The Long Game: Coming Into Focus
Up to this point, I've tried to keep this column aimed more at providing big-picture strategy and tactics tips for keeper and dynasty league owners rather than delving into the unfolding drama of the 2013 season itself. Personally I've always been more the 'teach someone to fish' type rather than the 'take someone out for a nice seafood dinner and never call them again' sort of guy. But with 10 full weeks of the year now in the books, it's time to switch gears a little and start looking at some of the big surprises of this season, guys who came cheap at the auction table or as free agents and are suddenly looking like foundation players for your 2014 roster, and try to figure out whether they're really worth hanging onto or not.
Of course, there'll be some fishing tips snuck in there too. It's just who I am. Don't try to change me, baby.
Of all the surprising performances to date in the majors, none may be more shocking than James Loney's .296/.358/.468 line through 258 at-bats. This was a guy whose dwindling power washed him out of LA and tossed him on the fantasy scrap heap, and who was available for an end-game dollar or as a reserve pick in most leagues. Surely it's just a small sample illusion, and Loney will go back to being the slap-hitting nobody he was before, right?
Well, not so fast. Russell Carleton, who now writes for Baseball Prospectus, has done some very interesting work the last few years (subscription needed for those BP links) trying to determine at what point performance becomes statistically significant. In the case of numbers where Loney is outdoing his norms, especially areas like ISO (.172 this year against a previous full-season high of .145) and HR/FB (12.5% this year, previous full-season best 7.3%), those thresholds have already been surpassed (160 ABs in the case of ISO, and 50 fly balls for HR/FB). In other words, Loney's numbers to date have passed the 'small sample size' marker and are statistically likely (as in, there's a better than 50% chance) to be an accurate representation of the player he was over the first couple of months of the season. If you're having trouble wrapping your head around this concept, think of it like taking a Polaroid of a player at any point in the season. 160 ABs would be the length of time it takes for the picture of his ISO to develop. (If you're a young whippersnapper who doesn't know what a Polaroid is, ask Andre 3000 about it. And if you're a younger whippersnapper who doesn't know who Andre 3000 is, may Bieber have mercy on your soul.)
That doesn't mean he'll keep it up all year. If he gets hurt, for instance, we might need to snap another Polaroid and wave it around for another 160 ABs before we might get an idea of how the injury affected his ISO. For that matter, the ISO Polaroid you took in mid-April would be slightly different than the one you took on Opening Day. Change is the nature of the human condition. But when you consider that Loney has re-incorporated a leg kick into his swing mechanics and the success the Rays previously had turning Ben Zobrist's career around, it's easy to have some optimism that your $1 Loney investment might actually pay some nice dividends in 2014.
More importantly, given his noodle-bat reputation there's almost no chance you'll get fair value in a trade for what he's producing, so you might as well hang onto him and see what happens.
The Long and Winding Road
Now, Josh Donaldson has a much stronger case against being a small sample size fluke. He's following up a .290/.356/.489 line over the last two months of 2012 by slashing .303/.369/.498 so far in 2013, and even if you discount his performance this year as being due to an inflated .345 BABIP his solid plate discipline and impressive ISO figure to be sustainable. I wouldn't even be so quick to dismiss that BABIP has badly out of whack either, as his improving K% (down around 18% this season) and batted ball profile point to a player who could be able to maintain a BABIP north of .300.
So where the heck did Donaldson come from? Well, heading into last season he was caught in limbo. He was a man without a position, as the A's had all but given up on him as a catcher and headed into spring training figuring they'd try him out at third base because they had no better options either for him or for the hot corner in general. On top of that, he'd never really had an outstanding minor league season he could hang his hat on (possibly because he was focused on trying to improve his defense behind the plate rather than work on his hitting), so when he struggled to open up 2012 (possibly because he was trying to learn an entirely new defensive position) there was no reason to think a dramatic turnaround was a-brewing. But he went back to Triple-A, got settled in at third and started crushing the ball, and hasn't looked back since.
In cases like this it's important to look back at why a player was a prospect in the first place. Donaldson was a supplemental first round pick for the Cubs back in 2007 who profiled as a slugging, athletic backstop, a guy who figured to hit for some pop and take some walks but needed some defensive polish. Well, the A's finally gave up on the polishing idea and decided to make do with whatever value they could get out of him, and are now reaping the rewards. Basically Donaldson has become the hitter scouts thought he would be, if not at the position they expected.
There's really no reason to think a big regression is coming here. Given that he's already 27 Donaldson might not get any better, but the player he is right now seems just fine to me, thanks.
Out of the Blue, and Onto the Black
After the last two out-of-nowhere mooks, it's nice to finally talk about a young guy who actually has some recent, bona fide prospect cache, isn't it? Patrick Corbin's 9-0 record, 2.28 ERA and solid 74:23 K:BB ratio in 94.2 innings all point to a player who's finally blossoming into the ace scouts thought he would become.
Just one problem though: nobody thought Corbin was going to be an ace.
Heading into this season, scouting reports all spoke well of Corbin, but were hardly glowing. He had three quality pitches and sharp command, but none of his offerings were considered plus and he lacked a true out pitch. Terms like 'back of the rotation starter' and 'innings eater' got thrown around. He was certainly expected to carve out a place for himself in the majors, but pitchers like Tyler Skaggs and Archie Bradley were the future aces of the staff, not Corbin.
So what changed this year? What is Corbin doing differently to move to the head of the class? Umm, well, honestly? I know Corbin owners aren't going to want to hear this, but not much. His fastball is a little faster than it was last season but still sits shy of 92 mph. He's been leaning more on his two-seam fastball instead of his four-seamer, with great success, but it's not like he ignored it last year. His two-seamer usage has gone from 38.9% to 50.1%, and he can't really push that much higher unless he does some weird Freaky Friday-esque body swapping thing with Mariano Rivera. (Wait, Freaky Friday is always with moms and daughters, and I'm assuming Corbin is neither of those things... what's the Judge Reinhold body swapping comedy? Vice Versa? Let's go with Vice Versa-esque instead.)
Mainly, the areas where Corbin has been excelling are the areas that you never want to see a pitcher excelling in unless they're excelling in a bunch of other areas too. His BABIP allowed is .254. His strand rate is a whopping 80.9%, when the league average is usually in the low 70s. And his HR/9 rate is 0.48, a number he hasn't come within spitting distance of since High-A. Heck, his home HR/9 rate is 0.38, and if you think that's sustainable in the thin desert air I've got some beachfront property on Arizona Bay to sell you.
Look, I like Corbin. The kid's got moxie. And it's not like pitchers haven't out-performed their scouting reports before. But generally speaking the really good ones, the true aces, are phenoms that we see coming. Nobody saw this coming from Corbin. Cheap frontline starters are the Holy Grail of keeper leagues, and it's always painful to even think about parting with one, but the numbers say he's far more likely to become a league average, or just slightly better than league average, starter over the next couple of seasons than he is to continue his ace-like ways. If you can move him as part of a package to go for a title, pull that trigger. And if you can move him as part of a package to net you a true future ace, a Matt Harvey or Shelby Miller, you do it and you don't hesitate even if Harvey or Miller carry a few more dollars in salary. You spend those dollars, and you be happy about it.
A Change Is Gonna Come
If there's been one big surprise for me this season as a whole, it's been the relative stability of the closer position. Sure, a few guys have gotten hurt, and a few retreads have gotten new life (quick prop bet: who gets more saves the rest of the year, Kevin Gregg or Heath Bell?) but by and large the guys who came into 2013 with ninth-inning gigs still have ninth-inning gigs. I mean, Fernando Rodney has been actively trying to give away his closer job all year and Joe Maddon keeps on trotting him out there like he owns aspirin and nitroglycerin futures.
And then there are the Cardinals. After watching a couple of their endless supply of flame-throwing relievers break down or falter, rather than dip into that bottomless well one more time to give, say, Trevor Rosenthal a chance to close they elected to let Edward Mujica work the ninth inning. Presumably they did this in case the team had been hit by a curse that targeted their closers, and to thus have a relatively fungible veteran arm be the next victim rather than a prized prospect like Rosenthal.
Rather than fall victim to the curse I just made up though, Mujica has seized the job and run with it. He's already got 20 saves in 20 opportunities despite not collecting his first one until April 18. He's got a 2.03 ERA and a completely ridiculous 0.68 WHIP. Maybe most impressively, Mujica has a 27:1 K:BB ratio in 31 innings. That's right, just one walk. Jinkies.
Again, we have to ask: what is he doing differently? In this case though, the answer is quite a bit. Over the last few years, Mujica had evolved into a fastball-changeup pitcher, using a slider purely as an occasional show-me pitcher. This year he's become a changeup-changeup pitcher, throwing it almost 60% of the time and abandoning his slider entirely. Basically he's throwing his best pitch over and over and over again, and daring people to either lay off it or hit it somewhere useful, and batters haven't been able to do either one.
Can he keep this up? Why not? Rivera's been throwing the same pitch for two decades and no one's figured it out yet. Back in the day, Doug Jones made a pretty good living throwing a lot of changeups. And given that Mujica's usual battery mate is a human vacuum cleaner named Yadier Molina, he can keep working the bottom of the strike zone with his change without worrying about it bouncing to the backstop.
The real question is not can he keep it up, but will he even get a chance to keep it up in 2014? On the one hand, managers are typically reluctant to mess with something that's working, or even something that used to work but it now a nerve-wracking nightmare (see the aforementioned Rodney-Maddon co-dependency). If Mujica sails through the rest of the year it's hard to see him not closing next year. On the other hand, managers are also typically reluctant to take away a guy's job when he's hurt, and Mujica only got his chance because of Jason Motte's Tommy John surgery. If Motte comes back healthy and firing bullets again, it's hard not to see him closing next year either.
If cheap aces are the dynasty league Holy Grail then cheap closers are the Golden Fleece though, complete with an army of stop-motion skeletons you have to fight through to find them (little-known fact: 'stop-motion skeleton' is insider baseball slang for a pitcher with a herky-jerky, deceptive motion. Dan Haren has a little stop-motion skeleton in him, for instance. Dontrelle Willis was a classic stop-motion skeleton when he first took the majors by storm. You're totally not buying this at all, are you?) Opportunity is by far the most important factor when it comes to racking up saves, with actual talent just being a bonus, so if you were lucky enough to scoop up Mujica for a couple of bucks before he fell into the closer job you pretty much have to hang onto him in the hopes that Motte comes back rusty, or that Mike Matheny elects not to mess with that good thing. The opportunity cost of banking 30-plus saves for a buck or two is just too high. Nothing short of a deal that cinches up a title for you would be worth trading away that kind of potential profit.