A Fond Farewell

“…to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”   ~T.S. Eliot

To the Crashburn Alley readers, my fellow writers, editor, and especially Corinne Landrey and Bill Baer, the former editors who created and helped shape this incredible outlet into what it is today:

Today marks an end. But as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in 1943, ends are often beginnings, a threshold crossed that, by its very definition, means one has entered into something new having left where they previously were.

This marks my final post here at Crashburn Alley as I embark on my professional career in the oncoming days. I am, however, eternally grateful and excited to share that it will not be the end of the time covering the Phillies.

In the next few days I will head down to Clearwater for spring training for the first time in my life. I won’t be going as a player (as I hoped when I was a youngster with stereotypical big league dreams) and I won’t be going as a fan (as I assumed would be the case the moment I realized those big league dreams were a fantasy).

Where Phillies young and old nurture their hopes of making an impression and furthering their professional careers, so too will I. Entering the pristine new digs of Spectrum Field, credential proudly draped around by neck, I will work as a proud associate reporter covering the club for Major League Baseball.

Associate reporter is a fancy term for one-season intern, by no means a long-term position, but a beginning nonetheless. Last spring during an internship, I wrote a story about a dog taking in a Phils’ spring training game while drinking out of a water bottle cap. This spring, I’ll be a fully credentialed member of the beat covering the team for MLB and Phillies.com. Progress.

It was an end, after all, that led me here to Crashburn Alley.

I spent the 2016 NCAA baseball season as managing editor of Maryland Baseball Network, covering the University of Maryland Terrapins during my senior year of college. It was my first true experience covering a beat, and one that shaped me into the writer I am today. Last April, my end at MBN sparked the beginning of my time here at Crashburn, my favorite outlet at which I’ve written in my young career.

To make an end is to make a beginning.

It has been a special pleasure to share my thoughts here in this space, letting my fandom and objective analysis clash and sharpen one another. I first began reading this site toward the end of middle school during its formative years under Bill’s lead, a year or two after I laughed a buddy of mine out of the room the first time he praised the virtues of VORP.

The stat came from a site I’d never heard of, and fell on innocent, uninformed ears. I was perfectly content framing my baseball analysis (to the extent that you can “analyze” baseball when you’re 12) through the traditional methods.

In the last handful of years I’ve fully embraced the game’s statistical revolution that had been brewing—and thriving—for years before my epiphany. Without neglecting the time-honored ways of scrutinizing the game, I have strengthened my analytic will and adopted a more rigorous methodology and mental calculus when dissecting it.

It’s often the things you initially reject and then greet later in life with open arms that have the most profound impact on you. They remind you of your pliability, your ability to change, to ebb and flow, to remain not a troglodyte but an open-eyed member of society susceptible to change. It makes you admit, to yourself, that the way you once were is not the way you have to be.

To make an end is to make a beginning.

At the same time that I became captivated with sabermetrics, I discovered a passion I never knew I had. Halfway through college, when they no longer let you doggypaddle through the semesters with an undecided major, I joined the journalism school and was promptly thrown into the deep end.

I wrote my college admissions essay on my mindset as a high school pitcher. For my entire life, I always enjoyed analyzing the world around me, gleaning bits and pieces of information and piecing them together to instill a deeper understanding of my surroundings. I did this intently on the mound, looking for holes in swings, batter tendencies, and scared bottom-of-the-order hitters who stepped in the bucket.

Little did I know, that piece, based on my experience as a pitcher in Southeastern Pennsylvania, was the first of many I’d ever write about baseball. That is, if you don’t count the made-up transcripts of fictitious baseballs games I scratched across loose-leaf paper in 3rd grade.

In that essay I wrote: “The act of gathering such material has always been comforting. It is reassuring to know that without being force-fed information, I can still gather, analyze, and learn about the world around me.”

What is writing if not taking in the world around you and adding your own spin, observation and personal experiences?

Writing about baseball has held a special importance for me. It has helped me cope and provided the context to understand jarring experiences in my life, a cathartic release I have turned to when life has felt it’s most unfair. So it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that some of my favorite writings are only tangentially about baseball, using the game as a framework to appreciate, to understand, but not as the story itself.

It helped me mourn the loss of a friend. It helped me put into context the loss of Jose Fernandez.

Looking back, it’s not surprising I dug my teeth into this type of analytical assessment of the game, and even less surprising that—once finding my passion for writing—it transferred into performing my own sabermetric analyses.

I owe my current career path to the game of baseball and my love for it. Not because it is what I will be covering, but because it is the reason I have an opportunity, and eagerness, to cover anything at all.

I’ve made the climb up the ranks in the past two and a half years, working my way from youth baseball coverage to my new position covering a major league club from within the league’s own editorial branch. I’ve covered the 12-year-old Cal Ripken World Series, collegiate summer league ball, D-I NCAA baseball, blogged here about the Phillies and will cover them in earnest as a member of MLB.com this season.

I’m sure a call-up to the bigs elicits memories of the climb for journeymen ballplayers. While I have not logged the years of prep and practice those ballplayers have, I’ve put in the time at every level possible to prep for such a promotion in similar fashion.

I’ll always remember the pre-teen boys from Hawaii I covered last summer, their love and respect for their game and their opponents shining brighter than anything, a constant reminder of why these sabermetric analyses matter so much to me—because I love the game. I’ll always remember the frigid weekend afternoons spent in the Maryland press box and the hours spent creating Excel spreadsheets of starting pitcher game logs, the infographics made, the game stories chronicled. And I’ll always remember the hours spent down the rabbit holes of Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball, that allowed me to share my opinions and observations here with you, all rooted in cold, hard fact.

If you’d like to keep up with my work, you can find me in the usual places on twitter, while my byline will appear on MLB.com and Phillies.com, supplementing the great work of Todd Zolecki whom you should already be reading.

Despite my departure, this is not the end. It is an end, of sorts, but not the end. Not the type of the end that accompanies the resolution of a children’s book, but instead the unsaid the end that is replaced by the blank space below the final words of a book chapter. It is a pause, however brief, before another chapter picks up where the previous one left off. The topic may differ, or may stay the same, simply viewed through a different lens.

This is the beginning of a professional career, one I am blessed to begin with a dream job covering the team I grew up watching, and the end of my regular contributions here at Crashburn Alley. But it is not the end.

To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.

Is César Hernández For Real?

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is second baseman César Hernández.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, César Hernández surprisingly managed to lead the Phillies in fWAR last year with 4.4. This was also third best among second basemen in the National League. At the beginning of last season, if you had given me 5 guesses on who would lead the Phillies in WAR, I don’t think Hernández would have made the cut, but here we are.

His path to very-good-playerdom followed the Luis Castillo precedent of good defense, high average, lots of walks, little power, and decent baserunning, but how much of that is sustainable for the 26-year-old’s upcoming seasons? Let’s pick this apart piece by piece. Continue reading…

Look Ma, Two Hands! Phillies Trade for Ambidextrous Pitcher Pat Venditte

Two hands are better than one.

Sunday afternoon, the Phillies acquired switch-pitcher Pat Venditte from the Seattle Mariners. He’s light-handed, he’s reft-handed, he’s ambidextrous.

The 31-year-old, currently pitching for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, has spent time with four different organizations since the Yankees drafted him in the 20th round in 2008 from Creighton University.

He’s excelled in the high minors, with a career 2.93 ERA in four seasons in triple-A and a 3.09 ERA in parts of four seasons in double-A.

The cost for the Phillies was minor league outfielder Joey Curletta. If you haven’t heard of Curletta, it’s not just because of the numerous outfield prospects adorning the top of the team’s prospect rankings. Curletta was acquired from the Dodgers in September, after minor league seasons concluded, to complete the Carlos Ruiz-for-A.J. Ellis trade. His main (and debatably only) skill is hitting for power. Continue reading…

Crash Bag, Vol. 10: A Foray into Guesses at Probability

Can you feel it? Real baseball is not only growing closer, as is typical of this time of year, but it is actually already upon us. The World Baseball Classic is on out televisions, though, so far, only at weird times for our East Coast sensibilities. I have to admit to being a skeptic about the WBC entering this year’s tournament. I had never watched it before, and with the relative dearth of major league players competing, I wasn’t optimistic about the quality of play. I was wrong. It’s great. There are rally plantains, a Mensch on the Bench, and generally, people having obvious fun playing baseball at a high level. You should tune in.

That said, there are no WBC questions in what follows, but there are questions about Phillies and major league baseball more generally.

@PompeyMalus: What have you seen in Franco so far? Signs of improved approach or no?

Spring Training is a difficult time to gauge any changes in a player’s approach at the plate. While it’s tempting to make a big deal about him seeing fewer than two pitches per plate appearance this spring, the fact is that just about every player is seeing minimal pitches. If you take a look at the Phillies Spring Training stats, it turns out that Franco’s two pitches per plate appearance is actually right in line with everyone else, if not sort of high for the team.

Continue reading…

Jeremy Hellickson: The Anatomy of a $17.2 Million Contract

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.

For two years, Jeremy Hellickson was an above-average major league starting pitcher. That was 2011-12, the first two years of his career, during which he picked up a American League Rookie of the Year award and a Gold Glove. His ERA was 3.02.

For two years, Hellickson was a below-average major league starting pitcher. That was 2013-14, the following two years, and the end of his time in Tampa’s organization.

On November 14, 2014, he was traded to Arizona. Another below-average season followed, but he showed enough for the new Phillies brass to buy low on him one year to the day after the that trade sent him to the Diamondbacks. It was one of Matt Klentak’s first moves with the team, sending tall, physical right-handed pitching prospect Sam McWilliams for Hellickson’s services. Continue reading…

Tommy Joseph: Swing At The Strikes

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is first baseman Tommy Joseph.

For the ardent reader of the Crashburn Roundtable, my enthusiasm for Tommy Joseph should come as no surprise. For those who chose baseball dormancy as Citizens Bank Park was preparing to close its doors, a quick review of said enthusiasm.

Continue reading…

Maikel Franco: Can He Just Chill Up There?

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is third baseman Maikel Franco.

Maikel Franco certainly makes himself look silly sometimes at the plate. As it became clear that his 2016 sophomore campaign was going to be a year-long source of frustration, spilled drinks, and, in it’s more unfortunate moments, broken screens of various sorts, the sight of Franco’s helmet flying off while reaching for a pitch low and away felt more rule than exception.

Because of Franco’s above-average ability to make contact on pitches out of the zone, his regression in plate discipline and strike-zone discernment don’t necessarily manifest themselves in more strikeouts or fewer walks. Of course, it did to some extent: Franco struck out in 16.8 percent of 2016 plate appearances versus 15.5 percent in 2015 and walked only 6.3 percent of the time versus 7.8 in 2015. Those are steps backwards, to be sure, but hardly alarming ones on their own.

Continue reading…

Jerad Eickhoff: Two Things to Watch For

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is starting pitcher Jerad Eickhoff.

To start off this preview, I want to give you the story of Jerad Eickhoff, the Phillie. Eickhoff was considered something of a throw-in, quad-A type pitcher in the Cole Hamels trade. He had 8 strong starts to finish out the 2015 season, which generated tempered optimism for the 2016 season. The fact that he was essentially Hamels’ equal last year in fWAR is nothing short of amazing.

He posted a 3.65 ERA over nearly 200 innings last year on the strength of a league-average strikeout rate and the 8th-best walk rate among qualified starting pitchers. Offsetting his mediocre fastball is a spectacular curveball and a solid slider. He’s also thrown a change about 5% of the time, but it’s gotten rocked (opponents slugged .643 against it). One of his Spring Training goals is to improve that change into a respectable pitch. The idea is that having a fourth option in his arsenal will make him less predictable and also allow his fastball to play up.

Continue reading…

Vince Velasquez: Trouble with the Curve

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is starting pitcher Vince Velasquez:

It’s no secret that Vince Velasquez, despite his electric fastball, struggled to pitch deep into games because of a lack of effective secondary pitches. He often looked like he was just trying to strike batters out, while forgoing other pitch-to-contact methods that can minimize pitch counts while still recording outs, albeit those not as flashy as 95-mph fastballs blown by helpless hitters.

By his own account, he’s is focusing on gaining trust in his curveball during spring training, a pitch he threw 13.6 percent of the time last season.

He had this to say of his struggles with the pitch: “If you have no conviction in it, no trust in it, why even throw it?” Continue reading…