The 2014 Royals are the 2013 Royals.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
In ways, the 2013 Royals were both a success and a failure, but I’ll probably always remember them for one particular thing. Around the All-Star break, general manager Dayton Moore said that he wasn’t going to sell, and his big reason, paraphrased, was that there was no reason the Royals couldn’t win 15 of 20 games. Everybody made fun of Moore for being irrational and getting carried away, and shortly after that, the Royals began a run during which they won 17 of 20 games. They didn’t make the playoffs, but they were playing interesting baseball well into August.
This year’s Royals kind of backed into the All-Star break, and a few days later, they were a couple games under .500. There were reasons, legitimate reasons, for them to look into trading James Shields, but Moore never really entertained the idea, electing to charge ahead with the roster he’d built. Since then the Royals have won 15 of 18, including seven in a row, and not only are they the current second wild card — the Royals trail the Tigers by no wins and one loss. When the Tigers added David Price, it seemed to be a maneuver to prepare for the postseason. It’s far from clear now the Tigers will even sniff a play-in game.
Two years in a row, then, the Royals have surged after the break, playing themselves right into the race. It’s exciting, because it’s meaningful Royals baseball within the final two months. And what’s funny, if unsurprising, is that this isn’t the only parallel. What’s the strength of the 2014 Royals? Look to the strength of the 2013 Royals.
It’s important to understand that the race for the second wild card is a race for the flawed. The elite teams are on another level. The second wild card is for the best of the rest, so all the teams in the mix are going to be in some way perplexing as potential postseason teams. And the Royals aren’t just playing for the wild card, but I think it’s more than fair to look at the Royals and think, “how?” It’s a team that definitely doesn’t hit. It’s a team with a fine pitching staff, but not an amazing pitching staff. The bullpen has a couple of baseball’s best relievers, but that can’t be the whole explanation. And, naturally, it isn’t.
This year’s Royals confuse like last year’s Royals. And now here is a table, showing their American League ranks in four different categories:
Category AL, 2013 AL, 2014
Offense 10 11
Defense 1 1
Rotation 6 9
Bullpen 2 4
Offensively, the Royals haven’t been any better. The rotation’s been something like average, while the bullpen’s been considerably stronger than that. The strength of last year’s Royals is the strength of this year’s Royals: defense. And, more specifically, the strength of both Royals clubs has been outfield defense.
Of course the two teams are similar — they’ve been run by the same guy in consecutive years, and the organization doesn’t operate with a big budget. So, there hasn’t been an awful lot of turnover. Last year’s Royals had Ervin Santana. This year’s Royals have Jason Vargas. Last year’s Royals had David Lough. This year’s Royals have Omar Infante. The two rosters have been strikingly similar, putting together strikingly similar performances, and this whole time, statistically, the outfield defense has been absolutely magnificent. It can sometimes be a difficult thing to notice, but that’s where the Royals have made up a lot of ground.
As I write this, the Royals lead the majors in outfield Defensive Runs Saved, by six runs over second place. They lead the majors in outfield Ultimate Zone Rating, by 28 runs over second place. StatCorner’s team rating puts the Royals’ outfield at +40 runs, and that doesn’t include arm value. It’s always interesting when the defensive numbers disagree; it’s just as interesting when they convey the same thing. The numbers agree that the Royals defend like no other outfield defends.
We’ve got DRS data stretching back to 2003. Here are the top ten defensive outfields, determined by DRS per 162 games:
2013 Diamondbacks 72.0
2005 Braves 64.0
2013 Brewers 64.0
2007 Braves 59.0
2013 Royals 59.0
2012 Braves 55.0
2011 Diamondbacks 52.0
2009 Mariners 51.0
2008 Mets 51.0
2014 Royals 50.7
In tenth, we find this year’s Royals. Tied for fourth: last year’s Royals, with most of the same players. In all, this is out of 360 team-seasons. Now here are the top ten defensive outfields, determined by UZR per 162 games:
2005 Braves 72.1
2014 Royals 69.3
2009 Mariners 62.4
2007 Braves 56.7
2013 Royals 52.5
2004 Braves 51.1
2003 Mariners 49.5
2004 Cubs 48.5
2012 Braves 48.4
2003 Angels 46.9
Now this year’s Royals are second, while last year’s Royals are fifth. This data stretches back an extra season, to 2002, so by one calculation the Royals are tenth out of 360, and by another they’re second out of 390. This season isn’t over, of course, so those are on-pace numbers, but it’s stunning how well these Royals rank, and those sorts of run totals go a long way toward explaining how an otherwise unremarkable team can be looking to playing in October.
For the most part this is all the work of Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, and Lorenzo Cain. By UZR, they’re three of the top ten outfielders on the year. By DRS, they’re three of the top six, and by overall Defense rating, including all players at all positions, they’re three of the top 20 defenders. Gordon’s a sabermetric MVP candidate in a season that doesn’t include Mike Trout, and he’s having one of the better defensive seasons in recent history, given his range and throwing. Dyson has made literally almost every play possible in semi-regular time, and Cain has been valuable in both center and right. Norichika Aoki is third in outfield innings, and he’s neither good nor bad, but Dyson has still been collecting opportunities and seizing just about all of them.
This year’s Royals are last year’s Royals, and last year’s Royals were arguably led by a fantastic outfield defense that ranked among the best in recent history. This year the same players are doing the same things, making the pitching staff look better and partially making up for the offense being so consistently, aggravatingly mediocre. Now, I don’t know if the Royals are the best team in the race. I don’t know if they’re going to win the wild card, or the division, or the World Series, or one more game for the rest of the season. There’s so little of the year left that there’s going to be crazy variation around the calculated true-talent estimates. Last year’s similar Royals team didn’t win enough games; this year’s model might manage to pull it off. Regardless of whether it does, the team’s success shouldn’t be that much of a mystery. Part of the team is amazing. It’s just a somewhat unconventional way to be amazing.
Javier Baez and the Anomalous Dinger.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Here is Mike Trout hitting an anomalous dinger:
The homer demonstrated that Mike Trout is special, because that’s not really a pitch people hit homers on. Trout hit a game-tying grand slam off one of the, I don’t know, five best starting pitchers in the world.
Here is Giancarlo Stanton hitting an anomalous dinger:
The homer demonstrated that Giancarlo Stanton is special, because people don’t really hit home runs like that. We’re all familiar with low-liner home runs, but it’s not like we ever see them hit down the line to the opposite field. That’s actually the opposite of how we see them.
So, Javier Baez is in the major leagues now.
We don’t know what Baez is going to be, and we won’t even know a year or two or three from now. The whole Baez picture will only be understood when Baez is finishing his career, however short or long it might last. What we can say with certainty now is that Baez is extraordinarily talented, and capable of things few others are capable of. Time will tell how close he gets to his ceiling, but it took less than three full games for Baez to slug his own anomalous dinger. Already, Baez has demonstrated why he’s unusually special.
The video, from Thursday, after Baez had already hit one home run in the game:
The ball screams off of Baez’s bat and surprises even the Cubs’ own announcers when it flies beyond the fence. What you’re thinking, what we’re all thinking: okay, big deal, it’s Colorado. Even Baez himself has acknowledged that anything hit in the air in Colorado has a chance to go out. But this is why we have the ESPN Home Run Tracker. Baez hit the ball an estimated 105 miles per hour. It had a distance of 405 feet, and it had a standard distance — adjusting for altitude — of 402 feet. It was a legitimate shot that Baez hit, and now, consider that it was a slider, and consider that it was located here:
Presumably, Baez, like most right-handed hitters, is prone to chasing low-away sliders off the plate. So he’s probably going to see his fair share of sliders down and away, and while this one wasn’t way off the plate, it was over the outer half, and it was down. It was right on the lower border of Baez’s estimated strike zone. Let’s make some use now of Baseball Savant. Here are all the homers hit by righties against righties throwing breaking balls since 2008:
Baez’s homer is in red. You can see, from that, that it’s an uncommon pitch to hit out, but now let’s narrow this down further for homers from the above sample hit to right or right-center field:
Now the homer’s almost by itself. We haven’t quite seen another home run like this in the PITCHf/x era. Matt Kemp hit one that was kind of similar; he hit the ball 99 miles per hour. Mike Napoli hit one that was kind of similar; he hit the ball 98 miles per hour. Jesus Montero hit one that was kind of similar; he hit the ball 98 miles per hour. Miguel Cabrera, 91 miles per hour. Paul Goldschmidt, just short of 100 miles per hour. Yoenis Cespedes, 93 miles per hour. Manny Ramirez, 98 miles per hour.
Javier Baez, 105 miles per hour. Breaking ball, down and away, hit out to right-center field on a god-damned line. Javier Baez hit a home run we haven’t seen, at least lately, at least to that level of impressiveness and legitimacy. While others have hit pitches almost like the one Baez hit, they haven’t hit those pitches as hard. Welcome to Javier Baez, who took less than half of one week to confirm that he’s got 80-grade bat speed. Maybe 85, if you go there.
Let’s go back to Baez’s debut real quick. People will remember it for either the home run or for the three strikeouts. But here’s an out that Baez made in play:
The location of the pitch, which was another low-away slider:
Baez made an out, so no one cares, but that was the first big-league hint that Baez is capable of destroying pitches few ever hit with authority. Two days later, he hit a lower slider better and farther, for a home run that wasn’t like other home runs. Probably, Baez is going to swing and miss a lot low and away. Probably, pitchers are going to have to be extra careful to make sure the pitches down there are out of the zone, because pitches that stay up even just a little bit might turn into one or two or three or four bases. For a guy with such a low contact rate, Baez is able to cover the plate, because his nonsensically quick hands afford him the luxury of extra time. He can stay back on a slider, and he can obliterate a slider, even if it’s not really all that bad of a slider.
Baez has only confirmed what we’ve known for a while: he can do things to baseballs few others can do. That’s the whole reason he is what he is: he has the same weaknesses as a lot of other prospects, but almost nobody can match his strengths. You can see why people think Baez has high bust potential, because it doesn’t matter how hard you swing if you swing over or under the baseball. We don’t know yet if Baez is going to make enough contact. But we know enough to know we should all hope he does. They don’t make ‘em like Javier Baez. It’d be a real shame if this model went to waste.
Shane Greene Can’t Keep This Up, Right?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Chris Capuano and Shane Greene have not given up an earned run in the last two Yankee games, and it’s just like Brian Cashman must have drawn it up. A veteran lefty who hadn’t started all year and a sinker-slider righty that put up an ERA in the high fours in Triple-A this year — of course it’s working out.
Capuano has a track record that suggests he’s not too far from his true talent level, but Greene’s rest-of-season ERA projections (by ZiPs at least) are two runs higher than what he’s showing right now. Given his minor league numbers, we know why that is. But given what he’s doing now, is there a chance he might beat those projections?
First, let’s do the reasons why not. They’re easier to point out.
As a sinker-slider guy, he’s got the obvious platoon issues. His FIP against lefties before today’s game (4.96) is two runs higher than his number against righties (2.81) and that’s because of the platoon splits on his favorite pitches. His strikeout rate versus righties (30.3%) is almost three times better than his work against lefties (10.0%). Not a good sign.
Greene’s minor league record also does not suggest that he’s a great starting pitcher. Even with the flaws inherent with stats like ERA and WHIP, his 4.39 ERA and 1.48 WHIP are not the stuff dreams are made of. And his peripherals weren’t much better once he hit the high minors. This year, his 19.2% strikeout rate was just below average for Triple-A (19.3%), and his walk rate wasn’t much better (8.8%, average was 8.9%). At 25 years old, he was slightly younger than the 27 year old average, but the year before in Double-A, he’d been exactly the average age.
Looks like an average pitcher — in Triple-A.
It’s not a huge sample, but 37.1 innings into his rookie season, Greene’s been better than average in the big leagues. At least by ERA, his FIP is almost perfectly average. But after being lackluster in Triple-A, a major-league average starting pitcher would be a good outcome for him.
Are there any comps for him out there? Obviously Justin Masterson comes to mind. Let’s look at other pitchers that throw some combination of a sinker, slider and cutter most of the time. We have to include the curve ball because PITCHf/x calls Greene’s breaker a curve some of the time.
Name FA% FT% FC% SI% SL% CU%
Brandon McCarthy 2.5% 0.0% 17.1% 55.7% 0.0% 23.5%
Corey Kluber 3.2% 0.0% 0.0% 48.9% 26.6% 16.8%
Brandon Cumpton 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 72.5% 18.8% 0.0%
Scott Baker 2.2% 0.0% 0.0% 59.2% 31.5% 0.0%
Shane Greene 10.8% 39.3% 0.0% 7.2% 19.4% 22.7%
Scott Feldman 1.9% 0.0% 31.8% 25.1% 0.0% 30.1%
Adam Wainwright 11.9% 0.0% 31.4% 27.1% 0.0% 26.3%
Charlie Morton 8.3% 58.3% 0.0% 0.0% 0.6% 24.6%
Joe Kelly 6.8% 59.5% 0.0% 0.0% 4.9% 17.9%
Andre Rienzo 12.4% 21.1% 39.2% 0.0% 0.0% 21.8%
All of these guys throw a sinker and a breaker more than 80% of the time, and generally, this group feels right — other than perhaps Corey Kluber, who has a a good change. One thing that might be surprising is that Masterson actually throws twice as many four-seamers as Greene!
But the other thing that comes to mind when you look at this list is that the most successful of the group have curve balls. Curveballs often have reverse platoon splits, and a sinker/slider/curve combo is a proven pitching mix.
Does Greene throw a curve ball? BrooksBaseball says no. And if what PITCHf/x calls a curve is a curve, it would have less drop than 99% of the curves out there. It doesn’t seem like a curve.
Because he doesn’t have a curve, it’s possible that Greene’s been going to a cutter more often against lefties. The cutter breaks less in the horizontal direction and therefore might offer some deception off his slider. But an inch difference in horizontal movement seems like a tough position to stake your future platoon splits upon.
If you take out the guys with actual curve balls, Brandon Cumpton and Scott Baker are the pitchers most like Shane Greene this year. Not good.
Maybe. The one thing you might have noticed in the last few starts is that Greene is actually throwing the breaking pitch more often his fastball. The announcers in his last outing even credited a mid-game turnaround to a visit from the pitching coach in which he was told to use the slider to get to the fastball — to pitch backwards.
If we instead look for a comp that throws a breaker more than 40% of the time, our comp list looks like this:
Name FA% FT% FC% SI% SL% CU%
Madison Bumgarner 22.6% 18.0% 0.0% 0.0% 36.9% 13.9%
Erik Johnson 42.7% 1.1% 0.0% 0.0% 42.9% 5.9%
Collin McHugh 45.6% 0.4% 0.0% 0.0% 26.0% 22.6%
Kevin Correia 13.6% 17.3% 6.0% 0.0% 31.9% 15.8%
Jake Arrieta 22.9% 0.0% 1.9% 22.0% 29.1% 18.2%
Yovani Gallardo 24.9% 29.0% 1.4% 0.0% 24.3% 19.6%
Kyle Lohse 6.6% 0.0% 0.0% 37.2% 31.1% 12.8%
Vidal Nuno 29.7% 17.7% 0.0% 0.0% 30.5% 13.0%
Corey Kluber 3.2% 0.0% 0.0% 48.9% 26.6% 16.8%
Brett Anderson 28.4% 20.4% 0.0% 0.0% 33.0% 6.5%
Clayton Kershaw 56.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.2% 28.9% 14.0%
Shane Greene 10.8% 39.3% 0.0% 7.2% 19.4% 22.7%
That’s a much more exciting list. For the more marginal guys on this list, success can come from something akin to the Jesse Chavez / Jake Arrieta school of success. As long as Greene’s arm stays in one piece, there’s nothing to say that using a heavy-whiff inducing cutter/slider in fastball counts isn’t a sustainable strategy.
Other than platoon splits. That second group only has a modest .5 split in their FIPs against lefties and righties — if you take Erik Johnson’s small sample out of it. But there are a ton of curve balls on the list, too. Really, Greene’s trying to be a right-handed version of Brett Anderson. Or maybe the starting version of Sergio Romo (48% slider, 12% sinker, 32% four-seam, 5% change-up, career).
Let’s call all of Greene’s curves sliders and re-run the list, sorting by slider plus cutter usage.
Name FA% FT% FC% SI% SL% CU%
Josh Collmenter 3.0% 0.0% 67.2% 0.0% 0.0% 7.5%
Jenrry Mejia 19.4% 4.3% 41.6% 0.0% 15.3% 10.0%
Samuel Deduno 23.0% 0.0% 44.1% 0.0% 0.0% 25.4%
Drew Smyly 30.1% 21.1% 12.1% 0.0% 31.7% 0.0%
Travis Wood 40.3% 5.9% 34.9% 0.0% 8.4% 3.2%
Erik Johnson 42.7% 1.1% 0.0% 0.0% 42.9% 5.9%
Mat Latos 36.1% 4.7% 19.3% 0.0% 23.0% 12.2%
Shane Greene 10.8% 39.3% 0.0% 7.2% 42.1% 0.0%
Tyson Ross 24.3% 31.1% 0.1% 0.0% 40.9% 0.0%
Mike Bolsinger 26.5% 0.0% 39.8% 0.0% 0.5% 32.5%
We finally have our best comp for Greene. Tyson Ross. Both righties throw hard (93+), throw four-seamers around 20% of the time, and sliders around 40% of the time. Both have been called future relievers, both have fairly large platoon splits. But Ross has found a way to make his work (3.84 FIP vs lefties, 3.22 vs righties), and so he (along with perhaps lefty Drew Smyly) offers a measure of hope for Greene.
There is perhaps a path for Greene’s success. It’s just very rarely traveled.
Some Suggestions for the 2015 Rockies.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Rockies have been in a free fall for more than two months. And with apologies to Tom Petty, it hasn’t felt good for their team or fan base. They’ve suffered on-field slights, and off-field slights. They’ve suffered injuries, and embarrassment at the hands of those who have replaced those injured. Simply put, it’s been ugly.
Things have seemingly come to a head with Troy Tulowitzki‘s comments earlier this week. Tulowitzki’s voice is going to carry a lot of weight, and if he doesn’t back down from his words, then this offseason ownership may need to decide who is more valuable — Tulowitzki or their baseball operations braintrust. Assuming Mrrs. Monfort come to their senses and choose Tulowitzki, the new baseball operations team will need to pick a new direction. Consider this my suggestion.
See, the thing is that the Rockies have plenty of talent. And there are elements of their strategy that have been sound, even if they took the long way to go about things. Jordan Lyles, for instance, has been an asset given his extreme groundball tendencies. With Nolan Arenado, DJ Lemahieu and Tulowitzki, the Rockies have about as good an infield defense as there is. Getting Lyles fits that strategy, even if he wasn’t good value for Dexter Fowler.
Still, given the talent that the team has, there are plenty of steps between where they are now and being a contending team. Let’s go in.
Let Michael Cuddyer, Brett Anderson and Jorge De La Rosa walk. Cuddyer will be 36 next season. In his three seasons with the Rockies, he’s played well when on the field, but that hasn’t been frequently enough. To date, there have been 438 games he could have played in a Rockies uniform, and he has only suited up for 262 of them, or 60%. That’s not good enough. The same is true of Anderson. He’s tossed just 123 innings since the start of the 2012 season. As tantalizing is it to think that next season could be the season, it’s certainly not worth $12 million to find out. Perhaps the team could get him back on the cheap if they decline his club option, but under no circumstances should they be picking up his extension. Dave covered De La Rosa.
Non-tender Jhoulys Chacin. Following the 2010 season, Chacin held so much promise. He had a good strikeout rate, didn’t allow that many homers, and he had a 2.98 ERA as a starter — good for 11th in the National League (minimum 100 innings pitched). If he could just get his walk rate under control … but he never did. Well, he did last year, but he’s been back to his old self this season. Since the start of that 2010 season, just 17 of 176 qualified pitchers have a higher walk rate than does Chacin, and eyeballing that list, seven of those 17 have already started their last major league game. Just like in 2012, he’s been hurt again this season. His velocity is down, and batters are swinging less frequently against his stuff this year than ever before. And he doesn’t generate enough ground balls. He’s due another raise in arbitration, and at this point, he’s a lottery ticket. Lottery tickets should be cheap.
Sign Russell Martin. If it’s not supremely clear yet, Wilin Rosario is not a very good catcher. You don’t need advanced stats to know that. Since the start of 2012, he has eight more passed balls than any other catcher in the game. He was above average at throwing runners out in his rookie season, but he’s gone south since, and his 20% caught stealing rate this season is six percent below league average. And framing? Forget it. StatCorner has him as eighth-worst cumulatively this season, and he is still firmly ensconced in the bottom half when you look at per game rates.
Signing Martin, who has a much better defensive reputation and statistical profile, would fix this issue for the Rockies. Martin could take the lion’s share of the catching duties, with Rosario filling in as the backup. This would free up Rosario to work in a platoon with Justin Morneau. Morneau has predictably hit left-handed pitching horribly this season, and Rosario has never been much for hitting the righties. It wouldn’t be a strict platoon, but it would be a much better way to properly leverage each player’s strengths.
Trade for Jon Niese. The Mets have far too many starting pitchers. Niese isn’t expensive, but he’ll be the team’s second-most expensive pitcher, and their fourth-most expensive player as things stand now. Given that he is under contract, the Rockies will have to give up something good for him — which is fine, the Rockies have a strong farm system — but Niese would be worth the price. Niese gets ground balls galore, and also manages to keep his home run rate down.
Sign Justin Masterson, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy and/or Francisco Liriano. The Rockies almost certainly aren’t going to target Jon Lester or Max Scherzer in free agency, and they probably wouldn’t want to come to Colorado anyway. But as luck would have it, four of the groundballingest pitchers in the game are set to hit free agency this winter. Masterson, obviously, would be the coup. Perhaps he’ll even come cheap, given his superficially poor season. As Jeff Sullivan noted at the trade deadline, the Indians defense didn’t do Masterson any favors, and the Rockies’ infield defense would help him just as the Cardianls defense should down the stretch. If they can’t land Masterson though, there are other good options, and none of them should cost a mint.
Play Corey Dickerson every day. Charlie Blackmon had the amazing April, but Dickerson has had the amazing season. His 146 wRC+ is 14th-best in the game as I write this. Dickerson has hit at every level, and while his batting average on balls in play is high, it doesn’t mean he’s in line for a huge drop. When Jeff Zimmerman looked at xBABIP values at the end of July, Dickerson had the highest xBABIP in the game. Yet, the Rockies still aren’t committing to him full-time. In fact, in August he’s been benched more frequently than usual. This needs to stop. Assuming good health, Gonzalez and Dickerson should play every day, with Drew Stubbs and Blackmon platooning, and Brandon Barnes manning the fifth outfielder role.
So, what do we have? Let’s take a look.
- C: Russell Martin
- 1B: Justin Morneau
- 2B: DJ Lemahieu
- 3B: Nolan Arenado
- SS: Troy Tulowitzki
- LF: Carlos Gonzalez
- CF: Charlie Blackmon/Drew Stubbs
- RF: Corey Dickerson
- C/1B/DH: Wilin Rosario
- INF: Josh Rutledge
- OF: Brandon Barnes
- SP: Jordan Lyles, Jon Gray, Eddie Butler, Jon Niese, Justin Masterson
That leaves you with one position player slot to fill, and the bullpen, which needs a near total teardown as well — only Adam Ottavino and LaTroy Hawkins are really worth keeping, though they’ll also be stuck with Boone Logan. Perhaps Juan Nicasio‘s stuff will play up in the bullpen — we’ll find out during the final two months. They’d also need more starting pitching depth, but between Tyler Matzek — who has shown flashes of his potential this season — and Tyler Chatwood, who should be back by the second half, they won’t be barren. And maybe Anderson comes back on the cheap. All in all though, this is a much better team, and one that is easily doable payroll-wise.
Letting Cuddyer, De La Rosa, Anderson, Chacin, Matt Belisle, Wilton Lopez and Franklin Morales depart will save the team more than $43 million. Some of that will go to arbitration raises, but there should absolutely be enough money there to afford Martin, Niese and Masterson (or Liriano, McCarthy or Kuroda). Aside from Tulowitki and Gonzalez (and perhaps Arenado and Dickerson) that may not seem like the most imposing roster, but as Dave noted in his chat this week, a balanced team full of non-stars can dominate. This blueprint would give the Rockies that balanced team, and they’d still have those two stars in tow.
The Rockies have been abysmal, and there are several things that they need to do to turn things around. But they do have plenty of talent, and if they make the right moves, they can be right back in the thick of things next season.
BEHIND COREY KLUBER'S SUCCESS IS A TRULY DEVASTATING CURVEBALL.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
If you check out the FanGraphs leaderboard of the best pitchers so far, you've got a lot of awfully familiar names. Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw are obvious. Chris Sale? Jon Lester? No shock. The guy that stands out -- the guy currently in second place in Wins Above Replacement -- is Corey Kluber.
People are gradually coming to terms with the reality of Kluber being a rotation ace, but there's still the question of how. It's uncommon to have an ace come completely out of nowhere, and a few years ago Kluber was a little-thought-of trade return for Ryan Ludwick. Even the Indians couldn't have seen all this coming.
The Corey Kluber story is complicated, as all of them are. He's extremely dedicated and focused off the field. He's changed the fastball that he throws. He's made all kinds of little tweaks and adjustments, and he's benefiting now from just having gotten an opportunity in the majors. But there is this one little signature of his that's never been as good as it is today. Recently, Baseball America polled big-league managers on the best tools in the league. One of the prompts concerned the owner of the best curveball in the American League. Justin Verlander came in third, and, yeah, his curveball is really good. Dellin Betances came in first, and he's really gotten comfortable in the bullpen. Corey Kluber came in second. That is, according to people who coach at the highest level, Kluber has one of baseball's true elite curveballs.
Which is interesting in part because Kluber doesn't even identify the pitch as a curveball. He just thinks of it as a breaking ball. It definitely doesn't move like an ordinary curveball -- it has an extreme amount of horizontal break. But, lest anyone think that Kluber is just getting the job done with smoke and mirrors, his repertoire is legitimate. He can pump it into the mid-90s, and he has this particularly unusual breaking ball that's catching everyone's attention.
You've probably heard of the PITCHf/x system, which tracks the location and movement of every pitch thrown in every game. I don't want to bore you with a lot of details, but it's an absolute fact that Kluber's breaking ball is of a rare variety. It's faster than most curveballs, it has more drop than most sliders, and it just flies off to the left, as opposed to breaking 12-to-6. The majority of curveballs break to the glove side, but Kluber's movement is extreme, and I went into the data trying to find a comparison. I wanted to know: does any other starter in the majors throw a breaking ball like Corey Kluber's breaking ball?
Using the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, I looked at every starter's curve and slider from between 2008-2014. I set a minimum of 100 thrown. I was left with a sample of 740 breaking balls. Of those, 225 were within two miles per hour of Kluber's 83.2 mph average. Of those, 35 were within two inches of Kluber's vertical movement. Of those, three were within two inches of Kluber's horizontal movement. So we have just three comparable pitches to Corey Kluber's breaking ball: Yu Darvish's slider, Jose Fernandez's breaking ball, and Marcus Stroman's curveball. Just missing the cut: Sonny Gray's curveball.
About that, then. Stroman's just a highly-touted rookie, so we'll see what he becomes. But, Darvish's slider is one of the best pitches in baseball. Fernandez's breaking ball is another one of the best pitches in baseball. He'd thrown it more than a third of the time. In that same Baseball America poll, Darvish was credited with having the AL's best slider, and Fernandez was credited with having the NL's third-best slider, behind Kershaw and a reliever. So, baseball people think Kluber's breaking ball is elite, and it compares very favorably to another two pitches that are undoubtedly elite.
Let's take a look at these things, for the sake of breaking up the text. Kluber's breaking ball:
Fernandez's breaking ball:
Given the success of Fernandez's breaking ball, you wonder if Kluber could throw his almost twice as often as he does. Maybe he doesn't think he could, or maybe he doesn't want to. He also has a useful two-seamer, cutter, and change. But Kluber uses this pitch against both righties and lefties alike, and he uses it to great effect. He could probably use it more without being predictable.
There's an argument to be made that, this season, Kluber's breaking ball has been the most effective pitch in the whole league among starters. It's yielded a slugging percentage of .101, which is the lowest of any regular pitch. Nobody's hit it for a homer. FanGraphs tracks pitch values, which work as a measure of a pitch's effectiveness. Again, I'll skip the math, but for example, a single allowed is bad for a pitch value, and a called strike or a swinging strike is good for a pitch value. According to the numbers, Kluber's breaking ball has been worth 17 runs better than average, or 4.2 runs better than average per 100 thrown.
Over the past decade, only three pitches thrown often by starters have finished with a better pitch value per 100. The short list:
Jose Fernandez, breaking ball, 2013: +5.4 runs per 100
Kris Medlen, changeup, 2012: +5.0
Tim Lincecum, changeup, 2009: +4.6
Right there is the Fernandez breaking ball to which Kluber's breaking ball compares. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean Kluber's breaking ball is the best pitch in baseball. For one thing, we just need to see more of it. For another, every pitch is somewhat dependent on the other pitches thrown, and Kluber only uses his breaking ball once out of every six pitches or so. If he threw it more often, maybe it would get hit more often, because hitters would look for it more. As an example, we can't say Kluber's breaking ball is as good as or better than Fernandez's, because Fernandez has thrown his twice as much. He's had a similar amount of success despite the pitch getting so much more exposure, and that's to the pitch's credit.
But we don't have to overstep. Corey Kluber's breaking ball might not be the best pitch in the league, but it would appear to be one of them. Managers agree. And it's pretty clear how the pitch has gotten better and more consistent over time. Kluber now is able to get a little more horizontal break. He's also able to get a little more vertical break. To show you how the pitch has improved, here's Kluber's year-to-year rates of two-strike breaking balls that have generated strikeouts:
That's a step forward in terms of consistency. And that's all that separates anyone with decent stuff from stardom: consistency, in commitment and delivery. With consistent dedication, one can achieve consistent mechanics, and with consistent mechanics, the sky is the limit for anyone with an assortment of pitches. Kluber's got everything he could possibly need, and now it's up to all the rest of us to catch up.
Corey Kluber's been one of the best pitchers in baseball. According to MLB managers, he's got one of the best breaking balls in baseball. Statistically, it profiles as one of the best breaking balls in baseball, and it compares favorably to two of the other best breaking balls in baseball. The Corey Kluber story isn't all about one individual pitch, but the story of that pitch happens to mirror the story of Kluber. With skill and consistency, one's able to reach some impossible heights.
The Pablo Sandoval Dilemma.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The San Francisco Giants currently sit comfortably in a playoff spot in the National League. They are but 3.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West race. Only two teams in the NL have more wins than the Giants’ 62.
And yet, the Giants are probably not a great team. They project to land square in the middle of a Wild Card dogfight. They are either the worst good team in baseball or the best bad team in baseball. Sometimes they look the part, other nights their lineup betrays the mediocrity lurking within.
In my mind, these key traits of the the Giants are reflected in two of their best-known players, Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval. Brilliant at times but perplexing at others. While Lincecum is quickly becoming a beloved enigma, Sandoval is a little tougher to figure. He’s not what he once was or what he might have been, but he remains a vital contributor to the Giants’ success.
But he is perceived as such? You can watch Sandoval play and see an overweight ballplayer happy to swing at any pitch thrown between his eyebrows and shoe tops. You see a hitter with his best years behind him, a guy with wild swings in his production and an injury-risk unable to stay on the field.
Or, you see a non-superstar but still quite good third baseman about to hit free agency. You see a player in just his age-27 season. You see a switch hitter with real pop. You see a middle-of-the-order hitter for two World Series winners. You see one of the best defensive third baseman in the game this year.
Your thoughts on Pablo Sandoval can say a lot about you. In his own way, the Kung Fu Panda is a window into your very soul. The flaws and shortcomings in his game are easy to pick up, but too much time spent pointing them out misses his value, both to the current, playoff-aspirant Giants and as a free agent.
The “real” Sandoval is some combination of the two. More than anything, you have one of the most interesting free agent cases in recent memory. Few players reach free agency in time for their age-28 season, and few third baseman hit the open market with the sort of earning power Sandoval possesses.
Below is a list of third baseman to sign free agent contracts longer than three years since the year 2000.
That’s it. That’s the whole list. Chone Figgins barely belongs on said list but he’s included for posterity. It’s a short list. There might well be a new name added to that list come this winter, when both Chase Headley and the Giants starting third baseman figure to test the waters. The idea of Sandoval earning a lucrative contract with this kind of term might seem crazy, considering the ups and downs during his time in SF.
There is no lack of teams that Sandoval could help next year, though the team with the most pressing need might be the team he’s helping right now. He is putting together a now-typical Sandoval season, boasting a 120 wRC+ with 14 homers. He does the same things he always did, swinging at more pitches than just about anybody.
As Sandoval puts his rough April further and further in the rearview mirror, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine the Giants, notoriously loyal to their “guys”, letting Sandoval walk with only a compensation pick coming back. Given Sandoval’s youth and productivity, it should be a no-brainer for him to remain in San Francisco. But his size, injury-woes, and approach are big red flags.
The biggest challenge is sliding Sandoval into a box that best encapsulates his performance. Though he plays the same position as Aramis Ramirez while putting up similar power numbers and K/BB rates, Sandoval’s a free swinger to such an extreme that he renders most comps pointless. A less powerful, switch hitting Josh Hamilton?
Because he is so unorthodox, it is natural to wonder when the clock might strike twelve on Sandoval’s ability to produce at the big league level. And though his numbers aren’t what they were during his breakout years (2009 & 2011), he remains one of the top ten third baseman in baseball. His numbers have leveled off over the last three seasons, producing close to 120 wRC+ with solid power (.150 ISO in a park that works hard to keep such numbers low) while remaining the same swing-happy maniac he’s always been. This is who he is now, and it is nothing at which to sneeze.
As Jeff Sullivan showed earlier this season, Sandoval swings at more pitches when he’s feeling good and seeing the ball well. The more he swings, the more he hits. Right now, he feels good and he’s swinging at everything and hitting everything, with almost as many extra base hits (10) as walks or strikeouts (12) over the last month. He’s doing his part to keep the Giants near the top of the NL West and in the playoff race.
The more he gives them, the higher he drives his value and the harder it becomes to let him walk. As noted at the top, few noteworthy third basemen get to free agency. Pablo Sandoval is certainly noteworthy – both to San Francisco and the third base market. Don’t be surprised if you see Headley sporting one of these hats this winter.
A Reason For Pessimism About Jacob Turner.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
According to Keith Law, the Cubs have acquired Jacob Turner from the Marlins for “a couple of minor leaguers”. Turner was a pretty high profile prospect a few years ago, is just 23, and this acquisition falls in line with the Cubs buying low on young pitching and seeing what sticks. Assuming the two minor leaguers have minimal value, this is probably a decent enough move by the Cubs, because young arms sometimes turn into Jake Arrieta.
But before we throw the Cubs a parade for acquiring Turner, let’s maybe point out something of importance: the current version of Jacob Turner does not belong in a Major League rotation, and barring some dramatic improvement from either his change-up or his curveball, he profiles best as a middle reliever.
Since the start of the 2011 season, 149 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings against left-handed batters. By K%-BB%, Turner ranks 147th. Here are his peers in controlling the strike zone against lefties.
Name K% BB% K-BB% xFIP
Jason Marquis 12% 13% -1% 5.26
Luis Mendoza 11% 11% 1% 4.88
Jacob Turner 12% 11% 1% 4.82
Jhoulys Chacin 12% 11% 1% 4.82
Jake Westbrook 10% 8% 2% 4.68
Marquis is a replacement level scrub at the end of his career. Mendoza is a swing guy who makes spot starts when someone is hurt. Westbrook is out of baseball. The only guy in this mix who has had any real value of late is Chacin, who has succeed by limiting BABIP and HR/FB ratio while pitching in Colorado. Turner hasn’t shown the same ability to limit hard contact, and his results have actually been worse than his also-bad peripherals.
Yes, Turner is 23, and yes, there’s plenty of time for him to live up to the promise he showed as a minor leaguer. Maybe the change-up will get better and he’ll have a real weapon against left-handers someday. He doesn’t right now, though, and until he does, he’s going to project as a reliever, and not even the kind of reliever you can trust with full-inning, high-leverage appearances.
AT&T And DirecTV Present Plan To Takeover CSN Houston.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Last week, we reported on the ongoing bankruptcy saga involving Comcast SportsNet Houston, the joint venture created and owned by Comcast Sports Group, the Houston Astros and the Houston Rockets. More than a year after its launch, CSN Houston hadn’t reached carriage fee deals with any cable or satellite company in the Houston area, other than Comcast. That led to financial distress and to an involuntary bankruptcy petition filed by Comcast last fall.
Last night, AT&T and DirecTV filed a plan with the bankruptcy court to assume control over CSN Houston. As part of the reorganization plan, AT&T and DirecTV will create a new limited liability company with 1,000 shares — 40 percent owned by AT&T and 60 percent owned by DirecTV. The Astros and Rockets back this plan, despite giving up their ownership interests in the regional sports network.
If the bankruptcy court approves this plan, the new RSN (likely to be branded a ROOT Sports Network like other DirecTV owned sports networks) will negotiate new rights fee agreements with the Astros and the Rockets. Under the CSN Houston agreement, the Astros were scheduled to receive $60 million annually.