The A’s, Royals, and Going For It.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
On Friday night, the A’s traded top prospect Addison Russell and some stuff for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Mike Petriello did a great job of writing up the transaction, highlighting the pros and cons on both sides of things. Well, at least on the A’s side, because getting a prospect of Russell’s quality basically leaves this as a deal with no real cons for the Cubs. It might or might not work out — the nature of baseball makes this true of every decision ever made — but landing an elite young middle infielder in exchange for a player who has out-priced his own value and a rent-a-veteran is a huge win for the Cubs.
In fact, the inclusion of Russell in the deal led some pretty smart folks to compare this trade to one of the more controversial trades in recent history.
Is it me, or did Billy Beane just make basically the same trade that Dayton Moore got eviscerated for 15 months ago?
— Matt Meyers (@mtmeyers) July 5, 2014
So, the A's just traded a consensus top 10 prospect for a 2 year shot at greatness. Therefore GMDM… uh I mean Billy Beane… is a genius.
— Russell A. Carleton (@pizzacutter4) July 5, 2014
A year and a half ago, the Royals traded Wil Myers and stuff for James Shields and Wade Davis. At the time, Myers was generally rated as a top ten prospect, with some even having him as high as top three. In exchange for Myers and Jake Odorizzi, the Royals acquired the rights to Shields for two seasons and Wade Davis for two seasons with three team options, so they acquired as many as seven years of team control of their new acquisitions. In exchange for Russell, the A’s acquired 1 1/2 years of Jeff Samardzija and half a year of Jason Hammel, so they acquired a grand total of two seasons in exchange for their elite young talent. Just based on this fact alone, one could argue that Samardzija trade might even be a worse return than the Shields trade.
And yet, when the deal was announced, this was my reaction.
I'm usually against trading great young talent, but present wins have so much value to OAK right now. Good for them. And great for Cubs.
— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) July 5, 2014
I realize that some people see the disparate reactions to the two trades as evidence that I am biased in favor of some organizations and against others; in this case, for the A’s and against the Royals. After all, the trades do have similarities, and the reactions are dramatically different. While I will freely acknowledge that we’ve said a lot more good things about the A’s moves than the Royals moves over the last few years, I’m totally okay with that; the A’s are perhaps the best team in baseball, so if we weren’t saying more good things about their moves than every other team, we’d have been missing the boat.
Beyond that, however, I think there are two dramatic differences that support different conclusions for these two transaction.
1. The given playoff probabilities for the A’s and Royals at the time of the two trades.
2. The opportunity costs paid by the two teams.
Let’s deal with these two in order. As of today, our Playoff Odds model has the A’s with a 71% chance to win the division and a 28% chance to win a wild card spot; in other words, we’re giving the A’s a 99% chance to make the postseason this year, by far the highest mark of any team in baseball. Even factoring in the chance that the A’s might get passed by the Angels in the AL West and have to play in the Wild Card game, the model still gives the A’s an 86% chance of reaching the division series. Barring some kind of travel disaster that wipes out half the roster, the A’s are going to play in October, and they’re probably going to reach at least the division series. Jeff Samardzija is going to pitch meaningful baseball games for the A’s.
Compare that to where the Royals were when they made the Shields trade. Heading into both 2013 and 2014, our estimates gave the Royals roughly a 20% chance of winning either the division or a wild card spot, with the odds being more heavily tilted towards a less-valuable wild card berth, meaning that they would still have to play their way into the division series. The Royals made the Shields trade on the hope that it would make them a good team; the A’s are already a good team.
Giving up an elite young player on the hopes that it will help you get to October is not the same thing as giving up an elite young player knowing that you’re basically guaranteed at least one trip to the postseason. The dramatic rise in information that teams have about their own chances at reaching the playoffs is one of the primary reasons that we see teams pay higher prices at the trade deadline than they will over the winter, even though they’re acquiring roughly half of the value that they could have gained by making the move over the off-season. The increased information justifies moves in-season that are not justifiable without that information, and the A’s have a postseason near-certainty that the Royals have never possessed.
The wins that Samardzija will add to the A’s are simply more valuable than the wins that Shields added to the Royals, either last year or this year. Just as the number of runs an elite reliever prevents have a larger impact on a teams record than the equivalent number of runs allowed by a starting pitcher, a few wins for a team in the A’s position is more valuable than those same few wins for a team in the Royals position. We accept leverage index as a reality for in-game decision making, and we also should account for leverage in roster construction decisions.
But while the win-curve argument is the one most commonly made to support deals like this, it can be taken too far. There is a long history of teams making bad deadline trades because they overpaid for a short-term upgrade due to their spot on the win-curve. You can’t just make a blanket statement that any team that is a strong favorite to make the postseason should pay any cost to upgrade. The cost/benefit analysis still has to make sense. But that’s the other aspect of this deal that makes it unlike the Myers/Shields trade; the Royals paid a massive opportunity cost that the A’s are not paying.
As I wrote two weeks before the Royals traded Myers to Tampa Bay, Myers shouldn’t have really been considered a “prospect” for Kansas City; he should have been considered their starting right fielder. While Shields added a four win pitcher to their rotation, not using Myers to replace Jeff Francouer was something like a two win downgrade in the outfield, mitigating a large part of the advantage of acquiring Shields in the first place. The Royals got better in the short-term, but only marginally so, because they traded a piece off their Major League roster in order to make the trade. They robbed Peter to pay Paul, so the long-term cost only resulted in a minor short-term upgrade.
Addison Russell, as great as he might be someday, isn’t a big leaguer right now. He has 75 plate appearances above A-ball, and the Steamer rest-of-season projection suggests that he’d have hit like Eric Sogard if the A’s had promoted him down the stretch. Rather than swapping a two win player for a four win player, the A’s swapped a zero-win player for a three-win player. Russell’s value is entirely in the future, and when you’re making a go-for-it trade, you want to maximize your team’s present value. Trading Russell does not make the A’s any worse; trading Myers absolutely resulted in a downgrade for the Royals in right field.
And then there’s the money. One of the primary objections I had to the Myers/Shields trade was the Royals could have simply spent the $9 million they had to pay Shields on a two-win free agent pitcher and have been essentially just as good as they were with Shields and Francoeur. My favorite free agent starter of that winter was Scott Feldman, who signed with the Cubs for $6 million and put up +2 WAR over 182 innings of work. The Royals not only paid the opportunity cost of losing Myers as their right fielder, but they also took on $12 million in salary between Shields and Davis, so they lost the chance to spend that $12 million to upgrade the team without trading away young talent.
That opportunity cost is dramatically reduced in-season, because there are no free agents to go sign instead of making trades. During the winter, teams can essentially substitute from one market to another depending on the prices being asked for in trades and free agency; during the season, there is only the trade market, and if you decide not to pay the price being asked for in trades, then you’re deciding not to upgrade at all. The basic principle of supply and demand dictates that prices are higher when supply is reduced, and the non-existence of a free agent market in-season makes the $5 million in salary increase the A’s are taking on for 2014 basically a non-issue.
Samardzija’s price in 2015 will negate some of the value of controlling his rights for next season as well, so the A’s are still paying some opportunity cost to acquire him, as that’s $9 or $10 million in committed payroll they won’t have to spend that they otherwise would have. But the opportunity cost they are paying is dramatically lower than the one the Royals paid.
While it may be tempting to compare in-season trade prices with off-season trade prices, the circumstances surrounding those markets are not the same. In-season buyers have information that off-season buyers do not, but the tradeoff they make to gather that information is that they lack access to free agency as a trade-market alternative. Those two factors both conspire to make in-season trades more expensive, because buyers are gaining the value of leveraged information and sellers have less competition for available talent.
On the surface, trading Russell and Myers for short-term pitching upgrades might look similar, but these moves were made in very different circumstances, in different markets, and with different information. And Myers was capable of helping the Royals in the short-term in a way that Russell is not. These trades may be similar on the surface, but once you factor in the entire context of the deals, they are more different than alike.
That isn’t to say that this is some kind of great steal for the A’s. They paid a very high price, and this trade will likely hurt them in the long-term. But while the cost of both trades is high, the A’s are going to generate a benefit that the Royals were never likely to see. Trades are about balancing cost and benefit, not just about limiting costs. Both teams paid very high prices for their upgrades, but there are times when paying a high price does make sense. This is that time for the A’s.
For now, Padres' Hahn succeeds giving 'em the old 1-2.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
In order to get through the lineup multiple times, a starting pitcher generally needs to have more than two pitches. The list of starters with only one non-fastball is short.
So far, new Padres pitching phenom Jesse Hahn belongs on that list, as he's thrown his fastball or curve almost 94 percent of the time this year. But there's also a good chance that Hahn can be more than just the sum of those two pitches, as good as they might be.
For one, the curveball is a pretty good place to start. Particularly Hahn's sort of curveball.
"I really try to get on top of it and pull it down. I think it drops a good bit," Hahn told me before an early July game against the Reds. "I think it has a lot of depth."
Even if he's modest, he's right -- only seven qualified curveballs in the game drop more than Hahn's at 8.8 inches. That makes it a "roundhouse curve," which has a reverse platoon split. In other words, he has a weapon against lefties in that breaking pitch.
In the early going, Hahn is getting batters to swing at the curve. "I'll throw it in fastball counts when guys are sitting fastball -- then they see the curve, and I think they just miss it," he said.
On 0-0 and 2-1 counts, pitchers across baseball throw fastballs 74 percent of the time and curves 9 percent of the time. Hahn has thrown his curve 24 percent of the time in those counts. That's a function of his arsenal as much as it is his strategy, but it has led to more swings than usual.
The average curve gets swings 39 percent of the time -- Hahn has been coaxing a swing on half of his curves this year.
"I have confidence in throwing it for strikes," Hahn said of his curve.
Even if batters don't swing, Hahn is fine with throwing the curve often.
"I just try to throw it down in the zone for a strike," he said. "Don't swing at it, it's a strike; that's just helping me out. I can keep it down in the zone. I'm fine with that."
Hahn walked just over 7 percent of the batters he faced in the minor leagues, which is better than the major league number (8 percent most years). Even though he's slightly worse than league average this year, the average 24-year-old would expect to improve his walk rate for another three or four seasons at least. Let's say Hahn has good command.
Hahn's four-seam fastball sits around 92. That's not plus-plus velocity, but starters are averaging closer to 91 this year. And with 10 inches of horizontal break, Hahn is sporting a sinker that has two inches more break than average.
It's possible that, considering his good command and OK velocity, Hahn could be a little like John Lackey, Jason Hammel or Charlie Morton. He'd have a lot in common with them.
But Hahn is far from fully formed. He stopped throwing his "violent" slider after a bout with Tommy John surgery back in the day, but he still throws a slider. In order to preserve his arm better, he throws it like a "slow cutter" now -- "I don't really go over the side much, I really stay on top of that one. ... It's all in the fingertips."
It's not a finished pitch yet, maybe.
"For me, it's just to show something different and throw it for a strike," Hahn said. "It's a get-me-over pitch."
Hahn has only thrown 13 of them this year, but it does have the potential to add a third velocity range to his offerings. At 80 to 84, it would sit right between his 92-mph fastball and his 74-mph curve. And then there's the change-up.
"I've been working on my change a lot recently," Hahn said. "It is a good pitch, and I just need to throw it more and get comfortable with it and get more confidence with it."
It's tough to evaluate change-ups based on shape and speed, but if Hahn's version doesn't have the velocity separation you'd like for whiffs, it might have the movement you'd like. It breaks 2.5 more inches vertically than your average change and has 1.5 more inches horizontal movement.
His whiff rate on the pitch -- 15 percent -- would be above average, but he's only thrown 26 so far, and so we're talking about four whiffs. Still, the change up might be something to build on.
"Seeing success with it out there -- if I throw it and I get some whiffs and some ground balls and some pop-ups, then I'll gain more confidence with it and throw it more," Hahn said. "Sometimes I get caught up throwing the fastball and curveball."
But that's just how pitchers get to the big leagues, too.
"Out there, you're just battling, so whatever your strengths are, that's what you want to automatically go to."
So right now, Hahn is throwing the two pitches that make him special, and the two others that have a little promise will take some time. That might be OK -- with his combination of command, velocity and curve, Hahn might have what it takes to succeed without them.
The Emergence of Tyson Ross.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
This is me writing a positive post about the San Diego Padres in 2014. That’s notable, because there haven’t been too many good things to say about the Padres this year. Sorry, Padres.
To be fair, it’s mostly because of their lineup, which had a wRC+ of 40 in the month of June. The offensive unit, as a whole, has produced exactly the same WAR for the entire season as Yangervis Solarte, who was just optioned to Triple-A. Some guy named Kevin Kiermaier has nearly twice the WAR of the entire Padres lineup. But that’s for a different post. The position players have been historically bad in San Diego, but the pitching hasn’t been much better.
The Padres pitching staff is 21st in WAR. After a breakout season last year, Eric Stults has a matching ERA and FIP of 5.00. Free agent addition Josh Johnson got hurt and never pitched a game. 16 starts have been given to a lousy combination of Donn Roach, Billy Buckner, Robbie Erlin, Tim Stauffer and Odrisamer Despaigne. Ian Kennedy has been good, but not great. Andrew Cashner has been good, but he’s also been hurt.
Then there’s Tyson Ross.
A few things about Ross: He’s 6-foot-6, which is unusually tall for a baseball player. It’s totally super unusually tall for a baseball pitcher. Because of his height, Ross has some funky mechanics. I mean some really funky mechanics:
(GIF courtesy of Kyle Boddy)
He used to be a reliever and now he’s a starter. He used to be bad and now he’s good. I’ll attempt to demonstrate how and why.
The first thing that happened was Tyson Ross was traded from the Oakland Athletics to the San Diego Padres for basically nothing in 2012. It was in San Diego that he met pitching coach Darren Balsley. I’ll let Tyson tell you about that:
“I had a rough year in 2012 and was kind of searching for things,” Ross said. “But coming here, from Day One in camp, he [Balsley] had a way of getting the best out of you and could convey how to do that. He will tell you one adjustment and the next pitch you’ll see it or feel it. He could see something in the dugout, and before you even talk to him about it, he’ll have a solution brewing in his head.
“I’ve said it before, but that trade was the best thing to ever happen to me.”
I can’t tell you exactly what changes Balsley instilled in Ross, because I don’t have access to the Padres clubhouse and Googling the tubes of the internet yielded me nothing substantial. But I can tell you that several Padres pitchers gush over Balsley in the article linked above. I can also tell you that Tyson Ross, as far as results go, has done a complete 180 since coming to San Diego, turning into something that closely resembles an ace. And this has been going on for nearly a full calendar year now:
ERA FIP xFIP K% BB% HR/9 GB% SwStrk%
5.33 4.26 4.42 15.6% 10.7% 0.73 50.0% 7.5%
San Diego ’13-14
3.05 3.28 3.30 23.3% 8.7% 0.63 56.8% 11.7%
These aren’t totally perfect comparisons, as Ross bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation before settling in as a starter in late July last year. And we know that pitchers pitch differently in different roles. But to put things into context, let’s isolate just Ross’ innings as a starter since the beginning of last season.
Of all starting pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings since the start of last season, Ross’ 2.99 ERA ranks 15th, ahead of Jordan Zimmermann. His 3.17 FIP ranks 20th, better than Cole Hamels. His 57% ground ball rate is fourth-best in the MLB and higher than Tim Hudson‘s. And his second-best 12% swinging strike rate puts him right above Yu Darvish. To put it simply, Ross is both filthy and effective.
And it’s mostly because of a slider.
I said earlier that I didn’t know specifically what changes Balsley may have instilled in Ross. But one of them could be a concentrated effort to use the slider, his best weapon, more often. In Oakland, Ross threw his slider 24% of the time. In San Diego, Ross is throwing his slider 35% of the time. With two strikes, that ramps up to over half the time. Tyson Ross has thrown more sliders than any pitcher in baseball this year. And it’s no big secret where he’s going to throw it:
An astounding 47% of Ross’ 700+ sliders this season have landed in that one quadrant. Low and away to righties, low and inside to lefties. Neither side is having much success. Ross’ slider has graded out more than nine runs above average, according to our PITCHf/x leaderboards, making it the fifth-most valuable slider in baseball and one of the 15 best pitches in the entire game. Opposing batters are hitting just .209 against Ross’ slider this year. A quarter of the time they swing at it, they miss.
For your pleasure, here’s a super slow motion clip of Ross’ slider making Buster Posey do something that you don’t see Buster Posey do too often:
Here it is making Cody Ross do something he hopes he never does again:
Here it is another time to strike out Cody Ross, in the same game, for good measure:
Tyson Ross has a good slider. A great slider. But Tyson Ross has always had a great slider. It’s just that he started throwing it more once he got to San Diego. This year, not much as changed with Ross concerning his slider and its usage. But there’s a different part of Ross’ repertoire which has changed.
Last year, Ross threw a four-seam fastball over half the time. Batters hit .310 off of it with a .505 slugging percentage. To put that into context, Yasiel Puig currently has a .308 batting average and a .516 slugging percentage. So basically, every hitter was Yasiel Puig against Ross’ four-seam fastball. Now, Ross has mostly ditched the fastball, more than halving its usage and instead replacing it with a sinker, which he is now throwing a third of the time. It’s especially being used against left-handed batters, when he ramps its usage up to 43%.
The results? Ross is actually running a reverse platoon split now, which is the complete opposite of what we’ve come to expect from a pitcher who throws as many sliders as Ross does. Sliders are supposed to be effective towards same-handed batters but vulnerable to opposite-handed batters. Yet Ross is running a .266 wOBA to lefties and a .309 to righties. Part of that is because his slider is so good that it doesn’t matter who he’s throwing it to. But the sinker is helping too. He’s getting more ground balls. He has induced more double plays than any pitcher in the National League. He’s giving up less homers. And now, when he does throw the four-seamer, guys have the same average and slugging percentage as Yunel Escobar, rather than Yasiel Puig.
A couple years ago, the Athletics totally gave up on Tyson Ross and traded him to the Padres for a couple of non-prospects. While I was writing this post, Tyson Ross became an All-Star. Part of that is because the Padres have been bad, but mostly it’s because Tyson Ross is really good. When he came to San Diego two years ago, he started throwing his slider a lot more and it turned into one of the deadliest weapons in the MLB. This year, Ross stopped throwing as much of the pitch that hurt him the most in his fastball and instead started throwing a good sinker while killing a platoon split in the process. His mechanics and heavy reliance on the slider probably make him an injury risk, but as long as he can stay healthy enough to put on those awful camouflage uniforms every fifth day, the Padres appear to have found something special in Tyson Ross.
It’s Time to Trade Troy Tulowitzki.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
You probably enjoyed your holiday weekend. I watched a good deal of Colorado Rockies baseball, so you tell me which of us had a more productive few days. It’s difficult to remember a time where I’ve seen more incompetent baseball in such a short span. It’s not that Colorado lost three of four, because the Dodgers are a more talented team on a hot streak and it’s not fair to have to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke back-to-back. Rather, it’s how the Rockies looked while losing.
Three days in a row, Colorado allowed the Dodgers innings in which they batted around. In the seventh inning on Saturday, the Rockies went through three relievers and seven Dodger hitters before finally getting an out — and turning an 8-2 lead into an 8-7 squeaker. On Sunday, Brooks Brown, who is apparently a real person, entered in relief of Yohan Flande, who is also apparently a real person. Brown faced Miguel Rojas — a .238/.305/.297 hitter in parts of nine minor league seasons and a .230/.288/.246 hitter in his first big league season — with the bases loaded. He hit Rojas to force in a run.
Or, if you prefer pictures, here’s Franklin Morales throwing a slider while Wilin Rosario was expecting a pitchout:
Here’s Rosario on Sunday, after having received a throw from Nolan Arenado, just barely missing a sliding Adrian Gonzalez. This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that Rosario inexplicably was attempting to tag the runner on a bases-loaded force play.
Obviously, a lot of this is for entertainment effect. Perhaps that’s unfair. We talk about “sample size” a lot here, and with good reason. No one play or one game or even one series should be taken as the story of a team’s entire season. But of course, it’s not just about what happened this weekend. It’s that the Rockies now have lost 17 of 20 and are playing so badly the Diamondbacks are merely a half-game away from escaping the National League West’s basement. In fact, the Rockies are only two games ahead of the Astros for the most losses in baseball. They’re at 0% in our playoff odds. Think about that: There is not a single imaginable scenario for the Rockies to make the playoffs.
This team is not working out, just like the team hasn’t worked for all but two seasons this century. And so the “maybe they should trade Troy Tulowitzki” noises are popping up once again. The difference is that this time, Tulowitzki seems open to the idea. And he’s not wrong to be. Now — or at least this coming winter — is the time.
It’s difficult to argue that Tulowitzki will be more valuable than he is right now. He’s not only the National League’s best hitter, he does so while providing elite defense at the most valuable position. His worst month this season so far, June, saw him post a 155 wRC+. For those who think that he’s a Coors Field creation — and yeah, a .522 OBP at home is absurd — his 132 wRC+ road line would still make him a top-35 hitter and a top-two shortstop. The $114 million he’s guaranteed in the next five years will price out some smaller-market teams, but for a guy who is pretty clearly the second-best player in baseball behind Mike Trout, it’s almost a bargain. Should he keep this up all season, he’ll prove to be a pretty entertaining test case for the ludicrous “only winning teams can have MVPs” debate.
But nearly as important: He’s healthy, and he’s months away from his 30th birthday. Tulowitzki has had five trips to the disabled list in his career, and innumerable bumps and bruises otherwise, including a few days missed this weekend with groin soreness. Despite that, he’s he’s managed at least 500 plate appearances in five different seasons. Still, rare is the player who enters their 30s and manages to become healthier.
Despite all that, the Rockies are on track to finish third or lower for the fifth season in a row. Having one of the best players in the game has not brought success. Now, of course, Rockies fans will likely refute the idea of moving him. The team, they argue, has been destroyed by injuries and isn’t this bad. And they’re right. No team can be this bad, and no team should have Flande, Jair Jurrjens and Christian Friedrich making starts within close proximity of one another. Among starting pitchers alone, Jhoulys Chacin, Brett Anderson, Jordan Lyles, Eddie Butler and Tyler Chatwood are on the disabled list. That’s an entire rotation, and outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez — along with reliever Nick Masset — join them. Arenado, Josh Rutledge, Boone Logan and Rosario are healthy now, but they missed chunks of time earlier. It’s difficult to point anywhere other than injuries as the root cause of the demise of the 2014 Rockies.
When those guys are healthy, this is obviously a different team, though not quite as good as the version that was eight games above .500 in early May. (Shockingly, Charlie Blackmon‘s .389/.434/.642 April has been .256/.303/.388 since; he is now barely above a league-average hitter.) But of course, it really doesn’t matter that health has been the main issue. The 2014 season is dead. Over. A failure. Even the complete roster at full strength won’t change that. The only question that should be considered now is whether the future Rockies contend?
* * *
For Colorado, the idea of rebuilding is distasteful. This franchise is supposed to be on the verge of the next generation of young Rockies. Arenado, 23, is already there and a star. Rex Brothers is 26. Rosario is just 25. Outfielder Corey Dickerson, with a career 132 wRC+ in just under a full season of play, is 25. Chatwood is only 24; Lyles and Tyler Matzek are 23. Butler is 23. Jon Gray is 22. Kyle Parker is 24. David Dahl is 20, though still only in Single-A. There’s a lot of good young talent here. Ideally, Tulowitzki is complementing this group, not leaving it.
But then, reality. Cuddyer is going to be a free agent. Butler made one major league start before going down with a shoulder injury, one that thankfully seems like it won’t require surgery. Gray has been more adequate than dominant in Double-A. It’s possible both are in the 2015 Rockies rotation, yet foolish to count on them both to be above-average immediately. Jorge de la Rosa is going to be a free agent. Morales will be a free agent. Anderson has a $12 million club option that seems unlikely to be exercised. Juan Nicasio has been awful this year, and has rarely ever been good for sustained stretches. Chacin has “fraying in his rotator cuff,” is likely out for the year, and could be a non-tender candidate. Every other young pitcher mentioned above — no matter how talented — has had health concerns. Is that a winning rotation in 2015?
There are a ton of “ifs.” If Chatwood and Lyles stay healthy and productive and if Butler’s arm is OK and if Gray pitches to his potential and if Nicasio and Chacin pitch like the best versions of themselves and not the messes they’ve been this year, then maybe there’s something. Of course, all of that happening at once seems incredibly unlikely. And even if it does, there’s no one there who compares to Kershaw or Greinke or Madison Bumgarner. Every team can play the “if” game, of course, but most other teams that fancy themselves contenders can point to at least one or two near-certainties. The Rockies rotation can’t.
Remember when the Rockies were winning early this year? It took completely unsustainable performances. Blackmon was hitting out of his mind. Justin Morneau had a 158 April wRC+. Tulowitzki had a ludicrous 214 April wRC+. Lyles somehow turned a 4.66 K/9 in April into a 2.70 ERA. Injuries or not, these things were never going to keep up, and they didn’t.
The idea of taking 90% of the same roster into next year, hoping for better health and continued unsustainable production over a long period, and making it a winner, seems unrealistic. And in the meantime, Tulowitzki will be 31 with plenty of additional opportunities to have seriously injured himself and destroyed his value. There’s also a near certainty he won’t be hitting as well as he is right now. Who could?
Maybe it’s less about whether the Rockies can afford to trade Tulowitzki, and more about whether they can afford not to. It hasn’t worked with him so far, and with Josh Rutledge only 25 and shortstop prospects Trevor Story and Rosell Herrera in the system, they have alternatives. With the state of offense in baseball being what it is — and the trade interest should Tulowitzki suddenly appear on the market — might this team might not be better off with a ton of salary saved and high-end, nearly-ready prospects in town? If the prospects are the right ones, of a similar age to the early 20s group mentioned above, this isn’t an Astros-style rebuild. It’s selling high on a very valuable piece to improve other areas that may not be able to support that very valuable piece.
* * *
As for likely trade partners, that’s a different discussion entirely. Both New York clubs could use him, though the Yankees might not have the prospects; the Mets would have to destroy its young pitching core. Detroit has an obvious hole at shortstop, and an owner with bottomless pockets. The Mariners badly need to make an offensive splash, and could easily replace or trade Brad Miller at shortstop. The Cardinals always appear in these rumors. Maybe the Cubs want yet another shortstop. If the Red Sox could do it without including Xander Bogaerts, imagine that left side. If some of these teams may not have the right prospects for the Rockies, well, that’s why three-way trades exist.
The specifics don’t matter yet, though, and you could probably make most of this same argument for Gonzalez. Of course the public-relations aspect would be painful. But it happens. Things can’t stay the same. There’s no point in letting Tulowitzki spend his early-30s in a situation that isn’t likely to be a winning one simply over concerns about his legacy in Denver.
Of course, a Tulowitzki trade perhaps could open a wormhole. Maybe that puts Cuddyer, if healthy, De la Rosa and LaTroy Hawkins (who all should be traded this year, no matter what) on the move, plus Gonzalez and Morneau. Maybe ownership decides it has had enough of the bizarre Dan O’Dowd-Bill Geivett pairing. There’s a lot of ways this could go. Whether it’s now or this winter, it’s time.
Prospect Watch: Christian Walker, Anthony Alford.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Christian Walker, 1B, Baltimore Orioles (Profile)
Level: Double-A Age: 23 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 374 PA, .307/.366/.542, 20 HR, 8.6% BB, 19.5% K
With Chris Davis suffering through a disappointing season, Christian Walker is picking a perfect time to develop into one of the better first base prospects in the minors.
Chris Davis is one of the best player acquisitions by the Orioles in recent memory. The slugging first baseman hit 86 home runs between 2012-13. Unfortunately, he’s having a poor season in 2014 with a triple-slash line of .201/.319/.366 with 13 home runs in 72 games. Davis, 28, has one more season of arbitration eligibility and will then become a free agent after the 2015 season. Between now and then, the club will face a tough decision on the former Texas Rangers’ future; he’s making more than $10 million this year.
Further complicating matters (or perhaps making the decision easier), 23-year-old first-base prospect Christian Walker is tearing up Double-A. The young hitter features a triple-slash line of .307/.366/.542 in 86 games. Originally known for his ability to hit for average, Walker has seen his power output increase significantly over the past three seasons (Isolated Slugging percentages: .136 in 2012, .155 in 2013 and .235 in 2014) while also maintaining a solid batting average and on-base percentage.
Walker has a respectable walk rate in 2014 at 8.6% but he’s seeing a ton of pitches and often works himself into favorable hitting counts. He shows a good eye, recognizes breaking balls and doesn’t chase bad pitches. Listed at 6-feet and 220 pounds he’s not a huge guy but he generates his power with a relatively short stroke that’s quick to the ball. He maintains his ability to hit for average because of his low-maintenance mechanics, which help him avoid the prolonged slumps than often plague power hitters — as well as a willingness to pepper singles all over the field.
Teams have clearly figured out that Walker’s power is to his pull side, and the Akron (Cleveland Indians) pitchers worked him constantly away in the July 5 matchup. To his credit, he took pitch after pitch and waited for the hurler to make a mistake. Walker has hit just one home run to right field and one to right-center. His remaining 18 home runs in ’14 have gone to left field. Ten of his 15 doubles have been to left field.
Walker failed to make the Orioles Top 15 Prospects list at FanGraphs prior to the 2014 season. Baseball America ranked the first base prospect 18th on their Top 30 pre-season ranking. Now that his pull power is developing, Walker should now fit easily among the Orioles Top 10 prospects on most lists. Despite that fact, he’ll continue to face doubters due to the lack of successful 6-feet-and-under first basemen in Majors. Among the Top 15 first basemen in the Majors (per WAR), only three stand 6-feet or less — Brandon Moss, a converted outfielder; Mike Napoli, a converted catcher; and Carlos Santana, a converted catcher. Both Moss and Santana offer coveted power from the left side.
Even so, don’t expect Walker to come up short in his quest for a big league promotion.
Anthony Alford, OF, Blue Jays (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 19 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 55 PA, .286/.364/.429, 2 HR, 5 SB, 5-17 BB-K
Anthony Alford faces a tough decision as a two-sport athlete splitting his time between professional baseball and college football.
It’s easy to forget about Anthony Alford. Despite being a highly-touted prep prospect prior to the 2012 amateur draft, he turned pro with the Jays but has received fewer than 100 at-bats in three seasons. And no, it’s not because he’s been battling injuries. The athletic outfielder signed a contract that allows him to play college football — as a defensive back (formerly quarterback) — each season at the University of Mississippi (and formerly Southern Mississippi). The soon-to-be-20-year-old prospect reportedly left to prepare for his upcoming college football season after Sunday’s Low-A ball game in Lansing.
In an organization that has struggled to develop home-grown hitters, Alford is an intriguing commodity. The club has already committed a $750,000 bonus, a third-round draft slot (He was arguably a fringe-first-round talent with signability concerns) and conceded at least three years of development to the Mississippi native. Because he’s not a top-of-the-line NFL prospect, Toronto may still be able to sway him to turn his attentions to the diamond on a full-time basis but it will hopefully be sooner rather than later.
At this rate, he’ll continue to fall further and further behind his same-aged peers and he also risks serious injury while playing football. Not only that, he has only two more years of development after this season before the Jays have to decide whether or not to offer him an all-import 40-man roster spot to protect him from the advances of other organizations in the Rule 5 draft.
Interestingly, Alford’s A-ball teammate D.J. Davis has a similar profile as a speedy, athletic outfielder with just enough power to tease the senses. However, although Alford has less than 100 at-bats of pro experience in three seasons, he seems to be further along in his baseball development than the 17th overall pick from the 2012 draft who has just under 800 at-bats.
Imagine what Alford could do if he focused on baseball full time.
Prior to Sunday’s appearance, Alford was hitting .286/.364/.429 through 49 at-bats. A small sample size to be sure, but also impressive considering his lack of experience and split focus. It speaks to his natural athleticism. However, his 17 strikeouts in 13 games displays the glaring need for further development — including repetitions and eye-balling a thousand more breaking balls.
Alford gave scouts a reason to salivate during his first four games in Low-A ball after opening the year in short-season ball. During his first four games in Lansing — leading off — he went 8-for-20 with four stolen bases is as many attempts. He’s shown blazing speed on the base paths with instincts and a quick bat with raw power potential.
The Yankees Bet on Brandon McCarthy and xFIP.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Yankees just pulled a rare feat by trading Vidal Nuno to the Diamondbacks for Brandon McCarthy. Only once in the last five years has a team traded for a pitcher whose results were so out of whack with their process and peripherals. Of course, that was when the Dodgers traded a player to be named later to the Phillies for Joe Blanton in 2012, but the Yankees have a few reasons to believe that this will turn out better for them than that trade did for the Dodgers.
ERA does not tell the full story of Brandon McCarthy‘s season so far. Look across his line, and you see career-best strikeout (20%) and ground-ball rates (55.3%) paired with his customary excellent command… and then you see that he’s giving up twice as many home runs on fly balls as he has his whole career.
Let’s focus first on the stats by themselves, without context. We can look at his xFIP for short-hand on his walk, strikeout and fly-ball rates, and we can see a career-best number there. And we can see the big gap between his ERA and xFIP. And we can look for the 20 other qualified starting pitchers that have had the biggest such gaps in the first half. And we can create this list:
Season Name K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA xFIP xFIP-ERA
2012 Tim Lincecum 9.7 4.7 1.0 0.333 59.2% 43.5% 12.4% 6.42 3.88 -2.54
2009 Ricky Nolasco 8.9 2.1 1.2 0.341 58.1% 36.3% 10.7% 5.76 3.46 -2.30
2012 Jake Arrieta 7.9 2.8 1.2 0.324 58.2% 42.9% 12.9% 6.13 3.84 -2.29
2014 Brandon McCarthy 7.6 1.6 1.2 0.345 66.7% 55.3% 20.0% 5.01 2.89 -2.12
2013 Wade Davis 8.3 3.9 1.2 0.381 66.3% 38.3% 13.5% 5.89 3.99 -1.90
2013 Rick Porcello 7.4 1.8 1.0 0.323 65.4% 57.1% 15.9% 4.90 3.02 -1.88
2013 Joe Blanton 7.5 2.1 1.8 0.343 70.6% 44.2% 18.1% 5.53 3.74 -1.79
2014 Ricky Nolasco 6.3 2.4 1.4 0.362 68.7% 40.8% 12.2% 5.90 4.15 -1.75
2013 Edinson Volquez 7.7 4.2 0.7 0.342 63.3% 48.3% 8.8% 5.74 4.05 -1.69
2010 Kevin Millwood 7.0 2.9 1.7 0.337 67.6% 38.6% 14.8% 5.77 4.11 -1.66
2011 Roberto Hernandez 5.4 2.9 1.3 0.288 59.4% 57.9% 15.6% 5.78 4.14 -1.64
2010 James Shields 8.5 2.0 1.5 0.330 67.7% 40.5% 14.3% 4.92 3.32 -1.60
2010 Scott Kazmir 5.9 4.8 1.7 0.288 63.3% 40.1% 13.0% 6.92 5.33 -1.59
2011 Chris Volstad 5.9 2.7 1.4 0.309 66.4% 51.2% 16.5% 5.40 3.82 -1.58
2012 Joe Blanton 7.8 1.3 1.6 0.305 66.1% 42.5% 16.9% 4.92 3.43 -1.49
2010 Nick Blackburn 3.2 2.5 1.8 0.326 66.2% 48.0% 14.8% 6.40 4.92 -1.48
2009 Cole Hamels 7.8 1.7 1.4 0.343 71.3% 39.4% 13.5% 4.87 3.43 -1.44
2009 Scott Baker 7.3 1.9 1.6 0.282 62.8% 32.8% 12.6% 5.42 3.98 -1.44
2012 Adam Wainwright 8.6 2.5 0.9 0.333 67.7% 51.8% 13.9% 4.56 3.12 -1.44
2011 Ryan Dempster 8.3 3.2 1.1 0.326 68.3% 46.0% 12.8% 5.01 3.58 -1.43
Average 7.3 2.7 1.3 0.328 65.2% 44.8% 14.2% 5.56 3.81 -1.75
Obviously, it takes a confluence of track record and bad luck to get on this list. If you haven’t shown some promise, you’re not going to continue getting chances. But these pitchers also had terrible numbers in the parts of the game where they haven’t been shown to have great control over results. This group’s strand rate (65.2%) and home run per fly ball rate (14.2%) in particular, are well above the league’s number (generally 70% and 10% in any given year). And not in a big enough sample to believe they’ve earned those numbers.
So what did this group do in the second halves after their disastrous starts?
Season Name K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA xFIP xFIP-ERA
2012 Tim Lincecum 8.7 4.0 1.2 0.281 79.1% 48.6% 17.4% 3.83 3.75 -0.08
2009 Ricky Nolasco 10.0 2.2 1.1 0.290 64.4% 40.6% 11.2% 4.39 3.00 -1.39
2013 Wade Davis 5.9 3.8 0.6 0.361 69.0% 42.2% 5.6% 4.99 4.72 -0.27
2013 Rick Porcello 7.1 2.8 0.8 0.310 74.6% 52.4% 12.1% 3.82 3.49 -0.33
2013 Edinson Volquez 7.2 3.9 1.5 0.294 66.7% 47.4% 17.9% 5.73 4.08 -1.65
2010 Kevin Millwood 5.2 3.3 1.1 0.291 74.8% 35.4% 8.1% 4.23 4.92 0.69
2011 Roberto Hernandez 5.0 2.9 0.8 0.296 65.1% 50.9% 9.6% 4.59 4.21 -0.38
2010 James Shields 8.1 2.6 1.6 0.358 68.9% 41.7% 13.2% 5.59 3.82 -1.77
2010 Scott Kazmir 5.2 4.7 1.3 0.270 76.4% 37.5% 9.4% 4.37 5.55 1.18
2011 Chris Volstad 7.1 2.6 1.0 0.313 73.1% 54.5% 13.7% 4.04 3.35 -0.69
2012 Joe Blanton 7.9 2.0 1.0 0.314 70.1% 47.7% 13.0% 4.35 3.26 -1.09
2010 Nick Blackburn 4.7 1.9 0.7 0.258 72.1% 57.1% 9.6% 3.54 3.76 0.22
2009 Cole Hamels 7.8 2.4 0.9 0.289 73.1% 41.6% 7.9% 3.76 3.84 0.08
2009 Scott Baker 7.3 2.5 0.9 0.271 77.9% 34.0% 6.9% 3.28 4.32 1.04
2012 Adam Wainwright 8.1 2.2 0.5 0.296 67.9% 49.6% 6.3% 3.28 3.35 0.07
2011 Ryan Dempster 8.6 3.1 1.3 0.313 69.1% 44.7% 14.1% 4.76 3.81 -0.95
Average 7.1 2.9 1.0 0.300 71.4% 45.4% 11.0% 4.28 3.95 -0.33
Better. Their collective ERA dropped a full run, as did the gap between their xFIP and ERA. They gave up fewer home runs, too, on a more normal home run per fly ball rate. Their strand rate regressed to league average. Their batting average on balls in play even regressed to a league average number.
There are two caveats here, however:
1. There’s a bit of survivor bias; due to injury, Jake Arrieta didn’t pitch in the second half in 2012, for example. Joe Blanton was on this list twice but was released once by the Angels after his poor early season in 2013. Pitchers who might not have regressed, for one reason or another, could have been prohibited from giving that non-regressing performance, thus skewing the numbers a bit.
2. The group’s results improved significantly, but they still underperformed their second xFIP by three-tenths of a run, and their second half xFIP was worse than their first half xFIP. In other words, players that underperform to this degree for half a season aren’t likely to continue to underperform to that same level, but they might be likely to still underperform, and you shouldn’t expect their second half performance to match their first half peripherals.
Of course, the Yankees would probably take a 4.30 ERA from their new pitcher, who might also welcome that number after his rough start. Especially given that the cost was minimal, and McCarthy has a track record of success that suggests that a poor three months probably doesn’t mean that he’s now permanently terrible.
For one, McCarthy’s xFIP is the best on that list above. His combination of stellar walk and ground-ball rates is really only equalled by Rick Porcello in 2013. And it’s built on a compelling back story — McCarthy bulked up this offseason in an effort to have more staying power, and in return, his velocity increased to a career high.
And though McCarthy has been looking for a better change up ever since he switched to featuring the sinker, his home run problem this year hasn’t been a function of a platoon split. He’s had a better strikeout, walk and home-run rate against lefties than righties this year. Not that the split is sustainable — he still has slightly worse numbers against lefties than righties for his career — just that lefties can’t be blamed for his homer rate this year. Perhaps the 11 home runs he’s given up in the hitter friendly parks in Arizona and Colorado (versus the four he’s given up elsewhere) have a little more to do with the ledger standing as it does.
At least the Yankees and their home park — third-friendliest in the league to lefty power hitters — can hope so. They’ve got the rest of the (non-ERA) numbers on their side, it looks like.