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Hunter Pence Returns to Lone Star State

Hunter Pence was born in Fort Worth, Texas, played high school ball for Arlington (manning shortstop his senior year), and then played college ball for Texarkana College in Texarkana and UT Arlington back home. Two years later, he hit .283/.357/.533 with 28 home runs and 95 RBIs for the Double-A Hooks in Corpus Christi in 2006, then .326/.387/.558 in a brief stop in Triple-A Round Rock to start off the 2007 campaign before finally making his debut for the Astros on April 28th. Friday, his decades-long quest to play at least one game for every amateur and professional team in the great state of Texas reached a new and likely final phase, as he signed a minor-league contract with the Texas Rangers worth $2 million if he makes the club.

There was a time not too long ago when Pence couldn’t be had for a sum as small as $2 million, not even for a few months of play, but those days are well behind us now. Pence’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, isolated power, BABIP, walk rate, and wOBA have each dropped in each of the last three seasons. Last year, he was worth -0.9 WAR for the Giants in his sixth full season for the team. That team, mired in fourth place and under new management, had no place in its outfield for Pence (the old guard did give him a custom scooter), and when it became obvious that the end of this five-year deal was the end of the road in San Francisco, it wasn’t clear whether the 35-year-old would play at all in 2019.

He will, at least in springtime in Arizona, and that’s a small blessing to us all. Pence has always seemed like one of those guys who might have invented baseball accidentally had he been born into a world in which it did not exist. Ever-so-slightly bow-legged, tall, and lanky, he doesn’t look like someone who should be among the very best at what he chose to do, but he was for a time and maybe still can be in Texas. At the plate, he often coils backwards, hands hidden behind his torso, then unspools violently like a length of chain pulled suddenly taut. Eyes wide and utterly fixated on wherever the ball has gone, he is prone to regain his balance and, arms and legs flying, careen into first and beyond, if he can make it. Pence at his best is a joy to watch play the game.

And he has been, at points in his career, a player to rally around. Pence’s first seasons with the Astros, as the team eased out of the Biggio-Bagwell-Berkman-Beltrán era that peaked with a 2005 NL Championship, and began their slow descent into the sordid Yakety Sax years, did not do much to burnish Pence’s national star even though he quietly put up four-and-a-half extremely solid years in Houston. When he was traded to Philadelphia, mid-way through 2011, Pence had accumulated 14.4 WAR at just 28 years of age. That’s not a Hall of Famer, but it’s a player well worth having. An NLDS run with the Phillies in 2011, on the tail-end of their dynasty, put Pence on the map, until he finally caught on with a team at the right time with the Giants in 2012. That run produced three titles (two for Pence) and also this hilarious video which I hope he recreates with the Rangers this year:

“Hunter helped lead the charge to our World Series in 2012,” former Giants’ GM Bobby Evans told me this week, “and his bat and leadership drove us to another World Series in 2014. He plays each game like it’s his last, and will forever be a fan favorite in San Francisco.” Well, he hasn’t played his last game yet: Pence says he’s changed his swing significantly this year, so maybe there’s a few more miles left in the tank. Texas doesn’t really need outfielders, what with Joey Gallo, Delino DeShields, Jr., and Nomar Mazara all already in the fold (and Willie Calhoun available in reserve besides), but they could use a strong bench bat or two and there’s no clubhouse in baseball that couldn’t use Hunter Pence.

I’m never optimistic about players’ ability to re-tool their games after 35 — this is increasingly a young man’s sport, and there’s precious little margin to get it right — but in Pence’s case I hope I am wrong, and that Pence makes the roster and contributes for Texas this year. Hunter Pence is not like many we’ve seen before in this game, and we need more like him. He’s home in Texas now, ready for one more try.

Transaction Roundup: On Pitching Moves Most(ly) Minor

Last week brought with it a flurry of relatively minor pitching deals — the sort that weren’t enough to divert the industry from the apparently never-ending saga of bigger stars left unsigned, and which are fairly typical of this time of year. Here they are:

  • The Orioles signed 31-year-old Nate Karns to a one-year deal worth $800,000, with an additional $200,000 possible in incentives.
  • Cleveland signed 32-year-old Alex Wilson to a minor league deal that could be worth $1.25 million in guaranteed money and an additional $750,000 in incentives should Wilson make the squad out of spring training.
  • The Diamondbacks signed 36-year-old Ricky Nolasco and 33-year-old Marc Rzepczynski to minor league deals and invited both to join big league spring training. Rzepczynski’s deal could be worth $1.5 million guaranteed if he makes the team, with $500,000 in incentives besides. The terms of Nolasco’s deal have not yet been reported.
  • Lastly, the Royals inked 33-year-old Homer Bailey to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training; they did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Bailey’s probably the best-known of the names on that list, but I also think he’s among the least likely to accomplish much in 2019. You may recall that, earlier this winter, Bailey played the part of “salary offset” in the deal that sent Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood to Cincinnati. So underwhelming was his 2018 — in which he allowed 23 home runs in just over 106 innings pitched — that even the Dodgers’ brass, who stash spare pitchers in their overcoats when they’re just going around the corner for a gallon of milk, released Bailey immediately upon his arrival in Los Angeles. He was in blue and white for less than 20 minutes. In Kansas City, he’ll join Brad Keller and Jakob Junis in the Royals’ rotation and work to find a second wind.

Nate Karns — another 30-something with success in his past and a terrible team in his present — has always been a little bit interesting for his ability to keep the ball on the ground with a four-pitch mix that features a two-seamer, a curveball, a change-up, and a heavy sinking fastball. The big question at the moment is how he’ll recover from the thoracic outlet surgery that ended his 2017 season near the end of May of that year, and kept him off the field for the entirety of 2018. Before the injury, Karns was carrying a terrific 50% groundball rate and 27% strikeout rate for the Royals — both improvements on his already-solid 2016 for the Mariners and in line with his 27 and 23% strikeout rates during his heyday with the Rays in 2014-15.

Karns going to Baltimore, which is under new management, is probably good news for everybody involved. Karns, obviously, would like the opportunity to prove that he is healthy and can return to being the quality big-league starter he has already been at various points throughout his career. The Orioles would like that too — Karns has one year of arbitration left, and the Orioles will still need rotation help in 2020. Alternatively, depending on the state of the trade market next summer or the summer thereafter, Karns could be traded to a contender in exchange for some area of need for Baltimore. That, too, would presumably be welcome news for Karns.

I already wrote a little bit about Cleveland’s bullpen situation in my writeup of the Óliver Pérez deal last month, so I won’t say much more about the Wilson deal except what I said then:

Pérez is a good pitcher and Cleveland needs a few of those. He had a terrific season in 2018 and there is reason to believe, despite his 16 seasons in the major leagues, that he has more left in the tank. He’ll be best served if the front office goes out and gets more arms to take some of the strain off of, say, him and Brad Hand, but if he pitches like he did last year, he’ll be useful anyway.

Alex Wilson, apparently, is one of the arms destined to take the strain off of Óliver Pérez and Brad Hand. He was remarkably consistent for the Tigers during his last four years in Detroit, posting a 3.20 ERA and a 2.77 K/BB ratio over 264.2 innings pitched. Importantly, too, he’s demonstrated an ability to throw in different roles: over the course of his career, he’s pitched 50.1 innings in the sixth, 84.1 in the seventh, 97 in the 8th, and 54.1 in the ninth or later. The question, then, is whether the Tigers’ decision to non-tender him this winter was due to some concern about his future not visible to external observers or simply a consequence of the cost-cutting ethos that seems to have overtaken Detroit. I suspect it’s the latter, and like this pickup for Cleveland.

As for Rzepczynski and Nolasco, it’s hard to get too worked up about those deals either way. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen wasn’t outright terrible last year, though it certainly had room for improvement with a 4.08 collective FIP, and Rzepczynski is second bit of the two-part bullpen improvement plan that started with Arizona signing Greg Holland. He got beat up pretty badly between Seattle, Cleveland, and Triple-A last year (an 8.25 ERA in 12 minor-league innings!), so I’m not sure how well that’ll work out, but given his past success against lefties (he’s held them to a .227/.296/.305 career line), it’s worth a shot. Nolasco, too, had some good years for the Twins once upon a dream, but didn’t pitch in the majors last year and will struggle to win a rotation spot this year. These are the kinds of deals you make at the end of the winter, when spring seems close at hand and the snow just days away from melting.

The Royals Make a Bad Bullpen Better

Late Wednesday afternoon, word broke that the Royals were “closing in” on a one-year contract with 30-year-old reliever Brad Boxberger. Jon Heyman reported the deal will be for $2.2 million guaranteed, plus $1 million in incentives. Boxberger wasn’t one of our Top 50 Free Agents here at FanGraphs, so we don’t have a crowdsourced contract prediction on record, but his deal strikes me as right around what you’d expect given recent reliever deals (a rejuvenated Óliver Pérez, for example, just signed for $2.5 million, albeit with an option for 2020) and the fact that the Diamondbacks chose to non-tender Boxberger last fall rather than pay the $4.9 million he was expected to get in arbitration.

Boxberger was an All-Star as recently as 2015, when he saved 41 games and posted a 27% strikeout rate for the Rays. But he struggled badly in 2016 and ended the year with a 17% walk rate and an ugly 4.81 ERA. 2017 was a bit of an improvement on both fronts (the walk rate was back down to 9%, and the ERA to 3.38), but Boxberberg’s 2018 campaign in Arizona saw the seesaw dip back yet again, with a 4.39 ERA and 14% free pass rate. The difference between those two bad 2018 numbers, and his two good ones — a 30 percent strikeout rate and 32 saves — is probably what led Arizona to cut ties with their closer last fall. Arbitrators like save totals perhaps more than they should, and with Boxberger’s season having trended in the wrong direction (compare a first-half ERA of 3.06 to a second-half mark of 7.00), Arizona was clearly ready to move on.

How you feel about Boxberger’s ability to return to form in 2019 depends a great deal on whether you believe he can recover some fastball velocity, or offset the loss with an adjustment to his off-speed offerings. With the exception of a slider that he throws fairly infrequently (just 3% of the time in 2018), Boxberger is basically a two-pitch guy: he’s got a four-seam fastball that he throws up and away to lefties and down and away to righties, and a changeup, which he throws down and away from lefties and just plain down to righties. Unfortunately for the reliever, a slight decrease in fastball velocity (from 94 mph just three years ago to 92 mph last year) without an attendant decrease in changeup velocity has left the pitches too easy for batters to distinguish from each other, and last year saw Boxberger generate fewer swings on pitches outside the zone (28%) than ever before. When he was humming in 2015, that figure was 34%.

Still, if Boxberger is able to get some mustard back on his fastball or otherwise distinguish it more meaningfully from his changeup, there’s little reason to think he can’t put up strikeout numbers that more closely resemble last year’s impressive mark while simultaneously reducing his walk rate to a more reasonable level. If he can, it’ll be a boon for a Kansas City bullpen that was, to put it mildly, atrocious last year. Their collective FIP of 4.85 was, by a fair margin, the worst in the game (the runner-up Mets posted a 4.61 FIP; the 24-point gap between the two teams is the same as the difference between the Mets and the seventh-worst Reds). Their 5.04 ERA was second-worst. They struck out a league-low 7.31 batters per nine innings, and walked 4.15 (sixth-worst). Kelvin Herrera was pretty good for a little while there, but then he got traded. Brad Keller was ok, too. The rest of the Kansas City ‘pen was pretty awful. By WAR, only six teams in the last twenty years have been worse:

Worst Bullpens by WAR, 1999-2018
Team Team Relief WAR
2013 Astros -5.2
2016 Reds -3.8
2010 Diamondbacks -3.3
2007 Devil Rays -3.1
2002 Devil Rays -2.6
1999 Royals -2.4
2018 Royals -2.2

In signing Boxberger, the Royals have taken a positive step toward correcting their biggest weakness. According to Baseball-Reference, Kansas City has acquired nine players since November 1, excluding Boxberger. Five are position players. The other four are relievers. Of those four, just one — Jason Adam, signed as a free agent in mid-December — threw any major league relief innings at all in 2018. Another, Michael Ynoa, had some modest success for the White Sox in 2016 and 2017 but was released in March of 2018 and did not pitch in affiliated ball last season. Andrés Machado was last seen posting a 22.09 ERA for the 2017 Royals, and barely counts as an acquisition; he was non-tendered on November 30th and re-signed to a minor-league deal on December 3. Winston Abreu is 41 and last pitched in the majors in 2009, when he threw 3.2 innings for Tampa Bay and 2.1 Cleveland. I wish them all well, but All-Star arms they are not. Boxberger was, and at least could be again.

Even if the Royals had signed Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino, Jeurys Familia, David Robertson, and Craig Kimbrel this offseason, they likely wouldn’t have a winning team in 2019. As things stand, our depth charts have them besting only the Orioles in total roster WAR. There is, clearly, a lot of room to grow their win total without threatening Cleveland or even the Twins for the AL Central crown. But what we can say at this point is this: the 2018 Royals had one of the very worst bullpens of the last 20 years, and yesterday they went out and did something about it, despite having no real expectation of winning anything at all in 2019. I still think they could stand to bring on a few more relief pitchers, but in this era in which 30 teams seem to be in competition for the 2022 World Series but only ten or so are in competition for the one this October, there’s at least some consolation in what they did yesterday.

Freddy Galvis Gives the Blue Jays Options

Tuesday afternoon, Freddy Galvis, 29, signed a one-year contract to play baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal guarantees Galvis $5 million next year and either $1 or $5.5 million in 2020, depending on whether or not the Blue Jays exercise their team option on the contract. Even though contract expectations for Galvis were maybe a little bit higher than that coming into the offseason (you guessed he’d get two years and about $15 million), the deal he ended up accepting still seems like a pretty good get for a guy who posted a .294 wOBA last year and hasn’t ever posted a wRC+ above 85 (last year’s mark).

In Toronto, Galvis will join, at least to begin with, 25-year-old Lourdes Gurriel Jr. as a candidate for the Blue Jays’ starting shortstop job out of spring training, but he will likely thereafter end up spelling the younger man as a defensive replacement late in games and perhaps also against tough righties. Gurriel, the younger brother of Houston’s Yuli and son of Cuban baseball legend Lourdes Sr., had a reasonably strong debut season at the plate in 2018 (his .446 slugging percentage was particularly promising, paired as it was with a modest-for-today 22% strikeout rate) but injured his knee in August and his hamstring in September and worried observers with occasionally puzzling footwork at short.

In Galvis, the Blue Jays have an insurance policy against a scenario in which the bottom falls out of Gurriel’s offense (because he doesn’t walk very much, almost all of his value at the plate comes from his power stroke) and his defensive lapses therefore become intolerable. Galvis isn’t better as a hitter — in 2018, in fact, he was about 20% worse, at least as measured by wRC+ — but he’s always had a solid defensive reputation and, as a seven-year veteran, his approach at the plate is enough of a known quantity that it is unlikely to fall entirely off a cliff. If Gurriel’s offensive performance ever gets to the point that it begins to look like Galvis’, the deciding factor will be the defense, and Galvis is likely to win that battle. Read the rest of this entry »

Estrada, Strickland Will Try To Bounce Back Out West

On Thursday, word broke that the Mariners had signed 30-year-old righty Hunter Strickland to a one-year , $1.3 million deal with incentives totaling about the same for games pitched and finished. On Friday afternoon, the Mariners’ division-mates in Oakland announced a deal of their own, for one year and for $4 million, with 35-year-old Marco Estrada. Both pitchers are 2019 bounce-back candidates, and both will spend at least a portion of 2019 in the AL West. Let’s discuss.

Given the terms of his deal, it seems reasonable to assume that the Mariners hope Strickland will be able to step into the ninth-inning role recently vacated by Edwin Díaz, perhaps in concert with Cory Gearren or Anthony Swarzak, or perhaps all by his lonesome, depending on how things shake out in spring training. That kind of uncertainty is the natural consequence of entering 2019 with a bullpen that’s lost Díaz, James Pazos, Juan Nicaso, and Alex Colomé to trade this winter and seems unlikely to welcome free agents Nick Vincent, Zach Duke, and Adam Warren back to Seattle. Seattle had an excellent bullpen in 2018 but doesn’t, in any meaningful sense, have that bullpen any more. Strickland is one of the new guard, here to carry the M’s over the water into the next phase of their rebuild.

Which makes the question of whether Strickland will be any good in 2019 something of an irrelevance to the Mariners’ long-term plans — if he’s good, he can be traded midseason; if he’s bad, it’s “just” $1.3 million — although it presumably remains of considerable importance to Strickland himself. For my money, I’d bet against renewed success in 2019. After routinely sitting in the low triple-digits with his four-fastball during his first three years in the majors (2014-2016), Strickland’s mean velocity on the pitch has dropped to 95.7 miles per hour, and his whiff percentage on the pitch has dropped from its high of 18% in 2015 to 8% last year. Those fundamentals have generated poor results across the board:

Hunter Strickland Had a Bad Year
2014-17 180.2 23.7% 7.9% 2.64 3.15
2018 45.1 18.4% 10.4% 3.97 4.42

It’s hard to know what precisely brought on Strickland’s decline, but given that fastballs don’t usually get faster with age and that Strickland’s particular fastball is already getting beaten up at 95-96 miles per hour, it’s hard to be too sanguine about his future. Then again, given the contract he signed and the Mariners’ current insistence on trading away all their best players, there really is very little downside to this deal for Seattle. Just maybe reinforce the clubhouse doors.

There’s far more reason to be optimistic about the A’s bounce-back candidate, Estrada, despite the fact that his 2018 was if anything even worse than Strickland’s (the 5.64 ERA and 1.82 HR/9 are the figures that jump out at you most immediately). For one thing, Estrada has never really relied on his velocity to generate outs and so last year’s mile-per-hour slide from 90.1 to 89.0 on the fastball isn’t really something to worry about — in fact, it puts him right around where he was in 2016, when he put up a 3.48 ERA over 176 innings for the Blue Jays. For another, Estrada’s game has always been up in the zone and so (a) bad years like 2018 were always going to happen from time to time and (b) you don’t have to wish for too much positive regression on the HR/9 to get him back into a range (say, 2016’s 1.18, or his career 1.41 mark) where you know he can have success.

In Oakland, Estrada will join Mike Fiers, who re-signed with the club in December, and holdovers/questionable starting pitchers Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt, and Frankie Montas in an A’s rotation that will be held together by hope and duct tape until Jharel Cotton (Tommy John), A.J. Puk (also Tommy John), and Sean Manaea (shoulder surgery) return to the field at some point mid-season (and maybe Jesús Luzardo comes up at some point). Given the circumstances, and the budget to which the club has decided to hew, Estrada is exactly the kind of guy you’d want to see the A’s sign: healthy (he’s never had an arm injury we know about), inexpensive, and a plausible candidate for solid numbers in 2019. If he’s good in the early going next year, he can slot in at the back end of a rotation that has a reasonable shot at the Wild Card if everything goes right. If he’s terrible, chances are the A’s are too, and — again — it’s just $4 million. Even for the A’s, that’s manageable — their 2018 payroll was $66 million and their commitments for 2019 total just $69 million so far. What could go wrong?

New York and Cleveland Pay for Some of What They Need

Last Friday afternoon, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported that the Mets were in agreement with 31-year-old lefty Justin Wilson, lately of the Cubs, on a two-year deal later reported to be approximately $10 million over the life of the contract. A few minutes later, the Indians announced that they’d re-signed a lefty of their own — 37-year-old Óliver Pérez — to a one-year contract worth $2.5 million, with a 2020 option worth $2.75 million that will vest if he reaches 55 appearances in 2019. With Pérez and Wilson under contract for 2019, the lefty relief market is down to Jake Diekman and a handful of folks projected for zero WAR in 2019. Let’s talk about the two that signed this week, and what we can expect from them.

Wilson is probably the higher-upside of the two, though bouts of inconsistency mean he’s not a lock to repeat the .188/.301/.342 line he held lefties to in 2018. A strong start to the 2017 season, in which he threw 40 innings for the Tigers, striking out 55 and walking just 16, led to a mid-season trade to a Cubs team hunting for a second straight division title. They didn’t quite get what they were after: Wilson walked 19 in just under 18 innings of work, struck out just 25, and visibly lost manager Joe Maddon’s confidence down the stretch — after a three-run, two-walk, one-out appearance on September 2nd, Wilson appeared just once again for the next 10 days, and was entrusted with just 5.1 more innings the rest of the season. Wilson’s wild ways continued into the early part of 2018 but seemed to improve as the season wore on, and he finished the year with a 3.41 full-season ERA, even as his Cubs mark (5.09) fell well below his then-career 3.30.

Wilson has always been a pitcher the spin rate guys love — see his acquisition by Chicago in mid-2017, for example — and nothing in his recent performance suggests the raw stuff that’s so impressed scouts and spreadsheet-wranglers alike has gone anywhere. He has, if anything, become even more reliant on his four-seam fastball than ever (he threw it nearly three-quarters of the time in 2018, mostly at the expense of his sinker) and given its 82nd-percentile spin rate that seems as reasonable a strategy as any. Batters were slightly more successful against that pitch in 2018 than they were in previous years (familiarity breeds contempt, I suppose) but much less successful against Wilson’s breaking pitches than before, suggesting a successful ability to pick his spots and disrupt timing effectively.

In New York, Wilson will join new acquisition Edwin Díaz, a re-signed Jeurys Familia, and holdovers Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo, and Drew Smith for what should be a vastly improved Mets ‘pen. The Mets were fairly terrible in relief in 2018 — their 4.96 ERA was second only to the Marlins for worst in the National League, and their FIP was worst outright — and they were heavily right-handed, getting just 62.1 inning out of southpaws in 2018, 42.2 of which came from the departing Jerry Blevins. Whatever else can be said about Justin Wilson, I think we can fairly say he is a better relief pitcher than Jerry Blevins, and his addition will give Mickey Callaway a strong seventh-inning option before heading to Familia in the eighth and Díaz in the ninth.

Pérez, meanwhile, is back in business after it appeared, even just a year ago, that his big-league career might be over. He started 2018 on a minor-league deal with the Yankees, showed enough to sign on with Cleveland on a big-league deal after a June 1 release from Scranton, and promptly posted a 36% strikeout rate and 1.39 ERA over 32 innings for Terry Francona’s squad. Most impressively, after spending a career mostly more effective against lefties than against righties, Pérez absolutely dominated right-handed hitters in 2018, holding them to a minuscule .138 wOBA (lefties posted a .213 mark). It’s hard to say precisely what changed for Pérez, but my money would be on his increased use of a newly-improved slider (up to 49 percent usage after sitting in the low 40s for most of his career) and a move away from a fading fastball.

If Wilson is a sensible move in the middle of a somewhat puzzling offseason for the Mets, Pérez is a sensible move in the middle of a straightforward, if disappointingly stingy, offseason for Cleveland. The bullpen could certainly use some help — it was nearly as bad as the Mets’ last year — but Pérez will at best help the ‘pen stand pat in 2019 rather than move forward, and he is (somewhat incredibly) the first major-league free agent acquisition of the offseason for Mike Chernoff. Ideally, we’d see Cleveland pick up a few more relievers off the market — all they cost is money — and perhaps spin off some of the leftover pieces for replacements for the departing Michael Brantley and the traded Edwin Encarnación and Yan Gomes. The plan instead seems to be to reduce payroll while hoping the departures don’t weaken the team enough to fall behind the rest of the Central. That isn’t likely, but seize the moment this approach is not.

Still, Pérez is a good pitcher and Cleveland needs a few of those. He had a terrific season in 2018 and there is reason to believe, despite his 16 seasons in the major leagues, that he has more left in the tank. He’ll be best served if the front office goes out and gets more arms to take some of the strain off of, say, him and Brad Hand, but if he pitches like he did last year, he’ll be useful anyway. Wilson, too, will probably be in the best position to succeed if the Mets go out and find another lefty reliever to take some of the load off (Diekman is of course still available) but has enough of an ability to get righties out that he should be a contributor. In an offseason that has been remarkably bereft of teams going out and getting players they need by paying money for their services, Cleveland and New York have done just that, even if these signings would ideally be part of a larger plan to spend money on good players at positions of need.

Michael Fulmer May Need to Reinvent Himself

It was 84 degrees in Cleveland by the time Michael Fulmer, Detroit’s starter for a September 15 rumble with Cleveland, hit the showers without recording an out for the Tigers. Cleveland won that game 15-0, and Fulmer missed his last two scheduled starts of the season with a knee injury, apparently sustained in-game, that put him in surgery five days later. It was a fitting end to the 25-year-old’s 2018 campaign. Detroit had hoped, at the very least, that Fulmer would be effective enough to stabilize an aging rotation, one in which he and 27-year-old Matthew Boyd were the only starters under 30. At best, they’d reportedly hoped he’d be good enough to spin off to a contender at the trade deadline. He was neither, and instead posted the worst season of his three-year career.

Michael Fulmer Had a Bad Year
Season Age IP K% BB% ERA- FIP- WAR
2016 23 159.0 20.4% 6.5% 72 87 3.0
2017 24 164.2 16.9% 5.9% 87 83 3.5
2018 25 132.1 19.7% 8.2% 110 105 1.4

I’d like to focus on Fulmer’s disappointing 2018 campaign for a moment because its presumptive cause — injury — means that a resurgent Fulmer, if he indeed rebounds next year, will probably look quite different than the young man who won 2016’s AL Rookie of the Year award and was an All-Star in the next season. If baseball’s beauty lies in part in the opportunities it gives its players to reinvent themselves, then Michael Fulmer is a prime candidate for reinvention, and with his success or failure rides some portion of the future success or failure of the Tigers. Other pitchers have reinvented themselves after early-career injuries effectively, and I’m always curious to see how they choose to fight their way back. Read the rest of this entry »

To Not Fade Away

I last met Miguel Montero on April 29, 2017, when he was with the Chicago Cubs and I was with The Athletic. That was 12,348 days after Montero was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and 341 days before he’d take three plate appearances for the Washington Nationals on April 5, 2018, and thereafter leave the game, apparently for good. Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reported recently that Montero is “pretty much” retired these days, and in this world of oh so very much uncertainty, “pretty much” is good enough for me. Eight months and a few days after he last took the field for a major league team, and forty years before he can reasonably expect his time to end, Miguel Montero the player is about to pass out of our present and into our memories, while Miguel Montero the man lives on.

It seems like a good time to remember the man.

When I last met Miguel Montero, he was in the process of being passed by. Kyle Schwarber had returned from a knee injury that had taken him away from all but the beginning and brilliant ending of the Cubs’ 2016 campaign; Willson Contreras was about to embark upon a sophomore season that seemed to confirm the highest aspirations of his debut. Montero, then 33 and already trailed by the whispers of self-interest which would crescendo into a shout and chase him out of the Chicago clubhouse two months later, was standing in the visitor’s clubhouse in Fenway Park, not all that far from the door, rocking from side to side on heels that weren’t yet ready to play the backup role assigned to them.

At the time, I had the impression of a man torn between what he knew he was and what he wanted to be. Miguel Montero wanted to be a leader, and for a time there in Chicago, he was. The Cubs wouldn’t have won the World Series in 2016 without his brittle, prideful energy — they wouldn’t have beaten the Dodgers 8-4 in Game 1 of the NLCS, they wouldn’t even have gotten to the NLCS that without Montero hard on their asses, chasing them on. The Cubs were led by their catchers in 2016, and Montero and David Ross were the catchers they had. Montero wasn’t the leader of his dreams in 2016, but he was a leader nonetheless, and by early 2017 in Boston he could feel the moment that had placed him there moving on.

For most of us, our daily acts of self-creation are private — contained in the moments in which we choose this, not that, to love this person, not that one, and to do this thing, and not the other. For major league baseball players, that is not so. They are created once the way all people are created, then again in private, over and over, just themselves and the people they love, and then a third time — this is the time that is different — in thousands of moments in the lives of other people. In our lives. Baseball players become the signifiers of other childhoods, and of childhood’s end; they become totems to mark the passage of time, to mark the bounds between one part of life and another that comes after it, and the men behind the totems become incidental to their meaning to us. That is what Miguel Montero became to me. That is what other Monteros have become to others.

I grew up a Cubs fan, but I’m not sure I am one anymore. The team has changed, of course, but far more consequentially to me, so have I. In the spring of 2015, I wrote my first word for Baseball Prospectus, in part about Miguel Montero. That fall, I sat in the press box at Wrigley Field covering the Cubs in the postseason. The next October, I watched them win the World Series. Miguel Montero was one of the last generation of Cubs who I could, ever-so-briefly, worship as larger than life. He was among the last who I first imagined into being when I could not reasonably imagine later standing before him in a cramped Boston clubhouse, watching the man and not the idea of him come to grips with a time passing him by. He was among the last who I did not expect to see swearing at his misfortune, standing awkwardly in his in-betweenness, checking his phone for the latest from his children, smiling and laughing in that ribald childish way of men in the company of men. He was among the last who was not fully real to me.

And now he is not real to any of us, in the way that most of the baseball players of our times are not real. Now he is Miguel Montero, C, 2006-2018. Now he is fixed in our memories as a point of light, whether for his five good seasons and three bad ones with the Diamondbacks, his two years and three months with the Cubs, or those last gasps of relevance with the Blue Jays and Nationals. Most ballplayers pass out of our consciousness this way. They can’t all be Chipper Jones or Mariano Rivera. They can’t all say farewell, and be enlarged permanently in their absence. Most of them are there with us, filling our summers and lengthening our falls, until one day we look up and find them gone. They remain then linked in our memories as signs of that time in our lives, even as the men whose human forms those signs took on continue to age and change before a diminished crowd of spectators. Miguel Montero will likely live many more years. He could become a grandfather, the patriarch of a strong and growing family. He will, apparently, be an agent to as many players as he can get his hands on. He might even pick up a mask and glove one of these days and catch a ball or two in his backyard. He will tell stories of his days in our memories. But he will not be real to most of us, anymore. He will remain fixed in time, as we last knew him. He will not fade away.

The Twins Have Cornered the DH Market

Nelson Cruz, a man seemingly determined to hit 30 home runs in every ballpark in America, has signed a one-year deal to hit 30 home runs for the Twins. Jon Heyman reported the contract is for $14.3 million for 2019, with a $12 million club option for 2020. That puts 2019’s value right around Kiley McDaniel’s AAV estimate from our Top 50 Free Agents list. That seems like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for the services of a man who, at age 38, is projected to produce about 2.7 WAR next year, though both Kiley and the crowd expected Cruz to secure a two-year deal, even with his market largely confined to the American League.

Cruz will likely spend much of his time in Minnesota as the Twins’ primary designated hitter, ably backed in that capacity by C.J. Cron, a fine power hitter in his own right and a recent waiver acquisition from Tampa. Cruz might also play a little right field from time to time, allowing Max Kepler to spell Byron Buxton in center; Cron will split time between DH and first base (sorry, Tyler Austin) though he could also, of course, be spun off in exchange for someone else, now that the Twins have reeled in Cruz. The winter certainly isn’t over yet, and the gap between the Twins and the Indians is still large enough that if the Twins mean to compete in 2019, we might expect another move or two from them before they’re done.

Here’s the reason for the deal in a nutshell:

The Twins Have Powered Up
Player PA HR wOBA wRC+ WAR
Nelson Cruz 630 35 0.367 132 2.7
C.J. Cron 495 24 0.343 115 1.3
Joe Mauer 543 6 0.319 98 1.0
Logan Morrison 359 15 0.283 74 -0.7
Mauer and Morrison stats are 2018 actuals. Cruz and Cron stats are 2019 Steamer projections.

You can quibble with the playing time projections a bit, because people are going to move around or out of town, but the overall message is clear: the Twins want to get better right now and are willing to pay real money to do so. In an AL Central division marked by rebuilding and a Cleveland roster that’s not getting any younger, that’s a refreshing change of pace. And there’s room to grow yet. The Twins’ payroll, even with Cruz in hand, is just slightly north of $100 million, and they don’t have a single guaranteed contract in place for 2020. Cruz stabilizes their lineup for 2019 without taking a single iota of flexibility away from the team in the future. That’s a deal you should do every time.

It’s true that you’d usually be concerned about a 38-year-old designated hitter falling off a production cliff, especially in a new ballpark. But Cruz has shown time and again that the usual rules don’t apply to him. That 132 wRC+ projection seems eminently sensible to me (it would be his lowest mark since 2013) and nothing about his 2018 performance at Safeco suggests the final, inevitable collapse is near at hand. Cruz may not be the hitter he was in 2018 next year, but even if he’s half that he’s a valuable addition for Minnesota. He will certainly be better than Logan Morrison.

And however you slice it, the Twins just added a lot more power in the short term; at least right now, they have three players (Cruz, Cron, and holdover Miguel Sano) who might reasonably be expected to hit 30 home runs, and two more (Eddie Rosario and Jonathan Schoop) who could match that figure with luck and a fair wind.

The Twins may not be so far away from contending. Pretty much everything went poorly for them in 2018, and they still won 78 games. If Sano’s titanium leg gets him back on the field with any consistency, if Buxton can bounce back from a wildly disappointing 2018, and, critically, if this Cruz signing is paired with other moves, you could squint and see how the Twins have the chance to be respectable in a division running low on respectability. The only thing standing between them and the postseason in the Central is a still-dangerous but weakened Cleveland squad (the Wild Card field, while theoretically an easier sell, is relatively crowded). The White Sox are still probably a year or two away from contention, and the Royals and Tigers are for the most part concerned with figuring out which way is up. If you’re the Twins and you still have money to spend, why not go for it?

Maybe Cruz will be bad in 2019. Maybe the Twins will be, too. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion coming into the season, and that’s more than can be said for a number of teams around the league today, including at least two in their own division. Nelson Cruz is a good baseball player and the Twins need a few more of those to be a good baseball team in 2019. They got him, and all they had to pay was money. This move won’t seal the division or the postseason for them, but it’ll get them much closer than they were last year. And if this is the beginning of a series of moves, it might be just enough to make the Indians think about spending money, which is a win in and of itself. This is a good signing for the Twins. On to the next.

The Least Consequential Pitch of 2018

You may have heard of a statistic called “championship win probability added” (cWPA), which measures the extent to which any given baseball play contributes to a team’s chances of winning a championship. It’s a neat little statistic that can be used to write articles like this one, which identified Hal Smith’s three-run home run for Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series as the biggest baseball play of all time. Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, and Sid Bream also made it onto that list. cWPA is the type of statistic that conjures up, merely by its reference, vivid images of confetti-filled ballparks, raucous crowds, and men made high by glorious deeds. This article is about whatever the opposite of that is. Today, I’d like to take you on a journey to find the least consequential pitch of 2018.

How would someone even go about identifying the least consequential pitch of 2018? I’m sure there are a lot of answers to that question, some of which you will no doubt point out in the comments, but here’s mine: The least consequential pitch of 2018 is the pitch that least affected the outcome of the least important game of the season. A pitch that swung a late-season game between two eliminated clubs, however inconsequential that game might be to you, me, and Bobby McGee, cannot be the least consequential pitch of 2018 because, well, players on eliminated teams are players too, and a tree that falls amidst a Royals-Orioles game still falls for those players and for those fans. No, this pitch should be so inconsequential that even players with nothing left to play for decline to grasp at it for a taste of something once lost.

The first step is to find all the games played late in the season between teams that had by that point been eliminated from playoff contention. But this by itself is not enough of a standard, because teams like the Diamondbacks, while out of contention on the final day of the season, had as recently as September 1 had playoff odds of 37.4% (and higher before that). The sheen of consequence for Arizona was too bright to include the Diamondbacks. No, the game we are searching for should have been between teams that had been out of contention for a long time, ideally effectively since the beginning of the season. It should have been played between teams that had so long ago last tasted the sweet elixir of a playoff race that all the little things players do to keep themselves motivated during a long season had fallen aside. I present to you the playoff odds of the White Sox, Royals, Tigers, Marlins, Reds, and Padres, plotted over the course of the season, with the Red Sox’s odds thrown in there just for comparison’s sake:

I suspect some of you will note at this point that there’s a reasonable case to be made that a game between two teams who have locked up a playoff spot for most of the season (like, say, the Red Sox) deserves to be considered alongside games between bad ones as the least consequential game of 2018, as it is equally irrelevant to the outcome of the season. But any game between two contending teams is consequential insofar as it can be used to glean information about the nature of the playoffs to come, and brings with each pitch an injury risk to players who might determine the course of a seasons’ future. No game featuring the 2018 Red Sox could be considered the least consequential of 2018. The champions were playing. No, the game we want is one played, as late in the season as possible, between the six teams who never really sniffed contention at all in 2018.

Unfortunately for us, none of the final series of the 2018 campaign featured any of these six teams playing against each other. But the second-to-last series did. September 25-26 witnessed a two game set between the Reds (who entered 66-92) and Royals (54-102), in Cincinnati. The first game was a relatively taut affair won by the Royals 4-3 with a ninth-inning run; that game was too tense to work for our purposes. The second game, however, saw the Royals win 6-1. This game, I think, is a strong contender for the least consequential of 2018. You may disagree. But I’d argue that it was. All that was at stake — and it was a relatively low stake at that — was the Reds’ position in the 2019 draft order, and the 2018 Reds were not sufficiently bad that a win or a loss was the difference between the first, second, or third picks, where order really matters. I think, after some consideration, we have found our game:

But what of the least consequential pitch of that least consequential game? This one’s easier. The Royals scored in the first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings; the Reds scored in the first. That means the top of the ninth inning, in which the Royals had a chance to add on a seventh run before the Reds got one last chance at a comeback, was clearly the least consequential of the game. Winning by six isn’t that much different than winning by seven; I hope we can agree on that. So the pitch we’re looking for is in the top of the ninth. And the least consequential pitch of the top of the ninth inning was the one that ended it — a sinker from Jared Hughes to Adalberto Mondesi that changed the outcome of a meaningless game not at all; after all, with two outs, the chances of adding on a meaningless run in a meaningless inning in a meaningless game were very small, and even if such a run had been added, the chances of it then mattering later, when the Reds had said their piece, were smaller still. Here it is:

What I love about this pitch, and why I wanted to write about it today, is how much everyone involved seems to care about it. There is, of course, a good case to be made that it is the least consequential pitch of a season of tens of thousands of pitches. The pitch didn’t matter. The game didn’t matter. The season didn’t matter. And yet there was Adalberto Mondesi, sprinting down to first, trying just as hard as he could to make it to first base in time, and there was Joey Votto, stretching his legs out to beat him. The pitch didn’t matter, when you think about it. But when you don’t think too hard about it, it’s just another opportunity to do well however you can. And that’s something. Life, too, doesn’t really matter one little bit, when held up to even the slightest scrutiny. But of course, it still does.