November 2010

The New Duke of Arizona

By R.J. Anderson //

In 2006, the Pittsburgh Pirates had five pitchers of age 24 or younger combine to account for three-quarters of their season starts. Only one of those pitchers remains a Bucco. Oliver Perez was the first to go, then Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell hit the bricks. Now, Zach Duke is a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, leaving Paul Maholm as the sole survivor.

The Pirates chose to designated Duke for assignment last week rather than hold off and (eventually) non-tender him. The move simply paved the way for Duke to leave the team. The only added benefit was the potential to recoup something in exchange for the rights to Duke. Someone did bite, and as a result the Pirates will receive a player to be named later, which reports peg as a marginal prospect.

The 2009 season represents the apex of Duke’s fantasy value. He tossed more than 200 innings of 4.06 ERA ball and won double-digit games. In typical Pirates fashion, the breakout’s sequel was a setback. Duke still made 29 starts, but only lasted 159 innings – a little over five innings per start, on average. That’s not a good ratio for someone who had averaged more than six innings per start throughout his career, including a career-best 6.7 innings a start in 2009.

The drop in innings was not because of durability or stamina issues, but rather ineffective pitching. His 5.72 ERA was an eyesore. Digging deeper, Duke had nine starts last season where he allowed more than four runs and he allowed more than six runs in six of those starts. He also had seven starts where he allowed multiple home runs and two where he allowed three homers.

Nevertheless, Duke is exactly the kind of pitcher Arizona General Manager Kevin Towers targeted during his time in San Diego. A lefty, Duke throws a mid-to-high-80s fastball with sink on it (resulting in a career groundball rate just a tick below 49%). His changeup sits in the low-80s and he relies heavily on two kinds of breaking balls; a low-70s curve and a high-70s/low-80s slider. The pitches combined for a decent whiff rate the last two seasons, but nothing special.

Pittsburgh plays its games within the friendly dimensions of PNC Park – a stadium with a reputation for limiting right-handed power; which in turn enhanced Duke’s ability to pitch. Arizona’s Chase Field is geared towards hitters, particularly lefties. Attempting to find similar cases of pitchers who went from Pittsburgh to Arizona (or vice versa) and quantify the trend is impossible. The Diamondbacks are too young to have many common links throughout the league, but even they had standards above the Pirates’ rejects.

Expect Duke’s hit rate (because pitchers who give up hits on 34.7% of their balls in play simply don’t last in the major leagues) and his home run rate (because, again, pitchers who give up homers on nearly 14% of their flyballs never make it this far) to decline. From there, his upside is likely that of a league-average pitcher, with the chance to look slightly better thanks to pitching his road games in some extremely friendly environments. He could be serviceable for the DBacks. But he’s unrosterable in all but the deepest fantasy leagues.

For more on Zach Duke and other change of scenary pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.  

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Jon Garland Returns to Los Angeles Dodgers

By Tommy Rancel //

After something of a career year in San Diego, Jon Garland has agreed to a one-year, $5 million dollar deal (plus performance bonuses and a vesting option) with the team he pitched for in the second half of the 2009 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers. In six starts in Dodger blue, he went 3-2 with a 2.72 ERA. While pitching for the Padres in 2010, he went 14-12 with a career-best 3.47 ERA in 33 starts.

In addition to the stellar ERA, Garland posted his best strikeout rate to date – although 6.12 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) aren’t much to brag about. He also turned in his best groundball rate with 52% of the balls put in play against him burning worms.

That said, defensive independent metrics, which strip luck and defense from a pitcher’s performance, suggest Garland’s true talent level in 2010 was much closer to his 4.32 career ERA than the sub 3.50 he posted.  This can be attributed to a lower-than-normal batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and pitching in Petco Park for more than half of his innings total.

In 2010, Garland’s BABIP (.267) was 35 points lower than the league average (.302). Most often the best indicator of what a pitcher’s BABIP should be is his career average. Those numbers show Garland’s mark is usually below the league’s average; however, his career .288 BABIP is still 21 points above his 2010 showing.

When looking at home/road splits, we see that Garland is the latest pitcher to rebound thanks to the “Petco Factor.” Easily one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, several pitchers have gone to San Diego for a numbers boost. Here are Garland’s home/road splits for 2010:

Home: 18 starts, 7-5, 3.00 ERA, .259 BABIP, 0.80 HR/9
Road: 15 starts, 7-7, 4.01 ERA, .277 BABIP, 1.08 HR/9

As you can see, his ERA differential was more than one full run. Closer to career levels, he allowed more balls to drop in play and more to carry over the fence on the road. The good news for Garland is Dodger Stadium is also pitcher-friendly park. In terms of ESPN’s park factors, the stadium has finished in the bottom half of the league for home runs allowed over the past three seasons.

Also working in Garland’s favor are consistency and durability. Over the past nine seasons, he has won at least 10 games and pitched more than 190 innings in each. The only other pitcher in baseball who can say he’s done the same is Garland’s former White Sox teammate Mark Buehrle.

Looking at everything in play, Garland is probably the most predictable fantasy pitcher in the National League. Expect a double-digit win total, nearly 200 innings, and an ERA around the league average. He should regress from his 2010 numbers, but landing in Dodger Stadium should soften the blow. He will start the season as Los Angeles’ fifth starter; consider him a fourth or fifth starter in NL-only leagues, and the last man on your staff in standard 12-team mixed leagues.

For more on Jon Garland, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office. For more coverage of the Dodgers’ rotation check out this article on Ted Lilly and this one on Hiroki Kuroda.

Brandon Belt: Buckled In and Ready to Go

by Eno Sarris // 

San Francisco Giants’ first-base prospect Brandon Belt is only 22 years old, has only played one season in the minor leagues, is blocked at his major league position by the recently re-signed Aubrey Huff (as R.J. Anderson noted yesterday)… and yet, he may make a fantasy impact in 2011 despite all of these obstacles. He’s jumped many a hurdle already.

In 2006, Belt was drafted in the 11th round by the Red Sox – as a high school pitcher. In 2007, he was drafted in the same round by the Braves – once again, as a pitcher. Then Belt went to the University Texas and struck out eight batters per nine as a reliever, only accruing 17 innings in 2008. After his 2009 season, he was drafted in the fifth round by the Giants.

If you are unfamiliar with his story, this progression might seem strange. The explaining factor is that Belt decided to focus on hitting with the Longhorns, and in that second season at the university, he put up a .323/.416/.523 line (with 40 walks against 37 strikeouts) that caught San Francisco’s eye. They drafted him, corrected his stance by asking him to widen his base and raise his hands, and set him loose on the minor leagues.

In short, he dominated despite lacking much experience as a hitter. In 595 plate appearances across High-, Double- and Triple-A, Belt hit .352/.455/.620 and walked 93 times against 99 strikeouts. That’s a 15.6% walk rate and a 20.1% strikeout rate, both excellent for a power hitter. Even in Triple-A, where he only accrued 61 plate appearances and ‘struggled’ with a .229 batting average, the rest of his triple-slash line looked just fine (.393/.563), and he walked 13 times against 15 strikeouts. He has an excellent idea of what to do at the plate.

The team sent him to the AFL to get more at-bats, and perhaps see if he was ready to play in the major leagues in 2011. Mission accomplished – Belt’s .372/.427/.616 line looked excellent even in the context of the offense-first AFL. This is true of all of Belt’s numbers. Even if you adjust for his slightly offense-friendly leagues, he has been excellent. Considering that his Double-A league, the Eastern League, was considered slightly pitcher-friendly in a recent study, there seems to be little left for Belt to prove in the minor leagues.

The best part about Belt’s work so far is the fact that he’s made these adjustments in his first professional year. That bodes well for future adjustments – both in terms of dealing with major-league pitching, as well as possible short-term positional adjustments. He’s also a very athletic guy with a smooth and easy way about him, as this video taken by Paul Sporer shows.

Of course there are hurdles left for Belt to jump – he has to prove that he’s either capable of playing in the outfield or capable of being so impressive at the plate that Huff should move there in his stead – but Belt has overcome higher obstacles already. He’s a good bet for fantasy relevance at some point in 2011.

For more on Brandon Belt and other young studs, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.  

Detroit Tigers Sign Victor Martinez To 4-yr, $50 Million Deal

By Tommy Rancel //

The Detroit Tigers continue to be the most aggressive team during the early stages of the off-season hot stove. Earlier today, they signed C/1B/DH Victor Martinez to a four-year deal worth a reported $50 million dollars. In addition to the money, the Tigers also surrendered their first-round pick to the Boston Red Sox because of Martinez’s Type-A status.

Martinez will be 32 by opening day 2011; however, he is one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. A career .300/.369/.469 hitter, he hit .302/.351/.493 in his first full season with the Red Sox. His patience at the plate dropped slightly, but that coincided with an increase in power numbers.

While it is unlikely he is still an everyday catcher at the end of this contract, one would assume the Tigers’ plan is to have the bulk of his playing time from behind the plate in 2011. They have the AL MVP runner-up in Miguel Cabrera at first base and paying Martinez to DH doesn’t make sense – at least at this point in his career. Sure, he’ll spell Cabrera at times and take a few hacks at DH, but he should be prepared to catch 100+ times in 2011.

This is good news for fantasy owners as Martinez will remain a top player at the position. Along with Joe Mauer and NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey, Martinez provides a blend of average and power that is a rarity for the position.

There is some concern about him leaving the cozy dimensions of Fenway Park for the spacious Comerica Park; however, it shouldn’t be a huge factor. It is true Fenway is a haven for doubles hitters. In fact, 23 of Martinez’s 32 doubles in 2010 came at home, but the vast outfield in Detroit should lead to its fair share of extra bases as well. According to ESPN’s park factors, Detroit’s park was actually more home run friendly than Boston’s; another good sign for Martinez, who split his 20 home runs equally on the home and road.

The concerns of moving positions shouldn’t be a factor this season. And the change in ballparks isn’t as extreme as one might think. Because of his ability to hit for an average around .300 with upwards of 50 extra-base hits a season as a catcher, Martinez should once again be a primary target of fantasy owners in 2011.

For more on Victor Martinez and the catcher position, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

Aubrey Huff Remains in San Fran

By R.J. Anderson //

The San Francisco Giants secured the services one of their unlikely 2010 heroes today, re-signing Aubrey Huff for two years and $22 million (with a club option for a third year). I took a look at what Huff’s real world value to the Giants meant at FanGraphs, so in the interest of new material, let’s focus on solely his fantasy value.

Over the last three seasons, Huff has teetered between good and bad offensive player to the extremes of which are nothing shy of a rarity. With the Orioles in 2008, he hit .304 with 32 home runs and 108 runs batted in. That kind of production made his 2009 season even more of an unexpected disaster, as he managed a .241/.310/.384 line with just 15 home runs while splitting time with the Orioles and Tigers. Nobody knew what to expect from Huff entering 2010, and as a result, the Giants were able to secure him at a relatively low cost. He made them quite the return on investment, hitting .290/.385/.506 with 26 home runs in a pitcher’s paradise.

Taking an average of those three seasons nets you a .280 batting average with 24 home runs and 93 runs batted in. Take into consideration Huff’s age (he turns 34 turns before Christmas) along with the ballpark, and Huff is unlikely to replicate those numbers. That means a safer expectation for next season is a slight decline in each category; i.e. a .270 average instead of .280, 20 home runs instead of 24, and 80-to-85 runs batted in instead of 90-plus. That means he still holds fantasy value, especially if eligible at multiple positions.

The one consequence this re-signing holds for the Giants is that top prospect Brandon Belt is blocked for the foreseeable future. Eno Sarris will have more on what that means for Belt’s value later this week.

For more on Aubrey Huff and other free agents, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

What We Can Learn From Vladimir Guerrero This Off-Season

By Eriq Gardner //

Over the past few years, thanks to tight purse strings and perhaps the waning influences of PEDs, there’s been a youth movement in baseball. More than ever, teams are reluctant to lock up older superstars to big contracts.
Nevertheless, we all tend to get a little too down on older players coming off of bad years.
Take Vladimir Guerrero, for instance.
One year ago today, Guerrero was coming off injuries and a lousy season. In 2009, he appeared in only 100 games and hit just 15 HRs and 50 RBIs. The Los Angeles Angels didn’t express much interest in re-signing the one time American League MVP. Neither did fantasy owners.
We all know how that turned out. Signed to a one-year deal by the Texas Rangers, Guerrero had a tremendous comeback season. He hit 29 HRs and 115 RBIs with a .300 batting average.
Many attribute his newfound success to the favorable hitting environment in Texas. But Guerrero wasn’t the only veteran coming off a disappointing year who shined in 2010. Other 30-year-olds who provided a nice dividend included Adrian Beltre, Coco Crisp, and Brett Myers.
If fantasy owners tend to underestimate older players, I can think of three good reasons why.
First, while it’s true that player performance tends to gradually deteriorate for thirty-somethings, the slope from superstardom to retirement is rarely a smooth downward descent. One bad season doesn’t have to follow the next. Yes, the macro-trends may support lesser performance in a player’s 30s, but in the micro-sense, predicting what’s going to happen one season to the next is not as pat. 
Second, a season’s worth of baseball is an arbitrary sample set. And a small one, too. Even 162 games of baseball can’t tell us whether a ballplayer is responding to the influence of Father Time or is just having a bad year. 
Third, bad seasons by older superstars tend to soak up a lot of bad press. This is especially true of those whose contracts are up and who are searching for a new job. Athletes make tens of millions of dollars, and we’re all very sensitive to washed-up ones who don’t earn their paycheck.
Fortunately, all this provides a nice buying opportunity. As a “value investor,” I’m watching older players especially closely this off-season. 
I’m definitely curious where Lance Berkman ends up this off-season. He’s nowhere near the hottest commodity in the free agent market, but he’s only a couple seasons removed from 29 HR. 18 SB, and being selected in the second round of most fantasy drafts. This season, he only hit 14 HRs, but was plagued with some bad luck. If there’s any player who screams, “the next Vladimir Guerrero,” it might be Berkman.
Similarly, Magglio Ordonez, Derek Jeter, Derrek Lee, Manny Ramirez, and Javier Vazquez are all potential values heading into 2011. These players could fall victim to overreaction to their poor seasons and could be attained cheaply heading into the next season. No, I wouldn’t sign any of these players to a long-term contract, if I was sitting in a major league front office, but fortunately, most fantasy owners only have to make single-year analysis. Given that, I like the odds.
For more on Lance Berkman and other older free agents, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

Underrated Hiroki Kuroda Re-Signs With Los Angeles Dodgers

By Tommy Rancel //

Following in the footsteps of fellow Dodgers’ starter Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda chose the comfort of Southern California instead of the uncertainty of the open market. After entertaining the idea of returning to his native Japan, the 35-year-old will remain in the States for at least one more season.

The deal itself looks like a win-win for both sides. Kuroda gets $12 million dollars for one year of work. And the end of the season, he can re-assess his options. For the Dodgers, they get another year of his services at fair market value.

Although Kuroda has a sub .500 record (28-30) in the Major Leagues, he has maintained an above-average ERA. In nearly 500 innings pitched, his career ERA is a sparking 3.60. In fact, he is one of just 13 National League pitchers with a ERA of 3.60 or below (min. 490 innings) over the past three years. Other names include Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, and Dodger teammate Chad Billingsley amongst others. Looking at fielding independent metrics, they support the fact that Kuroda is a 3.5-3.75 ERA starter.

Despite being in his mid-30s, Baseball Info Solutions clocked his average fastball at just over 92 miles per hour. In addition to his regular heater, Kuroda throws a split-fingered fastball, a slider, and has briefly experimented with a curveball. The fastball/slider combo has combined to give him groundball rate of over 50% for his career.

In his three seasons with the Dodgers, his strikeout rates have proven to be largely average (6.56 K/9 career), but he improved slightly this past season (7.29 K/9). He also shows good control (2.06 BB/9 career) and has done a fantastic job of keeping the ball in the yard (0.72 HR/9).

Of course, with age comes concern about durability. Kuroda has not topped 200 innings in a major league season; however he did come close with 196.1 in 2010. He also spent a combined 76 days on the disabled list in 2009 and battled shoulder tendinitis in 2008.

Like his re-signing, Hiroki Kuroda’s efforts have largely gone unnoticed. That said, if you’re looking for the potential for double-digit wins with an above-average ERA at the SP3 spot don’t forget the name.

For more on Hiroki Kuroda and the Los Angeles Dodgers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

Javier Vazquez a Fantasy Bounceback? Deja Vu All Over Again

by Eno Sarris // 

Maybe there’s something in the water in New York. Javier Vazquez certainly doesn’t like something about the city, because both of his attempts at wearing the pinstripes went poorly.

Consider this: Only twice in the decade did Vazquez strike out fewer than 6.99 batters per nine, and only twice did he walk more than 2.7 batters per nine. Both of those times were with the Yankees, in his worst two seasons (2004 and 2010). Over his career, those numbers are 8.07 and 2.42 per nine respectively, so his failure to meet those benchmarks is significant.

Much has rightly been made about the drop in fastball velocity that Vazquez suffered last year. His fastball and slider both lost about two miles per hour, and the difference between his fastball and changeup dipped under 10 MPH for the first time. The strange thing? The last time his fastball averaged under 91 MPH, it was in a Yankee uniform. Perhaps the stadium gun is a little slow, or the pundits have it right and he Just Can’t Pitch in New York. [Edit: Mike Fast from Baseball Prospectus points out that the gun in New York runs about 0.7 miles per hour slow, so some of the drop is thereby explained. Vazquez may be declining, but it isn't as drastic as it seems.]

Now it sounds like the Florida Marlins are looking into Vazquez, and it’s not surprising that the feeling is mutual. Not only will the righty be getting out of New York, but he’s always been a flyballer and has had a problem with home runs (1.2 HR/9 career, 1.83 in 2010, 39% groundballs career), so the move to Florida should help. Last year, the stadium had a 95 park factor for home runs for right-handers (99 for lefties), and ESPN’s park factor has averaged a .931 over the last three years. The park in Florida should help Vazquez suppress home runs by 5-7%, it seems.

In 2004, Vazquez left New York after losing oomph on his fastball and suffering from wonky control. He went to the National League and refound his game in Arizona. Because of a more drastic loss of oomph in 2010, Vazquez may need to go to a nicer park in the weaker league to find success this time. The good news is that Florida is just that park. Vazquez looks like a fantasy sleeper all over again.

For more on Javier Vazquez and other possible fantasy rebounds, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

Introducing Hisashi Iwakuma

By R.J. Anderson //

We’ve already covered the Athletics’ trade of Vin Mazzaro. The preface to that deal involves the A’s winning the negotiating rights to Hisashi Iwakuma. Yes, Iwakuma is from Japan, which means the level of knowledge about his pitching abilities and potential sits lower than most domestic products.

Keith Law ranked Iwakuma as the sixteenth best free agent available this offseason. Noting Iwakuma’s upside as “mid- to back-of-the-rotation guy” and stating that his delivery is “more conventional” while his mindset is “pitch-to-contact.” Law also offered a scouting report on Iwakuma’s stuff. The basics being that Iwakuma sits in the low-90s while relying on his secondary pitches throughout at-bats.

All of that information combined with the knowledge of Iwakuma’s park and division make it easy to set the baseline projections around a league average performance. Going a step further, though, how have previous Japanese starters fared in making the move?

Only 12 pitchers born in Japan have made more than 10 starts in the major leagues. Only nine have made more than 15 starts. Iwakuma will (presumably) become the tenth sometime around the All-Star Break. The nine names to concern yourself with here are Hideo Nomo, Tomo Ohka, Masato Yoshii, Kazuhisa Ishii, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda, Hideki Irabu, Mac Suzuki, and Kenshin Kawakami. Eliminating the pitchers who came up through the minor leagues (Ohka, Suzuki) leaves us with these first full season results:

iwakuma.png 

Overall impressive, although one has to keep in mind the inherent survivor bias. There are Japanese pitchers like Kei Igawa whom received a ton of cash and quickly bombed out of the rotation. There is no guarantee Iwakamu will avoid that faith in 2011 and particularly not in 2012. Kawakami had the third best debut season and Atlanta Braves removed him from their 40-man rotation over the weekend. Meanwhile the stories of Nomo, Irabu, Ishii, and Matsuzaka are common in the public consciousness.

Iwakuma looks rosterable (at least to begin the season) with an ERA projection around 4.00.

For more on Hisashi Iwakuma and mid-rotation candidates check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office. 

Jake Westbrook Likes St. Louis

by Eno Sarris //

Reports of a $17.5 million, two-year contract between Jake Westbrook
mean that the right-hander must like pitching in St. Louis, or at least
enjoy taking their money. If he can continue to put up his late-2010
numbers, the Cardinals and fantasy owners will like him right back.

In twelve post-trade starts, Westbrook bettered his strikeout rate (from
5.15 K/9 to 6.60 K/9), walk rate (from 3.10 BB/9 to 2.88 BB/9),
groundball rate (from 53.3% to 62%), and home run rate (from 1.06
HR/9 to .60 HR/9). His ERA (3.48) and WHIP (1.25) matched his
peripherals, and if it weren’t for the small sample size, the magic
eightball would read “signs point to yes” when asked about Westbrook’s 2011.
WestbrookGrab.jpg

But the small sample size is a fact, and it makes for some doubt. Was
the improved performance more Dave Duncan magic? Or was it simply a move
to the weaker, and DH-less, league? Or did Westbrook finally recover
from the Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss much of 2008 and all
of 2009? Finally, was it just a short, fun, 12-start run?

Let’s use the largest sample size possible and compare Westbrook’s NL
work to his career numbers. The first thing that leaps out is that his
post-trade control (career 2.80 BB/9) and groundball work (career 59%) look legit.
He can repeat those aspects of his game, and they will help to limit the
damage when batters make contact. Fewer ducks on the pond and fewer
home runs make for fewer five-run innings.

We are left to wonder about the strikeout rate. Westbrook’s contract and groundball rates look like erstwhile Cardinal Joel Piniero‘s
numbers in those categories, so it’s no surprise that the two pitchers share similar career strikeout rates as well (Westbrook: 5.03 K/9; Piniero: 5.57 K/9). Piniero’s 2009 probably provides us a definition of new Cardinal’s upside. Moving
from the AL to the NL might make for a little boost for Westbrook, but his
best season-long strikeout rate as a starter was 5.51 in 2007, and he’s
now three years older. It would be folly to predict many more strikeouts
than five-and-a-half per nine in 2011.

Still, as he puts more distance between his current self and his
surgery, the likelihood that Westbrook finds his old control increases (from 2004-2006, his walks per nine ranged from 2.34 to 2.55). Paired with a slight uptick in strikeouts, and his always-excellent
groundball rates, Westbrook is a fairly safe bet for fantasy relevance
in most leagues – even if he probably won’t repeat his excellent
late-season numbers from last year.

For more on Jake Westbrook and other late-draft pitching options, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

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