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February 23, 2018 – Jake the Cleveland Killer

In the latest edition of Penning Bull, I wrote about Jake Odorizzi, the Twins’ new number-three starter. Specifically, I tackled the topic of Odorizzi’s notable reverse platoon splits; the way that characteristic makes him particularly valuable to the Twins; and what, in my opinion, the Twins need to do to make this transaction pay the highest possible dividends.

For something close to zero real cost (shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios is no higher than fourth on their organizational depth chart at any infield position), the Twins got what amounts to a solid back-end starter, with just a smattering of upside. The thing to love about this deal is the way it goes right up to the Twins’ chief division rival and punches them in the mouth. The Cleveland Indians are baseball’s most platoon-happy, switch-hitter-heavy offense. They had the platoon advantage in 69 percent of their plate appearances last season, highest in MLB. Odorizzi, a right-hander, figures to see lefties in about 70 percent of his encounters with Cleveland batters this season, because they have either switch-hitters (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Francisco Mejia lurking in the minors, plus Greg Allen and Abraham Almonte on the fringes of the roster) or pure lefties (Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Yonder Alonso, Lonnie Chisenhall, Bradley Zimmer, plus top first-base prospect Bobby Bradley and floundering former rookie sensation Tyler Naquin) at most positions, most of the time.

Odorizzi, however, belongs to the phylum of pitchers who are better (much better, really) against opposite-handed hitters. His approach mostly consists of high, rising fastballs, then splitters that dive below the strike zone. That’s the recipe for a reverse-split starter.

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February 22, 2018 – Underextended

The latest edition of Penning Bull went out to subscribers overnight, on a consequence of the CBA (and the increased penalties therein, for spending beyond the luxury tax threshold) that rarely gets discussed: the way it discourages early extensions for good players.

Say you’re the Red Sox, and you’re thinking about signing Mookie Betts to a long-term deal. It really doesn’t matter at which point, over the last three years, but let’s say it’s early 2016. The point is, you want Betts to be a Red Sox for a very long time. He’s interested. After all, he signed for just $750,000 back in 2011. He’s not represented by Boras. He knows there’s only so much money waiting for him on the professional bowling circuit, if his size catches up to him before he gets megarich. He’s willing to sign a deal comparable to the one Christian Yelich signed in 2015. Yelich got seven years and just under $50 million, guaranteed, with a $15-million club option for 2022. Betts wants seven years and $52.5 million, with a similar club option tacked on at the end.

From one perspective, that would be a huge win for you. Betts would be under team control for at least two years more than he’s slated to be, and it could be three. There’s cost certainty all the way through, and obviously, those certain costs are discounted pretty heavily.

You can’t do it. You just can’t. You want to get under the tax threshold in 2017, and this deal would blow a hole in those plans. As it is, you’re going to surpass the threshold for a second straight year in 2016, but if you sign Betts to this deal, his tax number immediately becomes $7.5 million, rather than the $1 million or less it will be if you leave things alone. Even if it saves you a few million on the same number three and four years down the road, it won’t offset the negative effect of having that AAV shoot up two years before it needed to do so.

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January 14, 2018 – Gerrit Cole and the Astros’ Window

With their acquisition of Pirates ace (if that’s what he truly is) Gerrit Cole on Saturday, perhaps the Astros announced their intention to trade the long term for the best possible chance to win another World Series within the next two years. Here’s an excerpt of my brief breakdown of the trade:

Given the price the Astros ended up paying to acquire Cole, it’s easier to see why they wanted him so badly. Previous reports indicated that the Pirates would hold out for a higher class of prospect than this. What they actually got, in the end, was Joe Musgrove (an intriguing but no longer promising pitcher crowded out of the picture in Houston), Colin Moran (a corner infielder whose professional track record is mixed, and who was blocked in Houston), Michael Feliz (a hard-throwing righty who (picking it up yet?) had no apparent place in the deep Astros bullpen), and Jason Martin (a toolsy but flawed outfield prospect whom the team left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft last month). That’s a lot of quantity, but it’s conspicuous for the absence of bigger names, like Francis Martes, Forrest Whitley, Kyle Tucker, and Derek Fisher. This feels like a deal the Astros would have been very happy to make at any time, and one to which the Pirates eventually acceded because they were overeager to be rid of Cole and couldn’t extract the sexier targets in either the Houston or the Yankees system for which they had originally aimed.

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January 10, 2018 – The Problem Is, There’s No Rolex

After quite a while away, I published a new edition of the newsletter for subscribers overnight, about the frozen Hot Stove market, especially for the three starting pitchers who sit at the top of the free-agent heap. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s overly simplistic to say that the various suitors currently in the market for a major upgrade to their rotation—principally, the Cubs, Twins, Astros, Phillies, Cardinals, and Rangers, with other teams waiting on the periphery or focusing in on just one of the available options—see no difference between Yu Darvish, Arrieta, and Alex Cobb. Virtually the entire industry agrees that Darvish is the top pitcher in that trio, and that Arrieta fits somewhere between Darvish and Cobb, at least as a long-term investment. There seems to be an equally strong consensus on the notion that those three represent an inviolable top tier, with neither Lance Lynn nor Tyler Chatwood (the closest thing to a high-level starter to sign this winter) having the same footing.

Once that kind of stratification is sorted out, however, the marketplace enters a liminal phase. Price tags and offers are exchanged, balked at, rejiggered, and haggled over, and through that feeling-out process, someone discovers that they value one of the players on the market much more highly than the rest of the market does, or that they simply value one of those players more highly than the other players (relative to each player’s individual market price). When the first thing happens, a deal comes together quickly, because the player will jump at it. That’s what happened with the Cubs and Chatwood, back in December. When the second thing happens, a deal comes about more slowly, because the player will prefer to wait to see if one of those enthusiastic buyers emerges, and the team will be willing to wait at a certain price point, at least as long as they have alternatives.

The problem with the market for Darvish, Arrieta, and Cobb is that no team has demonstrated a clear preference for any of them over the others, so we’re not even in the latter form of movement toward a deal yet.

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-MT

November 9, 2017 – Roy Halladay

This is a full reproduction of the latest issue of Penning Bull, which went out to subscribers this morning. I feel odd keeping words about subjects like this one behind the implicit paywall, so I’m publishing it here. If the piece so moves you, please consider subscribing. 

Roy Halladay, 40, died Tuesday in a plane crash off the coast of Florida. He was the pilot and sole passenger of the plane, his own plane, one he’d purchased earlier this year. We’ve had far too many of these deaths, lately. Great players have died right in the middle of, or at the beginning of, incredibly impressive careers, in car and boat accidents. Beloved legends have died far too young, claimed by cancer. It’s enough (life in general, lately) is enough make one go numb. It’s hard to find anything to say, sometimes. It’s hard to find any meaning in the loss or any honest, to-the-bone assessment of the player and person. We find ourselves awash in platitudes and heartsickness, knowing their loved ones will suffer so much without them and that there’s so little we can really do to change that, and knowing whatever the real magnitude of the person and their legacy was, it will be swallowed and distorted now by the way we lost them.

All of that could, can, does apply to Halladay’s death, too, and dear reader, please feel free to feel all of that. For me, though, this case feels different, too. There’s a more visceral, more inescapable, and more energetic element to this. We can take no action, of course. Halladay’s wife Brandy and sons Ryan and Braden will want for nothing, monetarily, and this is not (to anyone’s knowledge, or in all likelihood) related to drug or alcohol use. Still, everyone has sprung to action. Players who knew Halladay, who loved him and learned from him, and many who only saw him from across a diamond, too, have posted stories on social media about what Halladay meant to them. That happens every time this happens. There’s something very different here, though. The boilerplate stuff—the rookie he took under a wing when it was needed, the friend he consoled when they were at their lowest—is out there, but the majority of the accounts are quite personal and unique to the players telling them: almost more about them, and about what they saw when they looked at Halladay, than about Halladay himself. The professional and personal respect and admiration so many hold for Halladay is on a level we don’t often encounter, even when they pass and we tend to hear only the best things about them.

Halladay was one of the hardest workers and most even-keeled competitors in the game, for over a decade. As many have noted, he was the last great practitioner of the complete game. He was certainly a physical freak, but that ability to work very deep into games also stemmed from his exceptional mastery of the mental aspects of pitching. After two dreadful seasons (his first two full ones) in 1999 and 2000, Halladay was in jeopardy of seeing his career disappear. According to our DRA-based WARP, Halladay was worth -2.7 wins during those campaigns.

He found himself in the minors the following spring, and was considering giving up the game. Then, he discovered The Mental ABC’s of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance, by legendary sport (and especially baseball) psychologist Harvey Dorfman. I’ve read that book, and Dorfman’s other well-known tome, The Mental Game of Baseball, and here’s the thing about them: they’re incredibly useful, precisely to the extent that one is open to their message and is of the right general disposition to put its counsel into action. Halladay, with his natural blend of tenacity and placidity, was the perfect audience at the perfect moment.

By the middle of 2001, Halladay was back in the Majors, and he was dominant. He had the sinker that would make him the most efficient starter in baseball, and he had the delivery that would make him the most durable one, but most of all, he had the mental edge that would make him the best.

It’s my instinct to look, in moments like these, for things I can tell people that others don’t know. I searched through the Control and Command metrics we’ve built over at Baseball Prospectus, and then dug into Halladay’s tunneling data, looking for a relationship between his pitches or the quantitative expression of some unique skill that might lend us all a greater understanding of Halladay, the pitcher. All of that turned up nothing. In those ways, Halladay wasn’t exceptional. He beat opponents in a different way.

The first two paragons of modern pitching (if we’re being generous, but not overgenerous, with our definition of ‘modern’) were Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. They pitched at a time when hardly anyone was a threat to hit a home run, so games turned slowly and rallies came together only if the offense beat the pitcher and the defense a few times in one inning. Both Mathewson and Johnson masterfully availed themselves of that reality, throwing from a low arm slot, pacing themselves, and always being ready for the moment when they really needed an out. Mathewson’s memoir, “Pitching in a Pinch,” became the first definitive philosophical text on the craft.

After those two, though, the game was without pitchers of similar, prolonged brilliance for decades. The game belonged to the hitters for years, through the Babe Ruth/Rogers Hornsby/Lou Gehrig era and on into the Joe DiMaggio/Ted Williams/Willie Mays/Mickey Mantle era. When pitchers took the game back, in the 1960s, the art looked very different: Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver led a generation of men who came flying down the mound, all their emphasis on power, mostly throwing over the top and focused on keeping the ball away, away, away. Even Gibson, known for pitching inside, talked about working the outside edge to get outs, and about coming in only to keep hitters honest and as far from the plate as possible.

That became the dominant pitching philosophy, and when Leo Mazzone came along in the early 1990s (with the strike zone two and a half feet wide and a trio of aces who would have been great no matter when or how they pitched under his guidance), an emphasis on establishing the fastball and pounding it, low and away all day, brought us right up to what a 2017 fan would recognize as modern orthodoxy.

Halladay didn’t live by that orthodoxy. That’s not to say that he didn’t get many, even most, of his outs by throwing cutters and curveballs away (to batters of either handedness), but he used his sinker—and especially the inside sinker, either front-dooring it to left-handers or running it in onto the hands of righties—differently than most great pitchers of the Expansion Era have. He threw with the same kind of easy, impeccably repeatable delivery that Johnson and Mathewson used, and (despite pitching in an era in which almost everyone was a threat to hit a home run, and the texture of games could change in an instant) he picked spots at which to reserve his effort and pitch to contact, and others at which to bear down for strikeouts. That doesn’t make him unique among the great recent pitchers, but it sure helps set him apart, and it helps explain his trademark trait: that exceptional ability to pile up innings. He was a mental giant, perhaps unrivaled by anyone this side of Greg Maddux and those two ancient masters.

He’s a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. He won two Cy Young awards, threw a perfect game, and threw a playoff no-hitter. Since 2001, he’s the leader in Wins Above Replacement Player, based on DRA, despite having retired four years ago (and having pitched an entire, mediocre season in pain and without effectiveness, in 2013). Even since 1999, when the story of his career has to begin (because his greatness really was forged in the fire of that adversity), he’d edged out only by Randy Johnson. None of that seems terribly important right now, of course. It’s wonderful that he’ll be enshrined in Cooperstown and that we have a way to demonstrate, so clearly, that he was the best pitcher of his generation.

None of it brings him back, though, so we’re left wanting to focus mostly on the things that do, in some small way, bring him back. Story after story of his generosity of spirit, of his devotion to his family, and of his passion for people and life do bring him back, at least for those of us who already lost him once (the way we lose all ballplayers, once they retire and their day-to-day life no longer plays out as a backdrop to our own). His own pictures of the plane in which he died, along with his expression of such joy at the prospect of flying it, underscore that he died doing what he truly loved—something, perhaps, he loved even more than baseball. So many pitchers were either inspired or directly influenced by Halladay. A blogger who started a baseball blog entitled “I Want to Go to the Zoo With Roy,” which is a ridiculous thing that the guy knew was ridiculous, which was a preposterous joke from the beginning, actually did get to go to the zoo with Halladay, because that’s the person Halladay was.

Slowly, pitchers are coming to look more like Halladay. Corey Kluber is this generation’s (lesser) answer to Halladay: able to pitch much deeper into games than his peers, ruthlessly efficient, incredibly even-keeled on the mound. Ray Searage brought Halladay’s approach (that sinker in against same-handed hitters, complemented by sliders or cutters that veer away) to the Pirates and ended their two-decade playoff drought. Charlie Morton, who famously copied Halladay’s delivery almost movement-for-movement in order to revive his career some years ago, got the final 12 outs of this year’s World Series. A number of the game’s biggest breakouts this season came when pitchers lowered their arm slots and focused more on stability during their delivery. If we’re luckier than we deserve to be, the world (and especially baseball) will also come to reflect Halladay on a personal level.

October 22, 2017 – The Play the Moment Demanded

The latest Penning Bull is a quick but lengthy reflection on ALCS Game 7, and the big play made by Alex Bregman in the fifth inning features prominently. In the name of equal time, though, here’s an excerpt on Aaron Judge’s great catch and the Yankees’ bright future. Subscribe for more on the Yankees, plus the upcoming World Series preview and plenty of offseason content.

Baseball Prospectus keeps Team Defensive Efficiency stats for all batted balls, but they also offer that data split up by batted ball type. On fly balls (not line drives, and not infield pop-ups, but true fly balls), the Yankees had the highest Defensive Efficiency in MLB in 2017. Of the fly balls that didn’t leave the park, the Yankees turned 91.9 percent into outs. Part of that, one might reasonably argue, could be that the dimensions of Yankee Stadium and the juiced ball combined to ensure that hard-hit fly balls mostly went over the fence, injecting bias into the sample and making Yankee outfielders look better than they were. On the other hand, the teams immediately trailing the Yankees in this category (the Angels, Mariners, Rays, and Royals) all have large outfields to cover. To me, what it suggests is that the Yankees were not only great at making the usual catches all over the diamond, but also uniquely good at making plays at the wall. We saw ample anecdotal evidence of that over the course of the season, in fact, with great plays by Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge that stand out.

Judge added to that highlight reel on Saturday night. He made a terrific leaping catch on a line drive by Yuliesky Gurriel, keeping the game scoreless (for a little while). Judge catches some flak for imperfect routes, and he’ll learn to take a different one on balls hit like Gurriel’s in the future: that’s a higher-percentage (if less exciting) play if he goes back more at first and flattens out the route to make the play at the wall. Still, his athleticism and feel for playing the ball are impressive, and probably (until Saturday night, at least) underrated. Like Giancarlo Stanton, he seems too big not to be one-dimensional, but like Stanton, he manages not to be.

There’s a world of talent on this Yankees team, a club Brian Cashman built damn near perfectly (given the various and often contrary edicts a Yankees GM is nearly always receiving from ownership). Cashman doesn’t get enough credit for winning trades both consistently and handily. His eye for distressed and discounted assets might be the best of any GM in baseball. Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, Aroldis Chapman, and even Sonny Gray are examples of that. He’s also devoted himself to having organizational depth, and he’s even tried to time that depth to facilitate getting the Yankees under the luxury-tax threshold without sacrificing competitiveness in any season. They’re going to be able to fill some of their holes with top-tier prospects, and given how little Judge and Sanchez will still cost for the next few years, that leaves them a wealth of options. They also get to bring back as much of their untouchable bullpen as they want, with Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Dellin Betances, Chad Green and Adam Warren all under control through at least next year. The Yankees are here to stay.

 

October 20, 2017 – Dodgers Advance to World Series

I haven’t gotten many chances to post excerpts here recently, but will share a bit of the long P.B. subscribers received overnight here. On the Dodgers, and especially, on the impact of Chris Taylor:

Meanwhile, Taylor has become a sudden superstar. He has speed, he has plate discipline, and he has a short but vicious swing that the Dodgers helped him engineer after he arrived in the organization, a swing that (with the help of the juiced ball changing MLB so profoundly) has made him a complete offensive threat. The funny thing is, when you really interrogate Los Angeles’s acquisition of Taylor, it’s awfully easy to see what they saw in him: he hit .314/.400/.458 in nearly 2,000 minor league plate appearances.

Sometimes, it’s that simple. This is a principle as old as the early Bill James Abstracts: minor league performance should inform our projections of a player’s success in the Majors. Other teams viewed Taylor’s success in the minors with a jaundiced eye, perhaps noting that he did a lot of his damage at Seattle’s two hitter-friendly affiliates (High Desert, in the California League, and Tacoma, in the Pacific Coast League), or perhaps penalizing him for being neither especially young for his level nor a high-pedigree Draft product (he was undrafted out of high school and a fifth-round pick out of the University of Virginia). Taylor never appeared on any of the major Top 100 prospect lists.

They were probably wrong, all along. His offensive environments might have inflated his raw numbers, especially with regard to power, but Taylor consistently demonstrated a great overall offensive skill set. The Dodgers saw that, and his obvious athleticism, and knew that their player development machine might be able to do something special with him.

It’s lucky for them that they did, too, because the number of small failures and shortcomings Taylor papered over this season is staggering. After being called up in mid-April, he played second base almost exclusively for a month, covering for injuries and ineffectiveness on the part of both Logan Forsythe and Chase Utley. He occasionally filled in at third base, providing such solid production that the team barely missed Justin Turner during his absences. Then he became a regular in left and center field, where the team’s preseason patchwork plans had otherwise fallen to pieces.

Remember Andrew Toles’s similarly startling emergence last fall? He was supposed to be a vital part of this year’s outfield mix for the Dodgers, but on May 9, he suffered a season-ending injury. Enrique Hernandez had an awful year at the plate. Andre Ethier (still) couldn’t stay healthy, and neither (shockingly) (not shockingly) could Franklin Gutierrez. Adrian Gonzalez’s back problems and declining skills forced him almost out of the picture, which forced rookie sensation Cody Bellinger to spend the lion’s share of his time at first base. Worst of all, Joc Pederson continued to go backward, both in terms of athleticism and in his offensive profile. Without Taylor, the Dodger outfield would have been pretty shaky. Instead, he made it a strength for them.

He also dominated the NLCS. He hit .316/.458/.789, with go-ahead home runs in Games 1 and 3 and a triple that extended that Game 3 lead, changing the complexion of those games. He drew a couple of key walks that set up other rallies. He played a strong center field, acting as the linchpin in a Dodgers defense that looked much better and more ready for the pressure of October this time around. Oh, and he played quite a bit of shortstop, too, filling in for (ostensibly) the Dodgers’ best player, Corey Seager. Taylor’s performance in this series was transcendent, and although Turner’s walkoff home run and Hernandez’s monster showing in Game 5 will overshadow it a little bit, it was Taylor who clearly distinguished this NLCS from the last.

To read the full piece, subscribe, using the button on either the right-hand side or the bottom of the page. Remember, through the end of the World Series, I’m doubling the percentage of your subscription price that goes to charity, with $1.11 still going to the charities listed on the About page, and another $1.11 going to Hurricane Maria relief in Puerto Rico.