Rougned Odor had a disastrous 2017. Yes, he played all 162 games, which is not bad, and he hit 30 homers, which is not bad, but everything else was really, really bad. His slash line (.202/.254/.397) looks like that of an aging backup catcher. He was dead last in wRC+, behind even Jose Peraza. Behind even Dansby Swanson. Behind even Alcides Escobar, for God’s sake.
There have been 258 player-seasons where the player was in the lineup for all 162 national anthems. Odor’s was the eighth-worst as measured by bWAR (-0.2); in only 11 of these seasons did the player “achieve” a negative number. Most of these were either light-hitting middle infielders (players like Neifi Perez, the guy Alcides Escobar wanted to grow up to be) or aging diplodocuses (diplodocii?) like Pete Rose, still munching palm fronds (but no longer hitting much) at age 41. There are, however, two young power hitters among those 11, the 22-year old Ron Santo and the 25-year old Matt Kemp. Those with stock in Odor, Inc. will look to these seasons for inspiration, but they provide only limited hope.
Take Santo first. His poor 162-game season (at age 22) came a year after his first full year in the majors in 1961, a successful year in which he hit 23 homers, had an .841 OPS, and a wRC+ of 119. In 1962 Santo seemed to (very uncharacteristically) lose the plate. His walk rate dropped, his strikeout rate spiked, and his power plummeted. He hit only six fewer homers in 1962, but his ISO dropped by 60 points. (One can almost hear the retrograde Cubs coaches of the time telling Santo he needed to swing more and to stop being so patient.) The power would return in 1963, and the patience in 1964. Santo would never again have a walk rate below 10% until his depressing denouement with the White Sox in 1974.
Kemp’s career followed a somewhat similar path. The Bison had already assembled two effective offensive years before taking a long stride backward in 2009, his age-25 season. A far different player than the patient Santo, Kemp was always more of a close-eyes-and-swing-hard type, but the Ks really overwhelmed him in 2009, as his strikeout rate jumped almost 5% to 25.4%, the highest he would ever have in a fully healthy season. Some of Kemp’s retreat, however, could also be attributed to bad luck, however; he had the lowest BABIP of his career that year. And to be fair, other advanced metrics are not as harsh on him as bWAR — fWAR gave him a nice round zero that year, while his wRC+ checked in at 106, hardly encouraging for a supposed power-hitting outfielder, but hardly disastrous either. Kemp would go on the next season and win the MVP not win the MVP because Ryan Braun would — by assembling similar offensive rate stats as Kemp in 60 fewer plate appearances while playing poorer defense. With Kemp coming off a severely disappointing season and Braun not yet coming off his steroid exposure, this is perhaps more evidence that MVP awards are indeed path-dependent.
But I digress. The topic for today’s class is Rougned Odor, and one can see some similarities between his career track and those of the two power hitters just described. He’s coming off two solid years as a regular, and at age 23 is still young enough to turn things around and build a successful career. His team, i.e. the people who should know the most about him, thought enough of him to keep running him out there day after brutal day for the whole season, never benching him or sending him down. Chicks and everyone else dig the long ball, and like Santo and Kemp he’s clearly got that.
Not all the auguries are pleasant, however. Odor lacks even Kemp’s patience: his walk rate went up in 2017 to a still Rhode Island-sized 4.9%. Odor has the eighth-worst walk rate among active major leaguers. Odor’s career strikeout rate of 20.9% is better than Kemp’s, but his strikeouts ballooned to over 25% in 2017. Only Javier Baez, who recently filed a patent application on the letter “K”, had a higher rate among qualifying second basemen last year. This could be a good thing, though, in the sense that both Santo and Kemp had strikeout spikes during their bad years, which they both corrected, and Odor could too. Like Kemp, Odor also had a bad BABIP year, 50 points below his career number. Some of Odor’s next season, assuming he plays, will be a dead cat bounce; however bad Odor is, he’s almost certainly not as bad as the 2017 Odor.
But the lack of walks leaves him little room for error. And his minor-league track record is less impressive than those of Santo or Kemp, both of whom amassed an OPS of over .800 in the minors, and proceeded to do the same in the majors. Odor’s career minor-league OPS is .784, which is good but not great. Admittedly the statistical analogy is imperfect, but Whit Merrifield OPS’d at .784 in the majors at the keystone this year, good for ninth among second-base qualifiers. Advanced metrics yield a similar conclusion: Odor had a 106 wRC+ in his best season (in 2016). That’s Yangervis Solarte’s career mark, placing YS 16th among active second basemen. The signs, such as they are, don’t point to a Santovian, or even Kempian career, but rather a player whose upside is that of a first-division starter rather than an All-Star.
The Rangers would probably take that. They don’t have an obvious replacement for Odor at second, with Jurickson Profar’s career now a tire fire and Willie Calhoun apparently not fit for purpose at second. Hanser Alberto? No, probably not. Odor has shown he can strike out less, and indeed in the minors his strikeout to walk ratio was just a little over 2:1, much better than the 5:1 rate he’s shown at the majors, a rate that has washed out players like Wilin Rosario and Will Middlebrooks. If Odor can hold or build on his gain in patience (albeit from a very low base), lower the whiffs back to at least his career rate, and get some balls in play to go his way, he can return to his playable previous form.
And yet. It wasn’t long ago that the Rangers looked like a hotter, humider version of the Dodgers: a very good major-league team that could stay very good for a very long time by retooling on the fly rather than having to tank and rebuild. Remember these guys?
Baseball America’s Top 10 Rangers Prospects, 2012
To use a colloquialism I am given to understand is occasionally employed in Texas, that’s a lot of dry holes. Perez has become a serviceable league-average starter. They turned Alfaro (and most of what is now the Phillies farm system) into Cole Hamels. They gave Matt West the opportunity to explore the ancient and mysterious wonders of Japan. But that’s about it. Odor may yet break out and become a superstar — the Matt Kemp future is not completely out of reach. But the Rangers’ more achievable goal is to turn Odor into Yangervis Solarte. There are, to be fair, worse possible outcomes.
But, once upon a time, there were also better ones …
Starting pitching constitutes the most persistently difficult roster-management problem in baseball. The laws of supply and demand make starters exceedingly expensive, while the laws of biomechanics make starters exceedingly unreliable. When Terry Francona had uberreliever Andrew Miller throw 151 innings (or something) during the 2016 postseason, people began to say “why not do that all the time?” And with MLB offenses scoring 4.67 runs per game, a level not seen since the tail end of Vitamin B-12 Era in 2007, the entire concept of starting pitching has come under withering scrutiny. The answer to “why not use relievers all the time” used to be “because it wouldn’t work, you remarkably silly person.” But now, with starters routinely getting shelled, it’s becoming clearer that the current default approach isn’t necessarily working either.
The internets are positively chock full of people anticipating the post-starter world (see, e.g., here and here). Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper, who has given starting pitching a lot of thought over the years, recently suggested removing the five-inning minimum as a condition for a win, in order to encourage managers to be more creative with starter usage (and, perhaps, to discourage Jon Lester from flattening Joe Maddon when he gets yanked after 4 2/3). The arguments for moving beyond traditional pitcher usage are creative and intriguing.
This future may seem exciting, but it still appears to be a long way off. While starter innings have certainly ebbed since the days of Big Ed Walsh, who led the charted universe with 422 IP in 1907, the number of innings per start has stabilized somewhat in recent years. And there is little evidence that shortening starters’ outings necessarily enhances run suppression.
Since 2007, innings/start has varied from a high of 6.0 in 2010 and 2011, to a low of 5.6, last season and this. From 2007 – 2009 the average was 5.8. Since 2011, innings per start, and the average number of pitches per start, have been generally declining, but run scoring has been increasing since 2014. The correlation between runs and the other variables seems weak, and to the extent a relationship exists at all, it appears to be an inverse one: from 2007 to the present, innings per start declined from the previous year when, and only when, run scoring rose (2012, 2015, and 2016). If a conclusion can be drawn from this limited and noisy data, it’s that starter innings fall more as the result of hitter success than clever managerial design. (This year is so far an exception — runs are up over last year but innings per start and average starter pitch count have remained the same.)
Many readers are surely now reaching for their 2015 Kansas City Royals World Series key chains, and The Fighting Yosts were indeed third in the American League in run suppression that year with a below-average innings per start of 5.6. The famous trio of Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, and Kelvin Herrera (and the less famous Franklin Morales) led a unit that amassed 5.0 WAR, good for a four-way tie for third in the majors. This was a significant achievement, but just as importantly, one hard to maintain. Just three teams have amassed 15.0 bullpen WAR over the last three full seasons: the Royals, Orioles, and Yankees. Of those teams, only the Orioles were in the top 10 in bullpen innings over the same period. Conversely, many of the teams that led the way in bullpen innings didn’t get stellar results: seven of the top 10 teams in bullpen usage failed to get even 10 WAR out of their bullpens over the three-year span.
This isn’t to say a pen-first strategy can’t work, but that it hasn’t worked so far in a sufficiently repeatable manner to dislodge traditional starting pitching. And a lot of that probably has to do with the relative quality of relievers. Many, if not most, are failed starters. They either lack the stamina to go deep into games or they never developed an adequate third pitch. A move to the pen mitigates those shortcomings, but does not eliminate them. An injury-prone starter may still be injury-prone coming out of the pen, and the absence of the third pitch will really hurt on those days, and there will be some, when the first two just aren’t working. And then there’s the statistical problem — it’s simply more difficult to get a good numerical read of a reliever because there are fewer innings by which to judge him. However unreliable starters are, relievers are for the most part even unreliable-er.
Change is happening. Managers are becoming slightly more averse to having their starters face hitters a third time. It happened in roughly 3,000 fewer plate appearances in 2016 than it did in 2007, a small but noticeable change. Tandem starts are perhaps becoming more common out of the nominal fifth-starter slot, even if these are officially unacknowledged. The Cubs survived the Eddie Butler Intermediate Period earlier this year by having Mike Montgomery come in and throw three innings after Butler’s usually early exit. MLB teams averaged 106 relief appearances of more than one inning last season, the highest in recent years.
That said, at the end of the day, talent probably wins a lot more baseball games than creative pitcher usage. There may be a vast storehouse of as yet unlocked wins lying around the bullpen amidst the ball bags, spent seed husks, and vaguely creepy masks. It seems more likely, however, that any improvement in pitcher deployment would bring marginal improvements in team performance rather than revolutionary changes. The remarkable resistance to sustained experimentation with pitching usage may stem from hidebound traditionalism or the timidity of the herd. But that explanation carries less force than it once did, given that there are today few front offices that can safely be characterized as hidebound or herdlike. It’s at least equally possible that teams have not taken hammers to pitching orthodoxy because they have concluded that this would be a waste of perfectly good hammers. Teams searching for more wins appear to be spending most of their time looking elsewhere.
This is not a paean to The Good Old Days, but rather a suggestion that shifting more innings to the bullpen may be more about moving risk than reducing it. The real hidden treasure buried somewhere in the pitching portion of the roster lies in unlocking the secrets of durable elbows and shoulders, and then being able to identify those in players still too young to legally drink. This would expand the supply of sustainable run-suppression talent, making pitchers a more predictable investment. This in turn could finally lead baseball away from its fascination with 14-man staffs, allowing for better-balanced rosters, more interesting game play, and fewer four-pitcher innings, since managers would be able to trust the men they are sending out to the mound, rather than placing all their faith in platoon splits. Heck, it might even lead to peace on the Korean peninsula and whiter, brighter teeth, too.
One way to deal with a presently unsolvable problem is to de-emphasize it. The Mets tried to build around young starting pitching and failed. The Astros didn’t, and didn’t. Their approach has been to invest modest resources in a more or less traditionally-deployed rotation while building around a MOAB offense and a high-quality, if not an extraordinarily high-quantity, bullpen. Expect more teams to follow this path until the buried treasure is unearthed.
Yankee southpaw Jordan Montgomery is having a a capable rookie season at age 24, with a 3.92 ERA and 4.07 FIP over 108 innings, both good for second among qualifying rookie starters (although to be fair, there are only four). Montgomery has solid strikeout and walk rates of 8.25/9 and 2.75/9, respectively, and if he’s given up a few too many homers (1.25/9), well, so has pretty much everyone else this year. So far, so encouraging, especially for a guy who eluded the top 100 prospects lists, but Montgomery is going about it in a highly unusual way. Just 42.4% of his pitches have been fastballs this year, the fifth-lowest rate in the majors among qualifying starters.
Throwing fastballs is a young man’s game. No other under-25 pitcher has used the fastball less than 50% of the time this season. The next such pitcher down the fastball rarity list from Montgomery is teammate Luis Severino, (25th on the list) who throws his heat just with just over a 51% frequency. In fact, none of the other bottom-10 fastball users are under 28.
While career development can take many different paths, pitchers tend to throw more fastballs early in their careers and fewer as they age. Kershaw’s career, for example, follows this pattern almost exactly, while Adam Wainwright’s is somewhat similar, though his (low) fastball usage this year is somewhat higher than last year’s. It’s unusual in the current era to see a young pitcher come up and have sustained success throwing fastballs so infrequently.
Over the last five years, just 20 pitchers have used the fastball less frequently than Montgomery has this year, 15 of whom are (or were, in the case of the retirees) starters. Only two of the active pitchers are under 30: Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw (29) and yet another Yankee, Masahiro Tanaka (28). (The perceptive reader perhaps will have divined that the Yankees staff as a whole has the lowest fastball usage in the majors.)
On the surface, Montgomery’s reluctance to cook with gas is understandable: his gas is flammable. According to FanGraphs pitch values, Montgomery’s curve and changeup are among the ten best in all the land, while his fastball is down at 50th. So Montgomery might be excused for being gun shy (that actually is a pun — it’s okay to laugh!), but as noted above, very few young pitchers have survived to baseball middle age by so assiduously avoiding the fastball. If Montgomery is to have long-term success, he will either need to bushwhack a hitherto unblazed career trail, or figure out a way to keep hitters honest with a few more fastballs.
For an example of the latter course, consider Corey Kluber. When he arrived in The Show he had a somewhat similar pitching profile to Montgomery’s: a very hittable fastball that he was reluctant to throw, coupled with other, more promising pitches (in Kluber’s case, the the cutter was initially the best, followed by the curve and then the change). According to pitch values, Kluber’s heater was quite a bit worse than Montgomery’s is now, and Kluber accordingly suffered during his first two seasons in 2011 and 2012. FIP saw his potential, however: Kluber’s best ERA in those formative seasons was 5.19, but his worst FIP was 4.29.
In the next two seasons, Kluber would cut almost two full runs off that FIP, on his way to a Cy Young Award in 2014. Four significant changes helped postpone the start of Kluber’s broadcasting career. First, he added velo, which rose from 92.0 in 2011 to 93.2 in 2013. Second, perhaps because of the additional speed, he threw fastballs more often. Much more often, rising from around 43% in his first two years to 53% in 2013. Third, he correspondingly reduced changeup usage, from 16.5% in 2012 all the way down to 4.8% in 2014. Fourth, perhaps because of this simplified approach, his curve went from being spotty in 2012 to a wipeout pitch in 2014.
Kluber thus became the ace on a World Series pitching staff. He would go on to top 50% fastball usage every year until now, when it has once again slipped to 45%. His fastball has never been a dominant pitch, but it effectively sets up his curve and cutter, which are. As he’s aged, Kluber has given back his velocity gains, but so far that has not significantly eroded his overall effectiveness.
No player’s career is a perfect template for another, but Kluber’s rapid evolution at the major-league level suggests some steps Montgomery could take to remain in the Yankees’ rotation. Efforts to enhance velocity don’t always end well, but Montgomery’s velo (91.9) is just about where Kluber’s was before he began his ascent, and it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that Montgomery could add 1 mph or so to his heater, thereby making him more willing to throw it. If he’s more afraid of his fastball than the hitters are, success will likely elude him. Of course, almost every pitcher would like to find an extra mile per hour in between the couch cushions, but in Montgomery’s case that may be closer to a need than a want.
If Montgomery throws more fastballs, he could also throw fewer sliders. Though not a bad pitch, it is the weakest of his other offerings and the one he already throws least frequently (12%). Largely scrapping it would enable to focus on developing and using his curve and change, which are the pitches that will essentially determine whether the Yankees ever have a Jordan Montgomery Bobblehead Night. Coupled with a more effective fastball, these pitches could become devastating.
To be sure, top prospects drive the bus — out of the 2016 Cleveland Spiders 27+ WAR, around 16 came from four former top-50 prospects (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Lonnie Baseball). Two former top-50 pitchers (Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco) contributed just over 5 of the around 19 WAR that the staff produced. But teams need to get value from their unheralded players as well. In 2016, Kluber’s 5.1 WAR essentially equaled Bauer and Carrasco’s combined.
The Yankees are certainly far more important to Jordan Montgomery than vice-versa, but his performance thus far suggests that he is more than a fringe rotation member; he may be a fringe impact starter. The rotation is the weakest link in a Yankees team that otherwise looks poised to compete for the AL East crown for years to come. It’s easy to imagine that only Severino will have been in both the 2017 and 2018 opening-day rotations. Even if Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield can progress quickly enough to make an impact next year, the Yankees will need help that lies beyond the glow of the top-prospect campfire. Jordan Montgomery could be that help if he can learn to love the fastball.
On July 8, the Oakland A’s sent Franklin Barreto back to AAA. In his major-league cup of chai latte (just 46 plate appearances), Barreto slashed a relatively unimpressive .190/.261/.381. He struck out at a horrific 39%, though he did pop two homers on the way to an ISO of .190, pretty robust for a middle infielder. Word is that his stay on the farm will be a short one, and there is reason to believe that given the collection of very movable objects that stands in his way.
The A’s almost certainly won’t pick up second baseman Jed Lowrie’s team option for 2018, and may well shop him before the trade deadline now that they are firmly in win-then mode. (Did you know that Jed Lowrie leads the A’s in WAR, regardless of which brand of WAR you use?) At short, the A’s have a have a variety of players who have trouble either hitting (Richie Martin) or fielding (Marcus Semien). For Barreto, it must look a bit like an E-Z Pass lane.
But the most fearsome demons we confront are often our own, and Barreto still has work to do before he’s fit for purpose. Here are three guys:
_____ K% ISO wRC+
Guy A 29.8 .147 91
Guy B 28.9 .160 83
Guy C 28.7 .158 83
No points for guessing that one of these guys is Franklin Barreto. That would be Guy A, and those are his numbers from AAA this season. Guy B is Javier Baez, and those are his career numbers. We’ll get to guy C in a minute.
Baez, like Barreto, hits the ball hard but misses the ball often. The approach seemed to work for him in the minors; he slugged a merciless .638 even while whiffing nearly 30% of the time at AA in 2014. The approach worked, that is, until it didn’t. In 2015, those crafty AAA pitchers still struck Javy out 30% of the time while feeding him a lot fewer cookies. And then the Cubs called him up. He proceeded to slash .169/.227/.324 while striking out at a horrific 42%. He did pop 9 homers on the way to a .155 ISO, which is fair to middlin’ for a middle infielder. Barreto did not repeat Javy’s first call up, but he did rhyme with it.
The Cubs responded to Baez’s 2014 by sending him back down to AAA in 2015. For a while. Quite a long while, actually: over 300 PAs among the Iowa cornfields and endless bus rides over the featureless Midwestern steppe. That was how Baez spent the first part of 2015, and when he came up again … he hit the ball less hard and missed it less often, shaving his strikeout rate to 30% whilst shaving his ISO to an unthreatening .118. A .412 BABIP softened the blow, superficially making him look like a useful offensive player. It wasn’t a breakthrough, but it was kind of like progress.
Baez held his gains in 2016, dropping his K rate to 24% while ramping up the power. His 95 wRC+ that year was well-earned. This year the numbers aren’t quite there, but the K rate has only inched upward — while the power is rising. The kid might be learning to hit. This represents a hopeful comp for Barreto. He’s three years younger than Baez, so he still has plenty of time to learn. If, that is, the A’s will let him.
The A’s trail back to the post-season is not well-marked, at least on publicly available maps. They currently have four of the MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects, but just one in the top 50 (Barreto, at #42). Baseball America thought little of the system at the beginning of the year, ranking it 17th, just behind the then-recently depleted Cubs system. Two of the four (Barreto and third baseman Matt Chapman) graduated this year, with Barreto now sent back and Chapman still searching for answers in The Show. The other two top prospects, pitchers A.J. Puk and Grant Holmes, are both struggling at AA this year, though Puk pitched quite well at hitter-friendly Stockton, from which he was only recently promoted.
These are good players, but Beane will need more if he wants to bring a pennant to San Jose (er — I mean — oh, nevermind). Accordingly, Beane went against form in the 2017 draft by selecting a high-school bat, outfielder Austin Beck, with the 6th overall pick. Beck had helium before the draft, although the MLB Pipeline crew worried about his complex swing. Next year, Oakland will likely have a top-five pick, allowing Beane to grab another high-ceiling bat. Beck and this unmet friend will have a large say in determining when Oakland next plays October baseball.
But that won’t be soon, likely not in 2018 and probably not in 2019. So from a baseball standpoint, there is very little reason to rush Barreto. Oakland’s long-suffering and very knowledgeable fans are probably aching to see the future, given the bleakness of the present. And I suspect the front-office types share that yearning more than they would ever dare admit publicly. But Oakland plays in a land of giants (no, that’s not another San Jose joke): The two Texas teams are well-run and well-resourced, and the Angels brains will eventually match their wallets. And the Mariners … well … it’s complicated. The point is that the AL West contains a number of wily and dangerous opponents, and the A’s being generally well-run and perpetually under-resourced, need to build a roster that will be explosively good for a handful of years, rather than modestly successful for many. They can’t afford too many talent misses.
Which brings us to Guy C. That’s Danny Espinosa, and those are his career stats. Now 30, Espinosa is entering the twilight of a career that never really caught fire. And that’s because the strikeouts ate it.
At least by the numbers, you wouldn’t have seen it coming. Espinosa’s highest strikeout rate in the minors was 22.6%, and over his three years on the farm he hit with power and solid plate discipline. In the majors, he never had a K rate less than 25.2%. When he could keep it near there, he was a solid starting middle infielder (mostly at second, with a healthy helping of short). But when the K% slid upward, Espinosa was doomed, a bench bat at best. This year, he has a .513 OPS with the aforementioned Angels, and a staggering 35.8% strikeout rate. He is by no means a close comp with Barreto since the Ks only began to plague him at the major-league level, but his failure to bring the strike zone under control once there is a cautionary tale.
It’s easy to criticize Espinosa, and a bit unfair; he’s had a better career than the overwhelming majority of players in professional ball, most of whom will never set foot on a major-league field unless they’re taking the guided tour. Espinosa is a good defender at the two toughest infield positions, and for much of his career made pitchers all too cognizant that the wall behind them wasn’t nearly behind enough.
That said, the Oakland A’s can ill afford to produce many Danny Espinosas, at least from their top prospects, of whom (for now, at least) Barreto is the toppiest. Javier Baez hasn’t figured it out yet, but the Cubs gave him extra time in AAA to help that process along. While the jury is out, the signs are at least guardedly encouraging. The A’s should consider doing the same for Barreto, to ensure that his development, and theirs, isn’t stopped short.
On June 22 the Chicago Cubs sent a struggling Very Large Human, Kyle Schwarber, to the minors. The Warbird earned it, with the 20th worst fWAR and 6th worst bWAR among qualifying hitters. His OPS is just two points shy of Albert Pujols‘, a goal that you kids at home should no longer aspire to. Schwarber’s inoffensive offense has led to much discussion, most of which revolves around two competing theories:
The Cubs, predictably, are publicly sticking with Theory 1, and not without reason. As Edwards pointed out, there is plenty of statistical evidence suggesting Schwarber is basically the same hitter he was during his torrid 2015 campaign. The walk rate is about the same. The K rate is about the same. The power is still there — how many guys with an ISO over .200 get sent down? And that most basic of slump detectors, BABIP, is flashing red: Schwarber’s BABIP is a minuscule .193, last among qualifiers.
Or is this all whistling past the graveyard? A deeper look at Schwarber’s numbers reveals some seemingly alarming trends. Specifically, he’s been virtually helpless against the slider this year, “slugging” it at an .042 clip. In 2015 he murdilated sliders, slugging .593 against them. For those of you not near a calculator, that means between 2015 and 2017 Schwarber lost 551 points of slugging against one of baseball’s more common pitches — losing more than most hitters will ever attain.
There were specific sliders that Schwarber found particularly tasty in 2015 — those down and over the plate. This year, not so much. As his FanGraphs pitch value tables indicate, the slider has become garlic to Schwarber’s vampire. (Not that I am in any way suggesting that Schwarber is an undead being of any sort.) Other teams, aware of this newly opened hole in his swing, have accordingly started feeding Schwarber a steady diet of sliders.
Except that they haven’t. Schwarber is actually seeing slightly fewer sliders this year than he did in 2015. Maybe major-league front offices would benefit by reading more brilliantly researched blog posts like this one.
Or maybe there really isn’t anything there after all. One good way to evaluate a hitter is to watch how other teams are treating him, and Schwarber’s opponents haven’t pitched him much differently than they did in 2015, at least as far as pitch selection is concerned. This doesn’t seem to be a Heyward situation, where a gaping hole did open in his swing, and pitchers began attacking him mercilessly with high fastballs.
Another good way to evaluate a hitter is to watch how his own team treats him, and the Cubs have been almost painfully patient with Schwarber. He was bad in April before getting much, much worse in May. A power spurt in early June was not enough to save him from Iowa.
Last year, the Cubs had good reason to be patient with Heyward, even though he was producing about as much reliable power as Pakistan’s grid. There were two reasons for this: (1) he was making substantial contributions with his glove; and (2) from about April 15 on, the Cubs had a divisional lead of at least 75.5 games. No, really. Look it up.
The Cubs patience with Schwarber is less obviously explicable. Replacements for his limp bat were at hand in the minors, including Ian Happ and (more recently) Mark Zagunis. Schwarber adds nothing to the team’s defense, and the Cubs this year are in a remorseless fight to the death in the NL Central.
So the Cubs and their opponents have been behaving (for most of the season, anyway) as though Schwarber is in a slump, rather than suffering from some more fundamental problem. The Cubs might be looking at his track record — in his brief minor-league career Schwarber’s OPS is 1.042, and, you know, that 2015 season was so awesome!
But Schwarber didn’t have a season in 2015, he had less than half a season: 273 plate appearances to be exact. He’s had 261 PAs this year. So to this point, Schwarber’s entire career does not yet amount to the equivalent of even one full major-league season. His career has been strange in that his PAs have been so highly segregated: 273 fantastic PAs followed by 261 awful ones, with some World Series heroics in between that would melt the hardest of non-Cleveland hearts. Put it all together though, and you have one short, not-all-that-impressive career thus far. His career OPS+ is 102, and his career wRC+ is 104. Those numbers simply aren’t good enough for an essentially postionless player. Here’s a list of left fielders with a career OPS+ of 102. For those of you who can’t click through, trust me, it’s short. The Cubs didn’t plan to use the 4th pick of the 2014 draft because they wanted the next Garret Anderson.
Past performance does not fully predict future results, and there are some reasons to think that the real Warbird is closer to the 2015 version than the 2017 one. As noted above, his minor-league stats were through the roof, and a very competent front office used a very high draft pick to get him. His trouble with the slider looks more like a reframed BABIP slump — that is, a run of bad luck during a small sample size — than a genuinely exploitable hole. He’s still only 24.
And yet, the Cubs did send him down. This probably has more to do with the pennant race than with Schwarber; the Cubs simply can no longer afford to give away outs. The move takes some pressure off of Schwarber himself (though he may well not see it that way), and takes the pressure off of Joe Maddon to either write Schwarber into the lineup every day and answer a bunch of annoying questions about it, or not write Schwarber into the lineup and answer a bunch of annoying questions about it. But if Schwarber’s last 261 PAs are simply down to bad luck, why couldn’t the first 273 PAs be down to good luck?
I don’t really believe Schwarber is the next Garret Anderson, but I’m less certain than some Cubs fans that we know who the real Schwarber is yet. Schwarber’s demotion will help the Iowa Cubs sell tickets. Whether it helps the Chicago Cubs sell playoff tickets remains to be seen.
Consider the current payrolls of two teams:
Team Payroll MLB Rank
Team A $133.7M 9
Team B $133.3M 10
You, being a reader of some intellectual attainment, have probably divined that one of these teams is the New York Mets. That would be Team A. Team B is the Seattle Mariners. As we enter 2017, just under eight years after Bernie Madoff’s guilty plea, the Mets still have the payroll of a team playing the 18th-largest city in America; four of NYC’s five boroughs have more people.
Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson has assembled a team that is essentially the anti-Cubs: the Mets’ core is their young, cost-controlled pitching staff, which was the best in the majors last year according to FIP-. Supporting the staff is a cast of position players that produce roughly MLB-average offense (16th last year in wRC+) and defense (15th in UZR/150). The Mets payroll is upside-down, heavily invested in the modestly effective position players, while the outstanding pitchers mostly throw for food. The most expensive pitcher on their roster is Addison Reed, at $7.75M. At Mets prices, for the coming year, that would buy you around one-third of Yoenis Cespedes or David Wright.
The Alderson formula has produced three years of 80+ win teams from 2014-2016 (82, 89, and 87, according to Pythagoras). But clouds are gathering. Seven of the eight starting position players on opening day will be at least 30 years old. Even the young pitching is less young than you might think. Matt Harvey will be 28, and Jacob deGrom already is. The pitchers’ long war with soft tissue has intensified: After last season, Steven Matz finally donated his bone spurs to science, but worryingly is planning to throw slower in 2017. Perhaps necessity will beget virtue, but Matz’ room for error may decline with his average velo. Noah Syndergaard still has his bone spurs, and Zack Wheeler may never start another major-league game. And so on.
Which brings us to today’s topic, which is focused on the Mets’ peculiar outfield, and their especially peculiar decision to give Jay Bruce most of the starts in right. The Mets’ failure to move Bruce in the offseason has been well-chronicled. Bruce had seemed to get his career back on track with 402 blistering plate appearances with the Reds in 2016, and the Mets jumped at the chance to get him in exchange for two pieces deemed expendable (Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell). Bruce cratered in New York, posting the second-worst ISO and wOBA of his career (if you were to consider his time in New York to be a separate season). After that performance, Met fans would have traded Bruce for a traffic jam in Fort Lee, but Alderson wanted more.
You can see Alderson’s logic: Having traded two prospects away (Herrera has exceeded his rookie eligibility, but he’s still only 22), Alderson now wanted two prospects back. As the Forbes article linked above noted, this misread the market. But it also misread Jay Bruce. In 2016, Bruce’s combined wRC+ was 111, good for 14th in the majors out of 21 right-field qualifiers. Bruce’s career wRC+ is 107 — so, far from being an anomaly, last year taken as a whole was simply Jay being Jay. Alderson paid for those 402 tantalizing plate appearances with the Reds in 2016, rather than considering Bruce’s entire body of work. Right field is an offensive position, and Bruce’s offensive contributions are modest. On a playoff team, he’s probably better suited to a bench role.
Steamer projects Bruce to regress to a wRC+ of 97 this year, while the man Bruce will effectively bump from the lineup, Michael Conforto, is projected to achieve 113. It’s possible the Mets’ internal projection system gives Bruce a much better prognosis; it’s likely the other 29 teams’ systems don’t think much of Bruce, or he wouldn’t still be a Met. Steamer thinks Conforto is worth about 0.7 wins more than Bruce, with Bruce getting over 100 more plate appearances. Giving Conforto the everyday role (or at least the everyday role against northpaws) and reducing Bruce’s playing time could be worth a win or so to the Mets.
How important is that win? Extremely, it would seem. As noted above, the Mets have assembled a team capable of getting into the playoffs, but not likely to overwhelm the competition. In this sense the Mets aren’t like the Cubs at all; the Cubs were assembled to crush their competition in the regular season, while the Mets plan is to squeeze into the playoffs and then say a number of Hail Marys that can only be expressed in scientific notation. The Cubs could have afforded to start Jay Bruce in right last year, and in fact they started someone worse (offensively, at least) and still broke a century-old curse. The Phillies could afford to start Jay Bruce in right in 2017 (and indeed wanted him, though not at Alderson’s price), because wins in 2017 will likely mean little to them. For a team like the Phillies, with some money to spend and no plans to win this year, Bruce would be useful cannon fodder — someone to run out there most days who allows them to keep their more valuable prospects in the minors.
The Mets are in a far different position than either of these teams, neither certain to dominate nor certain to fold. FanGraphs projects the Mets to win 83 games this year, which would put them just outside the second wild-card spot. I think that exact total may be a little pessimistic, but focus on their overall position in the league rather than the specific number. Four teams are projected to have between 82 and 88 wins (the Mets, Cards, Pirates, and Giants); it is fairly easy to imagine any two of them being the wild cards.
Moreover, the Mets are in win-now mode. As noted above, this is an old roster, and there’s not a lot of help on the way. The Mets have just two players in MLB’s top 100 prospects, though one of them is Amed Rosario, who could solve the Mets’ shortstop problems for a decade. With a Seattle-size payroll, and two long-term contracts (Cespedes and Wright) destined to get ever more albatrossy as the months tick by, the Mets need to scrape for every win they can now. The fragility of the Mets’ starters, who are unquestionably the team’s strength, gives the task further urgency.
Seen in this light, the decision to play Bruce seems to be an unforced error. The Mets have three options here:
The Mets have an interesting team. A lot of people would actually like them if they weren’t the New York Mets. In piloting this intriguing but surprisingly cost-constrained franchise, the usually sure-handed Alderson shouldn’t compound his initial error in acquiring Bruce by misusing him now that he’s here.
Last season the St. Louis Cardinals scored the fourth-most runs in the majors, but were a mere 13th in runs allowed. Yes, the rotation had its issues, including but not limited to Lance Lynn’s season-long absence, but the pitching staff managed to finish seventh in FIP. The large disconnect between the Cardinals’ runs allowed and FIP has the aroma of a defensive rat.
The Cards ranked 17th in the FanGraphs Def rating, and five of their top eight players by plate appearances had negative ratings. The team’s roster had a severe internal contradiction last year, putting weak defenders behind a merely average strikeout staff; the Cards were 15th in K% last year. Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak recognizes the problem, and recently took one step to address it by signing Dexter Fowler to play center. Craig Edwards recently covered the signing in detail, calling attention to the continuing controversy regarding Fowler’s defense. The Cards will play him in center, but he might not really be a center fielder.
Randal Grichuk patrolled center last year in a manner that will make no one forget Jim Edmonds. His advanced defensive metrics, though, were not terrible; his UZR in center was a hair below average. The Fowler signing pushes Grichuk to left, but it isn’t at all clear Fowler is actually an improvement.
It is clear, however, that even Fredbird would be a defensive improvement over Matt Holliday in left. UZR liked Holliday as a defender early in his career, but hasn’t thought much of him since 2012. Holliday’s offense made up for his increasingly offensive glove, until last year. Mozeliak’s first move to right the wrongs of the Cardinals’ 2016 roster was his eminently wise decision to let Holliday walk. Fowler may or may not be better than Grichuk in center, but Grichuk will almost certainly be far better than Holliday in left. (And, heck, maybe Fowler’s defensive improvement will stick.)
This will still, in all likelihood, be a below-average defensive outfield, but 2017’s edition should be slightly more agile than the 2016 product. The good news is that St. Louis has a heavy groundball staff; they led the league in GB/FB ratio last year. The bad news is that infield defense is even worse than the outfield.
Mozeliak is moving to fix this, too. Matt Carpenter has played five different positions in his career, none especially well. Next year he will man the cold corner, his bat having developed to the point that it can carry him at that position. Giving most of the second-base starts to Kolten Wong will improve defense at the keystone. He’s not a stellar defender, but is far better than any of the other available options.
The left side of the infield, as currently constructed, will remain scary bad. Defense is the province of the young, something that Jhonny Peralta isn’t. Heading into his age-35 season, Peralta will surrender runs in quantity whether he plays short or third. The current odd man out in the infield, Jedd Gyorko, could be a solution at the hot corner. He’s not a great defender either, but he’s better than Peralta, six years younger, and probably at least equivalent offensively.
Aledmys Diaz is young, but not as young as you think, and played old at short last year, finishing 22nd out of 28 shortstops with at least 450 plate appearances in Def. It’s hard to know whether the offense he displayed last year is real; Steamer sees some regression but is still optimistic. As long he hits he’ll play, and St. Louis will have to hope the glove develops, at least a little. The farm lacks much of a shortstop crop, and the free-agent cupboard is also bare.
The pitching staff can help hide the defense’s weaknesses by striking batters out more often. The return of Lance Lynn and his career strikeout rate of 22% in April or May should help in that regard, although Tommy John survivors sometimes struggle initially upon their return. The flame-throwing Alex Reyes, with a combined career K/9 of 11.7 at all levels, could help even more if he wins a rotation spot.
But that’s a big if. Assuming Lynn and Reyes both win spots, that leaves one of last year’s starters spitting seeds in the bullpen. Lynn in effect replaces the now-departed Jaime Garcia. But who would Reyes replace? “Mike Leake” roars (or chirps) the Cardinal faithful, and on pure performance they’re not wrong. Leake projects to have the worst ERA, FIP, and K/9 of any Cardinals starter next year. He will also be entering the second year of his questionable five-year, $80-million contract, making Leake simultaneously a Cardinal and an albatross. He is a less-extreme version of Jason Heyward, a player whose contract significantly impedes benching.
Lynn may not be back on opening day, and teams frequently can avoid using a fifth starter for the first couple of weeks of the season thanks to frequent off days. It’s likely that manager Mike Matheny won’t make a decision until he has to, and he may not have to until well into May. Leake may get off to an awful start, perhaps making it easier to banish him to the pen. Michael Wacha may suffer a similar fate, or get injured again. Both the Mikes were disappointing last season, but Reyes doesn’t offer sure improvement, given his eye-watering walk rates.
So this may be a roster bug, but it’s also a feature. The Cardinals have no sure-fire No. 1-caliber starter, but they have considerable depth, including the guys mentioned above as well as Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Luke Weaver, and perhaps Trevor Rosenthal. The last two are nearly and entirely untested (respectively) in the major-league rotation, but both cook with gas and could help alleviate the team’s defensive problems if they can command their stuff.
Another way to get more Ks would be for manager Mike Matheny to get a bit more out of his bullpen at the expense of his lower-stuff starters. The Cardinals were 20th in reliever innings last year, despite having a bullpen that finished 12th in FIP and 13th in ERA — not Rivera-esque, but usable. The addition of Brett Cecil will help if he performs as his contract suggests the Cardinals are projecting. Some of the losers in the rotation sweepstakes could also be effective relievers. Rosenthal used to be one, and Reyes showed a flash of brilliance in 17 innings at season’s end last year. Few Cardinals fans will put a big stack on Matheny’s decision-making capacity, but there is at least the possibility that he might make better use of the resources at his disposal.
The Cardinals had a poorly-configured team by the end of last season, but Mozeliak is taking steps to correct it. Cardinals fans are surely hoping that whatever roster sins remain will not be mortal ones.
The 2016 Texas Rangers finished with just 82 wins. With an aging core and a desiccating farm system, the Rangers are drifting toward baseball’s Sargasso Sea of medioc-
What? You say the Rangers won 95 games last season?? Get on with your bad self!
Hmm … diligent research has revealed that the Rangers did indeed win 95, despite a microscopic run differential of +8, the lowest positive run differential in the majors last year. That wily Pythagoras pegged the Rangers at 82 expected wins last season, and perhaps unsurprisingly, FanGraphs currently projects the Rangers to win, yes, 82 games next season. A modest uptick in offense (due in significant part to having Jonathan Lucroy available for the whole year) will be offset by a modest erosion of the Texans’ already leaky run prevention. With an aging core and a desiccating farm system, the Rangers are drifting toward baseball’s Sargasso Sea of mediocrity, a team neither good enough to challenge for a playoff spot, nor bad enough to enable Total Roster Makeover.
For public consumption at least, Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels is acting like he has a 95-win team on the roster, throwing out speculation that the team may be after Andrew McCutchen, Edwin Encarnacion, or perhaps even Chris Scissorshands. Daniels is, on the evidence publicly available, a rather capable individual, and it is difficult to believe he is ignorant of the true state of his team.
He has a core of four 3+ win players (Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Adrian Beltre, and Lucroy), none of whom is younger than 30. They have some young guys with upside (Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara, Jurickson Profar, Joey Gallo), a glove-first shortstop whose contract won’t end until after humans have colonized Mars, and Shin-soo Choo, who has become the fragile platoon corner outfielder that many feared when he signed his own post-Mars-colonization deal.
Fortunately for the Rangers, their roster weaknesses are glaring. They have four positions (1B, CF, DH, and 5th SP) that each project to amass fewer than 1 win. These should be the focus of Daniels’ attention. Let’s take them in turn:
I’ll consider these together, because the Rangers can fill one of these positions with Joey Gallo, if they don’t trade him. Gallo is a true baseball anomaly, and his big-fly-big-whiff profile has been well chronicled. He had a 34.6% strikeout rate in AAA last year, a rate qualifying hitters exceeded only twice in the majors since 2007:
Mark Reynolds 2010 35.4%
Chris Carter 2013 36.2%
And the bad news is that neither of these whiffly guys broke 30% in their minor-league careers (leaving out a very short appearance in AA by Reynolds). So Gallo walks (and homers, and strikes out) alone. If the Rangers really were a 95-win team, they would probably be best served by moving Gallo for whatever they could get, which would undoubtedly be a useful return. A 95-win team can move a prospect for an overpriced veteran who will nevertheless put them over the top. But that team is not the Rangers, who are probably better off seeing what they have in Gallo, working him into the lineup as soon as practicable. But Rangers fans beware! No windshield in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan statistical area will be safe.
That still leaves a big hole at the other position. Profar could play first, but his bat likely won’t be able to carry the position, at least not yet. Encarnacion wants a megacontract, and while the Rangers may be able to afford the cash (they have the eighth-highest payroll in the AL next year, and they have a Texas-sized TV contract) the contract length will be brutal. Encarnacion recently turned down 4y/$80m from the Blue Jays, so he’ll presumably want more than that from the Rangers (or anyone else). Thanks to the qualifying offer, he’ll also (for now, at least) cost a first-round pick. While he obviously would provide some short-term help for the Rangers, adding a very expensive and declining veteran on a long-term deal probably isn’t the kind of move an 82-win team should be making.
Last season, E5 had his worst wRC+ and ISO since 2011, and his worst K% since 2009. Next year will be his age-34 season, and while even a decaying Encarnacion can help a team, his punishing contract is likely a better fit for a team that already has almost every other piece in place. For all his gaudy counting stats, E5 projects as just a 2.4 win player next year. The Rangers can probably get better results by spreading his putative salary over a larger number of players and a lower number of years. A platoon of Steve Pearce and Pedro Alvarez at DH could be the bargain-hunter’s option here. And let’s not overlook Ronald Guzman, who had a breakout season in AA last year (.825 OPS) before struggling in 95 plate appearances at AAA. He’s not a top prospect, but he’s still only 21, and he could be a useful piece later in 2017.
The conversation probably starts with McCutchen, who appears to be a good buy-low candidate from a Bucs team that obviously wants to sell. Cutch has a team-friendly deal and a reputation as a glue guy, but the key questions are (a) will he ever hit again and (b) will he ever field again? The Rangers are going to have start restocking the farm soon, and giving away what remains of their young talent for McCutchen seems shortsighted unless they are convinced they can fix him (or that he can fix himself). Steamer, for what it’s worth, sees a significant bounceback.
Carlos Gomez presents a (much) less exciting option, but also one that will only cost money, and perhaps not in excessively painful amounts. If the Rangers believe that his health has returned for more than a minute, Gomez could fill the bill, but most of the value he has is likely to be on defense, and the Rangers did not have an especially fly-prone staff last year (nor will the addition of Andrew Cashner change that much).
Dexter Fowler raises some of the same issues as Encarnacion, though on a smaller scale. Although he put up adequate defensive numbers last season, most metrics have seen him as a below-average center fielder throughout his career, and he will surely want more years than make sense for the Rangers’ current position on the development curve. He’ll also (for now) cost a first-round pick. All of the above is true with even greater force with respect to Ian Desmond. The Rangers should make sure he becomes someone else’s problem next year.
If the Rangers can somehow swing a trade involving Profar and one or more lesser prospects for McCutchen, then that might be the best plan. (I’m not forgetting Marcell Ozuna here, but I’m assuming he’ll cost even more in prospects than McCutchen, and I’m not assuming he’ll be able to retain his OBP progress from last year.) There are no great options here, but the lower-risk move is probably to sign Gomez.
A.J. Griffin is currently slated for the cannon-fodder spot in the rotation, and this year’s free-agent pitching class is legendarily bad. Rich Hill could be a perfect fit, given that he won’t ask for too many years and is having a late-career resurgence that may only be explicable with reference to the dark arts. As a fly-ball pitcher, however, he would need help in center (e.g., Carlos Gomez), and he might cough up a few more homers than last year. And he’s obviously an injury risk, but that will be priced into the deal.
Ivan Nova (!) is probably the next-best option. Steamer projects a 2.3-win season, in line with what he achieved in 2011, 2013, and last year. I’ve never been a big Nova fan, but the Rangers don’t have a lot of options here, so he may be a decent plan B if Hill signs elsewhere. And that Top-100 prospect, southpaw Yohander Mendez, has put up good minor-league numbers across six levels (counting the three A levels separately): a collective 2.46 ERA over 292 innings, and an 8.6 K/9. He’ll also be just 22 next year. While probably needing a bit more seasoning, he could reach the rotation in next season’s second half if (when?) Cashner or Martin Perez falters, or Hill gets hurt.
* * *
The 95-win Rangers were an illusion, and their chances of standing toe-to-toe with the Astros in the 2017 AL West are slim indeed. Instead, they need to start preparing for the post-Beltre era. They have some good young talent in place and a front office that has shown aptitude for acquiring more. They can attempt to sneak into the playoffs this year at relatively low cost, while retaining a cadre of young talent with which they can challenge the Astros’ AL West dominance in the years to come. Or they can act like a 95-win team. Sometimes it’s better to take the medicine.
The Chicago Cubs, hinting that this year they may have magick stronger than The Goat, recently brought the San Francisco Giants’ even-year playoff dominance to an end. It was an offensively offensive series; add the two teams’ OPS together and you’re just 100 points better than David Ortiz. The low-velocity Giants staff struck out a batter an inning, and both lineups walked at a lower rate than the unwalkable Royals. My working theory was that this series represented the final demise of the already waning power of the current edition of the Giants, and that the next chart-topping version of Big Head Bruce and the Monsters would have mostly new musicians. Turns out that this theory is only partially correct.
Your 2016 San Francisco Baseball Giants were actually a little better than the world-beating 2014 squad, at least when resort is had to statistics:
Stat 2016 (MLB rank) 2014 (MLB rank)
Position Player fWAR 26.7 (4) 23.0 (9)
SP fWAR 15.0 (5) 10.1 (21)
RP fWAR 2.1 (22) 1.4 (24)
Position Player wRC+ 98 (t12) 99 (9)
SP FIP- 96 (t7) 104 (19)
RP FIP- 97 (20) 98 (18)
Run differential/game +0.51 +0.31
Let’s pause a minute to consider the bullpen numbers, which are the very essence of “meh” both years. The Giants have had the reputation of having a good, cheap bullpen. It’s certainly cheap: Sergio Romo is the plutocrat of the unit at a relatively unimposing $9 million. But “good” is more of a stretch; the Giants relievers have delivered value pretty much consistent with what they’ve been paid.
Some commentators have carpeted Bochy for his bullpen usage during the NLDS, but (perhaps because I’m not actually a Giants fan) I take a longer view. The miscellaneous roadies Big Head Bruce has had to work with will hardly make anyone forget The Nasty Boys, but he has often been able to squeeze value out of them when it’s mattered most. In order to maximize value out of this motley crue (I’m in town all week — try the garlic fries) Bochy has had to be very active in the late innings, and the more decisions any manager has to make, the more that will go wrong.
Giants general manager Brian Sabean has correctly recognized that in Bruce Bochy he employs one of the best tacticians in the game today. Sabean has maximized the value of this skill by handing Bochy a collection of misfit bullpen toys and saying “here, you figure this out.” On most nights Bochy does, but every once in a while he fails, as happened in the star-crossed six-pitcher 9th in Game 4. If you want to see what a bullpen meltdown looks like in graphic form, here it is. (Younger or more sensitive Giants fans are advised not to click on that link.)
My guess is that Bochy has had a few other bad bullpen nights, but most of those have happened when the East Coast was already asleep. When you happen to have a bad night nationwide, people may be a little too inclined to draw definitive conclusions. (I do not cut Buck Showalter this kind of slack. Bochy has a bunch of semi-interchangeable parts that present numerous non-obvious choices. Buck doesn’t.)
But back to our regularly scheduled program: the 2016 Giants were, by most measures, a better squad than the 2014 one. This is a roster that’s peaking, and perhaps fell victim to what will soon be a storied Cubs team, or (more prosaically) to the bad luck inherently possible in a short series. So the Giants can look forward to an extended run of playoff contention!
Or not. The Giants are heading in full sail toward the dragon-pocked part of the map. This an old team — the Giants have the sixth-oldest set of position players in the majors and the oldest pitching staff. They have just two regular players under 27, Madison Bumgarner (still just 26) and Joe Panik (25). To borrow a Casey Stengel line, in 15 years Bumgarner may be in the Hall of Fame. In 15 years, Joe Panik will be 40.
The Giants’ farm will provide little aid. Their system has just two MLB top-100 prospects, with the best being the positionless Christian Arroyo at #79 (though the excellent Bernie Pleskoff is less hostile to his defense than I am). Austin Slater isn’t in the top 100, but he raked at AAA at age 23 with good plate discipline, so he may be able to fill the outfield spot Angel Pagan is likely to vacate.
On the bright side, the contracts of Jake Peavy and Pagan expire this year, taking $26 million off the books. Romo and Santiago Casilla will be departing for broadcasting careers as well, taking $15 million more of liabilities with them. The Giants need one or two outfielders and starting pitching, but especially with respect to the latter, next year’s free-agent class would make a cow laugh. The 2018 list is a better one, but between now and both free-agent classes likely interposes a new collective bargaining agreement, so there’s enough fog to compel Sabean to operate his lights on low beam.
And the competition isn’t sitting still. Regardless of how the hated Los Angeles Dodgers fare in the NLCS, they are poised to compete for a while. The Rockies have an exciting core of young talent, even if casual Rox fans despair of the team at the moment. The Outlaw A.J. Preller merits a blog post all his own (say, there’s an idea!), and while the Padres seem to have a bit of transmission loss between talent and wins, some improvement there is possible as well, especially if Tyson Ross can make a successful return from thoracic outlet surgery. (What? You say there’s another team in the NL West? Hmm … I’ll research that and get back to you.)
So the Giants may be stalling or even slipping backward in a division where at least two of the teams are making progress. The Giants have a good but mostly older core which could use the kind of help that free agency and prospect trades are unlikely to provide in 2017. So 2016 may indeed be the last gasp of this once-in-a-while mighty franchise, at least for the moment. Sabean has pulled a whole warren of rabbits out of his hat during his long tenure, but in 2017 he’s going to have to dig deep.
Perhaps there will be a powerful goat looking for work …
It’s no secret that Jason Heyward is having an epic, epic bad season. Heyward is not just last in wRC+ for right fielders, but last by a wide margin. He has the seventh-worst ISO in all the land, worse than Billy Hamilton. Worse than Cesar Hernandez. Worse than Alexei Ramirez. Alexei Ramirez, for God’s sake. Finally acknowledging the soul-crushing reality, Cubs manager Joe Maddon benched Heyward last Friday.
This is historically bad power from a right fielder. In the wild-card era, Heyward’s ISO constitutes the 11th-worst power season for a right fielder. Of the ten other seasons, Ichiro! owns five of them, and Nick Markakis two more. So only four actual guys have managed a worse ISO in right than Heyward since 1994.
Heyward’s power has declined against all pitches, but not evenly. (I’m actually using ISO x 1000 to eliminate those pesky decimal points):
Pitch 2016 ISO Career ISO Diff
4-seamer 143 154 -11
2-seamer 087 177 -90
changeup 029 160 -131
slider 083 157 -74
curve 000 122 -122
In battling the 4-seamer, 2016 Heyward looks pretty much like the factory model. Against the other pitches, 2016 Heyward looks like Enzo Hernandez. Back in May, Jeff Sullivan wondered why Heyward was swinging disproportionately often at high pitches when historically he had been a better low-ball hitter. The above chart may provide an answer. Four-seamers tend to live upstairs, while the other pitches like to drink Milwaukee’s Best down in the basement den. Heyward may have made a rational adjustment, swinging more often at the pitch he can hit (or rather, pitches that look like the pitch he can hit) and less often at the others.
Even if accurate, this simply answers one riddle with another. What could have made a historically good low-ball hitter suddenly lose the lower half of the strike zone? And the power disappearance was indeed sudden. In 2015, Heyward actually hit with more power in the second half, though his ISO did drop off in September.
Heyward may have begun hearing the spine-tingling incidental music back in 2014. That year his power against lefties, seldom menacing, completely winked out.
Year ISO vs. L
This may have been foreshadowing, or not. There is no clear pitch-type pattern evident in Heyward’s disappearing power against lefties. He collapsed against all offerings, doing somewhat less badly only against the slider. Indeed, one of the main criticisms of his eight-year contract was that Heyward had become a platoon player.
In 2016 the platoon split has disappeared, but not in a good way. Heyward has actually hit lefties with more power than righties this year (.096 vs. .083). But let’s face it, for hitters, almost any number that begins with “.0” is a wrong number.
The most likely explanation is some form of injury. Heyward had wrist problems earlier this year, and wrist injuries notoriously sap power. But .088 is whole lotta sappage. When Derrek Lee hurt his wrist in 2006 his ISO plummeted to … .189. Certainly one can imagine any number of nagging injuries that slow bat speed or reduce plate coverage. But it seems peculiar that Heyward would struggle least against the pitch that is usually the most overpowering. Perhaps Heyward is selling out to get to the 4-seamer because the injury has slowed his bat enough that he simply has to get started early.
Another possibility, perhaps, is a vision problem, as very briefly suggested in the comments to Sullivan’s post in May. Perhaps Heyward is able to pick out the 4-seamer, but unable to differentiate reliably among the other pitches, thus approaching them all with punchless caution. A vision problem could also be causing Heyward to sell out as discussed above. In either case, selling out would seem to cut against Heyward’s grain as a (sometimes maddeningly) patient hitter.
There is nevertheless some evidence Heyward is trying to start the bat earlier, not because of ocular or muscular problems, but because of a complex, misaligned swing. There have been a number of stories concerning Heyward’s poor mechanics, but most of them were written this season, when the poor results became manifest. Outright criticism of his swing, at least in public, was relatively uncommon before this year.
But there were signs, perhaps (as signs are wont to be) obvious only in retrospect. In 2014, David Lee wrote an excellent piece scouting Heyward’s rapidly evolving stances — the pictures alone are worth a look. Two years earlier, Terence Moore wrote about Heyward’s swing coach praising Heyward for having Plans A, B, and C at the plate. Both of these pieces are hopeful, treating Heyward’s willingness to tinker as a sign of dedication — a player relentlessly seeking continuous improvement.
But relentlessness doesn’t solve every problem, and improvement is very rarely continuous. Hitters can be comically addicted to routine, fearing that the slightest change will plunge their careers into Oylerian Darkness. But there is some virtue to having a baseline from which to work. In music, it’s literally a bass line. In oral presentations, it’s a theme. In cooking, it’s a recipe. In none of these cases does the baseline translate directly into real results, but it provides critical direction so that the (or at least an) end result actually results.
It’s possible that Heyward has lost his anchor. He wouldn’t be the first player to do so. Roy Halladay famously had to reconstruct his pitching motion in the purgatory of Dunedin. But Halladay had become an arsonist, spraying the field with a 10.64 ERA. Until this year, Heyward hadn’t ever truly pancaked. It’s possible that Heyward is tinkering his career into oblivion. I’m not sure I buy this, but at this point there is even less evidence for the competing theories. A serious bone, muscle, or vision problem probably would have landed him on the DL.
Heyward may be treating his swing like jazz, but baseball is the blues. At least he plays in the right city to learn that lesson.