As we collectively count down the waning hours of the 2013 trade deadline, hoping for a pair of teams to make a big splash before the calendar switches over into August days, one of the
not as boring less dull more flashier trades made in the midst of HugWatch 2013 was the trade between the Detroit Tigers and the Houston Astros. Astros closer Jose Veras was sent to the Tigers for outfield prospect Danry Vasquez in a move that has the potential to be a win-win for the teams. For Detroit in particular, it has the makings of a great move, as they bring in a much-needed arm to their weak bullpen in the form of Veras, who compiled 19 saves and a 140 ERA+ for the ‘Stros.
The 32 year-old Veras is your textbook journeyman, having played for six teams before landing in the Tigers bullpen, all the while possessing a good, live fastball and reasonable strikeout rates as well as some so-so walk rates. Nothing unforgettable, nothing worthy of a shirsey being produced in his honour. Yet something kept tickling the farthest reaches of my mind as I watched Veras pitch today against the Washington Nationals, something that made me cock my head, as if doing so would jog my memory as to what made Veras so familiar, despite his vagabond status. I had seen him before, I had seen it before, in a Tigers uniform, patrolling the 8th inning with a fiery fastball and a painful delivery. To wit, Veras’ delivery:
That’s it! This full speed, flailing, herky jerky delivery that, while providing 95+ MPH velocities and an authoritative smack of the catcher’s mitt as a result, has been seen before in the Motor City, with poor results.
Yes, we have seen it before:
The UCL defying, crowd pleasing delivery of Joel Zumaya, reincarnated.
I won’t pile on and go into detail about the medical issues that have felled Zumaya over the years, but I will say that while Veras’ fastball can be electrifying, let’s hope he avoids the foibles of such a mechanically unsound delivery.
2 different games, 2 different players and umpires, 2 different reactions to a called strike, 2 different results to said responses from said umpires.
So says me.
OK, enough alliterative foreshadowing and frolicking.
Yesterday, Bryce Harper was ejected on an appeal to third base umpire John Hirschbeck. The offending infraction that got Harper tossed nanoseconds after the called third strike, ending the inning? The shrugging of shoulders, with a corresponding raising of the arms, bat it tow, and a mildly passive-aggressive toss of his helmet towards the dugout.
Here, have a look for yourself, courtesy of mlb.com by way of the excellent Washington Nationals blog, Nats Enquirer:
By the looks of the pitch tracker in the video, it was the right call, as the incriminating pitch *just* grazed the bottom of the strike zone. Let’s have a look at the PITCHf/x for the at-bat, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
As we can see, the pitch in question (#5), was a strike; a low, borderline strike, but nonetheless one that Harper should have been swinging at. Whether Harper held up his swing in time is something that can’t been seen in the video, but apparently, he didn’t.
Also seen in the clip was Harper uttering, post-ejection, either ‘that ball was away’ or ‘no fucking way’. My lip-reading skills are suspect at best, so I leave it to the reader to investigate further.
It was a close pitch and Harper had some right to interject with his own interpretation of the strike zone and the pitch; whether his body language merited immediate ejection in the first inning of the game, again, I leave to reader scrutiny.
Nothing real shocking here – Fielder is no stranger to the strikeout, whiffing at a 19% rate thus far in 2013; heck, he even had a strikeout earlier in the game in question, caught looking in the first inning, also at the hands of Harrell.
Let’s have a look at the last pitch of the at bat:
Another low ball, another strikeout, another hitter not too happy with the call. As we can see, Fielder repeated, over and over, to home plate umpire Scott Barry, ‘that ball is down’.
In the waning seconds, we can also see Fielder, body turned directly at Barry, vehemently state, ‘that’s not a fucking strike’, as he plods back to the Tigers dugout. He continues his tirade on the way back to the dugout, the entire time eyes locked with Barry’s, pleading his case in a not so professional manner.
The PITCHf/x plot for the at bat:
As the red dot, #6, shows us Fielder had a point; that ball *was* down.
However, what interests me in this tale of two K’s is the interface between the player and the umpire and their individual interpretations of the strike zone and how much rope a given player has to argue balls and strikes. Fielder stopped short of telling Barry he would take his mother out for a seafood dinner and never call her back, while Harper gets the heave-ho without so much as a whimper. While both Fielder and Harper gave the umpires body language that expressed their disdain for the calls, Harper’s was done so far away, it’s borderline ridiculous to believe that Hirschbeck felt ‘threatened’ by the gesturing. Barry, on the other hand, kept his composure and gave Fielder more than his time to plead his case; even more interesting is the fact that Barry let Fielder break two unwritten rules of interacting with an umpire.
First, you don’t turn around to engage them in argument (though I readily admit this might be more of a rule for catchers to not turn around or get out of the crouch to argue).
Second, no cursing. Again, this rule is loosely upheld, and is probably more egregious when used to directly address the umpire or his skills – ‘you fucking suck’ will be less tolerated than ‘that’s not a fucking strike’. Perhaps. Like many other things related to the rules of baseball, written or otherwise, it’s up for individual interpretation.
In a fortuitous twist, Harper’s and Fielder’s teams set off against one another this coming Tuesday, in interleague play. While the results of the match remain to be seen, we can be guaranteed one thing: the strike zone will remain in question – no clowning.
If you’ve read this blog with any frequency, you’ll know that I am enamoured with lefty pitchers. Can’t get enough of ’em*. I am also a sucker for a good baseball ‘underdog’ story. 239048th round draft pick who goes on to win MVP? It just got a little dusty in here. Born club footed, but persevered to not only play, but win a stolen base title? YES.
Old lefthander, back in a big league camp, and making waves? OH YES.
While spring training is normally a bit of a slog, this preseason has been a bit more interesting to follow due to the stories of redemption for four lefthanders – 3 former MLB level pitchers and a former outfielder making the conversion to a pitcher. All have had varying levels of success in the past, but find themselves years removed from their last big league appearance, and wearing a high double-digit number in spring training, as non roster invitees. Let’s meet our old friends, shall we?
Scott Kazmir, Cleveland
A 2-time All Star while a starter for the Tampa Rays, Kazmir is easily the most high-profile return from oblivion story of the 2013 preseason. Having made a nice splash in spring training with Cleveland as one part of the Indians plan of trying to catch lightning in the bottle one last time with a former AL East starter (the other being Daisuke Matsuzaka) in an effort to bulk up their starting rotation, Kazmir has already been given the #5 slot in the rotation. While his early 2013 numbers are impressive – a 13 K/BB ratio against 9.2 OppQual opponents per Baseball Reference – his propensity to give up his share of hits, as evidenced by his 12.5 H/9 ratio and 1.46 WHIP, apparently remains from his Tampa and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim days. In spite of this, it is the return of his fastball velocity this spring that has people hopeful that Kazmir can make a triumphant return to the MLB, after 5 IP with the Angels in 2011, and a sojourn to the wilds of Independent League baseball with the Sugarland Skeeters.
Nate Robertson, Texas
A former starter for the Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers with ‘meh’ results (career 89 ERA+ and 1.85 K/BB ratio), Robertson nonetheless provided consistent and serviceable innings, to the tune of an average of 31 starts and 191 innings per season, until being released by the Marlins in 2010. While already asked by the Texas Rangers to accept a minor league assignment, the reassignment shouldn’t be misconstrued as a demotion, as Robertson pitched well in spring training, and did so free of the elbow problems that plagued his previous career, and also with a more sidearm delivery. While stats are sparse on Robertson with his new delivery, it can be expected that the opportunity to pitch a few innings as a LOOGY a la Javier Lopez or Clay Rapada, and be a low BABIP, high ground ball rate pitcher is ripe, and that it is simply a numbers and waiting game that is between him and a spot in a MLB bullpen.
Mark Hendrickson, Baltimore
No stranger to the Oriole bullpen, Hendrickson finds himself back in Charm City, which was where we last saw him in a major league uniform, in 2011. Your textbook lefthanded journeyman, Hendrickson, much like Robertson, is looking to make a return to the MLB after a couple of years away, and a revamping of his delivery to a more sidearm release point. Historically, Hendrickson has been a low K/9, pitch to contact type of pitcher, who greatly depends on his defense to hoover up any would be hits, and things are no different now. However, he does look to add more deception and a little more movement to his mid to high-80s fastball and curve combo with a drop in his release point; with this and his 6’9″ stature, Hendrickson has the potential to become a more effective reliever than what he has been historically, inducing ground balls at a rate greater than his career 44% clip, and making lefthanded hitters a little more uncomfortable in the box while facing him. This will come more than likely after a stint in the minor leagues to further hone his delivery, and become more consistent with the new release point. If this spring has shown anything, it’s that Hendrickson is still not completely comfortable with the lower release point, and does tend to drift up to a more 3/4 delivery at times, making him more hittable and prone to a big inning.
Jason Lane, Minnesota
Probably the most intriguing of the four, Lane looks to come back not only at a different position, but also from the longest amount of time away from the big leagues. When we last saw Lane, he was patrolling the outfield for the Houston Astros, primarily in right field. Somewhat overlooked due to the success of teammates at the time, who included Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell, Lane’s most prolific season was the NL Championship 2005 season, hitting 26 HR and enjoying a 109 OPS+. After a couple of at bats with the San Diego Padres to finish up his 2007 season, Lane was granted free agency, and went on to bounce around the minors for a couple of teams, notably the Toronto Blue Jays. While with the Jays, Lane was occasionally called upon to toe the rubber when he wasn’t playing in the field, with mixed results. After spending the 2012 season with Arizona AAA affiliate Reno, again splitting his innings between the field and the mound, the Minnesota Twins offered him a minor league deal and an invite to spring training. While his professional successes have come from his bat, Lane has always had a good, live arm, and was actually the winning pitcher in the championship game of the 1998 College World Series, as a USC Trojan. This spring training has been a mixed bag for Lane, who shows a good, low 90s fastball with a serviceable curve ball, as he continues to make the transition to a full-time pitcher, and gain command of the strike zone. If his limited minor league numbers are any indication, look for Lane to be an above average K/9 guy, who will give up his share of hits, but will do so without having too many leave the ballpark. Out of sheer coincidence, Lane’s traverse back to the bigs also included a stop in Sugarland, much like Kazmir.
While the odds are against them to fully regain the glory of their younger years, each of these four portsiders are a testament to the resilience of their spirit and their willingness to persevere. Their spring training stories are also a testament to the notion that if you’re lefthanded and have a pulse, you’ll always have a job in baseball.
Cynicism aside, you can’t keep a good man down, handedness be damned.
*Except for Norm Charlton
With a name like How Do I Baseball?, I would be remiss to not introduce some philosophical musings to mull over. Is the DH ruining the game? Will PEDs forever tarnish the legacy of Roger Clemens, and his Hall of Fame bid? Will Roger Bernadina ever run a route to a flyball that doesn’t require GPS, and a three point turn?
What is an ace? Who is an ace?
Do we consider an ace to be a 20 game winner? Simply a team’s #1 starter in the rotation? Dominating fastball? Cy Young winner? There are a plethora of possible combinations to include in anyone’s determination of a pitcher’s Ace-worthiness. This season, one man has brought much discussion about what constitutes an ace, and whether he is an ace; knuckler extraordinaire, RA Dickey.
Not only a formidable hurler, he is a man of all occasions. Mountain climber, writer, and a man with no ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow are all superlatives that aptly describe Dickey. Could All Star Game starter, and Cy Young Award winner soon be added? His 2012 season is littered with numerous pitching feats that impress; almost no hitters, shutouts, wins galore, you name it. The dominance he has displayed in the first few months of the season is all the more impressive, knowing consistent command and control of the knuckleball is elusive, even for the best knucklers the game has seen.
There are a growing number of folks who consider Dickey, and his breakthrough 2012 season, to be worthy of ace status. There are many who think the labeling is premature. We touched upon it in our weekly podcast over at Citizens of Natstown, and on Twitter, but as with many philosophical dilemmas, the answer evades.
Yes or no? Perhaps? Here’s my take, taking some objective stats, sprinkling in a little subjectivity, and a comparison of Dickey’s performance against one pitcher who most consider an ace, and another hurler who is well on his way to Ace-dom, to determine Dickey’s place in the pecking order of pitchers.
Here’s our terrible trio: Justin Verlander, RA, and Stephen Strasburg. All have had sparkling seasons for the most part, with JV having a slightly off year thus far. However, he brings some very Ace-like properties to the table: Cy Young award winner, no-hitters, the works, really. Stras has had a rocky start to his career due to Tommy John surgery, but has shown this year why he was deserving of being the 2009 #1 draft pick, but also possibly of Ace status.
So, those numbers, for 2012.
|W||L||IP||H/9||BB/9||SO/9||HR||ERA||WAR||Team W-L||Run Support|
|Strasburg||9||1||84||7||2.4||11.8||6||2.46||2.5||12 – 2||4.4|
|Verlander||7||4||108.67||6.7||2.2||8.8||6||2.57||3.7||9 – 6||3.6|
|Dickey||11||1||99||6.1||1.9||9.4||8||2||3.5||12 – 2||5.4|
Great 2012’s by all thus far, with Dickey leading the pack. Off to a good start, but now let’s have a look at current and past success, with a twist.
For this, I am using some personal opinion into what separates an Ace from just a good pitcher. Sure, 20 games are nice – but the record books are littered with 20 game winners that never made it to elite status (hi, Denny Neagle!), so it’s not really a great milestone to determine Ace-itude. Guys with big fastballs also don’t cut the mustard criteria-wise. Because Dickey throws a knuckleball, I feel that ‘stuff’ isn’t a great indicator of success, as Nationals fans can attest. To me, an Ace is your horse, he’s going to be out there for all of his starts, and not only is he going to win his share of games, he’s also going to be the guy to right ship when losing streaks start to occur. He’s the guy the team is going to go into the game confident, knowing he is going bring home the W. So let’s see what our trio do after their team lost the night before.
Here’s 2012, post loss:
In 2012, they’re all getting it done… for the most part.
All have great W-L records, but we see that JV and Dickey post negative WPAs (Win Probability Added) in losses, and higher ERAs than team run support, while Stras brings positive value, even in losses. Dickey suffers greatly in losses, and creates a huge hole for the offense to dig the team out of; Mets hitters are plating half as many runs as RA gives up in the losses he posts after a previous night’s loss. Another damning stat against Dickey are the HR totals. He has given up twice as many HR’s in losses in a third of the innings pitched in wins, meaning that more than likely, he is the sole reason for those losses. There is no defense against home runs. For Strasburg in losses, we must preface his numbers with the fact we have a small sample size, with a n = 1, so we can’t really say much with just that single data point.
Dickey’s respectable 2011 season (8-13, 3.28 ERA, 3.1 WAR), Strasburg’s career numbers, and Verlander’s 2011 Cy Young season, and their performance after team losses are presented to compare and contrast what they’re doing in 2012. The rationale behind this was simply to get a snapshot of previous successful seasons in their entirety, which prompted using all of Strasburg’s numbers to compile a typical 30 or so starts per season to compare.
|Year||Player||Win||Loss||IP||H/9||BB/9||K/9||HR||ERA||aLI||WPA||Team W-L||Run Support|
|2011 Cy Young||Verlander||16||124.34||5.65||1.45||8.25||9||1.66||0.92||0.22||25-9||4.7|
So off the bat, we see that both Stras and JV are more than keeping their teams in games, post loss. Adding to this, their ERAs in wins or losses are lower than what their team gives them overall for runs in their starts, and their WPA values are in the positive in wins and losses, showing that regardless of outcome, they are keeping their teams in striking distance for a win. Overall, they satisfy my criteria for Ace, as their teams both have winning records when they make a start after a loss, on top of their usual solid outings.
Dickey, not so much. Losing records, both for himself and his team, coinciding with a rise in ERA, WPA, H/9, BB/9, and a drop in strikeouts in losses. While flashing signs of being a lockdown starter in 2011, the numbers don’t scream Ace.
So what does that give us, as far as answering our question? While his 2012 season has been electrifying in so many ways, knuckleballer or not, RA Dickey is not an Ace…yet. While turning the corner this year according to the criteria I set, his difficulties in keeping the Mets close in games periodically keep him at ‘very good top of the rotation starter’ status. These difficulties more than likely are due to the problems with controlling the knuckleball on some days, which makes him infinitely easier to hit; even with him throwing a hard knuckleball in the low 80s, it simply isn’t an effective pitch when it’s not knuckling, and/or missing the strike zone.
While I give a thumbs down to Dickey as an Ace, I don’t think it should detract from the season he is having. It is a special one, and a deserved one for a guy who has endured many obstacles to become the pitcher we see in 2012.