Yankees Winning Trade Season, Ryan Howard’s Downward Spiral and Other MLB Thoughts

The New York Yankees are ruthless spenders who clear their pockets in exchange for victories. That’s fine; they have the influx of cash and are willing to part with it for championships. Every fan wants his or her team’s owner to proceed the same way.

In exchange, we all get to laugh when an expensive transaction falls on its face. With lavish spending comes lavish overpays, as players made available via free agency or trades are usually old and past their peak while still commanding a hefty price tag.

Carlos Beltran making $15 million while registering a minus-0.8 WAR? Yikes. Brian McCann slugging .373 in the first season of a five-year contract as a 30-year-old catcher? Ruh roh. Jacoby Ellsbury getting top dollar to run less and provide average defense while Yankee Stadium fails to uptick his power production? Zoinks!

See how much fun that is, provided you’re not a Yankees fan? That’s why it stinks to see them make two savvy trades for under-appreciated players worth more than the general public believes.

In desperate need of a starting pitcher to procure some innings, they sent Vidal Nuno and cash considerations to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Brandon McCarthy. Nuno, 26, wasn’t cutting it in New York’s rotation, so the Bronx Bombers instead snatched a quality arm quietly having a nice year.

I can hear the cranky old talk-show host yelling now about McCarthy’s 5-10 record and 4.49 ERA. How on earth is that a nice year? They should take Ferris Bueller’s advice and look around once in a while, as there’s a bunch of other juicy stats to chew into.

Usually a poor strikeout pitcher, McCarthy has amped up his K/9 rate to a career-high 7.71, all while maintaining his typical pinpoint command. He’s utilizing his fastball at a much-higher rate (63.1 percent) than during previous years, which has worked since he’s also firing it at a higher velocity.

Over the past three years, his four-seam velocity has hovered slightly below 91 miles per hour. This year, he’s reaching at average speed of 92.9 on the radar gun.

The Diamondbacks wouldn’t have realized that, since none of these metrics are included on their special grit box scores. Sure, his 55.3 ground-ball rate elicits multiple easy outs and his 2.90 xFIP is excellent, but how dirty is his uniform?!?

The move has yielded immediate results. Through three stars, McCarthy has tallied a 1.45 ERA, 17 strikeouts and three walks in 18.2 innings. He’s also a 31-year-old in a contract year, but Brian Cashman made a rare Yankees move by accepting damaged goods to save the farm system.

 

Speaking of damaged goods, Chase Headley is hitting .233/.297/.356, which represents career lows in all three categories. The 30-year-old will never duplicate his MVP-caliber production from 2012, when he delivered 31 homers, 115 RBI, 17 stolen bases and a 7.2 WAR, but this season has transpired much worse than he hoped for as he prepares to embark on the free-agent process this offseason.

Since the San Diego Padres failed to sell high two years ago when they had the chance, they accepted a dull return from the Yankees. Rather than landing substantial future pieces, they settled for Rafael De Paula—a 23-year-old pitcher with a 4.15 ERA in high Single-A—and Yangervis Solarte, a 26-year-old infielder who fell back down to earth after a monstrous start.

While Headley is a shell of the star that briefly shined a couple years ago, he still provides Gold Glove defense at a position New York needed to upgrade. He’ll also play half of his games in Yankee Stadium instead of Petco Park, a monumental shift that should spark an offensive revival.

During his career, Headley has hit .286/.360/.444 on the road. Petco’s spacious confines have drastically suppressed his power, but he could morph into a 15-20 homer hitter if he stays with the Yankees for a full season. Aside from the 2012 outlier, he has never exceeded 13 long balls in a given year.

By FanGraphs’ measure, a struggling Headley has still contributed 1.6 wins above a replacement-level player in 2014. That places him third among New York’s position players behind Brett Gardner (3.0) and Jacoby Ellsbury (2.5).

 

Ryan Howard: $138 Million Platoon Hitter

Ryan Howard’s career continues to descend steeper than Great Adventure’s new Zumanjaro ride. Once a top power bat who hilariously wrung a five-year, $138 million extension out of the Philadelphia Phillies, the 34-year-old is no longer even an everyday player.

The slugger, who is MLB’s highest-paid position player this year at $25 million, has tested the team’s patience with a .224/.305/.377 slash line. Skipper Ryne Sandberg has put his foot down, benching the first baseman over the past couple of days in favor of Darin Ruf.

Everyone who bemoaned the lavish extension signed in 2012, when two years still remained on the former MVP’s deal, took a victory lap with the news of Howard’s latest shaming. After all, Howard has accrued a minus-0.7 WAR over the past three years while getting paid like a superstar.

But all three elements of his slash line dipped in both 2010 and 2011, during which he respectively hit 31 and 33 homers after averaging 49 long balls per season in the prior four years. Throw in a colossal strikeout rate, poor contact skills, no speed and anemic defense, and everybody besides Ruben Amaro Jr. knew that deal was terrible.

So let’s move on to another question: Should the Phillies leave Howard on the bench? He’s certainly not performing like a quality major league starter, but Darin Ruf touts the same incomplete repertoire.

Last season, Ruf essentially acted the part of a lesser Howard, batting .247/.348/.458 with 14 homers through 73 games. Like Howard, he whiffed often with a 31.1 strikeout percentage while providing negative value on the basepaths and field. At age 27, he’s also not much of a prospect the organization needs to scout with a big league audition.

Assuming Howard’s at-bat against southpaws conceivably makes sense, but the righty Ruf sports a career .217 average against them. Considering his .785 OPS against them, it could be worth trying out to shield the veteran from lefties from Howard. Then again, he’s not faring any better against righties this season, posting a .682 OPS compared to a .681 versus lefties.

In terms of actual production, Ruf can’t do much worse than Howard. If the Phillies are serious about ignoring sunk costs and leaving financial commitments out of the discussion, he at least warrants a platoon unless Howard can regain his stroke at the plate.

 

Tigers Trade for Amazing Closer, Will Continue to Use Terrible Closer

Looking for a boost in a tough American League, the Detroit Tigers bolstered their bullpen by trading for Joakim Soria. The All-Star reliever, who is enjoying a resounding comeback after missing all of 2012 and most of 2013 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his injured elbow, represents a significant upgrade for a bullpen currently brandishing a 4.37 ERA.

Much of Detroit’s late-inning woes fall on the arm of Joe Nathan, a once proud shutdown closer who is now posting a hideous 5.73 ERA. After coming back from a significant injury of his own in 2012, he also rebounded spectacularly, notching a 2.09 ERA and 80 saves in 2012 and 2013.

This year, however, he has been a train wreck due to a decreased velocity and career-worst walk rate (3.82 BB/9) as a reliever. Soria, meanwhile, is standing strong with a 2.07 ERA, 1.07 FIP and 42 strikeouts to just four walks.

One would have reasonably expected the former Texas Ranger to usurp Nathan, another former Texas star, in the ninth inning. Nope. Detroit is sticking with Nathan, a move that would be infuriating if closers held as much importance as many fans believe.

In truth, it doesn’t make a huge difference whether Nathan stinks in the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth inning. Due to his long track record of success, Brad Ausmus won’t cease using him altogether. Meanwhile, a pristine eighth inning from Soria serves just as well as a superb ninth.

The bothersome part about this development: Few, if any MLB managers share this sentiment. If Ausmus asked himself which heralded reliever is more qualified for the prestigious role and concluded Nathan deserves the better assignment, wow.

Unfortunately, he probably fell prey to the familiarity bias, sticking to his guy rather than switching allegiance to Detroit’s new acquisition. One more blow-up outing, however, could cost Nathan the role he has slayed for the past decade.

 

Note: All advanced stats are courtesy of FanGraphs. Contract information obtained via Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Dellin Betances is New York Yankees’ Best Reliever, Should Remain in Middle Relief

Dellin Betances has emerged as the New York Yankees’ best relief pitcher, yet it’s just fine to keep him performing outside the ninth inning.

Because everything works out perfectly for the Bronx Bombers, the Evil Empire have enjoyed one of the game’s premier relief units the year after losing the best closer in the history of Major League Baseball. Despite the bullpen’s underwhelming 4.13 team ERA, its 10.74 K/9 ratio leads baseball, and its collective 2.6 fWAR trails only the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics.

David Robertson and Adam Warren deserve some credit, but Betances’ meteoric ascension has especially lifted the team’s spirit in the post-Mariano Rivera era. The highly regarded 26-year-old, who had failed to stick in New York since debuting in 2011, has found his calling in the bullpen.

Through 32.2 scintillating innings, he has posted a 1.38 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 56 strikeouts. Since May 7, he has allowed one run while brandishing an astonishing 26 strikeouts and zero walks through 15.1 innings. He has undergone a complete overhaul in relief, adapting an untouchable slider, a pitch he has mastered more effectively than any other reliever by a wide margin, according to FanGraphs.

Before comparing him to his teammates, consider that there’s a legitimate case to be made for Betances as the game’s top reliever through two months. He ranks first among relief pitchers with a 1.3 fWAR while his 0.86 FIP is second to Joakim Soria. Take a look at how his early contributions compare to the finest closers.

Betances: 32.2 IP, 1.38 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 0.98 FIP, 56 K, 9 BB  1.3 fWAR

Glen Perkins: 24.1 IP, 2.96 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 33 K, 3 BB, 1.26 FIP, 1.2 fWAR

Craig Kimbrel: 20.1 IP, 1.77 ERA, 1.03 WHIP 1.05 FIP, 37 K, 9 BB, 1.1 fWAR

Joakim Soria: 20 IP, 2.25 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 0.82 FIP, 27 K, 3 BB, 1.1 fWAR

Koji Uehara: 23.2 IP, 0.76 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 1.68 FIP, 34 K, 3 BB, 1.1 fWAR

It’s early in the game, but Betances is on pace to become an All-Star while making a major dent comparable to Mariano Rivera’s introduction into the spotlight.

 

Is Betances Better than the Best?

Betances is the Yankees’ Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There’s not enough evidence to label him the new gold standard, but the early results sure suggest it’s likely to assume the throne.

While Michael Schur’s new sitcom has a long way to go before matching his other brilliant comedy, Parks and Recreation, its sizzling first season helps us feel easier about Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson exiting the small screen next year now that we have Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago to keep us company.

We can’t deem Betances the new Rivera after two months of dominance, especially after Rivera set the reliever bar to an unreachable pinnacle after 19 unmatched years. Although he is remembered for his sophomore season, Rivera, just like Parks and Rec, labored through a rocky first season before finding its voice. During his rookie season, he recorded a 5.51 ERA and 1.70 K/BB rate, with a grand chunk of those struggles occurring in the rotation.

Transferring exclusively to the bullpen in 1996, he worked 107.2 innings in his second season, a measure unlikely to get replicated with the modern usage of relief pitchers. The future Hall of Famer ignited the Bronx Bombers from the get-go, yet Betances is on pace to produce even better results during his inaugural campaign. The young gun is on pace to hurl 93.2 innings, a number which could even increase considering his enhanced workload.

Prorating his current strikeout rate gives him 162 strikeouts, a solid output for a starter tossing 200 frames. That’s also more than Rivera’s career-high 130 punchouts accrued during his breakout 1996 season.

Rivera (1996): 107.2 IP, 2.09 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 1.88 FIP,  130 K, 34 BB, 4.3 fWAR

Betances (2014 – Prorated to Full Season): 93.2 IP, 1.38 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 0.98 FIP, 162 K, 26 BB  3.8 fWAR

Doing it for two months hardly guarantees sustained production over the next four months, yet alone the next 18 years, but it’s sure a promising start. Although it’s not fair to set his sights too far ahead to Rivera, the whispers of promoting him to the closer’s role are growing.

 

Is it Closing Time for Betances? 

Of course, simply relishing Betances’ breakout season isn’t a realistic option in New York, which never sleeps because Mike Francesca and other boisterous radio hosts won’t shut up. When David Robertson blew up on Sunday—allowing a homer and blowing a save on the first pitch before surrendering four more runs—the discussion inevitably turned to, “Why isn’t Betances the closer?”

Look, if we’re just asking who the team’s best reliever is right now, Betances wins. As explored earlier, few guys can best Betances. Secluding him from the final inning is not a case against him, but rather a ringing endorsement for him, as well as a vote of confidence for the incumbent.

MLB managers are trained to operate under the status quo bias when juggling closing duties. A middle reliever annihilating the competition isn’t enough to take the job from the competent closer. No, the ninth-inning savant must lose the privilege of notching saves.

Robertson has not pitched poorly enough to lose the gig. Sure, his ERA torpedoed to 4.50 after his dreadful outing to conclude the weekend, but Matt Daley and Matt Thornton allowed three of the five inherited runners to score. Maybe the strikeout magician would have escaped if he was afforded another batter.

Then again, maybe Robertson shouldn’t have been out there anyway. He labored through 27 pitches the previous day to record his 12th save of the season, of which he missed two weeks with a groin injury. Despite the bump in the road, Robertson is sporting a 2.85 FIP and 32 strikeouts through 18 innings.

Resisting change for the simplicity of stasis is irrational, but the entire closer job description is irrational. The role is almost exclusively awarded to a team’s premier relief ace, yet it’s hardly always the most important inning of a given game.

Is a manager really squeezing the most worth out of the top reliever by inserting him into a 5-2 game in the final inning with the opposing team trotting out the No. 6-8 hitters? By instead using the best option to slay the heart of the order in the 7th or 8th or hose out a fire during a mid-inning, bases-loaded crisis, the pitcher is employed in a higher leverage situation.

Right now, Joe Girardi can have his cake and eat it too. He can continue to unleash Betances for two innings whenever he pleases without worrying about the shackles heuristically attached to the closer.

Since he has another stud in Robertson operating the ninth, he’s justified with not limiting his new-found star to narrow circumstances. Betances has thrown the third-most innings among all relievers, a mark that would not last if he found himself limited to closing duties, which traditionally calls for no more than four outs.

As witnessed on Sunday, the occasional blow-up will ire the casual fan, but Robertson will regain his rhythm and the sea of complaints will subside. Francisco Rodriguez, who is 30th on the innings leaderboard, has tossed 27 innings, and that’s only because he has already been used in 27 games given the Milwaukee Brewers’ fast start.

Last season, the league’s top-10 save leaders averaged 62.7 innings pitched. The 10 middle relievers with the most holds collectively pitched an average of 70.2 innings. Shielding Betances, a former starter, from the closer’s role allows the Yankees to stretch him out, exerting his full value before Robertson seals the deal.

When Rivera retired last season, fans shouldn’t have worried about the final three outs, but rather the trickle-down effect his departure would cause for the big picture. For years, Robertson skillfully maneuvered through tight predicaments with the game hanging in the balance. Now it’s Betances’ turn to save the day, even if he doesn’t get awarded any saves for his effort.

Note: All advanced statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs.

6 Strange Stats From Opening Weeks of MLB Season

Numbers are usually our friends, but they have a mean streak in small doses. A limited sample size often betrays our perception of reality, which especially bears true in the early weeks of the 162-game MLB season.

Chris Colabello isn’t going to lead the American League in RBI, Dayan Viciedo won’t seize the AL batting title and Aaron Harang isn’t going to hold the National League’s best ERA. Those bizarre stats didn’t even make the cut, but it just shows what craziness lurks less than a month into the year.

This statistical variance occurs throughout the season, but these outliers currently stand all on their own, without previous months of data to prove their fickleness. In July, these odd stretches are mere blips on the radar. In overall, they stick out more than an honorable character on Game of Thrones.

Unfortunately, neither lasts too long, but these stats are interesting while they stick around.

Note: All advanced stats, updated as of Thursday, April 24, are courtesy of FanGraphs.

 

Jeff Samardzija: 1.53 ERA…. and Zero Wins

I present to you Exhibit 23,457 on why individual wins are a meaningless measure for starting pitchers.

Jeff Samardzjia has thrown at least seven innings in each of his first five starts. The righty has surrendered just six earned runs this season, not allowing more than two runs in a single start. Despite his superb start, he still has not notched a single victory.

The Chicago Cubs have scored a combined 12 runs through all of his starts, and even that number is misleading. Three of those scores came in the 11th inning against the St. Louis Cardinals, after Jose Veras blew a save (and Samardzija win) in the ninth. Although the offense finally showed up for him in his last outing against the Arizona Diamondbacks, poor pitching and defense allowed Arizona to register nine runs in the ninth to squander Chicago’s 5-2 edge.

Meanwhile, Jean Machi has already tallied four wins. Who’s Jean Machi, you ask? With four wins, he surely must be a burgeoning ace hungry to challenge Jose Fernandez as the game’s new premier hurler.

Nope, he’s a middle reliever who has pitched nine innings for the San Francisco Giants. He only needed to record one out in two of those victories. In conclusion, don’t judge a book by its cover, and never judge a pitcher by his win total.

 

Brett Lawrie: 18 RBI… While Hitting .165

RBI, although not as evil, are wins’ mischievous cousin on the hitting side. Batters can often enjoy spiked RBI totals due to the hard work of those ahead in the batting order. Constantly approaching the plate with runners in scoring position isn’t a skill, but rather the benefit of favorable circumstances.

How else can one explain Brett Lawrie’s head-scratching start? Somebody who remains loyal to the basic numbers will have a perplexing time summarizing his April. We can all agree his .165 batting average is dreadful. Surprisingly, 11 players currently hold worse averages, dubiously led by Curtis Granderson’s woeful .125 clip.

But despite his inability to hit the ball (and his .221 on-base percentage isn’t helping matters either), Lawrie has managed to drive in 18 runs. Only six players (Giancarlo Stanton, Colabello, Jose Abreu, Nelson Cruz, Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo) have obtained higher tallies.

How is such a horrible hitter such a fruitful run-producer? The third baseman has swung for the fences all season and succeeded five times. Only one of those homers was a solo shot, with a two-run blast, two three-run flies and a grand slam thrown in the mix. That’s 13 RBI earned on five swings.

Brandon Belt has collected 13 RBI all season despite hitting .299 with seven homers. Chase Utley has a dozen RBI with a .384/.425/.644 slash line. Lawrie has had a poor offensive season, but he has enjoyed great timing.

 

Tim Hudson: No Walks

If opposing batters want to reach base against Tim Hudson, they’re going to have to take the bat off their shoulders and swing.

In his first season with the San Francisco Giants, the veteran has not walked a single batter through 30 innings pitched. Even Cliff Lee, the pinnacle of preciseness, has issued two free passes.

Hudson has always displayed sharp command, wielding a career 2.68 BB/9 ratio. But not throwing four balls outside the strike zone to a batter is hard to continually do through four starts.

Adam Wainwright enjoyed similar success last year, not allowing his first walk of the season until April 23. The St. Louis Cardinals’ ace went 35 innings before finally surrendering a base on balls to Bryce Harper.

Hudson has feasted on his new NL West rivals, posting a 2.40 ERA against the Arizona Diamondbacks (two starts), Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. His streak will be put to the test on Friday night against the Cleveland Indians, who have drawn the third-most walks entering Thursday.

 

Koji Uehara: Minus-.10 FIP

For those unfamiliar with the fielding independent pitching (FIP) metric, it is essentially an ERA meant to more accurately gauge a pitcher’s value by removing defensive factors. With that said, FIP is appraised similar to ERA. Gregg Holland led MLB with a 1.36 FIP last year, a marvelous showing to support his 1.21 ERA.

As of Thursday, April 24, Koji Uehara has pitched so well that he holds a FIP below zero.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t realize that was possible until taking a gander at his minus-.10 FIP through eight innings. The metric favors pitchers with high strikeouts and low walks, and the Boston Red Sox closer has amassed 14 strikeouts to one walk while not allowing any earned runs.

The mark will eventually hover well below zero, but the 39-year-old is proving that his masterful 2013 was far from a fluke. Nobody should question his status as one of the game’s premier relievers.

 

Jean Segura: One Walk and a 73.2 Ground-Ball Rate

These numbers are less strange than worrisome, as Jean Segura has two truly ugly numbers attached to his early stat sheet.

A year after breaking out with a .294 average, 12 homers and 44 steals, the Milwaukee Brewers shortstop has struggled to conquer the dreaded sophomore slump. He’s batting a measly .247/.273/.341. While he’s swiped five bases, his four failed attempts offset any gains earned by claiming those extra bags.

There are two eye-popping numbers that explain his slow start. Through 90 plate appearances, the 24-year-old has drawn just one walk, earning him a microscopic 1.1 walk percentage. Never known for his patience, he sports baseball’s third-worst walk rate  a year after registering a 4.0 percentage. Who’s fared even worse? Steve Lombarozzi of the Baltimore Orioles has yet to earn a free pass in 67 plate appearances.

All of Segura’s swings cause the ball to go in play much more often, but most of those batted balls roll through the infield dirt. He has netted a league high 73.2 percent ground-ball rate, and clearly not enough are finding enough open space for the speedster to reach base. Segura is never going to morph into a patient, line-drive machine, but such extreme metrics will cause him to suffer all season if not corrected.

 

Mark Buehrle – 0.64 ERA

Sometimes trying to make sense of the senseless is a futile endeavor. There are no words to explain how Mark Buehrle holds an MLB-low 0.64 ERA.

This is the same 35-year-old with a career 3.81 ERA. The soft-tossing veteran is just expected to engulf innings with decent productivity, not dominate. Yet here we are.

His 6.11 K/9 rate is above his career 5.19 K/9 ratio, but right on par with last season’s 6.11 mark. Eleven of those punchouts, however, came in his first start of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays. After that, he has collected eight strikeouts and four walks through his ensuing three outings.

His .253 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) will rise, especially if his 29.3 percent line-drive rate remains so bloated. Pitching to contact with a fastball in the low-to-mid 80s will yield disastrous results along the way, so don’t be surprised when his pretty ERA is ruined by an seven-run slaughtering.

For now, let Buehrle enjoy his moment. Just don’t get caught off guard when it abruptly ends.

 

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