Archive for December, 2012

Ian Kinsler, First Baseman?

The Rangers haven’t had a great off-season so far. After attempting (and failing) to land both Zack Greinke and Justin Upton, the team also saw Josh Hamilton defect to the division rival Angels, while Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, and Koji Uehara all went to Boston. The only free agent they’ve signed is Joakim Soria, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and might not be ready for the start of the 2013 season. The Rangers are going to have quite a different look next year.

Even the players who are sticking around are likely to experience some changes, as super prospect Jurickson Profar is expected to take a bigger role in 2013, potentially even moving into an everyday job. While Elvis Andrus is blocking his path at shortstop, Profar could play a decent amount of second base, which might force the Rangers to relocate incumbent starter Ian Kinsler to another spot on the diamond.

The question facing the Rangers is where that spot should be. Besides a two inning stint at third base — where the team is more than pleased with Adrian Beltre — Kinsler has spent his entire big league career at second base. With the departures of Hamilton and Napoli, the team has openings in the outfield and at DH, but they’ve also talked about moving Kinsler to first base, a position where they didn’t get a lot of production last year. You don’t see many second baseman shift over to first base, second baseman who are listed at 6’0, but Kinsler might actually be a better fit there than one would think just based on his height.

While first base is generally thought of as a power position, and second baseman aren’t generally known for their power, Kinsler actually hits more like a first baseman than a second baseman. For his career, he has an Isolated Slugging (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average, which gives you a measure of how much power a player hit for) of .188. For comparison, Adrian Gonzalez has an ISO of .195 over the last three years. Kinsler isn’t known as a prodigious home run guy, but like Gonzalez, he racks up a copious amount of doubles, which are pretty effective in driving in runs themselves.

For instance, compare Kinsler’s overall offensive performance to Adam LaRoche, who the Rangers have been linked to at various times this winter. Here are their numbers since 2010:

Kinsler: .263/.350/.441, 111 wRC+
LaRoche: .255/.327/.462, 109 wRC+

No one thinks of LaRoche as an underpowered hitter for the position, and Kinsler’s offensive track record is even stronger. Any team willing to give LaRoche a first base job should also be willing to consider Kinsler a first baseman, as there’s not a lot of evidence that LaRoche is a significantly better hitter overall.

And the Rangers wouldn’t be covering totally new ground here either. There is precedent for teams moving high contact, gap power middle infielders to first base and having it pay off in a significant way. The Brewers converted high contact, middling power second baseman Paul Molitor into a first baseman at age 34, and he went on to average +4 WAR per season for the next four years. Like Kinsler, Molitor was a guy who focused more on not striking out than hitting the ball over the wall, but he was still a highly productive 1B/DH, hitting better in his thirties than he did in his twenties, partially due to the improved health from not having to play a demanding position on the field.

Molitor, of course, is not the only low-strikeout, lots-of-doubles player who has succeeded as a high quality first baseman. John Olerud slugged .465 for his career, averaging 17 home runs per full season, and still produced +60 WAR during a brilliant career. Mark Grace slugged just .442 and never hit more than 17 home runs in a season, but he was still a consistently above average player until age 37. Don Mattingly, Will Clark, John Kruk, and Sean Casey… there’s a long list of guys who were very good first baseman despite not being a prototypical slugger.

The thing most of these guys had in common, of course, was excellent defense at first base. Mattingly won nine gold gloves in a ten year span. Grace won four. Olerud won three. Often times, the first baseman who don’t hit for power make up for the lack of home runs by saving runs in the field, as their more slender frames allow them to be far more agile at the position than the big lumbering sluggers who just try to not embarrass themselves between at-bats.

While Kinsler would have to adjust to learning a new position, he has the quickness and range to develop into that kind of quality defensive first baseman. While Kinsler was a bit of a defensive problem at second base coming up (-22 UZR in his first three seasons), his hard work has helped him become an above average defender at second base in recent years (+17 UZR in his last three seasons). And, of course, the pool of players which Kinsler would be measured against at first base is not as impressive as the group at second, so he’d likely grade out as an average or better defender at first base even while learning how to make the transition. With more experience, Kinsler could easily become one of the best defenders at the position in the sport.

Kinsler might not look like a first baseman, but he hits for more power than you might think, and there’s a strong history of smaller, skinnier players being highly valuable players at first base by making a lot of contact, hitting a bunch of doubles, and playing great defense at the position. Kinsler already had the contact and doubles skillset, and his quickness should allow him to develop into a good defensive player at first as well.

With Profar forcing his way onto the roster, the Rangers need a spot for Kinsler, and they have an opening at first base. The move prolonged Paul Molitor’s career, and helped give his offense a boost as well. Don’t be surprised if Kinsler ends up as a productive first baseman before too long, even if he’s not hitting 30 home runs every year.

The Next James Shields

James Shields is not your typical #1 starter. He was a 16th round draft pick by the Rays back in 2000, then never rated as a top prospect as he climbed through the farm system. His fastball sits in the low-90s, and he doesn’t throw it that often, instead mostly relying on his cutter, curve, and change-up. The change-up is excellent, but the rest of his repertoire is somewhat unexciting. Until he started racking up 200 inning seasons in the big leagues, scouts were never that impressed with what Shields had to offer.

Through years of excellent performances, he has changed a lot of minds, and has proven that his package of skills can get big league hitters out on a regular basis. Today, we’ll look at three pitchers who have similar skills, and might be able to follow Shields’ lead by developing into an unexpected ace.

Jon Niese, New York Mets

Besides throwing with his left-hand, there are a lot of similarities between Niese and a young James Shields. His average fastball velocity sits at around 90 MPH, and to balance it out, he leans heavily on his cut fastball, while also working in his curve and change-up. And, like with Shields early in his career, the only thing keeping him from being a frontline starting pitcher is a problem with allowing home runs. From 2010 to 2012, 11.7% of Niese’s fly balls have left the yard; of the 24 NL starters who have thrown 500 or more innings over the last three years, only Bronson Arroyo has a higher HR/FB rate, and he pitches in a much more hitter friendly ballpark.

In K/BB ratio, Niese actually grades out ahead of guys like Anibal Sanchez and Johnny Cueto, but his propensity for giving up the long ball has kept his results from matching what they’ve put up. If he can get his home run rate down — and HR/FB rate is far less predictive than things like walk rate or strikeout rate – than Niese could be in for a breakout season sooner than later.

Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves

Unlike Shields, Minor has been on scouts radar for a while; he was the #7 overall pick in the 2009 draft, and Keith Law rated him as the #61 prospect in baseball before the 2011 season. However, Minor was highly thought of for his polish and proximity to the majors, not so much his upside as a frontline starter. After a miserable start to the 2012 season, however, Minor showed some flashes of developing into that kind of pitcher in the second half.

In the first three months of 2012, Minor issued 33 walks against 72 strikeouts, a mediocre total for an extreme fly ball pitcher who also gave up 18 home runs. The total led to a 6.19 ERA, and questions over whether Minor was capable of being anything more than a back-end starter. However, in the second half of the year, Minor started working in his slider a bit more often, and perhaps more importantly, he started working on the outer half of the strike zone with more frequency ( The shift in results was dramatic – he allowed just eight home runs and posted a 73/18 K/BB ratio in the final three months of the season, and his ERA dropped to 2.21 over that stretch. His overall season numbers don’t look very good, but if Minor can continue to work the outer half of the plate and keep the ball in the yard, he’s got a chance to turn into a very good starting pitcher.

Tommy Milone, Oakland Athletics

Like Shields, Milone was a bit of an after thought as a prospect, not getting selected until the 10th round of the 2008 draft, then being overlooked even as he dominated hitters in the minor leagues. When he was included in the Gio Gonzalez trade last winter, he was considered something of a throw-in; the other three prospects in the deal were labeled as the real return for Oakland. Meanwhile, Milone quietly took his 88 MPH fastball to the Major Leagues and turned in an excellent rookie season, baffling hitters with an array of change-ups and racking up nearly four strikeouts for every walk he issued in 2012. He has the least impressive fastball of any pitcher on this list, but he also has the best change-up, which is the pitch that has helped Shields turn into a legitimate frontline starting pitcher.

Milone also has one other thing working in his favor – his home ballpark. A large part of Shields’ success came from pitching in a home run depressing park in Tampa Bay, as he allowed just 0.74 HR/9 at home compared to 1.28 HR/9 on the road. Milone was even more extreme in his home/road splits last year, giving up just 0.55 HR/9 in Oakland compared to an astonishing 1.77 HR/9 when he left the friendly confines. Those numbers will come closer together as the samples get larger, but playing in a big ballpark is going to be a significant benefit to Milone, and he may be able to ride the stadium’s park effects to better numbers than were ever imagined for a guy with his stuff.

Will Michael Young Bounce Back?

The Phillies are reportedly working hard to acquire Michael Young from the Texas Rangers to fill their hole at third base, and because of the Rangers surplus of talent around the infield, they’re willing to pick up a large part of his salary in order to make the trade happen. Beyond just the logjam, however, they’re willing to move Young because he was the least productive player in baseball in 2012, posting -1.4 WAR in 651 plate appearances.

Of course, his one down year came after a nine year stretch as one of the game’s most consistent players, as he put up a WAR of between +2.5 and +4.5 each season from 2003 to 2011. The Phillies seem to be betting on Young’s track record of success, understanding that one bad season doesn’t mean a player is necessarily finished. In fact, the recent track record of players who had similarly lousy seasons to Young in their mid-30s show that there’s some real chance for a rebound in 2013.

From 2002 to 2011, 24 Major League players got at least 400 plate appearances and posted a negative WAR in a season in which they were between 34 and 36 years old. Seven of those 24 — 29% — actually rebounded to be above average players in the following season.

Carlos Lee (2011): +3.2 WAR

Lee’s WAR is inflated by an outlier defensive season that included 10 outfield assists, but even his offense rebounded to where it was prior to his collapse the year before, posting a 115 wRC+ in 2011 than was essentially equal to his 2009 mark. Even without the positive defensive rating, Lee was still a useful hitter, and shows that offensive downtowns are reversible.

Ken Griffey Jr (2007): +3.1 WAR

Unlike most of the others, Griffey actually hit pretty well during his miserable season, but brutal defense in center field nuked his value. His defense was still atrocious in his rebound season, but his offense jumped back to elite levels, as he increased his wRC+ from 118 to 142, his best mark since his final season in Seattle.

Ray Durham (2008): +2.9 WAR

Durham’s season might be the most encouraging to Young, in that he was also a high contact, gap power infielder who saw his offensive skills seemingly disappear over night. At age 34, Durham was excellent, posting a 125 wRC+ by hitting a career high 26 home runs. At age 35, Durham was horrible, as his wRC+ fell to 62. Then, at age 36, he was terrific again, posting a 118 wRC+. Durham just had a one year hiatus from being a good hitter, then went right back to previously established norms.

Vinny Castilla (2003): +2.9 WAR

Like Durham and Lee, Castilla’s offense disappeared for one year, then reverted right back to where it was prior to his miserable season. Offensively, Castilla was the worst player on this list, as he posted a wRC+ of 58, a total that looks like a slump even for Rey Ordonez. However, his 2003 wRC+ of 96 was better than the one he posted in 2001, and then he got even better (105 wRC+, +3.3 WAR) than the next year.

J.T. Snow (2003): +2.7 WAR

Snow was actually pretty lousy for a two year stretch at age 33/34 (95 wRC+ combined), then bounced back in a huge way (119 wRC+) at age 35 and had the best season of his career (152 wRC+) at age 36. Despite the negative connotation of a late career offensive surge from a player in San Francisco, Snow’s improvement was mostly about eliminating strikeouts in favor of more singles. He only hit eight home runs in his rebound season, but the improved contact skills allowed him to be a well above average hitter.

Todd Helton (2011): +2.4 WAR

Young’s decline in 2012 was driven by a significant drop in power, and Helton’s 2011 season should give him some hope that it has a chance to return. After racking up just 27 extra base hits while playing half of his games in Colorado, Helton had 41 in his rebound season, and his wRC+ went from 88 to 121. So, take heart, Phillies fans – power does occasionally come back.

Scott Hatteberg (2005): +2.4 WAR

With Hatteberg, it wasn’t just one thing. Every part of his game regressed in 2004, with his walk rate falling, his strikeout rate going up, and his power disappearing all at the same time. Then, in 2005, it all reversed right back to prior levels, with Hatteberg resuming his career as an above average hitter. In fact, his age 36 and 37 seasons were the two best of his career by wRC+.

Of course, these seven represent slightly less than one third of the total pool of players who were below replacement level in their mid-30s as full-time players. Five of the 24 didn’t even play the following season, and nine others were useless again in the following campaign. The average WAR of the 19 who stuck around for a followup season was +1.1 WAR, so Young shouldn’t be seen as any kind of sure thing for the Phillies. But, at the same time, history shows that there is some potential for Young to rebound and be a productive player in 2013. That he had one bad year does not mean that he is definitively done as a productive player.