Archive for the ‘Oakland A’s’ category

Catcher Defense

April 16, 2019

One of the biggest breakthroughs of the recent analytics revolution of the last generation is the degree to which catcher defense can now be analyzed and quantified.  Specifically, pitch framing has turned out to be far more valuable than teams realized only two decades ago.  Teams, of course, knew that pitch framing was important, but until complete filming, saving and replay of every pitch thrown in MLB was accomplished it wasn’t really possible to quantify which catchers were good at and which ones weren’t and just how many runs are saved or lost as a result.

I was looking at fangraphs.com’s defensive leaders for 2018 today and the importance of catcher defense completely jumped out at me.  18 of the top 30 players in terms of runs saved over replacement were catchers.  Six of these 18 catchers caught fewer than 540 innings in 2018, meaning they played less than 60 full games at the position but were still among the most valuable defensive players in MLB.  The only other defenders of roughly or nearly equal value were the seven best everyday shortstops.

Three 2Bman, 3Bman Matt Chapman and CF Kevin Kiermaier round out the top 30.  Aside from being the only center fielder, Kiermaier played only 747.1 innings there in 2018, which gives you a pretty good idea of just how good his center field defense is.

MLB teams have known just about forever how importance catching defense is.  How else to explain the fact that Bill Bergen played 11 major league seasons more than 100 years ago in which he compiled an astounding .395 career OPS (even worse than today’s best hitting pitchers and a lot worse than the best hitting pitchers of his own era)?  Bergen played in the deadball era when catchers had to be good defensively, at least insofar as controlling the running game and fielding bunts.

What we have now is a better idea of which good-field, no-hit catchers are worth keeping around solely for their gloves and which ones aren’t.  By the same token, there are still intangibles like pitch-calling (particularly because on many teams the manager or coaches call the pitches and clubhouse/on-field presence which are hard to quantify.  Obviously, we can now quantify whether catchers of the same team have higher or lower ERAs when they are behind the dish, but it’s hard to quantify the value of pitch-calling or the ability to keep a pitcher calm and focused.

I definitely think that some catchers — at least based on fangraphs’ evaluations — are still seen as major league catchers simply because they have been major league catchers.  For example, Drew Butera just got the call to come up with Rockies in spite of the fact that he is now 35 years old and has been worth $21.4M less to his major league teams than a replacement level catcher would have been across his nine year major league career.

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An Off-Season of Contract Extensions

March 26, 2019

As we approach the start of the 2019 season, it was a notable off-season for the way in which big money contract extensions eclipsed all but the top three free agent signings.  As Spring Training started, it seemed like every single team was determined to lock in their best players for many years at big money, bigger money it sure seems than the free agents got at least in grand total.

A couple of things seem to be in play here.  First, it seems like the owners have finally figured out what Charlie Finley had realized around 1975, which is essentially that only the superstars are worth the really big contracts and that more average players and aging stars are fungible enough that teams shouldn’t go around overpaying them.

When the players won the Andy Messersmith free agency arbitration, Finley suggested that all players should be allowed to be free agents every year.  That way, the biggest stars would get huge salaries, but all the other players would be competing with each other for contracts, which would drive their prices down.

However, the other owners thought Finley was a kook and wanted to hold on to their best players as long as they could.  Thus, the owners negotiated a six-year service requirement for free agency, which meant that there would always be more demand for free agents than there were actual players who satisfied the six year service requirement and were still playing well.  As a result, for a very long time, free agents received enormous contracts, and the players’ association used those contract amounts to get higher contracts for younger players through the salary arbitration process they had successfully negotiated for a few years earlier.

The pendulum back towards a freer market began when teams began to non-tender an increasingly large share of their arbitration eligible players as arbitration salaries also got enormous.  More available players each off-season meant more competition for second-tier free agents, and the non-tendered players were and are more likely to sign one-year contracts for less money just to guarantee themselves major league jobs.  That surely drove down the market for second-tier free agents.

Also, teams may be realizing that their own superstars are worth more to them than anyone else.  While it is certainly exciting to bring in a high profile free agent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, there is probably just as much good will to be gained from the fan base when a Mike Trout or Nolan Arenado is locked into play all or nearly all of his professional career for the team that developed him into a superstar.

Given how much more generous the recent spate of extensions feels compared to the free agent signings this winter, I would if teams aren’t acting collusively to send a message to players: sign with the team that developed you for big money, or test an increasingly uncertain free agent market.

Of course, if more superstars sign long-term extensions covering their prime and declining years, the superstars who do elect to become free agents will find even less competition for their services.  In short, the Bryce Harpers of the baseball world who elect free agency will continue to set contract records.  Instead, it’s the second-tier free agents who will be feeling greater pressure to accept any extension offers their current teams are willing to offer them.

Bruce Maxwell Signs with Mexican League’s Acereros del Norte

March 7, 2019

It sure is unusual to see a 28 year old once promising major league catcher sign with a Mexican League team, but Bruce Maxwell has done it, due to conduct the last two seasons that has made him unappealing to all 30 major league organizations.

Maxwell is the only major league player to have taken a knee during the National Anthem to protest racial discrimination in America back in 2017.  My first thought in reading that he had signed with a Mexican League team is that he has been unfairly black-listed because of the National Anthem issue.  However, I resisted my gut reaction, because Maxwell’s situation is a lot more complicated than that.

He was arrested during the 2017-2018 off-season for allegedly pulling a gun on a fast-food delivery person and charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct.  He ultimately pleaded out to disorderly conduct, which mlbtraderumors.com describes as a “class 6 undesignated offense,” which I assume means not very serious, and received probation and community service.  Presumably, the probation period has expired, or he wouldn’t be able to play in Mexico.

Also, Maxwell was absolutely horrible in 2018, both for the A’s and also at their AAA affiliate in Nashville.  The A’s also reportedly had concerns about his conditioning (he’s currently listed at 6’1″, 250 lbs — conditioning is always going to be an issue for someone with those dimensions).

As such, teams could legitimately believe that Maxwell is a head-case and would prefer that he work out his issues some place else before signing him.  It certainly raises issues when a player his age and on the verge of major league stardom engages in crazy behavior and doesn’t keep himself in shape.  Add to that the fact that as a major league veteran, Maxwell couldn’t be signed to play at the minor league level for less than about $90,000, it is not entirely surprising that all 30 major league teams would take a pass on him.

The Acereros de Monclova (the city in which the team plays) are one of the top Mexican League teams and routinely collect the best foreign players (which in this case includes Americans) to play for them, so it’s no surprise that they would jump at the chance to sign a player of Maxwell’s talents.  Obviously, NPB and KBO teams will be keeping an eye on how Maxwell performs in Mexico, although neither league likes to sign foreign catchers because of worries about foreign catchers’ ability to communicate with domestic pitchers — although the ability of foreign pitchers to communicate with domestic catchers is not considered an issue at all, as both leagues routinely sign foreign pitchers.

If nothing else, playing in Mexico should determine pretty quickly whether Maxwell now has his head on straight.  It’s a big let-down playing in Mexico under Mexican League conditions for Mexican League money (probably no more than $5,000 or $6,000 a month for rookie foreigners), and it takes a certain determination to move past that and put in the work to succeed even in what is probably a AA class league.  If Maxwell plays up to his abilities, MLB teams (or NPB or KBO teams) will come calling soon enough.  If not, then maybe we’ll see Maxwell playing next in the Indy-A Atlantic League or American Association.

San Francisco Giants Add Lefty Drew Pomeranz

January 23, 2019

The Giants have reportedly reached an agreement with left-handed starter Drew Pomeranz for $1.5M, plus another $3.5M in performance incentives.  If Pomeranz’s arm is healthy, this is a great, low-cost move for the Gints.

Pomeranz was once the 5th overall draft pick in 2010 out of Ol’ Miss, but the Rockies weren’t able to develop him into a major league star.  It is tough developing young pitchers in mile high Denver, and Pomeranz has pitched well when he’s played for teams playing in pitchers’ parks (Oakland, San Diego).  He had a fine year in hit-happy Fenway in 2017, going 17-6 with a 3.32, but pitched badly last season when he was battling injuries.

Pomeranz only recently turned 30, so the Giants could be getting a top starter for a bargain price.  Even if Pomeranz is hurt again, he’s costing the team a very small guarantee by current standards.  Frankly, I’m surprised that Pomeranz couldn’t get a deal promising him a $2M guarantee and $6M in incentives, given his pedrigree, his upside and his 2017 performance.  In fact, I like this signing better than bringing back Derek Holland.

One of the advantages of playing in an extreme pitchers’ or hitters’ park is that if management knows what it is doing, it isn’t hard to identify under-performing but talented players coming from teams playing in parks that don’t suit their skills.  Almost every off-season, the Giants identify and cheaply sign at least one pitcher who then pitches much better than he has in the recent past once his confidence gets buoyed by pitching in the friendly (for pitchers) confines of AT&T (or whatever they are calling it now) Park.  Last year it was Derek Holland; in 2019 it could well be Drew Pomeranz.

Ballplayers Still Getting Paid

January 12, 2019

Even with the free agent market tight and the average player salary down in 2018 for the first time since 2010, the stars are still going to get paid.  That’s the message I’m taking away from all the arbitration compromises being announced.

Nolan Arenado will set an arbitration process record with somewhere between his requested $30M and the $24M the Rockies are offering him.  All of Mookie Betts ($20M), Anthony Rendon ($18.8M), Jacob DeGrom ($17M), Khris Davis ($16.5M) and Jose Abreau ($16M) will be earning more than $15 million in 2019 through the arbitration process.  That’s at least several lifetimes’ worth of income for most Americans.

More than free agency, the owners hate arbitration because it forces them to give their young stars huge raises.  That said, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the owners, who are obviously much richer than the players and have figured out they can non-tender any player they don’t feel is worth his likely arbitration raise.

Given the competition between the rich players and the even richer owners, my sympathies are with the players, because they are the ones who put the cans in the seats.  That said, it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy if players are making just a little less than in recent years’ past, when they are still making this kind of money.

You want to make the lives of professional players as a group — negotiate further increases in the major league minimum annual salary ($555,000 in 2019) and pay minor league players a living wage.  That’s the tide that would raise all boats.

This Year in the Australian Baseball League

January 4, 2019

With this off-season’s MLB free agent signing period slow going indeed, this baseball blogger has been somewhat hard-pressed to come up with topics to write about.  Thus, you, gentle reader, have been subjected to numerous posts about Asian baseball, where the signings of foreign players have been more forthcoming.  Besides, the fringes of the professional baseball world interest me and seem like a ripe topic that few other baseball blogs cover.

Thus, it feels like a good time for a post on the action in this year’s Australian Baseball League.  The ABL isn’t in the same class as the big four Caribbean Winter Leagues (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela), but is probably better than the Winter Leagues in any of Panama, Nicaragua or Colombia.  It plays a short season, even by Winter League standards, of about 40 games.

The ABL is heavily subsidized by MLB as a way to develop interest in baseball in Australia and to help generate a continuing supply of Aussie prospects for MLB.  I could not help but notice earlier today that, while the ABL’s website provides very detailed box scores, including game temperatures and wind speeds, it does not report attendance numbers, a sure sign that the games are not well attended by the standards of even this level of professional baseball and must be subsidized by someone to keep the league afloat.

The ABL draws an interesting mix of Australian players and Independent-A American players not quite good enough during the summer to secure work in the Big Four Caribbean Winter Leagues.  The Circuit also draws a smattering of pro players from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

The top pitcher in the ABL this season is Shota Imanaga.  Imanaga is a potentially a world class NPB pitcher, who is coming off a brutal 2018 summer season and apparently pitching in the ABL this winter to get himself back on track.

After the 2017 season, Imanaga looked like a potential future MLB prospect, as I mentioned that off-season.  In 2018, however, he went 4-11 in NPB with a brutal 6.80 ERA.  His command deteriorated significantly from the prior two seasons, and he seems to have hurt by the rise in NPB home-running hitting this past season.  He still managed to strike out 80 batters in 84.2 innings pitched, and his performance in the ABL this winter suggests there is nothing fundamentally wrong with his pitching arm, always a concern for a pitcher listed under 5’10” and 180 lbs.

Against a much lower level of competition, and limited so far to six starts and 35 IP, Imanaga has posted a 0.51 ERA and 57 strikeouts while allowing only 14 hits, one home run and one walk.  If nothing else, Imanaga’s foray to the ABL should certainly boost his confidence going into the 2019 NPB season.

Frank Gailey, Ryan Bollinger, Mikey Reynolds and Zach Wilson are examples of typical North American players playing in the ABL this winter.  Ryan Bollinger pitched pretty well in the Yankees’ system last summer, mostly at the AA level, and he struck out 97 batters and 111.2 IP.  He has been signed by the Padres this off-season with an invitation to Spring Training, but will most likely start the 2019 season at AAA El Paso.

Needless to say, the ABL is a refuge for Australian players who just can’t give up the enjoyment they get from playing professional baseball.  Former major leaguer Travis Blackly, for example, is still around at age 36 pitching effectively Down Under (and in the very low Indy-A Pacific Association during the Northern Hemisphere summer).  He’s now pitched professionally in at least seven countries (U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia).

Steve Kent and Luke Hughes are a couple of old Aussie war horses who have played in the MLB system and the ABL for many years.  Hughes played in the majors for the Twins and the A’s from 2010-2012.

More recent major leaguer Gift Ngoepe, originally of South Africa, is playing well in the ABL this season.  After a brutally bad 2018 season mostly for the Blue Jays’ AAA team in Buffalo, which caused him to get released in mid-August, Ngoepe is obviously hoping a strong winter in Oz will get him contract to play baseball somewhere next summer.

Pete Kozma and Josh Collmenter, two other familiar major league names, are in basically the same boat as Ngoepe — Kozma is trying to resuscitate his career after a rough year in the Tigers’ organization, and Collmenter is trying to come back from injuries that kept him out of action throughout the 2018 regular season.  Kozma, at least, has signed an minor league contract to return to the Tigers’ organization with invitation to spring training in 2019.

 

Chinatrust Brothers Sign Eric Wood and Other Asian Notes

January 1, 2019

The CPBL’s Chinatrust Brothers signed Pirates’ minor leaguer Eric Wood for 2018.  It is the first time since 2016 that a CPBL team has used one of its three major league roster spots on a foreign position player.

Wood will be 26 in 2019 and plays 3B, 1B and the corner outfield positions.  He slashed .269/.328/.481 in 308 plate appearances at AAA Indianapolis in 2018, his second season the International League.  Wood is not a bad hitter, but he doesn’t hit well enough to be a major league 1B/LF, and his defense at 3B isn’t major league average.

Wood was a minor league free agent this off-season and given his age and 2018 performance, it is surprising he did not sign with a major league organization.  CPBL teams do not report the contract amounts they spend on foreign players, but my reasonable guestimate would be that the Brothers guaranteed him $75,000 for the first three months of the 2019 CPBL season, which is probably about the same he would earn for a full season as a minor league free agent signee playing a full year at AAA.  Of course, playing at AAA, Wood would have had a chance to get called up to the majors and make major league money for however long he could stick on a major league roster.

The last position player signed by a CPBL team was former major league Felix Pie in 2016.  Pie was coming off a successful season in South Korea’s KBO in which he batted .326 with an .897 OPS in 2015, but was not invited back by the Hanwha Eagles, so he signed with the CPBL’s 7/11 Uni-Lions instead.  Unfortunately, Pie fouled a ball off his ankle, fracturing it, in his fifth CPBL game, and that was the end of his CPBL career, as the Uni-Lions weren’t willing to wait for him to heal before filing his roster spot with another foreigner.

In recent years, the CPBL has decided it wants starting pitchers to fill the three roster spot limit for foreigners on each team, pretty much like KBO teams had decided before the KBO expanded from eight to ten teams between 2013 and 2015 and decided to allow each team a third foreign player so long as at least one of the three foreigners was not a pitcher.  The Brothers signed Wood in part because of his versatility, although I kind of expect he’ll play mostly 3B in Taiwan.  However, it remains to be seen whether Wood lasts more than half a season, because the Brothers may not have enough adequate domestic starters to make experimenting with a position player work.

Four foreign position players played in the CPBL in 2014 and 2015, but only 2B JIm Negrych managed to last long enough to play in more than 37 CPBL games.  He managed to appear in 107 for the Brothers spread over those two seasons.

In other recent Asian signings, NPB’s Yomiuri Giants signed reliever Ryan Cook to a $1.3M contract, and the Hanshin Tigers signed 1B/3B/LF Jefry Marte for an “estimated” $1M.  Both Cook and Marte have considerable major league experience.

Ryan Cook was really good a few years ago as a young reliever for the A’s, but arm problems, including Tommy John surgery, derailed his career.  He had a 5.29 ERA in 19 relief appearances for the Mariners last year, but he pitched well at AAA, and his arm appears to be healthy again.

Marte has an ugly .222/.288/.407 slash line in 728 career major league plate appearances, but he’s also hit 30 doubles and 30 home runs and he’s only 28 in 2019. He looks like an excellent bet to become a successful NPB slugger.