Archive for August, 2008

Rise Of The Lame

For basically the entire season, the dregs of Major League Baseball have been the Washington Nationals, the San Diego Padres, and the Seattle Mariners. These three teams have been losing consistently since April, falling out of contention early and locking up spots in the cellar by mid-summer. All three have been nearly equally inept as well, engaging in a chase of sorts for the first overall selection in next year’s draft, widely referred to as the Strasburg Sweepstakes, named after the University of San Diego right-hander of the same name who is the early leader to go number one next summer.

However, over the last week, something strange has happened – all three teams have caught fire and attempted to exit the race for worst.

Last Monday, the Padres welcomed the first place Diamondbacks and promptly swept them, winning 4-2, 9-2, and 5-4. Colorado came into town for a weekend series and won the first game on Friday night 9-4, but then lost by the same score on Saturday and fell 2-1 yesterday. Over the last week, the Padres have won five of their six contests, only the third time this season they’ve pulled that off.

Not to be outdone, the Mariners managed to take two of three from the first place Twins in Seattle to start the week, then flew to Cleveland and swept the red hot Indians, who had won 10 games in a row. When combined with a series win against the A’s before Minnesota came to town, the Mariners have now won seven of their last nine games.

And finally, the Nationals, the clear favorite to finish with baseball’s worst record, and the most consistently horrible team in baseball this year. At least, until last week. On Tuesday, the Dodgers rolled into the nations capitol fighting for their playoff lives and left without a win. Atlanta came in for a weekend series and didn’t fare any better, as Washington’s putrid offense exploded for 24 runs in the three game series. When combined with the 11 run surge in the finale against LA, Washington has now racked up 35 runs in their last four games – they scored 26 runs during a 12 game losing steak just a few weeks ago.

Combined, the terrible trio is 16-2 in their last 18 games. Apparently, the only team that wants Strasburg is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have now lost 10 in a row in a desperate attempt to get into the mix. Of course, with Scott Boras expected to advise Strasburg, they might not want the #1 pick either.

Dickerson’s Debut

When the Reds traded away both Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Junior, they needed an outfielder to finish out the season. With studly young prospect Jay Bruce already in the majors, there weren’t any more future stars to take a look at, so they turned to organizational solider Chris Dickerson. The 26-year-old was having a relatively successful season down in Louisville, maintaining his average-across-the-board skillset.

He walked some, but struck out a decent amount too. He had gap power, but not long ball power. He stole some bases, but wasn’t a speed burner. He had the glove of a corner OF, but not the bat of one. And, 2008 was really the first year he’d ever hit well for a sustained period of time. In ’06, he hit .242/.349/.424 as a 24-year-old in Double-A – not exactly showing the makings of a real major league hitter. He improved in Triple-A each of the last two yeras, but still looked more like a career minor leaguer than anything else.

However, when he got to Cincinnati, he decided to mash. After going 3-5 with a double and a home run last night, he’s now hitting .328/.406/.672 in his first 69 major league plate appearances. His walk and strikeout rates are about what we’d have expected, but the power is completely unexpected. 12 of his first 20 hits have gone for extra bases, including four home runs. His ISO of .344 is almost double the .193 mark he was putting up in Louisville.

Now, clearly, Dickerson isn’t this good. That’s not very insightful, however, as simply saying a guy making his ML debut at 26 isn’t the best player in baseball isn’t news to anyone. How good is he?

A quick MLE adjusting his ’08 performance in Louisville to the majors would come out to about .250/.340/.430. Of course, 2008 was his best minor league performance, and so would adjust that down a bit to account for his mediocre previous years. However, his major league at-bats count as well, and obviously serve to make the projection a bit more optimistic.

Overall, I’d say that the above line is about right. He strikes out too much to hit for any kind of average, but he’ll offset it with a solid walk rate and some power. Realistically, a .780 OPS from a guy with a decent glove in the outfield is a pretty nifty role player for a contender and a guy who could start for a lot of bad teams.

Dickerson’s one of the hundreds of guys in the minor leagues who are living, breathing indications of freely available talent – a 16th round pick with a nondescript minor league career who makes some improvements and finds himself as a useful major league player at the age of 26. He didn’t cost anything for the Reds to acquire or develop, and now they’ve got a guy who can fill a hole adequately for several years.

Welcome to the bigs, Chris Dickerson. Looks like we’ll be getting to see you stick around for a while.

Sabathia vs. Harden

While researching Rich Harden’s numbers with the Cubs so far, I came to the startling conclusion that I had no idea what he had done since the trade. I mean, I knew he was doing well, that he had not gotten hurt, and that he was helping the Cubs continue their dominance, but I couldn’t quote any of his numbers off the top of my head.

What bothered me a bit was that I knew all about CC Sabathia and his numbers in the senior circuit… and honestly, while Sabathia has performed better in his new league, it’s not like Harden is chopped liver, but he has gotten very little publicity.

One of the major reasons for this, as far as this writer can tell, is the W-L record. Sabathia has gone 8-0 in his ten Milwaukee starts and is averaging just a shade under 8 IP/GM while Harden is just 4-1, thanks to some solid performances without decisions. Remember, I am fully supporting Sabathia as performing better since the trade, but just find it odd that Harden, with his great numbers, is barely being mentioned. Here is a comparison:

CC Sabathia: 10 GS, 1.59 ERA, 2.51 FIP, 7.9 IP/GS, 4.93 K/BB
Rich Harden:  8 GS, 1.47 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 6.1 IP/GS, 5.00 K/BB

CC Sabathia: 85.6% LOB, 0.46 HR/9, 2.23 WPA/LI
Rich Harden: 98.3% LOB, 1.10 HR/9, 1.43 WPA/LI

Harden isn’t likely to sustain a strand rate that ridiculous, and I’m sure many Cubs fans hold their breath after each pitch, hoping he remains healthy, but he has been everything Piniella’s bunch has asked him to be and more. In a playoff series, who do you like better, Sabathia and Sheets or Zambrano and Harden?

Awesome In August

August has seen a lot of good pitching performances – Tim Lincecum has a 1.96 FIP, CC Sabathia has an 8.00 K/BB rate, and Ryan Dempster hasn’t alllowed a single home run all month. All these guys are carrying their pitching staffs and performing extremely well.

However, it’s hard to argue that anyone has been as good as Ricky Nolasco this month, especially in terms of dominating the strike zone. In five August starts spanning 37 innings, he has walked 3 batters and struck out 43. That’s a 14.33 K/BB rate, making Sabathia look like a relative scrub. Striking out more than a batter per inning is impressive – doing it while walking one batter every 12 innings is ridiculous.

He has double digit strikeouts in three of his five August starts, and in the two starts he didn’t rack up the strikeouts, he instead induced a ton of groundballs; 15 against the Mets and 12 against the Cardinals. In fact, Nolasco has flashed the tremendous ability of being able to rack up both strikeouts and groundballs, putting up a 10.46 K/9 and a 51.6% GB% in August.

With very few exceptions, pitchers who can rack up both a lot of strikeouts and a lot of groundballs are among the very best pitchers in baseball. In 2008, two pitchers have sustained season long strikeout rates of at least 8.00 K/9 and a 50% GB% or higher – Chad Billingsley and Edinson Volquez. Roy Halladay just misses the strikeout criteria. Those guys are all having All-Star seasons, and Volquez is doing it with lousy command.

Granted, it’s only a month, so Nolasco’s performance doesn’t carry nearly as much weight, but there aren’t many pitchers in baseball that have the ability to run a a strikeout rate over 10.00 and a GB% over 50% for any length of time. That Nolasco was able to do both while simultaneously not walking anyone is pretty remarkable.

He did give up 5 home runs during August, which is why his FIP (and ERA) are higher than some of the other good August pitching runs we’ve seen, but the high concentration of no contact/weak contact still makes this one of the most impressive five start stretches we’ve seen so far this year.

Nolasco isn’t a household name yet, but he can’t pitch like this for much longer and remain any kind of secret.

Oakland Reunion in Chi-Town

The Phillies and Cubs are set to square off tonight at Wrigley Field with quite the interesting pitching matchup: Joe Blanton vs. Rich Harden. For those who recently came into contact with that memory-zap gizmo from Men In Black, both pitchers were members of the Oakland Athletics for the last few years. Both were also sold to the highest bidder, so to speak, back in July.

Harden, acquired to combat the CC Sabathia acquisition (no matter what bologna the Cubs front office may feed us) found himself as the #1 or #1A on the Cubs. Blanton, on the other hand, was never expected to turn the Phillies season around, but rather provide a somewhat decent alternative to Adam Eaton. Eaton, for those interested, has stunk it up in the minor leagues.

While Harden has exceeded expectations in Chicago, Blanton has essentially met those pointed towards him in Philadelphia. Here is a breakdown of their performances in Oakland and in their new uniforms:

Rich Harden, Oak: 13 GS, 0.58 HR/9, 2.97 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP, 2.78 FIP
Rich Harden, CHC:  8 GS, 1.10 HR/9, 5.00 K/BB, 0.86 WHIP, 2.74 FIP

Joe Blanton, Oak: 20 GS, 0.85 HR/9, 1.77 K/BB, 1.42 WHIP, 4.18 FIP
Joe Blanton, Phi:  7 GS, 1.42 HR/9, 1.80 K/BB, 1.42 WHIP, 5.06 FIP

Harden has been even better in cubbie blue, really limiting his baserunners and vastly improving his strikeout to walk ratio. He is striking out batters at a tremendous rate and preventing free passes more often than not. The only reason his FIP hasn’t shot down is due to the almost doubled home runs per nine innings number, which was likely to be expected in moving from Oakland to Wrigley.

Keeping with the theme of limiting baserunners, what has happened so far when Rich does allow someone to reach base? Well, glad you asked… the answer is pretty much nothing. See, Harden has a 98.3% strand rate in his time with the Cubs, which, when coupled with a 0.86 WHIP, is downright startling. Next to nobody is getting on base and those that do have had to wait for a teammate to “pick them up” with their glove for the next inning in the field.

Blanton’s FIP has been almost a full point worse on the Phillies, thanks in large part to a HR/9 increase from 0.85 to 1.42. Again, this should have been expected or at least surmised given that he was going from Oakland to a bandbox in Philly. His K/BB has remained virtually identical, however he is striking out almost two more batters per nine innings, which in turn means his walks have also risen. He has been much better at stranding baserunners as well, jumping from 65.2% in Oakland to 81.9% in Philadelphia. Because of this, his ERA is much lower in red pinstripes.

As a member of the Athletics, Harden produced a 1.93 WPA/LI in 13 starts, or around 0.15 wins per start. As a Cub, he has a 1.43 WPA/LI in 8 starts, or around 0.18 wins per start. Blanton has also seen improvement here. As an Athletic, he had a 0.23 WPA/LI in 20 starts, for an average of .011 per start. With the Phillies, it is 0.10 in 7 starts, good for a .014. There is no doubt that Rich Harden was clearly the better acquisition, but Blanton hasn’t been terrible, and that’s really all the Phillies are asking of him.

Down Goes L.A.

When the Dodgers acquired Manny Ramirez, it was commonly accepted that adding a middle of the order slugger to their offense would help improve their run scoring and allow them to make a push for the NL West down the stretch. For the first couple of weeks after the trade, it worked out great – Ramirez hit .424 with a ton of power, the team scored 77 runs in 16 games, and they went 10-6 in those contests to catch the Diamondbacks for first place.

Things have not gone so well since then, however. Ramirez’s home run last night was his first in the last 10 games, during which time the Dodgers have gone 1-9. And it isn’t just Manny’s offense that has gone south – the team has scored just 21 runs in those ten games, and never more than four in a single game. It’s hard to win when you’re averaging just over two runs a game. Even a series against baseball’s worst team, the Washington Nationals, turned into a debacle, as they got swept by a team that probably wouldn’t have medaled in the Olympics.

It’s not just Manny, either. Besides James Loney, who has gone bananas the last week (.464/.483/.786), the hitters just haven’t generated any kind of threat. Nomar is 2 for his last 24 with no walks or extra base hits. Jeff Kent is 5 for his last 30, and like Nomar, hasn’t done anything besides collect a few singles. Russell Martin and Matt Kemp have badly as well.

This losing skid has dropped the Dodgers to 65-69, and they now sit 3.5 games behind the Diamondbacks, even though Arizona has lost four games in a row themselves. In a division of mediocrity, the Dodgers are out-losing the Snakes, and they have an offense that has gone into a coma to thank for it. Perhaps all the talk about the mental boost teams get from making that big trade deadline acquisition is just that – talk – after all.

Risky Business

Welcome class, to How to Rush a Prospect 101. Your teacher’s name will be Mr. Ricciardi.

The Toronto Blue Jays traded veteran outfielder Matt Stairs to the Philadelphia Phillies yesterday and added top prospect and outfielder Travis Snider to the 25-man roster. Snider, 20, was the club’s No. 1 draft pick in the 2006 draft out of a Washington state high school.

Stairs, 40, really did not belong on the club after inexplicably being given a two-year contract after posting some of his best numbers in years, during the 2007 season. At the time of his signing, Toronto already had aging veteran Frank Thomas at designated hitter and promising youngster Adam Lind growing moss in Triple-A. I can only hope that general manager J.P. Ricciardi can get back a B-level prospect from the Phillies in return for Stairs, but Ricciardi does not have a great track record of picking up good minor league players from other systems.

Snider began the year in High-A Dunedin and was suffering with a bad elbow, which required him to stay off the field and be the club’s designated hitter for more than a month. While in Dunedin, Snider hit .279/.333/.557 in 17 games. He hit four homers and struck out 22 times in 61 at-bats.

In Double-A, Snider hit .262/.357/.461 with 17 homers and 116 strikeouts in 362 at-bats. I personally felt he should have remained in Double-A for the remainder of the season but he was promoted to Triple-A for the month of August. In Syracuse, Snider hit .344/.386/.516 with two homers and 16 strikeouts in 64 at-bats.

Snider’s minor league numbers for the season include a .273 average, 23 homers, 61 walks, and a whopping 154 strikeouts in 487 at-bats. Although talented, it’s clear Snider still has some rough edges when it comes to making consistent contact. I am a little worried that Snider’s rapid ascent through the system is related to the general manager’s desire to justify his track record with player development, given the organization’s continued disappointments under his watch.

With manager John Gibbons having felt the ax earlier in the season, Ricciardi is certainly headed for a review by ownership after the season. A strong finish to the season by Snider can only help Ricciardi’s reputation. But if Snider is overwhelmed by big league pitching for the final month of the year, it could also have long-lasting effects on his development. It also gets Snider onto the club’s 40-man roster two years sooner than needed. It’s a gamble I’m not sure I would make unless I was desperate.

Beltran the Whipping Boy?

Carlos Beltran has had one extremely interesting career so far. In about nine years he has gone from prospect oozing with potential to productive rookie to possible hall of fame track performer to the most clutch playoff hitter ever to the most sought after free agent to the most overrated and derided player in New York to 40-HR power on a division champ. That has all led up to his current status, which, if you asked most Mets fans, would be slightly overrated.

I’m sure there will be some Mets supporters reading this that find it laughable that their compadres could find Beltran overrated, but I have heard enough fans and read enough blog posts and articles to know that, on some level, this opinion exists. Perhaps the sentiments stem from Beltran’s non-chalance on the field and at the plate. He does everything with such confidence that it looks as if he isn’t trying at all. Couple that with the blank stare often found on his face and you have the perfect makings of a guy who couldn’t possibly succeed as a vocal leader on the field, which seems to bug the Shea faithful.

My question is…. who cares!?!?

Seriously, who cares if he is or isn’t a team leader? For all we know, he just might be very vocal in the locker room. And as long as he gets to the flyball, who cares if he floats to it thanks to his excellent range and speed, or goes into full-fledged Eckstein-gritmaster mode? If he didn’t get to flyballs then maybe there would be a point to this non-chalance, but according to the +- system, there has not been a better centerfielder in the sport since 2006. In that span, 2006 to right now, Beltran is +57 plays better than an average centerfielder.

Yes, he struggled in his inaugural Metropolitans campaign, but that was three years ago and he has more than rebounded. In 2006, he hit 41 home runs and posted a .982 OPS. Last year, he hit 33 home runs and had an .878 OPS. Sure, it was much lower than 2006, but still very good, not just when compared to his 2005, but especially so when coupled with his NL best +24 plays in the outfield.

This year, he only has 19 home runs, so it is not very likely he will match the totals of the previous two seasons, but his win probability metrics are not too far off last year’s course. With a month remaining, he currently has a WPA/LI of 2.05 (17th in the NL) and a WPA of 2.26 (15th in the NL). Last year, he had a WPA/LI of 2.91 and a WPA of 2.03.

Over the last three calendar years, he has 9.23 context-neutral wins, which is good for 8th in the NL, right behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and has been one of the, if not the, senior circuit’s best centerfielder. Generally speaking, top-ten offense and top-five defense equates to a very good player. Can someone please make the opposing case? I’m not being sarcastic at all, but rather curious to hear from those who do not like him.

A Talented Trio

Leading up to the 2007 MLB amateur draft, there were three Puerto Rican players considered to be head-and-shoulders above their fellow country men in terms of potential: Reynaldo Navarro, Neftali Soto, and Angel Morales. All three players were chosen in the third round and were considered raw but talented. Let’s see how each one fared during the 2008 season.

Reynaldo Navarro, Shortstop, Arizona Diamondbacks
Navarro, 18, got off to a slow start after turning pro in 2007 by hitting .250/.274/.283 in 212 Rookie ball at-bats. He returned to the same league in 2008 and has improved, albeit slowly. He produced a line of .262/.334/.379 with 17 stolen bases in 256 at-bats. After walking just six times last season, Navarro has improved his patience by walking 25 times in 2008. The switch hitter needs to improve his swing from the left-hand side as he hit just .212 against right-handers, compared to .377 against southpaws. Right now, defence is his strong suit as a slick-fielding shortstop with range and actions. His arm strength is average.

Neftali Soto, Third baseman, Cincinnati Reds
Originally a shortstop, Soto was immediately converted to third base by the Reds. In his debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2007, he got off to a fast start and hit .303/.355/.454 in 40 games. The Reds were cautious with Soto in 2008 and he began the year in Rookie ball again where he hit .388/.423/.746 in 15 games. Soto, 19, was promoted to A-ball and hit .333/.352/.502 with six homers in 201 at-bats. The knock on him, though, is his lack of patience. In 103 pro games, Soto has walked just 22 times. Regardless, he is an intriguing prospect and has shown a lot of improvement in a short period of time. Reds fans need to start talking about this guy.

Angel Morales, Outfielder, Minnesota Twins
Morales’ bat was considered to be his weakest tool coming into the draft. He still struggles with consistency but no one expected him to hit with this kind of power, especially so soon. Morales had a decent debut by hitting .256/.357/.405 in 121 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League in 2007. He was held back for short-season ball again in 2008 but was promoted to a league that features more college players and Morales exploded with 15 homers in 183 at-bats. His overall line is .301/.413/.623 with 26 walks and a disturbing 72 strikeouts. Morales is going to have to swing-and-miss a lot less if he is going to maintain his average at higher levels. The right-handed batter is also hitting just .135 against southpaws, but that should improve as he sees more of them. Defensively, Morales is a solid center fielder.

Shoppach Showing Off

Quick, name the catcher with the most home runs in the American League.

No, not him. Not him either. Give up?

Try Kelly Shoppach. Yea, I know, Kelly Shoppach. Last night he hit his 17th home run of the season, and if the Indians were looking for excuses for why their season hasn’t gone as expected, they can’t blame the injury to Victor Martinez, as Shoppach is filling his shoes quite nicely.

His home run last night was his 38th extra base hit, using his power to compensate for his strikeout rate that drives down his batting average. Shoppach actually has more XBH than singles (36), and his ISO of .250 puts him in the company of the more famous slugging backstops such as Brian McCann and Geovany Soto.

At 28, Shoppach is something of a late bloomer, but the ability to drive the ball makes up for the rest of his flaws. His command of the strike zone is pretty miserable (he makes contact like Jack Cust and walks like Robinson Cano), but when he makes contact, he makes it count – his batting average on contact is .399.

So, what do the Indians do next year when Martinez returns? It’s pretty clear that Shoppach is good enough to play regularly, but neither he nor Martinez would be nearly as valuable playing first base as they are behind the plate. The Indians might be best off shopping one of the two this winter, because while having two good catchers is a nice problem to have, it’s still a problem.

The Big Unit

The Arizona Diamondbacks have two Cy Young contenders in Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the two front-of-the-rotation horses that are trying to carry them to the playoffs despite an offense that has struggled to score runs after a hot start. While the excellence of the top two has gotten plenty of notice, don’t look now, but after a rough first half, Randy Johnson is reminding everyone that he’s still pretty good himself.

First 17 Starts: 98 IP, 2.57 BB/9, 8.72 K/9, 1.37 HR/9, 5.26 ERA
Last 7 Starts: 47 1/3 IP, 1.14 BB/9, 8.37 K/9, 0.57 HR/9, 1.52 ERA

By cutting his home run rate and walk rates in half while sustaining a strikeout rate of nearly a batter per inning, Johnson’s overcome his early season struggles (which were exacerbated by some bad luck) and returned to previous levels of dominance. Despite no longer throwing 100 MPH, he’s still blowing people away, and gives the Diamondbacks perhaps the best #3 starter in all of baseball.

In fact, it’s hard to argue that there’s a better pitching trio anywhere on earth than Webb-Haren-Johnson. Even with the problems Arizona’s had with their offense and bullpen, I certainly wouldn’t want to play this team in a playoff series. The starting pitching is that scary.

Keep in mind, too, that Randy Johnson turns 45 years old in a couple of weeks. The list of pitchers who have succeeded at this age is pretty short, and the fact that Johnson’s still going strong on his way to 50 is pretty remarkable. He really is one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and we should all be thankful we’ve had a chance to watch him pitch.

Howard Making “History”

Following last night’s absolutely insane game between the Phillies and Mets, Ryan Howard staked claim atop the NL leaderboard with his 35th home run of the season. With a little over a month to go in the season it seems perfectly reasonable, especially given his projection, to expect six or seven more dingers, which would put him over 40 for the third straight year. This year isn’t like 2006 or 2007 for Howard, however, as once you get past the home run and RBI totals, he isn’t having anywhere near a good or great season.

In 2006, his MVP campaign, he hit .313/.425/.659. Last year, .268/.392/.584. Sure, last year was a downgrade but he still posted an OPS around the 1.000 mark and showed the ability not just to hit for power but also to work a count and get on base. This year, that slash line has plummeted to .227/.317/.477, “good” for a .794 OPS.

No, batting average does not tell the whole story, especially in the case of power hitters—the value of their hits accounts for much more than singles—but this isn’t a situation like Adam Dunn’s, where a poor BA is masking a great OBP and SLG. All three components of Howard’s slash line are at very reduced rates. There are a few major reasons for this dropoff.

His BABIP has gone from .336 to .269 since last year. His BB-rate has dropped from 16.8% to 11.4%. And lastly, he strikes out all the time and has hit balls on the ground at an alarming rate this year (43.5% compared to 31.5% last year). You might think he has actually reduced his strikeout rate, as it went from 37% to 34%, but this isn’t exactly true. Because he has walked so much less this year, he has more official at-bats, and the punchouts cover a lesser percentage of these at-bats. Just looking at a straight up K/PA, the numbers come in around 30% for both this and last year.

Howard’s current OPS is .794. Players with marks better than his: Jason Kubel, Skip Schumaker, teammate Shane Victorino, and Stephen Drew.

His WPA/LI is 0.58. Players with marks better than his: Reed Johnson, teammate Jimmy Rollins, Ray Durham, and Ramon Santiago.

There is no way you really thought Howard would find himself alongside Jason Kubel and Ramon Santiago in any leaderboard this year. In the comments section of a recent post, someone mentioned that Howard might be having the worst 40-HR season in history. I decided to check if there have been any instances in history where a player hit 40+ home runs but failed to break the .800 OPS plateau.

The answer? No. Nobody has ever hit 40+ home runs with a sub-.800 OPS. Since offense wasn’t as prevalent in some periods back in the day I adjusted this to check for OPS+. Howard’s is barely over 100 right now, so I wanted to see if anyone has ever hit 40+ home runs with an OPS+ lower than 110. The only season I got belonged to Tony Batista, in 2000. Essentially, if Howard continues to mash dingers but fail to do anything else productive, this will be the worst 40-HR season in history, as I find it highly unlikely any other 40-HR club member ever found himself alongside the likes of Ramon Santiago or Jason Kubel in offensive categories.

The 2008 Fans’ Scouting Report

Tangotiger is conducting the 6th annual Scouting Report by the Fans for the Fans. Fill out a ballot to contribute to baseball’s best collective knowledge project!

Lowe Down

There’s no doubt about the fact that CC Sabathia is the prize of the free agent pitching crop this winter. With his dominance since moving to the Brewers, and that Cy Young award he picked up last year, Sabathia is at the top of nearly every teams list, with the question simply being who will pony up the most to secure his services.

The 29 teams who don’t sign Sabathia, however, will have to decide who the next best guy is. Right now, the general consensus seems to be his Milwaukee teammate Ben Sheets. The talent for Sheets has never been in question, and with his 2008 season being his healthiest in four years, he looks poised to cash in as Plan B for the teams who can’t get Sabathia. However, I’d like to suggest that perhaps there’s a better second option for the teams who don’t go after CC, and that man is Derek Lowe.

After a complete game gem last night that the Dodgers still managed to lose, Lowe’s brilliance this year continued to go under the radar. It’s time to shine the light on him and make sure people realize just how good he’s been this year.

At 35 years old, Lowe isn’t aging – he might be getting better. His 1.96 BB/9 is the best of his career. His 6.50 K/9 sustains the gains he made in missing bats last year, the two highest strikeout rates he’s posted as a full time starting pitcher. His improving dominance of the strike zone hasn’t shown up in his home run rate, either – his 0.7 HR/9 is right in line with his career averages.

A 3.00 K/BB rate and a 60% GB% are a powerful combination, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Lowe’s posting the best FIP of his career as a starting pitcher. His WPA/LI is higher than that of Sheets’, and he doesn’t come up with any of the same injury concerns. Yes, he’s 35, but if you can find any signs of decline, you’ve got better eyes than I do.

Derek Lowe is a legitimate frontline starting pitcher, and for a team looking for an impact arm this winter, they shouldn’t overlook the groundball machine hanging out in LA. He’s going to get a big paycheck, but there’s also a good chance that it won’t be as big as it should be.

Oh, Barry…

Yesterday, we talked about the possibility that Albert Pujols is in the midst of his best season, but that his performance has gone largely unnoticed due to our general expectation that he will be, well, awesome. In the discussion thread, one of the topics mentioned involved how we, as fans, are desensitized to Pujols’ 1.100+ OPS primarily due to the absolutely ridiculous seasons of Barry Bonds from 2001-04. With that in mind, I’d like to remind those that have forgotten exactly what the much-maligned Bonds did in this four-year span.

First, just a general look at some of his numbers:

Year    GP     2B     HR     BB     K      BA/OBP/SLG      OPS
2001    153    32     73    177    93    .328/.515/.863   1.379
2002    143    31     46    198    47    .370/.582/.799   1.381
2003    130    22     45    148    58    .341/.529/.749   1.278
2004    147    27     45    232    41    .362/.609/.812   1.422

His slash line in this entire span was .349/.559/.809, which resulted in an OPS of 1.368, a good 300 points ahead of second-place Todd Helton. Each component of that slash line led the major leagues in this span as well. Bonds posted an OPS+ of 256 in these four years, way ahead of Albert Pujols’s 167.

We all know the walks are just mind-boggling, as are the intentional free passes, but Bonds did not strike out much in his actual qualifying at-bats either. It was literally frightening to face him from 2001-04 and teams counteracted this fright by just conceding an open base (or even letting him go to first when the base was occupied) and hoping to retire the subsequent batters.

His WPA/LI counts in these years: 13.04, 11.96, 8.92, 10.87. Yes, they led the league each year, by quite the large margin as well. The closest year came in 2003, when Albert Pujols still finished over 1.5 wins lesser than Bonds.

Looking at these years from an all-time perspective, his OPS numbers in each season ranks amongst the top eight of all time, with his 2004 season ranking first. The 2002 season ranks third, 2001 ranks fourth, and 2003 ranks eighth. Babe Ruth occupies spots #2, 5, and 6, with Ted Williams claiming seventh place. Now, you might be inclined to think that Ruth’s OPS+ would be much higher given that the offense “back in the day” wasn’t as good as it is now, but you would be wrong.

In actuality, Bonds’ OPS+ in 2002, 2004, and 2001 rank #1, 2, and 3 on the all-time list, with his 2003 season coming in at #9. In my estimation, this is hands down the greatest four-season stretch of offense in the history of the sport.

I’ll close by reiterating something RJ Anderson at Beyond the Box Score showed not too long ago. The WARP3 (Wins Above Replacement Player) of the average Hall of Fame hitter is 118.2. The WARP3 of Barry Bonds is 236.4. Barry Bonds makes the average Hall of Fame hitter look like a replacement player.

Late Inning Rays

The story of the 2008 season is obviously the success of Tampa Bay, though skeptics remain, with most prediction markets expecting the Rays to bow out early in the playoffs despite their sustained success. Among mainstream media analysis, a common critique of the Rays is that their bullpen isn’t full of guys with long track records of success, and with Troy Percival’s health in question, the idea of a contender mixing and matching at the end of games scares them.

However, I have to wonder if these analysts have noticed just how good Tampa’s bullpen really is. In fact, you could argue that among the likely AL playoff teams, the Rays bullpen is the best of the bunch. Look at their relief core:

Closer: Troy Percival – 4.15 BB/9, 8.31 K/9, 5.03 FIP, 0.77 WPA/LI
RH Setup: Dan Wheeler – 2.53 BB/9, 6.59 K/9, 4.15 FIP, 1.06 WPA/LI
LH Setup: J.P. Howell – 4.22 BB/9, 9.21 K/9, 3.49 FIP, 1.15 WPA/LI
Middle: Grant Balfour – 4.19 BB/9, 12.98 K/9, 1.89 FIP, 1.58 WPA/LI
LOOGY: Trever Miller – 5.23 BB/9, 8.27 K/9, 3.57 FIP, 0.25 WPA/LI
ROOGY: Chad Bradford – 2.28 BB/9, 3.23 K/9, 3.73 FIP, 0.78 WPA/LI

The Rays have decided that they’re willing to sacrifice command for dominance, creating a bullpen of guys who miss both the strike zone and bats with regularity, and succeed by keeping the ball in the park. They’ve also done a great job of giving Joe Maddon options at the end of ballgames, as he has lots of weapons depending on what he needs in a given at bat.

Bradford and Miller are same-handed specialists, perfect for neutralizing premium hitters in high leverage situations. Bradford’s extreme groundball nature also makes him the obvious pick for when a double play is necessary or there’s a runner at third with less than two out and you don’t want to give up the sac fly.

Balfour is the pleasant surprise, dominating the middle and late innings and racking up the strikeouts – he’s effective against hitters from both sides of the plate and can get you throw a middle of the order, even if it’s loaded with left and right handed bats. Howell is like Balfour from the left side, just with a few less strikeouts – his unique repertoire out of the pen also allows him to pitch multiple innings and not have to be used as a specialist.

Wheeler and Percival are the grizzled veterans, the experienced guys who Maddon can lean on while avoiding a controversy about going to unproven players in high leverage situations. While Percival’s FIP isn’t good, thanks to his extremely poor home run rate, he’s actually a pretty good candidate to get the cheap saves when the team leads by more than one, due to his extreme flyball nature. Because he’s constantly giving up flyballs, his balls in play are more likely to become outs, and if one happens to leave the yard without anyone on base, it’s not a big problem. He’s not a great closer, but he’s better than his FIP would indicate.

Forget what the talking heads tell you – the Rays bullpen is a strength, not a weakness. If you’re looking for a team that can win because they’re able to pitch well from the 6th-9th inning in October, Tampa should be among the first teams you like. Their bullpen is tremendous and setup very well for playoff baseball.

The Pirates Plunder Toronto

I have to admit that I have not been a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ moves in recent years, but things are beginning to change. The Manny Ramirez deal, which the Pirates were involved in as the third team in, netted the organization some interesting players, as did the Xavier Nady trade with the New York Yankees.

After dealing with two powerhouse AL East teams, the Pirates made a smaller deal with another team in the division, the Toronto Blue Jays. The Pirates sent underachieving Jose Bautista, a former Rule 5 player who was playing at Triple-A and is eligible for arbitration after the season, to the Jays for a player to be named later. Bautista will help fill in for the perennially-injured Scott Rolen at third base.

The player-to-be-named-later was named yesterday, and it was Triple-A catcher Robinzon Diaz. I don’t like the trade from the Jays’ perspective because general manager J.P. Ricciardi – once again – sold low on a player. Diaz is a bad-ball hitter who has excellent hand-eye coordination and is a .300-plus career hitter (.306 in seven seasons), albeit with no power. He had been struggling at Triple-A, but had also missed a good portion of the season due to a severe ankle sprain.

Diaz was made expendable for Toronto because of the emergence of catcher Brian Jeroloman (Triple-A), and J.P. Arencibia (Double-A), both of whom were drafted and acquired under the Ricciardi tenure, while Diaz was not (Ricciardi seems to have a large bias for his own players).

The soon-to-be 25 year old catcher is very athletic and can play just about any where but shortstop and center field. He has an average arm for a catcher and pretty good catching skills, but his game calling has been criticized by Jays’ minor league pitchers. He should make a great third-string catcher and back-up at third base and second base.

Diaz will not be a superstar but he will be a solid addition to a National League club in rebuilding mode. With both of Toronto’s catching facing free agency this winter, he is also someone that organization could have used more than an arbitration-eligible utility player who cannot hit above .250.

Teix in LA

When the Braves traded Mark Teixeira to the Angels for, among other assets, Casey Kotchman, the analytic world of the baseball media went into a frenzy. Some analysts wondered how the Braves could get “so little” for one of the best bats and gloves in the game. Others argued that the very attractive contract of Casey Kotchman as well as his glove and potential evened the transaction out. And, I’m sure Steve Phillips dug out five at-bats of Teixeira’s playoff performance in college to say that he wouldn’t help the Angels due to poor post-season play.

Regardless, since joining the Angels, he-with-the-hard-name-to-spell has been on a tear. In 23 games out in LaLa of Anaheim-land, Mark has gone 32-83 with 7 home runs, 15 walks, and just 10 strikeouts. Put together, this results in a gaudy slash line of .386/.485/.675, an OPS of 1.160. His stretch has been so good that his seasonal OPS has actually risen from .902 to .941 in just 23 games.

On the flipside, Kotchman has not been performing too well on the offensive, going just 11-70 in his first 20 games. His .157/.259/.214 slash line as a Brave, coupled with the ridiculous numbers Teix has been putting up will cause some to look solely at the win-now aspect of this trade. This isn’t necessarily “wrong” as the ultimate goal in the eyes of many is to win a world series. If Teixeira can help the Angels win the world series then it will be quite hard to convince a fan of theirs that the trade didn’t work out, even if they are unable to resign him.

If we know anything about hot or cold streaks, we know that they have very little predictive ability. For all we know, these numbers could switch in the month of September, Kotchman will become a national celebrity, and Frank Wren will have a Schuerholz moment. Overall, though, this seems to be an example of the Angels understanding this could be their year, putting some eggs in the Teix basket, and praying it pays dividends.

They didn’t need Teixeira to make the playoffs, and with a 17-game lead in the division, they could probably rest him all of September to keep his legs fresh for the… oh, right, this is baseball, nevermind. But, we all know how this trade will really be judged. Since they didn’t need him to make the playoffs, it means they got him to aid them in the playoffs… which in turn means he better perform well in the playoffs or people will have fits.

The Big Deal

On December 13th, Houston and Baltimore made the blockbuster deal that sent Luke Scott to the Orioles. You may have heard the trade referred to as the Miguel Tejada deal, but at this point, it’s pretty clear that Scott’s the best player going forward in that deal. Here are their ’08 performances side by side:

Scott: .272/.369/.509, 437 PA, 1.63 WPA/LI
Tejada: .287/.320/.422, 538 PA, -0.55 WPA/LI

Scott’s run circles around Tejada this year, and has clearly been superior even after you adjust for the difference in positions. While Tejada has degraded into a shell of his former self, Scott continues to fly under the radar as a productive, power hitting outfielder. It’s not like this is his breakout year – check out his career RC/27 graph.


Scott’s combination of patience and power makes him a valuable asset, and one of the key reasons the Orioles have been mediocre instead of terrible this year. Meanwhile, while the Astros are struggling to find enough outfielders who can hit, they’re paying Tejada significant amounts of cash to not live up to his reputation.

The Orioles got rid of both Tejada and Erik Bedard and improved their team on the field immediately – this should be a reminder that media created labels don’t win games, but talent does.

Beyond the Surface

One of my biggest baseball pet peeves is when current pitching barometers (W-L and ERA) are, on their own, used to make extreme analytical claims. I have no problem if ERA is used as one of many metrics in an analysis, or if W-L is somehow adjusted to take several outside factors into account, but on their own, they do not really tell us much. With that in mind, let’s play a little game. Below are some numbers from 2007 and some from 2008, from the same pitcher:

Year    K/9     BB/9     K/BB      WHIP
2007    8.70    1.79     4.85      1.14
2008    8.74    1.81     4.83      1.23

They look pretty identical, right? Yes, the WHIP is slightly higher, but still a very good 1.23. Additionally, the strikeout and walk rates are not only fantastic, but essentially the same. This pitcher’s record last year was 20-7, and he posted a 3.27 ERA. This year, he is 11-9 with a 4.34 ERA. Using just those barometers, he is doing much worse this year. Couple it with the strikeout, walk, and baserunner numbers above, and you should see that the W-L and ERA may be a little fishy in their evaluation.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about Adam Eaton Josh Beckett of the Red Sox.

Now, there are other numbers we need to consider, since the barometers and more advanced numbers I posted do not show everything, but my overall point is that Beckett has not been nearly as bad as his W-L and ERA would make many Red Sox fans think. His numbers are worse this year, but not by much. Why are they worse?

Well, last year he surrendered 0.76 HR/9, had a .316 BABIP, and stranded 75.2% of the runners that reached base. This year, he has a 1.02 HR/9, a .330 BABIP, and a 69.4% strand rate. Put together, he has allowed more baserunners, has been worse at preventing them from scoring, and has allowed more balls to leave the park. Since his BB and K numbers are the same, the rise in HR/9 has resulted in an FIP increase from 3.08 to 3.32. So, yes, he has been worse this year than last, but a lot of it has to do with the higher BABIP. On top of that, a 3.32 FIP is rather great, and signals that his controllable skills are still darn good.

Interesting to note, his xFIP, which normalizes the home run component of FIP, says he is actually pitching better this year. Last year, his xFIP was 3.56, while it comes in at 3.35 this year. As his numbers stand right now, this would be the first year of Beckett’s career in which he surrendered more hits than innings pitched, largely due to the increase in BABIP. His velocity and movement look pretty similar this and last year as well, meaning some problems could stem from either poor location, or quite simply, bad luck.

His WPA and WPA/LI do not appear to be on pace to match last year’s numbers, but his controllable skills and performance have not been bad to the point that Sox fans should question if he has lost something. This could just be something similar to Jake Peavy’s 2006 season.