Friday, November 30, 2012

I Want Youk to Want Me

Patience was not a virtue exemplified by many Blue Jays hitters in 2012.  Consequently, the team's collective .309 OBP ranked 25th in baseball last season.

Only three of Toronto's regular starters -- Edwin Encarnacion (.384), Jose Bautista (.358), and Brett Lawrie (.324) -- registered on-base percentages above the arbitrary .315 mark.

And no player on the roster embodies Toronto's lacklustre plate approach better than Adam Lind; over the past three seasons, Lind has compiled an OBP of .296.  And as horrifying as that number is, it gets a whole lot worse when we isolate the splits.

Lind's struggles against left-handed pitching are well documented.  Since his astonishing 2009 campaign in which he slugged 35 homeruns with a .932 OPS en route to a Silver Slugger award, Lind has proven himself to be little more than a glorified platoon player.  In the three subsequent seasons -- and brace yourself because this is ugly -- he's posted a slash line of .186/.226/.281 against southpaws in 390 plate appearances.  In case the putrid stench of those numbers has incapacitated your mathematical faculties, that's good for a .507 OPS. 

Since 2010, Lind has struck out in 26.9% of his plate appearances against lefties, compared to 18.5% against righthanders.  And it goes on like this for a while: 
  • 7.4 BB% vs. RHP -- 4.1 BB% vs. LHP;
  • .340 wOBA vs. RHP -- .225 wOBA vs. LHP;
  • .212 ISO vs. RHP -- .096 ISO vs. LHP;
You get the picture.

If only there was a capable, disciplined, goateed right-handed bat available that could split time with Lind whenever a lefty toes the slab.  And a shaved head is preferable.

Given that broad description, the first candidate that comes to mind is Kevin Youkilis.

Blue Jays fans will surely remember Youk from his time with the Boston Red Sox.  In fact, throughout his nine-year career, Youkilis has played more games against the Blue Jays than any other team in baseball.  Over 111 tilts with the Blue Jays, Youkilis knocked 16 homeruns with a .372 OBP and .834 OPS.  While those figures pale slightly in comparison to his career totals -- .384 and .867, respectively -- they're not anything to sneeze at.

Renowned for his impeccable approach and plate discipline, the longtime Fenway favourite earned the moniker "The Greek God of Walks," and it's a nickname that's certainly deserved.  His .413 OBP in 2009 ranked sixth in the bigs, while his .411 mark in 2010 would've put him in a tie for fourth had injuries not prevented him from reaching the requisite 501 plate appearances.

As he's crept closer to his dotage, his numbers have taken a dip, but he still managed a .355 OBP with a  .347 wOBA over the past two seasons.  But since we're really only interested in him as a platoon player, his numbers against lefties are really what we're after.  To put it succinctly: they're good.

Over the past two seasons with the Red/White Sox, Youkilis has worked a tasty .407 OBP with a .935 OPS against lefties.  To get some perspective, Edwin Encarnacion's OPS last year was .941.  Youkilis' .386 OBP against southpaws last year was exactly 70 points higher than his clip against righties.  And of his 19 homeruns in 2012, eight of them came off lefthanders.  Bear in mind, of course, those eight bombs came over 120 at-bats, while his other 11 took him 318 ABs. 

Youkilis is no slouch with the glove, either.  Over his career, he's split time between the corner infield positions, but a platoon with Lind would see him get regular reps at first-base, a far less demanding position.  For his career, he's been worth 7.3 UZR/150 at first base.

Of course, convincing Youk to embrace a platoon role is a significant hurdle, but considering the way he's regressed over the past couple seasons, and his extensive injury history, he might be more receptive to the idea, especially if the Blue Jays are prepared to offer him two guaranteed years with a club option, for kicks.

And while some fans -- presumably the same ones who boo Derek Jeter for breathing -- might be reluctant to embrace a man who spent the prime of his career as a thorn in the side of Toronto pitchers, the notion of Adam Lind in an everyday role is far more objectionable.

And with that, let me conclude by saying, "Take that, Mel Gibson."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happ-iness is a Warm Arm

In a sport of failure like baseball, success can be so transient that we form conceptions of certain players without considering the sample size or the circumstances.  These conceptions can be hard to shake.

This is probably the best way to describe my relationship with J.A. Happ.

When Happ was acquired last July in a 10-player swap with the Houston Astros, I kept deluding myself into thinking we'd acquired the 2008 iteration of the southpaw rather than the contemporary version.  Over the past three seasons, Happ, who was aggressively pursued by Alex Anthopoulos as he endeavoured to trade Roy Halladay, has in no way resembled the Philadelphia incarnation of himself -- the guy who worked a 3.05 ERA over 43 appearances (27 starts) for the Phillies between 2008 and 2009.

His career in Houston started off rather auspiciously -- he posted a 3.75 ERA in 13 starts for the Astros following a mid-season trade in 2010 -- but his hitability and homerun rates soared when 2011 came around, and Happ has yet to justify my lingering perception of him as a serviceable starter.

But despite the disastrous turn his career took in the Lone Star state, Happ took to vindicating me (and the handful of other J.A. enthusiasts) when he arrived north of the border last season.

In 10 starts for Toronto, Happ fashioned a 4.69 ERA that belied an impressive 2.80 FIP.  Though he threw just 40.1 inning as a Blue Jay, he accrued a greater fWAR (1.1) than Ricky Romero, Henderson Alvarez, and Carlos Villanueva, all of whom threw more than 125 innings.  And he did it all despite surrendering the highest BABIP (.315) of his career.

The sexy FIP suggests Happ was unlucky during his brief stint with Toronto, and his ERA was likely inflated by poor defense.  This is entirely plausible when we look at who surrounded him, including  Rajai Davis (-6.8 UZR) and the pylonic Kelly Johnson (-6.9 UZR).

In his first tour around the American League -- albeit, an abbreviated one -- Happ flashed swing-and-miss stuff with unprecedented regularity, at a clip of %12.2; while his sample was considerably smaller, that figure is more than three per cent higher than Brandon Morrow's in 2012.

Of course, there is something to be said for the fact that pitchers typically have an advantage over hitters in their first confrontation. Russell Carleton, now of Baseball Prospectus, was actually able to quantify the advantage, determining that "in the first meeting ... the pitcher had a 7 point advantage in OBP"  and "by the time of the second meeting, that advantage was almost entirely gone (down to 1.5 points)." So it's reasonable to presume that Happ encounters a little more adversity as AL teams become more familiar with his repertoire, but even still, he probably represents a better option than the low-tier arms available on the free agent market.

For the sake of this argument, we'll consider any free agent who made at least 20 starts in 2012 -- I doubt the Blue Jays opt for a true reclamation project to fill the final rotation spot -- and isn't one of the pitchers who will command a multi-year deal.  This excludes the likes of Zack Greinke, Brandon McCarthy, Dan Haren, Ryan Dempster, Anibal Sanchez, Shaun Marcum, Kyle Lohse, and Anibal Sanchez.  

So who's left to compete with Happ for the fifth rotation spot? In alphabetical order...

Erik Bedard (34) - Compiled an 5.01 ERA over 24 starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, with a FIP that didn't trail too far behind at 4.07.  Bedard hasn't made more than 24 starts in a season since 2007, and has had two shoulder surgeries in the past four years.  Oh yeah, and he's a Tommy John survivor. While he'd likely come cheap, when considering both performance and durability, he inspires about as much confidence as Eric Thames in left field.

Joe Blanton (32) - Despite an underwhelming fastball that sits around 89-90 mph, Blanton has a deep arsenal and good command, averaging 1.9 BB/9 since 2010.  But that's about it.  His propensity for surrendering homeruns isn't encouraging -- his 1.37 HR/9 in 2012 ranked 11th-worst among qualified pitchers -- nor is his 23.4% line-drive rate, ninth-worst in baseball.  But his DL history is merely a fraction of Bedard's; he stays healthy and guiled his way to 2.4 fWAR last season.  He could conceivably work out of the bullpen and serve as a contingency No. 5 should Happ falter.

Kevin Correia (32) - Just about the only thing Kevin Correia does well is induce ground balls; his 51.2 GB% in 2012 ranked eighth in the National League.  But look at his appalling strikeout numbers -- 4.6 K/9 over the past two seasons and a microscopic swing-and-miss rate -- and his good control, Correia seems like an older, more tired version of Henderson Alvarez. Since 2010, Correia has been worth 0.9 fWAR.  Yeesh.

Scott Feldman (29) - Feldman is coming off a rough 2012 in which he found himself parading back and forth from rotation to bullpen.  As a starter, he compiled a record of 5-11 with an 5.48 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 21 outings.  But his 3.88 FIP and relatively high BABIP suggest he was a tad unlucky last season.  At only 29 years old, Feldman could be a decent option if the price is right.

Jeff Francis (32) - Since 2008, Francis had whittled an ERA below five in just one season.  That was back in 2011, his lone season not pitching half his games in the hitter's haven that is Coors Field.  Nevertheless, Francis has been worth 4.4 fWAR over the past two season, despite the mitigating impact of the Mile High altitude last year.  His HR/9 and BABIP will surely regress towards the mean outside of Colorado, and his low strikeout rates notwithstanding, Francis is an okay option for the No. 5 spot.

Francisco Liriano (29) - One of the more intriguing (read: exasperating) options on the free agent market, Liriano's stuff and pedigree have been lauded to death.  Unfortunately, there's been a massive disconnect between his reputation and his performance over the past two years.    His consistently high strikeouts rates are sexy -- 9.0 K/9 over the past three seasons -- but his command has been downright deplorable for the past two years, at 5.0 BB/9.  He can also usually be relied on for at least one DL stint per season.  Nevertheless, I'm a sucker for electric stuff, and his fastball-slider combination certainly fits that description.  I wouldn't mind giving him an audition, for the right price.

Derek Lowe (40) - 2012 marked the first season since 2002 that Lowe didn't make at least 32 starts.  There's a simple explanation for that: he's kinda bad.  His 1.1 fWAR last year marked the lowest score of his career, and his 3.47 K/9 is absolutely laughable.  And he's 40.  And, from what I've heard/read, kind of a jerk.  Pass.

Jason Marquis (34) - Yeah, he's a seasoned ground-ball specialist, but like Correia, that's about all he's got going for him.  His 1.62 HR/9 last year ranked sixth-worst among pitchers with at least 120 innings, and, when coupled with mediocre command (3.43 career BB/9), it makes for a dangerous combination.  Since 2010, he's only been better than the average replacement-level player once.

Kevin Millwood (38) - The well-traveled righty was worth 2.0 fWAR last season, but don't let that fool you.  Pitching in the cavernous Safeco Field, Millwood fashioned his lowest home-run rate since 2002, a factor which surely contributed to his rather surprising success.  He can induce ground balls pretty well, and he's got alright command, but there's literally not a single thing about Millwood that I can use a really positive adjective for.

Joe Saunders (32) - If you're a fan of poo-throwing lefties -- and, presumably, you are now that Mark Buehrle's a Blue Jay -- Saunders is the guy for you.  He'll eat innings and wow you with precisely nothing.  He doesn't really strike guys out, he throws a ton of strikes, and he'll give up his fair share of homeruns.  But he's made at least 28 starts every year since 2008 and has never had his ERA eclipse 4.60 over that span.  In fact, he's managed two years of a sub-3.70 ERA out of his last five.  He could work, but I suspect someone desperate will give him a multi-year deal.

Randy Wolf (36) - Break out the Duran Duran references.  Wolf is another soft-throwing southpaw who has made a career out of staying healthy and throwing strikes.  That being said, he's 36 years old and coming off the worst year of his career, in which he fashioned a 5.65 ERA over 30 appearances (26 starts).  I wouldn't touch his climbing homerun rates or 68 mph curveball with a ten-foot clown pole.

Chris Young (34) - A righty who throws like a lefty, Young's fastball has averaged under 85 mph for the past three seasons.  While his 2.82 BB/9 represents his lowest mark since 2005, his astronomic fly ball rate won't play well at the hitter-friendly Skydome.  Considering his age and injury history, Young doesn't really seem like a viable option.

Carlos Zambrano (32) - RAWR! CARLOS ZAMBRANO! MLB's preeminent emotional volcano has made a reputation based more on his Incredible Hulk-like implosions than performance.  Once a respectable cog in the Cubs rotation, Zambrano's taken a step backward the past couple seasons, and was relegated to the bullpen in 2012.  Since 2011, he's compiled an 4.66 ERA with an abysmal 1.47 WHIP.  Considering the way he's trending and his volatility, I'll pass.

Not included in this list: Dallas Braden, Freddy Garcia, Rich Harden (please, no), Roberto Hernandez, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Dustin Moseley, Roy Oswalt, Carl Pavano, Andy Pettitte, Jonathan Sanchez, Tim Stauffer, Carlos Villanueva, Chien-Ming Wang, Kip Wells, Randy Wells.

Look, some of these guys might have more success in 2013 than Happ, but I'm far too attached to my pre-enlightenment 2008-2009 conception of J.A. to give up on him now.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Day That Everything Changed

There I was lamenting another mundane Tuesday night.

And then the Blue Jays pulled off the biggest trade in the history of the franchise. 

With his credibility in a precarious state with the Toronto fan base, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos silenced his critics by striking a deal with the Miami Marlins that'll see Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck come to Toronto in exchange for Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, and prospects Adeiny Hechavarria, Justin Nicolino, Jake Marisnick, and Anthony DeSclafani.

Sometimes it's hard to recognize truly seminal moments when they first occur.  I'm sure nobody anticipated how profound an impact the Mike Sirotka trade would have when it was first consummated.

Sometimes, however, it's not.  This is one of those moments.

In a move that makes the Alomar-Carter swap look virtually insignificant, the Blue Jays just executed a truly seismic deal that drastically changes the complexion of the franchise.  In one evening, Toronto added upwards of $150M to its payroll while parting with a veritable army of youthful assets, many of them highly esteemed prospects.  A number of pundits have suggested that this deal puts Toronto in a position to compete for a playoff spot in 2013.

Though the deal has yet to receive approval from Major League Baseball, we might as well dive right in and get the analytical juices flowing.  Here goes nothing.

What we got:

1. Josh Johnson - RHP; 28 years old; Career ERA: 3.15; Career W-L: 56-37

An ace-calibre pitcher, Johnson immediately becomes the best hurler in Toronto's previously beleaguered rotation.  Armed with a devastating slider and a fastball that sits around 93 mph, Johnson can blow you away with swing-and-miss stuff; his 9.2% swinging-strike rate in 2012 ranks above that of Zack Greinke, David Price, and Madison Bumgarner.  Though he's only made 68 starts since 2010 -- he's battled arm issues throughout his career --  Johnson can be dominant when healthy, and has a 2.87 ERA over that span, averaging 8.4 K/9 with an impressive 1.17 WHIP. 

2. Mark Buehrle - LHP; 33 years old; Career ERA: 3.82; Career W-L: 174-132

There really are no surprises with Buehrle.  He's going to make 30 starts.  He's going to throw 200 innings.  He's going to keep you in games with impeccable command (career 2.03 BB/9) and by mixing his pitches effectively.  And if he manages to sneak a fastball by you -- his heater averaged 85 mph in 2012-- you need to reevaluate your career choice.  Nevertheless, Buehrle remains one of baseball's most reliable workhorses, and the importance of his stabilizing presence in the rotation cannot be overstated.

3. Jose Reyes - SS; 29 years old; Career slash: .291/.342/.440, 92 homeruns, 410 stolen bases

A four-time all-star, Reyes remains one of the most exciting up-the-middle players in the game.  The 2011 NL batting champion represents Toronto's first legitimate leadoff hitter since Shannon Stewart.  While he doesn't walk as much you might hope (career 7.1 BB%) his exceptional speed and impressive bat-to-ball skills keeps his OBP (and BABIP) high.  He's a gamechanger on the basepaths, averaging 36 swipes a year since 2010.  His defensive metrics suggest his fielding abilities have regressed a touch in recent years, but, to the best of my knowledge, he's never written an kind of discriminatory slur across his eyeblack.

Addendum: One associate of mine dutifully noted that I omitted any reference to Reyes’ past injury troubles.  However, I feel as though rumours of his fragility have been somewhat exaggerated.  Since 2005, Reyes has played at least 126 games in all but one season.  

4. Emilio Bonifacio - UTIL; 27 years old; Career slash: .267/.329/.343, 110 stolen bases

A versatile speedster, Bonifacio can play a number of positions and is a pretty attractive candidate to hit in the nine-spot.  Since 2011, he's stolen 70 bases in just 216 games and has played at least 100 innings at six different positions, including 2B and LF.  Expect him to battle for playing time at 2B with newly acquired Maicer Izturis.

5. John Buck - 32 years old; Career slash: .235/.303/.405, 118 homeruns

I'm reluctant to write anything about Buck because the catching situation in Toronto is so uncertain right now.  But whatever.  You probably remember Buck from his lone campaign in Toronto, when he smashed 20 homeruns with an .802 OPS.  He's not that guy anymore.  He's an older catcher whose offensive abilities have deteriorated considerably.  He's fashioned a .667 OPS in his two seasons with the Marlins, posting a horrendous .192/.297/.347 slash line in 2012.  We had to take him to complete this deal.

What we gave up:

1. Yunel Escobar - SS; 30 years old; Career slash: .282/.353/.390, 53 homeruns, 26 stolen bases

His fate effectively sealed by the now infamous eye-black fiasco, Escobar alienated himself from the Toronto fans in 2012 -- and surely evoked the ire of Toronto management -- with his embarrassing gaffe and disappointing performance on the field.  A career .282 hitter, Escobar hit just .253 last season with an OBP of .300.  His .wOBA was an abysmal .284, and his walk rate plummeted to 5.8% (career 8.9%).  While nobody's ever passed up the opportunity to criticize Escobar's hustle, he still plays good defense at a premium position, and can be quite valuable offensively, his 2012 abberation notwithstanding.  He's only a year removed from a 4.2 fWAR season.

2. Henderson Alvarez - RHP; 22 years old; Career ERA: 4.52; Career W-L: 10-17

Alvarez really opened some eyes when he posted a 3.53 ERA over 10 starts in 2011.  Unfortunately, his development didn't move in the right direction in 2012, as he posted a 4.85 ERA with a 1.44 WHIP over 32 starts.  He lacks swing-and-miss stuff -- his 5.1% swinging-strike rate ranked last among qualified pitchers -- and was extremely susceptible to the homerun in 2012, averaging 1.39 HR/9.  That said, he's got a lively fastball (though it can flatten out at times) and good command, averaging 2.22 BB/9 over his 41 career starts.  If he can add another pitch to his repertoire, Alvarez could be a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy.  And, let's remember, he's only 22 years old.

3. Adeiny Hechavarria - SS; 23 years old; Career slash: .254/.280/.365 (41 games)

Listed as Toronto's eight-best prospect by Baseball America, Hechavarria is widely considered among the best defensive shortstop prospects in baseball, if not the best.  There's little doubt that he will be an outstanding defensive major league shortstop in the near future.  There is doubt, however, on the other side of the ball.  Never lauded for his hit tool, Hechavarria projects to be "a bottom of the order hitter with the potential to steal 15+ bases and notch 20+ doubles with a low average and low OBP," according to BaseballProspectNation.

4. Jeff Mathis - C; 29 years old; Career slash: .198/.256/.314, 34 homeruns

Ne'er there was a person who so prominently exemplified the principles of backup catching.  Mathis can't hit a lick -- his slash line speaks for itself -- but his catching abilities keep him in a job.  His blocking and receiving are both excellent -- 5.7 FRAA over his last 164 games -- and he can manage a staff.  On top of that, he threw out 41% of attempted base stealers in 2012, according to, more than 15% above the league average.

5. Jake Marisnick - OF; 21 years old; Career slash: N/A

This one could hurt.  Baseball America considers Marisnick Toronto's second best prospect, behind only Travis d'Arnaud.  According to Kevin Goldstein, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, Marisnick is "a big, majestic athlete with above-average speed, excellent hitting skills, and is just starting to tap into his power, which projects as plus. He's a good center fielder, and his arm is a weapon."  Marisnick put up impressive numbers with Low-A Lansing in 2011 -- 14 homeruns, .888 OPS in 118 games -- but struggled upon promotion in 2012.  There are rumblings that his swing has been tinkered with a number of times and that it still needs work; Marisnick's holes were exposed in 2012, when he hit just .233 in 55 games with New Hampshire.  Nevertheless, he still projects to be a future stud; Goldstein says he "could be a 20/20 center fielder, and that might be light."

6. Justin Nicolino - LHP; 20 years old; Career ERA: N/A; Career W-L: N/A

One-third of the pitching prospect triumvirate known as the "Lansing 3," Nicolino is universally considered to have the lowest ceiling among the three.  The Blue Jays' fifth best prospect according to Baseball America, Nicolino's "command/control give him a chance to develop into a No. 3 starter," says Fangraphs' Marc Hulet.  Nicolino averaged 8.61 K/9 with 1.52 BB/9 in 124.1 innings for Lansing in 2012, en route to a 2.46 ERA.  While it hurts to lose him, the Jays were fortunate not to part with Aaron Sanchez or Noah Syndergaard.

7.  Anthony DeSclafani - RHP; 22 years old; Career ERA: N/A; Career W-L: N/A

A former sixth-round pick, DeSclafani made his professional debut with Lansing in 2012, posting a 3.37 ERA and 1.83 BB/9.  Admittedly, I know very little about this guy, so I'll defer to, well, the man himself.  "I currently have four pitches a fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider. My fastball can range anywhere from 90 to 95 mph,” DeSclafani told Brian Crawford of He is not considered among the pantheon of top Jays prospects.

Well that took a lot out of me.  I'm going to go have a nap or something.