Archive for White Sox

Michael Kopech and the Cold Comfort of Tommy John Trends

Just 14.1 innings: that’s all we’ll get from Michael Kopech at the big-league level until 2020. On Friday afternoon, the White Sox announced that the 22-year-old fireballer has a significant tear in his ulnar collateral ligament and will require Tommy John surgery. Unlike the previous gut punch that baseball fans were dealt just two days earlier — that Shohei Ohtani needs the surgery, as well — there was no dramatic buildup, no injection of platelet-rich plasma after the first report of a UCL sprain, followed by rest and hope backed with worry that it wouldn’t be enough to stave off surgery. On Wednesday, Kopech was pitching. On Friday, he was cooked, though he’ll go about getting a second opinion before the fork, and ultimately the knife, are stuck in him.

Granted, there were signs on Wednesday: Kopech exhibited diminished velocity even before sitting through a 28-minute rain delay. When play resumed, he surrendered three homers and six runs to the Tigers while retiring just one hitter in the fourth inning. The guy who, two years ago while still in the Red Sox organization, was reportedly clocked at 105 mph threw just one first-inning fastball that topped 95, according to the data at Brooks Baseball. His average four-seam fastball velocity for the first inning declined for the third time in a row — in a major-league career that’s four outings long:

Kopech’s Declining Fastball Velocity
Date Opponent 1st Inning Overall
August 21 Twins 97.1 97.1
August 26 Tigers 96.3 95.7
August 31 Red Sox 95.3 95.8
September 5 Tigers 94.0 94.2
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Oddly enough, rain affected Kopech’s first and third starts, as well, also in Chicago. His debut ended after two rain-shortened innings and his August 31 start ended after three. He didn’t allow a run in either outing and conceded just one in six innings in his lone road start, in Detroit, on August 26. His tally entering the fateful start was thus one run allowed in 11 innings, with 11 hits, nine strikeouts and one walk, an extension of the second-half strike zone-pounding roll that carried him to the majors in the first place. Because he has learned to dial back his velocity in order to improve his control, he didn’t crack 99 mph on any pitch, let alone 100.

Kopech didn’t sound any alarms about his elbow in Wednesday’s postgame interview, telling reporters, “I missed a lot of spots and got taken advantage of, which is going to happen when I’m not throwing the way I need to. I was pitching like I was throwing 100 [mph], and I was throwing 93-94.”

After the news of his diagnosis, however, Kopech was reported to have experienced trouble getting loose during warmups, believing that he was simply dealing with stiffness:

“If you’re looking for a specific pitch or date, I couldn’t tell you,” Kopech said. “It’s been gradual.”

“I thought it was just a little discomfort. I thought it was something I could throw through,” he said… “[I wanted] to see if there was something I could fix. This isn’t the answer I expected.”

“There were no inklings whatsoever,” said general manager Rick Hahn while delivering the bad news. “Nothing that he reported, nothing in the injury reports, nothing with his delivery, nothing with any of the analytics of his mechanics, nothing until yesterday, when he rightfully shared with us that he didn’t feel quite right getting loose during that start against Detroit.”

It’s been a particularly rough year for the UCLs of top prospects. Going back to the FanGraphs’ top-100 list from February, we’ve lost not only Kopech (No. 20 on that list) and Ohtani (No. 1) but also the Rays’ Brent Honeywell (No. 15), the A’s A.J. Puk (No. 30), and the Reds’ Hunter Greene (No. 42). Per Baseball America’s list, those five were all in the top 30. Depending upon which of those lists you’re consulting, that’s five of the top-18 (FG) or -14 (BA) pitching prospects felled, counting the two-way players (Ohtani, Greene, and the Rays’ as-yet-unharmed Brendan McKay) as pitchers because that’s where the risk is. Whether their UCLs are actually more vulnerable due to double duty is a question for another day.

The more important question from an industry-wide perspective is the extent to which the UCL tears of this cohort of blue-chippers and so many others are connected to the game’s trend towards increasing velocity. (According to Pitch Info’s data, this year’s average four-seam fastball speed of 93.3 mph is down 0.3 mph from the previous year but still 1.1 mph higher than in 2009.) In a 2015 study by Julien Assouline published on the FanGraphs Community blog, Assouline used PITCHf/x data dating back to 2007 and Baseball Info Solutions data dating back to 2002. He found higher rates of Tommy John surgery among major-league pitchers in the 92-95 mph bucket (~27% for both sources) than the 89-92 bucket (20-21%) — and higher still in the 95-plus bucket (31-35%). The trend was generally applicable both to relievers and starters, though regarding the latter group, he found some ambiguities when using BIS data, which had a larger sample size.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital, published in the April 2016 Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery (abstract here via PDF), found a connection between higher fastball rates but not necessarily higher velocity. The study, which covered 83 pitchers who had endured the surgery over an eight-year period (a smaller sample than Assouline’s study) and compared them to a control group matched for age, position (starter/reliever), size, innings pitched, and experience, found no differences in pre-surgery pitch velocities for fastballs, curveballs, sliders, or changeups. However, research also revealed that the pitchers who received Tommy John surgery threw significantly more fastballs than the control group, with a 2% increase in risk for UCL injury for every 1% increase in fastballs thrown, and that fastball usage above 48% was “a significant predictor of UCL injury.”

For what it’s worth, the small sample of Kopech’s Pitch Info data for his four starts shows him throwing four-seam fastballs 62.5% of the time. For Ohtani’s 10 starts, he threw four-seam fastballs 46.3% of the time and split-fingered fastballs — which went unmentioned in the study, as did cut fastballs and any distinction between two- and four-seamers — 22.4% of the time (sinkers just 0.1%). For what scant data we have from Honeywell (the 2016 Arizona Fall League and the 2017 Futures Game) and Puk (that Futures Game and one 2017 spring-training outing) via Brooks Baseball, the aggregated rates of fastball usage are well above 50%, but the sample sizes and relief-length outings make it unwise to draw conclusions.

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Elegy for ’18 – Chicago White Sox

Re-signed by the White Sox to eat innings, Miguel Gonzalez pitched only 12 of them in 2018.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Perhaps the biggest surprise for the White Sox in 2018 was just how long they clung to their mathematical chances of reaching the postseason, surviving weeks longer than either the Royals or Orioles. But as goes the way of all flesh, the Pale Hose became pale dust — along with five other teams in the last week, meaning Dan is going to be busy over the next five days.

The Setup

Unlike with the Orioles, who still had at least a plausible argument coming into the season about playoff volatility, and the Royals, who pretended to have one, nobody was ever under the illusion that the White Sox would play October baseball.

Which is perfectly fine, of course, given that the team only threw in the towel late in 2016. Unfortunately, that was well after acquiring James Shields from the Padres (though this trade has turned out way worse than could be expected on average).

Chicago wasn’t among those clubs, like the Braves and Phillies, poised to return from the depths of their rebuild and compete for a place in the postseason. They’re still very early in that period of sorting out which of their prospects and low-risk pickups will help them in that capacity.

The White Sox entered the 2018 campaign clearly intent on avoiding expensive moves — costly in terms of dollars or prospects — that were unlikely to help make the team better in the future. Giving Miguel Gonzalez a one-year, $4.75 million deal isn’t crazy for a team that’s just trying to cover 162 starts a year. The team believed Welington Castillo was enough of a bargain at two years and $15 million that, even if the team failed to compete in the second year of the deal, they could always flip him for something useful.

Outside of a clever little trade of Jake Peter, a low-ceiling now-or-never utility-type for trade bait in Luis Avilan and Joakim Soria, it was a quiet offseason.

The Projection

ZiPS projected the White Sox to go 68-94, tying with the Tigers and a game behind the Royals. Who says I’m not optimistic about the Royals?

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Reynaldo Lopez’s Quest to Become a Smart Power Pitcher

Reynaldo Lopez remains a work in progress. The 24-year-old right-hander has been brilliant in his past two outings — allowing just a pair of runs over 14 innings — but his overall performance this season has been a mixed bag. In 28 starts for Chicago’s South Side club, Lopez has a 4.37 ERA, and he’s fanned just 6.8 batters per nine innings.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t making strides, nor does it mean that he can’t miss bats when he needs to. Acquired by the White Sox along with Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning in the December 2016 deal that sent Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals, Lopez has been removing the word “raw” from his reputation. Tutelage from a pair of baseball’s best pitching minds is a big reason why.

“I’ve matured a lot,” Lopez told me this summer via translator Billy Russo. “Four or five years ago my mindset was to throw hard and overpower the hitters. Now it’s more about location and pitch selection, and managing the game. You have to be smart in order to succeed at this level.”

The native of San Pedro de Macoris began learning that lesson upon his arrival in the nation’s capital midway through the 2016 season. His initial outings were rocky, and teammates were in his ear. Their messages were straightforward. He couldn’t just throw hard. He needed to have a plan.

His first tutorial came from one of the game’s best, and most cerebral, pitchers.

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Should We Adjust How We Evaluate Pitching Prospects?

Evaluating pitchers is a real challenge. A combination of experience and knowledge can help one to better understand how variables like velocity, spin, and pitch mix translate to the majors. Even with that information, though, the influence of other factors — like injury risk, like a pitcher’s likelihood of responding to mechanical or mental adjustments — creates a great deal of uncertainty.

Nor is this a challenge that faces only prospect analysts like myself and Eric Longenhagen: even front-office execs who have the benefit of substantial resources — in the form both of data and personnel — have trouble reliably projecting outcomes for otherwise similarly talented young arms.

In my role as a talent evaluator both with FanGraphs and with a few major-league clubs, the question of how best to assess pitchers is obviously one to which I’ve returned with some frequency. In my recent efforts to get some final looks at certain top pitching prospects, however, I began to rethink how Eric Longenhagen and I should approach rankings this offseason. Three prospects, in particular, help to illustrate my concerns.

Tigers righty Matt Manning was the ninth overall pick in 2016, is an athletic 20-year-old who stands 6-foot-6, and was promoted to Double-A last week. In addition to that, he sat 94-96 and hit 98 mph in my look, mixing in a spike curveball that flashed 65 on the 20-80 scale. The positives here are numerous, and very few other minor leaguers could match even a few of these qualities.

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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)

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
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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Michael Kopech Can’t Stop Throwing Strikes

Many would argue it takes a lifetime to become an adult. According to Dustin Garneau, catcher with Triple-A Charlotte, Michael Kopech did it in a day.

It was on July 5 at home against Durham, when Kopech exited after walking four and allowing four earned runs in three innings. Kopech’s reaction to the home-plate umpire on that night and the situation overall was not a positive one in Garneau’s mind.

“[Kopech] showed a lot of immaturity that game,” said Garneau, who joined the White Sox this weekend from Charlotte with Kevan Smith going on the paternity list. “The ump did squeeze him a lot. That didn’t help.

“But the way [Kopech] reacted to it, I told him that can’t work. After that game, he really learned maturity and now he is pitching.”

On the one hand, I can’t help but laugh at the idea of someone “learning maturity” after having a single conversation. People are a lot more complicated than that; personalities and instincts run a lot deeper than that. Personal change takes years of hard work, and it tends to come in fits and starts. No one just goes to therapy once. Not anyone who wants to get anything out of it.

On the other hand, there’s Michael Kopech. Now, I’m not saying it was all ever about his maturity level. Maybe Kopech just used to run into trouble because he was like any other imperfect pitcher, with imperfect mechanics. But with Kopech in 2018, there really does appear to be a moment where the switch just flipped. Into early July, Kopech was a big-stuff pitcher who couldn’t get out of his own way. Since the middle of that month, he’s dramatically changed his pitching identity.

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Lucas Giolito Is Saving His Season

Every spring training, we all know we shouldn’t read too much into results. And, every spring training, we all read too much into results. It’s not like anyone could blame us — during spring training, that’s the only baseball going on, so, what are we supposed to do? But this past spring training, I fell in love with Lucas Giolito, and it was mostly because of a dominant start he had against the Cubs. His stuff looked sharp and he’d altered his delivery, and it looked to me like Giolito might’ve been poised for a breakthrough season.

Then the actual season began, and Giolito might’ve been the worst starter in the bigs. For one thing, his stuff ticked down. And for another, in March and April, he had 11 strikeouts to go with 21 walks and four hit batters. May brought 19 strikeouts, to go with 16 walks and six hit batters. Giolito approached the end of June with an ERA over 7. He entered August with an ERA over 6. People wondered whether Giolito might’ve been better off getting demoted to Triple-A. It didn’t look like he was making any forward progress in Chicago.

You might’ve checked out. You might’ve focused instead on Michael Kopech. So let me fill you in on a recent development. Over five starts in August, Giolito has thrown 31 innings. He has 10 walks and 32 strikeouts, and he’s thrown close to two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. It hasn’t all been great, but it’s assuredly been better. Giolito might finally be taking a step forward. I’ll walk through some of the points that I find to be encouraging.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 8/28/2018

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

Performances from 8/26

Evan White, 1B, Seattle Mariners
Level: High-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 2   FV: 45
Line: 3-for-4, 2B, 3Bho

We now have a full season of data to help us figure out whether Evan White’s weird profile is going to play. A plus-running backwards guy (bats right, throws left, a generally unfavorable combination due to the defensive limitations and platoon issues caused by both) who plays plus defense at first base, White was slugging .391 at the start of August, which is rather uninspiring for a college hitter in the Cal League. In August, however, White has 30 hits in 90 plate appearances and is slugging .763. He has made subtle changes to his lower half, drawing his front knee back toward his rear hip more than he did at Kentucky, and taking a longer stride back toward the pitcher. White is more often finishing with a flexed front leg, which has helped him go down and lift balls in the bottom part of the strike zone by adjusting his lower half instead of his hands. It’s a more athletic swing that was implemented before White’s explosive August, though he may just be getting comfortable with it now. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Prospect Notes: 8/7/18

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

These daily notes are going to be different/sporadic this week, as I’ll be in Southern California for the Area Code Games in Long Beach and then PG All American in San Diego over the weekend. In today’s edition, I’ve got notes on some of the players I saw in Arizona over the weekend, and a reflection on a few specific aspects of our process as it relates to pitcher injuries.

First, a look at Dodgers lefty Julio Urias, who is rehabbing from surgery to repair a tear of his left shoulder’s anterior caspule. Urias threw 1.2 innings against the White Sox’ AZL team on Saturday in his second rehab appearance of the summer. He allowed just one hit and struck out four. His fastball sat 88-91 and topped out at 92, well below the velocity band he has displayed throughout his career, which was typically in the 92-95 range. A scout who was in attendance at Urias’s first rehab outing earlier in the week told me they also had Urias topping out at 92, which conflicts with what was reported just after that outing. Urias’s fastball command was much better in this brief look than it was in his often frustrating big-league appearances, and it has flat, bat-missing plane up in the zone. Overall. though, it’s a 45 fastball right now.

Urias’s secondaries were a bit less crisp than pre-surgery. I saw one slider and several curveballs (flashed plus, mostly average) which were also thrown with less velocity (71-74 mph) than Urias exhibited before injury (75-80). The pitch has good depth and tight snap when it’s down, perhaps not playing within the strike zone quite as well. Urias threw a few average changeups (including a first pitch cambio that Luis Robert foul-tipped) in the 80-83 mph range, but he lacked feel for keeping the pitch down and hung several of them in the top of the strike zone or above it.

Obviously, Urias is returning from a serious shoulder injury, and it’s possible his stuff will tick up with continued work. The Dodgers expect him to contribute to the bullpen in September and he need only wield a competent breaking ball remain left-handed for the next eight weeks to do that. Long term, it’s hard to say what’s going to happen here. Urias was once 6 fastball, 6 breaking ball, above-average changeup, plus command projection. Right now he’s a bunch of 45s and 50s.

Some Thoughts on Process

Before I start discussing some process-oriented stuff on our end, I want to give newer readers a crash course on how we assign FV grades to players and what they mean. A more detailed explanation can be found here.

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Sunday Notes: Eugenio Suárez Added Power and Sterling Sharp is a Pitching Ninja

Eugenio Suárez played in the All-Star Game earlier this month, so in some respects he’s not under the radar. But in many ways, he really is. The Cincinnati Reds third baseman is slashing .301/.387/.581, and he leads the National League in both wRC+ and RBIs. Were he playing in a bigger market, those numbers would make him… well, a star. Which he is… in relative anonymity.

Opposing pitchers certainly know who he is, and that’s been especially true this past week. Going into last night, Suárez had homered in five consecutive games, raising his season total to 24. That’s two fewer than last year’s career high, which came in his third season in Cincinnati. Count the Tigers’ former brain trust among those who didn’t see this coming. In December 2014, Detroit traded the then-23-year-old to the Reds for (gulp), Alfredo Simon.

“I don’t think anything has really changed,” Suárez claimed when I asked him about his evolution as a hitter. “I just play baseball like I did before. I’ve always been able to hit, just not for power like last year and this year.”

He attributes the power surge to maturity and hard work in the offseason. Asked to compare his current self to the 17-year-old kid who signed out of Venezuela in 2008, Suárez said the biggest difference is physicality. Read the rest of this entry »

Scouting the White Sox’ Return for Joakim Soria

Hawaiian LHP Kodi Medeiros was part of a high-risk 2014 Brewers draft class that also featured SS Jake Gatewood (who had elite raw power but also contact issues) and OF Monte HarrisonChristian Yelich). On Thursday, he was the centerpiece of two-prospect package traded to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for ageless reliever Joakim Soria.

Medeiros was a curious selection in the middle of the 2014 draft’s first round, as he had command issues and a low-slot delivery that made him vulnerable against right-handed hitters. The gap between where Medeiros was, developmentally, and where he’d eventually need to be in order to profile as a starter was much greater than is typical of a top-15 pick, even as far as high-school pitching is concerned.

After parts of four years in pro ball, Medeiros continues to have issues with strike-throwing efficiency and with getting right-handed batters out, so while he has been developed as a starter (which makes sense if you believe the extra reps help accelerate or improve pitch development), he still projects in relief. His fastball velocity is down beneath what it was when Medeiros was drafted, now residing in the 88-92 range. A move to the bullpen might reignite some of the fire that has been lost and, if it does, then Medeiros’s fastball, plus slider, and low arm slot mean he’ll be death to lefty hitters in late innings.

The White Sox also acquired 20-year-old righty Wilber Perez from the Brewers. Signed as a 19-year-old in July of last year, Perez pitched the rest of the summer in the DSL. He’s still down there and has a 47:13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 innings this year. His fastball sits in the upper 80s and rarely crests 90, but he can manipulate its shape to have cut. Perez can spin a soft breaking ball, and there’s significant spin rate separation between his fastball and changeup, a favorable trait. He’s a fringe prospect in need of more velocity. There’s room on Perez’s frame for more weight, but most of these guys are relatively maxed out, physically, around age 22, so projecting heavily on a 20-year-old’s velo based purely on physical maturation seems excessive.

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/26/18

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

Gabriel Maciel, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 19   Org Rank: 18   FV: 40
Line: 2-for-4, 2B

The 19-year-old Brazilian has hit in every July game in which he’s played and is riding an 18-game streak, including multi-hit games in eight of his past 10. Maciel was hitting .249/.336/.305 on July 1 and is now at .291/.367/.338. He’s a plus-plus running center fielder with very limited physicality, but he understands what his offensive approach has to be to reach base and he has played well-executed small-ball throughout his pro career. There’s risk that this style of hitting won’t play against better defenses and that Maciel winds up as a bench outfielder.

Dylan Cease, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 9   FV: 45+
Line: 7 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 12 K

This was the best start of Cease’s career. He has posted a 10% walk rate since being acquired by the White Sox, while big-league average is about 8%. Cease is a pretty strong candidate for late-blooming fastball command. He missed a year of development due to a surgery and will receive every opportunity to work with different coaches and orgs throughout his career as long as he throws as hard as he does. It might click at any time. But for now it’s realistic to assume that when Cease debuts in the next year or so he’ll probably be pitching with 40 control. Is there precedence for success among starting pitchers with a plus fastball, plus curveball, and a fringey collection of other stuff? Charlie Morton and German Marquez are two very encouraging examples, Sal Romano less so. Sean Newcomb looked like he’d have to be that guy but his changeup came along. It will take a pretty specific approach to pitching, but Cease should be fine with what he’s already working with.

Touki Toussaint, RHP, Atlanta Braves (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 50
Line: 8 IP, 2 H, 4 BB, 0 R, 8 K

You could apply much of what I just said regarding Cease to Touki, but we’re higher on Touki than Cease, ranking-wise, because his curveball is better, he hasn’t had a surgery, and he is a level ahead of Cease at the same age.

Hans Crouse, RHP, Texas Rangers (Profile)
Level: Short-Season   Age: 19   Org Rank: 8   FV: 45
Line: 7 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 12 K

Crouse’s delivery looks weird and causes his fastball to play down a bit because he doesn’t get down the mound. While he had below-average fastball control when I saw him in the spring, he has just four walks combined in his past five starts for Spokane. Yet another plus fastball/breaking ball prospect with stuff nasty enough to overcome other issues.

Milwaukee Acquires Soria from White Sox

Due to the various injury setbacks of Zach Davies and the loss of Brent Suter, the Milwaukee Brewers will likely have to address their rotation at some point before the trade deadline. That didn’t keep the team from adding depth to the bullpen today, however. As reported by Mark Feinsand, here’s who’s changing hands:

Brewers get:

White Sox get:

Even before the acquisition of Soria, Milwaukee was projected to have the second-best bullpen over the rest of the season according to FanGraphs Depth Charts, which include the Steamer and ZiPS forecasts. The club’s relievers have combined for the third-most WAR in the league to-date, behind only the Yankees and Padres. With Matt Albers coming off the disabled list, there’s a bit of a roster crunch that may very well be remedied by another, because unless I’ve miscounted, his return and Soria’s addition gives the Brewers 15 pitchers on the 25-man roster. Jorge Lopez appears to be the most likely to be shuttled once again to Colorado Springs, but something else might very well be, uh… brewing. Yes, I feel dirty for that pun.

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The Worst Called Ball of the First Half

Only days ago, the Red Sox trailed the Blue Jays 8-7 going into the top of the eighth. The Blue Jays might be long past the point of playing for anything, but the Red Sox are still actively trying to hold off the Yankees, and so, with that in mind, every game of theirs is important. The eighth inning was given to Joe Kelly, and with his first pitch, he hit the first batter. With his third pitch, he allowed a single to the second batter. The third batter was Justin Smoak, and consecutive changeups ran the count to 1-and-1. Catcher Sandy Leon expected a breaking ball. Kelly threw a changeup instead.

The pitch — that pitch — was called a ball, with Leon ducking out of surprise. The pitch, of course, was down the middle of the plate, but instead of 1-and-2, the count became 2-and-1. Also, because the ball got away, the runner on second moved up to third. Two pitches later, Smoak hit an RBI single. On the very next pitch, Kendrys Morales hit an RBI double. The Blue Jays pulled away, eventually winning by six. Kelly and Leon were left to wonder how they got crossed up. They were left to wonder, as well, how an obvious strike became a critical ball.

That was almost the worst called ball of the season’s first half. The actual worst called ball, however, came only three days before. Leading up to the All-Star break, we had a little run of these things.

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Five Players Who Ought to Be Traded (But Probably Won’t Be)

A Michael Fulmer deal could help the Tigers rebuild their system.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

While the result isn’t always a poor one, the decision to wait for an exact perfect trade is a dangerous game for a rebuilding/retooling team. Greed can sometimes be good, yes, but a player’s trade value can also dissipate with a simple twinge in the forearm.

For every Rich Hill who lands at a new home in exchange for an impressive haul, there’s a Zach Britton or Zack Cozart or Todd Frazier or Tyson Ross whose value declines dramatically — sometimes so dramatically that they become effectively untradable. Even when waiting doesn’t lead to disaster, such as with Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana, teams frequently don’t do that much better by waiting for the most beautiful opportunity for baseball-related extortion. Regression to the mean is real. For a player at the top of his game, there’s a lot more room for bad news than good; chaos may be a ladder, but it’s not a bell curve.

With that in mind, I’ve identified five players who might be most valuable to their clubs right now as a trade piece. None of them are likely to be dealt before the deadline. Nevertheless, their respective clubs might also never have a better opportunity to secure a return on these particular assets.

Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles (Profile)

There seems to be a sense almost that, if the Orioles are able to trade Manny Machado for a great package, get an interesting deal for Zach Britton, and procure some token return for Adam Jones, then it’ll be time to fly the ol’ Mission Accomplished banner. In reality, though, that would simply mark the beginning of the Orioles’ chance to build a consistent winner. After D-Day, the allies didn’t call it wrap, shake some hands, and head home to work on the hot rod. (Confession: I don’t actually know what 18-year-olds did for fun in 1944.)

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Daily Prospect Notes: 7/11

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

Andres Gimenez, SS, New York Mets (Profile)
Level: Hi-A   Age: 19   Org Rank: 3   FV: 50
Line: 3-for-5, 2B, 3B

Gimenez is a 19-year-old shortstop slashing .280/.350/.430 in the Florida State League. That’s good for a 107 wRC+ in the FSL. Big-league shortstops with similar wRC+ marks are Trea Turner (a more explosive player and rangier defender than Gimenez) and Jurickson Profar, who have both been two-win players or better this year ahead of the break. Also of note in the Mets system last night was Ronny Mauricio, who extended his career-opening hitting streak to 19 games.

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The Manager’s Perspective: Rick Renteria on Mentoring Young Players

In many respects, Rick Renteria wears multiple hats as manager of the Chicago White Sox. The AL Central team he’s leading is in full-rebuild mode, its roster populated with a plethora of inexperienced players. That makes him a good fit for the position. As Cubs skipper Joe Maddon opined at the outset of spring training, “There are managers, and there are managers who are also good coaches. Not everybody can do both. [Renteria] can coach it, and he can manage it.”

The 56-year-old former big-league infielder has 20 years of both under his belt, the majority — but not all — in the minor leagues. He was at the helm for Chicago’s NL entry in 2014 — Maddon replaced him the following year — before moving across town in 2016 to serve as Robin Ventura’s bench coach. Last season, he took over as manager, where his job is less about winning now than it is to mold young players into winners. That requires patience and an ability to instruct, and along with good leadership skills, Renteria possesses each of those attributes.


Rick Renteria: “Coming up through the system… every organization is different in terms of their philosophy, yet they’re all the same. We all want a player to understand, fundamentally, how to go about playing the game — how to run the bases, how to have an approach at the plate, how to defend, when to throw to what base. Things of that nature.

“Until you get here, though… you can be very well taught, but there’s a different dynamic in the big leagues, and it involves emotion and your mindset. No matter how well prepared, you’re going to make a mistake or two. Of course, that could be said for guys who have been in the big leagues for years.

“When you get here from the minor leagues, you continue to understand, and get a feel for, who you are as a player — what you’re supposed to be and what you can and cannot do. That comes through experience. And again, a lot of it has to do with emotions and your mindset. The emotions can speed the game up for you and take you out of your normal element.

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Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 13

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the thirteenth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Dennis Eckersley, Michael Fulmer, Miguel Gonzalez — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.


Dennis Eckersley (Hall of Famer) on His Slider

“I couldn’t throw a curveball because of my angle. I couldn’t get on top of it. That’s all they’d ever tell me. Every time somebody would whistle at me, it would be, ‘Get your arm up! Get your elbow up!’ But a slider came pretty easy. It was just, ‘Turn your wrist a little bit.’

“I went straight from high school to pro ball [in 1972], and all of a sudden my fastball didn’t play. I was in the California League when I was 17, and they could hit. The next thing you know, I’m throwing a lot more breaking balls than I ever did in my life. I didn’t have any choice.

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Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 12

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the twelfth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Matt Boyd, Sam Gaviglio, and Hector Santiago —— on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.


Matt Boyd (Tigers) on His Slider

“My slider has kind of evolved over the years. My junior year [at Oregon State], we had a rain delay at the University of Portland and I was playing catch out in front of the dugout. I asked Nate Yesky, our pitching coach, how to throw one. He taught me how he threw his.

“It turned into this big slurve. I kind of rode that my senior year — it was a big pitch for me — and once I got into pro ball it slowly tightened up. As the years went on, every coach on the Blue Jays worked with me on it, trying to make it more like a cutter. They wanted to make it more high 80s, closer to my fastball, but I could never really get to that pitch.

“I was still trying to figure it out when I got to the big leagues. It wasn’t very consistent. Rich Dubee really helped me out, trying to tighten it up. But again, it would come and go. It wasn’t until later in the year, last year, that it started getting tighter.

“This offseason, I threw with James Paxton a little bit and he showed me how he throws his. We obviously have a much different slider-cutter, but I threw it like his and from there it took on a shape of its own with my own delivery. It’s become a real weapon for me.

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Sunday Notes: Sean Newcomb Has Sneaky Hop

Sean Newcomb has turned a corner. On the heels of an erratic rookie campaign that saw him go 4-9, 4.32 in 100 innings for the Atlanta Braves last year, the 24-year-old former Angels prospect is rapidly establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League. A dozen starts into his second big-league season, Newcomb is 7-1 with a 2.49 ERA and he’s held hitters to a paltry .198 average and just three home runs.

Improved command and confidence have buoyed the young southpaw’s ability to flummox the opposition. His 4.3 walk rate (down from 5.1 last year) remains less than ideal, but he’s no longer the raw, strike-zone-challenged kid that Atlanta acquired from Anaheim in the November 2015 Andrelton Simmons deal. He’s making the transition from thrower to pitcher, and the results speak for themselves.

“I feel more comfortable now,” Newcomb told me prior to a late-May start at Fenway Park. “I had last year’s experience to take into the season, so I’ve felt more settled in. My fastball has also been working well, and I’ve been able to go from there.”

The fastball in question is by no means run-of-the-mill. It’s very good, and not for reasons that jump out at you — at least not in terms of numbers. Newcomb’s velocity (93.3) is right around league-average. His four-seam spin rate is actually lower than average (2,173 versus 2,263), as is his extension (5.6) versus 6.1). Read the rest of this entry »