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Charging the Mound: What to Make of the Jays

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 1:34am
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging the Mound>

It's good to be back in baseball mode finally after a month-long prison sentence in the NFL magazine. Not that I don't enjoy writing about football - it's editing the same damn wide receivers section seven times for commas that might be out of place that make me glad it's over. Thanks to DVR for doing such a solid job on the column while I was out.

For me the biggest story so far this year - both in real and fantasy terms - is the Toronto Blue Jays. If you want to see who's in first place in your AL leagues, just figure out who has the most Jays. For starters, the rotation has been very good - with Ricky Romero (86:33 K:BB, 2.6 GB:FB in 85.1 IP) and Shaun Marcum (68:17 in 81.1) pitching like legitimate aces and Brett Cecil (45:13 in 57.2) not too far behind. Brandon Morrow looks like he's turning a corner over his last couple starts, and as our RotoWire and Fangraphs colleague Carson Cistulli is wont to point out - his slider is one of the more unhittable pitches in baseball. (Morrow's, not Carson's). Short and long term, how do you rank the Jays top four starters, both among each other, and overall?

Of course, the Jays also have far and away the most home runs in the majors with 97, and Vernon Wells, Alex Gonzalez, Jose Bautista and even John Buck have been mashing the ball. Perhaps the craziest part of all is that last year's stars and probably the most reliable producers - Adam Lind and Aaron Hill - are off to slow starts, though they do have 16 homers between them, despite Hill spending time on the DL. Even Lyle Overbay has seven homers, Edwin Encarnacion has eight in 85 at-bats and Travis Snider has six in 116 at-bats. Is this a complete fluke, or are the Jays going to challenge the 1997 Seattle Mariners for single season home-run record (264)? Right now Toronto's on a pace for 271.

Another major story is the oversupply of pitchers with shockingly low ERA's - from the dominant (Ubaldo Jimenez - 0.93, Roy Halladay - 2.03, Adam Wainwright - 2.05, Josh Johnson - 2.10) to the seemingly lucky (Jaime Garcia - 1.47, Mike Leake - 2.22, David Price - 2.29, Clay Buchholz - 2.39) to the definitely lucky (Livan Hernandez - 2.22, Doug Fister - 2.45, Jon Garland - 2.68). And there are many others who fit one of these three descriptions who I'm leaving out. Carlos Silva struck out 11 a couple weeks back, there have been three perfect games tossed (two of which counted) and another no-hitter already this year, compared to 18 other perfect games in the history of the league. And Johan Santana has an ERA of 2.76 despite getting lit up for a 10 spot in one of his 12 starts.

Something's going on this season - so far the league ERA is 4.16, compared to 4.32 a year ago, and while strikeouts and walks are more or less on last year's pace, home runs are down significantly. It could be because the league has emphasized defense more which means fewer Jack Cust types (he didn't even make the team out of camp and probably wouldn't play much if the A's were completely healthy), and also more outs on balls in play. But whatever the explanation, so long as it's not a fluke, the takeaway is that it's easier to pitch in the 2010 version of baseball than it's been in years past and therefore it's easier to find pitchers who are useful. This is because every starter gets some wins and strikeouts, but those at the lower end typically cost you a lot in ERA and WHIP. But if better defense and less power hitters (or some other cause which has the same effect) makes balls in play and fly balls less dangerous, then the cost to filling your roster with lower-level starters is less. You'll still get two-thirds or more of the good categories, and the damage in ERA and WHIP isn't there to deter you from taking advantage of it.

Our colleague Todd Zola of Mastersball wrote a similar column for SI (though his data is a little different), and his conclusion largely the same. Productive hitting is more scarce so far this year, and if that's not a sample-size-driven fluke, it should change the way you value your players. In short, you might want to bump up the value of hitters and downgrade your pitchers who are less distinguishable from one another.

The reason why better defense and fewer power hitters clumps pitchers of different skill sets closer together, of course, is that fewer home runs means a smaller penalty for high fly ball rates (keeping the ball down is a skill) and better defense means a smaller penalty for not getting strikeouts because added balls in play are less costly. For hitting, it's just the opposite as those who can hit homers avoid the superior defenses, and those who walk reach base at a disproportionately high rate (if it's harder to hit one's way on). Assuming the improved defense is the cause behind this, I'd say not only shift value toward hitting, but have a bigger-than-usual bias toward pitchers with good control (there's no defense for the walk), and value hitters who take walks slightly more than before.

Any other thoughts on this? Is there some other reason besides improved defense and less power hitters that so many pitchers are doing well? And if not, what's the biggest factor - the Rajai Davis' playing more (pro defense) or the Jack Custs not playing less (anti-offense)?

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 3:33am
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: RE: Charging the Mound

Welcome back - can't wait to see your thoughts on Antonio Bryant and the Bengals' passing game in the magazine.

The Jays are indeed a very interesting team. As you mentioned on-air today, expectations for the team heading into the season couldn't have been lower. They just fired their GM, their hand was forced into trading away Roy Halladay, and they seemingly were stuck in a division where they had very little hope - at best a fourth place squad behind the Yankees/Rays/Red Sox juggernauts. In fact, they reside in fourth today after losing the Rays on Tuesday night, and still have the teeth of their schedule ahead of them. It's a similar schedule to last year, when the juggernaut portion of their schedule was also backloaded.

I got shut out on Marcum, but I have multiple shares of Romero and Cecil, and one significant share of Morrow. Because of the schedule-factor, I'm treading pretty lightly right now, especially with the latter two. While it's hard to classify any AL East pitcher as "safe," I trust Marcum the most among the Jays' starters. Before his Tommy John surgery, Marcum twice had made it through the wringer of a nearly full season. That said, the most innings he's thrown at the major league level in a given year is 159 in 2007. He's already up to 81.1 this year, putting him at a 200+ pace after not pitching in the majors at all last year. A September fade is possible, and I'd be wary of him in keeper leagues if his innings aren't limited over the second half.

Romero might have a higher ceiling in terms of strikeouts than Marcum, but I think that he comes with a wider risk. He has had a couple of blow-up starts already this year (though there's very few that avoid them in any given year), and his walk rate is higher, and he fell apart last year (5.54 ERA in 16 post All-Star game outings). Was last year's second half a function of a tougher schedule, him wearing down, or maybe even just a case where the league had a more detailed scouting report on him as a rookie? I think it's a combination of the first and third factors. But I'd expect some regression on him even if the schedule didn't pick up as dramatically. Even in the minors he's never quite dominated like this, in terms of both his K-rate and his ultra-low home run rate. In the two AL-only leagues where I own him, I've built up a surplus of starting pitching and went looking to trade for other commodities. In the first league I got an offer of Luke Scott or Jose Guillen for him from one owner, nothing from the rest of the league. In the other league I pulled off two trades, and in both cases the other owners went after other starters, specifically suggesting that they didn't trust the Blue Jays (I also have Cecil in that league). The point being is that if my experience is at all representative other how everyone perceives Romero, it might be difficult to cash in on his good start.

There's a tier between Marcum/Romero and Morrow/Cecil. I'm encouraged by Morrow's last two starts, as it demonstrates what can happen when everything goes right. But there's just so much disaster lurking with him - can he maintain his control and keep lowering his 4.92 BB/9? Does he have to sacrifice some of the movement on his slider to throw more strikes? There's some reason to believe he's been unlucky - .341 BABIP against, 62% strand rate. Cecil has chopped his walk rate nearly in half so far, but opposed to Morrow, he's had a .258 BABIP against. I have less of a feel whether his success will continue.

On the hitting side, as recently as a month ago, I thought that Jose Bautista should have been the Jays hitter to lose playing time once Edwin Encarnacion returned. Travis Snider's injury obviated the need for the Blue Jays to make a decision, but when Snider returns, who sits out most of the time? Fred Lewis in left field has a pretty gnarly 9:49 BB:K despite a good reputation for the ability to draw a walk. Encarnacion is slugging and drawing walks, but is hitting for such low average and still plays a pretty awful brand of defense. Or maybe Snider's time will get cut pretty severely too? At any rate, it's going to take a massive swoon for Bautista to lose much time. How would you handle their potential logjam?

The overall trend analysis is interesting, and I like that Todd compared April/May numbers to '09's April/May numbers, because I think that might be more illuminating. The league-wide strikeout rate has been on the rise for quite a while now (we're talking in terms of decades, not just years), and I think that and the continuing emphasis placed by teams on defense is contributing to some of these big outlier seasons. What's different is that drop in homers across the league. The Bill James Gold Mine 2010 has an essay discussing how homers and strikeouts have been tracking along with each other, both on the rise for a few decades now. Because of that, I tend to think that this year's drop in homers is more of a blip than a trend. Maybe it'll last through much of the season, but I don't know how bankable it really is.

But the personnel issue that you brought up is an illuminating one. The Davis/Cust comparison is one good example, and another might be that Jermaine Dye remains a free agent. His defense deteriorated so much over the second half last year that he didn't get any offers close to what he was expecting over the offseason and still remains unemployed. There's plenty of other examples to cite in this regard. Your takeaway seems right, too, and it reflects my experiences on the trade market.

What other factors might be at play? Perhaps the weather has played a big part. Take the Yankees, for instance. Yankee Stadium is still homer-friendly, but nowhere near as extreme as last year, when there was so much talk about jet-streams and it being the new Coors Field. I haven't seen good data on how the weather patterns overall this year compare to last year's, and how that has affected hitting, but I wonder just how much variance there is in that from April to April and May to May?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 10:19am
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

I actually like Antonio Bryant but not too high on the Bengals passing game. I like that Carson Palmer is another year removed from surgery and more likely to be his old self, but the team doesn't have a lot of depth at receiver unless rookie Jermaine Gresham stays healthy and has a big role. But more importantly, the Bengals won last year with running and defense, and it looks like the team is evolving in that direction which limits Palmer's upside. But at least Bryant is more physical than Chad Ochocinco and is likely to be the team's go-to target in the red zone, so I wouldn't be surprised if he scores eight TDs or so. If the defense takes a step back, maybe Palmer becomes viable in a one-QB league.

I don't buy that Romero's blow-up starts make him a risk going forward - the numbers I cited along with his 3.05 ERA include any such blow-ups. Without them, his ERA would be in the ones. Nor do I buy that if last year's fade was due to being "solved" that it bodes badly for him, either. If he was solved, then why is he dominating again this year? Finally, he's given up four homers in 85.1 IP - how many would you expect him to have given up with a 2.6 to 1 GB:FB ratio? Five? And is BABIP is .296 (league average as is his .745 strand rate). To me, the schedule's really the major risk, but he just dominated the Yankees last week (albeit at home). And I'm not thrilled with this week's matchup against Ubaldo Jimenez at Coors, but it's getting to the point where the case against Romero is simply: "Few pitchers are this good for any length of time, so the odds are against anyone to keep it up." But that's not a case against Romero so much as acknowledging that pitching very well for a long time in the AL East is hard.

The other thing I'm not clear on is how the drop in homers is a "blip, but not a trend" when Rajai Davis is starting games over players like Jack Cust (assuming Coco Crisp were ever healthy). Or that Jermaine Dye doesn't have a job, but Fred Lewis does. Of course there are going to be less homers when stuff like that is happening around the league, right?

I think Encarnacion is the odd man out when Snider returns. The Jays probably like Lewis' defense since Vernon Wells is a below-par center fielder, and Snider himself isn't known for his glove work. Personally, I'd probably try to deal Lyle Overbay to the Angels for anything I could get, and either move Adam Lind/Encarnacion to first base (if either are capable) or call up Brett Wallace (.838 OPS in Triple-A isn't great) and sit Encarnacion. With Lind clogging the DH slot, having Overbay clogging first base isn't a luxury they can afford. But who knows whether the Angels would have any interest in Overbay as a three-month stopgap.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, June 10, 2010 10:16am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

I like how Shaun Marcum took less than 24 hours to invalidate the premise that he might be somehow safer than Ricky Romero going forward, getting thumped by the Rays for seven runs on 10 hits over just four innings. The only positive from that outing was that he walked only one batter. When making the comparison between Marcum and Romero, their comparative walk rates were a strong point in his favor. But maybe there's a case when a pitcher is up against strong competition that he could have been pitching too much in the strike zone, that there's an advantage there to being a little more wild. But that probably only works well against teams like the Blue Jays that are less prone to taking walks in the first place.

You could be correct about Romero, though - sometimes when I have a player that's having a breakthrough season, I tend to find reasons that get me pessimistic about his success going forward. Maybe that's mechanism against getting overconfident about drafting him. Perhaps it's true that the only major case against him is the schedule. Romero's HR/FB is 7.4% - that's low but not aberrantly low like Ubaldo Jimenez's 2.9%.

The reason why I think that the drop in the HR-rate could be a blip and not necessarily a trend is that we haven't necessarily proven it's because of the change in personnel. It's *a* factor, but it's also possible that it's because we have just two months of data, that it's the weather, it's just the ebbs and flows of just one season, etc... Moreover, who's to say that the A's and other teams won't reverse course and go back to a more offensive-centric approach? In fact, Cust is back up with the team now and playing regularly, albeit due to Eric Chavez's injury and non-performance instead of at the expense of Rajai Davis. The Tigers just gave up on Adam Everett at shortstop and plan to play Alex Avila ahead of Gerald Laird more behind the plate, so they're perhaps another team that's tried the defense-first approach and found it wanting.

I'll finish with the Bengals. They went with a defense-and-running game approach last year out of necessity, not entirely because of design. Laveranues Coles proved pretty early that he was going to be an inadequate replacement for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry got hurt at the midpoint of the season, taking away two weapons from Carson Palmer. Because of injuries, they were also down to their third-string tight end in Daniel Coats and/or J.P. Foschi pretty quickly. Further, Carson Palmer's injury to his left thumb forced him to hand off with his right hand, which took away his ability to properly use play-action plays. I'm not saying that they will return to Palmer's pre-knee injury peak years, but I think that they'll be better than last year. Besides Bryant and Gresham, they also invested draft picks in Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe (so I suppose they wanted to give a tribute to the Big XII, may it rest in peace). Their lack of a viable passing game really caught up with them late in the season last year - I don't think that they can succeed without emphasizing it more.

Good stuff this week Chris - glad to have you back.