Saturday, March 17, 2012

Luis Mendoza: A ruined post

Ah! The life of a baseball writer. After pouring over spring results and stats on a Saturday morning, the search was on for a glimmer of a post idea. The search led to Luis Mendoza of the Kansas City Royals. Wow! He's having a good spring! And this is after a strong Triple A campaign and two excellent starts in September with the big club. This was the story idea that was needed. Luis Mendoza is a sleeper pick! But since the fear of being stupid is one of the strongest motivators, the thought occurred that perhaps opinions on the subject should be culled from others. The result? Nobody believes in the guy.

Something certainly seemed to happen last year that turned Mendoza's life around. To explain that statement, we need a little history first. The Mexican pitcher was signed by the Red Sox as a free agent way back in 2000. Mendoza was seventeen years old. He kicked around in the Red Sox lower minors for years and apparently hit a wall in 2005. The San Diego Padres claimed him on waivers in 2005 and he was terrible for their A+ league and the Red Sox claimed him back. In 2006, the Red Sox traded Mendoza to the Texas Rangers for the then 33 year old Bryan Corey. Corey pitched nine times for the Red Sox in 2007 and got himself a World Series Ring, but the career minor league pitcher's career fizzled and after 91 MLB appearances, Corey was out of baseball after the 2010 season.

Back to Mendoza. Unlike the past two seasons when the team has turned their pitching around, the Texas Rangers were perennially poor in the pitching department when Mendoza arrived in the organization in 2006. They were starved for pitching. They installed Mendoza at the Double A level despite that being above where he had pitched before. It didn't go well in 2006. But in 2007, Mendoza went 15-4 for the Rangers' Double A affiliate in Frisco of the Texas League. Mendoza's stats weren't too far removed from other years, but again, the Rangers were starved for pitchers. When the rosters expanded in September, the Rangers brought Mendoza to the majors where after seven long years in the minors, Mendoza made his major league debut on September 8, 2007.

Mendoza pitched six times for the Rangers that September including three starts. He finished with a 2.25 ERA. For a team that desperately needed pitching, this was encouraging. As such, he was invited to Spring Training in 2008 and despite a somewhat poor spring, the Rangers put him in the rotation to start the 2008 season. It was a disaster. Mendoza pitched a total of 63.1 innings, went 3-8 and had an ERA of 8.67. Mendoza then spent 2009 in the minors. Before the season started in 2010, the Rangers traded Luis Mendoza to the Royals in a cash deal.

Mendoza pitched for the Royals Triple A affiliate in Omaha in 2010 after getting a brief look in April. In four April appearances for the Royals, Mendoza got bombed and he was sent down to Omaha. We are getting closer to the present. Craig Brown of the fine Royal's blog, Royals Authority, wrote the following on what happened next:

Those results led him to Omaha pitching coach Doug Henry who broke down Mendoza’s delivery. He adjusted his arm angle to release the ball on a higher plane which gave his fastball a little more sink. He also worked on developing a consistent delivery – something he apparently had difficulty accomplishing in the past. 
The transformation was astounding.
It was indeed. In 2011, Luis Mendoza went 12-5 for Omaha in 144.1 innings of work. He had a 2.18 ERA. His hits per nine innings were his lowest in eight years going back to his early years in the low minors. His season merited a September call up to the Royals where he went 2-0 in two starts with a breezy 1.23 ERA. But both Craig Brown of the aforementioned Royals' blog nor Jeff Parker of the very fine Royally Speaking blog are buying it. Brown's conclusion in the same piece:
In a perfect world Mendoza opens the year in Triple-A and is in the mix for emergency spot starter. He’s a guy who can fill in for a few starts in the back of the rotation. But if you’re counting on him to make quality starts for you throughout the season, you may as well book your reservation for the bottom half of the division. 
And Jeff Parker's thoughts
If I'm right and he (Mendoza) does make the rotation then I think we could see a repeat of what Sean O'Sullivan did last year. Like Mendoza, O'Sullivan is trying to survive with a low strikeout rate (4.2 SO/9). Last season he had a 2.16 ERA after his first 4 starts but his other numbers were telling a story that would produce an unhappy ending. In 25 innings he had 13 strikeouts and 13 walks and held hitters to an unsustainable .227 BAbip, meaning he was more lucky than good, and at some point the wheels would fall off. And boy, did they ever. His next 5 starts produced a 11.10 ERA and he was compassionately removed from the rotation making just one more start all year (a token September appearance in which he gave up 6 runs in 5 innings). 
Brown also mentions that Mendoza's two September starts were against a Tigers team that had already won the division and the White Sox who had quit as a team in August. The caveat that both are talking about is Mendoza's low strikeout rate. Mendoza also had a .229 BABIP last season in his two starts. Both writers doubt that Mendoza can have long term success with such a low strikeout rate. It's hard to argue with those conclusions. But it's also worth noting that so far this spring, Mendoza has struck out eleven batters in 10.2 innings of work. And he's only given up one run all spring.
Parker contends that the spring stats are meaningless because of weak competition. In one game in which Mendoza faced the Rockies for four and two-thirds innings, Parker contends that it was a really weak line up the pitcher faced.
It's hard to argue with either writer. Mendoza has never, ever, struck out a high number of batters. Surviving in the majors is tough to do depending on your fielders to catch a ball in play on nearly every batter. But it does appear that when camp breaks, Mendoza will head east to Kansas City and will start the season in the rotation. This post started as a thought to make Luis Mendoza a sleeper pick. It ends as a warning of trouble ahead.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Maybe Dunn Isn't Done

Adam Dunn's season was as historic a year ago as Babe Ruth's was in 1920. Nobody had ever seen a season like that before. But while Ruth's historic season was for all the right things, Dunn's was historic for all the wrong reasons. Nobody had ever seen a guy get 496 plate appearances and hit .159. Dunn struck out 36 percent of his at bats. Incredible. After averaging 40 homers a season for seven seasons, he hit eleven. His homer per fly ball rate went from eight straight seasons over 20 percent to 9.6 percent. His season reminds one of Yosemite Sam after a drawbridge fell on him and he was wobbling around like a pancake with legs. It was brutal.

So along comes the annual preseason predictions from colleagues at MLB Dirt. Two colleagues predicted Adam Dunn to be 2012's Comeback Player of the Year. Seriously? Can a guy ever come back from a season like that? Well. It's possible. It's not like Adam Dunn was old last season. It's not like he was 37 or something and his skills just evaporated. He played his historic season a year ago at the age of 31. So, Dunn is not over the hill. Plus, unlike most, he has a long-term guaranteed contract that sort of forces the White Sox not to give up on him. But will it happen?

To gauge other thoughts on the subject, all the major projection systems were consulted. While none believe a collapse like last year is possible, they all think that Dunn will not recover completely. Predictions for his batting average ranged from a low of .209 to a high of .225. Remember, we are talking about a guy who hovered just above and below the .250 mark for years and years. Home run predictions range from 20 to 28. Again, we're talking about a guy who averaged 40 for seven straight seasons. 

Dunn's manager, Ozzie Guillen, has gone on record as stating that coming into camp last season and watching Dunn take batting practice, Guillen knew they had a problem on their hands. Dunn's Spring Training last season did not shout alarm. Yes, he batted only .224 in camp last year. But he hit three homers, four doubles and even hit a triple. Production-wise, it was his best Spring Training in three years. But there was one cause of alarm. In 2011's Spring Training, Adam Dunn struck out 27 times in just 67 at bats. That was a 40 percent strikeout rate.

Dunn, to his credit, has been all positive this spring. He himself predicts he will win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. That's awesome for him as a person as most of us would deal with such colossal failure by hiding under a rock somewhere. Are there any signs that Dunn can back up his prediction? As you have been told in this space a million times, spring statistics are meaningless. But we can use them as a sign that a player has a possibility of recovering from disaster.

Again, Dunn struck out 27 times in 67 at bats last spring. This spring, he has played seven games (hardly a proper sample size) and has thirteen at bats. He has only stuck out once. That's right. Once. With last year's strikeout rate, he should have struck out five times already. So that's a positive sign. Again, in a puny sample size, Dunn is batting just over .300 with two homers. Those are good signs.

The White Sox, with their outlay of money on Dunn's contract, have to give Dunn a chance to prove that last year was an outliers. The consideration here is that his track record has to be taken into consideration as hard as that might be after last year's horrid season. The prediction here is that he will bat over .230, hit 35 homers and get on base at an over .350 clip. If those predictions are close, he has that trophy in the bag.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

BBA Linkfest - Spring in General

Well, spring has arrived where you are. But it's still a dream here in northern Maine where we got another foot of snow dumped on us last night. So have a care on Twitter when you share how nice a spring day it is where you are. The writers that make up the General Chapter of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance must be toasty warm though because they are still cranking out great reading material for their followers. As we do here every Thursday, here are links to the best of their work over the previous week. So, relax, click a few links that strike your fancy and thanks as always for making what we do so rewarding.

Let's start with Old Time Family Baseball which brings us some information on the highest bidder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hint: He has a lot of dough. The proprietor of OTFB is headed to Spring Training, the lucky bum!

Matthew Mahaffey of the Pop Fly Boys has a very informative post on bulging discs and how they differ from herniated discs. The reason of course, is because of the Chris Carpenter situation.

Carlos Beltran got a raw deal from the press in New York for his days playing for the Mets. And Bill from The Platoon Advantage reminds us of what a great player Beltran has been. And just in case you think Beltran's contract with the Mets was a bust, check out this piece by yours truly.

In a long and delicious post, Replacement Level Baseball Blog culled opinions from three of our favorite baseball writers to form its AL East preview. A must read.

Sully of Sully Baseball tells the tale of two Rays pitchers that clinched playoff series for that team. And predicts the Rays will be in the playoffs again in 2012.

Rob Harris of Through the Fence Baseball remembers Kirby Puckett and one of the best World Series ever.

Mike Cardano has some interesting thoughts on Bryce Harper over at his X-Log site. Good stuff.

Yeonis Cespedes is the real deal. So says Jeremy over at The Wolf's Den. We'll see, Jeremy, we'll see.

Eugene Tierney of 85% Sports lists his top 20 prospects in the Houston Astros organization. That couldn't have been an easy task.

Ryan Braun's possible suspension and eventual overturning of that suspension has thrown off many fantasy baseball draft boards. Ryan Sendek of Analysis Around the Horn has the details.

This site had a 2012 preview of the Rockies this past week. The post was over a thousand words long. Sooze of Babes Love Baseball sums it them up more succinctly and with much greater entertainment value in her latest Haiku.

Daniel of The Ball Caps Blog received his alumni newsletter this past week and was pleasantly surprised at who the graduation speaker would be this year.

Baseball Unrated has a great piece this week on how young stars are taking over the game.

Justin has a great series going at his BaseBlog site ranking the positional players for each of the NL Central teams. This one ranks the center fielders. 

Tim Holland of Call to the Pen considers Albert Pujols in light of some great seasons in 1966, 1977 and 1988. Great stuff, Tim.

Matt Whitener has a twelve part series going on the St. Louis Cardinals for his Cheap.Seats.Please. The series is in conjunction with his other work at St. Louis Sports 360 where you can finish the rest of the articles. This link is to part six. You should read them all.

There's always great writing going on over at Crum-Bum Beat. And you should check out their sleeper picks for 2012 if you haven't already. But this picture the site shared induced nightmares.

Dugout 24 has a post this week on the art of base stealing. You'll need to translate the German.

The Baseball Index has the latest on a gastronomical feast happening this summer in Washington, D.C. And like the pitcher it's named after, the dish will stay with you like his 12 to 6 curve.

Over at the The Golden Sombrero, Griffin Phelps give Houston Astros fans some reasons to celebrate their team in 2012. 

TheNaturalMevs is not a fan of Fredi Gonzalez. And that's putting it mildly. Check out Diamond Hoggers for the details. Perhaps we need a new blog called, "Fire Fredi."

Your favorite Fan is admittedly also a fanatical fan of American Idol. Yes, that isn't cool. But we all have our  weaknesses. The Hall of Very Good scratched that itch this week.

It's a tough job but somebody had to do it. Theo of Hot Corner Harbor previews the 2012 Baltimore Orioles. 

Who says us baseball men aren't romantic? Left Field shares a wonderful love story on the occasion of his second anniversary. Congrats, mate, but you do know that you have the second best wife in the world. The best lives right here.

MLB Dirt has added another great writer. His name is Troy Kocur. Check out his great preview of the 2012 Kansas City Royals. 

In the Fan's best post of the week category, Sam Evans of MLB Reports celebrates the legacies of Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa.

Nik has gotten into the spirit of things based on MLB's Top Ten. He shares his top ten Detroit Tigers over at Niktig's Baseball Blog.

There you have it! May your spring have sprung wherever you are. This Fan is thankful that these writers hold the promise for days without snow sometime soon. Have a great week, everyone.

Spring Training statistics are meaningless

If you were a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers, you might have been excited about Erick Almonte during Spring Training in 2011. The career minor league player was 33 and ten years removed from his first cup of coffee with the Yankees in 2001. He killed the ball last spring with a Cactus League slash line of, .416/.438/.636. Almonte opened a lot of eyes and when the Brewers headed north to start the season, Almonte made the team.  It was a nice story. But once the Brewers started the season, Almonte stopped hitting. By the end of April, in 29 plate appearances, he batted .103 with the same on-base percentage. He was shipped to the minors on April 26 and wasn't heard from again.

It's hard not to think Spring Training baseball is real. We watch the games on television and they look like real baseball. And sure enough, each inning contains three outs and umpires look official. But Spring Training is a really strange animal. The starting pitcher may pitch four or five innings and the next pitcher could be anyone from Double A to a Triple A team. Many times the rosters are watered down further when teams play split games and the team plays two games in the same day. Plus, we are dealing with extremely small sample sizes. Almonte collected 77 plate appearances last spring and he was on the higher end of the scale. Anyone can get hot in 77 plate appearances.

To be fair to Almonte, the guy has hit extremely well in Triple A the last couple of years and 29 plate appearances to start the regular season is just as extreme a sample size. Almonte went on to hit at an .827 OPS clip in Nashville after his demotion.

But there are other guys who got more than 29 plate appearances in the 2011 regular season after having a fabulous Spring Training. No doubt fans of the then Florida Marlins were feeling better about the Dan Uggla trade after Omar Infante hit .414 in the Grapefruit League last year. That good feeling disappeared after 640 regular season plate appearances as Infante finished with a .696 OPS for the Marlins last season.

And there are others. Kevin Kouzmanoff had a 1.021 OPS during Spring Training last season. He ended up with a .656 OPS playing for two teams during the 2011 regular season. Heck, even Willie Bloomquist hit .400 last spring before the real games started.

Perhaps the biggest sensation of Spring Training last year was Kila Ka'aihue. Segments of Kansas City Royals fans felt vindicated when the big Hawaiian hit seven homers during Spring Training and sailed along with a 1.306 OPS. Those fans had been pining for the Royals to give Ka'aihue a chance with his minor league slugging history. Ka'aihue's big camp did earn him a spot as the Royals headed into the season. Ka'aihue played in 19 of the Royals first 21 games last season and 23 games overall. He hit .195. His crashing failure led to the beginning of the Eric Hosmer era, which well help Royals fans forget all about Ka'aihue.

And it's not just hitters you should ignore. Zach Britton had a phenomenal spring training for the Orioles last season. He was the next big thing for pitchers coming out of camp. While he didn't have a terrible season, he did struggle and finished with a 90 ERA+. Nick Blackburn went 3-1 for the Twins in 2011's Spring Training with a 1.73 ERA. Unfortunately, Blackburn didn't have that kind of season for the Twins once the regular season started.

The point is that any statistic you see from Spring Training has to be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps a hot spring can signal a hot season. But just as often, it signals nothing. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Final 2012 predictions for the NL West

After five posts and countless hours considering the National League West, the final predictions are as follows:

  1. Arizona Diamondbacks: 90-72
  2. San Francisco Giants: 86-76
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers: 83-79
  4. Colarado Rockies: 82-80
  5. San Diego Padres: 79-83 

The Scrum in the NL West: Rockies

This post concludes the series on previewing the five teams in the National League West. Previous posts have looked at the Padres, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Giants. The theme of the series was the rugby scrum because Baseball Prospectus projected the division for 2012 with all five teams finishing within seven games of each other from top to bottom. Today's post previews the Rockies. As with all of the teams in this division, a lot has to go right for the Rockies to contend and just as much can go wrong.

Things have gone downhill for the Rockies during Jim Tracy's tenure as manager of the team. After their improbable late season run of 2009 after Tracy took over, the team finished that season with 92 wins and a post season berth. They came in third place in 2010 with 83 wins and last year, sunk to 73 wins. Both the offense and the pitching have been going in the wrong direction as you'd expect. The team scored 804 runs in 2009, 770 in 2010 and 735 in 2011. The pitching remained static in 2009 and 2010 with 715 and 717 runs allowed respectively. But that number ballooned a bit to 774 runs allowed in 2011.

BP's projections is that the offense will be more robust with 791 runs scored but that the pitching will be even worse with a projected 802 runs allowed. Of course, these projections are based on an assumption of who will start in both the field and in the rotation. While the line up is pretty much predetermined, the rotation could end up drastically different than how the depth chart is based. Since the rotation is the most potentially contentious part of this team, this preview will start there.

The top two starters in the rotation are most certainly Jeremy Guthrie and Jhoulys Chacin. Guthrie was obtained from the Orioles for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. If you would consider this a rotation swap of Guthrie for Hammel, then the Rockies should have the better part of this swap. Guthrie should be much better than Hammel. But saying that, we're comparing Guthrie's results for the Orioles against Hammel with half of his games at Coors. On the one hand, you have to worry about how Guthrie's game will translate to his new home ballpark. Guthrie is not a ground ball pitcher. His ground ball to fly ball ratio was exactly one to one. On the other hand, he gets out of the AL East and away from meat-grinder offenses like the Red Sox and Yankees. He should be better than Hammel, but not by much.

The jury is still out on Jhoulys Chacin (whose name is terrible to type over and over). He has transformed himself into much more of a ground ball pitcher relying on a two-seam fastball much heavier in 2011 than in 2010. As a result, his ground ball rate skyrocketed to 56.3 percent. This seemed to be a benefit in his BABIP which was .261. But it also resulted in a much lower strikeout rate which came in at less than two strikeouts per game than what he showed in 2010. And he is still walking people at a rate of four walks per nine innings pitched. That's far too high. So his ERA of 3.69 in 2011 has to be tempered with a FIP of 4.23. BP projects him at 10-11 with a 4.22 ERA. Chacin will have to be much better for this team to contend.

The rest of the projected rotation includes Guillermo Moscoso, who the Rockies received in a trade with Oakland for Seth Smith, Juan Nicasio and Alex White. But those three shouldn't be set in stone. Though the Rockies traded a starter in Smith for Moscoso, the feeling here is that Moscoso's game will not translate well to Coors Field. He is an extreme fly ball pitcher which is fine in Oakland, but not so fine in Coors (but will be fine in three of the other NL West parks to be fair). Nicasio is coming back from a rather dramatic injury after getting hit with a batted ball last year. Nicasio looked terrific in his thirteen starts before the injury and if he can get back to that, would be a terrific benefit to the Rockies' chances.

Alex White seems to be the weakest link of this projected rotation followed closely by Moscoso. White did not have fun in his handful of appearances for the Rockies last year and does not project well. The two other contenders for the rotation are both fascinating. One is Drew Pomeranz, one of the pitchers involved in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal. Pomeranz ran into some bad luck in his starts last year and though his ERA was at 5.40, his FIP was 2.59. Pomeranz has looked terrific so far this spring and could win the job. The other is 49 year old, Jamie Moyer. Everybody is rooting for Moyer to make the team. You can't be a fan and not root for him and his 80 MPH fastball. Heck, he's be better than Aaron Cook was last year.

The bullpen situation isn't rosy. The closer is the vastly overlooked, Rafael Betancourt, who is going to be 37 in 2011. Four of the last five seasons for Betancourt have been fantastic and last year, he was brilliant. He struck out 10.54 batters per nine innings and only walked 1.16 batters per nine! That's great stuff. He will be better than the departed Huston Street. But the problem is that Street and Betancourt were better than Betancourt and whoever else is behind him. The relievers behind him are the southpaw, Rex Brothers, Mark Belisle, Josh Roenicke and Edgmer Escalona. 

Brothers had an excellent ERA and FIP last season and strikes out a LOT of batters. But he also walks a lot too. Expect a bit of a regression there. Belisle is reliable. Reynolds is effective when he doesn't give up the long ball. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often enough. Roenicke and Escalona only pitched a handful of games last season and that's scary.

As stated earlier, Baseball Prospectus predicts the Rockies will score 56 more runs than last year. Where will it come from? Marco Scutaro should be a major upgrade on Jonathan Herrera and Mark Ellis at second. Troy Tulowitzki is the best shortstop on the planet and should match his numbers from last year. Casey Blake takes over for Ty Wigginton at third and that seems a wash at best and considering Blake's age might be worse than a wash. And Todd Helton is still over at first. Expect a regression from Helton as he had what seemed like the last bloom of the rose last season.

The outfield is comprised of Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler and the newly acquired Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer should be an offensive upgrade in right and since Seth Smith wasn't great as an outfielder, Cuddyer shouldn't be much worse. Fowler is pretty much what we saw last year and should have no trouble duplicating his numbers. A healthy Carlos Gonzalez would help greatly as CarGo missed thirty games to injury last season.

The Rockies took a step backwards in the catching department. Chris Iannetta had a very good season but is replaced this season by Ramon Hernandez. While Hernandez is a good hitting catcher, the switch could cost the Rockies a win statistically. None of the backup options are appealing and least from this vantage point.

Jason Giambi still brings a potent bat from the bench. Tyler Colvin gets a fresh start and could spell any of the outfielders. He still needs to prove he can hit big league pitching though. Chris Nelson isn't much of a utility guy in the infield and neither is Chris Young in the outfield.

The Rockies are getting some buzz in sites around the Internet. But after spending several hours looking at this team, 82 wins seems about right. There are too many question marks about the rotation and the bullpen. The catching position has been downgraded and the additions of Scutaro and Cuddyer won't be enough to propel this team into contention. A lot is being made of the "make up" of the team and team chemistry and all that. But performance is where the Rockies will win or lose. And there just doesn't seem to be enough wins in this team.