Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Greetings, loyal readers! I wanted to let you all know that I am going to be a News Writer at SoxProspects.com. I will continue to update this blog (though perhaps not quite as frequently) with information and analysis covering all of baseball. I'm very excited for this chance, and I want to thank all of you who have read and given suggestions over the last few years.

Friday, November 18, 2011

New Toronto Blue Jays Uniforms are Excellent

Sorry about the mediocre quality of the photo, lifted from CP24, but it was the best one I could find. Anyhow, I like it a lot.

It has the word "Blue" back in it! The "Jays" uniform/logo never did it for me. Plus, the old alternate uniform being black? Never made sense to me. This logo seems like an excellent mix of an homage to their original logo, with the double-line lettering, and the maple leaf, acknowledging their status as Canada's Team.

Important note. The Blue Jays can be called Canada's Team because they are the only Major League Baseball team that plays in Canada. Unlike in America, where some team, usually the Dallas Cowboys, tries to claim to be America's Team. Only they aren't, because there are lots of other teams in America, and most importantly, lots more people who like other teams better than the team claiming to be America's Team. Especially when it pertains to the Cowboys. Does ANYONE actually like the Dallas Cowboys?


Ok, back to Canada's Team. As you can see from this video from the Blue Jays website, the new uniforms are great, looking like a modern version of their classic uniform. I can't see these getting anything other than universal acclaim. The split font/double-line lettering gives the Blue Jays a look that is instantly recognizable, and the alternate uniforms (usable both at home and the road), might be my second favorite in the game behind the Royals' powder blue number.

The Blue Jays' football counterparts, the Toronto Bills, are 5-4 this year, and I feel strongly that the upgrade in uniform is the biggest reason for their improvement. With that in mind, these new Blue Jay uniforms have to be what, at least a five game swing, right? I exaggerate, but only somewhat - they really do look sharp. Way to step up, Blue Jays!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez Trade Breakdown

When I first saw the news of the deal where the Royals sent outfielder Melky Cabrera to the Giants for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and minor leaguer Ryan Verdugo, my first thought was that it was a great deal for the Royals – they traded a mediocre outfielder coming off his best season for a high-upside power lefty coming off of a down year, a move that upgrades their rotation and opens up the center field spot in 2011 for Lorenzo Cain. It seemed like a classic case of buying low and selling high executed by Dayton Moore, and the opposite by Brian Sabean. I had this rated as a big ripoff by the Royals.

At second glance, though, I started to wonder. There were a lot of unanswered questions. Was Jonathan Sanchez really any sort of good bet to turn his career around? Is Melky Cabrera actually better than I’ve given him credit for? Is Lorenzo Cain good enough to play center in the majors? Did Dayton Moore actually trade an ex-Brave for a non-ex-Brave without the world collapsing into itself?

This is a pretty classic trade of two teams dealing from strengths to fill weaknesses. The Giants had the second best ERA by their starting pitchers in the National League, behind only the Phillies. They had four qualified starters, and of the four, the highest was Madison Bumgarner’s 3.21 ERA. It’s probably not fair to expect Ryan Vogelsong to duplicate his 2011 season, but Bumgarner along with Lincecum and Cain are probably the best 1-2-3 in baseball outside of Philadelphia. A “high-upside” fifth starter who they’ve been trying for years to develop was probably one of the luxuries Brian Sabean felt they couldn’t afford. That’s particularly true of the Giants, who had a .228/.299/.347 line from the CF position in 2011, the lowest OBP and OPS in the NL. Meanwhile, the Royals had the second worst starting pitcher ERA in the American League, and do have depth in the outfield.

Trading from strength for weakness alone doesn’t make a good trade though. The Phillies won’t be trading Cole Hamels for Lyle Overbay just because they have good starting pitching and need a first baseman for 2012. The trade also needs to be at least somewhat even, right?

First, Jonathan Sanchez. There will always be a demand for lefty power pitchers. That’s especially true when it’s a lefty with a K/9 of 9.4 in over 700 career innings, and a no-hitter on his resume. There’s no doubt that Sanchez has talent. In 2010, what appeared to be a breakout season, he allowed only 142 hits while striking out 205 in 193.1 innings. He also led the National League with 96 walks, but you take the good with the bad, right? That still left him with a K/BB over the magic 2.0 threshold. In 2011, though, he took a big step backward. The K/9 dropped from 9.5 to 9.1, the BB/9 leapt from a barely sustainable 4.5 to a totally untenable 5.9, causing his ERA to go from 3.07 to 4.26. Sanchez also missed significant time with a biceps injury, going on the DL from June 26 until August 1, then again from August 17 to the end of the year. It’s fair to assume that the biceps injury was negatively affecting the pitching, but still, this was a great disappointment coming off of a 2010 that seemed to be his big breakthrough. At the end of the year, Sanchez is left with an ERA+ of only 97 for his career with a K/BB ratio under 2.0.

Then, there’s Melky Cabera. I posted here earlier this year comparing Cabrera’s offense to the much more highly touted B.J. Upton. However, the point of that post wasn’t to praise Cabrera as much as it was to bury Upton. Cabrera did have a legitimately good season at the plate in 2011, by far the best of his career. That makes some sense though, as it was his age 26 season. A lot of the years when Cabrera kind of stunk for the Yankees, it’s important to keep in mind he was doing it at an age where most guys are in college. In 2011, Cabrera had a .305/.339/.470 slash line. The power was new – that slugging percentage of .470 blew away his previous career high of .416, and he set career highs not only in raw doubles and home runs, but also in the rate that he hit them. So, was this a breakout or a fluke? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are a couple of discouraging signs. Since it’s likely that the power increase was at least somewhat for real, it’s also likely that he was just hitting the ball harder in general. However, he’d never been close to that .335 BABIP before – for his career, he was at .293 going into 2011. On top of that, his walk rate was much lower than it had been previously. Once every 20 PA, down from one every 12. Considering the increase in his power stats, one might assume that he was just making more contact early in his at-bats, but his strike out rate was actually worse than his career rate. Bring his BABIP down from .335 to a more likely .315, and his slash line drops to .289/.322/.453.

Keep in mind. .289/.322/.453 is still a pretty solid center fielder, especially since for the Giants. Again, that position managed only a .228/.299/.347 line in 2011. Is Melky Cabrera really a center fielder though? According to Baseball-Reference.com, his dWAR in 2011 was -1.9. FanGraphs shows him with a -8.6 UZR, fifth worst in baseball. This is a major problem. When I compared Cabrera positively with B.J. Upton earlier in the year, that was an offense-only comparison. Upton is one of the better defensive centerfielders around, which is why he has so much more value than Cabrera. If we’re predicting him to have an OPS somewhere in the .775 range, that’s tough to take in a corner for most teams. It's possible Cabrera really is a tweener, without the glove to carry him in center or the bat to carry him at a corner. Though, in what is likely a fluke but deserves some attention, left fielders around baseball simply stunk in 2011 – only three teams got a .775 OPS out of the left field position. So, with that info, it's fair to say Cabrera is due more credit than he gets. Regarding the San Francisco Giants, the possible alternatives just don't seem to be all that strong. Melky Cabrera may not be an optimal choice in LF/CF, but he is an significant upgrade in San Fran.

If you clicked on that link of left field production, you notice that the Kansas City Royals were one of those three teams, getting an excellent year out of Alex Gordon, who finally blossomed this year. The Royals are committed to their youth movement with Lorenzo Cain (though it’s fair to note that Cain is only 20 months younger than Cabrera). Going into the offseason, many thought it would be Cain on the trading block, coming off a very strong minor league season. Reports linked him to the Braves in a potential Jair Jurrjens deal at the trading deadline. Dayton Moore is sticking with the rebuilding plan, though, and Cain’s .305/.377/.476 line in 671 Triple-A plate appearances shows that he’s earned his chance. 

In the interest of providing a complete analysis, know that Ryan Verdugo's future is in the bullpen. After some successful years in the low minors as a reliever, the Giants worked at converting him to starting in Double-A. The rise in home run rate and drop in strike out rate means a move back to the pen is forthcoming. With 167 strikeouts in 113 innings from 2008 to 2010 in the bullpen, it's not fair to write Verdugo off as a non-prospect, but he will turn 25 very early in the 2012 season and has not yet had success above Single-A. 

For the Royals, I think this was a no-brainer. They got what may end up being the best season of Melky Cabrera’s career in exchange for nothing, then spun him for a potentially good starting pitcher while giving his long-term replacement some useful seasoning in Triple-A. Dayton Moore did a great job here, and I think this move makes the Royals closer to being a contender.

However, the fact that it was definitely a good move for the Royals doesn’t mean it’s a bad one for the Giants. Sanchez is at best a fourth starter in their organization, and their outfield is dreadful, particularly with the news that Pat Burrell’s career is probably over. Melky Cabrera is an upgrade for them even if he regresses to where I think he will. The only way I could criticize the Giants is if I thought they could’ve gotten more for Sanchez. Perhaps it was a mistake to trade him coming off of a down year, and they could have brought him to camp and shown the world he was healthy, but the Giants are looking to contend in 2012. They need to have a roster of guys who can help them win in place on opening day, and not worry about showcasing pitching for other teams. The Giants are better after this trade than they were before it, which means Brian Sabean did his job.

Maybe it’s boring or too noncommittal to analyze a trade and say it was a sensible move for both teams, but that’s where I stand on this one.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Twins Dismiss GM Bill Smith

After using this space for a couple negative posts about the now-former Twins GM, I finally post about what I believe is a sensible move made by Bill Smith. He gets fired three days later.

On the most basic level, this move can't be described as shocking. With all due respect to the Red Sox and Braves, the Twins were 2011's most disappointing team. Harboring playoff hopes in spring training, they lost 99 games. When a team has a 31-game dropoff, management has to be seen as accountable, right? However, most of the narrative regarding the Twins' season seemed to revolve around the injury problems to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, while ignoring the dreadful trade history that led them to be so dependent on those two. Even the senseless dump of Delmon Young didn't seem to get much attention, even when Young was hitting home runs for a division rival in the playoffs. Long story short - while there were a lot of reasons to be blaming Bill Smith for the the terrible season the Twins were having, it didn't seem like many of the major news outlets were. 

Perhaps that's because the idea of the Twins firing their GM never occurred to anyone. If that's the case it's for good reason. (If you need to read this sentence twice, that's ok - I didn't believe it either.) The Minnesota Twins had never fired a General Manager before. I repeat. The. Minnesota. Twins. Had. Never. Fired. A. General. Manager. Calvin Griffith was owner and GM when he moved the team to Minnesota from Washington in 1961. He remained in that position until selling the Twins in 1984. Howard Fox was the interim GM until owner Carl Pohlad hired Andy McPhail to the position permanently. McPhail stayed on until 1994, when he resigned to take the Chicago Cubs job. Terry Ryan was hired to replace him, and Ryan stayed until 2007, when he resigned, citing burnout. So Bill Smith is the first Minnesota Twins GM to ever be fired. Ever the model of stability, Twins ownership has handed the reins back to Terry Ryan, at least on an interim basis.

While Smith had garnered great accolades as a talent evaluator before taking the GM job, his inability to properly assess value seems to have been his undoing. His failure wasn't necessarily trading the wrong players, just that he always seemed to trade players at the point when their value had cratered. Assessing the skill of a player is different from assessing the value of a player, and for all the renown Smith garnered in the Twins organization for the former, he never did seem to get a handle on the latter.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Twins and Matt Maloney are a Good Match

I've used a fair amount of this space to criticize Minnesota Twins GM Bill Smith. In the interests of fairness, I must say that his early offseason waiver acquisition of left-handed pitcher Matt Maloney seems like a sensible one. I don't think it's the kind of move that's going to vault the Twins back into contention on its own, but I do think it's the sort of low-level signing that mid-market teams need to be on the lookout for. Maloney and the Twins seem specifically to be a good pairing.

When you think of the prototypical Minnesota Twins starting pitcher over the last 15 years, what comes to mind? For me, it's a bunch of guys with middling stuff who succeed by pounding the strike zone. Sure, there were the three exceptional Johan Santana years from 2004 to 2006, where he did everything he's supposed to. But in general, when I think of Twins pitching, it's more in the Brad Radke or Kevin Slowey mode.

The concept of Twins starting pitchers as strike throwers is not a figment of our imaginations. In 2011, Twins pitchers finished with the sixth fewest walks in the American League. However, in the ten years previous, they finished third in walks one time (2003), second three times (2001, 2002 and 2007), and first the other SIX times. From 2004 until 2010, they had the fewest walks in the American League every year except one. In 2010, they only walked 383 batters all season, 69 fewer than the Seattle Mariners, who finished second. That number shot up to 480 in 2011, an increase of .6 every nine innings. The demise of the pinpoint control that was so long the standard in Minnesota didn't get talked about much simply because it came in a season where so many other things went wrong. If Twins had done everything else they'd done well in 2010, maybe we'd have been hearing a bunch of "why have Twins pitchers stopped throwing so many strikes" stories. 

If throwing strikes is the the qualification, Maloney is hired. In 80 major league innings, he has walked only 17 batters. In 516 Triple-A innings going back to 2007, he has only 108 walks. He fits in perfectly with the Twins mantra of pounding the strike zone, making batters earn their way onto first base.

Now, maybe some Cincinnati Reds fan is reading this, shaking his head and saying "wait a second - there's a lot more to pitching than throwing strikes. I've seen Matt Maloney enough over the past three years, and he stinks!" 

Those are both good points. There is obviously a lot more to pitching than simply not walking people. Josh Tomlin had the lowest walk rate in the American League this year, and he was only able to translate that into a mediocre 4.25 ERA. Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez was walking men at almost four times Tomlin's rate, and ended up with a 3.12 ERA. This is appropriate to Maloney who has a 5.40 ERA at the major league level, despite a BB/9 rate of under 2.0. Why is his ERA so high? Because he has allowed more home runs than walks - 18 in those 80 innings. Oof. 

So if Maloney gives up so many home runs, why would the Twins want him? There are two possible reasons. The first is that he Twins may believe that his high home run rate so far is a fluke, based in part on a disastrous 1.2 inning relief appearance against the Diamondbacks where he allowed three home runs. The second is that the Twins may be so desperate for pitching that they're willing to sign anyone who proves himself capable of throwing a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches. There is some truth, I think, to both of these suggestions.

Maloney's minor league home run rates are totally within the realm of acceptability. 48 home runs in those 516 Triple-A innings shows that he's been keeping the ball in the park at that level. There is some evidence that minor league hitters don't deal well with pitchers who change speeds and mix pitches well--which is why they're in the minor leagues. This tends to inflate the minor league numbers of some junkballers. So, perhaps Maloney is in the Lenny Dinardo category. Let's be fair, though - even Dinardo got 257 major league innings to prove he didn't have major league stuff. Often, those types of pitchers will see a jump in their walk rate once reaching the majors, which Maloney has not.

Maloney's short 2011 stint has some ugly numbers, based on some unsustainably unlucky rate states. A .408 BABIP? Home runs allowed on 22.6% of fly balls?? I don't think there are home runs on 22.6% of fly balls in the home run derby. Regression to the mean and a move from Great American Ballpark to the more pitcher-friendly Target Field will bring that down significantly. Two of the top three in HR/FB% among 100 pitchers were Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo - the ball was flying out of that place last year. Maybe Maloney's stuff makes him more prone to a high percentage of fly balls leaving the yard, but 12%-15% is probably the peak.

Matt Maloney pitching for Louisville against the Syracuse Chiefs.
With a K/BB ratio that's remained over 3.0 in the majors, (even during his crummy 2011 stint), ball in play that should improve by accident and a more friendly ballpark, what should we look for from Maloney in a Twins uniform? He has a 3.57 Triple-A ERA, and a 4.57 major league xFIP, so far. I think that 4.50 ERA range is a good estimate. That's not going to win him the Cy Young Award, but it would make him an improvement over several of the guys the Twins went through in 2011. 

Quick recommendation to the Twins management (who I assume will never see this) - PLEASE resist the urge to make Maloney a short/one-out reliever. His lack of a fastball has led to a total lack of any platoon advantage. There's nothing in his profile that suggests he'd be more successful out of the bullpen. If he's not in the starting rotation, he should either be a traditional "long reliever," or hanging out as insurance in Triple-A Rochester, where he can enjoy a DiBella's Sub while waiting for the call. Matt, I recommend the Dagwood. 

While Maloney isn't going to be any kind of franchise savior, I think Bill Smith has made a good move for a useful pitcher who can provide some depth and innings at somewhere slightly above replacement level. After an ugly 2011, the Twins need that.

Photo credit: "Matt Maloney pitching in Syracuse, NY" by BubbaFan, uploaded from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMatt_Maloney_2009.jpg