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Breaking Balls

Lookin' at the 12-to-6 from 9 to 5.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

 

Giants Premature in Giving Bonds the Boot

Whether you find yourself talking baseball in a fog-enshrouded coffee shop in the City by the Bay, or whether your wits are being blunted by the endless posturing and pontificating of the ESPN drones, you will be hard-pressed to find anybody voicing the opinion that the Giants ought to keep the aging media-circus that is Barry Bonds on the books for 2008. If anything, there seems to be a consensus that Barry's dismissal is a welcome harbinger of philosophical change in a franchise that has clung nostalgically to its quasi-glorious past while refusing to admit that its day in the sun has passed. Now I am not arguing that the Giants do not desperately need to get younger and begin the process of revitalizing their roster; this is an indisputable truth brought strikingly into relief by the success of the Giants' divisional rivals on this front (see: Troy Tulowitski, James Loney, Justin Upton, etc.). What I am arguing is that, by prematurely giving Bonds the boot, the Giants are sacrificing an opportunity to compete in 2008 without interfering with their future prosperity.

I can already hear my readers guffawing at the preposterous suggestion the lowly Giants, currently twelve games out of fourth-place NL West and lacking any impact reinforcements from the farm, could potentially field a competitive ballclub next year. Well I believe it can be done, and here is how.

The Giants will be free of 14 million dollars of salary for the 2008 season. There are 29 million dollars of expiring contracts (Bonds 16m, Feliz 5m, Vizquel 4m, Matheny 2m, Klesko 2m) and 15 million dollars of internal salary increases, highlighted by Barry Zito's and Randy Winn's 4 million dollar raises for the 2008 campaigns. What all this means is that the Giants are on the hook for 76 million in player salaries for next season. The past three seasons the Giants' average annual payroll has been almost exactly 90 million.

The first step the Giants need to take is to dump the salaries of Ray Durham (7.5m) and Dave Roberts (6.5m). Now I am not naive enough to think that the Giants will be able to find anybody willing to eat either of these players' entire salaries (even in return for vitually nothing), but I do believe they should be able to get out from under around 8 million of salary or so. Rajai Davis will take over as the Giants' everyday centerfielder and Kevin Fransden will take over as their everyday second-basemen. Next year I believe Davis projects as a .275 hitter with 10 HR and 40 SBs and Fransden as a .260-15 HR guy. Essentially they are cheap replacement-level players with some possibility of upside.

The next step is to let Feliz, Vizquel, and Klesko walk. This clears about 10 million in salary. Their replacements will be addressed below.

Step three is to trade Noah Lowry to the Pirates for Adam LaRoche. Noah Lowry has been pitching way over his head to date (his 1.55 WHIP and 1:1 K-BB ratio indicates his 14-8 record and 3.92 ERA are flukes), and I am eager for the Giants to trade him while he is still a valuable commodity. The twenty-six year old Lowry is only due 14 million over the next three seasons, so any team in baseball would be glad to add him to their rotation. The LaRoche trade is logical as the Giants need a first-baseman and the Pirates need pitching. Moreover, LaRoche's presence in Pittsburgh has become redundant given the arrival of 1B/RF Steven Pearce and the looming presence of mega-prospect Andrew McCuthen, who will eventually push Pearce to 1B. LaRoche will take over for Klesko at first base and bat fifth.

Step four is to sign Alex Rodriguez to a eight-year, 240 million dollar contract. The Giants ought to be able to lure A-Rod by offering him 30 million per year and giving him the opportunity to play shortstop in a city where he will be appreciated and welcomed into the city's canon of sports heroes that includes Mays, Marchical, McCovey, Montana, Rice, Young, and Bonds. A-Rod will take over at shortstop for Omar Vizquel, and Rich Aurilia will take over for Pedro Feliz at third base.

Step five is to re-sign Bonds at a discount rate. I have absolutely no doubt that Bonds would be willing to sign with the Giants for significantly less money (maybe 5m?) if the Giants signed his buddy A-Rod to play alongside him during his farewell season. There is also no doubt that this would be an intelligent baseball move for the Giants. At 43, Bonds is still among the ten most productive hitters in baseball. He is leads both leagues by a wide margin in OBP (.483), he is 13th in overall SLG (.570), and, remarkably, he is 18th in VORP despite only playing in about 75% of the Giants' games. These gaudy statistics are made even more impressive by the fact that Bonds was protected in the lineup this year by a combination of Benji Molina, Ray Durham, and Rich Aurilia. Just imagine what kind of hell Bonds could wreak in 2008 with A-Rod hitting behind him and the Giants competing for a playoff spot.

If the Giants follow this formula, their payroll for the 2008 season would increase to the 100-110m range (depending mostly on how much they were able to sign Bonds for). This 11% payroll increase isn't too far out of line with the annual inflation rate of MLB player salaries and is a necessary expenditure for the Giants to retain their competitive edge. I believe the following hypothetical lineup for the 2008 Giants represents a team that would compete for the NL pennant:

CF- Rajai Davis
RF- Randy Winn
LF- Barry Bonds
SS- Alex Rodriguez
1B- Adam LaRoche
C- Benji Molina
SS- Rich Aurilia
2B- Kevin Fransden

SP- Tim Lincecum
SP- Matt Cain
SP- Barry Zito
SP- Kevin Correia
SP- Pat Misch/Jonathan Sanchez
CL- Brian Wilson

The problem with the Giants' new "let the kids play" strategy, emblematized by their divorce from Bonds, is the simple fact that their kids can't play. Letting the kids play is a fine strategy when you have a farm system full of Carlos Gonzalez's, Aaron Cunningham's, Justin Upton's, Matt Antonelli's, Chase Headley's, Andy LaRoche's, Ian Stewart's, etc., like their NL-West rivals, but the Giants are running the risk of fielding the worst offensive team in baseball history if they run out Dan Ortmeier, Kevin Fransden, Nate Schierholtz, and Rajai Davis in '08 without signing either Bonds or A-Rod. Signing Bonds and A-Rod for 2008 buys the Giants time to accumulate some legitimate young offensive talent while still fielding a competitive (and potentially pennant-contending) squad. The Giants tied their hands on the possibility of bringing Bonds back cheap in '08 by prematurely proclaiming their unbending will to sever ties.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

 

With Apologies to Sisyphus

International markets are up sharply in the last two days following news that the Fed would cut the Mets lead in the NL East to 1.5 games, triggering a rise in fan confidence. Said Fed chief Ben Bernanke: "Chase Utley is really cool. That guy should be the MVP--unless it's JRoll!"

After last night's 14th inning heroics, the Phillies stand 1.5 games back in both the NL East and the NL Wild Card. This is the closest the Phillies have been to the Mets since April. Over the last three weeks, the race has been extremely volatile, in large part due to the two sweeps the Mets suffered at the hands of the Phillies.
Phillies Games Behind Graph
Click for full size

Here is a graph of the last thirty days' worth of standings, showing both the Wild Card race and the NL East race, from the Phillies' perspective:

It remains to be seen if the Phillies can finally push the boulder over the hilltop.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

 

The Truest of Outcomes - An Endangered Species?

Okay, it looks like I gotta publish something to avoid becoming the Steve Trachsel of the blog world. I had a big fancy post planned to rant about game durations and look at some factors that play into them. I was actually planning to discuss the ridiculous slowness of Red Sox games (and how much Sox-Yanks games alone may have skewed BP's study of game durations and fielding performance), until the team itself scooped me by playing a high profile "slug" fest on Friday night. I guess that's what I get for snoozing on the job.

Instead, I'll talk about another trend that bears watching. The home run is possibly the one statistic we understand best in baseball. It is not reliant on external factors such as fielding, and it only indirectly depends on the umpire's strike zone. The home run is beautiful because it is the only single event that purely encapsulates the duel between pitcher and batter (ok, the ballpark and game conditions have some say, as well). Any pitch can be clobbered out of the park, and every batter prefers that his plate appearance end in this way.

This year, however, chicks who dig the long ball have quietly started following a different sport (NB: those values are in yards). This season has been marked by a significant dip in home runs, as many of the consistently premier sluggers of the past have experienced power outages to varying degrees. It is my opinion that a drop in an individual's performance from year to year can be indicative of any of a number of causes. Sometimes a performance at the very top of a guy's capabilities is followed by a sharp regression to the mean, or the age curve hits like an age cliff. Other times there are more sinister forces at work. Regardless, I feel safest publicly treating year-to-year fluctuation in a hitter's output by awarding the benefit of the doubt to the athlete.

Fluctuations in power numbers across the league, however, call for further scrutiny. How is it that, after seeing 34 players hit 30+ HR last year, only 25 are on pace to meet that milestone this September? Even more dramatically, only seven hitters are on pace to hit 35+ HR this year, while 23 did so in 2006. The 40 HR club has been trimmed from 11 in '06 to a mere 5 a year later. I'm going to come at this question from a few different directions, and we'll see what we get.

My first approach is to look at the home run rankings of the last two years as simple lists of numbers, each tied only to its place in the hierarchy of HR totals. By eliminating the names associated with each line, we avoid the temptation of comparing David Ortiz's monstrous 2006 total (54 HR) to his merely excellent 2007 (34* HR - all projected 2007 numbers will be notated "*"). Instead, I contrast his second place total from 2006 with Prince Fielder's projected total of 2007 (50* HR), a mere 7.5% drop, rather than a 37% decline. This is more representative of the levels of play across the two seasons; understandably, players past their primes (like Ortiz) have declined, and younger players (like Fielder) have blossomed as they follow their expected age curves.

I should probably acknowledge here that a more perfect study would use HR rate in place of the counting stat, but I couldn't figure out a way to get Marcus Thames out of the top ten without doing something dishonest. Even though he and Tony Clark could hang out, leaving them there would fail the "Does it make sense?" test. Without further ado:
        2007        2006
# HR* PA* HR PA Percent change
1 57 711 58 704 -2.54%
2 50 677 54 686 -7.40%
3 43 609 49 634 -11.27%
4 42 662 46 728 -7.84%
5 41 638 45 646 -8.21%
6 35 713 44 611 -20.95%
7 35 678 42 564 -17.18%
8 34 694 42 610 -19.77%
9 34 673 41 617 -17.81%
10 33 699 41 669 -20.46%
11 33 672 40 683 -18.48%
12 33 671 39 559 -16.38%
13 33 662 38 618 -14.18%
14 33 625 38 634 -14.18%
15 33 470 38 660 -14.18%
16 32 726 37 579 -14.80%
17 32 712 37 695 -14.80%
18 32 699 35 558 -9.93%
19 32 645 35 608 -9.93%
20 32 623 35 643 -9.93%
21 30 701 35 672 -13.04%
22 30 651 35 674 -13.04%
23 30 595 35 689 -13.04%
24 30 538 34 661 -10.48%
25 30 515 34 663 -10.48%
26 29 778 34 667 -13.68%
27 29 691 33 665 -11.06%
28 29 616 33 699 -11.06%
29 28 707 33 727 -14.36%
30 28 594 32 557 -11.68%
31 28 562 32 677 -11.68%
32 27 571 32 739 -15.08%
33 27 592 31 611 -12.34%
34 27 603 30 586 -9.42%
T: 1130* 21972* 1297 21993 -12.96%

As you can see, the top 34 sluggers in the land are projected to finish with almost 13% fewer total home runs than their predecessors of 2006, in almost exactly the same number of plate appearances. Why is this? Are the younger players not rising as quickly as the older guys fall? Was the 30+ dinger class of 2006 particularly heavy on aging stars?

It bears noting that this year's top 34 power group includes breakouts Miguel Cabrera (projected to reach +34.6% over his 2006 HR total), Hanley Ramirez (+76%), Prince Fielder (+78.5%), Brandon Phillips (+88%), Ryan Braun (0 to 33*...yep, that's infinity), Chris B. Young (from 2 HR in '06 to 33* this year) and Carlos Peña (+4,200%). That means that last year's group must have crashed and burned even harder than a first glance reveals. A closer look confirms this thought, as 18 of the 34 HR leaders of 2006 have dropped out of that bracket this season, meaning none is on track even to break the modest 27 HR mark in 2007. This plummet from the upper tier becomes even clearer when we consider that this season actually had more hitters that reached the 20 HR mark than yesteryear. The 30+ HR hotshots of '06 sank into the second tier, while they were replaced in the (slightly lowered) first tier by a new batch of boppers.

In the next few days I will expand this study to look at three different outcomes the stars of yesterday found in 2007, as well as league rates and the grand scheme of things.

Monday, September 17, 2007

 

Self-Determination

Just as we find civil liberties reined in in our post 9-11 world, we find self-determination and computerized voting expanded in our post 756 world. It's only logical, as this momentous event completely redrew the maps and changed all the rules. The fact of the matter is, we simply are living in a different time and in a different world...

Wait, what? That's not right. Barry Bonds's record-breaking home run doesn't have anything to do with all that. Or does it? Hip-hop clothing designer Marc Ecko won the ball in a Sotheby's auction with a bid of $752,467--surpassing even high estimates of its auction value. But wait (because this really does get better), Ecko is spending even more of his considerable resources to establish an online vote to determine the ultimate fate of the ball. The three choices?

A) Bestow it (donate the ball to Cooperstown)
B) Brand it (burn an asterisk into the ball and then send it to Cooperstown)
C) Banish it (send it into space in a rocket ship. Seriously.)

You can cast your vote and watch a clip of Ecko on the Today show here. I always knew hip-hop would rot someone's mind.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

 

A Rare Admission

I'm as quick as the next guy to decry the Red Sox-Yankees slant of all major TV sports coverage. I think, from the standpoint that ESPN had before yesterday's game, they made a huge mistake not covering the Phillies-Mets or Dodgers-Diamondbacks game last night. The Yankees had a safe lead in the Wild Card and the Red Sox had a safe lead in the AL East. And while the Red Sox and Yankees may very well be the two best teams in the AL (and thus, by default, the major leagues as well), this is mid-September and there are pennant races afoot! Even still, I resigned myself to the bias and managed to catch most of the game, albeit initially begrudgingly.

You might want a screen grab of this one, because it's not gonna happen often: I was wrong. Seriously, ESPN made the right call. Or maybe they just got lucky, I don't know, but that was one of the most wild (not to mention sloppy) games of baseball I've seen in this season. It lasted almost five hours in total, saw 388 pitches and four errors.

Also, Oregon's own Jacoby Ellsbury continued to make his case for a starting job in the playoffs over poorly tied garbage bag and festering intestinal wound J.D. Drew. Ellsbury's hard-charging play led to a stolen base on a successful pickoff attempt, which eventually allowed him to score. Let's just say he's making the Red Sox look really smart for not resigning Johnny Damon (who, to his credit, went 4-6 with two doubles).

Anyway, I admit it. Showing the Red Sux-Yankmes game was the right call, and it resulted in one of the most exciting games of the season so far (I'm not sure it beats this one). Oh yeah, and with Greg Dobbs recording the game winning RBI in the bottom of the tenth, everything stays close in the NL Wild Card. But here we go again, as Fox airs the Red Sox-Yankees game yet one more time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

 

Triple-A and Pitching Prospects

Yesterday I had the chance to head out to The Shrine On Airline to catch game one of the Pacific Coast League Championship Series. The Sacramento River Cats (Triple-A affiliate for the Athletics) were in town to play the Zephyrs (Triple-A affiliate for the Mets). It was a fun game, even though the Zephyrs lost, as David Newhan hit two line drive home runs. Adam Bostick was on the bump for NOLA and he looked frustratingly good, recording nine strikeouts while hitting two batters (and almost hitting about four more). During warmups, he more than once threw the ball several yards to the right of the plate. All in all, an enjoyable minor league baseball experience.

RiverCats at Zephyrs
The RiverCats try to deal with
Adam Bostick's wild slider

If I was expecting to see Mike Pelfrey or Daric Barton this game, however, I was to be disappointed. Both players are now up in the bigs. The game got me thinking, though, about the relative quality of minor league teams, especially during the playoffs. After September 1st, the ranks of minor league rosters gets pretty thin, considering most advanced prospects are called up to the big leagues either to audition for next year or get a taste of competitive baseball. Triple-A is intended to have the highest level of play in the minor leagues, and indeed I'm sure it does. League-wide, there is no doubt that the PCL is a stronger league than, say, the Eastern League is. However, I have noticed a trend in the way teams have been handling prospects, and young pitchers in particular. This year alone, we have seen a remarkable number of hurlers called up either directly from Double-A or after only a very short stint with the Triple-A affiliate. Players like Jair Jurrjens, Kyle Kendrick, Andrew Miller, Joba Chamberlain, Clay Buchholz, and Ian Kennedy have all gotten the call while pitching less than 35 Triple-A innings. Perhaps I'm making this whole phenomenon up, but it seems like such behavior is much more common now than it was even a few years ago. Call it a blip, but it seems to me that such usage patterns turn Triple-A into a sort of bleak River Styx, where the too old and the also-rans wind up--a sort of overflow roster. Meanwhile, the real prospects hone their craft against inferior hitters and subsequently go unpunished for critical flaws like high walk rates.

What could possibly be the explanation for this sort of handling of young pitchers. And, even more perplexingly, how have the above-mentioned pitchers been so successful? As a group this year, their combined major league ERA is an impressive 3.79. But behind those numbers lie some interesting peripheral stats.
IP     ER   K    BB   K/BB   ERA
223.3 94 142 84 1.69 3.79
These pitchers' performances suggest that they are outperforming their peripheral stats. If they were veterans, we might say they knew how to pitch out of jams, but the oldest of these guys is 23. This is a sample of some of the best pitching prospects in baseball (especially if you leave out Kendrick and Jurrjens), and yet they still walk a high number of batters and strike out only an average amount. So what do you think? Do they need more seasoning? Are they benefitting from their first trip around the league (and thus the advantage of facing batters who have never seen their pitches before)? Or are they just working out their kinks in the majors instead of Triple-A, where they can actually help their teams (all of which remain in contention)?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

 

(Mis)manager of the Year

Now, the Phillies are not usually my rant topic of choice, but I feel somehow invested in this year's tragicomic run. The Phillies are a fascinating team. They have one of the most exciting young infield trios in the majors, including great talents at premium positions up the middle. Year after year, however, they give it back in the form of mediocrity at the hot corner. They committed to rebuilding last year in one of the most egregious salary/talent dumps in recent memory, only to finish a mere 3 games back from the wild card in an exciting close to the season. GM Pat Gillick then used the offseason to prove that he missed the point, spending the Abreu blood money on Wes Helms, Adam Eaton, Rod Barajas. Trading for Freddy Garcia was the only move that seemed plausibly likely to help the team, and that blew up with injuries to the starter and a break-out year for Gio Gonzalez in the White Sox system.

Pretty frustrating. Even if Pat Gillick was the man who set 'em up, however, it was Charlie Manuel who stepped in and knocked 'em down. I care because I attended the decisive game of the Phillies' season. While most teams appear to make or break their chances with September heroics or streaky summer performances against division rivals, the Phillies crystallized their season on April 13. The Phillies went into April with a pair of young aces and a good number three in front of the requisite bad and the ugly (er, old) at the back of the rotation. After Brett Myers' loss on April 13th, however, Manuel elected to banish him to the bullpen for the rest of the season. As a result, they are coming down the stretch with an ace, an overachieving rookie, and four guys who can only be ≤ 5. Can any combination of managerial decisions this year have cost a team more wins than Manuel's desperation move two weeks into the season? I can't answer that here, but I can look at how ridiculous that decision actually was.

Over the previous two seasons, Brett Myers began to earn the much coveted "Young Ace" logo. He broke out with a shiny new cut fastball and 208K in his 2005 campaign as a 24 year-old, and he barely regressed in his follow-up season. (His ERA suffered a bit due to an elevated BABIP, but his peripherals were steady). This year, his age 26 season, he lost his rotation spot after three starts. Here are his lines for those games:

IP  H  R  ER BB SO HR
7.2 4 3 3 2 9 2
4.1 8 6 6 2 6 1
3.1 3 7 7 5 4 2 (2 ER allowed to score as inherited runners)
So we have one excellent start (with a couple mistakes) and two shellings. Some of his pitches must have been moving, as he struck out 19 over 15.1 IP. However, he was getting hit hard, with 12 of 15 hits allowed going for extra bases. Myers is a guy who has a history of getting stung for the long ball. If I had time and resources, I would look at the pitch outcome data to see how he serves them up. Since I don't, I will look at BP 2003:
"What he needs to develop now is consistency and the ability to adjust when he doesn’t have his best stuff. At this point when he struggles he tends to react by trying to throw even harder, usually with poor results."
Even though that was four years ago, it seems consistent with Myers' personality and some of his feast or famine numbers. Throwing harder (and straighter) with frustration will make for some high K numbers (especially in the NL, where there are more batters who can't catch up), but also for some long fly balls. This Myersian problem hasn't stopped him from regaining his form after bad starts in previous years. This year, however, he wasn't afforded the opportunity.

Don't get me wrong, the Phillies needed a bullpen boost. However, it should be common sense that a team wants it's best pitchers to throw the most innings. A guy like Myers, who has proven success in the rotation, should be kept there to iron things out. Instead, he was moved to an unfamiliar role, where he predictably landed on the disabled list after appearing in 18 out of 32 games. That is not just bad management; it's reckless endangerment.

Let's talk about the alternative. Perhaps Manuel feels that there is something aesthetically unacceptable about giving up more runs than IP in a start. Myers did that twice in a row this year before getting the heave ho. Of course, he did it in two consecutive starts in June of last year as well, and in his next start he trotted out and struck out 11 Yankees. In June of 2005, his most dominant campaign, he gave up 13 ER over two starts and 7.1 IP, but he bounced back to beat the Braves handily five days later and return to form. Disaster starts happen. They happen to good pitchers, like Brett Myers.

Charlie Manuel should know that they also happen to bad pitchers. In fact, they happen with increased frequency to the worst pitcher in the majors this year, Adam Eaton. The flip side of the decision to remove Brett Myers from the rotation is the fact that Adam Eaton is second on the team in starts (26) and has an ERA of 6.28 and peripherals to show for it (in the National League, no less). That's good for dead last among MLB pitchers qualifying for the Cy Young Award. In other words, he is by far the worst pitcher to retain a rotation spot on any team this year. If Myers' consecutive disasters weighed so heavily, why has Manuel turned a blind eye to Eaton's total of 8 such starts? That total is only outstripped by Seattle's Master of Disaster, Jeff Weaver (9). (Everybody knows that Weaver was secretly assigned the task of skewing the Mariners' run differential to discredit the stathead community.)

As I write, the Phillies are once again closing in on a near miss in the NL wildcard race. Some of the untallied wins can surely be chalked up to the situation at 3B. Others can be attributed to the subtleties of catcher selection discussed elsewhere in this space. The lion's share of the blame, however, must be hung on Charlie Manuel's office door, where misguided creativity bumped the team's co-best starter into the bullpen, and some perverted sense of staying the course kept him there. A couple of days ago, Manuel announced that the team will skip Eaton's next turn, the first time it has done so all year for a non injury-related reason. Apparently the hopeless skipper has picked up a taste for the cruel irony of the ubiquitous EAGLES chants that fill his suffering team's stadium.

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