Archive for June, 2013

Time To Make Tim Lincecum A Reliever

The Giants have been rumored to be involved in talks with the Marlins about acquiring Ricky Nolasco to bolster their starting rotation. Given that they’re currently rolling with rookie starter Michael Kickham — who has allowed 10 runs in 7 2/3 innings in his first two big league starts — in the #5 spot in their rotation, going after a solid innings eater like Nolasco makes a lot of sense. However, I’d like to suggest that the Giants expand their shopping list even if they acquire Nolasco; their goal over the next month should be to trade for two starting pitchers, not just one. By picking up two starters, they can get Tim Lincecum’s career back on track by using him as a true relief ace.

The blueprint has already been laid. After struggling throughout the 2012 season, Lincecum was deployed in relief during the playoffs last October, and the results were electrifying. His total line out of the bullpen during the playoffs: 13 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 1 walk, 17 strikeouts. There’s dominance, and then there was Tim Lincecum pitching in relief. He was absurdly good.

The primary difference was the effectiveness of his change-up. Now that Lincecum doesn’t throw in the high-90s anymore, he’s heavily relient on hitters chasing his change-up for strikeouts, and it’s a pitch he needs to be able to locate effectively in order to entice hitters to swing. According to the data from, During the regular season, hitters only chased his change-up 51% of the time during the regular season, but they went after it 61% of the time during the post-season.

And they weren’t swinging at hittable pitches either. His swing-and-miss rate on the change-up was 32 percent in October, up from just 21 percent during the regular season. In short stints, with hitters unable to make adjustments facing him multiple times in the same game, Lincecum’s change-up became a dominating weapon once again. And the Giants would be better off with Lincecum pitching well in that role, even during the regular season, than they are with him starting every fifth day.

I’m not advocating for Lincecum to be converted into a reliever who fits into a modern bullpen role. With Sergio Romo and an army of effective match-up relievers, the Giants already have a pretty good bullpen. However, utilizing Lincecum in that multi-inning relief ace role that worked so well in the playoffs could not only prepare him for that job in the postseason, but could pave the way for a bullpen renaissance of sorts.

Back before Tony LaRussa made the middle/setup/closer structure popular, it was completely normal for teams to have relievers throwing 120 to 150 innings in 60-80 appearances, getting six to nine outs before their day was considered over. 30 years ago, 18 relievers threw at least 100 innings, with Bob Stanley leading the way at 145. He wasn’t some kind of long reliever either, as he led Boston with 33 saves. It was just expected that each team would have a guy who could pitch multiple dominating innings whenever the team wanted to protect a lead.

As Bochy showed in October, that role is perfect for Lincecum. His change-up works really well against both left-handed and right-handed hitters, so he doesn’t need to be pigeonholes as some kind of match-up specialist. Since he’s already stretched out as a starter, transitioning Lincecum into a multi-inning reliever shouldn’t be terribly difficult, and will give the added perk of giving the rest of the Giants starters a chance to get out of the games a little bit earlier, increasing both their effectiveness and perhaps their ability to pitch well in October.

One of the main reasons relievers perform better than starting pitchers is that they only have to face a hitter once per game. As hitters get multiple looks at a starter throughout a game, their performance against them improves, and the pitchers tire as they throw more pitches. The combination of these effects can be seen in the Giants rotation this year:

First time facing a batter: .695 OPS
Second time facing a batter: .732 OPS
Third time facing a batter: .752 OPS

This is a league wide trend, so it’s not just a Giants thing we’re focused on. Starting pitchers really begin to fall off the third time through the order, and that’s where leads can evaporate in a hurry. Because the modern bullpen doesn’t allow for a team’s best relievers to be used until the 8th or 9th innings, a starter who runs into trouble in the fifth or sixth inning might give way to one of the worst bullpen arms on the team, who ends up throwing gas on the fire. To illustrate this point, here is the opponents OPS versus the Giants for each inning this season:

1st inning: .709
2nd inning: .678
3rd inning: .805
4th inning: .651
5th inning: .774
6th inning: .770
7th inning: .579
8th inning: .705
9th inning: .663

You see the big drop-off in hitter performance from those middle innings that are handled mostly by faltering starters or long relievers to when Bochy starts handing things over to his better setup guys. This is where Lincecum could have a huge impact.

By utilizing him as a bridge in those middle innings, Bochy could have an earlier hook with his starters, not allowing them to give up crucial runs in earlier game situations, and still have the confidence of knowing that he’s saved Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo for any late game leads that need to be protected. Linecum’s ability to get six to nine outs could serve to keep games close that might otherwise never turn into save situations, and if he responds as well to a bullpen role as he did in October, he’ll be far more valuable holding tight games than he would be as an inconsistent starter every fifth day.

Let Lincecum pitch in 2-3 inning outings every 2-3 days, and you’ll end up getting about the same number of innings from him as you would by keeping him in the rotation. In essence, by acquiring a second useful innings sponge — Scott Feldman would be a good fit for this role, for instance — to allow Lincecum to pitch in relief, they wouldn’t just be adding depth, but they’d be reducing the workload for their entire staff, and preparing Lincecum for the role he showed he could thrive in last October.

Royals Hitting Woes Continue Despite George Brett

When you’ve lost eight games in a row — and 12 of 13, and 19 of 23 — as the Kansas City Royals had after dropping a game to the St. Louis Cardinals on May 29, changes need to be made. In Kansas City’s case, that meant removing hitting coaches Andre David and Jack Maloof in favor of team legend George Brett, hoping to kick-start a tremendously disappointing offense.

The Royals were 21-29 when Brett came aboard, and they’re 15-11 since. Brett, predictably, has been given a good deal of credit for shaking things up, with general manager Dayton Moore being sure to highlight Brett’s “energy” and “passion” in a conversation with Buster Olney earlier this month. So it seems like the change in the coaching staff to bring in a Hall of Famer must have had an impact, right? Well, not exactly.

When the Royals dismissed David and Maloof, they were hitting a collective .261/.314/.375. In June, under Brett, they’ve turned that all the way up to … .255/.310/.366. The offense hasn’t really improved under Brett at all, and, in fact, is performing slightly worse than they had been before. That the Royals have been winning more games can be readily attributed to solid pitching and defense that has given them a 2.75 ERA over the month, good for third-best in baseball and a marked improvement over their season-long 3.52 mark.

The ineffective Royals attack, which ranks 26th in MLB in wRC+, has been held back by three very clear issues — Moore’s inability to move on from a few underperforming veterans, the odd choices in the batting order made by manager Ned Yost, and the stunning lack of progress made by the supposed young core of the future. Brett seems likely to be able to impact only one of those items.
[+] EnlargeJeff Francouer
Tim Larson/Icon SMIJeff Francouer is hitting just .212/.254/.330 and striking out in 25 percent of his at-bats.

When Moore traded a package of prospects headlined by outfielder Wil Myers to Tampa Bay for Wade Davis and James Shields last winter, the move was largely panned in baseball circles, and it had little to do with whether Shields was a rotation improvement. It was because of this simple equation: Jeff Francoeur versus Myers. Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378 while being a negative on defense last season, and the ensuing -1.4 WAR made him one of the least valuable players in baseball. So far this season, he’s been even worse, hitting .212/.254/.330 while striking out more than a quarter of the time, yet he’s still started 49 times in right field.

Only recently has Yost began to sit Francoeur more often in favor of David Lough, but as Myers has impressed since being recalled by the Rays earlier this month, the same questions that came up last winter are being heard again: Is the improvement that Shields brought to the rotation — and he has been very good — more than could have been gained by simply adding a league-average starter and replacing Francoeur’s special brand of awful with Myers in right field? So far, that’s not looking like an answer that will come out in Moore’s favor.

The situation is similar at second base, where Moore has insisted on sticking with the appallingly ineffective duo of Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson, at least until finally demoting Getz last weekend. Kansas City second basemen are hitting just .233/.279/.318, which is better than only the two struggling Chicago clubs. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Johnny Giavotella, hitting .320/.391/.462 in more than 1,200 Triple-A plate appearances, languishes in Omaha. Unless Brett can force Moore to make some roster moves, the simple talent gap at second base and right field will be difficult for the new hitting coach to overcome.

Yost’s often confounding batting orders aren’t helping matters, either. Though he’s been forward-thinking enough to use the hardly fleet-of-foot Alex Gordon as his leadoff man, he’s given much of that advantage away by using shortstop Alcides Escobar and his atrocious .279 on-base percentage as his No. 2 hitter for much of the year.

Interestingly enough, Yost briefly took the advice of Kansas City’s data analysis team, resetting the lineup to push Escobar to the end and move Eric Hosmer up to second. In 16 games beginning June 5 and ending when Yost restored Escobar to the top on Thursday, the Royals scored 4.12 runs per game. That’s better than the 3.89 mark they’ve had over the entire season, and while the impact of batting order is generally overrated, ensuring that your worst hitters get the most plate appearances isn’t often going to end well.

The final issue, and the one where Brett can have the most impact, is in the inability of their two highly touted corner infielders to develop into reliable big-league hitters. Last season, 22-year-old first baseman Hosmer and 23-year-old third baseman Mike Moustakas each failed to deliver on the optimism that their minor league track records and 2011 debuts had promised. Moustakas at least managed to provide value with good defense and 20 homers around a poor .242/.296/.412 line, though Hosmer fell apart completely at .232/.304/.359. Remember that list from earlier about the least valuable players in baseball last season? Only two other players caused more damage to their teams than Francoeur … and one was Hosmer.

So far this year, Moustakas has fallen completely off the cliff at .214/.274/.314, losing his power while facing even more difficulty in getting on base. Through the first two months, Hosmer was right there with him, hitting only a single homer with a mediocre line of .261/.320/.333. But if there’s a bright spot here, it’s that Hosmer has looked like an improved hitter in June, hitting .290/.337/.473 with three homers through Wednesday.

Is that simply a hot streak or due to Brett’s influence? It remains to be seen, though Hosmer recently told that Brett had him focus more on shifting his weight to pull balls to right field, work which has shown up in Hosmer’s spray charts.

There’s only so much that any hitting coach can do to improve an offense, since the single greatest item that affects run production is the amount of talent on the field. Brett can’t do much to solve the questionable decisions made in the front office or on the lineup card. The numbers bear out that the offense, overall, has not improved during his short tenure, even if the win/loss record says otherwise. But if he can do nothing else other than reach Hosmer and turn him back into something like the top prospect the team once expected, it might be worth the effort in making the change in itself.

Why The Yankees Still Need Alex Rodriguez

The last time the baseball world saw Alex Rodriguez, he was suffering through one of the more dismal Octobers in recent memory. Rodriguez managed a mere three singles over seven games against the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers, but the box score really doesn’t tell the entire story. He was regularly benched and pinch hit for during the playoffs, a prospect that would have seemed unthinkable just months earlier.

Since then, everything new we’ve heard about Rodriguez has been problematic. In January, he underwent surgery to repair a torn hip labrum that had been bothering him during the playoffs and has kept him from playing in 2013. A few weeks ago, his name once again came up at the center of the ongoing Biogenesis PED scandal that Major League Baseball wants so badly to come down hard on him and others for.

It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that Rodriguez is the least popular name in baseball these days, and as he turns 38 next month, he’s clearly a shell of the dominant superstar he once was. Considering that the Yankees have jumped out to a surprising 39-33 start without him, more than a few New York fans would be all too happy to see him quietly go away and never come back, despite the four years and $86 million he still has coming to him after this season.

But for all the baggage he brings, the Yankees could really use him right about now.

Punchless lineup

It would usually sound odd to say that there’s surprise in the fact that the generally mighty Yankees have managed to stay in the race, but there’s little that’s usual about this year’s team, which has had to rely on castoffs such as Reid BrignacJayson NixThomas NealLyle OverbayChris Stewart and Vernon Wells while A-Rod, Derek JeterCurtis Granderson andMark Teixeira deal with injuries.

Somehow, at the midway point of May, the Yankees were up by two games in the tough American League East thanks to surprising performances from Overbay and Wells, in particular. But Brian Cashman’s collection of misfit toys has begun to show its cracks. Over the past 30 days, the team has a woeful .264 wOBA that rates as the worst mark in baseball; unsurprisingly, the Yankees have slumped and now sit in third place.

The problem is particularly acute at third base, where Yankees third basemen have combined for a .235/.292/.371 line, good for a .271 wOBA that’s better than only four other clubs. Now that news has come down this week that Kevin Youkilis will miss most of the rest of the season due to back surgery, the Yankees are down to Jayson Nix and struggling 26-year-old rookie David Adams (.200/.220/.313) at the position. If this team plans to stay in contention, it will need an improvement at the hot corner, but that’s unlikely to come from a thin trade market or the nonprospects manning the spot at either of its top two minor league affiliates.

A-Rod’s upside

That’s where Rodriguez can still be useful. No, he isn’t the same player who hit .358 as a 20-year-old shortstop in 1996, and he’s not close to the hitter who has eight seasons with at least 40 home runs. At this point in his career, he’s all but certainly not worth a fraction of the salary that’s still owed to him. But then, he doesn’t really need to be, does he? To help the Yankees right now, he merely needs to be better than Adams and Nix, and that seems like a bar that even a diminished Rodriguez is capable of clearing.

But what exactly can Rodriguez provide? No one knows how this hip injury will affect him, though it’s worth noting that the Rodriguez we saw struggling so badly in October wasn’t the same one we had seen all year. Over Rodriguez’s first 97 games (through July 24), he was carrying a line of .276/.358/.449 with slightly below average defense. If that seems like far less than vintage Rodriguez, note that AL third basemen as a whole this year are hitting .258/.317/.401. If you compare Rodriguez not to the elite superstar he once was but to the current collection of third basemen in the league, that’s still an above average hitter.

We chose July 24 of last year because that was the day that Rodriguez’s left hand was fractured by a pitch from Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Rodriguez returned Sept. 2 at the low end of the original six-to-eight week estimate, and as so often happens with hand injuries, his short-term power was missing; he hit just .261/.341/.369 for the remainder of the season. By the time he made it to the playoffs, his hip was a concern as well, so the Rodriguez we saw getting benched in October was a different player than the one playing well in July.

Rodriguez has begun taking batting practice with an eye on a return around the All-Star break. If he is merely league average for the remainder of the season, starting a few times a week at third base and giving Travis Hafner a break against lefty pitching at designated hitter, it probably won’t win him back any fans and would likely qualify as the worst season of his sterling career. But even that would still count as a pretty nice upgrade over what the Yankees currently have.

The Nationals Should Trade Rafael Soriano

The Nationals were supposed to be one of baseball’s best teams. They led the majors in wins a year ago, and this year, they were going to have a full season of both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, plus they added Dan Haren to fill out their rotation and Rafael Soriano to save games in the ninth inning. On paper, they looked like a team with few holes.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Harper got hurt, Haren has been terrible, and pretty much every role player the Nationals were counting on has taken a step backwards. The result is that they currently sit at 35-36, seven games back of Atlanta in the AL East race. As they head for the trade deadline, they’ll almost certainly be looking to boost their offense in order to make a strong push for at least a wild card and give them a better chance of running down Atlanta, but I have another suggestion: they should trade Rafael Soriano.

This is not to say that I think the Nationals should give up on 2013 season and start playing for the future, but I do think they can make themselves better for 2014 without really harming their chances of winning this year by using Soriano as a trade chip.

If the Nationals made Soriano available, there would be a market. There’s no secret that the Detroit Tigers are in need of a closer upgrade, as Jose Valverde is doing what you expect Jose Valverde to do — give up runs and generally instill fear into all Michigan natives every time he takes the mound — and Detroit cannot enter the postseason again with him as the de facto ninth inning guy. The Diamondbacks might also need a closer upgrade to reach the postseason, with Heath Bell giving up home runs left and right while J.J. Putz’s elbow keeps him on the shelf. There would be contenders interested in acquiring Soriano from the Nationals.

So, if the Nationals were able to take advantage of the demand for a quality closer, they could not only clear $14 million in salary off the books for 2014 that could be reallocated to an offensive upgrade next year, they could potentially turn Soriano into a piece that they need more than a one inning reliever. With the other options in their bullpen, trading Soriano might not even make their team substantially worse this season, and if they can turn Soriano into a decent back-end starter, it might even make them better.

Before Soriano was acquired, Drew Storen was in line to close games for the Nationals this season. His 4.34 ERA might suggest that it was a good thing they moved him to a setup role, but Storen’s underlying performance suggests he’s mostly back to the pitcher he was two years ago when he saved 43 games.

Storen, 2011: 6.6% BB%, 24.4% K%, 47.3% GB%, 3.32 FIP, 3.14 xFIP
Storen, 2013: 5.5% BB%, 21.9% K%, 52.9% GB%, 3.74 FIP, 3.35 xFIP

He’s gone slightly more towards a contact/ground ball profile at the cost of a few strikeouts, but the overall package is about the same, and he might trade some of those ground balls to get more strikeouts if moved back to the ninth inning role. Either way, Storen’s peripherals suggest that he’s more than capable of handling the ninth inning, and the drop-off from switching Storen out for Soriano wouldn’t be dramatic.

Of course, they’d have to replace Storen in the setup role, but 22-year-old Ian Krol — acquired as one of three prospects from Oakland in the Michael Morse trade over the winter — is flashing serious potential since his promotion, striking out eight of the first 22 batters he’s faced while throwing a fastball that tops out at 96. By trading Soriano away, they’d essentially be creating higher leverage opportunities for Krol, who will make the league minimum for the next few seasons and could become a dominant setup man in front of Storen.

That isn’t to say that Krol is Soriano’s equal, but it is hard to argue that the Nationals are better off with Krol pitching middle relief in front of Storen/Soriano than they would be with $14 million to spend this winter and the talent they could get back from shipping Soriano to a team with fewer quality bullpen options. Especially if Detroit or Arizona decide that Soriano is the piece that could put them over the top, the Nationals might be able to turn their relief depth into a valuable player for the future, similar to how they flipped Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos back in 2010.

Thankfully for the Nationals, both Detroit and Arizona are swimming in starting pitching depth, which is an area of need for the team with Haren’s struggles and a lack of quality options in the high minors. If Mike Rizzo could turn Soriano into a decent #5 starter, the difference in performance from that rotation spot could offset any downgrade they see in the late innings.

And, as an added perk, putting Soriano in play might make things a little more complicated for the division rival Phillies. Jonathan Papelbon has been assumed to be the potentially available proven closer in the NL East, and without any other competitors trading off ninth inning specialists, the Phillies might be able to extract some value in exchange for their closer while clearing salary off their own books, which they could then use to retool their roster in order to better compete with Washington in the future. Any team acquiring Soriano would only be on the hook for his salary through 2014, while Papelbon is signed through 2015 at essentially the same annual salary. The monetary difference alone should make Soriano more appealing, and Washington could essentially undercut the trade value of one of their closest competitors.

While trading Soriano might be viewed as a sign of giving up on the season, they could offset the negative PR by making simultaneous offensive upgrades and give their team a similar chance to sneak back into the playoff race that they have now. If it doesn’t materialize, they’ve freed up salary to allow for a more active off-season and a better team in 2014. Trading away talent isn’t always the same thing as giving up, and in this case, the Nationals can trade from a surplus to help their organization overall.

Coco Crisp, Power Hitter

Coco Crisp is not a big guy. He’s listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, and those numbers are often fudged upwards a bit. He’s been a big leaguer since 2002, and has spent a majority of that time hitting leadoff. He plays center field, and he’s also one of the most effective base stealers in the sport. If there was a poster child for the skills that allow a little guy to be a quality big league role player, it’s Coco Crisp. He’s had a long career as exactly the kind of player you imagine when you see a relatively short baseball player.

Except now, at age 33, Coco Crisp is becoming a power hitter. Well, actually, he started becoming a power hitter last summer, and it’s carried over to the 2013 season to the point that now we’re all noticing. And his transformation is one of the more amazing stories in baseball.

Last year, the first two months of the season were a total disaster for Crisp. After re-signing with the A’s to a two year, $14 million contract, Crisp was one of the worst players in the league right out of the gates. Last June 6th, he went 0 for 4 and dropped his overall line to .158/.213/.175, good for a .389 OPS. That’s the kind of offensive performance teams get when they send their pitchers up to hit. Crisp had managed just two extra base hits — both doubles — in 124 plate appearances. At 32-years-old, he looked washed up.

On June 7th, Crisp went 2 for 3 with a triple and a home run and never looked back. From that day on, he hit .293/.361/.499, with 41 of his 100 hits going for extra bases. In the first two months of 2013, he’s hitting .297/.384/.505, with 40% of his hits going for extra bases. Since June 7th of 2012, Crisp has racked up 609 plate appearances, which is about equal to one full season’s worth of playing time. During that stretch, Crisp has 64 extra base hits, which is not exactly what you expect from an aging leadoff hitter whose career specialties have been speed and defense.

So, what’s the deal? How did Crisp not only turn his season around last summer, but become a legitimate power hitter in the process? In a word, patience.

A’s hitting coach Chili Davis has been a big advocate of the A’s longstanding philosophy of working counts, getting into fastball situations, and then swinging hard. As he told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week:

“”Guys are more patient at the plate, they’re seeing a lot of pitches. They’re making pitchers work, too.”

Crisp is a perfect example of a more patient hitter and how that approach can lead to better hitter’s counts and better results. From 2007-2011, PITCHF/x data shows that Crisp swung at 43.3% of the pitches he was thrown, and while he wasn’t Pablo Sandoval at the plate, he chased his fair share of pitches out of the zone, posting an out-of-zone swing rate of 24.4%. Over the last year, Crisp’s swing rate is down to 40.9% and his out-of-zone swing rate is down to 21.8%.

These aren’t huge drastic shifts, but they’re increasing as Crisp gets more comfortable with the more selective approach. In 2013 only, Crisp’s at 38.7% of the pitches he’s thrown, and his out-of-zone swing rate is down to 18.7%, which is the fourth lowest rate of chasing balls of any hitter in baseball. Crisp has transformed from not-a-hack into a guy who swings almost exclusively at strikes, and that has led more swings in favorable counts.

Here are the rates at which Crisp’s at-bats have ended in either pitcher’s counts, hitter’s counts, or even counts, for both his career and for 2013.


Batter Ahead: 35%
Pitcher Ahead: 29%
Even Count: 35%


Batter Ahead: 42%
Pitcher Ahead: 29%
Even Count: 29%

Crisp has basically moved 7% of his plate appearances from even counts to hitter’s counts, which might not like sound that important, but here are Crisp’s relative performances by count this season:

Even Count: .250/.246/.375
Batter Ahead: .375/.564/.719

Five of Crisp’s eight home runs have come in hitter’s counts, and while you might think that this is the norm, Crisp is killing the ball in hitter’s counts at a rate that far outpaces the average AL hitter. According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, of the 168 players with at least 200 plate appearances this year, Crisp ranks 19th in OPS when ahead in the count and 23rd in slugging percentage. When he gets into counts where he can look for a fastball and swing for the fences, he has a higher slugging percentage than guys like Carlos Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, and David Ortiz.

And for all the talk about how a patient approach leads to more strikeouts and lower overall offensive levels, Crisp is showing the exact opposite to be true. For his career, 44% of his at-bats have reached ended on two strike counts, but by swinging less this year, he’s up to 53% two strike counts, and yet at the same time he’s posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career. Strikeouts aren’t just a function of getting to two strikes, but also swinging at the wrong pitches in two strike counts. Crisp has been willing to get to two strike counts this year because he knows he has the contact skills to still put the ball in play, and the increase in selectivity has gotten him into more favorable counts overall.

So, while some corners of the world rail against the A’s for encouraging hitters to not swing, Crisp is a living example of just how this offensive philosophy can work. Instead of becoming a slower, less effective lead-off hitter, Crisp’s turned himself into a guy who gets into good hitter’s counts and swings for the fences. As a result, he’s having the best offensive season of his career, and he’s one of the main reasons why the A’s are in first place in the American League West.

D-Backs Win With Talent, not Grit

Few teams took more public heat than the Arizona Diamondbacks this winter, and for good reason: They seemed to be on the short end of the talent stick in nearly all of their trades. Out went the defense and power of longtime center fielder Chris Young, shipped to the Oakland A’s in a three-way deal that brought back low-offense middle infielder Cliff Pennington and Miami Marlins free agent/bullpen bust Heath Bell. Gone was 21-year-old starter Trevor Bauer, barely more than a year removed from being the No. 3 pick in the draft, for reliever Tony Sipp and the questionable offensive track record of minor league shortstop Didi Gregorius.

Those moves were merely appetizers for the main course: the trade of outfielder Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves despite his being just a year removed from a top-five MVP finish and headed into his age-25 season. Upton (along with third baseman Chris Johnson) brought back Martin Prado and four prospects, and, although Prado had long been a solid, versatile player for the Braves, few would argue he possesses anything like the pure raw skill Upton does.

The tenor of the moves might have been easier to infer if not for the fact that general manager Kevin Towers was more than happy to be upfront with his intentions, even telling reporters, “We kind of like that grinding, gritty player.” In essence, he wanted to remake the team in the image of Kirk Gibson, his famously crusty manager.

So the new gritty direction must be working out, right? Well, not exactly. Prado has been mostly awful, and Pennington has been replacement-level. Willie Bloomquist — the epitome of grit — and outfield import Cody Ross have battled injury while contributing little. Grit is very often associated with small-ball tactics, and this Arizona club doesn’t really play that way; the Diamondbacks rank 26th in stolen bases and are tied for 23rd in bunt hits, and only two other NL teams have fewer sacrifice bunts.

Although there’s certainly an argument to be made for Arizona’s improved clubhouse culture, the Diamondbacks’ current standing atop the NL West isn’t really because of the “grinder” squad. It’s because of talent: They’ve had a few hot starts on both sides of the ball, while facing rivals who have failed to live up to expectations.

Breakout bats

Any discussion of Arizona production starts first and foremost at first base, where Paul Goldschmidt has turned himself into an absolute stud. After a solid first full season in 2012 (.286/.359/.490 with 20 home runs), Goldschmidt has broken out as one of the better hitters in baseball, already collecting 15 homers in 300-plus fewer plate appearances than last year. His line of .313/.390/.565 is impressive, and not only because the resulting .406wOBA is good for third among first basemen, behind Chris Davis and Joey Votto. He’s also among just nine hitters at any position with a mark north of .400. Before this season, Arizona inked the first baseman to a five-year, $32.5 million extension, a move that is quickly looking like a steal, considering that Votto is making more than half of that total in 2013 alone.

The other surprising offensive cog so far — with apologies to productive outfielder Gerardo Parra — has been shortstop Gregorius, who came up in April when second baseman Aaron Hill broke his hand. In parts of five seasons in the Cincinnati Reds’ organization, Gregorius put up an OBP higher than .324 just once, back in rookie ball in 2009, and otherwise had failed to show particularly impressive power or baserunning ability. That, despite flashy defense, made for valid concerns about his future as a major league hitter.

But that didn’t prevent Gregorious from making a big splash this year, hitting .369/.424/.595 in his first 22 games — 14 of which were Arizona victories. But that stretch came with a clearly unsustainable .412 BABIP, and, in the 21 games since, he’s back to a more realistic .241/.330/.329. But those hits (and team wins) from his first few weeks have already been banked.

Electric arms

The pitching staff has its own breakout artist, 23-year-old lefty Patrick Corbin. He didn’t even lock down a spot in the rotation until the final days of camp, but, by June 2, he was the first nine-game winner in the big leagues. Although no one should expect him to keep his ERA around 2.00 through the season, a 3.05 FIPremains solid, and he has been a surprisingly reliable piece in a rotation that has dealt with a poor season from Ian Kennedy and further injury to Brandon McCarthy.

Interestingly enough, Corbin’s peripherals aren’t all that different from those in his rookie season of 2012, when he put up a 4.54 ERA. He’s striking out fewer and walking more batters this year than he did last year, and his ground ball and fly ball rates have remained relatively consistent. What Corbin has done this year is almost completely avoid the big hit, allowing only four homers in 86 2/3 innings after allowing 14 in 107 innings last season.

Corbin, Goldschmidt and Gregorius have been the three most notable names, but the heart of the Diamondbacks’ success comes from the impressive depth Towers has put together. When young outfielder Adam Eaton was injured before the season, rookie A.J. Pollock stepped up to replace him with outstanding defense despite mediocre offense. Eaton, Ross and Jason Kubel have all missed time in a revolving-door outfield, but Parra has been there with a line of .322/.388/.475 that makes him a borderline All-Star candidate. And, in the bullpen, Bell has been good enough to revive his career as he has replaced injured J.J. Putz in the ninth inning.

Should Arizona’s success be attributed to grit, talent or foresight? It’s difficult to say. The simple fact that Arizona is in first place is a pretty effective rebuke to those who laughed at its offseason strategy. That said, the team, as a whole, hasn’t been spectacular in any particular way.

On offense, the Diamondbacks rank 14th in wOBA, sitting between two losing clubs, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Milwaukee Brewers. On the mound, the pitching staff ranks 15th in FIP and 14th in ERA. By those metrics, Arizona is, perhaps, the most average team in the big leagues.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the NL West has been weaker than expected. The defending-champion San Francisco Giants are struggling to stay above .500 as their once-vaunted rotation falls apart, and the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers have been a total mess as their roster has been destroyed by injury. Arizona’s 37-29 record is the lowest winning percentage of any division leader, and it has had difficulty pulling away from the struggling pack.

Although Corbin and Gregorius can’t be expected to maintain their early performances all season, their slides might be mitigated by the healthy returns of Eaton, Hill and Putz and the expected return to form of Prado. As its division rivals try to get back on their feet, Arizona looks positioned for a season-long run at the playoffs — regardless of the particular intangibles driving its success.

Bronson Arroyo, Junkballer Extraordinaire

Two years ago, Bronson Arroyo was the very worst pitcher in Major League Baseball. Despite pitching in the DH-free National League, Arroyo led the Majors by allowing 46 home runs, 11 more than the next highest guy, who just happened to pitched in Texas, an offensive haven in the AL, where pitchers don’t get to face other pitchers. Arroyo gave up 15 more home runs than the next highest NL starter. By FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement, Arroyo was worth -1.4 wins, meaning the Reds would have been better had they just swapped him out for some dude from Triple-A.

At that point, Arroyo was a 34-year-old with a batting practice fastball who had just taken a run at the Major League record for home runs allowed in a season. He’d had a good reason as a big league pitcher, experiencing more success than anyone ever expected, but this looked like the end. Hitters had figured him out. Whatever magic he had used to get hitters out with his 87 mph heater had been used up.

Well, two years later, Arroyo is not only still around, he’s having one of his best seasons to date. The 36-year-old Arroyo has remade himself once again, and the pitcher the Cardinals will face on Sunday Night is not the same guy who was throwing BP back in 2011.

While he still throws the same basic assortment of pitches — four seam fastballl, two seam fastball, curveball, and change-up — as he always has, Arroyo’s variation on his arm angles and velocities have always made it seem like he’s throwing 10 different pitches. As he told David Laurila back in March:

I really don’t throw that many pitches, but I throw a lot of variations of my pitches. I throw a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a sinker, a curveball and a changeup. I cut the ball once in a blue moon.

[Pitch/FX] is reading a lot of different things, but what’s happening is that I’m taking my breaking ball and changing angles on it. I’m changing velocities on it. A lot of times, if I bring it more sweepy, they’re going to calculate it as a slider. If I throw it a little differently, they’re going to calculate it as a curveball. It’s the same pitch, I’m just changing arm angles.

I also might throw a four-seam fastball to start the game, at 80 mph. They might chalk that up as a changeup. There’s a lot of give and take in my game. I’m adding and subtracting a lot of velocities on different pitches that aren’t moving a ton. Sometimes if you throw an 80 mph little cutter, they might think it’s a changeup.

Other guys are a little more straightforward. It’s whap, whap, whap: Two-seamer, four-seamer, 93, 94, good breaking ball, and once in awhile, a changeup. That’s all there is. No variation. I could never get away with that. If I pitched like that, I’d get beat around the ballpark every night.

Back in 2011, Arroyo’s pitch mix looked like one giant cluster. He hit nearly every single velocity between 67 and 92, and all those pitches started to blend together. Here’s a PITCHF/x plot of every pitch Arroyo threw in 2011.


Most pitchers have distinct clusters. Their fastball is separate from their change-up, and their breaking ball often goes the opposite direction. Arroyo, though, through the kitchen sink at opposing hitters, and a lot of those pitches ended up over the fence.

This year, though, Arroyo has been a bit more conventional, giving some separation to the types of pitches he throws. Here’s that same plot, just for 2013.


The four seam fastball has been almost entirely replaced by his sinker, and he’s stopped throwing the flat breaking ball that doesn’t move that much, instead dropping his curve with more consistent movement while still varying the velocity. The result? He’s not hanging meatballs over the heart of the plate anymore.

According to his Brooks Baseball Pitcher Profile card, which shows the locations of each pitch as recorded by PITCHF/x, 8.6% of the pitches Arroyo threw in 2011 were middle-middle, right where hitters can barrel up the baseball. And it wasn’t just get-over fastballs in 3-0 counts when Arroyo knew the hitter wouldn’t swing either, these were low velocity breaking balls just floating down the middle of the strike zone. That year, 11.4% of his breaking balls were located in the most central part of the strike zone.

This year, that rate is down to 8.1%, and it’s made all the difference in the world. This year, he’s thrown 622 change-ups and curveballs, allowing just five home runs on those off-speed pitches, a rate of one HR every 124 pitches. In 2011, he allowed 25 home runs on 1,404 change-ups and curveballs, a rate of one HR ever 56 pitches.

Arroyo depends on deception and location to get batters out, and in the past, he was willing to experiment with so many different arm angles and velocities that some of them just ended up spinning in the middle of the plate. By streamlining the variations on his pitches, Arroyo has managed to eliminate most of the pitches that opposing hitters jumped all over. By becoming somewhat more predictable in what he throws, Arroyo has become harder to hit, because the extra variations on his velocity and movement were leading to hanging breaking balls in the heart of the plate.

Sometimes, less really is more. For Arroyo, scrapping the four-seam fastball and giving his breaking ball more consistent movement has helped him get his home run rate back under control, and now Arroyo again looks like a guy who very well might just pitch in his forties.

Beware of Trading for Giancarlo Stanton

After more than a month on the sidelines recovering from an injured right hamstring, Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton finally began a minor-league rehab assignment this week. Barring a setback, that puts him on track to rejoin the team in the next several days. And when he does, the Marlins will have added much more than simply their starting right fielder. They will have regained potentially the most valuable trading chip in the game, at least among those players with a realistic chance to be moved this year.

It’s not at all hard to see why other teams would covet Stanton so much. He’ll play the entirety of this season at just 23 years of age, and he needs only four more home runs to become the 21st player in big league history to hit 100 homers through their age-23 season. With a big second half, he could conceivably get himself into the top 10 of that list, which is littered with inner-circle greats like Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. In the entire history of baseball (minimum 1,500 plate appearances), there’s exactly nine men with a higher isolated power mark than Stanton’s .276, and there again you’ll find the names of all-time elites like Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols and Babe Ruth.

On most teams, Stanton’s combination of production, youth and team control — he will only be arbitration-eligible for the first time next season and can’t be a free agent until after the 2016 season — would make him an absolute untouchable. But of course the Marlins are not most teams, and as one of the few survivors of last winter’s teardown, Stanton made his unhappiness towards the club clear. So as Stanton returns and (presumably) begins to mash again for the worst team in baseball, the trade winds around him will only continue to increase.

Nearly every team in baseball will show some interest. The price, understandably, will be massive. But for as great and rare a player as Stanton is, there’s a small but growing worry: for interested teams, the best Stanton move might be the one that isn’t made at all.

On the field, there’s little not to like about Stanton. But it’s the term “on the field” that’s key here. So far, he has been absent for 40 of Miami’s first 60 games of the season; since the start of the 2011 season through Thursday, Stanton has missed 93 games, and that figure doesn’t even count the weeks at a time of spring training that he’s been sidelined for as well.

Rather than one large injury robbing him of a chunk of time, Stanton keeps missing games because of various smaller problems. In 2011, he missed nearly a month of spring training with a right quadriceps strain, then missed 11 games during the season with aches to his hamstring and toe. Last year, he again missed much of camp due to soreness in his left knee. After being sidelined for a full month of the summer thanks to right knee surgery, he came back in time to sit out again in September with a right oblique strain.

Even this year, the hamstring hasn’t been his only concern; he missed a week of games in April thanks to a sore left shoulder, then had his hamstring rehab slowed in late May by soreness in both knees when he began to jog. That’s a considerable list of injuries for someone so young, and it’s especially concerning because of the types of problems we’re seeing. Stanton hasn’t been dealing with freak occurrences like broken bones or on-field collisions; he’s almost entirely been dealing with strains, pulls and pains. Continued injuries to knees and hamstrings can quickly become chronic woes, and health is rarely a skill that usually improves with age. We’ve already seen the impact his spring training and early-season woes can have on his performance; somewhat shockingly, he has never hit a homer before April 21, and his initial long balls the last two years have come on April 29 and 27 respectively.

While no one questions Stanton’s toughness, the concern is that he is an extremely large man in a sport that is often unfriendly to those of his size. Stanton is listed on the Major League Baseball website as being 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, and only two players have ever met each of those specifications while sticking around long enough to collect as many plate appearances as Stanton already has — Adam Dunn and Frank Howard. In fact, only one other hitter that large has ever collected as many as a mere 300 career plate appearances aside from that trio, and that’s Kyle Blanks of the San Diego Padres. Blanks is just 26 but has seen his once-promising career almost ruined by multiple trips to the disabled list, including 2010 and 2012 seasons nearly lost entirely to injury (he has yet to play in more than 55 games in a season). Though Dunn and Howard were prolific sluggers who played into their 30s, the fact that they stand as the only two ever other than Stanton to make a career out of being that large isn’t exactly a promising sign.

The amount of injuries that have already slowed Stanton should raise a significant red flag for those teams looking to acquire him. But even that won’t stop the interest. After all, how nice would Stanton look in Texas, replacing the struggling David Murphy on a team that already has a loaded roster? Or in Chicago, joining with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to form the offensive core of the next great Cubs team? Or in Seattle, which has plenty of young pitching but can’t seem to ever develop power from within? Due to Stanton’s age and time remaining before free agency, his market is unique in that it won’t be limited only to those teams looking to win in 2013.

That means that the Marlins can essentially name their price, and that’s where some of the biggest prospect names in baseball are going to come into play. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine the Rangers acquiring Stanton without giving up Jurickson Profar and probably more. You might say the same about the Pirates and Gerrit Cole, or the Mariners and Taijuan Walker. To pry loose a player who has already accomplished as much as Stanton has at such a young age, teams can expect to empty their farm systems.

In this new age of teams locking up top young players long before they reach free agency, Stanton’s availability on the market — assuming that either he won’t want to remain in Miami or that the Marlins won’t be able to afford him, which are each equally likely — is a rarity. That’s going to put the Marlins in a very enviable position should they choose to shop Stanton around, and some team is going to give up a huge ransom for him. But for as wonderful a player as Stanton can be when healthy, it’s the teams that don’t trade for him that might end up happiest.

Tigers Can Upgrade Defense By Benching Their DH

The Detroit Tigers currently sit in first place in the American League Central, and they do so in no small part thanks to an embarrassment of starting pitching riches. For all the valid concern over Justin Verlander’s declining velocity, he remains an ace who is striking out a career-high 11.18 per nine innings. Behind him, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer are each in the midst of career years, giving the Tigers three of the top four starting pitchers in terms of strikeouts per nine. As great as all three have been, not one of them limits walks or home runs like Doug Fister does; he would be a top-tier starter on many teams but is merely a No. 4 in Detroit.

As you might expect, advanced pitching statistics simply love this quartet. Sanchez (first), Verlander (third) and Scherzer (sixth) all rank among the elite starting pitchers in baseball this season when measured by Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Fister comes in at a more-than-respectable 16th, right behind Yu Darvish, meaning that one out of every four starting pitchers in the top 16 of FIP calls Detroit home. As a result, the collective 2.54 FIP of Tigers starters is the best in MLB (through Thursday).

Yet when you look at ERA, Detroit’s starters have a 3.62 mark, and that gap between ERA and FIP of more than an entire run is pretty massive as far as these things go. By contrast, just two other teams in baseball so far have rotations with as much as a half-run distance between their ERA and FIP.

But simply pointing out the Tigers are topping the baseball world in ERA-FIP in 2013 understates this concern by a great deal. Somewhat unbelievably, the 2013 Tigers are on pace to become the first team since the 1942 Washington Senators — and only the second in the past century — to have a rotation gap of more than a run between what the raw performance indicates they should have (FIP) and what the actual performance has been (ERA).

Typically, when you have a large gap between ERA and FIP, bad defense and/or luck are the culprits. The Tigers have one of the worst defenses in baseball, but they can solve all of their problems with one simple move: benching Victor Martinez.

Porous defense

Pitcher ERA FIP
Sanchez 2.79 1.86
Verlander 3.68 2.26
Scherzer 3.42 2.39
Fister 3.65 2.88
Porcello 5.29 3.92

It might seem counterintuitive to improve your defense by benching the DH, a guy who never touches a glove, but allow me to explain.

Detroit’s starters have allowed a .327 BABIP, the third highest in baseball. Although general manager Dave Dombrowski has done his best to mitigate the issue by loading his rotation with high-strikeout performers, the Tigers’ defense has largely done a poor job of turning balls in play into outs, ranking 28th in defensive efficiency. The Tigers also rate poorly in terms of defensive runs saved (25th) and UZR/150(23rd); although defensive stats aren’t above reproach in small samples, those rankings certainly pass the sniff test.

The primary culprits there are third baseman Miguel Cabrera, first baseman Prince Fielderand center fielder Austin Jackson, each of whom ranks in the bottom seven at his respective position (minimum 100 innings) according to DRS. While Jackson had previously ranked as a decent outfielder and a third of a season of defensive statistics shouldn’t be overemphasized, Cabrera and Fielder have long been regarded as below-average defenders.

The often leaky defense didn’t stop the Tigers last season when they went on a run to the World Series with much of the same lineup, and it hasn’t prevented them from getting off to a good start in 2013. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement to assist a pitching staff that is getting little defensive support, and when we’re seeing an ERA-FIP gap that hasn’t been seen in more than seven decades, there’s definitely a reason to upgrade.

Martinez, 34, has a .225/.275/.307 line, making him the least productive designated hitter in baseball. If we remove the “DH” requirement, it somehow looks worse, since Martinez’s .255 wOBA puts him in the bottom 14 of all hitters, and when your DH is looking up at guys like Zack Cozart and Ben Revere, that’s not a great position to be in.

Martinez was expected to be a nice re-addition to the Tigers’ lineup after missing 2012 due to a knee injury, but instead he is on the verge of career worsts in both walk rate and strikeout rate. The hole he’s causing at designated hitter, giving negative value at the plate and none in the field, sets up the dominoes in such a way that one move could improve the Tigers at a few spots.

That move, of course, is to find a defensive improvement at third base, and that’s no slight intended to Cabrera. He deserves a good deal of credit for taking a position switch that seemed laughable at the time and actually making it work, all the while continuing his offensive dominance. “Being better than most thought” isn’t quite the same as being a plus at the position, however, and with Martinez contributing little, the Tigers could be better served by moving one of their two designated hitters in the infield corners (or both, in a 1B/DH time-share) off the field while keeping them each in the daily lineup.

The good news here is that the bar is relatively low for this, because anyone the Tigers might get wouldn’t have to be replacing the reigning AL MVP — though it might be portrayed by some that way. He would merely need to be better than Cabrera on defense and Martinez on offense, and to be even league average in those areas would greatly improve Detroit on both sides of the ball.

Possible solutions

So whom might the Tigers look at? Former third baseman of the future Nick Castellanos is playing outfield in Triple-A these days and still needs work at the plate, so any improvement here would likely come from outside the organization. GM Dave Dombrowski could go in one of two directions.

Detroit could look for a defensively gifted glove-first man at third, figuring that merely the offensive equivalent to Martinez would still be an improvement if it came with a big fielding upgrade over Cabrera. While the names in this group aren’t exactly going to sell tickets, the upshot is the cost of acquisition ought to be minimal. Dombrowski could look to Houston for Matt Dominguez, or to Los Angeles for Luis Cruz or Juan Uribe, or to Cincinnati for little-used Jack Hannahan. None is a plus at the plate — though Uribe has surprisingly turned himself into a walk machine this year — but they just need to approximate what Martinez has provided to be worthwhile, and each ranks as good-to-excellent with the glove.

Another option would be to target a glove-first shortstop, such as Brendan Ryan, and shift shortstop Jhonny Peralta to third, a position he has played in the past. Peralta is not known for his range at short, and you could potentially improve two spots with such a move.

Or, as seems to be more the team’s style, the Tigers could go big. They have made it to the World Series and lost it twice in the past seven years; it has now been nearly three decades since the 1984 team took home the title. As Cabrera and Verlander enter their 30s, Dombrowski could decide the time is right to make a big splash by trading a prospect package with names like Castellanos, outfielder Avisail Garcia and/or pitcher Drew Smyly for a more established third base name like Chase Headley or Kyle Seager.

As long as the Tigers’ rotation keeps up its excellent performance — as does the bullpen, which has combined for a 9.91 K/9, third-best in baseball — Detroit can get by despite a subpar defense. But it’s difficult to think that continuing to post an ERA-FIP gap larger than we’ve seen since before Jackie Robinson’s time is acceptable, and as the trading season heats up, Dombrowski would do well to take advantage of an empty designated hitter spot to better support his otherwise outstanding pitching.