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Kerry Wood, Joel Peralta and the 3-Year Reliever Club

Yesterday, Dave Cameron examined the grim history of 3+ year contracts dished out to free agent relievers over the past four off-seasons. The Cliff Notes version? Those ‘pen arms, save for the anomaly that is Mariano Rivera, have provided a paltry return on investment for their respective teams. After a few years of fiscal restraint, four relievers have received ample job security from clubs this winter: Joaquin Benoit (Tigers), Scott Downs (Angels), Matt Guerrier (Dodgers), and Jesse Crain (White Sox) all signed three-year contracts. If recent history is any indication, a few of these deals might elicit more forehead slaps than high-fives in front offices over the next three seasons.

In contrast to the long-term commitments given by the Tigers, Angels, Dodgers and White Sox, the Cubs and Rays each added a talented reliever for peanuts on Thursday. Kerry Wood will reportedly return to Wrigley Field on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Joel Peralta, curiously non-tendered by the Nationals after a season in which he posted a 3.02 FIP and a 3.64 xFIP, is on the verge of signing a one-year contract with Tampa Bay for $900,000. Take a look at the 2011 Bill James projections for Wood and Peralta, compared to their much pricier free agent peers:

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The Josh Willingham Trade: Oakland’s Side

A few days after signing Hideki Matsui to DH, the Oakland Athletics have taken another step to invigorate an offense that ranked 10th in the American League in wOBA last season. The A’s have acquired outfielder Josh Willingham from the Washington Nationals for a pair of prospects: outfielder Corey Brown and right-handed reliever Henry Rodriguez.

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Doumit’s Days in Pittsburgh are Numbered

Earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed free agent first baseman Lyle Overbay to a one-year, $5 million contract. Overbay’s addition moves Garrett Jones to right field to platoon with Matt Diaz, another free agent pick-up. And, with Chris Snyder set to start behind the plate, the Overbay signing further diminishes Ryan Doumit‘s role with the Pirates.

Considering that Doumit’s $5.1 million salary makes him the second-highest paid player on the team (Snyder technically makes more at $5.75 million, but the Bucs got $3 million from Arizona last July to cover a portion of his contract), it’s highly unlikely that he opens the 2011 season in Pittsburgh. But, if and when the Pirates do find a trade partner, they won’t obtain much more than salary relief.

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Godzilla in Green and Gold: A’s Sign Matsui

After breaking it off with Jack Cust, being spurned by Lance Berkman and getting the feeling that Adrian Beltre‘s just not that into them, the Oakland A’s are expected later today to announce the signing of Hideki Matsui. Assuming the 36-year-old’s achy knees check out during his physical, Matsui will take over as Oakland’s designated hitter.

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Pirates Pick Olsen Off the Scrap Heap

While his moves didn’t exactly make Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman all hot under the collar, Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington was busy at the Winter Meetings. Huntington and company selected infielder Josh Rodriguez with the first pick in the Rule V draft, acquired RHP Cesar Valdez to complete the Zach Duke deal, and signed outfielder Matt Diaz and RHP Kevin Correia to two-year free agent contracts. While the deal isn’t yet official, the Pirates have also reportedly come to terms with free agent lefty Scott Olsen on a one-year, $500,000 deal with a $4 million club option for the 2012 season. Olsen’s pact allows him to earn an additional $3 million in incentives based on starts made in ’11, according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.

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The J.J. Hardy Trade: Minnesota’s Side

With the team making progress on a deal with Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Minnesota Twins evidently felt comfortable enough with the club’s other middle infield options to deal shortstop J.J. Hardy (and utility man Brendan Harris) to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for power relievers Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey. But in jettisoning Hardy for some ‘pen help, the Twins might be opening up a hole on the roster that Alexi Casilla isn’t capable of filling.

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Harang Heads Home to San Diego

While it’s certainly not the biggest news coming out of San Diego this weekend, the Padres are close to signing free agent right-hander Aaron Harang to a one-year deal. The San Diego native and San Diego State University alumnus is expected to earn about $3 million in 2011.

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Cust Cut Loose By Oakland

For the second straight offseason, the Oakland Athletics non-tendered Designated Hitter/ “Outfielder” Jack Cust. Arizona’s first-round pick in the 1997 draft drifted through Colorado, Baltimore, Oakland and San Diego before the A’s re-acquired him in May of 2007, and the uber-patient lefty batter has since hit a collective .247/.381/.457 in the Green and Gold. During his time in Oakland, Cust’s park and league-adjusted Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) has been 30 percent better than the average batter (130 wRC+). Despite his utter lack of positional value, that bat has allowed Cust to post win values of +3.0 in 2007, +2.1 in 2008, +1 in 2009 and +2.4 this past year. According to our dollar values, Cust’s performance with the A’s has been worth about $36 million, while he has earned around $6 million over that time frame.

Cust is entering his last year of arbitration eligibility, and he made $2.65 million in 2010. Given that his salary will remain modest in 2011, he might seem like a nice acquisition for a team in search of patience and pop at a bargain price. Look closer, though, and you’ll see some reasons to doubt that Cust can keep it up at the plate.

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Bartlett on the Market

With the Tampa Bay Rays facing a budget crunch and possessing a home-grown prospect (Reid Brignac) capable of similar production at a fraction of the cost, shortstop Jason Bartlett figures to open the 2011 season in a new city. It’s possible that the Rays non-tender the 31-year-old, but it’s more likely that Tampa finds a trade partner. Bartlett’s name has been tied at various times to the Orioles, Nationals, Giants, Cardinals and Padres. What sort of trade value does Bartlett have?

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LaRoche Reaches End of the Line With Pirates

When the Pirates shipped Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox on July 31, 2008 as part of a three-team deal that also put Manny Ramirez in Dodger blue, Andy LaRoche was the centerpiece from Pittsburgh’s perspective. GM Neal Huntington also acquired reliever Craig Hansen, starter Bryan Morris and outfielder Brandon Moss, but the big get was the third baseman who ranked as Baseball America’s number 31 prospect prior to the ’08 season. Huntington, at a press conference to announce the Bay deal, lauded LaRoche’s “tremendous command of the strike zone for a young hitter” and his “quality power.” A career .295/.382/.517 minor league batter, LaRoche looked like he’d be an above-average regular at the very least, and perhaps even a franchise cornerstone.

This past Friday, Huntington booted LaRoche off the 40-man roster (along with Zach Duke and Delwyn Young) by designating him for assignment. Buried on the bench in the second half of 2010 by Pittsburgh’s new hot-shot third baseman, Pedro Alvarez, LaRoche was deemed not worth keeping around as a bench player in 2011 for the high six-figure salary he’d draw as a first-time arbitration-eligible player. What happened here?

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Arizona Acquires Juan Miranda

Earlier this month, new Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers declined first baseman Adam LaRoche‘s $7.5 million option for the 2011 season, preferring instead to pay a $1.5 million buyout. Yesterday, Towers sent a teenage arm to the New York Yankees to pick up a long-time minor leaguer with a LaRoche-like skill set.

Arizona acquired first baseman Juan Miranda from the Yankees in exchange for right-handed prospect Scott Allen. Miranda, 27 or 29 depending upon which bio you believe, has scarce big league experience, putting up a 112 wRC+ in 94 plate appearances with New York over the past three seasons. He defected from Cuba in 2004, but wasn’t granted citizenship in the Dominican Republic until 2006. The Yankees inked the lefty batter to a $2 million deal in ’06. In more than 1,200 Triple-A PA since, Miranda has a .287/.374/.481 triple-slash, an 11.4 percent walk rate and a .194 Isolated Power.

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Don’t Blame Duke

Now a full fifty games under .500, the Pittsburgh Pirates hold, by far, the worst record in the majors. The Bucs have “earned” that sordid status, and then some. The club has been outscored by 287 runs this season, giving them a Pythagorean record of 42-104 instead of their actual 48-98 mark. There are signs of progress — Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker form a quartet of talented position players, and the organization’s pitching depth has increased. But Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia aren’t walking into the PNC Park clubhouse any time soon, and while prospects like Bryan Morris, Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke offer promise, none are considered top-tier talents. There’s help on the way, but there are no guarantees. And James McDonald aside, the current rotation is getting trounced.

Zach Duke has become the poster boy for Pittsburgh’s pitching struggles. The lefty has been a fixture in the team’s rotation since 2005, but a disastrous stretch since the beginning of August (44.1 innings pitched, 38 runs allowed) had the Pirates considering banishing him from the starting five. In 141.2 IP this season, Duke has a 5.78 ERA. That’s the highest figure among starters who have tossed 140+ innings — most guys who get crushed like that get hooked off the stage. Some Pirates fans are ready to make Duke walk the plank, advocating that the team get rid of him instead of tendering him a contract for his last season of arbitration eligibility in 2011. But I’m left wondering, is he really pitching that much differently than in years past?

Duke has both struck out and walked more batters per nine frames in 2010, but we’re speaking in relative terms. Pittsburgh’s 20th-round selection in the ’01 draft has 5.65 K/9 (4.73 K/9 career) and 2.92 BB/9 (2.45 BB/9 career). His 47.8% ground ball rate is close to his career 48.9 GB%. Duke’s expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP), based on his K’s, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate, is 4.41. His career xFIP? 4.38.

Like his rotation mates, Duke is a pitcher who often puts the ball in play. Unfortunately, the guys behind him have done a terrible job of converting those balls put in play into outs. The Pirates’ lineup has transformed drastically over the course of the season, but on the whole, the team has been about 48 runs worse than average, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. Only the Indians have been more inept with the leather. Per Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency rating, Pittsburgh has converted the lowest percentage of balls put in play into outs (67.5%) of any big league team. Duke has a whopping .351 BABIP, highest among all MLB starters. While his career BABIP is elevated (.325), in part due to other lumbering Pirates teams, he has especially been the victim of a combination of poor luck and lousy defense in 2010.

He’s also finding fly balls that died at the warning track in past seasons are reaching the cheap seats this year. Duke has surrendered 23 home runs, or 1.46 HR/9. His home run per fly ball rate has jumped to 14.6%, compared to the 10-11% MLB average and his career 10.1% career mark. According to Dan Turkenkopf of The Hardball Times, PNC Park decreased homers per fly ball hit by six percent over the 2006-2009 seasons. If Duke had coughed up a homer about 10.3 percent of the time a fly ball was hit at home (the average HR/FB rate, multiplied by .94) and 11 percent on the road, he would have given up 18 HR, or 1.14 HR/9.

Despite the macabre ERA, Zach Duke is basically the same starter he has always been –ZiPS projects that he’s a 4.37 FIP pitcher moving forward. Duke is making $4.3 million this season, and even with ugly surface stats, he would likely get a modest salary bump in arbitration. Pittsburgh could non-tender him and move on, or they could try to bring him back at a lower rate. I think that he’s worth bringing back and is a serviceable starter in a vacuum. But the Pirates haven’t done Duke, Paul Maholm and other low-K arms any favors by so often failing to get to those grounders and cover the gaps. Collectively, Pirates starters have a 4.78 xFIP. That’s bad, worst in the NL in fact. Even so, that looks sparkling next to the team’s actual 5.44 ERA.

The club has to hope that Alvarez, Walker, Tabata et al take to their positions well, because starters who don’t miss bats and fielders with limited range go together like oil and water.


Daric Barton Dares to Be Different

The Oakland Athletics languish at 65 wins and 68 losses, due mostly to a lackluster offense. The A’s can pitch, ranking third in the American League in starter xFIP and sixth in reliever xFIP. Leather is no problem either, with the green and gold saving an AL-leading 43 runs more than an average defense club. But those bats? Oakland has -32 Park-Adjusted Batting Runs, 12th in the AL.

Don’t blame Daric Barton, though. The 25-year-old first baseman has arguably emerged as the team’s best position player, and he has done it with strike-zone discipline and quality D instead of the brute force that’s typically associated with the position that he plays.

From 2007-2009, the former Cardinals prospect and Mark Mulder trade chip was basically the definition of a league-average hitter. Barton had a .328 wOBA in 799 combined plate appearances, with a 99 wRC+. He showed little pop (.145 Isolated Power), but he worked a walk in 12.6 percent of his PA. Defensively, the converted catcher helped his case by saving 5.4 runs per 150 defensive games. The A’s still held Barton in high regard entering 2010, but his mild hitting, injury issues (a neck strain in 2008 and a pulled right hamstring in 2009) and the emergence of prospect Chris Carter cast doubt upon his long-term potential. After all, how good could a singles hitter playing at the low end the defensive spectrum be?

Suffice it to say, Barton has staked his claim to first base in 2010. No, he still doesn’t fit the position’s archetype, and it’s possible that he never will — his .135 ISO ranks ahead of only James Loney among qualified first baseman. But the lefty batter is taking more base on balls than anyone else. Barton has walked 15.8% of the time, tops in the majors.

Not surprisingly, he’s not biting when a pitcher tempts him with a junk pitches thrown off the plate. Barton has swung at 16 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, the lowest mark in the big leagues. For comparison, the MLB average this season is 29.2 percent. According to Baseball-Reference, Barton has gotten ahead in the count in 46 percent of his PA. The AL average is 35.6 percent.

Overall, Barton’s got a .367 wOBA and a 133 wRC+. Maybe he has gotten a few fortunate bounces — his BABIP is .326, while his rest-of-season ZiPS projection calls for a .308 BABIP. But even with a lower BABIP, Barton is pegged as a .357 wOBA hitter.

In addition to owning the zone, Barton has been a pickin’ machine at first base. He’s got a +13.7 UZR/150 this season. He’s probably not that good, but there are sound reasons to think he’s a defensive asset. Barton’s career UZR/150 in 2,800+ innings is +8.4. CHONE’s Total Zone, pro-rated to 150 defensive games, has Barton at +7.7 runs. CHONE’s talent level projections (updated in late August) rate him as a +5 run defender going forward.

With immaculate plate discipline and a slick glove, Barton has been worth 4.2 Wins Above Replacement. That’s in the top 30 among big league position players. While a slight dip in offense and regression in his D would make him more of a three-win player, Barton has established himself as a building block for the A’s. He’s not a slugger, but Barton’s patience and defensive prowess obviate the need for him to fit the cookie-cutter first base profile.


LaPorta Not Living Up to Lofty Prospect Status

Last night, Matt LaPorta stepped to the plate in the sixth inning and launched a Vin Mazzaro sinker deep into the left field bleachers. That homer was a game-changer. Prior to LaPorta’s two-run shot, the Indians trailed the A’s 2-1 and had a 35 percent chance of claiming victory. After the blast, the Tribe had a better than 70 percent shot of getting the W. With the two clubs trading zeros from that point forward, Cleveland came out on top by a 3-2 score.

The Indians expected frequent offensive heroics from LaPorta after he was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in the July 2008 CC Sabathia trade. A fearsome slugger at the University of Florida, LaPorta thumped minor league pitchers for a .279/.386/.539 line in 433 plate appearances split between Milwaukee and Cleveland’s Double-A affiliates in ’08. LaPorta has also thrashed the opposition in Triple-A over the past two years, batting .310/.400/.548 in 474 PA. Yet, LaPorta’s feats of strength in the minors have been conspicuously absent in Cleveland.

In 525 major league PA over the 2009-2010 seasons, LaPorta has a .243/.309/.395 triple-slash. His wOBA is .310, and his park-and-league-adjusted wOBA is eight percent worse than the MLB average (92 wRC+). That would be acceptable if LaPorta were a slick defender at a premium position. But, considering that he’s a DH-worthy first baseman/corner outfielder, LaPorta’s lagging lumber has made him a replacement-level player. He has accumulated just 0.2 WAR in the majors.

LaPorta hasn’t been a total hacker, but his 8.4 percent walk rate is slightly below-average. The 6-foot-2, 210 pound hitter’s vaunted power hasn’t been on display, with a mundane .152 ISO. To some extent, LaPorta has been unlucky. His batting average on balls in play is .274, while his expected BABIP, based on his rate on home runs, strikeouts, stolen bases, line drives, pop ups and fly balls, is .311. Still, he has shwon run-of-the-mill secondary skills instead of being a guy who takes and rakes with the best of them.

While LaPorta isn’t exactly thriving against fastballs, he’s at least holding his own (-0.1 runs per 100 fastballs seen). Against pitches that dip and dive, though? Well, LaPorta’s channeling his inner Pedro Cerrano. He has been -1.38 runs below average per 100 changeups seen, -1.48 runs/100 against curveballs and -1.62 versus sliders. These numbers might look worse than they should due to LaPorta’s low BABIP. But opposing pitchers seem to think he’s vulnerable against breaking balls and changeups. Over the past two calendar years, 309 hitters have gotten 500 or more big league PA. LaPorta ranks in the bottom 10% in terms of fastballs seen.

Matt LaPorta certainly isn’t a lost cause, and 500-some PA shouldn’t be used as some conclusive judgment of his abilities. But he is 25 years old now, and neither ZiPS (.253/.320/.414 rest-of-season line) nor CHONE (.264/.337/.446) throw out very optimistic projections. If LaPorta is going to be an asset for the Indians, he’s going to have to hang tough against secondary stuff and find the cheap seats more often.


Here’s Jonny: Venters Dealing Out of Atlanta’s ‘Pen

At 71-50, the Atlanta Braves are sitting pretty in the playoff picture. Bobby Cox‘s club holds a 2.5 game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East, and CoolStandings gives the team an 85 percent chance of playing well into October. One of the reasons that the Braves sit atop their division is the strong work of the bullpen. With a collective 3.59 xFIP, Atlanta’s relief corps ranks second in the majors, trailing only the San Diego Padres. Greybeards Billy Wagner (39 years old) and Takashi Saito (40) are dominating, but a little-known 25-year-old has broken through to give the Braves a trio of terrifying ‘pen arms.

Heading into 2010, Jonny Venters barely made a blip on the prospect radar. The lefty, a 30th-round draft-and-follow pick in the 2003 draft, took the last spot on Baseball America’s list of the top 30 prospects in the Braves’ system. John Sickels didn’t include Venters on his top 20 list, nor did he place Jonny among the next batch of “Grade C” prospects missing the top 20. At the time, it would have been hard to criticize BA and Sickels. After all, Venters’ minor league career was marred by injuries (Tommy John wiped out his 2006 season, and elbow tendinitis put a damper on his 2008 campaign) and control issues. In 71 starts and 23 relief stints spread over 422.2 innings, Venters struck out 6.6 batters per nine frames and issued 4.1 BB/9. According to Minor League Splits, his minor league FIP since 2005 sits at 4.07.

Venters had some traits working in his favor, though. Baseball America noted that his fastball ranged from 88-94 MPH, and that his slider was a plus offering. Also, Venters burned worms to the tune of a 57.7 GB% in the minors since ’05. After a short stint at Triple-A Gwinnett to begin the year, he was called up by the Braves in mid-April. Venters has been a revelation as a full-time reliever.

Unleashing his 94-95 MPH fastball more than three-quarters of the time and also touting a mid-80′s slider, Venters has punched out 67 hitters in 61.2 innings pitched (9.78 K/9). His 14.9% swinging strike rate ranks sixth among qualified MLB relievers, bested only by Joaquin Benoit, Luke Gregerson, Hong-Chih Kuo, Rafael Betancourt, and Matt Thornton. Jonny’s 65.6% overall contact rate is second among ‘pen members (Carlos Marmol is first). He also places in the top 20 in outside swing percentage, at 35.3%. When he’s not inducing swings and misses, Venters has induced hitters to chop the ball into the dirt. His ground ball rate is 64.3%, a rate topped by teammate Peter Moylan, Ryan Webb, and Blaine Boyer.

Venters is still walking his fair share of batters (3.94 BB/9, 3.65 BB/9 without two intentionals), and he has certainly received some breaks with a .252 BABIP and a 3.4 HR/FB%. But even if Venters’ ERA (1.17) is wacky-low, his 3.07 xFIP cracks the top 20 among relievers. Cox has gradually called upon his rookie southpaw in more crucial situations. Here are Venters’ Leverage Index marks by month, measuring the importance of his appearances by inning, score and base-out state (one is average):

April: 0.2
May: 0.39
June: 1.18
July: 1.35
August: 1.63

Relief performance is notoriously fickle, and it would be rash to declare that this is Venters’ talent level moving forward. But he doesn’t look like a fluke. If Venters stays healthy, the Braves might not have to search far and wide if Wagner does decide to call it quits.


Niese a Nice Find for the Mets

Toward the middle part of the decade, the New York Mets searched far and wide in a quest to uncover pitching talent. The Mets opened up the check book in 2004 to sign Cuban right-hander Alay Soler to a $2.8 million major league contract, and handed out a guaranteed $4.2 million to Rice star Philip Humber, taken with the third overall pick in the draft. Venezuelan righty Deolis Guerra got a $700,000 bonus the following year, but Wichita State stud Mike Pelfrey dwarfed that amount by reeling in a guaranteed $5.25 million (with bonuses) as the ninth pick in the 2005 draft. Yet, for all of that globe-trekking and cash spent, New York’s best find over that period might just be a seventh-round pick from Defiance, Ohio — population 17,000.

Jonathon Niese, inked for $175,000 in the ’05 draft, was Ohio’s first high schooler to win back-to-back state player of the year awards. Hall of Fame backstop Gary Carter, then the Mets’ Gulf Coast League manager, lobbied the club to come to terms with the lefty. Niese compiled an impressive minor league dossier (8.2 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 51.8 GB%, 3.57 FIP) and received some big league time in 2008 and 2009, but he entered 2010 looking to prove himself as an important part of the team’s long-term plans. The last image Mets fans had of the 6-3 southpaw in 2009 was his crumpling to the ground in agony — Niese strained his right hamstring trying to cover first base during an August 5th game against the Cardinals, then ripped a tendon off the bone while making a warm-up pitch. He underwent season-ending surgery.

While Niese did serve a DL stint in mid-May for his surgically-repaired hammy, he has emerged as a quality cog in the Mets’ rotation. The 23-year-old has 7.11 K/9, 2.84 BB/9 and a 49.1% ground ball rate in 133 innings pitched, a showing worth 1.8 Wins Above Replacement. Niese might be pitching a bit above his head at the moment — there’s a gap between his ERA (3.38) and xFIP (3.97) due to a near-78% rate of stranding runners on base — but he has nonetheless performed admirably.

The man hailing from the same town as Chad Billingsley doesn’t possess awe-inspiring stuff, with a fastball that typically sits 89-90 MPH. According to our Pitch Type Run Values, Niese’s heat has been -0.68 runs below average per 100 pitches thrown. But he’s not overly reliant on the pitch, throwing it about 55% of the time. Niese supplements his fastball with lots of mid-80′s cutters (26 percent), mid-70′s curves with 12-to-6 action (15 percent) and occasional low-80′s changeups (four to five percent). Those secondary offerings all have positive run values — +0.38 for the curve, +0.44 for the change and +1.41 for the cutter. Niese’s cutter has been particularly impressive. According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers, the pitch has been thrown for a strike 71.7% of the time (68.3% MLB average), with an 11.7% whiff rate that surpasses the 8.8% big league average.

Niese isn’t a monster talent, but there’s plenty to like here. He gets a solid number of punch outs, has average to slightly above-average control and keeps the ball on the ground, which adds up to a nice package of skills. Save for Pelfrey, those highly acclaimed, high-priced signees have fizzled out. But the Mets found a bargain in Niese. Now, the club has a young, cost-controlled asset for years to come.


Bruce… A Work in Progress at the Plate

As a 23-year-old with a wide array of skills, Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce is one of the most valuable long-term talents in the game. The twelfth overall pick in the 2005 draft reached the majors by the age of 21, raking to the tune of .308/.366/.551 on the farm and ranking as the best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2008.

Bruce has done a number of things well at the big league level. His swift outfield defense (+8.6 career UZR/150 in RF) belies his 6-foot-3, 225 pound frame. Also, his plate discipline has improved since his rookie season. And at times, Bruce’s feats of strength give credence to the 70 power grade that Baseball America gave him in its 2008 Prospect Handbook. But at the plate, Bruce has yet to put it all together and bust out as a true offensive force.

In 2008, the lefty batter produced a 96 wRC+ in 452 plate appearances. Bruce’s plate approach was understandably raw, as his outside swing percentage was about 20 percent higher than the MLB average (Bruce’s 30.4 percent O-Swing, divided by the 25.4% average). The lack of plate discipline led to a tepid 7.3% walk rate. Still, a .199 Isolated Power from a guy who would be age-appropriate for High-A ball was extremely impressive.

Last year, Bruce refined his strike zone discipline. His O-Swing was four percent above the big league average (26.1% O-Swing, 25.1% average), and his rate of free passes taken climbed to 9.8%. The Boss hit for even greater power, posting a .246 ISO. But Bruce’s BABIP nosedived from .296 during his rookie year to .221. Even if you were to take his 13% line drive rate at face value, his expected BABIP (xBABIP) was .294. Bruce’s wRC+ (97 in 387 PA) barely budged, but it was hard to view his ’09 season as anything other than a big step forward.

Given Bruce’s age, elite minor league track record and promising secondary skills in the majors, he entered 2010 as a good candidate to start thrashing opposing pitchers. ZiPS was more reserved, predicting modest improvement (105 wRC+). CHONE, however, was firmly on the bandwagon with a 135 wRC+ projection. Bruce’s BABIP has bounced back and then some this year (.323), to the point where it actually exceeds his .301 xBABIP. Even so, his bat is once again three percent below average (97 wRC+ in 461 PA). What’s going on here?

He’s still working the count decently, with an O-Swing just once percent higher than the MLB average (29.5 O-Swing, 29% average) and a 9.3% walk rate. But while Bruce is getting more hits on balls put in play, he’s not doing as much damage on those hits:

Jay’s ISO is down to .155, just a bit higher than the .146 major league average this season.

Bruce’s performance to the pull field hasn’t suffered, with a spike in BABIP compensating for fewer extra-base hits:

But he remains below-average on balls hit to the middle field…

…and his excellent opposite-field hitting in ’08 and ’09 is absent in 2010:

Bruce’s spray numbers haven’t shifted much — he has hit to the opposite field about a quarter of the time, center about 30 percent and the pull side 45 percent. According to our pitch type values, fastballs and sliders have given him an especially hard time.

While this post might seem to take on a negative tone, I still think there’s plenty of reason to expect Jay Bruce to emerge as a star-level player in the near future. He saves runs with his glove, doesn’t hack and has a history of hitting with authority. ZiPS projects a .199 ISO for the rest of the year.

Bruce hasn’t become an offensive beast — yet. But if he continues to lay off junk pitches and taps into his power potential, watch out.

Edit: As Jason461 pointed out, Bruce fractured his right wrist last July. I was reluctant to ascribe the decrease in power to the injury, but I suppose it’s possible that it’s a factor. What do you guys think?


CC’s Scorched Earth Policy

A few days ago, Dave Cameron pointed out that a trio of New York Yankees starters are striking out fewer batters than in years past. A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez, and CC Sabathia are probably drawing the ire of P.C. Richards (fewer whistles!) But, unlike Burnett and Vazquez, CC has compensated for a decline in K’s by waging a ground assault in 2010.

From 2007-2009, Sabathia struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings. Prior to the start of this season, both CHONE and ZiPS projected CC to whiff about 7.7 opponents per nine frames. Instead, Sabathia has 6.9 K/9 through 174.2 innings pitched. The towering lefty’s swinging strike rate, which was 12.2% from 2007-2009, comes in at 8.9% in 2010 (8.4% MLB average this season). CC’s 74.7% contact rate from ’07 to ’09 was lowest among qualified MLB starters, but that mark is up to 79.9% this year (80-81% MLB average).

As Dave C. mentioned, Sabathia is throwing his 93-94 MPH fastball slightly more. Those extra heaters have come early in the count — the 30-year-old has thrown a fastball 72% of the time on the first pitch, compared to 69% in ’09 and 64% in ’08 (the MLB average is about 66%). According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, that fastball is getting fewer whiffs. Hitters are missing the pitch 5.4% of the time that it’s thrown. For comparison, CC induced a whiff 6% of the time with his fastball last year and 6.3% in 2008. The MLB average is around six percent.

But the drop in whiffs is more pronounced on Sabathia’s secondary stuff. Sabathia’s mid-80′s changeup has been whiffed at 17.8%. While the number is still way above the 12.1% big league average, it’s nonetheless a marked drop from his 24.5% figure in ’09 and 24.1% rate in 2008. CC low-80′s slider has a 14.9% whiff rate in 2010, compared to 16% in ’09 and 22.6% in ’08 (13% MLB average).

Despite racking up fewer strikeouts, Sabathia has a quality 3.95 xFIP. How? He’s getting grounders 51.3% of the time this year, up from 44.9% the previous three campaigns. Using Pitch F/X data from Joe Lefkowitz’s site, I broke down Sabathia’s batted ball distribution by pitch type to see from where the extra ground balls are coming. I also included the major league averages by pitch type, provided by Harry Pavlidis.

Sabathia is inducing more grounders with all of his pitches, with the largest increase coming on his fastball. The uptick in grounders has led to more twin killings. Baseball-Reference shows that Sabathia’s double play rate (the number of times he has gotten two or more force outs on a ground ball) is 18%, after ranging from 10-13% from 2007 to 2009. The MLB average is 11%.

CC Sabathia hasn’t been the same overpowering starter this season, using his tumbling changeup and sweeping breaking stuff to garner lots of strikeouts. But he has largely staved off a decline in performance by getting batters to smack the ball into the infield grass more frequently. It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a new phase in Sabathia’s career, as he transitions from a high K hurler to a guy who remains effective due to good control and strong ground ball tendencies. Considering that the Yankees owe CC $23 million per season from 2011-2015, they’ll surely have a close eye on the big man.

Thanks to Dave Allen for leading me in the right direction on this piece.


Joey Bats Goes Ballistic

For a player sometimes referred to as “Joey Bats,” Jose Bautista hadn’t exactly been an offensive stalwart prior to 2010. A 20th-round draft-and-follow-pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2000, Bautista wasn’t placed on the Bucs’ 40-man roster after the 2003 season. His omission began a Rule V odyssey taking him through Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Queens, and finally back to the ‘Burgh (as part of a deadline deal for Kris Benson) within the span of six months. The Pirates shipped Bautista to Toronto in August of ’08 for catcher Robinzon Diaz, currently struggling to slug .330 for Detroit’s Triple-A affiliate. From 2004-2009, Bautista’s bat was six percent below average (94 wRC+), and his .161 Isolated Power was right around the big league norm. He racked up a combined 1.8 wins above replacement. To most fans, Joey Bats was just another Joe Shmoe trying to stick on a major league roster.

And then, 2010 happened. In 452 plate appearances, Bautista is batting .263/.376/.600. His .162 wRC+ dwarfs his modest CHONE and ZiPS pre-season projections (both called for a 94 wRC+). With 33 home runs, Bautista holds a five dinger lead over his closest competitor, Adam Dunn. Jose’s .337 ISO tops all big leaguers (Miguel Cabrera is a distant second, at .300) and more than doubles his pre-season forecasts (.162 from ZiPS, .163 from CHONE). Despite his continued defensive issues, Bautista ranks 16th among position players with four WAR. He hasn’t simply surpassed expectations. Rather, he has taken those expectations, crumpled them into a little ball, and then hammered them all the way to Quebec.

How has Bautista done it? Well, he’s hitting the ball on the ground much less often. Bautista’s ground ball rate, 41.9 percent from 2004-2009, is just 32.2% in 2010. His fly ball percentage, 42.8 percent from ’04 to ’09, is 52.2% (third-highest in the majors). His home run per fly ball rate has spiked from 10.4% from ’04 to ’09 to 21% this season (fifth in the majors).

Bautista is also pulling the ball a lot more this season:

The chart above is normally positive for most players, as the average batter shows far more power to the pull side than to the center and opposite fields. But it’s even better for Bautista. He’s an abysmal hitter when he puts the ball in play to right field:

The past couple of years, he has been Tony Pena Jr. circa 2008 when he goes the opposite way. He has never hit an opposite-field homer in his career. To center, Bautista performs quite well compared to the average hitter:

But that’s nothing compared to his exploits when pulling the ball. Bautista has long been above average when hitting to left, but check out those 2010 numbers.

Bam! Pow! Zap! A .650 wOBA. A .699 ISO, with nearly 47% of his fly balls finding the cheap seats. Twenty-nine of Bautista’s 33 home runs have been hit to the pull side. Take a look at his home run chart from Hit Tracker Online:

There’s an inverse relationship between power and fastballs seen — the more pop a player displays, the less often he gets a heater. We’ve seen that with Bautista this season, as he has gotten a fastball just 49.4%, which is the fifth-lowest FB% among MLB hitters and is well below his career 57.7% rate of fastballs seen. It hasn’t much mattered to this point, as Bautista is killing everything but changeups.

Bautista’s gargantuan season has been a happy development for the Blue Jays, and it would be a mistake to simply waive off his power display as a total fluke. That being said, there’s no way he’s going to keep an ISO approaching Babe Ruth‘s career mark. ZiPS projects a .359 wOBA for Jose, with a .245 ISO that essentially splits the difference between his career figure entering 2010 and his current, jaw-dropping total.

It will be interesting to see what course of action the Jays take with Bautista this off-season. He’s arbitration-eligible in 2011 and then hits free agency. Bautista’s making $2.4 million this year, and early estimates of his arbitration award this winter are in the $6-$8 million range. Even with significant regression, Bautista is worth that sum. But would Toronto be best off shopping him this off-season, while his value is at its apex? I have a hard time believing GM Alex Anthopoulos won’t heavily consider that option. What do you think?


Free Swingin’ Swisher

Everybody knows that Robinson Cano is enjoying a monstrous 2010 season — with 5.2 WAR, Cano leads all Yankees players and trails just Hamilton among MLB position players. But do you know who places second on the Bronx Bombers in WAR? It’s not A-Rod. Teixeira? Nope. The Captain? CC Sabathia? Uh uh. Posada? Negative. The answer is none other than Nick Swisher, at 3.4 wins.

With a team payroll that eclipses the Gross Domestic Product of some small countries, the Yankees are both praised and scorned (depending upon which city you’re in) for their financial might. But Swisher wasn’t a lavish free agent acquisition. Rather, the club bought low on the gregarious switch-hitter after a seemingly disappointing 2008 season with the Chicago White Sox.

Swisher signed a long-term deal with the Oakland A’s in May of 2007, locking him up through the 2011 season for a total of $26.75 million (the pact also includes a $10.25 million club option for 2012, with a $1 million buyout). But the Pale Hose picked him up in January of ’08 for a package of prospects including Fautino de los Santos, Gio Gonzalez, and Ryan Sweeney. Swisher posted just a .325 wOBA and a 94 wRC+ with the White Sox, who grew tired of him and shipped him (along with Kanekoa Texeira) to the Yankees in November of ’08 for Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez.

While Swisher’s season was superficially disappointing, he still worked the count well (13.9 BB%) and hit for power (.191 ISO). The only real difference between the former Buckeye’s ’08 campaign and his previous work was a big dip in BABIP (.249). With New York last year, Swisher’s BABIP climbed to .272, and he showed the best secondary skills of his career — he drew ball four a whopping 16% of the time and posted a .249 ISO. The result? A personal best .375 wOBA and 132 wRC+.

In 2010, Swisher has been an offensive beast. His wOBA is up to .396 (12th among qualified MLB batters), and his park-and-league adjusted wOBA is a full 50 percent better than the average batter (150 wRC+). But the way in which he has achieved those results is different.

Sure, Swisher is still crushing the ball — his ISO is .251. But he’s walking much less this season (9.4%, compared to a career 13.5 BB%). The 29-year-old, normally an extremely patient hitter, has been more of a free swinger. Take a look at his rate of swings on pitches thrown outside and inside the strike zone:

He’s still taking a cut at fewer outside pitches than the average batter, but he’s chasing more than in years past. On in-zone offerings, he’s letting it rip more than most.

Courtesy of Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, here are Swisher’s swing rates by pitch type. I also included the league average swing rates, provided by Harry Pavlidis of The Hardball Times:

There is an across-the-board increase, with the biggest spikes occurring on fastballs and changeups. According to our Pitch Type Run Values, Swisher’s smacking fastballs like usual (+2.07 runs per 100 pitches thrown in 2010, +1.12 career). His run values against breaking stuff are much higher than usual this year — +1.66 versus sliders (-0.73 career) and +0.96 against the deuce (-0.59). He’s at -0.97 runs/100 with the changeup (+0.20).

Swisher’s line hasn’t suffered due to the lower walk rate because his BABIP has shot up to .333. His career average is .283, and his expected BABIP (xBABIP), based on his rate of home runs, strikeouts, stolen bases, line drives, pop ups, and ground balls, is .296. He’s getting more hits on grounders and line drives than in any previous season:

Much has been made about Swisher’s work with hitting coach Kevin Long — Swish’s stride is shorter and more closed off, with his hands closer to his body. I’m not a swing coach, and I don’t have Long’s expertise. So, I won’t speculate whether those alterations have made Swisher better equipped to handle breaking stuff. It can be easy to fall into a cause/effect trap, though, pinpointing a specific reason for a change in performance when it could be random.

If I had to make a wager, I would bet that Swisher will remain an excellent hitter, but won’t keep flirting with a .400 wOBA as more balls put in play find leather.