Tommy John Surgery: Major Surgery.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Laser eye surgery has become a pretty routine procedure. Nothing’s yet been perfected, and fear comes from a machine slicing your eyes open, but patients are in and out in practically no time at all, and the risk of complications is incredibly low. And many of those complications are minor and/or temporary. It’s a safe and accepted part of contemporary living. Given that it involves removing tissue from one body part and weaving it into another, it’s something of a miracle that Tommy John surgery these days has a success rate even within sniffing distance of laser eye surgery. Of course, it’s not that automatic, and of course, there’s still the year-long rehab, but Tommy John surgery isn’t feared the way it used to be, and the results tend to speak for themselves. Certainly, among fans, it seems like the operation is simply seen as a year-long delay. Less devastating, more annoying.
To an extent, that’s justified. Surgeons know what they’re doing, the rehab track has been tested a million times over, and most pitchers are able to make it back and make it back effectively within the usual timetable. Sometimes they even feel stronger, perhaps because other parts of their bodies are able to heal while the pitcher isn’t throwing. But it’s important to understand that there can be speed bumps. Sometimes there can be even bigger obstacles. Recovery from Tommy John shouldn’t be taken for granted, and you could just ask Cory Luebke.
Ever so quietly, Luebke went about establishing himself as one of the more promising starting pitchers in the National League. He started 17 times for the Padres in 2011 and allowed 39 runs, with four strikeouts for every walk. He came out in April 2012 pitching similarly well. At the end of that same month, he underwent Tommy John surgery.
As usual, it was expected that Luebke would be able to return early in the 2013 regular season. What actually happened was that Luebke made zero appearances. He experienced several setbacks during his effort to get back to the mound, and just the other day, it was announced that Luebke needs Tommy John surgery again. The Padres expect him to take about a year, again. They feel pretty confident in the timetable, just like last time.
The Luebke situation has been a disappointing mess, but it also hasn’t been an isolated event. Anecdotally, it feels like we’ve seen a greater number of pitchers than usual struggle during their Tommy John rehabs of late. It doesn’t mean the surgery has somehow gotten more dangerous or less effective, but Luebke isn’t the only reminder that ligament replacement surgery is still a pretty big deal.
Last summer, Daniel Hudson was working his way back from Tommy John surgery. He was sent out on a rehab assignment, and shortly before he was brought back by the Diamondbacks, he came down with some elbow stiffness. Examinations revealed that Hudson needed another Tommy John surgery, having re-torn his ligament. He’s on the way back again.
Brandon Beachy was incredible. Remember Brandon Beachy? He had Tommy John surgery in the middle of 2012. He managed to return to the Braves on time with little particular difficulty, and he turned in a few decent starts, but then his elbow started barking and he had to be shut down. He underwent an arthroscopic procedure for cleanup purposes, and now he’s looking to be healthy for spring training.
There’s Scott Baker, who had Tommy John surgery in March of 2012. Last offseason, the Cubs signed him to a one-year contract in the hopes that he’d bounce back and they’d be able to flip him for prospects around the deadline. That isn’t what happened. Instead, Baker experienced setback after setback, and he made his 2013 debut in September, throwing with diminished velocity.
Ryan Madson was a similar kind of case. He had Tommy John surgery at the end of March 2012. Last offseason, the Angels signed him to a one-year contract, in the hopes that he’d bounce back and be able to help a competitive team’s bullpen. That isn’t what happened. Instead, Madson experienced setback after setback, and he was released in August having not appeared in the bigs. He’s throwing now, looking for an employer.
It doesn’t end there. Joel Zumaya hasn’t been heard from since Tommy John surgery early in 2012. Joey Devine also hasn’t been heard from since Tommy John surgery early in 2012. Felipe Paulino had issues returning to the mound, although there were complications with his back and shoulder that might have been unrelated to what happened with his elbow. But the common thread is that a bunch of guys had Tommy John surgery and they’re still today looking to get back to what they were. Not one of these pitchers followed the timetable that we’re so happy to just take for granted. Of course everyone’s always warned that there can be issues and delays, but it seems like the actual probabilities aren’t sufficiently appreciated.
Tommy John surgery isn’t shoulder labrum surgery, and the surgeons who perform it know the procedure like the backs of their hands. But it’s not just a 12-month delay, even if that’s maybe the most usual outcome. There can be setbacks, and there can be major setbacks. Ligaments can be re-torn. Elbows can otherwise need to be re-opened. Of course it’s never good news when a pitcher requires ligament replacement surgery, but on top of the loss of a year, there can be a loss of a lot more than that.
I’ve got no idea how the pitchers above are going to do going forward. Many of them should return to the majors, and they could be successful if and when they’re ever healthy. The Braves will be counting on Beachy, and the Diamondbacks made a point of re-signing Hudson. The Mariners scooped Baker up and the Padres will look forward to having Luebke whenever that is. Maybe they’ll simply have missed a little more time. But in each case, recovery went awry, and it’s too easy to forget that that can happen.
Tommy John surgery was one of the most significant developments in baseball in the 20th century, and it’s helped to save so many virtually countless careers. It really has gotten to the point where a lot of fans simply take the procedure and the recovery for granted. That speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the operation and the people doing it, but ultimately, it’s still surgery, and it’s still pitching. Tommy John surgery is great. Elbows and shoulders suck.
The Future-Future Usage of Billy Hamilton.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
As the 2014 season approaches, the Cincinnati Reds are left with the unenviable task of figuring out exactly what to do with Billy Hamilton. After his September call-up, Hamilton electrified fans. In 13 games, he went 13 of 14 in stolen base attempts and scored 9 runs. He also managed to hit .368 in that span with a .105 ISO. If scouting reports and minor-league track records are to be believed, only two of those three stats should be taken to heart when projecting his future value. In 2013, in AAA, Hamilton had a .308 OBP and .657 OPS. He swiped 75 bags during that time, but the word is out on him — at this point, he just doesn’t have great hitting skills.
Hamilton will almost certainly be a part of the 2014 Reds roster, it’s the capacity at which he’ll be used that is up in the air. His speed (and its impact on his defense) is his asset, and putting him at the top of the lineup will give him the most chances to use that asset. This will also exploit his biggest weakness. Hiding his weakness by putting him at the bottom of the order will lose him a lot of opportunities to use his legs. I’m sure the Reds will wait to see how he fairs in Spring Training before making any decisions, but Hamilton’s status is currently in limbo.
“No one’s ever given me the time to show what I can do,” he says, a lean, tightly-muscled sprinter’s body slipping into uniform. “What people don’t understand is that it’s never a lack of opportunity, just time. I could hit .260 if I played every day up here. Maybe .270, .280 with a good hitting instructor. But a lot of the time, when a player’s called up, it’s those first few weeks that count. If you don’t get in the lineup, you become an extra man the rest of your career.”
It’s easy to imagine Hamilton saying such things toward the end of this April, but that quote is actually from 1979 and belongs to Matt Alexander, the most proficient pinch-runner in baseball history. He holds the records among pinch runners in appearances (271), steals (91), and runs scored (89). He appeared in 374 games, but logged a mere 195 plate appearances. He only amassed 4.3 BsR in nine seasons, and stole bases at a 60% career rate. Yet the A’s and Pirates used him almost exclusively for pinch running. Alexander ended his career worth -.5 wins above replacement. His skills on the base paths just weren’t good enough to really make him an effective player in such a small role.
Which brings us back to Hamilton. Whether he hits first, ninth, or somewhere in the middle, he’s going to get a chance in the lineup in 2014. His early struggles might be forgiven due to his age and inexperience, but eventually — again, if Hamilton hits like we think he will — the columns and blog posts regarding what the Reds should do with him will start cropping up. What is a team to do with a no-hit, all-speed/glove outfielder? There are many options. Here are a few.
1. Send him down, tell him to work on his hitting.
2. Trade him to a team that loves speed, hope to get something of value in return.
3. Cross your fingers and pray that he learns to hit enough to turn into a poor man’s Michael Bourn.
4. Take the bat out of his hands, relegate him to pinch runner/defensive replacement.
Though the rate of change has been somewhat gradual, the role of pinch runner is slowly dying. Teams just aren’t subbing them in at the same clip anymore. There could be a lot of reasons for this. Teams are stealing less and less, and are starting to only send the players that have a good-to-great success rate. Roster spots are certainly at a premium, as teams carry such a large swath of relievers now. This leaves precious few bench spots for defensive replacements and pinch hitters — the latter still being a big need for NL teams. With a very limited number of bench players, it’s perhaps not kosher to “waste” one by having them pinch run. It just might be more appealing to GMs to use that 25th spot on a lefty-specialist or big bench bat rather than on a player used mostly for base running and stealing. Billy Hamilton, however, is no ordinary base runner.
It’s hard to project how valuable Hamilton would be if he were just a pinch-runner, as there aren’t really any test cases with which to compare. In the height of Matt Alexander’s pinch-running feats, he appeared in 90 games in one season. During his short stint in 2013, Hamilton accumulated 2.7 BsR in 13 games. Extrapolating those numbers for 90 games over, say, four years nets almost 75 BsR. That would be good enough for about 8th best in the past 40 years. While that’s very impressive, it’s not very realistic. After a while, the book will start to come out on Hamilton — when he likes to run, the best ways to keep him close on first, etc. It would be unfair to just use a calculator and say he’d be the 8th best base runner of the past 40 years if he were strictly used as a pinch runner. But say he’d be worth 60 BsR, or even 50. Are those numbers high enough to keep him on as a specialized bench player? The easy answer is that if we can project him to be worth more runs that the current 25th man on the roster, then, yes. It would be worth keeping him around as a runner and defensive replacement. And it’s not like he doesn’t have arms. If the Reds really need a pinch hitter in a long game, they could certainly give him a bat and hope for the best
I’m not arguing that Hamilton should certainly be relegated to such a specialized role. I am saying that it is certainly worth a try. Hamilton is currently 23 years old, and, at least according to aging curves, he has about four years of base-stealing productivity left. He may push that number higher due to his extreme grasp of the skillset, but he’s not going to be the same player when he hits 30. I doubt the Reds would even try the pinch-running experiment in 2014, opting instead to allow Hamilton to get at-bats and work out the kinks. But the time may soon come when Cincinnati will have to decide to keep Hamilton on the bench strictly for his legs. It wouldn’t be the first time. Oakland owner Charlie Finley kept full-time pinch runners on his teams through much of the 1970s. In fairness, an idea is not a good one simply because Charlie Finley tried it. The opposite might be true, in fact.
Hamilton might prove himself a worthy-enough hitter in 2014 and make this whole argument moot. Who knows? But if his subpar on-base skills and total lack of power end up costing his team about as much as his legs help them, it might be time to send him on a different path and let Billy Hamilton surpass Matt Alexander as the best specialty pinch runner the game has ever seen. The immediate future of Billy Hamilton seem fairly obvious. It’s the future beyond that future that brings on all sorts of tough questions and wonderful possibilities.
2014 Top 10 Prospects: Cincinnati Reds.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Reds system is thin on impact talent, as well as overall depth. The organization boasts a potential No. 1/2 starter but things drop off dramatically from that point. There are a lot of fringe-average regulars, utility players, No. 4 starters and middle relievers in the making.
#1 Robert Stephenson | 70/AA (P)
Age G GS IP H HR K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
20 22 22 114.1 92 10 10.71 2.76 2.99 2.96
The Year in Review: Stephenson had a breakout year during his first full pro season and played at three levels. He spent the majority of the year in A-ball but topped out in Double-A. The 20-year-old hurler (who recently turned 21) struck out 136 batters in 114.1 innings of work and walked just 35.
The Scouting Report: The young pitcher has succeeded early in his career thanks to his ability to mix premium fastball velocity (95-98 mph) with potentially-plus control. Add in a plus curveball and a solid changeup and you have the makings of a top-shelf starter. He’s one of the most underrated arms in the minors.
The Year Ahead: After making just four starts at the level in ’13, Stephenson should return to Double-A to open the 2014 season. He’s definitely on the fast track and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him reach Triple-A — and possibly even the Majors — in the second half of the season.
The Career Outlook: Stephenson needs to add some polish and consistency but he has the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter if he realizes his full potential.
#2 Billy Hamilton | 60/MLB (OF)
Age PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR
22 22 9.1 % 18.2 % .368 .429 .474 .398 155 4.1 0.8 0.6
The Year in Review: Hamilton’s impressive streak of seasons with 100+ stolen bases came to an end in 2013 but he still nabbed 75 base in 90 tries. Unfortunately, his bat is nowhere near as advanced as his base running and he posted an OPS of just .651 in 123 games. His minor league performance was still strong enough to earn him a late-season promotion to the Majors where he hit .368 in 13 games and stole another 13 bases in 14 attempts.
The Scouting Report: The young athlete has received a lot of hype for his stolen base totals in the past and it’s somewhat justified due to his game-changing, plus-plus speed. However, his hit tool is not nearly as developed and he’ll likely continue to be overmatched at the Triple-A/MLB levels until he makes some further adjustments. He’s adapted well to the outfield and could become a plus defender in time.
The Year Ahead: The speedy shortstop-turned-outfielder is currently pencilled in as the Reds’ opening day center-fielder but a lot can change between now and April. Ideally, his bat could probably use another two to three months of seasoning in the minors.
The Career Outlook: Hamilton has a chance to be an impact player even if his only plus tool is his speed — but the offensive development will dictate if his contributions come from the starting lineup or from the bench.
#3 Phillip Ervin | 60/R (OF)
Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
20 200 57 11 9 25 34 14 .331 .425 .564 .439
The Year in Review: The 27th overall selection in the 2013 amateur draft out of Samford University, Ervin got off to a quick start to his pro career. He hit .331 with an OPS just shy of 1.000. He also stole 14 bases in 15 attempts. The young outfielder spent the majority of the season in the Pioneer League but also played 12 games at the Low-A ball level.
The Scouting Report: The Alabama native has solid-average tools across the board but his only plus tool could end up being his bat. He utilizes a short stroke that’s quick to the ball and he uses the whole field, which results in a high batting average. He also has a good eye. Ervin has slightly-above average speed and can play centre field in a pinch but he’s better suited to right field where he can take advantage of his strong arm.
The Year Ahead: Ervin will look to prove his hot start was not a fluke. He’ll likely open the year with a refresher in Low-A ball but could quickly rise to High-A ball.
The Career Outlook: Ervin probably isn’t star but he could be a solid everyday right-fielder with the ability to eventually hit 15-20 homers in his prime.
#4 Yorman Rodriguez | 55/AA (OF)
Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
20 659 156 37 17 54 180 13 .261 .324 .428 .338
The Year in Review: After four-and-a-half years in A-ball or lower, Rodriguez finally reached Double-A in the second half of 2013. He managed a combined 54 extra base hits but struck out 153 times with just 47 walks in 129 games. He also spent some time in the Arizona Fall League where he posted a .758 OPS in 22 games.
The Scouting Report: Rodriguez is the most toolsy player in the Reds system and has been pretty much since he signed in 2008 out of Venezuela. He has a strong arm and enough speed to project as an above-average defensive right-fielder. He also has plus power potential but it’s mitigated by his lack of contact. He doesn’t need to put everything into his swing to hit the ball out of the park so he could shorten his swing a bit to make more consistent contact and still possess 20+ home run potential.
The Year Ahead: Rodriguez will likely return to Double-A to open the 2014 season but should see Triple-A in the second half as long as he continues to make adjustments.
The Career Outlook: Rodriguez remains a boom-or-bust prospect with significant potential but the contact issues need to be addressed.
#5 Jesse Winker | 55/A (OF)
Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
19 486 117 18 16 63 75 6 .281 .379 .463 .386
The Year in Review: Winker’s 16 home runs in 2013 were a bit of a surprise given his scouting reports coming into the year, which predicted fringe-average power. Even with the additional over-the-fence pop he controlled the strike zone well and walked 63 times with just 75 strike outs.
The Scouting Report: Like Ervin above him, but with a slightly lower ceiling, Winker is a player who projects to develop into a solid regular but not a star. He has a potentially-plus tool with his bat and above-average power but but he’s lacking with his defense, arm and speed. Winker’s defensive future is limited to left field.
The Year Ahead: Winker will move up to High-A ball in 2014 and if he continues to show solid present skill he might see Double-A by the end of the year.
The Career Outlook: Just 20, Winker is a player with a high floor but a modest ceiling. He projects to develop into a solid-average corner outfielder but probably not a superstar.
#6 Mike Lorenzen | 55/AA (P)
Age G GS IP H HR K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
21 28 7 38.1 49 6 5.63 5.87 6.81 6.17
The Year in Review: Lorenzen earned some frequent flyer miles in 2013. Drafted 38th overall, he played at four different minor league levels and topped out in Double-A. Unfortunately, his control deserted him in both High-A and Double-A with 11 walks in 11.2 innings of work. He was later assigned to the Arizona Fall League and struggled with an 11.42 ERA and 12 walks (with just five Ks) in 17.1 innings.
The Scouting Report: A very athletic pitcher, Lorenzen was actually a two-way player in college (He also played the outfield). As a result, he’s still learning the nuances of pitching so it’s all the more impressive that he was able to move so quickly through the system during his debut. He has a plus fastball that could hit the upper 90s out of the bullpen but may end up working more in the mid 90s as a starter. Both his breaking ball and changeup need a fair bit of polish.
The Year Ahead: The right-hander may have been pushed a little too aggressively last year and both his command and control suffered. He may benefit from having his timetable slowed down a bit in 2014 and may head back to High-A ball to continue his conversion back to starter.
The Career Outlook: Lorenzen’s future is a little cloudy at this point due to the uncertainty over his future role: starter or reliever. His command and control will likely both have a large say over which role he eventually settles into.
#7 Carlos Contreras | 55/AA (P)
Age G GS IP H HR K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
22 26 26 132.1 106 11 8.30 4.22 3.47 4.02
The Year in Review: Contreras spent four years in short-season ball but he finally reached Double-A in 2013. He spent the majority of the year in High-A ball and made 18 starts but he finished up the year with eight appearances at the more senior level. After working as a reliever in 2012, Contreras more than doubled his innings output from 60.2 to 132.1.
The Scouting Report: Contreras’ future hinges on his ability to improve both his command and control. He has a low-to-mid-90s fastball and backs that up with a plus changeup. His breaking ball should be average or better. He’s not an overly large pitcher so he’ll have to work to maintain a good plane on his pitches.
The Year Ahead: The right-handed hurler will return to Double-A in 2014 but could move up to Triple-A in the second half — and might even see some time at the big league level if injuries take a bite out of the Reds’ pitching staff depth.
The Career Outlook: Contreras has the potential to develop into a No. 3/4 starter or a set-up man at the big league level depending on the development of his changeup and his command/control.
#8 Nick Travieso | 55/A (P)
Age G GS IP H HR K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
19 17 17 81.2 83 7 6.72 2.98 4.63 3.96
The Year in Review: The Reds’ first round pick from 2012, Travieso didn’t make his ’13 debut until June after opening the year in extended spring training. The right-hander still managed to make 17 starts and showed solid control but struck out just 61 batters in 81.2 at-bats. Travieso was an extreme fly-ball pitcher in 2013 and could benefit from inducing more ground-ball outs.
The Scouting Report: The right-hander doesn’t throw as hard as he used to as high school prospect but he still works in the 88-94 mph range. His secondary stuff — slider and changeup — projects as just average so he’ll need to develop above-average control and command to succeed in the upper levels of the system. He has a frame that suggests he could develop into a workhorse, assuming he makes his conditioning a priority.
The Year Ahead: Travieso should receive his first true taste of full season ball. Spring training will likely help determine if he returns to Low-A ball for a little more seasoning or gets challenged with a move up to High-A.
The Career Outlook: Like Winker, Travieso is a former prep pick with a high floor and low ceiling who could eventually develop into either a No. 4 starter or a reliever.
#9 Tucker Barnhart | 55/AA (C)
Age PA H 2B HR BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA
22 454 100 22 3 54 64 1 .258 .349 .343 .326
The Year in Review: The young catcher spent the entire 2013 season at Double-A and showed above-average defense and enough offense to keep playing every day. He also received an assignment to the Arizona Fall League after the regular season concluded.
The Scouting Report: Barnhart is a plus defender behind the plate. He calls a good game, receives well and has a strong arm. He’s also not shy about getting down and dirty to block balls. At the plate, the switch-hitting catcher has made some improvements and projects as a fringe-average hitter who’s much better from the left side of the dish. He doesn’t have much power but he makes good contact and has a solid eye at the plate.
The Year Ahead: Barnhart will move up to Triple-A in 2014 and should be the first catcher recalled in the event of an injury to Devin Mersoraco or Brayan Pena.
The Career Outlook: Barnhart could eventually develop into a superb-glove, so-so-hit catcher capable of playing everyday or serving as the left-handed hitting half of a platoon.
#10 David Holmberg | 50/MLB (P)
Age IP K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA FIP xFIP RA9-WAR WAR
21 3.2 0.00 7.36 25.0 % 7.36 5.50 8.48 -0.1 0.0
The Year in Review: Holmberg, 22, pitched more than 154 innings for the third straight season, which is an almost unheard of accomplishment for a pitching prospect in this day and age of coddling young hurlers. The lefty made 26 starts at the Double-A level before receiving one big league appearance where he got bounced around. He was traded from Arizona to Cincinnati in the offseason during a three-team deal that saw catcher Ryan Hanigan head to Tampa Bay.
The Scouting Report: Holmberg isn’t flashy but that’s not to say he isn’t talented. The southpaw is the type of pitching prospect that tends to fly under the radar. He doesn’t have a big-time fastball or wipeout breaking ball but he’s durable, and has above-average command/control of his four-pitch repertoire that includes a fastball with fringe-average velocity, two average breaking balls in a curveball and slider, as well as a plus changeup.
The Year Ahead: Holmberg’s move from Arizona to Cincinnati clears up a little bit of the logjam in front of him and he has a much clearer route to a Major League call-up. He still has two option years remaining so he has plenty of time to establish himself as a big-league-caliber pitcher.
The Career Outlook: Holmberg has a modest ceiling and will likely settle in as an innings-eating No. 4 starter. His history of high innings totals in the minors suggest that he could eventually be counted on for 200-230 innings a season as a poor man’s Mark Buehrle.
The Next Five:
11. Ben Lively, RHP: Lively, a fourth round draft pick, produced eye-popping numbers in 2013 and he could move somewhat quickly through the system but his ceiling is limited to that of a No. 3/4 starter. He has a four-pitch mix that includes a low-90s fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. His delivery has some deception to it but it’s also not the prettiest and could make it difficult for him to consistently command the ball.
12. Daniel Corcino, RHP: The 2013 season will be one to forget for Corcino. He was torched in Triple-A when both his command and control deserted him. The Dominican worked up in the zone too often and needs to pound the lower half of the zone more consistently. He spent time in the Puerto Rico Winter League as a reliever and thrived. A permanent move to the bullpen could be in the cards.
13. Seth Mejias-Brean, 3B: Mejias-Brean has hit everywhere that he’s played and produced solid on-base averages but his power is below average for a third baseman. He also spent time at first base in 2013 and dabbled with catching in the off-season but, ultimately, it was decided that was not the role for him. The corner infielder will likely develop into a solid part-time, offensive-minded contributor or a Joe Randa-type regular.
14. Chad Rogers, RHP: Rogers isn’t flashy but he projects to develop into an innings-eating back-end starter capable of chewing up innings. A 28th round draft pick from 2010, he split the ’13 season between Double-A and Triple-A and compiled 140 innings. Undersized at 5-11, he needs to keep on top of the ball better to have success in the Majors.
15. Jeremy Kivel, RHP: A hard-throwing Texan, Kivel made 13 starts in his pro debut but his future may very well lie in the bullpen. He has some violence to his delivery while delivering his above-aveage heater, which works in the 94-97 mph range. He backs it up with a potentially-plus slider but lacks a reliable third offering.
Freddie Freeman’s Power Alternative.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A lot of things happen when you’re guaranteed a hundred thirty-five million dollars. That’s a guess on my part, since I’ve never been in that particular situation, and I can’t speak to what many of those things might be. I presume an overwhelming number of old acquaintances try to re-establish contact. One thing I know for sure is that people talk about you a lot. Lots of people out there talking about Freddie Freeman at the moment, on the heels of his contract extension and also on the heels of literally nothing else happening. Freeman’s eight years are the subject of much dialogue.
Some of the talk is new, and some of the talk is old. There’s just a whole lot of talk, in sum, because even with baseball’s rampant inflation, people are still getting used to the idea of nine-figure contracts and especially nine-figure contracts to non-superstars. People want to know how good Freeman actually is. People want to know how good Freeman will become. And, relatedly, people want to talk about Freeman’s power upside, since he’s a first baseman and first basemen are supposed to hit for more power than Freeman has to date.
Two things to make clear right away:
(1) Freeman’s getting $135 million, but he’s not actually getting paid like an amazing player. Figure that roughly $110 million of that will cover Freeman’s first five years of would-be free agency. That comes out to an average of $22 million per season, beginning in 2017. That feels like superstar money, and it used to be superstar money, but if things continue as they have, Freeman will be getting the market rate of simply an above-average player. Perhaps the Braves need to be a little more efficient than the next contender, but we all have to get used to what money actually means these days, and what it’ll mean down the road. $22 million won’t be that much, really. I mean, it will be, but not in baseball.
(2) “First basemen need to hit for power” is bad analysis. It’s not analysis. First basemen need to be valuable. There are lots of ways to be valuable, and while power’s nice, it’s far from a necessity. People used to think that corner outfielders needed to be able to hit for power. As a consequence, said corner outfielders played some pretty bad defense. Now teams are coming around on filling their outfields with athletes, possibly sacrificing some power but adding overall value. Value is all that matters anywhere.
Anyway, we can talk about Freeman and his skillset and his future. We can talk about his power, because power is a good thing if you’ve got it. Freeman hit 18 homers when he was 18 years old. At that point it was easy to project power upside. He hit 19 homers when he was 20, and it was still easy to project power upside. He hit 21 homers when he was 21 and a full-time player in the bigs, and that was encouraging. Then he hit 23 homers when he was 22. Then he hit 23 homers when he was 23. By no means is Freeman any kind of slap hitter. However, he’s not really showing power gains, and while he’s still plenty young — shockingly young, perhaps — it’s gotten less and less easy to see a true slugger down the road.
Freeman owns a career .181 isolated slugging percentage, which is good and short of fantastic. He topped out at .196 a season ago, as there haven’t been enough glimpses of this:
And last year Freeman came in with a WAR right near 5. So, he was a great player, even while being a first baseman with 23 dingers. What’s the recent history of great first basemen? What have their power profiles looked like?
I went back to 1969, as I like to do, and identified all everyday first baseman player-seasons. This yielded a sample of 955. There were 257 seasons worth at least 4 WAR, or five or six a year, so I chose 4 WAR as a cutoff. I found that in 172 of those seasons, or 67%, the first baseman posted an ISO at least 50% better than the league average. For reference, Freeman last year was at +24%. The year before, +27%. The year before that, +13%.
The higher-power great seasons averaged 5.7 WAR, and an ISO at 185% the league average. The lower-power great seasons averaged 5.0 WAR, and an ISO at 125% the league average. Entirely unsurprisingly, the lower-power great seasons compensated with a reduced strikeout rate, with a higher BABIP, and with better defensive numbers. Power’s a great tool. You basically need some of it to be an excellent first baseman, but you don’t necessarily need a ton of it.
What can we say about Freeman’s future power? Obviously, he’s hit plenty of home runs, and some of them have gone great distances, and he’s young. The flip side is that Freeman’s power hasn’t really progressed in years. I identified 37 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances in the majors through age 23, and an ISO between .160 – .190. Three of those players are Freeman, Jason Heyward, and Anthony Rizzo. The remaining 34 averaged a .176 ISO early on. All 34 have collected at least 1,000 plate appearances between 24 – 31. During that window, they averaged a .185 ISO. Of the 34 players, 18 saw ISO improvements.
Among them is Gary Sheffield. Yet Sheffield showed fearsome power at 23. Same goes for Aramis Ramirez. And Gary Carter, and Jim Rice, and others. Dale Murphy is something of an interesting case. But a lot of the improved players showed signs of improvements. Pablo Sandoval, so far, hasn’t turned into a slugger. Ryan Zimmerman‘s reached 30 homers just once. Billy Butler hasn’t hit for more power as he’s aged. Nick Markakis has slipped. Harold Baines hit 25 homers at 23 and then only once beat that in the rest of his career. It’s far from a given that Freeman will routinely start hitting for major power later on, and he might just settle in as a guy you count on for 20-25 dingers.
Which wouldn’t make him a great first baseman, in the classic sense. In the classic sense, it would make him a disposable first baseman, and really, maybe Freeman will just end up more good, or really good. Great might be too strong, depending on your personal tastes. But Freeman comes with a potential power alternative. The value Freeman doesn’t achieve in the power category, he might make up for somewhere else.
Last year, Freeman posted a .371 BABIP. Way too high, for a slow first baseman. That’s obviously a number you have to regress going forward as you figure out your own Freeman expectations. But it’s an issue of what you regress to. You very well might not want to regress all the way back to the league average.
For one thing, Freeman’s career mark is .334. For another thing, as much as I try to avoid using line-drive rate, in this case I have to acknowledge it. Freeman’s liners suggest a high quality of contact. Other, more advanced information also suggests a high quality of contact. Freeman, very simply, has just stung the ball.
Freeman became a big-league regular in 2011. Since then, he’s one of just 15 players to have a line-drive rate at least one standard deviation above the average, and a pop-up rate at least one standard deviation below the average. Those players have averaged a .340 BABIP. Also, just seven of those players, including Freeman, have posted an above-average rate of homers per fly ball. This puts Freeman in the company of Matt Kemp, Joey Votto, Howie Kendrick, Alex Avila, Jason Kubel, and Jason Kipnis. Just short of making it is Freeman’s teammate, Chris Johnson.
Also, Freeman sprays the ball everywhere, making him beyond difficult to shift. Last year he hit at least .400 to his pull side, up the middle, and the other way. The last three years, he’s one of just 24 players to have line-drive rates of at least 20% to all three fields. Those players have averaged a .320 BABIP. Just six players, including Freeman, have line-drive rates of at least 23% to all three fields. Freeman won’t keep turning 37% of his balls in play into hits, but there’s reason to believe he could end up at, say, 33% or 34%, if it’s true that he hits a greater rate of line drives while seldom popping the ball up.
In this way, Freeman could offset his good but not incredible power, should that part of his game continue. He’s already a pretty good defensive first baseman. He already draws a good amount of walks. He’s worked on cutting down his strikeouts, and if he can sustain a high batting average on balls in play, then he’ll sustain a high batting average, and then he’ll sustain a high wRC+. There are so many different ways to be productive, and Freeman’s been following the most fundamental one — he’s seen the ball and he’s hit the ball hard. He hasn’t put a ton of air under it, but all hits are valuable.
Freeman was a productive hitter in the majors at 21, he was an average player overall at 22, and he was a terrific player at 23. The Braves have signed him for years 24 through 31, and questions do remain about how good Freeman could really be. He doesn’t seem to possess elite power, so odds are against his becoming an elite player. He might not even really be a great player, depending. But what Freeman’s already done while young correlates well with future success, and even if his power doesn’t blossom, it’s above-average, and the same can be said for the rest of his quality of contact. So the Braves have a good hitter for most of the years he should be a good hitter. He doesn’t even need to improve to be worth what he’s getting, and there remains considerable room for improvement.
Batted Ball Profiles for Remaining Free Agent Hitters.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Super Bowl is over, spring training is nearly upon us, and a whole bunch of potentially valuable free agents remain unsigned. Previously in this space, we already took a look at Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana from a batted-ball profile perspective; today and tomorrow, we’ll examine five others – starting pitchers Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett, and position players Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz. Today, we’ll look at the hitters – tomorrow, the pitchers.
Below you will see the three hitters’ K and BB rates, as well as their batted ball breakdowns by type, all expressed relative to MLB averages, both in a scaled to 100 and percentile form.
Drew % REL PCT
K 24.80% 124 78
BB 10.80% 136 83
POP 11.70% 150 84
FLY 31.50% 111 68
LD 23.70% 111 79
GB 33.10% 78 9
—— —— —— ——
Morales % REL PCT
K 17.40% 87 47
BB 7.50% 94 43
POP 5.50% 71 22
FLY 29.60% 105 57
LD 19.90% 93 27
GB 44.90% 105 73
—— —— —— ——
Cruz % REL PCT
K 23.90% 120 75
BB 7.70% 97 46
POP 9.40% 120 67
FLY 31.40% 111 65
LD 19.10% 90 15
GB 40.10% 94 48
Stephen Drew turns 31 next month. His K and BB rates have both been consistently higher than league average over the last few seasons, with both percentile ranks climbing to career highs of 78 and 83 last season, respectively. He has developed a significant fly ball tendency, and his popup rates have also been consistently high. Drew’s popup percentile ranks have been over 70 for four years, and over 80 for two. For a guy lacking big power, this is not a good thing. His fly ball percentile rank of 68 is in line with his career norms. Drew’s 2013 line drive percentile rank of 79 nearly matched his career best, and marked his fourth straight year of 67 or higher. LD rates don’t correlate very well from year to year, but four good years in a row is a nice trend. With all of these popups, flies and liners, there’s obviously not much of the pie left for the grounders – Drew’s best grounder percentile rank since 2008 is 24.
Kendrys Morales will turn 31 this summer. For a power guy, his K and BB rates are both quite low, with 2013 percentile ranks of 47 and 43, respectively. He’s more than just a grip-it-and-rip-it type – his popup percentile rank of 22 is very low – it has been below MLB average in each of his years as a regular. His line drive rates have been quite low, however, as his 2013 percentile rank of 27 essentially matched his 2012 mark. His groundball frequencies have been consistently high – 73 percentile rank in 2013, 70 or higher in three of his last four seasons. That’s not a good thing when you’re among the slowest runners in the game.
Nelson Cruz will turn 34 this summer. Cruz has the nasty combination of a higher than MLB average K rate and a lower than MLB average BB rate. He has met those criteria three years running, and his K and BB percentile ranks of 75 and 46, respectively, are quite representative of his true ability level. Unlike Morales, Cruz has the more typical all-or-nothing power hitter BIP profile with regard to popups and fly balls – his percentile ranks in those categories (67 and 65 in 2013) have consistently been well above league average throughout his career. His miniscule line drive percentile rank of 15 is also representative of his true ability level – it has declined four years in a row. Cruz is not and has never been a prolific ground ball hitter.
Now that we’ve examined the hitters’ batted ball frequencies, let’s examine the production. For each hitter, their actual AVG and SLG by batted-ball type is listed, and the resulting run value is expressed relative to MLB average, scaled to 100. For each batted-ball type, an adjusted relative run value is listed, which incorporates park factors, luck, etc.. The “ALL BIP” line item aggregates the relative run values for all batted-ball types, and the “ALL PA” line item incorporates the K and BB information. (SH and SF are included as outs, and HBP is excluded from the slash line for purposes of this exercise.)
Drew AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.392 —— 0.969 178 112
LD 0.667 —— 0.931 109 103
GB 0.204 —— 0.252 82 146
ALL BIP 0.352 —— 0.616 133 121
ALL PA 0.253 0.335 0.443 117 108
—— —— —— —— —— ——
Morales AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.366 —— 0.978 170 236
LD 0.611 —— 0.8 86 114
GB 0.236 —— 0.246 96 135
ALL BIP 0.343 —— 0.556 117 152
ALL PA 0.278 0.332 0.45 117 149
—— —— —— —— —— ——
Cruz AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.379 —— 1.179 221 205
LD 0.691 —— 0.982 119 127
GB 0.273 —— 0.298 133 133
ALL BIP 0.351 —— 0.662 143 142
ALL PA 0.258 0.316 0.488 120 119
As a frame of reference, consider that the MLB average AVG-SLG on fly balls in 2013 was .284-.743, on line drives was .657-.863 and on ground balls was .237-.257. The MLB average AVG-SLG on all batted balls was .323-.505.
Drew’s actual fly ball production run values are inflated significantly by Fenway Park, which turns many a routine fly into singles and doubles. It’s a big comedown from 178 relative fly ball production to 112. Drew’s actual ground ball production was quite low, and is adjusted significantly upward to 146 based on Drew’s hard/soft ground ball rates. However……..Drew is an “extreme ground ball puller” – he hit 6.25 times as many groundballs to RCF/RF than to LF/LCF in 2013…..so I am very uncomfortable inflating Drew’s ground ball production higher than the league average of 100.
He’s an easy infield overshift decision, and will be hard pressed to do much damage on the ground. That knocks down his adjusted overall projection a tad from the level listed above – adjusted for park, luck, etc., Drew is basically a league average bat, about a .240-.325-.395 guy – not bad for a shortstop, but not the type of guy who deserves big dollars and years.
Morales’ fly ball production, on the other hand, was killed by the new and improved but still pitcher-friendly Safeco Field last year, and should be adjusted upward from a relative run value of 170 to 236. His .611 AVG and .800 SLG on line drives was also much lower than it should have been, due to bad luck. Morales’ hard/soft grounder rates also cause his ground ball relative run values to be adjusted upward, though that must be taken with a grain of salt due to his lack of speed.
Still, it is very clear that Kendrys Morales was a significantly better offensive player than his actual numbers suggested in 2013. While that 149 adjusted relative overall production figure is likely a bit heavy because of Morales’ lack of speed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Morales’ true talent level doesn’t reside somewhere in the .295-.350-.500 range – pretty solid, even for a DH.
Cruz’ fly ball power is real – his home park in Texas punched it up a bit, but a downward adjustment from 221 to 205 is no big deal. Cruz also tattoos his line drives, and his solid ground ball production is supported by his hard/soft grounder rates. His overall BIP run value relative to the league of 142 isn’t far behind Morales’ 152 mark. Cruz gets hurt once you add back the K’s and BB’s – Morales’ relatively low K rate allows his relative production to barely drift downward to 149, while Cruz’ mark drops sharply to 119.
Stephen Drew has a checkered injury history, to be kind, and was helped greatly by his home park last season. He is an adequate defender who shouldn’t have to move off of the shortstop position very soon. He possesses a significant normal platoon split. He is not the type of player to whom you would want to make a material commitment in terms of dollars or years. He is likely worth more to the Red Sox than anyone else because of the Fenway fly ball factor. A one-year, $10M deal to go back to Boston would make tons of sense. For another club to go to that level or higher and give up a draft pick would be done at that club’s peril.
Kendrys Morales has a massive leg injury in his past, though he did hold up quite well in 2013. He is an offense-only player, with zero baserunning or defensive value. He is a switch-hitter who is much more dangerous from the left side. That said, this guy can flat hit, and he has played his entire career in very pitcher-friendly surroundings. In the right ballpark, Morales can put up serious offensive numbers. He is a hit-before-power guy, as opposed to a power-before-hit guy – and that is meant in a good way.
Outside of injury recurrence, there is very little risk that Morales won’t be a significant offensive performer in the next two to three years. You are paying for the bat only, but a two or three year deal for about $10M per year can be justified, if you can stomach the draft pick compensation.
Ah, Nelson Cruz…..his injury history is more of the nagging variety, but there’s the matter of last year’s PED suspension that likely propped up all of his batted-ball numbers last season. While Morales is a bat-only guy who doesn’t play the field, Cruz might be even worse – a bat-only guy who plays the field and gives back a big chunk of his value. He is a power-before-hit guy, and gets no quarter from his K and BB rates. Red flags abound. He’s worthy of a year or two at a modest cost…..as a DH.
As a regular corner outfielder, there’s really no reason to get anywhere near him. The team most commonly linked to him, the Mariners, might be the worst fit. They need outfielders, for sure, but calling Nelson Cruz an outfielder is truly a stretch at this point, and even though the Safeco fences have come in, they still knock down fly balls to the LCF/CF area that Cruz loves as much or more than any ballpark with the possible exception of PNC Park.
On a closing, related note to the last point on Cruz, let’s take a look at Corey Hart‘s batted ball frequency and production data for 2012.
Hart % REL PCT
K 24.30% 134 85
BB 7.10% 86 35
POP 6.20% 74 27
FLY 37.20% 130 95
LD 18.00% 85 12
GB 38.70% 92 34
Hart AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.379 —— 1.098 192 148
LD 0.654 —— 0.872 110 112
GB 0.278 —— 0.318 143 119
ALL BIP 0.37 —— 0.693 156 132
ALL PA 0.27 0.323 0.507 124 108
In 2012, Hart’s K rate was higher and BB rate was lower relative to the league compared to 2013 Nelson Cruz. He was a more extreme fly ball hitter, and had a similarly low LD rate, though his popup rate was much lower. Production-wise, Hart slightly lags Cruz pretty much across the board of all batted-ball types once you adjust for hitter-friendly Miller Park; he had a 132 run value relative to the MLB average on all BIP, compared to 142 for Cruz.
Plug in the K’s and BB’s, and Hart drops down to 108. Like Cruz, Hart does the bulk of his damage to the parts of the field that Safeco kills, and one likely shouldn’t expect much defensive value, at least in the outfield, from a guy coming off of a significant surgical procedure and a full missed season. While one can understand the search for some righthanders to complement the young lefty bats in Seattle, going after multiple defensively-challenged big-part-of-a-big-field fly ball hitters would appear to be an overly risky strategy.
Lots of player movement is likely to happen in the coming days, with one or more of the above likely to find homes before too long. Breaking these players’ 2013 stat lines into smaller building blocks often yields insights that aren’t obvious on the surface. A major commitment of both years and dollars to any of the above players would appear risky, but the right team adding the right player discussed above for the right contract terms could represent the difference between success and failure in 2014.
Your All-In-One MLB Legal Roundup.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Much of my offseason writing on this site focused on the legal proceedings involving Major League Baseball, partly because MLB is embroiled in quite a few lawsuits, and partly because I try to stick to the advice: “Write what you know.” But as spring training kicks in to gear next week, and then the season in late March, I hope (I really, really hope) to spend more time on interesting baseball stories and less time on the intricacies of the Joint Drug Agreement and federal antitrust law.
Call me a dreamer.
In any event, there have been a few recent developments in MLB-related legal matters; perhaps not significant enough to warrant their own post, but important enough to mention as part of this legal roundup. When readers ask me on Twitter, “Hey, what’s happening with such-and-such lawsuit,” I’ll be able to send them a link to this article. At least for a while.
Houston Astros/CSN Houston
In November, I told you about the mess involving the Astros and Comcast SportsNet Houston — the regional sports network owned by the Astros — Comcast and the Houston Rockets. The network launched in late 2012 but has been unable to reach carriage agreements with any cable or satellite operator in the Houston area, other than Comcast. That’s left 60% of television viewers without access to Astros and Rockets game, and left the RSN without the cash to pay the rights fees promised to the teams.
Last September, Comcast filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against CSN Houston. The Astros countered with state court complaints against Comcast and the Astros’ prior orwner, Drayton McLane, in which the team alleged it was mislead about the new network’s economic and financial viability.
Just yesterday, the bankruptcy judge in Houston placed CSN Houston under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. That was the move Comcast and the Rockets sought, and what the Astros opposed. David Barron of the Houston Chronicle reported the bankruptcy court will now oversee a reorganization of CSN Houston that will focus on securing carriage rights agreements between the network and the non-Comcast cable and satellite companies in the area. The Astros could lose their equity stake in the network, see a diminution in their rights fees or both.
All things Alex Rodriguez
Last we met, baseball arbitrator Frederic Horowitz reduced Alex Rodriguez’s suspension from 211 games to 162 games — plus the 2014 postseason — should the New York Yankees win the American League East or qualify as a wild card team. Rodriguez didn’t take too kindly to that decision and filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against MLB and the players’ union. In the suit, Rodriguez claimed the proceeding before Mr. Horowitz was unfair, lacked due process and resulted in unfounded punishment. That case is pending before Judge Edgardo Ramos of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York.
Immediately, MLB requested a conference before Judge Ramos to discuss its expected motion to dismiss Rodriguez’s lawsuit. In a letter to the court, MLB argued that judicial review of arbitration decisions is quite limited, and that the arbitrator considered and rejected Rodriguez’s allegations the evidence was insufficient to find he used performance-enhancing substances. MLB also took issue with Rodriguez’s claim that the arbitrator misinterpreted the Joint Drug Agreement and Collective Bargaining Agreement. (I’ve written extensively about these legal issues, and believe the arbitrator did misinterpret the agreements. Nonetheless, the court has very limited authority to review the arbitrator’s interpretation).
MLBPA also wrote the judge and previewed its motion to dismiss. The players’ union argued that courts are highly deferential to how unions carry out their duty of fair representation in an employer-employee arbitration proceeding. It then countered Rodriguez’s factual allegations against the union: That the former union head — the late Michael Weiner — wrongly revealed to the public his view of Rodriguez’s defense; that the union should have stopped MLB’s Florida lawsuit against Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch; and that the union should have presented a more aggressive defense for Rodriguez in the arbitration.
Judge Ramos ordered Rodriguez to respond to these letters by this Friday. He will hold a preliminary conference in the case on Feb. 14.
There’s been a bit of Rodriguez-related legal wrangling in a different courtroom in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. You may recall that in October, after the arbitration had commenced, Rodriguez sued MLB in New York state court and charged the league with tortiously interfering with his contact with the Yankees. He complained about much of the same conduct at the heart of his effort to undo the arbitration decision: Essentially that Anthony Bosch is a liar and a fraud, and that MLB bought acted illegally — by buying stolen Biogenesis documents — for the sole purpose of building the case against Rodriguez.
MLB removed the state lawsuit to federal court (a standard legal maneuver when a collective bargaining agreement is involved) and moved to dismiss the complaint as preempted by the CBA. Rodriguez moved to remand the case to state court. The remand motion has been fully briefed. The judge in that case — U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield — appears ready to decide the motion without argument. If she keeps that case in federal court, she and Ramos will decide whether the two separate lawsuits will be combined before a single judge.
This is all standard legal wrangling that takes place soon after a lawsuit is filed. Still, the most interesting aspect of this whole mess is Rodriguez did not ask the court to enter a preliminary injunction to keep the arbitration decision from going into effect. As such, the suspension is effective and unless overturned by a court, must be served by Rodriguez this season. If the federal court doesn’t dismiss Rodriguez’s complaint to overturn the arbitration decision — and my best guess is that it will dismiss it — the court would then oversee a fact-finding process that may very well take longer than the 2014 season. Under those circumstances, Rodriguez likely will have served his suspension before a court rules on its legality.
City of San Jose vs. MLB
In December, U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte dismissed the remaining state law claims asserted by the City of San Jose against MLB relating to the city’s effort to become the new home of the Oakland A’s. The judge dismissed the federal antitrust counts several months earlier, on the theory that such claims were barred by MLB’s antitrust exemption. By dismissing the state law claims, the court was able to enter final judgment. That allowed San Jose to proceed with its appeal of the federal claims to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and to re-file its state law claims in state court.
That’s exactly what’s happened. San Jose filed its notice of appeal with the Ninth Circuit, and then immediately asked the court to expedite the matter. San Jose argued that if the court doesn’t resolve the antitrust exemption issues by Nov. 8 — which would be unlikely under the current briefing schedule — the city will lose its opportunity to bring the A’s to San Jose, as that is the date the option agreement expires. It’s an interesting argument, as San Jose is all but conceding that without an active option agreement, it may not have standing to assert antitrust claims against MLB. I’m not persuaded the court will expedite the matter. You can decide for yourself by reading the motion to expedite here.
San Jose did re-file its state law claims in state court — this time in Santa Cruz Superior Court. The complaint reads much like the one the city originally filed against MLB in federal court. If you must, you can find the complaint here. Why Santa Cruz? Well, under California law, a city cannot file a complaint in the county where it’s located. If San Jose wanted to stay close, the other options were San Mateo, San Francisco and Alameda counties. The first two are considered Giants Country and the latter is the home of Oakland. So Santa Cruz it is. A case management conference is scheduled for mid-May.
Antitrust challenge to MLB blackout policy
Last year, around this time, I told you about a lawsuit that had been filed challenging MLB’s policies that result in blackouts of “local” games on MLB Extra Innings and MLB.tv. Local is in quotation marks because many teams claim a TV broadcast territory far beyond the reach of its RSN’s signal. I showed you this map.
That lawsuit has proceeded apace and, in the next few months, may come to some sort of resolution. It appears from the court’s most recent scheduling order (which you can read here) that the parties are at the expert discovery phase — which means each side has obtained documents and sworn testimony from the other side’s key witnesses. For MLB, that includes, at a minimum, Red Sox owner John Henry, who is specifically referenced in the scheduling order.
Each side has retained experts and will now provide the other side with those experts’ reports, after which the experts will be deposed. If MLB wants to resolve the case short of a trial, it must soon file a motion for summary judgment wherein it will argue that the facts are undisputed and/or the law compels that the plaintiffs’ antitrust claims be dismissed.
Like the others, this case is going to be interesting to watch over the next few months.
Freddie Freeman and Choosing Youth over Track Record.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
As the calendar has flipped to February, we are officially transitioning out of free agent season — though a few stragglers remain — and moving into extension season. With arbitration providing the nudge for teams and players to run valuations and negotiate over their differences, it’s only natural that these discussions often turn into conversations about long term deals that avoid the process entirely, and the spring training months provide the best opportunity for a team and a player to come to a mutual agreement on a mutli-year extension. While Clayton Kershaw kicked off the extension season a few weeks ago, Freddie Freeman‘s new deal with the Braves is a reminder that extension season isn’t limited to just big market teams with overflowing revenues, and also a reminder of just how important a player’s age has become in long term valuations.
Freeman’s deal is for eight seasons, covering his remaining three arbitration eligible years and then five free agent years beyond that. If we assume that his arbitration prices would have gone something like $5 million/$8 million/$12 million, then he was in line for something like $25 million over the next three years, meaning the Braves bought five additional years of team control for $110 million or so, or essentially $22 million per year. It’s the largest contract extension ever given to a player with between three and four years of service time, though if you count the guaranteed dollars left on Ryan Braun‘s deal when he signed his second extension, the Brewers were on the hook for $141 million over nine years going forward from the point of the agreement.
The Braun comparison is interesting, though, because Freeman’s track record right now doesn’t really stack up to Braun’s at the point that the Brewers committed to him for a decade. Here’s Freeman’s career line compared to Braun’s performances from 2007-2010:
Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Freddie Freeman 1,908 0.285 0.358 0.466 0.357 127 -6.5 52.9 -45.7 7.1
Ryan Braun 2,548 0.307 0.364 0.554 0.393 141 13.9 143.0 -68.8 15.8
Braun not only had an extra season’s worth of playing time, he had been demonstrably better than Freeman to that point, with a specifically large advantage in the power department. Even if you give Freeman a significant bump for defensive value relative to what UZR suggests he’s been worth, he’s still not particularly close to Braun, and remember, Braun’s defensive rating during that time was dragged down by his miserable rookie season at third base as well. Braun, at the point at which he sold five free agent years for $105 million, was pretty clearly a more accomplished player than Freeman is now.
Of course, baseball has seen a lot of inflation over the last few years, and Braun’s contract came three years ago, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Braun’s benchmark contract — for players with this level of service time — didn’t last that long. Prices have been going up for everyone, and $105 million in 2011 dollars is more than $110 million in 2014 dollars. This is just part of the cycle of baseball teams getting richer; baseball players get richer too.
But I think there’s something else at play here as well. Braun was 27 when he signed his deal, and the five free agent years he sold for $105 million cover his age-32 to age-36 seasons. Freeman is 24, and the five years he sold cover his age-27 to age-31 seasons. While Braun and Freeman’s total contract prices are similar, and they have somewhat similar amounts of service time at the point of the extension, they really weren’t selling the same thing. Braun sold the Brewers his decline phase, while Freeman is selling the Braves the years that are likely to be his most productive.
Historically, we’ve been conditioned to expect players to prove their value on the field over several years before they land these nine figure contracts, and Freeman stands out as something of an anomaly in the land of $100+ million extensions. He’s had one really good season, a year driven by a sky-high BABIP that almost certainly isn’t sustainable, and as a first baseman with good but not great power, he doesn’t fit the prototype of a superstar, nor has he played like one for an extended period of time. But this is where age comes into play so heavily, because the prime years of a good player are often more productive than the decline years of a superstar, and it’s likely a better investment to give an in-his-prime, good-not-great player more money than it is to reward a superstar for what he’s already accomplished.
We already saw the market come to this same conclusion with Masahiro Tanaka this off-season. Tanaka has no major league track record, but because he will be 25 next year while all the other free agent hurlers are pushing the wrong side of 30, he landed $175 million in guaranteed dollars while Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez probably won’t get that total put together. The market made it very clear that, when given a choice between youth and track record, it would choose youth.
And the Braves had to know that Freeman’s age would weigh strongly in his favor if they let him get to free agency. Even if he never developed into much more than what he is now, and if his BABIP regressed, and UZR actually is measuring his defensive value fairly well, he’s still likely to be a +3 to +4 win player by the time he gets to free agency. If he never learns how to hit left-handers and never adds much power, then he’s basically Shin-Soo Choo, and Shin-Soo Choo just got $130 million for ages 31 to 37. Barring a major injury, Choo seems something close to Freeman’s floor, only Freeman would be hitting the market in his prime rather than leaving his prime. With any reasonable amount of inflation and even stagnant performances from Freeman over the next few years, he was going to get paid as a free agent simply because of his youth.
In fact, I’d say that even with one less year of service time, the better contract comparison here is probably Elvis Andrus. Last winter, after his age-23 season, Andrus signed away his age-26 to age age-33 seasons for $120 million, but also got an opt-out that will let him hit free agency again after his age-29 or age-30 season if he feels he can land a bigger contract at the time. While Andrus was a year closer to free agency, the opt out has significant value, and Freeman’s skillset is generally rewarded more in agency. Andrus’ deal shows the premium that teams are willing to pay to lock up prime years rather than decline years, and that’s what the Braves have done with Freeman.
$135 million for a player three years from free agency is certainly a steep price to pay, and there’s unquestionable downside if Freeman goes the way of Nick Markakis, but in general, I think this is more evidence that teams have decided that they’d rather bet on the prime years of good players rather than the decline phase of great players. Because of his age, Freeman doesn’t have to become a great player to justify this contract; the value to the Braves here is that they’re not likely to be on the hook for any years in which Freeman is worthless. And to a team with the worst TV contract in baseball, that has a lot of value.