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Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Sweet Lou Bullpen Program

This week I'd like to highlight a relatively new strategical development in Major League Baseball.  Manager and general managers have realized that the "closer mentality" doesn't have to be limited to the 9th inning.  More and more teams have, especially competitive teams, have added a set-up man who is as dominant, if not more dominant, than their stopper.  

At one point, of course, every pitcher who put on a uniform considered himself a starter.  He only reconciled himself to a life of bullpen work once it had been proven that he was ineffective when overexposed.  And even then, he longed for the opportunity to get himself back in the rotation.  Then, along came Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley, and closing down games appeared to be a more unlikely, but still a potential path to baseball immortality, especially for players with only one or two quality pitches, instead of three or four.  Still, however, there was only room in the bullpen for one star.  The other guys, they were just mop-up men, the unfortunate, but necessary risks which must be taken when the starter fails to turn the ball over directly to the closer. 

In recent years, the logic of relievers is changing yet again.  Partially, of course, because pitch-count limitations and improved patience from hitters is making it more difficult for even the best starters to consistently get past six or seven innings.  It took some time, but managers and general managers have reacted by finding ways to "shorten the game" with two or three outstanding relievers.  Lou Pinella has been at the forefront of this development.  In 1990, he won a World Series largely on the backs of the "Nasty Boys," a closer-by-committee trio composed of Norm Charlton (50 IP, 3.02 ERA, 2 SV, 57 K), Rob Dibble (98 IP, 1.74 ERA, 11 SV, 136 K), and Randy Myers (87 IP, 2.08 ERA, 31 SV, 98 K).  Two lefties and one right-handed who could be employed in any late inning and in any order.  In 2001, when Seattle tied an MLB record for wins, Pinella adapted to more defined bullpen roles, but again depended on a combination of strong relievers, two left-handed and two right-handed: Norm Charlton (48 IP, 3.02 ERA, 1 SV, 48 K), Jeff Nelson (65 IP, 2.76 ERA, 4 SV, 88 K), Arthur Rhodes (68 IP, 1.72 ERA, 3 SV, 83 K), and Kaz Sasaki (67 IP, 3.24 ERA, 45 SV, 62 K).  

This year, Pinella again has the ingredients for his favorite recipe, with Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, and Michael Wuertz in the Cubs bullpen.  And, so far, the Cubs have the best record in baseball.  Most of the best managers - Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, etc. - have adopted Lou's program, and to great success.  LaRussa, arguably the inventor of the hydra-headed bullpen monster depended upon Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt to lead many of his late-'80s, early-'90s Athletics contenders.  Torre moved from Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland to Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, and Mariano Rivera as part of the '90s Yankee Dynasty.  The Angels World Series run in 2002 was dependent upon Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Ben Weber, and Brendan Donnelly.  

The success of the these teams has increased the notoriety of the dominant set-up man.  In 2001, Torre put Paul Quantrill, at the time posting a 2.13 ERA and 7 relief wins on the AL All-Star Team.  Bob Brenly followed suit the following season for the NL, adding Atlanta's Mike Remlinger (50 IP, 2.88, 68 K) among much criticism.  In all but one season since, at least one set-up man has been an All-Star.  Considering that arguably the best closer in history, Lee Smith, is still awaiting induction, it may be a very long time before middle relievers get any consideration for the Hall of Fame.  But, baseball theorist would do well to consider the particular challenges the set-up man faces.  Unlike the starter, for whom the quality start is six innings pitched, three earned runs, and the closer, who is successful so long as he holds onto a lead, the only successful outcome for a middle reliever is to come into the game (often with men on base) and get through the inning, or partial inning, without allowing any runs.  A run is a failure.  The heavy pressure of these situations may explain why managers like Pinella, Eric Wedge, and Jim Leyland have elected to put their most dominant pitchers - Rafael Perez, Joel Zumaya, Carlos Marmol, etc. - in middle relief roles, while handing the closer duties to guys like Joe Borowski and Todd Jones, whose stuff is not nearly as electric.  The closer usually has the advantage of entering the game with nobody on.

It is often observed that very few pitchers are successful in the closer's role over a considerable duration of time.  Only three pitchers have ever registered 30 saves ten times: Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, and Mariano Rivera.  However, even fewer middle reliever succeed over the long haul.  Let's talk about those All-Stars.  Paul Quantrill had a solid seven-year run, of which his All-Star year was arguably the highlight (11-2, 3.04, 83 IP).  During this stretch his was 32-29, with 18 SV and a 2.82 ERA.  However, in 2004 he turned in a sub-par year with Torre's Yankees and was out of baseball by 2006.  Mike Remlinger was a bullpen staple in Atlanta and Chicago for six seasons from '99 to '04, during which he failed to make 70 appearances only once and never had an ERA above 3.65.  His record was an impressive 32-17.  But, like Quantrill, one sub-par season was the end of him.  He retired after '06.  In 2003, Mike Scioscia rewarded Brendan Donnelly with a trip to the All-Star Game.  Donnelly did not make the majors until the age of 30, but was a key part of the Angels bullpen from 2002 to 2006, although his effectiveness continued to dwindle for his final three seasons in Anaheim before he was eventually traded to Boston.  He was effective in the early months of 2007, but had to undergo Tommy John and is now trying to make his way back to the majors in the Indians organization.  Set-up man, Justin Duchscherer, represented Oakland in 2005.  He had three solid seasons as a middle reliever before suffering from nagging injuries last year.  The A's recently converted him to a starter.  As you can see, it is rare for a middle reliever to be effective for an extended period of time.  Often, at least in the past, the best set-up men have not found the right role until late in their careers or, if they do find it early, teams have attempted to convert them either to closers or starters.  However, as managers and GMs become more aware of the necessity of the 7th and 8th inning All-Stars, they will be in less of a hurry to make such alterations, as can be witnessed by Joe Giradi's reluctance to give in to the pressure to make Joba Chamberlain a starter.  Here are half-a-dozen of the best middle-men who we can likely look forward to seeing in that role for several years to come.

6. Tom Gordon - Philadelphia Phillies

This is the twentieth season for forty-year-old Flash Gordon, his twelfth as a reliever.  In his illustrious career he's netted 137 wins, 157 saves, and 117 holds.  Nobody in major league history has accumulated that combination of stats.  And, disregarding the Hold, a stat which didn't come into existence until the 1980s, Gordon joins Eckersley, Lindy McDaniel, Hoyt Wilhelm, and John Smoltz as the only players with 130 wins and 150 saves.  Very impressive company!  And, at 40, Gordon has proved that he's still quite a dominant set-up man.  Since giving up fiver earned runs in a third of an inning in his first appearance, Gordon has recorded one save and nine holds, striking out eighteen hitters in twenty innings, and compiling a 2.21 ERA.  

5. Tony Pena - Arizona Diamondbacks

Pena's future is closely intertwined with that of Brandon Lyon, the D-Backs current closer.  Lyon will be a free agent at the end of this season, while Pena will be under their control for four more seasons.  Lyon will make more than $3,000,000 in 2008 and ask for more if he continues to be successful (12 SV, 1.64 ERA so far!).  Pena will make $405,000 this year and then face arbitration.  If Arizona resigns Lyon, Pena can stay in the role which he has dominated thus far in his career.  He's been in the top ten in the MLB in Holds each of the past two seasons.  Doug Melvin is confident bringing him in any situation.  Leaving aside one bad outing in a game that was already out of reaching, Pena has ten holds and a save this season, to go along with a 2.28 ERA.  

4. Carlos Marmol - Chicago Cubs

In Marmol, Lou Pinella has found the reincarnation of Rob Dibble.  Like Pena, Marmol could eventually find himself closing games, but Pinella prefers the freedom to use him in whichevery late-inning situation requires strikeouts, whether it means bringing him in with men on base or matching him up with the opposition's middle-of-the-order.  Since Chicago turned him into a reliever after a dozen unsuccessful starts in 2006, Marmol has a 1.90 ERA with 161 K in 113 innings.  This year he already has 16 holds and 3 saves, as well as a 1.54 ERA.  Marmol is arguably the most dominant reliever in baseball, regardless of role.  

3. Rafeal Perez - Cleveland Indians

Because he is left-handed and because they have Rafael Betancourt, Masa Kobayashi, Jensen Lewis, and Joe Borowski the Indians will be reluctant to turn him into a closer, so Perez could be among the league-leaders in holds for years and years to come.  Last season he posted a 1.78 ERA and 62 K in 60 innings.  He has held left-handers to a .142 career average (and righties only hit .222).  

2. Hideki Okajima - Boston Red Sox

Okajima shoots toward the top of the list partially because he is buried behind a young closer who is among the most dominant in history, Jonathan Papelbon.  The Red Sox are unlikely to trade him, both because Hideki has been ridiculously effective thus far, and because his presence brings comfort to his very expensive countryman, Dice-K.  Okajima, however, has himself been a key piece of Boston's success the past two seasons.  He went to the All-Star Game in 2007 and finished the year with a 2.22 ERA, 5 SV, 27 HLD, and 63 K in 69 innings.  This year he has again started off on fire.  He's allowed only two earned runs in 24 innings (0.75 ERA).  Boston has a club option for 2009, an option which is, strangely, less expensive than the contracts for his first two seasons.  They'll pick that up in a hurry, one would bet.  At that point, Okajima will be 34-years-old.  If he hasn't shown any signs to slowing down, he could demand one of the largest contracts ever awarded a middle reliever.

1. Scot Shields - Los Angeles Angels

Shields signed a three-year, $15 Million contract before this season which pretty much assured that the 32-year-old would never make his mark as a closer.  He will be among the first players to make a very lucrative career almost entirely out of pitching the eighth inning.  He has racked up 30 or more holds in each of the past three seasons and is easily on pace to do it again this year.  He's got a 2.97 career ERA and 128 holds.  Unless K-Rod goes down with a serious injury, Shields will never have an opportunity to close regularly in Anaheim, even though he undoubtedly has the stuff to do so.  The Angels invested in the hydra-headed bullpen strategy when they signed Shields and Justin Speier to long, lucrative deals, investing nearly $30 Million in their services for the next three seasons.   

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hall of Fame Questions

Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, and Mike Piazza have officially announced their retirements.  Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have been forced into exile.  John Smoltz, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux have expiring contracts and have been dropping occasional hints.  The heroes of my early teens will soon become managers, pitching coaches, bad broadcasters, and semi-anonymous multi-millionaires, so it seems like a good time to discuss the inevitable questions of Hall of Fame credentials.  

First of all, in my opinion, it is a given that all of the players mentioned above are shoo-in first ballot players.  As should be Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.  It may be "The Steroid Era," and some of these guys may have benefitted for performance-enhancing drugs, but most, if not all, of them would've been enshrined regardless and I don't think there is anything more shameful about this "era" than "The Segregation Era," "The Anti-Semetism Era," "The Spitball Era," and "The Collusion Era" (has it ended?).  Unlike Bud Selig and the MLB marketing department, I am not attracted to baseball history by any illusion of Disney World purity.  Any good historian knows, accuracy is almost always more entertaining than myth.  

I would like to consider the cases of a few borderline players who are entering the twilight of their careers.

Derek Jeter - SS - New York Yankees

I am a board-certified Jeter-hater, as most of you know, but I am not so prejudiced as to be incapable of looking at him rationally.  If he gets to 3,000 hits, which seems a foregone conclusion, he deserves to get into the Hall.  Jeter is great contact hitter, I have never disputed that.  He is a postseason God, there can be no doubt.  What makes me think that he's dramatically overrated is his putrid defense and the fact that the infamous captain doesn't seem to have all that much positive sway in a clubhouse which is constantly in turmoil.  I also think that the fawning of commentators over his potential run at 4,000 hits is ridiculous.  Jeter is 34.  He would need more than 7 seasons of 200+ hits to get to 4,000.  He has only gotten to 200 hits in six of his first twelve full seasons.  Jeter's power is dramatically declining (fewer homers in each of the last four seasons), as is his speed (only 16 for 24 in stolen bases the last two years).  He will, naturally, be less of an iron-man as he ages, as demonstrated by a trip to the D.L. already this season (the first since 2003).  Jeter's future is uncertain in many ways.  His massive contract will expire after 2010.  One would expect he will remain a Yankee, though at a significant discount, but his role will have to be determined.  I think even Yankee fans and management are near to the realization that he won't be a shortstop for much longer.  His range and fielding percentage have declined every season since 2005.  He was arguably the worst in the AL in 2007 (last in Range Factor, last in Zone Rating, 6th in Fielding Percentage).  However, he doesn't profile as the kind of hitter the Yankees expect for their corner outfield positions.  They just signed a pretty good player to be their third baseman for the next decade.  So, are the Yankees going to let excellent young players like Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera become free agents so that they can free up space for a declining singles-hitting captain who may not be particularly good at second or in center.  We'll have to wait and see.

Chipper Jones - 3B - Atlanta Braves

The long-time face of the evil Braves isn't exactly my favorite player, but I have to agree with Rob Neyer's article arguing for Jones' inevitable enshrinement.  Like Jeter, Jones has led many of his teams to postseason appearances and performed well when there (13 HR and 870 OPS in 92 games).  Unlike Jeter, he hasn't exactly been indestructible.  He hasn't played upwards of 140 games since 2003.  However, when he's been in the lineup, there's been no sign of decline.  He doesn't steal bases anymore, but he hasn't since he turned 30 (he's 36 now), and he actually seems to be getting better as a hitter.  His OPS has improved every year since 2004.  So, it seems safe to say he will improve on numbers which are already pretty noteworthy.  Among third baseman, only Mike Schmidt and Eddie Matthews have hit more home runs, and if he hits 25+ for four more years (not impossible), he might catch Matthews.  His career OPS is the best ever (for 3B).  He'll certainly reach 1500 RBI (moving him into the top 50 all-time) and has an outside shot at 3,000 hits.  Chipper won't get any assistance from his defense, but he shouldn't need it.  And, it goes without saying, this discussion isn't even necessary if he hits .400 this season.

Jason Varitek - C - Boston Red Sox

Varitek is a great example of the kind of player who might be overlooked in an era of offensive production.  However, he is the first Red Sox catcher to capture two World Championships since Pinch Thomas (1915 & 1916) and his newsworthy record of being behind the plate for four no-hitters might help him garner some voter attention.  Varitek's talent behind the plate has been underestimated because he's played most of his career in the shadow of Pudge Rodriguez.  His only Gold Glove came in 2005.  His offensive numbers are nothing to be ashamed of.  Among players who have spent 90% of their careers behind the plate, Varitek is 8th in OPS.  Of the seven players in front of him, only Chris Hoiles has no shot at the Hall (4 are already in, Rodriguez is a shoo-in, and, speaking of catchers with handfuls of rings, Jorge Posada is another borderline selection).  If he were eligible tomorrow, I don't think I'd vote for him, but that doesn't mean a couple more BoSox championships wouldn't persuade me otherwise.

Mike Mussina - SP - New York Yankees

Moose hasn't been very good for the last few years, I know.  He's never won 20 games in a season or a Cy Young and a run at 300 wins isn't looking likely.  But he's got more strikeouts than Tom Glavine and only two players (Mickey Lolich & Frank Tanana) with as many strikeouts as the Moose are not in the Hall (or headed there).  He's got more wins than Curt Schilling and a better winning percentage than Schilling, Glavine, Smoltz, and Greg Maddux (!), all players from the same era who played for good teams and seem certainly headed for Cooperstown.  However, only one player (Red Ruffing) with an ERA as high as Mussina on his career (3.71) is in the Hall.  Mussina could be in the position to change the standards.  Baseball pundits seem confident that the 300 win plateau is going to be unrealistic for this generation's pitchers.  The 3.50 career ERA might be a similarly high expectation, considering the AL average in the last decade has been well above 4.50.  I'd say no to Mussina, but I bet a significant number of baseball writers will feel otherwise.

Trevor Hoffman - RP - San Diego Padres

I know, the game's all-time leader in saves should be a sure thing, right?  Well, it didn't work out that way for Lee Smith and he had more wins, more strikeouts, more innings pitched, and more All-Star appearances than Hoffman, with a similarly good career ERA (3.03 compared to 2.76) and several downright dominating seasons.  Like Smith, Hoffman never won a World Series and he only got there once.  More importantly, when Smith became eligible in 2002, he was still the reigning saves king, which would've seemed to help his case.  By the time Hoffman's name gets on the ballot, he probably will have been surpassed by Mariano Rivera, whose credentials are, frankly, much, much more impressive.  He already leads Hoffman in wins, ERA, innings, and All-Star appearances, not to mention that ridiculous postseason line: 8-1, 34 SV, 0.77 ERA, 91 K, 16 BB, 117 IP.  There are only four full-time relievers in the Hall, none of them with upwards of 400 saves.  They will be setting a new precedent when they enshrine a career closer.  Something tells me that Mo Rivera is destined to be that precedent (though Hoffman may follow him).   

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The New Nightmare

This weekend two of the best sluggers in baseball will be in Boston, taking aim at the Green Monster.  It's a 3-4 combo featuring a lanky, defensively-challenged, somewhat surly right-handed left-fielder and an intimidatingly large, but ever-smiling, defensively-challenged left-handed first baseman.  It might be one of the best hitting pairs in baseball history.  I know, you may be asking yourself, "Don't these guys play in Boston, like, every weekend?"

Well, no, because I'm talking about Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers.  Since Braun arrived in the majors just less than a year ago, he and Fielder have combined for 84 HR and 232 RBI, significantly more than Manny and Big Papi over the same span (55 HR, 196 RBI).  More than any 3-4 combo in baseball, for that matter, combos like A-Rod/Abreu (58 HR, 227 RBI), Berkman/El Cabayo (74 HR, 225 RBI), and D-Lee/Ramirez (50 HR, 176 RBI).  Moreover, while each of those pairs features two mature players, every one of them over the age of 30, Fielder and Braun have a combined age of 48 years, 6 months, and 3 days.
In other words, together they are younger than recently retired Julio Franco.  

Like Manny and Papi, they have a very strong supporting cast, especially on offense, most of whom are also quite young.  What the Brew Crew doesn't have, is pitching depth, which is why they are likely to get pummeled this weekend by the superior Red Sox team, who will send Beckett, Dice-K, and Wakefield to the mound to face Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Carlos Villanueva.  Despite a dramatically overhauled mercenary bullpen (Gagne, Riske, Torres, and Mota all signed this past offseason), the Brewers are among the league's worst in blown saves and bullpen ERA (8 BS, 4.37 ERA).  Strangely, despite the continued dominance of Papelbon (2.41, 11 SV) and Okajima (0.93, 9 HLD, 1 SV), Boston's relief corps have been pretty putrid as well (8 BS, 4.56 ERA).  If starting pitching fails to contain these two potent offenses, we could see some real slugfests.  

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bold Predictions: Employment Edition

  • Two veteran closers lost their jobs yesterday, Jason Isringhausen of the Cardinals and Eric Gagne of the Brewers.  Both manager, Tony LaRussa and Ned Yost (the teams were playing each other, ironically), promised a closer-by-committee situation.  But, we should take heed of who they turned to for their first opportunities.  On Saturday afternoon LaRussa handed the ball to Ryan Franklin in the 9th.  Franklin has a 1.89 ERA with 12 holds, so it's hard for me to imagine a situation in which he would not be a good choice.  It took him 14 pitches to dispense with the top of the Brewers order.  Today, Ned Yost turned the ball over to Salomon Torres.  Torres, a former closer for the Pirates, has gone 3-0 with a save, two holds, and a 2.74 ERA since arriving in Milwaukee.  He has a history of success and durability, pitching 90+ innings for Pittsburgh three seasons in a row from '04-'06 with an ERA below 3.00, 15 saves, and 58 holds.  While it is possible that LaRussa and Yost might opt for Russ Springer or Brian Shouse when they see an all left-handed lineup, those situations will be rare.  Fantasy owners should set their sights on Franklin and Torres.
  • For those playing in leagues that require two or more catchers, might I suggest taking a look at Miguel Olivo of the Royals. Olivo has made 15 starts already this season, either in favor of John Buck or as the DH.  He's got 4 HR and 10 RBI. Only seven backstops can match those numbers. Granted, it's a small sample, but this is a tough position to fill and sometimes you've got to take some risks. Olivo does have a history of decent power, hitting 16 HR in each of the last two seasons. So if you're currently carrying Buck, Josh Bard, Brian Schneider, or Chris Coste, you'd probably be better served by picking up Olivo.
  • The Tigers cut ties with Jacque Jones this week as part of their ongoing efforts to shake up the offense.  Detroit is second in the AL in scoring, so one must question whether they should really be punishing position players.  I might have considered sending a message through Nate Robertson (1-4, 6.64).  There are two points to be made here.  First, Jacque Jones is going to land elsewhere, probably as a starter.  Last year, after a slow start, Jones hit .332 with 46 RBI after the All-Star break.  He proved he could play respectably well at any outfield position, so there are plenty of potential suitors, including the Padres, Marlins, Blue Jays, and Twins.  He could be a very productive fourth or fifth outfielder in a deep fantasy league.  Additionally, Jones' release has resulted in more playing time for Marcus Thames and Matt Joyce, while Sheffield gets more playing time in left field.  However, Matt Joyce isn't going to be the Tiger's long-term solution.  Obviously, there has been a frenzy of media speculation about Barry Bonds.  It would be a logical match, undoubtedly, and one must wonder whether Detroit could do any better (certainly not for the price).  However, Tigers management has already angered some of their fellow Robber Barons by handing out several monster contracts in the last couple seasons, will they risk the additional spite from the commissioner's office by breaking the collusion agreement regarding Bonds?  It seems doubtful.  On the other hand, they ransacked their farm system in order to get Cabrera and Willis, so they probably don't have the right set of pieces for acquiring an left-handed impact guy like Andre Ethier (unless they deal Inge and eat much of his contract).  They may be forced to consider Bonds or Kenny Lofton (who might actually be the better fit).
  • One has to wonder how much longer John Gibbons will be managing the Toronto Blue Jays.  He has quite possibly the best pitching staff in all of baseball, but hasn't been able to climb out of the AL East cellar.  Sure, you can't blame Gibbons for injuries to Vernon Wells, David Eckstein, Jeremy Accardo, and John McDonald.  However, what you can blame Gibbons for is being too patient with his starting pitchers and not patient enough with his hitters.  Twice in the series with Cleveland he sent an Ace back out to the mound after he had thrown well over a hundred pitches (Halladay in the 7th on Friday, Burnett in the 8th today), only to be forced to remove him after he'd allowed several baserunners.  What I don't understand, especially, is that we're talking about a team that has a solid bullpen and starters who have already worked deep into the game.  If he was trying to push his horses to give him quality starts, it might be one thing, but these guys were clearly exhausted, having already done their jobs!  Hand the ball to Jesse Carlson, Scott Downs, Brian Tallet, and B. J. Ryan, all of whom have pitched excellently so far and had plenty of rest, because the Toronto rotation consistently pitches deep into games, even when Gibbons isn't forcing it on them.  They also has Jason Frasor and Shawn Camp (and Accardo, until recently) out there who haven't started the season very strong, but have histories of success.  There is plenty of depth, but Gibbons only seems to trust his Aces.  I don't think anybody's mismanaged a quality pitching staff this badly since Grady Little got booted out of Boston.  Additionally, Gibbons' has also had a much-publicized confrontation with Frank Thomas, which resulted in the Big Hurt heading to Oakland where he has a .391 OBP and 10 RBI in 17 games.  The only guys with 10 RBI for Toronto during that span is, you guessed it, Vernon Wells, who won't be taking the field again for two months.  Without Thomas or Wells, Alex Rios will have to move to center field, and the corner outfield spots and DH with presumably be shared by some combination of Shannon Stewart, Brad Wilkerson, Kevin Mench, and Matt Stairs.  Stairs has played quite well, but Stewart, Wilkerson, and Mench have combined for 7 runs, 0 HR, and 11 RBI in close to 200 ABs so far.  Meanwhile, Adam Lind, a bonafide top prospect toils at AAA, where he is hitting .329 with a 903 OPS.  But, since he didn't produce in the first three games after they released Thomas, Gibbons benched him and eventually he had to be sent back so he could get regular playing time.  The Jays had very high expectation going into the season and they still aren't that far back in the crowed AL East.  Any team with this much pitching can get hot and make a run, as the Padres prove almost every year, but I think Toronto is going to need to spur it by firing their hot-headed manager and bringing in a fresh perspective.  Hey, I think Jack McKeon is available.   

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Bold Predictions: Buy Low, Sell High

It's the sixth week of the season, we're nearing a quarter of the way through the season, and it's time to start seriously evaluating your fantasy team.  As David Ortiz and C. C. Sabathia have proves, it's tough for a good player to stayed mired in a slump for this long.  However, as Robinson Cano and Barry Zito have proved, it is possible.  Here are the players I would try to snag from frustrated owners before they catch fire, as well as the once-anonymous hot-starters who I would unload before the stroke of midnight, when they turn into Chris Shelton.

Jason Bay - OF - Pittsburgh Pirates

There has been a lot of talk about Pittsburgh outfielders this season, but most of it has concerned Xavier Nady (.350, 32 RBI) and Nate McLouth (.331, 9 HR, 28 RBI).  What has gone unnoticed, understandably, is the resurgent performance of Jason Bay, whose OPS dropped over 150 points in 2007, as he struggled with a variety of lingering injuries.  Bay has 6 HR and 11 RBI to go with his modest .261 average, but more importantly he has shown speed (3/3 SB) and plate discipline (25 BB/26 K, .397 OBP).  Bay is only 29, but he is nearing free agency and the Pirates have McLouth, Nady, Nyjer Morgan, Steven Pearce, and Andrew McCutcheon all ready for major-league playing time.  Once he has proven himself healthy, Bay has more market value than Nady because of his longer track record, defensive ability, and legitimate 35 HR power.  Look for the Pirates to deal him to a pitching-rich contender in need of a productive corner outfielder (i.e. Cleveland, Atlanta, San Diego).  If Bay joins a big-time offense, his run-production numbers could sky-rocket.

A. J. Burnett - SP - Toronto Blue Jays

Burnett has not been able to immediately build off of his strong second-half in 2007 (5-2, 3.01 ERA), but he hasn't missed a start and his command and the life on his fastball has improved with each start.  After walking nearly as many as he struck out in his first six starts, he's K'd 10 and walked only one in 6 innings this evening (though still giving up five earned runs).  If Burnett's healthy, he will be dominant over the course of the season, just as he was when he came off the DL last y
ear.  Some owners might be frustrated with his inconsistency so far.  Pick him up for cheap and you'll be on board for the hot streak later this summer.

Robinson Cano - 2B - New York Yankees

Don't forget that last year, Cano had a 741 OPS in the first half and a 953 OPS in the second half.  Granted, right now Cano's OPS is 467.  Only Troy Tulowitzki is lower among qualifying hitters.  But, I expect that only means that Cano's summer surge will be even more dramatic.  In case you haven't noticed, the Yankees always start slow, Torre or no Torre, and they aren't as far behind Boston now (17-16, 3.5 GB) as they were last year at this time (16-17, 7 GB).  Cano has already raised his OPS 43 points in the last seven games with a pair of homers.  It is likely a sign that his bat is thawing out.

Rich Hill - SP - Chicago Cubs

This is an especially interesting situation for keeper leagues.  Rich Hill is a 28-year-old left-handed starter who was 5th in NL in strikeouts last season, with a nearly 3:1 K/BB ratio.  He began this season by walking 18 hitters in 20 innings, leading to a demotion.  Owners should note, however, that Hill did not lose a game and managed a league-average ERA even with all the control problems.  The Cubs have gotten strong early-season performances from Jon Lieber and Ryan Dempster, but even if they maintain their pace, it is likely that the franchise is losing patience with Jason Marquis (1-2, 5.08 ERA).  I expect that when Hill recovers his control, there will be a rotation spot made for him.  However, even if it doesn't happen this season, take note of what has happened this year with Ervin Santana (6-0, 2.02) and Cliff Lee (5-0, 0.96), both high-potential young arms who suffered similar setbacks last season.  If you've got room on your roster, Hill is somebody you want to stash away.

Mark Reynolds - 3B - Arizona Diamondbacks

I won't belabor the point, since I foreshadowed his decline in a post a couple of weeks back, but I want to point out that Reynolds, after hitting .304 with 6 HR and 19 RBI in his first 19 games, is hitting .133 with 1 HR, 6 RBI, and 23 Ks(!) in his last 11.  Chad Tracy has begun a rehab assignment, so soon the D-Backs will have a better replacement option than Augie Ojeda or Chris Burke.

Joe Saunders - SP - Los Angeles Angels

It's never a bad idea to have Angels pitchers.  Saunders and Ervin Santana, both of whom had to fight for rotation spots this spring, have the best start (12-0) of any duo in the last decade.  Saunders will probably be a valuable back-end guy throughout the season, but Santana is the guy you want to own from this pair.  

Santana: 6-0, 49 IP, 38 K, 9 BB, 2.02 ERA, 0.88 WHIP
Saunders: 6-0, 48 IP, 21 K, 10 BB, 2.61 ERA, 1.10 WHIP

While Santana has made seven quality starts (in other words, all of them), Saunders has only four.  He has benefitted from a lot of offensive support.  John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar will eventually rejoin this rotation (along with Santana and Jon Garland), so Saunders spot, despite his stellar showing so far, is not totally safe.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Shrinking Strike Zone

In 2001 Bud Selig and Sandy Alderson encouraged MLB umpires to "hunt for strikes," enforcing the "letters to knees" strike zone as it is defined by baseball's century-old rulebook.  The Commissioner's office argued that the modest strike zone was partially responsible for longer game times, depleted pitching staffs, and the well-documented offensive explosion.  In the seasons which followed, they implemented the QuesTec pitch-tracking system, amidst considerable upheaval from the umpire's  and player's unions.  Some players, like Chipper Jones, argued that QuesTec actually helped hitters, discouraging umpires from employing the expanding "Greg Maddux" strike zone, since these subtle changes would be caught by the machine, and complained that the system was not used consistently in every game and every park, so certain teams (namely, the Mets) were gaining an unfair offensive advantage.  Umpire representatives argued that the technology was inconsistent, forced them into uncomfortable situations with players, and was prompted not by a genuine desire to improve the efficiency of the game, but because Selig was doing a favor for one of his corporate cronies who owned the QuesTec manufacturer.  It has been effectively proven, by Rob Neyer and others, that the QuesTec system and the "hunt for strikes" in general did very little to effect scoring.  However, game times and pitch counts did go down, partially because there was a dramatic decrease in walks.  Here is a chart of the average walks per major league franchise between 1998 and 2007:

1998: 548
1999: 596
2000: 608
2001: 527
2002: 542
2003: 530
2004: 541
2005: 507
2006: 528
2007: 536

This significant drop-off, more than 100 BB per team from 2000 to 2005, came despite the fact that teams are preaching patience more than ever, in the wake of "Moneyball," and players like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Adam Dunn, and Jack Cust made their livings largely by moseying slowly to first.  Hitters adjusted to the new zone, still took their walks when appropriate, but were forced to swing at chest-high pitches, which no doubt quickened the pace of games and relieved the pressure on pitchers, even if it didn't cost the league any run production.  There is evidence to suggest that the trend is heading back in the wrong direction, since the low-point in base-on-balls in 2005.  The modest increases the past two seasons may foreshadow a significant upswing on the horizon.  I, personally, feel like pitchers have been getting squeezed more often in games which I've been watching and the early numbers this season suggest that it isn't merely coincidence.  In April of 2007, the average major league franchise took 87 free passes.  This April that number jumped to 97.  That's a total of 300 walks more across the league than a year ago (This number is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that there were more games in March this season).  Nonetheless, taking into account March and the first few days of May, the current pace would result in an MLB average for the season of around 563, more than 20 more walks per team than any season since 2000.  

I, personally, think Selig or Alderson would do well to issue a reminder to the umpires, in order to protect the fragile arms of major league pitchers.