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What is Wrong with Trevor Rosenthal?

This title is slightly misleading, and may be best put as “What is Not Quite Right with Trevor Rosenthal?”  His ERA is below 4.00 and his FIP is much better than his ERA, thanks in large part to his high strikeout rate and low home run rate. Yet, Rosenthal is not dominating in the same way that he did last year when he struck out 108 batters in 75 1/3 innings and compiled a miniscule 1.91 FIP. So, what is different about Rosenthal that has led to a 1.36 increase in ERA and .83 spike in FIP? As I said, Rosenthal is in the midst of a very respectable season, by many metrics, but he is not supposed to be “just” respectable. Rosenthal should be able to dominate the league, just as he did last year when he ranked 5th among relievers in FIP and WAR. Naturally, I turned to the numbers to determine what is holding Rosenthal back from being one of the best closers in the league.

With such a significant jump in his ERA, I expected to see that Rosenthal was being hit much harder, but that is not what I found. Not only is his opponents’ SLG% down, but so is his opponents’ AVG. So, Rosenthal is allowing fewer hits compared to last year and also fewer extra base hits, which certainly seems like a great formula for success. However, based on the type of contact Rosenthal is letting up this year, I would expect to see the opposite trend. For the second straight season, Rosenthal’s GB% has decreased, and this year, his Line Drive % (LD%) ballooned 10% up to 30%. Despite allowing more hard contact, Rosenthal has decreased his BABIP, which suggests he has actually been lucky to this point in the season. Rosenthal has also done a nice job limiting home runs, even while allowing more balls to be put in the air. His GB/FB ratio has dropped all the way to .85 from 1.23 just a year ago. Fortunately, he has still managed to drop his HR/9 to 0.3 thanks to a miniscule HR/FB ratio of .037.

In an attempt to understand why he was letting up more solid contact, I looked at his fastball velocity, but it was right where it was last year. Rosenthal has not lost any velocity from where he was last year, which means it his stuff is not to blame for his increased FB and LD rates this year. Yet, even with his upper-90s heat, Rosenthal has struggled to get ahead in the count. He has thrown the first pitch of the at-bat for a strike just 57.1% of the time this year, which is a 6% drop from last season. Anytime you fall behind a hitter, you give them a much better chance to make solid contact, even when you can touch triple digits. As a pitcher with as much stuff as he has, Rosenthal must be aggressive and work ahead in the count in order to maximize his lights out repertoire.

More concerning than the fact that he is falling behind more hitters than last year, is where Rosenthal is missing. Of all the pitches Rosenthal has thrown outside the strike zone, 44% have missed up above the zone, compared to just 28% below the zone. This is compared to last year when he missed above the zone just 34% of the time and below the zone with 35% of his pitches outside the zone. While this may not seem significant since these balls are outside the zone, so they are unlikely to be hit, it is always concerning to see a pitcher consistently throwing up in the zone. Rosenthal’s propensity to miss with pitches up has certainly contributed to his increased LD% and FB%, as it is easier to elevate a pitch that is already up. This could be a strategy for Rosenthal, as it is harder to catch up to fastballs up in the zone, but it has yet to materialize into positive results, as his performance is worse than in 2013.

Also, based off the times I have seen him throw, this does not seem to be a strategy, as he has also missed up in the zone with his changeup, which is never intended by any pitcher. Despite some issues keeping it down in the zone, Rosenthal’s changeup has been his best pitch by far this season. This is particularly surprising for a pitcher that throws as hard as he does, but his changeup has compiled an astounding 5.71 runs above average per every 100 pitches, which has likely contributed to his increased use of the pitch (up to 15% from 6% in 2013). On a more concerning note though, his fastball is registering a career low .21 runs above average per every 100 pitches, down .77 runs from last year. It isn’t surprising the fastball is not worth as much as the changeup on average because the changeup is often used in higher leverage situations and also with less frequency. However, with Rosenthal’s struggles to get ahead in the count, it is not shocking that his fastball is less effective this year.

While Rosenthal has allowed harder contact this year, it has yet to materialize into better statistics for his opponents, in terms of batting average and slugging percentage. Where Rosenthal has been hurt this season is with his walks, which is among the few things he can fully control. He has already walked 17 batters this season, after walking just 20 all of last season in 45 more innings. Rosenthal’s BB/9 has actually more than doubled from it 2.39 mark in 2013, as it sits at 4.99 thus far in 2014. As a result of his lost control, Rosenthal’s opponent’s OBP has shot up from .289 last year to .321 this season, despite a lower opponent’s batting average. Rosenthal also tends to lose his control at the wrong times, as he has walked 10 of his 17 batters in high leverage situations, while pitching just 2/3 of an inning more in those situations than low and medium leverage situations.

Even more concerning, he has walked 11 batters with men on base, leading to an opponent’s OBP of .409 with men already on base. Rosenthal’s struggles from the stretch seem to be related to his rushing to the plate. Based purely on the times I have seen him throw, he has a propensity to rush to the plate when pitching from the stretch, which does not give his throwing arm time to get up into position. This tendency for his arm to lag leaves him susceptible to throw the ball up, which is where most of his pitches are missing. With his struggles from the stretch, it is no wonder Rosenthal’s Left on Base% has dropped 5.3% from last season.

This is not an article to criticize Rosenthal and call for his removal from the closer role, but rather to point out where Rosenthal needs to improve. His ERA is certainly high for a closer, but because he is not allowing many hits, he can easily improve his season by being more aggressive in the strike zone. A pitcher with as much stuff as Rosenthal should not be afraid to pitch within the zone. Working ahead in the count will also work to prevent the solid contact that has increased this year. Rosenthal shows the importance of throwing strikes, as he has gone from one of the premier late-inning arms in the game to a pitcher with the 114th best ERA of qualified relievers. Even in terms of FIP, Rosenthal ranks 51st among qualified relievers. While these are certainly discouraging trends, if he can return to throwing strikes the way he did in his previous two opportunities in the Majors, he will be able to reverse these trends.

It’s Time to Lower the Mound…Again

We have seen an incredibly high number of Tommy John (TJ)[1] surgeries undergone already this season. The surgery is on pace to surpass any single-season total in history. This signifies that an unusually high number of pitchers have already gone under the knife and it is still just the first month of the season. Even with so many talented pitchers being sidelined for a season because of TJ, we have also seen league-wide offense falloff quite a bit. There are many reasons for each of these trends, and also many potential solutions, but I feel that the best solution to each problem is to lower the pitcher’s mound. I do not believe pitchers should pitch from a flat surface, which is even with the batter’s level. However, I do believe the mound should be lowered to just 6 inches above the plate. It may seem extreme or irrational, but it has been done before and it would help both issues that professional baseball is facing. One obstacle to finding a way to slow or prevent TJ is the procedure’s high success rate. It is also a difficult problem to solve because it is unclear what causes the injury and when exactly the injury begins. Nevertheless, these should not prevent the MLB from attempting to limit the growing number of pitchers requiring TJ surgery, especially when it can also increase the league’s offensive production.

24 pitchers have needed TJ surgery already in 2014, which has yet to complete its first month of regular season games. For reference, 28 pitchers received the procedure in all of 2013, and only 7 had undergone the surgery at this point last year. It is not surprising to see an increase upon last year’s total, as 2013 was actually a decrease upon 2012’s total of 55 TJ’s for pitchers. However, even in 2012, there were only 15 TJ surgeries by this point in the season. The procedure has been widespread in baseball for some time now, and it has saved many careers, which has made finding a solution unnecessary. Even with the surgery’s outstanding success rate, the time has come for the MLB to step in to protect its players.

Among the many factors that have influenced the increase in TJ surgeries of late is the procedure’s success rate. One study, completed in 2013, found that 83% of pitchers to undergo TJ return to the Majors and 97% return to pitch, at least in the Minor Leagues.[2] This success rate would not necessarily impact players that have a completely torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL), as they would have no other options to return to the mound, but it may influence pitchers with a partial tear of the UCL. In the past, many of these pitchers would turn to rehab instead of undergoing TJ. Adam Wainwright is a great example of this, as he rehabbed from a partial tear of his UCL, before undergoing TJ surgery 6 years later when he completely tore his ligament. However, because of the success of the procedure, there is little motive to attempt a rehab that may not work, and only delay the surgery, which pushes back the return date. As the Cardinals former team physician and orthopedic surgeon, George Paletta, said, “It’s become an accepted side effect of the job”.[3]

Another reason that is often cited is pitchers are initially beginning to injure their arms in youth baseball. High School pitchers are often pitching in showcases or in front of scouts, which puts extra pressure on them to throw as hard as they can and often pitch even when their arm in not entirely recovered from their previous outing. This was not the case as recently as 15 years ago, as High School showcases did not become common until the early 2000’s. This is one of the early waves of young pitchers that are reaching the Majors after going through the showcase process. From now on, the most, if not all, of the pitchers that reach the Majors will have been through this rigorous process.

Another issue facing young pitchers is that many of them are pitching in competitive games nearly year-round. Overuse is one of the many reasons pitchers experience arm injuries and pitching throughout the year has greatly increased the amount of use on pitcher’s arms. Once, many high school baseball players played multiple sports and were able to take time off from throwing; however, many pitchers now throw year-round without many breaks from throwing. Youth pitchers are also putting more stress than before on their arms because they are throwing harder than ever. This may seem to be a good thing, and it is for performance, but it puts extra stress on their ligament that is not fully developed. Dr. James Andrews says that High School pitchers throwing between 80-85 mph are in particular risk of arm injuries because they are putting too much stress on a ligament that has not developed enough. As Lindsay Berra explains, a pitcher does not rupture his UCL on one pitch:

Strasburg was probably in trouble from the get-go. He didn’t rupture his UCL on one pitch with the Nationals — even if a pitcher feels a pop on a particular pitch, his UCL was anything but pristine before the incident. Like a rope, Strasburg’s UCL probably started to fray the moment he began pitching off a mound, the extra height of which can compound the stress of each pitch. It likely got worse not only because of his mechanics. Kids who throw the hardest pitch the most: they get hitters out.[4]

While it is clear that TJ procedures are increasing, the exact cause of TJ is not clear, as many factors impact whether people require TJ. However, it is evident that pitching off a mound increases the stress put on the pitcher’s arm. Comparing just the number of TJ procedures for pitchers and for position players, it is clear there is a substantial difference. Since the first TJ surgery in 1974, 622 pitchers have undergone the procedure, while only 41 position players have received the surgery. There are more differences than merely the mound, but none of them account for such a large discrepancy between the two types of players.

Another common comparison for anecdotal evidence is pitchers compared to quarterbacks in football. According to a study in 2010, there had been 10 reported instances of NFL quarterbacks with damage to their UCLs, yet only one of these players underwent surgery. The other nine quarterbacks chose to use therapy to repair their injury and their mean number of days until their return was 26.4 days.[5] As with the differences between pitchers and position players, there are numerous differences between quarterbacks and pitchers. However, these differences do not account for such a significant gap between both UCL injuries and TJ surgeries.

Both of these examples contain too many confounding variables to draw any significant conclusions. However, a study completed in 2008 examined the effects that the 10-inch mound has on a pitcher’s mechanics and the stress that it puts on the pitcher’s arm in comparison to a mound at 8 inches, 6 inches and flat ground. The study, led by William Raasch, selected 20 from MLB organizations and Milwaukee-area NCAA Division-1 pitchers. The study found that pitchers throwing from a 10-inch mound compared to pitchers throwing from flat ground experienced extra stress on both their pitching shoulder and elbow.[6] They found that the greatest difference was at foot strike, as the mound changes the timing of the foot strike compared to the position of the pitcher’s arm. This study found that pitchers definitely experience more stress on their arm when throwing from an elevated surface than from a flat surface.

While the majority of this post has been dedicated to the effects the mound has on a pitcher’s health, lowering the mound will also improve the offensive production in the MLB. Of course, when the mound was first lowered to 10 inches in 1969, it was done in order to improve offense. After “The Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, the MLB saw the average runs scored per game increase by .65 in just one season. It is clear that lowering the mound had a significant impact on the league’s offensive output. Once again, we are in need of the mound to be lowered in order to improve the league’s offense. With better pitchers, defensive shifts and, most significantly, more stringent testing for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), we have seen a sharp drop off in offensive performance.  In 2013, the MLB R/G (4.17) was the lowest it has been since 1992 (4.12). This is not just a single-season aberration, as it has been experiencing a steady decline since 2006, when it was at 4.86. HR/G are also down quite significantly since 2006, when it was 1.11, and were just .96 in 2013. Easily the largest difference between 2006 and 2013 is the increase in strikeouts per game, as they have skyrocketed from 6.52 to 7.55 in 2013. By lowering the mounds, the MLB will be able to improve upon these numbers and return offense back into baseball.

Lowering the mound may seem to be a radical step to solve two things that some people may not seem like problems; however, it is the best of the few options the MLB has. While some will argue that this will not limit TJ procedures because many pitchers are already damaged goods by the time they reach the Majors, this is a change that will soon reach the NCAA, High School and youth baseball leagues if the MLB does it. This will have a profound impact on the number of TJ procedures once these pitchers reach the Majors, as they will have reduced the stress on their arm over a long period of time. The impact will not be immediate in the MLB, but when the next wave of young, talented pitchers reaches the Majors, there will be fewer TJ procedures.

The immediate impact will come from the increase in offensive production, as the lower mound will take away some of the advantage from the pitchers. As I have mentioned above, there are not many appealing alternatives. The most common solutions to the low offensive numbers is to juice the baseballs, similar to what Japan did this past season. While this would certainly improve offensive production and be less costly than changing the mounds, it would not help decrease the number of TJ procedures. A bit more radical of an alternative, that I do not believe could ever happen, is the MLB allowing the use of PEDs. While this would likely increase offense, it would almost force players to take PEDs or else they would be at a disadvantage to the rest of the players that do take PEDs. It is not fair to put athletes in this position, especially when we know how detrimental steroids can be to a person’s health.

Another option is to add a DH to the National League, which has been discussed and is quite possible. However, this also fails to help pitchers avoid TJ. Also, in 2013, the NL averaged just 4.00 R/G compared to the AL’s average of 4.33 R/G. Assuming the NL’s production would match the AL’s, the addition of the DH would add just 802 runs to an MLB season. When the MLB first lowered the mound in 1969, the league scored 2,527 more runs than the previous season and that was with only 24 total teams. By lowering the mounds again, the increase in offensive production would substantially increase beyond where it would with the addition of a DH in the NL. Among these options, I believe the best is to lower the mound to 6 inches above home plate.

The number of TJ surgeries continues to rise and it is time to make an attempt to limit this procedure. The best way to do this is to lower the height of the mounds in the MLB, as this will decrease the stress that pitchers suffer when they pitch. Once the MLB does this, all other levels of baseball will follow suit, just as they did in 1969. The purpose this time; however, will be two-fold, as the lower mound will also serve to take away some of the pitcher’s advantage, and therefore, improve the MLB’s offensive numbers. Knowing what we know about the mound’s impact on a pitcher’s mechanics and the extra stress that it exerts on the pitcher’s arm, we cannot idly watch as more and more pitchers suffer through a year of rehab from a surgery that can be limited.








Is Matt Holliday’s Run of Consistency Over?

Ever since Matt Holliday came into the league in 2004, he has been a model of consistency. His WAR increased after each of his first two seasons before peaking at 7.2 WAR in his fourth MLB season. Since reaching 7.2 WAR, Holliday has yet to fall below 4.5 WAR. While Holliday has yet to experience any significant declines in production, he has seen a few areas of his game begin to decline, especially in his power production. For a 34-year-old player, this is not incredibly surprising, but as a power hitter, it is a little concerning. With Holliday heading into his age-34 season, it is important to question whether he is still the model of consistency that he has been since reaching the MLB. For the 2014 campaign, the ZiPS Projection System sees Holliday declining a career high 1.4 wins all the way down to 3.1 WAR. This is still a very respectable total, but it is a quick drop for such a steady performer and could indicate further drops in production.

As I mentioned above, Holliday’s power production has been on a steady decline. His SLG% has declined for 3 straight seasons and settled in at .490 in 2013, which is his lowest SLG% since his rookie campaign in 2004. Holliday’s Isolated Power has dipped each of the past two seasons and even reached a career low of .190 in 2013. Both these numbers are very impressive, especially since they are at or near his career lows; however, they still represent an alarming trend with his power production. As would be expected with a lower SLG% and ISO, Holliday’s HR/FB% has declined for two straight seasons falling to 15%. While Holliday has never been considered a plus fielder, his UZR/150 has declined each of the last 3 seasons all the way down to -7.0. With all these statistics declining, Holliday’s WAR has dropped each of the past three seasons.

While Holliday has seen some dip in his power production, many other areas of his game have improved or stayed relatively constant. Also, despite his SLG and ISO declining, Holliday has still topped 20 homers in each of the past 8 seasons. He has also had a very healthy BB% since 2008, as it has remained above 10% each season and reached 11.5% in 2013, just under his career high of 11.9%. Even more impressive than his steady walk rate is that he lowered his K% to 14.3% in 2013, which was just above his career best K% of 13.8%. Altogether, Holliday was able to set a career best BB/K ratio of .80 in 2013.

In recent years Holliday has maintained both a high Batting Average and a high On-Base Percentage. Holliday has remained such a strong contributor at the plate, despite his worsening power, in large part because his OBP has remained extremely high. OBP is something that usually ages very well, which is encouraging for Holliday because so much of his offensive value hinges on his ability to reach base. In each of the last 7 seasons, Holliday’s wRC+ has been over 140 and was even 148 in 2013. For reference, 100 wRC+ is considered average, so 140 is excellent. There is no doubt that Holliday has remained an outstanding hitter over the past few years, but the real question is whether he will see a significant drop in production as he enters his age-34 season.

While his overall production has remained impressive, it is important to look at his contact rates and balls in play data in order to determine if this production is likely to continue. Throughout his career, Holliday has had an incredibly high Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), with his career BABIP at .343. However, his BABIP dropped to a career low of .322 in 2013. Despite his BABIP falling from the previous season, he was still able to increase his batting average, which suggests he can continue to hit for a strong average even if his BABIP falls a little more. While his SLG and BABIP were down last year, Holliday actually increased his LD% above his career average, but also saw his Infield Flyball% (IFFB%) spike to 13.6%. Another encouraging sign with his LD% increasing was the fact that he also increased his Contact% to 81%, which marked a career high. His high contact rate no doubt helped him cut his K%, which will be important moving forward.

As Holliday continues to age into his mid-30’s, it will be interesting if he can remain the model of consistency that he has been for his entire career. It is clear that Holliday cannot sustain his current level of success for the remainder of his career, but little evidence suggests that 2014 will be the first year he experiences a significant drop in production. His lessening power is not a major concern to his overall game as long as he is able to maintain his high OBP skills and low K%. Turning back to the ZiPS projection of a 3.1 WAR, I do not see Holliday’s production taking that big of a hit, as their projection also calls for a .029 drop in OBP, which seems unlikely given his consistency in being able to get on base and the fact that OBP tends to age well. I expect Holliday to continue his slow decline, but I still see him posting a WAR above 4.0 and an OBP north of .375, especially if he can maintain a BB% in the double digits.

Joe Kelly vs. Carlos Martinez

Leading up to Spring Training for the St. Louis Cardinals, there were plenty of articles written about the incredible starting pitching depth of the Cardinals. They had seven legitimate options for the rotation, and it wasn’t a stretch to say eight. While there was always going to be competition in the rotation, Jaime Garcia’s injury opens up a much more focused competition for the Cardinals’ 5th rotation spot. The four locks for the rotation are Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. While another pitcher could join the discussion, the battle for the final spot is essentially between Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez. There really is no clear favorite, as Kelly is the incumbent, but Martinez carries much greater upside. The pitcher that fails to capture the 5th slot in the rotation will likely serve as a late-inning reliever for the Cardinals, which may influence the Cardinals’ decision.

Based off Joe Kelly’s impressive performance last season it would be easy to assume he is the favorite to be the 5th starter; however, his advanced metrics do not support his traditional statistics. While Kelly pitched to a 10-5 record with a 2.69 ERA, he had an FIP of 4.01 and an unsustainable 82.4 Left on Base % (LOB%). Joe Kelly also possesses a power sinker in the mid-90s, a plus change-up and solid-average curveball. Despite this power repertoire, Kelly has never struck out many batters, as he has a career K/9 of just 6.00. This is not overly concerning, but does leave Kelly vulnerable to high variability in performance, since he is so heavily dependent upon his defense.

I have, to this point, only pointed out Kelly’s weaknesses in order tamper expectations, but in reality, Kelly is a very talented starter. Kelly is a very strong groundball pitcher (career 51.4%), which has helped him limit his Hr/9 (career .78). To this point in his career, Kelly has done a great job of limiting runs, which is all that is really important. In 2013, Kelly allowed just 3.05 runs per 9 innings. The Cardinals certainly know the concerns with Kelly, but they are also aware of his upside. While Kelly is likely to serve as a late-inning option for the Cardinals if he is not named their 5th starter, he has not been as effective as a reliever. In an admittedly small sample of just 37 innings in 2013, Kelly carried a 3.65 ERA and an opponent’s slash line of .284/.342/.435 as a reliever.

Now looking at Carlos Martinez, it is clear that Martinez is the starter with much more upside, as he can consistently reach triple digits and strike out nearly 9 batters per 9 innings. In a tiny sample of 28 1/3 innings at the Big League level last year, Martinez pitched to a 5.08 ERA, but a much better 3.08 FIP. Most of those innings came in relief, as he made just one start in the Majors, but he was still very impressive. While Martinez’s ERA was high, he was hurt by a high BABIP of .345 and a low LOB% of just 64.9%. Despite carrying substantial upside, Martinez has never thrown more than 108 IP in a professional season, which raises concerns about his ability to handle a starter’s workload for a full season. Also, unlike Kelly, Martinez is likely to thrive in a late-inning relief role, as he carried a 2.33 FIP in 23 2/3 IP as a reliever. If the two pitchers have similar evaluations at the end of spring training, then I believe Martinez will be relegated to the bullpen where he can thrive and further develop as an MLB pitcher.

While it may seem that Kelly is the front-runner to be the Cardinals’ 5th starter, it is clear that each starter has plenty of positives and negatives. Kelly’s negative traits largely revolve around regression to the mean in many areas, such as LOB% and ERA. Whereas Martinez’s positives are very similar to his negatives, as there are many questions about how well he will do as a starter full time. It is always nice to dream on a player’s potential and stuff, he must also prove he can be effective in his role and Martinez has not yet done that. This will be a fun competition to watch in spring training. I believe Kelly will come out of spring training as the Cardinals’ 5th starter because he has proven he can perform as a starter, but also because he is not as strong a fit for the bullpen. If Martinez is not named the 5th starter, he can still be a lights out reliever, whereas, Kelly may not be as effective in such a role.

Top Five Organizations

This is a list of the top five organizations in baseball. The teams and order were determined by the organization’s overall success and how economically they got there.

1) St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are easily the best organization in baseball. They are a model of consistency, as they have made 10 playoff appearances since 2000, including four World Series appearances and two World Series Championships. The Cardinals have been able to have such prolonged success due to their ability to develop their own talent. They have never been constrained by a large contract eating up too much of their salary, and even let Albert Pujols walk rather than commit too much money to one player. 2013 was an excellent example of this club’s ability to develop its own talent, especially pitchers. In 2013, the Redbirds turned to 12 rookie pitchers, who threw a combined 553 2/3 innings with a 3.17 ERA. The organization’s commitment to build through the draft, rather than Free Agency, has contributed to its sustained success and ranking as the top organization in baseball.

2) Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have appeared in the Postseason seven times since 2000. More importantly, they have reached the World Series three times in that span, culminating in three World Series Championships. While the Red Sox have quite a financial advantage over other organizations, the Red Sox have still built up their core through the draft. They have developed their own stars, like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz. The Red Sox farm system is still stocked with talent, including Xander Bogaerts, Henry Owens and Allen Webster. Like the Cardinals, the Red Sox are often able to fill holes with internal candidates, such as Jackie Bradley Jr. taking over for Jacoby Ellsbury. While the Red Sox have had their share of bad contracts, especially Carl Crawford’s 7-year, $142 Million deal, they are able to survive such poor decisions. In the case of Crawford, the Red Sox pulled off a miracle trade to the Dodgers to dump his salary and still acquire talent in return. As long as the Red Sox continue to focus on developing their own talent, they will hold their position as one of the top organizations in baseball.

3) Tampa Bay Rays

Ever since Stuart Sternberg took over as owner of the Rays in 2006, they have been one of the best-run organizations in baseball. Operating with one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, the Rays quickly turned it around under new ownership, as they reach the playoffs and World Series for the first time in the organization’s history in 2008. Since 2008, the Rays have had five seasons of at least 90 wins in six total seasons. Their success, despite being located in one of the smallest markets of any MLB team, can be attributed to their shrewd personnel decisions and reliance on young Major Leaguers under team control. The Rays have not drafted particularly well, since 2007 when they landed David Price and Matt Moore. Despite little success in recent drafts, the Rays have acquired young, controllable talent by trading veteran players, who were nearing Free Agency. The two best examples of this strategy are when the Rays traded Matt Garza to the Cubs and landed Chris Archer, among others, and when the Rays traded James Shields for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. Their ability to remain competitive, despite being located in one of the smallest markets in baseball, earns them the designation as one of the top organizations in baseball.

4) San Francisco Giants

The Giants are not exactly a model of consistency, as they’ve only made the Postseason five times since 2000, but they have reached the World Series three times in that span, including two Championships since 2010. The Giants have not made the Postseason in consecutive seasons since 2002-2003. However, despite their inconsistencies, the Giants should certainly be commended for their success in the amateur draft. Through the draft, they have built a strong core of talent, including Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner. They have also had a lot of success by acquiring many failed prospects, such as Ryan Vogelsong, Joaquin Arias and Angel Pagan. In order to remain among the top organizations in baseball, the Giants must continue to be successful through the draft and avoid bad contracts like the one they gave to Barry Zito.

5) Oakland Athletics

The A’s are best known as the first team to fully embrace advanced metrics, but also as an organization that has not had much success once it reaches the Postseason. Since 2000, the A’s have reached the Postseason seven times; yet have only reached the ALCS just once. After a five year period between 2007-2011, in which the A’s never reached the Postseason, the A’s have now reached the playoffs for two straight seasons. Much of their recent success has been due to some incredibly savvy trades. This is exemplified by the fact that the Athletics initially acquired 23 of all 44 players that appeared in a game for them last season via trade. The Athletics have never had an advantage financially, as they have always been located among the bottom 3rd of teams in payroll and player in one of the smallest markets in baseball. This fact has forced the Athletics to search for cheap talent through the waiver wire. Also, like the Rays, they have had to trade more expensive players nearing Free Agency in order to supplant their roster with younger and cheaper talent. With one of the best front offices in baseball, the A’s seem poised for sustained success.

Ervin Santana vs. Ubaldo Jimenez

While Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez certainly have their similarities, they each have different risks and benefits associated with them. They have often been connected throughout the offseason, as they have similar price tags and each is connected to draft pick compensation. They have also been linked this offseason because each is coming off an impressive season following a very bad season, and overall inconsistencies in their careers. However, the two pitchers are not incredibly similar, as one profiles more as a durable innings-eater and the other carries more upside.

The 31-year-old Ervin Santana provides many more innings than Ubaldo Jimenez, as he has eclipsed the 200-inning plateau three times in the past four seasons. Santana, however, has often outperformed his peripherals, especially this past season. In 2013, Santana posted his career-best 3.24 ERA, but his FIP was 3.93, which suggests some regression in 2014. Even looking back at the past five seasons, Santana has had an FIP under 4.00 just once. It may seem as if he has the ability to outperform his peripherals consistently, but during that same span his ERA surpassed 5.00 during two seasons most recently in 2012.

As I mentioned above, Santana’s best quality is his ability to go deep into starts consistently throughout the season. Santana is also a tremendous strike-thrower, as he walked just 2.18 batters per 9 innings, which is an improvement upon his still impressive 2.81 BB/9 for his career. Santana is also an effective groundball generator, as his groundball rate has been above 43% for the past three seasons. The real knock on Santana has been his inconsistencies throughout his career, with three seasons of an ERA above 5.00 and just four seasons of an ERA under 3.00 during his 9-year career. While Santana’s ERA was the best of his career, in 2013, his other metrics were not much better than his career norms, which suggests he hasn’t necessarily figured anything out.

The 30-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez, unlike Santana, has a reputation for struggling to go deep into games. He has not thrown 200 innings in a season since 2010 and has only done it twice in his 8-year career. His struggles to last deep into games are likely related to his high K/9 and very high BB/9. Both strikeouts and walks drive a pitcher’s pitch count up and he has never had a BB/9 lower than 3.50. As I stated above, Jimenez carries more upside with him, as his career K/9 is a full strikeout per 9 higher than Santana, but Jimenez’s peripherals are also better than his ERA. Jimenez has a career 3.78 FIP, compared to his 3.92 ERA. During his time with the Rockies, Jimenez was an outstanding groundball pitcher, but since moving to the Indians, his GB% has slipped to 38.4% in 2012 and 43.9% in 2013. Despite pitching in hitter-friendly Coors Field for the majority of his career, Jimenez’s Hr/9 has been better than Santana’s in every season of his career.

Compared to Santana, who has had an FIP under 4.00 just once in the past five seasons, Jimenez has had an FIP under 4.00 four of the last five seasons. Jimenez’s only truly bad season, in terms of FIP, was 2012 when his FIP ballooned to 5.06 and his ERA climbed to 5.40. While being able to go deep into starts is pivotal in being a reliable and consistent starter, Jimenez certainly carries the highest upside and actually most consistent performance between the two starters. Jimenez has also proven that he can pitch in a high run-scoring environment, such as Coors Field. Santana, however, has pitched the majority of his career in a pitcher-friendly park at Angels Stadium of Anaheim for every season except one.

Looking into the numbers, it is clear that Ervin Santana is the best bet of the two starters to reach 200 innings. It is also evident that Ubaldo Jimenez has the greatest potential to provide above-average production inning per inning. Neither starter is an ace or likely to become one and each comes with legitimate questions. However, in terms of which starter is better, it really depends on what a team is looking for. If they want a starter that can provide 200+ innings season after season, then Santana is by far the better option. If the team is seeking a starter that can consistently provide an ERA around or below 3.50, then Jimenez is the better option. Since each starter has a similar price tag, it is really a question of which type of starter the team is looking for. Personally, I prefer Jimenez to Santana because he has provided more consistent numbers across the board and has only had one truly bad season.

Do Closers Need to Throw Hard?

I recently wrote about teams no longer paying a premium to land closers with 9th inning experience, instead choosing to spend less and acquire very good relievers with little 9th inning experience.  It seems teams have moved away from the conventional thinking that a closer must have experience or a special mentality in order to succeed as a closer. This made me wonder whether the view that a closer must have to throw hard was still alive. It is important to note that throwing harder certainly gives the pitcher an advantage, but it is also very possible to succeed without being among the hardest throwers. In order to look at this, I looked at all Relief Pitchers with at least 10 saves from 2010-2013 and separated them into two groups based on their average fastball velocity (aFV), based on P/Fx. The aFV for the entire group of 93 pitchers was 93.0. I chose 93 as the divider between High Velocity (HVelo) closers and Low Velocity (LVelo) closers.

Looking at the breakdown of the two groups, the HVelo group included 53 relief pitchers and the LVelo group included 40 relief pitchers. The difference of 13 pitchers between the groups should not affect the results too much, as the sample is big enough to negate this discrepancy. However, the difference does say something about closers during this period, as there were many more hard-throwing closers than low-velocity closers. Looking into the numbers between these two groups for this four-year period, it is clear that the HVelo pitchers were more effective. They averaged 15 more saves over that period and outperformed the LVelo pitchers in every statistic, except BB/9 and BABIP. LVelo pitchers walking fewer batters per nine innings is not surprising, as they usually have better command in order to compensate for fewer strikeouts. HVelo closers were also better at fulfilling their role, as they had a 81.7% conversion rate, while LVelo closers converted just 77.5% of their opportunities. If you look at this four-year window it is clear that the harder-throwing closers have been more successful and there have also been many more hard throwers used in the 9th inning than LVelo relievers.

However, if we take a look at just the final year of this four-year period, we see something different. Looking only at 2013 and relief pitchers that had at least 10 saves, I broke the pitchers into two groups using the same criteria as before: HVelo is all pitchers with aFV higher than 93 mph and LVelo is all pitchers with aFV below 93 mph. This is the same cutoff as for the four-year period because the mean is relatively unchanged, at 92.8. Unlike from 2010-2013, these two groups were essentially even: of the 37 qualified pitchers, 19 were in the HVelo group and 18 were in the LVelo group. This alone shows that teams are more comfortable using effective relievers in the 9th inning, even if they do not light up the radar gun.

Just using more LVelo pitchers does not actually prove they are as effective or better than HVelo relievers, but it does show teams may be moving away from the conventional belief that closers must throw hard. When I looked at the numbers of these two groups, I saw evidence that the LVelo group was certainly as effective, if not more effective, than the HVelo group. The HVelo group saved just one game more on average; however, their save percentage was 87%, compared to the 88.7% of the LVelo group. Just as before, the LVelo outperformed the HVelo group in BB/9 and BABIP, but they also had a better average ERA than the HVelo group. While the HVelo pitchers had a much higher K/9 (10.7 vs. 8.4) and a better HR/9, the LVelo group did a better job at preventing runs and also a slightly better job at converting their save opportunities.

Certainly, looking at just one season is not a very large sample, but I believe last season was the beginning of a trend. The role of the closer has evolved quite a bit in recent years and many long-held beliefs are being dispelled. I believe teams have realized that a pitcher does not have to be the hardest thrower in the bullpen, instead he just needs to be the most effective. In 2013, both teams that reached the World Series turned to closers without previous experience and who were both among the LVelo group. The Cardinals chose to give Edward Mujica the closer’s role, instead of turning to young flamethrower, Trevor Rosenthal. Mujica turned in a fantastic season with 37 saves and a 2.78 ERA. The Red Sox also entrusted their 9th inning duties to a member of the LVelo group, Koji Uehara. Uehara took over as closer after both of the Red Sox’s other options suffered season-ending injuries, but Uehara still totaled 21 saves and a 1.09 ERA. Both these closers overcame common beliefs that closers need experience in the 9th inning to succeed and must also throw hard.

* I would have liked to look at a larger sample than 2010-2013, but I did not feel comfortable using Pitchf/x data older than 2010. Since its inception in 2006, Pitchf/x has vastly improved and become much more accurate.  

* This post has also been posted on my personal blog,