Archive for September, 2009

Ben Zobrist’s WAR

File this under “unlikely results”:

When the Rays acquired Ben Zobrist in the Aubrey Huff trade a few years back, the most impressive tool in his shed was his ability to reach base. Throughout the minors his career .429 on-base percentage made him a desirable stopgap if nothing else. The Rays incumbent shortstop Julio Lugo was moved shortly after and uber prospect B.J. Upton shifted to third base. Zobrist would rack up 198 plate appearances that season, posting a measly .260 OBP and barely hitting a ball out of the infield.

The Rays would persevere with the now 28-year-old Dallas Baptist University product and start him on opening day 2007. In 105 plate appearances his line was .155/.184/.206. Brendan Harris would take over at shortstop – someone with fall-down range – and Zobrist would rake in Triple-A. An injury would sideline Zobrist in 2008 but when he finally reached the majors he took off: blasting 12 home runs in 227 plate appearances.

This was a guy who had the bat knocked out of his hands during his major league stint and someone who hit 23 minor league home runs in 1,642 plate appearances. There was absolutely no way this power surge was legitimate, right? Well, I doubted him based on this information and apparently I was quite wrong. Zobrist secured a starting spot at second base once Akinori Iwamura went down to injury and could finish with 600 plate appearances this season. He’s hit 25 homers and 25 doubles to go with his .924 OPS.

Is this his true talent level? Heavens no. His UZR at second base is 16.1 runs. Former shortstops should perform better at second base, but expecting such a performance again is a bit much. Heck, odds are his power display isn’t legitimate either. Awards aren’t given out on true talent level and expected futures though. It’s all about the actual performances and for that reason Zobrist should garner some AL MVP votes and claim the Rays team MVP award as one of the best stories and best performances of 2009.

The Underheralded Rookie Pitchers

There are few things in baseball that get fans as excited as the new young star pitcher. Whether it was Dwight Gooden, Ben McDonald, Josh Beckett, Mark Prior, Felix Hernandez, or David Price, the promise of a potential ace is something that every fan base goes nuts for. There’s something special about having a truly dominating starting pitcher take the hill every five days.

Price got all the hype headed into the season, and perhaps his struggles have led to a bit of disappointment in the crop as a whole. But once you look past the fact that he didn’t dominate in the way some were expecting, there’s a whole lot of talent in this rookie pitching crop.

I talked about the emergence of Brett Anderson a month ago. He’s not only got a bright future, but he’s showing that he’s already one of the better pitchers in baseball. As a 21-year-old lefty, he’s running a 3.3 K/BB ratio while maintaining a 50% GB%. And he’s getting better as the year goes on. He might not have the sizzle of the names listed above, but he’s not that far away from being a #1 starter.

In the NL, Tommy Hanson is doing something similar. His first five starts were a bit rough, as he struggled with his command and ran a 17/18 BB/K rate in 29 innings. Since the calendar turned to June, however, he’s been lights out – 92 innings, 76 H, 27 BB, 89 K. This is the kind of line you should expect him to put up. He’s that good.

We just talked about Derek Holland last week, so I’ll spare the recap of that other than to say that he’s been much, much better than his ERA would indicate.

After those three, you’ve still got a strong crop of guys. J.A. Happ, Randy Wells, and Jeff Niemann have had strong rookie seasons, even if they aren’t quite as talented as the trio mentioned above. Rick Porcello has held his own as a 20-year-old without an out pitch, which is impressive in its own right. Brad Bergesen, Ricky Romero, and Mark Rzepczynski showed terrific sinkers and a good feel for pitching.

And finally, there were the relievers – Neftali Feliz stole the show late, but Andrew Bailey, Luke Gregerson, and Darren O’Day were lights out all year long. Daniel Bard flashed brilliance at times, while Chris Perez and Sergio Romo showed significant potential as well.

This is just a remarkably deep group of good young rookie pitchers. Injuries and attrition will send a lot of them by the way side, but don’t be surprised if we look back in five years and realize that a large handful of the best pitchers in the game all put themselves on the map in 2009.

A Minor Review of 2009: San Francisco Giants

Prospect ranking season is just around the corner. In anticipation of that, we present an intro series looking at some of the players who deserve mentioning but probably will not be appearing on their teams’ Top 10 lists. The popular series is back for the second year.

San Francisco Giants

The Graduate: Merkin Valdez, RHP
As Buster Posey will probably tell you in private, there are not a lot of rookies that get a fair shake in San Francisco. Valdez was one of a few rookies that saw “significant” playing time in 2009. The right-handed reliever allowed 57 hits in 49.1 innings of work and posted a walk rate of 5.11 BB/9 and a strikeout rate of 6.93 K/9. A former hard-throwing top prospect, Valdez has had injury problems and his lack of minor-league options meant that San Francisco had to hold on to him all year even though he struggled. With a fastball that sits around 95 mph, Valdez is an intriguing commodity but he needs to improve his secondary pitches (He threw the heater more than 80% of the time).

The Riser: Dan Runzler, LHP
This was a hard pick to make because A) Runzler may sneak onto the back end of the Top 10 list for the organization (I like him a lot) and B) Most of the other risers definitely vaulted themselves onto the Top 10 list. Although he is a middle reliever right now, Runzler could be a very good one. The southpaw has crazy ground-ball rates (60%+ in his career) and his fastball has been sitting around 95 mph in the Majors (7.1 innings). He’s not just a LOOGY, either. Runzler has held lefties to a .189 career batting average and righties are hitting just .181. Don’t count him out as a future closer.

The Tumbler: Nick Noonan, 2B
Noonan did not make a huge tumble in 2009 but the 2007 supplemental first round pick out of a San Diego high school did certainly take a step back. His OPS has dropped from .809 in his debut to .730 in 2008 and .728 this year. He’s also seen his strikeout rate go from 9.7 to 19.6 to 21.1%. As well, he stole just nine bases this year in 14 attempts after nabbing 29 in 2008. With a .136 career ISO, Noonan offers just a little pop and now he’s stopped running, which means he’s a singles hitter that hit just .259/.330/.397 in high-A ball.

The ’10 Sleeper: Hector Sanchez, C
Sanchez made his North American debut in 2009 and held his own with the bat in rookie ball. The 19-year-old catcher batted .299/.403/.410 and showed a good grasp of the strike zone for his age with a walk rate of 12.0% and a strikeout rate of 17.9%. Impressively, though, it’s his defense that gets talked about the most and he threw out 45% of base runners attempting to steal. Like some other Giants we know and love, he needs to watch his weight.

Bonus: Clayton Tanner, LHP
Tanner received some consideration for “The Riser” category before I realized he was listed as the sleeper prospect in the 2008 minor review. The southpaw can be labeled as a soft-tosser, which limits his ceiling to a degree, but the Australian continues to make improvements and have success. Tanner posted a walk rate of just 2.71 BB/9 while repeating high-A ball for the second year.The 21-year-old also increased his strikeout rate over 2008 from 6.46 to 7.82 K/9. In 139.1 innings, he allowed 132 hits but gave up an alarming 18 homers (1.16 HR/9). Tanner needs to work on throwing better quality strikes.

A Minor Review of 2009: Oakland Athletics

Prospect ranking season is just around the corner. In anticipation of that, we present an intro series looking at some of the players who deserve mentioning but probably will not be appearing on their teams’ Top 10 lists. The popular series is back for the second year.

Oakland Athletics

The Graduate: Andrew Bailey, RHP
Oakland graduated a ton of rookies in 2009 but Bailey did far more than what was expected of him. Mainly a starter in the minors, Bailey came to the Majors and asserted himself as the club’s go-to guy in the ninth inning. With a handful of games remaining in the season, the right-hander has 26 saves in 30 attempts and has allowed just 49 hits in 81.1 innings of work. He also has a solid walk rate at 2.66 BB/9 and a good strikeout rate at 9.85 K/9. Bailey will certainly be in on the Rookie of the Year discussion.

The Riser: Sam Demel, RHP
Taken out of Texas Christian University as a senior in the third round of the 2007 draft, Demel is on the cusp of pitching in Oakland. He split 2009 between double-A and triple-A. His control is the biggest thing holding him back. Demel posted a 2.76 walk rate in high-A but it jumped to 5.85 BB/9 in triple-A. Overall, he allowed 50 hits in 61.2 innings of work. Demel also has very good ground-ball rates in his career and he has allowed just two home runs all season. His repertoire includes a fastball that can touch the mid-90s, a very good changeup and a slider.

The Tumbler: Brett Hunter, RHP
With a high-90s fastball and a wipe-out slider, Hunter has all the makings to be a dominating closer. He slipped in the 2008 draft because he was dealing with injuries but the A’s got him signed away from his senior year at Pepperdine University after watching him throw well in the summer. Unfortunately after a nice, albeit brief, debut in ’08, his command and his control both deserted him in 2009 in low-A ball. He allowed 38 hits in 47.1 innings of work but posted a walk rate of 11.22 BB/9 (59 walks). The 22-year-old has a big mountain to climb in 2010.

The ’10 Sleeper: Jeremy Barfield, OF
The son of former Blue Jay/Yankee Jesse Barfield, Jeremy has even more raw potential than brother Josh Barfield. Originally selected in the ninth round of the 2006 draft by the Mets, Jeremy went to junior college and eventually signed with Oakland in the eighth round of the 2008 draft. The outfielder has intriguing power potential and he hit well in his debut but slipped a bit in 2009 after playing full-season ball for the first time. Jeremy hit .302/.380/.467 before the All-Star break but just .234/.317/.332 afterward. The right-handed hitter also struggled against southpaws with a batting average of just .228.

Bonus: Andrew Carignan, RHP
Carignan was ranked as the sleeper for Oakland during the 2008 Minor Review series. Unfortunately, the right-handed reliever never had an opportunity to make good on that potential as he was hurt (forearm/elbow) and appeared in just two games all season long. If he can get back on the mound in 2010 with the stuff he showed in 2008, then he still has a chance fulfill his promise as a late-game reliever (likely a set-up man). Carignan biggest need right now is to improve his command/control but the layoff certainly will not help.

Lind Finishing Up with a Bang

Last night Adam Lind capped a break-out season with a three-HR burst. Together with Marco Scutaro and Aaron Hill, he provided some excitement in an other wise forgettable year for the Toronto fans.

Lind has emerged as a major power threat. Those three bring his total up to 35 and his wOBA of .394 makes him one of the ten best hitters in the AL this year. Here I display his HRs in a way I started doing over at Baseball Analysts. Along the bottom I plot the horizontal location of the pitch he hit for a HR. Lind stands to the right of the image as a lefty. Then I connect that point to the horizontal angle of the HR. I color coded the lines by pitch type, with the same colors used here in the pitchf/x section. Just to make things a little simpler I grouped all fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and cut) into one group.

Lind has great plate coverage, hitting HRs on pitches across most of the plate. In addition he has power to all fields, hitting a number of opposite (left) field HRs. For the most part he pulls inside pitches and goes the other way with outside pitches.

There are some other interesting trends. The sliders (red) he hit for HRs were all on the inside half of the plate, while the changeups (yellow/orange) were middle-away. He pulls changeups more often, while going the other way with fastballs.

As Dave Cameron noted a couple months ago Lind’s trip to this point has been bumpy (with concerns of the dreaded AAAA tag coming into this year), but he has made it in a big way.

LaRoche Living Up To The Hype

The Piraes trade of Jason Bay has been slow to bear fruit. Three of the four players they received haven’t lived up to expectations – Brandon Moss has played at replacement level all season, Craig Hansen has been injured, and Bryan Morris was terrible and then hurt in A-ball. But, the key player to the deal was Andy LaRoche, and after a rough start to his Pirates career, he’s finally making fans appreciate the deal.

In September, LaRoche is hitting .347/.395/.640 in 82 trips to the plate. The most encouraging part for Pittsburgh fans has to be the power – 12 of his 26 hits have gone for extra bases this month after not having more than seven XBH in any prior month this season. Perhaps just as important, his revival has come after he hit just .188 in July and .205 in August, and looked to be on the verge of playing himself out of a job in 2010.

As a 26-year-old, LaRoche isn’ a kid anymore. He’s not going to keep getting chances bases on his minor league numbers, so a strong final month of the season was exactly what he needed. And, with the hot stretch, he’s raised his overall season line to .260/.335/.408, which makes him a league average hitter for the season.

As a solid defender at third, league average offense is enough to make him a pretty decent player. For the season, we’ve got him valued at +2.5 wins, which would be worth about $11 million on the free market. With an average across-the-board skillset, LaRoche isn’t likely to ever turn into a star, but for where Pittsburgh in his their rebuilding effort, he’s a better fit for the organization than keeping Bay would have been.

It took a while, but the Pirates can finally point to something more than hope for why they made the deal. With a strong finish to the season, LaRoche has given the team reason for optimism going forward, and that’s something that has been missing in Pittsburgh for quite a while.

How Are the Stars Acquired: Outfield & Summary

Same rules as before: ranked by WAR and 300 plate appearances at that position to qualify.

Center field

Franklin Gutierrez – traded
Matt Kemp – drafted
Nyjer Morgan – traded
Michael Bourn – traded
Mike Cameron – free agent
Ryan Sweeney – traded
Denard Span – drafted
Torii Hunter – free agent
Rajai Davis – waivers
Curtis Granderson – drafted

4 traded
3 drafted
2 free agents
1 waivers

Corner outfield:

Matt Holliday – traded
Carl Crawford — drafted
Justin Upton – drafted
Ichiro – free agent
Shin-Soo Choo – traded
Ryan Braun – drafted
Jayson Werth – traded
J.D. Drew – free agent
Raul Ibanez – free agent
Nelson Cruz – traded

4 traded
3 free agents
3 drafted

Overall, we sampled 115 of the league’s best and brightest. Of those, a combined 54 players were either drafted or signed as an amateur free agent by their current clubs. An additional two were plucked on waivers or through the Rule 5 draft and 44 more were traded for. Only 15 players were signed as major league free agents, and it’s hard to classify many of those signings as blockbuster in magnitude.

There are some teams that take the scouting and drafting game less seriously than they should. I doubt those teams read this website, but if they did and wanted to take one statistic – one message – from this series, it’s this: 47% of 2009’s best players were “just prospects” at one point or another. That’s not to include all of the players traded at early points of their career either. Meanwhile only 13% were signed as free agents.

Free agency may get all the hype and buzz, but the draft is where teams find impact talent.

Previewing the Playoff Matchups: NL

Last time we looked at the possible (and almost certain) playoff matches in the American League. With about five games left, lets turn to the senior circuit which has a surprising amount of spots left in flux.

Technically the NL East is still in play with the Braves being five behind the Phillies with five games remaining. We can go ahead and chalk that one up to Philly though. St. Louis has already clinched the NL Central and the Dodgers have clinched at least a Wildcard berth giving us two teams for sure and another baring a Mets-style collapse. The last spot is between Atlanta and Colorado for the most part with San Francisco technically still in consideration at five back with, again, five to play.

So what are the likely matchups? They are a lot harder to predict than the AL as the division leaders are all within 2.5 games of each other, but the current trends would have the Dodgers playing the Cardinals and the Phillies grabbing the Rockies. That basic structure will hold as long as the Dodgers hold onto their 1.5 game lead as the best record in the NL and the Rockies (or Giants I suppose) take the Wildcard.

Other scenarios would necessitate the Rockies dropping their current three game lead over the Braves, who would then being paired up with the Dodgers, should they maintain the best NL record. If both NL West teams collapse and the Braves prevail in the Wildcard and the Dodgers lose out on the best record, then things again become a toss up depending on who prevails between the Cardinals and Phillies.

Confused yet? Luckily, we’ll all know what’s what by the end of the week, but in a final few games in which the playoff participants are all almost figured out, at least there’s something worth watching for in the NL.

How Are the Stars Being Acquired: Infield

Ranked by WAR amongst players with at least 300 plate appearances:

First base

Albert Pujols – drafted
Prince Fielder – drafted
Adrian Gonzalez – traded
Miguel Cabrera – traded
Mark Teixeira – free agent
Kevin Youkilis – drafted
Derrek Lee – traded
Ryan Howard – drafted
Joey Votto – drafted
Kendry Morales – amateur free agent

5 drafted
3 traded
1 free agent
1 amateur free agent

Second base

Ben Zobrist – traded
Chase Utley – drafted
Dustin Pedroia – drafted
Felipe Lopez – traded
Robinson Cano – drafted
Ian Kinsler – drafted
Aaron Hill – drafted
Brian Roberts – drafted
Placido Polanco – traded
Brandon Phillips – traded
Juan Uribe – free agent

5 drafted
4 traded
1 free agent

Third base

Evan Longoria – drafted
Ryan Zimmerman – drafted
Chone Figgins – traded
Kevin Youkilis – drafted
Alex Rodriguez – traded
Pablo Sandoval – amateur free agent
Casey Blake – traded
Mark Reynolds – drafted
Michael Young – traded
Scott Rolen – traded

5 traded
4 drafted
1 amateur free agent


Hanley Ramirez – traded
Derek Jeter – drafted
Troy Tulowitzki – drafted
Jason Bartlett – traded
Marco Scutaro – traded
Yunel Escobar – drafted
Erick Aybar – amateur free agent
Brendan Ryan – drafted
Rafael Furcal – free agent
Elvis Andrus – traded

4 drafted
4 traded
1 free agent
1 amateur free agent

All told we have a breakdown of: 18 drafted, 16 traded, 3 free agents, and 3 amateur agents. I’m sure most people see the developing theme here, but let me state the obvious: the best players in baseball this year were not acquired on the free agent market. Despite the hype and headlines that come with big-time contract signings and hot stove nature, the aggression on the trade, draft, and international scouting fronts seems to pay off with more impact players. Maybe it’s a one-year fluke or maybe it’s just an infield thing. We’ll cover the outfield and wrap up the series tomorrow.

Atlanta Streaks into Wild Card Contention

Over the past three weeks Atlanta has done everything in its power to add a little more excitement to the end of the regular season. They have gone 16-3 and catapulted themselves into the NL playoff picture. By Cool Standings’ reckoning they now have a 21% chance of winning the NL Wild Card. Here is how that 16-3 run has affected their Wild Card hopes (again based on Cool Standings numbers):

Their chances grew only a little bit in the first two weeks, but in the last week the Braves have gone 6-0 while Colorado 3-3. As a result their WC chances have quadrupled from around 5% to over 20%.

In the past two weeks (which misses the beginning of their torrid pace, but is one of the splits that FanGraphs provides) their batting has provided a nice jolt, with a wOBA of 0.348. But their pitching and defense has been the major reason for the success. Their FIP has only been slightly above average 4.05, but their ERA has been 2.9. This is courtesy of a low BABIP, but more so of a huge 83% LOB. Their pitching has been very clutch, (1.43 clutch over the past two weeks, for an explanation of clutch see here), performing better in high leverage situations like when runners are on or when the game is tight.

So over the past two weeks Atlanta has preformed well, and either got a little lucky or raised to preform even better in the most important situations, depending how you look at it. Either way the great run has added a second race of interest in the last week of the regular season.