Archive for August, 2008

Rise Of The Lame

For basically the entire season, the dregs of Major League Baseball have been the Washington Nationals, the San Diego Padres, and the Seattle Mariners. These three teams have been losing consistently since April, falling out of contention early and locking up spots in the cellar by mid-summer. All three have been nearly equally inept as well, engaging in a chase of sorts for the first overall selection in next year’s draft, widely referred to as the Strasburg Sweepstakes, named after the University of San Diego right-hander of the same name who is the early leader to go number one next summer.

However, over the last week, something strange has happened – all three teams have caught fire and attempted to exit the race for worst.

Last Monday, the Padres welcomed the first place Diamondbacks and promptly swept them, winning 4-2, 9-2, and 5-4. Colorado came into town for a weekend series and won the first game on Friday night 9-4, but then lost by the same score on Saturday and fell 2-1 yesterday. Over the last week, the Padres have won five of their six contests, only the third time this season they’ve pulled that off.

Not to be outdone, the Mariners managed to take two of three from the first place Twins in Seattle to start the week, then flew to Cleveland and swept the red hot Indians, who had won 10 games in a row. When combined with a series win against the A’s before Minnesota came to town, the Mariners have now won seven of their last nine games.

And finally, the Nationals, the clear favorite to finish with baseball’s worst record, and the most consistently horrible team in baseball this year. At least, until last week. On Tuesday, the Dodgers rolled into the nations capitol fighting for their playoff lives and left without a win. Atlanta came in for a weekend series and didn’t fare any better, as Washington’s putrid offense exploded for 24 runs in the three game series. When combined with the 11 run surge in the finale against LA, Washington has now racked up 35 runs in their last four games – they scored 26 runs during a 12 game losing steak just a few weeks ago.

Combined, the terrible trio is 16-2 in their last 18 games. Apparently, the only team that wants Strasburg is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have now lost 10 in a row in a desperate attempt to get into the mix. Of course, with Scott Boras expected to advise Strasburg, they might not want the #1 pick either.

Dickerson’s Debut

When the Reds traded away both Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Junior, they needed an outfielder to finish out the season. With studly young prospect Jay Bruce already in the majors, there weren’t any more future stars to take a look at, so they turned to organizational solider Chris Dickerson. The 26-year-old was having a relatively successful season down in Louisville, maintaining his average-across-the-board skillset.

He walked some, but struck out a decent amount too. He had gap power, but not long ball power. He stole some bases, but wasn’t a speed burner. He had the glove of a corner OF, but not the bat of one. And, 2008 was really the first year he’d ever hit well for a sustained period of time. In ’06, he hit .242/.349/.424 as a 24-year-old in Double-A – not exactly showing the makings of a real major league hitter. He improved in Triple-A each of the last two yeras, but still looked more like a career minor leaguer than anything else.

However, when he got to Cincinnati, he decided to mash. After going 3-5 with a double and a home run last night, he’s now hitting .328/.406/.672 in his first 69 major league plate appearances. His walk and strikeout rates are about what we’d have expected, but the power is completely unexpected. 12 of his first 20 hits have gone for extra bases, including four home runs. His ISO of .344 is almost double the .193 mark he was putting up in Louisville.

Now, clearly, Dickerson isn’t this good. That’s not very insightful, however, as simply saying a guy making his ML debut at 26 isn’t the best player in baseball isn’t news to anyone. How good is he?

A quick MLE adjusting his ’08 performance in Louisville to the majors would come out to about .250/.340/.430. Of course, 2008 was his best minor league performance, and so would adjust that down a bit to account for his mediocre previous years. However, his major league at-bats count as well, and obviously serve to make the projection a bit more optimistic.

Overall, I’d say that the above line is about right. He strikes out too much to hit for any kind of average, but he’ll offset it with a solid walk rate and some power. Realistically, a .780 OPS from a guy with a decent glove in the outfield is a pretty nifty role player for a contender and a guy who could start for a lot of bad teams.

Dickerson’s one of the hundreds of guys in the minor leagues who are living, breathing indications of freely available talent – a 16th round pick with a nondescript minor league career who makes some improvements and finds himself as a useful major league player at the age of 26. He didn’t cost anything for the Reds to acquire or develop, and now they’ve got a guy who can fill a hole adequately for several years.

Welcome to the bigs, Chris Dickerson. Looks like we’ll be getting to see you stick around for a while.

Sabathia vs. Harden

While researching Rich Harden’s numbers with the Cubs so far, I came to the startling conclusion that I had no idea what he had done since the trade. I mean, I knew he was doing well, that he had not gotten hurt, and that he was helping the Cubs continue their dominance, but I couldn’t quote any of his numbers off the top of my head.

What bothered me a bit was that I knew all about CC Sabathia and his numbers in the senior circuit… and honestly, while Sabathia has performed better in his new league, it’s not like Harden is chopped liver, but he has gotten very little publicity.

One of the major reasons for this, as far as this writer can tell, is the W-L record. Sabathia has gone 8-0 in his ten Milwaukee starts and is averaging just a shade under 8 IP/GM while Harden is just 4-1, thanks to some solid performances without decisions. Remember, I am fully supporting Sabathia as performing better since the trade, but just find it odd that Harden, with his great numbers, is barely being mentioned. Here is a comparison:

CC Sabathia: 10 GS, 1.59 ERA, 2.51 FIP, 7.9 IP/GS, 4.93 K/BB
Rich Harden:  8 GS, 1.47 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 6.1 IP/GS, 5.00 K/BB

CC Sabathia: 85.6% LOB, 0.46 HR/9, 2.23 WPA/LI
Rich Harden: 98.3% LOB, 1.10 HR/9, 1.43 WPA/LI

Harden isn’t likely to sustain a strand rate that ridiculous, and I’m sure many Cubs fans hold their breath after each pitch, hoping he remains healthy, but he has been everything Piniella’s bunch has asked him to be and more. In a playoff series, who do you like better, Sabathia and Sheets or Zambrano and Harden?

Awesome In August

August has seen a lot of good pitching performances – Tim Lincecum has a 1.96 FIP, CC Sabathia has an 8.00 K/BB rate, and Ryan Dempster hasn’t alllowed a single home run all month. All these guys are carrying their pitching staffs and performing extremely well.

However, it’s hard to argue that anyone has been as good as Ricky Nolasco this month, especially in terms of dominating the strike zone. In five August starts spanning 37 innings, he has walked 3 batters and struck out 43. That’s a 14.33 K/BB rate, making Sabathia look like a relative scrub. Striking out more than a batter per inning is impressive – doing it while walking one batter every 12 innings is ridiculous.

He has double digit strikeouts in three of his five August starts, and in the two starts he didn’t rack up the strikeouts, he instead induced a ton of groundballs; 15 against the Mets and 12 against the Cardinals. In fact, Nolasco has flashed the tremendous ability of being able to rack up both strikeouts and groundballs, putting up a 10.46 K/9 and a 51.6% GB% in August.

With very few exceptions, pitchers who can rack up both a lot of strikeouts and a lot of groundballs are among the very best pitchers in baseball. In 2008, two pitchers have sustained season long strikeout rates of at least 8.00 K/9 and a 50% GB% or higher – Chad Billingsley and Edinson Volquez. Roy Halladay just misses the strikeout criteria. Those guys are all having All-Star seasons, and Volquez is doing it with lousy command.

Granted, it’s only a month, so Nolasco’s performance doesn’t carry nearly as much weight, but there aren’t many pitchers in baseball that have the ability to run a a strikeout rate over 10.00 and a GB% over 50% for any length of time. That Nolasco was able to do both while simultaneously not walking anyone is pretty remarkable.

He did give up 5 home runs during August, which is why his FIP (and ERA) are higher than some of the other good August pitching runs we’ve seen, but the high concentration of no contact/weak contact still makes this one of the most impressive five start stretches we’ve seen so far this year.

Nolasco isn’t a household name yet, but he can’t pitch like this for much longer and remain any kind of secret.

Oakland Reunion in Chi-Town

The Phillies and Cubs are set to square off tonight at Wrigley Field with quite the interesting pitching matchup: Joe Blanton vs. Rich Harden. For those who recently came into contact with that memory-zap gizmo from Men In Black, both pitchers were members of the Oakland Athletics for the last few years. Both were also sold to the highest bidder, so to speak, back in July.

Harden, acquired to combat the CC Sabathia acquisition (no matter what bologna the Cubs front office may feed us) found himself as the #1 or #1A on the Cubs. Blanton, on the other hand, was never expected to turn the Phillies season around, but rather provide a somewhat decent alternative to Adam Eaton. Eaton, for those interested, has stunk it up in the minor leagues.

While Harden has exceeded expectations in Chicago, Blanton has essentially met those pointed towards him in Philadelphia. Here is a breakdown of their performances in Oakland and in their new uniforms:

Rich Harden, Oak: 13 GS, 0.58 HR/9, 2.97 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP, 2.78 FIP
Rich Harden, CHC:  8 GS, 1.10 HR/9, 5.00 K/BB, 0.86 WHIP, 2.74 FIP

Joe Blanton, Oak: 20 GS, 0.85 HR/9, 1.77 K/BB, 1.42 WHIP, 4.18 FIP
Joe Blanton, Phi:  7 GS, 1.42 HR/9, 1.80 K/BB, 1.42 WHIP, 5.06 FIP

Harden has been even better in cubbie blue, really limiting his baserunners and vastly improving his strikeout to walk ratio. He is striking out batters at a tremendous rate and preventing free passes more often than not. The only reason his FIP hasn’t shot down is due to the almost doubled home runs per nine innings number, which was likely to be expected in moving from Oakland to Wrigley.

Keeping with the theme of limiting baserunners, what has happened so far when Rich does allow someone to reach base? Well, glad you asked… the answer is pretty much nothing. See, Harden has a 98.3% strand rate in his time with the Cubs, which, when coupled with a 0.86 WHIP, is downright startling. Next to nobody is getting on base and those that do have had to wait for a teammate to “pick them up” with their glove for the next inning in the field.

Blanton’s FIP has been almost a full point worse on the Phillies, thanks in large part to a HR/9 increase from 0.85 to 1.42. Again, this should have been expected or at least surmised given that he was going from Oakland to a bandbox in Philly. His K/BB has remained virtually identical, however he is striking out almost two more batters per nine innings, which in turn means his walks have also risen. He has been much better at stranding baserunners as well, jumping from 65.2% in Oakland to 81.9% in Philadelphia. Because of this, his ERA is much lower in red pinstripes.

As a member of the Athletics, Harden produced a 1.93 WPA/LI in 13 starts, or around 0.15 wins per start. As a Cub, he has a 1.43 WPA/LI in 8 starts, or around 0.18 wins per start. Blanton has also seen improvement here. As an Athletic, he had a 0.23 WPA/LI in 20 starts, for an average of .011 per start. With the Phillies, it is 0.10 in 7 starts, good for a .014. There is no doubt that Rich Harden was clearly the better acquisition, but Blanton hasn’t been terrible, and that’s really all the Phillies are asking of him.

Down Goes L.A.

When the Dodgers acquired Manny Ramirez, it was commonly accepted that adding a middle of the order slugger to their offense would help improve their run scoring and allow them to make a push for the NL West down the stretch. For the first couple of weeks after the trade, it worked out great – Ramirez hit .424 with a ton of power, the team scored 77 runs in 16 games, and they went 10-6 in those contests to catch the Diamondbacks for first place.

Things have not gone so well since then, however. Ramirez’s home run last night was his first in the last 10 games, during which time the Dodgers have gone 1-9. And it isn’t just Manny’s offense that has gone south – the team has scored just 21 runs in those ten games, and never more than four in a single game. It’s hard to win when you’re averaging just over two runs a game. Even a series against baseball’s worst team, the Washington Nationals, turned into a debacle, as they got swept by a team that probably wouldn’t have medaled in the Olympics.

It’s not just Manny, either. Besides James Loney, who has gone bananas the last week (.464/.483/.786), the hitters just haven’t generated any kind of threat. Nomar is 2 for his last 24 with no walks or extra base hits. Jeff Kent is 5 for his last 30, and like Nomar, hasn’t done anything besides collect a few singles. Russell Martin and Matt Kemp have badly as well.

This losing skid has dropped the Dodgers to 65-69, and they now sit 3.5 games behind the Diamondbacks, even though Arizona has lost four games in a row themselves. In a division of mediocrity, the Dodgers are out-losing the Snakes, and they have an offense that has gone into a coma to thank for it. Perhaps all the talk about the mental boost teams get from making that big trade deadline acquisition is just that – talk – after all.

Risky Business

Welcome class, to How to Rush a Prospect 101. Your teacher’s name will be Mr. Ricciardi.

The Toronto Blue Jays traded veteran outfielder Matt Stairs to the Philadelphia Phillies yesterday and added top prospect and outfielder Travis Snider to the 25-man roster. Snider, 20, was the club’s No. 1 draft pick in the 2006 draft out of a Washington state high school.

Stairs, 40, really did not belong on the club after inexplicably being given a two-year contract after posting some of his best numbers in years, during the 2007 season. At the time of his signing, Toronto already had aging veteran Frank Thomas at designated hitter and promising youngster Adam Lind growing moss in Triple-A. I can only hope that general manager J.P. Ricciardi can get back a B-level prospect from the Phillies in return for Stairs, but Ricciardi does not have a great track record of picking up good minor league players from other systems.

Snider began the year in High-A Dunedin and was suffering with a bad elbow, which required him to stay off the field and be the club’s designated hitter for more than a month. While in Dunedin, Snider hit .279/.333/.557 in 17 games. He hit four homers and struck out 22 times in 61 at-bats.

In Double-A, Snider hit .262/.357/.461 with 17 homers and 116 strikeouts in 362 at-bats. I personally felt he should have remained in Double-A for the remainder of the season but he was promoted to Triple-A for the month of August. In Syracuse, Snider hit .344/.386/.516 with two homers and 16 strikeouts in 64 at-bats.

Snider’s minor league numbers for the season include a .273 average, 23 homers, 61 walks, and a whopping 154 strikeouts in 487 at-bats. Although talented, it’s clear Snider still has some rough edges when it comes to making consistent contact. I am a little worried that Snider’s rapid ascent through the system is related to the general manager’s desire to justify his track record with player development, given the organization’s continued disappointments under his watch.

With manager John Gibbons having felt the ax earlier in the season, Ricciardi is certainly headed for a review by ownership after the season. A strong finish to the season by Snider can only help Ricciardi’s reputation. But if Snider is overwhelmed by big league pitching for the final month of the year, it could also have long-lasting effects on his development. It also gets Snider onto the club’s 40-man roster two years sooner than needed. It’s a gamble I’m not sure I would make unless I was desperate.

Beltran the Whipping Boy?

Carlos Beltran has had one extremely interesting career so far. In about nine years he has gone from prospect oozing with potential to productive rookie to possible hall of fame track performer to the most clutch playoff hitter ever to the most sought after free agent to the most overrated and derided player in New York to 40-HR power on a division champ. That has all led up to his current status, which, if you asked most Mets fans, would be slightly overrated.

I’m sure there will be some Mets supporters reading this that find it laughable that their compadres could find Beltran overrated, but I have heard enough fans and read enough blog posts and articles to know that, on some level, this opinion exists. Perhaps the sentiments stem from Beltran’s non-chalance on the field and at the plate. He does everything with such confidence that it looks as if he isn’t trying at all. Couple that with the blank stare often found on his face and you have the perfect makings of a guy who couldn’t possibly succeed as a vocal leader on the field, which seems to bug the Shea faithful.

My question is…. who cares!?!?

Seriously, who cares if he is or isn’t a team leader? For all we know, he just might be very vocal in the locker room. And as long as he gets to the flyball, who cares if he floats to it thanks to his excellent range and speed, or goes into full-fledged Eckstein-gritmaster mode? If he didn’t get to flyballs then maybe there would be a point to this non-chalance, but according to the +- system, there has not been a better centerfielder in the sport since 2006. In that span, 2006 to right now, Beltran is +57 plays better than an average centerfielder.

Yes, he struggled in his inaugural Metropolitans campaign, but that was three years ago and he has more than rebounded. In 2006, he hit 41 home runs and posted a .982 OPS. Last year, he hit 33 home runs and had an .878 OPS. Sure, it was much lower than 2006, but still very good, not just when compared to his 2005, but especially so when coupled with his NL best +24 plays in the outfield.

This year, he only has 19 home runs, so it is not very likely he will match the totals of the previous two seasons, but his win probability metrics are not too far off last year’s course. With a month remaining, he currently has a WPA/LI of 2.05 (17th in the NL) and a WPA of 2.26 (15th in the NL). Last year, he had a WPA/LI of 2.91 and a WPA of 2.03.

Over the last three calendar years, he has 9.23 context-neutral wins, which is good for 8th in the NL, right behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and has been one of the, if not the, senior circuit’s best centerfielder. Generally speaking, top-ten offense and top-five defense equates to a very good player. Can someone please make the opposing case? I’m not being sarcastic at all, but rather curious to hear from those who do not like him.

A Talented Trio

Leading up to the 2007 MLB amateur draft, there were three Puerto Rican players considered to be head-and-shoulders above their fellow country men in terms of potential: Reynaldo Navarro, Neftali Soto, and Angel Morales. All three players were chosen in the third round and were considered raw but talented. Let’s see how each one fared during the 2008 season.

Reynaldo Navarro, Shortstop, Arizona Diamondbacks
Navarro, 18, got off to a slow start after turning pro in 2007 by hitting .250/.274/.283 in 212 Rookie ball at-bats. He returned to the same league in 2008 and has improved, albeit slowly. He produced a line of .262/.334/.379 with 17 stolen bases in 256 at-bats. After walking just six times last season, Navarro has improved his patience by walking 25 times in 2008. The switch hitter needs to improve his swing from the left-hand side as he hit just .212 against right-handers, compared to .377 against southpaws. Right now, defence is his strong suit as a slick-fielding shortstop with range and actions. His arm strength is average.

Neftali Soto, Third baseman, Cincinnati Reds
Originally a shortstop, Soto was immediately converted to third base by the Reds. In his debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2007, he got off to a fast start and hit .303/.355/.454 in 40 games. The Reds were cautious with Soto in 2008 and he began the year in Rookie ball again where he hit .388/.423/.746 in 15 games. Soto, 19, was promoted to A-ball and hit .333/.352/.502 with six homers in 201 at-bats. The knock on him, though, is his lack of patience. In 103 pro games, Soto has walked just 22 times. Regardless, he is an intriguing prospect and has shown a lot of improvement in a short period of time. Reds fans need to start talking about this guy.

Angel Morales, Outfielder, Minnesota Twins
Morales’ bat was considered to be his weakest tool coming into the draft. He still struggles with consistency but no one expected him to hit with this kind of power, especially so soon. Morales had a decent debut by hitting .256/.357/.405 in 121 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League in 2007. He was held back for short-season ball again in 2008 but was promoted to a league that features more college players and Morales exploded with 15 homers in 183 at-bats. His overall line is .301/.413/.623 with 26 walks and a disturbing 72 strikeouts. Morales is going to have to swing-and-miss a lot less if he is going to maintain his average at higher levels. The right-handed batter is also hitting just .135 against southpaws, but that should improve as he sees more of them. Defensively, Morales is a solid center fielder.

Shoppach Showing Off

Quick, name the catcher with the most home runs in the American League.

No, not him. Not him either. Give up?

Try Kelly Shoppach. Yea, I know, Kelly Shoppach. Last night he hit his 17th home run of the season, and if the Indians were looking for excuses for why their season hasn’t gone as expected, they can’t blame the injury to Victor Martinez, as Shoppach is filling his shoes quite nicely.

His home run last night was his 38th extra base hit, using his power to compensate for his strikeout rate that drives down his batting average. Shoppach actually has more XBH than singles (36), and his ISO of .250 puts him in the company of the more famous slugging backstops such as Brian McCann and Geovany Soto.

At 28, Shoppach is something of a late bloomer, but the ability to drive the ball makes up for the rest of his flaws. His command of the strike zone is pretty miserable (he makes contact like Jack Cust and walks like Robinson Cano), but when he makes contact, he makes it count – his batting average on contact is .399.

So, what do the Indians do next year when Martinez returns? It’s pretty clear that Shoppach is good enough to play regularly, but neither he nor Martinez would be nearly as valuable playing first base as they are behind the plate. The Indians might be best off shopping one of the two this winter, because while having two good catchers is a nice problem to have, it’s still a problem.