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What Should the Pirates Do at #2?

We’re just one week away from one of my favorite events of the year, the 2010 MLB amateur draft. By now we know that the sure fire #1 pick is the über-hyped catcher Bryce Harper. The big question now is what the Pittsburgh Pirates will do with the 2nd pick of the draft. They have plenty of good options to choose from. Most prospect rankings have shortstop Manny Machado, lefty college pitcher Drew Pomeranz and high school righty Jameson Tallion at the top of the board after Harper.

My colleague Bryan Smith recently discussed Machado in his post about the next first round shortstops. I won’t rehash the whole thing, but in a nutshell, Machado will be a big leaguer, and he will probably be a very good big leaguer for a long time. Scouts have drawn several comparisons between Machado and Alex Rodriguez, although some of that has to do with Machado being a super prep star of Dominican descent playing in the Miami area.

Tallion is a big, flame throwing prep pitcher from the great state of Texas. He throws in the mid-to-upper nineties with relative ease, and has a hammer of a curveball. We’ve seen this story before, and it’s called the Josh Beckett story, or at least that’s the comparison scouts are making with Tallion.

Pomeranz is a college lefty with a 90-94 MPH fastball and a big time curve-piece (to borrow a phrase from Cistulli’s vocab) that has helped him rack up massive strikeout totals at Ole Miss. It’s easy to foresee Pomeranz making a difference in a big league rotation in short order.

Neal Huntington’s rebuilding Buccos really cannot go wrong here, but if I were to pick, I’d go for Machado, and it’s not just because of the lofty comparisons he’s drawn. When we look at the history of the draft, first round picks that are position players do considerably better than pitchers, whether they come from high school or college.

The stats are from the historical WAR data now available on the site. I’m looking at the first rounders from ’90-’99. We’re paying attention to the WAR numbers per season while the player is under team control, or in other words their first six seasons in the majors. Here’s the averages per grouping:

College Hitters 0.9
College Pitchers 0.6
HS Hitters 0.8
HS Pitchers 0.4

Hitters have proven to be a much safer bet. Narrowing down the field to the top 2-6 picks, hitters outperformed pitchers 1.1 WAR per season, compared to .8 WAR for pitchers.

The Pirates definitely are in an enviable position with such talent to choose from, but because TINSTAAPP is the ruthless beast that it is, the smart thing to do for Neal Huntington and Co. is to bet on the hitter.

Is Bryce Harper Worth the Money?

Bryce Harper, hitting prodigy extraordinaire. Dubbed by Sports Illustrated as the baseball’s Lebron James, Harper is the most hyped prospect since, well, Steven Strasburg, who was drafted just last year. Both players have the tools and the results to be considered worthy of such hysteria.

Steven Strasburg is dominating Triple-A pitching already, and Harper has clubbed 23 homeruns in 198 at-bats as a 17 year old collegiate in a league that plays only with wooden bats. Sure, it’s junior college, but Harper has done nothing to sully his reputation as a prodigious power hitter. The craziest thing about this all is these two super-phenoms could be battery mates in D.C. in the very near future if a.) The Nationals draft him, which it appears that they will, and b.) If Harper can stick at catcher, and many scouts believe that he can.

The Nationals already doled out a record signing of $15.67 million to Strasburg last year, raising some eyebrows among fans and analysts alike, but it was a far cry from the possible Dice-K numbers that he was rumored to be initially seeking. Harper, who is advised by none other than Scott Boras, is rumored to be seeking even more money than Strasburg, according to Jon Heyman. (What? Heyman leaking bonus demands of a Boras client? That’s shocking!)

While it seems astounding to us average Joes that a kid not old enough to vote would receive such big dollars, is it really that nuts for a player drafted 1st overall to get that sort of money?

To answer that question I looked at all the 1-1 picks since the history of the draft. I’m looking just at the players who have played long enough to be judged to this point, so no Strasburg, David Price, Justin Upton, Tim Beckham or Luke Hochevar. Again, I’m looking only at the player’s first seasons in the majors, not when they are free agent eligible. I’m using Rally’s Historical WAR database to get their WAR totals.

Here’s the Top 5 1-1 picks of all time, and what their production would have been worth on today’s free agent market.

Name	      	Pos	HS/COL	      	WAR	WAR/yr.	FA$
Alex Rodriguez	SS	High School	37.5	6.3	153.8
Ken Griffey 	OF	High School	35.2	5.9	144.3
Joe Mauer       C	High School   	33.1    5.9     135.7
Chipper Jones	SS	High School	26.8	4.5	109.9
Dar. Strawberry	OF	High School	26.7	4.5	109.5

It’s attention-grabbing to me that all of these hitters came out of high school. And of course, they were all really, really good. If Harper can come even close to any of these select few, he’ll be worth his bonus many times over.

Now getting beyond the fun, superlative stuff, 45% of the #1 overall picks have produced nothing or next to nothing in the big leagues. Averaging all the 1st picks together, you get 9.5 WAR, or 1.6 WAR per season. We are talking about just 40 players, so standard deviation for the group is 1.8 WAR per season, in case you were wondering.

If we estimate that a player worth 1.6 WAR per season will earn about $13 million before they hit free agency (factoring in the 40%, 60%, 80% arbitration estimates and league minimum pay), we find that said player is worth a surplus value of around $26 million. So while handing out a bonus of $15 million puts a good sized dent in that surplus, that’s still a considerable surplus left over.

For all the moralizing and hem-hawing that #1 draft picks are vastly overpaid, I’d argue that they are a relative value. Sure, there is a good bit of risk involved, but when you glance at the overall picture, the #1 overall picks on an average have been worth their scratch. If Bryce Harper is worth only a fraction of the hype he’s received, he’ll be well worth whatever the record signing money he receives.

A Reality Check From the Draft Hype

The major league draft has come a long way in terms of coverage. In this age of twitter and blogs, we get more and more information on these prospective major league players than ever before. We also have seen two of the most hyped players in draft history set to go in consecutive years. Steven Strasburg received an insane amount of hype and continues to do so, while Bryce Harper made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old kid.

Around this time we begin to see mock drafts, hear rumors and get all sorts of pre-draft hype leading up until draft day. That’s all fine and good, and I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade, but we need to counterbalance some of the draft hysteria with a healthy dose of reality.

Using Rally’s historical WAR database, I compiled the WAR figures for every player drafted in the first round in the 1990s. I only compiled the WAR totals for the player’s first six years of major league service, or in other words, his team-controlled years. Teams benefit the most when the player is a relative bargain, not when he’s being paid what he is worth on the free agent market. There’s many different angles we can look at with the data I put together, and maybe we’ll look at some later, but for now I just want to take a look at the attrition rates to help sober us up from the draft prospect propaganda.

-63.4% of first rounders busted, or produced between zero and 1.5 WAR.

-12.9% of first rounders produced 1.6 WAR and 6 WAR. These would be your role players; that is, your middle relievers, bench players.

-12.9% of first rounders were worth between 6.1 and 12 WAR. These are, but are not limited to, your starters on the fringe to average regulars.

-5% were worth between 12.1 and 18 WAR, 6.8% were worth 18.1 WAR or greater. That grouping includes some of today’s stars; Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Manny Ramirez and *ahem* Jason Kendall.

(Once upon a time, Jason Kendall was pretty awesome.)

So that’s about three-quarters of all first rounders failing to live up to the hype. Every team envisions their first round pick as a fixture in their every day lineup or pitching rotation, but the odds are they produce little to nil in the big leagues. I do not envy the job of the scouting director; it’s a job where you swing for the fences but often come up empty. On the other side of the coin, the payoffs can be huge for the ones that do pan out.

National Soft-Tosser Association

Radar guns are not fans of the Washington Nationals’ makeshift pitching rotation. As a unit, they have an average velocity of 87.9 MPH. Big league lineups know that when they are facing Washington, it’s soft-tosser after soft-tosser after soft-tosser. While there is much more to pitching then just rearing back and throwing fastballs in the upper-nineties, there is a correlation between velocity and striking batters out. So it shouldn’t come as a shock to see the Nationals’ staff sitting at a dangerously low strikeout rate of just 4.67 K/9. When you’re missing this few bats, you’re relying on your defense to make a lot of outs. And for the Nationals, that can be a bit of adventure at times when you’re fielding Adam Dunn at any position.

The Head Master of the slow fastball is Livan Hernandez, whose heater comes in at a breakneck speed of 84.1 MPH. More than a handful of pitchers throw change-ups faster than that, but it’s Livan’s calling card. Livan has a magical ERA of 1.04 right now despite a K/BB ratio of 2.91:2.91. His 5.18 xFIP tells us the cold, hard truth of about Livan, as if we didn’t know it already.

Lefty Scott Olsen is the only one out of the bunch with an above-average strikeout rate at 8.36 K/9. His slider has been a put away pitch for him so far in the season, and he has a decent change-up to keep opposite handed batters off-balance. While he’s off to a great start, we’re still talking about Scott Olsen, and a pitcher that’s not far removed from labrum surgery, so I’d expect some regression.

Craig Stammen throws the ball harder than any of his other rotation mates, with an average fastball velocity of 90.4. Whoa, there. He does however have some good control working in his favor. He’s walking only 1.13 batters per nine, and while that low rate won’t stay that good, he has had a good walk rates throughout his minor league career.

John Lannan had an ERA of 3.88 last year despite a K/9 rate of …3.88. That just doesn’t even seem possible, unless we’re talking about a different generation of pitchers. Lannan is predictably getting rocked by batters so far this season (45 hits in 32.2 innings). He’s also hurting himself by walking 4.96 batters per nine.

Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang are all expected to come off the disabled list sometime this year for the Nationals. I also heard this rumor about a guy they have in the minors named Stephen Strasburg who throws the ball really, really hard and is supposed to be really, really good. He should be up when his general manager is done manipulating the service time rules. Uh, I mean when he decides that he’s major league ready. So there is a reason to believe that radar guns will soon be lit up in our nation’s capital.

Fun with Shutdowns and Meltdowns

Yesterday David introduced a couple of new stats, Shutdowns and Meltdowns, to the site.  It’s fashioned after saves/blown saves but is vastly superior, because it’s a metric that uses WPA as a substitute of the brainless, archaic save stat and the rules that guide it.

A team essentially has something like a 98% likelihood of winning the game with a three-run lead with no outs, yet a manager will trot out his ace reliever in that situation about 98% of the time for the sake of save. But when the game is on the line and it’s non-save situation, we often see managers make some of the most bizarre choices in their bullpen usage.

Take for instance Tuesday night’s Phillies–Cardinals game that ended in the 10th on a walk-off homer by Carlos Ruiz. While there’s no real “ace” in the Cardinal bullpen, the inexperienced Blake Hawksworth isn’t the guy you normally would want on the mound against the Phillies in such a high leverage situation, but it appears Tony La Russa held back his closer because it wasn’t a save situation.

Anyway, with any luck this catches on. Just to recap:

Shutdown is when a reliever accumulates greater than or equal to 0.06 WPA in any individual game.

Meltdown is when a reliever’s WPA is less than or equal to -0.06 in any individual game.

What I thought would be interesting is to look at the “Meltdowniest” pitchers of the past three seasons, as well as the ones who we could say have ice water in their veins. The pitchers with the most meltdowns are usually the ones fans want to ride out of town on a rail, along with their manager, while the pitchers with the smallest meltdown rate we tend to feel pretty comfortable with, even in the highest leverage situations.

These are the pitchers with the highest percentage of relief appearances that resulted in a Meltdown:

Read the rest of this entry »

Adam LaRoche and His Desert Walking Shoes

Adam LaRoche came into the off-season with a higher opinion of himself than what major league GM’s thought of him. After a prolonged time of sitting around and watching other players get signed, LaRoche ultimately settled for a one-year deal with the Diamondbacks at the bargain price of $5 million. So far, that deal is looking like an even better deal than projected, as LaRoche is off to a very good start, hitting for a .401 wOBA.

While we don’t want to get carried away with someone who is hitting in the dry air of Arizona this early, there is a solid reason to believe LaRoche’s step-up is the genuine article. Why is that you ask? Well, LaRoche has become a noticeably more disciplined hitter. His walk rate is up to 15.2%, and that’s backed by a league-low O-Swing% of 10.4%, a stunning 12.2% cut from his O-Swing% from the preceding season. This bodes extremely well for LaRoche. While we should rightfully be wary of sample size stats this early, a study by Russell Carlton shows that a player’s swing percentages become reliable much sooner than other numbers. For swing%, it’s as quickly as 50 plate appearances.

O-Swing% correlates well with walks for the obvious reason that if a player isn’t chasing balls out of the strike zone, naturally he’ll be reaching base more while also taking advantage of better pitches to hit. LaRoche has been doing just that, and now his updated ZiPS projection calls for a .390 wOBA on the season. That’s Ryan Howard production at a Scott Linebrink price.

LaRoche can undoubtedly parlay this type of success into some bigger bankroll if he can keep showing a discriminatory eye at the plate to complement his solid power.

Organizational Rankings: Current Talent – White Sox

Kenny Williams is a direct reflection of his team – enigmatic. He’s made some brilliant moves and he’s made some…less than brilliant moves. But he’s always making moves, he rarely stands pat. Well, unless it’s this winter regarding his DH situation, but that is a horse that has already been whipped by our own Matt Klaasen. Right now we’re looking at the present talent Williams has assembled.

The White Sox are a mixed bag of aging veterans and up-and-coming youngsters, sprinkled in with a couple of players with (what have been deemed) toxic contracts that Williams took on. I’ll start with the starting rotation, which has a player with a less than flexible contract in Jake Peavy. Peavy is making the switch from one extremely friendly ballpark to the less than friendly confines of “The Cell”. He has a bit of an injury history (202 total days on the DL), but the Pale Hose have been one of the best clubs at treating and preventing injuries. They’re paying him like an ace for the next three, possibly four years, but I wouldn’t bank on him being one. Peavy leads the charge of what is a very strong pitching rotation, behind him is the dependable Mark Buehrle, who is under contract for this season and the next. Following those two are two very good, cost-effective starters in John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Lastly, we have Freddy Garcia keeping Daniel Hudson’s seat warm. Few teams boast of such a rotation. This is a fantastic rotation that will need to hold together, because the offense could be pretty wretched.

Backing up that rotation is a strong, yet expensive bullpen. Matt Thornton has been worth on average 1.6 WAR per season since coming for to the Sox. Those are elite totals for a set-up man, and because of his presence I’m surprised the White Sox have not been more aggressive about trading Bobby Jenks, who they just paid $7 million in his second season of arbitration eligibility. This is also the team that is paying Scott Linebrink $11 million more over the next two seasons. The team also is gambling $3 million on J.J. Putz. They also have the hard-throwing Tony Pena, who they traded Brandon Allen go the Diamondbacks to get. Allen was supposed to be the future for the Sox at first base.

The lineup is headlined by Gordon Beckham, who played extremely well in his rookie debut and should provide the team all-star caliber contributions for years to come. His double-play partner Alexei Ramirez should also be in a White Sox uniform for years to come, but he’s proving to be a tough nut to crack. His offense slipped last year, but his defense at shortstop improved. The season before his defense was terrible but he hit well. The Sox would like to get him firing on all cylinders. Carlos Quentin has two more seasons of arbitration eligibility left, and if he can hit like he did in 2008, the White Sox may think about extending him. But his defense has been abysmal in the outfield and he’s had trouble staying on the field, dealing with foot and wrist injuries.

From there, Williams has an odd collection players who used to be great earlier in this millennium that he’s brought in in recent times – Alex Rios, Juan Pierre, Mark Kotsay, Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel and I suppose even Mark Teahen fits that bill. (Remember that 2006!) There are also longtime Sox Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, who are in their last season of their contract and have seen better days. Rios has over $61 million remaining on his contract that will take him into 2014. He was a 5 WAR player in 2007 and 2008, but was replacement level last season, and the move to the Windy City didn’t help as many expected.

For the present, this looks very much like a .500 team. Williams hamstrung himself by taking on the Peavy and Rios contracts, and will have to rely on his prospects to carry the White Sox forward.

Taking the Next Step: Peter Bourjos

Last week my colleague Bryan Smith got an interesting conversation started in a post he titled The Next Step.  In a nutshell, his question was “what does sabermetric prospect analysis look like?” That question got a lot of good dialogue going, and I’m sure it’s something you might be seeing more of here at FanGraphs in the coming days and months.

Today I’m just going to approach it in the most back-of-a-napkin method as possible with a prospect who I feel is a tad undersold, and that’s Peter Bourjos, a center fielder in the Angels’ system. If you listened to the corresponding podcast we did about taking the next step in prospect analysis, you know that Peter Bourjos gets me all tingly for some reason. I think it’s probably because I’m the sort of person who likes to see players who fly a bit under the radar succeed, and I like players who I suppose you can call throwback types who may not hit for power, but can run and play good defense.

First, I dug up my trusty 2010 Baseball America Handbook, the 2010 Minor League Analyst and then surfed the web for different scouting reports. I even looked at some video on YouTube.  (Remember, this is nothing really scientific). From there I got enough info for me to put together this scouting report, based on the 20-80 scale.

Categories   Grades
Hitting      55
Power        30
Discipline   40?
Speed        70
Field        70

A quick rundown on each tool: Bourjos has some holes in his swing, but should make enough contact to hit about .275-.280 per season. He has gap power, but is very unlikely to crack more than 10 homers in a season. His selectivity at the plate improved, as shown by a 9.7% BB%, a rise of 6.2% from the season earlier. I put a question mark next to the grade because I don’t feel confident that he won’t walk more than 7% in the majors.

Bourjos’ speed and defense is his claim to fame, as I mentioned before. He steals a lot of bases in an organization that encourages being aggressive on the basepaths. He could improve upon his success rate, however.  His speed helps him to range almost effortlessly to balls that most outfielders would have to dive for. According to his Total Zone numbers found on, Bourjos has been worth 76 runs in just 363 games in the minors. That’s pretty freaking fantastic. CHONE projects he’d be good for 14 runs above average on defense now.

Putting this all together and assuming all goes well…

600 plate appearances, 42 walks, 117 singles, 26 doubles, 7 triples, 5 homers, 30 steals, 10 caught stealing = .318 wOBA.

  • Batting wins above average (.318 wOBA, league .335): -9 runs
  • Defensive wins above average: +14 runs
  • CF Positional Adjustment: +2.5 runs
  • Replacement: +20 runs

Total: 2.8 WAR.

That to me would represent pretty close to a perfect world scenario of what Bourjos becomes while under team control. I think Angel fans would gladly take that. Well, they would if Bourjos had a place to play, as center field is currently occupied by Torii Hunter. His downside would be something like a right-handed version of Endy Chavez. How is that for hedging my bets? There’s no shame in that considering Chavez has been worth about a win per year coming off the bench.

Anyway, this is HIGHLY subjective and I know opinions on prospects can greatly differ, so don’t stone me if you think I’m being too optimistic or pessimistic. This is just meant as more of a fun, quick-and-dirty way that you can use to get a glimpse of a prospect’s potential in terms of wins above replacement from information you can glean from their scouting reports.

The Cardinals Weak Spot?

Heading into the 2010 season, the St. Louis Cardinals are considered heavy favorites to win big in a rather weak NL Central. And there are good reasons for that. They have one of the better one-two punches both in their lineup with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, and also in their rotation with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. They have outstanding defense in the “up the middle” positions from Brendan Ryan, Yadier Molina and Colby Rasmus, and have solid players around the diamond all around. Most projections that I’ve seen call for the team to win 88-91 games.

But if the Cardinals do have one potential Achilles heal, it would be their bullpen. Their ‘pen actually posted a 3.67 ERA in 2009, the fourth best mark in the National League, but it was a lucky 3.67 ERA. The team is returning most of the bullpen from the prior season in 2010, let’s take a look at their ERA-xFIP differentials to get a glimpse of just how fortunate they were last year, and an idea of what may happen should their bullpen regress to the mean:

Ryan Franklin, closer – 1.92 ERA, 4.27 xFIP
Kyle McClellan, set-up – 3.38 ERA, 4.42 xFIP
Jason Motte – 4.76 ERA, 4.27 xFIP
Dennys Reyes – 3.29 ERA, 4.44 xFIP
Trever Miller – 2.06 ERA, 3.45 xFIP
Blake Hawksworth – 2.03 ERA, 4.59 xFIP

Their best reliever looks to be a 37-year-old LOOGY, Trever Miller. Yeesh. Ryan Franklin was greatly benefited by a .269 BABIP, a 3.2% HR/FB and an 85.7% strand rate. I don’t think Franklin fits anyone’s definition of a shut-down closer, and should his HR/FB rates go back to 2009 levels (10.4%), it will lead to a lot of teeth-gnashing in Cardinal Nation.

Like Franklin, McClellan is also a pitcher with a low strikeout rate for a reliever, and he’s actually competing with Rich Hill and youngster Jaime Garcia for a spot to be the Cardinals #5 starter.

That leaves converted catcher Jason Motte as the favorite for the set-up role. Motte had the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher in the minor leagues in 2008 (14.85 K/9), but learned the hard way last season that he cannot thrive on mere heat alone, and has yet to discover an effective secondary offering.

It’s surprising to me that the Cardinals have yet to kick the tires on Kiko Calero, who was part of their 2004 team that won the NL Championship, and it’s also surprising that they have steered clear of Octavio Dotel or even the likes of Chan Ho Park this offseason. Maybe their general manager has been lulled into a false sense of security by the ERA that the ’09 team posted, because by all accounts they have money left in the budget to have signed one more relief pitcher. The failure to do so will likely make it easier for the underdogs to sneak up in the standings, unless lady luck strikes again.

Frank Wren Likes Lottery Tickets

Frank Wren’s modus operandi to the 2010 offseason: Replace younger, healthier players with older, more injury prone players. He’s not a doctor, but he plays one in real life. Actually, I’m not here to pick on Wren. You can make arguments for all of his acquisitions this offseason. But seriously, this is getting weird.

Last week Wren traded Javier Vazquez and essentially replaced him with Tim Hudson. Hudson threw a grand total of 42 innings last season for the Braves, and it was enough to convince him to re-sign him to a 3-year/$28 million deal. That pretty much sealed Vazquez’s fate as a Brave, as no one was interested in picking up Derek Lowe’s ugly contract. Vazquez has thrown over 200 innings the past four seasons, averaging 5.3 WAR per season during that span. Hudson has been a 5+ WAR pitcher four different times over his career, and the success rate of Tommy John surgery is pretty good. This might work out just fine, and at least the Braves got a decent return for Vazquez.

The Braves also replaced 30-year-old Rafael Soriano with 38-year-old Billy Wagner, who is also is coming off of Tommy John surgery. Soriano was a 2 WAR reliever in 2009 but has a checkered injury history of his own. Still, he showed us last season what he is capable of. Soriano surprisingly accepted arbitration, but the Braves had no trouble finding a taker for his services, swapping him to Tampa Bay for Jesse Chavez.

Now the Braves are replacing Adam LaRoche with Troy Glaus. Glaus is reported to have signed for a $2 million deal, with incentives. The deal is pending a physical, but the well-respected Dr. Lewis Yocum has already given the thumbs up on Glaus’ surgically repaired shoulder to interested parties. It’s worth noting that it was more than just Troy’s shoulder that limited him to just 14 games last season; he also experienced troubles with his back.

Glaus will play first base with the Braves, which should help health-wise. When he’s right, he is plenty productive. Over his career, his wRC+ is 123, and in his last healthy season Glaus posted a 131 wRC+ with the Cardinals in 2008. For the money, this is a nice upside play in an iffy 1B market for Wren and Co. On the flip-side, they’re obviously showing that they are not counting on a whole lot from Glaus.

I’m seeing a lot of roster-churning going on, but I’m not sure I’m seeing a lot of progress. If anything, it looks like they’ve taken a step back. Jason Heyward could go Cameron Maybin on the Braves, Matt Diaz may not be able to handle regular duty, and Glaus, Wagner and Hudson are all too familiar with the disabled list.

The Braves were in shouting distance of the wild card last year. If they want to send Bobby Cox out a winner, filling their needs with a bunch of injury-risks in hopes of improving seems like an “interesting” way to go about accomplishing that task. Considering some of the alternatives, it might have been the best, but definitely not the safest approach. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.