Archive for Cubs

FanGraphs Audio: Dan Szymborski Analyzes All the Postseason

Episode 839
Dan Szymborski is the progenitor of the ZiPS projection system and a senior writer for FanGraphs dot com. He’s also the guest on this edition of the program, during which he examines which managers have produced the best performances of the postseason. Also: Szymborski’s argument for playing Matt Kemp at shortstop. And: a status update on the forthcoming projections for 2019.

Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @cistulli on Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio after the jump. (Approximately 49 min play time.)

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Jaime García Is Fine with the Bullpen

This is Cat Garcia’s final post as part of her FanGraphs residency. She is a freelance baseball writer whose work has appeared at The Athletic, MLB.com, the Chicago Sun-Times, La Vida Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus, among others. She is a Chicago native and previously worked at Wrigley Field before becoming a full-time freelancer. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBaseballGirl.

It’s been a long journey for Jaime García. Over the course of a 10-year career, he has battled back from three major surgeries. The Cardinals sent him to the Braves in the 2017 offseason, and he was traded twice more before the season was done. He signed with the Blue Jays this past February but was designated for assignment at the end of August after putting up a 5.93 ERA and a 5.23 FIP in 74 innings of work. A day later, García signed a minor-league deal with a Chicago Cubs team in the thick of a pennant race.

The question was, what would García’s role be in Chicago? He had lost his job as a starter in Toronto and was sporting a less-than-ideal ERA. But García came with one asset that stood out to the Cubs — a strong slider that looked brilliant out of the bullpen.

“I feel like… being in the bullpen has allowed me to feel pitches a lot better and finish pitches better,” García told me when I spoke to him. “I think that’s had an impact on my slider. You only have to pitch an inning, and even if you’re not feeling 100% or you’re fatigued, you just keep going out there and kind of feel things better, and it’s only for an inning or two.”

Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey was quick to point out the uniqueness of García’s slider.

“The ability to get it under a right-handed hitter not just a left-handed hitter,” Hickey said. “A lot of times, those left-handed relief pitchers that have the breaking ball use it primarily versus the left-handed hitters. But he’s certainly able to get up under the right-handed hitter very well.”

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FanGraphs Audio: Craig Edwards Live on Tape in Wisconsin

Episode 838
Craig Edwards traveled to Milwaukee for Games One and Two of the NLDS between the Brewers and Rockies. In this edition of the program, he discusses what he saw there. Also: what criteria must a club meet to become a dynasty? And: if teams added no players this offseason, which club would be best in 2019?

Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @cistulli on Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio after the jump. (Approximately 40 min play time.)

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The Weak Spot in the League’s Domestic-Violence Policy

The end of the Cubs’ season came earlier than expected, with the North Siders finding themselves unceremoniously dispatched from the playoffs by the Rockies in the Wild Card Game earlier this week. Addison Russell, once regarded as vital cog in an emerging Cubs dynasty, was absent from the roster for that game, confined instead to administrative leave. The next day, Major League Baseball announced that Russell would be suspended for 40 games, including the 12 games already spent on administrative leave, to be enforced at the beginning of the 2019 season. In essence, Russell will miss all of April.

Word is already circling that the shortstop has played his last game with Chicago. Russell, for his part, agreed not to appeal. “After gaining a full understanding of the situation I have concluded it’s in the best interest of my family to accept MLB’s proposed resolution of this matter. I wish my ex-wife well and hope we can live in peace for the benefit of our child.” Part of that resolution — the one marked by the phrase “agreed not to appeal,” which appears in Manfred’s statement above — is something I’ve addressed before when discussing Roberto Osuna’s suspension.

We learn here not that [Roberto] Osuna decided not to appeal but rather that he agreed not to appeal. Osuna, in other words, effectively settled his case with MLB, agreeing to a shorter suspension in exchange for not appealing. This sort of resolution isn’t necessarily dissimilar to a plea bargain or civil settlement, both of which have their utility. It’s an open question, however, whether baseball’s accused domestic abusers ought to have a say in their own discipline, particularly when that discipline is being enforced by their employer. And Osuna’s case isn’t an isolated incident; rather, it’s standard policy. The same thing happened with Aroldis Chapman, for example.

FanGraphs’ own Jeff Sullivan arrived at a logical conclusion following the announcement of Russell’s punishment:

On one level, Sullivan’s point makes sense: Osuna received a harsher sentence than Russell, ergo Osuna must have done something worse. Because we have a firsthand account detailing Melisa Reidy-Russell’s allegations against her ex-husband, we then also (hypothetically) have some kind of baseline for the sort of penalty his disturbing behavior warrants by the terms of the league’s domestic-violence policy. The Commissioner determined that Russell violated the policy, just as he determined Osuna violated the policy. Presumably, those determinations were supported by evidence; otherwise, the players would never have agreed to not appeal the discipline.

But that leads to another problem, one to which Michael Baumann alluded recently at The Ringer:

The details of the suspension aren’t the important part of this case. In fact, this process is so common that it’s taken on a tragic roteness. The 40-game ban — which is retroactive to the start of Russell’s time on administrative leave, September 21 — will invite comments about how MLB punishes first-time PED violations more harshly than players suspended under its domestic violence policy. It also raises questions about how Russell’s case is different from that of Astros closer Roberto Osuna, who earned a 75-game suspension — does MLB believe that there’s some sort of graduated scale of badness for intimate partner violence?

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The Cubs Aren’t a Dynasty and That’s Okay

The Chicago Cubs are a very good team, one that employs a good manager and features a good front office. They’ve won a bunch of games over the past four seasons and, notably, claimed a World Series to end a century-long drought. The Cubs will have a good team next season, as well, and probably the one after that. The franchise has young stars around which to build, a front office that understands the importance of developing talent, and an endless supply of cash to ensure the team will contend for years to come. Things are looking good in Chicago.

And yet, following a Wild Card loss to the Rockies, one could be excused for regarding the Cubs as a bit of a disappointment. After that World Series title in 2016, a dynasty seemed inevitable to some. Chicago fans were thinking about the ’90s Bulls. Perhaps expectations were too high, though. Maybe the ’85 Bears were the better comparison.

If the Cubs had won this season, that would have given them three consecutive playoff appearances and two world championships in three years. In the last 40 years, only two franchises have pulled that off: the Blue Jays of the early 90s and Yankees of the late 90s. The Giants accomplished something either more or less impressive, depending on one’s criteria. On the one hand, they won three titles between 2010 and -14. On the other, they also missed the playoffs in the intervening seasons. The Red Sox won two World Series in the span of four years but also failed to reach the postseason in 2006.

Do any of those represent examples of a dynasty? Just the Yankees, probably. While there is no widely accepted definition of what constitutes a dynasty, it might be a case where it’s best to adopt Justice Potter Stewart’s view on such matters and say, “I know it when I see it.”

Let’s review the most recent contenders for the honor before returning to the Cubs.

The Yankees clubs of the late 90s and aughts were built around a core of Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. The team later added Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Alex Rodriguez to try and sustain their run, but they couldn’t do so, winning only one more time (2009) despite a decade of success.

For 14 consecutive seasons, the Atlanta Braves won their division. During that period, they made the World Series five times but won just once. In the Cardinals’ run from 2000 to -15, they missed the playoffs four times, lost twice in the World Series, and missed the playoffs in three out of four seasons between their two titles in 2006 and 2011. The Phillies won their division five straight times and won an average of 95 games during that timeframe, but they claimed just one title.

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What Jon Lester Has Left

Jon Lester’s experience in the postseason has been marked mostly by success. He’s made 21 career playoff starts and recorded a few important relief outings, too. In those games, he’s produced a 2.55 ERA and 3.62 FIP. In five World Series starts (plus one relief outing), Lester has pitched 35.2 innings, struck out 34, walked just eight, and conceded only eight runs (seven earned). He’s what one might characterize as a “big-game pitcher.”

The thing about so-called big-game pitchers, however, isn’t so much that they rise to important occasions, but rather that they simply replicate the performances that have brought them to the big stage in the first place. For over a decade, Lester has done just that. Tonight, however, the Cubs might require a little bit more of Lester.

In 2,366 regular-season innings over more than a decade, Lester has produced a 3.61 FIP. In 148 postseason innings, the 34-year-old lefty has a 3.62 FIP. Look at some of his other stats from the regular season and playoffs over the course of his career.

Jon Lester, Regular Season vs. Playoffs
Period IP K% BB% GB% IFFB% HR/FB HR/9 ERA ERA- FIP FIP-
Reg Season 2366 22.3 % 7.8 % 46.2 % 11.1 % 10.4 % 0.88 3.50 82 3.61 88
Postseason 148 21.1 % 6.6 % 44.1 % 11.7 % 10.3 % 0.91 2.55 61 3.62 89

The numbers for Lester are pretty much the same across the board in the regular season and playoffs. His postseason ERA is lower than his regular-season mark due mostly to the .241 BABIP he’s recorded in the former. His slightly lower strikeout and walk numbers indicate that hitters have made more contact against Lester in the postseason, although it’s quite possible that some of that contact has been of the weaker variety if batters have traded in strikeout avoidance for power.

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Team Entropy 2018: Extra Baseball?

This is the fifth installment of this year’s Team Entropy series, my recurring look not only at the races for the remaining playoff spots but the potential for end-of-season chaos in the form of down-to-the-wire suspense and even tiebreakers. Ideally, we want more ties than the men’s department at Macy’s. If you’re new to this, please read the introduction here.

In the National League playoff picture, we’re down to two teams — the Dodgers (89-71) and Cardinals (87-73) — fighting for one spot, as the Rockies (90-70) clinched a postseason berth on Friday night by beating the Nationals for their eighth straight win. That said, neither the NL Central nor the NL West races have been decided, nor have the actual Wild Card game participants, leaving open the possibility that we could have multiple Game 163 tiebreakers on Monday. The dream scenario of needing a third tiebreaker game, in the event that the two NL West participants (the Dodgers and Rockies) finished tied with St. Louis, is off the table given the Cardinals’ back-to-back losses to the Brewers (93-67) and Cubs (94-66).

On Friday afternoon, I had the privilege of appearing on MLB Network’s MLB Now, where host Brian Kenny put the spotlight on Team Entropy at the top of the show and allowed me to talk through the various scenarios:

Pretty cool! Except that the Cardinals were busy getting pummeled by the Cubs as that happened — the show kept cutting away to the action — simplifying the picture somewhat. So here is what’s left…

The Cubs, who are hosting the Cardinals, and the Brewers, who are hosting the Tigers, can still finish in a tie after 162 games if Milwaukee can pick up a game this weekend. Either the Brew Crew goes 2-0 while the Cubs go 1-1, or 1-1 while the Cubs go 0-2. That would leave the two teams playing on Monday in Chicago (which won the season series 11-8) to determine which one wins the division, and which hosts the Wild Card game. As of Saturday morning, our playoff odds ties page shows a 25.9% chance of such an occurrence.

Likewise, the Rockies, who are hosting the Nationals, and the Dodgers, who are visiting the Giants, can finish tied if Los Angeles can pick up a game. The Dodgers, who won the season series 12-7, would host a tiebreaker game on Monday to determine the division winner, and second Wild Card team. Our ties page gives this game a 34.1% chance of happening.

Alternately, if the Cardinals win both of their remaining games and the Dodgers lose both of theirs, the two teams would be tied for the second Wild Card spot. They would play on Monday in St. Louis, which won the season series 4-3. This scenario can happen in tandem with an NL Central tie if the Brewers also split their remaining pair of games. The odds of a Wild Card tie are down to 2.4%, but that’s better than nothing, particularly with a second tiebreaker game also still an option.

With the Cubs and Cardinals playing at 1:05 pm Eastern, the Dodgers and Giants at 4:05, the Brewers and Tigers at 7:05 pm and the Rockies and Nationals at 8:10 pm, we have the whole day to savor the possibilities for chaos. Enjoy!


The Silliest Thing About Kyle Schwarber

The Cubs are just ever so barely hanging onto a division lead over the Brewers. For this, there could be any number of factors to blame. The Brewers, obviously, are half responsible, having played tremendously well after adding their best two players over the offseason. And on the Cubs’ side, what if Yu Darvish hadn’t gotten hurt? What if Brandon Morrow hadn’t gotten hurt? What if Kris Bryant hadn’t gotten hurt? What if Tyler Chatwood hadn’t underachieved? The division lead currently stands at half of one game. It wouldn’t have taken very much more to give the current Cubs a greater amount of breathing room.

Just glancing around, you wouldn’t think to fault Kyle Schwarber for anything. Schwarber’s been an above-average hitter and a three-win player, regularly playing an acceptable corner outfield. And before I proceed, I want to make one thing clear: Overall, the Cubs should be happy with where Schwarber is. They should be pleased with his overall health and development, and it seems as if his career is moving forward. But as you know, in a tight division race, almost anything could make a significant difference. And so we need to talk about Kyle Schwarber’s timing. I saw something in his splits I can’t in good conscience ignore. You know that I love a good fun fact.

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The Cubs’ Rotation Got Fixed

On July 20th, my colleague Craig Edwards wrote a piece for this site entitled “The Cubs Are on Pace for Their Worst Rotation Ever” in which he argued — in accordance with all observable objective reality at the time — that the Cubs were on pace for their worst rotation ever. It wasn’t an especially difficult case to make. At the time Craig published, the Cubs’ rotation — which still featured rather too much of Tyler Chatwood — had produced just 3.0 WAR as a group, which is the kind of figure that, as a measure of collective performance through nearly three months of a major-league season, is apt to make one physically recoil regardless of how you feel about pitcher WAR’s usefulness as a measure of overall performance. It was bad.

Since then, however, the Cubs’ rotation has been rather good, and that fact is the point of this article. Consider the following table, which presents the Cubs’ rotational performance up to and including the 20th of July, and also after that date (MLB ranks in parentheses):

Cubs’ Rotation Performance Pre- and Post-Craig Edwards Post
Period IP K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP
Pre-Craig 510.2 (25) 19.6% (21) 10.8% (30) 4.02 (12) 4.75 (25) 4.58 (24)
Post-Craig 295.2 (10) 21.8% (15) 8.0% (22) 3.65 (10) 3.67 (9) 3.92 (12)

You will agree, I hope, that the Cubs’ rotation has been better since Craig said they were bad, and will therefore turn your attention with me to why. Here is one reason: it has much less Tyler Chatwood in it. Here is another: it has much more Cole Hamels. These might sound like blithe (and, in Chatwood’s case, rather mean) things to say, and to some extent they are. But they are also true.

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Javier Baez’s Other Secret Skill

It’s been a few years now since we first discovered that Javier Baez has an elite tagging skill. At the time, it wasn’t obvious that a player actually could have an elite tagging skill. Applying a tag seems like a pretty specific, rote act. There’s not a lot of variation. Baez, though, somehow found a way to do it better than everyone. Baez has a way of doing that.

Well, it seems possible Baez has managed to somehow find value where none seemed clearly available — in this case, by causing fielders to self-combust while he runs the bases. It’s a skill that leads to errors and extra bases for Baez and his friends, and it was on display Wednesday night as Baez stood at first base with Anthony Rizzo up to bat. The Cubs’ first baseman hit a single to center field. Then this happened:

Baez scored on the throwing error and Rizzo advanced to second, eventually making it to third thanks to another throwing error. A guy on Twitter with 1.7 million followers asked for a post on this.

 

This is that post.

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Sunday Notes: Bobby Wilson is a Soldier Who Has Seen Pitching Evolve

Bobby Wilson has caught for 16 seasons — nine of them at the big league level — so he knows pitching like the back of his hand. Particularly on the defensive side of the ball. With a .577 OPS in exactly 1,000 MLB plate appearances, the 35-year-old hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut. But his stick isn’t why the Chicago Cubs acquired him from the Minnesota Twins this past Thursday. They picked him up for his receiving skills and his ability to work with a staff.

The quality and style of pitching he’s seeing today aren’t the same as what they were when he inked his first professional contract in 2002.

“The game is ever evolving, ever changing,” Wilson told me a few weeks ago. “I’ve seen it go from more sinker-slider to elevated fastballs with a curveball off of that. But what really stands out is the spike in velocity. There’s almost no one in this league right now who is a comfortable at bat.”

In his opinion, increased octane has made a marked impact on how hitters are being attacked.

“If you have velocity, you can miss spots a little more frequently, whereas before you had to pitch,” opined Wilson. “You can’t miss spots throwing 88-90. If you’re 95-100 , you can miss your location and still have a chance of missing a barrel. Even without a lot of movement. Because of that, a lot of guys are going to four-seam, straight fastballs that are elevated, instead of a ball that’s sinking.”

But as the veteran catcher said, the game is ever evolving. He’s now starting to see more high heat in the nether regions of the zone, as well. Read the rest of this entry »


Daily Prospect Notes Finale: Arizona Fall League Roster Edition

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Note from Eric: Hey you, this is the last one of these for the year, as the minor-league regular season comes to a close. Thanks for reading. I’ll be taking some time off next week, charging the batteries for the offseason duties that lie ahead for Kiley and me.

D.J. Peters, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Level: Double-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45+
Line: 4-for-7, 2 HR, 2B (double header)

Notes
A comparison of DJ Peters’ 2017 season in the Cal League and his 2018 season at Double-A gives us a good idea of what happens to on-paper production when a hitter is facing better pitching and defenses in a more stable offensive environment.

D.J. Peters’ Production
Year AVG OBP SLG K% BB% BABIP wRC+
2017 .276 .372 .514 32.2% 10.9% .385 137
2018 .228 .314 .451 34.0% 8.1% .305 107

Reports of Peters’ physical abilities haven’t changed, nor is his batted-ball profile different in such a way that one would expect a downtick in production. The 2018 line is, I think, a more accurate distillation of Peters’ abilities. He belongs in a talent bucket with swing-and-miss outfielders like Franchy Cordero, Randal Grichuk, Michael A. Taylor, Bradley Zimmer, etc. These are slugging center fielders whose contact skills aren’t particularly great. Players like this are historically volatile from one season to the next but dominant if/when things click. They’re often ~1.5 WAR players who have some years in the three-win range. Sometimes they also turn into George Springer.

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Cubs Payroll Set to Soar with Potential TV Deal

Since 2004, the Chicago Cubs have belonged to a lucrative partnership with the White Sox, Blackhawks, Bulls, and some iteration of Comcast/NBC to broadcast games on NBC Sports Chicago, previously known as Comcast SportsNet Chicago. That partnership appears likely to end at the conclusion of next season, however, according to Bruce Levine at 670 The Score. While the current deal has been fruitful for the Cubs, the opportunity to own their regional sports network will give them a chance to multiply their television revenue several times over. Over the last few seasons, the Cubs have lingered just behind heavyweight clubs like the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees in terms of payroll. A new television deal should put them on par with those teams for the foreseeable future.

The Cubs’ move to create their own network separate from their current partners has been in the works for several years now. The Chicago market has lagged behind cities like Los Angeles and New York in terms of the presence of RSNs. NBC Sports Chicago is still the only game in town, while LA and New York both have four networks broadcasting the major sports. Other big markets like the Bay Area and Boston also have multiple networks despite featuring the same number of — or even fewer — teams to broadcast.

When I last wrote about the Cubs’ option to start their own network three years ago, I noted the ominous cable bubble that has been pervasive for years but indicated the Cubs wouldn’t have a problem getting their channel carried by cable providers. It’s been three years, but the cable bubble refuses to burst. Even the Rays are getting billion-dollar local TV deals.

The market has changed in the last few years, as the number of cable subscribers continues to fall. Traditional cable providers have not only lost customers who no longer or never will pay for cable TV, but they are also facing increased competition from digital-only providers like DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, Sling, and YouTubeTV. In 2017, cable companies lost 3.3 million subscribers, but digital providers gained 2.6 million, softening the blow dealt by those who no longer pay for television. In most cases, those digital providers are airing local RSNs and emphasizing to customers the opportunities available to watch sports without a traditional cable package. These models are new and it isn’t entirely clear how long they can last providing a skinnier, cheaper version of cable, but it has provided a lifeline to a model that, at one point, appeared to be on the way out.

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Strength of Schedule and the Pennant Races

No team plays a completely balanced scheduled over the course of a season. Some divisions, naturally, are better than others. Because intradivisional games account for roughly 40% of the league schedule, there is necessarily some irregularity in the strength of competition from club to club. Interleague play, which represents another 10% of games, also contributes to this imbalance. Given the sheer numbers of games in a major-league campaign, the effect of scheduling ultimately isn’t a major difference-maker. Talent and luck have much more influence over a club’s win-loss record. In any given month, however, scheduling imbalances can become much more pronounced.

Consider this: at the beginning of the season, just one team featured a projected gain or loss as large as three wins due to scheduling. The Texas Rangers were expected to lose three more games than their talent would otherwise dictate. Right now, however, there are eight teams with bigger prorated schedule swings than the one the Rangers saw at the beginning of the season — and those swings could have a big impact on the remaining pennant races.

To provide some backdrop, the chart below ranks the league’s schedules, toughest to easiest, compared to an even .500 schedule.

The Diamondbacks have a pretty rough go of it. Outside of five games against the Padres, the other “worst” team they play is the San Francisco Giants. They have one series each against the division-leading Astros, Braves, and Cubs along with a pair of series against both the Dodgers and Rockies. If Arizona were chasing these teams for the division or Wild Card, their schedule would present them with a good opportunity for making up ground. Given their current status, however, it just means a lot of tough games down the stretch.

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Cubs Acquire Daniel Murphy, Infield Insurance Policy

With the Nationals under .500 and their playoff hopes growing slimmer, the club decided to put a few pending free agents on waivers. One of the more prominent names is that of Daniel Murphy, who is headed to the Cubs. The deal was first reported as close by Craig Mish and then confirmed shortly thereafter by multiple sources.  Jon Heyman came through with the return, so here’s the deal:

Cubs receive:

  • Daniel Murphy

Nationals receive:

The trade is an interesting one for several reasons. First, because the Cubs were the team to claim him and trade for him, that means that every other team in the National League passed on Murphy. The 33-year-old lefty was in the final year of his three-year, $36 million contract that pays him $17.5 million this season with $5 million deferred to the following two years. That means Murphy is owed about $4 million for the rest of the season. The money, plus a lack of need at Murphy’s position of second base, likely caused other contenders to pass and land in the lap of the team with the best record in the National League.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 8/21/2018

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Johan Quezada, RHP, Minnesota Twins
Level: Low-A   Age: Turns 24 on Saturday   Org Rank: 46   FV: 35+
Line: 3.1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 6 K

Notes
This was Johan Quezada’s first career appearance in full-season ball. An imposing mound presence at a towering 6-foot-6, he has recovered from the shoulder surgery that cost him all of 2017, and his velocity has returned. He sits 94-97 with extreme downhill plane created by his height, and he’ll show you an average slider every once in a while. Quezada’s breaking-ball quality and command need to develop as they’re understandably behind due to his limited pro workload. He’s a older-than-usual arm-strength/size lottery ticket. On the surface, he seems like a candidate for extra reps in the Arizona Fall League.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 8/20/2018

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Mark Vientos, 3B, New York Mets
Level: Appy   Age: 18   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45+
Line: 3-for-3, 2B, BB

Notes
The Mets have made effectual changes to Mark Vientos’s swing since he signed. His stance has opened up and his hands set up in a way that has enabled him to lift the ball better than he did in high school, especially pitches on the inner half. His hands are more alive and powerful than they were a year ago, and Vientos has launched balls out the other way even when he doesn’t fully square them up. His size/build might eventually cause a tumble down the defensive spectrum (he’s been projected off of shortstop to, at least, third base since he was a high-school underclassman), which would mean power alone won’t be enough to enable him to profile. His early-career contact rates are positive, especially considering Vientos doesn’t turn 19 until December.

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

Fringe Five Scoreboards: 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013.

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion among the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, John Sickels, and (most importantly) FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel* and also who (b) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing within Longenhagen and McDaniel’s most recent update — and the updates published by Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus and John Sickels at Minor League Ball — have also been excluded from consideration.

*Note: I’ve excluded Baseball America’s list this year not due to any complaints with their coverage, but simply because said list is now behind a paywall.

For those interested in learning how Fringe Five players have fared at the major-league level, this somewhat recent post offers that kind of information. The short answer: better than a reasonable person would have have expected. In the final analysis, though, the basic idea here is to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.

*****

Brock Burke, LHP, Tampa Bay (Profile)
A third-round selection out of a Colorado high school in 2014, Burke has had the capacity to hit 95 mph for much of his professional career but has struggled to consistently hold his velocity from start to start. “I’d be down to 87-90 at times,” he told FanGraphs’ David Laurila in a post from June. “Now I’m more consistent with ranges, and my velo isn’t dropping at the end of games.”

Burke attributes at least part of his development to a Driveline Baseball program in which he participated with other Rays pitchers. “It was definitely beneficial,” said Burke. “It got me in better body shape, which has helped my accuracy and my velo.”

Whatever the cause, Burke has been excellent of late. Following an early-July promotion to Double-A Montgomery, Burke has recorded strikeout and walk rates of 33.6% and 6.2%, respectively, in 36.2 innings. The differential of 27.4 points between those two figures would represent the highest such mark among qualified Double-A pitchers. Burke was characteristically strong in his most recent start, recording an 8:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 28 batters over 7.0 innings (box).

Burke seemed to have the most success with his fastball in that start earlier this week. Here, though, is footage of the one his better curveballs:

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Kyle Schwarber Is Who We Thought He Was

In some circles, Kyle Schwarber has reached mythical proportions. Nor is the rise of his legend entirely unreasonable. Consider some of his exploits to date. He reached the majors just a year after being drafted and proceeded to record 16 homers in less than half a season. He hit a monster home run that helped clinched a playoff series against the rival Cardinals in 2015. Then, after missing the entire 2016 season with knee surgery, he returned for the World Series and reached base in half of his plate appearances, the Cubs winning three of the four games he started. He’s still just 25.

In the nearly two years since that epic series, however, Schwarber has failed to live up to the hype. That said, he’s basically also fulfilled the expectations evaluators had for him as a prospect. Back before the 2015 season, this is what Kiley McDaniel had to say about Schwarber’s future.

When I first saw Schwarber last summer on a loaded college Team USA, I thought the middle linebacker-looking dude wasn’t a good bet to stick at catcher, but he was surprisingly nimble for his size with enough ability to at least consider it. I wrote that he was good enough back there to allow him to play there in the minors and develop him as a potential backup that plays once or twice a week but is a primary at left field or first base. The Cubs took him #4 overall out of Indiana and agree with my defensive suggestion; they’ll develop him as a catcher this year, but most assume his bat will be ready before his glove, meaning he’ll be a part-time catcher at best. There’s legit 30 homer power and surprising feel to hit with a realistic chance for a big league look in late 2016.

At the time, McDaniel gave Schwarber a 60 future-value grade, or roughly the equivalent of a three-win player. Nearly 1,200 plate appearances into Schwarber’s career, he’s put up a 112 wRC+ and 5.8 WAR. He has been, in other words, basically a three-win player thus far in his career. Yes, lot of his value came in that rookie season and, yes, last season might be regarded as a disappointment; however, much of his struggles last year were due to bad luck, and he’s played pretty well this season.

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Hamels and Pray for Rain and Pray for More Rain?

David Bote’s pinch-hitting heroics on Sunday night ensured that Cole Hamels’ sterling start did not go to waste, but for the rest of the Cubs’ rotation, such outings have lately been more the exception than the rule. On Tuesday afternoon against the Brewers at Wrigley Field, Jose Quintana dug his team a three-run hole in the first inning, serving up a leadoff homer to Lorenzo Cain on just his second pitch of the afternoon and, three batters later, allowing a two-run blast to Ryan Braun. Two innings later, Braun added another two-run shot.

Last Saturday, it was Jon Lester allowing two first-inning runs to the Nationals, and nine in 3.2 innings of a 9-4 Cubs loss. On Friday, it was Kyle Hendricks allowing runs in the first and second innings before righting the ship in a 3-2 win. Lately, it’s always something.

Somehow, the Cubs own the National League’s best record (68-50, .576) despite having one of its most disappointing rotations. Including Quintana’s start, the team’s starters collectively rank 10th in the league in ERA (4.20), 12th in WAR (3.8), and 13th in FIP (4.71). Just after the All-Star break, Craig Edwards noted that the rotation’s performance was on pace to be its worst by WAR since 1974, and somehow, despite the team going 13-12 in the second half (that despite being outscored by 28 runs), it has continued to lag:

The starters are 13th among NL clubs in ERA (5.39) and 11th in FIP (4.85) since the All-Star break. The trouble has begun almost immediately; in the first inning, the starters have posted an 8.64 ERA (last in the NL) and a 5.84 FIP (12th).

The Cubs’ survival and success thus far is testament both to their offense, which is cranking out 4.88 runs per game (second in the league) with a 103 wRC+ (first), and to their bullpen, which is second in the league in ERA (3.35) and fifth in FIP (3.84), though the latter unit has been mid-pack thus far in the second half. But whether it’s the added stress of so many postseason innings, the impact of the change in pitching coaches from Chris Bosio to Jim Hickey, or the difficulty of their newcomers in acclimating — and it could well be some combination of all three — the Cubs can’t be brimming with confidence in their costly, underperforming rotation as they look towards September and October. Hamels, with a 1.00 ERA, 1.94 FIP, and 29.0% strikeout rate in three starts since being acquired from the Rangers, is the exception; Edwards has a breakdown of the 34-year-old southpaw’s ace-like performance here.

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