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.

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.

"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.

The Giants have roared to the front of the NL West. Are there any dangers lurking out there that could derail them?

The Danger of Being Top Heavy
by Jim Silva

    The Giants are not a .500 team. Ok, well they were a .500 team for a while then rattled off eight wins in a row. There is no way they finish at or below .500 – they are just too good. Certainly there is always a way to look like a good team during the spring and turn it into a mediocre or bad team by late summer. The Angels didn’t look like world beaters during spring, until they lost two of their top starting pitchers and now have a nice four man rotation on the DL or about to go on the DL with Richards, Heaney, Skaggs, and Wilson hurting. The Cubs, who have an obscene amount of depth have been able to weather the loss of their starting left fielder Kyle Schwarber, but could they handle another major injury? Last year the Giants were hurt by injury about as much as your average team. They lost Hunter Pence, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Tim Hudson for a considerable amount of time. Pence’s absence probably hurt the most as the other three weren’t stars anymore, even if they were paid like stars.
    This off-season the Giants added about 400 innings of quality to their starting rotation after parting ways with Lincecum and seeing Hudson retire. They now have aces in the top three spots in the rotation with Madison Bumgarner returning and being joined by Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardizja. The rest of the rotation isn’t pretty, nor does it especially need to be to start the season. Jake Peavy and Matt Cain have seen better days, so the Giants will likely fill the 4th and/or 5th spots with Chris Heston, Clayton Blackburn, or Ty Blach at some point this season. None of them are anything to write home about but they should all work as 5th starters. The Giants don’t have any starting pitchers with star potential ready to jump to the big club from the high minors, which leads me to the following thought. There is something that could get the Giants into a lot of trouble – losing any of their top three starting pitchers might be enough to knock them not only out of contention, but to below .500 because they don’t have the pitching depth or the quality of minor leaguers to make a move to rally from such a loss.
    Peavy seems to have righted the ship a bit, lowering his ERA from the nines (yikes!), to a far more respectable 5.83 with an ERA from last two starts of 3.27. Cain also pitched better for a bit before landing on the DL again (twice actually) with hamstring strains. His ERA currently sits at 5.34 and the Giants have recalled Chris Stratton, who’s ERA of 6.02 in AAA this season is unlikely to get Giants’ fans excited. It’s curious that the Giants didn’t recall Chris Heston, Ty Blach, or Clayton Blackburn instead of Stratton. None of their AAA starters have impressed so far, although Blackburn has the lowest ERA of the bunch at 3.36. It is possible that the Giants expect Cain back soon so they took the pitcher least likely to be disrupted by a quick trip up to the bigs then back down. If so, then they are showing a lot of faith in Cain.
    What all this leads to is talk about the Giants trading for an arm at the trade deadline. Barring a barrage of injuries, they will likely win the NL West as the other teams in the division have had their flaws exposed early and haven’t addressed them yet. The question then becomes how will the Giants perform in the post-season? So the Giants, a team with excellent infield depth, a superstar at catcher, a solid bullpen, and decent outfield depth, are thin (but really strong at the top) at starting pitcher. You might respond, “Who isn’t thin in their rotation?”, and you’d have a good point. Three stud starters can take a team far in the playoffs, but again, if one of the big three gets hurt then rotation depth starts to matter. The Giants would have to rely on Peavy or Cain (or his replacement) and that could be their undoing. Other teams have lost one of their top three starting pitchers and gone deep into the post-season in recent years, right? Well yes, but what they had that the Giants don’t have currently was depth in their rotation and/or some stud prospects to trade for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher before the trade deadline. The Nationals, for example have both rotation depth AND high end prospects who would fetch a hefty return in trade. I would trade my car and throw in my favorite cousin for Trea Turner (for example). The Mets have insane depth in their rotation and some hot prospects to trade if the need arose – Amed Rosario, or Gavin Cecchini anyone? The Cubs don’t have great rotation depth but are stocked to the rafters with young, coveted prospects. Since the Giants passed on Tim Lincecum, who they could have signed for cheap without giving up a prospect, they will have to give up something to get a starter during the season – probably a valuable something.
    Once the Giants replace one of their faltering starting pitchers with one of the 5th starters they have toiling away for the Sacramento River Cats, what will they do if they need to do it again? They could trade away some of their major league depth – one of their utility infielders – Kelby Tomlinson (off to a great start, but currently on the DL) might fetch an arm to eat innings but not a top three starter, even as a rental. They would have to make a difficult choice, like trading away one of their young position players if they wanted quality back and that would hurt them on the field causing a problem where one didn’t previously exist. The Giants are top heavy in their rotation and don’t have enough depth to support the loss of one of their big guns. There are worse problems, like not having three great starting pitchers, but the Giants aren’t vulnerable in many places and this is one place that might be enough of an achilles heel to topple them if something goes wrong. Oh Timmy, where art though, Timmy? My kingdom for The Freak!