2007 Draft Spotlight: Matt LaPorta
University of Florida senior first baseman Matt LaPorta took some time out before a crucial weekend series with LSU during the weekend of May 11-13 to speak exclusively with BaseballAnalysts.com about his college career and the upcoming Major League Baseball draft. LaPorta has been ranked as one of the top three college bats in the upcoming draft and has a good chance of being taken in the first round.
In his sophomore season, LaPorta slugged a school record 26 homers and hit .328/.438/.698. After an injury-marred 2006 junior season, in which he hit .259/.410/.538, LaPorta fell in the draft to the 14th round where he was picked by the Boston Red Sox. Unable to come to an agreement, LaPorta - who is advised by Scott Boras - returned to Florida for this senior year.
LaPorta has been nothing short of brilliant during his senior season at Florida with a line of .402/.582/.817 and 20 home runs in 52 games. The biggest knock on LaPorta is his defence, which is not that surprising considering he came to university as a catcher and moved to first base to accommodate slick-fielding Brian Jeroloman.
According to Baseball America, LaPorta has improved his approach and kept his hands inside the ball better this year. His plus-plus raw power remains a game-changing tool.
Not just a one-dimensional athlete, LaPorta was recognized during the 2006 Cape Cod Summer League season with the Daniel Silva Sportsmanship Award, which honors outstanding sportsmanship on and off the field. On May 22 of this year, LaPorta was announced as the SEC Baseball Player of the Year for the second time in his college career. LaPorta also won the award after his sophomore season.
BaseballAnalysts: Are you guys ready for a good series this weekend with LSU?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, it's going to be a big series.
BaseballAnalysts: What goals do you have for the remainder of the college season?
Matt LaPorta: Just to help my team get to the SEC tournament and hopefully the regionals.
BaseballAnalysts: What do you think Florida has to do to be successful?
Matt LaPorta: We probably have to win three or four games out of the next two weekends to meet those goals. LSU and Tennessee are two very high-quality teams and we just have to go out and play our game and hopefully we'll come out on top.
BaseballAnalysts: Have you achieved all the goals you set out for yourself in college?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, I think I've done a lot of things - more than I ever thought imaginable, really, going into college.
BaseballAnalysts: Were you happy about your decision to go to college? (LaPorta was drafted in the 14th round out of high school by the Chicago Cubs, which was his favorite team growing up).
Matt LaPorta: Oh yeah, definitely.
BaseballAnalysts: Do you have any specific highlights or key moments from your college career?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, I mean there have definitely been some highs and lows but it's hard to say because every year there have been new experiences that have just brought new light to how I see things on and off the field. Obviously going to the College World Series (The University of Texas edged Florida in 2005) is pretty high and getting to play for the USA National team (in 2005 with teammates Adam Davis and Brian Jeroloman) was another high point.
BaseballAnalysts: What would it mean to you to win the College Player of the Year award?
Matt LaPorta: That would be, you know, a tremendous honor. I couldn't even explain... It would be a miracle. It would truly be a gift from God. That's all I can say.
BaseballAnalysts: Do you think you have a good shot at it... You're up against some very good competition.
Matt LaPorta: Oh yeah, there is great competition out there. Honestly, I couldn't tell you. We'll see what happens. It's a big honor; I'm sure whoever gets it is well deserving of it.
BaseballAnalysts: Who would have your vote?
Matt LaPorta: I'm probably going to have to go with my buddy (Vanderbilt pitcher and project first overall draft pick) David Price.
BaseballAnalysts: You've had some really outstanding numbers in your senior year. Has the strained oblique muscle that you had last year bothered you at all this season?
Matt LaPorta: No, not at all.
BaseballAnalysts: Have you had any injuries that have bothered you this year?
Matt LaPorta: I injured my quad a little bit and I missed the last couple of weekends, but nothing too big.
BaseballAnalysts: Would you attribute the strained oblique muscle to why your numbers were down during your junior year, or were there other factors?
Matt LaPorta: A lot of it had to do with that. But I tried to do way too much when I came back and tried to put up numbers like I would have through an entire season and it just wasn't possible. It hurt me.
BaseballAnalysts: Were you also trying to help pick up the slack for some of the other players who were having off-years offensively? I know both second baseman Adam Davis (drafted by Cleveland) and catcher Brian Jeroloman (drafted by Toronto) also struggled.
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, when I came up to the plate, I felt like I had a lot of pressure to get the runs in and, you know, I came out of my element and didn't stay within myself. I tried to do way too much.
BaseballAnalysts: What have been the biggest changes in your game this season?
Matt LaPorta: Just putting more of my faith in God and letting him lead the way, as well as playing baseball and having fun. Everything else will just take care of itself.
BaseballAnalysts: Are there any highlights from this specific year that you've really enjoyed?
Matt LaPorta: I've enjoyed all of it. I'm taking it all in because it's the last time I'll get to play college baseball. I'm enjoying every last minute of it.
BaseballAnalysts: So it's bittersweet?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah.
BaseballAnalysts: Are you looking forward to the opportunity to pursue a pro career?
Matt LaPorta: Oh definitely. It's my time to move on to the next step in my life after this college season.
BaseballAnalysts: You hit .250 last year in the Cape Cod League, along with solid on-base and slugging numbers... Do you think you have adequately proven to scouts that you can make the necessary adjustments from aluminum bats to wood?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah... but the oblique was still in the back of my mind [during the summer] and I don't think I played anywhere near where I could have if I hadn't had that injury. [Scouts] had seen me play up at the Cape and with Team USA and stuff.
BaseballAnalysts: What's the biggest difference between using the aluminum and the wood bats for you?
Matt LaPorta: You just have to trust your hands more. You can't try to hit a home run or get long because you won't hit the ball well.
BaseballAnalysts: What do you think are your personal strengths as a hitter?
Matt LaPorta: My ability to take pitches that are balls. And when I do get a pitch, I can capitalize on it and use my power.
BaseballAnalysts: What are some of the parts of your game that you think you need to continue to work on to get better?
Matt LaPorta: I think all aspects of my game. Baseball is a sport where you never really reach your full potential. Guys are always looking for ways to improve and get better every day. So, with that said, every aspect of my game has got to get better.
BaseballAnalysts: Let's switch focuses here for a bit and fast-forward to the draft. Do you have a preference as to which team selects you on draft day?
Matt LaPorta: No, not at all. I'd just be fortunate enough to get drafted and open that door to a new world and see what happens.
BaseballAnalysts: Would you like to go in the first round of the draft or is that even on your mind?
Matt LaPorta: None of that is really on my mind right now. I don't want to focus on anything I can't control. I just want to go out and play baseball, hit and do well. We'll see what happens with that other stuff.
BaseballAnalysts: Have there been any specific teams that have shown a lot of interest in you?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, I've had quite a few teams that have shown some interest in me but, you know, it's still early. We'll see who really wants me closer to draft day.
BaseballAnalysts: Who did you follow growing up? Were you a baseball fan?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, I was always watching the power hitting guys like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. I was in Port Charlotte [Florida] so the Rangers always had spring training down there and I would go watch [Rafael] Palmeiro and those kinds of guys.
BaseballAnalysts: Did you follow the Rangers throughout the season too, or just in spring training?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, I followed the Rangers but mostly I was a Cubs fan. My father was from Chicago and his dad is too. He would pick me up from school and we would go watch Cubs games.
BaseballAnalysts: Do you have any specific plans for draft day? Have you thought about that yet?
Matt LaPorta: Nah, I'm probably just going to hang out at my house and just relax and see what happens.
BaseballAnalysts: You're being advised by one of the most powerful agents in baseball. How did that end up happening? Did you approach him or did he approach you?
Matt LaPorta: They came up to me. It's funny, I remember when Alex Rodriguez got that $252 million deal with the Rangers and I was, at the time, thinking: 'Scott Boras, this guy's amazing.' I was only wishing and hoping that one day I could be good enough to have him as an adviser and so far it's coming to fruition.
BaseballAnalysts: Have you enjoyed working with him?
Matt LaPorta: I really enjoy the Boras Corporation. They're a great group of guys and they love baseball. That's the main thing: they're baseball guys.
BaseballAnalysts: Are you concerned at all about sliding in the draft because of your representation?
Matt LaPorta: No, because before I made the decision I put it in God's hands and it wasn't just a quick decision like I'm going to go with their group. You know, I prayed about it and asked God what I should do and he led me in that direction.
BaseballAnalysts: Are you disappointed that a deal did not get done with Boston last year after your junior season?
Matt LaPorta: No, not at all. When one door closes, another one opens and I got a chance to come back to college for another year and got to see two national championships, one in football and one in basketball. The people I've met this year, if I had gone to play pro ball I would never have met them. I'm going to make it to the majors whether I signed last year or this year.
BaseballAnalysts: Do you keep in touch with any of your former teammates who are in pro ball?
Matt LaPorta: Not so much because they're so busy and I'm very busy. It's just hard to find time to stay in touch with them.
BaseballAnalysts: Who is the toughest college pitcher that you've ever face?
Matt LaPorta: That would be my buddy Ian Kennedy. I only faced him once when we were at the USA tryouts. He struck me out with a fastball right down the middle of the plate. So basically he out-smarted me and I just tipped my hat and went back to the dugout. Just the way he pitches is so crafty and he's very smart.
BaseballAnalysts: What professional baseball goals have you set for yourself, if any?
Matt LaPorta: Making it to professional baseball, obviously, but that's about as far as it goes right now. I haven't been there so I don't have a base to set any goals. I don't know what it's like.
BaseballAnalysts: Are there any players on your team who have really impressed you that you think could be poised for a big breakout in the next year or two?
Matt LaPorta: Yeah, our shortstop Cole Figueroa. He's a freshman and he's going to be a phenomenal player and someone to watch out for in the next couple of years.
BaseballAnalysts: So the Blue Jays are going to regret not signing him after drafting him out of high school last year?
Matt LaPorta: Is that who drafted him?
BaseballAnalysts: Yes, it was.
Matt LaPorta: Oh yeah. He's a quality person and a great ballplayer.
BaseballAnalysts: If you weren't pursuing a career as a baseball player, what other career would you pursue?
Matt LaPorta: Entrepreneurialship. I'd like to buy and sell businesses. Things of that nature. And do a lot of investing... Kind of like Donald Trump. The guys on my team always give me crap for it.
BaseballAnalysts: Well, thank you very much for your time, Matt, and hopefully we'll get to talk again sometime.
Matt LaPorta: All right, sounds good. Take care.
BaseballAnalysts: You too.
A special thank you to John Hines of the University of Florida for helping to arrange the interview with the Gators' Matt LaPorta.
2007 Draft Spotlight: Jack McGeary
Founded in 1645, The Roxbury Latin School is the oldest school in continuous existence in North America. For more background, I will let wikipedia take it away.
...the school serves close to 300 boys in grades seven through twelve. John Eliot founded the school "to fit [students] for public service both in church and in commonwealth in succeeding ages."...The school maintains a need-blind admissions policy, admitting boys without consideration of the ability of their families to pay the full tuition...Other significant claims to fame are its students' high SAT score average – the highest of any New England independent school, according to Boston magazine – and its acceptance rates at the most competitive universities, despite maintaining a low tuition relative to its peers..."
Roxbury Latin is also my alma mater, something I say with pride but not immodesty given that I am pretty sure I could not gain admission these days with a machine gun. The school has a proud athletic tradition, consistently fielding teams ranging from competitive to championship caliber in the Independent School League. The ISL is a 16-team league consisting of some of the most prestigious secondary academic institutions in the nation. Its hockey, lacrosse and soccer are all top notch, while when it comes to sports like football, basketball and baseball - my three sports incidentally - the league is considerably weaker.
ISL baseball is not without some tradition and occasional elite play. Mike Smith, who had a cup of coffee with the Blue Jays, and Jonah Bayliss, currently of the Pittsburgh Pirates, graduated from St. Sebastian's and Lawrence Academy respectively. But one through sixteen, particularly when you compare the league on a national level, it just does not stack up.
I should also note that the Boston area is not exactly fertile terrain for MLB pitching standouts. Since 1987, only 38 pitchers born in Massachusetts have even appeared in the Bigs (thanks again, B-Ref). And of those 38, only Tom Glavine, Pete Smith, Ken Hill and Jason Bere have tossed more than 1,000 innings. Rich Hill, Chris Capuano and Glavine are the best active Massachusetts natives.
This is what makes Jack McGeary's story so fascinating. It would be hard to overstate just how much more highly regarded of a prospect McGeary is than just about any other player in the ISL's history. Further, he is one of the very best high school pitching prospects to hail from the Bay State in recent memory. In their latest Draft Tracker (dated May 9), Baseball America ranks McGeary the 24th best prospect available, saying:
McGeary's stuff has been steady this spring. While his velocity isn't wowing scouts, he's sat at 87-91 mph with above-average command of three offerings. His curveball (76-78 mph) and changeup were both effective offerings in his last outing.
Here are Jack's numbers from this high school season:
G IP R ER H BB K ERA
McGeary 7 40 9 5 11 21 80 0.88
Jack throws a fastball, curveball and change-up, and garnered national attention last summer in a number of elite combines and exhibitions. He has committed to Stanford, a decision that has drawn some criticism in baseball circles given the dearth of quality MLB players produced by the program over the years. Still, if he is selected by a team that offers the right situation for him, he may not go to Stanford at all.
I had an opportunity to talk to Jack, and follow up with a round of questions that he was kind enough to answer over email.
Patrick Sullivan: How has your time at Roxbury Latin prepared you for what now lies ahead? Has it in any way stunted your development as a professional baseball prospect?
Jack McGeary: In a baseball sense, I'd say RL hasn't necessarily helped, but it hasn't hurt, either. Obviously playing a 15 game schedule can never be beneficial to a player. With that said, no matter how many games we play a week, I would only pitch once, so I guess in some ways the small schedule doesn't matter too much.
Like most other high schoolers, though, my development and maturity as a player come in the off-season and all the summer events. The summer circuit was huge for my development as a player.
Patrick: There are reports out there that you will not sign for anything less than $2 million, and certainly not slot money for where you are projected to go. Is this true? If so, please comment on your rationale.
Jack: This is completely made up. We have not discussed any number with anyone, and I'm not sure how this would even happen.
Patrick: Despite its prestige as a baseball program, Stanford has not produced many quality Major League pitchers during Coach Marquess's tenure. Mike Mussina and Jack McDowell aside, there really is no other quality Big League pitcher to speak of in the last 30 years (Marquess's time as coach). If you aspire to make your living as a Major League Baseball player, why not commit to another school of academic repute with a better track record of developing MLB talent?
Jack: I have a few answers to this question. First, no "baseball" school boasts Stanford's academic reputation. Secondly, I think that development is more a result of individual work than from a program. I'd say the best pitchers in the Major League rely and have relied more on their OWN analysis of themselves than anyone else's. Therefore, I don't think you can look at a school and say they're bad at developing pitchers. Thirdly, the current pitching coach at Stanford, who has not been there too long, has a solid record with pitchers in the past couple years (see Greg Reynolds).
Patrick: All fair points. In his ESPN blog, Keith Law said the following of you:
"He's not as polished as a command pitcher who's considered a first-round talent should be..."
A few questions here. First, are critics making the mistake of placing too much emphasis on the short ISL season? Second, how would you describe yourself as a pitcher - command, power, or perhaps a hybrid?
Jack: Anytime there's a short sample of evidence (only 7 starts) results can be a bit skewed. For example, if you can't quite find a rhythm for a couple games, all of a sudden you don't have command. I'm sure Greg Maddux has had stretches in his career where he couldn't quite find his command.
I think I possess some elements of a power pitcher and some of a command pitcher. I feel like I can work off my fastball and am confident to use it whenever. Also, I think I have a power pitcher's curveball--one that's pretty hard with a sharp bite. However, I also feel like I can beat teams even when I don't have a great fastball. I'm able to locate well enough to set up hitters and beat them in other ways than just the fastball.
Patrick: How many pitches do you command at an elite level?
Jack: I feel like I can command all three pitches (fastball, curveball, change-up) at an elite level. I always have confidence in my fast and curve and will throw either in any count. I didn't have the most consistent command with my change-up this spring, but I think that's partly because I didn't throw it a lot. I think the more you throw a pitch, the more comfortable you get with it.
Patrick: Does the prospect of being selected by the Boston Red Sox excite you?
Jack: Absolutely. Growing up in Boston, I'm obviously a big Sox fan, and I think every local kid wants to play for them. So to have this possibility is definitely exciting. Just being part of this whole draft process is exciting.
Patrick: It sure is, Jack. It's exciting for all of us in the Roxbury Latin community as well. Best of luck and thanks for taking some time.
McGeary has his detractors. Since he caught many by surprise last summer with a number of standout performances against elite competition, scouts were paying close attention to this high school baseball season to affirm what they had seen last year. Though his stats will not show it, there have been whispers questioning his command, and whether or not he, as Law wrote, possesses the "polish" of a 1st rounder.
Still, the kid is 6'3" tall, is lefthanded, throws 87-89 and touches 91 with regularity. His curveball is devastating, and when he commands his change up, he has proven unhittable at his current level of play. With coaching, hard work and natural development, that repertoire can take a pitcher far. And then there is the item of make-up, something front office personnel try desperately to get a read on before making a selection. Here is what one National League scout told me regarding McGeary:
...this kid is very poised, polished and advanced for his age. Many young prospects have good arms but are still just young kids. Jack McGeary is a young man who shows command of not only pitches but of himself. He is an excellent representation of his family, his school, his team and his community. He will be a success in more than just baseball. He is a true leader. It will be fun to follow his progress in either college or pro ball.
Splitting hairs over the command of an 18 year-old pitching early season ball in dreary weather against schools where baseball is an afterthought is all part of the job for the Major League scout. I understand that. But for those inclined to dismiss McGeary as a legitimate 1st round talent, remember to keep in mind the words above. He is a tremendous kid, is about to graduate from one of the most rigorous academic schools in the country and will be much more grounded than many of his peers in this draft class. I am not sure exactly what that counts for, but if I were getting ready to allocate the kind of money teams pay out to these draft picks, I would have to think long and hard about just how much McGeary's make-up should elevate his stock.
For additional footage/coverage on McGeary, be sure to check out the following:
- His MiLB.com Draft Report page, with a link to scouting video footage.
- A television spot on him from the local Boston ABC affiliate.
- Another spotlight on him from NESN, the local Red Sox cable carrier.
A Roundtable with Three of the Country's Top Draft Experts
Baseball Analysts will devote the next two weeks to the draft, starting with today's roundtable discussion, followed by Q&A's with many of the top prospects, and culminating in live blogging the first day of the draft on June 7 for the third consecutive year. The draft will be televised for the first time with ESPN2 offering coverage from 2 p.m. - 6 p.m. ET.
In the spirit of our Designated Hitter series where we reach out to guest columnists to supplement the contributions of our writers/analysts, I was pleased when Baseball America's Jim Callis, John Manuel, and Alan Matthews agreed to participate in a roundtable to discuss this year's draft. Callis, Manuel, and Matthews are three of the foremost experts when it comes to analyzing prospects and the draft. Our guests have talked extensively with scouts and scouting directors, as well as high school and college coaches.
Founded in 1981, Baseball America has been providing in-depth scouting summaries and draft analysis for more than a quarter of a century. Baseball America has the most up-to-date prospect information anywhere. Readers can access this information online and through various publications. Premium content is also available to subscribers for an annual fee.
Grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, and listen in as Jim, John, Alan, and I discuss next week's draft. Enjoy.
Rich: The amateur draft is just over a week away. Are general managers and scouting directors excited about this year's crop of players?
John: My sense is, even in years where they say they aren't, they are. This is a year when they are, but last year, we heard all spring "it's a bad draft," and I for one fell for it. But it was pretty good on the mound—perhaps extraordinary when you consider Tim Lincecum and Andrew Miller so far, and the potential of other pitchers. Last year was a pretty darn good draft for college pitching, and this year pales in comparison. Yet this year is the real deal in terms of high school talent, and scouts have known that since last year.
I think a lot of SDs have some Lou Holtz in them and have to because every time they say Player X is good, Player X's agent drives up the price. So publicly, before the draft, I think scouts always try to downplay the talent, but they are talent evaluators, and they love baseball, and when they see good players, they get excited. By this time of year, they've seen a lot of good players.
Jim: It does seem like there's talk every year about how the talent is down, but I don't think that's because guys are trying to drive prices down. With slotting, we already know what the majority of guys are going to get before they get picked. I think that talk comes more because some of the veteran scouts think of the days of old, when football and basketball (and skateboarding and whatever other sports you want to throw out there) didn't siphon away as many athletes. Also, teams weren't as emphatic about signing as many of the top athletes and arms out of high school every year, so the college crops (particularly in the 1980s) were a lot stronger. These days, a lot of those kids sign out of high school, and the college crops don't seem as strong.
Despite that talk, most drafts produce a similar amount of talent. Some years it's less apparent than other, such as in 2000 when the first round was pretty bleak but guys like Brandon Webb and Dontrelle Willis were around in the eighth round. The talent is there—it's up to the teams to find out where it is.
John: How many scouts, Jim, were scouts in days of old when football didn't take the best prospects? I think Art Stewart and maybe 5-10 other guys, but 25 years ago was 1982, football already was king, and that argument doesn't wash. Even with slotting, teams and scouts are extremely wary of agents and their influence on the draft. We can debate to what extent, though I think we're trying to entertain people, so maybe we shouldn't.
Jim: A lot of your scouting directors now were area scouts or players back in the halcyon days of the 1980s, so they experience with the deeper crops. Also, I really don't think guys are trying to drive prices down—those prices are pretty well established by the slots. A lot of them aren't beholden to MLB anyway, they're going to speak their mind and do believe the talent isn't as good these days.
Alan: Getting back to the original question, in my, albeit brief, five years of covering the draft and amateur players, this year's class seems to be more compelling than any I've reported on. It's not so much because of the high-end talent—David Price and Matt Wieters are exciting in their own right—but to me the reason for enthusiasm this year is the depth and diversity of the class. Over the years there have been a lot of great players drafted well beyond the first handful of picks, and that should hold true perhaps more than ever when we look back at this class. You can easily imagine a scenario unfolding where the No. 40 or 50 or even 74 pick becomes an all-star down the road.
Rich: Other than at the very top of the draft—and I mean the very top—it looks like a good year for high schoolers.
Jim: Scouts and scouting directors are very excited about the high school crop. There are eight high school pitchers who, based on talent, could go in the first 20 picks. There's also a tremendous crop of high school hitters, comparable to 2005 and perhaps even stronger. The college side of things isn't as bright. Position players are weak, particularly in terms of middle infielders and center fielders, and righthanders who excited people are few and far between. There are a lot of good lefthanders and some catching depth.
Alan: Exactly. I can't help but think back to the first high school showcase I attended, less than two weeks after the 2006 draft, which was reserved for some of the best high school players in this class. At one point, I thought my radar gun was broken because over a three-day span there must have been 40 pitchers that were all throwing 90 mph-plus. It was like that movie Groundhog Day, only instead of Bill Murray it seemed like every kid that trotted out to the mound was Josh Beckett. It was obvious at that point that this was an exceptional high school class. The diversity is pretty unique. I can't recall a time when, in one single draft class, there was the perfect type of player to fit each team's preference in terms of what they look for in high school talent.
There are awesome power pitchers in the Northeast with Rick Porcello and Matt Harvey, as well as Indiana's Jarrod Parker and Canadian righthander Phillippe Aumont. Out West you have Mike Moustakas and Josh Vitters, a couple of polished hitters with power, and there is also some really interesting middle infield talent across the country. And don't forget, Robert Stock, who left high school a year early last fall and enrolled at Southern Cal, would have been a draft-eligible, power-hitting, switch-hitting catcher available in this class. Perhaps Robert was smarter than all of us, knew how stiff the competition was going to be in this year's class and opted to wait a few years before entering the draft.
Rich: Well, let's do as much of a mock draft as possible. Are we all in agreement that David Price will be—or at least should be—the first pick?
Jim: Price will be and should be the No. 1 overall pick. The consensus among most scouting directors is that Price stands above everyone else in his draft class. As one put it, "There's David Price, but after that there aren't a lot of top-of-the-draft guys." I'd say that he's rated just slightly higher than Andrew Miller was as the top prospect last year. Price also is advised by Bo McKinnis, so there shouldn't be much risk of protracted negotiations. He'll probably get the standard contract given to the best college pitchers each year, a big league deal worth from $5 million to $6 million, and MLB may have the Rays wait to announce it because it doesn't want that deal to affect others. Price also would be a good fit for Tampa Bay. The Rays' biggest weakness in the majors is pitching, even though they have some impressive arms coming up through the minors.
John: I think Price should be, though I do think a case could be made for Matt Wieters. If "signability" weren't a factor, I'd really want to know, if I were running a club, if my scouts thought Wieters could catch and throw at the big league level. It sounds like he can, and it sounds like he can hit. A switch-hitting C, possible repeat all-star kind of talent, versus a front-of-the-rotation LHP. I'd actually consider organization need in that case, because to me both are legit 1/1 overall talents, and you're not selling yourself short on talent. In the end I'd still take Price, but it's pretty close on talent, for me. I don't think there's another true 1/1 talent in the draft; it's down to those two.
Alan: The deal breaker comes in your evaluation of Price, for me. If he's a true No. 1 pitcher, and some scouts think he is, I don't see how you can walk away from him, regardless of your evaluation of Wieters. I don't think R.J. Harrison, the Devil Rays scouting director, has any doubts about Wieters' ability to catch and throw. Let's not forget, Harrison himself was a tall, lanky catcher in his days in college at Arizona State who was drafted by the Cardinals. But based on the way Price has pitched, my hunch is the Rays' like him as a future No. 1 pitcher, recognize the lack of starting pitching in Tampa Bay at present, and make Price their choice.
Rich: OK, Tampa Bay selects Price. Kansas City is now on the board. Do they go for Wieters, pull a Luke Hochevar and take Max Scherzer, or grab Rick Porcello, presumably the best high school pitcher in the draft?
John: Scherzer is less of a starting pitcher; some scouts think he's best suited to relieve. You don't take a reliever No. 2 overall, or you shouldn't anyway unless it's Mariano Rivera. I see no reason why the Royals should pass on Wieters if they have no problem with Boras clients, but it sounds like they are leaning more toward Porcello, also a Boras client. They need pitching more than hitting so I can see why they are leaning Porcello, not a whole lot wrong with taking him here, but I'm not sure he's the best HS pitcher in this draft (he's the consensus choice, but Jarrod Parker has a more electric arm/stuff). Unless I was sure Porcello was the next-best pitcher available after Price, I'd go with Wieters, the best college bat and one who plays a premium position.
Jim: The Royals don't seem to be on Wieters or California high school third baseman Josh Vitters as much as other teams at the top of the draft, so I think that's a good indication they're looking for pitching. I agree with John in that Scherzer may well wind up being a reliever when all is said and done. If they're taking the top pitcher regardless of cost, I think it's probably Porcello. If they want to shy away from Boras guys, I think they lean to a homestate guy in Missouri State lefty Ross Detwiler. Clemson lefty Daniel Moskos would be another option.
Rich: Speaking of Vitters, it seems as if the Cubs, drafting third, have been the club most associated with him. I saw him take batting practice with a wood bat after a recent game in a "private" session for a certain GM, and, based on his performance, I can tell you that he's not going to get past the team with the sixth pick.
Alan: I don't think Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken could resist taking Vitters. Vitters is a high school hitter that has shown hittability beyond his years. His swing mechanics are outstanding, he has projection remaining and he has an agent that will keep things neat and tidy, making negotiations a non-factor.
Jim: Vitters will go very good, obviously. He and Mike Moustakas are the two best pure hitters in the draft. Even though they have Aramis Ramirez locked up for a while, we do keep hearing the Cubs on Vitters—which reinforces the notion that you take the best guy and don't draft for need in the first round. I've been hearing a lot of Jarrod Parker with the Cubs, too. He's the high school righthander from Indiana who has thrown consistently harder than any draft prospect this spring.
John: The Pirates really hope Vitters is there for them at No. 4 and that the Cubs look elsewhere, because Vitters fits well for them (though of course they also have Neil Walker, their 2004 first-round pick, in the minors at third base). He's a smooth hitter with significant power potential, and he was the best player on the summer showcase circuit in 2006; he rose to every occasion. The Pirates need hitters. More than anything they need to have a draft that goes more than one pick deep. I'm not a fan of their second-round picks the last few years, guys like Brad Corley and Mike Felix, and you build a good draft by having multiple players who end up reaching the big leagues.
Rich: If Vitters doesn't make it past the Cubs at No. 3, then who do you suppose the Pirates take at 4?
Alan: I wouldn't put it past Ed Creech to take the high school pitcher he thinks is the best on the board with this pick. If Porcello and Parker are both there, I wouldn't be surprised if the Bucs jumped up and nabbed one of them. They've had some success drafting high school players in the first round recently (Andrew McCutchen, Walker), and while they have fortified their rotation with some nice lefthanders like Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm, who had some college experience, I think Creech and his staff take ceiling over steadiness, and as attractive as Moskos and Detwiler would be (two other options with this pick).
Jim: I keep hearing Vitters is the guy the Pirates really want at No. 4. What Alan says is true, and most clubs will take the best guy available on their board regardless of any specific need, but I can't see Pittsburgh taking another college first-round pitcher when they've had trouble keeping them healthy (Bryan Bullington, John VanBenschoten, Brad Lincoln) and especially a lefty when they have Zach Duke, Gorzelanny and Maholm in their rotation. They need a hitter and I think they'll take one. The tough part is that there's no great fit. I don't see them spending for Wieters or a Boras guy, and who does that leave them? The best value then would be Georgia high school outfielder Jason Heyward, and while he'd make some sense, he'd be an overdraft. Lewis-Clark State slugger Beau Mills would be more of an overdraft, and a lot of guys view him as a DH. If Vitters is gone, it's tough to figure out Pittsburgh's pick.
Rich: If Wieters is still on the board at this point, does he become baseball's version of Brady Quinn where everyone begins to wonder just how far he might slide?
John: It sounds like the Pirates want to go hitter but not so badly that they want to draft a Boras client, so Wieters may be out of the mix there. The Orioles also apparently are backing off Boras clients, and it's hard to then find a match for Wieters. Jim had him going 18 to the Cardinals in our mock draft; the team that should take him, if he falls, is the Giants at 10. They have no homegrown catcher, could use a C and could really use an impact bat, and they certainly deal with Boras at the major league level (Barry Bonds in the past and Barry Zito). Plus they have extra picks, so why not roll the dice?
Jim: Wieters is the best college position player in the draft, but I think he could slide considerably. There's no definite home for him. MLB is putting a lot of pressure on clubs not to exceed slot recommendations, and there aren't many teams in the top half of the draft that will be willing to do that.
Alan: As far as Wieters slipping, I guess it's not inconceivable because he won't be accepting a couple mil and food stamps. But I can't find many people who don't like him—really like him—so general sentiment is that he's worth the price, so let's go get it. Kansas City doesn't pick again until No. 67. So theoretically money that they would have used to sign a player for second-round slot could trickle over to use with their first pick, or to go get someone over slot at 67. Maybe that's the surplus cash they need to get Wieters done.
Mind you, this is all such an arbitrary exercise. One pick can affect the next, and so on and so forth, and other than RJ Harrison telling us that he was down to three players, not a single GM or scouting director has told us or anyone else who they are going to take, so this is all hypothetical. Predicting the draft is fun, but let's not pretend like we have some top secret information here, or a scientific formula to figure it out. What Jim does the day before the draft, by stacking up the picks when teams are actually finally locked in on one or two players, carries plenty of weight. But it's awfully optimistic to think you can nail these picks any more than a day or two before the draft.
Rich: I agree, Alan. With that in mind, let's shift gears here a bit. Rather than discussing the draft pick-by-pick, let's talk about a number of players by groups. There are four high school third basemen—or at least players who project to play the hot corner at the professional level—who could be drafted in the top half of the first round. Three of them are from California. One of them is Vitters, who we have talked about. The other two Californians are Moustakas, who Jim mentioned, and his Chatsworth HS teammate Matt Dominguez. The fourth is Kevin Ahrens out of Memorial HS in Houston, Texas. How would you rank these players, why, and are there natural fits for any or all of them?
Jim: Vitters and Moustakas are the cream of that crop, and they're also the two best high school hitters in this draft. Vitters is going to go in the top 3-4 picks as we've discussed, while projecting Moustakas is more dicey because he's advised by Scott Boras. Sounds like the Brewers aren't afraid of spending money on this draft, and I had them taking Moustakas in our mock draft, but Boras may try to send him to a team with more money. Dominguez is a very good defender, the best third-base defender in the draft since Ryan Zimmerman. His bat isn't as good as the other two guys, and I think he'll fit in the middle of the first round to someone like the Reds or Blue Jays. Ahrens, who draws a lot of Chipper Jones comps because he's a switch-hitter with power, projects more as a late first-rounder, but the Reds apparently have a lot of interest in him at No. 15. Don't be surprised if another Texas high school third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, sneaks into the end of the first round.
Alan: I’d rank Vitters 1, Moustakas 2, Dominguez 3 and Ahrens 4. Ahrens is pretty interesting. He has a nice stroke and fluid actions, with good body control on defense and he just does everything easily, which has as much to do with his comparisons to Jones as his profile. Dominguez has a lot of upside, and the only reason he’s not higher on the list is because of some things he does in his setup and swing mechanics that draw some red flags. But he can really mash. He doesn’t get to his power as often as Moustakas and Vitters right now, but he really launches balls when he connects.
Rich: I like Dominguez's upside, too. He hit two home runs at Dodger Stadium in championship high school games his sophomore and junior years, as well as one of four dingers with a wood bat in the Area Code Games at Blair Field last summer.
Alan: Yeah, it’s a buggy-whip swing, he really cocks the barrel and let’s it rip. He’s got the intangibles, as well. Another interesting aspect about he and Moustakas is that neither one of them showcased heavily as underclassmen. They weren’t overexposed, but made the right appearances at the right time to ensure that scouts could see them against good pitching (because they don’t see much in their high school league). Their makeup has been lauded by USA Baseball personnel, and they were two leaders for the junior national team that won a silver medal last fall in Cuba.
Rich: While on the high school front, there are as many as six righthanders (Porcello, Parker, Harvey, Aumont, Michael Main, and Blake Beavan) who could figure prominently in the first round. Which one throws the hardest? Who has the best overall stuff? Which pitcher is the surest thing and which one has the highest ceiling?
Jim: You could even say seven, as Tim Alderson could sneak into the end of the first round. Jarrod Parker throws the hardest, harder than anyone in this draft. He has touched 98 mph more often than anyone in this draft and also shown a pretty nasty slider at times. He has the best overall stuff. Rick Porcello is right there with him, and he has a bigger, stronger frame, so he'd be a little bit better bet and have a little higher ceiling.
Alan: Porcello has reportedly also hit 98, but the difference in terms of fastball velocity between he and Parker is negligible, in my opinion. I have seen them both pitch, and Parker does it a little easier. His arm action is splendid, and just so easy and clean. If he was 6-foot-4, rather than 6-feet, he’d have to be in the mix with Price at No. 1, so that should tell you just how good Jarrod Parker is. I would say that Harvey and Main are right there with Parker and Porcello in terms of overall stuff. Harvey’s changeup is a plus pitch and he has shown great ability to spot it down and away from lefthanded hitters. Main’s breaking ball is outstanding, and he has such good command of it, along with Josh Smoker’s curveball, it’s among the best pitches in the class. Porcello’s slider has more power to it, and Parker’s breaking ball also is a power pitch, but again, we’re talking about a slight difference, and in many cases, just personal preference. Some scouts like curveballs and others are happy with sliders, so breaking down the stuff of these guys is like going to a BMW dealership and having your choice of models. For me, ceiling is Parker and surest thing is Porcello.
Rich: Just as righthanders seem to have the upper hand (so to speak) on the high school front, the college side of the equation seems to favor southpaws.
John: We did an entire feature on scouting LHPs in the draft preview issue because this draft is so heavy in college LHPs. David Price is in a class by himself; he's the best pitcher in college baseball, period. After him, Ross Detwiler and Daniel Moskos are our next two college LHPs, and Detwiler's more polished, has more projection (6-foot-4 but just 175 pounds) and is considered the better prospect. He could go anywhere from 2 (though the Royals apparently saw him pitch poorly) and 9 (don't think he'll get past the D-backs). Moskos is a three-pitch guy who could be a dominant reliever or middle-of-the-rotation power armed starter. The next college LHPs run the gamut—Nick Schmidt has polish and command of three average pitches, and impressed in a complete-game shutout at the SEC tournament against Alabama. Joe Savery has had minor shoulder surgery, but at his best he could be the second-best college LHP after Price. I've always likened him to Mark Mulder as a two-way athlete (hitter and pitcher) with firm low-90s stuff, command of his secondary stuff and an easy, repeatable delivery that should lead to durability. (Mulder was very durable in his first 6 years in MLB, four 200-plus IP seasons.)
Other first-round possiblities include Maryland closer Brett Cecil, who also has shown the three-pitch mix necessary to start but I like better in the pen because of his wipeout mid-80s slide piece; Aaron Poreda, the tight end-sized San Francisco LHP who works off a mid-90s fastball that has touched 97 but has middling secondary stuff; and relievers Nick Hagadone (Washington, up to 95 mph) and Cole St. Clair (Rice, shoulder injury red flags). My college LHP sleeper is Brad Mills, a senior out of Arizona, he's a back-of-the-rotation guy but I love the guy's intelligence and three-pix mitch, and I think he could move quickly.
Rich: Speaking of the surname Mills, there is a righthander out of UNC Charlotte with the first name of Adam who has put up numbers as good as or better than any college pitcher in the country. I know he's on the small side at just six feet. But he throws strikes and does a pretty good job at missing bats and inducing groundballs. What do scouts think of him? And where do you see him going?
John: Adam Mills has had the best season of any player in college baseball in terms of production, but the Atlantic-10 is probably as bad as it gets this year in college baseball. He's dominating inferior competition with an upper-80s fastball, pitchability, a decent slider and changeup. He's not a threat to go high unless it's to a "Moneyball" kind of team, but the scouts I've talked to about him remain skeptical. Hard to root against the guy, his consistency is amazing. Think he'll go 4-6 round range.
Rich: While doing a run of the Mills, let's not forget Beau, the lefthanded-hitting 3B/1B out of Lewis-Clark State College (Idaho). How does his bat compare to the other college sluggers, such as Matt LaPorta (1B, Florida), Kyle Russell (RF, Texas), and Kellen Kulbacki (OF, James Madison)?
John: In our run on Mills (well played), Beau Mills has strength and leverage in his swing, big league bloodlines and a lefty power bat. He'll go better than any college hitter not named Matt Wieters and could be the first college hitter picked, NAIA or not. If he can play 3B, he's got a chance to be a real stud, but it sounds like his arm is below-average and that may push him across the diamond to first base. I'm a Kyle Russell believer, it sounds like he'll always strike out a lot, but he has mad power, in my mind the most raw power in the draft, and he's athletic enough to play some CF (though he's more of an RF). But guys who swing and miss that much just don't have a great track record. He set a Cape Cod League strikeouts record, he still is swinging and missing a lot, and he seems allergic to good breaking balls. Maybe he's a lefty Rob Deer . . . ?
Kellen Kulbacki isn't in this class; he's closer to Cal Poly slugger Grant Desme, in the next tier of power hitters/college hitters. Matt LaPorta is the real wild card, as a Scott Boras client, as a guy who was hurt last year (strained oblique) and is now having as good a year as any college hitter in recent memory. Still, he's a righthanded-hitting, righthanded-throwing 1B who is limited defensively somewhat. He's improved on that front but you're buying the bat. How much are you going to pay for that bat, and if he doesn't hit 30 home runs, he's probably not worth it, he's not going to bring much more to the table. He's probably more Rob Deer than anyone in the draft, without Deer's RF defense. I'm just not a huge Matt LaPorta guy personally, but the guy can rake, you have to respect his performance.
Jim: The consensus is that Wieters is the best college position player in the draft, but there are at least a couple of scouting directors out there who would take Mills' bat over Wieters'. That's not the consensus, but it shows you what people think of Mills. And while Mills has posted crazy numbers against NAIA competition, don't forget that he's hit D-I pitching at Fresno State and in the Cape Cod League in the past. I'd take him over LaPorta, because he hits lefthanded (LaPorta hits righty) and has a small prayer of being more than a first baseman. Russell has obliterated the home run record at Texas, but the majority of clubs think his success won't carry over to pro ball. They just don't like his swing or his approach or his track record at the Area Code Games and Cape Cod League. He'll still go late first round or early sandwich round, though.
Rich: If it's going to take a million dollars to get Russell to sign as a draft-eligible sophomore, I guess I'm at a loss as to why teams would spend a late first or early sandwich round pick on him when nobody was willing to do the same on Tim Lincecum two years ago? Lincecum was passed over by every club for 41 rounds. Cleveland finally selected him but never offered the million dollars Lincecum was seeking--even in the aftermath of a fantastic Cape Cod summer when he led the league with a 0.69 ERA and struck out 68 batters in 39 innings.
Jim: Teams made a mistake on Lincecum, plain and simple. There were rumors he wanted $2 million before the draft, and I'm not sure what the official word from the Lincecum camp was, but with the concerns about his size and delivery, thrown in with the concerns about the signability, he plummeted. This happens to a lot of the best draft-eligible sophomores, where if they aren't perceived as very signable, they're perceived as very unsignable because of their extra leverage, if that makes any sense. The Indians did make a run at Lincecum after the Cape season, but it wasn't enough to sign him. Looking back now, I'd take him over any player in the 2006 draft at this point.
Rich: Winding down here, are there any jucos or draft-and-follow types we should be aware of?
John: Calif. JCs were a bit down this year, no Tommy Hansons, but Santa Rosa JC's Matt Thompson could go quite high, three-pitch RHP who's not under control to anyone and has touched 94 mph; also Riverside CC 3B Matt Clark, who led Calif. JCs in home runs, should go in the 3-5 round range, his dad is Terry Clark, ex-big league RHP, current Frisco pitching coach (Rangers, Double-A).
Jim: From a national perspective, the top draft-and-follows are Broward (Fla.) CC righthander Matt Latos (Padres), Grayson County (Texas) CC righty Jordan Walden, Delgado (La.) CC outfielder Lee Haydel (Brewers) and Western Nevada lefty Cole Rohrbaugh (Braves). All of those guys could factor in the first couple of rounds if they don't sign. Reports are that Latos is seeking more than $3 million, and that's crazy. He's not going to get half of that if he re-enters the draft.
Rich: How will this year's new signing deadline affect draft choices and negotiations?
Jim: In MLB's mind, I think it believes that it has given teams a lot of leverage. I don't see it. A deadline is a deadline, and Scott Boras is going to back teams up against it whether it's August 15 or something more fluid like the old rule (first day a player attends class, or a week before the next draft if he doesn't attend school). Boras is very good at his job, and he doesn't care when the deadline is; he just needs a deadline to work with. The new rule giving teams better compensation for unsigned first-round picks and compensation for unsigned sandwich-, second- and third-rounders isn't going to do much either. It's a better consolation prize, but every scouting director I've talked to wants to sign his picks now. They're not going to try to hardline anyone to make a point for MLB.
So on one hand, you have MLB thinking it has given teams more leverage and looking to chop the slot recommendations for every bonus in the first 10 rounds down by roughly 10 percent. And on the other hand, we're coming off a year where the Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs were very aggressive about teams signing players over slot, worrying about getting talent rather than toeing the line—exactly the approach I would take if I had the money. The average team spends $5 million a year on the draft. If you take that number up to $7 million, you can add a few more high-quality prospects. We could be headed for a summer where MLB expects more slotting enforcement, and instead you have more teams willing to break ranks.
John: Who knows what will happen on the draft signing deadline; the law of unintended consequences may apply. I will say time is leverage in negotiations, and now agents have less time, so I'd say they have less leverage. But a lot of those guys are quite smart and know how to make rules work for them, so we'll see.
Alan: The deadline also will place some additional significance in the summers of players who were drafted but not considered a lock to sign right after the draft. They’ll be some players, especially college draft-eligible sophomores and a bevy of second-tier high school players, who fall out of the first three or four rounds because they were perceived as tough to sign for close-to-slot money there. They’ll be drafted in the later rounds, and followed over the course of the summer. That Aug. 15 deadline comes as summer leagues are wrapping up for college wood bat leagues, and right when the high school summer showcase and wood bat tournament circuit winds down. So they’ll be a lot of players under control over the course of the summer that teams will continue to scout right up to Aug. 15.
Rich: Lightning round. What's with guys named Chris Carpenter and elbow surgeries?
Jim: Carpenter is a righthander at Kent State, the highest unsigned high school pitcher from the 2004 draft (seventh round, Tigers). He has come back from Tommy John surgery and a second elbow operation to throw 93-97 mph down the stretch of the regular season, and could sneak into the first round. But he didn't look as good at the Mid-American Conference tournament, so his stock is dropping a little.
Rich: Scherzer. Signs with Arizona or goes back in the draft?
John: Back in draft.
Jim: I concur, I think he's back in the draft. Not many concrete figures are out there, but word is the Diamondbacks are offering around $3 million and Scherzer/Boras are looking for twice that. I like Scherzer, but I wouldn't give him more than $3 million, if that, or a big league contract. Very good arm, but I think he's more of a closer than a frontline starter.
Alan: I think he’ll go unsigned, and with the lack of frontline college righthanders in this year’s draft, the numbers are in his favor to get more money than he can suck out of Arizona.
Rich: Andrew Brackman. Power forward, power pitcher, or power outage?
John: Pitcher, but he's raw. He's not that great at basketball, really.
Jim: Again, I concur with John. Definitely a pitcher, but he's very raw and not a sure thing. He isn't a Jeff Samardzija, who would have been a second- or third-round pick in this year's NFL draft.
Alan: He has more upside than Samardzija, in my opinion, but I don’t think his mental approach matches his talent, and that might be one reason he hasn't been able to capture his potential quite yet.
Rich: If you're running a team, go with slot money or deal with Scott Boras?
John: Limiting your talent pool in the draft, whether by only picking college players or only picking non-Boras clients, is a bad idea.
Jim: This doesn't make for a dramatic roundtable, but again I concur with John. If you ignore Boras clients because they're Boras clients, you're ignoring some pretty serious talent. And the whole slotting thing hurts teams that buy into it. If I'm one of the 25 or so teams that will adhere to slot, that means some of my competitors are going to get some top talent that falls in the draft. I understand why MLB wants to keep bonuses down, but how is slotting going to help me win? It's not.
Alan: Jim is right on, but you have to set a dollar amount on every player at the top of your board, and stick to it. If you think a player is worth $2 million and he falls to you, but you can get him for $2 million, who cares what MLB has recommended. I’m going after the player. If it’s Matt Latos, and you think he’s worth $1.5 million, you call the boy and ask him if he’ll sign for that, regardless of which round you get him in. If he says yes, you get him, but if he wants more than that, let him walk. Make it as black and white as possible, have conviction in your evaluations of the player, place a number on him, and if they want more money than that, take him off your board.
Rich: How about in reverse? You're the father of a potential first-round pick . . . take slot money or hire Boras?
Alan: Well, I’m hiring Boras, but I’m probably going to have a little more involvement in negotiations than he wants. I’ll let him do his job, but in the end, I’m calling the shots. It’s my son, his career, and Boras works for us. There have been plenty of Boras clients who have signed for slot money. The player just has to make sure that he’s the one with ultimate say in when, and for what, he signs.
Jim: Well, if he's an elite player, I'm not so sure he should have to take slot money. But as much respect as I have for the money Scott gets his players, I think you're better off having him as your agent if you're a big-time major league free agent. I wouldn't want him as a draft agent. Too many teams are going to pass on players just because they're represented by Scott.
John: I still say go to college. Unless my son's headed for the first five picks and a major league contract, he's going to college. In fact, I already have his college picked out for him . . . As for picking an agent, if you're just going to sign for slot—if you make the decision as a family, "I'm a first-rounder and I want to go out right now, I don't want to go to college," then either (a) hire Boras or (b) don't hire an agent at all. If you're going to hold out for top dollar, Boras is the best agent for that (though other agents certainly are good at what they do; I'm just answering how the question was asked). Boras' business plan is not dependent on your son's bonus. But if you are so motivated to sign, you don't need an agent—sign for slot and save the commission, and hire an agent after your son becomes a professional. It doesn't take an agent to sign for slot, there's no negotiation going on.
Rich: Should teams be allowed to trade picks?
John: No. Everyone has money, draft the guys you want and sign them for what you want to pay them. Teams need to have more fortitude, not flexibility to trade picks.
Jim: I'll disagree here! Trading draft picks could give agents more leverage of forcing their clients where they want, though slotting does that to. There are some people opposed to this, but I think it would make the draft more interesting, so I'm for it.
Alan: Absolutely. Some teams might actually prefer to draft for need as opposed to upside, so if you’re in a position to get the player(s) you need the most later in the draft, take advantage of having lost those 85 games last summer and trade down for a minor league prospect and a later pick. Also, a team might feel like it has a projection nailed on a perceived later-round talent. Rather than risk letting him sit there for 29 more picks (or more than that, depending on how spread out the team’s picks are in the sandwich rounds), trade down to the area where you are comfortable the player will still be there. That way you pick up a prospect or major leaguer (though I don’t think there would be many teams willing to trade major leaguers for higher draft position) and you still get the guy you wanted, while rewarding your scouts for projecting a player that other teams were not on.
Rich: What will be the biggest surprise this year?
Jim: I think the biggest surprise to most followers of the draft will be how many high school players go in the first round, especially pitchers. College players are not superior to high school players—talent is talent—and this year's draft crop is much stronger on the high school side. You could see as many as 9-10 high school pitchers and 7-8 high school hitters taken in the first round.
Alan: Well, I don’t think that should be as huge of a surprise as Jim suggests, simply because we’ve been saying that for 11 months now, but I guess people who have only followed the draft recently seem to have engrained in their mind that the first round is meant for college players mostly, but that has not been the case over the 40-year history of the draft. I think the surprise will be with the number of high school players that slide after the first and supplemental rounds. There are some egregious bonus demands out there with a lot of these high school players. A lot of agents are floating dollar figures that are not close to the amount of money their client warrants receiving as a bonus, and they’re going to be free-falling on draft day.
John: This draft will be full of them, with no draft-and-follows, a signing date; it has significant "different" potential. I think you'll see a huge number of holdouts as agents try to use the little leverage they have while MLB tries to drive signing bonuses further down. I don't anticipate a pleasant summer in terms of signings.
Rich: OK, guys. We'll leave it at that. Thanks for your time and expertise.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at the Baseball Think Factory/Baseball Primer Newsblog.]
According to Royals Authority, the outlook in Kansas City isn't so bad these days. Young hitters like John Buck and Mark Teahen are producing while awaiting help from super-prospects Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. If and when all of these guys get going, the Royals' lineup could be formidable for years to come.
I want to focus particularly on Butler and Gordon since they are fresh out of the 2004 and 2005 drafts, respectively, and we can take a look back at their progress since their amateur days. What kind of adjustments have these guys made and how might it affect their success in the big leagues? Let's see.
The clip above shows one of Butler's swings from high school in 2004 and another swing from AA Wichita, synchronized to contact. It is harder to really compare the two since the shots are different situations (batting practice versus game), but it gives an overall impression of Butler's swing.
Butler is filling out more as he matures and it looks like he has added more leg lift and a bit more weight shift, perhaps to generate more power with a wood bat. Judging by his success in the minors, he has this extra movement under control and it is not causing a longer swing path.
The only cause for concern that I might point out is Butler's contact point. This may be specific to these pitches, which appear to be pulled towards the left field line, but he is making contact well ahead of his front foot at near full extension. While full extension can signify a full transfer of energy, the timing aspect of making consistent contact in this position is very difficult. Miguel Cabrera comes to mind as a player who does this more often than most and he is doing quite well for himself.
This shot shows Butler handling (good for a 2B) a 100 mph fastball from Justin Verlander and makes me believe that Butler is plenty quick enough to handle MLB heaters. The question just comes in his ability to handle a full mix of pitches. When Butler does get his return call, which I'd like to see soon, I think he does have room physically to adjust his swing in the event that he does struggle with pitch variety. Keeping his hands back longer as he begins rotating into the ball would allow him to make contact slightly deeper in the zone, which affords more time for pitch recognition. But of course, with his talent, let him do his thing and see how it goes before suggesting any changes. It's very likely that he could just figure it out in his own way (a la David Wright).
So .191/.307/.309 with 29% K's is not the way Royals fans imagined this pre-season Rookie of the Year candidate would start his career. Gordon seemed to make some progress heading into May, and it should be considered that he has been treated rather poorly by Lady Luck. Thanks to a Hardball Times piece about line-drive percentage, it is evident that a player hitting more than 20% line drives should have a much higher BA/BIP than Gordon does. Could and should may be okay for now, but let's hope for Gordon's and the Royals' sake that things really do even out in the end.
Outside of plain ol' bad luck, Gordon has also turned to a higher leg lift since being drafted:
The angle in the shots is different and I am unsure of the pitch type in the college shot, so I will steer clear of in depth comparisons, but it appears that Gordon is keeping his hands back well and using his body more effectively to generate power. It looks like he has made some nice adjustments since giving up the metal bat.
A change that might be holding Gordon back, however, is the direction of his stride. From the limited number of swings I have seen, Gordon is more closed off these days and this may be preventing him from effectively handling pitches on the inner portion of the plate.
The shot on the left side shows a minor league version of Gordon's stride, which is relatively straight-away. On the right side is a 2007 HR shot that actually shows Gordon stepping on the inside line of the batter's box. Naturally, I wanted something that indicated how Gordon was handling pitches in various locations and this is what I found:
I am not the one to say that this closed stride is essentially eliminating Gordon's chance to handle inside pitches, but it sure is an interesting coincidence. Barry Bonds said a few years ago that he worked on his ability to clear his hips and that it helped him handle more pitches with power. If Gordon can "free" his hips, perhaps he could reach inside pitches more effectively. Combine this with a little change in luck, and there you have the Alex Gordon that Royals fans were expecting as the season began.
Pitching Drought in Tampa... It's About to End
Tampa Bay Rays
1. Scott Kazmir 1st round, 2002 (Mets) 1/84
2. James Shields 16th round, 2000 12/81
3. _____________ _____________ ______
4. _____________ _____________ ______
5. _____________ _____________ ______
With three members of the Tampa Bay Ray's starting rotation with ERAs above 7.50 as recently as this past Wednesday, you can imagine General Manager (Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, actually) Andrew Friedman has had a few restless nights. Fear not, young Friedman, Scott Kazmir, 23, and James Shields, 25, will soon have competent company in the starting rotation. And the likes of Casey Fossum, Edwin Jackson and Jae Seo will be distant memories.
2004: The Draft of the Decade
As perennial losers, the Rays have had more than a couple of shots at injecting life into the organization through the amateur baseball draft. And while they have had some great early round picks (Delmon Young, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli), 2004 was by far the best all-around draft for the club.
In the first 13 rounds, the club picked up Jeff Niemann, Reid Brignac, Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, Matt Walker, Fernando Perez and Andy Sonnanstine. Was this the best single draft by one team in the history of baseball? No, certainly not. But what this draft did was inject one top shortstop prospect and five pitching prospects, three of whom could one day become No. 2 starters if they reach their ceiling.
Thanks to that 2004 draft, and others, Tampa has some solid studs advancing through the system, as well as enviable depth.
Name Draft Age
1. Jeff Niemann 1st, 2004 2/83
2. Andy Sonnanstine 13th, 2004 3/83
3. Jason Hammel 10th, 2002 9/82
4. Mitch Talbot 2nd, 2002 (Astros) 10/83
Friday night's pitching prospect match-up between Niemann and Kevin Slowey was a perfect example of stuff vs smarts. Slowey came out on top by allowing no runs over eight innings, while Niemann allowed three runs over six to take the loss. This outing showed that Niemann still has some work to do before succeeding at the Major League level, but he's not far away. In 10 Triple-A starts this season, Niemann has posted a 4.02 ERA. In 53.2 innings of work, the 6'9'' 280-pound right-hander has allowed 54 hits and 20 walks. He has struck out 57 batters. Health is the big key for Niemann, as he has pitched a total of 25 games in his first two full pro seasons since signing out of Rice University. If his shoulder holds up, he could see the Tampa rotation by September. With a four-pitch repertoire - including a 96-mph fastball - Niemann could become a top starter in the American League.
Sonnanstine is one of those pitchers who doesn't impress you with his stuff (87-91 mph fastball) but he just keeps putting up respectable numbers and deserves a shot. Drafted in the 13th round out of Kent State University in 2004, Sonnanstine had a career ERA of 2.55 in 424 innings coming into the 2007 season. In Triple-A this year, he has pitched excellent and has posted a 2.30 ERA in nine starts (58.2 innings). Sonnanstine has allowed only 42 hits and 12 walks, for a WHIP below 1.00. He has also struck out 60 batters, which is impressive given his average stuff. Scouts say Sonnanstine has to be "on" to win but he has struggled in only one outing this season, which came on April 13 in Toledo when he allowed five runs in six innings. He has struck out more than 10 batters in a game on two occasions this season. His lone plus pitch is a change-up that Shields taught to him.
Jason Hammel, 24, is often the overlooked prospect because he's not flashy and wasn't a high draft pick, but he has the ceiling of a No. 4 starter or a solid middle reliever. At 6'6'' and 220 pounds, Hammel has a great pitcher's body and has done well so far this season in Triple-A. He has allowed only 42 hits in 57.1 innings of work. He has struck out 55 and walked only 22. He has also induced almost 1.5 ground balls for every flyball. Hammels is due for a shot at the major leagues again and should greatly improve upon his career ERA of 7.77 from 44 innings of work in the majors last year. Hammel has a low-90s fastball and a plus curve. The consistency of his change-up will likely determine his Major League future.
Mitch Talbot came to Tampa Bay last year in the Aubrey Huff deal, which also netted recently-demoted shortstop Ben Zobrist. Prior to the 2006 season, Talbot's ceiling was estimated to be a No. 5 starter or reliever. However, last season the 23-year-old had a 3.39 ERA in Double-A for Houston (90.1 innings) and then a 1.90 ERA in Double-A for Tampa (66.1 innings). This season has been a different story for Talbot, though, as he has struggled in Triple-A and has a 7.20 ERA in 40 innings. He has allowed too many hits (50) as well as too many walks (20). On the plus side, he has induced two ground balls for every one fly ball. Talbot's worst outing of the year came on May 5 against Richmond, when he recorded no outs and was charged with 10 earned runs. Without the one terrible outing, his ERA would be 4.95. Since that time, Talbot has allowed only four earned runs in three starts (15 innings). His biggest downside is the lack of a consistent breaking ball to go with his low-90s fastball and change-up.
Name Draft Age
1. Chris Mason 2nd, 2005 7/84
2. James Houser 2nd, 2003 12/84
3. Jonathan Barratt 5th, 2003 3/85
4. Chuck Tiffany 2nd, 2003 (Dodgers) 1/85
Less than three years after being drafted in the second round out of UNC-Greensboro, Chris Mason is having a solid season at Double-A Montgomery. He has a 2.68 ERA through 10 starts and has allowed 52 hits in 57 innings. Mason has walked only 14 and struck out 52. The right-hander was promoted aggressively by Tampa Bay even after he struggled in Advanced A-Ball last year and posted a 5.02 ERA in 152.1 innings of work. He struck out only 111 and walked 44. Mason was extremely hittable and allowed 177 hits. He possesses a low 90s fastball, slurve and change. The latter two pitches need work. Mason, who was a two-way player in college, now projects as a solid No. 4 starter and could realize that potential as early as 2008.
At 5'10'' and 155 pounds, Jonathan Barratt doesn't look like a professional baseball player, but don't let that fool you; he has talent. After signing late out of high school in 2003, Barratt made his pro debut the next season in the short-season New York Penn League and posted a 2.74 ERA in 10 starts. The next season, Tampa Bay inexplicably rushed Barratt to Advanced A-Ball in Visalia. They also threw him into the bullpen, as they were concerned about his long-term health due to his size. Barratt posted a miserable 6.59 ERA in 71 innings. He was returned to the rotation the next season while repeating the level and posted a respectable 2.93 ERA in 21 games. This season, Barratt has struggled with injuries and did not pitch in April. In May, though, Barratt has started four Double-A games and has allowed 20 hits and 13 walks in 19.1 innings. The right-hander has struggled against righties, who are hitting .304 against him, compared to lefties at .158. If his health holds up, Barratt could be a solid No. 4 or 5 starter. His best pitch right now is his curveball, which he uses along with a low-90s fastball and developing change-up.
James Houser is only 22 but has advanced to Double-A in his fifth minor league season. His ascent was slowed by some injuries problems in 2004. Three years later, Houser appears to have left his serious injury woes behind him. The 6'4'' lefty is having a nice season so far with a 2.48 ERA in 32.2 innings. Batters are hitting only .168 against Houser and he has allowed 19 hits in total. Lefty batters have only one hit against him this year. He has also issued only eight walks, along with 22 strikeouts. Between his two starts on May 15 and 20, Houser did not allow an earned run and allowed only four hits in 11.1 innings. One negative is his GO/AO ration (ground outs to air outs), which is at 0.95.
Chuck Tiffany is probably one of the most frustrating pitchers in the system right now. He is extremely talented but he cannot seem to stay healthy. Drafted out of high school in the second round of the 2003 draft by the Dodgers, Tiffany was obtained with the disappointing Edwin Jackson for Danys Baez and Lance Carter in January of 2006. Since that time, Tiffany has appeared in only four regular season games due to injuries. When healthy, the 22-year-old lefty spins a plus curveball and has the potential to be a No. 3 starter.
Advanced Single-A Vero Beach
Name Draft Age
1. Wade Davis 3rd, 2004 9/85
2. Jacob McGee 5th, 2004 8/86
3. Matt Walker 10th, 2004 8/86
Davis has shown significant progress since posting a 6.09 ERA in his debut season in Rookie Ball in 2004. Last season, he posted a 3.02 ERA in A-Ball while striking out 165 in 146 innings. This season, in Advanced A-Ball, Davis is also sending batters back to the dugout shaking their heads. His best game of the year came on May 4 against Jupiter when he threw a seven inning no-hitter. For the season, he has struck out 50 in 52.2 innings and has posted only 37 hits and 15 walks. Davis has allowed only four earned runs in his last six starts (37.1 innings). Like many Rays' pitching prospects, Davis has good size at 6'5'' 220 pounds. He needs to learn to combat lefties a little better as they have hit .285 against him this year, compared to righties at .122. Davis, who has a four-pitch repertoire and can touch 98 mph with his fastball, has taken a huge step forward and now projects as a solid No. 3 starter. Not bad for a kid who did not start pitching until his sophomore season in high school.
McGee is something special. The 20-year-old left-hander currently has a 1.84 ERA in 10 starts in the Florida State League. In 53.2 innings, McGee has allowed only 23 hits (.178 average) and has walked 21. He has also struck out 61. One of the knocks on McGee right now is that he is too much of a flyball pitcher, having posted a 0.85 GO/AO ratio. Despite that, he has yet to allow a home run this season. McGee is extremely tough on lefties, who have hit only .049 against him this year. Last season, managers voted McGee's fastball the best in the Midwest League. He throws it around 90-94 mph with good movement and can touch 96. He also has a curveball and change-up.
Walker, 20, has struggled more this year than other top pitchers in the system, aside from Talbot. The 20-year-old has had his best run of the year in his last three starts by allowing only six runs in 15 innings. His worst outing came on April 26 when he was charged with eight earned runs in 1.1 innings of work against Palm Beach (Cardinals). Walker's biggest problem this season has been walks. In 38.2 innings, he has allowed 30 walks, while striking out 32. Throw in another 42 base runners via hits and that has been far too many players reaching base. His last outing on March 23 was encouraging as Walker limited Lakeland to two hits over five innings, although he walked three. He has the best breaking ball in the Rays' system, along with a solid change-up and a fastball that can touch 96 mph.
Name Draft Age
1. Josh Butler 2nd, 2006 12/84
2. Wade Townsend 1st, 2005 2/83
3. Jeremy Hellickson, 4th, 2005 4/87
4. Lewis (Heath) Rollins 11th, 2006 5/85
Although Tampa has had a lot success with high school pitchers (McGee, Walker, Hellickson, Davis, and so on), they have not shied away from taking the odd college pitcher early in the draft. The acquisition of Josh Butler in the second round last year out of the University of San Diego has looked smart so far, as he has had a solid season for Columbus. However, the Rays have not challenged him, as many college pitchers taken early in the 2006 draft are already in Advanced A-Ball. In 49 innings this season, Butler, 22, has allowed only 40 hits, while walking 15. He has struck out 36. Opponents have had troubles getting the ball in the air against Butler, who has held opponents to one fly ball for every 2.2 ground balls. Both his curveball and slider are plus pitches. His fastball is between 90-95 mph and his change-up is a work-in-progress.
The tale of Wade Townsend is a long and complicated one despite the fact the former college standout has failed to rise above A-Ball after being drafted in the first round (for the second time) by Tampa Bay in 2005. He was originally taken eighth overall in 2004 by the Baltimore organization, which allegedly tried to low-ball him with its contract offer. Townsend returned to Rice University for his senior year, although he was ineligible to play baseball. After Tampa Bay drafted and signed him, Townsend posted a 5.49 ERA in 39.1 innings in the New York Penn League. He then missed all of 2006 due to Tommy John surgery. Townsend, 24, has already spent time on the disabled list this season, but he has also posted a 2.59 ERA in seven starts (31.1 innings). He has allowed 21 hits and walked 10, while striking out 40. Some believe Townsend is better suited for the pen because of his mentality on the mound. His fastball has been inconsistent, but when he's at his best he has a spike curve and change-up, both of which are plus pitches.
Jeremy Hellickson has had a solid start to his first year of full-season ball. Despite not making his first start of the year until April 24, Hellickson has an impressive 1.80 ERA in 25 innings. In 2007, he has allowed 17 hits and 10 walks. Hellickson has held batters to a .191 average overall. Lefties have hit only .150 against the 6'1'' right-hander. His best game of the year came against Rome on May 15 when he allowed only one hit in five innings and struck out 10 baby Braves. He needs to improve his secondary pitches (curve and change) to take his game to the next level.
One of the lesser known Rays' pitching prospects, Heath Rollins was a two-way player at Winthrop and scouts were split on whether he should play the outfield or toe the rubber as a pro. So far Tampa Bay appears to have made the correct decision, as Rollins has a 1.12 ERA, albeit in A-Ball. He has struck out more than one batter per inning, but the most impressive thing is that he has induced 2.31 ground balls for every one flyball. Rollins works most comfortably around 87-90 mph but can touch 93 mph and has a slider, curve and change-up in his repertoire.
Overall, the minor league system is in excellent shape after four years of work by the Tampa Bay organization - specifically the scouting department. Just imagine how good the system would be if the Rays had been able to sign picks such as Andrew Miller, Wade LeBlanc, Adam Ottavino, David Bush, Bryan Morris and Mike Pelfrey.
Watching Rich Hill pitch reminds me of watching Barry Zito and I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees the similarities. Both are tall left handers with big, looping curveballs, but they have more in common than their physical appearances. Both pitchers are extreme fly ball pitchers, with 61% of balls in play against Zito in 2007 being fly balls and 65% for Hill. Despite the platoon disadvantage, left handed hitters have actually posted better offensive numbers against Zito and Hill than right handed hitters have. Their careers haven't followed similar trajectories, Zito made his major league debut at age 22 and had a Cy Young by 24, while Hill pitched in the minors until he was 25, hampered by injuries, but both lefties have a similar repertoire of pitches and appear to pitch in a similar fashion. Furthermore, the curveballs thrown by the two are practically begging to be analyzed via Enhanced Gameday. I've wanted to look closer at Zito since I had noticed his unique release point during the 2006 playoffs (more on that in several paragraphs) and comparing his curveball to Hill's was high on my to-do list for Gameday projects, so I figured I'd knock off both things in this article.
First off, here's a chart showing Barry Zito's start on May 15th in his return to Oakland. Zito struggled in this start, going four innings, while allowing seven runs on seven walks and six hits. From this chart you can see a couple of basic features of Zito's pitches. His fastball is pretty straight, although it does have some movement in on left handed hitters, the normal direction for a left handed pitcher's fastball to move. I'm not very confident in my identification of his slider and changeup, but based on what I have, the slider moves in on lefties, while his changeup moves slightly away. Zito's curve is the pitch I really want to look at in this article, so it was rather disappointing to see that Zito only threw 11 in the game. The curve ends up slightly more than 10 inches lower than a non-spinning pitch would, evidence of the tremendous topspin Zito imparts on his curve. Is a 10 inch "drop" an impressive number? The only way to check that is to examine other curveballs.
Before I move onto Rich Hill's curve though, I wanted to look at Zito's release point. During the 2006 playoffs, I noticed that Zito's release point was much closer to the center of the pitching rubber than I would have thought a left hander would be. His release point was very close to that of a right handed pitcher, and I speculated that it could be the reason left handed hitters had success against him. Here's a chart comparing his 2007 release point to his 2006 playoff release point, as well as the release point of Dan Haren and Joe Kennedy for perspective. All four release points were captured in Oakland, with the 2007 ones from consecutive days in an effort to control for park changes.
Even after accounting for the different versions of technology used, in 2007 Zito still releases the ball close to the middle of the rubber, but he's not as extreme as he was in the playoffs and other pitchers actually have similar release points.
Getting back to Hill, here's a chart showing his pitches from his start on May 22nd in San Diego. Despite striking out eight batters, Hill allowed five runs in six innings and took the loss in this particular start. Hill throws three or four pitches, clearly a fastball and curveball, as well as possibly a changeup and slider. I have the same uncertainty with classifying Hill's changeup and slider as I did with Zito and in the end I called one of the groups his changeup, while calling the other unknown. Looking at Hill's fastball, it has similar horizontal movement in toward left handed batters as Zito's had, although Hill's had a wider range of breaks. Even though Hill's fastball was faster, Zito's fell less vertically, possibly indicating greater backspin on the ball for Zito.
Hill's curveball is tremendous. The biggest difference between his curveball and Zito's is that his has more horizontal movement. In addition to breaking 12 inches down, Hill's curve moves roughly seven inches away from left handed hitters. Zito has the same drop on his pitch, but only gets three inches of movement away from left handed hitters. With everything else (pitch speed, release point, and vertical break) being just about equal, a curve that breaks laterally as well as vertically is harder to hit than a curve just moving vertically. The horizontal break also helps classify the curveballs from the hitter's point of view, with Zito's being 12-to-6, while Hill's is more of a 12-to-7 or 8.
Name Pfx_x Pfx_z Speed
Zito -3.0" -11.3 72 MPH
Hill -7.1" -12.3 74 MPH
The chart above shows the median values for several variables that describe Zito and Hill's curveballs. Do other pitchers throw similar types of curveballs? After looking at some pitchers who throw curveballs (and doing a little fishing in my database) I found several pitchers that threw comparable curves, but Zito and Hill were still unique. The chart below shows the median values for the pitchers I looked at.
Name Pfx_x Pfx_z Speed Hand Number of Curves
Wolf -5.8" -6.5" 67 MPH L 116
Blanton 5.1" -8.6" 74 MPH R 108
Arroyo 9.8" 2.5" 76 MPH R 36
Sheets 2.9" -4.8" 80 MPH R 29
Meche 2.0" -12.6" 79 MPH R 13
Gil Meche had a very similar curveball to Zito and Hill, although he didn't have as much horizontal movement and threw only 13 of them in the start I examined. In this chart, negative pfx_x values indicate movement in to right handed hitters. Bronson Arroyo had the most horizontal movement of any curveball, but interestingly, actually had his curve end up higher than a non-spinning pitch would have. Either he was hanging his curve on May 16th, or there was something wrong with the tracking system in San Diego on that day.
Obviously Hill and Zito have very unique curveballs. Even after looking for pitchers with the greatest vertical drops, I couldn't find other pitchers with similar curveballs. One thing I would like to look closer at is which pitches Zito and Hill actually get their fly balls on. Are the fly balls a direct result of curveballs or are they the result of a general pitching pattern? I don't have enough curveballs in my database from Zito and Hill to really get a good read on it yet, but I would guess the fly balls are more a result of a pitching pattern than actual pitches.
I had a couple of things I wanted to mention before I finished. I have more data for sinker ballers now, with Webb having a couple of starts and Wang making his debut in an Enhanced stadium. I'm going to look at sinkers again in the future, and hopefully should have something new to say. I also noticed that Wakefield had several starts in Toronto, also an Enhanced stadium, and looking at his pitch charts, its not surprising that nobody can hit him when his knuckleball is working as the break values on his knuckleball look virtually random. Certain hitters also finally have enough enhanced pitches that I can look at batting average on balls in play from the hitter's perspective and have it mean something.
The Value of the Stolen Base: A Comparison of MLB and NCAA Division I Baseball
Over the years there has been a great deal of debate amongst baseball insiders and fans over the value of the stolen base. Some, such as longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, have argued that the stolen base is rarely worth the risk. Others, however, view the stolen base as a valuable means of applying pressure to the opposing team's defense. The question is: Which side is right?
Most past research on the stolen base seems to side with Weaver. Using data from Major League Baseball, researchers have found that stealing at less than a 75% success rate is detrimental to success. Joe Sheehan explains in Baseball Prospectus Basics: Stolen Bases and How to Use Them that when considering stolen bases, one must consider both the cost and the benefit. Therefore, the break-even point for successful base-stealing is so high because outs are more valuable than bases in nearly every instance. For example, the Run Expectancy Matrix created by Baseball Prospectus reveals that a runner on first base with no one out is worth approximately 0.864 runs. A successful steal of second base would raise that figure to 1.173. However, a failed stolen base attempt drops that number to 0.270. In this example, the loss is nearly two times the gain.
In the same article, Sheehan also suggests that the secondary effects of base-stealing, such as putting pressure on the opposing pitcher and defense, do not exist. In fact, he goes as far as to suggest that a runner at first base is more disruptive to the defense than a runner at second base, simply because the first baseman must hold the runner on and the middle infielders are forced to cheat toward second base to have a chance at a double play.
While these findings have been consistently replicated and are generally accepted by Sabermetricians and others when talking about professional baseball, there has been little or no research conducted examining the stolen base at other levels of play. As a Division I college baseball coach, this leads me to wonder: Is the stolen base a more valuable offensive weapon in college baseball than it is at the professional level?
The numbers seem to indicate that the stolen base is more a part of the college game than it is the professional game, even to the casual fan who has taken a few minutes to compare player and team statistics from both levels. For example, in 2006, the Los Angeles Angels led all of Major League Baseball in stolen bases with .91 stolen bases per game. That same season, the average Division I college baseball team stole 1.2 bases per game, with the national leader averaging slightly more than three stolen bases per game.
A deeper analysis of both college and professional statistics is even more revealing. A series of multiple linear regression models were created using data from both NCAA Division I and Major League Baseball. The models used both stolen bases per game and caught stealing per game to predict runs scored, while controlling for base-stealing opportunities. The results were interesting. The first set of regression models, examining the relationship between stolen bases per game and runs scored, revealed that in college baseball, runs per game increased by .295 with each stolen base per game. However, in Major League Baseball, runs per game actually decreased by .208 with each stolen base per game. While it seems strange that a successful stolen base attempt would result in fewer runs scored, it is likely explained by the fact that teams stealing more bases generally do so to compensate for a lack of offensive firepower (i.e. power hitting). Therefore, it is not the stolen base itself that is costing the team runs but the team's overall style of play. The second set of regression models, analyzing the relationship between caught stealing per game and runs scored, indicated that in college baseball, runs per game decreased by .304 with each unsuccessful stolen base attempt per game. In Major League Baseball, the cost of a failed stolen base attempt was even more severe at .845 runs per game.
So what do these findings actually tell us? In the most simplistic sense, they indicate that the stolen base is indeed a more valuable offensive weapon in college baseball than it is in Major League Baseball for two reasons: 1) The reward for a successful stolen base attempt is greater; 2) The cost of an unsuccessful stolen base attempt is less significant. Therefore, because they have more to gain and less to lose, it makes sense for college teams to utilize the stolen base more liberally. However, the fact that college baseball teams attempt considerably more stolen bases per game than do big league teams seems to suggest that many college coaches are already aware of this more favorable "risk/reward" ratio.
That being said, it is also important to acknowledge and understand the limitations of these findings. The biggest weakness of this study is the inability to examine specific situations. Therefore, while the above findings provide information about the big picture, they offer little or no guidance relative to specific in-game strategy decisions. In other words, there are a multitude of factors (i.e. the ability of the base runner, the opponent, the game situation, etc.) that were not considered in this study but are extremely influential in the outcome of any base-stealing attempt. As a result, coaches must remember that the actual "risk/reward" ratio changes with the situation. Below is a more detailed look at factors that must be considered before attempting a stolen base.
The Base Runner
The speed and base-running ability of the runner are extremely important when deciding whether or not to steal a base. It makes the most sense to run when the base runner is fast and has good instincts.
The ability of the hitter at the plate is extremely important. It makes the most sense to attempt a stolen base when the hitter at the plate is a double play threat and/or when the hitter has little chance of driving a runner in from first base.
The ability of the pitcher and catcher to stop the running game is also important. A pitcher that is slow to the plate is much easier to run on than one who is quick. Similarly, a poor throwing catcher is easier to run on than one who throws well.
The Game Situation
Research has repeatedly shown that in the majority of Major League Baseball games, the winning team scores more runs in one inning than the losing team does in the entire game. This revelation backs up Earl Weaver's advice to play for the big inning, especially early in games. Therefore, one-run strategies, such as the stolen base, make the most sense in situations where one run is of great importance (i.e. late in games or in low-scoring games).
Michael Current is an assistant baseball coach at Illinois State University. He graduated from Blackburn College with a degree in Communication and recently completed his master's degree in Sport Management at Illinois State University. Last summer, Current served as an assistant coach with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the prestegious Cape Cod League, where his team won the league championship.
Dr. Chad D. McEvoy is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation at Illinois State University, where he is the coordinator of the sport management program. Dr. McEvoy has published articles in journals including Sport Management Review, Sport Marketing Quarterly, International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing, and Sport Management and Related Topics.
Who's Up, Who's Down?
OK folks, we are looking for some audience participation on this one. We are over a quarter of the way through the season now, and so I present to you the top-10 in the AL and NL in both OPS and ERA. What I want to know is, come the All-Star Break, who will still be amongst the top-10, who will drop out, and if you are really brave, name some players that you think might replace the dropouts. We will revisit this at the All-Star Break and do it again, asking what the top-10's will look like come the end of the season.
I will share my thoughts a little later on in the comments section.
AVG OBP SLG OPS
1. Vladimir Guerrero .345 .452 .641 1.093
2. Alex Rodriguez .311 .397 .689 1.086
3. Magglio Ordonez .344 .425 .650 1.075
4. Jorge Posada .374 .436 .604 1.040
5. David Ortiz .314 .433 .604 1.037
6. Torii Hunter .319 .353 .606 .959
7. Kevin Youkilis .342 .428 .528 .956
8. Derek Jeter .365 .447 .488 .935
9. Mike Lowell .325 .382 .545 .927
10. B.J. Upton .309 .385 .540 .924
AVG OBP SLG OPS
1. Barry Bonds .282 .503 .618 1.121
2. Chipper Jones .301 .396 .635 1.030
3. Derrek Lee .381 .455 .558 1.013
4. Todd Helton .359 .474 .538 1.012
5. Ken Griffey Jr. .311 .415 .578 .992
6. Prince Fielder .294 .377 .599 .976
7. Hanley Ramirez .335 .413 .543 .957
8. Matt Holliday .339 .376 .581 .956
9. J.J. Hardy .311 .353 .595 .948
10. Miguel Cabrera .321 .398 .547 .945
1. Dan Haren 1.74
2. John Lackey 2.43
3. Gil Meche 2.44
4. Fausto Carmona 2.55
5. Josh Beckett 2.66
6. Justin Verlander 2.68
7. Joe Kennedy 2.70
8. Kelvim Escobar 2.82
9. Andy Pettitte 2.83
10. James Shields 2.94
1. Jake Peavy 1.63
2. Tim Hudson 2.42
3. Tom Gorzelanny 2.43
4. Brad Penny 2.54
5. Ted Lilly 2.69
5. Noah Lowry 2.69
7. Shawn Hill 2.70
8. Jason Bergmann 2.76
9. Jason Marquis 2.76
9. Ian Snell 2.76
Good Luck, all. Like I said, we will revisit this come the All-Star Break, track accuracy and publicly recognize the most impressive guesses.
Colorado Has Nothing on These Guys
30-0, 12-14, 21-6
No, those aren't football scores. Those are the results from this past weekend as the Lancaster JetHawks (Boston) and Lake Elsinore Storm (San Diego) faced off in California League action. Interestingly, just this past week, I highlighted the Lancaster team as being the most offensive-minded club in A-Ball. However, they were on the short end of two of those three mammoth games as Lake Elsinore absolutely exploded against the hapless home team.
Lake Elsinore, a team heavy with former college draft picks, scored 63 runs in only three games. And if that was not mind-blowing enough, the club scored 30 runs in the first game of the series.
You can read about the teams' thrilling series at Baseball America and Minor League Baseball, so let's concentrate on breaking down the numbers:
Lake Elsinore's Five Offensive Musketeers:
Friday Saturday Sunday Three Day Total
Chad Huffman 5 for 5 | 2 for 5 | 2 for 4 | 9 for 14 (.643)
Kyle Blanks 6 for 7 | 2 for 5 | 3 for 6 | 11 for 18 (.611)
Matt Antonelli 6 for 8 | 2 for 5 | 2 for 7 | 10 for 20 (.500)
Yordany Ramirez 2 for 7 | 1 for 5 | 4 for 6 | 7 for 18 (.389)
Craig Cooper 2 for 7 | 0 for 2 | 3 for 5 | 5 for 14 (.357)
The Before and After:
Before After Difference
Huffman 38/133 (.286) | 47/147 (.320) | +.034
Blanks 41/135 (.304) | 52/153 (.340) | +.036
Antonelli 44/146 (.301) | 54/166 (.325) | +.024
Ramirez 36/130 (.277) | 43/148 (.291) | +.014
Cooper 38/116 (.328) | 43/130 (.331) | +.003
What a difference a series can make. Hulking first base prospect Kyle Blanks (6'6'' 270 lbs) raised his average a stunning 36 points in three games. Not bad for a 42nd round draft pick. Chad Huffman, a 2006 second round draft pick out of Texas Christian University, also benefited from the series and raised his average by 34 points.
Three Game Production Totals:
R RBI HR
Huffman 10 | 7 | 4
Blanks 9 | 11 | 3
Antonelli 9 | 4 | 1
Ramirez 4 | 15 | 2
Cooper 7 | 10 | 3
Along with the 15 RBIs, Yordany Ramirez also hit for the cycle on Sunday. The non-drafted free agent - who was born in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic - had spent six nondescript seasons in the Padres' organization prior to this year. Some caution should be used before getting too excited about his season, as Ramirez had a career .277 on-base average before 2007, as well as a line of .252/.285/.378 at Lake Elsinore in 2006.
So, what effect did this offensive outburst have on Lancaster's pitching?
IP HITS RUNS
Kris Johnson 1.1 | 5 | 8
Mario Pena 1.2 | 8 | 11
T.J. Large 3.1 | 5 | 3
Jason Blackley 2.0 | 6 | 5
Blake Maxwell 0.2 | 4 | 3
IP HITS RUNS
Matt Goodson 4.0 | 11 | 10
Chad Rhoades 3.0 | 2 | 2
Hunter Jones 2.0 | 1 | 0
IP HITS RUNS
Mike Rozier 4.2 | 11 | 10
Ismael Casillas 2.1 | 2 | 1
J.T. Zink 0.1 | 6 | 8
Blake Maxwell 1.2 | 4 | 4
The Before and After [IP/ER (ERA)]:
Before After Difference
Johnson 36.2/30 (7.46) | 38.0/37 (8.76) | +1.30
Pena 12.1/8 (5.95) | 14.0/19 (12.21) | +6.26
Large ---- | 3.1/5 (8.10) | +8.10
Blackley 21.2/13 (5.52) | 23.2/18 (6.85) | +1.33
Maxwell 24.1/8 (2.99) | 26.2/15 (5.06) | +2.07
Goodson 6.0/1 (1.50) | 10.0/10 (9.00) | +7.50
Rhoades 20.2/11 (4.90) | 23.2/13 (4.94) | +0.04
Jones 26.1/8 (2.76) | 28.1/8 (2.54) | -0.22
Rozier 35.1/24 (6.15) | 40.0/32 (7.20) | +1.05
Casillas 20.0/15 (6.75) | 22.1/16 (6.45) | -0.30
Zink ---- | 0.1/8 (216.00) | +216.00
The only top pitching prospect affected by the onslaught was Kris Johnson, who has had a terrible time in the California League after a remarkable debut in the New York Penn League last season - 0.88 ERA in 30.2 innings, with seven walks and 27 strikeouts. Johnson was drafted 40th overall out of Wichita State University in 2006.
Relievers T.J. Large and J.T. Zink made their California League debuts at the worst possible time. As a 46th round pick in 2005, though, Large is probably just happy to be collecting a paycheck as a professional baseball player. Zink was an eighth round pick in 2005.
After seeing all this, you have to be even more impressed with pitcher Hunter Jones' 2.54 ERA. The 6'4'' 235 lbs lefty was signed out of Florida State University in 2005 as an undrafted free agent. Despite being passed over by 30 teams for 50 rounds each, Jones, 23, has out-performed all of Boston's top pitching prospects, save for Michael Bowden who was promoted to Portland last week. Last season in Greenville, Jones struck out 100 batters in 94.1 innings and walked only 20.
I wonder if other pitchers will be hesitant to sign with Boston after seeing the effects Lancaster has had on some talented pitchers?
Notes on a Scorecard
Today's column is in honor of the late (and great) Allan Malamud of the now defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner who was known for his Notes on a Scorecard during the 1970s and 1980s. However, my notes are from the back of a golf scorecard, developed while watching my nephew Brett Lederer play in the final threesome of the Pasadena City Golf Championship on Sunday.
On a baseball-related note, Brett threw out the first pitch at the UC Riverside-Long Beach State game on Friday night in recognition of the fact that he carded a Big West Golf Championship a few weeks earlier.
I'll start off with a couple of posts on Brett's favorite team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
I went to the Dodgers-Angels game on Saturday night. Dodgers and Angels. Saturday night. Jered Weaver on the mound. It doesn't get much better than that, at least not from my perspective.
The Halos won the middle game 6-2 on their way to sweeping the weekend series. Weaver made his fourth consecutive "quality start" and evened his record at 3-3 for the season with an ERA of 3.46.
Although Weaver's K/9 rate has increased from 7.68 in 2006 to 8.31 in 2007, his K/100 pitches has actually slipped a tad to 5.22 (down from 5.43 last season). The reason? Jered is averaging 4.01 P/PA and 17.7 P/INN (vs. 3.94 and 15.7, respectively, in his rookie campaign). [You can check the top five starters in each league in K/100P, as well as the top three hitters in the four Quad categories, near the bottom of the sidebar on the left.]
We all know that Shea Hillenbrand can't run, field, or throw. Based on the five tools, that means he better hit for average and power if he wants to play in the big leagues.
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG
34 131 10 31 3 0 1 13 2 10 0 2 .237 .252 .282
At the risk of small sample sizes, I don't think Hillenbrand is doing a very good job at hitting for average or power this year. Based on those stats, one would never know that Hillenbrand is a designated hitter. The seven-year veteran has only played two games in the field this season - both at first base. Did I mention that he made an error in one of those contests?
Oh, and as far as tools go, Hillenbrand has never possessed what should be the sixth: plate discipline. As shown above, he has drawn two walks in 135 plate appearances this season and is averaging 24 free passes per 162 games and 615 AB during his career. Shea's single-season high is 26 even though he has gone to the plate over 600 times in three separate campaigns. Hillenbrand signed a one-year contract for $6 million with the Angels last December. The club can either exercise a $6.5M option for next year or buy him out for $500,000. Hillenbrand's option becomes guaranteed with 600 plate appearances in 2007. The good news (if you're an Angels fan) is that he is on pace for just 486 PA. As such, it appears as if Arte Moreno will not be on the hook for Hillenbrand's inflated salary beyond this season.
Speaking of players who can't hit, can someone please explain to me the rationale for writing Tony Graffanino's or Craig Counsell's name on the lineup card when Milwaukee has Ryan Braun tearing apart the Pacific Coast League?
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG
Graffanino MLB 101 10 20 2 0 1 8 9 16 0 1 .198 .268 .248
Counsell MLB 85 7 19 5 1 0 7 15 14 3 1 .224 .350 .306
Braun AAA 102 24 34 10 0 8 17 12 9 3 3 .333 .405 .667
I realize that Graffanino and Counsell are playing well in the field while giving Braun extra time to work on his defense in the minors. However, Milwaukee's #1 draft pick in 2005 (fifth overall) has made only two errors in 28 games while manning the hot corner for the club's Triple-A affiliate (Nashville Sounds). Braun proved he belongs offensively during the spring when the former University of Miami All-American hit .353/.405/.912 with 5 HR in 34 AB.
Braun just returned after being sidelined for two weeks with tendinitis in his wrist and may need another week or so to get his batting stroke back. But there's no excuse to keep him down after June rolls around. The fact that the Brewers are in first place as a reason for not rushing matters doesn't wash with me. The big league club has won only three of its last ten and every game Braun misses is a lost opportunity to put even more distance between the Brew Crew and its division rivals.
The Brewers also have the luxury of Yovani Gallardo waiting in the wings. Braun's Nashville teammate is leading the minors in strikeouts with 66 and is as major-league ready as he will be.
IP H R ER HR BB SO W-L ERA WHIP K/9
Gallardo AAA 48.2 27 13 12 1 16 66 5-1 2.23 0.88 12.21
In contrast to Graffanino and Counsell, Milwaukee's starting rotation is doing well with Dave Bush the only one with an ERA over 4.00. Bush's strong strikeout (6.67 K/9) and walk (1.43 BB/9) rates, coupled with the highest BABIP (.337) on the staff, suggest that it is a matter of time before his ERA begins to more properly reflect his overall pitching.
Nonetheless, expect to see Gallardo before the All-Star break. He is just too valuable to keep down on the farm for long. It's always nice to have six starters when one of them is Ben Sheets but, like Braun, Gallardo would only make the Brewers that much stronger.
Has anyone other than me noticed that B.J. Upton's rate stats have plunged from .371/.425/.660 to .309/.385/.540 since I featured him two weeks ago? My year-end predictions (.280/.340/.500) are looking better by the day.
Every year right after the MLB amateur draft, I make a mock draft to test myself on my drafting skills (ie. dumb luck). It's more for fun than anything else and it's interesting to look back after a couple of years to see how I did compared to "the pros."
I always have a pretty good idea of what players I want to take in what round before the real draft occurs, but I always wait to draft my players until after to make sure I don't significantly over or under-draft a player. I also never take one of the Top 10 players chosen.
Let's take a look back at my last four drafts (tables include what round I picked them in, their name, the team that actually drafted them and where they were really drafted):
1. Chad Billingsley Los Angeles (NL) 24th overall
1S. Anthony Gwynn Milwaukee 2nd round
2. James D'Antona Arizona 2nd round
3. Tim Moss Philadelphia 3rd round
4. Tony Richie Chicago (NL) 4th round
5. David Marchbanks Florida 7th round
Chad Billingsley is a pick I am still elated about and, at the time, I was torn between drafting the Angels' Brandon Wood or the Dodgers' right-hander. I can't say I'm pleased with the way the Dodgers have handled Billingsley, but he still has the stuff to be a star in the starting rotation. The walks are worrisome though (69 in 111 career MLB innings).
Anthony Gwynn, son of Padres star Tony, has the chance to be an average starting center fielder or a very good fourth outfielder. James D'Antona has really turned his career around as of late after struggling in his first three pro seasons and could contribute in Arizona at some point this year. Tim Moss was released by Philly earlier this season, Tony Richie has struggled with injuries and David Marchbanks was last seen in the independent leagues.
1. Taylor Tankersley Florida 27th overall
1S. Jay Rainville Minnesota 39th overall
2. Eric Beattie Detroit 2nd round
3. Mark Reed Chicago (NL) 3rd round
4. Josh Baker Milwaukee 4th round
5. Brad McCann Florida 6th round
Taylor Tankersley hasn't been as impressive as I thought he would be in pro ball, but he is still a key part of the Marlins' bullpen. I liked Jay Rainville more than Homer Bailey mainly because Bailey has no interest in baseball whatsoever when he's not on the diamond (it's just a job to him) so I thought that could keep him from reaching his potential. Rainville has struggled with injuries and missed all of 2006.
Eric Beattie came down with Steve Blass disease and has walked 17 batters in nine A-Ball innings this season. I was really excited about catcher Mark Reed (brother of Seattle's Jeremy) but he has developed young catchers syndrome and has stalled in the low minors. Josh Baker was the forgotten man in the Rice University rotation behind Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, and Phil Humber but he had a solid college career. His pro career, like his former teammates, has been slowed by injuries. Brad McCann, older brother of Brian, has stalled in High A-Ball with Florida.
1. Cesar Carrillo San Diego 18th overall
1S. Michael Bowden Boston 47th overall
2. Daniel Carte Colorado 2nd round
3. Nick Weglarz Cleveland 3rd round
4. Kevin Whelan Detroit 4th round
5. James Avery Cincinnati 5th round
The dreaded Tommy John surgery struck Cesar Carrillo, who was dominating the minors before his elbow problems. Michael Bowden has looked very good in a hitter's haven in Lancaster this season. He should develop into a solid No. 3 starter, or perhaps even a No. 2 and was a steal at the 47th pick. Daniel Carte is looking like a fourth outfielder or 'AAAA' player. Raw Canadian Nick Weglarz still has a long way to go but he's young and has power potential. Kevin Whelan helped Detroit obtain Gary Sheffield from New York and looks like a future set-up man in the majors. Another Canadian - James Avery - is looking solid in Double-A for Cincinnati.
1. Kasey Kiker Texas 12th overall
1S. Steve Evarts Atlanta 43rd overall
2. Brett Anderson Arizona 2nd round
3. Chad Tracy Texas 3rd round
4. Garrett Olson Minnesota 4th round
5. Mark Melancon New York (AL) 9th round
It's too early to really comment on this draft, although I am not overly happy with my first round pick. I wanted Billy Rowell, but he was grabbed with the ninth pick by Baltimore. I was then torn between Pedro Beato, Adrian Cardenas, and Kasey Kiker. I had been hoping for a prep hitter or a college pitcher, but I didn't like any of the available players. I felt really nervous about taking three high school pitchers with my first three picks... I guess I've been watching Jays' general manager J.P. Ricciardi for too long.
Steve Evarts has some make-up issues that worry me, but Brett Anderson has been very good in A-Ball. I love Chad Tracy's offensive potential, but I'd like to see some better patience at the plate in A-Ball. Garrett Olson doesn't look like he'll have the power to play third base everyday in the majors. Mark Melancon has undergone Tommy John surgery and will be out until 2008.
Well, I don't think any Major League scouting directors should be worried about losing their jobs to me, but I think I did a solid job considering the limited number of scouting reports I had to go on, especially in 2003 and 2004. But scouting is definitely a fascinating job.
Any suggestions on what players I should target in my 2007 draft?
- Marc Hulet, 5/19/07, 12:04 p.m. EST
I found out last week that the Enhanced Gameday system had been tested on 5/10 in Colorado. According to Dan Fox, the system was just being tested and the locations of pitches weren't very accurate, but I figured I'd take a look at the data anyway. The system only tracked 91 pitches in the game, 35 for Aaron Cook and 56 for Noah Lowry, the two starting pitchers. Pitches, especially breaking balls, are thought to break less in the higher altitude of Denver and I wanted to see if the Gameday data confirmed this.
I looked at Cook first because I already had an idea about how his pitches moved. I have two starts for Cook in my database, the game at Coors and his start on April 8th at San Diego, and the pitch charts for each game are below. For some reason, of the 35 pitches tracked for Cook 30 were sinkers, so I can only compare his sinker across the two outings.
The first thing that jumps out at me from looking at these two charts is the differences in movement of his sinker at Coors compared to Petco. There's a huge possibility that the differences on the charts are the result of something other than an actual difference in how a ball moves at altitude, such as a calibration error or other technical glitch, so be careful with what you make of this. However, the differences between the two starts are so extreme and the break of pitches has been shown to be relatively consistent across parks, that I think this is somewhat of a real phenomenon. The biggest difference in Denver is that the horizontal break of the slider is almost seven inches less than in San Diego. Cook's sinker also ended up almost two inches lower in Denver. It appears that the sinker gets more downward action in Denver, but loses action in on right-handed hitters. Here's a chart showing just the sinkers for both games to further highlight the differences.
I'm looking at Lowry now and I'll post something about him later tonight.
- Joe Sheehan, 5/20/07, 7:32 p.m. EST
There's a new A-Rod in New York. His name is David Wright. After stellar, career-launching seasons in 2005 and 2006, Wright has seen somewhat of a power outage from the latter half of 2006 spill over into a full-blown slump in 2007. I didn't really realize the magnitude of the situation until I typed in "David Wright slump" into my search engine. Apparently all heck has broken out as the Mets blogoshpere tries to speculate about what's wrong. For the first time, I've even read about whether or not Wright is "clutch." So after commenting on what it would be like to have A-Rod at Shea, it appears Wright is getting his own A-Rod treatment. (Okay, enough about A-Rod already!)
I previously used Wright's swing as an example for comparison of other young hitters and I would not have imagined that his swing could have changed that much. Why mess with success, right? Even manager Willie Randolph said recently that Wright's mechanics are "pretty sound." But I imagined wrong... way wrong... and I was really surprised to see some major differences in the way Wright is swinging the bat. Randolph suggested that there was a "fine line" with his mechanics, and if so, Wright is quite a ways from wherever that line used to be.
Here is a look at two angles, front and side, with 2006 on the left and 2007 on the right. The 2007 clip is from the same swing, a double to left-center on a 93 mph fastball. The 2006 clips are also fastballs (front/top view is also 93 mph), hit for homers into left-center:
There is plenty to look at here so I will break it up into a few segments...
Starting with the front view on the top, the first thing that jumped out at me was the bat angle. It is much more vertical. While I am aware that some very knowledgeable hitting coaches teach a vertical bat position, it seems detrimental here - too much for too long. Holding the bat vertically can alleviate some muscle tension early in the swing because the bat feels lighter in that position, but eventually the bat has to get in line with the rotating shoulders and this is where Wright seems to be struggling. Starting the bat vertically and bat position at launch are quite different. If a hitter is not in a good position to hit, it is going to be hard for him to hit. Simple enough. Here's the look at how the bat angle at "launch position" has changed:
Ted Williams advocated a swing path that was slightly up through the ball, and Wright looked to have this going for him last year. The result of such a swing path is usually a "high" finish because the bat comes through in a plane similar (about parallel) to that of the shoulders. You'll see in both clips, however, a follow through that I would term "excessively high," especially in relationship to his previous swing.
This is an indicator that his swing plane might be too steep (in an upward direction) which can hinder momentum transfer. As if that weren't enough, this increased "uppercut" can also create that dreaded topspin - perhaps just enough to keep some long fly balls from leaving the ball park. Could this account for his increasing ground ball rate and drop in homer production? Seems logical.
Now let's use the side shot to focus in on the lower half and how this relates to setting up a good hitting position. Of course the major visible difference is the stride - Wright is now going with a miniature leg kick. I had not seen much of Wright's swing this year until recently, but apparently this has already been pointed out. If you're familiar with my previous articles, you may have picked up that I view the stride, as it is traditionally defined, to be more of a surface observation, but often a very useful symptom to other issues.
Take a look at just the side view and see what you think.
It took me a while to warm up to how early Wright used to get his front foot down, but I got on board because it did not appear to hinder his load-unload process. In other words, he used it to provide balance as he shifted into footplant. It looks to me like Wright used to have more flex in the knees and was able to carry his forward shift for a longer duration. This is important because it sets up the weight against the front foot and tightens the sequence of the kinetic chain... or simply put, it quickens the unloading of his swing.
The way Wright's stride appears now, he is reaching more with the front leg which leaves a little more weight behind when his hips begin to rotate. The shot above shows his front knee opening up just a bit sooner in 2007 - less efficient rotation as a result of the "stride" and positioning of the body.
What to do?
If Wright and the Mets' staff are confident in his mechanics, then there is no need to jump ship so quickly. Maybe Wright went out and tried to change some things on his own, but this may be a case of trying to do a little too much. More is not always better.
Really I would just try to retrace the steps as closely as possible to the period last year when he was most successful. I know I am sitting in a Louisiana classroom and not a Major League dugout, but it makes the most sense to me. I did not come across anything explaining the reasoning behind making drastic swing changes, but maybe there is a method to the madness that I am not aware of. Changing that bat angle back to the 45-degree ballpark would be an easy enough adjustment, and returning to that "no-stride" approach, a la Andruw Jones during his 51 homer season, would seem like the next step.
Surely, with the Yankees coming to town, now would be a good time for Wright to reassert himself while in the national spotlight.
In a recent broadcast, Joe Morgan mentioned that a base-runner who is able to read the pitcher can find it easier to steal off a left-handed pitcher because lefties are slower to the plate then righties.
If this is so, then it ought to show up in the results. To start, I went to retrosheet.org to look at some splits. What were Joe Morgan's totals? He is listed as stealing 520 bases in 645 attempts vs. RHP (80.6%); and 167 out of 204 vs. LHP (81.9%). Next, I estimated the number of opportunities as singles plus walks - certainly not a perfect measure, as pitching changes sometimes occur (I suspect that this is a small effect) and often 2b is occupied (perhaps a larger effect, though it ought not differ by more than a few percent between LHP and RHP), but it should offer a decent approximation.
Pro-rating per estimated opportunity (Eopps), Morgan's totals were:
vs RHP: .213 SB and .051 CS
vs LHP: .149 SB and .033 CS
If Morgan found lefties easier to steal on, it seems odd that he'd
steal only 2/3 as frequently against LHP. His success rate suggests that he might have been able to read LHP well enough to only go when he had a good chance of success, but the fact that he ran less often is in conflict with a general "easier to steal" claim.
Let's start by trying to set some context. What patterns do base-stealers have? I'll look at the frequency (attempts divided by estimated opportunities) and stolen-base percentages for all players.
The graph shows the frequency of attempts vs. the success rate starting in 1951, the first year that both leagues counted caught stealing (CS). (Data from baseball databank)
For example, in 1951, the SB frequency was .0582, and the SB pct. was .589; in 1952, the frequency was .0576 (nearly the same), but the SB pct. dropped to .551, causing the path plotted to plummet nearly straight down. The SB pct. then increased fairly steadily through the 1950s, reaching a new equilibirum in the .60-.66 range. At that point, the frequency began to rise rapidly as Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills experienced success, moving the path to the right. With Lou Brock's record-breaking performance in 1974, the frequency rose beyond .100, and the greater emphasis on the cerebral aspects popularized by folks like Brock and Morgan led to a new rise in the SB pct., which passed .667 for the first time in 1980. By this time, Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson were entering the picture, and steal attempts reached a new equilibrium in the .112-.127 range, while SB pct. gradually improved from .65-.67 in 1975-84 to .67-.70 in 1985-1994. As the new offense-friendly parks entered the league and the home run explosion started, the frequency began to drop, while success rates continued to rise, reaching .700 in 1995. In six of the last seven years, the frequency of steal attempts has been in the .081-.090 range, while SB pct. has risen each of the last four seasons (from .682 in 2002 to .694, .702, .706, and .714), making it appear that we are in the middle of a new transition.
|Year ||Freq ||Pct. ||R |
|1957 ||.056 ||.579 ||.059 ||.572 ||.051 ||.542 |
|1962 ||.065 ||.658 ||.073 ||.657 ||.049 ||.618 |
|1967 ||.080 ||.594 ||.084 ||.609 ||.069 ||.544 |
|1972 ||.086 ||.621 ||.090 ||.645 ||.073 ||.553 |
|1977 ||.118 ||.629 ||.126 ||.647 ||.101 ||.578 |
|1982 ||.119 ||.663 ||.128 ||.677 ||.098 ||.617 |
|1987 ||.127 ||.701 ||.136 ||.723 ||.111 ||.646 |
|1992 ||.122 ||.671 ||.122 ||.680 ||.122 ||.650 |
|1997 ||.112 ||.679 ||.115 ||.693 ||.103 ||.635 |
|2002 ||.090 ||.682 ||.092 ||.697 ||.083 ||.632 |
|2006 ||.085 ||.714 ||.088 ||.728 ||.078 ||.670 ||
Plotting the SB vs. left / SB vs. right paths on the same graph produces a tangled web. So instead, let's look at the differences, R - L, for both frequency and success rate. This is still rather tangled, but it does seem to show that the difference between LHP and RHP has diminished in recent years. In 1962, the RHP frequency was .073, the LHP frequency .049, making a difference of .024 in the frequencies. Despite stealing less often against LHP, the difference in SB pct. against LHP (.618) and RHP (.657) was one of the lower totals of that era. The difference in frequencies stayed in the .020-.030 range until the late '80s, when the frequency of attempts vs. LHP began to rise, topping out in 1992 at .1224 vs. RHP and .1221 vs. LHP, a difference in frequency of only .0003, the left most point plotted on the freq. vs. pct. graph below. The frequency differences seemed to have stabilized around .010, much lower than the differences seen 20-30 years ago. During this time, the difference in SB pct. appears to have decreased as well. Thirty years ago, differences like those of 1977 were typical, the SB pct. vs. RHP was .647, vs.LHP it was .578, a difference of .069. SB pct. differences were generally in the .060-.080 range then. But in the last twenty or so years, the difference in SB pct. has been in the .040-.080 range, with the 2006 difference of .058 (.728 vs. RHP and .760 vs. LHP) representing a typical difference in success rates. Overall, success rates have increased in the last 50 years, but sucess rates against LHP have increased even more than success rates against RHP. The LHP advantage in holding base runners appears to have decreased, runners are stealing against them at frequencies and success rates that are closer to those of RHP than they were a generation ago.
As base-stealing became more frequent, the increase against RHP|
was greater than the increase against LHP, then the RHP frequency
leveled off. Both have receded in recent years.
A related question pops up regarding the interplay between experience and aging. As players get more experience, many presumably learn ways to improve their success rate, but they also slow down. So next, we'll take a look at the Freq/Pct graph based on the players' age as of July 1.
Young players steal more frequently, through age 25, and then gradually taper off. The sucess rates are pretty consistent, except for a drop during the initial increase in frequency, and a rise during the rare steals by older players. It's not clear to me whether this is due to player experience, or a bias in created by removing the lesser players.
The younger (greener) players are represented by green, the older by blue.
Do these same trends hold for the leading base-stealers? To consider this, I took a look at the players who stole at least 300 bases in the retrosheet years (1957-1998, 2000-2006). There were 26 of these.
A look at their aging patterns shows that it is similar to those of the general base-runner, except that the base-stealers stayed near their peak rate for several more years than the average player. As the base-stealers aged, their relative frequency of attempts versus LHP seems to increase, but their success rate drops. This makes it unlikely that more experienced base-stealers are picking up extra cues against LHP.
Here are the rates for the 26 base stealers, their average, and the overall major league average for 1957-98, 2000-06.
|Name ||R |
|Alomar ||.207 ||.813 ||.173 ||.763 ||0.84 |
|Aparicio ||.240 ||.790 ||.208 ||.751 ||0.87 |
|BarBonds ||.168 ||.796 ||.170 ||.745 ||1.01 |
|BobBonds ||.323 ||.752 ||.237 ||.659 ||0.73 |
|Brock ||.413 ||.767 ||.416 ||.721 ||1.01 |
|Butler ||.286 ||.718 ||.230 ||.599 ||0.80 |
|Campaneris ||.340 ||.776 ||.380 ||.748 ||1.12 |
|Cedeno ||.382 ||.765 ||.291 ||.724 ||0.76 |
|Coleman ||.544 ||.801 ||.652 ||.826 ||1.20 |
|DeShields ||.335 ||.780 ||.312 ||.725 ||0.93 |
|Grissom ||.254 ||.806 ||.278 ||.744 ||1.10 |
|Harper ||.286 ||.771 ||.252 ||.793 ||0.88 |
|Henderson ||.405 ||.835 ||.399 ||.755 ||0.98 |
|LeFlore ||.477 ||.796 ||.370 ||.682 ||0.77 |
|Lofton ||.319 ||.799 ||.248 ||.787 ||0.78 |
|Lopes ||.367 ||.851 ||.230 ||.753 ||0.63 |
|Molitor ||.170 ||.813 ||.215 ||.756 ||1.26 |
|Moreno ||.495 ||.747 ||.499 ||.672 ||1.01 |
|Morgan ||.264 ||.806 ||.182 ||.819 ||0.69 |
|Nixon ||.445 ||.790 ||.447 ||.718 ||1.00 |
|Raines ||.327 ||.879 ||.230 ||.738 ||0.70 |
|Sax ||.300 ||.728 ||.274 ||.678 ||0.91 |
|OSmith ||.250 ||.813 ||.218 ||.756 ||0.87 |
|Wills ||.320 ||.740 ||.357 ||.732 ||1.11 |
|Wilson ||.425 ||.853 ||.251 ||.760 ||0.59 |
|Young ||.322 ||.764 ||.298 ||.667 ||0.92 |
|Avg. ||.317 ||.794 ||.287 ||.737 ||0.90|
|ML Avg. ||.103 ||.682 ||.088 ||.617 ||0.85|
Most of the leading base-stealers stole more frequently and more successfully against RHP. But several ran more often against LHP, and Joe Morgan, Tommy Harper and Vince Coleman had a higher SB pct. against LHP. The leading stealers relative frequency of attempts was a little higher, 90% as frequently as against RHP, while the general population attempted steals only 85% as often against LHP, but the difference in success rates was nearly identical, 6.7% vs. 6.5%. This is consistent with LHP being tougher to run on in general. But are there LHP who are easier to run on than RHP?
To look at base-stealing from the "who's pitching?" perspective, I went through the Retrosheet team rosters, which conveniently include pitchers' SB/CS/PO data in the fielding data (for example, for the 1975 Red Sox). Breaking these into left- and right-handed pitchers gave the following totals:
Hand Est.Opps SB CS Pickoff Freq. SB Pct.
RHP 1284662 89828 41938 6437 .1026 .682
LHP 533131 28812 17894 6151 .0876 .617
Other than a slight increase in Freq. and SB pct. for pitchers near 40, the aging patterns graphs were pretty flat.
Next, I considered pitchers with at least 1000 estimated opportunities. There were 400 RHP and 177 LHP. These RHP saw stolen-bases attempted at a rate of .1037, while the LHP were at .0884, rates nearly identical to those of all pitchers. The SB pct. were slightly lower against these pitchers, .660 vs. RHP and .592 vs. LHP. Are there left-handed pitchers that are among the easiest pitchers to steal on? The answer... very few. The graph here shows these 577 pitchers, plotting frequency vs. SB pct. The extremes are represented by Dwight Gooden whose frequency was .205 and SB pct. was .780. The highest SB pct. was against Mark Clear at .872, with runners going at a frequency of .174. The least-run-on pitcher was Whitey Ford, with a frequency of .025, one steal attempt for every 40 estimated opportunities, and a SB pct. of .385. The lowest opponents SB pct. was turned in by Billy Pierce at .341. Pierce's frequency was also low, at .031. Most of the hard-to-steal-on pitchers are left-handed, most of the easy-to-steal-on pitchers are right-handed.
What about Morgan's statement that LHP are slower to the plate? If so, perhaps most base-stealers aren't reading the pitcher well enough to take advantage of the slower delivery. Until Retrovideo comes along, we won't be able to answer this definitively, but now that several World Series broadcasts are available on DVD, maybe we can start to study the question directly. Conveniently enough, one of the DVDs available is the 1975 World Series. Watching the Series, I discovered that the broadcasters said that Morgan claimed to be able to read the Red Sox pitchers, and that he wouldn't get caught stealing again - he wasn't. During game seven, the claim was made that Morgan had picked up something in Bill Lee's delivery and had passed the information on to Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey. But when they got to first, there were three pitches on which they were heading back to first when the pitch was delivered - not exactly a great jump to get. On the other hand, when Morgan stole second during the game, he started for second base less than a tenth of a second after Lee began his delivery home, allowing Morgan to steal second standing up. That's a very quick jump. There's the anecdotal evidence. How long do the pitchers take to deliver the pitch? I looked at all games in the 1975 World Series, and portions of games 5 and 6 in the 1986 World Series.
To measure the time to the plate, I took the time from when the pitcher first started stepping toward home until the time the pitcher released the ball. I timed pitchers who were working from the stretch and found that most take about the same amount of time in the stretch whether or not there is a runner on first with second open. Without doing a detailed study, I found only two exceptions in the few games that I looked at: Firstly, with Joe Morgan on first with second base open, Luis Tiant knocked nearly a quarter of a second off his delivery time. Secondly, in the 1986 World Series, Roger Clemens dropped about a tenth of a second off his delivery time with a runner on first and second open, relative to his other pitches from the stretch.
The graph below shows the delivery times that I recorded for pitchers pitching from the stretch in the 1975 World Series and the 1986 World Series (games 5 and 6). Again, pitchers who throw with their right wing are in the red state, and those who throw with their left wing are in the blue state. The bars represent two standard deviations on the estimation of the mean time.
The average of the mean delivery times for the 18 RHP was 1.10 seconds, for the 9 LHP, 1.21 seconds. Some of the extremes here are notable. Dwight Gooden has the highest attempt frequency during the past 50 years as well as the season with the most opponents stolen bases, 60 in 1990. The second highest single season total is 56 by Gooden in 1988 and Floyd Youmans
in 1986. Sid Fernandez
was the easiest LHP to run on in the last 50 years, with both the highest frequency of attempts and highest SB pct. among all LHP with at least 1000 estimated opportunities. Don Gullett is tied for the second lowest opponent SB pct (at least 1000 estimated opps) behind Billy Pierce's .341 (for 1957-1964). Gullett and Kirk Rueter
were at .345. (Rueter's 1999 data is not available.) Gullett's delivery times may be related to his low steal rate. More study is needed. Out of curiousity, I checked to see how a young Joe Morgan ran against a young Don Gullett. Morgan was on first base three times with second open, and did not attempt to steal.
In summary, what did I find?
- Left-handed pitchers are more difficult to steal on.
- Some base-stealers appear to have been able to steal as well or better against LHP than against RHP.
- LHP appear to take more time to pitch from the stretch than RHP
Early indications are that if a left-handed pitcher does get the ball delivered quickly, he may be very tough to run on. More study is required to see if these early results hold up. It would also be interesting to go into the Retrosheet play-by-play data to see if, for example, Joe Morgan did manage to exploit some LHP cues to allow him to steal on them at will, or if there were any pitchers who Vince Coleman did not run on.
John Rickert teaches mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 1983 after reading John Davenport's Baseball Graphics and Bill James' Baseball Abstracts.
Jay-Z is well known as one of the most versatile rappers ever, and his career has been constituted by numerous iterations. He was the up-and-coming contributor with Jermaine Dupree on Money Ain't a Thang and the iconic, legendary artist in his most brilliant form later on with The Blueprint. His loyalists revere him, the clubbers dance to him.
Well if you will allow me the liberty, I might submit that John Smoltz is his baseball equivalent, and his career path makes you wonder if he hasn't offered up a "blueprint" himself for power pitchers that encounter some arm trouble.
Smoltz started off his career as a dependable starter, became a Cy Young Award winner, eventually proved a little injury prone, converted to a dominant closer, and has emerged late in his career as an excellent starter once again. I am no physician (and certainly not a "medhead") and have nothing in the way of medical expertise, but this piece will ponder aloud whether or not Smoltz's career path offers an example for how to handle a power pitcher who encounters arm troubles.
Over the last 20 seasons, here is the top-5 list of pitchers sorted by innings pitched through their age-26 season (do I even need to thank Baseball Reference at this point?):
Greg Maddux 1,442 115
Alex Fernandez 1,346.1 114
Javier Vazquez 1,229.1 109
Mark Buehrle 1,224 128
John Smoltz 1,223.1 109
To the extent that he threw a boatload of innings and was above average while throwing them, Smoltz was a very good pitcher. Despite having bone chips removed from his elbow, Smoltz was also solid during the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, and then tremendous in 1995 when the Braves won the World Series.
He kicked things up a notch in 1996 and 1997, but may have done so at a cost.
Year IP SO BB ERA ERA+
1996 253.7 276 55 2.94 149
1997 256 241 63 3.02 139
Smoltz landed on the Disabled List multiple times between the 1998 and 1999 seasons and after proving the workhorse he had become to be, the mere 354 innings he tossed between the two seasons was a clear indicator that something was amiss. Smoltz had Tommy John surgery after the 1999 campaign and missed all of 2000. The Braves decided they would bring him back as a closer.
In his new role, Smoltz was nothing short of dominant. Smoltz saved 154 games from 2001 to 2004 and posted ERA+ campaigns of 131, 127, 371 and 157 respectively. He was 37 during the 2004 season and could have easily settled into his new role to ride out his career. Smoltz converted back to a starter, however, and didn't miss a beat. In 2005 and 2006 he was one of the very best in the National League and is once again experiencing success in 2007, this time at the age of 40.
Deducing causal relationships between disparate circumstances is a dicey game but one has to wonder whether or not Smoltz's time as a closer after his surgery helped to prolong his career and restore him to excellence as a starter. On the face it seems intuitive. The reliever incurs less incremental wear and tear from long outings than the starter. He also throws fewer pitches, but tosses more frequently. This allows him to hone his individual pitches and re-sharpen command, as the reliever can get by with a narrower repertoire than the starter can.
Over an IM chat the other day, Rich and I were talking about which other pitchers might/may have benefited from such treatment. A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon came to mind. Both are power pitchers and both have had stretches of excellence. Below are some of their career numbers:
IP BB SO ERA ERA+
A.J. Burnett 1036.7 443 916 4.21 111
Bartolo Colon 1908 654 1491 3.97 116
Burnett has averaged just 144 innings per season over the last six. Perhaps after his 2003 or 2004 seasons, Burnett might have ultimately benefited from a couple of years as a reliever. Similarly, coming off his injury-plagued 2006, perhaps the Smoltz-treatment would have done well by Colon.
John Smoltz is about to win his 200th game and has saved another 154. Other than Smoltz, only Dennis Eckersley has at least 150 wins and 150 saves. Smoltz's career has been tremendous and his career pattern in roles from starter, to reliever, back to starter hold him out as somewhat unique. In the future, Smoltz may be looked back upon not only as an excellent pitcher, but also as the treatment standard for easing injured power starting pitchers back to prominence.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of A-Ball
This week I thought I would take a look at the top hitting and top pitching teams in Advanced A-Ball. Interestingly, if you had looked at these two teams' rosters before the season began - and before you knew what city they were playing in - you might have thought the rankings would be exactly the opposite.
As of right now, the Kinston Indians (Cleveland Indians) club is the best team in A-Ball in terms of team pitching, with the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City Royals) club not far behind. The Lancaster JetHawks (Boston Red Sox) club is the best team in terms of hitting. However, if you look at things from a purely prospect standpoint, Kinston has a better offensive team, while Lancaster theoretically has more pitching prospects.
That, however, is where park factors come into play. Lancaster is known as an extreme hitter's park, while Kinston is more of a pitcher's park, which can be witnessed through these Weighted Park Factors, obtained via BaseballThinkFactory.org.
2004-2006 Weighted Park Factors:
Runs Hits 2B HR BB SO
Kinston 0.95 0.94 0.96 1.01 1.05 1.02
Lancaster 1.22 1.15 1.02 1.60 1.11 1.00
The numbers above bear out the fact that hitters have an advantage over pitchers in Lancaster. The club is leading all of A-Ball in homers and by a rather large margin. Kinston, on the other hand, is truthfully not exactly a pitcher's park; it's actually about as close to neutral as you can get.
As a major fan of prospect watching and the minor leagues in general, I dislike the fact that ballparks are so different. You cannot accurately gauge a player's success without looking at his home park's factor. In a perfect world, every park would be neutral.
Lancaster Offence (out of 30 Advanced A-Ball clubs):
HR: 45 (1st)
AVG: .291 (1st)
OBA: .386 (1st)
SLG: .486 (1st)
Lancaster's offence is led by outfielder Bubba Bell. The 24-year-old is not considered a prospect due to his age and lackluster numbers before reaching the launching pad known as Lancaster. He was drafted in the 39th round out of Nicholls State University by the Red Sox in 2005 and hit only .298/.373/.430 before this season. Bell's average has been similar at home and on the road but his slugging percentage is 100 points higher in Lancaster.
First baseman Aaron Bates is arguably the top hitting prospect on the club. He was a third round pick of the Red Sox in the 2006 draft out of North Carolina State University. Interestingly, Bates is hitting better on the road (an OPS of 1.082 vs 1.029). He has, however, hit with more power at home. Bates has struggled somewhat with men on base and is hitting .422 when the bases are empty.
Infielders Iggy Suarez and Tony Granadillo are having surprising success in Lancaster. Suarez, 26, is a former 24th round pick in 2003 out of Southwest Texas State University and has a career .246 average. This season, he was hitting .379/.475/.530 before a promotion to Portland where he is struggling at .154/.267/.231.
Granadillo, 22, is a former minor league Rule 5 draftee out of the Cardinals' system. He has picked up where Suarez left off and is hitting .373/.522/.612 as a part-time player who has earned a starting gig. The Venezuelan shortstop is hitting .500 against lefties and has more walks than strikeouts (16/11).
Other hitting prospects in Lancaster include Christian Lara and Luis Soto, although their stars are fading as both are hitting under .250.
ERA: 5.01 (28th)
Hits: 379 (29th)
HR: 30 (27th)
BB: 145 (26th)
K: 246 (15th)
This is truly where the team's strength lies, whether the stats bear that out or not. Four of the Red Sox' top eight pitching prospects are currently toeing the rubber in Lancaster, including Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, Kris Johnson and Daniel Bard, who is currently injured.
Bowden arguably has the highest ceiling of the quartet, although Bard has slightly better stuff. Bowden was taken in the supplemental first round (47th overall) by Boston out of an Illinois high school. His fastball is in the low 90s but he has solid secondary pitches, plus command and he knows how to pitch, which has helped him survive Lancaster so far this season.
Impressively, Bowden - a right-hander - has held lefties to a .173/.230/.210 line. His home line against all batters is also impressive at .257/.295/.333 but his road line is even better at .133/.161/.150. On Saturday, Bowden lowered his ERA to a shocking 1.37 with seven innings of one-hit ball against San Jose. He hasn't allowed an earned run in his last three starts and could see Double-A very shortly, especially if Boston decides to promote Clay Buchholz (1.85 in six starts for Portland) to Triple-A.
Bard has been awful at Lancaster. For a college player, Bard's pitching skills are extremely rough and it was a bit of a shock to see Boston promote him so aggressively to begin the season - and his pro career after signing late in 2006. Whether it was the triceps tendinitis that landed him on the disabled list or Lancaster's reputation as a tough park for pitchers, Bard walked 22 batters in 13 innings.
Righties hit a respectable .259/.444/.296 against him, but lefties pasted him at .412/.571/.706. Bard's wildness has made him ineffective at home and on the road (OPS 1.198 vs .846) but the real difference can be seen in batters' slugging numbers against him at home (.676) versus on the road (.333).
Both Johnson and Masterson have struggled mightily in the California League and, more specifically, in their home park. Masterson has allowed 27 hits in 13.1 home innings, while Johnson has allowed 15 hits and 11 walks in 12.2 home innings.
I certainly wouldn't give up on the pitchers just yet. Considering the team is last in nearly every pitching category and the numbers show Lancaster is an extreme hitters' park, Masterson, Johnson and even Bard should be given some slack. Bowden, on the other hand, looks like an absolute stud.
I would not trust any of the hitters to repeat their Lancaster performances in Portland, although Bates has some potential.
HR: 33 (5th)
AVG: .244 (27th)
OBA: .328 (16th)
SLG: .404 (7th)
On a team with three highly-drafted college bats and one promising player from high school, you would probably expect to have a solid offensive attack. However, all four players - Wes Hodges, Josh Rodriguez, Stephen Head and John Drennen - have struggled.
Hodges, a second round pick in 2006, is currently hitting .242/.290/.473 and the right-handed batter out of Georgia Tech has struggled against minor league southpaws to the tune of a .150 average in 20 at-bats. He is also hitting .125 on the road.
Rodriguez was another one of Cleveland's four second round picks (including the supplemental round) in 2006. His line currently sits at .200/.290/.374, although he has shown slightly better command of the strike zone than Hodges (15 walks compared to five). Rodriguez is also struggling on the road with a .176 average.
Head set the world on fire in his first pro season after signing out of Mississippi as a second round pick. In his debut season, he advanced as far as Kinston but has hit a wall. Head is now in Kinston for a third straight season and has yet to figure out Advanced A-Ball pitchers. In a continuing theme, Head has struggled on the road with a .176 average and only one RBI.
Drennen has moved fairly quickly for a high school hitter but Kinston continues to give him trouble in his second attempt at Advanced A-Ball. He has the "best" line of the four hitters at .233/.313/.408 and is possibly heating up with the weather with a .279 average in the month of May. Drennen is also the only one of the four hitting above .200 on the road (.228).
ERA: 2.68 (2nd)
Hits: 264 (2nd)
HR: 18 (7th)
BB: 81 (1st)
K: 211 (29th)
David Huff is a recognizable name in the Kinston rotation mainly because he was Cleveland's first pick in the 2006 draft. However, put up your hand if you had heard of Kevin Dixon, Frank Herrmann, Sung-Wei Tseng or Ryan Edell before the season began. No one? Or is that a hand up in the back? All four have excelled in Kinston's rotation with ERAs under 4.00.
Huff doesn't have great stuff but he was considered a "safe pick" out of UCLA. The left-hander currently has a 1.89 ERA in 38 innings. Left-handed batters are only hitting .182/.182/.182 against him. Huff has also kept the ball in the yard with just one homer allowed, and he has walked only seven batters.
Dixon was taken in the fifth round of the 2005 draft out of Minnesota State University and, again, possesses average stuff. He has kept the ball on the ground in Kinston (1.67 GO/AO) despite giving up three homers. Ten of the 16 earned runs that he has allowed came in two games. Right-handed batters are hitting .310 against the 6'3", 225lbs right-handed pitcher.
Herrmann, soon to be 23, has yet to lose a game in six starts this season, although he has only two wins. The former Harvard University hurler does not strike out many batters (20 in 31.2 innings) but he does not beat himself and has allowed only three walks this season. Herrmann's future probably lies in the bullpen. The right-hander has struggled against left-handed batters and they are hitting .319/.347/.532 against him, compared to right-handers at .227/.275/.427.
Tseng is a Taiwanese pitcher who made his pro debut in April and skipped the lower rungs of the minor leagues. He was given a $300,000 contract by Cleveland and was considered the best amateur pitcher in Taiwan. He has appeared in a number of International tournaments, including the World Baseball Classic. He has had little trouble adapting to baseball in North America and currently sports a 3.22 ERA. However, he has struck out only 25 batters in 36.1 innings so there is work to be done.
Another lefty, Edell was an unheralded eighth round pick in 2005 out of the College of Charleston, yet he has done nothing but succeed in pro ball. He currently has a 3.26 ERA and has allowed only 21 hits in 30.1 innings of work in Kinston. Opposing batters are hitting only .198 against him and left-handed batters have a .077 average.
It is hard to know exactly what to make of Cleveland's college hitters and pitchers in Kinston. If I were a betting man, I would predict that the pitchers have a much better chance of succeeding at higher levels, while the batters probably won't amount to much unless they improve significantly in the near future.
J.J. Hardy has been nothing short of "dyn-o-mite" over the first six weeks of the season. He hit a grand slam off Joe Smith (who Marc Hulet recently covered) yesterday to tie him for the National League lead in home runs and runs batted in. (The runs that Smith allowed were the first in 18 games and 16 innings.)
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS+
35 147 25 49 11 0 11 34 0 1 13 21 .333 .385 .633 167
Hardy also ranks second in TB (93) and RC (36); fourth in H, XBH (22), and SLG; sixth in OPS (1.018) and OPS+; seventh in AVG; and tied for ninth in 2B. He is one of three non-1B/corner OF in the top 10 in OPS (the other two being Chipper Jones, 4th, and Chase Utley, 10th).
Combine Hardy's offensive accomplishments with the fact that he is the shortstop on the team with the best record in baseball and one doesn't need to look up VORP, WARP, or Win Shares to know that J.J. has been the National League's Most Valuable Player thus far.
- Rich Lederer, 5/13/07, 7:25 a.m. PST
Sticking with the National League Central, the 2006 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals faced a tough off-season and lost five of the seven pitchers who started at least 13 games for them during their championship season: Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Mark Mulder, Jeff Weaver and Sidney Ponson.
Ponson had worn out his welcome in St. Louis, while playoff hero Weaver (2.45 ERA in five starts), Marquis and Suppan left for greener pastures (and wallets). Weaver took a lucrative one-year deal from Seattle in the hopes of increasing his value for 2008 and spurned a multi-year offer from the Cards. Mulder, though technically still with the club after re-signing as a free agent, is rehabbing his shoulder after having surgery late in the 2006 season and has yet to throw a pitch for the club in 2007.
The Cardinals surprised a lot of people by filling the holes in the 2007 rotation with two relievers: Braden Looper and Adam Wainwright. 2006 rookie Anthony Reyes was also given an expanded role. To finalize things, the Cards then dipped into the free agent pool and came away with the enigmatic Kip Wells.
So how is the new rotation doing? Probably not too well given the Cardinals are nine games out of first place with a 15-19 record. To make matters worse, the Cardinals lost ace Chris Carpenter to elbow surgery (bone spurs). Carpenter was re-signed last December to a five-year, $65 million contract with an option for 2012 and has battled injuries throughout his career.
W-L ERA IP H BB-K
Chris Carpenter 0-1 7.50 6.0 9 1-3
Anthony Reyes 0-5 5.03 34.0 28 10-28
Adam Wainwright 3-2 5.01 41.1 55 18-26
Braden Looper 4-2 2.66 44.0 40 14-26
Kip Wells 1-7 6.51 47.0 45 22-36
Randy Keisler 0-0 5.65 14.1 17 4-5
Brad Thompson 0-0 1.80 5.0 6 1-2 (as a starter)
W-L ERA IP H BB-K
Jeff Weaver 0-6 14.32 22.0 50 7-12
Sidney Ponson 2-5 6.93 37.2 54 17-23
Jason Marquis 5-1 1.70 47.2 30 13-24
Jeff Suppan 5-3 3.00 54.0 57 10-28
The current Cardinal starters are 8-17, while their departed starters from 2006 are a combined 12-15. But Marquis and Suppan combined have more wins than the seven starters the Cardinals have tried this season. Ouch.
- Marc Hulet, 5/13/07, 10:45 a.m. EST
The Toronto Blue Jays probably think they're cursed. The team has now lost its starting left fielder Reed Johnson, third baseman Troy Glaus, catcher Gregg Zaun, three-fifths of its rotation in Roy Halladay, Gustavo Chacin and Victor Zambrano, its closer B.J. Ryan and its set-up man Brandon League - all for a month or more, save (maybe) for Glaus.
The Jays' minor league system has also been hit hard, with six starting pitchers suffering from mild to serious shoulder injuries: RHP Billy Carnline, LHP Eric Fowler, LHP Ricky Romero, LHP Chi-Hung Cheng, LHP Davis Romero and RHP Robert Ray. Fowler, Ricky Romero, Davis Romero and Cheng are among the Jays' top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America.
Only 2005 first round pick Ricky Romero and Ray have made appearances this season. Every club's system suffers through injuries but it seems unusual for so many top pitchers to suffer from the same type of injury at the same time.
- Marc Hulet, 5/13/07, 7:35 p.m. EST
Rocketing Back to the Past
Curmudgeons might point to Roger Clemens' recently inked contract with the Yankees and his sweetheart "stay at home except for game days" deal with the Astros in 2006 as the ultimate proof of what's wrong with baseball in the 21st century.
How can a player begin his season when he wants, avoid road trips and make a king's ransom to boot? Not counting the Rocket's very lucrative salary and flexible schedule, there actually is a precedent of sorts in the distant past.
Not every team in the 1930s and 1940s adhered to a strict four-man rotation. Traditional Sunday doubleheaders followed by Mondays off allowed for an occasional exception to the rule.
In a few cases, former staff aces or workhorses who weren't up to the rigors of going every fourth day became "Sunday pitchers" who would take the mound once a week during the doubleheader. The rest of the rotation saw action every fourth game, and often having Mondays off meant that Depression-era hurlers sometimes worked every fifth day.
While the term Sunday pitcher is usually accurate, it can also be expanded a bit to include middle-aged spot starters who sometimes pitched on weekdays. The old warhorses who held this role were not relievers who made an occasional emergency start. According to the mentality of the time, the bullpen was for second-rate performers. Pride and the pitching philosophy of the era wouldn't allow graying starters to be used just in late-inning roles.
Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey closed out his career at age 42 in 1933. Pitching for the last-place Reds, the left-hander went 6-4 in 16 games (12 starts, five complete games). Rixey's 3.15 ERA in 94.1 innings pitched matched his career total and was slightly below the NL average of 3.34. With just 10 strikeouts (or 0.95 per nine innings pitched) and 12 walks, Reds' fielders were on their toes when Rixey was on the mound.
Red Lucas filled a pair of supporting roles during his last three major league campaigns. He posted a career-best 15-4 record with a 3.18 ERA for the Pirates in 1936. The right-hander pitched 175.2 innings in 27 games (22 starts, 12 complete games), with 53 whiffs and just 26 walks.
At age 35, Lucas nosedived to an 8-10 mark and a 4.27 ERA in 1937. In 20 games (all starts, nine complete games) and 126.1 innings pitched, Lucas' strikeout-to-walk ratio was an unimpressive 20-to-23. Lucas finished with a 6-3, 3.52 record in 1938, completing four of his 13 starts.
It was his bat that made Lucas a more valuable commodity than other pitchers. He was 114-for-437 (.261) as a pinch-hitter, going 9-for-40 (.225) as a lefty pinch-hitter in 1936 and 9-for-37 (.243) in that role in 1937. Lucas' .281 lifetime average includes six seasons above .300.
Two Hall of Famers thrived when they got what amounted to a weekly start. At age 38, Lefty Grove went 14-4 (.778) with an American League leading 3.08 ERA for the Red Sox in 1938. Grove appeared in 24 games (21 starts, 12 complete games) and tossed 163.1 innings.
He followed that up with 15-4 record (.789, second best in the majors) and his ninth and final AL ERA championship (2.54) in 1939. In 23 games - all starts - Grove went the distance 17 times. He closed out a superb career with 7-6 and 7-7 records, which gave Grove exactly 300 wins.
Ted Lyons (260-230 lifetime) is underrated because of his long tenure with the perennial second-division White Sox. The right-hander made 132 starts with no relief appearances from 1937 to 1942 for an average of 22 games (exactly one in seven with a 154-game schedule) over a six-year period. The results were impressive.
A 12-7 record with a 4.15 ERA (AL average 4.62) in 1937 was followed by a 9-11 record in 1938. Lyons deserved better, as his 3.70 was 1.19 below the league total of 4.89 and eighth best in the league. He completed 17 of 23 starts. Lyons' 2.4 walks per nine innings was third best in the American League.
The fourth-place White Sox went 85-69 in 1939. That was a rarity for Lyons, who seldom played on winning or first-division squads. He was a major contributor to the team's success, with a 14-6 record in 21 starts (16 complete games). A 2.76 ERA was a whopping 1.95 better than the AL average and second only to Lefty Grove. A miserly 26 walks in 172.1 innings pitched was best in the league (1.36 per nine innings pitched) as was a WHIP of 1.089. Lyons was no slouch at the plate, hitting .295 while going 18-for-61.
Once-a-week success continued in 1940, when Lyons was 12-8 with a 3.24 ERA, which was more than a run better than the AL total of 4.42. Never a strikeout artist, Lyons surrendered just 37 walks in 186.1 innings pitched to reign again as the league's control master while completing 17 of 22 starts with four shutouts. A WHIP of 1.208 was third best in the AL.
The old righty didn't become fragile at age 40. Lyons completed 19 of 22 Sunday starts and finished 1941 with a 12-10 record and 3.70 ERA. Opposing hitters had to come up swinging, as Lyons gave up just 37 walks in 187.1 innings pitched (1.78 per nine innings pitched) to lead the American League for the third consecutive year.
Not many pitchers have one of their best seasons at age 41, but that's what Lyons did in 1942. His 14-6 record and league-leading 2.10 ERA were one of the few bright spots for the sixth-place White Sox (66-82). Lyons completed all 20 of his starts, averaging just over nine innings a game with 180.1 innings pitched. His 1.07 WHIP and just 26 walks (1.3 per nine innings pitched) were second in the AL, and Lyons hit .270 with just six strikeouts in 74 at-bats. In six seasons as a Sunday pitcher, Lyons went 73-48 (.603) while consistently being among the league leaders in various categories.
A bachelor, Lyons volunteered for duty in the Marine Corps following the season. He returned in 1946 and performed well in five Sunday starts with little run support. His 1-4 record was accompanied by a 2.32 ERA in 42.2 inning pitched. Lyons retired as a player to manage the White Sox after Jimmie Dykes was fired.
Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons was an innings-eater for the New York Giants before thriving with a reduced load for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 38-year-old knuckleballer went 16-2 for a major league best .889 winning percentage in 1939. Fitzsimmons completed 11 of 18 starts and relieved twice in a 134.1 inning season. After going 6-1, 2.07 in 1940, Fitzsimmons was all but finished, pitching just 10 games in 1941 and 1942.
A Sunday pitcher helped the St. Louis Browns win their only pennant in 1944. Denny Galehouse couldn't quit his war-related factory job in Akron, Ohio, since leaving would expose him to the military draft. Desperate for scarce talent, the Browns decided to let Galehouse catch a train on Saturday to wherever the team was playing the next day. The right-hander would appear in the first game of the Sunday doubleheader and immediately return home.
Then a most unusual thing happened: the Browns were leading the league and in the thick of a pennant race. Galehouse weighed the odds of being drafted (he was married with children and over 30, which reduced the chances of a letter from Uncle Sam) and decided to join the team full time.
That gamble paid off as the scrappy, low-budget Browns won the American League championship on the final day of the season. Galehouse (9-10, 3.12 ERA) started Game 1 against the heavily-favored Cardinals. With Mort Cooper (22-7, 2.46) on the mound, the Redbirds looked like a sure thing, but Galehouse went the distance in a 2-1 Browns' victory. Galehouse did almost as well in Game 5, but lost a 2-0 rematch to Cooper.
Veteran pitchers with plenty of mileage on their arms have always been sought as spot starters, long relievers and mentors to younger hurlers, but Sunday starters were confined to a time when doubleheaders were the rule. As a power pitcher who is expected to be a high-profile impact player and not just a member of the supporting cast, Roger Clemens is a unique case in baseball history.
While he won't be starting once every weekend, Clemens' total workload (barring injury) for the season projects to something similar to what Grove and Lyons did in the last years of their careers. The money? No comparison there.
Location, Location, Location
The location of a pitch is one important factor in determining its fate. If a batter swings at a pitch thrown low in the strike zone, he has a good chance of hitting a ground ball, while if he swings at a higher pitch, there is a greater chance of him hitting the ball in the air. A difference in location of a couple of inches can be the difference between a home-run and a shattered bat. Pitchers need to be able to throw to precise locations and hitters need to be able to recognize if a ball is going to be hittable. As you can probably guess by now, this article is going to focus on the location of pitches, in and around the strike zone.
Before I continue writing though, I need to mention something. John Beamer wrote an really interesting article earlier this week about the accuracy of the Enhanced Gameday data. Based on his examination of Kevin Millwood, John found that the tracking systems were inconsistent across stadiums. However, the biggest problems that John found were regarding the release point and the ball as it left the pitcher's hand. The chart he showed of the strike zone showed no stadium-to-stadium bias, which bodes well for my current article. I think the differences with release points are caused by difficulties aligning the cameras the same at different stadiums without a consistent reference point, but home plate should serve as a good landmark in every stadium to align the cameras for the strike zone.
John looked at the spread of pitches and thought they were random enough not to worry too much about a stadium bias, but I can do a little checking too. Enhanced Gameday provides an x,y location, tracked by the camera system, of pitches as they cross the plate, as well as an x,y location entered by a human stringer. The stringer enters the location where he thinks the ball crossed the plate. Here's a plot of the X coordinate for the computer generated values vs. the human entered values.
As you can see, it's a pretty good match overall. I'm not looking for a 100% match, and I don't totally trust human entry on this either, as it's pretty tough to actually tell where the pitch was when it crossed the plate, so I'm comfortable using the camera-tracked values in this case.
Getting back to the article, lets look at where right handed pitchers throw to right handed hitters. Of the 11,109 pitches I have from these confrontations, here is where they all ended up. The strike zone is the red box in the middle and the graph is from the catcher's perspective. The numbers in each grid are simply the number of pitches thrown in that region. I didn't convert these into percents because the raw numbers give a sense of the number of pitches I have for each split. The chart is cropped on the sides and the bottom to focus on pitches that were near the strike zone.
It's nice to see that most of the pitches are located in the strike zone. This seems obvious, but it serves as another quick check on the accuracy of the data. I liked the simplicity of this layout and some basic trends pop out right away. Right handed pitchers work away from right handed hitters, and when they work outside the strike zone, it's typically low and away. They throw below the strike zone more than they throw above it.
Digging a little deeper, the three regions just off the plate on both sides (three inside and three outside) are interesting. At each height, there were more pitches outside than inside, but as the height increases the number of inside pitches remains relatively constant and the amount of outside pitches decreases. I have no idea if this is an artifact or an actual pattern, so here's the same graph, but for left handed hitters.
For left handed hitters, pitchers again threw more pitches outside, and were more inclinded to throw pitches below the strike zone than above it. As the height increases with a left hander at the plate however, there is more of a chance of an outside pitch. Do these trends exist when left handed pitchers are on the mound? Here are the two charts for left handed pitchers, but there doesn't appear to be much of a continuation of the trend. The other trends about working outside and below the strike zone also don't seem as clear, if they exist at all.
It's nice to know where pitchers threw the ball, but what actually happened to those pitches when they reached home? Focusing on right handed pitchers throwing to right handed hitters, here is a chart showing the percentages of pitches in each region that are swung at.
Right handed hitters swing at anything in the strike zone, except pitches down and away. Those pitches are strikes but hitters will swing at them only half the time, similar the frequently they chase pitches in regions abutting the strike zone. My guess is that right handed hitters as a group are unable to drive the low and away pitch, so they don't swing at it. They can afford to take the pitch if they don't have two strikes. However, right handed pitchers have figured out that right handed hitters don't frequently swing at that pitch and consequently throw to that region more than any other region. Hitters may not swing at pitches in that region because they feel they are balls, although of the 406 pitches not swung at in that region, 69% (282) were called strikes. When hitters put pitches from that region into play, they had a .298 batting average on balls in play, which surprisingly isn't the lowest BABIP for pitches in the strike zone. Perhaps low and away isn't a utopia for pitchers after all. If fewer than half of right handed hitters swing at a strike, the only hitters who do swing at that pitch must be confident they can get a hit out of it, resulting in the average BABIP.
One surprising item on this chart is that the BABIP for pitches right down the middle is not the highest. Three corners are all hot zones for right handed hitters as a group. One explanation for the lower than expected BABIP is if 70% of pitches down the middle are swung at, a lot of those swings will be taken by bad hitters, swinging because of the location, as opposed to the pitch low and away, where the only hitters who swing at it know they can hit it.
The swing percentage and BABIP charts for left handed hitters facing right handed pitching are below. When left handed hitters face right handed pitchers, they think they can hit the pitch that is low and away, but despite swinging at it 59% of the time their BABIP is only .238. The location must be especially tempting for left handed hitters to get those results and continue swinging at it. Not surprisingly, right handed pitchers threw the second most number of pitches to that region. Lefties also appear to be vulnerable up and in, but right handed pitchers haven't targeted that area yet. Another interesting detail on the swing percentage charts is that despite a difference in the distribution of swings, both left handed hitters and right handed hitters swung at 63% of pitches in the strike zone.
Before I wrap up the article, I should mention that I do have the left handed pitching versions of the Swing Percentage and BABIP charts, but I don't have enough pitches in each region to draw any real conclusions from them, so I didn't include them. Even with the graphs I did use, I would feel more comfortable making the statements I made with a full season of data to back me up.
I learned a couple of interesting things while writing this article though. I had no idea how frequently batters swing at pitches in different areas of the strike zone. I knew roughly how much batters swung, but to actually see where they swing at pitches is pretty cool. With enough data, I would like to expand those charts, and do them for individual players. I would love to see what Vladimir Guerrero doesn't swing at or where someone like Scott Hatteberg swings. Are some pitchers able to consistently get batters to swing at pitches that aren't in the strike zone? I also learned that left handed and right handed hitters as a group have different holes in their plate coverage. Right handed pitchers as a group were able to exploit the aggressiveness of left handed hitters and throw pitches to an area where the batters couldn't hurt them. The pitchers were also able to exploit the passiveness of right handed hitters and throw pitches in an area of the strike zone where there was a smaller probability of the batter swinging. Maybe pitchers aren't as dumb as people think.
How Sabermetrics Helps Build a Better Ballgame
It's been several months since Murray Chass woke up one morning and decided to devote the last six paragraphs of his column to criticizing Baseball Prospectus. As I replied at that time, what most took be aback about his column was its assertion that sabermetrics "threatens to undermine most fans' enjoyment of baseball."
Naturally, I think quite the opposite is true. Here are seven ways in which sabermetrics has helped to improve the fan's experience:
1. Enhancing the Quality of Play.
There has been a great deal of debate about just how much the quality of play has improved in baseball over time. What nobody debates, however, is that the quality of play has in fact improved substantially. There are a great number of reasons for this, first and most importantly because the size of Major League Baseball's potential player pool has tended to grow more quickly than the number of teams in the league.
A small part of the improvement in quality, however, might be the result of the sabermetric movement. In a forthcoming essay for It Ain't over 'til It's over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, I developed something called the Efficiency Index, which operates by comparing the performances of the best backups in the league to the worst regulars in the league. The idea is that if the best backups in the league are much better than the worst regulars, then the league is doing an inefficient job of distributing talent, presumably because of great disparities in wealth, scouting acumen, or aptitude for talent evaluation.
The Efficiency Index has improved over time, particularly with the widespread introduction of the farm system in the 1950s. There has been a smaller but perceptible rise, however, within the past 5-10 years, and particularly within the last 2-3 years, which coincides with the widespread introduction of sabermetrics into the thought processes of major league front offices. There is no longer any reason to Free Erubiel Durazo!, or Frank Catalanotto, or Kevin Youkilis, or Chad Bradford. Those guys are getting a chance to play, and they're helping to resolve asymmetries in the talent distribution process.
This takes for granted, of course, that fans would rather see Kevin Youkilis play baseball than say J.T. Snow, which is almost certainly the case if he's donning the uniform of your favorite team, but perhaps less so if we're coming at this from the standpoint of pure aesthetics. That is really just the tip of the iceberg, however. Consider: would the Red Sox have matched Daisuke Matsuzaka's price if not for the work of people like Clay Davenport, who helped us to understand the high quality of baseball in Japan? Would Jake Peavy be the best pitcher in the National League, or would he have been a victim of high pitch counts? Would Curtis Granderson be patrolling center field for the Tigers, or would he have been written off because he came from a tiny college program in a northern state, doomed to see his skills and desire atrophy in the lower minors? Even if you think the answer to these questions is "well, probably," baseball is replete with examples of potentially great players whose skill sets slipped through the cracks, and not all of those guys were Jack Cust types.
2. Democratizing the Media
Don't get me wrong. I'd have a tough choice deciding between ESPN and the other 400-odd channels in my cable lineup, provided that some allowance could be made for The Sopranos. But there's developed an increasingly blurry line between the people who cover the baseball industry, and the people who profit from it.
At the one extreme, you have the obvious potential conflicts of interest. The Tribune covers the Cubs while also owning the ballclub. I believe The Trib generally does a good job of managing these conflicts, but - full disclosure - I have been a frequent guest on WGN Radio. At the other extreme, you have the more vaguely insidious conflicts, such as Buster Olney blogging about "fantasy sleepers" when he clearly has no interest in the subject. And there's nobody much left to police the conflicts of interest, because if you don't have a relationship with the leagues themselves, you probably have relationships with the major media players (full disclosure #2: "you" includes Baseball Prospectus).
What we do have, however, is the blogosphere. The blogosphere has generally not been interested in covering the meta-issues of the sports media - there's no mediamatters.org for sports, unless you want to count Fire Joe Morgan. But it does an absolutely superlative [corrected] job of covering baseball itself. At the risk of being self-aggrandizing in an Al-Gore-Invented-the-Internet kind of way, I believe a great deal of that has to do with the lower barriers to entry that sabermetrics helps to facilitate, in terms of its tendency to allow objective knowledge about the game to go forth and multiply. The very thing that Murray Chass seems to fear is the very thing that makes him less important. Baseball fans can still read Murray Chass if they want - but they can also read Rob Neyer or Tangotiger or Rich Lederer. Once you realize that the arrangement of the Yankees' locker room has less to do with their success or failure than simple things like how often Johnny Damon gets on base, you're armed to debate about them without having to tip your hat to insider knowledge.
3. Leveling the Playing Field
One of the great myths of Moneyball is that sabermetrics is something that's the domain of small-market clubs; as the Red Sox have shown, there is little intrinsic connection between a team's financial and analytical dispositions. Nevertheless, having a core competency for statistical analysis provides another dimension along which a team can compete. Since statistical analysis is relatively cheap to execute, this has tended to lessen the intrinsic advantage of large-market clubs, which in turn provides "hope and faith" to a larger number of fans. As a corollary, the analytical approach represents another potential strategy that teams can gravitate toward, which increases the genetic diversity of the sport.
4. Opening up the Owner's Box (and the General Manager's Office)
Fans have always debated about the game's greatest players. But as difficult as it can be to determine whether Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes is the better player, it is even more difficult to determine whether Billy Beane or Terry Ryan is the better general manager, or corporate ownership is better than having a megalomaniac like George Steinbrenner. Sabermetrics, particularly when it pursues angles related to economics, empowers us to discuss the game off the field to a more profound extent. As a result, while the sport itself has a six-month season, baseball fans have grown accustomed to enjoying a twelve-month news cycle, and the Hot Stove League can approach the pennant races in excitement. It is no coincidence that the Baseball Prospectus website gets more traffic in March than it does in April, and more in November than it does in July.
5. Enlivening the History Books
The birth of the National League now predates that of the oldest living person, so there's nobody on earth who can claim to have seen every Hall of Famer play. If you look at the vigorous debate at places like the BBTF Hall of Merit, however, you wouldn't know the difference. Sabermetrics provides perspective, and that perspective can just as easily be applied to the past as to the present. Baseball has the richest history of any major sport, and while sabermetrics owes a great debt to that history - it helps to have 130+ years of observations to work with when you're developing a statistical model - that history owes an increasing debt to sabermetrics.
6. Now Geeks Can Play, Too
Each year, Baseball Prospectus takes internship applications and asks the candidates to submit short writing samples; it's likely that more than half of these writing samples will contain some reference to Theo Epstein. Most of us are not natural athletes, and although sabermetrics has probably not penetrated the industry to the point where the ex-jock/old boy's network culture has been irrevocably changed, it certainly opens up a career in the industry to a wider array of people than might have had access in the past. Keeping those sorts of dreams alive has to help with the sport's audience. And while relatively few of us will be fortunate enough to have a career in the industry itself, we're all able to experience the next best thing in the form of fantasy baseball, which has a mutually reinforcing relationship with sabermetrics.
7. Knowledge is Power
I don't want to sound like Richard Dawkins debunking the Santa Claus myth, but I believe there is inherent good in the pursuit of objective knowledge. Sabermetrics can occasionally demystify certain constructs that it might be pleasant to believe - like the existence of the Clutch Hitter, baseball's answer to Santa Claus - but is that necessarily a bad thing? And sabermetrics tends to spark new questions as well as resolve old ones. Perhaps the Clutch Hitter has been relegated to the status of the Loch Ness Monster, (or perhaps he hasn't), but sabermetrics has provoked us to look at things like player development and the relationship between pitching and defense in entirely different ways, just to name a couple.
What ultimately bothered me about Mr. Chass' article was its anti-intellectualism. Perhaps Chass would prefer that all knowledge about the game be disseminated by the Old Gray Lady on her stone tablets - "Thou Shalt Not Make the First Out at Third Base" / "Thou Shalt Not Worship False Statistics" - but the rest of us are having a lot of fun with this stuff, and we're building a better ballgame in the process.
Nate Silver is the Executive Vice President of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures; inventor of PECOTA, the BP projection system; and writes "Lies Damned Lies," a column about modern statistical analysis. He lives in Chicago.
The Old-Fashioned Way to Develop Durable Pitchers
It's the constant puzzle of the 21st century.
If there is one question that is repeatedly asked by major league organizations, minor league development directors and baseball diehards, it would be "Why are pitchers so fragile these days?" The usual followup is "What can we do to prevent injuries?"
From a theoretical standpoint, this should be the era of rock-solid durability. There is an embarrassment of riches available to pitchers including personal trainers, nutritional supplements by the truckload, coaches armed with the latest in technology, obsessive statistical data, hyper-specialized medical care and (for the better prospects) a nanny-like level of protectiveness that includes strict pitch counts. So why are hurlers dropping like Al Capone's rivals during Prohibition?
Notice the word "theoretical" in the previous paragraph. In most instances in life, theory and reality are two entirely opposite concepts. Pitching gurus declare that their coddling and sophisticated systems are the right way to do things, but the facts don't support those claims.
Is there a better way to develop durable pitchers who can perform regularly without calling it quits after every tweak and twinge? In this case, it pays to look to the past - say 1930 to 1970 - when starters took the mound every fourth day instead of the current five-day schedule. Relievers routinely went several innings, and they often pitched as long as today's five and six-inning starters.
So what was the secret to regularly tossing 250 to 300 innings as a starter and 100 or more innings from the bullpen with some spot starts mixed in for variety? Perhaps the key to building sturdy pitchers has nothing to do with baseball or decrees from the experts and gurus. The answer could be much more mundane and humble than high-tech wizardry and micromanagement of hurlers. How humble? Think manure.
In many cases, old-time major league pitchers shoveled countless tons of manure before they debuted in the Show. They also tossed many thousands of hay bales, milked cows by hand seven days a week, spent lots of time on the business end of a spade, hand-dug bushels of potatoes, drove tractors without power steering, strung barbed wire fences and repeatedly picked rocks out of the lower 40.
Small farms were a way of life for a significant percentage of Americans until the 1960s. There has always been a steady migration from rural areas to large cities, since slapping fenders on Chevys or working construction was a breeze (and paid better) compared to life on the farm. That trend slowed as farms consolidated and grew larger, but even those who ventured to the economically greener pastures of urban life brought something valuable with them from agriculture.
Of all the four-letter words in the language, there is one - lazy - that was and remains the ultimate obscenity on the farm. Young and old worked from dawn to dusk. Rural slackers could always move to the city for one of those cushy 50-hour a week part-time jobs. That kind of life and work ethic builds a mental and physical toughness that can't be duplicated in an era of American Idol and iPods.
Today's pitchers look stronger than the old-timers, but looks can be deceiving. Pumping iron may lead to a sculpted, buff body, but I'll trade six-pack abs any time for the kind of strength and endurance I've seen from many farmers I have known in 12 years of living in Wisconsin.
Whether it's a stumpy 5'5" type, a 6'4" stringbean who resembles Kent Tekulve or anything in between, farmers and men who grew up on farms are (pound for pound) the strongest bunch I've ever encountered. There's no preening or flexing their "guns" for the camera. These guys are too busy with chores to strut their usually ordinary-looking physiques. Strength is displayed when needed, as in climbing ladders with bundles of shingles for the new barn roof.
My experience with farmers goes back to when I was growing up in Chicago and suburbs. Andy Toschak - a close friend of my late father - is one of those unforgettable characters that remains in the mind for decades.
When I first met Andy, he was in his early 40s. He stood 5'8" and tipped the scales at 240 without a soft gut or beer belly. A 19-inch neck made it hard for Andy to buy shirts. Growing up poor on a farm in southern Illinois coal country during the Depression had formed Andy into an eminently practical man.
After serving as a Navy Seabee in World War II, Andy moved to Chicago to work in the building trades. A booming postwar economy provided decent wages and plenty of overtime, and Andy never shied away from work. He attended a Cubs tryout camp just for the experience.
Andy smacked the ball with authority and handled himself well enough at third base to be offered a Class D contract. "Sign here, son. You'll get $75 a month," the scout told him. After scuffling through the Depression, Andy wasn't going to take a big step backwards financially. He turned down the offer and spent the rest of his life working in the trades, raising six children and occasionally outrunning skinny young punks who challenged the stocky old man to 50-yard dashes.
So how did a guy with the build of a nose tackle run so fast? Farm life helped put some speed in Andy's feet.
"During the Depression, we usually didn't have money to buy .22s for rabbit hunting," Andy recalled. "We had to chase them down to get meat for supper."
What made this tale especially outrageous was Andy's perpetual honesty and sincerity. This was no spinner of tall tales, so how could he run down rabbits instead of hunting them like a normal person?
I loudly expressed my disbelief. Andy smiled and said "Let me explain how we did it. We'd spot a rabbit in the field. Me or my brother George or cousin Gooch would start chasing it. We'd chase him down into the culvert. The rabbit would run into the culvert, and one of us would be waiting on the other end with a milk pail. The rabbit would run into the milk pail. We'd take him out and wring his neck. That's how we hunted rabbits."
This was done for "fun" after completing a long list of chores and any odd jobs that could be scrounged up. Take Andy's story, multiply it across America, and is it any surprise that pitchers of the past could go nine innings without complaint? After all, they wouldn't have to do it again for another three days, plus they were getting the outrageous sums of $8000 or even (gasp!) $10,000 a season for such pleasant labor. It sure beat working the cotton fields during a Mississippi summer or dealing with dozens of smelly pigs.
Modern workout and exercise programs are certainly beneficial for pitchers, and they sometimes produce bodies that merit a photo spread in Muscle & Fitness magazine. However, when it comes to developing real strength and toughness, the answer might be down on the farm.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Think Factory.]
No Ordinary Joe Smith
Every time I look at a New York Mets' box score, rookie reliever Joe Smith's name seems to be present. The 2006 third round draft pick - and 94th overall - out of Wright State appeared in 17 games during the Mets' first 29 games of the 2007 season.
That means Smith has appeared in just under 60 percent of the club's games. If he were to continue on this pace, Smith would finish the year with about 94 appearances. Rubber-armed Mike Marshall he's not, but it's enough to make me nervous.
When you look back at the list of most appearances in a rookie season by a reliever, you see a lot of names of players who burnt out very quickly - and often due to arm or shoulder problems. Keep in mind it's not just the innings pitched and pitches thrown in the game; the constant warming up in the bullpen can also wear on a pitcher's body.
Rookie relief pitchers (post 1980) with 75 or more games pitched in rookie season:
Sean Runyan, Detroit
Debut Season: 88 games
Last MLB Game: 26-years-old
Total Games/Seasons: 103/3
Major Injuries: shoulder surgery
Oscar Villarreal, Arizona
Debut Appearances: 86
Last MLB Game: still active
Total Games/Seasons: incomplete
Major Injuries: elbow - nerve transposition
Kelly Wunsch, Chicago
Debut Appearances: 83 games
Last MLB Game: 32-years-old
Total Games/Seasons: 258/6
Major Injuries: shoulder/hip
Mitch Williams, Texas
Debut Appearances: 80 games
Last MLB Game: 32-years-old
Total Games/Seasons: 619/11
Major Injuries: healthy
Tim Burke, Montreal
Debut Appearances: 78 games
Last MLB Game: 33-years-old
Total Games/Seasons: 498/8
Major Injuries: healthy
Ed Vande Berg, Seattle
Debut Appearances: 78 games
Last MLB Game: 29-years-old
Total Games/Seasons: 413/7
Major Injuries: healthy
Javier Lopez, Colorado
Debut Appearances: 75
Last MLB Game: still active
Total Games/Seasons: incomplete
Major Injuries: healthy
Greg McMichael, Atlanta
Debut Appearances: 74 games
Last MLB Game: 33-years-old
Total Games/Seasons: 453/8
Major Injuries: rotator cuff
Kenny Rogers, Texas
Debut Appearances: 73
Last MLB Game: still active
Total Games/Seasons: incomplete
Major Injuries: blood clot (shoulder)
Doug Corbett, Minnesota
Debut Appearances: 73
Last MLB Game: 34-years-old
Total Games/Seasons: 313/8
Major Injuries: healthy
Aquilino Lopez, Toronto
Debut Appearances: 72
Last MLB Game: still active
Total Games/Seasons: incomplete
Major Injuries: None
Kevin Walker, San Diego
Debut Appearances: 70
Last MLB Game: 28
Total Games/Seasons: 122/6
Major Injuries: Tommy John surgery
Both left-hander Sean Runyan, a Rule 5 draft pick by Detroit from Houston, and Arizona right-hander Oscar Villarreal, now with Atlanta, are the poster children for abused pitchers. Luckily for Villarreal he is still pitching, whereas Runyan never recovered from surgery and threw his last major league pitch at the age of 26. Throw in the White Sox' Kelly Wunsch and the top three rookie pitchers in terms of games pitched all suffered significant injuries to their elbows or shoulders. And Smith is on a pace to surpass all three in terms of appearances, should he continue on his current pace.
But are the Mets really doing a disservice to Smith and the longevity of his career due to a dogged determination to win the World Series? If they are, then a lot of teams are guilty of abusing relievers early on in 2007. As of May 6, five relievers had appeared in 18 MLB games and nine more - including Smith - had pitched in 17 games. Another 12 had pitched in 16 games.
IP H BB-K Pitches-Ks
NYY Brian Bruney 16.0 9 7-16 248-152
NYY Luis Vizcaino 17.0 16 11-8 247-133
NYY Scott Proctor 16.0 13 8-6 243-146
CIN Todd Coffey 15.2 19 6-17 230/149
WSH Jon Rauch 15.1 15 1-9 220-151
PIT Jonah Bayliss 14.2 20 7-11 207/128
OAK Huston Street 17.0 9 7-18 195-123
WSH Micah Bowie 14.0 11 1-10 193-117
OAK Alan Embree 14.0 19 4-11 187-124
PIT Matt Capps 16.0 13 2-9 181/129
DET Todd Jones 16.0 11 5-7 175-114
NYM Joe Smith 15.1 8 7-18 173-108
BAL Chad Bradford 12.1 14 5-6 170-110
TB Shawn Camp 10.1 20 3-8 132-82
As you can see above, of the 14 pitchers who have appeared in 17 or more games, Smith has thrown the fewest number of pitches, save for Tampa Bay's Shawn Camp. If you really want to look at abuse, take a look at the Yankees, who have the three relievers with the highest number of pitches thrown.
Another positive sign for Smith is that he has only thrown more than 20 pitches in a single game once (37 pitches on May 2 against the Marlins). I can't say that I'm thrilled with the number of games Smith has appeared in early this season but things don't look as bleak as they did when I began researching this column. And really, how much can you complain about a pitcher who had an ERA of 0.00 through his first 17 major league appearances?
B.J. Upton: Enjoy It While You Can
B.J. Upton is off to a hot start, leading the American League in batting average (.371) while ranking third in SLG (.660) and OPS (1.084). Upton is also among the top ten in the league in OBP (.425), HR (6), RBI (22), and SB (5).
Given that the 22-year-old entered the season with a .251 career batting average (84-for-334) with 5 HR, I believe it would be safe to say that 2007 is undoubtedly a breakout for the highly regarded youngster. But just what kind of numbers can we expect the #2 overall pick in the 2002 draft to put up over the course of the full season?
I don't imagine that anybody thinks Upton will hit anywhere close to .371 but is .300 even a good bet? Let's drill down a bit to see if we can answer that question.
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
97 17 36 8 1 6 22 8 37 .371 .425 .660 1.084
Upton is obviously off to a phenomenal start. However, B.J. is hitting .556 (30-for-54) on balls in play. That's great but it's also highly unsustainable. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .149 better than anyone else in the league and .161 above last year's leader (Derek Jeter).
If Upton's BABIP was .400 instead of .556, his overall average would currently be .289. If his BABIP was .350, his AVG would be just .258. Now mind you, a .400 BABIP would have been good enough to lead the AL in 2006. And a .350 BABIP would have tied Ichiro Suzuki for sixth place. In other words, I'm being fairly generous attaching these abnormally high BABIP to Upton's numbers this year in trying to determine a more realistic batting average than the one he has generated to date.
When B.J. is making contact, he is stinging the ball. Nonetheless, his AVG will plummet if he continues to strike out in 38% of his at-bats and 35% of his plate appearances. Upton, who is leading the league in strikeouts, is on pace to break Rob Deer's AL record of 186 whiffs and challenge Adam Dunn's MLB all-time high of 195 Ks in a single season.
It says here that Upton will not hit .300 this year. The only way I can be proven wrong is if the 6-foot-3, 180-pound second baseman (1) continues to hit for an almost unprecedented average on balls in play, (2) hits home runs over the course of the season at an even higher rate than the first five weeks, (3) reduces his strikeouts and puts more balls in play, and/or (4) gets hurt and doesn't play a full slate of games.
Taking a closer look at each of the above suppositions, I would be surprised if Upton's BABIP ended up above .400. But, remember, even at .400, his AVG would fall below .300. As far as home runs go, Upton is slugging them at a significantly higher rate (6.2% HR/AB and 5.6% HR/PA) than ever, including the minors when his best rates were 4.5% and 3.9%, respectively, at Durham in 2004. I realize that players get bigger and stronger as they mature and HR rates usually increase over time, but I don't think it is likely for B.J. to improve upon his better-than-30-HR pace. Could he hit 30? Sure. I just can't envision him knocking 35 or 40 out of the park this year.
What this all means is that Upton needs to strike out far less often if he is to hit at least .300 this season. Let's examine the batting averages of the top 20 leaders in strikeouts in a single season.
YEAR SO AVG
1 Adam Dunn 2004 195 .266
2 Adam Dunn 2006 194 .234
3 Bobby Bonds 1970 189 .302
4 Jose Hernandez 2002 188 .288
T5 Preston Wilson 2000 187 .264
T5 Bobby Bonds 1969 187 .259
7 Rob Deer 1987 186 .238
T8 Pete Incaviglia 1986 185 .250
T8 Jose Hernandez 2001 185 .249
T8 Jim Thome 2001 185 .291
T11 Cecil Fielder 1990 182 .277
T11 Jim Thome 2003 182 .266
T13 Mo Vaughn 2000 181 .272
T13 Ryan Howard 2006 181 .313
15 Mike Schmidt 1975 180 .249
16 Rob Deer 1986 179 .232
17 Richie Sexson 2001 178 .271
T18 Mark Bellhorn 2004 177 .264
T18 Jose Hernandez 2003 177 .225
20 Mike Cameron 2002 176 .239
Source: Complete Baseball Encyclopedia
Only two players have struck out more than 175 times and hit .300 in the same season. Ryan Howard hit .313 in 2006 and Bobby Bonds hit .302 in 1970. Howard accomplished his feat by slugging 58 HR. That's just not gonna happen with Upton. Bonds, on the other hand, only cranked 26 HR, which seems more in-line with what Upton is capable of doing. As a result, there is a precedent for somebody like Upton hitting .300 despite a historically high strikeout rate. But the margin of error is tiny as Bonds barely reached that magical mark.
Upton has been terrific through the first week of May. But his AVG could easily drop into the .260s, .270s, or .280s by season's end. By extension, his OBP could wind up between .320 and .350. B.J.'s more normalized SLG isn't quite as easy to calculate, but it is possible - maybe even probable - that it will approach or exceed .500. If forced to pinpoint my forecasts, I'd lean toward the upper end and go with .280/.340/.500 (which suggests he will hit about .260/.325/.460 the rest of the way).
Looking Forward to Draft Day
The Major League Baseball amateur draft is about one month away and I am - as always - excited. There is nothing quite like the feeling of watching your favorite team infuse the farm system with a new wave of talented prospects, all of whom have clean slates and could be the next great player.
Two teams - the San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue Jays - stand to benefit more than any other team this season. The Padres have six picks in the first and supplemental first rounds. The Jays have five and then add another two in the second round, as does San Diego.
If you listen to Baseball America - and many minor league watchers do - both Toronto and San Diego desperately need good drafts as their minor league systems are ranked 25th and 29th respectively out of the 30 major league clubs.
Toronto and San Diego took different approaches to the first round last season as Toronto took the top prep hitter in Travis Snider and San Diego signed Matt Antonelli, a player with a lower ceiling but he was considered a "safe" college pick. Both Snider and Antonelli had respectable debuts in 2006 and have raked in 2007. Snider batted more than .400 in April in the Midwest League and Antonelli batted .291 with three homers and more walks than strikeouts in the California League.
Other clubs who stand to benefit from multiple picks in the first few rounds include Texas, San Francisco, Arizona, Washington, Cincinnati, Oakland and the New York Mets. San Francisco is an interesting case as the club has five picks in the first and supplemental first rounds, but lost its second, third and fourth round picks for signing free agents Barry Zito, Rich Aurilia and Dave Roberts.
- Marc Hulet, 05/06/07, 10:18 a.m. EST
Staying with the theme here, I would like to point our readers to the 2007 Draft Order (courtesy of Baseball America) at the bottom of the sidebar on the left-hand side. It lists all of the first and supplemental round picks, as well as the changes in the second, third, and fourth rounds.
As Marc mentioned, the Padres have six picks (#23, 40, 46, 57, 63, and 64) and the Blue Jays five (#16, 21, 38, 45, and 56) in the first and supplemental rounds. As you can see, Toronto has two of the top 21 spots (its own plus Texas' #1 at 16 as compensation for losing Frank Catalanotto, a Type-A free agent). However, don't feel sorry for the Rangers. Although TEX lost its #1, the organization added the 17th and 24th overall choices in exchange for Carlos Lee (HOU) and Gary Matthews, Jr. (LAA).
The only other team with two first-round picks is the San Francisco Giants (#22 and 29). With the rapid-fire success of Tim Lincecum (who is making his MLB debut tonight on ESPN's Sunday Night Game of the Week), perhaps the Giants will be motivated to take a couple of college players with the potential of rising quickly through the system to help replenish baseball's oldest roster.
- Rich Lederer, 5/6/07, 9:30 a.m. PST
One of the more intriguing names, if not stories, of this year's draft is Max Scherzer. The righthander out of the University of Missouri was drafted 11th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006, yet remains the only player chosen in the first round who has not come to terms with his team.
Scherzer, who signed with the independent Fort Worth Cats of the American Association in April, made his first start on Friday night and threw 3 2/3 innings (54 pitches) of no-hit ball. A scout I spoke to that evening shared a direct report from within his organization: "four-seamer was 94-98, two-seamer 91-93, slider 86-87, and the changeup was in the low-80s." He said Scherzer's four-seamer was "explosive" and used words like "sink" and "bore" when discussing his two-seamer.
Working in Scherzer's favor is the fact that this year's draft is thin on college righthanders. His situation is not unlike Luke Hochevar's last year. Hochevar, who was drafted in the supplemental round (40th overall) in 2005 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, failed to ink a contract, re-entered the 2006 draft, and was selected by the Kansas City Royals with the #1 pick. He earned a bonus of $3.5 million.
Scott Boras represents both pitchers and can certainly make the case that Scherzer could be taken as high as #2 (behind Vanderbilt's David Price) in June, remaining firm in his bonus demands at or above the $3M mark rather than slot money of $2M or so (which apparently is the sum Arizona's GM Josh Byrnes has offered). Although the two sides have not spoken in a long while, the Diamondbacks have until May 31 to sign him. If they do, it wouldn't be the first time the club made a last-minute deal to acquire their #1 selection. Just two years ago, Arizona hooked up with Stephen Drew right before the deadline.
If the Royals don't select Scherzer, he could go to the Washington Nationals at #6. Mike Rizzo, the Diamondbacks' former scouting director, joined the Nats last July and may push for taking Scherzer. Just how high Scherzer goes is likely to be a function of his pitching prowess between now and then, his health, and the amount of money agent Boras will demand this time around.
- Rich Lederer, 5/6/07, 10:30 a.m. PST
Draft day came a month early for the Yankees when Roger Clemens announced to the fans from the press box in the bottom of the seventh inning that he was returning to the Bronx. Clemens reportedly agreed to a $28 million contract, pro rated to about $4.5M per month (or about $18M if he is on the roster on or about June 1).
The seven-time Cy Young Award winner will be joining his buddy Andy Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, and eventually Phil Hughes in a starting rotation that could go from decimated to one of the best in a matter of a month or two. However, one note of caution is warranted: in five seasons with the Yankees the last time around, the Rocket's ERA ranged from 3.51-4.60 with an average of 3.99. Pitching to DHs rather than pitchers and to AL East opponents instead of NL Central, the 44-year-old is unlikely to match the numbers he put up in Houston the past three seasons.
- Rich Lederer, 5/6/7, 3:45 p.m. PST
April is Over? What a Relief...
At the beginning of the season how many people would have guessed that April would come to a close with future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera recording only one save in three opportunities? Or that the New Yankees would be the worst team in the American League East and the second worst team in the entire American League?
Boston 16-8 .667 7-3 9-5
Toronto 13-12 .520 7-7 6-5
Baltimore 12-14 .462 7-6 5-8
Tampa Bay 11-14 .440 5-6 6-8
New York 9-14 .391 6-6 3-8
During the inaugural month of the 2007 baseball season, the bullpen was one of the biggest determining factors in the standings of the American League East division.
W-L ERA SV/OP IP H BB/9 K/9 HR GO/AO WHIP AVG
Boston 2-0 2.18 9/9 62.0 50 3.19 7.26 5 1.45 1.16 .216
Toronto 2-5 3.49 7/12 69.2 58 4.00 7.62 5 1.08 1.28 .224
Baltimore 5-3 3.81 7/10 89.2 76 4.22 8.33 6 1.11 1.32 .227
Tampa Bay 4-6 5.99 9/13 70.2 81 4.08 6.75 10 1.06 1.60 .288
New York 5-6 3.99 1/8 97.0 73 5.29 5.85 8 0.78 1.34 .207
A quick glance at the numbers shows that the Rays' pen was far more brutal than the Yankees' collection of lovable louts. However, New York was notably ineffective in save opportunities. The bullpen pitched a lot of innings, showing the starting rotation must also share blame in the Bronx swoon.
Interestingly, the Yankees' pen had the lowest hits per inning of the five clubs. However, they walked more than five batters per nine innings and did not strike out many batters. Scott Proctor, Mike Myers and Luis Vizcaino all had more walks than strikeouts in April. Only Brian Bruney had a respectable K/BB ratio out of the bullpen at 2.00.
W-L ERA SV/OP IP H BB/9 K/9 GO/AO WHIP
BOS Jon Papelbon 0-0 0.00 8/8 9.1 2 4.82 14.46 0.86 0.75
TO B.J. Ryan 0-2 12.46 3/5 4.1 7 8.31 6.23 0.25 2.54
BAL Chris Ray 2-2 5.11 7/9 12.1 8 1.46 10.22 0.35 0.81
TB Al Reyes 0-0 1.50 9/9 12.0 4 2.25 12.00 0.46 0.58
NYY Mariano Rivera 1-2 10.57 1/3 7.2 11 3.52 9.39 0.75 1.83
Both Jonathan Papelbon and Al Reyes were brilliant in the month of April. Interestingly enough both pitchers are returning from injury-marred 2006 seasons.
Reyes, at the age of 36, is returning from Tommy John surgery and had a career total of five saves coming into the season. He was perfect in save opportunities in April. He was recognized by Major League Baseball for his great month when he finished third in the Pitcher of the Month voting behind Toronto's Roy Halladay and Boston's Josh Beckett.
Second-year closer Papelbon wasn't even supposed to be in the bullpen after the Red Sox decided last season that pitching in the bullpen was too hard on his shoulder. A quick turn around this spring, in part due to the lack of a suitable replacement, and Boston is dominating the American League East through 24 games. But will Papelbon hold up?
Second-year Blue Jay B.J. Ryan's numbers look pretty bad but he is out for about six weeks with a bum elbow (strained ligament) that had been bothering him since spring training.
Chris Ray of Baltimore is looking to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump that has left more than one former rookie closer in its wake. He has actually done better than his numbers suggest as all seven of his runs allowed came in two games over the span of 1.1 innings.
Rivera started off the year OK and allowed only one hit and no runs through his first four appearances on the season. However, in his appearance on April 14 against Oakland, he allowed no runs but threw only nine of his 17 pitches for strikes which is very un-Rivera-like. His struggles continued to worsen the next day and he allowed multiple runs in three of his last five April appearances.
Year of the Shortstop?
Last Thursday David Pinto posted a note on his Baseball Musings site about the quality of offensive output coming from shortstops in the National League East. He concluded the post with this question referring to Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez:
So is this the Nomar/Jeter/A-Rod trio of this generation?
They may be, but the truth is that the extraordinary production from shortstops extends well beyond the National League East in 2007. Thanks to the getting-ridiculously-more-awesome-by-the-day Baseball Reference and its fantastic new Play Index tool (subscribe if you have not yet), I was able to put into historical context just how fantastic this year's crop of shortstops have been.
Thanks to the Play Index, I was able to look back over time at those seasons that stood out in terms of quality shortstop offensive play. I looked for seasons in which multiple shortstops posted an OPS+ of 120 or better. For historical analyses of this sort, OPS+ does the trick because it adjusts for both ballpark and competitive environment. I chose "120" because it seems like a nice, round number and 20% above league average for a shortstop is one heck of a good season.
A shortstop with at least 502 plate appearences has posted an OPS+ of 120 or better only 147 times since 1901. There have only been six seasons in which four shortstops posted an OPS+ of 120 or better, and only one of those came before 1998. Never have five shortstops accomplished the feat.
Robin Yount 151
Cal Ripken 144
Alan Trammell 138
Dickie Thon 126
Nomar Garciaparra 142
Alex Rodriguez 135
Barry Larkin 134
Derek Jeter 126
Alex Rodriguez 152
Nomar Garciaparra 132
Miguel Tejada 122
Jose Hernandez 121
Alex Rodriguez 148
Edgar Renteria 131
Derek Jeter 127
Nomar Garciaparra 121
Jhonny Peralta 139
Michael Young 133
Miguel Tejada 133
Derek Jeter 121
Derek Jeter 138
Carlos Guillen 137
Miguel Tejada 126
Bill Hall 126
So there you have it, every season in which four shortstops have notched an OPS+ of 120 or better in the history of baseball. But given expansion, are these even the most impressive seasons for shortstops? In 1983, there were 26 available Major League starting shortsop jobs and from 1998 on, there were 30. How about in the pre-expansion years? Were there ever three shortstops in a 16-team league that pulled it off, because that would be a greater percentage than four out of 26 or 30?
The answer is yes. Buoyed by some of the greatest shortstops in the game's history, there are three distinct eras where we see three shortstops getting to 120 or better on multiple occasions. We will group them into the Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughn and Lou Boudreau eras while also showing the two outlier seasons in which it took place.
The Wagner Era
1901: 3 (Bobby Wallace- 136, George Davis- 130, Kid Elberfield- 124)
1903: 3 (Wagner- 161, Freddy Parent- 124, Elberfield- 121)
1906: 3 (Wagner- 168, Terry Turner- 123, George Davis- 120)
Note: Wagner played a lot of outfield and third base in 1901 but did manage a 160 OPS+. From 1899 to 1912, 134 was Wagner's lowest OPS+ season.
The Vaughn Era
1933: 3 (Arky Vaughn- 146, Joe Cronin- 124, Luke Appling- 121)
1940: 3 (Vaughn- 134, Cronin- 123, Appling- 123)
Note: Save 1939 when Vaughn put up a 119 OPS+, Vaughn bested the 130 mark in each year from 1933 to 1940.
The Boudreau Era
1943: 3 (Vern Stephens- 142, Appling- 142, Lou Boudreau- 133)
1947: 3 (Boudreau- 128, Appling- 125, Pee Wee Reese- 120)
1949: 3 (Stephens- 138, Eddie Joost- 137, Appling- 124)
Note: In fairness to Luke Appling, the eras are broken out as they are as much because they fit neatly with respect to chronology as they are because of the respective greatness of Wagner, Vaughn and Boudreau. As you can see, Appling's career spanned both Vaughn's and Boudreau's, he was a consistently excellent performer and a most deserving Hall of Famer.
1956: 3 (Ernie Banks- 137, Gil McDougald- 127, Harvey Kuenn- 126)
1964 (20 teams): 3 (Jim Fregosi- 141, Denis Menke- 136, Eddie Bressoud- 125)
Lest you start to believe that 120 OPS+ seasons are run of the mill for shortstops, consider that from 1970 to 1981, there were three total years in which shortstops reached that mark. And all of this brings us to 2007. I am mindful of all of the necessary caveats. We're barely a month in and I am just about positive that the OPS+ leaderboard for shortstops will look a lot different at the end of the season than it does now. Still, we may be in for a season of historic shortstop productivity in 2007. Check out your current list of shortstops with an OPS+ of 120 or better:
Jose Reyes 169
Hanley Ramirez 165
Jimmy Rollins 157
J.J. Hardy 143
Edgar Renteria 142
Derek Jeter 140
Carlos Guillen 138
Jhonny Peralta 138
Miguel Tejada 133
Alex Gonzalez 127
Now, Alex Gonzalez will not end the year on this list, and it is likely that a few others drop out as well but it looks to me like we may be in for something special in 2007.
Athletes are bigger, stonger and faster than they have ever been. Seven footers can make three point shots and take defenders off the dribble in basketball and 275-pound linebackers can move laterally quickly enough to flag down even the speediest running backs. So why shouldn't a shortstop be able to hit in this day and age?
Cal Ripken was the first of the bigger-stronger-faster types and when Nomar, A-Rod and Jeter emerged more or less simultaneously, it was believed that the revolution was upon us. Maybe it was, but it is being taken to a whole new level in 2007.
Was the 1990s Home Run Production Out of Line?
In the last five years, baseball fans have read and heard a lot of commentary from politicians and the media about what a travesty the home run totals have been since the mid-1990s. The average fan, having heard this mantra so much, has come to believe it is true. But is it?
In order to examine this question, we need a way to compare eras. Raw counting totals will not suffice. The method employed here is a "home run production rate." It is calculated not by dividing homers by at bats, similar to batting average, but by calculating how many circuit drives were hit per 500 plate appearances. The 500 plate appearance standard was chosen because the official minimum performance standard for individual batting championships as listed in rule 10.22(a) [in the 2007 edition of the rules] is 3.1 plate appearances times the number of games scheduled for each team. Thus, in the 162-game schedule, 502 plate appearances is the minimum, but that was rounded here to 500 for simplicity. The home run production rate will generate numbers that can be compared to other numbers that have some context for the reader, such as a 30-homer season by a batter.
Figure 1 shows a graph of the home run production rate for all major league players each year since 1919. One can easily see a gradual increase from 1919 to the present. The numbers in the charts do not represent the total homers hit in the major leagues for any one season but rather the home run production rate (homers per 500 plate appearances).
Figure 1 - Home Run Production Rate (1919-2006)
The fact that the home run production rate in the major leagues has increased steadily from 1919 to the present should not come as a surprise to many people. Many factors have affected the production rate, including rules changes, equipment changes and even some events outside of baseball. For a complete discussion of Figure 1, please read Home Run: The Definitive History of Baseball's Ultimate Weapon, from which the figure is taken.
Figure 2 adds a trend line to Figure 1 and this trend line shows the steady increase in home run production from 1919 through 2006. The movement of the rate line around the trend line documents the pendulum effect of the production through the years. The home run rate topped 10 for the first time in 1950 when it reached 10.7 homers per 500 plate appearances. It dipped below 10 in the next two seasons, but from 1953 through 1966 the production rate was above 10 each season. This time period is the bubble above the trend line about half way through the chart from left to right.
Figure 2 - Home Run Production Rate with Trend Line (1919-2006)
In 1994, the production rate reached 13.8 homers per 500 plate appearances, only the second time in history that the rate climbed above 13.0. From 1994 through the present, the production rate has been above the trend line with the exception of 2005. The highest point in the chart is 2000 when the production rate reached 15.0. However, it is evident from looking at Figure 2 that the period from 1950 through 1966 is further above the trend than is the period starting in 1994. Both periods follow time frames when the home run production rate was well below the trend line, further accentuating the explosion of homers in the following era.
As a side note about the last 13 years, Figure 3 shows the home run production rate from 1994 through 2006. The rate has held fairly steady through the period and, contrary to pronouncements by the commissioner, the production rate has not dropped in the years since Major League Baseball instituted its drug testing policy. This is clearly shown by Figure 3 as the rate has held steady since 2001, slowly undulating around the 14.0 per 500 plate appearance line.
Figure 3 - Home Run Production Rate (1994-2006)
Another series of negative comments made in the last few years concerns the number of players joining the 500 Home Run Club. From August 5, 1999 through June 20, 2004, five players joined the club: Mark McGwire (1999), Barry Bonds (2001), Sammy Sosa (2003), Rafael Palmeiro (2003) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (2004). That is five sluggers in about five years. Let's compare the period from September 13, 1965 through September 13, 1971. In those six years, seven players joined the 500 Home Run Club: Willie Mays (1965), Mickey Mantle (1967), Eddie Mathews (1967), Hank Aaron (1968), Ernie Banks (1970), Harmon Killebrew (1971) and Frank Robinson (1971). Thus, more players (seven) joined the club in six years during the late 1960s than the five who joined in the first part of the 21st century. These 12 sluggers are the players primarily responsible for the surge in the home run rate in the 1950s and the 1990s. Four hitters are poised to join the club in 2007: Frank Thomas, Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez.
It is clear that the production rate of the late 1990s is closer to the trend line than was the rate during the 1950s. Perhaps the emotional statements at the beginning of the twenty-first century are overblown and misleading, since they are not based on factual evidence but rather on conjecture, and are more inflammatory than informative.
SABR member David Vincent, the "Sultan of Swat Stats," is the recognized authority on the history of the home run. He is the author of Home Run: The Definitive History of Baseball's Ultimate Weapon, published by Potomac Books, Inc.
April's Powerhouse Teams
The month of April has come to a close and there are a number of minor league clubs that are absolutely dominating their leagues. The New York Yankees' Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder, had the best record in minor league baseball in April at 17-2. The Thunder club was not alone in its dominance and was joined by the Triple-A Richmond Braves (15-5) and the Augusta Greenjackets (20-4) as the top teams at each level.
Richmond Braves, Atlanta Braves
Record | Win% |At Home |On Road | Streak
15-5 | .750 | 6-2 | 9-3 | W5
As a team, the Richmond Braves are hitting OK in the International League. They are third in the league in average, on-base percentage and slugging, as well as fifth in runs scored and 10th in hits. It is the pitching, though, that has the team at the top of the league. Overall the team is first in ERA and allowed only nine homers during the month of April.
AVG OBA SLG HR SB
IF Yunel Escobar .313 .341 .410 1 4
OF Gregor Blanco .338 .427 .415 1 3
ERA IP H BB-K
RHP Anthony Lerew 1.82 19.2 18 8-10
Cuban Yunel Escobar is a solid player but many are projecting him as a future utility player. He lacks power and has limited speed. His range is average at shortstop and second base is probably his best position.
After stalling briefly in 2004 and 2005 Gregor Blanco is beginning to reward the Braves for their patience. He possesses little, if any, power but Blanco has plus speed and walked 95 times last season while playing at both Double-A and Triple-A. He does, however, strikeout too much for a lead-off hitter. Defensively, he has solid range and an average arm.
Anthony Lerew has survived two luke warm cups of coffee with the Braves during the past two seasons. He currently has an ERA below 2.00 in four starts for Richmond. He will likely top out as a third or fourth starter or as a set-up man at the major league level. He has an 89-94 mph fastball but his slider and change-up were very inconsistent in 2006.
AVG OBA SLG HR SB
IF Willie Harris .362 .457 .603 1 7
OF Bill McCarthy .304 .391 .518 2 1
ERA IP H BB-K
RHP Manny Acosta 0.66 13.2 9 6-17
RHP Trey Hodges 1.17 15.1 10 10-10
Manny Acosta is in his 10th pro season and was unable to get out of A-Ball after six seasons in the Yankee's system. He has shown promise but his control is below average. Trey Hodges continues to struggle with his control, which is something that has plagued him throughout his career. Regardless, he has found success in the Pacific Coast League with his original club after spending some time with Minnesota's Triple-A club and in Japan. Willie Harris is a former major league utility player with Boston, Baltimore and Chicago (AL) who adds some veteran stability to the Richmond club. He was just called up to Atlanta on Sunday. Bill McCarthy can hit but is a 'tweener' as he lacks the range for center field and the power for left or right.
Trenton Thunder, New York Yankees
17-2 | .895 | 11-2 | 6-0 | W9
Hitting-wise the Thunder are average. They are sixth overall in the Eastern League in average, runs, hits and slugging percentage. They are second in walks and stolen bases. The pitching has been outstanding and leads the league with an overall ERA of 1.85. The pitchers are also first in fewest homers allowed (only three!) and in strikeouts. Trenton's pitching staff has allowed the fewest number of walks in the league with 45.
AVG OBA SLG HR SB
OF Brett Gardner .228 .322 .367 0 9
ERA IP H BB-K
RHP Kevin Whelan 2.53 10.2 9 6-13
RHP Jeff Marquez 1.24 29.0 24 5-22
Brett Gardner probably won't play everyday for a perennial playoff contender but he could be a solid fourth outfielder. He needs to stay healthy as he has never played more than 73 games in any one season. Gardner has no power but his speed rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
Kevin Whelan was obtained by the Yankees in the Gary Sheffield trade with Detroit. Whelan was originally a catcher in college before his strong arm prompted a move to the bullpen. He has everything needed to be a successful set-up man for a top tiered club.
Jeff Marquez can touch the mid-90s but works more comfortably with a low 90s fastball that has a lot of sink to it. The 2004 supplemental first round draft pick lacks solid secondary pitches, which could relegate him to the bullpen if they do not improve.
AVG OBA SLG HR SB
2B Gabe Lopez .400 .479 .575 1 0
OF Matt Carson .319 .356 .507 3 2
ERA IP H BB-K
RHP Edwar Ramirez 0.84 10.2 3 6-18
RHP Brett Smith 1.56 17.1 9 8-20
Gabe Lopez is a scrappy second baseman who works hard to get on base by any means necessary and has spent parts of three seasons in Trenton. Matt Carson was drafted in the fifth round in 2002 and has spent the last few seasons bouncing between A-Ball and Double-A due to a lack of consistency. Edwar Ramirez has been dominate in both 2006 and 2007 after struggling in the Angels' system early in his career. Brett Smith has had difficulties missing bats since being drafted in the second round out of college in 2004.
Augusta GreenJackets, San Francisco Giants
20-4 | .833 | 14-2 | 6-2 | W2
The GreenJackets club is looking anything but green with its start to the season. Offensively the club is third in average, runs and walks. It is first overall in stolen bases with 56 and has struck out the fewest number of times of any team in the South Atlantic League. The pitching has been dominant with a 1.73 ERA. The staff has allowed the fewest number of hits, homers (three) and walks.
AVG OBA SLG HR SB
2B Marcus Sanders .294 .478 .412 0 7
OF Mike McBryde .280 .314 .366 0 6
ERA IP H BB-K
LHP Clayton Tanner 1.35 20.0 17 6-14
Marcus Sanders was signed as a draft-and-follow after a solid junior college season in 2004. He struggled last season in High A-Ball in 2006 before moving back down to Augusta this season. A college shoulder injury has limited him both defensively and offensively. Sanders has plus speed and is an extreme ground ball batter, which allows him to beat out infield hits.
Like a lot of the Giants' minor league hitters, Mike McBryde does not possess a lot of power. However, he could be the fastest player in the system. He was a two-way player in college and could still improve significantly as a hitter now that he is concentrating on one role.
Clayton Tanner is a young lefty that was drafted out of high school by the Giants in the third round in 2006. He started out his career in the bullpen but jumped into the rotation for a couple of starts in 2007. Tanner can touch 91 mph with his fastball and also possesses a curve, slider and developing change. His slider is his best pitch.
AVG OBA SLG HR SB
OF Tyler Graham .311 .382 .361 0 12
SS Brian Bocock .313 .380 .385 0 19
ERA IP H BB-K
RHP Adam Cowart 0.60 30.0 22 2-18
LHP Benjamin Snyder 0.39 23.0 15 5-30
The Giants have a number of players drafted out of college playing on the Augusta team. Tyler Graham has little or no power and has struggled to get on base enough to utilize his speed. He was a 19th round pick out of Oregon State University in 2006. Shortstop Brian Bocock was drafted in the ninth round in 2006 out of Stetson University. Adam Cowart, who was the pitcher of the year in the Northwest League in 2006 after being drafted in the 35th round, is the perfect example of a player who is obviously too good for the league he's playing in. That said, Cowart has a fairly low ceiling as a right-handed sidearmer who possesses an 81-86 mph sinker, as well as a slider and change-up. Benjamin Snyder was drafted in the fourth round last season out of Ball State as a sophomore and is the brother of Cleveland Indians' prospect Brad Snyder. A lefty, Snyder has solid command of his fastball, slider, curve and change.
Not surprisingly the name of the game in April was pitching. It will be interesting to see how things change as the weather warms up along with the sluggers. Promotions could also begin to have an affect on teams' results as top performers begin to be rewarded towards the end of May.
Kyle Russell: College Baseball's Top Home Run Hitter
After setting the Cape Cod League record for the most strikeouts by a batter last summer with 64 in 126 at-bats, University of Texas outfielder Kyle Russell is leading the country in home runs and has become one of the favorites to capture Player of the Year honors.
Russell broke the single-season school record earlier this month when he went yard for the 21st time (video). He has slugged three more since then and now has 24 HR with seven regular season games, the Big 12 Tournament, and the NCAA playoffs still to play.
A 2005 graduate of Tomball High School (TX), Russell is part of a sophomore class at Texas (37-12 overall, 17-4 in the Big 12 Conference) that includes left fielder Jordan Danks (the brother of Chicago White Sox lefthander John), catcher Preston Clark, and third baseman Bradley Suttle. Russell, who will turn 21 on June 27, and Suttle are both eligible to be selected in the amateur draft in June. [Correction: Clark is also eligible for this year's draft.]
Ranked as the 19th best college prospect by Baseball America (premium content), Russell is currently projected to go in the supplemental round (#31-64). ESPN's Keith Law lists him 45th overall (Insider subscription).
I watched Russell play three games in early February when Texas visited Long Beach State. The Dirtbags took two out of three in a series in which each contest was decided by one run. Russell, who batted seventh every game, went 5-for-10 with two homers, four walks, and one strikeout while scoring and knocking in four runs.
Sitting next to me, my brother Tom said Russell's body type reminded him of Von Hayes. Sure enough, Russell and Hayes are both 6-5, 185-pound left-handed-hitting outfielders. The latter was a multi-talented player who enjoyed a 12-year career (1981-1992) in the big leagues. Hayes was a faster runner but didn't possess quite as much power. I timed Kyle from home to first in 4.30 on a groundout to third when he let up ever so slightly on his last step or two. He is no better than a 4.20-4.25 to first, which would grade as a major league average 50 for a LHB on the 20-80 scouting scale.
The fact that Russell plays right and the athletic Danks left tells you something about the former's defense. Kyle looked comfortable in right field and exhibited a strong and accurate left arm on a throw to third base after running to his right to track down a ball in the gap. I believe his glove and arm are good enough to handle RF in the majors.
Russell cranked two home runs in the opening game of the series. The first was a towering drive over the 400 sign in straightaway center. The second was an opposite-field shot that cleared the wall 387 feet away from home plate. Jacking balls out of Blair Field is far from a common occurrence. Right field points in the direction of the ocean and any breeze adds to the difficulty of launching long drives out of the park.
I didn't see Russell turn on any pitches that weekend, but his home runs have actually been evenly distributed to all fields this year. He has what scouts would call "pole-to-pole" power. According to play-by-play data attached to each box score, Russell's four baggers have been clubbed as follows:
LFL LF LCF CF RCF RF RFL
2 3 4 4 4 4 3
In an email interview, I asked Russell if there was a reason why he has hit so many home runs to center and left fields. "I learned at a young age to hit a ball on the outside part of the plate to left-center field and to right field when it's on the inner half of the plate."
Russell's first college home run, in fact, was hit to left field. In just his second at-bat as a Longhorn, he slugged a pinch-hit, two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to give Texas a 5-4 victory over Rice at the Houston College Classic.
Last year, Russell hit nine of his 10 HR in the team's first 40 games. A late-season slump didn't keep him from being named as a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball (first team) and Baseball America (second team). However, his cold streak followed him to the Cape when he endured more adversity than ever, hitting just .206 and whiffing in more than 50% of his at-bats for the Cotuit Kettleers.
Nonetheless, Russell views the Cape as a valuable experience. "The Cape Cod was a great league for me to mature not only as a baseball player who had a tough time, but to mature as a person as well."
To Russell's credit, he has bounced back from a dreadful summer and now leads the nation in HR, SLG, and TB, while ranking third in RBI and fifth in OPS.
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB HP SO GDP SB CS AVG OBP SLG
2007 So. 47 173 54 63 10 4 24 63 32 5 52 0 8 3 .364 .465 .884
2006 Fr. 55 163 35 45 8 3 10 42 17 8 55 0 8 2 .276 .365 .546
Russell is 46-for-115 (.400) with 19 HR vs. RHP and 17-for-58 (.293) with 5 HR vs. LHP. He has slugged 11 homers in 25 games at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, 3 HR in 8 games at The Dell Diamond, and 10 HR in 16 road games. Kyle is one of only 32 players since 1975 to hit a home run over the 20-foot wall in center field at Disch-Falk Field.
Taking a page from Bryan Smith, I checked Russell's logs on Friday nights against what normally constitutes the opposition's #1 starting pitcher. Kyle is 18-for-47 on Fridays, including 13-for-32 with 7 HR, 3 BB, 2 HBP, and 11 SO vs. the starter. He has faced pre-season All-Americans Chris Ashman of Oral Roberts (0-0 w/ BB and HBP) and Tony Watson of Nebraska (0-4 w/ 2 SO), plus sophomore sensation Brian Matusz of University of San Diego (0-2 w/ HBP and SO), and Cape Cod stars Nolan Gallagher of Stanford (2-3 w/ 2 HR and SO) and Vance Worley of Long Beach State (2-3 w/ HR and SO).
Russell considers Watson to be the toughest pitcher he has faced this year. "He didn't overpower you with his velocity, but he was so effective with hitting his spots with three great pitches: fastball, slider, and changeup."
On the heels of last Tuesday's game in which he hit for the cycle against UT Pan American, Russell went 1-for-10 over the past weekend against Oklahoma State while striking out seven times. How Kyle finishes the season may well determine where he is drafted and how big of a signing bonus he is offered.
At the plate, Russell holds his hands high with a slightly open stance and medium flex at the knees. A big league talent evaluator who sat directly in front of me during one of the games vs. Long Beach State likes Russell but believes "his bat drags a bit," a polite way of saying that he has an "aluminum bat swing."
Make no mistake about it, Russell has a powerful stroke, but his swing is not without its holes. Kyle's high strikeout rate and poor showing in the Cape Cod League last summer make one wonder how he will perform with a wood rather than aluminum bat once he turns pro. When asked, Russell told me, "I have confidence in myself to know that I can hit with a wooden bat and that is all I need."
I liked Russell when I saw him play but am of the opinion that he would be somewhat of a gamble in the first round although I am sure there is an organization out there that will draft him no later than the sandwich round because of his power and upside [editor's note: wording revised]. His tall, lanky frame could easily support another 20 pounds of muscle, adding to his longer-term potential.
Russell's stock could soar if he went back to the Cape this summer and proved to the skeptics that he can indeed hit with a wood bat. Then again, he could go there and flop. It's a difficult decision for someone who hasn't even turned 21 yet.
Which direction is Russell leaning? "I'm not really focused on the draft right now. All I want to do is get through my finals and try to make it back to Omaha." Fair enough.
Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Baseball.