Archive for November 2013

Details on MLB’s Drug-Testing Program

November 30, 2013

I read a great post on mlbtraderumors.com today about MLB’s 2013 report on the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program (the “JDA”).  The take-away is that MLB is conducting a substantial number of urine and blood tests (more than 4,000 of the former and more than 1,000 of the latter) each season but that the tests need to be more randomized in terms of when they are administered in order to maximize catching those using PEDs and other banned substances.

While mlbtraderumors’ post is not entirely clear on this issue, it sounds like approximately 40% of all tests are taken during the six-week period of Spring Training.  Further, only 200 tests are taken during the off-season, which means that, given 1,200 major league roster spots and many, many players cycling through those roster spots each season, a very small percentage of players are tested during the off-season.

Clearly, the present testing regime means that very few players are likely using PEDs during or immediately prior to Spring Training, since this period bears far and away the greatest likelihood of getting caught.  In fact, no major league players tested positive for steroids or HGH in 2013, with the only suspensions to major leaguers for PED use arising out of the non-analytic Biogenesis America documentation.

I would expect that absent a testing regime, during and immediately prior to Spring Training would be a prime time to use PEDs, given that players want to be strong and get off to a good start at the beginning of a new season, particularly those players trying to earn a major league roster spot in Spring Training.

The other time I would expect players to believe they’d get the biggest boost from PEDs would be during the second half of the season, the so-called dog days of summer when players are worn down by the grind of the six-games-a-week baseball schedule.  One of the principle benefits of steroids is that they enable athletes to work out harder and recover more quickly, which would have relatively more benefit in the second half of the season than in the first half when bodies are generally fresher.  It’s worth noting here that the positive drug test Ryan Braun beat in arbitration was taken late in the 2011 season.

Back in 2010 MLB’s No. 2 Rob Manfred was quoted as saying that whenever MLB has increased the number of tests administered and significantly altered the pattern of testing (i.e., conducted the tests at different, more random times during the season), there has been a spike in positive tests regardless of whether it was major leaguers or minor leaguers being tested.  This is hardly surprising in that the players willing to cheat will try to take advantage of whatever opportunities to avoid detection the testing program allows for.

Whether the players’ union will agree to significantly more annual tests than the 5,000+ now being administered when the current JDA expires in December 2016 remains to be seen.  It seems likely to me that the union would be much more amenable to greater randomizing of the tests given than dramatically increasing the number of tests major league players as a group are forced to undergo.  Clearly, in additional to greater penalties for first- and second-time positive tests, greater randomization of testing is necessary to reduce PED use in baseball.

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Recent Signings

November 25, 2013

Today’s signings disappointed me a bit — Jhonny Peralta got too much and Dan Haren too little.

It’s discouraging to see a player who just got punished for being a steroids cheat get a four-year $53 million deal just a month or two after his PEDs suspension ended. My hope now is that this contract blows up in the Cardinals’ face so that other teams will be leery of giving proven steroids users big deals in the future.

It’s also discouraging to see the Dodgers signing Haren to a one-year $10 million when the Giants just gave Tim Hudson two years and $23 million.  Clearly, Brian Sabean’s first choice was Hudson, and I give credence to Sabean’s judgment.  However, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between Hudson and Haren going into 2014.

Also, I think that Haren will bounce back next year pitching half his games at Dodger Stadium.  Over the last two seasons, Haren has had a 5.06 ERA pitching at home but only a 3.97 ERA pitching on the road.  He’s still striking batters at out at a reasonably high rate, so I think he’ll benefit tremendously pitching his home games at Chavez Ravine, still one of the five best pitchers’ parks in baseball.

In short, signing Haren to a one-year contract is a good deal for the Dodgers, a team I’d like to see pay through the nose for any talent they acquire.

Brian McCann‘s recent five-year $85 million deal with the Yankees doesn’t seem like one of the wild over-payings we’ve become used to seeing from the Bombers, at least not when you consider that McCann was the best catcher available, a left-handed hitter, the Yankees badly needing a catcher, and the Braves must have had some desire to re-sign McCann given his history with the team and his Georgia roots.  McCann signing with the Yankees can’t be popular in Atlanta, even if Braves management believes McCann’s best days are behind him.

I’ve long been saying that given his size, all the games McCann has caught were going to catch up to him by the time he’s 30, and there’s strong evidence that it has already caught up to him.  This contract could blow up on the Yankees, although McCann would still have some value as a designated hitter and, Lord knows, the Yankees can readily afford contracts like this one.  It’s the much, much larger deals like ARod’s, Sabathia’s and Teixeira’s that really hurt the Yankees if/when they explode.

 

Top KBO Hitting Prospects 2014

November 21, 2013

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post on the top pitching prospects who might come out of South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization (“KBO”), so now it’s time for a review of the top young hitters who may one day leave the KBO for greener pastures.

1.  Byung-ho Park (age 27 in 2014) Nexen Heroes.  Park is not only the best young hitter in the KBO but the KBO’s best hitter period.  A 1Bman, he was named the KBO’s MVP this year for the second year in a row, leading the league in home runs and RBIs in 2013 as he did in 2012.  He hit .318 this year and blasted 37 HRs, six more than he hit in 2012.  He finished first in slugging percentage (.602) and second in on-base percentage (.437).

The main questions with Park at this point are whether he’s already reached his peak performance level and how he now compares to past top Korean sluggers who went on to success abroad.  With respect to the first question, Park first played in the KBO’s championship league (South Korea’s “major” league) in 2005 at age 18, but he didn’t develop into a great, or even a good, hitter until 2012 at age 25.  He’s always had power, but until 2012 he struck out way too much.  He also lost two seasons to military service in 2007 and 2008.

Starting in 2012, Park apparently finally learned to lay off pitches out of the strike zone.  He hit .290 that season, 36 points higher than his previous high set the year before, he struck out less and he walked more.  His batting average jumped another 28 points in 2013 and his walk and strikeout rates again improved dramatically.

If Park improves as much in 2014 as he did in 2013, he’ll be comparable to where Seung Yeop Lee and Dae Ho Lee were as hitters before leaving the KBO to start successful careers in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (“NPB”).  That may be asking a lot, however, given how much he’s improved already in just the last two years.  Even if he has already reached his peak, it’s likely he’ll move on to NPB at some point in the future.

2. Jeong Choi (27) SK Wyverns.  The young 3Bman was the second best hitter in the KBO in 2013, batting .316, finishing third in HRs (28), second in slugging percentage (.551) and third in on-base percentage (.429).

Like Park, Choi reached the KBO championship league in 2005 at age 18, but unlike Park his career progression is more typical, having early success and slow, but steady, improvement thereafter.  Park batted .328 in 2008 at age 21.  Between 2010 and 2012, he batted .300, .310 and .300 and slugged 20, 20 and 26 home runs.  2013 was his best season to date, although he struck out more often this past season than at any time since his rookie year in 2006.

3. Ah-Seop Son (26) Lotte Giants.  At age 25 in 2013, Son finished second in batting with a .345 average, the fourth year in row he’s hit better than .300.  Son led the KBO in hits with 172 and finished fifth with a .421 on-base percentage.  Son doesn’t have great power, but he’s hit 15, 11 and 11 in his three best seasons.  He plays the corner outfield positions and appears to have a good throwing arm based on the limited defensive stats I could find for him.

I ranked Son this high because of his age and the fact that I think the first position player to jump successfully from the KBO to MLB will be a high on-base percentage guy like Ichiro Suzuki, Norichicka Aoki. or Shin-soo Choo (a South Korean who never played in KBO).

4.  Hyun-soo Kim (26) Doosan Bears.  A few years ago, Kim, a left-fielder, looked like he was going to be the next KBO superstar.  In 2009 and 2010 at ages 21 and 22, he hit .357 and .317 with 23 and 24 home runs.  However, he regressed sharply in each of 2011 and 2012.

In 2013, Kim bounced about half of the way back to where he was in 2010.  He hit .302 and slugged 16 HRs.  His .852 OPS was 11th best in the KBO.

5.  Jung-ho Kang (27) Nexen Heroes.   The best hitting young shortstop in the KBO, Kang batted .291 and slugged 22 HRs in 2013.  His .876 OPS was eighth best in the KBO.

Kang has hit .300 or better twice in his six year KBO career and has blasted 25 and 23 HRs in his two best seasons.  As a shortstop, he should probably rank higher on this list, but I don’t know anything about his defensive abilities.

6.  Suk-min Park (29) Samsung Lions.  A 3Bman, Park’s .940 OPS was third best in the KBO this past season.  Park has hit better than .300 three times in his six-year KBO career and slugged 24, 23 and 18 HRs in his three best seasons.  Unfortunately, Park isn’t particularly young and will probably remain in the KBO for that reason.

7.  Min-ho Kang (28) Lotte Giants.  The KBO’s best hitting young catcher, Kang just re-signed with the Lotte Giants for a record-setting four-year 7.5 billion won contract (roughly $7 million).  Kang was already showing the effects of a nine year career as an every-day catcher in 2013, and I think it’s unlikely Kang will leave the KBO when his new contract expires.

To my surprise I wasn’t able to find any hitters younger than 25 among the KBO’s top hitters in 2013.   I think it’s mostly a one-year fluke, given that a number of players listed above had big seasons with the bat before age 25.  However, it may also have something to do with the fact that young South Korean men are required to provide two years of military service.  For example, both Byung-ho Park and and Suk-min Park lost two years of their early professional development to military service, although both likely played baseball at a high level during their service time on military teams.

Aside from delaying their professional development, military service also means that many players are well past 30 by the time they reach their free agency after nine years of KBO championship league service.  While that’s tough for the players, it probably benefits both the KBO and South Korean baseball fans by making it less likely that the best South Korean players will leave for Japan’s NPB (or in the not-so-distant future MLB).

At any rate, some young players who hit well in the KBO last year are Woo-ram Moon (age 22 in 2014, Nexen Heroes), Kyung-min Heo (23, Doosan Bears), Hyung-sik Jung (23, Samsung Lions), Soo-bin Jung (23, Doosan Bears), Dong-min Han (24, SK Wyverns), Sang-soo Kim (24, Samsung Lions), Sun-bin Kim (24, Kia Tigers), Gun-chang Seo (24, Nexen Heroes), Ji-hwan Oh (24, LG Twins) and Min-sung Kim (25, Nexen Heroes).

San Francisco Giants Sign Tim Hudson

November 19, 2013

The Giants signed 38 year old right-hander Tim Hudson to a two-year $23 million deal.  One thing is for certain — he was obviously the pitcher the Giants wanted, as they went out and got him before almost any of the other high-profile free agents had signed.

This is typical of Brian Sabean’s Giants.  He likes to get out there and sign the player he targets before the free agent market heats up.  This has blown up in his face in years when the market was down, but this off-season looks like one where there is going to be a lot of spending.

The deal makes sense to me, both in terms of the pitcher the Giants are getting and the length of the contract.  Before his freak ankle break last July, Hudson was having another strong season.  Yes, his ERA has gone up each of the last three seasons, but he’s still an effective middle-of-the-rotation starter and he’s been remarkably durable since having his elbow tendon replaced back in 2008.

It will be tough for opposing batters to take him deep at AT&T Park, and even if he’s not right after recovering from last year’s injury or Father Time catches up with him in 2014, he’s only on the books for two seasons.

There was some question about whether Hudson would leave Atlanta, given that he’s from Georgia, but earlier reports that he’d be willing to come back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he long ago pitched for the A’s, were obviously right.

The question now, I guess, is whether the Giants resign Ryan Vogelsong and let him compete with Yusmeiro Petit for the fifth starting job next Spring Training, or whether they sign another veteran right-hander like Dan Haren, who isn’t linked to draft pick compensation.  Vogelsong is certainly a less expensive option, but the Giants have plenty of money following this year’s pay-off from the 2012 World Series championship.

Top KBO Pitching Prospects 2014

November 18, 2013

When the Dodgers signed Korean ace Hyun-Jin Ryu (I’ll use the Western name order throughout), I wrote a post identifying who I thought were the best pitching prospects in South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization (“KBO”) after Ryu.  A year has now passed, so it makes sense to update that post, particularly in light of the fact that there’s been ample talk this off-season about the next Korean pitcher to sign with a major league team.

1.  Seung-Hwan Oh (31 years old in 2014). Oh remains the top relief pitcher in KBO by a wide margin.  After nine KBO seasons, he has a career ERA of 1.69, with a pitching line of 510.1 IP, 298 hits, 120 walks and 625 Ks.  It’s hard to find anything not to like about that.  [Note that the links in this post are to KBO’s official website, which is in Korean, but the stats pretty much speak for themselves.]

Oh had a very similar year in 2013 to his 2012 season.  His ERA was a little lower this year, but his strikeout rate was down although still a very respectable 9.4 per nine innings pitched.

Oh turned 31 last July 15th, so he’s not young.  Of course, a lot of Japanese NPB relievers have come over to America over the age of 30 and had a lot of success, so I don’t see any reason why Oh couldn’t.

Reports suggest that Oh, who must be posted by his team, the Samsung Lions, in order to sign with an MLB team, will pitch either in the U.S. or in Japan next year [an NPB team can sign Oh to a contract first, but must then negotiate a sale price with his KBO team].  The New York Yankees and Japan’s Hanshin Tigers are both reportedly interested in Oh.

2.  Suk-Min Yoon (27).  I’ve been a big fan of Yoon since he won the Pitcher’s Triple Crown (wins, ERA and Ks) in the KBO in 2011.  He also led the KBO with a 2.33 ERA in 2008, and he had another strong year in 2012, although not nearly as impressive as his 2011 (3.12 ERA was 8th best in the KBO and his 137 Ks {in 153 IP} was 4th best in 2012).

He’s a true free agent this off-season and is looking to sign with an MLB team, going so far as to hire Scott Boras to represent him in negotiations.  However, he’s dropped to No. 2 on this list, from first last year, because he had shoulder problems that effected his pitching in 2013.

He split the year between starting and relieving, finishing with a 3-6 record and a 4.00 ERA.  He also picked up seven saves, but he didn’t really pitch that much better in relief than he had as a starter earlier in the season (3.60 ERA in relief, 4.15 ERA as a starter).

Yoon’s pitching line was a little better: 87.1 IP, 91 hits and 28 walks allowed and 76 Ks.  However, I don’t see MLB teams risking much on a small right-hander with a lot of pitching mileage coming off a season with shoulder problems.

It seems to me the best offer Oh is likely to get from an MLB team would be something like the contract the Milwaukee Brewers gave Norichica Aoki two years ago (a two-year deal for $3.25 million that has become a three-year $8.6 million deal with Aoki earning all performance bonuses and the Brewers picking up their third year option, and Aoki becoming a free agent again after the expiration of the deal).

Scott Boras said earlier this off-season that Yoon would not give an exhibition of his pitching for interested teams, which seems crazy to me, unless Boras is trying to hide the fact that Yoon isn’t the same pitcher he was as recently as 2012.  If his arm is healthy, he’s definitely worth the risk for an MLB team, at least on an Aoki-type deal.  If his arm is still sore, why not wait another year to see if he gets his act back together in the KBO?

3Jae-Hak Lee (23).  The KBO’s 2013 rookie of the year at age 22, Lee was also the best Korean-born starter in the KBO this year, finishing second in ERA (2.88) and tied for fifth in strike outs (144 in 156 innings pitched).  He’s obviously a pitcher to watch.  The biggest knock on him is that he’s a small right-hander — he’s currently listed as 5’11” and 167 lbs.

4.  Chang-Min Shim (21).  In his sophomore season at age 20, Shin posted a 2.68 ERA with a pitching line of 50.1 IP, 35 hits, three HRs and 19 BBs allowed, and 57 Ks.  He also became one the Samsung Lions’ top set-up men, finishing second on the team with 14 holds.

5.  Yoon-gu Kang (23).  At age 22 Kang nearly duplicated his 2012 season, finishing 2013 with a 4.36 ERA and a pitching line as a starter of 130 IP, 112 hits, six HRs and 75 BBs allowed, and 131 Ks.  He remains extremely wild, but if he can stay healthy, he should be a terrific pitcher when he eventually finds his command.

6.  Sang-San Hong (24).  Hong had another fine year in relief in 2013, posting a 2.50 ERA, recording five saves, nine holds and pitching line of 72 IP, 51 hits, eight HRs and 45 walks allowed, and 77 Ks.  He wasn’t as hard to hit as he was in 2012, apparently because his command wasn’t nearly as good.  Still a work in progress, but also still has plenty of time to harness his stuff.

7.  Woo-ram Jung (30 years old in 2015). One of the younger closers in KBO in 2012 at age 27 (Korean teams apparently prefer veteran closers), Jung posted a 2.20 ERA, saved 30 games (5th best) and posted a pitching line of 49 IP, 33 hits and nine walks allowed, and 55 strike outs.  However, he missed all of 2013 and will miss all or most of the 2014 season to his compulsory two years of military service, a problem for all South Korean male athletes because the service has to be completed between age 18 and 35, usually the prime of a ballplayer’s career.

A commenter has informed me that Jung will become a free agent after the 2015 season.  Presumably, Jung is playing baseball for a South Korean military team, and hopefully he’ll be able to pick up more or less where he left off in 2012 when he returns to the KBO.

8.  Hee-soo Park (30).  After being the KBO’s top set-up man in 2012, Park moved into the closer’s role in 2013 recording 24 saves, fifth most in the KBO, and a 2.27 ERA.  Park wasn’t as dominating this year as he was the year before, but he still struck out 46 batters in 47.2 IP, and his KBO career 2.04 ERA in 216.2 IP remains impressive.

The knock on Park is his age.  He turns 31 next July 13th, and as of the end of the 2013 season he appears to have less than four years of KBO service.  The upshot is that he may well be 35 or older when he finally gets an opportunity to play for pay outside of South Korea.

Five other young pitchers to keep an eye on are Min-ho Lee (20), Chan-Kyu Im (21), Ki-Young Im (21), Dong-seop Shim (22) and Sung-hyun Moon (22).  None of them had an earth-shaking season in 2013, but they are all extremely young and had good strikeout rates.

Mike Loree Sighting and Other Top Performers in Taiwan

November 15, 2013

Two years ago I wrote a post about pitcher Mike Loree, who was coming off a 2011 season in which he was the best pitcher in the Independent A Atlantic League.  The article focused on the question of how old Loree is, given that some baseball websites list his birth year as 1984, while others list it as 1986, and how important age is in terms of a player’s future prospects.  Loree was almost certainly born in 1984.

Anyway, his fine 2011 performance got him a late-season look by the Pirates at their AA club in Altoona, PA. Loree also pitched extremely well there in limited playing time (1.17 ERA with 11 Ks in 7.2 innings pitched).  However, the Pirates apparently didn’t feel he was worth holding onto, because Loree was back in the Atlantic League in 2012.

Loree came back down to earth in a big way in 2012, posting a poor 4.92 ERA and giving up a lot of home runs to Independent A league hitters.  However, his strikeout and K/BB rates were still good, apparently good enough to get him a contract with the Lamigo Monkeys of Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (“CPBL”) this past season.

Loree returned to his 2011 form in 2013.  His 3.40 ERA was second best in the four-team CPBL and his 150 Ks (in a league-leading 211.1 IP) led the small circuit by a wide margin.

Loree is now 29 years old, so his best professional prospects going forward are probably moving up a step to South Korea’s KBO, where contracts for foreign players are roughly double the size of those in the CPBL.

Meanwhile, Andy Sisco, who pitched briefly for the Royals and the White Sox between 2005 to 2007, led the CPBL with a 2.70 ERA, while striking out 91 batters in 133.1 IP as a member of the EDA Rhinos.  He’d pitched in the Atlantic League and the Mexican League in recent years before going to Taiwan, a fairly typical back-story for North Americans playing Taiwan.

The best young pitcher in Taiwan is probably Yu-Ching Lin, who at age 24 finished third with a 3.42 ERA and second with 125 Ks (in 157.2 IP).  He’s a smallish right-hander for the Brother Elephants.  Perhaps some day he’ll have a career in Japan’s NPB.

The CBPL’s top closer in 2013 was big Australian lefty Brad Thomas, who long ago pitched for the Minnesota Twins and also for the Detroit Tigers as recently as 2011.  He led the league with 26 saves and posted a 1.57 ERA.  He just turned 36, so the CBPL is probably his last career stop, except perhaps for winters playing in the new Australian Baseball League, which started play in the winter of 2010-2011.

The CBPL’s two best hitters this past season were Yi-Chuen Lin, who led the league in batting (.357) and home runs (18), and Kuo Hui Lo, who finished second in both categories (.350 and 14).  The league’s top three hitters in terms of batting average all played for the EDA Rhinos, so I suspect the Rhinos play in a hitters’ park.

Lin is a veteran CBPL star, while Lo began his professional career in MLB’s minor leagues, reaching as high as AA ball in 2010 and again in 2011.  Lo didn’t hit badly in his second stint at AA, but it seems clear the CPBL is somewhere below a AA level of play, insofar as he immediately became a star on his return to Taiwan.  Both Lin and Lo just turned 28, so it’s likely they’re at their performance ceiling now.

While it seems fairly certain we’ll never see any of the players mentioned here in MLB at any time in the future, I thought you might be interested to learn who the top half dozen players in Taiwan were this past season.

KBO’s Lotte Giants Sign Star Catcher Kang Min-Ho to Record Contract

November 13, 2013

The Korean Baseball Organization’s (“KBO”) Lotte Giants re-signed their free agent catcher Kang Min-Ho to a record four-year, 7.5 billion won deal, which at current exchange rates comes to approximately $7 million.  Kang will reportedly receive a signing bonus worth roughly $3 million and $1 million annual salaries.

Kang is 28 years old (turns 29 next August) and was the best KBO free agent among position players this off-season.  He’s hit .305, .292 and .289 in his three best seasons and hit between 19 and 23 HRs in a season four times.

However, in 2013 Kang had his worst season since becoming an everyday player in 2006, batting only .235 and slugging only 11 HRs, apparently as a result of injuries that limited him to 105 games, his lowest total since 2009.

The largest KBO contract I’d heard about previously was the approximately $708,000 paid to Lee Seung-yeop in 2012 by the Samsung Lions upon Lee’s return to KBO after eight seasons played in Japan’s NPB. Lee had set the KBO’s single-season home run record with 56 in 2003, his last season before going to Japan.

However, salaries of foreign players reportedly often greatly exceed the KBO’s official salary caps.  Nevertheless, the overall amount of Kang’s new contract is a surprise even though the Lotte Giants said they intended to make him a record-setting offer.

Also, while Lotte traditionally leads the KBO in attendance by a wide margin, the team’s attendance was down very sharply in 2013.  Giants’ attendance was down 44% from what was likely an all-time KBO best of 1.37 million fans in 2012 to only 770,000 fans in 2013, which was only fourth best in the KBO this season.  I guess Lotte believes that its 2013 attendance decline was simply a one-year aberration.

We’ll see what effect this contract has on KBO team salary structures.  It’s hard to see how KBO teams can hand out contracts like this one, even if only to the very best players, when average per game attendance was only 11,284 this past season and only 13,451 in 2012, when the KBO set its all-time record for average per game attendance.