Monday, May 10, 2010

Is Bobby Jenks In Danger Of Losing His Closers Role?

After posting a 3.73 ERA last year, his worst since 2006, White Sox closer Bobby Jenks was under a bit of a microscope this season. So far this season has not started well for the Pale Hose closer and last night he blew a save, his first of the year.

While it seems crazy to base too much on a small sample size start to the year that has seen Jenks struggle with his control to the tune of 5.25 walks per nine innings, that appears to be what the White Sox are doing. Apparently Manager Ozzie Guillen was supposed to be meeting with Pitching Coach Don Cooper after tonight's game.

"Maybe the next couple of days I might use someone different just to see if Bobby can regroup and come back to his form. Obviously, he's not throwing the ball well. It's a good thing we have options out there and we'll see what happens."

While Ozzie is certainly correct in stating that the team does have a number of viable options in the bullpen, it seems to be a bit of an over-reaction to be postulating a change at the closers role after just one blown save and twelve total innings of work.

Poor walk rate aside, Jenks has posted a very strong strikeout rate (12/9IP) and his struggles appear to be mostly BABIP related as his currently stands at an unsustainable high .440.

What's more, his walks appear to be an aberration as his overall strike rate is almost completely unchanged. For his career, Jenks has averaged a strike on 66.3% of his pitches. Last year that rate was 65.9%. This year it stands at 62.8%. That's seems like a bit of a drop-off, but it's perfectly within the margin of error for the sample size.

Consider if you will that of his 229 pitches this year, 144 have been for strikes, hence the 62.8% strike rate... Had just eight of his 229 pitches been called strikes instead of balls, his strike rate would be 66.3%.

Adding to that, there is very little to suggest that Jenks has changed at all from who he has always been. His fastball velocity is almost exactly the same, and his pitches are moving almost exactly like they did last year.

While I can't imagine the White Sox actually making a change at the closers position, should they decide to go that route, one would have to assume that fire-balling setup man Matt Thornton would be the ideal choice.

However, making that change makes little sense on a number of levels. Whether you choose to focus on the intangible aspect of switching the roles on players and how they may or may not react to that change. Or perhaps you realize that in moving Thornton to the closers role Guillen would lose his one effective situational lefty.

This entire gambit makes little sense and one can only hope that Guillen is simply pulling another of his stunts.

None of which is to say I think Thornton wouldn't excel as a closer. On the contrary, I think he would. I just don't think making that move, just because Jenks has walked a few more than normal at a VERY early point in the season makes any sense at all.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mike Aviles Gets Last Two Starts For Royals

Much to my chagrin, last month the Royals demoted shortstop Mike Aviles to AAA. Aviles of course was working his way back from shoulder surgery and the team said it wasn't ready to go. Apparently two weeks was enough to do the job as he was recalled when the team demoted Alex Gordon to learn left field and first base.

Since returning on the 2nd, Aviles has been given a pair of starts, including each of the past two games. He's responded by going 5-9 with a home run. Welcome back indeed...

Aviles of course was the Royals regular shortstop until going under the knife in early 2009. To replace him, the Royals traded for Yuniesky Betancourt of the Mariners. Betancourt performed miserably throughout 2009, posting an OPS of just .625, and has performed almost as bad this year, posting an OPS of just .664. That sort of offensive performance would be acceptable if it came with strong defense, but instead, Betancourt consistently ranks very poorly in both UZR and Dewan's +/- system.

If Aviles' shoulder is indeed healthy, he should be a MAJOR upgrade at shortstop, providing both a superior bat along with significantly better defense. Of course, much of that depends on the state of Aviles' shoulder.

Should he prove to be healthy enough however, the Royals need to be playing him. He certainly has the talent to be the best shortstop in the Central, and one of the better shortstops in all of baseball if he can repeat his 2008 performance.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What's Wrong With Jake Peavy?

Jake Peavy started his season off terribly, prompting me to write this article examining his performance from a data standpoint. While he got torched in his first inning at Texas two starts ago, he's thrown 12 scoreless innings thereafter. Naturally.

In addition to my work, Alex Eisenberg over at Baseball-Intellect has put together a fantastic little look into Peavy's mechanics this year, and notes a couple of important differences. It's definitely worth checking out.

Eisenberg notes major differences in his break point and elbow height.

In the piece, Eisenberg also takes a direct quote from Peavy when discussing his mechanical issues just a few days ago. In the quote, Peavy hones in on his lower body mechanics, completely apart from anything Eisenberg addresses. What I found interesting, was that Peavy really seemed to key on the fact that his release point was way off and simply not consistent, leading to his poor command.

This is the perfect opportunity of course for me to say, "I told'ya so."

"His command is being affected by his inability to find consistent release points, and his movement is nowhere to be found."

*Pats self on back.*

Anyways, I always suggest reading articles that make me seem even the slightest bit more intelligent than I really am. You know, because I'm vain like that.

Ernie Harwell Passes Away

Most baseball announcers are pretty irrelevant. They come and go without leaving much of a mark.

There are some announcers out there who make you want to watch a game with the TV on mute. Some are arrogant old blowhards. Others are frequently obnoxiously oblivious. Some are annoying homers.

But then there are the greats. Guys who make you want to listen to a game without watching it. Who paint a picture of the game in your mind that is better than the one on the field.

And then there was Ernie Harwell, who is in a class of his own.

Ernie always said it best, and I simply cannot come anywhere close to saying it as well, so I'll just let him do all the talking. Rest in peace Ernie.

Rick Ankiel Hurt, Royals Call Up Kila Ka'aihue

Royals center fielder Rick Ankiel left their contest back on May 2nd with a strained quadriceps muscle and is now headed for the disabled list. The move will be retroactive to May 2nd, which means Ankiel could return as early as the 17th of this month. In the meantime, Mitch Maier should get most of the playing time.

This actually makes me, and probably a lot of Royals fans, pretty happy. While Ankiel has hit predictably poorly, with an OPS of .695 while striking out in an unfathomable 35% of his at-bats, Maier has rotted on the bench. The same Maier who has spent three seasons as a quality player at AAA Omaha, and who has done little to show he is any worse with the bat than Ankiel.

Indeed Maier has actually performed quite a bit better than Ankiel in his 45 at-bats, posting a .752 OPS. Of course, the small sample size is worth noting. While Maier is probably better suited defensively to a corner outfield position, he Royals have been playing him in center, here he is probably a bit of a downgrade from Ankiel.

Worst case scenario, this should be a net-neutral move for the Royals, and has the potential to be a solid positive as Maier should be the better hitter. To say nothing of being younger, and controllable (RE: Cheaper) than Ankiel. With any luck at all Maier can put together a strong stretch of baseball in Ankiel's absence and at least force Manager Trey Hillman to consider keeping him as a regular.

Ankiel's place on the roster is being taken by first base prospect Kila Ka'aihue. Like Maier, Ka'aihue is another player who has proven himself for a couple years at AAA but hasn't been given a chance at the Major League level. With Billy Butler at first base and Jose Guillen, at least for now, at designated hitter, it doesn't appear likely that Ka'aihue will get many at-bats, or even a chance to play. All of which begs the question, why call him up in the first place?

Ka'aihue is not necessarily your prototypical first base slugger - he doesn't hit a ton of homeruns (just 28 in 694 AAA at-bats), but he draws a TON of walks, having taken more free passes than strikeouts each of the past two years. He's also shown the ability to hit over .300 the past few seasons and if he can combine the ability to hit for solid average with his ability to draw walks, he could cut out a Nick Johnson-like career.

Roman Calon Sold to Korean Kia Tigers

I just got done writing about the Royals trading away relief prospect Carlos Rosa. They've also finally completed a deal to sell the rights to reliever Roman Colon to a Korean team, the Kia Tigers. Colon appeared in 43 games for the Royals last season, posting middling numbers. Before that Colon was a member of the Tigers and Braves.

He made four appearances for the Royals this season, giving up four runs in just two innings of work while allowing seven base runners.

And the game of musical chairs in the Royals pen continues...

Royals Trade Carlos Rosa for Rey Navarro

Way back on the first of this month the Royals dealt minor league reliever Carlos Rosa to the Diamondbacks for shortstop prospect Rey Navarro.

My initial reaction was, WHAT? That's generally been my reaction to everything the Royals have done so far this year. From demoting Mike Aviles, to releasing Juan Cruz, to sending Alex Gordon to the minors.

Upon further examination, it appears that the Royals are motivated by the belief that Rosa has simply regressed and is not as good of a pitcher as he was a couple seasons ago. That appears to bear itself out in the stats as his K rate has been in decline while his fly ball rate has been increasing. There is talk that he's lost a lot of the life on his fastball since moving to the bullpen and that he has trouble pitching in back to back games.

In return, the Royals are receiving a very young shortstop prospect. Navarro's range at short is apparently strong though by the numbers, he commits a lot of errors. That's not uncommon of course for someone his age.

Offensively, while his numbers can only be described as poor, it's worth noting that he is merely 20 years old and already playing in High A ball, a challenging level for someone his age. He posts reasonably (though certainly not great) strikeout and walk rates, which suggests he at least has some eye, and he also steals some bases. His offensive game is still extremely raw, but he has tools and the Royals are desperately thin at shortstop.

If the Royals are right, and Rosa's chances to be an effective big-league pitcher are in decline, and if Navarro can become a reasonable prospect over the next year or two, I suppose I could understand the move.

All things considered, I'd have preferred to take my chances with the 24 year old who has at least seen some success at AAA and throws 94. But it's probably not as bad a trade as it first seemed to me.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Alex Gordon Demoted

If I were to tell you that the Royals personnel decisions baffle me, I'd only joining the chorus of tens of thousands of disgruntled Kansas City fans. Well, I'm joining. Officially.

Earlier this year I suggested that the Royals had a potentially solid infield once they got all their players healthy, suggesting that a lineup of Billy Butler at first, Alberto Callaspo at second, Mike Aviles at short, and Alex Gordon at third was potentially quite strong offensively.

The Royals brass obviously doesn't see it that way. While it was initially reported that Gordon would be benched once second baseman Chris Getz returned from his DL trip, there was also speculation that he could be sent to the minors outright.

That's precisely what has happened.

One one hand I suppose it's good that if Gordon isn't going to be utilized on a regular basis, he can at least get consistent at-bats. But is it the best overall decision? I certainly don't think so. With that said, lets not fool ourselves into believing that Gordon is something that he is not. He has a career .744 OPS, huge strikeout rates, and both UZR and the +/- system rank him as below average at third base.

That's a bad combination.

But what does sending him down do? He isn't going to learn anything new at AAA. He isn't going to learn to adjust to Major League breaking balls, that's for sure. What's more, it probably isn't in the Royals best interests right now, or in the future. It isn't in their best interests because it leaves one of the few players with any discernible upside in the minor leagues. It isn't in their best interest because it lowers his already marginal trade value.

Furthermore, bringing up Aviles, who they sent down less than a month ago because he didn't have the arm-strength to sit on the bench in Gordon's stead is equally baffling. Both of these players need at-bats, and while Aviles who is recovering from injury would be better suited to get those innings in the minors, he'll sit on the bench in the Majors. Gordon, who has nothing left to prove but needs to continue to adjust to Major League play, will sit in the minors.



The Royals now apparently plan on switching Gordon off of third base entirely and teaching him to play left field and first base. With top prospect Mike Moustakas at third base long-term, and Butler, along with prospect Kila Ka'aihue, at first, one would presume that left field will be where he spends most of his time.

Given that they're moving him off the hot corner, and given the absences they'll have in left field and at designated hitter after Scott Podsednik and Jose Guillen depart after this season, it certain appears that this is more of a move to find a way to make Gordon fit better into their long-term plans.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mauer Out, Twins fly out Wilson Ramos

The Twins have been battling injuries all season long. First they lost all-star closer Joe Nathan. Then setup man Jose Mijares went down, followed by opening day third baseman Nick Punto, and another setup man, Pat Neshek has been unavailable for the past couple weeks. On top of that tonight's starter, Jeff Manship is only with the team because regular pitcher, Nick Blackburn is on leave to attend to family matters.

Now it appears that they might have an issue with MVP catcher Joe Mauer. According to Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune, Mauer will miss tonight's game because of a heel injury suffered while running through first base in last nights 9-3 win over the Indians.  The injury certainly doesn't sound severe, but apparently it's got the team concerned.

As a precaution they have brought top prospect Wilson Ramos up from AAA to Cleveland. While Ramos has yet to be officially added to the roster, the Twins could make room for him by optioning tonight's starter, Jeff Manship, back to AAA after his start tonight.

For now, Drew Butera will make the start in Mauer's place and the Twins will then have four days to evaluate Joe and make a decision on whether they need to send him to the disabled list and keep Ramos long-term.

Ramos had a very good spring training, but was beaten out by Butera because the Twins wanted to have Ramos play every day and probably at least partially because they wanted to push back his arbitration clock. But the Twins may have been on to something too, because for as much as he succeeded in spring training, he has struggled mightily in AAA. With three home runs the power is encouraging, but with 15 strikeouts and just three walks in 67 plate appearances, his discipline has been questionable.

In all likelihood, Ramos isn't quite ready for this level, and without a proven veteran behind the plate, the Twins would be hard-pressed should Mauer miss any extended amount of time.

Indians Rule V Pick Hector Ambriz Called Up

This past off season the Indians selected Hector Ambriz in the Rule V draft. He spent most of the spring on the DL and since then has been on a rehab assignment. The Indians could've choosen to keep Ambriz in the minors until May 8th, but they chose to bring him up yesterday.

Ambriz didn't have to wait long to make his debut as he was immediately used in last night's 9-3 loss to the Twins. Ambriz got off to a rough start, allowing a screaming liner to center that Grady Sizemore made a very nice play on while crashing into the wall in dead center. But after that it was smooth sailing as he retired the next two batter without event for a perfect first inning.

Generally speaking, Rule V picks don't stick. They have to stay with the Major League club throughout the season, and obviously it's difficult to to carry any rookie for the duration of a season, much less one that wasn't good enough to warrant a 40-man spot with their previous organization.

But with the Indians bullpen in a less-than-desirable state (they rank 9th in the AL in relief ERA), and pitchers such as Rafael Perez possibly on his last legs, I think Ambriz has a legitimate shot to stick. He's average 7.9K/9 and 2.8BB/9 in the minors. He doesn't look like a star in the making, but I think he has a solid chance to be a middle innings option out of that bullpen. Who knows, with a bit of refinement, he might have a nice little career ahead of him.

The Curious Case Of Austin Jackson

This past off season the Detroit Tigers shipped veteran center fielder and fan favorite Curtis Granderson to the Yankees for prospect Austin Jackson and reliever Phil Coke. Both players immediately assumed roles with the team and while Coke has been a nice option in the bullpen, the only player anyone in Detroit wants to talk about is Jackson.

For good reason.

While I expected Jackson to be able to come up and provide strong defense in center and speed on the bases, what I wasn't ready for, was his bat. Jackson had a very good completely outrageous spring training for the Tigers, posting a 1.050 OPS with three home runs  (ten extra base hits in all) in just 73 at-bats.

I wrote it off as spring training stats. Lots of guys hit well in spring training.

But now we're wrapping up April, and the kid who had only once posted an OPS over .780 (back in A ball in 2007) has an OPS of .917 with nine extra base hits in 99 at-bats and he leads baseball with 36 hits. The natural question to ask? "What the hell is going on with this kid?"

Good question.

Everything about Jackson's performance screams luck. From his career minor league statistics, to his .530 BABIP! to his 32.3% strikeout rate, and a line drive rate that stands at 37.5%.

But luck usually starts to run out with a big enough sample size, and now with spring training and the first month of the season behind us, Jackson has been red hot for two months and nearly 200 at-bats. What gives, and when this kid comes back to Earth, what can we expect from him going forward?

I don't know if I can definitively answer the first part of that question. Obviously this is why we don't look into early season performances too much - because they have a tendency to be fluky, both on the team and individual level.

However when it comes to BABIP, Jackson has made a career of carrying a higher than normal one. The lowest career BABIP for Jackson during his minor league career was .331 - Major League average is .303. Yes, Minor League BABIP's tend to be higher than Major League ones due to improved defense at this level. But with a career MiLB BABIP of around .365, it can be safely assumed that he'll outperform the average.

So let's say we presume a .365 BABIP for Jackson (way above average) that leaves Jackson taking over a 100 point hit to his batting average, and consequently a hit to his power (fewer hits overall leads to fewer extra-base hits). At the same time, one of the statistics that we use to say Jackson is due for regression - his LD% - also suggests that he will be a legitimate Major League hitter once he conquers his strikeout issues.

If Jackson were to continue to hit as he has, but with a normalized BABIP (.365) and a refined strikeout rate (23.6% <- his career MiLB rate) a reasonable batting average expectation would be around .278. With a 10% MiLB walk rate per at-bat, we can add 60 walks to his 167 hits for a OBP of .344. With a reasonable ISO of .130 that would give him a SLG of .408. For a total triple slash of...

.278/.344/.408 - .752.

That's awfully good for a very young hitter, especially at a defense first position like center field. But it's nowhere near his current .917