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The Angels and Anaheim Made a Short-Term Deal

In October, we talked about the Angels opting out of their stadium lease with the city of Anaheim. At the time, the move required that the team vacate the venue at the close of the 2019 season. Given the rapidly approaching deadline and acrimony between the parties, I speculated then that the most likely outcome would be a short-term deal.

So where does that leave the Angels and Anaheim? Most observers think these two parties need each other, and I tend to agree. . . . The Angels need a baseball stadium, and Anaheim doesn’t want to lose its tenant, even if the team has been a pain in its butt. At the same time, however, we’re already seeing trial balloons floated about moves to Portland or Las Vegas, and neither side is moving with any urgency at this point (though that could and probably will change down the road). I think the safe bet is a short-term, five- or ten-year lease with another opt-out, enough for the two sides to have a brief cooling-off period.

As it turns out, the two sides did end up reaching a short-term agreement, but it was for a far shorter length of time than most observers, including myself, anticipated.

The Angels and the city of Anaheim are expected to agree to a one-year extension of the team’s lease at Angel Stadium, which would keep the team in Anaheim through the 2020 season.

The Anaheim City Council is expected to consider the extension at its meeting Tuesday. Harry Sidhu, the city’s new mayor, plans to introduce the proposal after meeting last week with Angels owner Arte Moreno.

So why the short-term pact? For one thing, both sides are reportedly planning to use the extension to give some breathing room to further negotiations. Alden Gonzalez wrote for ESPN that the team and city have already begun a dialogue.

New Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu, sworn in last month, met with Angels owner Arte Moreno last week, and both sides decided that more time would be beneficial.

“We realized a one-year extension will give us adequate time to work collaboratively on a long-term relationship,” Moreno said in a statement.

“From that meeting, it is clear the team’s priority is to stay in Anaheim, if we can work out a deal that benefits our residents, the city and the team,” Sindhu said in his statement. “We need a plan to make that happen, and we need time to make that happen.”

On the surface, this seems entirely reasonable. A deadline at the end of 2019 would make it difficult for extension talks to be productive given the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over the parties. Still optimism for a deal seems to revolve around the city’s newfound willingness to discuss either a new stadium, or significant renovations to the existing structure, a proposition the city earlier considered a non-starter.

While neither side has commented in recent months on specifics of what they hope a new lease might include, city spokesman Mike Lyster said, “We’re going to look at everything from rehabbing the stadium all the way to building a new stadium.”

But for the team, there’s a catch. While the city is now willing to discuss the concept of a new ballpark, the city is not at all willing to finance such a venture. Instead, the city is proposing an arrangement like the one the Anaheim Ducks tentatively made for their venue, the Honda Center, late last year.

The broad terms of the deal were approved unanimously by the Anaheim City Council at the Oct. 23 meeting and call for the city to sell three Honda Center parking lots, plus a lot across the street, at fair market value to Anaheim Arena Management (AAM), which could be developed into homes, office and commercial space. The vote gives city staff a framework to negotiate the final terms of the deal for later approval by the city council.

The Ducks, who have been based in Anaheim the past 25 years, would sign onto another 25-year commitment with Anaheim after their current agreement ends in June 2023. Anaheim Arena Management, which currently operates and maintains the Honda Center, would continue operating the facility until 2048.

Such a deal would be an elegant solution to the current impasse, changing what the Angels consider to be a “toxic” atmosphere for local businesses into a private-public partnership. At the same time, it’s far from a sure bet; for one thing, a deal like this, while addressing the team’s location concerns, wouldn’t provide the upgraded facility the team desires. And worse, the Ducks’ deal did cut into what the Angels wanted as part of their own mixed-use complex.

[Anaheim] Councilman Stephen Faessel, who otherwise called the proposal a “great deal,” questioned why the deal includes the sale of a parking lot across from the Honda Center by ARTIC without a formal bidding process where other developers could also bid for the property.

“ARTIC is not that far from Angel Stadium, and now we’re likely going to have to negotiate a deal with the Angels, how do we know the Angels won’t give us a better deal?” Faessel said.

City spokesman Mike Lyster later clarified the city is not considering selling the ARTIC lot, but may lease it to the Honda Center.

So despite how the deal has been framed – as a way for the two sides to buy time to reach a more long-lasting arrangement – this extension is no guarantee that an agreement will, in fact, be reached. And most interestingly, the one-year extension keeps open the possibility that the team could consider a jump outside of California – particularly given the recent development that Portland may be ready for a major league team as soon as 2022.

The 2019 Ken Phelps All-Star Team: Pitchers

Let’s continue the 2019 search for free talent with the pitching staff for the Ken Phelps All-Stars. The position players, split into two parts, can be found here and here.

Starting Pitcher 1: Justin Haley

A couple of years ago, David Laurila, in one of his fantastic Sunday notes columns, talked to Haley about his unique delivery.

Haley sets up on the third base side of the rubber, with his other foot straddling the rubber. With the ball in his glove raised in front of his face, he looks in for the sign with his pitching hand cocked at his waist, fingers dancing back and forth like Wyatt Earp ready to draw.

Haley is 27, right-handed, and despite being listed at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, is a relative soft-tosser with a fastball that struggles to top 90 mph consistently. Soft tossing, fastball-heavy righties aren’t exactly a hot commodity, and that explains why he’s yet to establish himself in the majors. If you remember him, it’s probably because he was a Rule 5 draft pick back in 2017; he spent all of 18 big league innings with the Twins before being shipped back to Boston. But there’s probably more here than you might think.

First of all, Haley has a very good curveball.

And Haley’s repertoire – slow fastball, curveball, and pinpoint command – is reminiscent of another big, soft-tossing righty who didn’t establish himself until his late 20s.

In fact, Haley actually led the International League in xFIP in 2018 (just ahead of Michael Kopech), finishing fourth in FIP, K-BB%, and K/BB, and with the eighth-best BB% in the league. Haley, in other words, had good command and missed bats (14th in the league in SwStr%) without really walking anybody, and that’s a really good combination.

Unfortunately for Haley, pitchers who can’t break a pane of glass with their fastballs aren’t often really prospects, despite his gaudy Triple-A numbers. As a result, Haley ended up signing with the KBO’s Samsung Lions this offseason. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he ended up coming back.

Starting pitcher 2: Drew Gagnon

After years of struggling to control his low-nineties fastball and power breaking balls, Gagnon quietly broke out last year in – of all places – Triple-A Las Vegas, where pitching prospects go to die. He’d always had the ability – see, for example, his Adam Wainwright-like curveball.

But Gagnon walked more than 8.5% of the hitters he faced at every minor league assignment he had between 2014 and 2017 (including three stops with double-digit walk rates), torpedoing his value. Picked up by the Mets before the 2018 season, the 28-year-old former third rounder walked far fewer batters in Las Vegas, giving out free passes to just 6.7% of the batters he faced, while still striking out more than a quarter of opponents. All of a sudden, Gagnon had a 19.2% K-BB% and a 3.88 K/BB, with the latter being the best figure of Gagnon’s career. As a result, Gagnon shot up the Triple-A leaderboards, finishing fourth among all Triple-A pitchers (IL and PCL) in K%, 14th in BB%, and second in K-BB%. The showing was enough to land a brief cameo in Flushing, during which he didn’t distinguish himself.

Still, Gagnon’s progress is such that it’s worth seeing if he has actually turned a corner. In real life, he’s probably best suited for a middle-relief slot, and if his gains are for real, he could probably help a bullpen-needy team like the Angels. For us, we’ll see if he can consolidate his gains in the rotation, where he made 27 starts last year at Triple-A. For what it’s worth, Steamer loves Gagnon, projecting a mid-3’s ERA and FIP and better than a strikeout per inning.

Starting Pitcher 3: Onelki Garcia

Garcia might be the single most fascinating player on this list. Not only is he left-handed and breathing, he was once a prized prospect in the Dodgers’ system, with a deep arsenal and bright future. This is what Mike Newman said about Garcia back in 2012:

Listed at six-foot-three, the big-bodied Garcia boasts a power arsenal. The Cuban pitcher’s deception comes from staying tall in his delivery with a high release point. . . . Garcia features a 91-93 mph fastball, only with more consistent sinking action. In this appearance, he was wild in the zone which kept Jackson hitters off-balance. . . . Garcia’s primary off-speed pitch was an 83-85 mph “slurve” with 1 to 7 break. The pitch is a swing-and-miss offering at present — Flashing plus when down in the zone. His changeup also flashes potential and supports a starter profile should Garcia’s durability return after a long layoff.

It didn’t work out, of course; Garcia battled injuries – a bone spur in his elbow, meniscus tears in both knees – which limited him to just 162 innings across four seasons between 2013 and 2016, but he still flashed the plus stuff that had made him such a blue-chip prospect. But by the time he returned to the mound for good in 2017 in the Royals’ system, his effectiveness had cratered due to increasing command issues and a diminished arsenal; a 5.04 ERA for the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate in 2017 and disastrous six innings for the varsity club sealed Garcia’s fate, and he spent 2018 in Japan.

But once again healthy, Garcia found himself in NPB, tossing 168.2 innings for the Chuinichi Dragons – more than he’d thrown between 2013 and 2016 combined – en route to a 2.99 ERA while limiting both homers and hard contact. His command remained an enigma, as he walked an unacceptably high 73 hitters against 132 strikeouts. But the tantalizing stuff returned, with Garcia making multiple no-hit bids over the course of the season.

The Hanshin Tigers signed Garcia this offseason, but it was just a one-year deal, as the lefty still wants a shot at the big leagues. If Garcia could get his walks under control, it will be fascinating to see if a major league team takes a chance on him next offseason.

Starting Pitcher 3: Jake Paulson

If there were an exact baseball opposite to Onelki Garcia, Paulson is probably it. Unlike the power lefty, Paulson makes his hay with a heavy sinking fastball that he uses to induce ground balls. The sinkerballer induced grounders at a rate of at least 52% every year in the minors, including two stops above 60%, and has yet to allow even thirty percent of balls in play against him to be hit in the air to the outfield. More intriguingly, Paulson may have a skill inducing pop-ups, with a double-digit IFFB% every year since 2016.

Paulson achieves soft contact with his sinker, a fastball with ridiculous movement. Movement like this:

We’ve seen sinkerballers be effective mid-rotation starters before – Justin Masterson, Jake Westbrook, and Chien-Ming Wang come to mind. And like Wang, some sinkerballers can be late bloomers. So why is Paulson in the minors? For one thing, being a sinkerballer means relying on your defense – and in the minors, that can be a risky proposition. In 2016, he posted a 6.40 ERA despite a 3.38 FIP and 3.59 xFIP, and, owing to all the ground balls not fielded by his defenders, his LOB% didn’t even eclipse 70% until this year. In other words, Paulson got ground balls and his infield just didn’t field them, making the righty look worse than he actually was.

On the other hand, though Paulson was dominant for the Indians’ Double-A affiliate this year, he was supposed to dominate there; after all, he is already 26. And his sinker produced fewer ground balls this year; while still above 50%, he was routinely running ground ball rates above 60% in Hi-A.

Still, what evidence we have suggests that Paulson is closer to the pitcher he was at Double-A in terms of true talent and results. Paulson has consistently shown he can get ground balls without walking people, and that makes him interesting. He’ll probably struggle against lefties like many sinkerballers do, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t big league material. Also interesting is that his two-seam/curveball combination and 6-foot-7 build are reminiscent of early-career Charlie Morton.

Starting Pitcher 4: Enderson Franco

Franco, 26, has gone from interesting prospect to enigma to forgotten. Way back in 2014, right after Franco had been picked up by Tampa Bay from Houston in the minor league Rule 5 draft, Kiley McDaniel wrote that the youngster “has impressed, likely fitting in pen due to below average curveball, but with a fastball that sits 92-95, hitting 96 mph and a solid average changeup.” Since then, Franco has pitched in the minors for the Rays, Marlins, and Braves, flashing the same stuff that made him touted in 2014 but without the results to match.

Until, that is, 2018, when Franco impressed in his first taste of Double-A. Across 127.2 innings, Franco struck out better than a batter per inning (23.7% of hitters overall), on the back of that fastball.

More notably, Franco kept his walk rate to a manageable if not amazing 7.7%, good for a K/BB rate better than three to one and a K-BB% of 16.1%. And Franco kept one trait which he’s showed at every level: despite being a fly ball pitcher – his ground ball rate hasn’t been even 45% since A-ball – he kept the ball in the park, giving up less than a homer per nine for the eighth straight year, and generated pop-ups at a rate of 18%, a feat he’s accomplished or bettered every year since 2012.

Missing bats and generating pop-ups is an intriguing skill set for a starter, and he’s shown that he can withstand a starter’s workload. Franco is also relatively young; though he’s been laboring in obscurity for the past few years, he just turned 26. It makes sense to use those mid-90s bullets in the big leagues and see what Franco can do.

Starting Pitcher 5: William Cuevas

Cuevas, 28, has pitched for the Red Sox, Marlins, and Tigers organizations, but has seen just 22.1 innings at the big league level. In the minors, he’s functioned as organizational depth and a veteran innings eater, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen depending on what “real” prospects that team had. But being in the rotation seems to agree with Cuevas; he’s flashed the ability to miss a few bats and limit walks and hard contact.

Cuevas does not throw hard – his fastball barely breaks 90 mph – but he features a cutter, sinker, changeup, and slider, and he’s shown an uncanny ability to paint the corners for strikes.

So what are Cuevas’ strengths? He generates weak contact, especially pop-ups; his IFFB% was a whopping 34.8% this year at Triple-A, and has never been below 17% at any level where he threw more than five innings. He has that fastball that he can run and sink. He’s not an ace, and probably never will be more than a depth starter. But he deserves a spot on a big league roster after the Red Sox released him this offseason, even if it’s as a middle reliever.

Relief Pitcher 1: Victor Payano

Victor Payano is a lefty with electric stuff. He can do this:

And then he can come back and do this:

Oh, by the way, that was his 13th strikeout of the night. In 2017, in the Marlins’ system, Payano struck out 38.2% of hitters he faced at Double-A (14.92 K/9), and 26.7% of hitters he faced at Triple-A (10.08 K/9). In 2018 in the Reds’ system, Payano struck out 32.1% of all hitters he faced at Double-A (12.66 K/9). Since 2016, at four minor league stops, his batting average against has looked like this: .175, .156, .197, .198. In other words, Payano is a strikeout machine who doesn’t give up hits.

So why is the big 6-foot-5 lefty still in the minors at 26? Because most nights, he really has no clue where the ball is going, and never has. In 2016, he walked 14% of hitters. In 2017 at Double-A, he walked 18.2% of hitters. In 2017 at Triple-A, he walked 14.5% of hitters. And in 2018 at Double-A, he walked 16.4% of hitters. Payano doesn’t give up hits and his swinging strike rate is fantastic, but he walks the world while he’s doing it.

The Marlins and Reds have spent the last couple of years bouncing him between the rotation and bullpen, but we’re going to put him in the bullpen full-time. We can do worse as a lefty specialist, and he may very well grow into more. Payano might be a left-handed Dellin Betances – he’ll always fight his mechanics and he’ll never have good command, but when you’re striking out 35% of the batters you’re facing, that becomes less important. At least you can guarantee he’ll never be a comfortable at-bat.

Reliever 2: D.J. Johnson

Johnson has a classic reliever’s profile: a high-octane, mid-90s fastball and a power breaking ball. He misses bats, striking out 35.7% of all hitters he faced this year for Triple-A Albuquerque and a third of all hitters he faced during a brief 6-inning cup of coffee with the Rockies. But like many relievers with this profile, he’s on this list because of longstanding struggles with control, walking more than 10% of all hitters he faced at Double-A between 2015 and 2016.

Quietly, though, Johnson flipped the script as Albuquerque’s closer last year. He walked just 6.4% of hitters he faced across 55.1 innings for the Isotopes, and appeared, at least, to keep those gains in his tiny big league cameo. He was also effective despite an altitude and PCL-driven .390 BABIP in 2018; the newfound lack of walks meant all those extra hits didn’t hurt him as much.

Johnson is another pitcher who generates lots of popups off of his fastball, and weak flyballs and swinging strikes are a good combination for a reliever. If Johnson’s command gains are real, he could have closer potential. If not, he’s still too good of a pitcher to be striking out minor leaguers by the bushel. He’s a perfect fit for the new era of power-driven bullpens.

Reliever 3: Brendan McCurry

If McCurry’s name is familiar, that’s because the Athletics traded him to the Astros for Jed Lowrie a few years back. At the time, Chris Mitchell took a look at McCurry and said this:

An undersized reliever, McCurry fell all the way to the 22nd round in 2014’s amateur draft, but his minor league performance has since lifted him to fringe prospect status. McCurry worked in relief at High-A and Double-A last season, where he pitched exceptionally well. He struck out 32% of his batters faced last season, and finished up with a 2.44 ERA.

McCurry’s numbers are excellent, but plenty of minor league relievers put up excellent numbers, especially in the lower levels. Throw in that he’s nearly 24, and he’s about as fringy as they come.

The thing is that nobody told McCurry that he was so fringy. Despite a relatively small stature – just 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds – the 26-year-old righty has spent the last three years obliterating minor league hitters. He’s yet to strike out fewer than 23% of all hitters he’s faced at any level, and he’s been above 26% the last two years. Each of the last two years, he’s posted a K-BB% of 20% or better and a K/BB of better than 4. Even in this extremely bad video, you can see the kind of off-balance swings he generates.

The Astros’ bullpen has no room for McCurry right now, but if Brad Peacock or Colin McHugh end up in the rotation, suddenly there might be room for a power reliever, regardless of size. McCurry is big-league ready and probably better than several members of the Angels’ and Orioles’ bullpens right now. It simply remains to be seen if he’ll get an opportunity, but we’ll make sure he gets one with us.

Relief Pitcher 4: Joe Broussard

Broussard, at least, looks the part of a late-inning reliever in the Dodgers’ organization; squint, and you might think you’re seeing Jonathan Broxton. But Broussard yet to see the mound for the big club, even after dominating the upper minors and leading some Dodgers fans to clamor for a call-up for the big righty. Broussard hasn’t struck out less than a batter per inning since A-ball; in 2018, he whiffed 26% of hitters he faced for the second year in a row and posted a K-BB% of 18% for the second year in a row, all in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. In Double-A, he was even better, striking out nearly a third of all hitters with a K/BB better than 4 with a nasty fastball-curveball combination.

Broussard is buried by the Dodgers’ deep bullpen, but the big righty is ready for the Show.

Next time, we’ll project how this team might actually do if assembled.

The 2019 Ken Phelps All-Star Team: Position Players, Part 2

Here, in Part 2 of our series, we will crown the infielders for the 2019 Ken Phelps All-Star Team, a team of guys who, for whatever reason, have mastered the highest levels of the minors but are organizational depth at best, or forgotten entirely at worst, and yet have skills that might (might!) make them useful on a big-league team. Part 1, featuring the members of our outfield, can be found here. The pitchers will follow later.

Third Base: Damek Tomscha

For the second year in a row, our third baseman will be someone from the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league system. Tomscha was a fiftieth-round pick (seriously!), declined to sign, and was drafted twice more before finally turning pro after being taken in the 17th round. In Dan Szymborski’s latest ZiPS projections for the Phils, Tomscha’s top comp was the immortal Brennan King.

Tomscha is already 27, but he’s done nothing but hit pretty much everywhere he’s gone. His wRC+ numbers between 2014 and 2018 at every level where he’s spent more than 100 plate appearances go like this: 126, 127, 131, 152, 123, 125. (His foray into Triple-A was less encouraging, good for a 60 wRC+ in 93 plate appearances.)

Now, to be fair, Tomscha has only ever shown power like that at Double-A Reading, a level somewhat legendary for inflating power numbers and turning players like Dylan Cozens and Darin Ruf into reincarnations of Babe Ruth. That said, Tomscha has been a good hitter even when he’s not hitting for power, even in the low minors, and has long shown off defensive skills as well.

And he’s a pretty good contact hitter too, with the 17.2% strikeout rate he posted in a small sample at Triple-A this year being the worst of his career.

So what is the package? A big, strong right-handed contact hitter, who doesn’t strike out much and might have some power potential. That’ll work for us at third base.

Shortstop: Arismendy Alcantara

Back in the day, Alcantara was a hot commodity as a prospect who flashed power and speed in the Cubs’ minor league system. It didn’t work out, though – in 459 major league plate appearances, the switch-hitter hit 11 homers and stole 14 bases, but struck out at a rate that would make Mark Reynolds blush, on his way to a .189/.235/.315 triple slash and 49 wRC+. A 1.9% walk rate and 35.2% strikeout rate with the Reds in 2017 – good for a 5 wRC+ (!!) – sealed his fate, and he hasn’t played in affiliated baseball since.

But something happened in 2018 when Alcantara spent three stints in the Mexican League: he started drawing walks. A lot of walks, especially by Alcantara’s standards. Despite being four years younger than the average player at his level – after all, Alcantara is still just 26 – he walked at a 9.5% rate or better at three different Mexican League stops. To put that in perspective, Alcantara’s 38 walks in 397 plate appearances was more than he’d had at any level since he was a 21-year-old at Double-A in 2013. The result was a .285/.353/.527 line with 18 homers and 15 steals, showing the tantalizing power-speed combination is still in there. But what’s also in there is this defense at shortstop.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Alcantara’s newfound plate discipline is a mirage, or that it won’t translate back to affiliated baseball. That said, the package is intriguing enough, and Alcantara is still young enough, that he may just be a late bloomer. Major league baseball might have given up on him, but we won’t.

Second Base: Jack Mayfield

Unlike Alcantara, here’s a name you might never have heard before. Mayfield, 28, is no one’s idea of a real prospect – he wasn’t even drafted. But during his time in the Astros’ farm system, he seems to have developed one tool that’s hard to fake: power.

The breakout came in 2016 at Double-A, when Mayfield obliterated opposing pitchers to the tune of a 132 wRC+ and a .288 ISO. Despite faltering in his first taste of Triple-A later that year, Mayfield rebounded and in 2018 proved he was in Fresno to stay, with a .270/.324/.457 triple slash, .341 wOBA, and .187 ISO, his second consecutive year at the level with an ISO above .185 and a wOBA above .340. And even more intriguingly, Mayfield can play defense. Here he is flashing the leather at third base:

And here he is at second base – adding a pretty awesome flip to shortstop:

Now, Mayfield isn’t without his warts – no one on this list is, after all. His plate discipline is lackluster, to put it mildly; he’s never posted a double-digit walk rate, and even in his second-best season, 2016, he struggled to reach a .300 OBP. Still, there have been signs of growth there as well. His BABIP in 2016 was unsustainably low (.226 at both Double- and Triple-A); he’s run BABIPs consistently above .300 both before and since. Mayfield may never walk more than 6% of the time in the big leagues, and he’ll probably strike out a ton. Still, the power and defense are real, and his profile is similar to another 5-foot-11, 190 pound infielder: Brandon Inge. Mayfield doesn’t have Inge’s upside, of course (when Inge was Mayfield’s age, he already had four big league seasons under his belt). But a poor man’s Brandon Inge still has some value, and given a full season’s worth of plate appearances, Mayfield might surprise.

First Base: Joey Meneses

Quick: who led the International League in home runs in 2018? If you guessed top Tigers prospect Christin Stewart, you’d only be half right, as Stewart shared the honor with Philadelphia Phillies minor leaguer Joey Meneses, 26. Another player who was never drafted, Meneses slashed an impressive .311/.360/.510 in 2018, good for a 143 wRC+ and .381 wOBA. Now, it would be easy to conclude that Meneses is a product of where Phillies’ minor leagues affiliates play – after all, Darin Ruf and Dylan Cozens both posted inflated numbers as a result of the hitter-friendly parks in the Phils’ system. But Meneses might be different. For one thing, while 2018 was his first year in the Phillies’ organization, he’s hit everywhere he’s gone. In 2016, while playing for the Carolina Mudcats, the Braves’ Hi-A affiliate, he hit .342/.401/.490 – offense which amounted to a 146 wRC+ and .401 wOBA. He struggled in his first taste of Double-A, but returned to his mashing ways in his second go-around in 2017, with a 124 wRC+ and a career-high walk rate (9.5%).

Now, given Meneses’ gaudy stats, the obvious question is why he isn’t a prospect, even at 26. The answer is that while he has always hit the ball hard, 2018 was the first time he’d shown consistent power. But there’s reason to hope he wasn’t just a Phillies’ minor league mirage. Here he is, hitting a long home run away from Lehigh Valley.

Do you notice the uppercut? Meneses is a swing-changer. Until 2018, the big right-handed first baseman had hit the ball primarily on the ground, with ground ball rates above 50% at every stop but one since 2014. But in 2018, he flipped the script, dropping his ground ball rate to 44.7%, a career low, and upping his flyball rate to 32.9%, his highest rate since rookie ball. That wasn’t Meneses’ only change; after being an all-fields hitter in 2016 and 2017, hitting at least 40% of his balls in play to right field, he started pulling the ball in 2018, hitting fewer balls to right field and more fly balls to left. The result was a career-high HR/FB%, and the second-highest pull rate of his minor-league career.

Of course, even launch-anglified Joey Meneses wasn’t going to displace burgeoning star Rhys Hoskins in Philadelphia, and so the Phillies released him at the end of the season after he received an offer to play in Japan for the Orix Buffaloes. Still, it looks like Meneses made some legitimate changes to his offensive game – changes that, while not likely to make him a star, certainly make him more interesting.

Infield: Corban Joseph

Joseph, 29, was immortalized as the Guy Who Took Over First Base from Chris Davis (TM) last year in Baltimore, a job that lasted all of 19 plate appearances. In reality, however, Joseph probably has something to offer a team that’s willing to look past the obvious flaws. Joseph has the ability to stand at every defensive position on the dirt except shortstop. And Joseph has plate discipline, contact ability, and a bit of pop, which has helped him rack up more than a thousand minor league hits. In a sense, that’s damning with faint praise; Joseph has been in the minors for more than a decade, but has a grand total of 26 major league plate appearances to his name.

In 2018 for Double-A Bowie, Joseph walked more (9.9%) than he struck out (8.2%) with a .185 ISO and 143 wRC+, his second consecutive year at Double-A with a wRC+ of 120 or higher on the back of that skillset. Oh well, you might say, he was a 29-year-old at Double-A; he’s supposed to do that. And that’s certainly true, but he has also shown the same ability at Triple-A – in 2016 for Norfolk, Joseph hit .305/.362/.435 with an 8.3% BB% and 10.2% K%, good for a 129 wRC+.

So what is Corban Joseph? The profile is a bit similar to John Jaso, minus the catching ability, of course. Still, though, Joseph might be better than some of the utility infielders entering 2019 with guaranteed jobs. And there’s an argument to be made Joseph is better than David Fletcher, who will, barring other moves, open 2019 with a starting job in the Angels’ infield. Joseph is probably good enough for a big league job somewhere; he’s just never gotten the opportunity.

Catcher: Beau Taylor

Here’s a guy who, given the state of catching in the major leagues, could probably have a major league job somewhere on opening day, even though he probably won’t. Taylor is 28 and a career member of the Oakland Athletics’ minor league system, where he has been since 2011. He’s also no one’s idea of a prospect, accruing just six major league plate appearances, all in 2018. Why? For one thing, he doesn’t hit for power; this was his last of just three home runs he hit in the A’s system in 2018, after he hit 5 in 2017, and 5 in 2016.

He doesn’t really hit for average, either; despite a .341 BABIP in 2018, he hit just .248 in 2018. And he doesn’t really control the running game, throwing out just 12 of 73 attempted baserunners in 2018.

So why is Taylor here? Because he has plate discipline. Indeed, quite good plate discipline. In 2018, he walked in 14% of his plate appearances at AAA. In 2017, he walked in better than 12% of his plate appearances. In fact, Taylor hasn’t had a walk rate below 10% since a 2014 half-season at Double-A, when he posted a 9.7% walk rate. And owing to all the walks, Taylor has posted a wRC+ above 90 at every stop but one since 2014.

Steamer doesn’t think much of Taylor, projecting just a 69 wRC+ for 2019 at the big league level. But Jonathan Lucroy just posted a 70 wRC+ for the Athletics, and at least Taylor might still have some upside.

Designated Hitter: Neftali Soto

Once upon a time, Neftali Soto was a big-time Reds prospect who, despite underwhelming numbers, possessed exciting tools. The good news is that Soto, now 29, mashed .310/.364/.644 in 2018 with 41 homers in just 459 plate appearances, fulfilling his longstanding prospect status. The bad news is that he posted those video game numbers in Japan, and went totally ignored stateside.

That’s a shame, because Soto’s transformation from failed prospect to power hitter began in 2017, when he (all together now) started hitting more fly balls. An increased fly ball rate – he went from just 16% in the White Sox organization in 2015 to 34.9% for the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate in 2018 – led to a power surge, and across two levels of the Nats’ system he destroyed minor league pitching to the tune of a .311/.364/.528 triple-slash, and an ISO above .200 at both levels. Soto’s new look can be captured in this game for Syracuse, when he homered three times, one to each part of the outfield.

Despite his newfound power and contact abilities, the book on Soto remains below average plate discipline; his 29-to-100 strikeout to walk ratio last year in the NPB demonstrates that nicely. Still, bats with this kind of power have some value and could merit a major league opportunity. After all, it’s a safe bet Soto would outhit Chris Davis, and wouldn’t a rebuilding team like the Rangers be better off seeing what he could do with 550 at-bats than giving them to Ronald Guzman?

Next time, we’ll look at the Phelpses’ pitching staff.

The 2019 Ken Phelps All-Star Team: Position Players, Part 1

Last year, I started a new tradition here at FanGraphs: the Ken Phelps All-Star Team, a 21st century revival of my favorite part of Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts. Ken Phelps was a talented hitter who nevertheless toiled for years in the minors, not exhausting his rookie eligibility until age 28. As Jeff Bower characterized it for Baseball Prospectus, the Phelps All-Star team represented “an assemblage of players with skills that made them useful, but who were generally not given a fair opportunity to prove their worth in the majors or had been given unwarranted labels they couldn’t shake.” Basically, the idea behind our exercise was to identify minor leaguers who, like Phelps himself, were not considered notable prospects (though some may technically still have prospect eligibility) and had earned a Quad-A label, and yet might be competent (or better) big leaguers if given the opportunity.

Last year’s team proved quite successful by the modest standards set for Quad-A players. Our team was projected to go 57-105, which was just one win worse than the actual record of the 2018 Royals and was ten wins better than the 2018 Orioles, who (unlike the Phelpses) had the benefit of a half-season of Manny Machado. And several players I identified also established themselves as legitimate major leaguers, led by Richard Rodriguez, who posted a 63 ERA- and 64 FIP- across 69.1 innings, striking out a third of all the hitters he faced. Deck McGuire received an extended look (38 innings) in the major leagues, and despite his relatively poor results, showed flashes with a 94-mph fastball and an above-average sinker and change-up. Ryan Carpenter showed his plus command and minuscule walk rate could translate to the big leagues across five starts with Detroit, though he was hurt by a home run problem. Mitch Walding, Brandon Snyder, Jabari Blash, and Scott Copeland all saw major league time in 2018, with Walding making his major league debut. All in all, this might not sound like much, but remember that we’re talking about free talent – these are guys who, in essence, aren’t supposed to be doing much at all.

So with that, we bid adieu to the 2018 team and turn to the 2019 team, which we’ll unveil over the next few days. First, let’s review the criteria for selection. Remember, these players are not supposed to be prospects, so this isn’t like Carson’s Fringe Five series. The Quad-A label earned by these players may very well be accurate, and we’re not expecting this fictional team to go and win 100 games. Instead, we’re looking for free talent – guys who, for whatever reason, have mastered the highest levels of the minors but are organizational depth at best, or forgotten entirely at worst, and yet have skills that might (might!) make them useful on a big-league team.

And because scouting and analytics are better than ever before, the idea behind this team has to change a bit. Major-league equivalencies have become mainstream, which means that we have to do more than simply project big-league performance. For that reason, we’re going to tweak James’ original criteria slightly. To qualify for our team, a player cannot have had more than 550 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched in the major leagues, which we’ll use as proxies for a season’s worth of MLB time. He also cannot have appeared on any of FanGraphs’ organizational top prospect lists or the Fringe Five in the past two years (2017-18), and must be 25 or older. Oh, and just to make things fun, we won’t re-use anyone from the 2018 team.

Today we begin our look at the 2019 Ken Phelps All-Star Team by examining at the outfield. The balance of the position players (Part 2), as well as the pitching staff (Part 3), will follow later.

Left Field: Rusney Castillo

Here’s a blast from the past! Once upon a time, Castillo, now 31, was the Red Sox’s hot new offseason addition, a player considered dynamic enough that Boston paid $72 million to play him in the team’s outfield. It didn’t work out – Castillo was handed a big league job in 2015 and fell flat, posting just 0.1 fWAR and a 73 wRC+ across 80 games. The Red Sox removed him from their 40-man roster in 2016, and since then he’s labored in Boston’s minor league system, with his most notable accomplishment being the ignominy of landing on a list of baseball’s worst contracts. He has seen all of eight plate appearances, all of which came in 2016.

Whether it was the decreased pressure, simple player development, easier competition, or Castillo adjusting to his new environs, he’s quietly broken out for Pawtucket over the last couple of years, following a .378 wOBA and 138 wRC+ in 2017 with a .348 wOBA and 120 wRC+ in 2018. His line drive rate and the percentage of balls he sent to the opposite field both spiked in 2018, as Castillo became more of an all-fields hitter.

Now Castillo still has his warts, as every player on this list does. His power never really developed or been consistent – he followed fifteen homers and a .193 ISO in 2017 with five and a .097 in 2018. Even his improved plate discipline was still subpar, with just a 5.7% walk rate. His in field fly ball rate spiked in 2018 and, despite still having above-average speed, his base-running deteriorated, and he was relegated to a corner spot in the outfield.

Still, Steamer suggests that at least some of Castillo’s gains were legitimate, projecting a 90 WRC+, and despite the move to the corner, his defense remains above-average. Further, his coaches at Triple-A are convinced he could hold his own in the major leagues, a combination of his improved performance and commitment to conditioning.

“He’s a big leaguer,” said [Pawtucket Manager Kevin] Boles. “He’s a big leaguer on a Triple A field. You coach at third. The third baseman says, ‘How is this guy still here?’ Everybody knows it. Everybody knows he’s major league-quality.”

Castillo may be a forgotten man in Boston — the outfield spots in Fenway are spoken for — and his salary will likely strike most clubs as pretty rich considering what he is at present, but the tools that made him enticing in 2014 seem still to be there, and perhaps improved. We’ll start him in our outfield.

Center Field: Cole Sturgeon

Sturgeon, 27, has the distinction of having played in three hundred games for Boston’s Double-A affiliate across four seasons before finally being called up to Triple-A for good late in 2018. He raked at Double-A in 2018 to the tune of a .443 wOBA and 178 wRC+, which was most likely the result of having been at the level for the aforementioned 300 games, but also showed some legitimate growth that he carried to Triple-A. After seldom walking in the low minors – across two levels in 2015 and 2016, Sturgeon never eclipsed a 6% walk rate – the outfielder improved both his strikeout and walk rates in 2017 and 2018, posting an 8.6% BB% and 14.3% K% at Double-A in 2018 before keeping most of the gains in his walk rate in Pawtucket.

What makes Sturgeon interesting for our purposes, though, isn’t his hitting. It’s his above-average defense, which he manages despite not having plus speed.

The Red Sox have given Sturgeon a shot in spring training before, largely to see if he can be a fourth outfielder. The sum of Sturgeon’s parts isn’t a star, and probably isn’t even a big league regular. But there might be a poor man’s David DeJesus here, and that’s enough to be interesting. We’ll take him on our team.

Right Field: Yadiel Hernandez

Hernandez, a 31-year-old Cuban émigré, is probably the player on this list most likely to make a major league impact in 2019. When the Nationals signed Hernandez in 2016, they considered him to be a “high-floor, low-ceiling type who . . . could serve as a left-handed hitter off the bench or a defensive replacement late.” MLBTradeRumors cited Baseball America’s Ben Badler in calling Hernendez a “small and not overly toolsy player who profiles as a corner outfielder,” which MLBTR’s Jeff Todd called “a rather unexciting profile.” And even with the likely departure of Bryce Harper this offseason, he is well behind rookie sensation Juan Soto, top prospect Victor Robles, and established major leaguers Adam Eaton and Michael Taylor on the Nationals depth chart; there’s been understandably little talk of him entering Washington’s 2019 outfield mix, even in spite of Eaton’s lengthy injury history. He’s seen just one plate appearance in major league spring training.

Still, Hernandez’s performance thus far suggests he might have upside beyond what was originally thought. For one thing, he draws walks. His 9.9% walk rate at Triple-A in 2018 was his lowest thus far in the minor leagues, and he posted an 11% walk rate across two levels this year. He’s shown an above-average contact tool, and has yet to post a BABIP less than .320. And perhaps most interestingly, Hernandez is showing some burgeoning pop, with 18 homers and a .171 ISO across two levels in 2018. Here he is showing some impressive opposite-field power early last year:

Patience, contact, a bit of pop, and passable defense are an intriguing mix, and on a team with less outfield depth, he might be considered for a starting spot. In any event, he fits nicely in our lineup.

Outfield: Zoilo Almonte

Once upon a time, Almonte, now 29, was a toolsy fringe prospect in the Yankees’ system with an 80-grade name. But despite flashing power and speed in the minors, he cratered in a 34-game cameo with the big club in 2013 (56 wRC+) despite a reasonably good strikeout rate (16.8%). He returned to the minors, where he continued to hit in the Yankees and Braves’ systems, before mashing in the Mexican League in 2016 (123 wRC+ and .207 ISO), and turning into a bona fide middle-of-the-order monster in 2017 (.355/.421/.536 triple-slash, 148 wRC+, .425 wOBA). Intriguingly, Almonte proved his 2017 metamorphosis wasn’t a fluke when he took his talents to the NPB’s Chunichi Dragons in 2018, hitting .321/.375/.486 with a lot of nights like this one:

Almonte finished sixth in the league in batting, second in doubles, fifteenth in OPS, fifteenth in on-base percentage, ninth in hits, tenth in total bases, and fifteenth in homers (all among 65 qualifiers), an impressive showing for the former prospect.

Now, just because Almonte can hit in the Mexican League and in Japan doesn’t mean he can hit in the majors. But Almonte has hit everywhere he’s been except the bigs, and he’s now shown the ability to hit for power and average at Triple-A, in the Mexican League, and in Japan, all of which serves our purposes well. Plus, Almonte has begun to show steady improvements in his plate discipline; in his 2018 season, he was eighteenth in the league in walks, only one of which was intentional. Given his ability to play all three outfield positions capably, he’ll do fine as a fourth outfielder, and, given a big league opportunity, there’s a chance he could outproduce Melky Cabrera in 2019.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow.

Let’s Check in on Miami’s Suit Against the Marlins and Jeffrey Loria

Early last year, I wrote about the lawsuit Miami had filed against the Marlins and Jeffrey Loria, alleging that Jeffrey Loria had used “fuzzy math” to depress the value of his club and avoid paying a share of the team’s sale proceeds to Miami and Miami-Dade County. (The County is also a party to suit against the Marlins and Loria.) With the new year starting, this seems like a good time to check in on the state of the suit.

When we last looked at this case, the Marlins, under the new ownership group helmed by Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter, rather dubiously claimed British citizenship as a way of moving the lawsuit to federal court (a process called “removal”) and attempting to force arbitration. Despite the less than stellar optics and even more questionable legal basis for the argument, the team nonetheless went all-in on their position that the team was, at least in part, a foreign citizen. In response, Miami sent Laurence Leavy – the attorney better known as “Marlins Man” for his formerly ubiquitous presence at Marlins games – and radio personality Andy Slater to the British Virgin Islands office where the team’s lawyers argued that one of the companies which owned the team, Aberneu, was ostensibly located. In a revelation that surprised no one, Aberneu, it turned out, had no offices or physical presence there – just a post office box. The Marlins, however, didn’t appreciate Slater’s involvement, and responded by revoking Slater’s press pass.

At oral argument on the issue of the team’s citizenship in July, the county emphasized that the team was, in all meaningful ways, an American company that did business in Florida, and showed the judge the evidence obtained from Slater and Leavy’s investigation. At that hearing, Judge Darrin Gayles indicated that she was skeptical of the team’s claim of British citizenship.

THE COURT: As I understand it, there is no question that the purchaser in this case is a U.S. corporation or is a U.S. entity. Right?

MR. DOYLE [attorney for the Jeter/Sherman group]: That is not correct, Your Honor. The buyer is an LLC that its citizenship is determined by its members under Supreme Court precedent and it has a non-U.S. member. So, therefore, it is the citizen of both the United States and outside the United States, foreign.

THE COURT: All right. So in situations where an LLC has dual citizenship, U.S. and foreign, can you point to me specific cases that say that in that situation it is a foreign country for purposes of the [New York] Convention [governing arbitration agreements]?

MR. DOYLE: Your Honor, we have not found such a case [.]

And later, Judge Gayles asked Doyle why the Marlins hadn’t attempted to raise the arbitration issue previously, before the state court. Doyle responded that “[t]he issue of the citizenship of the buyer was not known to me as counsel for the seller and it was in an investigation afterwards . . . that led us to discover that the buyer was, in fact, a dual citizen, foreign and domestic. So that information was discovered after the state court hearing.” That’s not entirely true, however – in fact, the team had moved to arbitrate the dispute in state court, and the state court judge, Beatrice Butchko, denied the motion on February 22, 2018, very early in the case.

So as you can probably see (and you can read the whole transcript for yourself if you’re interested), the Marlins’ attorneys weren’t really able to do a good job of articulating how a company that is both a citizen of the United States and a citizen of a foreign country somehow only qualifies as a foreign company for purposes of the law, nor were they able to explain adequately why they didn’t raise the arbitration issue before the state court when the case was first filed.

And so it was perhaps unsurprising when the Court denied the Marlins’ request to arbitrate the case in early August and sent it back to state court (a process called “remand”). Judge Gayles wrote that the team “face[s] an uphill battle in establishing the requisite citizenship to confer jurisdiction under the Convention[,]” adding that “[t]he Loria Marlins’ assignment of their rights to the Jeter Marlins likely did not . . . confer a more expansive right to arbitrate under the Convention.” In other words, the Court didn’t at all believe that the Marlins were a British citizen, and sent the case back to state court for the state judge to decide whether the case was arbitrable on the grounds that the state court had already taken the first steps towards doing just that in its February ruling (the one Doyle evidently forgot about).

Now, you might think that the Marlins and Loria, unable to arbitrate after having two courts deny their request, and stuck in a state court that had already indicated displeasure with Loria’s creative accounting techniques, would open lines of communication to resolve the case. After all, to this point, the case doesn’t appear to be going all that well for the team or Loria. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the team and Loria appealed the state court’s denial of their arbitration request even though the case wasn’t over yet. Appealing a non-final order is called an “interlocutory appeal,” and, regardless of what you see on television, it’s actually pretty extraordinary. The general rule in every state – and Florida is no exception – is that you can’t appeal until after a case is over, because appellate courts tend not to like piecemeal appeals; they want to look at everything at once.

In fact, the very first thing the team did once the case was back in state court was to file what’s called a “Notice of Appeal” – the document beginning the appeal under Florida law. The team then asked for a stay of all proceedings for the appellate court to weigh in on the arbitration issue that two courts had already looked at and denied. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, again! At this point, an evidently exasperated Judge Butchko denied the stay outright on October 2, 2018, essentially ordering the team and Loria to stop playing around with demands for arbitration and start litigating the merits of the case.

Things looked very bleak indeed for the team and then, late last year, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal granted review (essentially accepting the case), and issued an order staying all proceedings – ordering everything to stop – until they’d looked at the case and decided the arbitration issue. That means that the whole case is essentially in limbo until a third court decides the same issue that two courts already have.

Now, as a matter of law, Butchko and Gayles largely got it right. But it’s also possible that the Appellate Court decides that it wants this case out of the judicial system; judicial economy is a virtue appellate courts adore, and it’s one of the primary reasons arbitration is so often upheld. Courts like the idea of cases being decided by someone who isn’t them, because (theoretically) it frees up judicial resources and relieves case backlogs. That being said, appellate courts tend to move pretty slowly, and it could very well be late 2019 or early 2020 before this issue is decided.

On Andy Pettitte’s Pickoff Move

Earlier this month, Jay Jaffe wrote about the Hall of Fame case for former Yankees southpaw Andy Pettitte. Pettitte, of course, was known for his cut fastball, his glare towards the hitter as he awaited the sign from Jorge Posada, and his pickoff move.

This pickoff move.

Pettitte’s pickoff move became legendary over the course of his long career, and led to teams essentially abandoning the running game against the lefty until late in his career. Pettitte retired as the active leader in pickoffs, despite baserunners often arguing that his move was really a balk. So let’s find out if Pettitte’s move was generally legal or not.

We’ll start, of course, with the rule. For our purposes, we’re concerned with Rule 6.02(a), which defines “Pitcher Illegal Action[s].”

(a) Balks.
If there is a runner, or runners, it is a balk when:
(1) The pitcher, while touching his plate, makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch and fails to make such delivery;
(2) The pitcher, while touching his plate, feints a throw to first or third base and fails to complete the throw;
(3) The pitcher, while touching his plate, fails to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base;
(4) The pitcher, while touching his plate, throws, or feints a throw to an unoccupied base, except for the purpose of making a play;
(5) The pitcher makes an illegal pitch;
(6) The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter while he is not facing the batter;
(7) The pitcher makes any motion naturally associated with his pitch while he is not touching the pitcher’s plate;
(8) The pitcher unnecessarily delays the game;
(9) The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate or while off the plate, he feints a pitch;
(10) The pitcher, after coming to a legal pitching position, removes one hand from the ball other than in an actual pitch, or in throwing to a base;
(11) The pitcher, while touching his plate, accidentally or intentionally has the ball slip or fall out of his hand or glove;
(12) The pitcher, while giving an intentional base on balls, pitches when the catcher is not in the catcher’s box;
(13) The pitcher delivers the pitch from Set Position without coming to a stop.

We generally think of a balk as an attempt to deceive a baserunner. But as you can see, while that’s certainly the purpose of the rule (MLB’s official glossary even says so), it’s also not the actual language of the rule. And really, that makes sense: if deceiving the runner were illegal across the board, all pickoffs would be illegal too. That’s because a pickoff, generally speaking, means the runner was fooled. The rule does prohibit some actions that would serve the purpose of deceiving the runner, like stepping towards a different base or pitching without facing the batter (a line Johnny Cueto and Hideki Okajima both straddled at various times during their careers). Most of the comments to the prohibited pitcher action rules mention player safety as a primary consideration, which makes sense given the pitcher is often hurling a hard sphere at 95 mph. So, it’s probably most accurate to say that the balk rule means that you can’t deceive the runner in a manner which MLB has deemed to threaten player safety, or in a way that would disrupt the balance between base runners attempt to steal and the pitcher’s attempt to get outs. In other words, you can only fool the runner so long as you don’t take one of the actions proscribed by the Rule.

All of those elements are things a pitcher can’t do without a balk being called. When assessing Pettitte’s move, we can eliminate some of them pretty quickly. Pettitte isn’t throwing home, so (5), (6), (12), and (13) are out. He has the ball, so (9) doesn’t apply. He actually throws, so (2) doesn’t apply. He’s not throwing towards an unoccupied base, so (4) is irrelevant also. Pettitte also generally keeps his foot on the pitching rubber, so (7) doesn’t apply either.

The most likely arguments for saying Pettitte balks on these throws are under (1) and (3), and fortunately, there are comments to the Rule that can help us suss this out.

Let’s start with 6.02(a)(1). Here’s the comment.

Rule 6.02(a)(1) Comment: If a left-handed or right-handed pitcher swings his free foot past the back edge of the pitcher’s rubber, he is required to pitch to the batter except to throw to second base on a pick-off play.

Does Pettitte do that? It’s actually hard to tell. Here’s one angle from a game against the Red Sox.

Pettitte comes really close there. How about here, in the 2005 World Series?

It’s safe to say that Pettitte swings his front leg towards the pitching rubber. Here, it looks like he may well have gone past at least the front of the rubber. (Interestingly, it looks like the call may have been blown twice here; in addition to failing to call a balk on Pettitte, Iguchi was safe.)

So whether Pettitte regularly swings his front foot past the back of the pitching rubber seems inconclusive. Given how close he comes, however, it’s likely he did technically violate the rule on at least some of his pickoffs.

So how about 6.02(a)(3)? Here’s what that rule means.

Rule 6.02(a)(3) Comment: Requires the pitcher, while touching his plate, to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base. If a pitcher turns or spins off of his free foot without actually stepping or if he turns his body and throws before stepping, it is a balk. A pitcher is to step directly toward a base before throwing to that base and is required to throw (except to second base)because he steps. It is a balk if, with runners on first and third, the pitcher steps toward third and does not throw, merely to bluff the runner back to third; then seeing the runner on first start for second, turn and step toward and throw to first base. It is legal for a pitcher to feint a throw to second base.

In other words, this Rule means that Pettitte, when throwing towards first base with his back foot on the rubber, had to actually step toward first base before throwing.

There, it looks like he does. But here’s that pickoff from the 2005 World Series again:

There, it doesn’t really look like he’s stepping towards first base until the very end, when he puts his foot down. And the rule doesn’t really say how “step directly” is defined. Is that determined by the pitcher’s body when his foot comes down? Or when he lifts his foot? Pettitte seems to circumvent this rule by where he plants his foot, not by where he lifts it. It’s a plausible interpretation, but it’s also equally possible that an umpire could view Pettitte as not really stepping “directly toward” first base.

A lot of Pettitte’s pickoffs came before modern camera angles, which makes a conclusive determination difficult. Still, it’s helpful is to take a look at a pitcher with a similar move to Pettitte’s: Julio Urias.

Now, interestingly, Urias also comes dangerously close to swinging his front foot past the back of the pitching rubber. But he does the same thing that Pettitte did. It’s what the announcers to those game aptly described as “a weight shift towards home but the step towards first.” Here’s a different pickoff where you can see it more clearly:

Now, there you can see that Urias steps towards first the whole time, but moves the rest of his body towards home plate. The only issue is that it looks from this angle like his front toe swings past the back of the rubber, which may well mean this should have been called a balk.

So what does this mean? Pettitte and Urias certainly, at the very least, tested the outer boundaries of the balk rule. It seems certain that at least some of Pettitte’s pickoffs should have been called balks. At the same time, the basic premise of the move – shifting your body towards home plate as you step towards first – isn’t prohibited by the rule. Jeff Sullivan has talked in these pages about pitches so good they fool the umpire as well as the hitter. The very best pickoff moves, it seems, aren’t any different.

The Possible Legal Issue with MLB’s Cuba Deal

The incredible dangers faced by baseball players attempting to defect from Cuba in order to play professional baseball in the United States are by now well-documented. Yasiel Puig had to buy his freedom from smugglers. Yoenis Cespedes and his family were “abandoned for two days on a strip of sand more than 600 miles southeast of Florida.” Jose Abreu had to leave his son behind. Alexei Ramirez, Jose Iglesias, Aroldis Chapman, Yulieski Gurriel – all faced unspeakable hardships escaping from Cuba, often using smugglers or human traffickers, and risking kidnapping or worse. The situation led to a federal grand jury investigation into baseball’s links to human trafficking, particularly as it concerned the Dodgers.

Last week, MLB finally took action, reaching a deal with the MLBPA and the Cuban government that aims to end human trafficking by allowing Cuban players to access a posting system.

Major League Baseball, its players’ association and the Cuban Baseball Federation reached an agreement that will allow players from the island to sign big league contracts without defecting, an effort to eliminate the dangerous trafficking that had gone on for decades.

The agreement, which runs through Oct. 31, 2021, allows Cubans to sign under rules similar to those for players under contract to clubs in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

There will be further analysis in the coming weeks of the baseball implications of such an agreement. For our purposes, though, I’d like to focus on one aspect of the deal in particular that might prove problematic.

MLB teams will need to pay the FCB [the Cuban Baseball Federation, Cuba’s baseball authority] for the contractual release of players who are 24 years old or younger and who have five or fewer years of service. The fee will reflect 25% of the signing bonus. It will be up to the FCB to decide whether to release such a player. In contrast, MLB teams will be able to sign Cuban players who are 25 or older and who have at least six years of experience in FCB without the consent of the FCB (MLB teams will, however, need to pay the FCB 15% to 20% of the total value of those players’ contracts).

On the surface, this seems similar to the posting agreements negotiated with Japan and South Korea’s professional leagues. There’s just one problem: the FCB is an arm of the Cuban government, and has even been run by Fidel Castro‘s son, who served as its vice president. This agreement means that MLB, an American business entity, would be paying money to an unofficial arm of the Cuban government. Because of the United States’ trade embargo, which remains in effect, it’s questionable at best whether this arrangement will survive legal scrutiny.

As to the embargo, it is not one law but rather a catchall moniker for various statutes, executive orders, regulations and other proclamations that are designed to prevent or impede economic relations between the two nations. It began largely through executive orders issued by President John F. Kennedy and years later would become codified into statutes, including the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996. Numerous regulations promulgated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Commerce Department have also clarified and altered the scope of the embargo. The larger point is that despite the warming of diplomatic and economic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the embargo remains in effect.

Dan Halem, MLB’s chief legal officer, told Reuters that the Obama Administration signed off on a deal of this type before it was finalized, due mostly to the fact that the FCB isn’t officially a government agency. And in 2016, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is responsible for implementing and overseeing the Cuba embargo, did grant MLB a license to explore a deal with Cuba.

But the Trump Administration has taken a different view, with the State Department telling NPR that, despite the agreement, nothing has changed: “baseball players will still have to go to another country to apply for a work visa, in accordance with U.S. policy.” The White House has signaled that it isn’t likely to approve the deal for the same reason, as the New York Times reported.

On Wednesday, a White House statement criticized baseball’s agreement with Cuba, saying the administration would continue to restrict Cuba’s ability to profit from American businesses.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control could revoke M.L.B.’s license to negotiate with the Cubans. If it does, it would signal a shift in policy that could affect many other companies doing business in Cuba.

And prominent members of Congress agree.

So as of now, it seems likely that OFAC will scuttle the deal by revoking MLB’s license, arguing that payments directly to an unofficial arm of the Cuban government violate the embargo.

Some, like Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann, have argued that MLB would have a legal remedy should that happen. The problem is that the “arbitrary and capricious” standard referenced by McCann in his piece typically applies more to domestic administrative proceedings, not foreign ones. And the reality is that the executive branch is given wide latitude to implement and enforce economic sanctions. As Alexander Cohen and Joseph Ravitch bluntly – and correctly – wrote for the Yale Journal of International Law,

The President’s constitutional and statutory authority includes the power to impose virtually any type of economic sanction. Thus, any challenge to an economic sanctions program on the grounds that the President is acting beyond his authority will fail.

So, to me, if the administration decides to scuttle the deal on the grounds of national security – i.e., that it violates the embargo – there likely isn’t much MLB can do about it. Certainly the league could seek a legal remedy, but its chances of obtaining one from a court are quite slim. It seems more likely that, if this deal is to be approved, it will require either a change of administration, or a change of heart by the present one.

There’s a Downside to the Opener

The 2018 season brought with it a number of unexpected developments. The Braves won their division! The Athletics were good! Max Muncy hit 35 home runs! But those sorts of developments are why we watch baseball: the unexpected and the fun. There was another development in the 2018 season, though: the return of the opener, a baseball strategy that isn’t novel, but had mostly fallen out of fashion. It started with Tampa Bay and Sergio Romo, then spread through the rest of the league. Even teams like the Dodgers, who always seem to have more competent starting pitchers than available rotation spots, employed the strategy. The Athletics even used an opener for their playoff game against the Yankees, though there it was borne more from necessity.

The baseball logic for the opener is pretty straightforward. We know that pitchers, especially starting pitchers, face a times-through-the-order penalty. In general, the more times a hitter faces the same pitcher in a game, the worse the results will be for the pitcher and the better the results will be for the hitter. This makes intuitive sense. Pitchers get tired; batters adjust. Pitchers make more mistakes when they get tired, and hitters gather more data the more they see of a pitcher’s repertoire. An opener can help mitigate that. Having a reliever, especially one with a handedness advantage, face the top of the order in the first inning means that the pitcher who comes in afterwards won’t face that third-time-through-the-order penalty – at least, in theory. A pitcher who begins his night by facing the middle of a team’s order instead of the top can go five innings and face the top of the order only once – again, in theory.

But there’s a part of the opener we really haven’t explored yet – and it’s one the always-thoughtful Zack Greinke discussed with Steve Miller earlier this year.

“[The opener is] really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball,” Arizona starter Zack Greinke says. “It’s just a sideshow. There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings.

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So What Happens if Kyler Murray Plays Football?

Water is wet. Grass is green. Kyler Murray is a talented athlete. These are statements we know to be true. The first two aren’t especially relevant to FanGraphs, but the third one is.

In case you aren’t aware, the Oakland Athletics drafted Murray with the ninth overall pick of the most recent Major League Baseball Rule 4 draft. Back in April, before he was drafted, our own Eric Longenhagen was taken with the outfielder’s athleticism.

Evaluators see him as a crude but gifted speedster with good pop for his size who possesses more projection than most because of his athleticism. Murray is performing this year (.290/.390/.520 at publication) on the baseball field despite little prior in-game experience.

Murray was ranked 20th on FanGraphs’ 2018 Draft Board; his pre-draft report noted:

Despite [his limited playing time], he has been electric, showing even more physical ability than he had in high school and performing, slashing .290/.390/.550. He shows everything scouts could want to see after this kind of layoff and his only clear weakness is swing-and-miss against good off-speed stuff, both somewhat allowed with his power-based approach.

Take a look at that power-based approach for yourself:

One MLB executive, speaking with ESPN, even dropped the ultimate praise on Murray, comparing the young player to Mike Trout. \ Kyler Murray is a young, gifted hitter with star potential despite his rawness, which is why the A’s drafted him in the first round and gave him a $4.66 million signing bonus.

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The Next Frontier of Baseball and the Law

Perhaps the subject most frequently discussed in the chats and pieces that appear at FanGraphs is what the next great baseball innovation will be. Most teams have caught up on the analytics revolution heralded by Moneyball; even longstanding holdouts like the Orioles and Giants have surrendered to the inevitable and embraced the modern game. So what comes next? In an age in which everyone has access to advanced metrics, where will the next advantage be found?

One could argue that it’s already here and has been for a few years already, developing right under our noses. This movement actually started not in baseball, but in the National Basketball Association (NBA), which, in the past five years, began the gargantuan undertaking of incorporating biometrics – that is, the measurement of the bodies of the players themselves – into the fabric of the league. To see how this works, let’s take a look at this excerpt from a Tom Haberstroh ESPN story about how biometrics changed the career path of NBA star Kawhi Leonard.

When [Adam Silver] took over for David Stern [as NBA Commissioner], he made a series of changes to sharpen the NBA’s measurements. For the 2013-14 season, the league partnered with Stats LLC and installed SportVU player-tracking cameras in every arena. Now player speed, distance traveled and acceleration can all be cataloged and chewed on by data-crazed NBA fans and teams. The cameras even track potential assists.

In one sense, this sounds like the NBA version of Statcast. But it’s significantly more than that.

More quietly, in 2014 Silver hired a sports science institute called P3 Applied Sports Science to modernize the league’s draft combine. Beyond using tape measures, P3 puts players through a series of movements assessed by high-tech force plates embedded in the floor and cameras shooting from multiple angles, all feeding data into laptops. The founder, Dr. Marcus Elliott, says P3 asks not just how high do you jump but also how do you land and how high and how quickly can you jump a second time. The goal is to find patterns that predict injury. If a player lands on his right leg with disproportionately more force than his left, for example, that might be a signal of weakness in his left ankle. Even the smallest hitch in a player’s running pattern could, over time, create a chain reaction of physical breakdowns, a human butterfly effect.

So it is that the NBA has become primed to optimize a player with the right unique mix of physical attributes — the type of player who might have been overlooked just a few years ago.

In other words, while Statcast is looking at the metrics of what happened, the NBA has started looking for predictive metrics based on a player’s own physiological attributes.

During his second NBA season in 2012, Leonard was sidelined for 18 games with quadriceps tendinitis near his left knee. That offseason, the Spurs sent him to P3 to assess his vastus medialis, a teardrop-shaped muscle in the quads that powers the knee joint. “They focus on trying to balance out your body,” Leonard explains. “You don’t train there. I learned more about the body.” When P3’s evaluation showed imbalances from his injury — the particulars of which P3 refused to reveal to ESPN — Leonard and Shelton devoted that summer to ensuring his quads weren’t just strong but symmetrically and multidirectionally strong. “Most players are linear; they can run in a straight line and jump vertically,” Shelton says. “But with Kawhi, we focus on perfecting change of direction.”

The success of the NBA’s biometrics endeavors led the league the expand the initiative further – much further. In 2014, Eric Freeman wrote for Yahoo Sports that teams had begun monitoring their players’ sleep, and were proposing regular blood tests.

[T]he Golden State Warriors [are] having Andre Iguodala and others wear wristbands to monitor their sleep. In truth, most of the examples are fairly innocuous and involve players undergoing tests that would figure to improve their performance with minimal invasiveness. Every player mentioned also seems to take the monitoring and its results seriously, to the point where the information revealed could not be used against them in any obvious way.

However, the piece also includes several statements, like those from the Kings front-office members mentioned above, in which NBA decision-makers indicate that they would much prefer to track players’ fatigue levels with invasive procedures like regular blood tests. The stated goal is to keep players healthier so that franchises don’t lose money in salary via games spent on the bench, but the authors are right to suggest that the same information could easily be used against players in contract negotiations. . . . Rather, the question is if teams extracting data (or, as the recently retired Shane Battier fears, all bodily fluids) from players represents too much oversight and a breach of proper relations between employers and employees.

And last year, Jimmy Golen wrote for that teams were now assessing players’ vital signs as they played, capturing that data and using it to predict injury and improve performance.

It is no longer enough for a basketball team to know how many shots a player makes, or even where he was standing when he made it.

Sports data is going biometric, tracking players’ heart rates, movements and energy levels to get a better picture of what’s going on inside their bodies as they run, jump and even sit on the bench. And, device-makers say, the technology can help coaches decide who needs a rest, who needs more work, or who might be most at risk for injury.

“Do you have eyes on every single athlete, every single session?” said Calvin Torres, a sports scientist with the tracker and data company Catapult, who’s heard all the complaints from old-time coaches who insist that they can do the same thing with their eyes and their instincts. “If you put a monitor on them, you do.”

These efforts have been so successful that teams in other leagues have joined them. As Golen wrote, “Catapult is already working with 16 NFL teams, 15 in the NBA and four in the NHL, along with more than a thousand in high school, college, national and pro teams in dozens of countries and sports from rowing to rugby and badminton to bandy.” By last year, NBA teams were talking about quantifying injury risks based on movement pattern analysis.

What’s missing in this strategy is objective, reliable information about a prospect’s injury risk factors and physical proposition. Unfortunately, there is not yet a mandatory pre-draft test that supplies such data. That’s where movement pattern analysis technology comes in – technology that provides coaches with a virtual team of biomechanical experts that output valuable insights that can lead them to making a more informed draft selection. With the latest solutions offering quick & automated assessment, teams need no more than a few minutes to obtain this imperative piece of knowledge during personal pre-draft workout sessions.

By getting a complete picture of a player’s capabilities — how strong his knees are, how stable his ankle movement is, how refined is his jumping technique — teams can greatly increase the likelihood that their pick will remain healthy and able to perform daily, and develop training plans that will enable turn them into the superstar they were yearning to get. Adding this piece to their puzzle, NBA decision-makers can sleep just a bit more soundly at night, knowing that they are way ahead of the curve.

This is the newest frontier in professional sports – and in major league baseball. And it’s easy to see why: the ability to quantify player injury risk, movement, and health is tantalizing. Imagine if teams could predict, based on movement pattern analysis, a pitcher’s risk for ulnar collateral ligament damage? Or if a team could anticipate injuries like Prince Fielder’s ultimately career-ending spinal damage before he signed his $214 million mega-deal with the Tigers? And the applications go beyond just injuries. Range could be quantified for infielders not just based on Statcast, but on physiological capability. Lateral movement and first-step quickness could be improved and predicted, not just measured. Age-related decline could be predicted with exacting accuracy based on measurable bodily degradation. Simply put, such technological advances could revolutionize professional sports.

But it’s not that simple. Why? Because teams are players’ employers. Think of the privacy concerns that could arise from your employer measuring your breathing, your heart rate, your blood levels, and even your sleep patterns, sometimes when you aren’t on the job. Suddenly, employees never have true off-time, because their employer knows their physiology whether they’re on the clock or not. If health information leaked to the press, it could be embarrassing or worse. There’s a reason that Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which you probably know as HIPAA; in the United States, health information is and should be private.

FanGraphs’ own Rian Watt wrote for Vice Sports last year that the issue is rapidly approaching a critical point.

Imagine an office job wherein every keystroke, every mouse movement, and every roll of the desk chair is tracked and logged. Or don’t—such jobs already exist. Then add a heart rate monitor, a live video feed, and the inability to leave for another employer to that picture and you have a general sense of life as a professional baseball player in the biometric future.

The issue is that while HIPAA regulations say an employer generally can’t require an employee’s healthcare provider to turn over medical records, those regulations don’t prevent an employer from asking the employee to tender those records. In other words, HIPAA likely doesn’t stop baseball teams (or the NBA, or the NFL) from collecting biometric data. As Barbara Osborne and Jennie Cunningham wrote in an excellent article for the Marquette Sports Law Review:

Under the statutory language of HIPAA, most of the medical staff employed by professional sports teams would almost certainly be considered healthcare providers subject to the privacy and security requirements of HIPAA. . . . However, [the Department of Health and Human Services] issued a response during the notice and comment period that communicates the opposite effect: DHHS first noted professional sports teams were “unlikely to be covered entities” that would need to abide by HIPAA privacy rules. Further, even if teams would be covered or partly covered, DHHS noted that—although it did not condone a blanket reduction of privacy for an entire group of individuals (like players), it is fully within the purview of employers to “mak[e] an employee’s agreement to disclose health records a condition of employment” (as is maintaining a certain level physical fitness). DHHS adopted language “excluding employment records maintained by a covered entity in its capacity as an employer from the definition of ‘protected health information.’” Operationally, the effect of the guidance is to affirm teams’ power to compel players to disclose health information (waive HIPAA privacy) and subsume the information into the employment record of each player. Once considered part of the employment record, the contents of the record are not viewed as protected health information.

Recognizing this, the National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) negotiated language governing biometric data into their latest collective bargaining agreement with the NBA. Article XXII of the NBA’s CBA, governing Player health and fitness, guarantees that all player health information will remain confidential and the property of the player, and limits its allowable uses. And biometric data obtained from wearable technology cannot be used in contract negotiations.

Data collected from a Wearable worn at the request of a Team may be used for player health and performance purposes and Team on-court tactical and strategic purposes only. The data may not be considered, used, discussed or referenced for any other purpose such as in negotiations regarding a future Player Contract or other Player Contract transaction (e.g., a trade or waiver) involving the player. In a proceeding brought by the Players Association under the procedures set forth in Article XXXI, the Grievance Arbitrator will have authority to impose a fine of up to $250,000 on any Team shown to have violated this provision.

The National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA) also sought protections for its players in its most recent CBA, including language saying that “players must agree to disclosure of their injury relevant HIPAA information…”

But so far, the MLBPA’s approach has been curiously divergent from that of the NBPA and NFLPA. While those unions have been working to limit the use of wearable technology and biometrics, the MLBPA has been slow to seek any protections for MLB players. And given how wearables and biometrics entered baseball in earnest in 2016, that’s somewhat distressing, particularly when you consider the warning Nathaniel Grow gave when he covered this topic most recently:

All told, then, with the exception of mandatory DNA testing, there is currently very little legal protection preventing MLB teams from subjecting their players to the obligatory collection of biometric data. As a result, given the prominent role that wearable technology is poised to play in the industry in the near future, this is certainly an area that the MLBPA would be wise to try to address in the next CBA.

And in August, Stephanie Springer wrote for The Hardball Times that MLB has approved nearly a dozen different wearable devices for in-game use, collecting data on everything from sleep patterns to heart rates.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the MLBPA has necessarily been asleep at the switch. Attachment 56 to the latest CBA, which governs wearable technology and data, guarantees the confidentiality of data obtained from wearable technology.

Any and all Wearable Data shall be treated as highly confidential at all times, including after the expiration, suspension or termination of this Agreement, shall not become a part of the Player’s medical record, and shall not be disclosed by a Club to any party other than those persons listed in this Paragraph 4 without the express written consent of the Player and the Association. In addition, all such Data must be destroyed or permanently deleted in the event a Player requests to have such Data destroyed or deleted, in which case a Player may request a copy of his data prior to its destruction or deletion.

This language is based, in part, on an Illinois statute called the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), and mirrors the language of the Illinois law. But there are differences. For one thing, biometric data is defined much more narrowly in Attachment 56 than it is in BIPA, giving MLB significantly more latitude. And Attachment 56 conspicuously omitted this language from BIPA:

A private entity in possession of biometric identifiers or biometric information must develop a written policy, made available to the public, establishing a retention schedule and guidelines for permanently destroying biometric identifiers and biometric information when the initial purpose for collecting or obtaining such identifiers or information has been satisfied or within 3 years of the individual’s last interaction with the private entity, whichever occurs first. Absent a valid warrant or subpoena issued by a court of competent jurisdiction, a private entity in possession of biometric identifiers or biometric information must comply with its established retention schedule and destruction guidelines.

And there are some other notable omissions. While the most recent CBA does guarantee that wearable data cannot be used in salary arbitration, there is no prohibition in the CBA on using it in contract negotiations generally, or in trades. Unlike the NBA’s CBA, there is no provision providing a penalty for violations. And unlike both the NFL and NBA agreements, the MLB CBA does not contain strict language stating that medical records are the property of the player. Now, the CBA does provide a prohibition on public disclosure:

A Club Physician or Certified Athletic Trainer treating a Player . . . shall be prohibited from making any public disclosure of a Player’s medical information absent a separate, specific written authorization from the Player authorizing such public disclosure.

That this language is less stringent than the NBPA negotiated has real effects, because it transfers the burden from the League to the player. And perhaps most significantly, the MLB CBA and Attachment 56 do not include minor league players within their scope, meaning that major league teams seemingly can lawfully compel minor leaguers to surrender data from wearable technology. As Nicholas Zych wrote for the DePaul University Journal of Sports Law, “In the approaching battle over [biometrics data] ownership, rights-holding Clubs will have a strong upper hand over MiLB players.”

And that’s another reason why the current CBA scheme is so flawed from the player perspective. If teams already know sensitive information regarding minor leaguers’ health – information which they are not required to keep confidential given the exclusion of minor leaguers from the CBA – it could give them a plausible-seeming reason to delay promotions and stunt service time accrual, and perhaps even manipulate trade value. And major leaguers could see their earning potential reduced by medical and biometric data dating from when they were in the minor leagues. When players are called up to the major leagues, sensitive data regarding their health may already have been compromised without remedy, giving further ground to a team which wishes to exploit it.

“With all of this, player consent is critical,” says Alan Milstein [to Watt], a New Jersey-based attorney who practices in both bioethics and sports law. . . . “A young player, 19 years old, when he sees the team physician, is going to be under the impression that that physician is his physician, and that there’s going to be some kind of doctor-patient relationship with some kind of fiduciary duty that the physician owes to him,” Milstein notes. “But that physician really works for the team, and that creates a lot of ethical issues.”

So what’s the solution here? This is one issue where the MLBPA needs to take a much firmer stance, not only on behalf of major league players but minor league players as well. Thus far, the MLBPA has notably been the least active union when it comes to these issues, and also the only one which provides such limited protections to future high-end professionals; the MLBPA CBA gives no defense to minor leaguer whose biometric data is being collected until the day he is added to a 40-man roster. That is simply not tenable, particularly given the incentive it gives teams to extract as much data as possible from minor leaguers for as long as they can. The MLBPA has essentially provided a route by which teams might one day have a staggering amount of private health information concerning its members, almost none of which will be subject to legal protection.