Archive for April, 2009

Young’s Company

Earlier this week, Dave discussed Padres SP Chris Young and his inability to hold runners, essentially claiming that the former basketball prospect is worse at holding runners than anyone else in baseball is at any other skill. The data certainly matches this accusation, as baserunners are 131-144 off of Young in his career, a 91% success rate. In 2007, Young was historically bad, allowing 44 steals with nary a runner being caught. It is easy to blame the catcher for not throwing runners out but this definitely says more about Young than his backstops.

Curious to see who else has had historically bad seasons I queried my Retrosheet database for all seasons since 1954 in which runners attempted at least 30 steals off of a particular pitcher with a success rate of at least the break-even mark of 75% and sorted by success rate. For the record, though pickoffs are factored into failed stolen base attempts, they are ignored for the purposes of this post.

Not surprisingly at all, Young’s 44-44 in 2007 topped the list. Right behind him is A.J. Burnett, also in 2007, who saw 31 runners successfully swipe bags without any being thrown out. These are the only two seasons that match the querying criteria featuring a 100% success rate.

Four different pitchers benefited from having just one runner gunned down: Dennis Eckersley (34-35) in 1977, Mark Clear (33-34) in 1983, Tim Wakefield (30-31) in 1996 and Dustin McGowan (29-30) in 2007.

That 2007 season does not look too good for pitchers and their ability to hold runners on. Not only does the season house three of the six worst seasons in the Retrosheet era but it also saw Greg Maddux allow 37 steals out of 39 attempts, along with Tim Wakefield and Jose Contreras exceeding the break-even point at 41-49 and 25-31 respectively.

Nine of the 20 worst seasons in this regard have occurred since 2000, while only one took place prior to 1960: Glen Hobbie allowed 30 steals in 32 attempts for the Cubs back in 1959. There are not many pitchers who appeared on several occasions on this list, likely due to the fact that they changed some aspect of their delivery to circumvent the issue.

The most frequent violators were Nolan Ryan (10), Greg Maddux (9), Dwight Gooden (7), Joe Niekro (7), Mike Krukow (6), Tim Wakefield (6), Dennis Eckersley (5), Tom Candiotti (5), Bert Blyleven (5), and Hideo Nomo (5). These pitchers were predominantly either knuckleballers, those with freakishly long windups or notorious for caring very little about the running game.

The numbers and reputations of some of these pitchers certainly suggests that success can still be obtained with no ability to control the running game but they comprise a very small sample of the amount of successful pitchers. Chris Young lacks the stuff of a Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Dennis Eckersley, so he really needs to fix this problem because it is only a matter of time before runners truly exploit his flaw.


The CF wave

Baseball is a highly cyclical environment. Over time, we see shifts in strengths between positions due to seemingly random patterns. In the mid-90s, MLB saw an influx of offensive talent at shortstop that surpassed any that had been seen before – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada pushed the SS position into new offensive territory.

Then, it shifted, and third base seemed to be the spot where talent was flowing. Adrian Beltre, Aramis Ramirez, Eric Chavez, Troy Glaus, Hank Blalock, and Mark Teixeira all arrived within a few years of one another.

There’s another one of these talent surges in process right now, and it’s taking place in center field. The amount of talent currently playing center field in major league baseball is just astounding. Here’s the list of CFs, aged 26 and younger, who have gotten playing time in the majors during the first month of the 2009 season.

Grady Sizemore, Cleveland, 26
Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle, 26
Michael Bourn, Houston, 26
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston, 25
Chris Young, Arizona, 25
Denard Span, Minnesota, 25
Elijah Dukes, Washington, 25
Brett Gardner, New York, 25
B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay, 24
Matt Kemp, Los Angeles, 24
Melky Cabrera, New York, 24
Ryan Sweeney, Oakland, 24
Adam Jones, Baltimore, 23
Dexter Fowler, Colorado, 23
Carlos Gomez, Minnesota, 23
Colby Rasmus, St. Louis, 22
Cameron Maybin, Florida, 22
Jordan Schafer, Atlanta, 22

That’s 18 young center fielders headed towards the prime of their careers. Obviously, guys like Sizemore, Upton, Jones, and Kemp are on another level compared toBourn, Gardner, and Sweeney, but it’s still fairly easy to pick 10 or so of the guys off that list and call them future all-stars. Or, in a couple of cases, current all-stars.

This is just a ridiculous amount of talent all coming into age at the same time. Even moreso than the SS/3B waves mentioned earlier, this one contains both elite talents and a lot of depth. Half of the teams in major league baseball are in possession of a young, talented center fielder. Some of them will flame out while others will move to the corner OF spots, but overall, we’re looking at CF becoming a very strong position going forward for the next 5 to 10 years.


Draft Review: New York Yankees

2008 Draft Slot: 28th overall
Top Pick: Gerrit Cole, RHP, California high school
Best Pick: Brett Marshall, RHP, Texas high school (sixth round)
Keep an Eye On: Corban Joseph, 2B, Tennessee high school (fourth round)
Notes: There is really no way to sugar coat the fact that the Yankees organization had a terrible draft in 2008, which was not helped by the fact that it failed to sign its first pick, as Gerrit Cole opted for college, as well as its second-round pick Scott Bittle, who had injury concerns. Brett Marshall was given an above-slot deal ($800,000) to forgo college after sliding in the draft due to signability concerns.

2007 Draft Slot: 30th overall
Top Pick: Andrew Brackman, RHP, North Carolina State U.
Best Pick: Austin Romine, C, California high school (second round)
Worst Pick: Adam Olbrychowski, RHP, Pepperdine University (fifth round)
Notes: Andrew Brackman was a huge draft talent with a huge question mark as pretty much everyone knew he needed Tommy John surgery, which he underwent before the ink was dry on his first pro contract. Now 23, Brackman is back pitching but in low A-ball. Austin Romine has performed better than expected with the bat so far in his pro career, which will help soften the blow when Jesus Montero has to be moved out from behind the dish.

2006 Draft Slot: 21st overall
Top Pick: Ian Kennedy, RHP, University of Southern California
Best Pick: Joba Chamberlain, RHP, University of Nebraska (supplemental 1st round)
Worst Pick: Colin Curtis, OF, Arizona State University (fourth round)
Notes: In terms of pitching, this is one of the best drafts in recent memory for any team. The club found Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Zach McAllister, George Kontos, Dellin Betances, Mark Melancon, Daniel McCutchen (traded to PIT), and David Robertson.

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2009 Draft Slot: 29th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): Best available talent
MLB Club Need: Relievers, Outfielder, Catcher
Organizational Need: Infielders, Outfielders, Left-handed pitchers
Organizational Strength: Right-handed pitchers, catchers
Notes: The organization will no doubt play its cards close to the chest with the rival Boston Red Sox picking at No. 28. Money should again be no object, and the organization might want to make up for a poor 2008 draft.


Head Scratchers

With April coming to a close today, here’s a scattering of numbers that will make you scratch your head.

Bobby Abreu has yet to hit a home run this season, but he’s stolen eight bases without being caught. Apparently someone forgot to tell him that old player skills include added power and a loss of speed.

Speaking of home runs, the Oakland Athletics have hit eight as a team this month. Adrian Gonzalez and Carlos Pena both have nine home runs, while Torii Hunter and Carlos Quentin have hit eight apiece.

Bengie Molina and Yuniesky Betancourt each have 78 plate appearances and no walks. Marco Scutaro has drawn 22 walks already. Some walks are about respecting power hitters and not giving them anything to hit, but others are entirely a function of how often a batter swings.

James Loney drew 45 walks and struck out 85 times last year. So far, he’s walked 16 times and struck out on just four occasions. Now, if he could just remember how to hit for power, the Dodgers would really have something.

Carlos Gomez laid down 66 bunts last year, easily the most in the league. He laid down three in April. He might be the best defensive outfielder in baseball, but if he’s not able to replicate his 30 bunt hits from last year, he’s going to have a hard time cracking the Twins line-up.

Edinson Volquez has a 46% ground ball rate last year. Through one month, it’s 61%. Unfortunately for him, his BB/9 (6.67) and HR/FB (30.8%) are almost as eye popping.


The Jays New Closer

Scott Downs is pretty good at baseball even though there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. Down is the designated closer now that B.J. Ryan is taking his annual DL vacation. That means fantasy owners are probably learning more and more about one of baseball’s more underrated relievers.

Downs is a lefty, which makes him a rarity at closer despite the obvious advantages one capable of retiring lefties and righties alike brings. Drafted by the Cubs in the third round of the 1997 draft, he would later be traded to the Twins then right back to the Cubs in the Rick Aguilera deal. Just over a year later the Cubs would send him to Montreal for Rondell White, and in 2004 the Nationals would release Downs.

Downs reached the Jays in 2005 and made his last start in 2006. Since then Downs has posted FIP of 4.33, 3.24, 3.39, and so far this season 0.84 thanks to allowing a combined zero walks and homeruns.

Backed by a generally stellar defensive infield, Downs groundball heavy ways (around 60% since joining the Jays) works ridiculously well. As most relievers are, Downs is basically a two-pitch pitcher. An 89-90 MPH fastball that breaks down and in to lefties gets most of the reps while a curveball that has ridiculous down and away movement from left-handers gets the call to finish hitters. The average left-handed curveball breaks 4.5 inches towards righties, Downs’ breaks 7.1 inches towards righties. With stuff like that, it’s not hard to imagine why Downs has been successful at retiring batters of both dexterities since moving to the pen.

And yes, it took a ton of self-restraint to avoid any “Up and Downs” related puns.


Fronting the Rotation: Seattle Mariners

I might be unlucky. Yesterday it was Gil Meche that I cursed with my plans to talk about Kansas City’s top two starting pitchers and today it was Erik Bedard to a milder extent. Oh well. Tonight it’s a look at the surprising Seattle Mariners, led by Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard.

The pair ranked 5th and 9th in the league in FIP coming into play today. We have seen flashes before from both of these pitchers that indicate that each has the raw talent to be among the best, if not the best, pitchers in baseball. Bedard was sidelined with injury issues again in 2008 while Felix lost some of the luster off his extreme ground ball tendencies and started relying far too much on predictable fastballs, as I have made mention of here several times.

But so far in 2009, both have been aces. Felix Hernandez has both raised his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate, always a good combination for an improved season. His ground ball has taken another step back this year which is troubling, but is mainly the result of one particularly fly ball happy start. In his past two outing, Felix’s ground ball rate has been above 60%. Also of note, Felix’s changeup speed continues to rise, and is now sitting at an average of 89.1 miles per hour. That is his changeup. While that seems good on its own, the fact that the gap between his fastball and changeup speeds continues to shrink is probably not great.

Before suffering his worst outing of the season today, Erik Bedard sure looked like the Erik Bedard of 2007. In fact, he looked even better because even in 2007, Bedard started slowly. Not this year, storming out of the gate Bedard’s strikeout rate returned to 2007 levels and he flat out eliminated the walks. That resulted in Bedard ringing up almost ten hitters for each one he walked. For good measure, he’s also increased his ground ball rate.

Bedard got hit around a bit today, but that was mostly due to some poor command on his fastball, leading to three walks and a pair of hit batters. Even when scuffling badly and essentially reduced to throwing only his curveball for strikes, Bedard still managed a decent enough outing. Felix is still relying heavily on his fastball, but he’s actually commanding its location so far this season. If he keeps up his feel for that pitch and Bedard keeps up his health, watch out, we may have another worst to first this season.


Putz Looks Hurts

When the Mets acquired J.J. Putz from the Mariners in a three team, 472 player deal, they believed they had found the relief ace to bridge the gap in the 7th and 8th innings and help them hold on to late inning leads. Putz had been one of baseball’s elite closers for several years, and his power fastball/splitter combo made hitters look silly.

Unfortunately for the Mets, they apparently aren’t going to get the guy they thought they were trading for, because this version of J.J. Putz isn’t particularly good.

His average fastball is down to 92.5 MPH, 2.5 MPH slower than he was throwing last year while recovering from an injury. Those missing miles per hour have made a huge difference in his performance as well – he’s now thrown 11 innings while walking six and striking out just four batters. His K/9 is 3.27.

Huge decline in velocity and a massive drop-off in strikeout rate are two of the main red flags indicating that a pitcher isn’t healthy. Putz spent time on the DL last year with a ribcage injury, but clearly wasn’t himself all season, struggling with serious command issues and only occasionally flashing his previous form. That he is still trying to pitch through an injury would not be any kind of surprise.

The Mets are going to have to get him checked out. They can’t keep handing the ball to a guy who throws like a power pitcher but has lost his power. That’s a recipe for disaster, and it cost them a win today against the Marlins.


Draft Reviews: Baltimore Orioles

2008 Draft Slot: Fourth overall
Top Pick: Brian Matusz, LHP, University of San Diego
Best Pick: Brian Matusz
Keep an Eye On: Bobby Bundy, RHP, Oklahoma high school (8th round)
Notes: A knee injury slowed Bobby Bundy during his senior year of high school and scared off clubs. He was given an above-slot deal to forgo a college career at the University of Arkansas. Bundy will spend another season in short-season ball in 2009. Two more prep players – OF Xavier Avery and 2B L.J. Hoes – have the chance to make noise in the system. Avery has the more impressive set of tools, but Hoes is a more advanced hitter.

2007 Draft Slot: Fifth overall
Top Pick: Matt Wieters, C, Georgia Tech
Best Pick: Matt Wieters
Worst Pick: None
Notes: It’s hard to criticize the Orioles’ selections when the club lacked second and third round draft picks. Fourth-round pick Tim Bascom has had a modest start to his career and posted a 5.24 FIP in High-A last season. In a do-over, Pittsburgh (4th overall) and Chicago (third) – possibly even Kansas City (second) – would probably grab Matt Wieters. Despite lacking the second and third round picks, Baltimore secured a second-round talent with the selection of Jake Arrieta in the fifth round.

2006 Draft Slot: Ninth overall
Top Pick: Billy Rowell, 3B, New Jersey high school
Best Pick: Zach Britton, LHP, Texas high school (3rd round)
Worst Pick: Billy Rowell
Notes: There were questions about Billy Rowell’s maturity and makeup entering the draft and he has done little to quiet those concerns in pro ball. He’s showing a little life with a .282 average in High-A ball this season but his raw power has still not translated to in-game power (one homer in 71 at-bats). Supplemental first round pick Pedro Beato has also been a disappointment. Zach Britton has pitched well so far in his career and he’s holding his own in High-A ball this season, although he’s struggling a bit with his control (12 walks in 19.2 innings).

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2009 Draft Slot: 5th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): Best available talent
MLB Club Need: Pitching, Pitching, and more Pitching, Third base, Shortstop
Organizational Need: Outfielders, Shortstop, Third base, First base, Left-handed pitching
Organizational Strength: Catcher, Second base, Right-handed pitching
Notes: The club will no doubt look to take the best available player, as seen by its decision to select Matt Wieters despite his huge price tag. However, the club is probably hoping for a good bat to be available with the pick since the future pitching rotation is looking pretty good with Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Brandon Erbe (and even David Hernandez) on the way. But you can never, ever have too much pitching so the club should be a winner either way with the fifth pick.


Small Sample Usefulness

Over the last decade or so, the main sabermetric truisms have been, in no particular order; we like hitters with plate discipline and power, bunting is bad, the modern day bullpen is inefficient, and don’t make decisions based on small sample sizes. The latter is brought up often early in a season, when strange things happen like Mike Hampton striking out 10 batters in a game or Emilio Bonifacio hitting .600 for a week. We trot out the old “it’s early, don’t make any rash judgments” line, and work to convince people that what they’ve seen so far isn’t likely to continue.

However, like most truisms, this is often taken to a non-logical extreme. People have begun to lean on “small sample size” like a crutch that helps them defend their original position in the face of evidence that should convince them that they might not be correct. The evidence might not be overwhelming, but as it begins to pile up, remaining wedded to your preseason thoughts is just as ignorant as overreacting to the performance.

Let’s use Victor Martinez, as an example. I talked about him whacking the ball in April the other day. He’s had a great month, hitting .388/.438/.624 and generally being one of the best hitters in baseball. We can be pretty sure that Martinez won’t keep hitting this well, of course, as it is a small sample of data so far.

However, regardless of what your preseason projection for Martinez was, you should now be quite a bit more optimistic about his performance over the rest of the year than you were on Opening Day. Dan Szymborski released an updated ZIPS projection that accounts for April data (thanks Dan, great stuff!), and ZIPS now thinks Martinez will hit .305/.380/.467 the rest of the season, up from a preseason projection of .293/.366/.447. That small sample size that we’re not supposed to get excited about has increased his projection for the remainder of the season by 34 points of OPS. That’s a significant change.

April is only one month of the season. Things won’t end the way they are now. We do have to be careful about drawing conclusions on small sample sizes. However, let’s not fall into the opposite trap, either – there is useful information to be gleaned from the beginning of the season. Pretending like nothing has changed is just as uninformed as pretending like the current performances will be sustained.

Don’t hang onto your preseason projections like they’re gospel. You’ve got new information in front of you. Use it.


Zimmerman’s 17-Gamer

Ryan Zimmerman has been a bit of an offensive enigma in his young career, posting very solid numbers in his rookie campaign before taking steps backwards in seasons during which his age would call for improvements. After a .348 wOBA that almost earned him Rookie of the Year honors in 2006–some guy named Hanley Ramirez edged him out–Zimmerman has seen this same mark drop to .340 in 2007 and .336 last season. Though defensive ability has kept Zimmerman producing at a level well above the league average, his offensive decline had to be concerning for fans of the Nationals.

This season, however, Zimmerman got out of the gate quickly and is currently riding a 17-game hitting streak. Actually, he has gotten at least one hit in 18 of the 19 games played this season, only posting a donut in the hits column in the second game of the season. Entering last night’s game against the Phillies, Zimm’s +3.0 batting runs and +2.7 UZR had already bested his 2008 totals, combining for +0.9 wins. His wOBA stood at .379 with OBP and SLG marks closely resembling what most thought Zimmerman would reach by his third season.

In this 17-game hitting streak, Zimmerman is 23-73, with a .315/.383/.562 line. Entering the season, CHONE was more bullish on the third baseman than some of the other projection systems, calling for a .371 wOBA in 514 plate appearances. At .379 right now, CHONE basically sees Zimmerman capable of keeping up this level of performance in one way or another. The system projected his OBP/SLG to be around .364/.488 while the current numbers are .360/.526.

If his injuries have subsided, Zimmerman can continue to get on base at his current clip and his power does not regress too precipitously, there are very few reasons why he could not sustain a wOBA above .370. Coupled with solid defense in the +2 to +5 run range and we are talking about a +5 or more win player this season. Zimmerman, as Matthew recently noted, is definitely worth the money in his new extension and despite the small sample size comprising his performance this month, it is very exciting to see Zimmerman show signs of improving with the stick.


Fronting the Rotation: Kansas City

Continuing on from my look at the duo of Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez atop Atlanta’s rotation, I had planned tonight to highlight the performances of Zack Greinke and Gil Meche at the head of the Kansas City Royal’s rotation. Then Gil Meche had to go and get rocked tonight. Oops. Skipping right over that (no, I’ll come back to it), let us look at what these two have done so far.

Coming into play today, Zack Greinke led the major leagues with a 1.45 FIP and Gil Meche was sitting not too far behind in fourth at 1.82. tRA, another pitching metric that takes batted ball profiles into account, agrees with FIP, ranking Greinke 3rd and Meche 5th in baseball. Clearly, these two have been among the best pitchers this season. This should not come as too big of a surprise seeing that Meche and Greinke both ranked inside the top 25 pitchers by FIP last season as well.

Zach Greinke has upped his strikeout rate to almost one out of every three batters faced while simultaneously chipping away at his walk rate slightly as well. Greinke’s batted ball profile has not moved much, but he has yet to allow a home run which is the main culprit in keeping his FIP so deflated. That is certainly not going to hold up and given the little change so far, it would not be outlandish to still expect a repeat of 2008 from Greinke. Of course, that’s still a fantastic season.

Before today, Gil Meche’s success had been tied to cutting his walk rate by more than half while slightly upping his strikeout rate, sort of the opposite good version of Greinke’s season to date. However, Meche walked five of 22 batters faced today which more than doubles his walk rate and bring it to just under his 2008 level. He did manage to avoid yielding any home runs though, keeping his season total at zero along with Greinke. The difference there is that Meche has seen a dramatic increase in ground balls, continued today, going from a ground ball rate in the low 40s to mid 50s so far in 2009. If Meche can hold that rate, even though he will eventually start allowing home runs, he will be on track to see a legitimate improvement from his already solid 2008 numbers.


Chris Young’s Fatal Flaw

Last night, Dexter Fowler ran wild against the San Diego Padres, becoming just the 18th player in the last 55 years to steal at least five bases in a single game. The rookie sensation continues to demand that he be penciled into the line-up, as he now has a .416 wOBA through his first 62 plate appearances of the year. Even with a crowded outfield, the Rockies are going to have a hard time keeping Fowler out of the line-up.

However, this post isn’t about Fowler. This post is about Chris Young. The tall pitching one, not the hack-at-everything center field version. See, Young was on the mound for the Padres last night, and while he only lasted three innings, that was long enough for the Rockies to steal eight bases off of him.

Yes, the Rockies stole eight bases in three innings off of Young. They didn’t attempt a steal after he left the game. They weren’t running on the Padres catcher, Nick Hundley, who had to feel fairly helpless as he watched his CS% go through the floor. They were running on Young, who has one of the slowest deliveries to the plate in baseball history.

After last night’s track meet, opposing baserunners are now 14 for 14 in stolen base attempts off of Young this year. This isn’t new, though – in his career, Young has had 131 bases stolen off of him, and 13 runners have been gunned down while he was on the mound. That’s a 91% success rate.

It’s even worse if you look at recent history. Since the beginning of the 2007 season, opposing runners are 73 for 75 in stolen base attempts against Young. That’s a 97% (!) success rate.

Given this, it’s fairly obvious that teams aren’t running on Young enough. The breakeven rate of stealing a base is somewhere around 75%, and anything over 80% is certainly adding value. With a recent 97% success rate, it’s almost impossible that other managers aren’t leaving runs on the table by not running on Young more frequently.

The Rockies have some guys with speed, so they were able to execute a game plan that should be typical when Young takes the mound. Everyone short of David Ortiz should be stealing on practically pitch Young throws. Every baserunner he puts on should be thinking second base.

Quite simply, Young is worse at holding runners than anyone else in baseball is at any other skill. He’s historically awful, and opposing managers need to take a page from Clint Hurdle and make him pay for it.


Draft Reviews: Boston Red Sox

2008 Draft Slot: 30th overall
Top Pick: Casey Kelly, RHP/SS, Florida high school
Best Pick: Casey Kelly
Keep an Eye On: Derrick Gibson, SS, Delaware high school
Notes: Based on pure potential and athleticism, the Red Sox had a massively-successful draft. With that said, most of the players are young and extremely raw, like Derrick Gibson, Casey Kelly, Pete Hissey, and Ryan Westmoreland. The club did a nice job of balancing that out with college picks like Bryan Price.

2007 Draft Slot: 55th overall (supplemental first round)
Top Pick: Nick Hagadone, LHP, Washington U
Best Pick: Nick Hagadone
Worst Pick: Chris Province, RHP, Southeastern Louisiana (4th round)
Notes: It’s a little crazy that Nick Hagadone is still the top pick from the draft considering the time he missed due to Tommy John surgery. The other players drafted, though, have been slow to develop. Don’t be surprised if the best player from this draft ends up being first baseman Anthony Rizzo. This draft would have been even stronger at the time if the organization had been able to sway top prep players like catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Nick Tepesch to sign, both of whom were considered second-round talents but were drafted after the 25th round due to signability concerns.

2006 Draft Slot: 27th overall
Top Pick: Jason Place, OF, South Carolina high school
Best Pick: Justin Masterson, RHP, San Diego State (2nd round)
Worst Pick: Kris Johnson, LHP, Wichita State (supplemental 1st round)
Notes: Kris Johnson’s stuff has not been the same in pro ball thanks to injuries. Justin Masterson has definitely been the best player so far, but Daniel Bard could have something to say about that before too long. Some kid named Matt LaPorta failed to come to terms after being selected in the 14th round.

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2009 Draft Slot: 28th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): Best available player
MLB Club Need: Catching, third base, shortstop
Organizational Need: Left-handed pitching, Second base, Left field
Organizational Strength: Shortstop, Right-handed pitching, First base
Notes: With a history of picking at the end of the draft, Boston will no doubt take the best player available, which could very well be a Top 10-15 player, in terms of talent, who slid due to signability concerns. The club can also have the satisfaction of choosing one pick before the rival New York Yankees. Unlike in recent years, Boston does not have a bunch of supplementary picks so it will have to make the most of its selections, which is not a concern for the well-run, smart organization.


Welcome Back, Andruw

Andruw Jones went 0 for 4 last night. This year, that’s newsworthy, which is a pretty remarkable occurrence given how bad Jones was last year. That 0 for 4 lowered his 2009 line to .370/.514/.778. This is a guy who had a .505 OPS last year. His OBP is currently higher than that.

Yes, it’s only 35 plate appearances, but it’s 35 amazingly good plate appearances. Jones has walked more times than he’s truck out, posting a 7/6 BB/K rate. He has seven extra base hits in nine games. Last year, he had 12 extra base hits in 75 games.

Jones was a walking disaster, out of shape and unable to play at a major league level. The Dodgers paid him to go away. For the most part, baseball gave up on him. Andruw’s out to prove them all wrong, and he’s off to an amazing start.

Even with the small sample, the 2008 version of Andruw Jones was simply not capable of this kind of performance. He didn’t have enough life in his bat to get around on fastballs, and the result was an enormous jump in his strikeout rate and groundball rate. Through the first few weeks of 2009, both of those are back towards his career norms, making 2008 look like a massive outlier.

He’s making contact again, but more importantly, he’s hitting the ball hard. The Dodgers have to be wondering where this was a year ago, because right now, Jones looks as good as he ever has. We talked about the potential for him to pull a Jermaine Dye and rebound in a big way… that looks more likely every day.

Talent doesn’t just evaporate. Jones earned his way to the majors at 19 because he was a remarkably gifted individual. Those abilities are still in there. Kudos to the Texas Rangers for giving him an opportunity to find them again.


Fun with Run Distribution

Run distribution over a given season is an amusing thing. Most offenses are judged off their seasonal runs scored average, but that’s often a bit misleading, as Studes showed us a while back. So far this season, despite being nearly a month engaged, the San Francisco Giants are yet to score 70 runs. In fact, the Astros, Diamondbacks, Athletics, and Reds have yet to score even 75 runs. On the other hand the only team to score more than 120 runs is the Blue Jays of all teams.

125 runs for the Jays, 65 for the Giants, that’s not a perfect 2:1 ratio, but it’ll work. What you see below is a run distribution chart. Basically, I took the amount of runs scored, plugged in how many games Team X scored Y amount of runs, divided that amount of games by the total amount of games played, and bam, we have liftoff. What’s the difference between the best and worse run producing lineups so far It’s important to note that while the Jays have played three additional games, the Giants are not being punished for a less-hectic schedule.

giantsoffense
jaysoffense

The Jays offense has scored 4 or 5 runs in nearly a combined 40% of their games. Compare that to the Giants ability to score 4+ runs, and you end up seeing that the Jays are scoring 4 or 5 runs in nearly more games than the Giants are scoring at least four. Interestingly, the two are close to equal on the amount of one run games while the Giants are blowing the Jays out of the water in two run games.

The big key to the difference: the Jays have yet to end a game with zero on the scoreboard, the Giants are about 5% of the time.


Johan Santana = Still Really Good

One of my biggest pet peeves involving baseball fandom is how we take the great players for granted and come to expect incredible performances instead of treasuring them. Newer players experiencing similarly solid campaigns or players that come from out of nowhere seem sexier and often cause us to look past the tremendous players that produce at high levels each season. Pitchers like Roy Halladay and Johan Santana have been excellent for quite some time but they lost plenty of spotlight last season thanks to breakout years from Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.

This isn’t to say that Lee nor Lincecum did not deserve their accolades last season but rather that the proven aces who have helped carry their teams for several seasons should not be the Woody tossed aside for the Buzz Lightyear. Last night I wrote about how I cannot stand the “next Cliff Lee” posts and a major contributing factor is that one of the pitchers most likely to post numbers reminiscent of Lee’s last year is Johan Santana, who is still really good.

Many thought he had entered a decline phase in 2007 thanks to a career-worst 3.82 FIP. Once the home run rate is normalized, Santana’s 3.55 xFIP in 2007 was actually very similar to his marks the previous two seasons. When he experienced a sharp dropoff in strikeout and uptick in BB/9 last season, in the more pitcher-friendly senior circuit, those who suggested the decline felt even more confident about their beliefs. An xFIP of 3.83 did not help matters either.

In 2007, Johan produced +4.6 wins. Last season, +4.8 wins. What people are missing when suggesting Santana is overrated is that the worst season in his career as a starter still equaled the well documented efforts of Cole Hamels last season and fell just a bit shy of Derek Lowe’s very stellar 2008 season.

Santana’s last two seasons have not been of the same ilk as his +7.5 or more win seasons from 2004-06, but his incredibly high level of performance became so consistent that those following the game expected it to occur forever; when he “declined” to around +5 wins he was deemed a disappointment. Comfort levels are bad when it comes to baseball because fans don’t realize how good they have it to be able to watch superstars on a daily or weekly basis.

Through four starts this season, nobody outside of Kansas City has been better than Santana and Johan would have to be the consensus pick to sustain some semblance of the early season scrumtrulescence. In all honesty, I hope Johan continues this hot streak just to silence those who have deemed him terribly overrated or think he had little left in the tank.

CHONE pegged Santana to post a 3.45 FIP in 208 innings this season, numbers that would likely result in around +4.5 wins. Through four starts, he has already amassed approximately one third of that total, racking up +1.3 wins in 25.2 innings of work. He is not going to finish the season with a sub-1.50 FIP or a 0.70 ERA but the way he is throwing the ball right now portends success more closely resembling his 2004-06 dominance.

The bottom line is that Johan Santana is still an incredible pitcher and might very well be the best in the sport. Pitchers should not be expected to produce +7.5 wins in every season of their career and thus should not be considered busts or overrated upon a dropoff to a fantastic win value somewhere between +4.5 and +5 wins.


I’m Tired of the “Next Cliff Lee” Posts

Cliff Lee had, by all accounts, a fantastic 2008 season en route to a Cy Young Award. What made his performance more remarkable was how he seemingly came out of nowhere, a back end of the rotation type of pitcher without any history of complete and utter dominance. Unfortunately, his success last season also paved the way for a wide array of speculation with regards to which pitcher will repeat such a turnaround this season.

Double unfortunately, many of those doing the speculating lack some sort of uniform criteria, leading to several names being floated that realistically fail to match the exactitudes of Lee’s season.

Pitchers like Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson and Chad Billingsley are mentioned the most often. All three of these righties have been dominant in April but do not really have that “Cliff Lee” feel in that they are fairly recently removed from prospect status. Lee experienced a bit of success in the majors for several seasons before an injury plagued 2007 and a dominant 2008; guys like Greinke, Johnson and Billingsley simply do not fit that bill.

Greinke suffered from depression early in his career, rebounded for a very stellar 2008 campaign and has allowed just one unearned run in four starts this season. That doesn’t place him in the same category as Lee. Greinke isn’t a non-descript pitcher suddenly becoming an ace but rather an ace in the making living up to his potential. The same can be said for Billingsley, whom many have been high on for over two years now. Johnson looked dominant before injuries got the best of him so he, too, does not belong in such conversations.

If people are really looking to try and find the “next Cliff Lee” they need to include back end pitchers with a smidgeon of success in their past who have looked solid so far. Someone like Wandy Rodriguez comes to mind. If Rodriguez finishes this season with incredible numbers then his season would have a similar feel to Lee’s. Looking for someone to replicate what Lee did goes beyond someone posting incredible numbers who is not an established ace like Johan Santana or Roy Halladay and too many analyses are failing to make this distinction.

Case in point, speculating on which pitchers are going to have breakout seasons and cement themselves as horses capable of carrying a team is fine… just do not label such speculations as searching for the next Cliff Lee. Or if such a label is involved, make sure the pitchers being discussed are actually in the same category as Lee and not just young pitchers coming into their own.


D’Backs In Serious Trouble

As the Arizona Diamondbacks proved last year, you can’t win a division in April. They finished 20-8 after the first month of the season with a league best +56 run differential. They had a 5.5 game lead over the second place Dodgers and looked like the best team in baseball. Their young players were hitting, their starters were dominating, and their bullpen was keeping leads safe.

It would be the only month of the year where everything clicked, as they finished 82-80 and watched the Dodgers surge past them to take the NL West. The D’Backs were the best team in April, but it wasn’t enough to get them to the playoffs. There are just too many variables for a team to lock up a division in April.

A team can certainly lose a division in April, though. The “it’s still early” mantra doesn’t hold if you dig yourself a hole too large to overcome in five months. The 2009 Diamondbacks are pretty close to proving that.

They currently sit at 7-11, 5.5 games behind the first place Dodgers. They could take comfort in the fact that the Dodgers were able to overcome an equal hole last year, but the circumstances of their positions are not the same. The Dodgers played well last April, posting a +30 run differential that showed they were better than their 14-13 record in the first month of the year. The D’Backs have posted a -25 run differential, which suggests that they have earned their .389 winning percentage.

Adding injury to insult, the D’Backs are going to be without Brandon Webb for at least the next six weeks. His original diagnosis was “no problem”, which was then adjusted to “he’ll miss a start”, and now has become “won’t throw for three weeks at a minimum”. At this point, assuming that Webb will be able to return in June and pitch at ace-type levels is not a very good bet.

Webb is clearly Arizona’s best player, and subtracting him for six weeks and then projecting some level of reduced performance for the rest of the season necessitates that we change how well we expect Arizona to play over the remainder of the season. Before the season started, CHONE had Arizona as a 79 win team. Given their 7-11 start, we’d expect them to finish with 77 wins if CHONE’s opinion of their roster hadn’t changed at all from Opening Day.

It has, however, changed, thanks to Webb’s injury. Replacing one of the best pitchers in baseball with Yusmeiro Petit for even just six weeks will cost Arizona at least one win, and Webb’s diminished projection could cost them another in the second half of the season. So, an updated CHONE projection accounting for Webb’s injury would have the D’Backs finishing with about 75 wins.

CHONE didn’t like the Dodgers all that much before the season started, projecting them to finish with 82 wins. However, their strong start adds three wins to that projection, and even if we assume they will immediately regress to Opening Day CHONE expectations, they’d finish with 85 wins.

Arizona isn’t trying to make up a 5.5 game gap – they’re trying to make up a 10 game gap. They weren’t as good as the Dodgers before the season started when Webb was healthy, and they certainly aren’t as good now without him. When you add in the 5.5 game hole they’ve already dug themselves, and it’s extremely unlikely that the D’Backs will win the NL West this year.

They couldn’t win the division with quality play last April, but they very well could have lost it with their struggles this April.


Draft Reviews: Tampa Bay Rays

Welcome to the first edition of the Amateur Draft Reviews. This series will review the past three drafts for each organization for interesting facts and trends. It also serves as a preview for the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft, which takes place on June 9 and 10.

Tampa Bay Rays

2008 Draft Slot: 1st overall
Top Pick: Tim Beckham, SS, Georgia high school
Best Pick: Tim Beckham
Keep an Eye On: Jake Jefferies, C, UC Davis (3rd round)
Notes: Jake Jefferies, a left-handed hitting catcher, has hit well in pro ball and has a good approach. Defensively, the only real question mark is his average arm. He is currently playing in A-ball. Tim Beckham’s older brother Jeremy Beckham was drafted in the 17th round and they are playing together in 2009 at A-ball.

2007 Draft Slot: 1st overall
Top Pick: David Price, LHP, Vanderbilt University
Best Pick: David Price
Worst Pick: Will Kline, RHP, University of Mississippi (2nd round)
Notes: You can’t fault Will Kline for being listed as the worst pick; he had shoulder surgery almost immediately after signing. His last pitch was thrown in 2007 and he was winless in nine starts. The team scored big by finding prep pitchers Nick Barnese (California high school) in the third round and Matthew Moore (New Mexico high school) in the eighth round.

2006 Draft Slot: 3rd overall
Top Pick: Evan Longoria, 3B, Long Beach State
Best Pick: Evan Longoria
Worst Pick: Josh Butler, RHP, University of San Diego (2nd round)
Notes: Perhaps overworked while leading the staff (which included Brian Matusz) at San Diego, Josh Butler has struggled to stay healthy and consistent in pro ball. He was traded to Milwaukee for Gabe Gross (a former 1st round pick of the Jays) in 2008. OF Desmond Jennings (Mississippi CC) looks like a steal in the 10th round. RHP Heath Rollins (Winthrop U) was a nice find – especially value-wise – in the 11th round.

* * *

2009 Draft Slot: 30th
Draft Preference (2006-08): None, the club does not favor college or prep players
MLB Club Need: Relievers, catcher
Organizational Need: First, second and third basemen, Left-handed pitching
Organizational Strength: Outfielders, Shortstops, Right-handed pitching
Notes: It will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay does with one of the last picks of the first round after being at the top of the draft for the life of the franchise. The club has always had a knack for finding solid pitching in the later rounds so that’s a good sign. You can point to TB’s high draft slot as a reason for drafting so well in the first round (David Price, Evan Longoria) but a lot of club’s have buckled under the pressure of owning a top-five pick.


What We Learned In Week Three

We learned quite a bit last week, so we’ll go with an abbreviated intro and get right to the knowledge.

The Florida Marlins miss the Washington Nationals.

After starting the season 11-1 on the strength of six games against baseball’s worst franchise, the Marlins failed to win a single game this week once they were required to play actual major league franchises. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia both swept the Marlins, as Florida’s offense went into hybernation, posting a .218/.289/.330 line. Opening week sensation Emilio Bonaficio regressed to the mean faster than anyone could have expected, as the Pirates and Phillies held him to a pitiful .190 wOBA. Live by the BABIP, die by the BABIP.

The Boston Red Sox don’t need easy schedules to win a lot of games.

The anti-Marlins, the Red Sox proved that their early season struggles didn’t mean anything, as they went a perfect 6-0 this week to up their current winning streak to 10 games. They did it in impressive fashion, as well, beating the tar out of a decent Orioles team, thumping the Twins in Minneapolis, and then sweeping the Yankees over the weekend. Their offense was ridiculous – .338/.437/.612 over the six games they played. Essentially, they had a line-up of nine Albert Pujols’ – it’s no wonder they won most of the games rather easily. Jason Varitek was their worst hitter, and he hit .200/.304/.500 for a .348 wOBA. When that’s your worst performance, you’re going to score a lot of runs.

Victor Marintez is back.

After a miserable 2008 season that saw him miss time with injuries and his power mysteriously disappear, Martinez is destroying the ball again. His season line stands at .397/.448/.654, and he’s already launched five home runs in 87 plate appearances – three more than he had all last season. His days as an everyday catcher are mostly behind him, as he’s splitting time between catcher and first base, but he’s showing that his bat will play even when he’s not catching. The Indians have had some problems in the early part of April, but Martinez is not one of them.

Albert Pujols is ridiculous.

Okay, maybe we already knew that, but if hitting .450 with three home runs wasn’t enough, Pujols also decided that he might as well lead the NL in steals. He stole three last week, just for the fun of it, tying him with Nyjer Morgan for most in the league in the last seven days. He’s posting a .489 wOBA, and if you’re wondering how the Cardinals have surged to first place despite some question marks on the pitching staff, just remember that the best player in baseball resides in Missouri. He could retire tomorrow and he’d be a Hall Of Famer. Pujols is just something else.