Author Archive

Ryan Borucki and Baseball’s Newest Plus Pitch

For most of 2018, any positive noise about the Toronto Blue Jays has been oriented to the future. Teoscar Hernandez — picked up for Francisco Liriano last July 3 — has proven to be a solid piece for the team. The farm system boasts four prospects in the top 100, led by baseball’s No. 1 prospect in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. While injured currently, Guerrero has posted video-game numbers at Double-A, and even the slightest possibility of his call-up to Toronto has sent fans into hysterics. With the AL East pretty well set for the playoffs, looking ahead is an entirely realistic plan for the Blue Jays.

Two weeks ago, another young Blue Jay made his major-league debut. Ryan Borucki comes from a baseball family: his father played 600 games in the minors and was a one-time teammate of Ryne Sandberg’s. The younger Borucki was a 15th-round pick in 2012 and signed for $426,000 to forego his commitment to Iowa. After a rough start to the career — including Tommy John surgery and shoulder pain that led to lost 2015 campaign — he turned it around after a demotion to Low-A in 2016 and shot up three levels to Triple-A in 2017. After a middling start to the 2018 season in Triple-A, Borucki got called out to fill out a rotation plagued by struggles and injury.

In his first three starts, Borucki faced the Astros, Yankees, and Tigers. Despite the quality of those first two clubs, Borucki conceded only five total runs in 20 innings while recording a 16:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nor does it get any easier: Borucki is scheduled to start tonight against Boston.

At first glance, Borucki’s arsenal doesn’t seem like the sort capable of thwarting two of the league’s highest-scoring offenses. His sinking fastball averages around 92 mph and his slider is generally seen as pedestrian. However, he does have one weapon that could become one of the best pitches of its kind in the majors.

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Brian Anderson and Hope for the Marlins

This image represents an exception to the rule of Anderson’s outfield defense.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Not every franchise is in a position to enjoy the present. Each year, 10 clubs qualify for the postseason, meaning 10 fanbases experience some form of pleasure. The supporters of the other 20 teams, however, are necessarily forced to contend with various levels of discontent. Some are able to recall recent success, if not much hope for the near future. Those who follow the Giants and Royals belong to this category. Others, like those in San Diego or the south side of Chicago, endure the present while waiting for an Astros- or Cubs-style turnaround. For these fanbases, “[The] Past and to come seem best; things present [the] worst.

One club that is forced to dwell only on the past and future is the Miami Marlins. They certainly have past glories: they’ve won the World Series in their only two playoff appearances. Their present, however, is just as certainly is bleak. Since 2011, the club has endured a spending spree that went nowhere; the resulting sell-off; the death of a bright, young talent; another firesale; a deteriorating relationship between management and their best player; and… yeah… it’s rough for the Marlins.

That said, there are some reasons for hope in Miami. All those sell-offs and losing seasons have allowed the club to acquire some promising prospects. In the low minors, the upper minors, and even at the major-league level, there are players in the Marlins’ system about whom analysts and fans can get excited. Going into the season, the two players expected to have spend the most time with the Marlins were Lewis Brinson and Brian Anderson. Brinson has struggled thus far, to the tune of a .188/.231/.347 slash line, a 54 wRC+, and -0.4 WAR (All-Star campaign notwithstanding). Brian Anderson has had a more successful debut, however, giving Marlins fans their first taste of hope for a brighter future.

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Yoshihisa Hirano and Deceptiveness in Action

Baseball is often simultaneously a kind and cruel sport. In 2018, nothing could’ve been kinder to us as fans than the Shohei Ohtani experience. We marveled at his ability on the mound and at the plate as we watched a level of complete player unseen since the early days of the sport. But Ohtani was also placed on the disabled list with a UCL sprain, an injury that could rob the game of his gifts for an extended period. And now, because of that, we’re forced to search elsewhere for what the kind side of baseball has given us.

Well, how about looking no further than one of Ohtani’s most experienced opponents? One who has seen Ohtani step into the batter’s box 15 times over their respective careers and has dominated the Angels’ superstar, to the tune of seven strikeouts and only one measly infield single allowed?

You might be able to guess — given the number of plate appearances against this pitcher — that this would likely have to be another former NPB player. However, rather than a big name such as Masahiro Tanaka or Kenta Maeda, this Ohtani kryptonite is Yoshihisa Hirano, a name that probably isn’t too well known in America outside of Phoenix. With Archie Bradley looking slightly more human and Brad Boxberger having had trouble with the homer, the 34-year-old Hirano has been a key component for a D-backs team that, despite a merely average relief corps, leads the NL West.

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Are Young Teams More Likely to Fade After Hot Starts?

Heading into the 2018 season, the NL East picture appeared to be pretty clear. The Washington Nationals — while having just one more year of Bryce Harper — entered the campaign as presumptive favorites. The Mets, despite possessing a talented roster, were conducting their affairs in an all-too-familiar way, while the Marlins were conducting their affairs in a way that made their roster much less talented.

In Atlanta and Philadelphia, meanwhile, the future was on the horizon. The Braves boasted a stable of young arms, Freddie Freeman, and the best prospect in the game (mon-Ohtani division). The Phillies supplemented their equally impressive young core with the signing of Jake Arrieta, announcing that they were ready to end the rebuild and begin contending. It only seemed a matter of time before the division would be theirs.

A couple months into the season, the picture is somewhat less clear. Indeed, it seems as though the future has arrived a little early in the NL East. As of this morning, the Braves sit atop the NL East at 35-25, with the Phillies just a couple games behind in third. (The Nationals sit in second.) The two teams have gone about things in different ways: where the Braves — led by Ozzie Albies, the aforementioned Freeman, and a surprising Nick Markakis — boast a top-five offense, the Phillies have benefited from a top-five pitching staff.

Whenever a young team makes this sort of run, it’s inevitably accompanied by discussions concerning the importance of experience. Experience, so it is said, leads to more staying power over the course of a long season or playoff run. Young teams are then expected to fade or fall short, thus earning some “much needed experience” and checking off that box on their development path.

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Tommy Pham Is Continuing His Breakout

Last year was one of many great stories for baseball. Leading the way was the ascendance of the Houston Astros, fulfilling the prophecy made three years earlier. Max Scherzer attempted to wrest the “Best Pitcher” title from Kershaw, and Aaron Judge obliterated pitches on the way to giving baseball one of its most exciting new faces in years. Yet, despite all of this, possibly the best story on the year was the breakout of St. Louis outfielder Tommy Pham, rising from being blocked at all three outfield positions to being the best player on the Cardinals.

What Pham did was virtually unprecedented. It took him eight years to reach the majors, and he became a regular player 11 years after his draft season. Then he put up over six wins’ worth of value in that first campaign of regular at-bats. Over the offseason, the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna, envisioning him to be their new best position player. Despite this, with a quarter of the season done, we still see Pham leading the Cardinals offense. He has built on his breakout 2017, continuing onward with an astonishing consistency.

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Juan Lagares and the Power of Perception

As Opening Day approaches, many team’s rosters have rounded into place. However, there is some slight tinkering to be done. With this in mind, let’s consider the careers of two players, blindly — one of whom is a mainstay for his team and the other who used to be.

Blind Resume
Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Offense Defense WAR Peak WAR
Player A 2180 6.6% 19.4% .248 .298 .334 71 -31.2 63.5 10.6 3.7
Player B 1770 4.6% 19.9% .257 .297 .366 84 -27.1 68.0 10.1 3.9

Both players converted from shortstop to center field. They’re almost the same age. Player A was once a top-25 prospect, however, while Player B was a relatively unheralded signing out of the Dominican. Now, Player A is his team’s unquestioned starting center fielder, while Player B is on the trading block.

Player A is Billy Hamilton, noted speedster, while Player B is Juan Lagares. Recent reports suggest that the Mets have received interest in Lagares and that the club is motivated to move him.

Now, this could be the case for a variety of reasons. Lagares hasn’t hit particularly well this spring, going just 7 for 36 so far with 13 strikeouts. While spring stats only correlate so well to regular season, Lagares hasn’t made an overwhelming case for an expanded role. Lagares also makes $6.5 million this year and $9 million next year, and the Mets have supposedly been interested in shedding some payroll. Finally, there’s the fact that Lagares — one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball — is buried on the Mets’ outfield depth chart by a bevy of corner outfielders masquerading as center fielders. The fact that he is available should pique the interest of many teams, just as much if Billy Hamilton was available.

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The Adjustment to Revive the Final Boss

This post begins with a friendly reminder — specifically, that there are five teams in each of baseball’s six divisions. Given the noise around baseball for much of the offseason, one could be forgiven for thinking there were only four clubs in the American League East. Much of the chatter regarding the AL East this winter has centered around the formidability of the Yankees’ roster, the Red Sox’ (now successful) pursuit of J.D. Martinez, the imminent close of Baltimore’s competitive window, and the Rays’ sort of, kind of, not really teardown. It isn’t that the Blue Jays have done nothing — they’ve made several good trades and taken low-cost risks — it’s just that there have been a few more prominent stories and louder fanbases.

The most recent move out of Toronto continues the club’s offseason trend of reasonable, low-cost acquisitions. For a price of just $2.5 million, the signing of Seung-Hwan Oh — a player who, in 2016, recorded nearly three wins out of the bullpen — seems like a potential bargain.

Of course, he would not be available at this time of the offseason and at this price if he didn’t have some warts. He is coming off of a mediocre 2017 campaign, falling from one of the leauge’s top-10 relievers to barely replacement level. Of possibly greater concern is the fact that the Rangers nixed a potential deal after expressing concerns with Oh’s physical. Despite these warning signs, there is reasonable optimism for an Oh turnaround, one that would benefit the Blue Jays in either a playoff chase or as a deadline trade chip.

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Farm Systems Are Cyclical

Everything in life is cyclical; just look it up. Depending on your subject of interest, you can likely find some meditation on the cyclic nature of events in that particular field. Politics, history, sociology — heck, even opera has cycles. Baseball is no different. Whether it’s the dynamic between pitchers and hitters, strategic trends, or the success of individual teams, each side of the coin will come up eventually.

One key area in baseball that exhibits this cyclic nature is in the relative strength of organizational prospect talent. Every year, we see various outlets publish their rankings of the league’s assorted farm systems, thus giving hope to downtrodden franchises everywhere. Baseball America just released their list, while Baseball Prospectus and John Sickels will surely follow soon with their own. As all these lists are published, it’s worthwhile to consider how clubs tend to navigate the crests and troughs of such rankings, and what that movement implies for a team’s future.

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The Giants Should Stop Prioritizing Outfield Help

The Giants have been one of the busier teams this offseason, wheeling and dealing their way to a markedly different roster in just a few months. Since December 15th alone, the club has traded away left-hander Matt Moore, a general disappointment in the 240 innings he had thrown for the Giants. They followed this up by acquiring two faces of their former franchises: Moore’s one-time Tampa Bay teammate Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. The most recent deal has the Giants signing Austin Jackson for two years and $6 million to round out their starting outfield.

Or so it seemed.

Giants president of baseball operations Brian Sabean seemed to suggest otherwise recently, according to reports by Alex Pavlovic and John Shea.

“He’s certainly a viable option,” Sabean said of Jackson. “Did we get him to be our everyday center fielder? Probably not. I don’t know that in his recent history, he’s been able to go out there in that fashion.”

Sabean might not be wrong about Jackson. Even though he was an effective player from 2010 to -15, he turns 31 in a week and hit the disabled list twice last season. Jackson might be best relied on as a part-time player, albeit a very good one.

So were does that leave the Giants? They seem to be keeping an eye on the market for outfielders, probably with a view towards acquiring a cheap option somewhere along the line. This search, combined with their financial position, seems to leave the team focused on a particular goal in mind, one that fails to address one of their most glaring needs.

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David Dahl May Not Be the Rockies’ Answer

The Colorado Rockies are acting like a team with expectations for 2018. Before the start of the offseason, Cot’s Contracts projected a salary of $131 million for the team, an all-time high for the franchise. That was before they added $40 million in average annual value by signing Wade Davis, Chris Iannetta, Jake McGee, and Bryan Shaw. The players seem to expect big things as well, and have used this energy in their pursuit of free agents. McGee, according to Patrick Saunders, helped sell Wade Davis on the Rockies saying, “[T]his was a team that was going to win now.”

Now, many questions remain for the Rockies, and those questions have led some to doubt Colorado’s ability to contend. Can the pitching keep up its pace from last year? Can Charlie Blackmon repeat his MVP-type performance? Is Jonathan Lucroy back? While all three of those uncertainties can be addressed by playing the actual games, there’s another question that might have been answered recently.

David Dahl saw only 82 plate appearances in 2017, all at the minor-league level. After a breakout 2016 rookie campaign in which he slashed .315/.359/.500 over 237 plate appearances while adding average defense in the outfield, Dahl was expected to be a key contributor to the Rockies going into the year. There were thoughts of a .300 hitter with 20-20 potential, enough to get most fanbases excited.

Unfortunately, those fantasies had to be postponed. On March 6th of 2017, the Rockies released a seemingly innocuous announcement that Dahl had suffered a stress reaction in his ribcage and would be reevaluated in two weeks. That injury would persist for basically the entire season.

Reports concerning Dahl’s return to health give the Rockies some hope of improving an outfield that was horrendous outside of the aforementioned Blackmon; however, the combination of Dahl’s profile as a hitter and the consequences of missing a full year suggest that enthusiasm ought to be curbed.

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Cubs Sign Cishek, Will Require More Bullpen Help

To say this year’s Winter Meetings were a relatively quiet affair would be accurate. While there were some moments of excitement (the trade of Marcell Ozuna to St. Louis, the Angels’ acquisition of Ian Kinsler), this offseason meetup in Orlando mostly produced rumors and reliever signings.

While the best free-agent reliever, Wade Davis, remains unsigned, he’s one of the few high-leverage arms left standing. Greg Holland, Brandon Kintzler, Jake McGee, Mike Minor, Juan Nicasio, and Joe Smith were all taken off the board in short order.

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What Do You Get for Your International Bonuses?

With the likely winner of the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes becoming a bit more clear, 23 teams now find themselves in an interesting situation. Before Ohtani had narrowed his list, many of those clubs had hoarded their international bonus money for the big moment. Following the announcement of Ohtani’s seven finalists, however, they were left with the capacity to offer free-agent bonuses, but few actual players in whom to invest that money.

Fortunately for them, a fresh set of prospects emerged thanks to the Braves’ indiscretions on the international market. Some teams — including the Angels, Phillies, and Royals — pounced quickly, using funds from the 2018-2019 pool to sign some of the top ex-Braves. Other teams will assuredly put their remaining bonuses to use in this way, taking a chance that these players will thrive in a new system.

There is, of course, one other way in which teams can put their bonus dollars to work, and it’s one that seems to have increased in popularity during this year — namely, by trading the bonus money. The rules for this have changed a few times. Under the terms of the most recent CBA, however, a team can trade away its entire international bonus pool or acquire additional funds up to 75% of their initial pool through trades.

Some teams have taken advantage of this rule to trade substantial portions of their bonus pools, to varying levels of public approval. The last few days, specifically, have seen the remaining teams in the Ohtani sweepstakes make trades to augment their pools.

Is this a smart strategy? Before we disparage or praise teams for using their bonus pools in this fashion, it’s worthwhile to look at what teams are getting with this particular kind of asset.

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Michael Taylor Gives the Nationals Multiple Options

Going into the 2017 season, the Washington Nationals would have been right to view their outfield as a strength. With Bryce Harper already present in right, the front office traded a pair of highly prized pitching prospects to add Adam Eaton, as well. The acquisition had the benefit of sending Trea Turner to his natural shortstop position, filling another of the Nationals’ holes. Jayson Werth could still be counted on as the weak side of a platoon, and there were bench bats who could otherwise fill in.

Not many people were talking about Michael Taylor at that point — and rightfully so. He’d dealt with a demotion to Triple-A the year prior in order to iron out his swing, and he was increasingly looking like a prospect who’d failed to live up to expectations. Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports speculated that he was “at best looking at a spot on the bench” alongside Chris Heisey and Adam Lind.

Things changed quickly on April 30th. General manager Mike Rizzo announced that Adam Eaton would be out for the year after stepping awkwardly on first base while legging out an infield single. Suddenly, the Nationals would be leaning much more heavily on Michael Taylor. He responded very well, putting up three-plus wins over the course of the season, with above-average offense and defense in center field. His emergence not only helped push the Nationals to a playoff spot, but now gives them valuable flexibility heading into 2018.

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Death, Taxes, and the Orioles’ Need for Starting Pitching

Free agency began a week ago to an expected lack of fanfare. Unlike the NBA, where free-agent deals are often announced minutes after the midnight opening bell, it usually takes a little while for baseball’s hot stove to ignite. Until the GM Meetings, which began this past Monday, free agency is usually dominated by leaked contract demands, contract extensions, and declarations by certain players that they intend to keep playing.

Thus far, the 2017-2018 offseason is no exception. For the moment, we must content ourselves with news of minor-league deals for Kevin Quackenbush and Rubby de la Rosa with Cincinnati and Arizona, respectively.

Alongside the minor-league signings and contract demands, the early days of this offseason have been marked by another annual tradition. According to Orioles beat writer Rock Kubatko, Baltimore has shown “definite” interest in Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas. The Orioles’ rotation remains a weakness for the club, and as is often the case, the team appears to be targeting mid-level innings-eaters. It also appears to be all they’re likely to afford: due to questionable commitments on the payroll, the Orioles will probably find it difficult to pursue many true rotation upgrades to prop open their closing — or perhaps already closed — window.

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Kershaw’s Forgotten Chapter

Congratulations to the Houston Astros! After distinguishing themselves as one of the best teams in the regular season, they managed to survive the giant Plinko board that is the postseason. Truly a worthy champion.

There will certainly be much attention paid to the World Series winner in the wake of their victory. For the moment, however, I’d like to consider the team that fell just short — and, specifically, to examine their much-maligned ace, Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw stepped onto the mound in Game 7, his team needing him to hold the wall in the worst way. The Dodgers were already down five runs when Kershaw entered, their win probability reduced to just 10%. It was pretty dire.

Kershaw responded, throwing four innings of shutout ball, striking out four, unintentionally walking none, and limiting hard contact along the way. He looked like the guy who’s established himself as the best pitcher of this generation. As the game unfolded Wednesday night, the fans who joined the Game 7 live blog grasped three central points of Kershaw’s performance in very short order, as illustrated by the following excerpt from that chat:

These six comments are representative of observations made by other readers, observations which fell into the three following categories:

  1. That Kershaw pitched effectively.
  2. That naysayers would comment about the low leverage of the moment.
  3. That, however well Kershaw fared, it wouldn’t alter The Narrative.

I’d like to address those points in a moment. However, before we descend (as Jonathan Yardley would put it) “into the Void,” let’s take a quick step back and appreciate Clayton Kershaw’s performance on Wednesday, in what will likely be a lost chord in his playoff opus.

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Can Jose Quintana Save the Cubs?

The Cubs staved off elimination last night through the might of Javier Baez, retaining the hope of becoming the first back-to-back World Series winner since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees. As a reward for their survival, they get to face the best pitcher of this generation in Clayton Kershaw, who has a chance to exorcise some postseason demons of his own with a decisive putaway performance.

But this isn’t about Kershaw. It’s about the man the Cubs send to the mound opposing him. Jose Quintana, whom the Cubs received for a very reasonable return, was acquired for this very reason, and the changes he made since coming to the North Side may set him up for success against the Dodgers tonight.

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Corey Kluber Is Great, Still Human

The Cleveland Indians’ season concluded on Wednesday night. The team that had thrilled fans with their September winning streak and entered the postseason as the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the World Series was eliminated by a very good New York Yankees team. You can argue how fair it it that the Indians, by virtue of being the best team in the American League this year, had to face the Wild Card-winning Yankees, perhaps the second-best team in the the American League. In any event, that’s the way the playoffs are set up: the Yankees won and the blame game can begin.

People will look to the young star hitters Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, who combined to reach base at a .227 clip, strike out 13 times, and record just a single extra-base hit over the five games. Others will (foolishly) question the Indians’ mental fortitude after dropping six consecutive potential series-clinching games in the past two years. And yes, many will place blame at the feet of Indians ace Corey Kluber, who was as rough in this year’s playoffs as he was brilliant in last year’s.

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Michael Brantley’s Return Leaves Questions for the Indians

The recent history of players returning from injury to the postseason isn’t great. (Photo: Keith Allison)

On Tuesday, a couple of days ahead of the deadline, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona announced the Division Series roster that would take on either (at the time) the New York Yankees or Minnesota Twins. While the most surprising development was probably Francona’s choice to start Trevor Bauer in Game 1, there were plenty of other questions to ask. Should the team be worried about its bullpen after leaving three key relievers off the roster? Are six outfielders too many and 11 pitchers too few? And is carrying outfielder Michael Brantley so soon after his return from injury a good idea?

Michael Brantley has always offered a maddening combination of considerable talent and questionable durability. Selected in the seventh round of the 2005 draft by the Brewers, Brantley was sent to Cleveland as the player to be named later in the 2007 deal for CC Sabathia. After 2009, Baseball America ranked him fifth among the prospects in the Cleveland system, lauding his hit tool and control of the strike zone. After five poor-to-middling seasons to begin his career, Brantley broke out in 2014 with a six-win campaign, his first All-Star appearance, and a third-place finish in the MVP voting.

Despite his offensive outbursts, Brantley has spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list. In 2011, he missed the final month of the season with a wrist injury. The 2016 campaign saw him miss time due to his shoulder. This year, he lost nearly two months to a sprained ankle. With 274 days spent on the disabled list since the start of the 2016 season, Brantley’s availability seems to consistently be an open question.

Given his talents, the Indians clearly would like Brantley around. Moreover, teammates have described him as one of the team’s leaders. However, despite the progress Brantley has made in recovery and his miraculous at-bat this past Saturday, the playoff performances of players returning from injury should curb expectations for the club’s Opening Day left-fielder.

The most recent case of a player returning from injury for the playoffs came against these same Indians last year. Kyle Schwarber, who tore his ACL and LCL in the second game of the 2016 season, returned in the World Series to absolutely mash, slashing .412/.500/.471 in 20 plate appearances — including a key three singles in five at-bats in Game 7. While Schwarber was obviously integral to Chicago’s championship run, other players who’ve returned from injury to appear in the postseason have done so less successfully.

Since 2009, there have been 15 hitters who’ve resumed play in the last half of September from the disabled list and appeared in at least one playoff series. Some of their injuries were more serious than Brantley’s sprained ankle, others much less so; however, the performance of these players can best described, at best, as “middling.”

Players Returning from Injury for Postseason: 2009-2016
Year Player Team Regular Season PA Regular Season Postseason PA Postseason
2009 Greg Dobbs Philadelphia 169 .247/.296/.383 4 .000/.000/.000
2010 Laynce Nix Cincinnati 182 .291/.350/.455 3 .000/.000/.000
2012 Jim Thome Baltimore 163 .252/.344/.442 15 .133/.188/.133
2012 Brett Gardner New York (A) 37 .323/.417.387 8 .000/.000/.000
2013 Jason Heyward Atlanta 440 .254/.349/.420 18 .167/.167/.333
2014 Ryan Zimmerman Washington 240 .280/.342/.449 4 .250/.250/.250
2015 Jorge Soler Chicago (N) 404 .262/.324/.399 25 .474/.600/1.105
2015 Jason Castro Houston 375 .211/.283/.365 18 .063/.166/.063
2015 Kiké Hernandez Los Angeles (N) 218 .307/.346/.490 15 .308/.400/.308
2015 Howie Kendrick Los Angeles (N) 495 .295/.336/.409 22 .273/.273/.455
2015 Yasiel Puig Los Angeles (N) 368 .263/.323/.416 6 .000/.000/.000
2016 Kyle Schwarber Chicago (N) 5 .000/.000/.000 20 .412/.500/.471
2016 Yan Gomes Cleveland 264 .167/.201/.327 4 .000/.000/.000
2016 Gregor Blanco San Francisco 274 .224/.309/.311 10 .125/.222/.250
2016 Shin-Soo Choo Texas 210 .242/.357/.399 3 .000/.000/.000

Now, of course, the posteseason is a place of impossibly small sample sizes, making any resulting lines incredibly variable. That aside, a third of the players here performed poorly in their very few trips to the plate, many in the pinch-hitting role that Brantley is expected to assume. A little under a third performed well, some very much so. This is, of course, the best case for Brantley, and he clearly has the talent to do so. The remaining players fell well short of their season performance and have also tended to strike out at a higher rate than normal. Maybe their timing has been off from their missed time? That’s merely a guess, though. Even accounting for small sample sizes and the increased quality of playoff pitching and competition, something is still lacking in their performance.

Brantley’s inclusion creates further complications for the Indians beyond performance questions. Even with Brantley’s progress in playing the field, he will be unlikely to play anything other than pinch- or designated hitter, forcing the Indians to carry five additional outfielders. As a result, the pitching staff is limited to 11 pitchers, which may be a little short if they weren’t maybe the best pitching staff ever. However, the lack of flexibility created by including Brantley may make the Indians miss hitters such as Yandy Diaz or pitchers such Dan Otero and Nick Goody.

It’s important to remember that the Indians are clearly a better team with a healthy Brantley. However, Brantley’s presence isn’t essential, either: the Indians did go on possibly the most impressive streak in baseball history, becoming the hot team going into the postseason and passing the Dodgers as the Vegas favorite to win the World Series. It’s understandable that the Indians want their one of their leaders back, but the performance of players returning from an injury to the postseason with the added roster flexibility questions makes Brantley’s inclusion a risky one. They might indeed be good enough to overcome a lesser Brantley performance, but Terry Francona and the rest of Cleveland’s decision-makers are certainly hoping that this decision doesn’t come back to haunt them.


Shohei Otani, Brendan McKay, and the Blueprint for a Two-Way Player

In case you missed the excitement last week, here it is: according to reports, there’s a very good chance that Japanese star Shohei Otani will be posted this offseason and appear in a major-league uniform next year. Part of Otani’s great appeal — and the source of his reputation as the Japanese Babe Ruth — is his capacity both to pitch and hit at a high level. Two-way players are intriguing to us: in an era of ever increasing specialization, the probability of a single player excelling on both sides of the ball is low. Forget the ace who also serves as his team’s cleanup hitter: even a player who could function competently as both a fourth outfielder and mop-up man would open up roster possibilities that many teams would love to exploit.

However, being a two-way player is hard. Beyond even the question of talent, a player faces other concerns: finding adequate rest, scheduling his throw days as a pitcher, and cultivating sufficient stamina to last a whole season in a dual role. Addressing these concerns successfully requires a great degree of planning on the part of a team. And while there’s speculation as to how a major-league organization might answer all those questions adequately, one team is already implementing that level of infrastructure with a highly coveted prospect.

Prior to becoming the fourth-overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays this past June, Brendan McKay had starred as both a weekend starter and middle-of-the-order bat at the University of Louisville for three years, winning numerous player-of-the-year, All-American, and two-way-player awards along the way. With his clean lefty swing, level-headed approach, and prowess on the mound, he was often favorably compared to John Olerud. Rays leadership was quick to state that, despite being announced as a first baseman at the draft, McKay would continue to be developed as both a pitcher and hitter.

Back in February, I had the opportunity to see McKay open the college season against two teams in Clearwater, Florida. Over the two games, against admittedly overmatched competition, he went 2-for-4 with a home run and three walks while striking out nine over six scoreless innings. He greatly impressed me with his skill and calm demeanor both on the mound and at the plate, never overreaching, not becoming too aggressive, working with what pitchers and hitters gave him. At the time, the question for most people in the stands was, “Which way will he play in pro ball?” So far, McKay is making the question “Why can’t he do both?” a legitimate one.

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The New Elite Reliever in Kansas City

Even though they’re only five games removed from a playoff spot in the American League, you could be forgiven for not having dedicated much thought recently to the Kansas City Royals. Prior to the trade deadline, they were playing a little over their heads, exiting July in possession of a 55-49 record and the second Wild Card spot — this, despite having recorded roughly equal runs scored and allowed totals. They became moderate buyers, picking up Melky Cabrera and holding on to soon-to-be free agents Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Jason Vargas.

In the meantime, however, they’ve struggled, going 18-27 since August 1st. With a .490 winning percentage, the club now possesses just a 1.8% chance of making the playoffs.

Because the Royals have likely flown under your baseball radar, it’s quite possible that this bit of news did, too:

The Minor to whom Flanagan refers here is Mike Minor, a name that, prior to this April, hadn’t graced a major-league box score since 2014. The last any of us had probably heard, Minor was signing a two-year deal with Kansas City last spring. At the time, the left-hander was coming off a torn labrum that led to shoulder surgery and, ultimately, his release from the Atlanta Braves.

The thought of Minor returning to form after such a serious injury was, while not ridiculous, still optimistic. However, despite some false starts and a rough stint in Triple-A Omaha last year, Mike Minor has reemerged as an effective relief option out of the Kansas City bullpen, exhibiting both increased velocity and a greater reliance on a reinvigorated pitch.

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