The Astros Reunite With Old Friend Jason Castro

As the most physically demanding position on the diamond, catcher is fundamentally different than the other non-pitching positions. Combine the need for frequent rest and the higher likelihood of injury, and every team is always in search of more catcher depth. There’s a corollary to that, though: because catching exacts such a toll on the body, few catchers are truly standout stars in the same way that infielders and outfielders are. As an idle example, four catchers were worth 3 WAR or more in 2019, and 66 non-catcher position players crested that mark.

Why bring up this fact? Part of the reason is that it’s interesting to me, and I get to pick what I write about most of the time. The bigger part, though, is that I don’t always get to pick what I write about, and this one happens to be a fortuitous combination of the two: the Astros signed Jason Castro to a two-year, $7 million dollar deal with incentives that could tack on $2 million, and somebody needs to write it up.

At first glance, Castro is exactly the kind of catcher that teams always need: he may not be an All-Star (though he was in 2013), but he’s someone you can count on to punch the clock roughly every other day, delivering enough receiving, enough hitting, and enough being-there-ness to fill roughly half of a catcher platoon. Deals like this are evergreen — heck, Martín Maldonado signed roughly the same deal in Houston last year, and he’ll be Castro’s platoon partner. That said, Castro carries a few interesting notes that give him a chance to be more than just another faceless backstop.

First and foremost, Castro is a lefty. That’s not exactly breaking news — stop the presses, I watched a Jason Castro at-bat and found something new — but it’s indisputably valuable. There simply aren’t many left-handed catchers, even if you count switch hitters; lefties made 1,399 plate appearances at catcher in 2020, as compared to 5,272 right-handed plate appearances. That’s a 21% share of PAs, as compared to a 43% share for lefties in the league as a whole. Read the rest of this entry »


Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 1/21/2021

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Dave Magadan Talks Hitting

Dave Magadan was a productive big-league hitter — he logged a 117 wRC+ from 1986 to 2001 — and he’s followed up his playing career with several stints as a hitting coach. In that role with the Colorado Rockies for each of the past two seasons, Magadan previously plied his trade with the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, and Arizona Diamondbacks. His current situation is arguably the most challenging he’s faced. Having Coors Field as a home venue is a mixed blessing, and it goes without saying that today’s offensive environment is anything but ideal. Magadan has a boatload of experience and expertise, but he’s also got his work cut out for him.

———

David Laurila: Let’s start with the fact that the game has changed — hitting has changed — since your playing days.

Dave Magadan: “I guess I’m a little biased. I like guys that control the strike zone and hit for a good average. It’s gone so far in the other direction, where guys don’t mind striking out 180 times as long as they’re hitting the ball out of the park. But there’s always a place for guys who give you good at-bats, get on base, consistently hit the ball hard, and aren’t overmatched by a certain type of pitcher. And there are guys like that in the game, but they’re just not as plentiful as when I played.”

Laurila: How much of the balls-in-play issue is swing plane, and the inability to handle the elevated fastball?

Magadan: “We could do about two hours on that, right? I mean, there is so much malpractice out there in the world of baseball. Not big-league hitting coaches, but guys who are trying to make names for themselves being hitting gurus, teaching kids to swing up and create that launch angle that that is so deceptive. Let’s forget about the swing plane; let’s just talk about contact point. To hit the ball in the air, you have to hit the ball out in front, but when you’re consistently trying to create that contact point, you’re going to swing and miss. You’re going to chase breaking balls, you’re going to chase changeups, you’re not going to be able to hit the late-action pitches. Read the rest of this entry »


Dan Szymborski FanGraphs Chat – 1/21/21

12:02
Avatar Dan Szymborski: And hello happy chatters, for this edition of SzymChat that appeared on the front page!

12:03
TD: Assuming the Mets have about $25m to spend, how would you distribute that money to improve the roster?

12:04
Avatar Dan Szymborski: I think I’d sign Justin Turner for $10 million and pay myself $15 million. It improves the roster.

12:04
Dan: Finally got on for one of your chats this year…

Can you do the ZiPS “what-if” I’ve been nagging you about for a decade, Bonds if he hadn’t been a victim of collusion in ’07?

I’m guessing ~50 more homers, ~135 OPS+ in three seasons.

12:04
Avatar Dan Szymborski: It’s only like the third one!

12:05
Avatar Dan Szymborski: He *was* quite old at this point so even if he hadn’t declined, it was going to happen. I can to a Time Warp on tha tthough.

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Twins Ink J.A. Happ to One-Year Deal

Between Jose Quintana, J.A. Happ, and Joe Biden, quite a few old lefties have found new homes lately. The news on Happ came relatively late yesterday, so if you missed the details, he’s now a Twin after agreeing to a one-year deal worth $8 million, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman.

The departures of Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi left a hole in the back of Minnesota’s rotation. Happ’s a perfectly capable fill-in, though the move does raise questions about whether the Twins are done enhancing their rotation, and whether the team is good enough to retain the AL Central crown as currently constructed.

In nine starts for the Yankees last season, Happ notched a 3.47 ERA and a 4.57 FIP. That second figure was a significant improvement over his 2019 production, as home runs were a major bugaboo for him back when we last had fans: Yankee Stadium’s cozy confines and a drag-free baseball led to a 1.90 HR/9 ratio and a FIP well over five. While his homer rate dropped a tad below 1.50 per nine in 2020, it was the .220 average batters hit on balls in play that buffed up his ERA.

In a way this marks a return to form. More than a decade ago, Happ first made his name in Philadelphia as a starter who significantly outpitched his peripherals; the gap between his ERA and FIP in Philly was so wide that when the Astros acquired him in a trade for Roy Oswalt, all we had to say about him was “while he has some value as a league minimum guy for the next couple of years, he can be replaced.”

It wasn’t exactly a straight line between then and now, but Happ again looks like a durable innings eater who can provide something approximating league average production out of the rotation. He’s 38 now, but hasn’t shown too many signs of aging. His velocity has dipped a tick over the last two years, though he’s within half a mile per hour of the gas he had in his Blue Jays days. He’s barely missed a start over the last three years and just posted the highest swing-and-miss rate of his career. Steamer, ZiPS, and intuition all have him pegged as the fourthiest No. 4 starter who ever slotted into the fourth spot of a rotation. Read the rest of this entry »


Amid Toronto Rumors, Michael Brantley Stays in Houston

The Blue Jays made the biggest free-agent move of the offseason late Tuesday night by signing George Springer. By the next morning, they looked like they were on the verge of adding his friend and former teammate Michael Brantley too. But reports early Wednesday that he had put pen to paper turned out to be a bit too aggressive, and while he did end up signing by day’s end, it wasn’t with Toronto. Instead, Brantley is returning to Houston on a two-year, $32 million contract, as first reported by FOX 26’s Mark Berman.

While Brantley would have helped Toronto’s offense, he’s a bit of a better fit for the Astros. After signing Springer, the Jays already had four major league-quality outfielders in him, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernández, and Randal Grichuk. Adding Brantley would have meant putting him at designated hitter every day (or trading a good player away), which would hurt roster flexibility if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can’t handle third base and also taken playing time away from Rowdy Tellez. Brantley wasn’t a horrible fit, but given the options still available and potential needs in the infield and the rotation, the Blue Jays didn’t have to have him.

Where he plays is less of an issue for the Astros, who already have a regular DH as long as Yordan Alvarez is healthy. What they really needed was a leftfielder, and Brantley was far and away the best option on a market full of replacement-level options. He was a DH more than he was on the field last season, but that was more out of convenience than necessity due to an early-season quad injury that cost him a dozen or so games, the emergence of Kyle Tucker, and the presence of veteran Josh Reddick. Since 2017, Brantley has graded out as average by UZR and well above-average by DRS, and his -8 Outs Above Average at Statcast make him a roughly average corner outfielder. His defensive skills will decline as he ages, and his speed is gone, but he should still be able to handle playing in the field. And he’s been relatively healthy the last three years after suffering through multiple injuries earlier in his career.

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Top 39 Prospects: Toronto Blue Jays

Below is an analysis of the prospects in the farm system of the Toronto Blue Jays. Scouting reports were compiled with information provided by industry sources as well as my own observations. As there was no minor league season in 2020, there are some instances where no new information was gleaned about a player. Players whose write-ups have not been altered begin by telling you so. For the others, the blurb ends with an indication of where the player played in 2020, which in turn likely informed the changes to their report. As always, I’ve leaned more heavily on sources from outside the org than within for reasons of objectivity. Because outside scouts were not allowed at the alternate sites, I’ve primarily focused on data from there. Lastly, in effort to more clearly indicate relievers’ anticipated roles, you’ll see two reliever designations, both in lists and on The Board: MIRP, or multi-inning relief pitcher, and SIRP, or single-inning relief pitcher.

For more information on the 20-80 scouting scale by which all of our prospect content is governed, you can click here. For further explanation of Future Value’s merits and drawbacks, read Future Value.

All of the numbered prospects here also appear on The Board, a resource the site offers featuring sortable scouting information for every organization. It can be found here.

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Effectively Wild Episode 1645: Go Canada

EWFI
Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley banter about Alex Rodriguez’s ubiquity on non-baseball broadcasts and then discuss George Springer signing a franchise-record contract with the Blue Jays, Michael Brantley re-signing with the Astros, and José Quintana signing with the Angels, touching on how the Jays compare to their AL East rivals and what the team may do next, Springer’s track record and how he’ll age, Toronto’s run at Brantley, why Springer has escaped some of his former team’s sign-stealing stigma, how the Astros stack up post-Springer, the Cubs’ soft-tossing, poorly projected rotation, the NL Central’s inactivity, and when it’s appropriate for fans to take breaks from or forsake their teams. Then they answer a listener email about working in baseball and reevaluating a dream job and conclude with a Stat Blast about the longest time elapsed between the same player’s World Series hits.

Audio intro: The Tragically Hip, "You’re Everywhere"
Audio outro: Lou Reed, "My Friend George"

Link to thread of A-Rod photos
Link to Dan Szymborski on the Springer signing
Link to Dan on playoff odds changes
Link to Jeff on Springer’s contact in 2017
Link to Jeff on the 2017 Astros’ new-look lineup
Link to sign-stealing data
Link to Ben on sign-stealing effectiveness
Link to Rob Arthur on sign-stealing effectiveness
Link to second BP study on sign-stealing effectiveness
Link to Bill Petti on sign-stealing effectiveness
Link to Tony Wolfe on the Quintana signing
Link to Russell Carleton on starting-pitcher handedness
Link to R.J. Anderson on MLB brain drain
Link to Ben on going from a front office to the media
Link to Adam Ott’s website
Link to Stat Blast spreadsheet
Link to Russell on postseason experience

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Meg Rowley FanGraphs Chat – 1/20/2021

4:00
Meg Rowley: Hi everyone, and welcome to the chat.

4:01
AJ: Way too early World Series matchup prediction?

4:02
Meg Rowley: Padres vs. White Sox. Is it the most probable matchup? Perhaps not. Is it a reasonable prediction? Yes. Would I enjoy it very much? Also yes.

4:02
Rob: How is it possible to own a billion dollar business with all the resources at your disposal and still fail miserably at vetting an incredibly important hire. I don’t get it. To be honest, it seems more like they don’t really care rather than they are incompetent.

4:04
Meg Rowley: I don’t think that they don’t care. An organization that doesn’t care doesn’t fire him. I do think that the fact of his hiring along with some of Alderson’s answers suggest that it is a process in need of reforms, first among them doing background with folks who Porter didn’t have an incentive to manage up to.

4:04
BlueJayMatt: No question, just a Jays fan feeling pretty good today. The next few years in Toronto are going to be a lot of fun!

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Angels Sign José Quintana, Who Is Still Probably Underrated

Another day gone by, another former Cubs starting pitcher joining another team. Three weeks ago, Chicago shipped away its ace by trading Yu Darvish to the Padres for Zach Davies and a quartet of prospects. On Monday, it watched two more rotation members find new employers in free agency, as Jon Lester signed with Washington and Tyler Chatwood inked a deal with Toronto. One day later, a fourth veteran starter is officially out the door, with left-hander José Quintana signing a one-year, $8-million contract to join the Angels, as reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.

Quintana, who will turn 32 next week, pitched in just four games in 2020 while dealing with thumb and lat injuries. That’s hardly the norm, though: The thumb injury was a freak laceration suffered while he was washing dishes and resulted in the first IL stint of his nine-year career. Otherwise, he’s been the portrait of durability, averaging more than 192 innings per season from 2013 to ’19, with his lowest total being 171 in that last year. That durability would be welcome in Los Angeles, which has been notoriously unable to keep pitchers on the mound: Since 2017, just two Angels starters have eclipsed 150 innings in a season.

Being able to pile up innings is a valuable trait by itself, but there is more to Quintana than quantity. In the middle of the last decade, he was sneakily one of the best pitchers in baseball, with his 18.2 WAR from 2014 to ’17 ranking sixth in that span. It took a bit for people to take notice of him, though, because the White Sox teams he pitched for didn’t win many games, and because he was overshadowed in his own rotation by Chris Sale. Since writers and analysts love to talk about which guys they supposedly aren’t talking about enough, Quintana eventually became a staple of columns decrying his underappreciation. By the time the White Sox traded him to the Cubs in 2017, Jeff Sullivan theorized in this space that, to whatever degree Quintana actually was underrated, he would cease to be if he excelled while pitching for a pennant chaser.

Not much has gone according to plan for the Cubs since then, though. The team’s young core never made it back to the World Series, and the general manager, skipper, and a lengthy list of key players have left the organization. The prospects they traded to sustain a contender during those years, meanwhile, have blossomed in their new organizations, including Eloy Jiménez and, to a lesser extent, Dylan Cease, two of the players the Cubs exchanged for Quintana. Jiménez is already terrorizing pitchers in the majors, and Cease still has plenty of potential in his arm. It might have been easier for Cubs fans if Quintana were simultaneously earning Cy Young votes and making All-Star teams, but he did neither of those things, and by falling short of those lofty expectations, his acquisition gets labeled as a historically bad move for the franchise.

The reality, though, is that Quintana was still pretty good during his time on the North Side. He was the Cubs’ best pitcher over the remainder of the 2017 season, and though the following year was his worst as a major leaguer, he still managed a 4.03 ERA, 4.43 FIP and 1.7 WAR. His 2019 season looked more like his White Sox days, as he posted 3.5 WAR, a 3.80 FIP and a 4.68 ERA, the latter of which was hurt by his left-on-base rate being nearly nine points lower than his career average. Last year was a lost one for Quintana, but as disappointed as some Cubs fans may be in his tenure with the club, his numbers haven’t deteriorated over the years the way some would think.

Year FB Velocity Exit Velocity Barrel% K% BB% Whiff% xwOBA
2015 92.0 mph 88.0 mph 4.3% 20.5% 5.1% 21.8% .314
2016 92.6 mph 88.2 mph 4.5% 21.6% 6.0% 18.6% .300
2017 92.5 mph 87.6 mph 5.9% 26.2% 7.7% 21.2% .315
2018 92.0 mph 89.4 mph 6.1% 21.4% 9.2% 20.8% .327
2019 91.6 mph 90.0 mph 5.7% 20.4% 6.2% 20.9% .333
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Quintana was regarded as a model of consistency with the White Sox, and those days aren’t over. He still succeeds with the same general mix of pitches he always has, and his velocity is steady.

Yet Quintana’s contract with the Angels suggests skepticism within the industry. He got the same deal as Robbie Ray, who is coming off a 6.50 FIP in 51.2 innings last year, and fell a few million short of Corey Kluber, Drew Smyly and Mike Minor. Those pitchers arguably possess greater upside, but it’s still surprising to see his durability and consistency not get him a larger reward. In his Top 50 Free Agents list, Craig Edwards suggested one year and $11 million for him, while the crowdsource median handed him two years and $20 million. The vast majority of free agents have been able to beat their projections this winter, some by a lot, but Quintana fell well short.

The beneficiary of that is Los Angeles, which is perpetually in search of quality pitching help. Angels starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball in 2020 after missing out on the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes last winter and getting only five outs out of Shohei Ohtani before he was shut down for the year. Dylan Bundy proved to be a good pick-up from Baltimore, and Griffin Canning and Andrew Heaney put together solid seasons, but others like Julio Teheran and Patrick Sandoval struggled badly at the back of the rotation.

Quintana will slot in somewhere in the middle of what manager Joe Maddon says will be a six-man rotation in 2021, and his performance could hinge on which direction the Angels’ defense tilts behind him. In 2019, Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric ranked Los Angeles fifth in baseball. Last year, it was dead last. The infield combination of David Fletcher at second, Anthony Rendon at third and newly-acquired José Iglesias at shortstop has the potential to be very good, but the outfield is less certain. Justin Upton is on old legs, Mike Trout’s defense can fluctuate wildly from year to year, and neither Jo Adell nor Jared Walsh look like good fielders in right. Quintana can be quite successful in Los Angeles, but his style of pitching will put some extra responsibility for his numbers in the hands of an uneven group of fielders.

Even if the Angels can get vintage Quintana, they could still have trouble reaching the playoffs if he’s the last starter they add this winter. Trevor Bauer is the most obvious fit here, since he’s far and away the best pitcher available in free agency. But if he’s outside their intended price range, the team could still try to use the trade market to add to the top of its rotation, the way it did with Bundy a year ago. I think Quintana is still better than he’s getting credit for, and better than this contract would indicate. But like in Chicago, the problems in Los Angeles are too big for him to solve by himself.