What I’m Watching For in April

As Spring Training wraps up, the regular season is starting to come into clearer focus. The Chicago Cubs recently finalized their 25-man roster to begin the season, electing to go with 13 pitchers and 12 position players. Javier Baez will start the season on the disabled list, so Tommy LaStella and Matt Szczur will both start in the big leagues, as will Neil Ramirez who is the final bullpen arm. With the season opening Monday, here are some of the things I will paying attention to the most in the first month of the season.

 

Outfield Rotation

I know I’m not alone in wanting to see how this shakes out. When the Cubs unexpectedly re-signed Dexter Fowler in February, it left them with four outfielders for three spots. I wrote about this in more detail recently, but early in the season I’m looking forward to seeing how Maddon utilizes his four outfielders and how he divides up the playing time. In particular, I wonder how often Fowler, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler will start relative to each other. There are plenty of starts to go around, but that still won’t be enough to keep everyone in the lineup day in and day out.

 

Jorge Soler

Soler will be impacted by the outfield rotation I just mentioned, but with Soler specifically I’m interested in seeing how his second full major league season goes. His 2015 season was somewhat underwhelming, at least until the playoffs when he showed off the offense everyone had been hoping for and then some. He still doesn’t have a ton of professional baseball experience since coming to the United States, so having a full major league season under his belt should mean he has improved, but if he hasn’t then he could find himself getting less playing time in the crowded outfield. Soler was also a pretty poor defender in right field last year, so if he hasn’t improved much there, then his bat is going to have to carry him, and getting off to a strong start could be important for keeping him in the lineup. I don’t think Maddon or the front office will give up on him by any means if he struggles out of the gate, but it also could be tough to justify putting him in the lineup over Schwarber, Fowler, or Heyward if those three perform like they are capable of.

 

Kyle Schwarber’s Defense

Schwarber is obviously known for his huge bat, but he’s also know for his mediocre to poor defense. Several blunders in the playoffs last year brought to light his suspect defense in left, and there have always been questions about his receiving ability behind the plate.

For as ungraceful as he looks at times in the outfield, however, Schwarber is actually pretty athletic, and it’s not unreasonable to expect him to improve his defense there with more reps. He’s also known for his incredible work ethic, so with the combination of those, I have high hopes that he can improve his defense in the outfield.

Likewise, I am interested to see what his D behind the plate looks like. He didn’t get a ton of time there after getting called up last year, and after another off-season of working on it I’m excited to see how he looks behind the plate this year. If he’s passable, having his bat there 30-40 times a year is extremely valuable.

What Do the Cubs Do in the Outfield

When the Cubs unexpectedly re-signed Dexter Fowler in February, it left them with a problem many teams would love to have: four outfielders capable of starting every day with only three spots to play them. Obviously, that math doesn’t work out, so Joe Maddon will have to rotate guys in and out, something he likes to do even when there aren’t quite as many quality options to go with. There are a couple things that we know, or at least expect, now, but there are some others that are up in the air, so I’ll take my best stab at them here.

 

First, we know Kyle Schwarber will get some starts at other positions, most notably catcher but also probably designated hitter when the Cubs play in AL parks (the Cubs have 10 of those games, by my unofficial count). This helps free up the logjam a little, as all four of these outfielders can play on days when Schwarber catches or DHes, with Jorge Soler in left, Fowler in center, and Jason Heyward in right (or Soler could DH with Schwarber in left). With Schwarber slated to be Jason Hammel’s personal catcher, we can expect him to get about 30-35 starts behind the plate, give a take a few if Maddon decides to utilize some specific matchups throughout the course of the season.

 

We also can be fairly certain that Heyward will start almost every day. I’m guessing Heyward will play about 150 games, mostly in right field but occasionally spelling Fowler in center. Heyward is pretty clearly the best outfielder at this point, so it makes sense that he gets the most playing time of the four.

 

From there, we must divvy up the remaining starts between Schwarber (when not at another position), Soler, and Fowler. Fowler will probably get most of the starts in center field—maybe 130 or so, though that could be a little light—while Schwarber and Soler will split time in left, unless Heyward is in center in which case Soler would be in right. Let’s do some quick back of the napkins math and see what some reasonable estimates of games started might look like.

 

486 total outfield starts available

150 Heywards starts (118 right, 32 center)

130 Fowler starts (130 center)

116 Soler starts (72 left, 44 right)

90 Schwarber starts in outfield (90 left)

30 Schwarber starts at catcher

10 Schwarber starts at DH

130 total Schwarber starts

 

This gets everyone a good number of starts and keeps everyone fresh while still getting the most playing time to the best players. It’s possible a few more starts could go to Fowler, as his ability to switch hit means that he doesn’t have to worry about facing a tough platoon disadvantage. I think the Cubs want to get Soler and Schwarber as many at bats as possible, though, to allow them to continue to develop at the plate. A straight platoon might provide the best on field results for this year, but it could stunt both of their development.

 

There are two important caveats to keep in mind here. First, Maddon will certainly be pinch hitting guys and putting in defensive replacements, so starts are not totally indicative of playing time. I’m guessing most of these guys will find their way into even more games through late or mid game substitutions. Second, this can all easily change with an injury. If one of these guys goes down, all of a sudden they’re all starters, and Matt Szczur (or Javier Baez once healthy, or even Kris Bryant) is the backup.

 

That said, in an ideal world, this is one possibility of how the playing time could shake out. I won’t pretend to know what the Cubs plan to do, but this keeps the starts decently balanced while still giving Heyward the most starts, followed by Schwarber and Fowler. It will be interesting to see, especially early in the season, how Maddon utilizes his outfielders and splits up the playing time to see if any noticeable trends develop.

How Good Is Jon Lester, Actually?

As a Cubs fan, when the North Siders signed Jon Lester last winter, I was pretty ecstatic. The Cubs were getting a top of the rotation arm and appeared to finally be turning a corner into a more competitive window. Sure, the contract might have been a bit more ambitious that I would have preferred, but that’s true with almost any big name free agent that gets signed. It’s often the cost of doing business.

Being the die-hard fan I am, I watched most of Lester’s starts this year. Lester had a solid season and performed like an ace in many starts, but I still can’t wipe the feeling that after his first season in a Cubs uniform, I’m a little underwhelmed. Theoretically, the first year of the contract should probably be the best one, as Lester will only get older going forward. While age may bring certain pitching wisdom, it will almost certainly cause a decline in velocity that more than offsets any other gains he might make.

The statistics and advanced metrics can tell different stories of Lester’s 2015 campaign depending on where you look. He posted a 3.34/2.92/3.06 ERA/FIP/xFIP, which ranges from good to excellent depending on the individual stat, but a 0.42 difference between his ERA and FIP is a fairly notable difference. Whether it’s something meaningful or simply randomness takes a little digging (and in reality it’s probably a combination of both).

Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR has Lester at 3.1 (37th in the MLB), while Fangraphs’ version has him up at 5.0, the 13th-highest total in the majors. Baseball Prospectus’s version of the statistic had him at just 2.8 wins, 29th in the bigs. These are all calculated by slightly different methodologies and formulas, so it’s normal to see some difference between them, but two whole wins is a pretty large difference (the difference, in fact, between the Pirates having the best record in baseball and being bounced from the playoffs before the division series).

I’m going to start using some abbreviations to make things easier, so here’s a quick table to help.

Website Abbreviation WAR Abbreviation
Fangraphs FG fWAR
Baseball-Reference B-R rWAR
Baseball Prospectus BP WARP

Fangraphs is the outlier here, with B-R and BP seemingly in agreement about Lester’s value. Fangraphs’ WAR, or fWAR, uses FIP when calculating the metric, rather than runs allowed. FIP is a statistic on the same scale as ERA that only incorporates things a pitcher can control—strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed—assuming everything else to be out of the pitcher’s control. Of course, this is not entirely true—we know some pitchers can induce more groundballs than others, for example—but it generally does a better job at telling us how a pitcher actually pitched (and how he’s likely to pitch in the future) than ERA.

Generally, I’m a big fan of FIP and Fangraphs’ decision to base its WAR metric on it. However, in the case of Lester, I think it dramatically inflates his value, maybe more so than any other pitcher in baseball, due to a combination of factors, all of which make his numbers on the surface look a little better than the value he actually provides.

Additionally, there are a number of other small things about Lester as a player that may lead to WAR overstating his value. Each one individually is fairly small, but the combination of all of them could lead us to overstate Lester’s value to the Cubs.

Controlling the Running Game

In the overall scheme of a pitcher’s job, controlling the running game is pretty minor. After all, the best way to control the running game is not to let hitters get on base, and even if they get on base and steal their way to third, a good pitcher can strand them there more than a bad one. That said, it’s a non-negligible part of a pitcher’s job, and it’s one at which Lester is terrible.

According to BP, Lester’s TRAA, or takeoff rate above average, is 15.90%, second-highest of any pitcher in baseball. This is, of course, due to Lester’s infamous inability to throw the baseball to first base in an attempt to pick runners off. With almost no fear of Lester throwing over, runners can take huge leads on him and start sprinting toward second base the moment he moves. Lester allowed 44 stolen bases this year, tops in the majors, and only seven other pitchers allowed even half that many steals against them this year.

FIP accounts only for the average rate at which runners score, so it doesn’t penalize Lester for his inability to hold baserunners. However, we obviously expect that a pitcher who allows a lot of stolen bases is going to give up more runs than one who doesn’t, which might be one reason why Lester’s ERA is so much higher than his FIP. Not accounting for opposing base stealers causes FIP, and thus fWAR, to overrate Lester.

Theoretically, this effect will already show up in rWAR since allowing runners to run freely will allow more runners to score, so Lester’s ERA will already reflect his poor ability to hold baserunners. More concretely, WARP factors in the amount of runs Lester’s inability to prevent baserunners from stealing cost him over the course of the season. fWAR is the only version of the stat that doesn’t account for this effect.

Fielding

As you can probably guess, if Lester has trouble throwing to first base on pickoffs, he also has trouble throwing to bases after fielding a ground ball. Sure enough, Lester’s fielding this year was also very bad. By both DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), two advanced metrics that calculate a player’s value in the field, Lester was a below average fielder, costing the Cubs 8 runs according to DRS and 3 by FRAA’s measure. Taking the average of these, we’d estimate Lester’s fielding cost about five and a half runs, which is the second-worst mark in the majors among qualified starting pitchers and translates to about half a win.

Framing

One of the areas of baseball research that has been gaining a lot of steam in recent years is catcher framing, which is the idea that some catchers, by receiving a pitcher more fluidly, are better able to get pitches called strikes by the umpire than others. Lester pitched almost every start with Davis Ross, who is considered an excellent framer, behind the plate. According to BP, Ross gained 5.5 runs for his pitchers based on framing in 2015, good for 20th in baseball out of 109 catchers. This is despite the fact that Ross was a backup catcher and only caught 402 innings this year. (Miguel Montero, by comparison, caught over twice as many innings despite missing almost a month with an injury.)

With Lester pitching to Ross every time out, he was getting more favorable calls from umpires. BP’s WARP takes framing into account, but neither rWAR nor fWAR does, which means in those two metrics Lester is receiving credit for Ross’s ability to frame pitches. Once again, this means that those two measures slightly inflate Lester’s actual value. With Lester pitching for about half of Ross’s 402.1 innings at catcher, it seems fair to estimate that Lester received about half of the 5.5 runs Ross gained from framing. This very rough approximation leaves us with about a quarter of a win that was incorrectly credited to Lester due to framing.

Hitting

No, hitting is not generally part of a pitcher’s job description, and Lester wasn’t brought in to do anything at the plate. But that doesn’t mean that pitchers can’t help or hurt their teams with the limited number of at bats they get. Pitchers are terrible hitters, but Lester is a terrible hitter even for a pitcher—he finally recorded the first hit of his career in July after beginning his career 0 for 66. Fangraphs has him at -0.4 offensive WAR, while B-R has him at -0.3, taking away another third of a win or so from Lester’s overall value.

Personal Catcher

This one isn’t something that would show up in WAR, and I’m not really sure of a great way to quantify it, but it’s a non-zero factor and almost certainly hurt the Cubs at least a little over the course of the season. Shortly after Lester signed last offseason, the Cubs inked David Ross to a two-year deal as their backup catcher. The Cubs’ front office insisted this wasn’t so that Ross could be Lester’s personal catcher, citing his defensive ability and leadership. I do believe the front office likes a lot of what Ross brings to the table as a backup catcher, but it’s hard to argue the bit about him not being a personal catcher for Lester was true.

It was clear from the start of the season that Ross was there to catch Lester, as Ross got the start on opening night against the Cardinals, despite Montero’s lefty bat seeming to match up better against the right-handed throwing Adam Wainwright. And sure enough, as soon as Lester left the game, Montero was subbed in and played the rest of the game behind the plate. This arrangement continued for the entire season and throughout the playoffs.

Of course, Ross has his value as a backup catcher—few backup catchers can hit, and most are just a body with some defensive value who can give the starting catcher a break every few days. But there were two things about the Ross signing and the way he was utilized that bugged me.

First, the Cubs already had a solid right-handed catcher in Welington Castillo. After they traded for Montero, they had a pretty nice setup, with Montero getting the majority of the starts and hitting against righties and Castillo spelling him as the backup and getting starts against lefties. However, by signing Ross, Castillo was essentially relegated to a pinch-hitting role for the first month of the season while occupying a valuable roster spot. He was finally traded for Yoervis Medina, who threw a total of 21 innings for the Cubs this year while posting a 4.71 ERA. Medina is now out of options heading into 2016, and since he probably won’t make the Cubs 25-man roster out of spring training, there’s a good chance he will not be a member of the Cubs organization for much longer. Castillo, meanwhile, went on to post a respectable .331 wOBA against lefties this year, much better than Ross’s pitcher-like .176. Lester’s need for Ross as a personal catcher cost the Cubs a valuable player who could have made the 2015 team better while returning them essentially nothing since the Cubs had so little leverage in trade talks (of course, that’s just speculation since I wasn’t involved in trade talks, but it appears that was probably the case).

Second, Lester’s need to have Ross catch him every time out prevented Joe Maddon from optimizing matchups. Ross could be a viable backup catcher by spelling Montero against tough lefty pitchers or other optimal matchups, but by having to start Ross whenever Lester pitched, Maddon was somewhat handcuffed when it came to being creative with how to utilize his two catchers. Often, in games Lester started, Ross would be subbed out for the superior Montero as soon as Lester was removed from the game, hinting that Maddon would have preferred to simply start Montero in the first place if given the opportunity.

By insisting on having Ross catch all of his starts, Lester essentially forced the Cubs to get rid of a valuable player for close to nothing and also prevented them from optimizing their lineup in games in which he pitched. There isn’t a great way to quantify this negative impact, but it definitely caused at least a little harm to the Cubs over the course of the season.

***

Jon Lester was certainly a valuable member of the Chicago Cubs this year and helped lead them to their first playoff appearance since 2008. All of the points I mentioned above are minor issues compared to the one thing Lester is best at, which is actually pitching baseballs. That said, all of these little things add up, and I can’t help but feel that he’s not quite as valuable as I once thought he was. For someone who is making over $25 million a year for six years, you would hope to get more than 2-3 wins out of him in the first year of the contract, as he’s likely to only get worse going forward.

I do think Lester is likely to age well given that he relies more on command than pure velocity or stuff, and his history of good health makes me more confident that he won’t break down as the years go on. Those two things both make the contract look a little better for the long haul. I also believe the Cubs front office, having worked with Lester before in Boston, was probably more comfortable with him and knew more about him than any other free agent pitcher they’re likely to have a chance at signing, providing more clarity on why they were comfortable giving him such a large contract.

In the end, I think we just need to appreciate Lester for what he is. He’s a durable lefty who will provide good value for years to come and can be a leader for a young Cubs clubhouse. But he’s not an ace, or even an elite number two starter. Is six years and $155 million (potentially 7/$170MM) a lot to pay for that type of player? Probably. But maybe that’s the cost of minimizing risk in the free agent pitching market. In the end, though, I’m left wondering if the Cubs paid too much for a guy who does a variety of minor things poorly enough to subtract a win or two from his overall value, which is otherwise pretty high.

Projecting the Cubs’ Wild Card Roster and Lineup

The Chicago Cubs will play the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card game on Wednesday. The format of the 1-game Wild Card provides some interesting options when it comes to determining the roster. Just for fun, I took a stab at the 25 players I think should be on the Cubs Wild Card roster, as well as the starting lineup.

Pitchers

Jake Arrieta – R

Hector Rondon – R

Pedro Strop – R

Trevor Cahill – R

Justin Grimm – R

Travis Wood – L

Clayton Richard – L

Fernando Rodney – R

Neil Ramirez – R

Jon Lester – L

Teams in the past have mostly gone with 9 or 10 pitchers—2 starters (one to start, one in case of an emergency or extra innings), and the rest relievers. There weren’t any more than 15 position players that I saw being useful, so I went with 10 pitchers, and this avoided having to make many tough cuts. I think it’s pretty obvious that Rondon is the shutdown guy with Strop right behind him. You’ve got to feel most confident with those two, but after that things get a little murky. For a while, Grimm seemed like obvious choice for next in line, but he struggled quite a bit in the last month or two of the season. That said, I still think he’s the first guy Maddon will go to in a jam due to the overall body of work, and the rough stretch seems to have ended, as he hasn’t given up a run since September 15th (and an earned one since September 8th). Rodney or Wood would probably be the next guy on the list, depending on what point in the game it is and who’s coming up.

I went with Neil Ramirez for the last spot because, although he hasn’t looked like he did last year, or even have his velocity up to where it was in April before he got injured, Ramirez has looked better since his second DL stint than he did after his first. Tommy Hunter hasn’t pitched since September 26th, and Zac Rosscup hasn’t pitched since September 23rd, so clearly Joe Maddon hasn’t felt the need to get either of them some work in order to stay fresh for the Wild Card game. Regardless, I’m guessing Ramirez won’t see the mound unless something crazy happens.

Catchers

Miguel Montero – L

David Ross – R

This is pretty obvious. I’m listing Schwarber as an outfielder, so it’s just these two guys.

Infielders

Anthony Rizzo – L

Addison Russell – R

Kris Bryant – R

Starlin Castro – R

Javier Baez – R

Tommy La Stella – L

Jonathan Herrera has been on the roster all season, but unfortunately for him I don’t see him making the post-season roster at any point barring an injury. These are all no-brainers I think, although it will get tougher once we get to the NLDS roster and have to decide if they can all be kept.

I think Castro gets the start at second, with Rizzo and Russell obviously in the lineup. Kris Bryant will definitely start, and it will probably be at third base, but it’s possible he could be in the outfield to get Baez or La Stella in the lineup if Maddon doesn’t love his options in the spacious outfield of PNC Park.

Outfielders

Dexter Fowler – S

Chris Coghlan – L

Kyle Schwarber – L

Jorge Soler – R

Quintin Berry – L

Chris Denorfia – R

Austin Jackson – R

These are all the guys the Cubs have been using over the past month. It will be interesting to see what Maddon does with the starting outfield—Fowler will certainly be in there, but after that, there’s not really an obvious answer. Jackson could be in there for his defense, Coghlan or Schwarber for the lefty bats (although Gerrit Cole actually has reverse splits, so maybe not), or Bryant could be out here to allow one of the other infielders to play. Denorfia and Soler will most likely be good right-handed bats to have off the bench, and Berry will be the late game pinch-run threat he was brought in to be.

I’m really not sure what Maddon will do on Wednesday, and I’ll probably change my mind multiple times before then, but here’s what I would do with the lineup.

Fowler – CF

Schwarber – RF

Bryant – 3B

Rizzo – 1B

Castro – 2B

Montero – C

Coghlan – LF

Russell – SS

Arrieta – P

I could be talked into switching Coghlan’s and Schwarber’s positions (I want Coghlan in the spot where he has to cover more ground since I think he’s a better (not good) defender), or putting Jackson in the OF, or moving Bryant out there and starting Baez (to optimize the defense) or La Stella (to provide good defense and get a lefty bat in there), or switching the batting order. As of now, though, those are the nine I want starting.

Scouting Some of the Top Prospects in the Midwest League

I was able to take in a number of Midwest League games this minor league season, and so I saw a number of the top prospects in the league. Here is what I saw from some of them.

Gleyber Torres – SS, CHC

Torres was the most impressive prospect I saw this year. He turned in a very solid .293/.353/.386 triple slash line, which is even more impressive when you consider that he was an 18-year-old getting his first taste of full-season ball. Torres has a wide, slightly closed stance and holds his hands up high with a controlled bat waggle. He showed good pitch recognition and bat-to-ball skills, above average bat speed, and moderate barrel control. His swing is linear and geared to produce line drives, so I don’t see much home run power in his future, even as he fills out a little bit, although I do think he could hit a healthy amount of doubles. The hit tool will be his calling card on offense, though.

In the field, Torres showed good hands, solid range to both sides, and a capable arm. He is a smooth fielder and looks up to the challenge of handling shortstop. I timed him at 4.35 seconds from home to first, which is slightly below average for a right-hander. It’s possible he could slow down a little if he puts on much more weight, which could also affect his ability to play shortstop. For now, though, I see no reason why he would have to move off the position. He’s already pretty mature physically, so while he could add a little strength, I don’t see him filling out too much more.

Overall, Torres showed a very advanced feel on the diamond, especially for his age. He’s an instinctual player who makes the game look easy. I think he could become an above average major league shortstop due to his adequate defense and plus hit tool.

Grades

Hit: 60

Power: 40

Speed: 45

Glove: 55

Arm: 50

OFP: 55

Nick Gordon – SS, MIN

Gordon was Minnesota’s first round pick in 2014, and he showed the tools that led to his high draft status, although the performance hasn’t caught up to them yet. Gordon has a thin, wiry frame with a high waist–it’s a good body and has room for plenty of muscle, though he’ll likely never be a huge power threat. He sets up tall at the plate, with a narrow base and a slightly open stance. He has strong, loose wrists, which helps him generate good bat speed, but he pounded everything into the ground in my viewing and didn’t show an ability to barrel the ball and spray line drives. It may have just been that I caught a bad game, or he may just need more reps at the plate (or both).

Everywhere else, Gordon was very impressive. He’s a burner on the bases,with at least 60 speed, and his speed helps him cover a lot of ground at shortstop. He has good hands and fluid actions in the field, and he showed a strong arm, so there’s no doubt about his ability to stick at the position, even if he puts on some more weight.

The tools are obvious, but Gordon is still raw and has some work to do at the plate. He should be an above average defensive shortstop, so he won’t have to hit a ton to be a valuable major leaguer–it’s more about whether he can become an all-star caliber one.

Grades

Hit: 55

Power: 30

Speed: 60

Glove: 60

Arm: 60

OFP: 55

Yairo Munoz – SS, OAK

I saw Munoz multiple times throughout the season, as Beloit is the team that I’m closest to. He has solid-average bat speed  and a leveraged swing that help him to generate slightly above average power. His approach at the plate isn’t very advanced–he gears up for fastballs and will get off balance and flail at off-speed pitches. I didn’t get a time on him, but his speed is fringe-average to average.

The A’s have Munoz playing shortstop for now, but I think he’ll end up moving to third base. He has slightly below average range at short, and his hands can get a little hard at times. Munoz shows a strong arm, so he should be able to stay on the left side of the infield, but I don’t think he has the defensive chops to stick at short.

Munoz is definitely a noteworthy prospect, but he’s not in the same class as Torres and Gordon. He has the potential to be an average every day big leaguer thanks to his power and arm, but I think the most realistic option is a second-division regular.

Grades

Hit: 45

Power: 55

Speed: 45

Glove: 45

Arm: 55

OFP: 50

Tops Futures Game Performers

I was lucky enough to attend my first Future’s Game as part of MLB All-Star Weekend this past Sunday. Here are a few of the players who impressed me the most.

 

Trea Turner

Turner was the player I came away most impressed with from this showcase game. He had two extra base hits—a double pulled down the left-field line, and a triple smoked into the left-center gap. The triple was particularly impressive, as Turner turned on a 97 mph fastball with a smooth, quick, line-drive swing and hit a laser that seemed to just keep carrying deep into the outfield, despite not being hit very high. When most players would have been left standing on second base, Turner turned on the burners and showed off his plus-plus speed, making it to third easily. We knew about Turner’s speed, but the strength in his swing surprised me, and I could see him hitting 15-20 home runs a year.

 

Josh Bell

Bell is a first-baseman, and a somewhat defensively limited one at that, although he made a nice pick in this game that had scouts re-examining his ability to improve with the glove. Bell’s calling card, though, is his bat, and he showed off the raw power that has put him on top prospect lists. While batting left-handed, Bell ripped a homer to right-centerfield that was more of a line drive or “fliner” than a true fly ball, leaving the yard in a hurry. It was an impressive display of power, and showed why even as a first baseman without a great defensive profile, he has the potential to provide value as a major leaguer.

 

J.P. Crawford

Crawford, considered by many one of the top few prospects in the minor leagues, showed off impressive bat-to-ball skills on a pitch he got fooled on but was able to stay with and poke over the second baseman’s head for a single. He has a good, line-drive swing from the left-side, and his ability to put the barrel on the ball should allow for him to have at least a plus hit tool at the top level.

What was most impressive about Crawford in this game, though, was his defensive prowess. He made a really nice play on a hard line drive, timing his leap perfectly and catching it at the peak of his jump at full extension, even with very little time to react. He also turned a smooth 6-3 double play on a grounder up the middle, showing off soft hands and a strong arm. He should have no trouble sticking at shortstop, and his bat gives him a good chance to be an all-star year after year.

 

Nick Williams

Williams, an outfielder in the Rangers’ system, is a really good athlete with a really pretty swing from the left-side. He showed off his plus bat speed in the sixth inning, lacing a single up the middle off of a 99 mph fastball from White Sox prospect Frankie Montas. Williams has always had tools that scouts have raved about, but his improved approach this year has more scouts than ever convinced that those tools will be able to play at the major league level. I wasn’t able to see batting practice, but apparently Williams had one of the, if not the, most impressive BPs of any Futures Game participant.

Scouting Cardinals Prospect Jack Flaherty

I took in the Peoria Chiefs-Beloit Snappers game Thursday in Beloit. Cardinals 2014 first-round draft pick Jack Flaherty made his fifth start of the season for the Chiefs.

Flaherty sat 86-89 with his fastball, touching 90 on a few occasions. He threw almost 80% fastballs on the night, so he was clearly focused on working on the pitch and not as concerned with trying to blow away low-A hitters and dominate using his full arsenal. His command of the pitch was impressive for a 19-year-old, although the pitch was below-average in terms of velocity and did not have much movement on the pitch. Flaherty recently returned after missing almost two months with a dead arm/fatigue, so it’s possible he’s still building up arm strength. I’d give the fastball a 45 present grade, with a 55 future grade if he can add a little more velocity.

Flaherty threw about a dozen change-ups, sitting 80-83 with the pitch. The pitch is straight, but he showed good arm speed with it. He planted a few, which made it easy to lay off, but he should be able to avoid doing that too often as he continues to work on the pitch. I would rate the pitch as a 40 presently with the potential to become an average offering. It doesn’t have as much movement as I would prefer to see, either fade or drop, and ideally it would have a little bit more separation in velocity from his fastball, but with good arm action and deception, it could become a 50 offering.

The right-hander also threw a handful of sliders in the 76-79 mph range. A couple of them showed solid lateral break, but for the most part it didn’t have much shape and didn’t fool hitters. I saw a present 35 pitch, and I’m not sure I see it better than a fringe-average pitch in the future based on what I saw tonight. He threw so few of them that it was tough to get a great read on it, and some of the slower ones might have actually been curveballs, which Flaherty throws as well, but with his focus on the fastball, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to see either pitch.

The most impressive part of Flaherty’s outing was his overall pitchability. Flaherty is a big kid (6’4″, 205 lbs) with a very relaxed and easy motion. He pounded the strike zone all night, and he had impressive fastball command for a 19-year-old, allowing him to get Midwest League hitters out even without using his secondary pitches very often. He’s athletic and has good mound presence; he’s one of those kids that looks like he was meant to be a pitcher.

Based on what I saw, I see Flaherty as a solid back-end starter at the major league level. He didn’t have the overpowering stuff to be even a #3 starter, but his command and feel for pitching could allow him to have a solid career as a #4 or 5 starter. It’s always possible Flaherty is still trying to gain back some velocity after his dead arm period, so if he eventually can get the fastball into the low 90s and the secondary pitches make a jump, his profile could improve, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on him the rest of the year and see if that happens. Based on what I saw Thursday, though, I’m not comfortable projecting more than a back of the rotation starter.

***

The Grades

Fastball: 45/55

Change-up: 40/50

Slider: 35/45

Command: 45/60

OFP: 50

Scouting Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer

I watched Carson Fulmer’s super-regional outing against Illinois. Here is what I saw from him.

 

Fulmer sat 92-94 all night with his fastball, holding his velocity all game despite throwing 122 pitches. It appeared to have a little life when he kept it down but flattened out when he left it up. He struggled to command it most of the night, missing the strike zone badly at times and also throwing it on the wrong side of the plate or leaving it up in the zone even when he threw it for a strike. Fulmer is six feet tall and doesn’t get much downhill plane on his fastball, but it zipped out of his hand and the Illini hitters had trouble squaring it up most of the night. Fulmer has a lot of work to do with his command, but the fastball has the potential to be an above-average pitch.

 

Fulmer also displayed a plus curveball that was anywhere from 78 to 82 mph. The pitch had sharp 12-6 bite, and he showed the ability to throw it for a low strike and get swings and misses out of the zone with it. This was Fulmer’s best pitch and the reason he was able to keep Illinois hitters off-balance all night.

 

Fulmer threw a change-up as well which came in at 84-85 mph. He probably only threw around 10 all game, but he got some swings and misses with it. The pitch didn’t have much movement, but he had good arm speed on it so the velocity change was enough to fool hitters and induce some swings and misses. With some more development, I could see it becoming an average or even above-average pitch.

 

One of the controversial topics about Fulmer is his delivery. His wind up is super fast and his throwing motion is max effort—he looks like he’s trying to throw every pitch as hard as he can. Many people feel that this will prevent him from becoming a starter as he climbs the ladder in pro ball, while others don’t think it will be a problem. I don’t think the delivery itself precludes Fulmer from being a starter—he held his velocity and stuff all game, so it doesn’t appear that the max effort motion will prevent him from going deep into games, although it’s possible that throwing once every five days instead of seven will affect that. I am more concerned with his ability to command his pitches, especially the fastball, with his motion. He didn’t show much of an ability to do so in this game, and I think it will be difficult for him to get the command to the level it needs to be to start in the big leagues without toning down the delivery. That said, I saw three pitches that all have the potential to be at least average major league offerings, so I do think that Fulmer has a chance to start, but he’ll likely need to make some changes if he’s going to do so. Even if he can’t find the command to start, though, Fulmer has the stuff to be a very good reliever in the back of a big league bullpen.

 

***

After watching Fulmer, here are my updated rankings for the four college pitchers I’ve watched recently:

1) Jay

2) Fulmer

3) Tate

4) Kaprielian

A Look at Some of the Top College Pitchers in the Draft

In preparation for the MLB Draft (which is tonight), I watched several of the top college arms in their regional games last weekend. Here are my thoughts on their outings and what I think they can be going forward.

 

Dillon Tate – RHP, UC-Santa Barabara

 

Dillon Tate has been tagged as one of the top pitchers in this draft and might be the first arm taken. His fastball sat at 90-92 mph for most of the night, reaching back to touch 94-95 even after throwing 100 pitches already. The pitch had a lot of run on it, but he had trouble commanding it, especially early, which led to most of the runs he gave up. Once he settled in around the fourth inning, it looked like a pretty good pitch and many of the Aztec hitters had trouble catching up to it.

 

Tate’s slider was 81-84 mph with quick, late break and really bailed him out early in the game when he was struggling with the fastball, save for one that he hung and was hit for a home run. It got swings and misses all night long and was an impressive pitch, although it looked like opposing hitters started to put some better swings on it in the later innings once they had seen it for a while. Tate also showed a curveball that was as slow as 68 mph but mostly 74-77. The break on it was inconsistent—some had 12-6 movement, while some broke laterally a good amount. It was clearly his third pitch and still a work in progress, but it was something he could show to hitters to keep in the back of their minds. He also threw a couple change ups, but not enough to really get a feel for the offering other than he’s not very confident in it (and likely hasn’t needed it yet in his career).

 

His motion is a little odd, as he leans back when lifting his leg, looking a little off balance, and his posture isn’t great, with some spine tilt as he releases the ball. I wonder if any of this affected his command or if it was simply an off night for him. When he worked out of the stretch, the lean was more controlled and the motion looked a little cleaner, but I’m a little concerned about his ability to command his pitches going forward, especially since I didn’t see him demonstrate that he could do it in this game.

 

Overall, I was mildly disappointed by Tate’s outing. He was good, for sure, but what I saw didn’t seem to me like a guy who should be the first pitcher taken in the draft. With his delivery and repertoire, I wonder if he’ll end up an elite reliever rather than a starter. While his ceiling could be a #2 or #3 starter, I think a more likely outcome is a #3-#4 starter or a plus reliever. Reports from everywhere else have been pretty positive on Tate, so I’m not putting much stock into one outing I watched on TV, but I certainly didn’t feel like I saw the pitcher that I’ve read and heard about.

 

Tyler Jay

 

Illinois has received some criticism for keeping Jay in the bullpen despite being one of the best pitchers in the country. He threw four innings out of the ‘pen on Monday to close out Illinois’s regional championship, which gave him a chance to show what he can do over the course of a few innings.

 

Jay’s fastball sat 93-94 and touched 95 at least once. He pounded the strike zone with it, showing good control, although the command is still a work in progress (not that it was terrible). Jay, a lefty, slings the ball from a low three-quarters arm slot, making him really difficult on lefties, I imagine.

 

Jay’s best offspeed pitch was clearly his slider, which sat 87-89 and had late, sharp bite, diving down and in on righties. The pitch can be at least plus, and it induced swings and misses to both right- and left-handed hitters. He also showed a sweeping curveball at 79-80 that had plenty of lateral movement, so he could probably use another pitch to help against righties, although they seemed to really struggle with sliders low and in.

 

Jay is a tall, athletic kid, showing impressive ups on a ball chopped over his head. He held up fine over his four innings of work, and scouts think he at least has a chance to start, which I would agree with. I see his ceiling as a #2 or #3 starter, with a floor of a plus reliever due to the fastball-slider combination. He was the most impressive of the three pitchers I watched this weekend.

 

James Kaprielian – RHP, UCLA

 

Kaprielian has been tabbed as a higher-floor, lower-ceiling pitcher, and that matches what I saw from his start on Friday. His fastball was 91-93 early, but he settled into the 89-91 range in the middle innings. The fastball has a little bit of tail at the end but is mostly straight. He was in the strike zone pretty much all night and showed decent command, keeping the pitch low and on the corners, although he could lose it for a few pitches here and there.

 

Karpielian also showed a curveball at 80-82 that was his best offspeed pitch. He was able to throw it in the zone to steal strikes early in the count or start it at the knees and have it fall below the zone to induce swings and misses when he had two strikes on the hitter. The pitch has tight 12-6 action and is harder than a typical curveball, but it worked well for him. Kaprielian also showed what looked like a slider at 84-85, but it seemed to just be a slightly harder version of the curveball, showing similar break, and I wonder if he would be better off ditching the slider and focusing on the curveball. The camera angle made it hard to identify some of his pitches since many of his offspeed offerings have similar velocities, but it looked like he threw a few change-ups, some that flashed average and some that looked like a work in progress. The pitch is inconsistent now, but I would project it to be an average or slightly above-average offering in the future based on the ones he threw well.

 

Kaprielian’s motion is pretty relaxed and easy, and he looked like a solid pitcher and a guy who belonged on the mound. I see him as a potential #4 starter, which puts his ceiling lower than Tate or Jay, but he also looks like a good bet to be a big league pitcher, particularly in a starting rotation.

 

***

 

Of these three pitchers, I would rank them Jay, Tate, then Kaprielian. Tate probably has the most upside, but I see him as the least likely of the three to stick as a starter, and even an elite reliever–which Tate could be–isn’t as valuable as even a #3 starter. I think Jay is likely to be the best of the bunch, and even if he doesn’t stick as a starter he could also be a really good reliever. Kaprielian is the most likely to stay as a starter, but he lacks the upside of both Tate and Jay, so I ranked him last even with the high floor.

MLB Regular Season Awards

With the BBWAA announcing its awards winners this week, I decided to make my picks for who should win. I picked a top three for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year in each league, followed by an explanation for each. To clarify, these are who I would pick for the awards if I had a vote, not who I think will win them.

AL MVP

1. Mike Trout

2. Miguel Cabrera

3. Robinson Cano

The American League MVP race has been one of the most hotly contested debates since September. To dumb it down, “traditionalists” tend to be in favor of Cabrera, while “stat geeks” argue for Trout. Both have had tremendous years, and I am not diminishing anything the Cabrera has done this season by saying I would vote for Trout. I simply believe Trout provided more value to his team over the course of the season. Because of the attention given to this race, I will go more in depth with my explanation that any of the other awards.

First, consider the offense of each of these candidates. Trout hit .326/.399/.564 (AVG/OBP/SLG) while Cabrera hit .330/.393/.606. These are very similar batting lines, with Trout’s slight edge in OBP erased by Cabrera’s significant lead in slugging. However, Comerica Park is a better park for hitters than Angel Stadium, which should be considered. Trout and Cabrera both have a wRC+ of 166, which is an overall measure of offensive production that adjusts for the park and league a player is in. All things considered, Trout and Cabrera performed so similarly on offense that it is hard to argue that one was significantly better than the other.

However, offense is not the only part of baseball. Trout plays, by most accounts, above-average to excellent defense in center field, while Cabrera plays below average defense at third base. While these positions require different skills, they are pretty similar in terms of difficulty to play, with center field being slightly more difficult. Thus, Trout gains a significant advantage over Cabrera in the value they provide on defense.

Value can also be added through base running, and Trout has a clear advantage in this area. Trout stole 49 bases in 54 attempts, and Cabrera was just 4 for 5. In addition, Trout’s speed allowed him to advance extra bases, such as going first to third on a single or scoring from first on a double. While base running is not as important as hitting or defense, Trout distanced himself from Cabrera enough on the basepaths to provide a significant amount of extra value.

Another important factor in contributing value is playing time. Cabrera obviously wins here, as Trout was not even in the major leagues until the end of April and only played in 139 games to Cabrera’s 161. The main issue here is how much each individual thinks this matters. Personally, I believe that the additional value Trout provided on the bases and in the field while playing an up-the-middle position more than makes up for the 58 additional plate appearances Cabrera amassed. Others may not agree, and they are entitled to their opinions, but Trout provided a huge amount of additional value through other facets of the game.

I also have trouble finding any merit to some of the arguments Cabrera supporters use. It is very impressive that he won the Triple Crown, but in reality, that is just an arbitrary set of three statistics (of which RBI is not even very useful, and batting average has its limitations, too). It ignores many more important factors, including defense, base running, ability to get on base through walks, and the additional value that doubles and triples have over singles. Just because it is rare does not mean it is automatically deserving of an MVP. Trout accomplished some incredibly rare feats this year as well. And, of course, Ted Williams twice won the Triple Crown without winning the MVP, so it is not even something that has stood true in the past. Plain and simple, Mike Trout provided more value to his team this year than Miguel Cabrera or anyone else in the American League.

AL Cy Young

1. Justin Verlander

2. Felix Hernandez

3. David Price

Verlander should repeat as the Cy Young winner in the American League in my mind. He led the league in innings, was third in K/9, and was second in both ERA (behind Price) and FIP (behind Hernandez). Felix and Price both have great numbers as well, but taken as a whole, Verlander’s are slightly better than Felix’s, and his 27 inning advantage over Price mean he provided a lot more value to his team, even if some of Price’s numbers were slightly better. In addition, Verlander did this pitching in a park that slightly favors hitters, while Hernandez and Price both throw in pitcher-friendly parks.

I debated who was better between Hernandez and Price for a while, and looking over the rate stats, I favored Price. Price’s 2.56 ERA led the league and was a half a run lower than Hernandez’s. King Felix led the league with a 2.84 FIP, but Price was not far behind at 3.05. Overall, they are extremely close and I tend to favor Price’s  ERA advantage, giving him credit for limiting hits on balls in play and stranding runners, even though there is probably some noise there. However, Hernandez threw an extra 21 innings, and this separates them more than anything else. The additional innings that Felix threw provided extra value while also letting the Mariners’ bullpen (consisting of generally worse pitchers than Felix) rest more or avoiding a spot start from a triple-A call-up. The added value provided by Verlander and Hernandez was the separating factor for my Cy Young rankings.

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Mike Trout

2. Yu Darvish

3. Jarrod Parker

Trout is a pretty obvious choice here for the reasons illustrated in the MVP explanation. Darvish struggled with his control for much of the first half of the season and did not look to be the pitcher people expected him to be. However, he settled down and was lights out at the end of the year, including a 2.21 ERA in September and October. He eliminated his walk problems and was able to keep the ball in the park, so the great stuff he had been showcasing all year became incredibly effective. Darvish’s 10.40 K/9 was second among qualified pitchers in the AL behind only Max Scherzer, and his FIP, which is an ERA estimator that looks at only what the pitcher can control and ignores defense, was sixth. Darvish had a good year overall and an especially great final month and a half.

Parker also had an impressive rookie campaign on a young Oakland pitching staff. Among qualified starters, he had the lowest ERA and second-lowest FIP behind only Darvish. Darvish threw an extra 10 innings and pitched in a much more hitter-friendly park than Parker, which is why I ranked Darvish ahead of Parker. Yoennis Cespedes would have been fourth on the list.

NL MVP

1. Buster Posey

2. Andrew McCutchen

3. Ryan Braun

Buster Posey had one of the best offensive seasons in the National League this year while playing the toughest position in baseball. He had a .336/.408/.549 line and a wRC+ of 162, which tied him for the NL lead with Ryan Braun. In addition to his outstanding offensive numbers, Posey is a good defender behind the plate, a position where offensive production is not expected. It takes a special player to put up the numbers he did while catching, and his defensive advantage is why I chose him for the NL MVP.

Andrew McCutchen and Braun both had fantastic seasons and could easily be argued for the top spot on this list. McCutchen hit .327/.400/.553 while Braun hit .319/.391/.595 with 41 home runs and 30 steals. Their offensive value is very similar, so the main separator is on defense. McCutchen plays an up-the-middle position and plays it well, while Braun is probably an average defender at best in left field. The additional value McCutchen provides with his glove is enough for me to put him over Braun, despite Braun’s slightly better offensive line.

NL Cy Young

1. R.A. Dickey

2. Clayton Kershaw

3. Johnny Cueto

How can you not love R.A. Dickey? What he has done this year as a 38-year-old knuckleballer is nothing short of unbelievable. He struck people out, didn’t walk people, and somehow exhibited inordinate control over a pitch that goes wherever it wants to. He led the league in innings pitched and was second in ERA behind only Clayton Kershaw. Knuckleballers are rare, and even rarer are ones who succeed as much as Dickey did this year, and the difference in style from all other pitchers makes it hard to compare what Dickey has done to everyone else. Advanced stats do not really work well with knuckleball pitchers because of the extremity of them, so in a close race, I’m going with my gut on this one.

Kershaw had a fantastic year also, and I considered putting him first. He led the league in ERA, WAR, and RA-9 wins, which is similar to WAR but also assumes a pitcher has control over balls in play and stranding base runners. He was also second in FIP, behind Gio Gonzalez, and innings. Cueto also had a tremendous season with a 2.78 ERA that ranked third in the NL and the fifth-most innings, all while pitching in a very hitter-friendly ballpark. Kershaw’s numbers were better across the board though, so Cueto is relegated to third on my theoretical ballot.

NL Rookie of the Year

1. Bryce Harper

2. Wade Miley

3. Todd Frazier

Bryce Harper was one of the most highly touted prospects in the history of the sport, and he certainly had an impressive season for a kid who should have been a freshman in college. He hit 22 home runs and stole 18 bases despite not getting called up to the majors until the end of April. He played above average defense while playing center and right field while showcasing the all-around game that made him such a highly-anticipated prospect. Harper put up some pretty good numbers for a typical player; the fact that he is only 19 makes this even more impressive and makes him my pick for rookie of the year.

Wade Miley had a very good season for the Diamondbacks, posting a 3.33 ERA and a 3.15 FIP in over 190 innings. His success was predicated on his excellent control, as he posted a BB% of just 4.6% (MLB average is about 8%). Frazier finally had a successful rookie campaign after being stuck in triple-A for years. He provided good power as a corner infielder, mainly playing third base but filling in at first some when Joey Votto was injured. A poor September brought down his numbers, leaving him a notch below Harper and Miley.

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