Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Boston Finds Francisco

Francisco is a slightly better, lefthanded version of Middlebrooks (BR)
Though the Boston Red Sox appear to be odds-on favorites to win the Pablo Sandoval sweepstakes, it never hurts to have a backup plan. That's why they claimed third baseman Juan Francisco off waivers today.

And as far as backup plans go, Francisco's not a bad one to have. He's a league average bat (99 OPS+) who's popped 34 home runs over the past two years in limited duty, including 16 in just 320 trips to the plate for Toronto last year. A very good source of lefthanded power, Francisco has slugged 48 dingers in just under 1,000 career at-bats and owns a .203 career ISO. He's also 27 years old, the perfect age for a baseball player.

Francisco's flaws (loads of strikeouts, poor defense, horrible against righthanded pitching) prevent him from being an everyday player, but at least he'd be able to hold a timeshare of third base with the righthanded Will Middlebrooks. Both have glaring platoon splits, but utilizing Middlebrooks against southpaw and Francisco against righties would likely result in 30 home runs and a .760 OPS between them. Platoons aren't ideal, but they work better than giving a bad player more playing time than he deserves.

Of course, none of this matters if and when the Sox sign Sandoval, at which point Francisco may be non-tendered, traded, or held in reserve. He's not going to move the needle much for Boston, but at least he gives them another option at the hot corner should Sandoval sign elsewhere. The team needs every scrap of power it can find to bolster what was an anemic offense last year, and Francisco fits the bill.

A's Bank On Butler Bounceback

Butler brings an above average bat to Oakland (Fox4KC)
By signing Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million engagement, the Oakland A's made their first major tweak to the roster responsible for one of the more memorable late season collapses in recent history (largely because the team stopped hitting). In Butler, they add a righthanded, middle of the order bat to fill the hole left by Yoenis Cespedes, who was traded to Boston last summer in exchange for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes.

A lead-footed DH, Butler isn't the all-around talent that Cespedes is, but he'll at least replace Cespedes's bat. Not the power, mind you, but through a better OBP and similar run production. Check out how their numbers match up since 2012, Cespedes's rookie season:

Butler:     1,745 AB 55 HR 255 RBI.292/.358/.436 .794 OPS 117 OPS+ 36 Rbat
Cespedes: 1,616 AB 71 HR 262 RBI .263/.316/.464 .780 OPS 116 OPS+ 37 Rbat

Butler is also six months younger than Cespedes, and figures to be much cheaper over the next three years.

But since Butler adds no value whatsoever in the field or on the bases, Oakland needs him to bounce back from a dismal 2014 in which he managed only nine home runs, 66 RBI, and a .702 OPS (95 OPS+). Butler was actually below replacement level last year at -0.3 bWAR, and the cash-strapped A's can't afford to pay $10 million a year to someone with negative or zero value.

Billy Beane's betting that last year was an anomaly for Butler, who was a consistently above average hitter prior to 2014. Through his first seven seasons, he owned a .298/.364/.459 slash line (122 OPS+) while averaging 17 home runs, 35 doubles, and 80 RBI per season. That's essentially Pablo Sandoval production (better, actually) at only one-third the price.

Digging deeper, it actually makes loads of sense to forecast similar figures from Butler going forward. He's only going to be 29 next year, after all, and has been exceptionally durable, averaging 158 games per season over the past six. Furthermore, nothing alarming jumps out from Butler's batted ball data last year, though he did struggle against two seam fastballs. The best and simplest explanation I can find for Butler's down year was a slow start, as he had a sub-.600 OPS with only one home run through Memorial Day weekend. That would also explain why his walk rate plummeted, as flailing hitters tend to press at the plate and try to swing their way out of it. I suspect that's what happened to Butler, who's normally a patient hitter. Besides, he was fine from the end of May forward, batting .290/.339/.420 after May 28th. If that's what he hits next year, Oakland has to be happy with that.

The only obstacle that could thwart a return to form for Butler is his new home park, O.co Coliseum, which has been unkind to hitters with its deep power alleys and expansive foul territory. Butler flourished in Kaufmann Stadium--which was well-suited to his gap-power--where he batted .312/.372/.477 (.849 OPS) as a member of the Royals, as opposed to .278/.341/.426 (.766 OPS) everywhere else. His numbers in his new ballpark are almost identical to his road splits, as he has a .759 OPS in 130 career plate appearances there. That said, hitters typically perform better at home regardless of where they play, and Butler's Oakland numbers are likely suppressed by the A's strong pitching staffs in recent years. He won't have to face the likes of Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir in 2015.

Lastly, I like this deal because I think its terms are very fair, perhaps even favorable, for Oakland, who didn't even have to sacrifice a compensatory draft pick because Kansas City failed to give Butler a qualifying offer. Three years and $30 million is a pretty safe investment for an under-30 impact bat, and there's plenty of room for value here. Butler only needs to be worth in the neighborhood of four to five wins over the next three seasons to justify his salary, and he's certainly capable of that after compiling 13 bWAR from 2009 through 2013 (an average of 2.6 per season). Even if he doesn't get all the way back to being the hitter he was two years ago, his ability to provide above average hitting over 140-150 games should be plenty valuable. His presence makes Oakland's lineup deeper and more formidable, which should go a long way towards helping the A's get back to the postseason next fall.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Can Ortiz Keep Raking?

Ortiz is 39 years young (NextImpulseSports)
David Ortiz turns 39 years old today, and he's still going strong.

Five years ago it seemed unfathomable that Big Papi would still be a productive hitter one year shy of his 40th birthday, much less one of the best hitters in baseball. The end seemed near when, as a 33 year-old, Ortiz batted .238/.332/.462 (100 wRC+) with 134 strikeouts and 0.0 fWAR in 2009. His situation grew even more dire the following spring when he got off to a miserable start with only one home run, four RBI, and .524 OPS in April. Papi appeared to be in full-blown decline.

Of course, we now know that was merely a rough patch in what has been an otherwise stellar 12-year run in Boston for Ortiz. He rebounded to finish 2010 strong with 31 homers, 98 RBI, and a .943 OPS over the season's final five months. He was even better over the next three years, his age 35-37 seasons. As run-scoring plummeted across the sport, Ortiz's numbers surged as he batted .311/.401/.571 with 82 home runs during that span. Per wRC+, it was tied with Mark McGwire and Edgar Martinez for the seventh-best run that any hitter has ever sustained over those ages.

Last year at 38, Ortiz seemed to slip a bit. His batting line fell to .263/.355/.517, an 86 point drop in OPS from 2013 and a 153 point plunge compared to 2012. That can be explained entirely by his BABiP, which nosedived from .321 in 2013 to .256 last year. Such a free fall was not surprising given that Ortiz had his highest fly ball rate since 2009 in conjunction with his lowest line drive rate since 2010, but increased defensive shifts likely played a part in that as well. Nevertheless, Ortiz was still extremely productive with a 135 wRC+, .369 wOBA, 35 home runs (fifth in the American League) and 104 RBI (sixth).

So what can we expect from Papi in 2015, his age 39 season? Steamer's very optimistic, projecting him to essentially replicate his 2014 production. The system sees his BABiP regressing closer to the league average, which should pull up his batting average and OBP, but also expects Ortiz to hit for less power. That makes sense, as Ortiz is at an age where power drops off precipitously. It will be tough to him to surpass 30 home runs for the third straight season, as no 39 year-old had ever exceeded 30 taters in a season before Hank Aaron did so (with 40) in 1973 (Steve Finley and Barry Bonds have since achieved this as well).

That said, there's nothing alarming in Ortiz's profile to suggest his numbers are in imminent danger of falling off a cliff. He's a full-time DH playing half his games at one of the friendliest parks for hitters in the majors. Because he rarely played the field and was a part-time player until his mid-20s, he doesn't have as much wear and tear as most 39 year-olds, especially since he's been able to avoid major injuries for much of his career. His plate discipline has remained impeccable, his contact rates are excellent, and he still has tremendous bat speed based on the way he destroyed fastballs last year. His power is intact as well, for his 2014 ISO was identical to his 2013 ISO (.255).

Next year Ortiz might not be the hitter he was three years ago, or even the hitter he was last year, but he still figures to be mighty good. He'll continue to mash, just as he always has.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bold Predictions Busts

Where did we go wrong, Prince? (RangersBlog)
With the 2014 baseball season in the rearview mirror, I can finally take a look back at how my 14 bold predictions for the year panned out (I'll give you a hint: they didn't).

1. Prince Fielder hits 40 home runs: WRONG
I thought the move to Texas would help restore some of Fielder's lost power. Instead, he got hurt for the first time in his career and was shut down in late May after going deep just three times. Yep, three.

2. The Yankees finish last: WRONG
No way this was happening given the ungodly amount of money New York spent last winter. They disappointed with 84 wins, but that was still enough to place second in the AL East.

3. Miguel Cabrera spends time on the Disabled List: WRONG
Miggy did slip a bit from his monster 2012-2013 stretch, but not because of injury woes. He played all but three games. At 31 he was still as durable as ever.

4. The Nationals will win 100 games: WRONG
The Nats had a great season, winning 96 games and their second division title in three years, but 96 wins isn't 100. Close, but no cigar.

5. Alfonso Soriano hits less than 20 homers: CORRECT
Finally! Sori finally broke down at age 38 after slamming 66 dingers in 2012-2013 combined, managing just six homers in his final major league season.

6. The Pirates revert to their losing ways: WRONG
I'm always down on the Bucs, and lately they've been proving me wrong a lot. They slipped a bit from their 94-win 2013 but still won 88 games and made the playoffs as one of the Senior Circuit's two wild card entrants.

7. Ryan Braun returns to form: WRONG
Braun wasn't bad, but he also wasn't anything close to the guy who won the 2011 NL MVP award and finished runner-up the following year. 31 today, Braun has declined precipitously over the past two years and is in danger of becoming only an average player.

8/ The Phillies finish over .500: WRONG
The Phils were terrible in 2013, going 73-89, and they were just as terrible in 2014, going 73-89 again.

9. Curtis Granderson becomes the next Jason Bay: WRONG
Granderson was surprisingly okay in his first season with the Mets, clubbing 20 home runs and working 79 walks in 155 games. He might turn into a pumpkin next year, but at least the Mets got one solid season out of him, which is more than they can say about Bay.

10. Yasiel Puig will win the National League MVP: WRONG
Right team, wrong guy. Wasn't expecting Clayton Kershaw to become the first National League starting pitcher to be named MVP since Bob Gibson.

11. Nobody on the Tigers receives Cy Young votes: WRONG
Justin Verlander fell apart and Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA champion, came back to earth. But Max Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young recipient, enjoyed another dominant season and finished fifth in the voting.

12. The Astros have a better record than the Marlins: WRONG
Houston improved a ton from its horrid 2013, climbing from a mere 51 wins to a more respectable (but still bad) 70. The 'Stros won seven fewer games than the Miami Marlins, however, who remained on the fringes of contention late into the season thanks to some surprise pitching performances and an MVP-caliber year from Giancarlo Stanton.

13. Jackie Bradley, Jr. has a better season than Xander Bogaerts: PUSH
Bogaerts was worth a measly 0.2 bWAR due to his atrocious hitting and poor fielding. Bradley was even worse at the plate (his .531 OPS fell a good 129 points shy of Bogaerts), but grated out 0.6 bWAR because of his slick glovework in center field. So Bogaerts was the better hitter, but technically Bradley was more valuable, so I'll call this one a wash.

14. The Blue Jays win the American League East: WRONG
Toronto did improve from its dismal last place finish in 2013, going from 74 wins to 83 wins and a third place finish. But they were not able to go from worst to first, as the Red Sox did in 2012-2013.

St. Louis Steals Heyward, Walden

Heyward helps the Cardinals considerably (USAToday)
Needing a short-term, last-minute fix in right field following the tragic and untimely death of Oscar Taveras, the St. Louis Cardinals sacrificed a pair of former first-round draft picks to acquire Jason Heyward, probably the best right fielder in the game not named Giancarlo Stanton. The Cardinals also received a plus reliever in Jordan Walden, who was an All-Star closer for the Los Angeles Angels in 2011. Walden should bolster the Redbirds' bullpen based on his career 3.10 ERA and 10.8 K/9 rate over five big league seasons.

But Walden's just icing on the cake, really, because St. Louis clearly got the best player in this deal. Heyward hasn't developed into the Ken Griffey Jr. clone people thought he'd be during his first season, when he was an NL All-Star and Rookie of the Year runner-up to Buster Posey, but he's still a phenomenal player. A true all-around talent, the two-time Gold Glove recipient has twice stolen 20 bases or more in a season and once hit as many as 27 home runs (in 2012). He also owns a rock-solid .351 OBP for his career, during which time he's been worth 24.5 bWAR and rated as the third-best rightfielder in baseball behind Jose Bautista and Ben Zobrist. Plus, he's only 25, though he will be free agent-eligible after next year.

In return the Braves landed Shelby Miller, who's only one year younger than Heyward but won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. Miller, a starting pitcher, finished third in the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year award to Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig after going 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 173 and 2/3 innings. His 3.67 FIP and 1.21 WHIP suggested regression was coming, however, and sure enough Miller was merely a league average starting pitcher last year. His record fell to 10-9, his ERA swelled to 3.74, and his strikeout rate plummeted from 8.8 K/9 in 2013 to a paltry 6.2 K/9 last year. His walk rate increased as well, resulting in a 4.54 FIP that says he was very lucky in 2014. Miller may not completely unravel next year, but he seems doomed for more regression and won't have a very long career if he doesn't improve his command. There's just too much uncertainty about his effectiveness going forward, and right now the signs point to bad.

Atlanta's also getting Tyrell Jenkins, a 22 year-old pitching prospect who has yet to pitch above High-A. It's much too early to tell what kind of impact he'll have if and when he reaches the majors, as he'll likely need a few more years of seasoning before he's ready.

So yeah, clear win for the Cardinals here. They get at least one year of Heyward and two years of Walden for four years of Miller and a complete unknown in Jenkins. A six-win player last year, Heyward could very well end up creating as much or more value in 2015 than Miller does over the next four years, especially if the former finally puts it all together to produce that superstar caliber season we've been waiting for. Walden's already an established big league reliever, while there's a good possibility that Jenkins never throws a pitch in the Show.

This trade makes the Braves considerably worse for 2015, which is not the direction they want to go in after losing 83 games last year. St. Louis, on the other hand, remains a safe bet to win 90-plus games again en route to a third consecutive division title. If you're Atlanta, you have to do better than a league-average starting pitcher/likely project and a raw prospect for an elite outfielder such as Heyward. If you're St. Louis, you deserve a giant pat on the back.