Saturday, March 26, 2011

To Echo the Grail Knight: The Yankees Chose...Poorly

You'll have to forgive this short little rant. Why bother having a competition if the person who wins it doesn't get the job? Bartolo Colon clearly won the competition for the fifth starter spot for the New York Yankees. But it was announced today that Freddie Garcia got the job. While there is a great understanding that a lot is on the line for the New York Yankees, there is no understanding of making the safe choice. The Yankees deemed Garcia a safer bet since he pitched regularly last year and Colon did not pitch in the majors at all.

At least Colon won himself a job and will join the bullpen. But he was all stretched out to start and that will all be wasted in spot duty as a long reliever. Colon was brilliant this spring and while the Fan has said all along that spring statistics matter little if at all, you had to like the way Colon was throwing. He was economical and threw nothing but strikes. But they weren't empty strikes. He had good velocity and control of all of his pitches.

Freddie Garcia, meanwhile, throws meatballs and a lotta sauce. He'll have to use his extensive knowledge of the game and the craft of pitching to beguile batters to have any kind of success at all. This Fan has little hope of that happening with much success very often.

Colon won the job. There was supposed to be competition. He won that competition and yet will not reap the reward of that achievement. Sometimes when you play it safe, you can be real sorry. The guy who lost the competition will win the job based on what? That he pitched in 2010? In a vastly inferior division? Attaboy!

No, this is the wrong result. It's not only unfair, it's unwise. You can't be worried all the time about players breaking. What teams have to do when a game here or there will determine the entire outcome of the season, is to put your best out there on any given day for as long as they can play and if they break, they break. Garcia is not the right choice. It's a bad idea. Colon was the right choice.

To paraphrase the Grail Knight in the Indiana Jones movie, the Yankees chose...poorly.

Let's Talk About the Mets ON the Field

These days, whenever you hear anything about the New York Mets, the story is about the Wilpons and the Madoff mess. Or the story will be about Castillo or Oliver Perez. Or you'll hear about the speculation about the knee of Carlos Beltran. The latest story concerning the Mets was that the team lost $50 million last year and it could be worse this year. It must be hard to be a fan of that team right now as the sky always seems to be falling. Maybe this post will cheer those fans up. This is a post about the Mets that actually play on the field. Yes, the Mets do actually have baseball players and they actually have a pretty decent team. Imagine that!

The way the Mets are talked about--if their actual playing team is talked about at all--you would think they have a terrible team. But the Mets aren't the Astros, the Diamondbacks or the Pirates. Despite all the gloom and doom last year, the Mets still won 79 games, only two wins away from .500. But we have to be a bit pragmatic here. The Mets play in an extremely tough division. The Phillies and the Braves are both excellent teams. In fact, this writers thinks the Braves are going to steal the division away from the Phillies. And you can't forget the Marlins, who on any given day can beat you, and the Nationals who picked up Jayson Werth over the winter and have the best third baseman in the National League.

But again, the Mets should be competitive. The projections are for them to win 81 games and finish the season at .500. With the division they play in and looking at the depth chart of the team, that win total seems reasonable. A lot of good things would have to happen for that record to be better. But a lot of bad things would need to happen for it to be worse. But again, the bottom line here is that the Mets aren't patsies.

Like just about every team in baseball, how well the Mets do depends on their pitching. A year ago at this time, their rotation included John Maine, Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey and then a whole bunch of guesses. Santana is out for a good chunk of the season and Maine is gone. But the Mets have five guys they think can give them a chance to win. And if health holds for that rotation, they could be right. Let's take a look first at the rotation.

Baseball Prospectus is giving no love to Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey has sandwiched two good seasons around a bad one in 2009. He won fifteen games in 2010 while only losing nine. He finished with a 3.66 ERA and a WARP of 3.4. Pelfrey's WARP was only 1.9 in his bad season of 2009 but was 5.1 the season before. Seeing all that, it's baffling to see BP's projection of a 9-15 2011 record with only 0.9 WARP earned. The Fan can understand it in light of Pelfrey's low strikeout rate. And the thought here is that the projections figure that highly into the results. But his two good seasons were BABIP-neutral. In other words, he didn't have a really low BABIP to point to and say that he was lucky. All three of his most recent seasons show a BABIP right around league average. It was a little higher in 2009 when he got hit around quite a bit. But again, that was a bad season and he still accumulated 1.9 in WARP. The Fan believes he will beat projections if he stays healthy and he could beat them handily.

Jonathan Niese was a lot like the Mets last year in that he was just under .500 and just below average in his ERA. Niese started the season strong, then missed a couple of starts and didn't seem quite the same after. His walk rate is a bit too high as was his homer rate. But he strikes more guys out than Pelfrey. He's having a quality spring and has 20 strikeouts in 20+ innings. He is another pitcher that BP is low on. They have Niese projected for an 8-15 record and earning only 0.3 in WARP. He finished with 0.6 last year. So agian, their projection seems overly pessimistic.

The Mets took a huge chance by signing both Chris Young and Chris Capuano during the off-season. Both have long histories of injury problem. Both were passed over by most other teams because of those problems. But the Fan thought they were a good gamble when they were on the market and still thinks the Mets were smart to sign them. Both have been very effective this spring. Of course, it's scary heading into a season when you feel that two-fifths of your rotation is a ticking time bomb. But if it works, both pitchers have had good success in the past when healthy. BP seems to agree and rates both of them as the best of the Mets' starters in terms of ERA and win-loss percentage.

The real wildcard for the Fan is knuckleballer, R. A. Dickey. Dickey came out of nowhere last year at the age of 35 and fluttered his way into New York hearts. He went 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 27 appearances (26 starts). Baseball Prospectus is expecting a regression to an ERA of 4.21 and a regression in WARP from 3.6 to 1.2. It seems hard to fathom that Dickey would fall that far. But who is to know after the fairytale season he had a year ago. He had a very low BABIP which leads you to believe he was a bit lucky. Though everyone says he throws a harder knuckleball than anyone ever has, he really didn't rack up a lot of strikeouts. He's having a good spring with an ERA at 4.15 so BP doesn't seem far off. This one will be interesting.

If any of those starters stumbles, then Pat Misch is capable if not spectacular. The Fan is proceeding with the thought that you can't plan on Johan Santana for this season. But it's possible that he could be available at the end of the season to give the team a boost.

The relief staff isn't given much love by BP either. And who is to blame them? Francisco Rodriguez certainly had an adventure-filled season last year. And while there is absolutely no way to justify some of his actions, you can justify some of the loss of his performance with a manager who misused him. Manuel would often bring Rodriguez into meaningless appearances or leave him in too long. K-Rod is performing nicely this spring and has not given up a run this spring. His fastball isn't what it once was. But the guy knows how to pitch and this Fan thinks he's going to have a very good year.

Supporting K-Rod won't be easy. Taylor Buchholz is having a great spring, but has never shown that kind of brilliance before. Old friend, Ingringhausen, is having a good spring, but that seems like a stretch. Acosta will be just fine and Parnell has a big arm. Carrasco has been getting lit up. Byrdak is okay as a LOOGY. The bullpen could be a strength when all is said and done if the right pieces are put in place.

The Fan thinks the Mets' pitching will be fine. The offense will depend on a few key players. The infield is set with one wildcard at second base. David Wright is a premium offensive third baseman. he bounced back nicely last year in the power department too. You can count on great offense if not great defense from Wright. Jose Reyes is playing for his professional life. Once considered the best shortstop prospect in the league, Reyes fell to injuries and bounced back adequately last year. He will need to be even better this year if he's going to get a contract he wants and for the Mets to want to keep him as their shortstop. Those are pretty good incentives. Reyes is only doing so-so in the spring.

Ike Davis puzzles this observer. Sometimes he looks great and other times he looks lost. BP isn't high on him and only projects him to have a .253 batting average and an 0.9 WARP. While it doesn't appear to this Fan that Davis will become an elite first baseman in the majors, he should easily beat those projections plus he is one slick fielding first baseman. This will be a key season in the career of Ike Davis. If he doesn't progress, the Mets will look for other options.

Of course, everyone knows that the Mets dumped Luis Castillo after a poor 2010. Castillo had become a lightning rod in fan sentiment and the move was probably the best for both the organization and the player. But the Mets don't have any real option. Neither Brad Emaus or Daniel Murphy are thrilling options with either the bat or the glove. This one will bear watching.

The Mets have enough outfielders to make something work. Angel Pagan has become a good hitter and a good defender in center though BP is projecting a regression at the plate. Pagan is having an excellent spring and should far exceed those projections. Jason Bay needs to bounce back. His power totally disappeared in Citi Field before he was lost the rest of the season to concussion syndrome. He's having a good spring, but again, he's hit no homers.

The Fan has built a lot of hope on a return for Carlos Beltran to have one last very good season. Right now, he is experiencing no pain in his knees. That's really good news but how long will it last? If it lasts all season, then Beltran will surprise a lot of people. The guy can flat out hit and though BP really limits his projections, he is capable of so much more.

Willie Harris and Scott Hairston are suitable backups and can step into an outfield position should the need arise. And Duda can help from the minors if need be.

The fan really likes Josh Thole. Baseball Prospectus rates the catcher as just respectable at the plate and the projections reflect this. But he's hitting the cover off the ball this spring. He really could be an elite catcher in the National League. The Fan also likes the way he works with his pitchers and the awareness he shows on the field. Watch this kid, he could be special. Ronny Paulino is a capable backup if he doesn't get beat out by one of the kids.

As you can see, there is some reason for optimism for the Mets on the field. And wasn't that nice to read an entire Mets piece without talking about all the bad things? A lot will depend on what Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran can do and whether the rotation can stay healthy. But this team could be fun to watch. Just stop reading the newspapers or watching the six o'clock news.

Neftali Feliz and Pedro Martinez

Baseball analysts and writers have been split on the Texas Rangers' decision to leave Neftali Feliz in the bullpen this year. Some felt that the Rangers took the safe route instead of working outside the box. Others felt that the Rangers had no other options for closer and that Feliz would be more important to the team as its closer. This writer is in the former camp and the injury to Tommy Hunter only points out how valuable starting pitching is these days. But what's done is done and it's all a moot point because Feliz is going to be the closer this year. But here is an option for the Rangers and it's an option that remembers another great pitcher from the Dominican Republic--a guy named Pedro Martinez.

Martinez got his start with the Los Angeles Dodgers and his first full year was 1993. He was 21 years old, which puts him two years ahead of Feliz who is 23. In 1993, Pedro pitched exclusively in relief for the Dodgers and got into 65 games. But he pitched 107 innings. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the Dodgers traded Pedro Martinez to the Montreal Expos (for Delino DeShields) after that season. The Expos immediately made him a starter, but 1994 was the strike season and as such, Martinez only pitched 144 innings. Though the strike was unfortunate, especially since the Expos might have won it all that year, it did allow Martinez to gradually up his innings instead of making the big jump from 107 innings to 33 full time starts. How does this all relate to Neftali Feliz?

The suggestion here is to increase as much as you can the number of innings Feliz throws in relief this year. Last year, Feliz got into 70 games, but he only pitched a total of 69 and a third innings. Increase his workload to include more two inning outings, especially after a couple of off days and before any point in the schedule where the team is off the next day (like Sundays or Wednesdays). If by doing this, you can stretch Feliz up near 100 innings, then he is set up to move up to 150 or so the following season as a starter. Following that blueprint, you can follow the career path of Pedro Martinez.

Granted, guys like Pedro Martinez don't come along every day. His competitive nature, his smarts as a pitcher and his repertoire made him the best pitcher of his era. Feliz may not have all of those things, but he sure has the stuff to be great.

The additional benefit to stretching out Feliz in his outings is to take some of the strain off a struggling bullpen. First, it must be said that the bullpen struggles this spring could be solely due to pitching in Arizona which is a hitter's paradise. Have you seen the scores of the games this spring? Holy cow, how many games with ten runs or more can you have? But still, no matter how much the bullpen improves during the regular season, Feliz is your best guy. The Rangers can't do any better with anyone else pitching the eighth and ninth than Feliz.

So that's the plan submitted by this albeit non-expert. Make the most of the decision to put Feliz back in the bullpen by stretching out his innings as much as you can while monitoring the pitcher's health at all times. Increase his workload so that you get even more value and benefit from the decision that has been made. And then next year, get him into the rotation where he belongs. Pedro was just a slight guy at five feet, eleven inches. Feliz is a lot bigger and stronger. Get him where he needs to go this year and maybe you can (in the future) have your next Pedro Martinez.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Checking in with the Cubs - 2011 Projection

Last year was such a disaster for the Cubs that this observer had to avert his eyes. Despite a high payroll and high hopes, their season came crashing down in public fashion, the pinnacle of which was Carlos Zambrano's very public meltdown in the dugout. That low point cost Zambrano some time on suspension, another round of anger management classes and ultimately redemption by year's end. Lou Piniella was a bad fit for last year's team and seemed world weary and zombie-like by the time he voluntarily stepped down. Only after Mike Quade took over for Piniella did the Cubs resemble a functioning baseball team. Which brings us to this year. They aren't the glamor pick this season. Most prognosticators are predicting a finish for 2011 after the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers. But does this team have a shot? Let's take a look.

A big key for the Cubs is the same for most teams: the rotation. And there is no greater linchpin in that story than Carlos Zambrano. Projections such as those by Baseball Prospectus are limited by the fact that Zambrano missed a significant chunk of time last year and the year before as he was bounced around by a quick hook from Lou Piniella and then the suspension. BP projects Zambrano's innings to 168, his win total to ten and his WARP to 1.8. This seems absurdly low considering that even despite his troubles, Zambrano has won 20 games the past two seasons and finished both a troubled 2009 and 2010 with a 2.8 WARP. The best thing that Quade can do is just hand the ball to Zambrano 33 times, wince in silence during the inevitable bad games and hang with him. If Quade does that, Zambrano should have no trouble winning 12 to 16 games with a WARP somewhere around 4.0.

Ryan Dempster has become a consistent workhorse for the Cubs since his conversion from closer in 2008. In the last three years, he's only missed two starts. 2008 was his best year, but he is a solid innings eater who keeps you in the game outing after outing. His WARP or WAR varies from system to system the last two years. BP gave him 3.4 in 2009 and 2.2 in 2010. gave him 2.8 in 2009 and 2.7 in 2010.  Either way, BP's projection of 2.5 seems to be solidly in line with what to expect from Dempster at this stage in his career. He won 15 games in 2010 and there is no reason he can't win the same amount this year.

New addition, Matt Garza, is projected for a regression by BP. His WARP the last two years have been 3.5 and 3.4. And yet, BP projects him to finish 2011 with a 2.3. There are several factors that may be involved. One would be the increase in his homer rate last year. Another could be going from a good pitching ballpark to the "Friendly Confines." Another may be a loss of defense going from the Bay Rays to the Cubs. But this observer thinks all of that is mitigated by going from the extremely tough AL East to the softer NL Central. Yes, there are some heavy hitters in the NL Central, but you still have pitchers hitting and number eight hitters that aren't what you'd see where he used to pitch. We shouldn't be alarmed by Garza's numbers this spring because Arizona is a hitter's paradise. There's no reason Garza can't be as good as he's been the last two years and finish with a WARP of 3.5 or higher.

Keep in mind that the projection for the Cubs is for 80 wins. We've covered three pitchers in the rotation so far and have picked up a possible three and a half wins. What about the rest of the rotation? Slotting in at number four is Randy Wells. The knock on Wells in the past is the lack of a strikeout rate. But despite some struggles in 2010, Wells increased his strikeout rate a full strikeout per nine innings from 5.7 to 6.7. And his strikeout rate so far this spring has been impressive. Wells had a very good year in 2009 and a bad one in 2010. Two years ago, he was a bit lucky to be as good as he was. Last year, he was a bit unlucky to be as bad as he was. But again, he still accumulated a WARP of 2.3 despite a bad year. That makes his projection of 1.0 for 2011 again baffling. Wells has looked great this spring. This writer thinks he's going to have a fine year and finish with at least a WARP of 3.0. That's two more wins in the plus column.

The fifth guy in the rotation will probably be Carlos Silva despite an abominable spring. But if he falters once the season starts, look for Andrew Cashner to take his place. Cashner has been pounding the strike zone this spring and has only walked one batter. That is a vast improvement over his five walks per nine innings he showed in relief last season. Many Cub fans are pushing for Cashner, but we'll have to see how this goes.  BP gives Silva a negative WARP for the season and Cashner a slightly positive one (just over zero). If this spot in the rotation remains neutral, the Cubs will be happy.

So the final tally according to the Fan from the rotation is a plus 5.5 wins, bringing their record to at least 85 wins. The bullpen is going to be just fine and could even be great. Marmol led all relievers in WAR last year. Sean Marshall is a great setup guy and Kerry Wood will be terrific behind them. There are no worries about this bullpen.

Much of the offense will depend on bounce back years for Aramis Ramirez and Alphonso Soriano. If Soriano repeats at least what he did last year, this Fan would be happy enough. Ramirez has looked so-so this spring but he can't be worse than 2010. His projected WARP is 2.4 and that seems reasonable. The Fan thinks Starlin Castro and Marlon Byrd's projections to be too low at 2.5 and 2.0 respectively. Castro compiled a WARP of 2.0 last year despite a late start to his call up. His defense will be better, his pitch recognition better and he is mashing the ball this spring. Even a WARP of 3.0 seems low for what he can do. The only limit on Castro is how willing he is to improve his walk rate. Byrd is also having a terrific spring and his WARP of 3.4 last year really blows away the 2.0 projection. There is no reason why Byrd can't repeat last season's total or exceed them.

Tyler Colvin should be combined with Fukodome. Fukodome has a great walk rate but is so-so in all other areas. Colvin has good power and a huge upside, but his walk rate is minuscule. The outfield for the Cubs should out perform projections by at least a run. We are up to 86 wins.

It appears as if Darwin Barney has supplanted Blake DeWitt as the starting second baseman. Barney and Jeff Baker are pretty much interchangeable. Both are plus fielders who don't strikeout much. Baker has more power. But both are better defenders than Blake DeWitt, who pegs much easier into the utility role. There is no reason why either Barney or Baker can't be as productive as Theriot was last year. So we'll call this position a draw.

Giovany Soto had a terrific season last year and, despite a bad 2009, has become the third best catcher in the National League. He has bookended two seasons around 2009 that exceed slightly his projections for 2011. That seems fair and the Fan wouldn't expect Soto to exceed what he's already done. He's a fine catcher and the Cubs are lucky to have him.

That leaves us with Carlos Pena. Pena, as everyone knows, has really struggled the last couple of years. His batting average ended up below the Mendoza Line last year making him one of the few players ever to bat below .200 and still hit 25 or more homers. Pena strikes out a lot and walks a lot and neither of those facts should change. The only question is the quality of his contact in his balls in play. Pena should hit 30 or more homers. You would like to think that he would get back to .250 in batting average (his high in the past five years was .286). But his projections of .230 seems fair in light of last year. Despite Pena's horrific struggles in 2010, he still managed to accumulate a WARP of 1.4. In light of that, his projection of 1.8 seems low by at least a win. He should finish somewhere in the 2.8 to 3.0 range if he hits .230 to .250.

The Fan's final tally and projection is 87 wins. It's completely hard to say if that is enough wins to win the division. The Fan's gut feeling is that it will take 90 wins to win the NL Central. All of the top teams have questions that will hurt their chances of getting to that win total. The conclusion here is that if all goes as well as the Cubs are capable of playing, this division is wide open and any team can win it with the exception of the Astros and Pirates. There is no reason the Cubs couldn't sneak into the big picture in 2011.

No Apologies to Michael Young

There are three things we know about Michael Young. The first is that he is a professional who goes about his business earnestly and does everything he can to help his team win. The second is that he tends to whine to the press when he isn't happy. The third is that he makes a lot of money...far more money than his play is worth. The first fact is to his credit. The second is unfortunate and the third is not his fault. Hey, the Rangers agreed to give him that much money in a fair bargaining process. After extending an olive branch and attempting to smooth things over with Michael Young, Rangers' general manager, Jon Daniels, went to talk to Young and after he had done so, took responsibility for some of the criticism Young received. There was no need for Daniels to do so.

Michael Young chose to air his grievances publicly. That was his choice. Nobody pointed a gun to his head and told him to do that. And it's not the first time. When he was told two years ago that he was moving to third base to make room for Elvis Andrus, Young did the same thing. Those are matters of public record. The only thing Jon Daniels is guilty of is trying to improve his team. A part of those efforts resulted in affecting Young's standing and position on the team. That's the way it goes at times. The Fan isn't saying that Daniels is blameless. Perhaps he could have been more communicative with Young. But who is to say that Young would not have still complained publicly about the decisions that were made that affected Young and the team?

It is doubtful that Daniels is talking about criticism of Young from this space. The Fan is just one lone voice crying out in the wilderness. But this says that the Fan's criticism wasn't alone and that other, more powerful voices joined the Fan in that exercise. The criticism stands. The guy is getting paid $16 million to happily do whatever his organization asks him to do. Most of us in the real world would be the designated hitter AND clean the toilets AND do the laundry for that kind of money and would be singing a happy tune while doing it.

As much of a team guy as Michael Young much of a professional as he is in his preparation, he is a world class athlete and by nature, such humans are pampered and coddled and given a sense of entitlement that you and this writer could never understand. When such entitlements come face flush with reality, those used to those entitlements don't react gracefully. Many of us would react the same way. But that still doesn't make it unworthy of criticism. Michael Young has been blessed with a talent that has given him the kind of rewards we will never receive for our talents. That's life. It's not often fair. But those of us who do not receive the kinds of compensation for our skills have every right to call out a player who complains despite their level of compensation.

Michael Young is not a bad guy. He just should have kept his mouth shut. He should have realized how his complaints would be perceived and once he makes those complaints public, the public is going to pounce and his lack of fielding skills and other value-added stats will be poured over. This writer gives him credit for going to camp and working hard and performing well. Credit is also due Young for not allowing his personal feelings to distract what the Rangers are trying to accomplish as they get ready for the season. Young is not a monster and on the grand scale of good and evil, he comes down on the good side. But the criticism was justified and there won't be any apologies least not from this space.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Just Leave Liriano Alone

Francisco Liriano simply doesn't fit in the Twins' system. He's not a strike-throwing, low pitch count kind of guy. He often seems to labor. But more often than not last year, his labor brought great results. And yet, Francisco Liriano isn't talked about by his team as an ace. Instead, he was a subject of early trade rumors. He was called out for not doing his shoulder exercises during the off-season. The Twins never seem quite comfortable that a considerable chunk of their prospective success is built around how good Liriano is as a pitcher. The advice here for the Rick Anderson and the Twins? Just leave the guy alone and put him out there every fifth day.

The Fan has to admit that this post is spurred by a tweet by Brandon Warne, an excellent writer who has worked for Baseball Prospectus and the Minnesota Sports Broadcast Network. The tweet was perfect because it sums up the frustration this Fan feels whenever word is leaked of the Twins' displeasure with their pitcher:

Still waiting for the inevitable "strikeouts lead to high pitch counts" comment regarding Liriano's 9K, 3IP, 76 pitch night last night.

The tone Warne uses here is just right. It is elemental in the knowledge that the Twins simply don't like Liriano because he doesn't fit their mold. The sad truth is that there are a couple of dozen teams that would be more than happy to have Liriano sitting on top of their pitching rotation. All Liriano did last year was accumulate six wins above replacement (WAR) according to Fangraphs, one of the top figures in the league for starting pitchers. He led the league in the least home runs per nine innings. His FIP of 2.66 was almost a full run below his actual ERA which was impacted quite a bit by a high BABIP and other factors. Simply put, he was among the top five starters in the American League last year. Voters appreciated him as little as his pitching coach and he only came in 11th in Cy Young voting.

Liriano struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings last year or more than a strikeout per inning. After two erratic seasons, he lowered his walk rate to a respectable 2.7 walks per nine innings. But it's not just the strikeouts that set Liriano apart. His ground ball rate of 53.6 percent is more than double his fly ball rate. Liriano also has a devastating slider that he threw almost 34 percent of the time last year. The slider probably accounts for his success at getting batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Opposing batters did so 34.4 percent of the time in 2010, easily the highest of Liriano's career.

The Fan isn't saying not to coach Liriano and help him to get even better. But how about showing some faith in the guy? How about telling the world that he's your guy and your big gun? How about giving the guy the kind of confidence that other aces around the league are given? How about understanding that he is never going to be the cookie-cutter Twins pitcher?

More than anything else, how about just letting the big guy (who is only 27 by the way and one of the biggest bargains in baseball) go out there 33 times and do what he does. If last year is any indication, few others in baseball do it better.

Relievers Becoming Starters

This season, three relief pitchers are attempting to become starting pitchers. The three are Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers, Kyle McClellan of the St. Louis Cardinals and Aaron Heilman of the Arizona Diamondbacks. While it is much more common to go from a starter to a relief pitcher, it's not unprecedented for a relief pitcher to become a starting pitcher. In the old days, most young pitchers broke into the majors in the relief role and worked their way into the rotation. These days, it's much more common to begin a pitcher as a starter and them move him to the bullpen if starting doesn't work out.

The conversion of Feliz from one of the best closers in the game to a starter has gotten a lot of attention. Kyle McClelllan's bid to win the fifth rotation spot left vacant by the injury to Adam Wainwright has received a lot of regional attention. Heilman's bid has received little if any ink in the press.* Only McClellan's bid seems to have definite traction as he's pitched brilliantly this spring and has won the spot.

* Shameless Posnanski Asterisk ripoff: "Ink in the press" is an expression that may die out in this country before long with the bottoming out of the newspaper industry.

And McClellan isn't a pioneer even for his own team. It was just a few years ago that the Cardinals converted Braden Looper from a closer to a starter. Looper had been a closer for the Marlins and the Mets and pitched one year successfully in relief for the Cardinals before the switch in 2007. Looper made 98 starts over the next three seasons, two were somewhat league average for the Cardinals and then a disastrous season for the Brewers in 2009. Looper did not pitch in the majors last year and is currently trying to win a job with the Cubs.

The Cardinals, who have an unbelievably strong core of local writers and bloggers, turned to McClellan when Wainwright went down. Several of the local writers, including one of the Fan's favorites, bemoan the loss of McClellan in the bullpen where he pitched very successfully. This Fan would argue that starting pitching is much more important than relievers and McClellan wanted to be a starter and deserves to go after it. Many are now touting him as the next Jaime Garcia who burst on the scene as a starter last year. If McClellan can carry over his spring success, he will take some of the sting out of the loss of Wainwright and along with Garcia, form a nice nucleus for the Cardinals going forward.

Like McClellan, Heilman has been campaigning to start for a couple of years now. He started 20 games for the Mets early in his career from 2003 to 2005. Since 2005, Heilman has been exclusively a relief pitcher. He had some success as a reliever for the Mets the first couple of years, but two out of the last three years have not been pretty. All of Heilman's peripherals this spring have been good except that he's given up a plethora (six) of homers which has driven up his spring ERA to 5.24. Joe Saunders has been terrible this spring and apparently is in his manager's doghouse. Galarraga will not make the rotation, so there is a good chance that Heilman will get his wish and get the job. Don't be surprised those if the spring era isn't a harbinger of things to come.

Of course the real news maker this spring has been Neftali Feliz. Here's a young pitcher that anchored a team's bullpen that helped carry the Rangers all the way to the World Series. Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, really pushed the idea of Feliz as a starter before this season started. Feliz at first said he'd prefer to stay in the bullpen. Then he changed his mind and said he wanted to start. His spring ERA is brilliant considering how much hitting goes on in the Cactus League. His walk rate is too high but he has the kind of stuff that projects very well as a starter. Daniels has always wanted Feliz as a starter even before his closing heroics of a year ago.

This writer agrees with Daniels. Wouldn't you want one of your best arms for seven innings a game instead of one? It's also in Feliz's best interest as there is more money to be made as a good starter than as a good relief pitcher. The Rangers should stick to this plan and put Feliz in the rotation and out on the mound every fifth day. If it works, you're golden. If it doesn't, he can go back to closing.

While it is more rare these days to go from a relief pitcher to a starter than the other way around, guys like Ryan Dempster of the Cubs, Derek Lowe of the Braves, C. J. Wilson of the Rangers and Brett Myers of the Astros have all shown it can be done and done successfully. The Fan will always believe that an effective starter is worth three effective relievers and if a pitcher has the chops, he should be given a chance to go for it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is Cactus League Bad for Batting?

In the Fan's daily perusal around the state of baseball, a stop at's sortable team stats seemed interesting. While the Fan has stated over and over again that pre-season stats are meaningless, it was noticed that the top eleven teams in batting average this spring played in the Cactus League (Arizona). It isn't until the 12th position do you find the first Grapefruit League team (the Blue Jays). Going further, it was noticed that the top seven teams in team slugging this spring played in the Cactus League. You have to go to the eighth place team to find the Phillies from the Grapefruit League. That led to a couple of questions. First, is training and evaluating pitchers and hitters in Arizona more difficult than it should be? And secondly, does the hitting conditions in Arizona adversely affect a team's batting once they get back to where they belong?

The answer to the first question is: It has to make it more difficult to evaluate pitching and offense when playing in Arizona. Eleven of the bottom twelve pitching teams this spring have played their spring games in Arizona. That has to make it very difficult to figure out where your pitching stands when the conditions are so conducive to hitting. For that reason alone, the Fan would tell Texas Rangers' fans to calm down a bit about their pitching. They are not alone in this Arizona effect.

The teams that play in Arizona are: the Giants, the Rockies, the Mariners, the Royals, the Braves, the Reds, the Angels, the Indians, the Rangers, the Athletics, the Padres, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the White Sox, the Diamondbacks and the Brewers.

The second question involves whether training in such a hitting-friendly environment affect team performance once the teams return to their home ballparks. The answers there seem to be mixed. If a team is originally from the west, the teams seem to have their best batting months the first month of the season. The teams from more eastern locales seem to struggle early in the season upon returning home. The Giants, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Brewers all had their best offensive months the first month of last season (judging by OPS). The Braves, Reds, Rangers and White Sox had their worst offensive months the first month of the season after returning home from Arizona. The Cubs had a middling month of April last year, declined the next two months and then picked it up for the rest of the season.

This post doesn't attempt to answer deep such deep seated questions as its writer is not qualified enough as a researcher to tackle the data. This post only attempts to open the question to writers and analysts with the talent to answer the questions. A second thought on the little data this writer did cull is if these western teams had their best month the first month of the season after training in Arizona and went downhill the rest of the season, were they coming down from an artificial high created by their spring? And conversely, did the more eastern teams suffer a letdown at the beginning when going home and then build from there?

All this Fan can do is pose the questions. Other talented people would have to answer the questions.

The Marlins' Love Affair With Emilio Bonifacio

Everyone has to have a cause in life.  This Fan has two. One is to hound the Red Sox until they retire Wade Boggs' number. The other is to figure out just what the Florida Marlins see in Emilio Bonifacio. There is nothing personal against the young man from the Dominican Republic. It's just that he's one of those guys whose only real attributes are a good attitude, speed and a willingness to play wherever he's told to play. Those are admirable qualities. It is exactly those qualities that convince those making decisions for the Florida Marlins to continue to trot Bonifacio out there in uniform day after day. The only problem is that for all intents and purposes, he has no business doing so.

For being only 25 years old, Bonifacio has played for three different organizations. He started with the Diamondbacks and actually got a cup of coffee with them in 2007. In 2008, Bonifacio was traded by the D-backs to the Nationals for big Jon Rauch. The D-back turned around and traded Rauch to the Twins for a player to be named later (basically nothing) and Rauch has become a good reliever for the Twins. The funny thing about that trade is that Rauch is a full foot taller than Bonifacio.

Bonifacio got into 41 games with the Nationals and wasn't very good. But the Nationals turned around and coupled Bonifacio with a couple of minor leaguers and traded them to the Marlins for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham. Giving up some major league value like that, the Marlins immediately announced that Bonifacio would be their starting third baseman for the 2009 season.

Things started well in 2009. Bonifacio hit an inside-the-park homer on Opening Day, the first time that had been done since Carl Yastzremski did it forty-one years earlier. After the first couple of weeks, Bonifacio was hitting nearly .500 and was stealing bases and everyone gushed. It didn't last. And it didn't last long. Even so, the Marlins allowed Bonifacio to accumulate 509 plate appearances. 255 of those plate appearances came as the lead off batter. Another 193 of them came from the second spot in the batting order. As a lead off batter, his on base percentage was .299. Ugh! From the second spot in the line up, his on base percentage improved to .305.

So if you are keeping score, the Marlins gave Bonifacio 448 plate appearances in the top two spots of the line up. The end result was that Bonifacio accumulated the lowest OPS in the majors for anyone over 500 plate appearances at .611 He finished with a 61 OPS+. Yes, he stole some bases but with his speed was only successful 70% of the time. If you subtracted his nine caught stealing (he was also picked off a few times) from his OBP, things were even worse.

It almost got to be a comedy that season. Rob Neyer, then with, now with SBNation, wrote scathing posts about him. Others picked up on Neyer's lead.  The Marlins' then manager, Fredi Gonzalez, defended Bonifacio as someone who helped the team win by doing something special every day. The Fan heard him say that while in Florida for a couple weeks that summer of 2009. The remembered emotions were disbelief.

And it wasn't like Bonifacio played great defense. His arm is too weak for third and he lacked accuracy. rated his defense at -24 runs above replacement. Fangraphs was only slightly kinder.

So that was Bonifacio's season. And it appeared that the Marlins had learned their lessen the hard way with him and he did not make the club out of Spring Training in 2010. Whew! "Enough of that business," thought the Fan. But the Marlins weren't done with their love affair with the speedster. They brought him up mid-season and Bonifacio ended up seeing action in 73 games. he was a better base stealer. He stole 12 bases without being thrown out. He played six different positions. Fangraphs scored his fielding as above average. Baseball-reference below. So that would make Bonifacio a super-sub or a super-utility guy. Except he was still far from super. Oh, he did raise his OPS+ to 71, but that's still a long way from the MLB average of 100.

The entire trouble with Emilio Bonifacio is that he is a speedster that can't get on base, strikes out too much and has no power whatsoever. His Opening Day inside-the-park homer remains his only homer in the big leagues. In 933 career plate appearances in his career, Bonifacio has 24 doubles and 14 triples. He strikes out over 20 percent and he walks less than 10 percent of the time. If those were reversed, things would be different. Bonifacio now has a total career OPS+ of 64. And it's not like he lit up the minor leagues when he was there either. His career OPS as a minor league player was .703.

Surely, the Marlins could see all of that lack of development and ability and find another man-crush. Please don't call the Fan, Shirley, and no, they haven't. Not one of their spring players has more plate appearances in this pre-season than Bonifacio. The Marlins had hoped that Matt Dominguez would win the third base job, but the prospect slumped badly this spring and now the talk is of moving Omar Infante to third and installing Bonifacio as the starting second baseman to open the season. What!? Yes, friends, their love affair continues.

Nevermind the fact that even batting .175, Matt Dominguez still has a higher OPS than Bonifacio (.617 to .578). Nevermind that Bonifacio has proven in nearly a thousand career plate appearances that he's not going to get better. The Marlins are sticking with their man.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Brendan Ryan at Short is the Right Call

Everyone was surprised today when the Seattle Mariners announced that Brendan Ryan was going to be the every day shortstop and that Jack Wilson was moving to second base. The move signifies that Brendan Ryan has surpassed Wilson as the best fielding shortstop in baseball. Either way the decision went, the Mariners would not have gone wrong as both shortstops are terrific. But Wilson is 33 and perhaps his best days are behind him.

The situation for the Mariners might be unique as this Fan can never remember two of the best fielding shortstops in baseball fighting it out for the same job. But this Fan has also said all along that Ryan offers much more of an upside in his capabilities than Wilson.  Ryan had a bad year at the plate last year for the Cardinals, but Wilson has had pretty much a bad career at the plate. Fangraphs gives his lifetime batting a value of -130 runs. Ouch. Ryan at least has a chance to be a good hitter if he can get back to where he was in 2009.

If you read the linked article above, it seems clear that the Mariners' general manager went out of his way to say that this is the best answer for now. If you read a little more into those words than were actually said, it's clear that the Mariners believe that Ryan can be their shortstop for the long haul. Whomever was going to play second was basically a place holder for Dustin Ackley. The Mariners obviously feel that Wilson is the more temporary player for the team than Ryan.

The article also mentions that Ryan and Wilson worked out this past winter, which is good news for those who view Ryan as immature. Wilson is a pro and has always had a good attitude about playing the game respectfully. Wilson understandably wants to play shortstop, but he's not complaining. He just states that he still thinks he's a shortstop. Perhaps by mid-season, he'll get the chance. When the time comes for the Mariners to turn to Dustin Ackley, they can always trade Wilson to the Giants or the Cardinals when those two teams tire of Miguel Tejada and Ryan Theriot respectively. And there is no doubt those two teams will tire of those less than stellar shortstop. In fact, if the Fan was the GM for the Cardinals, Wilson would be on the radar screen immediately.

Here are some more fact based reasons why this is the right call. Fangraphs has a new fielding statistic they call the Aggregate Defensive Ratings or ADR. This statistic combines a the multiple fielding metrics that are out there to give us a more holistic view of where a fielder stands. It's still not perfect, but it's better than what we've had to go by before. According to ADR, Wilson has had scores of 10, 16 and 5 the past three seasons. Last season is understandable considering the injuries Wilson went through. Ryan's scores the past three seasons were 4, 13, 14. Ryan scored low in 2008 because he only played 255 innings. But as you can see, his scores show much more of an uptake. There is another fielding metric Fangraphs uses called Fans Scouting Report. The report scores fielders on instincts, first step, speed, hands, release, arm strength and arm accuracy. here are their numbers side by side:
Wilson: 81, 74, 60, 80, 83, 63, 82
Ryan:    87, 86, 76, 83, 81, 74, 70

Ryan easily has Wilson on speed and arm strength. The only nod in the numbers to Wilson is the arm accuracy. But Ryan's number is nothing to sneeze at there either.

Brendan Ryan has an excellent chance to restart his career. Now out from his unhealthy situation with Tony LaRussa, he can flourish in his new environment. The folks in Seattle should get ready for a spectacular fielding display from the best shortstop on the field every day. He's going to thrive. That's the prediction here. And this should be good news for those suffering Mariners fans from a year ago. This year, unlike the Figgins/Lopez fiasco of a year ago, the correct decisions are being made for the right reasons.

Have fun, Seattle watching the show at short. And have hope Giants and Cardinal fans, you may have help soon at short.

Yankees Rotation Should Be a Slam Dunk

Buster Olney over at wrote today that his feeling is that Freddie Garcia will be the Yankees' fifth starter. While it's not uncommon for this writer to disagree with Mr. Olney on a number of things, there is great respect for the man and gratitude that he writes so thoroughly every day. So let the Fan say this as respectfully as possible: POPPYCOCK! Monday's start against the "A" line up of the Tampa Bay Rays showed succinctly why Bartolo Colon should be the Yankees' fifth starter.

The Yankees have had an open competition all spring for the rotation and Ivan Nova and Bartolo Colon have won it. Garcia has not been nearly as effective and his upside is not nearly as strong as the other two. Nova has to be there. The home grown product has pitched very effectively this spring and he serves the need to go younger and develop the guys in the Yankee system. Colon has been a revelation. He's been a strike throwing machine all spring and how can you not be impressed with his seventeen to one strikeout to walk ratio?

This Fan watched his outing on Monday and his fastball has life and great movement. His change up is consistently baffling and he simply looks like he knows what he is doing. Yes, the Fan acknowledges that Garcia had some early success last year while Colon did not pitch in the majors at all. Both pitchers have close to the same career wins. But at his best, Colon was much better. His pitching reminds this observer of Pedro Martinez in that he simply knows what he is doing. He doesn't have the pure talent that Martinez had, but unlike Pedro, he's kept his fastball. And this Fan absolutely loves that back door fastball that Maddux used to throw. Colon threw four or five of those brilliantly.

It's important that Colon throws strikes. In a league where on base percentage is key, he doesn't allow teams like Boston and Tampa to settle in to take those walks. It's also impressive that as many strikes as Colon throws, so few batters square up against him. Yes, Kelly Shoppach hit a homer off of Colon in the sixth inning Monday. But that was a fluke if nothing else. In the regular season, Shoppach should never get a fastball to hit because that's the only thing he can hit.

So what is the argument for Garcia? He was healthy last year and Colon wasn't? He's more durable? Okay. Fair enough. But what do you want for your team, a healthy guy who you can count on or someone that consistently gives you a chance to win? Exactly. Give his Fan the best chance to win and see what happens. If Colon falters, you have other options...albeit young options, but options. The Fan would keep Garcia for insurance and for the bullpen over Sergio Mitre. But that's as far as it goes here.

The Yankees have to make the rotation, Sabathia, Burnett, Hughes, Nova and Colon. Anything less would be the wrong choices. What's the use of having a competition if, when push comes to shove, you give the job to the guy who lost it?

What Happens If Barry Bonds is Acquitted?

While most of our attention has been focused on such important topics as whether Belt and Trumbo are going to make their teams or who is going to end up the Yankees' fifth starter, a dark cloud in our silver lining rises into the sky with the beginning of the Barry Bonds trial. The timing by the federal government is either ironic or mean-spirited. The last thing we need before we start another baseball season is that ugliness occurring concurrently. But there it is. So far, it's simply been another story among all the others. Thankfully, it's remained less than center stage. But as much as we hate to admit it, this trial is huge. A player's legacy is at stake and perhaps a sport's dirty laundry will once again be manifest. The real question for you this morning is this: What happens if Barry Bonds is acquitted?

The gut feeling here is that he will be acquitted. The feds have been screwing up this case for years now. Why else has it taken this long to finally bring it to trial? Perhaps Bonds will be found guilty in the selling of bogus memorabilia (where the heck did that come from?), but it is doubtful with the burden of proof needed that the feds can win the perjury case. If the feds do win the perjury case, Bonds is doomed to asterisks and historical asides for the rest of time. He will be an ex-player not wanted in the sport that he dominated for more than twenty years. Bud Selig would likely ban him from baseball. And he would be correct in doing so. Perjury is a serious offense. But what if Bonds is acquitted?

The bulk of baseball fans and the multi-faceted media that feeds those fans have already convicted Barry Bonds. We don't know if he was on that 2003 list of players who failed a drug test. Would it be safe to assume he wasn't or the feds would be using that? But in any case, there was the Griffey story and the sudden home run production at an advanced baseball age and there was the change in his body and so on. Would an acquittal make much different for all of those who already assume he is guilty? Probably not. There are racial undertones that we'd rather not admit. There is Bonds and his abrasiveness in his personality that made him so hated among those outside of San Francisco. There is the fallout from his broken marriage and the troubles of his children. An acquittal will not make much difference in the court of public opinion.

But if he is acquitted, Major League Baseball has a problem. One of the problems is that baseball colluded to purge Bonds from the game. It seems easy to see that everyone was ordered not to sign him to freeze him out of the game. If Bonds wins his case, would he be then free to sue the game for such actions? That's just one problem an acquittal forces. But there are many others.

If Barry Bonds is acquitted, his baseball records will have to stand, at least until someone like Pujols breaks them. Bonds will have to be allowed to be a part of the major leagues and there will be no grounds to ban him from jobs in baseball or appearances for teams and ultimately, there can be no good reason for keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. Those are all problems for Bud Selig and the gang. It will be messy if Bonds is acquitted. A guilty verdict allows baseball to turn away from a convicted slugger. An acquittal means years of trying to handle the  fallout of the era which he represents.

The Bonds trial is much more important to baseball than the Clemens trial. Clemens comes off as stupid and stubborn and his obtuseness will probably bring him down. Bonds has been cagier. Clemens did not break any records other than the 20 strikeouts in a game, a feat he performed the first time as a young man when it can be at least assumed he was clean. Clemens didn't break Cy Young's win total. But Bonds holds multiple records, including the most glamorous ones. If Bonds wins his case, those records will be a subject of debate for decades. If Bonds loses, then baseball at least has an out.

The Bonds trial has not been a back page story because we don't want to face it. We really don't want to talk about it and we want it to go away. But the stakes are very high here and this is a gigantic story. If Bonds loses his case, we will all feel some justification in our hatred of the man. But if he wins, we have a problem. And that problem won't go away for a long, long time.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Boston - Retire Wade Boggs' Uniform Number

There was a recent post in this space that listed all the retired numbers around baseball. During that exercise, suggestions were made to each team for other numbers that team hasn't retired but should. While the most egregious omission seemed to be the Toronto Blue Jays who have not officially retired any uniform numbers. that omission was explained by a friend that the Blue Jays honor those players differently out in center field. Fair enough. That leaves the worst omission to the Boston Red Sox and this writer has taken this as his personal crusade. Wade Boggs is in the Hall of Fame. He did most of his playing damage and built nearly two-thirds of his career numbers while playing for the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox have not retired his number. That's a crime.

There seems to be some thought put into this business by the Red Sox. Apparently, they want their retired numbers to represent players that finished their careers with Red Sox uniform draped around their persons. Yastzremski, of course, played his entire career with the Red Sox as did Jim Rice, Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams and their other retired numbers. While this makes sense on some level, the new reality is that in modern baseball, very few players will play their entire career with one team. Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter will be a couple of the last of a dying breed. Teams have adopted front offices with large groups of analytical employees that now help shape teams and their rosters. Veterans that no longer produce are allowed to "walk" once they hit free agency. The Red Sox are famous for (correctly) jettisoning players who outlive their usefulness. And once upon a time, they did so with one Wade Boggs, who was allowed to walk away and sign with the Yankees.

That isn't the player's fault. That is the new reality. And as such, decision making on how retired numbers are thought about should adapt along with the new reality. If a player played a large part of his career with a certain team and that player makes it to the Hall of Fame, that team should retire his number. Period. Wade Boggs certainly fits that category. Boggs amassed 2,098 of his 3,010 hits while a member of the Boston Red Sox. 422 of his 578 doubles were hit wearing their uniform. While with the Red Sox, Boggs had five seasons where he led the league in batting and more importantly, led the league in on base percentage six times. He led the league twice in OPS, once in OPS+, twice in doubles, twice in runs scored and six times in intentional walks. What else does a player have to do?

Here is a statistic for you. Wade Boggs five times hit over .350 with an on base percentage over.400 with 40 or more doubles. Only Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker did that more times with seven apiece. His seven-year run from 1983 to 1989 might be the greatest seven-year stretch for a lead off batter in history. For four straight seasons from 1985 to 1988, his batting average was never lower than .357 and his on base percentage was never lower than .450. And here is the Fan's favorite statistic: For his career (if the Fan has done his math correctly while looking at his splits in, Wade Boggs had a line drive percentage of 26 percent. Amazing.

This Fan was in New England during Wade Boggs' career and Channel 38 was one of the few channels we could get back then while living in New Hampshire and southern Maine. So this observer watched Wade Boggs a lot. And during his seven year peak, he seemed impossible to get out. And it was that kind of production that made Dave Righetti's no-hitter even more spectacular because to get it, he had to get Wade Boggs out multiple times including the swinging strikeout that ended the game. That's how good Wade Boggs was to watch. Boggs easily should have won the MVP in 1987. His WAR of 9.1 led the league that season. And a strong case could be made for the years before and after 1987.

Boggs didn't get started as a major league regular until he was 25 years old. He was a seventh round draft pick that took a while to get a chance. And his minor league numbers were wasted until the Red Sox finally let him play. Even starting so late, Fangraphs gives him 98.1 WAR for his career. 75.7 of that WAR was accumulated as a member of the Boston Red Sox. In this writer's mind, there is no way the Red Sox make it to the 1986 World Series without Wade Boggs...a World Series the Red Sox would have won if not for the blundering of manager, John McNamara. Boggs gave the Red Sox one of the most amazing careers as a third baseman that franchise has ever seen. He worked extremely hard to make himself a good fielder too.

Simply put, Wade Boggs was the bomb for the Boston Red Sox. Mr. Henry, retire that uniform number. It was 26 with the Red Sox in case you've forgotten.