Luis Severino, a Changeup, and a Little Bit of Luck

Luis Severino had a great 2015 in his two month debut, and was supposed to take a big step forward in 2016. Luis Severino took a big step backward in 2016. He was sent back to AAA in May, and when he came back late in the season, he was almost exclusively used as a reliever (albeit with incredible results). The reason for his struggles is pretty clear, even on the back of his baseball card – a 1.39 HR/9 rate. So clearly, the homer problem is what we’ll be looking into today, but what if I showed you this?

Severino 1

 

*as SP

You’ll see that I only used his numbers as a starting pitcher; they would be skewed in his favor if I included his dominant innings as a reliever. Even so, the number of fly balls were extremely low, he wasn’t being hit very hard… in fact, he was generating a lot of infield pop ups and a lot of soft contact in general. This is the opposite of what one would expect from a pitcher with a homer problem. It gets even weirder.

Severino 2

His issue in 2016 was homers, but in the roughly one-third of his innings as a starter in the first time against an opposing batting order, he beat the league average and his own 2015 mark, which had actually been below league average. And for good measure, in the other roughly one-third of his innings that he was a relief pitcher, he gave up zero home runs. That’s befuddling. But there is a silver lining to this; we now know where the problem is. Clearly, Severino’s problems lie in the second and third time through the opposing order. We can finally find the glaring problems there.

Severino 3
Severino’s problems can be summed up in this table. While his groundball rate was still healthy and even above league average, there was still a significant decrease from the 51.9% mark he posted in 2015 in the same circumstances. When his groundball rate dropped, his line drive rate rose to the point that would tie Mike Fiers for the league lead (and that isn’t a good thing). So the increased line drives were part of the problem, and as the saying goes, increased line drive rate equals higher BABIP. In Severino’s case, “higher” means .394, which is, by the nature of the statistic, absolutely unsustainable. Additionally, the 3.0 HR/9 is extremely ugly (as expected, since this is where we deduced the homer problem to be), and yet the HR/FB rate can expect positive regression as well.

Now, before we pin all of Severino’s troubles on luck, let’s remember that he is responsible for turning those ground balls he was getting in 2015 into line drives. Severino went from throwing his changeup 12.8% of the time in 2015 to only 8.9% in 2016, essentially becoming a fastball/slider only pitcher. Without an offspeed pitch or even a third offering of any sort, Severino naturally became rather predictable as the game went on. I am not sure exactly why Severino scrapped his changeup, and this Eno Sarris chart you’re about to see will only puzzle us further.

eno sarris changeup

The entire article deserves a full read for context, but by Sarris’ metric, Luis Severino had the 16th best changeup among starters in 2015. Maybe there are some imperfections with PITCHf/x, maybe the sample size was too small, but batters only hit .222/.323/.259 against it, so the results back up the metric. That kind of effectiveness would have gone a long way for Severino in 2016. To the Yankees’ credit, the only instructions they gave Severino when he was sent back to the minors were to work on his changeup. Later in the season, after the Yankees called him back up to New York, Severino was deployed as a relief pitcher, allowing him to continue his two pitch ways.

Clearly, there are two factors we were able to pin down that derailed Luis Severino. Some of the problem for him was terrible luck, as the .394 BABIP and 31.0% HR/FB are likely to come back down to earth. Some of the problem was self inflicted, like the abandoning of his changeup, which at 57.9% in 2015 was a ground ball machine, leading to more line drives in 2016. The recipe for success is there for Severino, both in his right arm and in the wishes of the Yankee management. Take spring training stories for what you feel they are worth, but it sounds like Severino is working on reincorporating that 2015 changeup back into his repertoire. If it is indeed back, beginning with his first start scheduled for April 7, expect Severino to take the step forward in 2017 that he was supposed to take in 2016.
All stats via FanGraphs

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Kiermaier Takes Guaranteed Cash, Rays Upgrade Asset

Centerfielder/Sabermetric superstar Kevin Kiermaier signed an extension with the Tampa Bay Rays for 6/53.5M this week. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs notes that he will receive roughly 30M for three arbitration seasons and 12M per year for three free agency seasons. There will also likely be a 12M team option. Cameron’s article, while rightfully criticizing Major League Baseball’s flawed arbitration system, will run counter to my argument. Kiermaier is an excellent player, no doubt – a defensive wiz, great base runner, and a league average bat to boot. One thing that is not on his side is age. Kiermaier will be 27 this season, would have been 30 in free agency, and will be 33 or 34 when his contract is over. Much of Kiermaier’s value is derived from his defensive prowess; he has recorded a 44 UZR for his work in center field in his career. While this is impressive, the precedent for Kiermaier to continue this excellence through his free agent years is unlikely. Let’s consider the center fielders of the UZR era who have signed significant free agent contracts.

Major Free Agent Center Fielders’ UZR

Player FA Age Contract CF UZR (Pre-Contract) CF UZR (Post-Contract)
Carlos Beltran 28 7/119M 16.1 15.1
Juan Pierre 29 5/44M 32.6 -0.8
Gary Matthews Jr. 32 5/50M 12.4 -24.4
Torii Hunter 32 5/90M 11.9 -17.7
Aaron Rowand 30 5/60M 46.2 7
Melvin Upton Jr. 28 5/75.25M 18.6 1.6
Angel Pagan 31 4/40M -1.5 -25.6
Michael Bourn 30 4/48M 51.6 -14.2
Jacoby Ellsbury 30 7/153M 28.9 -2

*data via FanGraphs

Here we see a list of center fielders with (mostly) fantastic defensive records before signing a free agent contract around the age of 30. With the exception of Carlos Beltran, the youngest player on this list, every single one of these players’ defensive value in center cratered. All of them were or will be rendered unplayable in center before the expiration of their contracts. Kevin Kiermaier is a fantastic center fielder, but even he is no immortal among these men. With the stench of the Jacoby Ellsbury deal still fresh in the air, it is likely that most executives around the game will prefer developing defense rather than buying it.

The Rays get to pay Kiermaier 24-36M for 3-4 free agent seasons in exchange for the guaranteed money during his arbitration years, but if Kiermaier the hypothetical free agent isn’t going to be paid for his defense, is his bat really going to be worth 3/24M or 4/36M? Looking at Kiermaier’s place among center fielders with at least 1000 plate appearances in the previous three seasons, his wRC+ made him this red mark on the graph.

wRC+ chart

He’s holding his own (league average), and this is around where he has been for his whole career, but this is also supposed to be his prime. If this is the offensive peak (plateau?) of Kevin Kiermaier, it’s hard to imagine him creating 24-36M worth of value if the plateau crumbles around the age 30 mark.

While Kevin Kiermaier is a bonafide stud, it’s likely he will only be one until he reaches what would have been his free agent years. By signing this extension, I believe Kiermaier increased his career earnings, while taking that money guaranteed. However, don’t presume that Tampa was reckless about the 24-36M they will allocate to Kiermaier over those last three or four years; precedents can be broken, and he is an awesome player. It’s also important to consider the new asset that Tampa upgraded to, a nice Adam Eaton-esque carrot to dangle in front of interested teams – seven years of control of Kevin Kiermaier.

Sigh of Relief Aside, Expect a Big Year From David Price

No matter what team you root for, we are all baseball fans, and as baseball fans, the game is better when David Price comes out of a visit with Dr. James Andrews in one piece. Red Sox fans held their collective breaths after the (since updated) report was released that Price was being sent to Dr. Andrews following a troubling MRI scan. Even Boston’s brass was expecting to lose Price for the year to Tommy John Surgery. Of course, it is not known exactly what Price was diagnosed with, and being shut down for seven to ten days is still troubling, but while the spirits are up, let’s consider something else: David Price will be back in serious Cy Young contention this season.

To be clear, David Price was an excellent pitcher in 2016. Any team would sign up for a 4.5 fWAR pitcher, and that production alone is All Star worthy. However, in the context of David Price’s career, 2016 qualified as an “off year.” His previous two seasons saw him post totals of 6 fWAR and 6.4 fWAR, respectively. Looking at traditional stats, his 3.99 ERA was his highest since his 128 inning rookie season. So while Price was worth every penny in 2016, it wasn’t the rosiest year of his career.

If we want to find out what was different for David Price in 2016, we won’t have to look very far.

What Went Wrong For David Price in 2016

Year HR/9 FB% HR/FB% Pull% Hard Hit%
2010 0.65 39.6% 6.5% 30.1% 25.5%
2011 0.88 36.9% 9.7% 34.4% 24.7%
2012 0.68 27.0% 10.5% 35.3% 25.6%
2013 0.77 33.4% 8.6% 34.7% 28.6%
2014 0.91 38.1% 9.7% 36.4% 28.3%
2015 0.69 36.4% 7.8% 33.3% 28.2%
2016 1.17 33.9% 13.5% 44.1% 34.8%

*all stats via FanGraphs

Starting in column two, we can see a clear cut spike in the number of home runs he allowed. Your first thought may be that this can be explained by his having to pitch in the notoriously hitter friendly Fenway Park, but Price has pitched nearly his entire career in the confines of the American League East and hasn’t had a homer problem until this point. So we move to column two, with the hopes that an increased flyball percentage would be the answer to our question. However, his flyball percentage was actually his third lowest recorded since 2010, which makes his spiked home run-per-flyball percentage in column four even more puzzling. With the mystery unsolved, we move to the next column, which measures the percentage of balls in play that were pulled by opposing batters. This rate increased dramatically in 2016, and it coincides with the escalated hard hit rate in column six.

If opposing batters (generally righties) are squaring up on the ball and pulling it more than ever (generally to the Green Monster) on Price, it stands to reason that he is giving them pitches to pull hard. Let’s first examine a heatmap from Price’s pitch locations to right handed batters over the same six year sample size we have been using.

fullsizerender-7

*via FanGraphs

This looks pretty good! It’s no wonder why Price has been so adept at avoiding the longball; he really pounds the outside corner on those right handed batters. So let’s look at 2016 and see if anything has changed.  

fullsizerender-9

*via FanGraphs

Yeah, that will change your fortunes. Much less of that outside corner action, much more of that “meatball right down the middle” action. I decided to dig a little deeper and look at which of his four pitches (fastball, cutter, changeup, and curve) was most responsible, or if multiple pitches were culprits. I’ll save you the trouble and get to the one culprit.

fullsizerender-8

*via FanGraphs

We’ve got a match, and you probably guessed it – it’s the fastball. I can’t explain to you why Price was missing his spots, but you and I know that this is a game of inches, and his fastball was responsible for 16 of the 30 homers he gave up. While this is purely speculation, it’s possible that Price was getting acclimated to his new environment and 217M contract. Whatever the case may be, this is the only adjustment that he really has to make in 2017 to return to his previous levels of Cy Young stardom.

Pitching is an unforgiving occupation, and pitchers often spend years refining their craft, but I am willing to go out on a limb and bet that someone of David Price’s caliber can make this one readjustment. He is no longer the new big ticket addition in Boston (that would be Chris Sale), nor is he the defending Cy Young (that would be another teammate, Rick Porcello), which should lessen the pressure somewhat. With the hopes that Price is in good health, you can expect a huge bounce back year from him in 2017.

Mark Trumbo and Fitting a Square Peg in a Round Hole

A long, slow dance in free agency for Mark Trumbo culminated with a three year pact worth 37.5M to return to his 2016 team, the Baltimore Orioles. Trumbo, a classic slugger, reportedly hoped for an extra year and a total value of 75-80M on the heels of season in which he led Major League Baseball with 47 home runs. Those who favor traditional statistics would point to Trumbo’s home run totals and argue that he is one of the premier sluggers in the game, but in a baseball landscape run by the sabermetric crowd, Trumbo is seen as a one dimensional player. In this chart, we will look at statistics that paint the picture that Trumbo is a one dimensional player.

Mark Trumbo and His Contemporaries (2016)

Player 1st Half BA 2nd Half BA UZR/150 Baserunning Runs fWAR
Mark Trumbo .288 .214 -9.9 -2.0 2.2
Mark Reynolds .283 0.1
Chris Carter .213 0.9
Jose Bautista -9.3 1.4
Joe Mauer -2.2 1


It is argued that Trumbo’s year was inflated by an unsustainable .288 batting average in the first half, comparing him to Mark Reynolds, a cautionary tale of a player who peaked with a rather one dimensional 44 homer season of his own. This is only accentuated by the fact that Trumbo’s batting average collapsed to .214 in the second half; this is nearly identical to fellow 40 homer masher, Chris Carter, who was non-tendered for being one dimensional himself. Incidentally, Carter has been mentioned as a cheaper and nearly as valuable alternative for teams unwilling to make the splurge this offseason on Trumbo. On the field, Trumbo has been worth just about -10 runs per 150 games, which is more negative value than Jose Bautista, who was ravaged by injuries this season. On the bases, he provided enough negative value to compare to Joe Mauer, a former catcher.

There are several issues with this argument though. The first is that Trumbo’s 2.2 fWAR is significantly higher than the one dimensional sluggers (and others) he is being labeled alongside. Another is that he was stuck in the outfield by Baltimore in 2016 despite having no business being there. In fact, in his career, Trumbo grades out as an above average first baseman. On the basepaths, Trumbo’s value is 105/146 of all qualified players, which isn’t as much of a tanker as one would think. As for his fluctuating halves, there is a tale behind that too.

Mark Trumbo, Above Average First Baseman

Player BABIP wRC+ UZR/150 
Mark Trumbo (1st Half) .327 143
Mark Trumbo (2nd Half) .216 98
Mark Trumbo (Career) .288 111 6.3 (1B)
2016 1B AVG .307 120 .3


Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
assesses whether a player is going through a lucky (or unlucky) streak based on deviation from their normalized rate. The average BABIP is .290, and Trumbo is no different, checking in at .288 for his career. His first half was above the average rate, while his second half was at an extreme (and unsustainable) low. As you can see in the chart, his wRC+ is in line with the offensive minded first basemen of the league, and there is room for some uptick. His defense at first base, even if 6.3 is too optimistic, can make him a 75M dollar man. A lot of Trumbo’s depressed value comes from spending too much time in right field; this chart will break down the calculation behind Trumbo’s 2016 fWAR and estimate what he can provide if played at his true position (and some time at DH).

Mark Trumbo as Full Time 1B (2016, 2017 Projection)

Player Mark Trumbo
Batting Runs 18.7
Baserunning Runs -2
Fielding Runs* 5.7
Positional Adjustment* -12
League Adjustment 2.6
Replacement Runs 20.1
fWAR* 3.4

fWAR calculation: (BR+BsR+FR+Positional Adjustment+League Adjustment+Replacement Runs)/(R/W)

*Assumes a 6.3 UZR/150, 135 games played as 1B, 15 games played as DH

This is an aggressive projection, but Trumbo proves that he is not a one dimensional player. A 3.4 win player is extremely valuable, and if he produces to that level over the next three years, he will be provide a significant amount of surplus value.

Mark Trumbo Projected Surplus Value, 2017-2019

Year fWAR $/WAR Value Produced Salary Surplus/Deficit
2017 3.4 8M 27.2M 11M +16.2M
2018 2.9 8.4M 24.4M 11M +13.4M
2019 2.4 8.8M 21.1M 11M +10.1M
Totals 8.7 72.7M 37.5M* +35.2M*

*Assumed aging curve via FanGraphs: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37, assumes a 5% inflation/year in $/WAR

*4.5M of Mark Trumbo’s contract is deferred and to be paid in 1.5M increments from 2020-2022; that amount was subtracted from the overall surplus. 

This chart shows the full potential of Mark Trumbo, quality first baseman. As calculated in the “Value Produced” column, he is rather close to the 75M man he marketed himself as. Because of the stigma surrounding his 2016 season, his market did not develop, and clearly over corrected. Contending teams with needs at first base went elsewhere – the Red Sox signed Mitch Moreland, the Indians signed Edwin Encarnacion, and the Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales. Even the Colorado Rockies signed SS/CF Ian Desmond for 70M (plus the 11th overall pick in the draft) to learn yet another new position. Unfortunately for Mark Trumbo, the team he signed with, the Baltimore Orioles, already employs a first baseman in Chris Davis. This redundancy will force Trumbo to again be a square peg in a round hole; part time DH, part time right fielder. This has been an unfortunate circumstance for him throughout his career, playing for teams that already had Albert Pujols and Paul Goldschmidt. What might have been to see Trumbo realize his full value, on a contract he deserves, and hitting moonshots out of Coors Field or Fenway Park.

Making a Realistic Jose Quintana Trade Proposal

After jettisoning Chris Sale to Boston and Adam Eaton to Washington respectively, the Chicago White Sox are in the midst of a full scale rebuild. While bolstering the farm system with those two trades, the White Sox still have many trade chips that possibly contending teams are interested in. None of those chips are more valuable than their top starting pitcher, Jose Quintana.

The 27 year old ace is so valuable because of his youth and his contract. Over the next two years, Quintana is owed just 6M and 8.8M respectively, then has two no brainer team options for 2019 and 2020 at 10.5M apiece. In total, Quintana is under contract over the next four years for just 35.8M. This chart shows the Wins Above Replacement that Quintana has produced over the past four years, as well as what he is projected to produce over the next four years (which is the remaining duration of his contract).

Jose Quintana Age 24-27 Production and Age 28-31 Projection

Year fWAR Age
2013 3.5 24
2014 5.1 25
2015 4.8 26
2016 4.8 27
2017 4.8 28
2018 4.8 29
2019 4.8 30
2020 4.3 31
Projection Total 18.7

*Assumed aging curve via FanGraphs: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37

This projection is based on an assumed aging curve that forecasts 18.7 WAR from Quintana. That is an aggressive and optimistic estimate, but not completely out of left field. In fact, a recent article by Craig Edwards on FanGraphs identifies pitchers throughout baseball history who compare to Quintana based on their numbers through age 27. The chart from that article displays the statistics of those comparable players in their ages 28-31 seasons in an effort to project Quintana’s value.

Jose Quintana Comps Age-28 through Age-31 (via FanGraphs)

Name WAR
Mike Mussina 23
David Cone 19.4
Roy Oswalt 18.2
Dan Haren 17.4
David Price* 17
John Lackey 13
Bret Saberhagen 12.5
Jake Peavy 11.9
Dwight Gooden 5.9
AVERAGE 15.4

*David Price’s age-31 season will come in 2017

There are several details of note in this chart. For the purposes of this article, we are only concentrating on WAR, and the previous 18.7 projection for Quintana fits right in the ballpark; while still bullish, it would reasonably slot in at third on this list. The second note is regarding David Price – his data is incomplete, as 2017 will be his age 31 season. That means there is potentially 3-5 WAR to be added, but we will consider this chart as is and use that value as our margin of error. One last thing to note is the outlier that is Dwight Gooden. As mentioned in Edwards’ article, Gooden’s extreme drop off in production had more to do with his off the field demons with illegal drugs rather than a typical decline; in my opinion, it is inaccurate to include his numbers and the baggage surrounding them in an effort to project Jose Quintana. Therefore, in the following chart, I kept Price as is, added the theoretical projection for Quintana’s age 28-31 seasons, and eliminated the outlier Gooden.

Jose Quintana Comps Age-28 through Age-31 (Adjusted)

Name WAR
Mike Mussina 23
David Cone 19.4
Roy Oswalt 18.2
Dan Haren 17.4
David Price 17
John Lackey 13
Bret Saberhagen 12.5
Jake Peavy 11.9
Jose Quintana* 18.7
AVERAGE 16.8

*Projection

This new average is what one can expect Jose Quintana to produce in the next four years, and the White Sox will market him as such. If one divides those 16.8 WAR over the four years equally, Quintana would produce a theoretical 4.2 WAR per year. If the cost per win in 2017 is set at the assumed 8M and inflates each year at 5%, we can estimate how much value Quintana produces in dollar value in the following chart.

Jose Quintana Projected Surplus Value, Age-28 through Age-31

Year WAR $/WAR Value Produced Salary Surplus/Deficit
2017 4.2 8M 33.6M 6M +27.6M
2018 4.2 8.4M 35.3M 8.8M +26.5M
2019 4.2 8.8M 37M 10.5M +26.5M
2020 4.2 9.3M 39M 10.5M +28.5M
Totals 16.8 144.9M 35.8M +109.1M

*Assumes a 5% inflation/year in $/WAR

As you can see in the fourth column from the left, Quintana is projected to produce 144.9M worth of value for the rest of his contract. The next column breaks down the salary he is due to be paid, and by subtracting that 35.8M total from the 144.9M he is truly worth, you are left with 109.1M of surplus value. This is the exact number that can describe Quintana’s stock in the view of Rick Hahn and co. in the White Sox front office. For a team to acquire Quintana from Chicago, they would have to surrender something close to equal value in prospects. This is where things really get interesting.

Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli of the Point of Pittsburgh wrote a highly influential article in 2014 (updated in 2016) that provides dollar valuation for top prospects based on their position in the top 100 list and status as either a position player or pitcher, with the data being derived from past prospects. That article deserves a full read, but the purpose it serves for this piece is a guide to crafting a realistic package of prospects for Quintana. Based on this system, one can take the Top 100 Prospect List, assign dollar valuations for each player, and identify which teams have the pieces to trade for Quintana and what exactly a fair swap would entail.

After assigning dollar valuations for each prospect, one can identify every team that can be reasonably linked to Quintana and create a trade package in the value of at least 109.1M.

Top 100 Prospect Valuations for Teams Potentially Inquiring on Jose Quintana

Team Players/Valuations($) TOTALS
Astros Francis Martes (29.8M) Kyle Tucker (38.2M)
David Paulino (16.5M) Derek Fisher (20.6M)
Forrest Whitley (16.5M) 121.6M
Braves Dansby Swanson (73.5M) Ozzie Albers (62M)
Kolby Allard (16.5M) Ian Anderson (15.6M)
Kevin Maitan (20.6M) Mike Soroka (15.6M) 203.8M
Cubs Ian Happ (62M) Eloy Jiminez (62M)
Dylan Cease (15.6M) Jeimer Candelario (20.6M) 160.2M
Dodgers Cody Bellinger (38.2M) Jose DeLeon (29.8M)  
Alex Verdugo (38.2M) Willie Calhoun (20.6M)
Yadier Alvarez (15.6M) Yusniel Diaz (20.6M) 163M
Pirates Tyler Glasnow (69.9M) Austin Meadows (73.5M)
Josh Bell (62M) Kevin Newman (38.2M)
Mitch Keller (16.5M) 260.1M
Red Sox Andrew Benintendi (73.5M) Rafael Devers (62M)
Jason Groome (29.8M) 165.3M
Yankees Clint Frazier (62M) Gleyber Torres (62M
Jorge Mateo (62M) Aaron Judge (62M)
Blake Rutherford (22.4M) Justus Sheffield (15.6M) 286M

Let’s walk through the possible packages.

Houston Astros

The Astros are known to be in on Quintana, but reportedly rebuffed a trade proposal including major league starter Joe Musgrove (who was worth 15.6M on this list just a year ago) as well as their two top prospects Francis Martes (29.8M) and Kyle Tucker (38.2M). Assuming Musgrove’s stock has only increased since experiencing big league success as a rookie, this is exactly the kind of package our chart here dictates as a fair trade for Quintana. If Houston refused to pull the trigger on that trade, it is likely they are out on Quintana.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves are in the latter stages of a rebuilding phase and looking for major league talent. They were connected to former White Sox ace Chris Sale before his trade to Boston, but Dansby Swanson (73.5M) is probably one of two or three prospects on our chart that can be deemed untouchable. Regardless, a deal could be made centered around Ozzie Albers (62M) and filled out by any three of Kolby Allard (16.5M), Ian Anderson (15.6M), Kevin Maitan (20.6M), or Mike Soroka (15.6M). It would be a blow to the depth of their farm system, but it is also a testament to how deep their young core is.

Chicago Cubs

Believe it or not, the defending World Series champs have work to do to stay on top, even with their crafty acquisition of Wade Davis to fortify the bullpen. Theo Epstein isn’t expecting Kyle Hendricks to pitch like prime Greg Maddux every year, 2015 NL Cy Young Jake Arrieta is a pending free agent, and while Jon Lester should have some good years left, John Lackey is in his age 38 season. They have a wealth of expendable prospects, and a package centered around either Ian Happ (62M) or Eloy Jimenez (62M) and filled out by Dylan Cease (15.6M) and Jeimer Candelario (20.6M) would only come about 10M short in value for Quintana. If things came down to a heated bidding war, a monster package of both Happ and Jimenez would overshoot Quintana’s value by about 15M. Young major league assets Albert Almora and NLCS MVP Javy Baez are most likely to stay on the North Side of Chicago while the Cubs seek to become the first repeat World Champions since 2000.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are most concerned with the hole at second base, but a theoretical Quintana deal is possible if they so choose to go that route. It’s not likely, but a package of their top three prospects Cody Bellinger (38.2M), Jose DeLeon (29.8M), and Alex Verdugo (38.2M) would be in the right range. Of course, no team wants to give up so much from their top tier, so another deal could center around DeLeon, one of Bellinger/Verdugo, and two of Yadier Alvarez (15.6M), Willie Calhoun (20.6M), and Yusniel Diaz (20.6M). Don’t expect to see Quintana in a Dodger uniform anytime soon.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are hotly in pursuit of Quintana at the time of this writing. A deal centered around Austin Meadows (73.5M) or Tyler Glasnow (69.9M) and sweetened by Kevin Newman (38.2M) would be just about enough for Quintana. However, the Pirates are more likely to keep Glasnow and trade Meadows due to their lack of pitching depth and crowded outfield. If the Pirates don’t want to deal either of their two most prized prospects, they could use Josh Bell (62M) as the centerpiece and embellish the offer with Newman and Mitch Keller (16.5M). Watch the Pirates in their bids to pry Quintana from Chicago.

Boston Red Sox

After already acquiring an ace from the White Sox at a steep price this offseason, the Red Sox are likely tapped out of major moves this winter. Like the Dodgers, they are extremely unlikely to make a deal for Quintana, but a deal is theoretically possible. Andrew Benintendi (73.5M) is another untouchable piece from the chart, but a package headlined by Rafael Devers (62M) and Jason Groome (29.8M) would be a respectable, albeit lowball offer for Quintana. The Red Sox, already unlikely to want to give up both Devers and Groome, would have to add even more value from their depth outside the Top 100, while the White Sox can certainly find a better offer. One fifth of the 2016 White Sox rotation is already more than enough to keep Boston fans pleased.

New York Yankees

Like the Pirates, the Yankees have been heavily linked to Quintana in recent days, but their intentions are a lot less clear. They are in the latter stages of a rebuilding/reloading stage that should come to fruition in the next two years, but it is conceivable that they dip into their considerable prospect wealth to accelerate their path back to contention. They have several valuable centerpieces, including Clint Frazier (62M), Gleyber Torres (62M), Jorge Mateo (62M), and Aaron Judge (62M). A monster package of any two of those would be an interesting play in a potential bidding war and in the mold of a Happ/Jimenez offer. It should be noted that Blake Rutherford’s (22.4M) ranking as the 51st best prospect in the top 100 was one slot away from a 38.2M valuation. Packaging one of New York’s top two pieces, Frazier and Torres, alongside Rutherford, would be slightly underwhelming; pieces from outside the top 100 would have to be added by New York. If the Yankees brass is reluctant to part with Frazier or Torres, another possibility is the use of Judge or Mateo as the centerpiece and including both Rutherford and Justus Sheffield (15.6M). The Yankees are notorious for not showing their cards, so nobody can be sure if they are truly hot on Quintana, but the connection is worth following.

As you can see, the price to pay for Jose Quintana is sky high, and rightfully so. In this exercise, we didn’t even consider variables such as a three team deal or the possible inclusion of David Robertson in a Quintana deal, whose hefty 24M salary through 2018 would offset the prospect cost for a team willing to take on the added payroll. Whether your favorite team or your favorite prospect(s) are involved in a trade for Jose Quintana remains to be seen, but it is likely that the White Sox will be waiting to receive something close to one of these packages.

Attn. Chris Antonetti: Sell High on Josh Tomlin

As of this writing, the Cleveland Indians are heading back home for game six of the 2016 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. With a 3-2 lead against this 103 win Cubs team, it is far too early for Cleveland to throw a ticker tape parade. While both of these teams are well deserving of the World Series title this year, the individual attention has (rightfully so) spotlighted on Terry Francona and his management of relief weapons Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. With Corey Kluber being anointed the ace of the postseason and Miller as the ALCS MVP, there is one more Indians pitcher that Francona would be lost without, and that is the unheralded starter Josh Tomlin, the very same man who will be pitching game six. Without the season ending injury of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar’s strained right forearm relegating him to only an inning of relief in the World Series, Josh Tomlin would most likely have not made the starting rotation for Cleveland in the playoffs. And yet, here are his numbers in this postseason:

15.1 IP, 1.76 ERA, 5.3 H/9, 11/4 K/BB, 0 HR Allowed

And for good measure, some September statistics:

26.2 IP, 1.69 ERA, 7.8 H/9, 10/0 K/BB, 1 HR Allowed

You will notice that these numbers are cherry picked, and they are, for a reason. Based off of these numbers, Josh Tomlin’s postseason heroics spell of a pitcher who gives enough innings for Francona to use his bullpen effectively, keeps the hits to a minimum (and in the ballpark), while making up for a middling strikeout rate with his low walk percentage. Then, we look at the pitches Tomlin uses (by usage and average velocity):

Fastball (29.25%, 88.8 mph) Sinker (7.85%, 88.4 mph) Cutter (39.4%, 86.4 mph) Curve (16.4%, 76 mph) Change (7.1%, 84.2 mph)

When hearing the description of Tomlin above, the detail in his repertoire that jumps out immediately is his low fastball velocity. When you pair that description with a fastball that sits below 90 mph, the easy comparison that we can’t help but make is to that of 2016 NL ERA leader Kyle Hendricks. Every baseball expert wants to be the one to find “the next Kyle Hendricks,” a diamond in the rough that would embellish their reputation in the industry. Considering his performance in the two most important months of the year, Tomlin’s trade value (and his affordable 5.5M owed through 2018, including a 3M 2018 team option) should be enough to cash in for a solid outfielder. He may be on the wrong side of 30, but he only has 687 IP under his belt, which would suggest low stress on his arm (especially when factoring in his modest stuff). The bottom line is that while Josh Tomlin will not fetch a first division All Star, he has trade value in arguably the most barren pitching free agent class in recent memory.

Why should a team currently one win away from the World Series sell on a starting pitcher like that? The argument that their Kluber/Carrasco/Salazar foundation makes pitching a surplus is null; the injuries to the latter two have proven that you can never have enough pitching. The truth is this: Josh Tomlin will never be this valuable again. First, let us expose the difference between Tomlin and Hendricks by looking at the latter’s repertoire:

Fastball (21.93%, 88.9 mph) Sinker (42.83%, 88.1 mph) Curve (8.13%, 76 mph) Change (27.11%, 80.7 mph)

Hendrick’s bread and butter is the sinker he uses so often (42.83%), and yet Tomlin throws his own only 7.85% of the time, with his bread and butter being the cutter (39.4%).

Now, let’s look at Tomlin’s season through August:

.285 BABIP, 147.1 IP, 35 HR Allowed (20.0 HR/FB% and 2.14 HR/9), 10.14 H/9, ERA 4.89

The BABIP is normalized, and now we see a pitcher who gives up too many hits and can’t keep the ball in the park, which are the opposite of the qualities he is being lauded for in the past two months. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs recently wrote an interesting article detailing why Tomlin gives up so many homers, and his final conclusion is that his lack of fastball velocity is to blame. To drive home the point that Josh Tomlin is getting results he never will again, let’s use statistics from his outlier September/October (postseason included) that are not cherry picked:

.223 BABIP, 42 IP, 1.6 HR/FB%

None of this is sustainable – the average BABIP is .290, closer to his .285 mark through August. The average HR/FB% is 10% – and the normally homer prone Tomlin doubled that mark through August.

Josh Tomlin has been very impressive for the Tribe since the calendar turned to September, and Indian’s fans should not dread what he brings to the mound tomorrow in the potentially clinching game six. He should be credited for his work when the games matter most, and if he is credited, he has trade value. Based on his normal tendencies and these two months being an unsustainable aberration, his value as a trade chip is worth more than his value as a member of Cleveland’s starting rotation. Indians President Chris Antonetti would do well to sell high on the stellar recent performance by Tomlin; standing pat would be like neglecting to cash a paycheck.

References:

http://www.brooksbaseball.net/Josh-Tomlin

http://www.brooksbaseball.net/Kyle-Hendricks

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/why-josh-tomlin-gives-up-homers/

http://www.fangraphs.com/Josh-Tomlin

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tomlijo01.shtml

http://www.fangraphs.com/Kyle-Hendricks

 

 

Don’t Look Now: Michael Pineda is Finally a Reliable Starter

Baseball America’s top five league wide prospects going into the 2011 season were understandably hyped. Sitting at the top of the list was future National League MVP Bryce Harper. Future American League MVP Mike Trout filled the second slot. Rated at number three, Jesus Montero of the New York Yankees was supposed to become the next Mike Piazza; a prodigiously powerful catcher with enough receiving skills to get by until transitioning to first base or DH in his 30s. For a farm system criticized for not producing enough big league contributors and necessitating the signing of high priced free agents, Jesus Montero was supposed to be the 100M bat the Yankees didn’t have to pay for. In September of 2011, he got a cup of coffee in the Bronx and hit .328/.405/.590, an admittedly small sample size that admittedly did echo Piazza’s 1996 campaign in which he finished as the NL MVP runner up. Therefore, the outrage among New Yorkers was understandable on January 23, 2012 when Montero was traded to the Seattle Mariners for 22 year old pitcher Michael Pineda, who as a rookie was an AL All Star. Michael Pineda was supposed to slot in behind ace CC Sabathia in the Yankee rotation for the next half decade, easing the pain of losing the potential 40 homer bat of Montero.

One major shoulder surgery plus setbacks that cost him two full seasons, a DUI, a suspension for overuse of pine tar, and 373 underwhelming innings later, Michael Pineda has not been the return investment that the Yankees have hoped for. His stuff, by all accounts, remains electric, but he has been unable to consistently produce and stay healthy. However, a closer look at his 2016 season shows that he turned a corner after a dud on May 28 (a start in which he lasted only 3.2 innings and left his ERA at 6.92).

In his last 14 starts dating back to June 2nd, Pineda has pitched 83 innings at a 3.58 ERA, sporting a stellar K/BB ratio of 95/23, and with an opposing slash line of .227/.281/.387. These numbers, while only representing a half season, are exactly what the Yankees dreamed for when they traded the prospect rated only behind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. While nobody doubts Michael Pineda’s talent, the idea that he has finally put it all together after five years of ineffectiveness, controversy, and major injuries justifiably raises some eyebrows. Fortunately for Pineda, it looks like that is exactly what he has done.

Through May 28, Pineda’s 6.92 ERA was accompanied by an opposing .322/.371/.581 triple slash. In other words, every batter who faced Pineda essentially put up numbers equivalent to Mike Trout. The statistic Batting Average on Balls in Play measures the impact defense and luck have on batting average. To be succinct, five line drives in ten at bats with only two or three falling for hits will differentiate from a couple high bouncers and two bloop hits in ten at bats when measured in BABIP. The statistic is handy because it separates men who put up numbers that look like Ted Williams’ for a month before falling back to earth from the real Ted Williams. A thorough explanation can be found at FanGraphs, but as a rule, the average BABIP is .300, with numbers as low as .230 and as high as .380 being all but impossible to sustain. The opposing BABIP against Michael Pineda through May 28 was .390; since then, it has been .292. Clearly, Pineda was the recipient of terrible luck to begin the season and his summer turnaround culminates with his BABIP returning to normal rates. Even so, pinning a so called breakout on luck does not satisfy the baseball gods. Delving into Pineda’s approach on the mound reveals a pitcher less likely to hang a slider up in the zone and one more likely to use that biting slider for a strikeout.

In 2015, Big Mike (he is listed at 6’7″ and 260 lbs) used his devastating slider to strike out 16 Oriole batters in a dominant May 10th start. He pitched to a frustrating 5.04 ERA for the rest of the season, but in his last 14 starts his slider has become the deadly weapon it was on May 10th of last year. Following his May 28th start from this year, he has thrown the slider 12% more often, with a whopping 36% decrease in vertical movement (while maintaining nearly identical horizontal movement). This means he is throwing the slider much more often, with just as much bite, while simultaneously hanging them less often. The drastic refinement of his slider has led to a 25% decrease in HR/FB%, giving up fewer homers in his 83 most recent innings than in his initial 53.1 of the season. Additionally, he has complimented his violent slider with a significant velocity bump for his fastball and changeup. His fastball, measured as the fifth fastest on average in the majors his rookie season, was diminished after two years of shoulder surgery and rehab. Since May 28th, its velocity has increased 1.4 MPH, from a pedestrian 93.2 to a menacing 94.6 MPH. His changeup velocity has increased from 87.8 to 89 MPH, settling in closer to the median of his slider velocity (85.8 MPH on the season) and aforementioned fastball – which further helps him keep hitters off balance and guessing speeds. With all three of his pitches developing into legitimate options, Pineda has enjoyed yet another phenomenon. Since May 28th, opposing hitters have swung 12% more often on pitches outside of the strike zone, while also swinging 6% less on pitches inside the strike zone. Clearly, his already stellar command coupled by refinement in his pitches has given him more deception against the opposition.

Michael Pineda has not been the #2 pitcher the Yankees hoped for when they traded for him in 2012. However, his talent never left him, and for the first time in his Yankee career he has showed consistency, refinement, better luck, and maturity on the mound. Michael Pineda has produced to those original lofty expectations since his low point on May 28th. He is a free agent following the 2017 season, and if he continues to pitch like a solid #2 pitcher, he will be a hot commodity on the open market. With uncertainty surrounding the future of the Yankees rotation, it may be time for Brian Cashman and co. to attempt to extend their big right hander before he prices himself out of the Bronx.

References

http://fangraphs.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com

http://m.mlb.com

 

 

Ripple Effect: Why the Pomeranz/Espinoza Blockbuster is a Catalyst for the 2016 Trading Deadline

On July 14, two weeks in advance of the 2016 MLB Trading Deadline, the Boston Red Sox acquired All Star left hander Drew Pomeranz for top pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza. Much has been written about the magnitude of the deal for both sides; Boston got the top starting pitcher they wanted for this year’s postseason run (not to mention two additional years of team control), while the rebuilding Padres added a crown jewel to their farm system in the 18 year old Espinoza. However, it would be remiss to ignore the effect this deal will have on the trade market for the remainder of this July.

In this expensive free agency era of baseball, teams place immense value on prospects years away from the big league level because they are potentially an affordable commodity. Cost controlled assets like Anderson Espinoza who are under team control for up to six years after making his (presumed) major league debut are invaluable to a team unable to sign a proven veteran such as Zack Greinke to a six year deal worth 206M. Traditionally, top prospects have been used as blue chips to trade for a big league star (often at the end of his contract) – a win now move. However, even teams that wish to contend this year such as the Chicago Cubs or Texas Rangers are less inclined to part with top prospects for what could be their desired “final piece” for a potential championship team. Typically, an established player is at or near the end of his contract, meaning a team would be acquiring the player for two or three months. These “rental” players lose value for the duration left on their deal, and teams are reluctant to relinquish cost controlled assets in a trade.

The New York Yankees of 2016 find themselves in a position that they have not experienced in well over twenty years – a team with no chance to contend. As they prepare to become “sellers” in this year’s trade market, their goal is to turn their current major league assets into blue chip prospects. This rebuilding process is easier said than done, as their two most obvious assets are considered “rental players” in OF/DH Carlos Beltran and southpaw closer Aroldis Chapman. Among their most sought after pieces is 2015 Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award winner Andrew Miller, who is under team control through 2018 for 18M; however, the Yankees would have to receive a “Godfather” offer to consider moving him. That leaves Beltran and Chapman as the two prime chips for New York to deal. 

The Chicago Cubs are 55-36 (as of July 18) and already eight games ahead in the standings. They have one of the strongest cores in baseball, arguably the strongest farm system, and a dire need for left handed relief pitching. After reaching the 2015 NLCS, they are poised to make another deep playoff run and acquire the final piece to get there. With the contending Chicago in need of left handed pitching and the rebuilding Yankees with left handed pitching to spare, even the dimmest of baseball pundits can make the connection that the two teams match up favorably in a trade. Unfortunately for them, the task of formulating a realistic package is difficult considering Chapman is a rental. Many speculate that the Cubs would have to part with C/OF Kyle Schwarber in a deal for Andrew Miller – Theo Epstein himself has declared Schwarber untouchable. After getting by that fantasy, the grim reality for New York is that the pending free agent Chapman will not garner one of the Cubs coveted top prospects. The market simply was not in the Yankees’ favor – until July 14.

When the Boston Red Sox entered trade negotiations with the San Diego Padres for Drew Pomeranz, it was clear that the price for a young All Star under team control would cost one of Boston’s prized prospects. Rather than holding onto Espinoza and targeting a lesser pitcher than Pomeranz, Dave Dombrowski went “all in” for the sake of contending in the present. This bold move changes the market because now the seemingly out of bounds prospects become fair play. Brian Cashman can tell Theo Epstein in Chapman negotiations that Boston paid the price to contend, and therefore he must as well. Epstein certainly does not want to see Chapman traded to a rival like San Francisco or Washington, so the Yankees have gained leverage thanks to Dombrowski. Kyle Schwarber is still a pipe dream for the Yankees brass, but tides have certainly turned.

One outside the box idea is to package Chapman and Beltran in the same deal. The Cubs outfield has seen Schwarber go down for the year, Jason Heyward and Jorge Soler struggle, and Dexter Fowler deal with injuries. Although Carlos Beltran is best suited as a DH at this point in his career, his undeniable consistency with the bat can justify him as the answer to solidify the Cubs’ outfield. By including Beltran with Chapman, the Yankees would be reasonable to ask for one of the Cubs’ coveted prospects (in the Espinoza mold). One who would be a good fit is 2B/OF Ian Happ, who in AA is close to the majors and has shown 20/20 potential. Another target could be top prospect Gleyber Torres, a shortstop praised for his all around tools. With Happ or Torres as the centerpiece the Yankees require, the deal could be filled out with one more “B level” prospect in the Cubs system – 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach (good power but limited defense and blocked by Anthony Rizzo) or OF Billy McKinney (athletic contact hitter but little power) are talented prospects with their own question marks that the Cubs could part with.

Dave Dombrowski is an executive that possesses more gumption than most. For every one of his colleagues, the standard has been set. He dealt a pitcher that could be a superstar down the road for a chance to win now, and still owns the second strongest farm system in baseball.

The 55-36 Cubs own the first.

Return to Glory: How the San Francisco Giants Became a Model Franchise

Before winning the 2010 World Series, it had been 56 years since the San Francisco Giants won the Fall Classic. This was so far in the past, in fact, that the team was stationed in Upper Manhatten, New York at the time. The former New York Giants were one of the most prolific teams in the first half of the 20th century; before they migrated along with the Brooklyn Dodgers to the West Coast for the 1958 season, they had won five championships and seventeen pennants. Managed by the distinguished John McGraw and armed with Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Mel Ott, and the great Willie Mays, the New York Giants laid claim to one of the richest histories of any franchise in the game. It took 54 years for the team that formerly inhabited the Polo Grounds to come out on top in the baseball world again, and they followed up with World Series titles in 2012 and 2014. The question is: how did the Giants return to glory? Luck certainly does not carry a team to three rings in five years, but savvy decisions by the front office certainly played a key role.

Brian Sabean has been a leading figure in the Giants front office since 1993, but was often criticized until 2007 for his inability to build a winning team around Barry Bonds and a penchant for signing aging players to lucrative deals. Right at the end of the Bonds era, Sabean signed 30 year old outfielder Aaron Rowand to a 5/60M deal, despite his lone all star season being an anomaly in a walk year. Roward cashed in and regressed back to his lukewarm career norms, posting a .253/.310/.394 line while playing only 127 games a year on average and being released before the fifth year of the contract. On the mound, Oakland Athletics pitcher Barry Zito was seen as a top free agent. With a Cy Young Award and a track record of durability under his belt, Zito was hyped enough to expect a record setting contract. However, a deeper look into Zito’s numbers suggested otherwise. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was over half a run more than his ERA, proving that his “ace numbers” were largely thanks to an excellent defense behind him. Poor strikeout and walk ratios (6.8 and 3.5/9IP respectively) painted him as a middling starter on the brink of decline. Nevertheless, the Giants signed him through his age 29-37 seasons and paid him 126M. His ERA ballooned to 4.66; fittingly, this time it was identical to his 4.66 FIP.

With the retirement of Barry Bonds and these glaring failures putting his job security in jeopardy, Brian Sabean finally sought new ways to build his team. In 2006, he signed his first round draft pick after forfeiting the picks in the previous two years. That pick developed into two time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. 2007 first round pick, Madison Bumgarner, established himself as one of the game’s premier southpaws when he was called up in 2010. Additionally, 2008 first round pick Buster Posey became one of the best catchers in the game, winning the National League MVP in 2012. This youthful nucleus was the winning formula Sabean never found to compliment Bonds, but it has led the team to three World Series Championships.

Sabean understood that his margin for error on the free agent market was minuscule after years of blunders. He immediately locked up his young talent by extending World Series MVP Bumgarner for a bargain 5/35M and team leader Posey for 9/164M. On the open market, each would assuredly receive 200M contracts, while Sabean retained them for 200M total. However, it is the money that Sabean did not dole out that put the franchise in good position. With Zito’s contract soon to be off the books, San Francisco found themselves financially capable of resigning 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval’s relative youth (28 at time of free agency), fan favorite status, and gaudy postseason statistics (.344/.389/.545) made the decision seem easy. However, Sabean looked at his team’s fallen stars (Lincecum and Matt Cain combined for a 4.62 ERA in 1033 injury plagued innings from 2012-2014) and realized the success of the team lay in their formerly brilliant pitching. Sabean declined to sign Sandoval, citing his poor conditioning and incapability of topping Boston’s 5/95M offer. In reality, the Giants brain trust decided to wait a year to allocate the money towards the vaunted 2015-2016 free agent pitching class, coming away with top pitchers Johnny Cueto (6/130M) and Jeff Samardzija (5/90M). This season, Cueto, Samardzija, and Bumgarner are all posting ace numbers and pushing the Giants to a healthy lead in the highly competitive NL West division. To make up for Sandoval’s absence in the lineup, Sabean resigned All Star Brandon Crawford for 6/75M, a steal for a player who plays a premium position in shortstop. 

Pablo Sandoval has produced a negative 1.1 WAR in his tenure with the Boston Red Sox, with conditioning and injury issues rendering him unplayable.

With three championships already this decade and key players under team control and contract for several seasons to come, the San Francisco Giants find themselves in position to create a dynasty that surpasses their New York predecessors. Their organization’s philosophy of developing through the farm system and Sabean’s ability to invest in the right internal talent has created a stronger team than any from the Barry Bonds era. In an age of baseball where big spending is disincentivized, the Giants’ meticulous front office has led them to perennial contention. 

Those faithful fans from the Polo Grounds only had to wait 54 years.

The Man Behind the Curtain: A Look at Boston Post-Theo Epstein

On October 28, 2007, the Boston Red Sox had just won their second World Series title in four years after an eighty-six year drought. In those eighty-six years, the New York Yankees won the Fall Classic a whopping twenty-six times. However, when Boston general manager Theo Epstein was asked about keeping pace with New York, he replied, “If someone wants to compare us to the Yankees based on winning and results, that’s an incredible standard. If they want to compare us to the Yankees in how we do things, that’s a little off-base.” It was a scathing shot at the rival Yankees and their method of building ballclubs since the turn of the new millennium – trading for the enigma Alex Rodriguez, signing the pricey Jason Giambi, and even “stealing” Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon. Boston had just won two titles with a core of mostly homegrown players, led by Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia. As the architect of the most successful team of the decade, Epstein had every right to be smug. However, looking at the results following his departure to the Windy City in 2011, it becomes clear that the Red Sox merely peaked on prom night and have failed to rebuild a consistent contender.

The 2012 Red Sox season was marred by injuries to key players, but twisted into a circus show led by the drama surrounding new manager Bobby Valentine. Valentine, hired to be fan favorite Terry Francona’s replacement, caused a stir in the clubhouse by speaking to the media on April 15th. Valentine complained about club hero Kevin Youkilis, “I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been for some reason.” Team leader Dustin Pedroia immediately came to his teammate’s defense, firing back, “That’s not the way we go about our stuff here. Maybe that works in Japan.” The rift between Bobby Valentine and his players was set in concrete, and Youkilis was traded on June 25th to the White Sox after 9 seasons in a Boston uniform. Despite reports that Valentine was demoralizing to young third baseman Will Middlebrooks, had ineffective communication with his own coaching staff, and created an overall toxic atmosphere in the clubhouse, upper management decided to stick with him in a season that saw Boston lose 93 games for the first time since 1966. Acquisitions Carl Crawford (7/142M), Andrew Bailey (signed to be the closer), and Marlon Byrd (suspended for PED use) were among the biggest disappointments in new GM Ben Cherington’s first year at the helm. The season came to a head on August 25th, when he pulled off one of the most unique blockbusters in baseball history; Boston dealt Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Nick Punto, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers (who inherited most of the money left on their contracts) in exchange for James Loney and four prospects. The intent of the move was to hit the reset button for 2013; shedding 250M worth of future salary while keeping most of the inner core. At the conclusion of the season, Bobby Valentine was fired after just one year in Beantown.

With the humiliation of 2012 behind them, the Red Sox made quick work to reload for 2013, signing free agents Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, and acquiring Jake Peavy at the trading deadline. With Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jon Lester enjoying healthy and productive seasons, the imprint of Theo Epstein and his core led the team to a World Series championship that fall. The last go around for the group cemented Epstein’s legacy, but as the next two seasons unfolded, Ben Cherington and co. proved their inability to rebuild the team to continue contending.

After the successes of 2013, baseball pundits put the Red Sox back on the map as the team to beat in 2014. Few projected less than 90 wins and a postseason run. ESPN writer Gordon Edes made predictions that included an All Star berth for rookie Xander Bogaerts (who went on to hit .240) and a 5/125M extension for Jon Lester (who was traded mid season and signed with Epstein’s Cubs for 6/155M). Dustin Pedroia toiled through the worst season of his career with a meek .278 average and injuries to boot. Supposed Jacoby Ellsbury replacement Jackie Bradley Jr. hit .198 and was sent to the minors by seasons end. John Lackey was traded to St. Louis, where he experienced a renaissance 2015 while being paid the major league minimum salary (thanks to a unique clause in his contract that Boston declined to take advantage of). Jake Peavy was dealt to San Francisco, where he was a key contributor down the stretch for the Giant’s third World Series win in five years. The only key starter to remain was Clay Buchholz and his 5.34 ERA. Even 39 year old closer Koji Uehara was shut down by September due to fatigue. The sum of the 2014 season was a last place finish and 91 losses, the polar opposite what the “experts” projected.

It is important to note that criticizing baseball writers for their preseason predictions can be considered unfair; after all, the Red Sox were the defending World Champions. What is inexcusable however, is the fact that going into 2015, the Red Sox were once again declared favorites to win the AL East and beyond. Their acquisitions going into 2015 were of the staggeringly exorbitant variety. Outfielder Rusney Castillo was given a Cuban record 72M deal (and spent half the year in the minors, producing a paltry .253/.288/.359 slash line in the majors). Ben Cherington decided to sign the two most expensive third basemen on the market, Hanley Ramirez (4/88M) and Pablo Sandoval (5/95M). Sandoval was signed for his small sample size postseason statistics in San Francisco despite averaging 15 homers and a meager .279/.332/.416 line in the two years preceding the deal. In 2015, he battled conditioning issues, was suspended for using Instagram in the dugout, and produced an inept .245/.292/.366 line. Ramirez, a failed shortstop, was moved off of third base and into left field (a position he never played before) and provided consistent highlights for his bungling defense in front of the Green Monster. After April, he hit only 9 home runs with 31 RBI, and managed to hit even worse than Sandoval at a .238/.277/.367 clip. While making a combined 37M in 2015, Sandoval and Ramirez returned negative value on the investment with a collective -2.2 WAR. Ben Cherington’s other key acquisition was Rick Porcello (traded from Detroit for Yoenis Cespedes), who was due to become a free agent after 2015, was seen as a key trade chip given his success in 2014 with Detroit and his 2.2 HR% dating back to 2011. Instead, Ben Cherington decided to sign Porcello to a 4/82.5M deal before he had even thrown a pitch in a Red Sox uniform, to which Porcello responded with a 3.4 HR%, a 4.92 ERA, and an average of 10.3 H/9. Porcello’s trade value tanked and Boston is still on the hook for 82.5M, an amount he most certainly would not have received in the pitching rich free agent class of that offseason. Joe Kelly (acquired in the John Lackey deal) disappointed with a 4.82 ERA after predicting himself to win the AL Cy Young Award. Allen Craig (also of the John Lackey deal) proved that he is no longer a major league caliber player with a slash line of .152/.239/.203 after finishing 18th in the NL MVP vote as recently as 2013 (he is still on Boston’s payroll for 2/20M). Due to injury, Koji Uehara once again did not throw an inning in September. Overall, 2015 resulted in a last place finish for the second consecutive year. In August, longtime President and CEO Larry Lucchino stepped down from his positions and GM Ben Cherington resigned from his post. They were replaced by chief operating officer Sam Kennedy and well established new team president Dave Dombrowski.

Dave Dombrowski set to work quickly in his first offseason, making a splash by trading two of the top prospects in baseball (Manuel Margot and Javier Guerra among others) for closer Craig Kimbrel. The move brought in an All Star pitcher, but did require a hefty price considering the current going rate for elite relievers. Failed shortstop/third baseman/leftfielder Hanley Ramirez is being moved to another position he has never played before in first base while management crosses their fingers and hopes for the best. The big ticket free agent of the offseason, David Price, was lured to Boston by Dombrowski for a record 7/217M deal that ignored the modern conventional wisdom that players over 30 years old should be signed to lucrative long term deals. Naturally, baseball experts once again predict Boston to be one of the top teams in the league.

The lavish ways of the Red Sox in recent years echo those of the Yankees that Theo Epstein once conquered in October 2007. While most teams have taken on an economic approach to building a contender, the Red Sox have spent with reckless abandon and figure to continue that approach with their current management at the helm.  

When asked of his reasons for leaving Boston, Theo Epstein wrote in a column for the Boston Globe, “[C]oaches and executives should seek change after 10 years with the same team. The executive gets rebirth and the energy that comes with a new challenge; the organization gets a fresh perspective, and the chance for true change that comes with new leadership. This idea resonated with me. Although I tried my best to fight it, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that both the Red Sox and I would benefit from a change sometime soon.” In his tenure at the helm of Chicago, he has built a club that went to the 2015 NLCS and looks to be a top contender for years to come. His modus operandi remains the same, cultivating his core through shrewd trades, his farm system, and key free agents, such as NL Cy Young Jake Arrieta, two time All Star Anthony Rizzo, Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, and top free agent Jason Heyward. Theo Epstein was the architect of the core of three Red Sox championship teams, including one that broke an eighty-six year curse. He has now built a core that gives Cubs the best shot they have had to break their own 107 year dry spell. While the Red Sox look to bounce back after three last place place finishes in four years, Theo Epstein and the Cubs have only one thing in mind – win the last ballgame to be played this fall.