Ten Stray Thoughts On A Friday

Felix Anaheim

For many, Friday represents the end of a long work week that’s filled with heavy doses of drudging, sludging and other words that don’t actually exist but rhyme with “udging” and connote menial and tedious tasks that are ultimately distasteful. It’s my hope that at the end of such misery, at that moment in time that only occurs on a Friday afternoon when it’s too far away from closing time to leave work early, but too late in the day to start anything new, you’ll join us here to read some random observations about baseball and contribute your own thoughts on the subjects that are broached.

So, without further ado, I present this week’s Ten Stray Thoughts On A Friday:

King Felix’s Reign Extended

Felix Hernandez is a very good pitcher. After signing a five-year extension that guarantees the right-hander $175 million over the next seven years, he will now be paid as the very best pitcher in baseball. He isn’t. Justin Verlander is definitely better. Clayton Kershaw, too. Neither will complain about being underpaid in comparison, though, because their time will come, and when it does (after the 2014 season at the latest) they’ll have this contract to thank – in part – for their massive salary. I might put Cliff Lee above Hernandez as well, but I recognize my personal bias in believing the Philadelphia Phillies starter to be among the top five human beings ever born.

There are a number of ways to justify this contract from the perspective of the Mariners, but the most interesting is the increased likelihood of a larger regional television broadcast contract. Extending Hernandez’s stay in Seattle is believed to make the team a more valuable asset to a sports network, but only through that increased value could the team afford to commit to such a large contract.

The risk is simple and uncomplicated. Pitchers break down as they get older. No one has thrown more innings than Hernandez has over the last three seasons. In fact, he’s pitched so much in his first seven years in the league, that I’m not sure if it makes a better case for his unequaled reliability or impending breakdown.

According to FanGraphs, Hernandez has been worth an average of almost six wins above replacement over the last three years. This contract pays him as though his true talent is currently five wins above replacement. If he averages around four-and-a-half wins above replacement annually over the life of the deal, it’s a good team contract. That’s not unreasonable for a 26-year-old with his track record, and expected decline.

However, locking up Hernandez means that the Mariners are unlikely to trade him in their ongoing efforts to construct a competitive team. Given what the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets acquired this off season in exchange for James Shields and R.A. Dickey, this might not be the greatest use of Hernandez’s immense talent, at least in terms of roster construction. The flip side of that is obvious: It’s Felix Hernandez we’re talking about. He’s kind of one of the best players in the league right now, and trading him to acquire a player that merely might be as good as him in the future is showing too great of respect to timing.

Undue Criticism

The New York Post received some scorn on Twitter for relating the King Felix signing to the New York Yankees, referring to it as bad news for the ball club. Yes, that sort of entitlement will eat away at fans of other teams, but the truth of the matter is that the New York Post isn’t a national newspaper, and Ken Davidoff isn’t a national columnist. Their audience is mainly New Yorkers, and articles appearing in the post keep that in mind, and rightfully so.

The same relation would be made in any baseball mad city, because any baseball mad city would be curious to know what the signing means to their local team. The Yankees have a reputation for spending money and being willing to do so. Therefore it makes complete sense that they could be interested in acquiring a pitcher of Hernandez’s magnitude if he were to become available.

We get columns like this almost every year about Michael Young in Toronto.

Assumed Answers Before Realistic Questions

Staying in Toronto, the assumption exists that given the current state of affairs in Baltimore, Boston, New York and Tampa Bay, the Blue Jays have a clearer path to the top of the American League East than the heavily forested area to which they’ve been accustomed in the past. Sure, I can go along with that, but a full season from Evan Longoria, and likely improvements from Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore have me thinking that the Rays aren’t in the same position as the Orioles, Red Sox or Yankees.

Competition aside, I wonder if we’re not hasty in our anointing of the Blue Jays as one of the better teams in the American League. You can ask questions of any squad’s starting lineup, but the questions that come to mind when looking over Toronto’s roster are far less forced than they might be for the other teams that are considered elite.

The questions:

  • Can Ricky Romero rebound after a horrendous season?
  • Can Brandon Morrow remain healthy for an entire season?
  • How will R.A. Dickey’s different knuckleballs perform in a different environment after a season in which his approach wasn’t yet known by opposing hitters?
  • Is Mark Buehrle in the American League East really going to be anything more than a back of the rotation starter?
  • Will Josh Johnson’s fastball ever be as good as it once was? Will he be able to throw breaking pitches for strikes?
  • Can J.P. Arencibia actually manage to avoid getting out in more than  70% of his plate appearances?
  • Can Edwin Encarnacion carry on with his success from last year?
  • Can Adam Lind actually hit left handed pitching? Will he actually be worth an entire win above what a replacement player might offer?
  • Who will emerge as the starting second baseman?
  • Will Brett Lawrie emerge as anything other than an adrenaline fuelled swing machine with little power?
  • How will Jose Reyes adapt his game and hamstrings to the turf at Rogers Centre?
  • What on earth can we expect from Melky Cabrera coming off his embarrassing drug suspension?
  • Can Colby Rasmus exhibit the least bit of plate discipline in terms of both strike zone knowledge and swing mechanics?
  • How will Jose Bautista adapt his swing – one so dependent on maximizing leverage through body weight transfer – after a serious wrist injury?
  • Who is going to emerge as the team’s closer? Both options – Casey Janssen (currently the first choice) and Sergio Santos – are coming off surgery that can’t merely be shrugged off.

Some of these will be answered positively, some negatively, but whichever way the majority go is likely to define the Blue Jays season.

Tim Raines

Normally, the Canadian baseball circle jerk that is the Hall of Fame ceremony in St. Mary’s wouldn’t receive much more than a yawn from me. However, the induction of Tim Raines is cause to remember what a shame it is that his greatness isn’t more recognized. Of course, the real baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown hasn’t yet recognized him, but the methods for induction are so laughably askew, that such ignorance hardly surprising.

What I hope for when it comes to Raines, is merely a greater general acceptance of how abnormally fantastic he was as a baseball player. Many columns have been written – most notably by Bill James, Joe Posnanski and Jonah Keri – about the amazingness of Raines, but David Schoenfield of ESPN’s Sweet Spot blog has a nice post up today that summarizes all of these:

He scored runs. He’s 51st on the all-time list and of the 50 players ahead of him, all eligible candidates are in the Hall of Fame except for Jimmy Ryan and George Van Haltren, two 1890s outfielders; turn-of-the-century shortstop Bill Dahlen; and Rafael Palmeiro.

A common refrain about Raines from his advocates is that he was one of the best players in baseball over a span in the 1980s. This isn’t some after-the-fact hocus-pocus going on. It was widely believed at the time. In a 1984 Sports Illustrated piece on Raines, Pete Rose said: “Right now he’s the best player in the National League. Mike Schmidt is a tremendous player and so are Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson, but Rock can beat you in more ways than any other player in the league. He can beat you with his glove, his speed and his hitting from either side of the plate.” In his annual Baseball Abstracts, Bill James often argued the case of Raines’ all-around brilliance. Raines finished fifth, sixth and seventh in MVP votes, despite playing for mediocre Expos teams.

Raines’ five-year peak was 1983 to 1987. According to Baseball-Reference’s WAR ranking, the top five players during those years were Wade Boggs (39.7), Rickey Henderson (34.1), Cal Ripken (33.3), Schmidt (31.4) and Raines (30.7). Pretty nice company. (The next five were Alan Trammell, Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Murphy and Keith Hernandez.)

Some characterize Raines as having too short of a peak level of dominance. From 1988 to 1995, he averaged .283/.375/.409, with 81 runs and 33 steals per season. Maybe not an MVP candidate anymore, but still a good player, top leadoff hitter and valuable contributor. He’s hardly alone in this aspect. He had six seasons with an OPS+ of 130 or higher, the same as Jim Rice, Dawson and Ernie Banks, and more than Kirby Puckett, Roberto Alomar, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra, Tony Perez or Robin Yount.

Amazing.

This Is What Tim Lincecum Looks Like Now

lince

Of all the hair to cut off of Tim Lincecum, how on earth did that little bit of dirt above his chin not get cleaned away?

Boras: Fighter Of PEDs

Scott Boras has come out to take an interesting stand against the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. The super agent is going to open up a private multi-million dollar sports fitness center in South Florida for the exclusive use of his clients.

Obviously, such a facility would protect the players in his stable from associating themselves with people like Anthony Bosch and his Biogenesis wellness clinic. However, it’s interesting to note that Boras branded fitness centres with trainers and doctors on hand isn’t merely about optics or altruism. Boras claims that players can extend their careers by avoiding the use of substances that dramatically affect joints, tendons and ligaments.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to actually have definitive knowledge of banned substance use in Major League Baseball and learn who benefitted, and whose careers were actually diminished because of it?

A Glimpse Into Baseball Operations

Lost somewhat in the shuffle of Curt Schilling’s story about a member of the Boston Red Sox organization advising him to take steroids is what it tells us about how baseball teams are run. According to what has come out in the press, manager Terry Francona and General Manager Theo Epstein were supposedly notified of the incident immediately after it happened, they told Major League Baseball, who then launched an investigation into the matter, all while assistant GM Jed Hoyer remained completely in the dark.

He was asked about Schilling’s claims yesterday and told the hosts of a Chicago sports radio show:

The first I ever heard of that was this morning when I saw it, so clearly, no, it didn’t ring true to me at all. I can tell you it would be preposterous that Theo or I would be involved in that. So I can comment for the two of us. I obviously wasn’t there. I don’t know the story he’s talking about so I can’t comment on the rest of it. I can tell you certainly it wasn’t Theo or me.

It’s very hard to understand, or perhaps believe, that such an important lieutenant to the team would be completely oblivious to what seems like such an important investigation. Of course, Schilling never pitched another Major League game after the 2007 season, and Hoyer left to become the GM in San Diego ahead of the 2010 season.

Can’t Hit The Broad Side Of A Barn

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Jonathan Sanchez this week. Sanchez is a terrible pitcher relative to other Major League pitchers, most notably because of his complete and utter lack of control. I wanted to see how often his pitches were judged to be in the strike zone over the last few seasons. While more than half of his pitches have been outside of the zone in each of the last three years, he isn’t close to the league worst since Pitch F/X data was made available in 2007.

Just last season, Jared Hughes of the Pirates only managed to hit the strike zone with 35% of his pitches over more than 75 innings. That’s remarkably inept, but it’s not the worst. No, that honor belongs to Tom Glavine, who in the final sad year of his illustrious career threw 1094 pitches, with less than 33% going through the strike zone.

Dimes!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, is the personally much admired Cliff Lee, whose under appreciated ability to hit his catcher’s mit wherever it might be placed, I have gushed over in the past. Of the twenty most impressive seasons of strike zone pitching, Lee’s name appears four times, including the highest ever recorded in 2011, when 61% of his pitches went through the strike zone. I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again: When Cliff Lee pitches it’s just as much fun watching his catcher as it is him. No matter where that glove is set, that’s exactly where the ball is going to end up.

The Diamondbacks Lock Up Hill

The Arizona Diamondbacks signed Aaron Hill to a contract extension through 2016 that will pay him $40 million over the next four seasons. This is cause for great consternation among baseball fans, but the contract basically pays him like an average middle infielder which seems fair, given his wild fluctuations in performance.

Hill had a six win season last year in Arizona, with 26 home runs and the highest walk rate of his career. Among regular second basemen, only Robinson Cano had a better year. That’s been quickly forgotten, but what hasn’t is that he also owns two of the ten worst batting performances from a second baseman in baseball over the last three years. His wRC+ went from a pitiful 77 in 2011 to an amazing 131 in 2012.

He may be the most all or nothing player in baseball, and so it figures that his contract pays him as though he’s somewhere in the middle.