roughed up in High-A ball. The right-hander has produced a 5.96 ERA with 56 hits and 27 walks allowed in 48.1 innings of work. To be fair, though, he’s been pitching in a league that favors hitters in most parks.
Another former first round pick, Chris Reed has enjoyed his season in Double-A. The 24-year-old right-hander has allowed just 54 hits in 70.2 innings of work, although he’s struggled at times with his command and control. The lefty may not be far from his first big league promotion and he has to be added to the 40-man roster by November of this year, anyway, to shield him from the Rule 5 draft.
Corey Seager, who I ranked as the club’s top prospect enter the 2014 season, is having another outstanding year. Just 20, the infielder is hitting .342/.395/.584 in 49 games at the High-A level. The youngster has generated a lot of pop. Of his 69 hits, 21 have gone for doubles, two for triples, and eight for home runs. Once he tightens up his control of the strike zone, Seager could be a monster — which is good news for his overall value since he’s likely to eventually shift from shortstop to third base.
San Diego Padres
The Padres’ top pitching prospect has had a rough go since his promotion from Double-A to Triple-A in May. The right-handed Matt Wisler struck out 35 batters with just six walks and a 2.10 ERA in six starts at the lower level before the promotion. Since then, in another six appearances, he’s struck out 22 hits with 11 walks and a 7.18 ERA. He’s also allowed 37 hits — including five home runs — in 26.1 innings. Double-A hitters went deep just twice in 30.0 innings.
A seventh round draft pick of the Padres in 2013 out of a California high school, Jake Bauers — not to be confused with Jack Bauer of ’24′ fame — had a solid but unspectacular debut in 2013. He then opened the 2014 season in extended spring training before earning a promotion to Low-A ball in later April. Just 18 years of age, the left-handed-hitting first baseman is hitting .357/.440/.557 through 33 games. Impressively, he’s struck out just 17 times in 115 at-bats and has a 1.293 OPS against southpaws.
San Francisco Giants
It’s been an ugly season for the development of some of the Giants’ most talented arms, which doesn’t bode well for an organization that leans heavily on the development of its pitchers:
Adalberto Mejia, ranked 3rd overall: 6.15 ERA with 52 hits in 45.1 innings, 10/38 BB/K
Martin Agosta, ranked 5th overall: 10.55 ERA with 35 hits in 21.1 innings, 17/16 BB/K
Joan Gregorio, ranked 7th overall: 6.75 ERA with 27 hits in 22.1 innings, 13/27 BB/K
Chris Stratton, ranked 10th overall: 5.09 ERA with 53 hits in 53.0 innings, 22/49 BB/K
Kyle Crick (1st overall) has pitched OK in Double-A but the 21-year-old hurler has seen his control take a step backward with 26 free passes in 34.0 innings while also dealing with injuries. Clayton Blackburn (8th overall) allowed 52 hits in 42.1 innings before hitting the disabled list.
Edwin Escobar (2nd overall) has had the most success of the pitchers in the Top 15 ranking. Even so, the left has allowed 73 hits in just 65.1 innings to go along with a 4.82 ERA.
Jose Bautista’s Counter-Shift.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
One of the remaining great unknowns is finding a reasonable way to evaluate the performances of coaches. With managers, we have only so much of the picture. It’s the same with hitting coaches and pitching coaches, and while sometimes we can credit a pitching coach for helping a guy learn a new pitch or smooth out his mechanics, hitting coaches are even more of a mystery. It would appear that teams haven’t even figured out who is and isn’t a worthwhile hitting coach, yet while their overall value isn’t known, one thing we can do is focus on individual cases. A team’s hitting coach won’t have the same effect on every hitter. In Toronto, one hitting coach has had a significant effect on one hitter.
Before the year, the Blue Jays added Kevin Seitzer, and one of Seitzer’s messages was stressing the importance of using the whole field. Seitzer came into a situation featuring Jose Bautista, who blossomed into a star by becoming an extreme pull power hitter. This season, Bautista has performed at a level well above what he did the previous two seasons. He’s back to what he was at his peak, yet he’s gotten there by following a different sort of path.
To review: between 2010-2013, there were 287 qualified position players. Bautista ranked fourth in wRC+, yet 12th-worst in BABIP. This season, out of 174 qualified position players, Bautista ranks fourth in wRC+, and when it comes to BABIP, he’s in the upper third. On its own, that’s interesting, but it could be noise. You have to dig deeper to confirm the presence of a signal.
Brendan Kennedy actually just wrote about this. I’m just going to put more numbers to it. Proof that Bautista’s a little different:
With opposing teams using the infield shift against him more and more, Jose Bautista says he is being “less stubborn and hard-headed” this season, adjusting his approach to hit balls to the opposite field.
He said he made the change after talking with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who was hired this off-season and arrived in Toronto preaching the gospel of hitting to all fields.
Bautista would run a low BABIP in part because he was focusing on fly balls, but also in part because he hit the ball most of the time to the left. So defenses responded to that, as Bautista became one of those righties who got shifted. The most oft-recommended way to beat the shift is to bunt, but it doesn’t work the same for righties as it does for lefties. Bautista’s working to beat the shift not by bunting, but by swinging and hitting the ball toward the area left vacant.
Here’s a pretty important chart:
When Jose Bautista became Jose Bautista, he started yanking the ball a lot more often. He consistently hit more than half of his balls in play toward left field. This year, his pull rate is down from over 52% to under 44%, and his opposite-field rate is up from 18% to over 25%. Bautista says he’s made a conscious adjustment, and the numbers demonstrate as much, unmistakably.
Last season, 400 players hit at least 100 balls fair. Bautista ranked 14th in pull rate, and 379th in opposite-field rate. This season, 215 players have hit at least 100 balls fair. Bautista ranks 79th in pull rate, and 110th in opposite-field rate. Of the 199 players to have hit at least 100 balls fair in both 2013 and 2014, Bautista’s got the ninth-biggest pull-rate drop. All the pull power is still there — Bautista is still lethal as half of the Bautista/Edwin Encarnacion tandem — but sometimes, now, Bautista’s willing to try to do something else.
A drop in pull rate isn’t always a good thing. One of the biggest drops belongs to Domonic Brown, and he’s been a disaster. But unlike Brown, Bautista isn’t missing his power, as he’s hitting the ball toward right on purpose.
How about a couple examples? Here’s one from early May, and one from later May.
hat’s unclear is how much of this Bautista can do on the fly, and whether he has to prepare to go the other way beforehand. I don’t know if he can make his decision when the pitch is on its way. But there’s no arguing with the overall results of his process to date — he’s taken advantage of mistake pitches, and he’s also taken advantage of specific defensive alignments. As one of the best hitters in baseball, we can conclude that Bautista has tremendous bat control. Blessed with tremendous bat control, it shouldn’t be a shock that Bautista’s finding success toward right field.
Here’s what Bautista’s done going the other way:
Year(s) Average BABIP wRC+ LD% GB%
2010-2013 0.233 0.212 55 12% 21%
2014 0.419 0.405 182 21% 28%
Before, a third of his balls hit toward right were liners or grounders. This year, he’s at half, as more of those balls in play are intentional. So his success has skyrocketed. Among players with sufficient balls hit the other way this season, Bautista ranks 13th out of 84 in wRC+. In the past, even when he went the other way, he wasn’t good. Presumably, this is because he was trying to not go the other way. Now it’s a goal of his, and the results are following, because extreme defensive shifts leave open an extreme amount of space, and one doesn’t even need to hit the ball that well to take advantage.
What Bautista’s been before is a power hitter with limited success on fair balls that didn’t leave the yard. Now he’s a power hitter more able to spread the ball around, and while teams might continue to shift him as they’ve done, he’ll probably only continue to poke singles and doubles into the space when he’s able. I should note that, perhaps as an additional consequence, Bautista is running a career-low foul rate, and a career-high in-play rate. That might be unrelated, or that might be the result of Bautista looking to go wherever a given pitch might take him. In the past, he’s blamed emphasis on spraying the ball around for his foul balls, but he’s a different hitter now than he was before his Blue Jay days. He’s an elite hitter now, and an even better hitter in 2014 than he was in 2013.
Jose Bautista didn’t need Kevin Seitzer to be good. Jose Bautista was already really good. But with the help of Kevin Seitzer, Jose Bautista has started to do something he hadn’t done, and he’s returned to the uppermost tier of offensive nightmares. Not everyone is going to be able to defeat an extreme defensive shift. But then, not anyone is Jose Bautista.
The Marlins Live Down to Their Reputation.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
On Sunday, the Marlins made a head-scratching trade, acquiring reliever Bryan Morris from the Pirates in exchange for their Competitive Balance selection — #39 overall — in Thursday’s amateur draft. Morris does have some virtues as a very hard-throwing groundball guy who is decently effective against right-handed batters, but he also has a long list of flaws; his command is lousy, he can’t get left-handers out, and even used as a situational reliever, he’s been pretty terrible this year.
If you evaluate his Major League career solely by runs allowed, he’s been essentially a replacement level arm. If you evaluate that performance by metrics that predict ERA better than ERA itself, Morris has been one of the worst relief pitchers in all of baseball over the last year. Morris is somewhere between bad and unrosterable, and yet the Marlins gave up a draft pick that has some real value in exchange for a right-handed specialist who isn’t even all that great at that very niche job.
But on Monday, we found out why the Marlins made that trade. Rather than justifying the deal, however, the actual motivation for the move reinforces every negative perception about baseball’s worst organization.
On Monday, the Marlins signed free agent reliever Kevin Gregg, giving him the pro-rated portion of a $2.1 million salary for 2014. Because the deal only covers the final two-thirds of the season, he’ll receive $1.4 million in actual salary from the Marlins this year. Not coincidentally, $1.4 million is exactly the amount of money the Marlins saved by giving away the 39th pick in the draft.
The idea that the Marlins, a team that opened the year with a payroll of just $47.5 million, had to offset the acquisition cost of Kevin Gregg (!) by punting a valuable draft choice is patently ridiculous. Let us count the ways.
1. Like Morris, Kevin Gregg is also essentially a replacement level arm. Over the last three years, he’s been worth +0.0 WAR by runs allowed or -0.6 WAR by FIP. Of the 172 relievers to throw 100+ innings over the last three years, Gregg ranks 155th in ERA-, 159th in FIP-, and 165th in xFIP-. Unlike Morris, he doesn’t even have a large platoon split that can be leveraged for specific match-ups, as he’s just bad against everyone. He turns 36 in a few weeks. There’s no upside here, really; Kevin Gregg defines replacement level, which is why both teams who signed him last year gave him minor league deals, and why no one was beating down his door with a job offer over the winter.
2. It’s not like there weren’t other options. Vin Mazzaro isn’t appreciably worse than either Morris or Gregg, is earning a grand total of $950,000 in salary this year, and has already been designated for assignment by the Pirates twice this year. He cleared waivers in April, and is currently in “DFA limbo”, waiting to find out whether he cleared again. If the Marlins simply put in a waiver claim on Mazzaro, they could have owned his rights for the rest of the year for approximately $600,000. Want someone with better stuff than Mazzaro? Esmil Rogers was DFA’d and cleared waivers last week. The White Sox just released Frank Francisco if the team absolutely needed a guy with closer experience even though Steve Cishek is pitching well in the 9th inning. Gregg and Morris aren’t significantly better than any number of relievers who have been passed through waivers in the last few weeks.
3. The draft pick had real value. The 39th pick isn’t as likely to turn into a star as a top-10 selection, but the fact that most of those picks fail is offset by the upside of the guys who succeed. The best player ever selected 39th overall? Some guy named Barry Bonds; you might have heard of him. Historical draft studies have shown that the average return on a pick in the 30-40 range is about +3 WAR, and as Neal Hutington said when he traded away a similar pick last year, their calculations suggest that “there’s about a 15% chance of getting an everyday big-leaguer in the 30-to-40 pick range.” That isn’t something to just be discarded so that a team can add a couple of low value relief arms to their bullpen.
4. This might be point #4, but it’s the one that is particularly outrageous; there is absolutely no reason why the Marlins could not have afforded to both sign Gregg and keep the pick. While the first three points cover why trading the pick for Morris and Gregg is a bad use of resources, it was an entirely unnecessary cost-benefit analysis in the first place. As leaked financial documents have shown, the Marlins are quite a profitable enterprise, and that was before they scammed the city of Miami into building them a new ballpark to increase revenues even further.
The Marlins payroll ranks 29th in MLB, but more tellingly, they are $30 million below the Tampa Bay Rays, who come in 28th in spending this year. The Rays play in a terrible ballpark and average 3,000 fewer fans per game than the Marlins, and yet they still found $30 million more to spend than Jeffry Loria’s organization this year. And then when the Marlins show some promise, the front office is forced to finance the acquisition of a (psuedo) roster upgrade by dumping a valuable pick to keep the ledger tilted solely toward the owner’s profits?
Even when the Marlins are not an embarrassment on the field, they somehow find a way to remain one off of it. You can’t simultaneously argue that slashing payroll and going young is in the best interests of the organization’s future and then squander future assets because the owner isn’t willing to invest one dime more than necessary to upgrade the team in the short-term. The Marlins decisions over the years have created a picture of an organization that is run as an ATM for the Lorias first and foremost, with the baseball operations department being allowed to make moves so long as they don’t interfere with that priority. Moves like this only reinforce that perception. Moves like this are why MLB should be ashamed of the fact that they continue to let Jeffrey Loria own one of their franchises.
A.J. Pollock, Better Than You Think, Now Gone.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Who’s the best all-around center fielder in baseball? Well, that’s easy. It’s Mike Trout. I could give you a bunch of stats to illustrate that, but I won’t. It’s Mike Trout. Discussion over, at least on that point. Second-best? You can make a case for Carlos Gomez. You can also make a case for Andrew McCutchen. There’s not really a wrong answer there between the two. One gives you a bit more defense, one a bit more offense. No matter which one is No. 2 or No. 3, it’s safe to say that they’re the only two names there.
But after that, it gets a little more questionable. If this was two years ago, maybe Austin Jackson is in that conversation, but he’s well into his second consecutive year of decline from a great 2012, to the point that’s he’s playing like a replacement player right now. Colby Rasmus has his supporters, and he’s also got a .266 OBP. Lots of people like Adam Jones, and it’s hard to argue with the 55 homers he hit over 2012-13. He’s also been a below-average hitter in 2014. Jacoby Ellsbury probably belongs in the discussion, but his 98 wRC+ isn’t doing him any favors. Maybe you like Coco Crisp, although his once-stellar defense has collapsed in recent years.
I guess the point here is this: how many total names would you have to go through — Desmond Jennings, Lorenzo Cain, Denard Span, Juan Lagares, etc. — before you got to Arizona’s A.J. Pollock, who broke his hand over the weekend when Johnny Cueto hit him with a pitch? A dozen? More? And yet, Pollock is one of just five true center fielders worth six WAR since the start of 2013. (I’m discounting Shin-Soo Choo here, who isn’t a center fielder now and was merely trying to impersonate one last year.) If you prefer “over the last calendar year,” he’s still No. 5, behind the big three and Ellsbury. With 2.5 WAR through 50 games this year, he was on pace for 6 WAR in 2014 alone, and had been behind only Trout and Gomez before getting hurt.
As usual — or, at least, as should be usual — no one’s trying to make an indisputable value judgement based on WAR alone, and this isn’t meant to convince you that Pollock is better than, say, Ellsbury. But because Pollock plays on a team that both isn’t very popular nationwide and is mainly known in 2014 for being so awful that they’re trying to wedge Tony LaRussa into their front office structure, it’s pretty easy to see that Pollock has gone under the radar. (Unless you’re the guy in the swimming pool that a Pollock homer took out earlier this year. There’s no extra points in WAR for that, but there should be.)
For example, using the “last 30 days” split on our leaderboards, sorted by WAR:
1) Giancarlo Stanton, 2.3
2) Yasiel Puig, 2.1
3) Edwin Encarnacion, 2.0
4) Josh Donaldson, 1.9
4t) Pollock, 1.9
And while the standard reply is probably something along the lines of “yeah, well, Charlie Blackmon & Dee Gordon were both great for a month this year, too, and look what they did in May,” Pollock was a 2009 first-rounder who only needed 233 minor league games in 2011-12 (after missing all of 2010 with a broken elbow) to reach the big leagues, and managed 3.6 WAR in his first full season on the basis of league-average offense and stellar defense. Like so many other guys in the early part of the season, including Encarnacion, he’s not this good, but he still might be good.
The Diamondbacks, remember, bet in part on Pollock when they made their generally-panned moves to import Mark Trumbo and discard Adam Eaton this winter, expecting Trumbo to play left, Cody Ross in right, Pollock in center, and Gerardo Parra spotting in both center and right. That never really happened, of course, because Ross’ recovery from hip surgery delayed his 2014 debut, and he and Trumbo started all of two games together before Trumbo’s broken foot took him out of the lineup. That pushed Parra to right, Ross to left, and left Pollock alone in center.
Obviously, Pollock wasn’t going to sustain a .370 BABIP all year long, particularly as it appeared he’d begun to sell out a bit in search of more power, seeing his line drive rate decrease as his fly ball rate (and HR/FB% increased). It was working, mostly, because his six homers in 192 plate appearances was a considerably higher pace than the eight he had in 482 last season, though there’s probably a very thin line to be drawn between the fact that all six came at home and the fact that all would have been out of at least 23 parks. But while those numbers were all but certain to come back down, he was making up for it somewhat with signs of limiting his previously large platoon split, at least in the small sample size we have available to us.
This all matters, because while we all wrote the Diamondbacks off weeks ago — for good reason — they were at least beginning to show some respectable play, rebounding to play .500 ball since they bottomed out at 5-18. Now, with Trumbo still out, they’re down to starting outfielders Ender Inciarte and David Peralta, who spent 2006-07 as an A-ball pitcher with St. Louis, 2008-10 out of baseball, and 2011-13 in independent ball. It’s a problem for a team that had seemingly too many outfielders, and now not enough.
Now, they’re without a surprisingly good center fielder for the next two months or so, and this particular injury can be a tricky one. It’s been reported that Pollock fractured the hamate bone, and we’ve seen that before. Aaron Hill missed two months last year with a similar injury, although the upside here is that Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia and Pablo Sandoval (twice!) have all had hamate troubles, and all came back to be as productive as ever, after a time.
For the Diamondbacks, it’s already been a terrible season, with Patrick Corbin & J.J. Putz injured, Trevor Cahill booted from the rotation in favor of the likes of Michael Bolsinger, Zeke Spruill and Chase Anderson, Paul Goldschmidt doing well but not up to his 2014 pace, and no one else on offense other than Miguel Montero being even league-average. You wouldn’t have had to try very hard to make the case that Pollock was their best player, even if some amount of offense regression was coming. Now he’s gone until August at the least, by which time a lost season will be long past the point of interest.