Shutting Up About the Pace of Game Problem, and Fixing It, Too

If you’ve had a conversation about baseball during the last year, you have probably heard some variation on a too-common theme: “God, and the games are SOOOO LOOOONNNNGGGG. What are we gonna DO?”

First of all, I want to reject the premise. Baseball games are longer than they used to be. So are action movies, football games and fireworks displays. The chief complaint of most pace-of-game pedants is that the 10-percent elongation of games is costing baseball scores of young fans, but young people keep right on going to action movies, football games and fireworks displays. To whatever extent it’s true that baseball is losing the youth of the nation, it has nothing to do with the length of the games.

Secondly, I direct you to the last (and most important) of the tenets laid out in this article. It’s not a piece overflowing with fresh insight, but it does include the true statement: Just about everyone gets what they really want in life, because what you do reveals what you really want. Baseball’s stewards and high-up executives, by that measure, are proving that they want the outcry over the pace of the game, but not to actually solve the problem of the pace of the game. Because fixing the issue of ever-longer games is an easy proposition. Here are the steps:

  1. Intentional walks should not involve any pitches thrown. Just point the guy to first base. The savings here would be minimal, inconsequential even, but the optics of that pointless non-action are part of why people think the game is boring. Because it is. Intentional walks are boring.
  2. Each team gets three timeouts per game. Pitching coach visiting the mound for any reason other than injury? Timeout. Mid-inning pitching change? Timeout. Any on-field managerial argument of any kind: timeout. Three of those per game, one more when extra innings begin, and that’s it. No more using four pitchers to get three outs.
  3. A streamlined replay system. No challenges, no managers dawdling on the field, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the ump while staring into the dugout to decide whether to use one. Just a fifth umpire, in a booth upstairs, changing the calls that need changing. That ump should also be on a 60-second clock.
  4. Skip the commercial break after the first inning, and in the middle of the fifth. Have the announcers talk a little, do something fun, even run a promo, but keep the cameras on, and get the action fired back up a bit more quickly.

It’s that easy. It doesn’t require a bunch of hemming and hawing, or a blue-ribbon commission, and IT SURE AS HELL DOES NOT REQUIRE A PITCH CLOCK, IDIOT. It just requires a few common-sense clutter-clearers, things that constrain the machinations of teams and the technical delays that account for the length of games right now.

For the record, I love baseball, and I want most of the games I watch to be as long as possible. One (sad) reason you hear so much about this is that writers, who must attend these games and then do a preposterous amount of (necessarily) bad writing about it afterward, hate the way the games drag. I understand their predicament, because as I say, most news outlets ask writers to churn out a ton of content in the immediate aftermath of a game. That not only means that the writers leave the park after many members of the maintenance crew, but ensures that most baseball beat writing is useless garbage.

Again, not the writers’ fault. It’s a bit gauche of them to grouse as much as they do about it, because tons of people (me, for one!) would love to try their hand, but the writers are cornered. Blame the outlets who demand that they write three to six items a day, many of whom are also behind the ever-stretching commercial breaks that are part of the problem.

At any rate, I don’t want shorter baseball games. I want longer ones. So long as everyone agrees that this is a problem, though, the four steps prescribed above should solve it. So let’s either solve it, or decide not to solve it, so I can start talking more about baseball and less about how long it takes.

Tigers, Mariners Make Interesting Matchup, Even in Uninteresting Games

The Detroit Tigers are fighting for their playoff lives, hoping an impressive in-season transaction will be enough to wash out the ill effects of an off-season move they never should have made. The Seattle Mariners are chasing a Wild Card berth, thanks in part to one big off-season move on which they did not pull the trigger. The two teams played three games over the weekend, with Seattle winning two, and the most interesting story line wasn’t that the Mariners’ center fielder came to them as part of the Tigers’ big make-up move. It was that the Tigers only won one game–and it was the one their new addition started.

There are some fools who will try to bake their preconceptions about a given franchise, or a given executive, into their analysis of a transaction. That’s a great way to get way off track. Your opinion of any particular executive’s acumen should be an accumulation of opinions about the deals they transact; a new transaction should be a data point moving your opinion one way or the other. That can’t happen if you’re letting the previous data draw your conclusion toward the cluster.

I mention this because of Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ GM and one of the most widely respected GMs in baseball. Dombrowski rarely makes a misstep, rarely gives away a prospect he ends up missing and often lands improbably talented players, whether by being the guy who gets the ‘yes’ in a free-agent hunt or by trading from a stash of spare parts afforded him by a deep well of organizational resources.

That’s why it was so surprising when, over the winter, he made a colossally dumb series of mistakes that endangered the Tigers’ defense of three consecutive AL Central titles. He traded Doug Fister, an underrated, modestly expensive and very talented starting pitcher, for a utility infielder whose Tigers tenure would prove shorter than a diet-pill free trial; a lefty reliever; and a pitching prospect whose loftiest reasonable dream may be to one day become Doug Fister. With the salary that bonehead move saved, Dombrowski signed veteran reliever (veteran, perhaps, being an understatement) Joe Nathan at an eight-figure salary.

Fister did have injury issues at the start of the season, which had Dombrowski’s disciples genuflecting in solemn admiration, but since his return, he’s been sensational, walking 13 in 111-plus innings of 2.34-ERA ball. Meanwhile, Detroit has seen nagging injuries continue to nag Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander become more albatross than ace and Robbie Ray (the aforementioned prospect acquired for Fister) pitch miserably. It was Ray, in fact, on whom the Mariners put a thorough whupping en route to an easy win on Sunday. Joe Nathan has been so bad that the Tigers traded for Joakim Soria and signed Jim Johnson off the scrap pile, desperately trying to finally build a reliable bullpen.

To make up for the loss of Fister, of course, Dombrowski acquired David Price at the end of July. Price was the one who won Saturday’s game, the tightest of the three rather tedious contests between the teams. This is why Dombrowski is great: He remained aggressive even in the face of failure, and made a bold addition that might just keep the Tigers around into October, after all. He did it, too, without giving up a whole lot. Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and Willy Adames got the job done, which permitted the Tigers to take a step forward in their pursuit of a playoff spot without mortgaging the future. The sum of Dombrowski’s decisions in this particular decision tree is:

  • GAINED: Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, David Price, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria
  • LOST: Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly, Jake Thompson, Corey Knebel

That’s a poor deal for the Tigers, if we just treat it as one deal, especially in the long term. It might just be a slight positive in 2014, though, and if it is, then Dombrowski has done his job for now, and has definitely papered over his off-season gaffe.

Again, we need to carefully articulate the situation: Dombrowski did screw up, in a pretty big way. This chain reaction was not part of a good, coherent plan. However, he’s done very well in making up for the mistake. Only one team can win each division each season. The Tigers have been that team in their division for the last three. There’s no shame in their not being that team this year, if that be the case. One thing about the Price move, though, is that it essentially doubles down on the present, and leaves Dombrowski hanging even further out in the wind if things go badly.

Dombrowski hopes Price will turn around his season, but for now, let us ask Price to pivot only this conversation, to the Mariners.

Rumors swirled during the winter, especially after Seattle spent the net worth of Bleacher Report on Robinson Cano. All the whispers had the Mariners ready to deal Taijuan Walker, one of baseball’s best pitching prospects, to Tampa Bay as the centerpiece of a Price trade. The only hangup was that Tampa apparently preferred a deal built around a position player, and were continuing to look for one. Seattle went into Spring Training not only without Price, but seemingly without half a rotation. Sure, they had Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of that unit, but the rest of the names were ugly. They spent camp frantically mixing and matching names, dredging up long-abandoned reclamation projects like Randy Wolf and Scott Baker. Nothing was working. On the eve of Opening Day, they grabbed Chris Young, presumably because at six-foot-ten, Young made the easiest target for the metal claw that could lift him out of the mass of cheap castoffs all around and deposit him into the prize bin.

Young won his 12th game on Sunday, shutting out the Tigers over six innings. He allowed four hits and a walk, and struck out four. He’s surpassed his innings total (even counting the minor leagues) for every season since 2007. At first, he was having success, but it looked like smoke and mirrors. Since July 1, though, Young has made nine starts, pitched 55.1 innings, struck out 45 opposing batters and walked just 12, en route to a 2.93 ERA. He’s just throwing junk, a mid-80s fastball that he can locate at the top of the zone and a curveball he’s comfortable and proficient throwing above the belt, too. Still, here he is, and his terrific work thus far is a big reason for the Mariners’ success.

The point is, sometimes it’s the move you don’t make, and sometimes it’s the second move you make. Baseball Prospectus gives the Tigers a 68.6-percent chance to make the playoffs, and pegs the Mariners at 46.2 percent. ESPN essentially flips that, with Seattle at 72.3 percent and Detroit at 43.1 percent. Both teams wanted David Price. One was, ultimately, willing to move Heaven and Earth to get him. The other looks in better position to reach the postseason, at least for now. Either way, the choices the two teams made on their way to this point make them interesting case studies in both team building and priorities.

What’s Up With Chris Davis?

In 2013, at age 27, Chris Davis created 142.8 runs for the Baltimore Orioles, according to Baseball-Reference. That was a shockingly good number. In fact, it’s the 14th-highest number posted by any age-27 player since 1969. (We should note, it’s not an adjusted figure.)

In 2014, Davis has battled injuries, and has seen his strikeout rate creep from just on the right side of 30 percent to somewhere just on the wrong side. He’s still walking just as often, though, and it’s not like Davis’s power has evaporated overnight (though it’s badly dampened).

Here’s Davis’s problem in two pictures:

chart chart (1)

 

(h/t FanGraphs)

See how much more often Davis is pulling the ball this season? That’s the problem. it’s a recipe for disaster. It means fewer fly balls, and less hard contact, because rolling over the ball doesn’t lead to good exit velocity. What set 2013 Chris Davis apart was the all-fields power, and the willingness to tap into it. With defenses shifting against him and so much strength to do great things going the other way, Davis never ought to have changed a thing. He has, though, and he’s paying the price. Check out his BABIP by hit direction:

Chris Davis, 2014 BABIP by Hit Direction

 

Direction BABIP
Opposite Field .351
Center Field .286
Right Field .207

 Overall, his BABIP is down this season, from .336 to .260. That small table explains that.

Davis had better straighten things out, because he’s in danger of becoming the biggest age-28 flop of the modern era. As I noted, Davis had the 14th-best age-27 season (by one measure, anyway) since 1969. His adjusted OPS+ indicated he was 69 percent better than a league-average hitter. This season, though, Davis has a 97 OPS+, suggesting he’s worse than the league average. Of the 19 guys who join Davis as the most productive 27-year-olds since 1969, only one other–Jacoby Ellsbury–was a below-average hitter at age 28. In fact, only Ellsbury and Chuck Knoblauch (110 OPS+ at age 28) were less than 28 percent above the league average. 

I don’t want to project onto Davis. I’ve seen him hit several times this season, and while it looks to me like he’s overswinging and focusing too much on repeating his 53 home runs from last year, instead of his good overall numbers, I am not a scout. For whatever reason, though, Davis has gotten pull-happy in the worst possible way, and unless he turns it around, he’ll finish writing the worst sequel to an elite prime-age season we’ve seen in over 40 years.

Jose Fernandez is Hurt, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tommy John

Jose Fernandez is hurt, and Baseball Twitter is in tears. Jose Fernandez is hurt, and the Miami Marlins’ hope of contending this season is gone. Jose Fernandez is hurt, and everyone is sad.

Except me.

Honestly, I’ve felt this way for a while, but if I thought Matt Harvey would be the peak of the phenomenon, Fernandez proved me wrong. I’m just way, way out of step with the echo chamber about this. I’m not sad. I’m not depressed by the loss of Jose Fernandez, and I wouldn’t be depressed by the loss of Clayton Kershaw. I’m not sad that Johan Santana fell off his Hall of Fame horse, or that Carlos Zambrano managed to stay healthy, but went bad.

If every pitcher got hurt or went bad within five years or so of their peak, I would be sad. If young pitchers constantly got hurt before they got the chance to make real money playing baseball, I would be sad. As it is, though, I’m coming to a very comfortable place with pitcher injuries. They are unfortunate. They are also inevitable, necessary and interesting. Without them, believe it or not, baseball would be worse.

It seems to me that the efficient violence, the sheer, shredding velocity of modern pitchers make injuries completely inevitable. Not every pitcher will get hurt, at least not catastrophically, but many of them will. Baseball has embraced the intensity of shorter outings, lightening workloads and training their hurlers to empty the tank in 110 pitches or less. That’s made every pitcher who takes the mound better, but it’s also made them more vulnerable.

That’s not the way I would probably do it. I would counsel more throwing between starts and relief appearances, more long-toss, more flat-ground, more pitching in games, even, but all at lower intensity. I would push pitchers to pace themselves, and never to maximize their effort. My pitchers would get hit much harder but hurt less often.

I’m not judging, though. One of the big-picture truths of the industry is that, because the season is so long and the potential for a single player to determine an entire season is so limited, risking attrition here and there in the name of improved performance is totally worth it. Teams have their risk spread around so well that they can afford to pursue this model without feeling the pain of each pitcher who goes down. As a result, their pitchers pitch as well as humanly possible. The injuries that happen are, in part, the cost of doing business.

To me, the fragility of baseball excellence is part of its beauty. It’s a shame when guys get hurt, but if no one got hurt, the game would be less interesting. The stories of Steve Avery, Gary Nolan, Mark Prior, even Chad Fox and Steve Blass, all are painful, but they’re fascinating, too. They lend color to the game. They create opportunities for heroism, for admirable perseverance in the face of adversity.

There aren’t that many things that make baseball important, that you can carry into real life when the game ends. Pitcher injuries, and the grace and determination with which the victims face them, allow us to see humanity in a game that the world increasingly treats like an exercise in robotics.

Kris Medlen choked up repeatedly during the first interview he did after he found out he would need a second Tommy John surgery. I welled up, too. I wouldn’t want to follow baseball in a world where that moment of shared agony was impossible, though. Baseball should be difficult, and for as long as the league chooses firepower over risk-management, pitchers should get hurt. I’m not sure why so much energy is spent bemoaning a perfectly natural part of the game.

One-Hop Rockets: Nick Markakis’s Approach, Dee Gordon’s Speed, Starlin Castro’s Lower Half

As is my wont, I’m giving Friday over to some rapid-fire observations and notes, from all over the place:

  • Every batter’s optimal plate approach is different. Some guys should swing much more often, especially in certain counts, than others. That’s not news, but it’s surprising how often players get a public rap on the knuckles for their approach, when the reality is that most guys probably know their bodies, their swings and their eyes better than even the most learned observers.Nick Markakis sure seemed to need an adjustment over the past few years, though. He was a fine player, usable, but beginning to fall from the ranks of the truly useful corner outfielders. A failure to develop power was partially to blame, but Markakis also wasn’t walking or hitting for average to the fullest of his abilities. In 2014, though, he’s changing that, simply by swinging more.Markakis makes a lot of contact. That’s been his strongest tool even during his darkest days. This season, he’s tapping into that skill better, by taking a nuanced step in the direction of being more aggressive.

    From 2011-13, Markakis struck out in 10.7 percent of his plate appearances, walked 8.4 percent of the time, swung at 42.1 percent of all pitches (including 18.9 percent of the first pitches within at-bats) and made contact on 88 percent of his swings. That was fine, but by 2013, it was no longer working for him: He batted .271/.329/.356, the command of the strike zone not nearly making up for the fading power.

    So Markakis doubled down on his greatest strength. In 2014, he’s swung more often (43.4 percent), but less (16.9 percent) on first pitches. By letting pitchers get themselves in trouble early in counts but staying out of two-strike situations, he’s brought his strikeout rate even lower (9.9 percent) and ratcheted his walk rate up to 9.2 percent.

    The power is still gone, although he’s been hitting in more and more advantageous hitter’s counts, and that almost universally boosts power in the long run. Even without it, though, Markakis is hitting a neat .301/.361/.398, keeping himself very useful as a table-setter in the power-happy Orioles lineup.

  • Speaking of lead-off hitters, let’s get more traditional. This is a tale of twospeedsters. Both had their offensive chops questioned. Both were given full-time jobs to open the season, with playoff hopefuls, without real safety nets. One is doing an admirable triple-speed high-wire walk. The other has plumb fallen off the wire.I’m speaking, of course, of Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton. Gordon, the success story, came into 2014 with pushing 700 brutal plate appearances in MLB under his belt. He earned the Dodgers’ second-base job mostly by default.Gordon has swung less (45.7 percent; 50.4 previously) and made contact more (87.7 percent, up from 85.3), leading to a perfectly acceptable 22 strikeouts in 141 plate appearances. He’s only walked six times, which is alarming, but he’s stolen 21 bases in 24 tries, so when he gets on base, he’s making the most of it. His real skill set will come better into view once he stops hitting .400 on balls in play, but with his speed (18 of his 45 hits have not left the infield, including one double), his BABIP might not come down all that much. On pace for 94.5 stolen bases, he’s as exciting as any player in baseball, just now.

    Billy Hamilton has had no such luck. Maybe fast, light-hitting guys like this just need longer adjustment periods, but Hamilton’s early returns are ugly. He’s losing his grip on the everyday job, batting .242 with a .277 on-base percentage so far. A week or so into the season, I asked the hosts of Effectively Wild how long Hamilton could stay in the lineup with a .280 OBP. Their estimate, and mine, was much higher than 104 plate appearances. None of us, though, was counting on Hamilton having been caught five time in 16 attempted steals. Hamilton is in danger of becoming a full-time pinch-runner, and with 19 strikeouts against four walks in those 104 PA, he’s not making a strong case for having simply been unlucky.

  • Starlin Castro belted a home run last night, his fifth of the season. Castro is among baseball’s most frustrating hitters, and I’ll have to give him a longer treatment on a different occasion. For now, I just want to point out one positive thing: Castro is starting to get his lower half under control.I don’t know if any non-pitcher I’ve ever seen has had a stride pattern and general lower-half mechanic as disjointed and inconsistent as Castro’s. At various times within even this season, he has been guilty of letting his front hip leak out far too soon; lunging with his body across the plate and his legs in no position to create leverage; and simply overstriding. He’s a mess more often than he isn’t, from the waist down.On the homer last night, though, and on several pitches I’ve seen this season, it was clear that Castro is starting to fix that problem. He’s gotten slightly more upright in his setup this year, is striding less, gets his foot down while his hips are still back and stays in a straight line. Those swings are still too rare, but they’re damn promising. He needs to keep working on the syncing of his whole body, but the small strides he’s made are already allowing him to tap his physical gifts better.

 

MLB Power Rankings, May 8: A Word Per Game Played

By now, you know the drill. These are my weekly power rankings, my best estimate of the relative strength of all 30 teams (NOT their playoff chances, mind you, but their actual, bedrock quality). The catch is that each team gets treated in precisely the number of words equal to their games played to date.

Each week, we know a little bit more about every team in the league, perhaps a sentence more, perhaps less than that. By September, I’ll be writing two paragraphs about each club, but for now, it’s still just a few sentences.

Russell Carleton did his usual, phenomenal work at Baseball Prospectus on Tuesday, finding that team-level early performances begin to have a real effect on final record at around 40 games. The season is not a substantial enough sample to change our real understanding of who they are, with externalities stripped away, until about 70 games. Therefore, my rankings won’t change as much as some others might at around this time of year. In a month, if I’m still being proven wrong by some team, I’ll be more proactive about changes.

That said, there are some changes every week, or have been thus far, and this week is no exception. Here we go.

30. Houston Astros (10-24): Their .288 OBP is the worst in the AL, and their 5.00 ERA is the worst in baseball. I’d like to strap Jeff Luhnow to a polygraph and see whether he’d want a mulligan.

29. Chicago Cubs (11-21): I have a theory that some unidentified aspect of the Cubs’ setting or schedule prevents them from having successful bullpens or high team OBPs, but it’s more likely that they just suck.

28. Minnesota Twins (15-17): Twenty of first 32 have been day games, a scheduling nod to the frigidity of what Minnesota calls spring. 4-8 in night games. That’ll be the majority of their games again soon.

27. Chicago White Sox (18-17): The White Sox have struck out more than any other team in baseball. Their pitching staff is a mess, one of their off-season rotation gambles having fallen flat, and Chris Sale hurt. Jose Abreu, though!

26. Philadelphia Phillies (15-17): There’s something admirable about their core (Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels, especially) staying together for most of a decade. Admirable, but not advantageous. They still stink.

25. San Diego Padres (15-20): They’re much lower this week. I’m off the bandwagon. These are a bunch of intriguing players who just aren’t going to turn into anything. You also have to wonder why they can’t keep anyone healthy.

24. New York Mets (16-17): They have 22 quality starts already. If their bullpen gets the boost I envision once their top pitching prospects come up, their run prevention will be stellar. Now they just need an offense.

23. Arizona Diamondbacks (13-24): Starting to come out of it, as illustrated by winning two of three over the league-leading Brewers. They have a balanced, versatile team. They just jettisoned too much talent in order to get that balance and versatility.

22. Colorado Rockies (22-14): This isn’t a total mirage. They have been building this stable of position players for years, and it’s always been a group with upside. But the 1.001 OPS at home and .726 away sound regression alarms.

21. Miami Marlins (19-15): Like the Rockies, only better, because their pitching staff is stronger. It’s not crazy to think they can win more than they lose. That said, they’re not going to surpass Atlanta or Washington anytime soon.

20. Cincinnati Reds (15-18): An offense that relies on just a few players is risky. If one (Brandon Phillips) begins to age badly, and another (Jay Bruce) gets hurt, you’re in trouble. Rotation won’t save them again.

19. Pittsburgh Pirates (14-20): Jordy Mercer’s age-26 rookie breakout didn’t stick? Francisco Liriano isn’t Death to Lefties? Charlie Morton wasn’t worth an early extension? I’m shocked—SHOCKED. (Subpar offense from right field is a self-inflicted wound.)

18. Seattle Mariners (17-16): Really like their set of young and prime-age players. They’re just one good pitcher and one well-balanced outfielder from a big step up. Having Nick Franklin as trade bait should help.

17. Kansas City Royals (16-17): I’m tired of waiting on the positional core to come together—and I have no stake in it. There’s no shortage of talent, but it doesn’t feel like things are about to click.

16. Baltimore Orioles (17-14): Despite a league-low 10 Quality Starts, they’re keeping their heads above water in terms of run prevention. Still a team that will have to hope to outslug you. That’s precarious.

15. Toronto Blue Jays (17-17): Jose Reyes will be better. Encarnacion and Bautista will stay good. The Jays just need to plug their gaping, glaring holes, at second base and at the back of the rotation.

14. New York Yankees (18-15): I don’t foresee the starting pitching holding up, especially once the league gets a book on Masahiro Tanaka. The offense has been about as good as could be hoped, a back-handed compliment.

13. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (16-17): It’s all going to be a question of what their pitching staff can manage. Exaggerated version of the Orioles, right down to early injury issues with key players. Farm system limits upgrade potential.

12. San Francisco Giants (21-13): They strike out and hit home runs, which is very unlike their last few iterations. Same old reliance on veterans, though, and they’re delivering beautifully. Pablo Sandoval is the last tumbler out of place.

11. Cleveland Indians (15-19): Exceptional pitching depth has helped them weather the departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. They just haven’t hit. I still believe they will. Lacking a certified superstar, though, they all have to hit. 

10. Milwaukee Brewers (22-13): Heavy investment in starting rotation has paid off. They’ve gotten Quality Starts in 27 of their first 35 games. Offense has quietly been bad. They need Ryan Braun back, but also to get more disciplined.

9. Texas Rangers (17-17): Run differential indicates a 13-21 team. With so many early injury problems, you’d expect that. Being .500 despite that is an achievement. Now, they just need to hit on all cylinders, with everyone healthy.

8. Boston Red Sox (17-17): Some cracks in the offense have shown up (Daniel Nava), leading to a 9-13 record against right-handed starters. With so many options bubbling up for them, though, there’s no weakness they can’t overcome.

7. Detroit Tigers (20-9): They’re 7-2 in one-run games. They’ve played a weak schedule. It’s not their record that puts them here. It’s Miguel Cabrera taking off and the bullpen shaping up.

6. Tampa Bay Rays (15-19): All those pitching injuries can’t help but dampen one’s enthusiasm. It’s also worrying when the bullpen wavers: Is the magic gone? Still, they have a strong, deep lineup and they field well. Good team.

5. Washington Nationals (19-15): They never seem to have everyone healthy at once, but even 90 percent of this team is good. Nationals pitchers have the highest strikeout rate and third-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in MLB.

4. Atlanta Braves (18-15): Their 2.77 ERA would be the lowest since 1972, or 1968 for NL teams. (I’m not counting the 1981 Astros.) The offense runs hot and cold, but the parade of arms won’t stop.

3. St. Louis Cardinals (18-17): Plagued by the best possible problem: they’re so stuffed with talent that using everybody becomes difficult. It’ll take some work, but this much talent can’t lose. A trade to consolidate roster spots is in order.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (19-16): Clayton Kershaw’s return is huge for them. The pitching staff is dominant, and needs to be, because the offense still amounts to less than the sum of its parts. The hitters seem unable to gel.

1. Oakland Athletics (20-15): Nine different A’s batters have walk rates of at least 10 percent this season, each in 70 or more plate appearances, most in baseball. They also have the best park-adjusted defensive efficiency in baseball.

Only five teams are at least five games over .500. Only five teams are at least five below .500. Nothing is settled yet. We’re starting to see the shape of teams’ successes and failures, but it’s all in silhouette. Keep an open mind.

Edwin Jackson on a Good Night

The life of a two-pitch starting pitcher is a difficult one. If either of your go-to offerings isn’t working on a given night, you’re in deep trouble, trying to pitch around a fundamental weakness and an ephemeral one at the same time. Two-pitch starters (and please note that I’m using that term liberally, as nearly all starting pitchers have at least three pitches they throw on occasion) also tend to be more vulnerable than their more balanced brethren on even their best days, be it to home runs, command problems or platooning.

Edwin Jackson is a two-pitch starter, with a fastball that can reach the mid-90s and a slider with tremendous depth and bite. He had a miserable 2013 season, largely because too often, he was unable to bring both pitches to bear in his outings.

Jackson’s troubles are usually mechanical. He often struggles to consistently drive over his front leg and finish his arm stroke, which leads to both dampened stuff and an inability to locate.

Location is crucial for him, too. What Jackson does do very well, mechanically, is disguise his slider by using the same arm speed and slot he uses for the fastball. For that to matter, though, Jackson has to establish his fastball in the area of the zone to which his sliders seem to go when they leave his hand: low and away to right-handed batters.

Watch this:

http://www.mlb.com/r/video?content_id=32670719

Jackson was in rare and excellent form on Tuesday night. He was hitting that corner with his fastball, making both that pitch and the slider nearly impossible to handle. You can see the deception he gets from the delivery.  You can see how batters end up on top of the ball, if they make contact at all.

There are too few nights like that one. For Jackson, though, the sky is the limit when he has his release point.

Whither the Freed Men: Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales and the Midsummer Free-Agent Period

I hate the qualifying offer, because it dampens the market for perfectly good players, and forces teams to choose between the near and long term, instead of trying to improve both at the same time. I hate it because it’s a welfare system for teams that do not need it, and because it makes the trade deadline less exciting, and because it’s needlessly complicated, another layer of fiscal sludge for fans to worry about instead of simply asking: Is Player X any good? What does he do well? Can he help our team?

Most of all, though, I hate the qualifying offer because it’s currently keeping good players off the field. Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, the last of the holdouts too proud to cave and sign for half their market value, as Nelson Cruz and Ervin Santana did, now seem likely to be forced to wait until after the Draft, in the second week of June, in order to sign with anyone.

There. I’ve said my piece about the stupidity of the institution. Now, for a more fun question: Where are these two going to land?

For Morales, the answer seems clear to me. It’s Milwaukee. There could be interest from Baltimore, under the right conditions, or from the Angels, or the Rays, and you never know about injuries, but the Brewers are the obvious choice.

With the best record in baseball and a Mark Reynolds-Lyle Overbay platoon at first base, the Brewers have a clear need, and plenty to gain from the addition of Morales. They’re still a bit more right-handed offensively than one would like, which Morales would help address, and he fits right into their offensive philosophy: He has some power, makes contact consistently and should maintain a high-ish BABIP, but he’s no Joe Mauer when it comes to plate discipline.

The Brewers’ fan base always turns out in droves when the team is good, and the early returns at the gate have been very good. That might allow them to stretch the wallet that little bit further open, making the move not only advisable, but feasible.

Drew is tougher to place. He has a larger number of potential suitors, and things that happen between now and when he signs could well dictate which one needs him most. Here’s a rundown of the candidates:

  • Boston Red Sox: It’s a long shot, after months of the Sox being unwilling to cast Drew a life-preserver, that he would want to come back to the club. If Will Middlebrooks is persistently plagued by approach issues or injuries, though, it may be necessary for GM Ben Cherington to press for a reconciliation.
  • Cincinnati Reds: Zack Cozart is batting .194/.239/.291. It’s only 110 plate appearances, and Cozart is a solid defensive shortstop, but he’s no Brendan Ryan afield—only at bat. Drew could help paper over the loss of Jay Bruce.
  • Detroit Tigers: Andrew Romine, shockingly, has not yet taken the job firmly in hand. It’s clear, through the relative inaction of the team in response to Jose Iglesias’s injury, that they’re leaving the path open for Drew. That doesn’t mean they’ll mount the best offer at the crucial moment, though.
  • Miami Marlins: Laugh if you must, but the Marlins have historically gotten aggressive once it became clear they were in a good position to do so. They’re not yet in that territory, but if they’re still above .500 in five weeks, filling in Drew in their thin middle infield could start to look attractive. It can’t hurt that fellow defending World Series champion Jarrod Saltalamacchia landed there over the winter.
  • New York Mets: Like the Marlins, the Mets need to stay competitive for another month before getting serious about a substantial expenditure. It’s not impossible, though, and shortstop in Queens is an even more glaring weakness than either middle-infield spot in Miami.
  • New York Yankees: This will get talked about, especially if the Yankees remain in first place by June, but it’s almost impossibly awkward, at least in my head. Drew would man second or third base, but whenever Derek Jeter stumbled, there would be awful beat-writer speculation and columnist diatribes about whether or not Drew ought to take over at shortstop. Plus, who wants to be the guy everyone knows is going to take over when the Farewell Tour is over?
  • Toronto Blue Jays: No team in baseball could use him more. Ryan Goins has conclusively proved himself unable to hit in MLB, but they don’t have a serious alternative. Second base isn’t likely to be Drew’s preferred destination, but if the Jays are in the right position, they might dump enough money on him to make him reconsider.

Ultimately, I see him landing in Detroit. This will be the more entertaining run of news stories, though, with mystery teams and uncertain configurations in play. It also matters (more than it usually does) what Drew is really looking for. He’d be a short-term fix in Detroit or Boston, with the opportunity to build value and become a true free agent at season’s end. If he’s lost his appetite for that experience, though, he can make a permanent home with Toronto, Cincinnati or the Mets.

The presence of these two wild cards should ensure that the trade deadline will be as dead as ever, and the actual trade activity is likely to start later than usual, on into July instead of in late June. As long as the market doesn’t freeze up all around them, though, the way it did around Masahiro Tanaka in January, it should add an entertaining dynamic to the playoff chase as summer hits its stride.

A Cubs Prospect to Watch: Jacob Hannemann’s Early Returns

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This is Chicago Cubs outfield prospect Jacob Hannemann. He’s off to a strong, if somewhat short of dazzling, start for the Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League.

Hannemann was the Cubs’ third-round choice in the 2013 Draft. He’s an athletic, toolsy kid, as illustrated by his 10 early stolen bases (in 11 tries). He also has some work to do in terms of actual, professional hitting ability, as illustrated by his 32 strikeouts in 107 at-bats.

I actually posted this, though, for two reasons. One is the pair of diamonds representing Hannemann’s two home runs thus far. I wanted to see whether anyone could confirm or dismiss the apparent monstrousness of those shots.

The other is the fact that this chart exists at all. I wanted to point that out, and celebrate it, but also to raise an eyebrow at it. The chart comes from mlbfarm.com, an excellent resource for a wealth of minor-league information. It’s one example of a prospect world that’s fast becoming saturated with information. It’s possible to track players in greater detail than ever before, through smartphone apps, milb.tv and advanced stat-tracking like this. We’re also in the Golden Age of easily-accessed scouting reports on hundreds of players. Baseball Prospectus posts a new set of first-hand prospect reports and opinions almost daily.

I wonder how good that will all turn out to be, in the long run. I’m not sure whether it sharpens the focus dedicated fans can apply to minor-league analysis and follow-up, or whether it only worsens the distortion of the lens through which those fans view a world they fundamentally fail to understand.

I’ll tell you one thing, though:  The next five or 10 years are going to teach us a lot about the basic nature of baseball. With so much prospect intelligence flooding public forums, prospect evaluation will either be perfected, or will prove to be an essentially unknowable mystery. If there’s a way to make prospects into reliable commodities at all, it’ll happen in the next few years.

Why Mike Olt is So Awful

Mike Olt had a strong Spring Training for the Chicago Cubs. The team wanted him to win the starting third-base job, and with some long home runs and impressive at-bats, he did it.

Ever since the team headed North to open the regular season, though, Olt has gone about the task of giving the gig back to Luis Valbuena. Olt is hitting .156/.214/.359, with strikeouts in over a third of his plate appearances.

Where do his problems lie? Right here:

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Some swing and miss has always been a part of the scouting report on Olt, but the feeling was that his combination of power and plate discipline would allow him to thrive, anyway. That’s not happening thus far. Olt is swinging only slightly more than the league average at pitches outside the zone, but when he does chase, he’s only making contact with 39.5 percent of his swings. That’s worse than any qualified hitter this side of Chris Carter, and even Carter had a (league-worst) contact rate over 45 percent on pitches out of the zone in 2013.

There are two ways to spin that. One is that such a preposterously low number is sure to correct itself, that Olt must still be fighting vision issues or extreme rust. The best support for that hypothesis is that Olt has made something like an average amount of contact within the strike zone, which Carter and his ilk don’t even approach.

The other, more sinister possibility is that Olt has a real, untenable lack of ability to read and adjust to breaking balls. Unfortunately, that theory has stronger objective support. Olt’s 70 plate appearances are enough to begin to expect that his chase and whiff rates reflect a real and obdurate aspect of his approach. It’s also unnerving to see how frequently he chases those bad pitches low and away. His reputation for patience says that if he was recognizing those at all, he’d be laying off.

Olt turns 26 in August. Players rarely make significant developmental strides after that milestone. There’s no reason for the Cubs to pull the plug now–Olt offers substantial potential reward as a counterbalance to the risk of continued implosion. Besides, with all three of the team’s Triple-A infield prospects off to bad starts, no one’s really knocking down the door in pursuit of his job. It won’t surprise me, though, if Olt’s promise goes unfulfilled, and he ends up a platoon or bench player for the long haul, his tenure as a starting third baseman over by August.

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