On Chris Davis and the Use of Amphetamines

It was announced today that Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles was suspended 25 games for amphetamine use. He will miss the last 17 games of the regular season and as many as 8 playoff games, depending on how far the Orioles get in the playoffs. Specifically, as far as I know, Davis was taking prescription Adderall.

Adderall is the brand name for generic amphetamines. When sold illegally, it’s better known as Speed. The amphetamine class of molecules also includes crystal meth. I’m going to go into the chemistry in a bit of detail, so in honor of Baseball ProspectusRussell Carleton

WARNING! GORY CHEMISTRY!

The term amphetamine (shown above) covers a specific class of phenethylamines that act as a powerful stimulant. It’s best known as Adderall, a common treatment for ADHD and narcolepsy. It helps ADHD patients focus and concentrate, and since it’s such a potent stimulant, it helps to keep narcolepsy patients awake.

Amphetamines are chiral compounds. When a molecule has a non-superimposable mirror image, it is said to be chiral. If you look a the two identical molecules below, you can see that in three dimensions, you can’t rotate one molecule so that the four colored balls overlap. Each mirror image of the molecule is called an enantiomer, and can be distinguished as “left-handed” or “right-handed”1, as illustrated below. Each enantiomer has identical physical properties, so why do you ask that we should care about this concept? Well, chirality can affect how a molecule binds to an enzyme. A left-handed molecule may bind well to an enzyme, while the right-handed molecule doesn’t bind well at all, or vice versa. One enantiomer may provide a therapeutic effect, while the other may actually be toxic.

Adderall is a mixture of enantiomers. It’s made up of 75% dextroamphetamine and 25% levoamphetamine. Dextroamphetamine is the more potent of the two, but the other enantiomer has its uses too. Even if it didn’t, as long as it wasn’t toxic, its presence wouldn’t matter. Separating enantiomers is a difficult and costly process, so since the racemic mixture, which is what a mixture of enantiomers is called, of amphetamines is safe, that’s what it’s sold as2. In case you’re wondering, Adderall isn’t the same thing as crystal meth, but it’s very, very close. Simply methylating the nitrogen (the “N”) of the amphetamine molecule converts it to methamphetamine, which is the chemical name of crystal meth. Compared to Adderall, crystal meth is more neurotoxic and addictive, which is why it isn’t prescribed. That, combined with its effects as an aphrodisiac and euphorant, is why it’s a banned substance. Adderall, as we all know, is legal and safe when used responsibly. Amphetamines are actually a clear liquid. That’s not amenable for human dosing, so the compound is reacted with hydrochloric acid in order to form a solid salt.

END GORY CHEMISTRY

As is common knowledge among baseball fans, amphetamines, or “greenies” as they were called, were consumed like popcorn in the older days of baseball. There were clubhouses where it was the job of one of the attendants to make sure the bowl or jar of greenies was always kept full. Even all-time greats like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron have admitted to taking amphetamines.

The baseball season is a long, grueling marathon. It’s 162 games long with only 18 days off, with a bunch of travel mixed in. Yes, baseball players get to travel on fancy chartered flights, but they frequently travel late at night and don’t get to their destinations until the wee hours of the morning. They get what little sleep they can, and they get ready to play again that night. When that’s what your life is like, you need all the help you can get to stay energized and focused. Let me be clear, though, that I’m neither condemning now condoning the use of amphetamines. I’m simply explaining the rationale behind the players’ motives. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Amphetamines are considered to be a performance enhancing drug (PED). We’ll get to the PED characteristics of the drug shortly.

Despite the fact that Adderall is a controlled substance and a suspected PED, a ballplayer is allowed to take amphetamines if he gets a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) from MLB. All a player needs to do is find a doctor to diagnose him with ADHD. That’s it. Remember, there’s no purely objective test for ADHD, so if you don’t actually have it, you basically just have to be very convincing. The fact of the matter is that all you have to do is to keep trying until a doctor will give you what you want. If one doctor shoots you down, just try another one. Sadly, this also works with other drugs such as SSRIs and benzodiazapenes.

Depending on what criteria the doctor uses to diagnose the patient, somewhere between 2-5% of adults have ADHD. In MLB, that number is around 12%. What a joke, huh? It certainly looks like the vast majority of players are faking it in order to get the TUE. MLB has completely failed in regulating amphetamines. They say it’s illegal, yet they leave a loophole the size of Petco Park. If MLB isn’t going to scrutinize these TUEs, they might as well either completely legalize the drug or completely ban it.

Chris Davis had the TUE in the past, but for some reason that hasn’t become clear yet, he wasn’t able to get it for the 2014 season. Obviously, he continued using anyway. Chris Davis ended up getting suspended because this was his SECOND violation. You only get a warning for the first offense. So why did Davis continue using after his first violation? There are three possibilities:

  1. He’s an idiot.
  2. He’s addicted.
  3. He legitimately has ADD/ADHD, and therefore has a medical need to continue using.

From what I’ve read, Davis may really have had ADHD. Even if that’s true, I’m sure he didn’t mind the stimulative effects of the drug. It could be a mixture of the three reasons I gave. It’s all speculative, and really, it’s not that important. If Davis couldn’t get the TUE, then he should’ve stopped using. While he was expected to regress some from his monster 2013 season, he was still expected to be a major contributor and an important part of the 2014 Baltimore Orioles, and doing something that could get him suspended at any time was selfish and careless. Thankfully for Orioles fans, due to his dismal season and the Orioles huge 11.5 game lead in the AL East, Davis’ absence will have a minimal impact.

Amphetamines as a PED has been a hot button topic in recent years. Like steroids, the “evidence” against them is anecdotal. It has been scientifically proven that Adderall will boost energy, focus, and cognitive abilities. The same cannot be said about its capability to boost baseball performance. Although steroids draw more ire from baseball fans, I’d argue that at least for position players, amphetamines are more of a PED than steroids. This is absolutely only a theory of mine. It is an untested hypothesis and therefore I have no evidence to back this up. My reasoning is that a drug that boosts your energy and focus will boost a player’s hit tool, i.e. make him a better hitter. Steroids can only boost your power, and the hit tool is more important than power. It’s also reasonable to assume that it will boost a players fielding skills. Again, being more alert and focused will help with fielding the ball better. Steroids may be able to help you throw harder, but range and fielding is more important than arm strength. For all you anti-steroid fans out there, think about this next time you condemn a player for steroid use, and don’t forget the number of Hall of Famers that have readily admitted to taking greenies.

I think it’s absolutely unfair to call Chris Davis a cheater. There’s no difference between Davis and all the players with a TUE. Furthermore, if Davis really does have ADHD, he’s certainly less of a “cheater” than players who are faking the condition so that they can legally take Adderall.

While I’m on the subject of Chris Davis, I’d like to touch upon his season a little bit. Last season, Davis had a breakout year. He hit an excellent .286/.370/.634, good for a 168 wRC+ and 6.1 WAR. He also led the league with 53 HR and 370 total bases. His success was due to a mechanical adjustment in his swing. The power was always there, he was just finally able to make the contact necessary to make use of that power. Going into this season, he was expected to regress some. PECOTA had him projected at .259/.324/.479. I originally thought that was a bit of an extreme regression. The projection systems were taking his pre-2013 seasons into account, and obviously couldn’t know of the adjustments he made at the plate. As it turns out, PECOTA was being too kind. This season, Davis has been terrible, hitting .196/.300/.404 with “only” 26 home runs. That’s only a 93 wRC+. He is hitting for a lot of power, but it’s not enough to overcome the low AVG and OBP. That power has barely kept him above replacement level offensively.

So what happened? Jeff Sullivan wrote a good piece for Fangraphs exploring this question, and it’s well worth your time. With all due respect to Sullivan, I think the answer is simpler than he’s proposing. For starters, he does have a .242. BABIP, which is almost 80 points below that of his career. All that bad batted ball luck will certainly normalize. Baseball Prospectus got a quote from a scout that explains things further:

“His timing is off; his hands and wrists aren’t working; he’s a mess. It’s to the point where you hope he’s been playing with some sort of undisclosed injury this year, because even the batting practice displays are uncomfortable.”

It looks like he’s either hurt, or he got his mechanics all out of whack again. Add that statement to his low BABIP and natural regression, and you get a simple explanation for his struggles this year. The power is absolutely, positively still there. I don’t believe we’ll ever see 2013 Chris Davis again. I do think he’s a mechanical adjustment and improved plate approach away from becoming an effective slugger again. I’m making it sound more trivial than it really is, but I think there’s still the potential for a 4 WAR player in there.

Hopefully going into next season, Davis will have gotten healthy (if that was the problem), made the adjustments he needs, and get that TUE he needs. I’m optimistic that he can once again become a major contributor to the Baltimore Orioles next season, and if they’re lucky, maybe he can make an impact late in the ALCS or the World Series.

 


  1. Chemists don’t use those terms. We use more technical terms, the explanation of which is probably too involved for a simple baseball column. 
  2. That doesn’t fly anymore. The FDA won’t approve drugs anymore that are a racemic mixture. 

Baseball Reactions (9-5-2014)

The National League batting title is currently a three-man race between Ben Revere, Justin Morneau, and Josh Harrison. Ridiculous, huh? This is a great example of why batting average is overrated. Of course I’m not saying that it’s bad to have a high batting average, just that it’s an incomplete method for evaluating hitters and therefore can be misleading. Harrison is legitimately having a good year, but there are a long list of players having a better year at the plate than Revere and Morneau.

Let’s get Harrison out of the way first. It seems like he heard all the criticisms of his joke of an All-Star game selection and has been playing like a man possessed since then. In the second half of the season, he’s hitting an outstanding .328/.358/.583. His 164 wRC+ is second only to Buster Posey’s torrid pace of a 185 wRC+. He’s likely to finish the season with at least 5 WAR. That’s a great season. It puts him head and shoulders above Revere and Morneau. However, in terms of true talent level, I think he’s no better than those two. Before this season, Harrison was a replacement level1player. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Harrison is going to sustain his .343. BABIP next season. It’s 70 points above that of his career coming into this season. To his credit, he is walking more and his power has been increasing each year. I don’t think he’s truly a replacement level player anymore. If he’s worth even 2 WAR next year, Pirates fans should be thrilled.

Ben Revere has produced a roughly league average amount of offense as evidenced by his 96 wRC+ and 2.7 oWAR2. That hardly fits the perception of a batting title winner, doesn’t it? So why isn’t a .313 hitter worth more offensively? Because a hitter’s offensive contributions is solely tied to getting on base and hitting for power. Batting average doesn’t do a good job of measuring either. Revere never walks, so his OBP is only slightly above average. His “power” is renowned throughout baseball for all the wrong reasons. Revere has 20 power. He has the lowest ISO in the NL3. He hit his very first home run this season in his fifth year in the majors! This guy could really win the batting title! Interesting enough, Revere’s .338 BABIP is only 15 points above his career average. He certainly doesn’t hit the ball hard, so I’m guessing his career BABIP is a function of his speed.

Justin Morneau has a prettier slash line than Revere at .312/.353/.483. He’s getting on base at a good clip and is hitting for a good amount of power. However, that’s largely a function of playing at Coors Field. You would think he’d be producing a lot more offense than Revere. That’s only partially true. If we look at his wRC+, which corrects for park factors, he comes in at 115. That’s decent, but again, that hardly fits the perception of a batting title winner. Like Harrison, his average is inflated by an unsustainably high BABIP. Again, that’s likely due to the hitters’ paradise that is Coors Field.

Fans and the media need to stop overrating batting average. The batting title could likely go to a player that’s not even in the top 40 in the league. Here’s hoping that Buster Posey goes on a tear to end the season.

*****

A couple of days ago, Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote a column comparing Mark Teixeiria to Ryan Howard. His argument was that Texeira’s contract situation is similar to Howard’s. This isn’t Omega’s Corner stupid, but I respectfully disagree.

Sherman starts off by conceding that the $45 million left on Texeira’s deal isn’t as bad as the $60 million left on Howard’s. He also concedes that although Teixeira isn’t the Gold Glove caliber defender that he once was, he is still far superior defensively than Howard. He’s right on both accounts. Both players also cannot be traded but for completely different reasons. I could see somebody taking Teixeira, but he has a no-trade clause that he’s unlikely to wave. If he’d be willing to wave it, I can definitely envision a team trading for him. It would be a low return for the Yankees to be sure, but doable. Howard, on the other hand, is just flat-out untradeable. He can’t play defense, he can’t run, he can’t hit, and lefties destroy him. He’s effectively a platoon DH on an NL team. He has been worth a total of -1.4 WAR the past three seasons. That’s $25 million a year for a player that is literally costing you wins. If I were a GM, I wouldn’t take Howard even if the Phillies were willing to pay his entire salary and accept nothing in return. The only way I see Howard being moved is if he’s packaged with Cole Hamels or Chase Utley. The Phillies would have to be willing to accept a low return on one of those players in return for unloading Howard. The only time I can remember something like that happening is with the blockbuster trade involving the Dodgers and Red Sox two years ago.

The biggest difference between Teixeira’s and Howard’s contracts is that the Yankees weren’t idiots giving Teixeira the deal in the first place. He was a free agent coming off a 7.1 WAR season. He had a track record of high OBPs and hitting for a lot of power. Furthermore, he was also one of the best defensive first baseman in baseball. $180 million was a fair deal given the free agent market and Teixeira’s talent.

Ryan Howard, unfortunately, was the complete opposite. In what would be the first (and possibly the worst) of many terrible decisions made by Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., he gave a market competitive deal to Howard when he was still two seasons away from free agency. Given his age, why not wait one more season to see how Howard regresses? He was coming off a season when he hit an excellent .279/.360/.571. That was worth only 3.8 WAR because his defense was so bad. If he was even league average defensively, he would’ve been worth at least 5 WAR that season. At the time he had just started his age 30 season, and the Phillies decided to lock him up through age 37. You don’t need to be a hardcore sabermetrician to know that that alone should’ve been a red flag. Slow, slugging first basemen like Howard have historically aged and regressed terribly after they turn 30. They say that you can’t predict baseball, but sometimes you can, and Howard’s case was an example of how you could bet the farm that that deal was going to be a disaster. Since signing the deal, Howard has been worth a total of 1 WAR.

So what could’ve possibly possessed Amaro to make this deal? Howard had led the league in RBIs three out of the four previous seasons. I hope this serves as a reminder to front offices and fans everywhere of what happens when you value a context dependent stat that measures a fake skill.

If I were the Phillies, I’d just cut Howard and eat the money. It may sound crazy to eat $60 million, but it’s not. It’s the sunk cost fallacy. Howard is only going to get worse, and as a guy who’s already a negative WAR player, a scrub off the scrap heap would be an improvement over him. Look at it this way: You can either pay Howard to hurt the team or you can pay him to not hurt the team. Understanding that those are the only two options the Phillies have, paying him to not hurt the team by cutting him is the most logical option.

*****

Last night, it was announced that the Arizona Diamondbacks had finally fired their GM, Kevin Towers. This really came as a surprise to no one. When Tony La Russa was hired a few months ago at a position above Towers, the writing was on the wall. I’m only surprised that they didn’t wait until after the season.

I’m not going to go into detail about Towers’ track record with he Diamondbacks. If you’re interested, Jay Jaffe wrote something just like that for SI here. To put it simply, Kevin Towers does not live in the real world. It’s as if he has watched way too many sports movies in his lifetime. He seemed to believe that teams win via toughness and grit and heart and spirit and playing the game the right way and via other nebulous soft factors like that. You know, just like in the movies. You just have to believe in yourself!

Towers is a cautionary reminder of what happens when you value makeup over talent. As a result of his misguided beliefs, he ended up making bizarre trade after bizarre trade. He would constantly sell low on good players because they didn’t fit the gritty personality of the team, or some nonsense like that. Here are some “highlights” from Towers’ tenure.

He gave away Stephen Drew.
He traded Justin Upton for Martín Prado and Randall Delgado.
He traded Trevor Bauer for Didi Gregorious.
He traded Ian Kennedy for Joe Thatcher.
He traded Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs for Mark Trumbo.

If he had held on to all those players, I’m guessing the Diamondbacks would be in much better shape now. In the Upton trade, he traded a good outfielder with upside for a utility player. With Bauer, he traded a cheap, cost-controlled starting pitcher for an all glove, no bat shortstop. Ian Kennedy had ace potential but he was traded for a LOOGY and another reliever. Adam Eaton is a plus defensive centerfielder who does a great job getting on base. He has been worth 4.8 WAR this season. Tyler Skaggs is another cheap, cost-controlled starting pitcher. Those two were traded for Mark Trumbo, who is essentially a right-handed Ryan Howard. Worse yet, Towers acquired him without a place to put him. Trumbo is first base only, and that position is blocked by one of the best players in the NL, Paul Goldschmidt. Without a DH, the Diamondbacks were forced to play him in the outfield, and he’s a terrible outfielder.

All these trades just boggle the mind. Towers’ statement when he gave away traded Justin Upton explains his ludicrous mindset:

“Different clubs like to look for certain intangibles. We like that gritty, grinder type. Hard-nosed. I’m not saying Justin isn’t that type of guy. Sometimes people’s mannerisms and the way they carry themselves, they might not perceive him as the grinder type.”

That statement is really, really, idiotically, incomprehensibly, stupid. What kind of fantasy world do you have to live in to believe that kind of stuff? Not only was Towers committing the egregious mistake of valuing makeup over talent, he was valuing make-believe over talent. Front offices and the media need to stop with the intangibles talk. If you can’t define it, it’s not real. If you can’t directly prove its benefits, then it’s irrelevant. It’s the kind of nonsense I expect from the BBWAA. I expect front office types to know better. I expect them to understand that talent and skills win ballgames. Without that, all the makeup in the world isn’t worth a lick of good.

The future is looking brighter for the Diamondbacks. In one of the biggest shocks of the baseball season, Tony La Russa stated that he’s looking to increase the use of analytics in the organization. La Russa has never been a strong opponent of sabermetrics, but he’s never been completely accepting either. He has said in the past that it’s important to balance analytics with more traditional approaches. However, I’ve never read anything he’s said that shows me that he understands how to do that. At least this is a step in the right direction.

Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson is unfortunately still employed. I do think he gets axed during the offseason. He’s a terrible manager who mimics the philosophy of Towers. Worse still, he’s old school to the extent that it’s dangerous. If one of his players gets hit by a pitch, he’ll retaliate regardless of how obvious it is that the HBP was accidental. It’s childish, dangerous behavior that has no place in today’s game. They always say it’s done to “stand up for yourself” or “to keep the other team from walking all over you”. When does that ever happen? When does the other team just keep plunking your players over and over again because you won’t retaliate? Give me a break. If you want to get back at a team for plunking one of your players, then hit them where it hurts the most: The scoreboard.

The Diamondbacks are down right now, but a new GM, manager, and modern philosophy has the potential for a better future for the franchise.


  1. I’m focusing on his offense. He was worth 1.5 WAR in 2011 but that came almost entirely from his defense. 
  2. That’s just the offensive component of his WAR number. His defense is so bad that it knocks his full WAR to below 1. 
  3. If we expand that to all of baseball, Revere has the second lowest ISO. The only player in all of baseball hitting for less power is…Derek Jeter. 

Baseball Reactions (8-29-2014)

Wow, I haven’t done one of these in a while. Sorry about that. I’ve been really busting my butt at work lately.

*****

Two nights ago, Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was ejected in the ninth inning for arguing balls and strikes. Roenicke came out of the dugout to argue after René Rivera hit a game-tying home run (Puerto Rican Power!) off of Francisco Rodríguez1. The Brewers would go on to lose in ten innings. Now you may wonder why Roenicke chose to come out at that moment. After all, it’s not the umpire’s fault that K-Rod hung one in the zone. Roenicke’s game-long, or maybe even season-long, frustrations with home plate umpire Mark Ripperger finally boiled over. During the postgame press conference, which are almost always completely useless by the way, Roenicke ripped Ripperger, saying, “He calls pitches that aren’t even close. The catcher sets up 6 inches off the plate and he calls them strikes.”

I’m always for ripping the umpires since they have virtually no accountability, so I’m not criticizing Roenicke for doing so. Let’s see what Pitch f/x has to say about Roenicke’s comments. All graphs come courtesy of the indispensable Brooks Baseball. First, let’s start with René Rivera’s at bat. Keep in mind that these strike zones are from the catcher’s point of view.

 

Those two pitches were definitely balls and were called as such. I don’t see how Roenicke can tell what’s inside and outside from his perspective in the dugout. Let’s see how Ripperger did for the entire game.

Remember what Roenicke said: “The catcher sets up 6 inches off the plate and he calls them strikes.” With right-handed hitters, there appears to be some truth to what he’s saying. With lefties, the problem appears to be more that Ripperger is calling low pitches strikes. There are definitely some bad calls, but overall, it’s fine. I don’t quibble over border line calls and there appears to be lots of them. However, these plots include both teams. Let’s look at just the Padres, specifically when their catcher, René Rivera, caught starter Odrisamer Despaigne.

I see a lot of the borderline pitches from above in this plot. Jonathan Lucroy is known for his excellent pitch-framing skills, but René Rivera is right up there with him. He just flies under the radar since he plays in San Diego. Roenicke may have had a point, but given how many balls his catcher turns into strikes, he really has no right to complain. I don’t think all of this was the result of bad umpiring. It’s the result of good pitch framers fooling the umpire. More specifically, it’s the result of humans calling balls and strikes. That’s the funny thing about pitch framing. It exploits the fact that the human eye cannot consistently gauge the position of a major league pitch .

Mike Fast, then of Baseball Prospectus but now with the Houston Astros, did some breakthrough research in the value of pitch framing in 2011. He showed that we’ve all been grossly undervaluing pitch framing. The numbers were eye-popping. The best pitch framers are saving their team as much as 45 runs a year compared to the average. Conversely, the worst are costing their team ~20 runs. Keeping in mind that 10 runs = 1 WAR, and your jaw really starts to drop. You can begin to understand why José Molina still has a job. But can the gap really be that big? Wins Above Replacement doesn’t currently include pitch framing, so is Jonathan Lucroy the clear choice for NL MVP right now?

Dave Cameron, the managing editor at Fangraphs, explored this question recently in an excellent article. Like I just said, I have a hard time believing that pitch framing has a gap as large as +40 runs to -20 runs. However, my subjective perceptions are no substitute for the objective methodologies used to analyze this subject by Mike Fast and the like. I trust the science, but is it missing something? I believe that Cameron hits on the problem in the article I linked to:

“…when a pitcher throws a pitch in a location that has a low estimated strike rate, we are implicitly blaming him for throwing a bad pitch, and then giving the catcher credit for erasing the pitcher’s mistake. But pitchers are not stupid, and I guarantee you that the Brewers’ pitchers know that Lucroy gets more called strikes on pitches out of the zone than other catchers, so they have a personal expected strike rate on an out-of-zone location higher than pitchers throwing to other catchers. And they know this before they choose where to throw the pitch.

“Let’s say you’re Kyle Lohse, and you have pretty good command, but you know that Lucroy is going to be able to steal strikes for you at the bottom of the zone. So, instead of throwing a pitch in the zone, where you are more likely to give up contact, you decide to pound the area just south of the strike zone, and particularly, down-and-away from left-handers, since that’s the area where umpires are most generous out of the zone.

“But do we really want to give Lucroy the entire difference in a stolen strike at the bottom of the zone when Lohse threw it there knowing that Lucroy was the one behind the plate?

“Perhaps if the Brewers pitchers had a worse framer to throw to, they would simply adjust by throwing more strikes. The distribution of locations is not an independent factor from the identity of the catcher.”

I really encourage you to just click on the link above to get Cameron’s full analysis. A catcher may actually be able to save as many as 40-45 runs above average with pitch framing, but how much of that is credited to the catcher and how much is credited to the pitcher is completely up in the air right now. That’s the biggest reason why pitch framing runs has not been incorporated into WAR yet.

I have always found the concept of pitch framing to be kind of ridiculous. To be clear, I totally buy into the value that it adds. What I find laughable is that this is a skill set that revolves around how good a catcher is at making a fool out of the umpire. I also can’t believe that nobody I know of, other than Joe Sheehan, has mentioned what the art of pitch framing tells us about how umpires call balls and strikes. It means that umpires are going by where the glove is after it catches the ball, and not where the ball is when it crosses the plate like they’re supposed to do it. As frustrating as I find umpires, I’m not even sure I can hold it against them. Calling balls and strikes the “right” way is just not possible for the human eye to do.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. We need robot umps. The “human element” counter argument is romanticized nonsense. The game is played by humans, and umpires are supposed to be invisible anyway. However, fear of push back from obstinate traditionalists isn’t the reason why this hasn’t been implemented yet. Make no mistake of it, though, because the technology will be perfected long before those in charge decide to implement it. Obviously, even right now Pitch f/x can call balls and strikes far better than the best human eye ever could, so what’s the problem? It’s just a lot easier said than done. Ben Lindbergh wrote a great piece last year delving deep into the logistics of implementing such a system. I’d say we’re at least 10-20 years away from the technology and the people being ready to make the necessary change. Then again, looking at the snail’s pace at which baseball likes to move, I may never see this change in my life time.

*****

The AL MVP race has gotten interesting. A couple of weeks ago, there was talk of Félix Hernández vying for the award. Unfortunately, a few bad starts, including getting lit up tonight, has likely taken him out of the running. In fact, Corey Kluber is now nipping at his heels for the Cy Young award. Anyway, Mike Trout is the favorite and most deserving candidate, but he’s not far and away the best player in the AL like he was the past two seasons. Robinson Canó, José Abreu, and Josh Donaldson aren’t far behind Trout. The surprising candidate is Alex Gordon. Though offensively he has a good but unremarkable 129 wRC+, the reason for his third best 5.6 WAR among position players is his defense. The same can be said about Josh Donaldson. He’s actually ahead of Trout in WAR. However, WAR is saying that Trout is a league average defender this season, which doesn’t seem to make any sense. If we go by Offensive WAR (oWAR), Trout is leading the league by over one full WAR. He’s about 2.5 oWAR ahead of Donaldson. Naturally, this raises the question of how reliably the WAR construct measures defense.

While I see the similarities between this year’s AL MVP debate and that of the last 2 seasons, I think overall it’s quite different. Part of the argument for Trout over Miguel Cabrera was the grand canyon sized difference in defense and baserunning between the two. Not only was that backed up by the numbers, but more importantly, when it comes to defense, the scouting evaluations backed that up. Cabrera was arguably the worst defensive third baseman in baseball. On the 20-80 scouting scale, he was rated at a 30 or 35. The guy just had zero range. Trout’s speed and good reads on balls in play rated him as a 75 defender. What should come as a surprise to no one is that Trout is an 80 runner while Cabrera is a 30 runner. Cabrera does have the better arm, but range is far more important unless you’re a catcher. The eye test qualitatively backed up what WAR quantified.

With Gordon and Trout we’re now talking about two excellent defenders. Right now, Gordon has a 2.0 Defensive WAR (dWAR) and Trout has -0.2 dWAR. Now I’m a hardcore sabermetrician, but I don’t buy that difference at all. Gordon’s dWAR does back up the eye test. Trout’s, however, does not. Even if I concede that he’s not quite as good defensively as he used to be, he’s still at least a 70 defender. I watch him plenty and try to get scouting information whenever I can. Heck, I’m watching him as I write this post! He’s made quite a few rangy plays that I don’t believe the average center fielder can make. Gordon is no slouch himself. He’s probably a 75 defender. Let’s not also forget that Trout plays a more difficult and valuable position. I cannot believe that half a grade of defense is worth 2 dWAR. I would argue that Trout’s overall WAR should be at least 1 WAR higher. On the base paths, Trout isn’t as effective as he used to be, but he’s still far better than Gordon. It’s not the same gap as with Cabrera, but Trout is still an 80 runner and Gordon is 50 or 55. You can replace Gordon with Josh Donaldson in this paragraph and it’d still be roughly accurate.

Trout’s huge advantage in offense cannot be trumped by defense that, at best, is marginally better than his, and at worst, is comparable. Trout will probably win the MVP this year, and deservedly so. Ironically, the gap between him and whoever the runner-up is will be the smallest of the past 3 seasons.

The problem with the defensive metrics that WAR uses, whether it’s DRS or UZR, is that they’re only significant in multi-season sample sizes. Using single season results, as WAR does, can lead to some fluky results. e.g. Juan Larages has a DRS that’s 28 runs higher than Carlos Gómez. That doesn’t make any sense when they are both 80 defenders2.

I am saddened that Trout appears to have regressed some. That ~60 point dip in OBP compared to last year is really disappointing. The extra power he’s added has come at the cost of too many more outs. Overall, it’s not worth it. It’s almost as if he’s trying to be more like Cabrera because, as we learned the last two seasons, that’s what wins you MVPs. Ugh, I hate the BBWAA.

 


  1. Ha! Suck it K-Rod! I hate Francisco Rodríguez. 
  2. As a Mets fan, I would love to see Lagares win a Gold Glove, and I’m sure he will. I’m just not sure that he’s better than Gómez. 

Angels Lose Garrett Richards for 6-9 Months

Since both the Red Sox (my local team) and the Mets (my team) both kind of suck right now, MLB.tv has never been more valuable to me. I plop down on the couch at 7:00 PM and pick out the most interesting game to watch. I make my decision based on what teams are facing each other and who’s pitching. I’m sure a lot of hardcore baseball fans whose teams are out of it do the same thing. However, the past couple of nights I decided to tune into NESN. The Angels were in town, so I wanted to watch Mike Trout play and hopefully break out of the slump he’s been in lately1. I also wanted to watch Mookie Betts, who just got called back up, and Yoenis Céspedes play. Even though MLB.tv is the greatest invention in the history of baseball fandom, it’s nice to tune in to a game on TV and not have to worry about connectivity issues or visual quality. What sealed it for me last night was the fact that Garrett Richards was pitching for the Angels.

Yes, I was watching live on TV when Richards collapsed trying to cover first base.

My heart dropped when it happened. I don’t have any emotional connection to the Los Angeles Angels2, but I hate to see any player, especially one having a breakout year, get hurt. My initial reaction is that he tore his ACL and that we may not see him again until 2016. As it turns out, he tore his patellar tendon and will be out 6-9 months.

Garrett Richards has inarguably been the best pitcher on the Angels staff this season with 4.4 WAR. Coincidentally, his ERA and FIP are exactly the same at 2.61, which is excellent. He also has an excellent 24.2 K% which he is accomplishing without walking many batters. He accomplishes this by throwing one of the hardest fourseam fastballs in the majors, one that averages a whopping 97 MPH! He compliments it with a sinker that’s less than half a mile slower. Think about a pitch that’s thrown that hard with movement. It’s been especially helpful at getting lefties out. His slider has improved as well. He’s throwing it harder and it has more bite to it. It’s used as an out pitch, but he sometimes likes to surprise hitters with it when he’s behind in the count.

Nothing in his peripherals leads me to believe this is a fluke, either. His BABIP is a little low, but not so much that it explains away the success Richards has had this season. His 3.9% HR/FB rate is almost 5% below that of his career, which is certainly a fluke, especially given the fact that he has been allowing more fly balls than ever. We can use xFIP to normalize that. A league average HR/FB raises his 2.61 FIP to a 3.17 xFIP, which is still great. That’s good for tenth place among starters in the AL. The numbers and his pitching arsenal indicate that his performance this season is real. The biggest question mark, however, is with his mechanics.

Doug Thorburn, the pitching mechanics expert at Baseball Prospectus, wrote a breakdown of Richards’ pitching repertoire and mechanics. Simply put, his mechanics are terrible. I won’t go into detail, because it would be inappropriate of me to quote what Thorburn wrote behind a paywall3, suffice it to say that his pitching mechanics are a cause of concern as to whether or not Richards can repeat his delivery enough to remain effective over the long haul. Obviously, his mechanics had nothing to do with the freak accident that occurred last night.

Being the best pitcher on the Angels is a credit to Richards and an indictment against Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Given their salaries, Weaver and Wilson should be on pace for a season of at least 4 WAR each. It doesn’t even look like they’ll finish with 4 WAR COMBINED. It was bad enough when Tyler Skaggs went down with Tommy John surgery, but losing Richards is far worse. Depending on who replaces him, it’ll likely cost the Angels 1-2 wins the rest of the way. In a tight division race with the Oakland Athletics, that can easily be the deathblow that sends the Angels into the coin-flip game. Worse yet, it’s possible that they could face Félix Hernández or Max Scherzer in the one game playoff without an ace of their own to counter with.

This is not to say that the Angels are doomed. By wRC+, the Angels have the best offense in the AL. They also have an excellent bullpen, which is a complete 180 from last season. However, even if they do win the division or make it pass the wild card game, it’s likely they’ll have the worst starting rotation out of any playoff team. Before Richards’ injury, I would’ve given that distinction to the Baltimore Orioles, but not anymore. At least the Orioles have Kevin Gausman. Having the best infield defense in the league helps to cover up their pitchers’ mistakes, too.

Let’s not lose sight of what’s important here. Garrett Richards was having a breakout season that tragically and abruptly ended. That sucks. That always sucks. Here’s hoping that he makes a quick, full recovery and comes back just as good as ever.


  1. If he doesn’t break out of this funk soon, the AL MVP race is going to get very interesting. Unlike the last two seasons, when he was far and away better than everyone else in the AL, there are a number of players nipping at his heels this year. 
  2. That is such a strange thing to write when you know Spanish. You’re basically writing “The Angels Angels”. The grammatically correct way to translate the team name into Spanish is “Los Angeles de Los Angeles”. Weird, huh? 
  3. If you’re reading my stuff, you should be subscribing to Baseball Prospectus anyway. In my opinion, it has the best baseball writing on the internet. Considering the top-notch analysis it provides on the majors, fantasy, and prospects, $40 a year is a steal for what you’re getting. 

Pleasant Surprises of the 2014 MLB Season (Part 2)

In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to get pretty negative on this blog. It’s easy to do since there’s so much to criticize in baseball and its coverage. As a result, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some of the happenings of the baseball season that have exceeded my expectations. Personally, it’s always a pleasure to watch teams or players perform better than they were expected to, especially when that performance seems sustainable. This is in no way an exhaustive list. If there’s anything you think I’ve missed that is worth mentioning, then please, by all means let me know. If I get enough responses I might write a follow-up piece. For Part 1, click here.

Corey Kluber: He didn’t completely come out of nowhere. He showed improvements last year, but I don’t think anybody saw this coming. His ERA- and FIP- are an incredibly low 65. That is good for 5.2 WAR, which is tied for 2nd in the AL with Jon Lester1. Not bad for a fourth round pick! He arguably should’ve went higher in the draft, though. He pitched well in college, but teams were wary of him because of an injury he suffered in high school. He suffered a stress fracture that required a metal pin to be inserted in his pitching arm. His command, secondary pitchers, and velocity have continued to improve since he started the minors. Kluber was always good at striking hitters out, even in the minors, but now his overall improvements as a pitcher has resulted in an excellent 27.2 K%, which is 6th in the AL. He relies heavily on his sinker and cutter. According to Brooks Baseball, Kluber throws his sinker 48% of the time and his cutter 25%. His sinker is especially impressive, which is probably why he relies on it so much. It averages 94 MPH and can touch 96 MPH. A fastball at that velocity with sink can be devastating. 

The good news for Cleveland Indians fans is that Kluber’s performance looks real and sustainable. Better yet, he won’t become a free agent until 2019! The Indians are still 3 years away from even thinking about giving him an extension. You may be wondering why they shouldn’t just offer him an extension right now if he really is the real deal. The thing is, pitchers are risky propositions. Even if I’m right about Kluber sustaining this performance for years to come, there’s no predicting if or when he’ll suffer a devastating injury. Let him prove he’ll continue to be this good without the risk of throwing >$100 million on a pitcher that will spend most of his time on the DL.

The Milwaukee Brewers: I thought they’d suck this year. I really did. Lo and behold, they’re in first place! I was skeptical of the team because besides Jonathan Lucroy, Carols Gómez, and Ryan Braun, who do they have? On the pitching side, Kyle Lohse led the team in WAR in 2013 with an unimpressive 1.9, and even that came with a paltry 15.5 K%. The addition of Matt Garza would surely help, but he was worth only 2.2 WAR in 2013. Not only did the Brewers not have an ace going into 2014, it might’ve been fair to say that they didn’t even have a number two.

Let’s first start with Jonathan Lucroy, who is having a career season and is making a run at the NL MVP award. He’s hitting .306/.373/.487 with a 139 wRC+ and 5 WAR. That offensive production is excellent for a first baseman, let alone the top of the defensive spectrum. His WAR is selling him short too. I’m not saying that because of WAR’s inherent flaws with evaluating catcher defense. WAR has not yet begun to incorporate pitch framing in its metrics. Lucroy is arguably the best pitch framer in baseball. Earlier this year, Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis, the fantastic people behind Brooks Baseball, wrote an outstanding article for Baseball Prospectus covering the value of pitch framing in depth. It can be estimated that Lucroy’s pitch framing may give him an extra 2-3 WAR. If WAR was incorporating pitch framing into its metrics, Lucroy could easily be leading the NL in WAR by 1 or 2 wins right now.

Carlos Gómez is repeating his offensive performance from last year. He’s actually doing a better job of getting on base. However, his defensive metrics are way off from last year. I haven’t taken a good look at him this season, but I have a hard time believing that he suddenly stopped being an 80 defender in center field. If you look at his Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone rating the last four seasons, you’ll see that it’s good in 2011, average in 2012, insanely high in 2013, and average again this season. This is an example of how the advanced defensive metrics may not be reliable in even season-long sample sizes. Defense doesn’t slump. As a result, I have a hard time believing that his WAR isn’t shorting him by 1 or 2 wins at least.

Sadly, Ryan Braun has been the biggest disappointment on the team. The good news is that he’s still hitting for power as evidenced by his excellent .209 ISO. However, that’s still 50 points below his career average. The biggest knock against Braun this season is that he’s just not getting on base enough. A .337 OBP is fine, but it’s 34 points below his career average and 60 points below his peak. Thankfully, Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett, Aramis Ramírez, and Mark Reynolds have been picking up the slack. They’ve combined for 7.4 WAR.

Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza are each on their way to a 3 WAR season each, while Yovani Gallardo has is on pace for 2 WAR. In the bullpen, Zach Duke and Will Smith are turning in terrific seasons, posting high strikeout rates and low FIPs (Smith’s BB% is way too high though). Though his FIP isn’t as low as those guys, Francisco Rodríguez is also having a good season with a high strikeout rate2.

The Brewers currently have the best projected chance at winning the division at 37.8%, and they have a 73.8% chance at making the playoffs. I’m happy to see the team succeeding this season. As a small market team with a pitiful farm system, I’m concerned about their future, so it’s good to see them have a bright present.

Derek Jeter: I was terrified that Jeter’s final season would be a disaster. I was expecting him to have a -1 or -2 WAR season. That’s no way for a Yankee legend to go out. Thankfully, he should easily clear 1 WAR. That’s pretty good for a 40-year-old shortstop. He is literally hitting for the least amount of power in the majors, but at least his OBP is league average. I know it may be strange calling a player with an 83 wRC+ a pleasant surprise, but like I said, I was afraid that it’d be so much worse. Yes, there are a number of fair criticisms to levy against him this season, but I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say, it’s good to see one of the best players of my generation be able to go out with his head held high.

I’ll probably do a Part 3, though I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!


  1. Félix Hernández is the current league leader with 6.2 WAR. Not only is he the front-runner for the Cy Young award, he’s giving Mike Trout a run for his money in the AL MVP race. 
  2. I hate Francisco Rodríguez. 

Pleasant Surprises of the 2014 MLB Season (Part 1)

In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to get pretty negative on this blog. It’s easy to do since there’s so much to criticize in baseball and its coverage. As a result, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some of the happenings of the baseball season that have exceeded my expectations. Personally, it’s always a pleasure to watch teams or players perform better than they were expected to, especially when that performance seems sustainable. This is in no way an exhaustive list. If there’s anything you think I’ve missed that is worth mentioning, then please, by all means let me know. If I get enough responses I might write a follow-up piece.

Billy Hamilton: Going into this season, I fully supported giving Hamilton the full-time job in center field, but I was very skeptical of whether or not he’d hit enough to keep the job. I wasn’t just afraid that he’d be a bust. I was afraid that the Reds would pull the hook on him if he didn’t perform right away. Management sending prospects back down to Triple A for not raking right out of the gate has been an ongoing problem in MLB. Small sample size should never be trusted over the talent evaluation of coaches and scouts.

Anyway, getting back to Hamilton, even casual baseball fans are aware of his legendary speed1. To say that he is an 80 runner may not to justice to what a freak of nature the guy is. However, as the old saying goes, you can’t steal first base. Not getting on base would obviously negate the offensive value of his speed. It’s amazing how big of a gap there is between his ceiling and floor. Even a league average OBP could make him a game changing kind of player, perhaps worth ~5 WAR a year. Conversely, a low OBP would make him nothing more than a pinch runner and defensive replacement. In other words, he’d be a replacement level player.

According to scouting reports, Hamilton has low hand and wrist strength, which would make him very susceptible to high velocity pitching, especially inside. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Hamilton on TV. Baseball Reference has him listed at 6’0″ and 160 lbs. He’s pretty scrawny looking. Given these observations, it’s perfectly reasonable for a talent evaluator to conclude that Hamilton would have trouble hitting for average and would have 20 power. Thankfully, there was a lot more confidence in Hamilton’s defense. In the minors, Hamilton was converted to center field after having been a shortstop his entire professional career. Obviously, they believed that his speed would play perfectly in center field, and they were right. From what I read, he started out raw, but his speed allowed him to make up for any poor routes he took to the ball. There was every reason to believe that with more experience, he’d learn to be a 60 or even a 70 defender in center field.

As it turned, Hamilton is proving his detractors wrong. His .298 OBP is poor, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not so bad that his performance in other areas can’t make up for it. I was seriously afraid that Hamilton would put out an abysmal OBP in the neighborhood of .250. I don’t think that anybody would’ve been surprised. What really shocks me is that he has 6 home runs this season! He has a .128 ISO! I thought his ISO would be half that at the most! He’s almost slugging .400 too2! Ironically, his baserunning has been a disappointment, although it has been excellent overall. Hamilton has stolen 43 bases this year but has been caught a whopping 17 times. He has to improve that 72% success rate. Even with that speed, it’s tough because the pitcher and catcher know who they’re dealing with. Hamilton only has 4.9 BsR too. That’s a good number, but I want to see Hamilton get 3 times that. That’s a very high bar I’ve set for him, but I believe he can do it. It should also come as no surprise that his defense has been as advertised. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not taken a good look at Hamilton in center field. His defensive metrics have been outstanding. He has a 14.5 UZR and 11 DRS, which is good for 1.4 dWAR. His overall WAR so far this year is 3.4, so he’s likely to finish above 4 WAR. That’s an All-Star caliber performance. If he can improve his OBP and his baserunning (I can’t believe I’m saying that), he could become a 5 or even 6 WAR player.

Billy Hamilton is the clear front-runner for NL rookie of the year. However, if he gets hurt or his production slumps, he could be surpassed by…

Jacob deGromSome people, especially my fellow Mets fans, are already lauding him as the rookie of the year. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to agree, I can’t. DeGrom just hasn’t played enough this year.

DeGrom came out of nowhere. He wasn’t even in Keith Law’s or Jason Parks’ top 10 prospects in the Mets system. To be clear, that’s not a criticism of Law or the good people at Baseball Prospectus. Scouting is hard. In 100 IP this season, deGrom has a 2.87 ERA and 3.06 FIP. If we adjust that for league and park effects, deGrom has a 82 ERA- and 86 FIP-. That’s outstanding. It looks sustainable, too. He’s not being helped by a flukishly low BABIP or HR/FB. He’s just pitching really well.

DeGrom is a feel-good story. He was a 9th round pick in 2010 and missed 2011 due to Tommy John surgery. He overcame all that to become a solid #2 starter. He has a fastball that averages 94 MPH and a sinker that’s just a bit slower than that. It’s a good sinker, though, with good late drop. However, I’d like him to improve on his 42.9% ground ball rate. His control is good too, as evidenced by his league average walk rate. His slider is considered to be better than his curve ball, but he’s gotten more whiffs on his curve ball this season according to Brooks Baseball. I really wish he’d just pick a breaking ball and stick with it. You don’t need two breaking balls. Clayton Kershaw gets away with it because he’s the best pitcher on the face of the planet. He doesn’t have big platoon splits either. His changeup was never supposed to be anything special, but he’s using it effectively against lefties. They’re whiffing on the pitch about 22% of the time. As you can see from the chart below, he’s doing a good job of painting with his changeup against lefties.

I really wish there was some scouting information available on his changeup to see how good it really is. In the minors, it was supposed to just be a 50 changeup, but his results imply that it has gotten better, which leads me to be even more optimistic about his future.

The Mets starting pitching was already loaded before deGrom surprised all of us. These are the starters they’ll have going into next season: Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, Jonathan Niese, Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colón, Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero,  and Dillon Gee. There’s obviously depth to trade from in order to fix the Mets anemic offense. This season, the Mets hitters have a terrible .297 wOBA, which is the third worst in the NL. The Chicago Cubs, on the other hand, are loaded with hitters but need more pitching. Perhaps the Mets could target…

Starlin Castro: He still isn’t the hitter he was a couple of years ago, but he’s improved significantly since his down year last season. He’s hitting .278/.328/.427, which is more in line with his track record. His power is back too. He’s even walking more. His 6.5 BB% is the highest of his career. However, that’s still a poor walk rate, but he is who he is. He’s clearly never going to be anything more than a mediocre OBP guy. His defense is never going to be anything more than passable at shortstop either.

Put everything together and he’s an above average hitter who plays a premium position. That’s valuable. Given that the Mets have trudging out replacement level players at short3, even a 2-3 WAR player would be big upgrade. With prospects such as Addison Russell and Javier Báez who project to have higher ceilings, Castro will most likely be the odd man out. As much as I wish that Báez was more obtainable (I mean I would freak out with excitement if the Mets acquired him), I would be content with the Mets acquiring Castro. Any team with a hole at shortstop should be content with a Starlin Castro. While we’re in Chicago…

José Abreu: Who saw this coming? Even with a stint on the DL he’s leading all of baseball in home runs (31), and the AL in SLG (.612) and wOBA (.411). His slash line is .302/.361/.612 with a 162 wRC+ and 3.9 WAR. What price does this elite offensive production come at? $7 million. His production is worth 4 times that. He’s also locked up through 2019 at an AAV of $11.3 million. However, he can opt out after year 3 in lieu of arbitration. If he keeps going at this pace, he can definitely make more money that way, easily 50% more. At 27 years old, it’s reasonable to assume that the White Sox have locked up Abreu’s prime.

With Masahiro Tanaka’s season in doubt, Abreu is the clear front-runner for AL rookie of the year. It may sound strange that he’s eligible, but he is. Professional baseball in Cuba is roughly Double A level. It really is that bad. Taking all that into consideration, it’s perfectly fair to consider him for rookie of the year4. Though the White Sox aren’t a good team this season, their future looks bright. Upper management has made great decisions to set the team up for later seasons. José Abreu may very well be the centerpiece to a future contending Chicago White Sox team.

For Part 2, click here!


  1. The secret to his speed is that Hamilton’s blood may be replaced with Mountain Dew. Now that we’ve seen that Hamilton may actually be pretty good, the Pepsi Company may want to snatch him up for an endorsement deal. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. 
  2. Hamilton currently has a higher slugging percentage than Ryan Howard. That is hilarious. 
  3. I don’t think Wilmer Flores is a shortstop. His defense may be even worse than Castro’s. 
  4. If it were up to me, he wouldn’t be eligible. I think the award is better suited for younger players. It’s more unfair for Japanese players like Tanaka, however. The NPB in terms of talent level is somewhere between Triple A and the majors. As long as the rules stay the way they are, we have to consider Japanese and Cuban players in their first season for rookie of the year. 

The 2014 MLB Trade Deadline Spectacular Extravaganza! (Part 2)

For Part 1, which includes the big day the Boston Red Sox had, click here.

Dave Dombrowski has done it again. He pulled off a trade that nobody, including myself, saw coming because nobody thought it was possible. After all, the Tigers have a poor farm system that lacks the prospects to trade for David Price. The Tigers GM shrewdly judged the Tampa Bay Rays to be more desperate to move Price than anybody realized. By involving a third team, the Seattle Mariners, Dombrowski was able to pull of the seemingly impossible. Though I haven’t always agreed with the moves he’s made, especially this past offseason, he continues to show sportswriters and bloggers like myself just how much smarter he is than all of us and why he’s a Hall of Fame caliber GM1.

The funny thing about this trade is that the Tigers didn’t really NEED to do it. They already had an impressive rotation before the trade. The Tigers starters have combined to lead the AL in WAR and FIP- . I wonder if the trade was a reaction to the Oakland A’s acquiring Jon Lester earlier, especially given the last-minute nature of the transaction. Something that I feel gets frequently overlooked in trade assessments, though, is how acquiring a major asset succeeds in not only bolstering the acquiring team, but also in keeping that asset from the competition. It’s not unreasonable to think that the Royals, Mariners, or Orioles2 could’ve gotten Price. Those are just the AL possibilities too. Price would’ve helped the Royals close the gap in the division, though it would’ve been unlikely. The Mariners or Orioles would’ve been much more formidable foes with Price in a playoff series.

This is how the Tigers rotation looks now: Max Scherzer, David Price, Aníbal Sánchez, Rick Porcello, and Justin Verlander. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Verlander may be the 5th starter in that rotation, and the odd man out come playoff time. Verlander is struggling badly this year. His ERA and FIP are the highest they’ve been since 2008 and his K% rate is 5.5% below his career rate, not to mention the fact that it’s below the league average. He’s going to struggle to even reach 3 WAR this season. Last season he finished with 5.3 WAR and that was the first time in 4 years that he didn’t accumulate at least 6.3 WAR. When the Tigers reach October, Verlander could be more effective out of the bullpen, which would make him a dangerous weapon. Remember, in a 1 inning relief appearance, you don’t have to save anything for later. Verlander can easily exert maximum effort to destroy the hitters he’d face. It’s not unlike how Tim Lincecum was used during the San Francisco Giants World Series run two years ago. 

It probably goes without saying that David Price will be a significant help for the Tigers the rest of the way. He’ll be a 1 win upgrade, maybe 2, over the departing Drew Smyly and could be a huge difference maker in October. The Rays, Smyly’s new team, are getting a solid, cost-controlled LHP who should be good for 2-3 WAR a season. Nick Franklin, the Mariners contribution to the trade, is a bit of a wild card. He’s a below average hitter who can handle shortstop but should probably be moved to second base. Franklin is also one of the rare switch hitters who should just stick to hitting lefty, because even though he’d lose the platoon advantage, it can’t be any worse than his right-handed hitting. The man is a bit of a project whose ceiling is probably nothing more than an average everyday regular. However, if anybody can get the most out of Franklin, it’s the Rays. They have a good track record of turning Pb into Au3, which is funny because the Mariners are good at doing the opposite.

The industry consensus is that the Rays didn’t get back enough for Price. I don’t fully agree. It is a light haul, to be sure, but there are a couple of facts that people are overlooking. Though Price is under control through 2015, he didn’t sign an extension as part of the deal. Obviously the Rays can’t force him to do that, but it hurts the return you can get for him. Take the Adrián González trade in 2010 for example. Yes, it’s true that the extension wasn’t finalized until after the trade. However, there was enough common ground in the negotiations to convince the Red Sox that he’d sign long-term, therefore convincing them to part with three prospects. One of them is a player I’m sure you’ve heard of: Anthony Rizzo. You think they would’ve parted with those prospects if González would’ve just been a rental? On top of not being assured of Price’s future with the Tigers, it’s likely that he will make something in the neighborhood of $20 million in his final year of arbitration. Remember, Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson are relatively cheap, and I’d estimate that they’d combine to make less than half of what Price will be making in 2015. As good as Price is, the Tigers are giving up a decent center fielder with one more year left on his contract and a good LHP who won’t be a free agent until 2019, and taking on more money in exchange. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great deal for the Tigers, who are and should be in win-now mode, but if you look at the facts, the Rays didn’t come out quite as badly as people think. Again, it’s still a light return for one of the best pitchers in the AL.

What truly needs to be criticized with regard to the Rays is their timing. If this was all they were going to accept for Price, why not hang on to him? The Rays talent level has shown its true colors in the past month or so. Since they dug themselves into such a deep hole, they only have an 8.3% chance to make the playoffs, but you might as well take your chances. I’m saying this because the Rays couldn’t easily gotten a similar offer during the offseason. I really don’t know what Rays GM Andrew Friedman was thinking here. Dombrowski really out-GMed him.

It should be noted that the Rays also received a prospect, Willy Adames, from the Tigers. From what I can tell, he’s a B-level prospect, if that.

The Mariners received Austin Jackson in the deal. The team succeeds in filling a need in center field while unclogging their infield. Unfortunately, Jackson’s best days are behind him. Jackson was worth ~5 WAR each of his first 3 major league seasons4. He regressed to 3.3 WAR last year and will likely turn in another 3 WAR this year. His once excellent defense has significantly worsened in the past season and a half. He’s still competent in center field, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has to move to one of the corners by 2016. That’ll cause even further problems, as Jackson’s bat is also declining. It’s fine for the moment, since he’s a center fielder, but the offensive bar is significantly higher if he needs to be moved to the corner. Jackson will probably be fine through 2015, likely to contribute ~4 WAR between now and then, but if I were the Mariners, I’d be extra careful about extending him. At the rate he’s declining, I’m afraid he may be replacement level as early as 2017.

All in all, the Mariners and Tigers came out well in the deal. Dave Dombrowski looks like a genius. The Rays…not so much.

I’ll briefly go over my thoughts on some of the other deals of the day that interested me:

The Houston Astros killed it in the Jarred Cosart trade. They traded a back of the rotation starter for Jake Marisnick and Colin Moran. Marisnik is a rookie who’s a good center fielder but isn’t hitting. However, he’s only 23 years old, so there’s hope that his bat will improve enough to at least be passable for a good defensive center fielder. Even if Marisnik turns out to be a bust, acquiring last season’s 6th overall pick in Colin Moran more than makes up for it. He’s projected to have a great hit tool, but he’s going to need to improve his defense at 3rd base to really provide value. His power just won’t cut it if he has to move to first base. As for the Marlins, I have no idea what they were thinking. This is a move buyers make, and the team only has a 2.6% chance of making the playoffs. Even if their chances were significantly higher, how much do they think that Cosart will move the needle? They gave up way too much for a sub-par starter that might one day end up in the bullpen.

Gerardo Parra will help the Brewers, though I’m a little skeptical that he was worth what the Brewers gave up for him. They weakened what was already one of the worst farm systems in baseball to get him. I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the Brewers are doing this year, but not being able to afford high-priced free agents in that small market means that operating with such a weak farm system is especially dangerous. If the team is lousy one year from now, they should seriously consider going the Astros and Cubs route and just blow everything up. As for Parra, his value is almost completely tied to his defense. If he’s not an elite defender in right field, he’s pretty close, but he’s clearly better there than anybody else in the game (yes, even better than Puig). He just doesn’t hit well and might need to be platooned against lefties.

Trading away Asdrubal Cabrera works out very well for the Cleveland Indians, and it has nothing to do with what they got in return. For what’s it worth, Zach Walters does hit for a ton of power, but that’s the only tool that he can provide any value with. The real point of the trade is clear a player they weren’t going to sign back anyway in order to call up their high-end prospect, Francisco Lindor. He’s from Puerto Rico, so I’m especially excited for his call-up! Lindor is one of the top prospects in baseball. He projects to be a 70 defender at shorstop with a bat that’ll be good enough for the top of the order. The kid can also run and has a great work ethic. As for the Nationals, Cabrera will allow the team to sit the terrible Danny Espinosa. Though Cabrera is a below average player at this point, Espinosa is so bad that he may provide a 1 win upgrade over him.

Before I rail on the Philadelphia Phillies, in the interest of fairness, I’m disappointed that my New York Mets didn’t make any moves at the deadline. The difference between the Mets and the Phillies, however, is that the Mets actually have a bright future. The Mets have a strong farm system. The Phillies have no farm system and a lot of future salary committments, including that immovable lump of coal at first base. Now that that’s out of the way…

I cannot believe how extremely, incomprehensibly incompetent Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is to not be able to move ANYBODY at the trade deadline. Just when you think he can’t get any worse, he continues to surprise you. He just keeps doing and saying the opposite of what he should do and say. He really couldn’t find any suitors for Marlon Byrd or A.J. Burnett? Even if he sold low, who cares? Those players are not going to be part of the Phillies future. Rumor has it that the Dodgers were interested in Cole Hamels. It’s a common and effective negotiating tactic to ask for more than you really want, or even think is fair, at the negotiating table in order to get down to the price you really want. It’s known in psychology as the door-in-the-face technique. If the rumors are true, and I find anything negative about Amaro to be believable, the Phillies GM asked for the Dodgers three best prospects in exchange for Hamels. Corey Seager (brother of Kyle), Joc Pederson, and Julio Urías can all be described as A-level prospects. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, Amaro also demanded that the Dodgers cover the entirety of Hamels’ contract. That’s a joke. If I was Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, I would’ve immediately hung up the phone because it would’ve been apparent to me that Amaro wasn’t taking the negotiations seriously. Door-in-the-face doesn’t work when your demands are that outrageous. If this rumor is true, then Amaro’s skills as an evaluator of talent and transactions, skills that are critical for a GM to have, are unacceptably poor. I believe that Amaro should’ve been fired years ago. Even if the Phillies front office finally accepts that they need to blow it up, do they really want Ruben Amaro Jr. to oversee the rebuild?

Thursday’s trade deadline was the best one in years. Lots of fun and exciting trades went down. Let’s hope for something interesting to happen before the waiver wire deadline!


  1. Winning a World Series with the Tigers will cement Dombrowski’s Hall of Fame case. If you want to learn more about his excellent career, check out this  great piece by Rany Jazayerli here
  2. I’m not including the LA Angels because there’s no way they could’ve gotten Price. They have no prospects and Angels GM Jerry Dipoto is no Dave Dombrowski. 
  3. Yes, I used atomic symbols! If you don’t know what they mean, look it up! 
  4. His 4.9 WAR season in 2011 came on the strength of his defense. He was worth 1.9 oWAR and 3.4 dWAR.