June 4, 2019

ANOTHER ARM

The Cubs first round draft choice was a college starting pitcher.

MLB.com stated:

27) Cubs: Ryan Jensen, RHP, Fresno State

This is the biggest surprise of the first round so far, as Jensen was ranked No. 99 on our ranking of the top 200 Draft prospects. There's a lack of college pitching in this Draft, however, and we may see more teams push some college arms up their Draft boards, as the Cubs appeared to here. Jensen has one of the best fastballs in the college class, usually working at 94-98 mph and maintaining his velocity into the late innings. The secondary stuff is inconsistent, as is his control, and he doesn't have a real big frame (6-foot, 180 pounds), so he could be a reliever.

It is surprising that the Cubs reached for a third round prospect in the first round. It is another small frame pitcher who projects to be a reliever.
First round arms are supposed to be starters (unless you are a dominant career closer like the White Sox Burdi) because all relievers are failed starters.

High velocity throwers are nice, but can they pitch to make outs?

The reason the Cubs picked a college pitcher: to try to fast track him to the majors. The minor league system is devoid of any immediate help for the pitching staff. Could Jensen's velocity be enough to be a late season call-up to bolster an overworked bullpen? It is doubtful. But the Cubs window for a second championship run is closing fast with the improvements in their own division rivals.

The Cubs in the Theo era have NEVER developed their own starting pitcher. The first round choice is already pegged for relief duty by scouts. 

It appears that the Cubs cannot solve their pitching problems by spending any money. Kimbrel and Keuchel are unrestricted free agents, but the Cubs are not thought to be interested in either. Ricketts has said he would not allow the Cubs to go over the luxury cap (where the Cubs payroll was on Game 1). The front office has been squeezing nickels out of dimes to supplement the roster. When the Indians gave up on Carlos Gonzalez (he was hitting .210), the Cubs picked him up for a prorated league minimum (from part of the payroll savings of not paying Zobrist who is on the restricted list). This is like trying to find lost change under the sofa cushions in order to buy a pizza.

Do not be surprised if the Cubs front load more pitchers in this year's draft because that seems to be the overriding need for the system.

May 23, 2019

TOUGH GET GOING

When the going gets tough, the tough get going . . . to Japan.

Carter Stewart, a 19-year old pitcher was drafted in the first round of the MLB draft. Due to an alleged injury, the Braves cut his signing bonus offer in half, to $2 million. Stewart refused the offer. He is now expected to be drafted lower, in the second round.

But he won't be drafted at all. It has been reported that Stewart will by-pass the MLB and sign directly with a Japanese pro team for a six-year deal worth over $7 million.

This is a clever runaround of the draft and stash MLB procedure for young talent. You sign with a team, get a bonus, then toil in the minors from four to six years at a bare minimum salary. He is getting more than his projected $2 million bonus by $5 million. Currently, minor league players are paid from $1100 to $1800 per month depending on what level they are at in the system. At best, he would make $60,000 to $80,000 for six years of minor league service. Japan is giving him $5 million for the same training.

Though he is now committed to playing in Japan through age 25, Stewart will, essentially, enter free agency once he’s finished and be able to sign for whatever the market commands when the time comes. Stewart would be considered a standard international free agent should he play in Japan for the next six years, according to writer Jeff Passan.

In addition, he will have six seasons of higher than MLB minor league experience which could drive up his market value (see, Yu Darvish).

This could be the future for highly prized prospects who do not want to wait years in the minors to get their shot at the Big Show. And this is also a way to avoid being drafted by sink hole franchises like the Marlins.

May 11, 2019

TANDEM

Yu Darvish had another Yu is Darbage outing. Four innings pitched, 97 pitches, 6 walks, one run . . .  his control was awful enough to get seven strikeouts.

Montgomery came back from his injury rehab to throw five innings of winning relief.

Which leads to a problem and a solution.

Darvish cannot command his stuff. Montgomery wants to be a starter. Darvish has such a fragile mental state that Maddon has to take baby steps with him. Monty has been the good soldier since he became a Cub.

At some levels in minor league baseball, teams have a "tandem" system for starting pitchers. In a game, one starter is delegated to throw 3 or 4 innings and then another starter comes in to throw 3 or 4 innings. In theory, this is less strain on a young arm by limiting innings per start. But at the same time, it helps to build up arm strength.

There was always a question on why Montgomery's minor league rehab was to stretch him out like a starting pitcher. The Cubs have their long reliever with Chatwood. But perhaps the Cubs inability to get a real closer is making the front office think about moving Chatwood to a late inning role.

But in the Marlins game, it was shown that the combination of Darvish and Montgomery can work in a "tandem" situation. I would not be surprised that Montgomery will not be used until Darvish's next scheduled start.

May 9, 2019

SYMBOLS & STRIFE

Yesterday, there was more non-baseball news than the actual Cubs-Marlins game.

Russell Addison returned from his 40 game suspension for domestic abuse to a chorus of boos and a light smattering of applause. Theo Epstein stressed before the game that the Cubs, as an organization, gave Russell the opportunity for a second chance for which he had fulfilled his conditions of his return. The Cubs also acknowledged that there would be many fans who would voice their displeasure at the return of a spouse abuser. Epstein said that the fans had their right to their own opinions on this issue.

The Cubs also announced it banned a fan for an alleged racist gesture that was caught on a live, mid-inning broadcast with Doug Glanville. The alleged offensive gesture was an upside down "OK" sign. There is a debate whether this symbol, which is part of a kid's "circle game," was intended to be a racist slur towards Glanville. But others have said that white supremacists have recently adopted this kid's sign as a racist slur. Most people watching the telecast were unaware of the gesture or its meaning. The Cubs stated that it had "zero tolerance" for any racist actions in Wrigley Field. Whether the Cubs did an investigation or interviewed the fan about his intent is unknown.

But the Cubs and ownership have created an even bigger problem. It has been well reported through the release of Joe Ricketts emails of his intolerant behavior toward minorities. Joe Ricketts, through a Cubs press release, apologized for his involvement in racist jokes and intolerant conversations he made in his emails. In the end, there was no further ramifications from that scandal. "Zero tolerance" apparently does not apply to ownership privilege.

The same is true with the inconsistent application of fan speech. The Cubs said it was okay for fans to boo the return of a spouse abuser, but it not okay to make an alleged racist hand sign. There are many more people offended about Russell's alleged criminal conduct than what fans say or do during a game.

If the Cubs have zero tolerance toward a fan's alleged action, why does the Cubs organization have great tolerance for spousal abuse behavior and its patriarch's racist remarks?

May 7, 2019

QUALITY START

What is a real "quality start?"

MLB defines a quality start as:

A starting pitcher records a quality start when he pitches at least six innings and allows three earned runs or fewer. A starting pitcher has two jobs: to prevent runs and get outs. The quality start statistic helps to quantify which pitchers did a "quality" job in those two departments.


This definition of a "quality" yields an absurd result: a pitcher who allows three earned runs over six innings would have an ERA of 4.50 -- not good -- and yet he still receives a quality start. 

Bill James addressed this in his 1987 Baseball Abstract, saying the hypothetical example (a pitcher going exactly 6 innings and allowing exactly 3 runs) was extremely rare among starts recorded as quality starts, and that he doubted any pitchers had an ERA over 3.20 in their quality starts. This was later confirmed through computer analysis of all quality starts recorded from 1984 to 1991, which found that the average ERA in quality starts during that time period was 1.91.

Former pitcher Carl Erskine said "in my day, a quality start was a complete game ... you gave everybody a day's rest." This view was also echoed by Fergie Jenkins who often said that it was his job every time he took the job was to have a complete game win. If he was going against an opponent like Bob Gibson, he knew that he could only give up one or two runs tops in order to win the game.


Growing up, it was the consensus gold standard for a pitcher to have an ERA under 3.00.

To get to that level, a pitcher would have to have these types of starts in order to get the win:

5 IP 1 ER = 1.80 ERA
6 IP 2 ER = 3.00 ERA
9 IP 3 ER = 3.00 ERA

2.57 ERA for 7 IP with 2 ER, but 3.86 ERA with 3 ER.
2.25 ERA for 8 IP with 2 ER, but 3.36 ERA with 3 ER.

Therefore, a quality start should be a scaled event for starting pitchers at points of 1, 2 and 3 earned runs allowed to get under 3.00 ERA.

The oddity in this analysis plays into the rise in the bullpen managed game. A starter with 1 ER in 5 IP can be pulled for a shut down bullpen of under 2.00 ERA to get under a 3.00 ERA for the entire game. Stat men claim that starter's batting average against climbs dramatically when facing a hitter the third time in a game. Managers are not only managing the pitch count but also the number of times through the batting order.

Conclusion: a quality start should be any start that yields a 3.00 ERA or under.

April 21, 2019

LAME DUCKS

Maddon said Morrow, who currently is on the 10-day injured list, struggled in his recovery from throwing off the mound earlier this week.

"The bounceback after the last time out wasn't as good," Maddon said. "So, we've got to back off of him once again and just slow things down. That's just where he's at. It's not unlike what had been going on (last season). It was all trending very well and then, like I said, this last time, just not as good. So, we just have to pay attention to what he's saying."

Pat Hughes was marveling yesterday  on the radio that the home crowd could reach 38,000.
Really? A 70 degree Saturday on a holiday weekend and only get 38,000 fans? It should have been
48,000 standing room only. But the game casts continue to hard sell single game, special event and
suite ticket packages like a desperate snake oil salesman. It is another sign that money is tight for the Cubs. Every unsold ticket is a lost asset.

It does go to show that Ricketts have clamped down on pennies and dimes for the baseball club.
Morrow cannot be counted on returning, and there is zero movement to find his replacement.
Kimbrel is still unemployed which is baffling for clubs in need of relief pitching.

But Theo has repeated his Boston downfall: overspending on players who underperform.
Morrow $21 million; Chatwood $33 million; Darvish $126 million = $180 million bust.
If you add the Hamels $20 million option to cover for the bad Darvish deal, that is an entire
season salary budget on four players.

As Maddon is the lame duck manager, I now wonder if cutting off the dollar taps by ownership
is a real signal that Theo & his Gang are also lame ducks (Theo only has 2 years to go on his contract).

Kenney continues to hype that the new Cubs channel will be like finding an untapped gold mine,
but he is as delusional as Theo was with his recent pitching acquisitions. The Dodger Network deal has been a disaster for broadcast partner Time-Warner. Regional sports networks are in flux due to the Disney-Fox merger. The Cubs trying to start their own network in an era of cord cutting cable viewers without a strong local partner is a recipe for disaster.

The Cubs struggled to get to .500, then Darvish gave up two back-to-back jacks in the first inning to set the tone for another bad day. He calmed down some, but was pulled again in the fifth inning when the offense failed to show up. Now, Chatwood takes the mound for a Lester DL start. The consensus is today's pitching is going to be bad as Chatwood became the lame duck when Hamels returned to help anchor the rotation.

The old saying is true: you cannot win the division early in the season, but you can certainly lose it. The NL Central continues to be highly competitive, with the Pirates surging past the Brewers into first place.

April 9, 2019

CONTRACT EXTENSIONS

 Everyone is trying to figure out the dynamics of a weak free agent market and the rash of player extensions. It may be a simple conversion of complex rational behaviors.

First, for the past several years, front offices have gone off the deep end on Big Data. Teams have figured out new statistics on spin rates, hit ball velocity and motion capture mechanics. Teams can break down their players into computer data. Now teams have more stats (good and bad) on their players to justify lower arbitration offers or free agency passes on veterans who used to be paid on past performance.

Second, while baseball is still generating record revenues, there are storm clouds on the horizon as attendance is down, TV ratings are down, TV advertising (and associated broadcast fees) have hit a plateau and demographics are trending to age out. Kids today would rather spend four hours playing Fortnite than watching a baseball game. In order to keep profit margins, teams are relying more on young, cheap and controllable players to fill major league rosters.

Third, the age of the super-agent is fading away. In the last two off-seasons, agents have missed the market trends, especially for the second tier free agents. Teams were armed with weaponized stats proving that older veterans decline in value after age 30. Teams were only going to pay for future performance, hence lower average annual salaries and contract years. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado got their deals because they were both 26, in their prime production years. Other veterans, including pitchers, still sit on the side lines without a job.

Fourth, veteran players and union officials are mad about the free agency market. They whisper collusion but cannot prove it. They are thinking about striking when the current collective bargaining agreement is over. But the prospect of a strike or a lock out does not sit well with a majority of baseball players. Hence, the surge in player extensions (usually at team friendly rates.)

Mid-February  25 contract extensions have been signed, notably by many young players including Ronald Acuña Jr., Blake Snell,  and Eloy Jiménez, who had yet to have a major league at-bat.  Acuña Jr. and Snell were last year’s Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winners while Jiménez could be this year’s ROY.
Acuña, Snell, and Jiménez’s teams locking them up this early in their careers has a two-fold effect: given how good they are (or, in Jiménez’s case, could be), they stand to potentially set salary records going through arbitration. Acuña, for example, was set to become eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2022. His extension is for eight years and $100 million, meaning he won’t become a free agent until after the 2026 season at the earliest. He will earn $15 million in 2022, and $17 million from 2023-26.

Compare that to Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (who also signed an extension). Arenado earned a $26 million salary going through his final year of arbitration eligibility. Arenado avoided all the potential drama and cross currents of a broken free agent system by taking the familiar guaranteed money of the Rockies. There is some value in the stability of staying with your current team (professionally and family situations).

Agent Scott Boras, who has had many clients getting paid less than he projected, is not happy with these young prospect extensions:

"Great young players are getting what I call snuff contracts. And a snuff contract is that they’re trying to snuff out the market. They know the player is a great player, and he’s exhibited very little performance. So they’re coming to him at 20 and 21, and I’m going to snuff out your ability to move, to go anywhere, to do anything, and your value. And I’m going to pay you maybe 40 cents on the dollar to do it. What’s my risk?"

Ken Rosenthal recent reported that the players believe team representatives are even circumventing the player and his agent by appealing to the players’ families, especially for players with poor and/or Latin American backgrounds. That may help explain why many young players are taking the guaranteed money.  Contract negotiations do not happen in a vacuum. A multimillion dollar guaranteed contract is life changing for most families.

By taking themselves out of the picture, Acuña and Snell cannot set the bar for the industry for players of their caliber, age, and service time, which makes agents jobs much harder to push the boundaries of free agent money. Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel have been caught on the other side looking in as the season started. By testing the free agent waters, Kimbrel and Keuchel have been swept away by teams signing younger players earlier.

But there still are puzzling aspects to contract extensions. The Cubs extended utility infielder David Bote for 5 years, $15 million. Bote is not even a starting player! He is a career .240 hitter. His career WAR is 1.0, not even the level of a AAAA replacement. Yet, Bote went to management and begs for some job security. The 24th man on the roster got his wish with a cash strapped club paying him five times what he was projected to earn in the next 5 years. Teams can still spend oddly in this new era of extensions.