Ricky Nolasco Proves the Market Rewards Mediocrity

CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The Ricky Nolasco contract with the Twins was announced last night. I haven’t looked at the reactions yet, but presumably they range between indignation, head shakes and grudging acknowledgements that “that’s the market.” Whether or not he’s worth that money is beside the point. Nolasco is a better pitcher than he’s been given credit for and he’s durable. He’s not the pitcher you’d prefer to have starting opening day or the first game of a playoff series, but he’s a professional arm who will provide innings and competence. In today’s market, that’s going to get him $50 million. I’m not judging it one way or the other. It just “is.” Personally, I’d prefer Bronson Arroyo to Nolasco. But Nolasco is certainly a better risk than Masahiro Tanaka. It’s all about context.

It’s not a free money policy in an industry that is flush with cash that is causing teams to make seeming overpays for slightly above-average pitchers. It’s the overall culture of wastefulness that has permeated baseball through ridiculous developmental rules for pitchers that make necessary the purchasing of whatever is on the market for the going rate due to supply and demand.

Teams and analysts talk out of both sides of their mouths – as well as other orifices – when they put forth the pretense of running the organization as a business and then toss uncountable amounts of money at mediocrity, wondering why they get mediocrity when that’s what they bought.

A.J. Burnett was the epitome of a pitcher who was overpaid based on need and availability. Having missed the playoffs in 2008 and desperate for starting pitching, the Yankees threw money at their problems and it worked. One pitcher they signed was A.J. Burnett. Burnett was always the epitome of the “million dollar arm, five cent head” pitcher, one who could throw a no-hitter striking out 18 one game and give up a three-run homer to the opposing pitcher in the next game. For that, the Yankees doled a contract worth $82.5 million for five years. They kept him for three, paid the Pirates $20 million to take him off their hands and didn’t even get useful prospects in the trade.

The galling aspect of Burnett’s three year tenure in pinstripes was that there was a belief that he’d arrive and suddenly fulfill his potential just because he was a Yankee. In truth, he pitched in the same frustrating, aggravating way he always pitched. It was the height of Yankee arrogance to think they were going to get anything different. During his whole time as a Yankee, when the media and fans screamed about his inconsistency, I responded with an identical and more logical scream that I gave when they signed him: This is what you bought!!! This is A.J. Burnett!!!

The reason the Yankees needed pitching that year was because their attempts to “grow their own” in an effort to save money over the long-term by not having to buy other teams’ arms failed miserably with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy either getting hurt, pitching poorly or fluctuating in their roles in 2008. With 20/20 hindsight, the Yankees and other clubs who use the pitch counts/innings limits/overprotectiveness for their young pitchers can examine these failures, the need to spend their way out of trouble to purchase breathing bodies who can eat innings and ask whether or not it was worth it.

I don’t want to hear about injuries, changing roles, unsuitability for New York and the other excuses that are proffered to explain away the failures of these three pitchers – that’s all part of why they failed. The fact is that for 16 combined seasons from Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy, the Yankees got an 80-68 won/lost record, a 4.37 ERA and wasted years when they were in their early-to-mid 20s and should have been at their strongest and most useful. Don’t start looking for advanced stats either because that’s only going to make the case for the way the Yankees used them worse. They could have been good and weren’t. It’s not hard to figure out why.

If you combine the draft pick compensation that many teams are unwilling to surrender to sign pitchers, the number of pitchers on the market declines even further. That absence and the number of top-tier talent who sign long-term deals to stay with their current teams leads to pitchers like Nolasco getting $50 million deals. Nolasco was traded at mid-season meaning he wasn’t subject to being offered arbitration, therefore there’s no draft pick compensation. Arroyo wasn’t offered arbitration by the Reds. Tanaka won’t cost anything other than money. That’s why they’re attractive.

The Giants were roasted for signing Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract rather than let him go as a free agent, but now the decision looks astute. You’d be hard-pressed to find any stat person willing to give Giants general manager Brian Sabean credit for anything, but he kept Lincecum. It was wiser to do so considering the options of trading young players to get an arm or offering Lincecum arbitration hoping he’d take it and no one would offer him a Nolasco-style deal. In retrospect, it was simply easier and better long-term thinking to keep him. The Giants also signed Tim Hudson to a two-year contract. Without compensation attached to him and with the deal Nolasco just signed, Hudson might have lowballed himself by signing so early even at age 38.

Are teams really so in love with Tanaka that they’re willing to give upwards of $150 million to secure his rights and sign him? Or is it that there’s no other payments necessary apart from the posting fee and signing him to a contract? To sit and claim that Tanaka is a sure thing is ridiculous considering the attrition rate of pitchers who arrive with similar hype and expectations. Again, it’s the market and the desperation to hold true to draft picks, luxury tax and other aspects that are influencing which pitchers are getting big money and which aren’t.

The Rays have the right idea with their own pitchers: they use them without overt abuse or overprotectiveness; they don’t sign them to long-term contracts; and they trade them at their highest value for a package of prospects. It’s easy to say, “just copy the Rays” but how many teams have the freedoms the Rays do? How many teams are able to say, “We can’t pay him and it makes no sense to keep him for that extra year when these offers are on the table in a destitute market?” For all the credit the Rays get for their success and intelligence, a substantial portion of it is directly because they have no money; because they’ve been able to win under their tight financial circumstances; because they don’t have a brand-new ballpark with three million fans in attendance; because the media doesn’t go crazy when they trade Matt Garza, James Shields and listen to offers on David Price.

When a team needs 200 innings and isn’t going to get it from their top pitching prospects due to an arbitrary number of innings they’re allowed to pitch to keep them healthy, they have to buy it somewhere else. Stephen Strasburg is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, will be a free agent after 2016, will demand $150 million and as of now still hasn’t broken the 200-inning barrier. Unless the Nats pay it, another team will benefit from the protective cocoon he’s been in. Oh, and he got hurt anyway. Scott Boras will be more than happy to use the hammer of the Nats having signed, paid and developed Strasburg and won’t want to let him leave to force them to pay more money than his performance indicates he’s been worth.

For every Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale who are allowed to pitch, there are five Strasburgs and Chamberlains who aren’t. And who benefits from the absence of arms? The Nolascos and Tanakas. Production be damned. They have what teams are looking for because most teams – through their own short-sightedness and stupidity – can’t make it on their own.

How is that a wise business model?




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The Mets Winning and Draft Pick Issues

Award Winners, CBA, Draft, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, Players, Prospects, Stats

The Mets can’t win even when they win. A 5-1 road trip including a sweep of the hated Phillies and putting a severe hit on the Reds’ hopes to win the NL Central or host the Wild Card game isn’t enough to make Mets fans happy. Now that they’ve moved into third place in the NL East, there are worries that they’re going to make the “mistake” of winning too many games and fall out of the top ten worst records in baseball and have to give up draft pick compensation to sign free agents.

The draft pick issue is not unimportant. The most negative of fans and self-anointed analysts believe that the Mets will use the draft pick compensation issue to have an excuse not to sign any big name free agents. This is equating the winter of 2012 with the winter of 2013 and the club’s retrospectively wise decision not to surrender the eleventh overall pick in the draft to sign Michael Bourn.

Bourn has been a significant contributor to the Indians’ likely run to the playoffs and would most certainly have helped the Mets. But if Bourn were with the Mets, would Juan Lagares have gotten his chance to play? Lagares has very rapidly become perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball and already baserunners are leaving skid marks in the dirt when they round third base and think about scoring on Lagares’s dead-eye arm. Signing Bourn would have gotten the team some positive press for a brief time, but ended as a long-term negative. With or without Bourn, the 2013 Mets were also-rans.

For 2014, the Mets no longer have any excuses not to spend some money to sign Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Carlos Beltran or Tim Lincecum and to explore trades for Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Matthew Joyce, Ian Kinsler or any other player who will cost substantial dollars. Jason Bay and Johan Santana are off the books and the only players signed for the long term are David Wright and Jonathon Niese. For no reason other than appearances, the Mets have to do something even if that means overpaying for Hunter Pence (whom I wouldn’t want under normal circumstances if I were them) if they’re shut out on every other avenue.

I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do for the last week of 2013. Are they supposed to try and lose? How do they do that? This isn’t hockey where a team with their eye on Mario Lemieux has everyone in the locker room aware that a once-in-a-generation player is sitting there waiting to be picked and does just enough to lose. It’s not football where an overmatched team is going to lose no matter how poorly their opponent plays. It’s baseball.

The same randomness that holds true in a one-game playoff is applicable in a game-to-game situation when one hit, one home run, one stunning pitching performance against a power-laden lineup (as we saw with Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Mets today) can render any plan meaningless. It’s not as if the Mets are the Astros and guaranteed themselves the worst record in baseball months ago. There’s not a blatant once-a-generation talent sitting there waiting to be picked number one overall as the Nationals had two straight years with the backwards luck that they were so horrific and were able to nab Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. And it’s not the first overall pick, it’s the eleventh to the thirteenth. A team will get a great talent, but not a can’t miss prospect at that spot.

As for the mechanics of the draft pick, the Mets are hovering between the tenth worst record and the twelfth worst record. You can read the rules surrounding the pick here. If they’re tied with a team that had a better record in 2012, the Mets will get the higher pick. That means if they’re tied with any of the teams they’re competing with for that spot – the Giants, Blue Jays and Phillies – the Mets will get the higher pick and be shielded from having to dole out compensation for signing a free agent.

Naturally, it hurts to lose the first round draft pick if it’s the twelfth overall. It has to be remembered that there are still good players in the draft after the first and second rounds. They may not have the cachet of the first rounders – especially first rounders taken in the first twelve picks – but they can still play.

Most importantly, there comes a point where the decision to build up the farm system has to end and the big league club must be given priority. For the most part, Mets fans have been patient while the onerous contracts were excised, the Bernie Madoff mess was being navigated and Sandy Alderson and Co. rebuilt the farm system. There has to be some improvement and a reason to buy tickets and watch the team in 2014. A high draft pick who the team will say, “wait until he arrives in 2018-2019(?)” isn’t going to cut it. They have to get some name players and if it costs them the twelfth overall pick, so be it.




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Don’t Expect The Giants To Trade Lincecum

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Now that the Dodgers have crawled back over .500 the talk of firing manager Don Mattingly and a series of drastic sell-off trades has subsided. If they do anything, it will be to add and Ricky Nolasco was the first domino to fall. Say what you want about Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, but he doesn’t have a hidden agenda. The only time he’ll sell is when his team is clearly out of contention late in the season. Apart from that, he’s buying to try and win today.

In fact, it’s doubtful that Colletti ever had it in his mind to sell while the Dodgers were floundering at twelve games under .500 on June 21. The addition of Yasiel Puig and overall parity in the National League West allowed the Dodgers to get back into contention. In retrospect it was somewhat silly to consider a fire sale so early with the amount of money the team has invested in their on-field product. There are times to conduct a housecleaning and there are teams that can do it early in the season, but those with hefty payrolls and mandates to win immediately like the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees are not in a position to make such maneuvers. The only big money team in recent memory to pull off such a drastic trade to clear salary is the Red Sox and they sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. Unless Colletti has some diabolical scheme in mind, I doubt he could pull a Dr. Evil and clear salary with himself.

Knowing that Colletti spent a significant amount of his time in baseball working for the Giants and Brian Sabean, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two think the same way. With that in mind, don’t expect a fire sale from the Giants or for them to trade Tim Lincecum.

This has nothing to do with Lincecum having just pitched a no-hitter. It has to do with the limited return they’d likely get for the pending free agent and that in spite of their atrocious 15-29 record since May 26 they’re still only 6 1/2 games out of first place. The Padres have come undone and the Rockies are not contenders. In the NL West that leaves the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants to battle it out for the division. All have their claims to be the club that emerges and all are looking to get better now. The Giants could use a bat and another starting pitcher. They were in on Nolasco and if they acquire a first baseman like Justin Morneau, they could move Brandon Belt to the outfield for the rest of the season. The change to a contender in a new city with his own pending free agency might wake up Morneau’s power bat.

Before labeling a team as a seller or buyer based on record alone, it’s wise to examine their circumstances. The Dodgers couldn’t sell because it was so early in the season and they had the talent to get back into the race. The Giants can’t sell because of the limited options on what they’ll receive in a trade of Lincecum; because they need him to contend; and with their history of late-season runs and two championships in three years, they owe it to their fans and players to try and win again.

A winning streak of eight games or winning 14 of 20 will put the Giants right near the top of the division. If they get into the playoffs with their experience and Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner as starters in a short series, they have as good a chance of emerging from the National League as anyone else. Trading away players that can help them achieve that possible end makes no sense. Don’t expect them to do it.

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Zack Wheeler and “Is This All There Is?”

Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats

The following numbers are from the first three starts of pitchers who wound up being pretty good. You can compare them with the final pitcher’s numbers in his first three starts.

Clayton Kershaw

W

L

GS

IP

H

BB

SO

HR

ERA

0

1

3

14.2

15

9

14

2

4.91

Tim Lincecum

W

L

GS

IP

H

BB

SO

HR

ERA

1

0

3

18.1

14

7

21

3

3.44

Matt Harvey

W

L

GS

IP

H

BB

SO

HR

ERA

1

2

3

16.1

15

7

23

2

3.86

CC Sabathia

W

L

GS

IP

H

BB

SO

HR

ERA

2

0

3

16.2

14

6

8

1

4.86

Zack Wheeler

W

L

GS

IP

H

BB

SO

HR

ERA

1

1

3

16.0

14

10

13

3

5.06

These are provided to illustrate why there shouldn’t be an overreaction to a shaky start for a rookie. You can go through other pitchers—good and bad; Hall of Famer or journeyman; overachiever or disappointment—and find numbers from their first three starts to validate any opinion and analysis. The point is that coming to a determination at this time is meaningless.

The negativity surrounding Wheeler’s up-and-down first three starts is either for the purpose of riling people up and validating anger for the pitching prospect failing to have pitched three straight no-hitters to start his career or it’s emanating from those who know absolutely nothing about baseball and its history.

This from Andy Martino of the NY Daily News hammers home my point perfectly:

With so much of the team’s hope and plan based around pitching, and Wheeler the most talented minor leaguer after Matt Harvey joined the big club last summer, struggle this deep cannot help but cause anxiety.

Wheeler has now given the Mets one strong yet flawed start (six shutout innings in Atlanta, survived despite command problems and pitch tipping), an effort in Chicago that we can call middling, if we wish to be kind, and Sunday’s blowout loss.  After the loss to the White Sox last week, one National League talent evaluator’s strong opinion was that Wheeler was not ready for the major leagues.

“Why is he here?” the evaluator wondered, noting command and delivery concerns that could be ironed out with more Triple-A innings. “Why don’t they do what they did with Harvey last year (call him up in late July)? What’s the rush?”

Anxiety? Are Sandy Alderson and his staff people on Twitter who have no clue about anything baseball related? Are they the “experts” who call Mike Francesa and go into a deranged rant when the players they’ve read about so endlessly struggle to start their careers? These are the same players who were promoted as saviors by the same media now looking on with questioning “is that all there is?”. The bewilderment after three starts punctuates the foolishness.

Why is he here? Late July? Was that going to make that significant a difference? Let’s entertain the lack of logic for a moment. What if Wheeler was called up in late July as Harvey was a year ago and he pitched identically as he is now? Would it then be shifted to, “Why didn’t they just wait until September?” Or, “Why didn’t they just give him the full year in Triple A?”

Where does it end?

He’s a young pitcher just starting out in his career. Expecting him to be like Harvey; panicking because he’s having trouble adjusting to the big leagues; going crazy and demanding he be traded or asserting—via invisible sources—that he was overrated are the rantings of a mass of people who are either trying to stoke the fires of discontent or don’t know anything to begin with.

He’s made three starts for a team that, barring anything unforeseen or miraculous, is going to win around 75 games. Is that cause for panic? To demand a trade? To provide devil’s advocate nonsense disguised as analysis and buttressed by anonymous scouts?

No.

He’s got great talent. Either he’ll make it or he won’t. Coming to a conclusion after three starts elucidates the problems with rapid fire information and everyone having a forum to express their viewpoint: either it’s promotional or it’s ignorant. You can choose which based on the source and respond accordingly. Or you can listen to it and demand the Mets trade or demote the “bust.” After three starts.

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Could the Giants Trade Tim Lincecum?

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This is the second straight year that Tim Lincecum hasn’t just been a disappointment, but he’s been outright bad. His old-school numbers—wins/losses and ERA—are terrible and have been so for the last two seasons. His peripherals are not as bad as all that. His ground ball rates, strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed have been consistent throughout his whole career, but the sum of the parts does not bode well for the future. His velocity is down from what it was when he was winning Cy Young Awards, but it’s in the same vicinity it’s been for the past four seasons, two of which he was still a top pitcher. His breaking stuff isn’t as sharp and he’s had to rely on his fastball and changeup. What is concerning however is that his line drive percentage is up and the hitters are squaring up on him with greater consistency and appear to have figured him out in a way that they couldn’t from 2007 to 2011. It’s becoming clear that Lincecum is nowhere near what he once was and that pitcher isn’t going to return anytime soon with a mechanical tweak, greater intensity, a “get it back” fitness program, or the realization that he’s going to be a free agent at the end of the season and has cost himself about $100 million with his results in 2012-2013.

In short, he’s lost his specialness that allowed him to get away with being a hands-off entity for the Giants coaching staff who was only allowed to have his mechanics fiddled with by his father. The questions surrounding him when he was drafted—his size, unique mechanics and training regimens—are no longer seen as wink and nod quirky as a point of salesmanship and charm. Now he’s just a short, skinny pitcher who’s not that good anymore.

As we approach the summer, the question may not be, “How can the Giants fix Lincecum?” It might evolve into, “Will the Giants trade Lincecum?”

If you think it’s crazy, it’s not.

The Giants have built up a tremendous amount of capital with their two World Series wins in three years and could get away with trading a personality like Lincecum as long as he’s not performing. With the titles, they’re still not a huge market club that can afford to spend gobs of money to maintain the championship template. Lincecum is a free agent at the end of the season and at this point the Giants are unlikely to either offer him arbitration because he’d probably take it or give him a long-term contract paying him for past accomplishments which will presumably be what he expects. As with any player, there was a dual-sided risk to Lincecum shunning the Giants attempts to sign him to a long-term contract at below-market value: he might not continue performing the way he did when it seemed like a sure thing to sign him for 5-7 years and $90+ million years before he hit free agency. And he hasn’t.

At the end of the season, the Giants have Lincecum, Barry Zito, Hunter Pence and Javier Lopez coming off the books. They’ll have money to spend and it certainly doesn’t appear as if they’re going to spend it on a declining Lincecum. The hottest name bandied about as a trade candidate has been Cliff Lee. The Phillies are going to eventually have to start rebuilding their farm system and get their payroll down. The best way to do that is to get a bounty for Lee if they come to the conclusion that they’re out of it by mid-July. Maybe the Giants would have interest in Lee in exchange for Lincecum and prospects or the clubs could find another team interested in coming to a three-way deal that would send Lee to the Giants. The Yankees would love to ship pending free agent Phil Hughes out of town, he’d benefit from the friendly pitchers parks in the NL West in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, is from the West Coast, and he’d cost a fraction of what Lincecum will as a free agent. Lincecum would certainly be better than Hughes as a Yankee, he’d fill the park, and the change of scenery might wake him up for the rest of the season.

There are options that would help the Giants now and in the future. Given Lincecum’s struggles and that this is increasingly looking like his last year in San Francisco, they have to explore them.

Like the child actor who loses his appeal when he hits puberty, “Whatchoo tawkin’ ‘bout Willis?!?” goes from funny to disturbing and Lincecum’s uniqueness goes from part of his charm to a significant series of performance issues that no one seems to be able to fix. He’s hit puberty as a pitcher and it’s not cute anymore. It might be time that the Freakshow in San Francisco gets canceled before the end of the summer season.

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2013 MLB Post-Season Predictions

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

You can see my 2013 MLB predicted standings in full here. Below are the division winners and wild card entrants.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AL EAST: Rays

AL CENTRAL: Tigers

AL WEST: Rangers

AL WILD CARD: Blue Jays

AL WILD CARD: Mariners

AL WILD CARD GAME: Mariners over Blue Jays

ALDS 1: Tigers over Mariners

ALDS 2: Rays over Rangers

ALCS: Rays over Tigers

NATIONAL LEAGUE

NL EAST: Nationals

NL CENTRAL: Reds

NL WEST: Diamondbacks

NL WILD CARD: Braves

NL WILD CARD: Giants

NL WILD CARD GAME: Giants over Braves

NLDS 1: Giants over Nationals

NLDS 2: Reds over Diamondbacks

NLCS: Reds over Giants

WORLD SERIES: REDS OVER RAYS

In depth information packed in over 400 pages on all 30 teams with players’ height, weight, where they were drafted, age, contract status and how they were acquired is immediately available in my new book. In addition there is analysis of front offices, managers, starting rotations, bullpens, lineups, benches, fantasy picks, breakout candidates, trade candidates, predictions and essays on such diverse subjects as the Astros’ teardown and why it’s bad for baseball; Jeffrey Loria; the Yankees’ $189 million payroll; the pending free agency of Robinson Cano; Torii Hunter’s comments about the possibility of a gay teammate; Tim Lincecum, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and anything else you can think of is available in my new book, Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon, BN, Lulu, Smashwords and more outlets coming soon.

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The Yankees Saved Hughes For His Next Team

Award Winners, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, Players, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats

If the innings limits and protective strategies had worked at least once, I’d say there’s a basis for having them, but this applies to Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Stephen Strasburg and any other pitcher who’s been held back in the interests of clubs “protecting” their investment: THEY DON’T WORK!!!!

The Yankees placed these rules on all their young pitchers they drafted highly and valued to keep them healthy. Neither Hughes nor Chamberlain stayed healthy and they haven’t been particularly effective either. So what was the point? The false, weak argument will say, “Well, we had no idea about that then; we were following doctors’ advice; we studied the numbers and history; we’d do it again.”

Isn’t the point of drafting and developing pitchers to have them pitch and pitch well for the team that drafted them? Hughes is going to be 27 in June and has a solid won/lost record for his career of 52-36. The record is a byproduct of having pitched for the Yankees for his entire career in an era when they won over 90 games on an annual basis and were loaded with offense and a deep bullpen that doesn’t blow leads. His peripheral numbers are mediocre and the same logic that qualified Ivan Nova’s 16-4 record in 2011 as not entirely accurate also applies to Hughes with the main difference being that the Yankees didn’t use the same strategies on Nova and didn’t think much of Nova, yet he’s been just as good as a pitcher they did tie up, Hughes.

That’s bad for the perception, so it’s ignored.

Yesterday Hughes was diagnosed with another injury, a bulging disk in his neck, said to have occurred during infield practice. It’s not the Yankees’ fault, but it’s an example of the fragility of athletes in general and pitchers in particular when they’re performing the occasionally dangerous and stressful activity of baseball.

What have they gotten with all the developmental rules? With the numbers that they, hopefully, didn’t extrapolate from Tom Verducci? With the constant shifting of roles, shutdowns, break periods, and pitch counts?

Nothing.

This is not to pick on the Yankees. Many teams are doing the same things with similar results, but Hughes’s latest injury makes him a worthy example. Hughes has been a mediocre pitcher who could have been a star had they just left him alone. Like Kennedy, Hughes will have to develop elsewhere and be allowed to pitch the 200 innings that, after six years in the big leagues, he’s yet to do. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and there will be a team that looks at Hughes and says, “We’ll sign him and let him pitch,” and will be rewarded with, at least, more than the Yankees have gotten from him.

Teams are paranoid and afraid to do something different from the current orthodoxy and self-proclaimed experts sitting behind computers, crunching numbers and waiting for an opportunity to critique. The Giants, with an old-school GM Brian Sabean, have built one of the best pitching staffs in baseball—one that’s brought them two World Series titles in three years—and they did it by drafting two high school pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain) and one pitcher who was too small and had such a unique motion and training regimen that teams didn’t want to touch him (Tim Lincecum). What do the Yankees have? Two failed would-be stars and another top prospect who almost won the Cy Young Award for the Diamondbacks two years ago.

The Moneyball concept of not drafting high school pitchers because of the “risk” has thankfully been tossed overboard. The Verducci Effect is in the process of being phased out. (For the record, if my GM said he was using the arbitrary research of a sportswriter to develop and dictate how he used his pitchers, I’d fire him.) Teams are looking at the reality and realizing that maybe young pitchers might be better-served to be allowed to throw innings and incorporate other factors rather than the numbers handed to them by Ivy League graduates armed with an algorithm. Isn’t this is why there are pitching coaches, managers and scouts: to determine a pitcher’s tics, movements and mechanics to decide when he’s tired; when he’s at risk for injury; how he should be deployed?

Pitchers are fragile, but instead of using that fragility as a basis to freeze them for a later date, perhaps the opposite would be a better strategy: let them pitch while they can pitch and move on when they can’t. A team deciding to do that will certainly get better results than the Yankees have with Hughes, who is probably counting the days until he can get out of the Yankees constraints and go to a club that will let him enjoy his prime years as something other than a what might have been. Currently, he’s a failed experiment in building a young pitcher and a case study of those poor decisions creating a pitcher who can be found on the market cheaply to be used and discarded.

Hughes keeps getting hurt; he’s the Yankees’ fourth starter; he’s leaving at the end of the season because the Yankees won’t want him back at the money he’ll ask for and the pitcher would probably like to get a fresh start. With all of these facts, tell me, what was the point of the rules they used as a garrote to strangle his future?

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The R.A. Dickey Trade, Part II—As A Means To Bash The Mets

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R.A. Dickey was found money for the Mets. Rather than spend it immediately, they invested it wisely in blue chip stocks to secure their future. It was the smart move. But as a means to bash the Mets, it’s a handy weapon. There’s a movement to lump the decision to cut ties with Jose Reyes (batting champion) after 2011, and Dickey (Cy Young Award) as additions to the prototypical “long list of Mets’ mistakes” as if they just dumped Tom Seaver in a front office fit of pique; to cast it as more of the same from the Mets, a franchise whose main function is to torment their fans by testing their loyalty, seeing how much abuse they’ll take.

It suits the storyline, but comes nowhere close to suiting reality. The sports media has transformed from analyzing and assessing to validating fan anger or writing controversial columns to accumulate webhits and attention.

The truth about Dickey is that while he won the Cy Young Award, he is not in a class with prior winners of that same award. Therefore, he should not be treated as such just because he won the award. Looking at the winners in the American and National Leagues in the past five years alone and you see something akin to Sesame Street’s “Which of these doesn’t belong?”

2012: R.A. Dickey, David Price

2011: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander

2010: Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez

2009: Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke

2008: Lincecum, Cliff Lee

Barring financial constraints and extenuating circumstances, would any of these pitchers have been on the market immediately following the season in which they won the award? I’m not talking about the next summer when the pitcher is a pending free agent or a year later when he’s making it clear he wants a contract extension or wants out. I’m talking about a month later.

Because Dickey is such a unique story throwing a trick pitch; is 38-years-old with a Mets team whose 2013 is unlikely to be much different with or without him, he can’t be placed into a category as a Cy Young Award winner who must not be traded. Unlike Verlander, Lincecum and the others, Dickey was an iffy proposition to be a significant contributor to a potential Mets’ renaissance in 2014 and beyond.

Ignoring irrelevant media and fan responses to this trade, the facts are that the Mets organization was barren at catcher and now, in sending Dickey to the Blue Jays, has a soon-to-be 24-year-old, power hitting catcher who can throw in Travis d’Arnaud. They acquired a 20-year-old, flamethrowing righty pitcher in Noah Syndergaard, a competent veteran catcher John Buck, and a 17-year-old throw-in, outfielder Wuilmer Becerra. They received all of this in exchange for Dickey, whom they got for nothing and whose rise is unlike anything anyone’s ever seen in a non-fiction setting; who, at 38-years-old, wanted another $25 million+ to sign a contract extension to forego free agency after 2013; and whose value was never, ever going to be higher for a team that, tacitly or not, knows their time to try and contend is in 2014 and not 2013. They also sent Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas to the Blue Jays, neither of whom the Mets would need with the acquisitions of Buck and d’Arnaud and who the Blue Jays required to catch Dickey’s knuckleball.

The most fascinating aspects have nothing to do with the deal itself, but the negative reactions to it and that Mets GM Sandy Alderson got the okay from ownership to pull the trigger. Fans are taking their cue from critics and the media and expressing anger at losing their Cy Young Award winner and eloquent, likable spokesman, Dickey. Objectively, however, the return on this trade was beyond anything the club could’ve expected in a best case scenario.

It’s a subtle and Executive of the Year level accomplishment that Alderson was able to impress upon the Wilpons that the short-term pain wouldn’t be any worse than the vitriol they already engender for reasons real and exaggerated, and that the long-term gains were beyond measure. A key part of being a GM, especially when working for an embattled ownership group so cognizant of public perception as the Wilpons, is to dissuade them from short-term maneuvers for short-term gain when the long-term is where their focus should be. Somehow, Alderson managed it and it’s in the best interests of the club and the fans.

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Below are video clips and analysis of d’Arnaud and Syndergaard.

Travis d’Arnaud

His bat wiggle and leg lift are, to a gentler degree, reminiscent of Gary Sheffield. The leg lift is fine as long as he gets his foot down in time—it’s a timing mechanism. There will be slumps due to the moving parts; specifically he will have stretches where he’s behind a good fastball because he’s not getting his foot down in time, but it’s not a giant hitch to be exploited and will be counteracted by his short arms and short swing. For a power hitter, he doesn’t strike out an inordinate amount of the time. At worst, he’ll hit 15 homers and bat .275 in the big leagues, but is more likely to be a 20-25 homer man with a .280 BA, a .350 OBP, and an .820+ OPS.

Considering that the Mets catchers last season (mostly Thole and Nickeas) had a .218/.281/.286 slash line with 5 homers and threw out 24% of stealing baserunners, it won’t take much to top what the Mets had before. The righty-swinging d’Arnaud could bat lefty and surpass that offensive production; he threw out 30% of basestealers in Triple A.

The Mets will keep him in the minors for the first few weeks of 2012 to keep his arbitration clock from ticking, but don’t be surprised to see them sign him long term shortly after he arrives in the majors as the Rays did with Evan Longoria.

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Noah Syndergaard

Syndergaard is big (6’5”, 200 pounds) and has the strikeout-accumulating combination of a power fastball, a sharp overhand yellowhammer curve, a changeup, and that he’s sneaky fast.

Syndergaard already has a mid-90s fastball, but his short and quick pre-stretch (when he brings his arm down after taking the ball out of his glove) and that he hides the ball behind his body as he accelerates will confuse the hitter and make his velocity appear to be closer to 100+ mph.

In general, a pitcher will take a longer time to deliver and the ball will be visible when collapses his back leg to generate power. In Syndergaard’s case, it isn’t. He lifts his leg, separates his hands and ZOOM!!! the ball’s on the way. Because of that rapid fire delivery, the fastball explodes on the hitter, hence the term “sneaky fast.” If he rips off a curve or changeup, it’s very difficult to adjust.

He’s only 20 and spent 2012 in A ball, but it’s not unreasonable to think he could be in New York and pitching for the Mets by late 2014.

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The way to judge a trade isn’t after the fact. The way to judge a trade is to determine if it made sense at the time it was consummated. For the Mets, with Dickey, it did. Any criticism is self-serving and misinformed. They did the right thing and got a lot for a pitcher from whom they expected nothing when the prior regime signed him as an, “Oh, yeah. Him.” It worked out and they took maximum advantage of Dickey’s rise. Anything else would’ve been foolish and the Mets’ future is brighter because of that luck and this ruthless intelligence.

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2012 MLB Award Winners—National League MVP

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Here are my top five finishers for the National League Most Valuable Player along with who I picked in the preseason.

1. Buster Posey, C—San Francisco Giants

Not only did Posey have to handle a pitching staff that was the key to his club’s success, he had to function as the centerpiece of the Giants’ offensive attack and he was doing it a year after he’d sustained a devastating ankle injury in a collision at home plate.

Where would the Giants have been without him? The concept that he could’ve sat behind the plate in a rocking chair and nurtured that pitching staff based on its greatness is ludicrous. Barry Zito gets by with trickery; Tim Lincecum was dealing with extended adversity on the mound for the first time; and they lost their closer Brian Wilson—the one constant was Posey.

Statistically at the plate, he led the National League in batting (.336); led the majors in OPS+ (172); had 24 homers, 39 doubles and an OBP of .406.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF—Pittsburgh Pirates

If the award was handed out at mid-season, McCutchen would’ve won. As much of a linchpin to the Giants as Posey was, McCutchen was more of a key to the Pirates’ woeful offense. McCutchen had a .327/.400/.553 slash line with 31 homers, a league-leading 194 hits, 20 stolen bases and good defense in center field.

3. Yadier Molina, C—St. Louis Cardinals

Molina has become an offensive force to go along with his all-world defense. Posting a 48% caught stealing rate and completely shutting down the opposition’s running game is written in ink before the season, but he also had a .315/.373/.501 slash line with 22 homers, along with 12 stolen bases in 15 tries.

4. Ryan Braun, LF—Milwaukee Brewers

I almost wish Braun had been head-and-shoulders above the other competitors to see if there would be enough fallout from his failed PED test after winning the award in 2011, and then the deft stickhandling the Players Association did to overturn his suspension.

Braun wound up leading the league with 41 homers and OPS at .987. He also stole 30 bases and has become a respectable glove in left field.

Had he been the clear MVP, he wouldn’t have won it.

5. Michael Bourn, CF—Atlanta Braves

Bourn’s defense was superlative, he stole 42 bases and had a career high 9 homers. The main reason he’s ahead of other candidates Chase Headley, Clayton Kershaw, and David Wright is that his team made the playoffs. Otherwise all have cases for the 5th spot.

My preseason pick for the NL MVP was Troy Tulowitzki.

Yah.

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The Astros Experiment In Baseball Engineering

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When the Astros offered Tim Bogar a job to be their new bench coach, Bogar turned it down because the deal included a clause that he couldn’t interview for managerial jobs elsewhere. When discussing this somewhat odd demand, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said he didn’t comment on “human resource issues”.

Never before have I heard the words “human resources” referenced in a baseball context, especially by the GM.

This exemplifies the different tack the Astros are taking in rebuilding their club from what amounts to a moribund and barren expansion team. It’s an experiment in baseball engineering that continues from the hiring of Luhnow to the naming of a Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as their pro scouting coordinator, to the unique title they anointed on Sig Mejdal as “Director of Decision Sciences”. Yesterday, they continued the trend of loading their front office with the highly educated when they hired Harvard graduate David Stearns as assistant GM. Whether or not it works will be known only in retrospect, but it strikes me as a reinvention of the wheel. Because Luhnow is so immersed in data crunching, is beloved by stat people for his supposed success in building the Cardinals minor league system into the pipeline for talent, and is running such a horrific and mostly talentless organization, he’s receive carte blanche from owner Jim Crane to do what he wants.

The credit for the Cardinals is a shaky premise at best. Luhnow’s entry into baseball was rocky and stemmed from Bill DeWitt’s desire to recreate the club in the Moneyball image. The insertion of a total outsider who’d come from the corporate world was not taken well by the old-school baseball men in the Cardinals organization and eventually sowed the seeds for Walt Jocketty’s firing and Tony LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting in which the future Hall of Fame manager won the power struggle. It’s easily glossed over that Luhnow was stripped of his power after the 2010 season. I wrote of Luhnow’s drafts in this posting immediately after he got the Astros job. The truth about anyone’s drafts is that there are so many factors that go into a player’s development that blaming Luhnow for Colby Rasmus or crediting him for Allen Craig is a partisan attempt on the part of the analyst depending on his beliefs. Supporters will say that Rasmus is a talent who was mishandled by LaRussa, critics will say that Rasmus is badly overrated. The credit/blame game can go on forever. But now Luhnow’s in charge of the Astros and he’s implementing what he believes. It’s admirable, but admiration doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed.

Does Goldstein have the qualifications to do the job for which he was hired? Is there a joint appraisal process in effect and if the scouts disagree with what the numbers say, who breaks the tie and how does he do it? Goldstein comes from Baseball Prospectus which, like the Ivy League, has become a mill for baseball front offices and in the media. BP has a tendency (if you read the back of their annuals) to relentlessly promote what they got right. “Look, we nailed this, that and the other thing” is a selling point without mentioning what they got wrong as if it was a matter of circumstance and if the players, managers, or front office people had done what they were expected to do, the numbers would’ve played out as correct. It’s a wonderful world to live in in which there’s no possibility of being defined wrong due to a constant shifting of the goalposts after the fact to make oneself right.

I’ve had people credit me for being right about the Red Sox pending disaster (I had them at 81-81; no one could’ve predicted 69-93) with Bobby Valentine and am quick to point out that I also picked the 98-loss Colorado Rockies to the win the NL West. To me, it gives more credibility to embrace the negative and understand why it happened and learn from it to be more accurate the next time.

There is no “way” to build a team nor to make accurate projections in a sport. Nate Silver has had his reputation launched into the stratosphere because of his brilliant and right-on-the-money work with predicting the Presidential election on Fivethirtyeight.com. Inexplicably, that has morphed into a validation of his PECOTA baseball system of predictions, but it’s comparing the Earth to Neptune. There’s no connection. Baseball is not politics and in spite of the different algorithms used to come to the results, it’s easier to calculate a voting bloc than it is to determine how Bryce Harper or Mike Trout are going to function as big leaguers; how the Red Sox players would react to Valentine.

Keeping on the political theme, what we’ve seen recently is baseball’s extreme left wing and extreme right wing grapple for a proximate cause as to why the Giants have won two of the past three World Series. Questions and assertions are popping up as to whether Giants GM Brian Sabean’s old-school sensibility and management style signaled the “end” of Moneyball or if Moneyball is still the “way”. Both premises are ridiculous. Assuming that the Giants’ championships discredit Moneyball is presuming that Moneyball was a solidly researched and accurate foundation to begin with instead of a fictionalized and twisted story that was crafted by a skillful and self-indulgent mythmaker, Michael Lewis.

Moneyball was never an actual “thing,” therefore it’s not something that had to be proven wrong because it wasn’t right in the first place.

On the other side, this piece on HardballTalk discusses a stat guy in the Giants’ front office named Yeshayah Goldfarb. The posting lavishes praise on Goldfarb and doubles as an apparent repudiation of anyone who dare question the value of Moneyball and numbers. It’s written that Goldfarb influenced the Giants acquiring and keeping the likes of Javier Lopez and Juan Uribe for the 2010 club.

Lopez? They needed a stat guy to suggest they trade for a sidearming lefty? They got Lopez from the Pirates who was only a Pirate because, in 2009, he was horrendous for another stat based club with the Red Sox and allowed to leave as a free agent where no team other than the Pirates made him a decent offer.

But the stat guy knew!!

Um…no.

The truth is it had nothing to do with numbers. It had to do with Lopez being a breathing left-handed pitcher. Nothing more. If Tony Fossas at 55(?) years old chose to make a comeback, there would be a team to have a look at him because he’s lefty. Period. And Uribe? Really? So the Giants had a brilliant group of numbers people who advised them to keep Uribe in 2010 and he became a post-season hero, but the non-stat based Dodgers signed Uribe after that season, he’s been a disaster, and Ned Colletti’s an idiot? Goldfarb also gets credit for Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, yet no one other than a Jewish weekly knew who he was. Amazing. Is that how it works?

No. It’s not how it works in any manner other than looking back at what occurred and finding “reasons” to bolster one’s position. The “Yeah, we’re in!!!” aspect of Moneyball still lives as the front offices are infested with people who didn’t play baseball, but have calculations and college degrees to get them in and become the new age hires. But much like Moneyball and the Giants, there’s a clutching at credit for floating principles that can’t be quantified. If the Astros are in the playoffs in 2-3 years, there will be an explanation for it, but the bickering factions will use their own methodology to determine what it is—both might be right, both might be wrong and neither side will admit it.

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