Archive for May, 2011

Similar Problems for Braves and Reds

Both the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves entered the season as contenders in their respective divisions, but both also began the year with similar concerns at third base. At this stage of their careers, Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen are incredibly similar players. While they still are capable of providing value to their teams when healthy, neither of them are exactly iron men anymore; both Jones and Rolen have bodies that are breaking down after long, illustrious careers in the big leagues. However, both teams decided to go into the year hoping that their aging stars at the hot corner would produce and be able to stay on the field, as neither team has much in the way of in-house alternatives.

Unsurprisingly, both players have already dealt with injuries this season. Rolen spent time on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder, while Jones is attempting to play through a small tear in his knee. Both teams knew the risks involved in employing such fragile players, but neither team seemed to have much of a backup plan if and when Jones and Rolen suffered injuries.

With the Reds and Braves expected to be battling for their division crowns all season long, that oversight could be the difference between making the playoffs and watching them from home.

Atlanta and Cincinnati must overcome some tough competition if they hope to win their respective divisions. The Braves, who currently trail the Philadelphia Phillies by 3.5 games, must find a way to beat one of the strongest pitching staffs in recent memory. The Reds, on the other hand, are in a three-way dogfight for the division with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers.

In both situations, one game could ultimately decide who takes home the division crown. In other words, the difference in value between Jones/Rolen and their potential replacements could be the deciding factor behind whether either team returns to the postseason.

The failure to act is even more incredulous considering both players were dealing with injuries at the conclusion of last season. Jones suffered a career-threatening ACL tear in August, while various injuries led to a poor second half for Rolen, in which he completely stopped hitting for power. Their injury history reads much deeper, of course, as neither player has played 150-plus games in a season since 2003.

While the free-agent class wasn’t particularly strong at third base, neither team even elected to test the waters. Cincinnati may have considered other options at the position, but ultimately settled on re-signing Miguel Cairo, who experienced a fluky rebirth in 2010. Atlanta chose to stand pat, hoping that Chipper would recover from his injury in time to contribute once the season started. If injuries struck again, both teams seemed comfortable sticking with their internal options at the position.

Unfortunately, this strategy may not work for either team. Cairo had a nice year filling in for Rolen last season, but he’s a career journeyman who benefited from good luck on balls in play. In 83 plate appearances this season, Cairo has gotten off to a strong start once again. He’ll be exposed if he’s asked to play every day, however, as his strong start has small sample size fluke written all over it.

Along with Cairo, the Reds have also used Paul Janish and Juan Francisco in Rolen’s absence. While Francisco has displayed power in his minor league career, he has virtually no plate discipline. If pressed into a starting role, major league pitchers would quickly expose Francisco as a free-swinging hacker; Janish’s bat barely plays at short, and profiles even worse at third. Moving Janish over to third also exposes Cincinnati’s lack of depth at other positions, as it forces Edgar Renteria into a full-time role as well.

While the Braves entered the season with a stronger backup plan, their situation is also far from ideal. Martin Prado can play third effectively if Chipper goes down with an injury, but Atlanta was initially counting on Prado to play left field this season. Brooks Conrad would be the next logical option to replace Jones, but pitchers could exploit Conrad’s high strikeout rate if he is pushed into a full-time role, and his high-profile defensive lapses have given the Braves fits.

Both teams are currently experiencing the dangers of relying on injury-prone players. While neither Jones nor Rolen is currently on the disabled list, it’s not encouraging that both players have already dealt with injuries this season. Based on their injury history, it’s more than likely their backups will be pushed into important roles as the season progresses. Due to the perception that few games will separate the division winners in the NL East and NL Central, the performance of those backups could play a major role in whether the Reds or Braves are playing in October.

Baseball’s Best Bench

Eleven years removed from his MVP season, well past his prime and near the end of his career, Jason Giambi doesn’t play much anymore. When the Rockies penciled him into the lineup Thursday, it marked just his second start in nearly a month.

But the 40-year-old slugger showed he had something left in the tank, blasting three homers and knocking in all seven of Colorado’s runs in a blowout win over the Phillies. In the process, Giambi accomplished a feat that’s becoming increasingly rare in baseball: providing a big contribution off the bench.

A generation ago, teams carried 10-man pitching staffs, allowing managers to deploy a litany of platoons and employ ace pinch hitters, while still saving room for speedy pinch runners and defensive replacements who could make big plays late in a game. Before Bobby Cox built a dynasty in Atlanta, he managed the first winning clubs in Blue Jays history, using his deep bench to field platoons at multiple positions. Meanwhile, professional pinch hitters such as Manny Mota and Wallace Johnson stayed employed, despite having little value other than their ability to bag a base hit late in a game.

Today, teams use 12-, even 13-man pitching staffs, leaving little room to collect a group of quality backups. For all the advantages managers gain by being able to play bullpen matchups, they’re giving a lot of that back by trotting out shallow benches.

Though it’s tough to peg one person for starting the trend of bloated bullpens and tiny benches, Tony LaRussa certainly helped get the movement going with the way he built his pen around Dennis Eckersley while managing the Oakland A’s in the late 1980s.

Baseball being a game of copycats, other teams started expanding the size of their bullpens, hoping to tap into that Oakland magic. The trend rapidly accelerated once pitch counts and more conservative usage of starting pitchers came into vogue. Today, a typical American League team carries just four bench players.

One of the best ways to handle this severe limitation is to build a versatile roster. The Tampa Bay Rays have Ben Zobrist, who doubles as one of the better hitters in the league and a multi-position threat, having played everywhere except pitcher and catcher in 2009, then skipping just pitcher, catcher and shortstop last season. Adding Sean Rodriguez (seven positions played last year) allows the Rays to platoon, pinch run and pinch hit as well as any club with just four bench guys possibly can. (Why the Rays have bothered with a seven-man ‘pen while their long relief man almost never pitches is another question, and a strike against their usually sharp manager Joe Maddon.)

Through the season’s first six weeks, however, the honor of baseball’s best bench goes to another team: LaRussa’s own St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps realizing what he’s wrought with his bullpen tinkering, LaRussa has long targeted the most versatile players to man his bench, shying away from the Matt Stairs types who can get you an occasional pinch-hit homer but little else.

Hole Cards
Owning baseball’s best bench is one of many reasons the St. Louis Cardinals sit in first place in the NL Central.

Jon Jay 89 .312/.398/.455
Allen Craig 80 .319/.400/.507
Nick Punto 77 .262/.355/.385
Gerald Laird 48 .214/.313/.381

This year’s club is no exception. The three bench players who’ve seen the most playing time — Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Nick Punto — have played four, three and three positions, respectively. All three have hit well, too (see table), so much so that Craig has seized the starting second-base job with Skip Schumaker on the disabled list. LaRussa’s penchant for flexing players at different spots doesn’t just extend to relative no-names either. To make room for other players, Albert Pujols has played two games at third base this year, the first time he’s handled that position in nine years. As much as Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman have supercharged the offense and Jaime Garcia, Kyle McLellan and Kyle Lohse have been revelations in the rotation, the Cardinals might not be in first place if not for the contributions of their reserves.

The contending team that might have the weakest bench is Philadelphia. Though the Phillies knew they had a major injury risk with Chase Utley, they failed to acquire quality backups, watching Wilson Valdez (.234 AVG/.261 OBP/.290 SLG, not far off his career numbers) and Pete Orr (.230/.299/.279, and ditto) struggle mightily in Utley’s place. Brian Schneider, 34, predictably flailed (.173/.218/.327) behind Carlos Ruiz at catcher before going on the DL. With Raul Ibanez looking close to the end and All-Star center fielder Shane Victorino on the DL, backup outfielder Ben Francisco’s performance (.216/.329/.360) has also been a letdown, though his career numbers are considerably better.

With a team heavy on star power but showing age or injuries or both at several positions, the Phillies could sorely use some bench reinforcements to hold off the upstart Marlins and Braves in the NL East. Given GM Ruben Amaro’s history of making in-season upgrades (including Stairs, Professional Hitter himself), we could well see that happen in the next few weeks.

Searching for the Real Matt Garza

Matt Garza is good. Very good. His stuff, as many a catcher will attest, is as filthy as a chimney sweep. Yet, despite this, he has produced the results of a merely above-average starter. This year, in-the-know Cubs fans have observed The Tale of Two Garzas — the story of a devastating strikeout pitcher who just can’t seem to keep the scoreboard clean.

What gives? Which is the real Matt Garza? The one who can make Albert Pujols look like Neifi Perez, or the one who watches opponents slap pitches for key double after key double? Well, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Garza is never hard to find in a dugout. Leaning on the railing, nervously spitting sunflower seeds, waiting for any reason to vault over the railing and scream a little, the Cubs third starting pitcher is always totally immersed in the game, whether he’s pitching or still four days away from taking the mound. But the Cubs didn’t trade a hefty slice of their farm system for a cheerleader — they wanted Garza win some games. Unfortunately for the Cubs, that hasn’t happened very often this year.

When the Cubs acquired Garza this offseason, they were getting a starter who had pitched nearly 200 innings for three straight seasons with an ERA under 4.00. So far in 2011, Garza has been decent, but not lights-out-go-to-bed-you’re-grounded, sporting a 3.72 ERA.

After his trade to the North Side, the common fear surrounded his stadium change. Despite his good ERA with the Tampa Bay Rays, Garza allowed more than the league average in homers in both 2009 and 2010 — despite playing in a park known to depress power numbers. Moving to Wrigley Field, where a windy day can transform a popup into a double and a Mohawk into a comb-over, Garza looked poised for some serious struggles.

Instead, he changed his approach and found a new form of success.

In 2010, Garza threw his four-seam fastball (the straight or rising fastball) about 60 percent of the time, essentially challenging hitters to do their worst. This approach, coupled with the Rays’ superior defense, made Garza relatively successful. However, without Evan Longoria snaring grounders like a demigod, the righty needed a more defensive-independent approach. So he replaced his extra four-seamers with a slew of bendy and wobbly pitches: more two-seamers (22 percent), sliders (21 percent), changeups (12 percent) and curves (11 percent).

Garza has gone from a fastball-obsessed flamethrower to a crafty right-hander, who happens to sport a flammable fastball. The result has been a significant uptick in swinging strikes (7.5 percent in 2010 to 11.1 percent in 2011). Only his curveball seems to have lost some whiffs, but nearly every other pitch has induced many more frustrated batters; his changeup alone went from 33 percent whiffs to more than 54 percent.

His ERA (3.72) is nearly his career best; his strikeouts per nine innings (10.99) are way up from his career norm (7.36); and despite the extra K’s, his walks per nine (3.23) are near his career norm (3.18). Everything but the ERA screams, “Elite!”

In the National League, Garza gets to face pitchers and pinch hitters — essentially giving an extra one or two strikeouts every game over his former league — but still, no one anticipated that Garza would (1) change his approach and (2) become a strikeout machine because of it.

Fielding independent pitching (FIP), a statistic which combines strikeouts, walks, homers and hit-by-pitches to predict ERA, suggests Garza has actually been playing at a sub-2.00 ERA level. Through his first nine starts, Garza has mustered a 1.82 FIP, good for second in the majors behind Roy Halladay.

So is Garza on the road to Cy Young consideration? Well, no. Not really.

One of the reasons Garza’s FIP is so low is the same reason his ERA is so high: BABIP. Garza’s batting average on balls in play is extraordinarily high this year. Coming into his 10th start, Garza brings with him the highest BABIP of his career (.362). For pitchers, balls in play tend to go for only about a .300 average. When they fluctuate from that number, it oftentimes means the pitcher is rather lucky or unlucky.

Garza’s high BABIP, which is about 60 points higher than his career norm, has not only allowed extra runs to score (increasing his ERA), but has also helped depress his FIP. Like the dandelion, which chokes out the grass but offers its own little flower, Garza’s high and unlucky BABIP has led to more strikeouts. As noted before, Garza’s K’s are way up (about 55 percent up per inning). However, if we look at his strikeouts per batter faced, he has only gone from 19 percent (in 2008 through 2010) to 28 percent — up only 9 percent, not 55 percent.

On top of that, Garza has allowed only one home run this year, after allowing 28 in 2010 and 25 in 2009. Though his new pitch selection approach may certainly play a role, he still appears to have Lady Luck’s favor. Only 2.4 percent of Garza’s fly balls have gone deep this year, despite allowing around 10 percent the last two years. One must expect, especially given his home stadium, that he will return to his career norm.

So altogether, the Cubs have one tough pitcher to predict: He’s changed his approach significantly and seems to have increased his strikeouts; he’s pitched better than his record (2-4) implies and maybe even better than his ERA suggests; but he’s also pitched worse than his stellar K/9 and FIP report.

Which Garza will the Cubs get moving forward? Probably one similar to what we saw from 2008 through 2010, but over the next few years, Garza will likely continue to mature into one of the league’s better right-handers, improving to a 3.25-3.50 ERA pitcher over the coming years. For now, though, his new approach will likely only improve his play marginally, taking him from a 4.00 ERA pitcher to a 3.80 ERA pitcher.

In the meantime, he’ll at least be one hell of cheerleader.