What is Wrong with Trevor Rosenthal?

This title is slightly misleading, and may be best put as “What is Not Quite Right with Trevor Rosenthal?”  His ERA is below 4.00 and his FIP is much better than his ERA, thanks in large part to his high strikeout rate and low home run rate. Yet, Rosenthal is not dominating in the same way that he did last year when he struck out 108 batters in 75 1/3 innings and compiled a miniscule 1.91 FIP. So, what is different about Rosenthal that has led to a 1.36 increase in ERA and .83 spike in FIP? As I said, Rosenthal is in the midst of a very respectable season, by many metrics, but he is not supposed to be “just” respectable. Rosenthal should be able to dominate the league, just as he did last year when he ranked 5th among relievers in FIP and WAR. Naturally, I turned to the numbers to determine what is holding Rosenthal back from being one of the best closer’s in the league.

With such a significant jump in his ERA, I expected to see that Rosenthal was being hit much harder, but that is not what I found. Not only is his opponents’ SLG% down, but so is his opponents’ AVG. So, Rosenthal is allowing fewer hits compared to last year and also fewer extra base hits, which certainly seems like a great formula for success. However, based on the type of contact Rosenthal is letting up this year, I would expect to see the opposite trend. For the second straight season, Rosenthal’s GB% has decreased, and this year, his Line Drive % (LD%) ballooned 10% up to 29.6%. Despite allowing more hard contact, Rosenthal has decreased his BABIP, which suggests he has actually been lucky to this point in the season. Rosenthal has also done a nice job limiting home runs, even while allowing more balls to be put in the air. His GB/FB ratio has dropped all the way to .85 from 1.23 just a year ago. Fortunately, he has still managed to drop his HR/9 to .29 thanks to a miniscule HR/FB ratio of .037.

In an attempt to understand why he was letting up more solid contact, I looked at his fastball velocity, but it was right where it was last year. Rosenthal has not lost any velocity from where he was last year, which means it his stuff is not to blame for his increased FB and LD rates this year. Yet, even with his upper-90s heat, Rosenthal has struggled to get ahead in the count. He has thrown the first pitch of the at-bat for a strike just 57.1% of the time this year, which is a 6% drop from last season. Anytime you fall behind a hitter, you give them a much better chance to make solid contact, even when you can touch triple digits. As a pitcher with as much stuff as he has, Rosenthal must be aggressive and work ahead in the count in order to maximize his lights out repertoire.

More concerning than the fact that he is falling behind more hitters than last year, is where Rosenthal is missing. Of all the pitches Rosenthal has thrown outside the strike zone, 44% have missed up above the zone, compared to just 28% below the zone. This is compared to last year when he missed above the zone just 34.3% of the time and below the zone with 35.4% of his pitches outside the zone. While this may not seem significant since these balls are outside the zone, so they are unlikely to be hit, it is always concerning to see a pitcher consistently throwing up in the zone. Rosenthal’s propensity to miss with pitches up has certainly contributed to his increased LD% and FB%, as it is easier to elevate a pitch that is already up. This could be a strategy for Rosenthal, as it is harder to catch up to fastballs up in the zone, but it has yet to materialize into positive results, as his performance is worse than in 2013. Also, based off the times I have seen him throw, this does not seem to be a strategy, as he has also missed up in the zone with his changeup, which is never intended by any pitcher. Despite some issues keeping it down in the zone, Rosenthal’s changeup has been his best pitch by far this season. This is particularly surprising for a pitcher that throws as hard as he does, but his changeup has compiled an astounding 5.71 runs above average per every 100 pitches, which has likely contributed to his increased use of the pitch (up to 14.6% from 6% in 2013). On a more concerning note though, his fastball is registering a career low .21 runs above average per every 100 pitches, down .77 runs from last year. It isn’t surprising the fastball is not worth as much as the changeup on average because the changeup is often used in higher leverage situations and also with less frequency. However, with Rosenthal’s struggles to get ahead in the count, it is not shocking that his fastball is less effective this year.

While Rosenthal has allowed harder contact this year, it has yet to materialize into better statistics for his opponents, in terms of batting average and slugging percentage. Where Rosenthal has been hurt this season is with his walks, which is among the few things he can fully control. He has already walked 17 batters this season, after walking just 20 all of last season in 45 more innings. Rosenthal’s BB/9 has actually more than doubled from it 2.39 mark in 2013, as it sits at 4.99 thus far in 2014. As a result of his lost control, Rosenthal’s opponent’s OBP has shot up from .289 last year to .321 this season, despite a lower opponent’s batting average. Rosenthal also tends to lose his control at the wrong times, as he has walked 10 of his 17 batters in high leverage situations, while pitching just 2/3 of an inning more in those situations than low and medium leverage situations. Even more concerning, he has walked 11 batters with men on base, leading to an opponent’s OBP of .409 with men already on base. Rosenthal’s struggles from the stretch seem to be related to his rushing to the plate. Based purely on the times I have seen him throw, he has a propensity to rush to the plate when pitching from the stretch, which does not give his throwing arm time to get up into position. This tendency for his arm to lag leaves him susceptible to throw the ball up, which is where most of his pitches are missing. With his struggles from the stretch, it is no wonder Rosenthal’s Left on Base% has dropped 5.3% from last season.

This is not an article to criticize Rosenthal and call for his removal from the closer’s role, but rather to point out where Rosenthal needs to improve. His ERA is certainly high for a closer, but because he is not allowing many hits, he can easily improve his season by being more aggressive in the strike zone. A pitcher with as much stuff as Rosenthal should not be afraid to pitch within the zone. Working ahead in the count will also work to prevent the solid contact that has increased this year. Rosenthal shows the importance of throwing strikes, as he has gone from one of the premier late-inning arms in the game to a pitcher with the 114th best ERA of qualified relievers. Even in terms of FIP, Rosenthal ranks 51st among qualified relievers. While these are certainly discouraging trends, if he can return to throwing strikes the way he did in his previous two opportunities in the Majors, he will be able to reverse these trends.

Anthony Cacchione

What has happened to the Red Sox?

In 2013, the Boston Red Sox rebounded from a disastrous 2012 season to become the best team in all of baseball. Yet, in 2014, they have looked much more like the 2012 Red Sox than the 2013 Red Sox. Last year, many pundits praised their offseason strategy to acquire multiple mid-tier Free Agents, instead of signing one expensive star player. While this was certainly an effective strategy, the Red Sox received career years from many new players and many of those performances have not carried over to 2014. They began the 2014 season with a very similar roster, just missing Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox let all three of these players walk via Free Agency because they believed they had capable replacements within the organization. However, the Red Sox have yet to find a capable leadoff hitter and still have a huge hole at both 3rd base and in the outfield.

The 2013 team was carried by the fact that multiple players experienced career years. To this point in 2014, most of those players have not enjoyed the same level of success. The loss of Ellsbury has certainly hurt their outfield, but the poor performances of Shane Victorino, Mike Carp and Daniel Nava have been the real issues for the Red Sox. While Victorino did not set any career highs in 2013, he did hit better than his career triple-slash line in every category with a  .294/.351/.451 line and accumulated a 5.6 WAR. So far this season, Victorino has battled hamstring issues, but in his limited opportunities (21 gms) he has a OBP of just .275 and 67 wRC+. Carp was able to set career highs in both his SLG% and WAR during 2013, but has been unable to sustain his newfound power, as his SLG has dropped .237 pts. Maybe the biggest surprise of 2013 was Daniel Nava, who put up career highs with a slash-line of .303/.385/.445 and a WAR of 1.8. However, Nava has struggled to replicate his career-year, as he has slashed just .134/.224/.232 and accumulated a minus-0.6 WAR, while going back and forth between Triple-A and the MLB. This lack of production from some of their top outfielders in 2013 has contributed to a glaring hole in their outfield. After ranking as the best outfield in 2013, the Red Sox have the worst outfield thus far in 2014.

Beyond just these outfielders struggling to replicate their 2013 performances, the Red Sox also lost three key contributors to Free Agency. The Red Sox were unwilling to match the Yankees’ offer of 7-years, $153 Million to Jacoby Ellsbury. It is certainly understandable why they would not match such an offer for the oft-injured Ellsbury, but they did lose their best player from 2013, in terms of WAR. While Ellsbury was off to a slow start, he has been hot of late and has still managed a WAR greater than the entire Red Sox outfield combined. In the long run it may have been a good decision not to match the Yankees’ offer, but that does not change the fact that the Red Sox are greatly missing his production. The Red Sox also chose not to re-sign shortstop Stephen Drew during the offseason, although realizing they would not recuperate a draft pick if he signed after the draft, they recently re-signed him. While his replacement at shortstop, Xander Bogaerts, has been phenomenal, Bogaerts’ replacement at 3rd base has not been as effective. This has left a substantial hole on the left side of their infield, both in terms of defense and offense. As I said, the Red Sox did recently sign Drew; however, in his first 3 games he is still looking for his timing at the plate. They also let Jarrod Saltalamacchia sign with the Miami Marlins, and the Red Sox instead chose to sign AJ Pierzynski, who has not been quite as productive, but even more worrisome he has caused some issues in the clubhouse.

The problem is not that the Red Sox let these players leave, as they were all defensible decisions, but the real problem is the way that the Red Sox tried to replace their production. In Centerfield, the Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore to compete with Jackie Bradley Jr. for the starting job. They essentially chose to replace one of the best Centerfielders with two unknowns, as Sizemore had not played in the Majors since 2011 and Bradley Jr. struggled in his first big league action last year. So far this year the pair has combined for a WAR of minus-0.2, as each has struggled mightily at the plate. Their struggles combined with the regression by the rest of the outfielders have contributed to the Red Sox having the worst outfield in the Majors. The Red Sox also failed to adequately replace Stephen Drew, although the issue has not been with their new shortstop. When they let Drew walk, they chose to move 3rd baseman Xander Bogaerts to his natural position of shortstop and put Will Middlebrooks at 3rd base, in the hopes that he would return to his 2012 form (.288/.325/.509). However, Middlebrooks has failed to be a productive option at the 3rd base, as he has just a 74 wRC+ and has a batting average under .200 with little power. While they have brought Drew back, it will take time for him to get his timing back, so the problem is not necessarily solved.

Bringing Drew back was a step in the right direction, as they realized his replacement was not getting the job done; however, they still must improve in the outfield. While they may wait for Victorino to return from his hamstring injury, even if he returns to form, they will be left with just one above-average outfielder. This post has been directed towards the team’s offensive struggles, which is understandable since their team wRC+ is just 92 (100 wRC+ is average). Nevertheless, the Red Sox will need to get more from Clay Buchholz upon his return from his knee injury. Buchholz was one of the best starters in the Majors in 2013, when he was healthy, as he posted a 1.78 ERA across 108 1/3 innings. However, in 50 innings this season, his ERA has ballooned to 7.02 with a much higher walk rate. The Red Sox great off-season strategy prior to the 2013 season had a huge impact on their success, and likewise, their poor off-season strategy before this season has had a substantial effect on their struggles thus far. A 10 game deficit at this point in the season is not insurmountable, but they will need to realize that they are not going to get similar production from many of their key contributors of just a year ago.

They are going to need to acquire more offensive talent to bolster their lineup and the easiest position to add to is the outfield. The Dodgers have a logjam in the outfield and would likely be willing to move one of their outfielders to Boston at the right price, but right now neither Matt Kemp nor Andre Eithier is having a strong campaign. The Red Sox would likely not be willing to pay the price the Dodgers would demand, but there are likely to be plenty of other outfielders available. Another contender with surplus outfielders is the St. Louis Cardinals, who could trade Allen Craig, Jon Jay, or Peter Bourjos. If the Padres fall further out of contention, the Red Sox would have the prospects to acquire any of their outfielders: Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin or Seth Smith. Smith would likely be the main target as he is playing the best and is not under contract beyond this year, so he should not cost as much as Cameron Maybin. Another target, if the Phillies decide to undergo a fire sale, could be Marlon Byrd, who is under contract through the 2015 season. If the White Sox, fall behind in the standings, they could look to trade Dayan Viciedo or Alejandro De Aza. Another potential trade target is Michael Cuddyer, if the Rockies decide to sell. Cuddyer is in the final year of a 3-year deal and is in the midst of his second strong season in a row.

Anthony Cacchione

Memorial Day Scouting Report – Wilmington Blue Rocks and Frederick Keys

Today, I was fortunate enough to spend my Memorial Day on a scouting trip to Frawley Stadium, home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, who are the High Single-A affiliate for the Kansas City Royals. The 34th pick from the 2013 Amateur Draft, Sean Manaea, was the starting pitcher for the Blue Rocks. The Frederick Keys countered with Joe Van Meter.

  • Coming into today’s game, I had heard the Left-handed pitching Manaea was sitting 92-93 mph and could get all the way up to 96. However, today his velocity was down a little from those numbers, as he sat 89-91 with his fastball, but did hit 94. The 6‘5” LHP had a very smooth and repeatable delivery, as he gathered himself nicely over the rubber. As he lifts his leg, he turns his hips in slightly, which helps him stay closed, as he remains slightly closed at foot strike. He doesn’t throw across his body too much, so that should not be an issue. His arm action is pretty long in back, as he nearly straightens his left arm. However, he is able to get his arm up by foot strike because he is able to gather himself over the rubber; as the game went on, though, he was not always able to get his arm up by foot strike, which caused him to miss up in the zone. Now that we’ve analyzed Manaea’s delivery, we can look at his performance. He worked with 3 pitches today: Fastball (FB), Slider (SL) and Changeup (CH). As I mentioned before, his FB was a little below where it has been this season, as he sat right around 90 mph. Early in the game he commanded the FB to both sides of the plate. In his first two innings, Manaea showed very strong command for both his FB and his SL. However, in his third inning, Manaea started leaving his FB up in the zone, which made him much more hittable. The real issue I saw that inning was that once Manaea had to pitch from the stretch with men on base, he began to rush through his delivery. From the stretch, he works with a knee-to-knee leg kick, which did not allow him to get his arm up by foot strike, consequently, he began leaving his pitches up in the zone.  In that inning, the Keys’ players also did a nice job hitting Manaea’s SL, even though that was the one pitch he was able to keep down in the zone. The SL ranged from 79-83 mph and while it did not have a ton of horizontal movement, it did drop to a second plane, and it was still effective because its movement came late. What really impressed me about Manaea was his confidence in the pitch, as he was willing to throw it to both lefties and righties and used it as both a strike pitch and out-pitch. He did not throw too many CHs, but the few I did see were 83-84 mph with a little arm-side fade. As I said, Manaea was hit hard in the 3rd inning, allowing 6 runs (1 ER). However, he went on to throw two more scoreless innings, as he found the bottom half of the zone again. Manaea did not have his best stuff for today’s outing, but excluding one inning, he executed his pitches well. He needs to work on his delivery from the stretch, so that he is not rushing to the plate. It is not hard to tell why he was selected 34th overall. Right now he has two plus pitches with his FB and SL and a third pitch, in the CH, that could become plus. His feel for pitching was very polished for a 22-year-old, and I could see him moving quickly through the Royals system. Right now he projects as just a middle of the rotation pitcher, but he is likely to reach that level.
  • Another 2013 Royals’ draft pick playing in this game was Hunter Dozier, who was selected 8th overall. The 3rd baseman was 0-5 on the day, but showed a pretty patient approach at the plate. He also had a very simple load with a small toe-tap and not too much activity with his hands. In his second at-bat, he dropped his bat head well on a FB down and in resulting in a deep flyout to centerfield. In the bottom of the 9th, Dozier put up a good at-bat before striking out on a great slider from Matt Hobgood. As a 22-year-old, he should be moving passed Single-A soon, even though his power has yet to develop.
  • Also playing in today’s game was Bubba Starling, who was the 5th overall pick of the Royals in the 2011 draft. He was considered one of the best athletes in the draft, but that athleticism has yet to contribute to production on the field, as he is still in Single-A. In today’s game, he did go 1-4 with a single in the 9th, but his swing did not look good. His swing was very long and he had a very funky load, with a lot of movement of his hands. Also, as he starts his swing, Starling leans out over his front side, which takes away any chance of him hitting for power. To me, he does not project as much of a prospect until he fixes his swing, but he did show that he still has his athleticism by running down a deep fly ball in right center.
  • The Blue Rocks’ catcher for today’s game was Cam Gallagher, who has not been much of an offensive force this year, but the former 2nd round pick is a good receiver with a strong arm. Gallagher had a strong day at the plate today, as he went 2-4 with a double and an RBI. His double was on an inside FB, where he just turned and drove it down the 3rd baseline. In his four ABs, the 22-year-old showed a good ability to keep his hands inside the ball, but he did not show much power in his stroke. Gallagher may be able to reach the Big Leagues in a few years as a backup catcher, due to his defense, but if he has any chance of becoming a starting catcher, he will need to improve the offensive side of his game.
  • Manaea’s counterpart, Joe Van Meter, had a nice outing going 6 innings allowing just one run on 5 hits. Van Meter had an interesting delivery, as he leans back when he begins driving towards the plate, which makes it that much more impressive that he is able to get over his front side as well as he does. He creates a good downward plane with a more drastic hip tilt than Manaea. He worked with a FB that got up to 94 and sat 90-92 mph. He also had an effective cutter at 84 mph. His best pitch on the afternoon, however, was his curveball, which had sharp 11-5 break and sat 75-77 mph. he was able to throw it for strikes, but also for swings and misses out of the zone. Van Meter is 25 years old, so he is old for this level, but this is his first year in the Baltimore organization so he could move up the minors more than he did with the Rangers’ organization, where he made it to Double-A.
  • The next pitcher for the Keys was Matt Hobgood, who was also the hardest thrower on the day. He was the 5th overall selection by the Orioles in the 2009 amateur draft, but has yet to move past High-A ball at the age of 23. The Right-handed pitcher, touched 97 and worked 3 innings sitting comfortably at 94-96 mph. They shifted him to bullpen this year after he struggled as a starter in previous seasons. He worked with a starter’s repertoire, throwing a FB, SL (85 mph) and a Curveball at 75 mph. In his 3 innings of work, Hobgood allowed 5 hits and 2 runs, while striking out 2. However, both the runs and most of the hits came in his 3rd inning of work, when he may have been tired. His first two innings were much more effective. With his FB-SL combination, I can see Hobgood moving through the Orioles system quickly and potentially reaching the Majors by 2015 if he stays healthy and improves his command.

The Keys’ standout offensive performer for the day was Shortstop Adrian Marin. The Orioles selected Marin, who is just 20 years old, in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft. Marin went 2-3 with 2 doubles. Marin showed a very quick, compact stroke on both his doubles. He looked very comfortable at shortstop with good footwork and a strong arm. He could move up through the Orioles system, likely ending in Double-A this season, but could reach the Majors within a few years. He is also likely to stick at shortstop because his defense is his real strength.

Is it Time to Worry About the Cardinals’ Offense?

Entering the 2014 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were considered heavy favorites to win the NL Central. While it was a tight race in the Central last season, the Pirates, who were 2nd in the division, were expected to regress substantially from their first season above .500 in 20 years. The Reds, who ranked 3rd in the division, were likewise expected to regress after they lost Shin-Soo Choo through Free Agency and did little to improve their roster during the offseason. The Cardinals, however, seemingly improved their roster with the additions of Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos. However, 42 games into the season, the Cardinals are struggling to score runs and lingering around .500. The Cardinals currently sit 5 games behind the division-leading Brewers, who have been one of the season’s biggest surprises. With the Cardinals averaging just 3.78 runs per game, a full run lower than the 2013 Cardinals, is it time to start worrying about the Cardinals?

To say that the Cardinals lack power would be an understatement, as they currently rank 29th in home runs, 28th in slugging percentage and 25th in runs scored. This is not too surprising, as even in 2013, they ranked 27th in homers, yet 3rd in runs scored. Incredible situational hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) drove the Cardinals entire offense in 2013. They set a Major League record with a .330 batting average with RISP. While few people expected such timely hitting to carry over to this season, few predicted they would fall all the way to .240 with RISP. Their lack of timely hitting has had a profound impact on their offense as a whole, especially since their power has failed to manifest itself. While no experts thought the Cardinals could duplicate their numbers with RISP, they argued that the Cardinals would improve substantially with the bases empty, which is an area where the Cardinals greatly struggled in 2013. With the bases empty in 2013, the Cardinals had a batting line of .236/.297/.356 and that line has only slightly improved in 2014 to .250/.318/.365. Clearly this slight improvement has not negated the drastic drop in production with RISP, as their overall batting line has slumped from .269/.332/.401 in 2013 to .246/.315/.359 in 2014. So is this the production the Cardinals should expect all season, or is it just an early season slump?

Looking at their offensive numbers as a team, some interesting correlations are present between the 2014 Cardinals and the 2013 Cardinals. The most concerning trend is that, in 2014, the Cardinals are striking out more often, as they have gone from 5th best in K% all the way to 12th.  This is not too significant, until it is compounded by the Cardinals’ .016 drop in Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). The Cardinals were in the top 5 in the MLB in both of these statistics last year, but are just in the middle of the league in 2014. Putting the ball in play less frequently and getting on-base less often when you do can have a profound impact on an offense. That is certainly the case for the Cardinals, as their OBP has fallen .017 points, almost identical to their drop in BABIP. However, a more optimistic look at the Cardinals’ offense shows this may just be a slow start worsened by some bad luck. While the Cardinals’ BABIP is down from last year, they still lead the league in Line Drive% at 23.1%, which is nearly identical to their 23.2% from 2013. Line drives carry the highest BABIP with them, which suggests the Cardinals’ liners may just not be falling for hits as frequently as they did last year, but the BABIP should return to climb back towards the mean, if they continue to hit line drives.

Another reason to expect better offensive production from the Cardinals is that multiple players are playing below their career norms. The prime example of this is Allen Craig, who is in the midst of a terribly slow start. Craig entered the season a career .306 hitter, but has slashed just .231/.288/.365 thus far. This drastic decline has largely been driven by his .104 point drop in BABIP, which should come back towards the mean. Another player playing below his capabilities is key offseason acquisition, Jhonny Peralta, who has slashed .252/.341/.469. While his power leads the team, his average is down over .050 points from his strong 2013 and he has the lowest BABIP of his career. While his 2013 production was driven by an unsustainable BABIP, his numbers should climb closer to .300, rather than .250. Matt Adams is also not living up to his billing as a power bat, as he has just two home runs and a .319 OBP, despite a .304 batting average. The Cardinals are also receiving absolutely no production from their bench players, as Mark Ellis, Kolten Wong and Daniel Descalso are all hitting below the Mendoza line. The bench has also driven in just two runs this season. While every team experiences injuries and poor production from key players, the Cardinals have received poor production from 3 consistent contributors. Once these players begin playing up to their capabilities, the Cardinals’ offense will begin to take shape.

The Cardinals have certainly struggled to score runs through these first 42 games; however, most indicators point to them rebounding as the season progresses. The Cardinals will not be able to duplicate their MLB record .330 average with RISP, nor will they begin to hit home runs on pace with the most powerful teams in the league. However, their offense will begin getting on-base at a similar clip to last year, once their hits start falling and their BABIP comes back towards where it was last season. Allen Craig will not finish the season batting in the .220s and Matt Adams will not finish the season hitting just one home run each month. While there should be a sense of urgency for these players to return to form and for their hits to start falling, there is no reason to believe that the Cardinals cannot start hitting near their 2013 levels.

Anthony Cacchione

It is Time to Lower the Mound … Again

We have seen an incredibly high number of Tommy John (TJ)[1] surgeries undergone already this season. The surgery is on pace to surpass any single-season total in history. This signifies that an unusually high number of pitchers have already gone under the knife and it is still just the first month of the season. Even with so many talented pitchers being sidelined for a season because of TJ, we have also seen league-wide offense falloff quite a bit. There are many reasons for each of these trends, and also many potential solutions, but I feel that the best solution to each problem is to lower the pitcher’s mound. I do not believe pitchers should pitch from a flat surface, which is even with the batter’s level. However, I do believe the mound should be lowered to just 6 inches above the plate. It may seem extreme or irrational, but it has been done before and it would help both issues that professional baseball is facing. One obstacle to finding a way to slow or prevent TJ is the procedure’s high success rate. It is also a difficult problem to solve because it is unclear what causes the injury and when exactly the injury begins. Nevertheless, these should not prevent the MLB from attempting to limit the growing number of pitchers requiring TJ surgery, especially when it can also increase the league’s offensive production.

24 pitchers have needed TJ surgery already in 2014, which has yet to complete its first month of regular season games.1 For reference, 28 pitchers received the procedure in all of 2013, and only 7 had undergone the surgery at this point last year. It is not surprising to see an increase upon last year’s total, as 2013 was actually a decrease upon 2012’s total of 55 TJ’s for pitchers. However, even in 2012, there were only 15 TJ surgeries by this point in the season. The procedure has been widespread in baseball for some time now, and it has saved many careers, which has made finding a solution unnecessary. Even with the surgery’s outstanding success rate, the time has come for the MLB to step in to protect its players. Among the many factors that have influenced the increase in TJ surgeries of late is the procedure’s success rate. One study completed in 2013, found that 83% of pitchers to undergo TJ return to the Majors and 97% return to pitch, at least in the Minor Leagues.[2] This success rate would not necessarily impact players that have a completely torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL), as they would have no other options to return to the mound, but it may influence pitchers with a partial tear of the UCL. In the past, many of these pitchers would turn to rehab instead of undergoing TJ. Adam Wainwright is a great example of this, as he rehabbed from a partial tear of his UCL, before undergoing TJ surgery 6 years later when he completely tore his ligament. However, because of the success of the procedure, there is little motive to attempt a rehab that may not work, and only delay the surgery, which pushes back the return date. As the Cardinals former team physician and orthopedic surgeon, George Paletta, said, “It’s become an accepted side effect of the job”.[3] Another reason that is often cited is pitchers are initially beginning to injure their arms in youth baseball. High School pitchers are often pitching in showcases or in front of scouts, which puts extra pressure on them to throw as hard as they can and often pitch even when their arm in not entirely recovered from their previous outing. This was not the case as recently as 15 years ago, as High School showcases did not become common until the early 2000’s. This is one of the early waves of young pitchers that are reaching the Majors after going through the showcase process. From now on, the most, if not all, of the pitchers that reach the Majors will have been through this rigorous process. Another issue facing young pitchers is that many of them are pitching in competitive games nearly year-round. Overuse is one of the many reasons pitchers experience arm injuries and pitching throughout the year has greatly increased the amount of use on pitcher’s arms. Once, many high school baseball players played multiple sports and were able to take time off from throwing; however, many pitchers now throw year-round without many breaks from throwing. Youth pitchers are also putting more stress than before on their arms because they are throwing harder than ever. This may seem to be a good thing, and it is for performance, but it puts extra stress on their ligament that is not fully developed. Dr. James Andrews says that High School pitchers throwing between 80-85 mph are in particular risk of arm injuries because they are putting too much stress on a ligament that has not developed enough. As Lindsay Berra explains, a pitcher does not rupture his UCL on one pitch:

Strasburg was probably in trouble from the get-go. He didn’t rupture his UCL on one pitch with the Nationals — even if a pitcher feels a pop on a particular pitch, his UCL was anything but pristine before the incident. Like a rope, Strasburg’s UCL probably started to fray the moment he began pitching off a mound, the extra height of which can compound the stress of each pitch. It likely got worse not only because of his mechanics. Kids who throw the hardest pitch the most: They get hitters out.[4]

 

While it is clear that TJ procedures are increasing, the exact cause of TJ is not clear, as many factors impact whether people require TJ. However, it is evident that pitching off a mound increases the stress put on the pitcher’s arm. Comparing just the number of TJ procedures for pitchers and for position players, it is clear there is a substantial difference. Since the first TJ surgery in 1974, 622 pitchers have undergone the procedure, while only 41 position players have received the surgery. There are more differences than merely the mound, but none of them account for such a large discrepancy between the two types of players. Another common comparison for anecdotal evidence is pitchers compared to Quarterbacks in football. According to a study in 2010, there had been 10 reported instances of NFL Quarterbacks with damage to their UCLs, yet only one of these players underwent surgery. The other nine Quarterbacks chose to use therapy to repair their injury and their mean number of days until their return was 26.4 days.[5] As with the differences between pitchers and position players, there are numerous differences Quarterbacks and pitchers. However, these differences do not account for such a significant gap between both UCL injuries and TJ surgeries. Both of these examples contain too many confounding variables to draw any significant conclusions. However, a study completed in 2008 examined the effects that the 10-inch mound has on a pitcher’s mechanics and the stress that it puts on the pitcher’s arm in comparison to a mound at 8 inches, 6 inches and flat ground. The study led by William Raasch selected 20 from MLB organizations and Milwaukee-area NCAA Division-1 pitchers. The study found that pitchers throwing from a 10-inch mound compared to pitchers throwing from flat ground experienced extra stress on both their pitching shoulder and elbow.[6] They found that the greatest difference was at foot strike, as the mound changes the timing of the foot strike compared to the position of the pitcher’s arm. This study found that pitchers definitely experience more stress on their arm when throwing from an elevated surface than from a flat surface.

While the majority of this post has been dedicated to the effects the mound has on a pitcher’s health, lowering the mound will also improve the offensive production in the MLB. Of course, when the mound was first lowered to 10 inches in 1969, it was done in order to improve offense. After “The Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, the MLB saw the average runs scored per game increase by .65 in just one season. It is clear that lowering the mound had a significant impact on the league’s offensive output. Once again, we are in need of the mound to be lowered in order to improve the league’s offense. With better pitchers, defensive shifts and, most significantly, more stringent testing for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), we have seen a sharp drop off in offensive performance.  In 2013, the MLB R/G (4.17) was the lowest it has been since 1992 (4.12). This is not just a single season aberration, as it has been experiencing a steady decline since 2006, when it was at 4.86. Hr/G are also down quite significantly since 2006, when it was 1.11, and were just .96 in 2013. Easily the largest difference between 2006 and 2013 is the increase in Strikeouts per game, as they have skyrocketed from 6.52 to 7.55 in 2013. By lowering the mounds, the MLB will be able to improve upon these numbers and return offense back into baseball.

Lowering the mound may seem to be a radical step to solve two things that some people may not seem like problems; however, it is the best of the few options the MLB has. While some will argue that this will not limit TJ procedures because many pitchers are already damaged goods by the time they reach the Majors, this is a change that will soon reach the NCAA, High School and youth baseball leagues if the MLB does it. This will have a profound impact on the number of TJ procedures once these pitchers reach the Majors, as they will have reduced the stress on their arm over a long period of time. The impact will not be immediate in the MLB, but when the next wave of young, talented pitchers reaches the Majors, there will be fewer TJ procedures. The immediate impact will come from the increase in offensive production, as the lower mound will take away some of the advantage from the pitchers. As I have mentioned above, there are not many appealing alternatives. The most common solutions to the low offensive numbers is to juice the baseballs, similar to what Japan did this past season. While this would certainly improve offensive production and be less costly than changing the mounds, it would not help decrease the number of TJ procedures. A bit more radical of an alternative, that I do not believe could ever happen, is the MLB allowing the use of PEDs. While this would likely increase offense, it would almost force players to take PEDs or else they would be at a disadvantage to the rest of the players that do take PEDs. It is not fair to put athletes in this position, especially when we know how detrimental steroids can be to a person’s health. Another option is to add a DH to the National League, which has been discussed and is quite possible. However, this also fails to help pitchers avoid TJ. Also, in 2013, the NL averaged just 4.00 R/G compared to the AL’s average of 4.33 R/G. Assuming the NL’s production would match the AL’s, the addition of the DH would add just 802 runs to an MLB season. When the MLB first lowered the mound in 1969, the league scored 2,527 more runs than the previous season and that was with only 24 total teams. By lowering the mounds again, the increase in offensive production would substantially increase beyond where it would with the addition of a DH in the NL. Among these options, I believe the best is to lower the mound to 6 inches above home plate.

The number of TJ surgeries continues to rise and it is time to make an attempt to limit this procedure. The best way to do this is to lower the height of the mounds in the MLB, as this will decrease the stress that pitchers suffer when they pitch. Once the MLB does this, all other levels of baseball will follow suit, just as they did in 1969. The purpose this time; however, will be two-fold, as the lower mound will also serve to take away some of the pitcher’s advantage, and therefore, improve the MLB’s offensive numbers. Knowing what we know about the mound’s impact on a pitcher’s mechanics and the extra stress that it exerts on the pitcher’s arm, we cannot idly watch as more and more pitchers suffer through a year of rehab from a surgery that can be limited.

Anthony Cacchione

1 http://www.baseballheatmaps.com/disabled-list-data/

[2] http://www.newsday.com/sports/baseball/study-shows-pitchers-who-get-tommy-john-surgery-almost-all-pitch-again-1.7621000

[3] http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/7712916/tommy-john-surgery-keeps-pitchers-game-address-underlying-biomechanical-flaw-espn-magazine

[4] http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/7712916/tommy-john-surgery-keeps-pitchers-game-address-underlying-biomechanical-flaw-espn-magazine

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20609599

[6] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080323210203.htm

2014 Contenders Who Missed the Playoffs in 2013

New York Yankees – The Yankees finished the 2013 season with a record of 85-77, which was far better than their Pythagorean record of 79-83. This current Yankees roster certainly has its flaws, but it is much stronger than last year’s team. After off-season additions of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Masahiro Tanaka, the roster still has multiple holes in the infield. Nevertheless, this is a much stronger roster than the team that won 85 games in 2013 and should be able to contend for a playoff spot, especially since their Starting Rotation is much improved with Masahiro Tanaka and a healthy Michael Pineda. The biggest issue facing the Yankees is their lack of depth beyond their starting players, in large part due to their weak farm system. 

Seattle Mariners – The Mariners were not as successful as the Yankees in 2013, as they managed just a 71-91 record. Their offense was anemic, as they ranked 12th in the AL in Runs Scored. However they made numerous additions over the off-season in order to improve their offensive output. Among their additions was top Free Agent, Robinson Cano, as well as Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, who are all offense-first players. These players represent a shift for an organization that has focused on defense-first players in recent history. Injuries to Starting Pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton certainly hurt, but once they return the Mariners will certainly be contenders in a competitive AL West. 

Los Angeles Angels – The Angels have been a major disappointment in each of the last two seasons, as they have failed to reach the Postseason after adding Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. While it is clear that Pujols is no longer the MVP-caliber player that he was in St. Louis, the Angels have other players that are ready to contribute. In 2013, both Hamilton and Pujols underperformed and it is realistic to expect each to rebound, even if not all the way to their best years. The Angels also have the best all-around player in the game in Mike Trout, who can anchor their lineup. Considering the expectations for better performances from their two most expensive hitters, it is no surprise the Angels are poised to contend in 2014, even after failing to reach the Postseason in 2013. However, it is not just their offense that looks likely to improve, as the Angels have also improved their rotation through the additions of Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. Despite the injury to Hamilton that will leave him out of commission for 6-8 weeks, this is still a very talented team that is more dynamic than its previous two teams. 

Texas Rangers – In 2013,the Rangers missed the Playoffs by one game, as they lost Game 163 to the Tampa Bay Rays. They went into the off-season determined to ensure that did not happen again. GM Jon Daniels swapped 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler to Detroit in exchange for Prince Fielder, which will certainly increase their offensive production. They also signed Left Fielder Shin-Soo Choo to a 7-year, $130 Million deal. The greatest obstacle for the Rangers is their health, as they have already had multiple Starting Pitchers go down with injuries. Fortunately, Yu Darvish returned from his injury, but Matt Harrison  and Derek Holland remain on the DL. While their pitching depth is being tested early on, this is still a team that will contend for a Playoff spot, especially if Holland and Harrison can pitch well upon their returns. 

Washington Nationals – I’m sure it is not surprising to see the Nationals on this list, as they were picked by many pundits to reach the World Series last year, yet failed to even reach the Playoffs. This is a very similar team to last year’s; however, that roster was also very similar to the team that won 98 games in 2012. They are considered one of the most dynamic teams in the league with great pitching and fantastic offensive output. While the addition of Nate McLouth may seem minor, it gives them a great fourth outfielder in the event that one of their starters goes down with an injury, which really hurt them last year, as both Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth spent time on the DL. Once Doug Fister returns from the DL, their rotation will be another quality starter deeper than it was last year. The loss of Ryan Zimmerman for the next 4-6 weeks will definitely hurt, but this is a deep enough roster to contend without him, especially if Danny Espinoza can return to his previous form. 

Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers finished the 2013 season with a 74-88 record, which ranked them 4th in the NL Central. The Brewers were inactive for the majority of the off-season, until they handed out their first MLB contract of the off-season to Matt Garza. They also brought in platoon partners Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to play 1st base, but they made few other additions this off-season. They actually traded away leadoff hitter, Nori Aoki, in exchange for Relief Pitcher Will Smith. Despite their quiet off-season, the Brewers are poised for a rebound season, especially if they can get a full season out of Ryan Braun. Adding Matt Garza to the rotation is also a significant upgrade to their rotation, which should naturally improve if Yovani Gallardo can rebound from a down season. The Brewers are off to a great start so far, with a record of 8-2. The most significant concern for the Brewers is their lack of depth throughout their team, which will be an issue if they have to deal with too many injuries. 

San Francisco Giants – After winning the World Series in 2012, the Giants finished 2013 with a record of 76-86. They have not been a great offensive team in recent years, but their pitching has always been good enough to carry them. However, last year, their Starting Pitching was much worse than expected, as both Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum experienced down seasons. However, this season their pitching should be back to its previous level, as Matt Cain’s BABIP should return to normal and the addition of Tim Hudson will have to stabilize the back of the rotation. The Giants did not only rely on a rebound from their pitching, however, as they went out and signed Michael Morse to play Left Field and provide some much-needed pop to their lineup. It is beginning to seem as if the Giants will be a good team every-other season.

Anthony Cacchione

Is Matt Holliday’s run of Consistency Over?

Ever since Matt Holliday came into the league in 2004, he has been a model of consistency. His WAR increased after each of his first two seasons before peaking at 7.2 WAR in his fourth MLB season. Since reaching 7.2 WAR, Holliday has yet to fall below 4.5 WAR. While Holliday has yet to experience any significant declines in production, he has seen a few areas of his game begin to decline, especially in his power production. For a 34-year-old player, this is not incredibly surprising, but as a power hitter, it is a little concerning. With Holliday heading into his age-34 season, it is important to question whether he is still the model of consistency that he has been since reaching the MLB. For the 2014 campaign, the ZiPS Projection System sees Holliday declining a career high 1.4 wins all the way down to 3.1 WAR. This is still a very respectable total, but it is a quick drop for such a steady performer and could indicate further drops in production.

As I mentioned above, Holliday’s power production has been on a steady decline. His SLG% has declined for 3 straight seasons and settled in at .490 in 2013, which is his lowest SLG% since his rookie campaign in 2004. Holliday’s Isolated Power has dipped each of the past two seasons and even reached a career low of .190 in 2013. Both these numbers are very impressive, especially since they are at or near his career lows; however, they still represent an alarming trend with his power production. As would be expected with a lower SLG% and ISO, Holliday’s HR/FB% has declined for two straight seasons falling to 15%. While Holliday has never been considered a plus fielder, his UZR/150 has declined each of the last 3 seasons all the way down to -7.0. With all these statistics declining, Holliday’s WAR has dropped each of the past three seasons.

While Holliday has seen some dip in his power production, many other areas of his game have improved or stayed relatively constant. Also, despite his SLG and ISO declining, Holliday has still topped 20 homers in each of the past 8 seasons. He has also had a very healthy BB% since 2008, as it has remained above 10% each season and reached 11.5% in 2013, just under his career high of 11.9%. Even more impressive than his steady walk rate is that he lowered his K% to 14.3% in 2013, which was just above his career best K% of 13.8%. Altogether, Holliday was able to set a career best BB/K ratio of .80 in 2013. In recent years Holliday has maintained both a high Batting Average and a high On-Base Percentage. Holliday has remained such a strong contributor at the plate, despite his worsening power, in large part because his OBP has remained extremely high. OBP is something that usually ages very well, which is encouraging for Holliday because so much of his offensive value hinges on his ability to reach base. In each of the last 7 seasons, Holliday’s wRC+ has been over 140 and was even 148 in 2013. For reference, 100 wRC+ is considered average, so 140 is excellent. There is no doubt that Holliday has remained an outstanding hitter over the past few years, but the real question is whether he will see a significant drop in production as he enters his age-34 season.

While his overall production has remained impressive, it is important to look at his contact rates and balls in play data in order to determine if this production is likely to continue. Throughout his career, Holliday has had an incredibly high Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), with his career BABIP at .343. However, his BABIP dropped to a career low of .322 in 2013. Despite his BABIP falling from the previous season, he was still able to increase his batting average, which suggests he can continue to hit for a strong average even if his BABIP falls a little more. While his SLG and BABIP were down last year, Holliday actually increased his LD% above his career average, but also saw his Infield Flyball% (IFFB%) spike to 13.6%. Another encouraging sign with his LD% increasing was the fact that he also increased his Contact% to 81%, which marked a career high. His high contact rate no doubt helped him cut his K%, which will be important moving forward.

As Holliday continues to age into his mid-30’s, it will be interesting if he can remain the model of consistency that he has been for his entire career. It is clear that Holliday cannot sustain his current level of success for the remainder of his career, but little evidence suggests that 2014 will be the first year he experiences a significant drop in production. His lessening power is not a major concern to his overall game as long as he is able to maintain his high OBP skills and low K%. Turning back to the ZiPS projection of a 3.1 WAR, I do not see Holliday’s production taking that big of a hit, as their projection also calls for a .029 drop in OBP, which seems unlikely given his consistency in being able to get on base and the fact that OBP tends to age well. I expect Holliday to continue his slow decline, but I still see him posting a WAR above 4.0 and an OBP north of .375, especially if he can maintain a BB% in the double digits.

Anthony Cacchione