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Don’t Worry About Joe Panik

The 2016 season was a frustrating one for the promising 26-year-old San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik. After posting 4.1 fWAR in only 100 games in 2015, Panik posted 2.1 fWAR in 127 games in 2016. A solid season, especially in limited playing time, but there was definitely more to be desired for Panik. This would most likely be a career year for someone like his fellow infield mate Kelby Tomlinson, but Panik is capable of much more than this. Taking a few looks at Panik’s number line and Statcast profile shows that he is an excellent candidate for a bounce-back 2017 season.

At first glance, I don’t think Joe Panik’s 2015 season was as appreciated as it should have been. He didn’t even qualify for the batting title (432 PAs) and yet finished 38th among position players in fWAR. He was the 27th-best hitter according to wRC+ among those with over 300 PAs. Keep in mind that 2015 was Panik’s first full season in the major leagues and he is one of the best, if not THE best, fielding second basemen in the league. It seems like Panik has been around forever after his postseason heroics on the 2014 Giants squad, but it is easy to forget he got his first start of his career in late June of 2014. A 6-fWAR pace in his first full season in the big leagues in nothing to scoff at.

Unfortunately, injuries are what has held him back early in his career. Lower-back inflammation limited his playing time in 2015 and a nasty concussion and groin issues plagued him throughout the 2016 season. Some wonder whether those back issues carried over into the 2016 season. Even if they didn’t, suffering a concussion is enough to warrant that Panik was nowhere close to 100% in 2016.

Even without taking account for the injuries, there are reasons to believe 2017 is going to be different. Panik’s elite plate discipline is what is going to keep him at least mildly successful for years to come. He was one of three players to have a BB/K ratio over 1, sandwiched between plate discipline aficionados Ben Zobrist and Carlos Santana. Yes, he was ahead of even the likes of his teammate Buster Posey and Joey Votto. He doesn’t walk much, but he keeps the strikeouts down. Both rates were right around 9%. That leaves room for an incredible amount of balls in play.

Panik has run a decently high BABIP throughout his professional career. For his minor-league career it stayed mostly around .320-.330. In his 73 major-league games in 2014 it was .343. And in 2015 it was .330. All numbers that would indicate he is a line-drive-type hitter who run a better-than-average BABIP. But something changed in 2016. His BABIP fell to .245, second-worst among qualified hitters. Low BABIPs are reserved for power hitters such as Jose Bautista and Todd Frazier who don’t rely on balls in play but rather balls over the fence, not for contact hitters such as Joe Panik. A BABIP that low is concerning but there are of course explanations.

Joe Panik would not have made it this far if he were always running a BABIP as low as he did in 2016. Panik was one of the most unlucky hitters in 2016. There is no way Panik can be expected to run a BABIP as low as he did, and I would even venture to guess that it creeps up back over .300. His Statcast numbers suggest he was hitting the ball about as hard in 2015. The real difference is the angle at which he was hitting the ball. Panik traded line drives for many more ground balls in 2016. Bad luck and a change in launch angle combined contributed to the down season from Joe Panik.

My guess is that a weird injury-plagued season is what led to his disappointing 2016 campaign. There is too much evidence in Panik’s history that suggests 2016 is not the real Joe Panik, and we can expect a return to being the elite contact hitter he is capable of being in 2017.

The Cardinals’ Potential Diamond in the Huff

Last month, the St. Louis Cardinals made one of their signature under-the-radar moves that has characterized their organization in the 21st century. They signed 31-year-old outfielder/first baseman Chad Huffman to a minor-league contract. Huffman played for the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in Toledo in 2016. He was the best hitter in the International League and it wasn’t particularly close. He was tops in the league in OPS and wRC+, and led the league in wRAA by almost 10 runs. However you look at it, he dominated. It’s hard to figure out why Huffman didn’t get any kind of shot at the big leagues in 2016.

A former second-round pick by the San Diego Padres way back in 2006, Huffman was actually quite successful in his first go-round through the minor-league system. He was the Padres’ sixth-ranked prospect after the 2006 season and remained in their top 25 throughout his tenure there. His solid plate-discipline skills and non-sexy but decent power numbers most likely held him back from being ranked in the top 20 where he belonged. Huffman looked like he was on his way to getting a real shot in the big leagues.

His career took a turn in April of 2010 when the New York Yankees claimed him off waivers. His numbers in Triple-A took a step backwards and when he finally did get his shot in the major leagues, he failed to take advantage of it. His 2010 with the Yankees was his one and only time in the majors. He spent time in Triple-A with the Indians in 2011-12 and with the Cardinals in 2013, posting numbers very similar to his early minor-league days. Once again, it seems as though Huffman was deserving of some kind of shot in these years. He posted an OBP over .350 in each season and never had a wRC+ under 112. Somehow, a real shot continued to evade him.

Rather than rot away in Triple-A, Huffman took off for Caracas, and then Japan a year later. He actually posted worse numbers overseas, but something must have changed outside of the States because he came back an even better hitter than before. Most recently, 2016 was a career year for Huffman, if one is allowed to call a year in Triple-A a career year. If he were not blocked by the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, and Justin Upton, he would’ve been on the Detroit Tigers roster at some point. It is hard to imagine any other team Huffman wouldn’t have seen the light of day on. Up to this point, it seems as though the 31-year-old has been incredibly unlucky. So 2017 might be the year he gets his chance to shine in his second stint in the Cardinals organization.

As of right now, Mr. Huffman is on the Cardinals 40-man roster. With the subtractions over the last two offseasons of Matt Holliday and Jason Heyward, the Cardinals are in need of a new fourth outfielder and maybe even a starter depending on their confidence in Tommy Pham. Matt Carpenter is penciled in as the starting first baseman but there is no doubt he won’t be spending all his time there, being the third baseman by trade that he is. In that case, Matt Adams would become the starting first baseman, leaving them in need of a backup. Barring more offseason additions to the roster, it seems as though Huffman has a clear shot at a roster spot. Once you start taking into account how injury-prone the likes of Carpenter, Adams, and Pham are, and taking into account any other injuries that may play out, Huffman must be feeling pretty good about the situation he finds himself in.

What other organization would a no-name minor leaguer rather find himself in? the Cardinals have built one of the most successful professional sports organizations of the 21st century on guys like Huffman. Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, Jeremy Hazelbaker — the Cardinals churn these types of players out like no other. Chad Huffman is the next name in the long line of St. Louis Cardinals who came out of nowhere.

Oakland A’s Give Cesar Valdez a Shot

On November 19, the Oakland A’s signed Cesar Valdez to a minor-league contract. His last appearance in the major leagues was way back in 2010 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Almost seven years ago. Since then, Valdez has been jumping from organization to organization, toiling as a journeyman reliever/starter in Triple-A. Not even a tweet by the organization is needed for these types of transactions. Just a normal organizational move. But this is not just any organizational move. A closer look at Valdez’ player page shows there is much more going on here than just adding organizational depth.

It needs to be noted that Valdez is already heading into his age-32 season. Whatever value the A’s pull out of him needs to be extracted quickly because father time is right on his tail. The A’s don’t expect him to be a long-term asset. They probably don’t really even expect him to make it the big leagues. His high-level numbers over the last two years suggest he should be a major-leaguer again.

In 2016, Valdez posted a 3.24 FIP in the offense-happy Pacific Coast League playing for the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate, good for third-best in the league. One could look at this and say ‘okay, so what, he had a good 140 innings in the minor leagues.’ What jumps out of the page is how Valdez was even better pitching in the Mexican League in 2015, another offense-happy environment. He led the league in FIP and it really was not even close. He had the second highest K/9 and on top of it all he led the league in innings. He absolutely dominated the Mexican League and followed that up with another showing of dominance in the PCL.

Valdez’ walks per nine fell from 1.57 in 2015 to 0.85 in 2016. That was the lowest BB/9 in the PCL by almost one whole walk. There was reason to doubt Valdez following his 2015 season. It was dominant, but it also could be seen as fluky. He posted an outstanding 9.02/1.57/0.50 line. One could ask how he gave up so few home runs, and maybe that walk rate was bound to shoot up against stiffer competition. Valdez earns credibility with his 2016 campaign. His strikeout rate dipped a bit, although it was still strong, but his walk rate almost halved and he kept that outstanding home-run rate. He sustained most of his gains even against more advanced competition.

Remember the name Cesar Valdez. He will be up at some point with the Oakland A’s. There is no way to predict outcomes such as Corey Kluber and Junior Guerra but Mr. Valdez is as good a bet as any to follow in their footsteps.

Wait, Who Got an MVP Vote?

In the spirit of awards season, I decided to take a look at the BBWAA decisions of the past couple decades and, my goodness, I could not believe my eyes when seeing some of the down-ballot vote-getters. Middle relievers, players who didn’t even play long enough to make it out of arbitration, below-average corner outfielders, you name it. I could not help but put some of these names in writing to maybe strike a little nostalgia into some curious baseball fans.

Brad Hawpe, Colorado Rockies, 2007, 2009

Mr. Hawpe shows up on a ballot in TWO different years. I haven’t heard this name since 2012. Hawpe last played for the Angels in 2013 and posted a .185 slugging percentage in 32 plate appearances. He never received another contract. His two ‘MVP caliber’ years were eerily similar. Hawpe is the prototypical product of Coors Field. Although he didn’t have too different of numbers outside of Coors Field as a Rockie, he completely tanked once he got out of their organization. If you are from some other planet and don’t believe that Coors Field has any benefit for the hitter, then Hawpe’s offensive numbers were outstanding. He posted an on-base percentage above .380 in both years and hit over 20 home runs in both as well. He did all of that while still maintaining a solid batting average. The problem with Hawpe, and most likely a huge reason why he didn’t get more chances in the majors, was how god-awful his defense was. Sandwiched between his 2007 and 2009 seasons, he posted the worst defensive season in the league according to fWAR. If he would have been merely a below-average corner outfielder, or even first baseman, there is a chance Hawpe could’ve resurrected his career and maybe would still be playing today.

Scott Eyre, San Francisco Giants, 2005

Growing up a Giants fan, this name is familiar to me. Yet 99% of other baseball fans might need to do some thinking before they can figure out who he was, let alone realize that he actually received an MVP vote once. In 2005, Scott Eyre became the first-ever relief pitcher to receive an MVP vote without recording a save. He was outstanding. He posted a 2.63 ERA in 63.1 innings, appearing in 86 games. Now, 2.63 may not be too sexy for a middle relief pitcher nowadays, but 2005 was still feeling the effects of the steroid era. It is hard to believe a middle relief pitcher playing on the 2005 Giants got enough attention to receive a vote. The only thing bringing any attention to those 2005-2007 Giants teams were the controversies surrounding Barry Bonds. Trust me, I lived through it. Sadly, this was by far Eyre’s best year in the majors. He posted a couple semi-solid years before and after his 2005 season, but was all but out of the league by his 37th birthday.

Nate McLouth, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2008

Probably the most recognizable name on this list, Nate McLouth. McLouth had a weird career. He posted a couple stand-out season with the Pirates, toiled with an almost career-ending stint with the Braves, had a a solid comeback season with the Orioles in 2013, then was out of the league after the 2014 season. That 2008 season, though. If it weren’t for his almost-terrible defense he would’ve received several top-five votes. He went 26-23, had over 200 combined runs and RBIs, had a .356 OBP, and was one of the best baserunners in the league. It would’ve helped if he played for a better team too. Mr. McLouth is one of the few on this list I’d argue deserved a few more votes than he actually got.

Antonio Alfonseca, Florida Marlins, 2000

I’ll admit I had to look this one up. Alfonseca received one tenth-place vote way back when in 2000. If he had the same stat line in 2016, he might have a hard time keeping a job, but 2000 was a different time. He posted a 4.24 ERA in 70 innings, which was right in line with his 4.16 FIP. He only struck out six per nine but he tallied a whopping 45 saves, which I assume was the kicker for him nabbing that tenth-place vote. Alfonseca, surprisingly, was a perfectly viable middle reliever throughout the steroid era. Oddly enough, his 2000 season was probably his third or fourth-best season. Although he never came close to topping his 45-save number. Long gone are the days of average closing pitchers with high save totals receiving MVP votes.

Travis Fryman, Cleveland Indians, 2000

How I have never heard about this guy before this exercise is beyond me. He had a great career! Over 30 career WAR. Sadly for Travis he played through the steroid era and his skillset was completely overlooked, or else he may have seen a few more MVP votes. A slick-fielding third baseman with a solid walk rate was underappreciated in the years before Moneyball and modern defensive metrics. I’d describe Fryman as the very poor man’s Adrian Beltre. His 200o season was very Beltre-esque. He hit 22 bombs while sporting a .321 BA and a .392 OBP with solid defensive numbers, a type of season that gets overlooked when you think about the absurd numbers being put up around the league around the turn of the millennium. Unfortunately for Mr. Fryman, he was born 20 years too early, or else he would be heralded as one of the top three-baggers in the league and would’ve been in for one or two hefty paydays.

Bob Wickman, Cleveland Indians, 2005

Don’t get me wrong, while big Bobby Wickman is an easy player to overlook, he had an outstanding career. He recorded 13.7 WAR over his 15-year career, outstanding for a relief pitcher. He notched a career-high 45 saves in his 2005 season. What is so unbelievable about that particular season was that it was by far his worst season of his career. He was worth -0.3 WAR. And yet he received an MVP vote. You can make an argument he has had two or three different seasons where he warranted an MVP vote! But he never had the gaudy save total that he did in 2005. That along with the Indians’ solid 93-win season and Wickman takes some of the credit despite being worse than their best AAA pitcher. Maybe this was some kind of career achievement award for an underappreciated closing pitcher.

Who’s going to be 2016’s Antonio Alfonseca? My guess is Wilson Ramos, but that might be cheating with his season-ending injury already in the books. All in all, it is pretty amazing the types of names you can come up with just by looking at the historical results of baseball’s most prestigious award.

Ervin Santana’s Sneaky Good Career

As of right now there are only eight active pitchers with at least 150 major-league wins on their resume: CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, John Lackey, Justin Verlander, Zack Grienke, Felix Hernandez, Jake Peavy, and Jered Weaver. Unsurprisingly, Jon Lester is only four wins away from joining the group. Cole Hamels is 14 off the mark. With a little bit of run support from the Minnesota Twins’ juggernaut of an offense, Ervin Santana can also join this exclusive group in 2017. Without a little research, it would’ve taken me at least a couple dozen guesses before I arrived on Mr. Santana as a candidate to join this group. He has flown under the radar for years now and it is about time he got his due credit as a solidly above-average major-league starting pitcher.

The problem with Santana is when he’s bad, he’s extremely bad. His disastrous seasons in 2007, 2009, and 2012 left us wondering when his next implosion would arrive. With those seasons well in the rear-view mirror, we can look at them as anomalies rather than Ervin’s reality. His 2012 in particular looks like a result of huge misfortune. His HR/FB shot up to 18.9%, 6.1% higher than any other season of his. As a result, his HR/9 approached 2. While Ervin has always been semi-homer prone, it is safe to say that a season like his 2012 was either a fluke or could be attributed to some kind of injury.

Early in his career, what plagued him was his low GB% and high walk rate. Slowly, as his career has progressed, he has become much more of a groundball pitcher and gotten control over his ballooning walk rate. His groundball rate has been above 40% every year since 2011 and his walk rate has been around or below three walks per nine every year since 2007, something that could not be said for his first three years in the league.

He is at 25.3 fWAR for his career, which is good for 19th among active pitchers, hovering around names with a much more successful connotation such as Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. It is easy to look past Santana and more towards guys such as Jimenez and Kazmir because the latter have done it with much more flash. Santana’s only standout season was way back in 2008, and since then he has only posted one season above 3.0 fWAR, his 2016 season. In other words, Santana has done it with under-the-radar consistency a la Bartolo Colon.

In the hypothetical world where there exists a Hall Of Solidly Good, Ervin Santana would be a first-ballot Hall-Of-Gooder. What strikes me is how different the baseball world seems to view him from what the numbers say about him.

The Brewers Will Steal More Bases than Anyone In 20 Years

Checking out the Brewers’ team dashboard from 2016, and — HOLY HELL THEY STOLE A TON OF BASES. That’s 181, to be exact. Forty-two more than anyone else in the league. The seventh-most since 1996. The craziest thing about the Brew-Crew’s stolen-base total is that they didn’t even steal as many as they could. A huge chunk of the stolen bases came from break-out star Jonathan Villar, but an even bigger chunk came from three young up-and-comers in Hernan Perez, Orlando Arcia, and Keon Broxton. These three combined for fewer than 1000 plate appearances and all are expected to be starters at the outset of the 2017 season. The Milwaukee Brewers are going to challenge the 1996 Rockies’ number of 201 stolen bases for most team stolen bases in two decades.

Sensationalist title aside, it will take a little luck for the Brewers to break the 201 mark. Jonathan Villar alone will have a hard time repeating his 62-steal output, but right now I’m going to figure out just how the Brewers can make this work.

Firstly, they’re going to need health. Have a catastrophic injury to Villar and their chances of breaking the record go out the window. Same can pretty much be said about Broxton or Perez. Injuries are never fun so I’m going to put them aside just for this exercise in the name of entertainment. In a miracle by the Brewers training staff, all of their speedsters have a clean bill of health on the season and with that play in 150+ games. Same goes for solid stolen-base contributors in Ryan Braun and Scooter Gennett.

Jonathan Villar’s 2016 turns out not to be a fluke. He comes slightly back down to earth and steals only 50 bases in 2017, mostly attributed to his lower batting average/on-base percentage. Boom. Just like there we’re a quarter of the way there. As you can see, there’s no making it past 201 without Villar. In reality, I’d be pretty confident in betting the over of 50 steals for Villar.

Next is Hernan Perez. It’d be easy to extrapolate and and say in a full season, Perez would surpass 50 steals. The problem is it is hard to believe Perez will repeat his 2016 success. If Perez manages to stay in the lineup all season, he could easily make it past 40 steals, with 50 not out of the picture. Let’s play it safe and pencil Perez in for 40 steals. Okay, we made it to 90 after just two players.

Here’s where we can have a little fun. Brewers top prospect Keon Broxton is a strikeout machine. Even with those strikeouts, he made a big splash in his rookie 2016 season, hitting nine homers, stealing 23 bases, and sporting a .354 OBP in 254 plate appearances. Although Broxton has always been a big strikeout guy, there is reason to believe he might see some improvement. His K% of over 36% is bound to fall at least a few points. Age is also on his side. With a hypothetical decrease in whiffs, we can expect an increase in his already steady on-base percentage. I’m going out on a limb and predicting 50 steals for Broxton in a breakout sophomore campaign. That’s 140. A ton needs to go perfect for the team from Wisconsin but there is at least reason to believe these players can get 140 steals between the three of them.

The speed does not stop there. The Brewers’ top prospect, Orlando Arcia, stole 23 bases combined in Triple-A and the major leagues last year, his debut season. In Double-A in 2015, he stole 25 in 129 games. The young shortstop is expected to begin the season as Milwaukee’s starter. He should easily surpass the 20-steal mark assuming he holds onto the full-time job. With the running environment afforded to him in Milwaukee, I’d expect at least 25, with room for more. Twenty-five steals would have been the most on 19 different teams in 2016. Twenty-five might be the fourth-most on the 2017 Brewers alone.

From this point on the Brewers need to steal fewer than 40 bases to surpass the 201 mark. You don’t have to look far for those steals. Ryan Braun is getting older but he still stole 16 bases last year, and 24 in 2015. Scooter Gennett stole eight bases last year and reached double-digit stolen bases three times in his minor-league career. Kirk Niewenhuis stole eight bases in fewer than 400 plate appearances last year. Domino Santana is expected to see a full year of playing time barring injury, and has breached the double-digit mark in stolen bases in his minor-league career. And then there’s the occasional catcher steal or maybe even a steal from a pitcher or two. This is also not including any off-season deals the Brewers might pull off.

Adding all of this together, somehow it is even easier to see the Brewers blowing past the 1996 Rockies’ mark of 201 steals. Of course, with predictions like this a lot of things have to go right. They are largely dependent on a few speedsters, they have to avoid injuries, and the players still have to perform well enough to even have a chance to steal their bases. All in all, the 2017 Brewers have as much, if not more, of a shot of passing the 201 mark than anyone in the last 20 years.

Don’t Tread On Dyson

Browsing through the unqualified FanGraphs WAR leaders for 2016, one may come across what seems like an anomaly at No. 69. Just ahead of certified breakout stars such as Jonathan Villar and Trevor Story, grizzled veterans such as Asdrubal Cabrera and Troy Tulowitzki, and an All-Star catcher in Yasmani Grandal, sits Royals back-up outfielder Jarrod Dyson, at 3.1 fWAR in just 337 plate appearances. If a well-educated-baseball individual were asked to name this mystery outfielder who placed just above these solidly above-average everyday players, Jarrod Dyson wouldn’t be one of the first 30 outfielders most would name. How did Dyson make it so far up this list? And what is he doing rotting on the bench behind the likes of Paulo Orlando, or even the corpses of Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain for that matter?

Jarrod Dyson ended up being the most valuable Royal this year. Even more valuable than Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez, despite having the ninth-most plate appearances on the team. So what’s the problem? The problem is Dyson’s profile is far from sexy. He owns a career .325 OBP and only seven home runs in over 1500 plate appearances. His wRC+ is below average for an American League outfielder at 86. Where Dyson extracts his value is in his defense and baserunning, two ways of evaluating a player that are still slow to catch on.

Since Dyson starting seeing semi-regular playing time in 2012, he ranks fourth in FanGraphs BsR behind Mike Trout, Billy Hamilton, and Rajai Davis, all of whom had more plate appearances than Dyson. If stolen bases are your cup of tea, Dyson ranks sixth since 2012, behind five guys who all had more plate appearances. The numbers are there to show how great of a baserunner Dyson is; the problem is getting front offices to realize just how valuable baserunning can be, especially when it comes to a player like Dyson who owns a decent, but not great career OBP.

It doesn’t stop at Mr. Dyson’s baserunning. If the Royals don’t use him as a pinch-runner off the bench, he is used as a defensive replacement. Obviously the Royals think highly of Dyson’s defense, and the numbers agree. Of the outfielders with at least 1000 innings, Dyson ranks fourth since 2012 in FanGraphs’ UZR/150. Even in limited playing time, competing against some who have played twice as many innings, Jarrod ranks 15th in FanGraphs’ defensive value. Jason Heyward, the man who just signed an eight-year, $184-million contract last offseason, is the only other player who ranks in the top 15 in both baserunning and outfield defense according to FanGraphs. What’s perplexing about this is that it’s not as if Heyward is a slugger on top of his outstanding defense and baserunning; he would only be considered a slightly above-average hitter by most measurements. So why isn’t Dyson considered in the same vein as Heyward? Sure, Jason Heyward, former first-round pick and All-Star, has more of a track record, but Jarrod Dyson should at least have been given a chance to start by this point.

Jarrod Dyson shows there is still progress to be made on the analytics front. The inexplicable handling of Dyson can be attributed to a mistrust in advanced statistics. If we are going to consider Mike Trout to be the best player in baseball based on metrics such as WAR, then players such as Dyson need to be given the same consideration. What separates Mike Trout from David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, and Josh Donaldson is what makes Jarrod Dyson at least an above-average starting outfielder, if given the chance.