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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.

la-sp-0304-dodgers-20130304-001

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.

billy-crystal-749332

But still, who doesn’t love Billy Crystal?

So Matt and I realized that there was more going on in the baseball world that isn’t necessarily conducive to our normal fastball/changeup style. So in an effort to get some more posts out, we decided to create the “Extra Innings” portion of the blog to give us an opportunity to comment on other aspects of the league. We hope you enjoy!

464727960_8f3a437c1b_z

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Scott Boras’ last major high profile client, Kyle Lohse, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this week, giving the notorious agent the ability to finally sound off over the new free agency rules.

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Lohse with a Milwaukee M

Venting to FoxSports.com, Boras claimed, “When you have a system that does not reward performance, you know we have something corrupt in the major league process. You cannot have that in the major league system, because it’s not rewarding performance.” Boras later goes on to claim that the new process hurt Kyle Lohse and Adam LaRoche from locking down larger contracts.

But is it fair to call the new process corrupt?

During the offseason, MLB updated free agency procedures in yet another attempt to improve the competitive levels of small market teams. Previously, players were allocated a ranking by the Elias Sports Bureau. Players who had an A or B ranking and denied arbitration forced their new teams to give up a draft pick. While the new team had to forfeit the draft pick, they did not have to forfeit over the signing bonuses associated with those picks.

Under the new system, only players who are offered qualifying offers of $13.3 million are tied to draft picks. This pool of players is substantially lower than before, but when teams sign other free agents, they must also forfeit over the draft pick signing bonus, which ranges from $100,000 to $2.6 million (the first 10 picks are protected from being poached). This money reduces the total pool of dollars, which is regulated by the MLB based on draft pick slot values, and reduces the overall amount teams can offer to players as signing bonuses.

This changes how teams need to approach their draft picks, since they now will have to balance between building the current team and replenishing their farm system. The new system also creates different interpretations of draft pick value depending on when the team wants to be competitive and helps small market teams compete against the deeper-pocketed teams.

Under the old system, big market teams were able to poach big stars, and while they lost a draft pick, they could just roll over the bonus money associated with that pick to a larger signing bonus for a later pick. With money finally being sacrificed, small market teams are compensated for losing out on their players that they just can’t afford to keep anymore, and can still offer appropriate signing bonuses to their additional draftees. The additional draft picks coupled with the additional draft pool money will help stack small market farm teams with top prospects. While there is risk associated with prospect development, a deep farm system reduces this risk, as seen with the 2012 A’s. Strong seasons can then boost ticket sales, creating the additional revenue needed to keep homegrown talent.

Any system created to help increase the competitive level of the game can’t be considered corrupt, but the “corrupt” claim implies that the system is broken with a certain party not receiving their fair share.

Boras is correct in claiming that it reduces the value of players who received qualifying offers. But, he doesn’t seem to see that these players contracts are becoming more in line with their actual market value. Kyle Lohse couldn’t find a home with teams looking to win now, and the contract Boras was after was too pricey for those looking to rebuild. As a result, Boras had to lower his normally-astronomically-high asking price to compensate for a lost draft pick. This resulted in less money for a pitcher who is on the backend of a career with one good season.

As one NL exec said, “If we really want the player and feel he can make the difference for us in having a championship club – or building toward a championship club – it’s not a significant factor.  Look, we all like picks and prospects, but even among the top 50 prospects in the game more than half of them never make it.” Top free agents Josh Hamilton, who signed with the Angels, Nick Swisher, who signed with the Indians, and BJ Upton, who signed with the Rays, all signed huge contracts despite draft pick compensation, showing that the tradeoff is, in some situations, worth it.

Thus it becomes clear that the only people losing out on this new system are the agents pushing the value up for all MLB players. To quote MLB’s top labor executive, “The fact that one Scott Boras client has not signed does not convince me that the system is broken.” I can’t help but agree.

APTOPIX Angels Pitcher Killed Baseball

It’s ok Scotty, qualifying offers aren’t that bad.

The Fastball

By: Ryan

No 9th inning pitcher was feared more last year than Aroldis Chapman. The dude is a beast; standing 6’4 and throwing heat that tops 100 mph, he easily overpowers hitters and eliminates late game heroics. This kind of dominance led to extensive speculation in the offseason about a possible switch to the front half of games. If your best pitcher is your closer, why not have him start?

chapman

While this seems like an easy switch to make for a pitcher, there aren’t that many pitchers who have successfully made the switch. Sure there are numerous guys who have done it, but only John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley remain the only two pitchers to record a 20 W season and a 50 Save season in their careers. The lack of other dominant names suggest the difficulties that pitchers face when transitioning, all of which should be considered when thinking about where Aroldis will pitch.

Obviously, the biggest difference between the two pitching roles is the number of innings. This impacts pitchers in two ways. First is the additional innings during the game, which is analogous to the difference between a sprinter and marathon runner. The marathon runner has to worry about their pace and making it to the end of the race, which is similar to the starter who needs to worry having enough juice to make it deep into the game. In comparison, the sprinter just needs to hurry up and finish. If Aroldis where to start games, his 100+ fastball would likely need be reduced to the mid 90’s so that he could log innings. A mid 90’s fastball is still great, but it lacks the dominance that helps Chapman as a closer. Without trying to overpower hitters on speed alone, Aroldis would have to develop great control over his pitches (which he isn’t known for).

The additional innings also brings Aroldis’ durability into question. His workload will increase from 75 innings a year to 180+. This is a huge increase, especially for someone who experienced left should fatigue after pitching 70 innings last year. The Reds could attempt to mediate this by implementing an innings cap similar to Strasburg after Tommy John, but that also presents problems that question the motive to move Chapman to SP.

An innings cap wouldn’t be the only thing Chapman would share with Stras, both are known for the infamous inverted W pitching motion. This is know to cause tremendous strain on the pitcher’s elbow and shoulder, sometimes resulting in Tommy John surgery as was the case with Strasburg. The inverted W could also explain Chapman’s fatigue at the end of last year, and exposes the risks that can come with a heavier workload.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds

See any similarities?

strasburg inverted w

Strasburg

If Chapman were to start, he’d also have to work through the lineup numerous times in a game. One of the key advantages pitchers use to do so is employ different pitches to deceive the hitter. Currently, Chapman has a fastball, a fastball, and a fastball. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com saw Chapman start recently in spring training and noted, “He couldn’t get his off-speed stuff over the plate.” This is a major problem for any pitcher no matter how fast you throw. Without at least two more pitches at major league level, Chapman shouldn’t even be considered for the starting role.

It won’t help the Reds get to the playoffs by having Chapman struggle and become another mid rotation starter with an injury risk. Instead the Reds are making the right choice by leaving Chapman as the closer and the head a dominant bullpen.

How can we forget.

The Changeup

By: Matt

Aroldis Chapman wants to be a closer. The Reds are shooting for a World Series crown this year and Chapman was one of the best closers in baseball last year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Well…not exactly. Quite simply, if the Cincinnati Reds want to get the maximum value out of Aroldis Chapman. They need him to be a starting pitcher.

When the Reds originally signed Chapman to a six-year, $30.25 million contract in 2010, it was with the intention of making him into a starter. He was only thrust into the closer role last year because of injuries. And he took to it. He became one of the elite closers in baseball and his triple-digit fastball put fear into the hearts of many hitters. The back end of the Cincinnati bullpen was quite formidable, especially after a midseason trade for Jonathan Broxton. And the Reds roared into the playoffs with one of the best records in baseball before they ran into trouble. The ace of the staff Cueto went down with an injury, and the rest of the Cincinnati starters were not able to match up, leaving games out of reach and Chapman sitting in the bullpen watching. He logged only 3 innings of work, and gave up 1 run. Not quite the domination that fans were used to during the regular season. Mostly, since he didn’t get the chance to showcase his stuff in limited innings due to his role.

The role of the closer is sexy. They have been immortalized by Hoffman, Rivera, Wild Thing, and Beard, but their value is way overstated.

wild thing

Dominating Closers. Small WARs.

Dominating Closers. Small WARs.

Short Term Value

While WAR has its downsides as a statistic, it is a decent metric for assessing value and will work for this case. Chapman posted a 3.6 WAR last year as the Cincinnati closer which ranked him among the top relievers, however, the difference between WAR for an average and an elite closer is about 1.0. For comparison, Chapman’s possible replacement Jonathan Broxton had a 1.1 WAR in 35 innings with Kansas City before his trade, so if you were to project his numbers across the 70+ innings that Chapman pitched in the regular season you would put him at about 2.2, close to the league average. So, we can project Chapman as about a +1 win player by keeping him in the closer role. An elite closer definitely helps their team, but as you can see, their value is limited.

Now let’s compare with starting pitchers. The league average starter that pitches a full season posts a WAR of around 2.3. The Reds fifth starter, Mike Leake would be the most likely to lose his job were Chapman to move to the rotation. Last year, he made 30 starts, threw 179 innings. Posted a 4.58 ERA and a 4.47 FIP, meaning these numbers were pretty close to accurate. All of this amounted to a WAR of 0.6. Even if Chapman were to not reach ace status and post only his baseline ZiPS projection, he would post a 3.63 ERA across 144 innings with a WAR of around 3.0. This would be far better than Leake, and create more net value and wins for the Reds in the short term than keeping him in the bullpen.

Long Term Value

As for the long term, the value would be way better. The track record for changing relievers into starters is there. Daniel Bard, Neftali Feliz, Lance Lynn, Jeff Samardzija, and Chris Sale have all had success recently. The most obvious comparison for our purposes is with Sale. The hard-throwing lefty made the transition from bullpen to starter last year to great results. The Sox were careful about spacing out his starts and giving him enough rest and he posted a 3.05 ERA in 192 innings with 192 Ks and 5.7 Wins Above Replacement. Sale made the jump to ace status immediately, and since both are hard-throwing left handers with movement, it seems possible that Chapman could do the same. The stuff is obviously there, as Chapman can pop 100 with ease. His slider is nasty, and reports show that his changeup, though still developing was starting to come along in Spring Training. If he were to start, comparisons to Randy Johnson or Dontrelle Willis’s early years are easy to make. If Chapman came even close to these levels, the Reds would be foolish to keep him trapped in the bullpen.

Reds fans might have trouble convincing Snoop to change color loyalties. Hes a fan of the Green.

Starters like Chris Sale get all the love.

The Reds have a team that is built around a strong core of young players. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Brandon Phillips are all under contract for multiple years, and all except for Phillips are under 30. The team does not have to mortgage their future to win right now, and by moving Chapman to a starting role, they would create more value in the short and long term.

The Fastball

By: Ryan

Even though the Oakland Athletics won the AL West last season, team owner, Lou Wolff, has not let the champagne bottles distort his goal of moving the team out of Oakland and into the South Bay. While there has only been one team that has changed cities in nearly 40 years, the move makes sense for both the Oakland Athletics and the City of San Jose.

The Oakland A’s have been struggling with a fan base that just doesn’t seem to want to turn out to games. Since the Barry Zito days (2005), the team has had yearly attendance in the bottom five of all MLB teams every year and was dead last in two of those seasons. Last year, even though the team came from behind to clinch the ALDS on the last day of the season, they still had the fourth worst attendance on the year, averaging only 20,000 fans per game. If we instead look at attendance percentage, the 2012 number looks pretty impressive at 60%. While this rating seems fairly high, the stadium is listed at only holding 35,000 people, with tarps blocking off an extra 20,000 seats that are usually full for Raiders games. Even though the relocation news is motivating the community to make awesome t-shirts and create buyer groups willing to commit to a downtown stadium, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on fan turn out. Unfortunately, the A’s simply can’t afford to stay in Oakland if turnout remains this low.

The timing makes sense as well, since the team is in need of a new stadium. Oakland Coliseum is considered one of the worst stadiums in the MLB, alongside Tropicana Field. Even Bud agrees with this statement. This concrete behemoth is the last multi-purpose stadium left in the United States, and the Mt. Davis facelift it received in 1996, turned the Coliseum into a football stadium that baseball teams play in. Instead of making a new Coliseum in Oakland, which would commit them to the area and obligate them to the taxpayers (if it were publicly funded), it makes more sense for the A’s to move now, so they can begin to develop and invest in their new community.

Boston Red Sox v Oakland Athletics

Mt. Davis is above the Center Field wall.

Economically, it makes the most sense for the A’s to move to San Jose. There is no doubt that the team would do wonders for the San Jose economy, reports indicate a $2.9 billion impact over 30 years. This type of money would make any city excited over the possibility of a MLB team moving within their lines. Additionally, the economic benefit to the A’s, although not as large, will surely do wonders for the competitiveness of the team. A move to San Jose would eliminate the team’s eligibility for revenue sharing dollars, which in recent seasons has been around $30 million. Yet, many expect the team to make millions more from ticket sales, concessions, and luxury seats, leaving the A’s in a far better position. This increased revenue will roll over into increased wins, finally giving the A’s the money to lock down their talent instead of shipping them to the Yankees.

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Nick Swisher: Former Athletic

Thus it becomes clear that a move to San Jose would expand on the recent resurgence found in the A’s organization last season and should be the favorite option for the team in the future. If it doesn’t work out, they can always change their name to the San Jose Athletics of Oakland.

The Changeup

By: Matt

My colleague makes some good points about the low turnout of fans in recent seasons. Without fans a team cannot pay its players enough to be competitive. Additionally, without many fans, it is hard to attract players to your team.

That being said, in the years since 2005, the A’s have had only three winning seasons: 2005, 2006 and 2012. It takes a special kind of person to support a team when they have a culture of losing so Oaklanders can be forgiven if they are not buying tickets every night to watch a below .500 team. But in the 2012 season, the A’s played well and made the playoffs on a remarkable run, and what happened? The fans showed up and the A’s had their highest yearly attendance in 5 years. It’s no coincidence that in ’05, ’06, and ’12, the A’s averaged 1.92 million people per year, while in their losing seasons they averaged 1.57 million. If you play well, they will come.

The 2012 Oakland Athletics

The 2012 Oakland Athletics

The way that this debate has drawn out for so many years shows a few things. One, the Giants territorial claim has merit and the commissioner is serious about upholding those rights. And two, though San Jose may be a good place to put a team financially, members of the Oakland community are serious about keeping the A’s.

The idea of “territory” might seem silly to some, but the San Jose Giants have been around since 1988 and have built up a following. They have won 6 class-A league titles in that span and helped to develop more than one hundred big league players. The Giants are serious about keeping San Jose as part of their territory in the same way that the Red Sox would be adamant about blocking an expansion team in Connecticut.

It will be interesting to see if the fans show up for the 2013 season. Coming off a good year that did a lot to build up Oakland pride as well as returning fan favorites like Coco Crisp and Grant Balfour should help boost attendance. But there is only so much of an argument you can make for staying if fans don’t show. It will also be up to business leaders in the Oakland community to come together to put a plan for a new stadium or a renovation of the Coliseum and the surrounding area that shows investment in the community and seriousness about keeping the team around. There is opportunity for all in a new stadium in Oakland, but if Wolff has already made up his mind about leaving he may not see it.

So, what do you think? Should the A’s stay put or move to greener (and golder) pastures? Vote and leave your comments below.

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.

Sophomore Stars? The Trout/Harper Debate

No two rookies received as much press last year as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Both rookies were highly touted young raw talents, who we’re going to make a big impact on the game, and when they both got called up, it was easy to make comparisons as to which would be the better performer. While Trout easily out shown Harper last year, and nearly every other baseball player for that matter, a new year is upon us and it seems impossible to start this season without speculating which will have the better 2013.

The Fastball

By: Ryan

Trout arguably had the best baseball season last year with his .326 batting average, 49 stolen bases, and 30 homers. Not to mention he had a WAR of 10.8, highest in the Bigs since Barry Bonds had a 11.6 in 2002. While his five-tool talent and numerous web gems weren’t enough to get the Angels to the playoffs, they did earn the kid Rookie of the Year honors, and a second place finish in AL MVP. While the general conception is that Trout is going to come back down to Earth, he is still no doubt going to be an amazing athlete batting near .300 and stealing over 40. However, where 2012 was the breakout for Magic Mike, 2013 will be all about Harper.

In 2012, the kid (and yes I can call him a kid because he’s younger than me, and probably you too) ran into a bit of struggles midway during the season, which coincides to when pitchers discovered Harper’s kryptonite, the curveball. Over the course of the season, with two strikes (traditional junk ball pitch counts), Harper batted .180. Yet the kid still managed to bat .270 on the season by batting .382 in traditional hitters counts. In other words, he can crush the fastball. Yet once he becomes more disciplined at the plate, he’ll be able to work himself into hitters counts and up his walk rate, both which will respectively benefit his raw power and speed. It is also worth noting that while Harper’s worst two months were in July and August, he finished the year with a better offensive September than Mike Trout. Harper’s BA and SLG all topped that of Trout, while they both shared a .400 OBP.

I see Harper developing into more of a power hitter than Trout, who will regress into a more traditional leadoff batter (high avg, high steal, low slugging). While it’s difficult to compare a true power hitter to a true leadoff man, these two players will continue to be hybrids with a different emphasis on their game. However, what will set Harper apart this year will be a plus average for a power hitter, as evident from his .330 Sept/Oct.

Defensively, Harper will be slow to transition. He finds himself moving to left field, which will take some adjustment. But his WAR of 1.8 in his first year hints at his abilities. Harper has a cannon of an arm, which only got stronger when he bulked up 15 lbs in the offseason. As the season progresses, watch Harper become more of a threat in the outfield, especially over the limited space he’s responsible for.

Plus, let’s not forget about Harper’s hustle. This is the same hustle that allowed him to steal home on Cole Hamels when he tried to pick off the runner at first. This aspect of his game allows him to prove to be a vital asset on the base paths, where he can stretch singles to doubles and double to triples. This aspect of his game allows him and the Nats to capitalize on defensive mental errors, something few other players do as well as Harper.

2013 is going to be an exciting season and its going to be great to watch Trout and Harper duke it out again. But I give Round 2 to Harper; expect his 5.0 WAR to jump as his game continues to develop.

Oh and did I mention, the kid’s only 20.

The Changeup

By: Matt

That’s a clown article, bro.

With respect to my colleague, he’s just taking the party line on these rookies and not actually looking beyond the stats. Yes, Mike Trout is a candidate for regression, and he might even have a sophomore slump. That being said, he was the best player in baseball last year and should have been the MVP; even if he does regress, it is hard to imagine him falling far. Trout put up ridiculous numbers in his first full season, but unlike some rookies that have shone bright and faded, this young man’s numbers don’t actually suggest regression, but insanely, improvement.

Trout ended the season with a .326 BA, .399 OBP, .563 SLG with 27 doubles, 30 home runs, 83 RBIs, and 49 stolen bases (while only being caught stealing 5 times). These are fabulous numbers that bring you back to Barry Bonds pre-steroids or Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime. In some senses he actually beats these two out though thanks to his speed and defensive ability. However, though these are the sexy numbers that people like to tout, the most important numbers are the ones below the surface:

Trout grounded into 7 double plays in 2012, he had a .88/1 Ground ball to fly ball ratio, he drew only about 1 walk per 10 plate appearances and he saw about 4 pitches per at bat. These are not the numbers of a leadoff hitter, but those of a power hitter in his prime. Trout had to carry his team for a few months last season with Prince Albert was slumping, and being a rookie, he faced many fastballs from pitchers who didn’t know his weaknesses yet. And Trout did what any good hitter does with fastballs and hit them a long way, usually in the air. This likely inflated his home run totals, and brought his OBP down. While a .399 OBP is good for a leadoff hitter, it is due mostly to his high average, and ridiculous knowing that Trout only walked at a .105 bb/pa rate. It is likely that Trout in the offseason will work on taking more pitches and drawing more walks, especially since he is likely to see more off-speed and junk pitches in his second season. Trout will face a harder time in his second season, and his numbers will change, but not necessarily for the worse. I see him learning his trade more in his second season, lower power numbers, but higher peripherals.

My predictions for Trout’s second season:
118 R, 192 H, 30 2B, 20 HR, 78 RBI, 58 SB, .320 BA, .415 OBP, .500 SLG, 158 OPS +

Yes the power will be down, but the hits will be up. With Pujols and Hamilton hitting behind him, Trout will be able to do his job and see pitches and get on base. He won’t have to carry the team anymore, and can work on just being the best leadoff hitter in baseball.

Oh and did I mention he’s also the best defensive center fielder in the game?

Alright, on to Bryce Harper. Harper is a young hotshot and he probably gets more scrutiny than he deserves. He is a good player, but not great, and he is a prime candidate for regression, not improvement. Harper is a “hustle” player. He beats out infield singles, turns singles into doubles and makes spectacular plays in the outfield. However, his hustle actually makes up for some glaring problems that he will have to try and fix. Unlike Trout, Harper has not learned how to play the outfield. He gets bad jumps on balls and takes bad routes to get to them, but his hustle and grit often make up for it and he manages to make the catch. Case in point:

Harper’s swing is gorgeous. When he gets a ball where he is expecting to get it he can hit it as far as anyone and he can fly on the basepaths. That being said, he still hasn’t learned how to hit a curve ball. It’s the prototypical problem for young stars that are rushed through the minors, the inability to hit major league off speed. Harper will definitely improve some parts of his game, but he won’t be able to take it to the next level until he learns to hit offspeed pitches and hit them well.

Currently, the advantage lies with the pitcher, since they can nibble and throw junk until Harper bites and strikes or grounds out. And he does, as evidenced by his .09 bb/pa. Harper still needs to learn how to hit. And he will, but I don’t think he puts it together right away this season. Harper will put up decent numbers and will help his team contend through his hustle and raw talent. And he is raw. He may just be the best #2 hitter in baseball, but he is not much more than that. Until he gets some more seasoning, Harper will continue to be a positive player in the big leagues, but he is still a year or so away from taking the jump and becoming elite.