Author Archive

Jed Lowrie Is Completely Different and Exactly the Same

If you’ve been following baseball over the last several seasons, you likely know at least two things about Jed Lowrie. The first is that he’s had some trouble staying on the field for a full season during his career; the second, that he wears a two-flap helmet in a league of men who insist they only need one. A slightly more dedicated fan could probably tell you that Lowrie has played for the Red Sox, Astros, and A’s during his tenure and would probably describe his performance as “fine.”

In his earlier days, Lowrie showed promise as a hitter. More recently, though, he’s settled in as something slightly below league average at the plate. His defense is something of a controversy, with Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) considering him to be a rather poor middle infielder and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) viewing his defense as something much closer to average. The collective eye test probably places him closer to his DRS than his UZR numbers, but there’s plenty of human disagreement as well.

This introduction, perhaps on purpose, paints Lowrie as exactly the kind of player who doesn’t get a lot of attention. Relative to his peers, Lowrie almost seems boring. Yet there’s a case to be made that he’s having one of the most interesting seasons of anyone in baseball.

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A Very Necessary Zack Cozart Follow-Up

Every year we go through the same routine. A previously unimpressive player has a couple great months and we wonder if we’re observing something new and meaningful or if it’s simply random variation and the regression monster is coming. I haven’t done a thorough analysis, but I’d imagine a larger percentage of articles written on sites like this during the first months contain the sentiment “This sure looks new and interesting, but it’s just too early to tell.”

Frequently, we don’t follow up on these analyses. There’s simply too much going on throughout the game and there usually isn’t much to add to the original article other than thumbs up or down. Last year, one such article that actually merited a follow-up was this one concerning Zack Cozart‘s best 40 games. After three seasons of well below-average offense, the slick-fielding shortstop was crushing the ball into late May. I pointed out that Cozart seemed to have developed a new approach that generated harder contact and more pulled fly balls, which was supported by some comments by Cozart himself regarding a conversation he’d had with Barry Larkin during Spring Training.

Three weeks after the article appeared on the site, Zack Cozart suffered a nasty right-knee injury and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. That meant I would have to wait more than a full calendar year to approach a sufficiently large sample to determine if Cozart had really improved or if we were looking at some well-timed good fortune. Thirteen months after Cozart’s knee gave out, we have our answer: Zack Cozart can hit.

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Fixing the Pitcher the Pirates (!) Made Worse

The Pirates have developed a reputation for their work with pitchers. Ray Searage seems to receive most of the credit, but the club’s recent successes with arms like Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, and Joe Blanton is probably a group effort to some degree. No matter who the true pitcher whisperer is, the Pirates have clearly become a team that takes pitchers who weren’t great and turns them into pitchers who are good.

It’s not clear if the club is particularly adept at targeting pitchers who are poised to recover or if they have a formula for fixing arms with strong potential. In either case, all their recent success suggests the Pirates have something working for them that most teams don’t. And when a reputation like that takes hold, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of assuming they’re going to go on like this forever. Call it a Ray Searage halo.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, the halo has not protected Jon Niese.

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A Very Different Wei-Yin Chen

When the Marlins inked Wei-Yin Chen to a five year, $80 million deal this offseason they weren’t signing an ace or a workhorse. During his four previous seasons, Chen registered an ERA-, FIP-, or xFIP- better than 90 just once and he maxed out at 192.2 innings in 2012. Chen made a name for himself from 2012 to 2015 as an exemplar of consistency. Above average, but not great. Reliable, but not remarkable.

For $80 million, an opt-out clause, and a vesting option, the Marlins added someone worthy of slotting in behind Jose Fernandez without tying up significant payroll in one of the offseason’s superstar pitchers. Chen probably wouldn’t have been noticed walking down the street in any major-league city other than Baltimore, but front offices and coaching staffs certainly knew the value he could bring to one of those cities.

Yet the early returns on Chen have been somewhat disappointing for the Marlins. He’s running a career worst ERA-, FIP-, cFIP, and DRA over his first 15 starts of 2016. The only major run estimator by which he hasn’t suffered so far this year is xFIP-, which provides a very easy entry point into his struggles: it’s the home-run rate, mostly.

Screenshot 2016-06-28 at 1.07.28 PM

Chen’s never been known for his home-run prevention, registering a HR/9 above the MLB average in each of his major league seasons. Part of that has to do with pitching in Baltimore and in the AL East, but he’s someone who allows a greater share than most of batted balls in the air, and home runs can often come with that territory. This year, his home-run rate has increased at a rate even greater than the MLB average. Granted, the difference between his 2016 HR/9 and his career average HR/9 is something like four home runs over his 86.1 innings this year. Those four home runs happened, but it’s not like we’re looking at an Anibal Sanchez-level event here.

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Let’s Watch Kevin Pillar Play Defense

A good way to get smart people to mock you on the internet is to make a big deal about small sample defensive metrics. There are actually a lot things for which people on the internet will mock you, but that’s definitely one of them. For instance, imagine someone told you that Kevin Pillar is the best defender in baseball because his 2016 UZR/150 is 41.3! That assertion would earn some ridicule because a center fielder with a true talent 41.3 UZR/150 would essentially be some kind of baseball magnet positioned behind second base, and I’m given to understand those violate rules 3.09 and 3.10.

Just pointing to a defender’s metrics, be it UZR or DRS, isn’t enough to win an argument. Pillar has a reputation as a great defender, but no one honestly thinks he’s 40 runs better than the average center fielder. At best, that number suggests that Pillar has made great plays at an unsustainable rate, and at worst, it shows that the metrics are imperfectly designed tools that use imperfect data.

In 2015, Pillar accumulated 14 DRS in center (1,236 innings) and 8 DRS in left (120 innings) to go along with his 14.0 UZR in center and 1.5 UZR in left. Over his most recent full season, he was an elite defender; during the first 66 games of 2016 he’s been even better. Pillar currently owns 11 DRS and a 15.4 UZR (all in center). We all acknowledge those estimates are noisy and the precise run values needn’t be taken at face value, but the underlying message is probably right: Kevin Pillar is playing outstanding defense.

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Evan Longoria Is and Isn’t Back

Over the first eight plus years of his major league career, from 2008 to 2016, Evan Longoria has led position players with 45.1 WAR.  That WAR total is by no means definitive proof that we was truly the most valuable player for those eight plus seasons, but it’s enough to establish the concept that Longoria has been one of the very best players in the league for a substantial length of time.

Longoria is essentially neck and neck with Cabrera (by the time you read this they may have swapped places again), and Mike Trout will likely pass him in career WAR later this year or early in 2017, but we don’t need to be exact in order to appreciate what Longoria has accomplished. He’s 30 years old and is two-thirds of the way to a surefire Hall of Fame induction.

Yet with the rise of Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, and the zillion other incredible young stars, Longoria has fallen from our collective consciousness. In part, this is because the Rays haven’t won many games over the last couple of years, but it’s also a reflection of a troubling power outage.

Evan Longoria
Years ISO Qualified Rank
2008-2013 .238 16th
2014-2015 .158 61st

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The Way Kyle Hendricks Is Exactly Like Clayton Kershaw

When you think of Clayton Kershaw, you probably think of some of the best pitchers in baseball history. He’s certainly earned the right to be talked about among guys like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Sandy Koufax, even if he still has a long way to go before he matches them in career value. At the very least, you probably think of the game’s other aces, like Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale, and David Price. You should also think of Kyle Hendricks.

Kyle Hendricks?! I can hear you say through the internet’s system of tubes. Why would we think of Kyle Hendricks when we think of Clayton Kershaw? Well, they have something in common other than being major-league starting pitchers in the 2010s. Kershaw is having an amazing run due in large part to his otherworldly strikeout and walk numbers. Hendricks can’t compete with those marks, but he’s doing something else extremely Kershawian lately. He’s mixing a low fly-ball rate with a very high infield-fly rate.

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Kershaw Is Forcing Us to Confront the Pedro Question

Over the last 365 days, Clayton Kershaw has been baseball’s best pitcher. That isn’t a particularly enlightening sentence given that he’s almost certainly been the league’s best pitcher over the last several years, as well. At this point, the question isn’t really if Kershaw is the best pitcher, but rather if he is the best overall player, Mike Trout included. Kershaw has truly been that phenomenal.

To put some numbers behind it, consider: since May 26, 2015, Kershaw has thrown 253.1 regular-season innings (34 starts) and produced a 39 ERA- and 42 FIP-, thanks in part to a 34.8 K% and 3.3 BB%. By our WAR model, that’s equivalent to an 11-WAR season. It’s closer to 12 WAR if you use runs allowed as the primary input instead of FIP.

We all have our own favorite Kershaw fun fact, but here’s one that’s been bubbling to the surface lately. Full disclosure: I’ve been partially responsible for said bubbling.

Pedro vs. Kershaw
Player Time IP ERA- FIP-
Pedro Martinez 1999-2000 430.1 39 39
Clayton Kershaw Last 365 days 253.1 39 42

Some context: since 1961, there have been just a handful of qualified starters to record less than a 40 ERA- in a single season and the only two qualified seasons under 40 FIP- belong to Pedro in 1999 and Kershaw in 2016. Those Pedro years are often considered the modern gold standard of starting-pitcher dominance. He was 60% better than league average for two full seasons.

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The Pirates Have Been Good, Just Not in the Way We Expected

If you were looking to rank early-season National League storylines, the Pirates playing at an 87-win pace probably wouldn’t be near the top of the list. As a narrative, it doesn’t compete with the scorching-hot Cubs, the surprising Phillies, a team that can’t win home games in Atlanta, and plenty of exciting individual players. Our preseason projections had the Pirates finishing the year with 83 wins, so it’s not all that interesting to point out that they’re playing slightly ahead of that pace. And that’s before acknowledging that most people thought the model was a little light on the National League’s eternal Wild Card.

So, you might be asking, why would the author call attention to the Pirates performance to date if it’s essentially what a reasonable person would have expected from them seven short weeks ago?

While the Pirates are winning baseball games at roughly the expected rate, they are not doing so in the manner we expected. Observe:

2016 Pirates
Universe Record R/G RA/G
Projected 83-79 4.17 4.06
Real Life 21-18 4.92 4.87

The Pirates average run differential in 2016 is similar to the expectation (+0.05 vs +0.11), but they are essentially scoring and allowing a full run more per game. Of course, we’re only 39 games into the season, so this isn’t to say that the projections were wrong and we should disregard them, but rather that the Pirates have looked different than we expected for the first quarter of the year.

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Some Justifiable Concerns About Carlos Gomez

It wasn’t that long ago that Carlos Gomez was one of the best position players in baseball. From 2013 to 2014, Gomez’s 130 wRC+ and excellent center-field defense put him in some very elite company:

Position-Player WAR, 2013-2014
Rank Player WAR
1 Mike Trout 18.5
2 Andrew McCutchen 15.3
3 Josh Donaldson 14.1
4 Carlos Gomez 13.1
5 Miguel Cabrera 12.6

But since the start of 2015, Gomez’s offensive production has cratered. A look at his 150-game rolling wRC+ paints the picture quite clearly. He starts to put it together in late 2011, turns himself into a star, and then comes crashing back to Earth.

Screenshot 2016-05-12 at 7.09.31 AM

He missed time with injuries last April and September, and of course there was that whole business with the Mets backing out of a trade for him, reportedly due to concerns about his hip. There’s no way to know exactly how the injuries affected his game last year, but he hasn’t done anything to alleviate concerns during the first month of 2016. He’s striking out a ton and isn’t hitting for any power. Gomez has delivered a 41 wRC+ with a 34.2 K% and .074 ISO so far this year.

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The Month Pinch-Hitting Got Easier

Baseball’s brilliant chaos attracts fans of all sorts of analytical dispositions. Some people like to go with their gut, some trust their radar gun, and others prefer to dive into the spreadsheets. No matter with which group you align most closely, it’s very likely you agree with the following: pinch-hitting is super hard.

The precise difficultly is a matter of some debate, but everyone is pretty much on board with the concept. Batters perform worse coming off the bench than they do when they are already in the game. This was one of the notable findings in The Book and plenty of research has picked up on it from there.

But, uh, here’s a weird thing:

PH 1

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Trevor May Be Worth Watching

We continue to find ourselves very much within the “it’s too early to care about this statistic” period of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. Does your favorite player have a good WAR? How’s that young starter’s ERA? These are some examples of questions you probably shouldn’t be asking after 25 days. The data isn’t really more or less relevant than any other 20-game stretch; it’s just awfully hard to find meaningful patterns within any set of 20 games.

This is especially true for relief pitchers who have generally thrown seven to 10 innings at this point in the season. Unless a guy’s stuff is noticeably different or they appear injured, you’re simply not going to be able to use this early-season data to update your player evaluations in a significant way. What you can do during the early days of a new season is look for harbingers of change. Basically, is a player trying something new? A few weeks is enough to notice things, even if it isn’t enough time to speak forcefully about their likely impact.

With the appropriate amount of skepticism attached, let’s notice a thing about Minnesota Twins pitcher Trevor May.

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A Partial Defense of the Team That Traded Noah Syndergaard

It is abundantly clear which team won the R.A. Dickey trade. Acquiring Noah Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, John Buck, and Wulimer Becerra from the Blue Jays for Dickey, Josh Thole, and Mike Nickeas in December 2012 has paid off for the New York Mets in a big way. This isn’t a particularly controversial opinion in need of detailed supporting evidence, but Spencer Bingol covered the particulars of the Mets’ heist several months ago, even before Noah Syndergaard turned into a starter who pitches like a lights-out closer.

Barring something unexpected, the Mets will have gotten more wins at a lower price from their part in the trade than the Blue Jays will have from their part in the trade by the time Dickey’s contract expires at the end of this season. Then the Mets will continue to reap the benefits for several more seasons while d’Arnaud, Syndergaard, and Becerra remain under team control. There’s no way, in an absolute sense, to spin this as anything but a win for Mets and a loss for the Blue Jays.

This kind of retrospective analysis is valuable, but it is a bit simplistic. The interesting question isn’t which set of players performed better; that’s obvious.  The interesting question is if the Blue Jays would have been better off not making the trade.

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Another Year, Another Strikeout Record?

Strikeouts are up! That sentence is obvious enough that the exclamation mark is probably unnecessary. After all, strikeout rates have been trending upward for a long time. Just take a look at the league’s K% over the last two decades:

leagueK 2

For a variety of reasons, things really started to trend upward around 2005, but we settled around 20.4% in each of the last two years. Strikeouts appeared to be plateauing. Or, at the very least, their growth rate was starting to taper off. The red line, however, shows the increase from 2015 to 2016. The MLB strikeout rate entering play on Wednesday is 22.0%, a full 1.6 percentage points higher than the previous zenith and a year-over-year jump similar to the 2011 to 2012 spike.

In other words, the preceding exclamation point might be warranted. Strikeouts are indeed up(!) in 2016.

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Ken Giles: Jerome Holtzman’s Final Victim?

On Monday, Astros manager A.J. Hinch told reporters that Luke Gregerson would start the season as his team’s closer. Given Gregerson’s successful stint as closer in 2015 and his general track record of success in recent years, such an announcement might sound like a formality. After all, “Team’s Good Closer to Remain Closer” is not exactly newsworthy.

What made the announcement interesting is that over the winter the Astros traded Vincent Velasquez, Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman, Harold Arauz, and Brett Oberholtzer to the Phillies for Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz. Giles, as you likely know, had been extraordinary in relief over his first 115.2 innings in the majors and could easily be considered one of the best five or ten relievers in the game. Naming Gregerson the closer and Giles the setup man raised some eyebrows given the price the Astros paid to acquire Giles four months prior.

It doesn’t matter if you subscribe to the projections, recent performance, or a simple visual analysis of their stuff, Giles grades out better. We project he’ll beat Gregerson’s ERA and FIP by 0.30 to 0.40 runs this year and Gregerson has never had a season on par with Giles’ performance to date. Both generate lots of swinging strikes, but Giles has the velocity that appeals to scouts. Gregerson is a very good reliever, but there isn’t a plausible case to be made that he’s better than Giles. Yet when Hinch went to the bullpen on Tuesday, it was Giles in the eighth and Gregerson in the ninth.

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The Only* Division Race in Baseball

With the start of the regular season just four days away, we find ourselves in the thick of preview season. No matter where you look, it all boils down to the question: what’s 2016 going to look like? At FanGraphs, we’ve just wrapped up our yearly Positional Power Rankings that assess the season through the lens of each position.

As you might have noticed, each team is made up of the sum of these positional projections and they will all start playing together as 30 units in nine-inning contests next week. If you’re into that sort of thing, we offer Playoff Odds that estimates each club’s shot at postseason baseball (explained here).

It’s important to remember, for all the reasons cited in the previous link, that these projected standings are incapable of total precision. In reality, even with a perfect model for individual player projections, you still wouldn’t hit on every team. And we don’t have anything close to a perfect model for individual players. Yet these projections do offer an objective reading of where the teams stand relative to one another based on what we know. They might wind up being wrong, but they’ll be wrong because they’re flawed not because they’re trying to write an interesting narrative.

Despite clear signs of parity, especially in the American League, our projections think only one division is going to be particularly close: the National League East.

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2016 Positional Power Rankings: Left Field

It wasn’t that long ago that left field was a bastion for sluggers. The position used to be the last refuge for lumbering players who couldn’t find playing time at first base or designated hitter, but things have changed in recent years, opening up left field to a number of well-rounded and glove-first performers. Below we’ll review them all, team by team, in keeping with our positional power ranking ways.

lf ppr 2016

If you wanted to characterize the state of the position, you might lead with the well-rounded players who occupy it, but also the fact that there are very few great left fielders. No team’s left field unit projects for more than 4.0 WAR, joining only second base and DH as positions with such low projections for the top spot. On top of that, there project to be many poor left field units, as no other position comes close to the ten teams which project to produce less than 1.0 WAR at the spot.

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The Year the Orioles Wouldn’t Flinch

There are certain statistics that get tallied on scorecards such as hits, walks, runs, and strikeouts.  These aren’t the modern, comprehensive measures of performance we typically use here at FanGraphs, but they are the building blocks of those metrics. Without singles/doubles/triples/etc, there is no way to build wOBA or wRC+. Without strikeouts, walks, home runs, and innings pitched, there is no FIP.

While we’ve generally moved beyond caring about certain counting stats, we use them to build the things about which we care a great deal. But there is at least one standard scorecard event that doesn’t get a lot of attention when we build these metrics because it’s extremely rare and also extremely subjective: the balk.

The layman’s description of a balk is easy enough to understand: it’s a movement made by the pitcher intended to deceive the runner into thinking that same pitcher is about to throw towards home, when in reality he (the pitcher) is not. Any reasonably informed fan knows that the specifics of the balk rule are complicated and enforced at the whims of the umpire. It’s a judgment call, and one that doesn’t seem to be uniformly implemented at any given moment in time. But there are trends in balking:

balks 1

This graph deserves two explanations. First, let’s discuss 1988. The balk rule was changed in 1988 and if you didn’t know the results of the change, the actual difference in the wording of the rule might not catch your eye. I’ll allow Theron Schultz of Recondite Baseball to explain:

Baseball Official Rule 8.01(b): The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body and (b) come to a complete stop.

1988 Baseball Official Rule 8.01(b): The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body, and (b) come to a single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.

The difference between the two rules is that the 1988 version replaced “complete stop” with “single complete and discernible stop, with both feet on the ground.” This slight change, intended to make balk calls more uniform throughout major league baseball, instead sparked one of most frustrating summers ever for major league hurlers. Only six weeks after opening day, Rick Mahler of the Atlanta Braves committed the 357th balk of the 1988 season, breaking the MLB record for most balks in a complete season… with three-quarters of the season to play. Before all was said and done, American League pitchers were called for a staggering 558 balks. Their National League brethren had it a little easier, “only” committing 366 balks.

This is a wonderful bit of trivia, but it obscures the broader trend: fewer balks are being called across the league. We have data back to 1974, and since that time, there has been a clear decline in the number of balks called in major-league baseball (shown in the graph as balks per 162 games). Here’s the same graph a before, now with a truncated y-axis for easier viewing:

balks 2

It’s unclear if umpires are letting pitchers get away with more balking behavior or if pitchers are less guilty than they used to be, but the trend is rather clear. There was also a rule revision before 2013 outlawing the fake-to-third-throw-to-first move, which shaved about a balk per team season from the league.

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Intentional-Walk Immunity, Featuring the Blue Jays

If aliens landed on Earth and, rather than asking about our political systems or scientific accomplishments, inquired about the last 20 years of baseball philosophy, one of the things you would highlight is the growing disdain for the intentional walk. Certainly, there are times when an intentional walk makes sense, but one of the fundamental lessons of the era is that giving the other team a free base runner is typically foolish.

As Ben Lindbergh wrote at FiveThirtyEight, managers are increasingly aware of the downside of the intentional walk, and as a result, they’re are on the decline across the league. Billy Beane didn’t wake up one morning, discover intentional walks were bad, and begin a crusade against them or anything, but intentional walks have clearly fallen out of favor as teams, writers, and fans have gotten on board with a more data-friendly approach to the game.

As such, we’ve trained ourselves to see intentional walks negatively by default and praise teams that don’t issue them. If teams are issuing fewer intentional walks, we normally see that as a positive sign, so forgive me for the investigation I’m about to undertake to explore the opposite.  In 2015, the Blue Jays both (a) possessed an exceptional offense and yet (b) were on the receiving end of a shockingly low number of intentional walks.  What was the rest of the league thinking?

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Building a Frankenstein Backup Catcher

One of the things people enjoy about sports is the role they role they play in starting conversations and debates. People enjoy arguing, especially about trivial matters like “who was the best hitter of all time?” and “who’s the best shortstop in the game right now?” These exchanges satisfy one’s desire to engage in battles of wits without challenging someone’s moral character, which is what often happens when debates turn to more sensitive topics such as politics or religion.

Sports allows for fierce debate with extraordinary low stakes. Think about how much time we’ve spent arguing about the difference between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera! While you might think those conversations were tremendously unproductive, I would submit that they provided many people with a confrontational, emotional, and intellectual outlet. We’re a species blessed with language and reason, but cursed with imperfections in both. Arguing about the performance of athletes allows us to exercise those muscles without inadvertently causing real damage to society.

In that realm, I would like to present a baseball question to which you have probably devoted almost no attention. If you could take the best attributes of baseball’s backup catchers and fuse them into a single, lovable backstop, what components would you choose and how valuable would the resulting Frankenstein Catcher be?

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