Edward Overend’s weekly baseball column where he talks with a myriad of baseball personalities
17th July – Owen Wilson
By Ed Overend, Lead Baseball Writer
EO: This week’s Conversation is with Owen Watson of Fangraphs
Owen, first of all welcome. I think I’m right in saying, obviously correct me if I’m wrong, that you are a relatively new addition to the writing team at Fangraphs. Why don’t I start by asking how you managed to get involved at the site and what your baseball writing background was before that?
OW: Hi Ed! Happy to be here. You’re right — I started writing for FanGraphs during Spring Training of this season, so I am relatively new. I had done some work for their Community section before that, and have written for FanGraphs’ sister site, The Hardball Times. When I saw FG had openings for new writers, I submitted an application, interviewed, and joined the team. Before I joined FanGraphs, I had contributed a few posts to Athletics Nation, as well as having a background in music and political journalism. Baseball writing feels like of a combination of a bunch of writing styles I’ve done in the past.
EO: They certainly appear to be keeping you busy. I assume you are pretty much left to your own devices in terms of deciding what to write on. I notice that today you’ve written a piece on probably baseball’s hottest hitter, JD Martinez, and how his opposite field power is ridiculous. Tell us a bit about what you found and was it a case of saying I want to write about JD and then discovering this standout skill?
OW: We are pretty much left to our own devices in terms of what to write about. A lot of times, the articles are influenced by a question, such as “who has the biggest shift toward hitting to the opposite field compared to last year?,” while other times they’re influenced by recent performances. The J.D. Martinez article was one of the latter, where he hit 15 homers in 24 games, and that leads down the rabbit hole of looking to see if he’s doing anything differently, how he’s being pitched, etc.
For Martinez, we’ve been talking about how he’s really unique since he broke out last year: he’s exhibited this unrivaled ability to hit for power to the opposite field since the start of 2014, which isn’t often coupled with an ability to hit for power to the pull side. He’s continued that this year, and this recent streak has seen him take that to a really extreme level — more fly balls, more opposite field tendencies. Because of this most recent hot spell, he actually has higher Isolated Power to the opposite field than any left-handed hitter does to the pull side, which is insane. It’s obviously a small sample size, but he’s effectively been the most powerful hitter in the majors in 2015 to the right side of the ballpark, even if we include lefties.
EO: It really is amazing power, especially when you consider there are a lot of hitters whose only power comes on the pull side. I’m just watching Tigers at Mariners and I’m pretty certain that all Kyle Seager’s homers are when pulling for example.
Seager is a hitter that the shift is invariably put on. You wouldn’t obviously do this with Martinez because of his opposite field hitting but has there been an increase in shifts put on right-handed hitters this season?
OW: There’s definitely been an increase in shifting overall across all hitters: that means different things for different players. For righties, you don’t often see the very exaggerated shifting you do with lefties, and that’s because of a few issues — first, there’s a simple obstacle in stationing someone on the grass in left field to try to throw a runner out at first base, which is just a distance issue. After that, you get into finer points, like lefties having a greater tendency toward pulling the ball. Righties are getting shifted very often, it’s just more subtle and not quite as obvious as the usual “three infielders on the right side” positioning we’re used to with lefties. Shifting in general has gotten more sophisticated for both lefties and righties, and that means different infield and outfield positioning for a lot of hitters.
EO: How much shifting is actually taking place? Is it just the latest fad?
OW: 2014 was the first year in which normal baseball fans noticed something different in terms of infield shifting. Hard ground balls straight up the middle weren’t going as hits because there was a defender standing there, etc. The trend of more frequent shifting has been building for the past few years, and this year is a continuation of that: 2011 saw around 1,500 shifts, 2012 saw around 4,500, 2013 saw upwards of 7,000, and 2014 saw over 13,000 shifts. The Astros alone are on pace for over 1,500 shifts just this year. Last season was the first in which all teams shifted at least once, and all teams are employing them now to some extent.
EO: Certainly a trend that shows no sign of slowing for the moment then.
One team that traditionally has set trends is the Oakland Athletics, of which you are a fan. It’s been a very unusual season for the A’s. If you look at just their record they are 10 games below .500 and yet they have the 4th best run differential in the AL at +45. It must be a difficult one for Billy Beane to call coming towards the trade deadline. We know he likes a trade. Does he sell?
OW: It has been a very unusual season for the A’s. As Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs recently noted, the 2015 A’s have been the biggest underperformers since 2002 compared to what their context-neutral performance should be. Because of that, they’re 7-22 in one-run games through July 9th, which would be the worst winning percentage over a full season in one-run games since the 1935 Boston Braves. A lot of that is simply due to bad luck, and some of it is due to bullpen implosions, poor defense, and not getting a hit when they need to. As a season ticket holder, it’s been pretty tough to watch, because the talent is there — it’s just not translating to wins.
At this point, the A’s are almost certainly going to be sellers to some extent, especially given the fact that it’s going to be a seller’s market. The A’s needed a great run before the All Star break to get back into range of contention, and they simply didn’t get it. Because of that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see guys like Ben Zobrist and Scott Kazmir go to contenders for packages of prospects. However, that being said, Billy Beane always tries to downplay the term “rebuilding;” the A’s are still going to try to find ways to compete, and their version/idea of buying and selling is often different from those of other teams. The A’s are interesting in that way: when you think they’re going to execute a plan that follows normal expectations, they do something totally different.
EO: This season must be doubly frustrating as there have been some really outstanding performances amongst the players. Sonny Gray seems to have taken a further step forward in his development and you’ve had the emergence of Stephen Vogt and Billy Burns.
Vogt and Burns especially are what I would describe as Billy Beane types – they are hardly prototypical baseball specimens! It still seems to be one of his great talents.
OW: This season has been frustrating, mostly because the A’s starting pitching has been so good (6th-best in the majors in ERA) and the hitting has been good as well (10th-best wRC+). It’s simply been a matter of not getting hits when they need to, and poorly-timed bullpen implosions. Sonny Gray has been a true ace at the top of the staff: his increased ground ball rate and altered approach with his breaking balls have made him almost unhittable this year.
It’s also fair to say not many saw this coming out of Stephen Vogt — he’s been one of those guys that’s toed the line between AAA and the majors for the past two years, and he finally got his shot at a full-time role this year. He’s really run with it: by making more contact and pulling the ball more, he has the highest pull-side Isolated Power mark of any left-handed hitter. Billy Burns is a really interesting story as well — he has the highest rate of “softly” hit balls in the majors, but his legs have carried him to a great average on the back of infield hits. With his speed on the base paths and improving defense, he looks to be one of the big surprises in this rookie class.
EO: Let’s finish with this and thanks once again for your time. Are there a couple of players who during the first half you could point to and say ‘he’s been lucky/unlucky’? In other words, name a guy or two you’d look to have either strong or less good performance for the rest of the season, whether it be because of BABIP regression, hard hit rate, poor fielding thus far, anyway you want to go…
OW: Thanks, Ed! It’s been great joining you. In terms of luck, Yoenis Cespedes has had a great season so far on the back of some good batted-ball fortune. He isn’t showing many improvements — in fact, his walk rate is at a career low — so I think he has the potential to come back down to earth at the plate a little bit in the second half. On the pitching side, John Lackey probably can’t keep this incredible year up: he’s not striking many hitters out, and he’s been really fortunate with leaving runners on base and not having fly balls leave the ballpark.
For upside, better times are most likely in store for Billy Hamilton. For a guy with his speed, a .252 BABIP probably isn’t going to stay so low, and he’s hitting more line drives and striking out less this year. Even so, his first half on the base paths wasn’t limited by his low OBP, which I suppose is the main concern. For pitchers, anyone in the Cleveland rotation should be in for a better second half, but especially Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber. Cleveland’s defense is terrible, but it’s improved recently with Lindor and Urshela on the left side of the infield, and they should help turn more batted balls into outs. I’m a still a big believer in Cleveland’s rotation, as they strike so many batters out without really walking many — you can’t ask for much more than that. I actually see Cleveland in the Wild Card conversation toward the end of the season.
Owen can be found on Twitter @ohwatson and writing for Fangraphs, Hardball Times and Just A Bit Outside on foxsports.com.
June 22nd – Jen Smith on the Blue Jays
This week’s Conversation took place over the past week.
Edward Overend: There is no team as hot right now as the Toronto Blue Jays. What better time to speak with the ESPN Sweetspot blogger for the Jays, Jenn Smit. Jenn, your team are, as we speak on a nine game winning streak, have the highest scoring offense in MLB by a lot and have climbed right into the race of the always competitive AL East. Apart from the obvious, Josh Donaldson, what has started to go right recently that has led to such a sustained period of winning?
Jenn Smith: The most significant improvement has been the starting rotation, which is pitching deeper in to games, allowing the bullpen to have some much-needed rest. The bullpen has been the team’s greatest weakness, and was overworked early in the season, so this improvement has been critical to the team’s recent success. And, obviously, the Jays’ lineup is perhaps the best in baseball. The Blue Jays offense have scored far more runs than any other team, and lead the majors in WAR. Offensive contributions are coming not only from those of whom you expect it – Donaldson, Bautista, Reyes, etc. – but from the entire lineup. The key to this is that the lineup is finally mostly healthy, so we’re seeing what they’re really capable of. Having Jose Bautista back in right field allows for flexibility with the lineup, so it’s possible to, for example, have Edwin Encarnacion’s bat in the lineup at DH while playing Justin Smoak, who’s having a great month of June, at first. Then there’s Chris Colabello, who’s been on an offensive tear. No matter what the score is, right now this team just never seems to be out of the game – they either just keep chipping away, or explode for runs and put up a crooked number like they did against the Red Sox on Friday night. It’s really quite incredible to watch.
EO: With all the runs that the offense is capable of producing, it just seems the starting rotation need to be able to keep the team in games to give them a chance of winning. Obviously you suffered a big blow in Spring Training losing Marcus Stroman, who might very well have been the club’s best starter. There’s a real and distinct difference in the personnel. You have two old horses in Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey. Then you started the season with three young guys rounding off the rotation. Daniel Norris was sent back to the minors and Marco Estrada took his place, but could you tell us a little about Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez.
JS: When Marcus Stroman was injured, Drew Hutchison was expected to become the ace of the rotation. He had a decent year last season, and looked like he was going to be a breakout candidate for this season. However, he got off to a rough start in April and early May. He failed to get through five innings in four of his six starts and was striking out fewer batters while walking more batters than he did in 2014. Basically, he was getting a lot of contact on both his fastball and his slider, both pitches with which he had a lot of swing-and-miss success last season. He has shown signs of brilliance this year, including pitching a Maddux against the White Sox on May 25th. But, in his most recent outing Friday against the Red Sox, he got lit up for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings in what he called the worst game in his entire life. He just didn’t have his control. When he’s on, he’s able to locate his fastball down and away. When he’s off, he leaves it up and over the plate. I think the inconsistency is due in large part to the fact that he is only 24 years old and is still relatively inexperienced.
Aaron Sanchez is an interesting case for the Blue Jays. Last season, he was called up late in the season and was brilliant out of the bullpen. At spring training this year, Blue Jays management – as well as the media and the fanbase – were divided as to whether Sanchez’s role should be as a starter or as a reliever, even though he has always been projected to be a starter. The idea of having him in the bullpen seemed to some people to be somewhat of an easy fix to the Jays weak bullpen. However, the injury to Stroman changed all of that. Like Hutchison, he also experienced command issues early in the season, giving up a lot of walks. He’s worked a lot with Russell Martin at just throwing the ball down the middle of the plate and trusting the movement of his pitches, especially his fastball. He’s also throwing his curveball more and locating it better. Both improvements have meant a decrease in walks and an increase in ground balls. However, Sanchez missed his last start due to “upper body soreness” (though at first it was reported as being an attempt to manage his innings) and he has now been placed on the DL with a lat strain. The DL stint has been backdated so should miss just one more start. In the meantime, Scott Copeland – who was fantastic in his start in place of Sanchez last Wednesday – has been recalled.
EO: As we’ve been having this chat the Blue Jays have completed a sweep of the Red Sox in Fenway with the offense continuing to mash. Whilst it’s still early, this must have been what Alex Anthopoulos was hoping for when he made some big trades back in the Fall of 2012. Lots of big time prospects, Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard and Henderson Alvarez went then for win now pieces. Going into 2015, how did you see Anthopoulos’ position as GM?
JS: One of the narratives of the 2015 season is that Alex Anthopoulos’ job is on the line – many believe that if the Blue Jays fail to make the postseason again this year, he’ll be fired, along with manager John Gibbons. This is due in part to the fact that President Paul Beeston is retiring at the end of the year and there is an assumption that the new President will want to bring in his own General Manager. However, the Jays are now in the final year of the “three year window” to make the playoffs that Anthopoulos set back in the 2012 offseason, when he made the blockbuster trade with the Marlins and snagged then-Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey – the offseason that had odds makers and baseball pundits alike projecting the Jays to win the World Series. It’s easy to sit here and judge those trades with the benefits of hindsight. Folks can debate as to whether or not R.A. Dickey’s 200+ innings each season have been worth the cost of Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. They can argue as to how the scouting department missed the mark on Josh Johnson. But, the one thing that cannot be disputed is the fact that Anthopoulos went for it that season. He got ownership to increase payroll and he went for it. You have to respect that. And, that’s what fans wanted – for the Blue Jays to at some point go “all in” and that’s exactly what he did. There are many reasons why it didn’t work out, but, again, that’s with the benefit of hindsight. And, what we’re seeing out on the field now – this unbelievable lineup – is the direct result of Anthopoulos. He signed Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to team-friendly contracts. He somehow made a trade with Oakland to get Josh Donaldson (which, quite frankly, is pretty incredible). He signed Russell Martin. Some waiver-wire pickups and minor-league signings – Chris Colabello and Ezequiel Carrera come to mind – have proven to be quite valuable. He also made sure to rid the team of the supposed malcontents that were apparently contributing to a negative atmosphere in the clubhouse. And, now we’re finally beginning to see the vision that I think he’s had all along – the offensive juggernaut that is the Blue Jays lineup. The biggest knock against him right now is that he did not acquire pitching during the offseason. That’s fair to a certain point, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on his part. I disagree with fans who think that Anthopoulos should simply overpay to attract free agents to Toronto. And, I think he’s constantly looking to make improvements to the team. He’s been adamant that he will not make decisions simply to save his job, that he’ll only do what he thinks is best for the team. Regardless of whether or not the Blue Jays make the postseason this year, I think that Alex Anthopoulos has been a creative and gutsy General Manager working within certain limitations. And, regardless of whether or not the Jays make the playoffs this season, his focus on drafting pitchers has set the team up quite nicely for the future. Quite frankly, he deserves to keep his job at the end of this season, regardless of the outcome.
EO: One final question, Jenn. Around the time I first got into baseball, the Blue Jays had huge attendances. Admittedly, they also had a very expensively assembled and successful team at the time and baseball was very much the new show in town. Do you think the appetite for the game is still in the city and would a strong challenge for the division bring the numbers flocking back to Rogers Centre?
JS: Oh, without a doubt. Even though the Leafs dominate the sports culture in this city, there is a tremendous baseball fanbase that has stood by the Blue Jays through it all. The passion and hope surrounding this team is palatable. Also, this city as a whole is starved for an exciting, dynamic team that can make a real run at the postseason. I’ve already noticed an uptick in attendance since the eleven game win streak. People are genuinely excited. Casual fans are paying attention. And, even though there is still working to be done – most fans want the front office to bolster the pitching staff – there is a different vibe about the 2015 team. If the Jays continue to play good baseball, the fans will most certainly flock to the ballpark.
June 1st – Ollie Connolly
EO: We’re coming up to a third of the way through the season. Divisions are starting to properly take shape, apart from the ridiculously open AL East. I haven’t caught up with Ollie Connolly since preseason. It’s now time. Ollie, let’s start with your Red Sox. Starting pitching seems to be picking up, but as is the way with baseball, the offense seems to have disappeared. And yet, the Sox are well in the race in the division. You should be confident. I know you’re not, but where do you see the East race?
OC: Thanks Ed!
The East race is fascinating. It’s wide open and it’s showing no signs of becoming any clearer. Everyone has a shot. I really think offseason management and luck will dictate the winner. It’s not going to produce a good team but it’s going to bring us one of the best pennant races of the season.
The Sox have been a disappointment but a foreseen one. The Minnesota series was beyond frustrating. Given this rotation, any time they hold a side to three runs they should be producing more than enough offensively to take two out of three. I get incredibly frustrated watching so much so that I’ve taken to split screening news bloopers to keep my energy high.
It just haven’t been good enough, but I don’t know what anyone can expect given the starting rotation and the bullpen. Who knew? A way below average rotation, a dodgy bullpen and an offense that can be both devastating and frustrating equals a sub .500 record.
EO: It’s what makes baseball so alluring, the little things, the ‘if onlys’. Why are the Royals doing so well when their starting rotation stinks? How can the Astros be good when they strike out so much? One thing that is very noticeable is that the top bullpens, measured by ERA, are all from successful clubs. There’s no random Brewers reliever corps anywhere to be seen. In fact, it might be the big inefficient that is being exploited by the numbers guys.
OC: It really shows you the defensive direction of the sport. It’s high heat arms. No errors, a power bat and manipulating runs. How do you feel about the direction? I loved the power era and I also love this era. I’d obviously like more hitting and we’ve discussed before directions the game should take. But I’m spellbound by how impressive multiple bullpens have been this year. Games are over after seven innings. It truly is remarkable.
EO: One of those high-powered bullpens is in Kansas City. The early leaders in votes for the All Star Game were announced this week. The Royals absolutely dominated the top of the American League. Now, there’s no denying the Royals have had a fantastic start to the season, but, if a fan base can influence a vote this much, it can’t be healthy for the sport. This is especially ridiculous if the game itself is actually worth something. While Rob Manfred would probably want to have changed the rule of winning league getting home field in World Series immediately on becoming Commissioner, I guess he didn’t want to look completely disrespectful of Bud Selig. However, it needs changing and soon. Do you think letting the fans vote is the correct way of choosing All Star teams or is it about time the best rather than the most famous players got in?
OC: I don’t get angry about it like some. Of course you want the most deserving players to get into the game but it’s an event for the fans, an entertainment event, and so it’s likely those fans would rather see Derek Jeter than Brandon Crawford no matter how deserving they were. I’m fine with that. The issue is when you take it from an exhibition game to a competition with meaning. Now you have player who have no chance of making the playoffs influencing the World Series. The onus falls on media and fans. People wanted a more competitive game and for that you have to sacrifice a competitive element of the World Series. I hate that. But we can’t have it both ways. If you’re fine with an entertainment product for the weekend (I am) then it won’t be as competitive a game and will have marketable players in over deserving players. Or you have a competitive game (and even then it’s not that competitive) influencing the balance of the ultimate goal and I couldn’t detest that more.
It’s about sacrifice and what you want as a fan and media member. I’d like the weekend to be a promotion of these fabulous people/players who are simply playing too much to be marketed like a football star and keep the World Series as the ultimate reward. I think the risk, as we’ve seen in other sports, is putting the individual goal ahead of the team goal. Again, I can’t stand that.
I think the issue is confusing ‘ballot stuffing’ with ‘what the fans want.’ In my opinion you should only be able to vote if you’re in a ball park. Every day you go you get a vote. If you go twenty times you get twenty votes. Once, one vote. If i never go because I’m on the other side of the world I get no votes and I’m fine with that.
EO: I couldn’t agree with you more whole heartedly.
We’re at the point where some teams can begin to look like a bit of a mess. This can be down to a run of injuries, internal wrangling or just because they are no good in the first place. While the Marlins have long been the target of national ridicule, also in the NL East, it looks like the situation in Philadelphia might finally be coming to a head. Everyone knew this season was going to be tough, but we now have Rubén Amaro Jr having a go at the fans and reports that a lot of his moves have been ordered from the top. How do you read the Phillies situation?
OC: Well I think Amaro is hilariously incompetent. He turned his ire on the fans. They didn’t bring in old players, resign those players and refuse to hit the restart button two years ago when it was obvious to everyone it was over. And this isn’t hindsight. Every Phillies fan I know and every blog I read said the same thing. To paraphrase; what a run we’ve had and how fun it’s been. Now for the new era. That’s exactly what it is, a new era. I don’t have any confidence that Amaro is the man to do that job.
I’ll say this though. I was in favour of them getting out in-front and moving Cole Hamels during the spring. But given the parity of the bigs and dichotomy of the AL East. The mediocrity, the trade artillery and the fragility of the jobs I think they’ve played it perfectly well. Hamels hasn’t necessarily pitched too well. He has a sub three ERA but a 3.89 FIP the highest it’s been since 2007 (I check every day as a Sox fan) but he may very well be the best starting arm on the market. A market that has numerous big hitters desperately looking at all avenues for help. It’s going to drive the price up and it should be the launching pad for the Phillies to really kickstart a rebuild.
EO: There are some big budget teams with gaping holes in their starting pitching that’s for sure, not just the Sox but the Dodgers and Yankees also have chasms. The problem the Phillies have is that they need just about everything.
Another team in need of potential help might be the Cardinals. Matt Adams is effectively out for the season at first base and they don’t really have an obvious replacement. They’ve been chugging along in their typical way since the loss of Adam Wainwright but it may be time to do something.
Are there any other clubs you see that have glaring needs that ought to be moving now?
OC: It’s difficult because of the parity/mediocrity particularly in the American League. There isn’t a team I can think of thatdoesn’t need to do something. Obviously the Mets are a big one. They need offensive help, do they have the means and want to get a bat or two that really improves their lineup? I doubt it. Detroit have so heavily planted their flag in 2015 that they certainly have to do something to finally upgrade their bullpen and there’s plenty of teams willing to move on from guys. By my count you have; Colorado, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Texas who would be willing to move pieces for future assets and you also have clubs with high expectations for themselves, the A’s and White Sox, who just haven’t got going at all. But with so much time left and the right moves both those clubs could still turn it around. It’s just so difficult to make in season needle moving moves.
EO: One place where a lot might go on is San Diego. Our offseason darling, AJ Preller, is certainly not shy of a trade! Having started the season strongly, they’ve been an abomination of late. The outfield defense is horrific, as we knew it would be, their very right-handed heavy lineup has a lot of swing and miss in it and even Craig Kimbrel has been awful. Justin Upton has been really good and, in the last year of his contract, should go. I just think it needs a couple more weeks of mediocrity and a sledgehammer could be taken to the roster in Petco.
OC: It’s difficult. I don’t know what else they can do. They obviously have flaws at second base, shortstop and their rotation needs help. But I don’t know how many major moves they could make to address those issues. Now never count out AJ. I think you’re right that they’re comfortable in doing whatever and they know they need to get better defensively, in their infield and rotation but what else do they have to move out?
EO: I’m thinking they may trade away most of what they acquired in the offseason for prospects. I really wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a complete about turn.
OC: Really? I can’t see that. That’d be an admission of being wrong. They still have a shot at the playoffs and that’s the mandate. I’d be shocked if they decided to tear it down.
EO: We’ll see. Anything else grabbed your attention in the last few days?
OC: We can’t talk and not mention Bryce Harper. Here’s his heat map for the season…
He’s just been outrageous. You can see where they’re trying to attack him low and away. He’s just crushing them.
EO: He has been absolutely fabulous. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. It’s not just the home runs though. He is walking at an enormous rate too. In fact, if he carries on at the rate he is now, it will be the most free passes since Barry Bonds. So it’s not like he’s going up and just hacking, it’s been selective hitting. His breakout has perhaps been the main positive story of the first few weeks. Let’s hope there are some more performances like his for us to get excited about as we move forward.
OC: I love this spray chart.
His hitting the ball all over the place. His patience at the plate combined with his raw power and natural eye make him impossible to pitch too. I can’t see anyway he regresses. I doubt he keeps close to this pace for the entirety of the season. But these are now the standards we can expect from him year in and year out. Before it was just potential but now he’s shown it for a prolonged stretch. He’s the most ‘must watch’ person in baseball right now.
EO: It just shows how much Bryce has progressed as an all round hitter this year. People tend to forget he’s only 22. We need more players like him. Whilst there was a poll earlier in the season saying he was the least popular player amongst fellow pros, this essentially means he is somebody who is noticed and feared.
In the era of low offence, having somebody who is capable of hitting as many home runs as he is what the sport needs. That he rubs some people up the wrong way is neither here nor there. We want the public to be talking about baseball, have baseball leading Sportscenter, not an endless narrative on who’s been arrested in the NFL.
I hope Harper continues his torrid start to the season and I hope other emerge like him. We’re at the period in the year, once the NBA finals are done, where baseball can dominate. We all want that and Harper might make that possible.
May 6th – Jeff Wiser on the Diamondbacks
EO: This week’s The Conversation is with Jeff Wiser. Jeff writes for Inside the ‘Zona, the Arizona Diamondbacks site within ESPN’s Sweetspot Network, for SB Nation’s Beyond the Box Score and for Beergraphs. Baseball and beer, this sounds like a guy I need to speak to!!
I find the men from the desert, like a number of ball clubs, to be horrendously under-covered. Being over on the West Coast, I know not literally, doesn’t help of course. The D’backs are coming off a horrendous 2014 season in which they compiled MLB’s worst record, which may partially explain their low profile. However, in Paul Goldschmidt they possess one of baseball’s truly finest players.
Jeff, first of all welcome to the Conversation. As we stand, three weeks into the new season, how has it all started off?
JW: 2015 is off to an expected start. The Diamondbacks flirted with being over .500 for about three weeks before they started to falter some, as expected. Arizona is simply devoid of impact starting pitching at the moment, with rookie Archie Bradley being the lone exception (2013 All-Star Patrick Corbin is still rehabbing from elbow surgery and expected back in June). So the downturn wasn’t unforeseen, but this year has never really been about contending for the division anyways. This is a year in which the team has a number of young, inexperienced options to employ all over the field. The ones that prove they belong will be part of the long-term plan, those that don’t probably won’t be around very long. It’s one big experiment in Arizona this year for the Diamondbacks and one that’s certainly intriguing, even if the product on the field isn’t very good at the moment. The fact that they’re under-covered hides what is actually a pretty interesting situation from a franchise-development standpoint.
EO: As you mention, and certainly from an outsider’s point of view, the major weakness in the team is the starting pitching. It’s certainly a long way away from the days of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. There have been some unfortunate injuries, Brandon Webb and Daniel Hudson being two prime examples, but is it a case that, like the Rockies, pitching free agents are scared off by the ballpark?
JW: I think that’s a real concern. My co-author Ryan P. Morrison has done a lot of work in evaluating the pitching dynamics at Chase Field, largely based of the physics work of Dr. Alan Nathan and others. While Coors Field in Colorado is the poster child for park factors based on the altitude, Phoenix has its own unique problem in that the desert air is incredibly thin, decreasing the coefficient of drag on the baseball, making it travel further when hit. That’s particularly bad news if you’re a fly ball pitcher; just ask embattled closer Addison Reed. Johnson and Schilling excelled because they were simply dominant while Webb was a ground ball machine. But even many of today’s mid-tier free agent pitchers are simply poor fits in Chase Field, leaving the team with two real options: spend gobs of money (which they don’t have) on the best pitchers in the game or draft and develop their pitchers from within. They’re going with the latter option simply because the former isn’t realistic. Not only are pitchers averse to pitching there, the Diamondbacks simply haven’t had the money even if they could convince someone to come. That will change shortly, however, as the team signed a new television contract a few months ago that should net them roughly an extra $60 million annually. Coupled with the talent they have in the upper minors now and the number one draft pick this June, that might just be enough to change the complexion of the pitching situation in the near future.
EO: Archie Bradley is one of the young pitchers you mention. Ever since he was drafted 7th overall 3 years ago he has been a name to watch. Whilst not lighting up the minors he made the starting rotation out of Spring Training and has been excellent so far this season. Unfortunately last night he took a line drive to the head, one of the very worst sites in baseball. It sounds as if he is going to be ok. Tell me a bit more about Bradley and give me a couple of other of these prospects that are not so far away. What can we look out for?
JW: Archie has really been the face of the Diamondbacks’ prospect landscape for a couple of years now. Trading Tyler Skaggs, Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson (all moves by former GM Kevin Towers) really thinned out the heard as those guys were considered by many to be top-100 guys. Bradley had a tough 2014 where he struggled with some minor injuries and inconsistent command. The stuff was good but he just couldn’t command each time out. A strong spring saw him pitch his way into the rotation even though the team may have preferred to start him in AAA. So far he’s located his pitches down I the zone and generated a ton of ground balls although he’s still struggled with allowing free passes. The comeback shot he took to the face last night was scary as could be, but it appears that he avoided any major injuries and should recover just fine.
In the upper minors is a trio of coveted young starters in Braden Shipley, Aaron Blair and Yoan Lopez. Shipley and Blair were the team’s top two draft picks in 2013 while Lopez was signed out of Cuba this winter. All three are currently at AA Mobile, making life tough on Southern League hitters. Shipley has the best raw stuff but his command is still hit and miss. Blair isn’t quite as impressive from quality of pitches standpoint but has stronger command and pitchabilty. Lopez is a work in progress but has four pitches he can throw for strikes. All three should see the majors in 2016 at some point and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these top prospects (link: http://insidethezona.com/2014/11/2015-diamondbacks-top-30-prospects-1-10/) taking up the second, third and fourth spots in the rotation in the near future.
EO: The team parted ways with Kevin Towers towards the end of last season and hired Dave Stewart. I remember Stewart from his days on the all-conquering A’s team of Canseco and McGwire. He has been an agent up until this appointment so it’s been a slightly unusual path to becoming GM. I know it’s very early but how has he looked to shape the club differently to his predecessor?
JW: That’s a great question because the answer, frankly, remains somewhat unclear. Prior to Towers being let go, the team installed Tony LaRussa as the Chief Baseball Officer to oversee the club’s transactions and overall sense of direction. Towers had made a number of poor trades which looked especially bad through the sabermetric lens that we at Inside the ‘Zona evaluate the team through. Only owner Ken Kendrick and President Derrick Hall had been overseeing Towers and things just weren’t working out, which had seemed obvious from an advanced perspective for some time. LaRussa filled a big need as someone who could evaluate Towers and the direction of the team outside of the owner and president whose jobs it is to really manage the financial well-being of the organization, not players, trades and contracts. When Towers was let go, it was LaRussa who played a large role in finding a replacement and Stewart was eventually selected. The confusing part became defining who was running the club. Was Stewart the new man in charge? Was LaRussa controlling things? While there were a number of statements released by the team on the matter, it largely remained unclear and is still murky to this day.
At this point, one gets the feeling that this is Tony LaRussa’s show. Dave Steward makes most of the public announcements and has more or less served as the face of the baseball leadership, but many of my contacts around the game agree that it’s really LaRussa’s vision and that he, Stewart and Vice President and Director of Player Development De Jon Watson are sort of working as a unit under LaRussa’s leadership. We’ve dubbed it as a front-office-by-committee approach and so far, it’s working out relatively well. The Jeremy Hellickson trade was a bit of a head-scratcher and blowing the team’s international bonus pool for the next two years over the signing of Yoan Lopez was questionable to say the least, but otherwise they seem to be building steam towards the future, something that the Diamondbacks under Kevin Towers refused to do.
EO: You bring up an interesting point about the international bonus pool. As a result of finishing with the worst record in baseball the club has the largest pool available to sign players. However, as you rightly say, signing Yoan Lopez and going over 15% above their pool for 2014-15 means that the D’Backs can’t spend more than $300k on signing a pool-eligible player in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. They do still keep the entire bonus pool and are free to trade the individual slot values that comprise the pool. They are not alone in having ‘overspent’ with the Rays, Red Sox, Angels and Yankees also in the same boat.
Yoan Lopez is not the only expensive Cuban recruit. Yasmany Tomas was signed in November to a six-year $68.5m contract. During Spring Training he seemed to be almost a punchline as his defense was particularly poor and he even started the season at Triple-A. However, Jake Lamb’s injury means he has been called up to the big club and has done ok so far. What are your views on Tomas?
JW: Yasmany Tomas was the biggest signing in club history, at least in terms of potential total dollars. He has an opt-out clause after the fourth year, which if he’s performing well, he’ll likely exercise. That would save the Diamondbacks a lot of money as his deal is back-loaded, but it would also deprive them of two years of his services. If he struggles over those four years, the Diamondbacks will have to continue paying a struggling player a large sum of money. The opt-out clause has the potential to really hurt the team, but if it was the leverage they needed to sign him in the first place, well, then it was a smart move. His camp has said it wasn’t a factor, but I’m not sure I believe that entirely.
I got a chance to spend the better part of week at the complex in Spring Training and he just did not look the part defensively at third base. His feet were slow, often in a poor position to field the ball and/or make the throw and his balance and agility were just not what you’d expect for a starting third baseman. His hands and arm were okay, but his lower half just wasn’t functioning well enough to really excite you. A lot of that stems from his physique, which the organization has stated needs some work. He was out of baseball for an extended period of time and I believe it’s entirely appropriate to be patient and give him time to acclimate.
At the plate, there is some raw power, but his approach thus far has been a bit intriguing. As I noticed this spring, he tends to get his weight out front often and this has resulted in a lot of slappy, infield choppers. He initially was way out front and not making much good contact at all. Over time, I’ve seen him start to work the count a little more and put some better swings on the ball, but it’s inconsistent. As we’ve stated all along, he’s going to need time to adjust and I think it’s a work in progress. He was never going to be Jose Abreu or Yasiel Puig, so I think his evaluation requires some patience, maybe more than most want to give him considering the size of his contract.
EO: It really was all change at Chase Field over the winter, probably not surprising after such a bad season. As well as a new GM, a new manager was appointed. Unfortunately in the last couple of days we’ve heard that Kirk Gibson has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We wish him well. His replacement is Chip Hale, someone I know very little about. What are your initial impressions of Chip? What sort of manager does he appear to be – a numbers guy or an old school type?
JW: You know, managerial changes are really weird in baseball. It’s not the NFL where you get a completely new offensive scheme or a team switches its defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. In baseball, it’s still pretty much the same lineup and roster construction. There may be a tweak here or there, but it’s mostly a carry-over from year to year even when a new manager is installed.
That makes evaluating a manager really difficult. That said, I like what I’ve seen from Hale. Starting with the leadership component, he’s said all of the right things and has kind of perpetually-angry demeanor about him. He’s serious about getting the job done and he’s serious about his players competing and performing. From a numbers standpoint, he and Third Base Coach Andy Green have started to shift the infield more and Chip has been filling out the lineup card well, keeping on-base guys at the top and playing some platoons in the outfield and at third base (prior to Jake Lamb’s injury). I’ve also seen a number of occasions where he’s really coaching – taking a young player aside and talking to him, being hands-on. With a number of young players on the team, that kind of stuff can go a long way. He’s been patient with them as they’ve struggled some and I appreciate that he’s sticking to the plan and not being reactionary. There have been a couple of slip-ups where the numbers suggested that he should have made a different move than the one he opted for, but that’s to be expected with a new manager. He’s learning, too. For the most part, it’s been so far so good from Chip Hale, at least insofar as we are capable of evaluating him.
EO: There really is an opportunity for the club to progress and relatively quickly. There are no horrific contracts of ageing players hanging round their neck, there’s the new TV deal and a lot of pitching coming through. All that’s needed is a superstar player, a face of the franchise. Oh wait, you have one of those!! However, I know that Paul Goldschmidt doesn’t get the recognition his play probably deserves. He does tend to shy away from the limelight, so tell us more about one of baseball’s brightest stars.
JW: Paul Goldschmidt is an angel. He’s perfect in every way possible. He’s a homegrown talent who’s fantastic face of the franchise. Goldschmidt seriously does it all: hits for average, hits for power, plays Gold Glove defense at first, runs the bases extremely well and has stayed healthy, aside from a freak hand injury last year when he was hit on the hand by a pitch from the Pirates. Oh yeah, and he and his wife are tremendous supporters of charities and community organizations. It’s literally a dream come true. But wait, it gets better. What would you expect to pay a top-five hitter in baseball who’s in his prime? $15 million? $20 million per season? Not Goldy, he’s earning just $3 million in 2015 (he made $1 million in 2014) as part of a five-year, $32 million extension he signed in March of 2013 before he truly broke out and became an NL MVP candidate. For all of the grief Diamondbacks fans have given Kevin Towers, he made that deal work and it’s arguably the best contract in baseball.
And as you mentioned, there are no real albatross deals. The team shed Miguel Montero’s $40 million this winter on the Cubs and were able to save about $6 million when they shipped Trevor Cahill to Atlanta this spring. They’re stuck with Aaron Hill’s $24 million at the moment, but that’s basically it. They could and should look to extend some of their other young player on deals similar to Goldschmidt’s and Josh Collmenter’s, another fantastic deal. A.J. Pollock would make a lot of sense for an extension in my eyes. A new T.V. contract that should result in an extra $60 million in annual revenue kicks in next season and they should really be able to shop for talent in the 2016-2017 offseason, right about the time some of these pitching prospects arrive. This team has a window to get good again in the very near future, and I expect them to be a contender in 2017, which is still a ways off, but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and that’s really exciting.
EO: It’s always nice when there is that light as you say. It’s been a tough few years but the attendance at Chase Field has remained remarkably stable over a number of years, averaging 25/26 thousand. Whilst this is by no means up with the big boys, it is a healthy number. However, when the club were more successful, of course, that number was higher. What is Phoenix like as a baseball town?
JW: I think I took in my first Spring Training back in 2005 while I was still living in Oregon and going to college. I loved it. Small crowds during mid-week games, baseball fans everywhere, the chance to shake hands with your favorite players. It was great. I went back a time or two over the next few years before I ultimately moved there and called Phoenix home (I live in Los Angeles currently). As a city, it’s just epic for baseball. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be from a baseball perspective.
Spring Training really starts in February when players report to camp and you can drive right out to the complexes and see the guys as they arrive. Spring Training runs through March and there’s just so many games every day that you can just pick a point on the map and go based on who you want to see pitch or hit. The regular season starts and Chase Field is just a really great place to see baseball live. Not a bad seat in the house, cool in the summer time, cheapest beer prices in the majors, good food and a swimming pool in center field (which inspired the name of our podcast, The Pool Shot). What more could you want?
But minor league games and scouting are also a really big part of Arizona baseball. Aside from getting looks at prospects in the spring, the Arizona Rookie League starts in mid-summer and it’s full of 17-19 year old kids trying to survive at the game’s lowest level. Want to catch a glimpse of the next great star before anyone else? That’s the place to do it. The best thing is, the games I’ve been to are free to the public and there’s five to ten people in attendance. It’s a paradise, at least as long as you bring a water bottle and find some shade. Come fall, the Arizona Fall League kicks off is home to the very best minor league talent in baseball, hands down. Those games are sparsely attended as well, a couple hundred fans at most. It’s like having the best talent in the game giving you a semi-private showcase. Just unbelievable. That runs into November and then it’s just a few months until the next Spring Training. No other city can compete with that, in my opinion.
EO: Baseball heaven!
Hadn’t realised you were in LA. I can use that as a clumsy segue to look at the NL West as a whole. Of course, you have the behemoth that is the Dodgers and the hugely successful Giants. However, both could be vulnerable, with the Dodgers suffering on the starting pitching front and the Giants with their offense. The ‘new kid in town’ is San Diego and then you have the pitching-poor Rockies, who have a very good offense even if you disregard Coors.
It’s an interesting division and, potentially, more wide open than it might have been this year. How do you see the West playing out?
JW: I just spent the weekend at Dodger Stadium with the Diamondbacks in town and got a good look at both teams. The Dodgers swept the Diamondbacks without throwing Clayton Kershaw, which really hurts Arizona, but paints an accurate picture of the disparity between the top and bottom teams in the NL West.
The Dodgers are the most talented, even with the pitching injuries. Kershaw and Greinke are as good a pair as there is in baseball, and they’ll get Hyun-Jin Ryu back at some point before the All Star Break, possibly in June. That lineup will do enough damage, and when they get Kenley Jansen back, they’ll be just fine. Who knows, we may even see Julio Urias this year.The Padres have the pitching to keep it close, but the outfield defense is bad and the infield offense might be worse. They’ll have to pitch their way to the top, something they may be capable of doing if they can avoid injuries. Given the rate of pitcher attrition, that’s a mighty big “if.”
The Giants are the middle child of this division. They have a bit of pitching, but it’s unpredictable after Madison Bumgarner. Offensively, they’ve really struggled. Brandon Belt got off to a slow start, Casey McGehee was never going to replace Pablo Sandoval and Gregor Blanco’s really a fourth outfield who starts most of the time with Hunter Pence still injured.
The D-backs and Rockies should battle for fourth and it’s anyone’s guess who wins that fight. My money’s on Arizona since I believe they’ll get a pitching boost once Patrick Corbin and David Hernandez return, plus Aaron Blair may get a shot this season. Getting rookie Jake Lamb back will be huge, too, and help lengthen out the lineup. If they can stay healthy, I like their chances. The Rockies, meanwhile, will score lots of runs and make things interesting, but as you mentioned, they still struggle with pitching, recently losing closer Adam Ottovino to Tommy John. Add Colorado’s massive discrepancy between home and road splits and I like Arizona to avoid finishing in the cellar.
EO: One final thing, Jeff. As you alluded to, you have produce a Diamondbacks podcast, The Pool Shot. I have listened to the last two episodes and would highly recommend but why don’t you tell the readers what to expect from it.
JW: The Pool Shot is really a project we started last fall that just sort of grew organically. Ryan and I were having these weekly marathon phone calls where we’d just talk baseball and crack each other up. At some point, we said to each other, “why aren’t we recording this?” After a little digging and playing with some software, The Pool Shot was born. Over the offseason, we really discussed the direction of the team, the moves theymade and what their options were. We take a pretty definitive stance on things and if you’re looking for just a recap of the week’s games, this isn’t the place. Instead, we really apply the analytics principles and thought process to the organization from the top down.
Each episode is unique. If I’ve been out scouting, I’ll share my reflections there. If there was an epic game or a great performance the night before, we might break that down very thoughtfully. Last week we discussed the team’s rotation, which hasn’t been great, and tried to devise a plan of where the organization should go from here, a month into the season. We have some fun with things, get a bit out there sometimes, but somehow always manage to reel it back in. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it and we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback so far. We make a concerted effort to answer questions about the team that are tweeted to @thepoolshot on twitter, so we try to get everyone involved, because at the end of the day, we all just love baseball, probably more than we should. We can also be found at Twitter.com/thepoolshot.
EO: It’s really worth checking out for all baseball fans, not just those with a rooting interest in the D’Backs. Is there anything else you’d like to touch on Jeff?
JW: First and foremost, thanks for giving me the chance to do this conversation! It’s been really fun! I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank my partner in crime, Ryan P. Morrison, for being a fantastic teammate and making me think about baseball in new ways. This has been an incredible journey and it’s way more fun with a friend. We just posted our 500th piece the other day and we’ve just come so far, from unread to more traffic than I could have ever imagined – it’s just been a blast. I want to thank ESPN for the data and support we get as a Sweetspot affiliate,the Diamondbacks for assisting us and giving us tremendous access to the team, the guys at Beyond the Box Score who let Ryan and I really hone our skills in a creative and friendly environment, our friends at Baseball Prospectus who’ve given us insights into a lot of things and helped us grow, guys like Mike Ferrin of SiriusXM for the encouragement along with our friends Nick Piecoro and Zach Buchanan at AZ Central and Steve Gilbert at MLB.com for doing a tremendous job of covering this baseball team, giving us the up-to-date information we need to do our thing.
Most of all, I’d like to thank the readers of Inside the ‘Zona for their loyalty, comments and feedback, along with the listeners of The Pool Shot. We’ve really developed a nice community of friends who support us every day and it’s really their feedback and friendship that drives us to stay up way too late writing about walk rates or waking up early before work to check out the details of each individual pitch thrown the night before. We work hard, but we do it for a reason. Our fans, friends and family have been incredibly supportive and we couldn’t do it without them. Thank you all so much!
Jeff Wiser can be found on Twitter @outfieldgrass24
April 15th – Nathan Bishop on the Mariners
EO: The baseball season is just a few days old and its great to have it back. One of this season’s trendy picks to do well are the Seattle Mariners, who just missed the postseason last year, having their best season in a long while. It’s 14 years since postseason baseball was played in the Pacific North West, so thought it would be good to catch up with Nathan Bishop of SB Nation’s Mariners site, Lookout Landing. Nathan, after coming so close in 2014, baseball seems to have captured the imagination of the Seattle public once again if attendances this week are anything to go by. Do you share the renewed optimism about the Mariners or are you one of those fans who, after so long in the doldrums, thinks that something is bound to go wrong?
NB: I will exercise my god-given right to hem and haw around the question. The roster of the 2015 Mariners is almost without question the strongest one the franchise has put together since at least 2003. The greatest strength of the team appears to be the lack of a glaring weakness, with a competent lineup 1-9, a deep starting rotation and a bullpen that spent 2014 as one of the best in the league.
The media wonks have put the Mariners near the top of their click-grabbing “Power Rankings” and for once the analytical community appears largely to concur, with Fangraphs pegging the team as the favorites not only in the AL West but in fact the entire American League. It’s a rarefied altitude for the team and its fans these days.
However this is arguably the saddest franchise in all of Major League Baseball, one that has not made the postseason in 14 years, one of only two to never make a World Series. The word “Mariner” is a verb and not one with a pleasant connotation. There is no amount of projection or positive press that will completely eliminate the hard-wired expectation I have of the team to fall completely on their face. I don’t expect that to change until they win and even then they may need to do it for more than one year before I can shake that sad identity.
EO: As a Mariners fan myself, I feel your pain. It’s been an excruciating 14 years. The team has been lumbered with some of baseball’s all time most anaemic offenses. Occasionally the pitching has been half decent, led for so long, of course, by Felix Hernandez. However, the front office has made some monumentally awful trades, highlighted perhaps by the Erik Bedard for Adam Jones and Chris Tillman one with the Orioles.
Jack Zduriencik is now into his seventh year as General Manager. From my point of view, his strength has been the draft. However, with the big league club, he seems to have struggled with the direction he has wanted to take the team. This year, he has decided upon a completely different way to construct the team, looking at platooning both corner outfield spots and shortstop and having increased bench depth. What are your views on Jack Z?
NB: Jack Zduriencik has seen his esteem with Mariner fans rise and fall violently during his tenure. When first hired he was hailed for publicly declaring his support of advanced analytics and developing the organizations first real in-house “stats department”. In 2009 his first team won 85 games and he was considered by many to have built one of the game’s premiere front offices.
Since then of course the Mariners have suffered defeats in the field and been dealt some disastrous blows in the media that have largely taken the shine off Zduriencik’s career thus far. Only recently has Zduriencik’s commitment to development and the draft begun to pay off with an above average farm system feeding quality major leaguers to the big squad.
Personally I have always felt Zduriencik was never as good as most thought in 2009 and never as bad as he’s often been portrayed since. It is important to remember that when we speak about “General Manager Jack Zduriencik” we are in essence discussing not just the man but the entire staff of front office employees he has cultivated. That group has seen a massive amount of flux since 2009, most notably when Zduriencik’s “stat guy” Tony Blengino left the team on acrimonious terms.
It is also important to note that Zduriencik’s skill set, knowledge and perhaps even overarching philosophy on roster construction are not static entities. This is his first time being a general manager and it is easy to read the history of his ups and downs as someone simply learning on the job. He should absolutely be held accountable and blamed for his seeming endless infatuation with one-dimensional right-handed power hitters (Nelson Cruz being only the latest in a long line of similarly skilled players) and he should just as rightly be given credit for his steadfast refusal to trade young players like James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, who now stand poised to be major contributors for a playoff contender.
Will Jack Zduriencik ever head up a top 5 MLB front office? I would say no. However if he can continue to draft well, avoid the rate of pitcher attrition so many other teams in the league seem to suffer from and benefit from a top-ten MLB payroll there is not reason he cannot build a perennial playoff contender in Seattle.
EO: As I mentioned previously, the Mariners have not exactly been synonymous with scoring runs over the last decade. Sure, some of this is down to having Safeco Field and its pitcher friendly environs but for an American League team to rank as low annually in MLB has been dire.
Even last year in a winning season, the offense ranked well into the bottom half in most categories. There have been concerted efforts made this offseason to add bats to the lineup. Seth Smith came from San Diego to be the strong side of a platoon in right field, the aforementioned Nelson Cruz has been added to the middle of the lineup and Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano have come in as bench options. Added to the trade for Austin Jackson at last year’s deadline, does this offense have the capability to produce the runs required for a strong challenge?
NB: I think it does when taken in context with the overall strength of the team, which is still pitching. The Mariners don’t need a top 5 or even a top 10 offensive output to be a strong contender. If the pitching hits anything close to its projected results all that’s needed is ~league average production from the bats.
Probably the best thing Jack did in the offseason as far as adding players is building a flexible roster. With the double platoon in LF and RF of Dustin Ackley/Rickie Weeks/Justin Ruggiano/Seth Smith the Mariners for once have a lineup 1-9 that looks void of, well voids. Coupled with Nelson Cruz, who should be a vast improvement over the worst DH production in the American League and the Mariners should lose far fewer games in the tired 1-0, 2-1 fashion they have done so often the past 5 years.
EO: Pitching is indeed projected to be the foundation of this team. Behind King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma, you have these two young potential stars in Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Backed up by a bullpen that had MLB’s lowest ERA in 2014, Seattle ought to be competitive in most games. However, bullpens have a funny habit of being unpredictable season to season and just yesterday closer Fernando Rodney had an abomination of an outing in Oakland, blowing a 4 run lead in the ninth. Tom Wilhelmson, an important reliever, has also just been placed on the DL. On top of this the Mariners had to trade Erasmo Ramirez just before the season as he was out of options. Is there sufficient depth in pitching in AAA Tacoma to survive the inevitable injuries that a 6 month season throws up?
NB: The team appears to be well suited to handle an injury to one of its starting pitchers, Felix Hernandez excluded of course. Roenis Elias came from seemingly nowhere in 2014 to provide 160 innings of satisfying, inning-gobbling numbers. With the stellar Spring of Taijuan Walker coupled with the acquisition of J.A. Happ there was simply no room for Elias in the majors and he is starting the season in Tacoma. Should the team need a starter he is doubtless first in line to get the call.
One thing to keep an eye on is the workload of James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, neither of which have ever thrown anything close to a full major league season’s worth of innings. It is not inconceivable the team would look to preserve those two by occasionally skipping them on off-days and/or using Elias to spot start.
Should the team contend as many hope and suffer substantial pitcher attrition I fully anticipate they will look to add an arm at the trade deadline. The Mariners are all in for 2015 being the end to the long playoff drought and I anticipate them to exercise all of their available resources to push towards October should the opportunity present itself.
EO: Here’s hoping! Go M’s.
April 4th – Ollie Connolly
EO: Meaningful baseball is here and I couldn’t be more excited. The daily grind, the soundtrack to the summer, America’s pastime is back. Fans of each team, except maybe the Phillies, arrive at Opening Day with hope that this could be a great year, whether it ends in glory or significant progress. New stars will emerge, old ones will decline. There will be ‘surprise’ good teams and some preseason darlings will be decimated by a star going down.
For as much as baseball loves its statistics, it is perhaps it’s unpredictability that is its greatest strength. In other sports, the list of potential winners is much shorter going in. In baseball, the ‘fairytale’ is much more probable.
That is why it is so much fun to speculate at this time of year. Nobody really knows anything. Projection systems have told us that the most likely World Series matchup is the Nationals vs the Mariners. Neither, of course, have ever made it that far.
It seems there is unprecedented parity across the major leagues.
There are those that tell us baseball is dying, the pace of play is too slow, offence too anaemic. I am presently reading John Feinstein’s Play Ball, about the 1992 season, and these same arguments were being trotted out then. Baseball goes on and the huge local TV contracts being handed out tells us it’s not going anywhere.
Sure it could promote its stars better, of course row upon row of empty seats at Tropicana Field hardly inspire. There will always be things for people to moan at. That’s life and it shows people care.
I thought with 7 months of my favourite sport in front of us, it would be a good time to catch up with Ollie Connolly to see what his thoughts are. So, Ollie, what is it that you are most looking forward to? As a Red Sox man, is it a season of Mookie Mania?
OC: Excuse me? It’s pronounced ‘future first ballot Hall of Famer Mookie Betts.’ I’m extremely excited to see what Betts can produce along with a number of younger Sox players; Bogaerts, Castillo, Moncada (in the minors) and Swihart. But there are two things I’m even more excited for, Miguel Cabrera and Kris Bryant. Two guys at two different ends of their careers and two who I think will define the season offensively.
Bryant has been covered to death but I do want to talk about Cabrera. I raised this point recently and I think it’s true. I don’t feel we appreciate Cabrera as much as we should. He’s an all time great player in an era where people can’t wait to knock the sport. ‘too slow’ ‘not enough offense’ ‘declining attendance.’ Cabrera bucks all that. He’s must see, must watch, day after day. And I have a feeling we’re in for an all time great year. A career defining year. He suffered a bizarre injury last year, a broken bone between his ankle and foot, yet played through it. He got surgery in October and has returned in unbelievable shape. He just looks ripped. The Tigers put Cabrera on an exhaustive rehab program (at his request) using a ton of new age practices to rehab the ankle while preparing the entire of his body to be in the best shape he ever has to start a season.
It’s going to be fascinating to see what he can do and I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be special.
EO: I think he’s going to have to have a great year too. The Tigers have that feel that everything is not far away from going completely tits up. They lost Scherzer, Victor Martinez had a career year but is 36, Verlander is injured again, Joe Nathan has declined but is still closing, at least for now. They are most definitely in ‘win now’ mode but their window is closing and more rapidly than they might care to admit.
I love both Central divisions this year, the National League especially which should be baseball’s most competitive division. I think there’s an argument to be made that any of the 5 teams there COULD win it if everything goes right.
There is parity too in the American League East, probably not of a good sort. It’s the weakest I can remember but there are still some powerhouse offences – Boston is predicted to be baseball’s highest scoring team. However, some of the starting pitching rotations are well below average.
I want to see some novel ways of manufacturing runs. I groan each time I see a sacrifice bunt, which the stats say is a waste (Ned Yost are you listening) but there have to be some new thoughts in this era of lower offensive output.
What I’d really like is MVP seasons from Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig. In a survey conducted recently, they were voted the two most disliked players amongst their peers. Whether this is fair is neither here nor there. What is plain is that they are polarizing enough to be noticed. Great years for them would not only drive two of the World Series favourites but also get the media, and therefore the public, talking about baseball. They are stars whose profiles could explode, something baseball is longing for.
OC: I understand some players and people’s dislike of Harper, but I just can’t comprehend any dislike for Puig. Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts but this is a young man from an incredibly rough background who had to go through an awful lot just to make a decent life for himself with the spectacular talent he has and when he exudes his talent and personality on the field people are up in arms. I just don’t get it. He’s enjoying the game, having fun and he’s better than most of you.
What are you not looking forward too this year?
EO: At least there’s not a third season in a row where a Yankee superstar goes round collecting ridiculous gifts. Instead, we get the opposite, A-Rod. Now, as a Mariners fan, of course he’s not going to be my favourite, but it’s fair to say he’s an all time douche. If he’s at all competent, we shall get incessant talk of PED users and their place in baseball history. I’ve had enough. Let the lot of them in.
OC: I’m looking forward to everything to do with this year, including, A-Rod. At least early on his at bats will be entertaining. The only thing I’m not looking forward too is the continued ‘the baseball world’s sky is falling.’ Listening to all that’s wrong with the sport while so much is going right.
EO: It’s so irritating but it’s become the default position for talking heads. Maybe baseball needs more clowns like Swaggy P who run their mouth off at every opportunity. He seems to get all the publicity despite being incredibly inefficient and on an abomination of a team. Throw in JR Smith and baseball is rescued.
I’m being facetious but the other sports seem to embrace a bit of trash talk and colour. Baseball is lacking there and so the media go down the well trodden path of its losing popularity. Well, if it’s that bad why is every team signing humongous local TV deals? Come on Wilbon etc, why?
Baseball is an easy target. It’s deemed not cool for today’s youngsters. Well, it might not resonate with those more interested in ‘urban culture’ but so damn what? It’s plenty healthy enough, it’s truly multicultural and it’s something the whole family can do. Stick that in your pipe Dana White.
It’s these strengths that the game needs to accentuate. One of the reason’s rugby crowds in this country grow year on year is that the match day experience is family friendly.
Another thing I never look forward to is the damn All Star Game. A Rod is an absolute shoe-in for that fiasco…
EO: What would be better for baseball’s profile? You have 2 options. A Home Run race like we had with McGwire and Sosa, this time between Harper and Trout or a season where 3 pairs of old rivals are battling for divisions to the last day; Yankees/Red Sox, Cardinals/Cubs and Giants/Dodgers?
OC: For baseball fans I think the latter is clearly best. There’s nothing like a pennant race. It’s why we invest every day of the summer in the sport. And pennant races between the biggest names in baseball would be off the charts fun.
For the profile and ‘Sports Center’ moments it would absolutely be the home run race. Chicks dig the long ball. As do all casual fans a home run race that was anywhere near record-setting from any two players would be must watch TV for every plate appearance. It’s the kind of thing that could re-elevate the sport. Unfortunately, it will never be possible naturally.
EO: Speaking of PEDs!! Big Erv (Ervin Santana) has just got himself an 80 game suspension. These will never stop. Anything to get that bit of an advantage.
OC: I’m sure the Twins are loving that four-year, $55m contract right now.
Oh baseball, how glorious.
EO: Middling starters with experience really are the most overpaid players in baseball. You basically pay to eat innings. They are a complete waste of money. Sure, tie up aces long-term but why does a guy like that get such a hefty contract? Why?
OC: The key to the story for me is three more players this week (pitchers) failing drug tests for testosterone. Everyone gets angry initially and calls for larger suspensions. The key is to allow clubs to void the contracts of any busted offenders. Once someone fails, pending appeal, ball clubs should have the option to retain the contract they signed or void it. Now that would be a nice, bold, move filled with consequences for cheating looking to gain an edge.
Speaking of bold, what’s your bold prediction for the season?
EO: My boldest predictions are that neither the Detroit Tigers nor the Los Angeles Angels will make the postseason. It doesn’t take much for ageing ball clubs to decline rapidly and I just have a funny feeling. I feel that in Cleveland and The White Sox will give the Tigers all they can handle and likewise the perennially underrated Athletics and my Mariners will push the Angels really hard.
OC: I like those a lot. I’m going to go individual with my predictions. I think Ryne Sandberg is fired or resigns before the All-Star break. The Phillies are in a mess and no one over there can agree on what path to take to get back to contention. Secondly, I’m picking Jose Altuve to be the third player in history to hit 50 doubles and steal 50 bases. It’s a huge ask, only Biggio and Tris Speaker have achieved it, but armed with the workload of an entire offense and being my man crush I’ve got Altuve setting history.
EO: Jose Altuve is a great story. I remember hearing about how he was at one of these Major League Baseball camps in Venezuela and was not chosen to come back the next day. His Dad said just go back, so he did and look where he is now.
The beauty of making predictions now is that you can look back in a few months time and laugh at how wrong you were. Nobody knows anything and seasons can turn on the strangest things. All I hope for is a load of competitive divisions. The Dodgers and Nationals could walk there’s so let’s hope the rest keep the interest going right into September.
I’d love for a massive new star to emerge, and for the right reasons. Maybe Matt Harvey comes back and carries on where he was before his injury. Perhaps that guy is George Springer, Taijuan Walker or Gregory Polanco. I just want baseball in the news.
I’ll tell you what would be great…Miguel Cabrera making a run at Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. Even if he just got to 40, the publicity would be massive.
OC: It’s going to be an unbelievable season. It’s going to be one of the most fun for some time with all the storylines and parity we have. I can’t wait!
EO: Me too. Let’s Play Ball