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 MLB.com 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 Reynosa, 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.


2013 Top Prospect List: #12 Carlos Contreras, rhp


Courtesy: MILB.com
CARLOS CONTRERAS
DOB: 1/8/1991
HEIGHT: 5-11, WEIGHT: 205, B/T: R/R

As a result of trades and promotions, the Reds farm system is thin at the upper levels and short on overall impact prospects. However, there a few prospects who could develop into valuable pieces if they can manage their remaining development risk. Carlos Contreras is one such prospect who fits that description.

The Reds have done a nice job of supplementing 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.


PROFESSIONAL CAREER

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 obviously need a return engagement in double-A, but overall it was a strong season and a significant step forward in his development.

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.



PITCHING MECHANICS

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.


REPERTOIRE

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.


FINAL THOUGHTS

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 #12 on the list.



Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On MLB, Maximus Decimus Meridius, and the Power of "Reasonableness"

Over on the message board side of things, I recently had an interesting conversation about politics. The discussion started off being largely about drone attacks and due process, but evolved into a broader discussion of the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.

The point was made that Americans should fear an executive branch that has the power to deem someone an "enemy combatant" and order a targeted killing without any other branches having the express ability to check the executive's authority. Basically, that the lack of direct institutional safeguards means that there is simply too much power vested in the executive.

The notion that the executive, in the absence of direct institutional safeguards, had free reign was one with which I disagreed. To me there are other factors operating to confine the scope of the executive branch's authority. A good example is found in the following quote from a newspaper article:

"When Congress and the executive clash about the meaning of those powers, there is no neutral way to decide who is right."  

Given the separation of powers in our government, no branch, in theory, has more power than the others. If the President and Congress adopt differing interpretations of a constitutional issue, then there's no tiebreaker. Both branches just sit there, eyeball-to-eyeball. You'd think that would potentially give the executive branch unchecked authority under any reasonable constitutional interpretation. Who could or would stop it from acting under that interpretation? No structural resolution exists. And, yet, the system works. Somehow, the actions of the executive are confined within acceptable limits.

Those limits are not established by checks-and-balances of other branches of government, rather they are imposed by reasonableness. The press, public, and the ingrained rule of law operate to ensure that the actions of various branches of government do not exceed reasonable limits. The ultimate power of a government derives from the people, so if the people determine that a government's actions exceed reasonable limits, then they can retract their consent to be governed. If that happens, the government loses legitimacy and likely collapses.

This reasonableness concept doesn't apply solely to politics. The larger point is that power derives from the masses. And, inherent in situations where power is derived from the masses is the existence of a reasonableness limitation. Success in politics, business, and religion is largely driven by the ability to get the people to buy-in to what you're doing. To get the masses to authorize you to act on their behalf; to license your conduct. Success frequently depends upon your ability to scale your endeavor over a larger and larger consumer base. To successfully spread it from the few to the many. If success is derived from the license of the many, then failure is driven by the revocation of that license by the many.

Here are a few quick non-baseball examples:

Politics: In a democracy this is obvious, as you have to get the majority of the votes to win the election. By it's very nature, politics is about convincing people to buy into what you're doing.

Business: If you compare two wildly popular businesses, Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Facebook, then you can see the concept of scaling-up. Both are brilliant and wildly successful businesses. Both have increased their wealth by increasing their market-share, increasing the size of their respective consumer bases. However, if you were an investor, Facebook may have been the better bet for one simple reason: it's a much easier business model to scale-up. It's far easier for an online business like Facebook to grow from 100,000 customers to 1,000,000 customers than it is for a brick-and-mortar business like Five Guys. Five Guys has to invest in new physical locations in order to grow, while Facebook just has to add another server or two.

Religion: In the first few decades of the 19th century, the United States underwent a period of religious experimentation. That period is frequently known as the Second Great Awakening. During that period, a number of homegrown religions emerged. One survived: Mormonism. Setting aside the question of the validity of the beliefs contained in those religions, which is largely irrelevant for our purposes, why did Mormonism thrive while the other homegrown religions faded away? In short, the religion was able to get more people to buy into it.

Why do organized religions constantly seek converts? To spread "the word"? Undoubtedly, but in order to wield influence, or even survive, organized religions require the license of the many. A religion's secular power is driven largely by the quantity of followers.

The clear takeaway from all of this is that: the masses can grant power, but they can revoke it if it's used in an unreasonable way. If you want to continue to wield the power and authority granted to you by your customer, constituent, or congregation, then you need to satisfy not only the express institutional requirements, but also the unwritten reasonableness requirements.
Courtesy: Unknown

Even Maximus Decimus Meridius from Gladiator had an inkling of the true source of power and wealth:

"I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the coliseum."

It's no different in Major League Baseball. There are, of course, direct institutional safeguards in place. The owner can check the authority/power of the organization's GM and President. Examples are easy to find. Think of Arte Moreno dictating to GM Jerry DiPoto that they sign Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Think of every instance where a GM is fired for poor performance. Further, the league itself can check the authority/power of the owner/organization. Again, examples abound. Think MLB suspending Ted Turner or George Steinbrenner for improprieties; think MLB forcing Marge Schott to sell the Reds. However, above and beyond these institutional safeguards, there remains a reasonableness limitation. It's a limitation imposed by the fan base.


Kansas City Royals: Trusting "The Process"?

There are two recent examples of this reasonable limitation at work in Major League Baseball. First, and most obvious, is the Kansas City Royals. If you've been following along, the Royals fan base and blogger community slipped into an apoplectic rage when former hitting coach Jack Maloof gave an interview in which he claimed that hitting homeruns simply wasn't an effective strategy in Kauffman Stadium.

That interview, given at a time when the team was underperforming at the plate and in the standings, was the final straw. After years of ineptitude, the front office went "all in" this year, trading uber-prospect Wil Myers for James Shields, a win-now move that was accompanied by assurances from the front office that THIS was the year. After that interview, the fan base could no longer buy-into front office exhortations to "trust the process" and "be patient". The uproar over that interview was so swift and unyielding that the organization clearly heard and feared the rumblings. The owners may still have believed in the front office. The front office may still have "trusted the process". The fans did not. "The process" was no longer reasonable.

Courtesy: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
The organization acted quickly in the interests of self-preservation. They fired/demoted the hitting coach tandem of Jack Maloof and Andre David and brought in the most famous and popular player in franchise history, George Brett, to fill the role and put out the fire. It was a clear last ditch effort to placate the fan base and salvage the season. It's fair to wonder whether the front office brought in Brett more for (1) his ability to impart hitting knowledge to the players, or (2) his ability to galvanize support from the fan base.

The Royals tripped over the "reasonableness" requirement, forcing them to call in an organizational legend to save the day. To date, it seems to have worked. Playing meaningful games in September likely staves off what looked to be an inevitable regime change over the offseason. Whether George Brett actually helped jump-start the offense, especially Eric Hosmer, remains to be seen, but it is undeniable that he brought the Royals' operations back within those acceptable limits imposed by the fan base.


Houston Astros: Playing to Lose?

The second example is the Houston Astros. Given that MLB and owner Jim Crane have both sanctioned the scorched earth rebuilding process implemented by GM Jeff Luhnow, the institutional safeguards are not going to reverse that process. However, there is a danger that the organization will violate the reasonableness requirement and lose the power granted to it by the fan base. Like the Royals, the Astros have a limited amount of time that they can "play to lose". There is a tipping point. There is a point at which the fans will revoke their license from the ownership group. They'll stop attending games (more than they already have); stop buying merchandise; stop watching games on TV; stop caring. And, it's that last one that should be truly worrisome to the front office. There's a moment when the rumblings of the blogger community, twitter, and the mainstream media will gain so much traction that the organization won't be able to continue to operate as it has been. That is to say, they won't be able to make such a concerted effort to lose, and lose cheaply, at the MLB level.
Courtesy: Associated Press

The only question with the Astros is whether their plan will bear fruit before the tipping point arrives. I'm a big fan of Jeff Luhnow, so I believe it will. But, he needs to be right in his decision-making. And, he needs to be right on a consistent basis, which isn't easy to do. Setbacks will delay the organization's progress and bring them closer to the reasonableness tipping point. Not surprisingly, Luhnow seems to understand that his rebuilding plan will strain the tolerance of the fan base. Accordingly, he's made a conscious effort, as evidenced by this letter to his season ticket holders, to get out in front of the issue by communicating his plans to his customer base and ensure that they continue to buy-in to what he's trying to do. He understands that it doesn't matter how well he does what he does if he loses the fan base in the process. It's still failure.


Reasonableness Be Damned!

Of course, failure in baseball doesn't look like failure in other industries. In other industries, failure looks a lot like extinction. Your operations are wiped from the face of the earth, your remaining assets devoured by bigger, strong competitors. Your marketshare snapped up by organizations who are more efficiently and effectively run. In baseball, however, failure isn't extinction, it's irrelevance.

In baseball, the reasonableness requirement only applies to organizations who actually care. Who care about winning. Or, who, at the very least, care about not losing so much that they become a laughingstock.

Prior to this year, the Pirate organization was a perennial failure. After years of ineptitude, they lost the fan base, slipping from awful to irrelevant in the process. They were irrelevant. Revenue sharing ensured that the Pirates' ineptitude wouldn't bring about their extinction. Instead, they would fall into irrelevance. Profitable irrelevance.

Similarly, in Miami, revenue sharing and a publicly financed boondoggle ensured that the Marlins and their odious owner would not go the way of the dodo bird. The loss of the fan base wasn't enough to force any real, substantive change, instead they continue to limp along collecting their revenue share from organizations who actually care about their business. The Marlins are the ultimate free-rider.


Major League Soccer and Final Thoughts

Curiously, Major League Soccer is the scene of an interesting experiment. The Seattle Sounders are attempting to convert the informal reasonableness limitation imposed by the fan base into a direct institutional standard. The organization allows members of the fan Alliance, season ticket-holders or fans who pay a $125 fee, to vote on whether to retain or dismiss the general manager. They are increasing fan buy-in by giving them a direct, rather than indirect, voice in the operation of the team. The Sounders have been a massive success. To what extent that's been a result of giving the fans a direct voice is unclear, but it's an interesting recognition of the relationship between the club and the fans.

In Major League Baseball, there remains an informal reasonableness limitation. While the collaborative nature of the professional sports and the safety net created by revenue sharing combine to ensure that the punishment for exceeding that limitation won't be as severe as it could be, those organizations who actually care about success, both on-the-field and on-the-books, would be wise not to exceed it.