Saturday, March 09, 2013

Morrow and Johnson quite the one-two punch

Josh Johnson faced a split squad Braves team in Florida yesterday. But he still had to face the two Upton brothers and Heyward. The results were about as impressive as you could ask for. He pitched three and two-thirds innings and yielded no hits and no walks and struck out five. He has yet to walk a batter this spring and his strikeout to walk ratio is eight to zero. Yes, it is spring and it doesn't count. But, dang, that is impressive. Brandon Morrow has a five to one strikeout to walk ratio this spring. If these two stay healthy, the Toronto Blue Jays could have one of the best one-two punches in baseball.

The knock on Josh Johnson for all these years is that he could not stay healthy. And indeed, four of his eight seasons have included him missing significant time. But, boy, when he has been healthy, he has been impressive. Well...that is until 2012. Suddenly, he looked quite ordinary despite staying healthy all of 2012. But his season was not quite as bad as the 8-14 record and the 3.81 ERA indicated. His FIP was lower at 3.40 and his WHIP was fairly respectable at 1.280.

Johnson's struggles could have been trying to rebound from only making nine appearances from the year before. Now removed a year from his injury troubles of 2011, Johnson could be poised to start reeling off the kind of numbers that made everyone drool for a few seasons.

I have been a champion of Brandon Morrow for years now. And he has also had some injury issues. He missed twelve more starts in 2012. But in the 21 starts he did make, he started to show that he was really putting it together. I've always thought his stuff was better than his results. He throws six different pitches and five of them are above average. His fastball hums along with an average over 93 MPH.

And like I said, the results started to show last year. His WHIP was 1.115, an excellent number. He only gave up 7.1 hits per nine innings. His ERA was probably a little deceiving at 2.96 as his FIP was seventy-five points higher due mostly to a very low BABIP and a bit of a dip in his strikeout rate.

But I believe in this guy and I always have. So, as I am looking at the pair of Morrow and Johnson, I see a dynamic duo waiting to happen. As always, the health of the pair will be a key. But if both stay healthy? Look out.

And if that happens with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle behind them, this Blue Jays team suddenly looks quite dangerous. The Blue Jays have to forget the money they have invested in Rickey Romero and scrap him from the rotation. Romero's spring numbers look as bad as his numbers from last season. He just has nothing in his bag of tricks that can get people out right now. J.A. Happ can probably hold the fifth position down better than Romero at this point. It wouldn't take much.

But again, how can Toronto fans not be excited? If Dickey is anywhere close to where he was last year and Morrow and Johnson can blow through lineups, this team is silly in how good it can be. Most people look at the Marlins last year and point to how a good team on paper can fall flat in the season. But the same can be said the other way around. The Nationals were good on paper and were even more terrific in the season. Sometimes the talent pans out to what it looks like it should.

The Blue Jays look like that kind of team. And it all starts with Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson. The two are ridiculously talented. They just need to put it together for one full season of healthy pitching. Both are good enough to win a Cy Young Award. If one of them does, remember that I'll be saying, "Told you so."

Friday, March 08, 2013

Concerns about David Ortiz

David Ortiz has appeared on these "pages" more than just about any other player. For four straight years there was the ongoing debate about whether the Red Sox should extend him or not. At the beginning of that run, the answer was always no because of his size and his age. And sure enough, and with wisdom, the Red Sox kept bringing him back with only one year contracts. This off season, I refrained from my usual speculation, probably because the Red Sox made their decision early and for the first time, extended him two seasons instead of one. This break from their status quo on Ortiz might come back to haunt them.

David Ortiz is not playing this spring. In fact, he is just gingerly running around the bases. The Achilles tendon he hurt at the end of 2011 is still giving him problems. There are new reports now that he will not be ready for opening day. There are other reports that he is currently 260 pounds. All of which add up to a great big deal of concern that the greatest designated hitter of his era could be a loud non-factor this season.

Ortiz was never really well last season. After he hit the ball, watching him run the bases was downright painful. Every time I saw him, I half expected him to collapse in a heap. While he never did, he only played ninety games and as it became clear the Red Sox were stuck in the mud for the 2012 season, Ortiz shut it down completely.

The expectation was that he would come back this season and be healthier. But he is not. He seems to be in the same place as he was last year when the season ended. He is not as young as Ryan Howard, who has also returned from a similar injury. Howard may never be the same again either, but Howard has done a good job at taking care of himself and keeping as much pressure off his legs as possible. Ortiz looks like a caricature of Babe Ruth except he doesn't have the spindly legs.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, they picked up Mike Napoli in the off season. Napoli can replace some of Ortiz's production if Ortiz was to miss an extended period of time. But using Napoli at the DH position weakens the Red Sox' offense because it means Daniel Nava or Mike Carp will have to play first base. The Red Sox are infinitely scarier with both Ortiz in the lineup with Napoli and a lot less scary with one of them out.

Ortiz's leg problems did not affect his ability to hit last year, which is surprising. A hitter gets much of his torque from the lower body. But when Ortiz was able to hit, he creamed the ball. His 1.026 OPS in his 383 plate appearances was remarkable, especially in this day and age of pitching and computer-fed fielding positioning. His hitting hearkened back to his salad days of 2006 and 2007.

There is not a concern that Ortiz can still hit. Whatever ailed his hitting in 2009 has been long gone and his numbers have been superb from 2010 onward. But he has to be able to run after he hits the ball. If it was just a bum knee, then that is one thing. But an Achilles tendon is debilitating when injured and Ortiz looks debilitated. How did he pass a physical?

I should have written about Ortiz after the season last season. I should have had a fifth year of, "should the Sox sign him," but I missed the boat. After a 90 game season last year, I would have either said no or another one year contract. The Red Sox felt they had to make a statement after such a horrid season and Ortiz's two year extension was such a statement. It may turn out to be one which should never have been uttered.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Dustin, Justin and Jesús - ready to explode?

What happens when you trade a big chip for a can't miss prospect, a can't miss prospect for another can't miss prospect, and draft a guy first round and put all these hot prospects all in one lineup? Well, if you are the Seattle Mariners and their fans, you watched all three collectively flop in 2012. We, of course, are talking about Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesús Montero.  None of the three topped the .300 mark in on-base percentage. And Smoak and Montéro finished below ground in the fWAR department. Can the trio reverse their fortunes in 2013?

Spring Training is such an illusion. The games don't count. Pitchers of every stripe are thrown out there to either get experience or just work on some pitches. Plus, a large number of teams, including the Mariners, now train in Arizona where the ball just sails through the hot, dry air making the offensive numbers dubious at best.

All those disclaimers aside, it is very encouraging to see what Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesús Montéro are doing this spring. Smoak and Montéro are both batting .500 with half of their hits being of the extra base variety. Ackley is batting .400. Certainly, spring training is no predictor about regular season success. But success sometimes builds on itself and there is something to the group dynamic where success is contagious. Maybe we have something here.

Consider also that Safeco Field is going to have new dimensions this year that could favor Smoak and Montero specifically and Ackley occasionally. Montéro hit .295 on the road last season and .227. Smoak hit 197 at home in 2012 and .235 on the road. Ackley had ten homers on the road and only two at home. Safeco definitely got into these players' heads. The differences in the dimensions are not drastically different. But they will be different enough to change the mindset.

Another thing to look at is BABIP. Dustin Ackley had a BABIP of .265 in 2012. Justin Smoak's BABIP was an insanely low .242. Even Montéro's .292 was a bit on the low side. Perhaps some of that is bad contact. But perhaps some of that is bad luck and bad approaches too. If all three just have league average BABIPs, there is will be vast improvement.

Dustin Ackley is a former first round draft pick. In his minor league career, he showed a far higher walk percentage and lower strikeout percentage than last year's numbers. He has good plate discipline and only swung at 24% of pitches outside the strike zone last season. His walk totals will improve and the strikeouts will come down. Knowing where he was drafted, Ackley will have every chance to turn things around.

Montéro was the big chip in the trade with the Yankees that cost them one of their best young arms. He will get every opportunity to turn things around too. With John Jaso gone, Montéro is being depended on to catch, which is still quite the dicey proposition. But the gut here says that he is going to explode offensively a year removed from the shock of switching coastlines and leaving the only organization he had known.

Justin Smoak is probably on his last "Get Out of Jail Free" card and will need to either start showing what he can do or fade away into the sunset. He is only 25 and can still turn it around. If this spring is any indication, he looks like he's figured some things out.

Time will tell on these three. But, without being overly analytic here, all three could jell this season and make this a much more fun season for the long-suffering Mariner fans.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Flagrant Fan site turns ten years old

Heh. I can't even get an anniversary right. For weeks now, I have been planning a big birthday celebration as this site hits the ten year old mark. Going back to my very first posts here, I could have sworn the date was March 6, 2003. But I actually wrote my first post on March 5, 2003. So perhaps if I write this in the evening, both bases will be covered. Anyway, the main point here is that I've been plugging away here for a decade now.

When this site started, it took me months just to figure out how to put headings on the posts. So the first hundred or so went without headings. How's that for flying solo while sitting backwards in the pilot seat?

I also remember that I was pretty much doing things for myself with the hope that a few lost souls might find their way here. For years, a good month was a hundred page hits. But that was okay. A few cool people became early readers. Navin Vaswani was an early follower. That was cool.

That first year, I wrote something like 241 posts from March to December. Things got a bit sketchy for a few years after that. I don't remember why I put it up for a while. I wish I hadn't. But it is what it is. Perhaps it was because I had a wonderful job and was making big money. Who knows. But in 2008, that big job went away and I found myself unemployed for four years. My writing sort of became an obsession.

I wrote 639 posts in 2009, 761 in 2010 and 695 in 2011. I slacked off in 2012 to 499. And if you are at least a little familiar with the site, I do not write little ditties (about Jack and Diane). While I am not a Joe Posnanski, I tend to write longer posts. So that is a lot of writing.

I am employed again and writing has become a challenge. But when I write it, they will come. Where 100 page hits in a month was a good month, the site often reaches 100 hits in an hour. That is very gratifying. The commitment has somewhat paid off as I also write now for It's About the Money, Stupid, MLB Dirt and for the e-magazine, Big Leagues Magazine.

The commitment also led me to the Baseball Bloggers Association. I am honored and grateful to be the current president of the General Chapter of that organization. I am also up to 935 followers on Twitter. How the heck did that happen?

All this is because of two things. First, baseball has been (along with the Beatles), one of the underpinning story lines of my life. Through the good times and the bad times, there has always been baseball. Secondly, God blessed me with the ability to write and I enjoy it. Perhaps using that God-given gift to write about something trivial like baseball is a frittering away of that gift. It might seem that way.

But writing transcends baseball when done so regularly. Even baseball writers touch on common life themes and can make a difference in people's lives. I am a high road kind of guy. I believe in forgiveness and in treating people well. Reaching a wide audience regularly with those beliefs girding the writing perhaps rubs off here and there. If so, great. If not, as long as you enjoy the baseball stuff, it's all good.

So much has changed in ten years! Consider that when this blog was born:
It was a different world then. Twitter would not be invented for three more years (in March of 2006), and Facebook was a year away from its initial launch. Steroids were just starting to be a story. And the iPhone was four years away.

Here are some of my favorite posts over the years:
It's been a lot of fun. And the most rewarding part has been you, the readers. Thank you for reading all these years. And just for you, to help celebrate this event, here is a little contest. Name the four players who have played all nine positions in the same game. The hint is that you can find the answer by searching this blog because I have written about it. DO NOT PUT THE ANSWER IN THE COMMENTS. If you do, that ruins the contest and makes it null and void. Instead, send me an e-mail with your answer. The fifth correct answer will receive a 1987 Topps (#150) Wade Boggs baseball card. Which reminds me of another favorite post. It is a crime that the Red Sox have not retired Wade Boggs' number.

Thank you again. I am not done. Not by a long shot.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Don't forget about Dustin Pedroia

Since 2008, Dustin Pedroia has taken turns with the Yankees' Cano to finish in the top spot as baseball's top second baseman. But a June injury in 2012 and some oddball stats combined with a dismal season for the Red Sox to push Pedroia out of people's minds when considering the great second basemen of this era. That would be a mistake. The expectation here is that he will again take his rightful place and push Cano for the top spot again in 2013.

Pedroia ended in 2012 with his lowest on-base percentage and OPS of his career. But if you look at his season a year ago with a microscope, his numbers suffered because he probably played through an injury suffered in June that finally forced him to take some time off in July. June was a wasteland for Pedroia as he had a .538 OPS for the month. And when he only played 15 games in July, he posted all of a .295 on-base percentage.

The second baseman tried to play through his injury because that is the way he is. It was a mistake and it colored his season.

Just consider how his 2012 ended. During August and September, Pedroia had a triple slash line of, .330/.392/.518. But because of his June and July, the six different projection systems audited for this piece have projected he finishes below his career averages for all three items of that triple slash line and below his career wOBA. While it is understood that these projection systems spit out the data that is put in them and crunch out the numbers, the anomalies of his June and July are not accounted.

And the computers are not the only things that have downplayed Pedroia. There just isn't the buzz about him that there used to be. Part of that perhaps is that he got lost in the hoopla of the Red Sox the way they ended in 2011 and with what happened in 2012. But part of it is also that he missed a significant portion of 2010 and then had a season in 2012 that fell short of his previous standards.

And his 2012 had a few other weird things that happened statistically. His rate of swinging at pitches out of the strike zone in 2012 (O-swing) was below his career average. His overall swing percentage was also below his career average. His strikeout rate was also the lowest in three years. Despite this, his walk percentage fell from 10.4% in 2009, 10.5% in 2010 and 11.8% in 2011 to just 7.7% in 2012. That seems odd, doesn't it?

Taking a look at what he did with any counts where he reached three balls shows the difference. In 2011, Pedroia had 172 plate appearances where the count reached three balls. He walked 86 of those times or 50%. The relates to his career average of walking 45.5% of the time his count reached three balls. But in 2012, his count reached three balls 135 times and he walked only 48 of those times for a 35.5% rate.

Either this shows some sort of change in his approach (trying to do too much to help a bad club?) or it's just a one season fluke. The latter seems more the case. The bottom line of all this discussion is that his walk rate should bounce back to the 10% area where he has been the prior three seasons. All projections seem to agree with that belief at least.

Like all players in baseball, Pedroia will be as good in 2013 as his health allows. If he stays healthy, he is going to rejoin the debate on which second baseman is the best in baseball. The prediction here is that he will beat his projections and have a typical terrific Pedroia season.