Saturday, December 22, 2012

Why we root for guys like Jeremy Bonderman

The Seattle Mariners took a flier yesterday and signed Jeremy Bonderman to a minor league contract. While of itself, this is nothing to get too worked up about. Broken down pitchers are signed to such deals every year. Sometimes, like in 2011 with Garcia and Colon for the Yankees, it works out. Most of the time it does not. And to be sure, Tigers fans will probably not root overly hard for Bonderman to make it back to the majors. He became symbolic of failure to that fan base. But for the rest of us, Jeremy Bonderman was not treated very well by baseball and a successful return would be sweet.

Tiger fans will counter that Bonderman made quite a bit of money for his problems, and that would be correct. Bonderman was overpaid by the Tigers his last few years there. But that only seems right because of how his early career was mishandled.

The beginning starts with the Oakland A's and a prominent part in the Moneyball book. Bonderman supposedly was the only high school junior ever drafted in baseball. His draft by Grady Fuson is credited in the book for Billy Beane's famous chair throwing incident. But looking back on that draft somewhat exonerates Fuson. It really was a weak draft in 2001. The top three of Mauer, Prior and Teixeira all were terrific, but the rest of the first round was really a wash. The only case (in hindsight mind you) that Beane has here is David Wright, taken ten picks after Bonderman. And you can probably include Dan Haren, a college pitcher who was not taken by anyone until the middle of the second round.

But it was a mindset by the A's that Beane was supposedly so upset about and that was the odds of a high school pitcher making it were so much higher than a college pitcher or a position player. And Beane was all about the odds. Whether true or not, the A's including Bonderman in a big three team trade a year after that draft was Beane's way of getting even.

And even that was unkind to Bonderman. Sending a young pitcher to the Tigers back in those days was like sending someone to Siberia. The Tigers averaged 96.6 losses a season between 1996 and 2005. This was where Bonderman was thrown. And what is a common theme for a team that has no talent? It is the temptation of pushing talent faster than it needs to be pushed.

And that is exactly what happened with Bonderman. As a nineteen year old in A+ ball in the minors, he was asked to throw 157 innings. And then, inconceivably, the Tigers brought him up the very next year to pitch at the age of twenty in the majors.

The 2003 Detroit Tigers were one of the all-time worst teams ever. They went 43-119 that season. Ouch. And at the age of twenty, Jeremy Bonderman was thrown into that rotation. Predictably, it did not go well. He went 6-19 in 28 starts and 33 overall appearances and pitched 162 innings. He was shut down the last week of the season so he would not reach twenty losses. Which was weird because they did not mind letting the 25 year old, Mike Moroth lose 21. But anyway, that's how it went.

The following season, now twenty-one, Bonderman improved to 11-13 with a 4.89 ERA. But his FIP was 4.27 and his xFIP was below four. The Tigers improved as well and "only" lost ninety games.

The next year was even better as Bonderman went 14-13 with an ERA of 4.57 and a FIP of 3.90. The Tigers still lost 91 games.

But things came together in 2006. Jim Leyland took over for the beleaguered Alan Trammell and the Tigers won 95 games. Bonderman, still only 23 years old, was, according to Fangraphs, the third best pitcher in baseball. He went 14-8 with a 3.29 FIP (this was still in the offensive era). He pitched the game of his life to eliminate the Yankees in the ALDS and extracted some revenge on the A's with a successful start in the ALCS. He again pitched well in the World Series against the Cardinals but the Tigers lost the series.

Bonderman seemed poised to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. And indeed, he started 2007 with a bang. At the end of the first half, Bonderman was 9-1 with a 4.28 strikeout to walk ratio. But all those innings on his young arm must have caught up to him in the second half. He went only 2-8 in the second half with an ERA over seven. He had to have been hurt and sure enough, would lose much of the next two years to injury.

A much weakened pitcher showed up for the Tigers in 2010, his last season in the majors. He did make 29 starts, but was ineffective. His ERA ballooned to 5.53 and his FIP of 4.90 showed that much of it was earned.

After 2010, he disappeared. And he wasn't heard from in 2011 or 2012. This year, he is attempting a comeback and he is only thirty years old. Stranger things have happened (Vogelberg, for example). And the Mariners have taken a chance on him with a Spring Training invitation. The odds are tremendously long. But wouldn't it be cool if he made it? Wouldn't that be fun?

Jeremy Bonderman was not treated very well as a young pitcher. It's all speculation, of course, but that seeming abuse caught up with him in the second half of 2007 and plagued him until his last season in 2010. You have to root for a guy like Jeremy Bonderman. You just have to.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The enigma of Edwin Jackson's market

Unless Edwin Jackson is signed by a team he has already played with, he will be pitching for his eighth team in 2013. He is 29 years old. Switching teams is common for relief pitchers. But young starters who have made thirty or more starts for six straight seasons usually get to hang their hats somewhere for a little while. Durable and above replacement pitchers usually find a home and yet Jackson has played for five teams in the last four seasons. Pitchers a lot less successful than him have already been signed this off season. Jackson seems to be down to two suitors who may or may not be interested in giving the 29 year old a four year deal. Something seems amiss here.

Jackson has gone 59-52 as a starter the last five seasons. He has a sub-four FIP his last three. While control was once a problem, he has a walk rate under three per nine innings in his last two seasons. His ground ball percentage has been over 43% for the last three seasons and over 47% in two of his last three. His fastball has averaged 94.1 MPH for his entire career and was just slightly less than that at 93.5 this past season. He is solid rotation stuff and has shown durability and resilience. And yet his travel trunk is covered with city stickers.

And he is a known quantity. In his last four seasons, his fWAR has been remarkably consistent: 3.6, 3.9, 3.9 and 2.7. That is an average value of $15.5 million per season, good for the 25th highest over that time among all starters. Only seventeen starting pitchers have made more starts than Jackson in the last five seasons. Yet, at this point, only two teams are interested in him.

What are the negatives involved with Edwin Jackson? Oh, there have been hints that he isn't a great clubhouse guy, but we're not really going to buy into that, are we? Yes, he gives up just under one homer per nine innings. His strikeout rate is okay, but not spectacular. He has some trouble going deep into games and has averaged 6.22 innings per start. But half of that at least can be seen as quite a few National League starts where he would be pinch hit for in close games.

But there are signs that he is getting better as a pitcher too. In his last two seasons, the amount of pitches out of the strike zone swung at against Jackson have risen sharply. And last season, the contact rate against those pitches out of the strike zone was the lowest of his career.  His first pitch strike percentage has never been higher than it has been the last two seasons. So it seems clear that he is still learning his craft.

And yet, only two teams are left in the running for the four years and $59 million he is asking. There is an understanding that Edwin Jackson is never really going to be a dominant pitcher. He is not really an All Star kind of guy. But he is a solid three-hole starter with durability and above average stuff. With pitching as thin as it is around baseball, Jackson seems a lot more attractive than the market suggests.

Understandably, Jackson is looking for a place to call home for the next four years. His last four years suggest there are worse options for teams out there. This wanderer seems like a better deal than the market has dictated.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Andruw Jones was Dale Murphy with a rad glove

The offensive similarities between Andruw Jones and Dale Murphy are striking. And since each career encompassed successive generations in the Atlanta Braves' outfield, these similarities are even more fun to consider. Jones had a ten year peak from 1997 to 2006. Murphy had an eight year peak from 1980 to 1987. Both started their careers at a very young age, Jones at nineteen, Murphy at twenty. And both lost their value in their early thirties. The only real difference between the two was defense. And it was this aspect that separated the two players.

Let's look at the offensive numbers:

  • Murphy: 9041 plate appearances, Jones 8664 plate appearances
  • Murphy: 1197 runs scored, 398 homers, 787 extra base hits, 1266 RBI
  • Jones:     1204 runs scored, 434 homers, 853 extra base hits, 1289 RBI
  • Murphy:  .265/.346/.469 = .815 OPS   Jones: .254/.337/.486 =.823 OPS
  • Murphy:  161 stolen bases / 70.3%,  Jones 152 stolen bases / 72%
  • Murphy:  822 non-intentional walks with 1748 strikeouts, Jones: 827 non-intentional walks, 1748 K's.
  • Murphy: 357 career wOBA, Jones: .352 career wOBA
  • Murphy: 121 career OPS+, Jones: 111 career OPS+
  • Murphy: 228 batting runs above average, Jones 163.4
  • Murphy: 10.9% career walk percentage, 19.3% strikeout percentage
  • Jones:     10.3% career walk percentage, 20.2% strikeout percentage
Basically what you see is two similar offensive careers. But Dale Murphy will never get elected to the Hall of Fame and Andruw Jones will be hotly debated. The difference, of course, is defense. Murphy is given -33 runs below average for his career defensively. Andruw Jones is given credit for 236 runs above average for his career and is considered by many to be one of the best center fielders of all time.

And that difference makes up most of the difference as to why Andruw Jones is a 59.5 rWAR career compared to Murphy's 42.6.

They both started young and lost productiveness in their early thirties. Both were iconic during their peaks. And both had eerily similar offensive careers. But Andruw Jones played a pivotal position and he played it better than most who have ever played the game.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dickey's high cost would bring short term rewards for Blue Jays

The pending trade between the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays has people buzzing. Opinions have been bandied about everywhere. While one more voice on the subject might get lost in the cacophony, here is the Fan's take on the deal as it stands in the rumor mill. The deal, if completed, makes the Blue Jays a mighty tough team in the American League East and an instant darling for projections. But it would cost the Blue Jays beyond a two and three year period.

Despite the fact that the Mets may be feeding out nuggets about Dickey to the local media in New York to paint the pitcher in a negative light (see Davidoff's column yesterday for example), R.A. Dickey is a great pitcher whose three year track record seems too good to think he will crumble any time soon. He was 11-5 last season against teams with an above .500 record so don't buy the thought that he will crumble in the AL East. If you take any rotation and remove J.A. Happ and insert R.A. Dickey, you are adding three wins to the rotation.

Then look at that rotation from top to bottom: Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Ricky Romero. That is pretty sweet and should rival any rotation in the American League. Add that to the additions on offense and the Blue Jays--at least on paper--are mighty impressive.

So, yes, this deal makes a lot of sense for the Blue Jays and bringing Josh Thole, who is used to catching Dickey, along for the ride makes sense even if John Buck should be a slightly more valuable catcher.

And don't buy the arguments that Dickey is 38 and will fade after another year or so. Phil Niekro, another knuckleball pitcher, pitched effectively for seven years past his 38th birthday. Dickey has found himself and it is irrelevant at what age he found it. His consistency the last three years should put aside all doubts.

But then there is the cost. And it is steep. Basically you are trading away seven years of cheap control on two (albeit unproven) talents in Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. As an aside: Do the Blue Jays have any prospects that are easy to spell!?

Anyway, d'Arnaud is a major offensive talent that has some question marks about where he will play in the field. He was drafted a catcher, but some, including the Blue Jays, question his defensive ability behind the plate. He played quite a bit of first base and DH this past season in the minors. But the guy seems to be a "can't miss" offensive player who could preferably play behind the plate adequately.

It is hard not to drool at Syndergaard's minor league stats thus far in his two short years at the lowest level in the minors. A K/9 rate over ten and a BB/9 rate under three is a pretty sweet combination. He is six foot, five inches which is just want you want to develop an incredible downward angle at the plate.

He is too young and new to have made any top prospect lists. But Syndergaard was a 38th overall pick in the 2010 draft.

Your host here has always subscribed to the "prospects are lottery tickets" theory. The odds are better than the lottery, but a prospect becoming the player projected once he gets to the big leagues is always a long shot. A proven commodity like Dickey for two lottery tickets does make short term sense if short term means three years or so.

But if d'Arnaud and Syndergaard find success in the big leagues once they arrive, this deal will be discussed for many years to come...if it happens, that is.