Phillies Top Prospect Odyssey: Primer

You people love lists and rankings. It’s why Bleacher Report has become the McDonalds of sports blogs. It’s why Forbes has as many slideshows on their website as they do actual business news and I bet you can you can guess which Maxim issue sells the most copies each year. Prospect lists are no different. These lists garner clickage with extreme prejudice. While they’re often misleading and almost immediately obsolete, top prospect lists are actually footed in reality. Major League organizations have their own lists on hand (and look at lists compiled by the more respected outlets to see how the industry perceives certain players) should a situation arise in which rapid decision making is of the essence. It is for this reason that I recently considered compiling such a list for Crashburn Alley. You probably want a list, and the legitimacy of such rankings combined with the eyes it would bring to Bill’s site leave it too enticing to pass up. So I’ll be doing a list of yet-to-be-determined length.

But I’m going to do it the right way, a way that provides you with a bevy of information and opinion about the Phillies farm system from several people whose careers are dedicated to pondering such issues.

Over the next several weeks I hope to bring you conversations with some of the industry’s most esteemed independent talent evaluators and information hubs. Voices from Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com and our mothership at ESPN are all actively engaging with me about participating in this activity. We will discuss the author’s top 10 (or 20 or 30 or however many) Phillies prospects, the methods they used to compile this list, the individuals that lie therein as well as some other aspects of the organization. I want to use this little, inconsequential late night post to act as a little primer (which it has) and, eventually, a convenient hub that will house links to all of these discussions in one location.

Interviews

Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus

Jim Callis of Baseball America

Hudson Belinsky of Lindy’s Phillies Annual

Keith Law of ESPN

Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com

The Offseason That Awaits

Times were a bit tough for the Phillies in the 2012-13 offseason. A subpar season followed up with smaller-scale moves designed to give the team years of control in some areas and stopgaps in others isn’t the best way to build hype and excitement, but that’s the state of the union right now. Now that the dust has (likely) settled, these potential pitfalls still remain: four players are making $20 million or more, the farm is thin, numerous players have considerable injury concerns, the bullpen and bench are uncertain and the outfield is anybody’s guess.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…

But yet, in spite of all that, this offseason’s frustrations and walking-on-eggshells approach pales in comparison to the difficult decisions that await after the 2013 season concludes.

Impending Free Agents

The following players are set to hit free agency after the coming season:

*Halladay has a vesting option that’s unlikely to kick in. According to Cot’s, he needs to pitch 258.2 IP to meet the 415 combined 2012-13 IP requirement and avoid the DL.

Of course, the possibility always exists that an extension could be worked out, whether it happens before, during or after the season. With a weak farm, Halladay, Ruiz and Utley appear to be more competitive choices moving forward, although each comes with their own set of risks and an uncertain price tag. If the squad isn’t competitive, is maintaining a high payroll viable? Consider the in-house heirs apparent for the big three of that group:

Others who might be missing from those lists are likely too far away to make an impact in 2014, should those respective players leave. Now, looking at that, the Phillies clearly can’t expect to field a competitive squad relying solely on options that are currently team property. Free agent options aren’t great either; Brian McCann and Robinson Cano headline potential catcher and second base free agents, but neither seems likely to hit the market.

Potential Trade Assets

The Phillies experienced their first foray into the seller’s market under Ruben Amaro’s guidance when Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino were dealt prior to the 2012 non-waiver deadline, with Joe Blanton following not long after. Should 2013 not represent a fairly substantial improvement, and should the front office deem this roster in need of a bigger overhaul (which is feasible), more trades could come. What do the Phillies have that could be of value, that could net pieces that would facilitate a faster transition or rebuild?

Lee’s name was already tossed about briefly after the Dodgers put a claim in on him last summer, as well as that wonderful one-sided internal discussion of being dealt for Justin Upton more recently. He would likely fetch the most value, but this list is not devoid of potential asset grabbers.

On the flip side, should the Phils find themselves in buying mode, their lower-tier farm system has little left to fetch a prize. Jesse Biddle, the best of the bunch, projects as a No. 3 starter with a shot at No. 2, which is not conducive to making another big acquisition, even though he seems likely to crack a few top 100 lists.

The Conclusion

One way or another, the Phillies are primed for an interesting season and denouement. Most of the viability of any of those names either being extended or traded depends, obviously, on health and production. Value is reflexive based on those things. The linchpins are Halladay and Utley, but if Ruiz can replicate his 2012 production, his net worth as an affordable rental may never get higher.

None of this is set to be moved to the front burner, but as the calendar pages turn, you can bet the brass will have next winter on their minds more and more.

Do Sunnier Skies Await Ryan Howard?

There ain’t no two ways about it: 2012 was absolutely dreadful for first baseman Ryan Howard. At 32 years old in the first year of his five-year, $125 million contract, the slugger missed his team’s first 84 games recuperating from a torn Achilles. After he finally returned, he was a shell of his former self, limping around the bases at an even slower pace than usual. Howard’s walk rate sunk to a career low 8.6 percent, his strikeout rate ballooned to a career-high 33.9 percent, and his .301 wOBA ranked 222nd out of 302 hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. Add to that his poor defense and sub-par base running, and it’s no surprise he was the tenth-least valuable player in baseball according to FanGraphs.

The days of Howard hitting 45 homers and driving in 140 runs are long gone. But even as recently as 2011, Howard was close to an average player in overall value, and he was above-average considering only his offense. In fact, against right-handed pitching, Howard had the 11th-best wOBA (.398) between 2009-11. Howard’s heat map to the right — displaying his isolated power against RHP since 2009 — is a bloodbath. Clearly, Howard still has some juice left in the tank if he can only stay healthy.

Unfortunately, the cons outweigh the pros at this point when looking at Howard overall:

  • Bad base running: -4 base running runs in 2012, worst on the team
  • Bad defense: -9.4 UZR/150 in 3,127 defensive innings since 2010, second-worst among MLB first basemen
  • Bad against left-handed pitching: .302 wOBA ranks 130 out of 149 players with at least 500 PA vs. LHP since 2009
  • Best years are behind him: He turned 33 years old in November and has sustained a devastating injury to his lower-half
  • Non-premium position: First base is the least defensively-demanding position on the field yet he is among the worst in the game. It is also the easiest position at which to find offense, mitigating the effectiveness of his power

There are ways to utilize Howard to get the most out of his pros, however. As mentioned here in recent months, platooning Howard at first base with a right-handed hitter such as John Mayberry or Darin Ruf would have the dual benefit of replacing Howard’s weak bat against southpaws with an above-average bat while also giving the aging, injury-prone slugger a day off every so often. Left-handed pitchers only accounted for 29 percent of all plate appearances in 2012, so it isn’t as if Howard would play in only 81 games — 115-125 would be a more realistic number. If a first base platoon isn’t attractive to manager Charlie Manuel, then Howard should have a short leash past the halfway point in the game: if the Phillies are facing a team with a lefty-heavy bullpen, or Howard reaches base, then he should be replaced by a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner as necessary.

Howard had the platoon advantage in 64 percent of his plate appearances last year. Imagine if that number shot up closer to, for example, Eric Chavez, the left-handed side of a platoon at third base with the New York Yankees last season (87.5 percent). If Howard plays in 115 games and has the platoon advantage in 85 percent of his 400 or so plate appearances (340), his offensive value changes as follows, assuming his average since 2010 in each match-up (.370 wOBA vs. RHP; .310 vs. LHP)…

The following formula is used to convert wOBA to runs:

( ( Player wOBA – League average wOBA ) / wOBA scale ) * Plate Appearances

  • Normal use
    • vs. RHP: ( ( .370 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 250  = 11.0 runs
    • vs. LHP: ( ( .310 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 150 = -0.6 runs
    • Total: 10.4 runs
  • Platoon-focused use 
    • vs. RHP: ( ( .370 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 340 = 18.7 runs
    • vs. LHP: ( ( .310 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 60 = -0.3 runs
    • Total: 18.4 runs

The difference is about eight runs, or nearly one win.

Platooned or not, Howard should improve on his .219/.295/.423 triple-slash line from 2012. An off-season of rest can only help and the Phillies should be expected to keep a watchful eye on him, preventing him from overexerting himself. Regaining some strength from a healthier lower half will do wonders just in making contact alone — his .287 BABIP and .204 ISO last season (previously found between .300-.330 and .225-.235, respectively) indicated that he was making uncharacteristically weak contact. Upon further inspection, his power evaporated almost exclusively on inside pitches:

By mean-regression alone, Howard should be closer to his 2010-11 value, somewhere between replacement level and average, closer to average. With selective employment, the Phillies can get the most out of Howard’s strengths while limiting the chances for his weaknesses to make an impact. No matter what, you haven’t seen the last of Howard so long as he can stay healthy.

Crash Bag, Vol. 36: Situated on an Isthmus

So I moved to Wisconsin last week, which I think I told y’all about. And it’s great so far–I miss Wawa, and I hate pumping my own gas, but the food is great, the people are friendly, and I’d forgotten how awesome it is to be able to buy beer in a grocery store or a gas station. As men do. In lands where freedom rings out like the throaty drone of a bagpipe on a crisp autumn morning. (wipes tears from face)

But yeah, I got here on Thursday, and Kate, the Long-Suffering Fiancee, came out here to help me set up house. After two days, I was starting to figure out where things were. I’d adjusted to the cold (which isn’t that bad, because while it’s 15 to 20 degrees colder out here than in the Delaware Valley, that cold comes, at least so far, without the customary appalling wind you’ll find in Philadelphia). And on Saturday morning, I went to take KTLSF to the airport.

Madison is a moderate-sized city of about a quarter of a million residents, and a large part of the downtown is situated on an isthmus that bisects two lakes, much the way Ryan Howard bisects the strike zone with his swing whenever he sees a slider in the dirt. It was while I was driving along this isthmus that I…by the way, “isthmus” is an awesome word, isn’t it? Perhaps the greatest of all geographical terms, and if not, right up there with “archipelago” and “fjord.” I remember learning what “isthmus” meant by watching Sesame Street as a child. Imagine that! A show designed for preschoolers being unafraid to teach young children esoteric geographical jargon! We’d certainly never stand for such a thing in this day and age! Imagine the nerve of those socialist cheese-eaters over at Children’s Television Workshop–teaching our children big words! Daring them to expand their horizons before everyone’s stopped to pick up his participation trophy! Isthmus.

But I digress.

Like I was saying, it was while I was driving along this isthmus that I first realized something wasn’t right. First of all, the lake was frozen, which is something I’m not positive I’d ever seen in person before, a lake frozen to the point where you could walk on it. So imagine how completely unprepared I was to witness people–dozens of them–walking out on the ice in various Gore-tex apparel, toting drills and tents and stools, doing what I can only assume was ice fishing. Ice fishing! A sport undertaken by such barbaric people as Russians and Canadians–not normal, civilized Canadians, the Quebecois and Vancouverites and Ontarians, but people from, like Manitoba and such. Shocking behavior.

So there they were, dozens of ice fishermen, just kind of chillin’, so to speak, out on a frozen lake, sitting on stools and dropping strings through holes in the ice as if this is just something people do. I was kind of intellectually aware that Wisconsinites behaved in such a manner, but to witness it literally in the middle of a city, literally within sight of the state capitol building, was quite a shock. Totally jarred me out of enjoying the beautiful view of the skyline and the frozen lake that can be had from this isthmus on a sunny morning.

Question time.

@fotodave: “Which is colder: A Wisconsin Morning or the Phillies development of Domonic Brown?”

Like I said, it doesn’t feel all that cold out here. I mean, it’s cold, but it’s more the refreshing crispness of standing inside a walk-in freezer than the bitter, skin-blistering assault of sitting on the bleachers at a high school football game in December. When I was in college, I waited tables for a summer, and I had neither a car, nor air conditioning in my apartment. Which had no exterior windows and was situated in a building made entirely of brick. Which, I’m pretty sure, is what they make pizza ovens out of in expensive restaurants.

Anyway, I walked to work, which took between 20 and 30 minutes, which wasn’t bad. Or at least it wouldn’t have been if it weren’t 115 degrees with 100 percent humidity every day of the summer in Columbia, South Carolina. So occasionally, I’d be dispatched to the restaurant’s walk-in freezer to pick up some foodstuff or other. And damn if I didn’t take my sweet time. I’d let the door close behind me and stand there in my shorts and polo shirt, just letting the heat radiate off of me and into the foggy cool like I was an ear on a Fennec fox in the desert night. That’s how the cold is in Wisconsin. At least in my part. I watched a little bit of the Packers-Vikings game on Saturday and it looked considerably less pleasant in Green Bay.

But I wouldn’t describe the Phillies’ development (if you can call it that) of Domonic Brown as “cold,” either. The word I’d choose would be something more along the lines of “bizarre” or “profligate” or “This is a chemical burn.” They have to have known something that we didn’t, that all the prospect writers didn’t, when Brown was coming up. They’re professionals–they have more training, and more experience and more resources than we do, and by all publicly available information, holding Brown back made no sense.

I’m going to write a book about Domonic Brown one day.

@pinvert: “in your expert opinion, how did Ryan do last week at the helm of the Crash Bag?”

Quite well, I thought. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s comforting to know that if something horrible were to happen to me, say, if I perished in a tragic Michael Martinez accident, that service could continue almost uninterrupted.

Qui-Gon…more to say, have you?

“follow up-answer one of last week’s questions with the viewpoint opposing Ryan’s”

Oh, but yeah, for as much as I look to Ryan as kind of an intellectual and philosophical sounding board–not that we agree on everything, but I do respect his opinion immensely–it’s difficult to be as entirely wrong about something as he is about the designated hitter. The DH leads to three true outcomes and to old fat guys who have overstayed their welcome trundling around in circles. And if I wanted to see that, I’d walk around the WIP offices telling Angelo Cataldi that there’s a woman in a bikini hiding in a room somewhere and not tell him which.

“caveat: it can’t be the DH question”

Oh. Well I don’t know that he said anything else that I really disagree with. Oh, here’s one. He said that Cliff Lee would win a steel cage match against Jonathan Papelbon and Chase Utley. I don’t think so. I’m not sure it’s possible to kill Chase Utley. Sure, you could hack off his knees and wrists, but he’d still be there, with his unbeating heart and cold, steely gaze, gnawing at your ankles until you gave up and cried. I think Utley wins if only because Cliff Lee is made of flesh and blood, and he bleeds. If it bleeds, we can kill it.

@SkirkMcGuirk: “What current Phillies player(s) will have their numbers retired someday?”

Funny you should ask that, because literally the first thing I ever wrote on this site was a long post on why the Phillies should retire Jimmy Rollins‘ number. I love these debates about retiring numbers and (in other sports) captaincy designations–it’s a combination of the rational and emotional. Not only who was the best, but who meant the most. The Phillies seem only to be interested in retiring the numbers of players who made the Hall of Fame, but I’ve got a little more liberal outlook on such things, so screw them. If the Phillies want to answer this question, they can get their own Crash Bag.

The past decade has been, by far, the most successful in the history of the Phillies’ franchise, and among current members of the team, I would retire the following numbers today, no questions asked:

Each great era in Phillies history (all one of them, plus 1950, which apparently counts as an era), comes with at least two retired numbers. Rollins combines on-field value with longevity and qualitative meaning the franchise. He is to us what Richie Ashburn was to our grandparents. And Utley, for my money, is the best player in franchise history not named Mike Schmidt, so he goes too. And Charlie Manuel is to the Phillies what Billy Martin was to the Yankees or Earl Weaver was to the Orioles, except Charlie Manuel is the exact opposite of Billy Martin and Earl Weaver in every way imaginable. But sometimes franchises honor great teams by honoring the manager–I think it’s appropriate to do so in this case.

And if Cole Hamels keeps pitching like a No. 1 starter until the end of his contract, he gets on the board too. Roy Halladay doesn’t have the longevity (though he’ll get his later in this column, don’t you worry) and Cliff Lee, for how great he’s loved by the fans, probably won’t have enough good season with the Phillies to merit having his number retired either.

@SoMuchForPathos: “Say the Phillies pick up an actor to be their play-by-play guy on TV. Who would you want it to be? I’m thinking H. Jon Benjamin.”

He’s not a bad choice. I’ve long been of the opinion that ESPN should have its No. 1 soccer commentary team of Ian Darke and Steve McMannaman try other sports. I’d love, love, love to see them give baseball a shot.

But you said actors. So actors it shall be.

We’ve got to consider a couple things. Vocal quality. H. Jon Benjamin has that sonorous Joe Buck baritone that would lend itself well to the commentary booth. Or you could go with the carnival barker/1950s radio newscaster voice that Keith Jackson made his own and go with…I dunno, Morgan Freeman? I feel like Nick Offerman might be able to pull it off, but that might be entirely a product of how much Parks and Recreation I’ve been watching recently. Liev Schreiber is doing great work as a sports documentary narrator and would probably do well calling a  ballgame.

If we’re just going for quality of voice, I’m not sure you’ll do better than H. Jon Benjamin. In fact, I could listen to him talk to a woman with a breathy, seductive alto voice in any context, baseball or no. If H. Jon Benjamin and Diana Agron called a ballgame, I’d hang on every word–no joke, every single goddmaned word–and be completely unaware what sport they were watching until about inning four or five.

You could go another direction and take multiple actors who you know have good on-screen chemistry and just turn them loose. I’d watch a Christopher Guest/Harry Shearer/Michael McKean booth. Or a Nick Kroll/Jason Mantzoukas booth. Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan. Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry. Michael Fassbender and that basketball from Prometheus. You get the idea.

Notice how I never said anything about knowing or liking baseball. This is because most baseball commentators offer bugger-all in terms of useful insight. My favorite broadcast teams (Darke/Macca, Franzke/LA and Breen/Van Gundy are probably my top 3 right now) are talented describers of events, and you get the sense that they’re guys who enjoy watching the game with their buddies. I want to know what’s going on and I want to get the sense that what’s going on is genuinely fun.

With that said, I’ll take…Jon Hamm and Chris Pratt. I have no idea if they’d have good chemistry (well, apart from Chris Pratt having had good chemistry with Treat Williams in Everwoodwhich is like having good chemistry with a doorframe), but I like both of them, and I think it’d be fun. Maybe with Jennifer Lawrence in the Sarge role, doing some mid-inning relief and postgame interviews. Mostly because I am hopelessly, irretrievably in love with Jennifer Lawrence, who was the acting equivalent of the space shuttle lifting off in Silver Linings Playbook, which is the best movie I’ve seen in a theater in about five years, and if she doesn’t win Best Actress I’m going to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate potential wrongdoing. But I need more Jennifer Lawrence in my life, and this seems as good a reason as any.

But enough fun. Given the events of this week, I think it’s time for a….

HALL OF FAME LIGHTNING ROUND

(sirens, klaxons, Wayne Brady)

Nobody got in. Shocker. Blow up the BBWAA, burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ, and so on. All your post-hoc ass-covering moralizing won’t stop Barry Bonds from having been one of the five best baseball players ever, Grumpy Old White Male Sportswriters.

@mdubz11: “Fill out your Hall of Fame ballot.”

I don’t have a Hall of Fame ballot. I wish I did. But let’s pretend. Holy damn, Rondell White is on there. Remember that guy? Also Todd Walker. Who, as far as I know, is the only Walker ever to play for the Texas Rangers. Oh, and let me say up front that allegations or even proof of performance-enhancing drug use bother me not one iota, and if you think you’re going to convince me otherwise, I cordially invite you to bugger off and not say anything. Drug use was so accepted and prevalent at the time that the so-called Steroid Era is nothing more than a run-scoring environment to me. I’m also kind of a big hall guy, so I’m going to fill my ten spots, particularly on this ballot of all ballots. Though if others are in favor of being more selective, I really don’t have an argument–it’s a matter of preference. The ballot isn’t ordered, but this is my rough order of preference.

  • Barry Bonds. Possibly the greatest baseball player ever. Maybe not as good as Babe Ruth or Honus Wagner. Oh, what’s that you say? Barry Bonds took steroids? Well Wagner and Ruth didn’t have to play against foreigners or black people. Seriously, I’m so over the drug outrage. If Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Bill Conlin and Cap Anson are in the Hall of Fame…hell, if Tim McCarver‘s in the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster…I’m not sure we can fairly impose some sort of nebulous morals clause. Sure, Barry Bonds was a jerk and likely a drug user, but Mickey Mantle (one of my favorite players of all time, and as deserving a Hall of Famer as ever lived) was a drunk and a serial adulterer, which I find far more icky than whatever Bonds did. The ability of grown-ass men to be shocked and butthurt over a ballplayer ruining their innocence astounds me.
  • Roger Clemens. Just like with Bonds, a Hall of Fame without Clemens doesn’t diminish Clemens–it diminishes the Hall of Fame. When I’m dictator of the world, anyone who doesn’t vote for Bonds or Clemens loses his vote. Not just his Hall of Fame vote, but the franchise as well. And he spends two weeks in the stockade.
  • Jeff Bagwell. I like to think that Bagwell’s been left out of the Hall of Fame so far because his eye-popping statistical record has been underrated (which I think it has). Not because everyone with big muscles who played in the 1990s is assumed to be a juicer, regardless of whether or not he’s even been credibly accused of wrongdoing. Let alone, you know, tested positive for illegal PEDs.
  • Tim Raines. Another guy who, like Bagwell, had an astonishing career but somehow flew under the radar. I believe it’s Jonah Keri (and if it’s not, I apologize) who’s fond of saying that Raines was the second-best leadoff hitter of all time, but no one noticed because he was a direct contemporary of the greatest leadoff hitter of all time (Rickey Henderson). I find that sentiment to be broadly accurate.
  • Craig Biggio. It was Bill James‘ argument (in the New Historical Baseball Abstract of 2001) that Biggio was a better player than Ken Griffey, Jr., that was really my first introduction to the enlightened–or rather, evidence-based–way of considering the game to which I subscribe now. That was a terribly-constructed sentence but I’m not going to bother to change it. Biggio was great at his peak, he played at not one but three premium defensive positions, and he played for a long time. I’m really not sure what case there is to be made against him.
  • Edgar Martinez. Okay, so some people won’t vote for Martinez because he was “only half a player.” Which is an interesting thing to say about a guy with a career .418 OBP. Okay, so Martinez hardly ever played the field. Maybe the presence of Ryan Klesko on this year’s ballot will serve to remind voters that there are worse things than not playing defense at all. Or maybe someone can explain to me how Martinez is unworthy of enshrinement for his lack of completeness, and Lee Smith got half again as many votes as Martinez did. Also worth noting: Jack Morris batted once in his regular-season career.
  • Curt Schilling. Pitched with Randy Johnson when Johnson was stupid dominant, and with Pedro Martinez when Martinez was stupid dominant, so he never got the praise he deserved for being one of the great power/control pitchers of his era. He pitched a ton of innings, and the innings he pitched were really good. That’s really all I want from a starting pitcher. And while Schilling’s regular-season credentials alone are worthy of enshrinement, it’s worth noting that for all the fainting Jack Morris induces among sportswriters for his performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series (admittedly one of the greatest postseason pitching performances ever), Schilling did that a lot. Across the span of more than a decade, for three different franchises. In a much tougher pitcher’s environment. And, due respect to a lineup anchored by Ron Gant and Terry Pendleton, tougher competition. As a rule, I don’t believe in clutch, but if we’re going to use that word on one pitcher on this ballot, I’d take Schilling over Joe Blanton with Better Facial Hair and Better PR.
  • Mike Piazza. Another argument that being a DH is not always the worst thing that can happen to a player’s defensive reputation. Though there are some who say that Piazza was actually an underrated defender. No matter–this guy had me convinced well into my teens that catcher was a position for big guys who could mash, not guys who were too athletic and not good enough with the bat to be middle infielders.
  • Larry Walker. If you wouldn’t vote for the eight guys above, I probably think you’re an idiot. Or an absurdly small-Hall guy. Walker is where I draw the line between no-brainer and negotiable. I’m a big fan of rewarding peak over longevity, which is why Walker goes ahead of Rafael Palmeiro or Fred McGriff. Though it’s worth noting that Walker has a higher career bWAR total than Tim Raines in more than 2,000 fewer plate appearances.  I’ll also admit that this vote may be entirely the function of when I was born. I came of baseball-watching age just before Walker’s peak with the Rockies, and he was the first player I ever saw who struck me as being change-the-rules good. Sure, he played his best years when Coors Field was at its Coors Fieldiest, so he probably wouldn’t have slugged .700 (which he literally did, twice) if he’d played at the Astrodome in the 1960s. But even if you adjust his numbers for run environment, they’re still quite robust–a career 141 wRC+ for a good defensive corner outfielder with 230 career stolen bases is good enough to make me a believer.
  • Mark McGwire. Again, peak vs. longevity. I know there are some writers who are making a crusade out of trying to get Alan Trammell into the Hall. No, that’s not right. There are some writers who are making a crusade out of complaining that Alan Trammell isn’t in the Hall. And on a ballot that didn’t have a top-five all-time hitter, a top-five all-time pitcher, the best-hitting catcher of all time and four guys who should have been in years ago if the voters weren’t sanctimonious poopyfaces, Trammell would get my hypothetical vote. As would Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton and probably Palmeiro. Sorry, Sammy. You only slugged .700 in a full season once. But yeah, that’s not to say I don’t think any of those guys are unworthy, or that I have some bulletproof reason to include Walker and McGwire over Trammell (and I think he’s the only one people will get upset about). If the BBWAA had voted Bagwell and Raines in when they were supposed to, this wouldn’t be an issue.

@mferrier31: “War breaks out between BBWAA and the “[sabermetric] tea party”. Who would play what role for each side( i.e. Pres, General, etc) & who wins”

Well, it’s worth noting that there are many members of the so-called sabermetric tea party who are also BBWAA members. Here’s how I think it goes. Murray Chass is John C. Calhoun, Jon Heyman is Jefferson Davis and…I dunno…someone like Peter Gammons or Bob Ryan, whom everyone loves and respects but was just born in the wrong place and time with the wrong ideas, is Robert E. Lee. Buster Olney plays James Longstreet in this metaphor.

On the goodguys’ side, STP President Joe Posnanski plays the Abraham Lincoln role, a wise, cogent man, a leader who sees both sides of the issue but ultimately stands up for what is right at all costs. He sends in Dave Cameron (George McClellan) and his tentative advances are rebuffed. Then he goes with more aggressive generals: Jayson Stark and Jonah Keri (Fightin’ Joe Hooker and Ambrose Burnside, respectively), but once again, they’re not quite aggressive enough.

Then, with the war going badly, Posnanski finds his Ulysses S. Grant: Keith Law. Law is recalled from his western campaign and informs President Posnanski that we’re younger, smarter and more numerous, and we can just bulldoze those old fogies, damn the human cost, if we want to. He’s given command, and he calls up Jay Jaffe (William T. Sherman) to burn everything from New York to Cooperstown to the fucking ground. We win, idiocy in baseball analysis is abolished and we get a bunch of kickass marching songs. The end.

@JustinF_LB: “Who do you think voted for Aaron Sele in Hall of Fame voting?”

I dunno, but if you find out, tell me so I can buy him lunch. I used to love Aaron Sele. My childhood fantasy that I could become a front-line MLB starting pitcher lasted well into middle school because of Aaron Sele.

But in all seriousness, ordinarily I don’t have a problem with writers throwing a Hall of Fame vote someone’s way to honor a player they liked but know won’t make it. As long as they take the rest of the ballot seriously. But this is a year with 14 qualified candidates for only 10 spots. If you’re giving Aaron Sele a shout-out and not spending that vote on a deserving but borderline candidate, you’re doing the Hall of Fame a disservice.”

@Parker_Adderson: “Any chance the character clause works more as it was intended and keeps Chipper out of the HoF?”

I’m going to answer this question, kind of, in the next bit. But I just wanted to take this opportunity to remind y’all that Chipper Jones is a poopy head whose wife divorced him because he had a kid with a Hooter’s waitress behind her back. That poor woman. Imagine how close you’d have to get to Chipper’s face to conceive a child with him.

@Jferrie: “do you think that since guys who juiced can get into hall that Pete Rose should get a chance? Gambling vs Juicing.”

I’m glad you phrased it that way, because cheating doesn’t get you eliminated from Hall of Fame discussion. Because Willie Mays cheated. He took and distributed PEDs too. So did Mike Schmidt. Baseball, for all the moralistic bluster of certain writers, is an incredibly forgiving community as a whole. It will welcome you back with open arms even if you’ve been dinged in the past for things far worse than drugs, such as drunk driving or hitting your wife. And if you do both, you get some sort of career bingo and writers come up with weird excuses to give you prizes. It gets better–baseball will forgive players for anything from hate crimes to rape.

Now, I don’t know that any of that behavior would fly if, instead of baseball players, these guys were accountants. And if Miguel Cabrera, thoroughly scumbaggy a man though he seems to be, were an accountant, even as great an accountant as he is a baseball player, I wouldn’t begrudge him the right to make a living. But neither would I want him to work for me or with me. That’s a very intellectually inconsistent position to hold, and I stand by it steadfastly. But perhaps no other line of work is as zero-sum as professional sports, so for that reason, we give the truly great athletes like Cabrera (and for some reason, truly mediocre ones like Young and Lueke) a lot more rope than they might get in other lines of work. The point is, baseball is like a Backstreet Boys song: “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from [or] what you did.” (Side note, do yourself a favor and watch that video. Peak late ’90s going on there. I totally had Nick Carter‘s haircut when I was 12.)

It’s like baseball has literally one rule. And that rule is that you can’t bet on baseball. You can literally rape and pillage, but you can’t bet on baseball.

Which makes sense, to a certain extent. Even if you cheat–especially if you cheat–you’re still trying as hard as you can to win. But if you’re betting on baseball, there’s the chance that you might undermine the competitive integrity of the game, where athletic outcomes are fixed to support certain financial outcomes. And when that happens, you’ve got the NBA. Pete Rose broke the one rule, a rule in whose name Major League Baseball has banned, or considered banning, players as great as or greater than Rose. He’s not going to get in.

At least not until he dies. Because as Ron Santo would tell you if he weren’t dead, people who were worthy all along sometimes have to wait for posthumous induction.

@gberry523: “how long before another Phillie gets inducted to the hall?”

Probably the next time another Phillie leaves a room.

Depends on who counts as a Phillie. Because I’d vote for Curt Schilling today, and when the time comes, I think Pedro Martinez, Halladay and Jim Thome all make it in without too much fuss. I’d throw Scott Rolen a vote too, but I don’t think he makes it in. That said, I don’t think any of those five guys would wear a Phillies hat on his Hall of Fame plaque. I don’t think Chase Utley gets in either, because he’s been preposterously underrated over the years and is entirely deserving, even if his career ended today.

Honestly, if I’m going to take bets on the next Hall of Fame inductee to wear a Phillies hat on his plaque, I’d lay the odds as:

  • 4/1: Chase Utley
  • 5/1: Cole Hamels
  • 2/1: The Field

Because apart from Utley and Hamels, I can’t think of a name. Maybe the Phillies draft Karsten Whitson next year, he turns into a stud for a decade and change and gets inducted for the Class of 2040. It could be that long–the Phillies have had a ton of really good players over the past 30 years, but not really a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.

Which is fine by me, because with Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton in the division, we Phillies fans are going to be seeing our fair share of potential future Hall of Famers.

That’ll do it for this week. We had a first this week–way more good questions than I could use. Which is good, because I won’t be able to write this whole thing in one sitting between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Thursday night/Friday morning anymore, as has been my custom. So in the interest of spreading out the workload, send in questions anytime via #crashbag and they will be answered. And if you ask even a moderately evergreen question and it doesn’t get answered right away, it might show up in a later episode. For instance, I’ll be giving advice next week on how to build a child. You won’t want to miss it.

Have a pleasant weekend, everyone.

On Baseball History

Fair warning: This is just me rambling and getting personal a bit.

The results of the Baseball Writers Association of America balloting for Hall of Famers were released today, and unsurprisingly (shockingly unsurprisingly, if that makes sense), no one received enough support to earn entry into the hallowed halls in Cooperstown, New York. The fallout has been a thick mixture of outrage and apathy; yours truly has fallen into the latter category.

In the past, I’d have written a lengthy rebuttal or FJM’d something dumb one of the writers said, but I’ve long since stopped being emotionally invested in anything involving the BBWAA. Anticipating the results, I expected Jack Morris and Jack Morris alone to receive the requisite votes, but even that didn’t come to fruition, as pessimistic as that was. Even the end-of-season awards haven’t reached my core as a fan in a while. Perhaps with age I’ve become more jaded and cynical, but I like to think I’ve changed for the better — I don’t rely on the BBWAA to be my baseball history guide.

On May 7, 2006, I went to Citizens Bank Park for a night game (nationally broadcast on ESPN, if I recall correctly) between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants. Barry Bonds was on his quest to surpass Babe Ruth‘s then-second-best career home run total, entering the night at 712, just two shy of a tie with the Great Bambino. Jon Lieber toed the rubber for the Phillies, opposing Matt Morris. Pat Burrell homered in the first, and the Phillies strung together a few extra-base hits in the second to take a 5-1 lead.

The offense died down for a few innings. Lieber entered the sixth inning with his team up 5-2, scheduled to face the 2-3-4 part of the Giants’ lineup. Omar Vizquel grounded out to third base and Pedro Feliz struck out. It looked like an easy inning for Lieber, but Bonds took his usual stride to the plate amidst a chorus of boos. I stood up and applauded, ever the contrarian. Fans in left field had been holding up this banner all night:

Bonds was walked intentionally with a runner on second base and two outs in the first inning, and singled to lead off the fourth on the first pitch he saw. Facing Lieber for the third time in the sixth, he had seen a grand total of one legitimate pitch. But Bonds was used to this: he drew a MLB-record 120 intentional walks in 2004 (he finished with a .609 on-base percentage, by the way. .609. Six-oh-nine.) It was often said that, in the course of an entire game, Bonds may have only seen one hittable pitch, if that. He made a habit of not missing them.

Bonds fouled off a 1-0 pitch, then took another ball to bring it to 2-1. Lieber, who was never particularly effective with the Phillies, threw one of his typical meatballs and Bonds crushed it. Bonds attacked the baseball like Fedor Emelianenko attacked any one of his many vanquished opponents. I, and the rest of the nearly 40,000 at Citizens Bank Park, rose to our feet in absolute awe. As the ball hung in the air like a star in the night sky, all of us in attendance for that moment discarded our allegiances to simply admire the beauty created by this performer.

The ball peaked and tumbled back towards Earth, its descent interrupted by the McDonald’s advertisement that hangs just below the upper deck. Few had even come close to hitting a baseball that far (Ryan Howard would, a month later, surpass it in a game against the New York Yankees). As the reality settled in, the fans with mouths agape pursed their lips to boo the slugger, to shame him for making them believe that what they had just witnessed was real. Bonds jogged around the bases and touched home plate for the 713th time. The Giants still trailed, 5-3. The Phillies would add four more runs and went on to win 9-5.

To this day, that is still the most memorable game I have seen in person. Seeing Bonds hit that home run, to me, is almost as incredible as seeing Brad Lidge fall to his knees after striking out Eric Hinske to end the 2008 World Series. I bring this up because Bonds, arguably the greatest player in baseball history, did not receive nearly enough support (36.2 percent) to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He will remain on the ballot, but he is fighting an uphill battle against a cacophony of anti-PED sentiment among the generally older set of baseball fans that make up the BBWAA.

Bonds’ not being inducted into the Hall of Fame does not diminish my memory of that night, or of him as a player or as a person. Bonds made baseball incredibly fun for me in the 1990′s and 2000′s, and that is something I will pass on to anyone that wants to listen to me talk about baseball. There has been a lot of sentiment recently that the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame both need to change — and they do, badly — but fans should not let a homogeneous group of baseball writers affect what they do and don’t like about baseball.

Kenny Lofton, for example, received only 3.2 percent of the vote and will not have another chance despite compelling credentials. Will you forget about Lofton’s incredible defense? Will you forget about the sheer terror he created for pitchers when he was on the base paths (622 career steals, 79.5 percent success rate)? Will you forget that he was one of the best lead-off hitters of his era, finishing with an on-base percentage above .400 in four different seasons? Something is obviously wrong when once-in-a-generation players are left on the side of the road the way Lofton was, but he won’t simply disappear from the annals of baseball history. The Hall of Fame is not the Ministry of Truth. The emotions you felt watching these players — the excitement, the frustration, the joy — was real, and an organization of self-indulgent sportswriters will never have agency over that.

Ranking What’s Left of the Free Agent Outfielders

This handy-dandy free agent tracker from MLB Trade Rumors shows us who’s left among free agent outfielders. GM Ruben Amaro is reportedly still searching for a veteran outfielder to add to the mix, though the hunt has certainly died down in recent days. Currently, the left-handed Domonic Brown and Laynce Nix, and right-handed John Mayberry and Darin Ruf are slated to man the corners in some kind of platoon or double-platoon.

Using the FA tracker, I’ve divvied up those remaining into a few groups: “Could be worthwhile”, “Not Like They Have Any Other Options”, and “Dear God, Why?”.

Could Be Worthwhile

Scott Hairston

  • 2012 Salary: $1.1 million (one year)
  • 2012 wOBA vs. LH/RH: .368 / .317
  • Career wOBA vs. LH/RH: .353 / .306

The biggest benefit Hairston would provide, besides mashing lefties, would come in pushing Darin Ruf back to Triple-A for a full season. While many fans are anxious to see Ruf prove himself at the Major League level, particularly after 37 impressive plate appearances in September last season, Ruf would benefit from his first taste of Triple-A with very little pressure. Furthermore, the Major League club wouldn’t be punished if it turns out Ruf isn’t able to handle big league pitching as well as advertised.

Hairston is below-average defensively, but is nevertheless much better than Ruf, who only started playing left field last season. The old, slow Phillies won’t have much in the way of speed outside of Jimmy Rollins and Ben Revere, but Hairston can add somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-10 stolen bases depending on his performance and playing time.

With Hairston looking for a similar salary as he received in 2012, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1-2 million, he would be a safe bet for the Phillies, currently with a $152 million payroll.

Ryan Sweeney

  • 2012 Salary: $1.75 million (one year)
  • 2012 wOBA vs. LH/RH: .160 / .310
  • Career wOBA vs. LH/RH: .266 / .330

Sweeney’s production against left-handed pitching is abysmal, so he would have to be part of a platoon, which would necessitate pushing Laynce Nix back into a bench role. Nix, with a career .235/.317 L/R wOBA split, could likely do what Sweeney would do, and the Phillies are already committed to him anyway. Sweeney’s skills, relative to Nix, include better contact (career 15 percent strikeout rate) and better on-base skills (career .338 on-base percentage).

Not Like They Have Any Other Options

Austin Kearns

  • 2012 Salary: $600,000 (one year)
  • 2012 wOBA vs. LH/RH: .277 / .428
  • Career wOBA vs. LH/RH: .341 / .337

Kearns’ days as a regular outfielder are behind him. The 32-year-old hasn’t logged more than 175 plate appearances in a season since 2010. In limited playing time with the Marlins last year, though, he was average with the bat (.331 wOBA) despite a drastic platoon split (he hasn’t shown one over his career). When he’s right, he has excellent plate discipline (career 11 percent walk rate) and on-base skills (career .351 OBP).

Signing Kearns to be part of a platoon isn’t the greatest way to use him, but given how cheap he will be and the assets he would bring, the Phillies could do a lot worse. Bringing Kearns on board as a bench bat would be superb, though.

Delmon Young

  • 2012 Salary: $6.75 million (one year)
  • 2012 wOBA vs. LH/RH: .357 / .282
  • Career wOBA vs. LH/RH: .352 / .309

Young has had some bad off-the-field incidents, but if the Phillies aren’t concerned about that, Young could provide some value as the right-handed side of a corner outfield platoon. Since he started playing regularly in 2007, Young has never been worth more than 1.7 WAR and has three times posted negative WAR, according to FanGraphs. Baseball Reference WAR echoes this. His defense is awful and he doesn’t draw walks, but he can definitely hit lefties. If his price tag drops significantly from his nearly $7 million salary from last season, he might be worth it, but the Phillies’ best best is to stay away.

Ryan Raburn

  • 2012 Salary: $2.1 million (last year of two-year extension)
  • 2012 wOBA vs. LH/RH: .215 / .217
  • Career wOBA vs. LH/RH: .345 / .306

Aside from playing in the outfield corners, Raburn has played some second base as well, so he could be used as an occasional substitute for Chase Utley when the Phillies want to give him a day off. As his career numbers show, he hits lefties well, so an infield that includes Raburn at second, Michael Young at first, and Freddy Galvis at third would be formidable against left-handed starters. Raburn’s career .174 isolated power is among the highest of the remaining free agent outfielders.

However, Raburn had an abysmal 2012 and turns 32 in April. His numbers have been in a steady three-year decline, from a .382 wOBA in 2009 to .356, .316, and .216. Raburn wouldn’t contribute anything else aside from power and hitting lefties as he doesn’t run the bases well and isn’t much on defense.

Bobby Abreu

  • 2012 Salary: $9 million (Angels picked up 2012 option)
  • 2012 wOBA vs. LH/RH: .312 / .309
  • Career wOBA vs. LH/RH: .335 / .385

This would never happen, but it’s fun to think about anyway. Abreu turns 39 in March and is no longer even a double-digit home run threat, but showed even last year that he still has a great eye at the plate. His 14.4 percent walk rate was right under his 14.7 percent career average and he finished with a .350 OBP. In the last five years (post-Barry Bonds era), only nine other players have finished a season with a .350 or better OBP in at least 250 PA at age 38 or older:

Player OBP PA Year Age Tm
Jim Thome .412 340 2010 39 MIN
Manny Ramirez .409 320 2010 38 TOT
Chipper Jones .381 381 2010 38 ATL
Chipper Jones .377 448 2012 40 ATL
Gary Sheffield .372 312 2009 40 NYM
Jim Thome .366 434 2009 38 TOT
Derek Jeter .362 740 2012 38 NYY
Jim Thome .361 324 2011 40 TOT
Melvin Mora .358 354 2010 38 COL
Craig Counsell .357 459 2009 38 MIL
Jorge Posada .357 451 2010 38 NYY
Ken Griffey .353 575 2008 38 TOT
Bobby Abreu .350 257 2012 38 TOT
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/5/2013.

The most surprising thing about Abreu is that, in those five years, he hasn’t missed any significant time due to injuries. In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus, Abreu hasn’t gone on the disabled list since 1997. In all likelihood, Abreu could probably pass muster as an every day player for the Phillies, but his defense is just so bad that he would cancel out any good that he would bring with his bat, which makes him an excellent fit as a bench player similar to Austin Kearns.

Dear God, Why?

Rick Ankiel – Hire him to entertain fans with throws from the outfield before games.

Jeff Baker – Human ellipsis (…)

Michael Bourn – $$$$$$$

Johnny Damon – He’s done. The 39-year-old posted a .271 wOBA last season.

Mark DeRosa – Since 2010: .220 AVG / .309 OBP / .269 SLG. Turns 38 next month.

Ben Francisco – Insanity is…

Kosuke Fukudome – His last name is now more valuable than his on-field production.

Don Kelly – Career .280 wOBA.

Darnell McDonald – The 34-year-old barely crossed the Mendoza line and had a sub-.300 OBP last season.

Scott Podsednik – He’ll be 37 in March and only hits singles.

Juan Rivera – Somehow, the Dodgers agreed to pay him $4 million last season. The 34-year-old rewarded them with a .287 wOBA and -0.8 WAR.

Telltale Signs of a Bounceback

I took to the internet to try and cure my brain’s writing logjam – lazy, I know, but I’d run out of patience – and, thanks to Anthony, now finally have something for you.

In many ways, the 2012-13 offseason has been the antithesis of what we’ve come to know as a “typical” Ruben Amaro offseason. Starting in ’08-09 and in each of the subsequent winters, RAJ has managed to land at least one big name (and many, many zeroes to the ledger), up until this one. Now, this winter isn’t over, so time remains for the usual craziness to occur, but it seems safe to assume that the roster as currently constructed is the one most likely to take the field at the start of the 2013 season.

It’s a roster filled with players looking to bounce back from disappointing or sub-standard seasons; a collection of risks and gambles. Roy Halladay is well into his 30s and had shoulder issues in 2012. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are looking to get back to playing full seasons. Michael Young was one of the least valuable players in the league in 2012, and Mike Adams needed offseason surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome after posting good-but-below-usual levels of production last year.

What, then, can we look for to be potential indicators of what kind of season each is going to have? Can we get an idea in April and early May of just what we might get from each of these players? Let’s wonder together.

Roy Halladay

On May 14, Halladay will turn 36. A right lat muscle injury cost him a large chunk of his age-35 season and likely had a direct effect on what he didn’t miss. His 4.49 ERA was his worst since setting the modern record for worst ERA in 2000 (since broken by Brian Matusz), his HR/9 crested 1.0 for the first time since that same fateful season and his BB/9 was his highest since 2004. Some deeper peripherals (whiff rate, for one) were unchanged or at levels similar to previous years. The numbers everyone will have their eyes on come April, though, are the ones produced by the radar gun. Doc’s fastball averaged 90.3 MPH last year, according to ESPN’s TruMedia, down from 91.6 in 2011 and 92.1 in 2010.

Notice the graph to the right, specifically the top line and x-axis. As Doc’s fastball was faster in 2012, batters made less contact. Makes sense, right? The bottom two lines are interesting in shape – a higher in-play average at 91.5 or so than 90 is a bit curious – but not much more.

Now, if there’s a pitcher in the league whose stuff, when right, can play at almost any velocity, there’s a good chance it’s Roy Halladay. A permanent drop in velocity, while obviously far from ideal, isn’t as potentially destructive for a pitcher with stuff that moves like Halladay’s as it would be for, say, Joe Blanton. Still, if Halladay’s four-seamer is back to averaging 91-92 in his first handful of starts, that would go a long way to assuaging fears of lingering shoulder damage.

Mike Adams

Adams confessed during his introductory press conference that his dealings with thoracic outlet syndrome led to altered mechanics and persistent pain. Knowing that, Adams’s 2012 regressions gain context. For years, Adams was one of the game’s elite relievers. He was helped by Petco, but pitching half a season in the A.L. in 2011 with Arlington as his home park, Adams maintained a high level of production outside of an understandably spiked HR rate.

chart

Above, we see a graphical representation of Adams’s altered delivery. Really, he’s been a near-constant work in progress, but this chart shows how Adams shifted back more toward a three-quarter release than sidearm.

If the surgery was truly a success and Adams is feeling no ill effects from the TOS that caused this, fans should expect him to be averaging back above 93 MPH with his fastball from a more sidearm-oriented release point.

Michael Young

One of the most polarizing figures in baseball (at least as far as my type is concerned), Young inherits third base from Placido Polanco and a cast of characters after posting a rather sour .277/.312/.370 line in 651 plate appearances last season, most of them as the DH. Young has spent 557 innings across 64 starts in the field at third base since the start of 2011, but as the club showed when it signed Polanco to play third despite not having logged 100 innings there in a season in the six seasons prior to his inking before the 2010 season, that doesn’t seem to be an overarching concern.

It’s worth noting that Phillies primary third basemen have slugged above .400 twice in the 10 seasons since 2003: David Bell in 2004 (.458) and Pedro Feliz in 2008 (.402). Things have been a little limp at the hot corner since Scott Rolen was shipped off. Young had nine consecutive seasons of a .400 or better SLG before last year’s .370, so even though he’s aging, there’s hope he has enough pop left in his bat to give third base a bit of offensive punch it’s been sorely lacking, albeit at a defensive cost not incurred with the likes of Feliz and Polanco.

strike-zonestrike-zone2012

Notice, in the two heat maps above (right-click and open image in a new tab for full size), that Young struggled to turn on inside pitches in 2012 like he did in 2011. He wasn’t particularly strong on pitches over the outer half and beyond in either year, but regaining the ability to turn on the ball and produce power to the left side of the field (CBP’s left field foul pole is three feet closer than Arlington; its LF power alley nearly 20) would go a long way for the Phillies – and Young – in 2013.

Searching for Tools in the Snow: Scouting Philadelphia Area High Schoolers

On Sunday I was on the road by 7am, heading south on the turnpike from the Lehigh Valley. While I was over to pick up my fiancé (I was going to drop her off in the city to see friends) I ran into her little sister who was up early, GameBoy in hand, the unmistakable Pokemon soundtrack blaring from its tiny speakers. She was desperately trying to get deep into the Safari Zone (before her time in there ran out) where the chances of her stumbling upon rare Pokemon dramatically increased.

That day, I spent about eight hours taking diligent notes in a freezing cold fieldhouse at the Under Armour National Baseball Tryouts at Swarthmore College. The frigid, finger numbing temperatures of the gym were actually a welcome respite from the harsh baseball winter we in Pennsylvania are forced to endure. On a day when the sort of talent I’m used to looking at was scarce nay, non-existent, there was plenty to learn about what it means to play and work in baseball in the Philadelphia area. It’s an undertaking of tedium and patience certainly worth sharing.

First, I need to explain what the Under Armour Baseball Factory is all about.  The Baseball Factory provides a stage on which young baseball players can display their skill set. Players attend the workout and are put through your standard pro style gauntlet; a sixty yard dash, throwing velocity measurements, defensive drills and work in the cage. During all of this, the young men are evaluated and may ultimately be invited onto the Under Armour National Team roster, where they’d receive the most exposure. If not, they can also pay for an online video package that they can send to college coaches in hopes of being noticed.

The fact that this is mostly a pay to play program creates a sub-optimal evaluation environment. Economically disadvantaged youth is less likely to participate in such a program (you can pay $99 just to work out or $499 for the video package and webpage which looks like THIS  ) which limits the talent pool. Sadly, the athletes that can’t afford to pay for the video package are also the kids who most need the scholarship money one can acquire from impressing college coaches with such a tryout, especially when baseball money is incredibly scarce because the sport generates no revenue for most schools. Of the approximately 60 athletes I had a look at on Sunday, only two were black.

But the socioeconomic hurdles inherent in amateur baseball are far too intricate and labyrinthial for me to sort through on my own. I can, however, scout the hell out of some local high schoolers for you.

Let me first remind you that talent here is scarce. Of all the kids I saw, maybe one will have his name called on a future draft day. I do not envy those whose task it is to scout our section of the country. Our weather conditions limit baseball development which means there’s less talent to see. Less talent means teams see no reason to spend money pumping a dry well which means they keep scouting staffs small in our region. Most northeast area scouts cover four or five states. It’s an insane schedule. The weather also shortens our amateur calendars, which means area scouts need to cover those five states in the country’s shortest time span. This limits the number of looks a scout can get at a kid which leaves them less confident about a player’s abilities than they would be if they had seen them multiple times. Are you starting to see why Mike Trout didn’t go until the latter half of the first round?

Let’s talk about some of the kids. My favorite was lean, tall, right handed pitcher Russell Rhoads from Episcopal Academy in Brookhaven. Just a junior, Rhoads sat 82-83mph with the fastball and touched 85mph on Baseball Prospectus writer Hudson Belinsky’s gun. Rhoads has the frame to add strength and weight and maybe some velocity. He’s quite athletic and has impressive command for his age, not only of his fastball but of his secondary offerings as well. Both his upper 60s curveball and mid-70s changeup show promise and advanced refinement for someone so young. This is someone to watch for sure and someone I might seek out for another look in the future.

The other arm I liked quite a bit was attached to the shoulder of RHP Ben Deaver. Deaver made the drive up from Towson Maryland to show off what was, for my money, the best secondary pitch of the workout in an explosive 12-6 curveball. Deaver sat in the low 80s with his fastball, touched 83mph. He too has some physical projection left but not as much as Rhoads. A senior, Deaver is committed to Rider University.

The other two players that caught my eye did so with their legs. Both players ran sixty yard dashes below seven seconds in a workout where speed was scarce. The fastest of the day was run by William Tennant High School (Warminster, PA) shortstop Brett Kozlowski. Kozlowski needs refinement in skill areas but the speed tool is a loud one. Some mechanical adjustments could be made to squeeze more out of his arm and defense as a whole.

The better all around player, for me, was Methacton High School shortstop (Audobon, PA), Kyle Lowery who is the son of Phillies associate area scout, Ed Lowery. Lowery ran well but showed impressive defensive polish and the best bat speed of the workout. There were also several interesting young catchers who had average-ish MLB pop times as well.

I hope these kids (and really all of the kids at the workout) can parlay this experience into some college money for themselves to lighten the burden of whatever college loans they may or may not incur. I’ll likely head to at least one more event of this ilk during the winter to see what else is out there. For now, I’ll just continue to admire the mileage scouts put on their odometers in search of rare baseball talent in our area the same way I admire my future little sister-in-law’s pursuit of Kangaskhan is a sea of Nidoran.

 

(Huge thanks to Will Bach at Baseball Factory for letting Hudson and I invade the facility and to Hudson for giving me someone to talk to for hours about baseball, hours that otherwise would have been spent listening to old UP & In episodes on my phone while I scouted)

Crash Bag, Vol. 35: Let’s Throw Jeff Loria Into Sagittarius A*

NO TIME FOR INTROS. TO THE QUESTIONS:

@GoogTheGoog: “I just got a big fancy iPod. I also drive a car for ten hours at a time for my job. Please recommend podcasts for me.”

It wasn’t 10 hours (jesus christ exactly what are you doing anyway), but there was about a half of a year period from 2011-2012 when I was living in Philadelphia and working in Washington, D.C. I tried to limit myself to making the trip twice a week, departing Monday morning and returning Friday evening, but it’s still a bastard of a drive, mostly owing to the inscrutable tangle of traffic-choked roads surrounding D.C., and whatever the hell is going on in Delaware at any given time (miles and miles of construction work, and the heady odors of what I assume is some kind of industrial solvent). Eventually I grew accustomed enough that it seemed shorter, and I had valuable intelligence on which exit had the best Wawa (exit 74 northbound, Joppatowne/MD-152), and how long a driver can admire the view from the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge before they’re endangering the lives of everyone around them (no more than 3 seconds). I also listened to a lot of podcasts. Here is an incomplete list, in no particular order, of those that took the edge off of Hell Commute:

  • Dinner Party Download: An hour-long show of cultural snippets, formatted and structured like a dinner party. Segments include “Cocktails,” in which some notable event this-week-in-history is covered, and a bartender commemorates it with an original cocktail recipe, “Guest List,” wherein a director or actor or writer or musician of note makes a themed list, “Main Course,” a food segment, and “Etiquette,” where some celebrity or other answers listener-submitted etiquette questions. This episode will give you a good sampling (segment breakdown included at the link)
  • 99% Invisible: Fascinating podcast about the intersection of design and our everyday lives. Roman Mars has a knack for untangling the design concepts behind everyday stuff that we would rarely consider from that perspective. For example, take this episode about the problems with US currency design.
  • Radiolab: You’ve probably heard about this one. Usually a three-part, hour-long take on a science-y topic, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Abumrad also engineers the final product, making great use of music and sound editing to draw you into the story. Highly addictive if you can get past Krulwich’s occasionally insufferable sentimentality and question-begging. One of my favorite episodes is Musical Language, but one of my all-time favorite individual segments from any podcast is this from the episode “Diagnosis.” Seriously, give that a listen, starting at 10:20.
  • WireTap: CBC show with humorous sketches and the like. Impenetrable deadpan from host Jonathan Goldstein. Check out The Reverse Life for a taste (you might have to go to iTunes for this one).
  • This American Life: I feel like I don’t need to say much about this one. It’s the Ty Cobb of podcasts, except, as far as I know, Ira Glass isn’t a virulent racist. Check out their episodes on the bank collapses and the housing crisis for a better layman’s understanding than you could hope to achieve most anywhere else. Bonus fantastic investigation of the financial crisis in 2008: Inside Job.
  • Getting Blanked: In my opinion the best baseball podcast. Manageable length, very relaxed discourse, covers everything you might want to know, and, during the season, is available on a daily basis.

@sixerfan1220: “rad goggles dog or rad goggles cat?”

REAL GOGGLES DOG

@tholzerman: “What do you think Ben Revere has to do to a) become a 4+ WAR player on a regular basis and b) avoid Chickie’s and Pete’s forever?”

In the practical sense, in order to become a 4+ win player, Ben Revere has to become a player other than Ben Revere. In the theoretical sense, it’s a little more complicated. Baseball Reference and Fangraphs’ WAR flavors disagree on Revere’s 2012 to the tune of about one win, with the former pegging him at 2.4 WAR and the latter 3.4. Just for completeness, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP logs a 1.1.

These aren’t necessarily so disparate as they appear; Fangraphs awarded more wins above replacement to the league as a whole than Baseball Reference did, and Baseball Prospectus awarded fewer. Handily, Bryan Grosnick has devised a methodology to place these three WAR sources on a level playing field, so that they can then be averaged together into what he calls WARi, or WAR Index. Applying this to Revere, his adjusted rWAR, fWAR, and WARP values are 2.4, 2.9, and 1.4 respectively; his WARi is therefore 2.2.

In the best estimation, then, Revere needs to add about 2 wins, or 20 runs above replacement, to meet your goal. Where these would come from is not readily apparent. As the presumptive full time CF next season, he does get some help in the positional adjustment department, since all flavors penalized him for playing more than twice as many innings in right field last season (708.1) as he did in center (309.0). Let’s call it a five run swing for him. 15 runs to go. Since his defensive prowess is fairly established, and he was near the top of the league in Fangraphs’ defensive runs above replacement last year, his bat is the natural place to look.

Revere is essentially the April 2012 Phillies in one player — singles first, and little to no hope for extra bases or a free pass. People are quick to point to his youth, but I don’t see the upside in these departments. As power goes, he’s abysmal, with a .044 ISO in the first 1064 plate appearances of his career. This number is the absolute worst among all qualified hitters from 2010-2012, with Juan Pierre in second at .049 (I’ll leave you to draw comparisons). Sure, Revere is young, but he’s not a 20, 21, or 22 year old kid who is just starting to fill out a large frame. He’s 5’9″, 170 lbs., and those numbers aren’t likely to change that much. Neither is his ISO.

His walk rate is also miserable, 5.4% for his career, ranking him 204th out of 230 qualified hitters from 2010-2012. It’s somewhat more plausible that this could improve with age — Revere could simply become more selective. But there is no reason why pitchers need to give him anything to be picky about. Imagine you’re a pitcher staring down Revere, knowing that the worst case scenario, if you really mess up, is probably a line drive single to the outfield. Actually, it’s more likely to be a grounder; those accounted for 67% of Revere’s balls in play last season. Why would you pitch around him? Why wouldn’t you attack the strike zone, knowing Revere’s capacity for doing damage is severely limited? Clearly this does not bode well for his walk rate’s potential improvement.

If anything, the remaining value will have to come from that by which Revere lives and dies — the single. Revere’s career BABIP is .308, and last season it was .325. That seems high, but for a speedy left-hander with good contact skills, I think we can assume his true BABIP skill rests around .320. The highest single-season BABIP for a qualified post-integration hitter is Rod Carew‘s insane .408 in 1977. That seems ambitious. Let’s assume Revere has a ton of good fortune and posts a .385 BABIP, putting him in more plausible company as far as single seasons go. Applying this to his 553 plate appearances in 2012 generates 27 more hits: 24 singles, 2 doubles, and a triple, going by his real-life ratios. This boosts his triple slash to .346/.382/.415. In FanGraphs terms, it raises his wOBA to .378 (from .300), and gives him an extra 38 or so weighted runs created, which should get him over the 4 win mark by all of the measures. That’s just an extremely improbable season, even for a guy like Revere.

But we might be missing the point. Revere doesn’t have to be a 4 win player. Revere can be, say, a 2.5 win player, much further within the realm of possibility, and be just fine as an everyday starter, presuming the Phillies get a lot of above average production from other positions in the field. And it’s that last presumption that could be a serious issue in 2013.

Wait, this is supposed to be a funny column, isn’t it? Shit.

@SoMuchForPathos: “When was the last time you went on the Internet and did not become filled with a mindbending case of the angries?”

I don’t understand how I developed this reputation. Seriously. Very strange. People who only know me via this blog or Twitter would be surprised to find out I very rarely get truly angry. It’s just fun to yell at umpires and Ruben Amaro and Congress and Piers Morgan. It’s fun to seek out utter shitheads on Twitter and scream profanities at them. And to remind Josh Lueke that he’s a piece of garbage on a regular basis. So I do. But there are indeed things on the internet that do not make me ornery. FOR EXAMPLE:

@magoplasma: “how would you explain your sister in a haiku? Various other questions about your sister.”

Maggie is the shit / Manny Machado, really / you get the idea

@JakePavorsky: “You and Baumann are locked in a room. The only way to get out is to kill the other. Who wins?”

You’ve left out a ton of relevant information here. Size of the room? Available weapons? Ambient conditions? As it is, you’ve left me to imagine a plain, empty room, with hand-to-hand combat the only available option. That being the case, though to my knowledge neither of us have formal training, I’d have to give the edge to Baumann, since I’m older and fat and in gritty action movies where the protagonist is taking every possible measure in a desperate bid for survival, I wonder why they didn’t give up and die like twenty minutes ago. Being generally civilized folk though, I think we’d instead elect to sit around and wait the thing out, to see if some other solution presents itself before we both starve to death. In that scenario, Baumann would almost certainly win by exploding my head with his terrible opinions about Star Trek and the designated hitter. SPEAKING OF WHICH:

@notkerouac: “If the DH is brought to the National League, what large animal should we feed Bud Selig too?”

HAHA IDIOTS. You’ve put Crashbag in the hands of a DH apologist. No, not a DH apologist. A DH advocate. Because pitchers batting is the most worthless thing on the planet, and if you don’t want to watch old dudes hit dingers instead, you’re deluded. If we were to feed Bud Selig to a large animal for anything (and it should be a tiger or other big cat, incidentally; I fear that a bear would finish the job too quickly), it should be the second wildcard, a true abomination unto baseball that is actually worthy of the effort that Baumann instead spends on griping about AL at-bats because they’re too interesting. Honestly, I’m convinced the anti-DH sentiment comes from two loathsome sources: a stubborn attachment to tradition and the fetishization of the ball in play. The perils of the former need no further demonstration than Murray Chass’s Hall of Fame ballot. Seriously, read that, DH-o-phobes. That is you. As for the latter, to hell with defense. Give me all of the true outcomes. Go start some other baseball league and watch your pitchers leg out boring ground balls.

@threwouttime: “what gave/gives better chance for Halladay to win: 2010 Phillies or 2013 Blue Jays?”

It’s interesting that you chose the 2010 Phillies, because my immediate impulse is that, of all of the successful Phillies teams, including 2008, the 2011 squad offered the best chance at a championship. But I guess it depends on how you look at it. If you assume that the most talented team has the best chance of winning the World Series, then I think my answer stands. But, as we know, the playoffs are basically a small sample roll of the dice for even the best baseball teams, and all you can do is make marginal improvements to your odds. So if you give the 2010 Phillies credit for having managed to advance further than the 2011 team, they’re the ones with which to make the comparison. The problem then becomes that we have no earthly idea whether the 2013 Jays will make the playoffs, and, if they do, how far they would advance.

Dan Szymborski wrote in mid-December, following their acquisition of R.A. Dickey, that his ZiPS projection system saw the Jays as a 93 win team. If you conservatively estimate Halladay to be a 4 win pitcher, pushing the roughly replacement level Ricky Romero out of the rotation, they could win 96 or 97. It’s hard to win that many and miss the postseason. So if we assume the Jays are good enough to get in the door, their chances are just as good as those of the Phillies at the outset of the 2010 postseason. For that matter, if they finish with 102 wins, they could just as easily be bounced out by an inferior team, as the 2011 Phillies were. With a gun to my head, after pleading with you to put it down, I would probably lean towards the 2010 Phillies as the surer bet, but only because I have the benefit of hindsight, and the 2013 Jays have yet to play a game. What’s really sad is that you didn’t think to ask this question with the 2013 Phillies.

@kgeich67: “Three way steel cage match between Utley, Papelbon, and Lee. Who wins/How does it play out?”

There is absolutely no way Lee does not win this. I imagine Papelbon will bring the bluster, trying to rope a passive Utley into his “HOLD ME BACK, BRO, HOLD ME BACK” saber-rattling, but Lee will just take him apart with calm, redneck efficiency. Papelbon evidently can put on a sleeper hold, but there’s just no way you can convince me that Cliff Lee hasn’t wrestled a crocodile, or hunted a wild hog bare-handed. Utley will stand by, watch Papelbon get put down, and draw a walk in a 9 pitch plate appearance.

@fgmsalvia: “what’s the point anyway?”

I’m assuming, mostly since your name includes “salvia,” that this is a question about the larger purpose of the universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s take on this is pretty great:

The upshot being, if the universe does have some purpose, it’s either incredibly subtle or the universe is extraordinarily bad at fulfilling it. If you consider the things that the universe is good at doing — being enormous and vacuous, and increasing entropy — there’s a decent argument to be made that its purpose is to impersonate Joe West.

@pivnert: “ZiPS projections show ben revere hitting his 1st HR. what does he trade to the person that catches it? old twins stuff?”

If Revere hits one, and only one, home run next season, he should first of all give Dan Szymborski his game-worn jersey, for being the only person that believed he could do it. To whomever caught it, in my book, he owes only a signed ball or bat. The whole Chris Coghlan thing soured me on holding milestone balls hostage. If he was feeling extra generous, he could take the fan out to Chickie & Pete’s for some kind of garbage looking meat miasma on a roll.

@SoMuchForPathos: “Are people who think one can trade for (The Mighty) Giancarlo Stanton a member of the same species as you or me?”

People who think that the Marlins might trade Stanton at all are indeed the same species as you and I; they are only human. It’s only human to imagine, after watching Jeff Loria build a tacky multimillion dollar aquarium on the public dime and unload nearly all of the worthwhile talent he acquired within the same calendar year, that he might punch Miami in the balls once more by dealing Stanton. It’s only human to imagine he would be just that much of a shit heap. But Loria is merely penurious and evil, not brainless. After all, the package the Marlins got back in the Jays deal was not, strictly speaking, a bad return, it was just a lurch toward yet another inexpensive, non-competitive big league team. Loria would not dream of letting Stanton slip from his claws until he at least is arbitration eligible, which happens in 2014. People warn us not to attribute to malice what can just as easily be attributed to stupidity, but, to my mind, Jeff Loria is Exhibit A in the case for reversing that adage.

Arright, that’s all I got. It wasn’t as funny or verbose as you’re used to, but I didn’t mention a certain Red Sox prospect even once.

2013 and 1996

Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) published his batch of 2013 ZiPS projects for the Phillies over at FanGraphs yesterday. There aren’t too many surprises, but here are a few that stood out to me:

Perhaps the most startling finding, though, is that no position player is expected to post 3.5 or more Wins Above Replacement. The last time the Phillies had a roster of position players where no one posted 3.5 or more WAR was in 1996, when Jim Eisenreich led the way at 2.7 WAR. Those 67-95 Phillies had, by far, the worst offense in the league, averaging 4.01 runs per game, well below the league average 4.68.

What were you doing in 1996? Probably in shock and awe at Andruw Jonesperformance in Game One of the 1996 World Series at the age of 19. Maybe wondering if Pedro Martinez was the real deal after posting a 3.70 ERA at the age of 24. Watching Roger Clemens in his final season as a member of the Boston Red Sox. That’s how long it has been since the Phillies had a roster of position players as bad as ZiPS forecasts the 2013 squad.

And ZiPS isn’t wrong. Utley and Ryan Howard are projected to take 450 and 474 plate appearances, respectively, which is reasonable given the duo’s recent injury woes and advancing age. Ruiz is expected to take 421 PA. Ben Revere and Michael Young, the Phillies’ two big off-season acquisitions, are projected to combine for 3.6 WAR in 1,256 PA — essentially what Utley will do in one-third of the playing time. This is not a roster that will smash-and-bash its way to victories; as with the teams of recent vintage, expect lots of close 3-2 type games where pitching is the rudder that steers the Phillies’ ship.

What the 1996 team didn’t have was pitching — aside from Curt Schilling, at least. Schilling’s 4.9 WAR was trailed by second-place Sid Fernandez‘s 1.8 WAR in 11 starts and Terry Mulholland‘s 1.4 WAR in 21 starts. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are projected to finish at 4.9 and 4.4, respectively, followed by Roy Halladay at 3.6. The 2013 Phillies, despite its expected offensive problems, can still compete for the playoffs on the back of its starting rotation.

EDIT: Because this post can be misunderstood, Dan graciously emailed me a great explanation of interpreting his projections. While I pointed out that no Phillies position player is projected to post 3.5 or more WAR, it doesn’t mean that zero players posting 3.5 or more WAR is the most likely scenario. Dan’s explanation:

Let me give a quick thought exercise. ZiPS projects 0 Royals to have a mean projection of .300. But that’s not the same as projecting 0 Royals will, in the end, hit .300.

The probabilities ZiPS has for a .300 BA for Royals are as follows: Butler 41%, Perez 38%, Hosmer 12%, Escobar 11%, Gordon 9%, Myers 8%, Moustakas 5%.

So, though no individual is projected to hit .300, there’s only a 23% chance that none of those 7 players will hit .300. The way the odds work out, the odds of x number of those 7 players hitting .300 given the projected odds are:

0 – 22.8%
1 – 41.1%
2 – 26.8%
3 – 8.0%
4 – 1.2%
5 – 0.1%
6 – <0.01%
7 – <0.01%

So in essence, despite the Royals projected to have no individual hitter projected to hit .300, the most likely scenario is that at least one of them do and two of them is more likely than none.

Hopefully that clears up any potential misunderstandings and misapplications.