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What Bud Black Lost the Padres

With the James Shields signing the Padres forfeited their first round pick. But it didn’t have to be this way. Having one of the 10 worst records in the league will gets you a protected pick. The Padres missed the cut by one win.

Had they lost one more game last season they would have finished tied with the Reds at 76 wins. The tiebreaker in this situation is the record from the previous year. The Reds won 90 games in 2013. I don’t think I have to tell you the Padres failed to top that. They would have had the number 11 overall pick (because the Astros failed to sign Brady Aiken last year) and could have signed James Shields without penalty.

But the hard taco shell filled with manure that was the 2014 Padres would not cooperate. By some shitty miracle the team managed to play better in the second half despite allowing Jeff Francoeur, Brooks Conrad, Abraham Almonte and Chris Nelson (a group of players I referred to as the Tanking Crew) to leave streaks on the roster, and despite allowing Alexi Amarista to lead the team in games played.

The faintest mirage that this team was in the hunt for the second Wild Card spot appeared on the horizon for a shimmering second, and that was too much for Bud Black. His hopeless days had made him too eager to see a change coming. He thought he did and never turned back.

When rosters expanded in September the team called up young players that should have gotten playing time regardless of performance. Jace Peterson and Rymer Liriano should have been allowed to take their lumps. But Bud was managing to win, even when it was crystal clear there was no way back into the race.

He tinkered. He played matchups and platoons and kept hot hitters in and chucked in defensive replacements at the ends of close games. His goals were his own. He was not acting in accordance with the needs of the organization. Nobody would have faulted him for letting the callups flail. He could have done it all under the guise of allowing young players to grow, allowing the front office a chance to evaluate those young players.

I know it sounds bad, but it’s okay to root for a negative result today if it helps your organization for years to come. It is also perfectly reasonable to be furious with a manager for trying to win meaningless games when those wins hurt the organization. It is even okay to blame him for the 1 win difference between a protected and unprotected first round pick.

I do.

The number 11 pick is worth about $28.8MM according to the Hardball Times. It can get you quality players like the Padres have drafted at number 13 overall the last two years. Players like our best prospect (Hunter Renfroe) and a chip valuable enough to land us Wil Myers (Trea Turner).

Luckily the 2015 Padres shouldn’t even be close to having a protected pick, but we’ve got our eye on you, Buddy, and we’re paying close attention to who gets drafted 11th in 2015. Their career is on you.

 

[RA ROWE]

Austin Hedges Won’t Hit

When baseball writers started watching Austin Hedges in preparation for the 2011 MLB Draft, pants began to tighten everywhere. If his elite defense and his 6-1 frame weren’t enough to send prospect analysts and pro scouts into full swoon mode, his makeup, work ethic and intelligence surely did. In fact, people got so carried away with all that was (and still is) right with Hedges, they thought, “well there’s no way he won’t figure out how to hit, he’s just so dreamy.”

After consistently underwhelming with the bat outside of a solid season in the Midwest League (full season single-A ball) in 2012, his face has appeared on the cover of Prospect Geek Tiger Beat less and less frequently.

People who are still bullish on Hedges often cite Yadier Molina as the example of a great defensive catcher who learned how to hit in the Major Leagues. I am here today to take exception with that stance and to explain why that will not happen with Hedges and how even if he improves at the same rate as Yadier Molina, that doesn’t mean he will become Yadier Molina.

The most important thing to consider when projecting the possibility that Austin Hedges will improve enough to be serviceable for the Padres, is the fundamental difference between his skill set and someone like Yadier Molina’s. The difference is simple but enormous.

Yadier Molina has the ability to hit the ball extraordinarily often and Austin Hedges does not.

In 2004, at age 21, Yadier Molina had 150 PA at AAA Memphis. He struck out less than 10% of the time. In his whole minor league career Yadi struck out in only 10.27% of his plate appearances. He always had the ability to make contact. He later translated that ability into the skill of making more meaningful contact, while playing at the Big League level.

This natural ability was the foundation of his progress. Hedges lacks that ability, that foundation.

Last year, at age 21, Austin Hedges struck out 19.5% of the time, twice as often as Molina at the same age, and at a lower level of the minors. This K rate pushed his career minor league mark to 17.6%. He is hitting the ball less often as he faces better pitching.

Molina slashed .281/.338/.373 in minor league ball. Hedges has managed .251/.311/.382. Once Yadi got to the big leagues his offense took a few years to improve to the level we hope, in our wildest dreams, that Hedges might attain.

Molina’s career line in the MLB is, however… awfully similar to his career minor league numbers.

Molina has slashed .284/.339/.402 for the Cardinals. Compared to his MiLB numbers, he’s essentially been flat in terms of BA and OBP, with a 7.8% improvement in slugging. Every player is different, but I think most analysts now agree that Hedges’ bat won’t progress significantly from where it is now. However, many think he has the ability to add power. So let’s be extremely generous for the purpose of this exercise and envision a situation where Hedges miraculously maintains his minor league AVG and OBP while also adding the same SLG boost that Molina achieved.

That puts Hedges at .251/.340/.412. If he gets there, his .742 OPS puts him at about the level of Wilin Rosario’s 2014 season at the plate. Combined with elite defense, we’re talking about him landing around 2 WAR.

Again, that is based on the most optimistic assessment of what is reasonably possible for Hedges.

But if you stray from the Molina comparison as I tend to, due to the fact that he is extremely unique, and you think more carefully about why catchers tend to develop more slowly at the plate, you run into another reason why Hedges probably won’t get better.

A lot of catchers do develop more slowly on offense, but why? It’s because they are busy learning to catch and throw and call a game. Now, I’m sure Hedges has had to come along in calling a game, but defensively he was touted as being near Major League ready on draft day. He simply didn’t have as much to learn as other prep backstops.

This means, that for much of his career, the emphasis with Hedges has been on progressing at the dish, rather than behind it. And he hasn’t, which is the next hole in the “he’ll hit” argument. As he has climbed the ladder, his production has gotten worse. He was 20% above average in 2012, 2% above average in 2013 before a short stint in AA. Then in his first meaningful sample at AA, he was 33% below average. For almost every hitter, entering the Major Leagues means another big divot in their numbers. Expecting Hedges to maintain that slash line I quoted earlier is at the precise edge of what is reasonable, but it is incredibly unlikely. He hasn’t even shown he can approach it at AA.

Now, it warrants mentioning that Hedges was 3.1 years younger than the weighted average of that league (per Baseball Reference). But time is about the only thing on Hedges’ side and people around baseball are steadily trickling off the bandwagon as they realize that.

In Kiley McDaniels’ recent article on Padres prospects over at Fangraphs, he included two troubling quotes from people outside of the Padres organization.

“(The bat) could be really light…I started to get nervous about the bat and wondered if he was even a big league backup”

“He’s more like Drew Butera than people want to admit.”

So I skated on over to Butera’s fangraphs page and noticed that in a taste of AA in 2008 very similar to Hedges’ own in 2014, Butera actually produced a season just 20% below average by wRC+, as compared with Hedges’ 33% below. Granted, Butera was 24 at the time, but the substance of the comparison is apt: Austin Hedges is probably not going to be a Major League regular.

While his defense is eye popping, having followed Hedges closely and having seen him flail at the plate in person several times over the last couple years has me thinking one thing: I don’t see it. It sounds like other people are realizing they don’t see it either. If you still think there is a chance, I’m sorry in advance for how disappointed you will almost asuredly be.

But let’s not fret too much. Let us instead adjust our gaze in the direction of Hunter Renfroe. It’s where all the loud sounds are coming from.

 

[R.A. ROWE]

 

Reflections on the Dawn of Preller

I don’t think I need to convince anyone of the upside the Padres have added this offseason.

If Justin Upton, Derek Norris and Matt Kemp produce at the same level as they did in 2014, they will be better than any Padres offensive top three since 2004, when Mark Loretta, Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin all notched a 129 wRC+ or higher.

If Will Middlebrooks can turn himself around, he could provide as much offensive value as Pablo Sandoval did in 2014 (111 wRC+), while providing adequate defense.

Wil Myers clearly has the ability to be an All Star and produced near that level in the big leagues during his rookie season. Many attribute his down sophomore campaign to nagging injuries, and even typically conservative projection systems like Steamer, which can’t truly account for injuries, think he’ll bounce back significantly.

It’s obvious that this Padres roster has the potential to go to the postseason and it’s important to acknowledge that upside. But it’s equally important to acknowledge the risk associated with this upside.

Kemp has arthritic hips and his defensive stats caved in last season, even as he got better and better at the dish as the season wore on. And we had to give up some serious upside in Yasmani Grandal in order to bring him into the fold.

Norris was bad after the All Star break. As his BABIP regressed to the mean, his BB% was cut nearly in half and his ISO dropped over 100 points.

Middlebrooks and Myers may have produced the best seasons of their careers as rookies, and may never recapture their initial success, with the league having built an effective scouting report against them.

Upton stands a good chance of being a free agent at season’s end.

AJ Preller knows there is risk, but decided to take it on, in order to put together a roster with meaningful upside. The aggressiveness of the terraforming he has undertaken with the Padres forces us to see that he is not afraid to do so. And to me, that’s the real success of the Padres offseason.

Prior to what I have dubbed the Dawn of Preller (the flurry of activity AJ unleashed on the baseball world), the Padres had been obsessed with retaining as many safe, low ceiling players as possible, on the off chance that one of them might surprise us all by producing more than expected. Players like Jace Peterson, Joe Weiland and Reymond Fuentes were sure bets to be utility players, fifth starters and fourth outfielders with a slim chance to be slightly better than that, and that used to scare the Padres away from trading them.

Even scarier to part with were the prospects that had a chance to be above average because of their natural ability, but whom had never actually produced at any level. Players like Dustin Peterson and Max Fried would never have been traded for high upside talent, because of the remote chance they would figure out how to actually succeed in the game, instead of just impressing with raw ability and good bodies.

Regardless of how the team produces on the field this year, and regardless of whether Max Fried becomes a number two starter some day, Preller has demonstrated that he is not afraid of doing what is necessary (not just what is ideal) to generate a roster of major league talent with significant potential.

The end result is that now we get to worry about whether players like Myers, Kemp, Norris, Upton and Middlebrooks will do it again, or keep doing what they are doing, instead of wondering if players like Mallex Smith and Jake Bauers will ever do it at all.

That’s a damn good trade and a sign that the Dawn of Preller is truly upon us.

 

[RA Rowe]

 

 

Scouting the AFL: Brandon Nimmo

I recently made my annual trip to the Arizona Fall League. I love the Fall League. If you’ve never been, it is the true hidden gem of pro baseball. If you like Spring Training, you’ll love the fall league. The games don’t matter, so players are loose, but they are working on stuff or making up for lost at bats or innings if they missed time due to injury, and these are premium talents, so these are still tight baseball games played at a very high level. The weather in Phoenix in October and November is absolutely perfect and Fall League day games are attended by around 200-800 people who really love baseball and 100 scouts. Plus tickets are $8. All of this combines to afford one the opportunity to spread out and soak up a terrific experience in a most leisurely manner.

It also allows you to play scout, if you’re so inclined (I am). I always enjoy breaking down prospects when I get to see them live, but I’ve never filled out “formalized” scouting reports before, so this year I figured I’d give it a shot.

Player
Brandon Nimmo, 21
Center fielder
New York Mets
6’3″/206

Tools (Present/Future)
Bat – 60/65
Power – 50/60
Running – 60/55
Baserunning – 60/60
Arm str – 45/45
Arm acc – 65/65
Field – 60/55
Range – 55 in center 65 on a corner
Approach – 55/65
Recognition – 60/60
Type – Spray

Physical description
Looks a lot like Logan Morrison from afar, but with the leaner frame of a younger player. 6’3 with square shoulders but average size hips. Long arms. Athletic. Smooth, to the point that it actually makes him look like he is not explosive.

Strength(s)
Good recognition and contact skills. Knows how to put together and at bat. Doesn’t get fooled. Gets a good jump in the outfield. Takes good routes. Effortlessly made two long runs to catch balls at the track in right center. (I only saw him go to his left).

Weakness(es)
The arm is clearly sub-standard. His footwork has gotten complicated to accommodate this, it takes him some time to get rid of the baseball. Had three chances to throw runners out at home from shallow CF and hopped soft throws each time.

Summary
Definite MLB prospect. Didn’t happen to show any power in the game I saw, looked more like a line drive guy at this stage, but the frame is big and the bat is of quality, which suggests he should at least approach average power at some point. His defense is above average in center at present, but depending on how much he fills out he could slow down a tick and become more of an average defender in center, (plus in a corner). I think Nick Markakis and Christian Yelich are decent offensive comps.

[RA ROWE]

Spending is Saving on Yasmani Tomas

The average fan probably thinks of Cuban outfielder Yasmani Tomas like any other free agent bat, and average fans want the Padres to sign a free agent bat, like they have wanted for a long time. But 15 years of putrid offensive production, unanswered by the front office, isn’t the only reason they should do so.

Most importantly, Tomas will be a great deal. True, Cuban players aren’t the bargain they were when Yasiel Puig signed for only $6MM per year for 7 seasons (gee, doesn’t it seem like the Padres could have afforded that?), but they are still the best discount item out there when you compare them to MLB free agents.

Tomas will likely get a deal a significantly richer than countryman 27 year-old OF Rusney Castillo, who signed for 7/$72MM. From a skills perspective, it seems Castillo, while possessing some raw power, really won’t drive the ball in games very often, because his swing will generate more line drives than loft on low pitches (a la Yonder Alonso).

Given his bat (superior to Castillo’s) and age (23), we’re likely approaching a $100MM contract for seven or eight seasons of work, especially considering the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets are all said to be in on the slugger.

Let’s put the average annual value at $13MM per season for Tomas.

What does $13MM buy you in today’s free agent market? Let’s take a look at some guys who signed contracts last off-season to find out.

Thirteen million dollars is less than a rapidly declining 33 year-old Curtis Granderson makes to put up numbers that barely breach replacement level (0.7 WAR). For a familiar reference point, Cameron Maybin has put up that same WAR this year in approximately half a season, meaning Maybin is twice as good as Granderson, when on the field.

That’s also less than Tim Lincecum made this year to be a mascot for the Giants, while getting shelled out of their rotation (-0.2 WAR).

All in all, the price of a “Win” as defined by WAR was about $6.5MM last offseason. By that math, if Tomas makes $13MM per year, all he has to do to avoid bust status, is be worth the same level of production as Dioner Navarro or Jordy Mercer. Both of those players have generated 2.1 WAR this season.

Even flawed and aging impact Major League free agents like Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin Soo Choo make around $20MM a year to get worse over the course of their contracts.

Now, Tomas isn’t without risk. Obviously, he has flaws like nearly every player.  He is said to need some fine tuning in his approach, and as a huge kid at 6’4″ 240, he will probably end up at first base. But the power sounds legit and he makes consistent contact. He also moves pretty well for a big man (at least for now), according to Castillo, who also had nice things to say about his makeup.

But in Tomas, what you will almost certainly end up with is a guy who gets better as his contract matures, and who only needs to produce like Howie Kendrick has this season to give his team a 50% “savings” per Win.

In the position the Padres are in, they need to pursue as many high ROI talent acquisition opportunities as they possibly can. And a big bat in LF would be a great start.  Moreover, it would be negligent to let another great bargain, like Puig, Jose Abreu, or Yoenis Cespedes, which the Padres can easily afford, slip away to one of the juggernauts just because they’re intimidated.

[RA ROWE]

The 2014-15 Padres Offseason in Reality

With the Padres now beginning to shut the toilet on 2014  and A.J. “Heaven-sent” Preller beginning his tenure,  the usual nuggets of filth about how we should “trade for a proven bat” have begun sloshing around as the garbage truck drives off with them. And another seasonal favorite returns as the familiar refrain emanates from a chorus of worms: “sign a free agent hitter.”

I want to know something. How is grabbing a solid major leaguer or two supposed offset the fact that the Padres only have two position player roles that might qualify as “solidified” for a playoff caliber team? And by roles, I mean just that, we’re talking about…

1) Platoon left fielder: Seth Smith
2) Backup catcher: Rene Rivera

The primary candidates to fill the rest of the positions in the field are almost all entering the stage in their careers where they either prove they’re Major Leaguers or they’re gone. Nearly all of them also have to prove they can stay healthy.

First Base: Yonder Alonso – a 92 wRC+ in 288PA, 0.7 WAR
Second Base: Jedd Gyorko – a 63 wRC+ in 339PA, -1 WAR
Third Base: Yangervis Solarte – a 104 wRC+ in 447PA, 1.6 WAR
Shortstop: Everth Cabrera – a 64 wRC+ in 391PA, -0.4 WAR
Center field: Cameron Maybin – a 81 wRC+ in 220PA, 0.9 WAR
Right field: Rymer Liriano – a totally unproven, raw rookie with a lot of tools, who missed all of 2013.
Primary Catcher: Yasmani Grandal – a 94 wRC+ in 345 PA, 0.3 WAR
Small half of the Smith platoon: Will Venable – a 73 in 386PA, 0.3 WAR

The problem with the “sign a bat” strategy (besides the fact that it’s more of a move than a strategy) is that even if the Padres signed two of the top free agents in the class, it won’t be enough to offset the problems everywhere else on the diamond. Though cheaper, it’s a similar waste of time to sign lesser free agents to “rent-a-bat” deals. Bear in mind this would also prevent someone in a “prove it” year from playing.

And all that feeds into the argument against the cries to “trade for a proven bat.”

Of course, most of the specific trade proposals offered by members of the general public are mainly of the “trade depth for quality” variety. The reality is that trades like this don’t exist. As the intelligent among us will point out: if you give from depth you will receive from depth.

Now, sometimes those deals work out, as in the Gregerson for Smith swap, or the trade for Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn. In fact, those are the kinds of trades the Padres should make this offseason.

But the club has no earthly reason to trade prospects to get proven talent, because just as with the “free agent approach” they’d only be adding talent to a loser, at the cost of their future core, which would ultimately only prolong their tenure as the team that gets the 13th pick in the draft.

It’s not a path to a World Series.

The time to sign free agents and trade prospects for proven Major Leaguers is when your team needs a nudge over the hump. The Pirates are a team in this position.

The Padres are nowhere near the hump.

The hump would be Yonder Alonso hitting .280 with 15 home runs and 40 doubles, while Jedd Gyorko socks 25 bombs and gets on base 35% of the time. It would be Cameron Maybin perpetually repeating 2011, and Rymer Liriano having a rookie season you could describe as “2013 Starling Marte with more walks.”

You will know the hump when you see the hump.

For now, Preller’s task is to build a team that can get to that precipice. So what do we do this offseason?

Trade from positions of depth for undervalued commodities – as mentioned above, sometimes you can steal an impact guy if you know they’re just a small adjustment away.With Seth Smith, it happened to be the fact that he just needed a Lasik tuneup. With others, you can diagnose a mechanical tweak that allows a player to tap into his full natural ability (a la Tyson Ross).

Similar to last season, the Padres have a glut of utility infielders. With Chris Nelson, Alexi Amarista, Jace Peterson and Yangervis Solarte all having roughly the same value as Logan Forsythe did last season. There are also a handful of fourth outfielders hanging around. This brings us to Will Venable.

Trade Will Venable – After parts of 7 seasons in the Majors, it’s obvious the results will never materialize. Right field should be Rymer Liriano’s to lose. While raw, he’s much less so than Venable was as a rookie, he’s excellent defensively and has the highest ceiling of any Padres position player prospect.

Disturbingly, Bud Black is still playing Venable a lot. Preller would do well to look to Cardinals GM John Mozeliak trading Allen Craig so that manager Mike Matheny would be forced to play Oscar Taveras as an example of how to remedy this. Now, I’m not comparing Liriano to Taveras, just the situation.

Venable’s value to other clubs is as a fourth outfielder or platoon guy with a solid glove, so expect an appropriately modest return. Abraham Almonte and Jake Goebbert have less trade value and should be able to fill in fine when Venable leaves. Alex Dickerson is also an option.

Get rid of Eric Stults… somehow –  Despite the fact that Stults is 34, he is still arb eligible until 2017, so if you can get anything for him, that will be why. If not, he’s a prime non-tender candidate given the depth the Padres have here. Jesse Hahn seems a lock for next year’s rotation and Cory Luebke’s return to the Big Leagues, while far from certain, should take place in 2015. The same theoretically goes for Joe Weiland, Casey Kelly and Robbie Erlin. Keyvius Sampson and Matt Wisler are also options next year, if additional depth is required.

Let Josh Johnson walk – Johnson is a perpetual DL spot where there is plenty of depth… don’t you dare touch that option!

Ditch Carlos Quentin – I struggle to imagine a scenario where a team would be willing to part with anything other than a PTBN for Carlos Quentin. That’s fine. The Padres should eat as much of this contract as they have to, even if that means all of it. Of course, it’s possible there will be no willing trade partners. In that case, releasing him means the roster can be constructed without the possibility of Carlos Quentin built into it, which has more value than retaining him.

Blow up the staff– I won’t bore anyone with another recap of the DL disaster the Padres have become as a result of bad player acquisition policies and a totally incompetent medical staff. The fact that we all know that story so well means heads must roll and the organization’s philosophy must change.

The Padres also need to drastically alter a player development staff and philosophy that have consistently produced scared hitters.

The Major League hitting coaches also need to go. There is no excuse for a full squad of players that either watch or foul off fastballs down the pipe with shocking frequency. The number of obvious mechanical flaws (see: Cameron Maybin’s swing path), and approach deficiencies (see: Gyorko trying to pull everything) allowed to persist on the club is absurd.

Adios, amigos.

Commit to crushing the International Market – This is the fun part.

I know it’s sad for some that the Padres won’t be spending a ton of cash on the free agent market, despite having the funds to do so. But that means A.J. Preller should have no problem convincing ownership to allocate a large chunk of change toward acquiring the best Caribbean talent available on July 2nd. Spending limits be damned, nab four or five of the top 25 guys. In this era of baseball, spending $20-30MM in the dominican is a much better investment for a mid-market team than spending that same amount on the Major League roster.

2015 won’t be the year of the Winner, no matter what Preller & Co do this offseason. But the guys on the roster will either prove it or lose it. The front office will begin to show us if they’re serious about giving Preller the levers he needs to build the core we’ve never had. It can be the year of the Answer, the year of a meaningful turning point.

 

[RA ROWE]

 

Why Hiring A.J. Preller is the Turning Point

A.J. stands for Amazing Judgement. (Photo courtesy of mighty1090)

I’ve said for a number of years that I wish Billy Beane was the Padres GM. This is hardly a breakthrough, I think most people who understand the game inside the business of the game feel the same way. Most people think he’s just smarter than everybody else, but that’s not the whole story.

Being smart is great, but for your smarts to consistently win out over hard-working, intelligent competition, you can’t just cast in any direction, you have to have a core methodology. But in baseball, everyone copies your core methodology in short order, once it’s proven to work. That means the core methodology has to be to create an environment where trends begin, and where you always pivot in order to find the next trend by the time the league catches up. Beane’s greatest skill is keeping this environment charged.

Meanwhile, the Padres have been clueless about the reality of their own situation, grasping at straws (the kind of straws with soggy knees who are better suited as a DH). They have failed to develop any kind of method for themselves to target talent. This is why they’ve failed to sustain the brief glimpses of success they’ve had. Essentially, when you’re not trying out a theory and seeing if it works or fails, you can’t know what part of what you are doing is working or failing.

But the sequence of events leading up to the A.J. Preller era show that maybe that the Padres’ days of spinning their wheels are over. And Preller seems to be exactly the guy to get things moving. For me, it all started with an email from Ron Fowler:

“We are terribly disappointed in the team’s offense this year and staying the course (waiting for a turnaround) is becoming less appealing as the ugly losses continue.”

After ten years of virtually unwatchable offense, I had rarely heard anything but excuses. But when Fowler’s chubby fingers graced our internet with that digital caning of the club’s position players, I was finally hearing someone with the power to change things actually convince me they hated that and wanted much better.

More importantly this quote reflects an understanding of how bad things really are. This is new for the Padres and incredibly significant.

Josh Byrnes got canned and on the hunt for a new GM we went. The self-aware candor from the Padres continued as Mike Dee gave an interview about why the decision to send Byrnes packing was made (interview recapped here). He said great General Managers have a vision and that the Padres need to have a blueprint for success.

This reinforces that the original Fowler email might not just have been an angry swipe of the claws, but a considered and lasting understanding that building an organization that can achieve sustained success requires efforts to be guided by a thesis statement.

The hiring process for the new GM highlights another aspect of how the Padres have begun to establish they may have made a material change for the better.

In the final week of the hunt the field had essentially been narrowed to two names. Billy Eppler and A.J. Preller. As I anxiously gnawed on the backgrounds of each candidate I began to view the decision as a fork in the road. With Eppler, I became horrified at the possibility that this break in the clouds might just be a brief interlude of sanity before a comic thrust back into business as usual.

Any hope that things might have changed could have been drowned in the toilet if they had chosen Eppler, a man who has family ties to the Padres organization and is buddy-buddy with evil slug, Kevin Towers. Eppler’s most notable experience is as an Assistant GM with the New York Yankees, an organization that has spent the last 10 years masking spectacular failure in drafting and development by burning small continents of money.

This means Eppler has no experience achieving results of any kind, and could not possibly understand how to create the kind of ecosystem of ideas Billy Beane has cultivated and sustained all these years. Choosing Eppler would have been like playing the same track we’ve been blaring for decades on a different radio. I feared this most of all, because it would be “so Padres” to cluelessly pull the trigger on more of the same full-spectrum misery to which we have been captive, basically forever. The two candidates represented such different possible futures to me, I even started to become almost paranoid about how the name “Eppler” was like some taunting, demonic anagram of “Preller.”

But they did not choose Eppler. When I heard this news, I truly felt like I had been freed from something horrible I thought would never end. All the perceived change of  the past few weeks gained more traction and I felt the deep, core tingling, hot juice blast of a better tomorrow. I, a man of 27, learned what if feels like for a girl.

Interviews with A.J. Preller produced quotes, which fueled my beautiful little ember of hope into a small flame. I don’t want to get bogged down in the particular quotes, as the interviews can be readily digested around the internet by you, dear reader, but the Padres Social Hour interview and the press conference to announce the hiring in particular, provided the kindling.

The most obvious thing about Preller is that he is not a groomed, TV-ready lozenge of bullshit, he’s a baseball guy. Obsessed with talking and watching the game, he acknowledged that advanced stats are to be considered equal building blocks as tools and approach in “talking about the game.” He strongly emphasized high ROI methods of player acquisition as the only means for an organization to create sustained success. The Padres’ market and current state of disarray both happen to demand this approach.

He spoke about the importance of knowing your own players. This is crucial to making sure you trade overvalued assets and hold onto those, which have more value than others perceive, as well as making better decisions about who you extend (like probably not Cameron Maybin, whose bat path resembles a very steep sided parabola).

He did something almost no people are good at, inside or outside of baseball, inside or outside of the Padres front office: he admitted a time when he was wrong. He explained that in Texas he had originally written off “make up” entirely, before realizing that guys with certain make up are much more likely to make the strides in development needed to become impact Major Leaguers. This shows he is testing a hypothesis and objectively analyzing whether it fails or not, and then reevaluating his position based on real life. There will be no hand-wavy strategies crapped out of a late night drinking session with an old frat buddy.

But the most important thing he did was talk about how you always have to find new ways to win talent and ballgames. He acknowledged that creating the dynamic I have so loved in Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics, is a vital aspect of running an organization. He explained that you have to be the club generating innovative strategies, but that you also have to understand that the rest of baseball is going to swarm to that idea if it works. This means that you have to move on to the next idea by the time they get there. I call this the “head of the snake” mentality. By the time the body gets to where the head was, the head is farther along.

By revealing that his staff will be working hard to understand itself and the game better than anyone else, he made me feel, for the first time since 1998, that I can entertain the possibility of the Padres winning a World Series before I am bones in the dirt.

The ownership group gets it. They get it so well that they actually chose the right guy and hopefully, they give him the power to be that guy. If that is what is about to happen with the Padres, then welcome to the Enlightenment. Things are going to be different.

[RA ROWE]

Jesse Hahn’s Curveball is Educational

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The Backstory

If you’ve heard this part or if you just don’t feel like engaging in foreplay, skip ahead. I won’t be upset.

Over the offseason the Padres traded Logan Forsythe, infielder Maxx Tissenbaum and pitchers Matt Andriese, Brad Boxberger and Matt Lollis to Tampa Bay for Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn. Basically, a bunch of spare parts for a good lefty reliever and somewhat of an unknown.

Hahn’s “question mark” status stems from his needing  Tommy John surgery in 2010, very shortly after being drafted out of high school, then recovering in 2011, and then not really logging a ton of innings since then. But he started to look pretty sharp last year in limited action.

Now, Torres wears the big funny hat, but since making his MLB Debut on June 3 against the Pirates, Hahn has made the deal look a lot sweeter for the Padres. But more importantly, Jesse Hahn has exposed something interesting about the way the game changes and how going against the current of change can be incredibly useful.

The Arsenal

Hahn spots the fastball, sitting at 91, but his curveball stands out when you watch him. It’s an old-school, slow twelve-to-sixer, and it certainly passes the eyeball test as being utterly filthy, inducing a lot of bad looking swings… and misses.

But that’s not all. His change-up, which sits at 83mph, has been extremely effective as well. In order to quantify this, I’ll turn to Fangraphs. They keep track of a metric called wCH/C. In basic terms, this is a park, luck and league adjusted measure of the value of a given change-up expressed in runs above average, per 100 times thrown.

Hahn’s wCH/C of 4.16 would put him well ahead of any qualified starter (if he were one himself), dancing past Felix Hernandez’s 2.83 mark this season. (R.A. Dickey actually leads the league per Fangraphs, but I have my suspicions about how mis-categorization of his pitches might be influencing that result, so I skipped down to Hernandez.)

The Results

This extraordinary compliment of off-speed stuff has Hahn striking out 8.6 batters per nine, and has propelled him to a 2.28 ERA, which is slightly outperforming his xFIP (3.39), largely due to a low BABIP (.233) and a high strand rate (80%). But that curveball though!

The Revelation

Watching Jesse Hahn’s curveball is fun, and it sent my mind racing one night. It was as if suddenly all the dots connected.

There is a trend in MLB toward pitches which involve maximum arm speed. That basic package is a 93mph fastball, a hard breaking ball and a change-up. The key to throwing a good slider or changeup? Max arm speed. The split finger is thrown this way as well. I believe this could be giving Jesse Hahn’s curveball an added advantage in two ways.

First, hitters may be less concerned with arm speed. If everything a hitter sees features max arm speed, a hitter can no longer use the speed of the arm to judge what pitch is being thrown, so why should he pay attention to it? If it is increasingly unnecessary for hitters to judge arm speed, this would mean the slower arm Hahn uses to throw his curveball is not being noticed as a dead giveaway like it might have been to hitters in previous eras.

Second, batters are used to a harder breaking ball with a more side-to-side break, as compared with the top-to-bottom shape of Hahn’s offering. The data backs this up:

hahncurvearticle

 

breaking ball movement

We can see here that the use of the curve has curtailed since PITCHf/x data started being collected in 2007. We can also see that the curve that is being thrown, is coming in faster, and that the shape of Hahn’s curve is not only markedly more pronounced than the average curveball, it’s even further removed from the shape of the slider, which is the predominant breaker around the league today. Another differentiating factor is that Hahn’s curve averages 74.3mph, as compared with the 77.3mph curveball of the league at large.

The Take Away

All this is to say that Jesse Hahn has a freakish hook, a dandy Charlie, and he locates it well too, but the fact that it’s also different probably contributes to why it’s so effective. Hahn’s curve helps to illustrate the fact that running the opposite direction of a trend can lead to great things. After that thought occurred to me, I watched a start by Odrisamer Despaigne, who is really a complete throwback to the starters I watched as a kid in 1992. I watched him in a different light and I really enjoyed it. Jesse Hahn’s curveball bent the lens through which I watch baseball and I am richer for it.

 

The revelatory deuce in eternal gif repetition mode, sorry Mr. Carpenter

The revelatory deuce in eternal gif repetition mode, sorry Mr. Carpenter

 

[RA ROWE]

Super Bowl Preview

A portrait of the author in his fortress of baseball

A portrait of the author in his fortress of baseball

If you don’t really like music, or care about the possibility of it’s function as a cultural document, and you just want to get midnight-gutter-nap drunk and shake that ass, then pop music is your answer. If you’d rather watch millions of dollars worth of shitty advertisements, a pop star who’s past their prime jumping around in a spray of fireworks, while a bunch of backup dancers in black-light makeup grind against a sea of invisible dongs, while you eat ground meat and fried potatoes, but you want to pretend all of that is somehow about football, then tune in to the Super Bowl this Sunday.

The average Super Bowl party attendee has more interest in cheese sauce than the outcome of the game. Most people watching the Super Bowl (or any football game really) don’t care about strategy, or a psychological showdown between men, or a game’s place in the history of a city, or Peyton Manning as an example of how perfectionism does not necessarily have to equate to self-destructive obsession (as in the case of a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods). They just want to scream for a color.

American Football fandom is about pageantry, just like International Football (Soccer) is. Just replace singing songs, rioting and scarves with chanting “D-fense,” eating and hats that look like cheese. Yes, there are some people who actually engage with football’s unique brand of incredibly complex strategy, the subtle chess match deep within the game which is the closest football has to it’s own special virtue. But, unless crudely paraphrasing what little they have heard commentators explain over the sound made by crunching nachos resonating through their skulls, most fans don’t engage with strategy. They are solely consumed with the barbaric thrombo of testosterone and ego that are the game’s poisonous byproducts, which leave our culture mutilated in it’s cock wake.

This mania reaches it’s height at the annual Championship of American Football, the Super Bowl. And how fitting they call it “super” as I haven’t heard the word used in a non-sarcastic way since circa 1992. Just keep in mind that this game is not about people or sport, it’s just a lot of dopes taking a break from watching reality shows to feast on garbage while pretending they are part of some basic approximation of a thing they heard about. It’s a commercial for a diversion. It’s about creating such a quantity of hype and build-up and ritual that the game is just a part of the static that fills our lives. It is the cultural equivalent of packing popcorn. It’s the day before Monday.

[RA ROWE]

Fantasizing About Minor League Baseball

It goes without saying that I want the season to start. But I actually enjoy the offseason portion of baseball’s annual cycle. In past years it was a time for getting antsy to again watch for the familiar things that are the standard currency of a baseball season: a great rookie, an aging veteran delivering one final elite season, a milestone statistic on the horizon, or cooking up strategies for fantasy baseball. But as I have grown older and more thoughtful (and have quit fantasy sports) I enjoy reassessing what is left of the game (and of life) that I have not yet fully explored. This year, I hope to place a heavier focus on minor league and college baseball.

Last year I took trip to my alma mater, Cal State Fullerton and then attended games at Lake Elsinore and Inland Empire, Class-A Advanced California League affiliates of the Padres and Angels, respectively. I had been to college and minor league games before, but something had changed for me.

I like how weird minor league fans and towns are, and how easy and cheap it is to sit in the first row behind the plate. Watching elite talents like Austin Hedges in a developmental stage provides an exciting glimpse of the player a prospect might become, and it enables a richer appreciation for the quality of play in the Major Leagues. But the minors are also an experience in their own right. The towns, parks and names are smaller, but the character of each minor league yard is truly unique and usually a little bizarre.

As of today, I have decided to attempt to attend a game at every minor league park in California this year. That means 12 parks spanning nearly 500 miles.

Northern California

San Jose Giants (SF/A+)
Sacramento River Cats (OAK/AAA)
Stockton Ports (OAK/A+)
Modesto Nuts (COL/A+)

Central California

Bakersfield Blaze (CIN/A+)
Visalia Rawhide (AZ/A+)
Fresno Grizzlies (SF/AAA)

Southern California

High Desert Mavericks (SEA/A+) – Adelanto, CA
Inland Empire 66ers (LAA/A+) – San Bernardino, CA
Lake Elsinore Storm (SD/A+)
Lancaster Jethawks (HOU/A+)
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (LAD/A+)

The reason I mention this here, besides being consumed with it at the moment, is that I hope to create profiles on each park and provide a glimpse into what it’s like to watch a game at each one. I will try to bring the flavor of each city and stadium into the mix to help give those of you who can’t make it to a game an idea of what is out here in California. And for those of you that would like to go to these parks, I will try to make it easier for you to decide where to head first.

Having been to Inland Empire, I can tell you that unlike relatively charming towns, like nearby Riverside, San Bernardino is depressing and ugly, owing mainly I imagine to the imploded housing market. The stadium is featureless except for the vaguely-Spanish-mission style facade, the 66ers have one of the ugliest mascots in the world, and I saw some people who I am almost certain have been exposed to high levels of heretofore unknown radioactive elements. Clear some room on the periodic table, Dr. Scientist.

Entrance - San Manuel Stadium - San Bernardino, CA (photo: http://www.fccfontana.org/)

Entrance – San Manuel Stadium – San Bernardino, CA (photo: http://www.fccfontana.org/)

Lake Elsinore is a different story. Yes it’s a rectangular, manmade lake. But there is a place where you can get a sandwich and killer pasta salad at the top of a mountain with a panoramic view of the valley and lake below. There is a solid, friendly craft brewery in town and the stadium includes a view of a range of hills so rolling it looks like the background of a cartoon.

The Diamond at Lake Elsinore - Lake Elsinore, CA (http://unclebobsballparks64.tripod.com/)

The Diamond at Lake Elsinore – Lake Elsinore, CA (photo: http://unclebobsballparks64.tripod.com/)

And the difference between those two places and experiences is the same as the difference between any two minor league destinations. This tempts me to wager that there is more in the way of surprise and variety among minor league towns than you might experience in your travels to different big league parks.

And I think that points toward something in our culture. I think we tend to look at strange things, little experiences and wonky places and think less of them, in favor of an aesthetically coherent and consistent “normal.” It’s a facet of mall-centrism maybe. I am not necessarily concerned with finding out if it’s better to be the way we are or some other way, at least not for the purposes of this blog. But I am interested in finding out what the other way is like and I want to see Carlos Correa in the process.

[RA ROWE]

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