September 6, 2018

BULLPENNING

In the evolution of baseball strategy, the role of the starting pitcher has diminished dramatically. In the past, including the modern golden era of the 1960s and even through to early 2000s, a premium position was starting pitcher. Aces were paid like stars. They were expected to pitch 7 or 8 quality innings for 35 times a season. They were expected to win 20 games. The mental position was that once I got the ball on the mound in the first inning, I would not leave until the game was over.

But there has been a sudden shift in pitching philosophy. The idea of a complete game by a starter is ancient history. Starters are now expected to only pitch through the 5th of 6th inning. Bullpens have expanded to 8 or 9 relievers making the bench for position players extremely small.

Tampa Bay started to carry this trend to a new level by "bullpenning" games. The stat mavens have concluded that starters get weaker as they go through the opponent's lineup a second or third time. Therefore, to eliminate that outcome, a manager will take out a starter, however effective that day, for a series of bullpen arms. But the Rays have started to adopt a more radical approach: start games with bullpen arms and let starters become long, middle relievers. It has worked as the Rays have the best team ERA since May.

Some people are not happy.

The Oakland Athletics are among Major League Baseball’s most surprising contending teams this season. The Athletic website reports that a late-season change in pitching philosophy could threaten to disrupt the relationship between the players and front office.

It all started over the weekend when the A’s became the latest team to adopt the “bullpenning” approach to pitching. Scheduled starter Daniel Mengden arrived to the ballpark for Saturday’s game against the Seattle Mariners expecting to begin his usual pregame routine. That’s when manager Bob Melvin informed him of the change in plans.

Instead, reliever Liam Hendriks was getting the starting nod as an opener, while Mendgen only knew he’d be pitching multiple innings in relief. The confusion admittedly led to frustration, and Mendgen’s performance suffered as a result.

Rather than go through one warm up routine, Mendgen was asked to warm up three different times before entering in the third inning. Seattle took advantage of the staggered Mendgen, scoring three runs in two innings. Now the entire A’s clubhouse seems to be wondering if bullpenning is necessary to achieve their goals.

The A’s obviously took notice of Tampa Bay’s success. Injuries to starters Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson left their rotation depth even thinner, Oakland's management decided bullpenning can help cover their rotation shortcomings. In long stretches during the season with no days off, a manager, including Cubs Joe Maddon, have had to resort to a "bullpen" game where a long reliever started hoping to get 3 or 4 good innings of work, then have the rest of the pen mop up. No starters were sacrificed in bullpen games.

Starting pitchers are creatures of habit. They prefer getting to the ballpark knowing what they have to do and when they have to do it to get ready. They have a set time to prepare for each game. They go over hitter charts with the catcher and bench coach. The pitcher starts his long toss and long bullpen session to get ready for the first inning. IN that preparation, a starter can see what pitches are actually working that day, and to adapt prior to seeing the first batter. It is totally different for a bullpen arm, who may only have 5 minutes to warm up (sometimes less).

“It’s going to affect the routine a little bit,” Mengden said after Saturday’s game. “But you have to adjust to it. It’s a little different sitting down for an inning or two in the bullpen. But playing at this level you have to be ready for anything and make adjustments on the fly.”

Mendgen adjusted well the second time he was asked to follow a reliever, tossing 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees. However, frustration remains in the clubhouse because such a drastic change came without any warning. Players like knowing what’s going on, and like being able to prepare ahead of time.

Whether this is a trend, or part of an effort to reduce costs (relievers are less expensive than starters) will be seen. Tampa Bay is not in a pennant race, but the A's are in one.


August 28, 2018

BOOSTER SHOTS

Since the Cubs acquired second baseman Daniel Murphy, the team is 6-0.
Murphy is hitting .407, 2 HR, 5 RBI, .448 OBP and 0.4 WAR since leading off for the Cubs. He solved two problems: the lead off hitter slot and the weak offensive production. He was the spark plug that ignited the Cubs current six game winning streak.

Cole Hamels has been a godsend to the Cubs rotation. Not only has he taken the place of Yu Darvish, he has pushed the other starters to perform better. In his five starts (all Cub victories), he is 4-0, 0.79 ERA, 0.941 WHIP. As a veteran presence, he took some pressure off Jon Lester to lead a shaky staff into the final two month grind of the season.

On the South Side, the White Sox starting pitchers have a streak of quality starts. Michael Kopech's debut in the rain was impressive, as was his second start. He is 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA. But even more impressive has been Carlos Rodon. He has solidified his role as a #1 starter (and was one of the reasons the Sox traded Chris Sale). Rodon is 6-3, 2.70 ERA, 1.007 WHIP. Young starters Reynolaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito have been coming on strong after a rocky first half of the season.

The 2019 rotation is starting to take shape very quickly. A White Sox staff of Rodon, Kopech, Lopez, Giolito and a fifth starter from Carson Fullmer, Dylan Covery, Jordan Stepehns, Tyler Danish or Donn Roach will be solid. After completing the starting pitching part of the rebuild, it should be easier to consolidate the offense when Elroy Jimenez joins the team in late April, 2019.

It is interesting to note that the addition of a player or two can really turn around a ball club with both excitement and enhanced performance.

August 2, 2018

RECAP DEALS

 The Cubs made the following moves:

Players acquired: LHP Cole Hamels (TEX), RHP Brandon Kintzler (WSH), RHP Jesse Chavez (TEX)

Players traded: RHP Eddie Butler (TEX), RHP Rollie Lacy (TEX), RHP Jhon Romero (WSH), LHP Tyler Thomas (TEX), player to be named later (TEX)

MLB.com notes that the Cubs were able to reinforce their bullpen and rotation without losing any top prospects, improving their playoff odds in the short term without compromising their future.

Well, the Cubs farm system is extremely weak, near the bottom in most current rankings.  The Cubs gave up Class A prospects for the three pitchers. A quick scouting report shows why.

Hamels is at the end of his career. He was great in 2008. He was traded to the Rangers and had a good season and excellent post season. But this year he has been horrible at home and okay on the road. He is no longer the ace of a pitching staff. He may be best viewed as a hang-around fifth starter in the mode of last year's John Lackey.

Kintzler has been a meh middle reliever for the Nationals. Nothing special except his veteran status. The Cubs bullpen burnout is happening quicker this season than in Maddon's recent past. Maddon has rarely used AAA call-ups for innings unless he was pressed to the extreme (and they failed and got sent back down.) Maddon may also be getting Dusty Baker scared of using some of his staff (Wilson, Duensing, Chatwood) in high leverage situations.

Chavez may be the best pitcher of the bunch. Scouts call him a "rubber arm" pitcher. He throws strikes, challenges hitters and so far been quite effective. He may teach other pitchers not be throwers who nibble on the corners because they are afraid their pitches will get hit. Chavez has the reputation of throwing his best stuff in the zone daring the hitter to make contact. As we all know, even the best hitters fail to get a hit 70 percent of the time. Patient hitters with non-confident pitchers who lack control can get on base more than 40 percent of the time.

The move that could have shored up the rotation would have been to trade for former Cub farm product Chris Archer. The Rays received two major league players from the Pirates, both under the age of 25. To make that deal, it seems the Cubs would have had to trade Russell or Happ and Edwards or Strop to get Archer.

But in the end, the Cubs think they have enough starters in Lester, Quintana, Hendricks, Hamels, Montgomery, Chatwood and rehabbing Darvish plus Smyly to make it to the post-season.  

July 27, 2018

MORE COLE IN YOUR STOCKING

The Cubs were forced to make a move. Tyler Chatwood had another aggravating outing of walking 6 batters and putting the team into an early, big deficit.  Yu Darvish has been slow in his recovery to the point the team is now counting on a TJ-rehabber in Drew Smyly to make an impact in September.

So the Cubs made a trade for a second or third tier veteran starter in Cole Hamels. He has a no-hitter and a WS ring on his resume, but he has struggled for the Rangers this season. As MLBTR reports, the 34-year-old Hamels isn’t the ace that he once was, and he’s had his share of struggles in 2018 — albeit nearly all of them coming at his homer-happy home stadium in Arlington. Hamels is surrendering home runs at a career-worst rate, but it’s somewhat telling that 16 of the 23 round-trippers he’s yielded have come at Globe Life Park. Hamels has a 6.41 ERA, a 6.16 FIP and a 4.49 xFIP when pitching at home this season but a 2.93 ERA, 4.17 FIP and 3.83 xFIP on the road.

This is the same logic Theo used to justify signing Chatwood to a three year deal. Get him out of the hitter friendly Coors Field climate, and he will do great. It is apparent that throwing strikes or allowing home runs is not solely dependent on the climate.

The Cubs rotation, except for Lester, cannot get through five innings in any consistent manner. Hamels has to fit into the fourth or fifth starter role with the mentality of six plus innings in order to save the bullpen. Hendricks had another iffy outing, Quintana has had one quality start and two good ones in his last three, and Montgomery is hitting the wall by the fifth inning.

I suspect that Montgomery will move back into the bullpen as the long relief, emergency closer role from 2016.  Hamels will be in the rotation until Darvish returns. Then the real decision has to be made: keep sending Chatwood out to the mound to wet the bed, or go to a six man rotation (which Lester opposes.) You cannot trust the lack of command in Chatwood to be a leveraged relief pitcher. You can't waste Hamels potential for eating early innings in the bullpen.

In 20 starts this year, Hamels is 5-9, 4.72 ERA, 1.373 WHIP, 0.8 WAR. He is averaging 5 2/3 IP per start. If he fits into the rotation, the Cubs could probably count on 10-12 more starts from him (which would be slightly better than Chatwood's numbers). 

The Cubs gave up two minor league pitchers and a possible player-to-be-named later for Hamels. The Rangers will still eat most of the money owed to Hamels. Whether Hamels has anything left in the tank is the value of this trade.

July 25, 2018

SECOND HALF ISSUES

The Cubs surged into first before the AS break, but now have begun to wobble in the heat of July.

Kyle Hendricks is not the old Hendricks, a pinpoint professor in the art of pitching. Teams have finally figured him out. An 88 mph fastball is not his out pitch. Batters are now sitting on change ups that are in the hitting zone. As Hendricks relies more on off-speed stuff on the corners, umpires are taking away is major advantage by calling more balls. Patient hitters and smaller strike calls is making Hendricks an average pitcher. It could change if he uses his fastball more to keep the batters honest and off-guard.

Kris Bryant was pulled from the line-up because of his shoulder issue. He said before the ASG that it was an injury that he will have to deal with throughout the season. But word is that he cannot even swing the bat. That means a probable DL stint and the return of Bote at third. Having Bryant out of the line-up puts more pressure on Rizzo, who is trying to hit his way out of his own personal slump by leading off. But Maddon will have to move Rizzo out of the #1 spot to increase scoring chances if Bryant goes on the DL.

Yu Darvish is becoming a real bad issue. The Cubs were happy that Darvish  yesterday threw 16 pitches off the mound after three weeks of rest. Sixteen pitches is not a start. It seems that Darvish's progress has been painstakingly slow. The front office is counting more on Drew Smyly coming off Tommy John surgery than Darvish. Montgomery was great when he first took Darvish's spot in the rotation, but now after a half dozen starts, he is falling back into being an average starter (which ironically is better than the Cubs original 4th and 5th starters).

Javy Baez is trying to do too much. He got throw out again for aggressive baserunning. He needs to calm down and let the team win games. Baez is the Cubs current MVP. He is the only true five tool player on the roster who can make exciting plays at the plate and in the field. But Baez has a history of coming unglued at the bat.  Let us see if he has matured enough to adjust to his new leader-by-example role.

The bullpen was re-tooled in order to be ready for the post-season. Brandon Morrow was the new closer, and Maddon kept him on the light work load. But Morrow got hurt anyway (which is his M.O.). The rotation has been sub-par all year, with very few quality starts. More times than not, starters are barely throwing five innings - - - which taxes the bullpen to the extreme that now four different position players have thrown in relief. Jesse Chavez acquisition was needed to find a "rubber" arm veteran who can do long relief, short relief, close and spot start. But asking Chavez to be the bullpen godsend is asking too much.

The Cubs offense still runs in feast or famine mode. They score a lot of runs, or they score very little. Consistency in the batting order could be blamed for the hot and cold mentality, but Maddon would disagree. He wants to use his entire roster to keep them fresh and in the game. But since the ASG, he has literally given up midway through 2 games (for losses).

The Cubs probably need to make a big move at the trade deadline, but they do not have any great minor league prospects to trade. And Theo and Jed are in love with "their" guys to trade away Happ, Schwarber or Almora.

July 19, 2018

THE BREAK

The Cubs surged into (or do you say the Brewers stumbled out of) first place in the NL Central. And, by a matter of mathematical magic, the Cubs have the best record in the NL.

But the consensus is that the Cubs lofty position was more to blind luck and a weak league than a juggernaut of goodness.

Bryant and Rizzo are having sub-par seasons.

Hendricks and Quintana have regressed from last season.

Chatwood has been a wild pitching machine disaster.

Darvish is MIA.

On the plus side, Baez has become the MLB poster boy for fun, on offense, defensive and on the base paths. How many runners can score from first on a stolen base attempt of second?

Lester is pitching well. Morrow has not blown up his arm (yet). Montgomery has been a pleasant surprise in the rotation as the emergency, long-term sixth starter (but even he is beginning to wear down).

We have been lulled to think that Russell, Schwarber, Happ and Almora are having better than expected seasons. The Cubs are near the top in offensive stats, but a lot of their games have either been feast or famine HR contests or a streak of series of oppo-hits, merry-go-round the line up crooked innings.

Pundits believe the Cubs history of having a .660 second half will happen again. The team should cruise to the playoffs. But the Brewers are still better than most people thought they would be. They are one or two trades away from making the race closer than comfort.

And this second half of 2018 has a new components: Rizzo and Bryant must have nagging injuries (back and shoulder); Darvish may be a big-city head case; Contreras may not live up to the hype as the next Molina; and the bullpen has been overworked early because of the poor collective starts of the rotation.

The Cubs are favored to win the NL and should be able to accomplish that feat.

But the Dodgers got Machado in a trade, and the American League is stacked with All-Star Teams (Astros, Red Sox and Yankees). It is not going to be an easy October run.

July 2, 2018

EASY TRADE?

The radio chatter for weeks has been that the Cubs should trade Addison Russell to the Orioles for Manny Machado. It was poised as a simple no brainer deal, especially considering Machado wants to play shortstop.

But is it?

Machado is deemed to be a top 10 player in baseball. In 2018, he is hitting .310, 21 HR, 59 RBI, 5 SB and 1.7 WAR.  However, he has a negative 1.5 dWAR.

Swapping Russell for a rental Machado may have made some sense when the Cubs could not score runs, but after scoring more than 40 in 4 games, is Machado really needed?

In 2018, Russell is hitting .286, 5 HR, 27 RBI, 3 SB and 2.4 WAR.

Yes, Russell has a higher WAR value than Machado. Russell's WAr breaks down 1.4 oWAR and 1.4 dWAR.

Russell has three more years of control while you would have Machado for three months tops.

Russell has lost his luster because of nagging injuries and lack of flash that Baez provides on defense.

But the more the season progresses, the need is less on adding Machado than finding another reliable starting pitcher.