Author Archive

Yanks Re-Sign Gardner

On Friday, the Yankees and Brett Gardner came to a one-year, $4 million agreement. The deal includes a player option for 2022 and a team option if Gardner declines it. The contract solidifies the outfielder’s plan to spend his entire career in New York. Nominally, his return had been up in the air: The Yankees declined to exercise his $10 million option last fall and announced that Clint Frazier would be the club’s starting left fielder in 2021. But Gardner wanted to stay in New York, and he was willing to sign on for part-time duty in lieu of other options.

Had Gardner wanted a starting gig, he probably could have found it, as he seems to have plenty left in the tank. Prior to 2020, he had accrued 2.5 WAR or better every year since 2012. Last season, he posted a 110 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR in 49 games, numbers that probably undersell his ability. He got off to a dreadful start, batting just .165/.293/.299 through his first 36 games. In most years, that’s a bad April, but in 2020 that was his batting line when he woke up on September 10. He hit nearly .400 the rest of the way though, and then mashed in October to alleviate concerns that age had eaten into his offensive ability.

On the contrary, Gardner has aged spectacularly well. Just about the only thing that seems to have changed in his 13 years in the majors is the size of his neck, and even that’s been pretty subtle. Last year, Gardner posted a career-best walk rate, and also his highest average exit velocity since Statcast started tracking that metric. He did strike out and whiff more often than normal, but also raised his launch angle; sometimes there’s a bit of a tradeoff there. Perhaps most encouragingly, the Yankees still saw fit to use him in center field several times, and while his wheels may not spin quite as fast these days, he’s still a plus runner. ZiPS projects 1.8 WAR for him in 118 games, which would make him a 2-3 win player in an everyday role. For Aaron Boone, that’s a hell of an option to have on the bench. Read the rest of this entry »

Travis Shaw Could Be a Smart Flier for Milwaukee

Earlier this week, Travis Shaw signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Brewers that will pay him $1.5 million if he makes the big league roster, with another $1.5 million available in incentives. (Our Jay Jaffe has the particulars in a piece from Thursday on Milwaukee signing him and Brett Anderson.) There’s also an opt-out date in mid-March, one he’ll presumably exercise if he isn’t tracking to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. He’ll have to beat out some combination of Luis Urías and Daniel Vogelbach for at-bats, and while that may not sound likely, I think he’s a reasonable bounce-back candidate.

I’ve long been fascinated by Shaw’s career path and the way his production has bounced around with his launch angle. One notable aspect of the launch angle revolution is how frequently swing adjustments seem to pay off. Perhaps we can attribute some of that to a juicy baseball; we’ll see how well all the new flyball hitters hold up with a deader pill this year. Most players who steepened their launch angle, though, have benefited from doing so — but not everyone.

Logically, we can intuit that too steep of a launch angle leads to popups, flyouts, and more swings and misses. Anything above a 45-degree launch angle, for instance, is almost always an out (unless you’re a freak like Pete Alonso). And while nobody has an average launch angle anywhere near 45 degrees, it makes sense that someone with a comparatively high figure may be reaching for too much of a good thing.

That brings us back to Shaw. After posting consecutive 3.5-WAR seasons for the Brewers in 2017 and ’18, he slumped horribly the following year. In baseball’s most homerific season to date, Shaw went from 32 round-trippers to seven. Unsurprisingly, he lost his job, got demoted to Triple-A twice, and was non-tendered after the season. A quick look at this contact profile highlights the problem:

What Goes Up…
Year Launch Angle Contact Rate wRC+
2016 16.1 77.6% 88
2017 14.9 80.1% 119
2018 16.9 81.4% 120
2019 24.9 70.8% 48
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Read the rest of this entry »

A’s Improve, Dodgers Bolster Farm in Four-Player Swap

Last Friday, the Dodgers traded reliever Adam Kolarek and right-fielder Cody Thomas to Oakland in exchange for third baseman Sheldon Neuse and right-hander Gus Varland. While it’s unusual to see a division favorite flip a major leaguer for prospects with another contender, the move makes sense for both parties. The A’s get a little better in the here and now, while the Dodgers can dream on Neuse as another breakout candidate for the club’s stellar player development staff to work with.

Kolarek is the lone established big leaguer in this swap. The sidearming southpaw has been a stable part of the Dodgers’ bullpen since his acquisition from Tampa Bay 18 months ago, running an 0.88 ERA over 30 innings of work in Los Angeles — a fun bit of trivia that shouldn’t distract from otherwise normal peripherals. He primarily works with a high-80s, low-90s sinker out of a funky slot and has generated a 62% ground-ball rate over his career. Between that, a supposedly deadened ball this year, and a cavernous new home park, he may never allow a homer again.

He joins a very good bullpen in Oakland. The Athletics’ relief corps had the league’s best ERA and third-best FIP in 2020, and that group was pretty good the previous two seasons as well. Still, Kolarek fills a hole, as the ‘pen otherwise leaned heavily toward right-handers; Jake Diekman is the only other lefty likely to crack the Opening Day roster. With the A’s set to contend again this year, Kolarek adds depth to a strong unit that should see plenty of work in relief of Oakland’s young starters.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Tigers Signed Jonathan Schoop and It’s Actually Kind of Interesting

Amidst the blizzard of free agent deals announced last Friday, Jonathan Schoop re-signed with the Detroit Tigers. It’s a one-year deal worth $4.5 million per Jeff Passan and, as far as I can glean, there are no performance incentives.

The second baseman is coming off of a productive 2020, when he hit .278/.324/.475 (114 wRC+) while racking up 1.4 WAR in just 44 games. Despite that, his salary for the upcoming year is actually a small cut from the $6.1 million contract he signed last winter, though he’ll wind up earning more money in 2021 than the prorated earnings he accrued in last year’s shortened season.

You probably haven’t thought all that much about Schoop lately. If he wasn’t on your fantasy squad or real-life team of choice, you may have a vague impression of him as a once-promising Oriole who gradually faded into irrelevance. At a glance, that’s about right. He had a breakout campaign as a 25-year-old back in 2017, when he made the All-Star team, notched 3.7 WAR, homered 32 times, and posted career highs in just about every offensive category. A slow start the following year spiraled into a miserable summer after a mid-season trade to Milwaukee. Minnesota picked him up for 2019, where he played a competent if forgettable second base before ultimately losing his job to Luis Arraez. Soon after, he signed on with the Tigers and all of the obscurity that that implies. Read the rest of this entry »

Dustin Pedroia Calls It a Day

With his eyeblack, dirty uniform, lip-curling grin, and yes, short stature, Dustin Pedroia looked like a kid having the time of his life in the major leagues, and he played like someone would take it all away if he ever let up. In that time, he ran out every tapper to short and chased after every lost cause grounder up the middle. He lived and breathed the game, and if a little thing like a broken foot conspired to keep him out of the lineup, then he’d field grounders on his knees, dammit.

That chapter of his life is now over, as Pedroia announced his retirement on Monday, ending an illustrious career after 14 seasons with the Red Sox. His remote press conference made for an impersonal sunset, though I suppose there’s no more appropriate transition into full-time dad-life than awkwardly pausing mid-presentation while middle-aged adults fiddle with the audio settings on their laptops.

While Pedroia officially hung up his cleats yesterday, an early retirement was inevitable from the time he underwent knee replacement surgery last December, and really ever since Manny Machado’s spikes stripped the cartilage off of his femur back in 2017. At the time, we didn’t know how devastating that slide would prove. He only missed three games at first, and his numbers were mostly good over the rest of the season.

But the damage to his knee caused extraordinary pain all year long and required multiple trips to the Injured List. Pedroia was no stranger to battling through injuries — he played the entire 2013 season with a torn UCL in his thumb and many other maladies before and after. This was different though. The damaged knee noticeably limited his mobility and sapped his power. He said that playing through the thumb injury was “like a massage” by comparison, and he never recovered from exerting so much pressure on his knee that year. Extensive rehab got him on the field for bits and pieces of the 2018 and ’19 seasons, but only as a shell of himself. This winter’s knee replacement has allowed Pedroia to walk without pain again, but at a heavy cost: Just 37 years old, he’ll never be able to run again. Read the rest of this entry »

Masahiro Tanaka Signs With Rakuten Eagles. Wait, What?

In perhaps the most surprising signing of the off-season, Masahiro Tanaka has agreed to terms with NPB’s Rakuten Eagles. NPB contract details are notoriously difficult to parse, but the anchor number of the hour is $8.6 million per year on a two-year deal, per the Kyodo News. Tanaka will wear No. 18, the number that usually belongs to the staff ace in Japan.

It’s a reunion of player and team, as Tanaka starred for the Eagles prior to signing with New York. In seven years and 176 games with Rakuten, he compiled a 99-35 record with a 2.29 ERA, and I’m comfortable using caveman statistics here because his performance was extraordinary across the board. In his final NPB season, he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, which led to a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees.

Tanaka’s time in the Bronx was a clear success. He departs the States with a 3.74/3.91/3.52 pitcher slash, which was good for 19 WAR over seven seasons. In that time, he also made four Opening Day starts and two All-Star appearances. With his elegant delivery, dastardly split, and well-rounded pitch mix, he’s been a great pitcher (by WAR, the 19th best starter in baseball since his debut) and a joy for this neutral to watch. He also managed to avoid the Tommy John surgery that seemed inevitable back in 2015, when his elbow barked and he was diagnosed with a partial UCL tear.

At this point, it’s unclear what shaped Tanaka’s choice to leave the U.S. A return engagement with the Yankees clearly wasn’t in the cards anymore, after the acquisitions of Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber. But while New York is the only MLB home Tanaka ever knew — and a place he expressed tenderly sentimental feelings toward prior to his final regular season start — he made it clear earlier in the offseason that he was willing to field offers from other big league teams. Whether those wound up being compelling or even forthcoming at all, we can’t say. But it was only in recent days that the rumors surrounding negotiations with Rakuten surfaced; clearly those were very far along. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hang it in the Louvre

Last week, the Mariners Player Development twitter account posted a graphic of Julio Rodriguez.

Adorned in a full uniform and sunglasses, Rodriguez’s bat is cocked just beyond his head as he begins his stride toward the mound; the #SeaUsRise hashtag in the lower left corner suggests a metaphor is at work. “Hang it in the Louvre,” the Mariners tweeted approvingly.

Compliments to artist Trevor Milless aside, this tweet stuck with me, mostly because it’s kind of odd. There aren’t many teams that retweet artwork posted on the club’s player development account, in part because most franchises don’t even have a player development account.

This is part of a pattern in Seattle. The Mariners have been rebuilding for a couple seasons and they’re not shy about promoting their good work. The major league broadcasts feature regular updates on the farm system, and the club’s TV network has aired a few minor league games. Jerry Dipoto even joined one of the broadcasts. All teams are proud of their minor leaguers, of course, but as far as I know, the Mariners are the only team to give one of them a YouTube show.

In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with this. Vibin’ With JRod isn’t for me, but hey, he’s a good prospect and I’m no marketer. Read the rest of this entry »

Padres Continue to Padre, Sign Ha-seong Kim

Hours after trading for Blake Snell, and hours before swinging a deal for Yu Darvish, the Padres continued their remarkable post-Christmas shopping spree by signing Ha-seong Kim. Kim, a 25-year-old infielder who spent last season with the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes, was listed as our eighth-best free agent in our top 50 roundup this fall, just ahead of Didi Gregorius and Justin Turner. Per Kevin Acee of the San Diego Tribune, it will be a four-year, $25 million deal. Additionally, Kiwoom will collect a bit of a tax, taking a $5 million release fee from San Diego.

In Kim, the Padres get a player who should claim a starting job right away, and potentially ascend from there. The best way to characterize his recent KBO production is to say that he’s outgrown the league. As the starting shortstop for one of the circuit’s better clubs, Kim has notched a 140 wRC+ in each of the last two seasons. He produced a .306/.397/.523 line last year, with 30 homers and more walks than strikeouts. He’s also swiped 56 bases in 62 tries over the last two years, a 90% clip. Mel Rojas Jr.’s absurd power production deservedly won him the KBO MVP award last season, but make no mistake: Kim was the brightest prospect in the league.

The scouting report backs up the numbers. A tremendous athlete, Kim’s a plus runner with quick hands and a plus throwing arm. At the plate, he has a mature approach, displaying good patience without being passive. Most of his power comes to the pull side, and he adeptly hunts pitches he can drive: Both his swing rate and whiff rate were above average last year, notable in a league that runs a lot of deep counts. Read the rest of this entry »

Howie Kendrick Drops the Mic

What strikes me most about Howie Kendrick’s career is how close we came to missing it entirely. The line drives, the slick grin, the home run that sealed the 2019 World Series and the epic celebration with Adam Eaton that followed: Were it not for a dutiful scout in the right place at the right time, we’d have missed it all.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Kendrick announced his retirement Monday afternoon. The 37-year-old is just a year removed from arguably the best season of his career, but he slumped badly in 2020 and suffered yet another hamstring injury in September. We can’t say for sure whether those two factors weighed on his mind when he decided to hang them up. But what we do know is that while he’s not going to have a plaque in Cooperstown, Kendrick was one of the best second baseman of his time. He retires with a ring, 30 WAR, and a starting spot on the “what do you mean that guy only played in one All-Star Game?” team.

Kendrick was born in Jacksonville and grew up in nearby Callahan. In high school, he was a good but undistinguished shortstop who graduated with no professional prospects. He was short back then, just 5-foot-7 at the time, and he didn’t even play summer ball. Nobody recruited him, and he actually got cut from a few junior college teams before landing at St. John’s River Community College.

The program at St. John’s has flourished in recent seasons, but when Kendrick made the team at the turn of the century it was an obscure baseball outpost with no recent history of producing talent. Tom Kotchman, an Angels scout in Florida then and the kind of baseball lifer who sneaks into these sorts of stories all the time, only saw him play by chance, thanks to a tip from another coach in the region. St. John’s wasn’t exactly a regular pit stop for him: He once quipped that “the last guy drafted out of that school went to Vietnam,” and while that isn’t true, you get the point he’s making.

Still, it didn’t take long for Kotchman to realize that Kendrick’s bat was special. He spent the spring hoping nobody else would stumble onto his sleeper, and when none did, his reports glowed brightly enough for the Angels to draft him in the 10th round. Read the rest of this entry »