Monday, May 30, 2011

What The Heck? Cleveland Is The Reason Edition

It’s been a bit of a strange year in baseball up to this point. Though we’re two months into the season now, it’s still nearly impossible to tell the contenders from the pretenders, and several of the teams who have established themselves as potential playoff clubs were widely considered to be longshots as the season began. Similarly, many teams most agreed would be in the hunt now have a long climb to get back into the playoff picture. Over the next few days, I’ll go over some of the more surprising teams and attempt to figure out whether we should readjust our expectations or simply wait for things to even out over the balance of the season. First up, and almost certainly the biggest shocker of 2011 so far, is the Cleveland Indians.

Currently holding the best record in the AL, the upstart Indians are 31-20 and five games up on Detroit, their closest competitors. Despite the fifth-lowest payroll in the league, the Indians have been competitive on both sides of the ball, as they’re currently fourth in the AL in both runs scored and runs allowed, and lead their division in both categories. With just the right combination of breakouts, resurgences, and solid all-around play, Cleveland has shown no signs of letting up after a ridiculously hot start.

Offensively, Asdrubal Cabrera has been the star of the show. Cabrera has been something of a role player the past few years, as he followed his career high 3.2 WAR in 2009 with a weak 2010 in which he put up only 0.7 WAR in 97 games. This season, however, he’s up to 1.9 WAR in less than a third of the campaign, and has already topped his career high in home runs with 10 in the early going. Cabrera’s hitting the ball with authority, as his .229 ISO demonstrates (career .125), and his 155 wRC+ currently leads all shortstops. He’s hitting more fly balls than at any other point in his career, and 15.2% of those fly balls have left the yard thus far. I’d expect that number to come down, as his career 6.5% HR/FB is probably a more reasonable estimate for Cabrera’s true power. It seems very unlikely that he went from being on par with Jacoby Ellsbury (6.4% career HR/FB) to Ken Griffey Jr. (15.2% career) longball ability. Still, Cabrera seems to have turned a corner with the bat, and has become a premier two-hole hitter in a suddenly potent lineup.

Also in the midst of an impressive breakout is outfielder Michael Brantley. After two straight seasons of negative WAR values, Brantley is at 1.0 a third of the way through the season. Though his .110 ISO isn’t exactly impressive, it reflects a power surge compared to his .068 mark before this season, and he’s walking at a much higher rate than last year as well. If Brantley can continue to hit the ball hard and get on base enough to utilize his above-average speed (he stole 46 bases in two-thirds of a triple-A season in 2009), he could be a valuable part of Cleveland’s lineup.

Before his recent oblique injury, Travis Hafner seemed to have regained the form that made him the best DH in baseball from 2004-2006. That resurgence, however, was largely based on his AL-leading .415 BABIP. Though Pronk’s career .320 is higher than one might expect from a lumbering slugger, he’s likely to experience a sizable regression when he does return. However, there are reasons to think other Indians hitters may be hitting below their potential, meaning they could balance out Hafner’s fall by picking up the pace. Shin-Soo Choo is currently on pace for his worst year since his 2009 breakout, in large part due to a .308 BABIP well below his .355 career mark. Though it might be unreasonable to expect him to match his incredible career mark, I’d expect his OBP to rise closer to the levels that made him so valuable over the last two years. Similarly, Carlos Santana has been well below his prolific rookie-year numbers. He’s had almost exactly as much time in the majors this season as he did last year (same games, one more plate appearance), but has only 1.2 WAR after his impressive 1.9 before his season-ending injury (and his 141 wRC+ that led all rookies). Santana’s put up a pitiful .227 BABIP this season, and though it’s not surprising that he’d be doing poorly in that category given that he’s not hitting the ball with any sort of authority (12.0% LD rate), you’d have to expect that will pick up somewhat. He hasn’t had enough of a major league career to establish a baseline expectation in the category, but his true talent level is certainly better than his current rate, the lowest among all major league backstops.

On the mound, Justin Masterson has been extremely effective, putting up a 3.36 FIP. He’s more than halfway to his WAR total from last year in a third of the starts. However, this success is largely fueled by a puny 5.3% HR/FB rate, and Masterson’s taken a step back from his moderately decent strikeout rates and AL-leading groundball rate last campaign. Though there is some truth to his hot start, I wouldn’t expect him to maintain the sterling numbers he’s put up thus far. Fausto Carmona started out strong, but has cooled off over the past couple weeks, as he’s allowed 16 runs in his past three starts.

Cleveland’s bullpen has been a huge reason for its success, as their relievers are currently the best in their division. However, their underlying statistics suggest that they could soon fall back to earth, as many of the men at the back of the bullpen have been the benefactors of some very favorable luck in the early going. Vinny Pestano, Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, and Joe Smith have been strong but figure to act a little more human over the balance of the season. Nowhere has this has been more evident, however, than in the numbers of closer Chris Perez. Perez’s 14 saves lead the AL, and his 2.66 ERA also sits among the league leaders, while he’s blown only one save thus far. However, his 5.31 K/9 and 29.3% groundball rate are far below both what he’s put up in the past and what you’d like to see from a dominant closer, as his ugly 5.18 xFIP demonstrates. Expect Perez to give up a few more ninth-inning leads as the season continues.

While the Indians will likely be able to continue scoring runs at a fairly impressive rate, I’d expect their run prevention to be slightly less successful for the remainder of the year. However, they’ve built up an impressive lead in the division, as their five game gap is the best of any division leader at this point. I’d be surprised if the Tribe continue to win three out of every five games, and they’ve cooled off a bit lately, as they’re only .500 in their last 10 games. However, they will attempt to maintain their advantage in the divisional standings, and at this point I’d have to say they’ll be at least in the mix for a playoff spot when September rolls around. One of the more intriguing questions for the rest of the season will continue to be whether the Indians are contenders or pretenders, and for now I’m saying they’re a little of both. Next time, we’ll take a look at a certain school of Fish who are impressing the baseball world by keeping pace with a couple of high-powered division rivals.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here?

Last night, the San Francisco Giants’ quest to repeat got a heck of a lot tougher. As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, star backstop Buster Posey suffered a horrific injury, fracturing his left ankle in a collision at home plate (don't click that link if you've got a weak stomach) in the top of the 12th inning of last night’s ballgame against the Marlins. Scott Cousins scored the eventual winning run on the play, but that was the least of the World Champs’ concerns. Though the play certainly wasn’t dirty, many (including Posey’s agent) have called for the elimination of such plays in baseball in order to protect catchers, who too often are blindsided when plays at the plate occur. Cousins (in a bizarre twist, a Bay Area native who played his college ball for the University of San Francisco), for his part, immediately checked on Posey after the play and felt extremely remorseful afterward.

Incredibly, there’s still a chance Posey could play again this season. Giants’ in-game reporter Amy Gutierrez tweeted just hours ago that manager Bruce Bochy told her that based on Posey’s MRIs he thinks Posey will return by the end of the campaign. She later tweeted that trainer Dave Groeschner predicts 6-8 weeks of rehab, although it could be more. Whether Posey makes it back by the end of 2011 or not, that’s a huge hole in the Giants’ lineup that leaves Giants’ executives and fans asking; “What do we do now?”

The way I see it, there are two main options. The Giants’ backup catcher. Eli Whiteside, has taken over the position for the time being. While Whiteside is an excellent backup, he’s not an everyday starter on a contending team. The Giants have already begun looking for replacement options, though as the Red Sox could tell them, the catching market is quite thin. The Nationals are one of few teams with any sort of catching depth, as Pudge Rodriguez has been relegated to bench duties while Wilson Ramos continues his strong rookie year at the plate. Ramos, acquired from the Twins in exchange for Matt Capps at last year’s trading deadline, was a fairly highly regarded prospect, and has been living up to the hype thus far. The Giants have already contacted the Nats about acquiring Pudge, which is probably the best of several mediocre options. Otherwise, they could always attempt to convince Bengie Molina to strap on the tools of ignorance and delay his retirement, but regular readers know how I feel about Molina.

If they acquire Rodriguez (or another catcher), the Giants will be at a crossroads. I don’t do moral victories. If the Giants don’t believe they can make the playoffs, my general strategy is to trade any player who won’t be able to help them do so in the future, as in my view the difference between going 81-81 and 75-87 is essentially nothing. If the current guys on expiring contracts won’t get you to the promised land, move them to contenders in exchange for prospects and younger players who could help produce a winning ballclub in the future.

However, this would seem to be quite the waste, especially considering the nearly unparalleled rotation the team currently boasts. I believe that, given the strength of their pitching, the Giants still have a chance to get close to a playoff spot, despite the removal of the centerpiece from their already anemic (170 runs scored, worst in the NL) offense. With a few savvy adds at the trade deadline, this team could still contend, and try to make a run at a repeat especially if Posey is able to return for the stretch run and postseason. However, this will require the addition of some offense to at least replace part of what they lose with the elimination of the defending rookie of the year. Though Jose Reyes to San Francisco rumors already abounded before Posey’s injury, I believe the Giants’ front office should now be considering acquiring Reyes more concretely than ever. With the likely price tag of 2009 first-round (6th overall) draft pick Zach Wheeler, a Reyes rental would cost a bundle. However, Reyes would solidify the team at a position in which they’ve struggled mightily. Mike Fontenot, Emmanuel Burris, and offseason add Miguel Tejada have combined for a total of 0.1 WAR at short, tying the Giants with the Reds for the least production from the position of any National League team. Meanwhile, Reyes’ 2.5 WAR is tops among shortstops by a large margin. Reyes, 28, has upped his game in this, his contract year, as his strikeout rate has dropped below 10% for the first time in his career and his .366 OBP would set a new high for a single season should he sustain that level of production. The Mets seem to be teetering on the edge of entering full rebuild mode with Sandy Alderson at the helm, and moving Reyes would be the logical place to start. By acquiring the star shortstop, the Giants could also set themselves up as the favorites to sign him to a long-term deal when he hits free agency next offseason, although acquiring him now would by no means ensure that Reyes would remain by the Bay long-term.

With Reyes in the fold, the Giants chances of emerging victorious in the mediocre NL West would improve significantly, especially if top prospect Brandon Belt can begin living up to his potential in his second big-league tour of duty this season and Aubrey Huff can turn his season around. Andres Torres recently returned to the team after a DL stint following an early-season Achilles injury, and third baseman Pablo Sandoval is likely to rejoin the team in the near future. If the club can add an offensive piece to bolster their run producing power and provide a little more support for their outstanding starting staff, this could very well be a playoff team, even without its Sophomore stud. If Posey does make it back by the end of the season and contributes as even a fraction of his former self, such an acquisition could position them well for another deep playoff run.

What the Giants can’t do, however, is nothing. At this point, my main fear is that the team is in no-man’s-land; not bad enough to instigate a full-on rebuild, but not good enough to seriously contend for October baseball. The franchise can take a second to regroup, decide on a course of action, and see what the division standings look like a little closer to the trade deadline in slightly more than two months. However, at that time, they need to determine whether they are buyers or sellers, and act decisively in one of those two roles.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Big Name, Big Stuff... The Whole Package

I’m a sucker for great names in baseball. It’s why I’m glad to see Coco Crisp putting together what looks to be a productive year in Oakland, and so disappointed at the sudden end of the Milton Bradley saga. Fortunately, Bradley’s place in my heart has been filled by a rookie out in Detroit with a name that’s equally fantastic, if not more so. The reason he’s worth writing a blog about: his excellent name has some excellent numbers to go with it, at least thus far.

Al Alburquerque (say that ten times fast), a 24-year-old righty who’s bounced around quite a bit in his 5-year professional career, has found a home in Detroit’s bullpen. A native Dominican, Alburquerque signed with the Cubs at age 17, progressing through the club’s minor league system despite inflated ERAs due to some impressive stuff. He produced double-digit strikeout rates in rookie ball and Low-A, but struggled with control as he maintained high walk rates throughout his minor league career.

As a 23-year-old in High-A in 2009, Alburquerque dropped his walk rate slightly (although his 3.6 BB/9 still wasn’t stellar, especially considering the less discerning hitters at that level), and put up an impressive 11.4 K/9 over the first half of the season. The Rockies, likely enticed by Alburquerque’s sky-high K rate, sent Jeff Baker to the Cubs to acquire him and immediately assigned Alburquerque to Double-A. Over the next year, his numbers declined slightly, as his walk rate rose while his K rate dropped to a much less impressive 8.4/9. At the end of the 2010 season, Alburquerque was granted free agent status, catching on with the Tigers. The team initially assigned him to Triple-A, but after putting up 8 strikeouts in four scoreless innings, he was called up to the Big Show to augment Detroit’s struggling bullpen. The Tigers’ relievers currently boast a league-worst 5.50 ERA, though the pen’s 4.18 xFIP suggests that that has been partially a product of some bad luck.

Though the rest of the pen has underachieved thus far, Alburquerque as shown he may have what it takes to develop into a late-inning relief ace. His 15.92 K/9 currently lead all pitchers with more than 10 innings pitched, as his 23 strikeouts in 13 innings suggest he could be an intriguing late-game option. Though his ERA of 3.46 is nothing special for a reliever, his 1.69 FIP demonstrates that he has the potential to be much better. Alburquerque has only given up runs in two of his ten appearances, but both times he’s allowed multiple runners to cross the plate. He’s given up multiple walks on both occasions, never walking more than one batter in any of his scoreless outings. Alburquerque’s 6.23 BB/9 is weighed on heavily by these two appearances, but on nights when he can find the strike zone consistently, he’s been simply unstoppable, putting up a much-improved (although still somewhat wild) 3.2 BB/9 and a ridiculous 16.9 K/9. If he can get his good stuff going more consistently and avoid blow-up outings such as the ones he struggled through on April 19 in Seattle (0.2 IP, 2 BB, 2 ER) and May 11 in Minnesota (0.2 IP, 3 BB, 3 ER), he could be considered for set-up duties in place of struggling free agent signing Joaquin Benoit.

Alburquerque’s success relies heavily on his 84.7 MPH slider, which he throws on 64.3% of offerings. Though he’ll throw it in any count, his use of the pitch increases as he gets deeper into at-bats, as with two strikes he’s thrown his slider 77% of the time. He complements that pitch with a blazing 94.6 MPH fastball. Between his two offerings, Alburquerque has achieved a 15.5% swinging strike rate, third best in the AL, suggesting his incredible strikeout rate may be sustainable. Even when opponents have put the bat on the ball, Alburquerque has been able to induce mostly harmless contact, with opponents hitting the ball on the ground 55.5% of the time. That’s the 11th highest groundball rate among AL relievers, meaning Alburqurque’s among the best in baseball at the two most important things that make pitchers successful; striking batters out, and making them hit the ball on the ground when they don’t. Alburquerque’s high walk rate looks a little less ugly when you consider that many of those ground balls create chances for double plays to erase any bases he does give up on free passes.

With his heavy reliance on a filthy slider, mind-blowing strikeout rate, control troubles, and Dominican origin, it seems only natural to compare him to countryman Carlos Marmol. Only there are two main differences. First, Marmol hasn’t done nearly as well on batted balls in his career, as only a third of the contact against him goes for balls on the ground, while he’s allowing fly balls (and the possibility for home runs, especially devastating for pitchers who do allow walks on a regular basis) on more than half of balls in play. Second, both of Alburquerque’s offerings are roughly 3 MPH faster than Marmol’s, although that difference is exaggerated by a reduction in Marmol’s velocity so far this year. Still Marmol’s fastball has never averaged above the 94.1 MPH he put up last year, while Alburquerque’s has been at 94.6 and climbing this season. Though it remains to be seen if he can match the Chicago closer’s success over a sustained period of time, Alburquerque has the potential to become a strong contributor to the back end of Detroit’s bullpen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Potential Yankees-Red Sox Deal (Sort Of)

The Yankees have a problem. Last night, Jorge Posada pulled himself from the Yankees’ lineup after seeing that Joe Girardi had penciled him in at the nine spot, which would’ve been his first time hitting at the bottom of the lineup in exactly a dozen years. Conflicting reports surfaced, with GM Brian Cashman saying on-air that Posada removed himself because of his lineup placement, while Posada stated that he’d pulled himself because of concerns about soreness in his back. Cashman disputed this, saying that Posada hadn’t consulted with Yankees team doctors or trainers about the injury. The baseball blogosphere caught fire, some speculating that the Yankees would try to cut ties with Posada, potentially voiding his contract. I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen, as the Player’s Union would go absolutely nuts. Posada said today that he had apologized to Girardi and that by pulling himself, he had “let some people down.”

Regardless, even if the issue of Posada’s removing himself blows over, the reasoning behind Girardi’s dropping him to the bottom of his lineup card likely will not; Posada’s been simply awful with the lumber so far this year. His days as a catcher are certainly over, and his days as an employable ballplayer seem as though they might soon follow. In the DH slot, Posada’s only job this year has been to hit, and to put it bluntly, he hasn’t. Posada’s showing his age, as his strikeout rate is the highest it’s been since 2002, his walk rate has dropped over a percent from last year, he’s pairing a career-low line drive rate with a career-high groundball rate, and his wRC+ of 69 is the worst of any designated hitter so far this year. If Posada keeps this up much longer, Girardi will have no choice but to pull him from the lineup altogether rather than simply slotting him ninth. The Bronx Bombers don’t exactly have any other exciting options to DH on their roster, as Andruw Jones and his equally ugly wRC+ of 68 will fill the position tonight.

However, there may be a more attractive option waiting patiently at the Yankees Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Catcher Jesus Montero, the Yankees top prospect and Baseball America’s third overall prospect in its 2011 top 100, is currently in his second year with the Yankees top minor league affiliate after putting up a wRC+ of 132 at the level last season. There’s no question among talent evaluators that his bat is ready for the bigs, but his glove may not be, and he’s not a lock to stick behind the plate (although he’s caught 25 of 28 games for Scranton, major questions about his defense remain) by any stretch of the imagination. The only reason he's still in the minors are those questions about his defensive and game-calling ability. However, if Posada is truly out as DH, the Yankees could call up Montero and slot him in immediately at the position, improving their lineup and allowing Montero to finally earn his well-deserved promotion, as he really has very little left to prove at the minor league level, especially with the bat in his hands. Assuming the Yankees still think he has a shot to be a catcher long-term (and since they’ve been playing him there in the minors, you’d have to believe they do), they could even hand him catching duties once or twice a week. If he’s a DH, his bat is good. If he sticks at catcher, it has a chance to be legendary.

That would give the Yankees a logjam at catcher, as Russell Martin has found new life in pinstripes (although he has cooled off lately after his impressive start) and Francisco Cervelli continues to be a serviceable big leaguer with youth and some sort of upside in his favor. This could be the surplus the Yanks need to pick up a mid-tier starting pitcher at the deadline, assuming they don’t continue to benefit from the surprising resurgences of both Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia (and there are reasons to believe they won’t, especially in Garcia’s case).

The Red Sox have a problem. Whoever they’ve picked to don the tools of ignorance, the results at the plate have been ugly. Red Sox catchers are currently hitting for a brutal wRC+ of 35, second worst in baseball. Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have combined for –0.5 WAR and an average below the Mendoza line, and have touched ‘em all a total of zero times. Theo Epstein and his brain trust have begun to search for potential alternate options, but so far the market is shaping up to be pretty ugly. They’re talking about attempting to convince Bengie Molina to un-retire. As a Giants fan, I had the pleasure of watching Molina for much of last season. Trust me, though the man has had a good career, at this point you don’t want him to be your main option flashing signs from the squat. Other potential options are similarly un-enticing… except for potentially Martin, should the aforementioned move to using Montero as the main DH and backup catcher come to pass.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. The Yankees and Red Sox are not going to make a trade. Never mind that they’re in the same division. With all due respect to the Cubs, Cards, Dodgers, and Giants, this is the biggest, most storied, most intense rivalry in all of sports. The two teams haven’t swapped players in well over a decade. On August 13, 1997, the Sawx sent Mike Stanley and Randy Brown to the Bronx for Tony Armas Jr. (later sent to Montreal as part of the package that netted Boston Pedro Martinez) and Jim Mecir. Since then, the phone lines between the GM’s offices in Yankee Stadium and Fenway have been cold. I’m not going to suggest that Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman will suddenly decide to swap with their bitter rivals, something neither GM has done in their long and successful careers. However, there are pluses on both sides for these teams. For that reason, I’m going to propose an alternative. I’m a huge admirer of Epstein, and so I’m going create a scenario where he gets a little creative.

The year is 1988. Mike Piazza is halfway through his final season under contract with the Dodgers. Though the young backstop had been spectacular in Los Angeles, especially beside the plate, it was quickly becoming clear that the Dodgers were going to have serious trouble resigning their star catcher. Afraid of losing Piazza to free agency without compensation, the Dodgers shipped him to Florida in a massive seven-player deal. Piazza, however, wouldn’t be a Marlin for long. After eight days and just five games with the Fish, he packed his bags again as he was sent to the Mets. New York locked Piazza up on a seven-year, $91 million contract, and he used his time in New York to continue to cement his legendary status as the best offensive catcher in the history of the game. As a former catcher, I’m as big a Johnny Bench fan as you’ll find, but no backstop comes close to matching Piazza’s domination at the plate.

So what does this have to do with the Red Sox catching situation? Let’s say Theo Epstein calls up a fellow GM, asks them to acquire Martin from the Yankees and send him to the Sox. The third team makes whatever deal they feel is best to pick up the object of the Sox’ desire, likely sending a starting pitcher to the Bombers, then takes a prospect from Boston for their trouble. In one fell swoop, the Yankees fix their DH situation by installing Montero, pick up another option for the rotation, and clear out the catching logjam that could result from Montero’s promotion. Likewise, the Red Sox fix their ugly catching situation, picking up a backstop who’s still relatively young and has shown promise in the past, and still has a year of team control remaining as a Super Two in his second-to-last arbitration year. The icing on the cake: the teams don’t have to break their 14-year streak of avoiding transactions between each other, and as a newly minted Yankee, Martin isn’t nearly as stained by the pinstripe stigma as most others in the Bronx, meaning he’d still probably have a chance to catch on and be accepted by Boston’s discerning fans. Sure, it’s a little far-fetched. But as much as these two teams hate each other, they both have glaring flaws, and the ability to hammer out a mutually beneficial deal, even if it does require them to get a little creative to circumvent a direct transaction.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Harmon Killebrew: A Celebration, Not A Memorial

Today, the world of baseball received some extremely sad news. Harmon Killebrew, one of the all-time great players and great men of the sport, is entering hospice care as doctors have informed him that they no longer believe they can cure his esophageal cancer. The 74-year-old Killebrew played for 21 seasons, including 20 with the Washington Senators/ Minnesota Twins franchise. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, hit 573 career home runs and made 13 All-Star teams. He was the AL MVP in 1969, and hit the longest home run in Twins history on June 3, 1967, a towering 520 foot moonshot commemorated today at the Twins’ new home, Target Field, by a statue of a Gold Glove outside the stadium exactly 520 feet from home plate.

To learn more about how Killebrew will live out his remaining days, I interviewed an expert, Amy Markowitz. Ms. Markowitz was the managing editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association’s case-based series on palliative care, titled “Perspectives on Care at the Close of Life.” The series was recently compiled into the textbook “Care at the Close of Life: Evidence and Experience.”  She has spent years writing about hospice and other forms of palliative care and interviewing patients and their families before, during, and after they enter the final stage of their lives. Quite conveniently, she also happens to be my mother. For more on what Killebrew and his loved ones are going through and how they likely made the somber decision to turn to hospice care, I’ll turn it over to her.

Doug Wachter: How is hospice care defined? How does it differ from normal medical procedures? What might typical hospice care consist of?
Amy Markowitz: Unlike what most people understand, hospice is a form of health care service, not a place. Hospice is about providing compassionate care, and is aimed at ensuring comfort and relief of pain and other symptoms for patients who are nearing the end of their lives. It focuses not only on the biomedical and physical symptoms but also the psychological and spiritual needs of patients and their loved ones. Hospice care centers around ensuring the patient is allowed to live out their life with dignity and respect. A person can receive hospice care at home, at a hospital, or in a dedicated hospice facility.

DW: How do the goals of Killebrew’s doctors change now that he has entered hospice care?
AM: Their objectives shift to finding out from Killebrew and his family what they would define as his “goals of care,” are and making sure that the care he receives is aligned with those goals. Some patients would rather tolerate more pain in order to be more alert and enjoy their last days or weeks with their families, whereas others opt to avoid pain as completely as possible, even though they may feel more sedated. This is a very personal choice, and one that is made independently by each patient along with their loved ones. Hospice care is multidisciplinary, and the hospice or palliative care team will try to address the patient’s spiritual and emotional needs in addition to their biomedical needs. His medical team will keep close track of and work tirelessly to alleviate his pain, but he may have other physical symptoms. With Killebrew’s esophageal cancer, these could include dryness of the throat or excess salivation, difficulty or inability to swallow, anxiety, or difficulty breathing. His care staff will ensure that the he is maximally comfortable. Often hospice nurses attend to the patient in their home, but when hospice care is performed in a hospital, often the patient can be in a room that is made to look much more homey than a normal hospital room, with the minimum of equipment. Unlike regular medical care, hospice care that is delivered in hospitals does not have defined visiting hours, allowing patient’s loved ones to remain with the patient as much as they would like. We hope that patients and their families don’t view hospice and palliative care as a “death sentence.” Although patients in hospice no longer get curative treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, there is always treatment available to maximize comfort and relieve any suffering.

DW: Why would a patient choose to enter hospice care?
AM: Hospice is a much more hands-on and intimate form of care for both the patient and their family, to help them at a particularly difficult time of life. A hospice nurse often comes to the home several times per week. While regular doctors are not able to provide this kind of care, hospice teams are specialized to take care of the multidimensional needs of patients reaching the end of their lives.

DW: How long do patients generally remain in hospice care?
AM: Patients are eligible for hospice care if their doctor determines that they are terminally ill and have less than 6 months to live if their illness runs its usual course. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association’s Hospice Care in America factsheet, median hospice stay is only 21 days, although many patients lives could be improved greatly by entering sooner. Many doctors wrongly see turning to hospice as giving up on their patient, although hospice is truly just making the choice to maintain the patient’s quality of life rather than continuing with curative treatments long after the hope for curing the patient’s sickness is essentially gone.

DW: When patients make the decision to go into hospice care, is there usually agreement among the family members? Does the family tend to respect the patient’s decision?
AM: This can often be a point of contention, and before the patient decides to enter hospice the palliative care team will generally meet with the patient and their loved ones to explain the goals and benefits of hospice. Hospice teams are trained experts in mediating discussions between the patient and their family about goals of care.

DW: How do doctors approach the topic of hospice care with patients?
AM: The move to hospice care can come by the doctor calling a meeting with the patient and their family to discuss goals of care when curative measures are no longer effective. Sometimes, however, the patient and family independently make the decision to consider hospice and can ask their care providers to discuss palliative care options.

A person who lived a life as full, rich, and dignified as Harmon Killebrew deserves to live out the close of his life in the same way; with dignity, compassion, and care. Hospice is meant to allow Killebrew and his family to celebrate whatever time is remaining, and remember his great contributions to the game of baseball and the people he loved and who loved him. Let us do the same, as we celebrate the life of one of baseball’s all-time greats.

As Lou Gehrig said in his famous speech as he began to succumb to the disease that is now known by his name, today Killebrew is “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Though Killebrew will soon pass away, he will live on in the minds and hearts of Twins fans and fans of the game everywhere, as one of the most beloved and greatest our wonderful pastime has ever known.

Tulo: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

If you weren’t making your home under a rock this offseason, you know that Troy Tulowitzki signed one of the longest and most lucrative contracts in baseball history this offseason (if you were, you should look into getting WiFi for your makeshift cave so you can keep up with this sort of thing). It made him the only player locked up into the next decade at the time (though Ryan Braun now joins him as the only people in the world who can accurately guess what their lives will look like in 2020). For any player who signs an extension, especially one this big, the stakes are immediately elevated, as Rockies supporters now expect Tulo to perform like the perennial MVP candidate he’s already shown he can be.

In some respects, Tulowitzki is living up to expectations. He currently leads all middle infielders with 9 home runs, and though several second basemen have displayed considerable power, there’s isn’t a shortstop who’s even come close to flashing the pop exhibited by the Rockies’ new $157.75 million dollar man. As Jeff Zimmerman pointed out in his article last month, most of Tulo’s prolific power has come with a newfound dedication to pulling the ball, and that’s held true, as six of his nine home runs have been hit to leftfield.

Tulo’s also shown marked improvement in his plate discipline. After walking in 9.1% of plate appearances last year, Tulo’s taking free passes at a 12.2% rate this season, and has more than halved his strikeout rate from 16.6% last season to 7.8% this year. Tulo’s swinging at less pitches and making contact at a higher rate, as his swing-and-miss percentage of 4.2% is now third among shortstops. He had the eighth-best contact rate of all shortstops last season, so that large improvement goes a long way in explaining his avoidance of strikeouts. Continued improvement in his plate discipline could make the Rockies look like geniuses for ensuring he spends the large majority of his career in purple and white.

However, there is one disturbing trend that goes a long way towards explaining Tulowitzki’s precipitous drop in BABIP, and as is often the case when BABIP drops, batting average. Over the first five seasons of his career, Tulowitzki’s line drive rate has maintained a fairly steady downward trend, and that trend has continued this season, as he’s mustered liners on only 11.9% of balls in play in the early going, a 3.1% drop from last year’s 15%. At the same time, his flyball rate has been slowly rising throughout his career, a large reason for his big home run totals over the last three seasons. Though his power to his pull field has been spectacular, he’s put up his lower line drive and higher ground ball rates hitting to left than he has to center or oppo over each of the last two seasons, a trend that has continued early in this campaign. His pull batted ball rates this year are the worst they’ve been since his breakout 2009 season, as he’s stroking line drives on only 7.9% of hits to left as compared to 12.5% to center and 20.8% to right. His groundball rate of 59.3% when hitting to left is simply atrocious, and plays a huge part in his NL-worst .209 BABIP. Of course, when using splits this early in the season, the sample sizes get even smaller, but this statistic will be something to monitor over the course of the year, especially as it is a continuation (although exaggerated) of a trend he’s displayed since 2009. To me, this would suggest that he’s trying too hard to pull the ball and hit for power, resulting in him rolling over to the left side of the infield and grounding out rather than focusing on simply using his sweet swing to spray the ball consistently to all fields. Though it could result in a slight drop in his power numbers, Tulo would probably benefit from refocusing his efforts from pulling for power to simply going with the pitches he sees and hitting the ball hard. Though the pressure on Tulowitzki has never been higher, his overall production would likely benefit from a more balanced approach at the plate rather than pressing to hit the ball out of the yard as much as possible. Chicks dig the longball, but in Tulo’s case the Rockies should be more interested in his ability to get on base more consistently by reverting to the higher line drive rates he displayed earlier in his career.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Joey Bats Takes a Step Forward

After Jose Bautista’s seemingly out-of-nowhere career year last season, the question for most (including, I’ll admit, myself) wasn’t whether his production would drop in 2011; it was simply a matter of how much the Blue Jays’ newfound Baron of the Bomb would fall. Though most didn’t expect a return to the mediocre production he’d displayed during the first six years of his career, the consensus was that he simply couldn’t keep up the Babe Ruth impression that shocked the baseball world last year.

Well, believe it. Bautista is your current MLB leader in WAR, and several telling statistics suggest that his production is anything but a fluke. Pitchers around baseball have newfound respect for Bautista following his prolific numbers from the last season-plus. Bautista has shown his skill at the plate by adapting to this respect, becoming much more selective and making pitchers pay when they are forced to challenge him. Over the first few years of his career, pitchers felt no need to be careful with Bautista at the plate, as 53.2% of the pitches he saw were in the strike zone. As his power began to emerge last season, pitchers began to treat Bautista more carefully, and as a result 45.3% of the pitches he saw were strikes, the lowest rate of his career. This year, they’ve truly put the kid gloves on with Bautista at the plate, as he’s getting strikes on only 34.2% of pitches. That’s the lowest strike percentage in the league among players qualified for the batting title, cementing Bautista among the most feared hitters in baseball.

Bautista has adjusted to this development better than anyone could’ve expected, dropping his swing rate 8.7% from last season, and is now swinging at only 33% of offerings, making him the third most selective hitter in MLB. The results are staggering, as Bautista is now reaching base in more than half of his plate appearances. After walking in no more than 15% of plate appearances in any other season in his career, Bautista is now taking free passes in over a quarter of his chances. His incredible 25.2% walk rate now leads the league and surpasses his closest competitor, the Mariners’ Jack Cust, by 5.5%. Cust was the last player to finish a season with a walk rate over 20%, back in 2007, so the amount of ball fours taken by Bautista this season is simply unheard of.

Bautista is laying off more pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone, but when he does take a hack, the results have been tremendous. Bautista’s 19.7% line drive rate is a career high, and he’s followed up last year’s career low 31.1% groundball rate with a 32.4% rate this season, 10% below his career average before last season. He’s also continued to reduce his strikeouts, dropping his K rate more than a percent to maintain and build on his already impressive reduction from 2009 to 2010. Bautista’s even adding some value with his glove to boot, as his 3.1 UZR in the outfield has already matched his most productive defensive year as an outfielder with four fifths of the schedule remaining.

There are reasons to believe Bautista may yet come back to earth slightly, but given his current peripheral stats he should continue to produce at a high level. His increase in LD% and maintenance of his low GB% would suggest a possible jump in BABIP, but his current .344 will almost certainly regress to a more normal rate. Likewise, his AL-leading 29.4% HR/FB is almost sure to drop as the season continues, but I wouldn’t expect Bautista to lose his status as one of the best power hitters in baseball as a result. Though another 54 home run year is unlikely, 40+ bombs is certainly not out of the question, especially since he’s already a quarter of the way there.

Though it’s still early in the season, Jose Bautista has turned me into a believer, and by the end of the year Bautista will make clear that his unexpected 2010 wasn’t a fluke. At this point, I see the Cubs and Cardinals as the most likely destinations for Albert Pujols next year, but there’s been talk of the Blue Jays making a strong push for Pujols or one of the other big bats available next winter. If they’re able to pick up a slugger to pair with Bautista, teams could be forced to challenge Bautista on a much more regular basis. If that’s the case, Bautista will be in a great position to take yet another step forward in his ascension to stardom.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Eric Hosmer and the Future in Kansas City

For years now, the Royals have been the laughingstock of the AL Central. They haven’t finished above third in the division since 1995, and they’ve been in the bottom two in 13 of the intervening 15 years. Eight times, they’ve been dead last. They’ve made some bad trades, some head-scratcher signings, and displayed overall organizational ineptitude. However, their poor major league moves did augment the only facet of management they did well: the draft.

To say they've drafted well is to call the Grand Canyon a pothole somewhere in Arizona, or Christy Mathewson a pretty solid starter. The Royals have drafted as well as any organization in baseball, possibly with the exception of the Rays. However, the Royals have been bad, so they’ve gotten better draft picks, and they’ve taken advantage of those picks.

Now, they’ve reached a boiling point, with a minor league system chock-full of future stars. Baseball America puts out what is generally regarded as the definitive prospect list in baseball. The Royals have 9 of this year’s top 100 BA prospects, as well as 3 in the top 10. Right now, their minor league system is by far the best in baseball, and if even a portion of their current prospects pan out we could look back at this system as one of the best of all time.

First baseman Eric Hosmer, who was promoted yesterday, is the first to reach the majors, and others are close behind. Hosmer was BA’s #8 prospect on their most recent list, after a 2010 season in which he accrued a .338/.406/.571 line as a 20 year old in high-A and double-A. After beginning 2011 with a .439 average and an OPS of 1.107 in 26 games, the Royals couldn’t wait any longer. Hosmer should continue to mash in the big leagues, as Adrian Gonzalez seems to be the most common comparable invoked by scouts. A gifted hitter with outstanding ability to hit for both power and average and strong plate discipline, Hosmer has the makings of a perennial All-Star at first.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas is projected to join Hosmer in the majors by the end of this season. Moustakas currently holds the California prep school record for career home runs with 52, and he’s kept mashing at every level since joining the organization. He’s the best pure power hitter in the system, and his 36 home runs as a 21 year old in double- and triple-A have Royals’ fans’ mouths watering at the prospect of a perennial 30 home run hitter at the hot corner. Though he doesn’t project to get on base as frequently as Hosmer, he’ll pair his power with strong on-base ability, and his arm at third base will allow him to add value defensively as well. Expect Hosmer and Moustakas to be mainstays at the infield corners in Kansas City for years to come.

The flood of outstanding prospects won’t stop there, as 2012 will likely see an even larger group of young players who will continue to turn the organization’s future around. Former catcher Wil Myers is being moved to the outfield, but the number 10 prospect on BA’s list will provide an outstanding bat wherever he ends up defensively. Myers has world-class plate discipline, with a career .420 OBP in 3 seasons in the minors. Although his power projects to be overshadowed slightly by that of Hosmer and Moustakas, Myers will be yet another threat in the middle of the lineup. Shortstop Christian Colon, the Royals’ first pick in last year’s draft (and the fourth pick overall), also projects to bring his above-average glove and solid approach at the plate to the majors next season.

The Royals will also receive some help in their rotation next year, as several talented lefties could join the team and have an immediate impact. Control artist John Lamb (BA’s #18) has a devastating changeup that will be baffling major league hitters as soon as 2012. Mike Montgomery, who placed just behind Lamb on BA’s list, is a power pitcher with a big frame and an outstanding fastball. He’ll likely compete for a spot in the Royals’ rotation during Spring Training next year, and should join the rotation next year even if the organization decides he still has something to prove at that point. Danny Duffy (BA #68), another big lefty with another strong fastball, will bring more firepower to the rotation, as will Chris Dwyer (BA #83). Both are 6’3”, and both are southpaws with low-90s fastballs and devastating secondary stuff. With these four starters in the fold, the Royals rotation immediately becomes a strength rather than the weakness it has been over the past several seasons.

In 2013, newly acquired Jake Odorizzi is projected to be ready to join those four starters in the rotation. The righty, acquired in the Zack Greinke trade this offseason, placed #69 on BA’s list, has a low-90s fastball that can touch 95 and a power curve that made him the top pitching prospect in the Brewers’ organization. In Kansas City, he’s the fifth-best arm, which is an indication of just how good this staff has the potential to be. Righty Aaron Crow is a wild-card, as he had a tough year last season in double-A, but he’s yet to give up a run in 15.1 relief innings with the big club. If he gets back on track, he could be stretched out (if you’re keeping score at home, that’d be six premium starting prospects) and inserted into the rotation.

Right now, Billy Butler and Joakim Soria are pretty much alone as stars in Kansas City. Jeff Francoeur’s had a strong start, as has Alex Gordon, but the true hope for Royals fans should come from the incredible future facing this organization. Hosmer, as the first in this bevy of prospects to reach the majors, will be the face of a youth movement that will vault the Royals out of the cellar and into playoff contention sooner than you might think. Royals fans will remember May 5th, 2011 as the day their turnaround began, and by the time it’s over, don’t be surprised to see Kansas City win the organization’s second World Championship.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Aubrey Huff Returning to Inferiority

When Aubrey Huff put up a huge 2010, leading the Giants to the World Series and a Commissioner’s Trophy (his 5.7 WAR was second only to Andres Torres on the World Champs), the same two questions were on the mind of nearly every fan of the Orange and Black. First, after an ugly 2009 in which his –1.4 WAR with the Orioles and Tigers placed him ahead of only Yuniesky Betancourt in all of baseball; “Where did this resurgence come from?” Secondly, and most pertinent for a Giants’ front office facing a decision on Huff as he reached the end of his one-year deal, was; “Can he keep it up?” By inking Huff to a two-year, $22 million deal with a $10 million club option for 2013, Brian Sabean and his staff made it clear that they stood solidly in the affirmative.

Up to this point, that hasn’t played out as a shrewd decision. Huff’s –1.1 WAR ties him with Raul IbaƱez as the least valuable player in baseball so far in 2011, and all his important indicators are moving in the wrong direction. His walk rate of 12.4% last year has plummeted to 8.5%, equal to his 2009 mark. His strikeout rate has risen by nearly 2%, and his 18.1% would stand as the worst single-season mark of his career if it continues. His current ISO of .124 would tie a career worst, and is nearly a full point below his .216 from last year, and his 9.1% HR/FB equals his 2009 mark in that category, a more than 5% drop from his last campaign. He’s moving in the wrong direction with regard to his batted ball types as well, as he’s currently pairing a (career low) 13.5% line drive rate with a (career high) 49.4% ground ball rate. After an 18% line drive and 44.8% ground ball rate in 2010, both these numbers suggest Huff could be in for more ugly returns as the year continues.

However, Huff’s play isn’t the only indicator that the Giants’ may have made a mistake in offering Huff such a lucrative contract. In signing Huff, the Giants put themselves in a very sticky situation with top prospect Brandon Belt. The youngster, drafted out of Texas in 2009 in the 5th round, is by far the best positional prospect in a somewhat barren minor league organization (weakened more so by the graduation of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner than anything else). Belt is, by all accounts, a superb defensive first baseman, and he’s absolutely raked at every level he’s faced. Of course, when making the Huff decision, Sabean didn’t have as much information as we do now. Belt was probably the best player on San Francisco’s roster during Spring Training, essentially forcing the team to start him in the Big Show. He’s since been sent back down to Triple-A after struggling with the big club, and has returned to mashing minor league pitching, putting up a 286 wRC+ in 9 games. That’s not a typo. Without watching him in Spring Training, I could understand thinking that he still needs a year to mature. However, there’s no way Giants’ brass could have expected Belt to need two years of seasoning, meaning that the Huff signing directly blocks Belt’s development.

The reasoning behind the signing, then, was that either Belt or Huff could play in the outfield while the other took their natural duties at first. Though some have suggested that Belt be groomed for a corner outfield position, it probably makes more sense for the Giants to avoid disrupting his development if at all possible, especially because of his outstanding glove at first. In starting Belt at first and Huff in right for the first several weeks of the season, the Giants suggested that they would agree, preferring to move the veteran rather than uprooting the youngster. This setup, however, only works when Huff’s outfield defense is passable. There were reasons to think it would be, not least among them Huff’s outfield UZR of 1.5 in 502.1 innings last season, in his first work in the outfield since his 2006 in Houston. So far this year, he’s played 113 innings in the outfield and cost the Giants 7.9 runs, according to UZR. Though it’s a small sample, Huff has been the worst defensive outfielder in baseball so far. This is partially attributable to the fact that he played mostly right field this season due to a Cody Ross injury, as opposed to 2010, when most of his outfield work was in the less demanding left field of AT&T Park. However, if his numbers thus far are any indication, the Huff in the outfield experiment has been an ill-fated one, and the Giants would do better to maximize his value by playing him at his natural position.

On the other hand, Huff has given Giants fans a few reasons to be optimistic. Belt’s recent demotion has returned Huff to full-time first base duties, and he’s responded, adding 1.3 runs with the glove in 119 innings. Though he’s not likely to put up numbers similar to last year’s mammoth production, his .198 BABIP will almost surely rise to a more normal mark, and the gap between his 13.7% career and 9.1% current HR/FB is likely to close as well.

That said, this contract is bad and will only look worse when Belt forces his way back to the majors and once again gives the team the options of playing him out of position and potentially negatively impacting his development, or trying to let their spectacular staff balance out Huff’s poor defense in the outfield. Both are poor options, as the Giants likely would have been better served by making the same decision the Braves did in handing Freddie Freeman their first-base job and allocating their limited resources elsewhere on the free agent market. Even a one-year stopgap at first would have been a defensible move, but by overpaying for Huff, the Giants have given themselves problems they didn’t need. Brian Sabean made the biggest and most common mistake made by any GM trying to put together a team to repeat as champions. By overpaying to retain the players that allowed the Giants to win their first championship in San Francisco, Sabean has made the road to a second that much tougher.