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Merrill Kelly: A Mid-Rotation Starter in Korea

How many teams are looking for a cheap starting pitcher to be a veteran presence for a young rotation? Looking for an upgrade over what they currently have for starting pitching? Or just need a warm body to fill the hole left by Joe Ross with someone not named Edwin Jackson? As far as I can tell, 10 teams are looking for a 3/4 starter such as Merrill Kelly, especially considering his stats that he has accumulated in this season (maybe he’ll get one more start to add to his excellent season so far) have been particularly impressive. All this when the Rays thought that Merrill Kelly was just a “AAA starter” who could be a bullpen guy in the big leagues.

Merrill Kelly in the minor leagues was a solid minor leaguer who would become a swingman with the Durham Bulls. In his age-25 season, he went 9-4 in 114 IP with a 2.76 ERA, a 3.74 FIP, and a 3.57 xFIP. Which looked good with his 8.53 K/9 and 2.92 BB/9, a .298 BABIP, and a 47.9% ground-ball rate as well. Perhaps he could a solid swingman/fifth starter in the big leagues. The Rays apparently thought otherwise and said either he’d be a bullpen pitcher for the MLB team or a starter in AAA. Merrill Kelly thought otherwise and went to South Korea to play for the SK Wyverns.

Merrill Kelly in South Korea was all right in his first season, with an 11-10 record in 30 games (29 starts), 181 IP, and an ERA of 4.13. With peripheral rates that weren’t as good (6.91 K/9 and 2.69 BB/9). His next season was similar, with a 9-8 record in 31 games, but a great 200 1/3 IP with similar rate stats: 3.68 ERA, 6.83 K/9, and 2.70 BB/9. This year has been very different for him, with a 15-7 record in 29 games and 185 IP with a 3.65 ERA; his rate stats are much more improved, at 8.90 K/9 and 2.14 BB/9.

What is he doing differently to get these improved stats? Why is his ERA as high as it is, despite getting more strikeouts and walking fewer batters? He is allowing more pesky little hits: that is, his defense is not getting as many outs made as it should (1.08 hits per inning this year, vs 1.03 hits per inning in 2015-2016 combined). He has also allowed one more homer and two more doubles than last year, in 15 1/3 fewer IP.

His repertoire:

-4 Seam Fastball – 92-94 MPH (back in 2015, he was throwing 88-91 MPH)

-2 Seam Fastball – couple of miles slower and has slight sink, and runs in an opposite direction. He mixes this pitch well with his fastball

-Cutter – He started to throw this pitch more once he got to Korea and has mixed it well with his other fastballs and change

-Slider – Has a good slider that can break sharply when he’s pitching well. About 83-87 MPH

-Curveball – Decent enough curve but probably not his best pitch. Up 78-80 MPH

-Circle Changeup – Good sinking and running movement. He throws it about 85 MPH. One of his top pitches

What has he improved? Velocity on his pitches, sharper movement to his fastballs and changeup, getting better with the cutter, and improving his control. (This quoted from this article on Reddit: Merrill Kelly scouting report and info, which I think explains his improvements, but I disagree with his assessment of Merrill Kelly’s talent.) Given the talent level of the average hitter in the KBO is around AAA level, he should be able to perform as around a low-3/high-4 starter, as I’d say he is better than the average starter. A funny thing of note is that the Rays have another version of Merrill Kelly named Ryan Yarbrough, who has pitched better than Kelly did at a similar age; hopefully they’ll give him a chance to prove the Rays wrong for letting Merrill Kelly go.

Since he is on the right side of 30 and will pitch the 2018 season at age 29, I’d offer him a three-year deal worth $6 million per year with incentives that could boost the value of the deal to around $24 million over three years, with an option for a fourth season at $7 million (buyout of $2 million) with incentives to boost the option value to $10 million. This is due to his risk, and likely lower than what Phil Hughes was offered after the 2013 season from the Twins.

Who are the 10 teams that could use Merrill Kelly as a starting pitcher? The answers might be more surprising at first glance than other answers. The best choice would be the Miami Marlins for the same reasons listed, but it could become a wild-card contender taking a chance for Kelly to make more money in a playoff cut. The second-best choice is one that is pretty questionable, depending on whether the Nationals are willing to take a risk on a player from the KBO and whether they want someone better than him. But he’d be great for them in place of Joe Ross, and would be an upgrade over their current options; plus he would be cheap enough to fit in their payroll. One issue is that the Nationals have a hitter-friendly park, but not having to face the Nationals would mitigate some of those concerns. The San Diego Padres would be the third-best choice due to the non-DH league, an extremely pitcher-friendly park according to MLB park factors, and multiple available rotation spots, but they are in a tough NL West and aren’t likely to be a playoff team.

The next one is questionable but they would certainly be able to make room for him — the Oakland A’s have always been unconventional, and the park is usually known for being pitcher-friendly. The Twins would be similar to the A’s in those respects and are in fact a playoff threat (I didn’t expect to be saying this about the Twins this year at all). The Royals are practically in a tie with the Twins and A’s due to a pitcher-friendly park, although their team is going to be worse due to many key players leaving (Cain, Hosmer, and Moustakas).

Despite the Rangers having a definite hole in the rotation (who would let Nick Martinez or A.J. Griffin start in an extreme hitter-friendly park?), they are the seventh-best option due to that park, the DH league, and just not having a great team in general. The White Sox are an even more extreme version of the Rangers, and are extremely bad as well; I doubt he’d want to play for such a poor team. Same with the Reds, except there is no DH, but the Reds might want to give younger options a try first. The Orioles have almost all the bad factors: A league with a DH, a hitter-friendly park, a tough division, a bad defensive team, and generally bad development staff that has done more harm than good for its pitchers.

I would love to see one of the top six teams sign Kelly to a contract, since those would be best for him getting another contract after the first one expires. Can’t wait for him to get his shot in the big leagues, to prove his previous doubters wrong, and to have a long and successful career in the MLB.

All stats are owned by their respective owners (ESPN, FanGraphs, KBO, Reddit), I own none of the stats used. All stats are as of 9-23-2017.

Reliever Buy-Low: Craig Stammen

Any team need a reliever who can pitch multiple-inning stints if you need? I think lots of teams would jump at the chance to acquire such a reliever considering Madison Bumgarner’s legendary five-inning relief appearance in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. Andrew Miller became a dangerous bullpen weapon in the 2016 postseason with the Indians, which brought them within a game of winning the World Series in three consecutive games. And there’s some guy on the Astros called Chris Devenski, who could also spot start if you need a starter desperately. The Blue Jays acquired Tom Koehler from the Marlins, who I admittedly have some interest in as a starter or multi-inning reliever. Maybe you want someone like Raisel Iglesias or Michael Lorenzen.

Currently, most relievers are used in one-inning stints; some are even used against lefties or righties only. Christian Bethancourt, Chris Gimenez, and Jordan Schafer have been two-way players: a hitter and a reliever to give more bench depth and help keep Rule 5 draft picks. Some top prospects have been billed as two-way players such as Brandon McKay, Hunter Greene and most notably Shohei Otani, who has been fantastic in Japan.

The reliever who should be receiving more attention as a multiple-inning reliever is Craig Stammen, who used to be a part of the Nationals as a starter and was then converted into a reliever when he was called up from AAA in 2011. Stammen was doing pretty well from 2012-2014 as a setup reliever, but then he missed most of 2015 and didn’t make it back to the big leagues until this season. As a result of him previously having been a starter for much longer, he has more stamina than an average reliever, and can be used in multiple-inning relief stints, providing more bench depth for a team like the effect of having a two-way player (even if they aren’t very good).

This year, he has been getting back to what he was doing before in terms of his ERA, strikeout and walk rates, and innings per appearance. His home-runs, however, have gone up quite a bit despite his 52.2% ground-ball rate. This is due to an unsustainable 19.4% HR/FB ratio(!), which has overly inflated his FIP to 4.34, with a much more appealing 3.75 xFIP and a 3.60 SIERA, which suggest a solid middle relief/ setup type of reliever that he has been performing like. This and his ability to pitch multiple-inning stints create a higher value than his $900,000 contract. He has four pitches with positive values according to Pitch Info this year. Despite minute velocity drops for his pitches from his peak years of 2012-2014, he is still very effective with his pitches, with only one registering a slight negative according to Pitch Info.

Admittedly, his BABIP is a bit lower than it should be at .254, but it shouldn’t regress too badly (somewhere around .280 since he does generate quite a few ground balls). He is only getting about 6.7% pop-ups, which is not very good, compared to his peak seasons. Batters are getting more hard contact this year compared to the rest of his career (30.1% this year compared to 28.5% for his career). And his strand rate is at 85.7% this year, compared to just a 71.9% career mark. Additionally, he has allowed a .329 wOBA against lefties this year vs a .256 wOBA vs righties.

Overall, Stammen has been lucky and unlucky this year. Ultimately, he is a solid reliever who should be able to do quite well in almost any park except Coors Field or any extreme hitters park. He should receive a two-year deal worth around $4-5 million per year for how well he can pitch as a solid multiple-inning reliever, and how he can help increase bench depth for a team that wants to keep a Rule 5 talent, an extra bench player, a normal reliever, or maybe a specialized reliever such as a LOOGY (looking at you, Randy Choate, Brian Shouse, and so many more who have made careers out of being LOOGYs). The former two are much more likely than the latter two — particularly a LOOGY, as most aren’t as useful to teams anymore.

All stats and links are owned by FanGraphs, except for the link to Shohei Otani’s player page, which is owned by the NPB.

What Went Wrong With Chihiro Kaneko

In the 2014 offseason, many free agents changed teams, some even changed leagues. Hiroki Kuroda went back to Japan to pitch for his hometown team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, while the Yankees got an upgrade (when healthy) in Masahiro Tanaka on a seven-year, $155-million deal (with a $20-million posting fee that they spent to talk to him), which he can opt out of after this season.

There was a second pitcher who was almost as good as Tanaka, who had worse stuff but excellent command. He also had some injury concerns after his 2011 injury where he missed a few starts, and in 2012 where only pitched nine starts, albeit with 63 1/3 IP in those starts though. Heading into the 2014 offseason, he had two excellent seasons, with ERAs of around 2 in 2013 and 2014, pitching 223 1/3 IP, with 200 strikeouts and 58 walks allowed, then 191 IP with 199 K and only 42 BB respectively in those seasons. He had a 1.98 ERA in those 191 innings in 2014, and a 2.01 ERA in 2013, generating interest from big-league teams and making an appearance in Bradley Woodrum’s article as a pitcher of note that might come over. He ultimately re-signed with the Orix Buffaloes on a four-year deal.

The injury bug bit him again in 2015 as he pitched in 16 starts, throwing 93 IP, and he had a lower strikeout rate than he had in 2013 and 2014 (7.6 K/9) with an ERA of 3.19. He pitched in 2016 and had a mostly healthy season, save for a declining strikeout rate (6.9 K/9) and an increased walk rate (3.3 BB/9), with an ERA of 3.83 in 162 IP. This year his strikeouts (5.7 K/9) and walks (3.0 BB/9) have stayed bad, with a slightly better 3.57 ERA in 116 IP.

What has caused this drastic downturn in performance? It seems that some of his downturn is because he’s getting older, but that doesn’t explain his increased walk rate or his severe decrease in strikeouts. Most of this is likely due to injuries he sustained in the 2015 season. And given that he hasn’t gotten better, it seems as if he’s been pitching despite an injury which has been sapping his effectiveness. He went from being as good as Alex Cobb was in 2014 (considering the thought of the average active hitter in Japan being slightly better than AAA quality) to performing like Ervin Santana this year.

He was a great pitcher with some downside, like Jered Weaver was, but Kaneko hasn’t declined that far yet. Weaver is too bad to even be on an MLB team until he gets medical help to fix his hip and/or shoulder. Weaver is one of the other pitchers who had declined that quickly. So far, he hasn’t rebounded and has continued to get worse, worse than he was last year when he was the second-worst pitcher qualified for the ERA title. It appears that Weaver is virtually unfixable. I think that Kaneko’s issues can be fixed, though, and if they are fixed, he could be an interesting buy-low opportunity.

After the 2014 season, if I were Dayton Moore (armchair GM ideas away), I would’ve signed him to a three-year, $30-million deal with lots of incentives, which could’ve raised the value to $51 million if all were reached. And I think he would’ve done quite well; we might not have this article at all. I must digress, as what-ifs are all around us. (Look at Yordano Ventura, who died far too young with so much untapped potential left.)

He looks like a potential project for the Pirates if he can show signs of improvement in his performance and peripheral stats. The Pirates and Ray Searage could definitely turn Kaneko into something of value, like they did with A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez, JA Happ, Ivan Nova, Juan Nicasio, Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and more. There’s a good amount of upside in trying for this — some prospects that can help the team in the future.

Here is a link to his player page so you can see it for yourself and make your own conclusions about him, and what he can do to remedy himself.

I don’t own any stats used; all stats are from either FanGraphs or the NPB website linked above.

Atlanta’s Shocking Triple-A Soft-Tossing Pitcher

If you take a look at the leaderboards on FanGraphs for all triple-A pitchers this year, you’ll find a surprising pitcher in the lead in FIP who is above two Rays pitchers, MVP of the Futures Game Brett Honeywell and Yonny Chirinos, along with surprising pitcher Buck Farmer. It’s Andrew Albers, with a 2.58 FIP in triple-A in 77.1 IP, 20 appearances, and 11 starts, with a less impressive 3.61 ERA, along with a sterling 2.77 xFIP.

What’s driving this 2.58 FIP? A strikeout rate of 9.54 per 9, with a measly 1.40 walks per 9 and .58 homers per 9, which is shockingly low, even for him. The home runs will likely increase as he isn’t getting too many ground balls; 46.2% is all right, but not elite. He is also getting a ton of infield pop-ups, with a shockingly high 21.9%. He has had very high infield pop-up numbers in the minors before, which make it easier to do as well as he had, although some negative regression should be expected.

Why his ERA is too high: He generally runs a high BABIP as it has usually been above .330 in the minors since 2015. This year his BABIP is a ridiculous .372 which is inflating his numbers above where can can truly perform at. It should regress to normal levels, maybe even a .320 BABIP perhaps, since minor-league defenses are worse than big-league defenses are (even the A’s pitiful defense).

His strikeout and walk rates are exceeding previous levels; last year in triple-A his walk rate was a good but not great 2.17 per 9, while his strikeout rate was a disappointing 6.08 per 9. I think he’ll likely negatively regress in his K/9 to around 7.5 per 9, walks to around 1.9/9.

But, there’s a chance that Albers could just be a second coming of Jamie Moyer, which could be useful for a big-league team looking for a cheap player to be their fifth starter, since he wouldn’t cost much on a minimum MLB contract or in prospects, and for all intents and purposes is a poor man’s Jason Vargas, who has been surprisingly good this year and is a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. It seems like Albers has made a serious adjustment in performance. Quite an interesting buy-low opportunity for a playoff hopeful that is tight on prospects (Angels, Royals), or tight on cash (Brewers, Rays, Twins, Royals). The Braves should have an extra selling chip that they didn’t know about before. Granted, they might get a lottery-ticket prospect for him, but the Braves are rebuilding, so they need prospects to try out at the big-league level eventually since a lot will flame out. Another pitcher who is similar to Albers is Wade LeBlanc, who I feel should be a starting pitcher for the Pirates, especially considering their rotation issues. But it seems like the thought of him starting is scarier to them than being in a saw trap.

It’s an idea that teams like the ones above should use to get underrated players cheap, while teams that have players like that should sell them for more value than they invested in the player. His best comp is of a right-handed pitcher who is with the Blue Jays: Marco Estrada. They have similar velocities, similar lack of performance till they got older, and get lots of pop-ups. Essentially, he is a left-handed version of Marco Estrada, and Marco Estrada received $26 million over two years after the 2015 season — quite an interesting thought. Especially considering his unimpressive stats in the majors so far. Let’s see if anyone will be willing to give him a chance as a swingman, as he could be an amazing fit on the Nationals; way better than Jacob Turner, and he could start in place of Joe Ross if he performs the way he has so far.

All stats from FanGraphs as of 7-13-2017. I do not own any stats or pages used to help me write this article.