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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]

A Conversation of Baseball, etc.

You may remember I attempted a Podcast here a while back. It had a great name (National West Dispatch) and was really fun to record, but it wasn’t fun to edit and, while I think it turned out fine, it missed the mark. Simply put, I am not a professional talker and I wasn’t able to recreate the natural quality of conversation I normally enjoy outside the context of the podcast with my then co-host, Jeff.

The following post is copied and pasted from a conversation he and I had on google chat. It’s been formatted to look good, But it’s largely unchanged, and it’s what I wished the podcast could have been, maybe it still could be.

It features Dodger Stadium policies, the worst food decisions of 2013, colorful language and some surprisingly professional discourse regarding MLB’s new expanded replay. It begins with Jeff sending me a link to an article about how some jackass little league coach is suing a kid for $500,000. The kid chucked his helmet off celebrating as he scored the game winning run and the helmet severed the jackass coach’s achilles. He’s also so suing the league for another $500K.

Jeff: Every couple of years you get a great heartwarming story like this.

RA:  “Fuck all humans” is the first thought that comes to mind, the second one is “that’s a bit extreme.” But the third one is “well, maybe not that extreme, though.”

J:  That kid must’ve tossed the shit outta that helmet!

RA:  Or that guy is made of hay. I wonder if anyone had a radar gun pointed at it.

J:  Did John tell you about my Dodger Stadium research? About bringing in coolers and radios and stuff?

RA:  No.

J:  Oh, I was sitting around the other night thinking “I’ll never eat another Dodger Dog,” so I started trying to game plan around that. I’m actually considering bringing a cooler into every baseball game I go to this year, loaded with delicious sammies and bottled waters. It’s not earth shattering stuff, but it’s a pretty clear indication of where I’m at in my life.

RA:  Let me just say, it sounds like you’re in a good place. Those are healthy thoughts. But what’s the research part?

J:  First, stadium policies. Second, mini binoculars. I want to go to at least 10 dodgers games this year, like $8 tickets. I probably went to about that many last year so maybe I’m shooting low.

RA:  It’s surprising that you’re allowed to bring in coolers.

J:  Yeah, coolers. No ice. 16x16x8, so nothing big.

RA:  Haha.

J:  I thought “no way they’re letting you bring in a meal!”

RA:  Same. This is making me realize that I am really at odds with stadium food. In fact, it’s the one part of the game experience I don’t like that much. Either you pay out the ass for something that is barely acceptable or you eat total shit.

J:  I have a history of making rash food decisions at stadiums.

RA:  I have seen it happen several times. Exhibit A: Spring Training nachos. Exhibit B: Jumbo picante dog.

J:  Those nachos were a top 10 worst meal of 2013 contender. Followed by that weird office tamale thing. What was that??

RA:  Haha. It was a tamale… sort of.  It was called a tamale, but I would contend it was not one.

J:  What was it covered in though? My memory is telling me it was a tamale on a hamburger or something.

RA:  Haha, gross ass chili… well, chili slime.

J:  Chili slime is right. That was the number one worst thing I ate in 2013. It had that microwave burrito soggy bottom covered in chili slime.

RA:  Ugh fuck.

J:  I can’t wait to see how poorly prepared MLB is to execute its new replay policy this year.
1. 50% of the coaches/managers will be reading about it for the first time this spring.
2. There are a maximum of 3 play-by-play announcers that will have even close to a clue about what’s happening by June. It’s going to be utter chaos.

RA:  Haha, possibly true. I don’t know actually, I went to some AFL games and they had it going so they could diagnose some of the issues. So the league is at least in front of the curve to that extent.

J: Haha, that doesn’t fix the fact that it’s the league employees that don’t give half a shit. You can’t fix that in the AFL.

RA:  No not the AFL employees, they had guys in from MLB to test it in live situations, with zero at stake.

J:  They should make the coaches challenge calls in the spring so they get the hang of it.

RA:  That’s actually what they were doing in the AFL. They were encouraging the managers to challenge any close plays just so they could run through the process as often as possible. I think the league is very freaked out about how this will go down, which means they are actually preparing in a somewhat effective manner.

J:  There’s still a bunch of coaches that won’t know what the fuck is happening.

RA:  Kirk Gibson, we’re looking at you! Actually the manager’s role is relatively simple, they just challenge or don’t and they either run out of challenges or they have more left over. Anything they don’t understand can be explained in the moment. Plus, the action of the challenge stems naturally from the flow of the game. They just replace going out to argue with going out to challenge. I’m more worried about how bad announcers will affect public opinion against it because they just aren’t clear enough on the play/procedure/etc.

RA:  This is a good conversation. It has good stuff about being at the ballpark, MLB replay, funny food. You mind if I post it as an article? I’ll send you a transcript so you can omit anything you think is unsavory, etc.

J:  Haha. Screw it, post away.

RA:  You don’t want to take out all the stuff you said about how black guys make bad managers? And how you hate it when people have a gay looking face?

 
 

– RA Rowe with Jeff Walters

 
 

Spring Training Preview: Peoria

Five days from now I will be back in the place where I got Ken Caminiti, Trevor Hoffman and Randy Johnson to sign a baseball when I was 11 (also Chris Bosio), and where I saw Troy Tulowitzki hit a laser beam home run onto the berm two years ago that I am still trying to get my mind around. Peoria Sports Complex, my preview is my tribute.

Peoria

Stadium B- / Backfields A+ Peoria was the first of the new model of shared complexes when it opened in 1994. The collection of backfields all in one place was a revelation when my family first visited that year. Because it is a little older than many of the other complexes, the stadium is no longer anything special, but there is a very fan friendly angle to the whole place. In the rightfield corner, there is a walkway between the berm and the rightfield stands, where the players come in before the game and leave during and after it. As they walk to the locker rooms, kids push cards and baseballs through the fence and get to spend a second with their heros.

The backfields are also the most accessible in the Cactus League. You can sit between fields or behind outfield fences catching balls during batting practice, but you can also press your nose against the batting cages and watch coaches help hitters tinker with their stances, strides and swings.

We’ll be lucky enough to watch the Padres from this vantage point before a Monday game against the Cubs. And since I am a Padres fan, I am interested in too many players to ask you to sit through, so I am just going to talk about few.

Padres

Carlos Belen – 3B, 6’2″, 17 – The Padres finally started making a reasonable push in the Dominican, spending a lot more money there in recent years. Belen got $1MM for a hit tool that is far ahead of players his age with power to go along with it. 2013 will be his first season of state-side ball and it will be a treat to get to take a sneak peak before his talents are officially unveiled in Rookie or low-A.

Euri Minaya RF, 6’4″/200, 17 – Minaya is huge and he has power potential to match, but unlike Belen, the swing and approach are very raw. He also features a strong throwing arm. The 2013 season will be is first as well.

Jonathan Galvez – 2B/SS, 6’2″/175, 22 – Galvez looks good every time I see him. I’m still trying to figure out why scouts don’t seem to like him. He plays left-field in addition to second base, profiling as a 15HR-20SB type with 25 2Bs. That’s a little light-hitting for your prototypical corner outfielder, but nice for a second baseman. His BB% and K% are average and the hard contact he has made in the minors has helped him consistently post BABIPs in the .350-.360 range. I think he’s flying under the radar by being left out of organizational top 20s.

Cory Spangenberg – 2B, 6’/185, 22 – A very advanced hit tool (albeit with very little home run power) carried Spangenberg to high A last season. Although he was limited by concussion issues during the regular season, he kept at it and lit up the AFL. He should see AA at some point in 2013.

Austin Hedges – C, 6’1″/190, 20 – Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet ranked Hedges ahead of Jedd Gyorko in his recent top 15 for the organization. This is to say, Hulet is totally disregarding the fact that Hedges is nowhere near the Major Leagues, and has put together exactly one slightly above average season (offensively), while Gyorko is on the doorstep, having pounded 60 homers over the last two seasons. While it is evident Hedges has the potential to be elite defensively, I happen to find Hulet’s valuation somewhere between negligent and downright stupid. I have regarded the growing enthusiasm over him with extreme skepticism, but I won’t stop myself from buying in if I glimpse something special in person.

Yeison Asencio – OF, 6’1″/175, 23 – The Padres protected Asencio in the rule 5 draft because he has spent the last two seasons making lots of contact, totaling 15 HR and 15 SB in about 600PA over that span. He was limited last season, due to Visa issues after it turned out he was not a 21 year old named Yoan Alcantara. The downside on Asencio is that he is far too aggressive. He walked in just 4.2% of his PAs last year, but even that was an improvement of his rate of 1.8% in 2011 (8% is average). Ideally, this is the kind of guy you see in game action, to see if he is making strides in his approach.

This concludes the Spring Training Preview series. For installments one and two click the respective linkage: Mesa: Cubs, Salt River Fields: Diamondbacks. Stay tuned for reports and podcast episodes from Spring Training in the days to come and for the love of shit, start watching more baseball!

[RA ROWE]

Spring Training Preview: Salt River

Stop two on the upcoming visit to the Valley of the Sun, will be Salt River Fields. The Sunday match-up will feature split-squads from both the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. This means prospects in game action and lots of them!

Hot Cactus League Action (albeit in Glendale). Photo - RA Rowe

Hot Cactus League Action (albeit in Glendale). Photo – RA Rowe

Salt River Fields

Stadium: A / Backfields: B. The facility the D-Backs and the Rockies share is one of the nicest in the Cactus League. It’s well designed, features perhaps the greatest variety of food offered at any Spring Training park and has some pretty fan friendly backfields. The place is terrific, but my first visit was ruined when I came down with the flu. Even still I enjoyed it and am really looking forward to experiencing it at full strength. Unfortunately most of the depth of the Arizona system is in pitching, and the backfields aren’t a great place to watch pitching prospects, since bullpens are generally more secluded from public view.

Diamondbacks

As for the pitching depth I mentioned, hopefully we get lucky and see Tyler Skaggs, or Archie Bradley throw a bullpen, but here are some hitters to watch for.

Adam Eaton – CF, 24, 5’8″/184
The Diamondbacks traded Chris Young to give Eaton the everyday job. His peaks won’t be as explosive as Young’s, but he won’t have the big, depressing valleys either. The kid can run very well, plays a good centerfield, and his arm is jaw dropping, both accurate and powerful. He’s not somebody you are necessarily floored by during BP, I’m more interested in seeing Eaton in game action.

Matt Davidson – 3B, 21, 6’2″/224
Davidson could eventually (perhaps as soon as the second half, depending on overall roster health) supplant Martin Prado at third base, moving the veteran to the outfield. Davidson has 20-25 home run power, and gets on base, but needs to do a better job limiting strikeouts. His defense is not his strong suit, but he could stick at third long term if he improves. He should be fun to watch around the batting cage.

Chris Owings – SS, 20, 5’10″/180
Not the largest of bodies, Owings has big tools. He happens to be a somewhat deficient baseball player though. He almost never walks (just 24 times in 149 games last year) and can be erratic on defense. It will be interesting to get a sense of this great athlete’s movements and perhaps see what it is that isn’t working for him.

Stryker Trahan – C, 18. 6’1″/215
A big, strong 18 year old with a plus hit tool and plus power is going to be taking batting practice and maybe playing in a B game on the practice fields? I’m setting my alarm now.

Dodgers

People are all frothy about Dodgers’ offseason moves, and their new ownership, which is really great for a franchise that needs its greatness restored. But I am more interested in what the Dodgers used to be all about: player development. There hasn’t been a ton of movement on this front yet, but change is on the way for the Dodgers. When it comes, these will be two of first guys to arrive at the Ravine:

Yasiel Puig – RF, 22, 6’3″/215
The big Cuban runs well, has a refined approach, a great arm and huge power. Basically another Cespedes type, to go along with Jorge Soler of the Cubs. He dominated in a short stint last season, playing intelligent baseball and putting his tools on display. He’s currently stamping out a disappointing winter with a great spring. The odds of him appearing in the split-squad game on the road are pretty decent and that’s good, because I want to see as much of this kid as I can.

Joc Pederson – OF, 20, 6’1″/185
Not as toolsy as Puig, Pederson is an excellent baseball player, giving him a high floor. He should be an above average runner for a corner outfielder, with about an average stick. He seems to do a little of everything, walking, limiting swings and misses, and showing good pop to all fields. I am hoping to see Pederson in the game with the split-squad coming over from Glendale, but this late in spring, I am not terribly optimistic.

Next time: Cubs v Padres in Peoria.

[RA Rowe]

More Like Jerk Gibson

It is not unusual for Kirk Gibson to appear to be on a moon-scraping dose of Oxycontin, his empty words plopping out of his mouth as if he is the subject of a mind control experiment. And throw out the fact that he is obsessed with the mystic realm of Clubhouse Chemistry. Today he acted especially stupid.

The Lead In

On Monday afternoon, two games were about to begin simultaneously. In Surprise, The Rangers were set to take on the Padres. At Salt River Fields, the Diamondbacks were about to host the Reds. Dusty Baker, the manager of the visiting club was hoping to play Shin Soo Choo at DH, as the newly acquired outfielder has been limited due to a quad issue. But Kirk Gibson’s starting pitcher, Brandon McCarthy, is coming over from the AL, and Gibson wanted him to get some reps at the dish.

During Spring Training, the home team’s manager decides whether the game will be played under National or American League rules. Baker apparently requested several times to be allowed the DH, but Gibson denied him each time.

The Confrontation

Baker, irritated, filled out his lineup card as if Gibson had granted him the DH. The men met with the umpires at home plate and Gibson saw that Baker had disregarded his belligerence, and became furious. The two had a heated exchange and as you’ll soon see, Gibson was in the wrong.

How Reasonable Men Act

Across town the Padres and Rangers began play without incident. The Rangers, at home, naturally decided to play the game under American League rules. But the Padres’ Bud Black, whose preference it was to preserve the National League game for his club, just put his pitcher in the lineup. By doing so, Black surrendered the DH, as every American League manager is allowed to do, every game, even in the regular season, even in the middle of the game.

So, rather than being a childish bully, Kirk Gibson could have stated to the umpires that the game was being played under American League rules. Then, with Dusty Baker’s DH intact, Gibson could have dissolved his own by penciling his pitcher into the nine hole. There are two explanations for why he did not. Either he doesn’t know that he is able to do that, which makes him an Ass… or he knew and just wouldn’t, which makes him an Asshole.

It Gets Weirder

The kicker here is that earlier in Spring Training the Diamondbacks had to ask to use the Athletics’ practice fields due to slush having covered their own, a result of the previous day’s melted snow. The A’s granted them use of their facilities for the afternoon, but Oakland GM Billy Beane requested to his counterpart with the Diamondbacks, Kevin Towers, that his club be able to use the DH in a later Cactus League meeting between the two teams. Gibson had no complaints, as he had already granted Bob Melvin the ability to do so.

We’re Left Wondering

Either Gibson is so competitive that he is unwilling to grant another National League club even the most trivial of favors, or he just hates Dusty Baker. I guess there is a third possible explanation, which is that Gibson was either too much or not enough medicated when he made one decision or the other.

The lesson here is simple. Nice guys, like Ron Washington and Bud Black, make life easy for themselves and for others. But by being a dick, you make everyone’s life shittier, including your own, like Kirk Gibson. Have a fun year, Snakes.

[RA ROWE]

2013 Arizona Diamondbacks

So far I’ve covered the Dodgers and Padres with this series. This week the Diamondbacks are  up. Given the fact that this club employs the ever-deficient Kevin Towers and a manager who talks about make-up like he’s a goddam Avon lady (ba-zing), I expect a wider margin of error for the Snakes than the other teams in the division. It’s hard to predict what irrational men will do. 

The 2013 Arizona Diamondbacks

Position Players

C – Miguel Montero
1B – Paul Goldschmidt
2B – Aaron Hill
3B – Martin Prado
SS – Didi Gregorius
LF – Cody Ross
CF – Adam Eaton
RF – Gerardo Parra

My placement of Gregorius at short is heavily influenced by the fact that Cliff Pennington and Willie Bloomquist, while their names also sound like characters from a British mystery novel, stink at hitting. Gregorius will likely be below average offensively, but I think he’ll still be better than the other two candidates. Many may suggest Didi will get the job because Kevin Towers gave up a top prospect to acquire him. But I am not convinced Towers operates that way, and I am not sure Kirk Gibson will be able to understand that just because his other two candidates for short are scrappy veterans, doesn’t mean they are better.

I spent some quality time, thinking about whether Parra or Kubel will get more time this season. I think Kubel will get his ABs, but the Ross signing makes me think they are not particularly high on Kubel. He had a pretty rough finish to 2012 and is inferior defensively to Ross and Parra. Currently it seems the Diamonbacks have an interest in defense, so Parra gets the edge in a platoon.

Note: Adam Eaton will get his first full season in the big leagues. For some reason I envision him as a sort of bizarro Chris Young. Young had the great tools, but was frustrating due to his inconsistency and huge strikeout totals. Meanwhile, Eaton has four quality tools, power being the one left out, but can really play the game, and makes a lot more contact than Young.

Starters

1 – Ian Kennedy
2 – Brandon McCarthy
3 – Trevor Cahill
4 – Wade Miley
5 – Tyler Skaggs

Top four are pretty well set, but that last spot is tricky. Patrick Corbin would seem to have the edge based on service time, but Skaggs is the best talent of the group and he seems ready so I’m penciling him in. Randall Delgado, although he is a nice ground ball pitcher with sharp stuff, is not going to be able to show the command that Skaggs possesses.

Daniel Hudson comes back from surgery mid-season and they’ll be able to allow him to take his time given Corbin, Skaggs and Delgado are all in the mix.

Bullpen

CL – JJ Putz
SU – Heath Bell
SU – David Hernandez
RP – Brad Ziegler
RP – Tony Sipp
RP – Josh Collmenter

Newcomers Heath Bell and Tony Sipp fill important roles, and Collmenter is the long man. Delgado and Corbin are left off to get regular starts at AAA Reno.

Bench

C  – Wil Nieves
UT – Eric Hinske
IF – Cliff Pennington
IF – Willie Bloomquist
OF – Jason Kubel
IF – Eric Chavez

John McDonald has not been a major leaguer for a few years now, and the greatest triumph of the Diamondbacks offseason is that they have finally assembled enough pieces that they can release him.

On to the next disposable piece of this bench. Having both Eric Hinske and Eric Chavez is just plain stupid. They play the same positions and both hit left-handed. So that’s $4MM and two roster spots for what amounts to one player that can’t defend, run or play everyday if someone gets hurt…KT is a genius! Hinske is easier to get rid of given he is owed just over $1MM. Chavez’s $3MM contract makes him tougher to release or trade, and there will be few takers.

Unfortunately, the most logical guy to put on the roster, if they do ditch an Eric, is A.J. Pollock. I say unfortunately because I think it would be better for him to see at bats every day in AAA, and then get the call if an outfielder goes down.

The Outlook

A ton of depth in the rotation and the outfield, as well as a quality defense, give this team a high floor. With Prado and Hill signed up long term, youngsters Paul Goldschmidt, Didi Gregorius and Adam Eaton, plus a host of young arms, the team is built around a pretty stable core. But that core is without high ceiling guys on offense (outside of Goldschmidt). As such it’s hard to see the Diamondbacks doing anything other than burrowing into an age of respectable mediocrity that sees a playoff birth or two when things break right.

 

[RA Rowe]

Next week it will be the Colorado Rockies, even though they are pointless.

2013 Los Angeles Dodgers

As I did with the Padres last week, I have selected the players I think will get the most playing time in their respective capacity for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. Many choices are obvious. I will spend time on the more interesting ones. So if you came to read about how bomb-ass dank-ass the Dodgers are going to be this year, I would advise you check CBS. They will happily indulge your hunger for things you could have written yourself.

The 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers

Position Players

C – AJ Ellis
1B – Adrian Gonzalez
2B – Mark Ellis
3B – Luis Cruz
SS – Hanley Ramirez
LF – Carl Crawford
CF – Matt Kemp
RF – Andre Ethier

It’s obvious who is going to play all eight of the starting positions for the Dodgers in 2012. The most interesting situation, and perhaps the name penciled in most precariously, is Luis Cruz at third. While a lack of walks prevents him from being much more than average offensively, he was defensively marvelous at the hot corner (a crazy UZR/150 of 22), and has played his share of short, should Hanley prove inadequate there as the season goes on. If Cruz proves inadequate at third, Jerry Hairston will see time there.

You may notice that Dee Gordon has been left out of the picture here. In fact, you won’t count him among my bench selections either. 2013 will be spent in Reno, his latest chance to learn to play baseball.

Here is your reality check on Dee Gordon. He created runs at 58% the rate of an average offensive player last year, despite stealing 30 bases in half a season. If he had continued playing defense as poorly as he did in 2013, for the entire season, he would have cost the Dodgers nearly 10 more runs (-26) than the worst qualified player in the game (Curtis Granderson -17.6). If you are hoping he will be the Dodgers’ shortstop one day, knock it off. It’s depressing, and you deserve to dream better dreams than that.

Starters

1 – Clayton Kershaw
2 – Zack Greinke
3 – Chad Billingsly
4 – Hyun-Jin Ryu
5 – Josh Beckett

A potentially very top-heavy rotation. Reports on Billingsly are that he is healthy, but he’s always been inconsistent; fine enough for a number three starter. Ryu is totally unproven, coming from the KBO. It should be noted that Josh Beckett’s performance and numbers took a sharp, positive turn when he made the move to the NL West. But this was largely due to a spike in his ground ball rate. Either when he got to L.A. he made a conscious effort to induce more ground balls, or he had a flukey stretch. We’ll find out soon.

The Dodgers may opt to have Ryu open the year in the minors, to get a feel for his role, should Spring Training prove inconclusive. But they paid him like a starter, and one would think they’ll make a serious run at justifying that judgement.

Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Ted Lilly are all rostered, should Ryu fall short, but once they figure out how Ryu fits in, a move is likely. Capuano seems the most plausible trade candidate, as his value is the highest of the three. Ted Lilly is healthy, and as with Capuano, there would seem to be matches all around the league. Harang was mister lucky last year, outperforming his xFIP by nearly a run and a half, and his value probably won’t go much lower unless he gets injured. It wouldn’t shock me if he were released before the Dodgers finish up in Glendale this spring.

Bullpen

CL – Brandon League
SU – Kenley Jansen
SU – Matt Guerrier
RP – J.P. Howell
RP – Javy Guerra
RP – Ronald Belisario

This is one of the best bullpens in baseball, one through six. The fact that the Dodgers have installed League as their closer means they actually understand the value in having your best reliever work as the setup guy. League is dependable, but Jansen is dominant.

Health issues for Jansen, Guerrier and Guerra all seem resolved. Scott Elbert (left hander, not on the above list) has been effective, but the underlying numbers are ominous and it seems the Dodgers are aware of that, given the J.P. Howell signing. Meanwhile the young and effective Paco Rodriguez, though ready for the majors, will start the year on the farm. But given Ronald Belisario’s constant behavior and visa issues, I feel the least confident in selecting him for a larger share of innings than Rodriguez, as compared with the others listed above.

Bench

C  – Tim Fedorowicz
UT – Jerry Hairston
UT – Skip Schumaker
UT – Elian Herrera
UT – Nick Punto
IF – Juan Uribe

The Dodgers are sure to lead the league in utility men. Hairston and Punto have played all but catcher and pitcher in the majors. Herrera is right behind, playing all but catcher, pitcher and first base just last year. Schumaker pitched an inning in 2011, and has played 2B, LF, CF, and RF outside of that. This, along with Carl Crawford’s ability to cover center field, gives the Dodgers extreme flexibility when somebody needs a day off, or in the case that an injury wipes out a star.

Tim Fedorowicz (25) is the backup catcher now, but most certainly won’t be in 2014. He has essentially the same skill set as A.J. Ellis (32), and the Dodgers won’t bring him up to rot. He’ll get a decent share of the playing time, so the organization can see what they really have.

Unfortunately, Juan Uribe.

The Outlook

The Dodgers have spent a lot of money, and not all of it wisely, but with one of the thinnest systems in the league, it was really the only way to build a winner in the near term. They’ll get back into the playoffs, but I don’t think they have what it takes to top the Nationals, Braves or Reds for the Pennant in 2013. Those clubs are built better for the future as well, and I think this version of the Dodgers will come up empty in terms of World Series trophies. If I were a Dodgers fan, I would enjoy watching the much improved team in place now, but I would be far more interested in what the club does to continue to strengthen their farm system. The greatest era of Dodger baseball will be the next one.

2013 San Diego Padres

In the first installment of a five part series, I have begun projecting the rosters of each of the NL West teams. Below, I have picked a roster of 25 players for, but not for Opening Day. The players listed below are the 25 players I think will get the most playing time at their respective positions, over the course of the entire 2013 season. This week: my beloved Friars.

The 2013 San Diego Padres

Position Players

C – Yasmani Grandal
1B – Yonder Alonso
2B – Jedd Gyorko
3B – Chase Headley
SS – Everth Cabrera
LF – Carlos Quentin
CF – Cameron Maybin
RF – Rhymer Liriano

As with any team headed even remotely in the right direction, most of the names I’ve penciled in are surrounded by very little controversy. But three bear mentioning.

Jedd Gyorko was tabbed for the Opening Day job at second as far back as mid-season last year. The club will let him start the year there with a long leash, barring something very unusual or unfortunate.

Yes, Yasmani Grandal is suspended for 50 games. But John Baker and Nick Hundley should both play poorly enough that it will be easy for him to earn more starts there this season than either of them. Either Hundley plays himself back to the minors again, or John Baker will probably be released or traded for next to nothing when Grandal gets back.

As for rightfield, Chris Denorfia and Will Venable are just keeping this spot warm for Rymer Liriano at this point. Neither of them have done anything special, though Venable has been a pretty good value in a platoon role. I’m going to dream big here and say that Liriano forces the Padres’ hand in 2013, pushing his clock forward a season. He is coming off a strong year and a great showing in the Arizona Fall League. There is nothing Rymer can’t do. At 22 years old the he should manage 30 steals, has a cannon arm, and should grow into plus power, though 12-15 HR is probably more where he is at now. He won’t start on Opening Day, but may surface around midseason, and when he does it will be to play every day for a long time.

Starters

1. Clayton Richard
2. Edinson Volquez
3. Jason Marquis
4. Casey Kelly
5a. Anthony Bass
5b. Cory Luebke

Yes, six listed here. With Luebke out until the All-Star break Anthony Bass deserves a regular turn in the rotation at least until Luebke returns. He has shown promise in stints both in the rotation and out of the pen the last two seasons, and should give the Padres the luxury of being able to take their time with Luebke. If the Padres don’t let him start, instead opting for Eric Stults, they are making a mistake. Eric Stults has no future in the organization and it would be asinine to take development time away from a pitcher that does. Eric Stults should do nothing more than try out for other teams during Spring Training before being given the option of going to Tucson or hitting the pavement.

Casey Kelly is a guy who the Padres didn’t want to start the clock on last year, but when pitcher after pitcher went down due to injury, they were forced to. Now that his clock is ticking, they need to use him. The athletic righty showed he is ready for the big leagues and should get the chance to make 30 starts in 2013. He and Bass are two reasons I think the Marquis signing was a waste of money and innings. Marquis is another guy that has nothing to do with the contending teams the Padres can field in 2014 and beyond.

Relievers

CL – Huston Street
SU – Andrew Cashner
SU – Luke Gregerson
RP – Brad Boxberger
RP – Dale Thayer
RP – Tommy Layne

No surprises here, I don’t think. Cashner will likely not start much if at all following his refusal of a winter ball assignment and a hunting accident that will cost him the first month of the season. This is a young man that the Padres feel needs to get his priorities in order. Meanwhile Tommy Layne takes the LOOG-ie role from Joe Thatcher. “Thatch” has been mentioned in trade talks and I wouldn’t be surprised if the team dealt him. If they don’t though, Layne may make the team in place of Boxberger, depending on the righty’s control and command.

Bench

C – John Baker
UT – Alexi Amarista
IF – Logan Forsythe
OF – Chris Denorfia
OF – Will Venable
OF – Mark Kotsay

As for the bench, John Baker is here because I don’t have faith that Nick Hundley is going to recover from a nightmare 2012 season. Alexi Amarista is too inconsistent at the plate to warrant regular time, but provides extreme flexibility and energy off the bench. Logan Forsythe is a better bat than Everth Cabrera, but cannot do what the Nicaragua native can do on defense or on the bases. When Headley goes (if that is this year or next) Forsythe starts at second, and Gyorko heads back to third.

As mentioned above, Venable (pull-happy) and Denorfia (awful defender) just haven’t been able to provide real consistency in right. It would not be a shock for them to platoon again all season, with Venable getting the better end of a 65/35 split in time. Mark Kotsay is basically a coach that can play first and left, and knock the fastball around as a pinch-hitter.

You will notice that Jesus Guzman is not on this list. This is because he has been rumored as a throw in on a few deals this winter, and presents almost no value to the club, with so many other quality options off the bench. His DH’s glove and lack of power make him a candidate to get waved in Spring Training.

The Outlook

Don’t expect the Padres to contend this year. They had a good second half last season and Chase Headley became a true franchise player. The club even added two capable young pieces to their lineup in Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso. They should add one if not two more this year. But the window is not open for the Padres just yet, these are only signs that the blinds have finally been drawn, the light let in. Hopefully the organization can recognize this and use 2013 to get pieces of the old era out of the way, to make way for the young players that will contribute to what can be an era of sustained contention.

Coming up next, I’ll project roster of the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers. I am anticipating having a hard time piecing together what their pitching staff will look like after Kershaw and Greinke.

[RA Rowe]

How Chase Headley Really Improved

Chase Headley: Silver Slugger

courtesy mlb.com

Recently Corey Brock wrote what was somehow deemed an “in-depth” piece on Padres third-baseman Chase Headley. He really just cooked up a pancake about Chase as a person. He sounds like a delightful guy, but the piece could have appeared in Us Weekly if people cared as much about ballplayers as they do about whores and douche-bags, or whatever.

The Reaction

Many claimed Brock offered answers to the question of how Chase Headley was able to make the sudden leap from solid big leaguer to silver slugger. Brock absolutely did not do this. (Nor did he claim to, for the record.)

Brock is the brand of baseball writer that functions as the fertilizer, which the nothing farm that is MLB.com uses to maximize the amount of nothing it can pull from the otherwise fertile soil of Major League Baseball. So, true to form, the following quote is used as a stand-in for actual analysis in Brock’s piece:

“[He] dedicated himself to being more of a run producer.”

Gee, that seems a little thin, don’t you think? I’m fairly certain every third baseman has dedicated himself to being good at baseball.

Open your mouth and open your mind, Corey, for this sweet, frosty “perhaps-icle” I’ve prepared. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has something to do with actual baseball stuff. You’ll see what I mean.

The Flippy Swing

I’ve been watching Chase Headley his entire career. Chase has always had an excellent eye and elite discipline, and has always been able to sting off-speed stuff over the plate. He rarely gets fooled, and his contact skills have never been in question. But prior to 2012, Chase Headley had a problem squaring up the mistake fastball. Why?

In order to make consistent contact and to prevent Petco from swallowing high fly balls, Chase developed a swing that was low risk and low reward. My father and I have taken to calling it the “flippy” swing. Sean Burroughs invented it. The scared-to-drive-the-ball approach may have been drilled into Chase as he entered the big leagues, or perhaps like so many other Padre hitters, he just psyched himself into adopting it.

Either way, pre-2012, Headley’s hands lagged behind his hips at the beginning of his swing, which meant he was always a tic behind the heater, and wasn’t getting as much out of his lower half as he could have.

Here is a gif of 2011 Chase Headley. Notice how the hips fire and the hands drag.

2011 Headley

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Changing Hands

You’ll still see Headley using this swing to keep his hands back on off-speed pitches, but he uses another swing when he gets a fastball he can drive. His hands fire instantly with the hips. He also added a leg kick to help crank more leverage out of his core. The added juice from the lower half adds the pop that was always present, but never utilized in his cut.

Behold: 2012 Chase Headley.

2012 Headley

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

That’s how you hit a bomb 20 rows back off a 90mph heater at the letters. Later in the same game he hit a second tater from the left side on a 93mph two-seamer, out over the plate. Same quick hands. This is Chase Headley dialed up to 11. This is what he is capable of.

Proof in Numbers

We can watch and watch, but the problem is that sometimes we see what we want to see. In this case, the pitch/FX data backs me up.

Since 2009 Chase Headley’s runs above average against fastballs has been below average, and actually got worse each year until 2012. At -1.7 in 2009, it bottomed out in 2011 at -4.6. In 2012 that number leapt to +24. No other pitch saw a spike near that magnitude. The change-up came closest, going from -1.1 in 2011 to +14.1 in 2012. The league noticed, as they threw him the lowest percentage of both fastballs and change-ups of his career. All the while, he was able to maintain near his career norms in runs above average against all other pitch types.

The New Headley

José Bautista is another hitter who we have seen make minor adjustments to become a major threat. Chase Headley didn’t just want it more last season, he actually changed something about his swing mechanics, which allowed him to add another tool to his game. To say that he just tried harder is to discount both Chase’s work ethic, and the talent of the Padre hitting coaches (Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell). But most dangerously, it provides the impression that last season was a fluke. It was not.

[RA ROWE]

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