Small Sample Sizes in the NL West

How fun is the start of the baseball season? Your guy might win 30 games or hit 162 home runs and your team might vault from last to first, because small sample sizes are ever so enticing and often misleading. Here is something new from Red Seam Dreams – a glance at the joy of small sample size starts in one division. Here is a quick look at one player from each team in the NL West for your perusing pleasure.

The season has just started and we are still waiting to see which Yasiel Puig the Dodgers get this season. Will they get 2017 Yasiel who hit 28 bombs and had an OPS+ of 118 or the 2015 and 2016 Yasiel who only managed 11 home runs in each of those partial seasons? So far he has struggled with the bat and doesn’t have a home run yet through 60 at bats. He is popping up more often and his exit velocity is down. A quick look at how pitchers have worked him so far – it’s interesting to note that they are throwing him a lot more changeups, around 14% of the time up from just over 7% last season. He has never faced the change even 10% of the time in his career. Pitchers are likely to continue throwing them too because he is having a hard time with the pitch – more so than with any pitch aside from the cut fastball which not everyone throws. So, there might be a new early season book on Puig that says mix in the changeup often. Until he starts crushing or laying off changeups it seems that pitchers can succeed with the slow ball.

Chad Bettis made an emotional return to Denver last season after beating cancer. His first start, adrenaline field or not, was possibly the best of his 2017 season, but the season as a whole was not good. Thus far, Bettis is off to an excellent start – or is he? He is 3-0 with an ERA of 1.44 through his first four starts, but if you look under the hood it seems that Chad has been quite lucky so far. The BABIP against him is .217, which means when hitters put the ball in play, they have tended to hit it right at defenders. That number will not hold up over the course of a season – his career BABIP is .311. Bettis was previously counted on to provide solid innings and keep his team in the ball game without taxing the pen too much. The Rockies rotation has improved which makes it tougher on guys like Bettis to hold their rotation spot. Two other stats that could ultimately work against our guy Chad. His fastball velocity hasn’t made a comeback since his health issues. He has lost a bit over 2 MPH off his fastball. That combined with a slight uptick in the velocity of his change means the separation between the two has diminished which could make both pitches less effective. So far his change has been quite effective while his fastball has not. So root for Chad, pray for Chad, but keep an eye on Chad because he might be the Rockies starter most likely to regress as the season progresses.

Zack Greinke had a rough spring and probably scared the crap out the Diamondbacks with his calf injury and his annual fears about how his velocity just isn’t coming back and maybe this is when he finally loses it and should I have invested in Facebook stock?! Yes, Greinke’s velocity is down. His average fastball has dropped each of the last three seasons and so far this year has dipped below 90 MPH. His changeup has also dropped in velocity so the separation between the two pitches has remained relatively constant, which is probably why his change has been a consistently effective pitch for the last six seasons. An interesting note about the start of his season so far that seems to fly in the face of his declining velocity is that his strikeout rate is up over 11% while his walk rate is down at about 0.5 walks per nine innings. So he is spending more time in the strike zone with an increasingly below average fastball velocity, but getting more swinging strikes and more strikeouts – weird. He is also giving up home runs at the highest rate of his career but that’s the beauty of small sample sizes – it creates weird numbers that look like they might portend something. His WHIP is 1.00 and his ERA is 4.13 so even with the home run spike he is ok. It is possible that Greinke has changed his approach based on the strike zone numbers, but the drop in velocity is probably the most telling number for the 34 year old. He will have to adjust his approach and that might be what we are seeing.

Walk up to any serious baseball fan and say, “Did you hear about Tyson Ross?”, and you would probably get a response like, “Oh – is he on the DL again?” When he signed with the Padres, expectations weren’t high. He came back from surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last year and was not worthy of a roster spot. But today Tyson Ross is your small sample size bit of joy from the Padres. Through three starts, Tyson Ross has thrown 18 innings with an ERA of 3.50, a WHIP of 1.22 and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.50. Even more encouragingly, Ross’ batted ball numbers – percentage of hard hit balls, ground ball percentage – are right in line with when he was good, and his walk numbers are even better. His velocity is down from 2016 but still respectable at a touch over 92 MPH. He seems to have ditched his change – not that he threw it often – and is now throwing the slider quite a bit more. His BABIP is a tiny bit low which means he might come back to the pack a bit, but right now it is all sunshine and cake for the Padres and in the Ross household – at least the Tyson Ross household.

The Giants are holding off from that rebuild just like a guy who was told he is diabetic going on a pastry binge before he starts his diet in earnest. They went the other direction this summer and picked up some veterans at third and in two outfield spots. Their eights starting position players are all between 27 and 32, except for Hunter Pence, who is 35. Not sayin’ it’s good or bad – just pointing it out so keep your AARP missives to yourself. Pair that older lineup with a starting rotation that is top heavy, and you had better hope your training staff is the best in baseball. Uh, well, to start the season the Giants lost the heavy part of the top heavy rotation with Bumgarner, Samardzija, and Cueto all spending time on the DL already. Cueto is back and pitched great against the Diamondbacks, but the other two are still on the shelf, although Shark is coming back this week. Obviously in the face of all that disabled list badness someone had to step up to keep from destroying the arms of the bullpen pitchers at the start of the season. The shining beacon of light has been 27 year old Chris Stratton. Baseball Prospectus pegged him as a possible breakout for 2018 because his curveball had the highest spin rate of any pitcher in baseball in 2017. They posited that if he threw his curveball more often he could turn from average arm into something of a find. So do the Giants read Baseball Prospectus? Apparently not because Stratton has actually thrown his curveball a bit less often than he did in 2017. The most significant change in pitch frequency has been a decrease in the use of his changeup, a return of his sinker, and a slight increase in the use of his slider. So why is Stratton off to such a good start through four starts (2.22 ERA and a WHIP of 0.90? Take a look at these three numbers – 0 home runs surrendered through 24.33 innings, 2.59 walks per nine down a walk and a half from his career average, and a BABIP of .231. One of those appears to be real while the other two are most likely the output of Stratton’s dirty Superman underwear he refuses to wash – luck. One can only hope that Stratton actually has Superman underwear that he wears every time he toes the rubber, but that is only speculation. Zero home runs allowed and a BABIP of .231 are both unsustainable and both numbers will increase. But, if Stratton can keep the walk numbers down and maintain his strikeout rate at just above 7 per nine, he might keep his ERA under 4.00 for the season. If he can pitch in 30 or so starts with those kinds of numbers then the Giants have a find and a prayer.

A Window In The Rockies And How To Exploit It

by Jim Silva

 

The Rockies made the playoffs last year, but unless you live in Colorado you may not have noticed. It was a big deal in Colorado because the Rockies hadn’t seen the post-season since 2009. The NL West was the toughest division to climb out of last season with the Rockies finishing third, winning 87 games, and grabbing the second Wild Card spot after Arizona, their division mate. In what most would think of as a twist, the Rockies thrived on the backs of a young pitching staff. It looked like their hitting succeeded if you didn’t pay attention to park adjusted stats. Only three full-time position players who wore the Purple and Black garnered at least 100 wRC+ (where 100 is average) which looks at runs created by a player and adjusts for park and league. The team wRC+ ranked 12th out of 15 National League teams. So as strange as it is to hear this uttered about a team that finished first in the NL in runs scored, the Rockies need more dudes who can hit.

You probably already know this, but Coors field is the most hospitable hitting environment in the MLB. The 2017 Park Factor, which calculates how easy it is to score runs in a given stadium, scores Coors Field at 116 where 100 is neutral, with scores above 100 favoring hitters over pitchers. For reference, Arizona’s home park comes in second at 105 and at the other end are the Padres and Mets home parks at 95. What this means is hitters get a tremendous statistical boost (about 16 percent above league average) when playing in Coors Field while pitchers stats take a pretty substantial hit. This is a simplification, as individuals get different benefits and penalties based on what kind of players they are. What this means is that park adjusted stats are even more important when looking at players who spend half their time in Coors Field as opposed to guys who play their home games at a neutral park. Nolan Arenado (129 wRC+), Charlie Blackmon (141 wRC+), and Mark Reynolds (104 wRC+, but below average WAR because his defense and base running numbers dragged it down) were the only above average offensive contributors among Rockies position players who were with the team most of the season. So ignoring Arenado and Blackmon who produced above average wRC+ (again, which is park adjusted) and had WAR above 2.0, let’s look at the rest of the position players to find places where change seems particularly necessary.

Generally speaking, the easiest places to add offense are at first base and left field as they are the least defensively challenging spots on the field, assuming you are a National League team – so no designated hitter. The Rockies planned on playing Ian Desmond at first base after spending $70 million to ink him to a deal before the season. Never mind that Desmond had never played first base. When Desmond broke his left hand during spring training, the Rockies brought back Mark Reynolds, who had signed a minor league deal after being their primary first baseman in 2016 when he played replacement level ball. In 2017, he did the one thing he does well just like he’d done in his prime. He hit home runs in bunches – 30 of them. Normally that would be enough to call it a great season and assume that the position was filled well. Reynolds produced 104 wRC+ which means he was a slightly better than average run producer after the ballpark and the league are taken into account. But remember, Reynolds was playing at the premium offensive position on the field. 104 is fine, but nothing to get too excited about, especially when you look at the rest of his game. His base running was below average and his fielding was actually poor, which is odd when you take into account that Reynolds is a former shortstop. His dWAR was -1.2, which means he cost the team runs with his glove. If you look at the totality of Mark Reynolds, he added runs with his bat and gave back some of that contribution with his glove and his base-running. So he ends up being a 0.9 WAR guy which is somewhere between a triple-A replacement and a low level major league starter. This is not intended to knock Reynolds – he filled in admirably for Desmond, but he was filling in, and should not have received almost 600 plate appearances for a playoff team. So first base is one spot where the Rockies will have to improve if they are going to beat their 87 wins from 2017.

Left field was mostly a hot mess for the Rockies in 2017. Gerardo Parra played good defense and contributed 90 wRC+ in 425 plate appearances. He spent most of his time in the field playing left (a little under 80%), but also put in some time in right with a few more innings in center and at first. Raimel Tapia spent a little less than half his time in left and most of the rest in right. His wRC+ of 81 was achieved in 171 plate appearances – he is just 24 and this was his first significant exposure to big league pitching. About 75% of Ian Desmond’s time with the glove was spent in left. His spring training injury that put him on the DL to start the season meant that he only reached 373 plate appearances. He put up a wRC+ of 69, which was definitely not what the Rockies expected when they signed him. A couple other guys saw limited time in left, but Parra, Desmond, and Tapia got the lion’s share of time in left as well as most of the plate appearances. Since 100 is average wRC+ you can see how they did in left field – a premium offensive position. The position did not yield the offensive production one would expect in 2017.

Second base is the realm of DJ LeMahieu, who made the All Star team (his second) in 2017 and also won a Gold Glove (also his second). DJ contributed 1.8 WAR in 2017, and looking at only his offensive contribution, LeMahieu generated 94 wRC+ – slightly below average – with a line drive/ground ball swing (55.6 ground-ball percentage). He will be the starter and get almost all of the playing time at second because of his glove and probably his perceived offensive value, but objectively, he is an average to slightly above average starter and not a star, so it wouldn’t destroy the team if the Rockies chose to add more offense at the position. That is blasphemous talk in Denver where LeMahieu is well-loved, but the Rockies best prospect is a middle infielder who might be just a year away. Brendan Rodgers could push Trevor Story off short to second where Story’s defense would likely play up, and Rodgers’ overall game would likely surpass both Story and LeMahieu. This is an unlikely scenario for the start of 2018 as Rodgers just finished a full season of high-A ball, but the Rockies also have Ryan McMahon who has played some second base and appears ready for a full time spot in the Majors – more on him later.

Trevor Story was somewhat of a revelation in 2016 with a wRC+ of 122 as a true rookie. Power is Story’s game and even in a down year like 2017, he managed 24 home runs and 60 extra base hits. He is only 24, so his strikeout rate of almost 35% last season could still improve. If it doesn’t, he won’t be a regular for much longer. His wRC+ dropped to 81 – the lowest total of his pro career. His first half was just plain awful, but he rebounded to have a solid second half, and the Rockies won’t be quick to give up on a 24 year old infielder with 51 home runs in his first 875 at bats. Story is an average defender so his glove won’t push him to the bench. If Story starts out strong, the job is still his to lose, but if the Rockies drift out of contention and Rodgers looks like he is ready, Story might become a trade chip. They are not likely to get more offense at the position if Story is even halfway between his first two seasons in the majors so there isn’t really an upgrade ready for the start of the season. Colorado will stand pat for now.

Right field was formerly the realm of Cargo – Carlos Gonzalez – but he became a free agent and although it looked unlikely that he would return, that is exactly what just happened. The Rockies re-signed Gonzalez to a one year deal with a base salary of $5 million. It is unclear what his role will be – he probably will be splitting time at the corners. Gonzalez has always been streaky, but his good streaks were so good that they would carry the team for weeks. His best streak of 2017 came at the end of the season but wasn’t nearly enough to salvage an awful campaign. 84 wRC+ is unacceptable from a corner outfielder – especially one who doesn’t put up good defensive numbers anymore. David Dahl is likely to get the starting job in right. Dahl (who based on his injury history could easily be nicknamed China Dahl) missed all of last season with multiple injuries. Dahl, a former first round pick chosen 10th overall in 2012, is 23. He won the starting job with a nice half season audition in 2016 where he hit .315 and slugged enough to post a wRC+ of 113. If he can actually stay healthy, the Rockies will get the chance to see if he is the answer or a disappointment occupying another spot where they need an upgrade. He looks like he should be a solid starter but probably not a star. If he can stay healthy and come anywhere near what he posted in his half season of 2016 then that will be a tremendous upgrade from Cargo in 2017. if he is injured or doesn’t produce, the Rockies offense will be in trouble.

Catching has long been regarded as a defense first position and that may still be true, but the Rockies catching position was death to offense until they acquired Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy was a free agent and signed with the A’s. The Rockies signed prodigal son Chris Iannetta who is coming off a rebirth of sorts. Iannetta put up his first wRC+ above average since 2014 with a power and walk driven 120 wRC+. Could he do it again? Maybe. But Iannetta is 35 so it’s less likely that he is entering into a new productive phase of his career and more likely that 2017 was a blip. Iannetta should still be an improvement over the pre-Lucroy catching crew. It helps that Iannetta’s framing numbers were improved too. The Rockies have already made their catching move for the season, and it is also possible that Tom Murphy could regain some of his former prospect gloss now that he has had a normal off-season to recover from the injury that cost him the likely starting job during spring training last year. A catching tandem of Murphy and Iannetta will definitely provide more offense than the Tony-Wolters-Dustin-Garneau-whoever-else-happened-to-be-in-town-that-day group that the Rockies started with last season.

A few things could happen with the positions in 2018 that would add production to the Rockies lineup that would not involve a trade or a free agent signing. Raimel Tapia will likely improve. He is athletic, fast, and has excellent bat to ball abilities. Most of his offensive value is tied up in his speed and his ability to hit for a high batting average. He is 24, and reportedly worked hard during the off-season to add muscle. Since Tapia mostly doesn’t walk, he will need to hit over .300 and boost his slugging percentage a bit to become worth the at-bats. He has the defensive chops to easily hold down the starting job in left if his bat improves. Ian Desmond can’t and won’t be as bad as he was in 2017. If he even comes halfway back and is a 2.0 WAR player at either first base or in left, then the Rockies will have improved there as well. Ryan McMahon will be in the mix for first base and the most likely outcome is that he will end up at first with Desmond in left. If McMahon only meets his modest projections then he will be around a league average hitter. If he hits like his minor league career says he should, then the Rockies will score a lot more runs as McMahon gets on base, hits a ton of doubles, and carries a high batting average – kind of the anti-Mark Reynolds.

If the Rockies choose to spend more money, there are certainly hitters out there to be had. Logan Morrison is still out there and is coming off his best season of his career. He will be 30 this year and does two things quite well – he walks and he smashes baseballs into the stands. He put those two skills together last season to record 130 wRC+ with 38 home runs and a .353 on-base percentage due to 81 walks. Morrison is a gamble due to his age, his career .245 batting average, and his inconsistency. Still, LoMo is likely to be had for less than one would normally pay for a hitter coming off a 38 homer season. Mike Moustakas would not sniff 3rd base for the Rockies because Nolan Arenado plays all the time and is an historically great defender, but let’s say the Rockies already know they aren’t planning on signing Arenado when he becomes a free agent after this season. They could have signed Moustakas, who was certainly getting antsy to sign after his best season with the bat (116 wRC+), played him at first, and move him to third when Arenado departs for better free agent waters. Yeah, it’s a stretch and there is no comparison between the 27 year old Arenado and the 29 year old Moustakas, who just had his breakout season. But if you are the Rockies you have to look at contingency plans when you’re about to be stuck trying to sign your two best players to mega-contracts. The Moose ship has sailed as he finally yelled uncle and re-signed with the Royals for one year. Based on what the Rockies did last year when they stood pat with their rotation and were proved right, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them count on McMahon, Desmond, Dahl, and Tapia to make gains (or hope that Cargo rebounds) and fill the holes in the Rockies lineup that glared so brightly last season when they over-performed their way to the Wild Card game.

 

Did the A’s delay their return to prominence by failing to go all-in on a rebuild?

To Burn it Down or Water It
by Jim Silva
   
    In this modern age of baseball based on cold analysis, not relationships with players or loyalty to stars or fan favorites, is it irresponsible for a team without a clear window into the playoffs NOT to tank and engage in a complete rebuild? The question is pertinent because the A’s have now missed the playoffs for three seasons in a row, their last appearance in a playoff game – a wild card game they lost. They haven’t won more than 75 games since then, finishing 5th three seasons in a row. Can teams really rebuild while remaining in contention for at least a wild card spot, in a way that makes them competitive for the long haul? Is there a clear reason why the A’s haven’t started a complete teardown and rebuild? Let’s try to answer those questions by looking at the A’s and their competition in the West.
    The A’s won the AL West in 2012 and 2013 winning 94 and 96 games respectively before sliding to 88 wins and a wild card spot in 2014. They failed to move on in each of their three playoff chances losing the ALDS 3-2 twice and the wild card game quite painfully as the Royals literally stole them blind. So at that point it seemed like the A’s were poised to either spend money on free agents to try to extend their run, or start a complete teardown and rebuild. The A’s have generally acted like a team in a small market, so it seemed to most people that this was going to be the time when they would rip off the bandaid and trade everything that wasn’t nailed down. They would begin the inevitable sell-off of their valuable players for two purposes – attempting to rebuild a depleted minor league system while ensuring that they lost as many games as possible to put themselves near the top of the draft – another way of acquiring top young talent.
    What goes into a team decision to tear it down to the studs, commit to losing 100 games a season for three to five years, and really wallowing around in the cellar? Not being a general manager or owner, you’d have to assume that context would have to come into play. If the team is in a lousy division with a bunch of teams losing more than they are winning, one would think that they might decide to try to go for it – extend the run – for a couple more seasons. Conversely, if your team is sitting in a division full of clubs loaded for bear, then losing might be happening anyway so why not embrace it and look for your next window? So what was the context for the A’s before the start of the 2015 season? The Rangers looked pretty tough. The A’s had been battling mostly good Texas clubs since 2008. Texas had an ace in Cole Hamels, a lineup with a lot of power, and a mix of veterans (Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, and Shin-Soo Choo) and interesting young players (Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus), but as it usually goes with the Rangers, probably not enough pitching to go around. Still, it turned out they were good enough to win the West in 2015 and 2016 as they won 88 and 95 games respectively, before sliding to 78 wins last season.
    So what about the Angels? They have lots of money and a large market. Did they have enough to convince the A’s that they had no chance after the 2014 season? First of all, that 2014 team won 98 games and the AL West. The Angels, aside from resources, had the best player in baseball in 22 year old Mike Trout, the still valuable (at the time) Albert Pujols, and a supporting cast that allowed the team to finish first in runs scored – pretty daunting. In addition to their powerful offense they had two good young starting pitchers in Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker and a solid pen. The Angels would be derailed in 2015 by regression by most of their pitching staff, and decline by the veteran position players not named Mike Trout. In 2016 and 2017 it was injuries to their pitching staff and mediocrity in most of their lineup – again, not Mike Trout – that lead them to win only 80 and 81 games. So did the Angels look like world beaters? Hard to say what the A’s thought at the end of 2014, but it is clear in hindsight that the Halo’s team was flawed and beatable.
    The Mariners won 87 games in 2014 with a strong pitching staff led by King Felix, and included some potential future star power in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. They also had an excellent, young third baseman in Kyle Seager, and a star at second base in Robinson Cano, but were otherwise limited in their ability to produce runs. They weren’t built to dominate but looked like they could have just enough offense to support a starting staff that looked to be strong heading forward. Winning just 76, 86, and 78 games the next three seasons in part due to the slow development of the young pitchers and the speedy decline of the staff anchor, Felix Hernandez, showed that the Mariners were probably not scary enough to push the A’s into a full on rebuild phase.
    Now the Astros – well, we all know they won the World Series last season, but in 2014 they were coming off a 92-loss season which was a 19 games improvement on their 2013 season. They were clearly packed with young talent such as Jose Altuve and George Springer. Two of their starting pitchers were coming off seasons with ERAs under 3.00 – Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh – but it was clear that the parent club still had a lot of work to do – especially with the pitching staff, before they could legitimately be considered contenders. 2015 featured the debuts of Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers and a big step forward from Dallas Keuchel, who won the Cy Young Award. Colin McHugh won 19 games and contributed 3.1 WAR. The Astros clearly had some speedy development going on and one of the best farm systems in baseball, but even though they won 86 games, they still had holes in their rotation, and many parts missing. 2016 was a step backwards for the rotation, although more new pieces of the puzzle in Alex Bregman and Yuli Guriel debuted, and their pen of the future was improved with the addition of Chris Devinski and Joe Musgrave who was projected to eventually join the rotation. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the Astros were on their way to becoming one of the best teams in the AL, and their youth led most to believe that they would be excellent for multiple years. They were definitely the organization to be feared by the A’s in the AL West and that would have likely been clear to insiders in 2014. But development of young players is tricky and the youthful Astros could have fallen off the tracks through injury, bad trades, or just plain failure of a couple of their future stars to develop like they did. The fact that the Astros had that many young players develop so quickly and spectacularly was startling. Now they look like they will be very hard to beat, but so did the Cubs after the 2016 World Series victory and now we are seeing holes in their armor even though they are still quite a good team. The Cubs are meaningful to the discussion because they followed a similar path to the Astros trading away anyone of value, losing a lot of games, and reaping the benefits of high draft picks for multiple seasons. They are a good comp for the Astros although they would likely have had no impact on the A’s decision making process since they are an NL team and the A’s would have to reach the World Series to face them in any meaningful way.
    Ok, but what about the A’s roster and minor league system at the end of the 2014 season? The A’s had finished 3rd in the league in runs scored and 2nd in the league in ERA. 24 year old Sonny Gray looked like he might be turning into an ace. The A’s small gamble on Scott Kazmir had paid off – Kazmir pitched in the All Star game and managed 32 starts, fashioning a 3.35 FIP. Jon Lester was dominant after the A’s got him from the Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes. He made 11 starts and righted the faltering rotation, helping the A’s get to the post-season where they counted on him to anchor their rotation. He was a disappointment in the play-in game getting touched up for six earned runs in 7.33 innings, but the A’s got exactly what they traded for, fully knowing that he would be a free agent at the end of the season. The A’s actually acquired three starting pitchers around the trade deadline – they picked up Jeff Samarzdija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs for their shortstop of the future, Addison Russell, and outfield prospect Billy McKinney. Three established starting pitchers is a big addition to a team already in first place but Billy Beane watched the A’s lead dissolve as the young starters other than Gray withered. He was also seeking to shore up the rotation to win in the post-season with a one-two-three punch of Lester, Gray, and Samardzija. It wasn’t a gamble as long as the A’s made it to the post-season – it was considered by most at the time an absolute necessity for a team that had succeeded in the regular season only to crumble in the post-season. Yes, Russell was a steep price to pay for what might turn out to be half-season rentals, but flags do indeed fly forever. Samardzija pitched reasonably well but got unlucky and went 5-6 for Oakland. Hammel got shelled ending with a FIP of 5.10 after posting a FIP of 3.19 for the Cubs. It didn’t matter in the end because the A’s lost in the wild card game so they didn’t have to worry about Hammel’s rotation spot in the playoffs.
    The A’s lineup featured Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes (at least until the mid-season Cespedes trade that got Lester from the Sox), Brandon Moss who mashed and got on base, young catcher Derek Norris, rifle-armed right fielder Josh Reddick, and a crew of solid veterans who mainly got on base and hit home runs while playing solid defense. Their pen was good and the core was reasonably young, led by closer Sean Doolittle. It was all for naught as the Royals took advantage of a hand injury to Geovany Soto (the A’s only catcher who they believe could compensate for Lester’s inability to hold the Royals speedsters in check) to run wild, stealing 7 bases on their way to a 9-8 12-inning win.
    Going into 2015 off-season Oakland’s minor league system was ranked 27th by John Sickels. They had mined their thin ranks for trade fodder to make a failed run in 2014 and it showed. Jon Lester was a free agent, as was Jason Hammel. Cespedes was gone. So Billy Beane started what looked like a complete tear down; the beginning of a rebuild. He let Lester, Hammel, and Jed Lowrie go into free agency, traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays, for prospects and a flawed, but interesting, third baseman in Brett Lawrie. He traded Derek Norris to the Padres for Jesse Hahn, traded John Jaso in a package to get Ben Zobrist and Yuniel Escobar, traded Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox for Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley and Chris Bassit, and signed free agent Billy Butler, while making a few other moves before the 2015 season started. Since then, the A’s have turned over a good portion of the rest of their roster in an attempt to rebuild their farm system, but also to mitigate cost and remain competitive. Josh Reddick and Rich Hill were traded to the Dodgers for three young pitchers. Sonny Gray was sent to the Yankees for three youngsters, and Ben Zobrist went to the Royals for a pair of pitchers including Sean Manaea. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen went to the Nationals for two minor leaguers and their closer, Blake Treinen. So the A’s got a bit younger at the major league level and bolstered their minor league system which now ranks somewhere around 10th best, depending on whom you choose to believe.
    The minor league system provided the A’s with their third baseman of the future (and present) in Matt Chapman, a first baseman with tremendous power (who put up nearly 3 WAR in just over a third of a season) in Matt Olson, and promises to send along another infielder in Franklin Barreto probably this season. Trades have brought them Khris Davis and Jed Lowrie (again). Lowrie just had his best season, producing 4.0 WAR, where his previous high was 2.2, and 119 wRC+ which matches his career high. Lowrie has always had a good bat but injuries have kept him off the field. Last season, he showed up for 645 plate appearances – second highest in his career. Davis has back to back 40+ home run seasons and is clearly one of the best power hitters in all of baseball – only his bat to ball issues and defense (yeah, that’s a lot) keep him from being a star. The trade of Sonny Gray got them minor leaguers James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo, and Dustin Fowler from the Yankees – Fowler and Mateo are close to the majors and Kaprielian is coming off TJ surgery and Fowler had a catastrophic knee injury – the A’s knew that when they traded for them – their new market inefficiency. Mateo is a year or so away. Jesus Lazardo and Sheldon Neuse also came in a trade (with the Nationals). Neuse is also a year or more away while Lazardo just experienced pro ball for the first time last season, so he is years away. Grant Holmes and Frankie Montas came to the A’s in a trade with the Dodgers along with Jharel Cotton. Cotton came up in 2016 and looked like a solid addition, but took a step back in 2017. Montas was up and down last year, still throws really hard, and still struggles to throw his fastball where he wants it. Holmes had a solid, healthy season at double-A Midland – a hitter’s paradise, so he is not far off, but likely will be a number four or five starter in the majors if he continues this trajectory.
    The point here is that the A’s have some strengths among their core of youngsters – mostly on the infield – and a ways to go with their rotation. What used to be a strength, starting pitching depth, is now a glaring weakness. They will likely start the season with Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman as their top two rotation dudes. Both pitchers are young and talented, but neither has developed, or likely will develop, into a one or a two. A.J. Puk is their top prospect, and he pitched last season at High-A and Double-A, so he will likely not see the big league rotation this year. They have some talent, but not a group of can’t miss prospects, so can you say they are almost done with their “rebuild” and are poised to storm the West? Even though they have a lineup with a lot of power and offensive potential, they just don’t have the arms yet and don’t have their rotation of the future pushing up from the upper levels of the minors. Shrewd trades and free agent signings might fill in the holes, but when you’re trying to compete with the Astros (Verlander, Cole, Keuchel, and Lance McCullers at the top) or the Angels (Otani, Richards) you need to do more than get lucky with a couple of nifty, cheap overproducers.
In 2016, after they did a half-way attempt at a rebuild in 2015, they picked sixth and got A.J. Puk – Nick Senzel went 2nd to the Reds, just to name one guy they missed out on. Picking 6th again in 2017, the A’s chose Austin Beck – Hunter Greene went 2nd to the Reds and Mackenzie Gore went 3rd to the Padres. 6th isn’t bad, but remember that the Astros and Cubs, for that matter, tanked so hard that they chose 1st a couple of times – the Cubs took Kris Bryant 2nd in 2013 and the Astros took Carlos Correa 1st in 2012 (the Twins followed that pick with Byron Buxton). There is often a big drop off between the first pick and the 6th pick, and because the A’s hung onto some quality veterans like Josh Reddick, Sonny Gray, Stephen Vogt, and Scott Kazmir going into 2015, they couldn’t crack the top three picks but were still nowhere near good enough to make the playoffs. Because of the way MLB incentivizes tanking, the A’s, by being bad, but not the worst team, slowed the progress of their rebuild and all but ensured that they won’t make the playoffs in 2018, 2019, and 2020 without spending a lot of money to buy a rotation, or by being the recipients of a lot of luck. Should they have tanked? We will see what happens to the Oakland team in the next two years, but it looks like had they gone all in on a rebuild after they missed in 2014, they might have “earned” the picks to be ready to compete in a  serious way as soon as next season. Instead, they have a cloudy future ahead of them as they hope Billy and Forst can work some magic to turn their remaining cows into fruitful magic beans.

Change can be fun, or financial sucide. Here are some changes for MLB to consider.

    Fixin’ What Ain’t Broke
by Jim Silva
    So you know how sometimes people freak out because not every moment in a game, nor every game in a season, is like hanging by your fingernails from a cliff above a cove full of great white sharks sporting uzis? It appears that baseball is looking at how they can add some sharks and some uzis to the game to attract millennials. But let’s just say for the sake of argument that it’s a real thing – that maybe the stakes in baseball need to be raised so that the tension in every moment of every game of the entire season could be raised. Here are some areas that could be changed, and some fixes to play with that could make the game even more intense than it already is.
    One problem that people point to is the very long regular season, which one might refer to as the “regular season that disappointingly doesn’t go on for 365 days a year”. The reason many games are meaningless (in terms of the post-season) for some teams is that if you are out of the race for a playoff spot then all you have to play for is a shot at a better draft pick, and currently you earn that by losing. Trying to lose doesn’t make for good baseball. Right now the standings are based on the won-loss record of each team in the division to which you are uttering a collective, “duh”. For example, let’s say the Nationals are currently 19 games ahead of second place Miami in the National League East. With just over 20 games left in the season there is no suspense to any Nationals game, unless perhaps you care whether or not they catch the Dodgers for best record in the NL. Furthermore, aside from a slim chance to play a single wild card game, the Marlins aren’t really playing any meaningful games from here on out, so what does that say about the Braves, Mets, and Phillies who are behind the Marlins? That’s a lot of meaningless baseball and that’s only one of the six divisions!
    It’s great that the wild card race has added suspense for so many teams. Watching the Rockies chase down the Padres then beat them in a play-in game was one of the more exciting baseball fan experiences in recent memory. So that is one way in which baseball has made it worth it for teams to remain competitive if they aren’t in a position to win their division. But for teams who aren’t in a position to chase down a wild card spot there is no reason for them to compete in the second half, and in fact they are incentivized to tank because it rewards them with better draft picks if they finish lower. MLB rewards teams for being awful. I understand the reason for giving the worst teams the best position in each round of the draft, but it means dump trades will happen near the deadline and stars will leave teams that aren’t competitive and the transient nature of rosters hurts baseball. At a recent Rockies game you could see jerseys of many players who no longer play for the Rockies and their roster has been relatively stable. If you are A’s fan then you might have a Josh Reddick, Rich Hill, Sonny Gray, or Stephen Vogt jersey hanging in your closet – all players who have been sent packing in the last two years. For a good portion of baseball’s history, players stuck with one team for a decent chunk of their careers and that just doesn’t happen so much anymore. When you try to promote a player for fans to get behind and then the guy gets traded to the Dodgers, then signs as a free agent with the Yankees, then gets traded at the deadline to the Indians, fans aren’t gonna grow attached. It’s like when you were in your dating heyday and your married friends didn’t want to get too close to your new girlfriend because in three months – well you get the idea, but apparently MLB doesn’t get it because they haven’t done anything to address the problem, and in fact they have made it worse. So it’s a two-part problem – meaningless games and roster instability – with both parts needing to be addressed.
    Without trying to pile on poor (ridiculously rich) Major League Baseball, the idea that teams can have such disparate payrolls is just crazy. There are five teams with payrolls under $100 million, three teams with payrolls above $220 million and the other twenty-two teams sit in between – above $100 million, but below $200 million. Nobody would expect two businesses putting out the same product to try to compete playing by the same rules but with less than half the resources. That disparity contributes to the roster instability and makes it hard for casual fans to stick with their team through the hard times. So to summarize, Major League Baseball needs to address dump trades, payroll disparity, and making individual games matter more in order to increase the level of competition so that casual fans will be more invested in the regular season and willing to wed themselves to a team other than the freakin’ Yankees, Dodgers, or Cubs. Let’s start with tanking.
    Who doesn’t hate freakin’ dump trades! Grr! It’s hard not to feel bad for the fans of the dumping team, and bitter with the team that is the recipient of the dump for getting major league talent without giving up major league talent – a cow for some magic beans. Not that cows are necessarily better than magic beans, but the best case scenario has the cow pushing his new team to the playoffs while the magic beans take time to grow, or just flat out wilt in the heat of the Southern League. As a fan why should you go watch your team after they give away all their talented major leaguers when the stars of the future are playing in the minors? Why should you spend $175 for an authentic jersey with your favorite dude’s name and number on the back and then watch him play in the playoffs for some other team while your team fields a quad-A guy in his place? There are many implications to dump trades, but in the current atmosphere of MLB, they make total sense if you are a team clearly destined to finish out of the playoffs for the next handful of seasons. There is currently no reason for a team to finish in third place in their division when they can finish in last, pay much less in salary, and get a top draft pick. In fact it could be argued that Billy Beane and David Forst have done the A’s a disservice for failing to tank for the last several seasons. What are they doing trading away two of their top 20 prospects for Steven Piscotty when they could sign 53 year old Rafael Palmeiro for the minimum? So how to fix this abomination?
    The draft – that’s where it has to start. The primary reason teams tank is to allow them to build back up with the top prospects from the draft. Look at what the Astros did by ditching all their players with any value. Losing over 100 games in each of three straight seasons (2011 through 2013) and then losing another 92 games in 2014 allowing them to choose first in 2012, 2013, 2014, and second in 2015. If MLB wants to create more competitive races and create stability on rosters they need to stop rewarding teams for failing to compete, while also ceasing the practice of incentivizing dump trades. Sounds obvious, no? MLB should make it so that the regular season isn’t just a competition for pennants – teams will also play for their draft picks, making it just plain stupid to fail to finish as close to the top as possible. If a team traded away stars for really young players then they had better be planning to sign some free agents because otherwise they will be spiraling downward for a long time. Let’s assume there are 32 teams after expansion happens. The top group could consist of 10 teams since those will be clubs who are in the playoffs (if you include the wild card teams) and you don’t need to worry about them intentionally giving up a playoff spot to game the draft system. Playoff revenue is too much to give up as is the chance of making it to the World Series – even for a Wild Card team. Teams should be rewarded for sinking resources into chasing down the teams ahead of them.
So the 10 playoff teams would likely, but not necessarily,  pick at the bottom of each round because they would have so few ping pong balls. They would get a number of ping pong balls inversely correlated to their final position in the standings – so the playoff team with the fewest wins gets 10 while the team with the most wins in MLB gets 1 – simple. The picks after that would ordered by win totals, and the gap between the number of ping pong balls would increase by their position in the win total standings. So the worst team by wins starts the non-playoff group with 13 balls, the team with the second lowest win total 17, the team with the third lowest gets 22, etc.. Obviously, after a team has a pick in a round, the rest of their ping pong balls are voided from the system until the next round. The ping pong seeding method could be repeated for every round of the draft. Imagine how fun it would be to watch on TV if the draws for each round were live. MLB could market the live and televised draft and it would excite fans on draft day. They could even hold the draft during the All Star game week. And while they are at it why not make draft picks or ping pong balls tradeable commodities? “Hey, Brian, throw in three ping pong balls in the first round and you have yourself a deal.” “No way, other Brian. Ping pong balls are way too valuable to throw in, but I really want Chapman so how about two?” There are other shiny things in MLB’s pouch to incentivize competition, including international bonus pool money and revenue sharing money, so if that draft pick is just too tempting MLB could always sweeten the pot.
Here are a couple wee tables, based on last season’s standings, in case you are a visual learner…
This first table is for the teams who made the playoffs.
Team
Wins
Ping Pong Balls
Dodgers
104
1
Indians
102
2
Astros
101
3
Nationals
97
4
Red Sox
93
5
Diamondbacks
93
5
Cubs
92
7
Yankees
91
8
Rockies
87
9
Twins
85
10

This next table includes the teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

Giants
64
13
Tigers
64
13
Phillies
66
17
White Sox
67
22
Reds
68
28
Mets
70
35
Padres
71
43
Braves
72
52
Orioles
75
62
A’s
75
62
Pirates
75
62
Blue Jays
76
73
Marlins
77
85
Rangers
78
98
Mariners
78
98
Angels
80
112
Royals
80
112
Rays
80
112
Cardinals
83
127
Brewers
86
143

    This next solution is complicated, but not quite as messy as fixing the payroll problems (hint: that one involves socialism). In order to add meaning to literally every game of the season, the games and each series needs to be weighted. So instead of just purely ranking teams according to their won-loss record MLB would go to a point system, kind of like hockey. Yeah, sorry about mentioning hockey in a baseball article. Undoubtedly people are now wrapping themselves in the American Flag and singing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs while rocking themselves anxiously, and plotting an invasion of Canada. Unlike Hockey (feel better?), this system would take into account not only wins – while ignoring single losses – and reward sweeps and series wins. So a team that gets hot in the second half could put on a serious charge and maybe even catch a team with a better won-loss record. A single point would be awarded for a win, with zero points going to the losing team. A series victory would gain the winning team an additional point, while a sweep would be worth three points instead of one, while also costing the team on the other side of the broom two points. So let’s say the Dodgers were to go into AT&T Park for a three game series against the Giants in the final week of the season with a seven point lead. If the Giants sweep, they pick up one point for each win, plus the three point sweep bonus, while the Dodgers pick up zero points and lose two points for getting swept, and the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! Right now a series is meaningless in the sense of it existing as a mini series – it’s just three games in a row against the same team. How much more exciting would game three of each series be if the series was an entity unto itself? Teams would have to think about setting up their rotation to throw their stud in game three of a series in order to either pick up the sweep bonus or avoid the sweep penalty. Even a late season series against a last place team might draw a big crowd if there was potential for a sweep that could cost a contending team two points or earn them six points in the standings. Paired with the draft system above, it would have meaning even for the team out of contention. Through the games of September 10th, 2017, here are the standings for the AL East using the current method and the points method I am proposing. Since MLB currently has things like a four game or a two game series, there are times when no points went to either team for a series victory and when teams earned three “sweep points” for sweeping a two game series or a four game series. Since 162 divides evenly by 3, baseball could make every series a three game series, or the bonus could be adjusted to one bonus point for sweeping a two game series and five points for sweeping a four game series, although I like how clean dividing the season into a series of three game battles would be.  Anyway, those standings…

Standings under current system
Standings under point system
Boston —
Boston 117 points
New York – 3.5 games
New York 111 points
Baltimore – 10 games
Baltimore 91 points
Tampa Bay – 10.5
Tampa Bay 87 points
Toronto – 15 games
Toronto 78 points

The positions in the division aren’t different under the points system, but some of the separations between clubs are changed somewhat. If the Yanks went into Boston and swept three games they would be up by two points instead of a half game back. How exciting would that make game three of the series knowing that a six point swing was on the line? Toronto would have a tough time making up 4.5 games, but a sweep of Tampa Bay would put them just one point back for a better draft pick.
    This next one is tough – solving the payroll disparity between the haves and the have-nots. How do you tell billionaires that they have to share their money? You were warned that there was some socialism is this last change, so don your Bernie Backer t-shirt and get comfy on your hemp sofa as you read this last part.
For starters, there is no way the teams go for this, but depending on how the details are presented, the players could be really excited by this proposal – still, not gonna happen. I am proposing that all the teams put all of their money into one pot and split it exactly evenly. Uh huh – all their money including television revenues, gate, sales of team paraphernalia – everything. They would be operating as one entity. All teams pulling for the good of the league because they would become the league. Players would share revenue based on a formula instead of fighting against the owners for whatever the owners are willing to part with. It would make the league and all the teams in the league healthy and put them on the same financial level. If a team didn’t perform, nobody could blame it on a lack of money. They could blame their team-building strategies, the manager, and the players, but you couldn’t point to the disparity in revenue as the cause for one team dominating or one team flailing. Additionally, each team would have a hard salary cap and a hard salary floor in a narrow band so that, even with fluctuations in salary from season to season all teams would be in the same ballpark every year. Now I am fairly confident that there is no way teams with huge revenues would go for complete revenue sharing. A more realistic solution would be to just employ a hard cap and floor system with a band that narrows from year to year until a sweet spot is achieved. Competition is good for baseball, or so the owners would have you believe otherwise why increase the number of playoff spots with the Wild Card? By removing the financial chasm that currently exists fans would get to see exactly how good their organization really is. For years, A’s fans have wondered what Billy Beane could do with the Red Sox payroll and my plan would help baseball answer that question.
    There is no question that baseball has some issues to deal with even at this time when owners are making money hand over fist. I have only tackled a few of the issues in this article while avoiding the issues that baseball is already tackling, like pace of play and cheating (performance enhancing drugs). Some of the more radical in-game changes, like going to seven innings, or decreasing the length of the regular season would risk alienating the rabid fan base in an attempt to engage casual fans. So one warning to the commissioner – If baseball changes the game itself in an attempt to draw millennials or casual fans, you might permanently damage your strong base. Don’t rob Peter (Angelos) to pay Paul (Blair).

Cash out or play for one final run? The Royals show their hand at the trade deadline.

A Walk is as Good as a Hit, Unless You are a Royal
by Jim Silva

    Conventional wisdom says the Royals, who went to the World Series two years in a row and won in their second attempt – 2015 – are about to be broken up. That comes with the usual belief that if they are close to a playoff spot, they need to go for it before their window closes potentially for at least the near future. The core members of their World Series teams have contracts expiring at the end of this season, and the team is unlikely to extend the contracts of all or even most of them as they are already running a payroll slightly above major league average and higher than they ever have by a decent amount, while still ranking at or near the bottom of all the MLB teams in terms of market size. Complicating matters is the fact that their minor league system ranked 26th out of 30 teams in Baseball America’s 2017 farm system rankings, so it is unlikely that they are going to  be able to extend their run by bringing guys up to step seamlessly into place when their stars depart. That leaves them with three options as the trade deadline approaches. They can stand pat and hope they have enough to run down the Indians who are currently two and a half games ahead of them in first place. They can make a trade to increase their chances of running down the Indians, but that is hard since their farm system is so weak, making it unlikely that could entice another team to part with a major league talent of enough value to help them. Their third option is to start gutting their team now, trading away anyone who won’t be with them next season in an attempt to improve their dismal farm system. I can’t help but wonder if management wishes the team hadn’t surged of late, moving them so close to the top of the division, because now that third option would be met with vitriol from the Kansas City fan base. It appears that the Royals have chosen the “stay and fight” option as they just completed a trade that brought them three big league arms indicating that they are clearly not selling. So it appears to be on! Let’s look at their infield where three of those soon-to-be free agents reside.
    Salvador Perez is NOT one of the three infielders on the bubble and that is a good thing for the future of the Royals. Not many teams are set at catcher, and with their 27 year old star behind the plate, the Royals will at least have that going for them moving forward. Perez is having his best offensive season contributing a wRC+ of 117 so far, driving his career number to 99, with 100 being league average. His batted ball profile has changed quite a bit this year with the percentage of hard hit balls up 10% from his career rate. He has always been a free swinger, but this year Salvy has taken it to new heights swinging at 58.4% of all pitches he sees where league average is 46.5%. Perez is generating misses, but also making a lot of contact when he chases after everything leaving the pitcher’s hand. His contact rate is 80.4% which is almost 3% above league average. So not only is he swinging at way more pitches and making contact more than most players, what he hits, he hits hard. And it isn’t luck as his BABIP is almost exactly league average. The 27 year old catcher has slashed .285/.316/.525 through his first 359 plate appearances, so his offensive success isn’t based solely on a high batting average. With 21 home runs already, Perez is only one away from career high for a full season.
    It is not just his offense that makes Perez a star in Kansas City. 2016 saw the catcher make a big leap forward in his ability to control the running game, nailing almost half of potential base thieves. He has always been a good pitch blocker, but he still costs his staff some strikes with his poor pitch framing. He has won the Gold Glove four years in a row, but has never won a Fielding bible Award due to the aforementioned framing issues. Is he really the best defensive catcher in the AL? Yeah – very possibly. Is he the best hitting catcher in the AL? Again, he might just be – Perez and the Tigers Alex Avila are tied atop the WAR leaderboard – sorry Gary Sanchez. If I were the Royals I would build upon the foundation of Salvador Perez, but I would be tempted to trade him if someone overwhelmed me because I’m not sure his offense is sustainable with walk rates like his. Since they aren’t going to trade him right now, which is probably his peak, then they might as well print lots of t-shirts, paint him a parking spot, and schedule a bobble-head night. Yeah, he is great, but his flaws might mean that his offense disappears sooner than a player with better self control at the plate.
    Moving to the other guy on the infield who isn’t a free agent at the end of the season, second baseman Whit Merrifield is more of an organizational soldier than a future star or top prospect. Merrifield debuted at the age of 27 after spending the better part of three seasons at triple-A. He is a positional flexibility (PF) guy who has become the main starting second baseman. Calling him a PF isn’t meant to belittle his skills. It has become quite chic to have a guy like him on your roster, especially in this age of bigger pitching staffs and shorter benches. Merrifield has earned the starting role with good defense and a wRC+ of 115 so far this season. The defensive metrics have been in agreement for two seasons now that he is quite a good second baseman. He has also shown the ability to not stink up the joint when they put him at 1st or 3rd, or in left field. This season, he has also improved his stolen base efficiency getting caught only twice in 18 attempts. Even if his bat slows down the stretch, his glove and legs will provide value to the Royals – he is currently the team leader in WAR from positional players. Like Perez and other members of the Royals, Whit doesn’t walk enough, although there is some evidence in his minor league past that he can walk. If his walk rate increases and he maintains some of his batting average, then he is a minor star.
    So, now we start on the three guys who are likely to be playing their last season in Kansas City – and why not start at shortstop? Alcides Escobar came to the Royals from the Brewers in a trade before the 2011 season and dude has had at least 598 plate appearances every year since. He is on pace to do it again. Like Perez and Merrifield, Escobar is immune to the free pass, carrying a career on-base percentage of .293. What on-base ability he does manage is based almost entirely on his batting average (a career .259 hitter), but with very little power there isn’t much to say about his game with the stick. Escobar is all about the work with the glove, but with a career wRC+ of 70, his glove has to be otherworldly for the 30 year old shortstop to justify his existence on a roster, much less as a starter. At this point in the 2017 season his glove has been unable to justify his weak bat and he is a WAR hole, costing his team more than he contributes relative to a replacement level player. At 30, and with only two seasons of WAR at 2.0 or above (starter level), the last one being in 2014, it is hard to justify giving Escobar his usual 600 plate appearances if you intend to win. Making predictions about what the Royals will do has proven to be folly, but I will admit to being shocked if Kansas City brings Escobar back as the starting shortstop for 2018.
    Next on the train out of Kansas City is third baseman, Mike Moustakas, who is now 28 and was the second player taken in the 2007 draft. Along with seemingly everyone in the Majors, Moustakas is experiencing a power surge having already mashed 29 balls over the fence – his previous season high was 22 in 2015. The home runs hide some backsliding in plate discipline. 2016 was mostly a loss due to injuries, but in 2015 Moose managed a .348 on-base percentage partly due to a career high 43 walks. He also mustered a career low 12.4% strikeout rate. This year however, the third baseman is back to his free-swinging ways with a career low walk rate of 4.2% and a strikeout rate above his career average. In spite of his .279 average, his on-base percentage is only .309. His career high slugging percentage is mitigating the number of outs he makes, and his wRC+ is at 122, tied for his career high. If he could put the two Moose seasons together and get on at that .340 clip while showing 40 home run power, he would be a star.
    Moustakas doesn’t look like the agile fielder that he actually is. For the last five seasons, Moustakas has shown good range leading to at least average, and sometimes good, defensive numbers. This year, something is impacting his range driving his defensive numbers down to a bit under league average. He is still playing a clean third base with only 5 errors to date. With the glove and the big stick, Moustakas is a force for the Royals and would be hard to replace if the Royals suddenly fell out of the race and tried to get something for him. It is hard to say if he will age gracefully. He appears to be over the injury festival that held him to 27 games last year, so they are getting the real Moose this year. Whether or not that will be enough to help the Royals make a run to the postseason is to be seen, but it appears that they are riding the Moustakas train at least until the end of the season.
    The last member of the Royals core infielders who is also a free agent at season’s end is their first baseman, Eric Hosmer. Hosmer has never been the classic masher that most of us think of when we envision first basemen. That said, Hosmer has a career slugging percentage of .436 due to his modest home run power and ability to hit a decent number of doubles. Last season he reached a career high 25 home runs and appears on pace to break that mark this year as he already has 16. Hosmer does a lot of things pretty well, but doesn’t stand out in any one area. As a third overall pick in the 2008 pick, he is far from a bust, but also far from a star. His glove is not disastrous, but neither is it good and his range has been below average for three seasons now. While he doesn’t muck up balls he should get to, when you hit like Keith Hernandez (minus some walks, but plus a few homers) it would be nice if you fielded like Keith Hernandez (or maybe acted like the former Seinfeld recurring character). One thing Hosmer does a little better than the other five guys I have written about is walk. His career walk rate of 8.0% is acceptable unlike his partners. You can expect him to get on at about a .340 clip and this year he is hitting a somewhat BABIP inflated (.352 BABIP) .319 up from his career mark of .282. There’s a lot to like about Hosmer and he is only 27, so if the Royals are going to keep one of the five, Hosmer, while not an elite first baseman looks like he is continuing to improve offensively, so he might be the best bet to maintain his value for longer than his non-walking, older brethren. Bet on Hoss!
    Yes, the Royals do have a minor league system and it is full of guys who play baseball. At the start of the season, the Royals didn’t have a single top 100 prospect, and when the 2018 rankings come out that isn’t likely to change. Their two best infield prospects are now at triple-A. Ryan O’Hearn is a first baseman with decent power, the ability to draw a walk, and some swing and miss to his game. Since he is mostly limited to first base, his bat and his bat alone will dictate whether or not he sticks in the majors if/when Hoss leaves. He has slashed .282/.359/.494 in almost four seasons in the minors and is handling triple-A in his first try (.265/.336/.471) including 17 homers through his first 378 at-bats. With only one hiccup season in the minors, but not exactly dominant performances since he left rookie ball, O’Hearn isn’t someone to get excited about, but he could probably be a 20 home run .250 hitter with a .320 on-base percentage in the majors. He would at least be a placeholder if Hosmer leaves, with strikeouts being the limiting factor.
    Hunter Dozier was a Royals top three prospect going into the season. It isn’t clear what position he will play as he is listed as a third baseman, but has played only outfield in his major league cup of coffee, and has played more outfield than third base during his injury plagued 2017 in the minors. He makes a decent number of errors at third, so perhaps the Royals are unsure about his ability to stick there, or maybe they are trying to test his positional flexibility. Whatever the case, Dozier’s offensive game doesn’t thrill. He has some power as evidenced by a 23 home run season in 2016 – his most long balls in a season since hitting 12 in an ugly 2015 at double-A. He has a little bit of speed, stealing 7 bases on 8 attempts in 2016. He has hit for average in some of his minor league stops including .296 in the hitter friendly PCL in 2016, and isn’t afraid to walk. Put that all together and you have a 25 year old with a slash line of .262/.344/.429 in the minors for his career. So like Hearn, he could probably stick with the Royals if Moose leaves, but he is unlikely to be more than a placeholder until someone more exciting comes along. This is not exactly an exciting future that is looming for the Royals, at least with the guys near the top of the system.
    The Royals are in the race for the division and for a wild card spot, and their infield core is unlikely to stay intact with guys waiting in the wings who frankly aren’t that exciting. They made some small moves to get a little better for the stretch run, but didn’t do anything to make it much more likely that they could chase down the superior Indians club, while also not trying to cash out their free agents-to-be. They played the middle, which might have been intended to not anger their fans. If they make the playoffs one last time who knows what might happen in a post-season series – probably not much as the Royals really are a .500 team and no longer feature a dominant pen. ESPN has them at 8.5% to win the division and 34.7% to take one of the wild card spots – although if you look at the teams they are chasing for those two spots, the Royals have the worst run differential of the bunch. As Yogi said, “When you come to a fork in the road take it”. The Royals decided instead to stand in the intersection and you can probably guess how that will work out.

   

The Reds outfield has probably snuck up you.

Those Sneaky Reds –  Talent From Corner To Corner
by Jim Silva
    The Reds are an old franchise – one of the five oldest continuous franchises in baseball – and unlike the A’s, Braves, Giants and Dodgers, they’ve stayed in their original city the whole time. The Cubs and Braves are older, but the Reds have been around long enough to see every World Series and all the rule changes in the history of baseball. So it must be painful to watch a franchise like that struggle and then enter a rebuilding phase like the current Reds are in. Hey, everyone goes through the ups and downs of building, competing, and rebuilding – yes – but the Reds franchise that has been around for 127 years has won the World Series only five times in their long history and the last time was in 1990. The Cincinnati club has never finished first more than two seasons in a row, including their Big Red Machine teams of the ‘70s. That team finished first six times in a 10 season span and won back to back World Series in 1975 and ‘76. So the peak of the Reds’ franchise history was in the ‘70s and they’ve been good a couple of times since then. But enough history for now – the primary questions are whether or not their current rebuild will result in sustained success, and if they are now close to the peak or still tearing down and building up. We will examine their outfield to see if at least there the Reds are close to a finished product.
    In Billy Hamilton (no, not THAT Billy Hamilton http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi01.shtml), the Reds have one of the fastest players in the game in the last decade. Hamilton has game-changing speed but runs afoul of the adage, “You can’t steal first base”, because he continues to sport a low on-base percentage hampering his development as a leadoff hitter. While Hamilton has nabbed 217 bases at an 86% clip in his first 1900 or so plate appearances, his career on-base percentage sits below .300. As a leadoff hitter what that means is Hamilton is making a boatload of outs. How fast is Hamilton? He is the fastest player in all of baseball as measured in the Statcast era. He has the fastest double and the fastest triple this season and while a couple center fielders are close, no other position players are in his league. It is difficult to compare him to players from other time periods because nobody tracked their times on the bases. Jim Thorpe was pretty fast – Olympic Gold Medals and junk – and so was Bo Jackson. There have been base-stealers in the past who were way ahead of the rest of the league – Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills – and it would be exciting to line them all up in their prime and have them race, but Hamilton is unusual in that he was already somewhat of a legend before he arrived in the majors after swiping more than 100 bases in a season twice including 155 in 2012.
In spite of his elite speed he is no better than a mediocre contributor on offense including this season where at the halfway point his oWAR is 0.0 – so exactly replacement level – and his career wRC+ is a disappointing and well below league average 70. Hamilton has almost no power, having totaled 15 home runs in the equivalent of three full seasons of plate appearances, so he has to make up for his lack of muscle by getting on base and stealing his way into scoring position. There is almost no reason for pitchers not to pound the strike zone against Hamilton, so they do. He gets about 4% more first pitch strikes than the rest of the league averages and sees slightly more strikes than the average hitter. Hamilton doesn’t draw nearly enough walks (career high of 36 in 2016) and strikes out way too often (career high of 117 in 2014 but on a pace to eclipse that this season).
    With all of that frustrating news about Hamilton’s offense why would the Reds continue to run him out to center field almost everyday? The main reason is actually his defense. Speed certainly can translate into defensive chops because no matter how good your reads are on balls hit to you, if you are slow you aren’t going to chase them down. Hamilton uses his track star-like speed to put up excellent range numbers while playing nearly error-free ball and throwing really well. He isn’t the best centerfielder in baseball but he is near the top season after season. That is why Billy Hamilton continues to notch 2.5-3.0 WAR seasons in spite of his disappointing offensive production. As long as he can do that he is definitely worth the starter’s role. As soon as his wheels slow a bit, and his range decreases to mortal proportions, then he will cease to be the answer, unless he can figure out how to get on base more often. It is already clear that the Reds should stop batting him first so that he can make fewer outs. Hamilton should be near the bottom of the order to keep his excellent defense in the game while limiting the damage that his weak bat does to the offense. And heck – he can still steal bases from the seven or eight hole.
    Standing off to Billy Hamilton’s right (from the batter’s perspective) is right-fielder, Scott Schebler. Schebler was a decent prospect with the Dodgers and finally made it to the majors to stay, not long after coming to the Reds in the three-way trade that sent “The Toddfather” to the White Sox. As a baby, Scott would probably belt home runs from his crib into the street, but his ability to get on base has always been just average in part because his game has a lot of swing and miss in it. His minor league slash line is .276/.342/.499, so while his power has drawn attention, his “just average” average and on-base percentage made him expendable to the Dodgers. Schebler slashed .311/.370/.564 in Louisville after the trade and the Reds called him up where he put up a wRC+ of 101 in roughly half a season. In roughly half a season to start 2017, Schebler has  a wRC+ of 120 – so roughly 20% better at creating runs than your average major leaguer. His defensive numbers have been a bit disappointing since he spent a decent amount of time in centerfield in the minors so you would expect a good translation to either corner outfield spot. To be fair, his range numbers have looked good this season as has his arm, but he has booted a few too many balls and that should even out based on his minor league numbers. I would expect defensive metrics to show him to be a slightly above average right fielder in the majors as soon as this season. Schebler looks to be a five or six hole hitter on a decent offensive team – one who can contribute average to good defense in a corner outfield spot – and that has value. While he probably won’t be a star, he certainly could be better than a 2.0 WAR player (already 1.6 this season) and that would make him a keeper on a rebuilding team even when the rebuild is done.
    Left field is the home of Adam Duvall. He didn’t become a starter in the majors until 2016 when he played as a 27 year old. That is a late start for most hitters, but Duvall is Schebler-like in that he hits a lot of home runs but doesn’t hit for a high average or get on base often enough to look like a star. In fact Duvall’s minor league slash line (.268/.338/.503) is almost identical to Schebler’s, making it seem like the Reds have identified an undervalued type of player that they can acquire on the cheap. Duvall hits a bunch of home runs, strikes out too much, and doesn’t quite walk enough but still managed a wRC+ of 104 in his first full season in the majors and 122 so far this season – sound like a familiar pattern? Duvall is most definitely a corner outfielder and actually has good defensive numbers showing good range and a strong arm. While he might not be the natural outfielder that Schebler is, he can play both corner outfield spots decently well and both corner infield spots. Due to small sample size constraints it’s hard to say exactly how good he is on the infield, but it is clear that he is a good left fielder – and a good left fielder who doesn’t create too many outs and is likely to hit 30 bombs a year – 33 last season and 19 in half a season so far. Who doesn’t want that? And if he can be a multi-tool able to shift positions to make the lineup work then he is even more valuable.
    Two of the Reds top 10 prospects, according to Keith Law, are outfielders – Jesse Winker (#2 for the Reds and #49 overall) and Taylor Trammell (#7 for the Reds). Both young outfielders are having excellent campaigns in 2017, Winker at triple-A and Trammell at full season A-ball). Winker is close, but Trammell has the much higher ceiling. Both men could potentially unseat the incumbents when they arrive, although Winker hasn’t demonstrated the power usually associated with a corner outfielder. Winker gets on base, hits for average and slugs in the .450s by hitting doubles and 10+ homers, but doesn’t steal bases because he isn’t the athlete that Trammell is. Taylor Trammell is fast and powerful, and at 19 is already holding his own in full season ball. He steals bases, drives extra-base hits and gets on base at a .360 clip so far in his young career. Both players look to be major league regulars with Trammell the more exciting of the two, while being much further away, and Winker, who is big league ready now, needing to increase his power numbers to have star potential. Both players differ from the incumbents in that they project to hit for average and walk enough to post good on-base numbers. Reds faithful should be excited to see what becomes of these two outfield youngsters.
    On the big league club, Hamilton is clearly the guy who has more star potential (although he is 26, so…) than the other two guys in the outfield, but based on his limited offensive ability and the sneaky goodness of Schebler and Duvall, he might be the worst bet of the three moving forward. The starters in the Reds outfield are all plus defenders and two of the three are already offensive pluses while falling short of star level. Hamilton has the raw talent to be a star for sure but if he can’t get on base then he might just top out as a really good fourth outfielder on a contending team. The youngsters on the way could give the Reds a really nice problem possibly pushing them to trade someone like Joey Votto for pitching and moving Duvall to first to make room. The Reds have a lot of offensive tools in place with more on the way. Their rebuild has worked in the outfield, and with more outfield help on the way it looks like the Reds are moving in the right direction.