Archive for December, 2010

Tuesday: 12.14.2010

Lee Shocks Everybody; Heads Back to Philly

There have already been thousands upon thousands of words devoted to the Cliff Lee signing that kept the baseball world up past its bedtime last night, and predictably I have a few thoughts myself, but also some fun pictures regarding their beastly rotation:

  • Lost in the excitement over the super rotation is the fact that Lee essentially just replaces Jayson Werth.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but Lee isn’t a pure addition to a 97-win team.  Based on Wins Above Replacement at Fangraphs.com, Lee posted 7.1 to Werth’s 5.0, so a repeat would make them a 99-win team, not a 162-win team as some of the bluster last night would’ve led you to believe.
  • As my friend Jason Collette points out, this isn’t your normal free-agent signing.Given the overall cost of bringing Lee back, perhaps we should be face slapping GM Ruben Amaro Jr. instead of backslapping him.
  • My friend Gino Barrica is the clubhouse leader on nicknames for the ridiculous rotation the Phillies now have.
  • Easy with the coronation of the Phillies (Boston’s coronation didn’t last long, did it?!) because they are far from perfect.  The bullpen needs shoring up.  After Ryan Madson, the Bridge to Lidge is shaky at best.  And hell, even when you cross it, Lidge is hardly the bastion of stability.  He strikes out the world, but also walks almost five per nine and gives up at least a home run a game.  Yes this rotation should certainly lower overall bullpen usage, but they aren’t going nine every night.
  • The lineup has a HUGE hole in it with loss of the aforementioned Werth (their OPS leader last year).  The lineup WITH Werth went through stretches of awfulness and now they are going to plug in rookie outfielder Dominic Brown.  In a tiny 62 at-bat sample last year, he looked horrible so there is some concern about him whether fair or not.  Apart from that, all of the key pieces of this lineup are 30 or older: Raul Ibanez (38), Placido Polanco (35), Jimmy Rollins (32), Chase Utley (31), Ryan Howard (31) and Shane Victorino (30).
  • OK, enough Debbie Downer…

(Note: I made all of these and while I’m more than OK with people using them in other places, I’d just ask that you link back to the source.)
Saturday: 12.11.2010

2011 Leap Year Candidates

Proponents of waiting on starting pitchers in a fantasy draft or auction will tell you that there are plenty of quality options available on the cheap, several of whom will deliver like their high-priced counterparts providing their owners a great value.  That group, which I consider myself part of, is correct (he says modestly).

Of course it is easy to throw that notion out, wait for the season to play out and then go back through and cherry pick the biggest improvements.  A much more difficult task is identifying them beforehand, rostering them on the cheap and then gloating about their massive improvements at season’s end.  That’s where I come in, or more importantly where this article comes in.

The 2011 Starting Pitcher Guide that I will be releasing later this winter will have a full-length piece on this very topic, but today I will look at the biggest leaps from 2009 to 2010 and share a few names from the list that will be contained in the aforementioned Guide.

There is neither a set statistical criteria nor a hard age range for identifying candidates set to make the leap in 2011 as the 2010 leapers ranged from age 22 to 30 averaging out at 25.  Some had success in 2009 and elevated into the elite in 2010 while others were below average and jumped several levels landing in the very good to elite range.

I identified 11 leapers in 2010.  They posted an average ERA+ of 97 in 2009 followed by an average of 139 in 2010, yielding an average jump of 42 points topping out at 75 and no lower than 22.  Rookies were eliminated from the study as they don’t have a base year to go off of and predicting rookie success of a pitcher is a minefield not worth traversing.

The 2010 Leapers


Player Team Age 2009 ERA+ 2010 ERA+ Diff
C.Buchholz BOS 25 112 187 75
G.Gonzalez OAK 24 77 128 51
D.Price TB 24 98 145 47
M.Latos SD 22 82 126 44
T.Cahill OAK 22 96 139 43
C.Lewis$ TEX 30 73 116 43
B.Anderson OAK 22 109 148 39
I.Kennedy* ARI 25 75 111 36
J.Sanchez SF 27 101 133 32
U.Jimenez COL 26 136 161 25
C.Wilson+ TEX 29 107 129 22


$ – pitched in Japan for 2008 & 2009, ERA+ in 2009 column is 2002-2007 total (217 IP)

* pitched just 1 IP in 2009, ERA+ in 2009 column is 2007-2009 total (60 IP)
+ – pitched as a reliever in 2009, ERA+ in 2009 column is 2005-2009 total (281 IP)

(Note: Removing these 3 from the sample would actually improve 2010 ERA+ gains, so rest assured they weren’t included just to boost the strength of the leapers.  These are unique circumstances, but all 3 received some form of praise for their potential coming into the 2010 season.)

The role of the ERA+ stat is merely an aid to identify seasons worth consideration, there wasn’t an ERA+ floor or ceiling used for inclusion on the list.  No one paired an artificially inflated ERA+ with a lousy skillset and made it onto the list.  The group averaged 190 innings pitched with 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.0 walks per nine innings.

2011 Leap Year Candidates

The full-length piece in the SP Guide will delve a bit deeper into the 2010 leapers, but in this space I would rather spend more time on looking at some of the 2011 candidates worth eyeing in your leagues.  The goal is to find pitchers capable of posting significant improvement in their stat line that would yield a 20+ point improvement in their ERA+ taking them from middling or even below average to among the league’s most useful and best starting pitchers.

For candidates with poor ERA+ performance to date, I am looking for guys who can take that leap from waiver wire fodder to reliable every week starter in all league formats similar to what Ian Kennedy (75 ERA+ before 2010) and Colby Lewis (73) became when they posted 111 and 116 ERA+ figures in 2010 with above average peripherals.

For candidates with average or slightly higher ERA+ performance to date, I am looking for guys who can take that leap to stardom.  In 2009, David Price and Jonathan Sanchez were at best spot starters in mixed leagues or inconsistent backend starters in AL/NL-Only leagues with a promising foundational skill or two, but they weren’t yet ready to be relied upon as top end staff anchors.  In 2010, they parlayed those intriguing skills into a more polished arsenal, were fortunate enough to have the luck break in their favor and both emerged into upper tier starters.  Price even contended heavily for the American League Cy Young award.

Here are three pitchers capable making a big leap forward in 2011:

Derek Holland, Texas Rangers – The 24-year old southpaw has shown glimpses of quality within his 196 major league innings across two seasons despite posting a 5.52 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.  Those numbers will no doubt push people away as will his Word Series collapse, but I am drawn to his 2.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio buoyed by 7.4 K/9.  He actually had 8.7 K/9 in his 10 starts spanning 47 innings last year, but it isn’t nearly a large enough sample to expect that level going forward.  With a ceiling capable of topping 8.0 and floor just over 7.0, Holland could be a great strikeout guy, but if not he should be no worse than a quality top 50 option (48 SPs had 7+ K/9 while qualifying for the ERA title).

He has proven more than enough in the minor leagues (2.47 ERA, 106 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 in 287 IP) so it is time for him to get a full time shot in the rotation.  He’s got a 4-pitch arsenal led by his breaking stuff, but bolstered by an improving changeup.  His 6.12 ERA in 2009 was skewed by bad luck (5.10 FIP) while the luck broke more evenly in his favor for 2010 resulting in a 4.08 ERA backed by a 4.02 FIP.  For 2011, I have Holland with a Gio Gonzalez-type season.  Not so much from the 51-point ERA+ improvement angle, but Gonzalez consolidated his skills and combined them with some good luck to post a 3.23 ERA with 171 Ks in 201 innings and Holland certainly capable of that kind of season.

Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays – Cecil actually appeared to be on his way toward making the 2010 list of leapers with a very strong start to the season that saw him at 7-2 with a 3.22 ERA and 2.9 K/BB rate headed into his June 15th interleague start in the normally friendly confines of PETCO Park.  The train barreled off of the tracks with a three game interleague stint to close June over which he allowed 16 runs in 16 innings pumping him ERA by more than a run to 4.39.   From July on, he wasn’t bad on the surface with an 8-2 record and 4.08 ERA, but his 5.5 K/9 and 1.7 K/BB showed he was well off of his early season pace.

The experience will serve Cecil well as he now has 266 major league innings headed into age-24 season.  He is poised to put together a complete season as part of a formidable rotation even with Shaun Marcum.  Though not overpowering, he has maintained a better than six strikeout rate in each of his two seasons while improving his control yielding a K/BB rate above the desired 2.0 mark.  Where most pitchers see their value take a hit as part of the AL East, Cecil acquitted himself quite well against the beastly division posting a 3.47 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 96 innings last year.

Cecil induces groundballs at a decent clip thanks to his solid 4-pitch repertoire that didn’t include a single negatively valued pitched according to Fangraphs.com.  I project a moderate skills improvement combined with an already established groundball rate and a positive regression in his LOB% back up over 70% en route to a sub-4.00 ERA season with  140+ strikeouts in 195 innings.

Kevin Slowey, Minnesota Twins (for now) – I put the “for now” tag with Slowey because it was reported earlier this week that the Twins would be open to moving Slowey if the right deal came along.  I have been a huge fan of Slowey’s for the last three years now going out of my way to own him in each of the last two only to be disappointed with the end results.  Slowey has brilliant control (career 1.5 BB/9 rate), but unlike a lot of control artists, he also manages to register a good number of strikeouts (career 6.9 K/9 rate).  His downfall has been a massive flyball rate that has been getting worse (career 48% FB rate, 51% in 2010) so a move out of Minnesota could severely damage his value if he doesn’t land somewhere that could absorb his flyball tendencies with minimal damage (San Diego anyone?).

After back-to-back seasons with K/BB rates of 5.0+, Slowey dipped to 4.0 last year which was still 3rd-best in the American League amongst starting pitchers with 150+ innings.  It is the K/BB rates that keep me interested in Slowey and I’ll remain so as he is just 26 years old and if he can find a way to trim his flyball ways and subsequently his home runs allowed rate, then he will be well on his way to a low-3.00 ERA season.  Slowey is probably the biggest risk of the three because his home run rate usually trashes his ERA taking it a half run or higher than his FIP in each of the last two seasons.  Perhaps a new pitching coach with a different approach can teach him to keep the ball down a bit more without disrupting the several other things that he does well already (St. Louis anyone?)  Or maybe he and Rick Anderson are already working on an approach designed to improve his groundball rate.

Either way, Slowey’s base skills combined with the facts that he is 26 and that his 2010 surface stats (4.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) will likely drive his price down a bit making him a worthy calculated gamble who won’t kill you at his worst and could be ready to breakout a low-3.00s ERA season with plenty of Ks and a strong WHIP.

The entire list which will be part of my 2011 Starting Pitcher Guide has 25 candidates in all so there are 22 other potential breakouts identified.  There will be more details on the guide shortly after the New Year, but if you’ve enjoyed the work the last two years then you will really love this year’s effort.

Sunday: 12.5.2010

The Nationals Land Their Whale

In recent winters, the Washington Nationals have thrown their hat into the ring for several big name free agents, most notably Mark Teixeira during the 2008-2009 winter, but in the end, they were left telling their fans, “Hey, at least we tried and that shows our commitment to winning, right? … RIGHT???”  A Nats fan honest with himself probably realized that while the effort was nice, it was probably for the better that they didn’t come away victorious.  After all, how much positive impact would big a signing like Teixeira really have on a team like the Nationals?

If anything, it may have been detrimental to the team as a whole as a few more wins could have cost them the chance to draft then sign two of the most highly touted prospects ever in the past two drafts, first Stephen Strasburg and then Bryce Harper; both #1 overall picks.  The world got a taste of what Strasburg could be this year before he was cut down with an injury that has led to Tommy John Surgery while Harper made the most of his limited time in the Arizona Fall League and continued to draw rave reviews about his potential.

Both of their franchise players are at least a year away (and Harper is probably two or more) so would it behoove the Nationals front office to again put their best forward with some of the winter’s premier free agents?  The answer for them was a resounding yes with the surprise signing of outfielder Jayson Werth to a 7-year, $126 million dollar mega-contract.  A jaw dropper to be sure.  I’ll say out front that I don’t much care for the deal and it is less about the money than the length and player.

As a Detroit Tigers fan, I’m well aware that sometimes teams have to pay a little more because of their situation and/or city (definitely both for the Tigers pre-2006, now just the latter), but I would have liked to see the Nats go for a more calculated risk.  In the winter of 2004, the Tigers signed Ivan Rodriguez to a 4-year, $40 million dollar deal on the heels of a disgustingly bad season during which they nearly set the MLB record for losses (43-119).  Though Rodriguez was 32 years old, he was coming off of a great year for the World Series champion Florida Marlins and had a lengthy track record of excellence behind him.

A year later they took a much bigger chance and signed Magglio Ordonez to a massive 5-year, $75 million dollar deal after a season during which he played just 52 games thanks a severe left knee injury.  They had protection built in just in case Ordonez didn’t heal properly, but it was still a big risk and they were betting that he would return to something close to the .300-30-100 level he’d established from 1999-2003.  I don’t think anyone expected Ordonez to earn 100% of the contract (and he didn’t, even with the MVP-worthy 2007 season), but the Tigers really just needed him to not suck and along with Rodriguez, create a culture that was conducive to acquiring even more of the many missing pieces.  He didn’t suck, hitting .320/.382/.495 with 90 HR and 422 RBI over the life of the 5-year deal.

The Nats need Werth not to suck more than they need to him to earn him 100% of his huge deal, but they made it that much harder by going seven years for a guy whose track record is just two *full* seasons deep (as well as an excellent 134-game campaign on his ledger).  He was riddled by injuries from 2003-2007 (and missed the 2006 season entirely) and though he has shown the talent in the last three seasons that led to four top 100 rankings by Baseball America (’99, ’00, ’02, ’03), he’s far from a sure thing going forward.

He can be a 2.5-3.0 WAR player (think Hunter Pence, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Markakis level from 2010) after the first year or two of the deal as long as he is playing 140+ games a season because at least then he is not dead money on the disabled list.  Sure, the Nats are hoping he can continue to pump out 5.0 WAR seasons as he has over the last three, but you have to be realistic about a 32-year old late bloomer.  The last thing the Nats want to see is Werth out of the lineup with injuries just as their core is coming together.  Given that there is a pretty decent chance that that could happen, I think the deal was altogether ill-advised.

I’d have rather seen the Nationals blow Carl Crawford out of the water with a 7-year deal than take the consolation prize before the grand prize has even been given out.  But if Werth had to be the guy, I’d have much rather seen 5-years, $95 million taking it from $18mil to $19mil per but slicing off two years.  I genuinely hope it works out for the Nationals, but the odds are stacked rather heavily against it.