Sunday, December 25, 2011

2012 Top Prospect List: #7 Ryan LaMarre, of

Ryan LaMarre
Height 6-2, Weight 205, B/T: R/L, DOB: 11/21/1988
2010 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #11

It's been an interesting transformation for the Reds farm system. As we all know, back in the Marge Schott era, the Reds gutted the scouting and player development departments in order to save costs and funnel that money into the 25-man roster. Ultimately, Marge's actions to cut costs did nothing more than shift those costs onto the backs of future Reds teams. Not surprisingly,  it caught up to the Reds in a big way. However, after several missteps, their renewed efforts at developing their own players has paid off.

It's a process that seemed to happen in stages, as the first wave of players seemed to be offense-first players who manned the corner positions (Votto, Frazier, Francisco, Bruce, etc). The next wave seemingly focused more on up-the-middle players (Cozart, Hamilton, Mesoraco, Stubbs) who offered more athleticism and diversified skills.

Ryan LaMarre, with his blend of tools and skills at a premier defensive position, followed comfortably on the heels of that second wave when the Reds drafted him with the 62nd overall pick in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. LaMarre didn't waste much time negotiating, electing to sign on the dotted line to get his professional career underway immediately.

2011 Season

Heading into the 2011 season, one could reasonably have expected LaMarre to take a step forward based on his decision to quickly sign his first professional contract. By signing early, he logged invaluable experience in the form of 254 low-A ball ABs at the tail end of the 2010 season. Organizations value that early experience so highly that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement moves the signing deadline for draftees up to an earlier date, which permits them to squeeze in a bit of professional experience in their draft year. Unfortunately, despite getting an early start to his career, LaMarre's 2011 season didn't include the step forward that seemed almost inevitable, as he simply didn't drive the ball like he had in the past.  

LaMarre started the season at high-A Bakersfield where he logged 117 games and 445 ABs in which he hit .279/.347/.371/.718 with 6 homers, 52 steals in 66 attempts, and a 97/42 K/BB. For the Blaze, LaMarre hit line drives at a14% clip, but posted a BABIP of .342, which means that there was a bit of hit luck involved, as the line drives didn't support the BABIP. So, it was in spite of both the power outage and the unsustainable batting average that LaMarre was promoted up to double-A to finish out the season.

For double-A Carolina, LaMarre logged a mere 15 ABs in 5 games. Obviously, the organization just wanted to give him a taste of things to come in 2012. Despite the inconsequential sample size, we'll take a quick look at his double-A numbers anyway. For the Mudcats, LaMarre hit .267/.421/.333 with 3 steals and a 3/3 K/BB ratio. His line drive rate jumped up to 18% and he wasn't overmatched in his first experience above A-ball.

While the power production has been underwhelming, LaMarre still managed to reach double-A in his first full season of professional baseball, which is encouraging even for a polished college prospect. LaMarre will likely return to double-A to start the 2012 season and could be on the fast track to the majors if he proves up to the challenge.

Swing Mechanics

To me, the standout characteristic of LaMarre's 2011 season was the sheer lack of power. It was not something I was expecting, especially since LaMarre posted slugging percentages of .404, .599, and .649 in his three years at the University of Michigan. Clearly, power was never a problem for LaMarre in the amateur ranks, so one possible explanation for his professional power outage would be the switch from metal to wood bats, but I don't believe that to be the cause. LaMarre has, in interviews, proven to be very cognizant of the difference between metal and wood bat swings and the need to develop the latter. Not to mention, in the past, he has had good success in the wood bat Cape Cod league. So, I suspect the power outage has its roots in mechanics, more particularly LaMarre's reworked swing. 

First, let's take a look at what LaMarre was doing at the University of Michigan, courtesy of prospectjunkies:

As you can see, he has a high leg kick and strong hip rotation and lower body action to his swing. He really lets it rip. Now, here's what he was doing in 2011 for Bakersfield, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues: 

The thing that jumps out at me the most is the new and different stride. Interestingly enough, last year I expressed concern about the length of his swing and the length of his stride, so it's curious to see that he made some changes to his lower half. Here is what I wrote in last year's LaMarre scouting report:

"However, his stride and swing both have a bit of length to them. In the professional ranks, he will likely need to tighten up his swing and shorten his path to the ball to reach his ceiling. If he doesn't, then he may be susceptible to hard fastballs in on the hands. He also may need to work on keeping his hands inside the ball, which isn't a type of swing you see all that often in the metal bat college game where pulling the ball is frequently the name of the game.

Overall, LaMarre has good swing mechanics that could enable him to hit for both average and power. He may need a tweak or two, but he has a sound foundation on which to build his offensive game."

Unfortunately, it seems like LaMarre has made more than a mere tweak, as he has completely reworked the action of his lower half. And, it would seem, not for the better. In fact, if that is the swing he was using on a regular basis in 2011, then it doesn't surprise me at all that his power has vanished.

When some hitters fall into a slump, you hear them describe their problem as "being slow to get the front foot down." To me, LaMarre now has the exact opposite problem.

LaMarre still uses a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance. His stance has a bit of forward lean to it, as his weight is largely on his front foot before he unweights his front foot to begin the stride, which transfers the weight to the back foot before it comes forward again as the stride is completed. However, if you look at LaMarre's new stride, which contains two parts, then it almost seems detached from the rest of his swing. He strides forward, landing on the ball of his foot with his heel in the air and holding his foot in this position for a moment. He then rolls off the ball of his foot and brings his heel down to the ground as his hips rotate. So, he interrupts the flow of his weight transfer from back to front, then lingers in the weak position of being on the ball of his front foot before firing the hips.

For comparison, at the plate Albert Pujols starts in a spread out position, then uses a stride that consists of raising his front foot up onto the ball of his foot and putting it right back down where it started as his hips fire, but it's one continuous, uninterrupted motion. On the other hand, LaMarre's stop-and-start stride makes the lower body action herky-jerky, robbing it of torque and power. He starts wide and gets wider, then tries to fire the hips while standing on the ball of his front foot. You simply can't effectively fire the hips if there is a pause between the landing of the stride foot and the firing of the hips.

In fact, LaMarre's stride seems disassociated from the rest of his swing to the extent that the lower body is largely removed from the swing. This is especially problematic due to the fact that most of the power in the baseball swing is generated by the lower body, so if you hinder that action or eliminate it entirely then you are left largely with an upper body swing. And, upper body swings simply don't generate much power. So, the fact that LaMarre's swing changes have significantly restricted his lower body action almost necessarily means that the power will decrease.

As for the upper body, I still really like LaMarre's swing. He starts with a high back elbow, which he drops when he fires his swing. He does a nice job of throwing the barrel of the bat at the pitch and gets good extension, both of which lend themselves to generating power. At the same time, he maintains good bat control and balance by keeping both hands on the bat during his follow-through.

Overall, I still think all the components are there for a fundamentally sound swing that will play at the MLB level. However, I think the changes he made to his lower half are a step in the wrong direction. Last offseason, I thought he needed to tighten and shorten up his swing as he climbed the ladder, but the changes he ended up making have robbed his swing of lower body action, creating a disjointed swing where the upper and lower halves simply don't work in tandem. It's very difficult to generate power without incorporating the lower half, especially a strong hip rotation, into the swing.

If LaMarre needed to tighten up his swing in 2011, then in 2012 he really needs to focus on effectively reincorporating the lower half back into his swing. LaMarre has far too much power potential to consciously sacrifice it, especially since the benefits to be reaped from his restricted lower body action are negligible, at best. In fact, I'm hopeful that that is not a swing to which he had fully committed, but rather an attempt to work through a swing flaw by temporarily incorporating an exaggerated lower body move.  

Athleticism, Speed, and Defense

The old adage that "speed doesn't slump" certainly rang true for LaMarre in 2011, as he remained a force on the bases despite an underwhelming offensive season. Between the two levels, LaMarre swiped 55 bags in 69 attempts, good for a 79.7% success rate. Clearly, he can be a weapon on the bases.

Overall, LaMarre is a very good athlete who has excelled in other sports. In fact, his manager, Ken Griffey Sr., compared him to Fred Lynn. Evidently, I'm just long enough in the tooth to appreciate that as being especially high praise, as the athletic and graceful Freddie Lynn pulled off the stunning feat of winning both the AL MVP and the AL Rookie of the Year award in the 1975 season. LaMarre attributes his impressive speed to hockey skating drills, which he believes helped him generate strength and explosiveness in his legs.

LaMarre teams with Billy Hamilton to give the Reds organization a speed dynamic that they haven't had in recent memory. LaMarre also makes good use of that speed out in the field, where he covers a lot of ground in the outfield. His aggressive style of play in the field may also have its roots in hockey, as he isn't afraid to lay out for the ball to make a play.

In 2011, LaMarre played 122 games in centerfield and 14 games in rightfield and he has the tools to stick in centerfield as he climbs the ladder. The only thing that would necessitate a move to a corner outfield is the presence of a superior outfielder ahead of him, which Drew Stubbs may well be. But, if that comes to pass, then LaMarre should be able to comfortably slide to a corner spot. 

LaMarre did suffer an ankle injury when his foot hit the first base bag wrong, landing him on the 7-day disabled list. But, the injury was minor and didn't slow him down for long, which is important given the importance of speed to LaMarre's game.

LaMarre's speed helps raise his prospect floor, as even if the bat doesn't reach its ceiling, he could still provide value as a pinch runner/defensive replacement at the MLB level. But, if the bat does develop, then pairing it with his speed could make him a legitimate impact player at the Major League level. 

Final Thoughts

LaMarre is a player I actually wanted the Reds to draft, so obviously I liked him before he got to the Reds organization and his 2011 season did nothing to diminish my appreciation for his game. He offers a nice blend of tools and skills, floor and ceiling, and athleticism and baseball IQ. He's not a finished product and certainly has some development left to do, but his 2012 season at double-A will likely provide a very telling data point to his career trajectory.

Will he reintroduce power to his game and emerge as a potential MLB starter? Or, will his numbers remain down against the tougher double-A level of competition, likely sending him down the path taken by so many 4th and 5th outfielders?

Overall, I remain bullish on LaMarre and slot him in at #11 on the list. I look forward to seeing what 2012 brings for LaMarre...hopefully, a reincorporation of his lower body into his swing.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Mat Latos Trade


People complain about GM Walt Jocketty being too deliberate or overly analytical, but when he does decide to take the plunge, he certainly makes a damn big splash.

The first example was the Scott Rolen trade, which pundits hated. The current example was the Latos trade, which pundits also hate. Of course, I liked the former and I like the latter.

There are two components of the trade that need to be considered. First, the theory underlying the trade. Second, the execution of the trade.

The Underlying Theory

Obviously, the underlying theory implemented by the Reds was trading the future for the present. Trading prospects for established MLB talent. Trading from a surplus to address a weakness. Consolidating value in the 25-man roster at the expense of the farm system. The Reds finally realized that the present includes a window for success that may only be open until Votto reaches free agency.

Clearly, the underlying theory of the trade was solid. Of course, it was also so blatantly obvious that it's difficult to give Jocketty much credit for implementing it. In fact, it was painstakingly obvious to anyone who follows the team that this is the type of trade that needed to be made. In fact, it's the exact type of trade for which I was clamoring last offseason and it's been more than a little frustrating for the organization to fail to execute such an obvious strategy.

For those Yonder and Yasmani fans out there who wanted to keep them, well, sorry, but that was never a realistic possibility. From the moment Yonder was drafted, it was obvious that the Reds were going to have a problem. He might have been the best player available, but he was also incapable of playing anywhere else but first base. The idea of playing him out of position was a non-starter, as his defensive deficiencies at other positions would have dragged down the value of his offensive production to the point where his trade value would outpace his actual value. When those are your limitations and you have an MVP winner ahead of you, well there's really no where for you to go but out of town.

The story is largely the same for Yasmani, as Mesoraco is just a better prospect. As a result, there was simply no room for Yasmani. Despite some fan suggestions, the notion of a platoon between the two was a non-starter, as limiting their playing time would have been a waste of one or two of the assets. If you platoon them, then their actual value would simply be outpaced by their trade value. It just wouldn't work.

As for Brad Boxberger, he's an intriguing relief prospect, but he's still a reliever. And, relievers have an inherent volatility which limits their value. There aren't many relievers who maintain a consistent level of dominance and those who do seem to feature a more dominating repertoire of pitches than Boxberger possesses. Unless he can step up and consistently dominate in high leverage innings, then his loss won't be difficult to overcome. 

Fortunately, the farm system exists for one purpose, namely to support the major league team. That purpose can be achieved through the development and promotion of homegrown prospects or by trading those prospects away for established MLB talent. The paths diverge, but ultimately end up in the same place, namely an improved 25-man roster.  

Now that it has finally happened, it's impossible not to give the underlying theory high marks. However, regardless of how good the theory may be, the team still needs to execute it properly for the trade to be a good one.

The Execution

Well, similar to the aftermath of the Scott Rolen deal, the pundits are up in arms over the price the Reds paid. Personally, I had no problem with the price paid in the Rolen deal and don't really have a problem with the price in the Latos deal. Personally, I think we overpaid to a greater extent in this deal than we did in the Rolen deal. Even so, I think the overpayment was justified and made sense for where the Reds are as an organization.

Depending on where an organization stands in the win cycle, the price they should be willing to pay would  differ. For a team in need of a particular player to get them over the hump and into the playoffs, it only makes sense to pay a premium. That's where the Reds stand right now.

For me, it's not so much the price paid, as the risk inherent in such a deal. The Reds made the move they NEEDED to make, but it's a move that is inherently risky. They just traded four players for one. In doing so, they consolidated the total value of four roster slots into a single slot, which is exactly what the team needed. However, such a move also consolidates the risk. Instead of diversified risk spread over multiple assets, the Reds now have all their eggs in a single basket. So, it's a high risk, high reward trade.

Of course, given that the Reds NEEDED to make this move and that this move has inherent risk, the success of such a deal all comes down to picking the right pitcher. If you are going to push all your chips into the pot, then you'd better pick the right hand on which to do it.

For me, the Reds reeled in the best option available this offseason. Frankly, I'd rather have Latos than Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Jonathan Sanchez, or even James Shields. He just seems the best combination of polish, upside, salary, and length of time under team control. So, given what was realistically available, I think the Reds did it right.

Latos has had very good success so far in his career, but that success has come while pitching for the Padres and Petco Park. People have jumped at the park effects in pointing out that his career ERA is 3.11 at home and 3.57 on the road. Obviously, it's important to point out that leaving Petco for Great American Ballpark will act as a drag on his numbers. At the same time, I think the NL West context is somewhat under-examined, as the division combines big ballparks with weak offenses to create a very favorable environment for pitchers. And, Latos won't be bringing that environment with him to Cincinnati.

I do, however, have two problems with this trade:

1) That it didn't happen sooner

To me, this is the most egregious part of the trade. This is the trade that I wanted to see go down last year. If it did, then the gamble would have been lower risk. First, we would have landed a pitcher with a higher established baseline of production and a lower level of risk. Additionally, we would have avoided wasting an entire season of our win cycle. It would have cost more in monetary terms, less in prospect terms. Even so, it would have been a better time for such a substantial gamble, as it would have been lower risk and provided more chances to pay off.  

When you are a smaller market team, then your chances for success are typically a small window. When you have Joey Votto on the verge of free agency, Brandon Phillips getting long in the tooth, and the baling wire in Scott Rolen's shoulder getting more distressed by the day, then it's a borderline unforgivable sin to waste an entire season of your window. Windows don't come around very often and they aren't open very long when they do.

After a breakthrough season in 2010, it was unsurprising to see the Reds regress in 2011. Typically, when a team breaks through to a new level of performance, they follow it up with a step backward. The reason is simple, as success is typically the result of an occurrence of a number of positive events that simply cannot be expected to happen again the following season. To offset that, you have to take tangible steps to improve the team. The Reds didn't do that in 2011. They have learned their lesson. Still, it hurts to waste a season of MVP caliber production from Joey Votto.

2) Tossing Edinson into the Deal

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather, but to me this is the objectionable part of the price we paid for Latos. It just feels like a big mistake to include Edinson in this deal. And, I say that as something less than a fan of Edinson. Frankly, I didn't want Edinson to return to Cincinnati in 2012,. as his attitude and continued status as thrower instead of pitcher are reasons to part ways with him. However, I do think he has some trade value, even if we just treated him as if he did not. And, frankly, I just can't get behind the idea of wasting the value of an asset.

At the time of the trade, Edinson was undeniably the most unpopular player on the roster, so I fully expect this opinion to be equally unpopular. Regardless, I do think Edinson has some value and, frankly, I think he's the key to determining the winner of the deal. Keith Law thinks its Yasmani Grandal. I think it's Edinson.

To me, dealing Yonder, Yasmani, and Boxberger for Latos is a much more palatable price to pay than including those three AND Edinson. The reason is fairly simply, I could easily see Edinson getting back on track in San Diego. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Edinson puts up numbers in Petco that are similar to what Latos puts up in GABP.

In 2008, his first with the Reds, Edinson was a 4.2 win player. In 2010 and 2011, Latos was a 4.0 and 3.2 win player, respectively. So, once upon a time, Edinson was as valuable as (perhaps even more valuable than) Latos has been in each of the past two years.

In 2009, Edinson did not pitch after June 1, as his season ended in Tommy John surgery. He made it back in July 17, 2010, but as impressive as his recovery time was he probably came back too soon. Realistically, both his 2009 and 2010 seasons were undone by Tommy John surgery.

However, there is little to excuse his 2011 season. His 5.71 ERA and 1.57 WHIP sealed his fate in Cincinnati. In fact, he was so bad that he was demoted to triple-A. However, there are a few positives to be drawn from that point forward, if you look hard enough.

In triple-A, Edinson tossed 87.1 innings of 2.37 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 83/29 K/BB ratio. Overall, solid numbers, most encouraging were his 3.0 BB/9 and 8.6 K/9 ratios. And, while it was lost in the team's late season fade, he carried some of that improvement with him back to the majors in four September starts.

In his September starts, Edinson posted a 4.94 ERA and a 7.3 K/9, but a much more respectable 3.8 BB/9. Strides were made in the free pass department and the existence of those strides was reinforced by his pitch data.

In his four starts, admittedly a small sample size, Edinson took steps forward in percentage of strikes thrown and percentage of first pitch strikes. In September, Edinson tallied a first pitch strike 57.8% of the time and threw strikes 63.8% of the time. On the season as a whole, Edinson had a first pitch strike rate of 54% and threw strikes 60% of the time. So, he showed improvement when he returned to the majors. 

So, to a certain extent, he was getting back on track. And, when he's right, he has significant value, but now we've tossed him into a deal as if he had none. Add in the fact that he's heading to Major League Baseball's best park for pitchers and will be yet another year removed from his TJ surgery and it seems entirely possible that he'll get back on track in 2012. If he returns to form and becomes a 3 or 4 win player for the Padres, then Yonder, Yasmani, and Boxberger are almost pure profit for the Padres and they'll win this deal in a walk.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this deal is strong and long overdue. The underlying theory and the execution of it both work. It's been a long, agonizing, exhausting march towards the completion of this deal, but the Reds have finally gotten serious about improving this team and taking the next step forward.

The Reds paid a heavy price to make this deal happen, but it was the right move and one that was long overdue.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

2012 Top Prospect List: #4 Zack Cozart, ss

Zack Cozart
Height 6-0, Weight 195, B/T: R/R, DOB: 8/12/1985
2011 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #8

Zack Cozart is one of the top middle infield prospects in the system and one who is now in a position to capitalize on the dumpster fire that was Paul Janish's 2011 season. Fans were clamoring for Zack Cozart's arrival long before the Reds invited him to the party, but giving Janish an extended look was the wise, albeit painful, decision. Despite his detractors, Janish had enough positive attributes to make him an intriguing play, as he featured plus defensive skills at a premier defensive position, good plate discipline, and a line-drive generating swing. However, as the sample size increased, the likelihood of him being in the organization's future plans decreased, as Janish proved that the Reds simply couldn't rely on him to hold down a full-time gig. Second-tier prospects are rarely handed a starting job more than once and Janish doesn't have the type of upside that will easily enable him to play his way back into the organization's plans. Despite the outcome, the Reds, given their limited financial resources, need to try to capitalize on every asset, so taking the time to make an informed decision on Janish was one of the better decisions in a season short on good decisions. The end result was flawed, the process was not. As a result of the extended look, the Reds can now confidently turn the page on the Janish-era and give Cozart the bulk of the work at shortstop.   

2011 Season

As a result of the Janish experiment, Cozart logged 77 games and 350 plate appearances at triple-A. For the Bats, Cozart more than held his own, posting a .310/.357/.467 slash line with 7 homers, 9 steals, and a 51/23 K/BB ratio. His BABIP was .351, which isn't quite as unsustainable as it sounds when you factor in his robust 26% line drive rate. His performance coupled with the struggles of the MLB shortstop contingent earned him a promotion to the majors.

At the major league level, Cozart put up equally impressive overall stats, but his peripherals were uninspiring. Cozart hit .324/.324/.486 in 38 plate appearances across 11 games, managing to crank 2 homers with a 6/0 K/BB ratio. While that's an impressive debut, he'll have to improve his peripherals for it to be sustainable. His line-drive rate was an underwhelming 9.7% and his failure to draw a walk in 38 trips to the plate is mildly disconcerting. And, while we are undeniably dealing with meaningless sample sizes, his home (1.385 OPS)/road (.500 OPS) splits support the notion that he'll get a boost from that notorious righthanded hitter haven known as Great American Ballpark.

Overall, Cozart generates line drives at a good clip and has solid pull power, which should play well in the cozy confines of Great American Ballpark. At this point, Cozart seems to have established his baseline level of performance,which can be characterized as "good enough" across the board. He'll hit some homers out to left and slap some singles to right, but I wouldn't expect much power or well-driven balls to centerfield or rightfield. He's not a walk machine, but controls the strike zone well enough....for a shortstop. He makes contact at a good clip, so strikeouts won't be a significant problem. He has good instincts on the bases, but the stolen base likely won't be as big or effective a weapon in the majors as it was in the minors. Cozart will likely continue to profile out as more of a counting stat creation than an impressive rate stat player, which isn't a problem in light of his ability to hold down one of the premier defensive positions where "good enough" is really all that's required. 

Swing Mechanics

At the plate, Cozart uses a fairly simple, fundamentally sound set of swing mechanics. He starts with a slightly wider than shoulder width stance and a high back elbow. He has a quiet pre-pitch approach, the only noise being a small bat waggle to keep loose while waiting for the pitch. He stands very tall and remains tall throughout, an appearance amplified by the limited lower body action in the swing.

In order to effectuate his weight transfer, Cozart lifts his front foot up and takes a very small stride forward. He doesn't overextend in his stride, which is appropriate in light of his contact based hitting style. In actuality, Cozart is more of an upper body hitter, as he really doesn't rotate inward to cock the hips. When the stride doesn't cock the hips, then it becomes difficult to incorporate the lower body in the swing. There simply isn't much rotational energy in the swing, rather incorporating a more straight back and through action.   

As for the swing itself, it's fairly compact and short to the ball, but long and loose in the follow-through. The former emphasizes contact rate at the expense of power, while the latter enables full extension but may hinder bat control.On the follow-through, Cozart frequently lets go of the bat with the top hand.

While Cozart stays balanced throughout his swing, that speaks more to his limited lower body action and limited power production than an impressive fluidity and balance. I've written before about being impressed by the fluidity and balance in a hitter's swing, but that was on a hitter who fired the hips and generated a lot of rotational energy and swing velocity. It's very impressive to see a hitter maintain balance and fluidity by effectively controlling the various high energy forces of the swing. It's less impressive to see a hitter maintain balance by controlling rather limited forces in the swing.  

Here's a look at Cozart in action as he collects his first MLB hit:

Overall, Cozart has simple, but effective mechanics that should serve him well enough as a glove-first, up-the-middle player.

Defensive Ability

The old adage is that if you watch a team of players on the field in pregame warmups, you should be able to spot the shortstop in the first few minutes. It's something of an eyeball test that works because shortstop is the premier defensive position in baseball and only the best defensive players can hold it down. And, of course, Major League shortstops are the absolute cream of the crop, as the flawed are whittled down and down as they climb higher up the ladder. Zack Cozart passes the eyeball test, as he certainly looks the part.

Cozart looks the part because of his smooth actions in the field and soft hands when receiving the ball. What he does, he does very well. However, the questions on Cozart's defense revolve around his range and arm strength. But, you won't see either of those potential issues in the following clip:

Cozart should be a very solid defensive shortstop, but may ultimately lack the type of range necessary to be a true impact player with the leather. The sample sizes aren't large enough or the defensive metrics accurate enough to state it definitively, but to me it feels like Cozart's range is a tick below that of Paul Janish. It should, however, still be above average.As for Cozart's arm, it's definitely a tick or two below the howitzer that doubles as the right arm of Paul Janish, which means that Janish not only reached more balls due to his range advantage but was also able to convert those balls he reached into outs more effectively than Cozart due to his ability to get the ball to first base in less time.

Cozart frequently throws from a lower arm slot than most shortstops. It's common for second basemen to throw from a lower arm-slot because of the angle and distance of their throws, which allows them to throw to first base without coming up out of their crouch. It's a different story over on the other side of the bag, as shortstops frequently have to throw much more over the top because of the angle to first and a sidearm arm slot frequently results in throws that tail and run to the arm side.

Final Thoughts

In the final analysis, Cozart grades out fairly well and should, in light of Paul Janish's offensive implosion, hold down the shortstop position for a few years. However, his 2011 season was cut short by an injury to his left elbow caused by a collision at second base. The injury required Tommy John surgery, but should be fully healed by the time spring training rolls around. The elbow injury also limited his sample size and masked an impending regression, which may have created unrealistic expectations for Cozart's offensive abilities going forward.

In light of poor peripherals and an offseason spent rehabbing instead of working on his game makes Cozart a prime candidate for an underwhelming 2012 season. He'll have to prove he can make adjustments to be an effective offensive player, but regardless he'll always profile out as a glove-first player.

When I see Cozart play, he strikes me as being a poor man's Alex Gonzalez, the former Red and more recently the 2011 shortstop for the Braves. Like Gonzalez, Cozart seems unlikely to hit for high batting average or get on-base at an impressive rate, but Cozart likely has a tick less power and a tick less range at shortstop than A-Gon.

For now, all of this is enough to land Cozart at #4 on the list and on the hallowed Cincinnati shortstop ground for the foreseeable future.

Twitter and Facebook

Well, I've been tinkering around with Social Media as of late.

First and foremost, I've been tinkering with Twitter since the playoffs started. I haven't really publicized it, as I've been trying to figure out how to best utilize it. Twitter seems designed for breaking news and snark, neither of which has been a focus of this blog. I always intended this blog to be analytical and objective/fair in nature, so breaking news and snarky comments never really fit into what I wanted to do. So, I'm still determining whether I can add any value in what I'm trying to do through Twitter, but I'll be tweeting links to my blog posts and my thoughts on various baseball related topics. So, you can now follow me at: Lark_11

As for Facebook,. I created a basic fan page for the Redlegs Message Board associated with this blog. Originally, it was intended to be a way to increase membership by having members "like" the page. This is still in the very early stages, but we'll probably have some updates to it from time to time. For now, you can visit the page at the following address:

Anyway, back to regularly scheduled programming.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

2011 Top 25 Prospects

Time for a bit of housecleaning to get ready for a new season. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to writing them all up, but, for posterity's sake, this was what my complete list looked like for 2011.

1. Aroldis Chapman, lhp
2. Yonder Alonso, 1b
3. Devin Mesoraco, c
4. Billy Hamilton, ss/2b
5. Yasmani Grandal, c
6. Yorman Rodriguez, of
7. Todd Frazier, inf/of
8. Zack Cozart, ss
9. Juan Francisco, 3b
10. Dave Sappelt, of

11. Ryan LaMarre, of
12. Donnie Joseph, lhp
13. Brad Boxberger, rhp
14. Henry Rodriguez, 2b
15. Ismael Guillon, lhp
16. Neftali Soto, c/inf
17. Danny Dorn, 1b/of
18. Juan Duran, of
19. Drew Cisco, rhp
20. Tucker Barnhart, c

21. Junior Arias, ss
22. J.C. Sulbaran, rhp
23. Daniel Corcino, rhp
24. Cody Puckett, 2b
25. Juan Silva, of

Sunday, November 6, 2011

AFL Rising Star Game: Brad Boxberger

I had the opportunity to watch the last 6 innings of the Arizona Fall League Rising Star Game. Unfortunately, that means I missed the battle of 1.1 vs. 1.2, as Gerrit Cole took on Danny Hultzen in the early innings. The matchup failed to live up to the hype as Cole couldn't keep pace with Hultzen. Cole gave up 5 runs and 4 hits in 2/3rds of an inning, while Hultzen struck out the side in the first on 14 pitches and didn't allow a hit in his two innings of work.

Overall, I was impressed with the talent on display, even though on paper I didn't think it would be all that impressive outside of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Still, there were a few impressive players, including Will Myers. Myers had a down year in 2011 as he struggled through injuries, but looked good at the plate and moved very well in the field for a converted catcher. He looks to be fully back on track.   

Most interestingly, at least to Reds fans, was the work of Brad Boxberger. Boxberger worked a 1-2-3 inning, so he worked out of the windup the entire time and featured a fastball that sat in the 94-95 mph range, a change-up with very good late sink, and a power slider in the mid-80s.

Boxberger squared off against S.I. cover boy and uber-prospect Bryce Harper. And, encouragingly, Boxberger made very quick work of him. It took Boxberger just four pitches to strikeout Harper. Boxberger started him off with two change-ups with very good sink, the first of which was off the outside corner.  After starting him off down in the strike zone, Boxberger then changed the eye level by elevating the fastball. His third pitch was a 94 mph fastball up, but was too far inside. The fourth pitch was likely a do-over of what the third pitch was supposed to be, but this time with better execution. This time, Boxberger elevated the fastball and hit the target set by the catcher at or a tick above the top of the zone. Harper took a hack, but couldn't catch up to it.

The final line speaks for itself, as Boxberger acquitted himself very well in his appearance, but here are a few observations that won't show up in the box score:

1) Boxberger has some looseness to his delivery, an appearance largely caused by his long arms and the big arm swing he uses in his windup. After breaking his hands, Boxberger uses a large circle to bring his pitching arm up into proper throwing position. 

2) Boxberger threw a handful of sliders during his appearance, but I thought it was noticeable from his mechanics when he was throwing it. I'm not entirely sure what it was, but his delivery was different when he threw the slider. First impression was the arm speed was different, but the slider is generally more of a power pitch, so I'm not confident that that's what it was. If it wasn't that, then it had to be either the grip on the pitch or the arm slot. Whatever it was, I thought his mechanics differed on the slider than on the fastball and change-up, which could be a problem against sophisticated hitters at the MLB level.

3) While the slider underwhelmed me, the change-up impressed me a great deal. His change-up had a significant amount of sink to it (almost to the point where it looked like a true sinker), which would play well in Great American Ballpark. Additionally, such heavy sink gives him a nice weapon that most power pitchers do not possess. Power pitchers are typically fly ball pitchers because they utilize their stuff up in the zone. Boxberger has the fastball and strikeout rate of a power pitcher, but if he can continue to generate such significant sink then he should be able to work effectively in both the top and bottom of the strike zone.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Swing Mechanics and Random Draft Thoughts

Every once in a while, I run across something that piques my interest for some reason or other. I was watching a few highlight clips and stumbled across a Jason Kipnis homerun that seemed noteworthy, especially in light of the recent Adam Dunn post. The contrast between the swing mechanics of Dunn and Kipnis was striking. As for Kipnis, I was really amazed at just how still he stands in this clip:

Kipnis stands as still as a statute while waiting for the pitch. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone stand quite THAT still at the plate. He's calm, poised, and comfortable just waiting on the pitcher. Unlike Dunn, Kipnis's stance doesn't require any pre-pitch movement to get into hitting position. Kipnis starts in proper hitting position and simply has to fire the swing when the time comes. He is in perfect hitting position before the pitcher even begins his windup. Dunn, on the other hand, has a long way to go before he gets into hitting position and doesn't get into anything resembling proper hitting position until after the pitcher reaches the apex and starts to unpack his leg kick.

It's not easy for most hitters to stay relaxed and loose without pre-pitch movement. That's why a lot of hitters use a bat waggle, to both keep the muscles free of tension and trigger the swing. Kipnis obviously doesn't need any movement to hit. As for Dunn, I'd rather see him start in a Kipnis like position.

Anyway, that's the end of my ruminations on Dunn, he's on his own now, but the stillness of Kipnis and the dichotomy between the two approaches was striking enough to inspire me to write about it. Turning back to Kipnis, seeing the clip made me reflect on my shadow draft for that year.

I was pretty pleased with my shadow picks and thought I had outdone the Reds...until I saw what the Reds managed to do in comparison.

In my 2009 shadow draft, I selected rhp Shelby Miller in round 1, 2b/of Jason Kipnis in Supplemental Round 1, lhp David Holmberg in round 2, and lhp Josh Spence in round 3.

Outside of a team issued suspension for alleged underage drinking, Miller had a tremendous 2011 season and is establishing a #1 starter ceiling. Jason Kipnis took the world by storm with the Indians and is looking like an impact bat at second base. David Holmberg is the only one of my picks who hasn't reached the majors yet, but that's much more of a testimony to the talent and polish of the other three than an indictment of Holmberg, who is following a traditional development path. Finally, Josh Spence made his debut with the Padres this year and pitched very effectively out of the bullpen to the tune of a 2.73 ERA in 29.2 innings. He has underwhelming velocity, but a plus change up and a very good feel for pitching.

Overall, I'm very pleased with my shadow draft, but it's difficult to find fault with what the Reds did with their first 4 picks of the draft. The Reds landed Mike Leake in the first round, Brad Boxberger in the Supplemental Round, Billy Hamilton in round 2, and Donnie Joseph in round 3.

It's up in the air which set of four, shadow or actual, will ultimately prove to be the better value, but the Reds reeled in four quality prospects and Hamilton in round 2 was a steal. Mike Leake has already arrived, Boxberger and Joseph are good bets to work high leverage innings at the MLB level, and Hamilton has a very high ceiling with some development risk.

It's remarkable just how much the Reds have improved in the draft. Their draft effectiveness is leaps and bounds ahead of where it used to be, which is a testament to both the scouting department and the player development staff that knocks the rough edges off those picks. It always bears mentioning just how far the Reds have come since the dark old days of Jim Bowden, Ty Howington, Chris Gruler, Jeremy Sowers, and company.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Complacency Kills the Season

Complacency is the silent killer, as evidenced by the 2011 Reds' season. The Reds are where they are because they were complacent.

When a team breaks through to a new performance plateau, the following season is frequently a step backwards. The simple fact is that the break through likely occurred because a lot of things went right. More things than can reasonably expected to go right again. So, in order to offset the likelihood of a regression, it's important to take substantial steps to improve the team.

Unfortunately, the Reds failed to do so. To justify the complete lack of effort to improve, financial constraints are frequently cited. However, even if true, there are a number of payroll neutral moves that could have been made. There are two types of currency in the MLB world: 1) cash and 2) prospects. If the Reds were limited by payroll constraints, then they could have cracked open the farm system and dealt away prospects to improve the MLB roster.

Unfortunately, the Reds stood pat. Unbelievably, they stood pat. Inconceivably, they stood pat. They stood pat all offseason, hoping to avoid the almost inevitable backslide. They stood pat at the trade deadline, hoping that the status quo would get them back in the hunt. They did nothing except wait and watch the standings as the season slipped away.

If you step back and take a look at what the Reds have actually done this season, then it becomes rather difficult not to get frustrated... REALLY frustrated. As a fan, I invested a decent amount of time, money, and energy into the Reds this year. In exchange, I don't expect championships or even wins. I don't expect sunshine and rainbows. I DO, however, expect effort. I expect it both between the lines AND in the front office. If I'm going to make this type of investment on an annual basis, then I expect the organization to be at least as invested, if not more so. In hindsight, it's difficult to even conceive of what Walt Jocketty did all season. He constantly lets Dusty speak for the organization, he lets Chris Buckley handle the draft, and he didn't trade anyone. How exactly did he earn his money? By signing Bronson Arroyo to an absurd contract extension and a bunch of replacement level players to low cost contracts? Or, are we paying him to play internet hearts and sleep on the job? 

Now, I don't think I'm unreasonable or irrational. I understand that trades require two willing partners. Just because we think up a deal, doesn't mean it can get done. Still, the utter lack of activity by the organization this year is...well...stunning. And, frankly, the lack of activity stands in stark contrast to that of the organization that is currently running away with the division.

If you take a quick look at what the Brewers have done, then it's not difficult to see why they are going to win the division.

1. On December 6, 2010, the Brewers traded Brett Lawrie to the Toronto Blue Jays for Shawn Marcum.

2. On December 19, 2010, the Brewers traded Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jeremy Jeffress for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt.

3. On March 27, 2011, the Brewers traded Cutter Dykstra and cash to the Washington Nationals for Nyjer Morgan.

4. On July 12, 2011, the Brewers traded Adrian Rosario and Danny Herrera to the New York Mets for Francisco Rodriguez and cash.

In short, the Brewers added two top of the rotation starters, a high-motor leadoff hitter, and a high-leverage reliever.

Now, let's compare those moves to what the Reds did this season:

1. On July 26, 2011, the Reds traded Jonny Gomes and cash to the Washington Nationals for Bill Rhinehart and Christopher Manno.

That's it. That's the sum total of the Reds efforts to improve the team for the 2011 season. One trade. A single addition-by-subtraction trade.

As I write this, the Reds are currently 14 games back of the Milwaukee Brewers. If you add up the relevant WAR figures for those 4 players, Zack Greinke (3.4), Nyjer Morgan (3.4), Shawn Marcum (2.4), and Francisco Rodriguez (0.5), then you get 9.7 Wins. While the Reds did nothing, the Brewers went out and purchased 10 wins with a month of the season still to play.

I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that those four players are the primary difference makers in the NL Central race. In the final analysis, the Brewers obviously wanted it more. That's it and that's all. When the history of the 2011 NL Central is written, it'll read that while one organization made excuses, another made moves to improve. Given those two realities, it's not much of a surprise who came out on top.

Little did we know, the Reds season was over before it even began, as the Reds simply weren't going to make the moves necessary to put us over the top. The sad part about the 2011 season isn't really the fact that the Reds failed to build off 2010. The truly sad part is that they didn't even bother suiting up. It's not the battles that you lose that rankle and fester, it's the battles for which you didn't even bother showing up. That's how it feels to be a Reds fan right now. The front office didn't bother to show up for the season, which will now undoubtedly go down as a missed opportunity. Instead of recognizing and seizing the opportunity to better last season's postseason performance, the Reds waited and hoped, demonstrating the kind of faith found only in the most pious and zealous of believers. Unfortunately, the only reward for such a display of faith was a missed opportunity and a hearty "wait 'til next year."

Albert Camus once wrote "I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: He fornicated and read the papers." I wonder if future historians will look back at the 2011 Reds and find that once again a single sentence will suffice: "They did nothing and read the standings."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fixing the Big Donkey

Ok, the Reds season has gone down the tubes, so it's time to revisit our old friend Adam Dunn. During his time in Cincinnati, The Big Donkey was the biggest lightning rod in all of baseball for the simple reason that he personified the divide between traditional scouting and statistical analysis views of the game. Traditional scouting types hated him, statistical analysis fans loved him.

And, one of the first things I posted on this blog was a blurb about the likelihood that Adam Dunn would suffer an early decline. Dunn's game has always been predicated on the old-player skills of power and patience. And, Bill James first postulated that old-player skills were more susceptible to aging than the young-player skills of speed and batting average. The theory being that the loss of a step or the slowing of the bat would cause a player lacking young-player skills to fall off the cliff. For example, which player is better suited to survive a slowing bat and the loss of a step, Adam Dunn or Ichiro? Dunn is at the bottom of the acceptable spectrum in both outfield range and contact rate, while Ichiro is at the top. So, a slowing bat or loss of a step could be devastating for Dunn's production, while easily manageable for Ichiro. Anyway, I bought into that philosophy, which was a big reason why I was opposed to locking Dunn into a multi-year extension that would take him well into his 30s.

Now, that said, this year has been an utter nightmare for Adam Dunn. It's been so bad that it almost defies description. I still buy into the old player skills argument, but it's difficult to imagine the wheels completely and utterly coming off the wagon like this. Is it possible? Sure, in fact the old player argument expects an earlier and faster decline, but I would have thought he would have gone from ultra productive to mediocre to massive struggles. Instead, he skipped the intermediate step and went right to the massive struggles. Regardless, I'm going to take a swing at helping the Donkey out. Once a Red, always a Red.

There are countless possible reasons for Dunn's struggles. The change in leagues and resulting unfamiliarity with the pitchers, the change from playing in the field to being largely a DH, potential injuries, the weight of the contract and the corresponding expectations. It could be one or all of those factors. The more potential variables that exist, the harder it is to pinpoint the specific cause of the struggles.

But, to me, the first thing that I see is a subtle change in his swing mechanics.

Below are two At Bats against one of the toughest pitchers in all of baseball: Justin Verlander. The games are 11 days apart in 2011, but Dunn does the same exact thing in each of them. It looks to me like Dunn has simply fallen into a bad habit in his swing. It's easy to do and occasionally difficult to both identify and fix. But, Dunn utilizes a much more extreme bat waggle/hand position with the ChiSox than he did during his time in Cincinnati and Arizona.

If you watch this video (I suggest pausing it at the 2 second mark and again at the 26 second mark), look at how long it takes Adam Dunn to get his bat up into hitting position. He lays the bat on his shoulder, actually past horizontal and somewhat pointing to the ground. And, he maintains that position for a LONG time. In fact, Justin Verlander gets past the apex of his leg kick before Dunn begins to bring the bat up into a more vertical position. Verlander is probably the hardest throwing starting pitcher in baseball, but Dunn waits until Verlander is unpacking his leg kick and beginning to drive to the plate before bringing his bat up.

If you are slow to get the bat up into hitting position, then you are going to be slow to the ball. And, against MLB pitching, you can't afford to be even a fraction of a second late. In this instance, Dunn makes it work (in part because he gets an 89 mph offspeed pitch), but I really don't think that bat position is a recipe for success.

And, below, here's another At Bat against Verlander, this time almost 2 weeks later, but the same bat waggle and delay in getting into hitting position. This time, Verlander gets the better of him. Stop the video at the 32 second mark and look at how far into the windup Verlander has gotten compared to the bat position of Dunn. How can Verlander be unpacking the leg kick and Dunn still have the bat parallel to the ground??? How can you hit like that??? Being slow to get the bat up into proper hitting position will very likely make him slow to the ball, but it also likely means that he is now moving his hands into hitting position at the very same time he is moving other parts of his body to trigger the swing. At times, it almost seems as if the barrel of the bat is still moving up and in towards the plate when the body begins moving forward to meet the pitch. The simultaneously moving parts to his swing could also help explain his struggles.

Now, let's take a look at a few of Dunn's At Bats while he was with the Reds.

First, here's a battle with one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, C.C. Sabathia. Look at Dunn's bat position against C.C. You can see that he doesn't rest the bat on his shoulder and he never gets past parallel. Also, he brings the bat up to a vertical hitting position before Sabathia begins to unpack his leg kick. So, he's a hair quicker in making his move to bring the bat up into hitting position and he has a shorter distance to travel to get into that position.

(For whatever reason, isn't properly embedding the older Reds video clips, but if you click on the black box it'll open up the videos in a new window)

And, finally, here's a look at Dunn against Wandy Rodriguez. If I was Dunn, I'd use this video as an example of what my swing mechanics should be. The bat position is much higher and only occasionally is it horizontal to the ground. And, when Wandy is at the apex of his leg kick, you can see Dunn's bat is in ideal position. In this At Bat, he hasn't rested his hands on his shoulder and is never past parallel or pointing the bat at the ground. To me, this hand position makes him significantly quicker to the ball and puts him in better position to drive the ball.

Maybe Dunn has succumbed to the curse of Old Player Skills and an early career decline. Maybe he was right all these years when he told everyone that he didn't want to play 1b or be a DH, but rather was a leftfielder. Maybe he's just scuffling with the change in leagues.

But, if there was one thing I'd like to see Adam Dunn do over the final month-and-a-half it would be to stop resting the bat on the shoulder and pointing the barrel at the ground. Dunn isn't Rod Carew. He's not a handsy singles hitter who is going to slap and slash singles to all fields. Carew could afford to hit with a horizontal bat wrapped around his body. Dunn is a power hitter and needs to take a big swing to get his money's worth.

It's possible that Dunn has lost a bit of bat speed, but at the very least he hasn't gotten any faster. And, as he gets older, he should be trying to get quicker and use a more direct path to the ball, but instead Dunn has gone the other way. He has dropped his hand position, forcing him to travel farther to get into proper hitting position and meet the ball. Dunn needs to go back to the hitting position he used in the Wandy Rodriguez and CC Sabathia At Bats. Stop holding the bat horizontal to the ground and get it up into hitting position earlier. When a pitcher is running it up there at 95+, you simply can't wait to get your hands into hitting position until after the apex of the leg kick: that's just too late. Get quicker to the ball. Maybe that will get him back on track this year and it will certainly become more important as he ages and loses a bit of bat speed, as he doesn't have all that much margin for error at the plate.

This change might be part or all of what's ailing Adam Dunn. At the very least, if he went back to what worked in Cincinnati and Arizona, then he could cross the new hand position off the list of potential explanations for his struggles. Whatever the reason, the baseball world is just a bit more enjoyable when the Big Donkey is launching the ball into the stratosphere, so let's hope he gets back to doing just that...and soon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kyle Lotzkar: Change the Mechanics, Save the Career?

The recent injury to Kyle Lotzkar, which thankfully turned out to be a hamstring injury rather than another arm injury, got me to thinking about the best way to minimize his injury risk going forward. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm not a physiologist, kinesiologist, or biologist. When you add in the fact that there is still a measure of fog clouding the relationship between pitcher injuries and pitching mechanics and this post necessarily becomes equal parts speculation and educated guessing. With that out of the way, let's get back to Lotzkar.

Now, obviously, the 800 lb gorilla sitting in the room with Kyle Lotzkar is the high back elbow in his arm action. I've written about it in each and every one of my Kyle Lotzkar prospect profiles, as have many others in the blogosphere. And, unfortunately, Lotzkar has already suffered a significant arm injury early in his professional career. So, the issue becomes whether the Reds should consider tweaking Lotzkar's mechanics. Obviously, the goal would be to reduce the injury risk, but the downside is a potential decline in performance. It's not an easy decision for the Reds front office, so let's try to help them out.

Before we come to any conclusions, let's take a quick, cursory look at the problem. After breaking his hands, Lotzkar utilizes an arm swing that includes bringing his elbow above the the shoulder. When you use the high back elbow, it makes it very difficult to get the arm up into an over-the-top throwing position. To drop the elbow from the high position and bring the ball up into an over-the-top throwing position requires an almost lasso-type arm action. And, I think it's important to understand that it is this lasso-type arm action that is the real cause for concern and the real creator of heightened injury risk for pitchers. 

Even just sitting at your computer, if you take a break from reading this to mimic the arm action, then you can feel the unnatural motion required to throw with the high back elbow and over-the-top arm slot. Throwing a baseball is unnatural enough as it is, but adding in this type of arm action makes it even more so. But, whenever a kid picks up a baseball for the first time he automatically throws it a certain way. And, the repetition of each throw over the course of his baseball development reinforces the muscle memory. Muscle memory is "a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort."

So, if you naturally use a high back elbow, then you'll constantly reinforce it with each throw in your career. Not surprisingly, that's what makes attempting to change a pitcher's mechanics when they join an MLB organization so challenging, as you are working against years and years of muscle memory. For whatever reason, as difficult as it is to change the arm swing, anyone can pick up a baseball and throw without difficulty from an over-the-top, side-arm, or submarine arm slot. So, the release point is easily changeable, but the arm action up to that point is not.

As a result, I would avoid working against well over a decade of ingrained muscle memory by trying to alter the high back elbow. If the Reds forced him to do that, then they would risk a decline in performance to such an extent that he wouldn't be productive enough to pitch at the highest level. So, they *might* effectively reduce his injury risk, but end up with a healthier pitcher who simply isn't effective enough to maintain his prospect status.

However, I really think it's worthwhile to drop Lotzkar's arm slot. To me, that would seem to be the best way to manage the twin risks: injury and performance. The lower arm slot will eliminate the problematic lasso arm action, reducing the strain on the arm, but minimize the performance risk by not forcing him to completely retrain the muscle memory in his arm action.

But, Will it Work???

It's easy to think of MLB pitchers who featured the high back elbow and have suffered significant arm problems. For example, Mark Prior, Anthony Reyes, and Joel Zumaya all leap to mind. It's not as easy to think of pitchers who feature the high back elbow and who have not had significant arm injuries.

However, two current pitchers do come to mind, one with a significant track record of durability and another with a limited track record but who strikes me as having a manageable injury risk. The former is Phillies pitcher Aaron Heilman and the latter is White Sox pitcher Chris Sale. But, what do they have in common?

Both pitchers undoubtedly feature the high back elbow that plagues Lotzkar, but also feature something that may help them avoid the injury risk typically associated with that arm action: namely, a lower arm slot.

Here's a look at their high back elbows and their respective arm slots:

Aaron Heilman

In the first photo, you can see the high back elbow. In the second photo, you can see the lower arm slot. Even though Heilman has the higher back elbow, he doesn't have to bring his arm up into the over the top arm slot, which forecloses the need for the lasso-action. The lower arm slot largely eliminates the added strain from the higher elbow.

Since 2003, Heilman has thrown 65.0 or more innings 7 different times and 630.0 total innings. Additionally, he's thrown 437.2 minor league innings. And, despite all the innings, he has largely avoided significant arm injuries. He has the repertoire to start and spent most of his time in the minors in the starting rotation, but has spent most of his MLB career in the bullpen.

Obviously, Heilman is just one player and accordingly can't be definitive evidence of anything, but he is something of a rarity as a high-back elbow pitcher who has logged a significant number of innings without major arm problems.

Chris Sale

And, you see a similar story with Chris Sale. In photo 1, you can see the high back elbow. In photo 2, you can see the lower arm slot.

Sale is the pitcher I wanted the Reds to draft, which is surprising because I usually blanch at the mere sight of a high-elbow pitcher. But, with Sale, I just didn't see it as a red flag in part because of the lower arm slot, as that should offset some of the strain on the arm. Obviously, Sale is still young and in the early stages of his career, but so far the results are good and the injuries are non-existent. Of course, as with any pitcher, that could change on any given pitch, but so far the results are positive.

At this point, it's worth mentioning one of the alleged drawbacks of a lower arm slot. There is a school of thought out there, most visibly preached by Keith Law, that a lower arm slot frequently leads to struggles against opposite side hitters. And, to an extent, I agree with Law. Opposite side hitters get a longer look at the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand, so a pitcher will need to find a weapon to effectively nullify that advantage or else be relegated to a bullpen role. However, there are examples of lower arm slot pitchers who find success in the rotation, with Justin Masterson being the latest example. Still, it's definitely something that would need to be taken into account in dropping Lotzkar's arm slot.

One Final (and Perhaps Telling) Example

Now, I think discussing one more pitcher is instructive. Ordinarily, I would hesitate to cite this pitcher as an example of...well...just about anything, as he defies just about all the rules and is about as unorthodox as they come. Even so, for our present purposes, Dan Quisenberry is an interesting and relevant case study.

To  me, Quisenberry effectively drives home the point that it's not the high back elbow alone that is cause for concern in a pitcher's mechanics, but rather the lasso-type arm action that comes from the combination of the high back elbow and an over-the-top release point.

Here are three photos that tell the story better than I ever could. First, the obvious use of the high-back elbow:

If you look at those photos, you can imagine the type of lasso action that he would have to use to get from this position to an over-the-top arm slot. Fortunately for his arm, he didn't have to use such an arm action.

In this third photo, you can see the lower arm slot that precludes the typical added stress on the arm that the lasso-action necessitates:

In fact, if you look at Quiz's arm slot, then I don't think it's a stretch to say that the use of the submarine arm slot almost REQUIRES the high back elbow. If it doesn't necessarily require it, then it certainly is a natural extension of the decision to use the submarine arm slot. But again, the real enemy here is not just the high back elbow, but the lasso arm action created by the combined usage of the high back elbow and the over-the-top arm slot. By using a submarine arm slot, Quiz didn't have to use the lasso arm action that creates a significantly higher risk of injury.  

Final Thoughts

It's a difficult issue without a clear cut answer. Do the Reds go for maximum performance and live with the potentially heightened injury risk? Or, do they drop the arm slot to reduce the injury risk and possibly the performance level? Or, do they try to alter his arm action completely to remove the high back elbow to reduce the injury risk as much as possible but at the cost of a heightened performance risk?

Personally, I'll go with the lower arm slot. There are no hard and fast rules with pitching mechanics and injury risk. Pitchers are have different physiologies and abilities to handle stress on the arm. But, I do think there is enough data out there to support the notion that the high-back elbow leads to heightened injury risk.

Given that Lotzkar is still in low-A and has a lot of development left before he reaches the majors, I don't think rolling with the status quo is the best option. If he was knocking on the door, then maybe it would make more sense to run him out there "as is" to try to get some years of production before injury (potentially) strikes. But, it seems like we are just waiting on the other shoe to drop on the injury front.

To me, the best option is the middle course. Lower the arm slot, reduce the injury risk, and work to combat any potential decrease in performance level. You have to wonder if Lotzkar's career can survive another significant arm injury, which would be a shame because he has a lot of talent and a seemingly strong work ethic. Fortunately, the injury isn't a certainty, but it would be a shame to see his career end before it begins.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Rebuilding the Big Red Machine: Step 3 (Part 2)

Go Back to Step 3 (Part 1)

1. Converting a player's total on-field contributions into a single Run value

In order to properly value a player, you have to be able to accurately quantify his on-field production. I believe it was Bill James who originally determined that "Runs" were the currency of baseball. This brought about a statistical effort to more accurately value the contributions of players, which led to statistics like WAR (Wins Above Replacement). There are three layers to this wave of player valuation.

The first layer is converting the contributions of a player into a single run statistic. This has been done for both their total offensive production and their total defensive production.

The offensive component of WAR is based on wOBA. So, we have to talk just a bit about wOBA. To start, wOBA isn't based on any other statistics, but rather is based on each and every outcome of a hitter's plate appearances. It uses linear weights to value all the different outcomes relative to each other. So, every outcome has a run value that is proportional to the other outcomes. So, a homer is worth more than a triple, which is worth more than a double, etc etc etc. So, every outcome is weighted and rolled into a single number.

Additionally, once all the contributions are compiled, the wOBA can be converted into a single run value. Basically, you take the difference of the wOBA from league average and extrapolate it out over their number of plate appearances to get their offensive run value above/below league average.

As to defense, uses Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which is the number of runs above or below average (includes range and errors), for it's fielding component.

As with some other advanced defensive metrics, the field is divided into different zones which are assigned to the relevant fielders. And, of course, the balls hit into the zones are tracked. UZR is largely based on hits in the zones, outs in the zone, and the run value of the hits. The player's performance is compared to the league average for all balls converted in the zone. Obviously, he gets credit for plays he makes above the average and deductions for the plays below the average. A run value is applied to his performance on these plays and a total run value is determined. That run value is the defensive run component to WAR.

So, roughly speaking, that's how you get your offensive and defensive run totals.

2. Converting a player's single Run value into a Win Contribution Value
The second layer is converting a player's total run contribution into wins.

At this stage, the offensive run values are adjusted for park effects and a positional adjustment is added. Now, conceptually, the idea of positional adjustment is one that sometimes eludes me, so I'm not going to try to explain it. In essence, a player's performance is more valuable at the premier defensive positions, so an adjustment is made to give those players a boost. Hence, Hanley Ramirez's performance gets a boost, while Albert Pujols gets a deduction.

Now, converting runs to a win number is the simple part. A lot of statistical analysis has been performed to determine that generally speaking: 10 runs = 1 win. So, if a player generates +20 runs, than he's a +2 win player.

Additionally, WAR is tied to replacement level. So, the benchmark is wins a player would provide over a replacement level player. Here, replacement level is an AAAA type player, which includes the type of players available as minor league free agents, the Rule V draft, and MLB bench players.

3. Converting a player's Win Value into a Dollar Figure
Heading into the home stretch, the third layer is converting a player's win total into a dollar figure. Just how much was the player's contribution worth?

As for the value of a single Win, it's once again complicated. Different sources rely on different methods, but uses something along the lines of the following:

First, there are 162 games per season and 30 teams, which works out to 4,860 total games. Of course, there must be a winner and a loser, so half those games will be wins and half will be loses. So, there are a grand total of 2,430 wins at play in the regular season. Now, due to the fact that every team will field at least replacement level players, who will perform at a .300 win percentage clip, every team is assigned 48 wins. So, 48 wins for each of 30 teams means that 1440 wins are not in play. That means that there are only roughly 990 wins in contention among the 30 teams.

So, if you took the total salary committed to all the players in baseball and divided it by the 990 wins in contention, then you'd get the cost of a win. However, it's not that simple, as many players are cost controlled under the MLB financial structure. So, such a calculation would not reflect the market rate of a win, as players who are in their first 6 seasons or who have forgone free agency for contract security drag down the market cost of a win. You have to exclude players who are not available and focus on those who are. The price of a win is determined by market forces.

As a result, you look at the free agents who signed in any given year, determine their market driven salary, and then determine how many wins above replacement they created. Once that's done, you can determine the market price of a win by (basically) dividing the total salary of all free agents by the wins generated by those free agents.

Fangraphs has calculated the dollars per win as follows:

2002: $2.6M
2003: $2.8M
2004: $3.1M
2005: $3.4M
2006: $3.7M
2007: $4.1M
2008: $4.5M

So, if you had a 4-win player in 2008, he was worth $18M, which gives a more objective valuation that is not driven exclusively by the irrational decision of one or more teams. While this methodology provides a more objective player valuation, we need to take one more step. We need to make this general, league-wide valuation more specific and applicable to a specific organization. In order to do that, we need to examine the layers of revenue and how that impacts a player's unique value to an organization. Suffice it to say, a 4-win player may have a different value to the Yankees than he does to the Royals. But, we'll leave that for Part 3.

Rebuilding the Big Red Machine: Step 3 (Part 1)

Go Back to: Step 2

What is a player worth?

It's a simple, straightforward question, but one that has a surprisingly complicated and elusive answer. And, even determining the answer will require some heavy lifting on our part, but player valuation is a key part of effectively and efficiently operating an MLB franchise, so it's probably worth a bit of our time. So, let's get to it.

If you've been around the block once or twice, you've probably heard the old axiom that something is worth "whatever someone will pay for it." And, of course, on a certain level that is true. However, baseball economics do not precisely reflect the realities of markets driven by pure market forces.

Baseball is not a purely competitive market, as each team is a member of a league. As a result, there is an inherent element of cooperation in the baseball marketplace. Unlike a pure competitive market, the Yankees are prevented from running the Kansas City Royals out of business. Not to mention, they would not benefit from doing so. In a non-cooperative market, competitors benefit from running their competition out of business, as it creates an opportunity for the surviving business to increase its marketshare and customer base, which bring a corresponding increase in revenue streams. But, in baseball, not many fans are going to pay the going rate for tickets to watch the Yankees play an intrasquad game. So, on a fundamental level, the Yankees need the Royals.

The fact that the Yankees can't run the Royals out of business brings about a practical reality that must be recognized in a discussion of player valuation. Namely, bad decisions aren't penalized the same way they are in a true market place. The penalty for foolishness is the loss of business. In MLB, the penalty for foolishness is a last place finish due to a pathetic Win/Loss record. Decisions in life and business are based largely on incentives and disincentives. Here, a last place finish simply isn't a strong enough deterrent to prevent organizations from making similar bad decisions in the future. So, team after team continues to throw out massive contracts driven largely by the market, rather than the value of the player to the team.

So, the obvious consequence is that bad teams are free to make bad decisions regarding free agents. And, of course, that sets the market and drives up the cost of players for rational decision making teams. Or, to put it more succinctly, the dumbest teams in the league can set the value of the players based on what they are willing to pay for them.

So, if that's how the value of a player is frequently determined, then how do rational decision makers place a more accurate, proper value on players?

Proper Valuation Strategy

Now that we've laid out the problem, we are going to attempt to address it. For a mid-market organization like the Reds to hold its own against the big market clubs, it needs to embrace efficiency. It needs to leaner and meaner. Basically, the Reds need to get significantly more units of production per dollar spent than the big market clubs. If it fails to do so, then the big market clubs will win based purely on their wealth of resources. If the Reds aren't more efficient than the competition, then the big clubs will win simply by outspending them.

So, how do the Reds get more "bang for the buck"? How do they embrace efficiency? A proper player valuation system is a key first step. In general, we are going to look to directly tie a player's on-field contributions to the revenue generated by the organization. Linking "monetary expense" to "monetary benefit" to determine the value of an asset is hardly revolutionary, but it does allow us to place a more rational value on players than we would get from relying on what the Pittsburgh Pirates are willing to pay for players. So, that's our goal in our valuation efforts. Detach the impact and influence of outside organizations on our valuations and make the determination of a player's value based on what he is worth to OUR organization. In short, a player's value to the team will be driven by the revenue and value he creates for the organization.

As difficult as it may be, the Reds need to form their own independent valuation of players and stick to it, rather than letting the market dictate player valuations to them.

To establish their own valuations of players, the Reds will need to follow certain steps, which will involve some heavy lifting on our part, but that can't really be helped. Basically, proper valuation requires the following steps:

1. Use statistical analysis to convert a player's total on-field contributions (offense, defense, positional value, etc) into a single Run value,

2. Convert that player's Run contribution into a Win value,

3. Determine a player's objective monetary value on the basis of his Win contributions, and

4. Convert a player's objective monetary value into a subjective, organization specific value based on a team's position on the Win Curve and an understanding of the various layers of revenue that exist under MLB's economic structure.

Basically, to have a proper valuation, you need to know what a player is, how what he is impacts the team's W/L record, and how his Win value impacts the specific fortunes of the organization's revenue stream.
So, that sets the table for what we'll be doing over the next few days, but we'll break it down into several parts in order to make it a bit more manageable.

Go to Step 3 (Part 2)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Trade Deadline is...well...dead

Well, I'm back in the saddle, a bit wearier and perhaps even a bit saltier, but back nonetheless. I've had a couple of professional and family issues with which to deal, so finding time to do justice to this blog has been difficult, but such is life. I can't guarantee that there will be no further interruptions, but things are trending in the right direction, so it's time for some new content. My apologies to the loyal readers and thanks to those who sent inquiries. Now, without further adieu, let's get back to baseball.

In the near future, I'm planning on touching on my remaining prospect write-ups in some manner (based on the rankings of last offseason), as my obsessive compulsive side won't let those go unfinished. Besides, better late than never, right? In addition, I'm going to take a stab at saving a prospect's professional career, take the next step in rebuilding the Big Red Machine, and maybe slay a sacred cow or sling a stone at a giant. But, for now, let's just revisit the Reds' current position in relation to the 3 pressing questions I posed this past offseason.

2011 Reds

Frustrating. That's the one word I would use to describe the 2011 Reds. Unfortunately, that's as close as we can come to pinning an identity on this squad. Fans, in seemingly equal measure, are frustrated with Walt Jocketty for either (1) refusing to add talent to make a postseason push or (2) failing to sell off talent to build for the future. Obviously, Jocketty finds himself in an untenable position vis-a-vis the fan base.

Billy Beane once put forth the philosophy that a General Manager needs to divide the season into thirds. The first 2 months are to be spent evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the team. The second 2 months are when the weaknesses should be addressed through player personnel moves. And, of course, the final 2 months are for letting those changes play out.

Here, however, it seems that the first 2 months and more have done little to establish the identity of this team. As a result, it's very difficult for anyone, Jocketty included, to determine whether we should be buyers or sellers, play for the present or the future. In the end, Jocketty ended up doing nothing at all. It's difficult to defend the decision to stand pat with a team that is in desperate need of a jolt. A shakeup of some sort to crush the complacency. If the team has any hopes of making a playoff push, then it likely needed a tweak of some sort. By doing nothing, Jocketty may have ensured that he should have been a seller.

So far this season, the Reds have a very strong Run Differential of +40, which should translate into a better win/loss record than 53-55. And yet, it hasn't. The season has been characterized by inconsistency and volatility in both offense and pitching. In fact, the team has been so up and down that they an almost impossibly long stretch of games wherein they simply couldn't string together back to back wins.

In the offseason, I identified three issues that I thought would go a long way towards determining the organization's success this year. So, here's a quick look at how those issues have played out thus far.

Aroldis exploded on the scene with a lot of hype and a Steve Nebraska fastball. He immediately set the baseball world on fire with his record setting heat. His arrival put the Reds front and center in the minds of baseball fans and in the coverage of the national media. However, he remained more side-show curiosity than impactful big league pitcher. He has all the tools to be a big time success, but he worked only 13.1 innings and his role for 2011 was unclear.

Given his abilities, the Reds had a potentially dominating weapon to unleash on the league in 2011, if only they could harness him properly. So far, they have failed to do so, which is in part due to usage problems, but also because of his struggles with command.

Given the inconsistency in the rotation, having a weapon like Aroldis would have been invaluable. In the bullpen, he needs to be used in high leverage situations (i.e. situations where the value of a run is the highest) in order to maximize his impact. In 2011, Dusty has turned to Coco Cordero, Billy Bray, Logan Ondrusek, and Nick Masset more frequently in high leverage situations than Aroldis Chapman.

Granted Aroldis has struggled with his performance in 2011, but the organization has failed to turn his freakish abilities into tangible production. For a team with a very strong run differential that has consistently struggled in 1-run games, it's inconceivable that an almost unparalleled weapon isn't leaned on more heavily in these situations.

Scott Rolen was a very good acquisition for the Reds and was a big part of the team's success in 2010. He solidified the hot corner on offense and provided surprisingly strong offensive production. However, given his age and degenerative shoulder condition, it was unwise to expect a repeat performance. As a result, I suggested that a key to the season would be finding a fallback option at the hot corner, as Rolen was only likely to be good for ~120 games. So, at a bare minimum, the team needed to find ~42 games of quality play at third.

In an effort to pick up the Rolen slack, the Reds have leaned largely on Miguel Cairo, who has posted a respectable, though hardly impactful, slash line of .277/.351/.422. Cairo is a pro's pro and he's a nice utility player, but he's simply not going to be able to offer up the type of hitting that the team needs to help replicate Rolen's 2010 level of production.

The Reds needed to add a better fallback option at the hot corner. The failure to do so has hamstrung the offense in 2011.

The Greinke question was largely about Zack Greinke, but also about organizational complacency. The worst part about the offseason was the organization's decision to rest on its laurels under the pretext of "payroll restrictions." When a team takes a significant step forward, as the Reds did in 2010, it is frequently followed by a step backward. And, not surprisingly, that appears to be happening to the Reds this year.

When a team breakthrough to another level, like the postseason, it frequently happens because a lot of things go right. And, frankly, banking on all those things to go right again in the following season is a sucker's bet.

The Reds had an opportunity to reel in a legitimate Ace to bolster the pitching staff, but instead allowed him to go to a division rival. Naysayers will point to Greinke's ERA, which sits at a mediocre 4.50, while believers will point to the fact that his peripherals are ridiculously good (11.8 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9) and his ERA will regress to a mark more reflective of his true level of performance.

But, the bottom line is that Greinke, despite missing over a month of the season, has a 2.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for the Brewers, which would be the best mark on the Reds staff (Cueto 1.8, Leake 1.6, no one else over 1.0). Given the inconsistency and overall ineptitude of our rotation, adding a pitcher of Greinke's caliber would have gone a long ways towards adding stability in the team's performance. Even if the other three rotations spots are shaky, having Greinke and Cueto in the 1st and 2nd slots would have ensured that the Reds could at least have strung together a few back-to-back wins. By making starting pitching a strength, the team could have more easily addressed any offensive deficiencies. Instead, they gave that advantage to a division rival.