After a tedious month filled with plenty of patience and very little news, Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka finally broke the freeze, signing a 7 year/$155 million dollar deal with the New York Yankees. If you’ve been paying any attention at all this offseason, the Tanaka signing should come as no surprise. That much discussed luxury tax number, $189 million, they Yankees were hoping avoid was always a pipe dream and after the big money signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran, New York almost had to sign Tanaka to upgrade what appeared to be a league average pitching staff.
The pitching staff for the 2013 Minnesota Twins was positively abysmal a year ago. As a collective, the Twinkies ranked dead last in strikeout rate while simultaneously allowing their opponent’s to rack up more hits than any other staff in the league.
Things were so ugly a year ago that 10 different pitchers made at least 8 starts for Minnesota and just 2 of those 10 finished the season with a sub-4.00 ERA. Twins GM Terry Ryan knows that’s not a recipe for success, which is why he spent most of last week spending upwards of $70 million to shore up his rotation, adding veteran righties Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. The real question is, does that $73 million get the Twins any closer to an AL Central title?
I’m guessing the answer is no. Nolasco will do a solid job providing some strikeouts to a staff in desperate need of them and he does a nice job of keeping the ball in the park, but otherwise it’s difficult to find the positives when the Twins are paying him to be their ace. That being said, Nolasco is a huge improvement over everyone Ron Gardenhire sent to the mound a year ago. He’s the only pitcher on the team with legitimate strikeout stuff and he should eat up plenty of innings on a staff that badly needs a pitcher to do so.
The same goes for new #2 starter Phil Hughes, who should be rejoicing over the fact that he’s leaving the homer-happy Bronx for the spacious confines of Target Field. Hughes has allowed 1 homer per every 5.3 innings pitched in Yankee Stadium since his Major League debut, compared to 1 homer every 10.4 innings in every other park. Target Field, a notoriously deep park, should suit the fly ball happy Hughes nicely.
But a new ball park still doesn’t make Hughes a good pitcher. He still has the same plain, old vanilla fastball and his secondary stuff is mostly underdeveloped. Hughes, even at his best, is still just a league average pitcher.
His ERA+ since becoming a starter full-time is 9 points below the league average and if not for the Yankee offense propping him up for the past half-decade, Hughes would probably be a reliever by now. The righty is just 11-46 if his team scores fewer than 6 runs, which is something Minnesota was quite adept at a year ago. Unless Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano suddenly turn up next season, expect the losses to continue to pile up for Hughes and the Twins.
Washington pickpockets Fister from Detroit
A puzzling offseason in Detroit continued Monday when the Tigers shipped starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi and a couple of young arms. That move was followed by the the prohibitive signing of Joe Nathan, who will fill the closer roll in Detroit. It was the second surprise trade in a matter of weeks from general manager Dave Dombrowski, who appears hellbent on remaking these Tigers into a more flexible outfit.
But outside of flexibility, it’s difficult to see how these deals make the Tigers, a bona fide World Series contender, any better in 2014. Most of Lombardozzi’s value is tied up in his ability to play 2nd base, where Ian Kinsler figures to spend a majority of the time. His bat doesn’t really play in the outfield or at 3rd base, and even if you believe that Lombardozzi and Dirks could make a solid platoon in left field, it in no way justifies trading away one of the 10 to 20 best pitchers in baseball.
Don’t believe me? Take a look:
No matter which way you slice it, that’s a hell of a lot to give up for the quintessential replacement player (Lombardozzi), a 2nd year reliever in Ian Krol, and Double-A pitching prospect Robbie Ray. Maybe Dombrowski is hoping that Ray, the owner of a 3.36 ERA in 142 minor league innings a year ago, turns into another solid rotation piece, but even that line of thinking is odd. Detroit, as currently constructed, is built to win right now so why trade away a good pitcher in the hopes of getting one further down the road?
As for Washington’s perspective on the deal, one has to wonder how quickly GM Mike Rizzo said yes. Three seconds? Five seconds? Seriously, if he put any more thought into it I’d be disappointed. With one quick maneuver, Rizzo was able to improve his 2014 roster significantly without damaging Washington’s extended outlook. The Nats now have the deepest rotation in baseball to go along with a group of young and improving position players. With this much talent on hand, anything short of a deep October run will be viewed as a disappointment.
The price of pitch framing
Yesterday the Tampa Bay Rays announced that they finalized a 2 year/$4.5 million dollar deal with 38-year-old catcher Jose Molina and it may very well be the most interesting $4.5 million handed out this offseason. You may be asking yourself why would any team want to pay an over the hill backstop with bad knees and nothing left in his bat? Well the answers simple. It all comes down to inches, as in the ones Molina routinely adds to a pitcher’s strike zone each time he’s behind the dish.
According to baseballanalytics.org, since 2008, 13.4% of all pitches thrown to Molina that landed outside the strike zone have been called as strikes, which stands as the best mark in baseball over the time frame. That ability to stay quiet behind the plate shows up in the run column as well. According to Baseball Prospectus, Molina saved about 25 runs a year ago solely through his ability to gain an extra inch or two around the corner of the plate.
With Ryan Hanigan joining Molina behind the plate after yesterday’s trade, the Rays now have two of the top 10 framers in baseball behind the dish. Make no mistake, this is a downright brutal offensive pairing. There’s a very good chance they won’t combine for an OPS above .600, but the Rays don’t really seem to care. It’s a clear statement from the organization that they value the ability to get an extra inch or two around the plate over all others when they scour the free agent market for catchers.
Quick hits: Rockies addition
- GM Dan O’Dowd has a little bit of explaining to do following the slightly confusing Dexter Fowler trade. The soon to be 28-year-old is due $7.35 million next season, he’s still arbitration eligible, and he’s been as consistent as they come in Colorado. Fowler’s usually good for 120-140 games, an OPS of .780 or so as well as some solid centerfield defense. In exchange for 2 or 3 wins worth of value the Rockies will receive back-of-the-rotation fodder Jordan Lyles and defensive specialist Brandon Barnes.
-Lyles made at least 15 starts in each of the past 3 seasons for the Astros and he failed to post an ERA lower than 5 each year and the thought of him making 15-20 starts a year in Coors is downright scary. Barnes, for his part, is an excellent defensive outfielder but he’s downright abysmal everywhere else. He struck out in a quarter of his 450 or so plate appearances, while managing a meager 21 walks. It makes you wonder why O’Dowd didn’t hold out for a better package of players in exchange for Fowler.
- One quick though on the Astros: the new regime, led by Jeff Luhnow, has been absolutely nailing these smaller trades. Fowler is just the latest in a long line of minor victories for the Houston front office.
- The Rockies followed that move up by moving close to a deal with Justin Morneau. It looks like they’re going to pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million for the next 2 seasons, which could very well look like a steal when this wacky offseason concludes. Morneau should provide a solid glove and some good pop against right-handers when he’s in the lineup. Manager Walt Weiss may want to keep him out of the lineup against lefties however. Morneau has hit just .205 with 5 homers in the past 3 years.
With our first busy week of the offseason in the books, the 2013-14 Major League Baseball spending spree is on. We’ve seen Jhonny Peralta and Brian McCann reel in buku bucks by signing long-term deals with franchises that historically view themselves as contenders. Josh Johnson and Dan Haren have managed to nab some pretty pennies from NL West ball clubs, the Phillies made some interesting moves, and of course who could forget the monumental Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap. Why don’t we take a quick swing through some of last week’s newsworthy notes:
After spending the better part of the past few seasons climbing baseball’s Mount Everest only to run out of steam just shy of the peak, the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers have decided enough is enough. Those 90-95 win seasons and deep playoff runs that don’t quite bear fruit will no longer be tolerated. The time to go for it is now, and no move quite emphasizes that mindset than the Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap.
After dispatching both the Dodgers and Tigers in hard fought 6 game series, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals find themselves on the cusp of a title. And while this World Series match up may not have fans all over the country jumping for joy, the mood in St. Louis and Boston will reach a fevered pitch over the next week. So without further delay, let’s dive right in:
Originally published on highheatstats.com.
The ascension of the Pittsburgh Pirates, from two decade of losing to 94 wins and the NL Wild Card, was not an easy one. The franchise had to completely revamp everything, from they way they do business on the international market to the way they play on the field. Gone were the frugal Pirates of the past. In 2011, GM Neil Huntington and his mates scoured the high seas, spending a record $17 million in the amateur draft in order to turn the franchise around. And while many of those players (top pick Gerrit Cole aside) have yet to make an impact on the big league level, the message was sent. Pittsburgh was here to compete.
That aggressive front office approach in the draft has bled over into other areas of the franchise as well. After decades of doing everything in their power to avoid spending money on free agents, Pittsburgh opened up the coffers for Russell Martin, who was brought in on a 2 year/$17 million dollar deal to fortify what had previously been an extremely weak catching position. Along with Martin, veterans AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and Justin Morneau among others have been traded for in an effort to raise the roster’s overall talent level. And perhaps most importantly, modern-day analytical analysis has been embraced.
Nowhere is that new, modern approach to baseball more evident than in the Pirates’ commitment to the defensive shift. Pittsburgh was one of the shiftiest teams in baseball this season, using one defensive maneuver or another over 400 times. That ranks 2nd among all of the franchises currently in the playoffs, trailing only the original super-shifters, the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s a huge jump from 2012, when Pittsburgh shifted just 105 times and the numbers back up just how effective all those extra defensive movements were. Pittsburgh ranked 3rd in baseball as a team in defensive runs saved and they finished tied for 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, which is the percentage of balls put in play that are then converted into outs.
Take a look at Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement leader board for position players since 2010, you’ll notice plenty of familiar suspects among the top 10. There’s Miguel Cabrera sitting atop the pile, followed closely by Robinson Cano and Joey Votto. Andrew McCutchen and his long flowing locks sit in the middle, as do a pair of popular AL 3rd basemen. Baseball’s next legend Mike Trout sits near the bottom of the list of 10, despite having spent what equates to an entire season in the minors. Suspended slugger Ryan Braun rounds out the bottom of the group. Tucked in among those perennial All-Stars and highlight-making machines is one of the last guys you would ever suspect: Ben Zobrist.
The Rays’ super-utility All-Star has carved out a highly valuable, highly important role on Joe Maddon’s roster by acting as the franchise’s Swiss army knife. Do you need someone to cover 3rd base in order to give Evan Longoria a day off? Call on Zobrist. Do you need a right fielder until Wil Myers is good and ready for the big leagues? Zobrist. How about a middle infielder who can make all the plays? Zobrist, Zobrist, Zobrist. He affords Joe Maddon a level of flexibility that few other players in baseball history can match and he’s been doing it for years now.
One of the most frustrating experiences for any pitcher has to be the well-pitched loss. You know the type I’m talking about. It’s the kind of game that occurs when both pitchers are dealing and the smallest breakthrough; a soft single up the middle with a runner on 2nd or a botched grounder by an infielder for instance, can determine the outcome. Unfortunately in those circumstances, somebody has to take a tough luck loss, even if that day’s pitcher struck out 15 while only allowing one hit. Well, without further adieu, I present to you the tough luck losers of 2013:
After popping his 49th homer of the season against the Yankees on Tuesday night, slugger Chris Davis now stands just 1 blast shy of the Baltimore Orioles single-season record, set by Brady Anderson back in 1997. Davis still has an outside shot at making a run at Roger Maris’ AL record of 61 homers as well, but that’s looking a little bit more like wishful thinking as we wind toward October.
But even without the AL home run record, what Chris Davis has done this season has been nothing short of phenomenal. He’s entirely remade his swing, showed remarkable plate discipline, and perhaps most importantly, Davis has finally figured out how to hit an off-speed pitch.
“Yadi knows everything about every single hitter, exactly what to throw. If you execute your pitches and throw them where he wants the ball, you’re going to get hitters out, have a better ERA, win the game. I seriously believe that all the success I’ve had is totally on him.” – St. Louis Cardinals’ rookie Shelby Miller
“It’s not just instinct. It’s sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustment based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do. That’s art.” – Former manager Tony La Russa
“With him catching me, I never had to worry. It’s never like he was back there guessing. He gets to know his pitchers. He got to know me, what I like to do, my strengths and weaknesses. When I got into trouble, what do we need to do to get me out of it? Those are the things he not only has to remember for one guy, but a whole staff. The ability to do that is pretty amazing.” – Milwaukee Brewers’ pitcher Kyle Lohse
The quotes listed above are just a small sampling of the praise that has generally rained down on Yadier Molina over the past 5 seasons or so. He’s widely regarded as the best defensive catcher in baseball thanks to his sublime framing skills, his Howitzer arm, and a glove so soft that Adam Wainwright once described it as a pillow. But can the mighty Molina really lower a pitcher’s ERA while taking runs off the board, as Shelby Miller and so many others claim? Or is there something else at work here? Let’s dive into the data to see if we can catch a glimpse at the inner workings of St. Louis’ finest: