Nationals Arm Race

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

Archive for the ‘mark buehrle’ tag

Post trade-deadline playoff contender rotations

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This year’s MLB trade deadline was crazy.  Never before have so many big-time names moved teams.  And certainly I cannot remember so many big-time pitchers relocating mid-season as well.

Lets look at the playoff contender rotations as they stand right now, with Trade deadline acquisitions highlighted in blue.

NL

  • Washington: Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmerman, Fister, Roark
  • Atlanta:  Teheran, Minor, Santana, Harang, Wood
  • Milwaukee: Lohse, Garza, Gallardo, Peralta, Nelson
  • Cincinnati: Cueto, Latos, Bailey, Leake, Simon
  • St. Louis: Wainwright, Masterson, Lackey, Lynn, Miller
  • Pittsburgh: Liriano, Morton, Locke, Volquez, Worley
  • Los Angeles: Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Beckett, Haren
  • San Francisco: Bumgarner, Hudson, Lincecum, Vogelsong, Peavy

St. Louis clearly did the most in the NL, acquiring two mid-rotation guys to help cover for the injured Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, but it is hard to look at their rotation and say they’d have the advantage over some of their potential playoff rivals.  San Francisco lost its ace (thought he hasn’t pitched like an Ace since signing his new deal) Matt Cain, and his replacement was not inspiring confidence (Yusmiero Petit), so they added former Cy Young winner Peavy (who is pitching better than his 1-11 W/L record .. but not a lot better).  Otherwise the NL playoff contenders mostly stood pat.  There was some small surprise that the free-spending Dodgers wouldn’t try to improve upon the suddenly underperforming Josh Beckett and/or the “fool-me-once” Dan Haren.  They’ll struggle to get through the #3 and #4 starts of their planned playoff rotation to get back to their co-aces Kershaw and Greinke (who was good but not shut-down in last year’s playoffs).  The home-town Nats may find themselves with an uncomfortable decision to make if they make the playoffs; which starter to send to the pen?  Roark is the least renound and the least tenured … but he has clearly been more effective than other rotation members.

It continues to amaze that the Braves are competing, given the losses they’ve faced in their rotation.  They are missing (arguably) their planned #2, #3 and #5 starters in Kris MedlenBrandon Beachy and Gavin Floyd but are getting by thanks to two mid-spring acquisitions (Santana and Harang) and the surprise performances of youngsters Wood and David Hale (who didn’t merit his demotion to the bullpen).

AL

  • Baltimore: Tillman, Norris, Chen, Gonzalez, Gausman
  • Toronto: Buehrle, Dickey, Happ, Strohman, Hutchinson
  • New York: Kuroda, Phelps, Capuano, Greene, McCarthy
  • Detroit: Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Price, Porcello
  • Kansas City: Shields, Duffy, Ventura, Guthrie, Vargas
  • Oakland: Grey, Samardzija, Lester, Hammel, Kazmir
  • Los Angeles: Weaver, Wilson, Richards, Shoemaker, Santiago
  • Seattle: Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, Elias, Young

I didn’t include fringe playoff contenders such as Cleveland or Tampa Bay here; both of those rotations were purged and weakened, and their odds of catching one of these listed WC contendors is long.  Oakland completely re-made their rotation here, attempting to keep up with Detroit, who now features the last three AL Cy Young winners to go along with Sanchez (who finished 4th last year in a season where he led the league in both ERA and FIP).  That’s quite a lineup.  Meanwhile Seattle likely finishes 10 games back of the Angels and could end up facing them in the coin-flip wild-card game … and could end up throwing the best pitcher in the AL at them (which has been noted as a significant down-side to the 2nd wild-card matchup; who wants to see a team lose out to a divisional rival that they bested by so many games in a play-in game?).

New York is the “Atlanta” of the AL this year; they currently have four planned rotation members on the D/L and (likely) out for the year (CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka).   Their 4th and 5th starters were a 14th and 15th round pick respectively.  They’ve been outscored by nearly 30 runs on the year yet somehow have a winning record.  It seems like just a matter of time before their luck runs out and they settle back below .500.

Who would you rather go to war with, Detroit or Oakland’s rotation?   Probably Detroit’s rotation, given its depth one to four.  But the ALCS could be one heck of a series.

 

 

TJ Surgery epidemic: upbringing, showcases and mechanics

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Jose Fernandez is (arguably) the biggest name to go down to TJ surgery yet.  Photo via thestar.com

Jose Fernandez is (arguably) the biggest name to go down to TJ surgery yet. Photo via thestar.com

Its the biggest story in baseball so far in 2014.   We’ve had nearly 20 MLB pitchers get diagnosed with torn elbow ligaments so far this calendar year.  All of them have or are set to undergo “Tommy John” surgery (also known as ulnar collateral ligament/UCL replacement surgery).  That’s nearly as many as who got the surgery ALL of 2013 and we’re just 6 weeks into the season.  There’s an alarming trend upwards over just the past few seasons of pitchers getting this surgery.  There’s been plenty more minor leaguers (two Nats farmhands in Erik Davis and Danny Rosenbaum have already gotten it in 2014) and already a couple of very high-profile draft prospects as well (including as discussed in this space potential 1st rounders Jeff Hoffman and Erick Fedde just in the last week).

Lots of people are talking about this story, especially some heavy-weights in the baseball world.  A sampling:

  • Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the most famous sports doctor in the world, attributes the growing trend to the rise in year-round baseball competition in the US.
  • SI.com’s Jay Jaffe reviews Dr. Andrews comments and had other excellent stats about the trend in this April 2014 piece.
  • The Washington Post’s Dave Sheinen did an excellent piece in the paper a few weeks ago about the injury, which he attributes to youth usage.
  • Tom Verducci (he of the “Verducci effect”) proposed a solution in a column this week after the Jose Fernandez announcement.  His idea?  Lowering the mound across all levels of the sport.  He draws this conclusion after hosting a very interesting round-table on MLB Network.
  • Jayson Stark teamed up with ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell and former player Alex Cora to discuss the rise in arm injuries in this ESPN.com video, and they follow Andrews’ theory of year-round pitching.
  • Chris O’Leary, king of the Inverted-W (whether you believe his theories or not, I’ve included this link here) has his own theories as discussed here.  He doesn’t really have much in the way of explanation, just more whining about how every pitcher’s mechanics has something you can complain about.
  • Jeff Passan basically calls out baseball executives for not having any answers.
  • If you want an index of all of ESPN.com’s stories on the topic, click here.  It will have columns, analysis and press releases for individuals getting the surgery.

Some interesting stats about Tommy John surgery:

So what the heck is going on??  Lets talk about some theories.  I’ll highlight them in Blue.

The new “hot theory” is essentially this: Over-throwing at Showcase events, which have become crucial scouting events for kids raised in the United States, are to blame.  Thanks to the rise in travel leagues and select teams, scouts spend less time sitting at high school games and more time at these all-star events.  To prescribers of this theory, it isn’t so much about the amount of innings or pitches that kids throw … its the nature of the “showcase” events and the high pressure situations that those events put kids under.  Kids are throwing year-round, and they’re ramping up max-effort pitches at national competitions multiple times per year, and in some cases out of “season.”  This leads to serious damage to kids’ arms done as 16 and 17 yr olds, which then manifests itself over the years and results in blown ligaments in pro ball.

Do you buy this explanation?  It certainly makes sense to me, but how do you prove this?  And, it doesn’t explain the similar rise in elbow injuries to non-American pitchers.

Is it less about the showcase events and more about the Larger Increase in Youth pitched innings thanks to the rise in Travel Leagues?   This theory also makes some sense to me: thirty years ago kids played an 18-20 game spring Little League season, at best would pitch half those games and that was it.  Maybe they played in the fall too, but there were specific innings limits in place that protected kids.  Now instead of playing limited spring and fall seasons, kids are playing AAU travel teams that play 40-50 games a summer, plus weekend tournaments, plus (eventually) the above showcase events as they get closer to matriculation.  This theory certainly is supported by a startling rise in youth arm injuries, as noted in this 2010 study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

But, if its “bad” to play more baseball … then shouldn’t we be seeing even MORE injuries from players who grew up in third-world baseball hot beds like the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, where by all accounts kids play baseball from sun-up to sun-down 12 months out of the year in tropical climates?

Interestingly, of the list of 19 MLB players so far who have been diagnosed with a torn UCL (see next section), there’s 4 non-American developed pitchers (Rondo, Nova, Figueora, Cisnero).  4 of 19 = 21%, whereas about 22% of MLB pitchers are non-American developed (my 22% figure comes from this quick study that I did; I grabbed every active MLB pitcher as of early May 2014 and did a quick-and-dirty player upbringing analysis to determine that about 78% of players “grew up” in the current American system of player development).  It is small sample size … but the percentage of american versus foreign developed players are so far exactly in line with the total percentage of each type of player in the larger pool of MLB pitchers.  This doesn’t seem to support either of the two above theories.

We’ve all heard horror stories about pitch counts and pitcher abuse at  high school events in Japan (this came to light over the winter as we looked at Masahiro Tanaka and learned about these Japanese showcase events; this article here at thebiglead.com talks about one Japanese prospect’s 772 pitches thrown over 9 days, and Jeff Passan talked about Tanaka’s own pitch count abuse stories and his average pitch counts as a Japanese-league pro).   Unfortunately there’s not a ton of data available about this TJ theory and Japanese pitchers.  I can find a couple of instances of Asian pitchers getting the surgery (Kyuji Fujikawa in 2012 being the most recent example), but not enough to establish any trends.

But lets state it this way: you can’t have things both ways.  Both these stereotypes about player upbringing cannot be true:

  • Latin American poor youth plays baseball from sun up to sun down 12 months a year, building arm strength constantly, therefore his arm is “stronger” and he’s less suceptible to injury
  • American little leaguer plays limited schedules (18 games in the spring, perhaps fewer in the fall), has closely monitored pitch counts, therefore does not abuse his arm as a youth and thus his arm is “stronger” later in life as a result.

Here’s a list of the 19 MLB pitchers who have already gone under the TJ knife so far in 2014 (data from baseballheatmaps.com, which has detailed Disabled List data).

Of these 19 pitchers, they are evenly split between being starters (10) and relievers (9).  So that doesn’t seem to lend itself to any Starter vs Reliever usage conclusion.

How about Pitching Mechanics?  We’ve all heard ad-naseum about the “Inverted W” and people talking about pronation and timing and elbow lift and etc etc.  Here’s a quick attempt to analyize the mechanics of each of these 19 guys (all photos grabbed as thumbnails from google images for the purposes of demonstration; no copyright infringement intended).

CisnerJose landingFernandezJose landingGriffinAJ landingFigueroaPedro landing

 

NovaIvan landingJohnsonJosh landingMooreMatt landingGearrinCory landing

 

ParnellBobby landingDavisErik landingHernandezDavid landingMLB: Spring Training-Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers

 

RondonBruce landingCorbinPatrick landingParkerJarrod landingBeachyBrandon landing

 

MedlenKris landingHochevarLuke landingLeubkeCory landing2

Quick and Dirty Mechanics analysis (images in same order as list of pitchers above, which is choronological in order of diagnosis in 2014):

  • Inverted W: Griffin, Nova, Gearrin, Beachy, Hochevar
  • Sideways M: Fernandez, Johnson, Davis, Moylan, Rondon, Parker, Medlen
  • Inverted L: Cisnero, Figueroa, Moore, Parnell, Hernandez, Corbin, Luebke

But I’ll immediately add a caveat to these classifications; at various stop-points in a guy’s delivery, he may exhibit “good” or “bad” trends.   Maybe some of these “sideways-M” guys are actually “inverted-W” guys.  Maybe some of these inverted-W guys are ok and the stills make their mechanics seem worse than they are.

Nonetheless; there’s no trend among the 19 guys in terms of their mechanics.  In some cases they’re “bad” (Griffin and Gearrin’s look awful) but in some cases excellent (nobody should look at Moore’s mechanics and say they’re anything but clean, nor with Parnell or Corbin).  These pitchers are overhanders, 3/4-slot guys and even side-armers/submarine guys (Gearrin and Moylan).   These guys include hard throwers (Rondon had the 3rd highest velocity of *any* pitcher in 2013) and softer-throwing guys (Medlen had one of the lowest fastball velocities in the majors in 2013).  There’s starters and relievers almost equally represented in this list.

Conclusion; there’s no conclusions to draw from pitching mechanics analysis.  I think all attempts to look at guys’ mechanics and make judgements are useless.  I think (as does Keith Law and other pundits in the field) that the “Inverted W” is nonesense and that “research” posted online by concerned-fathers-turned-self-appointed-mechanics-experts is not exactly trustworthy.  The fact of the matter is this: throwing a baseball over and over is hard on the body.  Throwing a ball is an unnatural motion, and throwing a ball at max-effort will eventually lead to pitching injuries, no matter what your mechanics.  They can be “good” or “bad” according to someone’s pet theory on bio-mechanics and it has nothing to do about whether a pitcher is going to throw 10 seasons without injury or have two tommy johns before they’re 25.

Some historical context for pitching mechanics arguments: the pitcher who has the 2nd most innings thrown in the non-knuckleballer modern era (behind Nolan Ryan) was Don Sutton.  Sutton displayed absolutely *classic* inverted-W mechanicsnever hit the D/L in his career and threw nearly 5,300 innings over the course of 23 seasons.   Walter Johnson‘s mechanics were awful; he slung the ball sideways as he literally pushed backwards away from the hitter at the end of his delivery.  If someone saw Johnson’s mechanics today they’d talk about how over-compensated he was on his shoulder and how he lost velocity thanks to landing stiff and having zero follow through.  Johnson only threw 5,900 innings in his pro career; yeah those mechanics really held him back.  Nolan Ryan was a freak of nature, throwing at that velocity for as long as he did.  The point?  You just don’t know.


Maybe there’s something to the “showcase abuse” theory for some players.   Maybe there’s something to the travel-ball overuse theory for some kids.  But I think the answer may be a bit more simple.  We all know there’s been a rise in the average MPH of fastballs in the majors, both on starters and especially with relievers.  My theory is simply this: kids who “can” throw upper 90s spend all their time trying to throw upper 90s/max effort fastballs 100% of the time, and human arms just cannot withstand that kind of abuse over and over.  In prior generations, kids who “could” throw that hard wouldn’t, or would rarely try to throw that hard, and thus suffered fewer elbow injuries.

Side note: I also firmly believe that we’re “victims of our own success” to a certain extent with respect to modern medicine; 30 years ago would someone have just “blown out their arm” instead of being diagnosed specifically with a “torn ulnar collateral ligament?”  Would some kid in the low minors who hurt his harm even bother to get an MRI?  How much of the rise in these injuries is simply the fact that we’re better at diagnosing injuries in the modern sports world?

Why are these kids trying to throw so hard these days?  Because velocity is king, and that’s what scouts look for.   A kid who “only” throws mid 80s as a 17-yr old is dismissed, while the kid who can throw mid 90s at the same age is fawned over.   Guys like Greg MaddoxMark Buehrle, and Tom Glavine probably don’t even get drafted in the modern baseball climate thanks to the over-focus on pure velocity.

You can talk about upbringing and showcase events and pitch counts and mechanics all you want, but I think it comes down to Pitcher over-exertion thanks to the rising trend of fastball velocity and the human nature urge of prospects and farm-hands to show more and more velocity so they can advance their careers.

What do you guys think?  Do you dismiss the “inverted-W” arguments like I do?  Do you think its all about showcase events?

Pitcher Wins on the FA Market – 2014 edition with bWAR

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Kershaw's new $30M/year contract will be tough to live up to.  Photo via wiki.

Kershaw’s new $30M/year contract will be tough to live up to. Photo via wiki.

One of my pet projects of recent years has been to track “major” Starting Pitcher free agent contracts and then to do analysis of how they turned out, on a Dollar per Win basis.  This post is an updated version of this analysis to determine some of the “best” and “worst” free agent contracts ever awarded to starting pitchers.  It is updated for 2014 from last year’s version of the post by my putting in all the 2013 data for pitchers, plus putting in the significant 2014 FA contracts.  And, per requests I have added in bWAR and $/bWAR for analysis (though, as we’ll soon see, $/bWAR can be tricky to interpret for really poor performing pitchers).

The raw data spreadsheet is available in Google Docs at this link, or along the side of this blog window in the NAR Creation links section.  I havn’t cut and pasted any of the data here because the spreadsheet is too “wide” for the blog; I suggest opening it up in a separate tab while reading this post.

Data Taxonomy/caveats: For ease of analysis, I depend on the Average Annual Value (AAV) of the contracts as opposed to trying to figure out exactly how many wins were earned in which year of a varying contract amount.  Therefore (for example), Gio Gonzalez‘s contract may have only paid him $3.25M in 2012 but I’m using the full AAV of $8.4M for the purposes of the analysis (it would just be far too difficult to calculate each pitcher’s dollar per win on an annualized basis otherwise).  This analysis focuses heavily on dollars per pitcher Win, despite the known limitations of the win stat.  There is also dollars per Quality Start and now dollars per bWAR (baseball-reference’s version of WAR).

Here’s some interesting facts, that come out of this analysis (some of these points can also be seen at the amazing Cots Salary database, now at Baseball Prospectus, and are confirmed in my spreadsheet tracking the same):

Largest total Starting Pitcher Contracts ever signed

  • Clayton Kershaw‘s new 7yr/$214M deal signed this past off-season.
  • It beats out the previous record holder (Felix Hernandez‘s  7 year, $175M extension) by nearly $40M in total value.
  • CC Sabathia (7yrs/$161M in 2009) was the longer-time previous record holder before that.
  • Zack Greinke (6yr/$147M)  and Cole Hamel‘s 6yr/$144M contract deserve mention.
  • Masahiro Tanaka signed one of the biggest ever deals (7 year $155M) before he ever threw a MLB pitch.

Largest Single-Season AAV

  • Kershaw’s new deal finally beats out Roger Clemen‘s long standing single season record 1yr/$28M deal in 2007 as the largest AAV pitcher contract.  
  • Justin Verlander‘s new deal gives him an AAV of $28M, a 10% jump up from the $24-$25M/year threshold deals we saw a number of pitchers sign in the last couple of years.

What are some of the Worst Deals ever made?  Lets talk about some of these awful deals on a $ per win or $ per bWAR basis.  Most of these contracts are well known to baseball fans and are commonly thrown around when talking about the worst historical FA contracts, but they’re fun to revisit.  Thanks to the bWAR inclusion, a number of new/more recent contracts now pop up on this list.

  • Kei Igawa‘s 2007 deal with the Yankees, which was 5yrs/$20M but included a $26M posting fee, is generally speaking the worst $AAV per Win contract ever signed.  Igawa went 2-4 in 13 starts over the life of this 5 year deal, equating to $23M per win for his team.  He made exactly one quality start, meaning the Yankees paid $46M per QS.He spent the last two seasons of this contract buried in AAA.   For their $46M, the Yankees got a combined -0.6 bWAR out of Igawa.
  • Chris Carpenter signed a 2yr/$21M extension in St. Louis before the 2012 season that seemed like a good deal at the time; unfortunately for both sides Carpenter hurt his shoulder, only made 3 starts in 2012, went 0-2 and contributed a -2.3 bWAR in that time.  So his dollars per win is infinite and his $/bWAR is uncalculatable.  I still rank Igawa’s deal as worse though since it cost his team more than double the dollars, and since Carpenter’s troubles were injury related while Igawa’s was mostly due to performance.
  • Jason Schmidt‘s 3yr/$47M contract with the Dodgers.  Schmidt made 10 total starts and went 3-6, equating to $15.6M per win.  He totaled a -0.5 bWAR during this 3 year contract.
  • Oliver Perez made just 21 starts (and got 3 wins in the duration of his 3 year/$36M contract with the Mets.  He was released in March of 2011, the final year of the contract, causing the Mets to eat $12M in salary.  The Nats picked him up and carried him on their AA roster all year before dumping him as well; he’s now trying to remake himself as a loogy and is in Arizona’s bullpen.
  • Matt Harrison‘s current deal (so far) has been pretty expensive for the Rangers: for $11M in salary in 2013 they got just two starts and two bad losses before he hit the D/L and missed the remainder of the season.  He still hasn’t returned.  Odds are he recovers and has a chance to earn this contract, but you never know with shoulder injuries (though to be fair the injury that cost him 2013 was a ruptured disk in his back).
  • Tim Lincecum‘s recently completed 2yr/$40.5M contract was pretty ugly for San Francisco; he went 20-29, had just a 43% Quality Start percentage and contributed -2.3 bWAR over those two seasons for his $40M.
  • Barry Zito signed a 7yr/$126M deal.  In those 7 years he went 63-80 and contributed just 3.0 bWAR in the lifetime of the contract.  That’s $42M per win.  By way of comparison, Tanner Roark‘s 5 weeks of effort for the Nats last summer totaled 2.0 wins.
  • Mike Hampton‘s injury plagued/ill conceived 7yr/$121M contract resulted in two full missed seasons and just a grand total 3.0 bWAR of value.
  • Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren both managed to put up negative bWAR for their 2013 seasons (for which they were both being paid $13M a piece).  But those are just one-year deals; they aren’t the multi-year disasters that these other contracts can be.
  • Chan Ho Park signed a 5yr/$65M deal with the Dodgers; for those $65M the Dodgers got precisely 0.2 total bWAR in 5 seasons.  That’s right; for that money they could have fielded a 4-A pitcher and gotten comparable value.  Park was 33-33 during that time and missed significant time with injury.
  • Darren Dreifort (6.1M/win and 0.2 bWAR in 5 seasons), Russ Ortiz (4.7M/win and -3.2 bWAR in 4 seasons), Carl Pavano ($4.4M/win and 0.4 bWAR in 4 seasons), and Carlos Silva ($4M/win and -0.7 bWAR in 5 seasons) all had pretty infamous contract disasters too.

How about some of the Best Contracts ever signed?  Lots of players have signed small one year deals and won double-digit games, so those really cannot count.   Starting with an arbitrary floor of a $50M free agent contract, here’s some of the best value FA contracts ever signed:

  • Pedro Martinez: 7yr/$92M, during which he went 117-37 for the Red Sox for a $786k/win total.
  • Justin Verlander‘s 5yr/$80M deal from 2010-2014 will be a steal for Detroit: he’s already contributed 25+ bWAR and is at about $888k/win.  The same probably will not be said about his mammoth $140M extension.
  • Mike Mussina went 92-53 in his 6yr/$88.5M contract for $961k/win.
  • Chris Carpenter‘s 4yr/$50.8M deal from 2008-2011 was a steal for St. Louis: He may have missed some time but he still went 44-23 during that contract, contributed 13.6 bWAR and his $/win number was just $1.1M.  He’s the only guy who appears in both the “best contracts” and “worst contracts” section in this post.
  • Mark Buehrle‘s 4yr/$56 deal from 2008-2011 resulted in about a $1M/win and just $3.2M/bWAR, great value for his team despite his mediocre looking 54-44 record.
  • Jered Weaver, Yu Darvish, and Hyun-Jin Ryu deserve  mention here; they’re all in the early stages of their long-term contracts and are easily providing value in terms of $/win.

So what does this data mean?  Here’s some conclusions when talking about Dollars per Pitcher Win.

  1. Up to perhaps the mid 2000s, if you got about one (1) pitcher Win per million dollars spent on a player in the Free Agent market that you were doing great.
  2. Now, if you’re getting anything under $1.5M per win, you should be happy.  Especially if you’re paying an ace $25-$30M/year.
  3. Anything over $2M/win is usually considered a bust.  Nearly every contract in the $2M/win in AAV and above has been mentioned and criticized as being a bad contract; the list of “worst ever” above starts at $4M/win and goes higher.
  4. If you pay a starter anything more than about $25M/season,  you’re really going to have a hard time getting value back.  There’s only been a handful of 20-game winners over the past 5 years or so, but paying a starter $24M like Greinke is getting is almost certainly going to be regretted at some point.  An injury or a lost season completely blows the $AAV/win.
  5. It illustrates more clearly than anywhere else the value of a top-notch, pre-Arbitration starter.  Take Clay Buchholz for example; in 2010 he was 17-7 while earning the league minimum of $443k.  That equates to $26,059/win on the same staff that was busy paying Daisuke Matsuzaka $2.06M per win (when adding in the $52M posting fee).  Buchholz has struggled with injuries since then, but teams that  lock down and depend on these pre-arb starters save untold amounts of FA dollars as a result.
  6. This analysis is nearly impossible to do across baseball eras because of the general inflation of contracts and especially because of the bonanza of FA dollars being thrown out there right now.  Pedro Martinez at the top of his game signed a 7yr/$92M deal.  Imagine what he’d get today?  It could be three times that considering how good he was in comparison to his counterparts in the mid 90s.  He was coming off a 1997 season in which he struck out 305 batters, had a 1.90 ERA, a 219 ERA+ and won the Cy Young award.  So going forward a general $1.25M/win is a more accurate barometer for whether or not a pitcher has “earned” his contract.  But there’s no easy way to draw a line in the free agency sand and say that before yearX $1M/win was a good barometer while after yearY $1.25M/win is a good barometer.
  7. A caveat to the $1M/win benchmark; there are different standards for obtaining wins.   If you sign a $3M 1 year deal and then subsequently go 3-12 with a 6.00 ERA … while it looks like you reached the $1m/win threshold in reality you were, well, awful.  This analysis only really holds up for major FA contracts paying in excess of $10M/year.

And here’s some discussions on Dollars per WAR, since we’ve added that in for this 2014 analysis.

  1. The general rule of thumb is that “wins” in terms of WAR “cost” is somewhere between $6M and $7M on the open market.  Did $6M/win work out in this analysis?  Yes and no; it is sort of difficult to do this analysis with players badly underperformed.  Take for example John Danks: he’s two years into a 5yr/$65M contract where he’s gotten hurt in both seasons and has just 7 wins and a 0.7 bWAR.  Well, $26M in total salary paid so far for 0.7 bWAR equals a $37M/war figure.  Well that’s not quite right.
  2. The best you can do is look at player-by-player examples.  Johan Santana‘s 6yr/$137.5M contract cost his team $9M/bWAR.  That’s unquestionably bad.   Cole Hamels went 17-6 in 2012 on a 1yr/$15M deal, which turned out to be just $3.2M per WAR for his 4.2 bWAR season.  That’s great.
  3. The $/bWAR analysis gets worse if the bWAR is negative; our own Dan Haren came in with a -0.01 bWAR for 2013; how do you decide how much the Nationals paid on a dollar-per-bWAR basis for Haren?  If you divide 0.01 into his $13M salary you get a non-sensical -$1.3 billion figure.

 


Lastly, for comparison purposes, here’s the above analysis looks for the 2013 Nationals pitching staff.  Keep in mind that the $/win figures for pre-arbitration pitchers vastly skew the analysis (apologies if this bleeds off the side of the browser screen)

Last Name First Name Total Value (includes guaranteed $) $$/year AAV Contract Term Years Into Contract Starts QS QS % W L $ per start $ per QS $ AAV per win Total bWAR $ per bWAR
Strasburg Steven $19,000,000 $4,750,000 2009-13 5 75 46 61.3% 29 19 $316,667 $516,304 $818,966 8.5 $2,794,118
Gonzalez Gio $42,000,000 $8,400,000 2012-16 2 64 43 67.2% 32 16 $262,500 $390,698 $525,000 7.9 $2,126,582
Zimmermann Jordan $5,350,000 $5,350,000 2013 1 32 21 65.6% 19 9 $167,188 $254,762 $281,579 3.7 $1,445,946
Detwiler Ross $2,337,500 $2,337,500 2013 1 13 6 46.2% 2 7 $179,808 $389,583 $1,168,750 0.1 $23,375,000
Haren Dan $13,000,000 $13,000,000 2013 1 30 15 50.0% 10 14 $433,333 $866,667 $1,300,000 0.0 (0 war)
Maya Yunesky $8,000,000 $2,000,000 2010-13 4 10 1 10.0% 1 4 $800,000 $8,000,000 $8,000,000 -0.8 ($10,000,000)
Karns Nathan 490,000 490,000 2013 1 3 0 0.0% 0 1 $163,333 (0 QS) (0 wins) -0.4 ($1,225,000)
Jordan Taylor 490,000 490,000 2013 1 9 3 33.3% 1 3 $54,444 $163,333 $490,000 0.0 (0 war)
Ohlendorf Ross 1,000,000 1,000,000 2013 1 7 3 42.9% 3 1 $142,857 $333,333 $333,333 0.9 $1,111,111
Roark Tanner 490,000 490,000 2013 1 5 4 80.0% 3 1 $98,000 $122,500 $163,333 2.0 $245,000

The counting figures for Starts/QS/Wins/Losses are cumulative for the life of whatever contract the player is on.  So for Strasburg, he was basically in the 5th year of his original 5 year deal, hence the 75 total starts in those 5 years.

The 2013 Nats have $AAV per win and $/bWAR mostly on the good side:

  • Yunesky Maya and Nathan Karns both contributed negative bWAR for 2013, so their numbers are meaningless.
  • Taylor Jordan and Dan Haren both came in at zero (or close enough to it) bWAR, so their numbers are also meaningless.  Well, not “meaningless” in Haren’s case: basically he gave the team replacement performance for his $13M in salary; the team could have just called up a guy from AAA and let him pitch all year and gotten about the same value.  Thanks for the memories!
  • The best $/win guy was Tanner Roark, who got 3 wins for his MLB minimum salary … and that’s not even taking into account the fact that Roark’s 2013 salary probably should be pro-rated for this analysis.
  • The worst $/win guy was  Maya; who demonstrated yet again that his $8M contract was a mistake.
  • Nearly the entire staff has $/win values under the “you’re doing well” threshold of $1M/win.  And nearly the whole squad is doing $/bWAR well below the $6M/bWAR range.

 

Opening Day Starter Trivia – Updated for 2014

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CC Sabathia continues to be the active leader in Opening Day starts. Photo via wiki/flickr.

Some of my favorite trivia questions  revolves around Opening Day Starters.  With another Opening Day in the books, here’s some useless trivia related to Opening Day starters.  I’ve updated my Opening Day Starters spreadsheet to Google Docs and created a link in the “Nationals Arm Race creation” section along the right.  Fyi, on a team-by-team basis you can query Baseball-Reference.com for the opening day lineups (here’s the Washington/Montreal franchise’ opening day lineup history as an example).

Current Active Leaders in Opening Day Starts

11 CC Sabathia
9 Mark Buehrle
7 Felix Hernandez
7 Justin Verlander
6 Bartolo Colon
6 Tim Hudson
6 Jered Weaver
6 James Shields
5 Josh Beckett
5 Yovanni Gallardo
4 Jake Peavy
4 Tim Lincecum
4 Clayton Kershaw
4 Jon Lester
3 Strasburg, Cueto, Wainwright, Price, Masterson, Nolasco
2 Lee, Samardzija, Liriano, Dickey, Sale, Feldman

Those players bolded in the list above had 2014 opening day starts and added to their totals.   (Note; there’s plenty of guys out there with 2 or 3 opening day starts but who did not extend their count in 2014; they are not included here).  With the retirement of Roy HalladayCC Sabathia extends his active lead in this category.  Mark Buehrle has given over the reigns of opening day starter possibly for good, based on his standing in the Toronto rotation.  Meanwhile the next closest competitors (Justin Vernalder and Felix Hernandez) could eventually supplant Sabathia, especially if he continues to struggle and gets replaced as the Yankees’ ace.

Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander continue to be the best bets to broach the all-time records (see below) based on their ages, their current counts and their new long-term contracts.

Answers to other Opening Day start trivia:

Current Active Leader in consecutive Opening Day Starts: Sabathia with 9 consecutive, split among two teams.  Second is Verlander with 7 straight, albeit all with the same team.  There was talk about how his Cy Young-winning rotation mate Max Scherzer should have gotten the ball this year, given Verlander’s 2013 struggles.

Most ever Opening Day Starts all-timeTom Seaver with 16 in his career.

Most ever Consecutive Opening Day Starts: Hall of Fame lightning rod Jack Morris, who made 14 straight such starts.

Number of first-time opening day starters in 2014: Ten (10) guys got the ball on opening day for the first time, slightly down from last year’s 13.  Injuries gave some pitchers the ball on opening day over other expected rotation mates (this is definitely the case with the likes of Julio Teheran, Tanner ScheppersSonny Gray, Dillon Gee, Jorge De La Rosa), and its probably the case that others got the ball on opening day thanks to their own personal ascention to the “lead-dog” spot on their teams (Jose Fernandez, Madison Bumgarner).  The other three newbies (Andrew CashnerWade Miley, and Chris Tillman) probably fall somewhere inbetween these categories.

Who seems most likely to break Seaver or Morris’ Records at this point? Still Sabathia, who already has 11 opening day starts (and 9 straight), is the #1 in New York, is only 32 and still has four years on his current deal. However, he took a big step backwards in 2013 performance-wise, and the Yankees spent a ton of money on Masahiro Tanaka, and there could be a passing of the torch if Tanaka blows it out in 2014.  Meanwhile Hernandez already has 7 opening day starts, just signed a deal that takes him through 2019 with a relatively easy option for 2020.   That’s many more seasons under contract and he’d only be 34 years of age by its end.   He could be the standard holder if he stays healthy and continues to pitch like an ace.

Most Inconsisent team using Opening Day Pitchers: Oakland.  They’ve used 9 different opening day starters in the last 9 seasons, and that’s likely to continue since both the candidates for this year had injuries that forced them to go to a rookie for 2014.  Pittsburgh is right behind them;  they have used 7 different opening day starters in the last 7 seasons, and 13 different starters in the last 15 seasons. The Nats have at some point employed no less than three former Pittsburgh opening day starters: Ron Villone, Oliver Perez and Zach Duke.   Colorado, Baltimore and Minnesota have also struggled for most of the past decade to find a dominant, reliable “Ace” and constantly cycle through new opening day starters, and once again each is using a different guy in 2014.

 

2014 Rotation Rankings 1-30

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The ace on the best rotation in the game.  Photo: talksportsphilly.com

The ace on the best rotation in the game. Photo: talksportsphilly.com

Last year, with my excitement over Washington’s Dan Haren signing and my supposition that Washington had the best rotation in the game, I ranked all 30 team’s rotations ahead of the 2013 season.  Then, after the season was done, I revisited these pre-season rankings with a post-mortem to see how close (or, more appropriately, how far off) my rankings turned out to be.

Here’s the 2014 version of this same post: Pre-season rankings of the MLB’s rotations; 1 through 30.  Warning; this is another huge post.  I guess I’m just verbose.  At this point midway through Spring Training there’s just a couple of possible FAs left that could have altered these rankings (Ervin Santana being the important name unsigned right now), so I thought it was time to publish.

The top teams are easy to guess; once you get into the 20s, it becomes pretty difficult to distinguish between these teams.  Nonetheless, here we go (I heavily depended on baseball-reference.com and mlbdepthcharts.com for this post, along with ESPN’s transaction list per team and Baseball Prospectus’ injury reports for individual players).

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Written by Todd Boss

March 10th, 2014 at 9:50 am

Posted in Majors Pitching

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Have we seen the last 300-game winner? (updated post 2013 season)

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Sabathia remains the best chance for another 300-game winner .. Photo wiki/flickr chris.ptacek

Sabathia remains the best chance for another 300-game winner .. Photo wiki/flickr chris.ptacek

Welcome to the latest installment of  the “Will we ever see another 300-game winner” post.

(Aside; yes I know the limitations of the “win” statistic.  However, nobody looks at a 20-game winner on the season or a 300-game winner for his career and excuses it as a statistical aberration; the pitcher win will continue to be important to players and in the lexicon of the game for years to come, despite Brian Terry‘s #killthewin campaigns).

Of the 24 pitchers in the game’s history to have reached the 300-game plateau, 4 of them have done it in the last decade (they being Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine).  However, there exists a distinct belief in the game that we may not see another 300-game winner for some time, thanks to pitch count obsessions, innings limits, 5-man rotations, NL small-ball managing, match-up relievers and generally a huge rise in bullpen usage over the last 20 years.

In the past year, I’ve collected some topical reading related to this post:

When we first broached this topic (in April 2009), Sabathia was still the best bet (outside of Randy Johnson, who sat at 296 before the 2009 season began), but it didn’t look that good for anyone else to reach the plateau, and a couple of the names we guessed as having an outside shot (Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir) seem like ridiculous choices now.  When we most recently broached this topic (at the end of the 2012 season), we explained some statistical models we and others were using to try to predict who may have the next best shot at reaching the mark.  We concluded that Sabathia and Hernandez were both pretty good guesses at the time to reach the plateau.

How are things looking now?

I maintain a spreadsheet (uploaded to google and/or available via the links to the right of this page) that ranks candidates using a couple of formulas inspired by Jay Jaffe (see 2012′s post for the full thought process behind them).  Basically Jaffe’s prediction models assume that the pitcher can win X games per year after a set age (in Jaffe’s case, his simple formula assumes pitchers win 15 games/year until their age 42 season, a relatively optimistic projection and hence why he self-titles it using the words “blindingly optimistic”).  I’ve used a couple other methods to rank pitchers (calculating average number of wins past the age of 18 or 23, but since some guys get drafted out of HS and debut at 20 or 21 these projections end up looking ridiculous), in order to find candididates to put into the discussion.  I also don’t really even consider a guy until he gets to 50 career wins, so there’s no wild speculation about someone like Shelby Miller (15 wins in his age 22 season) or Jose Fernandez (12 wins in his age 20 season).

So, without further ado, here’s a list of starters right now who are in the conversation of possibly reaching 300 wins in their career and my % chance opinion of getting there.

pitcher age wins % Chance of making 300 wins
CC Sabathia 32 205 75%
Clayton Kershaw 25 77 50%
Felix Hernandez 27 110 10%
Justin Verlander 30 137 10%
Madison Bumgarner 24 49 5%
Trevor Cahill 25 61 5%
Zack Greinke 29 106 5%
Mark Buehrle 34 186 1%
Rick Porcello 24 61 0%
Yovani Gallardo 27 81 0%
Matt Cain 28 93 0%

Thoughts per starter:

  • CC Sabathia remains the pitcher with the best chance of reaching 300 wins, but i’ve downgraded his probability from last year’s 90% to just 75% right now.  Why?  Well read no further than the link about his 2013 decline, where his FB velocity dropped, his ERA rose and he posted a sub 100 ERA+ value for the first time in his career.  He still won 14 games, but his win totals have declined four years in a row.   On the plus side, he’s a workhorse pitching for a team that historically has a great offense, which enables him to get wins despite an inflated ERA (he had 4 or more runs of support in 20 of his 32 starts in 2013 … Stephen Strasburg just started crying).   It still seems entirely plausible he can average at least 10-12 wins for the next 7 seasons and hit the milestone before hanging them up.
  • Clayton Kershaw improves his probability of hitting the plateau from last year to this year based on two factors: First, he has clearly stepped up and is now the pre-eminent starter in the game and seems set to continue to post 16-20 win seasons for the extended future.  Secondly, the Dodgers now spend money like no other, ensuring a winning team that gets Kershaw victories even if he’s not pitching his best.  He was “only” 16-9 in 2013; I would expect him to put up more wins each season in the next few years, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with 160 career wins before he’s 30.
  • Felix Hernandez‘s chances have plummetted; going from 75% last year to just 10%.  Why such a precipitous drop?  Two factors; first he took a noted step back in FB velocity this year, to the point where pundits were questioning his arm strength.  Secondly, he signed a massive deal to stay in Seattle … and Seattle right now is not a winner.  It has a completely dysfunctional ownership and management group and seemingly has no idea how to put together a baseball team.  They’re competing in a division of teams with better management willing to spend more money, and these factors are going to continue to have Hernandez put up the 13-14 win seasons he has been doing for the last four years.  He’s already 27: if he’s doesn’t have back to back 20 win seasons his chances are kaput.
  • Justin Verlander, like Hernandez and Sabathia, also had a curious drop in performance in 2013, leading me to drop his 300-game chances from one in three to one in ten.  At age 30 he has logged just 137 wins and has gone from 24 to 17 to 13 in the last three seasons.  If he can right the ship and get back to the 18-20 game win plateau, he can get his 300-game mojo back, but at age 30 he’s less than halfway there, so chances are looking pretty slim.
  • Madison Bumgarner appears here mostly because of his advanced win totals at such a young age; he already has 49 career wins before his 24th birthday.  He’s averaging 14 wins a season so far, and with a 14 win average in every season between now and his age 40 year he’d hit his mark.  But I have his chances right now at only 5%; its just too early to really tell if Bumgerner will have the endurance and continued success to get there.  Plus, is Bumgarner an elite starter or more in the mold of a Mark Buehrle (i.e., a durable lefty who grinds out 13-14 win seasons for a decade)?
  • Trevor Cahill is in nearly the same boat as Bumgarner, except that I don’t think he’s quite as good.  In fact, Cahill seems like he’s bound for Mark Buehrle territory (see below); an innings eating guy who is always right around the 13-12 mark each season.  If he does this for the next 15 years, he may get close.  I give him a slight chance.
  • Zack Greinke has gone from not even being considered to having a 5% chance.  Why?  Well he’s signed a huge long term deal with a very good team AND he now pitches in both the NL and in a pitcher’s park.   In 2013 he put up a very quiet 15-4 record and I think with his stuff and his health he could put up multiple 16-18 win seasons.  That’d get him to the mid 200s by the time he’s nearing 40 … maybe enough to have him go for it while pitching into his early 40s.  Or maybe not; by the time he’s 40 he’ll likely have nearly $250M in career earnings and may just buy a ranch somewhere.
  • Mark Buehrle‘s career 162 game average W/L record (14-11) is identical to Bumgarner’s.  In his last 5 season’s he’s won 13 games four times and 12 games once.  I have given him a 1% chance of hitting 300 on the off-chance that he pitches well into his mid 40s, continues to put up 4th starter figures and finishes with a career record of something like 302-285.  He doesn’t miss many starts, so perhaps he’s that durable.
  • The last three guys mentioned (Rick PorcelloYovani Gallardo and Matt Cain) are all given 0% chances at this point but are listed thanks to their advanced win totals by their mid 20s.  Cain’s sudden drop off in 2013 (a common theme in this list) has seemingly cost him any shot at reaching 300 wins despite his normal sturdiness.  Gallardo had a 10% chance last year and drops to zero thanks to my having almost no confidence that he is a good enough pitcher to accumulate enough wins going forward.  And Porcello remains essentially a 5th starter who just happened to matriculate to the majors at the tender age of 20.  I can see him having a career similar to Buehrle’s; long tenures of near .500 record. In fact, ironically Porcello’s 162-game average W/L record is identical (14-11) to Buehrle’s … which is also identical to Bumgarner and very close to Cahill’s.  I think there’s something clearly “accumulator” in nature to all these guys.

What has happened to some of the candidates from last year not mentioned yet?

  • Roy Halladay went from a near Cy Young season in 2011 to retirement in just two short seasons.  Shoulder injuries are a killer.  He retires with 203 wins.
  • Chad Billingsly lost nearly the entire 2013 season to injury, scuttling what dim chances he had.  He’s now not even guaranteed a spot in LA’s high powered rotation.
  • A bunch of veterans who already had little chance (but were mentioned anyways) have now retired: Jamie MoyerLivan HernandezAndy Pettitte, and Kevin Millwood.
  • Tim Hudson is an interesting case; he sits at 205 wins, lost a chunk of last season to injury but signed on in a pitcher’s park in SF.   He’s gotten 17,16 and 16 wins the last three seasons in his mid 30s; can he just continue to get 16-17 win seasons and suddenly be looking at 300 wins by the time he’s 42?  Maybe, but he’s going to have to be good these next two seasons.

Thoughts?  Do you care about 300 winners like I do, or is it just an anachronism of baseball history that will go the way of 300 strikeouts, 30-wins and hitting .400?

 

 

 

 

 

What is the “ceiling” of various Nats pitching prospects? (Updated for 2013)

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Can Giolito live up to his potential? Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

Can Giolito live up to his potential? Photo unk via federalbaseball.com

Two off-seasons ago, I did an analysis piece discussing the “ceilings” of the various pitchers (focusing on starters in the system) on our major and minor league rosters.   That led to some good discussions in the comments about what the definition of a pitcher’s ceiling is, about what a “#3″ starter is, etc.

Now that the 2013 season has ended, I thought it’d be a good topic to revisit and factor in recent performances and the last couple year’s worth of player movement in and out of the organization.

This post mostly focuses on the Starters we have in the organization.  There’s no real mention of guys who are already in the bullpen (either in the majors or the minors) unless we have heard rumors of them converting back to being starters at some point or another.


Some setup

What do I mean by a #1, #2, #3, #4 or #5 starter?  With some simple examples (from the 2011 post)

  • A #1 starter is a MLB-wide “Ace,” one of the best 15-20 pitchers in the league, someone who you’re genuinely surprised if he performs badly on a given day, opten mentioned in Cy Young conversations.   Guys like Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander.
  • A #2 starter is a  slight step down from your elite “Aces,” but still an excellent starter.  Can challenge for the top awards if they put everything together for a season, but remains consistently above average.   I see guys like Madison Bumgarner, Homer Bailey or James Shields in this category
  • A #3 starter is better than your league average pitcher, someone who is solid, consistent innings eater and who routinely gives you quality starts but not much more than that.   I think of guys like Mark Buehrle, Kyle Lohse, or John Lackey here.
  • A #4 starter is basically someone defined as someone who’s a slight step above the back-of-the-rotation guy, usually a veteran guy who knows how to pitch but doesn’t have the best stuff to really go much beyond or a younger guy who is establishing a foothold of a career.   Good examples from this year could include the likes of Kyle Kendrick, or Edwin Jackson or Bronson Arroyo.
  • A #5 starter is just good enough to fill out your rotation.  Starters at the back end who all you’re hoping for is 6 innings and keeping your team in the game.  Think of someone like Jason Marquis at this point in his career, or Ryan Vogelsong.

For clarity; if your team has three excellent pitchers, it does not mean that a league-wide ace is defined by these standards as a “#3″ starter.  When the Phillies big 3 of Roy HalladayCliff Lee and Cole Hamels were all healthy and firing on all cylinders a couple of years back, all three were #1 starters in my book.  Just because Hamels pitched third in the rotation didn’t mean he was a “#3 starter.”

Also before getting going, a quick discussion on “ceiling” versus “predictions” and what I’m trying to do here.  As was pointed out when I posted on this topic in 2011, a pitcher’s “ceiling” is quite literally the highest level of capability that we can expect that pitcher to accomplish given a perfect set of circumstances.   Scouts routinely talk about player “ceilings” and “number X” starters as a convenient way to speak a common language when describing a pitcher.   I like to be a bit more grounded in predicting what may happen to pitchers, so this analysis is less about the perfect-scenario “ceiling” as it is a thoughtful prediction on where a guy may eventually fit in given his talents and his performances as compared to scouting reports and industry buzz.


Updated ceiling predictions for Nats pitchers post 2013 season:

Nationals Starter Ceilings (per scouting reports, personal observations).  I’m not going to include any MLFAs here, assuming that they’re all either 4-A or minor league starters as a ceiling.  I’m also only really going down to full-season ball guys, throwing in a couple of our higher-end prospects.  Its just impossible to really project guys in rookie ball unless you’re a professional scout.

  • #1: Strasburg, Giolito
  • #2: Gonzalez, Zimmermann
  • #3: Cole, Ray
  • #4: Jordan, Roark
  • #5: Detwiler, Solis
  • MLB bullpen: Purke, Karns, Ohlendorf, Garcia, Johansen, Treinen
  • 4-A starter: Hill, Mooneyham, Schwartz, Voth, Meyers
  • Minors starter: Rosenbaum, Maya, Gilliam, Rauh, Anderson, Encarnacion, Bacus, Turnbull
  • Minors bullpen: Perry, Demny, RPena

Discussion:

#1 Starters: Stephen Strasburg is already an “Ace” starter in this league, ranking up among the 15-20 best arms out there.   However he’s no longer considered in the same class as the likes of Kershaw, thanks to injury and a curious lack of dominance this year (have a draft post on this topic that i’ll expand on later).  Lucas Giolito is widely considered the Nats top prospect and an easy future #1 pitching prospect.  Big guy, big arm, and by all accounts has come back post TJ surgery.  The BA guys think that he could be the #1 prospect in the entire minors with another dominant 2014.  How quickly can he move through the minors?  Can he stay healthy?  Right around the time Giolito arrives, the Nats “3 big names” could all be at the end of their current contracts and an interesting conundrum could face the team; keep the band together?  Or let these guys go and re-load/re-build?

#2 Starters: Just as Gio Gonzalez made the leap to a #2 starter with his Cy Young challenging 2012, Jordan Zimmermann has made that leap by virtue of his near-20 win season in 2013.  I believe these two guys can stay as #2 starters for the next few years, until they hit the regression stages of their careers.

#3 Starters:  A.J. Cole has regained his mojo after bouncing around the California league and advanced to AA this year.  He features a significant fastball and but complaints in the scouting world about his secondary stuff lead him to a #3 starter prediction.  I think he should be a #2 ceiling, and perhaps a spring training working with the Nats staff can get him back where we thought he was when we drafted him.  I’m sure picking Robbie Ray to have a higher likely ceiling than his 2013 AA counterparts would be mocked.  But look at the evidence: he’s the same age and same draft class as Cole and has consistently out-performed him when they’ve been on the same team.  He’s lefty, he averaged well over a K/inning this year, and suddenly he’s 22 and he may be “done” with AA.  Why aren’t his credentials higher with prospect-watchers?  It isn’t has if he’s a soft-tosser; he throws decent stuff from the left side.  I continue to think he’ll move along with Cole and they’ll be promoted to the majors within a couple of weeks of each other, perhaps mid 2015.

#4 Starters: If you want to say I’m crazy for thinking that Tanner Roark can maintain his September pace as a starter for this team, I can understand.  I’m not personally convinced that he’s going to be a mediocre 6th inning reliever or continue to be a Kris Medlen-in-2012 anomoly who continues to get guys out.  For now, i’m rooting for the better story.  Meanwhile I’m also not convinced that I have Taylor Jordan pegged properly; I think honestly he could be a #3 pitcher in the league.  This lack of real punch-out capabilities is what’s holding him back for now.  That being said, guys don’t just come up to the majors and post a 3.66 ERA.  For now, a #4 ceiling sounds good.

#5 StartersI’ve come to believe that Ross Detwiler‘s reached his ceiling; his 2012 season is as good as we’re going to see him.  Not because of a lack of talent; its because he just can’t stay healthy.  I’ve seen and heard reports that Detwiler’s stuff is fantastic; that’s great on paper but he just can’t seem to translate that to the big club on a consistent basis.  I would not shed a tear if he headed to the bullpen, other than to think that its a waste of his talents.   I also feel like Sammy Solis will stay as a starter and continue to climb up the ranks, and tops out as a 5th starter just by virtue of his being left handed.  There’s just something to be said about being a lefty with decent stuff being able to hang around the league (think of someone like Eric Stults).  

MLB Bullpen: Right now i’m projecting a whole handful of our good minor league starters to eventually get transitioned to the bullpen.  Which is good and bad; good for this team as they continue to develop arms and continue to have quality guys in the pen.  But bad in that it predicts a severe thinning of the starting pitching corps.  First off, I think the Christian Garcia as starter experiment is over; he needs to focus on being a reliever so that he can stay healthy and contribute.   I believe that Ross Ohlendorf‘s time as a starter is over, but he should slot in nicely as the 7th guy/long-man/spot-starter that this team will need here and there in 2014.  The more I think about Nathan Karns, the more I think he’d make an excellent setup guy.  Big arm, big fast-ball, not really that much secondary stuff.  He got hit hard as a starter; in shorter stints he could dial it up more and focus on his limited arsenal.   Unfortunately I think Matthew Purke may be headed to the pen as well, but his gun-slinger action could make him an excellent later-innings pitcher, perhaps even a closer, if he can translate that to a bit more velocity.  Lastly the reported two biggest arms in the minors (Jake Johansen and Blake Treinen) project for now as bullpen guys.  Again, I hope I’m wrong, but so far the evidence seems to point at big velocity and little else.

What is a 4-A starter?  A guy basically who looks good in AAA but who, for whatever reason, can’t translate that success to the Majors.  They may get a call-up here and there but never pitch well enough to stick.  This is how I see a handful of guys ending up: Brad Meyers has been hanging around this status for several seasons and just can’t get a break.   I’ve also tagged some guys with good numbers in the lower minors but with fringy scouting reports with this for now, thinking that a lack of a dominant fastball means they’ll stay as a starter until they reach their peak.  Taylor HillBlake Schwartz, and Austin Voth all seem to fit this bill.  Lastly the curious lack of dominance of Brett Mooneyham lends me to believe he’ll end up in this predicament as well.  I hope I’m wrong here; I’d love to see these guys take the leap, or (save that) find success in the bullpen.

Career Minors Starter: Unfortunately, I think we’ve seen the best that Danny Rosenbaum and Yunesky Maya can give; they’ve both had shots at a major league roster and couldn’t stay.  I think they’ll retire as AAA starters.  The rest of these guys listed are mediocre-to-decent starters in the system who don’t seem to be listed as true prospects.  I’m specifically disappointed thus far in Kylin Turnbull, who couldn’t make the leap to high A and seems like he needs to make some sort of adjustment in 2014.

Career Minors Bullpen guys: When Ryan Perry passed through waivers off the 40-man roster, his chances of ever making it back to the majors took a huge dent.  Paul Demny‘s precipitous drop this season also seems to spell doom for his career.  And apropos of nothing else, Ronald Pena seems like he has achieved the dreaded “organizational arm” tag.


On the bright side, the top-heavy nature of this list gives fans optimism for the power of this rotation for years to come.  In 3 year’s time (if Giolito, Ray and Cole all matriculate as expected) you’d have two Aces, two #2s and two #3s to choose from for your rotation.  That’s significant, considering that lots of teams are scraping the bottom of the barrel for their 5th starter.  If Ray and Cole turn into servicable major leaguers, you could trade/let go a guy who gets too expensive (Gonzalez or Zimmermann) with an able, cheap replacement.  Maybe I’m too high on Ray and Cole (who are both youngsters) … but then again maybe i’m too low on Jordan and Roark (both of whom have already shown the ability get major league hitters out).

Agree/Disagree/Hate what I’ve written?  I’m open to criticism.

 

2013 Pre-season Rotation Rankings revisited

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Scherzer's dominant Cy Young season brings the Tigers to the top.  Photo AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Scherzer’s dominant Cy Young season brings the Tigers to the top. Photo AP Photo/Paul Sancya

In January, after most of marquee FA signings had shaken out, I ranked the 2013 rotations of teams 1-30.  I was excited about the Nats rotation, speculated more than once that we had the best rotation in the league, and wanted to make a case for it by stacking up the teams 1-30.

I thought it’d be an interesting exercise to revisit my rankings now that the season is over with a hindsight view, doing some post-mortem analysis and tacking on some advanced metrics to try to quantify who really performed the best this season.  For advanced metrics I’m leaning heavily on Fangraphs team starter stats page, whose Dashboard view quickly gives the team ERA, FIP, xFIP, WAR, SIERA, K/9 and other key stats that I’ll use in this posting.

  1. (#2 pre-season) DetroitVerlander, Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer, Porcello (with Alvarez providing some cover).  Scherzer likely wins the Cy Young.  Three guys with 200+ strikeouts.  The league leader in ERA.  And we havn’t even mentioned Justin Verlander yet.  A team starting pitching fWAR of 25.3, which dwarfed the next closest competitor.  There’s no question; we knew Detroit’s rotation was going to be good, but not this good.  Here’s a scary fact; their rotation BABIP was .307, so in reality this group should have done even better than they actually did.  Detroit’s rotation was *easily* the best rotation in the league and all 6 of these guys return for 2014.
  2. (#3 Preseason): Los Angeles DodgersKershaw, Greinke, Ryu, Nolasco, and Capuano (with Fife, BeckettLilly, Billingsley and a few others helping out); The 1-2 punch of Kershaw (the NL’s clear Cy Young favorite) and Greinke (who quietly went 15-4) was augmented by the stand-out rookie performance of Ryu, the surprisingly good half-season worth of starts from Nolasco, and then the all-hands-on deck approach for the rest of the starts.  This team used 11 different starters on the year thanks to injury and ineffectiveness, but still posted the 2nd best team FIP and 5th best fWAR in the league.
  3. (#8 pre-season): St. LouisWainwright, Lynn, Miller, Wacha and Kelly (with Garcia, Westbrook, and a few others pitching in).  Team leader Chris Carpenter missed the whole season and this team still was one of the best rotations in the league.  Westbrook missed time, Garcia only gave them 9 starts.  That’s the team’s planned #1, #3 and #4 starters.  What happened?  They call up Miller and he’s fantastic.  They call up Wacha and he nearly pitches back to back no-hitters at the end of the season.  They give Kelly a starting nod out of the bullpen and he delivers with a better ERA+ than any of them from the #5 spot.  St. Louis remains the bearer-standard of pitching development (along with Tampa and Oakland to an extent) in the game.
  4. (#22 pre-season): Pittsburgh:  Liriano, Burnett, Locke, Cole, Morton (with Rodriguez and a slew of call-ups helping out).  How did this team, which I thought was so low pre-season, turn out to have the 4th best starter FIP in the game?  Francisco Liriano had a renessaince season, Burnett continued to make Yankees fans shake their heads, and their top 6 starters (by number of starts) all maintained sub 4.00 ERAs.  Gerrit Cole has turned out to be the real deal and will be a force in this league.
  5. (#1 pre-season) WashingtonStrasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Haren, Detwiler with Jordan, Roark and other starts thrown to Karns and Ohlendorf).   Despite Haren’s continued attempts to sabotage this rotation’s mojo, they still finished 3rd in xFIP and 5th in FIP.  Haren’s 11-19 team record and substandard ERA/FIP values drug this group down, but there wasn’t much further up they could have gone on this list.   If  you had replaced Haren with a full season of Jordan’s production, maybe this team jumps up a little bit, but the teams above them are tough to beat.
  6. (#11 pre-season) Atlanta: Hudson, Medlen, Minor, Teheran and Maholm, (with rookie Alex Wood contributing towards the end of the season).  Brandon Beachy only gave them 5 starts; had he replaced Maholm this rotation could have done better.  Hudson went down with an awful looking injury but was ably covered for by Wood.  They head into 2014 with a relatively formidable  and cheap potential rotation of  Medlen, Minor, Teheran, Beachy and Wood, assuming they don’t resign Hudson.  How did they over-perform?  Teheran finally figured it out, Maholm was more than servicable the first couple months, Wood was great and came out of nowhere.
  7. (#26 pre-season) ClevelandJimenez, Masterson, McAllister, Kluber, Kazmir.  Too high for this group?  7th in rotation fWAR, 8th in FIP, and 6th in xFIP.  This group, which I thought was going to be among the worst in the league, turned out to be one of the best.  Jimenez and Masterson both had rebound years with a ton of Ks, and the rest of this crew pitches well enough to remain around league average.  They were 2nd best in the league in K/9.  You can make the argument that they benefitted from the weakened AL Central, but they still made the playoffs with a relative rag-tag bunch.
  8. (#9 pre-season) CincinnatiCueto, Latos, Bailey, Arroyo, Leake (with Tony Cingrani).  Cueto was good … but he was never healthy, hitting the D/L three separate times.  Luckily Cingrani came up from setting strikeout records in AAA and kept mowing them down in the majors.  Latos was dominant,  Leake took a step forward, and Bailey/Arroyo gave what they normally do.  If anything you would have thought this group would have been better.  6th in Wins, 7th in xFIP, 9th in FIP.  Next year Arroyo leaves, Cingrani gets 32 starts, Cueto stays healthy (cross your fingers, cross your fingers, cross your fingers) and this team is dominant again despite their FA hitting losses.
  9. (#25 pre-season) New York MetsHarvey, WheelerNiese, Gee, Hefner and a bunch of effective call-ups turned the Mets into a halfway-decent rotation all in all.  7th in xFIP, 11th in FIP.  Most of this is on the backs of Matt Harvey, who pitched like the second coming of Walter Johnson for most of the season.  Wheeler was more than effective, and rotation workhorses Niese and Gee may not be sexy names, but they were hovering right around the 100 ERA+ mark all year.  One superstar plus 4 league average guys was good enough for the 9th best rotation.
  10. (#12 pre-season) TexasDarvish, Holland, Ogando, Perez, Garza at the end.  Texas’ fWAR was the 2nd best in the league … but their accompanying stats drag them down this far.  Despite having four starters with ERA+s ranging from 114 to Darvish’ 145, the 34 starts given to Tepesch and Grimm drag this rotation down.  Ogando couldn’t stay healthy and Perez only gave them 20 starts.  Garza was mostly a bust.  And presumed #2 starter Matt Harrison gave them just 2 starts.  But look out for this group in 2014; Darvish, a healthy Harrison, and Holland all locked up long term, Ogando in his first arbitration year, and Perez is just 22.  That’s a formidable group if they can stay on the field together.
  11. (pre-season #6) Tampa BayPrice, Moore, Hellickson, Cobb, Archer and Roberto Hernandez.   Jeff Niemann didn’t give them a 2013 start, but no matter, the Tampa Bay gravy train of power pitchers kept on producing.  Cobb was unhittable, Archer was effective and Moore regained his 2011 playoff mojo to finish 17-4 on the year.  An odd regression from Price, which was fixed by a quick D/L trip, and a complete collapse of Hellickson drug down this rotation from where it should have been.  They still finished 12th in FIP and xFIP for the year.
  12. (pre-season #21) SeattleHernandez, Iwakuma, Saunders, Harang, Maurer, and Ramirez.  Seattle featured two excellent, ace-leve performers and a bunch of guys who pitched worse than Dan Haren all year.  But combined together and you have about the 12th best rotation, believe it or not.
  13. (pre-season #7) PhiladelphiaHalladay, Hamels, Lee, Kendrick, Lannan (with Cloyd and Pettibone as backups).  The phillies were 13th in xFIP, 10th in FIP on the year and regressed slightly thanks to the significant demise to their #1 guy Halladay.  Lee pitched like his typical Ace but Hamels self-destructed as well.  The strength of one excellent starter makes this a mid-ranked rotation.  Had Halladay and Hamels pitched like expected, they’d have finished closer to my pre-season ranking.
  14. (pre-season #17) BostonLester, Buchholz, Dempster, Lackey, Doubront, and Peavy: Boston got a surprise bounce back season out of Lackey, a fantastic if oft-injured performance from Buchholz, a mid-season trade for the effective Peavy.  Why aren’t they higher?  Because their home stadium contributes to their high ERAs in general.  Despite being 3rd in rotation fWAR and 4th in wins, this group was 17th in FIP and 18th in xFIP.  Perhaps you could argue they belong a couple places higher, but everyone knows its Boston’s offense that is driving their success this year.
  15. (pre-season #16) New York YankeesSabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, Nova, Hughes/Phelps Hughes and Phelps pitched as predictably bad as you would have expected … but Sabathia’s downturn was unexpected.  Are  his years of being a workhorse catching up to him?  The rotation was buoyed by unexpectedly good seasons from Nova and Kuroda.  Pettitte’s swang song was pretty great, considering his age.  Enough for them to slightly beat expectations, but the signs of trouble are here for this rotation in the future.   Pettitee retired, Kuroda a FA, Hughes a FA, a lost season for prospect Michael Pineda and other Yankees prospects stalled.  Are we in for a dark period in the Bronx?
  16. (pre-season #29) Miami: FernandezNolasco, Eovaldi, Turner, Alvarez, Koehler and a few other starts given to either re-treads or MLFAs.  For Miami’s rotation of kids to rise this far up is amazing; looking at their stellar stats you would think they should have been higher ranked still.  Fernandez’s amazing 176 ERA+ should win him the Rookie of the Year.  Eovaldi improved, rookie Turner pitched pretty well for a 22 year old.  The team dumped its opening day starter Nolasco and kept on … losing frankly, because the offense was so durn bad.  Begrudgingly it looks like Jeffry Loria has found himself another slew of great arms to build on.
  17. (pre-season #5) San FranciscoCain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Zito, Gaudin.  What the heck happened here?  Cain went from an Ace to pitching like a 5th starter, Lincecum continued to completely forget what it was like to pitch like a Cy Young winner, Vogelsong completely fell off his fairy-tale cliff, and Zito completed his $126M journey in typical 5+ ERA fashion.  I’m surprised these guys are ranked this high (14th in FIP, 16th in xFIP but just 27th in fWAR thanks to just horrible performances all year).  What the heck are they going to do in 2014?
  18. (pre-season #10) Arizona: CorbinKennedy, McCarthy, Cahill, Miley and Delgado.  Corbin was 2013′s version of Miley; a rookie that came out of nowhere to lead the staff.  Miley struggled at times but righted the ship and pitched decently enough.  The rest of the staff really struggled.  I thought this was a solid bunch but they ended up ranked 23rd in FIP and 14th in xFIP, indicating that they were a bit unlucky as a group.
  19. (pre-season #15) Chicago White SoxSale, Peavy, Danks, QuintanaSantiago and Axelrod.  Floyd went down early, Peavy was traded.  Sale pitched well but had a losing record.  The team looked good on paper (16th in ERA) but were 26th in FIP and 17th in xFIP.
  20. (pre-season #14) Oakland: ColonAnderson, Griffen, Parker, Straily, Milone, with Sonny Gray giving 10 good starts down the stretch.  This rotation is the story of one amazing 40-yr old and a bunch of kids who I thought were going to be better.   Oakland is bashing their way to success this season and this group has been just good enough to keep them going.  I thought the likes of Griffen and Parker would have been better this  year, hence their falling from #14 to #19.
  21. (pre-season #19) Chicago CubsGarza, Samardzija, JacksonWood, and FeldmanFeldman and Garza were flipped once they showed they could be good this year.  Samardzija took an uncharacteristic step backwards.  Jackson was awful.  The Cubs ended up right about where we thought they’d be.  However in 2014 they look to be much lower unless some big-armed prospects make the team.
  22. (pre-season #20) Kansas CityShields, Guthrie, Santana, Davis, Chen, Mendoza: despite trading the best prospect in the game to acquire Shields and Davis, the Royals a) did not make the playoffs and b) really didn’t have that impressive a rotation.  12th in team ERA but 20th in FIP and 25th in xFIP.   Compare that to their rankings of 25th in FIP and 26th in xFIP in 2012.   But the results on the field are inarguable; the team improved 14 games in the Win column and should be a good bet to make the playoffs next year if they can replace the possibly-departing Santana and the ineffective Davis.
  23. (pre-season #23) Milwaukee: LohseGallardo, Estrada, Peralta, and dozens of starts given to long-men and call-ups.  I ranked this squad #23 pre-season before they acquired Lohse; in reality despite his pay and the lost draft pick, Lohse’s addition ended up … having almost no impact on this team in 2013.  They finished ranked 23rd on my list, and the team was 74-88.
  24. (pre-season #13): Los Angeles AngelsWeaver, Wilson, Vargas, Hanson, Blanton, Williams: The Angels are in a predicament; their two “aces” Weaver and Wilson both pitched well enough.  But nobody in baseball was really that surprised by the god-awful performances from Hanson or Blanton (2-14, 6.04 ERA … and the Angels gave him a two year deal!).  So in some ways the team brought this on themselves.  You spend half a billion dollars on aging offensive FAs, have the best player in the game languishing in left field because your manager stubbornly thinks that someone else is better in center than one of the best defenders in the game … not fun times in Anaheim.  To make matters worse, your bigtime Ace Weaver missed a bunch of starts, looked mortal, and lost velocity.
  25. (#28 pre-season) San DiegoVolquez, Richards, Marquis, Stults, Ross, Cashner: have you ever seen an opening day starter post a 6+ ERA in a cave of a field and get relased before the season was over?  That happened to SAn Diego this year.  Another case where ERA+ values are deceiving; Stults posted a sub 4.00 ERA but his ERA+ was just 87, thanks to his home ballpark.  In fact its almost impossible to tell just how good or bad San Diego pitchers are.   I could be talked in to putting them this high or all the way down to about #28 in the rankings.
  26. (pre-season #27) Colorado: ChatwoodDe La Rosa, Chacin, Nicaso, Francis and a few starts for Garland and Oswalt for good measure.  Another staff who shows how deceptive the ERA+ value can be.  Their top guys posted 125 ERA+ figures but as a whole their staff performed badly.  26th in ERA, 19th in FIP, 26th in xFIP.  Colorado is like Minnesota; they just don’t have guys who can throw it by you (29th in K/9 just ahead of the Twins), and in their ridiculous hitter’s park, that spells trouble.
  27. (pre-season #4) TorontoDickeyMorrowJohnson, Buehrle, Happ, Rogers, and a line of other guys.  What happened here?  This was supposed to be one of the best rotations in the majors.  Instead they fell on their face, suffered a ton of injuries (only Dickey and Buehrle pitched full seasons: RomeroDrabeck were hurt.  Johnson, Happ, Redmond only 14-16 starts each.  This team even gave starts to Chien-Ming Wang and Ramon Ortiz.  Why not call up Fernando Valenzuela out of retirement?  It just goes to show; the best teams on paper sometimes don’t come together.  The Nats disappointed in 2013, but probably not as much as the Blue Jays.
  28. (pre-season #18) BaltimoreHammel, Chen, Tillman, Gonzalez, FeldmanGarcia with a few starts given to Gausman and Britton.  I’m not sure why I thought this group would be better than this; they were in the bottom four of the league in ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA.  It just goes to show how the ERA+ value can be misleading.  In their defense, they do pitch in a hitter’s park.  Tillman wasn’t bad, Chen took a step back.  The big concern here is the health of Dylan Bundy, who I thought could have pitched in the majors starting in June.
  29. (pre-season #30) Houston: BedardNorris, Humber, Peacock, Harrell to start, then a parade of youngsters from there.  We knew Houston was going to be bad.  But amazingly their rotation wasn’t the worst in the league, thanks to Jarred Cosart and Brett Olberholtzer coming up and pitching lights-out for 10 starts a piece later in the year.  There’s some potential talent here.
  30. (pre-season #24) MinnesotaDiamond, Pelfrey, Correia, Denudo, Worley and a whole slew of guys who were equally as bad.  Minnesota had the worst rotation in the league, and it wasn’t close.  They were dead last in rotational ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and it wasn’t close.  They were last in K/9 … by more than a strikeout per game.  They got a total fWAR of 4.6 from every pitcher who started a game for them this year.  Matt Harvey had a 6.1 fWAR in just 26 starts before he got hurt.  Someone needs to call the Twins GM and tell him that its not the year 1920, that power-pitching is the wave of the future, that you need swing-and-miss guys to win games in this league.

Biggest Surprises: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Miami and New York Mets to a certain extent.

Biggest Disappointments: Toronto, the Angels, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Baltimore to some extent.

Disagree with these rankings?  Feel free to pipe up.  I’ll use this ranking list as the spring board post-FA market for 2014′s pre-season rankings.

Written by Todd Boss

October 10th, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Majors Pitching

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Opening Day Starter Trivia

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Sabathia is your current Active leader in Opening Day starts. Photo wiki/flickr chris.ptacek

One of my favorite annual trivia questions amongst my baseball buddies revolves around Opening Day Starters.  With another Opening Day in the books, here’s some useless trivia related to Opening Day starters for my readers.  I’ve uploaded my little Opening Day Starters spreadsheet to Google Docs and created a link in the “Nationals Arm Race creation” section along the right.

Current Active Leaders in Opening Day Starts

10 Roy Halladay
10 CC Sabathia
9 Mark Buehrle
6 Bartolo Colon
6 Derek Lowe
6 Tim Hudson
6 Felix Hernandez
6 Justin Verlander
5 Aaron Harang
5 Josh Beckett
5 Jered Weaver
5 James Shields
4 Jake Peavy
4 Barry Zito
4 Tim Lincecum
4 Yovani Gallardo

Those players bolded in the list above had 2013 opening day starts and added to their totals.  Roy Halladay‘s difficult spring training cost him his shot at Opening Day and thus CC Sabathia moves into a tie for first.  Mark Buehrle has given over the reigns of opening day starter possibly for good, based on his standing in the Toronto rotation (4th starter?).

Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander have chances to broach the all-time records (see below) based on their ages, their current counts and their new long-term contracts.

Current Active Leader in consecutive Opening Day Starts: Verlander with 6 straight.

Most ever Opening Day Starts all-time: Tom Seaver with 16 in his career.

Most ever Consecutive Opening Day Starts: Hall of Fame lightning rod Jack Morris, who made 14 straight such starts.

Number of first-time opening day starters in 2013: no less than 13 first timers this year, nearly half the league.   Some guys got deserved first-time opening day starts (Jeff Samardzija, Matt Cain, and R.A. Dickey), some guys got Opening Day starts mostly out of attrition of other worthy pitchers (Jon Niese, Bud Norris, A.J. Burnett, Vance Worley and Jhoulys Chacin) and some guys are taking over as the new big-dog of their rotations (Brett Anderson, Chris Sale).

Who seems most likely to break Seaver’s Record at this point? Sabathia, who already has 10 opening day starts, is clearly the #1 in New York, is only 32 and still has five years on his current deal.  Question is, if he renews past 2017, can he still earn the #1 spot?   Meanwhile Hernandez already has 6, just signed a deal that takes him through 2019 with a relatively easy option for 2020.   That’s 8 more seasons on his existing 6 opening day starts and he’d only be 34 years of age.   He could be the standard holder if he stays healthy and continues to pitch like an ace.

Ask Boswell 2/25/13 Edition

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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.