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The Pittsburgh Pirates are once again off to a hot start. The owners of a 53-34 record, good for second in their division, the Pirates are looking to finish 2013 in the style they hoped to finish 2012. If current trends are any indicator, Pittsburgh should have no problems locking up their first playoff birth since 1992.

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PNC Park – Home of the Pittsburgh Pirates

The biggest strength that the Pirates have this year is pitching, although it wouldn’t seem that way when looking at the starting rotation. Entering the season, Pittsburgh’s starting rotation consisted of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, and James McDonald. The first three names of that list are the most recognizable but also came with the most uncertainty at the beginning of the season. Burnett entered the season at 36 years old. Wandy Rodriguez is 34. And Francisco Liriano has always been known to have streaks of greatness that are perpetually stalked by an inability to throw strikes. McDonald was going to be a solid mid rotation guy, and Locke, with half a years experience, would attempt to fill out the back end.

Once the season got underway, all expectations were exceeded and the rotation proved to be a dominating force. Burnett showed that the Fountain of Youth filters out of the Allegheny River, pitching to a 3.12 ERA and 10 K/9 in 14 games. Wandy drank some of the same stuff and produced equally strong numbers. But the real stories went to both Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke.

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Even Russell Crowe is excited

Liriano was a high risk/high reward acquisition that many assumed would do far more damage to the team that dared take a flyer on him. But so far, he has been magnificent. Through 10 starts, Liriano has posted a 2.23 ERA and a 9.9 K/9. While the walk rate remains high on the higher end of the spectrum (3.41 BB/9), he is still well under he previous two seasons, which both had a BB/9 ration of 5. While it’s hard to apply the decreased walk rate to any one thing in particular, Liriano will continue to be an asset to the Pirates if that walk rate stays down.

Locke, who has been equally as dominant this year, has a different set of concerns. While on the surface his 2.06 ERA and 7-1 record look remarkable, some of his other numbers raise some questions. So far this season, Locke has been very fortunate to strand a large amount of runners on base. He currently stands with a 85.6% strand rate, which is unsustainable for any big leaguer. Locke has also given up fewer home runs than his fly ball rate would support (8.2%), another reason for second half regression considering it is far under his career average. As both of these stats return to the norm, Locke will see his ERA climb closer to his xFIP of 4.11. Even with this regression though, Locke should continue to contribute to the Pirate rotation in a meaningful way.

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Jeff Locke

There is no denying the strength of this rotation. The pitching staff that is 1st out of all major leagues when it comes to team ERA (3.11) and opponent batting average (.225), and third in baseball in WHIP (1.19). But strong rotations tend to get teams only so far before injuries and bullpens cost the team wins. The Pirates have already been faced with these challenges this year and have proved that they have depth, both in the minors and in the pen, which make up for the doubts within their rotation.

So far this season, the Pirates have had to fill their rotation after injuries left them with holes. First they turned to Jeanmar Gomez who after starting eight games, currently sits with a 2-0 record and a 2.76 ERA. They also were forced to turn to highly touted prospect Gerrit Cole, who started his career off 4-0.

The bullpen has also been one of the safest late inning bets in the MLB. Jason Grilli leads the NL in saves and is 27-28 in save opportunities. Before Grilli enters in the ninth, the Pirates have the best set-up men in the game. Mark Melancon has and ERA and WHIP just above 0.8 in 41 innings. The rest of the bullpen combines to have an ERA of 2.92 and an opponent batting average of .217. The strong bullpen helps to fill in for the starting rotation which averages just over 5 1/3 innings per start.

The Pirates second half will not be as good as their first half. The starting rotation will continue to be tested and there will be some regression for Locke and the questions with Liriano will remain. But the Pirates have proven that they have the depth to overcome any pitching problems that may arise.

The worst thing to happen to the Pirates this year

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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.

The issue of gay marriage is being debated yet again in the Supreme Court, and were a verdict to come out in favor of the institution, society would take another step forward towards acceptance. New polls show that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, but even as the concept of gay marriage gains momentum in society, the sporting world has fallen behind.

San Francisco 49ers safety Chris Culliver infamously tweeted his disgust towards the prospect of having a gay teammate during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. While he later apologized for his statement, that it was a player from a city as liberal as San Francisco  shows the disconnect between sports teams and the players who play for those teams. While the 49ers made an “It Gets Better” video last year, half of the players did not know that the anti-bullying message was targeted at LGBTQs and two of the four athletes who participated deny involvement. The ad has since been pulled.

While many athletes will not say it, Culliver is not alone in his feelings of discomfort towards the prospect of playing with a gay teammate. Even so, the NFL gets some credit as an alliance of athletes including NFL players Chris Kluwe, Scott Fujita, and Brendon Ayanbadejo filed a brief to the Supreme Court challenging California’s ban on same-sex marriage. On that brief were the names of 10 current NFL players as well as representatives from all other major sporting leagues in America, except one: Major League Baseball.

With the success of “42,” a biopic of the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the MLB, the spotlight is on baseball to again be the catalyst for change in society. Robinson was a hero, and as the movie shows, nothing he did came easy. He was greeted in the big leagues with pitches thrown at his head, racism from opposing players as well as his own teammates, and fans that hurled all kinds of insults at him from the stands. But because of his struggle, Major League Baseball was able to integrate and society soon followed.

Photo credit: umw.edu

Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball. Who will be the first openly gay player?

Fast forward over sixty years, and baseball has fallen behind. Number one WNBA draft pick Brittany Griner recently came out and went on to sign an endorsement deal with Nike, mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox recently came out as transgender, and former Celtics center Jason Collins revealed he was gay in a soon-to-be-released Sports Illustrated article. But while a few baseball players have come out after the fact, there has never been an openly gay player on a major league roster.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been developments in the baseball world. The MLB recently added a line on sexual orientation to the players’ anti-discrimination clauses. This clause may be necessary, as last year, former Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was fined and suspended for three games when he played with a homophobic slur written in Spanish on his eye black. Many high profile players, including Tigers ace pitcher Justin Verlander have made comments saying they would welcome a gay teammate. However, these comments might have been prompted, since Verlander’s teammate Torii Hunter has said last year that playing with a gay teammate would make him “uncomfortable. The “uncomfortable” idea is thrown around a lot by players as an argument against their peers coming out, but not all players feel that way. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy responded to the idea of discomfort from a gay teammate saying “If you’ve played this game for a number of years, you’ve probably had a few gay teammates, and have you been accosted in the shower yet? It’s probably not going to happen if someone comes out.”

The baseball world would appear to be split on the issue, echoing the societal feeling as well. What baseball needs is a gay Jackie Robinson. A player who is so good that he cannot be ignored, but so dynamic that no one would want to ignore him. The potential for revenue is huge, and any owner should jump at the opportunity and media buzz it would bring. Just as Jackie Robinson changed the way that society thought about race, so too can a gay player change the way that we think about sexual orientation. Baseball is the national pastime, and sports are great when they can bring people together. The question now is, who will step up to the plate?

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?

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!

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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.