Archive for June, 2012

Thursday: 06.28.2012

The 2002 Draft: The East in Review

A while back I took a look at the first round of the 2002 draft and reviewed the picks of each team.  With 10 years in the bank, it is fair to look back and judge how everything went for the teams.  I would also like to review each team and will do so by division starting with the west.  Here are the 10 east teams and their 2002 performance.

Other divisions: WEST

THE EAST

A look at the 2002 drafts of the East division teams by the numbers.

*player in minors, but played in MLB recently

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 6 (12%)

Combined WAR: -0.7

Best Pick: John Maine (3.7 WAR) in the 6th round

Still Playing in MLB: Adam Loewen*, Val Majewski* and Antoan Richardson*

Notable Picks: Hayden Penn and Brandon Fahey

Grade: F

Comments: Richardson was drafted in four of five years from 2001 to 2005 including in back-to-back years in the 27th round by the O’s before eventually winding up with the Giants in 2005.  He has toured the minors since getting a sniff with the Braves last year (4 PA) and has come full circle landing back in the Orioles organization.  This was a busted draft with a failed 1st rounder and the only notable pick getting traded for 30 below league average starts from Kris Benson (4.82 ERA, 94 ERA+).

 

BOSTON RED SOX

Picks: 49

Played in the majors: 5 (10%)

Combined WAR: 35.9

Best Pick: Jon Lester (22.1 WAR) in the 2nd round

Still Playing in MLB: Lester, Brandon Moss, Ricky Romero (didn’t sign) and Brian Bannister (didn’t sign)

Notable Picks: someone named Chris Smith who pitch in the MLB as recently as 2010 & in the minors last year

Grade: B+

Comments: Didn’t get anything but Lester, but he’s a star and came in the 2nd round as they were without a 1st rounder. That’s at least a semi-successful draft, if not an overwhelmingly successful one.

 

NEW YORK YANKEES

Picks: 48

Played in the majors: 5 (10%)

Combined WAR: 0.4

Best Pick: Phil Coke (1.3 WAR) in the 26th round

Still Playing in MLB: Coke, Matt Carson, Eric Hacker, Dane de la Rosa

Notable Picks: Brad Halsey and Brandon Weeden, yes that Brandon Weeden

Grade: D-

Comments: I gave them a D- instead of an F+ because they were without a 1st or 3rd round pick.  Coke at least did something and aided in the Curtis Granderson trade, though I doubt it hinged on him in any way, shape or form.  Do they get additional WAR if Weeden leads the Browns to several good seasons in the NFL?

 

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 9 (18%)

Combined WAR: 35.5

Best Pick: B.J. Upton (12.1 WAR) in the 1st round

Still Playing in MLB: Upton, Jacoby Ellsbury (didn’t sign), Mike Pelfrey (didn’t sign), Jason Hammel, Cesar Ramos, Chris Leroux* (didn’t sign)

Notable Picks: Jason Pridie, Elijah Dukes, Wes Bankston

Grade: B

Comments: It would’ve been an A+++ had they been able to get their picks to sign, but Pelf and Ells went to college.  A solid B for a potential star in Upton who is still just starting his prime, the thinking behind the Pelf and Ells picks (essentially partial credit since they didn’t sign) and Hammel who only showed flashes with the Devil Rays before breaking out in Baltimore this year.

 

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 8 (16%)

Combined WAR: -0.5

Best Pick: Dave Bush (2.5 WAR) in the 2nd round

Still Playing in MLB: Bush, Erik Kratz, Drew Butera

Notable Picks: Russ Adams, J. Brent Cox (later a 2nd round pick of NYY in 2005)

Grade: D+

Comments: It might look like an F, but I guess 506 games from their first two picks is at least something even though they didn’t really pan out.  Bush teased and tantalized with impressive skills, mostly with Milwaukee, but could never really put it together despite his consistently strong K/BB rates.

He was actually at an NL-best 4.4 in 2006, his first year with the Brewers, but still posted a basically league average 4.41 ERA in 210 innings. Another thing that kept it from F-dom is that Bush yielded Lyle Overbay, who gave the Jays 10.9 WAR in five years.  That’s not particularly special, but enough to keep from failing.

 

ATLANTA BRAVES

Picks: 52

Played in the majors: 6 (11%)

Combined WAR: 27

Best Pick: Brian McCann (20 WAR) in the 2nd round

Still Playing in MLB: McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Tyler Greene (didn’t sign), Charlie Morton, Chuck James*

Notable Picks: Dan Meyer (big piece in Tim Hudson deal)

Grade: A-

Comments: They pulled a superstar talent in the second round with McCann and he is essentially the entire basis for their A- grade.  Francoeur gave them a solid four and a half years.  After a down 2008-2010, his career has been somewhat reborn in Kansas City.  Morton and James essentially cancel each other out.

 

FLORIDA MARLINS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 9 (18%)

Combined WAR: 29

Best Pick: Josh Johnson (21.8 WAR) in the 4th round

Still Playing in MLB: Johnson, Jeremy Hermida, Robert Andino, Nick Hundley (didn’t sign), Tim Wood*, Ross Wolf*

Notable Picks: Scott Olsen

Grade: A-

Comments: Like Atlanta, their grade is built on a non-1st rounder becoming a superstar and he was an even later pick than McCann.  Hermida didn’t really pan out as a 1st rounder, but he has logged 2012 at-bats, 1708 of them for Florida, as essentially an average player (101 OPS+).  No, it’s not star-level by any stretch, but it’s not a complete bust, either.

Andino has been a late-20s bloomer with the Orioles netting 2.7 of 2.0 career WAR with them.  The Marlins got Hayden Penn for him in 2009, who never emerged.  If Hundley had signed or Olsen had panned out on his rookie year promise (181 IP, 8.3 K/9 as a 22-year old), this would’ve been an incredible draft for the Marlins.

 

MONTREAL EXPOS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 5 (10%)

Combined WAR: -0.3

Best Pick: LOL

Still Playing in MLB: Mike O’Connor*, Sean White*, Jon Link*

Notable Picks: Clint Everts*

Grade: F—, even Texas thought this was a bad draft

Comments: I think I ended up giving the Rangers a Q- and the Expos were worse as they had just two guys deliver positive WAR and nobody cracked the 1.0 WAR mark.  Everts, their top pick, hasn’t made the majors yet he still plugging away in the minors at age 27.  He is now a bullpen arm in AAA for the Blue Jays.  Control has always eluded him, but he is enjoying his best stretch of finding the zone with Las Vegas albeit in just 16 innings (2.2 BB/9).  Beyond that, three relievers are still knocking around the minors from this draft, though none remain with the Expos/Nationals.

 

NEW YORK METS

Picks: 48

Played in the majors: 2 (4%)

Combined WAR: 18

Best Pick: Scott Kazmir (15.2 WAR) in the 1st round

Still Playing in MLB: Matt Lindstrom

Notable Picks:

Grade: C-

Comments: Kazmir was a nice 1st round pick, but the Mets netted exactly none of the profit as they dealt him for Victor Zambrano, inexplicably.  If I am going to factor the positive returns of traded prospects, then I have to factor in the negative returns like this horrific trade.  In three years, they got 202 innings of 4.42 ERA from Zambrano.  Lindstrom never made it to the majors with the Mets.  He was traded for Jason Vargas and then Vargas was part of a big deal that netted J.J. Putz and Jeremy Reed, all three of whom did nothing as Mets and two of whom (Vargs and Putz) have emerged elsewhere.

 

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Picks: 48

Played in the majors: 7 (14%)

Combined WAR: 24.6

Best Pick: Cole Hamels (25.5 WAR) in the 1st round

Still Playing in MLB: Zack Segovia*, Bobby Korecky*, Sam LeCure (didn’t sign)

Notable Picks: Scott Mathieson, Dusty Ryan

Grade: A-

Comments: A superstar 1st rounder is the only return here, but it’s an ace-level elite pitcher who has given them 1244 innings with incredible skills and continues to get better.  Plus he was a mid-round pick, it wouldn’t be as impressive if he was a top five star who panned out.  Of course, this is likely their last year with him as they are unlikely to re-sign him.  If things don’t turn around for the team there are rumors they could trade Hamels in July.

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Wednesday: 06.27.2012

Yadier Molina’s Superstar Season

In “Year of the Pitcher: Part 3”, the headlines are being grabbed by R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Brandon Beachy before his injury, Stephen Strasburg (and actually the Nats rotation as a whole) and whoever is six-plus innings into a no-hitter or perfect game on a given night.  And rightfully so given how incredible those guys have been.  Apart from the wunderkinds (Bryce Harper & Mike Trout), Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp before his injury, hitters aren’t really getting as much run as individual story makers.

This attention on pitchers isn’t a problem, but it has left some hitters in the midst of great seasons off the radar including the brilliant season that Yadier Molina has had thus far.  The 29-year old backstop signed a five-year, $75 million dollar extension in early March that includes a mutual option for a sixth year that would keep him in St. Louis through 2018.

Instead of signing Albert Pujols, they essentially doled the money out to Molina, Carlos Beltran (2/$26mm) Rafael Furcal (2/$14mm) and Lance Berkman (1/$12mm) with Molina as the obvious centerpiece to be paired with Matt Holliday through the 2000-teens.  They are hoping that Molina can be their Jorge Posada in terms of longevity.

The challenge in that comparison is that Molina was up at 21-years old and full-time by 22 while Posada first saw significant time at 25-years old and that lack of wear and tear applied in his early 20s allowed him to remain an offensive force through his 30s with only two seasons below 101 OPS+ and zero below 90 (he was at 90 last year w/a .714 OPS).

However the story worthy of attention right now is that present-day Molina has become the best all-around catcher in baseball.  He has long been the league’s gold standard when it comes to the defensive discipline of catching, but he took a major step forward offensively last year and has not only continued it in 2012, but amped it yet another several notches.

When I saw Yahoo!’s Scott Pianowski tweet on the matter, I found myself nodding in agreement as I had just recently looked at Molina’s stat line over the weekend and marveled at the fact that he is ridiculously close to career-highs almost across the board in only 276 plate appearances.

He achieved career-bests in home runs (14), RBIs (65), runs (55), batting average (.305) and slugging percentage (.465) last year in 518 plate appearances.  He is already exceeding both rate stats (.319 and .512) to go with his 12 home runs, 44 RBIs and 33 runs scored in just 53% of last year’s plate appearance total.  His .369 on-base percentage is also tracking to be a career-best.  After an embarrassing 4-for-9 (44%) stolen base rate last year, he is just two away from his career-high with seven so far in eight attempts (88%).

It is a generally accepted fact that catcher’s develop later offensively speaking because the early part of their career is spent learning the finer points of handling a pitching staff and taming a running game, but that development is usually confined to a power spike.  Molina’s entire game is reaching new heights.

He is currently on pace for 26 HR, 95 RBI and 15 SB with his .317 batting average.  Only one catcher has ever reached or exceeded all four of those marks: Ivan Rodriguez in 1999 when he had 35 HR, 113 RBI and 25 SB with a .332 batting average en route to an MVP.  Of course the offensive environment was much different back then so while Pudge’s dream season netted a 125 OPS+, Molina’s carrying a 142 so far.

None of this offensive explosion is coming at the expensive of the defensive work that made him famous in the first place and earned him four Gold Glove Awards.  GGs aren’t a perfect measure of defensive prowess so you can’t just use them blindly, but I think it is universally agreed upon that Molina has deserved every single one he has earned.

In fact, a major & valid complaint of the awards is that they are often offensively driven for some ungodly reason, but Molina bucked that trend with his 2010 win as he was rather putrid at the dish netting a meager 84 OPS+, but even voters couldn’t ignore his MLB-best 49% caught stealing rate as he threw out a career-high 33 runners (against 35 steals).

So far this year he is popping runners at a 37% clip (13-of-35), but that doesn’t even tell the full story.  He is so good that he stops the running game before it even starts.  The opposition is running at a clip of nearly once per two games, easily baseball’s best rate.  There is currently an attempt once every 16 innings against Molina.  Compare that with San Diego’s Nick Hundley who doesn’t see six innings pass without someone attempt larceny on his watch.  Molina’s rate was even better a year ago when base runners ran just once every 17.7 innings.

The closest catcher to Molina this year is John Buck who is two innings behind (1 every 14 innings) and right behind him is Yadier’s brother, Jose Molina (13.8).  Yadier remains the most feared catcher in the game defensively speaking and with good reason.  The other bias usually associated with Gold Gloves is that multiple winners seem to get favored and ties usually go their way.  Arizona’s Miguel Montero is having a helluva year cutting down runners (22-of-42, 52%), but that might not be enough to trump Molina’s reputation.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Carlos Ruiz is another catcher also having a truly brilliant year at the dish (and behind it).  His .361 average is the best in baseball and his 10 home runs are already a career-best while his 41 RBIs in 67 games have already topped the 40 he amassed in 132 games last year.  He has been no slouch behind the dish, either, with a career-best 39% caught stealing rate stopping 22 of the 56 would-be thieves.  Runners are testing him exactly once per game, but he is meeting the challenge.  At 33 years old, his 171 OPS+ is fourth in baseball behind just Joey Votto (198), David Wright (180) and Mark Trumbo (174).

When I was first gathering data and thinking about this piece, I was thinking of suggesting that Molina could be a longshot MVP candidate based on his excellent all-around season and he may be, but if he is then Ruiz definitely has to garner some consideration and likely even more than Molina as he is out-hitting him and playing sharp defense that is at least in the county of Molina’s, if not in the same ballpark.  I still give Molina the edge as baseball’s best all-around catcher both now and going forward.

What is clear is that these two plus the out-of-nowhere breakout from A.J. Ellis, the insane offensive surge from A.J. Pierzynski, the emergence of Jonathan LuCroy before his hand injury and the continued dominance of guys like Buster Posey, Miguel Montero, Joe Mauer (not 2009 levels, but still very good) and Matt Wieters, perhaps we are in the midst of “The Year of the Catcher” as well as the third edition of TYotP.  Given the return to earth by Mike Napoli and the struggles of Carlos Santana, Brian McCann and Alex Avila, who’d have thought we would be talking about superlative catchers this year?

For the Cardinals, it is still very early (in fact, the extension for Molina hasn’t even kicked in), but it certainly looks like he is trending in the right direction (improved OPS+ in five of the last six years) offensively without losing anything in the defensive game that went a long toward earning him the contract in the first place.

Friday: 06.22.2012

The 2002 Draft: The West in Review

A while back I took a look at the first round of the 2002 draft and reviewed the picks of each team.  With 10 years in the bank, it is fair to look back and judge how everything went for the teams.  I would also like to review each team and will do so by division starting with the west.  Here are the nine west teams and their 2002 performance.

THE WEST

A look at the 2002 drafts of the West division teams by the numbers.

*player in minors, but played in MLB recently

 

ANAHEIM ANGELS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 5 (10%)

Combined WAR: 21.1

Best Pick: Howie Kendrick (14.9 WAR) in the 10th round

Still Playing in MLB: Kendrick, Joe Saunders, Kevin Jepsen, Bobby Wilson and Steve Delabar

Grade: B

Comments: They got a first round pick contributed nearly 700 league average innings before (with prospects) turning into Dan Haren.  Additionally, they got a late-round gem in Kendrick who has developed into one of the better second basemen in the league save his currently monstrosity of a season (84 OPS+ in 215 PA).  Plus there is the faintest outside hope that Jepsen and Wilson could still offer some plus value as they remain on the Angels roster.  Delabar is currently with the Mariners.

 

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Picks: 51

Played in the majors: 14 (27%)

Combined WAR: 49.8 (artificially inflated by Jonathan Papelbon’s 16.2; they took him in the 40th rd.)

Best Pick: Nick Swisher (14.2 WAR) in the 1st round

Still Playing in MLB: Swisher, Papelbon, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen*, John Baker, Jared Burton, Trevor Crowe*, Brad Ziegler

Grade: C-

Comments: They had seven picks in the top 39 and two other top 100 picks yet returned just 23.6 WAR on those picks.  I realize baseball prospecting is difficult, but for a team that was supposed to be on the cutting edge of scouting and analysis, that is not good.  There were five others guys in rounds two through four who netted 20+ WAR and they had so many cracks at those guys.

I would’ve given them a D, but Swisher netted Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney and Fautino de los Santos (who is still with them).  Gonzalez turned into a host of talent this past offseason while Sweeney was part of the deal that brought Josh Reddick and minor leaguers Miles Head and Raul Alcantara.  The former has a 1.074 OPS in High-A.  So ostensibly they are still adding to the WAR total delivered from this draft even with Swish and Blanton (and even Gio) long gone.

 

SEATTLE MARINERS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 6 (12%)

Combined WAR: 7.0 (6.0 of which came from guys they didn’t sign)

Best Pick: Bryan LaHair (0.7 WAR, but -0.5 for Seattle) in the 39th round

Still Playing in MLB: John Mayberry Jr. (didn’t sign), Gaby Sanchez (didn’t sign), Travis Buck (didn’t sign)

Grade: F

Comments: They got 166 plate appearances out of the 2002 draft.  That’s it.  LaHair gave them 150 (w/a .661 OPS) while some guy name T.J. Bohn (30th round) gave them another 16 of .607 OPS.  Their first five picks were all high schoolers before they took a JuCo guys, followed by a Cuban and then two more high schoolers and another JuCo guy.  They didn’t take a four year collegian until the 11th round.  Not sure what that means, just pointing it.  This was a bad, bad draft.

 

TEXAS RANGERS

Picks: 46

Played in the majors: 4 (8%)

Combined WAR: 0.1 (not a misprint)

Best Pick: Get real

Still Playing in MLB: Kameron Loe and Jesse Chavez

Grade: What is worse than F?  Q-

Comments: Holy hell.  I originally gave the Mariners an F- until I saw the Rangers draft.  This is what happens when you don’t pick in rounds two through five.  That’s because they signed Chan Ho Park, Juan Gonzalez, Todd Van Poppel and Jay Powell.  Those guys delivered a whopping 0.6 WAR to the Rangers.  That was the re-signing of JuanGone as he of course delivered 27.5 WAR from 1989 to 1999.  Why did they wait three more years to hire Jon Daniels as their GM?  The 2003 draft delivered John Danks, Ian Kinsler and Scott Feldman, but 2004 was another shitshow.

 

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 5 (10%)

Combined WAR: 4.2

Best Pick: Chris Snyder (4.0 WAR) in the 2nd round

Still Playing in MLB: Snyder and Sergio Santos

Notable Picks: Dustin Nippert (2-time top 100 prospect), Lance Cormier and Brian Barden

Grade: C-

Comments: One pick after the sixth round (Nippert) made the majors for this draft.  Santos, originally drafted as a shortstop, was traded with Troy Glaus to Toronto for Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista which netted the D’Backs 11.6 WAR going forward.  That saved them from a D grade.  The Blue Jays have clearly coveted Santos for some time as they traded for him twice.

 

COLORADO ROCKIES

Picks: 51

Played in the majors: 11 (21%)

Combined WAR: 25.1

Best Pick: Jeff Francis (8.6 WAR) in the 1st round

Still Playing in MLB: Francis, Micah Owings (didn’t sign as 2nd rounder, went in the 3rd round three years later), Matt Garza (didn’t sign), Jeff Baker, Ryan Spilborghs, Ryan Mattheus and Drew Sutton (didn’t sign)

Notable Picks: Ryan Shealy

Grade: C+

Comments: Strong 1st round pick and some decent fringe players that were basically league average (Spilborghs and Baker) for about 1100 games.  Baker turned into Al Alburquerque which would have been a coup as he was great in his pro debut, but it was with the Tigers.  Garza was a 40th round gamble out of high school, but stuck with his commitment to Fresno State and became a 1st round pick for Minnesota three years later.

 

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Picks: 52

Played in the majors: 9 (17%)

Combined WAR: 37.6

Best Pick: Russell Martin (18.1 WAR) in the 17th round

Still Playing in MLB: Martin, James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, James McDonald, Eric Stults, Robert Ray, Doug Mathis* (didn’t sign), Luke Hochevar (didn’t sign)

Notable Picks: Delwyn Young, Greg Miller (#8 prospect in 2004)

Grade: A+

Comments: Solid 1st rounder in Loney, plus another hit in the 2nd round with Broxton and then their best pick 15 rounds later.  Not to mention the fact that McDonald and Stults were picked in the 11th and 15th rounds and they are still contributing in the majors, although not with the Dodgers.  They should’ve been more patient with McDonald, but they still get credit for the pick.  While not a draft or prospect maven, I feel like four impact players and another contributor in Stults is an excellent return.

 

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 7 (14%)

Combined WAR: 7.9

Best Pick: Khalil Greene (7.4 WAR) in the 1st round

Still Playing in MLB: George Kottaras, Paul McAnulty, Lance Pendleton, Andy LaRoche (didn’t sign), Jared Wells*,

Grade: D-

Comments: After Greene, the 2nd through 11th rounders didn’t even make the majors and when you consider that McAnulty (12th) and Pendelton (13th) have been negative contributors as major leaguers, there was no positive value from the 2nd round until Kottaras in the 20th round.  LaRoche was taken in the 21st round, but stuck around at his JuCo for another year and ended up going in the 39th round of the 2003 draft to the Dodgers.

 

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Picks: 50

Played in the majors: 9 (18%)

Combined WAR: 38.3

Best Pick: Matt Cain (27.6 WAR) in the 1st round

Still Playing in MLB: Cain, Fred Lewis*, Kevin Correia, Clay Hensley, Travis Ishikawa, Alex Hinshaw* and Matt Palmer*

Notable Picks: Daniel Ortmeier

Grade: A+

Comments: When you get a star, the draft is a success.  And it’s a resounding success when you supplement that star with a handful of contributors as the Giants did here.  All of their top four picks (Cain, Lewis, Ortmeier, Correia) made the majors.  Most of Hensley’s positive value came elsewhere, but now, at age 32, he’s dealing out of the Giants’ bullpen with a sub-2.00 ERA.  Sharp draft here for the Giants.

Thursday: 06.21.2012

2012 Futures Games Rosters Announced

I have been an avid watcher of the Futures Game for several years now.  In fact, I can only vaguely remember the time when I didn’t care about prospects.  I probably knew of the very best, say the 3-4 high impact prospects on the verge, but I certainly didn’t have decent or better knowledge of 80% of the Futures rosters as I do these days.  This year’s game is sure to display some incredible talent likely to be making waves in the big leagues very soon, especially the United States roster.

I don’t know if it is the best US roster in Futures Game history, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was and it is definitely a contender.  The pitching staff is just filthy with only Jameson Taillon toting a sub-9.0 K/9 and his 8.1 K/9 is hardly poor.  Plus his 1.17 WHIP is one of the best on the squad.  The staff has 704 innings with a 9.7 K/9 and 3.2 K/BB.

Along with Taillon, they will roll out stud arms Taijuan Walker, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy and Gerrit Cole among others.  Three of those four were drafted just last year.  Just an absurd amount of talent.  The World roster is hardly bereft of talent with Jose Fernandez and Chris Reed standing out on their staff, both of whom were also drafted in last year’s insane first round.

On the hitting side, viewers will be treated to Billy Hamilton, the blazing fast infielder in the Cincinnati Reds organization (who plays for the Bakersfield Blaze… pun wasn’t originally intended, but then when I noticed it I kept it on purpose so it became intended).  Hamilton stole 103 bases in 135 games last year.  With 80 in 66 games, he is on pace to steal 163 bases if he plays that many games again.  That’s reminiscent of the first Billy Hamilton.

Additionally, the US is trotting out Nick Castellanos from the Tigers organization who put together a ridiculous .405/.461/.553 line in 55 games at High-A before getting promoted to AA earlier this month.  He had three 0-fers in High-A.  Three.  He also had 27 multi-hit games including a stretch of five in a row.  He has come back to earth a bit in AA having already posted four 0-fers in his 11 games.

Other names to focus on include Nolan Arenado, Travis d’Arnaud, Kolten Wong, Wil Myers, Christian Yelich, Mike Olt and Manny Machado.  Those are just some of my favorite names, they all merit watching.

Jurickson Profar is the standout hitter on the World roster (well, standout among standouts).  The 19-year old shortstop for Texas is battering AA to the tune of .295/.374/.481 with 30 extra-base hits (out of 79 total hits) and an advanced approach especially when you consider his age.  After posting 65 walks against just 63 strikeouts at High-A last year, he has remained strong with a 35/45 ratio.  He is a special glove in the middle of the infield, too, giving the Rangers an embarrassment of riches that will likely result in Ian Kinsler moving once Profar is ready.

The Cardinals haven’t missed a beat in their lineup this year despite the departure of Albert Pujols, but the core of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman is hardly young so they have to be thrilled to have 20-year old Oscar Tavares tearing apart AA after a superb season in High-A last year.  I got a chance to see Tavares in the Arizona Fall League last November and only Arenado impressed me more among the players I saw.

He has an aggressive approach, but it’s controlled aggression.  While he doesn’t walk a ton (8% BB rate), he doesn’t flail wildly, either (13% K rate).  He has a .323/.380/.579 line with 86 hits, 38 which are extra-base hits including 13 bombs.  Keep a close eye on him when he bats.

Additionally, I am really excited to see Francisco Lindor (Cleveland) as I haven’t seen him at all yet.  I desperately hope he goes to AFL this November so I can get in a few games of his as I’m really excited about him going forward except for the fact that he plays for one of the rivals of my Tigers.

Just to give you an idea of how well these rosters are put together in terms of future major leaguers, check out the 2011 entrees who have since played in the majors whether later in 2011 or sometime this year:

World – Henderson Alvarez, Kelvin Herrera, Liam Hendriks, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Wilin Rosario, Yonder Alonso, Jose Altuve*, Alex Liddi, Dayan Viciedo

US – Matt Moore, Brad Peacock, Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Thornburg, Jacob Turner, Devin Mesoraco, Paul Goldschmidt, Jason Kipnis*, Will Middlebrooks, Bryce Harper*, Mike Trout*

* could make this year’s All-Star roster

Going back a few years, 35 of the 55 (five were injury or MLB promotion replacements) players on the 2010 rosters have reached the big leagues.  Looking even deeper, a full 80% (40 of 50) of the 2008 rosters have reached the majors.

Meanwhile, Profar, Arenado, Machado and Myers are headed to their second Futures Game after making the 2011 game as well.

Here are the full 2012 rosters including each player’s highest level reached to date:

This year’s Futures Game is on Sunday, July 8th at 4 PM Central on ESPN2 and MLB.tv.

Jonathan Mayo’s Preview

Baseball Prospectus’ Stat Sheet

Futures Game Wiki

Wednesday: 06.20.2012

Best Pitches Feature On Hold

Quick note about the Best Pitches of the Month feature.  I really enjoyed doing it for April, but it is a big undertaking for a crappy computer which mine has unfortunately become in its seventh year of existence.  It is a labor intensive project that wouldn’t be so problematic on a better unit, so I’m going to suspend the feature until I can afford a new laptop.  Between having MLB.tv and the GIF-making program up (as well as any others not related to the project), the computer would freeze and skip and I often had to remake GIFs that were jumpy or skippy during recording.  I’ll still make GIFs in one-off situations where I think they are really necessary, but since the Best Pitches project was more of a luxury, I’m just going to hold off for now.  Once I get a job, I’ll get a new computer and it will return (and I’m sure I’ll do a ton of random GIF’ing… watch out for beagle GIFs!).

Tuesday: 06.19.2012

Trout and Harper in 2013: The Industry Weighs In

Though we are in the midst of our third straight “year of the pitcher” (maybe it should be an “era of the pitcher”?), two hitters are capturing the attention of the baseball world.  Rookie hitters at that.  Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, the consensus top prospects in baseball this preseason, have lived up to their hype thus far leaving the baseball community drooling in anticipation of what will come next.  The fantasy baseball community might be drooling most of all, especially those with the wunderkinds on their teams.  Those playing in keeper leaguers are giddiest of the bunch.

Trout is on pace to produce one of the five best age 20 seasons since the expansion era (1961), in fact the 2nd-best if he maintains his current pace of production.  Only A-Rod’s insane age 20 season tops Trout’s current pace from an OPS and OPS+  standpoint.  Harper is on pace to be just the 2nd 19-year old to qualify for the batting title and post an OPS+ over 100.  Not 2nd-best, 2nd at all in the expansion era (and subsequently the best at his current pace).

(data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com)

We got a 40-game taste of Trout at age 19 a season and it was less than impressive.  He hit .220 with a  .672 OPS including five home runs and four stolen bases.  In exactly 60 more at-bats than he had last year, he has a .328 average, .907 OPS, six home runs and 19 (!) stolen bases.

Harper, meanwhile, spent his first pro season between A and AA last year.  He crushed the former, posting a .977 OPS with 14 home runs and 19 stolen bases in 258 at-bats before getting a promotion.  He faltered upon arrival posting a .628 OPS in his first 80 at-bats, but closed the year with an .878 OPS in his final 49.

It looked like he was going to need a similar adjustment to AAA as he had a .708 OPS in 72 at-bats before getting the call to the majors as the decimated Nationals needed his potentially impactful bat.  Using arbitrary endpoints again, he seemed to need an adjustment period again posting a meager .650 OPS in his first 13 games.  However, since May 13th he has hit .325 with 15 extra-base hits include seven home runs leading to a .988 OPS in 123 at-bats.

The two are on pace for some pretty impressive seasons even if you don’t factor in their ages:

Harper’s RBI total is pacing a bit low, but it won’t take much to boost that up.  In fact, if you just added five to his current mark, he would move from 59 to 75 in a snap.  By the way, a quick note about the pacing.  I built in five off days for both of them just to be a bit conservative.  I also included an 85% pace which builds in some regression should they fall off their current production pace yet maintain the same amount of at-bats.  It’s kind of a wet blanket/reality check as they are likely at or very near the peak production of their seasons right now.

With the hysteria surrounding the two, I wondered about the future.  Specifically next spring.  I have my own ideas about their 2013 value, but I wanted to know where some of the top fantasy minds in the industry saw them going so I reached out to them with that very question.  Here are the results:

Derek Carty (Twitter) – I imagine both Harper and Trout will be drafted higher than they should — fantasy players love drafting on hype, so much so that they’ll draft a guy who has to make good on his ceiling just in order to break even on the pick (see: Brett Lawrie, 2012) — although both should be quite good.  Harper will offer more in terms of power while Trout will offer more in terms of speed.

A true 80 runner, Trout could swipe 40 bags next year (although some scouts feel he’ll slow quickly as he ages, given his body type).  Harper could challenge 30 HR. and both could provide solid averages, although Trout’s power/speed combo will likely be superior to Harper’s, giving him the edge (especially leading off for the Angels).  I’ll take Trout in the seventh and Harper in the 10th (subject to change, of course, based upon rest-of-2012 performance).

Eno Sarris (Twitter) We asked this of analysts in the online scouting community going into the year for FanGraphs+ ($) and they were all split.  Like right down the middle split.  Dave Cameron writes a piece about how impressive Bryce Harper has been in the early going, and then Wendy Thurm writes that we shouldn’t forget about how good Mike Trout has been.

It seems clear that both will be great, and quickly, and so we’re left with the quintessential question: do you prefer to have power first, or speed?  I’ll take the speedy guy, even if it’s a year older, and here’s why: 1) This speedy guy with power is more likely to add value in all five offensive roto categories. 2) This speedy guy comes with a great contact rate.

There’s nothing worse than a contact problem, and though Harper has a nice strikeout rate, his swinging strike rate (12.5%) is way above average and the sample is almost robust enough to worry about it (Ed. note: this was turned in before Harper’s 5 K performance, which Sarris subsequently wrote about).

Along with Trout’s speed, his better contact rate (9.6% better) should mean that his batting average will be better than Harper’s most years.  It’s as simple as that, but there’s a little more.  If stolen bases by themselves are rare, the true five-cat performer is even rarer, and if you can get your speed from guys with power, you avoid ever having to Juan Pierre it up. I know Harper has the ability to steal some bags now, but I see it more like athleticism and taking advantage of situations — a la Brandon Belt — than Trout-like wheels.

Both of these guys have upside — in one corner, you have a guy who could hit .280 with 25+ homers and 10+ steals as soon as next year, and in the other you have a guy that could hit .300 with 15+ homers and 40+ steals next year. The thing is, there’s an outside shot that Trout’s current batted ball mix (1.22 gb/fb, 12.2% HR/FB) and ISO (.192) are sustainable, in which case he might hit closer to 20 home runs and push the needle further in his favor.

I chose Trout over Harper when they came up and I’ll do it again. Oh, and round? I’ll take him as early as the third or fourth, depending on how the hype works out going into the season next year.  If Harper gets more of the attention, I might gamble on taking Trout in the fifth or sixth in order to really pump him for value.

Joel Henard (Twitter) – Looking at Trout and Harper next season, it’s going to be a tough call.  I definitely see them going way too early in drafts with owners drafting them in the 2nd round.  I see both guys as later 3rd and early 4th round guys.  I am a Harper fanatic and will probably draft him way too early, with that being said I would rank them in 3rd and 4th round.

Riley Breckenridge (Personal Twitter; PO Twitter) Mike Trout: late 2nd round, early 3rd – Updated ZiPS projections have Trout pegged for a 90/15/60/33/.290 output in 2012. I think we’ll see an uptick in all five categories in 2013, (~95/18/70/38/.295), which brought to mind the 2011 model of Andrew McCutchen with more speed, a better batting average, and slightly fewer home runs. McCutchen’s ADP this year sat in the mid-20s, so I’d project Trout as a late 2nd rounder in most leagues.

Bryce Harper: late 3rd round, early 4th – Harper is a tougher call than Trout.  His real value will come when he can give a fantasy owner 30+ bombs and ~20 steals. While I’m fairly certain that day will come, I’m not sure it’ll be in 2013.

Jason Collette (Twitter) – Along where Desmond Jennings and Brett Lawrie were this year both round and dollar wise to be honest.

Nando Di Fino (Twitter) – I actually ran numbers with Harper, Griffey, Yount, Mantle, and A-Rod — their 19-year old season vs. their 20-year old seasons.  All but Yount put up insane numbers. Trout is essentially a year ahead of them right now, so it’s a sneak preview, to a degree. I look at them like this:

Harper: $32 roto player, with lots of power, great average, and some speed.

Trout: $34 roto player, with some power, great average, and a little more speed, which will get his value a tick above Harper’s.

In points leagues, I bet Harper is a little more valuable in 2013 when it’s all said and done, and I would wager that Harper would go in the first round in most drafts, while Trout falls to 2/3. In reality, they should probably both be late first-rounders in both formats next season, and will likely finish with late first-round value.

Al Melchior (Twitter) – Trout probably won’t maintain a .300-plus batting average going into next season, but he should have some Shane Victorino-type value with his speed/power combo. With the added hype of having been a top prospect boosting his value, I see him going as a 4th or 5th rounder.

Harper will hit for more power than Trout, and that will offset his relative shortcomings in batting average and steals. Think of him as Hunter Pence, but with more stolen bases and walks. Also likely to be drafted in the 4th or 5th rounds on average.

Cory Schwartz (Twitter) – Assuming both of these phenoms continue to produce at their current pace and rates, they’ll both be highly coveted in re-draft leagues next year.  Personally I’d go after Trout first, because his edge in the stolen base category will likely outweigh the value of Harper’s superior power.  He’s not likely to hit in the .320’s next year as he is right now, but I think his other production is realistic and projects to high teens in homers and 35-40 steals with an average in the .280’s and nearly 100 runs.

In a 12-team re-draft league, that type of player would probably go in the third round and possibly even sooner… think about Andrew McCutchen this year in terms of value; he’ll certainly go ahead of where Desmond Jennings did this year.  Harper projects for a slightly higher average and could challenge 30 homers next year, while stealing 12-15 bases.

He’ll probably go a half-dozen or so picks after Trout, comparable to or before someone like Hunter Pence. Either way, both have clearly established themselves as potential impact players next year and, based on their production so far this year and expected growth going forward, neither will last very long on draft day.

Derek VanRiper (Twitter) – Valuing Trout and Harper for 2013 requires an unscientific calculation of their expected adjustment period as big league pitchers find ways to get them out. As we’ve learned through the first two-plus months of Brett Lawrie‘s 2012 season, elite tools don’t immediately lead to elite results over the first 500-600 plate appearances.

Trout should run enough to steal at least 25 bases while providing double-digit power, while Harper seems to be a better bet for 15-20 homers and double-digit steals, albeit with a lower batting average because of his ongoing development against left-handed pitching.  In Trout, I think we’re looking at a player who will be valued as a third or fourth-round pick in many drafts next season (similar to Desmond Jennings in 2012), while with Harper it seems as though a Round 4-5 ADP seems more likely.

Chris Liss (Twitter) – Off the top of my head – mixed league, Trout will be a 2nd round pick, Harper 3rd. That is if we drafted for 2013 today. But obviously that could change a lot.

Scott Pianowski (Twitter) – I can’t see Trout lasting longer than two rounds, perhaps getting into the Top 12 or 15. He’s capable of being a dominant speed player right away and he has good (not elite) power, so we might have a five-category player here. It will be interesting to see how the league changes its pitching approach to him, and how the kid reacts.

Harper I don’t like as much as everyone else seems to for the immediate future. Down the road, of course, we can all see the superstar potential. I doubt I’d get him where I’m likely to slot him, maybe fourth or fifth-round value. And before anyone drafts either of these guys in 2013, remember all the sophomores that have broken our hearts.

Ray Flowers (Twitter) – If I was drafting today for the 2013 season I’d roster Trout for the reason many others are saying Trout would be their choice – it’s the speed component. I don’t doubt that Harper could make a run at 20 steals, but if Trout is swiping 40 bags as is obviously possible, Harper is going to have to hit a who lot more dingers to make up that difference in the fantasy game. Plus, I’m not sure that Harper is going to be a .300 hitter right off the hop, which will make his need for a major home run driven effort exceedingly important if he is going to outpace Trout next season.

Speaking of sophomore slumps, notice the 4th-place hitter on that age 20 list from above.  Jason Heyward.  Just two years ago he took the league by storm with a five-tool game worthy of the #1 prospect ranking he earned that preseason.  Since then things haven’t necessarily gone as planned.  He labored through injuries dropping 50 points on his batting average and 141 points on his OPS a season ago.  He has been better on the whole so far this year, but his walk rate has dipped again while his strikeout rate is at a career-high 23%.

He serves as the most ready-made example of what Pianowski is talking about as does Brett Lawrie, a name elicited often by our panelists.  I know what you’re thinking, “Harper and Trout aren’t Heyward and Lawrie!”  And that may be true, but they were both elite, blue-chip prospects who took the league by storm in their debuts and have since struggled by comparison.

Trout didn’t take the league by storm initially (87 OPS+ in that 40-game sample last year) which is maybe why he feels different meanwhile Harper seems to be a generational, once-in-a-lifetime-type talent to whom rules of history don’t apply, unless we’re talking about the rules of Ken Griffey Jr.’s early career.  While Trout matches up somewhat with A-Rod (who struggled in 17 and 48-game samples as an 18 and 19-year old before storming the league at 20).

Nevertheless, if they maintain these incredible paces, no one is going to care about cautionary tales from history and the pair will be very highly drafted in 2013 (like top 10 if they keep their current paces up).  For me, I have Trout higher than Harper.  His speed changes the fantasy game and when paired with his run production ability and batting average potential makes him my favorite type of player.  I would value him as a 2nd rounder in 12-team mixed leagues and I can legitimately see him creeping into the 1st round.

Harper, meanwhile, is of course no slouch.  He oozes with ability and his power could be transcendent in a hurry.  In the lowered offensive era, that is huge.  The Hunter Pence comparison given by a few of the analysts makes sense, but I would give him more pop (30+ HRs) while taking away some of the batting average (closer to .265-.270, compared Pence’s .280-.290 range with a couple of .300s mixed in), at least initially.  Harper has .300/35 capability, I’m just not sure it shows up in year two.  I would value him as a 3rd rounder.

Loosely averaging everyone’s thoughts and opinions yields Trout as a late second/early third round pick and Harper as a mid-to-late third round pick.  They will continue to garner a ton of attention the rest of this season and their draft position will be written about a ton during the upcoming winter and early next spring at the various internet outlets and in every magazine that hits newsstands.

Monday: 06.18.2012

Quick Note: Upcoming

I’ve teased a big piece on Trout & Harper both on last week’s podcast & via Twitter.  I’m finally about done and it will be out on Tuesday.  Just a heads up for everyone including those who emailed asking about it.

Saturday: 06.16.2012

Welcome to Splitsville: Lefties

Welcome to Splitsville.  Here is Splitsville I analyze players through a particular lens, or split, and highlight those who excel.  I looked first at those excelling in each split so far this year, but then I compared it with their career performance to see if it is something that can be relied upon with any degree of certainty going forward or might just be statistical noise through two and a half months.

With the proliferation of daily games like FanGraphs The Game, Daily Joust, FanDuel, PickSix and many others, knowing which players excel in a particular split can help you decide who to pick for a single game.  It is incredibly hard to pick who will excel in a one day sample and even leaning on a favorable split won’t guarantee results, but it can enhance your odds.

Our first split to examine is “vs. lefties”.  Some guys just rake against southpaws.  They usually aren’t southpaws themselves as the lefty-lefty matchup is one of the tougher ones for hitters which aided the rise of the LOOGYs.  Here are 16 guys who are more or less LOOGY-proof:

Andrew McCutchen

McCutchen is on another level across the board this year with an .809 OPS against righties which is up a tick from his career .792 OPS mark against them.  Meanwhile, he is obliterating lefties this year as his 1.285 OPS against them is baseball’s best among those with 50+ PA facing left-handers.

David Wright

Wright has been unique this year in that he has actually been better against right handers (1.063 OPS) than lefties (.986 OPS), but he is still excelling against them so he makes the list plus he has been significantly better against them for his career.  As a superstar, he has excelled regardless of which hand the pitch is coming from (.855 career v. RHP), but his 1.021 OPS is akin to him being Jose Bautista (1.025 OPS in 1338 PA) circa 2010-2011 against southpaws.

Shane Victorino

Victorino has a .641 OPS against righties this year and a .742 for his career.  The Flyin’ Hawaiian is a slap-hitting useful, but unspectacular outfielder against righties, but becomes Mike Napoli with more speed against lefties.  Napoli has an .888 OPS in 1153 PA since 2010.

Billy Butler

Butler has always handled lefties, but this year’s power surge against them has put him on pace to push the 30-home run barrier for the first time in his career.  He was popping a home run every 24 at-bats coming into this season, but has upped that mark to every 14 at-bats with 4 in 57 AB so far.  Butler still hits pretty well against righties with a .288 average, but his slugging dips 100 points to .434 meanwhile he actually has more walks (99) than strikeouts (93) vs. LHP.

Derek Jeter

Unsurprisingly, this surefire first ballot Hall of Famer is doing well across the board.  He has always held an edge against lefties, but this year he has been on another level and it is propping up his entire stat line.  This year he has just a .696 OPS against righties.  He is still hitting .280 against them, but no power (.360 SLG).  He has the same amount of home runs against lefties (3) in 130 fewer plate appearances.

Kevin Youkilis

Youk has been an abomination on the whole this year, but he is still popping lefties to the tune of a solid .853 OPS (compared to his putrid .586 mark against right-handers).  He has held an advantage against lefties, but it was usually accompanied with an excellent mark against righties, too (career .852 OPS).  His career mark against lefties is essentially equal to 2010-2011 Troy Tulowitzki (.931 OPS in 1135 PA).

Paul Goldschmidt

Goldschmidt doesn’t exactly have a rich career history having played all of 101 games in his career, but he does seem to feast on lefties in his limited sample.  His minor league record showed a similar domination of lefties suggesting we will continue to see this trend from him in the majors (1.390 OPS v. LHP; .934 vs. RHP in 131 and 326 PA, respectively).

Jose Altuve

Like Goldschmidt, Altuve has virtually a nothing sample of games compared to most of the guys on this list with just 119 played.  He is but a relatively hollow batting average against same-handed pitchers, but bashes the hell out of lefties with a near-.400 average this year.  This was present in his minor league career as he posted a .446 AVG and 1.165 OPS in 92 PA.

A.J. Ellis

Ellis is your prototypical late-blooming catcher as his 51 games this year are already a career-high.  He has always been an on-base machine with capable batting average and no real power before this year’s surge.  Though his career samples aren’t huge, he shows a pretty distinct edge when facing southpaws, especially for power.

Danny Espinosa

Espinosa has been so bad against right-handers both this year (.589 OPS) and during his career really (.676 OPS) that you could make a case that he should be a platoon player.  The switch-hitter’s split has been as stark as ever this year to the point where fantasy managers should definitely be platooning him where applicable.

Scott Hairston

Speaking of platoons, Hairston is deployed that way by the Mets with great success.  He has just 49 plate appearances against righties posting a paltry .600 OPS.  I am surprised it took this long for him to become a platoon player with a career .225/.287/.408 line against righties in 1328 plate appearances.

Trevor Plouffe

Plouffe currently doesn’t care which hand you throw with, he is going to hit a home run regardless.  But for his career, he has a distinct advantage against lefties in the form of a 230-point split in OPS.  In a lot of leagues, specifically any mixed league format, he was a waiver wire pick (and might still be out there in a few leagues) so the roster should be constructed in such a way that he can be platooned once this hot streak tamps down.

Gaby Sanchez

Sanchez’s performance this year has been one steeped in relativity.  A .698 OPS inspires exactly nobody, but compared to his .449 mark against righties, it is clear he fares better against lefties.  And his career record, filled with much more appealing data, bears that out as well with  a 177-point edge.

Jonny Gomes

Gomes notoriously feasts on lefties and the split seemed to be getting more distinct by the year before this year’s surge against righties (.752 OPS).  His career mark is probably still more instructive.  Same goes for teammate who would be a perfect platoon partner, though he too is enjoying an unexpected surge against same-handed opposition.

Mark Reynolds

Reynolds hits for average against no one and hits for power against anyone, but he is exceptional at getting on base and hitting for power against lefties specifically.  He didn’t hit his first 2012 HR until May 4th so he only have 1 against lefties and 5 overall, but four doubles in his 12 hits vs. LHP gives him that gaudy SLG so far this year.

Cody Ross

Ross was hitting everyone before he went on the disabled list, and he has always hit like an All-Star against lefties, but this year he was at a superstar clip against them buoyed by his .625 SLG in the short sample.  The Green Monster probably aided his work against righties so you might not have to worry about sitting in those situations once he returns.  Either way, he has been out for nearly a month so he probably appears on more than a few waiver wires.

Friday: 06.15.2012

BP Work This Week

A quick look at my work available over at Baseball Prospectus this week.

  • I was in the Lineup Card again this week, this time outlining how the Seattle Mariners could be contenders for the 2015 World Series.  Pitching will lead the way if they are going to make a run.  Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and of course Felix Hernandez should they keep him around.  Think 2010 San Francisco Giants for their blueprint.  Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley will be their offense anchors with Nick Franklin and 2012 1st rounder Mike Zunino on the way.
  • Next up was the Starting Pitcher Value Picks column that looks at some of the more widely available starters who should be getting more love.  I discussed A.J. Burnett yet again because I just don’t understand why he is still being overlooked and I also took a look at the recently called up Kris Medlen who was being stretched out in the minors for the Braves.
  • The Weekly Planner will go live soon and it looks at the two-start pitchers worth trotting out in your leagues.  There aren’t a ton of great choices this week who will likely be available on waiver wires, so those with the aces with a pair of starts will have an even bigger leg up over those who merely stream guys.
  • I did my first BP Unfiltered post this week comparing the 14 K perfect games of Sandy Koufax and Matt Cain.  
  • And finally, episode 8 is out for The Towers of Power Fantasy Hour, a BP Fantasy Podcast.  We discussed tons of players ranging from Matt Cain, Troy Tulowitzki and Dustin Pedroia to Tony Campana, Gregor Blanco and Nate Eovaldi.  We also anoint Felix Doubront with a fantastic new nickname.  The Tigers won yesterday afternoon before the pdocast, so no rant on my beloved team.  By the way, I mentioned on the pod that I would be coming out with a Bryce Harper/Mike Trout-centric piece today, but I had to push it to Monday.  It is coming, though.
Wednesday: 06.13.2012

Gio Gonzalez’s Breakout Season

It is hard to be overshadowed during a season when you have an 8-2 record, 2.35 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 11.0 K/9 and 3.0 K/BB in 73 innings.  And that doesn’t even mention the MLB best hit (5.3 H/9) and home run (0.1 HR/9… just 1 HR allowed) rates.  Alas such is life when you are teammates with Stephen Strasburg (he of the 7-1 record, 2.41 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and MLB-best 11.7 K/9 heading into his Wednesday afternoon start) as is the case for Washington’s Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is in the midst of a Cy Young-worthy season with only his teammate standing in his way at this point.  I’m sorry, but Zack Greinke having a better fWAR than both of them shows a flaw in fWAR as far I am concerned.  Results have to count for something.  Greinke has been fantastic again in 2012 despite being saddled with a .350 BABIP that has no doubt contributed to his 1.22 WHIP, but part of that is on him.  Getting obliterated by the Cubs (8 ER in 3.7 IP) and the D’Backs (7 ER in 2.3 IP) no doubt elevated that BABIP so you can’t just blame the defense, claim bad luck and move on expecting things to regress to a more palatable level.

Strasburg’s biggest implosions are a pair of 4 ER outings, both of which still saw him last longer than either of Greinke’s.  Gonzalez, meanwhile, was popped by the Cubs in his opener (4 ER in 3.7 IP) and hasn’t given up more than 3 ER since including four scoreless outings of six or more innings.  Apologies for the tangent, I was just perturbed to see fWAR list Greinke at 3.0, Gio at 2.7 and Strasburg at 2.6.  How Strasburg is last among those three is beyond me.  Both Nats fan more than Greinke, he walks fewer than either and he is in the middle for home runs.  His ERA and WHIP are significantly* higher.

*significantly relative to the levels we’re discussing with these three this year, all of whom have been excellent

This is about Gonzalez, though.  An incredible left-handed talent, Gonzalez has been coming into his own the last few years as he works through his mid-20s.  Command and control have always been a problem for him as evidenced by the 4.4 BB/9 over his career.  He has shown incremental improvement yearly since first reaching the majors in 2008, though:

OK, improvement is a bit of a stretch for 2010 to 2011 as he simply walked one less batter in virtually the same amount of innings.  In fact, his 92 walks in 2010 didn’t even lead his league thanks to C.J. Wilson’s 93, but 2011’s 91 led all of baseball as he was the only one to reach 90.

So what has changed in Gonzalez that has elevated from a quality mid-rotation arm with potential to ace-level material (with only some of the potential showing) through the first two and a half months of the 2012 season?  Obviously shifting into the National League has aided some of the improvement as it is generally an easier league for pitchers to traverse due in part to the fact that they get to face their counterparts a couple of times a game and even when they aren’t, they are facing pinch hitting bench types instead of a DH.

So far in 2012, starting pitchers in the National League are 0.41 ERA, 0.05 WHIP, 0.4 K/9 and 0.2 BB/9 better than their American League counterparts.  Factoring those changes into Gonzalez’s current totals is a bit crude, but just for the sake ease it would push him to 2.76 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10.6 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9.   Among the reasons it is crude include the fact that the AL numbers are influenced by Oakland being the worst hitting team in that league and he wouldn’t face them.  Of course, he would also get to pitch in Oakland’s stadium which is very friendly to pitchers (Gio had a 2.63 ERA there the last two years).

FASTBALL VELOCITY/PERFORMANCE

Regardless of league, it is clear that Gonzalez is pitching as one of the best in baseball and his stuff would play anywhere.  He has enjoyed a slight velocity gain that has given his four-seam fastball and sinker more punch.  The four-seamer has improved from an average of 93.5 MPH to 94.1 MPH and he is throwing it more often going from 37% a year ago to 43% so far this year.  The result has been more swings-and-misses and fewer balls in play (naturally).

The sinker has gone from 92.8 MPH to 93.3 MPH.  He has been more selective with it throwing it 3% less than last year, but it is generating more swings-and-misses, too.  There are a few more balls in play with it percentage-wise, but a sharp rise in the groundball percentage with it suggests that batters aren’t exactly squaring it up.

More strikes, fewer balls and poorer contact from two pitches that make up 68% of his arsenal is the foundation to the stark improvement in Gio’s numbers.  The improvements in his four-seamer and sinker have spurred his surge in strikeouts, too, especially the four-seamer.

CURVEBALL PERFORMANCE

Gonzalez has a true hammer curveball.  It is his best pitch, his strikeout pitch, and one of the better ones across baseball.  He has taken it to another level this year.  First off, he has been more selective with it throwing it 20% of the time, down from 28% a season ago.  It is easily the lowest usage rate of his career, his first time below 25% in fact, and batters are having an even tougher time doing anything with it in 2012.  He is throwing it for a ball nearly 3% more at 45%, but he is generating more called strikes and whiffs with it, too.

He is commanding the pitch lower in the zone which has probably led to the rise in balls thrown with it, but has also left batters powerless against it yielding a filthy .225 OPS (yes, OPS) against the pitch.  There was nothing wrong with last year’s .524 OPS against the pitch, .225 is just… insane.  What comes after elite?  That’s what his curveball has been this year.  He has had 64 plate appearances end on curveballs and just five have been hits.  Nearly half, 30 to be exact, has been strikeouts while three have resulted in a walk.

CHANGEUP PERFORMANCE

A big improvement for Gonzalez has been the advancement of his changeup.  He used it just 8% of the time last year and while it still isn’t much more than an occasional pitch (11%), the results have dramatically improved.  He achieved all of one strikeout with the changeup a year ago in his 44 plate appearances that ended on the pitch.  This year has already seen 36 plate appearances end on changeups and 11 were strikeouts.  Batters are swinging 10% more often and missing 6% more often despite Gio putting it in the zone 5% less often.

He only threw it 2% of the time in 2-strike counts a year ago, whereas this year that number has risen to 9%.  He is trusting the pitch more and it isn’t letting him down.  Hitters can’t sit on the curveball expecting him to go to it in those counts like he did 44% of the time a season ago.  He is using the curve 32% of the time in those counts and the excess has been shifted to the four-seamer and changeup.

GOING FORWARD

Gonzalez is in the midst of a special season and the obvious question is whether or not he can maintain this level of success.  There is nothing he has done thus far that is ridiculously unsustainable especially for a pitcher as talented as Gonzalez.  The issue remains his elevated walk rate.  But it doesn’t preclude him from success.  When I first looked at Gio’s stat line for this year, it reminded me of Ubaldo Jimenez’s 2010 season.

Even while he was running up that insane 15-1 first half record, he was still walking 3.3 per game.  He ended the season with a 3.7 BB/9.  In fact, he and the 2009 iteration of Clayton Kershaw are the only two pitchers in the last three years to post a sub-3.00 ERA with a  3.7 BB/9 or higher, which is what Gonzalez has done thus far.  Gonzalez has a much better strikeout rate than either of those two had, but the common thread is that all three were eminently unhittable.  Kershaw led baseball with a 6.3 H/9 rate while Jimenez was at 6.7 H/9 in 2010.

Like I said, nothing in Gonzalez’s line is crazy and unsustainable, not even his .244 BABIP.  His infield defense is sound and continue to turn the weak groundball contact he generates into plenty of outs.  He has been at .274 and .287 the last two years, too, so it’s not like the .244 is a major outlier for him.  He will probably allow a few more home runs and not necessarily maintain a 1 per 73 inning rate (0.1 HR/9), but even regressing that out toward his career mark (0.8) won’t sink his ERA.  His xFIP is a very strong 2.91.

Then just imagine if his command and control show more improvement as the season goes along and he chisels away at the walk rate.  There is nothing in his line indicating that will happen, but it isn’t implausible as we watch the maturation of Gonzalez before our eyes.

I would still say he is the second best pitcher on his team, but the difference has been slight thus far.  They are a great righty-lefty combo atop a rotation while Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson have been great in their own right, too.  If you haven’t watched a Gonzalez start this season, I implore you to do so.  Not only will you have the added benefit of watching Bryce Harper play, but Gio has some of the most entertaining stuff in the game.

Plus, the Nationals announcing duo of Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo is really good.  That statement was meant with some derision when I made it on Twitter, but I really think so.  Carpenter is a strong play-by-play by with a good voice and Santangelo offers tons of great insight.  The one downside I heard a few times was that they’re too “homery”, but I always compare that on a scale with Hawk Harrelson as the absolute worst & completely unlistenable, and they don’t even come close to that.  I think they call a straight up game reacting properly to great stuff the opposing team does even though it goes against their Nats.