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The Cost of Moving from the NL to the AL

“The Astros sale so far has none of the drama that came with the Rangers last year.” That’s from an Associated Press story written in mid-May.

Five months later, we have drama. According to the prospective buyer, Houston-based businessman Jim Crane, Major League Baseball is pressuring him to move the Astros from the National League Central to the American League West. Richard Justice and others have reported that there might be other issues preventing MLB from approving the deal.

I’d rather not speculate about what is or isn’t true, but both sides seem to be doing all they can to intimidate the other into acquiescing. Just this week, a flurry of stories came out suggesting that Crane could walk away from the deal if he isn’t approved by the Nov. 30 deadline stipulated in his agreement with Drayton McLane. Meanwhile, MLB continues to dig into Crane’s past, perhaps sending Crane the message that his options are the American League or no team.

But whatever the reasons for the hold-up, the bottom line is that if the Astros move from the NL Central to the AL West, the team should receive some compensation. In addition to the concerns that Crane has expressed — more 9 p.m. start times and the addition of a designated hitter to the payroll — the real issue is that the American league is the stronger league. And switching leagues will have a direct effect on the Astros’ win total.

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Arms in the Pennant Race Running out of Fuel?

Good starting pitching is always important, but it seems to take on added significance as the pennant race heats up. And often it seems that the teams with the freshest, strongest arms are the teams able to emerge out the grind of a 162 game season into the playoffs.

This year fatigue could be especially important to monitor since there are several pitchers pitching deeper into the year and/or logging more innings than ever before whose performance could have big implications on the pennant race.
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Visualizing 2011 Draft Spending

With the August signing deadline having come and gone close to two weeks ago, taking the time to look at which teams chose to spend big on the draft and those that took a more conservative approach is always an interesting task.

Baseball America does a fantastic job of covering the draft every year, and I recommending checking out the series of posts they ran covering draft spending this year. But sometimes I find it easier to view this type of data visually.

There will be some differences between BA’s numbers and mine. First, Baseball America limited what they considered draft spending to bonus totals. In the graphs that follow, I incorporated all spending. For example, the Mariners signed Daniel Hultzen to a major league deal worth at least $8.5 million. As part of that deal, Hultzen received a bonus worth $6.4 million. Baseball America would record the Mariners as spending $6.4 on Hultzen, I record them as spending $8.5. I don’t think either way is necessarily right, they’re just different.

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Return on Over-Slot Signings (Part 2)

Earlier, we found that teams do indeed pay a premium to acquire early-round talent in the later rounds of the draft. (And I would suggest reading the first part of the study before you read this so that you are caught up on the methodology and some of the terminology). Today, we’ll look at over-slot signees selected from the supplemental to the tenth round, differences among position players and pitchers, as well as differences between high school and college players signed to over-slot deals.

While teams had to pay a fairly significant premium to acquire early-round talent in the later rounds, teams appear to have gotten solid, even good value signing players to over-slot bonuses in the supplemental round through the tenth round of the draft.

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Return on Over-Slot Signees in Amateur Draft

Since it’s creation, the August 15th deadline for teams to sign drafted players has become one of the most important days on the baseball calendar. Interspersed among the headlines of which early picks have signed are the reports of players drafted in later rounds, sometimes even outside of the first ten rounds, signing six and seven-figure deals. These ‘over-slot’ signees are a bit of a mystery. Few outside of the scouting industry know much of anything about these players, and it’s difficult to judge the value of an over-slot signee relative to a team’s other draft picks. Is the 12th rounder who signed for $500,000 a better prospect than the third rounder who signed for $400,000? What type of premium do teams pay to sign players to over-slot deals? How much does it cost to sign a ‘second-round’ talent late in the draft? Can it even be done? These are the questions I sought to shed light on.

Unfortunately, reliable bonus data on players who sign late in the draft is tough to find before 2005, so our sample will be restricted to the 2005-2009 drafts. Because many of these players are just starting their major league careers or are still playing in the minors, we can’t know precisely how much value each draftee will ultimately provide, but using Erik Manning’s translation of Victor Wang’s research, we can come up with a fairly accurate approximation of each player’s value based on how they ranked on Baseball America’s Top 100 lists and in John Sickels’ team-by-team rankings.

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Production of ‘Slight’ Over-Slot Signees

Earlier this year, The New York Times’ Economix blog had a discussion of a study conducted by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger (Princeton). The researchers looked at the value students derive from what they termed ‘elite’ colleges. Their study’s twist was that instead of only looking at the schools students attended, the researchers also looked at the schools students applied to. Interestingly, the researchers found that the average SAT score at the most selective school a student applied to was more predictive of that student’s future earnings than the average SAT score at the school the student attended. The researchers hypothesized that applying to selective schools may be an important indicator of future success since the decision to apply to a selective school may be an indication that the student has characteristics that will help them later in life beyond measures such as high school GPA, SAT score, etc… which typically factor heavily into college admissions decision.

I bring up this piece of research because as I was analyzing the data for the return on over-slot signees I was struck by the number of players who signed for just a few thousand dollars over MLB’s slot recommendation but with the benefit of hindsight would have been drafted much higher. Mike Stanton signed for $55,000 above slot in the second round of the 2007 draft; Brett Lawrie signed for $20,000 above slot in 2008; Danny Duffy signed for a mere 500 dollars above slot in 2007; Brandon Belt signed for $25,000 above slot last year, and the list goes on.

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When to Pinch Run?

Over the past decade, a tremendous amount of progress has been made in quantifying if and when managers should do everything from sacrifice bunt to issue an intentional walk, but one area that has been (at least to my knowledge) overlooked is when to pinch run. One of the main reasons pinch running hasn’t been investigated to the same degree as these other strategies is that there are a lot of moving parts to look at- how much more valuable is the pinch runner than the previous runner? Will removing the starter hurt the team’s defense? What’s the opportunity cost of losing an available bench player? While the answers to each of these questions are needed for a complete analysis of when to pinch run, there is one question we can answer relatively simply- how often can we expect the pinch runner’s spot in the order to come up again later in the game?

The more often a pinch runner can be expected to have to come to the plate, the less appealing pinch running is likely to be, as the players who are most often removed for pinch runners are generally very strong hitters (or catchers), and pinch runners are generally light hitters.

Take for example the White Sox-Twins game on April 9th of last year. Tied in the bottom of the 8th inning, the White Sox elected to have Mark Teahen pinch run for Paul Konerko following Konerko’s 1-out single. The next two White Sox hitters went down in order, and two innings later Teahen stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 10th with men on first and second and one out. Teahen grounded into a 6-4-3 double play and the White Sox went on to lose in 11 innings.

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The NL East and Realignment

Over the past week there has been a lot of discussion about the report that MLB is considering moving a National League team to the American League, doing away with divisions, and adding a fifth playoff team from each league. While most of the discussion has focused on how such a move would free the Jays, Rays, and Orioles from the Hurculean task of going head-to-head with the Yankees and Red Sox, realignment may be needed to avoid a similar situation in the National League East.

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The Blue Jays’ Draft Strategy

Now that most of the dust from the 2011 draft has begun to settle, one of the more interesting story lines to follow this summer will be how many early picks the Blue Jays will be able to sign. As has been well documented, the Blue Jays came into the 2011 draft with 8 of the first 60 picks, giving them a total of 20 selections in the first 15 rounds. But what is particularly interesting is that of those 20 picks, the Blue Jays used 17 on high school players. That’s a lot of high school players. In fact, since 2000, teams have, on average, selected fewer than 6 high school players in the first fifteen rounds.

Here’s a look at the number of high school players each team drafted in the first fifteen rounds this year.

* I looked at only the first fifteen rounds to limit the sample to draftees teams were likely intent on signing.

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2011 Draft: Scouting Alex Meyer

With the draft quickly approaching, it’s time to take a closer look at some of this year’s better prospects. You can check out reports on Sonny Gray, Aaron Westlake, Jason Esposito, and others here.

Possessing arguably the highest ceiling of any player in this year’s draft, Kentucky right-hander Alex Meyer shouldn’t last long come draft day.
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2011 Draft: Scouting Sonny Gray

The 2011 draft class is being hyped as one of the best in recent memory. With less than three weeks until draft day it’s time to zero in on some of this year’s best prospects. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be profiling some of the higher-profile players.

With Vanderbilt starter Sonny Gray on the mound Thursday night, Vandy fell to Georgia 5-4. Although Gray’s line- 4 runs, 9 hits, 3 walks, and 6 strikeouts over 6 innings- was unimpressive, he showed electric stuff at times, and still projects as a top-10 pick.

Coming out of high school in 2008, Gray dropped to the Cubs in the 27th round primarily because of his strong commitment to Vanderbilt. Listed at only 5’11″ 180, Gray will always have to answer questions about his small stature, but he has big-league stuff. Thursday night, his fastball ranged from 89-93, sitting mostly at 92, and the pitch featured good action, tailing away from left-handed hitters. When Gray is able to keep his fastball low in the strike zone, he makes it tough on hitters to elevate the ball, as evidenced by his 1.96:1 GO/AO ratio this year.

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Teams Continue to Overpay Relievers. Why?

Over the past decade, the decision making of major-league teams has increasingly come to reflect the values of the sabermetric community. There is, however, one prominent area in which the valuations made by major-league teams and those around the blogosphere continue to diverge – and that is the value of relief pitchers, particularly late-inning relievers.
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Better to Sign out of HS or College? Part 3

Click here for part one and here for part two.

In the previous analyses we saw that while a player increases his expected bonus by going to college, players who sign straight out of high school get to their free-agent seasons more quickly.

So are players better off by signing straight out of high school or going to college?

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Better to Sign out of HS or College? Part 2

If you haven’t read part one of the study, you can get caught up here.

If you have, you’ll remember that the previous analysis suggests that, for almost every round in the draft, the mean bonus a player receives after going to college is greater than what they were offered out of high school. At first glance, this finding may seem to suggest that players are better off financially by going to college. But there is more to consider than just the signing bonus a player receives.

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Better to Sign out of HS or College? Part 1

With the advent of the August 15th signing deadline, an increasing amount of attention each summer is devoted to which players choose to sign professional contracts and which high school players decide to go to college. With hundreds of thousands of dollars- and sometimes millions- hanging in the balance, the decision of whether to sign or go to college is a monumental one for players and their families. Not only do players have to choose between realizing the dream of playing professional baseball or going to college- two good options to be sure- there is also a pressure to get the best deal possible. The stark reality is that for many players the bonus they receive after signing is the most money they will ever get from playing the game of baseball, so it’s important to get the best deal possible.

In this study, I tried to answer whether players are better off financially by signing out of high school or going to college. In trying to answer this question, I was forced to make several assumptions, and, in some cases, engage in some flat-out guesswork. Therefore, the findings that follow need to be taken with the methodological shortcomings in mind. In this post and the ones to follow, I’ll provide an outline of my methodology along with the results. I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not there is simply too much guesswork to draw a meaningful conclusion. If nothing else, the study should provide a solid groundwork for the types of issues that need to be dealt with in the future.

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Top 10 Prospects: The New York Yankees

1. Jesus Montero, C
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent 2006 (Venezuela)
2010 Level: AAA (International League)
Age on Opening Day: 21.4

Notes: One of the best pure hitter in the minors, there isn’t much Montero can’t do at the plate. He is extremely strong, and has the balance and quick hands to drive the ball to all fields. He got off to a slow start in his first taste of AAA in 2010, but he rebounded to post a more-than-respectable overall line of 289/353/517 and a career high 21 home runs. Unlike many power hitters, Montero is tough to strikeout. He struck out in only 20.1 percent of his at-bats last year, and that was even higher than his 2009 rate of 13 percent. While there are few questions abut Montero’s bat, there are plenty about his defense. He has improved over the past couple of seasons to the point where he is now merely well below-average behind the plate, but he is still not good enough to profile as an every-day catcher. He committed 15 passed balls in 2010, a total surpassed by only four other teams in the fourteen-team International league, and he only threw out 23 percent of would-be base-stealers. Still, Montero’s ability to fill in behind the plate has value. He could serve as a team’s everyday DH, as well as filling in as the back-up catcher, saving a roster spot and probably around a million dollars for his team.

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Top 10 Prospects: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

1. Mike Trout, CF
Acquired: Drafted 1st Round 2009 (New Jersey HS)
2010 Level: A/A+
Opening Day Age: 19.9

Notes: Twenty three teams passed on Trout in the 2009 draft, and looking back less than two years later, it’s hard to believe a player with Trout’s combination of tools and skills could last until the end of the first round. Despite being listed at 215 pounds, Trout is one of the fastest players in the minor leagues. He gets down the line so quickly that fairly routine ground balls to the left side can quickly become an adventure. Once he’s on base, he continues to put pressure on the defense, stealing 56 bases in 2010. There is some sentiment that Trout may slow down as he ages, but he should always be a plus runner. At the plate, Trout has exceptionally quick hands and the coordination to consistently barrel the ball. Seeing him play, his line drives seem to have 5-10 more mph on them than anybody else. So although he only hit only ten home runs last year, he could wind up slugging 20-25 a year as he learns to look for pitches to drive. Just as impressive, Trout shows an extremely patient approach for such a young hitter, posting a BB% of over 12 percent last year. Defensively, his speed allows him to cover a lot of ground, and his arm is good enough that he should be able to stay in center.

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Fixing What Went Wrong

After being confronted with failure or disappointment, it’s human nature to look back and assess what went wrong. After all, you can’t prevent the same mistakes from being made in the future if you don’t know what went wrong in the first place.

Fans and general managers use this line of thinking when they look back at the previous season. They want to know what kept their team from making the playoffs. The answer to this questions isn’t difficult to find — a suspect bullpen, injuries to key players, etc. But whatever the reason, the answer to this question is typically the focal point of the team’s offseason efforts. However, it’s imperative to keep the larger picture in mind. Improving one area to the detriment of others doesn’t help the team overall.

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Top 10 Prospects: Minnesota Twins

1. Aaron Hicks, CF
Acquired: 2008 1st Round (Southern California HS)
2010 Level: Low A
Opening Day Age: 21.6

Notes: Prospect aficionados have a tendency to get a little antsy with highly-touted prospects. When a player doesn’t immediately light the world on fire he can be unfairly criticized, and, to some extent, I think Hicks has been subjected to this. When he was drafted, he was billed as a 5-tool player with solid power and speed highlighting his game, but the returns in those two areas have been just fair so far. In just over 1,000 career plate appearances, Hicks has only hit 16 home runs and has stolen only 42 bases. Those modest returns on top of the Twins’ decision to have him repeat the Midwest league in 2010 have some jumping off the bandwagon, but a look past those counting stats reveals a lot for Twins fans to be excited about.

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Top 10 Prospects: The Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers
2010 MLB Record: 80-82 (4th in the NL West)
Minor League Power Ranking: 17th (out of 30)
Click for: Last Year’s Top 10 Prospect List

The Prospects

1. Dee Gordon, SS
Acquired: Drafted 4th Round, 2008
2010 Level: AA (Southern League)
Opening Day Age: 22.11

Notes: Despite being the son of former big reliever Tom ‘Flash’ Gordon, Dee didn’t pick up baseball until his senior year of high school. What he lacks in polish, he makes up for in athleticism. His speed rates as an 80 on the scouting scale, allowing him to steal 126 bases over the past two season at a 73 percent clip. At the plate, Gordon is a contact-oriented hitter with little power. He posted a meager .077 ISO last year, and after seeing him take batting practice at the Futures Game, I don’t expect him to ever post an ISO much higher than .100 in the big leagues. His swing plane is flat, and his bat speed isn’t good enough to overcome the physical limitations of his 150-pound frame. That being said, he does a good job of barreling the ball, and that skill, coupled with his outstanding speed and ability to make contact, should allow him to hit for average. In the field, Gordon has all the tools to be a plus defender, but he makes too many errors on routine plays. It’s not altogether uncommon for young shortstops to pile up big error totals in the minor leagues and still go on to become solid defenders in the big leagues, and judging by his actions, I think with more experience he’ll make the necessary improvements to stay at short. At his peak, I see Gordon as close to a .300 hitter, with 40 steals, and average defense at short.

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