Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
If the vote for the next commissioner, scheduled to take place next Thursday, is closer to 23-7 than 30-0, that will be the first sign of the significant challenges that face Selig's successor, who will almost certainly be Rob Manfred. Selig probably wouldn't have allowed a vote to happen if Manfred didn't have enough votes.
But unless something changes dramatically over the next six days, Manfred probably will take over without the support of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Arte Moreno of the Angels and Boston's John Henry, among others. If you think presidents have a difficult time governing without the backing of the House or Senate, you have an idea of what Manfred will face as Major League Baseball moves toward the expiration of its current labor agreement, at the end of the 2016 season. Manfred -- or somebody else if Reinsdorf's insurrection is a complete success -- will have to try to forge a new labor agreement while also dealing with in-fighting between owners. Incidentally, this was the recipe that led to the players' strike of 1994.
And beyond that, the to-do list seems to grow by the day for Selig's successor. Here are four that should be on the front burner:
1. Pace of play: The world is getting faster, attention spans are shortening, and yet MLB games continue to get longer. It's a cancerous trend that must be reversed as MLB works to appeal to younger fans, which is why the next commissioner must sit down with union chief Tony Clark and identify solutions. The most obvious -- and probably inevitable – solution is a pitch clock.
Time and again, MLB has asked players to voluntarily aid in the effort to speed up games by staying in the batter's box or remaining on the pitching rubber between pitches, and that approach has simply not worked. The umpires have not aggressively enforced rules that are on the books.
A tonic is needed, and a pitch clock would move the games along, giving fans something other to watch than another mound conference between a pitcher and catcher or a hitter adjusting his batting gloves after not swinging at the previous pitch.
2. The future of the Rays and Athletics: In many respects, the Rays and Athletics have been model franchises in terms of how they've been operated. But they continue to fall behind, while inhabiting ballparks that are below the MLB standard. Permanent solutions are needed.
3. Taking instant replay to the next level: Here's the bottom line: The sport is better than it was a year ago, with more calls being properly judged and fewer mistakes made. But there have been a surprising number of mistakes made in the first year of the process, some that never could have been anticipated and some that absolutely could have been avoided. Selig's successor must push for refinements.
4. Alter the risk/reward equation for PEDs: The union and MLB deserve a ton of credit for how far they've come in the past decade in terms of leveling the playing field for players who want a level playing field. Nobody knows this better than Manfred, who worked closely with the late Michael Weiner to make this happen. But the actions of Manny Ramirez, Bartolo Colon and Ryan Braun have made it absolutely clear that there is more ground to be covered, that players will continue to cheat because the incentives to use PEDs can still far outweigh the penalties. A player who uses PEDs to get a massive contract can still keep the bulk of his money, like a bank robber who gets to keep the majority of his take. It will be up to Selig's successor to keep the pressure on the union to toughen the penalties even more.
As for Reinsdorf, Mike Lupica writes that the White Sox owner is wrong for working to block Rob Manfred as the next commissioner.
Around the league
• On Thursday's podcast, Cubs prospect Kris Bryant told stories about what Manny Ramirez brings to the table as a mentor and coach. He talked about Javier Baez, who put on a show in his debut.
• There was a scary moment for Marlins pitcher Dan Jennings, writes John Perotto.
• The Cubs have claimed Cole Hamels off waivers, but the odds that they and the Phillies will finish a deal by today's deadline to decide are probably the same as Pete Rose becoming the next commissioner.
• During new Padres GM A.J. Preller's time with the Rangers, he was suspended by Major League Baseball for what it deemed to be a violation during his work in Latin America. The Rangers also were disciplined. Those are simple facts from the past; Preller's suspension was common knowledge.
So it was odd to see Preller's response when he was asked about what occurred, a response which simply does not square away what actually happened. From our story on Preller's hiring:
[Preller] didn't want to go into specifics but called it a "disagreement" between the Rangers and MLB and said he received what MLB termed "a slap on the wrist."
"Ultimately, MLB cleared us," he said. "They told me I didn't violate any rule or anything like that."
That's simply not accurate, according to many baseball folks. Preller served a suspension, and suspensions are not handed out for nothing.
So on Wednesday, I emailed Ron Fowler, the chairman of the Padres, and he acknowledged the suspension -- and rightly so -- in his answer: "We discussed this in detail with A.J. and with senior management at MLB. We were assured by MLB that the suspension was not a problem in hiring A.J. to be our GM."
Here's what probably should have been the more appropriate response by the Padres' new general manager, who is now the face and voice of the franchise and is in the early days of building credibility in this role: "Mistakes were made and lessons were learned that will help going forward."
Here is more on the Padres' new leader.
• Kelvin Herrera has become a seventh-inning force for the Royals. Only three other teams have fewer bullpen innings, and among the 73 relievers with the most appearances, Kansas City has just one. Down the stretch this could be to their advantage, as Royals relievers should be well-rested.
• Jeremy Guthrie had a strong outing Thursday and the Royals swept their way into the lead for the second wild-card spot, as Andy McCullough writes.
• The Blue Jays have fallen back into a pack of wild-card contenders after their latest loss. For the Jays, injuries continue to mount.
• The Mariners /mariners/2024266648_mariners08xml.html">had a big day.
• The Reds drew a line in the sand this week and kept themselves in the NL playoff race. Brandon Phillips is getting close to returning, but not Joey Votto, writes Hal McCoy.
• Caleb Joseph has been on a nice roll as the Orioles continue to roll through their second-half schedule.
• The Angels and Dodgers played a series worthy of the world's attention, writes Bill Plaschke.
• The Dodgers dealt for starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez, who joins L.A. -- presumably -- as Giant-approved. San Francisco sits right in front of the Dodgers in the waiver process, and therefore gets the first shot at every pitcher who comes through.
• The Yankees took three of four from the Tigers, as their pitching excellence continued. Francisco Cervelli made plays that preserved the lead for New York.
• Miguel Cabrera didn't start Thursday, but he did pinch-hit.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Angels dealt for reliever Vinnie Pestano.
Dings and dents
1. Neil Walker's back trouble has popped up.
2. Brandon Phillips has been cleared to swing a bat.
3. Brett Lawrie has an oblique issue.
4. George Springer tweaked a quad muscle.
5. Willie Bloomquist needed /mariners/2024266259_marinersnotebook08xml.html">knee surgery.
1. Jacob deGrom pitched effectively, but the Mets lost.
2. Bryce Harper hit a walkoff homer.
3. Ryan Howard and the Phillies swept the Astros.
4. Edinson Volquez pitched great for the Pirates, at a time they needed it.
5. Adam Wainwright had a strong outing.
6. The White Sox suffered another ugly loss.
7. Jon Lester thoroughly dominated the Twins. From ESPN Stats and Info on how he won:
A) He had an 0-1 count on 65 percent of the opposing hitters; his season average entering the game was 49 percent.
B) He did not allow a fly ball or line drive against his cutter for the second time this season (5 ground balls, 5 strikeouts).
C) He induced a season-high 23 chases by right-handed hitters.
8. Angel Pagan was back in the lineup, but the Giants still lost.
• Boston's also-ran status is tough on David Ortiz. But Red Sox GM Ben Cherington isn't worried about labels, only that the Red Sox improve, as Michael Silverman writes.
• Nelson Cruz feels he's close to breaking out of his slump.
• Stephen Drew has not thought about being Derek Jeter's heir apparent.
• Clay Buchholz's issues are mind-boggling.
• The Rays are headed to Wrigley Field this weekend.
• In David Price's absence, the other Rays pitchers are holding each other accountable.
• The Tigers need to hit better than they did against the Yankees this week, writes Shawn Windsor.
• From ESPN Stats and Info on Mike Trout being on the path to become a legend of the game:
Most WAR (Wins Above Replacement) through age-22 season, MLB history
Mike Trout* 26.5
Ty Cobb 25.5
Ted Williams 23.6
* Trout turned 23 on Thursday
• Sam Fuld is fired up to be back with Oakland.
• The Rangers should explore their options with Elvis Andrus.
• The Rangers' front office must expand its circle of trust, writes Evan Grant.
• The Astros took steps toward fixing their TV situation.
• Mike Vaccaro wonders whether Terry Collins will go down with the ship.
• Domonic Brown should be in the Phillies' lineup, writes David Murphy.
• For the Braves, it'll be an alumni weekend, and Atlanta needs all the help it can get.
• Pittsburgh isn't going to change its approach to pitching inside.
• Wily Peralta leads MLB pitchers in victories.
• Diamondbacks scouting director Ray Montgomery has found a calling.
• The Rockies' front office feels Troy Tulowitzki's frustration.
• The A's have approached an architect about an Oakland ballpark.
• Charlie Manuel deserved more respect, writes John Smallwood.
• Tim McCarver has elevated the Cardinals' broadcasts, writes Dan Caesar.
• A Crosley Field historic site has been announced, Mike Dyer writes.
• The Indians revealed renovation plans for Progressive Field.
• A sexual assault case involving the Tigers' Evan Reed was delayed.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Prospect Watch: Youth Up The Middle.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Carlos Tocci, OF, Philadelphia Phillies (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 18 Top-15: 6 Top-100: N/A
Line: 456 PA, .248/.299/.340, 2 HR, 21 BB, 83 K
This athletic, projectable glider has made moderate inroads at the plate and has plenty of time and projection to allow for additional progress.
For a kid who turns 19 later this month, Carlos Tocci sure seems like he’s been around for a long time. That’s largely because he was assigned to full-season ball last year as a 17-year-old, opening 2013 as the youngest player at the Low-A level before some guy named Julio Urias was assigned there. After a very poor performance there (.209/.261/.249), Tocci was slowed down to repeat the level this year, but his numbers obviously still fail to jump off the page.
The natural question with a player like this is wondering how much of his failure to put up numbers is due to his youth and how much is just due to a lack of skill. While Tocci clearly has a long way to go before he’s ready to approach the big leagues, he provides plenty of intrigue.
First, while he’s obviously a long way off with the bat, Tocci is already a very solid center fielder. He has smooth actions, reads the ball well, and covers a significant amount of ground, and his arm is at least a 55 on the 20-80 scale. He’s also an easy plus runner who has legged out eight triples this year despite his lack of power (more on that in a minute), though he has yet to figure out how to use that speed in stealing bases (9-for-20 this year). Since he projects to be at or at least near plus defensively and on the basepaths, Tocci doesn’t need to be an impact hitter to have significant value at the big league level.
At the plate, Tocci has always made a reasonable amount of contact, with strikeout rates of 16.8, 16.8, and 18.2 percent in his three professional seasons. His swing is relatively simple and short to the ball, so he projects to continue to put the ball in play at a reasonable amount all the way up the chain. At 6’2″, he has the frame to suggest some future leverage and strength, but calling Tocci “skinny” is an understatement. He’s listed at 160 pounds and isn’t a pound heavier, and he’s actually had to add some weight from last year even to get there. Discussions of Tocci’s future largely center on how much he’ll fill out and how strong he’ll be. If he adds another 25 pounds of muscle, he’ll likely have enough strength to hit for at least some gap power, but if his body stays largely the same, he’ll struggle to get the bat knocked out of his hands.
The added weight in the past offseason, more than any sort of adjustment, is what’s responsible for Tocci’s improved production this year, as gaining some semblance of strength at the plate has allowed him to increase his BABIP and Isolated Power by 50 points. He’s also hit his first two professional home runs in the past month, continuing to signal the slow emergence of a sliver of pop. He’ll need to keep making strides in those areas, and he could stand to improve his selectivity along the way as well, but if those elements of his game improve to even fringe-average, he’d project as something like a .270/.320/.390 hitter with good defense in center, putting him in the Leonys Martin/Desmond Jennings class of outfielders. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome, and he’s young enough that there’s a chance that he could add in a few extra twists and be even more than that, but his distance to the majors also means expectations are best kept realistic.
Richard Urena, SS, Toronto Blue Jays (Profile)
Level: Rookie-Advanced Age: 18 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 188 PA, .322/.364/.460, 2 HR, 12 BB, 39 K
Extremely young and already producing, Urena offers a bit of everything.
Who isn’t intrigued by a shortstop hitting .322/.364/.460 as an 18-year-old in something other than a complex league? To put it another way, Urena is four months younger than fifth overall pick Nick Gordon, who plays in the same league, and Urena has the better wOBA by 65 points. Statistics don’t mean too much when they’re coming from the Appalachian League, but it’s hard not to have your interest piqued by Urena’s production.
Like Gordon, Urena has a broad skillset that doesn’t feature any one incredible tool. He’s obviously stood out most to date for his hitting, showing an ability to sting the ball to all fields. He’s actually largely an opposite-field hitter right now according to his MLBFarm page. Here’s one of his many hits to left field, a double I saw on June 26:
It’s evident that Urena has above-average bat speed, though he has some excessive pre-swing movement that could stand to be toned down and he needs to stay in the box better rather than bailing out toward first base. If he can make those refinements, he has a chance to be a solid-average hitter who has enough strength and bat speed to reach double-digit homer totals, a .270 hitter with a .405 slugging or so. His approach wavers at times, leading to a 39/12 K/BB ratio, but he shows flashes of being able to recognize pitches and work deep counts, so at his age the aggregate plate discipline numbers shouldn’t be a concern.
The rest of Urena’s game is also solid. While he’s quite raw at shortstop with an .898 fielding percentage, he has the tools to stick there, with smooth actions, solid-average range, and an above-average arm. He’s still developing his feel for the position, but he should eventually become a sound shortstop or plus defensive second baseman, depending on his team’s needs. He also is an above-average runner, as you can see here:
As you can see, words like “sound” and “solid” are all over Urena’s scouting report, which doesn’t really have many pure superlatives. Some scouts have come away only mildly enthused as a result, but Urena seems primed to be the sort of player for whom the whole is more than the sum of the parts. As the sabermetrically inclined are well aware, there can be great value in players who do everything solidly but lack a “wow factor.” It might seem somewhat disappointing that an 18-year-old shortstop with this sort of production doesn’t have that single jaw-dropping talent, but he doesn’t have to; he’s a legitimately good prospect anyway.
Meibrys Viloria, C, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: Foreign Rookie Age: 17 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 84 PA, .377/.470/.565, 2 HR, 12 BB, 10 K
An extremely long way off, but a potential impact lefty-hitting catcher, and those don’t come around often.
It might strike you as odd that I’m writing about a prospect in the Dominican Summer League, because a) those guys generally are so far off they’re barely worth considering and b) I’ve never been to a Dominican Summer League game. Earlier this year, though, 17-year-old catcher Meibrys Viloria had a brief stint in the Appalachian League, where he hit .200/.373/.325 before being sent down to the Dominican because he wasn’t catching enough with Chase Vallot and Xavier Fernandez in Burlington. When he was with the B-Royals, I happened to notice his name–he was the second-youngest player on an extremely young team (the youngest being Italian phenom Marten Gasparini), and yet I’d never heard of him.
Then he did this:
That was six weeks ago–Viloria was 17 years and four months old, and he already showed usable power in the Appalachian League. He’s got bat speed and a workable swing path to go with obvious present strength. Further, he has a developed enough batting eye not only to walk more than he’s struck out in the DSL, but also to post an even 10/10 K/BB in his Appy stint.
My viewings of Viloria consisted solely of one game as the DH and one relatively uneventful one behind the plate, so I can’t say much about his defense. He does have a prototypical catcher’s body even at age 17, and in my extremely limited viewing sample, his receiving and blocking skills appeared superior to Vallot’s. For what it’s worth, he has not been issued a passed ball all season between the DSL and Appy; even if it’s only 21 games caught, that’s still quite rare to see from a player this young. He’s also caught 27% of basestealers.
I didn’t get a long enough look at Viloria to hone in on real specific projections of his future, and being specific about his destiny is probably foolish anyway, given his extreme youth. But I saw enough to know that he’s a very interesting guy who’s worth keeping an eye on, because he might offer power and patience from the left side while being able to stick behind the plate, and you don’t need me to tell you that such a skillset carries premium value.
Adam Jones’ Historical Plate Discipline Peers.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
As Mike noted in July, the Orioles are doing this despite many things not going as expected. However, one player is pretty much the same as he always: Adam Jones. From 2010 to 2013, Jones’ cumulative wRC+ was 116. To date in 2014, his wRC+ is 115. Jones’ offensive production so far this season may be a bit down from his 2012 and 2013 performances, but he is still pretty much the same hitter: good (not great) production based on average and power despite a low walk rate.
Although everyone ages differently, most players tend to add walks as they age. Jones is different in this regard as well. This walk rate is actually down for the third straight year. However, his power remains basically the same. In 2014, Jones has second lowest walk rate in baseball behind Ben Revere, although Jones is tied with Chris Johnson and Matt Adams (whose seasons deserves its own post) at the moment.
Adam Jones seems to generate occasional controversy. Some people think he is a below-average center fielder, others see him as one of the better outfield defenders in baseball. Focusing just on his bat, Jones’ combination of (non-) walks, strikeout rate, and power is pretty unusual. The worry about such players is that they will not age well. Let’s look at some other players who have put up something like Jones 2014 (or 2013) peripherals to see how they did it and how they aged.
There are various ways of generating player comparisons, statistical and otherwise. I make no claim to using the best or even a very scientific method. Given our focus on Jones’ hitting, I looked at some of the more obvious peripherals: walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power using 2014 as a rough baseline. Since the general run environment and specific hitting averages have changed over the years (for example, hitters struck out far less in 1974 than they do these days), I use rates relative to league average as a basis for comparison. It isn’t terribly sophisticated, but I think it is a helpful adjustment.
To get close to what Jones is doing this season, I used a baselines of a walk rate of less than .4 of league average, a strikeout rate of greater than .8 of league average, and an isolated power of greater than 1.3 of league average in player seasons with at least 500 plate appearances. I got a few hits, but many of them were either for very young players or older players who h ad fluke seasons. When I narrowed the search for players in what is typically considered a hitter’s prime (25 to 29), I only got one result. So I loosed up the search a bit using something closer to Jones’ 2013 peripherals.
Let’s begin with the four players who met my looser, 2013-based criteria:
Rip Repulski, 1957, age 28. Hey, remember Rip Repulski? Repulski was a regular outfielder for the Cardinals in the mid-50s, but was not that great. Even during his prime, he was a league-average hitting corner outfielder. His career peaked with a 109 wRC+ (.270/.333/.467) performance for St. Louis in 1955. He did make the All-Star team in 1956. His 1957 season, his first after being traded to the Phillies, was the only one that really looked like Jones, at least when adjusted for era (hitters struck out far less often in the 1950s). The 1957 season turned out to be Repulski’s last as a regular, and he turned into a part-timer pretty soon after. He is probably not a great comparison to Jones, but perhaps worth keeping in mind — not so much for the quality of his play, but for his aging path.
Butch Hobson, 1977, age 25. Butch Hobson, a third baseman for the Red Sox in the late 1970s, does meet the parameters, but just barely. In 1977 Hobson was in just his first full season in the majors, so in that respect he does really quite fit in the same category of an veteran like Adam Jones. Hobson’s 1977 was one of his better years, but after 1979 he was done as a full time player. Outside of 1979, Hobson also struck out far more often than Jones.
Juan Samuel, 1986 age 25. Now here is a player with a long career. Samuel originally played for the Phillies and had over 3700 plate appearances with that team, but also had stints with the Dodgers, the Blue Jays, the Royals, the Tigers, the Mets, and the Reds. In his prime, although Samuel was not as good a hitter as Jones relative to league average, he had a somewhat similar profile. In his mid-20s, Samuel hit for good power and did not take many walks (although he was almost league average in 1987). He did strike out a fair bit more than Jones. Samuel’s walk rate did improve a bit in his late-twenties as he reached Jones’ current age. The 1986 season, the one that resembled Jones 2013-2014 approach, was actually a low for Samuel in terms of walks. It was his second full season in the majors. By the time Samuel was 31, he was no longer as a full timer. He did have some nice seasons as a bench bat in the mid-90s, however.
Joe Carter, 1987, age 27. Carter is probably best known for the award partially named after him, but I think he also had a big postseason hit at some point. In 1987, Carter was around the same age as Jones was at the beginning of the 2013 season (the baseline he met), and was established as a major leaguers. Those who remember Carter from his famous Toronto years may not know that in his younger years he stole a good number of bases (including 31 in 1987), although even in 1987, he split his time between first base and outfield.
Compared to Jones, Carter struck out a bit more relative to the league, although at this point his his career, that was unusual for Carter. He was never far worse than league average. Carter walked a bit more often than Jones, even in a down year for walks for him like 1987. Carter also had a bit more power in his late 20s than Jones does. Still, this might be the best comparison (in terms of plate discipline and power) that we have for Jones yet. Despite the low walk rates and average-ish contact, Carter was an above-average hitter into his mid-30s (outside bad bump in 1990 for San Diego). Although Carter would never have been mistaken for Bobby Abreu at the plate, his walk rate improve a bit as he got older, as one generally expects.
All of the above player-seasons met the loosened query parameteres. Only only player-season between ages 25 and 29 met the requirements more closely based on 2014:
Alfonso Soriano, 2002, age 26. Soriano was released by the Yankees last month after a miserable 238 plate appearances (61 wRC+). But honestly, he held on longer than many people expected. After 2009, when he managed just an 83 wRC+ for the Cubs, he looked done. But he was then above-average three of the next four seasons. Let’s go back in time.
In 2002, Soriano was in this second season a full time player with the Yankees as a stone-gloved second baseman. He had shown flashes in 2001 (and was almost the World Series hero). In 2002, he had what turned out to be the best season of his career by wRC+ (131, .300/.332/.547, 39 home runs, 51 doubles, and also 41 stolen bases). What Soriano did not do was walk very much: his 3.1 percent walk rate ended up being his lowest full season walk rate overall until 2014. He was a hacker, but with that power swing, he was not a slap hitter, and his strikeout rate was worse than league average, as it would be throughout his career.
Soriano had his struggles, and seemed (as one might expect) very streaky. However, it was not as if 2002 was a complete fluke season. Soriano was mostly good for many years. He arguably peaked in 2006 and 2007, his one season with the Nationals (when he shifted to the outfield) and his first with the Cubs when he was 30 and 31, respectively. In 2006, his walk rate was even above average. Over his career his walk rate improved, not just from the low of 2002, but generally, even if he was never an on-base machine.
Compared to Jones in 2014 thus far, Soriano so walked even less compared to league average. Soriano also hit for more power, and did so most seasons compared to what Jones has done the last few years. On the other hand, Soriano struck out far more than Jones. Soriano’s plate approach was thus even more extreme than Jones. It was the issue that make Soriano look like he would decline early, but despite a few hiccups, Soriano actually managed to be a very useful player into his mid-30s.
Of the five players we briefly examined, two had relatively short careers and three had very long careers, at least two of which were very successful. Butch Hobson did meet the parameters, but just barely, and he looked more like a player who had one or two good seasons but could not last with his limited approach. He struck out much more often than Jones. Rip Repulski was more like Jones in his overall profile, but was not as good overall, and so once he began to decline, he lost his usefulness.
Juan Samuel did have a long career, but really was not all that great for much of it. However, like Hobson, he struck out much more often than Jones has. And like Repulski, he was not as good as Jones as a hitter in his either his mid- or late-20s, so once he did not have far to fall before his lost his usefulness, even if he continued to get playing time.
Joe Carter might be the best comparison to Jones as a hitter of the five players. Like Jones, he did not walk much, but did not strike out much, either. He also hit for power. And even after consistently low walk rates in his 20s, Carter still managed to improve in that respect as he got older while retaining his power.
Of course, it was Jones’ 2014 walk rate that sent me down this path originally, and only Soriano matched up with Jones’ in terms of the parameters based on this season. Soriano also had low walk rates, but like Carter he improved that walk rate. He also had better power than Jones. But Soriano’s case, like all of the rest other than Carter, really brings out one thing that Jones has over these other low-walk, good-power hitters: a better-than-average strikeout rate.
In terms of strikeout rate, Jones is not Victor Martinez by any stretch of the imagination, but since 2009 his strikeout rate has been a bit better than average, even as his walk rate has fluctuated and even decreased. Sure, it would be nice if he walked more, but putting the ball into play is almost always a good thing, especially when one hits it as hard as Jones does. Soriano illustrates how a even a player with poor walk and strikeout rates can be productive even over a long career. Jones does not have the same sort of power Soriano did, but he is not a slap hitter, either. In this sense Jones is more like Carter — average or better strikeout rates and aboave-average power offset the below-average walk rates.
As stated earlier, these comparisons are not meant to be definitive. I could have set the parameters to get players with lower strikeout rates, for example. But the general point is worth noting. Adam Jones, even by his own standards, is taking an incredibly low number of walks this season. He will probably “improve” next year simply due to regression. Aging curves are also in his favor. But Jones will probably never be a walk machine. There are no guarantees as to how a player will age. Moreover, one should not exaggerate the significance of what a couple of other players have done. What the examples of Soriano and Carter do show us is how hitters like Jones can not only succeed in their primes, but as they age when they have the contact and power skills to overcome a low walk rate.
The Mariners Are or Aren’t Wasting Historic Run Prevention.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Following the trade deadline, much of the talk concerns the rotations built in Detroit and Oakland. Both were strong before adding, respectively, David Price and Jon Lester, and those are the teams considered to have the most intimidating pitching staffs down the stretch. But it’s the Mariners who’ve had better run prevention than anybody else, by a decent margin, and two things are remarkable: it’s remarkable that that’s true, and it’s remarkable that the Mariners still aren’t presently in a playoff position.
To knock one thing out right away: it would be better to have RA-, but that’s not available on our leaderboards. And, honestly, it wouldn’t change very much; the Mariners have allowed just 28 unearned runs, fifth-fewest in baseball. So the ERA- isn’t deceptive, and while it’s somewhat insane what the Mariners have done, it’s extra insane what they’ve been doing lately. What comes next is going to feature an arbitrary endpoint, but this isn’t intended as analysis — this is just a summary of what’s certainly happened.
And what’s certainly happened is that, since the last day of May, the Mariners have played 59 games, or 36% of a full season. Over those 59 games, the Mariners as a team have allowed 159 runs, with a 2.50 ERA. Because I feel like you aren’t appreciating that, over more than a third of a full season, the Mariners as a team have posted a 2.50 ERA, that is a full run better than a 3.50 ERA, which would be a pretty good ERA. Clayton Kershaw has a career 2.52 ERA. For 59 games, basically, the Mariners have been preventing runs as if every game was nine innings of Clayton Kershaw.
Since that same date, the Mariners’ runs-allowed total is 46 runs better than the American League’s next-lowest runs-allowed total. The Mariners have allowed, over the span, fewer than half as many runs as the Rangers. And yet the Mariners’ record over the stretch is just fifth-best in the AL, behind the Orioles, A’s, Angels, and Royals. As the Mariners have had maybe the best run-prevention streak in franchise history, they’ve lost considerable ground in their own division. And this is because, since the last day of May, the Mariners are also tied for last in the AL in runs scored.
That more or less captures the essence of the team. But let’s step back now to look at the whole year, instead of just the last 2+ months. The Mariners’ team 79 ERA- is the best in baseball by five points. Since the mound was lowered before 1969, only six teams have finished with a lower ERA-, the 1993 Braves leading the way at 75. Since the same year, this Mariners rotation would rank in the upper 10%, but it’s the bullpen that’s been truly absurd — its 62 ERA- is topped only by the 2003 Dodger bullpen’s 61 ERA-. The Mariners projected to have a reasonably effective bullpen, but to this point it’s been almost unparalleled.
You can get yourself some of the way toward understanding how this has happened. Felix Hernandez is the AL’s Kershaw, and he’s been pitching at an even higher level than he used to. Hisashi Iwakuma also has a sub-3 ERA and xFIP. Chris Young, healthy now, has a history of beating his peripherals, and over his last ten starts he’s had four times as many strikeouts as walks. The bullpen has avoided both injuries and hits, and it’s been improved by the emergence of Brandon Maurer. Lloyd McClendon‘s starters have generally taken him deep enough to afford bullpen flexibility, and it’s not surprising that any of those relievers have succeeded. In any given season, dozens if not hundreds of relievers will over-perform.
There’s also the matter of the team’s defense, which is why I’ve been careful to use the term “run prevention”. DRS thinks the Mariners have been average, but UZR thinks they’ve been considerably better, and Matthew Carruth’s team-level analysis is even more flattering. While the defensive unit lacks an Alex Gordon or an Andrelton Simmons, it’s also a unit that doesn’t have a glaring weakness (at least, anymore). The Mariners have all the elements to have an above-average run-prevention unit; throw in some good health and some good luck, and you’ve got a unit that right now is performing at a historic level.
Then comes the possible regression, which is the problem. Because the Mariners have had an extreme performance, you have to assume it’ll be closer to average going forward. At the moment there’s a 15-point gap between the Mariners’ ERA- and FIP-, and there’ve been just five bigger gaps since 1969. There’ve been no bigger gaps since 1991. The Mariners can’t really count on a 79 ERA- for the final six or seven weeks, which is why it’s imperative they start scoring runs. They can hope for continued good defense and they can hope for health and effectiveness out of James Paxton, but they should probably be closer to above-average than elite. The 2014 Mariners’ run prevention might be this year’s 2013 Cardinals hitting with runners in scoring position, or 2012 Orioles record in one-run games. That which is better than it ought to be could become what it ought to be at a moment’s notice.
But if it helps, the rest of the way the Mariners are projected for either the AL’s fifth-best record, or the AL’s third-best record. As one unit projects to do worse, the other unit projects to do better, with basically offsetting regressions. Adding Austin Jackson doesn’t hurt; getting Michael Saunders back should completely eliminate Endy Chavez. (The team’s been playing Endy Chavez.)
No matter where the Mariners go from here, there’s no disputing that, for two months and for four months, the run prevention has achieved at a level seldom before seen. Yet, these Mariners have won 52% of their games. The teams with the top 25 run-prevention units since 1969 have won an average of 60% of their games. So there exists the belief among some people that the Mariners are wasting the gift they’ve been given. That’s true in a way, as the Mariners are a non-elite team with an elite-level partial performance. But from the other perspective, the Mariners have taken full advantage of this run prevention, as a team with a lousy offense is a game back from making the playoffs. A team with so few runs allowed has little business being outside of the playoff picture; a team with so few runs scored has little business being anywhere close to the playoff picture. I think the only thing that really matters is that on August 7 the baseball still matters.
Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb: Two Pitches, One Grip.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The interesting thing, though, is that Odorizzi’s pitch is different — despite having the same grip. For two pitches that they’ve nicknamed Thing 1 and Thing 2, these aren’t the indistinguishable twins from The Cat in the Hat.
Once upon a time, the Rays took the splitter away from Alex Cobb. “I tried every changeup, and I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t get rid of the velocity,” Cobb said of that trying time in the low minors. He’s not bitter about that time at all, though. “I think the fact that I wasn’t really developed at 18, 19, they were trying to take it away from me just thinking it had a lot of forearm strain — it wasn’t that great a pitch for me back then anyway.”
Then he got to Low A three years later and his coach Bill Moloney showed him the splitter grip. “I looked at him and asked him if I could call it my changeup,” Cobb remembers of that giddy moment.
Because the release is so much like his two-seam fastball, Cobb considers the pitch a heavy two-seamer. The similarity with the fastball is the key to the success of the splitter, he felt. “It stays in the strike zone for so long, so they have to respect the fastball,” he said before a game with the Athletics. “At the point where they have to commit as a hitter, it’s still in the zone.”
Odorizzi never got any guff from the Rays about throwing the pitch, though — “They encourage you here, if it’s good, and it doesn’t bother you, why not throw it?” He also echoes many of the same comments that Cobb has about the pitch, even referring to it as a heavy two-seamer. “You think fastball and it’s hard to adjust when you start your swing to drop your swing path as you’re going,” Odorizzi said of the pitch that has the same arm speed as his fastball, but a completely different finish.
Thing 1: the splitter grip that Cobb taught Odorizzi.
In fact, the splitter has made Odorizzi’s fastball better. “It seems like it has more ride to it,” he said. Once the hitter has that splitter in his head, he starts to miss the fastball high in the zone — right now, Odorizzi is getting a 10% whiff rate on his fastball, which is well above average for a four-seam fastball.
But it’s not like Odorizzi has become a Cobb clone. Their two splitters aren’t even the same. Our PITCHf/x numbers say that Cobb’s has three inches more drop, and that fits what the players say. “Cobb’s more straight down then mine,” said Odorizzi. “I have the tilt and the run a little bit.”
Take a look at Thing 1 and Thing 2 right next to each other (Odorizzi on the left, Cobb on the right):
The difference is all in the release point, according to the pitchers. Odorizzi pointed it out first: “He’s very over the top, and he’s very on top of everything…. he’s got not choice but to go down.” Take a look at their release points next to each other, with Odorizzi on the left and Cobb on the right:
Perhaps instead of looking at release points by themselves, we should be looking at release points relative to heads. Because look at how Odorrizi’s head pulls off the ball, meaning his release point is, relative to his head, more sideways despite looking more over the top. Cobb’s head stays more upright. Take a look at each pitcher at the moment of release to see their relative angles (Odorizzi on the left, Cobb on the right):
In any case Cobb might have anticipated the difficulty in seeing his release point for what it is. “It’s hard to see on the video,” he admitted.
But going over the top has become very important to him over time. “With the failures of certain pitches, I’ve realized in order to be successful I have to have that high arm slot,” Cobb said. “That’s when the ball drops out, and the curve ball is more twelve-six and the two-seam darts down, when I’m high — that’s my best arm slot.”
Of course there are more differences. Cobb’s been throwing the pitch longer, so it’s not surprising to hear Odorizzi admit that the pitch is unpredictable to him sometimes. “Sometimes it cuts on accident — you never know what you’re going to get,” he said. “His is more consistent.”
Looking at the movement on each pitch, it certainly looks like Cobb’s movement is more centrally clustered, but it’s hard to tell. It’s a crazy pitch.
Cobb is getting to the point where he’s now starting to actually command the pitch — his 22% ball rate according to Brooks Baseball is almost half the rate of your typical split finger. He did point out that he almost never throws it for a strike, and also that the low ball rate was probably just because he got so many swings and misses on it, though — it’s not an easy pitch to command with all that movement.
But Odorizzi is fortunate, of his own admission. As is Cobb. “I have such lax joints and fingers that it really doesn’t hurt” Cobb said of the grip. “My genes, up and down the ladder, are just very flexible.” Cobb told the story of a roommate, a good friend of his in the minors, that was “jealous of the pitch and he didn’t have a changeup.” Cobb tried to show him the grip, but his friend’s fingers couldn’t stretch far enough. “Some people can’t do it,” Cobb shrugged.
These two Rays, though, had the fingers for the grip. And though their mechanics have led to slightly different versions of The Thing, they’ve both found great success with the splitter. They’re both in the top 30 for swinging strikes among starters this year, and they can thank two pitches that are about as devastating as two creatures let loose inside on a rainy day.
The Year in Tanner Roark.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
No one really thought much of it. Even in this post-game interview, Roark looks about as excited in his debut as everyone watching was. He was just a guy, a 25th round pick by the Rangers who was traded to Washington as half of the return for Texas’ acquisition of Cristian Guzman back in 2010. Fun fact; after the trade, Guzman hit .152/.204/.174 and was worth -0.7 WAR in just 50 plate appearances. Whoops.
But, really, giving up Roark wasn’t anything to lose sleep over. When Texas traded him, he was a guy with 75 strikeouts in 105 innings in Double-A, and he wasn’t even avoiding walks that well. He was an organizational guy, a non-prospect with no obvious upside who looked like a career minor leaguer. Even when he got to Washington, he didn’t really have any kind of major breakthrough. He just progressed through up the chain, got to Triple-A as a 25 year old, and then threw enough strikes in Syracuse last year that the team called him up when they needed a long man in the bullpen.
Well, he’s not a long man in the bullpen anymore. Since Roark’s debut one year ago today, here are the top 10 qualified starting pitchers by ERA-.
Name IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Clayton Kershaw 196.0 5% 30% 53% 6% 82% 0.289 50 52 58 6.8 7.8
Johnny Cueto 183.2 7% 25% 50% 10% 82% 0.227 52 82 83 3.5 6.4
Jon Lester 219.2 6% 23% 42% 4% 75% 0.300 61 66 87 7.0 6.3
Chris Sale 194.1 5% 27% 45% 9% 80% 0.279 64 71 75 5.6 6.4
Zack Greinke 212.2 5% 26% 48% 10% 82% 0.294 65 76 72 4.8 6.3
Tanner Roark 194.2 5% 19% 46% 6% 79% 0.262 69 85 96 3.5 5.4
Yu Darvish 211.1 9% 31% 36% 11% 82% 0.308 70 76 79 5.4 6.1
Felix Hernandez 217.0 6% 28% 56% 7% 70% 0.278 71 60 65 7.1 5.9
Hisashi Iwakuma 187.2 4% 21% 50% 11% 80% 0.276 71 81 78 4.0 5.8
Cole Hamels 208.1 6% 25% 47% 8% 78% 0.285 71 75 83 4.7 5.5
There’s Roark, right in the middle of a list of the best pitchers in baseball. Over almost 200 innings, runs have been scored against Roark at a lower rate than they have against Felix Hernandez. Few things in baseball will remind us of the unpredictable of the game as much as that one.
Of course, this stat also says as much about ERA as it does about Roark or Hernandez. If we sort by FIP-, he’s 25th, not 6th, but still, that puts him in a tie with Madison Bumgarner and Sonny Gray. That’s not bad company either. If we look at xFIP-, which factors in that he’s likely been a bit lucky in allowing home runs, he winds up 42nd among qualified starters, tied with Doug Fister. This is a more realistic comparison for Roark, as while he’s a great story, he’s not Felix Hernandez. But he might be Doug Fister.
Name IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Tanner Roark 194.2 5% 19% 46% 6% 79% 0.262 69 85 96 3.5 5.4
Doug Fister 170.1 5% 17% 49% 9% 80% 0.315 79 93 96 2.5 4.0
On walks, strikeouts, and groundballs, Roark and Fister have been very similar over the last few years. Like Roark, Fister was also a non-prospect with mediocre stuff, and his development into one of the game’s best starting pitchers has been a significant surprise to just about everyone. If there’s a career path to copy for Roark, Fister is probably about as good as it gets, within reason anyway. The good news for Roark is that he’s basically been a carbon copy of Fister over the last year, especially when you look at their plate discipline numbers.
Name IP O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
Tanner Roark 194.2 29.4% 59.7% 45.1% 66.4% 90.3% 82.8% 51.6%
Doug Fister 170.1 28.3% 58.8% 44.3% 68.8% 91.3% 84.5% 52.5%
The key for these kinds of pitchers is pinpoint location, and Roark certainly has pitched like a guy who can put the ball wherever he wants. And when you look at his location grids, it becomes clear what his preferred method of attacking hitters is.
That’s Roark versus right-handed batters this year. You could basically draw a straight line from the upper left-hand corner of the strike zone to the far bottom right, and note that Roark pitches almost exclusively along that line. He’s coming at right-handers either up-and-in or down-and-away, with a bit more of the emphasis on the low-outside corner of the zone.
But what’s interesting about Roark is that the up-and-in pitch is really where he’s making his mark. For all the talk about the need for middling stuff guys to “keep the ball down”, Roark’s relative effectiveness is most obvious on those up-and-in pitches. Here is the RAA/100 map for Roark’s locations against right-handers this year.
His down-and-away numbers are above average, but his up-and-in numbers are excellent. He’s dominating hitters in this part of the zone, generating a ton of weak contact in that area. Let’s switch to the 5×5 grid to make it more clear. Here’s Roark’s rate of contact allowed to right-handed batters this year.
Hitters are putting the bat on the ball on their up-and-in swings at nearly the same rate as they are when they swing at his pitches that are grooved down the middle of the plate. Roark gets his strikeouts down-and-away, but up-and-in, he’s a pitch-to-contact guy. But look at what happens on that contact.
RHBs batting average against Roark this year:
RHBs isolated power against Roark this year.
Up-and-in is just as effective for Roark as down-and-away, giving him two areas of the strike zone to attack hitters where he can generate weak contact. As Chris Young explained to Eno Sarris a few months ago, hitters have a hole at the top of the zone, and pitchers with great command can exploit that hole, but it’s a fine line to walk.
This is basically the way that Matt Cain limited home runs forever, and how guys like Justin Verlander have lived as fly ball pitchers without being home run pitchers. If you can locate your fastball up-and-in, you can pitch up and avoid home runs. Of course, Roark doesn’t have a Verlander or Cain fastball, but then again, Chris Young throws 85 and lives at the top of the strike zone, and he has a career 8% HR/FB ratio. Jered Weaver has shown that this same approach can work with a below average fastball. Roark wouldn’t be the first guy with mediocre stuff to limit hard contact by exploiting the very thin hole in hitter’s swings on up-and-in pitches.
Of course, he also wouldn’t be the first guy with mediocre stuff to throw 200 decent innings and then regress quickly. There are some parallels between Roark now and the 2010/2011 version of Vance Worley, for instance. We don’t have enough data to forecast Roark as the kind of pitcher who is going to beat his FIP and xFIP by significant margins.
But we do have some evidence that he might be one of these guys, and the good news for the Nationals is that he’s showing the kinds of tools that will allow him to succeed even if the BABIP and HR/FB ratios both regress back to league average. If he’s not an exceptional contact manager, and he’s just a guy who pounds the strike zone and gets ground balls, then he’s an above average big league pitcher. If he can keep exploiting the up-and-in hole, however, generating significant amounts of weak contact, then he’s not just a fun story anymore, but legitimately one of the better young arms in baseball.
Predicting the rest of Roark’s career is likely as futile a process as predicting that Roark would rise from a nothing prospect to this level of pitcher in just a year’s time. Perhaps Jay Robertson — the Nationals scout who recommended Roark in the Guzman deal — has a crystal ball and knew this was coming, but I’m guessing he’s just as surprised at how well this kid has developed as the rest of us. Given what he’s done over his first full year in the big leagues, though, we might want to stop being surprised when Tanner Roark dominates big league hitters. He might just be pretty good at it.
Brandon McCarthy: Tinkering or Regression.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Our projection systems provide a snapshot of the potential gains grabbing such a player delivers between the deadline and the end of the season. Using the available means, we roughly figure the Tigers can expect a couple wins from Price in the regular season over Drew Smyly.
When we post rest-of-season forecasts for players on new teams, it’s a matter of distilling the true talent of a player and then adding the context of their new home. But there can often be impediments to this true talent, roadblocks that could prevent a newly-acquired player from producing for his new team as they expect.
Trained eyes might notice a pitcher consistently failing to get a key pitch to certain spot, or making up quick fixes in an attempt to address these challenges. Perhaps an unreported injury is shortening up a stride or a pitcher is tipping his breaking ball.
Especially in the context of rental players, this is key. As much as hot streaks and slumps are more about randomness and round balls bouncing off round bats, there are dynamic elements that can hinder performance. There are so many moving parts and timing-based elements when hitting or throwing baseballs at the game’s highest level, at some point things are bound to get out of whack.
Sometimes regression doesn’t have time to ride in on its white horse to save the season. Consider Brandon McCarthy, now of the New York Yankees.
As you well know by now, McCarthy’s results were terrible as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. His peripherals looked fine but he was plagued by the long ball. Put the guy in pinstripes and suddenly McCarthy’s a new man!
Except he’s basically the same man, with the same strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground ball rate since moving to the American League. The only difference is the lanky righty’s ability to keep the ball in the park; no mean feat at Yankee Stadium.
Team K% BB% HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB
2014 DBacks 20.0 % 4.3 % 1.23 0.345 66.7 % 55.3 % 20.0 %
2014 Yankees 21.7 % 4.7 % 0.59 0.333 77.4 % 52.6 % 8.7 %
McCarthy credits the Yankees staff for encouraging him to throw his cutter again, a pitch the Diamondbacks wanted him to move away from, according to McCarthy. As a Yankee, he’s thrown more cutters and four-seamers while reducing his sinker & curveball usage.
If the Yankees scouts noticed something in his approach and believed they could correct it, then consider that removing a roadblock. The results are definitely promising, and could absolutely be a product of his new approach.
Or it could just be a matter of giving up fewer homers because he was bound to give up fewer homers. As much as the cutter might keep balls off the barrel, there is that nagging fear that this is not better process, just better results.
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation for the ages. Did McCarthy get better because he was bound to get better or did he get better because the Yankees helped unlock the efficient pitcher he became in Oakland? It is just this kind of complicated exercise in logic that teams must consider before deciding to make a move with the playoffs in mind. Can we afford to gamble on this player, based on our information?
It works the other way, too. The rapport built between Jon Lester and David Ross helped to bring out the best in the big lefty, but Ross’ skills as a pitch framer certainly didn’t hurt either. Did the A’s account for this boost and how their stable of catchers might affect his performance? Is he outperforming his abilities and how hard might he crash?
For a pitcher of Lester’s quality, probably not much. As much as the extra strikes Ross managed to steal, Lester’s more aggressive approach deserves credit for his great 2014 thus far. As he told me in July, “screw everything else, we’re going to challenge guys.” A concerted effort to pitch differently yields better results – an outcome the A’s can certainly live with.
At this point, the Yankees can only be happy with the quality of McCarthy’s outings and less concerned with how he managed to pull it off. Whether or not they believe the gains he shows in this tiny sample is a conversation for the off-season, when it comes time to consider re-signing Twitter’s favorite pitcher to a multiyear contract.
We can chalk a lot of this early success up to regression and the power of numbers like xFIP, but the without the fundamental changes brought about by an informed scouting and coaching staff, does McCarthy turn it around so quickly? Is regression to the mean simply the variance working itself out, or is it the inevitable result of a player fixing something that was previously broken?
Untangling these connections is complicated, and it’s unlikely that even the Yankees know how much credit to give to the changes implemented for his success in New York. But given their acquisitions over the last month — McCarthy has been joined in New York by Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, Martin Prado, and Chris Capuano — it’s pretty clear that the organization likes to try and buy low on guys whose results don’t line up with their underlying peripherals or their past track record. So far, it’s worked out pretty well for them. Whether it’s tinkering or regression, either way, it looks like a pretty good plan.
Prospect Watch: The Effects of the 2012 CBA.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
There have been rumblings concerning level where this year’s college draftees debuted and whether that would affect their development. Player development has two prongs: (1) produce major league talent and (2) do it efficiently. The former, of course, is the priority but latter shouldn’t be discounted (and it’s easier to study). For reasons’s we’ve discussed previously, it’s difficult to study the minor leagues without running into survival bias.
To evaluate the effects of the new CBA I reviewed the two years prior to the CBA and the two years after it. Using Baseball-Reference’s Draft Tool I pulled together the debut locations of the first round college hitters since 2010.
When discussing the CBA’s affect on draftees, it’s unwise to throw the word “success” around without caution. However, the parties’ decision to change the signing deadline has undoubtedly allowed draftees to begin their careers sooner.
Prior to the 2012 CBA, the majority of draftees in the sample would briefly taste professional experience in their draft year. Often, but with exception, these players would just a handful of games to get their feet wet before making their debut the following year in a full-season league. In the years following the new CBA that’s changed drastically.
Cubs draftee Kyle Schwarber was one of the first players to sign. He’s already played in 48 games across three levels. The Mets’ Michael Conforto was one of the last players to sign, he’s played in 17 games with Short-Season Brooklyn and should end the season with close to 40 games under his belt. In past seasons, early signing draftees would match these numbers — Joe Panik played 69 games in the Northwest League in his draft season — but most would not come close.
This new found development time should be used to acclimate draftees to life as a professional baseball player, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and to create an individually tailored development plan. Of course, players should also be challenged by their assignments.
One clear trend following the new CBA is that draftees have been assigned to lower leagues to begin their careers. Prior to 2012, just 3 of 14 first round college hitters were assigned to rookie ball or short season ball. . Since then, 16 of 22 were assigned to those levels.
The more aggressive placements prior to 2012 can be explained, in part, by the later deadline. 7 of the 14 players did not begin their career until the year after they were drafted. In other words, their debuts and their first full season were the same year. For the players drafted in 2012 and 2013, they all debuted after signing and were more aggressively challenged and, as a group, advanced further in their first full season than those drafted prior to 2012. 
By the end of their first full season, players drafted after the new CBA have played more baseball against better competition. We are just two drafts removed from the new agreement and, so far, the new signing deadline has improved player development as intended. As organizations continue to adjust, it will be worth watching whether they challenge their most advanced hitters with more aggressive assignments within their debut seasons.
 Debut level was defined as playing more than 10 games at a level. A short feeling out period didn’t count.
 With a month remaining, several 2013 draftees could be promoted to AA, AAA or MLB within their first full season including Kris Bryant (MLB, CHC), Eric Jagielo (AA, NYY) and Aaron Judge (AA, NYY)
Note: High school hitters should have been included in this SSS study, but this data was collected for a different purpose for which they were excluded.
The Padres Offense: Historically Bad, Unlucky, Or Both?
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Some things about the Padres stood out as I looked at some average speed off of the bat data for players with 100 balls in play or more. Such data can be a little bit misleading, as it tends to overrate fly ball hitters over ground ball hitters (the typical fly ball is hit harder than the typical grounder), and league-leading average speeds tend to approximate the velocity off of the bat of a can-of-corn fly ball, which is definitely not a good thing. Still, it’s a worthwhile indicator that can open windows of investigation that ultimately lead to meaningful conclusions.
Of the 30 major league clubs, the Padres are the only one without a single qualifying hitter with an average speed off of the bat of 80 MPH or higher. 43 of 161 qualifying NL hitters did so, but none of them were Padres. Seth Smith was their club leader, as you might expect, and he is simply an adequate offensive player having a career year. Next were Yasmani Grandal and Tommy Medica – the former is a strikeout machine who needs to have materially better than average contact quality just to keep his head above water, and the latter – who also whiffs a lot – is merely a part-timer at a position where the offensive bar is very high. On the other pole, there is Everth Cabrera and his extremely soft, barely off-of-the-ground contact, and not far above him is the similarly weak contact of Alexi Amarista, Cameron Maybin and the disappointing Will Venable. There is basically no way that a club with so many paddle-ball candidates in one lineup can have anything but a feeble offense. One can carry a Cabrera at shortstop if the rest of the offense is passable, but with two OF slots also devoid of anything resembling consistently hard contact, you’re in trouble. This offense is bad on merit.
We haven’t yet talked about two of the main culprits contributing to the Padres’ offensive void this season – first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jedd Gyorko. Interestingly enough, both players’ average speed off of the bat is almost exactly league average this season, but their results have been way below that – in fact, they’ve been abysmal. Have these two players simply been unlucky this season, and been caught up in the wave that has dragged the Padres down, or are they significant parts of the problem in their own right?
After being drafted by the Reds in the 1st round of the 2008 draft, Alonso had been somewhat of a disappointment working his way through their system, never truly dominating, and never being one of his level’s younger players. A BABIP-infused hot streak in the big leagues at the end of the 2011 season raised his stock, however, and he was sent to the Padres along with Grandal and RHPs Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger to the Padres for a young, inexpensive, MLB-entrenched Mat Latos. Alonso was generally considered the leading light on the Padre side of the deal. Now in his third year in San Diego, Alonso is still looking for his first .400+ SLG season.
The Padres popped Gyorko on the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, and he destroyed minor league pitching to the tune of a .320-.386-.529 line, earning the everyday second base job in the spring of 2013. He showed impressive power for a middle infielder in his rookie season, drilling 23 homers and earning himself a handsome five-year contract extension.
Alonso is 27 years old, Gyorko, 25 – both right in the wheelhouse where MLB regulars generally make positive strides in offensive performance. It hasn’t quite worked out that way for these two. To try to determine why, let’s examine their 2013-14 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency data:
FREQ – 2013
Alonso % REL PCT
K 12.5% 63 13
BB 8.5% 108 63
POP 6.3% 80 33
FLY 27.9% 98 44
LD 22.3% 105 59
GB 43.6% 102 64
—————- ———- ———- ———-
FREQ – 2013
Gyorko % REL PCT
K 23.4% 118 81
BB 6.3% 80 27
POP 8.2% 105 55
FLY 35.1% 124 93
LD 23.2% 109 69
GB 33.4% 78 4
FREQ – 2014
Alonso % REL PCT
K 12.6% 62 13
BB 5.2% 67 14
POP 8.4% 109 62
FLY 28.5% 102 55
LD 21.0% 101 52
GB 42.1% 96 43
—————- ———- ———- ———-
FREQ – 2014
Gyorko % REL PCT
K 24.5% 121 84
BB 5.9% 76 24
POP 6.7% 88 40
FLY 33.7% 121 91
LD 17.2% 83 6
GB 42.3% 97 48
Two totally different types of hitters here. Solely looking at the frequency data gets one excited about Alonso. A first baseman with a consistently low strikeout rate – a 13 percentile rank in both 2013 and 2014 – sign me up. After two straight seasons with an above average BB rate, it has plunged significantly this season, to a 14 percentile rank. As we will see in the production table below, pitchers have learned that Alonso lacks the ability to consistently punish them, and now challenge him more frequently. Alonso has a fairly neutral fly ball/ground ball ratio, and actually has had an above average line drive rate in each of his three seasons as a regular – in fact, his 2014 liner percentile rank of 52 is a career low.
Gyorko has posted well worse than league average K (81 and 84 percentile ranks in 2013 and 2014) and BB (27 and 24) rates in both of his MLB seasons, and has established himself as an extreme fly ball hitter (93 and 91 percentile ranks). Line drive rates often fluctuate very significantly from year to year, and this has clearly been the case with Gyorko, whose liner percentile rank has plunged from 69 in 2013 to 6 in 2014. In 2013, Gyorko was one of a very small number of MLB regulars who hit more fly balls (excluding popups) than grounders, and was virtually the only young player in that group. His extreme 2013 fly ball rate was a harbinger of his 2014 struggles.
Now that we’ve created a picture of who these guys are stylistically, let’s take a look at their production by BIP type for 2013-14, both before and after adjustment for context:
PROD – 2013
Alonso AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.225 0.513 53 45
LD 0.641 0.703 82 92
GB 0.264 0.280 122 124
ALL BIP 0.320 0.418 83 83
ALL PA 0.276 0.338 0.361 100 100
—————- ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
PROD – 2013
Gyorko AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.331 0.976 158 107
LD 0.622 0.732 82 108
GB 0.237 0.288 110 98
ALL BIP 0.331 0.592 120 112
ALL PA 0.247 0.295 0.442 101 95
PROD – 2014
Alonso AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.246 0.623 75 76
LD 0.600 0.889 91 94
GB 0.167 0.178 47 75
ALL BIP 0.265 0.437 72 82
ALL PA 0.229 0.270 0.378 82 93
—————- ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
PROD – 2014
Gyorko AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.200 0.636 66 97
LD 0.643 0.857 95 102
GB 0.159 0.159 41 105
ALL BIP 0.246 0.425 65 97
ALL PA 0.179 0.230 0.310 57 81
Both players’ actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
The most eyecatching – in a negative way – component of Alonso’s profile is his utter lack of fly ball production, both before and after adjustment for context. The closest matches for his 2013 ADJ PRD of 45 on fly balls were Mark Ellis, David Lough and Skip Schumaker – we’re talking somewhat different skill sets with those guys. The bar is obviously a lot higher for a hulking, relatively unathletic first sacker, well beyond his somewhat improved 2014 fly ball ADJ PRD figure of 76. Also notable is the massive drop in Alonso’s ground ball production this season. He’s batting .167 AVG-.178 SLG on grounders, and adjustment for context only pushes his ADJ PRD upward to 75. Alonso’s ADJ PRD on all BIP is basically identical in 2013 (83) and 2014 (84). His solid K/BB rates pushed his overall ADJ PRD to an MLB average 100 in 2013, but his lesser BB rate limits him to a 93 mark thus far in 2014. These might be in the league average range for all hitters, but it’s way below what you’re looking for at his position.
Gyorko put up big numbers on fly balls in 2013, with a .331 AVG-.976 SLG, good for 158 REL PRD, before adjustment for context. Based on my own park factors which are based on granular batted ball data, Petco Park played like a hitters’ park in 2013 after the fences were moved in significantly – a trend that has not been repeated thus far this season. How can that be? Well, just over 35% of homers hit in 2013 were hit at 100 MPH or harder. Exactly one of Gyorko’s was. He hit five homers to CF in 2013 – all of them at Petco. After adjustment for context, Gyorko’s 2013 ADJ PRD on fly balls drops to 107, not all that much higher than his 2014 mark of 97, after an upward contextual adjustment, as Petco is once again playing like a pitcher’s park. Gyorko’s liner and grounder ADJ PRD figures are in the average range for both 2013 and 2014, but his 2013 ADJ PRD on all BIP (112) is much higher than his 2014 figure (97), in large part due to the plunge in his liner rate this season. Gyorko’s below average K and BB rates force his overall ADJ PRD further downward, to 95 and 81 in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
One more factor needs to be taken into consideration when perusing both players’ production tables. Both are seriously underperforming on ground balls this season, and this is due in large part to their extreme pull tendencies on the ground. Both have very large ground ball pull factors (number of grounders to pull side divided by number of grounders to opposite side) – 5.54 for Alonso, and 6.62 for Gyorko. Both are in overshift consideration territory, even though Gyorko is a righty. When you can consider overshifting a non-power hitter, as both of these hitters must be classified at present, it’s a win-win for the defense.
So how are these guys performing so poorly despite possessing near MLB average speed off of the bat? In Gyorko’s case, it’s the miniscule liner rate, coupled with the extreme grounder pull tendency, which makes exit speed almost irrelevant. With Alonso, it’s that same pull tendency on the ground, coupled with the fact that he almost never truly hits the ball hard in the air, even to pull. He has hit a meager five fly balls at 97.5 MPH or harder in 2013-14. Even Gyorko has hit 19 over that span. Alonso hits an extremely high percentage of fly balls in the dead zone that I call the donut hole, between 75 and 90 MPH, where MLB batters hit .080 AVG-.156 SLG in 2013. You’re way better off hitting a 65 MPH grounder in the right spot, than an 85 MPH fly ball. You’re even better off hitting a 65 MPH fly ball, as it might bloop in for a hit.
So what do we have in these two? I can’t see Alonso adding bat speed, or generating more torque with his stocky frame. Hand and wrist injuries have also thrown a crimp into things, though he has swung the bat well of late. He’s arb-eligible for the first time in 2015, and doesn’t stand to have much of a payday. I’d compare his situation to that of Justin Smoak with the Mariners in 2013. The club should look for an upgrade, and if it can’t find a sensible one in the short-term, ride out the arbitration process, hope for modest improvement, and allocate your dollars elsewhere.
As for Gyorko, I think there’s a little more hope. He too has suffered from nagging injuries, most notably plantar fasciitis, which doubtlessly have affected his play. The offensive bar is substantially lower at second base, and he has shown the ability to hit the ball out of the park to the opposite field, something not even remotely within Alonso’s grasp at present. It’s an older player’s skill set, but the liner rate should positively regress, perhaps making him a .250-.300-.420 type, acceptable at his position. To use another Mariner analogy, the Padres at one point might have though Gyorko was their Kyle Seager – but that ain’t happening.
The Padres need to locate their Kyle Seagers – truly above average offensive players who transcend park effects. They don’t have one on their major league roster, and might not have one in their minor league system. Catcher Austin Hedges might be an impact player, but isn’t an impact bat. Low-A 18-year-old first baseman Jake Bauers might be their best hope.
All is not lost, however. The Padres have a solid run-prevention group, with a sound pitching core and solid if unspectacular team defense, though they do have to get to the bottom of the injury epidemic pitchers throughout the system have endured. They’re playing some of their best ball of the season, and might have a run at .500 in them just yet, though that likely says more about the Rockies and Diamondbacks than it does about the Padres. The club’s new brass will have a clear mandate as the rebuilding process begins – find those above average hitters anywhere you can, be it the domestic or international amateur market, or via trade or free agent signing.