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Nationals Reward Drew Storen Breakout With Jonathan Papelbon

Among the bright spots for the Nationals this year has been the emergence of Drew Storen. Already an effective reliever, Storen tweaked his breaking ball and became something of a strikeout machine. Instead of sitting down two of every 10 batters, Storen has bumped that up to three out of 10, succeeding as the closer for a first-place but somehow still disappointing team. As a reward for his step forward, the Nationals have demoted Storen out of the closer role, agreeing to pick up Jonathan Papelbon and everything that comes with him.

For a straight swap, this one’s a little complicated. The Nationals needed to convince Papelbon to come, and there was the matter of his $13-million vesting option. The option was almost sure to vest, but the Nationals opted to guarantee it for $11 million. That gives Papelbon some certainty, yet he’s also been given other certainty: the right to close, down the stretch. Technically, I suppose, the Nationals could go back on their word. And if Papelbon struggles, well, the Nationals would be stupid to leave him there. But this is without question the interesting thing. A team with a closer added a closer.

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Rockies Choose to Embrace Their Future, At Last

There’s no such thing as ideal circumstances under which to trade Troy Tulowitzki. The best-case scenario is that Tulowitzki is both healthy and performing well, and then, you’re still a front office trading one of the most talented players in baseball. And in Colorado, of course, Tulowitzki has been more than just a good player, having been the beloved face of the franchise. Do something like this, and it’s going to hurt, regardless. But it’s been increasingly clear that a separation would be necessary. That both parties needed to move on. The Rockies just couldn’t get Tulowitzki to stay at peak level. So they did what they did, doing about the best they could do at the time, and with Carlos Gonzalez probably following Tulowitzki out the door, this is a watershed. No longer will the Rockies be caught trying to build future success around present-day veterans.

Tulowitzki was no stranger to trade rumors. There was thought he could go a year ago, but after lighting the league on fire, he got injured. The injury questions hung over him during the offseason, making it tricky to find a match, and now that he’s been mostly healthy in 2015, his performance has been uncharacteristically mortal. So the injury questions morphed into performance questions, and the Rockies had to accept that. Your opinion of the trade is dependent on your level of Tulowitzki optimism. Given what he’s capable of being, you could argue the Rockies sold low. Alternatively, you could consider it meaningful that the Rockies had trouble getting the 30-year-old Tulowitzki both healthy and great.

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Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 7/28/15

Jeff Sullivan: Hey guys

Jeff Sullivan: Obviously this is quite late, but I wasn’t planning on having Troy Tulowitzki get traded

Jeff Sullivan: So I had to finish writing about that before I could start this. But now that’s done! So I’ll be with you just as soon as I’m done tweeting that link and this link

Jeff Sullivan: OK!

Jeff Sullivan: By the way, I’ve swapped with Kiley this week because he wasn’t available today, but he will be on Friday.

Jeff Sullivan: Back to normal for me, next week

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Mets Buy Low and High on Tyler Clippard

I don’t remember where I saw it, but I read the other day about some baseball executive who doesn’t like the idea of paying July prices for relievers. If it isn’t actually true, it at least seems true that relievers get the biggest mark-up come deadline time. Which might seem silly, given how few innings relievers throw. But then, teams keep paying. Maybe they’re on to something, or maybe it’s an inefficiency, but in our reality, we see relievers get prospects. The Mets just traded prospect Casey Meisner for reliever and free-agent-to-be Tyler Clippard.

Something you note about the Mets: they’re in second place in their own division, trailing the Nationals by two games. Something else you note about the Mets: they’re 3.5 back of the second wild-card slot, and the Cubs are also a game in front of them. Because the Mets aren’t even in playoff position, it’s easy to see things staying this way, the Mets ultimately giving up a prospect for practically nothing. But the Mets have been working to make the team better now, and, there’s something about relievers and important games.

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Angels Pick Up Used But Functional Shane Victorino

The Angels find themselves in what you might term a familiar situation. They’re right in the thick of the race, like they’ve often been, and they’re run by the guys that used to run them, by which I mean Bill Stoneman and Mike Scioscia. Stoneman and Scioscia see eye-to-eye on a number of things, and there’s a certain type of player Scioscia used to love. Prime Shane Victorino would’ve been a phenomenal Angel. Alas, there is no more prime Shane Victorino; alas, even if there were, the Angels wouldn’t have had the players to trade for him. So what we have instead is a match, exchanging little for a post-prime Victorino who might have just enough left in the tank. The Red Sox save a little money, and they can dream on a utility player. The Angels get to see how much turbo remains in Victorino’s well-worn legs.

I was reading an article the other week, when I stumbled upon the following excerpt:

Stoneman was nowhere near as active on the trade front as Dipoto. His most significant July acquisition was reserve outfielder Alex Ochoa in 2002.

Stoneman says it only makes sense to swing a midseason trade if it’s worth it, which is one of those statements you don’t realize is empty until you think about it for a few seconds and the speaker walks away. The general point is that Stoneman isn’t one to panic in the face of midseason trends. Yet in the case of this Angels team, the need for outfield help has been such that no one could dismiss it. Something almost had to be done. Stoneman did it, at the cost of Josh Rutledge.

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Royals Add Johnny Cueto, Relief for Relievers

Here’s all the proof you need that the Royals didn’t need Johnny Cueto: up until this point, the Royals didn’t have Johnny Cueto. The Royals didn’t really have much of anyone in the rotation, and yet they have the best record in the American League, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. If Cueto were necessary, maybe the Royals would’ve had more problems. Just last year, the Royals came a swing away from winning the World Series, and though they got there in part by leaning on supposed ace James Shields, Shields allowed 17 runs in 25 postseason innings. The Royals haven’t done what they’ve done because of an ace. Moving forward, they’ll be more than their ace.

That’s looking at it from just one perspective, though. You have to consider the other perspective, the one where the Royals’ most valuable starting pitcher so far has been literally Edinson Volquez. Not long ago, Yordano Ventura was officially optioned to Triple-A. Jason Vargas sustained a bad elbow injury, and the state of the Royals’ rotation has been such that that was major news. And, well, just last year, the Royals came a swing away from winning the World Series. James Shields finished 0-and-2. What difference might a real ace have made? An ace like Madison Bumgarner, or Johnny Cueto?

Of course there’s no such thing as a guaranteed championship. Of course most moves are just about moving the needle the smallest little bit. Yet, when you’re talking about adding one single player, it doesn’t get much more significant than going from whatever the other option would’ve been to Cueto. This is a big upgrade, and though the Royals had to pay for it, they feel like they know what they’re paying for. And they feel like they know what this season could be.

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JABO: Where the Mariners Have Gone Wrong

The Mariners won on Thursday! That’s not uncommon. The Mariners have won a bunch of times, if you think about it. But they haven’t really strung them together. They haven’t won two games in a row since the start of the month. They haven’t won three games in a row since the last week of May. In the Mariners’ best month so far, they went 14-14. Right now they’re hanging around the bottom of the American League, and though the Mariners haven’t yet sold pieces off, the playoffs look like the longest of shots. Maybe a miracle is in the cards. Probably not. Miracles are never probable, or else they wouldn’t be miracles.

Speaking of things that aren’t uncommon, seeing the Mariners toward the bottom feels familiar. They haven’t made the playoffs since Ichiro was a rookie. But this year was supposed to be different. Last year wasn’t bad, and then the Mariners added Nelson Cruz. And Cruz, for the most part, has been terrific. Only a few months ago, the Mariners were the popular pick as division favorites. Now they have to be thankful for the struggles of the Red Sox, Indians and White Sox, as they aren’t the obvious biggest disappointment. This wasn’t supposed to be close to a last-place team.

I’ll admit, when you’re dealing with a last-place team, the last thing most people want to do is look back. And I think a lot of people have some understanding of how the Mariners have gone off track. It’s not a mystery, and of greater concern is where the team goes from here. But I did want to take this opportunity to run some math. To divide blame, if you will, for why the ship has sunk. I think this can be instructive.

We have all the current numbers we need. The Mariners are 44-52. They’re fourth from the bottom in the majors in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). We also have all the old numbers we need. At FanGraphs, before the season, we projected the Mariners to win almost 55% of their games. That winning percentage, over 96 games, would yield a record of about 53-43. So the Mariners are presently about nine wins off the expectation. Where were those wins supposed to come from? Where haven’t they come from? Helpfully, we have all the individual player preseason projections.

Read the rest at Just A Bit Outside.

Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 7/24/15

Jeff Sullivan: It’s a chat!

Jeff Sullivan: Let’s chat!

Comment From greg
Did you get a chance to read the Ben Lindbergh piece on AVM this morning? Pretty cool.

Jeff Sullivan: Being on the west coast, I don’t get a lot of reading time before these chats. Gotta deal with breakfast and making myself look presentable. But it’s bookmarked to read after the fact

Jeff Sullivan: For anyone who hasn’t seen it:…

Comment From Sal
Hi Jeff, why would the Indians be dangling Carrasco out there? He’s excellent and extremely cheap for the next 4 years. Seems a bit premature to me no? Is their system so light on talent they need to try a move like this now?

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Did Jose Fernandez Get More Dangerous?

Let’s accept that, after four starts this season, there are few conclusions that can be reached about Jose Fernandez. After all, we need bigger samples of data, and even then, conclusions mostly have to be pretty soft. After four starts, we know very little. But we’re always allowed to make observations. We can identify hints of things, things that might be true, and so I ask, has Fernandez become more dangerous on the other side of his elbow surgery?

You probably haven’t missed it, but just in case you did, Fernandez rejoined the Miami Marlins not long ago, and one of the Internet’s most favorite pitchers has 32 strikeouts in 26 innings. He’s also issued just three walks, throwing almost three-quarters of his pitches for strikes. And it doesn’t seem like he’s lost any movement or zip. Set a low enough minimum, and Fernandez leads all starting pitchers in out-of-zone swing rate. It’s here that I want to linger. I want to talk about that number, and I want to talk about Fernandez’s best pitch.

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A’s, Astros Open Market with Scott Kazmir Trade

The A’s figured 2015 would be a competitive year, and though there have been plenty of encouraging signs, at some point there’s just not enough time left to expect bad luck to reverse itself. The Astros, meanwhile, figured 2015 would be a competitive year, but maybe not this much of a competitive year, so they found themselves considering the market of short-term upgrades. So it is that a surprising A’s team and a surprising Astros team have come together on a move: Scott Kazmir is going to Houston, and now the league-wide trade market is open.

He’s not the first big-leaguer to be moved. Juan Uribe got swapped. Mark Trumbo got swapped. Welington Castillo got swapped a couple of times. But this is the first real deadline move, with the A’s conceding that it’s time for them to sell. Kazmir’s a free agent in a few months, but the Astros weren’t turned off by that. If anything, they were seeking that out. Rentals tend to cost less, and Kazmir provides important rotation insurance. The guys the A’s are getting are named Jacob Nottingham and Daniel Mengden. You’re probably not familiar with either, but that doesn’t mean the A’s just got robbed.

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The Terrifying Comp for Lance McCullers’ Best Weapon

Lance McCullers is starting for the Astros on Thursday, and while he’s going to have his innings closely monitored down the stretch, potentially reducing his availability, there’s no doubt he’s played a big role in getting the Astros to where they are at present. McCullers has followed an up-and-down 2014 with an incredibly successful 2015, and in just 11 big-league starts, he’s been worth about 2 WAR no matter which formula you prefer. The Astros are said to be in the market for a starting pitcher, but if it weren’t for McCullers’ presence, the situation would be a lot more desperate.

McCullers throws three pitches, though the changeup is simply coming along. He has a good fastball that sits in the mid-90s, but the best pitch here is the curve, thrown a third of the time and responsible for the majority of McCullers’ strikeouts. It’s never been a secret that McCullers throws a good breaking ball, but in talking with David Laurila, Brent Strom tossed out a heavy comp:

“I’d say McCullers’ breaking ball is Kimbrel-like at times,” said Strom. “That’s as good as you can get. I haven’t seen everybody’s curveball, but I would say the young kid McCullers has a curveball as good as anybody in this game.”

That’s a direct comparison between Lance McCullers’ breaking ball and Craig Kimbrel‘s breaking ball. That’s coming from a big-league pitching coach, so it carries some weight. But why not put numbers to this, to try to find the best comp, really?

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How Much Could Michael Conforto Help the Mets?

As I write this, the Mets are a couple games back from a National League wild-card slot. They’re also just a couple games out of first place in the NL East, and they’re beating the Nationals in the eighth inning. As I wrote that, the lead was blown, and now things are all tied up, but the bigger point is that things are close. Regardless of how the game ends today, the Mets have a good shot at going to the playoffs. It’s true that the Nationals have been hurt by injuries. But the Mets, too, have had to deal with a lot of problems, so it’s not like they’re just benefiting from Washington’s misfortune. It’s a winnable division, and oh, by the way, here’s a screenshot of Bryce Harper, and a screenshot of his subsequent swing:



So there’s a sense of urgency. I see now the Mets are losing to the Nationals, 4-3. That’s bad. Anyway, there’s a sense of urgency, as people want the Mets to upgrade so that they don’t waste the pitching they’re getting. Due in part to all those injuries, the lineup has struggled. The Mets could use a bat, and in left field, they’ve got an aching Michael Cuddyer and a handful of backups. There are some rumors connecting the Mets to second-tier outfielders on the market, like Gerardo Parra and Will Venable. Yet there’s also some momentum to stay internal. The Mets, it seems, are now thinking more about promoting top prospect Michael Conforto. It could even happen within the next 24 hours. The hope is that Conforto might provide the jolt the offense so desperately needs. It would save the front office from having to make a trade.

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What’s Happened to Teams That Traded for Aces?

The All-Star Game is behind us, which means everyone now is paying attention to the coming trade deadline. The appeal, I think, is about two things: One, we’re just engineered to crave roster change. Two, we’re led to believe this is when winners are made. Or at least, this is when winners do something that puts them over the hump; and this is when losers can try to collect prospects. For the next week and a half, the trade deadline will be the most important thing. Regardless of whether it deserves that status, this is the annual routine. Right now, it’s all about possible moves.

Related to that, Bob Nightengale caused a stir with his report that the Detroit Tigers might sell — and might therefore sell David Price. It’s significant not just because the Tigers don’t usually sell, but also because Price is an ace, and available aces are diamonds every July. Consensus is that there’s no sexier addition than a No. 1 starter, which is why there’s also so much attention on Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels. And Jeff Samardzija and James Shields, and so on. The idea is that a front-line starter becomes even more valuable in the playoffs. And people are inclined to believe that, in the playoffs, pitching is what matters most. So this time of year, the supposedly most desirable pieces are the best and most durable arms.

This calls for a simple analysis. Actually, this calls for a very deep and thorough analysis, but I’m not very good at those. A simple analysis is the fallback. Front-line starters have been traded midseason before. What’s happened with the teams that got them?

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Lance Lynn has Mastered the Multi-sided Fastball

A lot of player interviews are a waste of time. This one isn’t. This is Lance Lynn, being interviewed in early June, after shutting down the Brewers:

Lynn talks a lot about the fastball, which is appropriate, because Lynn threw 119 pitches in the game, and if his words are to be believed, exactly one of those wasn’t a heater. According to the numbers we have, it was more like three non-heaters, but there’s no point in getting too hung up on this; either way, Lynn threw a crap-ton of heaters. He used it almost exclusively to keep the Brewers quiet, and that was mostly in keeping with Lynn’s evolved pitcher profile. Earlier in the year, when Bartolo Colon was on his run, much attention was paid to his unusual and seemingly simple pitching style. Lynn has become the best Colon comparison we have. Only he’s younger, and stronger, and better. On the surface, Lynn has one of the most simple game plans imaginable. Which means he’s figured out a complicated way to make it work.

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Zack Greinke Is Pulling a Felix

Pitch names aren’t very imaginative. What is a fastball but a ball that’s thrown fast? The ball, in fact, thrown the fastest, relative to the curveball — which curves — or to the knuckleball — thrown as if off the knuckles. The changeup is also entirely explained by the name, although this one requires you know something about another pitch. The changeup is supposed to change things up, when a hitter is looking for a fastball. It’s supposed to represent a change of speed. Absent a fastball, a changeup is nothing but a slower fastball. The changeup needs to change something up to survive.

The game has seen a lot of pitchers. For the overwhelming majority of them, we’re sitting on pretty limited information. Surely, there have been some outliers over the years, pitchers who have done unusual things with their pitches. According to conventional wisdom, a good changeup needs to be about 8 mph to 10 mph slower than the fastball. Anything less than that, it’s thought, and there’s not enough of a change of speed. The best-known exception to this idea is Felix Hernandez, who’s been known to throw changeups in the low-90s. Felix’s changeup is one of the best in the game, so he’s served as evidence that there’s more than one way to throw a hitter off with a change. Henderson Alvarez specifically cited Felix as the reason he’s willing to throw his own changeup harder. It can be rewarding to push the limits.

Zack Greinke, too, is pushing the limits. Obviously, he’s pushing the limits of un-scored-upon-ness. But he’s also become a lot more like Felix than you might have realized.

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The Three Keys to Zack Greinke’s Scoreless Streak

The last time Zack Greinke allowed a run in a game a game that counted the regular season was June 13, when Justin Upton hit an eighth-inning homer. Even that solo shot was subject to an instant-replay review, and before that, Greinke had allowed just one run in the first. But people care about what’s come after that. What’s come after that have been six starts, spanning an out shy of 44 innings. Over those innings, opponents have batted .129; over those innings, opponents have scored not any runs. The Dodgers actually found a way to lose one of those games, but this is a streak that forces you to focus on the individual. Generally speaking, the name on the front is more important than the name on the back. But we’re all allowed to forget that, when someone’s doing something incredible.

Greinke doesn’t own the longest scoreless streak ever. Nor will he soon, probably. The odds favor the opponents being able to do at least something, and all it ever takes is one swing, on even a pretty good pitch. But we can’t declare the streak over until it’s over, and for the time being, Greinke is closer than he’s ever been. All eyes will be on his performance the next time he’s out there, because he still has a chance at an impossible record. It’s fair to wonder: how has Greinke gotten this far? How has he rattled off more than 43 consecutive scoreless innings? As best as I can tell, there are three general keys.

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JABO: The Argument for Blowing Up the Reds

Nobody wants to have to rebuild. This is an important point. Rebuilding isn’t fun. Maybe it’s more fun from a fan perspective, especially when you’re frustrated by an underwhelming on-field product, but among front offices and ownerships, “rebuilding” is almost a bad word. They try not to use it. Teams are in the business of selling themselves, and when you rebuild, you lose. And it’s hard to sell a loser. Even when there’s a longer-term plan in place, losing is bad for those involved, and it’s bad for revenue. Teams want to be in the mix, and having two wild cards makes that more achievable.

The Reds don’t want to rebuild. In that way they’re like everyone else. They knew coming into this season they were in a difficult spot, with some pending free agents. And the team has lost more than it’s won, so it certainly looks like the Reds are about to sell. The important question, then: How far do they take it? Ought the Reds sell, or ought the Reds Sell?

The other day, I put together a trade proposal linking the Reds and the Blue Jays. The idea was partially built around the premise that the Reds don’t yet want to give up on 2016. Following that course of action, the Reds would look to move just rentals, like Johnny Cueto, obviously, and Mike Leake. There’s going to be value coming back. Cueto might be the best piece on the market. There aren’t even that many pieces on the market. It would be easy for the Reds to justify trying again. The safe decision would be to try to compete next time, because, who knows? It would be tempting. Even with Cueto gone, the Reds wouldn’t be dreadful.

But there’s the safe decision, and there’s the daring decision. It’s the decision no front office wants to make, but I think there’s a convincing argument for just blowing up the Reds. For selling Cueto, but not stopping there. For just taking over the upcoming trade deadline.

Read the rest at Just A Bit Outside.

Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs Chat — 7/17/15

Jeff Sullivan: Hey everybody, welcome to unusually early Friday chat

Jeff Sullivan: I know the timing isn’t perfect, but I’m moving apartments today — for real — so I’m trying to get this finished in time to do all that nonsense

Jeff Sullivan: And then in a few weeks, I get to move again! Fun consequences for the chats. Baseball now

Comment From Flowing Locks
Should Jacob deGrom be known as Jacob deStroyer of Worlds?

Jeff Sullivan: isn’t Jacob deBomb a lot more obvious

Comment From Pascual Perez
What’s the feeling among prospect hounds about Byron Buxton. Still a future star?

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The Best & Worst of Pitcher Strike Zones, With Dallas Keuchel

A couple weeks ago, I examined, on the team level, who has and hasn’t been drawing a benefit from the called strike zone. That post is here, and it talks about the zone while pitching, and about the zone while hitting. Earlier this very week, I looked at some individual hitter strike zones through the season’s first half, and that post is here. It makes sense to look at individual pitchers. If we have the team data, and if we have some individual hitter data, why not close the loop? I don’t want to leave you wanting more. I want to leave you never wanting to hear about this stuff again, or at least not for a while.

When a hitter’s had a particularly big or small strike zone, that seems to be luck, for the most part. Some of it’s the competition, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a signal. With pitchers, there’s more of a signal, because they’re the ones in control. And they’re also linked to their catchers, who might be good or bad pitch-framers. If a hitter’s been, say, lucky with strikes, that hardly means anything going forward. But if a pitcher’s racked up extra strikes, that bodes well for what’s to come. That’s something to keep in mind when you read all the rest.

We’ll be looking at pitchers with more or fewer strikes than expected. As you peruse the tables, you’ll be seeing evidence of skill, but skill that leaves many frustrated. Pitchers with good command tend to get more favorable zones than pitchers with bad command. And pitchers with good receivers will get more favorable zones than pitchers with bad receivers. Command is a developed skill, and receiving is a developed skill, but to a lot of people, the strike zone is the strike zone, and it shouldn’t shift around. To a lot of people, it should be called the same for everybody. It’s not! Maybe one day. For now, we’re still in our day.

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Yasmani Grandal and Padres Pitchers

Not to beat a dead horse, or any kind of horse, but the Matt Kemp trade has been lopsided. There’s still an awful long way to go, but for now the Matt Kemp trade is more like the Yasmani Grandal trade, and Grandal and the Dodgers couldn’t be happier. The other day on Twitter I was tipped off to an article about Grandal written by Matt Calkins. The headline: “Padres blew it with Yasmani Grandal.” It talks about Grandal’s limited playing time, and the lack of trust some Padres pitchers had in him. One paragraph stood out to me as particularly interesting:

Despite the general San Diego approach being to throw down and away, Grandal thought the power pitchers should be throwing inside in the early part of the count before using the outer half of the plate to record the out. But the veteran hurlers weren’t catching his drift, and as a result, he wasn’t catching their pitches.

Pitchers identified were Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Ian Kennedy. Last season, Grandal didn’t catch Cashner. Ross eventually stopped throwing to him, and Kennedy did too. They preferred working with Rene Rivera. This year, the Padres pitching staff has struggled. From the bottom of the same article:

San Diego’s pitching, however, has disappointed, and Grandal can’t help but wonder if that would be the case had his advice been heeded.

On the one hand, this doesn’t really matter. Grandal isn’t in San Diego anymore, so everyone just ought to move on. But on the other hand, this can be an interesting thing to investigate. So let’s talk about what Grandal talked about.

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