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Charging the Mound: How Do We Know When a Breakout Portends Long-Term Stardom?

Chris Liss

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

Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Many thanks to's Jonah Keri who has agreed to step in and co-write "Charging the Mound" this week with Jeff Erickson on vacation.

From: Christopher Liss
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: July 24, 2012 11:29 AM PDT
To: Jonah Keri

Jonah, it's still only July, meaning there's more than a third of the season still to play out, but your Rays are just two games over .500, with a modest plus-two run differential and nine games back of the Yankees. I say "your Rays" because you wrote the book on them. Of course, they're only 2.5 games out of one of the coin-flip Wild Card spots and have played most of the year without their best position player in Evan Longoria (his contract is so team friendly, the only way he can make it fair is to injure himself for extended stretches). But that's a bit misleading as everyone in the American League is within four games of the Wild Card except the Royals, Mariners and Twins. Do the Rays stand pat at the deadline, seeing if this current group can catch fire, or do they sell off some players like Jeff Niemann, James Shields or B.J. Upton, not that any of them are anywhere near peak value right now. Also with the A's seven games over .500 and having just swept the Yankees, are the Rays in danger of losing their unique touch that made them this decade's most successful small market team? Eventually, everyone else catches on at some point, don't they?

Ichiro was just traded to the Yankees Monday. It's a pretty easy call to say he'll fare better in Yankee Stadium than in Safeco, but the question is how much better. If we were in AL LABR, and doing an auction for the rest of the season only, where does your bidding stop on Ichiro? I think I'd go to about $18. Any chance he can hit for some power with that short porch?

Mark Trumbo, Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Kubel, Jason Kipnis, Austin Jackson, Chris Sale, Yadier Molina, Melky Cabrera and to a lesser extent Trevor Plouffe have all been fantasy difference makers this year. If we were in that hypothetical 10-week AL or NL-only LABR league, where does your bidding stop on these guys? Would you prefer Mark Teixeira or Trumbo or Encarnacion the rest of the way? At what point does a player make the transition from upstart to established star? It's a subtle process, but even the no-brainer first rounders like Robbie Cano and Miguel Cabrera were upstarts once. (Actually, Cabrera was never really an upstart, but instant stars are always the exception.) How do we decide when that change has happened and value it appropriately?

Finally, I don't own Mike Trout anywhere, and it's causing me physical suffering. Normally, Trout is exactly the type of player I'd draft, but I got suckered into thinking the Angels had too many OF/DH bodies with Pujols clogging 1B ever to give him the deserved playing time. Of course, Vernon Wells got hurt, Bobby Abreu dealt and Peter Bourjos benched, and I should have followed Ron Shandler's "Draft skills, not roles" mantra nonetheless. But Trout (.220/.281/.390) in 123 at-bats as a 19-year old didn't exactly announce himself. Was there a way to see anything approaching this coming?

From: Jonah Keri
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: July 24, 2012 11:11 AM PDT
To: Christopher Liss

It should be selling time in St. Pete, Chris. The Rays have scored three runs or fewer in almost exactly half their games this year. They lost consecutive games by 2-1 scores over the weekend...against Jason Vargas and Blake Beavan. Longoria's injury has been a crushing blow, but really most of the Rays' lineup just can't hit whether it's players we knew couldn't hit like Jose Molina, the various Quad-A fill-ins they've plugged into the lineup, or even players from whom we expected production, like Desmond Jennings and Carlos Pena. I don't think "the league caught up" is the right answer. This post by Steve Slowinski of the excellent Rays blog DRaysBay was telling:

I've said before that I think if Friedman has a fault, it's that he's too patient. But that's not quite right; what I meant to say is that I think he's too risk adverse. Looking back on this time period in 10 years, if things end up falling apart and the Rays don't maintain their run of success, I think the one fault we'll point to will be Friedman's cautiousness.

Since the Rays made the World Series in 2008, when have you ever seen Friedman make a move that wasn't extremely safe or risk adverse? Friedman hit the jackpot, and since then, he's sat on his pot and milked it for as long as possible.

...and then Steve cites numerous examples of Andrew Friedman's excessively risk-averse nature. Since the start of their big run in 2008, the Rays have never made a big deadline move, even when they were a decent-to-good bet to go deep in the playoffs. I have a hard time imagining any splashy trades buying or selling this time either.

Here's a great Ichiro stat for you, from our friends at ESPN Stats & Info: Ichiro on the road this year, vs. right-handers, is hitting .322/.349/.476. Isn't that exactly the kind of situation he'll be in any time he plays for the Yankees. "On the road" is a proxy for "outside the hitter's hellhole that is Safeco Field," and vs. right-handers is a lock, since Andruw Jones has been crushing lefties on the other side of that left-field platoon. As I wrote Tuesday morning for Grantland, I love the Ichiro trade for many reasons. But yes, I do think people are underestimating his ability to hit now that he's out of Seattle. Even at this stage of his career. I'd top your $18 bid, no problem.

One guy on your list is easy. Here's what I wrote about Chris Sale two weeks ago:

Chris Sale will post an ERA over 3.75 in the second half.

Which would be a massive disappointment, given his microscopic 2.19 mark in the first half. But there are subtle signs of potential regression ahead. Sale's home-run-per-flyball rate is a low 5.5 percent, fifth-lowest of any qualified pitcher. He's stranding just under 80 percent of the base runners he puts on (league average is in the low 70s) and has yielded a low .255 batting average on balls in play (league average is a tick under .290). Not all pitchers are built the same, and you can't just see a few aberrant numbers, snap your fingers, and make everything even out in the span of a couple weeks. But with Sale, everything has gone so far in his favor that, even acknowledging his filthy stuff, it strains credulity to expect a repeat performance of his first half.

And the biggest wild card is one that never seems to come up in his case, even though it dominates every Stephen Strasburg discussion: innings count. Sale was a relief pitcher from the first moment he played professional baseball, so he's already blown well past his career high in innings, set last year with 71. Yet somehow you never hear anything about Sale's projected second-half workload, and about how the White Sox might handle him if they too are in the race come Labor Day and face a Strasburgian decision with their young ace. Between the statistical markers and the potential for second-half fatigue, I see a competent second half for Sale, but hardly a great one. In this case, feel free to sell high.

Sell high now, assuming you still can after an ugly start against the Tigers.

For the rest of those fellows, I think you can call multiple breakouts. Trumbo in particular strikes me as for real, since we're talking about a young guy who always had good power who's given a chance to play and comes through. Kubel was a big hitter as recently as three years ago and is now in a way, way, way better park for power hitters, so I could see continued production there. Melky's dropped 900 pounds and has a great approach at the plate at this stage, flipping singles over the shortstop's head on tough pitches, and driving the fat ones. Unsustainable BABIP, but he's still a good-to-very-good player at this point. And Encarnacion's for real, given he's always had power, changed his follow-through this year, and has passed the milestones you'd want to look for to verify that he's for real. I would take Trumbo over Teixeira, yes. Given that Encarnacion's third-base eligible, you can argue for him over Tex too.

I don't own Trout in any of my three leagues either, and that makes me sad. No, we could not have seen this kind of performance coming, at least not this quickly. Hell, even if you account for Trout being the number-one-ranked prospect in baseball in some circles coming into this season (or at least top three along with Bryce Harper and Matt Moore), and you gave him five years to develop...still not sure we could have or should have expected this. Trout's on pace to hit better than .340, crack 20-plus homers and steal 40-plus bases. Would you like to know how many other players have ever done that? The answer is zero.

From: Christopher Liss
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: July 24, 2012 9:08 PM PDT
To: Jonah Keri

If Friedman's too patient and risk averse, then it's too bad he ever left Wall Street. They should hire the London Whale to run the Rays in his place

Good stats on Ichiro, and keep in mind that triple-slash line was on the road generally and not in lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium in particular. In fact, the only park with a better left-hander OPS than Yankee Stadium from 2009-2011 is Coors Field.

My issue with Trumbo is the poor plate discipline (75 K, 25 BB). It doesn't matter one bit for fantasy, and actually, all things being equal, I'd rather my players not walk a whole lot unless they're big stolen-base guys. But it's tough to sustain hitting for both average and power unless you make good contact and/or walk a fair amount. Mike Morse did it last year, Alfonso Soriano was a top fantasy player (though rarely hit for average) and Ryan Braun managed it when he first came into the league. But I could easily see Trumbo taking the Adam Lind path over the next couple of seasons, too. I'd take Teixeira over him the rest of the way and even next year despite Trumbo's advantageous age. As for Sale, it's also worth mentioning that at one point, they moved him into the closer role briefly because they were so worried about his health. In some ways his situation is more precarious than Strasburg's, though without the $300 million arm.

Just an hour ago, Alex Rodriguez was diagnosed with a fractured left hand and could be out until September. While ARod's 36, his .274/.354/.449 line is pretty disappointing for an ostensibly healthy (until now) inner-circle Hall of Famer, and it's hard to say those numbers are a fluke as he went .276/.362/.461 last year. While an 800-plus OPS is solid for a third baseman these days, given his contract and historical stature you'd think he'd have had more left in the tank. After all, Chipper Jones has been as banged up as anyone the last five years, is 40 and has a .316/.390/.502 line this year. When Jones was 36, he went .364/.470/.574. While Yankee Stadium isn't as hitter friendly for righties as it is for lefties, it's still a top-10-ish park, and certainly not a major drag on his numbers. Moreover, ARod's been significantly better at home than on the road since the new stadium opened. Any thoughts on why ARod's limping to the finish line? Do you expect him to hit the 119 more homers he needs to break Barry Bonds' record? And why were players like Jones at 36 and Lance Berkman (last year) and Carlos Beltran (this year) at 35 able to perform better than one of the all-time greats as he ages?

From: Jonah Keri
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: July 25, 2012 11:41:03 AM PDT
To: Christopher Liss

We'll see if he takes the shackles off a bit. There's such a thing as aggressive selling as surely as there is aggressive buying. If Friedman gets a big haul for someone like Shields, that could go a long way toward sustaining the Rays' success in the next few years.

Absolutely agree on Ichiro. Someone asked me on Twitter if I'd ever read a study on how so-called "change-of-scenery" guys perform with their new teams, given people seem to talk about that issue all the time (Kevin Youkilis being the most resonant recent example). Who knows, maybe there's some intangible factor that helps Ichiro raise his game in New York, beyond the obvious park effect improvement.

The thing about walk rates, and this nebulous thing we call plate discipline, is that the pre-Moneyball thesis still holds: to some extent, hitters draw walks because pitchers are afraid of them, not just because they have a good batting eye. I feel fairly confident in saying that Ryan Braun has learned, over the years, to better pick out good pitches to hit from bad ones. But he's also turned into one of the four or five best hitters on Earth, which means he's going to get more intentional, and semi-intentional walks. If Trumbo keeps flashing 35-40-homer power, he'll see fewer pitches to hit and thus walk more, even if he doesn't want to. Vladimir Guerrero boosted his walk rate as his career went on, and you can't tell me Vlad was a more patient hitter at 35 then he was at 25.

Man, there could be a ton of reasons why A-Rod's struggling with mid-30s injuries and decline more than his predecessors. Could be anything from training regimens to PED-related issues to simple luck of the draw. Another possibility: A-Rod has more baseball miles on him having reached the majors as a teenager. We always hear talk of basketball miles with guys like Kobe, why not, to a lesser extent, baseball miles with prodigies like A-Rod? I think he's got a good shot at breaking Bonds' record; he was starting to hit again in July, he plays in a ballpark that's amenable to homers, and his team has a strong financial incentive to keep running him out there. He'll eventually become a DH, which could also spare his body and allow him to stay healthier and get more hacks in.

The big debate to me is what you do if you're the Yankees. They're going to cruise to an AL East title no matter what. And we know the playoffs are at least partly a crapshoot. But I think of a team like the 2010 Rangers, who snagged Cliff Lee at the deadline, then blazed through the AL playoffs on their new ace's back. Surely acquiring reinforcements for the playoffs carries some value to the team that pulls it off, even when that team's already a near-lock to make the postseason. Whether it's Chase Headley or a front-line starting pitcher or even just more part-time help along the lines of Andruw Jones, if I'm a Yankees fan, I'd like to see another move or two in the next few days.

From: Christopher Liss
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: July 25, 2012 8:38 PM PDT
To: Jonah Keri

I just realized I neglected to address your comment about Trout's possible 20-40-.340 season, which you pointed out would be the only one in major-league history. It reminded me of my favorite MLB trivia question: Who are the only two players in major-league history to go 40-30-.340? Readers can answer in the comments if you haven't heard it before. No cheating!