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Let’s Prevent the Inevitable Underrating of Devon Travis

Let’s peer into the future for a moment. The time: roughly one year from now. I’m hosting my weekly Tuesday chat, and a reader wants to know: who is the most underrated player in baseball? It’s a common question. It’s a question without an answer, but an answer everyone wants to know. Ben Zobrist’s time with the belt has come and gone. It’s no longer Jose Quintana — not after winning last year’s Cy Young Award. Another one of my go-to answers for this question is Mike Trout, and I might still believe that, but I know it’s not what the reader’s looking for. No, they want the star-not-perceived-as-a-star. The guy flying under the radar as one of baseball’s best at his position without the national recognition. They want what Zobrist was in his heyday. What they want is Devon Travis.

But they’re not going to get Travis as the answer to that question a year from now, because what I’m here to do now, in the present, is exactly what they don’t want you to do in any movie that involves time travel, like that one with Ashton Kutcher or any one of the dozen Final Destination films. I’m here to do something in the present that changes the future. I’m here to prevent Devon Travis from becoming the most underrated player in baseball, because he deserves to be recognized as one of the best second baseman in baseball already.

Travis checks all the boxes of a player doomed to be underrated. The first key of being overlooked as a major leaguer is to be overlooked as a minor leaguer. Check. Travis lasted until the 13th round of the 2012 draft, selected as the 424th pick between Phildrick Llewellyn and Alan Sharkey largely because teams were wary of his 5-foot-9 stature. By 2014, he’d worked his way up to cracking Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list, but even then came in at just 84th, and shortly thereafter was traded from Detroit to Toronto for Anthony Gose, whose own stock was rapidly plummeting.

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Prince Fielder’s Baseball Career Is Over

After last season, Prince Fielder was named the American League Comeback Player of the Year. Neck problems and surgery ruined Fielder’s 2014, but he came back to run a 124 wRC+ over 158 games played. Fielder was plenty deserving of the award, and it looked like the 31-year-old had his career back on track. But this season, Fielder developed symptoms similar to the ones he had before. He was diagnosed with about the same problem, requiring a second surgery, and now Fielder’s playing days are done. Though he’s not actually retiring, he’s also not receiving clearance to return, which means functionally the same thing. The difference is important to the Rangers, but it doesn’t matter to the fans.

Situations such as these are always difficult to discuss from the outside. We know Fielder as a baseball player, and we know baseball players by their numbers. Fielder, right now, doesn’t care about his numbers; he cares about his own ability to move. He cares about what reduced flexibility could mean for his quality of life. It’s important to understand that being declared medically disabled means there’s something wrong with an actual person. As of today, Prince Fielder is one of us, and he’s hurting. Three months ago, he turned 32.

So, there’s no way for us to know what Fielder is truly going through. There’s no real way for us to connect beyond the shallowest of terms. I think the best we can do is to wish Fielder well, and to say that in his chosen line of work, he was outstanding for several years, a hitter sufficiently complete to overcome some obvious drawbacks.

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Brandon Crawford Had One of the Greatest Games In History

In an extra-inning affair last night, Brandon Crawford recorded eight at-bats, and seven hits. One thing that means is that Crawford recorded an out. Another thing that means is that Crawford recorded seven hits. A game in which a player finishes with seven hits is very obviously outstanding. Crawford became the first player to get there since Rennie Stennett went 7-for-7 in 1975. It’s unusual to get at least seven opportunities to knock a hit. It’s especially unusual to successfully knock a hit in pretty much all of them.

Based just on hits, Crawford has equaled Stennett’s accomplishment. But there’s another layer here. Yesterday, the Giants just barely edged out the Marlins, 8-7. When Stennett had his big day, the Pirates beat the Cubs 22-0. That was a nine-run game as early as the first inning, so in the end, Stennett registered a Win Probability Added — WPA — of +0.082. Crawford registered a WPA of +1.438. He was essentially worth about a win and a half on his own. By regular numbers, Crawford had an impressive game. When you take context into account, Crawford had one of the very greatest days in baseball history.

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When Ken Giles Struck Out Everyone and Then Some

Something happened the other day that hadn’t happened in nearly 17 years, and had only happened twice in the last 50. Not counting Little League, I mean. It happens all the time in Little League. It happens in Little League because catchers aren’t great at catching the baseball, relatively speaking. Little League catchers aren’t great at catching the baseball, and there’s a (bizarre?) rule where batters can attempt to advance on dropped third strikes, and so we’ve all seen plenty of batters reach on strikeouts while we sigh from our positions on the field and wonder how we’re going to sneak out of our friend Gabe’s house to hang out with the girls across the street once Gabe’s parents go to sleep later that night. And then we hope our team’s pitcher strikes out the rest of the guys, too, because striking out more batters than there are outs in an inning is fun.

But it doesn’t happen as often in the big leagues, because, y’know, catchers are good. When it does happen, it’s usually because the pitcher’s stuff is so nasty that it becomes difficult to catch, even for the catcher. When it does happen, it’s also usually four batters in one inning. It’s rare, but it happens. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I ran a search spanning the expansion era, looking for relief outings of exactly one inning with at least four strikeouts.

The results of that search:

Giles1IMG

Dating back to at least 1985, there are 19 instances of a pitcher whose entire outing consisted of one inning, and four strikeouts. There are plenty more instances of four-strikeout innings, of course, mixed in with the rest of a relief outing, but these are the only guys with one, clean, four-strikeout inning. Nineteen different guys, although two of them are named Mike Stanton.

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Ichiro Suzuki’s Greatest Hits

Yesterday afternoon, Ichiro Suzuki became just the 30th player to reach 3,000 hits in the major leagues. He did so with a triple, making him just the second player ever to get to hit number 3,000 on a triple. It was a pretty glorious hit, and it will be one of the capstones on an awesome career. To celebrate, I thought we could take a walk back down memory lane and look at some of the most impactful hits of his Hall of Fame career. Some are his best according to WPA, some are postseason hits, and a few are just round-number hits, because we all love those. We’ll go in chronological order.

April 2, 2001, Mariners vs. Athletics
Ichiro wasted little time getting going. After grounding out to the right side in his first two major-league plate appearances, and striking out in the third, Ichiro would single up the middle in his fourth plate appearance, and drop down a bunt single in his fifth and final plate appearance of his first game.

The first hit came off of T.J. Mathews, and the bunt came off of Jim Mecir. Ichiro scored following the first hit to pull the Mariners within one run, and the bunt would push go-ahead run Carlos Guillen to third. The bunt came following a walk. Generally speaking, you don’t want to give away an out with a bunt when a reliever comes into the game and walks the first batter he faces on five pitches, but Ichiro did anyway, quickly serving notice that the normal rules of engagement did not apply to him. Guillen would cross home three batters later, and the Mariners historic 2001 season started with a bang.

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The Changes Byron Buxton Has and Hasn’t Made

Byron Buxton‘s demotion to Triple-A Rochester on Sunday brings the tally to four demotions to Triple-A Rochester more than fans of the Minnesota Twins hoped to witness their top prospect endure once he made his major-league debut on June 14, 2015. Buxton is headed to the minors to do one thing, and one thing only: fine-tune his swing. It’s what every demotion’s been about thus far.

Buxton’s got the tools. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. Few players in the game have more speed. The defense certainly isn’t a question; he’s been something close to a +10 defender in center field. Already, he’s shown just how far his athleticism alone can take him, so long as the bat can do enough to stick in the lineup. If Buxton could manage a batting line just 20% below league average, as his current ZiPS projection forecasts, he could be something like a 2.5-win player at the age of 22. Even a league-average batting line would turn him into a borderline star. He would seem so close to that reality, if only his numbers didn’t make him appear so far away.

Buxton’s career batting line through 356 plate appearances sits at .199/.248/.319, the batting average being one point below the Mendoza Line embodying the tantalizing frustration of his being simultaneously so close and yet so far away. Among 363 batters who have batted at least 300 times since the beginning of last season, just three have a lower wRC+ than Buxton’s mark of 49. And so now, he returns to Rochester to diagnose what in that swing is keeping him from success at the major-league level, as we at home attempt to diagnose just how we got to this point.

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Checking in on Adam Wainwright’s Curveball

I have a favorite pitch in the majors. As someone who hopes to illuminate interesting aspects of the game of baseball, I wish I could say my favorite pitch was an obscure off-the-board pick that you had never previously considered – a pitch by an obscure reliever or an up-and-coming rookie, perhaps — but in reality, my favorite is classic and unoriginal. The pitch that makes me go weak at the knees like no other is Adam Wainwright’s curveball.

As a baseball fan of a certain age, I’ve recently found myself facing the mortality of the seminal baseball figures of my formative years. From The Kid’s enshrinement in Cooperstown to the imminent retirement of Alex Rodriguez to the 3,000th hit of a player from Japan who I swear won the Rookie of the Year award just a few years ago, my baseball life has been inundated recently with baseball reflections and farewells. When a 34-year-old Adam Wainwright posted a 7.16 ERA through his first five starts of the season, part of me wondered if I would also be saying goodbye to my favorite pitch sooner than later. However, since the start of May, things have turned around significantly for Wainwright.

rolling ERA

As the season has progressed, Wainwright’s results have steadily improved to the extent that he now has a 2.74 ERA and 24.1% strikeout rate over his past 11 starts. However, one thing that hasn’t kept pace with his improved results is the performance of his signature curveball. By our pitch-type linear weights, the run value of his curve per 100 thrown is at the lowest mark since 2007 — his first year as a starter. Opponents have posted a 64 wRC+ against the pitch this season, which sounds reasonably good until you note that opponents have registered a minuscule 26 wRC+ against the pitch over his career. Is this a fluke, or has Wainwright’s recent resurgence happened in spite of the fact that his curveball is in decline?

To evaluate the performance of the pitch, I first looked at two key indicators: whiffs per swing and grounders per balls in play. If these peripheral stats remained stable, it would indicate to me that batters were performing as expected against the pitch and the declining results-based performance of the pitch was a fluke.

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Sunday Notes: Santana’s Feat, Avisail’s Hands, Gordon, Gyorko, more

Earlier this season, Bartolo Colon (now at 228) passed Pedro Martinez (219) on the all-time wins list. Among Dominican-born pitchers, only Juan Marichal has more (243).

Ervin Santana is also climbing the ranks. At 131 wins, the Twins right-hander is just four behind Ramon Martinez, who ranks third among natives of the Dominican Republic. Since the start of the season, Santana has leapfrogged countrymen Joaquin Andujar (127) and Pedro Astacio (129).

“To be in that category is special,” Santana told me recently. “Growing up, I looked up to Pedro, to Bartolo, to Jose Rijo (116 wins). I know many of them now, (although) I haven’t had a chance to talk to Marichal. He was obviously one of the great pitchers.”

Santana has learned from his heroes. He’s discussed sliders with Rijo, and two-seamers that run back over the plate with Colon. Some of the best tutorials have come from Pedro Martinez. Read the rest of this entry »


Scouting Jake Thompson and Other Phillies Prospects

I’ll be in California for the next few days at the Area Codes and some Cal League stuff, but below are some thoughts on three Phillies prospects I’ve seen recently, including Jake Thompson, who debuts today.

Jake Thompson, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies

I saw Thompson a few weeks ago and he struggled with command. I don’t think strike-throwing is a long-term issue here — at least not so much that it will prevent him from starting — but I do think it impacts the effectiveness of his slider and that the most important part of his development at the major-league level will be locating that pitch where he wants when he wants. It’s often plus and should be so consistently at maturity. Thompson had issues locating it for me for the first half of his start until a mid-game at-bat during which C Andrew Knapp called for six straight sliders. It was a great opportunity for Thompson to find his slider, and it worked: Thompson located it for the rest of his start. It’s his best option for swings and misses to both right- and left-handed hitters. It was anywhere from 83-86 during this particular start though I’ve seen it up to 87 in the past.

Thompson’s fastball sits 90-93 and tops out around 94. His low-80s changeup has average projection, as does his curveball, which is slower and more vertically oriented than his slider. It’s a league-average starter’s profile for me.

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The Five Best Sells of the Trade Deadline

Yesterday, I listed off my favorite win-now moves of the trade deadline. Today, we’re going to lavish some praise on some teams who also made good moves, but did so by looking to the future. These are the five moves I liked the most from the seller’s perspective.

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Sergio Romo Got Nearly the Dumbest Win Ever

Pitcher wins are a silly statistic, for all the reasons you know, and additional reasons you don’t. So we pretty much never talk about them — there was a time, once, when the analysts would rail against wins, but that battle is over. The analysts won. Wins carry less value than they ever have, and there’s a part of me that wonders why I’m even bothering to write this post in the first place.

But I just can’t not do it. For one thing, it’s Friday. Leave me alone. It’s August, and the trade deadline just passed, so, again, leave me alone. And even though we don’t talk about them, wins do still exist. Somebody hands them out, and they remain a part of the official records. So I want to take a few minutes of your time to discuss really dumb wins. Sergio Romo just got one Thursday. It was one of the very dumbest.

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Three Ways to a Super Sinker

Try to imagine the ideal sinker. What do you see? Probably a pitch that sits in the high 90s, right? And features tremendous sink and fade. And induces ground ball after ground ball. And, because it’s being thrown with max effort, probably one coming out of a reliever’s hand, right?

If you’re imagining a pitch that meets all four of those criteria, you probably see Blake Treinen throwing it. Or Sam Dyson. Or Zach Britton. If not, you should be.

If you limit the pool of commonly used sinkers to those which average 94 or more mph and then sort for sink, those three names soar to the top. And each gets to that movement in a different way.

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The Five Best Buys of the Trade Deadline

The 2016 trade deadline season culminated with 18 trades on Monday, wrapping a month that saw 45 different deals struck over the course of the month. We wrote about basically every trade, often from multiple angles, and attempted to break down each team’s expected return for each deal. Now, as a bit of a recap, I’m going to look at my favorite acquisitions over the last month. Today, we’ll focus on the buyer side of things, looking at the teams that I think did the best in upgrading their roster for the stretch run. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the seller side of things, looking at who looks to have gotten the most future value, relative to what we expected, by moving veterans for younger talent.

Keep in mind that I’m not just looking at the teams that improved themselves the most, but also at the acquisition cost; you can make a big splash and add a few wins to your roster while still hurting your franchise long-term. Of course, it’s also easy to make a minor deal that doesn’t cost you much and doesn’t improve your chances of winning all that much either, so while there were some smaller deals that I liked, I gave preference to the deals that I think could have a real impact on the playoff races. These are the deals that I think helped contenders upgrade in a significant way without sacrificing too much long-term value in order to do so.

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KATOH Trade-Deadline Roundup: Prospects and Teams

In the table below, you’ll find a treasure trove of information pertaining to the prospect-y players who changed hands this trade deadline. There were 47 of them in all. The “KATOH” and “KATOH+” columns refer to each player’s projected WAR forecast for the first six years of his major-league career, as evaluated by my newly updated KATOH systemKATOH denotes WAR forecast for first six years of player’s major-league career. KATOH+ uses similar methodology with consideration also for Baseball America’s rankings. The right-most column refers to lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen’s scouting grades, which should serve as something of a sanity check for my admittedly flawed projections.

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Ranking the Prospects Traded at the Deadline

Below is my ranking of the prospects dealt during this year’s “Trade Season,” a span of time encompassing the second half of July, essentially from the Drew Pomeranz deal onward. Each tier of prospects is separated by the Future Value grade I’ve placed on them. For further explanation on what goes into FV, please go here. I’ve also included a brief, one sentence summary of each player’s skillset as well as links to the full reports I’ve written here for the site over the past few weeks and hours. Players who didn’t get full write-ups have slightly longer blurbs written in this post. Players with the same FV are ranked within their tier simply in the order I like them.

Dilson Herrera isn’t technically a prospect and is therefore not on the list but his full report is here. Hector Olivera is also not a prospect, not because he’s exhausted his rookie eligibility but because the reports I’ve gotten there, as well as what I’ve seen in person, have been quite bad.

60 FV Prospects

Anderson Espinoza, RHP, San Diego Padres (report)

Traded from BOS to SD for Drew Pomeranz

Summary: One of the most electric arms in the minors, Espinoza has a shot at three plus or better pitches and a realistic #2 starter’s ceiling but is still just 18 and obviously risky.

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Projecting the Prospects Traded Yesterday

In case you hadn’t heard, a lot went down yesterday. Here are the prospects who changed teams on deadline day, as evaluated by my newly updated KATOH system. KATOH denotes WAR forecast for first six years of player’s major-league career. KATOH+ uses similar methodology with consideration also for Baseball America’s rankings.

*****

The Jonathan Lucroy Trade

Lewis Brinson, OF, Milwaukee

KATOH: 7.7 WAR
KATOH+: 9.9 WAR

Brinson posted some terrible numbers in the low minors, but he’s gotten progressively better the past few years, especially in the strikeout department. His 20% strikeout rate from last year was still a bit high, but not alarmingly so. With 31 extra-base hits and 10 steals to his name this year, Brinson has shown a tantalizing power/speed combination.

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Pirates Shed Salary at the Cost of Two Prospects

The trade of reliever Mark Melancon by the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Washington Nationals sent a clear message: the Pirates are in retool mode. Not rebuild mode — they’re too good for that. And certainly not go-for-it mode — the Pirates barely had a 1-in-10 shot of making the playoffs, and you don’t go for it by trading away one of the best relievers in the game. No, the Pirates were retooling, selling from the immediate future to improve in the very short-term future, and, to a lesser extent, the long-term future. The crux of the return, left-handed reliever Felipe Rivero, will contribute for the Pirates both immediately and moving forward. That’s the difference between he and Melancon — he’ll be sticking around for more than one season. Prospect Taylor Hearn is the longer-term play; small-market teams like the Pirates live for long-term plays.

Which is what makes Monday’s last-minute deal for broken pitching prospect Drew Hutchison — one which allowed them to dump Francisco Liriano‘s salary on the Toronto Blue Jays but also cost them prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirezso puzzling on the surface. While neither prospect cracked Baseball America’s recent top-100 update, McGuire and Ramirez are both legitimate prospects, the type of pieces that can be essential to a franchise like the Pirates by providing cheap value, allowing them to continue chugging along at an affordable operating cost while retaining the pieces that really matter. McGuire is regarded as one of the best defensive catching prospects in the minors, one whose receiving ability alone gives him a near-certain path to the majors. Ramirez is an athletic bat-to-ball outfielder with a plus hit tool who’s playing center in the minors even if he’s likely to move to a corner.

In Hutchison, the Pirates get back a Ray Searage reclamation project, and little more. Hutchison’s still just 25 with some former prospect shine, but the career ERA in more than 400 innings is nearly 5.00, and he’s got a serious home-run problem. Maybe Searage can coax some ground balls out of him.

But Hutchison’s not so much what this deal was about. The motivation behind this deal was clear. It was a straight salary dump. The Blue Jays are taking on the entirety of Liriano’s salary, which amounts to roughly $17 million through the end of next season. They had the space available to take on the money — though it is interesting to wonder how this could impact their ability to re-sign Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion in the offseason — and they were willing to do so for the price of the prospects.

To rationalize this deal from the Pirates’ perspective, you’ve got to believe the organization thinks it can do more with the $17 million and Hutchison to help it win next year and moving forward than it could with Liriano and the prospects. It may be a tough sell, but it is what it is. And to believe that, you’ve got to believe the organization views Liriano as broken.

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Trade Deadline 2016 Omnibus Post

As it has been the past few years, the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline brought about a flurry of activity that was hard to keep up with even if it was the only thing you were doing. Since most of us have other things that we have to or would like to occupy our time with, we figured we would save you some hassle and create an omnibus post with all of our trade deadline content so that you have it all in one place. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to limit this to articles about trades that actually took place.

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Rangers Put Finishing Touches On Title-Contending Roster

It doesn’t really matter how you think the Rangers got here. Whether you think it’s been team skill or team luck, whether you believe more in the third-best record or 14th-best run differential, today is the first day of August, and only the Cubs have a bigger division lead around the rest of baseball. The way things are set up, the Rangers are almost certainly going to the playoffs. They need to hang tight, sure, but they’ve been free to build for a playoff series. They sit in an enviable position.

The front office has been busy. A few days ago, they brought in Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez. Monday, they paid for Carlos Beltran. And most significantly, they’ve now also paid for Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress. This post is about that last move, and obviously, the key is Lucroy, who’s looked like an excellent fit for the Rangers for months. Lucroy will provide something the Rangers didn’t have, and they’ll get to keep him for another year in 2017. Yet don’t sleep on the Jeffress addition. He’s far from being a throw-in, and he’s going to help this team in October.

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The Rays Make a Smart Bet on Matt Duffy

After months of rumors, the Rays finally traded a starting pitcher, shipping Matt Moore to San Francisco in exchange for a three player package headlined by infielder Matt Duffy. Eno Sarris already talked about what the Giants are hoping they get in Moore, so let’s talk about what they gave up to upgrade their rotation with a young controllable starting pitcher.

The prospects in this deal are both interesting. Lucius Fox cost the Giants a $6 million signing bonus last year after being declared an international free agent, and we rated him as the Giants #3 prospect this spring, noting his upside as a high-end athlete who might hit. He’s not close to the big leagues, but there’s some real upside here, especially if he turns out to be an above-average defensive shortstop; you don’t have to hit that well to have value if you can field at that level.

The other prospect, Michael Santos, is your typical deadline trade chip; a projectable hard-thrower in A-ball, nowhere close to the big leagues, with about as wide a range of outcomes as you could imagine. We ranked Santos as the Giants #16 prospect back in the spring, and he’s pitched well (though without missing bats) this year, so there’s some value there, though like Fox, he’s a long ways away.

But there’s one piece of the trade that isn’t a long-term project. While they got two A-ball lottery tickets in the deal, they also got back a big league infielder who put up a +5 WAR season last year. And more than anything else, this deal will probably be decided by the answer to the question: what is Matt Duffy, really?

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