Archive for January, 2013

The Most Important Reserve

When Opening Day day rolls around in a few months, Major League teams will have to declare an active 25 man roster. That roster will, in most cases, be divided into 13 position players and 12 pitchers, with five of those pitchers designated as starters, and the rest serving as relievers out of the bullpen. However, while teams will begin the season with five starters, any team with a strong hope of contending in 2013 should have a sixth starter waiting in the wings.

Because of the frequency of pitcher injuries, it is exceedingly rare for a team to make it through the whole season without leaning on a starter who didn’t begin the year in their rotation. Last year, 186 different pitchers threw at least 50 innings as a starter, which works out to an average of just over six per team. While the sixth starter often begins the season either in Triple-A or in long relief, they’ll usually end up throwing nearly half a season’s worth of innings overall, their performance can make a significant difference on a team’s final record.

For instance, A.J. Griffin didn’t join the A’s until June 24th, when he was called up from Sacramento to replace the injured Brandon McCarthy. He proceeded to post a 3.06 ERA in 15 starts over the remainder of the season, and the A’s went 12-3 when he took the hill. The A’s beat out the Rangers for the AL West title by one game. While no single player can be responsible for a division title, it is pretty clear that the A’s wouldn’t have managed to finish ahead of Texas had Griffin not put together a remarkable second half of the season. Kris Medlen, Michael Fiers, Alex Cobb, and Hisashi Iwakuma also made significant contributions to their teams after joining the rotation in mid-season.

So, which teams are prepared for the inevitable need for a sixth starter heading into 2013? Here are three pitchers who give their teams necessary depth, and could end up being big parts of a winning club even if they don’t have a job coming out of spring training.

Rick Porcello, RHP, Detroit

Trade rumors have been swirling around Porcello ever since the Tigers re-signed Anibal Sanchez, as Porcello is seemingly without a starting spot headed into the year. He’s certainly better than many other pitchers penciled into rotations on other teams, so a trade would make some sense. However, the Tigers might want to consider just keeping Porcello for themselves.

Doug Fister had two different stints on the disabled list last year resulting from a costochrondal strain, and has only made 30 starts in a season once in three full big league seasons. Drew Smyley only threw 117 innings last year between Triple-A and the Majors, and is still at the point of his career where Detroit isn’t going to want to push him too quickly. Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer both have their own injury histories as well. Behind Justin Verlander, there are plenty of reasons to think that the Tigers will need to fill gaps from time to time, and the drop-off to the next best starter if Porcello is trade would be extreme.

Casey Crosby would probably be first in line to replace Porcello, and he was nothing short of a disaster in three mid-season appearances last year, giving up 13 runs in 12 1/3 innings. His command simply isn’t yet Major League caliber, and having Crosby run up 100 pitches in four innings every fifth day would put a large strain on an already thin bullpen. While Porcello might hold more value for another team that could use him as a full season starter, the Tigers should be interested in minimizing the risk of losing the division by having to turn to inadequate replacements if injuries start to mount. Given the difference between a quality pitcher like Porcello and the alternatives if they traded him away, the Tigers best bet may be to just use Porcello in relief until the need arises.

Chris Capuano, LHP, Los Angeles

It has to be a little weird for Capuano to come to camp without a guaranteed rotation spot, given that he is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and stayed healthy for the entire 2012 season. Yet, after the Dodgers splurged on Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu after picking up Josh Beckett last August, there might not be room for him in the opening day rotation, especially if Chad Billingsley proves to be healthy during spring training.

But, despite the fact that Capuano might not be promised a rotation spot on opening day, the Dodgers shouldn’t be in any hurry to reduce their rotation depth. Money is clearly not a problem for the organization, so they don’t need to ship him out to save the $6 million he’s due in 2013, and while they have a large quantity of starters behind Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, they don’t necessarily have a ton of quality. Beckett wasn’t particularly good for either the Red Sox or Dodgers last year, which is why Boston gave him to Los Angeles in the first place. Aaron Harang’s 3.61 ERA from last year looks like a total mirage when compared to his 4.14 FIP and 4.95 xFIP. Ryu is a total wild card. Even if all three are completely healthy, odds are pretty good that one of them just doesn’t pitch very well in 2013.

From a performance perspective, it’s not entirely crazy to think that Capuano could be the Dodgers third or fourth best pitcher next year, even if he begins the year in the bullpen. Having him around not only gives them depth in case of an injury, but could very well allow them to upgrade on a weak rotation spot in season.

Chris Archer, SP, Tampa Bay

The Rays have been notorious about hoarding their pitching depth, and even after trading James Shields to Kansas City, they still have too many good arms to fit everyone into their opening day rotation. Right now, the hard-throwing right-hander is on the outside looking in, but Archer showed glimpses of dominance in his debut last year, and provides the Rays with another tantalizing option for the summer if one of their young arms goes down.

Don’t pay too much attention to his 4.60 ERA; it’s the 29.5% strikeout rate from his 29 big league innings that should be the real eye opener. For reference, Max Scherzer led all qualified MLB starters in K% during 2012, with a 29.4% strikeout rate. Archer shouldn’t be expected to keep that performance up over a full season worth of starts, but his dominant stuff should allow him to be an excellent fill-in whenever Tampa Bay needs to give one of their young arms a break.

The Rays have always put a lot of value in having more than five good starters, and they’re still rich in young pitching even after trading James Shields. Not having to lean on a mediocre Triple-A veteran or overpay for a rent-a-pitcher at the deadline has been one of the keys to the team’s sustained success, and they appear set to continue to take advantage of that strength.

Auction Values For All Three ottoneu Formats

Every year, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles, blog posts, magazines and more offering up auction values for fantasy baseball. And almost all of these fit a fairly specific set of rules – rosters in the mid-20’s, budgets in the mid-$200’s, traditional 5×5 stats. ottoneu, however, lives in a different universe and plays by its own rules. We scoff at your tiny rosters and insignificant budgets! We do not settle for your traditional 5×5 roto scoring!*

So often, I am asked how to translate a $31 Justin Verlander or a $37 Miguel Cabrera (their actual values in 2012, according to the system devised by Zach Sanders) into a fair price in ottoneu. This is an issue I struggle with every season, particularly as we start talking about the second or third seasons of a league where more than half the dollars and roster spots are often taken up before the auction.

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A Special Group of Young Talent

Keith Law’s list of the best players in Major League Baseball under the age of 25 is exceptional for several reasons, but perhaps the most notable is that the cream of the crop aren’t even anywhere close to the age limit. In fact, when you look at what Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and Jason Heyward did in 2012 — with Stanton and Heyward being the veterans at age 22 — it becomes clear that we just saw a season for the history books.

Much has been written about Trout and Harper, who both had all-time great seasons for their age bracket, but baseball has seen two phenomenal rookie hitters come up together before. Baseball has not, however, seen four players this young who were this good in the same season in nearly 50 years. Trout, Harper, Stanton, and Heyward combined for a truly remarkable 27.3 WAR in 2012 – for reference, here are the best combined WAR totals for four position players, all 22 or younger, in baseball history:

1964: Dick Allen, Jim Fregosi, Boog Powell, and Bill Freehan: 29.8 WAR
2012: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Jason Hewyard: 27.3 WAR
1972: Cesar Cedeno, Chris Speier, Ted Simmons, Greg Luzinski: 25.0 WAR
1939: Ted Williams, Buddy Lewis, Ken Keltner, Charlie Keller: 25.0 WAR
1970: Johnny Bench, Bernie Carbo, Aurelio Rodriguez, Richie Hebner: 24.8 WAR
1956: Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Bill White: 24.2 WAR

Only the 1964 group bested last year’s quartet, and it’s worth noting that all four players in that season were the maximum age of 22. Given that Trout and Harper weren’t even of legal drinking age at the time, you might even give a slight edge to the modern day group, even though Allen and company posted a slightly higher WAR. And, of course, there’s some pretty illustrious company looking up at last year’s phenoms, including several inner circle Hall of Famers. Any time you end up on the same list as Ted Williams, Johnny Bench, and Hank Aaron, you’re doing alright for yourself.

Of course, there are some less famous names on the list that serve as a reminder that some players just peak early, for various reasons. Carbo, for instance, had one of the great rookie seasons in baseball history in 1970, hitting .310/.454/.551 as a 22-year-old. The next year, he hit .219/.338/.339, and he started 1972 so poorly that he was traded to the Cardinals. He never came close to repeating his early success, and was out of baseball by 1980.

But, for the most part, being great in the big leagues an early age is a sign of rare talent. Even the guys who didn’t end up enshrined in Cooperstown generally had pretty terrific careers, and were among the best players of their time. There aren’t too many guys who fluke their way into terrific seasons when most players their age are still riding the buses in the minor leagues.

Trout, Harper, Stanton, and Heyward are all special talents. In most other years, they’d be easy picks for the best under-25 player in the sport. Right now, though, the sport is experiencing a renaissance of absurdly good players at a young age. When you’re looking through the list, keep in mind that this is not an ordinary class of players. We don’t usually have this kind of greatness on display at an early age. Enjoy it, because you probably won’t ever see four outfielders this good come up together again.

Are the Angels Actually Improved?

When the Angels became The Mystery Team and signed Josh Hamilton last month, the idea of their new batting order became the thing of legends. Hamilton could slide in behind Albert Pujols, who was already hitting behind Mike Trout, and even guys like Mark Trumbo, Howie Kendrick, and Erick Aybar, are better than average hitters for their positions. The Angels line-up is going to be very good, and people have even begun to whisper about the team potentially scoring 1,000 runs, a feat which hasn’t been accomplished since the Indians did it back in 1999. But here’s the dirty little secret about the Angels offense; the 2013 version may very well be worse than the 2012 version.

How does a team add Josh Hamilton and get worse offensively? Well, it’s not as far fetched as it might sound on the surface. There are essentially three big factors that could cause the Angels to score fewer runs than they did last year.

1. Hamilton is not actually going to be a big upgrade over what Torii Hunter did in 2012.

If you just focus on home runs — Hamilton hit 43, Hunter hit 16 — this might seem ridiculous. But there’s more to life than home runs, and what Hunter lacked in power, he made up for in singles. Despite having 52 fewer plate appearances, Hunter out-singled Hamilton 126 to 84, and while singles might not be as flashy as home runs, they are useful run scoring tools in their own right. Because of all those base hits, Hunter posted a higher on base percentage than Hamilton — .365 to .354 — and he did it while playing half his games in Anaheim, not Texas.

This is one of the scenarios where park factors actually are a really big deal. During his time with the Rangers, Hamilton had a .406 wOBA at home and just a .365 wOBA on the road. The Ballpark in Arlington is one of the very best places in all of baseball to hit, especially in the summer when the temperature and the humidity rise. While we can’t just expect Hamilton to turn into what he has been on the road now that he’s leaving the friendly confines of Texas, his overall offensive numbers will come down. That’s why we look at park adjusted numbers like wRC+, which account for different offensive environments and put everyone on a level playing field.

Last year, Hunter posted a 130 wRC+, meaning that he hit 30% better than a league average hitter would be expected to while playing half his games in Anaheim. Josh Hamilton’s career wRC+? 135. Last year, he posted a 140 wRC+, but he’s also getting older, and age related decline could easily push Hamilton’s overall performance down to a similar level to what Hunter produced for the Angels last year.

2. The 2012 Angels were remarkably healthy and a little lucky.

The Angels didn’t have to deal with too many injuries last year, and the ones that did arise generally came on the mound. Among the regular position players, only Chris Iannetta and Erick Aybar hit the DL in 2012, and Aybar was only disabled from July 22nd to August 8th. Torii Hunter spent two weeks away from the team dealing with a personal issue, but even counting that, the rest of the hitters stayed active the entire season. The Angels had eight players garner at least 500 plate appearances last year, and that’s something that simply isn’t likely to be repeated again in 2013.

They also had some good fortune when it comes to how often their balls in play went for base hits. They led the AL with a .311 team BABIP, nearly 20 points higher than the league average last year. Some of that is due to having a line-up of speedy players, but even adjusting for the team’s speed, the Angels can’t count on getting the same amount of hits in 2012 as they did in 2013. The main regression candidate — now that Hunter has been replaced, at least — is Mike Trout, who posted a .383 BABIP last season. Even with Trout’s speed, that’s a number that simply can’t be sustained.

Over the last three years, 46 AL hitters have received 1,500 or more plate appearances; 45 of them have posted a BABIP below .350, with Austin Jackson (.370) as the lone exception. Even if you look at elite speed guys, you see that they can’t sustain BABIPs much over .350 for any length of time. Ichiro, for his career, has a .347 BABIP. Michael Bourn is at .343. Carl Crawford is at .328. Trout’s BABIP is going to come down. The only question is how far.

3. They’re also replacing Kendrys Morales with Peter Bourjos.

I like Peter Bourjos more than most, and I think he’s a much better hitter than he showed in limited duty in 2012. But, no matter how bullish you might be on his overall value, there’s no question that replacing Morales’ bat with Bourjos’ is a massive downgrade. Morales posted a 118 wRC+ last year, while Bourjos’ career mark is just 95, making him a slightly below average hitter during his time in the big leagues. Given his high strikeout rate and low power output, being an average hitter is probably his ceiling, as the Angels are essentially hoping he can turn into the west coast version of Michael Bourn, making up for the decent bat with elite defense in the outfield.

Swapping out Morales for Bourjos is probably a bigger offensive downgrade than swapping Hunter for Hamilton is an upgrade. While most of the focus is understandably on the addition of Hamilton, we must remember that the Angels made room for Hamilton by jettisoning Morales. When projecting their offense in 2013, we can’t simply pretend that they’re going to have all their good hitters back and simply added another great hitter to the mix. That’s not a reflection of what has actually happened this winter.

When you add up all the expected gains — likely some improvement from Albert Pujols, perhaps better health from Chris Iannetta, the addition of Josh Hamilton — there are enough positives to expect the Angels to still a have a very good offense in 2013, even with the issues listed above. But they had a very good offense last year — their team wRC+ of 112 was second best in baseball — and improving significantly on that performance is going to be a tall order. Adding Hamilton should allow them to remain one of the best offensive clubs in baseball, but don’t get too carried away with what putting him in right field will do to their offense. If the Angels match their offensive performance from 2012, they’ll be doing well. Expecting them to take a huge step forward is probably unrealistic.