Sometimes it feels like all the other GM’s are just bad AI in Alex Anthopolous’ video game. You know, the kind where you can eventually acquire Albert Pujols via trade if you lump together enough C-level prospects and filler major-leaguers. Didn’t like that deal? Ok, here’s another fourth outfielder and a free-agent I signed a month ago. No? Ok, I’ll throw in my entire A- team and some junk easily available on the waiver wire (also reminicient of 99% of the trade offers one tends to recieve while playing fantasy baseball).
Not that J.A. Happ is some kind of rotation saviour, but he’s a real, living, breathing, major-league lefty with some upside, whereas Wojciechowski and Musgrove are pitchers that many years and hopefully not too many surgeries down the road you hope develop into something like J.A. Happ. It’s like the Santos deal all over again! Errrr…forget I said that.
Anyway, as at least some of you know, I am a big believer in using K rates (or K/BB ratios if you’re getting fancy/accurate about things) to evaluate pitchers. They are much more indicative of a pitcher’s true ability and much less affected by luck or other factors than anything that involves runs/hits. I also like using graphs because trends pop out that might otherwise be obscured in year-by-year accumulations.
So here’s a graph of Happ’s K’s/start since 2009 that I was looking at a couple of weeks ago, thinking ‘gee, I wouldn’t mind if they picked this guy up while he’s struggling':
I know this is not highly scientific, but other than his 2009 September collapse (he was having a great year and then opponents hit .344/.976 off him the rest of the way), that looks to me very much like a pitcher that has been getting steadily deadlier. If I were Bruce Walton, I’d be excited about getting to work on him. His walk rate has been improving as well, and his fastball MPH is the highest it has ever been (90.33, up half a tick from 2009). It’s all the contact and HR that has the Astros giving up on him.
One thing I would consider is ditching Happ’s Curveball. Back in 2009, he was essentially a slider/changeup guy, and only threw 100 curveballs all year (4.5%). This year and last it has become his primary secondary offering (what a vile phrase) — he has already thrown 226 (13.7%), and while he gets more swing-and-misses on them than any of his other off-speed stuff, they only result in a strike 28% of the time, compared to 52% for his fastball, 38% for his slider, and 32% for his change.
Errr…wait. That probably explains the increase in K’s, too. He has fallen in love with his curve because guys don’t make contact with it, but he’s falling behind in counts and not getting the easy outs he was with his slider. So it makes sense that hits and HR would be up, too. Now do I rewrite this whole post so it looks like I knew that all this time, or just bail out now and put it in the title? Hmmmmm.
I know last night’s thrashing of the Reds felt really good, but philosophy? Confidence? Cito? Seriously?? Just as Jason Marquis one-hitting the Jays through 7 innings does not mean he’s found the Cy Young that has been trapped inside him waiting to get out all this time, the Jays beating up on a guy who came into the game with a 5.55 ERA (that was actually rather generous considering his 1.58 WHIP and homer and a half per game) does not mean, well…anything.
This should not have to be said. Or at least there should be some sort of parity between the “wow, those pitches were on a tee” and “the Jays look really aggressive!” commentary. Check out the gushing recap– mention of Arroyo giving up 10 runs in 1.0 inning? NONE. Cito angle? ALL.
True, the Jays have flopped against worse pitchers this year, but Arroyo was heroically bad last night:
Every. Single. Pitch. Was thigh high. 7 hits came on pitches 2 inches from deal center. And when he did venture to the outside of the plate, he made sure to give it to both righties and and lefties down and in. Rios’s home run was supposed to be about a foot higher, but it ended up high and tight, where we already knew Alex is hitting .444 this season. Arroyo’s fastball was dead straight and his curve was hilarious, saucering in or not even close.
Anyway – that was a long-deserved treat, but I was more excited about Burnett looking good than the Jays having a late batting practice and then scoring 4 runs the rest of the game against the mop up guys that the Reds threw out there. Let’s see how they do tonight (errr…tomorrow) against the best pitcher in the majors before planning the parade route…
Stairs openly trashed Denbo. The new coaches are barely holding back when they say they “don’t like what they see” and make comments about the Jays “mental approach” being messed up. Independent scouting confirms that they just weren’t swinging the bat, ever. But baseball is a funny game- immediately after being fired by the Jays a mere three months into his contract, some other team is willing to give Denbo another chance. Oh, wait…lordy. It’s us. Here’s hoping Travis Snider is 100% uncoachable.
Richard Griffin is still hilarious- Cito for GM! The Southpaw read the thoughts still forming in my mind (as usual) yesterday. The best GM’s aren’t the smartest? Huh? He should be GM because he can’t handle the grind of filling out the lineup card every day? Huh?? Putting a guy who has been out of baseball for a decade in charge of your entire organization is the way for the team to regain respect? HUH???
The Drunk Jays Fans are suitably incredulous in their recap of the whole J.P./Dunn thing that refuses to die. Apparently someone got J.P.’s phone number and the best they could think to do with it was to call up and apologize, then keep it a secret?! Worst. Prank. Ever.
The Red Sox were apparently interested in Reed Johnson if they Jays had not resigned him.
I’m not one to advocate sabotaging the Jays to spite other AL East teams (see DJF re: the O’s refusing to even discuss Bedard with the Jays), but seeing Reed coming into town with the evil empire would have been like that time I dumped my ex that I grew up with and she immediately hooked up with the bully who beat me up every day for my lunch money. If Reed had returned to his 2006 form it would have been like that time she lost 25 pounds, had extensive cosmetic surgery, and took up pole dancing for his birthday. If they had won the World Series again with him as a starting outfielder it would have been like that time I finally lost it, strangled them both with my bare hands, and set his parent’s house on fire in the middle of the night. Too personal? Too personal.
The Legend of Zaurro
It’s gathering as much dust as the rest of us this offseason, but you have to at least admire the production values of Gregg Zaun’s home page. Poke around and there’s a fan club and his workout regimen. I’m guessing this was an investment made sometime after his media career began to blosson but before he was busted by the Mitchell report.
This Just in: Broken Hands May Affect Bat Speed
Yesterday was Lyle Overbay’s 31st birthday. Quite rightly, him feeling pretty good is sending the Blogosphere into paroxysms of excitement. The theory behind Moneyball (the real one, not the bizarro version hacks like to piss on) is to find players that have underrated skill sets. Is that not the definition of Lyle? The only reason we’re paying him relatively nothing for the next three years is that defense and doubles fly under the radar.
Other than having four freaking pins in his hand, two things that didn’t help Lyle any were umps giving pitches half a foot off the plate as strikes, and a propensity to swing at changeups below the knees. I forgot Josh Kalk has already done all this, but here’s a look at the pitches Overbay did not put in play last year.
It looks worse than it was because all lefties get screwed on the outside part of the plate, but seriously- some of those pitches are halfway to the dugout.
Another interesting tidbit (although over a SMALLISH SAMPLE SIZE of 240 and 150 balls in play respectively) is that on pitches under 92 mph (your average fastball), Lyle’s BABIP was .290. For anything over that, it was .236. (See the comments for the numbers for the rest of the league). He also managed to put fewer of them in play. Ouch. That’s hurting.
A quick request from Mr. Roman who, after watching Travis Hafner way behind pitches in the ALCS, (striking out an ALCS record 12 times, capped off by going down on three straight heaters to Papelbon in the 7th game with two on) wondered if Boston was feeding him high fastballs, possibly taking advantage of him trying to go the other way off the Green Monster. Here are the fastballs that Hafner saw, and what he did with them (this includes cutters and two seamers- anything above 90 that didn’t break more than half a foot).
As you can see, Boston made a concerted effort to pitch him up and away. He took a lot of pitches right on the outside edge, fouled off a few right down the middle, and couldn’t catch up to anything at the letters. Kind of surprising for a batter who mashed those pitches all year. I wonder if the Red Sox, who have notoriously good advance scouts (check out Schilling gushing about them on his Blog) picked up something, or if his bat speed was just down at the end of a long season so they kept pounding him.
It’s kind of hard to see graphically, but between the first three games in the series (when Hafner went 3-11 with two BB and a HR) and the last four (when he went 1-19 with 11 K’s) the Sox changed from going low and away in the strike zone to challenging him with high heat. Hafner didn’t swing at the low and away pitches (that’s all those called strikes), but he went for the high stuff and couldn’t do anything with it. Here are his fastballs split between early and late in the series:
Two years ago, Russ Adams was ending what looked like the first of many seasons as our starting SS and leadoff man. It wasn’t a great season, but our team wasn’t so hot that year either. And compared to the black hole that we’ve had there for years, a guy who could hit .260 with a little pop, a lot of walks and a few stolen bases was positively intoxicating.
His defence was lacking, but the team was so sure he would continue to improve that they took the other SS we drafted in the first round and stashed him at second, even though Aaron Hill has a much better arm. Now that’s confidence!
Then he pulled a Knoblauch on us.
And couldn’t even hit any more.
Three months into last season the Jays had seen enough and he lost not only his spot with the club, but his position. This was no short term demotion to iron out some kinks, or to “find himself”. He was knocking the cover off the ball in AAA, but they didn’t even treat him like a prospect any more, and just kept him on the bench for most of the season gathering rust.
Then they signed Ray Olmedo, John McDonald, Jason Smith and Royce Clayton to make sure they had shored up the middle infield with mediocre players just to remove any chance that he could get another shot due to injuries. There were a few positive articles on him and Jerry Howarth shot his mouth off about him coming back in 2008, but all that J.P. would concede was that he could earn his way back to the club (i.e. BE BETTER).
At the all-star break this year, reported when Hill was(n’t really) injured that Russ would be recalled, but now that Royce has been given the axe, it’s Olmedo who is going to fill in around the infield and maybe play some SS as well.
Anyway, now that I’ve got you all hyped about the walking epic tragedy that is the career of Mr. Adams, go on over to Flying Through the Farm/The Jays Nest and read an absolutely superb, in depth analysis of his stats in AAA this year. God, they do good work over there.
There was a lot of speculation last year about the effect of the dome on R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, to the point where the dome was closed on a perfectly lovely fall day for his last start after Dickey made some noise in the media about wanting it that way. While Dickey seems like a guy who is exceptionally in touch with his craft, and a quick look at his numbers seems to support the idea, Alex Anthopolous is right to grumble about sample size and Dickey’s early-season injury making ERA comparisons questionable at best — especially since a major fight with the MLB is looming if the Jays start closing the dome next year on sunny days in June.
It has been rumoured that knuckleballers thrive in domes since the days of Wakefield crushing the Jays, but the details have always been vague. I’ve heard humidity and the wind raised as possible factors, but never a clear explanation of why, or whether the pitch is more controllable, less predictable, or has more movement on it inside a dome. Fortunately, pitch f/x records whether the roof was open or closed, as well as the wind and direction, so it’s possible to drill down and look at the results of individual pitches to investigate some of the theories floating around.
Theory 1: R.A. Dickey has better control over his knuckleball when the dome is closed.
Sounds plausible — if the knuckleball wasn’t quite so impossible to control it would be the best pitch ever, so maybe in calmer air the pitch is not quite as difficult to get over the plate. As Tom Candiotti said:
“It’s really a great place to pitch,” former Major Leaguer Tom Candiotti said of Rogers Centre. “I pitched with the roof open, I pitched with the roof closed, and I always preferred the movement of the ball and the consistency of the movement with the roof closed because it was the same every inning.”
However, there was absolutely no difference last year in the percentage of knuckleballs that ended up crossing the plate in the strike zone with the roof open compared to closed:
|Dickey’s Knuckleball Accuracy|
|Conditions||In zone %|
|2013 – Away Games||48|
|2013 – Dome Open||49|
|2013 – Dome Closed||49|
For most pitchers, this would not be enough to close the book on ‘control’– you really need to get into how close to the edges of the strike zone, or the spots that the pitcher is actually aiming for. But even Dickey acknowledges that at most he is starting his knuckler in slightly different regions of the strike zone and then letting the pitch do its random thing from there. You’d have a hard time convincing me that Dickey is somehow ‘hitting his spots’ within the strike zone better due to a more consistent knuckleball, but not throwing any more pitches in the zone overall.
Theory 2: Dickey’s Knuckleball is harder to hit with the roof closed.
So if the movement isn’t more consistent, is it just plain nastier? I think misses per swing (with fouls taken out of the equation since there is no way to differentiate between a foul tip and a 400-foot drive that hooked just foul) is the best measure of how difficult it is to make contact with an offspeed pitch. Yes, deception is important, and getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone can be as effective as throwing a pitch with incredible movement. But it all balances out very well into one number — if a major league hitter decides to swing at an offspeed pitch and comes up completely empty, that pitch had quality movement, whether it was down the middle or bounced in the dirt. And Dickey generated more misses with the dome closed last year:
|2013 – Away Games||40|
|2013 – Dome Open||32|
|2013 – Dome Closed||38|
Interesting, but a difference of 6% is not that significant, and Dickey’s numbers were just as good on the road in 2013. However, if we’re talking about swings and misses, remember that Dickey throws two hard knuckleballs (in addition to his 65 mph floater), one in the low 70’s and one in the high 70’s that he tends to use as a strikeout pitch. As I showed before last season started, it was throwing so many more of the high-70’s knuckler that made his strikeout rate go through the roof last year, and while pitching through injury early in the season, that pitch was largely missing from his repertoire. So here are his swing-and-miss numbers for Dickey’s knucklers that were thrown faster than 76 mph:
|Dickey’s knuckleballs > 76.0 mph|
|Year/Conditions||In Zone %||Miss/Swing %|
|2013 – Away Games||43||31|
|2013 – Dome Open||47||33|
|2013 – Dome Closed||53||48|
Now that’s something. It might not seem like it, but a 15% difference in miss rate is a TON. For example, the average miss rate for curveballs last year in the majors was 35.5%. The best curveball in the league (over 200 thrown) was 52%. So the difference in terms of swing-and-misses for Dickey’s hard knuckler with the dome closed compared to either being on the road, or with the dome open, was just about the same as between a run-of-the-mill curveball and the best one in the league.
Verdict: Very much so.
Ok, but why? Swings and misses are a lot better than ERA, but results are never quite enough to be totally sure — maybe he was more effective at home for other reasons like the mound, the home crowd, or he just happened to be facing poorer teams (correlation does not imply causation, for the statheads out there). But if there is proof of his knuckleball moving in a fundamentally different way under dome-closed conditions, that’s much more compelling and puts to rest any doubts remaining about the sample size or other factors.
So now let’s look at the average movement under different wind conditions, compared to those inside the dome. Pitch f/x movement is always measured in comparison to a spinless pitch, so the average for a knuckleball averages around 0 for both x (horizontal movement in inches, with positive values representing movement towards a left-handed batter) and y (vertical movement), since the random movement in all directions that the knuckleball takes on from there cancels out.
(Keep in mind that this is simply a measure of where the pitches tend to end up crossing the plate compared to where they would have if nothing was happening at all. This doesn’t have anything to say about when or how they flutter on the way to the plate.)
|Effect of wind on Knuckleball movement and results|
|Wind||PFX||PFZ||In Zone %||Miss %|
|Right to Left||0.05||0.03||0.50||0.30|
|Left to Right||-0.26||0.57||0.49||0.33|
So while a crosswind seems to have no particular (at least consistent) effect, on average Dickey’s knuckleball is more likely to have almost two inches more of up-and-away movement with the dome closed than in other wind conditions (the results are even more compelling if we only look at Dickey’s 76+ mph knuckleballs again: [pfx: -0.24 pfz: 1.35 with the dome open vs. pfx: 0.80 pfz: 2.15 with it closed]. As I showed in a previous article, that direction of movement is by far the most deadly: “Hitters swing through them almost twice as often as ones that sink down and in, and get fewer hits when they do make contact.”
There may be other reasons, but that makes sense considering that it’s a type of movement that is not seen in any other pitch. Sometimes Dickey’s knuckleball ends up having similar action to a changeup, or a slider, or even a rising fastball. But no other pitch in the world moves in that direction (Mariano Rivera’s cutter came the closest)
Theory 3: Higher humidity (with the dome closed) is good for the knuckleball.
Dickey has mentioned humidity as a factor several times, and In an interview with Michael Morrissey, Dickey gives his theory on how it helps the knuckle:
As expected, Dickey noted that domes and places with high humidity are good environments for his knuckleball. Domes are good because of the lack of wind. High humidity is good because “the seams grip the air better.”
But then in another interview, Dickey seems to suggest that it has an adverse effect (although he could be referring to overly humid conditions making it hard for him to get the proper grip, as most pitchers see their K rates drop at very high temperatures, most likely due to sweat):
Yes, a controlled climate is (desirable) and a dome offers you that,” Dickey said. “But if it’s been open all day and then it’s closed at game time, all that humidity (gets) stuck there and that’s not good (for a knuckleball).”
Anyway, humid air is actually less dense than normal air (seems backwards but is true), so I don’t buy the idea that it would grip the seams more. And if anything, less drag should make the knuckleball have less movement (imagine pushing a beachball through water compared to air). But another thing that would cause less resistance on the ball is having the wind at Dickey’s back — which is the other number that pops out from the above movement table as causing Dickey’s knuckleball to rise. (Wind “in” on the above table, which is a combination of in from right, left, and centre field — if we isolate down to wind coming straight in from CF, pfz rises even higher to 2.16).
This supports the idea that higher humidity inside the dome makes Dickey’s knuckleball rise and become harder to hit, in much the same way that wind at his back does — but there’s something else with the dome closed that gives it sideways movement as well, away from right-handed batters. Or that’s my theory, anyway — for a much more rigorous look at the physics behind what makes the knuckleball do its thing, check out Alan Nathan’s site.
Verdict: Highly probable, but best left to real physicists.
- While it might have some kind of subtle effect, Dickey’s knuckleball is not more ‘accurate’ in any meaningful way with the roof closed.
- Dickey’s knuckleball gets far more swings and misses when it rises/floats, especially up and away from right-handed batters.
- He can throw it harder to make that happen but also gets more lift if he has the wind at his back, and more lift + movement away from right-handed batters with the roof closed.
- The effect is much more pronounced on Dickey’s upper-70’s knuckleball than his lower-70’s offering, or his 65mph floater.
- The results are significant enough that if Dickey was starting for the Jays in a critical game there is a strong argument to be made in favour of closing the dome. (Or maybe a humidifier promotion? Hand fans for everyone in centre field? Starting the “hurricane” instead of the “wave”? The possibilities are endless…)
Some players simply will never have the ability to recognize and lay off tough pitches that start in the zone and wind out of it. I get that. It is entirely possible to have a reasonable career that is based on hitting first pitches and mistakes very, very, far, and accepting that once you get behind in the count it’s going to take a miracle to get on base.
But other times, the balance between taking strikes and chasing balls becomes so lopsided that opposing pitchers can adjust their entire pitching strategy to take advantage of a player. Without the fear of a potential walk, there isn’t the same need to get ahead with the first pitch, or ‘give in’ in a hitter’s count with a fastball, and a hitter just stops getting reasonable pitches to hit, ever. In the same way that it pays sometimes to bunt or else the opposition will play way back on the grass and gain more than you lose by bunting, sometimes you just have to take a close pitch that might very well be a strike just so the league knows you’re capable of it.
Case in point: J.P. Arencibia. On 3-2 counts, most hitters are going to see somewhat more strikes with the threat of a walk looming. But now that every scouting report on him is just a giant yellow highlighter down his walk, swing, and miss rates, only 46 percent of full-count pitches have been in the strike zone (down from 55% last year — and not surprisingly, he’s missing them at 48%, up from 32%). Which brings to mind a novel way to “make the adjustment” back at the league: never, ever, swing with the count full.
Using his current strategy of “attempting to use his baseball skills to avoid striking out” in full counts, JP has struck out 19 times and walked 6. He also has three singles and two doubles. If he was instead using the revolutionary approach of “keeping the bat on your damn shoulder at all times”, of the 46 pitches he saw in those counts, 21 were in the zone and 25 of them were out. So, if we forget that some of those pitches happened in the same at-bats due to foul balls:
Using skills to reach base: 19 strikeouts, six walks, 10 outs in play, three singles and two doubles, vs:
Doing absolutely nothing: 21 strikeouts, 25 walks, zero balls in play.
OF COURSE THIS IS AN ABSURD SUGGESTION. But no more than the fact that not using his bat in full count situations would not seriously affect how often Arencibia strikes out on 3-2, and that somehow convincing the league that he was in the batter’s box ready to do his thing when he was actually watching the payoff pitch from his usual position crouched behind the plate would more than double his walk rate overall. His average would fall from .218 to .215, but his OBP would soar from the current league-worst .253 up to .295. And with JP’s pop, that’s a major-league catcher!
I probably would have done more of this if I wasn’t completely statistically gassed by the time the fact that Josh Johnson even HAD a curveball rolled around. But as pointed out in the comment, any excitement over a new pitch has to be tempered by the fact that it won’t be a novelty for long. Only time will really tell, but here’s a look at the evolution of JJ’s new pitch as the year progressed:
1a) Movement — Side-to-side (pfx)
Pfx is where the ball ended up along the horizontal plane compared to where it would have without spin, in inches. Clearly, there is a lot of variation from one pitch to the next but also a downward trend, which means the pitch moved less from right to left as the season went on. Also, there was less spread, which is most likely a sign of increased consistency from JJ. His first 200 curveballs had a standard deviation of 1.93, and his last 230 were at 1.79 (to try to get at what that means in baseball terms would be stupid).
Also, see that patch right over the 200 mark where every single curve is below 4? That corresponds to July 4-18, 3 starts where JJ got shelled in an otherwise excellent stretch.
1b) Movement — Up-down (pfz)
I took the liberty of splitting these pitches up by start to address the elephant in the room — right in the middle of those three crappy starts mentioned above, Josh Johnson’s curveball dropped an extra half foot for one start (immediately after the All-star game, incidentally). Then for the rest of the season, the ‘drop’ on his curve steadily decreased. Experimenting with a new grip? Broken nail? Craft your own narrative…
1c) Movement — Bend (break_length)
Looks like an increasing amount of ‘bend’ early in the season, then a shaky patch around the all-star break, and a downward trend at the end of the season. The single start highlighted in red is his August 25 start, which was his one other blowup of the year after the break. For some reason leading into that start his curveball started to flatten out, and then was atrocious as the Dodgers pounded him for 10 hits and six runs through three innings.
I’m not trying to imply that it was all due to his curveball, but I find it really cool that there are usually completely obvious reasons for a sucky start rather than all the hocus-pocus about ‘not being sharp’, or ‘leaving a few pitches up’ we hear. I mean, of COURSE he’s not going to spill the beans on national TV after the game, but you know JJ was thinking ‘what the heck is wrong with my curveball, we gotta get on that’ after that game. Someday, every pitcher will get post-game reports like this, as umpires do (did?) with QUESTEC.
2a) Results — Miss %
What I did here was plot for every swing whether the result was a hit or miss, and then run a rolling average (series=15). So apparently the league started to make more contact against JJ’s curve after a certain point
2b) Results — Hits
Same thing, with hits/balls put in play. Sample size is starting to become an issue, but that’s a very clear spike in the middle of the season.
2c) Results — In Zone %
2d) Results — Chase out of zone
Just including these to be complete…nothing really pops out as conclusive for me.
- Johnson tightened up his Curve into more of a pure 12-6 as the season went on.
- He was getting more and more drop on it until the all-star break, when something went horribly wrong. From then on, that trend reversed.
- It was getting more and more ‘loopy’ until late in the season, when again, after a terrible start, things started moving in the opposite direction.
- The league was more and more able to make contact with his curve as the season went on.
- This lead to more and more hits coming against it until the midway mark, at which point, yep, things reversed dramatically.
Lumping all this together, I would say that Johnson was working on making his curve more and more nasty as the league was catching up to it, and then somewhere around the mid-way point (possibly spurred on by it falling apart) wisely switched his focus to making it more controllable so he could place it more effectively. But that might be just because I know that’s what happens to every rookie pitcher and it makes sense that it would for a veteran with a new toy…
3ai) Random — average # of Strikes in count when throwing curveball
Just a cute, not-particularly-scientific way of seeing if he was throwing it more often later in the count, i.e. a punchout pitch, as the year went on. Yep. With one crazy stretch where he gave up on it. Doing the same thing for this slider suggests that he went back to using his slider later in the count after the break:
3aii) SLIDER — average # of Strikes in count when throwing slider
Annnnnd I’ll just bury at the very bottom of another long post a semi-apology to Bot Elliott after he clarified the Johnson #3 comment during in his online chat with: “Right now they have a lot of No. 3s or maybe Morrow is a No. 2 and Johnson could be if his shoulder allows him to add missing MPH”. That is without a doubt the most informed reason for saying that, although I still think it’s quite the bombshell to drop without any context or attempt to back it up.
Update: Ok, I take that back. Random comments from mystery men at the winter meetings is just not compelling journalism. YOU’RE IN THE HALL OF FAME, BOB. Have an opinion! Say something! Don’t just pass on this scuttlebutt like it’s this incredible inside information but you just…can’t…give up your source. Putting together that Lawrie runs and Gibby is a red light did not exactly require Deepthroat in the parkinglot, y’know?
It’s a real shame the Jays lost Brian Butterfield along with John Farrell; his ability to turn above-average infielders into elite ones will certainly be missed. Would he have made a good manager, though, and was it worth it to give him the reins to keep his infield coaching skills around? I was never as enamoured with his in-game strategy and it could have been another Farrellesque invocation of the Peter Principle — where a team is forced to promote a guy from being a very good coach to being not a particularly good manager.
But relaxxxxx. Now there’s a Hale behind the bench. We’re in the best hands there are. Here’s former player Lou Merloni gushing about his time spend under Demarlo. And Peter Gammons preemptively calling this a ‘coup’. Obviously I’m a little too close to the situation for my comments to carry much weight (we won the three-legged race together at the last reunion), so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that our conversation as we were unlacing our shared limb and accepting the trophy went something like this:
“So how did you acquire such a sterling reputation around baseball for studying opponent’s tendencies anyway, Demarlo?”
“Well son, it all comes down to rigorous statistical analysis of advanced pitch tracking data.”
“Hey, that’s kind of my thing, too! It must run in our shared DNA.”
“No kidding! Well, I’ll give you a call if I ever end up in Toronto needing a right-hand man who is a pitch f/x expert willing to work long hours for peanuts to make the next Moneyballesque statistical revolution happen in his home town.”
“Haha, not like that’ll ever happen, but I’m taking you up on your offer if it does!”
I’m going to have to cut off the memory playback there because at this point apparently my giant dog, Falcor, flew both of us away from the Blue Meanies and onto Lollipop Island where we watched Joe Carter hit back-to-back home runs to win the 2013 world series. But other than that last bit, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how it went down*.
*If you think this is a stupid post, imagine the photoshop job that I decided wasn’t worth it.
At first it seemed odd that notorious dickhead and abrasive personality Shea Hillenbrand would be so gracious and contrite when asked to comment on the re-signing of John Gibbons as the Blue Jays manager, but after some cutting-edge journalistic work we at the Mockingbird have managed to uncover both sides of the AP interview quoted in part by the Star. Here now, in its entirety for the first time, is the complete and unedited interview with Shea Hillenbrand:
ASSOCIATED PRESS: Hello, Shea? This is the Associated Press calling. As you may or may not know, John Gibbons has recently been re-hired as manager of the Blue Jays. Just wondering if you had any comment on that?
SHEA: “That’s awesome. He’s a great guy.”
AP: What? No, I said JOHN GIBBONS. Former manager of yours. The guy who stopped playing you halfway through the season, challenged you to a fight during the ensuing fallout, and then refused to stay on as manager if you remained on the team. Do you have anything to say about him or what happened between the two of you?
SHEA: “I think he handled the situation that we had very professionally and I didn’t handle it professionally at all.”
AP: Wow, really? Gotta say I’m a little surprised. Did NOT think you were going to say that. Ok, well so much for that story…hey, how are all your wacky animals? Do you still have the rabbits and the lemur and the miniature horses and all those fucking tortoises? Did you ever get the Zebra and Buffalo you wanted? Ha ha ha. I mean, you run a petting zoo now, right?
SHEA: “All I know is that during my time with him he was a really good manager and I think he did a really good job with what he had.”
AP: Yeah, yeah, you already said that. Big of you. I was talking about…wait. Something’s wrong. Are you in trouble, Shea? Is he there? Don’t say anything…just use his first name in a sentence if you can’t talk to me right now./p>
SHEA: “I think John’s going to be a great addition to that ball club and he’s a great guy.”
AP: OH god. I’ll send for help. You just hang tight, Shea. I knew this wasn’t over.
Boy, getting to know the business side of baseball sure takes a lot of the fun out of being a fan. Big trades used to be like opening presents on Christmas day: a consequence-free deluge of sparkly new toys to marvel at and get ready to have fun with. These days the wrapping is barely off the latest backup catcher and I can’t help but run to Cot’s Contracts and figure out exactly what we’re paying for all this.
But that’s what it all comes down to when you’re faced with management that sees the on-the-field product in strict terms of return on short-term investment. It may not be “our money” — but the fact is that if Rogers doesn’t spend it wisely, the lack of immediate on-field results and ensuing attendance increase will cause them to doubt that fielding a premium-quality team is really worth it, and WHAM! We’re back watching another slightly-better-than-average club for the next two decades or so.
The last time Rogers was almost goaded into spending dough on the rotation, the team ended up with a bait-and-switch boondoggle — Wells instead of Lilly and Meche — that sent the Jays back into a rebuilding phase overnight. So how does the latest round of acquisitions rank in terms of bang-for-buck, as compared to the dreaded free-agent market we always hear we are so wise to avoid? Wait…didn’t most of these guys get signed to these exact same contracts on said dreaded free-agent market last year?!?
Exhibit A: Mark Buehrle (3 years, 48 mil = 16 mil/per)
Exactly one offseason ago, the Marlins signed Buehrle to a 4-year pact that averaged out to 14.5 million a season over four years. Back then, pundits chuckled at how much the team was overpaying out of a misguided attempt to buy a winner for the new stadium because while Buehrle is ridiculously durable, he is also just a tick above average at this point in his career (even after his rather astute late-career move to the NL).
Anyway, since the original deal was overly generous AND back-loaded, the Marlins have managed to wiggle off the hook and dump their mistake on us (hey, that’s AA’s signature move!) after paying just 6 mil for one season along with Buehrle’s 4-million signing bonus. Even granting a lower-than average risk of decline in his mid-thirties because he’s a slow-tossing lefty, 16 million a season is way, way, too much to pay for a guy who is a minor upgrade on Henderson Alvarez, ten years older, and on the wrong side of his career slope. That’s ok though, I’m sure we’ll be compensated for doing the Marlins such a big favour later in the trade…
Exhibit B: Jose Reyes (6 years, 114 million = 19 mil/per OR the almost certain option of 5 years, 99 million, or 19.8 mil/year)
Have the Blue Jays ever traded for such a major contract? At almost 20 million dollars a year in salary (unless you think Reyes is going to be worth paying 22 million dollars at age 36) this is the big-name investment in the team everyone has been waiting for. And again, the Jays take on a slightly worse version of the deal that was widely reviled when the Marlins gave it to Reyes last season, when he was coming off a crazy contract year that to nobody’s surprise he in no way lived up to, regressing instead to his gradually-declining career numbers.
Reyes is an upgrade, but not a lineup-changing one that it makes sense to throw top dollar at. His glove drifted from not good to really bad last season, and other than 40 steals, Escobar had better production in 2009/2011. As well, turning 30 is a very scary time for speedy middle infielders. If people are going to scoff at the idea of Prince Fielder’s body holding up until he’s 36, I’ve got binders full of dynamic middle infielders wearing down in a hurry in their early 30’s. Imagine having made a major five-year investment in Jimmy Rollins at 30. Or Roberto Alomar at…errrr…33. “Young player” tools do not decline gracefully, and Reyes is on his way down what could be a very slippery slope.
Not that the team doesn’t get a lot more palatable. Reyes is a legit leadoff man who will be fun to watch when he’s healthy (triple=most exciting play in baseball), and Escobar was a lazy, underperforming, dickwad. But if coming into this offseason, AA had announced that Reyes had somehow become available and that he was planning on offering him a five-year, 100-million-dollar contract in order to beef up the offence, it would have been deemed an incredible waste of money at what clearly should not be the Jays’ #1 priority (especially when it leaves us with a backup player staring at second). But frame it as a trade, and wooooooooo! We rooked those guys by getting something for nothing!!! Unless you believe/it is true that free agents just won’t sign in Toronto of their own free will under any conditions, it just doesn’t make sense to get excited about trading quality prospects for players that the team could have been right there bidding on the previous season at a better price/year with no players given up in return.
So that’s two parts of this deal that sees the Jays taking on the Marlins’ mistakes and paying more than market value for these players, which means we’re going to get it alllll back in the super-sweet third part of the deal in exchange for all the prospects we threw into the deal, right?
Exhibit C: Josh Johnson (1 year = 13.75 Million/per)
Crap. Not so much. Johnson is the top of the rotation arm that the Jays actually need, and the one that they were willing to take on the other two bloated contracts for. His deal is also the only one of the bunch worth giving something up for, as it would almost certainly take more than 13.75 million to replace Josh Johnson on the free agent market next year. But not that much more.
Anibal Sanchez is essentially the same age and quality of pitcher (heck, he had a slightly better year than Johnson and his velocity isn’t down post-surgery — see my pitch f/x post on Johnson coming soon), and he’s asking for 15 million for six years, or 1.25 million more per season over five additional years. That means for the right to pay a similar pitcher in his prime 1.25 million dollars less, and to have him under contract for just one year instead of six, the Blue Jays took on two contracts that were bad when they were freely available last year and have since gotten worse, and gave up Alvarez, Hechavarria, Marisnick and Nicolino. How exactly is this better than blundering around in free agency again?
Exhibit D: John Buck (1 Year, 6 million)
It seems petty to mention it when there are 100-million dollar contracts flying around, but this is another part of this “trade” that is less of a “trade” and more of a “we’ll save you some money”. Since he left Toronto, Buck has completely fallen off the rails and doesn’t even have the defensive prowess of Mathis to compensate for hitting around the Mendoza line. So the Jays take on four million dollars for a clear downgrade at catcher, which is widely reported thusly: “also acquired in the deal is catcher John Buck, who hit .281 with 20 HR during his last stint with the Jays”…
I don’t mean to be a total grinch. This will make for much better baseball in Toronto next season. But this trade is being over-celebrated because the media looks at it like fantasy baseball, our guys for their guys — in which case it’s highway robbery. The truth is, under baseball’s current economic system, the only time a team ‘wins’ this kind of payroll dumping transaction is when in exchange for prospects they get players on the cheap, which is clearly not the case here. While it looks terrible for the Marlins in terms of talent lost and the direction of the franchise, these were such bad contracts when signed that it is isn’t a huge haul of talent for the roughly 50 million bucks a season the Jays are absorbing, either. Considering that the two top pitchers out there are asking for 15 and 25 million dollars a season respectively and it’s hard to imagine having to spend more than 30 million on the rotation, anyway, without the need to pay Reyes like a superstar and give up some good young players.
If all this happened because Rogers is opening the floodgates and finally making a big, sustained push for the playoffs and the hearts of fans, then great. For rather a lot of money and prospect value the team has managed to improve at a very thin position, leaving room for even more investment in left field. But if this was Anthopoulos’ one chance to get big results from the long-awaited cash infusion, then he didn’t get the value that he needed in order to make the making the postseason next season more than a faint hope — which could mean this round of rebuilding the Blue Jays just jumped the shark.
Giant pat on own back time: you can follow this link or just scroll down a little to where I said this about J.A. Happ upon his arrival in Toronto.
“One thing I would consider is ditching Happ’s Curveball…”
Apparently Bruce Walton and the Blue Jays agreed, because when Happ went to the bullpen for a couple of starts he did not use his curveball once, and after returning to the rotation dialed the use of it way, way, back. In his last start before breaking his right foot, Happ threw just 3 curveballs while striking out 9 batters.
|Month||Happ’s Curveball %|
In his short time has a starter with the Jays, ditching the curve lead to a slightly better walk rate for Happ and crazy strikeout numbers (39 in 33 1/3 innings), although starts against Baltimore, Tampa and even Detroit padded those totals, as they lead the majors in whiffing against lefty sliders. Still, other than one shaky start against the Yankees, Happ looked promising during his transition to the AL East and has the potential to eat some quality innings next year — especially if Bruce Walton continues to read this blog and tweak his repertoire according to latest pitch f/x numbers, ha!
As part of this Blog’s charter, I have to keep up a 1:1 ratio of nerd tables to rants cussing out the Sun/Richard Griffin/Rogers, so…just in case you missed Henderson Alvarez recovering from what looked like a early trip to the showers after three runs in the first to absolutely mow down the Yankees the rest of the way (which you almost certainly did since Rogers sucks and only ever shows afternoon games on SN-1), the difference between him throwing batting practice and dominating the Yankees like he has never dominated a team before is apparently about a two-inch change in his release point. Here’s how it changed during his Jekkyl-and-Hyde start:
|When||Four-Seamer X (inches)||Four-Seamer Y||Two-Seamer X||Two-Seamer Y|
|Rest Of Game||-23.9||73.1||-22.5||73.0|
That may not seem like a lot, but releasing the ball two inches closer to the body and three inches lower is a pretty serious change at this level. Good on whoever spotted the problem and him for making the mid-game adjustment to his mechanics. It looks like that made his 4-seamer accurate and his 2-seamer dart out of the zone for a swing-and-miss pitch (as he has essentially abandoned his slider again and only threw 8 all game).
Hmmm…actually, his arm slot adjustment may have been a more gradual thing than all that. Here is what happened to Alvarez’s horizontal release point on his four-seamer through the game. Essentially, this is how far away his body he is releasing his heater (with lower being further away…ugly, I know). See it start to slip again towards the end of the game as he tires? Someday there will be a pitch f/x nerd in every dugout so managers don’t have to rely on their bleary eyes or the word of their starter to tell if a guy is out of gas and starting to unravel…
Now the same thing done for his 2-seamer. That one crazy spike was, as you might expect, a total slip that ended up floating in at 90 mph a foot off the plate. Might have been an attempt at a change, even. Anyway, it looks like a key for Alvarez is to stop himself from ‘flying open’, stay ‘compact through his delivery’, ‘on top of the ball’, and all that Jazz…
In the first inning of the Cubs-Astros game today, Anthony Rizzo struck out on two fastballs from J.A. Happ on the corner that I’ll bet he was muttering about on the way back to the dugout…”that was the same @#$@#$@#$ pitch!”
Well, not quite. They were both almost exactly the same height. According to pitch f/x, one of them was 2.021 feet above the ground, and the other 2.098 (one inch apart) both above the bottom of Rizzo’s strike zone. But the first pitch was -0.835 feet outside, and the second -0.815. In other words, the first pitch was 10.02 inches outside, and the zone is 10 inches (from the centre of the plate to the centre of the ball), so it was 1/50th of an inch off the plate. Laz Diaz correctly identified it as a ball. The next was in almost the exact same location but 9.78 inches outside — more than a fifth of an inch over the plate. Laz correctly rung Rizzo up.
I know even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes, but credit where credit is due and that is a pretty unbelievable sequence when you think about how fine an adjustment that is for the pitcher to make and the umpire to identify, even if one or both of them got lucky.
Incidentally, the Jays should really stop showing up the umps. Encarnacion threw up his hands in the air in disbelief on a high curve that was pretty much right down the middle of the plate, at the belt today. Arencibia was giving the ump a lecture on a high curve that was high, yeah, but also a strike. Lawrie was out last night (and Zaun showed his disgust back in the booth, it was awesome) and he made the safe sign and said “I was safe” 67 times in 14 seconds. I know it must be hard sometimes, but it really doesn’t help…
From the very start, I thought it was pretty silly to believe that the Jays were going to — or really trying to — compete for a wildcard spot this year. But now that the injury bug has hit (and come on…how unlikely was it when you’re relying on a 3 through 5 that have never thrown anywhere close to 200 innings in their life?), Toronto fans are being presented with — and swallowing hook line and sinker — a false choice about what can be done:
a) Hack and slash the cream of the farm system for a one-year rental.
b) Do nothing.
Rogers is so beholden to the short-term bottom line, so committed to not investing one red cent until the team is in the World Series, that this blinkered viewpoint has spread over to the commentators, fans, and media. Tough break, but that’s just the way it is, they parrot. Time to throw your hands in the air and run Jamie effing Moyer out there (as a “classy distraction” — BARF), who at this point is nothing more than a feel-good story that the current trash of the league, the Rockies and Orioles, has realized has zero actual baseball value at this point.
I call B.S. There’s a c). It’s called building a fan base. It’s called generating a little goodwill. It’s seeing the big picture of what you’re trying to do here, and ‘wasting’ a little cash to show your fans some respect. It’s what real teams do, and are rewarded for in spades in the long run.
Here’s how it works: you find some team that really has a good reason to have given up for the next few years and has a contract for a veteran starter that they want to get rid of. And you take it on. It is not good value. It might be really, really, terrible value. But you only have to ship some joke of a prospect to get some rotation filler. The team almost certainly still misses the playoffs. But it doesn’t get ugly. I mean, offering up a AAA rotation ugly.
It’s only a ‘waste’ if you don’t consider any of the intangibles. Maybe you get a vet to help tutor the kids. Maybe you get the kind of decent middle-of-rotation guy you’re going to need in a couple of years anyway that you trade-and-sign. Maybe you just get a little hope for the second half and some draft picks when he walks. Maybe the team actually sticks around in the hunt for a while and the Dome isn’t a ghost town in September.
I’m not saying it’s ‘time to get desperate’ and just spend willy-nilly, but taking on payroll is not even being thrown around as an option — as if putting some of the mythical 120 million dollars that we keep hearing is coming ‘just around the bend’ towards fielding a product worth watching on the field once every five days is going to throw the team into a financial tailspin.
Going from comically over-the-top “IT’S OUR TIME” swagger to waving the white flag in the first half with a winning team, hot bats, fan-interest and a reachable wildcard, all because a bunch of injuries that were waiting to happen happened is a joke. It’s not AA’s fault — the guy is an absolute genius to do what he’s done with such little financial support. It’s not the team’s fault. It’s not the trainer’s fault. It is the fault of a passive, uninterested, thinking-small group who makes the financial decisions at the very top. But hey, as Toronto fans we’re used to that — right? Far too used, I say.