Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Archive for the ‘john smoltz’ tag

2015 obligatory Hall of Fame Post

5 comments

Randy Johnson leads the 2015 hall of fame ballot.  Photo (AP Photo/   Elaine Thompson) via seattlepi.com

Randy Johnson leads the 2015 hall of fame ballot. Photo (AP Photo/ Elaine Thompson) via seattlepi.com

Last year’s version of this post is here; it has links to prior years where I went into my general thought process on yes/no votes per individual player.  I’ve tired of writing the same 2,000 word post on the topic since everyone else on the internet is, so this is a bit shorter of a HoF post.  And it won’t insult me if you don’t respond or even read this post; there’s far, far too much hall of fame arguing going on in the baseball blogosphere, and i’m no more or less qualified to publish an opinion on this ballot than many of the official BBWAA writers at this point.

The 2015 ballot at baseball-reference.com is here.  Once again there’s too many deserving players for not enough spots.

For me, there’s three no-brainer 1st ballot hall-of-famers new to the 2015 ballot: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.  The first two should be unanimous but of course they won’t.  In fact, we already have a published ballot of someone who left both off so he could vote for others who “needed the votes.”  Smoltz might be borderline for some but for me he’s better than other hurlers recently enshrined; somehow I doubt he gets in this time around.

Of the carry overs from last year’s ballot, I’d vote as follows:

  • Yes for Biggio, Piazza, Bagwell, Raines, Clemens, Bonds, Schilling, Martinez, McGwire
  • Maybe later for Trammell, Mussina, Kent, and Sheffield.
  • No for Smith, McGriff, Walker, Mattingly, Sosa and anyone else new to the ballot this year not otherwise mentioned.  Why are these No votes?  See 2012 and 2013′s links for my reasoning on the names here, all of whom are repeats.

Of course, this is too many “Yes” votes.  If I had to cut two of my 12 Yes votes, I’d guess Martinez and McGwire are the first two to go.  Or maybe Schilling.  Which is a shame because I think all the guys in the “maybe later” have legitimate cases too.  But this is the bed that the BBWAA has made for itself with its arbitrary player limit and its wishy-washy stance on alleged PED users.

2015 voting Prediction: Johnson, Martinez and Biggio elected.  Smoltz just misses, and Piazza & Bagwell get close enough that they’ll go in with the 2016 class (which only has one no-brainer candidate in Ken Griffey, Jr).  Still no love for Bagwell, the PED brothers, or Raines, much to the chagrin of the sabr-crowd.

1/6/15 update: My prediction was too conservative: Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz and Biggio inducted in 2015.  Piazza got 69% of the vote and seems like a good bet for 2016.  however Bagwell and Raines lagged seriously behind, at just 55% of the vote each.  Another huge gap after that leads to a trio of players in the mid 30s … not nearly enough to talk about them getting in next year.

Ask Boswell 2/25/13 Edition

8 comments

When is Anthony Rendon going to be ready for the Majors? Photo Nats Official via espn.com

With the first couple of Spring Training games in the books, its fitting that Tom Boswell did a Monday morning chat on 2/25/13.

Here’s how I’d have responded to the Baseball-specific questions he took.  As always, questions are edited for clarity and I write here before reading his response so as not to “color” my answer.

Q: Given that the Nats know almost every player making the roster out of Spring Training, do the players/coaches approach the 6 weeks differently?

A: Good question; I was taking with someone about this exact topic this weekend.  The 25-man roster is essentially already solidifed; perhaps the only question remaining is whether or not Henry Rodriguez makes it onto the team or does the team carry a second lefty reliever (Bill Bray?).  So I think the answer has to do with looking more at the AAA talent, looking at minor league FA signings like Micah Owings and Chris Snyder to see if they’re going to be better options than the guys we already had slated at AAA.  And the coaching staff gets to look at up-and-coming guys like Anthony Rendon, Zach Walters, and the like.  Boswell reiterates what I said here, naming other ML signings of interest like Chris Young, but also says that this ST has a lot of “wasted time.”

Q: I’ve spent the offseason reading Ball Four to help get my baseball fix. Do you have a sense about how different things are now?

A: It has been a while since I read Jim Bouton‘s seminal baseball book Ball Four.   But the season he chronicles (1969) happened before a number of rather important moments in Baseball history.  Expansion, divisional play, the Designated Hitter, the aftermath of the Curtis Flood and Andy Messersmith decisions (aka, Free Agency) and of course the massive increase of money in the game (both from a revenue stand point and from a player salary stand point).  One thing that seems certain to have changed; players can now earn enough in a season to be set financially for life.  And, the players union’s power is now such that players have the upper hand in a lot of negotiations with the league and the owners when it comes to labor unions.  Boswell notes that managers, coaches and GMs are far “smarter” now than they were in the Bouton era.

Q: How the Nats will do at the gate this year?

A: The season ticket base is back to where it was in 2005 apparently, broaching 20,000 season tickets.  The team averaged 29,269 fans last year.  Clearly the attendance seems set to rise significantly.   I think they’ll average 35,000 a night if they continue to be a first-place club.  Boswell agrees, noting that the team also has a couple of very marketable stars to help with attendance.

Q: Other than obvious injuries, are there any things that can happen in the first quarter of the year that you would find to be troubling?

A: I’d be troubled if Danny Espinosa started off slow.  I’d also be concerned if we saw significant regression out of our WBC participants Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler, confirming my fears.  But the most important factor may be the performance of Dan Haren: is he the 2012 Haren or the 2009 Haren?  If he approaches 2009 version, this team may be set for the season.  Boswell notes they have a tough early schedule, that winning 98 games is tough, and that we should be patient.

Q: Gio Gonzalez; did he or didn’t he?

A: I think the prevailing opinion in the sport now seems to be that he did NOT take or receive PEDs from the Miami clinic, and that he was an unfortunate bystander.  His passing a surprise PED test given two days after the scandal seems to have also bolstered his case.   Boswell agrees.

Q: Are the Nats a 98 win team again, or was last year a fluke?

A: Barring a significant injury in the rotation, I think the Nats are easily a 98-win team and perhaps better in 2013.  Statistical WAR “proof” offered in this space back in January, and that was before the LaRoche re-signing and the Soriano pickup, both of which marginally should improve the team a few wins.  Most national pundits that I’ve read think the same thing, that this team could win 103 games.  The various estimator stats out there (Zips, Pecota, etc)  the team much closer to 90 wins, but those predictors are by and large incredibly conservative.  Boswell also says it comes down to health of the rotation.

Q: How would you rate the Nats starting rotation, spot by spot, compared to the rest of the Major Leagues?

A: Spot by Spot, its hard not to think that each of our guys are each at least in the top 5 by position in the league.  Drawing from my Rotational Rankings post from January 7th, 2013, I’d say that:

  • Strasburg is clearly among the best arms in the game (in the discussion along with Verlander, Kershaw, and Hernandez).  He’s not as accomplished as this group of course, but his talent is unquestionable.
  • Gonzalez matches up as a top 5 number two starter (other candidates: Greinke, Hamels, Lincecum or Cain, depending on who you think SF’s “ace” is).
  • Zimmermann is traditionally underrated but is at least a top 5 number three starter (along with Scherzer, Johnson/Morrow, Bumgarner, Lee and Moore).
  • Haren on potential could be the best number four starter in the game, though Buehrle, Miley, and Lynn could also fit in here.
  • Detwiler is often mentioned as being the best number five starter out there, and its hard to find competitors (best options: Zito, Romero, Garcia, and whoever Oakland and St. Louis settle upon for their #5 starters).

Boswell seems worried that these five guys can handle the workload all year, only really trusting Gonzalez in terms of repeatability.

Q: What future do you see for Anthony Rendon, and when will he debut in the majors?

A: I have been of the belief that Zimmerman should move to 1B for Rendon at some point.  But with LaRoche signed for two years, that won’t happen for a while (2 years, perhaps 3 if we pick up his 2015 option).  So now i’m starting to come around to the the possibility of Rendon pushing someone else off their position.  The most likely candidate seems to be Espinosa at 2B.  Despite having Lombardozzi on the 25-man, Rendon is a higher-potential player.  If Espinosa starts slow, and Rendon starts fast, I could see Rendon getting called up in June and starting to get reps at 2nd while Espinosa goes on the DL for his shoulder.  Otherwise, a Sept 1 call-up seems in order.  Boswell predicts a post-all star game call-up.

Q: Is there any way the Nats can stop Detwiler and Gio from pitching in that baseball ‘classic’? I see a disaster waiting to happen. Luis Ayala was never the same after getting hurt pitching in that thing.

A: There’s no way legally the team can prevent either guy from pitching, since neither suffered any injuries in 2012.  And yes I agree (as discussed in this space on 2/11/13) this is bad news for the Nats.  Washington has never had a pitcher play in the WBC who didn’t regress badly, and the stats seem to show that most every pitcher who does participate in the WBC pitches poorly the next two seasons (links in my post).   Boswell says cross your fingers.

Q: Do you think Bryce has it in him to be National League mvp?

A: Yes I do.  MVP voting generally starts with the “Best Player” on the “Best Teams” and creates a short list from there.  It is why it is relatively easy to predict the MVPs.  If Washington is the best team in the league and makes the playoffs again, and Bryce Harper has a break out season, it won’t be hard to see him getting serious MVP consideration.  Now, let me also say that a “Harper for MVP” prediction is NOT the same as predicting that Harper is set to become the best player in the game.  That’s not what the MVP measures.  If the question was, “Is Harper set to become the best player in the National League” i’d then say, “No, he’s a few years away from that distinction.”  Boswell thinks it may be a bit early.

Q: How many wins per year would you estimate a a stellar defense adds to a teams win total over the course of a season?

A: I’m sure there’s a good statistical answer for this, based on the percentage of WAR added by defense.  But it seems like a very difficult answer to come by.  Boswell says “a few.”

Q: Any reason to think he’s NOT going to be the GM for a long time?  Because I can’t think of many others who have done as good a job in all of baseball.

A: I can see no reason for Rizzo not to be the GM for at least the next 4 years.  His next big challenge will be dealing with the inevitable payroll demands of Harper and Strasburg (both of whom project to be $25M players) while also keeping a competitive team on the field.   2017 could be an interesting year for this team; Strasburg projects to hit Free Agency that year, and Harper should be in his 4th arbitration year.  They already have Zimmerman and Werth at $14M and $21M respectively in the 2017 year, with possibly another $40-$45M out the door to keep Harper and Strasburg.  They better start working on the farm system again.  Boswell didn’t really answer the question, just mentioned how Rizzo’s options have yet to be picked up.

Q: How is Ramos looking thus far? 100%? Suzuki is a professional and seems to be a good guy, do you get a feel for how well he and Ramos interact? How great would it be to generate some power/runs from the catcher spot this year.

A: I’ve been assuming that the catcher job is Suzuki‘s to lose for now; its still early but no word has come out negatively on Ramos‘ recovery.  Either way, yes it would be nice to get some production out of the #8 hole.  Suzuki was pretty good after he came over here, but Ramos healthy was a middle-of-the-order bat.  Boswell suggests that Ramos stop blocking the plate.

Q: If Rendon tears it up after September call-up, what does the Nats 2014 infield look like?

A: Wow; hard not to say Rendon replaces Espinosa like-for-like right now.  But, just as Desmond broke out in his 3rd full time season, so could Espinosa.  It could make for a log jam.  Lets hope for the best, hope for a rebound Espinosa season and a good-problem-to-have situation of having to trade a strength to make way for another strength.  Boswell has no idea where Rendon will play if he merits a call-up.

Q: I think the Nats, and Danny Espinosa are whistling past the graveyard if they think a completely torn left rotator cuff will not seriously affect Danny’s play. Your take?

A: A fair assessment.  I too believe a torn rotator cuff absolutely has to be affecting his swing, especially from the right side.  I think Espinosa should have gotten the thing surgically repaired in the off-season.  I wonder how much the team knew of the injury, because when it was reported in the off-season it sure seemed like a surprise.  Boswell says its a concern and that Espinosa should take more days off.

Q: Is McCatty working with Strasburg on correcting his inverted W delivery? Strasburg also has footstrike issues, as he tends to plant his foot and then whip his arm, which puts a ton of strain on his shoulder. I’m concerned if he doesn’t correct this, his shoulder will give out this season or next. Are the Nats worried about this? Are they working on cleaning up his delivery at all?

A: I’m beginning to think that this whole “Inverted W” thing is a bunch of BS.  Keith Law stated as much when prompted in a chat recently; he says that the problem with the Inverted W theory is that its difficult to “state” with authority that certain pitchers do or don’t have the phenomena.  And its true; if you see some shots of Strasburg he has it, in others his arms are more bent behind his back.  Its the same with Gio Gonzalez (I can show you stills of him landing with his arms clearly in an “inverted W” position and you don’t hear anyone talking about Gonzalez’s mechanics.   The leading inverted-W site on the internet (Chris O’Leary‘s page linked here) uses an opportunisitic example set of pitchers with that motion, but I can find plenty of examples of guys who have similar mechanics but zero soft-tissue injury history (on the Nats two quick examples are Drew Storen and Craig Stammen).  Meanwhile one of his examples was John Smoltz … who only threw 3400 MLB innings in his career and basically didn’t miss a start until he was 32.  Not the best example of proof that his mechanics were somehow “awful.”  I think the entire phenomenon is an observation of coincidence, that pitchers get injuries all the time no matter what their mechanics, and that we need to move onwards.  Wow; Boswell thinks exactly what i think; these proofs are nonesense.

Nats Off-season News Items Wrap-up 12/31/11 edition

5 comments

Its Hall of Fame ballot time. Let the Jack Morris arguments start-up again. Photo John Iacono via si.com

This is your semi-weekly/periodic wrap-up of Nats and other baseball news that caught my eye.  With the approaching Hall of Fame nonsense, er I mean news cycle approaching, I’ll throw in a HoFame section.

Nationals In General

  • Transcribed from a radio interview by Tim Dierkes, here’s Mike Rizzo on CF and 1B.  This is the first time I’ve seen Rizzo mention NEXT year’s FA class in terms of looking for talent and it makes you wonder if we don’t already have our entire primary starting 15 set (8 out-field players, 5 starters and setup/closer) for 2012.   I can live with Jayson Werth in CF, since it opens up lots of FA possibilities in RF.  In fact, I smell a separate post coming…
  • Former Nat Lastings Milledge is going to Japan to try to resurrect his baseball career.
  • Scouting-specific SeedlingsToStars.com site looks at Anthony Rendon.
  • The USA Today does an in-depth, position-by-position overview of the team and where it stands.
  • Another Tom Boswell article that I disagree with; he thinks Prince Fielder isn’t “right” for the Nats.   I’m sorry; but Fielder is a run creating machine (he created 35 more runs last year than Michael Morse, by way of comparison, which roughly equates with his 5.2 Wins Above replacement value).  Yes we have LaRoche who is plus defense, but is he going to come back to 2010’s form or is he going to be a lost cause again?  Meanwhile, Fielder looks set to take a shorter term deal and re-try his hand at the FA market when he hits 30.  Wouldn’t you sign him for 3yrs $70M?  You put Fielder at 1B, keep Morse in Left, groom Bryce Harper to play center and keep Werth in right.   For the next 3 years.  How difficult is that?  Boswell talks about where to put Rendon; well; you put him wherever you have a need.  Put him at 2nd and move Espinosa to short.  Or you trade someone to free up room.  This team’s problem isn’t the need for a lead-off slap hitter; we need a big run producer in the middle of the order.  Someone to replace what Adam Dunn gave us for two years.
  • Ryan Tatusko posts his 2011 recap of his minor league season plus his time in the Venezuelan Winter League.  I wish more players were as blogger-friendly as Tatusko.

Hall of Fame Specific

  • A pro Edgar Martinez take with the important quote, “There is a position called DH…”  I have changed my own stance on this issue in recent years, especially when considering relief pitchers as hall of fame worthy.  If you argue that a closer and his 60-70 innings is somehow more valuable to a team than a designated hitter’s 650 at bats, then I’d have to disagree.  On my hypothetical ballot, Martinez is in.
  • Excellent review of active MLB players under HoFame consideration by Fangraph’s Dave Cameron.   Also, the comments discussion brings up a number of other players.  He uses primarily career WAR to determine the player’s value, which I’m somewhat hesitant about (in most cases WAR is an accumulator stat, as a mediocre player who stayed very healthy will have a higher WAR than an excellent but shorter-lived career).
  • This article really got to me, to the point where I commented on both the original post by Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus and the discussion at TangoTiger‘s InsideTheBook.com blog.  Jaffe’s hall of fame measuring system (called JAWS) somehow has determined that Brad Radke, the middling pitcher for the Twins who had basically one standout season in his career, was a BETTER player career-wise than Jack Morris.  How would any sane baseball observer possibly come to this conclusion?  This is where the modern blogger’s over-reliance on statistics really gets to me.  I have not read into why this system ranks Radke so high while ranking Morris so low but suspect it is due to a reliance on the same calculations that go into the ERA+ statistic (of which Radke’s career ERA+ of113  is better than Nolan Ryan‘s career era of 112).

Free Agents/Player Transaction News

  • Oakland continues to dismantle itself: Boston trades OF prospect Josh Reddick and two other players to Oakland for closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney.  This is after Boston acquired Mark Melancon earlier in the off-season; they now have completely remade the back side of their rotation.  Clearly the team is moving Daniel Bard to the rotation, having just traded for his replacement.   Reddick was clearly seen as surplus to requirements, despite putting together a decent 2011 season, but you have to wonder if the team is going to be satisfied with Sweeney starting in RF.
  • Keith Law makes a good point during his analysis of the Bailey move, saying that adding Bailey is a far better move than paying Jonathan Papelbon $50M.  I agree completely and think that anyone who pays $10M+ per year for a guy who throws 70 innings and who only really has about 50% “high leverage” plate appearances (see last year’s splits for Mariano Rivera and Papelbon to see that 57% of Rivera’s plate appearances were in “high” leverage situations as a high, while Papelbon was at 47%) is just wasting money.  Find a hard thrower in your organization (say, like Drew Storen for the Nats), install him as the closer as a rookie, then ride him til free agency and then cut him loose and start over.  Relievers are fungible talents, they come and go, mostly are failed starters since they don’t need the full repertoire of pitches to be successful, and are cheaper to come by.
  • (hat tip to ck of the Nats Enquirer): The Baltimore Sun reports that Scott Boras and Prince Fielder were in the Baltimore/DC area to meet with an owner not named Peter Angelos.  More links on the topic from Federal Baseball.  Gee, I wonder who it could be?  Why would those two fly HERE and not directly to the city of the owner in question, unless the owner of the team in question was either a) the Nationals, or b) an owner of a MLB team who lives in this area but owns a team based elsewhere, or c) an owner of another team just happened to be in DC for some odd reason (odd because Congress is out of session, which would seem to eliminate most any possibly lobbying reason).  Don’t get me wrong; I think Adam LaRoche can contribute in 2012 and it seems ludicrous to think he can’t at least get close to his 2010 numbers, but Fielder is a 5+ WAR player who probably makes us the favorite for the NL wild card if we sign him, right now.

General Baseball News

  • Wow, two LOOGY articles in the same day.  Bill James answered a question about the evolution of the LOOGY and posted this link describing its birth (apparently by Tony LaRussa in the 1991 season).  I also never knew that the term “LOOGY” was coined by none other than Rob Neyer.  And TangoTiger points to some of the same research.  Mid 30s lefties everywhere have LaRussa to thank for their extended careers.
  • Could you imagine this happening in today’s game?  The first intentional pitch would have resulted in ejections.  Certainly modern umpires would not let a pitcher throw pitch after pitch at an opposing batter.  Clearly these umpires let this game get out of hand.
  • Will MLB step in?  USAToday’s Seth Livingston thinks that the Oakland payroll dumping trades this off-season may get the attention of the front office.  Hard to see why; according to Cot’s the Athletics are only signed up for around $17M of guaranteed contracts in 2012 right now, before a slew of arbitration cases.  They non-tendered 3 of their 10 arbitration cases but kept a couple of their more expensive guys (Cot’s thinks they had 14 arbitration-eligible players; I havn’t cross-referenced outrights and DFAs but know they had 10 arb tender decisions).  Of those they did tender, they have since traded away Sweeney, Gonzalez, Bailey, Breslow and Cahill.  Geeze.  Baseball-Reference thinks they’ll get to $50M in payroll; I wonder if they’ll get to $35m frankly.  And, its looking more and more like this could be something like a 50-win team.  Things could get ugly in the Bay area in 2012.
  • This would be a loss for us prospect hounds: Keith Law is reportedly interviewing for a front-office position with the Houston Astros.  Law takes a very specific, opinionated viewpoint towards player development, drawing from his experiences in the Toronto organization (which itself during his time took a rather college-heavy approach to the draft which ultimately wasn’t as successful as the team wanted, ultimately contributing to the end of JP Ricciardi‘s reign.
  • An interesting exercise; USA Today builds an unbeatable MLB team for the median MLB payroll.  Honestly though, I’m not sure just how challenging this exercise is.  If you gave me $86M (the median payroll they used) you should be able to put together TWO such teams.  There’s enough pre-arbitration and arbitration-controlled talent in the league to be able to do the same task for something approaching a $20M payroll.  A future blog post?  :-)
  • Follow-up on Alex Rodriguez‘s experimental Germany treatment; this op-ed piece from Jeff Passan on the blurry line between PEDs and legitimate surgical procedures.  The article has a very in-depth description of the A-Rod procedure and raises the question as to what defines a Performance Enhancing Drug?  I have had similar discussions; why are Steroids “bad” but Cortisone “good” in terms of usage?  What do Cortisone shots do?  They enable a player to play through pain that otherwise may keep him out.  Uh … isn’t that the definition of a “performance enhancing” substance??  Steroid’s aren’t illegal; they’re just controlled.  But so is cortisone; you can’t just inject yourself with the stuff without a doctor’s order.  Passan takes things one step further, comparing the healing effects of HGH with these new treatments that A-Rod and Bartolo Colon got and makes a very good point; the WADA uses 3 categories to define a doping drug and everything we’ve described here can be argued to fit those criteria (except that only HGH and Steroids have been determined to be “bad” by the powers that be).  There’s something inconsistent here.

Collegiate/Prospect News

  • Seedling to the Star’s scouting report on Braves phenom prospect Julio Teheran.  Teheran’s stock has slipped somewhat in the past two years, especially given the inevitable comparisons to fellow pitching prospect phenom Matt Moore.  While Moore’s 2011 MLB debut was nothing short of amazing (including his 7 innings of shutout ball in the playoffs), Teheran posted a 5.03 ERA in about 20 MLB innings throughout 2011.  It was bad enough to probably rule Teheran out of the 2012 rotation plans and send him back to repeat AAA.  But if he can put things together, he’ll join an arsenal of young arms in Atlanta that seems set to be their next wave of starters in the ilk of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.


General News; other

  • Baseball meets modern America: Joe Maddon and the rising Latino population in his home town of Hazelton, PA, as written by Joe Posnanski.
  • 67-56?  I’ve never seen a football game with such a ridiculous scoring line.


Does Verducci’s article about Strasburg’s Mechanics worry you?

4 comments

This is an image I hope we don’t see again.

In an article that seemingly came out of nowhere, Si.com columnist Tom Verducci posted this missive on 3/8/11 with ominous warnings to Nationals fans everywhere.  He believes that Stephen Strasburg has a fatal flaw in his mechanics related to the timing of his stride forward off the rubber versus his release point that may continue to plague the pitcher even after his post Tommy John surgery recovery.

I say this article comes out of nowhere since I would have expected to see this posted back in August 2010, when every other pundit posted their own theories as to why “the best pitching prospect ever” suddenly blew out his elbow.  I reviewed some of those explanations at the time but thought (and still do think) that his injury was less about his release point and more about pitch selection.  I think that Strasburg (and more importantly his catchers) fell in love with his change-up after discovering what a devastating pitch it was (imagine facing a 91-mph screw ball that moves a foot into the right handed hitter).  Suddenly he was throwing a ton of circle changes and placing unexpected, here-to-fore unseen stress directly on his elbow ligament.  When a hurler goes from pitching one day a week in a protected environment where he can get by throwing mostly fastballs to overpower college hitters to suddenly throwing only about 58% fastballs (per Verducci’s research) at the Major league level every 5 days, sudden injury onset can occur.

Verducci touches on the preponderance of off-speed pitches Strasburg was throwing in the article but focuses on the “late cocking” of the arm as the primary culprit of the injury.  He then lists a number of pitchers who exhibit this same late arm cocking with (conveniently) a ghastly list of arm and shoulder injuries that followed.

Here’s my problem with this type of cherry picking of arm injuries; as Mike Rizzo pointed out in the article, you can probably find a similar subset of pitchers who exhibit the same late-cocking of the arm who have NEVER had an arm injury.  Rob Neyer posted a similar opinion in a Verducci-followup piece.  Similarly, those who subscribe to the “Inverted W” pitching mechanical flaw fail to point out that, while there are plenty of examples of pitchers who show the inverted W behavior (most notably in most examples is Mark Prior but Strasburg exhibits the same mechanics as well), there are also plenty of pitchers who do the same motion but who never have had a serious injury.  People always forget to mention this fact and their articles always come off with the message that “if you exhibit this, you are doomed.”

John Smoltz was listed as a pitcher who had this fatal mechanical flaw (he also has inverted W syndrome) and listed as an “example” of what can happen.  Yes Smoltz blew out his elbow in his early 30s and missed an entire major league season.  But he also pitched until he was 42, made over 700 major league starts, won 213 games and saved another 154 while he was in the closer role theoretically “protecting” his arm.  If Strasburg gives the Washington franchise those kinds of numbers between now and the year 2030 (when he too will be 42 years of age) I will never quibble.

For me, shoulder injuries are the injuries that you really worry about.  Look at Chien-Ming Wang right now; he’s throwing in the low 80s 2+ years on from shoulder surgery.  The Nats have taken fliers on several other post-shoulder injury starters over the past few years (Brian Lawrence, Ryan Drese, John Patterson) with limited success.  However, pitchers seem to be able to recover from Tommy John surgeries with much better regularity.  I realize our own Shawn Hill had the TJ surgery and never really came back, but the list of successful pitchers who have had the TJ surgery is long.  3 of the top 5 NL Cy Young candidates last year (Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson and now Adam Wainwright) have had the TJ surgery, as did 2009 NL cy Young winner Chris Carpenter.  Our own Jordan Zimmermann seems to be nicely recovering, although it is far too soon to conclude that his surgery was a success.

I sometimes wonder what modern medicine could have done with Sandy Koufax, who abruptly retired at age 30 after a Cy Young winning season where he made 41 starts and went 27-9.  His retirement reason was listed as “arthritis in his pitching elbow” and he had symptoms that included massive hemorrhaging in his arm; was this a condition that would be easily solved today?

For Strasburg, as with pretty much any baseball pitcher, in many ways every pitch could be your last.  Modern medicine can fix all kinds of injuries and modern technology can pin point the wheres and whys of why some guys may last and some guys may be flashes in the pan.  But in the end, some guys physiologically are more durable than others, some guys can throw a ball through a brick wall for 25 years (see Ryan, Nolan) and others break down after just a few professional games.  Lets just hope for the best once Strasburg comes back.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_John_surgery#List_of_notable_baseball_players_who_underwent_the_surgery

Starting versus Closing

5 comments

Should we try Clippard as a starter? Absolutely! Photo: NationalsDailyNews/Meaghan Gay/DCist.com

Baseball writer extraordinaire Tom Verducci posted a fantastic article today talking about Neftali Feliz‘s proposed move from the Rangers closer to the starting rotation.  The article touches on a topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while; Starting versus Closing.  It also is literally the best summation I’ve seen yet describing why the save is over-rated, closers are overpaid and why you’d rather have starters versus relievers.

Lets face it; for the most part relievers are failed starters.  A few get drafted or signed as relievers (Washington’s Drew Storen being one local example), but most starters are drafted as starters and work their way through the minors as starters.  Some starters discover that they can’t develop secondary pitches, but their primary pitches are so fantastic that the club (rightly) turns them into relievers.  This especially allows hard-throwers (think someone like Joel Zumaya) to have a career despite the fact that they only really have one pitch and throw with such effort that they could not possibly last 6+ innings.

Minor league relievers definitely make the majors, but most often as either LOOGYs or rubber-armed replaceable right-handers (think Miguel Batista) out of the bullpen.  In recent  years the desire to have more and faster throwing arms out of the bullpen has led to more pitchers opting to become relievers sooner, but they still are converted out of starting roles for either performance or fragility.

Two items from his story that I’d like to comment on:

1. Managers don’t use Closers in the most high-leverage situations. I could not agree more.  When is the best spot to use your best, most reliable reliever?  In a one-run game in the 6th when your starter runs out of gas and loads the bases with one out?  Or at the beginning of the 9th inning of a 5-3 lead?  Verducci is right; managers in the modern game are slaves to the save statistic and will not bring in their closer unless its a “save situation.”   But he also notes what is common knowledge; that you could be putting out the 12th man in your bullpen and probably have only a slightly worse chance of getting 3 outs without losing the game for your team.  Per the article, 94% of 2-run leads in the 9th inning are won irrespective of who you put out there, and that percentage has not changed significantly over the past 50 years of baseball.  Joe Posnanski also wrote about this same topic in November with similar results, finding that teams in the 50s closed out games with the same regularity as teams now, but without high-priced one-inning closers.

Luckily for the Nats, we look to have 3-4 different guys who are of sufficient quality who we CAN bring in to a game in the 6th and get a high-leverage situation.  Storen, Clippard, Burnett or newly acquired Henry Rodriguez all seem to fit the bill.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a manager in Riggleman who is in the “slave to the save” category.  Matt Capps was brought in to be the closer and he closed games.  That’s it.  It is safe to say that if Riggleman decides on a closer, that’s going to be his role and that’s that.

The save stat is ridiculous and most people know it.  You can get a save in a game where you give up 2 runs and 5 hits in a 1/3 of an inning.  You can get a save when you perform mop up duty but let the score get too close while you rubber-arm your way through a meaningless blowout.  The save takes nothing about the pitcher’s performance into account; only whether or not the game ended while he was on the mound and the win was preserved.

But the save stat, and its monster creation the specialized one-inning closer, are here to stay.  Prospects come up through the ranks specifically to be closers, free agent players will only play for certain teams if given “the chance to close.”  Closers are well paid, and their pay is directly tied to this flawed save statistic.  Statisticians have tried to create a better set of metrics for middle relievers (“Holds” mostly) but the reality is that closers have high leverage in salary situations while middle relievers are lucky to get paid a bit more than the veteran’s minimum.  Verducci touches on this ridiculousness, pointing out that Papelbon‘s higher salary in 2011 than Cole Hamels despite the relative levels of production for their teams.

Ironically, some Major League managers *know* this fact, but continue to trot out their best reliever for a 3-out save at the beginning of the 9th inning in a 3-run game.  They do the same as the other 29 managers because the radical idea that backfires directly leads to termination.  No manager is willing to risk their job to try to do something the right way.  To say nothing of the reaction of a highly-paid FA closer who is suddenly told he’s going to be primarily used in the middle of the 7th to clean up the starter’s mess.

It makes you wonder if there’s a better way.  Here’s two radical suggestions:

1. Comprise a bullpen with no named closer role, and tell the entire 7-man bullpen they’re doing closer-by-committee.  It may infuriate fantasy baseball players and the union (since saves translate to salary for their FAs), but it probably placates an entire roster of wanna-be closers.  Imagine if 5 of the 7 guys in your bullpen (leaving out the LOOGY and long-man) know they may be brought in to rescue a game in the 6th or close it out in the 9th, and their roles change on a daily basis based on use.  That to me is a far better situation than pre-naming a closer (which invariably is the best guy out there) and then never using him until the 9th.

2. Comprise an ENTIRE pitching staff of long-men relievers.  Imagine if you didn’t have starters at all, but an entire bullpen of guys who were geared to pitch 2-3 innings every other night.  You would never have a need for specialized closers or even high-priced starters.  You’d rotate through who got the start, the starter would go 2-3 innings, then the next guy would go, and you’d repeat this until the game was over.  It’s kinda like spring training but all year.  Since these guys are only throwing 2-3 innings, they should be able to repeat this task multiple times in a week.

There’s 54 regular innings to be had per week mid-season (6 games at 9 innings per).  54 innings divided out by 12 guys in the pen means about 4.5 innings per WEEK per pitcher.  If you split those 4.5 innings up across three games you’d be pitching (say) 2 innings on monday, 1 on thursday then 1.5 on saturday.  That’s pretty manageable.  Plus if everyone else is doing the same, you can rotate through the guys and slightly adjust based on how they’re pitching that day.

Plus, think about how CHEAP this pitching staff would be.  12 middle relievers could not possibly cost your team more than about $15-20M annually in salary, even if they were mostly on veteran contracts.  Roy Halladay makes more than that in 2011 just by himself.

Coincidentally, this is exactly what Tony LaRussa tried at one point in the early 90s with the Athletics.  Unfortunately his experiment ended quickly, failing less because of execution and more because of lack of support from his players and management.  Its just a matter of time before someone tries it again.


Here’s the second item i’d like to comment on:

2. Starters are FAR more valuable than Relievers or Closers.  Last year in the midst of Clippard’s fantastic middle-relief run I asked myself, “Why isn’t Clippard in the rotation?”  He pitched 91 innings spread out over 78 appearances and only gave up 69 hits.  He maintained an 11.1 K/9 ratio, which is better than any starter in 2010.  91 innings was good for 4th on the entire staff in 2010.

The leading argument i’ve read for Clippard staying in the bullpen relates to the nature of his stuff.  He’s got a sneaky good fastball, a decent curve but his bread and butter pitch is the change-up.  Apparently the knock on him is that hitters adjust to him more quickly and thus he makes more sense in a relief role.  In a starting role hitters would be getting their third crack at him in the 5th or 6th inning, right when he’s tiring and right when he’s vulnerable.  In relief, he can “show” all his pitches in one at bat and work each batter individually, then leave the game before his “stuff” is exposed.

Clippard was a starter his entire minor league career, and his minor league numbers were pretty good.  He always maintained a small hits-to-IP ratio, a good k/9 ratio.  It wasn’t until he reached the majors that suddenly he couldn’t start.  I think perhaps he’s either gotten pigeonholed or he’s psychologically set in the reliever mind-frame now.

A quality starter gives your team 6+ innings, works through the opposing team’s batting order nearly 3 full times and keeps your team in the game.  6-7 innings at a 3.00 era is invaluable for your team’s psyche as it tries to win game after game.  Leaving just 2-3 innings a night for a bullpen staff of 7 means that there’s fewer days when your staff is over worked and you have to give up games for lack of bullpen arms.

How about using career WAR as a bench mark?  I don’t really like the career WAR analysis (since it is an accumulator stat and a mediocre guy with 22 years of experience appears to be better than the best pitcher of his day who only had a 15 year career).  But it is telling in this situation.  Here’s a link to career WAR for pitchers at baseball-reference.com.  And here’s the rank of the 5 best relief pitchers of all time (the 5 relievers currently in the hall of fame), along with the rankings of some of their active contemporaries who seem likely for the hall.

Lname Fname Career WAR Rank
Smoltz John 38
Eckersley Dennis 46
Rivera Mariano 69
Wilhelm Hoyt 121
Gossage Goose 133
Hoffman Trevor 215
Wagner Billy 238
Sutter Bruce 315
Fingers Rollie 325

Smoltz and Eckersly both started for large portions of their career, hence the high rank.  Mariano Rivera is clearly (in my mind) the greatest reliever who has ever played and his career WAR shows.  But notice how low closer-only guys like Sutter and Fingers are on this list.  Both are currently below modern day starters Ted Lilly and Kevin Millwood, again guys who are hardly listed as being among the game’s elite.

By means of comparison, Trevor Hoffman, who is ranked 215th all time is ranked just ahead of one Freddie Garcia in all time WAR.  Now, is Freddie Garcia a serious hall of fame candidate?  Not likely; he’s currently on a minor league contract offer with the Yankees after nearly washing out of the game two years ago.


Oh, coincidentally, I absolutely think Felix should be in the rotation.  As should Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati.  Because they’ll be able to help your team win on a much more frequent basis.  You always want the chance of 180 innings of quality versus 60.  Its that simple.

Edmonds or Sheffield for the Hall?

2 comments

Will Jim Edmonds' defensive capabilities lift him to HoF status? Photo: www.vivaelbirdos.com

I know it is cliche, and that every baseball writer pens the same article whenever a big name retires.  But these opinion pieces are still fun to write and argue about.  So argue away.

Within the past week, two notable hitters hung up their spikes.  Gary Sheffield was forced to admit (much like Barry Bonds, Jermaine Dye and other aging DH-only players quickly being obsoleted in the fast, new, young MLB) that no team would hire him after sitting out all of 2010 and officially filed the paperwork with the league.  Meanwhile, Jim Edmonds retired from a lingering achilles heel injury that prevented him from suiting up in 2011.

For the sake of this article, we will exclude consideration of the fact that Sheffield has admitted to PED/Steroids use and thus probably faces little chance of making the hall.  Lets talk about their performances on the field.

Case 1: Gary Sheffield

Sheffield hails from the famous Hillsborough High School in Tampa, which also produced the likes of Dwight Gooden, Carl Everett and (infamously) Elijah Dukes.  Sheffield’s career numbers are strong.  He retires with a CAREER OPS+ of 140.  That’s essentially an entire career of production at the average level of what Ryan Zimmerman gave the Nats last season.  He hit more than 500 homers while also having more than 250 stolen bases.  He has a career slash line of .292/.393/.514, which is also great.  His hall of fame monitor and standard scores (Bill James’ creations that try to measure whether a player is HoF worth) both easily put him in. His closest comparison on baseball-reference is Mel Ott.  That’s heady company.

Awards: 9 times an all star, 7 times getting MVP votes (a 2nd, two 3rd and a 6th place finish).  5 silver sluggers.  Played 3B early, RF middle and LF/DH late in his career.  His best season was in 1997, finishing with a ridiculous 189 OPS+ for the Marlins but only finishing 6th in the MVP voting.

Beyond the Boxscore printed out an interesting Visual Hall of Fame graphic that essentially shows that Sheffield’s best seasons of his 22-yr career were in the latter part of his career, consistent with a steroids user who was able to beat back the hands of time and not diminish as he aged.  In the same way that Bonds did not tail off as he entered his late 30s.

Regardless of the steroids, I think he’s a hall of fame player.  He was a feared, ferocious hitter who clearly had 5-tools (though not quite at the 5-tool level of someone like Willie Mays or Ken Griffey).  He was a game changer who bounced around the league but produced wherever he was.  Unfortunately because of a prickly relationship with sports writers and implications in the BALCO scandal, his only chance of entrance will be 30 years from now by a veteran’s committee.  He’ll be on a very busy 2014 hall of fame ballot (other first timers on that ballot include near locks Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, and Tom Glavine, along with borderline cases Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina).

Case 2: Jim Edmonds

Edmond’s case is less about pure offensive merit but weighing the benefits of a player who can produce at a high offensive level AND provide fantastic defense.  Edmond’s career offensive numbers are good but not amazing; in 17 major league seasons he hit 393 homers, had a respectable career slash line of .284/.376/ .527, and a career OPS of 132.

Those numbers compare pretty favorably to Sheffield’s career lines when you consider that Edmonds was considered among the best 2-3 outfielders in the game for the middle 10 years of his career.  He earned 8 gold gloves for his work in centerfield and has a litany of high-light reel catches to his credit. He was excellent defensively but this did not correlate to raw speed on the base-paths; he retired with only 67 stolen bases for his career, averaging just four a year.   His diving catches helped contribute to his demise; he was frequently injured, missed the entirety of 2009 and hung it up because he was not going to be medically cleared to play this year.

Career Achievements: 8th in his Rookie voting, 4 time all star, 6 times receiving MVP votes (a 4th and a 5th place vote his best achievements).

Bill James’ Hall of Fame metrics are not quite as kind to Edmonds; he falls short in both the Monitor and the Standard.  His most similar player comparison is to one Ellis Burks, not really a flattering comparison.

Is he a hall of famer?  I say “probably.”  When grading the defensively minded players (shortstops, catchers and athletic center fielders) you have to balance offensive and defensive.  With Edmonds, he’s nearly the hitter of Sheffield with fantastic defense. I’m concerned by the lack of MVP consideration, and lack of all-star selections.  If a player isn’t routinely considered among the best players in the game, how can he be a hall of famer?

He’ll be on the 2015 ballot along with first timers (and locks) Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.  So he may have to wait to get in but he should merit it.

What really “caused” the Strasburg Injury?

3 comments

By now, we’ve all heard the news: Steven Strasburg is headed towards Tommy John surgery and won’t be back for 12-18 months, which probably puts him out for the entirety of the 2011 season.  Analysis and observation seem to show that the acute injury was the result of a singular injury, namely his 5th inning change up thrown to Domonic Brown which left him visibly shaking his right arm.

So, what really caused the issue?  Here’s some possibilities:

1. Over-protection by the team.  I have an awful hard time believing this.  Strasburg never went more than 100 pitches or 7 innings in any major or minor league start this season.  Does that mean he was more susceptible to a major arm injury?  I seriously doubt it.  There are those pundits who blame the Nats for NOT gaining an MRI of his shoulder during his 15-day DL stint, which is similarly ridiculous.  He had a shoulder injury not an elbow injury.  If he had blown out a groin would those same pundits be saying the team should have MRI’d his legs too?

2. A mechanical change: Some analysis that i’ve read (this post by Foxsport’s Jon Paul Morosi) has quotes from unnamed scouts that say his mechanics had changed slightly, which (Morosi intimated) may have resulted in stress on the elbow that had not been there before.  To test this, compare his Pitch F/X report from his MLB debut on June 8th to that fateful day in Philadelphia  last week. Comparing the release points in these two plots shows something interesting; his release point is indeed several inches higher on average in his last game versus his first.  Comparing The 6/8 video versus the 8/21 video isn’t really helpful; the former just shows every strikeout while the latter replays the fateful pitch where the injury occurred.  One would have to see the isolated feeds side by side to really see a difference.  However, a slight mechanical change could certainly be factor.

3. The “Inverted W” Effect: There some pundits out there on the net who believe that the “Inverted W” effect (where a pitcher’s pre-release arm positions resembles an upside-down W) indicates a proclivity of arm injuries.  The name most often associated with this (the poster boy, so to speak), is Mark Prior, who had supposedly clean mechanics, threw hard and was basically out of baseball by the time he was 25.  Writer Chris O’Leary has several examples plus an entire section on Strasburg, who does exhibit the behavior.

The problem I have with the inverted W theory is that you can cherry pick from the thousands of major league pitchers out there to prove or disprove this theory.  O’Leary himself uses John Smoltz as an example of someone who had the Inverted W, saying that Smoltz “… retired due to shoulder problems.”  Uh, Smoltz made over 700 HUNDRED starts, plus had 4 years as a closer, and made 32 starts the year he turned 40.  Thats about as BAD of an example as you can find to prove your theory.

Yes Strasburg exhibits the inverted W behavior, but not nearly as definitively as poster boys such as Prior or Reyes.  But he’s never had shoulder problems, and damage to the elbow seems to be indicative of something besides the W effect.

4. Scapular Loading: some googling about his injury turned up this interesing article at Drivelinebaseball.com.  In essence, Strasburg puts undue stress on his elbow based on “scapular loading” during his windup.  The article concludes that this behavior possibly contributed but isn’t necessarily the cause.  It is worth a read though.  I don’t know nearly enough about the subject to agree or disagree to heavily.

5. Strasburg was throwing FAR more change-ups than he’s used to.  In college, he was so dominant that he could be a 2-pitch pitcher (4-seamer and curve) and pitch his way to the player of the year award.  However, in the pros 3 pitches are required and 4 good pitches are desired.  Luckily, Strasburg possessed a 91-mph circle change that moved 10-12 inches on the horizontal plane, an absolutely ridiculous pitch.  Well, his catchers noticed this too, knowing that a screw-ball like 91 mph pitch had a better chance of getting hit by lightening than being hit hard, and started calling for it more and more.  For the season he threw that pitch 16.7% of the time (according to Fangraphs.com) but by the time the fateful Philadelphia game rolled around he was throwing it more like 20-21% of the time.

The circle change is a rather difficult pitch to master.  You essentially make a “circle” with your thumb and forefinger around the ball, then throw the ball with a fastball arm-action but letting it “tumble” off your remaining three fingers.  This causes the screw-ball like reverse movement on the ball when thrown with enough velocity.  It is a great pitch; not only does it come out of the hand slower (hence the changeup) but it moves unlike any of your other pitches.  The bad part of the pitch; it causes a ton of stress on the arm.  Your wrist and fingers are very strong and contribute to the natural fastball motion; by taking them out of play with the circle-change you use a lot more of your forearm and elbow to “throw” the pitch.

Conclusions: in the end, it is difficult to  know exactly what happened.  I personally believe the over-reliance on the circle change was his downfall, but the other points (mechanical changes, inverted-W tendencies and scapular loading) are difficult to discount.

In any case, Tommy John surgery is so common now amongst power pitchers that you start to hear rumblings about pitchers getting it done as a preventative measure (!!).  Jonah Keri had a great q&a session with the originator of the procedure and it makes for a great read.  So we’ll cross our fingers, hope that around this time next august Strasburg is pitching rehab sessions in the minors and is ready to go full strength in 2012.

Written by Todd Boss

August 29th, 2010 at 11:35 am