Rob Kaminsky had a killer curveball coming into the 2013 draft. By the completion of the current campaign he’d enhanced his arsenal by greatly improving his two-seam circle change. His next goal is to recapture command of the pitch that made him a first-round pick.
When St. Louis selected Kaminsky 28th overall, his calling card was a bender that Baseball America called “No. 1 among high schoolers.” Hard and nasty, it complemented a fastball that flirted with the mid-90s. According to scouting director Dan Kantrovitz, the Cardinals thought Kaminsky’s one-two punch wasn’t enough.
“When we were scouting Rob as an amateur, [area scout] Sean Moran told me Rob would have three pitches in the future with plus command,” Kantrovitz said. “He [also] said that because of how dominating he was at the high school level, he rarely had opportunities to work on his changeup and would need to focus on that in pro ball. Sean was spot-on. Our pitching coaches did an excellent job of bringing Rob along this year and really getting that changeup to be a legitimate weapon for him.”
The new weapon was legit. Pitching for Low-A Peoria, the 19-year-old southpaw surrendered just 71 hits in 100.2 innings. He won 8 of 10 decisions and logged a 1.88 ERA. Only two batters left the yard against him.
Much like an on-again-off-again relationship, Kaminsky’s signature pitch did leave him from time to time. Developmentally, it was part and parcel of what the marriage counselor… er, player development staff had in mind.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t have my curveball in many games this year,” Kaminsky admitted. “I only had it sometimes and mostly got by with fastball command and changeups. The Cardinals definitely stressed changeups and I think that’s part of the reason… I wouldn’t say I lost my curveball, but it wasn’t as consistently effective as I wanted it to be. This offseason, I plan to get it back to where it was, if not better.”
Action wasn’t the issue so much as command. His 79 mph to 82 mph breaking ball still had swing-and-miss properties, but the location was often lacking. That wasn’t the case with his heater, which sat 91 mph to 92 mph and frequently flashed higher.
“Fastball command was big for me this year,” said Kaminsky, who throws both four-seamers and two-seamers. “And I love to pitch inside. Hitters don’t feel very comfortable when you throw inside, so I’m a big believer in that.”
Kaminsky doesn’t strike an imposing presence on the mound. Physically, he looks more like John Tudor than Joe Magrane – younger Cardinals fans, brush up on your history – but he doesn’t consider himself a finesse lefty.
“Right now I think I’m more of a power guy,” Kaminsky said. “My velo is better than it’s been my whole life; I think I hit 95 at least once every start and 96 once or twice. Still, being a 5-10, 5-11 lefty with a goal of going seven strong, I have to figure out how to get people out early in the count.”
The Montvale, New Jersey, native fanned a nothing-special 7.05 batters per nine innings. He expects his K/9 to fatten up going forward, and for good reason: Kaminsky considers his curve his strikeout pitch. He’s also working to fine-tune his delivery, which he said has been “a little closed off.” Better extension could add inches to his offerings.
Kaminky isn’t Clayton Kershaw when it comes to talent or pitch selection, but he pays close attention to baseball’s best. That includes viewing Kershaw’s FanGraphs player page.
“I look at things like what percentage he throws his slider and his curveball,” Kaminsky said. “He’s got an awesome curveball, which he doesn’t throw as often as people think. He throws a lot of sliders. He’s a guy I look up to and love to watch. I’m not Clayton Kershaw – what he does is special and I don’t throw a slider – but I emulate certain things he does.”
The most valuable tutelage Kaminsky received this year didn’t come via data. It was hands-on and came not only from pitching coordinators and the coaching staff in Peoria, but also from a fellow left-hander on a rehab assignment.
“Jaime Garcia was down at the complex while I was in extended spring training and I picked his brain a bunch,” Kaminsky said. “I was always asking him questions. Actually, if you ask him, I’m pretty sure he’d say I was annoying.
“He’s been there and done that, so I wanted to learn as much as I could from him. I asked about stuff like how he deals with adversity and bounces back. I mean, 91-92 down the middle works in New Jersey, but it doesn’t work here in pro ball. This year was an adjustment for me. Things panned out pretty well, but there was definitely a learning curve.”
I wrote something like this before, in the beginning of May of this season. During an arbitrary stretch between April 19 and May 14, Mike Trout struck out in 31% of his plate appearances, posting a .722 OPS. I identified the strikeouts as something to pay attention to, and then from May 15 through the All-Star break, Trout struck out in 20% of his plate appearances, posting a 1.111 OPS. So. Obviously, Trout adjusted to whatever needed to be adjusted to, or alternatively, the randomness swung in the other direction. For a while, it was easy to forget that Trout had ever slumped.
But now we’re back! Having learned nothing from the first go-round, I’m here to tell you to worry just a little bit about Mike Trout’s strikeouts. Since the All-Star break, Trout’s whiffed nearly 30% of the time, and he’s managed an OPS under .800. He’s still been a good player. He’s still been a terrifying player. He’s still, as of this moment, the almost certain winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. But we’re obligated by social contract to write about Trout at any opportunity, and there are signs pitchers are finally trying to take advantage of his vulnerabilities. You know the ones. You’ve thought about them for hours.
Let’s summarize by splitting Trout’s season at the break. Here is what’s happened with a few numbers:
K% – BB%: worse by 9.5 percentage points in the second half
Fly ball%: up six percentage points
Pop up%: up seven percentage points
Fastball run value: down 1.6 runs per 100 fastballs
Contact%: down three percentage points
Zone%: up four percentage points
wRC+: down 59 points
Everything kind of leads to the last bit. Trout’s made less contact, and he’s put more balls in the air, generally more weakly. So while he’s still been a good hitter the last couple months, he hasn’t been the terror he previously was. Now pay extra attention to that part about fastball run value. Trout, against non-fastballs, has mostly been fine in the second half. But fastballs have given him fits. And now we get to talk about that vulnerability we’ve pointed out here before.
Trout might be the game’s premier low-ball hitter. My theory is that’s why he’s had so much success against Felix Hernandez. Felix has tried to pitch to Trout right around where Trout likes to be pitched. This year Trout has slugged .664 against pitches no more than 2.5 feet off the ground, and .682 against pitches no more than 2 feet off the ground. Meanwhile, he’s slugged .353 against pitches at least 2.5 feet off the ground, and .104 against pitches at least 3 feet off the ground. Trout, probably, isn’t as extreme as those splits suggest, but he’s got the swing to destroy pitches around the knees, and that can leave him open against stuff by the belt.
So how has Trout been pitched in the second half? Some numbers, from Brooks Baseball:
First half: 39% four-seamers
Second half: 49%
First half: 23% sinkers
Second half: 16%
Trout has one of baseball’s biggest increases in four-seamer rate, and those are pitches you tend to find more up in the zone. He’s had a similar but smaller drop in sinker rate, and sinkers, of course, hang around the bottom of the zone when thrown properly. Those numbers hint at something; these numbers demonstrate something. From Baseball Savant:
First half: 42.5% pitches at least 2.5 feet off the ground
Second half: 49.0%
It’s not the very biggest increase in baseball, but it’s among them. Pitchers have been more willing to challenge Trout up, and in the meantime he hasn’t quite been himself. Or he’s been exactly himself, only against a different array of pitches than he’s used to. In the first half, he saw 38% four-seamers with two strikes. In the second half, he’s seen 50%. Those pitches are more often up, and they’re also a little more often away, just to try to keep Trout from pulling the ball like he likes.
This isn’t an easy thing to see pitch-to-pitch, especially since there’s a difference between pitch idea and pitch execution. Just because a pitch went up or down doesn’t mean that’s what was supposed to happen. But just as a maybe-example, here’s an at-bat between Trout and Colby Lewis from the first half of the season:
Everything down, but for a mistake slider middle-middle. Here’s Trout against Lewis in the second half, in the same ballpark with the same catcher:
Fastballs up. Four of ‘em. Colby Lewis doesn’t have a spectacular fastball, but everything looks faster high and tight, and Trout couldn’t catch up. This is one example that might not even be one good example, but the numbers speak for themselves. Trout’s been pitched more often in just the way it seemed like would be a good idea a few months ago.
I’ll note, also, that Trout hasn’t just struggled with four-seamers — he’s also had issues with those sinkers. But, the usage of one pitch can have an effect on the success of other pitches, as everything’s related. Pitchers are more often changing Trout’s eye level. There’s also this, from Brooks Baseball: in the second half, pitchers have thrown 26% fewer sinkers in the zone, and 33% more sinkers in just off the plate. So you’ve got Trout seeing more four-seamers up, and more running fastballs in on the hands. Then the breaking balls get separated from the fastballs, as pitchers open up almost every quadrant.
I have one odd question that might seem unusual: how much of this is because of Trout, and how much of this is because of the pitchers the Angels have faced? The Angels, as a team, have seen baseball’s second-highest increase in four-seamer rate since the break, and they’ve seen baseball’s greatest decrease in sinker rate. Trout can’t explain all of that. Maybe this is less about preparing for Trout, and more about a run of arms more likely to throw high fastballs. That seems like silliness — it seems like Trout would demand particular attention — but then, pitchers hadn’t really adjusted to Trout before, so maybe this is a fluke. It perhaps shouldn’t be a fluke, but we’ll see how it continues.
And we’ll see how Trout performs. We know he’s been far better on low pitches than high pitches, but maybe he’s been specifically targeting low pitches. If he is deliberately getting pitched up more often, maybe Trout starts to look for that, and maybe Trout starts to punish that. Maybe that then leaves him a little more vulnerable to pitches at the bottom. Maybe Trout’s actually able to cover all areas. Or maybe it’ll just turn out that the best player in baseball can be exposed around the belt and the belly button. If so, it feels like it shouldn’t have taken this long, but when you’re told over and over to try to keep the ball down, it turns into a personal strength, and, who would pitch away from their strengths? I mean, how good could a hitter possibly be?
When Jose Fernandez blew out his elbow in May, the baseball world wept, rightfully so. It didn’t matter if you were a Marlins fan or not, it only mattered that one of the brightest young stars in baseball was gone, just one of a billion (probably) pitchers to learn that pitching is really, really unhealthy. It wasn’t fair, in the same way that it wasn’t fair when Matt Harvey went down, or when Stephen Strasburg was injured before that. Never love a pitcher. They’ll just let you down.
If it was sad for baseball, it was all but certain doom for the Marlins. They had Giancarlo Stanton, sure, and a few interesting young players, but they also had little rotation depth, an infield that was supposedly going to be duct-taped together by guys who sort of looked like they might have once been Casey McGehee, Rafael Furcal, Garrett Jones and Jeff Baker, and two tough competitors in the NL East. Even with Fernandez, it was going to be a tough run to the playoffs. Without him? Impossible.
As expected, the Marlins are not going to make the playoffs. As completely unexpected, the Marlins have not only not collapsed without Fernandez, they’ve hung in there all season long. A win last night over Milwaukee would have put them at .500, on a four-game win streak and 3.5 games out of the second wild card. You can certainly make the argument that being the second wild card is barely “making the playoffs,” and many have. Of course, the Marlins have won two championships and have yet to win a division title. Considering how they’ve stuck around, did Fernandez’ injury cost Miami the playoffs?
* * *
What follows, to be clear, is not science. It’s for entertainment purposes only. But what is baseball if not for the purpose of entertainment? So let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations.
Fernandez, in his first year, was worth 5.7 RA9-WAR. The preseason ZiPS projections had him at 4.5 WAR. In eight starts, or one-quarter of a season, he was worth 1.1 RA9-WAR, and at least one of those came after he was already feeling pain. If you assume that was the pace he’d keep all season — this is all about assumptions, remember — he’d have been at about 4.5 WAR. Let’s call it 5, because tenths of a point in WAR don’t matter all that much and because he was worth more than that last year. (I’m using RA9-WAR wherever I can, because for the purposes of on-field wins and losses, it’s better to use runs allowed WAR rather than FIP-based.) It’s probably not controversial to suggest that a full season of Fernandez would have been worth five wins above replacement to the Marlins. We’ll go with that.
Miami has had 12 other starters this year, and three have them have been consistent members of the rotation: Henderson Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi and Tom Koehler. Alvarez, as I wrote about back in May, has been an unexpected surprise. Eovaldi has improved his peripherals, but not his run prevention. Koehler has turned into a decent back-end starter. Those three, along with Fernandez, made up four-fifths of the Miami rotation at the start of the season. Those three, at least when Alvarez returns from a stint on the disabled list later this week, still make up three-fifths of the Miami rotation. We can assume that the production they’ve offered would be the same whether or not Fernandez was around.
This is where it gets a little messy for Miami, though. Here’s the remaining starters who have appeared for the Marlins:
Name GS IP BABIP GB% K-BB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
Jarred Cosart 7 46.2 .248 46.8% 11.0% 2.4% 1.93 2.76 3.60 1.1 1.8
Brad Hand 13 71.1 .283 50.0% 5.5% 11.0% 4.42 4.45 4.28 0.1 0.4
Brad Penny 4 19 .302 54.8% -2.40% 6.3% 5.21 4.59 4.96 0.0 -0.1
Jacob Turner 12 62.2 .358 50.2% 7.1% 13.1% 6.03 4.51 4.07 0.1 -0.9
Randy Wolf 4 20.2 .366 38.0% 9.6% 14.8% 6.10 5.01 4.13 -0.1 -0.4
Andrew Heaney 4 20.2 .297 47.0% 7.8% 20.8% 6.53 6.17 4.48 -0.3 -0.3
Kevin Slowey 2 9 .259 33.3% 13.5% 7.1% 7.00 3.68 4.18 0.1 -0.2
Anthony DeSclafani 5 24.1 .325 31.3% 10.9% 11.4% 7.40 4.60 4.26 0.0 -0.6
Brian Flynn 1 4 .500 50.0% 4.8% 0.0% 11.25 3.12 4.06 0.1 -0.2
With one small-sample exception, it’s been awful. Let’s simplify this a bit. Teams need a fifth starter too, and for the first half of the season that was mostly Turner, who was terrible and eventually DFA’d, landing with the Cubs. Hand made two starts in April, went back to the bullpen (and the disabled list), and has been starting consistently since July. Those two have made 25 starts together and generally shared one rotation spot for the season, with some small overlap, and as the original fifth starter (Turner) and the first man up when an extra was needed (Hand), it’s easy to think that the duo may have held onto the fifth starter spot all year long if Fernandez had been around.
But since Fernandez hasn’t been available, the Marlins have had to continually scrounge up replacement starters from everywhere you can think of to fill in. They’ve given quick cameos to internal prospects DeSclafini, Flynn and Heaney. They traded for Cosart from Houston at the July deadline. They gave two starts to Slowey before releasing him in June, then somehow managed to dig up the ancient Wolf and Penny, and no, it’s not a typo that Penny’s K-BB% is in the negatives.
By our quick calculations, Fernandez would have offered approximately 4 additional RA9-WAR. The seven starters aside from Hand and Turner have made 27 starts and contributed -0.5 RA9-WAR, even with Cosart’s excellent performance. Without Cosart, it’s a lousy -2.3 RA9-WAR. Let’s be charitable and call it replacement-level, that the absence of Fernandez cost the team four wins. A 71-73 team might then have been 75-69. The Pirates have 69 losses. The Brewers and Braves both have 75 wins. At least one of those clubs is going to be involved in the wild card game.
But wait! While again, this is more for fun than it is for science, we can’t simply assume that a Marlins team with Fernandez leading it would have acted the same. As it is, they were reportedly “very aggressive” in trying to get Jon Lester. Ken Rosenthal said they looked into getting Wade Miley. One MLB.com report indicated they would have interest in James Shields this winter. The Miami Herald, in July, suggested that Tommy Milone and Ian Kennedy were on the radar, as well as Miley. Marlins president of baseball operations Mike Hill said that they’d attempted to get David Price and John Lackey, as well as Lester, for whatever that’s worth.
They didn’t get any of those guys, of course. They got Cosart from Houston, in a deal that was panned by some because it cost the Marlins outfield prospect Jake Marisnick and 2013 No. 6 overall pick Colin Moran. Cosart has pitched very well for Miami, and even if it seems unlikely he’ll keep it up to that extent, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s real and it happened. It’s also probably not likely that all of the interest in starting pitching was fueled only by the Fernandez injury. If Fernandez had been healthy and the team had been a few games closer to a playoff spot, you imagine that the team would have still been interested in adding a starter, and if Cosart was still the acquisition, then maybe they never need to dig up Penny. Maybe before that, Hand hangs on long enough so that Wolf and Slowey never need to appear.
This is all mental gymnastics, of course. You can extend this out as far as you want to. (“And if they’d acquired Mike Trout, they’d be in good shape, too!”) For a variety of reasons, though, the Marlins hung in there. Stanton, sure, but also McGehee, Alvarez, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Steve Cishek and A.J. Ramos. They’ve done it largely without a great deal of help from the rotation, with a group RA9-WAR that ranks just 25th, above only some truly disastrous outfits. A healthy Fernandez easily would have made them a few games better, and a few games better is all they would have needed to have had a legitimate chance right now, in mid-September.
When Jake Peavy came into the league, almost 85% of his pitches were either a fastball or slider. Now? “I throw just about every pitch in the book at this point,” the 33-year-old pitcher said. It’s all part of evolution — not only due to changes in his stuff and his mechanics, but also due to changes on the league level.
Even in the last seven years, for which we have reliable PITCHf/x data, league-wide trends are apparent. The low strike is getting called more, pitchers are throwing more two-seamers down in the zone, and all pitches are moving downward (all pitches 2007 on the left, 2014 on the right).
In response, Peavy has… started throwing more up in the zone. “There’s so much information that you get presented with here, to get outs. If you dig through it, you find out that throwing the ball up in the zone is not necessarily a bad thing,” Peavy said. “You have to do it, if you’re going to be successful.”
Although it’s impossible to see much of a difference in his pitch location if you zoom out over all of his pitches, there is a noticeable change in his pitch selection which should mean slightly more pitches up in the zone: Peavy is using the four-seamer more often these days. From Brooks Baseball:
That’s a function of two things. The first is the league-wide move towards the two-seamer and the low ball. “If you just live straight down now, hitters are taught to look down and their swings are to combat that, Peavy said, echoing much of what Sean Doolittle and Chris Young have said before. “The game’s ever-changing, and pitching up in the zone is as effective as pitching down.”
The other impetus for more four-seamers came from his changed mechanics. Peavy admits his arm slot is a bit higher than it’s ever been before. Looking at his release point data doesn’t give us much of a clue, but often the angle between a pitcher’s head and his arm can be more instructive than raw release point data.
In a great Q&A with David Laurila, Peavy tells us that his arm slot changed after he hurt his ankle in 2009. Let’s compare the angle between his arm and his head back then in 2009 and then from his last start in Chicago this season.
He does look more upright recently, if you focus on his head and the angle of his back. And going more upright means that his pitches behave differently, since arm angle determines much of the direction of the ball’s spin. “It changes the way the ball’s going to move out of your hand,” said Peavy about his more upright posture these days.
Of course, age confounds some of this, but still the differences are stark. Look at the horizontal and vertical movement numbers on his pitches in 2009 and 2014. In general, note how the positive red bars — representing his vertical movement — have mostly dropped, meaning he’s getting more drop out of his pitches. At the same time, the blue bars — representing his horizontal movement — seem to be ‘slimming’ or moving closer to zero in large part.
Some of his pitches have had to change grips because of his reliance on the four-seamer over the two-seamer. He prefers to use the four-seam change with the four-seam fastball, and two-seam change with the two-seam fastball. And so he’s transitioned slowly from the two-seam change grip (left) to the four-seam one (right) as his fastball mix has changed.
In terms of movement, it’s not easy to see the difference in Peavy’s changeup over time. If you fool with the yearly filters on this chart, though, you might notice a bit of a movement down and to the right — which would mean more vertical drop and less horizontal movement on his change. That could come from a slight alteration of his grips. Even in the graph above, you can see that he’s getting more drop on his change these days.
Another huge change from Peavy’s early years is a gradual move from the slider to the cutter. When he debuted, Peavy threw the slider almost a quarter of the time, without any cutters. That’s morphed to about 20% cutters and less than ten percent sliders in recent years. PITCHf/x algorithms have a hard time classifying the two, since they are so close in movement, but Peavy confirmed that he has both.
“Even though they are very similar, the cutter is a version of a fastball so you’re going to throw it more like you throw a fastball,” Peavy said. “You want the cutter to be as much like a fastball as it can be.” You can see that the grips below (slider on the left, cutter on the right) are very similar, but Peavy’s hand position upon release is very different.
As Zack Greinke pointed out, it can be hard to throw two pitches that are so similar. “I’ve really had to work hard to keep the slider being a slider and the cutter being a cutter,” Peavy agreed. Why has he made the move then? He wanted another reliable pitch. He’s even working on the splitter he tabled late last year. He wants to evolve. “I throw a little bit of everything,” as the pitcher said.
“When I look back at guys that I grew up watching, guys I watched when I got in the league — you watch Roger Clemens and think about who he was early in his career, a four-seam curveball guy, to when I got to face him, he was a sinker, heavy two-seam split guy,” Peavy said of evolution. “If you look at guys that have pitched a long time, they’re able to not reinvent themselves, but find different ways to go about it as the game is changing, to change with it. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
There’s a give and take over the course of a pitcher’s career. As your body robs you of velocity, your experience gives you more wisdom — and new pitches. The league can change around you, and you can use that knowledge to beat the hitters just as they try to do the same to you. The most important, thing, though, is to avoid being predictable once you’ve established some strengths.
“You gotta keep the opposition guessing on what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to go about it,” Peavy said. “Especially the older you get, when your stuff is not as good, you have to be unpredictable. I try to do that to the best of my ability, because I know how much preparation goes into it now.”
With the Marlins hanging around the periphery of the Wild Card race, there’s a strong chance that Giancarlo Stanton is going to win the NL MVP award. He’s the classic traditional candidate, leading the league in home runs and runs batted in, and the Marlins small gap from the Wild Card leaders will allow people to talk themselves into his performance having come in games that mattered. With all of the other top candidates requiring the rejection of some long held ideal, Stanton looks like a pretty easy choice for someone who likes the way that MVPs have traditionally been selected.
This may actually be bad news for the Marlins, however. An MVP trophy would be nice recognition for the franchise’s best player, but it would also increase his asking price in arbitration, and Stanton is already in a position where he has significant leverage. The Marlins have thus far eschewed trade requests for their right fielder, hopeful that they can convince him to sign a long-term deal to stay in Miami, but an MVP trophy might make a tough road even more difficult. Let’s look at the kinds of numbers Stanton may very well ask for to pass up the chance to hit free agency after the 2016 season.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Stanton is well past the point at which one could argue he should take a significant discount on his market value in order to accumulate the most-valuable first few millions of dollars and set himself up for life. Stanton made $6.5 million in salary this year, and his 2014 performance has already guaranteed him a significant raise for next year.
A reasonable estimate of his arbitration award is probably around $12 million — for comparison, Chris Davis got a $7 million raise after his 2013 season, which came at the same serivce time level — with a bump to maybe $15M if he wins the MVP trophy. Before even sitting down at the negotiating table, Stanton’s already going to have a minimum guarantee in the tens of millions for next year, and he simply doesn’t need to exchange risk for short-term financial security. He already has that.
We can roughly assume Stanton’s in line for about $30 million in arbitration payouts over the next two seasons, maybe $35 million if he wins the MVP this year. So, the question is how many additional years he would require to be bought to out to skip the free agent bidding war that he’s very likely in line for, and what kind of price he’d require for those years.
If Stanton doesn’t sign an extension, he’ll hit free agency heading into his age-27 season, so this is going to be his best shot to land a massive contract, but it also doesn’t need to be his only one. He probably won’t do the Mike Trout thing and sign away just three free agent years, but he also doesn’t need to sign a contract that locks him up for the rest of his career. If he signed an eight year deal this winter — selling six free agent years in the process — he could still hit free agency again at age-33. Or he could choose a Joey Votto-style deal that doesn’t even kick in until after his arbitration years, essentially locking up as many years as possible in advance.
Let’s evaluate both options, starting with the shorter deal. We’ll assume that the structure of the two arbitration years will remain roughly the same, so he’ll get something like $30 million in 2015 and 2016 regardless, so a short-term extension would just buy out six free agent years in advance, covering ages 27 to 32. This deal would be almost perfectly ideal for a team, as it would cover his peak years and very little of his decline phase, combining elite reward with only moderate risk for a contract of this size. Which is why Stanton almost certainly wouldn’t have to give much of a discount in order to get a team on board for signing a deal like this.
While Stanton is going to put up a +6 WAR season this year, and he’s young enough that he could get a little bit better, we should be somewhat conservative with his playing time estimates going forward, given that this is only the second year in his career in which he’s topped 600 plate appearances. Given his size and history of knee problems, a +5 WAR projection going forward is probably fair, though if you want to be a little more aggressive with the forecast, there’s certainly a case to be made that Peak Stanton could be a +6 WAR player. But we’ll stick with the somewhat conservative +5 WAR estimate for now, and you can always adjust these estimates up if you prefer a more aggressive projection. Here’s a very basic forecast for Stanton’s value in those six free agent years, if we assume that he’s a +5 WAR player through his prime.
Year Age WAR $/WAR Value
2017 27 5.0 $7.0 $35.0
2018 28 5.0 $7.4 $36.8
2019 29 5.0 $7.7 $38.6
2020 30 4.5 $8.1 $36.5
2021 31 4.0 $8.5 $34.0
2022 32 3.5 $8.9 $31.3
In two years, the price of a win in free agency is going to be much higher than $7 million apiece — roughly what it was at last winter — but the recent trend in long-term extensions has been to use something close to the current price of a win as a stand-in for the discount the player is taking for getting a big deal before reaching free agency. In other words, they sell their risk for the expected future inflation, so while Stanton would get more than this in free agency, we’re trying to estimate Stanton’s extension price, which is more likely to use something closer to $7 million per win as a starting point.
But even at $7 million per win with only five percent inflation, and with a potentially conservative +5 WAR estimate for his peak years, we’re still looking at $212 million in expected value over those six free agent years. Toss in the two arbitration years and roughly $30 million he’ll get for those years, and a total extension on these assumptions would be $240 million over eight years.
That deal would almost exactly match what Miguel Cabrera got from the Tigers — $248 million over eight years — this spring, when he also two years away from free agency, and Cabrera is certainly a viable comparison for Stanton as a player. But then again, the Tigers were buying Cabrera’s age 33-40 seasons, while Stanton would be selling 27-32, and even though Stanton might not have Cabrera’s resume (yet), the difference in their placements on the aging curves are significant enough where its difficult to see Stanton taking less than what Cabrera got a few months ago. Cabrera’s deal feels like a floor, and Stanton has plenty of leverage to demand a deal above that mark.
So let’s look at the longer deal, and say Stanton knows he can get a 10 year contract in free agency, so he won’t settle for anything less than that now. These longer deals come with a break on annual average value, so he wouldn’t get the same annual salary, but if he’s just concerned with maxing out guaranteed years and dollars, Votto did set a precedent for this kind of extension at the same level of service time as Stanton has now. We’ll look at the same chart as above, only extending our four additional years, and also adding a final column that incorporates a 10% discount on the AAV to make up for the extra guaranteed years.
Year Age WAR $/WAR Value 10% Discount
2017 27 5.0 $7.0 $35.0 $31.5
2018 28 5.0 $7.4 $36.8 $33.1
2019 29 5.0 $7.7 $38.6 $34.7
2020 30 4.5 $8.1 $36.5 $32.8
2021 31 4.0 $8.5 $34.0 $30.6
2022 32 3.5 $8.9 $31.3 $28.1
2023 33 3.0 $9.4 $28.1 $25.3
2024 34 2.5 $9.8 $24.6 $22.2
2025 35 2.0 $10.3 $20.7 $18.6
2026 36 1.5 $10.9 $16.3 $14.7
The full current-market rate for those 10 years comes out to $302 million, with the 10% discount knocking it down to $270 million. But remember, these numbers don’t include the two arbitration years, which add another ~$30 million to the total, so even with the 10% discount assumption on a super-long deal, we’d be looking at a total contract worth $300 million over 12 years.
The Votto deal is the natural comparison here, as his deal was 10/$225M that started after the existing 2/$26M ended, so at the point the Reds signed his deal, they had $251 guaranteed him $251 million over 12 seasons. Votto had a better track record than Stanton when he signed his contract, but he was also four years older, and baseball contracts have only gotten more expensive since that deal was signed. If Stanton decides he wants to max it years and dollars, he’s going to be able to beat the mark Votto set two years ago with relative ease.
The $300 million figure isn’t some kind of crazy ask; it’s actually based on several conservative estimates. My $/WAR estimates are lower than Matt Swartz’s, for instance, so if you went with his calculations, you’d start at around $8 million per win, not $7 million. And I didn’t include any potential improvement from Stanton during his prime, maxing out his estimated value at a mark below what he’s already accomplished twice in the last three years. Not only could you argue for a higher price-per-win, but you could realistically suggest that even these performance estimates might be too low. If you used a +6 WAR projection and $8 million per win, his 10 year valuation — not including the two arbitration years — comes out to $401 million.
I don’t think there’s any chance Stanton asks for $400 million, nor do I think any team would seriously entertain that figure. We’ll have to see the league crack $300 million before anyone even thinks about a deal starting with a four, and that’s the barrier that Stanton can try to break through if he wants. If he decides to go shorter term and set himself up for two big free agent contracts in his career, maybe he settles for something just north of what Cabrera got in March: 8/$250M, perhaps. But if he wants to max out years and dollars, there’s nothing wrong with asking for 12/$300M. If he stays healthy, he could easily be a good value even at that price.
There are a number of reasons that the Seattle Mariners find themselves in a heated race for a playoff spot as the 2014 season winds down. Felix Hernandez for one, and Robinson Cano and Hisashi Iwakuma, for two and three. And Kyle Seager, for four. They upgraded both their outfield defense and the back of their rotation from awful to fairly solid, both massive upgrades. On top of it all, their bullpen has by far the best ERA in the major leagues at 2.41, effectively shortening games to six or seven innings. In 2013, the Mariner pen, with many of the same pitchers in place, was not very good. This leads one to a number of questions regarding reliever performance. How does bullpen performance correlate with winning? What have similar frontrunning pens of the past few years had in common? Do high-end pens stay on top for very long?
Thus far in 2014, AL relief pitchers have a cumulative 3.61 ERA, through Tuesday night’s games. The Mariners pen’s 2.41 ERA translates to a 67 Relative Bullpen ERA. We’ll use that number to compare the leading bullpens going back to 2000 below. ERA, of course, isn’t the most cutting-edge statistic out there, and it’s dangerous to use it evaluate individual relievers and their inherent small sample sizes. Adding all of the relievers’ innings together gets the innings count up to 450 and above, making its usage much more palatable.
YR AL REL BPERA NL REL BPERA
2014 SEA 67 SD 74
2013 KC 69 ATL 70
2012 TB 81 CIN 70
2011 NYY 82 ATL 84
2010 TB 85 SD 71
2009 OAK 85 LAD 78
2008 TOR 71 PHL 79
2007 BOS 72 SD 75
2006 MIN 68 NYM 78
2005 CLE 69 STL 75
2004 ANA 82 STL 74
2003 ANA 74 LAD 61
2002 ANA 70 ATL 68
2001 SEA 74 CIN 90
2000 BOS 84 LAD 82
No, we haven’t adjusted for context here. It’s just team bullpen ERA, divided by league bullpen ERA. Considering that fact, you might expect the teams with the most pitcher-friendly ballparks to constantly appear at the top of their league. That’s not the case, however – 17 different organizations have led their respective league in relative bullpen ERA since 2000. The one thing that these clubs do have in common, however, is…..winning. All but four of these 30 clubs posted a winning record in that given season, and as a group they average 92 wins per season. So, having a good bullpen correlates with winning. That tells us a little something, I guess, but a truly good bullpen doesn’t just have significant success in that one peak season. Let’s take a look and see how the very best of these bullpens fared in the season before and after their peak season.
YR TM PREV PEAK NEXT
2003 LAD 93 61 75
2014 SEA 124 67 N/A
2006 MIN 80 68 89
2002 ATL 91 68 98
2013 KC 89 69 93
2005 CLE 115 69 111
2013 ATL 73 70 87
2012 CIN 99 70 94
2002 ANA 86 70 74
2010 SD 94 71 85
2008 TOR 80 71 98
These 11 clubs combined for a relative bullpen ERA of 69 in their respective peak seasons – 31% better than the average bullpen ERA, which is better than the overall league average ERA. Nine of these 11 bullpens (all except the 2005 Indians and 2014 Mariners) had a better than league average bullpen ERA in the season prior to their peak year, and nine of the 10 applicable bullpens (all but those 2005 Indians) had a better than league average bullpen ERA in the season following their peak year. However, very few of these pens were materially better than league average in either the year before or after their peak season. Only the 2013 Braves had a relative bullpen ERA below 80 in the season immediately preceding their peak year, and only the 2002 Angels and 2003 Dodgers did so in the season immediately following their peak year. These 11 top single-season pens had an average relative bullpen ERA of 93 in the year immediately preceding their peak season, and 90 in the year immediately following their peak season.
The 2005 Indians’ pen had the worst three-year run of this group. Bob Wickman was their closer all three seasons, and was often hurt. Their peak year included best-case scenario performances from vets Bobby Howry, David Riske and Arthur Rhodes, all of whom were about to decline in effectiveness and workload. Counting upward, the 2014 Mariners would come next. The big change in their pen this season was the addition of high-end closer Fernando Rodney, which allowed their younger hard throwers to each slide down a role in the pecking order. Still, three of the five most often-used Mariner relievers are the same in both 2013 and 2014 – their actual talent certainly lies somewhere between their exceptional 2014 and awful 2013.
The 2012 Reds featured the breakthrough of Aroldis Chapman into the closer role. That said, arguably the biggest difference between their performance that year compared to 2011 and 2013 was the presence of Sean Marshall in a key setup role. The remainder of their supporting cast was solid throughout the three-year period, but only a healthy Marshall gave them a second difference-maker. The 2002 Braves had a freak season from Chris Hammond (ERA under 1.00 in 76 innings), plus Mike Remlinger‘s career year and an out-of-nowhere swansong from Darren Holmes. Just one year later, they featured the likes of Trey Hodges and Jung Bong among their most often used relievers.
The 2013 Royals actually had very similar pen makeup during their three-year period. Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow were among their most often used relievers from 2012-14, with nary an above league average ERA among them. What has bitten them this season is the awful performance of their least-utilized relievers – there’s a bunch of 6 to 7-plus ERAs among that group. The 2010-11 Padres pen was fronted by closer Heath Bell and setup men Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams. Adams was the difference-maker in this group – he wasn’t there in 2009, when his innings went to the likes of Luis Perdomo and Greg Burke, and he was dealt to the Rangers late in 2011.
The 2008 Jays pen performance was driven by lefty Scott Downs. He was one of their most frequently used relievers in the three-year period, but his effectiveness and workload both peaked in 2008, which also saw career years from the likes of Jesse Carlson and Brian Tallet.
So, most of these “great” single-season pens – remember, these are the top 11 of the 450 individual team bullpen-seasons – were largely one-season wonders. These pens were largely solid in the previous and succeeding years, but sustained team bullpen excellence is apparently a very rare thing. Looking back at the first chart of league-leading team pens by season, only two organizations have led their league in consecutive seasons – the 2004-05 Cardinals, who won a total of 205 games, and the 2002-04 Angels, who won the World Series in their peak pen performance season.
Next, let’s take a look at the personnel makeup of the four best of these 11 pens – the ones who performed the best over the three-year span, the midpoint of which is represented by their peak performance season.
TM ROLE NAME ERA - TM NAME ERA - TM NAME ERA -
2005 MIN CL Nathan 62 2006 MIN Nathan 35 2007 MIN Nathan 42
R1 Crain 63 Crain 79 Guerrier 53
R2 Rincon 57 Rincon 65 Neshek 66
R3 Guerrier 78 Guerrier 75 Rincon 115
R4 Mulholland 111 Eyre 119 D.Reyes 90
———- ———– ———— ———– ———- ———— ———– ———- ———— ———–
2013 ATL CL Kimbrel 26 2006 MIN Kimbrel 33 2007 MIN Kimbrel 44
R1 C.Martinez 100 Varvaro 76 Hale 78
R2 Durbin 79 Carpenter 48 Carpenter 93
R3 Venters 82 Avilan 41 Varvaro 76
R4 O’Flaherty 44 Walden 93 Walden 65
———- ———– ———— ———– ———- ———— ———– ———- ———— ———–
2002 ANA CL Percival 60 2006 MIN Percival 43 2007 MIN Percival 78
R1 Pote 93 Weber 57 Rodriguez 68
R2 Levine 53 Levine 96 Weber 60
R3 Weber 77 Pote 73 Donnelly 35
R4 Hasegawa 91 Donnelly 49 Shields 64
———- ———– ———— ———– ———- ———— ———– ———- ———— ———–
2003 LAD CL Gagne 51 2006 MIN Gagne 30 2007 MIN Gagne 53
R1 Carrara 85 Mota 49 Sanchez 81
R2 Quantrill 70 Quantrill 43 Mota 74
R3 Mota 108 Shuey 74 Carrara 52
R4 Mulholland 139 Martin 87 Dreifort 107
These pens are listed from bottom to top, from the #4 2006 Twins (average relative three-year bullpen ERA of 79.0) to the #1 2003 Dodgers (76.3). For each club, their closer and the four pitchers with the next highest relief innings totals are listed, along with their ERA – (ERA relative to league average, not league bullpen average) for each season.
#4 – 2006 Twins (three-year relative bullpen ERA = 79.0)
This was a very stable cast of characters, with an elite closer, Joe Nathan, in the prime of his career, and two key setup men, Juan Rincon and Matt Guerrier, in place for all three seasons. Not a first round pick among this group – the highest draft pick among them was Jesse Crain, a second rounder. This was also a very cost-effective group – they cost under $4.0M cumulatively in 2005, as Crain/Rincon/Guerrier were all 0-3 service time guys. Oh, and Terry Mulholland is here, pitching terribly in 2005. He’ll be back later.
#3 – 2013 Braves (76.7)
Hammer closer in the prime of his career? Check, in the person of Craig Kimbrel. Interestingly, likely the two most talented pitchers of the remainder of this group, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, saw their workloads diminish or disappear after the first year of the Braves’ three-year peak period. It’s been a lot of fellow 12th round picks Anthony Varvaro, David Carpenter and Jordan Walden since then, in support of Kimbrel. Their 2013 peak season pen core cost them an incredibly cheap $2.7M, total.
#2 – 2002 Angels (76.7)
Yet another elite closer in his prime, in Troy Percival. Interestingly, it’s only in the year following their peak season that we see their signature bullpen, with Percival, Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields listed among their most frequently-used relievers – and the Angels won only 77 games that year. In 2001-02, it was a healthy dose of Ben Weber, Al Levine and Lew Pote. They got a huge boost from late-round draftees – Levine (11th), Weber (20th), Brendan Donnelly (27th), Pote (29th) and Shields (38th) were all selected after the 10th round.
#1 – 2003 Dodgers (76.3)
Eric Gagne was about as dominant as a closer can be over this three-year stretch, both in terms of quality and workload. Their 2003 peak season featured 82 1/3 innings of Gagne and an amazing 105 relief innings from Guillermo Mota, both with ERA- figures below 50. Then there’s the criminally underrated Paul Quantrill, who was dominant over a healthy workload in 2002-03. Throw in a couple fluky seasons from Giovanni Carrara, and you have a historically great three-year run. Oh, and there’s Terry Mulholland again, getting lit as part of an otherwise exceptional pen. There are three first rounders on their list – Mulholland, Paul Shuey and Darren Dreifort – among the most highly compensated but least essential parts of these pens.
So what have we got? A really good pen generally correlates with winning, but a really good pen is more often than not just a bit better than league average in the years before and after its peak. There is heavy year-to-year turnover in most pens, and in even the best of them, the draft pedigree of the individual members often isn’t that great. The very best pens are quite often very inexpensive, featuring multiple cost-controlled 0-3 years players. A hammer, top-of-his-game closer seems to be a necessity, but more often than not, an elite bullpen features an elite closer who isn’t yet paid elite dollars.
Let’s take this back full circle to this year’s elite pen, which belongs to the Seattle Mariners. Rodney might not be Kimbrel, but he’s a top-shelf closer. The rest of the guys have pedigrees resembling those of many of the pitchers we’ve discussed here. Danny Farquhar is a well-traveled 40-man roster bubble guy. Dominic Leone was a 16th round pick. Tom Wilhelmsen was out of baseball for several years, showed up in Arizona for a tryout, and worked his way to the big leagues.
The going rate for free agent closers has come down to reasonable levels in recent offseasons, and teams that long avoided that market are now – wisely – back in. Putting significant dollars into anything less than a high-end closer? The tables above should give clubs pause from going there. Short-term, high-end relievers come from everywhere – from the late rounds of the draft, relatively low-dollar Latin American signings, waiver claims, independent leagues, minor trades, etc.. These pitchers are usually starters as amateurs, but move to the pen as professionals. They generally have above average fastballs, a plus secondary pitch and/or a distinguishing batted-ball profile characteristic, i.e., a very high grounder or popup rate.
During my tenure with the Mariners, I was significantly involved in the amateur draft. In 2011, we took Carson Smith in the 8th round, and in 2012, took Leone in the 16th. Smith was a prime target of mine – size, downplane, velocity, workload, and numbers – a huge grounder rate. Leone was a prime target of our Scouting Director, Tom McNamara, who in addition to admiring Leone’s measurables, had a gut feel for the kid’s heart. Our area scouts and crosscheckers loved these kids, and had all of their ducks in a row, paving the way for their eventual selection.
Leone’s had a strong rookie season, and Smith has been lights out in his first MLB outings, in the heat of a pennant race. As we have seen above, you need a steady stream of these guys to have a strong bullpen on an ongoing basis, and you don’t have to snag them in the early rounds of the draft, or pay full price for anything but a high-end closer on the free agent market. Individual relievers will break your heart, but a sound organizational strategy geared toward the accumulation of a critical mass of potential major league relievers is pivotal to building a winning organization.
Some housekeeping notes to clarify and expound on the rankings:
- Brady Aiken still hasn’t signed and nothing concrete has been announced to that end, so he’s in the 2015 class until further notice. Like Aiken, Phil Bickford’s school is unknown at the moment, but both are expected to go to junior colleges out west.
- This draft class is shallow at the top. The top 3 players are a tier and then the players right behind them would usually be around 10th in most classes. There’s still plenty of time for new players to emerge or known players to get better, but at this point things are a little light.
- The Astros are once again a big story, as they have the 2nd overall pick (compensation for not signing Aiken) and as of today the 7th pick as well. That’s still fluid with picks 5-9 separated by 2 games with under 20 to go.
- One of the reasons you’ll keep hearing about the Astros and Aiken is because Aiken’s advisor, Casey Close’s Excel Sports Management, represents 6 of my top 15 prospects right now, with a couple of the top 15 prospects still uncommitted to advisors. (I won’t connect specific players to advisors as that only serves to help the NCAA take leverage/college eligibility from kids.) Neither side has said they won’t sign or won’t draft a player from the other side, but the tension from the Aiken/Nix saga certainly doesn’t make this an easy situation to figure.
- A huge wildcard in this draft process is Texas prep SS Kyler Murray. Some football recruiting services have him as the top prep quarterback in the country and compare the 6’1/180 speedster to Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. Murray has shown very little interest in baseball and only went to one national event this summer, but scouts are hopeful he’ll change his tune this spring.
Scouts think Murray may start showing more interest in baseball and they have some reasons to believe this. Scouts have no idea how good Murray is and they won’t know until a couple weeks into the spring, at least. We know he can play somewhere up the middle, is a plus-plus runner and has big bat speed…and that’s about it. My ranking is a bit of a hedge between the two possibilities: he could turn into a top half of the first round talent or just be another dual-sport guy with holes at the plate that most teams aren’t crazy about.
Another interesting angle is that Murray’s uncle is former big leaguer Calvin Murray, who works for agent Scott Boras. Murray/Boras advised a supposedly unsignable prep prospect, who surprisingly signed for $5 million in the 2011 MLB Draft, Pirates OF Josh Bell. Given that Murray isn’t the slam dunk high 1st round type of QB and Texas A&M already has some solid QB options on campus, Murray would have a reason to see what baseball could offer him. If he moves into consensus first round range this spring and can find the right team willing to overpay relative to the consensus, a guaranteed multi-million dollar bonus up front would be an enticing new option.
- There are lots of big league bloodlines among players on the list, with the sons of Terry Shumpert (Nick), Charlie Hayes (Ke’Bryan), Eli Marrero (Elih), Kirk Gibson (Cam), Mariano Rivera (Mariano Jr.) and Mike Cameron (Daz) all appearing, with the brothers of Carson Sands (Cole), Jay Sborz (Josh), Stryker Trahan (Blake) and Preston Tucker (Kyle) also on the list. There’s also a couple really cool names in the class, like Skye Bolt, Demi Orimoloye, Lucius Fox (spelled the same as Morgan Freeman’s character in the Batman movies) and the perfect name for a potential southern senator: Dansby Swanson.
- I cut the list off at 51 as that was the rough point where things really opened up and scouts started disagreeing, with some taking off a player for another they like better while another would do the exact opposite with the same players. Consensus is a funny word this early in the draft process and some scouts don’t even have the same top 3 as me and most other scouts, but 50 or so seemed right. This list comes from over a year of going to games and talking to scouts, with over two dozen scouts and double digit scouting directors consulted in the last few weeks.
- The present hit grades for Rodgers and for all amateur players going forward is a peer grade (which I’ll discuss in more detail in a few days in an another article about the hit tool), rather than just putting blanket 20s on everyone’s present hit tool. A peer grade means how the player performs currently in games relative to his peers: players the same age and general draft status or skill level. Some teams started using this system to avoid over-projecting a raw hitter; some use the rule that you can’t project over 10 points above the peer grade for the future grade. This helps you avoid saying players that can’t really hit now will become standout big league hitters. Obviously, some will, but it’s not very common and it’s probably smart to not bet millions on the rare one that will.
1. Brendan Rodgers, SS, Lake Mary HS (FL), Florida State commit
Hit: 60/60, Raw Power: 60/60 , Speed: 50/50+ , Field: 50/55, Throw: 55/55
Rodgers was a standout last summer with scouts saying he’d go in the top 50 picks as a high school junior, then he took a huge step forward this summer when his bat speed and raw power jumped at least a notch, if not two. If you want to see him really let loose at the plate, check out this video, which I’m assuming is the And1 Mixtape Home Run Derby. Rodgers is only a solid-average runner but makes the most of his foot speed with solid instincts and very rarely ever misplays a ball at short. Some scouts aren’t ready to anoint him the top prospect in the land yet because he doesn’t “look like that type,” which is basically code for an average running white shortstop isn’t supposed to go 1/1. An averaging running shortstop from Orlando went 5th overall last year with 50 at best raw power and the 2015 class is shallow up top, so Rodgers belongs somewhere close to #1 if he isn’t the best player right now.
2. Brady Aiken, LHP, Who Knows?
Fastball: 55/60, Curveball: 55/60, Changeup: 55/60, Command: 45/55
Aiken’s story is well known at this point. The stuff has never been in doubt, just like the command, age and frame have all been pluses the whole time as well. There is no injury history and only one team has seen his medicals, but his elbow left them a little worried. That’s enough so slide him behind Rodgers, though some scouts would flip the two. If he doesn’t end up finding a solution with the Astros, he’s expected to enroll at Yavapai JC in Arizona.
3. Michael Matuella, RHP, Duke
Fastball: 65/70, Curveball: 50/60, Changeup: 45/50+, Command: 40/50+
Matuella didn’t pitch this summer, so only Carolinas area scouts have really seen him; I happened to run into his first start after recovering from arm soreness when I was in town for other games. The temperature was in the 40′s that day and while I had heard Matuella had broken out that spring, expectations were low. He sat 93-97 mph for four innings with a 60 curveball and solid-average changeup and command. Matuella is surprisingly loose for 6’6′/225 and reminds me a lot of Pirates top prospect Tyler Glasnow, who I’ve seen a few times this year. The concern is that Matuella has only thrown 58 innings since his velo spike and there was multiple week arm soreness in the middle of it. When scouts get first looks at him this fall and early in the spring, they’re going to like what they see and if he can stay healthy until draft day with the stuff I saw, he’s a legit 1/1 threat.
4. Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt: Buehler’s stuff took a step forward this spring, sitting 91-95 and hitting 96 mph with two plus breaking balls and changeup/command that flash above average; the concern is his rail-thin 6’1/160 frame.
5. Phil Bickford, RHP, JC to be named: The 6’4/200 Bickford left Cal State Fullerton recently to get 2015 draft eligible and will announce where he’s headed soon, with junior college the assumed destination; he went 10th overall out of high school and has improved since then, hitting 97 mph in short stints on the Cape with a plus slider, which he never showed in high school.
6. Kolby Allard, LHP, San Clemente HS (CA), UCLA commit: Allard is listed at 6’0/165 but is the youngest projected 1st rounder and showed a consistent above average fastball/slider combo all summer until he sat 93-95 mph in an inning late in the summer with a sharper slider; some expect a big step forward in the spring like Brady Aiken, another SoCal lefty that was very young for his class, showed last spring.
7. Dansby Swanson, SS, Vanderbilt: Swanson was a standout defensive shortstop in high school but hasn’t played there yet in college or in the summer, though he should take over short this spring for the Commodores; scouts expect him to show the tools to stick there and the 6’1/200 Swanson is a plus runner with an advanced bat.
8. Daz Cameron, CF, Eagle’s Landing HS (GA), Florida State commit: The son of Mike Cameron was getting Justin Upton-type hype as a prep sophomore but hasn’t taken the expected steps forward since then, though some scouts are anticipating a jump this spring; he’s still really good, but now compares less to Upton and more to the 23rd pick in last year’s draft, Tigers CF Derek Hill, as an overall prospect.
9. Justin Hooper, LHP, De La Salle HS (CA), UCLA commit: The 6’7/230 lefty has been up to 97 mph with an above average curveball and, late in the summer, flashed an above average changeup, though the command lags behind due to the effort in his delivery.
10. Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville: The 6’2/220 righty sits 92-94 and bumps 96 mph with a plus slider and a solid-average changeup, but his command still comes and goes at times.
11. Cody Ponce, RHP, Cal Poly Pomona: The breakout pitcher of the Cape this summer comes from a tiny school in SoCal but he stands tall at 6’6/240. Scouts saw different versions of Ponce this summer but, in his best starts, he was 91-95 with a 55 or 60 curveball and the changeup/command to start while, in the Cape All-Star Game, he sat 94-97 mph with a 65 slider.
12. Alex Bregman, SS, LSU: One of the most famous players in college baseball had a bit of a down sophomore campaign and some scouts think he still fits better at 2B as a pro, but he flashes four above average tools and double-digit homer power from a simple swing.
13. Ian Happ, 2B/CF, Cincinnati: The 5’11/190 switch-hitter doesn’t have a first round type frame and has bounced around the field defensively, but flashes above average hit/power tools and plus speed.
14. Ashe Russell, RHP, Cathedral HS (IN), Uncommitted: The 6’4/195 righty was 92-95 with an above average curveball and solid-average changeup much of the summer.
15. Chris Betts, C, Wilson HS (CA), Tennessee commit: The 6’2/220 Betts drew Brian McCann comparisons this summer for above average raw power and hitting tools to go with a huge plus arm and enough defensive ability for a chance to stick behind the plate.
16. Nick Plummer, LF, Brother Rice HS (MI), Kentucky commit: Plummer popped up late in the summer and while he’s only 5’11/200 and fits in left field, he’s a quick-twitch athlete with plus bat speed, above average raw power and lots of hard contact.
17. Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt: Fulmer is listed at 5’11/195 and has toned-down his reliever-only delivery to give himself a chance to start, but I wouldn’t bet against the rubber-armed Vandy ace; he sits 92-96 and hits 97 with life and an above average curveball and changeup.
18. Alonzo Jones, 2B/CF, Columbus HS (GA), Vanderbilt commit: 80 runner draws splits takes on whether he plays in infield or outfield but looked like a new guy last month, flashing 50 raw power and plus bat speed from both sides that scouts hadn’t seen earlier this summer.
19. Mike Nikorak, RHP, Stroudsburg HS (PA), Alabama commit: Unknown 6’5/205 righty announced himself as a first round type hitting 97 mph with a 55 or 60 curveball in June; he’s flashed an above average changeup as well but the velo has slipped into the high 80′s at times as well.
20. Kyle Cody, RHP, Kentucky: The 6’7/245 monster is still low-energy and inconsistent but, at his best, he sits 92-96 hitting 97 mph with a 55 curveball and changeup with enough command to start.
21. Nate Kirby, LHP, Virginia: Kirby didn’t pitch much this summer but didn’t need to after a huge sophomore campaign put him in first round contention; at his best, Kirby sits 92-94 mph with an above average breaking ball and feel to pitch.
22. D.J. Stewart, LF, Florida State: The 6’0/230 slugger doesn’t look like the typical first round bat, but he’s flashed above average hit and power tools with advanced feel for the strike zone and surprising athleticism from his football days.
23 .Trenton Clark, LF, Richland HS (TX), Texas Tech commit: Clark has slowly grown on scouts, as he first appears to be a tweener with 50 raw power, 55 speed and a 45 arm, but he’s raked more than any prep bat this summer and now looks like a more physical version of 2013 Oakland 1st rounder Billy McKinney.
24. Jake Lemoine, RHP, Houston: The 6’5/220 righty’s velo dipped down the stretch last spring, but he was back to normal this summer with an above average to plus fastball/slider combination and an improving changeup that’s also above average at times.
25. Kyle Tucker, RF, Plant HS (FL), Florida commit: The sweet-swinging lanky 6’4 lefty has drawn swing comparisons to Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr. and Daryl Strawberry while flashing projectable plus raw power with feel for the bat head; his summer game performance have been up and down but scouts that have history with Tucker expect him to take a huge step forward in the spring.
26. Greg Pickett, LF, Legend HS (CO), Mississippi State commit: The loose 6’4/210 lefty slugger flashes plus raw power and advanced feel for the strike zone, but he gave scouts some uneven looks this summer while he battled a leg injury.
27. Beau Burrows, RHP, Weatherford HS (TX), Texas A&M commit: The 6’2 righty regularly runs it into the mid-90′s with an above average hook, but he lacks projection and is more of a thrower right now.
28. Dillon Tate, RHP, UC Santa Barbara: The 6’2/185 righty has explosive stuff, sitting in the mid-90′s and hitting 99 mph with a slider that’s at least a 60 and some scouts hang a 70 on it; his delivery is high effort but he’s athletic enough that some think he could start.
29. Chris Shaw, 1B, Boston College: The 6’4/250 slugger is in surprisingly good shape for his listed size with a good sense of the strike zone, feel for the bat head, smooth mechanics and plus raw power; he has an average arm and could play a passable corner outfield as well.
30. Alex Young, LHP, TCU: The 6’2 lefty seems ordinary with a fastball, changeup and command that are all 50 or 55, but then he breaks out his plus low-80′s plus curveball and slider.
31. Austin Smith, RHP, Park Vista HS (FL), Florida Atlantic commit: The 6’4/215 righty has the smoothest arm action in the class, with scouts expecting he’ll sit in the mid-90′s one day and he flashes solid-average off-speed already; he sat mostly 90-91 this summer then hit 96 mph in an inning at the PG All-American Classic.
32. Chandler Day, RHP, Watkins HS (OH), Vanderbilt commit: The lanky 6’4 righty runs it up to 93 mph now with three pitches that flash above average and the frame/delivery to dream for more.
33. Marcus Brakeman, RHP, Stanford: The 6’1/180 Brakeman was another breakout arm on the Cape this summer, jumping from 88-91 for the Cardinal last spring to a consistent 91-95 this summer; his fringy curveball is the concern but the solid-average command and plus changeup help make up for it.
34. Gio Brusa, LF, Pacific: One of the breakout bats on the Cape this summer steadily moved up this list as scouts kept saying how much they liked his bat in a weak crop for college bats: there’s above average raw power and a 60 bat for some scouts, but not much in the way of speed/defense/arm.
35. Riley Ferrell, RHP, TCU: Ferrell sat out this summer but is plenty well-known to scouts as the two-year closer for the Horned Frogs and last summer for Team USA: he sits 94-97 with reports he’s hit 99 or 100 mph and an above average to plus slider, but it’s relief-only.
36. Demi Orimoloye, RF, St. Matthew HS (CAN), Uncommitted: Orimoloye caught scouts’ attention last year as an underclassman at the Area Code games and batting behind 2014 2nd rounder Gareth Morgan (Mariners) for Team Canada; Orimoloye is a 6’4/225 monster with a chance for five above average tools.
37. Richie Martin, SS, Florida: Area scouts were openly joking last spring that the talented but inconsistent Martin would be benched as a junior, but he took a huge step forward this summer on the Cape: there’s still some mental lapses defensively, but he’s a plus runner with the tools to play short, a developing bat and 50 raw power.
38. Garrett Whitley, CF, Niskayuna HS (NY), Wake Forest commit: Whitley popped up late in the summer, but the 6’2/200 athlete has legit tools, with 65 speed, 50 raw power and some feel to hit.
39. Kyler Murray, SS, Allen HS (TX), Texas A&M commit (FB): Discussed in depth in the intro, one of the top prep quarterbacks in the country could become a factor in the top half of the first round when scouts are finally able to watch him this spring.
40. Luken Baker, 1B/RHP, Oak Ridge HS (TX), TCU commit: The massive 6’4/240 Texan sits 92-95 mph in short stints with an above average breaking ball but more of a relief look while, at the plate, he flashes 65 or 70 raw power with surprisingly good contact skills; scouts are still split on whether his future is as a hitter or pitcher.
41. Jahmai Jones, 2B/OF, Wesleyan HS (GA), North Carolina commit: The 6’0/210 Jones has played mostly outfield this summer but looked like he could fit at 2B last summer; the above average to plus runner has a simple, efficient swing and caught fire late in the summer.
42. Tyler Jay, LHP, Illinois: Jay was a complete unknown that pitched in relief for Team USA this summer and, while he’s about 6’0 with little track record and some effort to the delivery, the stuff is electric: 93-97 mph with above average to plus curveball and changeup.
43. Joe DeMers, RHP, College Park HS (CA), Washington commit: The 6’2/230 righty doesn’t have the kind of frame or delivery you expect with elite high school arms, but DeMers makes his delivery work for him and was 91-94 touching 96 mph all summer with a changeup and curveball that flash above average.
44. Cornelius Randolph, 3B, Griffin HS (GA), Clemson commit: Randolph showed flashes of first round ability this summer with average speed/defense and above average arm/raw power to go with some feel to hit, though some scouts saw lesser tools at times and are more cautious.
45. Cadyn Grenier, SS, Bishop Gorman HS (NV), Oregon State commit: Grenier is a steady shortstop that has just enough ability to stick there long-term and above average speed, which was complemented by a stronger frame with more bat speed late in the summer.
46. Triston McKenzie, RHP, Royal Palm Beach HS (FL), Vanderbilt commit: Rail-thin 6’5/160 righty sits around 90 mph now, touches higher and flashes an above average breaking ball to go with enough changeup/command to start.
47. Andrew Suarez, LHP, Miami: The Nationals’ unsigned 2nd rounder from 2014 sat 91-95 mph most times out last spring with an above average breaking ball and the changeup/command to start; he should go in the same range again.
48. Christin Stewart, LF, Tennessee: Physical power hitter flashes plus raw power from the left side and raked for Team USA this summer, but swing mechanics are inconsistent and speed/defense/arm limit him to left field.
49. Mikey White, SS, Alabama: Not a flashy player, but White has steadily improved at the plate and could be a league-average bat that gets the most out of solid-average tools at a middle infield position.
50. Mitchell Hansen, LF, Plano HS (TX), Stanford commit: Lanky 6’4 athlete flashes above average power potential and speed with developing feel at the plate, but arm strength limits him to left field.
51. Kyle Molnar, RHP, Aliso Niguel HS (CA), UCLA commit: Molnar doesn’t have much physical projection or the prettiest arm action, but he flashes three above average pitches with feel and keeps improving.
Just Missing The List
Nick Shumpert, SS, Highlands Ranch HS (CO), Kentucky commit: Son of former big leaguer Terry Shumpert, Nick has above average to plus speed and a chance to stick at shortstop, but can get pull-happy at the plate with a Juan Gonzalez-style swing at times and is maxed-out at 5’11/175.
Corey Zangari, RHP, Carl Albert HS (OK), Oklahoma State commit: Zangari only threw in one national event this summer and didn’t even throw for his high school team last year due to control issues. The 6’4/225 righty has been in the mid-90’s at his best with three pitches all flashing above average.
Daniel Reyes, LF, Mater Academy HS (FL), Florida commit: I first saw Reyes when he started as a freshman on a loaded Mater Academy team in left field alongside CF Albert Almora (#6 overall pick in 2012) and RF Willie Abreu (#3 hitter for Miami Hurricanes as a freshman last year). Reyes is a solid athlete with 60 raw power and smooth, quick hands, but is limited to left field and his swing broke down late in the summer.
Garrett Wolforth, C, Concordia Lutheran HS (TX), Dallas Baptist commit: The son of pitching guru Ron Wolforth re-classified to the 2015 class in the last few weeks and he’s the youngest kid on this list by a few months. His carrying tool is a 70 arm that he loves showing off and the 6’2/185 switch hitter has feel to hit and catch as well.
Josh Staumont, RHP, Azusa Pacific: The 6’2/205 righty from a Division II school in SoCal turned heads getting up to 97 or 98 mph regularly last spring, with a heavily anticipated Cape Cod League showing this summer. Things were very uneven, with him occasionally showing upper 90’s heat, a potential plus curve and usable changeup but at other times he showed 20 command of more average stuff due to delivery problems.
Steven Duggar, CF, Clemson: Duggar has added more speed and arm strength since high school, now flashing 70s for both tools, but his swing mechanics still need some adjustments to make more contact and get to his power in games.
Kevin Newman, SS, Arizona: Newman led the Cape in hitting two summers in a row and scouts keep saying someone will take him in the 2nd round next year, but the tools aren’t huge. Most think he fits best at second base long term and his power and speed are both below average, but he can really hit and can play somewhere up the middle with flashy numbers, so someone will bite.
Interesting Talents With Top 5 Round Upside
Ryan Perez, BHP, Judson (IL): This switch pitcher from a tiny college in Illinois isn’t just a sideshow. Perez is better from the left side, where he’s 90-93 with a plus slider at his best, and both pitches are a tick or two lower from the right side. He has solid command, but some scouts only saw average stuff at times and wonder if he can go in the top 5 rounds since they haven’t seen a changeup. either.
Cam Gibson, CF, Michigan State: The son of Kirk Gibson is an 80 runner for many scouts, but his hitting mechanics are a little too much like Ichiro, given Gibson’s potential average power and the swing is high maintenance enough that he didn’t make much contact on the Cape. Another scout also noted Gibson’s “sweet blonde mullet.”
Nolan Long, RHP, Wagner: The 6’10 righty drew attention from top ACC and SEC schools for hoops but wanted to play baseball as well and Wagner was the top school that allowed him to play both. It may be a mistake by those major schools, as Long was 89-92 with some reports he hit 95 mph in the NECBL this summer.
Kyri Washington, CF, Longwood (VA): The hitter with the most raw power on the Cape (65) is also a plus runner that can play center field, so why isn’t he on the list? His plate discipline is awful and his swing isn’t exactly great either: it’s mostly raw tools for a former football player still new to baseball.
Drew Jackson, SS, Stanford: Jackson was regularly called a potential 1st rounder as a freshman and on the Cape after his freshman year, as the 6’2/195 athlete is a plus runner with a chance to stick at short and the strength for average power. His swing has completely fallen apart and Stanford doesn’t exactly have the reputation of fixing swings. He sat 90-91 in a late season Cape appearance on the mound; he’s so talented there has to be a solution here.
Mariano Rivera Jr., RHP, Iona: Little Mo was mostly 88-90 last year and appeared to be a courtesy draft by the Yankees in the 29th round last June. This summer, reports from the NECBL have hi sitting 90-92, touching 94 mph and some are wondering if he’s a late-bloomer like his father.
Justin Jacome, LHP, UC Santa Barbara: Jacome (pronounced HOCK-oh-me) is a low-effort, projection and command lefty with some similarities to the crafty big league lefty of your choice. The 6’6/225 lefty sat 85-89 touching 90 this summer with a solid-average four pitch mix, comically low effort, extreme pitchability, a clean delivery, a magical ability to miss bats and RecSpecs, so you know he’s serious.
Jake Kelzer, RHP, Indiana: Some area scouts were scrambling late leading up the 2014 draft to get looks at the 6’7/235 draft-eligible redshirt freshman swimmer for the Hoosiers. Some scouts didn’t know Kelzer was eligible but he ended up getting drafted (and not signing) as a 22nd rounder of the Yankees. Kelzer is 90-93, touching 94 mph with a hard slider at his best, but is still pretty raw.
More Prospects To Watch
I had a lot more names that were mentioned by scouts and I wanted to rank more players, but there wasn’t enough consensus for a hard ranking of this many kids. So, I made four groups of 17 players from each demographic, ranked in no particular order, to give you more names to monitor for rounds 3-4, though I could’ve easily expanded this even further.
HS pitchers: RHP Cole McKay (TX, LSU), RHP Cole Sands (FL, Florida State), RHP Gray Fenter (TN, Mississippi State), RHP Brady Singer (FL, Florida), LHP Hunter Bowling (FL, Florida), RHP Jason Bilous (DE, Coastal Carolina), RHP Donnie Everett (TN, Vanderbilt), LHP Juan Hillman (FL, UCF), LHP Thomas Szapucki (FL, Florida), RHP Cody Morris (MD, South Carolina), RHP Matthew McGarry (CA, Vanderbilt), LHP Max Wotell (NC, Arizona), RHP Chris Andritsos (TX, Oklahoma), LHP Brendon Little (PA, North Carolina), RHP Nolan Watson (IN, Vanderbilt), RHP Riley Thompson (KY, Louisville), RHP Bryan Hoeing (IN, Louisville)
HS hitters: SS Jalen Miller (GA, Clemson), SS Jonathan India (FL, Florida), SS Lucius Fox (FL, North Carolina State), 3B Bryce Denton (TN, Vanderbilt), CF D.J. Wilson (OH, Vanderbilt), LF Chris Chatfield (FL, USF), RF Ryan Johnson (TX, TCU), 2B Travis Blankenhorn (PA, Kentucky), LF Kep Brown (SC, None), 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes (TX, Tennessee), CF Ryan McKenna (ME, Liberty), 3B Brendon Davis (CA, Fullerton), 3B John Aiello (NJ, Wake Forest), 3B L.T. Tolbert (FL, South Carolina), 3B Ryan Mountcastle (FL, UCF), CF Eric Jenkins (NC, UNC Wilmington), C Wyatt Cross (CO, North Carolina)
College pitchers: RHP Cody Poteet (UCLA), LHP Brett Lillek (Arizona State), RHP Trent Thornton (North Carolina), RHP Kyle Wilcox (Bryant), RHP Tyler Ferguson (Vanderbilt), RHP Brock Hartson (UT San Antonio), RHP Jon Harris (Missouri State), RHP Blake Hickman (Iowa), RHP Eric Hanhold (Florida), RHP James Kaprelian (UCLA), RHP Kolton Mahoney (BYU), LHP Travis Bergen (Kennesaw State), RHP Jon Duplantier (Rice), RHP Josh Sborz (Virginia), RHP Ryan Burr (Arizona State), LHP Garrett Cleavinger (Oregon), RHP Seth McGarry (Florida Atlantic)
College hitters: SS Kal Simmons (Kennesaw State), CF Andrew Stevenson (LSU), 2B Edwin Rios (FIU), SS C.J. Hinojosa (Texas), C Taylor Ward (Fresno State), RF Rhett Wiseman (Vanderbilt), SS Blake Trahan (Louisiana Lafayette), LF Donnie Dewees (North Florida), CF Harrison Bader (Florida), 3B David Thompson (Miami), RF Joe McCarthy (Virginia), LF Isiah Gilliam (Chipola JC), 3B Matt Gonzalez (Georgia Tech), LF Brandon Sanger (Florida Atlantic), 3B Travis Maezes (Michigan), CF Braden Bishop (Washington), CF Skye Bolt (North Carolina)
Here’s the scouting data (not the text report) from what I wrote on the Rangers list, their top prospect, Joey Gallo.
Hit: 30/45, Game Power: 60/70, Raw Power: 80/80, Speed: 40/40, Field: 45/50, Throw: 70/70
Upside: .260/.350/.500 (30-35 HR), fringy 3B or solid RF
FV/Risk: 60, High (4 on a 1-5 scale)
Projected Path: 2014: AA, 2015: AAA/MLB, 2016: MLB
For this, we’ll focus on the hit grade and upside and risk sections. I’ve re-posted a table from the introduction to this series, showing the scale most clubs use to project the hit tool.
Tool Is Called Fastball Velo Batting Avg Homers RHH to 1B LHH to 1B 60 Yd Run
80 80 97 .320 40+ 4.00 3.90 6.3
75 96 .310 35-40 4.05 3.95 6.4
70 Plus Plus 95 .300 30-35 4.10 4.00 6.5
65 94 .290 27-30 4.15 4.05 6.6
60 Plus 93 .280 23-27 4.20 4.10 6.7
55 Above Avg 92 .270 19-22 4.25 4.15 6.8
50 Avg 90-91 .260 15-18 4.30 4.20 6.9-7.0
45 Below Avg 89 .250 12-15 4.35 4.25 7.1
40 88 .240 8-12 4.40 4.30 7.2
35 87 .230 5-8 4.45 4.35 7.3
30 86 .220 3-5 4.50 4.40 7.4
The main concerns from readers were 1) that it seems arbitrary to say someone is a .260 hitter but NOT a .250 hitter when that’s often a BABIP-fueled luck thing anyway and 2) since we’re trying to project OBP within the hit tool, so why isn’t that part of the scale?
I think the earlier explanations shed some light on this. To grade simple the batting average ability of a player is a pretty involved process. Even with my more simple three factors approach, you can’t even just take the average of the three grades from each category, as it’s still a subjective process. It’s difficult enough for the brain to appropriately weigh all the information to get one hit grade and there isn’t a rubric for grading plate discipline as widely accepted as the hit tool, though some teams do have scouts grade plate discipline separately on the 20-80 scale.
At it’s simplest, the hit tool grade is basically taking all the components I’ve talked about, combining them into one number to encompass the pure hitting ability, then allowing a third party (the front office) to use those for more robust projection purposes. I don’t know of any scouts that project triple slash lines in their scouting reports, but all of them will note outstanding plate discipline because that impacts the batting average projection.
When a club is looking at acquiring a player, having been in a front office, I can tell you that the analysts take these reports, note the tools and comments in the report, and then use them to create a projection that suits their needs, like what I did with the Gallo report. The reasons this is necessary:
1) Some scouts will round a hit tool grade up to account for speed, but some will not since that would undermine all the thought that goes into the hit grade to round up 10 points if the guy is a plus-plus runner. They’re grading hitting ability; projected batting average is just an easy way to explain it. For example, a bunch of average hit tool components equals .260 and now it’s easier to watch a big league game, notice the .260 hitter and calibrate your grading scale. Billy Hamilton is an outlier that makes that process more difficult.
2) Most scouts will round up for very good plate discipline, but never enough to account for a jump in expected OBP. The assumption is a 50 hit grade means .320s OBP and the scout notes if he thinks it is non-average plate discipline. Really good plate discipline means you round up a grade, but almost never two grades (for reasons noted in item #1). For that reason, the hit tool grading system fails the .260 hitter with a .350 on-base percentage.
3) Scouts don’t include numeric risk grades, they simply project what they think will happen via future 20-80 grades. In situations of uncertainty, scouts are encouraged universally by their bosses to “write what you think he’ll be” without any mechanism to account for a range of possibilities or uncertainty. The only place these type of thoughts can go is the comment box next to the grade, which is usually read by office people, but can’t be quantified. Often, with multiple reports on the same player, executives will skip to the grades and skim the comments, so the scout has to make this note front and center in the summary, which is much more widely read.
What I’m saying is this: the process for scouting and what scouts are asked to do is complicated enough to include five projected tools, lots of comments and an overall Future Value grade with a summary. Some adjustments and granular details of what this skill set is worth in the open market, which is a much more important question today than back when this scouting process was devised, has been outsourced to people that are specialists in this area: the office analyst.
In my situations working for clubs, I was one of a couple guys in those offices that had a lot of comfort in this area of dealing with scouting report details, statistical projections and player valuation. Understandably, many senior decision makers came up in a time before this was prevalent and aren’t as comfortable in the analysis role, but obviously understand what support people in my role would relay to them.
I’ve had multiple conversations with different executives about how the industry asks scouts to grade tools and then also value that player in the larger market of players via the FV or OFP, which is two completely different skills. Very few scouts are elite at both of these and it’s unreasonable to ask them to do so.
Some scouts are very good at grading the tools and struggle with the overall grade while others have such an extensive library and such good recall that they can peg a player with the right FV, but may be inconsistent with tool grades. Execs can quickly pick up on tendencies of certain scouts to over/under grade certain tools or types of players and always call the scout in acquisition situations to find out what information didn’t get in the report.
With my org rankings series, I try to give you all the info a scout would give you and, since that leaves many of you rightfully wanting more, I also fill that analysis role of helping put that worth in context. I know you’d like to have a 20-80 score for plate discipline and projected Z-Contact rates, but those two things are a little awkward and unnecessary, respectively.
Using The 20-80 Scale
On the last podcast, Carson asked me what the future tool grades converted into stats using the table from the last article should be called. I stumbled around, saying it’s the most likely outcome, but then paused because I realized not making the big leagues is the most likely outcome for most prospects in the low minors. He stepped in and suggested it’s a 50-percentile projection and that is a better way to phrase it. In the spectrum of what could happen, I’m telling you what’s in the middle of the curve.
The upside line is, roughly speaking, a 75% projection: It could still reasonably happen and is basically the 50% projection rounded up a tick or two. For players a long ways from contributing it’ll be a couple ticks up and for ready-made players in AAA it will usually be half a tick up.
I explained on the podcast that the present 50 hit grade for Jorge Soler is really a hedge, saying that 50 means I think he’ll be somewhere from a 40 to 60 hit tool when he gets called up and we can’t know much else. Soler looks more like a 60 right now, which is also his future grade, while a similarly-rated prospect, Oscar Taveras, would have had a very similar grade were he called up when I worked at FanGraphs; Taveras looks more like a 40 right now. Remember all the way back when I told you the hit tool was mysterious and the hardest tool to project?
So, I’ve gone on for thousands of words about the hit tool and while I explained things in more depth than I have before to help the scouting beginner follow along, I feel like I’ve still only scratched the surface. The bottom line is that the hit tool is simply a rubric that scouts use to grade hitting ability and all the dozens of components of that ability on a sliding scale. It’s all about long track records, sample sizes, raw tools and proving via performance against good pitching how much you’re getting out of your raw tools.
A 55 hitter rakes all year and it turns into a 60 at the end of the year. Did he necessarily get better from the first week of the season to the last, or is the undeniable weight of a big sample size forcing a scout to admit his 75-percentile projection should now be his 50-percentile projection? You people keep asking good questions and I’ll keep being forced to write sentences like that.
One of the tricky parts of this job can be finding information people might not know about. Statistical insight these days can be a challenge. One of the easier parts can be building off of somebody else’s idea, putting together a deeper dive on another person’s insight. So full credit to Ken Rosenthal, who wrote up a little section about Drew Smyly a day or so after talking about him on a TV game broadcast. Smyly’s been shut down by the Rays because of his innings total, but prior to that he looked like a much-improved pitcher in Tampa Bay, and here’s some stuff passed along by Rosenthal:
The Rays told Smyly to elevate his fastball more — sort of a counter-intuitive move for a pitcher — and they also emphasized that while he was successful getting to two strikes against right-handed hitters, he needed to find better ways to finish those hitters off.
The Rays and Rosenthal have provided the insight. I’m just here to show you some actual numbers. That’s a very informative paragraph, telling you something about Smyly and telling you something about the Rays. And as we look forward to 2015, might Smyly be a better part of the David Price return than he’s been given credit for?
This season, as a Tiger, Smyly struck out one out of every five batters he faced. This season, as a Ray, he struck out one out of every four. This season, as a Tiger, Smyly posted an adjusted FIP that was 4% worse than average. This season, as a Ray, he posted an adjusted FIP that was 15% better than average. Clearly, there are hints of improvement. Whenever we observe potential improvement, we wonder, what could be the cause? And this takes us back to the blockquoted paragraph.
The two points, it turns out, are linked. The Rays wanted Smyly to get better about putting righties away. The Rays also wanted Smyly to more frequently elevate his fastball. One way to put more righties away? Elevate the fastball. Smyly’s never had an issue with lefties. He’ll go as far as his success against righties can take him, and the Rays might’ve helped him achieve a new level.
So let’s talk real quick about that getting-to-two-strikes-against-righties thing. The Rays identified that as one of Smyly’s strengths. On average, about half of plate appearances between lefty pitchers and righty hitters end in two-strike counts. Smyly’s career at the time of the trade:
2013: 61% (reliever)
So, yeah, that was a good thing. But — starters and relievers combined — about 40% of two-strike counts between lefties and righties have turned into strikeouts. When the Rays traded for Smyly, he was at 29% on the year. Since the Rays traded for Smyly, he’s come in at 39%. That’s a big improvement, and this is where we get to talking about the fastball.
Smyly didn’t dramatically change his pitch mix. He just started using it differently, at the Rays’ suggestion. Smyly doesn’t blow anybody away with his velocity, and pitchers are always told to try to keep the ball down, especially if they don’t throw very hard. Low pitches, in theory, go for grounders. And the zone has gotten friendlier down low, too. But hitters are adjusting to this. Hitters are increasingly looking low. Hitters are increasingly selected for their abilities to hit low. Hitting low generally requires a swing path that makes it more difficult to hit high. So there could be a vulnerability around the top of the zone, where hitters aren’t prepared like they used to be. Probably 10 or 15 years ago, a guy like Smyly would try to stay away from elevation. But the Rays think he can succeed up there.
And so far, the Rays haven’t been wrong. Let’s first establish the pattern: This year, as a Tiger, Smyly threw 50% of his fastballs at least 2.5 feet off the ground. As a Ray, he threw 66% of his fastballs at least 2.5 feet off the ground. This year, as a Tiger, Smyly threw 25% of his fastballs at least 3 feet off the ground. As a Ray, he threw 45% of his fastballs at least 3 feet off the ground.
Smyly’s rate as a Tiger was basically exactly league average. His rate with the Rays is among the league leaders. The top of the list:
Tyler Clippard, 48% of fastballs at 3-plus feet
Jake Odorizzi, 47%
Madison Bumgarner, 45%
Drew Smyly (Rays version), 45%
Trevor Bauer, 44%
Chris Young, 44%
Suffice to say, that’s extreme. To put it a different way, Smyly’s average fastball with the Rays was more than five inches higher than his average fastball with the Tigers. His average two-strike fastball was more than seven inches higher than his average two-strike fastball with the Tigers. It took little time for Smyly to buy in, and the Rays, presumably, were pleased with his execution.
You can see how the high fastball connects with the desire to put more righties away. Via Baseball Savant, here are Smyly’s 2014 two-strike pitches to righties as a Tiger:
And here are his 2014 two-strike pitches to righties as a Ray:
The separation between the fastball and the breaking ball is evident. As a Tiger, Smyly threw 39% of his two-strike fastballs to righties up. As a Ray, he came in at 64%. It follows that, as a Tiger, 25% of Smyly’s strikeouts of righties came with his fastball. As a Ray, he came in at 41%. In four months with the Tigers this season, Smyly picked up 12 strikeouts on high fastballs. In barely more than one month with the Rays, Smyly picked up another 14.
This article is Smyly-specific, but the Rays’ advice might not be. You might’ve noticed Odorizzi’s name earlier. The average pitching staff throws about a quarter of fastballs at 3-plus feet. The Diamondbacks are lowest, at 19%. The Rays are highest, at 34%. Relatively speaking, the Rays love the high fastball While we can’t determine how much that contributes to the pitching staff’s success, this could well be something organizational. If the team immediately told Smyly to throw his fastball up more often, who else have they told that to? Who’s next, given how successful Smyly has been?
You knew you weren’t getting out of this without .gifs, so let’s watch a couple at bats from Smyly’s last start against the Orioles. First, a three-pitch sequence between Smyly and Adam Jones:
Not long ago, Smyly’s changeup might’ve been baseball’s least-effective pitch. Here it looked terrific, as the Rays took advantage of Jones’ willingness to swing early. And then Smyly went to work with his new approach:
High fastball to try to get a swing. Smyly’s playing with eye levels.
High fastballs are tempting pitches. You can’t lay off them forever.
Drew Smyly arrived with the Rays as a mid-rotation starter with issues against righties. The Rays promptly gave Smyly some advice, and relative to his 2014 with the Tigers, Smyly subsequently doubled his K-BB% against righties while cutting his OPS allowed in half. The thing about pitching tweaks is they’re supposed to take time. We usually don’t believe in the idea of a pitcher improving almost overnight. Smyly might’ve improved, and meaningfully so, almost literally overnight. Of course we’ll have to monitor 2015, when we have a bigger sample and opponents more prepared for Smyly’s new approach. But for everyone who doubted the Rays’ end of the allegedly underwhelming trade-deadline blockbuster, perhaps they really did know something. We all saw the Rays traded for Smyly, but maybe we didn’t all see him as the pitcher the Rays did.
As collapses go, that looks nice and spread out. There’s a definite negative slope, but, you know, it could be steeper. You get the vibe from the graph that the Brewers’ decline has been steady and gradual. But there’s the thing about the x-axis, and about how this shows only two weeks. Lately the Brewers have shot themselves in the foot. In their haste to bandage the wound, they’ve accidentally shot themselves in the other foot. With their hands busy trying to stop the bleeding, they’ll just apply the iodine with their mouth-
Working a little to the Brewers’ benefit is that their slide has overlapped with Oakland’s slide, and Oakland has fallen from a loftier position, so the attention’s divided. But the Brewers don’t care about the attention they receive; they care about not being awful, and since this slide began they’re last in the NL in runs scored and first in the NL in runs allowed, where “first” is another word for “last”. They’ve lost 13 of 14 games, and Tuesday’s could’ve been the worst of the losses. Tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth, the Brewers had the bases loaded with nobody out. Eight pitches later, a scoreless frame was complete. Then in the top of the ninth, Francisco Rodriguez had two outs and two strikes on Giancarlo Stanton. Nine pitches later, a walk, a steal, and two homers had the Brewers all but defeated. You’d think that all the losses feel the same, but every loss is a snowflake.
Before the slide, when the Brewers were 15 games over .500, they had an 88% chance of making the playoffs, and a 66% chance of making the NLDS. According to the last time I checked the page today, now they’re at 17% and 8%, respectively. They’re still very much alive in the hunt, but a man being chased by a pack of wolves is still a very much alive man, for the moment. The man, like Brewers fans, would be in a panic. Not even a few minutes ago, this was a beautiful stroll through a meadow. You never expect a ferocious pack of wolves, or a devastating losing skid.
We all get what it means to be in the Brewers’ present position, but to look at it differently, I want to try out an exercise I tried out just last September, on the then-slumping Rangers. That is, I want to convert the Brewers’ playoff odds to situational win expectancies, and express their skid as a partial inning. It’s just a different way of saying “hey this sucks”, but it’s also a different way to understand the stress and the nervousness and the frustration. Let’s create a fictional ninth inning, mirroring what the Brewers have done for the last two weeks.
We’re going to start with the date right before the 1-13 slide. All the numbers are approximated, and to keep things simple, I’m using overall playoff odds, even though winning the division is very different from winning the wild card. If you don’t quite yet get the concept, you will very quickly.
(August 28 was an off-day.)
Brewers win, 10-1
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 88%
We’re joining a game in progress, and we’re joining an inning in progress. The good news for the Brewers: it’s the top of the ninth, and they’re ahead of the opponent 6-2. That’s a pretty comfortable lead. The bad news for the Brewers: there’s nobody out, there are runners on first and second, and the pitcher has fallen behind. The tying run still hasn’t come to the plate, and the Brewers just need to record three outs before they allow four runs. About eight times out of nine, that’s totally doable. Better to be in this position than trying to overcome this position.
Brewers lose, 4-1
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 86%
Now things get a little more nervous, because the batter has walked, loading the bases with nobody out. Relative to when the pitcher was behind in the count, it’s not that traumatic, and the odds are still greatly in the Brewers’ favor, but now the game could conceivably be tied with one swing of the bat. Bat swings happen in an instant.
Brewers lose, 3-2
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 79%
And now the pitcher’s in trouble again. Again, the pitcher has fallen behind in the count, and while counts are just transition states between starting points and ending points, the count now more greatly favors the batter. A walk is more likely. A hit is more likely. Basically, a non-out is more likely, and the Brewers need to start getting outs. The good thing about a big lead is that it gives you wiggle room, but you don’t want to push it.
Brewers lose, 13-2
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 70%
Base hit. Two runs. Corners. The ball was struck well, on a fastball over the plate, and it was fortunate the ball didn’t get through the gap and make it to the fence. So, kudos to the outfielder, but now the lead’s been cut in half, and still there aren’t any outs on the board. Tying run’s on base. Go-ahead run’s on a walk to the plate.
Brewers lose, 3-1
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 64%
You know what relievers aren’t very good at? Controlling the running game. And, there’s a stolen base, right there. Now the tying run’s in scoring position. All it takes is a single. Or even two ordinary outs. Not that a tie would be the worst thing in the world, since the Brewers still get to hit, but it sure would be nice to not lose the lead that was established over the previous two and a half hours.
Brewers lose, 15-5
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 57%
Sometimes pitchers hit batters intentionally. This one was unintentional. They all count the same. So now the bases are loaded, and it’s starting to feel like a full-scale meltdown. Go-ahead run’s on base. And hey, he moves pretty well!
Brewers lose, 4-2
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 51%
Ball one. Fine pitch idea, but lousy execution. The bullpen’s active, but it takes time for pitchers to get ready, and there’s no relief coming for this particular at-bat. Gotta throw strikes. Gotta not throw bad strikes. But, gotta throw strikes.
Brewers lose, 7-1
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 49%
Ball two. What did I say about strikes? Throw them. Strikes, I mean.
Brewers lose, 6-2
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 45%
Ball three. Still a two-run lead, but that’s almost a one-run lead, if that, and this is on course for catastrophe. The bases are loaded, the pitcher has to throw a strike, and the hitter is looking for a fastball. So do you show him the fastball? Do you show him something else, even though you have less confidence in your ability to spot that pitch in the zone? Might he chase out of the zone? Is this why some baseball players say they’re afraid of over-thinking things on the field? Just throw the baseball. The most important thing is throwing the baseball, to a good place.
Brewers lose, 3-2
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 39%
Walked him. Threw the baseball to a bad place. Now it’s 6-5. Still nobody out. Still a lead, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it. Lead’s gone on a slow grounder. Lead’s gone on a routine fly. Lead’s gone on a ball in the dirt. Lead’s gone on an errant pick-off. Lead’s gone on a balk. So many ways for the lead to be gone.
Brewers win, 6-2
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 47%
Great pitch for strike one. And another great pitch for strike two! Almost an out, and you can start to see a way out of this. Get a strikeout here, and then a double play allows you to escape. Or you could get another strikeout, or you could get a grounder right at someone, or you could get a lazy pop, or-
Brewers lose, 5-3
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 33%
Sacrifice fly. The two-strike pitch caught too much of the plate, and the batter got it in the air. The game’s tied, and to make matters worse, the runner from second also moved up 90 feet. So while there’s finally an out, that go-ahead run is closer than ever, and it doesn’t take a lot to bring him home. Do you pitch for the strikeout, or do you pitch for the double play? Is it possible to do both at once?
Brewers lose, 9-1
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 26%
Pitching for the strikeout, there’s a low breaking ball, but the pitch finds the dirt and skips away from the catcher. The runner on third holds, because the ball never bounces away that far, but the runner from first bolts for second and slides in safe, basically eliminating the double-play possibility. So. Would’ve been nice for that to not happen.
Brewers lose, 6-4
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 18%
Grounder’s pulled down the line. The first baseman makes a good stop, turning a hit into an out, but both runners advance on the play, putting the Brewers behind 7-6. Still, the inning isn’t over, but attention has fully turned to the bottom half, when the Brewers will need to mount a rally. And, who could rally after such psychological devastation?
Brewers lose, 6-3
Playoff odds/win expectancy around 17%
And a walk puts runners on the corners. Everyone’s thinking about the bottom of the ninth, but the Brewers still have to get there first, and they don’t need to make their situation worse. Better to have to rally from one than to have to rally from two. Don’t let it get to two.
This is the Brewers’ situation, in a way. They’ve allowed a good position to erode, and now they don’t just need to stop the bleeding — they need to turn things around quickly and play exceptionally well. Ending the skid isn’t good enough. They’ve given away too much. They need to mount a comeback in what little time is left. This with an ailing Ryan Braun and a recently-ailing Carlos Gomez. The same talent is there that put the Brewers in first place for so long, and they’re obviously not as bad as the last half-month, but the situation’s turned desperate. You don’t even need to believe in momentum to arrive at the conclusion. The Brewers aren’t tied for anything. They’re trailing, with 17 games to go.
I will say this much: between the end of June and the start of July, the Brewers lost 11 of 12. Immediately following that, they won six of eight, so they’ve bounced back from something like this before. They still have games against the Cardinals. They still have games against the Pirates. They also have winnable games against the Cubs and the Reds, so this could still end as a hell of a story. 17% means one out of six. The Brewers could be back in playoff position in a couple of days.
But, you know. We seldom see collapses like this on the team level, but we’ve all seen collapses like this on the game level. They’re difficult collapses to erase, and they’re difficult collapses to forget. There weren’t a whole lot of people who picked the Brewers as a playoff team before the season got started, but this isn’t what anybody had in mind. No sane person would ever have anything like this in mind.