Archive for December, 2015

2016’s Biggest Bust

Normally, we spend this time of the year thinking about good things. The Baby New Year brings with it a fresh outlook. We look excitedly upon our team’s signings and dream of the upcoming season. We hope.

And yet, this is also the time of year when projections come out. Dark, foreboding things, those projections. Rooted only in the harsh reality of numbers, they are a sobering dash of cold water.

Those projections have a particularly tough message of Yoenis Cespedes and his fans. The flashy, powerful outfielder has the biggest gap between last year’s production and next year’s projections. He’s supposed to fall off nearly four wins in production next year by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement statistic, as projected by Steamer. As a free agent, that’s rough thing to be known for.

But the harder you look at this fact, the more it tells you about what Cespedes does well, what he doesn’t do well, and how those strengths line up with how projections work.

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Why the A’s rebuild can’t work like Houston’s or Chicago’s

The Houston Astros seem to have struck gold with a great young shortstop in Carlos Correa, who was a perfect midseason addition to the Astros’ young, talented lineup as the team rode its power and 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner to a playoff berth. The Chicago Cubs have great young position players popping up left and right, and have spent good money in the past 12 or so months to add some reliable veterans to that core. Both teams appear to have very bright futures.

The Oakland Athletics, meanwhile, just signed a reliever with a lengthy injury history to a three-year deal (Ryan Madson) and traded away their 25-year-old third baseman (Brett Lawrie) for two mid-level pitching prospects.

It’s fair to question those moves. It’s fair to wonder why they seem to be moving in two directions at once. In fact, it’s fair to ask where the team is headed, to ask what in the world A’s executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane is up to now.

So I did.

At last week’s baseball winter meetings, I asked Beane, he of the “Moneyball” fame (book and movie), why he wouldn’t do a tear-it-down, sell-all-assets rebuild like the Cubs and Astros did, like the Braves and Brewers appear to be doing now, and maybe what the Reds are in the early stages of doing. Doesn’t that approach help you get higher draft picks and collect talent for your next run? Doesn’t that help you find those young, cost-controlled players that drive winning teams?

Beane saw things differently — and uniquely, of course.

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Jordan Zimmermann, a value at $100 million

It took five years and $110 million for the Detroit Tigers to bring right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann into the fold. That’s hardly a small token, though these days, that still qualifies as a second-tier contract among starting pitchers. If you look at traditional rate stats — strikeouts and walks, for example — Zimmermann clearly belongs in that second tier; he’s not the pitcher guys like Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have been over the past five years. He also doesn’t have their stuff, at least not when judged by the strikeout. What Zimmermann does have is much harder to get a handle on. The basic term would probably be his unique command, but it’s not an easy thing to put your finger on when it comes to stats.

A pitcher with great command might intentionally throw a ball outside the zone — even at the risk of walking a hitter — on purpose. So we can’t just use walk rate to determine command. But pitchers with great command also have a tendency to get to two strikes quickly without being damaged as hitters sit back and look for better pitches to hit. Elite pitchers also can do this, but more because hitters can’t hit their pitches, and the elite guys can also finish off hitters with that stuff. But in many cases, what makes a second-tier pitcher just that is they don’t have that put-away stuff.

That definitely describes Zimmermann, whose 7.32 K/9 rate ranked 50th of 78 qualifying pitchers. But here’s the thing about the Wisconsin native: When it comes to getting to two strikes, Zimmermann is among the elite. And though the swinging (or called) strike three is a lot more glorious, as it’s the surest way to get the out, Zimmermann has proven just as effective as getting hitters out once he gets two strikes.

The relative lack of K’s, the “second-tier” label … these are reasons Zimmermann, still in the prime of his career at age 29, could be had for $22 million per year versus the bigger dollar figures we’ve seen in recent years. But here’s the thing: He’s a better value than many of those making more money, including the aforementioned Hamels and Lester, and here’s why:

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