Archive for the ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’ category

Go East, Not So Young Men, Part II: The Pitchers

October 20, 2017

Here are some starting pitchers who seem like good bets to sign with a KBO or NPB team for 2018:

Drew Hutchinson (27 in 2018).  Hutchinson looked like a burgeoning star in 2014 after coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he’s only thrown 24 major league innings since the start of the 2016 season.  He didn’t pitch in the Show at all this year, despite posting a strong 3.56 ERA in 26 starts for the International League’s Indianapolis Indians.

One would think that Hutchinson would be receptive to a guaranteed offer from an NPB club; and one or two strong seasons in Japan could put his MLB career back on track.

Wilmer Font (28).  Font hasn’t pitched much in the majors (7 IP over eight appearances with an ugly 11.57 ERA), but he was dominating for the Pacific Coast League’s Oklahoma City Dodgers in 2017.  His 3.42 ERA was the only ERA under 4.00 by any PCL pitcher who threw at least 115 innings, and his pitching line of 134.1 IP, 114 hits, 11 HRs and 35 BBs allowed and a whopping 178 Ks was even better.

Font will have a hard time breaking through with the pitching rich Dodgers, and I would expect a KBO team in particular to make him a strong offer.

Justin Masterson (33), Tom Koehler (32) and Dillon Gee (32).  A trio of veterans with substantial MLB resumes, all three look to be at a point in their respective careers where the Asian majors would be each pitcher’s best option, at least if they want to continue starting.  Masterson, also pitching for the OKC Dodgers, recorded the PCL’s second best ERA at 4.13 and recorded 140 Ks in 141.2 IP, but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015.

Koehler pitched well in relief for the Blue Jays late in the 2017 season, but might well get a better offer to be a starter for an Asian team than a reliever for an MLB one in 2018.  Pretty much the same for Dillon Gee.

T.J. House (28).  House was pretty good for the International League’s Buffalo Bisons in 2017, posting a 4.32 ERA and 108 Ks in 133.1 IP.  He also has enough of an MLB track record that he might interest an Asian team.

Anthony Bass (30).  Bass pitched for NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters in 2016 and pitched pretty well (3.65 ERA in 103.2 IP), although he was not invited back.  This year, he pitched well enough for the PCL’s Round Rock Express (4.18 ERA, 87 Ks in 75.1 IP) to get a two game cup of coffee with the Rangers.  He seems like he’d be a good bet for a KBO team in 2018.

Other starting pitchers who might well get an Asian offer too good to pass up are Williams Perez (27), Cody Martin (28), Michael Blazek (29), Vance Worley (30) and Paolo Espino (31).

The relief candidates for NPB in 2018 (KBO teams only want starters) number as many as 50.  These are the ones I like best.

Louis Coleman, Al Alburquerque and Ernesto Frieri (all 32).  A trio of live-armed, proven MLB relievers who pitched great in AAA in 2017, but aren’t likely to get major league contract offers for 2018.  It’s reasonable to assume that at least one of them will be pitching in Japan next season.

Preston Claiborne (30).  He’s all the way back from Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, but didn’t get much of a look from the Rangers in spite of a 1.89 ERA and 16 saves at AAA Round Rock.

Bruce Rondon (27) and Blaine Hardy (31).  A couple of Tiger hurlers who may well be non-tendered this off-season, because both are arbitration eligible.

Jack Leathersich (27), Dayan Diaz (29) and Simon Castro (30).  Will they or won’t they receive major league contract offers from their current MLB teams?  That is the question that will most likely determine their receptiveness to any Asian offers.

Other reasonable relief possibilities: Michael Tonkin (28), Alex Wimmers (29), Brandon Cunniff (29), Deolis Guerra (29), Felix Doubront (30), Josh Smith (30), Jason Gurka (30), Zac Rosscup (30), Jeff Beliveau (31), Rhiner Cruz (31), Erik Davis (31), Pat “Switch Pitcher” Venditte (33) and Edward Mujica (34).


What Did Kenta Maeda Make in 2017?

October 3, 2017

By my calculation, Kenta Maeda made a total of $8,025,000 in 2017 on his incentive-heavy contract with the Dodgers.  This amount includes a pro-rated portion of his $1 million signing bonus.  The total is $4 million less than Maeda made in 2016.

This is a contract that couldn’t be much better for the Dodgers.  Fangraphs says Maeda’s 2017 performance was actually worth $15.9 million.  By the same token, it would have taken five years playing in Japan’s NPB for Maeda to make as much money as he has in the last two seasons in MLB.

I also strongly suspect that the Dodgers made sure Maeda got to make his final and 25th start of the season on September 21st (he allowed two runs in only three innings of work, to make sure that Maeda got the $1.5 million bonus that came with making that 25th start.  Maeda picked up his 13th and final win, against six losses, of the season in relief on October 1st, and I expect he will pitch out of the bullpen during the playoffs.

Maeda’s contract is unlike any other that I am aware of in MLB history (correct me if I’m wrong), in terms of the amount and percentage of the incentives relative to the length of the contract.  However, I don’t think it’s the last such contract we’ll see.

There is another small right-hander pitching in Japan named Takahiro Norimoto, who will surely be an MLBer one day if his pitching arm holds up.  He’s got better strikeout stuff in NPB than Maeda had, but he’s no bigger than Maeda and has been worked just as hard in Japan as Maeda was.  I foresee an MLB contract very similar to Maeda’s for Norimoto when the time comes about three years from now.

Shohei Otani Rumors

September 15, 2017 reported a few days ago that the rumors out of Japan are that phenom Shohei Otani will ask to be posted by his NPB team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, so that he can start his MLB career in 2018.  My own opinion is that it would make a lot more sense for Otani to wait until 2020 to join MLB.

Under the new MLB collective bargaining agreement, a veteran player from another professional league needs to be at least 25 to be exempt from the signing bonus and reserve clause rules when signing his first contract.  Otani only turned 23 this past July.

Right now, Otani’s potential signing bonus is capped between $3 M and $3.5M, and can only be offered by teams that have not had their signing bonuses capped by past over-spending.  Teams may try to find some kind of loophole around these limits, but it’s unclear if MLB would accept any attempt to get around the recently negotiated new rules.

Also, Otani hurt his hamstring early this year, causing him to miss half of the 2017 season.  He is hitting like a fool in 53 games, slashing .341/.411/.563, but has pitched very little.  He’s made three appearances for a total of 10.1 innings pitched and has an ugly 6.97 ERA after getting bombed in the first two outings.

Teams will still line up to sign Otani if he is available, given his raw talent both on the mound and at the plate, but he would be in a much stronger position to negotiate an agreement that would let him both pitch and hit if he returns to form on the mound the next two seasons in Japan.  He can then agree to take less money on a deal that would otherwise make the seven year $155 million contract Masahiro Tanaka signed in January 2014 look like peanuts.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Otani could hurt his arm in the meantime, although that won’t effect his value as a hitter.  However, the fact that Otani barely pitched this year, and has never been overworked in his NPB career, means that the odds of his blowing out his arm in the next two years are not high.  In fact, given his age, the odds are higher that he will improve either or both his hitting and his pitching over two more seasons in NPB.

Even MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has suggested by his comments that Otani should wait two more years before coming to MLB.  These are somewhat strange comments from a guy who represents MLB ownership, but I think they arise from the fact that professional baseball is about making money, and it makes the most sense for Otani to come to the U.S. when his value is at its absolute peak.

Finally, if I were part of Fighters’ management, I’d be extremely reluctant to let Otani go now.  A year after winning the 2016 Japan Series, the Fighters have been brutally bad this season, and a big part of that has been because of Otani’s injury.  There is no way that the current $20 million posting fee is worth two years of Otani’s service to the Fighters, who are one of NPB’s better drawing teams.  Also, in the next two years the posting fee might well be increased to, say, $25 million.

NPB teams are in a difficult position with players as rarely talented as Otani.  They don’t want t0 be seen as standing in the way of the player going on to greater fame and fortune in MLB, but it is also unheard of for a Japanese team to post a player after only four full years of NPB service.  By way of comparison, Yu Darvish pitched more than six full seasons, and Tanaka pitched seven full seasons in NPB’s major leagues, before they joined MLB.

In the past, NPB teams have typically been able to brow-beat Japanese players to stay in Japan as long as reasonably possible.  That has to be getting harder, as players with Otani’s talent can’t help but see for themselves the enormous fame and riches that come with a successful transition to MLB.  Of course, the fact that Otani’s great riches are still at least two years away, even if he comes to MLB in 2018, is a reason for Nippon Ham to insist that he stay put.

Chris Sale’s Tired Wing

September 5, 2017

I read this article on this weekend regarding Chris Sale‘s history of pitching poorly after September 1st, and in fact, his first September start this season was not up to his pre-September standards.

It is hardly surprising that a pitcher listed at 6’6″ and 180 lbs would get tired late in the season.  I found a couple of articles on the internet from March 2016 about how Sale was trying to get his weight up to 200 lbs in order to improve his strength and stamina later in the season, based largely on a diet of cheeseburgers, steaks and his wife’s “taco nights.”  He was able to get his weight to 190 lbs when he reported to camp that year, but at least one teammate opined that he thought Sale would never reach 195 lbs, let alone 200.

My guess would be that Sale probably arrived at training camp closer to 200 this year.  Sale is 28 this year, and his metabolism has to slow down eventually.

I also think that Sale will pitch better this September than he has in the past, his Sept. 3 start notwithstanding.  Sale is experienced enough now that he should be able to get hitters out even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.  Also, this is his first opportunity to pitch in the post-season, and secure his status as one of MLB’s absolutely best pitchers.  I have to think he will rise to the occasion, even it has longer term consequences on his career going forward.

One of the reasons that even the best major league pitchers don’t last longer is that in contending years like this one, the pressure is on them in spades to do more than any one pitcher can reasonably be expected to do.  Despite the fact that Sale is not built to be a workhorse, he’s currently leading MLB in innings pitched and is second only to Rick Porcello, another pitcher already showing the signs of prolonged overwork, in number of pitches thrown this season.

On that note, I wonder if Madison Bumgarner‘s injury this year won’t end up being a positive thing.  But for the dirt bike accident, it’s almost certain MadBum would have pitched 220+ innings this season.  At the very least, it would have been his seventh consecutive season throwing at least 200+ innings.

Bumgarner has only recently turned 28 and with all of those innings pitched under his belt already, I wouldn’t count on him to last too much longer.  Maybe being limited to half his typical innings pitched total this year will mean at least a season or two longer that he’ll remain one of MLB’s top arms.

In fact, I am less sanguine at this moment about Clayton Kershaw‘s future prospects than I am about Bumgarner’s.  This will be the third year in the last four that Kershaw hasn’t pitched 200 innings, but his lost time has mostly been due to back problems rather than freak accidents.  It’s hard to imagine those back issues not cropping up again in Kershaw’s professional future.

As a final note, in these days of eight-figure annual salaries for front of the rotation starters, it’s a whole lot harder to feel sorry about the fact that they are routinely overworked and that their careers don’t last longer.

The Demise of the Everyday Player

August 10, 2017

Years and years ago I read a piece by Bill James in which he argued that Cal Ripken‘s decision to keep his consecutive game streak alive was actually detrimental to the Baltimore Orioles’ ultimate goal of winning as many games as possible.  The article made a lot of sense to me: playing every single game, even by the very best players, means that the player plays a lot of games when he’s exhausted and/or has minor injuries, which can’t heal properly because the player is playing six days a week; under those circumstances, even the best major league players aren’t necessarily playing as well as the replacement-level player sitting in the team’s bench would.

[In fairness to Ripken, the Orioles’ true ultimate goal was putting as many cans in the seats as possible.  Being Cal Ripken, playing every game every day for a generation, probably was pretty good for Orioles’ attendance during that streak.]

Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak is a record that probably never will be broken because it seems that MLB teams now agree whole-heartedly with what James argued all those years ago.  In contrast to the Asian leagues, where playing every day in leagues that play shorter schedules and have more rain-outs is still commendable, MLB teams have clearly decided that the occasional day off is more valuable than playing every single game.

Looking at the 17 full seasons from 2000 through 2016, the shift from playing every single game seems to have taken hold after the 2008 season.  In the nine seasons from 2000 through 2008, an average of 6.33 players per season played in all 162 games.  In the eight full seasons since then, only 2.5 players per season have played 162 games in a season.

Even players who manage to play at least 160 games in a season seems in decline.  In the 14 seasons from 2000 through 2013, an average of 13.6 players played at least 160 games per season.  In the last three seasons, that average has dropped almost in half to seven per season. The recent low seasons could be a result of a small sample fluke, but I don’t think so.

Just as teams have learned that using more and more relief pitchers pitching more and more total innings results in fewer runs scored by the opposition, teams have also learned that keeping their stars properly rested and their bench players sharp results in better won-loss results.  The good managers, and I consider the Giants’ Bruce Boche one of them, realize that keeping the stars fresh and the bench players sharp has a lot more value than riding the race horses until they inevitably drop.

For what it’s worth, Justin Morneau is the last player to play 163 games in a season.  Morneau’s 2008 Twins lost their 163rd game to the White Sox, sending the latter team to a brief post season and former team home.  The all-time record for games played in a season is Maury Wills‘ 165: he played all 162 regular season games and all three games to decide the pennant against the Giants.  That was the year Wills set then records for plate appearances and stolen bases in a season.



Los Angeles Dodgers Trade for Yu Darvish

July 31, 2017

The Dodgers pulled the trigger on the trade deadline’s biggest deal by acquiring Yu Darvish for three prospects right at the deadline.  The price was indeed heavy for a two-month rental, but this deal is obviously more about the Dodgers going deep into the post-season than about helping the Dodgers win their division outright.

Moving from the American League’s best hitters’ park to one of the National League’s best pitchers’ parks should help Darvish step right into the shoes of injured ace Clayton Kershaw.  I would have to think that Darvish will enjoy playing in L.A., a city with a much larger Asian presence than Dallas/Ft. Worth, not to mention the fact that he’ll get a shot a winning a World Series ring.  Also, if things go as planned for Darvish and the Dodgers, the odds are good the team will give Darvish an enormous long-term contract this off-season, unless, of course, the Yankees or the Rangers offer even more.

If Kershaw is healthy again by late September, the Dodgers will be the obvious and overwhelming favorites to go all the way.  Certainly, no one will be able to match their pitching.

The main piece in the deal for the Rangers is 22 year old 2B/LF Willie Calhoun.  Calhoun’s minor league numbers don’t suggest he’s got enough range at 2B to stick there, and the odds are effectively nil that he will displace Rougned Odor unless Odor gets hurt. However, Calhoun has enough power that he won’t be a liability as a corner outfielder, once he learns to play there.  Calhoun needs more time to learn to play positions other than second, so I don’t expect he’ll be promoted to the majors before September, although his bat is very, very close to being ready now.

The other two players the Rangers received, RHP A.J. Alexy and infielder Brendon Davis, are both in their age-19 seasons.  They have talent, but they are a long way from the majors.

It isn’t often that a team gets three prospects of this caliber for 2+ months of veteran performance, but it also isn’t often that a team as good as the 2017 Dodgers can add a pitcher of Yu’s caliber.  The Dodgers want their first World Series title since 1988 bad, and now they can absolutely taste it.

Kenta Maeda — Every 10th Day Starter?

July 21, 2017

I’ve been a fan of the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda for a long time.  I followed his career closely in Japan, where he was a great pitcher at the top of the class just behind Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.  I definitely thought he was good enough to be a successful major league pitcher.

I also liked Maeda because he was a small right-hander, and I was a small right-handed player in my playing days, now oh so long ago.  Like Tim Lincecum, Maeda was small, but he could pitch, and I felt there ought to be a place his talents in MLB.

From the beginning MLB teams were suspicious of Meda because of his size.  The Dodgers signed him on a deal that guaranteed him only $25 million over eight years, but was chock full of incentives if he could prove he could be a successful MLB starter.

Last season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided pretty quickly that Maeda’s innings had to be strictly limited.  While at the time I thought that this might reflect some latent MLB prejudice against small right-handers, on further analysis, I was probably wrong.

Roberts is literally the product of an American Marine and a Japanese woman his father met while serving in Japan.  (I, and probably lots of other baseball afficionados, had assumed that the Dodgers’ manager was the son of Panamanian ball player Dave Roberts, who was playing in Japan the year and the year before the now manager was born.)  The Dodgers’ manager was a below average sized major leaguer in his own day.

Instead, Roberts decided quickly and probably accurately that it would be tough for a pitcher Maeda’s size to start every fifth game.  In fact, this has been a problem for all Japanese pitchers moving to MLB, including those with MLB-sized bodies like Darvish, Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma (it’s been a problem for a lot of American-born pitchers too.)  In Japan, starters typically start only once a week, because so many games are washed out during the wet Japanese summer months.

This season, Maeda has been the victim of the new home run trend, and he’s been in and out of the Dodgers’ talent-packed starting rotation.  He’s become basically a spot starter (and spot reliever), starting when the team doesn’t have an extra game off to rest the other starters.

Maeda has been remarkably successful in this role.  Through June 9, pitching as part of the regular five-man rotation, Maeda had a 4.95 ERA.  Since then he’s made five starts on average eight days apart, and he’s allowed more than one run in a start only once, on a day when he had only four full days’ rest since his previous start.

I’ve been following MLB since 1978, which is pretty much the entire era of five-man pitching staffs.  Many is the time I’ve seen teams try to use 4+-man rotations, basically skipping the fifth man every time there was an extra day off that allowed the other four starters their normal rest.

This strategy has almost never worked.  The fifth starter was routinely skipped because he really wasn’t an adequate starter at all.  The fifth starter, who wasn’t any good to begin with, tended to be even worse when he didn’t pitch regularly.  Also, one of the other four adequate or better starters tended to get hurt at some point in the season, which rendered the strategy completely ineffective.

This season, the Dodgers are so deep with talent that they have the starters, the bullpen, and the pitcher in Maeda to make this strategy work well for the first time I can remember.  Maeda is a veteran pitcher who can be still be effective starting every eight to 12 games, plus the occasional one or so inning relief appearance in between, who may well benefit from starting half as often as the typical MLB starter.

Maeda has also been willing to give the team whatever it needs, even though the infrequent starts hit him directly in the pocketbook because of his incentive-laden contract.  Apparently, Maeda is mature enough to realize that he’s making more in the U.S. than he would have made if he’d stayed in Japan.  Plus, the reasonable likelihood of a World Series check and ring probably do a great deal to assuage any hurt feelings Maeda might otherwise have.

I’m a strong believer that managers need to be extremely flexible in terms of using the actual players they have on their rosters, with their specific skill sets and specific weaknesses, in order to tease out as many regular season wins as they possibly can in any given season. Managers’ jobs are too tenuous not to do every single thing within their power to win ball games.

Managers often aren’t flexible in large part because the players demand consistency in their roles (and the players are now well better paid than the managers), and because there are certain well-established notions about how managers should use their players, built up over generations, and known to the sportswriters who cover the games like professionals.  It’s the reason that teams without great closers generally do not elect to use bullpens-by-committee based on match-ups, even though this would make a great deal of sense if you don’t have a true closer.

Roberts may well end up sending in Maeda for every fifth start if somebody else in the starting rotation gets hurt.  I’m just trying to point out that using Maeda on a less regular basis seems to be working very well for the Dodgers and that Maeda might be exactly the pitcher to make such a strategy work.  The 2017 Dodgers are currently on a pace to win 113 games.  It’s hard to find fault with that.