Archive for November, 2012

The Next Bert Blyleven

Bert Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame because he was a great pitcher who belongs in Cooperstown, but also because he was the poster-child for the analytically inclined baseball community for the better part of a decade. Led by a blogger named Rich Lederer, Blyleven’s supporters inundated writers with articles and stories supporting Blyleveln’s election, and on his 14th chance, he finally crossed the 75% mark needed for enshrinement.

With Blyleven in, now the groundswell of support is rising behind Tim Raines, an underappreciated star of his era whose willingness to draw a walk has kept him out of the Hall because he didn’t get to 3,000 hits. Raines’ skillset has always been undervalued, and even to this day, players who do what Raines did don’t get as much credit for their performances as bulky sluggers who drive in runs. The recent AL MVP race made it clear that many still prefer the RBI guy to the table setter.

So, given what we know about what types of players make it into the Hall of Fame, here are four active players who are on track to earn a place in Cooperstown one day, but who have flown under the radar during their careers and will probably require a long lobbying effort to get them elected once their careers are over.

Adrian Beltre

Third baseman are woefully underrepresented as a group in the Hall, and Brooks Robinson is basically the only third baseman who got inducted based on his defense. While elite defenders at other positions have been recognized, the great defensive third baseman has never gotten much recognition. Unless voters have an epiphany about the value of defense at the hot corner, Beltre’s going to be fighting an uphill battle. His career .280/.331/.476 line translates into a 111 wRC+, meaning he’s been 11 percent better than an average hitter based on the league norms and his home ballparks during his career. For comparison, that puts him in a tie with Graig Nettles, who never received more than 8.3% of the vote and fell off the ballot after just four years. Beltre’s offensive resume is simply not at the level of other Hall of Fame third baseman.

But, anyone who has watched Beltre play for any length of time realizes that there’s a lot more to his game than what he does in the batter’s box. He’s an amazing defender at third base, and has played Gold Glove defense at the position for nearly 18,000 innings. For his career, Ultimate Zone Rating estimates that he’s saved 147 runs more than an average defensive third baseman. When you combine that level of defensive greatness with an above average bat, you get a pretty terrific player. When Beltre hits like he has in recent years, he’s one of the best players in the sport.

His career inconsistencies and the fact that so much of his value is tied up in his defense will hurt him, but he’s already accumulated +62.5 WAR through age 33. Even if he’s just an average player for the next four years, he’ll crack the +70 WAR barrier, and an overwhelming majority of the players with +70 or more WAR have a plaque in Cooperstown. As long as he doesn’t fall off a cliff in the next few years, Beltre will deserve one too.

Matt Holliday

The case for Holliday is essentially the exact opposite as the case for Beltre. Instead of being about defense and longevity, Holliday’s case is about recognizing a premium hitter who has had one of the best seven year runs in baseball history. Since 2006, Holliday has posted a wRC+ of 138 or higher in every single season, and his 145 cumulative wRC+ over that span ranks as the sixth highest mark in baseball during that stretch — the only guys ahead of him are Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, and Manny Ramirez.

Unfortunately for Holliday, his offense comes from hitting for a high average and racking up a lot of doubles, so he doesn’t have the sexy home run totals that voters tend to look for in a guy who is up for election based on his offensive production. He’s only hit 30 home runs in a season on two occasions, and both of those years came in Colorado. With just 229 career home runs, Holliday’s not going to get close to any of the big slugger milestones, but looking at his overall value as a hitter, his ability to win games becomes clearer.

Holliday has been a beast of a hitter for the better part of the last decade, and yet, he’s continually flown under the radar. He’s only finished in the top 10 in MVP voting once — back in 2007, when he finished second. It’s probably too late for him to run off a series of multiple monster seasons to get the voters attention, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down in recent years, and a few more seasons at his established level should be enough to get him serious Hall of Fame consideration. Because he got a later start on his career, he’s going to need to age gracefully to have a strong case, but Holliday’s already had a Hall of Famer’s peak. Now he just needs to stick around long enough to add enough counting stats so people to remember how good he actually was.

Matt Cain

The perfect game and postseason track record have helped put Cain on the map, but in many of the milestone categories that voters tend to look at, he comes up short. He’s never finished in the top 5 in Cy Young voting. He’s only made three All-Star teams. And, perhaps most problematic, he has a career record of just 85-78. Even if he stays healthy and continues to pitch well, averaging 15 wins per year for the next decade, he’s still going to finish with fewer than 250 wins, and the voting electorate continues to hang on to pitcher wins as a useful measure of pitcher value. And yet, Cain’s career ERA- of 80 — meaning he’s prevented runs at 20 percent better than league average — puts him in a tie with CC Sabathia and ahead of Hall of Famers like Juan Marichal and Bob Feller. If Cain keeps pitching the way he has thus far, he’ll deserve a spot in Cooperstown, but he’ll need voters to abandon pitcher wins in order to see his true value.

Jose Reyes

If Reyes falls short of 3,000 hits — he has 1,484, and turns 30 next summer, so it will depend almost entirely on how well his hamstrings hold up — he may still be a deserving inductee, but singles hitters who don’t reach that milestone have traditionally not done particularly well in the voting. However, Reyes is a singles hitting shortstop who has already had four elite seasons, and if he ages like Kenny Lofton, he could remain a productive player for the next decade and add enough longevity to build a solid Hall of Fame case. If he keeps hitting into his mid-to-late 30s, his career will start to resemble Alan Trammell’s – another undervalued shortstop who the analytical community is agitating for.

The Next Angel Pagan

During the off-season, free agents get most of the attention. They’re the ones that we know are available, and if they’ve made it this far into the winter without re-signing with their old teams, they’re the ones probably looking for a change of address. However, free agents aren’t the only players that teams can acquire without giving up talent in order to get them.

Every year, there are a group of players who change teams because their prior organization didn’t want to give them the raise they were due in arbitration. They’re usually coming off poor seasons but are due significant raises anyway, as arbitration rewards players heavily for amount of playing time, even if they didn’t earn that playing time on the field. Last year, the poster boy for this situation was Angel Pagan, whom the Mets sent to San Francisco in exchange for Andres Torres in a change-of-scenery trade. Pagan was brutal in 2011 and was set to earn nearly $5 million in arbitration, so the Mets shipped him west rather than pay for the hope he would bounce back. He did bounce back, of course, and the Giants found themselves quality center fielder at a marginal cost.

Which players have the chance of being 2013’s Angel Pagan? Here are three candidates.

Rick Porcello, RHP, Detroit Tigers

Because the Tigers broke Porcello into the big leagues before he was legally allowed to drink, it’s easy to forget that this four year veteran doesn’t turn 24 until two days after Christmas. He’s never lived up to the notoriety he got as a prospect, but slowly but surely, Porcello’s markers have been trending in the right direction. He set career highs in both strikeout rate and ground ball rate in 2012, but even more encouragingly, his velocity jumped nearly two miles-per-hour, and he was regularly topping out at 95 for the first time as a Major Leaguer. The improvement was masked by mediocre results, but those were primarily caused by a .344 batting average on balls in play, and considering how dreadful the Tigers defense was, that’s a number that is unlikely to be repeated with any other set of teammates.

Because he qualified for “Super Two” status, he’s already on his second trip through arbitration, and he’ll get a raise from the $3.1 million he made last year, probably landing somewhere close to $5 million for the upcoming season. The Tigers have already publicly stated that they’re trying to re-sign Anibal Sanchez, and they’d have Drew Smyly to fill the #5 spot in the rotation if they retain Sanchez or replace him with another veteran hurler. By moving Porcello and his $5 million pricetag, they could free up some money to throw at Sanchez, and give Porcello a second chance in front of a defense that is a little more supportive of pitch-to-contact strike-throwers. Without a legitimate out-pitch, he’s unlikely to develop into an ace, but Porcello’s got a chance to settle in as a quality mid-rotation starter, especially if his velocity keeps trending upwards.

Drew Stubbs, CF, Cincinnati Reds

As a first time arbitration eligible player, Stubbs isn’t likely to be available because the Reds can’t afford to give him the $3 million or so he’ll likely be awarded. Instead, he’s likely to be available because the Reds simply want a better center fielder. He still strikes out far too often for a guy without big time power, and his .277 on base percentage last year has the Reds looking for a new leadoff hitter. However, Stubbs is a quality defensive center fielder and his core stats — walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power — were all basically identical to his 2011 marks, when Stubbs was a productive player for the Reds.

If he bounces back even a little bit offensively, he could be a league average player, and at 28-years-old, he still has a bit of upside left. While there are a lot of free agent center fielders available, a team looking for a lower cost option could do a lot worse than Stubbs, who offers enough power, speed, and defense to be useful for any team that can get past his problems making contact. The strikeouts aren’t going away, but a flawed player is not a useless player, and getting Stubbs out of Cincinnati might just be the second chance he needs.

Ryan Roberts, 3B, Tampa Bay

Roberts fell out of favor in Arizona quickly after a breakthrough 2011 season, and with Evan Longoria hobbled, the Rays picked Roberts up to help provide infield depth for the stretch run. For most teams, keeping a $3 million utility infielder around wouldn’t be a problem, but the Rays are on a notoriously tight budget and already have a similar, younger player on the roster in Sean Rodriguez. Paying two reserves arbitration salaries is a luxury that Tampa Bay might not be able to afford, and parting with Roberts would free up more cash to pursue offensive upgrades than dealing Rodriguez.

While a comparison to Pagan likely overstates his potential, he’s a similar style of player in that he gets value from being decent at a wide range of things rather than having any one standout skill. He makes decent contact, has some power, draws a few walks, plays a good third base, and has enough versatility to also cover second base or the outfield. Even if he doesn’t have another 2011 season in him, he’s got enough skills to be a decent stopgap third baseman, and given the slim pickings available on the free agent market, picking up Roberts and putting off a long term solution for another year isn’t a terrible option.

The Mets Should Keep R.A. Dickey

R.A. Dickey is one of three finalists for the NL Cy Young Award, which will be announced on Wednesday. According to rumors from last week, there’s also a chance that accepting the award will be the last thing he does in a Mets uniform. With just one year left on his contract, the Mets are exploring what it will take to re-sign him to a new deal, and simultaneously gauging his market value in order to determine whether or not they’re better off keeping him or trading him.

To me, the answer is pretty clear – they should keep R.A. Dickey for themselves.

The thought process behind trading him makes sense on the surface; he’s going to be 38-years-old next year, the Mets don’t look like contenders in 2013, and he’ll be a free agent at the end of next season. However, roster construction isn’t just a one year decision, and the Mets need to look at Dickey’s value beyond 2013 as well. And, because of the pitch that he specializes in, we need to throw away everything we think we know about a normal pitcher’s career after age 38.

Knuckleballers are a different breed, and history shows that their career trajectories don’t look anything like traditional pitchers. In fact, even heading into his age 38 season, there’s no reason to think that Dickey is anywhere near the end of his career.

I’ve identified 14 pitchers who were knuckleball specialists and threw at least 200 innings in the Major Leagues beyond their age 37 season, ranging from Phil Niekro’s 2,641 innings down to Freddie Fitzsimmons’ 265 innings. The average totals innings count for the group after age 37 is 1,001, or about five full seasons. And it’s not just Niekro artificially inflating the average by himself; the median result is 905 innings, and 10 of the 12 threw at least 550 innings. Knucklers who make it to age 38 simply don’t break down and stop pitching at 39 or 40. History shows that these pitchers can keep pitching well into their forties, and usually do.

And, the story gets even more optimistic for Dickey’s future when we look at how well those pitchers sustained their previous results after turning 38. Below is a list of the 12 knucklers who had careers after age 37, and how their age 38 and beyond performance compared with the results they got at age 37. We’re using ERA-, which is just their ERA compared to the league average in the particular season that they pitched, with 100 representing average and each point below that representing a percentage point better than league average.

Name Age 37 ERA- Age 38+ ERA-
Joe Niekro 74 107
Ted Lyons 77 71
Jesse Haines 77 92
Charlie Hough 79 98
Phil Niekro 88 94
Johnny Niggeling 88 81
Hoyt Wilhelm 89 62
Tom Candiotti 91 111
Freddie Fitzsimmons 96 86
Tim Wakefield 103 102
Dutch Leonard 106 77
Hal Brown 112 111

Average 90 91

As a group, their average ERA- after turning 38 was essentially identical to their age 37 ERA-, and seven of the 12 pitchers on the list actually prevented runs at a better rate after turning 38 than they did at 37. There’s no obvious performance degradation here, and we’re not just looking at their age 38 season, but their entire careers after 37, when they combined to post an ERA 10 percent better than the league average. We need to regress Dickey’s expectations for future performance based on the fact that he’s only had one amazing season, but history suggests that he’s not really anywhere close to the point where we need to start downgrading his performance because he’s just too old to keep pitching as well as he has previously.

Based on the average career length of previous knucklers who made it to this point, Dickey is probably capable of another four or five full seasons, barring some kind of fluke injury like the line drive to the kneecap that took out Freddie Fitzsimmons anyway. If he was a traditional fastball/breaking ball pitcher, he’d essentially be at a point on his career arc somewhere around 30-years-old, and no one would be wondering whether or not the Mets should sign up for a long term extension for their ace.

The Mets might not think they’re likely to be contenders in 2013, but given their market size and the fact that the Jason Bay albatross is off the books after this year, prematurely writing off 2014 and 2015 at this point is foolish. Especially with a strong group of pitchers behind Dickey, the Mets simply need to add a few more decent everyday players and they’ll be on the cusp of making a run at contention once again. While they might not be able to add all those players this winter, Sandy Alderson should be able to plan on incrementally improving the roster and looking at 2014 as a realistic opportunity to take a significant step forward.

And history suggests that Dickey should still be a highly effective pitcher in 2014, and probably even beyond that. The Mets should view Dickey as part of their long term solution, not a short term asset with an expiration date drawing ever closer. Knucklers age in whatever the opposite of dog years is, and 38 just isn’t all that old for this kind of pitcher. Unless the Mets plan on punting the rest of the decade, they should be able to see a scenario where Dickey helps pitch them into the playoffs. It might not happen next year, but Dickey could easily be part of the next good Mets team. And that should be enough reason to keep him around.