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. 

Penning Bull – September 17 – Jason Heyward Against Lefties (Excerpt)

The first edition of Penning Bull went out to subscribers early this morning. Here’s a brief excerpt.

Against lefties, though, he’s disastrously bad. Heyward’s 76.9 wOBA+ against them ranks him 196th of the 205 batters who have registered 300 or more plate appearances against lefties this year. Perpetua has a stat called Value Hits, which are basically batted balls with the ideal combinations of exit velocity and launch angle. They tend very strongly not only to be hits, but to go for extra bases. A mere 0.9 percent of Heyward’s batted balls against lefties have been Value Hits this year, a rate lower than all but seven other batters who have seen them at least 100 times—and five of those guys make up for their lack of quality contact against southpaws the way Heyward does against righties, by avoiding strikeouts and forcing the defense to make plays.

The Cubs have two tough weeks of work ahead just to reach the playoffs, but their divisional lead has swelled back to four games, so let’s assume (for the sake of argument) that they get to a Division Series against the Nationals. Gio Gonzalez would start one of those games. Sean Doolittle and (in all likelihood) one of Enny Romero and Matt Grace will be waiting in the Washington bullpen. If the Cubs want to get far into October again this year, they need to be ready to bench Heyward against left-handed starters, and to pinch-hit for him when a lefty reliever comes in. The gap between what Heyward and Albert Almora (113.0 xOBA+ against lefties) bring to those plate appearances will be large enough to swallow the pinch-hitter penalty whole, with room left over for the defensive value difference.

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