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The Dodgers are currently in the midst of a hot streak. After splitting a series with the Padres, they went on to sweep the Giants and take two of three from the Phillies, leaving the team four games out of first place. There is a sense of optimism in Los Angeles; Nick Punto in an after game interview mentioned the p-word (playoffs), an unusual topic for teams who have been trapped in the cellar for the past month. A big part of this hopeful outlook is because of rookie phenom, Yasiel Puig. The 22 year old Cuban defector has maintained a .436 average in his first month in the big leagues. With 7 home runs and 4 stolen bases, Puig has produced a large chunk of the Dodger offense while removing much of the pressures from his injured and/or struggling teammates. As Puig garners more headlines, the rest of the team’s struggles seem to fade from memory. Nobody is more pleased to have his name disappear from the papers than Don Mattingly, who appeared to already have his bags packed before the rookie was called up.

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Mattingly has had a rough year, and while much of this is a result of the struggles of the heavy hitters on his team, he has done little to boost the confidence of LA fans or prove his competency at damage control. Mattingly has hear boos in Dodger Stadium this year get louder after he would take the field to pull Brandon League after another blown save. (It’s hard to say that the jeers are entirely Mattingly’s fault; if your GM decides to give a reliever seven million dollars a season, your hand is forced.) While Puig has helped damper the amount of Mattingly’s boo’s, the Dodger manager has not received enough credit for the work he has done with the lineup.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves

There has been quite a lot of noise in the sabermetric community about reinventing the traditional batting lineup. Usually, a manager will put the fastest guy first, a good sacrifice guy second and then the big and best hitters three and four, with the primary goal to manufacture runs in the first inning. The rest of the lineup descends in order of skill.

The sabermetric lineup focuses on the stats associated with each batting order position and adjusts accordingly with the focus being on the number two hole. The second batting position should be home to each teams best hitter. He reaches the plate the second most times in a game and more importantly, comes to bat 44% of the time with a runner on base. Mattingly has seemingly stumbled into a sabermetric lineup and it is one of the quietest reasons that the Dodgers have won eight of their last nine. (A more in depth reading of the entire sabermetric optimal lineup can be read here.)

After shuffling Puig around in the lineup during the first weeks of the rookie’s call-up, Mattingly has settled him into the number two hole and been rewarded with great success. Most notably was game 1 of the recent Giants series. Puig homered in the first inning off of Bumgarner, which the giants countered in the second inning and the game remained tied until the eighth. Puig stepped into the batters box with two on and no out and singled to score the go-ahead run. The Dodgers went on to score again that inning, but they wouldn’t need it as the team won 3-1.

Three nights later the Dodgers were losing to the Phillies by one in the seventh inning. The bases were loaded with two outs and Puig steps up to the plate. Sure enough, the rookie hits a single scoring two and handing the Dodgers the lead they would need to win the game.

Only a month into his career, it is fair to question whether Puig is the best hitting Dodger. He is adequately described as “raw”, which is continually evident as he chases breaking balls low and away and currently sits with a 5:1 K to BB ratio. But there is no denying the fact that he has been the best hitting Dodger in June.

The lineup has also been built around Puig, with Gonzalez, Ramirez and Kemp hitting directly behind him in that order. As a result, Puig has scored six times during the last nine games, which has been vital since the team won by 2 or less runs in six of those games.

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While there is no guarantee that Puig will find himself in (and producing in) these clutch situations as often as he has been, Mattingly should receive more credit for trusting the odds of the batting order and batting his best hitting Dodger second.

As some of you know, both Ryan and I studied politics at Cal and now work in it in different capacities. Politics and baseball are some of the most interesting things to us, and we have noticed many ways that the two tend to overlap. For this reason, I am starting a new running series entitled “Politics and Baseball” that will hopefully be as entertaining for you as it is for me. Future themes will involve the use of political sabermetrics, which is a term I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while, but for right now I am going to write about how trades and deals that are made throughout the year between baseball teams reflect the way that deals get done in Sacramento or Washington.

Trade Blocking

The NL West is all jammed up. All 5 teams are technically still in contention, with the Dodgers and Giants underperforming, the D Backs playing well, and the Padres and Rockies surprising some people.

NL West Standings

Because the standings are so tight, with the year half over, there is no clear “seller” or “buyer.” Everyone is still willing to make a deal that improves their team, and no team is looking to mortgage this season to start rebuilding for next year yet. So, with this backdrop, enter Ricky Nolasco. There are, of course, many pitchers that are rumored to be moving teams soon (Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Matt Garza, etc.), but Nolasco represents a special case in that his contract is up at the end of this year, the Marlins have no hope of contending this year, and the Marlins have come out and said whoever takes on the rest of Nolasco’s contract can get him first without giving up top-tier prospects.

All 5 of the contending NL West teams (except maybe Arizona) need starting pitching help right now. The Giants rotation is not as vaunted as it once was, the Dodgers entered the year with 8 starters but are down to 3 or 4 capable ones at this point, the Rockies staff is performing well, but they need some help on the backend with no true ace, and the Padres have had their share of injury troubles as well. For these reasons, everyone in the NL West seems to be in on Nolasco, but his salary is not low (half a season at $11.5 million) and that his contract expires at the end of year making him just a rental, meaning that a team has to make a conscious decision that they are going to try and contend for this year before making a move for him.

You’d be angry too if you had to pitch for the Marlins. Photo courtesy: blogs.sun-sentinel.com

This is where money comes in handy. As in politics, money cannot win you a race alone, but it certainly helps. The Dodgers seem to still have money to burn from their lucrative TV contract and Magic Johnson trust fund, meaning they find themselves at an advantageous position. Though the Dodgers are technically in last place, they are only 6.5 games back of first, and thanks to their extra cash supply, they can afford to make a move for Nolasco now, blocking the other teams in the West. Assuming Nolasco does well, the Dodgers can simultaneously help themselves and prevent a good player from winding up on a rival.

In California state politics, there is a June 30 filing deadline for all California legislative candidates. This deadline marks the first time that a candidate discloses how much money he/she has raised. Besides keeping them honest, it is there to show viability and give an idea of who the frontrunners in a race might be. By making a move for Nolasco now, the Dodgers can show viability that, despite their place in the standings, they are a contending team and one that intends to do everything possible to get to October. In the same way that a political candidate can dissuade other challengers from running by starting off strong with lots of donations and endorsements, so can the Dodgers dissuade some of the other teams in the West, such as the Padres and Rockies, from getting too confident in their current position and making moves that might improve their club before the deadline. Obviously, it will be tough to dissuade the Giants from contending in the same way that an incumbent who is down in the polls would still want to run for re-election. Still, wrapping up early endorsements from star players can definitely help improve your chances.

There is a lot of campaign left, and the race is still wide open, but whichever team makes the move for Nolasco the soonest gives themselves a huge advantage for the rest of the year. It is low-risk in that Nolasco is a proven innings eater and that the Marlins have said they won’t require big-name prospects in exchange. And more importantly, the longer Nolasco is on a team other than the Marlins, the more chances he has to help that club. He is wasting wins on the Marlins currently, and the sooner a team goes out and gets him, the sooner he becomes a productive member of that team and starts generating wins. This type of move should be made more often in the major leagues, but many teams are risk-adverse and like to wait until the trading deadline when they have a clearer picture. For just this reason, the Dodgers, or any other team in the West that is willing to take on his contract, can improve themselves now by trading for Nolasco. This will give the team that gets him the best chance of making the playoffs, while dissuading other candidates from running. Whichever team makes a conscious effort to improve themselves first puts themselves in the best position to contend in October. My bet is the team that goes out and gets Nolasco now will be the one you see in the playoffs come seasons end.

In light of the recent Dodger/Padre brawl that left one player with a broken collarbone and one suspended for eight games, I felt it necessary to look at the ramifications of other brawls to determine the fairness of the most recent confrontation.

Surprisingly, there is little information on the history of bench clearing brawls in baseball. There isn’t a list of players who have charged the mound. There isn’t a ranking of the batters that have been suspended for fighting with pitchers. Instead, the focus is on ranking the best bench clearing brawls and the only suspensions people remain interested in are for performance enhancing drugs.

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Duck. Dodge. Dip. Dive. and Dodge.

A cursory glace at recent mound fights show that Quentin has received the harshest punishment for charging the mound; 8 games. Before that, Nyjer Morgan and Coco Crisp held the record at seven games, which occurred in 2010 and 2008, respectively. It must also be noted, that this most recent brawl looked comparatively calm compared to those two, and had it not been for the broken collar bone, it would have been remembered that way. But while the Crisp/Morgan charges flirt with injury opportunities, the Greinke/Quentin fight finally revealed the damage that can result from a meaningless confrontation.

When comparing Quentin’s trip to the mound to both the Morgan and Crisp fights, the suspension seems fair; its right in line with the other two, yet slightly higher due to the unfortunate broken bone. However, this has not satisfied Dodger loyalty, and Mattingly even demanded that Quentin be suspended until at least Greinke gets back.

Currently, Greinke is in line to miss roughly ten starts, or a third of the season, as a result of the incident. This can prove to be disastrous for a team that some project to win the division by fewer than five games. Quality starting pitching is hard to come by, and $147 million arms are even harder to come by, making it difficult for the Dodgers to easily find replacements and putting their entire season into limbo. Should the Dodgers fail to make it to the playoffs and the gap be within a couple of games, fans will no doubt blame the season on Quentin.

As a Dodger fan, it’s hard to disagree with Mattingly. But I would find it wildly random if players were to be suspended for seven games for charging the mound, and 60 if the pitcher is injured. Granted its easy to blame the batter for causing the fight, but it becomes harder to locate when, if and who causes the injuries occurred. Not all of these questions are easily answered and could make it hard to point the blame at one person. And the degree of injury is easily quantifiable in time missed, but these two shouldn’t always be correlated.

As a result, this type of suspension opens itself up to debate. Not only to the amount of time a player should miss, but also because of the discrepancies that can present themselves in terms of skill level. In the Dodger’s case, it’s clear that the two players are of roughly the same skill level and importance to their team. But what happens when Nolan Ryan is charged by a young Robin Ventura, who hypothetically gets hurt? It wouldn’t be fair, and it would actually incentivize teams to send their rookies out to the mound to throw up some fisticuffs against an ace.

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Nolan Ryan and Robin Ventura.

Instead, MLB should just seek to drastically punish batters who charge the mound to the point that it becomes nonexistent.

But MLB done little to discourage players from charging the mound. Since 2006, MLB has added four games to the suspensions issued to mound chargers, and nobody really knows how much the undisclosed fine has increased. Although ESPN published Quentin’s amounted at $3,000. Oh and did I mention that Brian Wilson was fined $1,000 in 2010 for wearing bright orange shoes in the World Series.

It must also be noted that there is little to gain out of allowing players to charge the mound. Sure, fans love watching the benches and bullpens clear, but there are far easier ways for MLB to sell tickets and gain youtube views. Fans get just as excited over managers getting tossed, and thats not even saying they are expecting that anyways. Most fans do not arrive at a baseball game expecting heavy hitting physical contact. This is especially true for contact that has no impact, other than a negative one, on the outcome of the game.

Baseball is not a contact sport, which is what makes it such a mental challenge. While it’s easily mocked because of this (famously done by George Carlin), MLB should stop pretending that the game is something it isn’t.

Now that we are a few weeks into the season, let’s take stock. The Rockies and Braves play each other with the best records in baseball on the line. Former aces look mortal and sluggers are slumping. Everyone is overreacting, but it is important to remember: we are only a few weeks into the season! It’s a small sample size. Still, it doesn’t take long until a sample becomes a trend. With that in mind, here are the hot and cold starts and what to actually believe.

Hot Teams

Boston Red Sox 12-6 (.667) 1st Place AL East as of 3/23

Last year, the Red Sox finished in last place and were part of the salary dump trade to the Dodgers that people saw as a team giving up. And yet, here they are a year later sitting at first place in the AL East with a team and city that is playing for something beyond the standings. 

The Boston offense is producing well, and Mike Napoli looks like he is happy to be out of Texas. Big Papi is back from the DL and the top of the order is healthy (Ellsbury) and getting on base (Pedroia). The offense is doing well, but the success of the Red Sox so far comes down to one thing: pitching.

Last year, the Red Sox starting pitching was among the worst in the league. This year, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are leading the way. Neither has lost a game yet on the season, and they look like the pitchers everyone expected them to be. So, do you believe it? Well, kind of. The fried chicken fiasco and the attitude of Josh Beckett are long gone. With that departure, the young Boston pitchers lost a bad influence and look like they are taking to new manager John Farrell well. Also important is the arrival of Allen Webster with the big league club. Webster was part of the trade with the Dodgers, and despite all the big names involved, is looking like he might be the diamond in the rough.

The Red Sox picked a great time to get hot. The city of Boston needs something to root for right now, and I think everyone in America is happy that they are succeeding. For now. The Red Sox aren’t going to keep up their current pace, but I am a believer in the younger, healthy rotation. If they can stay healthy, and the offense can continue to put runs on the board, there is no reason that Boston shouldn’t keep winning baseball games. Sports are always important when they come to signify something other than just the standings, and that is happening in the city of Boston right now. In the words of Big Papi:

Colorado Rockies 13-5 (.722) 1st place in NL West as of 3/23

The Rockies have surged out of the gates this year, surprising, given their last place finish in 2012. A healthy Tulowitzki, CarGo and Wilin Rosario lead the offense, while Jorge de la Rosa (2-1, 2.82 ERA) and Jhoulys Chacin (3-0, 1.46 ERA) anchor the staff.

The Rockies are doing well despite almost no roster turnover from last year, with 21 of the 25 roster spots returning from 2012, and no major free agent signings in the offseason. The main thing to focus on with the Rockies, as with any team, is health. Tulo is an all-star caliber shortstop who’s worst enemy is health. If he is healthy, he transforms any lineup. The Rockies offense is legit. Dexter Fowler is having a coming-out party and Rosario is showing that his offensive prowess last year was no fluke. 

Photo credit: Bleacherreport

The Tulo Mullet – Never forget.

However, the pitching will not hold up. Chacin just went on the DL and won’t be back any time soon. De La Rosa has shown potential throughout his career, and could be legit, but the rest of the staff is a shambles. Garland is coming off shoulder surgery, and can’t be trusted to hold up for an entire season. The bullpen is a strong point, but whether they can continue their success all season will come down to the managing of rookie manager Walt Wiess. 

The Rockies are currently scoring 4.22 runs per game, and the offense is capable of continuing at this pace. They may just surprise everyone and be a .500 team, but the starting pitching will not hold up. Expect a come back to earth, as early as tonight against the Braves.

Honorable Mentions:

Atlanta Braves 13-5 (.722) 1st place, NL East – legit. The offense with the additions of Justin Upton and Evan Gattis will have pop all year provided they can keep the strikeouts down. The pitching, including Paul Maholm should continue to keep runs off the board. The team is currently best in the majors with a ridiculous 2.36 ERA, and while this may come up a bit, the Braves are still the team to beat in the NL.

Oakland A’s 12-8 (.600) 2nd Place, AL West – legit (kind of). The A’s have succeeded so far thanks to an incredible 5.26 runs per game so far. There is no way they will keep this up. Coco Crisp is about to hit his season high in homers in the first few weeks. Jed Lowrie is hitting well, but has never been able to stay on the field for a full season. The A’s are a legitimate contender this year, but they will do it with their pitching, not their hitting. The hitters are on a hot streak right now, but the runs per game will come down, and it will be on the pitching staff to pick up the slack for the A’s to make it to the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Cold Teams

The two teams I will be talking about here are actually not doing terribly. They are only a few games below .500 and will both likely climb in the standings soon. However, they are included here because the expectations for success were so high. The Dodgers and Jays will both be fine and both be contenders by the end of the year, but they are both off to cold starts, and here is why:

LA Dodgers 8-10 (.444) 4th place, NL West

The Dodgers have run cold so far this year. Everything starts and ends with pitching, and even Clayton Kershaw has looked mortal (not counting opening day when he crushed my Giants). Zach Greinke landed on the DL after a brawl with Carlos Quentin. The rest of the staff has looked average, but none have stood out. Meanwhile, the offense is bipolar. Big name acquisitions such as Adrian Gonzalez (.385 avg) and Carl Crawford (.338 avg) are hitting great, while local stars Matt Kemp (.235 avg) Andre Ethier (.230 avg) are slumping badly. The hot and cold starts should even out, as good hitters don’t stay cold for long. That being said, there are some real problems with this team.

Photo Credit: USA Today

Not a good way to start a season.

The left side of the infield is weak. Shortstop and third base is currently a merry-go-round of average to bad players, and even when Hanley Ramirez comes back from the DL, the Dodgers will have below average defense and average offense at third or short depending on how they structure their lineup card. Kershaw is fine, but the rest of the staff could have troubles. Ryu is still adjusting to American baseball, Greinke is out indefinitely, Billingsley is having Tommy John and done for the year, Lilly is coming off another surgery, and Josh Beckett’s best years are far behind him. The bullpen is not yet reliable, and manager Don Mattingly has not yet figured out the intricacies of managing a bullpen over the course of the season.

There is a lot to worry about with the Dodgers, maybe buying a championship isn’t as easy as we thought.

Toronto Blue Jays 8-12 (.400) 5th place, AL East

Speaking of buying a championship: the Toronto Blue Jays are also having some troubles with their new roster. Fresh off relieving the city of Miami of their baseball team, the Jays are struggling to put it all together. Jose Reyes was lost to injury on a bad slide during an attempted steal of second base. Jose Bautista is still dealing with some nagging back issues, and the Jays are 2-4 without him in the lineup. Meanwhile, starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle have yet to contribute much in a Jays uniform.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

Reyes may only be able to watch the Jays for most of this season

The Jays are batting .227 as a whole, good for 3rd worst in baseball behind the Mariners and Marlins. Meanwhile, the pitching staff has given up the second most runs in baseball behind only the Astros. If we go based on the numbers alone, the Jays should actually have a worse record than 8-12 at this point. They have been bailed out a bit by the long ball (21 on the year) and the arrival of J.P. Arencibia as a power threat, but the Jays seem to be trending in the wrong direction. A healthy Bautista will do a lot to curb some losses, but the Jays do not seem to be doing any better with the 2012 Miami Marlins roster than the 2012 Miami Marlins did.

The Fastball

By: Matt

Spring Training stats don’t matter. You hear the phrase uttered by broadcaster and bleacher bum alike. For rookies and grizzled veterans trying to make a big league roster for the first (or last) time, having a “good” spring is very important. Putting up good numbers during spring training is an important part of winning a job, but hitting .400 is just as meaningless as hitting .125 once April 1st comes around. Major Leaguers who aren’t trying to win a job use the spring as a “tune-up.” Starters will work on a specific pitch, relievers will try and get better at pitching in certain situations, and hitters will tinker with their swings. If these tinkerings work and a player puts up good numbers then great, but for the players themselves, they could care less about their final spring numbers, because  everyone goes back to 0 once the season starts.

Let’s take a couple case studies. Brandon Belt has been having an awesome spring for the Giants and he looks primed for a breakout. He is currently raking with a .410 batting average and 8 homers. So, he must be about to have a breakout season right? Well it turns out the Baby Giraffe has done this every spring. In 2012 he hit .378 and in 2011 he hit well enough to win the job, as shown in the Showtime series The Franchise. Maybe Belt will have a breakout year, but it’s more likely to come from not having to challenge Aubrey Huff for playing time and less because of confidence heading into the season.

How about we look at 2012’s Spring Training batting title champion? No, it’s not Albert Pujols or Joey Votto, no Mike Trout or Ryan Braun. Ladies and gentlemen I present to you…drum roll please: Munenori Kawasaki. The shortstop made the jump from the Japanese Nippon league to the MLB easily in Spring Training and put up a .455 batting average. However, once the season rolled around Kawasaki batted under the Mendoza line at .192 and only appeared in 61 games for the Mariners. A great spring training did not translate into good season numbers for Mune, likely because while it was easy enough to wrap singles against inferior competition, the regular season brought on the best pitching in the world. Major league pitching is a tough adjustment for any player, especially one coming from a different country. Though he never quite figured it out with the bat during the regular season, Kawsaki remains the single most gifable player in the bigs and the best bench warmer any team could ask for.

This is how everybody celebrates a walkoff, right?

Chris Sale and Stephen Strasburg both posted ERAs over 4 in Spring Training last year and went on to Cy Young-caliber seasons (or ¾ seasons). Pitchers often will work on a specific pitch or the timing of their delivery during spring training games, since bloated ERAs and losses don’t matter. Pitchers can also suffer from bad numbers thanks to the strict innings limit placed upon them. A starter may only pitch through a few innings for most of Spring Training so as to protect their arm and ward off injury.

In professional sports it is never a good thing to lose. A culture of winning is something to be fostered, and for baseball players, that culture starts in the spring. Winning Spring Training games can help a team to find their identity and some teams can carry that culture into the season, but this matters more towards the last few weeks of ST. For the first few weeks, players are getting back in the groove, meeting new teammates for the first time, and trying to work on certain things. A player can go 0 for 4 and still have a great day because they learned not to swing at a curveball on a certain count. Spring Training is just that, training. It’s a necessary part of the business, but has no real effect on the real thing. I, for one, am glad baseball is back for real. Happy Opening Day everybody!

Happy Baseball Season!

The Changeup

By: Ryan

It’s easy to say that spring training stats don’t matter. Players are returning to the game in various mental and physical states, and coaches are shifting lineups and splitting squads. With all this variance, it becomes hard to interpret stats and easy to disregard all spring training numbers. But there are certain “player-centric” stats that can be reliably used to highlight strong/troubled players, a fact that is especially valid at the beginning and end of a player’s career.

I use the term “player-centric” to describe stats that are influenced by the least number of players in the game. The fewer number of people that can influence that particular stat, the greater the individual player’s control is over that number. The difference between wins and quality starts displays the discrepancy between these two types of stats. Wins depend on the pitcher’s performance, the team offense, and the team defense. With more people involved, a pitcher can be robbed of a win with a poor team performance, ultimately masking a pitcher’s abilities. In comparison, quality starts rely solely on the pitcher’s ability to dominate hitters, and becomes a more accurate way to judge a season.

Some of the more reliable “player-centric” stats to quantify spring performances are K and BB percentages. Mike Podhorzer at Fangrpah.com did some regression analysis on these stats for pitchers and found that they are both correlated to regular season performance. This gives fans and scouts the ability to use these numbers to evaluate pitchers and pick better fantasy teams.

He goes even further to speculate that really strong performances should be valued higher than poor performances. His explanation being, “You cannot fluke your way into striking out a high percentage of hitters, but pitchers work on new pitches or their mechanics in the spring all the time and can easily explain a weak performance.”

While his regression model didn’t confirm this notion, another blogger found this speculation to be true. William Juliano at The Captain’s Blog looked at K/IP and K/BB ratios from the 2011 preseason and identified players with stats above a certain threshold as “potential breakout candidates.” A similar list was compiled of players that had spring stats below a threshold. They were labeled “potential breakdown candidates.”

Juliano found that the “breakout candidates'” stats translated better to the regular season. Based on the stats alone, his model correctly identified the breakout seasons of Craig Kimbrel, Ian Kennedy, and Justin Masterson.

BB and K ratios are also useful stats when it comes to hitting. The prime example being the Cuban minor leaguer, Yasiel Puig. The Dodger’s outfielder was relatively unknown prior to this year, since he missed most of 2012 with a staph infection. However, he recently left Glendale, Arizona with a .527 batting average in 55 at bats. With that number, he easily becomes one of the best outfielders in the game, but he lacks plate discipline. Puig struck out 15 times (27% of the time) and only walked four times, yet the Dodgers cited these numbers as a reason for sending him down at the end of March.

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Please come back Yasiel.

Still, in his 25 games, Puig made a name for himself and developed a reputation, indicating a greater importance on stats for the rookies. For rookies, these stats appear more significant. This is the first time that these players are able to face major league talent, and the baseball community winds up giving more weight to their numbers. This was the case with Julio Teheran, SP, Atlanta Braves, who in 6 games, posted a 1.04 ERA 3.89 K/BB ratio. At the beginning of spring, talk was he would wind up back in AAA, but a strong month proved to be enough, earning him the 5th starter role.

Players who are exiting their prime also see their stats heavily scrutinized. Roy Halladay is one player whose stats indicate a potential problem. He has seen his fastball velocity drop even lower than the already reduced high 80 fastball he had last season. It seems unlikely that his velocity will rebound during the season, which has fans worried throughout Philadelphia.

Players in their prime are usually immune from this scrutiny because their “player-centric” stats are traditionally in line with their career norms. But this isn’t always the case, as Tim Lincecum has recently been criticized for having velocity issues also. His fastball speed has been down and his pitch location isn’t as strong as it used to be, leading to speculation that his 2013 is going to look a lot like his 2012.

Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum

Can either of these guys bounce back?

The degree to which these “player-centric” stats are useful depend on the career arc of the player. The players whose stats receive the most scrutiny, justifiably so, are those player’s in their first couple of spring trainings and those exiting their prime. At the same time, they can confirm regressive tendencies with players in their prime.

As nice as it would be to disregard all preseason stats, certain spring training stats prove that they cant be ignored. It seems that spring isn’t just a time for celebrities to play baseball.

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But still, who doesn’t love Billy Crystal?

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria took out ads in three major south Florida newspapers and wrote a “Letter to our fans.”

Loria took out the ad because he had “sat quietly” for long enough and wanted a chance to respond to his fans about the Marlins losing season and their offseason that included a trade to the Toronto Blue Jays of almost all of the team’s highly-paid star players.

The Fastball

By: Matt

To understand the full villainy of Jeffrey Loria, we have to go back in time and realize what kind of a man this is. This is a man that wants to profit from the game of baseball above all else. He feels no duty to his fans and no duty to put a winning baseball team on the field. Jeffrey Loria

Loria managed to go from a small stake in the Montreal Expos to convincing Major League Baseball to bring back the Nationals in exchange for ownership of a new team in Florida. He then managed to convince taxpayers to build him a new stadium (with some questionable art choices). Loria has done all this because he is smart and because he knows how to use sports to take advantage of people.

Marlins Statue

Taxpayers are still on the hook for over $600 million of the Marlins new stadium-which checks in as the most expensive of all time-but Loria was able to get it built based on promises that the team would dramatically raise their payroll, put out winning teams, and compete for the playoffs every year. And they did, for about half a season.

Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell were the big name free agents signed by the Marlins last offseason. They brought in sparkplug (but World Series winner) Ozzie Guillen and everything looked ready to click. But the season was a disaster, the Marlins went 69-93 and started didn’t even make it a full season before they started to dismantle their team.

Star infielder Hanley Ramirez and reliever Randy Choate were the first to go, off to the Dodgers for a back of the rotation starter. 1st baseman Gaby Sachez was sent to the Pirates. Starter Anibal Sanchez and infielder Omar Infante were sent to the Tigers and Manager Ozzie Guillden was fired (partly for his incendiary comments about Fidel Castro in a town with a large Cuban population). The turning point for the Marlins, though was their blockbuster trade with the Jays. Reyes (a franchise shortstop) and Buehrle (a workhorse starter) were sent off, along with ace Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck, and utilityman Emilio Bonifacio.

In total, the Marlins trade 12 players from their opening day roster. They took a payroll of $146.5 million in 2012 to an expected opening day payroll of $45 million (the lowest in baseball) in 2013.

I’m not here to say trading former stars is never a good idea, but when really evaluating the trades and the returns received, it is obvious that the Marlins were looking to dump salary and nothing more. In the Jays trade the Marlins received several prospects that could see time in the major leagues, but these are not your future Trouts or Strasburgs. They aren’t even future Reyes or Johnsons. In fact, none of the Jays top prospects (Travis d’Arnaud, Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Anthony Gose) were sent off in the deal. Another highlight is the trade of utilityman Emilio Bonifacio. Bonifacio was set to make around a $2.5 million but could play multiple positions, get on base, and is a threat to lead the league in steals. In short, he is the type of player every GM wants on their team. But it seems that every player making over the minimum is too expensive for the Marlins these days.

Loria writes in his appeal to fans that “experts have credited us from going from the 28th ranked Minor League system…to the 5th…Of the Top 100 Minor Leaguers rated by MLB Network, we have six.” This is Loria’s attempt to justify the trade, but it doesn’t hold up. Of the six top 100 prospects, only two were acquired in trades (Nicolino and Marisnick from the Jays). The top two Marlins prospects are outfielder Christian Yelich and pitcher Jose Fernandez, both of which were draft picks that had nothing to do with the trade. Another top prospect was first round pick Andrew Heaney and finally, Marcell Ozuna was a signing from the Dominican Republic.

According to Forbes, the Marlins have made a combined $196 million in operating profits over the previous six seasons. For two of those years, the team’s financial documents list an expense for a “management fee” to the Double Play Company in the millions. Take a guess at who runs that company? Jeffrey Loria and David Sampson, the team president.

This is as low as it gets. Loria has funneled millions of dollars from his team to his pocket, convinced taxpayers to foot the bill on a new stadium, and refuses to do his job of keeping a winning team on the field. But, hey, now that Frank McCourt is gone, someone needs to assume the role of resident scumbag, right?

The Changeup

By: Ryan

I feel like I need to issue a disclaimer before this post. The words that are about to follow we’re difficult to write and hard to justify. But it’s important to say that this post will not attempt to serve as an endorsement of Jeffrey Loria. He is doing his best to demolish a fan base, and, short of having a contest where a fan is selected out of the crowd to start in LF, I’ll be surprised if they fill Opening Day. Instead, I’m going to pitch an idea that attempts to explain the rational behind the recent actions made by the Marlin’s front offices.

The Marlins entered 2012 with a new stadium, a new uniform, and a lineup full of big names. While the lineup was impressive and excitement was at its highest since they won the World Series in 2003, the team started struggling by July. At that point in time, the team had scored the third fewest runs in the game; the team simply wasn’t hitting. A big reason for the offensive struggle resulted from the poor rotation that couldn’t keep them in games. Their starting rotation going into the season was Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, and Carlos Zambrano. While the Marlins had a rotation of big names, they weren’t performing like it. Plus, none of them could be considered higher than a #3 starter at any point in 2012, and their run differential at mid-season proved it. The Marlins were -66, fourth worst in the league at the end of June.

A month later, Loria apparently had given up on the season, and began restructuring. As they traded Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, they opened up space for Bonifacio, and picked up a slew of highly ranked prospects, two of which will be starting this year. They then attempted to fix their pitching situation by trading Hanley Ramirez, to the Dodgers for Nate Eovaldi. Up to this point in the season, Eovaldi was performing well, especially for his age. And with Hanley far from his MVP numbers from 07-09 (he hasn’t posted a WAR above 2.6 since), it seemed like a way to add back rotation depth in the short term (Eovaldi could be considered at best a mid rotation guy in the long term) and free up payroll to land another deal in the off season. These two moves we’re strategic baseball moves that allowed the Marlins to give up some big names that were under performing for improvements in their rotation and at catcher.

Yet as with all prospects, they take time to grow. And in November, Miami decided they couldn’t wait any longer. So they traded their remaining names off to the Blue Jays for a bunch of no names, with the biggest name, Yunel Escobar, getting shipped off two weeks later. It’s at this point it becomes hard to justify Miami’s actions, if only for the minuscule haul of talent that they received in return. (I think more of the blame should be placed on the catatonic commissioner, but that’s for another time). As my colleague points out there are major flaws in Loria’s argument that the Marlins have one of the best farm systems, but when you consider five of the farm system guys they traded for last season were highly touted in 2012 and are now starting, he does have some truth to the argument.

As for the stadium, it appears that the $161 million Loria mentions is a little high, the correct number is closer to $125.2 million or 20%. (Link) Even with that, as Loria states the public funded portion of the stadium will be funded by tourist’s traveling to and from the city. In other words, this tax is least likely to burden the citizens of Miami, which should make it a hit with the taxpaying Marlin fans. The only negative effects they will directly face is a shortage of revenues for other commodities they receive from the city. However, tourist taxes are highly inelastic and likely to be a stable source of revenue, and while there is no doubt that it will cut into Miami earnings, the city can easily just raise the tax a percentage or two to make up the difference without upsetting the citizens of Miami. (Plus, the stadium has won tons of awards, which will look great next to the stadium’s $73,000 bobble head display case…I couldn’t resist).

With this letter, Loria is attempting to offer the City of Miami an olive branch. Is it a first step? Yes. Does it explain everything that happened last year to the Marlins fans? No. But if he wanted to do that, he should have bought the whole Sunday paper; he definitely can afford it.

Buster Posey vs. Clayton Kershaw – An Extended DebateImage

The Fastball

By: Ryan

While Ned Colletti has had a fairly quiet offseason, signing only two players, his acquisition of Zach Greinke and South Korean Ryu Hyun-jin added over $180 million dollars to the books, raising the Dodgers projected payroll to $214 million. With a lot money being thrown around and a surplus of pitchers (the Dodgers currently have eight starters), the Dodgers find themselves in an interesting situation, as Clayton Kershaw will be due for a contract extension at the end of the season. Colletti has made a push to make the Dodgers contenders in 2013, but his work is far from over, as he still has one major job; Colletti needs to make the most important lockdown in the NL West by giving Clayton Kershaw a longterm contract extension.

Kershaw’s career with the Dodgers up to this point has led him to become one of the best pitchers in the Major Leagues and the best left-hander in Dodger history since Sandy Koufax. After winning the Cy Young in 2011 with the pitching Triple Crown, Kershaw followed up his NL best performance with an equally dominant season. Kershaw’s 2012 season resume reads as follows: MLB leading ERA, NL leading WHIP, NL leading K, NL leading WAR, and the third best BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in the NL. Based on stats alone, it’s easy to see that Kershaw’s Cy Young runner-up performance was as equally dominant as R.A. Dickey’s season in 2012.

Kershaw’s control of the mound began in the two season prior to 2011 (his first two full seasons in the league). During these seasons, his ERA was under 3 and he averaged just under 200 K’s (198.5). He had a combined WAR of 9.9, all while pitching a combined 90 innings less than his most recent two season total. With four strong seasons completed, Kershaw has proven to be one of the most consistent pitchers in the game, making his longterm contract extension one of the safest bets in the Bigs.

Furthermore, Kershaw has proven his capabilities at the plate over the past two years with .225 (’11) and .207 (’12) batting averages. It’s not everyday that those numbers earn you praise at the plate, but those averages coupled with a two year total of 25 sacrifice bunts and a 20% strikeout per plate appearance ratio (nearly 15% less than that of Adam Dunn), show that Kershaw is no easy 9 spot. Good hitting pitchers are hard to come by and they have a significant impact on the game from both an offensive and defensive standpoint. Offensively, these pitches provide the runs they need to obtain/hold a lead in the game which consequently give the pitcher greater freedom on the mound. What’s not always apparent is the defensive impact that these pitchers have by forcing the opposing pitcher to work harder in order to get that normally easy out. This results in higher pitch counts and lower inning totals. Kershaw’s plate competancy combined with his pitching prowess make him one of the most valuable pitchers in the game two years running.

Posey, on the other hand, has had a very volatile first two complete seasons. Excluding the unfortunate incident in 2011, Posey’s first two full seasons, while impressive, still present some major question marks when considering him for a longterm extension.

His rookie campaign, in which he batted .305 and won the NL Rookie of the Year title, only had him playing in 108 games (mostly due to a May call up). The strongest offensive part of the season for Posey occurred in July and August, but were directly followed by his worse two offensive months, where he batted .233. This type of season naturally raises the question of longevity, especially with Posey being a catcher. Catchers are one of the most physical positions in the game, and as a result, many of them wind up facing major injuries in their careers. Between the three highest paid catchers in 2012, all of them have had seasons negatively impacted by injuries. Brian McCann batted a career low .230 in 2012 because he played through a shoulder injury that required offseason reconstruction. Joe Mauler played only 82 games in 2011 due to a difficult recovery from offseason knee surgery (among other health problems). Finally, Mike Napoli was forced to take a pay cut when the Red Sox discovered scarring on his hips during his post-contract signing physical. While the Giants have been attempting to protect the knees of their franchise catcher by having him play first base during the season, similar to Mauer, Posey remains predominantly a catcher, and as result, carries a larger injury risk compared to other players.

While pitchers can be just as risky, Kershaw has been fortunate to deal with only minor injuries not associated with his throwing elbow or shoulder. Kershaw battled with plantar fasciitis (inflammation in arch tendon of foot) and a hip strain, which put his health in question at the end of 2012. Yet, these injuries did not result in any major negative effects on his pitching mechanics, and both should be eliminated or manageable by 2013. Most importantly, Kerhsaw has lacked any sort of injury in his elbow or shoulder. This is in large part due to Kershaw’s plus form. ESPN posted an interesting article on pitching characteristics that cause extraneous strain on the shoulder and elbow, resulting in major injuries. Using many “good examples” from the article, Kershaw maintains an upright form, with a slight lean toward first base, and doesn’t let his elbow lag behind his rotation, thereby reducing the risk association with bad form.

The obvious rebuttal to Posey’s lackluster finish to his 2010 season is his most recent season, in which he finished .364 between September and October. There is no doubt that Posey’s second half was a necessity if the Giants were to pull ahead and into the playoffs, but it will be hard to match in the future by any player, let alone Posey himself. It must also be noted that Posey cooled off once the playoffs came around, batting a mere .200. Thus, while this regular season ending streak may serve as a testament to his longevity and potential, it comes after a yearlong break and raises the question as to whether this was an exceptional year or the norm.

There is no doubt that Posey is an integral part of the Giants lineup and one of the main factors that resulted in their two World Series Championships in three years. However, it is hard to determine what an average Buster Posey year looks like. Thus any contract made by Sabean will include a substantially larger amount of risk when compared to a similar contract given to Kershaw by Colletti.  Thus, Kershaw’s tenure has proven him to be the safer bet and similarly more deserving of the extension when compared to Buster Posey. The Dodger ace has consistency, solid form, and top of the rotation stuff which makes him the most worthy of a longterm contract (which I estimate at seven years/$185 million) all at the ripe young age of 25.

Other reads on this portion of the post can be found here, here, and here.

The Changeup

By: Matt

Buster Posey vs. Clayton Kershaw: a matchup that Giants and Dodger fans will see for many years to come. But for how many years is still up in the air. Both Kershaw and Posey are in their arbitration years, and both have been the subject of speculation for receiving a long-term contract extension. The two players represent the young stars of their franchise and the importance placed on developing young talent by the two teams in the last few years. While the Dodgers have recently been blessed with some very deep pockets due to a new television deal and new ownership not named McCourt, there has to be a ceiling somewhere. It is likely that both players will receive long term extensions in the next year, but it makes more sense and is more important that the Giants extend Posey than the Dodgers extend Kershaw.

No one has meant more to the Giants than Buster Posey. The first-round draft pick shot up the minors quickly and joined the big-league squad in late 2009. Posey hasn’t stopped hitting since being called up, batting .314 with a .883 OPS in his young career, highlighted by his MVP award in 2012. His defense and pitch calling has been solid as well and the only real question has been his durability and health. I don’t have to remind you of the violent collision at the plate in 2011 that derailed Posey’s season and the Giants with it. However, Buster did everything right in the offseason to get himself in shape for 2012, and Bochy worked some lineup magic to get him 610 plate appearances. Posey started 2012 slow, but got better as he got healthier and more comfortable. Despite two world series rings, an MVP and a Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey has has actually only played one full season. Chew on that for a second and it’s easy to think that the sky is the limit for this young man. Bochy was able to limit Posey’s innings behind the dish by giving him time at 1st and DH, a practice that will probably continue for the rest of his career and allow him to get playing time in almost every game while saving his knees. But this is not necessarily bad, as Hector Sanchez has a good bat at backup, and Brandon Belt has shown some versatility by getting some playing time in Left field.

Another thing that Posey had going for him in 2012 was the lineup around him. In 2010, the team was full of “castoffs and misfits,” and the only rock was Posey batting cleanup. In 2012, it was a different story, and the lineup got better as the year went on. With Pagan, Scutaro, and Melky/Pablo getting on base for him, and Pablo/Pence providing some protection, pitchers had to go after Posey and he was able to make them pay. The only player missing from last year’s top 5 will be Melky, but the Giants actually got better after he left, posting a 26-12 in the regular season after he was suspended. They also clearly were able to get it done without him in the postseason, posting an 11-5 record on their way to the title.

Going into the 2013 season, the Giants will have two players making more than $20 million in the last year of their contracts: Barry Zito and Big Time Timmy Jim Lincecum. Both players, though important to the Giants in winning the World Series two out of the last three years (it’s still awesome just to write that) will probably be looking for new teams come the end of the season. Zito, though he has had his redeeming moments recently, is still probably the worst contract signed by Sabean, and Lincecum, barring a complete turnaround is probably due for a huge contract reduction and likely a new team. While some players will likely receive raises from arbitration and the team will have a decision to make on Hunter Pence, the Giants will be going into the 2013 offseason with a lot of wiggle room in their budget, and with Posey set to receive another raise due to arbitration, it would behoove Sabean to lock Posey up long-term.

So how do you evaluate what kind of contract to give Posey? Well, the Joe Mauer contract would be the obvious place to start. Mauer received his extension coming off an MVP season of his own and received $23 million per year for 7 years on top of his previous contract. Since the deal, Mauer has faced troubles and hasn’t lived up to expectations, and the Twins have suffered with him. The main difference is that Mauer received his contract after 5 full seasons with WARs of 2.5, 5.6, 3.6, 5.3, and 7.6, while Posey has only had one full season, posting WARs of 3.7, 1.3, and 7.2. While the MVP, 7 WAR seasons at the end of those lists look similar, Mauer had been more consistently good, while Posey has not. Though it seems counter-intuitive, this is the reason the Giants should act now. Mauer and his agents had every right to ask for the huge contract in 2010 and were able to get it, while Posey, though he has had one fantastic season, will not be able to ask for as much. It is likely that if the Giants act before Posey puts up another monster season (which he will), the Giants will be able to get Posey locked up during his prime years for under $20 million a year.

The problem with giving Kershaw a long term extension is that by every right, he should get the biggest contract of all time. CC Sabathia will make $23 million in 2013 and Johan Santana will make $24 mil. These seem like decent starting points, but Kershaw has had a better start to his career than either of them. My colleague has just pointed out all of the things Kershaw has going for him, so I will cede to the previous post to show just how good he actually is. So, what kind of contract must the Dodgers offer him? $25 mil would be a starting point, but even that might seem too little considering that they just gave Zach Greinke about $23.5 million a year. Greinke is good, but he is not nearly as talented or reliable as Kershaw, who is and will be a perennial Cy Young candidate. So, where do you draw the line? $28 a year? $30? Considering the money that the Dodgers have been throwing around, Kershaw has every right to ask for it and look elsewhere if they won’t give it to him. The new money from the Dodgers owners has to have a limit, and their offseason moves might actually hinder them from resigning their most important player. The Red Sox contract dump that the Dodgers ignored will certainly help them next season, but in the long run, it may be looked at as one of the worst moves by a general manager in baseball history. Not only are most of the players they took on past their prime, but their contracts will more than double the Dodgers payroll from what it was in 2012. There has to be some limit to what ownership will provide, but the question will be whether they will be able to squeeze another $30 million a year out of Magic Johnson’s ego.

So, who do you think should receive the long term extension? Kershaw or Posey?

Leave your comments below.

Hello sports fans!

Welcome to Fastball-Changeup. This blog is the brainchild of two friends, Golden Bears, and rivals. We hail from the Bay Area and L.A. and owe allegiances to different teams but share a respect for the game of baseball. With this blog we want to bring two different and usually opposing perspectives to the issues of the baseball world as they happen to provide both sides of the issue. The fastball portion of the article will generally be the normal or accepted argument while the changeup will follow with a different take. Both perspectives will be offered and we’ll leave it to you, the readers, to decide which is right.

Hopefully we won’t get as heated as a Giants-Dodgers rivalry, but you never know what is going to happen once you step on the field.

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Play ball!