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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Nine)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on to the next post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the owners in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the teams fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.

Notes on Halladay's Perfecto

  • As is usually the case with no-hitters, the fates conspired.  For one thing, home plate umpire Mike Dimuro got seduced by the occasion.  He called one of the largest strike-zones I've seen all season, and it got wider as the game progressed.  He did call it both ways, as Josh Johnson and Leo Nunez used it to their benefit as well, but when a pitcher like Halladay is given several additional inches of plate, he's not likely to make many mistakes.
  • I also found myself wondering, when the Phillies had men on base in the sixth and seventh, whether a rally would prevent our seeing history.  More than any pitcher I've ever watched, Doc changes his pitching style when he has a three or four run lead.  Both the zone and the depth of his arsenal are intentionally diminished, at least until his opponent proves they can put men on base.  Doc is also, clearly, a slave to his own routine.  I had a hard time believing he would change this strategy (one which is an essential part of his ability to pitch deep into games) even in the pursuit of history.  The Phillies hitting slump became something of a boon for fans eager to see Halladay go for pefection.
  • To that effect, although Halladay dramatically changed the team's momentum, something which is expected from a true Ace, the Phillies are still mired in an uncharacteristically meager period of offensive production.  The only run against Josh Johnson and the Marlins came via a Cameron Maybin error, so the Phillies have now failed to score an earned run in five of their last seven games.  The last time Philadelphia scored more than five runs was May 17 against the Pirates.
  • The Phillies defense was never really tested.  Juan Castro and Wilkin Valdez had to make some long, strong throws to retire speedy Marlins, but there were no diving plays, no leaping catchs, no jump-throws.  All 27 outs were more or less routine.
  • How did Halladay's perfecto stack up against the nineteen which preceded it?  Halladay is only the sixth pitcher to throw a perfect game with eleven or more strikeouts.  The others are Randy Johnson, David Wells, Len Barker, Catfish Hunter, and Sandy Koufax.  A pretty elite company.
  • Halladay is only the fourth pitcher to require as many as 115 pitches to complete his masterpiece.  The others were Johnson, Wells, and Mark Buehrle.  
  • Halladay is the first right-handed pitcher to throw a perfect game since David Cone accomplished the fete in July of 1999.  
  • Halladay is the first pitcher to hurl a perfect game with only a one-run advantage since Tom Browning in September 1988.  Koufax, Mike Witt, Addie Joss, and Lee Richmond also won their perfectos 1-0.
  • It is probably mere coincidence, but the number of no-hitters and perfect games over the last two seasons may be read as part of the transition into an era of pitching.  There have not been two perfect games thrown in the same month since June of 1880 and there has never been three perfect games thrown in as close proximity as those by Halladay, Braden, and Buehrle (311 days).  The closest prior to it was a span of just under four years from '64 to '68 that featured perfectos by Koufax, Hunter, and Jim Bunning.  That was, coincidently, an era of pitching dominance which inspired the lowering of the mound.  
  • If we expand our consideration to include no-hitters, there have now been three in the span of 43 days.  That hasn't happened since 1991, when Dennis Martinez, Wilson Alvarez, and Bret Saberhagen each threw one in just under a month.  '91 was also the last time we had more than three no-hitters in a single season (there were seven!).  There have been ten no-hitters in the last four seasons ('07-'10), compared to only four in the previous four seasons ('03-'06).   

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Set the DVR, it's Duels Week

With a third of the season in the bag, there's a lot to talk about this coming week, but I'd like to start by pointing out that there are a disproportionate number of really exciting pitching matchups slated for the first week of June, so if you're like me and you love nothing more than a pitchers duel, here's how you should set your calender for the first half of the week:

Monday, 5/31:
Ubaldo Jimenez (Rockies) 9-1, 0.88 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 61 K, 71 1/3 IP
Tim Lincecum (Giants) 5-1, 3.00 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 80 K, 66 IP

We kick it off with what should really be billed as "the main event," the two-time reigning NL Cy Young against his heir apparent, both pitching for teams in the thick of the NL West race.  Lincecum is in a miniature slump (11 ER, 11 BB in last two starts), but I'm willing to bet he's primed to bounce back.  Jimenez has yet to allow more than two earned runs in any start!

Tuesday, 6/1:
Cole Hamels (Phillies) 5-3, 3.82 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 63 K, 63 2/3 IP
Tim Hudson (Braves) 5-1, 2.24 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 27 K, 64 1/3 IP

Again we've got a pair of division rivals, this time featuring a pair of rebounding Aces.  They also happen to represent two wildly different approaches.  Hudson has quietly been among the best pitchers in the NL, despite carrying one of baseball's lowest strikeout rates (3.78 K/9).  He attacks the strike zone and has hitters pounding his sinker into the ground.  His groundball rate (67.3%) is the highest in baseball and he's tied for tops in the NL at inducing double plays.  Hamels, on the other hand, has the ninth highest strikeout rate in the NL (8.91 K/9) and is far more prone to flyball, which is part of the reason he's already allowed ten dingers this season.  Hamels is also in the midst of a serious hot streak.  In May he went 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA.

Wednesday, 6/2:
David Price (Rays) 7-2, 2.57 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 50 K, 66 2/3 IP
Shaun Marcum (Jays) 5-1, 2.59 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 60 K, 73 IP

The Jays and Rays are two of the most surprising teams in the American League, due in no small part to the performance of these two young Aces.  The 28-year-old Marcum returned from a season lost to injury and has been downright dominant from the outset.  He's second in the AL in innings, fifth in ERA, third in WHIP, seventh in batting average against, and eighth in strikeouts.  The 24-year-old Price has been his equal in almost every respect.  He leads the AL in wins, is second in batting average against, ninth in WHIP, tenth in innings, and fourth in ERA.  This matchup takes on an additional interest because both teams boast powerhouse offenses, ranked #2 and #4 in scoring.

Thursday, 6/3:
Jered Weaver (Angels) 4-2, 3.01 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 74 K, 68 2/3 IP
Zack Greinke (Royals) 1-5, 3.60 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 52 K, 65 IP

Greinke and Weaver have more experience than Price and Marcum, but are still both in their mid-twenties.  And, to a significant extent, they are similar pitchers, both on the level of talent and approach.  They balance a terrifying arsenal of pitches with tremendous control and, as a result, both are in the top five in the American League in K/BB rate.  They are also both extreme flyball pitchers, ranking #1 and #2 in the AL in that category.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Super Two, Super For Who?

The Memorial Day weekend was filled with baseball drama.  Roy Halladay hurled the 20th perfect game in baseball history, and the second of the month.  Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols each hit three dingers in a single game.  And, Ubaldo Jimenez became the first player in the modern era to have ten victories before the first day of June.

I would argue, however, that despite all the drama on the field this weekend and throughout 2010 thusfar, the season has been defined by two words: Super Two.
The Memorial Day weekend also featured the promotion of Buster Posey, who compiled six hits in his first seven at-bats.  It was a great ending to a week that had not begun so well for the Giants top prospect.  On Tuesday, San Francisco GM, Brian Sabean, had barked into the Giants sympathetic muzzle, the San Francisco Chronicle, that it was still too early to evaluate Posey's progress:

"There are a lot of sides to it.  He is catching, his playing first base, and he is swinging the bat in a league where it's tough to evaluate a high average.  Under those circumstances, we can't see how Posey would immediately fit in as regards to playing time.  We want an idea that he's going to get significant time.  In this snapshot, it's not presenting itself yet."

Three days later, Posey was playing first base against the Diamondbacks.  How did Sabean's "snapshot" change in those 72 hours?  Well, it had nothing to do with the Posey or anybody else on the Giants roster, that's for sure.

On the opposite side of the nation, the very same cat-and-mouse game was being played by the Nationals GM, Mike Rizzo, in the Washington media.  The Nationals 2009 #1 pick, Stephen Strasburg, easily the most anticipated prospect since A-Rod, has been the subject of speculation for months.  Several media outlet reported that Strasburg's first start would come on either on May 29 or June 4.  On Monday, the 26th, Rizzo responded to those rumors with this statement:

"No, that hasn't been determined yet.  There are factors that will be involved when we announce it.  And even when we announce it, it's not going to be settled on until a couple days after he starts his last start in Triple A."

Those ambiguous "factors," among them the Nats desire to milk as many ticket sales out of the speculation as possible, were apparently fully resolved a week later, when Rizzo announced that Strasburg would make his first start on June 9th, against Pittsburgh.

So, what gives?  Why is it that more and more often we here managers and general managers treating reporters with snarling indignation when asked about the arrival of their top prospects, only to see them turn around and eat those words in only a matter of days?

The simple answer is, of course, Super Two.  The Super Two designation has changed the landscape of baseball, and not to the benefit of the fans or the players.  At the last round of collective bargaining, the Players Union negotiated the Super Two rule with the assumption it would help to get a few more players to the arbitration table each winter.  But they have been foiled by ownership.  Quite to the contrary, it is the teams who have used the Super Two designation to get four extra months of "cheap" labor, especially from burgeoning superstars.  

Last year, the Braves did it with Tommy Hanson.  In '08, it delayed the arrival of Evan Longoria (until after Rays could get him signed to a guaranteed contract).  And, in '07, it pushed back the promotion of Ryan Braun.

By holding off on Strasburg and Posey, the Nationals and the Giants are hoping neither will be eligible for arbitration until the winter of 2013.  In the case of premium talents like these, a few weeks delay could save their franchises as much as $5-$10 Million.  

GMs like Rizzo and Sabean will continue to use the stale rhetoric of "conservative development," but they aren't fooling anybody.  The careers of Posey, Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and Michael Stanton are getting late starts for reasons which are purely economic. 

In the "Moneyball" era, I certainly don't blame teams for making decisions informed by fiscal responsibility, but for the betterment of the game, the Super Two rule needs to be among the priorities at the next round of negotiation between MLB and the MLBPA, because there is no denying that these decisions have a detrimental effect on competition.  (If you're a Braves fan who suffered through two months of starts by Jo-Jo Reyes in 2009, you know what I've talking about.)

We can certainly argue about the relative merits of the Nationals and Giants, with or without Strasburg and Posey, but one can't deny that on June 1st, with approximately a third of the season in the bag, each team is sitting only 3.5 games out of first place.  If you're a Nats fan, you can't help but wonder how many more victories your team could have right now if Strasburg had taken some of the starts which were instead handed to Craig Stammen, Matt Chico, J. D. Martin, and Garrett Mock.  If you're a Giants fan who has just suffered through a month in which your team lost ten games by three runs or less and Bengie Molina hit .184, you have the right to ask whether Posey might not have done a little better.

Unfortunately, it won't be long before this issue take on an even more sinister aspect.  Carlos Santana is currently hitting .315 with 10 HR and a 1016 OPS for AAA Columbus.  The Indians current catching tandem of Mike Redmond and Lou Marson are hitting .221 with 0 HR and a 561 OPS.  Santana should've been the Indians backstop on Opening Day and perhaps he will be within a couple weeks.  However, the Indians are also a dozen games back in the AL Central, sitting on one of the worst records in the major leagues.  It may be more than a year before they play meaningful games.  Is there any reason they shouldn't wait until next June to promote Santana, thus delay his arbitration by more than two years, rather than just one?  For a catcher, whose career is could last fifteen years at the most optimistic extreme, two years is a very long time.

Hopefully, it won't every come to this, but in an effort to protect the livelihoods of young players and encourage every organization to put its best product on the field Opening Day and every day thereafter, it's time to stop the abuses of Super Two.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I know you love Nick Punto, but...

A fews years back, the Cardinals tore down their 40-year-old "multi-purpose" stadium, a ballpark which, despite its obvious aesthetic limitations, was quite popular with local fans.  Good seats at the old Busch Stadium came relatively cheap and the product on the field was of consistently high quality.  The Cardinals went to the playoffs eleven times during their tenure in the old ballpark.  Among National League teams, only the Atlanta Braves fared better during those decades.

Protests against the new stadium were plentiful.  Taxpayers resisted replacing a still-functional facility.  Droves of middle-class Cardinals fans worried about the inevitable price hike.  And, many operated under the impression that Cardinals ownership, led by Bill DeWitt, had not shown enough interest in re-investing their abundant profits in the team.  The stadium, after considerable politicking, was eventually pushed through, but a particularly loud conglomerate of season-ticket holders threatened to boycott if the Cardinals didn't "spend to win" in their new stadium.

This group of would-be holdouts was dramatically assuaged when the Cardinals won their first World Series since 1982 during the new Busch Stadium's first year in existence.  As expected, ticket prices went up dramatically, especially at the field level, but the Cardinals have since won a pair of divisions, a pennant, and a World Series, hosted an All-Star Game, and maintained a very competitive payroll (~$95 Million).  The organization now operates with about as much support from the local media and fanbase as any in baseball.

As Busch Stadium I went the way of the Astrodome, Kingdome, Riverfront, Three Rivers, and Veteran's Stadium, there was but one remnant of the "cookie cutter" era remaining: that plastic and polyester monstrosity known as the Metrodome.  Like Cardinals fans, Minnesotans had become peculiarly attached to their 60,000-seat simulacra colosseum, which housed the Twins beginning in 1961.  The concrete turf, the inflatable, oddly baseball-colored roof, the plexiglass outfield wall, the cacophonous, echoey dimensions, and the infamous right-field "baggy" combined to give the Twinks what many considered the best home-field advantage in sports.

Minnesotans were also intensely skeptical of publicly funding a stadium for an organization that had, as recently as 2002, volunteered to be contracted.  The Twins owner, Carl Pohlad, was a controversial figure, with a reputation for cutthroat frugality befitting a man who made his fortune foreclosing homes during the Great Depression, was an army loan shark during the D-Day invasion, and spent much of the 1980s buying up failed S&Ls.  Carl Pohlad was the type of billionaire who still turned his underwear inside-out on Tuesday, ate government cheese, and considered coffee ground reusable.  Frustrated by league-average attendance, Pohlad continually threatened the move the Twins throughout the '90s, than offered to sell them to MLB in 2001.

In recent years, Pohlad's son has taken over the reins (Carl died in early 2009), but Twins fans still had every reason to be skeptical of the family's intentions.  As in St. Louis, ownership, in combination with MLB, eventually pressured the city into construction, and the Twins recently moved into space-age Target Field.  In an effort to persuade Minnesotans that they were committed to more than higher prices, the Pohlad's hiked their payroll up by $30 Million between '09 and '10, one of the largest one-year spikes in MLB history, and they committed a big portion of it to Minnesota poster-child and '09 MVP, Joe Mauer.  Nevertheless, nothing would go further toward justifying the new stadium than a championship.

In the early weeks of the season, the Twins played like a team with something to prove, surging to the front of the AL Central by going 13-5 out of the gate.  Their May schedule has been less kind.  Despite sweeping the second-place Tigers early in the month, Minnesota has been a .500 team over their last 26 games, and were humbled by a 2-5 road trip through the AL East.  The Twins were reminded that if they are going to make a deep run in the playoffs, they will need to prove themselves capable of beating the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays, even on their own turf.  Minnesota has not advanced past the Division Series in their last four attempts, falling three times to the Yankees.

In recent weeks, they've looked too much like the team that was steamrolled last October.  One through five, the Twins lineup is as good as any in baseball, led by the tandem MVPs, Mauer and Justin Morneau.  But, with Jim Thome and J. J. Hardy on the D.L., and Jason Kubel off to another slow start, it seems that the Twins fold as comfortably as a homemade quilt in one out of every three innings.  So far they have surrendered some three hundred plate appearances to Kubel, Brendan Harris, and Nick Punto, who have a combined OPS well under 600 (league average = 736).

One would assume that some combination of Kubel and Thome will eventually provide the Twins with quality at-bats at DH and, hopefully, Hardy will return very soon, provide a substantial boost offensively and defensively.  But their lineup depth will remain the foremost charge against the Twins World Series aspirations.  In this department, Twins GM Bill Smith should take a lesson from the 2006 World Champion Cardinals.

As you may recall, in '06 the Astros took the Cardinals down to the wire, and St. Louis entered October with only 83 wins, the fewest of any postseason team.  They were able to squeak into the playoffs because then GM, Walt Jocketty, took initiative in filling out a lineup that relied too heavily on the trio of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds.  He began by signing a minimum contract with Scott Spezio, recently released by the Mariners.  Spezio's defensive flexibility and his hot start at the plate - he hit over .300 during the first two months - helped compensate for brief D.L. stints by Pujols and Rolen.

As the trade deadline drew near, Jocketty grew more active, even though he didn't have a ton of money to throw around.  He brought Ron Belliard over from the Indians to replace Aaron Miles.  Belliard improved the Cards defensively and provided a modest amount of power.  He also added Preston Wilson, who played center when Edmonds six weeks down the stretch, and hit 8 HR during Edmonds' absence.

None of the players the Cardinals added were spectacular, but, as such, they were acquired for next to nothing and they were significant upgrades over the automatic outs who were playing everyday.  As the deadline nears, Bill Smith needs to seriously consider any and every player who has the ability to either I.) provide above-average outfield defense, II.) hit left-handed pitching, or III.) play third base.  Here's why...


Last season the Twins employed Carlos Gomez largely because he was among the best centerfielders in the game.  The youngster didn't hit a lick and was often a disaster on the basepaths, but he made up for it by flashing incredible leather.  Even when he wasn't starting, they could insert him in the late innings, moving Denard Span to a corner, and dramatically improve their outfield defense.  Last season, the Twins outfielders (Gomez, Span, Cuddyer, & Young) combined for an Ultimate Zone Rating of -25.2.  That's not very good, but if Gomez had been replaced by a merely average fielder, it would've been much worse (-35.3).  Hence, this season, with Kubel getting more time in the outfield, the Twins UZR is dropping (even though Delmon Young has improved), on pace for around -27, and currently sitting in 28th place among the 30 MLB teams.

Basically, Denard Span plays center like a converted left-fielder (which is what he is).  Michael Cuddyer plays right like a converted third-baseman (which is what he is).  And, Jason Kubel plays left like a converted DH (you get the picture).  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Twins pitching staff is geared largely towards the creation of flyball outs.  In 2009, they created a higher percentage of flyballs than any team in the league (41.1%).  This season it's lower (38.1%), but still among the league leaders.  Obviously, with so many balls in the air, it is imperative to have players who can track down as many of them as possible.  The Twins need to seriously consider acquiring a true centerfielder.  Even if he doesn't play everyday, he'll be available to help defend the gaps when a lead is at stake in the late innings.


The good news is that Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Michael Cuddyer absolutely massacre left-handed pitching, to the tune of a combined OPS above 950 so far in 2010.  The bad news is that Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, J. J. Hardy, Nick Punto, and Brendan Harris barely break 500.  And this isn't likely to change.  Over the last three seasons, Kubel's OPS against southpaws is just 668.  Thome's is a borderline respectable 757, but has declined in each season since 2007.  And, of course, Harris and Punto can't hit anything thrown from anyone.

As was on display last October, when C. C. Sabathia struck out eight on his way to an easy victory in Game 1 of the NLDS, tough lefthanders will have their way with the Twins.  It's been on display again in recent days, as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Andy Pettitte combined to win three games, throw 23 innings, and compile a 1.16 ERA during the Twins last road trip.

Clearly, Minnesota needs a right-handed bat off the bench who can also serve as DH against lefties.  Such players are not terribly hard to find.  Here are some players who posted OPSs above 900 last season against southpaws: Matt Diaz, Ryan Roberts, Ryan Raburn, Gabe Kapler, Scott Hairston, Jonny Gomes, and Jose Bautista.  Such players are generally in abundant supply as the deadline nears and come at very little cost, in terms of dollars or prospects.  In fact, Jermaine Dye (894 OPS v. LHP last season and 917 the year before) is available right now.  You could ask O-Dog for his number.  There's no excuse for going another month without somebody to fill this role.


The Twins and their fans have had a prolonged love affair with Nick Punto, who, I will gladly admit, is a lovable player.  He's a human highlight reel at all the toughest infield positions, a terrific bunter and baserunner, and a "scrappy" hustler who embodies P.U.S.  The problem is, Punto makes David Eckstein look like Honus Wagner.  In 2009 there were 241 players who got at least 375 AB.  Punto ranked 241 in SLG, 237 in OPS, and 227 in AVG.   This year his numbers have actually declined in each of those categories.  He is, arguably, the worst everyday player in the American League.

Punto would be well worth keeping around as a utilityman and defensive-replacement, but the Twins have to fill that third base vacuum which has been their most consistent Achilles heel since Corey Koskie left in 2004.  The Twins keep waiting for somebody from within the organization to assert himself.  The most recent candidate is Danny Valencia, who is hitting .302 at AAA, but has yet to homer and is striking out at an alarming rate.

At the very least, it's time for a new stopgap measure.  In case you haven't heard, Mike Lowell is abundantly available.  He happens to be right-handed and absolutely murders left-handed pitching.  Jhonny Peralta, Jose Lopez, Jorge Cantu, Pedro Feliz, and Ty Wigginton could probably all be had for a reasonable price in the coming months.  It's time to pull the trigger.

I'm certainly not ready to say that three cheap short-term fixes will guarantee the Twins a World Series berth.  They would still have some question marks in the rotation, as Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey have been inconsistent through the opening weeks.  However, though it may not be easy or cost-efficient to find frontline starters and power-hitters in June and July, it is quite reasonable to find fourth outfielders, right-handed pinch-hitters, and a wide variety of Nick Punto replacements.  If the Twins really want to christen their new digs with Champagne this fall, it's time for Bill Smith to start patching the hull.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Eight)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on to the next post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the owners in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the teams fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.

Friday, May 21, 2010

HippeauxNotes: The Little Red Machine That Could

As I write this the Reds are on the verge of taking the opening game in the "Battle of Ohio."  The big blows came tonight from Lance Nix and Jonny Gomes, which pretty much sums up the Reds success in recent weeks.

Since April 25th, Cincinnati is 17-7, and have surged into what is essentially a tie atop the NL Central.  During that stretch, the Reds have been among the top scoring teams in baseball.  Here are the stats for their regulars over that span:

C Ramon Hernandez - .326/.436/.413, 5 R, 6 RBI
1B Joey Votto - .325/.413/.629, 18 R, 22 RBI
2B Brandon Phillips - .289/.360/.444, 18 R, 2 RBI
3B Scott Rolen - .312/.356/.571, 10 R, 16 RBI
SS Orlando Cabrera - .283/.323/.348, 10 R, 6 RBI
LF Johnny Gomes - .369/.400/.600, 12 R, 15 RBI
CF Drew Stubbs - .210/.286/.395, 10 R, 13 RBI
RF Jay Bruce - .329/.442/.481, 17 R, 9 RBI

As you can see, pretty much everybody has been contributing, with even role players like Nix, Chris Heisey, and Ryan Hanigan chipping in.  The same has been true on the other side of the ball.  Here are the stats for the starting rotation over the same period:

Bronson Arroyo - 4-0, 2.73 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 16 K, 9 BB, 37 IP
Homer Bailey - 1-1, 4.13 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 27 K, 11 BB, 33 IP
Johnny Cueto - 3-0, 2.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 26 K, 4 BB, 27 IP
Aaron Harang - 2-2, 4.40 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 30 K, 5 BB, 31 IP
Mike Leake - 3-0, 2.25 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 26 K, 8 BB, 32 IP

The Reds rotation was 1-7 prior to April 25th, they are 13-3 since.  Even Bailey and Harang, although they can't boast perfect records, have been piling up the innings and maintaining respectable ERAs.  The Reds starters have averaged over 6 1/3 innings per outing.

The question one naturally poses at this point is this: Are the "real" Reds those that stunk up April, those that manhandled May, or something between?  The safe answer is clearly the latter, but here are a few reason to believe the Reds could be as much a contender this September as they are currently:

1.) Bronson Arroyo has very quietly turned into a legitimate Ace, one of the National League's best pitchers.  Going back to last year's All-Star Break, a span of 24 starts, Arroyo is 11-7 with a 3.00 ERA.  As he showed during the middle of April, he may still be prone to rough stretches, but he's also capable of dominating good teams, as he did last week when he through a complete game against the Cardinals.

2.) Joey Votto has very quietly turned into an MVP-caliber player.  So far in 2010, he's in the top ten in the NL in runs (28), homers (10), RBI (31), walks (26), OBP (.408), and OPS (969).  And, based on how he finished '09, there's no reason to believe this is a fluke.

3.) The Reds have a considerable surplus of talent still waiting in the wings.  The recently-promoted Heisey hit 22 HR with a .314 AVG and 900 OPS between AA and AAA in '09.  Their AAA roster also includes power-hitting prospects Juan Francisco, Wladimir Balentien, and Yonder Alonso.  And, of course, they've got that Aroldis Chapman kid you may have heard of.

HippeauxNotes: On the verge of a Yankee implosion?

On Monday, the Yankees blew a five-run lead and needed two homers in the bottom of the ninth in order to walkoff against the Red Sox.  The following day they did the same thing, except this time it was their closer who gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth.  On Wednesday, they got stomped by Wade Davis and the Rays, yielding double-digit runs for the first time all season.  And yesterday Andy Pettitte had by far his worst outing of the season and the Rays once again piled it on, with four homeruns.

There is now more distance between the Yankees and the first-place Rays (5 games) than between the Yankees and the fourth-place Red Sox (3.5 games), and the Bombers have dropped eight out of twelve.  They are still on pace for 99 wins, so isn't necessarily time for desperate measures, but there are several causes for concern in the Bronx.

In the preseason, I got a lot of mileage out of the observation that the Yankees were the only team in 2009 who had eight regulars with 500+ plate appearances and four pitchers who made 30+ starts.  My point was that New York was likely to face more injuries this season and, unlike the Rays and Red Sox, I wasn't sure the Yankee roster was equipped to deal with such turmoil.

Already the Yanks have had to send Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson, Chan Ho Park, and Alfredo Aceves to the disabled list for extended stretches, while several other players, most notably Mariano Rivera, have dealt with minor injuries that have made them unavailable for a few games at a time.  As a result, Marcus Thames, Francisco Cervelli, Sergio Mitre, Randy Winn, Ramiro Pena, and Juan Miranda have all seen increased playing time.  The damage has been minimized by the fact that Thames (1001 OPS), Cervelli (904 OPS), and Mitre (3.32 ERA) have played exceptionally well, but the odds are certainly against them maintaining those numbers through prolonged exposure.

Injuries aren't the only cause of concern.  Prior to having three hits on Thursday, Derek Jeter had endured one of the rougher slumps of his career (.190 AVG over 18 games).  He has only four extra-base hits in May and his strikeout rate is way up, while his walk rate is way down.  It's probably just a slump, but with Granderson and Johnson out of the lineup, it's unfortunate timing.

Javier Vazquez has been a notorious disaster.  His 8.01 ERA leading to him being skipped on a couple occasions in recent weeks.  In his last start he managed seven strong innings against the Tigers, easily his longest outing of the season, evidence perhaps that he's on the mend, but the New York media has been quick to scapegoat him and his dreadful second half in 2004 remains an open wound for many Yankee fans.

A. J. Burnett was dominant in April and had a 1.99 ERA after six starts, but in his last three outings he's allowed sixteen earned runs in seventeen innings of work and walked as many batters as he's struck out. Burnett has always been prone to hot and cold streaks, so this is probably nothing more than that, but again, with Vazquez struggling, Pettitte nursing a minor injury, and even Sabathia turning in a couple of poor mid-May starts, the timing has been unfortunate.

Clearly, New York has some breathing room due to their hot start, but with Boston getting healthy and Detroit surging as well, they can't continue to lose two out of every three games for too much longer.  After a challenging road trip to Minnesota, the Yankees will play thirteen of their next sixteen games against Baltimore, Houston, and Cleveland, three of the four worst teams in baseball so far in 2010.  They'll have a chance to get healthy and pad their record a little before heading into a relatively challenging interleague schedule (v. Phillies, v. Mets, @ D-Backs, @ Dodgers).

The next six weeks could see New York and Tampa Bay distancing themselves from everybody else in the American League on the road to becoming the first duo of team to win 100+ games in the same division since the Mariners and Athletics did it in 2001.  Or, we could see the AL East's Wild Card dominance threatened.  Only one time in the last seven seasons (Detroit, '06) has the AL Wild Card come from another division.

HippeauxNotes: Will the Brewers ever win again?

It looked like it might finally happen on Thursday evening.  They had the lead as late as the seventh inning.  Then, in the ninth, down by two, Ryan Braun stole second with nobody out.  Unfortunately, he got duped by Andy LaRoche, who pretended as though the ball had gotten away.  Braun busted for third and was immediately tagged out, much to the delight of Octavio Dotel, who struck out Prince Fielder and retired Casey McGehee on a soft liner to right, thus picking up his ninth save.

The Brewers, my pick for NL Central champion, finally ended the losing streak on Friday night.  They now sit seven and a half games back of the division-leading Cardinals.  They have been atrocious at home (4-14), but the obvious problem is, as usual, pitching.  The Brewers are second in the NL in scoring runs, but second worst at allowing them.

Some of this was frankly unforeseeable.  The Brewers hired two veteran relievers with long track records coming off dominant seasons, LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman, and the pair have combined for six losses, seven blown saves, and an ERA upwards of 11.00.  It's hard to balance that kind of squalor at the backend of your bullpen.

However, Ken Macha and Doug Melvin are hardly above reproach.  Manny Parra and Chris Narveson were excellent during the preseason, yet Milwaukee exiled them both to the bullpen and wasted nine starts on Jeff Suppan (5.91 ERA) and an apparently unhealthy Doug Davis (7.56 ERA).  Since Narveson entered the rotation, he's 3-1 with a respectable ERA (4.24) and a strong K/BB ratio (28/10).  Parra joins him this week.  Hopefully, if Brewers starters can start eating up more innings, the team's primary weakness won't be as dramatically overexposed.

The fact remains, however, if the Brewers are to have any hope of salvaging the season, they need to dramatically overhaul their bullpen.  That process has begun.  Carlos Villanueva (2.91 ERA, 11.22 K/9) has officially taken over as closer, while John Axford and Marco Estrada were promoted from AAA.  I remain convinced that given the weaknesses of the Cardinals, Reds, and Cubs, the Brewers are not yet out of contention, but they are probably only a handful of blown leads away.

HippeauxNotes: Rays on the verge of burying Red Sox?

We're smack in the middle of a great week of baseball.  With every team playing every day this week, we've got access to 105 games in seven days.  It's also an odd week because each team will face three different competitors, thanks to the two-game sets featured from Monday through Thursday.  I can understand why the players wouldn't be thrilled by the proposition of so much travel on so little rest, but for the fans, it's a kind of baseball heaven.

This afternoon we begin the first interleague series of the season; the most interesting matchups being Boston at Philadelphia, the Yankees at the Mets, the Angels in St. Louis, and two of the hottest teams in baseball, the Dodgers and Tigers, squaring off in L.A.  It's seems as good a time as any to register some thoughts about the season so far, beginning with best team in the league.

The Tampa Bay Rays looked primed to make a major statement this week.  They pulled off a two-game sweep of the Yankees in New York and have won six straight and eight of their last nine, giving them a five-game lead heading into their weekend series in Houston.  That's the largest lead of any first-place team in baseball.  And, while the Rays are taking on the lowly Astros, the Red Sox will have to face the powerful Phillies on the road and the Yankees will "travel" to Citi Field to face the Mets, who have a 14-8 record at home this season.  The real opportunity for the Rays comes early next week, when the Red Sox come to Tampa for a three-game set.  Depending on what happens this weekend, it's very possible that a sweep could raise the Red Sox deficit to double digits, perhaps putting even the Wild Card out of reach.  ESPN2 will broadcast the series opener, which pits Wade Davis (4-3, 3.35 ERA) against Clay Buchholz (5-3, 3.26 ERA) in a battle of promising young righthanders.  The Aces take the hill in game two, as James Shields (5-1, 3.08 ERA) matches up with Jon Lester (4-2, 3.47 ERA).  And on Wednesday the quiet Cy Young candidate, Matt Garza (5-1, 2.38 ERA), looks to prolong the misery of the Red Sox big free agent acquisition, John Lackey (4-2, 4.86 ERA), who has surrendered eleven earned runs in his last thirteen innings.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Baby

The anchors at ESPN and sportswriters around the league have been quick to highlight the exploits of this season's most surprising franchises, namely the Padres, Reds, and Athletics.  But one team, which has been more or less the equal to all of them, has gone largely unappreciated: the Toronto Blue Jays.

As we enter the season's seventh week, the Jays have the fourth best record in the American League.  They are also fourth in run differential and tied for third in scoring.  Yet they are faced with a familiar conundrum.  Against the behemoths in their own division - the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox - they have gone 2-7 (.222), against everybody else they are 21-10 (.677).

For the past four seasons, I've tuned in to Toronto's games on a weekly basis, because they were home to my favorite player, Roy Halladay.  I figured in 2010, however, as my Doc fix would be fulfilled by Phillies broadcasts, and the Jays were beginning what could be a prolonged rebuilding process with their new GM, I would find myself looking at that mouthwash green Skydome turf far less frequently.

So far, that hasn't been the case.  Certainly, they are no substitute for Halladay, but Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero are both on the list of young, high-upside pitchers who I enjoy watching develop.  In truth, all five members of the Toronto rotation pique my curiosity.  Toronto leads the American League in strikeouts (by a rather sizable margin).  Brandon Morrow has the best strikeout rate (11.85 K/9) among AL starters, and Romero (9.43 K/9) isn't terribly far behind.  Kevin Gregg has gone 11-for-12 in save opportunities and Scott Downs leads the league in holds.

As Cecil showed last week when he got shelled by the Rangers, these young arms are going to have their ups and downs, but the Blue Jays are developing a pretty stellar collection of pitching talent.  Waiting in the wings are Kyle Drabek, Dustin McGowan, and Marc Rzepczynski, among others, so there is quantity as well as quality.

On offense, the Jays have been even more impressive, as they are one of the six teams in baseball who have already scored upwards of 200 runs.  Behind surprising power surges from Jose Bautista, Alex Gonzalez, and Vernon Wellls, they lead the league in homers and total bases, and trail only Philadephia in overall slugging.

There aren't many signs that this pace is unsustainable.  Certainly, Gonzalez, who in a dozen seasons has hit 20+ HR only once (in 2004), probably won't maintain his 40 HR pace.  And we could see less significant regressions from Wells and Bautista also.  But while those players started hot, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill started cold.  They will undoubtedly improve significantly on their sub-700 combined OPS from the first six weeks.  The Jays could also get offensive infusions from Edwin Encarnacion, who'll be activated from the D.L. today, and Brett Wallace, the top prospect who's already blasted 11 HR at AAA.

The Jays are near the bottom of the AL in batting average and OBP, despite their run-scoring, but they are also second-to-last in the AL in BABIP (batting average on balls in play).  They are near the middle of the pack in walk rate.  All these factors combine to suggest that while the Jays may not be able to keep pace with the Rays and Red Sox (as they have so far), they will easily stay in the top half of the league in total offense.

I'm utterly against it, but for those who would make the case for some kind of radical realignment, their argument would have to start in Toronto.  Over the past five seasons, the Jays have been near the middle of the pack in total expenditures and, the Wells and Alex Rios megadeals aside (everybody makes mistakes), they've spent the money wisely enough to be a very respectable team.  They've scored more runs than they've allowed in every season since 2005 and are 17 games over .500 during that span.

Yet the truth of their unfortunate geographical situation cannot be denied.  Against the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox they have gone 128-152 (.457).  Against everybody else they've gone 306-265 (.536).  That pretty much tells the story.  If they'd played in any other division, they'd probably have managed at least one or two playoff appearances during the last decade.  As it stands, they haven't made the postseason since they won back-to-back World Series in '92 and '93.

Of course, Tampa Bay faces the same competition and has an even smaller budget, yet found their way to the World Series as recently as 2008 and look primed to make a deep run again this year.  Alex Anthopoulos is no doubt using the Rays as his model.  The Jays are stocking the system with prospects, are buying up the arbitration years of their top young players, and probably won't be signing any more $100 Million contracts for the foreseeable future.  Although 2012 is probably the soonest Jays fans can expect to see a potential contender, there is reason to get excited about the product they're putting on the field currently, and there will be even more reason once the Jays start turning the page on their few remaining mediocre veterans (I'm looking at you, Lyle Overbay).

The fairy-tale ending is this.  In 2014, fresh off collecting a handful of rings with Philadelphia, a 37-year-old future Hall of Famer, Roy Halladay, returns to Toronto on a relatively short and cheap contract.  He's no longer "the best pitcher in baseball," but with his deep repertoire, excellent control, and implacable demeanor he continues to provide quality innings at the back end of the rotation and is a Maddux-esque tutor for the likes of Drabek, Romero, and Cecil, now in their late-twenties and on the cusp of free agency.  If they get to the playoffs, there will be a frightening combination of power and experience on the hill.

There are still some familiar faces.  Vernon Wells, now the left-fielder, is in the final year of his contract.  Aaron Hill and Adam Lind are also nearing the end of their option years (Hill's final Toronto option is '14, Lind's is '16).  But the lineup and defense have also been buoyed by several years of good drafting and development.  Wallace provides legit power from first base.  The speedy Kenny Wilson is batting leadoff and roving center field.  J. P. Arencibia has developed into a premium backstop.  The Jays are a team to be respected and feared, even by the powerhouses in their division.

If you're a Jays fan, or merely somebody who's sick of the Yankees and Red Sox, it's a pretty picture.  Is is realistic?  Well, look at where the Rays were four years ago.  During Joe Maddon's first season, 2006, Tampa Bay lost 101 games and were outscored by nearly 200 runs.  The Jays have a much better basic foundation to build upon.  They'll need Anthopoulos to prove himself capable of good decision-making, first and foremost.  They'll need the Yankees to show some age.  They'll need the Rays rebuilding process (which likely begins either this offseason or next) to be a little slower than expected.  And they'll need a little luck.  But, hey, don't we all.  

Sunday, May 16, 2010

SPH 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey (May)

In honor of Jeff Francis's return to the mound, I'm providing the fourth installment in my 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey.  The cast of active participants increased by one this afternoon, as Francis squared off with the Nationals.  It was Francis' first start since September of 2008.

Much like Brandon Webb, Francis entered Spring Training with the intent of being ready for Opening Day.  Unfortunately, his progress stalled and was complicated by an unrelated injury to his back, thus delaying him by about six weeks.  The Rockies were cautious with his rehab, so he arrived in Colorado prepared to throw around 100 pitches.

Although it's been twenty months since his last appearance, in this start it looked like he'd never left.  He allowed a couple hits, a walk, and a run in the first inning, but Francis, like many soft-tossing lefties, has always tended to struggle in the opening frame (6.37 career ERA, his highest for any inning).  Thereafter, he settled in and allowed only five hits, a walk, and no runs over the next six.  He also struck out six.  Francis mixed in all four of his pitches (fastball, changeup, sligder, curve) and touched 91 MPH, although he was more consistently in the 88-89 range.  In the seventh, possibly tiring, Francis gave up two singles to start the inning, but was able to strand them by getting a pair of strikeouts and a pop-up.  He induced nine groundballs, including a key double-play to end the sixth.

The Rockies need Francis to pitch like he did today, as they are still without their #2 starter, Jorge De La Rosa and haven't gotten much from either Aaron Cook (1-3, 5.80 ERA) or Jason Hammel (1-2, 7.71 ERA).  If Francis can eat some innings, it will help take the pressure of Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, and the bullpen, which has been among the best in the NL (117 IP, 3.08 ERA).

This afternoon also featured the fourth start of the season from Ted Lilly, another member of the S.S.S. roster.  Lilly managed seven strong innings, allowing six hits, three walks, and three earned runs.  Like Francis, he took a no-decision, but his team did end up with the win.  It clearly took Lilly a couple outings to shake off the rust, but he's been building up his pitch counts and has quality starts in each of his last two games.  There's little reason to believe that he isn't prepared to be the same dependable top-of-the-rotation starter he has been for the Cubs since they signed him.

A very similar scenario is developing across town, as Freddy Garcia has started to really round into form.  He's 2-0 in May with a 2.77 ERA, after going 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA in April.  He'll be tested a little this coming week, as he'll take the mound against the division rival Tigers and the Florida Marlins, who have some thunder and are on a bit of a hot streak (swept the Mets in a four-game series, won six of their last seven).  Ozzie Guillen has been a little conservative with Garcia, who has only thrown 100+ pitches once so far, but he's still be able to go at least six innings in five of six outings, which speaks well for his efficiency.

Jeremy Bonderman has also shown a dramatic improvement since the calender turned.  He's had bad luck in terms of decisions (0-1), but has posted a 2.08 ERA in his last fourteen innings and has clearly regained his control, giving up just one free pass over that span.  The Tigers are no doubt a bit concerned with his velocity.  His average fastball speed so far this season is 89.5 MPH, significantly lower than his career mark of 92.5 MPH.  In his last start, an excellent seven-inning outing against the Yankees, Bonderman topped out a 93 MPH and pitched consistently in the 89-90 range.  This, coming from a guy who at one time could occasionally reach the upper nineties.  Certainly, Bonderman has enough movement, control, and variety in his pitches to be effective even with lowered velocity, but the Tigers have pushed back his next start, perhaps partly to see if his arm will be at all rejuvenated by a full week of rest.

Of the eight members of our survey, those are the only four who have pitched in the majors thusfar in 2010.  Of the guys remaining on the D.L., Erik Bedard is probably the closest to joining a rotation.  He has progressed much faster than expected and the Mariners expect him to start throwing off the mound within a week, which still puts his return date somewhere around a month away.  Brandon Webb is throwing from flat ground, but as yet there's no timetable for rehabbing him into pitching shape, so an All-Star Break return seems optimistic.  The Nationals have set a tentative date for Chien-Ming Wang debut at July 1st.  Finally, Dustin McGowan, the Blue Jays youngster, who had perhaps the most serious injury of any of our participants, is still working primarily on a strengthening program.  No timetable has been set, and with many young Jays pitchers performing well, there seems no reason to rush him.  It seems to me only about 50/50 that McGowan pitches this season.      

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Seven)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on to another post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the owners in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the teams fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.
For the first time in 2010, every team is playing seven games this week, so we can look forward to a lot of baseball, as well as lots of interesting matchups, as interleague play begins Friday...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Are the Nationals fooling anybody?

In the wake of Stephen Strasburg's latest round of dominance - he's allowed one lonely single in twelve innings at AAA - it may be time for the Nationals to reevaluate their course of action.  When Washington send him down at the beginning of the season, they insisted it has nothing to do with his arbitration clock.  They wanted him to develop his arm strength in low-pressure situations.  They wanted him to work on a third pitch, his changeup, which had been utterly irrelevant during his college career.  And they wanted him to increase the speed of his delivery in the stretch and work on holding runners.

At this point, however, one has to wonder whether there is any utility for Strasburg pitching in the minors.  Assuming he's throwing his changeup consistently - and the scouts say that he is - it must be working pretty well, because he's got 40 strikeouts in 34 innings.  Presumably, they aren't too worried about developing his arm strength any further, considering they're pulling him after six innings, even when he has a no-hitter going.  And it's damned hard for him to work on holding runners when he's only allowing about three per start.

Strasburg's given up only one extra-base hit (a double) and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 4-to-1.  I'm certainly not ready to argue that he'll immediately dominate the National League the way he's dominated the Eastern and International Leagues, but I just don't see how we can call what he's doing at AAA "development."  Pitchers "develop" by working out of jams, by responding to adversity, by facing hitters who are capable of beating them when they make even the slightest mistake, perhaps even when they don't.  None of those things are happening in Syracuse.

So, at this point, the only logical reason for Strasburg remaining in the minors is fiscal.  Don't get me wrong: that's a good reason!  The Nationals are not a probably not a contending team this season, despite their respectable record thusfar, and, learning from the Rays, Rangers, and Rockies, they are no doubt aware that team with their budget cannot make fly-by-night promotional decisions.  As soon as the Nationals are comfortable that Strasburg won't be making Super Two status, he'll be in the big leagues.  But for fans, both in Washington and across the country, that's really not soon enough.

What I see here is a problem that's going to need to be addressed at the next round of collective bargaining.  The Super Two rule was clearly put into effect in order to get more players to the arbitration earlier in their careers.  But one has to question at this point whether it is having that effect.  More and more teams delay the arrival of top prospects in order to get an extra four months of cheap labor.  Sure, the Cubs, who constantly throw money at their problems, can afford to promote Starlin Castro in May.  And the Rangers, seeing a division title very much in their grasps, are willing to bring Justin Smoak to the majors in April, future costs be damned.  In recent memory, however, there are a number of instances when a late promotion damaged a team's shot at contention.

For instance...

The Best in the West

At the beginning of the year, I had a very hard time deciding who to pick to win the AL West.  At this point, not quite six weeks in, not only am I happy with my choice, I'm wondering how I ever could've considered anybody else.  It's not that the Rangers have been dominant, so much as every other team in their division looks tremendously short-handed.

The preseason darling, the renovated Mariners, recently lost eight straight against the Rangers, Rays, and Angels.  Ken Griffey Jr. and Milton Bradley have been in the news frequently this season; unfortunately, not for anything they've done on the field.  The Mariners haven't gotten a smidgeon of offensive production from anybody except Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez.  And now, even King Felix is struggling.  The Mariners pitching depth makes is reasonable to imagine them putting together an extended hot streak and perhaps climbing back towards .500, but contention is seeming pretty far-fetched.

The Angels have the opposite problem.  They've scored a reasonable number of runs, but their pitching, with the exception of Jered Weaver, has been just dreadful.  The back four have gone 6-16, with only Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro even showing flashes of effectiveness.  As bad as the rotation has been, the bullpen is even worse.  Only one reliever, Fernando Rodney, has an ERA under 4.00, while four have ERAs over 7.00.  There are talented arms on the Anaheim staff, but it won't be long before the hole is too deep to dig out of, even if Mike Scioscia does make his annual adjustments.

And then there is Oakland: a team that was tied with the Rangers for first place until this evening.  It seems like Oakland is doing it with smoke and mirrors.  They have only one player with more than three homers, Kurt Suzuki.  He's their best hitter and he's on the D.L.  There best starting pitcher, Brett Anderson, is also disabled (although Dallas Braden has been doing a damn fine job in his stead).  They're 12th in the AL in OPS and 13th in SLG.  The Ben Sheets experiment has been disastrous.  Without several more infusions of talent (which isn't wholly impossible considering their farm system), I don't see the Athletics keeping pace beyond midseason.

Which leaves Texas.  They are leading the division and have the fourth best run differential in the A.L., despite the fact that Josh Hamilton started slow, Rich Harden started wild, and Ian Kinsler started hurt.  There two best relievers both had ERAs above 5.40 in April and their two highly-touted rookies were hitting below the Mendoza line.

Now, those problems seem to be solving themselves.  Neftali Feliz saved five games last week and has a 1.59 ERA so far in May.  Hamilton has homered in two straight games and his OPS is quietly climbing toward 900.  Harden has allowed only two runs and, more importantly, only two walks in his last two starts, his ERA dipping into a very respectable range (3.53).  Kinsler has been on fire since returning to the lineup, with five multi-hit games already in May.  Justin Smoak put together a seven-game hit streak to begin the month and, although he's still only hitting .194, he's shown some power (4 HR) and a great eye (12 BB/11 K), as advertised.  Julio Borbon has six hits in his last four games.

What's frightening about the Rangers is their depth.  There recent hot streak, 11-4 since April 27, has come without Nelson Cruz, who was far and away there best hitter in April.  He re-enters the lineup on Friday.  Matt Harrison hit the D.L. this week, so the Rangers recalled Derek Holland and got six shutout innings from him in his debut.  Feliz and Frank Francisco have been inconsistent, but Darren O'Day, Chris Ray, and Darren Oliver have provided 35 innings and have allowed just nine earned runs (2.29 ERA).

Despite the comings and goings, the Rangers have hardly showed all their cards, especially in terms of pitching.  Brandon McCarthy is dominating AAA (2.51 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 18 K/5 BB).  Tommy Hunter hasn't allowed a run in two starts for Oklahoma City since returning from the D.L.  Texas' first-round pick from 2010, Tanner Scheppers, has already reached AAA and 45 strikeouts in 34 professional innings.  And 19-year-old Martin Perez has a 2.45 ERA at AA.

The Rangers aren't without issues.  They've tried four different catchers this year who have combined to post a 506 OPS.  They've leaned heavily thusfar on the pitching of Colby Lewis and C. J. Wilson, both of whom are benefitting somewhat from the fact that this is practically their first time through the league. Wilson had previously worked only as a reliever and Lewis spent the last two seasons in Japan.  They will likely both be tested during the summer, as the Ballpark at Arlington becomes even more of a launching pad and the league adjusts to them.  Wilson has never thrown more than 136 innings at any level and hasn't thrown more than 75 innings since 2005, so his durability is definitely in question.

Durability is also an issue for the lineup.  Hamilton has managed only one full major-league season (2008).  Kinsler and Cruz have never been able to avoid the D.L.  Vladimir Guerrero, who has recaptured the magic that made him an eight-time All-Star, is nevertheless coming off the worst and the shortest season of his career.

The Rangers depth and the fact that their divisional competition may be limited makes it possible for them to overcome the speedbumps that will inevitably arise over the six-month grind.  However, if they are to be anything more than a nice underdog story in October, they are going to need everybody healthy and effective.  The Rays, Yankees, and Twins all look like juggernauts, and all are constructed to win big and win now.  

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Bucs Savior Has Arrived?

It's only the second week of May, and already we've had a no-hitter and a perfect game.  John Buck and Mark Texeira have each connected for three homers in one night.  The Brewers fifth outfielder, Jody Gerut, hit for the cycle.  Paul Konerko is on pace for 71 HR.  The Cubs' Starlin Castro had arguably the best first game ever, going 2-for-5 with a homer, a triple, and half a dozen RBI.  Two team in the AL East are on pace to win 108 games or more.

With all the excitement of the first six weeks, naturally, a few performances are bound to get overlooked.  Which is why I'm looking to shine a little light on Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen.  McCutchen, who the BBA voted Rookie of the Year in 2009, has not suffered any sophomore slump, unlike the winner of the BBWA's version of the award, Chris Coghlan.  McCutchen is currenty eighth in the National League in hitting, at .325, and he's second in stolen bases, with 10.  Last week he was particularly hot, with ten hits in five games.

McCutchen's performance has been especially impressive because he's a youngster hitting in the middle of a Pirates lineup that doesn't offer much protection.  Garrett Jones has been unable to duplicate the success of his rookie season.  Lastings Milledge has been dreadful.  Jeff Clement has been even worse.  There might be a temptation on McCutchen's part to press, to expand the strikezone, and to swing for the fences, but so far he hasn't been doing any of those things.  More and more, McCutchen is looking like the best Pirates player since Barry Bonds.  

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Trade for Aaron Harang. No, seriously."

With approximated 20% of the season in the books, it's time to start sizing up your fantasy roster.  Many owners, at this juncture, make one of two mistakes:

1.) Because they are sitting at the bottom of the table, they decide to punt, either completely abandoning their team or, in keeper leagues, starting to play exclusively for next year.

2.) Because they've gotten off to a hot start, they superstitiously sit on their roster, denying any potential for improvement.

With so much season left, it's pretty much guaranteed that you've got a hot streak and a cold streak still in front of you, perhaps a prolonged one.  If you do get hot after a bad start and you end up finishing in second or third place, you're going to really regret unloading Placido Polanco for a prospect in May or sitting on Chris Davis when you could've picked up Brennan Boesch.  Similarly, if you blow that double-digit lead, your decision to stubbornly stick with Ben Sheets could really burn you.

At this point, you're looking for the classic "buy low, sell high" candidates.  Below, I'll provide you with some of my favorites, but first let me offer some strategies for identifying your own:

Batting Average on Balls in Play is the Hansel of statistics.  It's so hot right now.  It's main benefit is identifying "luck" on both sides of the ball.  If a hitter has a BABIP way higher than his career norms, he's finding holes at an unsustainable rate.  Everything is dropping in.  If his BABIP is unusually low, he's probably hit his fair share of "at 'em" balls and could be due for a hot streak.  For pitchers, the opposite applies.  High BABIP suggests bad luck, low BABIP suggests the potential for regression.

Fielder Independent Pitching measures outcomes that a pitcher can "control."  That is, strikeouts, walks, and homers.  The resulting number looks like a standard ERA.  So, what we can do is compare the FIP, which judges exclusively the pitcher, to the ERA, which is effected by several other factors.  Over time, these numbers will tend to move toward each other.  In 2009, no team had a separation between ERA and FIP of more than half a run.  So, when you see disjunctions of a run or more, you can assume that pitcher is getting burned either by bad defense or bad luck.

Game Logs:  
This is the most effective, but also the most time-consuming method for analyzing players.  At this point in the season, one bad week for a hitter or one bad outing for a pitcher can have a dramatic effect on their ratio statistics (AVG, OPS, ERA, WHIP, etc.).  It's impossible to check these for every player, but for those who you're considering adding, dropping, or trading, it's a must.

Another stat that goes both ways.  HR/FB works best for veteran players having out of character years because, like BABIP, it's most effective when judged against career norms.  For a hitter, a significantly higher HR/FB rate might suggest inflated power numbers, gained either by playing in homer-friendly parks or just catching some breaks down the lines.  For pitcher, a high HR/FB rate suggests, again, some bad luck or, perhaps, a flurry of unfavorable matchups.

As those who visit the Hippeaux consistently are probably already aware, this is probably my favorite catch-all statistic on both sides of the ball.  In the early going, a particularly high strikeout rate (for a hitter) worries me, because it means he has much less chance for positive outcomes (because getting lucky pretty much requires that you at least put the ball in play) and is thus more susceptible to extended cold streaks.  A low walk rate, although not as detrimental, also limits the opportunity for things like runs and stolen bases, so I'm particularly aware of it in relation to top of the order/speed type players.  On the flip side, a low strikeout rate limits a pitcher's ability to get out of tough situations and makes him more enslaved to his defense.  Therefore, it you're considering a low strikeout rate pitcher (there are plenty of good ones), you should pay close attention to the team behind him.  A high walk rate, particularly in combination with a low strikeout rate, makes run-scoring situations significantly more frequent.

Now, for the cast of the Bi-Lo All-Stars...

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Six)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on to another post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the owners in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the teams fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Mishandled Hawaiian

Ragging on Kansas City's front office feels a bit like beating a three-legged dog...that is, if the dog had chewed off its own leg than stubbornly insisted he was better off that way.  The Royals have made laughable decision after laughable decision over the course of the last fifteen years, spanning the tenures of three GMs and seven managers.

Among the most recent and the most ridiculous has been their handling of top prospect, Kila Ka'aihue.  The Royals, then under the supervision of Allan Baird, drafted Ka'aihue in 2002.  He was clearly an excellent find in the 15th round.  During his late teens and early twenties, in the low minors, he developed power and patience, consistently improving his BB/K ratios, his OBP and SLG, as well as his defense, culminating in a bit of a breakout year in 2008, at the age of 24.  In 124 games between AA and AAA, Ka'aihue hit .314 with 37 HR, 100 RBI, a 1085 OPS, and a ridiculous 104/67 BB/K ratio (seriously, that's Pujols-esque).

In a twelve-game cup of coffee in September of that year, Ka'aihue acquitted himself admirably, managing an 804 OPS, with homer and only two strikeouts in 24 plate appearances.  For an apparently rebuilding franchise, this appeared to be player primed for his shot.  Most teams, I think it's safe to say, put in K.C.'s position, would've handed Kila first base on Opening Day of 2009 and given him several months (at least) to prove his worthiness, much like the Marlins are doing this year with Gaby Sanchez.  What's the worst that could've happened?  They Royals could've won less than 65 games?

Naturally, K.C. went in another direction.  They sent one of their most talented relievers, from a bullpen which has been consistently short on talent in recent year, to Florida for Mike Jacobs, an iron-gloved, lead-footed strikeout machine (with power!) who proceeded to put together a season for the ages.  Jacobs hit 19 HR, but batted just .228, struck out more than once per game, and posted an OBP (.297) which was easily the worst among major-league first baseman and among the worst in all of baseball.  According to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement statistic, Mike Jacobs was worth less than the average AAA player and was the fifth worst player in the major leagues among players who got at least 450 plate appearances in '09.

Meanwhile, Ka'aihue, perhaps frustrated with languishing in Omaha for another season, did regress from his '08 totals, managed only 17 HR and a respectable 825 OPS.  He still displayed incredible discipline, walking on 102 occasions, while striking out 85 times.

This spring, Ka'aihue, now 26-years-old, again arrived at Royals camp with almost no chance of making the big-league team.  Billy Butler, Kansas City's best player, is now entrenched at first, and the strange offseason addition of retreads like Rick Ankiel, Scott Podsednik, and Josh Fields made a crowded field at DH.  Kila had an excellent spring, but was headed to minor-league camp by the middle of March.

On Wednesday, following injuries to Ankiel and Fields, and the demotion of Alex Gordon, the Royals final promoted Kila, who was back to raking, hitting .304 with 7 HR and a 1086 OPS at AAA in the early going.

When teams promote a prospect, what do they usually do?  They "get his feet wet."  They usually insert him directly in the lineup, at least for his first game with the team.  It's what the Tigers did with Brennan Boesch (who's looking outstanding, by the way).  It's what Texas did with Justin Smoak and Max Ramirez.  It's what the Pirates did with Steven Pearce.  IT'S WHAT EVERYBODY DOES.

But not the Royals.  Two games later, Ka'aihue had yet to get his first MLB appearance.  His sizzling bat set cooling on the Royals bench as Kansas City's patchwork roster got pummeled by the Rangers.  In the late innings, the Royals mounted an unlikely comeback.  And, in the top of the eighth the game was tied and the Royals had a man on second base.

So, naturally, with the game on the line, Trey Hillman sent Ka'aihue to the plate for his first major-league at-bat since September of 2008.  Not only was he pinch-hitting against one of Texas's top reliever, Frank Francisco, which is rarely a recipe for success even for established players; but he was a rookie who hadn't played in game action for three days and was inserted into a critical situation in a game on the road.

Kila drove a singe down the right-field line and picked up the RBI.

He was immediately lifted for a pinch-runner.

If Ka'aihue does eventually become a competent major-league player, which I fully believe he will be, K.C.'s conservative ineptitude will have cost him at least two years of service time, not to mention the franchise millions of dollars (wasted on Jacobs, Ankiel, and the like).  It seems just a matter of time before Ka'aihue sees his star rise with another club.  The only question is what package of overpriced hogwash the Royals will demand in return.

One really can't imagine what Dayton Moore is hoping to accomplish with this year's Royals team, which is already eight games back in the AL Central (only Baltimore and Houston are sitting on bigger deficits).  One does not build a team around spare parts like Scott Podsednik and Jason Kendall.  Those are pieces which should get introduced to a team already on the verge of contention.  Ka'aihue needs to play everyday.  As does Mike Aviles, Alberto Callaspo, and Alex Gordon.  If the Royals are going to compete before the end of this decade, it will be because that core of relatively young, talented, inexpensive, and homegrown players are providing much of their offense.

Free Kila.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

A Phillies Statement?

I won't argue that a four-game series at the beginning of May has any bearing on October, but the Phillies certainly entered their home series with the Cardinals this week as though they had something to prove.  The Phillies and Cardinals both came into the season as presumptive favorites in the NL and, no offense to the Giants and Padres, they've lived up to that billing, leading their respective divisions.

The Phillies manhandled the Cardinals this week, however, winning three out of four, despite being at a seeming disadvantage coming into the series.  The Cardinals entered the game having won eight of their last nine and sporting a healthy roster, with only utilityman, Felipe Lopez, on the D.L.  The Phillies, on the other hand, sent their closer, Ryan Madsen, and a starter, J. A. Happ, to the D.L. just prior to the series, and are still playing without their captain, Jimmy Rollins.  They were just in 4-6 in their ten games prior to St. Louis' arrival and, since placing Rollins on the D.L. following their 7-1 start, Philadelphia had a losing record (7-9).  One might have said, prior to the series, that the Cardinals were catching Philadelphia at the right time.

The Phils did get a little lucky in that they managed to miss Chris Carpenter (4-0, 2.84 ERA).  Even so, they didn't have a favorable pitching matchup until today, when Doc Halladay took the mound against the Cardinals worst starter, Kyle Lohse.  On Monday, in his first start back from the D.L., Joe Blanton performed admirably against a tough opponent, matching up with Jaime Garcia (3-1, 1.13 ERA), who has been among the most dominant starters in baseball early in 2010.  Then, Cole Hamels battled Carpenter's co-Ace, Adam Wainwright (4-1, 1.96 ERA), to a standstill on Tuesday, in a game the Phillies eventually won in extra innings.  Philadelphia handed a loss to Brad Penny on Wednesday.  He had entered the game with a 1.56 ERA.  Kyle Kendrick got his first win of the year, following seven shutout innings.  He had entered the game with a 7.61 ERA.

The key to beating good pitchers in this series was making them work in every inning.  Nine different Phillies drove in runs in the series.  On Tuesday, Raul Ibanez made Wainwright throw 18 pitches over the course of three plate appearances prior to hitting the triple that led to the Phillies only run against him.   On Thursday, Wilson Valdez didn't aid in the production of any runs, but saw 19 pitches in four at-bats, and doubled in his final opportunity.

Thursday's game featured only the second meeting between this generation's best hitter, Albert Pujols, and their best pitcher, Roy Halladay.  The first time, back in 2005, Halladay threw a complete game and Prince Albert went 0-for-4 with three groundouts.  This time out, Halladay pitched around some sloppy defense, managed seven strong innings, and King Albert went 1-for-3 with a walk and an RBI.  In the fifth, with man on second and third, Pujols took a very close pitch in a 3-2 count and was blessed with a free pass.  The pitch would likely have been called a strike against almost any other hitter.  Doc proceeded to strike out Matt Holliday with the bases loaded.  No damage done.  In the seventh Pujols again came up with men on base.  This time he laced an RBI single through the left side.  

Like I said before, I'm not ready to make any assumptions about these potential NLCS opponents based on this series, but it was clearly a matchup of two very high quality ballclubs, each of whom wanted to assert themselves as the class of the National League.  Anybody who believed the Phillies rough stretch sans J-Roll was an indication of weakness should take note: the Phillies remain a powerhouse, having won five out of seven against the Cardinals and the divisional rival Mets.  I look forward to seeing these teams square off again, and I won't half to wait until the playoffs.  Philadelphia travels to St. Louis for a four-game set in the middle of July.

Hippeaux's Mailbag

I finally posted a functional email address earlier this month (sorry about that).  Since then, there has been a trickle of questions, mostly fantasy related.  Here are some answers which I thought might be relevant for others:

"So, Hippeaux, do you still hate the Bradley/Silva trade?" - Eric

I definitely deserve this.  I reemed Jim Hendry for making this deal and ridiculed it again and again over the course of the offseason.  Silva didn't show the slightest sign of weakness until his last start.  He's been among the Cubs best starting pitchers so far (2-0, 2.90 ERA).  Meanwhile, Bradley has continued a descent into irrelevancy by beginning the year with a 684 OPS and then exiling himself from the team to deal with psychological issues.  So, yes, Hendry is probably feeling pretty satisfied with himself right now.  Silva's been a contributer.  Marlon Byrd has been outstanding (956 OPS).  Alfonso Soriano is hotter than he's been since the middle of 2008.  Even the Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen move has worked out pretty well so far (1.80 ERA in four appearances).  If the Cubs make the postseason, even if they stay in the hunt until August, I promise to write Jim Hendry an extended apology.  If they don't, expect more venom.

"I paid thirty-some dollars for Greinke in a mixed 5X5 league.  After a month, he's got zero wins.  Should I try to trade him?  I need pitching.  What can I expect to get?" - Steve

I ranked Zack Greinke outside of my top tier of pitchers this February for two reasons: 1.) It would be almost impossible to duplicate the season he had in 2009, so some regression was inevitable, and 2.) He still plays for the Royals, who still stink, perhaps even more than they did last year.  As a result, I don't own Greinke in any leagues.  That said, I certainly don't think Greinke's '09 was a fluke.  Even if he has several more rough outings than he did last year, he'll easily be a legitimate fantasy Ace.

After six starting in '09, these were Greinke's 5X5 numbers: 6-0, 0.40 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 54 K, 45 IP.
This season, at the same juncture, they look like this: 0-3, 2.27 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 33 K, 40 IP.

His strikeout rate is down a little bit, but mainly, he's just been unlucky.  Only one team, the Red Sox, has gotten to him for more than two earned runs.  Three times he's left the game with a lead and wound up with a no decision.

Sure, it's quite possible that Greinke will suffer a season of disappointments, ala Matt Cain in '07 and '08, but even if that happens, he contributions to your rate stats will make him a worthy #2 starter.  And, if you trade him now, you risk "selling low" and missing out on the stretch where he wins six in a row or eight out of ten.  At this point, I actually covet Greinke a little more than I did in the preseason.  These are the only pitchers who I would trade him for straight-up: Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, C. C. Sabathia, Ubaldo Jimenez, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, and Jon Lester.

"I know you've seen the PECOTA projections already.  In the ESPN magazine Baseball Think Factory says that the Angels have only a 2.5% chance of winning the AL West.  How can that be?" - Tim

I received this message before the season began, so I'll begin with the response the sent Tim at that time:

"I'm continually surprised by how poorly the 2010 Angels are performing in preseason simulations, which consistently have them finishing behind the Rangers, Mariners, and even the Athletics.  I've said repeatedly that I think the rumors of the Angels demise have been greatly exaggerated.  I don't expect they will win the division by ten games, as they did in '09, but I think they'll be at least an 85 win team and as safe a bet as anybody to win the AL West.  My only explanation for the Angels poor performance in simulations is that they had several players who had career years in '09: Jered Weaver, Kendry Morales, Erick Aybar, Juan Rivera, etc.  Even Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu had among their best seasons.  More often than not, regression is to be expected.  I certainly think the younger players are capable of continuing to build on what they did in '09, but it is true that at some point guys like Abreu and Matsui will hit the wall.  Will it be this year?  I don't know."

It's still very early, but the Halos performance so far suggests the boys at Baseball Think Factory and Baseball Prospectus get paid the "big bucks" for a reason.  The Angels are 12-17 and, more significantly, their -43 run differential is better than only Pittsburgh, Houston, and Baltimore (and not by that much).  Still, it's a relatively small sample and they are only three games back, so one good week could be enough to get me right back on the Angels bandwagon.

I've watched Los Angeles quite a bit and I'll admit they've got some serious holes.  The Brandon Wood experiment has been a complete bust and, unless something dramatic happens, I think will be put to rest before the end of May.  Erick Aybar has not adapted to hitting leadoff and the Angels don't have anybody else who appears better suited to that role. 

The starting pitching, which I expected to be the Angels strength, despite the departure of John Lackey, has been the team's most serious issue (5.00 ERA, 12th in A.L.).  The hired guns, Scott Kazmir and Joel Pineiro, have each shown improvement in recent starts after tough Aprils.  I expect both will be at least serviceable behind the clear Ace, Jered Weaver.  But Joe Saunders has been especially abysmal (1-5, 7.04 ERA).  The Angels top prospect, Trevor Bell, continues to dominate at AAA, so don't be surprised if Saunders loses his spot.

Mike Scioscia has never been afraid of shaking things up.  Don't be surprised if Saunders, Wood, and Brian Fuentes soon find the end of their leashes.  The Angels depth of options, combined with the fact that no team in the AL West appears ready to run away from the rest, are cause for continued optimism.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Myth of "Timely Hitting"

As the Padres were getting manhandled by Ubaldo last night, their broadcast team regaled us with how San Diego "is using the classic recipe for success, good pitching and timely hitting."  They pointed out that while the Padres are batting only .249, which is below the NL average (.258), they are hitting .295 with runners in scoring position.  The splits are even more spectacular when you look at OPS:

Padres Overall: 715
Padres RISP: 928

The Padres broadcasters were clearly indicating that their team had the ability to step up their game in the clutch, but unknowingly they were providing me with the evidence that San Diego's unexpectedly strong start is patently unsustainable.

This material has been covered by better men than me, but basically, there is no such thing as a team which is better in clutch situations.  Over the long haul, the Padres performance in critical situations will look much like their overall performance, which isn't very good.  We can demonstrate this by looking at last year's playoff teams.  If "timely hitting" is really a key ingredient in the "recipe for success," presumably the best teams will have splits something like the Padres, as they dramatically rise to the occasion in run-scoring situations.  Here's the data:

Monday, May 03, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: The Stream Team (Week Five)

Just as I did for much of last season, each Sunday I will provide a look ahead at favorable pitching matchups for fantasy owners who utilize the "streaming" method (pulling mediocre starters off the waiver wire in an effort to win counting categories in H2H leagues).  If the preceding parenthetical makes no sense to you, you should probably move on to another post.  I use the player pool from a 12-team 5X5 mixed league at ESPN.  Since all the owners in the league have previously won ESPN leagues (a qualification for entry), the competition is at least fairly stiff and the teams fairly active.  However, just because a player is available in that league, doesn't necessarily mean he'll be available in your league.  Remember, the idea of "streaming" is to win strikeouts and wins, while remaining as competitive as possible in ERA and WHIP.