No Miracle Needed For The Mets Rotation

In genealogy, a researcher uses documents and DNA tests to trace a family history back as far as the records and science will take them. Often genealogists will see patterns in families which makes sense. Maybe you are a farmer and your father was a farmer and his father was a farmer, and so on. Starting pitching is part of the DNA of the Mets who can trace their rotation tree back to Doc Gooden, David Cone, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling who can trace their roots back to Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. The Mets family tree is stunted because they only came to life in 1962 but their current top of the rotation is looking like they could carry on the legacy of their forefathers. There were some changes to the rotation during the off-season, but the Mets will live and die with their starting pitching again this year, so before the craziness of playing in New York starts, we should look at how the Mets rotation projects for 2020.

So who is the Met’s “Daddy”? That would be Jacob deGrom. When you’ve just won your first Cy Young, what is left for you to accomplish? How about winning another one like deGrom just did in 2019? Now armed with a Rookie of the Year Award, three All Star game selections, and two Cy Youngs, can deGrom put together career numbers that get him into the Hall of Fame? Weirdly, that is in doubt because he didn’t even debut in the majors until he was 26. His numbers are phenomenal but he doesn’t have the counting stats that one normally would see as gatekeepers for making it into the Hall.  His career ERA is now 2.62 but he only has 65 wins so there is no way he will make it to 300 or 200 and he has to stay healthy to even get to 100, which would normally not be enough to qualify him for a discussion of HOF membership. I doubt deGrom is losing much sleep over his end of career place in history as he heads into spring training. He would win most arguments that at the moment he is the best pitcher in baseball having just struck out 763 batters in the last three seasons while walking only 149 batters in the same stretch. He has three straight seasons of surpassing 200 innings pitched while making at least 31 starts – plus the back-to-back Cy Youngs. Interestingly, as he has aged, deGrom has picked up velocity on his fastball going from an average (according to FanGraphs) of 94.2 MPH in 2016 to 95.8 in 2017 to 96.7 in 2018  – and last year to 97.2. At this rate he will be bringing it at 107 when he is 41! Seriously though, deGrom’s numbers have reached a superior level and with his annual uptick in velocity without a decrease in control, it is hard to see anything changing for the worse in the near future. He is an ace in the prime of his career pitching in a pitcher’s park – yeah, he’s great.

Is your nickname the name of a Norse God? No? Is it something like Stinky or Cue Ball? Well then it is likely that you aren’t as gifted or as talented at throwing a baseball as Thor – Noah Syndergaard. You probably don’t have long flowing blonde hair either! At 6’6, 240, Thor is built like the prototypical lightning bolt throwing God you’d expect to defeat evil- or the Yankees. Even though his ERA was 4.28 (FIP of 3.60), the Mets were probably much happier with Syndergaard’s 2019 campaign than they were with his 2018 campaign when it was 3.03 (FIP of 2.80) because he made 32 starts last year as opposed to only 25 in 2018. If the Mets get deGrom and Syndergaard for 30 plus starts each, then they have an excellent chance of making the postseason. Thor, at 27, has just had two similarly good seasons in a row – ERA differences mostly occurred because a higher percentage of his fly balls left the yard in 2019  (.52 in 2018 versus 1.09 in 2019). Lively ball? The somewhat random nature of home run rates on fly balls? You pick – the point here being that Syndergaard pitched well and figured out how to stay reasonably healthy all year. Having only reached 30 starts one other time in his career (2016), that is a big step toward becoming an ace himself.

Unlike the two beast masters at the top of the rotation, Marcus Stroman doesn’t throw 97 MPH. What he does is make his 32 or so starts (3 years in a row) strike out seven-ish batters per nine, keep walks to around two and a half per nine with an ERA in the mid threes. He is an excellent number three in any rotation and, at almost 29, should be in his prime as he pitches for his next contract. It seems like a recipe for another good year from Stroman who is one of the shortest starting pitchers of the last decade at 5’7. Baseball has a huge bias against short pitchers so it will be interesting to see what kind of contract Stroman gets if he has another good year – which would be three in the last four. Stroman works predominantly with a three pitch mix (fastball, sinker, slider) with the slider consistently having the highest pitch value – a score of the effectiveness of a pitch in games  – of any of his offerings. In an environment where the slider is king (as it is in the Major Leagues right now), Stroman will continue to get chances to throw it in the rotation as long as he continues to succeed, but will probably have a shorter leash because of his size or lack thereof.

In the fourth slot in the rotation, Steven Matz was a top prospect who looked like he would never be healthy enough to contribute to the Mets –  so a disappointment. Then he went and had back to back 30 start seasons in 2018 and 2019. Matz is 28 and is probably a bit maddening to the Mets because he hasn’t become anything more than an innings eater in spite of his ability to occasionally dominate. The former 2nd round pick is unbelievably homer prone with three straight seasons of home per nine rates over 1.4 in spite of his other good peripherals like his Ks per nine of 8.88 and 8.59 the last two seasons and his walks per nine of 2.79 for his career. If you averted your eyes from the ERA column and home run rates, then Matz is a two or a three. Sadly, home runs count and they lead to high ERAs if you give up enough of them. Will Matz turn the corner and help the Mets to the playoffs, or will he continue to frustrate and have the Mets finally cut bait and move on from the lefty? I wish there was a stat that indicated Matz had finally figured it out but, other than halving his home run rate in the second half of 2019 leading to a much lower ERA, you will have to stay tuned.

You have to love a rotation where Rick Porcello is your 5. Not because Porcello is an ace ambushing teams from the 5 spot but because if you are going to stick someone in the 5 spot how nice is it that he has a 22 win season and a Cy Young in his portfolio? Porcello is 31 and not really an ace – more of an innings eater with the possibility of more. Still if your number five guy can throw 180 league average innings, you are in really great shape and it is a decent bet that that is where Porcello’s lives now. In the decade just passed, Porcello never failed to make at least 27 starts and that has value, especially to a team that has seen its share of pitchers go down. His career ERA now sits at 4.36 which is about what the Mets should expect – maybe a bit lower due to their pitcher’s park, but moving from Boston where he had that Cy Young season might take some pressure off Porcello where he was always expected to be that guy again. Now, Porcello can fill the bottom of the rotation with average innings and all will be well.

And if things go south or injuries hit, Michael Wacha, who even though he seemingly has been pitching since Tom Terrific wore a Mets uni but is only 28, is ready to go and apparently healthy. Like Porcello, Wacha is probably not a top of the rotation starter anymore, but his velocity appears to be up this spring, and if he can get even part of the way back to where he was in 2015 after battling numerous injuries over the last few seasons, then the Mets have at least some depth, and pretty talented depth at that. Wacha’s ERA has only been below 4.00 once since 2015 (3.20 in 2018) but his FIP has been below 4.00 multiple times. Last year wasn’t pretty – an ERA of 4.76 and a FIP of 5.61 with an incredible 1.85 home runs per nine that was likely the culprit. On paper the Mets don’t need Wacha to start the season in the rotation but will very likely give him the chance to win a spot in spring training. For him to succeed, his walk rate needs to creep back closer to the 2’s like it was during his salad days instead of the high 3’s like it has been the last three seasons. The home rate will probably be better this year even if it is just because he is pitching in a tougher home run park.

There isn’t an obvious answer at triple-A although top prospect, David Peterson will likely start the season there after a meh season at double-A. After not exactly killing it at high-A either, it seems like the Mets would want him to show that he can, if not dominate, at least hold his own for half a season at triple-A before they call him up. His ground ball percentage which was in the high 60’s in the lower levels, has dropped to the mid-50s, which could signal a change in approach or a decrease in effectiveness. Watch what he does in Binghamton – maybe even go see him pitch and take a side trip to see the former site of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory – you know – if you have extra time.

The Mets have a top-heavy starting rotation with lots of innings eaters with upside at the bottom. Every team would love to have the Mets top two starters, and every team would be thrilled to get 180 league average innings out of each of their bottom three starters; that’s the kind of season the Mets can realistically expect to get out of their rotation. By retooling for reliability in the rotation, the Mets have taken a lot of pressure off the bullpen. If things don’t break that way because this is baseball and plans are for stooges, the Mets probably don’t have the depth in the minors to pivot. They would have to convert Gsellman or Lugo back to starters, go sign someone or make a trade, or hope for their pen to step up and rescue them. With the rosy glasses of pre-injury spring, the Mets rotation looks poised to compete in the NL East. If history repeats itself and the Mets recapture their glorious pitching heritage, look for a deep playoff run for the New York team that wears purple and orange.


Young Guns in LA – The Dodgers Youth Aims to Take Over The Rotation

Here’s a headline that could be written about the Dodgers preseason dealings – “Dodgers watch as two-fifths of their rotation signs with other clubs”. Or someone might have written, “Crickets chirp as Dodgers watch top three free agent starting pitchers sign elsewhere”. Both headlines would be accurate, but also misleading as the Dodgers retool their rotation. As things stand, they will be younger, but will they be better? That is the question that is probably keeping Dodger fans fingernails short and ragged this winter.

The LA Dodgers have a long history of great starting pitchers and deep rotations going back to teams with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Don Sutton, or more recently Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch, and Fernando Valenzuela. So when you see the rotation member (Ryu) who had the best season on the team depart in free agency, you could react a couple different ways. One reaction might be to wonder if the Dodgers were in some kind of trouble – maybe pushing up against the salary cap. One might also show some faith and think that the Dodgers have a plan. Let’s go with that second approach, that the Dodgers have a plan. With the resources available to the team and the talent they already have assembled, there is no way the Dodgers would prematurely close a competitive window. Let’s see what that plan might be.

Clayton Kershaw has been one of the best, if not the best starting pitcher in all the baseball land for most of the 2010s and still managed to finish third among Dodger pitchers in WAR in 2019 (3.4 WAR) after missing the start of the season because of his increasingly balky back. A couple of trends overlapped in 2019 for Kershaw. One, his walk rate decreased below his career rate as he only offered free passes to 2.07 batters per nine innings (career rate of 2.28 per nine). Two, his home run rate spiked to 1.41 per nine (career rate of .68 per nine). It appears he used his fastball a bit more this year, reversing a recent trend for Kershaw where he went to the slider instead of the fastball. This trend occurred as his average fastball velocity dropped from 94.3 MPH in 2015 to last season’s 90.5 MPH. At this point, Kershaw is throwing both the “heater” and the slider around 40% of the time. His slider and fastball are still his best pitches according to pitch values with the changeup (he threw it less than 1% of the time in 2019), which is becoming closer and closer in velocity to his fastball, being a break-even pitch at best in terms of pitch value. His big, slow curve has become less and less effective, and while it was still a positive pitch in terms of pitch value, it isn’t nearly as effective as it used to be. That could be an effect of the slower fastball or possibly a side effect of Kershaw missing time during the spring last year and being unable to get a feel for the pitch during the season. Kershaw is increasingly fighting health issues – mainly his back – while at the same time transitioning to a different stage in his career where he no longer is dominant most nights. There is a lot working against him, but he is a hard worker and very smart so betting against him figuring it out and continuing to be excellent would be foolish.

The resident ace of the Dodgers is Walker Buehler, who at 24 just keeps getting better and better – a scary thought for the rest of the NL West. In 2019, Buehler had a 5.0 WAR, increased his strikeouts per nine from 9.90 to 10.61 while decreasing his walk rate from 2.42 per nine to 1.83 per nine, and decreased his FIP from 3.04 to 3.01 in spite of an increase in BABIP against him (from .248 to .290) implying that he was much less lucky in his first full season than in his debut. Buehler is an ace on a great team pitching in a pitcher’s park. If you had to pick a nit because that’s just who you are, you might point to the increased home run rate last season from .79 per nine to .99 per nine. Beuhler threw 182.33 innings in 2019 and the 200 inning mark might be his next target after a supreme 2019 – that’s what an ace might do. With Ryu gone and no big moves to bring in a top starter on the horizon, this is Buehler’s team now.

On most teams, Kenta Maeda would be entrenched in the rotation. He produced 2.5 WAR in 2019 – his second season in a row above 2.0 WAR, and posted a FIP of 3.95. But on the Dodgers, Maeda is a swingman moving from the rotation to the pen to fill whatever hole needs filling. That might be Maeda’s role again in 2019 depending on what the Dodgers do with all their young arms. He has averaged about 24 starts a season for the last three campaigns to go with 35 appearances. In his first season in the states, 2016, Maeda was used exclusively as a starter but has nimbly bounced back and forth between the pen and rotation ever since. He has averaged at least 9 K’s per 9 innings for his career fanning 9.9 per 9 last season. It seems odd to talk about someone who has been a swingman for three seasons now as being consistent, but that’s Maeda. His FIP changes some from year to year as his home run totals vary, but he is always good for about 10 strikeouts per 9 and around three walks per 9. You’d be hard pressed to find another pitcher who is a better swingman because they either make their way into the rotation full time or are only there because they are fringy, and they fairly quickly show that they aren’t good enough to hold a rotation spot. The Dodgers would be wise to avoid fixing what ain’t broke.

Julio Urias is only 23 but we have been hearing about him for so long that it is surprising that he wasn’t Koufax’ locker mate. He had already tasted high-A (with success) at the age of 18 and was a top prospect in a deep Dodgers system for multiple seasons. Last year, Urias threw 79.66 innings in the majors, including 6 starts for the big club. He did a nice job of keeping the ball in the yard (.79 home runs per 9), and got a little lucky – low BABIP and high strand rates – with an ERA of 2.49 and a FIP of 3.43. Urias made his MLB debut in 2016 but still only has 184 innings in the majors. Is this the year he finally is handed a rotation spot and makes 30 starts? On most teams the answer would be yes, but on the Dodgers you have to keep moving not to get caught from behind. There are two guys who have caught Urias and had successful major league debuts so even though he is only 23, this is an important year for him if he wants to remain a starter. The Dodgers might also decide that the best way to keep Urias healthy is to permanently install him in the pen or make him a swingman like Maeda. Ah – the curse of having a wealth of options!

At 30, Ross Stripling, a former 5th round pick, would be a two or a three on most teams, but on the Dodgers he has mostly been the guy who fills in when someone else can’t go. He has 52 career starts and holds a career ERA of 3.51 with 8.77 strikeouts per 9 to go with 2.12 walks per 9. Those are some excellent career numbers, and he has been even better the last two seasons with K rates over nine and walk rates under two. Last year, Stripling pitched in 32 games, 15 of which he started. He induces a fair number of grounders but, in part because he throws so many strikes, Stripling is prone to the long ball with a career rate of 1.14 home runs per nine. If you are keeping track, that’s three excellent pitchers who the Dodgers move back and forth between the rotation and the pen – seems like a strategy rather than an accident. Stripling’s splits as a starter and reliever look pretty similar and a small sample size shows that he can retain effectiveness the third time through the order. He might be the guy the Dodgers try to turn into a full time starter, unless their usage pattern is how they keep him healthy. I would say watch how they open the season with him, but on the Dodgers that would be meaningless because flux seems to be their middle name.

Dustin May – Gingergaard – is a beast. The former third round pick is only 22, but made his big league debut last year making four starts and working another ten games from the pen. With a fastball that touches triple digits from the pen and averages 96 MPH, he induces a goodly number of grounders and has never allowed more than .82 home runs per nine innings at any stop in his professional career. He is stingy with the walk and in spite of his wicked heat, doesn’t get as many K’s as one might imagine. He still managed 8.31 K’s per nine with LA last year and kept his walk rate to 1.3. May has been a starter his whole career and it would be surprising for the Dodgers to do anything else with him, although it has to be tantalizing to imagine him as the heir to Kenley Jansen in the closer role. He just passed 140 innings pitched in a season for the first time in 2019 and he is young, so the Dodgers are likely to baby him a bit because they can and because he could be great. He is also fun to watch with his wild red hair flying all over the place so he is likely to become a fan favorite.

Yet another young stud, but the old man of this crop of youngsters at 25, Tony Gonsolin, made his debut for the Dodgers in 2019 and threw 40 innings for LA including six starts. Although Gonsolin throws hard like May, his best pitch is a change and he gets a lot of swings and misses with his pitch mix. Before last season, Gonsolin had shown good control and that shouldn’t be a concern going forward even after his walk rate spiked in triple-A. He seemed to mostly find his control again once he reached LA. His biggest issue might be the incredible starting pitching depth of the Dodgers and the fact that Gonsolin could provide more bullpen depth where his fastball plays up – near 100 MPH. He looked equally good in his starts so he will be in the mix to stick in the rotation with a strong spring. He has a legit four pitch mix and the Dodgers might be willing to use him for more innings than May or Urias because he is older.

In 2017, when his arm went boom, Jimmy Nelson was looking a lot like the ace the Brewers had been hoping for since they drafted him in the second round. In 29 starts he was 12-6 with a FIP of 3.05 and 10.21 K’s per nine to go with only 2.46 walks per nine. It was a huge leap for the then 27 year old, and it is hard to quantify how much losing him cost the Brewers. He finally made it back to the majors in 2019 for 22 somewhat ugly innings over three starts and seven appearances out of the pen. Nelson had neither the control nor the velocity from before his injury, but the Dodgers picked him up after Milwaukee non-tendered him. Taking a one year flyer on a veteran like Nelson is something you usually see small market teams try, and Nelson will have his work cut out for him to best some of the Dodgers young arms. If an offseason without pain, where he can train like he normally would, brings him close to where he was before the injury, then the Dodgers will have given themselves even more depth in their rotation. Watch him in the spring to see if his control is back and his velocity is back up around 94.

Oh, the depth of the Dodgers rotation! One hears so many complaints that the Dodgers didn’t make any big moves this offseason when they could have chased a top starter, but if you look at the young arms who have already shown the ability to succeed against major league hitting, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Dodgers are built to last AND built to win now in spite of what you hear from their critics. While they could probably have overpaid to attract one of the hot arms that were on the market, they would do so at the cost of slowing the development of one of their three top 100 prospect arms. (I didn’t even mention Josiah Gray who is just reaching triple-A.) Yes, it is important to win when your window opens, but imagine a team where Kershaw is your 3 or 4 which could happen as early as 2020, and you understand why the Dodgers are bearish on signing free agent starting pitchers. As of this moment, Buehler is clearly the 1 and Kershaw the 2, but it gets cloudier after that – not because there aren’t good options, but because there are so many. The safe play would be to go with Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling as the 3 and 4 (in either order) and one of the youngsters as the 5 – probably Urias to start. Gonsolin and May could be great additions to the pen right now and when a starter inevitably goes down work one or both of them into the rotation, so keeping them stretched out in the swing spot would be the way to go. The Dodgers almost can’t screw up and as the season unfolds Dodger fans will be happy that this offseason – as least as starting pitching is concerned – played out the way it did.

MadBum a Snake? What Is The World Coming To?

It’s hard not to feel bad for Giants fans after losing the one player fans most associate with post-season success – Madison Bumgarner. To make matters worse, Bumgarner signed with divisional rivals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, so the fans get to see him in a not-Giants uniform trying to make the Giants lose, and all San Francisco got for him was a draft pick. That has to sting. I know for Giants fans it will be hard to look at their roster for a few weeks, but eventually they will be ready to face reality and when they have grieved, this article will be sitting there like a hug from your best friend after a bad breakup. Who in the name of God will start games for the Giants in 2020, you ask? I’m here for you, man.

There are reasons to despair if you are a Giant’s fan, but there are reasons to hope as well and things are legitimately not as dark as they seem when it comes to the starting rotation. Try to keep in mind that the Giants are in the middle of a “soft rebuild”. They are trying to build a team that will stay out of the cellar and be worth watching, that is building for the long run without tearing it down to the studs. That means looking for bargains and taking short term risks on guys for reasonable costs who could completely flame out, but since they are on short deals, they don’t burden the team moving forward – enter Kevin Gausman. The former “Ace in Waiting” of the Orioles was available in part because of his 5.72 ERA in 2019. There are a couple of things that indicate that this might be a smart signing for the Giants. First of all, even though Gausman has been around a while he will only turn 29 in January. His fastball still sits around 94 and his control is good as indicated by his career walk rate of 2.72 per nine. Two more indicators of a possible brighter future for Gausman is the disparity between his ERA and his FIP – 5.72 versus 3.98 – portending a return to a reasonable ERA. Also, his BABIP was .344 which was 30 points above his career average – another indicator of possible bad luck contributing to his craptastic 2019. Where Gausman gets in trouble – and it has always been this way – is the long ball. His career rate of 1.26 homers per nine is up there, but he is leaving a hitters park in Atlanta and moving to an extreme pitcher’s park where the park and the weather both help to suppress offense. Even if he doesn’t pitch significantly better (which he probably will), his numbers should improve quite a bit. He is not an ace, but as the A’s have shown over the last couple of seasons you can get by without an ace if you can get average pitching and lots of depth. Gausman is a good signing on a one year deal – $9 million, and if he likes pitching in SF he might be a good candidate for an extension at mid-season.

That Johnny Cueto pitched at all last season after missing most of 2018 with a blown out elbow, which finally required Tommy John surgery, was a positive for the Giants. Cueto could not hit water from a boat with his pitches in his short stint at the end of 2019, but with a normal off-season and spring training he should be fine in 2020 – fine for an old guy. He will be 34 in 2020 so Giants’ fans shouldn’t expect prime Cueto, but he has always used deception and variation in his delivery to keep hitters perpetually annoyed, and that skill ages well. I also would not anticipate Cueto to break 200 innings like he did every season from 2012 through 2016. Still, it would be reasonable to expect Cueto to get 30 or so starts and be league average or maybe better because of his sneaky goodness – a mid-rotation starter. Welcome back, Johnny Cueto!

Tyler Beede finally made it up to the bigs and stuck in the rotation in 2019 making 22 starts and striking out 8.69 per nine. But to be more than an innings eater, Beede needs to find the strike zone more often (3.54 walks per 9 in 2019) and keep the ball in the yard as his 1.69 home run per nine rate is untenable. Beede’s ERA and FIP were so close – 5.08/5.03 – and his BABIP was .312 indicating that he got what he deserved. It wasn’t pretty, but even small improvement and continued health would make him valuable as a guy who can get them 30 starts with an ERA under 5.00. Projections see his home run rate stabilizing, but his walk rate being pretty poor and still managing a FIP in the mid-fours. The Giants would gladly take that. Beede works with a four pitch mix including a fastball that averages around 94 MPH. Maybe some work with his pitching coaches will help him maximize his stuff through changing his pitch mix or sequencing. Whatever happens, the Giants need Beede to turn into something useful, and he is already close.

After Tommy John surgery and a suspension for PEDs, Logan Webb is one the Giants couldn’t have been clear on, and to be fair, they probably are still a bit unsure after watching only eight starts in the majors. But Webb’s peripherals show promise that in spite of the 5.22 ERA there might be something of value there. Webb struck out just over eight batters per nine and walked just over three showing fringy control and good strikeout ability. His ground ball rate wasn’t quite as high (48.8%) as what the Giants might have expected from his time in the minors. He had multiple stops with ground ball rates of better than 60%. Webb allowed a few too many homers – 1.13 per nine – but it wasn’t as bad as some of his rotation mates. If he could induce a few more grounders like he did in double-A and triple-A, then the homer rate should come down. If he can manage that while keeping his other rates about the same as last season, then his ERA might even beat his 2019 FIP of 4.12. With a fastball that averages around 93 (even higher from the pen) and a four pitch mix, Webb, who is only 23, could turn into a solid 4 or maybe even a 3 with some growth. There could still be some growing pains, but the Giants have something to build upon with Webb.

It is difficult to be too optimistic about what the Giants have in Jeff Samardzija. He is 34 so any talk of potential is silly at this point. He is not an ace or even a number 2. His ERA last season was 3.52 but his FIP was 4.59. He is no longer a strikeout pitcher (6.95 per nine last season) with a fastball that averages a tick under 92 MPH, but he has good control (2.43 walks over nine) so there’s that. If he induced a lot of ground balls then that might be a sustainable approach, but at just over 36% in 2019 in the launch angle era, that seems like a tough profile to predict anything but decline and volatility. He gave up 1.39 home runs per nine last season which seems appropriate since he gives up so many fly balls. He gave the Giants 181.33 innings last season and that has value, but he is more a back of the rotation guy now who will cost the Giants just north of $18 million. Oh Shark – what could have been!

If any of those five starters falter, there are other guys – pitchers with some serious question marks and a bit of potential to provide value – waiting for a chance. Conner Menez is 24 and gets batters to strike out quite a bit – over 10 batters per nine at each of three stops last season including San Francisco. What Menez also did last year as he climbed through the system was walk more batters as he moved to a higher level starting with 3.02 per nine at double-A, then 4.40 at triple-A, and finally 6.35 in 17 innings in the majors. That dog don’t hunt. The fastball isn’t particularly hard, but the lanky lefty generates well above average spin with it. Unless Menez can get his walk rate down to the mid to low threes, he will probably be a quad-A pitcher or move to the pen. Guys with high spin rates get lots of looks in this age of data so look for him to get a few shots as openings appear.

Dereck Rodriguez had a rough first half and a rougher second half, but at 27 and with two good seasons in a row under his belt before 2019, he should be an early option if the Giants need a starter. His home run rate exploded last year to 1.91 per nine and moving to the bullpen didn’t fix him or even turn him into something useful. His walk rate didn’t increase as much as his homer rate, but he doesn’t dominate, so another half a walk per nine might be enough to turn him from effective back of the rotation option to a quad-A, break glass only in case of emergency kind of guy.

Andrew Suarez, like Dereck Rodriguez, took a big step in the wrong direction in 2019 after showing promise in 2018. He also saw his home run rate explode (1.93) and his walk rate jump (by more than a walk per nine). Suarez is also 27 and doesn’t have a pitch that really separates him from the pack. What he did have before last season was good to excellent control. The Giants didn’t give him much of a chance after he started the season on the IL – he only started two games with the big club – and he wasn’t particularly effective at triple-A in 2019 (probably why they didn’t hand him a rotation spot). Still, a lefty who can throw strikes should get some chances, so watch for reports of health and effectiveness in Spring Training because Suarez could sneak back into the rotation if he reverts to his form from 2018.

It would be worth watching Tyler Anderson’s progress in Spring Training too. The former rotation survivor for the Rockies made five starts in 2019 and was shut down for the rest of the season with something called chondral defect which is short for “his knee was screwed up”. It includes cartilage and possibly bone damage of the knee, which as you can imagine makes it hard to pitch. Anyone who can fashion an ERA in the mid fours over 32 starts in Coors Field (which he did in 2018) deserves lots of chances to see if he can get healthy and recapture that. Mr. Anderson is a tall lefty with excellent control – a career strikeout to walk ratio of 8.32 to 2.81 per nine. There’s a lot to like about this signing assuming he can get past his knee injury, which sounds like a pretty big if for a starting pitcher. This is a very low risk and potentially very high reward move for the Giants since they signed him for $1.78 million on a one year deal. Anderson still has a minor league option left, so if he needs more time to make adjustments once he is healthy, the Giants can give him some time in the minors. Here’s hoping health to Tyler Anderson and a return to form which could turn his signing into an enormous coup for the Giants rotation, where he could slot in as a two or three.

The 2020 Giants seem to be following a similar path to the 2018/2019 A’s in their rotation construction – get a bunch of arms, chuck them at the nearest wall, and see what sticks. In spite of their brief run last season, the Giants aren’t ready to compete, so this strategy makes a lot of sense. I would expect them to do something on the free agent market that will excite Giants fans in 2021 once the Shark’s contract and Johnny Cueto’s even bigger contract is off the books. They are improving their minor league system, and with some luck their ship will begin to turn around in a couple of years. They don’t have an ace anymore now that Madison Bumgarner is gone – he hasn’t really pitched like an ace since 2016 anyway. Their rotation looks to be a collection of threes, fours, fives, and some sixes (which really isn’t a thing). With some luck one or two of the young arms will turn into something more than a rotation filler as they build to their next competitive window. They might also hit on a reclamation project like Tyler Anderson. It is hard to say goodbye to links to your glory days like Mad Bum, but it is the right thing to do when it is obvious that you don’t have enough to chase down the Dodgers and Diamondbacks or even the Padres in 2020. They will find another window to compete with their combination of money and the draw of their beautiful stadium. Don’t despair Giants fans; your day will come!


Greinke leads a strong rotation in Phoenix keeping the Diamondbacks in the fight for the West.

The Diamondbacks Surprisingly Effective Starting Rotation
by Jim Silva
    Every year there is a team – usually one that makes some big moves in the offseason – that becomes the pick hit to make the playoffs. Sometimes they do and often they don’t. Last year the Diamondbacks were that team. They had just added 9.2 of starting pitcher wins – the WAR kind – by signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. By now I’m sure you know that it didn’t work out according to plan as they lost 93 games. Everyone moved on this offseason and the new “surprise” team was the Rockies. Now an afterthought, the Diamondbacks are doing what people thought they would do in 2016 – they are playing winning baseball currently tangled with the Rockies and Dodgers atop the NL West and all within two games of each other. It isn’t because of Shelby Miller who lasted four starts before blowing out his elbow and undergoing TJ surgery. Greinke on the other hand – well that guy is pitching the way they thought he would when they paid him over $206 million (through the 2021 season) to start wearing all 87 of their funky-cool jerseys. But it isn’t only Greinke making the Diamondback’s rotation hum and that’s what we will be talking about starting with their ace Greinke.
    It isn’t easy leaving a pitcher’s park and moving to a hitter’s park like Greinke did last year, especially when you are carrying the expectations of a franchise on your shoulders because of a monster contract. But Greinke was 32 when he arrived and had played in some big markets with hefty expectations. There is no way I am going to make the argument that performance anxiety, (in spite of his early history of being derailed by anxiety issues) caused the lanky righty to give up a half a homer a game more than his career average or strike out a half a batter fewer per game. You might want to blame it on the half mile per hour he lost off his fastball, but then how would you account for his improvement after he lost another mile an hour off his fastball this season? Greinke is a smart cookie and saw that his approach last season wasn’t working. It makes sense that he would make some changes, right? So far this season he has swapped some four seamers for some two seamers and started throwing way more sliders and fewer changeups (and slower changeups to match his slower fastball). His strikeout rate is up a lot from last year and his walk rate is down, so even though he is still getting taken deep more than once per nine innings, he is succeeding. His ERA is down more than a run from last season although that is likely to correct a bit as his BABIP is .279 about 20 points below his career rate, so there is probably some luck involved. Greinke isn’t dominant anymore but he is a good starting pitcher. He can probably continue to adjust as his fastball continues to become less fast, but at some point his wizardry might come face to face with time. For now that inevitability is in the future and the Diamondbacks can still count on Greinke to continue his winning ways at the front of their rotation.
    As I mentioned already, Shelby Miller was expected to be a good starting pitcher for the Diamondbacks slotting in just behind Greinke. But last season was a train wreck for the then 25 year old Texan. He had escaped the Braves and landed on a team expected to compete in part because he would be taking the ball 32 times and keeping them in the game. Miller got off to a horrible start and never really looked like the beast he had been with the Braves. His ERA when April ended was 8.69. By the time June started he was sitting at 7.09. His ERA at the end of June was 6.79 – you get the idea. He ended up with an ERA of 6.15 – definitely not what the Diamondbacks thought they were getting when they traded the cow AND the magic beans to the Braves to get him. The best stretch of Miller’s season was his last two starts where he strung together 11 innings of shutout ball. So at least he had that to look back on during the offseason – the feeling that he had found how to succeed in Arizona. This spring it had to be on his mind and on manager Torey Lovullo’s mind – what would Miller contribute to his team in 2017? For three starts in April – especially his third start where he lasted into the eighth inning and only yielded a run on four hits and a walk – it looked like maybe Miller had found his old form and that had to thrill the Diamondbacks. Then came start number four against the Dodgers. Miller lasted into the fifth, went walk, walk, double and his season was over. Miller will not throw a baseball in anger for quite some time after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While losing Miller, who was looking at least solid, has to be heartbreaking for the Diamondbacks (and certainly the Miller family), Arizona hasn’t missed a beat. The big question is whether or not they can keep it up.
    Do you remember the last time you had a blister on your hand? I don’t, but it probably involved a rake and a pile of leaves, or a shovel and a mound of dirt. Blisters are pesky little things for the weekend gardener, but for pitchers they are an impediment to doing your job. Dodger’s pitcher Rich Hill has had such a frustrating time with blisters on his pitching hand that there was speculation that he might move to the pen in spite of his status as the number two guy in the Dodgers rotation. The Diamondbacks have their own blister sufferer in Taijuan Walker. Walker has two full seasons under his belt now and in this, his third season, the man projected to be a star finally looks like he might be breaking out. Sorry, I know he is 24, but this is his 4th season up and third as a rotation stalwart hence the “finally”. The Diamondbacks gave up a lot to get him, but their rotation was in dire need of help so losing a starting middle infielder who might perennially challenge for a batting title seemed like a reasonable price to pay. Walker is due to come off the disabled list this week and hopefully his blister woes are a thing of the past. His peripherals looked good last year with a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.70 and strikeouts per nine innings of 7.97. What has killed Walker’s ERA each of the last two seasons has been the long ball. In 2015 he gave up 1.33 home runs per nine and in 2016 it was 1.81. Not many pitchers can survive those kinds of home run rates for very long. This season has been a different story for Walker. He has cut his home run rate dramatically so far allowing only 0.69 per nine leading to a 3.46 ERA. Walker has been a very valuable addition going at least five innings in all but one start and lasting at least six innings in four of his first nine starts. If Walker can get to 30 starts with an ERA under 4.00 then this season would be considered a big step up. It’s hard not to get ahead of yourself with a tall, athletic pitcher like Walker who throws a mid-90’s fastball, but if the D-Backs can keep in mind that he is only 24 then they should be able to temper their expectations at least for now.
    Robbie Ray is a year older than Walker and has been pitching in the majors since 2014 when he debuted with the Tigers. Ray has always thrown hard, doubtless starting in the crib tossing high heat at teddy bears, based on how badass he looks with his mean guy beard. Last season Ray struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings, which is crazy good especially for a starting pitcher. He also limited the home run to 0.87 per nine which was under his career rate of just over one. What he didn’t do was go deep into games averaging about 5.33 per start. Something changed for Ray this season and it has pushed him to a new level as a starting pitcher. Even though his fastball hasn’t lost even a tick off last year’s velocity he has thrown it much less often dropping over 11% from 2015 and another 4% from 2016. He has also almost completely ditched his changeup and has started throwing his curveball harder and a lot more often – almost 20% of the time (0.2% in 2015). So far in 2017, he has not only maintained his strikeout rate, but increased it a bit. More importantly Ray is going deeper into his starts. He is averaging 6.33 innings each start meaning the bullpen isn’t working so hard in his starts, and he is getting more decisions. He is already at 7 wins – one shy of his career high for an entire season. Between his changed pitch mix and the effectiveness of his curveball – his most effective pitch based on a little stat called Curveball Runs Above Average – he is looking more like the ace of the staff than the number three guy. It could be argued that Ray’s increased effectiveness has been even more important than Greinke’s return to effectiveness. Either way you look at it, unless both events continue to occur simultaneously – the resurgence of Greinke and the development jump of Ray – then the Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere.
    The four pitchers we have talked about so far are the four the Diamondbacks were counting on to anchor their rotation. But no rotation can make it through a season without someone dropping – just doesn’t happen. So teams need depth if they are going to last 162 games and have a winning record at the end. Patrick Corbin has filled a role in the rotation and in the pen since he made his major league debut for the Diamondbacks in 2012. He has served as the swingman moving back and forth between the rotation and long relief. In his best season so far – 2013 – he made 32 starts and was chosen for the All Star team at 24, looking like he might become an anchor in future Arizona rotations. Unfortunately, Corbin’s elbow went ‘sproing’ and yet another young pitcher had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Based on pitch velocity, Corbin is all the way back from the injury, but he has not had the results he had before the surgery. Is that a reflection of the injury, a change of approach, an indication that 2013 was a fluke, or some combination of some or all of the above? In his excellent 2013 Corbin was getting the best effect from his two-seam fastball and slider. Back then he threw the 2-seamer 51% of the time, the slider about 23% of the time, and the change about 10%. Last season, Corbin gave up a lot of hits, a multi-pass full of walks, and a space taxi’s worth of home runs leading to the auto-eject activating on his rotation spot in August. He was throwing the two-seamer 33% of the time although he was no longer having the same success with it. The slider was his most effective pitch and he was using it about 27% of the time while his changeup usage was back up to 10% in spite of it generating the worst pitch values of his career.
    Corbin started 2017 back in the rotation full time and has hung in there so far in spite of his numbers trending even worse than last season. Now he is throwing his two-seam fastball only 25.5% of the time, his change about 9% of the time, and his slider more than 34% of the time. None of the pitches are receiving positive values from the pitch effectiveness tool, and I wonder if the mix or order of use is making everything, including his once excellent slider, less effective. I can’t imagine Corbin lasting in the rotation past the All Star break if this continues unless the Diamondbacks feel like they have no other choice because of injuries. He has value because he can eat innings and pitch from the pen, but if he continues to give up hits (.304 average against) and home runs (1.75 per nine) at the same alarming rates then a contending team like the Diamondbacks will no longer have time for his shenanigans.
    With Miller’s injury and Corbin’s flame-inducing tendencies, Arizona had to call up Zack Godley from triple-A to make a start or two. Godley put up decent peripherals leading to awful results in 2016 in his second attempt at sticking in the majors. 2015 was a better experience for the right-hander so the Diamondbacks knew he had a chance against big league hitters even if he failed to show it in 2016. Desperation can be a nice motivator, and so far it has worked out well for the Diamondbacks as Godley has forced his way into the rotation with seven starts producing an ERA under 2.5 and a WHIP under 1.00. Godley induces an ungodly number of ground balls.  With a ground ball rate around 61% he is close to the league lead in killing worms and in a hitters park where homers happen with decent if not alarming frequency, that is a trait to crush on if you are in Diamondback management. So even if there is some regression to the mean, if Godley can just be league average, the Diamondbacks will be thrilled and their rotation will continue to be a huge asset.
    One other reason why Godley’s success is so important is because it allows Arizona to keep struggling starter turned dominant reliever, Archie Bradley in the pen. Bradley was the Diamondbacks top prospect not long ago, but struggled with control when exposed to the rigors of starting. Bradley has been nothing short of a revelation since he joined the pen. His walk rate is 2.12 which is about half of his career rate in the majors. Bradley is also striking out about 11 batters per nine innings and inducing ground balls – so keeping the ball in the park reasonably well. His ERA of 1.21 got people excited and there was a clamor to put him back in the rotation when Miller went down. But one reason the Diamondbacks pitching has improved so much is because they have Bradley coming out of the pen to get three outs and kill rallies. There is no guarantee that a return to the rotation would translate for Bradley for a couple of reasons. First of all, his fastball is four MPH faster than it was when he started – up to 96 from 92. Secondly, his slider velocity is also up as is the pace on his change, so everything he throws is coming in four miles an hour or more faster. He is able to rely on his four seam fastball and knuckle curve a lot more, which is great because they are his most effective pitches. He can throw his change or slider every once in awhile, but doesn’t have to show those two less effective pitches as often since he doesn’t face the same batter twice in a game. Bradley is only 24 so maybe he will hone one of his other pitches and find his mojo in the rotation again, but for now if the Diamondbacks can keep his wicked fastball-curveball combo in the pen, their starters won’t have to worry about leaving the game in the 5th or 6th.
    Like the Rockies, the Diamondbacks weren’t exactly expected to find success through a revamped rotation, but here they are with a team ERA sitting at third in all of baseball. A lot of things can go wrong in the course of a 162 game baseball season, but with some luck and possibly a trade to add rotation depth, the Diamondbacks look poised to win a playoff spot – quite a step up after losing 93 games just last year. Do they have the horses to go deep into the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but for right now it’s a good time to take your hat with the fan on it to Chase Field – don’t forget your spray bottle or sunscreen either – and drink lots of water as you watch your Diamondbacks starters go deeper into games and your team go deeper into the postseason.

How lack of pitching depth and health could spoil another of Trout’s prime years.

A Ticket  to Purgatory for The Angels
by Jim Silva

    When you have the best baseball player on planet Earth, you’d think that should be enough to propel you to the playoffs every year, but sadly for the Angels from somewhere in southern California, they have only made the playoffs once this decade and actually finished below .500 each of the last two seasons. How is this possible you ask? I mean, don’t they have the best player on planet Earth – that Mike Trout guy? Yes, Mike Trout is both an Angel and the best baseball player alive. They also have Albert Pujols who himself is a former BPOPE (best player on – yeah, you get it), so how on this little blue marble can they ever miss the playoffs, much less finish below .500? As my wife likes to point out, pitching is way too important in baseball and I bet it annoys the Angels too, because their pitching is currently a collection of “Belly itchers”. The 2016 team finished in the bottom third of the American league in most team pitching stats that you might consider important, including ERA (12th of 15), strikeouts (15th of 15), hits and walks allowed (14th and 11th respectively) and home runs allowed (11th). While the entire staff contributed to the Angels pitching woes I am going to focus on their starting rotation which, in spite of the team’s hot start, appears to be in disarray yet again in 2017.
    In spite of the nightmare that their rotation was in 2016 they aren’t without talent. Shoemaker’s rookie season of 2014 was essential to the Angels last playoff appearance and almost earned him a Rookie of The Year award. It was an excellent rookie campaign as Shoemaker contributed 136 innings with an ERA of 3.04. So obviously Shoemaker has talent, but the problem is that he just isn’t a prototypical ace capable of dominating for stretches and going deep into starts three times in a seven game series to shut down whatever playoff team the Angels might face. He is a steady number two or three who will give you five or six solid innings and then yield to the bullpen. While Shoemaker hasn’t matched his 2014 season, he did put together a solid season in 2016 where he pitched the most innings of his career making it to 160 and rebounding from a disappointing 2015. Shoemaker is not the ace if Garrett Richards is healthy and in the rotation, but I will  get to him later. For the Angels to stay out of the Western Division cellar, Shoemaker will have to repeat his numbers from 2016 or do even better as the rotation goes downhill quite steeply after him.
    The current number two is 34 year old Ricky Nolasco which is like saying, “Is it cool if my mom joins us on our date?” There are uses for guys like Nolasco, but he belongs at the back of a rotation, not the front. If he’s healthy Nolasco could be a league average innings eater – last season he hung in there for 197.2 innings contributing just over 1.5 WAR for the Twins and Angels, and that’s  about the best the Angels can hope for as Nolasco hasn’t been above 2.0 WAR since he was 25 (in 2008). As the fifth starter for a team like the Dodgers, Red Sox, or Cubs, Nolasco could help to keep the pen from being overused assuming his elbow doesn’t bark at him as it has from time to time. But the Angels need more than that from their second starter and no amount of wish casting will turn Nolasco into a number two starter at this point in his career.
    Andrew Heaney is supposed to be here, probably in the three spot, but he made all of one start in 2016 before going on the DL and eventually having Tommy John surgery. That is a bad break for any team, but when you’re the Angels and counting heavily on one guy to hold together an extremely thin rotation, an injury like that is devastating. Based on the trajectory of most TJ participants, Heaney is unlikely to pitch until after the All Star break if he pitches at all this season. If you are a blamer and you need to pin your spleen to one moment in the Angels disappointing season, I highly recommend pinning it on Heaney’s crappy elbow ligament. While you’re at it you might want to hang onto your 2017 pin as well because Heaney’s absence will likely crush the Angels playoff aspirations as well as your fragile halo-encircled heart.
    So you’re trying to believe in the Angels good start and get past the whole Heaney travesty, but then you happen to glance at the starting rotation past Shoemaker (ok – he’s good), Nolasco (well at least he’s solid, gulp) and you look at the third spot barely noticing the choking sound escaping your throat as a fleeting image on the headline about an unexplained dip in Heaney’s velocity after his first start of the season and you see the name, “Jesse Chavez” and your hope dissolves just like that. Again, there is nothing wrong with using Jesse Chavez to start some games for your team and maybe do some work out of the pen, but counting on him to be the third guy in your rotation is a recipe for Mike Trout watching the playoffs on television. Chavez last started in 2015 for the A’s and was useful enough to get himself traded to the Blue Jays for Liam Hendriks and then to the Dodgers for Mike Bolsinger. He is now 33 and hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2014 with Oakland. Chavez still throws reasonably hard – mid 90’s out of the pen – but gives up a lot of home runs (career rate of 1.3 per nine). He has never pitched more than 157 innings in the majors so even if the Angels can stretch him out, if they are counting on him to make 32 starts and approach 200 innings, then they are as high as the halo outside their stadium. Chavez as a swing man is useful. Chavez as a back end guy in your rotation surrounded by starters who go deep into games is also useful. Chavez as the third guy in your rotation without a bunch of horses surrounding him is a good way to burn up your bullpen from overuse.
    Things don’t get better for the Angels as we move past Chavez to the fourth guy in the rotation, Tyler Skaggs. It isn’t that Skaggs isn’t talented – the talent is there – but he hasn’t been healthy enough to realize his considerable potential. At 25, he is still young enough to blossom and has some peripherals that give fans a reason to hope. Last season saw Skaggs return from Tommy John surgery and although the results weren’t what Angel fans wanted at least his velocity was there. Command seems to come last when pitchers come back from TJ and the control piece of command/control seemed to be an issue for Skaggs as he walked over four men a game. His hits allowed and strikeouts were both up from his career average so watching Skaggs pitch this season will tell the Angels a lot about what they have. If he can leap over Chavez and Nolasco while staying healthy it would hugely improve their chances of doing more than just annoying other teams and their fans. If Skaggs doesn’t find another level then the Angels are in serious trouble because after Skaggs it is hard to find another rotation candidate who is worth buying a ticket to see pitch, unless you really love ballpark dogs and don’t actually care what happens on the field.
    Of course Garrett Richards is the ace of the Angels – of course he is! He throws really hard and has experienced success in each of the last three seasons when he has pitched. Ah, you caught that didn’t you? Richards’ problem isn’t a lack of ability, but an inability to stay healthy. He made only six starts last season, albeit six pretty excellent starts, but sat out most of the year trying to avoid surgery on his elbow. It is unclear whether or not he will be able to participate in baseball activities this season as he is already on the DL with some arm woe. When teams say “forearm tightness”, are they being coy about a pitcher’s elbow or is this completely unrelated to the elbow and something Richards can work through and get in his 28 to 30 starts? He made part of a start this season and looked great until he came out pointing at his arm. Looking great and stabilizing a rotation are two different animals. He is currently not throwing at all, so projecting his return is difficult. Sometimes pitchers with elbow injuries can deal with it through rest and avoid surgery, but many times they end up having the surgery eventually anyway. Throwing 98 miles an hour is not easy on your arm – go ahead, get off the couch and do it right now and see how it feels – but if you can throw hard then you will throw hard. In other words, if Richards pitches he will obviously return to his fireballing, ground ball inducing ways until he can’t because he shreds his elbow – unless he doesn’t shred his elbow. If he can avoid the disabled list, assuming he can get off the disabled list, then he is the undisputed ace and the Angels have a semblance of a pitching staff. That’s a lot of ifs but welcome to Los Angeles Anaheim, wherever THAT is.
    The guy taking the spot vacated by Richards is J.C. Ramirez, who has been a reliever since he pitched in AA ball at Reading in 2011. Is this a desperation move by the Angels? Well, yeah! It isn’t just that Ramirez is a reliever and has been for a long time, it’s more that Ramirez has had limited success no matter what role he has accepted. Last season was really the first time the 28 year old has experienced even moderate success in the majors in spite of the fact that his fast ball tops out around 100 mph. With a career ERA over 5.00 and WHIP over 1.4, the Angels can’t be expecting anything other than Ramirez standing out there until manager Mike Scioscia gets tired of seeing his pitches plastered all over the yard.
    So surely there is help coming from the minors, right? Right? Sadly, if you care about the Angels and plan to still be a fan in the future, your team has one of the worst minor league systems in all of baseball. The Angels traded their top pitching prospect, Victor Alcantara, to the Tigers for Cameron Maybin. The guys close enough to be of use this season barring any huge leaps in development from guys lower in the system are Alex Myer, Greg Mahle, Manny Banuelos, Troy Scribner, and Nate Smith. Smith and Mahle show up on some lists as Angels top prospects but neither of them is likely to be more than a back of the rotation arm. Scribbler has climbed his way through the organization missing bats (and the strike zone) and might be on the verge of figuring it out. Yeah, that’s a lot of dudes, but frankly none of them are particularly exciting. Most of them are organizational depth – guys who will be used to fill spots when one of the big clubs starters has to miss a turn (which for the Angels could be a weekly thing). The point here is that the Angels rotation is in serious trouble and that likely means using their frequent flyer miles to shuttle these five guys from Salt Lake City to Anaheim to get through the season.
    The Angels have some talented guys who are starting pitchers, but they have neither health nor depth and that is a bad combination. If absolutely everything breaks right for them they could have enough to compete for a wild card spot coming out of the tough AL West. If they catch even one bad break, the whole season could unravel and honestly that is what is likely to happen because in baseball you have to assume that you’re going to catch a few bad breaks. The teams who survive these days have depth so that when the bad breaks hit they can roll with it and survive until the starter or the closer or the left fielder comes back. When, like the Angels, you are starting the season having already broken the emergency glass – well, your days near the top of the division are numbered.

Are the Braves latest moves sending a message that they are ready to challenge for a playoff spot in 2017?

The Braves Sign Two Pitchers and Father Time
by Jim Silva
    Wow! The 2016 baseball season sure ended in spectacular fashion with two teams who hadn’t seen a World Series victory for either 70 or 108 years, depending on your choice of poison. So I would like to welcome you to the 2017 baseball season as one of my favorite parts of the year is Hot Stove League season, when everyone is tied for first place and the pain of the last season fades into glorious optimism. The Atlanta Braves had jumped quickly into the fray signing two starting pitchers to bolster their rotation of the future as they continue their rebuilding process. But wait! Did they find two youngsters to match their baby-faced starters? They finished the season with five hurlers in the rotation who were between the ages of 23 and 25 – you know – like a rebuilding team usually would. So you would think they would grab more youth to continue their move toward Cubs-like youthful fervor, but no. Not only did they sign two veterans, they signed two veterans of the Revolutionary War! Ok, not really (French-Indian War?), but they are long in the tooth for professional athletes unless you are one of those people who think of chess as a sport. Let’s take a look at what the Braves just did with $20 million – a question I ask about my checking account on a weekly basis (uh huh) and what it means for their rotation moving forward.
    Like a lot of other teams over the last decade and more, the Atlanta Braves chose to tank in order to rebuild for the future. You know the story. So the Braves got really young by dumping their older players and picked up young prospects that they could build around for the future. In that vein, last year, they made a huge trade with the Diamondbacks when they sent their ace, Shelby Miller, to pick up a treasure trove of prospects that included the first pick of the draft, Dansby Swanson, starting pitcher Aaron Blair, and center fielder Ender Inciarte. While Miller pitched so poorly for the Diamondbacks that he was sent down for a stretch, Inciarte and Swanson showed that they were both well suited to start, while Blair, as do many young pitchers, struggled in his first exposure to major league hitters. At the time of the trade, many analysts thought Blair was ready to jump into the rotation now, which would have meant that the Braves had picked up 20% of a starting rotation and a stellar glove man (Inciarte) to be their starting center fielder, plus their shortstop of the future (Swanson) for a starting pitcher with one good season under his belt. As it turned out, Inciarte had another great year after a horrendous first half. The future came much sooner than expected for the shortstop as Swanson came up for the final 38 games of the season (in his second season as a professional) and put up a wRC+ of 107, meaning he created 7% more runs than the leaguers average player did in the same number of plate appearances after adjusting for the park and the league. And Blair proved that he needed more time cooking in the oven of triple-A putting up an xFIP (a measure similar to ERA that measures a pitcher’s expected runs allowed based on what they actually gave up that was under their control) of 5.66 – again, think ERA for scale. His actual ERA was 7.59. So enough about the trade – back to the Braves options for the rotation for 2017.
    Aside from Blair, who many think has top half of the rotation potential, the Braves two signings have, uh, a lot of experience at the major league level. It is an interesting gambit signing two pitchers who have already passed their 42nd birthday, but with only one year of commitment, it’s really just money and the possibility of holding one of their youngsters back for one more season – unless this is a Billy Beane type of move and the plan is to trade them both by the deadline. In Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, the Braves have added 85 years of life experience (they are 43 and 42 years old respectively) and $20.5 million worth of contract of the 2017 season. Colon had a very good 2016 and on the surface appears to be getting better as he ages. But there are a couple of red flags that indicate the possibility of troubled waters ahead for the stocky Colon. His home runs per fly ball rate has increased from 6.0% in 2013 with the A’s to 11.5% last season with the Mets. His walks per nine (1.50) and strikeouts per nine (6.01) both went in the wrong direction last season, and his xFIP increased to 4.17. On a more positive note, Colon has registered at least 190 innings pitched in each of the last four seasons. If he can maintain last season’s numbers, the Braves will benefit greatly from the stability that Colon would provide in the middle of the rotation.
    R.A. Dickey has declined since signing a huge contract to pitch for the Blue Jays for the 2013 season. As a knuckleball pitcher who stays fit, there is no reason to believe that he can’t at least be a solid back end of the rotation innings eater with the possibility of being somewhat more as he has now escaped the power packed AL East for the friendlier pitching atmosphere of the NL East. Dickey’s xFIP has been over 4.00 ever since he left the Mets for that big contract. In 2015 and 2016 he tallied xFIPs of 4.72 and 4.76 respectively. His home run per fly ball rate spiked to 14.7% last season as his walk rate also increased (to 3.34) – a bad combination – leading to his ugly xFIP. Last year was clearly a down season for Dickey. Prior to 2016 he hadn’t failed to work fewer than 208 innings since 2010, and even with that his 169.66 innings pitched would have ranked second to ace Julio Teheran’s 188. If Dickey can rebound even part way, he will be a valuable addition, taking a huge burden off the bullpen. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about improvement for Dickey including the fact that his xFIP was under four for all three seasons that he was in the National League and his home runs per nine rate was under one. The AL East is full of launching pad parks so expect Dickey to look like he has discovered the fountain of youth upon his return to the NL.
    The ace of the Braves has to be Julio Teheran who at the age of 25 has 47 wins and a career ERA of 3.39. He has been the target of trade rumors now for a couple of seasons, but the Braves wisely held onto him, even while they cleaned house. In 2016 Teheran’s walks per nine dropped under two (to 1.96) for the first time in a full season in the majors, while his strikeout rate inched up to 7.99 per nine, and his home run per fly ball percentage dropped back to his career rate of around 10. It was a good comeback season for Teheran who has notched between 185 and 220 innings in each of his four full seasons in the majors. The Braves hope he has another gear left because he is the closest thing they have to a true ace at the major league level, but has looked more like a second or third starter so far. Think back to what you were good at when you were 25 and you can see that the Braves hopes might have some chance of coming true.
    I am struggling to understand why the Diamondbacks chose to release Josh Collmenter in the middle of their collapse last season. Obviously there is a lot I wasn’t privy to, but with a pitching staff struggling to survive, having a pitcher who had succeeded as a starter and reliever would warrant some patience. It isn’t surprising that the Cubs who claimed him didn’t hang onto him considering how deep they were. So the Braves took a chance, and in a small sample size of starts – three – Collmenter delivered big time with three solid starts covering 19 innings. There is a prejudice against pitchers who don’t throw hard – Collmenter’s fastball averages around 88 – so it’s possible that he fell victim to the fear that the soft tossing guy had finally lost his ability to fool hitters when he struggled out of the pen. Whatever it was, the Braves took a gamble and won, and having re-signed Collmenter for a year, they aren’t committing too much money to see how their gamble pays off. With two starting pitchers joining the team, once again Collmenter’s versatility might be a blessing and a curse. Since he CAN pitch out of the pen, he probably WILL pitch out of the pen until inevitably someone gets hurt or repeatedly bombed and Josh gets to grab a rotation spot until the next shiny thing (young, hard-thrower) appears. No matter what the Braves choose to do with Collmenter, he is a valuable arm out of the pen and in the rotation who is a cheap tool to have on your team. It would be interesting to see what Collmenter would do with 32 starts after that tantalizing three start audition, but I would bet money that it doesn’t go that way because soft-tossers get no love.
    Mike Foltynewicz finished his second season with the Braves after coming over from Houston in the Gattis trade, and if you look at the entirety of the year, it looked like he made some solid gains. What “Folty” managed to achieve in his second turn with the Braves was an excellent first half where it looked like he finally had learned to command his hard stuff and a second half that has to have the Braves worried that he is still a work in progress. Dude throws hard, and while there is some comfort in that, unless he knows roughly where it is going, throwing hard just isn’t that useful in and of itself. With a first half ERA of 3.67 and a strikeout to walks ratio of 4.09, Foltynewicz looked like a number two or three starter. While his strikeout rate didn’t drop significantly in the second half, he looked more like a fourth or fifth starter as his ERA jumped to 4.72, driven in part by his strikeout to walk ratio dropping to 2.75. And while he gave up four fewer home runs in the second half in more innings, his lack of command just put more guys on base for free. You can’t do that and expect to be near the top of the rotation for long. His control issues may have come in response to his higher home run rate from the first half or just a return to old habits as Folty had seen walk rates in the mid-fours in the minors. Whatever it was, if the Braves can figure it out and address it this spring, the Braves have their number two behind Teheran for years to come as the 6’4 righty from Minooka, Illinois is only 25 and under team control until 2022 when he can try free agency.
    At 24, Matt Wisler already has 45 major league starts – a bit surprising from a 7th round pick especially when you consider that he has a career xFIP of 4.87, a WHIP of 1.38, and a home runs per nine rate of 1.42 in the majors. Usually guys who get this kind of leash (long) throw really hard or project to throw really hard, but while Wisler’s fastball is good, he doesn’t possess the kind of arm that makes batters quiver as they stand in the on-deck circle. His heater tops out at 96 – good stuff – and he also possesses a slider, change, and a curve so he’s got the full arsenal. It’s just that Wisler hasn’t found a pitch that he can get hitters to regularly miss. He fills the strike zone, only walking 2.8 batters per nine last year, but he only fanned 6.6 per nine. What is really causing him trouble is that he leaves his hittable stuff where batters can pound it to the tune of 9.1 hits per nine with 1.5 home runs per nine. Interestingly, many of Wisler’s peripherals improved from 2015 to 2016. He gave up fewer fly balls (although more of them left the yard), struck out more batters while walking fewer, and reduced his xFIP. Unfortunately – and this probably has the Braves a bit worried – his hard contact rate went up from 28.2% to 37.6% which means batters are figuring him out and squaring him up. It’s hard to say what the Braves will get from Wisler in 2017, but he will almost certainly be the fourth or fifth starter, so the Braves will be praying for some development.
    The Braves have a slew of pitching prospects in their top ten prospect list, but only two, ok, maybe three are close to being ready. Tyrell Jenkins actually made eight starts in the majors last season at the age of 23. They were mostly awful starts, but still, they were eight major league starts. Looking at his minor league numbers it doesn’t look like he really dominated anywhere, so one would have not looked at his numbers and said, “Oh yeah, he’s ready”. Sean Newcomb did a little dominating at double-A but still walked over four batters per nine so he needs to figure that out before being turned loose in the bigs. Lucas Sims pitched at triple-A Gwinnett to start the season but got axe murdered so was sent back to double-A where he got his act together. Touki Toussaint is only 20 and pitching in full season A ball and looking like he belongs so he is probably two to three years away.
    What it all amounts to is that the Braves have young quality pitching coming but not in 2017. Signing two geriatrics like Colon and Dickey means they can let Blair, Jenkins, Newcomb, and Sims figure it out at a more reasonable pace instead of having to cover innings and get hammered for a year hoping that they don’t lose all their confidence. The Braves rotation will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016 and they will likely win more games, but signing the two veterans wasn’t a sign that the Braves think they are ready to compete for a division title next season as much as it was a statement acknowledging that they are at least a season away from fielding a starting rotation that they can move forward with. Colon will not be on the roster when the Braves next make the playoffs, and while Dickey could be because he throws his knuckleball 85% of the time so he could be pitching with his AARP card in his back pocket, that’s not why the Braves signed those two pitchers. It was a smart move designed to protect their valuable young arms. Look for the Braves to improve every year as they move into their new stadium and start making the playoffs around 2019 or 2020. Buy your rubber tomahawks now – beat the rush!

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.