Month: January 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: Johan Santana, Game 1 2004 ALDS

 

Image result for johan santana
Johan Santana was one of the best pitchers of the mid-to-late 2000s. Getty Images

I knew the first Ode to a Pitcher had to be about Pedro Martinez — it was only a matter of which start. I picked the ’99 All-Star Game.

I also knew the second post had to be about Johan Santana, one of my favorite pitchers in the era when my baseball fandom exploded (2000-09) and a great example of a white-hot peak and little else. Santana was awesome and then poof, he was gone:

Season WAR
2004 8.7
2005 7.2
2006 7.6
2007 5.0
2008 7.1
2009 3.3
2010 4.7
2011 N/A
2012 1.7

Flat-out fantastic. To be honest, he deserved at least a conversation about the Hall of Fame, but alas. For Santana, 2004 was his breakthrough; he led the league in strikeouts and claimed his first Cy Young Award (he’d win his second in 2006). How’d he do this? Well, Santana lacked great size and didn’t throw especially hard (low 90s, although that’s pretty good for a lefty). However, his changeup was devastating, one of the best in his era and arguably one of the best ever. You can’t design one any better; it was about 10 mph slower than the fastball and plummeted off the plate. Plus, because his delivery was so smooth he had little trouble concealing it. Add in a better-than-you-remember slider too and you have a dominant pitcher.

But seriously, the changeup:

johan changeup k example

That is a hapless swing. Santana was lethal.

The 2004 Twins won the AL Central for the third straight year. Santana led the rotation, followed by Brad Radke. Corie Koskie, Lew Ford (!!!) and Torri Hunter led the way at the plate, while a young and extremely-well hyped catcher named Joe Mauer had come up and fared well with the bat in limited action (138 OPS+). Ultimately, Minnesota claimed the division comfortably.

A familiar foe awaited in the postseason. The Twins danced with the New York Yankees in the Division Series a year prior and lost in 4. The 2004 Bombers were as loaded as ever, a 101-win powerhouse with an absurd offense and enough pitching to get by. Remember, this Yankee team was fresh off a World Series appearance and added Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. However, astute fans remember the Bombers lost Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and a couple prized pitching acquisitions, um, failed to pan out. Certainly, the starting rotation wasn’t as stacked as years past.

Therein lies the path to victory for Minnesota. The Twins march into the ALDS as the underdog but with the ability to run arguably the world’s best starter out two times  — that’s a big card to play in a short series. Santana faced the Yankees twice in 2004 and pitched well both times.

The pursuit of another championship in Minneapolis begins in Game 1, with the Twins’ ace stepping onto the fabled Yankee Stadium mound. For the purposes of the post, we will focus on the first inning.

***

This lineup is no picnic:

Name Position Bats OPS+
Derek Jeter SS R 114
Alex Rodriguez 3B R 131
Gary Sheffield RF R 141
Bernie Williams CF S 108
Jorge Posada C S 131
Hideki Matsui LF L 137
Ruben Sierra DH S 94
John Olerud 1B R 114
Miguel Cairo 2B R 100

Frankly, injuries limit the damage. Jason Giambi missed most of the year and was ineffective when he did play. Also, note that Kenny Lofton is on the roster but not starting. Why am I noting that? Because Kenny Lofton was the man, that’s why.

It begins with The Captain. Derek Jeter steps to the plate and attacks a middle-low fastball and puts fairly decent wood on it. But Torri Hunter is there for an easy first out. One pitch, one down.

Alex Rodriguez steps up next. Let’s remember something about A-Rod in 2004; he was awesome. The failed Red Sox-Rangers trade from the prior winter was a massive story and Rodriguez ending up in New York felt like a dynasty-extending move. It also irritated people who were sick of seeing Jeter and the boys play late into each October. I set this up because Rodriguez vs Santana is a hell of a matchup, an elite pitcher battling a top-of-the-line hitter. This is what October is all about.

We don’t get an extended battle, however. Santana opens with a breaking ball that Rodriguez scatters to second and Michael Cuddyer fumbles it. Note the way Santana tumbles off the mound — the announcers gloss right over it, but I bet you the Twins dugout took notice:

a rod reaches on error

Another new Yankee, rightfielder Gary Sheffield, steps up to face Santana. Sheffield was tremendous in 2004, finishing second in the MVP voting and most importantly for this at-bat, tore up lefthanded pitching all season (.314/.423/.550).

Santana opens the at-bat missing high and away with a breaking ball. As Joe Buck and Tim McCarver discuss Sheffield’s love life (seriously), Santana goes high and away again, this time with a fastball at 93 MPH. Two-and-oh is not a comfortable count against someone as aggressive and dangerous as Sheffield, so Santana works him carefully, just missing low-and-away with a nice looking changeup. After shaking off his catcher — which McCarver, a former catcher, is flabbergasted about — Santana misses again with a fastball away, sending Sheffield to first.

A-Rod singled, Sheffield walked and now Santana must deal with the switch-hitting centerfielder Bernie Williams. By 2004 Williams had ceased to be the hitter he once was, but the veteran still had pop against lefties (.265/.384/.464) was no stranger to postseason heroics. Still, one wonders if Santana decided it better to face Williams with a 0-0 count than Sheffield at 2-0. Either way, early in Game 1 things are getting tense. Luckily, Santana is no stranger to punchouts and the Yankee lineup trends easier to deal with from here.

The 2004 AL Cy Young award winner opens the exchange with a 93 MPH fastball right past Williams:

Williams miss fastball.gif

He ain’t getting cheated with that hack. Williams is the third Yankee this half-inning to swing at the first pitch. I’d love to ask Santana how he felt seeing Williams miss here. Knowing the fastball can beat the Yankees centerfielder opens up so many options.

Santana doubles down and powers another fastball past Williams, this one perhaps a smidge higher to run the count 0-2.

As A-Rod dances off second base, Santana misses high with another fastball. Three consecutive fastballs up in the zone aren’t by accident; Santana has set Williams’ eye level. With the count 1-2 and the best strikeout pitcher in the league on the mound, you know what’s coming.

Williams changeup for a ball.gif

The pitch ends up too far outside for Bernie to chase, but the idea is obvious. Fastball-fastball-fastball followed by a low-and-away off-speed pitch. That’s standard sequencing, and Santana’s smooth delivery helps disguise it. He misses off the plate away, but given the count that’s no problem. The idea is strikeout or weak groundout.

The count moves to 2-2. Santana comes back with the fourth fastball of the at-bat, this one catching a bit of the plate. Williams fights it off. Because the command is so precise, despite getting four fastballs Williams has barely even made contact. Santana is pitching carefully, yes, but he isn’t nibbling. Fastballs up in the zone aren’t a sign of timidity.

The count holds at 2-2 and Santana serves up a nasty changeup that barely misses outside.

williams changeup for a ball 2-2

That’s a hell of a take.

Full count. Rodriguez and Sheffield on the bases. Old Yankee Stadium growing loud. One more miss and the Twins find themselves staring down the barrel early in Game 1. Rodriguez and Sheffield inch further into their leads as Santana delivers another high-and-away fastball and Williams again fights it off.

I love what Santana does with the next two pitches. The eighth pitch to Williams is a break in approach, a fastball in on the hands that the centerfielder barely fights off. Instead of going back upstairs, Santana comes inside. Now Williams knows he has to protect each part of the plate, but Santana knows Williams likely won’t chase. What a battle.

With Rodriguez growing bolder off second base, Santana looks him back and receives a cascade of boos. Eight pitches in, Santana has options here. You’d expect him to return to the changeup, but where? Or do you risk elevating the fastball?

Williams K, A Rod CS.gif

Dear Lord.

Williams takes a nasty change for a called strike three and Blanco easily guns down Rodriguez. After a tense at-bat against a tough hitter, Santana ends the threat.

Inning over.

***

If you watch the whole game you’ll figure out quickly that Santana didn’t have his best stuff. He had to pitch carefully and manipulate the fearsome Yankee offense into weak contact. Consider how he pitched to Williams — fastballs up and away, time and again going back to that lethal changeup lower in the zone. The Yankees chose to be aggressive and had no problem going after his fastball — so Santana used that to his advantage. When Williams didn’t chase the two changeups away, Santana moved inside and froze him. Not everyone can pull that off. It takes confidence, great stuff, and the skill to execute in a pressure situation.

“You have to be careful with them, because if you make a mistake, then you have to pay for it,” Santana said. “I was able to throw the right pitch at the right time, because I know that my teammates can make some plays. That’s the way we are.”

He wasn’t kidding — the Twins turned an incredible five double-plays to support their ace. He finished with 7 innings, allowed 9 hits, 1 walk and struck out 5. Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan closed the door, shutting out the Yankees to win the series opener.

Ultimately we know where this story goes. Santana faces the Bombers again in Game 4 with this team down 2-1 in the series. He pitches well but not deep into the game and the Twins bullpen fails to protect a 4-run lead. Minnesota hasn’t won a playoff game since the shutout.

The Yankees move on, build a (seemingly) insurmountable lead in the ALCS only to eventually collapse, clearing a path for a bunch of idiots to move on and win their first World Series in about a thousand (or so) years.

Should the Astros extend Justin Verlander?

Do we appreciate Justin Verlander enough? He’s an incredible pitcher, a fireballing machine with a disgusting curveball. He looks like a pitcher, what with that delivery and his propensity to scowl after yet another punchout. He’s crushed teams I root for in the postseason more than once and I must admit, even as he does it I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Verlander K march away.gif
Found on giphy.

Inject that stare directly into my veins, thank you very much.

The city of Houston loves him too. Acquiring the longtime Tigers hurler late in the 2017 season gave the Astros added punch at the top of their rotation, and the former Cy Young award winner didn’t disappoint. He was the presence they needed, a flamethrowing sheriff on the mound.

Part of what made the acquisition so shrewd was the contract. He wasn’t done with Houston after the postseason, and his first full season with an H on his cap couldn’t have gone better. He was a serious Cy Young candidate in 2018 and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be pretty good in 2019. Despite the age and the miles, he remains elite:

Season IP K% BB xFIP
2016 227.2 28.1% 6.3% 3.78
2017 206 25.8% 8.5% 4.17
2018 214 34.8% 4.4% 3.03

 

But he turns 36 in February and his contract expires after this coming season, meaning the Astros have a decision to make. Do they extend their ace, especially given the real possibility that Dallas Keuchel will follow Charlie Morton out of town?

When asked by Brian McTaggert here’s what Verlander had to say:

It probably makes sense for Houston to shy away from an extension. Why? There’s a lot of valuable data to be acquired in 2019. What happens if his velocity dips? Maybe he makes a trip to the DL with a shoulder issue? I doubt those things happen, but pitchers are fickle beasts. It’s the cost of such a violent trade. Verlander’s right arm has carried a lot of water.

And, let’s be honest, the free agent market is hardly boiling right now. Given that Verlander probably can’t demand a long deal, I suspect teams will show interest, but all bets are off when two generational free agents remain unsigned only a few weeks out from spring training.

Who knows how long he wants to keep playing, but would it be silly for the Astros to give him a three-year deal? That’d carry Verlander through his age 37-39 seasons. With no discernible drop in velocity or spin rate, it’s probably not a bad idea.

Plus, remember something. When we talk about age with pitchers, obviously creeping into the upper-thirties increases the risk of injury and sudden drops in performance. No doubt. But Verlander is one of the greats, and if you must take such a risk, you do it with one of the greats. I’d rather have Verlander for the next four seasons than Dallas Keuchel over the next four, just as an example. That’s more about the former than the latter, although I’ve detailed my concerns about Keuchel.

The dollar figure might be trickier. Patrick Corbin’s six-year, $140 million deal has an average annual value of $23.3 million per year. I’d expect Verlander will cruise past that AAV, maybe into the mid-to-upper 20s per year. Would the Astros fork over a 3/75 kind of deal to retain their ace next winter? A lot depends on how 2019 goes, obviously, but if he tears up the American League again, I’d say do it. This goes without saying, but Houston shouldn’t be afraid to spend. The Astros have more championships to win.

Rapid Reaction: 2019 MLB Hall of Fame class revealed

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The first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mariano Rivera. Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The results are in.

Pitchers Mariano Rivera (100%), Roy Halladay (85.4%) and Mike Mussina (76.7%) will be joined by designated hitter Edgar Martinez (85.4%) as the newest inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rivera is the first player ever to be inducted unanimously, a great testament to his legendary career.

You can find the whole results here. Some quick thoughts:

Mussina was perpetually underrated

Mike Mussina had an absolutely fabulous career, one I’ve found to be fairly undervalued given the titans he pitched alongside (Maddux, Clemens, Johnson, etc). Dude finished 23rd all-time in Wins Above Replacement (82.9) and 20th in strikeouts (2813). He pitched a long, long time in the thick of a pummeling offensive era, all in the bright lights of the AL East. That Mussina wasn’t already in is absurd, especially given other pitchers already in.

Mussina was a blast to watch, too. He relied on a variety of pitches, often from different arm angles. His knuckle-curve is one of the nastiest ever seen. Mussina was also on the mound for one of the most clutch moments I can recall, his appearance in relief of Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. The Red Sox were threatening to blow the game wide open. Then Moose stepped in:

 

Doc sails in on his first appearance

The late Roy Halladay was the best pitcher of his generation. He felt like a throwback to a different era, throwing a lot of innings and kicking butt the entire way. Especially given how starting pitchers operate today, Halladay already feels like a distant memory. It’s a testament to his greatness.

It was a thrill to watch him work. He was an expert at setting batters up and had incredible stuff. A late bloomer who re-worked his mechanics to save his career, Halladay bagged two Cy Young awards and arguably deserved more. He also famously threw a no-hitter in the postseason, wiping the floor with a potent Cincinnati Reds lineup. Halladay was the man like few others, and at his peak, no one ever questioned who the best in the world was. Even when guys like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and others had great seasons, the best was Doc.

Watch this. It’s about five minutes long. Just do it.

 

Edgar finally gets in

Edgar Martinez could flat-out rake. Few hitters were regarded like him — no surprise, given that he sprayed line drives all over ballparks across America. I came across several warm responses from writers who grew fans of the Mariners and most shared a familiar sentiment.

In a big moment, they wanted Edgar up. An OPS-plus of 147 for his career backs up the notion. Well deserved.

The Sandman is in

It’s absurd that no one had ever been inducted unanimously before, but alas, why not start with Mo? Baseball’s unquestioned greatest reliever, Mariano Rivera received 100% of the possible votes. His dominance is almost comical, to the point the stats are almost meaningless. He’s like Jerry Rice compared to other wide receivers. Truly no one else is in the picture.

Hearing hitters describe the experience of facing Rivera is a blast, though. David Ortiz, a future Hall of Famer himself, faced Rivera many times as designed hitter for the Boston Red Sox. Here’s what he told Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe about facing Mo:

“Mariano wasn’t fun to face. He was nasty. You knew what was coming but that didn’t mean you could hit it. You’d be waiting for it and it would disappear. Like I said, nasty.”

Sounds about right.

Since I’m providing videos, check this one out. A great look at the routine excellence of Rivera, called by the sublime Vin Scully:

No one ever did it better. Congrats, Mo.

 

Brief thoughts on Sonny Gray

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Sonny Gray hasn’t panned out. Might the future look nicer down by the Ohio River?

The Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees have been hammering out the specifics of a deal to send RHP Sonny Gray to the Reds for what seems like years now. We keep hearing it’s close:

https://twitter.com/JimBowdenGM/status/1086993861648572416

Gray was a bit of a disaster for the Yankees. They acquired him in the summer of 2017 for three prospects, and ultimately neither the Bombers or Oakland Athletics came out looking great. The prospects mostly haven’t performed and Gray has certainly underperformed. In roughly 1.5 seasons in the pinstripes, Gray threw 195 innings to a 98 ERA+. Given that he was acquired as part of a triumvirate at the top of the Yankee rotation (with RHP Luis Severino and RHP Masahiro Tanaka) … yuck.

But the question is why? No, Sonny Gray was never a dominant pitcher in Oakland (career ERA+ of 114). But he was valuable. Gray in New York was in every possible way an inferior pitcher, allowing far more free passes and a crippling amount of home runs. The Yankees apparently ran through a series of changes to fix Gray, including tweaks to his delivery, his approach and having throw to a personal catcher (Austin Romine). None of it worked. I’m suspicious of what went on with Gray, especially given the Yankees’ tendency toward tweaking how pitchers work. But I don’t know.

Evidently, the Yankees don’t either. Unfortunately, there is history here of good-to-great pitchers falling apart in New York (Javier Vazquez). But Vazquez went on to be pretty good again after fleeing the Bronx; might the same be true for Gray?

I suspect so. The frustrating thing with Gray is the stuff. Visually it’s still there, as Michael Augustine of PitcherList demonstrated:

That looks pretty good, right? Alas, it never worked in New York, and even though I’m optimistic, it might not work anywhere else either.

The other side of the coin is the alleged return. Doug Gray, an expert on the Reds minor league system, had this to say about what Cincinnati might be shipping out to New York:

The Reds aren’t talking about spare parts here. Shed Long and Tyler Stephenson are valuable pieces, and frankly, Gray was terrible last year. Even as someone who thinks Gray might revert back into a mid-rotation starter again outside of New York, that’s kind of a lot to give up. Plus, Gray struggled with the long ball, remember? Um, Cincinnati’s ballpark isn’t the remedy to that problem.

Who else is bidding for Gray, especially after Yankees GM Brian Cashman bizarrely declared Gray was to be traded after the season ended? Not sure. Something doesn’t add up. Either the reports aren’t right, or the Reds are taking a gamble. Cincinnati has need of pitching, but parting with valuable pieces for someone as uneven as Gray is a risk.

I appreciate that Cincinnati wants to win — more teams should do this. It’s good for the sport. But man, this could be a rough one to swallow.

For the Yankees, getting anything of value back for a pitcher you’ve deemed unable to succeed with you is a victory. The question will be, how big of a victory?

The future for Mike Trout and the Angels

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Given what Mike Trout’s experienced as an Angel, this expression seems fitting.   Getty Images

The best baseball player in the world will be a free agent after the 2020 season. Those words reverberate through the hearts and minds of every Los Angeles Angels fan and executive. The clock is ticking.

Mike Trout, drafted by the Angels with the 26th pick in the 2010 draft, chose to sign away a few free agency seasons back in 2014 when he signed a 6-year, $144 million deal. It was a smart deal for both team and player.

For Trout, he made a lot of money. Injuries happen, even to the elite, and securing that much cash at a young age was wise. For the Angels, buying two of those free agency years (and thus keeping Trout off the market a smidge longer) was obviously wise.

And since then, he’s done nothing but be the unquestioned best player alive, a ridiculous combination of offensive explosiveness and efficiency at a premium defensive position.

I mean, just look at this:

Season wRC+ WAR
2015 171 9.3
2016 170 9.6
2017 181 6.9
2018 191 9.8

I promise I didn’t make those numbers up; Trout’s excellence is generational, if not something even bigger. Trout is so good that words fail me. We’ll be telling our grandkids about him.

By Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Trout sits right now at 64.7 after only 1065 games played. That’s ridiculous. He’s one normal Mike Trout season away from passing a bunch of Hall of Famers, including Tony Gwynn (65.0 WAR in 2440 games), Robin Yount (66.5 in 2856), Barry Larkin (67.0 in 2180) and Jim Thome (69.0 in 2543).

If he has two more normal Mike Trout seasons, he passes Reggie Jackson (72.7 in 2820), Derek Jeter (72.8 in 2747), Johnny Bench (74.8 in 2158) and Ken Griffey Jr. (77.7 in 2671). And, if by chance he goes nuclear and puts up 20 WAR in the next two seasons, suddenly he’s passed Joe DiMaggio (83.1 in 1736).

Think about that. Those are legends and Trout will likely cruise past so many of them in the next 24 months. Obviously, we can’t know how his thirties will play out. How could we? But as it stands now, Mike Trout has a  chance to be the best player who ever lived.

And he’s played exactly three playoff games. He’s won zero. Back in 2014, the Royals swept the Angels out of the playoffs unceremoniously, and that was that. The team has climbed over .500 only once since then.

How? Armed with Willie Mays reincarnate, how in the world have the Angels managed to be mediocre? To be fair, the 2018 AL West had three teams win at least 89 games. But, each year hasn’t been so stacked. Since 2016, the division has been roughly been Houston and everyone else.

The Angels have been pretty good offensively (I wonder why?) and generally not good at all on the mound:

Season wRC+ FIP
2018 100 (10th) 4.36 (21st)
2017 93 (29th) 4.43 (17th)
2016 99 (11th) 4.62 (29th)

You’ll never guess what happened in 2017; Trout missed a chunk of the season. Pull him off this team and they pick high in the draft, and that’s despite OF Justin Upton (okay-to-good) and SS Andrelton Simmons (great). One hopes that Shohei Ohtani comes back healthy after Tommy John surgery, but I have serious doubts about his future as a pitcher. (He’s probably a darn good DH, though. The power is legit.) 2B David Fletcher profiles as a solid regular and RF Kole Calhoun struggled through 2018 after an oblique strain and a spike in his strikeout rate.

Ultimately, the team is hurt by the complete collapse of 1B Albert Pujols (one wonders how the Trout era might look had Pujols declined more gracefully) and the return to normal of 3B Zack Cozart, who carries a solid glove but hasn’t hit a lick except for his contract year (and how he’s battling an injury).

The Angels boast fairly meh pitching — I mean, other than Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs, just look at the depth chart — and a glance at their farm system suggests nothing of impact is coming on the mound. The bullpen looks rough but more moves could be coming.

So how can they fix it? The Angels face a reckoning. There’s little reason to believe Trout, a native of New Jersey, will choose to stay throughout his prime with the Angels unless they offer such an absurd amount of money that to refuse would be foolish. The Angels could do so — they aren’t afraid to spend money, with payrolls the last three seasons higher than $164 million — but would he stay?

Consequently, these are crucial days for the Angels. You’ve got this winter and next to leap into contention. Ken Rosenthal reported earlier this winter that the team was more active than expected, and made runs at RHPs Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi. Neither panned out. Overall, the Angels have signed RHP Matt Harvey, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Cody Allen, 1B Justin Bour and C Jonathon Lucroy.

Harvey still might have some above-average years in his arm — then again, he also might only have 50 innings left. It’s a lottery ticket. Cahill was pretty solid last year in Oakland, but he hasn’t thrown more than 150 innings since 2012. Allen is fresh off a rough year closing for the Indians, but was an above-average reliever for several years before. There were superior bullpen options available to the Angels earlier this offseason.

Bour has shown flashes at the plate (unsure exactly where he plays with Pujols clogging first and Ohtani likely occupying DH). Lucroy was once a valuable player but has fallen apart with the bat. These moves aren’t likely to move the needle.

How can the Angels squeeze into October? Regression from Oakland and Seattle is possible (maybe even likely), but the Angels played roughly .500 ball against them last year. Houston should remain Houston. Basically, this team needs the big boys to be as good or better and then a breakthrough or three on the mound to contend. Is it possible? Yes. Who knows, maybe Ohtani blasts 50 homers. Maybe Cozart gets healthy and hits again. Maybe Pujols scratches out a 115 OPS+.

The path is visible. It can happen — but there are only two Wild Card spots and one of them belongs to New York or Boston. Things are tight. Adding a top free agent like Corbin or even one of the Machado or Harper would close it. But it won’t be cheap. An injury to Trout or Simmons ends things abruptly.

A Ken Rosenthal report last fall suggested the Angels will make Trout a huge contract offer, perhaps this offseason. But on the other hand, Jon Heyman suggested a deal is unlikely. Take that for what you will, but if he doesn’t sign, the Angels might consider a trade, greedy at the notion of what the return could be. I get it. It makes sense. Given where the Angels are now, close-ish to contention and Trout’s free agency looming ahead … sure.

But is that how Trout’s tenure in Los Angeles will end? Zero playoff wins? Not what fans had in mind when he debuted. Not at all.

Baseball’s labor market is a mess

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado hits an RBI double during the ninth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)
Manny Machado has surprisingly few suitors this offseason.  Jennifer Stewart / USA Today Sports

There’s a labor storm brewing in Major League Baseball. When teams are scantly pursuing the market’s two generational free agents, something is wrong. It’s one thing to not break the bank for more mid-tier free agents — say, JA Happ for example. Terrible free agent decisions have certainly hurt teams in the past (oh, who else remembers the Gary Matthews Jr and Juan Pierre extravaganzas? What fun!) but rarely did those transactions involve truly great players.

The fact is, cash invested in great players is rarely wasted if the team wants to win. Unless you just flat out make a bad decision (Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t make sense at the time, for example) you’ll probably be fine. The first Alex Rodriguez contract (signed when he was 26 for 10-years, $252 million) was a reasonable deal for a player of A-Rod’s caliber. He was freaking awesome and at his peak. He contributed an absurd amount of value to the Rangers and Yankees.

But the second deal — signed as A-Rod was sailing past his peak — was a trainwreck and had no hope of being anything but. I probably wouldn’t have done the Giancarlo Stanton deal (13-years, $325 million). It’s just too long.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado fall into the first A-Rod contract territory. Those two aren’t iffy. The pedigree, history, and comparables make signing either a great baseball decision. Elite and young. Never a bad combination. If you want to win, these two are among the best in the world at getting you there.

You simply don’t stumble upon many better free agents than Harper or Machado.

Baseball is raking in the cash these days, to the tune of a record-setting $10.3 billion in 2018. So why aren’t teams willing to spend? Consider what Chris Cwik of Yahoo had to say:

The players are not blameless here. They agreed to a bad deal during the last collective-bargaining agreement negotiations in 2016. In their haste to strike down an international draft, the players agreed to a system that capped international spending, allowed luxury tax penalties to get stronger — giving teams more incentive to treat the luxury tax like a salary cap — and accepted a modified qualifying offer system that’s no better than the previous one.

The teams got a great deal during the last labor negotiations and are enjoying it. Teams like the Yankees and Chicago Cubs, hardly hurting for funds, have decided to stop pushing payrolls deep into the luxury tax. Can they push deeper? Absolutely. Will they? Not really.

The Yankees can certainly use Machado, for example. (Anyone can use an elite young shortstop, but alas.) But will they pursue?

And then we see this:

Seriously? That’s Ellsbury money. Do people not realize that Machado (and Harper) are awesome? What am I missing? These two aren’t Albert Pujols at the time he signed (north of 30, a first baseman) or the aforementioned Ellsbury. Robinson Cano, PED suspension aside, has been worth the big money he signed for and both of this market’s marquee names are vastly superior bets.

Age and awesomeness, folks. Age and awesomeness.

Look, the fact is, every single team should pursue Machado at that money. If the Yankees, a team with more money than they know what to do with, allow an elite young shortstop to slip away at that price tag, the fans should revolt. It’d be absurd. Same for any club wanting to win a championship without an obvious roadblock at shortstop and third base. This isn’t rocket science, guys.

It’s not just fans and analysts making noise about this, by the way. The players are aware and becoming vocal. Take note of what Phillies starter Jake Arrieta said:

Uh oh. Only one major free agent has signed, Patrick Corbin, who inked a fairly large contract with the Washington Nationals for six years, $140 million. Beyond that, it’s been a lot of small and middling deals. (By the way: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are undeniably better players now and better bets going forward than Corbin. Not in the same league.)

The era of massive contracts might be over in baseball, for better or worse. One wonders if the next round of collective bargaining might be quite a bit more heated than before. Rough waters might be ahead for the sport.

In the meantime, Harper and Machado will sign somewhere. Plenty of fans might be disappointed when the details are revealed.

 

What do the Reds have in Luis Castillo?

The Cincinnati Reds can’t pitch.

That’s not just my opinion, it’s the unfortunate reality. The 2018 Reds finished 27th in FIP, a stat that aims to produce an ERA-like value based on the outcomes a pitcher controls (strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs). Yikes.

I wrote in December that Alex Wood, acquired in the Yasiel Puig trade, instantly became the Reds’ best starter and I stand by that. He’s not incredible (153 innings, 3.53 FIP in 2018) but he’s good, and good goes a long way when you’re at the bottom. Winning teams carry pitchers like Alex Wood.

The other glimmer of hope for Reds fans is young Luis Castillo. Acquired in the 2017 trade of Dan Straily to the Miami Marlins, Castillo debuted that same season and has fairly electric stuff. He’s working with a good frame for a pitcher (6’2″, 190 pounds) and that fastball certainly looks the part:

Castillo fastball.gif

And the change, wow:

Castillo change.gif

Pair that sucker up nicely with the fastball and you’re in for many delightful strikeouts. Castillo has the arsenal to be a serious major league starter, obviously. In 2018, he gobbled up 169 innings at a 4.32 FIP. Not bad, but hardly exciting.

Why? His walk rate isn’t hateful (8.9%, worse than average but not egregious). He generates plenty of strikeouts and likely will add more as he matures (23.3%, better than league average). For Castillo, the issue is clear: he gives up a lot of bombs, 28 to be exact (14 apiece home and away, surprisingly enough). The league average for home runs per fly ball was 13.1%. Castillo ended up at 17.9%, second-worst in the sport. Yikes.

So how do we process this? Castillo has electric stuff but gets hit hard sometimes. Why? Well, let’s not forget that he’s only 26 and there’s something to be said for learning how to get outs. It’s hard to consistently sit Major League hitters down.

But if we try to dig into the numbers a bit more, it seems two things are true:

  1. Luis Castillo has a filthy, swing-and-miss changeup
  2. Luis Castillo has a hard but hittable fastball

Why do I say that? The changeup rated as 5th best in baseball among starters with enough innings to qualify, according to Fangraphs. He gets a lot of swings and misses with it out of the strike zone, as evidenced not only by the numbers but the eye test. Just watch that gif a few more times like I did and you run the risk of being mesmerized. That change is no joke.

However, among starters who averaged more than 95 MPH on their fastball, his fastball was the worst. It’s a small group, but alas. I’m a huge fan of tunneling — the idea that all your pitches look the same out of the hand. I’m not a scout, but might his delivery be tougher to repeat? I’m not in a position to say, but it crossed my mind. Given that there were stories last season about issues with release point and overall mechanics, this could have just been an issue with his delivery.

Look, young pitchers struggle with this. Castillo is hardly alone, but don’t let that frustrate you too much. He has a lot to work with and could be on the precipice of a breakthrough. Castillo is starting off on third base, so to speak — it might only take a small tweak to unlock an All-Star. Given the stuff and the early results, Castillo is a darn good candidate to turn in some electric outings along the Ohio River in the coming years.

Feel free to be excited, Reds fans.