September 25, 2017 – Tucker Barnhart and the Reds

Here’s an excerpt of the piece that went out to subscribers this morning, about Tucker Barnhart’s contract extension and what the Reds will need to do if they’re going to make Barnhart part of a winning team before that contract is up.

In the Brewers, the Reds can see what they have to hope they can be in 2018 or 2019: an upstart team succeeding on the merits of a surprising pitching staff and a fistful of young players maturing as the season progresses. I wrote the player comment capsules for the Reds in last year’s Baseball Prospectus book, and came away from the process feeling that they had a lot more prospect depth than the industry was giving them credit for. We saw a lot of that depth come up to fill holes as this season wore on, although the results (and the long-term prognoses) are mixed. Getting Luis Castillo (the hardest-throwing starter in baseball this year, and a guy with more than raw arm strength going for him) for Dan Straily last winter is looking like a coup, even as Straily finishes up a fine first season in Miami. On the other hand, whatever hope the Reds had for Amir Garrett has to be pretty severely dented at this point. Anthony DeSclafani’s inability to get healthy at any point in 2017 certainly bodes ill for him, and he looked like a mid-rotation starter just last year. Tyler Mahle is a prospect with more finesse than pure stuff. He’s looked good in a handful of starts, but he’ll be tested when he goes around the league again next spring.

Overall, the pitching remains a mess, but the positional core is increasingly viable. Joey Votto isn’t turning into Albert Pujols any time soon; it looks like he’s going to age about the way his idol, Ted Williams, did. Eugenio Suarez is a borderline star-caliber player, at this point, a guy who hits for power, accepts his walks, can cover the plate, and who (after a rough adjustment period last year) is bringing the physical presence of a converted shortstop to bear at third base. Jesse Winker hit for zero power in the International League, but his hit-first approach is letting him get to plenty of pop in the bigs. (Sure, that makes sense, ball’s not juiced, no sir, Mr. Manfred, sir.) If Winker can hold down right field next year, then the Reds can platoon Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall in left, and that would be one of the most productive platoons in recent memory. Billy Hamilton has lost a step in the field and still hasn’t figured out how to get on base consistently, but if he’s in center, your corner guys have a little less ground to cover.

There remain a whole host of unanswered questions. Jose Peraza can’t have inspired tremendous confidence with his uneven season. Last summer’s second overall pick, Nick Senzel, had an awesome season in the minors, and could be ready by the middle of next year. If he can play second base, the holes are starting to fill up for this team. If he’s stuck at third or regresses and ends up in left field, there’s less help there. No matter what, the team faces the prospect of replacing Zack Cozart, who will hit free agency this winter and probably never look back.

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September 23 – Behind the 8 Ball

Here’s an excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, on the Angels’ long odds in the AL Wild Card race.

Maldonado is a different story. He didn’t fail early, and he wasn’t displaced. In fact, he made a huge positive impact. He does absolutely everything well behind the plate, from framing to throwing to blocking pitches in the dirt to calling the game to fielding bunts and dribblers. The Angels were 11th in catcher Fielding Runs Above Average last season, according to Baseball Prospectus, where those numbers include all of those elements (except game-calling). This year, they’re second, and they have Maldonado to thank. 
 
That’s the good news. The bad news is that they have lacked catching depth all season, leading manager Mike Scioscia to ride Maldonado extremely hard. Only Yadier Molina (which, that’s another conversation we’ll have soon) has caught more innings than Maldonado this season. As the season has worn on, Maldonado has worn down, and not in a small way. Since August 1, he’s taken 135 plate appearances, and batted .171/.201/.287. (I double-checked because I didn’t believe it, either.) He has 41 strikeouts and one walk during that period. A regular member of any lineup carrying a .201 OBP is almost inexpressibly damaging (although I guess I’m trusting that choice of words to express the damage, more or less). The Baseball Gauge at Seamheads.com keeps a statistic called Championship Win Probability Added (cWPA), which is basically what it sounds like. It calculates, for every plate appearance a batter takes, how much that situation stands to affect the outcome of the game, and then how much the outcome of the game stands to affect the probability that that team will win the World Series. Then it assigns a value to whatever the player does in that plate appearance, based on run expectancy models. Maldonado’s -0.017 cWPA, then, essentially means that he’s made the Angels 1.7 percentage points less likely to win the World Series with his offensive performance this year. That’s incredibly hard to do, for a team whose odds of winning the Series have been slim all along. Only two position players have lower cWPA this season, and remember, most of this lost value has come in the last seven weeks. Maldonado was hitting .239/.307/.401 at the trade deadline, which is more than enough production from such a solid defensive backstop.

September 22, 2017 – Shohei Ohtani and Rob Manfred

Here’s an excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, my jeremiad on the upcoming Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes and the way the owners have set themselves up to look foolish and to lose control of the competitive balance of the game. Oh and also, why they don’t care.

Half of all teams are out of the running, just like that. No one in the National League is going to have access to a player regarded by many as one of the best in the world, even though he’ll come at a bargain price. (We’ll get to what that price will really be in a moment, but it will certainly be a bargain.) The staggering competitive advantage this confers on the 15 teams in the AL, just by virtue of being on the right side of the rule book, is only an exaggerated version of the one they’ve enjoyed for two decades or more. The DH gives AL teams a margin for error in the free-agent and amateur talent markets that NL teams do not have. It allows them to play specialists (not only one-dimensional DHs themselves, but elite glove men who can’t hit at all) much more readily, without any aspect of their team suffering for it. The AL has been the dominant league since the rise of the Core Five (screw cutesy rhymes, that team is nowhere without Bernie Williams) Yankee dynasty, and it’s precisely because the NL is playing by arcane rules that hamper them. That phenomenon goes to another level when Ohtani signs with some AL team this winter.

The second obvious problem with the Ohtani market is the preposterously low bar the cap sets for his official compensation. That is a green light for, if not tampering, then all manner of other shenanigans. Teams will promise him $100-million contract extensions, effective the moment Rob Manfred’s potential legal footing to block such a move starts to soften. They’ll sling money at him under the table in every way imaginable, because the official price tag on him is so far below his market value that even the risk of getting caught (and having to pay a huge fine to the Commissioner’s Office, and losing the right to sign international free agents for the rest of the signing period, and maybe even losing draft picks) is nowhere near enough to deter them.

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September 21, 2017 – Brewers v Cubs

Here’s an excerpt of today’s post, a quick preview of the weekend’s crucial Cubs-Brewers series:

[Zach Davies is] a soft-tossing righty, but his command is elite, and he’s stayed ahead of the adjustment curve by using his literal curve more often in the second half.

Indeed, he’s a true four-pitch pitcher right now: sinker, cutter, changeup, curve. None of the four are even above-average offerings. It’s been command and unpredictability fueling his success, but if you have enough of both those things, you can still be really good. Really, that’s the Brewers’ 2017 in a nutshell: they’ve improbably found the depth to remain ahead of the league’s adjustments to them.

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Penning Bull – September 20, 2017 – Suspended Logic

Here’s an excerpt of today’s Penning Bull, a piece in which I beg MLB to apply a more thoughtful series of criteria to the decision-making process when disciplinary action is required.

 

It happened so quickly that Contreras, who seemed to have had half a mind to run interference and keep Lackey from getting tossed, wasn’t even able to turn his full attention away from the field for another moment or two. Once he was, he jawed with Baker a bit, obviously frustrated by the blown call, his own poor framing job on the pitch in question, and Baker’s quick trigger on his pitcher. Then, just as he seemed to be turning his attention toward the field and the job of warming up Lackey’s replacement, Contreras tried to get in some final word that Baker found impermissible. Baker threw him out, more emphatically than the sheepish wave he gave to Lackey. Livid, Contreras spiked his catcher’s mask.

Freeze the video. The mask is on the ground, five feet or so from Baker. It’s been slammed straight down, a victim of Contreras’s frustration and fury. What it clearly isn’t, of course, is a weapon, a tool being applied to some malevolent, violent purpose. Keep watching, though, because that’s about to change.

Penning Bull – September 19, 2017 – The Dark Night

Here’s an excerpt of the short piece I wrote Tuesday night about Matt Harvey, discussing just how good he was back in his peak form—and the myriad reasons why he’s clearly not getting back to that level.

Score, Tanana, Valenzuela, and Gooden all having been so similar to Harvey during these standout seasons really helps bring the greatness we witnessed into focus. Harvey fell neatly into line with the most heralded studs of modern baseball history. He wasn’t merely one of the best in baseball that year; he was one of the best baseball had seen in years. 
 
Of course, that season was cruelly truncated. Harvey tore his UCL in late August and had Tommy John surgery in September. At the time, I wrote a blog post (with a regrettable tone, perhaps, but with a reasonable premise), observing that Harvey had made an awfully large number of unnecessary pitches late in starts that season, and that there had been other signs of trouble the team and the pitcher either ignored or unwisely minimized. (Here’s the link to that piece. It’s of more interest than I would have guessed, four years on; you should read it.) 
 
The trouble was just beginning, of course. Harvey and the Mets clashed over whether he ought to pitch in the Majors at the end of the lost 2014 season. (He didn’t, in the end.) The next season, he and the Mets and agent Scott Boras (who’s usually very good at forging a united front with his player in regard to things like this) never got wholly onto the same page with regard to managing Harvey’s workload. There was a hard-and-fast shutdown time set, an innings limit, skipped starts… and then nothing. Somehow, Harvey just kept pitching. He pitched into the World Series. He pitched into the ninth inning of Game 5 of the Series, past 110 pitches, and past 215 total innings for the year. It couldn’t have been clearer that he was steering back into trouble, and by the following spring, red flags were everywhere. His command was loose; his velocity was down. He took the ball just about every fifth day over the first half of 2017, but his 17 starts break down almost perfectly evenly: six good ones, five middling ones, and six outright bad ones. That inconsistency, especially, made it obvious that he was dealing with a chronic arm problem, and when it turned out to be Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, it could hardly have surprised anyone. 
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Penning Bull – September 18 – The Kipnis Conundrum

Here’s an excerpt from today’s Penning Bull, on the Indians’ unusual response to the injuries and logjams through which they need to sort at three key positions:

If you remember Julio Franco in his 40s, in the early 2000s, you have a bizarre but useful idea of what the 26-year-old Diaz is. He’s big and unbelievably yoked, but his offensive game is more about plate discipline and hitting the ball sharply the other way than about real power. Defensively, he’s no Urshela, but he acquits himself well at the hot corner. The Indians believe he’ll tap into serious pop and become a complete offensive threat in time, and Terry Francona has plugged him into the lineup 15 straight times at third base in order to let him work on that. His OBP has been a valuable asset, despite the lack of power, and helped create some of the long rallies that fueled the winning streak. 
 
Still, the move to make Diaz the everyday starter at one spot didn’t make a whole lot of sense at the time, and it makes even less now, as the condition seems to be survivng a major change in surrounding circumstances. At this point, injuries and failure are conspiring to make all of Francona’s decisions difficult, instead of easy, and the solution the team has come up with seems inscrutable. As Kipnis returns from his latest trip to the DL, he’s been sent to center field to fill the hole (ostensibly) left by Zimmer, with Ramirez (banged up himself, but not alarmingly so) holding onto the job at second base and Diaz playing third. Kipnis, to whom the Indians owe at least $30 million through the end of 2019, hasn’t played the outfield at all since his first pro season, and hasn’t been out there regularly since college. Since Lonnie Chisenhall and Jay Bruce are currently healthy enough to hold down the corners against all but the toughest lefties, sliding Kipnis out to center makes bench players of Jackson, Naquin, Abraham Almonte, and Greg Allen—the last being a toolsy prospect called up when rosters expanded on Sept. 1.