The pitching staff for the 2013 Minnesota Twins was positively abysmal a year ago. As a collective, the Twinkies ranked dead last in strikeout rate while simultaneously allowing their opponent’s to rack up more hits than any other staff in the league.
Things were so ugly a year ago that 10 different pitchers made at least 8 starts for Minnesota and just 2 of those 10 finished the season with a sub-4.00 ERA. Twins GM Terry Ryan knows that’s not a recipe for success, which is why he spent most of last week spending upwards of $70 million to shore up his rotation, adding veteran righties Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. The real question is, does that $73 million get the Twins any closer to an AL Central title?
I’m guessing the answer is no. Nolasco will do a solid job providing some strikeouts to a staff in desperate need of them and he does a nice job of keeping the ball in the park, but otherwise it’s difficult to find the positives when the Twins are paying him to be their ace. That being said, Nolasco is a huge improvement over everyone Ron Gardenhire sent to the mound a year ago. He’s the only pitcher on the team with legitimate strikeout stuff and he should eat up plenty of innings on a staff that badly needs a pitcher to do so.
The same goes for new #2 starter Phil Hughes, who should be rejoicing over the fact that he’s leaving the homer-happy Bronx for the spacious confines of Target Field. Hughes has allowed 1 homer per every 5.3 innings pitched in Yankee Stadium since his Major League debut, compared to 1 homer every 10.4 innings in every other park. Target Field, a notoriously deep park, should suit the fly ball happy Hughes nicely.
But a new ball park still doesn’t make Hughes a good pitcher. He still has the same plain, old vanilla fastball and his secondary stuff is mostly underdeveloped. Hughes, even at his best, is still just a league average pitcher.
His ERA+ since becoming a starter full-time is 9 points below the league average and if not for the Yankee offense propping him up for the past half-decade, Hughes would probably be a reliever by now. The righty is just 11-46 if his team scores fewer than 6 runs, which is something Minnesota was quite adept at a year ago. Unless Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano suddenly turn up next season, expect the losses to continue to pile up for Hughes and the Twins.
Washington pickpockets Fister from Detroit
A puzzling offseason in Detroit continued Monday when the Tigers shipped starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi and a couple of young arms. That move was followed by the the prohibitive signing of Joe Nathan, who will fill the closer roll in Detroit. It was the second surprise trade in a matter of weeks from general manager Dave Dombrowski, who appears hellbent on remaking these Tigers into a more flexible outfit.
But outside of flexibility, it’s difficult to see how these deals make the Tigers, a bona fide World Series contender, any better in 2014. Most of Lombardozzi’s value is tied up in his ability to play 2nd base, where Ian Kinsler figures to spend a majority of the time. His bat doesn’t really play in the outfield or at 3rd base, and even if you believe that Lombardozzi and Dirks could make a solid platoon in left field, it in no way justifies trading away one of the 10 to 20 best pitchers in baseball.
Don’t believe me? Take a look:
No matter which way you slice it, that’s a hell of a lot to give up for the quintessential replacement player (Lombardozzi), a 2nd year reliever in Ian Krol, and Double-A pitching prospect Robbie Ray. Maybe Dombrowski is hoping that Ray, the owner of a 3.36 ERA in 142 minor league innings a year ago, turns into another solid rotation piece, but even that line of thinking is odd. Detroit, as currently constructed, is built to win right now so why trade away a good pitcher in the hopes of getting one further down the road?
As for Washington’s perspective on the deal, one has to wonder how quickly GM Mike Rizzo said yes. Three seconds? Five seconds? Seriously, if he put any more thought into it I’d be disappointed. With one quick maneuver, Rizzo was able to improve his 2014 roster significantly without damaging Washington’s extended outlook. The Nats now have the deepest rotation in baseball to go along with a group of young and improving position players. With this much talent on hand, anything short of a deep October run will be viewed as a disappointment.
The price of pitch framing
Yesterday the Tampa Bay Rays announced that they finalized a 2 year/$4.5 million dollar deal with 38-year-old catcher Jose Molina and it may very well be the most interesting $4.5 million handed out this offseason. You may be asking yourself why would any team want to pay an over the hill backstop with bad knees and nothing left in his bat? Well the answers simple. It all comes down to inches, as in the ones Molina routinely adds to a pitcher’s strike zone each time he’s behind the dish.
According to baseballanalytics.org, since 2008, 13.4% of all pitches thrown to Molina that landed outside the strike zone have been called as strikes, which stands as the best mark in baseball over the time frame. That ability to stay quiet behind the plate shows up in the run column as well. According to Baseball Prospectus, Molina saved about 25 runs a year ago solely through his ability to gain an extra inch or two around the corner of the plate.
With Ryan Hanigan joining Molina behind the plate after yesterday’s trade, the Rays now have two of the top 10 framers in baseball behind the dish. Make no mistake, this is a downright brutal offensive pairing. There’s a very good chance they won’t combine for an OPS above .600, but the Rays don’t really seem to care. It’s a clear statement from the organization that they value the ability to get an extra inch or two around the plate over all others when they scour the free agent market for catchers.
Quick hits: Rockies addition
– GM Dan O’Dowd has a little bit of explaining to do following the slightly confusing Dexter Fowler trade. The soon to be 28-year-old is due $7.35 million next season, he’s still arbitration eligible, and he’s been as consistent as they come in Colorado. Fowler’s usually good for 120-140 games, an OPS of .780 or so as well as some solid centerfield defense. In exchange for 2 or 3 wins worth of value the Rockies will receive back-of-the-rotation fodder Jordan Lyles and defensive specialist Brandon Barnes.
-Lyles made at least 15 starts in each of the past 3 seasons for the Astros and he failed to post an ERA lower than 5 each year and the thought of him making 15-20 starts a year in Coors is downright scary. Barnes, for his part, is an excellent defensive outfielder but he’s downright abysmal everywhere else. He struck out in a quarter of his 450 or so plate appearances, while managing a meager 21 walks. It makes you wonder why O’Dowd didn’t hold out for a better package of players in exchange for Fowler.
– One quick though on the Astros: the new regime, led by Jeff Luhnow, has been absolutely nailing these smaller trades. Fowler is just the latest in a long line of minor victories for the Houston front office.
– The Rockies followed that move up by moving close to a deal with Justin Morneau. It looks like they’re going to pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million for the next 2 seasons, which could very well look like a steal when this wacky offseason concludes. Morneau should provide a solid glove and some good pop against right-handers when he’s in the lineup. Manager Walt Weiss may want to keep him out of the lineup against lefties however. Morneau has hit just .205 with 5 homers in the past 3 years.
In the first 9 seasons of Ron Gardenhire’s reign as manager of the Minnesota Twins the franchise won 6 division titles and finished with a winning record in every season but 2007. Gardenhire’s teams have never made much noise in the playoffs but that has as much to do with the vagaries of the playoffs system as it does with the success of the organization. Six division titles and five 90-win seasons is in nine years is a remarkable stretch of success for a team that has never ranked near the top of the league in payroll, and it stands in stark contrast to the failures of the past 2 seasons. Many of those division title-winning teams were led by a solid offenses that worked like crazy to get on base and pitching staffs heavy on guys with great control and light on players with big strikeout ability. That organizational philosophy blew up in Minnesota’s face during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, as the Twins ranked 2nd to last in run prevention both seasons. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see the organization attack its weakest point by acquiring a trio of young pitchers to rehabilitate a wounded staff.
For the past couple of seasons, Sports Illustrated’s excellent Tom Verducci has written a pre-season article concerning the “Year-After Effect”, which has since been named the Verducci Effect. This link, contains the 2012 version of Verducci’s list, which was published all the way back in mid-January. This type of thinking is especially important when we consider innings caps for young pitchers, as evidenced by the recent shut downs of Stephen Strasburg, Jeff Samardzija, and others.
Basically Verducci tries to highlight young pitchers who have seen a considerable increase in their workloads from one season to the next. It’s interesting research mostly because it attempts to spotlight at-risk pitchers, ones who may see a substantial increase in ERA at best, and ones who may become injured at worst.
One of the toughest things to quantify in all of sports is a catcher’s value on defense. Their are so many responsibilities and subtle nuances that go into being a quality Major League backstop. The best of the best are able to deftly juggle the responsibilities of managing a pitching staff, framing borderline pitches, blocking pitches, holding base runners, throwing said runners out when they attempt to steal, and much, much more. Recently I’ve been doing some research into catching defense and I have been somewhat unsatisfied by both the traditional statistics (caught stealing %, passed balls, and so on) and by the advanced metrics (URZ and defensive runs saved). A few excellent studies in particular have been done to analyze a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, but otherwise most analysis is left to judgment. I’ve been compiling some of my own numbers relating to catchers controlling the base running game in order to gain a better understanding of who the best backstops in baseball really are, and I’d like to share some of my findings today.
We’ve already talked about the Ichiro trade, the early sales from South Beach, a pair of deals made by the Phillies to improve NL West contenders, and the Zach Greinke deal was covered perfectly by Jonah Keri, so now it’s time to take a look at the rest of the deals around the major leagues during this busy last week, beginning with a trade that has flown completely under the radar thus far.
Before the 2012 season, nearly every baseball analyst, including yours truly, picked the Detroit Tigers to absolutely dominate what looked to be a weak division. Well half of that prediction has come true thus far, because the AL Central has indeed been the weakest division in baseball. In fact its been so bad its time to dust off the old nickname, the Comedy Central. Currently the slumping White Sox hold a slim half game lead over the win-a-game-lose-a-game Indians, and a 2.5 game lead over the struggling Tigers. If baseball abolished divisions and moved all teams into one league, no AL Central team would rank among the top 5 in the American League. So does anyone really want to win this thing? Let’s take a look to see which team has the best chance, starting with those White Sox.