Friday, December 20, 2013

2014 Top Prospect List: #5 Michael Lorenzen, rhp

Courtesy: MILB
DOB: 1/4/1992
HEIGHT: 6-3, WEIGHT: 180, B/T: R/R

Michael Lorenzen was one of the more interesting prospects in the 2013 draft because he played both ways at Cal State Fullerton, leaving some question as to what path his career would follow. Early reports indicated that the Reds were planning on letting Lorenzen pitch AND play centerfield, but it now seems clear that they intend to develop him solely as a starting pitcher. That was likely their intention all along.

Whether pitch or play, Lorenzen brings plus athleticism, versatility, good size, and strong make-up to the table. So, those are the raw materials that the Reds will need to shape into a productive ballplayer. On the personal side, Lorenzen has a strong religious belief, going so far as to write bible verses on the baseball cards that he autographs to encourage people to look them up. Faith is a large part of his life.

The Reds obviously have faith in Lorenzen and hope he can step right in to help prop up a beleaguered farm system.


The Reds selected Lorenzen out of Cal State Fullerton with the 38th overall pick in Competitive Balance Round A of the 2013 draft. Lorenzen was a surprising pick for a number of reasons. First, it was a touch earlier than he was expected to be taken. Second, most teams viewed him as a position player rather than a pitcher.

As a position player, Lorenzen was a plus defensive centerfielder with, naturally, a rocket for an arm. The hit tool, however, came with significant question marks attached. He seemed short on both power and on-base skill, putting a lot of pressure on the development of the hit tool. All of which led some teams to prefer him on the mound. The Reds were one of those teams.

At Fullerton, Lorenzen actually pitched very little, spending most of his time roaming the outfield. For comparison sake, he only pitched 44.2 innings while logging 596 ABs at the plate. He didn't pitch much, but when he did it was in high leverage situations.

As a sophomore, he tossed 22.0 innings in which he posted a 1.23 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 17/5 K/BB ratio, and 16 saves.

As a junior, he tossed 22.2 innings to go along with a 1.99 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 20/4 K/BB ratio, and 19 saves.

In short stints, he was very effective on the mound, but the Reds are developing him as a starting pitcher. As a starter, he won't be able to lean quite as heavily on his fastball, so he'll need to broaden his repertoire to have success the second and third times through the batting order.


The decision by MLB to move the signing deadline for draftees up allows more players to get their feet wet in professional ball in the year in which they were drafted. In Lorenzen's case, he actually had time to make four separate minor league stops. It was odd development plan.

Lorenzen tossed 1.0 inning in the Arizona rookie league, 8.1 innings in low-A Dayton, 5.2 innings for high-A Bakersfield, and 6.0 innings for double-A Pensacola. Across the four stops, Lorenzen posted a cumulative 3.00 ERA, 19/13 K/BB ratio, and a 1.50 GB/FB ratio.

It was a successful debut in that Lorenzen compiled substantial and varied experience. The performance was certainly respectable, but the sample size is too small to draw any real conclusions. I have no idea what benefit the organization saw in bouncing him around four different levels in such a short period of time, but if I had to hazard a guess I would say that they really had no idea just how much he could handle and wanted to push him to the limit to determine at which level to start him in 2014. Though, it might have been done to pair him up with certain coaches, to get him out of a hitter-friendly Bakersfield ballpark, or to get him seen by enough coaches and scouts to confirm their plan to develop him as a pitcher. Or, maybe another reason entirely.

After the season, the Reds added a fifth stop to Lorenzen's CV by sending him to the Arizona Fall League, where the results were both underwhelming and irrelevant. Another bit of experience to get him ready for his first full season of professional baseball in 2014.

During his time in the AFL, Lorenzen gave an interview in which he discussed getting acclimated to the role of starting pitcher. It was a revealing article because it showed just how raw Lorenzen really is on the mound, including the need to get a pitcher's toeplate for the very first time.

A couple of quotes of note:

"I'm just ready to compete, and I'm working my butt off to get my body in good enough shape -- in pitcher's shape, not center-field shape -- to where I have that longevity and I'm not just a power guy," Lorenzen said. "I'm still going to throw hard and I'm still going to come at you. But I think there's more of a strategy to it than just coming out and throwing my hardest and having the power breaking ball and all that."


"I think the biggest thing is just building up my arm strength, getting better command of all three of my pitches and just figuring out what kind of pitcher I'm going to be," Lorenzen said. "Just getting used to the starting role."

Lorenzen doesn't know what type of pitcher he's going to be, needs to get into pitching shape, and acclimate to the routine of starting pitching. It's encouraging how agreeable he is to the role change, but it's disconcerting how inexperienced he is with pitching. He almost comes off like the star of his little league team who excels at every position based on youthful exuberance and "aw shucks" natural ability, without really understanding the position.


Lorenzen's mechanics are clean, efficient, and smooth. He generates plus velocity with low effort mechanics. There's a lot to like, especially from a part-time pitcher. You can also readily see Lorenzen's good athleticism in the balance and body control, which should enable him to repeat his delivery. I didn't always appreciate, or maybe understand, the importance of athleticism to a pitcher until I watched A's/Rockies southpaw Brett Anderson pitch. Anderson is a wonderful talent, but he's not very athletic and it shows in his delivery, fielding, and propensity to fall down (literally). That won't be a problem for Lorenzen.
Courtesy: Unknown

Lorenzen stands tall on the mound, which when coupled with his 6-3 stature should allow him to work on a downward plane.

After he breaks his hands, Lorenzen uses an arm swing with a bit of stab to it. Out of the glove, he drops his pitching hand straight down behind his right hip, where it lingers before coming up into throwing position. Some pitchers can do this effectively, Tim Lincecum utilizes a similar move, but Lorenzen's move seems a bit disjointed, with a longer pause behind the right hip reducing the fluidity of the arm swing. Whether it's a problem remains to be seen, but a more fluid arm swing might improve his consistency and command.

Lorenzen utilizes a very strong and high leg kick. In the leg kick, his knee comes up well past parallel and he incorporates some body coil through a small wrapping of the leg, all of which helps generate force to impart to the baseball through the kinetic chain.

Lorenzen gets into a very strong position at the apex of his leg kick. From apex, he gathers himself well before driving to the plate, maintaining his balance over the rubber. However, his drive to the plate isn't as strong as it could be and might benefit from a more aggressive and slightly longer stride. The less aggressive drive to the plate limits the explosiveness of his hip rotation, which results in a minimal differential between hip rotation and shoulder rotation. The minimal differential between the hip and shoulder rotations reduces the effectiveness of the kinetic chain and shifts more of the force generation and stress to the arm. So, his mechanics are clean and fundamentally sound, but there is some inefficiency there, too.

He throws from a high three-quarters arm slot, which may improve the movement but reduce the downward plane on his pitches. The arm action itself is very clean. His elbow maintains good position relative to the shoulder throughout his delivery and the timing is correct as he brings his arm up into proper throwing position at foot strike.

As for the follow-through, Lorenzen gets good extension that carries him out over his stride leg and should help him throw on a downward plane. He also incorporates a proper deceleration phase that should reduce injury risk. He finishes up in a balanced, proper fielding position. One of the things that I loved about Josh Ravin was that he possessed both power and balance/body control. He was able to generate top tier velocity without losing body control. Lorenzen has that same ability.

Here's a look at Lorenzen courtesy of Steve Fiorindo on YouTube:

This video shows more than enough for me to buy into Lorenzen. The mechanics are smooth without any red flags, the plus velocity is apparent, and the slurve he throws at the 0:24 mark shows the plus potential of the pitch. So, the foundation for success is there, but he's undoubtedly very raw. He's going to need to put in a lot of work, but his max projection is that of an impact starting pitcher.

If I could change one thing about his delivery, then I'd like to see a slightly longer stride and stronger drive to the plate. He should take that athleticism and body control out for a spin by being more aggressive with his lower half. If you have the body control and athleticism necessary to harness and control maximum force generation, then it seems wasteful to generate anything less than maximum force. By lengthening the stride, he'd create more room for the hips to clear and possibly increase the differential between hip and shoulder rotation.

Overall, Lorenzen has fundamentally sound pitching mechanics with room for a bit of refinement. His mechanics are a rarity in that they generate plus velocity with minimal effort, which should provide both performance and mitigation of injury risk benefits. His limited experience makes it difficult to know how effectively he'll be able to repeat his delivery, but his plus athleticism should help him in that department. Overall, his mechanics provide an impressive and encouraging developmental starting point, especially for someone who has only been a part-time pitcher to this point.


Lorenzen has two primary pitches. A fastball that sits 93-95 and touches 97 with good movement, especially arm-side run, and a hard breaking ball that has been variously described as a curveball and a slider. So, let's label it a slurve for now, but whatever the label, it's an impressive, if inconsistent, offering. It has a tight spin and biting break. If he can improve its consistency, then it's not hard to envision it buckling the knees of hapless hitters. He's also working on a third pitch, a changeup with good potential and good sink.

If Lorenzen is going to start, then he'll need to refine his secondary offerings and improve the command of his fastball. If he's going to relieve, then he'll need to improve the consistency of his breaking ball.

Given just how little Lorenzen has actually pitched, it's impressive that he already has the makings of two plus-pitches and it's natural to wonder what a little experience will do for his repertoire.


I really like Michael Lorenzen. He wasn't on my radar last draft because he's not as interesting as a position player and he spent so little time on the mound. So, it was somewhat surprising when the Reds drafted him with the 38th overall pick. However, it didn't take long for me to get on board.

The mechanics are smooth and fundamentally sound. The raw stuff flashes plus. The physical stature is good for a pitcher. The athleticism could allow him to effectively repeat his mechanics. Despite his limited experience on the mound, he's starting off his professional career at a fairly advanced point on the pitching development curve. The question is just how far he can advance from that starting point as his experience grows and grows.

Lorenzen is another example of a bold draft selection by the Reds front office. These bold selections really give the feeling that they really have a plan of what they want to do and are confident enough to execute it. They obviously didn't view him as anything other than a pitcher with a position player fallback option. They saw enough in Lorenzen to believe that he could be successfully converted to the rotation. And, given his clean mechanics, plus fastball, and the plus potential of his slurve, they may well be right.

If everything breaks right, then Lorenzen could develop into an impact starting pitcher. There is, however, a very wide range of potential career outcomes for Lorenzen, so he does have some real development risk.

Even so, his blend of upside and risk is enough to land him at #5 on the list.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2014 Top Prospect List: #7 Carlos Contreras, rhp

DOB: 1/8/1991
HEIGHT: 5-11, WEIGHT: 205, B/T: R/R

In the past couple of years, the Reds farm system felt thin at the upper levels. Now, it feels thin just about everywhere. That's problematic because the Reds haven't been able to get over the hump at the MLB level and now face two division rivals who rival the Reds' talent at both the major and minor league levels. However, there a few prospects who could develop into valuable pieces for the Reds if they can manage their remaining development risk. One such prospect is Carlos Contreras.

The Reds have done a nice job of stocking the farm system with prospects signed out of Latin America. Curiously enough, aside from Aroldis Chapman, they have had better success with the inexpensive signings (i.e. Cueto, Gregorius, Corcino, Contreras, etc) than they have with the more high profile signings (i.e. Yorman Rodriguez, Juan Duran, etc).

If Contreras can step forward into potential impact prospect status, then it would really boost the farm system going forward.


Patience. That's what the organization has been with Contreras, who was signed by the Reds out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. The Reds were conservative during his first four professional seasons, sending him to various short season rookie leagues. He spent the first two in the Dominican Summer Leagues, the third season in the Arizona Rookie League, and the fourth with the Billings Mustangs in the Pioneer League.

Finally, in 2012, he was ready for full season ball and split time between low-A and high-A. Even in full season ball, he only logged only 60.2 total innings. To that point, he worked primarily as a reliever, but the Reds took the training wheels off in 2013.

Courtesy: Getty Images

In 2013, Contreras moved into the rotation full-time. He started out in high-A Bakersfield, more commonly known as hitter's heaven, and more than held his own. He threw 90.0 innings over 18 starts in which he posted a 3.80 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 4.1 BB/9, and a 9.6 K/9. Impressively, he maintained the high strikeout rate that he flashed out of the bullpen over longer outings in the rotation. He earned a bump to double-A Pensacola.

For the Blue Wahoos, Contreras actually found a bit tougher sledding. He actually dropped his ERA, but his peripherals took a tumble. He worked 42.1 innings over 8 starts, posting a 2.76 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 4.5 BB/9, and 5.5 K/9. He'll need a return engagement at double-A, but overall it was a strong season and a significant step forward in his development.

Finally, in the middle of his 2013 season, Contreras made an appearance in the MLB Futures Game. During his appearance, Contreras worked exclusively out of the stretch. Of course, the first batter he faced reached base and there were runners on base the rest of the time, but he still started off the inning out of the stretch. Maybe not surprising given his bullpen background, but maybe reflective of a lingering reliever mindset.

He worked 2/3 of an inning and had to consistently work through some trouble. It's difficult to draw too many conclusions from such a short appearance, but his fastball seemed to clock in from 89-96. His change-up was very impressive, showing good tailing and sinking action. The bottom really fell out of it. The breaking ball was tougher to get a read on, as he threw a couple of mid-70s breaking balls that were loose and really rolled, but also some tighter, sharper breaking pitches in the low 80s.

Early in his appearance, the hitters squared up his fastball consistently. Later in the appearance, his fastball velocity increased to the mid-90s. He showed the ability to work both sides of the plate with the fastball to lefties, but wasn't as precise with his fastball to righties.


Contreras starts with strong rocker step towards first base, allowing him to rotate his plant foot down and onto the rubber. That strong first step flows smoothly up into his leg kick, which subsequently flows into his stride. There's a real and natural fluidity to his mechanics. After the rocker step, he rotates his body and brings his leg up into the leg kick. His leg kick comes up a tick past parallel and includes some leg wrap, which generates tension in the spine through body coil.

At apex, Contreras maintains good balance and effectively stays over his plant leg to gather his momentum before driving to the plate. He has a fluid unpacking of the leg kick and solid stride length. His stride isn't quite as long as might be optimal, but it's long enough that it allows him to (1) effectively rotate the hips, and (2) effectively get his momentum out over the stride leg in the delivery.

As for his arm action, it's clean. He maintains his elbow in proper position relative to his shoulder throughout the delivery and gets his arm up into proper throwing position at foot strike. He uses a high three-quarters arm slot with a loose arm action.

After he releases the pitch, he enters into the deceleration phase. However, Contreras occasionally has a bit of recoil in his delivery. After his pitching arm comes down past his left hip, it occasionally bounces back up, instead of finishing low on his left side, a bit more than is ideal. This recoil occurs in tandem with an upright follow-through, as his upper body doesn't release and finish out over his plant leg, which restricts the ability of the delivery to dissipate the force.

Here's a look at Contreras in action, courtesy of ProspectNotes on YouTube:

The consistent knock on Contreras in the scouting community is that he's "long in the back", a result of a long arm swing, leading to inconsistency in release point. But, I'm not overly concerned about that. If there's anything that jumps out to me it's that he seems highly rotational in his delivery. Instead of driving his momentum directly to the plate, his momentum seems to rotate around his body a tick too much. The main reason for that is the shoulder rotation, which seems to happen earlier than I'd like to see. The shoulder rotation in combination with the lower arm slot and upright follow-through gives his delivery a rotational look.

If I was going to address the control problems, then I'd start by having him keep his lead shoulder tucked in longer. I'm not really worried about the longer arm-action in the back, but if he flies open too soon with the front shoulder, then he may consistently miss his spot to the arm-side with the fastball and may pull his breaking ball too far to the glove-side. If he drives his chest towards home plate a bit more, then it'll help delay the rotation of the shoulders a tick longer, give him a less upright finish in the follow-through, and improve the consistency of his release point.

Overall, Contreras has solid, functional mechanics. On one hand, there aren't any major red flags indicating heightened injury risk, on the other they aren't so impressive that they'll lead to increased performance benefits.


Contreras features a fastball that sits 92-94 and touches 97. His change-up has plus potential and very good tailing, sinking action. He also uses a slurvy breaking ball that sits in the low 80s, though I've seen a few slower pitches in the mid-70s, but needs to be tightened up to avoid inconsistency and rolling. His change-up is currently more advanced than his breaking ball, which means he is frequently more effective against lefties than righties. The change-up sinks and tails away from lefthanded hitters, while the breaking ball isn't always sharp enough to be effective against righthanders.

Another consideration is whether Contreras' height will allow him to succeed against advanced competition, as he'll struggle to get downward plane on the fastball, leaving him with a flatter fastball that lingers longer in the contact zone. However, fastball effectiveness is largely a function of (1) velocity, (2) movement, (3) command, and (4) downward plane. You don't need all four components to have an effective fastball, but you do need the right mix.

Tim Lincecum is a good example. He's also an "under six feet" righthanded pitcher, but his fastball helped him win two Cy Young awards because of its plus velocity and movement. Early in his career, it didn't matter that he lacked downward plane and it didn't matter that he didn't have Greg Maddux like command. However, now that he's in mid-career and has ~1400 MLB innings under his belt, his velocity has declined to the point that the lack of both plus command and downward plane has become problematic.

The component mix on Lincecum's fastball is out of balance and, as a result, he's struggling because he now lacks the velocity to overcome shortfalls in the other components. The result is that Tim Lincecum is more hittable than he used to be, as his fastball is now flat and slow. To take his game back to his previous performance level, he'll need to find improvements in fastball command or velocity.

The takeaway is that Contreras doesn't necessarily need significant downward plane to be successful as long as his blend of velocity, command, and movement is sufficient to overcome the flatter plane on his fastball. Currently, his velocity is strong, but he'll need to show improved command or movement to get away with minimal plane on his fastball.

While he has the right blend of components to have an effective fastball, he still needs to refine his breaking ball, as he can't work effectively in the rotation with just a fastball and plus change-up.


In a farm system that is short on both depth and upper echelon talent, Contreras makes for an intriguing prospect. He needs to refine his repertoire in order to avoid having a reverse platoon split, as he currently lacks a consistently effective breaking ball that moves away from righties. His change-up has very good sink and tails away from lefties, so as of now he's better suited to success against opposite side hitters, which is unusual. He also needs to refine his mechanics to take his command and control up a notch.

There is still some development risk with Contreras, as despite the slow march up the development ladder, he still has some work to do. Ideally, he'll develop into a viable starting pitcher, but a return to the bullpen is a legitimate fallback option. His fastball would play up in short stints and a limited repertoire would play better without having to face hitters two and three times a game.

Still, there are some intriguing elements to his game that could, if things break right, turn him into a valuable pitcher at the MLB level. Given that the Reds have locked in several players to long-term extensions and have several more on the verge of big paydays, they could use all the inexpensive homegrown talent they can find.

Contreras has some work to do, but for now he lands at #7 on the list.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: 2013 Predictions

Just a touch more housekeeping before I can officially close the book on the 2013 season. Time for a quick spin through my pre-season prognostications to see, for better or worse, just how I fared.

I made two types of predictions prior to the season: 1) breakout candidates and 2) awards and playoff teams. The former went a bit better than the latter, so let's start there.

Breakout Candidates

I picked two players I thought were lining up for breakout seasons in 2013: Tigers RHP Rick Porcello and Brewers CF Carlos Gomez.

Starting with Rick:

Porcello was a player whose peripheral stats over the past few years were trending towards a breakout. He didn't breakout quite as much as I expected, but it was definitely a big step forward for Rick and I wonder if a better team defense would have taken him the rest of the way. In light of the Tigers restructuring their team defense for 2014, including wizard Jose Iglesias at short, Miguel Cabrera shifting back over to first, and prospect Nick Castellanos sliding in at third, I would probably double-down on another step forward for Porcello next year.

But, the important part is that the strong peripherals began to emerge in his overall performance level. He tossed 177.0 innings in which he logged an improving 4.32 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Again, not quite the breakthrough I expected and again the peripherals (3.53 FIP and 3.19 xFIP) are kinder to him than the overall production, but it's another step in the right direction. And, he provided yet another data point on his impressive trend lines:

2009: 2.74
2010: 2.10
2011: 2.27
2012: 2.25
2013: 2.14

2009: 55.4%
2010: 57.0%
2011: 61.4%
2012: 62.8%
2013: 60.6%

2009: 7.0%
2010: 5.9%
2011: 6.3%
2012: 7.5%
2013: 8.6%

2009: 4.69
2010: 4.65
2011: 5.14
2012: 5.46
2013: 7.22

2009: 4.9%
2010: 7.7%
2011: 10.5%
2012: 15.8%
2013: 5.5%

2009: 1.89
2010: 1.57
2011: 1.73
2012: 2.36
2013: 2.34

Keep an eye on Porcello for 2014. The peripherals are still there and, in some cases, stronger. Add in a vastly improved infield defense and it could be a significant breakthrough. It's also interesting to see the Tigers trade Doug Fister instead of Rick Porcello, so maybe they are expecting a breakout, too. But, for now I'll settle for another step forward, instead of a true breakout, from his 2013 season. 

And, over to Carlos Gomez:

My Gomez prediction was based less on stats and peripherals than Porcello, and more on tools, swing mechanics, and bat-speed, but I was confident that there was a breakout season coming. Here's what I wrote: 

For 2013, most projections have Gomez hitting fewer than 20 homers. If healthy, I'm actually expecting him to hit 25 bombs and steal at least 35 bases. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't hit at least 20 homers. And, I think there's a non-zero chance that there's a very big season on the horizon for Gomez (30/50?, 40/40?) in the next couple of seasons.

If I was a bettin' man (which I'm not) or the Brewer GM (which I'm not), I'd be comfortable betting on the future of Carlos Gomez.

Gomez ended up hitting .284 with 24 homers and 40 stolen bases. So, he hit one fewer homer than I expected and stole 5 more bases. It was a massively valuable season and he flashed glimpses of the "very big season" that might be on the horizon. He's just an electric ballplayer and fun to watch. 

Overall, I think it's fair to say that 2013 was indeed a breakout season for Carlos Gomez. 

Awards and Postseason Standings

So, I'd say it's reasonable to say that I was 1.5 for 2 on my breakout prognostications. I didn't fair quite as well on my off-the-cuff award and postseason predictions. 

In the NL, I missed entirely on the awards, overvaluing the Nats and the Reds and failing to foresee Taveras' season long injury issues: 

NL MVP: Bryce Harper
NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg
NL ROY: Oscar Taveras
NL MOY: Dusty Baker

In the AL, I nailed the ROY winner and had, at the very least, worthy candidates for MVP and Cy Young:

AL MVP: Mike Trout
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
AL ROY: Wil Myers
AL MOY: Joe Madden

As for postseason predictions, well, those really aren't worth mentioning, but I obviously overvalued those teams that tried to buy their way to a title. You can check those out and give me any grief that I deserve.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dusty Baker: The Natural Man

The Wolfman; Universal Studios

Lawrence Talbot: "Villagers still have the same wild ideas."

Sir John Talbot: "Yes, well, very provincial lot, I must say. Ignorant, superstitious. to a worldly man such as yourself we are savages at the end of the Earth. All I'm saying is that you dismiss the natural man at your peril."  
---The Wolfman

Sabermetricians are a worldly lot. Dusty Baker is a natural man. The former dismiss the latter at their peril.

At the end of another disappointing season, the Reds handed Dusty Baker his walking papers. His dismissal has me reflecting on Dusty and the long, strange path I've traveled in my views of him over the course of his managerial career. Quite the reverse, I suspect, of most Reds fans, I traveled the road from disdain to grudging respect for Dusty. In some respects, he won me over.

Sabermetricians are a worldly lot with a world view formed by education, rational thought, and science. Dusty Baker is a natural man with a world view formed by personal experience, intuition, and tradition. Given these wildly differing perspectives, it's hardly surprising that these two groups are constantly at odds.

I've been dismissing Baker for years. In fact, prior to his hire, if you had asked me for a list of those candidates that I wouldn't want to manage the Reds, then Dusty quite literally would have been at the top of the list. My issues with Baker weren't new or novel. In fact, they were those cited most by his critics. First, he overworks his starting pitchers. Second, he favors underwhelming veterans to young talent. And, third, he doesn't value on-base percentage.

Dusty's first problem was largely eliminated by an industry-wide shift in what constitutes reasonable pitching workloads. He still skews towards the upper end of the reasonableness range, but his natural tendencies are now confined in ways that they previously were not. The industry has eliminated one of his biggest issues. So, now we're down to two problems.

As for the second problem, aside from the decision to give Ryan Hanigan the majority of the playing time over Devin Mesoraco (more on that later), Dusty has done a better job embracing youth. Maybe this was an issue made irrelevant by the Reds renewed emphasis on player development and the ways in which the roster was constructed, leaving Dusty little choice but to embrace youth. Or, maybe it was always an overstated issue, the result of his teams' rosters being littered with aging players. Whatever the reason, this issue never seemed to emerge in Cincinnati. Down to one problem.

The third problem, well, let's be honest, continues to be a problem. Dusty will never live down his "base clogging" comment. He values speed over on-base ability. His flirtations with Corey Patterson and Wily Taveras were difficult to stomach and even more difficult to justify. Dusty will never value on-base percentage the way he should.
Courtesy: AP

Whether it was of his own doing or a shifting workplace environment, Dusty evolved to the point that he eliminated two of my biggest problems with him. The on-base percentage issue will always be a large one, no denying it, but most of the criticism of Dusty these days is directed to his tactical decisions.

In many ways, that's fair criticism, as roster construction and in-game strategy are not one of Dusty's strengths. Not coincidentally, the tactical is the easiest aspect of the job for sabermetricians to evaluate. It's much more difficult to quantify the other areas of the manager job. And, there ARE other areas of the job.

For example, Theo Epstein recently stated that he was evaluating the Cubs' manager by "looking at the development of young players; in-game decision making; the way (the manager) used the roster; the manager's ability to create a culture of accountability; hard work and preparation; and the ability to develop solid, trusting relationship with the players."

Not surprisingly, it's far more difficult to quantify the impact of a manager in some of those areas. And yet, those areas still matter. Those areas still impact on-field performance. Those areas still drive team success. Unfortunately for Dusty, he excels in those areas that are difficult to evaluate/quantify and struggles in those areas that are more easily evaluated/quantified. His managerial mix is easy to criticize and difficult to defend.  

Or, put more succinctly by Theo Epstein: "In the information age, things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionally relative to impact."

Over his 20 year managerial career, Dusty Baker has a 1671-1504 win/loss record, good for a .526 winning percentage, spread over three different organizations. His career includes eight seasons of 90 or more wins. That's an impressive career and with each successful stop it becomes more difficult to discount Dusty's positive impact. Only the most strident Dusty-haters chalk that success up to luck and player personnel. Dusty deserves some real credit. At the same time, his postseason career has been far less successful.

The disparity between his regular season success and postseason struggles is not that surprising. Dusty is weak in tactical decision-making, which is far more likely to rear its head in a short postseason series where the impact of a single play can make all the difference. Dusty is strong in managing egos, developing solid, trusting relationships, and getting the most out of his players, which is far more likely to make an impact over the course of a 162-game season.

Dusty's strengths have brought him substantial regular season success. Dusty's weaknesses have resulted in underwhelming postseason results. The reasons for Dusty's postseason failures are easier to identify than the reasons for Dusty's regular season successes.

I'm a proponent of statistical analysis. I love the way it has illuminated the game, a shining light revealing new truths. However, as Theo mentioned above, statistical analysis has an inherent bias towards those areas that can be quantified. However, just because something can't be quantified, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It MAY mean that something doesn't exist or it MAY mean that we just haven't figured out how to quantify it yet. The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

What sabermetricians are able to study, they typically study very well. It's difficult to argue with math, after all. However, the things that are not (or maybe are not yet) quantifiable occasionally prove to be blind spots for sabermetricians. After all, the value of a commodity is necessarily determined in relation to the value of everything else. If sabermetricians cannot effectively study a specific area, then they inevitably de-emphasize its importance merely by focusing on those areas that CAN be effectively studied.

If the worldly man cannot recognize what he does not know, then his opinions may be less valid than those of the natural man. In this context, statistical analysis may not be more accurate than simple intuition and personal experience. Dusty may have illustrated precisely this in his handling of the Hanigan/Mesoraco situation (I told you we'd circle back around to these guys).

Dusty took a fair amount of heat for continuing to give Hanigan the majority of the playing time in 2012 and 2013. People were in love with Mesoraco's upside, offensive potential, and prospect ranking, but Dusty seemed to place a greater emphasis on Ryan Hanigan's game calling and handling of the pitching staff.

This is arguably an instance where Dusty's personal experience, intuition, and adherence to tradition were more insightful than the education, rational thought, and science of sabermetricians. Dusty's intuition about the catcher situation, which may have more accurately valued the impact of catcher defense, was arguably more valid than the statistical analysis perspective, which has only recently begun to study pitch framing.

In other words, Dusty was probably right in his decision to start Hanigan over Mesoraco.

There's an ESPN Insider article about the value of pitch framing that's worth a read, but since it's Insider content I'll just post a snippet that's instructive regarding a weakness of sabermetrics:

"There's an old joke about economists that I'll reframe here to make a point: A sabermetician loses his keys while leaving a bar late at night. He crosses the street and starts looking for his keys under the streetlight. His friend asks him, "Why aren't you looking in front of the bar where you dropped them?" The sabermetician replies, "Because I can't see over there!"
Before Turkenkopf used pitch data to investigate catcher framing in 2008, sabermeticians generally valued catcher defense less than, for lack of a better term, baseball people did. The lesson for sabermetrics is that pitch framing existed and was important well before the pitch data that gave light to it became available. Value exists even in the areas we can't yet see."

The take-away from all of this? Statistical analysis is tremendously valuable, but it does have inherent weaknesses and limitations. As with most things, the most important thing to know is what you don't know. And, it's important not to discount those people with views based on personal experience, intuition, and tradition solely because their views are based on personal experience, intuition, and tradition. Sometimes those views turn out to be the most valid.

Dismiss the natural man at your own peril, especially one with 1671 career wins under his belt.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bryan Price: Job #1 "Relief Ace"

For the very first act of his managerial career, Bryan Price should announce a role change for Aroldis Chapman.

I know, I know. I can already hear you shouting through the screen: "They have no inclination to take your brilliant and inspired suggestion to trade him and Aroldis continues to announce loud and proud to anyone who will listen that he won't start games, so how can Price change his role???"

Well, Bryan Price needs to come right out and say: "Aroldis is NOT going to be our Closer in 2014, he's going to be our Relief Ace." 

First and foremost, the team needs to let Aroldis know who calls the shots. These statements to the press by Aroldis about what he's willing and not willing to do give the appearance of the tail wagging the dog. Someone on the team, and here's where we could use some leadership in the clubhouse, should polite remind Aroldis that he'll play when and where the organization wants or he won't play at all; that while he can express these ideas to management behind closed doors, it's completely inappropriate to be making these statements to the press. But, I digress. 

Price is already on record as saying he wants to extract more value from Aroldis, so his thoughts are clearly running in this direction anyway, so why not go whole-hog and fundamentally change the way bullpens are managed? Why not be an "early adopter" and reap the benefits that go along with it? Formally announce the change in roles to ensure that people's expectations for Chapman change accordingly. Changing the usage pattern without formally changing the name of the role would reduce fan buy-in and increase resistance to the change. 

If we are managing our bullpen more effectively and efficiently than other organizations, then we are building a competitive advantage. And, given that this team is close to getting over the hump, the marginal value of a win is very high. So, every competitive advantage should be actively sought out and exploited. 

So, what's the difference between a "closer" and a "relief ace"? Namely, usage patterns. As we all know, closers are used when save situations arrive. The concept of the "closer" is so ingrained in the baseball woodwork that it's functionally impossible to change the usage pattern without changing the label. The problem becomes even more intractable when you factor in that reliever compensation is frequently tied to the concept of the "save", so there will be resistance from closers and agents, as well. Again, it's ingrained. So, to make this work, we need not only a clean break from the "closer" concept, but an entirely new label. Fortunately, some forward thinking sabermetricians have advanced the idea of the "relief ace" and it suits our purposes perfectly. 

The "Relief Ace" usage pattern would be based on "leverage", not "save situations." In short, the greater the value of a single run in a game, the higher leverage the situation. In other words, the more likely that a situation will impact the outcome of the game, the higher the leverage. So, a bases loaded situation with 0 outs in the 9th inning of a tie ballgame is about as high leverage as it gets. That's a situation wherein the "Closer" may or may not be used, but the "Relief Ace" absolutely would. On the other hand, a bases empty situation in the 2nd inning of a 15-0 game is about as low leverage as it gets.

Intuitively, the "relief ace" idea makes a tremendous amount of sense. Don't you want your best reliever pitching when his contribution will make the greatest impact on the team's chances of winning? Of course! If you want Aroldis to be more valuable, then you have to use him in situations where he can generate value. Again, as with pitch framing, value is a function of opportunity. Give Aroldis more opportunities and he'll deliver more value.

This is also a perfect way for Bryan Price to immediately put his own stamp on the organization and make a clean break from any residual fan disdain for Dusty Baker. This is a fan base thirsting for a forward-thinking approach. It not only allows him to immediately differentiate himself from the tradition-bound strategies of his predecessor, but it has the added benefit of being good business. It's clear that, if done correctly, it's a move that would more effectively deploy the bullpen. 

Now, the "problem" with this switch is that using Aroldis earlier in the game means he won't always be there to slam the door in the 9th. And, inevitably, some of those saves will be blown, which will ratchet-up public and pundit resistance to the idea. So, Price would need three things to effectively break with tradition: (1) a functional "closer" for those times when Aroldis is used in earlier high leverage situations, (2) a bit of luck that a significant number of saves aren't blown before public/pundit acceptance of the switch, and (3) more than a bit of backbone to go along with complete confidence in the idea. 

Fortunately, the Reds have a couple of options for players who could handle 9th inning duties. While not bringing the dominance of Aroldis, some combination of J.J. Hoover, Jonathan Broxton, and Sean Marshall should be able to convert most save chances. 

Just to lend some legitimacy to the "relief ace" idea and illustrate that we could survive without Aroldis slamming the door, it's worth discussing an interesting Bill James/John Dewan rule of thumb on save chances. The 30-60-90 rule of saves sets forth the likely conversion rate in different save situations, which may make it more palatable to have a lesser reliever in some of these easier save chances.

Here's John Dewan on the idea:

What's the 30-60-90 rule of saves?
By John Dewan
May 18, 2005

The manager brings in a relief pitcher up by three runs in the ninth. The pitcher finishes the game and gets the save. It's done all the time, but in fact, it's not a good time to use what normally is the best pitcher on your team.

This situation falls under the category of Easy Save. An Easy Save is earned when a pitcher enters the game with a 2 or 3 run lead, no one on base and pitches one inning or less while finishing the game for a team victory. No need to use your best pitcher here. Pitchers convert these save opportunities about 90% of the time.

Use your best pitcher in a Tough Save situation. That happens when he enters the game with the tying run on base. The conversion rate for saves in this situation is only 30%.

All other saves or Regular Saves are converted at a 60% rate.

The 30-60-90 rule of saves: Tough saves—30% conversion. Regular saves—60%. Easy saves—90%.

The take-away from this 30-60-90 concept is that just about any pitcher is going to convert most of the "Easy Saves". And, one of the aforementioned non-Aroldis options would nail down most "Regular Saves". So, Aroldis isn't really needed in many of these save chances, which again supports the notion that he can be more impactful in the "Relief Ace" role. 

Aroldis may continue to resist a change to the rotation, but the Reds can still extract more value out of him by changing his usage pattern in the bullpen. Aroldis may not want to move INTO the rotation, but he can still be moved OUT OF the closer role. 

For a team that has made the playoffs but come up just short in consecutive years, wringing every last drop of production out of the roster and exploiting every possible competitive advantage is not only advisable, but necessary. The difference between losing in the first round of the playoffs and winning the World Series is razor thin and having a Relief Ace may make all the difference for the Reds.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Trade Thoughts: Hanigan and Holmberg

The writing has been on the wall for a couple of weeks. When the Reds signed Brayan Pena to a major league deal, it was clear that change was coming behind the dish. It arrived on Tuesday when the Reds dealt Ryan Hanigan to the Rays in a three team deal.

The long and short of the deal is Hanigan, Heath Bell, and cash to the Rays; lhp David Holmberg to the Reds; rhp Justin Choate and a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks.

In essence, the D-Backs get salary relief, the Rays get a defensive minded catcher to pair with Jose Molina, and the Reds get starting pitching depth at the upper levels of the system. On the surface and in a vacuum, the deal seems like a good one all the way around. However, digging a little deeper and adding a touch of context makes me wonder if the Reds did as well as they might think; whether they really know the value of what they gave up.

If you know anything about Moneyball, then you know that (1) Billy Beane didn't actually write it; (2) it's not actually about on-base percentage, but rather market inefficiencies; and (3) statistical analysis is just a tool, a means of collecting better information than the competition so that you can better identify those market inefficiencies.

Obviously, this all started with the Oakland A's, but it's quickly spread around the league and the Tampa Bay Rays are now one of the torchbearers of this movement. The combination of small payroll and large success is a clear indication that the Rays are exceptionally well run.

In light of that, it's more than a little disconcerting when an exceptionally well run organization is not only interested in the asset you are trying to dump, but immediately hands out a 3-year commitment to that player.

Do the Rays know something we don't? If so, what?

The question that Reds nation slapped on Ryan Hanigan last year was whether his bat would bounce back or whether diminished offensive performance was his new reality. There was a lot of concern and hand-wringing over that very question.

What's curious is that the Rays don't seem to care one single whit about his offense. If you were concerned about a player bouncing back after a down year, then you wouldn't immediately hand him a multi-year deal. Instead, you'd wait until the next data point established a trend line.

If the Rays are confident enough in Hanigan to give him that guaranteed money, then it seems reasonable to infer that they find a substantial amount of value in Hanigan's defense. So much so that it makes his offensive contributions largely irrelevant.

So, why do the Rays value Hanigan's defense so much more than the Reds? I suspect the Rays have developed a proprietary metric for valuing pitch-framing and that Ryan Hanigan grades out very highly. That would be the type of information edge that enables the Rays to exploit a market inefficiency that the Reds don't see.

Pitch framing is still an a developing area, one where the proprietary information of MLB organizations outpaces the information available in the public domain. However, early studies indicate that pitch framing can have massive impact on run prevention. You can read about pitch framing here, here, here, and here.

Here's a summary blurb from one of those articles about the impact of pitch framing:

Despite using different methods, we all came to the conclusion that catchers who can (and cannot) frame pitches have a huge impact on the game: Dan estimated that the top catchers can contribute as much as .7 runs per 150 pitches (roughly a game), Bill calculated approximately six wins per 120 games, and both Mike and I quantified the effect at around 20 runs per 120 games.

These early studies are finding that pitch framing can add/subtract several wins to a team's record over the course of a season. That's a stunning finding with jaw dropping results, but one that makes intuitive sense. Impact is frequently a function of opportunity. Opportunity was a large part of my write-up on the RBI issue in a previous post. It's the same for pitch framing. A catcher handles somewhere in the neighborhood of 120-150 pitches per game. Every single pitch is an opportunity for the catcher to steal, or give back, a strike. Stealing a strike can flip the "count probability" in a pitcher's favor or even directly result in an out. If impact is a function of opportunity, then catchers have more opportunity to impact the game than any position on the field due to pitch framing.

If you look at those studies, then two of the names you consistently see at the top of the list are "Jose Molina" and "Ryan Hanigan". More accurately, Jose seems to be otherworldly, while Hanigan is merely very good. The Rays clearly appreciate Jose Molina and it's certainly not for his bat. It's not underasonable to infer that they value Hanigan for the same reasons as Molina. This seems like an under-the-radar move that may have substantial impact on the Rays in 2014. Even if Hanigan's offense doesn't rebound to previous levels, the Rays may have just added 2+ wins to their 2014 record in defensive value alone.

I must admit, I've never really understood why the Reds felt such a pressing need to deal Ryan Hanigan unless they really felt they needed to save a couple of million. I suppose I would feel better about dealing Hanigan, and giving away his defensive contributions, if Devin Mesoraco had shown more with the bat in 2013. As it stands, Hanigan's defensive contribution may be more valuable than Mesoraco's offensive contribution. It'll be very interesting to see if the Reds pitching staff as a whole takes a step backwards in 2014 without Ryan Hanigan. The Rays may have added 2+ wins in defensive value, but will the Reds lose 2+ wins in defensive value?

There is certainly still hope that Mesoraco can be the type of hitter we thought he might be, but I just can't buy into the idea that he has failed because of a lack of consistent playing time. He has 589 MLB plate appearances under his belt, which is more than enough for him to have shown what he can do. At some point, a player creates his own playing time. Mesoraco failed to do so. 

I still have hope that Mesoraco is just a tick behind where we would expect him to be because of a cold weather amateur career and pre-pro ball Tommy John surgery, both of which cost him needed development time. Also, he was slow to figure things out in the minors, so it's possible that he just takes longer to make needed adjustments. Mesoraco will get his chance in 2014 without the Ryan Hanigan safety net. The Reds need him to step forward offensively because right out of the gate it's a clear defensive downgrade.   

As for David Holmberg, I like him. He was actually a player I picked in my 2009 shadow draft. His calling card is his plus change-up, which I always like to see in a young pitcher. He's a good pickup for the Reds and a much needed one in light of the lack of upper level starting pitching depth in the system. The Reds just can't expect good health in the rotation and Holmberg is a better option for MLB starts than Greg Reynolds. So, Holmberg should be an upgrade on the spot starts the team received in 2013.

Whether this trade works out for the Reds depends largely on the progress of Devin Mesoraco. I like David Holmberg, but I wonder if the Reds undervalued what Ryan Hanigan brings to the table. I suspect the Rays have developed a more accurate valuation on Hanigan than the Reds, which probably makes this trade a winner for the Rays and one that will show up in the standings in non-obvious ways. When sitting around next season trying to figure out why the Rays are always so strong, think back to this deal and how the organization extracts value from unexpected places.

As for the Reds, they addressed a need (SP depth), saved some pocket change, and cleared the way for a homegrown talent to emerge. It's a deal that makes sense on a number of levels, but I can't help but think that they didn't fully appreciate the value that Ryan Hanigan created.

2014 Armchair GM Thoughts

Well, I haven't written anything in a little while, so I thought it would be fun to put a toe back in the water before getting into the heavy lifting of prospect write-ups and more heavily analytical posts. In that spirit, here is a fun bit of speculation on something the Reds GM could do to improve the team this offseason.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Reds problem in 2013 was a complete lack of complimentary offensive production. Basically, they were a three hitter offense and one of those three is undoubtedly headed out of town. The problem is that there are few areas where legitimate upgrades can be made, namely catcher, third base, and shortstop.

The Reds may also be facing a rapidly closing window. The team isn't getting any younger and the starting pitchers are only getting closer to free agency. As it stands, Homer Bailey is set to reach free agency after the 2014 season; Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos after the 2015 season.

The question the Reds must answer is whether they are going to make a big push to win a championship in the next couple of seasons or try to be consistently competitive for the next 5 years. If it's the former, then they need to convert the future value of assets into present value. If it's the latter, then the strategy is identifying which assets to keep in the fold and which prospects can be promoted to replace players who are either aged or priced out of the organization.

The decision is complicated by the recent success of the Cardinals and Pirates, who may well have more talent at both the MLB and minor league levels. So, do the Reds go all in now or try to hold the window open for the foreseeable future?

If we want to "win now", then we have two surplus assets that could help us do that: Robert Stephenson and Aroldis Chapman. Stephenson is an asset with purely future value, while Chapman is an asset whose potential is continues to outpace his production. If we want to make a push this year and compete with not just the Cardinals and Pirates, but the AL's best as well, then here are two "win now" moves* I would consider making:

*(These moves are in the broad strokes and may need a tweak or a sweetener added to balance them out)

1) Robert Stephenson to the Mariners for SS Brad Miller and 2b/of Dustin Ackley

Stephenson could be a top five overall prospect in the near future and a legit #1 starter down the road. He's a hefty trade chip. That said, he probably needs at least another full season of development. And, another year in the minors comes with both injury and development risk. If we want to reshape the lineup with an eye towards improvement in 2014, then he may be our best bet.

As for the return, I'm already a huge Brad Miller fan. He has tools, skills, and intangibles and, on some level, the world just seems to make more sense when the Reds have a top drawer shortstop in the starting lineup. The Mariners promoted him midseason and used him as their leadoff hitter and shortstop. Miller has the ability to control the strike zone, hit for average, and hit for respectable power. He's probably average defensively at short, so he'd be a slight downgrade from the above-average glove of Zack Cozart. That said, he also brings top-flight intangibles to the table and could emerge as the leader this team seemed to lack in 2013, as evidenced by his amateur travel team coach Chet Lemon calling him "a coach's dream". Cozart is a 2.0-2.5 win player and I suspect he's reached his ceiling. I could see Brad Miller as a 4.5-5.0 win player at his peak, which could make him a significant upgrade for the Reds over Zach Cozart.

Still, given Stephenson's trade value, I'd also want Dustin Ackley in the deal. Ackley does a lot of things well. He hits line drives, makes contact at a strong clip, draws walks at a respectable rate, and doesn't chase many bad pitches. He's a pure hitter with very good hand-eye coordination, reminding me of Dustin Pedroia in that respect. To date, however, Ackley has been a massive disappointment, but I think he's fixable and I'd roll the dice on being able to do just that. Ackley has a clear swing flaw, he doesn't firm up his front side, instead letting his hips and front knee slide forward, which robs him of the rotational power generated by the hips. His hand-eye coordination is so strong that it actually works against him here, as the weak front side flaw doesn't prevent him from making contact, but does prevent him from driving the ball with authority. Given that the Mariners have been a huge disappointment as of late, they may be willing to turn the page on Ackley.

This deal would give us Miller at shortstop and Ackley in center until Hamilton is ready. Once Hamilton is ready, Ackley could split time in left/center, providing an insurance policy for both Ludwick and Hamilton, and be a backup for Phillips at second and Votto at first. If either the Reds or Ludwick decide not to exercise the mutual option for 2015, then Ackley could take over in left.

If we can unlock Ackley's bat, then this deal would give us two professional, impact hitters atop the lineup and holding down up-the-middle positions. Stephenson is a high price to pay, but these two could provide us with an immediate boost and significantly greater complimentary production.

2) Aroldis Chapman and Zach Cozart to the Padres for 3b Chase Headley and RHP Burch Smith

Chapman is another asset that could be both expendable and valuable. Chapman posted a 1.6 WAR this year, which means that his hype/trade value outpaces his actual value, making him an attractive trade option. The Reds either need to extract more value from Chapman or flip him. The only real way to extract more value from him is to shift him to the rotation, but if that fails then his trade value takes a hit. Frankly, I would much rather deal him and let someone else assume the risk of converting him to the rotation, especially since Chapman himself has expressed a desire to work out of the bullpen.

That said, I would move Chapman to the Padres for Chase Headley and Burch Smith. Headley had a down season last year after a true power breakout season in 2012. So, there is some performance risk in the deal. However, even if the 2012 power isn't sustainable, he posted a .374 OBP in 2011 and a .376 OBP in 2012.  That type of OBP would take the sting out of losing Shin Soo Choo. While Headley's true power remains something of a question, a move from Petco Park to GABP will only help him in that department. And, his OBP would look mighty good in the 2nd spot in the order ahead of Joey Votto, which would also give him better pitches to hit. 

Headley is only under team control for 1 more season, so we would likely be entitled to something more for 3 years of Chapman. I would want RHP Burch Smith, who is rumored to be on the block and who I like quite a bit. Smith has a very good change-up, a low 90s fastball that can touch 95, and good control. He is on a development path to being a solid mid-rotation starter and he would join David Holmberg in improving our pitching depth in the upper levels of the minors. 

Final Thoughts

These two moves give us two potential offensive upgrades (B.Miller over Z.Cozart and C.Headley over T.Frazier), vastly improved MLB depth (D.Ackley and T.Frazier off the bench), and more starting pitching depth in the upper minors (B.Smith). The Reds main problem last year was a top heavy offense, but the team also lacked depth. 

Given the inevitable injuries and the preference of all MLB managers for, as our former peerless leader Dusty Baker said, "having options", this would make us a more balanced and deeper offensive team. Headley in a hitter friendly park and hitting in front of a former MVP could have another breakout season. Miller could hit 20+ homers as soon as next year with a solid slash line. And, I would still have Ackley and Frazier in my plans for the future, as I think both can get back on track and emerge as valuable MLB players, but having them serve as depth on the bench for 2014 wouldn't be the worst idea. 

After those trades, the roster would look something like the following: 

1. B.Miller ss l
2. C.Headley 3b s
3. J.Votto 1b l
4. R.Ludwick lf r
5. J.Bruce rf l
6. B.Phillips 2b r
7. B.Hamilton cf s
8. D.Mesoraco c r

c. B.Pena s
inf T.Frazier r
inf J.Hannahan l
of S.Schumaker l
of/2b D.Ackley l

Obviously, there's no clear back-up shortstop, but I wouldn't be that uncomfortable with going without one on a game-to-game basis. If Miller were to get hurt, then we could call someone up from the minors. Until that time, I wouldn't mind having a more offense heavy bench with a few guys who could handle shortstop in a pinch (Frazier, Phillips, Hannahan). 

And, if Hamilton can handle MLB pitching, then he'd be the leadoff man. If Hamilton is so lost that he needs to back to the minors, then Ackley would take over in centerfield and we could add a true backup shortstop to the bench. Dusty was right, it's good to have options.   

1. M.Latos r
2. H.Bailey r
3. J.Cueto r
4. T.Cingrani l
5. M.Leake r

6. D.Holmberg triple-A lhp
7. B.Smith triple-A rhp

cl J.J. Hoover
rhset J.Broxton
lhset S.Marshall
mr A.Simon
mr L.Ondrusek
mr M.Parra
lr S.LeCure

Obviously, giving up Robert Stephenson wouldn't be popular and for very good reason. He is the Reds best pitching prospect since Homer Bailey and I'm just as high on him as everyone else. But, if we are really trying to go all-in for the next two seasons, then it might be wise to consider moving him. It took Homer Bailey a long time to emerge as a dependable, impact starting pitcher. And, it's unreasonable to expect Stephenson to reach that status within the next 2-3 seasons, or longer. 

If the Reds decide that our window is now, then Stephenson is an asset that simply won't help us. On the other hand, if the Reds aren't going all in for the next two years, then you simply don't move a prospect the caliber of Stephenson, not at any cost. If the organization wants to try to maintain consistent, year-in/year-out success, then Stephenson is exactly the type of player the Reds need in the system. 

Anyway, that's a fun post to get back in the swing of things. I suspect most will be apoplectic at the mere idea of trading Stephenson and Aroldis, but it's something to consider if we think we can win a championship in the near future. That would be a strategy that requires syncing up the present value of our assets. On the other hand, if we aren't going all in, then forget I wrote this. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

For the Last Time, Joey Votto is NOT The Problem!

Fan Appreciation
Courtesy: Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Cam Neely is a man in full. If you don't know the first thing about hockey, but respond "Cam Neely" to the question of your favorite player, then you'll undoubtedly get a nod of approval from hockey fans while instantly improving your hockey street cred. And, of course, if you don't know Cam Neely for his hockey exploits, then you might know him for his performance as SeaBass in Dumb and Dumber. As I said, a man in full.

In hockey, a player's career is frequently characterized by his ability, or lack thereof, to elevate his play in the postseason. It's a reality that works to the advantage of certain types of players; to the disadvantage of other types. It certainly worked to the advantage of Cam Neely, and the disadvantage of another former Bruin star, Joe Thornton.

Cam Neely was a goal scorer. He was strong like a bull and had a nose for the net. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by a degenerative hip condition and a knee injury, which, late in his career, prevented him from even taking the ice for practice, but somehow he still managed to get out on the ice for games and score goals. It was gutty, gritty, and remarkable.

Neely's game was direct. He was able, through elevated individual effort and sheer force of will, to make a direct impact on the fortunes of his team. Taking things to the extreme, the nature of his game didn't force him to rely on the play of teammates to directly impact the game. The puck went directly from the tape of his stick into the back of the net. Obviously, more goals scored improves the team's goal differential. An improved goal differential improves the team's win/loss record. Direct.

On the other hand, this reality worked to the disadvantage of Joe Thornton.

Joe Thornton isn't Cam Neely. He's spectacular in his own right, but always struggled to get the type of love showered on Neely by the Boston fans. In fact, he was traded right out of town due largely to the team's postseason struggles. Thornton is a premier set-up man, rather than a goal scorer. His game is predicated not on brute strength and determination, but rather on vision, spacing, and feel. His game is indirect. Thornton elevating his game is about making his teammates better. As a result, elevating his game won't have the same impact on the Win/Loss record unless his teammates finish off his work. An assist is a step (or two) removed from the actual goal. The puck goes from the tape of Thornton's stick, to the tape of a teammate's stick, and only then into the back of the net. Thornton is one step removed from the goal and, consequently, the admiration of the fans.

Because of the nature of their respective games, Boston fans appreciated Cam Neely much more than Joe Thornton. Not because one type of player is inherently more valuable than the other, but because the value of "direct" is easier for fans to appreciate than the value of "indirect". Direct is visceral. Indirect is nuanced and contextual. "Indirect" requires a bit more background and knowledge to appreciate. All of which brings us to the Cincinnati Reds, circa 2013.

Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips

This season has seen all kinds of complaints about the Reds ricocheting around the interwebs, ranging from Dusty's roster construction, Joey Votto's disciplined approach, Jonathan Broxton's contract, Aroldis Chapman's workload, and Brook Jacoby's hitting instruction. The noise of those complaints obscures the Reds real problem, one that may come back to haunt them in the postseason, but more on that in a minute. First, we need to do away with the complaint over Joey Votto's disciplined approach.

This season, Joey Votto is a bit more "Joe Thornton" than "Cam Neely". Fan appreciation has fallen accordingly. Brandon Phillips is more "Cam Neely" than "Joe Thornton". Fan appreciation has risen accordingly.

RBIs are the baseball equivalent of hockey goals, while walks are the equivalent of hockey assists. The walks help you get the RBIs, but fans appreciate the RBIs far more than the walks. RBI are direct, while walks are indirect, never mind that it's infinitely more difficult to get RBIs if hitters aren't getting on base for you. The two are clearly interrelated.

Accordingly, it's ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS to hear praise being heaped on Brandon Phillips for driving in runs, while in the very same breath scorn heaped on Joey Votto for taking too many walks, because they are essentially flip sides of the same coin. Table-setting and table-clearing. Run creation and run production.

It couldn't be more obvious that the main reason why Brandon Phillips has so many RBIs this year is because Joey Votto (and Shin-Soo Choo) are such disciplined, patient hitters. In 2013, Phillips had 492 runners on base during his plate appearances, which was third most in all of baseball. For the record, Joey Votto had 441 runners on base during his time at bat, 51 fewer than Phillips. Prince Fielder (536) and Jay Bruce (500) were the only two hitters with more runners on base during their plate appearances.

It's mere coincidence that all three of those hitters batted behind either Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, right? Or, maybe, just maybe we can concede that it's easier to pile up RBI when you have among the most RBI opportunities in all of baseball.

In actuality, Brandon Phillips has been a mediocre hitter this year. The only area where he's excelled is in hitting with runners in scoring position. That said, his situational hitting has been undeniably superb.

2013 Situational Batting Average
None On -- .213
Runners On -- .307
Scoring Position -- .338
Bases Loaded -- .611

Whether that's the result of a conscious decision by Phillips, in response to his move to the clean-up spot, to be a run producer or just a small sample size fluke is debatable. The commonly held belief is that hitters can't elevate their performance in certain situations and that's probably the case. If they could, then why wouldn't they elevate it in all situations? But, maybe Phillips is an exception to the rule.

Regardless of the reason, it can't be argued that Phillips hasn't excelled in driving in runs this year. On some level, he has been the ideal compliment to the high on-base rates of Choo and Votto. In some ways, they are flip sides of the same coin. Together they are more than the sum of their individual parts.

The Real Problem!!

The real problem that has plagued the Reds in 2013, and the one that could well be their undoing against the Pirates in the playoffs, is the utter lack of complimentary offensive production.

On the season, of the hitters who received at least 150 plate appearances, the Reds have only 3 above average hitters. Their names are Votto, Choo, and Bruce. This is a lineup that only has three impact hitters, none of whom hits from the right side. It is a limited and unbalanced offense.

In short, this offense is plagued with inconsistency not because Joey Votto is too disciplined, but because he is 1 of only 3 impact hitters. The problem isn't with the top tier hitters in the lineup, it's that there IS NO second tier.

Weighted Runs Created (wRC) is an attempt to quantify a player's total offensive value and measure it by runs. Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player's wRC compares with league average. League average is 100, every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average.

2013 wRC+ (Players with 150+ PAs)
Joey Votto -- 156
Shin-Soo Choo -- 151
Jay Bruce -- 117

Xavier Paul -- 106
Todd Frazier -- 100
Brandon Phillips -- 91
Chris Heisey -- 89
Derrick Robinson -- 81
Zack Cozart -- 79
Devin Mesoraco -- 74
Jack Hannahan -- 71
Ryan Hanigan -- 53

For comparison sake, here is how we stack up against the Pirates:

2013 wRC+ (Players with 150+ PAs)
Andrew McCutchen -- 155
Starling Marte -- 121
Jose Tabata -- 118
Gaby Sanchez -- 117
Neil Walker -- 114
Jordy Mercer -- 114
Pedro Alvarez -- 111

Russell Martin -- 101
Garrett Jones -- 97
Travis Snider -- 70
Clint Barmes -- 52

Obviously, McCutchen and Votto cancel each other out. While they have no one who compares with Choo, they have much greater depth of production. They are a more diversified offense than we are, which makes for less streakiness in production. The postseason is a crap shoot, but in today's one game playoff it'll come down to our star driven offense against their diversified attack.

For more context, the Red Sox have 11 out of 12 qualifying hitters with wRC+ numbers of 109 or higher. The A's have 7 hitters at 114 or higher and 10 of 14 qualifying hitters at 101 or higher. The Cardinals have an astounding 6 hitters at 132 or higher and 8 at 105 or higher.

The Red Sox took a lot of heat for their offseason free agent acquisitions. I didn't agree with what they were doing either, because they were paying top dollar for second tier type players. The more common strategy is to pay top dollar for star players and go cheap on complimentary players. The Red Sox were doing the opposite, paying good money to obtain certain second tier production. A large part of the A's success has been driven by complimentary production instead of star talent. The success of both teams illustrates the importance of complimentary production.

Unfortunately, the Reds problem isn't one that will be naturally covered up in the playoffs. If a team is short on pitching, then the postseason can help hide that flaw. The shorter series means that you need fewer starters, allowing you to minimize the contributions of lesser pitchers. There is no such relief for a team short on impact hitters. That's a flaw that the Reds will have to overcome throughout the postseason.

Final Thoughts

Reds fans are appreciating the wrong player. Phillips has done some nice situational hitting, but Votto is one of the best hitters in all of baseball. Still, the fact that Phillips' contribution is more direct, while Votto's is, in some ways, indirect, means that fans are overvaluing Phillips.

In some ways, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips have perfectly complimented each other this year, with each filling in the weaknesses of the other. Of course, Joey Votto had a borderline MVP caliber season, while Phillips was a below average hitter. So, Votto had more holes to fill in Phillips' game than Phillips did in Votto's, but Votto could have done a bit better job driving in runs. That much is true.

Still, the real problem on the Reds this year is lack of production from the complimentary players. This is a three hitter offense. That's the problem that should be the focus of the fans. That's the problem that may very well sink us against the Pirates. That's the problem that needs to be addressed this offseason, especially since we are likely to lose Shin-Soo Choo to free agency.

Joey Votto is the farthest thing from being the problem with this team and treating him like he is only obscures the real issue: The team needs someone other than the top tier to step up during the postseason. We may need to hear some broadcaster shout: "Zack Cozart for President!"

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Marlon Byrd Burnout

Courtesy: Unknown

Josh: "Sir, if the House successfully overrides the veto, we're gonna look weak."

President Bartlett: "If the House successfully overrides the veto, we ARE weak."

---"On the Day Before", The West Wing

For whatever reason, the above quote always leaps to mind when i hear people talking about Marlon Byrd.

I'm tired of Marlon Byrd. He's a 36-year old outfielder with a career slash line of .276/.335/.424 and an IPED rap sheet. And, yet, one of the current narratives permeating Reds Nation is that the failure to claim him off of waivers from the New York Mets will sink the season.

There are some who think the Reds should have claimed Byrd and paid the cost to acquire his services. There are others who think the Reds should have claimed Byrd just to prevent the Pirates from getting him.

The problem with the former is that the Reds may have lacked the assets, and the willpower, necessary to get it done. The problem with the latter is that it's damn hard to do.

Whether you can chalk it up to Dusty's loyalty to his guys, the organization's concern over upsetting locker-room chemistry, or maybe Walt being concerned that Byrd's late-career resurgence and power spike are due to something other than just clean living, the plain fact of the matter is that the organization simply didn't have any interest in Byrd. It's impossible to know why. This is a situation where the front office may be basing its decision on information that people outside the organization simply don't have. Or, maybe, like me, they just aren't that high on him.

As for claiming Byrd just to block him from the Pirates, that's not as easy as it sounds. It's common practice for teams to place the vast majority of their players on revocable waivers after the trade deadline. If a player of value is claimed, then the team simply pulls them back off waivers. So, there are a LOT of players on waivers, which makes the task of deciding which players to try to block a challenge. If you choose wrong, then you could get stuck with a player (or two) that you really don't want. That happened recently with the Giants and Cody Ross and more famously with the Padres and Randy Myers. It's obviously more damaging if the claimed player has a large contract, but even if the monetary hit is minor the team still has to clear up a roster spot for him. And, if you are trying to block multiple players, then you might end up needing to clear multiple roster spots.

Here's what had to say about Waiver Trading:

Do teams often put in waiver claims simply to "block" a trade?

Once in a while it happens, but not very often. There is a risk involved, especially if the player trying to go through waivers has a large contract. By claiming a player, a team could prevent that player from being traded to a division rival. Of course, if a team claims a player and that player isn't pulled back by the team that requested waivers, the claiming team could get that player, contract and all.

An example of that happened in 1998, when Toronto was attempting to deal former All-Star closer Randy Myers late in the year to Atlanta. The Padres, in the midst of a pennant race, put in a waiver claim for the veteran left-hander to block him from being traded to the Braves. The Blue Jays let Myers go to the Padres rather than pull him back from the waiver process. Myers appeared in just 14 1/3 innings for the Padres, going 1-3 with no saves, and he did not pitch after the '98 season, leaving San Diego on the hook for the balance of his $13.6 million salary for 1999-2000.

From what I know of the waiver wire process, it just seems too messy for the type of blocking transaction that the fan base desperately wanted to see. If the Reds didn't actually want Byrd, then I find it difficult to fault them for not blocking the Pirates from getting him.

Or, maybe when Reds fans continue to argue that Marlon Byrd will be the difference-maker in the Reds and Pirates postseason showdown, I can't help but think that if we are too weak to bring down the Pirates because of our multi-layered Marlon Byrd "failure", then we were simply too weak to begin with.***

***Post-script -- I now fully expect Marlon Byrd to play an integral part in the Reds postseason demise, causing me to eat crow. It's cosmic. It's karmic. It's inevitable. Apologies.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

2013 Top 25 Prospect List

For posterity's sake, here's the final list of top Reds prospects for the 2013 season with links to those that have a full prospect write-up. I came up a few write-ups short of a full slate, so not all have links, but I'll do better next season. It's good to have aspirational goals!

Overall, I'm pretty happy with the list. After a rocky season in the minors, Billy Hamilton is showing in September why he deserved the top spot on the list. Despite Stephenson's very strong 2013 season, I'm happy with my decision to slot Cingrani in the 2nd spot. For me, Cingrani's advantage in floor was simply greater than Stephenson's potential advantage in ceiling. I thought Cingrani could perform at a high level quickly, while Stephenson still had to manage a couple of years of development and injury risk. If Stephenson can effectively manage that risk, then he could still prove to be the better pitcher at the MLB level.

If the Reds want to be concerned about anything in the development process, then they might want to take a look at the reasons why the wheels completely came off on Corcino, Lotzkar, and Guillon. All completely fell apart in 2013. Probably for different reasons, but it's worth asking the question and reviewing the development process to see if there is a common thread.

I'm still content with my ranking of Tucker Barnhart, who had a solid season, as I expect the game to shift back in the direction of defensive catchers. And, Barnhart is one of the best in that department.

1) Billy Hamilton, of
2) Tony Cingrani, lhp
3) Robert Stephenson, rhp
4) Daniel Corcino, rhp
5) Didi Gregorius, ss
6) Nick Travieso, rhp
7) Jesse Winker, of
8) Ismael Guillon, lhp
9) Jeff Gelalich, of
10) Amir Garrett, lhp
11) Dan Langfield, rhp
12) Carlos Contreras, rhp
13) Tucker Barnhart, c
14) Ryan LaMarre, of
15) Kyle Lotzkar, rhp
16) Tanner Rahier, ss/3b
17) Yorman Rodriguez, of
18) Donald Lutz, 1b/of
19) Drew Cisco, rhp
20) Jonathan Reynoso, of
21) Seth Meijas-Brean, 3b
22) Chad Rogers, rhp
23) Henry Rodriguez, 2b/3b
24) Curtis Partch, rhp
25) Kyle Waldrop, of

Overall, it seemed to be more of a boom-or-bust kind of season down on the farm for the Reds. There wasn't a lot in between. If you were in the Reds organization, then chances are you either launched into space and streaked across the sky or you fizzled out on the launchpad.

The Reds are going to need a consistent flow of homegrown talent in the near future if they intend to keep the window for winning a championship from slamming shut. They have too many long-term contracts and too many key contributors on the verge of big money pay-days to remain an upper echelon team unless they have a strong, productive farm system to fill in the gaps.

Fortunately, they have another couple of years to bolster the system, which they need due to a few too many flame-outs in 2013.