Archive for Athletics

Yonder Alonso Has Changed His Mind

Have you seen what Yonder Alonso is doing this spring? You might not recognize it. If he qualified, his .421/.560/.789 line would the third-best in baseball. While it’s easy to dismiss a spring fling from an established player, this player spent the offseason thinking differently. Now he’s moving differently at the plate, too.

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Is There Hope for Brett Lawrie?

Brett Lawrie isn’t quite ready to sign with a club, according to a report by Jim Bowden from Wednesday afternoon. Lawrie is still working through a soft-tissue, lower-body issue. Teams like the Blue Jays, Mets, Rays and Royals reportedly have some level of interest in Lawrie after he was released by the White Sox.

What kind of role Lawrie can expect to land is unclear. And what we can expect from a player who was once one of the more exciting prospects in the game — who was once selected 15th overall in an ESPN franchise player draft in 2012 — a player whom Bowden himself once predicted would become a batting champion, is uncertain.

After he burst on to the scene with a .293/.373/.580 slash line in a 43-game span as a rookie, Lawrie averaged two wins per season from 2012 to -14. But in what was supposed to represent the beginning of his prime years in 2015 and 2016 — i.e. his age-25 and -26 seasons — Lawrie’s performance continued to decline. Most notably, what was once a strength, his bat-to-ball skills, began to erode.

Perhaps we can pinpoint the beginning of the issue. It’s difficult to have a tougher day than Lawrie endured on April 7, 2015, for the A’s against the Rangers. Over the course of four plate appearances, all of which ended in a strikeout, Lawrie saw 12 pitches: eight sliders, three curveballs, and just one fastball. For posterity, the following footage documents those 11 breaking pitches.

His first at-bat versus Colby Lewis:

His second at-bat versus Lewis:

In the seventh, against Keone Kela:

And in the ninth, to end the game, against Neftali Feliz:

That was not the look of a player who appeared comfortable. Lawrie takes for called strikes almost all the breaking pitches in the zone. He swings, on the other hand, at all the pitches that fall out of it. He also appears to be anxious or over-hyped before triggering his swing. He’s a high-energy player. Perhaps, too high-energy.

It was just one game. But it was a most unusual performance. And it was that second game of his 2015 season that perhaps created a template for other teams to follow, which explains why Lawrie’s ability to make contact – once one of his strongest skills – has eroded as teams have attacked him with more breaking stuff each of the last two years.

Teams have increased their curveball and slider usage against Lawrie. Only 6.8% of pitches Lawrie faced in 2014 were curveballs. Last season, that rate had nearly doubled, to a career-high 11.3%. In 2014, 16.8% of pitches Lawrie saw were sliders. That jumped to a career-high 22.4% in 2015, and 19.2% last season.

Correspondingly, Lawrie’s swinging-strike rate has jumped, from 8.8% in 2014 to 11.9% in 2015 and to a career-high 13.2% last season. His contact rate with pitches in the zone has declined each year from a career-best 90.5% in 2012 with the Blue Jays, to a pedestrian 80.9% mark last season.

The book appears to be out on Lawrie, as seen in this Brooks Baseball chart:

What’s troubling about Lawrie’s career trend is that often, when we think of a hitter losing contact ability, we think — or hope, for his sake — that there ought to be a corresponding improvement in power. This is especially true for a player in his 20s. But not only has Lawrie seen his ability to make contact erode, his isolated slugging has declined from its 2014 level.

I asked Sean Dolinar for help in researching hitters who have had two-year contract trends like Lawrie, combined with loss of power. Among the sample that includes all qualified hitters since 1950, Lawrie has the ninth-greatest increase in strikeout rate.

Greatest Two-Year K% Increases with ISO Decrease (since 1950)
Name Seasons Age K% Diff ISO Diff
Ryan Langerhans 2006-07 27 13.1% -.021
Andruw Jones 2007-08 31 12.9% -.178
Justin Morneau 2015-16 35 12.9% -.010
Mike Napoli 2012-13 31 12.7% -.089
Deron Johnson 1965-66 28 12.5% -.064
Al Weis 1965-66 28 12.4% -.023
Steve Kemp 1984-85 30 11.5% -.061
Mark McGwire 2000-01 37 11.1% -.114
Brett Lawrie 2015-16 26 11.0% -.009
Billy Conigliaro 1971-72 24 10.4% -.029
Jason Kubel 2012-13 31 10.3% -.061
Jack Clark 1985-86 30 10.2% -.031

Of the top-12 players here, Jones produced four total wins over the next four seasons, the final four of his career. Morneau remains unsigned this spring. Napoli’s struggles continued into 2015, though he enjoyed a 34-homer season last year on a one-year deal with Cleveland. McGwire’s final season was in 2001. Kubel last played in the majors in 2014.

Of course, all of them were all over 30.

Some good news for Lawrie: Clark rebounded to post five consecutive seasons of wRC+ 129 or better.

As for the 30-and-under crowd, Langerhans never again received more than 139 plate appearances in a season. Weis was a reserve middle infielder who finished with a 61 wRC+ for his career. Kemp received just 59 more plate appearances in the majors. Johnson is one modest success story: he went on to post four seasons of wRC+s 108 over his career.

Two other significant success stories that suffered similar contact collapses include Dave Henderson, who rebounded at age 29 and posted three 125 wRC+ seasons through age 32, and Mike Stanley, who improved in his age-30 season and produced seven straight seasons of 117 wRC+ or better. But they did not suffer isolated slugging losses.

Lawrie’s No. 1 PECOTA comp is Ryne Sandberg who, after a eight- and six-win seasons early in his career, went through an age 26-27 lull, before entering a five-year peak.

So there’s some hope mixed in with some concern.

In examining Baseball Reference’s top similarity scores for batters comparable to Lawrie through age 26, there are some troubling comps, like that of the most similar hitter, Gene Freese, who enjoyed only one more season (1961) with a starting job in the majors. Another, Russ Davis, produced a 92 wRC+ for his career and 0.0 WAR over over 612 career games.

Logan Forsythe and Justin Turner are two interesting names, appearing as the No. 5 and No. 6 most similar batters to Lawrie, though Turner needed to reinvent his swing to become a star. And perhaps Lawrie needs to make a significant swing adjustment to cut down on his pre-swing movement. The most encouraging name on the list of most similar batters through age 26 is Edwin Encarnacion, who posted a .790 OPS and 102 OPS+ with the Reds from 2005 to -09 and who has since recorded a .850 OPS, 124 OPS+, earning three All-Star invites in the process.

Beyond the bat, Lawrie offers defensive versatility: he’s been an above-average defender for his career (32 defensive runs saved) at third base and plays an acceptable second base. But it’s the bat that will make or break his career. History shows of those players who have endured a similar erosion of contact skills without a gain in power many never recover, though some do. There are even some stars in the group. While Lawrie’s collapse is a bit unusual, there are likely multiple career trajectories he could follow dependent upon health, adjustments and opportunity.

I’d like to believe this guy still exists:

But that walkoff homer from his rookie year is beginning to seem like a long time ago. While there’s evidence of similar players turning around their careers, Lawrie must show the league he has the ability to punch back.


2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: A Few AL Non-Qualifiers

Throughout much of the offseason in this space, we’ve been taking a look at hitter contact quality, using 2016 granular exit-speed and launch-angle data as our guide. We’re down to the last two installments, in which some non-qualifying hitters from both leagues will be reviewed.

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Last Year’s Unluckiest Changeup

In baseball, luck is a tricky concept. In some cases, it’s used to describe an event that’s within the normal distribution of outcomes but far from the mean. In other cases, what we call luck might actually be the first signs of an outlying skill for which we simply lack a sufficiently large sample to identify.

We’ve developed a new understanding on one kind of luck in recent years — namely, the sort that occurs with a batted ball. With Statcast data, we can look at the shape and size of a ball in play and try to decide what the batter “deserved” from that sort of ball in play. Then we compare it to actual outcomes. The difference between the observed and expected outcome is luck.

What if you want to look at a luck on a specific pitch type, though? How would you do it? You could look at the results on the pitch and basically use the Statcast-type process from the other side of the ball. What sorts of balls in play did that pitch produce, and what sort of results should those balls in play have produced? The problem with that approach is that you’re slicing a pitcher’s repertoire into small samples when you start talking about balls in play off a specific pitch. Even David Price, for example — who led the majors in innings last year — allowed fewer than 300 balls in play on his most frequently thrown pitch, the fastball. Secondary pitches are, almost by definition, thrown much less often. Variance isn’t the exception in such cases, but the rule.

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Ten Bold Predictions for the Coming Season

Over at the fantasy blog, they’ll be publishing their annual bold predictions soon. Those posts, as usual, will cater to the roto side of things. They’re fun to write. And, even though I’m no longer editing RotoGraphs anymore, I’d like to continue the tradition. So I’ve decided to do a version that’s aimed more at the real game.

Let’s stretch our imagination and make some predictions that are a little bit sane (they should be rooted in reality to some extent), but also a little bit insane (since the insane happens in baseball every year anyway). Back when I did this for fantasy, I hit 3-for-10 most years. Doubt I do it again, for some reason.

What follows are my 10 bold predictions for 2017.

1. Dylan Bundy will be the ace he was always supposed to be.
Once picked fourth overall and pegged as the future ace of the Orioles, Bundy had a terrible time in the minor leagues. Over five years, he managed only 111 innings between injuries. There was Tommy John, of course, but lat strains, shoulder-calcification issues and between-start bouts of elbow soreness have dogged him throughout, as well. At least he was good while he was in, with an ERA in the low twos and great rates to support those results.

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Four Reasons to Be Optimistic About Oakland’s Sean Manaea

Oakland A’s fans didn’t have many reasons to be optimistic in 2016. The team’s playoff odds peaked at 20%… on April 3rd. As the season wore on, Sonny Gray‘s ERA rose almost as high as the home runs against him flew. The team’s 69-93 final record was the icing on the cake.

Sean Manaea provided one bright spot. Acquired from Kansas City in 2015 in exchange for Ben Zobrist, Manaea is a 6-foot-5, 245-pound lefty. He debuted in April and, after tweaking his changeup grip, remained in the rotation the entire season. He gave up more than his fair share of home runs, but the 14.7-point difference between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%) proved he could fool batters. His 93 xFIP- ranked alongside that of Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer.

The 2017 season doesn’t look much rosier for the A’s organization. Our Depth Charts projections have them bringing up the rear in the AL West again. But at least the team’s fans can be optimistic Manaea will perform well in 2017, for four very good reasons.

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Josh Donaldson’s Last Four Seasons, In Context

If you come to this site, or are something more than just a casual baseball fan, you likely know that Josh Donaldson is pretty great at this whole baseball thing. With four straight top-10 American League Most Valuable Player Award finishes, and one actual MVP Award in his trophy case, this should seem pretty straightforward. And yet, relative to how good he is, I feel he’s still a little underappreciated. So in that spirit, I wanted to dig in a little on just how good he is. The answer is that he’s been historically great.

Let’s start, as we often do, with a table.

WAR Leaders, Ages 27-30, 1871-2016
Rank Name Years Hit Pit Tot
1 Ted Williams 1946-1949 40.6 40.6
2 Babe Ruth 1922-1925 37.5 37.5
3 Stan Musial 1948-1951 35.4 35.4
4 Carl Yastrzemski 1967-1970 35.0 35.0
5 Rogers Hornsby 1923-1926 35.0 35.0
6 Ty Cobb 1914-1917 34.4 34.4
7 Pete Alexander 1914-1917 0.9 33.3 34.2
8 Wade Boggs 1985-1988 34.1 34.1
9 Lou Gehrig 1930-1933 34.0 34.0
10 Pedro Martinez 1999-2002 -0.1 33.9 33.8
11 Willie Mays 1958-1961 33.8 33.8
12 Barry Bonds 1992-1995 33.8 33.8
13 Walter Johnson 1915-1918 3.3 30.3 33.6
14 Christy Mathewson 1908-1911 1.6 32.0 33.6
15 Guy Hecker 1883-1886 7.5 25.8 33.3
16 Sandy Koufax 1963-1966 -1.0 34.3 33.3
17 Honus Wagner 1901-1904 32.4 0.1 32.5
18 Joe Morgan 1971-1974 32.2 32.2
19 Hank Aaron 1961-1964 32.2 32.2
20 Albert Pujols 2007-2010 31.7 31.7
21 Chase Utley 2006-2009 31.3 31.3
22 Mike Schmidt 1977-1980 31.1 31.1
23 Charley Radbourn 1882-1885 3.7 27.4 31.1
24 Greg Maddux 1993-1996 0.1 30.7 30.8
25 Josh Donaldson 2013-2016 30.5 30.5
26 Mickey Mantle 1959-1962 29.9 29.9
27 Ed Walsh 1908-1911 1.1 28.6 29.7
28 Ernie Banks 1958-1961 29.5 29.5
29 Eddie Collins 1914-1917 29.3 29.3
30 Fergie Jenkins 1970-1973 1.1 28.1 29.2

Donaldson didn’t become a regular in the majors until his age-27 season. That was back in 2013, four seasons ago. Since then, he has been one of the best players of all-time for his age. Look at him right there, nestled between Greg Maddux and Mickey Mantle. What?

Before we get to the players who appear on this table, though, let me give you a quick sampling of the players who aren’t on it: Jeff Bagwell, Miguel Cabrera, Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove, Eddie Mathews, Mike Piazza, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Tom Seaver, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker, and Cy Young, just to name a few. When was the last time you thought of Donaldson as superior to A-Rod? Obviously, I’m not saying that Donaldson’s career is better. In the time he’s been a regular, however, he been nearly as good as possible.

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Baseball Is Amazing and Stupid: A Quiz

I think we can all agree that baseball is amazing. If we weren’t all on the same page, it stands to reason we wouldn’t all be here. I think we can also all agree that baseball is stupid. Sometimes it is extremely stupid. Other times, it is more forgivably stupid. But it is very stupid. Following in the true spirit of baseball, let’s take a quiz! There are nine questions, and for each, you select one answer from five options.

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2017 ZiPS Projections – Oakland Athletics

After having typically appeared in the very famous pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have been released at FanGraphs the past few years. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Oakland Athletics. Szymborski can be found at ESPN and on Twitter at @DSzymborski.

Other Projections: Arizona / Atlanta / Baltimore / Boston / Chicago AL / Chicago NL / Cleveland / Detroit / Houston / Kansas City / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York AL / Miami / Pittsburgh / St. Louis / San Diego / San Francisco / Seattle / Tampa Bay / Toronto / Washington.

Batters
Yesterday, in these pages, Jeff Sullivan wrote a brief post entitled “How Much Hope Do the Bad Teams Have?” In it, he examined the end-of-season outcomes for clubs that had received uninspiring preseason projections. It’s likely that Sullivan’s post has some relevance to this Oakland club as it’s currently constructed.

According to Dan Szymborski’s computer, only two field players, Marcus Semien (627 PA, 2.7 zWAR) and Stephen Vogt (467, 2.1), are expected to exceed the two-win threshold, typically the mark of an average player. By comparison, the Milwaukee Brewers — a club definitively in the midst of a rebuild — feature six field players forecast for two or more wins. Minnesota also has six. San Diego, five.

One, searching for optimism, might note that a number of Oakland’s starters — Rajai Davis (410, 1.1) and Jed Lowrie (399, 0.4), for instance — receive only modest plate-appearance projections, and thus better prorated figures. That said, the playing-time numbers are based on sums from previous seasons, too, which themselves have been modest due either to injury or role.

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Do All the Free-Agent Sluggers Have a Home?

It’s true that, if you look at the free agents who remain unsigned this offseason, you’ll find a lot of power still available. Franklin Gutierrez, Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo: all three produced an isolated-slugging figure greater than .200 last season. All three are projected by Steamer to produce better than a .195 ISO in 2017. All three have yet to find a team for the 2017 season.

Given the general demand for power, you might wonder why so many of these sluggers don’t have jobs yet. A look both at the supply and the demand in the league reveals a possible cause, however: handedness. There might be an obstacle, in other words, to matching those free agents with the right teams.

To illustrate my point, let me utilize the depth charts at RosterResource. What’s nice about RosterResource, for the purposes of this experiment, is that the site presents both a “go-to” starting lineup and also a projected bench. Here’s a link to the Cubs page to give you a sense of what I mean.

In most cases, a team will roster four non-catcher bench players. Looking over the current depth charts, however, I find 15 teams with only three non-catcher bench players on the depth chart (not to mention five additional bench players who are projected to record less than 0 WAR). For the purpose of this piece, let’s refer to these as “open positions.”

Fifteen! That’s a lot. It means we’re likely to see quite a few signings before the season begins. Of course, not all these openings are appropriate for the power bats remaining on the market. Most of those guys are corner types, if they can play the field at all, while some of those 15 clubs have needs at positions that require greater defensive skill.

For example, Anaheim might need an infielder or a third baseman for their open bench spot. The White Sox need a right-handed center fielder to platoon with lefty Charlie Tilson. Detroit needs a center fielder, maybe a right-handed one — and in the process of writing this piece, they got one in the form of the newly acquired Mike Mahtook maybe. If Mel Rojas Jr. can’t play center in Atlanta, they need a (right-handed?) center fielder, too. The Yankees may need a third baseman — and, if not that, definitely someone with some defensive ability on the infield.

So that reduces the number of open positions to 10. That’s 10 slots that could be filled by an offensive piece with little defensive value. Here are the teams that, by my estimation, have an opening for a slugger: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago (NL), Cleveland, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Seattle, Tampa, Texas, and Toronto.

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The Man Who Hasn’t Been Hit in Almost Six Years

Part of growing up is realizing that some no-hitters aren’t necessarily great pitching performances. Try telling an eight-year-old that the six-walk no-hitter she’s watching is less impressive than a one-hit, no-walk shutout and she’ll look at you like you’re from another planet. If you explain that same thing to an adult, she probably won’t turn off the TV, but will probably concede you have a point. No-hitters have a magic that transcends the actual logic of the achievement. That’s perfectly fine, of course, as one’s enjoyment of an event doesn’t need to correlate precisely with it’s degree of difficulty.

But it’s worth considering why the no-hitter is magical. Most of it is probably the name and the history, but I’ll propose another reason: it’s a razor’s edge accomplishment. In other words, as soon as the pitcher allows a hit, the entire thing is over. When Barry Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron, if he failed to hit a home run, there would always be another chance. If a batter falls below .400, he can always bring his average back up. When you’re dealing with an accomplishment based on a zero, everything is exciting because it could be gone at any moment.

This is why I was so interested in Chase Utley‘s no-double play season. Every single plate appearance mattered. Well, in preparing last week’s post on Derek Dietrich‘s elite ability to get hit with the baseball, I noticed another zero-based accomplishment that’s pretty extraordinary: Coco Crisp hasn’t been hit by a pitch in more than five years.

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Ten Plays That Changed the Way We Think About Rajai Davis

Ten plays. Ten plays can change a player’s career.

We talk all the time about how defensive numbers come in small samples. For an outfielder, the sample of plays that actually separate a good from a bad defender is even smaller.

In most cases, a batted ball to the outfield is either a can of corn or a clear hit. In between, there just aren’t many opportunities. For Rajai Davis as a center fielder, there are 19 plays that could have gone either way over the last two years. He missed 10 of them — which is bad — and then many of us stopped considering him as a center fielder. Ten plays!

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How Mike Trout Could Legally Become a Free Agent

What type of contract would Mike Trout have commanded this offseason had he been a free agent? Coming off an MVP-award-winning campaign in which he compiled 9.4 WAR and about to enter just his age-25 season, Trout would have easily been one of the most sought after players ever to hit the open market. And given the state of this year’s historically weak free-agent class, the bidding for Trout may very likely have ended up in the $400-500 million range over eight to ten years.

Considering that Trout signed a six-year, $144.5 million contract extension back in 2014 – an agreement that runs through 2020 – this is just an interesting, but hypothetical, thought experiment, right?

Not necessarily. A relatively obscure provision under California law — specifically, Section 2855 of the California Labor Code — limits all personal services contracts (i.e., employment contracts) in the state to a maximum length of seven years. In other words, this means that if an individual were to sign an employment contract in California lasting eight or more years, then at the conclusion of the seventh year the employee would be free to choose to either continue to honor the agreement, or else opt out and seek employment elsewhere.

Although the California legislature has previously considered eliminating this protection for certain professional athletes – including Major League Baseball players – no such amendment has passed to date. Consequently, Section 2855 would presumptively apply to any player employed by one of the five major-league teams residing in California.

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Today’s Managers on Adjusting to the Home-Run Surge

The 2016 season featured the second-most home runs in baseball’s history. Though a few people around baseball want to attribute it to the placement of power hitters higher in the lineup or better coaching based on better data, the evidence that both exit velocity and home runs per contact are up across the league refutes the first, and the evidence of the latter is minor. It’s a bit of an open mystery, but it’s certainly possible that the ball is different now.

In any case, the fact that homers are up is irrefutable. And it’s on the game to adjust. So I asked many of baseball’s best managers a simple question: with home runs up, how have you adjusted how you approach the game? Lineups, rotations, bullpens, hooks: is anything different for them today than it was two years ago?

*****

Terry Collins, New York Mets: No, really doesn’t. The game has changed, that’s the game now: home runs. And we’re lucky we got a few guys who can hit ’em. That’s where it’s at. As I said all last year, our team was built around power, so you sit back and make sure they have enough batting practice and be ready to start the game. We’ve got a good offensive team. Neil. Getting Neil Walker back, that’s big. David back and Ces and Jay and Granderson. We got a bench full of guys that could be everyday players. We’re pretty lucky.

I watched the playoffs, too, and I know what you’re talking about. I talked to Joe Maddon a couple days ago about how the playoffs may change and he said, ‘We didn’t have your pitching. I’ll leave ’em in.’

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The A’s Just Added a Cheap Breakout Slugger

Last year, the A’s couldn’t play defense. Matt Joyce isn’t really going to help with that. Last year, the A’s couldn’t keep their pitchers healthy. Matt Joyce isn’t really going to help with that. And, last year, the A’s couldn’t hit very much. Matt Joyce is probably going to help with that.

Here’s the deal — around this time of year, we write about a lot of transactions. We don’t write about every transaction, but we cover the majority of multi-year free-agent signings. Not every one of those signings is interesting. It took me forever to find something to say about Edinson Volquez, and I don’t even like the post that I wrote. Joyce has now signed with the A’s for two years and $11 million, meaning he got half of Volquez’s guarantee. Many of you have figured out this is a post about Joyce, and so you want to just leave and read anything else. But this one is interesting. Joyce is interesting. A few times during the season, I wanted to write him up, but I never got around to it. Now I have a reason, as the A’s might’ve found another cleanup hitter.

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Dispatch from the Max Schrock Propaganda Machine

Credible baseball analysis, such as the sort which populates this website, is recognizable insofar as it begins with evidence and then works from that evidence towards a conclusion. The present document differs in this way from credible baseball analysis. For the purposes of this post, what the author has done is actually not to begin with evidence, but rather to start with the conclusion itself — and then worked to find evidence that might support that conclusion.

Here’s the conclusion, now and forever: Oakland minor-leaguer Max Schrock is a more promising baseball prospect than so-called “experts” would have everyone believe. Why it’s essential to reach this conclusion, that’s not entirely clear. The return on investment of this eventuality isn’t immediately evident. However, ever since the present author wagered his professional reputation on the suggestion that Schrock would someday become an MVP, any data which supports that unlikely hypothesis has held some interest for him. And so what one finds here is a post that supports that unlikely hypothesis.

This particular dispatch from the Max Schrock Propaganda Machine regards Schrock’s performance at the Arizona Fall League. As of today, the AFL has only a single game remaining on its schedule — namely, the championship contest between Surprise and Schrock’s Mesa squad on Saturday. In other words, the bulk of the data for this year’s edition of the Fall League has been recorded. And what that data suggests, if one can believe it, is that Max Schrock is a more promising baseball prospect than so-called “experts” would have everyone believe.

Let’s begin with a recent observation:

What one finds here is a leaderboard of the AFL’s top qualified batters by strikeout rate, current as of a few days ago. What one also finds is Oakland minor-leaguer Max Schrock at the top of that leaderboard.

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Danny Valencia’s Changing Teams Again

On Friday, news broke that the Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales for three years and $33 million. Morales is clearly a quality hitter, but he can’t really do anything else, so Dave thought it was a bit of an overpay. Okay! Keep that in mind.

On Saturday, the Mariners traded for Danny Valencia. Kendrys Morales is 33. Danny Valencia is 32. Valencia is projected for a salary of $5.3 million in his last year of arbitration. This past year, Valencia was a better hitter than Morales was. Over the past two years, Valencia has been the better hitter. Over the past three years, Valencia has been the better hitter. Over the past four years, Valencia has been the better hitter. The evidence would suggest that Valencia is at least as good as Morales at the plate, and Valencia isn’t limited to being a DH. He’s also a slightly better runner. It would seem to make him the better player, even though he’s going to cost so much less.

From the Blue Jays’ perspective, there’s some value in having Morales locked in for a while. They have a DH for the foreseeable future. And there’s another aspect to this — Valencia, in the past, has been somewhat polarizing. It’s not that all of his teammates have hated him, but some of his teammates have hated him, and Morales is an easier fit into a clubhouse. It’s not a coincidence that Valencia is so well-traveled. But the Mariners are betting on production, figuring that any other issues can be dealt with later, and as a part of betting on production, they’re betting on Valencia’s recent transformation. It used to be, Valencia was a platoon guy, who brutalized southpaws. A couple years ago, it looks like he figured things out.

Danny Valencia Career Splits
vs. RHP PA wRC+ vs. LHP PA wRC+
2010 – 2014 993 65 2010 – 2014 552 138
2015 – 2016 602 118 2015 – 2016 293 141

Valencia has looked like an everyday player, and he’s going to be treated like an everyday player. Over the past two seasons, he’s been as good a hitter as Buster Posey, Kyle Seager, and Christian Yelich. The drawbacks are that Valencia won’t be a defensive plus at first base or in the corner outfield, but he certainly fits a hole on the roster, and his 2017 will be affordable.

It hasn’t been hard to see that the A’s were going to move Valencia somewhere. Because of his surplus value, he wasn’t acquired for free. For giving up Valencia, the A’s are receiving Paul Blackburn, a 22-year-old righty who’s not regarded as a top prospect. What Blackburn doesn’t do is miss a ton of bats. What he does do is keep the ball on the ground, and he’s kept his walk rates low. He feels a lot like another Kendall Graveman, a guy who could become an established major leaguer in a hurry. Graveman made just 11 combined starts between Double-A and Triple-A. Blackburn just spent a whole season in Double-A, but he gave up just eight homers. He could be depth as soon as next season, and the A’s are no strangers to needing extra starting pitching. Blackburn could help them in the future more than Valencia ever would.

So it’s a neat little exchange. Depending on how you interpret Valencia’s clubhouse concerns, he might be a genuinely underrated player. Blackburn, also, might be differently underrated, but the Mariners don’t have a lot of shiny prospects to sell. The Blue Jays, I’m sure, are happy to have Morales. Maybe they very much didn’t want Valencia back. It’s enough to make you wonder, though.


Fall League Daily Notes: October 12

Over the coming weeks, Eric Longenhagen will publish brief, informal notes from his looks at the prospects of the Arizona Fall League and, until mid-October, Fall Instructional League.

Athletics OF Lazaro “Lazarito” Armenteros continues to take better at-bats than I anticipated and has an advanced feel for his strike zone. The power is as advertised, too, though he’s extremely vulnerable against breaking balls and is often so far out on his front foot against them that he can’t do anything but foul them off and live to see another pitch. He has a 40 arm, is a 50 runner and a left fielder for me going forward.

Also of note for Oakland yesterday in a Fall Instructional game against the Angels was RHP Abdiel Mendoza, who just turned 18 in September. Mendoza is extremely skinny but loose and quick-armed. His fastball sat in the upper 80s but I think there’s a good bit more coming and I like Mendoza’s athleticism. He’s purely a teenage lottery ticket but one I think who’s worth following.

For the Angels, INF Julio Garcia took the field at shortstop, which is notable because I hadn’t seen him play there for over a year. Garcia, a switch-hitter, came over from the DSL late last summer and looked tremendous at SS, but has spent this year playing a lot of 2B and 3B in deference to, in my opinion, inferior prospects — and also lost a significant amount of playing time to a facial injury. Scouts like the glove, body and bat speed but want to see a more measured approach to hitting, especially from the left side. The Angels’ middle infield is crowded at the lower levels, a group that includes 2016 draftee Nonie Williams, who posted an above-average run time for me yesterday.

Also of note for the Angels yesterday was the cage work of 2016 2nd rounder, OF Brandon Marsh. Marsh has not played in games since signing (neither in the AZL nor during instructional league) but showed above average raw power during a side session yesterday. The body should grow into even more pop. Mid-way through his session Marsh paused to take instruction from a coach behind the cage and immediately made an adjustment on his subsequent swings.

In last night’s Arizona Fall League game between Peoria and Salt River, Mariners OF Tyler O’Neill posted a plus run time for me yesterday and showed off his plus bat speed on several occasions but I thought his at-bats were a little overaggressive. Seattle LHP Luiz Gohara sat 95-97, touched 98 and flashed a plus slider in the mid-80s but struggled with command and, at age 20, is already carrying what looks like 240-plus pounds.

Padres utility prospect Josh VanMeter squared velocity several times and had three hits. Orioles LHP Tanner Scott was touching 99 but not getting as many swings and misses as you might expect from a 95-plus mph heater and his low-90s cutter/slider wasn’t all that effective, either.


Is Oakland’s Mount Davis Killing Fly Balls?

My favorite part of my job is when players ask me questions. It’s difficult enough to come up with questions on a daily basis, so it’s great to get a free piece — and it’s even better when the question came from someone who plays the game every day. Once you make it to the Show, it’s all about staying in the Show, and that means making the most of your athletic talents. Strategy is often the key component to these questions.

When Athletics infielder Jed Lowrie came bounding across the Oakland clubhouse to me with his question earlier this year, he’d already decided to act on what he had perceived as an issue with his new/old home park. In the spring, he’d connected with his hitting coach, Darren Bush, in order to work on going the other way since he was leaving Houston’s friendly confines for Oakland’s cold. Because fly balls die in Oakland, and opposite-field fly balls are, by nature, less damaging than their pull counterparts, part of that new “oppo” approach was a heavier ground-ball profile. Mission accomplished.

But the reason behind Oakland’s fickle fly-ball play was still on his mind. “I think it’s Mount Davis,” he said back then. His theory was that the wall-like 10,000-seat expansion in center field — constructed in 1996 and nicknamed Mt. Davis in scorn after the Raiders’ late owner Al Davis — was responsible for suppressing fly ball distance in the Coliseum.

Answering his question turned out to be fairly difficult.

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A Dialogue on the Urgent Matter of Jharel Cotton’s Cutter

In light of Oakland right-hander Jharel Cotton‘s minor-league success, his major-league success (which includes a 1.50 ERA over three starts) isn’t an entirely surprising development. More surprising, perhaps, is how he’s achieved that success — less by means of his celebrated changeup and more by means of his barely-ever-mentioned-once cut fastball.

Curious as to what might explain this development — and curious, generally, about what constitutes a successful cutter — I contacted pitch-type enthusiast and mostly tolerable colleague Eno Sarris. What follows is the product of our correspondence. The author’s questions appear in bold, Sarris’s in normally weighted typeface.

*****

Because I’m not the foremost expert on anything, Eno — except perhaps the length and breadth of my own personal weakness — I’m also not an expert on Jharel Cotton. That said, it’s probably also fair to say that I’ve followed him with some interest. He finished atop the Fringe Five leaderboard last year (tied with Matt Boyd and Sherman Johnson). He finished among the top 10 on that same arbitrarily calculated scoreboard this year, too.

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