Archive for the ‘Texas Rangers’ category

Eric Thames’ Hot Start

April 27, 2017

I’m not entirely surprised by Eric Thames‘ hot 2017 start.  He really was good three years in a row in South Korea’s KBO, finishing 3rd, 1st and 2nd in OPS those years.

Thames obviously isn’t going to keep hitting in MLB better than he hit in the KBO.  The National League’s pitchers don’t have a book on Thames yet, and they’re finding out that even after three years in KBO, Thames can still hit MLB heat.  They will eventually figure out what they have to throw him and set him up for, and then it will be Thames’ turn to make adjustments.

In the video I’ve seen of Thames’ home runs so far this year his swing is very short, fast to the ball yet not rushed.  He’s strong enough he doesn’t need to wind up to generate bat speed.  It’s a very comfortable, confident swing.

Thames is being duly tested for PEDs, but he shows nothing but confidence about the results.  Obviously, PEDs could be a reason of Thames’ dramatic improvement.

However, Thames was younger and more talented than most of the players who head to East Asia for major league money.  He also went to an extreme hitters’ league that’s only a little better than AAA, which would be a great place for a hitter to develop confidence in his abilities.  It’s a lot easier to develop major league hitters in Denver than it is in either Seattle or San Diego.

Thames’ story is that while KBO pitchers don’t throw as hard, typically topping out at 91 or 92 mph, they throw a lot more breaking balls than MLB pitchers.  He says he had to become better at plate discipline than he’d been in America in order to lay off breaking balls out of the strike zone.

It certainly is apparent that after walking only 52 times in his 769 plate appearances in his major league seasons in 2012-2013 and 58 times in 514 plate appearances in his first KBO season, Thames has drawn 191 walks in 1,209 plate appearances since the start of the 2015 season.

Obviously, getting better at laying off bad pitches is a recipe for being able to put more good swings on the ball.  It also isn’t particularly unusual for a player with power to begin with to still be improving his power hitting through his age 30 season.

Thames has also said that he might not have made that improvement if he hadn’t made the jump to South Korea, stating words to the effect that if he’d stayed in the States, he might have not made the changes because it would have been easier to just keep doing what he had been doing.

I’d like to see more players in the future jump to Japan’s NPB or South Korea’s KBO and then back to MLB if they foreign performance merits it.  It is, in fact, becoming more common, although it’s also limited by the fact that the vast majority of the 4-A players who go to NPB or KBO simply aren’t going to blossom like an Eric Thames or Colby Lewis.

Sorry to See Clayton Blackburn Go

April 19, 2017

In the recent roster machinations that put Buster Posey on the 7-Day Concussion list and prompted a brief call-up of Tim Federowicz, the Giants elected to drop Clayton Blackburn from the 40-man roster.  That placed Blackburn on waivers, and the Giants were forced to trade him to the Rangers for young middle infielder Frandy De La Rosa.

I first became aware of Blackburn when he had a huge year in 2012 at Class A Augusta at the age of 19.  He was only a 16th round draft pick, so I was hoping he’d turn out to be a steal.

He continued to play well in the minors at each level, culminating in a 2015 season at AAA Sacramento in which he went 10-4 with a 2.85 ERA, good enough to lead the Pacific Coast League that season among pitchers who threw at least 115 innings (Blackburn threw 123 IP).  His strikeout total (99) was only tenth best, but his strikeout to walk ratio was better than 3/1, and he was only 22 that season.

Blackburn deserved a September call-up that year, but didn’t get one.  The Giants may have been right, however, because Blackburn regressed badly in 2016.  Back at AAA Sacramento, Blackburn went 7-10 with a 5.02 ERA.  His numbers were almost exactly the same as the year before, except that he allowed three times as many home runs.  That’ll sure rowdy up the old ERA.

Blackburn was dreadful in his first AAA start this year, allowing five earned runs in three innings pitched.  But it was just one start before the trade.  Blackburn’s still only 24 this season, and he’s maybe only a few adjustments from being a major league caliber pitcher.

The guy the Giants got, De La Rosa, also appears to have talent.  He had a solid season in the Class A Sally League last year at the age of twenty, most notable for a .330 on-base percentage, which is certainly acceptable for a middle infielder.

De La Rosa got off to a horrible start to 2017 at Down East (Kinston) in the Class A+ Carolina League (3 for 28, but two doubles and five walks), and the Giants have sent him back to their Sally League franchise in Augusta.  It’s entirely possible the Rangers gave up on him too soon also, although I would like my chances with Blackburn better, since he’s much closer to the major leagues.

Let’s hope they both ultimately make it to the Show.

The Best Hitting Pitchers in MLB Baseball 2017

March 28, 2017

As everyone knows, contemporary pitchers as a group can’t hit a lick.  The rise of the designated hitter, not only in the American League, but also it’s widespread use in the minors and in the college game, is perhaps the biggest factor for the demise of pitchers who can hit, but it’s hardly the only one.

Pitchers simply don’t get as many opportunities to hit today because of the steady trend of using more and more relievers throwing more and more innings, which means starting pitchers get fewer opportunities to hit, and there are more opportunities for professional hitters to be used as pinch hitters.

Also, no matter what the old-timers might say, the level of major league play has gradually and steadily improved since the professional game started in the 1870′s, which means that pitchers, who make the major leagues solely based on their ability to pitch (this has been the overwhelming norm since at least the early 1880’s, and probably a lot earlier) have undergone a slow but steady decline as hitters by virtue of the relative improvement of pitchers (as pitchers), fielders and professional hitters, in spite of the fact that most major league pitchers were great hitters in high school and many were fine college hitters.

A final point to make is that MLB teams now almost always decide at the moment an amateur player is drafted whether he will be developed as a pitcher or a hitter.  As a result, if a player is designated as a pitcher, he won’t get many opportunities to hit in the minors even if he was an outstanding college hitter, like for example, Mica Owings.  Coming up in today’s game, Babe Ruth much more likely than not would remain a pitcher throughout his major league career.

Nevertheless, there are always a few pitchers in any era who can hit.  This 2017 update ranks current pitchers with at least 100 career major league at-bats, in order to weed out the pitchers who just haven’t had enough at-bats for their career hitting stats to mean anything one way or another.

By today’s standards, a good-hitting pitcher is any pitcher with a career batting average at or above .160 or a career OPS at or over .400.  That’s really pretty terrible as hitters go, and it shows just how hard it is even for professional athletes who have played baseball their entire lives to hit major league pitching if the players have not been selected for the major leagues based their ability to hit.

1.  Madison Bumgarner (.183 career batting average and .542 career OPS).  For the third year in a row, fangraphs rates big-swinging MadBum as the most productive pitcher as a hitter in MLB.

On paper, Jake Arrieta‘s 2016 slash line of .262/.304/.415 is much more impressive than Bumgarner’s .186/.268/.360.  I expect that park factors play a big role in fangraphs’ ratings.

In the last three seasons, MadBum has slugged 12 HRs in 229 at-bats and driven in 33 RBIs.  There isn’t a team in the National League who couldn’t use that batting performance from a starter.  He’s also the only major league hitter since the start of the 2015 season to homer twice off MLB’s best starter Clayton Kershaw.  ‘Nuff said.

2.  Zack Greinke  (.219 BA, .580 OPS).   One thing I’ve noticed about good hitting pitchers, writing about them as I have for some years now, is that there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong correlation between a pitcher’s ability to hit and his having spent his minor league time or the vast majority of his MLB career with a National League team, even though this would presumably mean that the pitcher got a lot more opportunities to hit.  After spending his minor league career and his first seven major league seasons with the Royals, Greinke established himself as a fine hitter by his second National League season.

If I had to guess, I would say that the ability to hit the fastball (and lay off breaking pitches) is probably the most important factor in a pitcher’s ability to hit.  Pitchers hate to walk the opposing pitcher, so any time the pitcher-as-hitter is ahead in the count, fastballs for strikes are likely to follow.

Greinke’s 2016 was his weakest offensive performance in four seasons.  Still, he hit .212 with a .476 OPS, which is great for a contemporary pitcher.

3.   Mike Leake (.203, .522).  Mike Leake has disappointed me as a hitting pitcher.  He hit a ton his first three major league seasons (2010-2012), but since then he’s just been a better than average major league average hitting pitcher.

I bet this has something to do with making adjustments.  By the 2013, major league pitchers realized that Leake could really hit and they’d have to pitch to him like a real hitter, and they’d figured out his weaknesses.  Leake doesn’t seem to have made the necessary counter-adjustments, and now he’s just a better than average hitting pitcher.

4.  Yovani Gallardo (.200, .562).  Gallardo hasn’t played in the NL in two years, but he’s 4 for 8 the last two seasons in the AL. His 33 extra base hits in 424 at-bats is what makes him a threat at the dish.

5. Adam Wainwright (.199 BA, .529 OPS).  With well over 500 career at-bats, Wainwright has well proven his abilities as a hitting pitcher.

6.  Noah Syndergaard (.198 BA, .613 OPS).  Syndergaard passed the 100 career at-bat threshold in 2016, and his combination of power (three HRs in 2016) and willingness to take a walk (seven in 67 plate appearances) made him a real threat at the plate this past season.

I’ve been writing versions of this post long enough now that I’ve noticed that pitchers who hit well through their first 100 major league at-bats tend to regress in subsequent years to towards the pitchers-as-hitters mean.  That’s why I’m ranking him low until he proves he can keep doing it.

7.  Daniel Hudson (.226, .567) & CC Sabathia (.217, .546).  These two deserve to be ranked together because their career numbers are very similar and they both just barely clear the 100 at-bat threshold.  They would rank higher based on the raw numbers except: (1) Hudson is now a relief pitcher, and despite 70 relief appearances, the 2016 Diamondbacks didn’t give him even one plate appearance in spite of the fact that he had his one big season at the plate in 2011 as a D’Back (no wonder the 2016 D’Backs lost 93 games); and (2) Sabathia hasn’t gotten on base since 2010 (CC’s 0-for-18 over that span).

Sabathia has only played one-half of one season in the National League in his long MLB career.   As an American League hurler, he only gets to hit about one or two games a year (roughly two to five plate appearances a year) during inter-league play, but he’s still gotten enough hits over his career to make this list.

Sabathia is tall and heavy set, which doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good-hitting pitcher (although that certainly describes an older Babe Ruth and Buzz Arlett), but obviously he’s just a great all-around baseball player.  I’ve long wondered what kind of batting numbers he would put up playing three or four full seasons in a row in the NL.  His career is now winding down, so we’ll never know.

9.  Tyler Chatwood (.232, .526).  Chatwood was a starter again last year and made it over the 100 at-bat threshold in 2016.  He’s a fine hitting pitcher who probably benefits as a hitter from making half his starts at Coors Field.  Needless to say, Coors Field doesn’t do much for him as a pitcher.

10.  Travis Wood.  (.182 BA, .522 OPS) Wood hit poorly in 2015, was moved to the bullpen in 2016, and signed this off-season with the AL’s Kansas City Royals for the next two seasons, so he won’t have many more opportunities to improve his career batting numbers anytime soon.

11.  Tyson Ross (.201, .482).  Ross is coming back from a major injury and pitching for an AL team, the Rangers, this year, but he sure hit in 2015 for the Padres.

Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch.  Michael Lorenzen (.244, .628).  Lorenzen can hit, but he has to establish himself as a starting pitcher if he ever hopes to reach the 100 at-bat cut-off.  He pitched exclusively in relief last year, but was used as a pitcher or allowed to hit five times in which he hit slugged a homer for his only hit.

Shohei Otani will be one of MLB’s best hitting pitchers as soon as he signs with an MLB team some years from now.  I’m hoping an NL team signs him for this reason.

The top two prospects in this year’s amateur draft, Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay, are two-way players, who will most likely be developed as pitchers.  Thus, the odds are good that one day at least one of these two will make a future year’s version of this post.

As final notes, the best hitting major league pitchers get pretty bad as major league hitters almost immediately.  Also, since I started writing these posts about five years ago, I’ve noticed a steady deterioration in the best-hitting major league pitchers just in that short time.  If this trend continues, I would expect the National League to adopt the designated hitter by 2030.

More Thoughts on This Year’s 1B/DH Free Agents

February 13, 2017

Adam Lind signed today with the Washington Nationals on a one year deal with a team option for a second season which guarantees Lind $1.5 million.  The amount of the guarantee is just about the lowest possible on a major league deal for a veteran player like Lind (at least in terms of the unwritten MLB salary scale) and is still something of a surprise considering that Lind hit 20 HRs last season and has a proven track record as a slugger.

I’m not saying that Lind should have received a lot more, but even a $2 million guarantee would have represented 33% more than what he actually got.

In the context of this year’s market for one dimensional 1B/DH players, it ultimately was not surprising that no one claimed Byung-ho Park off waivers.  That was certainly what the Twins were counting on.

However, it is still interesting that not even one MLB team thought that Park was worth a $9.25 million gamble for three years of control for a player whom the Twins valued more than twice as highly a year ago.

For Park, starting the 2017 season at AAA Rochester is probably the best thing that could happen to him.  He’ll get to play every day there, continue to work on his newly shortened swing, and likely earn his way back to the Show in 60 or 70 games.  As fangraphs noted just before Park was designated for assignment, there are plenty of things about Park’s 2016 performance to suggest he still has potential as an MLB player if he can make some more adjustments.

Pedro Alvarez is beginning to look like he might be the odd man out, as there can’t be many more landing places given the recent signings of Mike Napoli, Chris Carter and now Lind.  That said, Alvarez was a more productive hitter than Lind last year, so I expect him to get more than a $1.5 million guarantee, although it certainly looks like he now has little hope of more than a one-year deal.

There always seems to be something of a herd mentality in MLB front offices, and I don’t necessarily think that small contracts for this kind of player this off-season means that these guys won’t get better contracts in future off-seasons.  This year’s deals may have had more to do with the glut of these players on the market — in an off-season where there are fewer of them, they may do better.

Also, if some of these guys on one year deals can do better in 2017, or in Chris Carter’s case, have the same season in 2017 that he had in 2016, they’ll get better deals next off-season.

Mike Napoli and Chris Carter Finally Have Teams for 2017

February 8, 2017

Mike Napoli and Chris Carter finally agreed to 2017 contracts today.  The Texas Rangers have reported guaranteed Napoli $8.5 million for one year, and the New York Yankees $3.5 million to Chris Carter.  Carter can earn another $500,000 in plate appearance based performance incentives.

Napoli’s contract is about what I had been expecting, although the deal reportedly includes a team option for 2018 and so presumably a buy-out.  Carter’s guarantee is less than I expected, although perhaps not a lot less.

Fangraphs valued Napoli’s 2016 performance at $8.1 million and Carter’s at $7.1 million.  Given the age difference, the Yankees appear to have made the more team-friendly signing.  Carter also gives the Bombers a power bat they sorely need.

Carter must feel seriously disrespected after leading the National League in home runs last year.  That could be a good thing for the Yankees if it inspires Carter to try to improve his game and prove that 2016 was no fluke, at least in terms of his ability to hit home runs in bunches.  If he hits 40+ HRs for a second consecutive seasons, he’ll get a much better deal next off-season, regardless of his lack of other marketable skills.

It’s also interesting to see the Yankees engaged in February bargain-basement shopping.  Things have sure changed since George owned the team.

Somehow, it seems like kind of a relief that these two are finally signed.  Despite Carter’s talk of possibly playing in Asia in 2017, he ultimately did get a deal that’s just enough to keep him in the U.S.

Guys like Napoli and Carter, who don’t find the market they were expecting, almost always end up signing before Spring Training starts.  Still, until it happens, there’s always at least a chance that something weird will happen, like the NL’s reigning home run champ playing the next season in Japan or South Korea.

The Glut of Power-Hitting 1B/DH Free Agents

February 4, 2017

One of the things that has most captured my interest this off-season is the glut of power-hitting 1B/DH free agents, and the long slow dance that has been going on as teams have fully realized they can sign these guys for relative bargains if they just wait long enough.

Early in the off-season, it seemed likely that at least the best of these guys would do well in what was a generally weak free agent class, but it sure hasn’t turned out that way.  Edwin Encarnacion, who was probably the best of the bunch, made a whole lot less than the Blue Jays offered him before the season ended.  Mark Trumbo, MLB’s 2016 home run leader, also notably signed for a whole lot less than anyone expected when the 2016 ended.

The players who signed early did well.  In fact, the contracts that the Blue Jays gave Kendrys Morales and the Rockies gave Ian Desmond now look like wild over-pays with the market playing out the way it has.  Desmond’s deal didn’t make any sense when it was announced, but it looks even worse now, in spite of the fact that Desmond can play a lot of positions other than 1B.

Another of the remaining musical chairs was taken away today when the Tampa Rays signed Logan Morrison for one year at $2.5 million and another million in performance bonuses.  That leaves the Texas Rangers as the only team left virtually certain to sign one these guys.  They seem set on signing Mike Napoli, once Napoli agrees to the one year deal the Rangers want to give him.

That leaves Chris Carter, the NL’s 2016 home run leader, Pedro Alvarez, Adam Lind, Billy Butler, Justin Morneau and Ryan Howard with few obvious landing spots.  I’ve heard of the Mariners, the Marlins and the White Sox as possibilities, but that would still leave at least three of these guys looking at minor league offers at best.

Chris Carter has floated the idea of playing in Asia in 2017, a first for a reigning MLB home run leader.  Another sign of how bad the market for these guys is is that the Minnesota Twins just designated Byung-ho Park for assignment because they don’t think anyone will claim him because he still has three years and a total of $9.25 million left on the deal signed last year that has already cost the Twins more than $15 million when the posting fee is included.  I don’t think the Twins are writing Park off so much as convinced that no one will claim him even at this modest remaining commitment.

A KBO team, most likely the Samsung Lions, reportedly offered Mark Reynolds a $3 million one year deal, but Reynolds decided to re-sign with the Rockies on a minor league deal.  If that KBO team is willing to pony up similar money for another of these guys, I would have to think at least one of them will be playing in South Korea next year, because he sure won’t be getting a better offer in the U.S.

As a final, only tangentially related note, the Rays also signed Rickie Weeks to a minor league deal.  I’m disappointed, because it means the San Francisco Giants could have signed Weeks to a minor league deal also.  Weeks’ left field defense was terrible last year, and he hasn’t played 2B since 2014, but he hit pretty well last year, and I expect his left field defense would get better with more experience.  An experienced right-handed power hitting outfielder was something the Giants sure could have used, particularly on a minor league commitment.

The KBO Is All in for 2017

January 24, 2017

South Korea’s KBO teams have been spending dramatically more money on free agents and foreign players this off-season than they did even a year ago.  I suspect the surge in investment is connected directly to the 2017 World Baseball Classic to be played in March, some of which games will be played in Seoul, South Korea.

Professional baseball in South Korea is heavily dependent on the national team’s showing in the World Baseball Classic to generate future attendance increases.  In 2009, South Korea surprised the world with a strong second place finish in that year’s WBC, and KBO attendance surged starting with the 2009 regular season.

In 2013, South Korea was surprisingly knocked out of the WBC in the first round (three of the four teams in their initial pool went 2-1 with the South Korean team having the worst runs scored/runs allowed differential and thus failing to move on the second round).  KBO attendance dropped dramatically in 2013, and has only just in 2016 caught up to where it was before the national team’s ignominious 2013 WBC performance.

With Pool A’s games being played in South Korea, the South Korean baseball world is expecting the home team to have an advantage.  If the national team makes the final game again, I would expect KBO attendance to surge in 2017.  Anything less than a top four finish, however, it’s likely that KBO 2017 attendance will be down from 2016.

Right now, it’s looking like some of South Korea’s best players won’t be playing in this year’s WBC.  Jung-ho Kang is off the national team after being arrested recently on his third drunk driving charge.  Shin-soo Choo will miss the WBC because of injury concerns of his MLB team, the Texas Rangers.  Top starter Kwang-hyun Kim had or is going to have elbow surgery this month.

Needless to say, every national team has to deal with injuries to one degree or another.  However, with as much as the KBO has riding on this WBC, not to mention South Korea in general, the loss of any of South Korea’s top players has to be cause for consternation.

Japanese baseball fandom also puts a great deal of weight on their national team’s performance in international events.  I expect that a Championship performance, or, conversely, a disappointing performance in the WBC has a discernable effect on NPB attendance.  However, I very much doubt that the effect is anywhere near as dramatic as in the KBO.

NPB has roughly 50 years of history on the KBO, which only started play in 1982.  I, therefore, suspect both that NPB teams have solid fan bases and fans sophisticated enough to realize that performance in as small a sample size as the WBC doesn’t really prove much of anything, at least when Japan’s team doesn’t win.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the average baseball fan doesn’t spend much time thinking about the World Baseball Classic one way or another.  We have MLB, the undisputed world’s best baseball league, and most MLB stars don’t even play in the WBC because their major teams don’t want their players getting hurt in what MLB considers mere exhibition games.

As a die-hard baseball fan, I find the WBC interesting in terms of which teams perform well each go ’round, and I’m sure it would be interesting to attend individual games, particularly if you can see Asian stars we don’t see much of in the U.S.  However, I don’t put much stock in what amounts to a series of one-game series to determine the alleged “world’s best” national team.