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ALCS Game 3 PreGame Chat

Bryan Smith will be around to talk about the playoffs tonight, starting at 5 pm.

ALCS Game 1 Review: Texas

Tonight’s 6-5 loss by the Texas Rangers was a referendum on old school bullpen management. After 104 pitches, Ron Washington decided to pull C.J. Wilson two batters into the eighth, with the Texas win expectancy standing at a robust 86.5%. He brought in left-handed veteran Darren Oliver to face the Yankees switch-hitting combination of Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira. Oliver, who had a 2.19 BB/9 this season (compared to the 4.1 mark by Wilson), walked both the patient hitters.

Out came Oliver, and in came sidearmer Darren O’Day, with the one batter responsibility of retiring Alex Rodriguez. He did not. Rodriguez jumped on the first pitch, and hit a screamer to third base. There are fielders in the league that make the play, but Michael Young is not one of them. Out came O’Day, and in perhaps the most shocking decision of the day, in came Clay Rapada to face Robinson Cano. Yes, the same Rapada with the 5.63 career FIP, with less than 40 big league innings to his name, to face the guy that put the Yankees on the board with a seventh inning home run.

Shockingly, after one more pitch, the Yankees had tied the game. And Rapada was then taken out, to be replaced by a different left-handed pitcher (Derek Holland), to face a hitter (Marcus Thames) who much prefers southpaws. While Holland was okay in his two innings of work overall, a hit to Thames gave the Yankees a lead they would not surrender.

Hindsight is 50-50, but then again, Twitter will give you a live account that a lot of people thought Ron Washington was mis-managing today with each move he made. The only move was to leave Wilson in the game to face Swisher and Teixeira, and had he allowed them to reach base, to bring in Neftali Feliz to face Alex Rodriguez. Baseball teams need to put their best pitchers on the mound in the biggest situations. This isn’t theory that should be debatable.

In the course of the five at-bats that happened immediately after C.J. Wilson was pulled – a stretch that included four different Rangers pitchers – the Rangers win expectancy dropped almost 70%. While it’s easy to blame Darren Oliver, or Darren O’Day, or Clay Rapada for the game’s outcome, the Texas Rangers lost a game they needed to win because Ron Washington (and the majority of baseball managers) continues to fail to recognize ideal game theory.

ALDS Game Five Review: Texas

I feel it superfluous to use this review to continue to praise Cliff Lee. At this point, playoff dominance is almost expected, and the American League FIP leader showed why he earned that distinction tonight: impeccable command, and three pitches good enough to keep hitters guessing wrong. He’s excellent, and it certainly appears at this juncture that the Yankees need to play the ALCS as if it were a six-game series.

The far more interesting discussion point from Game 5 were two plays of a scary resemblance:

J Hamilton grounded out to first, E Andrus scored.
I Kinsler grounded into fielder’s choice at first, V Guerrero scored, N Cruz out at second.

On both plays, David Price covered first base, and because he’s left-handed, had his back turned to the play. On the first play, Andrus’ quick decision-making and quicker feet made the play very difficult for Price. The second play should have been an out — both at first base with Kinsler a quarter-step behind Price to the bag — and at home if Price hadn’t complained. Credit due to Vladimir Guerrero for a heads-up play, the guts to take it, and a fantastic slide. It seems cliche to say the Texas baserunning won that game — those two plays were worth just 9.7 cumulative WE — but it helped.

The insurance runs came courtesy of Ian Kinsler, whose home run was just enough to put him over Nelson Cruz as the best hitter in terms of OPS in the series. Both were fantastic, helping to make up for the mediocre (if that) series had by Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Guerrero.

But let us not confuse the narrative: like the vast majority of Round 1 of these playoffs, today’s game was won on the mound. Throwing out the better pitcher clearly has a bigger influence on a game than home field advantage, as this becomes the first playoff series in history in which a home team did not win a single game. As such it seems fatalistic that the Rangers enjoy home field advantage in their forthcoming series with the Yankees, but with Cliff Lee likely to pitch just one of the first six games, they’ll need home field advantage to make a comeback in Round 2.

More to come on what will be an exciting ALCS in the days to follow, but for now, Texas fans should merely be focused on enjoying their first series victory in franchise history. Congrats to Cliff Lee for the buckets of money he’s making himself, and congrats to Rangers fans for sticking around long enough to know the feeling. This Cubs fan can appreciate that.

ALDS Game 3 Preview: Carson Cistulli’s Druthers

Starting Pitchers
Tampa Bay: Matt Garza (R)
204.2 IP, 6.60 K/9, 2.77 BB/9, .279 BABIP, 35.8 GB%, 10.0 HR/FB%, 4.51 xFIP.

Texas: Colby Lewis (R)
201.0 IP, 8.78 K/9, 2.91 BB/9, .292 BABIP, 37.9 GB%, 8.2 HR/FB%, 3.93 xFIP.

If Carson Cistulli Had His Druthers: A (Not-All-Inclusive) Retrospective
• April 28: “Colby Lewis would just get it over with, and admit to everyone that he’s the Son of Man … Colby Lewis would soar like an eagle — into my heart.”
• April 30: “Colby Lewis would steal fire from the gods and give it to humans … Colby Lewis would fashion all humankind from clay … Colby Lewis would continue to pitch out of his mind, thus validating my continued presence on this, the internet’s clearinghouse for baseball nerdom.”
• May 21: “Colby Lewis would found a fast-food chain … The featured item on menu of said chain would be sliders … Get it? Sliders!”
• August 13: “Someone would design a plane or something modeled after Colby Lewis’s dynamism.“
• September 27: “I’d write a “season with”-type book featuring Colby Lewis and Andres Torres and maybe Manny Parra … It’d mostly be about all of us playing volleyball together.”

Other Quotes Emphasized in Mr. Lewis’ Restraining Order Claim
• April 12: “I’ve been seduced by the righty’s optimistic CHONE projection and have heralded him — on this site, to my mother, wherever — as a Person of Interest for this here season.”
• May 5: “Even though it’ll probably seem like it most of the time, Colby Lewis will not, in fact, be the only guy on the field this afternoon in Oakland. In fact, there are a couple-few players who — despite lacking Lewis’s direct connection to the godhead — have actually managed to distinguish themselves as worthy of the baseballing enthusiast’s attention.”
• On May 21:

What You, the Reader, Are Saying to Me
Hey, Carson: did you ever consider for even one second in your life that maybe Colby Lewis isn’t some kind of deity?
What I Am Saying Right Back to You
Yeah, I actually did think that for a second, and it was the darkest, loneliest second of my life, you jerk nut.

• May 28: “Watch For: Colby Lewis, Duh.”
• June 18: “Colby Lewis is in my heart and he’s in my soul. Also, he’s probably gonna be my breath should I grow old. So, back off.”
• July 16: “To my sabremetric brothers and sisters, I’d like to inform you that the Most Reverend Colby Lewis will be preaching the Gospel of Joy tonight from the Fenway Park mound. Here’s what you can expect: lifted spirits, charismatic gifts, and a slightly regrettable soul patch.”
• August 13: “Colby Lewis is dynamic. That’s it: he’s just frigging dynamic.”
• August 19: “Colby Lewis is a Colby Lewis among men.”
• August 24: “And also, I SCREAM FOR COLBY LEWIS.”
• September 9: “Ask not what your Colby Lewis can do for you; ask what you can do for your Colby Lewis.”

Why I Didn’t Give You a Link to All These Articles
If you put “Colby Lewis” and “Carson Cistulli” into Google, you get 704 results. In fact, if you do it right now, you’ll probably get 705 results.

The Time Cistulli Offered Real, White-Hot Analysis: April 30
In the hours before Lewis’ first complete game shutout, and the months before they would become teammates, the prophetic Cistulli wrote this:

Five Bizarre Connections Between Colby Lewis and Cliff Lee
Put away those Ouija boards, kids, and prepare to get your minds freaked. Behold these five bizarre connections between tonight’s starters.

1. Both pitchers have two first names.
2. Both have the initials C.P.L. (Colby Preston Lewis, Clifton Phifer Lee.)
3. Both pitchers have pitched in the East: Lee in the NL East, Lewis in the Far.
4. Owing to the fact that they’re both so nasty, neither Lewis nor Lee has ever, in fact, kissed his mother with that mouth.
5. Lewis’s secretary was named Kennedy; Lee’s, Lincoln. Don’t even look it up, it’s true. You’ve got the Cistulli Guarantee on that.

Tonight’s ALDS Game 3 Preemptive Review

1. Josh Hamilton will mash a tater.

2. The tater will be cooked by Matt Garza.

3. Colby Lewis will throw stinky cheese on top of his sliders.

4. Other Rays players will be there tonight, too.

5. And all of them will probably strike out.


ALDS Game One Review: Texas

Led by a typical Cliff Lee playoff pitching performance — 10 K’s, 12 retired in a row at one point — the Texas Rangers jumped off to a 1-0 series lead with James Shields and two home games still left to play. With just one run versus 10 strikeouts in seven innings, Lee helped avenge his 0-3 record against the Rays this year, including an August 16 loss in a match-up against David Price. The Rangers offense also had much more success than that night, as home runs by Ben Molina and Nelson Cruz, and a near-home run by Jeff Francoeur, fueled the Rangers offensive output.

In that August 16 start, the Rangers saw as David Price started the game with 18 fastballs in his first 19 pitches. The same formula was used today (with much less success), with Price using fastballs on all of his first 19 pitches. While they couldn’t use that advanced scouting to their advantage in the first inning, it paid off in the second, when Jeff Francoeur hit a bad first-pitch fastball off the centerfield wall to plate Ian Kinsler. Bengie Molina then muscled the third consecutive fastball he saw to right field, giving the Rangers a 2-0 lead. It was all they would need.

It didn’t feel that way early, as Cliff Lee came out firing almost exclusively fastballs, keeping his plus (or plus-plus) cutter, curve and change all in his back pocket. It almost back-fired in the first, as Lee loaded the bases with one out and Carlos Pena at the plate. After falling behind in the count 2-1, Lee threw an inside fastball up and in. Home plate umpire Tim Welke looked as if he was going to call the pitch a ball, but after Carlos Pena argued that the pitch hit him, Welke called a foul tip strike. Rather than plating the game’s first run or at least gaining a 3-1 count, Pena fell behind 2-2, and would strike out on the seventh pitch of the at-bat.

What followed was a Cliff Lee clinic, with 62 strikes in his last 83 pitches, and the use of all his pitches. Lee struck out Jason Bartlett to end the second inning on a vicious cutter, and caught Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli looking on a pair of nasty looping curveballs in the fourth inning. Lee didn’t have his usual plus-plus change today, but the curveball was good, and the command of his two-seam fastball was very good.

By the numbers, it would appear that Cliff Lee (76 strikes on 104 pitches) had equal control to David Price (77 strikes on 107 pitches) on the day. But, the Rangers had a lineup that came to Tampa ready to hack, bailing David Price out of any walks. This was also because Ron Washington granted the middle of his order a green light on 3-0 counts, a managerial decision that paid off in a big way. In the third inning, Nelson Cruz crushed a grooved 93 mph 3-0 pitch 430 first to centerfield, lowering the Rays win expectancy to just 23.8%. In the fifth inning, Vladimir Guerrero knocked home Josh Hamilton with a double to the center field warning track on another 3-0 fastball.

While Neftali Feliz gave reason for the Tampa crowd to get on their feet in the ninth inning, starting his inning with two walks, the combination of the Rangers fastball hitters and baseball’s best southpaw created too big a gap. Texas now stands in a great position to upset the Rays, with a favorable pitching match-up in Game 2, two games in Arlington, and another Lee appearance scheduled in a potential Game 5.

Prospects Chat – 10/5/10

Numbers for the Numbered Starters

One of the more contrived areas of prospect analysis, in my opinion, is throwing a numbered starter grade on a pitching prospect. Scouts are the most consistent offenders of the trend: you’ll see a variation of “future no. 3 starter” in a lot of scouting reports. In a sense, it has become more philosophical — “a future ace” has non-contextual meaning, and so too does “middle of the rotation” or “back-end guy.”

I’ve advocated that we must think about prospects in terms of the WAR they will produce, and for pitchers, we must consider their potential strikeout, walk, home run and groundball rates (essentially, xFIP). Since the numbered starter grade has so much popularity behind it — I literally get “will X prospect be a #2 or #3” question every week in chats — it makes sense to put those designations in actual context, given the peripheral statistics we want to consider with prospects.

With that said, I will reinforce what Marc Hulet wrote earlier this year: essentially, the idea of a “#5 starter” doesn’t exist. Teams don’t use a #5 starter — they use a variety of replacement guys, generally — so if you’re projecting a prospect out as a #5 starter, you’re doing him a disservice. He’s either a reliever, a replacement-level player, or worse, a career minor leaguer. So, in this piece, we’ll be concerned with the 2010 statistical definitions of what #1-4 starters were. To get the appropriate number of players, I used 130 innings as a cut-off. This gave us 115 players, all of whom (except Brian Duensing) spent the vast majority of their season in the rotation.

Control (BB/9)

#1 Starter: 0.76 – 2.41 BB/9.
#2 Starter: 2.44 – 2.92 BB/9.
#3 Starter: 2.95 – 3.41 BB/9.
#4 Starter: 3.47 – 4.74 BB/9.

Cliff Lee was the king of command this year, with a walk rate almost 30% better than his next closest competitor, who just happened to be Roy Halladay. Guys like Shaun Marcum and Doug Fister took the next step this season by exhibiting ace-level command. It’s important to point out that BB/9 doesn’t always measure command, as a guy like Kevin Slowey can rank top five in the Majors in the category, but by missing on 21 pitches that ended up in the cheap seats, his xFIP was just 4.48. On the opposite side of the ledger was C.J. Wilson, who succeeds despite his proclivity for walks. He has success pitching consistently low in the zone, so he’s an example of a guy with command, but not control.

Swing-and-Miss Stuff (K/9)

#1 Starter: 10.95 – 7.86 K/9.
#2 Starter: 7.84 – 6.87 K/9.
#3 Starter: 6.86 – 5.44 K/9.
#4 Starter: 5.43 – 3.80 K/9.

What Cliff Lee was to the walk column, Brandon Morrow is to the strikeout column. While his control leaves something to be desired, Morrow’s raw stuff is off the charts. He was one of 13 starters this year that struck out one batter per inning. Since this happens so often in the minor leagues, I think we might forget just how rare it is for a pitcher to accomplish it at the highest level. Minor league strikeout kings like Wade Davis aren’t necessarily strikeout artists in the bigs. Without strikeouts, it’s a tough path to success: Carl Pavano had the most success with a terrible K/9, but his command had to reach career-best levels to achieve it.

Movement (GB%)

#1 Starter: 64.1 – 49.6 GB%.
#2 Starter: 49.4 – 44.9 GB%.
#3 Starter: 44.7 – 39.8 GB%.
#4 Starter: 39.5 – 28.3 GB%.

Movement isn’t quite described by GB%, but I think it does a fairly good job: good movement leads to weak hits, which keep the ball in the park. Tim Hudson was the only person this season to eclipse 60%, and he did it in a big way. The power of ground balls is maybe best exhibited with Ricky Romero, who was drowning in the minor leagues, looking like a bust, as a flyball pitcher in 2006 and 2007. Then, the former first rounder reinvented himself, and started focusing on ground balls. Success soon followed, and this season, he was one of 31 players to reach four wins above replacement. Staying east, Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s inability to record groundball outs has been one of the largest factors in his failure to live up to the hype in Boston.

Overall Rate Value (xFIP)

#1 Starter: 2.92 – 3.80 xFIP.
#2 Starter: 3.81 – 4.18 xFIP.
#3 Starter: 4.19 – 4.51 xFIP.
#4 Starter: 4.56 – 5.62 xFIP.

Now, these numbers are a little misleading — you wouldn’t call negative WAR guys like Javier Vazquez or Scott Kazmir “Number Four Starters.” Not in terms of how they’ve performed this season. While the scale falls off at the end, I think it does a good job at the beginning: I struggle to argue with calling anyone that had a 3.80 xFIP or better this season an “ace”. I laughed when I saw Trevor Cahill and Bud Norris back to back in the xFIP column — it’s a perfect description that there isn’t one way to succeed as a pitcher in the big leagues. Some pitchers, like Josh Johnson of the Marlins, can succeed in all three of the columns above. But whether it’s standing out in one category (Pavano), or consistency across all three (Randy Wells), there are a lot of paths to the same destination.

These numbers aren’t hard-and-fast cut-offs for discerning whether we’re going to call John Lamb a future number one starter, or a future number two. They are useful numbers for us to store mentally to put the distinctions that others insist on using into context. And, they serve as a nice tribute to the aces of 2010: Roy Halladay, Francisco Liriano, Adam Wainwright, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Mat Latos, Yovani Gallardo, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Jered Weaver, Ricky Nolasco, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon Morrow, Derek Lowe, Dan Haren, Wandy Rodriguez, Justin Verlander, James Shields, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jaime Garcia, Jhoulys Chacin, Ricky Romero, Zack Greinke, C.C. Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw.

Weighing Dee Gordon

Dee Gordon is the skinniest baseball player I have ever seen. The revelation was one of my most profound at this year’s Futures Game, which might tell you a few things: a) I am not a scout, and b) Dee Gordon is really skinny. I’ve searched for the best image evidence I can find — try here or here — but it’s really something that must be seen to be believed. Someone pointed out to me that Eric Davis was probably that skinny, but Eric Davis was also 6-foot-2. He had room to, and eventually did, put on some weight. Gordon is listed at 5-11, and at best, could probably push his generous listing to 160 pounds if he packs on 10 pounds of muscle over the next decade. And even then, he’ll probably actually weigh about 140.

The probably-shouldn’t-have-taken-me-this-long revelation has since really altered the way I thought about Gordon as a prospect. In the offseason, it seemed that Gordon was talked about in prospect circles in the same neighborhood as Starlin Castro. With the value of hindsight on my side, I needed to think about the comparison more thoroughly. It’s important to put Gordon’s size into context.

Since 1990, Baseball-Reference finds 131 player seasons in which a player listed at-or-below 160 pounds qualified for the batting title. It appears some of those listings — like 1999 Deivi Cruz — were generous, but we’ll run with it. After tallying these 131 seasons, I found that, cumulatively, this lightweight division hit .278/.346/.386, which would put their wOBA in the .320’s and their wRAA at a few runs below league average. Their BABIP was .305, and as a group, they stole 2602 bases in 3,620 chances, a success rate of 71.9%. Certainly not too far from the 72.6 mark that Gordon was at this season in the Southern League.

The numbers don’t actually seem terrible, but it’s important to look at upside here. Only 21 player seasons had a slugging percentage above .440, and in that group, 12 of them stole fewer than 15 bases in their season of work. Players like the aged versions of Lou Whitaker and Tony Phillips aren’t good comps for Gordon, and neither are players like Deivi Cruz, Shane Halter, or the bulked-up version of Juan Encarnacion (did the Tigers only scout skinny players from 1980-2000?). Speed is the name of Gordon’s game — he has swiped 144 bases in 324 minor league games — and it should hold true for players to whom we are comparing him. Therefore, I chopped off the 72 player seasons in which the player didn’t steal more than 15 (arbitrary number alert! Selection bias understood!) bases.

Surprisingly, when we take out that group, the numbers improve. The 59 player seasons remaining hit .288/.355/.387, the bump due to an increase in BABIP, which moved up to .316. It should also be mentioned that this group stole bases at a 74.9% clip. Peripherally, they averaged a strikeout rate of 12.0%, and a walk rate of 9.1% versus Gordon’s career minor league rates of 16.0% and 6.5%, respectively. There is clearly work to be done in those columns for the young Dodgers shortstop.

The problem with this group, in my eyes, is one of potential. Considering that Gordon does not possess, nor profile to possess, any power to speak of, he’s not going to have seasons like Lenny Dykstra in 1993, Julio Franco in 1991, or Damion Easley in 1997. The literal ceiling for a player with his skillset is Lance Johnson in 1996: .333/.362/.479, good for a .369 wOBA, and, with +17 runs on defense, a 6.5 WAR. And this is from a guy with a career strikeout rate of 7.1%. For what it’s worth, here are the players that had 3 or more seasons that fit my criteria (1990-2010, </= 160 pounds, more than 15 steals, qualified for batting title) — and next to the number of seasons are their corresponding WAR numbers for those seasons:

Bip Roberts – 3 seasons (5.3, 5.0, 1.7)
Brett Butler – 6 seasons (4.9, 4.9, 5.0, 1.9, 3.4, 1.0)
Jose Offerman – 5 seasons (0.9, 1.5, 2.5, 5.0, 2.8)
Juan Encarnacion – 4 seasons (1.6, 1.2, 2.5, 1.2)
Lance Johnson – 7 seasons (2.0, 3.2, 3.9, 5.1, 1.5, 3.4, 6.5)
Luis Polonia – 4 seasons (2.1, 0.6, -2.3, 0.8)
Ozzie Smith – 4 seasons (3.3, 5.4, 2.7)
Tim Raines – 3 seasons (2.8, 3.3, 6.1)
Tony Womack – 7 seasons (-0.6, 1.0, 1.0, 0.2, 1.4, 0.5, 2.5)

After I saw Gordon in the Futures Game, I wondered what his “perfect world projection” could possibly be. I’ll tell you what: it’s explained somewhere in the players above. But while there are 10 seasons with 4.9 WAR or more, there are also 18 seasons with 1.9 WAR or below. The median strikes a balance at about 2.5 wins above replacement. This is how it is for skinny players — some good upside if you walk a lot (Butler, Raines), strike out a little (Johnson, Roberts), or play defense really well (Smith, Johnson). But if you don’t succeed in those areas, preferably more than one, performance potential slips fast.

And if this article is guilty of selection bias, it also ignores the much larger sample of sub-160 pound players that never qualified for a batting title, and didn’t make a splash in the Major Leagues. Gordon is facing an undeniable up-hill climb, but admittedly, it’s a little more paved than I previously thought. I refuse to be as bullish as other outlets until Gordon’s peripherals improve, but I don’t want to be guilty of overrating just how much size matters.

Prospects Chat – 9/27/10

White Sox Need Morel at 3B

September is the perfect time to begin to make plans for the next season, to test prospects and start the process of shoring up holes. Previously, I have written up the Major League debuts of three pitchers: Mike Minor, Kyle Drabek and Brandon Beachy. But the next logical step is to tackle hitters, and those September call-ups are just now getting to the level of proper evaluation. The White Sox have recently been testing Brent Morel at third base, giving him the last seven starts at that position. He’s been a bit over his head, hitting .188/.235/.438, but has mixed in enough to sustain the optimism with two home runs and sure-handed defense. I went through every PA that Morel has had in his 11 games (34 in all), to see if it might help inform the statistics when we think about his future.

Morel hasn’t drawn the easiest assignments in his seven games as starter, going against Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson. For what it’s worth, he homered off Scherzer, a flyball to center field that had really good backspin. What’s weird is that you look at that list and it seems to explain his SwStr%, which is above the league average (8.5%) at 12.2%. In total, Morel has swung and missed on 17 pitches this month. Six of those have been fastballs. Yet not a single of those fastballs was from one of the great pitchers above. Four of the seven breaking balls were, but the fastballs came from the likes of Craig Breslow and Boof Bonser.

Morel clearly doesn’t have a problem with velocity. In fact, he doesn’t really have a problem with fastballs at all. Both his home runs were off fastballs, and it’s certainly the pitch he tries to isolate within an at-bat. If you want to know the book on Brent Morel, look no further than Justin Verlander‘s approach against him on September 18. Morel had four plate appearances against the Tigers ace, spanning 21 pitches: 8 curveballs, 5 sliders, 5 fastballs, and 3 change-ups. Yes, the pitcher that threw fastballs 58.5% of the time this year, averaging in at 95.4 mph, went to the heater just 23.8% of the time against the White Sox rookie.

Like many young hitters, the key is breaking stuff low and away. If you look at his swings at, you’ll see four pitches he offered at above the zone, two inside, and 11 pitches low (most low and away). He has no discipline in that part of the zone. On pitches high in the zone, another weakness we often see in young hitters, it’s just the opposite. I could give you numerous examples in the last two weeks of catchers calling for the high fastball with two strikes, with Morel watching the pitch go by. Or, even more often, if the pitch isn’t too far out of the zone, he’ll hit it foul. He does that often, as 21 of the 139 pitches he’s been thrown (15.1%) have been hit out of play.

The youngster earns a plus grade for his two-strike approach, which, with improved performance on the low-and-away slider, should help sustain those better-than-average strikeout numbers we’ve seen in the minor leagues. But I think it will take a couple years to lay off that pitch, so it’s going to be a slow crawl back to 15%. I plug his numbers into this xBABIP calculator, and it says he should be at .312, and yet now he’s at .190. There’s just been some bad luck on batted balls; I have at least three in my notes that were hard-hit balls ending up in a glove, including a particularly hard hit would-be double that landed just foul. That stuff will even out next year, I think.

The real question, the big question, is about his ultimate power. After 16 home runs in High-A in 2009, Morel had just 10 in the minors this year, before recently adding two more in the Major Leagues. I have not seen the kid take batting practice yet, which I believe is necessary in evaluating power, but I do think this is someone that will hit 20 home runs in the Major Leagues. Not many more, but he’s not Dustin Ackley, with an approach that runs counter to hitting for power. Morel’s goal, at every at-bat, is to take a middle-in fastball to left-center field. 

After watching all 34 plate appearances, my grade on Morel would actually be higher than it was entering this article concept. He has one glaring weakness, but it’s one that should improve out of habit and in time. He generally shows signs of good contact skills, an approach conducive to average power for the position, and I didn’t think it necessary today to re-tread the established fact that he’s good defensively. I certainly think he could be worth at least 2-2.5 WAR next year, which is a lot more than you can say of Mark Teahen and Omar Vizquel in 2010.

Stauffer’s Survival

WPA says that Tim Stauffer‘s start last night, one run allowed in six innings of the Padres 3-1 win over the Dodgers, was worth 0.208. But that certainly underrates the importance of the start, coming after San Francisco’s 2-0 loss to the Cubs. (Hey, Appelman, where’s Playoffs Probability Added when I need it?) In his fifth start of the year, and fourth since joining the rotation on September 6, Stauffer managed to lower his ERA from 1.99 to 1.95, striking out five with a 9-3 groundout-to-flyout ratio. Now, it’s starting to become apparent that the 28 year old thought-to-be-bust, a guy who entered the year with 167.2 boring career innings spread over five years, just might be a Padres playoff starter.

These are the kind of stories that make baseball fun to watch, something that in the wake of FJM returning to Deadspin, I think statheads and Bill Conlin (and Murray Chass and…) could agree on. Stauffer was once the fourth overall pick of the 2003 draft, slotted in between Kyle Sleeth and Chris Lubanski, a top five that entered the year as one of the worst all-time (good seasons by Delmon Young and Rickie Weeks helped rectify that). Before the draft, Baseball America compared the guy to Brad Radke and, yes, Greg Maddux. They wrote, “His stuff, delivery, mound presence and pitchability are all major league quality now, and he should breeze through the minors.”

He did just that in 2004: a 1.78 ERA in six California League starts, a 2.63 ERA in eight Southern League starts, and an impressive 3.54 ERA in 14 Triple-A starts (the last one, albeit, with bad peripherals). The Padres split Stauffer between Portland and San Diego the next season, but his ERA was in the five’s in both places. In 2006, it was Portland for the whole season, and he allowed a 5.53 ERA, with career highs in HR/9 (1.2), H/9 (11.7) and BB/9 (3.1). Those are bad. His 2007 season was a little better, but a bad BABIP left his ERA higher than a top prospect should have (4.34), and with fairly pedestrian stuff, he was quickly being forgotten. And, he might have been pitching hurt.

In 2008, Stauffer underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and predictably, missed the season. Last year was supposed to be about baby steps, a May return in Double-A, with 12 relief appearances there. But then came a promotion back to Portland, where he had four good starts, before getting the call to the big leagues. Stauffer had 14 starts in the second half of 2009 for the Padres, with both his FIP numbers in the 4.7 range, and a 0.1 WAR to show for his efforts. But don’t get caught in the mediocrity of the performance, the quick turnaround was the story, the performances didn’t matter.

Now, the story is both of health and success. And, of a pitcher reborn. If his one-time comparison to Brad Radke was to believed, Stauffer was going to be a four-pitch flyball pitcher, succeeding on good command. Entering the year, his career groundball rate would have been around 43%. But this new pitcher, this sub-2 ERA guy, is combining good command with some plus movement, and he’s got a 53.6% groundball rate to show for it. Returning to the rotation has done nothing for this newfound style, as he has a 54.0 GB% in September with a 2.0 GB/FB ratio. Thanks to Texas Leaguers, I can tell you that his fastball last year had 8.93 Vertical inches and -5.53 horizontal inches, where in 2010, it’s been 7.12 vertical and -7.57 horizontal. I can’t tell you exactly what that means, but one way or the other, it’s producing more groundballs.

In relief this season, Stauffer was mostly a fastball-slider pitcher, throwing the two pitches 82.1% of the time. But in his four September starts, Stauffer has picked up the usage of his change-up, throwing it 15.3% of the time overall, including 26.5% of the time versus left-handed hitters. He’s actually seen the velocity of his fastball and slider rise (91.5 and 86.0 mph’s respectively), with the speed of his change-up (81.1 mph) decrease in the conversion from reliever to starter. Though, of course, these are all small sample sizes. The point is, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound righty had nothing to gain pitching in relief versus the rotation: not velocity nor bite. The move to starting has only allowed him to use his good change-up more often.

Watching Stauffer last night, he’s a guy that going forward is so dependent on his ability to spot the ball on the outside corner. For instance, check out the Pitch F/X graphics from his September 16 start against the Cardinals. He threw two pitches on the inside half to lefties, and just three pitches inside on right-handers. More than pitching down in the zone, he just lives on the outer half, and will only face trouble when his pitches start to inch back to the middle of the plate. Luckily, half his games will be in PETCO Park, where mistakes can be tolerated.

Both in October and 2011, Tim Stauffer is one of the best 4 pitchers available to start for the San Diego Padres. In 2008, when Stauffer underwent surgery, he was assumed to be a bust. He’s not Brad Radke, and he’s sure not Greg Maddux, and I’m not even yet convinced he’s a groundball pitcher, but I do know that Stauffer is one hell of a story.

Arbitrary End Points

The narrative of a season is too often written by early season play, a good April begins the conversation of a successful season. Take Kelly Johnson, for instance, who will be remembered as having a good 2010 season. But in each month after April, Johnson never hit half as many home runs or OPS’d within 200 points of his first 30 days. The misconception is something Keith Law has hash-tagged a lot on Twitter this year, using Matt Wieters and Gordon Beckham as cases of when early season play hides midseason success. I want to bring that conversation to the minor leagues, and highlight some performances that may have been overshadowed by what came before it. I’ll do the same with the pitchers later.

Post-April Stars

Grant Green hit .284/.313/.411 in April. He hit .325/.373/.543 the rest of the season.
Joe Benson hit .169/.296/.271 in April. He hit .273/.350/.578 the rest of the season.
Sean Ratliff hit .259/.326/.407 in April. He hit .306/.359/.524 the rest of the season.

For a guy who had never hit more than five home runs in a season before, Joe Benson clubbing 27 in 2010 is a big number. But his patience eroded, as he walked one less time in 2010 than he had in 2009, albeit with 185 more plate appearances. His strikeouts are an issue, and will keep the average down at higher levels. The key is figuring out just how much New Britain aided in his home runs (we’ll get to that when I continue this series), and I think it did to a degree. That being said, the kid always had untapped power, and now it’s there. Denard Span will need a quick start to his 2011 season, or his job will be in jeopardy fast.

Grant Green is really good. He slid in the draft a bit last year after being talked about as a potential top five pick as a sophomore. Oakland’s gain. The one area he was most consistent in was the error column, with at least six in every month, and 37 overall. He’s going to hit, he just might not be a shortstop. Sean Ratliff did much better in the Eastern League than the Florida State League — environment context is everything! — but overall, he had a nice season. He hit lefties well this season, and had a nice power breakout. I believe in him, though like Benson, those strikeout numbers will keep the batting average down.

Post-May Stars

Marquez Smith hit .198/.291/.327 the first two months. He hit .337/.405/.650 after.
Aaron Hicks hit .246/.362/.369 the first two months. He hit .303/.429/.471 after.

Cubs fans, at least those of us hoping for a rebuild, pray that Aramis Ramirez will decline his 2011 player option, and the Cubs will see what Marquez Smith can do in the big leagues. This season wasn’t a huge improvement for Smith (he’s always posted solid numbers), but it was a big enough final three months to make people start noticing. Before we get too excited, we need to remember that he did this in the easiest offensive league in pro baseball, but I certainly believe the guy could OPS around .800 in the Majors, and I’m not sure I would have said that before the year.

As a guy repeating the level, people thought Aaron Hicks was going to explode out of the gate this season. When it didn’t happen in April or May, the “bust” word was thrown around in certain circles (particularly the queue of prospect chats). But his numbers after June 1 were really good in a pitcher’s league, and I think Hicks is now undervalued. He might struggle in the Florida State League next year, but like Joe Benson, you might see him really breakout when he gets to New Britain.

Post-June Stars

Brandon Guyer hit .259/.340/.471 the first three months. He hit .417/.449/.668 after.
Jesus Montero hit .250/.313/.414 the first three months. He hit .340/.404/.650 after.
Yonder Alonso hit .248/.319/.361 the first three months. He hit .347/.421/.592 after.
Tim Beckham hit .211/.294/.341 the first three months. He hit .306/.402/.379 after.

One of these things is not like the other, as Beckham’s final two months were about 300 OPS points lower than his peers. But he’s a former #1 pick, and when he shows signs of life, we need to talk about it. The problems here are that he showed no power at any point in the season, his base-stealing is down, and so (Kevin Goldstein wrote this week) are the grades on his raw speed. But he took a major step forward in developing patience this year, peaking with a 20-walk month in July. At the very least, the Rays need to work with him to make sure that dedication continues as the rest of his game develops.

Montero is pretty charted territory, because he’s probably the most visible prospect that I can ever remember. He’s a damn good hitter, and could probably handle Yankees DH duties after they make sure he doesn’t make a habit of early season rust. Trading him would be a mistake. With Yonder Alonso, I think trading him is the only option, with the caveat that he might do some damage elsewhere. But his troubles against left-handers, his questionable future home run output, a general lack of athleticism, and a decline in his walk numbers should give the Reds the ability to sleep at night. Post-June aside, he’s a second-division first baseman.

Guyer’s future has been a question in my chat each of the last few weeks, as desperate Cub fans cling to any optimism. Given his amazing end of the season, I can see why they picked Guyer. An excellent contact hitter and baserunner, Guyer would really do well to walk more often, as his power will always be of the gap variety, and his defense in centerfield will always be a stretch. I still see a tweener, but he’s also starting to change my mind.

Post-July Stars

Matt Cerione hit .238/.303/.381 the first four months. He hit .383/.532/.734 after.
D’Vontrey Richardson hit .224/.305/.307 the first four months. He hit .306/.413/.570 after.
Todd Frazier hit .239/.298/.425 the first four months. He hit .317/.431/.517 after.

Obviously, we’re getting down to smaller samples. I don’t know why it took college hitters Cerione and Richardson so long to get acclimated to the Midwest League, but they were certainly good in August and September. Richardson has the louder tools, but he also struck out 164 times in 522 at-bats. I always saw Cerione as a platoon guy at best, though I admit his numbers against southpaws were better than I thought he had in him. Look for him to get bandied about as a prospect when he kills the ball in High Desert next year.

Finally, former first-round pick Todd Frazier had a really good finish to his season. After walking 24 times the first four months, Frazier walked 21 times in his last 33 games, while the rest of his peripherals stayed fairly static. At the very least, he could platoon in left field next season, and be an asset off the bench against right-handed pitchers. He just needs to keep walking.

The Braves Go to Beachy

Shortly after it was announced yesterday that breakout prospect Brandon Beachy would be making a spot start for Jair Jurrjens, Craig Calcaterra tweeted this about the week’s series between Philadelphia and Atlanta: “Philly starters: 765 career starts. Braves starters: 59. 52 of those are Tommy Hanson‘s.” The other seven belong to Mike Minor, whose August debut I profiled in this space. I figured it was only fair to extend the same courtesy to Beachy. Where Minor pitched against a hapless Astros team in his debut, Beachy’s first test was a much taller order: on the road, against the rival and hottest team in baseball, in the midst of divisional and Wild Card races.

You could excuse a 23-year-old kid, particularly one who was an undrafted free agent and former NAIA pitcher, for being a little nervous. And there’s no question he was often during his 82-pitch debut, for which he was ultimately credited with the loss. Beachy allowed three runs, but just one earned – as Jason Heyward dropped a line drive for a three-base error to start the fifth inning and the bullpen allowed its lone inherited runner (Chase Utley) to score – in 4.1 innings. He walked three, two of them intentional — albeit one IBB was after two normal pitches missed the strike zone — and struck out just one (Chase Utley) of 21 batters faced. In fact, Beachy induced just five swinging strikes all night, two on fastballs and three on change-ups.

It was mostly just those two pitches for Beachy, as just eight of his 82 pitches were curveballs. The 6-foot-3 right-hander used the pitch in a weird fashion, throwing 5 of the 8 to left-handed batters. In a game against four right-handed hitters, just three times did he throw the deuce. One of them, and perhaps this was why the usage diminished, was a hanging curveball that Carlos Ruiz smacked to left field for an RBI double. Only once did Beachy drop the pitch in the dirt — it’s more of a control pitch that he uses to freeze hitters expecting an early-count fastball.

The book on Beachy, which was unwritten entering the season, is centered around his excellent control. He walked just 2.1 batters per nine innings this year, matching his career minor league rate, which is 208 innings long. Given his overall success, the implication of control AND command certainly exists, and the Braves television team reported to hearing just as much within the organization. But while color man Joe Simpson said in the fourth inning that Beachy was “locating his fastball real well,” I certainly beg to differ. I can’t fault the kid for being off given the environment, but let’s not pretend something was there that wasn’t. Beachy did not have good command for the majority of last night, neither with his fastball nor his change-up.

For the most part, however, the Phillies good offense didn’t make him pay. The team hit three or four balls hard but foul, including an almost-homer on a fastball to Raul Ibanez that caught too much plate. In the next at-bat, a 10-pitch battle with Carlos Ruiz, another missed fastball was almost a double. Beachy learned quickly that you can’t miss the catcher’s mitt with a 89-92 mph fastball at the Major League level.

Generally speaking, though it received more derision from Simpson, the change-up was the better commanded pitch for Beachy. Though that should be clarified: the change-up hit the vicinity of the catcher’s mitt more often than the fastball, but he had a couple misses with the change-up that promise his HR/9 ratios (just 0.3 in the minors) will see an up-tick in the Major Leagues. To lead off the third inning, Beachy threw change-ups to Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco that he was truly lucky weren’t put over the fence. Unsurprisingly, the next nine pitches were all fastballs.

But where I can’t see the swing-and-miss in Beachy’s fastball, not at that extreme over-the-top arm angle with that velocity, his change-up will have to be the out pitch for Beachy to post requisite strikeout numbers in the big leagues. At times we saw it, including in the aforementioned 10-pitch at-bat versus Ruiz, which included a swinging strike one, a good miss low-and-away, another just-miss that Ruiz offered at, and another pitch he dribbled foul. Four change-ups in one at-bat, and all of them were good. The pitch has potential, and I started to really find that to be true later in the game.

In that way, it was sort of a funny outing for Beachy. I thought he was getting better at the end, though that’s when the “damage” came. He threw two really good change-ups in the fifth inning, including the one that Placido Polanco dribbled to shortstop for the second-run of the game. His final batter faced was Utley, who he initially froze with a curveball, then jammed him inside with a fastball, and then Utley executed some great hitting skills by taking a good low-and-away fastball and smacking it to center field. Where I thought he deserved a beating early, there were some redeeming traits shown later in the outing that, because of the runs, probably were unnoticed.

Given the sheer depth of the Braves pitching staff, it’s hard to project a starting role for Beachy in this organization. He throws 3 pitches, but not one of them is a plus offering right now, and I think maybe only the change-up profiles at plus. He’ll need better command to have any success, because I think he’s going to have problems sustaining his strikeout and home run ratios given the fairly pedestrian stuff. If the young right-hander can paint the black with his fastball, and refine his change-up into an out pitch, he could be a back-end starter in the big leagues. I’m willing to believe that better stuff will be seen in subsequent outings, in less hostile environments, but for now he gets a second-divison starter or middle relief grade from me.

Prospects Chat – 9/20/10

The Dirt on Drabek’s Debut

No Major League team is currently in possession of as talented a young, Major League starting staff as the Toronto Blue Jays. This season has seen the coming out party for Ricky Romero, occasional ace-type brilliance from Brandon Morrow, and a quiet sub-4 FIP year for Brett Cecil. Last night, the newest horse joined the big league stables as Kyle Drabek made his Major League debut against the Baltimore Orioles. The young right-hander took the loss despite allowing just three runs in six innings, as Jose Bautista could only get to Brad Bergesen once in nine innings.

Drabek’s line (9H/6IP, 8GO/2AO) implies the sort of bad batted ball luck that we often see from sinkerballers. But this was simply not the case, as Drabek was the beneficiary of at least five good defensive plays: Aaron Hill fired a relay throw from DeWayne Wise into an out at home plate; Lyle Overbay turned a great 4-3-6 double play to end an inning; Travis Snider impressively threw out Ty Wigginton at second base; Vernon Wells “robbed” a home run from Adam Jones in right-center; and John Buck threw out Corey Patterson from his knees. We’re talking about multiple runs prevented by the Blue Jays defense, turning Drabek’s day from a Welcome to the Majors moment into a Quality Start.

There’s no question Drabek keeps a defense active. I have often wondered why Drabek’s strikeout rates in the minors weren’t great, why a guy with his stuff would post a career minor league whiff rate of just 7.5. Granted, he gets the groundouts too, but Keith Law just wrote up a minor leaguer with a 93-97 mph fastball, and Baseball America rated his curveball a “70” on the scouting scale, and he’s not striking out a batter an inning? Tonight, I got some indication on why that has been true. Yes, Drabek’s curvball is nasty – just tune into a mid-inning strikeout of Felix Pie on back-to-back curveballs to see the nastiness – but the pitch is missing something. He has, oddly enough, better command than control of the pitch (this is often said the other way around).

To push the point further, all night Drabek showed a really unique ability to bury his curveball in the dirt – it’s a trait that not many curveball pitchers possess at the age of 22. But the skill he doesn’t seem to have is the ability to throw it for strikes. I saw it only twice last night – once to Brian Roberts in the fourth inning, and then again to Matt Wieters in the sixth. The latter was a hanging curveball that Wieters deposited for a left field single. So, my hypothesis is that minor league hitters likely figured this out, and taught themselves (as best they could) to lay off the curveball in the dirt, and let Drabek beat them with the fastball. And that fastball, even at 92-95 mph, is a pitch-to-contact heater for Drabek, as he doesn’t have explosive life up in the zone.

The single he gave up to Corey Patterson in the fourth inning is a perfect example of the way two-seam fastballs lose life when they don’t get down – Drabek left it up, and the pitch went flat, serving a RBI on a platter. When low in the zone, Drabek gets some heavy sink and arm-side run on the pitch. It’s just no surprise that he racks up groundballs at the rate he does. But it’s a pitch that hitters fouled off rather than swung threw often last night, which means his breaking ball will have to really be perfect to raise his strikeout rate to a level that his stuff suggests.

Or, maybe he will start adding strikeouts because of the emergence of his new and mysterious third pitch. No, not the change-up, which was thrown a couple times last night, a waste pitch low and away to lefties. Nowhere in Baseball America’s offseason report, or even Law’s from last week, did we see mention of a pitch that Kyle Drabek threw about 20% of the time last night: a cutter. You can’t blame BA or Law, because a second-inning booth interview of his father Doug Drabek revealed that Dad taught him the pitch in the offseason, and that it’s still coming along.

But wow, does the pitch have potential. A second-inning strikeout of Adam Jones showed off the pitch in all its glory: he commanded a 90 mph pitch with slider movement with two strikes. In fact, at times, he shows great confidence in the pitch: throwing it on three balls at least three times last night. But the confidence is still not in all the right places. His Dad, in the booth interview, said the pitch was implemented as a way to jam left-handed hitters. But like a college pitcher afraid to throw his change-up against aluminum bats, Drabek wouldn’t use it in that fashion last night: back-dooring it to left-handed hitters and using it a chase pitch against right-handers.

With another winter spent between the Blue Jays underrated pitching development team, and working with a former All-Star father, it’s not hard to imagine Drabek arriving to Spring Training next year with some new weapons in tow: better command of the fastball, control of the curveball, faith in the cutter. Not one of those offerings is far away, and if he succeeds in all three areas, he might just be Toronto’s best starter. And, with this group, that’s saying something.

The Minors in Context: Introduction

In the comments section of Friday’s article, reader Justin asked for “a description of the environments of the leagues in MiLB.” Considering the importance of contextualizing every event in the minors, even while this ground may be well-trodden, it’s territory worth returning t0. A couple weeks ago, I did a post on the different ballpark environments in the Florida State League, which will work as a framework for the rest of the series. Today, I will look at the leagues relative to each other, and, in an on-going series, slowly tackle each league more in-depth: talking about the stadiums, and divisions, that are apt to favor either a hitter or pitcher. It should serve as an important introduction to an offseason of prospect analysis.

To keep the spirit of introduction alive, let’s begin with a review of the different full-season levels of the minors, and the respective leagues at each level:

Triple-A: International League (14 teams), Pacific Coast League (16).
Double-A: Eastern League (12), Southern League (10), Texas League (8).
High-A: California League (10), Carolina League (8), Florida State League (12).
Low-A: Midwest League (16), South Atlantic League (14).

I don’t think I have to remind that each Major League team has an affiliate at every level. The league abbreviations are generally just the first letter of each word in the league (example: FSL), though the California League is CAL, the Carolina League is CAR, and the Midwest League is MWL. Sometimes, you’ll see the International League abbreviated to INT rather than IL. Moving past the really familiar, here’s a look at the average performance at each level this season — and while more years of data is always better, I would then really be piggy-backing off previous extensive work on the subject.

Level    R/G   AVG/OBP/SLG   ISO   BB%    K%    BABIP
Low-A   4.63   257/328/381   124   8.5   20.4    .314
HighA   4.62   263/332/391   128   8.2   19.8    .318
DoubA   4.55   261/334/392   131   8.9   18.8    .309
TripA   4.89   270/340/422   151   8.7   18.1    .313

There are some signs here of the developmental ladder at work. The strikeout rate goes down as players move up through the minors, with hitters seemingly improving at a higher rate than the pitchers. They are also hitting for more power, as the Isolated Power improves, too. I expected to see a gradual decrease in BABIP, to reflect an improvement in fielders, but it works as an example of why we need to get out our microscopes. As you’ll see in a second, the California League BABIP is .328, so it skews the High-A data above the Low-A. And we would see the improvement in pitchers with a decrease in runs per game if not for the Pacific Coast League (5.22 R/G) throwing off our data.

Therefore, the next logical step is to break this down by league. Let’s start with the aforementioned PCL and their Triple-A brethren, the International League.

League    R/G   AVG/OBP/SLG   ISO   BB%    K%    BABIP
PCL      5.22   277/348/432   155   8.9   17.4    .318
IL       4.51   263/330/410   147   8.4   18.8    .307

In 2010, the PCL was the best hitting environment of any professional league. The Isolated Power was higher than the California League, the strikeout rate was the lowest in the minor leagues, and the BABIP was higher than we’d expect from AAA fielders. While the International League has a low R/G mark, it also has an Isolated Power essentially equal to the Cal League. Hitters have matured, but so have pitchers, cutting down on their walk rates relative to Double-A.

Speaking of, next we move to the three Double-A leagues, which lack the huge differences that leagues in the other levels see.

League    R/G   AVG/OBP/SLG   ISO   BB%    K%    BABIP
TEX      4.48   260/334/387   127   9.1   18.4    .307
SL       4.52   263/337/390   127   9.0   19.1    .315
EL       4.63   259/332/397   138   9.8   18.8    .305

While the Texas League has the reputation of a hitters league, and played as the most hitter-friendly in AA from 2007-2009, it produced the least runs of the three leagues this year. The Eastern League, the most pitcher-friendly AA league in Inaz’ study, produced the most offense. The difference is found entirely in Isolated Power, where the EL was high. Whether this is a one-year blip, or the result of changing offense environments (read: new stadiums or organizations) will remain to be seen. The Southern League seems pretty neutral — perhaps a touch pitcher-friendly, but also had a higher BABIP than I would have thought.

Both the most- and least-friendly environments are found in High-A, with the pitcher-friendly Florida State League and hitter-friendly California League. Found in between the two is the Carolina League. Check it out:

League    R/G   AVG/OBP/SLG   ISO   BB%    K%    BABIP
FSL      4.18   255/324/364   109   8.1   20.0    .312
CAR      4.53   260/330/388   128   8.3   19.8    .314
CAL      5.21   275/344/423   148   8.4   19.6    .328

The Carolina League played more neutral than usual this year, usually leaning a little towards pitchers. The California League is simply ridiculous, with an environment easy for hitters and hard for fielders. It’s intimating confines probably explain the small rise we see in BB% relative to the other leagues, too. The Florida State League kills offense at almost the same rate the Cal League promoted it, with even a higher strikeout rate than the other leagues.

Finally, let’s check in on Low-A, with one league that I detailed on Friday.

League    R/G   AVG/OBP/SLG   ISO   BB%    K%    BABIP
SAL      4.54   256/323/377   121   7.8   20.4    .313
MWL      4.72   257/333/384   127   9.0   20.5    .315

The Midwest League has always been one of the more pitcher-friendly leagues, but this year, it was easier for hitters than the South Atlantic League. The biggest difference comes in terms of BB%, which signals to me that it might be the result of a specific talent pool rather than an ongoing trend. It’s just possible the South Atlantic League had better pitchers, or the Midwest League better hitters, then they usually do. Probably both, and we’ll talk about that when we detail their leagues.

This is where I will leave things today. We know that the Pacific Coast and California Leagues are the games most hitter-friendly. The Florida State League is the least-friendly. The International League leans towards pitchers too, as does the Southern League. The Texas League confuses me. But our answer to most questions will be answered when I break down the league’s stadiums one-by-one, which is where the series is headed next.

The Midwest Wasteland

This morning, I looked at the truly unique and historic season that 19-year-old Nick Franklin had in the Midwest League. It’s worth emphasizing again how difficult an environment this is, as prior research I’ve done shows teenagers hit just .260/.330/.381 from 2000-2006. Just as the Major League rookie crop of 2010 was a fantastic one, so too was the group of teenagers this season in the Midwest League. No less than 10 players, besides Franklin, exceeded that .330 OBP / .381 SLG benchmark that past performers have set. Two, in particular, blew the roof off of it.

I have been no secret with my belief that Mike Trout is the best prospect in baseball. This has been a point of contention in my prospect chats with people that have seen him hit *just* .294/.377/.416 in the California League and fail to get excited. Earlier this morning, I posted the best batting lines of a teenager in the last decade. Daric Barton was tops, at .313/.445/.511. Shin-Soo Choo, the only athletic player in the top six, hit .302/.417/.440. What did Mike Trout hit, while at a baseball age a year younger than both of them? .362/.454/.526 in 368 plate appearances with, oh by the way, just 52 strikeouts and 44 steals.

Trout possesses a combination of skills the likes of which this league has never seen. Trout showed a similar walk rate (12.5%) to what Joe Mauer had (12.8%) in the Midwest League, teamed with a really good contact rate that isn’t historic, but it’s certainly really good. Add in the fact that his power is still coming — I’d compare it to what Eric Hosmer did at the level — and that his speed and defense are both plus to plus-plus tools, and you start to get an idea of why I think this kid is such a unique player.

The other freakish stat line of the season belongs to Wil Myers, the Kansas City Royals catching prospect that hit .298/.408/.500 before moving up to High-A, where he hit .346/.453/.512. The three most comparable lines we have to Myers’ Midwest League performance, in the 2000’s, belong to Prince Fielder, Travis Snider and Adrian Gonzalez. You might also toss in Colby Rasmus, who also moved up to High-A and had success there, albeit more muted. Position uncertainty aside, Fielder has shown that you don’t need to play a premium position, nor play defense well at all, to be a five win player.

This morning we talked about how rare Franklin’s season really is when considering the position he played on a day-to-day basis. Joining him in the Midwest League this year were three other teenage shortstops: Hak-Ju Lee (.282/.354/.351), Chris Owings (.298/.323/.447) and Jonathan Galvez (.259/.360/.397). Lee is the best defender of the group, and has drawn the most praise in prospect circles. However, if you went to compare his season to all the teenage seasons in the 2000’s, it’s an uninspiring group, names like Marcus Lemon, Vince Rooi, Alex Romero, Gorkys Hernandez, and generously (and serendipitously), Felix Pie.

Owings had a pretty small sample because of a foot injury, but more than his limited success, it’s that 9-50 walk-to-strikeout ratio that jumps out at me. If we look for people that were under .2 in that ratio: Wily Mo Pena, Jery Gil, Wladimir Balentien, Josh Vitters, Junior Lake, Denny Almonte, Neftali Soto and Engel Beltre. The latter might be the closest comparison, but Owings looks better than Beltre statistically. Finally, we have Galvez, who probably isn’t a shortstop at all after his 43 errors. But if he can work at second base, his touch of power and good patience shine out for me. Everything except contact rate comes off just like Cody Ross, with the low and high end of comparisons coming in at Vince Rooi and Grady Sizemore, respectively. The majority of comparisons come in pretty low, though, with Marcus Lemon and Justin Jackson and Daryl Jones worth mentioning. I still like Galvez, though.

In addition to Owings, Arizona had a pair of third base prospects in the Midwest League this year splitting time at the hot corner. Matt Davidson (.289/.371/.504) had more success than Bobby Borchering (.270/.341/.423), eventually moving onto the California League. Davidson’s season would probably get him into the top 10 of the decade (if not pushed out by Trout and Myers), and it was a similar line to Travis Snider and Carlos Gonzalez. Snider’s season, and general lack of athleticism, actually make for a nice comparison. Borchering has better (though still not good) contact skills and athleticism, but his season was still a disappointment. Chris Lubanski‘s line was pretty similar, as was Brandon Wood and Reid Brignac and Wilkin Ramirez.

Let’s move it to bullet points to get near the end here.

  • Randal Grichuk was drafted ahead of Trout, and had a nice-ish debut before his injury, hitting .292/.327/.530. He had an identical BB/K ratio of Chris Owings at 9-50, so you’re hoping for Josh Vitters, but thinking probably Neftali Soto or Wladimir Balentien‘s paths are more likely.
  • The athletic outfielders Everett Williams (.244/.333/.372) and Rashun Dixon (.275/.371/.383) might just be the best comps for each other, given solid walk rates, bad strikeout rates and all. Dixon just BABIP’d higher. Both seasons were acceptable, if unexciting, beginnings.
  • Cubs fans are starting to get excited about Jae-Hoon Ha, who had a better season (.317/.334/.468) than Hak-Ju Lee, albeit without a good walk rate. This was better than what Josh Barfield did in the league, but a little worse than Erick Aybar. Twins prospects David Winfree and Wilson Ramos had similar stats, but are much less athletic. This is another place where comparing Engel Beltre might work.
  • And, in terms of history, I will say this: Max Stassi‘s 141 strikeouts (in 465 PA’s) comes in fifth on the counting stat list behind Wily Mo Pena (177 in 565), James Jenkins (151 in 456), Denny Almonte (149 in 408) and Wilkin Ramirez (143 in 541).

  • Nick Franklin’s Historic Season

    One of the biggest storylines of the 2009 season was Aaron Hill, who by a change in philosophy, hit 36 home runs, almost exclusively to left field. It was a shock for scouts, who had watched as Hill hit six home runs in his first full season in 2006, had hit 20 in 1,015 minor league plate appearances, and never more than nine in any season hitting with aluminum at Louisiana State. Hill is an amazing example of the importance of development, the ability for change, and for the unpredictability of power. So, too, is this 2009 draftee that garnered this pre-draft scouting report from Baseball America.

    “Scouts don’t expect him to hit for even average power with wood, but he should have enough strength in his wiry frame to keep pitchers honest. Scouts have made comparisons to players such as Aaron Hill or [Felipe] Lopez offensively, though he has less power.”

    Either the Mariners didn’t agree with that, or they didn’t know what they were really getting in Florida prep shortstop Nick Franklin, the 27th overall pick last season. This year, Franklin had a season to rival Hill’s 2009, only as a teenager in the Midwest League. I have written before about how difficult a hitting environment the Midwest League is, particularly for teenagers who are facing a great number of college players. And Franklin’s season stands out historically in that regard. Check out the number of home runs by a teenager in the MWL in the 2000’s:

    1. Prince Fielder – 27
    2. Wily Mo Pena – 26
    3. Nick Franklin – 23
    4. Mike Moustakas – 22
    5. Carlos Gonzalez – 18
    5. Matt Sweeney – 18
    7. Brad Nelson – 17
    7. Edwin Encarnacion – 17
    7. Adrian Gonzalez – 17
    10. Six Others Tied at 16

    Granted, counting stats can be misleading, but any way you slice it, that’s some good company to be in. Brad Nelson is the only true bust on the list, as even Pena and Encarnacion had their seasons of success. But, I don’t want to limit ourselves to counting stats. In compiling the data above, I found more than 50 teenage player seasons in the 2000’s, seasons from the likes of Miguel Cabrera (.268/.328/.382), Grady Sizemore (.268/.381/.335), Joe Mauer (.302/.393/.392) and Justin Upton (.263/.343/.413). The more I looked, the more it became apparent that Franklin’s season is truly amazing in the millennium context.

    When I looked at rate statistics, really only these ten players could compete with the .281/.351/.485 batting line that Franklin put up in a full season of work:

    1. Daric Barton, C, .313/.445/.511
    2. Jaff Decker, OF, .299/.442/.514
    3. Prince Fielder, 1B, .313/.409/.526
    4. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, .302/.417/.440
    5. Travis Snider, OF, .313/.377/.525
    6. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, .312/.382/.486
    7. Jay Bruce, OF, .291/.355/.516
    8. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, .307/.371/.489
    9. Cameron Maybin, OF, .304/.387/457
    10. Ruben Gotay, 2B, .285/.377/.456

    If we include players that had half-seasons because of injury or promotion, we’d add Chris Snelling, Casey Kotchman, Colby Rasmus, Kyle Blanks and Josh Vitters to the list, probably. This is not an example of park factors at work in Franklin’s favor, as a 2006-2008 look at Clinton’s stadium revealed it to be neutral across the board. Franklin just hit the ground running and never looked back. Also, consider that the switch-hitter hit just .174/.221/.273 with two home runs from the right side, and the team is contemplating whether to give up his switch-hitting experiment.

    Still, Franklin has put himself in rare company, and he’s a guy that is likely to stick at shortstop. To put that position adjustment in context, here are the five best seasons of teenage shortstops in the league I could find since 2000:

    1. Erick Aybar, .308/.346/.446
    2. Mike Moustakas, .272/.337/.468
    3. Matt Tuiasosopo, .276/.359/.386
    4. Justin Upton, .263/.343/.413
    5. Paul Kelly, .280/.352/.384

    And it falls off from there. Those seasons above can’t hold a candle to Franklin’s campaign, and in the case of the accomplished Moustakas and Upton, neither was going to stay at shortstop for very long. Aybar’s season was truly impressive, but Franklin’s is the best.

    As a final piece of the puzzle, I took the 16 player-seasons I could find that were most similar to Franklin’s (from a rate level), and adjusted them to equal his 574 plate appearances. I think it’s interesting to note that Jay Bruce‘s 2006 season, for example, prorates to 51 walks and 122 strikeouts, which bears an awful resemblance to Franklin’s 50 walks and 123 strikeouts. Also really close was Andrew Lambo in 2008, adjusted to 45 walks and 123 strikeouts. While both adjusted to more extra-base hits than Franklin, perhaps we can look to their K/BB development as a sign for what Franklin’s will mature into.

    From a power standpoint, the two most similar seasons as Carlos Gonzalez and Mike Moustakas, both who adjust to an identical 52 extra-base hits. Both showed better contact skills than Franklin, but it’s certainly encouraging to see their power development and hope for that for Franklin. A more conservative projection might see the similarities to Hank Conger and Edwin Encarnacion, and maybe adjust accordingly there. Development can just go in so many directions, be it the route of Miguel Cabrera or the route of Eric Duncan.

    By any account, we know that Franklin is one odd duck that just completed a season for the ages. The company he’s put himself in, by every measure I used above, is mostly surrounded by Major League players. If he can stick at shortstop and match just three-fourths of the offensive maturity most of the peers above enjoyed, Franklin will go down as quite the coup for this Seattle Mariners Scouting Department.

    Prospects Chat – 9/9/10

    Five More Early Cups of Coffee

    These five players made their Major League debut yesterday. While they didn’t necessarily help their team by WPA standards, like those we profiled this morning did, you can bet all of them will in the future.

    Yonder Alonso, 1B/LF, Age 23, Cincinnati Reds.

    Debut: -.002 WPA. Checked his swing and accidentally made contact with the ball, grounding out to the pitcher.

    2010 Minor League Season: .290/.362/.458 over two levels. Hit .267/.388/.406 (.367 wOBA) in 121 PA at Double-A, and then hit .296/.355/.470 (.365 wOBA) in 445 PA at Triple-A.

    Thoughts on Future: Alonso’s future in Cincinnati obviously depends upon his ability to play left field at an acceptable level. If I’m being cynical, I have to say that it strikes me as unlikely that Alonso will be a serious power threat at the big league level. He centers the ball well and makes plenty of hard contact, but his stance/swing don’t seem ideal for home run power. He should be a high doubles hitter, though. It’s also time to start wondering about his future versus left-handed pitchers. He’s hit them at just a .245/.319/.370 clip in his career, and the presence of guys like Jonny Gomes or Chris Heisey make you wonder if staying in Cincy will mean a platoon career. Must stay patient going forward, as Triple-A represented the lowest walk rate of his career.

    Freddie Freeman, 1B, Age 20, Atlanta Braves.

    Debut: -.033 WPA. A nice move by Bobby Cox to start Freeman in his debut over Derrek Lee, who would enter the game in the eighth. Freeman had two plate appearances against Mike Pelfrey, grounding out to shortstop and lining to third base. He struck out against lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano in the sixth.

    2010 Minor League Season: .319/.378/.518 (.387 wOBA) in 519 PA at Triple-A.

    Thoughts on Future: He’s going to be good. The Braves seem committed to go with Freeman everyday next season, and are going to have quite the pair of sluggers in their lineup for the next five seasons. Freeman might actually have better contact skills than Jason Heyward, though I don’t see his power potential being quite as high. There will be a learning curve against lefties, like we saw in the Feliciano at-bat, but you certainly aren’t going to think about platooning him for awhile. If we want to play the fun arbitrary end point game, in Freeman’s last 73 minor league games, he hit .367/.426/.589, as a 20-year-old, in Triple-A. Sorry fans of the following teams: Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Marlins. It’s all up-hill from here.

    Lucas Duda, LF/1B, Age 24, New York Mets.

    Debut: -.059 WPA. Drawing Tommy Hanson for your debut is no walk in the park, and it wasn’t for Duda. He flew out to center in 2 plate appearances against Hanson, before striking out against Jonny Venters in his final at-bat. The Braves kept him pretty busy in left field, but nothing happened of note.

    2010 Minor League Season: .304/.398/.569 over two levels. Hit .286/.411/.503 (.411 wOBA) in 197 PA at Double-A, hit .314/.389/.610 in 298 PA at Triple-A.

    Thoughts on Future: For Duda to be a regular in New York, it means he either supplants Ike Davis at first base (unlikely), or one of Jason Bay or Duda has to play right field. Which is scary in its own right. But if the Mets could make it work, it’s looking more and more like they might have found quite the sleeper in Duda. He never fulfilled his power potential at USC, but is enjoying a breakout season in that regard with 23 home runs to date. Like Alonso, I’m still a bit of a skeptic, both about his ultimate power projection, and his future as a possible platoon player. But he’s patient, and he’s worked hard on making better contact, and all credit is due to the Mets player development (and scouting) staff.

    Brian Bogusevic, 1B/LF/CF/RF, Age 26, Houston Astros.

    Debut: -.099 WPA. Hit a fielder’s choice groundball to first base in a fifth inning pinch hit appearance. Stole second base off Suppan/Molina, would score tying run on Hunter Pence home run.

    2010 Minor League Season: .277/.364/.414 (.359 wOBA) in 575 PA at Triple-A. 23-24 SB/ATT.

    Thoughts on Future: It’s too bad the Astros don’t profile to be competitive soon, because Bogusevic would be a perfect bench player on a playoff team. Very good baserunner and solid defender (with a good arm, thanks to his failed career as a pitcher) at four positions. He’s a tweener offensively, without a lot of power, but with too many strikeouts to sustain a high average. I root for the guy and admire his career path, and I would hope a team could see he’s a better option than someone like Scott Podsednik, but that’s about it. Perhaps if he can prove more worth in center field than is currently thought he could be a useful starter, but otherwise, an admirable bench player is where he profiles.

    Desmond Jennings, OF, Age 23, Tampa Bay Rays.

    Debut: -.138 WPA. The Rays employed what R.J. Anderson termed the “Stallionaire outfield” yesterday, and the Blue Jays were so scared of it, they didn’t hit a ball to the outfield until the sixth inning. At the plate against Shaun Marcum, Jennings struck out once and grounded out twice.

    2010 Minor League Season: .278/.362/.393 (.355 wOBA) in 458 PA at Triple-A. 37-41 SB/ATT.

    Thoughts on Future: I joked in a recent podcast that Jennings is up this month to job-shadow Carl Crawford, but in a sense it’s true: everyone knows that Crawford won’t be back in Tampa, and that Jennings will be a regular atop the lineup next season. Jennings will be quite good in that role: he’s patient, he’s a great baserunner, he makes contact with the baseball. The hope that he’d develop some more power seems a bit unfounded — I doubt he’ll ever surpass the .170 ISO he had last year in Double-A, but he doesn’t need it to be a better replacement for Crawford than anything they could find on the open market.