The Astros and Cubs are the new cool kids, but how did they get there?

Rise of the Underdogs!
by Jim Silva

    The 2016 hot stove league had a couple darlings, including the Cubs in the National League and the Astros in the American League. Many baseball professionals picked the two teams to face off in the World Series. Both teams are viewed as young and exciting, but only one of them has any realistic chance left of still having games to play as pumpkins are being carved as the Astros fell short of the wild card. The Chicago Cubs have captured the hearts of America, or at least the hearts of anyone who ever lived in Chicago plus a bunch of bandwagoners, while the Astros have been a disappointment for most. Why did two of the most exciting teams at the start of the season end up in such different places as 2016 winds down?
Let’s start with some franchise history, shall we, since it’s important to know where you’ve been to know how you got to where you are now? As the country celebrated its centennial, the National League version of the Chicago Cubs named the Chicago White Stockings were born. The proto-Cubs started play in the National Association starting in 1870, but became a charter member of the National League in 1876. The team, led by Ross Barnes, their slugging 2nd baseman, Al Spalding, essentially their pitching staff, and Cap Anson, their 3rd baseman, won the very first National League Pennant with a mix of good pitching and great hitting.
    In 1890, with a name change to the Chicago Colts, the National League team, playing in West Side Park, was led by Cap Anson still, but a different pitcher – Bill Hutchinson. The Colts would never finish higher than second, and by 1898 had changed their name to the Orphans. The first Orphans team featured league-leading pitching headed by Clark Griffith and his over 300 innings of 1.88 ERA work, which also led the league. Griffith, who would later own the Washington Senators, stayed with the National League club for two more seasons.
    Finally, in 1903, the team became the Cubs. Playing in West Side Park until 1916 when they were purchased by Charlie Weeghman who moved them into Weeghman Park (later purchased by William Wrigley), the Cubs took only three more seasons to make it to the third World Series ever, where they would fall to their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, in six games despite winning 23 more games than the Sox in the regular season. The Tinker to Evers to Chance Cubs would make it back to the World Series each of the next two seasons beating Ty Cobb and the Tigers both times. From 1906 through 1910, the Cubs won an average of 106 games a season, won the National League pennant 4 times, and won the World Series twice (they lost to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1910). 1910 was the last time player-manager Frank Chance would lead the Cubs to the World Series and it wasn’t until 1918 that the Cubs would win another pennant. Led by pitcher Hippo Vaughn, the 1918 Cubs fell to the Red Sox in six games, with Babe Ruth winning two of the four games for Boston as their starting pitcher.
    From 1919 through 1927 (when Cubs Park was renovated and renamed Wrigley Field), the Cubs couldn’t muster even a second place finish in the National League. But in 1928, led by “Rajah” – Rogers Hornsby – the Cubs rode their league-leading offense and excellent pitching staff to another pennant. Once again, the Cubs lost the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics, this time in five games, to an A’s team packed with future Hall of Famers. 1932 came as did another World Series loss – to the Yankees this time – in a sweep. In 1935 it was the Tigers again – this time led by Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Schoolboy Rowe. The Tigers took down the Cubs, in spite of Chicago’s deep starting rotation and potent offense, in six games. The Cubs made it back to the Series, hoisting another NL pennant in 1938. Unfortunately, they once again faced a Yankees juggernaut led by DiMaggio and a cast of Hall of Famers. The Yankees outscored the Cubs 22 to 9 while sweeping them again.
    The next time the Cubs won the National League Pennant would be the last time – 1945 – with a starting rotation made up of five pitchers who won at least 11 games and a pitching staff that led the league in ERA at 2.98.  Their offense was tough too, leading the league in batting average and on-base percentage. In the Series, the Cubs leaned heavily on pitcher Hank Borowy who took the decision in 4 of the 7 games. Borowy, who was a mid-season purchase from the Yankees, was outstanding in the regular season and pitched reasonably well in the Series too, faced three batters to start game seven, but failed to record an out and was lifted. “Prince” Hal Newhouser, Detroit’s future Hall of Fame starter, got the win in a rout ending the Cubs season with a loss in the World Series for the seventh time in their last seven World Series appearances. In four of those seven World Series matches, the Cubs had won more regular season games than their opponents. The Cubs have the longest streak of World Series losses uninterrupted by a victory as well as the longest streak of seasons without a World Series win – that one stands at 108 years and counting. They haven’t even sniffed the World Series since that loss in 1945.
    In the off-season prior to the 2012 season, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be the President of the team, and Jed Hoyer to be the general manager. During the Epstein-Hoyer years the Cubs have won more games each season after their initial 101 loss season in 2012, winning five more game in 2013, then seven more games in 2014. They won 24 more games in 2015 (capturing the second wild card spot, pushing past the Pirates in the play-in game, then getting swept by the Mets in the NLDS), and six more games in 2016 for a total of 103 wins – the most in the majors. That is quite a climb from dead last five straight seasons to the best record in baseball and World Series favorites. Their excellent farm system and deep pockets have proven a deadly formula for climbing back from the dead that wouldn’t have happened without the talent of Epstein and Hoyer. Now the Cubs are about to face the winner of the Dodgers-Nats series for the right to play in the World Series. Is it next year yet?
    Houston came to life in 1962 as the expansion Houston Colt 45’s, the same year as the New York Mets. The two teams participated in an expansion draft to populate their major league rosters. The expansion draft was clearly designed to strip money from the new owners and place it in the pockets of the established owners, as the existing major league teams received hefty prices for each player taken. After taking two players from a team at $75,000 a piece, the Mets and Astros would take one more player at $50,000 and then that team who had lost three players to the Mets or Astros would have to make two more “premium” players available at $125,000 each. Just for comparison Willie Mays, who was 31 and a well-established star, was paid $75,000 in 1962. Mickey Mantle, who won his third MVP in 1962, made $90,000. As none of the players made available in any part of the draft were anywhere near the caliber of Mays or Mantle, the fees paid to acquire players were exorbitant to say the least. The fees went to the existing owners of course.
    To rub dirt in the expansion teams’ wounds, since the draft happened right after the World Series, existing teams hadn’t yet culled players they would have taken off the 40 man roster anyway, or promoted players from the minors who they wanted to protect. It made for a very weak, overpriced pool, and it meant that the Astros and Mets were horrible right from the start. They weren’t able to take any top prospects unlike the American League expansions teams had done a year before. The Astros did a remarkable job not finishing last in the National League in their first season. They still managed to lose 96 games besting the Cubs and the horrific Mets who lost 120 games. One of the reasons they did as well as they did was luck. Yes, I know it sounds odd to say that the Astros got lucky when they lost 96 games, but when you consider the field from which they had to pick their beginning roster, it’s amazing that they ended up with seven players who were able to post more than 2.0 WAR in 1962, but they did.
    Turk Farrell posted far and away his best season in 1962 accumulating 7.0 WAR. He had earned no higher than 3.0 WAR in any previous season and would never put together a season after that worth more than 3.8 WAR so the Astros clearly caught lightning in a bottle with Farrell. The man who was second on the team in WAR, Don McMahon, was purchased early in the season so he doesn’t really count if you are only looking at expansion picks, but McMahon also put up the most WAR of his career for Houston earning 3.8 WAR out of the pen. McMahon had a long career almost exclusively as a reliever but never put up a year like 1962 before or after. Pitcher Bob Bruce put up his first WAR above 1.0 with a 2.1 WAR in 27 starts and five relief appearances. Bruce would go on to put up even better seasons, but 1962 was definitely a breakthrough for the then 29 year old hurler. Right fielder Roman Mejias in his age 31 season cobbled together his first and only WAR above 0.7. With a WAR of 2.5 mostly based on a good offensive year, Mejias clearly exceeded expectations. The Astros wisely flipped him after the season for All Star shortstop Pete Runnels who unwisely stopped playing well and was done for good after two seasons in Houston. Still, the Astros knew they had gotten lucky and cashed in their chips. Jim Umbricht was 31 when the Astros acquired him and had never posted a positive WAR in the majors to that point. Houston got his best two seasons from a WAR standpoint as he posted 2.4 WAR in 1962 and then 2.0 WAR in 1963 but died – yes died – before the 1964 season, succumbing to cancer. Umbricht was primarily a reliever with good control, who would likely have become a mainstay in the pen had things broken differently for him. 1962 was not Ken Johnson’s best year, but it was his first season with a WAR over 1.5 as he put up 2.6 WAR as a 29 year old starting pitcher. His next season with Houston was the best of his career as he posted 4.1 WAR. Johnson pitched until he was 37 and accumulated over 20 WAR for his career, but he was done as a rotation stalwart at 35. Bob Aspromonte was the 7th man on the Astros to put up more than 2.0 WAR in 1962 (he managed 2.1 WAR) – his first positive WAR season of his career. It was the second best season of his career from a WAR standpoint. Aspromonte was a starter for Houston for seven seasons before heading to the Braves.
    That’s either good scouting or excellent luck when you pick that many guys off the scrap heap and turn them into something better than a replacement level guy you would find in triple-A, so the Astros really should have been much worse than they were. They wouldn’t make the playoffs until 1980, their 19th season, and they wouldn’t get to the World Series until 2005 where they lost to the White Sox. To date that is the Astros only trip to the Series. They are most definitely moving in the right direction having won 86 and 84 games in the last two seasons. The average age of their hitters is 26.6 years old (that should go up next year), and while their pitchers averaged 28.9 years old this past season, they are likely to get younger on the mound as they sift through the wreckage of their rotation and incorporate their young guns charging from the minors.
    How did the Astros reach these new heights? Part of the formula involved tanking it for several seasons. Obviously, when you move up in the draft you still have to pick well and trade well to make the better picks pay off, and the Astros have mostly done that. Starting with the 2010 season (and you could argue for even earlier) the Astros scrapped their roster and chose not to compete in order to rebuild their roster through the draft. The ‘Stros had the very first pick in the draft for three straight seasons (2012 through 2014) and used those picks to nab Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Brady Aiken. They “earned” those picks by losing 106, 107, and 111 games from 2011 through 2013. But it isn’t just those first rounders who have turned the team around. Their current roster is sprinkled with draft picks from those lean years – Carlos Correa and fellow first rounder George Springer topping the list – as well as players who were acquired via trades (like Evan Gattis) using some of their draft hauls. Now the Astros have a core that they can ride for quite a while – remember the position players’ average age of 26.6 mentioned above – and a middle of the pack farm system that would rank higher if they hadn’t just graduated several players to the big club.
    So is tanking the way to play it when it is clear that you don’t have enough horses to compete for the next season or two? Should everyone try to compete every year? I guess that question is up to the fans who buy tickets and merchandise, and the commissioner/owners to answer since it seems to be de rigeur in MLB and the NBA these days. It has worked for the Cubs and the Astros as both teams are poised to compete every year for the next few seasons at least. It is certainly painful for the casual fans to watch their team lose 100 games a year, and it could certainly be addressed by MLB if they wanted to make it harder to tank in the future. Perhaps they should look at fantasy baseball to find measures taken to prevent tanking in the future, but that assumes that baseball thinks tanking is a bad thing. In the meantime it is a great time to be an Astros fan and the best time in the last century to be a Cubs fan, so enjoy the ride!

If the Padres did as well with the rest of their team as they have historically done with their pen…

One Trick Pony
by Hugh Rothman
The San Diego Padres have not done many things very well over the years, which is one reason why they have a grand total of zero championships. They don’t have a long history of great starting pitchers, like the Dodgers, or historic outfielders, like the Yankees. They don’t even have a legacy of futility, like the Chicago Cubs. Instead, the Padres have been generally just plain bad, but not historically bad. They’ve just been bad and forgettable.
However, there is one particular aspect of the game that the Padres have been surprisingly adept at throughout their history: The bullpen. In their history, The Padres have had two players who fully represented the Padres during their careers and either are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, or will be shortly. One of those players of course is Tony Gwynn; he is the greatest Padre player ever and second place isn’t close. The other player was one of the greatest closers of all time: Trevor Hoffman.
Hoffman accumulated over 600 saves, most of them for the Padres and only one other reliever has more saves than him (Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time). Hoffman had many fine years and was incredibly consistent but, he wasn’t the only notable reliever in the Padres history. Hall-of-Famers Rollie Fingers and Rich Gossage both were closers for the Padres at some point during their careers. Mark Davis won a Cy Young award while closing for the team in 1989. Other notable relievers include Lance McCullers, Mike Adams, Cla Meredith, Heath Bell, Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit, and Scott Linebrink, all of whom enjoyed their very best years toeing the rubber in the late innings for the Friar Faithful.
Again, the Padres have not done many things well over the years, but… historically, they have enjoyed consistent success from their bullpen. At this time, the bullpen remains the ONLY piece of the game that the team has managed to excel at. Over the last 15 years or so, much of this credit must go to their pitching coach Darren Balsley, but the Padre managers over that time, Bruce Bochy and Bud Black, may also share in the credit too. Both of those managers, with Balsley’s help, showed great acumen in developing a bullpen and retooling that bullpen year after year.
And even with new manager Andy Green, 2016 has been more of the same on this front. The year began with the venerable Fernando Rodney as their closer. Rodney, who is now 39 years old, was signed as a one year free agent stopgap and future trading piece. The previous years of 2014 and 2015 were hardly banner years for Rodney, but Balsley did his usual tinkering and voila! Rodney was a perfect 17 for 17 in save opportunities with a 0.87 WHIP (walks plus hits over innings pitched) and a ridiculously microscopic ERA of 0.31. The result was a third All-Star Team appearance for Rodney, as well as a long line of suitors for his services. The Miami Marlins were the ones who offered the most, a pretty good minor league pitcher that the Padres coveted, and poof, Rodney was gone, and so was the magic bullpen fairy dust: Rodney has a 6.30 ERA in Miami. Probably not a coincidence: The Padres are just really good at this bullpen thing!
With Rodney summarily jettisoned, the closer role fell to youngster Brandon Maurer, who had been acquired from the Seattle Mariners a year earlier. Maurer had been a starter for Seattle, with poor results mostly due to his inability to control his pitches effectively. The Padres put an end to that experiment and dispatched him to the bullpen, where he has had far greater success. This year, Maurer has looked dynamite at times, but his wobbly moments have put a crimp in his overall numbers. Currently, Maurer has a 4.50 ERA, which is subpar for a reliever, but he does have more strikeouts than innings pitched, and his WHIP is a steady 1.25. The bugaboo for Maurer has been the 7 homers he has given up. If he can get that down to a reasonable level, Maurer will add mightily to his career total of 10 saves. There is tremendous potential here, since Maurer is only 25 years old, has a 95+ mph fastball, and has good ol’ Darren Balsley to help him through any struggles. Expect Maurer to be the Padres closer for the next few years.
Unless  that closer is Ryan Buchter, of course. Huh? Who is that? Don’t worry… no one could have been expected to know who this guy was. Before 2016, Ryan Buchter’s major league career consisted of one inning pitched for the Atlanta Braves in 2014. His most notable achievement is that he could throw with his left hand. However, as of today, Buchter now has 60 innings to his credit and with 74 strikeouts, only 4 homers allowed, and a 1.03 WHIP to go along with his 3.00 ERA, Buchter is at this moment the Padres best reliever (now that Rodney has departed). Credit the Padres for spinning straw into gold with Buchter, and this guy ain’t no Rumplestiltskin (he’s 6’4’’ 250 lbs). He’s also 29 years old so credit is due to Buchter for not giving up on his dreams, and the Padres are grateful. He will be an important piece of the bullpen puzzle for several years to come.
Bullpen graybeard Kevin Quackenbush is now the senior member of the Padres relief corp (in time served with the big club). “Quack” was once considered possibly, sort of, the closer of the future for the Padres, but he never had the big time stuff needed to fill the role. Now 27 years old, Quackenbush comfortably fills a low leverage relief role. Someone has to pitch in that role and Quackenbush fits the bill (ugh, sorry). His numbers won’t move dramatically one way or the other from this point on. Expect an ERA in the high 3.00s, with too many homers allowed to ever make the team comfortable, but generally solid and unassuming stats for several more years, until he gets too expensive. At which point, the team will move on to the next Quackenbush, whoever that may be.
Yet another shrewd bullpen move made by the Padres was to acquire lefty reliever Brad Hand for pretty much nothing. Hand was, like many successful relievers, an unsuccessful starter – in Hand’s case, for the Miami Marlins. However, as a reliever, Hand has turned in a career year for the Friars. In his 74 innings for the club, Hand has 98 strikeouts, which is terrific, as is his 2.99 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. If Hand, like most of the relief corp for the team, can limit his homers allowed rate, he could go from very good to dominant in a big hurry. Hand is only 26 years old and has just as much promise as Buchter and Maurer. If the Padres decided to make Hand the closer, the team wouldn’t miss a beat.
There are other relievers toiling for this team: Carlos Villanueva for one, but the less said of him, the better. He won’t be around in 2017 to worry about anyway. Jose Dominguez is 25 years old but his stuff is not very scintillating, as shown by his pitiful strikeout rate. Perhaps the only other pitcher in the bullpen worth mentioning is star-crossed Brandon Morrow, whose nickname could simply be “ouch”. Tiffany lamps have more durability than Morrow as a starter. The Padres finally (and wisely) decided to convert Morrow to a reliever, which should help him with his durability issues. If Morrow can hold up, he could become a dynamite reliever. His stuff is off-the-charts dominating. He’s always been a really good pitcher, when he can pitch, which hasn’t been very often. Sticking him in the pen might be the best way for a team to get value from this guy, and as long as you don’t put any undue stress on his arm, or any part of his body, or breathe on him too heavily, Morrow could really deliver. He is still only 31 years old, so there is plenty of time for him to contribute.
So what do the Padres have in the bullpen for the future? Maurer is nominally the closer and shouldn’t embarrass himself in the role, but Buchter and Hand are quite possibly better relievers than Maurer. Morrow could be the best of all of them, if nothing goes “sproing”, and Quackenbush is solid, dependable, mediocre, but cheap. In fact, all of these guys are really cheap and will be for a few more years. If any of them break down or lose their effectiveness, the Padres have shown the ability to find good or even excellent relievers from the trash heaps of discarded players from other teams. The Padres immediate future isn’t particularly rosy at the moment, but their bullpen looks as solid as ever. It’s the one thing they do really, really well.

The Astros releivers – are they the problem or the solution?

The Nucleus of A Pen Moving Forward
by Jim Silva

    It wasn’t that long ago that closers were thought to be magical creatures who had special abilities not possessed by mere mortals. It wasn’t just that they had a big fastball or some other swing-and-miss pitch, it was more about a certain look or perceived mental toughness. What this means was that once a pitcher was labeled a closer once, he would forever wear the label much like your tattoo of Daphne from Scooby Do – once marked, always marked. I’m not saying that this perception has completely left us, but there is more change in the role these days and managers don’t seem to be as afraid to swap out a guy part way through the season as they used to be. That said, the Red Sox are considering re-signing Jonathan Papelbon which leads one to head scratching. But the Astros have now changed course a couple of times with their pen in an effort to find the magic. Their new/old closer is Ken Giles. To be fair, he was never the anointed closer, although that is clearly why the Astros gave up a lot (five prospects) to get him. Do you think Houston wouldn’t like to have Vince Velasquez back right about now? Let’s take a look at what the Astros are dealing with currently to see why there has been some shuffling in their relief corps this season.
    Ken Giles is the classic two pitch closer with a hard fastball – and by hard I mean it averages 96 MPH and touches triple digits – and a slider. He strikes out everyone, and yes, even their brother. In the 11 innings since Mr. Giles was anointed as the team’s closer he has allowed four earned runs, two home runs, eight hits, and two walks while striking out 16. That is essentially what the Astros thought they were getting when they traded so much to get him – a guy who will blow you away with his heat and finish out the game without too much excitement. The home run rate is way up from his usual numbers and if I were the Astros I would be a little worried. One of the benefits of the current closer model where you only see the closer at the start of the 9th with the bases empty is that if the closer gives up the occasional home run, it shouldn’t hurt you too much as long as he doesn’t walk many guys or give up a lot of hits. A solo homer won’t usually lose you the game. So Giles should be fine as long as his control stays sharp – it doesn’t hurt that he fans almost 14 batters per nine either!
    When Giles arrived, it was initially assumed that he would displace the incumbent closer, Luke Gregerson. Gregerson is not your typical fire-balling closer. His fastball came in at just over 89 MPH on average last season and he throws it more often than his slider. The reason the 6’3” former 28th round pick is so effective is that he has excellent control and sinks the ball, inducing grounders (over 60% of the time last season). This season has been an odd one for Gregerson. He made it clear after the Giles trade that he still wanted to be the closer and he got his wish at least to start the season. The righty from St. Xavier University has seen his strikeout rate skyrocket to 10.4 per nine, up from his career rate of 9.0, while walking more than a batter an inning more than last season. At 2.6 walks over nine innings, Gregerson is just 0.1 over his career walk rate and he still keeps the ball in the park (0.7 home runs per nine) and batters off the bases (a WHIP of 0.89 so far). So why is he no longer the closer? Gregerson lost his role partly because of an ill-timed ankle injury, partly because of a streak of blown saves, partly because of a prejudice against closers who don’t throw super hard, and partly because of the effectiveness of Giles. When your team trades valuable parts for a guy to pitch in relief and that guy throws five MPH faster than you on average, the writing is on the wall. There is no way the Astros were going to leave Giles in the setup role after trading away good players to get him. You could certainly make the argument that Giles is more valuable pitching with men on base in arguably higher leverage spots than coming in to pitch the 9th with nobody on and a lead, but closers have a magical aura to them, and finishing out games when you have a lead in the 9th is psychologically important to a team, or so they say. Either way, Gregerson will now pitch the 7th or 8th, making him arguably more valuable than Giles although his agent will have a hard time selling that to a general manager.
    The other guy in the Astros pen who has garnered a goodly number of save opportunities this season is Will Harris. Harris was unbelievably difficult to hit last season allowing only 5.3 hits per nine innings. With a career strikeouts- per-nine-innings average of 9.4, it wasn’t too surprising that he became the main closer for most of June and July. Most teams would be thrilled to have a guy like Harris, who throws pretty hard – a fastball averaging around 92 MPH, and who mixes in a curve about 20% of the time with good swing and miss rates. Ok, so maybe Harris has had a wee home run problem in the past. By wee, I mean he averaged one homer per nine innings pitched last season, although this season he has kept the ball mostly in the park allowing only 0.5 long balls per nine innings. Harris appeared in the All Star game this season, has managed a career best strikeout to walk ratio of 6.00 and could close, but lost the job likely due to a stretch of three blown saves in five appearances in July. Those were his only three blown saves of the season so Giles mostly just supplanted him and will be given more chances to fail than the 32 year old journeyman reliever. Harris is now the 7th inning guy who hands the ball to Gregerson, the 8th inning guy, who hands the ball to Giles, the closer. Those three make for a nice end game strategy for the Astros.
    At the end of a nearly un-hittable 2014 season where Tony Sipp only allowed 5.0 hits every nine innings he pitched, the then 30 year old reliever found himself relied upon to pitch the 8th and to sometimes close the game for the Astros. It was the peak of his career to date. Sipp was looking like a possible closer and the Astros were about to get good. It isn’t that Sipp began a wicked steep decline or anything but he no longer has a clearly defined role. Sometimes he pitches the 7th, sometimes the 5th, and sometimes he comes in to get one guy. This has been a rough year for the unpredictable lefty as his ERA has jumped to 5.65 while he has allowed almost 12 hits per nine innings and 2.9 home runs per nine. The Astros are losing faith in Tony Sipp and he is going to have a hard time regaining it as younger harder throwing cheaper pitchers move up from the minors. If the Astros sneak into the post-season it is unclear whether Sipp will even make the playoff roster as he has allowed five home runs in his last 10 appearances.
    One of the most valuable arms out of the Astros pen this season has been rookie Chris Devenski. The 2011 25th round pick has started five games and relieved in 10 posting a WHIP of 0.918, and ERA of 2.13, while striking out 4.53 hitters for each man he has walked. Devenski vaulted over triple-A from Corpus Christi of the double-A Texas league after putting together a good season in 2015 but his stats did not portend what he has done in 2016. Since 2014 the 6’3” righty from Cal State Fullerton has demonstrated excellent control, and that is when his overall numbers started to make him look like a viable prospect. So how to use him? In four of his five starts in the bigs, “The Dragon” pitched well. His control was excellent in his starts as it was in his relief appearances. Interestingly, in his starts he appeared to get tougher to hit as the game went on. When batters faced him a third time their batting average dropped to .059 and they slugged .059. Yes, these are small sample size warped stats, but if I am the Astros and my rotation is a mess I want to stretch Devinski out and see if he can maintain those numbers with more starts. When you cherry pick stats it is easy to make almost any point you want and there are certainly numbers that support Devinski coming out of the pen, but his OPS allowed as a starter is .672 versus his OPS allowed as a reliever – .517. Most pitchers will see a statistical benefit from getting to go max effort for a short stretch, but not that many pitchers can succeed as starters. The Astros should consider moving Chris Devinski to the rotation.
    Pat Neshek has found himself at 36. I don’t mean that in the breathy, spiritual way, although I’m sure the Neshek family is quite lovely and enlightened. Neshek has found his control and a team that values him. This is Neshek’s 5th team, which isn’t surprising considering his funky delivery. (See the clip below.)
Teams are reluctant to risk taking on players with unorthodox approaches like Neshek’s. At the first sign of trouble they tend to cut and run, which in baseball means trade the guy or let him sign elsewhere. What Neshek currently (and apparently every other season – only the evens – since 2012) offers to a team is low hit totals, currently 5.9 hits per nine innings, low walk totals – he has allowed 1.7 per nine so far, and an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio which is currently at 4.88 to 1. Neshek does get touched by the long ball from time to time, but this season he has kept that at a reasonable 1.0 home runs per nine innings pitched. With an ERA of 2.51 and a WHIP of 0.837 he looks, from his numbers at least, like a closer but has had zero save opportunities with the 2016 Astros. I’m not suggesting that the Astros need to unseat Giles or Gregerson and install Neshek and his whip weirdness, but sometimes oddness blinds teams to results and that has mostly been true with Neshek who has never really had a shot to be the closer for a team beyond 10 save opportunities he experienced with St. Louis in 2014. That is not likely to change for the 36 year old and that’s too bad because it would certainly be entertaining to watch someone like Neshek come in to close out a big game in the playoffs or World Series.
    Michael Feliz is an intriguing arm who was mostly a big, hard-throwing starter with decent control as a minor leaguer. What’s not to like there? A mid-90’s fastball and a strikeout to walk ratio in the majors of 4.18 this year working out of the pen to go with his 13.3 strikeouts per nine makes for a compelling package. He is only 23 and only has two games pitched at triple-A so working from the pen is probably a solid plan at least for now, but if you are struggling to find viable options for your rotation why not give Feliz a shot? It is spilt milk now, but why didn’t the Astros stretch him out and try him in the rotation? They have mostly used him for an inning or two at a time (20 of his 44 appearances have been for more than an inning) and, especially in the second half, low-leverage situations. It appears that the Astros don’t really trust him and that may have come from a rocky start to the season where he got lit up in his first two appearances. Felix then went 19 and a third and only gave up one earned run in a stretch that took him to early June. His ERA got as low as 3.23 but is now sitting at 4.62. It will be interesting to see what Houston does with Feliz next season. They aren’t lacking young, hard-throwing pitchers coming through the system, but their view of Feliz will determine whether or not they give him a shot at their rotation going forward.
    Putting together a viable pen to get you to and through the post-season is complicated and the Astros pen has been in the middle of the pack. With Giles under team control through 2021, Harris until 2020, Devenski still a rookie, and Gregerson around at least through next season, the Astros don’t have to panic about their pen in the off-season. There is a fair amount  of talent in the Houston pen, and if they can figure out a way to get to the pen with a lead – and that is mostly on the rotation, the Astros will be contenders to unseat the Rangers as soon as next year.

Crafty starting pitchers with hard-throwing youngsters on the way; do the Astros having enough in the rotation?

Like Playing Tennis With Your 70 Year Old Uncle
by Jim Silva

When a team rebuilds from the ground up where do they start? Where would you start? It is certainly more exciting to draft a bunch of young hitters because that’s what most fans want to see – offense. But, as my wife tells me all the time, pitching is too important in baseball. And she’s right of course, although she says it as more of a complaint because she prefers a good 9 to 8 barn-burner, whereas I am a fan of a nice 3-2 or 4-3 game. What my lovely wife means is that pitchers have too much power over the game – right again. When you look at the franchises around the league giving absurd amounts of money and multi-year contracts to starting pitchers, who more and more often don’t finish the contract without undergoing arm surgery, it is clear that baseball agrees with my wife. The Astros probably agree with that aphorism as well, but it doesn’t look like it when you look at the young players who have made it to the majors in the wake of their current rebuild. Their rotation is only just now seeing the fruits of their tanking efforts where they had top draft picks year after year. When fans and writers alike were saying that the Astros were ready to compete already, it was because they saw the exciting position players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Jose Altuve. But what really drives a team to success in the post-season is the depth of their starting rotation, and the effectiveness of their bullpen. So are the Astros really “here” or are they still a season or two away from being perennial playoff participants? Let’s look at their rotation and ponder that question as they push down the stretch to grab a wild card spot.
Is there such a thing as a Cy Young hangover? Dallas Keuchel won the AL Cy Young in 2015 and ended up 5th in MVP voting but started this season looking like a guy you might want to send back to triple-A. He was getting lit up and his control had clearly slipped. One very bad sign is the fact that he had already given up 14 home runs in his first 17 starts – only three fewer than he had given up all last season. Since then he has given up only five home runs in his last eight starts, which is an improvement. In short, the Astros ace has been horribly inconsistent for most of his first 25 starts. It seems like maybe, just maybe he is figuring it out. His ERA for the season was over 5.00 but has dropped to 4.64. It’s not pretty especially when you compare it to his last season – it boils down to Keuchel trying to figure out what made him the Astros ace in 2014 and 2015. Keuchel this season has looked like the guy in 2013 who hadn’t quite figured it out. He is not now, nor has he ever been, the type of pitcher who can get away with missing spots relying on power to save him. If he isn’t sharp with command and control he will flat out suck. His fastball averages a tick under 90 and he mixes it with three other pitches. Looking at his game logs, he seems to have it for a start or two and then appears to lose it. For the Astros to get to the playoffs and to do anything once they get there, Keuchel has to figure it out and time is running out for the bearded Oklahoma native.
    Colin McHugh doesn’t blow his fastball by hitters either. He is a mixmaster, throwing his fastball, slider, curveball almost equally often. He seemed to put it all together when he got to Houston in 2014, but has given up more and more hits as the league gets to see his slippery stuff more and more. Along with the blossoming hit rate (2013: 6.9 hits per 9 innings pitched, 2014: 9.1, 2016: 11.1 so far), his home run rate has increased from 0.8 each of the last two seasons to 1.4 through his first 15 starts in 2016. At this point, McHugh’s ERA is sitting at 4.99 and is just getting worse as his ERA in his last five starts is at 9.00. The Astros, who are sitting in third in the AL West and starting the day in sixth in the battle for the two wild card spots have to make some tough decisions. Do they continue to watch McHugh get lit up every night wasting star quality offensive performances as their playoff chances fade into the steamy Houston twilight, or do they cut bait and find another answer?
    Mike Fiers was acquired last season in a deal with the Brewers and closed the season with nine starts that included a no-hitter and an ERA of 3.32. So entering 2016, Fiers – who had sported ERA’s in the twos and threes in each of his stops, except one since his debut in 2011 – seemed like he would slot in nicely in the third spot in the rotation. The righty, who will be a free agent at the end of this season, has been healthy all season, but has been unable to duplicate his past success so far. His ERA has bounced around a bit and currently sits at 4.48 after a month where he went 2-2 in five starts and managed an ERA of 3.72. If you arbitrarily break his season into blocks of five starts going back to his first start on April 7th, Fiers has reached the 6th inning in exactly two of every five starts. The former Brewer’s 22nd round pick in the 2009 draft mixes four other pitches with his 89 MPH fastball but is hard on the bullpen. The Astros have to use at least three other pitchers in most of his start as he hasn’t made it into the 8th once this season. So even in his best starts the Astros are likely to use at least two more relievers to finish the game. If Fiers can keep his ERA in the threes the rest of the way, the Astros will deal with the exhausted pen.
    If results dictate who the ace is, then Doug Fister is the Astros ace in 2016. I’m not sure why the Astros went out and cornered the market on soft tossers, but none of the top four Astros starters cracks 90 MPH with their fastball on a regular basis, and Fister is the softest tosser of the bunch sitting around 86 MPH with his “heater”. Interestingly, the oversized righty (he is 6’8”) throws his fastball about 70% of the time mixing a slider, a changeup, and a curve the other 30% of the time. Fister’s five starts this past month have been even better than his season totals with an ERA of 3.00, a WHIP of 1.267, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.43 – all better than his season totals to date, and boy are those solid numbers needed by the Astros! Some of Fister’s results are luck and having the backing of a good offensive team as most of his peripherals are a touch below his career numbers, except for his hits allowed per nine (8.5 this year versus 9.1 for his career). At 12 and 8, Fister is holding down the fort until another starter can step up and do what they were expected to do.
    Lance McCullers the younger is the freak in the Astros rotation who can actually break glass with his fastball which averages a notch over 94 MPH. His curve and change also contribute to his high strikeout totals. In 22 starts last season as a 21 year old, McCullers averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine. That rate jumped to 11.8 in his 14 starts this season before he landed in the DL with elbow issues at the start of August. While his strikeout numbers make him look dominant, McCullers’ control has taken a big step back this year. His ERA is exactly what is was last season at 3.22, but he has walked 5.0 per nine this year as opposed to only 3.1 free passes per nine last season – his first in the majors. McCullers hits per nine have also jumped this season moving from 7.6 last year to 8.9 so far this season. His home run rate has remained stable at 0.6 home runs per nine (0.7 last year), to best the rest of the starting staff. McCullers will be the ace someday soon, but he has to get off the DL and stay off the DL for the ‘Stros to have any chance of fighting their way into the post-season.
    The Astros youth movement has paid off quite nicely in the last few seasons with stars as well as talent that has filled in admirably. Joe Musgrove falls in between these two marks as he is the 7th ranked prospect in the Houston system according to Keith Law, and he has carried the flag for Lance McCullers while the flamethrower is on the DL. Musgrove can throw the pill with alacrity – perhaps not quite as rapidly as Mr. McCullers – and is stingy with the free passes. The 23 year old, 6’5” righty from El Cajon has fanned 25 batters in five games while only walking three. His minor league control shows that his control is not a fluke. Here’s a weird stat – Musgrove’s career walk totals in the minors (41) are just barely ahead of his home runs allowed plus hit batsmen (a total of 39 – 24 home runs plus 15 men plunked) in the same time period. He has amassed this totals in just over 337 innings and has struck out 320 men in that same span for an amazing strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.8. With control like that you have to wonder if Musgrove is particularly grumpy and hits batters because he doesn’t like their walk up song. In a small sample size of five games in the majors (four starts) Musgrove’s weakness has been the long ball as he has allowed five of his pitches to leave the yard. As his minor league ratio is 0.64 home runs per nine, that issue is likely to correct itself over time. Depending on how Musgrove’s next few starts go the Astros might have a tough decision to make when they get McCullers back from the DL. Do you keep the hard-throwing youngster in the rotation and jettison one of the vets like McHugh, or do you send Musgrove down and hope that the team can get there with the guys they started the season with.
    The only other pitcher who the Astros have in their top ten is Francis Martes, their 2nd best prospect and the 40th best in baseball. Only 20 years old and already chucking it in the mid to upper 90’s, Martes has reached double-A and after having a dominant season last year where he managed an ERA of 2.04, he is competing admirably this season. His ERA is 3.52, he has limited home runs to four in 115 innings, and his strikeout rate is actually up – above nine per nine innings pitched. From such a young hard-throwing pitcher, Martes’ control is a good sign as he has averaged 3.1 walks per nine – not Musgrovian, but good numbers for a youngster who can bring it. At 20, Martes is unlikely to break into the rotation this season in spite of the needs of the big club, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him called up in September to bring his heat from the pen.
    The hard throwers are coming, and when they reach the majors, the soft tossers might be disposed of, ushering in a new era in Houston. But for now, the Astros have to hope that they can make do with deception and trickery (plus McCullers if he can make it back) because that is their only reasonable choice at the moment. Having painted themselves into this particular corner by not trading for a conventional hard-throwing ace, the Astros are showing their hand a bit. Their reluctance to give up on their youngsters implies that while they are hoping to reach deep into the post-season this year, they believe that their true time is near, but not yet here. Don’t be surprised if they go out and get a big nasty ace before they go to battle next season. 2016 isn’t over, but the writing is on the wall for the Astros with too many teams to climb over, and inconsistent starting pitching. Their patient approach, while likely frustrating to many fans, will pay off soon, but for now the Astros players view of the post-season is likely to be from their sofas.

Do the Red Sox have enough for a post-season push?

Things and More Things
by Jim Silva

    Right this very moment, the Red Sox are in the midst of a three way battle for the AL East crown with the Orioles and Blue Jays. With three teams so tightly packed, it is the most closely contested race in all of baseball. So should Red Sox fans be thrilled that they are in the thick of it or should they be disappointed that they haven’t opened up a big lead on the rest of the teams in the East? How did the Sox get here and what will the rest of the season bring? It’s an exciting time to live East of the Rockies (mountains AND team)!
    During the off-season, fans and commentators speak about the “what-ifs” that need to happen for a team to win as if they were almost a given. That is the beauty of the off-season – all things are possible. So here are some of the “what-ifs” that the Red Sox needed to see happen for them to be in the race. Thing 1: Jackie Bradley Jr. will turn into a full-time center-fielder who’s bat finally catches up to his amazing glove skills. Thing 2: Xander Bogaerts will hold onto his offensive gains from last season and continue his consistent defensive play. Thing 3: Hanley Ramirez will display solid glove work at first base. Thing 4: Pablo Sandoval will handle third base without stinking up the joint. Thing 5: The starting rotation will stop runs from scoring as opposed to you, you know, causing runs to score.
    Yeah, that’s a lot of what-ifs. Normally when a team starts the off-season with that many questions, there isn’t much expected of them, but these are the Red Sox so you have to know most of the questions have been addressed by spending money to answer them. That is certainly true of the starting rotation question. Last season everyone and their mother, with the possible exception of Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox GM, knew that the team needed to find some quality pitchers to start games for them in 2015 or they would lose more games than they would win. Instead of adding pitching, former GM Dombrowski signed Hanley Ramirez, a shortstop, to play left field, and Pablo Sandoval to play third. I guess one way to address a need for run prevention is to add more run scoring tools. So Dombrowski spent roughly $110 million on Hanley through 2019 and roughly $100 million on Panda. The short of it is, the signings didn’t work out last year, and they didn’t work out in fairly spectacular fashion. This year is going better on one front and horribly on the other, but the Red Sox have mostly plastered over that one for now.
    Dombrowski was shown the door and his replacement signed David Price to help solve Thing 5 – the starting pitching. Price is an ace, so that’s an excellent way to solve the problem or at least a very good start. Signing Price cost them north of $210 million – no big deal for the Red Sox. After a slightly rougher start than the red Sox would like, Price has posted an ERA in the mid-two’s over a six start run although his ERA over the last month is 4.01. He is giving up home runs at an impressive rate, including eight in that same six start run I referenced. After Price, Porcello and Steven Wright have saved the first part of the season as Clay Bucholz has struggled to be worthy of ANY spot in the rotation and Joe Kelly has been alternately bad and injured. Still, three of five works or at least can be worked with.
    Thing 4 got off to an ugly start and then got worse! Sandoval came into camp looking a bit out of shape, to put it gently. He looked horrible with the glove then turned himself into a meme when his belt exploded as he swung the bat. He lost his job and then suffered an arm injury, seemingly caused by an interaction with aliens or some such nonsense. He is currently on the DL after surgery and will likely draw his $17.6 million for playing Xbox, or learning to make Paella, or whatever else someone does when they are paid to heal. His replacement, Travis Shaw, is hitting reasonably well and playing excellent defense at third, so in the face of potential disaster, Thing 4 has turned into a win, albeit an expensive one paying two guys to do one job.
    Hanley Ramirez was an unmitigated disaster in his first season back with the Red Sox. Stationing him in left field turned out worse than pretty much anyone could have expected. When the Sox brass said that they were going to move Hanley to first base, it seemed like a heck of a lot better idea than wish-casting him into left. Everyone assumed that if he could play non-horrible defense at first base then his bat would make that a pretty good move. What has actually happened to this point in the season has been a mild surprise as Ramirez has managed to almost reach the non-horrible defense mark at first, but got off to a slow start with the bat. If he had a modest contract, he would probably be viewed as a fine place-holder at first while they waited for a stud prospect or a big free agent signing/deadline trade. But since he is making superstar money for years to come, his numbers are a disappointment. Since he hasn’t been horrible (WAR of 1.3 so far), there is still a chance he can salvage the season by going on another hitting spree. Five home runs in the last month is pretty good – but, combined with a .230 average and .278 on-base percentage, will not move the Red Sox toward a championship, so Thing 3 isn’t working out the way you would hope as a Sox fan.
    Sometimes Things work out so well that they make up for other Things that didn’t go how you had hoped, and Thing 2, otherwise known as Xander Bogaerts, has worked up even better than one could have expected. His glove has been steady, showing that his growth of 2015 was real. And his bat – wow, his bat – he is being called the best right-handed hitter in the AL by some sports writers. He might even be hitting enough to make up for Hanley’s meh-tastic start. He is currently hitting .312 with a .368 on-base percentage and has knocked 14 homers. If he wins the Silver Slugger at shortstop, the award for the best hitter at each position, then he is a superstar and could carry the Red Sox past their weakness at first base. Thing 2 – check.
    These days it is almost enough to be a Gold Glove winner in centerfield to hold on to your job, even if you don’t hit like a starting outfielder – ask Kevin Kiermaier about that. Last season, Jackie Bradley Jr. showed his chops with the glove and wasn’t horrible with the bat. He was a guy the Red Sox could reasonably keep in the lineup while looking around for someone to start over him. This season though, Bradley Jr. has looked like a budding superstar – a 4.6 WAR season so far. He is doing everything the Red Sox had hoped he would with the glove and the bat and if he keeps up a pace close to this, you won’t be able to pry him out of the starting center field spot with a crowbar. Thing 1 is here to stay!
    Currently driving the Red Sox to a post-season near you is a high-powered offense that is outscoring every team in baseball including everyone’s darling, the Cubs, a team playing in the equivalent of a phone booth – the Rockies, and the club that most resembles a beer league softball team, the Orioles. The Rockies are closest at 21 runs back as of today. The Red Sox as a team are currently the slash line champions with league-leading batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage – .285/.351/.468. Obviously almost everyone on the team is having a good-to-great year and they already have four non-pitchers with more than 4.0 points of WAR accumulated. Swimming a half a pool length past the rest of the field is Mookie Betts. With 6.9 WAR, the 23 year old right-fielder is making an excellent case for the MVP award. He isn’t just doing it with the bat either as 1.4 of that 6.9 WAR is based on his defense. Betts leads the league in runs scored and total bases and he has also swiped 20 bases in 23 attempts. With 67 extra base hits, including 28 home runs, there is almost nothing Mookie can’t do. The only knock on his game is that he doesn’t draw many walks, but that is picking nits as his on-base percentage is .354, four points above his career average. If the Red Sox make it to the post-season put your money on Betts to take home the AL MVP.
    At this point in the season, the Red Sox look like a team with enough. Enough to win the division at least, although the Blue Jays and the Orioles will battle to the end, and possibly enough to win the AL crown. They have the bats, the gloves, and the depth if injury strikes. Do they have enough to win a World Series? Their rotation might have been a bit thin to take on teams like the Nationals, the Giants, or the Cubs, but a deadline deal added a young starter in Drew Pomeranz, who went into the eighth for a win in his last start. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against another World Series ring ceremony in Boston.

What it looks like when your firemen actually put out fires instead of starting them.

My Kingdom (Farm System) For A Pen
by Jim Silva

    Not a lot went right for the Red Sox in 2015. They finished 5th in the AL East, which is a nice way of saying “last”. Their rotation was awful, but their pen was – oh, the worst pen in baseball according to xFIP – a version of ERA that takes fielding out of the equation and just looks at events the pitcher has more control over like walks, strikeouts, hit by pitch, and fly balls allowed (which indicates home run frequency). Their pen as a group had a WAR of -1.4 so they were firemen in the Fahrenheit 451 sense of the word, lighting things on fire. Only one reliever finished the season with a FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) below 3.00 and that was their closer, 41 year old Koji Uehara. Logically what would you do if you were the GM and your closer was the most consistent member of your bullpen? Why, you would go out and trade four prospects for a new closer, right? Well that’s what the Red Sox did in trading for Craig Kimbrel. Look, trading for a closer to push other relievers back to the 8th and 7th is the new, hip way to revamp bullpens – just ask the Yankees, Dodgers (who tried), Astros, and A’s. But giving up the farm (literally) to get 60 innings a year from a guy who will be facing hitters with the bases empty is a mistake the Red Sox will be ruing for years to come. They gave up two prospects in the top 50 in baseball plus two other players of value for three seasons, or about 180 innings (if he stays healthy  and effective the whole time) – of Kimbrel.
    Kimbrel posted his worst full season in the majors last year and still managed eye-popping numbers in some categories. His ERA, hits per nine innings, WHIP, home runs allowed per nine innings, and strikeouts per nine innings were all career worsts. But would you be happy with your closer amassing 13.2 strikeouts per nine, allowing 6.1 hits per nine innings, with an ERA of 2.68 and a WHIP of 1.045? Of course you would! Unless of course you were paying that closer $9 million to be what he had been in the past. Aside from the numbers above, his season was in line with his career numbers as he succeeded in 90.7 of his save opportunities, which happens to be his career mark. It also happens to be higher than the career save rate of Mariano Rivera (89.1), who was pretty good (for a Yankee). As for the first two-thirds of this season, it hasn’t been a joy ride for Kimbrel. He spent time on the DL and has watched his ERA yo-yo up and down all season (currently sitting at 3.41 as compared to a career ERA of 1.80 ). That said, it has mostly been an effective year, even though Kimbrel’s walk rate is at 4.9 walks per nine as compared to a career rate of 3.5. The strikeout rate is at 14.1 and his hits per nine innings rate is at 5.1, so it’s not like Kimbrel needs to nibble to get guys to fan. He is also on track to match his career saves rate – a tick over 90%, and if he can close out the year dominating the AL then maybe the Sox will forget what they gave up to get him, at least for a little while longer.
    The Kimbrel trade wasn’t all the Sox did to fortify the pen in the off-season. Carson Smith is only 26 and last season was his first full season in the majors. In spite of his inexperience, Smith spent the season dominating lesser mortals with his nasty offerings. Carson Smith is 6’6” of hard throwing Texan. He is mainly a two pitch pitcher throwing his fastball (averaging 92.9 mph) and slider with about the same frequency. He is very hard to hit (6.3 hits per nine innings), misses a lot of bats (11.8 k’s per nine), manages to control his nasty stuff (2.8 walks per nine), and keeps the ball in the yard like Sister Mary Constance at recess (0.3 home runs per nine). He can’t be a free agent until 2021 so the Red Sox picked up not only their new closer in Kimbrel, but also their closer of the future in Carson Smith.
    The Mariners rode him hard using him in 70 games and he started this season on the DL. He came back for three scoreless appearances in May before his elbow gave out, and he recently went under the knife – Tommy John surgery. TJ surgery takes at least a year to come back from, but the Sox should stick with Smith for the long run. As for the cost to get Smith, Miley’s innings, while important, were not pretty so it is much easier to justify trading almost 200 innings of Miley for 70 innings of Smith if Smith looks as beastly as he did last year.
    So, two moves to bolster the pen to support new ace, David Price – and they didn’t give up anything irreplaceable for this season, even though they single-handedly rebuilt the Padres farm system, and then gave up a lot of innings when they sent Miley to Seattle. The plan was for the pen to back up to the 6th inning with Kimbrel closing, Uehara as the primary setup man, Carson Smith pitching in Uehara’s spot or in the 7th which is now the domain of Junichi Tazawa. That’s some nice depth and some excellent quality. There is a catch though. There is a non-zero chance that the Red Sox pen will collapse entirely due to injury and overuse.
    Tazawa has made over 200 appearances in the last three seasons and during the second half of 2015 he looked cooked. Opposing hitters turned into Lou Gehrig in Tazawa’s last 22 appearances before he was shut down, posting a slash line of .386/.421/.636. The relief pitcher from Yokohama saw his ERA balloon from 2.58 in the first half to 7.08 in the second half. His strikeout to walk ratio dropped from 5.71 to 2.67. When Junichi is right he pumps 94 mph fastballs, splitters, as well as the occasional slider and changeup with solid control and enough swing and miss stuff to be used as a closer on many teams. He looked excellent to start 2016 but since May started has had an ERA over 4.00 and has given up seven of his 8 home runs to bump his home runs per nine rate to 1.8. Interestingly his strikeout rate is up – now above 10.0 per nine – even while he struggles to keep the ball in the park, so are we seeing the effects of overuse or are the home runs just a fluke? The Red Sox will be paying attention to Tazawa down the stretch as they try to make it to the post-season.
    So what of the disposed closer? The plan was for Koji Uehara, who has closed games for the Red Sox for the last three seasons, to get his turn in the 8th inning and the Sox stuck with that until Kimbrel went on the DL forcing Koji to resume his closer’s role. Uehara is not your typical late inning reliever. His fastball, which he throws about a third of the time, doesn’t reach 90 miles per hour on average. He relies on a wicked splitter, that he throws the other two-thirds of the time, to get outs. His numbers look like a guy who throws heat because his splitter is such a swing and miss pitch. Well, I’m not sure what’s in the Boston water, but like Tazawa, Uehara is giving up long balls at well above his career rate of which is now at 1.1 home runs per nine. To date, the 6’2” righty has given up 2.0 home runs per nine innings pitched.
    Uehara has a career strikeout rate (in the states) of 10.8 per nine through the middle of August and his control is unbelievable. His career rate is 1.4 walks allowed per nine and he has actually had seasons where he has averaged fewer than one walk per nine innings. Normally you would expect that low of a walk rate to go with a higher hits per nine rate, but Uehara’s career rate is 6.3 hits per nine innings pitched. His career WHIP of .851 is unheard of and amazingly, every season since 2010 he has kept his WHIP below 1.0 for the season. Basically that means you just can’t get on base against Uehara. Uehara’s one weakness is relative. He has allowed a home run per nine innings for his career – most likely a lot of them were solo shots since, again, you can’t get on base against him. Ok, there is another weakness – he lacks a cool nickname. Uehara, but I’m not? Koji Beef? Split Personality – you know – because he throws the splitter and that sounds like a super-villain name? Eh, maybe there’s a reason he doesn’t have a nickname, but even without one he is as unhittable as ever to start 2016 although he has been uncharacteristically wild so far. The former will likely continue as the latter probably will correct with more innings – that is if he can make it back from a strained pectoral muscle before the regular season ends.
    Matt Barnes is one of those guys we all love to see come up, but then are driven crazy by until they get traded. He throws wicked hard, averaging almost 95 mph with his heater while mixing in a change and a curve. Barnes issue, at least at the major league level, has been his inability to control his pitches. This problem manifests in two ways – leaving balls out over the plate where they can be turned into souvenirs, and walking too many batters so the home runs he gives up score multiple runs. In his first 52 major league innings (through the end of 2015), Barnes gave up 10 home runs and walked 17 batters. So far this season, Barnes has given up 3.9 walks per nine – even worse than his career average of 3.4 per nine. The difference being that the 6’4” righty has kept the ball in the park (0.8 home runs per nine – substantially below his career rate of 1.3 per nine) and limited hits to 7.9 per nine innings. This is more in line with his minor league numbers. Well, his walk rate mimics his minor league numbers – also 3.3 walks per nine in just over 398 innings pitched, but Barnes has limited home runs to minor leaguers – 0.6 per nine, and hits – 8.3 per nine. His minor league WHIP of 1.285 doesn’t speak to dominance but it isn’t bad. If he can recreate what he has done in the minors for the parent club, then he would be a serviceable arm in the Red Sox pen, even if he never turns into the dominant closer the Sox thought they were getting when they chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft. So far this season it looks like he just might.
    Of course Robbie Ross throws hard like almost everyone in the Sox pen, and uses his fastball over 60% of the time. The difference between Ross and the aforementioned Mr. Barnes appears to be the effectiveness of their secondary offerings. Ross contributed 0.8 WAR from the pen last year – not a world beater, but certainly a contributor. He has been a solid contributor to Texas and Boston in three of his first four seasons – the exception being 2014 when the Rangers attempted to turn Ross into a starter, which clearly didn’t work. The diminutive lefty is useful because he can throw more than one inning – a chore he carried out 11 times in 2015. Interestingly, the Red Sox used him as a closer in September. That seems like an underuse of Ross, although when your pen is the worst in baseball, what the hell! With 7.9 K’s to 3.0 walks per nine (and 1.0 home runs) and strong peripherals in the second half of last year, Ross comes into 2016 with a flexible role that won’t likely be high leverage. This year has been one of Ross’ best so far with a WHIP of 1.195, a FIP (ERA taking into account only what the pitcher can control) of 2.97, only 7.2 hits allowed per nine, and a minuscule 0.2 home runs allowed per nine. Not sure why all the Red Sox relievers seem to have increased their strikeout rates but Ross has been no exception, fanning 9.7 men per nine – his career rate is now at 7.4 per nine. Also, like many of the Sox relievers Ross has walked more men per nine with a mark of 3.6 per nine so far, up from his career rate of 3.2. Manager John Farrell is still using Ross for more than an inning making him both more valuable and unusual.
    Trade deadline acquisition Fernando Abad has put up really nice numbers from the pen this season, albeit mostly for the Twins. In his six appearances for the Red Sox he has allowed at least a run, although it could be just the adjustment that goes with playing for a new squad, and one that is in a pennant race. With Minnesota, a team woefully far from the pressure of the pennant race, Abad was stingy with hits (7.1 allowed per nine innings) and home runs (0.5 allowed per nine innings), but walked a few too many hitters (3.7 per nine innings) all the while striking out 7.7 batters per nine. The lefty from La Romana in the Dominican throws four pitches with his fastball getting a bit over half the use and the other three (cutter, curve, and change) making up the other half. It will be interesting to see how Boston uses him because he has been death to lefties and a lot less effective against righties. One stat illustrates that fairly well – his strikeout to walk ratio. Against righties Abad strikes out 1.36 batsmen for every one that he walks. Against lefties the number jumps to 6.50 per walk which looks like dominance especially when you pair it with the batting average against him of .179 as compared to .271 which is what righties hit against him. If the Red Sox can afford it, they should use Abad as a LOOGY (a lefty specialist) where he can shine, instead of trying to get a whole inning out of him. Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s fade might press Boston to use Abad in a role less suited to his skill set, which would be a shame.
    Acquired for two minor leaguers in July, Brad Ziegler has maintained good peripherals including a low home run rate of 0.7 per nine and excellent control issuing only 2.2 walks per nine since moving to Boston. With an ERA of 2.82 (2.92 since joining the Sox), Ziegler is a durable quality arm who can help the Boston club reach the post-season. His two blown saves and three losses for the Sox have something to do with the talk about the Red Sox courting recently released former closer Jonathan Papelbon. Ziegler has been tried at closer and setup man for the Red Sox, but as he is not the typical flame throwing beast usually given the role, he will have a short leash. With Kimbrel back from the DL, it is unlikely that the sidewinder will close again this season unless Kimbrel is unavailable. But Ziegler still induces lots of grounders with his funky delivery and should be trusted in high leverage situations in spite of his early struggles to hold onto leads in Boston. His ERA is still below 2.5 in his stint in Boston and below 2.75 for the season so it isn’t like he is throwing grapefruits out there.
    The Red Sox bullpen will be better than it was last year – that isn’t saying much since they were so bad last season. But they should be a strength in 2016 – both deep and flexible. Of course the rotation has to pull their own weight. Last year the poor rotation work led to Sox relievers being overworked and if that happens again they might very well implode again. Carson Smith should have taken a lot of the heat off of Tazawa but that obviously hasn’t happened because of his injury. With Ziegler aboard and Ross and Barnes contributing, they should be able to weather Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s stretch of ineffectiveness. But if Kimbrel goes down again the pen is in trouble. David Price and a hopefully quick return of Steven Wright will help take some of the pressure off of the relievers. If not, I bet Red Sox legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield would be willing to come back and eat some innings.

"Can Porcello and Wright lead the Red Sox to the series?" is a question nobody asked in the pre-season.

The Price of Price
by Jim Silva

    What is the right price for an ace? And who would pay it? This off-season that question was explored multiple times with the Red Sox answering in their own way when they grabbed David Price from league rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays by offering $217 million for seven seasons of his services. That is a hefty price to pay, but the Sox had boxed themselves into a corner last season when they spent all of their magic beans on two donkeys – neither of whom could pitch – infuriating the Boston faithful. And boy did they pay! The Red Sox rotation only had two starters manage an ERA under 4.00 and those two pitchers only combined for 39 starts, about the equivalent of one and a quarter rotation spots.
    So what did they get in David Price? Well, he is very slowly aging, or so say his stats. He will pitch this season as a 30 year old and he still averages 94.2 mph with his fastball which he throws just over half the time. He mixes in a change, a cutter, and a curve with his two and four seam fastballs to keep batters guessing wrong more often than not. He is a horse, throwing 200+ innings every season since 2010 except for 2013 when he only threw 186.67 (and led the league in complete games with four). He led the league last season in ERA at 2.45 over his 220.33 innings with a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.79 as he struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings. In short, he pitches a lot and he dominates when he pitches. David Price is clearly an ace, but he is more than that.
    Former rotation mate Chris Archer refers to Price as a “culture changer” in an article by Michael Silverman for the Boston Globe. And here is another reason why the Red Sox will benefit from David Price, again from Archer, “He’s going to change the way those guys think over there – for the good”. Price, like former Rays teammates Archer and James Shields have signs that say, “If you don’t like it, pitch better!” That motto of self-responsibility (which purportedly came from James Shields’ dad) is refreshing in this time of blaming others and refusing to take responsibility for one’s own fate. Price posts his sign in his locker so that he can see it everyday. He certainly takes care of his own business when he pitches, going deep into games, striking out more than nine batters per nine innings, and keeping walks and home runs down, all leading to FIPs (fielding independent pitching – a version of ERA) that is often lower than his ERA. Price will give the Red Sox leadership and 200+ quality innings, which is exactly what they paid for. Through his first 24 starts he has definitely been a horse leading the league in innings pitched, although it hasn’t been as pretty as Red Sox Nation would like. His peripherals are consistent with his career numbers with two important exceptions; he has allowed 1.0 home runs per nine – double his average from last season – and he has given up 9.4 hits per nine, up 2.5 hits per nine from 2015. He has been the third best starter so far with an ERA of 4.34 and league worst hits allowed total of 163, but if he returns to close to his 2015 form, watch out for Boston’s nine.
    Last year’s rotation was short on sure bets, which is why they had to go out and get price, but they were loaded with guys who were talented enigmas, few more enigmatic than Clay Buchholz. He has never thrown 200 innings or made 30 starts in a season, but he threw a no-hitter in his second major league start. He is older than David Price at 31 and has spent time on the disabled list almost every season with injuries of varied seriousness including esophagitis, knee surgery and multiple DL stints due to back stiffness. Last season ended with an elbow injury after Buchholz put up ERAs that declined every month from 5.76 in April/March, to 3.31 in May, down to 2.21 in June, and finishing with a July where his ERA was 1.46 in two starts before his elbow finished his season. He throws reasonably hard with a fastball that averaged 92 mph and four quality pitches. Confusing isn’t he?
    Will Clay be the good Clay Buchholz or the bad Clay Buchholz? The healthy Clay or the fragile Clay? After parts of nine seasons anyone who says they know what he will do this year is a nut job. The middle ground would be his career numbers with an ERA of 3.90 with 8.5 hits per nine innings, 3.2 walks per nine, 0.8 home runs per nine, and 7.1 strikeouts per nine. His strikeouts are trending up over the last few seasons and his walks and home runs are trending down. So here was my nut job prediction at the beginning of the season: if Buchholz stays off the DL this season, he will post an ERA below 4.00 while putting up double figure wins and fewer losses. It seemed like a pretty safe prediction for most guys basing it on career numbers, although Clay Buchholz has made me look bad by losing his rotation spot with an ERA of 6.31 as a starter, while allowing opposing hitters to slug .531 against him – disastrous numbers. If he can straighten himself out in the pen and return to the rotation you can bet that I won’t hazard a guess as to what he will do the rest of the season. So far he has looked quite good in the pen and that might mean a permanent role change for Buchholz. His WHIP since moving to the pen has been 1.017 – half a batter better than he did as a starter – and batters have slugged only .257 – ah, much better.
    Rick Porcello, who is only 27, is being paid like an ace even though he has never pitched like one as a professional. At over $20 million a season through 2019 the expectations are naturally, if unfairly, high. What Porcello does best is stay healthy and deliver slightly above league average innings. Up until last season he was a ground-ball pitcher who limited home runs and didn’t strikeout or walk a lot of batters. Entering 2015 he had career numbers of just under 1.0 home runs per nine, just over 2.2 walks per nine, and just under 6.0 strikeouts per nine. He has averaged around 30 starts a season since he broke in at the start of the 2009 season and his ground ball rate is usually around 60% so last season was an oddity but might turn into the new normal if the start of 2016 is any indication.
    The 6’5” New Jersey native was not a ground ball pitcher last season due to an apparent change of approach that led to a career high 7.8 strikeouts per nine, but also a career high 1.3 home runs per nine innings. He maintained his excellent walk rate, but his hit rate spiked to 10.3 per nine – over 10.0 for the first time since 2012. The increase in hits and long balls led to a career worst ERA (4.92) and his worst FIP (4.13) in four seasons. The good news for the Red Sox is that Porcello seems to have held on to the good parts of his transformation and ditched most of the bad parts so far in 2016. His strikeout rate is over 7.0 and his walk rate is a career low 1.6, and although he has allowed 17 home runs, five of those came in his first 25.67 innings (for a home run rate of 1.8 per nine). Since then, his home run rate has stabilized at 1.1 home runs per nine. Porcello seems to have found some middle ground where he has maintained the strikeout and walk rate, but limited the home runs. To start the season his ground ball rate was up slightly to 51% so maybe he is trying to find his way back to what worked for him while maintaining the ability to blow hitters away when he needs to. The irony of the decreasing ground ball rate is that Porcello now has an excellent pair of glove men up the middle to turn his ground balls into outs if only he would let them! It boils down to this: with a WHIP over the last month of around 0.8 and an ERA of 2.61, maybe paying him like an ace was spot on even if it came a year early.
    Joe Kelly is another hard thrower averaging over 95 mph with his fastball and while throwing hard is good, knowing where it will go is better. The aphorism that any major league hitter can hit a fastball no matter how fast it is has proven to be especially true with Kelly’s heater. The problem with a lack of command is that when you walk a bunch of batters – Kelly’s career average is 3.5 walks per nine innings – then the batters learn that they can wait until you eventually have to pipe one of those fastballs so that they can crush it. With heat like Kelly’s one would expect a higher strikeout rate than his career mark of 6.5 per nine innings (giving him a pedestrian strikeout to walk ratio of 1.88), and more missed bats. But Kelly’s career hits per nine rate of 9.2 per nine innings shows that he just isn’t fooling anyone. Until he can figure out how to control the fastball and master his other pitches well enough so that the batter doesn’t know what is coming next, then Kelly will remain what he is – talented, frustrating, and mediocre. Kelly only lasted nine games – six of them starts – before they sent him down to Pawtucket. He battled shoulder impingements early,  and the Pawtucket team has used Kelly mostly in the pen. Relief looks good on him so far. It will be interesting if the big club trusts Kelly out of the pen if/when he makes it back up or if they try to stretch him out again to battle for a rotation spot or take a turn to rest one of the five starters.
    The rotation outlier – the weird kid who eats paste and wears Dungeons & Dragons t-shirts is Steven Wright. He is an outlier not just because his fastball averages 83.5 mph, but because he throws a knuckleball, and throws it 90% of the time. There just aren’t many knuckleball pitchers in baseball anymore. Partly because it is a hard pitch to master, but also because pitchers who throw 83.5 mph just don’t get drafted very often. The Red Sox are more open to knuckleball pitchers since they experienced success with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield who won 186 games for Boston between 1995 and 2011. Knuckleball pitchers don’t follow the normal development curve of most pitchers often getting better as they get older. Probably more than any other pitch the knuckleball is a feel pitch that you don’t throw hard so the more you throw it, the better you get with the added bonus of not wearing out your arm. Noted knuckleballers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro pitched until they were 49 and 48 respectively while Wilbur Wood led the league in starts four years in a row from 1972 through 1975 and innings pitched in 1972 and 1973. Wood would have continued to crank out absurdly high innings pitched totals if Ron LeFlore hadn’t shattered his kneecap with a line drive early in the 1976 season effectively ending his career.
    Wright is 31 now and had only started 26 games in the majors when the season began. It would be fascinating to see Wright or another knuckleballer pitch more than 375 innings like Wilbur Wood did in 1972. Of course the innings would have to be effective to have any point, but if Wright at 31 has learned to more or less control the knuckleball then he could save the bullpen and starters by pitching every four days, plus anytime one of the regulars had to miss a turn. He could also serve as the mop-up man allowing the Red Sox to keep more position players on the bench. His numbers would likely suffer from a usage pattern like that, but if he and the team came to an understanding about his stats and signed him to a long term contract, it could change the way the Red Sox pitching staff goes about its business. The beauty of the knuckleball is that nobody, including the pitcher, knows how the ball will break once it leaves his hand so batters can’t get used to the pitch since it is always different. The benefit is that a knuckleball pitcher could throw complete games or pitch on back to back days since the “3rd time through the lineup” problem that most pitchers face doesn’t really apply to them.
    As to Wright’s performance to date, last season was his first chance as a regular (at least for a piece of the season) in a major league rotation so the sample size is small – nine starts. But Wright showed that he is capable of baffling major leaguers with his junk to the tune of a career FIP of 3.82 while striking out 7.3 batters per nine, walking 3.2 batters per nine, and allowing only 7.9 hits per nine. His minor league numbers have shown good control, especially for someone who throws the knuckleball as often as Wright does, so with more time in the majors his walk numbers should come down. So far, Wright has pitched like an All-Star (which he was this July) winning 13 games in his first 22 starts and leading the league in home runs allowed at a minuscule 0.5 jacks per nine innings, while compiling an ERA of 3.01.
    At age 22, Eduardo Rodriguez was an epiphany for the Red Sox last season. After only eight starts in triple-A last season he was pressed into service and put a headlock on a starting rotation spot with his 105 pitch debut where he struck out seven and only allowed three hits and a pair of walks while not allowing a run. Caveat here – the guy was only 22 so there were certainly some rough spots, but his overall numbers were good and he finished strong with six quality starts, an ERA in the mid-threes in his last nine starts, making up the months of August and September, and four wins in his last five starts. He does it with a mid-90’s fastball and a change-up slider combination that is still a work in progress – remember his age. It’s not like Rodriguez came out of nowhere as he hasn’t posted a FIP above 3.89 since 2011 and was a top 100 prospect, but relying on a 22 year old to anchor your starting rotation, which is what Rodriguez did last season, is a big risk as they go through the ups and down that most rookie pitchers battle when they first come up. Rodriguez started 2016 on the disabled list with a knee injury and has not looked especially sharp since he came back up. His last month has been better with an ERA in the threes, so maybe he is back on track to provide a much needed number four starter to go with Price, Porcello, and Wright.
    The starter that the Red Sox added at the trade deadline, Drew Pomeranz, is on his fifth team at the age of 27. Teams want him for his potential but seemingly sour on him quickly when he doesn’t show what they expect from him. The Padres got his best half season of work and wisely, according to most baseball analysts, flipped him for a great prospect (Anderson Espinoza) in what might be the best deal for a seller in this season’s trade market. Pomeranz pitched one heck of a half season of baseball making the All Star team with his 2.47 ERA, 1.059 WHIP, and minuscule 5.9 hits allowed her nine. He also limited opponents to 0.7 home runs per nine innings while striking out 10.1 bat-wielders per game. It certainly helps to pitch in an excellent pitcher’s park, but it should also be noted that Pomeranz put up even better numbers on the road than at home. The tall Texan also made some changes to his approach that support his stats looking more real than mirage. He added a third pitch to his fastball/curveball approach – a cut fastball. Starters with only two offerings aren’t going to fool as many batters the third time around a lineup, so the additional pitch makes it easier to believe in Pomeranz’ improvement.
    Since coming to Boston there has been chatter that he had some arm woes when the Padres traded him that might account for his 6.20 ERA in his first four starts with his new club. His last start might ease those fears a bit and Pomeranz is only 27 so nerves might also be part of the rough start. He went from a last place team to a pennant race with one of the best organizations in the history of baseball – you’d be nervous too. Whether he is just rotation depth or a legitimate number three or four starter might determine whether the Boston club makes a push deep into the post-season.
    Brian Johnson, a lefty at triple-A, and Henry Owens, another lefty at triple-A, are the two arms waiting in reserve who have seen action this season at different points. Owens has a higher perceived ceiling because of his stuff, and had 12 starts with the parent club going into the season, but sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Owens has been inconsistent, getting hammered at times including eight homers allowed in 64.33 big league innings through 2015. He got off to an excellent start in triple-A with good k-rates, and at 23 the Sox aren’t going to give up on him anytime soon. Johnson’s stuff isn’t as pretty as Owens’ but his results have been excellent at every stop. Johnson only had one emergency start in the majors to start 2016 so there wasn’t much anyone could say about his body of work at the major league level. Two numbers that stand out from Johnson’s time on the farm is a 6.5 hits per nine rate, and a minuscule 0.4 home runs per nine rate. Owens has similar rates (6.7 hits per nine and 0.6 homers), but with worse control and better strikeout numbers – Johnson has walked one fewer batter per nine and struck out a batter and a half fewer. Better control might give Johnson the edge in an extended trial although Owens has more experience now. If either man makes 20 starts in the majors this year, it will probably be a sign that the Red Sox rotation went horribly wrong, but that is not an indictment of either man’s future value. Both could easily be rotation fixtures someday.
    In the pre-season, if you had told Sox fans that Clay Buchholz would fail so badly that he would be demoted to the pen and David Price would have an ERA over 4.00, they would have probably started sobbing into their Curt Schilling bloody sock hankies figuring that the Red Sox would be near the bottom of the division. Thanks to Steven Wright and Rick Porcello, who between them have won 28 of the Sox first 61 games, the Boston club is only 2.5 as of August 11th. If Eduardo Rodriguez can maintain his recent return to usefulness, Price can lower his ERA into the 3’s, and one of Pomeranz, Owens, or Brian Johnson can chip in, then the Sox might be able to forge a deep post-season run on the backs of a tremendous offense and acceptable pitching. As things stand today, the Red Sox hold the second wild card spot, but with two teams within 1.5 games of them. If none of the rotation improvements come to pass, then the Sox are doomed to just miss out on the playoffs.  Then they will have to hope for one of their young solid arms to mature for next year.