Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jose Bautista Goes Ballistic

On Friday night, Jose Bautista had a bad game. While it’s not a surprise for most players to have an off day, watching Bautista put up a hat trick with three strikeouts and then get himself ejected was quite a departure from the rest of his stellar 2011 campaign. At the center of Bautista’s ejection were the balls and strikes called by home plate umpire Bill Welke, a 12-year veteran.

On the bump for the Rays opposing Bautista and throwing the offerings in question was James Shields. “Complete Game James” lived up to his nickname for the tenth time this season, along the way inciting a tirade from Bautista in which he threw a bat, helmet, shinguard, and water bottle onto the field after being ejected following his third long walk back to the dugout of the game.

One aspect of Bautista’s game that makes him so exceptional is his incredible knowledge of the strike zone. Bautista’s 20.2% walk rate is by far the highest in baseball this season, a result of his ability to be selective and lay off pitches outside the zone while crushing balls in it. So if Bautista has a gripe with Welke’s strike zone, it’s worth investigating.

Fortunately,’s Pitch F/X tool allows us to pinpoint the location of these pitches in the zone, so we can tell if Bautista truly had a beef or if the frustration of facing a locked-in James Shields simply caused the best hitter in baseball to lose his cool.

In the first inning, Bautista’s ugly night started when he struck out without taking the bat off his shoulder, watching a fastball on the outside corner for strike three. Bautista turned around to Welke after the called third strike and expressed his displeasure with the call. However, Pitch F/X suggests the pitch, labeled pitch 6 in the linked image, caught the outside corner. Looking at these graphs can get a little confusing, but the thing to remember is that they’re all from the perspective of the catcher, so a pitch on the right corner is outside to a righty like Bautista. If Pitch F/X is to be believed, score one for Welke (and Shields).

In the third, Bautista struck out swinging on three pitches, Shields finishing him off with a curveball just below the zone. Pitch F/X suggests Bautista chased strike three, but with two strikes that’s not a pitch that he can lay off. His frustration was evident as he returned to the dugout having logged his 16th multi-strikeout game of the year in only the first three frames.

The final straw for Bautista was his 7-pitch at bat that concluded with a curveball on the outside corner. Bautista swung through the pitch for his third strikeout of the evening. He walked back to the dugout, swung his bat against the wall and began to throw anything within reach onto the field, all the while jawing at Welke, who sent him to the showers in short order. Once again, Pitch F/X appears to show that Bautista’s frustration was entirely of his own (and Shields’) creation, as Welke’s strike zone remained consistent to what he’d been calling all night.

The best hitter in baseball had an off night. Bautista’s become unaccustomed to nights like his game on Friday. He’d blame Welke’s strike zone, saying his displeasure was a result of his receiving unfair treatment from the umpire. Pitch F/X tells another story, however, as Bautista’s rough day appears to simply be a consequence of yet another dominant performance from Complete Game James.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cub Vote of Confidence Becomes a Long-Overdue Death Knell

Few words scare any team executive, coach, or even player quite like the dreaded “vote of confidence.” In fact, according to a Wall Street Journal study done last year, 20% of coaches who receive a vote of confidence from their boss are pursuing gainful employment within just the next month, while others are fired shortly thereafter. So when Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said that the plan was for GM Jim Hendry to stay on for the foreseeable future last week, Hendry might as well have simply started to clean out his office. Though switching GMs midseason can have drastic effects on the culture of the organization, the Cubs’ decision not to retain Hendry will likely be a boon to them as they approach the offseason. Though Hendry certainly proved he was a talented evaluator in his service to the Cubs over the last 16 years, his nine-year tenure as GM made it clear that he didn’t have equal aptitude for player valuation and the negotiation skills required of an MLB GM. He survived a vote of confidence last year, but was unable to do the same after another year of mediocre results.

Hendry has consistently been rated among the worst GMs in the league, and just a quick glance at his big-name signings makes it clear why. The last time Hendry made a big investment, it was his 2009 signing of Milton Bradley for 3 years at $10M per. Uglier contracts negotiated by Hendry include Carlos Zambrano’s 5-year, $91.5M deal and Alfonso Soriano’s 8-year, $136M monstrosity that is currently considered one of the biggest albatrosses in the game. So, with nearly $50M opening up in budget space for next offseason, including a projected $10M increase for their few big-time arbitration cases, the Cubbie brain trust decided they needed a new captain to steer the ship and perhaps decide whether Albert Pujols or another big-name free agent finds a home in Chicago.

The end result is that Hendry’s tenure was marked by expensive, underachieving teams. Cubs payrolls since 2009 have averaged $137.7M, and yet the team hasn’t made a playoff appearance in that span and are below .500 overall. They currently have the second highest payroll in the NL, even after dealing Kosuke Fukudome’s big contract to the Indians, but they’re the second worst team in the league, at 55-70. With the team heading toward what could be a huge offseason that will shape the fortunes of the club for years to come, the decision to find a new GM will likely be a boon to the franchise. Though Ricketts gave Hendry the vote of confidence last week, he had actually informed Hendry that he would be relieved of his duties on July 22, but Hendry stayed on to facilitate a smooth transition after the trade and draft signing deadlines. Immediate control will turn over to Assistant GM Randy Bush, but the team will begin their search for a long-term replacement as soon as possible. Hendry’s tenure did provide some success for the Cubs, but in the end he hasn’t done enough to turn dollars into wins, especially recently. The Cubs will look for a more statistically oriented GM, according to Tribune Cubs writer Paul Sullivan. The decision for the Cubs to start catching up with the rest of baseball from an analytical standpoint could be the first step to ending their century-long Series drought.

It’s too early to speculate on the list of GM candidates, but odds are that they could look just south to White Sox Assistant GM Rick Hahn, a very well-respected executive among baseball circles who would be an excellent choice to fill the void. Kim Ng, a former Dodgers Assistant GM and current Senior VP for Baseball Operations for the Commissioner’s office, would be an incredibly interesting name as well, as she’d become the first female GM in the history of major American sports. She’s exceptionally qualified, and has been interviewed for several GM jobs in the past, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if she was asked to contend for the position. With several enticing GM candidates filling other smaller executive positions throughout baseball, the Cubs will have a number of possible choices. Cubs fans should feel better about handing any of these candidates the reins than they would have had Hendry retained his position. Especially with such a crucial offseason coming up, the decision to part ways amicably with Hendry and find a new direction could allow his replacement to shift the club’s fortunes somewhat quickly, despite having $65M committed to Soriano, Fukudome, Ryan Dempster, Marlon Byrd, and Carlos Marmol for next season.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Buccaneer’s Bounty

As I’m sure many of you know, the deadline for teams to sign their Rule IV Draft picks was Monday night at midnight eastern time, and as is often the case many of the negotiations went down to the wire. With 24 hours to go before the deadline, two thirds of teams hadn’t agreed to terms with their first round pick, but when the dust settled at midnight only the Blue Jays failed to ink their top pick. The Jays picked Tyler Beede, a high school right handed pitcher, but Beede will be attending Vanderbilt after turning down a reported $2.5M offer.

Many teams made statements on draft day with aggressive picks. Yesterday was their chance to put their money where their mouth is, quite literally. No team stepped up and did so more convincingly than Pittsburgh, which broke several draft records in signing many of its top picks to slot-busting bonuses.

In all, the Pirates set a major league record after spending $17M to sign Rule IV Draft prospects. Nearly half of this sum was awarded in the $8M bonus to first overall pick Gerrit Cole. Cole is a prototypical power pitcher, pairing a high-90s fastball that can touch triple digits with a nasty slider and a plus changeup. He’ll join top 2010 draftees Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in what the Pirates hope will be a dominant troika of rotation arms sooner rather than later.

Despite Cole’s big price tag, most in the industry expected the Pirates to pony up and spend what was necessary to secure his signature. More surprising was the announcement that they had inked second-rounder Josh Bell for an astronomical $5M. Like Cole, Bell is a Scott Boras client. Bell sent a letter to the teams of MLB before the draft cautioning them that he’d be honoring his commitment to the University of Texas. However, Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington drafted Bell anyway, respecting the old adage that “everyone has a price.” Huntington found Bell and Boras’ price, and although it was more than double what any player outside of the first round has ever been paid, Bell’s a great add for Pittsburgh. He’s a first round talent, so his demand for first round dollars wasn’t unreasonable, and I think Bell fits nicely into the Pirates young offensive core alongside young studs like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. Though he’ll likely take a little longer to get to the big stage than Cole, who the team hopes to fast-track to the Bigs as early as next season, the Pirates succeeded in pulling two legitimate top prospects from this draft. With a strong major league core and an impressive minor league system already in tow, Huntington has set the Pirates up for sustained success over the course of the next few years. Though the road from the mediocrity the Pirates have experienced over the last nearly two decades to contention is long and difficult, Pittsburgh continues to take steps in the right direction. Monday’s signings were a significant step.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Grading the Trade Deadline

This year’s crop of deadline deals was widely expected to be one of the weakest trading markets in recent history, and in many ways, it was. So many teams in dire need of a shortstop or catcher simply couldn’t find suitable ones on the market, and teams looking to make big additions were met with astronomical prices in terms of dollars and prospects, a result of the bidding war caused by the lack of solid options on the market. In the end, several big names will be trying to propel their new employers to the playoffs and beyond. However, some of these players’ new teams will eventually look back at the huge prospect haul they gave up for a rental on a more established player with chagrin, as several of the minor leaguers moved will likely develop into contributing big-leaguers or even stars. So, which teams took good risks in an effort to put themselves over the top, and which mortgaged the future too heavily for their present returns to exceed the potential they gave up?

I’ll be taking a somewhat subjective look, then putting the trades under the lens of Victor Wang’s prospect value research to see how teams fared using a more objective method. Wang’s research values prospects based on their status in Baseball America’s top 100 and John Sickels’ prospect ratings, and though it’s not perfect, it’s the best method we have for determining prospect values. I’ll be using 3-year WAR average values for major leaguers, and projecting that over the course of the remainder of their contract, and assuming the standard 40/60/80 progression for arbitration cases. I’ve projected them to continue to accumulate WAR for 2011 at the same rate that they have so far this year, and used a fairly standard rate of $5M/WAR. There’s a lot of educated guessing involved here, but it’s a quick and dirty way to get a sense for the values of the players dealt heading up to the deadline.

The Deal: Astros trade Michael Bourn and cash to the Braves for Jordan Schafer and three minor league pitchers; Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, and Juan Abreu.
Braves: A-
The Braves added the leadoff presence and solid defense they were hoping Schafer would provide as he continued his development. Bourn is arbitration-eligible for the final time after this year, so the Braves have the CF position covered for the next two seasons.
Astros: B
The Astros won’t be making any waves before Bourn hits free agency, so even though this haul isn’t nearly as impressive as some of the other prospect bounties thrown around as the deadline approached, GM Ed Wade simply needed to get something of value in return for Bourn. He did, as they picked up several young players with the potential to be solid contributors to the next good Astros club.
The Money Math:
To Braves
Bourn: $4.4 this year ($1.5M remaining), projecting $6M for arbitration 3 next year. 1.5 WAR projected for this year, 4.9 for next year comes out to $24.5M projected surplus value.
Undisclosed amount of cash
To Astros
Schafer: $23.4M based on his 2009 BA prospect ranking, no WAR in nearly half of two years at the major league level, although he’s been much better this year than last. Gonna split the difference and say he ends up at something like $10M surplus value.
Oberholtzer: Grade C+ pitcher, 22 or younger: $2.1M surplus value
Clemens: Grade C+ pitcher, 23 or older: $1.5M surplus value
Abreu: Grade C pitcher, 23 or older: 1.5M surplus value.
The Verdict: Assuming Schafer continues to improve and does become a 2-3 WAR guy in Houston, the Braves receive a total of $9.5M more than the Astros in surplus value. Subtract the money they sent over, and it gets closer. Consider that 6 WAR over the next two years is much more valuable to the Braves than it is to the Astros, and that the prospects are much more valuable to Houston, and I think this looks like a win-win.

The Deal: Mets trade Carlos Beltran to the Giants for pitching prospect Zack Wheeler
Giants: C-
This is a decisive win-now move by GM Brian Sabean, but given that the Giants have a rather large window of contention with their impressive stable of young arms, giving up an integral piece of the future may backfire. On the day they acquired Beltran, the Giants’ playoff odds were 97.9%, according to Baseball Prospectus. Though acquiring Beltran certainly could have been the move necessary to put the Giants over the top and allow them to repeat as NL West champs, they likely would have won the division without Beltran. The only question then becomes how much Beltran increases the Giants’ odds of making another deep playoff run. Basically, if the Giants don’t repeat as World Series Champs, Beltran likely won’t have added anything substantive to the team. Since the playoffs are essentially a crapshoot, they paid a lot for a guy who can only help them for one playoff race.
Mets: B+
In Wheeler, the Mets added a legitimate top prospect to go along with Matt Harvey, the team’s other promising arm. Since Beltran’s contract contained a clause that forbid his team from offering arbitration after this season, if the Mets had kept Beltran they would have lost him with no compensation, so he needed to get moved at the deadline. The Mets also tossed in some cash to pay Beltran’s contract, but GM Sandy Alderson moved an aging outfielder and a pending free agent on a non-contending team for a possible future ace. Something tells me in three years we’ll all be calling this the “Wheeler Trade.”
The Money Math:
To Giants
Beltran: 2 WAR, $6.5M
$4M, to pay most of Beltran’s salary.
To Mets
Wheeler: Top 26-50 pitching prospect (35 in BA midseason update): $15.9M surplus value
The Verdict: Again, these are two teams with different goals, and Beltran’s 2 WAR in the remaining half of this season is more valuable to the Giants than the bigger numbers Wheeler will likely put up in the future. However, with the Giants’ surplus value sitting at $7.5M and the Mets projected at $11.9M (Wheeler minus the cash sent over), this looks like a win for Alderson. As is usually the case with trades involving pitching prospects, if Wheeler pans out, it’s a coup for the Mets, whereas if he flames out, the Giants have upgraded their lineup at minimal cost.

The Deal: Astros trade Hunter Pence to the Phillies for top prospects Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart and pitching prospect Josh Zeid.
Phillies: B
The Phillies needed to upgrade their lineup, and paid a huge price to do so. In Pence, the Phillies pick up a replacement for the scuffling Domonic Brown/ Ben Francisco platoon that had held down the right field position since the offseason departure of Jayson Werth. Pence is essentially a better, cheaper, younger version of Werth, providing the bat that ultimately moves the Phillies from being a strong contender for the NL Pennant to being the odds-on favorite. Pence will be Phillies property until 2014, as he’ll go to arbitration twice more as a Super Two.
Astros: B+
Tough to imagine the Stros getting much more in return for Pence. Singleton, a first baseman, is an all-bat masher, while Cosart is a hard-throwing starter with some control issues but undeniable stuff. They’re two very good prospects, but both come with a lot of risk. If both or either reach their considerable potential, this trade could be a huge part of the way back to contention for the Astros. If neither do, it’s a great pickup for the Phillies, getting a sure thing for a couple prospects who could struggle to produce in the majors. I’m guessing that the Astros do end up getting some value back in this trade, and the Phillies lock down the right field position for the foreseeable future. With the Phillies’ window of contention slowly shrinking as their rotation ages and the Astros’ perhaps a few years from opening up, this trade looks like it could be a positive for both sides.
The Money Math:
To Phillies
Pence: $6.9M this year ($2.3M remaining), projecting $9.2M next year, $11.5M for 2013. Projecting 1.5 WAR this year, 3.9 WAR next two years. Projecting $24M in surplus value.
To Astros
Cosart: Top 26-50 pitching prospect (43 in BA midseason update): $15.9M surplus value
Singleton: Top 26-50 hitting prospect (41 in BA midseason update): $23.4M surplus value
Zeid: Grade C pitcher, 23 or older: $1.5M surplus value
The Verdict:
This is a huge haul for the Astros, as they’re receiving a projected $16.8M in extra value from this deal. If Cosart and Singleton develop into productive major leaguers, this trade could lay the foundation for the next Astros playoff run. However, the Phillies needed to add a bat to their lineup, and although they may have been forced to overpay to do it, Pence certainly fits right into their short-term contention plan.

The Deal: The Cardinals trade Colby Rasmus (and Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, and PJ Walters) to the Blue Jays for recently-acquired SP Edwin Jackson, SP Marc Rzepczynski, RP Octavio Dotel, and OF Corey Patterson. The White Sox were also involved in this deal, as the Blue Jays acquired Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen’s Fat Ugly Contract in order to move Jackson as the centerpiece of this deal. I’ll focus on the Blue Jays and Cardinals’
Blue Jays: A-
Alex Anthopolous bought low on Rasmus, managing to acquire the young centerfielder for no notable prospects and a few major league players that don’t have nearly the promise Rasmus has shown. If Rasmus can settle in in Toronto, the Jays may be just a few pieces away from considering the possibility of contending with the big wallets populating the top of the AL East.
Cardinals: D+
Rasmus had fallen out of favor with the Cardinals’ coaching staff and earned somewhat of a reputation as a dissenter, leading Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous swoop in and snare him, buying low much like he did in the Yunel Escobar trade this past offseason. It’s certainly understandable that the Cardinals would want to move a player they saw as disruptive in the clubhouse, but it surprises me that this was the best offer they received. Rasmus is a controllable player with a reasonably impressive major league resume and considerable promise. GM John Mozeliak may regret selling low if Rasmus begins to fulfill some of his potential after a change in scenery.
The Money Math:
To Blue Jays
Rasmus: $150,000 remaining this year, projecting $4M, $6M, $8M for arbitration 1, 2, and 3. 0.8 WAR projected this year, 3.1 for each of the next 3 years. Projecting $17M surplus value.
Teahen: $1.6M remaining this year, $5.5M next year. Projecting zero or negative WAR, so roughly -$7.1M surplus value.
Miller, Tallet, and Walters are basically washes. This deal is about Rasmus.
To Cardinals:
Jackson: $3M remaining, 1.4 WAR projected, $4M projected surplus value.
Rzepczynski: $150,000 remaining, $1M, $1.5, $2M projected for arbitration 1, 2, and 3. 0.2 WAR projected this year, 0.8 for each of next 3 years. Projecting $8.4M surplus value.
Dotel: $1M remaining, 0 WAR in 2011, projecting -$1M surplus value.
Patterson: $300,000 remaining, 0.2 WAR projected this year, $700,000 surplus value.
The Verdict: I think this makes the trade look better for the Cardinals than it actually is. The 3.1 WAR projection for Rasmus is very conservative, while none of the players the Cardinals received really have much in the way of upside.

The Deal: The Rockies trade Ubaldo Jimenez to the Indians for a package of prospects including top arms Drew Pomeranz and Alex White.
Indians: B-
This is certainly an aggressive move by the Indians front office, suggesting that while almost no one expected the Indians to be contending at this point in the season, they now expect to push for the AL Central crown. This may be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a hot start, as the Indians current playoff odds currently sit at 26.4%, but the Indians want to build on the momentum they’ve created, and they’re hoping Jimenez will be the difference in the tight Central race. With the Indians impressive group of top prospects, including Pomeranz, White, and infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, they looked to be in a good position to compete next year and beyond. In adding Jimenez, they’re making a strong statement that they’re playing for the present. In my estimation, their small chance this season isn’t worth the potential future studs they gave up, but the fact that Jimenez is cheap and will be under the team’s control through the 2013 season makes that loss much easier to stomach. Additionally, considering the high flameout rates of pitching prospects and the relatively higher long-term values of top hitting prospects, according to Wang’s research, the Indians had to be happy to pick up Jimenez without being forced to move either of their prize positional prospects.
Rockies: B
My feeling was that the Rockies could consider contending next year or the year after, so there was no need to get rid of Jimenez and his hugely team-friendly contract. However, Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd was faced with an offer he could not refuse, and agreed to trade Jimenez for several arms he will hope can help replace Jimenez at the top of the rotation over the next couple years. Though the Rockies didn’t need to trade Jimenez, they correctly identified this as the moment at which his value is the highest due to the dearth of starters on the market and the relative abundance of contenders looking for a rotation upgrade. If White and Pomeranz (who is a PTBNL until August 15, when he can officially be named in this deal) pan out, this is a huge win for the Rockies.
The Money Math:
To Indians:
Jimenez: $1M remaining this year, $2.8M next year, $4.2M in 2013. Projecting 1.3 WAR this season, 5.3 for next two years. Projected $51.5M in surplus value, thanks to Jimenez’s ridiculous contract.
To Rockies:
White: Top 26-50 pitching prospect (47 in BA top 100): $15.9M surplus value.
Pomeranz: Top 11-25 pitching prospect (14 in BA midseason update): $15.9M surplus value.
McBride: Grade C hitter, 23 or older: 0.5M surplus value.
Gardner: Grade C pitcher, 23 or older: 1.5M surplus value.
The Verdict: Despite the huge haul, this looks like a win for the Indians, who pick up $17.7M in extra surplus value. The deal would have been much closer if Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd had pushed to force Cleveland to include a top positional prospect in the deal, as Chisenhall ($25.1M projected surplus value) or Kipnis ($23.4M projected) would have been bigger prizes than either pitching prospect.

The Deal: The Padres trade Mike Adams to the Rangers for pitching prospects Robbie Erlin and Joseph Wieland.
Rangers: A-
The Rangers needed a bullpen upgrade in order to entertain hopes of a return to the Fall Classic, and in picking up both Adams and Koji Uehara, they certainly got one. Erlin is a big price to pay for an 8th-inning man, but Adams is probably the best in the game, and Texas’ impressive minor league depth allows them to trade a few solid prospects and retain one of the more impressive minor league systems in the league.
Padres: A
The Padres played their situation perfectly, with Adams and former Padres pen-mate Heath Bell the most coveted relievers on the market, and engaged in negotiations with a number of different teams to insure they’d receive the maximum possible return for their late-inning aces. Though Bell seemed a lock to move in the days leading up to the deadline, the Padres eventually saw the Rangers’ offer for Adams as more enticing than anything they’d be able to receive for Bell and pulled the trigger. Though Bell has the closing experience, Adams was certainly the more valuable reliever, especially due to his being under contract for 2012.
The Money Math:
To Rangers:
Adams: $750,000 remaining in 2011, $3.1M projected for 2012. Projected 0.6 WAR this year, 1.6 next year. Projecting $7.1M surplus value.
To Padres:
Erlin: Grade B pitcher: $7.3M surplus value.
Wieland: Grade B pitcher, $7.3M surplus value.
The Verdict:
Erlin and Wieland are both very solid, if not outstanding, pitching prospects. While neither has the stuff to be a true ace, either could reasonably develop into a sold mid-rotation starter, which would make this trade a win for San Diego.

Going through these trades, two main trends surprised me. First of all, looking at the returns the Astros received for their outstanding outfielders, Pence’s haul was much larger than the one they received for Bourn. While Pence might be the better player, I don’t think the difference is as large as the prospect packages would suggest. I think the Pence deal is an overpay for the Phillies, while the Braves may have quite a steal in picking up Bourn without dealing any of their outstanding stable of top pitching prospects.

Secondly, essentially all of the prospect centerpieces of these trades are pitching prospects, with Singleton the only major exception (as well as the prospects the Mariners received for Erik Bedard). The volatility of pitching prospects seems to be pushing teams to sell their young arms now while their value is highest instead of attempting to develop them and risking their burning out or becoming ineffective. This is right in line with Wang’s research, which suggests that there’s no major difference in pitching prospects throughout BA’s top 100. This is largely due to the high flameout rate for young pitchers, as hitters are generally a much better bet to fulfill their potential. It’s been an exciting deadline, and deals aren’t over yet, as teams have another month to make trades after passing players through waivers. We won’t be able to grade the prospect hauls received at the deadline with any sort of certainty for at least a few years, but for now, it looks like most of the sellers got what they were looking for in young players who they hope will lead them to a brighter future.