Archive for May, 2009

Don’t Worry About The Numbers

Tim Marchman is one of my favorite baseball writers. He does really good work, and is putting intelligent baseball commentary in front of casual fans who pick up a Wall Street Journal or Sports Illustrated. He combines the ability to write with a real understanding of how baseball works. I have a lot of respect for him.

So, that’s why I was shocked to read this. It’s one thing to be kind of skeptical of Fernando Martinez, who has received more attention than he’s warranted thanks to being a prospect in a New York farm system. All Mets and Yankees prospects get too much exposure. This isn’t new.

But to question Martinez on the basis of surface level mediocre minor league performances is a trap that too many statistical writers have fallen into over the years.

We talked about Justin Upton this afternoon. He hit .263/.343/.416 in his first pro season in low-A ball in 2006. Considering the hype, there were lots of questions about why he was just an average player in a league full of guys who were never going to see the big leagues. He turned out just fine, I think.

Likewise, Hanley Ramirez was a scout favorite with a minor league track record that didn’t match the tools. Before the Red Sox traded him, he was just okay in low-A, high-A, and Double-A, and his .279/.340/.412 line in Double-A had a lot of people calling him overrated.

Or, hey, let’s talk about Miguel Cabrera. He was getting remarkable hype as a teenager, but from looking at his performance through 2002, you’d wonder why – he hit .268/.328/.382 in low-A in 2001 and .274/.333/.421 in high-A in 2002. Not exactly the kind of numbers that make you think that he was developing into one of the best hitters of all time.

If you were starting a franchise from scratch, Ramirez, Upton, and Cabrera would be near the top of your list of guys that you’d want to build around. They all posted mediocre minor league performances, because their teams saw the natural talent and pushed them aggressively through the minor leagues. All three took massive steps forward, seemingly overnight, to go from high ceiling prospect to superstar in no time flat.

These types of players don’t develop on a slow and steady pace. They get challenged, they struggle, and when they figure it out, they get good in a hurry. I’m not suggesting that Martinez is going to going to reach Ramirez/Upton/Cabrera heights, but just like it was wrong to question those guys abilities when they struggled against more experienced pitchers, it’s wrong to write off Martinez just because he hasn’t figured out pitch recognition yet.

It’d be in the Mets best interest to let Martinez continue to develop in Triple-A, but suggesting that they should trade him for Mark DeRosa is a great way to look really, really bad in 20 years.


Draft Reviews: Cincinnati Reds

2008 Draft Slot: 7th overall
Top Pick: Yonder Alonso, 1B, University of Miami
Best Pick: Yonder Alonso
Keep an Eye On: Zach Stewart, RHP, Texas Tech (3rd round)
Notes: Zach Stewart is absolutely flying through the minors even though he’s been moved into the starting rotation. He began the year in high-A and has now made two starts in double-A – and has yet to allow a run at that level. Stewart was a little too hittable in high-A, but he throws an excellent sinker, and should benefit more as the defenses behind him improve (as he moves to higher levels). Stewart has also shown exceptional control by walking fewer than two batters per nine innings in nine starts. Yonder Alonso is having a solid, albeit not-so-flashy, season in high-A. He’s showing a good eye at the plate, he’s batting for a solid average and he’s showing some power. Alonso, though, has yet to quiet concerns that he cannot hit southpaws.

2007 Draft Slot: 15th overall
Top Pick: Devin Mesoraco, C, Pennsylvania high school
Best Pick: Todd Frazier, OF, Rutgers University (Supplemental 1st round)
Worst Pick: Devin Mesoraco
Notes: Devin Mesoraco showed a ton of improvement in his senior year of high school and was the fastest moving draft prospect right before the draft. It looks like scouts got a little ahead of themselves and Mesoraco was simply having a hot stretch. Only 20, though, he has plenty of time to turn things around. Despite not walking much, Todd Frazier is having a good season in double-A as he adjusts to life as an outfielder. Neftali Soto (3rd round) is finding high-A to be a challenge, especially with his aggressive approach at the plate, but don’t forget about him.

2006 Draft Slot: 8th overall
Top Pick: Drew Stubbs, OF, University of Texas
Best Pick: Drew Stubbs
Worst Pick: Sean Watson, RHP, University of Tennessee (2nd round)
Notes: When you take a college player with the eighth-overall pick, you’d hope he’d be in the Majors within two seasons. Drew Stubbs, though, is still in the minors and no one is really that surprised. He was a very toolsy and athletic, but raw, collegian and the Reds knew that when the organization selected him. Stubbs is playing well in triple-A, so his arrival in Cincinnati is not far off. Outfielder Chris Heisey was a nice find in the 17th round. He’s hitting .360 in double-A and has shown improved power development throughout his minor league career.

* * *

2009 Draft Slot: 8th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): College, but will not shy away from good prep prospects
MLB Club Need: Starting pitching, Outfield, Shortstop
Organizational Need: Left-handed pitching, Right field, Left field, Second base
Organizational Strength: Center field, Third base
Notes: The Reds have a nice spot to pick in the first round and should be able to nab a very talented pitcher – either college or prep. The club also has an extra selection in the supplemental first round. With the 2007 selection of prep catcher Devin Mesoraco (15th overall) not looking so good (.180/.281/.311 in high-A), maybe the club will look for another catcher-of-the-future, with some of the many young backstops available.


Justin Upton: Superstar

One of the stories of the first few weeks of the season was the struggles of Justin Upton. The 21-year-old began the season by going six for his first 36, striking out 12 times in failing to hit the ball out of the park. After an 0 for 3 performance on April 21st, he found himself on the bench for a few days, and there was some talk that he might get optioned back to the minors to get himself straightened out.

That wasn’t necessary. Since getting re-inserted into the line-up on April 24th, Upton has hit a modest .397/.462/.754. 23 of his 50 hits have gone for extra bases during that stretch, and his .450 wOBA for the season now ranks him in a tie for 3rd highest in major league baseball. Upton’s showing remarkable power for a player his age, as his .290 ISO is one of the highest marks in the league. When you see a player that young hitting for that much power, you have something remarkably special. Here’s the list of major league players who have posted an ISO of .250 (minimum 100 PA) or higher before turning 22:

Eddie Mathews, Adam Dunn, Mel Ott, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Albert Pujols, Gregg Jefferies, Alex Rodriguez, Bob Horner, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson, Hal Trosky, Joe Mauer, Babe Ruth, Darryl Strawberry, Joe Dimaggio.

How’s that for some exclusive company?

We talked about this over the winter, but Upton’s performance just reinforces the point that we may very well be looking at a Hall Of Fame player emerging before us. 90% of the guys who play at this level at such a young age end up in Cooperstown. We’re not enshrining the kid yet, as there’s still guys like Juan Gonzalez on the comparable players list, but that is starting to look like Upton’s downside.

Yes, he still strikes out a lot, and he won’t sustain a .450 wOBA all year with this kind of skill set. However, the prodigious power is for real, and when you find that kind of ability to drive the ball so far before he hits his physical prime, you’ve found a franchise player.

Welcome to super stardom, Justin.


Wieters

On Tuesday, Orioles GM Andy MacPhail was quoted as saying: “It’s time. He’s ready.” The he of course is Matt Wieters, the best prospect in the game, one of the most hyped in quite some time, and a top-tier major league catcher before ever swinging a bat at the big league level. MacPhail acknowledged that Wieters had proven himself enough in the minors and would be called up by the end of the week. Well, that day is today, when the Orioles stud backstop is finally unleashed on the league.

I couldn’t help but laugh when reading MacPhail’s quote, picturing a sinister film score in the background with the GM dramatically raising his head while speaking for effect. Then the scene would cut to a laboratory where Wieters roared, snapped all of the cords connecting him to monitoring devices, and proceeded to punch his way through the walls with nothing but raw strength. That may be going too far, but with all of the expectations and hype surrounding this guy, he sounds like a genetically engineered baseball machine, perhaps what happens if you splice together DNA from Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer, and add in a dash of Jack Morris-clutchiness.

Back on April 30, Marc wrote here about Wieters’ performance, noting that his .267/.382/.378 line in 45 AB in Triple A came off as underwhelming compared to his past performance. After all, in A-ball last season Wieters hit .345/.448/.576 for a .445 wOBA. He moved up to Double A and mashed his way to a .365/.460/.625 line and a .472 wOBA.

Wieters has certainly turned things around since the end of April, as his current line now reads: .305/.387/.504 with a .391 wOBA. The power numbers are a tad depressed and the .383 BABIP from a season ago has regressed to .358, but the backstop is more than ready to feast on major league pitching. Expectations will loom large here and so I’m urging all of those anxious to see what Wieters can do to avoid buying too much stock in his first few games. I don’t care if he goes 11-11 with four walks and nine home runs, or if he ends up striking out seven times while going 0-10. Let things play out a bit before issuing any sort of judgment.

Regardless, the time has come, and now we finally get to see what this kid might be capable of.


Where’s Odalis?

It is rapidly approaching the month of June, nearly a third of the way through the baseball season, and there are still some highly notable players, especially veteran pitchers, without jobs. That story has been oft repeated to date. Most of the unemployed suffer from a vastly inflated sense of worth (e.g. Pedro Martinez) or an injury (e.g. Ben Sheets). However, the release of Daniel Cabrera recently sprung up a name in my mind that I realized I had not heard from lately, Odalis Perez.

In case you forgot, here is a quick summary of this travails with Washington this past February. On or about February 5th, Perez agreed to a minor league contract with Washington that would pay him $850,000 were he to make the big league roster. About two weeks later, perhaps coincidentally soon after Livan Hernandez got a better deal from the Mets, Perez declared that he wanted a guaranteed Major League deal and refused to report to Spring Training. A few days of not returning calls later, he was granted a release.

Perez planned to showcase himself during the World Baseball Classic, but never got the opportunity. And as far as I can turn up, that is the last that has been written about him. He tossed just under 160 innings last year, is left handed, turns 32 in a week, has no known injury that I can ascertain and has been worth between 1.4 and 1.6 wins each of the previous four seasons. He has been by no means stellar, but he has been useful and seeing as his price tag seems to just be a Major League deal, even one under $1 million guaranteed, I find it a little baffling as to why no team has gone after him.

It is probably too late in the season now, as teams would likely be skeptical of how fast someone like Perez can get back up to MLB readiness, but why didn’t a team like the Angels go after him when they suffered all those injuries to their rotation before the season began? Or what about a team that knew it was a long shot this year? They couldn’t have thrown him $1 million, stuck him in the rotation and waited for the inevitable rash of pitcher injuries and then tried to trade him between now and July? Maybe they were all scared away by the way Perez handled the situation with the Nationals, and perhaps there was more to it than the public has learned, but it was also the Nationals, hardly the pinnacle of well-run organizations at the time.


Move Over, Howard and Reynolds

In 2007, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard set the single season record with 199 strikeouts. Last season, he matched his record breaking season with 199 more, but moved into second place on the all time list. Mark Reynolds, third baseman for the Diamondbacks, whiffed on 204 different occasions, “besting” Howard. Two months into the 2009 season and Reynolds, despite continuing to fan at a ridiculously high rate, actually has some competition for the throne of punchout king.

Chris Davis of the Rangers is only 23 years old and appears to combine slick glovework with raw power. When he connects with a pitch, the ball travels great distances. Already with 12 home runs, Davis has begun to establish himself as a significant slugging threat. Davis has, however, a huge weakness so far in that he is seemingly allergic to actually making contact with the ball. In 170 plate appearances and 158 at bats, Davis has struck out 71 times so far, a rate of 44.9 percent. 44.9 percent! Of his official at bats, Davis almost has a 50/50 shot of striking out.

Since 1999, only one player has finished a season with a strikeout percentage exceeding 40 percent: Jack Cust. In 2007, Cust struck out in 41.5 percent of his bats and shaved fifty basis points off of that rate last season, dropping to 41 percent. There have not even been that many different players to strikeout in at least 30 percent of their at bats over the last ten seasons. With Cust, there have been 40 player-seasons with a strikeout rate greater than or equal to 30 percent. That number is a tad deceiving though, since several players are repeat offenders.

Six of those seasons belong to Adam Dunn and another six to Jim Thome. Jose Hernandez and Ryan Howard each own three of those seasons with Cust, Preston Wilson, Jim Edmonds, Mark Bellhorn, Brad Wilkerson, Carlos Pena and Mike Cameron each owning two. In actuality, only 19 unique players have accomplished this feat, if we can call it one. Suffice it to say, Davis is currently performing in uncharted territory.

His plate discipline numbers are equally odd, straying heavily from the league average:

Davis O-Swing=   35.9%, League O-Swing=   24.3%
Davis O-Contact= 51.2%, League O-Contact= 62.5%
Davis Z-Swing=   76.1%, League Z-Swing=   65.7%
Davis Z-Contact= 60.9%, League Z-Contact= 87.6%
Davis Contact=   57.3%, League Contact=   80.6%

The standard deviations amongst qualifying players, and the number of SDs from the mean Davis has strayed are below:

Stat        SD     Davis-SDs
O-Swing     0.058     2.00
O-Contact   0.106     1.06
Z-Swing     0.064     1.63
Z-Contact   0.056     4.77
Contact     0.065     3.58

Other than contact made on pitches out of the zone, Davis has strayed substantially from the league average, numbers that will have to improve if he wants to hold down a major league starting job. A major league first baseman can succeed with a low batting average if he supplies ample amounts of power, but a .203/.259/.456 line isn’t getting it done, even with a league best glove to date. In spite of the fielding prowess and 12 long balls, Davis has been worth just 0.1 wins this year, essentially the definition of a replacement player.

Again, he is only 23 years old and should improve with more experience, but the strikeouts and plate discipline stats have certainly raised red flags. The news isn’t all bad for Reynolds, though, as Davis projects to improve with whiffs over the remainder of the season, finishing with 195. At 204, Reynolds’ record for single season strikeouts would be safe should this come to fruition, but Davis has certainly been fanning at an historic pace.


Welcome To The Show, David Hernandez

As a travel Thursday, there aren’t a ton of major league games on the schedule for tonight. However, there is one that should be worth watching, and it will take place in Baltimore, where the Tigers are in town to take on the Orioles. Making his major league debut, David Hernandez will be starting for the O’s.

Hernandez is one of those divisive prospects who puts up numbers that dwarf his physical abilities. His numbers, especially the strikeout rates, are ridiculous. In 2007, he posted a 10.4 K/9 in High-A ball. Last year, he put up a 10.6 K/9 in Double-A. This year, he’s up to 12.46 K/9 in Triple-A. He’s consistently been at the top of the league leaderboards in strikeouts at every rung of the ladder.

However, the reaction from scouts has been relatively mild. He was a 16th round pick in 2005, and even with his minor league dominance, Baseball America left him out of the Orioles Top 10 prospects over the winter. The concerns have mostly centered around questionable command of a four seam fastball and a lack of a third pitch. His slider is definitely an out pitch, and it’s the reason for his crazy strikeout rate, but heavy reliance on a breaking ball will get scouts talking bullpen very quickly.

In some ways, the Hernandez discussions are similar to the ones that surrounded Yusmeiro Petit as he rose through the minor leagues. He also ran up big numbers with stuff that didn’t match it, and created a divide between the statistical and scouting communities. The jury may still be out on Petit to some degree, but clearly, the scouts were more correct about his abilities than the numbers were. However, a good chunk of Petit’s dominance came in the low minors, and his strikeout rates decrease as he faced harder competition. Hernandez’s numbers have done the exact opposite.

It’s worth noting that Hernandez has significantly better velocity than Petit as well, sitting 90-93 on a regular basis. He’s not a low velocity guy who is just tricking minor leaguers with junk. He’s got a major league fastball and a knockout slider. He’s not John Stephens.

I’m really looking forward to seeing Hernandez pitch against big leaguers, and the Pitch F/x data should be pretty fun to look at as well. If you’re looking for some entertaining baseball tonight, check out the O’s-Tigers, and see what side of the Hernandez fence you come down on.


Draft Reviews: St. Louis Cardinals

2008 Draft Slot: 13th overall
Top Pick: Brett Wallace, 3B/1B, Arizona State University
Best Pick: Brett Wallace
Keep an Eye On: Lance Lynn, RHP, University of Mississippi (Supplemental 1st round)
Notes: He’s posted modest strikeout totals and he’s not missing a ton of bats to this point in his career, but Lance Lynn is already in double-A. The sinker-slider pitcher may see his hit totals drop as he gets higher in the minors and into the Majors as he receives better defense behind him, which will gobble up those ground balls. Brett Wallace is just a hitting machine and would probably be in the Majors already if A) Albert Pujols wasn’t at first base, and B) The organization was convinced he could handle third base at the MLB level. The first round aside, this was a rather uninteresting draft.

2007 Draft Slot: 18th overall
Top Pick: Peter Kozma, SS, Oklahoma high school
Best Pick: Jess Todd, RHP, University of Arkansas (2nd round, 82nd overall)
Worst Pick: Thomas Eager, RHP, Cal Poly (5th round)
Notes: The Cardinals organization went outside its comfort zone of taking college players and selected Peter Kozma with the first-round selection. It is turning out to be an uninspired choice, given Kozma’s offensive ceiling may top out as a utility player. The selections of pitchers Clayton Mortensen, Adam Reifer, and Jess Todd, could help to turn things around, though. The club also had a couple of interesting early-round picks that are turning into sleepers after modest starts to their pro careers: RHP David Kopp (2nd round) and 3B Daniel Descalso (3rd round).

2006 Draft Slot: 30th overall
Top Pick: Adam Ottavino, RHP, Northeastern University
Best Pick: Chris Perez, RHP, University of Miami (Supplemental 1st round)
Worst Pick: Brad Furnish, LHP, Texas Christian (2nd round)
Notes: Brad Furnish narrowly edges 1B Mark Hamilton for the worst pick in the draft so far. Adam Ottavino has not been very good of late, either, since graduating from high-A ball. Chris Perez has already helped the Cardinals in the bullpen. Pitchers P.J. Walters (11th round) and Nick Additon (47th round) have exceeded expectations. Outfielders Shane Robinson (fifth round) and Jon Jay (second round) are looking like useful part-time MLB players.

* * *

2009 Draft Slot: 19th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): College
MLB Club Need: Third base, Shortstop, Second base
Organizational Need: Left field, Right field, Second base, Left-handed pitching
Organizational Strength: Third base, Center field
Notes: All the mock drafts to this point seem to be looking at the Cardinals taking a college left-hander, such as Mike Minor or Rex Brothers. The club could use some infield depth too.


Revisiting the Gerut Deal

When the Jody Gerut trade was announced last week, I noted my confusion over the Padres essentially giving away one of their better players. One of the great things about transactions involving San Diego, however, is that Asst. GM Paul DePodesta is willing to write about the organization’s thoughts on various moves on his blog. Yesterday, he laid out the case for the Gerut trade. Let’s respond, shall we?

Age – Tony Jr is just 26 years while Jody is playing this year at 31. Jody certainly isn’t old, but we are committed to getting younger where we can. We’ve had 32 players currently in our organization who have competed for us at the ML level this season, and 25 of them are in their 20’s (Chris Young just turned 30 on Monday, so we just missed out on 26). Only four of those in their 30’s are full-time starters: Brian Giles, Chris Young, Heath Bell, and David Eckstein. Furthermore, 13 of the players are 26 years old or younger, and Tony Jr fits into that group.

There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with getting younger. Age only matters in so much as it affects our view of expected production going forward. In this case, the expectation for future performance leans significantly in favor of Gerut, even with the age difference.

Service Time – Building on the age element, Tony Jr has just over one year of Major League service (players become free agents after six full years), whereas Jody will be over the five year mark at the end of this season, thereby making him eligible for free agency at the end of 2010. As we try to rebuild the foundation for long-term success, we have to take this into account.

This is definitely a point in the Padres favor, though maybe not as much as you might expect. The Padres do control Gwynn for five more seasons, but three of those are going to be arbitration eligible seasons. When you have a marginal major leaguer like Gwynn, his value disappears very quickly once he reaches the point where his salaries escalate. While San Diego will have the right to retain Gwynn for years 4/5/6 of his service time, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t want to go to arbitration with him. In terms of valuable years of service, there gap is smaller than the service time would indicate.

Money – Nobody likes to talk about it, but the fact is that dollars must factor in our decision making. It doesn’t mean that we’re just looking to move payroll, but every team has to evaluate the cost of each of player on their roster. In this case, Jody was making $1,775,000 this year compared with Tony Jr’s $405,000. That spread will likely increase next year as Jody will once again will eligible for arbitration.

Cost is definitely an important factor in transactions. The Padres will save about $1 million over the course of 2009, and then probably $2 million next year. For a team with a payroll the size of San Diego’s, that’s more than chump change. But, again, cost has to be weighed against the benefit. Would the Padres have gotten more than $3 million additional value from Gerut as opposed to Gwynn over the next year and a half? The projections certainly suggest they would. So, saving money doesn’t help that much if you then have to reinvest that cash to reclaim some of the lost value you gave up in the first place.

Other – It would be silly to ignore the fact that Tony Gwynn Jr’s father is Tony Gwynn. Such an affiliation, however, is never the impetus for a move. When weighing options that are similar, it can probably tip the scales but no more.

I think a lot of people questioned the motives of this deal based on Gwynn’s last name, but I’ll defend the Padres here – if they really wanted Gwynn for nepotism purposes, they could have just claimed him on waivers at the beginning of the year. Gwynn was a minor part of the motivation for this trade.

Other Players – I saved this for last, because it may be the most important piece of this transaction. Most deals are not just simply about the player you’re trading away for the player you’re acquiring. In addition to the standalone deal, there is often a ripple effect on the roster, and in this case that ripple effect may have precipitated the move. Ok, in English… Jody Gerut is a productive offensive outfielder who can play all three outfield positions and is cost effective in relative terms. Well, that also describes Scott Hairston and possibly Drew Macias (who are both younger and have less service time than Jody). This move was about creating at-bats for others like Hairston, Macias, and even Headley as much as it was about the straight-up deal.

Now, here’s the part where DePo essentially lays out the real reasons for the trade – Gerut was in the way of some other players they wanted to get a look at. We talked about that at the time, and moving pieces around to maximize the efficiency of your roster is a legitimate impetus to make a deal.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that they essentially dumped a guy who was a +3 win player last year. Even factoring in expected regression, Gerut is something like a league average player making less than $2 million this season and under control for 2010. Maybe he didn’t fit into San Diego’s long term plan, but he’s worth more than a backup center fielder with little to no upside. The Padres would have been better off hanging onto Gerut and letting him hit his way out of his slump to re-establish some value before moving him in June or July rather than just giving him away in May.

Certainly, DePo is a smart guy who knows far more about baseball than I do. On this one, though, I think the Padres made a bad deal, and for an organization that could use all the talent they can find, giving Gerut away wasn’t in their best interests.


Another Tremendous Stretch

Earlier this week, Dave discussed Justin Verlander’s solid stretch of performance lately, noting that it had been on par with, if not better than, any stretch belonging to Zack Greinke. Because Verlander opened the season rather poorly, his overall numbers are not as aesthetically pleasing as the Royals righty, but he has certainly found his groove. Another pitcher, however, is currently in the midst of a fantastic stretch to open his season. The numbers of this pitcher might get overlooked, though, considering the substantial gap between starts.

Chris Carpenter made two starts in April, hit the disabled list with an injury caused from batting, and made two more starts over the last ten days. Carp has looked dominant in all four outings, accruing the following line: 23 IP, 10 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 23 K. Four starts and a 1.1 win value that practically doubles the total wins he has added in 2007 and 2008, when he made a grand total of five appearances. Hitters have managed a mere .127/.169/.152 line with a .193 BABIP, which has certainly fueled his microscopic 0.61 WHIP.

What prevents Carpenter from truly topping stretches put forth by Verlander and Greinke is his innings total. Carpenter has averaged a 71 Game Score through his first four starts, which, while impressive in any fashion, actually falls below all of the top stretches from Verlander and Greinke. Here are the top three from Greinke:

4/8-4/24: 29 IP, 36/6 K/BB, 0.00 ERA, 76 GSC, .186/.239/.245
4/18-5/4: 34 IP, 38/3 K/BB, 0.53 ERA, 80 GSC, .176/.197/.244
4/24-5/9: 33 IP, 33/3 K/BB, 0.82 ERA, 78 GSC, .161/.181/.232
And the top three from Verlander:
4/27-5/14: 29.1 IP,  44/8 K/BB, 0.92 ERA, 77 GSC, .157/.225/.186
5/3- 5/20: 28.1 IP, 43/10 K/BB, 1.27 ERA, 76 GSC, .126/.217/.158
5/8- 5/25: 28.1 IP,  40/7 K/BB, 0.95 ERA, 75 GSC, .155/.212/.175

Carpenter’s opposing slash line bests all six of these stretches, as does his WHIP, but Verlander and Greinke were able to go deeper on average into the games. Still, finishing seventh on this list in terms of the quality of the four game stretch is not anything to frown about.

The success of the Cardinals is certainly married to the production levels of Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick, but Carpenter stabilizes the starting rotation and adds a proven ace to the mix. If he cannot stay healthy, the team is not very likely to reach the postseason. Even with his services for 25 or so starts they may struggle to play into October. Though the debate was not as controversial as with Joba Chamberlain, many opined that Carpenter would better serve the Cardinals as their closer this season given the departure of Jason Isringhausen and the likelihood that either Chris Perez or Jason Motte would man the position.

As per usual, starters are more valuable than relievers; the only way making Carpenter the closer would be valid from a statistical standpoint is if he projected to be a below average starter with a relief projection akin to the production levels of Mariano Rivera and Brad Lidge from a year ago. If the decision to have Carpenter close out games was instead derived from the hope that he would remain healthy for a longer period of time, it still smells funny. In four starts, Carpenter has added more wins to the Cardinals than their entire bullpen. If you’re skeptical, the combo of Motte, Franklin, Thompson, Miller, Reyes, Kinney and Boggs (as a reliever) has combined for 0.5 wins above replacement. This speaks more to the ineptitude of their bullpen but serves to show that a good starter in just four starts can be twice as effective, if not more, than a reliever available all season. Plus, who knows how Carpenter would perform in the bullpen or if the supposed lesser workload would prevent injuries?

Due to the gap in time between his starts, Carpenter’s start to the 2009 season is bound to go overlooked, but if he cobbles together a few more incredible outings, it will be impossible to look past his contributions.


Big Question Mark

Straight out of literature; embattled young man takes his dreams elsewhere, becomes a lionized figure in the world of baseball, then experiences a tragic fall from grace. David Ortiz is one of Theo Epstein’s masterstrokes as GM, and could quickly become one of his greatest challenges. A contract extension in 2006 has Ortiz earning 12.5 million this and next year, and then a club option for 2011 without a buyout. If Ortiz continues hitting like he’s hitting – not at all – the contract can quickly become an albatross.

The best method to avoid such faith is to figure out whether Ortiz will improve or not and then decide on an appropriate action to pursue. Ortiz’ vitals show a declined walk rate, increased strikeout rate, and uncharacteristic ISO. Ortiz’ BABIP is .263, lower than last year, and far lower than Ortiz’ career .307 BABIP. This is despite an increased amount of line drives and fly balls being hit. In the old days, more fly balls meant more homeruns, right now, Ortiz’ HR/FB is 1.7%, a drastic decrease from previous years; 26.1% in 2006, 17.2% in 2007, and 14.8% in 2008.

Ortiz’ O-Swing% is at a post-2002 high 25.8%, the previous five-year high came in 2008; 20.6%. This means Ortiz is swinging out of the strike zone more and this is leading to the changes in walk and strikeout rates. Ortiz is swinging nearly 50% of the time and only making contact 76.1% of the time, consider that his career averages in those measures are 44.6% and 78.1%.

Hit Tracker Online
is a ridiculously handy resource. You get a graphical view consisting of each Ortiz’ during the last four years and over measures, like the speed of the ball off of the bat. In 2007 Ortiz launched 35 homeruns and had an average speed of nearly 105 MPH, that number was actually up in 2008 to 106.3 MPH but his amount of homeruns dropped. The difference seems relatively unimportant, and the sample size for this year’s SOB – which registers in around 96 MPH, for what it’s worth – is so small that nothing can be drawn from the data.

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but something isn’t quite right with Ortiz and it seems to be physical. Either Oritz’ pitch recognition abilities are slipping, which would explain the increased hacks and decrease solid contact, and/or his bat speed, which again, would explain the former two as well as the loss of power. I’m not sure Ortiz can regain either ability, even if I do think he’s going to finish with a wOBA well above .300.

Of course, I also never thought I’d write that about David Ortiz.


Branyan Arrives

When Jack Zduriencik took over as GM of the Seattle Mariners, one of his first decisions was that he was going to sign Russell Branyan to play first base, and that he was going to give him an opportunity to prove that he could be an everyday player. Heading into his age 33 season, Zduriencik was convinced that Branyan could produce in a regular role, and was going to let Branyan prove him wrong.

So far, he looks like a genius. Branyan entered the day hitting .306/.395/.590, and he just hit a Trevor Cahill fastball about 750 feet for his 11th home run of the season. Given a chance to hit against left-handed pitching for the first time, he’s responded by showing a fairly normal platoon split – .312/.407/.634 vs RHPs and .294/.373/.529 against LHPs.

Watching him play on a daily basis, and looking at his career performances, I have to wonder just what kind of career Branyan missed out on for no real reason. Starting in 2000, when he got some real playing time for the first time in his career as a 24-year-old, Branyan has never posted a wOBA below .326. His career wOBA is .350, and his wRAA of 43.0 in 2,487 PA paints the picture of a guy who was worth about 10 runs more than a league average hitter over each full season’s worth of playing time.

He’s not a bad defender. He’s not a slow, plodding runner. He’s a pretty good hitter with ridiculous power. But, here he is, at age 33, getting his fist real shot as a major league regular. The Mariners are the ninth major league team he’s played for, yet none of the first eight saw fit to give him more than a couple hundred trips to the plate per season.

Branyan isn’t this good, but there’s a decent argument to be made that he could have been the early decade’s version of Carlos Pena had someone been willing to give him a chance. I’m glad that he’s finally gotten one and is running with it, but unfortunately, his career legacy will probably be a giant “what if?”


Draft Reviews: Chicago Cubs

2008 Draft Slot: 19th overall
Top Pick: Andrew Cashner, RHP, Texas Christian University
Best Pick: Jay Jackson, RHP, Furman University (9th round)
Keep an Eye On: Chris Carpenter, RHP, Kent State (3rd round)
Notes: Chris Carpenter has always had the stuff to make scouts drool, but a stream of constant injury concerns caused him to slip every year. He’s been healthy in pro ball so far and has the numbers to prove it, although he needs to be challenged and moved out of low-A. Jay Jackson was a two-way player in college, who has taken to full-time pitching like a fish to water. He’s already in double-A. Andrew Cashner had his greatest success in college as a reliever, but the Cubs have him back in the starting rotation. The results have not been pretty. Cashner can touch 99 mph with the fastball, but his control is not good at all.

2007 Draft Slot: Third overall
Top Pick: Josh Vitters, 3B, California high school
Best Pick: Josh Vitters
Worst Pick: Brandon Guyer, OF, University of Virginia (5th round)
Notes: There were three quality prep third basemen at the top of the 2007 draft and Josh Vitters was the second to go off the board (sandwiched between Mike Moustakas, 2nd overall, and Matt Dominguez, 12th overall). However, he struggled early and has fallen behind the other two. Vitters is making more noise in 2009 with a .355 average and 10 homers, but he’s also a level behind the pack. Luckily it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The Cubs’ second pick, catcher Josh Donaldson, helped land pitcher Rich Harden from the A’s in 2008.

2006 Draft Slot: 13th overall
Top Pick: Tyler Colvin, OF, Clemson University
Best Pick: Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Notre Dame University (Fifth round)
Worst Pick: Tyler Colvin
Notes: Everyone scratched their heads from the moment that the Cubs grabbed Tyler Colvin with the 13th overall pick and now everyone’s bald… no one has stopped scratching. Colvin spent 2008 in double-A and was demoted to high-A to begin 2009. He’s hitting .253 with one home run. The Cubs lacked 2nd to 4th round selections and then spent a boatload of money to sway Jeff Samardzija away from the National Football League. It looks like a smart move, but he may be better off as a reliever. Time will tell.

* * *

2009 Draft Slot: 31st overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): College for the most part
MLB Club Need: Second base, Third base, Catcher
Organizational Need: Left-handed pitching, Left field, Right field, First base
Organizational Strength: Third base, Shortstop
Notes: The club does not pick until 31st overall, so it’s almost impossible to know who is going to be there, especially in this draft where no one is even sure who’s in the mix for No. 2 overall. The Cubs could look to someone like James Paxton, who would immediately become the best left-handed pitcher in the system. He’s a college starter that can hit the high 90s, but his numbers have not been good this year – so he could slide to them. Paxton is a high risk, high reward player (but a much better bet than Colvin).


In-Season ZiPS Back Up

We had a technical issue calculating the in-season ZiPS projections this morning and many of you noticed that they mysteriously disappeared from the player pages.

The problem has been fixed and the updated projections are now back where they should be. Thanks for your patience.


The Best Laid Plans

I’m going to assume that the line-up that the Mets ran out last night was not the one that Omar Minaya was counting on to lead his team to the top of the NL East. Here’s the team that they put on the field, as well as their ZIPS projected wOBA for the rest of the season:

Pagan, CF, .312 woBA
Castillo, 2B, .324 wOBA
Wright, 3B, .415 wOBA
Sheffield, LF, .343 wOBA
Tatis, 1B, .334 wOBA
Martinez, RF, .308 wOBA
Santos, C, .273 wOBA
Martinez, SS, .263 wOBA

Wright is great, Sheffield is hitting like its 1999 instead of 2009, and Castillo and Tatis are useful role player, but that is a line-up that badly misses Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, not to mention Carlos Delgado, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Church.

Of course, they were playing the Washington Generals Nationals, so they racked up a fairly easy win anyway. But against an actual major league team, that’s not a line-up that is going to score many runs.

Fernando Martinez is a really good young talent, but he’s not ready to produce at a level that a contending team needs from a corner outfielder. Pagan is a decent reserve outfielder, but you don’t want him playing with any regularity. Santos and Martinez are not major league players.

The Mets stand a half game behind the first place Phillies, and they’ve learned the last few years that the margin between first and second place can be microscopic. They aren’t in a position to be punting winnable games, and while Reyes and Beltran will get healthy again relatively soon, the team needs better back-up plans. They can’t be caught running out a line-up like this too often.

Trading season is just about to kick off. I’d suggest that the Mets should be at the front of the line.


Quick Hook For Cabrera

Nothing annoys me more with regards to baseball than seeing pitchers who have clearly lost all semblances of effectiveness still given opportunities to throw at the major league level (SEE: Sidney Ponson). However, I considered it to be a good deal when the Washington Nationals signed Daniel Cabrera this past offseason. After all, the commitment to Cabrera did not extend beyond the 2009 season and they would be paying him just $2.6 mil. All sorts of questions surrounding his health and abilities surfaced at the time of the signing but it seemed that the Nationals were willing to risk that Cabrera’s arm would hold up for at least one more year.

Nine games in, the plug has been pulled on the experiment. Cabrera has been designated for assignment after abysmally bad production. In fact, acting GM Mike Rizzo did not sugarcoat his thought process on the matter, saying specifically – “I was tired of watching him.”

In 40 innings of work, Cabrera surrendered 48 hits, walked 35, and managed just 16 strikeouts. No, that isn’t an error on my part, mixing up the walk and strikeout totals. Cabrera fanned 3.6 batters per nine with a 7.9 walk rate. His .313 BABIP did not necessarily portend insanely bad luck but a 2.08 WHIP coupled with a 57% strand rate isn’t going to do anything other than drive fans and executives crazy. With a 5.85 ERA and 6.44 FIP, the Nationals reached their breaking point and cut ties with the tall righthander.

Something is clearly wrong with Cabrera, as pitchers do not just magically lose four or five miles per hour on their fastball in under two seasons. If he has any hope of pitching in the majors, the health issues need to be rectified. A 0.46 K/BB is inexcusable at the major league level, even for the Nationals. Cabrera’s pitch selection should have been scrutinized more as well. You don’t throw a fastball with average of worse movement almost 70% of the time if it isn’t 93+ mph. Cabrera seemed to be sticking to his old guns, so to speak, even though the ammo had run out long ago.

Even in a penny-pinching market like the one experienced last season, I cannot fathom any team bringing him aboard at this point unless his health problems are resolved. A good pitching coach can teach a new pitch or potentially show a few mechanical pointers to increase velocity by fractions of miles per hour, but nobody can snap his fingers and provide what Cabrera currently lacks. For a few years, Cabrera was like the jerk boyfriend that all girls think they can change with a bit of guidance. Unfortunately for those who spent a great deal of time attempting to streamline the transition, it seems that the problems were not mechanical or mental, really, but physical.

I could see Cabrera having some sort of surgery and resurfacing in a couple of years like Kris Benson did, but his window as a young stud prospect bound for success if he corrects a few minor flaws has closed. Thankfully, nobody, including Rizzo, will have to watch this incarnation of Cabrera any more this season.


Brad Lidge’s Issues

Of all of the pitchers struggling on the Phillies, Brad Lidge is the most surprising. A glance at the relievers’ WAR board has Lidge firmly at the bottom of the totem pole; something unimaginable just a few months ago. Lidge’s 9.15 ERA is a scrambled mess of the 1.95 ERA posted last year. Lidge’s important metrics aren’t fairing too well either.

About 32% of the batters to step to the plate against Lidge last year went down via strikeout. That number is down to 21% this year. Fewer pitches are being thrown inside of the zone, and far less first-strikes are being recorded, leaving Lidge down in most counts. Batters are still swinging out of the zone at about the same rate but Lidge is still getting fewer strikes overall. When he is throwing pitches in the zone, batters are making contact at a ridiculously high rate. Lidge’s career Z-Contact% is 74.5%, this year it’s 86.4%.

Of the 29 hits given up, 12 have gone for extra bases, including six homeruns and doubles apiece. Lidge’s BABIP is a rotund .400. Combining this information, it would be easy to infer that Lidge is having a ton of line drives hit against him, yet this is simply not the case. His line drive percentage is at 16.7%, lower than last season or his career total. The Phillies defense is middle of the pack in UZR and BABIP against, which suggests Lidge is an outlier, that or the story lies beneath the numbers.

Looking at the pitch data, Lidge’s pitch usage is roughly the same, but velocity on his fastball is down just a bit. Lidge’s slider is still moving about the same, as is his fastball, which raises all kinds of questions about why both pitches are being hit harder than before. Our linear weights have Llidge’s fastball at -5.51 runs per 100 pitches and his slider at 0.27 per 100; last year Lidge’s fastball was worth -0.53 runs per 100 pitches and his slider 2.5 runs per 100. So again, what’s the deal here?

Per Baseball-Reference, Lidge’s fly balls have resulted in three doubles, the same amount as his line drives allowed. Lidge has a .192 fly ball BABIP against while his line drive BABIP against is .900. If those numbers seem high, well, they are. Major League average for fly ball BABIP is .143 this year; .725 for line drives. Either Lidge is unlucky, is being hit harder than the league average pitcher – which the homeruns support, although not the line drive percentage – or a combination.

Until we get more data to suggest otherwise, I’m going to assume Lidge will be fine, but he’s an interesting case none the less.


Keystone for the Cubs

Over the Memorial Day weekend, it was leaked that Alfonso Soriano had told Cubs manager Lou Piniella that he would be willing to play second base if it meant that Micah Hoffpauir could get more playing time.

So far for the Cubs, second base has been manned primarily by Mike Fontenot when he’s not playing third filling in for the injured Aramis Ramirez, and Aaron Miles. Essentially, if they made this sort of move, the Cubs would be saying that they are not happy with the offensive output of either of those two to date and are looking for ways to get more punch in the batting order. Is that reasonable?

First off, Mike Fontenot probably deserves the nominal starting job. He’s been hurt by a bad BABIP this season that seems mostly due to bad luck. Based on his core numbers, he seems likely to positively regress to somewhere above his 2007 numbers. ZiPS sees him at a .328 wOBA for the rest of the season. He also provides a glove worth about +5 runs a year at second.

If we consider that the base case, would the Cubs be better off shifting Alfonso Soriano to second base and Micah Hoffpauir to left field? Soriano is already in the everyday lineup, so all we have to do for him is compare the impact of his defensive shift. Based on prior UZRs, Soriano is about 20 runs less proficient at second base than in a corner outfield spot. He would gain 10 runs back in scarcity value, but that still leaves a net negative of 15 runs (factoring in Fontenot’s +5) and that’s assuming that Soriano hasn’t gotten any worse at second base in the 3+ years since he last played there regularly and that his hitting wouldn’t deteriorate playing a tougher position.

We do not have enough defensive sample for Hoffpauir to say anything about his defense, so assuming for now that he would be an average left fielder (the scanty evidence we do have suggests he’s below average), Hoffpauir’s bat would have to be at least 15 runs (over a full season) more valuable than Fontenot’s in order for the net benefit to be positive. ZiPS sees Hoffpauir as worth a .357 wOBA the rest of the season. Over 600 PAs, the difference between a .357 wOBA and a .328 one is about 15 runs.

On a strict numbers basis, it looks like a neutral move for the Cubs, but that comes with a lot of assumptions about Hoffpauir’s defense and Soriano’s ability to transition back to second base. Even with those assumptions, the net gain for the Cubs only looks to be on the order of about nothing. Hardly seems worth the risk.


Walking Wounded Headed For Free Agency

I was talking to Eric this afternoon about Erik Bedard, and during the conversation, I mentioned something to him that I noticed a while ago but hadn’t talked about here – this winter is shaping up to be a free agent auction of the walking wounded. Ever wondered how much a talented but injury prone starting pitcher is worth? We’re going to find out this winter.

The list of potential free agent pitchers this winter is littered with names who offer remarkable upside when healthy, but are among the pitchers that have track records showing that they just can’t really be counted on.

Erik Bedard. Rich Harden. Ben Sheets. Kelvim Escobar. Brad Penny. John Smoltz. Justin Duchscherer. Carl Pavano. Jason Schmidt.

If you were going to assemble the All-Time-Talented-But-Fragile Pitching Staff, those nine would probably end up prominently featured. It’s a collection of big arms with top shelf stuff, all of whom come with needles, scar tissue, and more than enough MRIs to build a bridge to nowhere.

It’s a veritable plethora of pitching potential wrapped in all the reminders of how fragile an arm really is. A couple of years ago, a rotation of Bedard-Harden-Sheets would be the kind of thing that dreams were made of. Now, it’s a race to see which of them can grab the largest collection of innings-based contract incentives.

It should be interesting, if nothing else. Last winter, we saw a glut of corner outfielders hit the market at the same time that teams were shifting away from poor defensive sluggers. This winter, the market will be saturated with ultra high risk/reward pitchers. We’ll find out pretty quickly how well teams have learned from the mistakes of the past – like, say, the last time Schmidt was available in free agency.


Draft Reviews: Milwaukee Brewers

2008 Draft Slot: 16th overall
Top Pick: Brett Lawrie, 2B, British Columbia (Canada) high school
Best Pick: Brett Lawrie
Keep an Eye On: Logan Schafer, OF, Cal Poly State University (3rd round)
Notes: Logan Schafer, a gifted defender, is making huge strides offensively despite being quickly promoted to high-A to begin 2009. He’s hitting more than .300 and he’s trimmed his strikeout rate by 10%. The walk rate, though, is too low at about 4%. Brett Lawrie has looked good at the plate for such a young player – and given his inexperience as a Canadian product. His move from catcher to second base, though, hurts his value a bit, especially considering his defense at the keystone is… not good.

Bonus: Here is my pre-2008 draft interview with Brett Lawrie.

2007 Draft Slot: Seventh overall
Top Pick: Matt LaPorta, OF/1B, University of Florida
Best Pick: Matt LaPorta
Worst Pick: Dan Merklinger, LHP, Seton Hall (6th round)
Notes: Remember when Seton Hall was a powerhouse school? Dan Merklinger has struggled with staying healthy and throwing strikes. But it’s not a bad draft when your worst pick (which isn’t that bad) doesn’t occur until the sixth round. Matt LaPorta was a valuable pick because it helped the club get C.C. Sabathia from the Indians for the playoff race in 2008. The club lacked a second-round pick, but it found value in the third round with Jonathan Lucroy, who is now in double-A.

2006 Draft Slot: 16th overall
Top Pick: Jeremy Jeffress, RHP, Virginia high school
Best Pick: Jeremy Jeffress
Worst Pick: Brent Brewer, IF, Georgia high school (2nd round)
Notes: Brent Brewer would be a great marketing tool for the Brewers, but the bat just does not look like its going to play above A-ball. Jeremy Jeffress is still one of the most talented players in the draft but he’s painfully inconsistent and there are questions regarding his maturity and dedication, as well. Cole Gillespie (3rd round) and Lee Haydel (19th round) both appear to have the potential to make the Majors as fourth outfielders, if not more.

* * *

2009 Draft Slot: 26th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): Best available player, college or prep
MLB Club Need: Second base, Catcher, Relief pitching
Organizational Need: Right field, Second base, First base, Left-handed pitching
Organizational Strength: Center field, Catcher
Notes: The Brewers organization does not pick until the back end of the first round in 2009, but the club also has two supplemental first round picks for losing pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Brian Shouse to free agency. The club also has an extra second-round pick for Sabathia (It would have been a first-rounder if the Yanks hadn’t signed Mark Teixeira too).