Friday, May 2, 2008

Where Can Barry Bonds Find a Home?

Barry Bonds, still one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball (.276/.480/.565 last year in 340 PA), has not yet signed for a team in 2008. While I find this situation to be utterly ridiculous, it does make for a good opportunity for speculation about his future home. Some think that he will end up with the Tigers; others think that he will end up with the Yankees. I think that he will end up with the Mariners.

The Tigers already have a glut of hitters, including DH candidates Gary Sheffield and Marcus Thames. While both Sheffield and Thames are right handed, Sheffield remains competent against righties, posting a .819 OPS against them during the past three years. Plus, they have plenty of outfielders already; Magglio Ordonez and Curtis Granderson will need to be rested from time to time and inserting Bonds as the DH full-time removes the possibility of giving other hitters partial days off. Due to an already clogged OF with good options available, Bonds doesn't make much sense in Detroit without a trade or two for bullpen help. And since good relievers are in short supply these days, it is unlikely that such a deal will be made and there has been no sign that one will materialize soon.

As for the Yankees, they suffer from a similar problem. They already have four outfielders who warrant regular play (Matsui, Damon, Cabrera, and Abreu) and a clogged DH situation. Jason Giambi is a liability at 1B and needs regular rest to avoid injury. Shelley Duncan can play 1B and OF and hammers lefties. Jorge Posada might need days off from catching once he gets back from the DL, and the DH spot is a perfect fit for him on those days. Plus, The Yankees are already heavy on lefty bats, making Bonds a less than perfect fit. And in the New York media circus, it is a near certainty that Bonds will dominate the headlines. All in all, this makes little sense.

The Seattle Mariners, however, are a different story. While they just called Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien, they still have room for Bonds. Their outfield situation isn't crowded; they have their starters (Ibanez, Ichiro, and Balentien) and Willie Bloomquist. No offense to Willie, but he's not an everyday player. Plus, their DH situation isn't that crowded either. Sure, Clement needs to start some days but he can catch and Kenji Johjima isn't exactly burning up the majors right now. If Clement catches against righties, then the Mariners have plenty of at-bats to give Clement and Bonds. Jose Vidro is washed up and has been for some time now. Additionally, the Seattle lineup only has 2-3 left-handed batters right now so there's no worry about overloading the lineup. There's nothing standing in the way of adding Barry to Mariners' lineup.

Plus, the Mariners are not built for long-term success. By trading away Adam Jones, they essentially went for broke this year. Adding Barry Bonds would make their lineup much more formidable and would improve their chances of catching the Angels in the AL West.

So how about it, Bavasi?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Second Home

I wanted to let everyone know that I'm writing for the Bleacher Report (link provided) in addition to this blog. There will be some pieces that you can find there that you can't find here. Those will be responses to other pieces on the site.

Anyway, I'm watching Kennedy's start tonight and will give a follow-up to my previous analysis. Hopefully, he'll attack the zone and justify my confidence in him.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mad Max

I was going to write about a few prospects who got the call-up recently but after watching Max Scherzer destroy the Astros, I had to write about him.

For those who are not familiar with his repertoire, Scherzer exhibits a nasty, heavy fastball that sits at 93-96 and touches 98 (Edit: The TV gun was slow and I revised this thanks to new information). His fastball is reminiscent of Kevin Brown in his prime; the ball simply explodes through the zone, forcing weak contact and getting lots of swings and misses. He was working up and down in the zone, getting 94 MPH fastballs at the knees for strikes early and then elevating later in the count (increasing the velocity as well). He also shows an average change-up from 84-88 and a show-me slider.

The major knocks on Scherzer are that really only has one plus pitch (his fastball) along with a strange head-whack he has toward the end of his delivery. The head-whack is a bit overstated, in my opinion. He jerks his head down and toward first base just before he releases the ball. This may put more strain on his shoulder long-term since it's moving his body farther away from the ball's release point but it doesn't seem to effect his control at all. He keeps his head facing toward the plate, unlike someone like Okajima, and can command both sides of the plate.

Edit: I looked through the tape again and found that his command wavered at times but improved near the end of his outing. He got quite a few players to swing at balls, which shows how much movement his fastball has. However, he doesn't need to have pinpoint command. If he can keep his walks down, then I think he'll be fine.

As for his line: 4.1 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 7 K. Not bad, right? This wasn't luck, either. He looked incredibly dominant. When he matched up against Lance Berkman, he got ahead with a fastball, a hard foul ball with a change-up, then blew Berkman away with two more fastballs (first one fouled off, the second one up and away). Berkman looked off-balance and was late on most of the fastballs. Now, Berkman is an outstanding fastball hitter. This wasn't luck. This was dominance.

I'm not sure if Scherzer can sustain this level of performance unless he can refine his offspeed pitches more. His repertoire might be better suited for a relief role as a dominant closer. I do want to see them give him a chance as a starter. He maintained his velocity through the four innings and he showed no control problems in the minors.

The skinny: This kid is the real deal. He could be this year's Joba (for you fantasy guys) and possibly even more. If you get a chance, watch a game and see how his fastball dominates big-league hitters. It might make you giggle (I definitely did) and it will certainly provide more evidence that the Diamondbacks are going to be a quality team for years to come.

Give Kennedy Time

In response to some comments on a previous post, I'd like to talk about Ian Kennedy, the third Musketeer in the Hughes/Joba/Kennedy triumvirate. He has had a rough start to his season, with an 8.53 ERA, 0-2 record, an a horrible 17:15 BB:K ratio. Terrible numbers, to be sure. However, I think he's going to be just fine.

Kennedy's hallmark as a minor league pitcher was his impeccable command of his fastball. In 2007, his only full year in the minors, he posted the following numbers (spread across A+, AA, and AAA): 12-3 W-L, 146.1 innings, 1.91 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 6 HR allowed, 163 K, and 50 BB.

These are outstanding numbers, with consistent success at all three levels. He continued to do well at the major league level last year as well in a three game cameo at the end of the season (19 IP, 1.89 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 15 SO, 9 BB).

This year, his command has been awful, as evidenced by his 17:15 BB:K ratio. So what is his problem and is it going to persist?

Looking at the Pitchf/x data (using Josh Kalk's excellent Pitchf/x tool), I spotted a few interesting things about Ian's pitching. First, a little information about his fastball. The most obvious thing that jumps out at me is that his command of it isn't quite as bad as previously indicated. He has 55 balls and 105 strikes (23 of those strikes being in play outs and 8 being hits). His other three pitches are also mediocre; if you combine his curveball, slider, and change-up, he registers 43 balls and 73 strikes (17 in play outs and 5 hits, all singles). So overall, his control isn't horrible, but it's not good either.

He's having trouble missing bats with his fastball (3.125% swing and miss but is doing ok with his other pitches (a combined 16.4% swing and miss). He's not Tim Lincecum but he's not horrible either. So what is his problem?

He's getting behind too many batters early in the count and walking too many guys. 29 of his at bats have ended in a hitter's count (any of 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2). 34 have ended in a pitcher's count (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2). 11 have ended in a neutral count (0-0, 1-1). Clearly, he's not getting ahead of hitters with any regularity. Hitters do much better against Kennedy after reaching hitter's counts and much worse when put into pitchers' counts. This is true for pretty much all pitchers and hitters. It is called count leverage. And once the count gets to three balls and any number of strikes, guys are teeing off on him to the tune of an OPS well over 1.200.

About 26% of at-bats against him reach a 3 ball count. Compare that to Brian Bannister (who is a somewhat similar pitcher, having decent stuff but great command and control) who only has 12.7% of at-bats reach 3 ball counts. Clearly, Kennedy needs to be more aggressive in the strike zone early in the count.

So what's the diagnosis? I believe that Kennedy will make the necessary adjustments to succeed. He proved that he has the ability to throw quality strikes in the minors and there is little reason to believe that this suddenly deserted him. Plus, he's already throwing strikes now when he's behind in the count. His fastball tails in on right handers pretty well so he can be aggressive with it early in the count.

If he takes a page out of the book that Maddux bequeathed to Brian Bannister and uses count leverage to his advantage, he should be fine.

The Beginning of Zito's End

So as I mentioned in my last post, Barry Zito is flat out awful. And as of yesterday, he's now awful in the Giants' bullpen. While I definitely think Zito shouldn't be in their rotation, the question now becomes: What value does he have in their bullpen?

The most obvious place for him would be as a long man or as a lefty specialist. We'll start with the latter first.

This year, Zito is slightly better against lefties than righties. But that's not saying much; righties have an OPS of .947 against him while lefties sport a nifty .810 OPS. Last year was slightly better, with the righty/lefty split at .723/.714. In 2006, it went the other way, with lefties actually having a higher OPS against him (.767) than righties (.754). These are not the numbers of a man who dominates like-handed batters. So this not a good place for him at all.

We've already seen how ineffective he is over several innings so he will probably be just as bad out of the bullpen. However, there is value in him eating up innings in blowouts. If the Giants are down 8-0 in the fifth, they're not coming back. Their offense just doesn't have that sort of ability to score runs. So Zito can provide value by soaking up innings (even if he's horrible in doing so), keeping their effective bullpen arms well-rested. It's not a glamorous role (and probably one any average AAA pitcher could manage) and definitely not worth $126 million, but it's something.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Zito = Zero

I'm watching the matchup of Zito vs. Webb and it's not pretty. Sure, the score is 2-1 Snakes but it won't be for long, in all likelihood (edit: Byrnes just hit a ground-rule double to center to make it 3-1 and a flare to center right after makes it 4-1. Zito gets saved by an amazing diving catch by Velez to end the inning). Webb is nasty as usual; his sinker is one of the dirties pitches I've ever seen. It almost looks like a breaking ball. It falls vertically a ton and he creates separation from his actual breaking pitches by about 5-8 mph, which for him is plenty. It's different from Wang's because it's a bit slower but seems to break farther. I'll do a bit of looking at Pitch f-x later to see if that's actually true.

Anyhow, this post is about the corpse of Barry Zito. Not so long ago, he was a Cy Young caliber pitcher. He was in the low 90's with his fastball, had good command, and could throw a devastating 12-6 curveball for strikes or bury it out of the zone at will. He also had a decent changeup.

Today, his fastball topped out at around 85 mph and he had little control of it. Early in the game, he was missing up in the zone with his fastball and occasionally left his change up in the zone as well. His curveball looked fine, freezing a few batters and inducing some harmless pop-ups as guys went chasing it down. However, it is less effective now because he is usually behind in the count so guys can simply take the pitch and wait for a better offering. Also, it was not being called a strike with any regularity so Zito had to look elsewhere to get ahead.

His mechanics looked fine to me. He strides well, gets his body under him, and keeps his head steady. He firms up his glove side well and doesn't seem to do anything funky with his arm action. The ball simply has no life to it.

I have no idea if he's hurt. It doesn't seem like he is, to be honest. His velocity simply vanished. I have heard that pitchers can lose velocity if their tendons and ligaments get stretched out over time. Sometimes Tommy John's surgery can help correct that because the new ligament is tighter. That may be the cause of Zito's velocity loss but his loss of command and control is even more puzzling. He simply cannot succeed, even in the NL, without velocity and/or plus command and control.

The Zito contract was a mistake when it was made. However, it looks even worse now that the Giants are clearly the worst team in the majors. It would be virtually impossible to trade Zito without swallowing nearly all of his contract. Meanwhile, he is averaging $18 million a year for a team with a payroll around $77 million. That's over 23% of their total payroll going to one player who is now significantly below average.

Now, tell me again why Brian Sabean has a job? Anyone?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Notes on Pitchers

I watched a few games today and had the following thoughts:

1) Greg Maddux really knows how to pitch. There is a great piece on today about him that I heartily recommend. It's a bit fanboyish but there is no denying his brilliance. He is always going to be dependent on his defense at this stage of his career but if there is a pitcher who can defy the odds and keep his BABIP down, it's Maddux. Sure, Khalil Greene (or Blondie, to my girlfriend) helped him out by robbing Martin of a base hit on a ball to his glove side, but give credit to Mad Dog. At this rate, the guy could pitch for another five years and win at least ten games a year.

2) Chad Billingsley has nasty, nasty stuff. He struggled to put away San Diego hitters but his curveball had good bite and he was locating his fastball well. His early season problems might be over so if you're a Dodgers fan, the future looks bright in your rotation. If you play fantasy, see if you can buy him low. You won't be disappointed.

3) Tim Lincecum is unique and thoroughly entertaining to watch. The kid is small, five foot eleven on his baseball card (but I think that's being mighty generous), but brings serious heat. His delivery is unorthodox to say the least but it does seem to get him tremendous hip rotation and brings all of his body weight toward home plate. So while it may seem that he's putting considerable effort into generating velocity, that effort is spread out very well throughout his entire body. I wouldn't recommend trying that delivery but if you're a small guy and can't throw over 85 mph, maybe give it a shot. Though you will want to strengthen your lower back before you try. Trust me on that one.

4) Wandy Rodriguez is a strange, strange pitcher. He is also the Ervin Santana of the National league. The guy can't pitch at all away from home but when he's in his home stadium, he's lights out. I can't see any rational reason why this would happen but it's a real phenomenon. The same goes for Ervin Santana. I hope neither of these ever gets traded. I wonder if their managers might start them only at home and rearrange everything else around that. It would be a bit silly but there's a large enough sample size for these guys that it might be reasonable.

Dice vs. Lizard

I love watching Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch. The guy has a hilarious delivery, like a combination of pitching and belly dancing. Plus, it's Daisuke vs. Matsui, Godzilla vs. Mothra (or something along those lines). Both pitchers have shown control problems early in the game; Daisuke wiggled out of it but Hughes let up three runs. Suck.

One things I've noticed about Hughes is that he seems wary to throw his change-up or slider. While his fastball and curveball are plus, a starter must have more weapons. He did throw an ok change-up to Varitek but Molina had to talk him into it. It's obvious that Hughes is going to be a very good pitcher; his fastball has good life and his curveball can be downright nasty. But unless he refines his control AND starts mixing in more pitches, even as show pitches, he's going to struggle.

Another note: Hughes has trouble throwing his curveball to his glove side. It might be a mechanical issue. Some have postulated that he changed his mechanics after his knee injury last year, causing his arm to lag slightly behind his body. That could explain his loss of fastball command and tendency to throw the curveball to his arm side. I have no idea how hard it would be to fix his mechanics or even if it would be necessary. But it might help his development in the long run even if it takes a little time in the minors.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Other Thoughts

Jose Molina won't keep hitting for long. I keep counting down the days until Jeter is back in the lineup. Oh, and Manny Delcarmen just overpowered Jose with a high fastball for strike three. Sigh.

I thought Eric Byrnes was going to regress to mean this year but he looks good at the plate. He's still a free swinger and gets a bit pull conscious at times but I'm not entirely convinced that he's going to return to being the decent but not good player he was before. He might be a late bloomer finding his groove now that he has a full time role.

Also, Justin Upton looked overwhelmed by major league pitching last year, which was understandable considering how young he is. But I underestimated him and I told some fantasy friends to be cautious with him. However, he seems to have adjusted very quickly and is showing some serious bat speed and control. He seems ready to play full time and might turn into a superstar far sooner than most would have imagined.

And to round out this Diamondbacks kick, they're absolutely destroying the Rockies once again. I said it last year and I'll say it again: The Rockies are overrated. And this isn't my post-Matt Holliday not touching the plate bitterness showing through. Their pitching remains suspect and that offense's value is inflated by Coors. Franklin Morales showed, once again, that he's not ready for the big show and although they are a good defensive team, their pitching is really going to hold them back, as the Snakes showed them these past few days.

Some Yankees-Red Sox Notes

I just watched David Ortiz strike out after watching Mussina go right after him with 2 fastballs at 85 mph tops on the inside part of the plate. Papi has always been a smart hitter; he thinks along with pitchers and forces them to make his pitch. But he definitely looks like he's overthinking at the plate, guessing at pitches instead of identifying them and reacting. He also overswung at the breaking ball Mussina followed up with, another sign he's trying too hard. Luckily for him, Mussina stupidly threw a hittable fastball to Ramirez right after (plating two and giving the Sox a 3-2 lead).

I know this doesn't jive with the commentary after last night's game, but Wang wasn't nearly as good as his line. He got lucky several times with hard hit balls, including the final out. Going nine innings is great and he stayed ahead of hitters well. However, striking out 3 and giving up several hard hit outs will not translate into similar success in the future. I'm a bit concerned about the Yankees rotation because they aren't strikeout pitchers and they play in front of a mediocre defense. They're going to be highly dependent on luck (as non-strikeout pitchers are wont to be) and their defense isn't going to help them out at all, especially if Giambi plays first regularly.

Beckett looks pretty good. He's gotten a few borderline calls, including a low strike on Giambi right now in the top of the 7th, but he's been getting plenty of swings and misses. He should be fine as he builds up his endurance. The rest of the Red Sox team has looked sloppy at times, though. I already mentioned Ortiz's struggles but Varitek's baserunning blunder early in the game was simply unacceptable. Much is said about Varitek's baseball intelligence but it was MIA then.

Oh, and Giambi hits into a double play. The entire left side of the defense is open and he can't poke it down the third base line. His bat, homer last night or not, looks really, really slow. He can't catch up to decent fastballs and he's started cheating on balls inside. Plus, anything he hits that's on the outside part of the plate turns into weak grounders to second, tailor made double play balls. There can only be so much patience for the guy, especially when he doesn't look like he's going to be able to contribute much at all this year other than the occasional home run that gets completely offset by his inability to play defense or do anything else at the plate.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Surprise! (Or, the Orioles Still Suck)

The good news: the Orioles are in 1st place in the AL East.

The bad news: It's only a couple weeks into the season.

They've had a good two weeks or so. Great for them and I'm happy for their fan base. But this isn't going to last and here's why:

1) They've played the Rays, Mariners, and Rangers. The Rays, while improved, still don't have great pitching at the major league level. In the Mariners series, the O's beat up on Washburn, Batista, and then rallied against the Putz-less Mariner's bullpen. Then, in their one game against the Rangers (the one yesterday was postponed), they smushed Jennings. Notice a trend? They haven't faced really good pitching yet. And when they do, their offense will be exposed as shallow.

2) Lack of pitching depth. I like Jeremy Guthrie a lot, probably more than most, but other than Adam Loewen, there's not much there. Daniel Cabrera, he of the million dollar arm and one cent head, can't figure it out and probably never will. Steve Trachsel, he of the one cent arm and five dollar head, has passed his expiration date. And don't expect Brian Burres to keep that shiny sub-2.00 ERA for long. And no offense to Sherrill, who is a fine set-up guy, but that bullpen isn't going to stay good for long, especially once that starting pitching regresses to mean.

3) They're in the AL East. While rebuilding teams can avoid turning into road kill in some divisions (cough NL Central cough), there are three legitimate playoff teams and one rising star in the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox have some pitching depth issues but their offenses are going to turn it on soon. The Blue Jays, if healthy, have deep pitching especially if B.J. Ryan comes back soon and recovers quickly. The Rays have been able to hit for a while and their bullpen is improved over the debacle last year. That's some stiff competition and the O's are going to face very good teams for a large chunk of their schedule.

That, all together, is a recipe for a long season. It's great they've gotten out of the gate quickly, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. The longer the season goes on, the more their flaws are going to be exposed. I predicted a last place finish for the Orioles this year and I see no reason to change that now.

Sign and Drive

First, Chris Young signed a long term deal. Now, it's Fausto Carmona's turn.

I really like this trend because it bodes well for mid-level franchises. We've seen a slew of long-term deals locking up young, franchise cornerstone players, like Troy Tulowitzki or these two, through their arbitration years with options on their first year of free agency. It's basically trading a year or two of rock-bottom salaries in exchange for cost certainty. While I see the appeal of trying to get bargain basement prices out of players like Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, I think it sends the wrong message to the fans and players. And while I certainly dislike it when young players bitch about money, I do understand when fans complain that their team's management cares more about profits than about fielding a good team (or is simply incompetent, like the recent Pirates).

It is a gamble and I recognize that. But the Brewers are backing themselves into a corner by failing to lock up Braun and Fielder long-term. As other young players receive guaranteed millions, Brewers fans are probably wondering when their guys are going to get deals. And they are right to wonder that. The Brewers don't really have a huge window to win unless the key elements of their team get locked up. Ben Sheets might be gone after this season. Fielder and Braun are set to receive huge bonuses in arbitration and eventually, free agency. Their bullpen may or may not be a mess depending on whether or not Gagne starts trusting his soft stuff. And their fans are probably thinking that this may be their best chance to make a run at the playoffs for quite a while. And if everything goes wrong, all of those new fans that last year's success brought in might just abandon ship, perceiving (and perhaps correctly) that it was a one time deal.

But if they sign the key elements of their team long-term, the Brewers will signal to their fans that they're in it for the long haul. Even if the team doesn't make the playoffs this year, they will have the bedrock for a playoff team for years to come. I think fans respond to that kind of commitment. Just look at the Rays. They have lost for years, routinely buried at the bottom of the monster that is the AL East. But there are signs that their fan base may be awakening and becoming increasingly optimistic about and involved in their team's future. Why do they have that optimism? One element may be that they have a huge amount of talent that is just about ready to break into the majors. But another element is that they recently locked up Carlos Pena and James Shields to long-term deals, committing (for them) significant financial resources into players they recognize as franchise cornerstones.

And you know what? Their fan base is responding. Ray's management, the fans are thinking, may not be such cold-hearted, money obsessed bastards as we thought. Our team has a future, and a bright one at that.

Invest in your team long-term and your fans will invest in your team as well. Simple as that.

Those Poor Friars...

So after my last post, the Padres managed to lose to the Giants 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth. This led my girlfriend to say the following:

"what the fuck?
how do we keep losing to the worst team ever?"

Well, this time it was a combination of bad situational hitting, Jim Edmonds being really slow, and Heath Bell having his yearly bad day (that wasn't really that bad). I bet that the Giants don't win back to back games again for at least a month. Anyone who wants to take me up on that, feel free to post a comment and we're good to go.

There's really nothing more for me to say beyond what my girlfriend just added about her beloved Friars:

"sounds like us
always able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory"