Given the chance, Jesse Chavez has nailed it as a starter

Back on March 29th, Jack Weiland wrote In the course of human events, there aren’t many things worse than late spring training injuries.” Aside from simply making an excellent observation – seeing your team’s ace go down in his last start before an Opening Day assignment must be a top-five gut punch moment - Weiland was actually busy finding a silver lining for the Oakland Athletics amidst their injury turmoil; with nominal staff anchor Jarrod Parker headed for a second round of Tommy John surgery, and fellow rotation member A.J. Griffin also on the DL, the A’s had been forced to elevate relative unknown Jesse Chavez – a reliever with a career a 5.48 ERA - into a starting role. Weiland though, saw some cause for optimism in the involuntary promotion, even opining “Chavez may have the stuff to stick, and to be an effective major league starter.”

So far, Weiland has looked like a genius. Through his first four starts of 2014, Chavez has pitched 26 innings in which he has allowed just 3 earned runs – good for a team-leading 1.38 ERA – and posted very impressive 9.7 SO/9 and 1.7 BB/9 marks. Additionally, after mostly teeing off on Chavez throughout his career, opponents so far this season are batting just .194 against the 30-year-old. From a would-be reliever then, to a dominant starter all of a sudden, it seems reasonable to ask ‘where on earth did this come from?!’

Selected by the Texas Rangers in the 42nd round of the 2002 amateur draft*, the Riverside Community College product was moved to the bullpen before he even progressed past Single A due to both durability concerns and command issues. Traded in 2006 to the Pirates in return for Kip Wells, he finally made his ML debut as a reliever in 2008, but would soon move from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay, where he wouldn’t make an appearance before being shipped to Atlanta for Rafael Soriano, before bouncing to Kansas City, then Toronto, and finally, Oakland. Prior to the 2013 season, the California native had made 2 starts and 154 relief appearances, racking up -2.6 WAR (per Baseball Reference) along the way; he was the quintessential journeyman, perennially in danger of being waived. 

In 2013 however, things began to pick up for the string bean righty (despite being 6’2, he’s listed at just 160 lbs). In his first full year with the pitcher-friendly Coliseum as his home park, Chavez fanned nearly a batter an inning and gave up just three homers in 57⅓ innings out of the bullpen, and posted his first positive WAR contribution since 2009 (0.2). More encouragingly though, he showed subtle signs of an improved repertoire. As told to Jonah Keri by A’s pitching coach Curt Young, on June 13th against the Yankees, Chavez provided a glimpse of what we’ve so far been treated to this season: “the game goes to extra innings, and he really starts showing what he can do. He goes through multiple times in the order, and he’s got just great command of all four pitches.” Inserted to hopefully hold down the fort for a while, Chavez instead tossed 5⅔ shutout innings, allowing just one hit and two walks while striking out seven – sowing the initial seeds of thought in the minds of Oakland’s manager Bob Melvin and GM Billy Beane that led to his being given an opportunity to start when the injury bug bit this spring.

Given his chance, Chavez has so far run with it; in his season debut against the Mariners, he allowed one earned run over six innings en route to a 3-2 A’s win. He followed up that strong initial effort on April 9th against the Twins, fanning nine, walking none, and surrendering a single run in seven innings of work, before posting an identical line versus the Angels five days later. On Sunday facing the Astros, he finally picked up his first win of the season in what was probably his worst start to date (highlighting the ridiculousness of the win statistic) – still, even though he was struggling with his control, he only allowed one earned run over six innings, and managed to make some franchise history.

But back to Weiland, and what he saw to suggest Chavez’s usefulness. Well, Chavez actually has a surprisingly deep repertoire for a guy who was once pigeon-holed into a relief role; there is the odd kind of 90-95 mph fastball, handsomely backed with a 87-90 mph cutter (an offering that David Golebiewski did a great job of breaking down on Gammons Daily). Then there is a changeup at 84-87 mph, and finally, as written by Carson Cistulli “a curveball with considerable vertical break at 76-78 mph” – a pitch which even Mike Trout can only stare and admire. As acknowledged by Weiland too, “His command has also improved over the years,” something that (helped somewhat by the weak offenses he has so far face, the home ballpark, and Oakland’s defensive prowess), has certainly played a large part in Chavez’s unlikely success so far; he ranks in the top 10 among AL pitchers in percentage of strikes thrown, and   thus also finds himself among the likes of Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez, and David Price as the early AL leaders in SO/BB**.

Also on that list is A’s teammate Scott Kazmir. In fact, as well as being first among Junior Circuit teams in team ERA (2.55), the A’s also rank 2nd in the AL in BB% (Boston lead the way at 6.8%). Pounding the strike zone, Oakland’s pitchers have ensured the club hasn’t missed a beat (they topped my AL Power Rankings on Sunday) in 2014 despite the losses of two of their idealized rotation to injury and 2013 staff anchor (in more ways than one) Bartolo Colon to free agency. With Sonny Gray, the aforementioned Kazmir, and of course, the resurgent Chavez, the A’s are poised to ride their starting pitching to a third consecutive AL West division title. 

So much for licking their wounds. With Oakland, and in the case of Jesse Chavez, injuries are merely an opportunity for another to shine.

* He didn’t actually sign until May 17th, 2003 though.

** While Tanaka signed a $155 million contract with the Yankees over the winter though, Chavez will this year make $775k (#Moneyball!)

A Bat-Flip Royale update – several heavyweight contenders flex their flips

As once (fictionally) remarked by Ron Burgundy, “well that escalated quickly.” Only last Tuesday did I first detail the early contenders for the 2014 Bat-Flip Belt, a post that was not only well-received (thanks!), but seems to have provoked a veritable outbreak of hot-dogging*; since Jayson Werth was awarded the early possession for his “Bat-Flip of Maximum Conquest Maximus”,  several perennial heavyweights have flexed their own muscle and thrown their flip into the ring. Let’s have a look at some of their awesome efforts.

Almost as if in response to my tease last week that he had yet to build on the promise of his tremendous rookie bat-flip campaign (though more likely in order to justify Jonah Keri’s ranking of him the fifth-best flipper he’d ever seen), Wil Myers announced his candidacy for the 2014 belt with a supreme exhibition against the Yankees.

A steady stare, but not his finest bat work. We’ll let young Wil off the hook though, considering how it was his first jack of his sophomore season. That initial piece of preening was in fact, more just a shaking off of the rust in preparation for his later effort.

That is the bat-flip of pitchers’ nightmares; less prolonged staring at the plate this time, more of a callous whip on swinging flip, and a solid continued admiration going down the first base line. Sure, he loses points for the fact that his two jacks came against Ivan Nova – who is now out with a partially torn UCL, and likely headed for Tommy John surgery – but boy, that peacocking…  regardless of the level of difficulty involved, the prolonged gaze of ‘yeah, I just did THAT. Hide your kids’ after every crush, will pretty much ensure Myers a strong seeding in the end of year bout.

Of course, Alfonso Soriano wasn’t going to allow Myers the series bat-flip spotlight all to himself; what we have below is a veteran drop-and-observe move. Myers would probably be at second by the time Soriano makes it out of the opposing batter’s box.

That Sori took it to David Price too – in my estimation at least, a pitcher you probably don’t want to piss off – earns him extra consideration, as does his delightfully artistic gum chew, but I’m going to need to see some more blatant obnoxiousness to be convinced he belongs in the ring with the real heavyweights. Speaking of which…

Now, you’re probably thinking ‘That doesn’t look like much.’ You’re quite correct, that doesn’t. This, on the other hand, shows the exclamatory flip Yasiel Puig applies to his tater off of the woeful Josh Collmenter in all its glory. As put by Marc Normandin on SB Nation, “I’m upset at every camera operator at the park for not properly capturing Puig’s emphatic bat flip on this shot. Puig deserves better than that. We all deserve better than that.” 

Puig had himself a pretty strong week in posing actually, throwing in a sustained hold of his swing on a pop out to right field – all whilst refusing to run down the line and marching back to the dugout – in the 12th inning of the Dodgers’ game against San Francisco on Jackie Robinson Day. Puig’s strutting was rather overshadowed however, by one of his chief rivals for the belt – fellow agitator, Carlos Gomez.

I last week alluded to Gomez’s hilarious celebration of successful sacrifice flies- well, now I’ve managed to find some GIF evidence of it. I’m sure you’ll agree, such showboating is so bad it’s good.

This weekend however, Gomez perhaps took his swaggering too far. Facing Pittsburgh’s Gerritt Cole, the Milwaukee center fielder crushed a pitch out – but only in his mind. There was a gloriously contemptuous flip – a left-handed snap with all pizazz added by the wrist action – and 5 or 6 seconds of trotting in which Gomez lorded it over his vanquished foe, before realization set in.

‘It’s not going over the fence. S***. RUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!’

What followed when Gomez (eventually) made it to third base has been written to death already – not that it has become any less watchable. Most notably, Cole wisely stomped off back to the mound to enjoy watching the fracas, Travis Snider waded in, a Milwaukee coach got in a very solid sucker punch, and Gomez was ejected. Discipline has not yet been handed down, but hear this; the longer the suspension, the better for the other CarGo’s final seeding in the B.F.R. He might not have smoked the home run, but Carlos Gomez has declared himself ready to drop the bat and throw down.

* There’s even been grandstanding at the college level, junior shortstop Mitch Skaggs lifting his College of Idaho Coyotes over the Menlo College Oaks by the score of 10-6 with an 11th inning walk-off grand slam – and one incredible bat flip.


The Designated 15: AL Power Rankings – Week 3

Throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Yesterday, in The Senior Class: Week 3, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 3! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).

  1. Oakland Athletics (7-0 last week, 12-5 overall) ↑ As much as I want to make a ‘there’s something in the water’ joke here, I have no grounds to do it – Oakland, much like the top-ranked Braves in the NL, are defying the cruel bite of the injury bug and winning legitimately behind their starting pitching. Jesse Chavez, Scott Kazmir, and Sonny Gray have been brilliant in masking the losses of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, the trio not only having accounted for 11 of the team’s 14 quality starts, but also largely responsible for Oakland ranking 1st across the ML in both WHIP and BAA. In off-the-field news, the A’s also this week finalized a five-year deal with Sean Doolittle – after their offseason addition of Jim Johnson, perhaps it’s another sign that expensive relievers are the new market inefficiency?!
  2. Detroit Tigers (2-3, 8-6) After going just 5 for 30 in a Tigers uniform, Detroit yesterday released their 37-year-old Opening Day shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, and purchased the contract of Danny Worth from Triple-A Toledo. I give it a further two weeks before Mike Ilitch’s pizza money brings Stephen Drew into the fold.
  3. Tampa Bay Rays (2-4, 9-9) 
  4. Kansas City Royals (5-2, 9-7) ↑ The Royals have taken five straight, but their streak has benefitted from an extremely light schedule (Astros and Twins). Yordano Ventura takes to the mound today, so adjust your schedule accordingly. 
  5. New York Yankees (4-2, 10-8) ↑ The Yankees continue to baffle me. Behind Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda, they held the Cubs scoreless for 18 innings of doubleheader baseball in the Bronx on Wednesday, before taking it to David Price the following day – a win in which they turned their third triple play behind C.C. Sabathia since 2010. Over the past two games however, Tampa outscored them 27-6, and Ivan Nova was forced to the DL with a partial UCL tear. Talk about a Jekyll and Hyde week.
  6. Boston Red Sox (3-3, 8-10) ↓ 
  7. Texas Rangers (6-1, 11-7) ↑ Injuries, schminjuries – even after officially losing Adrian Beltre, the Rangers mercilessly beat up the White Sox and Mariners over the past week, remedying their various ailments with a strong dose of victory. Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder both hit their first jacks in Texas uniforms (though Fielder is still hitting at a sub-Mendoza level), but it was Kevin Kouzmanoff who was the (Lone) Star of the Rangers’ week, batting .414 over the past seven days. Texas will face Oakland 6 times in the next 1o days – a crucial stretch not just in determining where Texas really stand as a squad, but in the ultimate complexion of the AL West.
  8. Toronto Blue Jays (4-2, 10-8)  I’m pretty sure Mark Buehrle (boasting a 0.64 ERA through four starts) could pitch effectively well into his 40s, á la Jamie Moyer
  9. Baltimore Orioles (3-2, 8-8) 
  10. Los Angeles Angels (3-3, 8-9) ↑ Another member of the Angels’ outfield joined Josh Hamilton on the DL this week, but thankfully it wasn’t Mike Trout. Kole Calhoun‘s ankle injury did have its silver lining however; his replacement J.B. Shuck‘s home run trot amusingly felled a FOX cameraman. 
  11. Cleveland Indians (1-4, 7-10) 
  12. Seattle Mariners (1-6, 7-10) ↓ Congratulations to Robinson Cano on hitting his first home run as a Mariner. I’m sure the $240 million is making watching Blake Beavan pitch a lot more bearable. 
  13. Chicago White Sox (2-4, 8-10) ↓ The Pale Hose got a tremendous effort from Chris Sale against the Red Sox on Thursday, but Robin Ventura‘s decision to leave his ace out there for a career-high 127 pitches in April was a questionable one.
  14. Minnesota Twins (3-3, 8-9) →  I hate to break it to Twins fans, but Kyle Gibson‘s smoke-and-mirrors act can’t continue much longer, nor is it likely Chris Colabello continues to rake. Enjoy them while you still can.
  15. Houston Astros (0-6, 5-13) → George Springer made it to the majors, not that it helped much; in losing 6 straight, the Astros dropped their run differential by an additional 18 to a hideous overall figure of -38.


The Senior Class: NL Power Rankings – Week 3

Throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things.  First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 3! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).

  1. Atlanta Braves (5-1 last week, 11-5 overall) ↑ Without Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, or Mike Minor, the Braves are somehow rolling on the strength of their starting pitching; led by Ervin Santana (1 ER and a 17/2 K/BB rate in his first 14 innings with the team), and Julio Teheran (9 shutout innings of 3-hit ball in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Philadelphia), the rotation has also gotten valuable contributions from Alex Wood, David Hale, and perhaps most surprisingly, Aaron Harang (who has now taken no-hitters late into games twice, and has a 0.70 ERA through 25.2 innings pitched), and currently owns a ridiculous 1.47 cumulative ERA, garnering a quality start in 13 of Atlanta’s first 16 games. Even with their scuffling offense*, such tremendous pitching has the Braves atop the NL in run differential (+22), and after securing an early sweep against NL East rivals Washington, heading my rankings. 
  2. St. Louis Cardinals (5-2, 10-7) 
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers (3-3, 10-7)  X-rays came back negative after Hanley Ramirez was hit on the back of his hand by a 90mph Ryan Vogelsong fastball, but the scare brought back ugly reminders of the Dodger’s fate without Han-Ram in the 2013 NLCS. For all their money, L.A. haven’t since acquired much of an insurance policy should injury once again strike their star shortstop, meaning every Hanley wince should be a significant cause for Dodger fan’s concern. 
  4. Milwaukee Brewers (4-3, 12-5) 
  5. San Francisco Giants (3-3, 10-7) 
  6. Washington Nationals (3-4, 10-7)  When you are so comprehensively swept by your division rivals, you drop. Throw in Ryan Zimmerman’s broken thumb, Wilson Ramos‘s fractured hamate, and Stephen Strasburg‘s and Bryce Harper‘s continued struggles, and that drop becomes a lot more precipitous all of a sudden.
  7. Cincinnati Reds (4-2, 7-9) After a murderer’s row of an opening schedule in which they faced St. Louis twice and Tampa Bay, the Reds finally got on track this week against the Pirates. Joey Votto‘s move up the lineup has so far paid off nicely, and the return of Devin Mesoraco has certainly helped things too, but it has mainly been the Reds’ pitching which has served to propel them up the rankings; Alfredo Simon and Johnny Cueto have been dominant in the early going, covering up well for the loss of Mat Latos (out a while longer with a forearm strain), and the April struggles of Homer Bailey. With a slew of upcoming games against Pittsburgh and the Cubs, as well as my inherent bias, there’s a good chance for Cincinnati to have further climbed the rankings this time next week. 
  8. Colorado Rockies (4-3, 9-9) → They might be at .500, but the Rockies have so far played one of the easiest schedules in the league (@ MIA, vs ARI, vs CHS, @SF, @SD, vs PHI). The slate will get a lot tougher this week though, with a tough home series against San Francisco and a trip to Chavez Ravine to face the Dodgers on the docket. Poor Brett Anderson meanwhile, lasted only 3 games in a Colorado uniform before getting injured.
  9. Pittsburgh Pirates (2-5, 8-9) ↓ The Pirates yesterday attempted to fill the black hole they previously had manning first base by trading for Ike Davis. Now if only they had a stud prospect to come up and plug the void in right field to further aid their woeful offense… They do you say?! Neal Huntington – call up Gregory Polanco already!
  10. San Diego Padres (4-3, 8-9) 
  11. New York Mets (4-2, 8-8)  If you’re after a deep fantasy sleeper, what with the aforementioned trade of Davis, 1B Lucas Duda might be worth a look. 
  12. Miami Marlins (2-4, 7-10)  A healthy Giancarlo Stanton is a sight to behold. Over the past seven days, the 24-year-old has hit .417 and slugged four home runs, including a walk-off grand slam last night against the Mariners – a shot which more than atoned for his costly error earlier in the game. The fish may only have 2 wins in their last 10 games, but thanks to Stanton, they remain eminently watchable. 
  13. Philadelphia Phillies (3-3, 7-9) 
  14. Arizona Diamondbacks (1-5, 5-14)  Normally this picture is exclusively reserved to sum up seasons involving the Cleveland Browns. After the week Arizona has had however, it should probably now be a shared resource. 
  15. Chicago Cubs (0-5, 4-11) 

Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings - The Designated 15: Week 3!

* Fredi Gonzalez routinely batting B.J. Upton and his .269 OBP in the 2-hole certainly isn’t helping.

Chris “The Condor” Sale is quietly soaring

He doesn’t have the dazzling repertoire of Yu Darvish, or command the buzz of a hot young pitcher like Jose Fernandez. He wasn’t a can’t-miss no. 1 pick like Stephen Strasburg; in fact, he was passed over by an additional 8 teams after he was supposed to be drafted. He can only dream of Felix Hernandez‘s track record. He doesn’t have the hardware of Justin Verlander, nor anywhere close to belonging in Clayton Kershaw‘s tax bracket. None of that really matters, because even without such typical acknowledgement, Chris Sale belongs in the conversation with those aforementioned peers as one of the very best pitchers in the game.

Since finally being drafted out of Florida Gulf Coast by the Chicago White Sox 13th overall back in 2010 (he had been projected to go no. 4 to the Kansas City Royals after the surefire top three picks of Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado, but they instead took Christian Colon in a perfect illustration of #RoyalsbeingRoyals), Sale has become, as described by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, “one of baseball’s unquestioned aces, a high-inning, high-strikeout, high-groundball, low-walk, homer-scarce, left-handed monster.” 

Now admittedly, there were legitimate concerns over Sale when he was coming out explaining his fall in the draft; with a painful-looking contortion act also known as his pitching mechanics (see Ben Lindbergh’s excellent 2012 post if you want to be truly grossed out by the lefty’s delivery), and his 6-foot-6, 180-pound, 82-inch wingspan, there were literally no player comps for teams to go off, and significant worry about his ability to stay healthy. As a result, despite his impressive college stats, many teams saw him strictly as a future reliever.

Sale would in fact, debut in such a role for the last two months of 2010 and stick in the pen the next season, before making the transition back to being a starter for the 2012 season. Since then, quite simply he’s been a man on a mission to prove the teams that doubted his ultimate durability that they were very, very wrong in doing so; since becoming a starter (to the start of the 2014 season), “The Condor” has made 59 starts and thrown 406.1 innings, and aside from a brief dead arm scare been the picture of health. More than simply making it out onto the bump every fifth day though, Sale has been dominant too, further rubbing salt into the Barret Loux- (Arizona), Karsten Whitson- (San Diego) and Deck McGuire- (Toronto) shaped wounds of those that passed on him; since moving into a starting role, he has racked up 10.5 WAR, an ERA+ of 140, and posted not just the third-highest K/9 (9.3) of any major league starter, but the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.3) in that time. 

He might just be getting better too. Sale is throwing harder than ever, with every one of his pitch types so far in 2014 having picked up velocity after jumping up last year, and maintaining his mid-90s heat deeper into games. Additionally, he’s also throwing smarter;  having originally been highly dependent on his fastball/slider combination when he moved into the rotation, Sale has  continued on the usage alterations which he made last year, relying on his killer changeup much more this season – a good move considering how over the last two years and change, it rates as the 4th best in the American League by Fangraph’s Pitch Type Linear Weights. It’s probably at this point too I should mention how Sale is signed to an extremely team-favorable five-year, $32.5 million contract that also gives Chicago a 2018 option for $12.5 million and a 2019 option for $13.5 million.

If any Sale skeptics could possibly still remain at this point, all they need to do is go watch his performance against the potent Red Sox offense at Fenway Park last night; going toe-to-toe with Jon Lester, the ace of the Pale Hose took a no-hitter into the sixth before ceding the only hit he would allow – a solo jack by Xander Bogaerts – eventually striking out 10 over seven innings of work**. It marked yet another great start for Sale, who has so far allowed just 16 hits in his four starts (27.1 innings), and currently has a career-low (as a starter anyway) 2.30 ERA. Even more encouragingly for Sox fans, especially considering their anemic offense’s inability to put runs on the board behind their ace, and the team’s dismal record over the past couple of years, their ace has also picked up 3 wins already as the Pale Hose have jumped out to a surprisingly hot start. 

Whether Chicago keep it up or not, Sale deserves to finally get his in terms of national recognition. After two full seasons of flying under the radar, quietly putting up effectively the same numbers of his flashier – and better-compensated – peers, “The Condor” should this year finally grab the unbridled attention of more than just worried doctors and opposing hitters.

*I’m sorry, but it’s not a Sale piece without at least one pun. I promise that will be it.

** We can talk more fully about how Robin Ventura left him out there for 127 pitches some other time, but given his ace’s mechanics, how IT’S EARLY APRIL (!), and the recency bias of so many pitchers going down injured, it didn’t seem an especially prudent managerial decision – regardless of the 14-inning game the night before, which taxed the bullpen to the point of utility man Leury Garcia being forced to pitch.

Next man up: Gregory Polanco’s time is fast approaching

Release the prospect hounds! Yesterday, they had George Springer‘s Astros debut to slather over; soon they should have another stud outfield prospect to get excited about too. After Pittsburgh’s starting right fielder Jose Tabata left yesterday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds with “mild” concussion-like symptoms* - an injury sustained when he crashed into the fence making a spectacular catch – the Pirates have a decision to make: do they simply continue on their NL Central quest with Travis Snider manning RF everyday, or do they call up top prospect Gregory Polanco from AAA to the majors? If you were wondering, the correct answer is the latter option.

Signed as an international free agent back in 2009, the toolsy outfielder from Santo Domingo emerged from nowhere in 2012 to post a .325/.388/.522 line at Low-A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, with 16 home runs and 40 stolen bases in his 485 plate appearances to boot. Having earned a ranking as the 51st best prospect in baseball from Baseball America, Polanco’s breakout continued last year, the then 21-year-old batting .285/.356/.434 (and accruing 12 home runs and 39 stolen bases too) across three stops, finishing the year at Triple-A Indianapolis. Having appeared in 44 Dominican Winter League games in which he produced a .922 OPS, the fast-mover homered off of David Phelps in his very first at-bat of Spring Training this year, eventually posting a very respectable .804 OPS in his 10 games played. Everything then looked in place for Polanco to make his big league debut with the Pirates sometime after the Super-2 deadline in June.

In conjunction with Tabata’s injury, Snider’s own health problems/lack of production, and Pittsburgh’s slow start, the 22-year-old’s incredible showing so far in 2014 may have accelerated that original timetable; rivaling the much-ballyhooed production of Springer, Polanco has so far batted a ridiculous .426 with two home runs and six extra-base hits in his 47 at-bats for the Indianapolis Indians. Perhaps even more incredibly, considering how he’s still learning to identify and handle breaking balls, according to J.J. Cooper, as of Tuesday Polanco had swung and missed at only six of the 170 pitches he had faced so far this year, one of which was to protect on a steal attempt. In the words of former Double-A coach Carlos Garcia, “You are talking about the next superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This kid is unbelievable.”

While the full extent of Tabata’s ailment is unclear as of yet, Pittsburgh could certainly do with the shot in the arm Polanco has the potential to provide offensively. Continuing the positional malaise of last year (Pittsburgh’s right fielders combined to bat .242/.299/.385 with 16 home runs, 62 RBI and 144 strikeouts in 675 plate appearances, good for 0.8 collective fWAR), the 2014 platoon of Tabata and Snider have so far combined to hit just .231/.275/323 with only two home runs and 4 RBI through their 69 plate appearances. Their struggles however, have only been a microcosm of the team’s offensive woes; the Bucco’s currently have a team batting average of .223 (third-worst in the majors, propped up only by Houston and Tampa Bay), and a ghastly on base percentage of .294 (26th in the ML), while their 57 runs scored place them in the lower third of NL production. It’s likely however, that the Pirates will at least wait a little while to see what Snider can do in an everyday role, though his own brittle injury history (the 26-year-old set a personal high when he played in 111 games for the Pirates in 2013) and lack of production (he owns a .641 OPS in 471 plate appearances in his time as a Buc) don’t offer much hope of a breakout ahead.

Already possessing the range of a center fielder thanks to that foot speed that so aids him on the base paths, Polanco would thus likely be an instant upgrade not only at the plate, but in the field as well; along with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, his presence would almost instantly elevate Pittsburgh’s to one of the most exciting outfield trios in the game**. Given the competitive nature of the NL Central – with the perennial win-machine Cardinals, frisky Brewers, and my Reds coming around too – and how their other top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon (out for the year due to Tommy John surgery) and Tyler Glasnow (lower back tightness) are both on the shelf, Pittsburgh probably can’t afford to wait much longer for Polanco’s impact. The Pirates need to get their season going if they’re to seriously push once again for the playoffs. Calling up Polanco – especially now that there is a spot in the lineup available – would certainly be one way to move into a higher gear.

And really, if Houston can promote Springer already, given their more pressing circumstances, Pittsburgh have little excuse not to.

* I will for once resist arguing that there is no such thing as a “mild” concussion.

** Baseball Prospectus, in fact, wrote of the impact of such a defensive triumvirate, “the gaps in the PNC Park outfield will be the newest graveyard for doubles and triples.”

What the heck do you do with Ryan Braun?!

A hot topic ever since his one-man assault on Kyle Kendrick and the boo-birds of Philadelphia just over a week ago, what to expect from Ryan Braun in 2014 is a true quandary for the fantasy baseball community, and one which shows no signs of being answered soon. The volatile combination of sensational past performance, a lingering injury, and his return from a 65-game PED suspension that ended his 2013 have all contributed to make the 30-year-old Braun one of the most intriguing names out there in fantasy circles this year – and an absolutely  infuriating player to own (I should know – more on that later). Consider this then, frustrated owners, your Braun-primer, recapping what there is to know about Braun’s current situation, and (hopefully) helping in answering that nagging question; just what the heck do you do with Ryan Braun?!

Let’s start with some history. Pre-2013 – whether artificially aided or not – Braun was one of the most dependable first-round selections around, averaging a .312-34-109-22-105 line in his first full five seasons in the majors (2008-12), twice securing a top-3 finish on ESPN’s Player Rater. Furthermore, he played 150 games or more in every one of those five seasons – a necessary component to being a true fantasy stud.

2013 however, drastically altered the perception of Braun (in more ways than one); a thumb injury landed him on the DL for the first time in his career, and would eventually cost him 38 of the first 97 games of the Brewers’ season. Then came the unexpected hammer blow to owners everywhere – the season-ending suspension which ensured the righty slugger a final finish of 369th overall on the aforementioned Player Rater (89th among outfielders). Typically drafted third overall behind only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, there was perhaps no bigger bust than Braun (though the injury-plagued Matt Kemp and his 388th place Player Rater finish might have run him close).

The concerns over his thumb (and the presumably lost effect of the PEDs – a factor I personally never bought into*) led to his stock dropping over the winter, with many critics doubting his previously unparalleled combination of hit-for-average, hit-for-power and base-stealing ability to still be fully present. A solid spring (he launched three home runs and had a .806 slugging percentage in 16 Cactus League games), eased doubt though, the Hebrew Hammer eventually securing an average draft position of 15.3 – his ADP only .1 behind 5th-ranked outfielder Adam Jones, and considerably higher than the previously mentioned Kemp (72.0).

Which brings us to the present. Milwaukee’s no.3 hitter is currently rocking a .269-3-10-2-9 line, good for a 6.43 value and 25th place ranking on the early Player Rater; no great shakes then, the consensus second-rounder performing slightly below expected, but superficially at least (and especially when considering how young the season is – Alexei Ramirez, Dee Gordon, and Charlie Blackmon are ranked in the top 5 two weeks in) far from a disaster. The real trouble though – and the cause of the Braun dilemma – comes when you look beyond the simple 5×5 stats. 

According to’s Adam McCalvy, the same thumb injury that so affected his pre-suspension playing time last year (numbness in the thumb that affects his grip and in turn leads to blisters), is back. The different tactics employed by Braun and the Brewers’ medical staff (per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, padding on the bat or in his batting glove), haven’t apparently worked; his trouble not just swinging the bat effectively, but throwing the ball without issue had already kept him out of one game before it was earlier announced he would be rested for today’s tilt against the Cardinals. Throw in his slow start to0 – aside from that Philadelphia game, the Milwaukee man’s fantasy line would be just .234-0-3-2-6 – and there are very legitimate reasons for Braun owners to be worried about their investment.

Now if it weren’t for the thumb, I wouldn’t be so worried about Braun’s slow start – we’re two weeks in remember, and with a potent Milwaukee offense around him (Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy have been particularly great so far) the counting stats would almost certainly come around. But the lingering effect of that ailment, aside from likely cutting into his offensive output, will almost certainly also effect the newly-converted left fielder’s playing time – much like in 2013 – and thus dent his overall production. What with his problem sounding like a classic sort of daily-maintenance and eventual surgery injury too, the occasional off days, designated-hitter games, and likely DL stint will make Braun a fantasy nightmare for those in weekly leagues, and someone whose everyday availability will require constant surveillance in daily leagues.

It’s unclear then, whether Braun is worth the hassle. On the one hand, he might find a solid management option, play most-everyday, and provide tremendous statistical worth. More likely, at least in my opinion – I traded Braun in one of my leagues this week – he’ll be in and out of the lineup, and provide merely above-average value on a per-game basis. That’s not bad by any means, but not what you paid for, and a real pain in the proverbial. I would suggest then, that if there’s any residual buzz in your league left to be exploited from that Philly outing, you swing him – but for no less than 70 cents on the dollar.

80% of Braun is still valuable after all, no matter how frustrating he is. But if you still can, let someone else ponder that annoying fantasy thought every morning: ‘I wonder what I’ll get out of Ryan Braun today…’

*I’m no doctor, but I doubt the PEDs had much actual impact on his on-field performance, ie. I find it hard to believe Braun is actually a 15 HR guy who was merely masquerading as a power hitter. More likely, the drugs allowed him to recover quicker from the niggling injuries he naturally picked up over the long 162 game season, and possibly allowed him to push through a couple of games when he would have otherwise been unable to play. Again though, I’m no doctor – just a humble English literature student.

Bat-Flip Royale: Jayson Werth is your early leader for the 2014 belt

Believe it or not, but we’re still only two weeks into the 2014 MLB season. Maybe it’s been the mounting injuries, or relatively expected results so far, but it feels like it’s been a lot longer. Anyhow, what with players still working out the small sample size kinks, and my unfortunate obligation to write an essay on Robinson Crusoe by tomorrows ENG 321 class, today there won’t be any serious analysis going on. Rather, I figured I’d have some GIF-related fun, and document some of the first-class bat-flipping we’ve already witnessed this season. Last year saw a strong rookie effort from now-notorious preener Wil Myers, and a breakout showing by Carlos Gomez (who has been at it again on shallow sacrifice flys so far in 2014). Both however, were edged last year by Yasiel Puig, who’s monumental performance in the NLCS secured him the 2013 bat-flipping belt. Where better to start then, with the reigning champion, a man who in the very first game of the Opening Series in Australia, turned a HBP into a bat-flip exhibition. Tremendous stuff indeed (not from you though Trevor Cahill).

Now, if this were merely a celebration of bat-drops, I’d need look no further than Atlanta. The quick, punchy swing that barrels the ball over the fence; The lumber being brought back across the body just as rapidly, and at almost the exact same angle – like a rocket-fueled, 33-ounce pendulum; The exquisite drop into the opposite batter’s box after maintaining the two-handed grip throughout. There is no better bat-dropper in the ML than Justin Upton, which make his home run binges all the more enjoyable (and, for the causal observer at least, maybe not for Atlanta fans though, more than make up for the subsequent dry spells).

Unfortunately for Upton the Younger however, this is a bat-flip contest. You can’t bring a knife to a gun fight and expect to win, especially when there’s pitchers out there putting forth spectacular efforts like this:

It turns out that as well as a plus cutter and curveball, Madison Bumgarner also possesses an 80 grade bat flip. That fourth-inning shot (a grand slam by the way) off poor Jorge De La Rosa on Friday night, and MadBum’s fantastic pimping of it, had lingering influence apparently…

… for only two days later, it was teammate Brandon Crawford admiring a walk-off jack that ended up in McCovey Cove. Crawford earns extra hot-dogging points too for writing about his effort later – attributing everything he learnt about the bat-flipping art to Bumgarner in addition to admitting “I’ve watched the replay twice already, I’m not going to lie. I’ll go home and probably watch it again. I might keep it on a loop. Maybe make a GIF for my phone.” Do it Brandon, it’s not every day you take a lefty-killer like Rex Brothers deep for the win after all.

Such personal promotion can’t lift Crawford’s effort above Anthony Recker‘s walk-off bat-flip however. In fact, even with the writing, it might pale in comparison. By my count, the most handsome man in baseball (according to Baseball Prospectus anyway) is a full four strides down the first base line before languidly tossing the bat aside after his 13th inning solo shot off Matt Shoemaker. That he picked up a horrendously ugly Jose Valverde effort – probably ensuring Papa Grande’s role as closer for another week at least – doesn’t diminish such an otherwise aesthetically-pleasing performance by Recker.

The Mets’ backup catcher has a looong way to go before he can rival what Dayn Perry of CBSSports called the “Bat-Flip of Maximum Conquest Maximus” though. The utter disdain emanating from Jayson Werth – undoubtedly on account of the Marlins intentionally walking Anthony Rendon to get to him – is transferred fully into a bat-flip that might still be going off-camera. Sure it wasn’t a walk-off, but a no-doubt grand slam complete with an ESPY-worthy flip and stare-down combination? That’s a winning formula.

For now at least anyway.

Original Cin: The effectively simple approach of Tony Cingrani.

Just stop it you detractors out there – Tony Cingrani is legit. I may be an ardent Cincinnati Reds fan, but such an opinion isn’t bias; given the amount of time he’s been doing so, it’s time to recognize the big lefty’s dominance. His performance can no longer be considered a small sample size fluke, nor merely passed off as a high-wire act. I prefer to call it effectively simple. 

As noted by Mike Holian, “In 2013, Cingrani made 18 starts. Over the course of those outings, the third-round pick in the 2011 draft (did someone say absolute steal?) led the majors with 10.1 K/9 rate while allowing more than three runs in just one of those trips to the hill.” More than simply that though, the Rice product didn’t even allow more than five hits in any of those starts, let alone three runs – a mind-blowing fact considering his limited repertoire. 

Three starts into 2014 then, and the streak lives on – making a little bit of history in the process: his current run of 21 starts without more than five hits allowed hasn’t been done, according to Sean Lahman, in 100 years. Not that he’s benefited from being pulled early (and no, that is not some sub-shade being thrown at old manger Dusty Baker‘s tendencies); the 24-year-old has gone at least five innings in 16 of his 21 starts, meaning opposing hitters have had plenty of chances to ‘figure out’ Cingrani. Such opportunity hasn’t benefited them in the least so far – over 127 innings, Cingrani has a 2.83 ERA and 149 strikeouts, and with every start is looking more and more like a potential ace.

So why then, do some people still consider Cincinnati’s sophomore a fluke?


Admittedly, the former college closer is rather a one-trick pony, or in Jerry Crasnick’s words, a “one-man Baskin-Robbins franchise,” but what a hell of a trick it is; last year, according to FanGraphs, he threw his fastball 81.5 percent of the time – a figure surpassed only by Bartolo Colon’s 85.5 percent among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings (for comparison’s sake, his mark would have been the 18th highest fastball percentage amongst all ML pitchers if the qualifier was limited to 10 innings). Mike Podhorzer additionally pointed out “What’s even more incredible is how Cingrani has such a strong history of high strikeout rates, yet the average fastball induces the lowest rate of swings and misses among all pitch types.” While the aforementioned Colon’s strikeout rate has sat around 14% to 15% in three of the last four seasons, Cingrani last year posted a 28.6% rate in the majors, that after putting up a ridiculous mark of 41.9% in Triple-A. 

Despite knowing what’s coming then, due in part to his hiding the ball extremely effectively, and also helped by his lanky limbs and deceiving arm slot, opposing hitters have so far been unable to catch up to Cingrani* – his 93mph gas often looking more like 97 or 98. So while Cingrani does possess a 79mph slider and a 86mph changeup (and even threw a couple of cutters and curveballs last year, which are yet to be seen in 2014), he just doesn’t throw them often. No, in his words, it’s all about that four seam offering - “I don’t even think about it. I just throw it… There’s literally no thought process. It just goes. That’s all it is.” 

Cingrani does apparently recognize that a quality starting pitcher will typically need a larger repertoire of serviceable pitches at his disposal than what he currently possesses - “To be the best, I say you have to have three really good pitches” – but seems to be getting by just fine anyhow in the meantime**. If those secondary offerings he’s been working on do begin to catch up however – as they looked to have done a little during his Sunday outing against the Tampa Bay Rays – then the Reds’ divisional foes best look out; while Cingrani may currently still be somewhat of a curiosity, albeit a dominant one, he could soon be a worst nightmare to face. 

* Not only has he been hell on fellow southpaws, but Cingrani has also limited righties to a .193 average.

** With Mat Latos reportedly out a while longer too, the Reds will need Cingrani to continue on his current path if they’re to compete in the highly-competitive (hello Milwaukee all of a sudden!) NL Central.

The Designated 15: AL Power Rankings – Week 2

Every weekend throughout the season I’ll be separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Yesterday, in a shorter-than-usual edition of The Senior Class: Week 2, I ordered the NL. Today, in a similarly abbreviated post – I’ve a city to explore, and a Warriors @ Trail Blazers game to watch – it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 2! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).

  1. Detroit Tigers (2-3 last week, 6-3 overall)  The Tigers have the league’s best record, and split a throughly entertaining two game series with the Dodgers this week. After such an appetizer, would anyone mind those two facing off again in October? Now Justin Verlander has secured the first two hits of his career, I’m sure he won’t object. 
  2. Tampa Bay Rays (3-3, 7-5)  Matt Moore will apparently try throwing some more in an effort to avoid Tommy John surgery. I’m getting sick of typing that name next to those of young, talented pitchers this year. 
  3. Oakland Athletics (5-1, 7-4)  Sure they’ve been forced to move Jim Johnson out of the closer role, it’s not like Oakland – with their wealth of quality relief pitching – were especially reliant on him anyway. The A’s have rolled on regardless of the change, and have now won 5 of their past 6, jumping out atop the AL West early. 
  4. Seattle Mariners (2-3, 6-4) 
  5. Boston Red Sox (3-4, 5-7)  
  6. Cleveland Indians (3-4, 6-6) 
  7. New York Yankees (4-3, 6-6)  I was very harsh on The Evil Empire last week, perhaps too much so. Since then (barring the Ivan Nova/Vidal Nuno implosion on Tuesday against the Orioles), the Yanks have looked much better. Whether his performance has been boosted by pine tar or not, Michael Pineda has continued the promise of his spring, and along with Masahiro Tanaka, provided a welcome boost to a rotation which can no longer rely on the slimmed-down C.C. Sabathia. If the bats come around – like they did yesterday against the Red Sox, when behind Brian McCann‘s performance N.Y. tacked on 5 home runs to their season total of 7 – the East might well provide both AL Wild-Cards this year. 
  8. Toronto Blue Jays (3-3, 6-6) 
  9. Kansas City Royals (2-4, 4-6)  C’mon KC offense – pick it up and reward my faith in you! Scoring 29 runs through your first ten games isn’t exactly a winning formula, nor is it going to convince James Shields to stick around (not that I’m thinking anything will) past this season. All you needed was one measly run to pick up Yordano Ventura and give him a win in his electrifying 2014 debut, but you came up with nothing. The guy is throwing 102.9mph out there – help him out a little!
  10. Baltimore Orioles (4-2, 5-6) 
  11. Chicago White Sox (4-3, 6-6)  Credit to GM Rick Hahn, he’s apparently crafted quite an offense – across the whole ML, the south-siders rank 1st in runs (76) and OBP (.359) and second in batting average (.285) and slugging (.456). Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, both brought into the fray by Hahn this past offseason, have been particularly responsible for such an outburst; the former had himself two multi-homer games this past week and is quickly looking like a bargain, whereas the latter is so far batting .354/.448/.521 atop the lineup (and thanks to his mates, leading the Junior Circuit in runs). Now if only there was someone else aside from Chris Sale determined to keep runs off the board – the Sox have so far given up 73 (also tops in the AL), hence their middling run differential (just +3), and lowly ranking. 
  12. Los Angeles Angels (3-3, 5-6)  Just when things were looking up for Anaheim, Josh Hamilton had to go and (stupidly) slide head-first into first base – tearing the UCL in his thumb in the process. He will now be out for between 6-8 weeks. How many times does it have to be said: diving is not quicker than simply running through the bag!
  13. Texas Rangers (3-3, 5-6)  The hits just keep on coming – now it’s Adrian Beltre down with a sore quad. It’s feeling more and more like a lost season in Arlington…
  14. Minnesota Twins (3-3, 5-6)  Hey Joe Mauer homered
  15. Houston Astros (3-4, 5-7)  At -20, the Astros still have some way to go before their 29th-worst run differential challenges bottom placed Arizona (-30). So there’s that at least. 

Thanks for bearing with me as I write while traveling – I’ll be done gallivanting around Portland by Tuesday, so my Power Rankings will return more fully by next week. 


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