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The Real Arms Race

I recall hearing somewhere that hitting a round baseball with a round bat squarely was the hardest thing to do in sports.   Now that we measure launch angles and swing speeds and MPH of every ball hit fair or foul, I think we can say a lot of folks have been proven to hit a baseball squarely quite well.   Thanks to the delightful folks at Fangraphs.com, I can tell you that in 2018 the player who had the highest percentage of batted balls considered to be hit “hard” was Matt Carpenter at 49%.  I can also tell you that in 2018 the player who had the highest percentage of batted balls considered to be hit “soft” was Odubel Herrera, at 27.2%.  Matt Carpenter hit .291 and Odubel Herrera hit .290 last year.   As comedian John Mulaney said, “think about that for two minutes and tell me that you don’t want to walk into the ocean.”

Thus, perhaps at some time, I will examine the trends associated with hitting the ball hard, or soft, or on a line drive, or with a high loft angle, etc.  But for now, I will stick to the genius of Willie Keeler who simply said to “keep your eye on the ball and hit em where they ain’t.”  Purely simple and purely genius.  Of course, Keeler’s career average of .370 dropped to .341 after he signed with the American League who began to count foul balls as strikes.  So then he had to hit ‘em where they ain’t …. in fair territory …. which isn’t as easy. But Keeler did it well enough to be baseball’s first $10,000 man.   You know, I just did a little math, and under his new contract, Mike Trout will make $10,000 every 2.4 outs a game per season.  Fascinating.

Where was I…. oh right, to me the hardest thing to do is no longer throwing 100 MPH or hitting a round ball squarely with a round bat.  It’s simply pitching 162 innings a year, every year (minimum to qualify for ERA title used as a benchmark).   Being reliable, and good enough to stay on the mound year-after-year seems to be quite a difficult task. We are breeding specialty pitchers such as LOOGY’s (look it up), and now we have “Openers” instead of starters.   Teams have 13-men bullpens which are simply insane.   They have a stat called “Quality Start” to represent a game in which a person pitches 6 innings and gives up 3 or fewer runs.  What dingleberry came up with that??   So if a guy pitches 5 innings and gave up no hits, it’s not a quality start??   What if someone pitches a complete nine-inning game in which the team wins 20-4, but oh no, he gave up 4 runs…. Sorry, that’s not quality.   And also, 3 runs in 6 innings is a 4.50 ERA.  THAT’S quality??   That’s below average unless you were with the Orioles last year in which Mayor Catherine Pugh names a day after you and gives you a “Smiling Pugh” award for outstanding service.

Between 2011 and 2018, 34 players pitched 162 innings at least five times.  Compare this with the period 10 years prior when it was 53 pitchers.  I understand that the game must continue to evolve, but this sure seems like de-evolution. If I had the time and inclination, I would like to mathematically prove that the overmanaging and constant shuffling in and out of pitchers is making negligible, if any improvements to a team’s performance.   But let’s look at this from a different point of view.   Fielders who are more familiar with their team’s pitchers may align themselves differently based upon the expected direction of the batted ball. In addition, a team that has less pitching turnover may likely be run more symbiotically.  Imagine at your job if every other week you didn’t know who your co-workers would be, or how well they would be at their job.   Would kinda suck huh.   Why would baseball be any different?

There is an expression called “KISS”, or Keep It Simple Stupid.   While I may be oversimplifying this, and avoiding the reality that some pitchers just may not be healthy or have the ‘stuff’ of Major Leaguers, I’m really just talking about a team’s performance measured by maintaining a reliable stable of pitchers.    Last year Boston had 108 wins and used 23 pitchers, and the Orioles had 47 wins and used 29 pitchers.   This really doesn’t mean much, and I know that.   But it has been shown that better teams will, on average, use fewer pitchers than poorly performing teams. Duh.  A team with better healthier pitchers and a reliable bullpen will likely win more games.  Duh again.   The worst team I’ve ever seen was the 2003 Tigers, and they only used 20 pitchers in the season to get through a 43-119 record.   That’s because they knew they had a terribly weak team and opted to keep throwing out their starters game after game:   Check out this fun table of wins-losses for how the 2003 Tigers starters performed:

Nate Cornejo        6 – 17

Mike Maroth        9  -21

Jeremy Bonderman     6 – 19

Adam Bernero        1 – 12

Garry Knotts        3 – 8

Matt Roney        1 – 9

Sadly, the group of Cornejo, Bernero, Knotts, and Roney threw a combined 291 innings after 2003 in their Major League careers.     The team with the most wins in 2003 was the Yankees, and they used 23 pitchers; 3 more than the 43-119 Tigers.  Thus, you see why this ratio of “Wins to pitchers used” is not always so clear-cut and reliable.  Yet this piece is about reliability and the benefits of it.   If you think of solid rotations, you may go right to the Braves, whose big 3 of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz won a combined 873 in their Hall of Fame Careers (611 with the Braves).   The team was great at developing starters, right??  Except no.   Maddux was originally a 2nd round pick of the Cubs & Smoltz was a 22nd round pick of the Tigers and was traded to the Braves after posting a 5.68 ERA in AA ball.   As far as Glavine, yeah he accumulated 305 wins, but here is the list of Hall of Fame pitchers after 1960 who pitched 1000 innings with a 1.30 WHIP or more…..

  • Tom Glavine

Yeah, that’s the list. Glavine was consistent and good and reliable, but his Hall of Fame is likely a product of the teams he played on. Would you say so Jim Kaat??

If I was to ask you to name the team since 1990 that had the most pitchers accumulate 50 wins for that team, you may be right and say it was the Yankees with 13.   Guess who is next??   Most would say Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals, Dodgers, and you’d be wrong. It’s the White Sox with 12.   The White Sox seemed to have a knack for drafting or trading for pitchers with longevity.  Since “Wins” may not be the fairest barometer, I switched the search to see which team had the most pitchers accumulate 1000 innings for them since 1990.  Dodgers, Indians, Red Sox and Braves each had 7.   No team had 8 or 9.   White Sox had 10.

This got me thinking. What team has done the best to draft, or sign, pitchers that have the most reliability, in terms of pitching 162 innings per year?  It may be remarkable to think that only 4 pitchers have done this every year since 2011.  Max Scherzer (3 Cy Youngs), Rick Porcello (1 Cy Young), Jon Lester (3 top 5 finishes including one 2nd place finish in the Cy Young) and…. not Greinke, not Verlander, not David Price, not Hamels, not Kershaw…. the last one is Mike Leake.   But in the current land of free agency and player movement, realize that Scherzer has excelled as a member of the Tigers and Nationals, yet he was originally drafted by the Diamondbacks, four picks after Clayton Kershaw and one pick after Tim Lincecum.  Imagine that!!  Eight Cy Young awards and a total of fifteen top-5 Cy Young voting finishes within 5 picks in the same draft.   Nice scouting.   Also note that those 3 pitchers were drafted after Luke Hochevar, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow and stud reliever Andrew Miller.

Luke Hochevar was a stellar college pitcher at Tennessee, just as Morrow was during his Junior season at Cal.  Brad Lincoln was an undersized pitcher out of the University of Houston who put up outstanding numbers in his junior year, and Andrew Miller would have also been a first rounder had he come out of North Carolina after his freshman or sophomore years. In fact, he was so heralded as a North Carolina commit that Tampa spent a 3rd round pick in 2003 to try to get him signed out of Gainsville’s Buchholz High (the same high school that brought us former power hitting prospect Marshall McDougall who once hit SIX home runs in a game for Florida State).   Even though all four of those pitchers had some notable Major League seasons as a converted reliever, I’m sure in hindsight they would have opted for a Cy Young winner in their rotation.  But at the time, it was very likely the right pitchers were taken by the right teams.   Just doesn’t always work out as planned.   Billy Beane portrayed by Brad Pitt in Moneyball said to chief scout Grady Fuson: “You don’t have a crystal ball. You can’t look at a kid and predict his future any more than I can. I’ve sat at those tables and listened to you tell those parents “When I know, I know. And when it comes to your son. I know.” And you don’t. You don’t.”

Hindsight is often quite unfair when reviewing prospects, but what is much fairer to review is the decisions a teams’ management made once a player is on their team.    This is the area that truly fascinates me.  Decisions and trades these days are more about economics than purely the need for exchanging talent.   Consider the 1971 Orioles who had four 20-game winners.  Jim Palmer and Dave McNally were originally signed by the Orioles as amateur free agents, (pre the MLB draft-era), while Mike Cuellar was acquired via trade from the Astros (along with light hitting SS Enzo Hernandez), and Pat Dobson was acquired via trade with the Padres, (who actually wanted light hitting SS Enzo Hernandez in return).   A lot of action for a shortstop that hit 2 home runs and had a .224 average in over 2500 career plate appearances.

Having four twenty game winners on one team is unbelievably rare, having been done only twice (the other being the 1920 White Sox).    In fact, since 1998, only 4 teams have had four 15-game winners.

2016 Cubs – World Series winners

2004 Cardinals – Lost World Series

2003 Yankees – Lost World Series

2001 Mariners – Won MLB record 116 games

So, you see where I am going with this??   As I said, having four 20 or four 15 game winners is rare, but what is rarer these days is having a rotation that was developed by the team they are playing for.  San Diego Padres were sure giving it a go with Joey Lucchesi, Eric Lauer, Cal Quantrill, Dinelson Lamet and Jacob Nix all being home-grown.   Alas, with injuries, don’t expect that to be their starting rotation in 2019.   On the flipside, let’s look at the 2018 World Series Champion Red Sox current rotation heading into this year:

Chris Sale – Acquired via trade with White Sox

David Price – Signed as Free Agent

Rick Porcello – Acquired via trade with Tigers

Eduardo Rodriguez – Acquired via trade with Baltimore

Nathan Eovaldi – Acquired via trade with Tampa Bay

Because I’m a product of watching baseball in the 1970s, I just hate this rotation.   Yeah, great that they had the payroll capacity to sign or trade for these players.  After all Red Sox have a $223MM Payroll and Padres are less than $90MM.   So, to compete, it becomes increasingly important for smaller market teams to draft and hang onto their young talent.  Though pitching less than 75 games, Blake Snell got a $50MM extension after his Cy Young season, and Eloy Jimenez signed a $43MM contract after a grand total of zero Major League at-bats.   This, I truly like to see.   One-by-one teams are locking up their young stars to long(er)-term contracts.   As of writing this, I am still waiting for the Yankees to wake up and sign Aaron Judge. Remember when the Yankees shook up baseball by trading for Giancarlo Stanton making him half of the titanic power duo with Aaron Judge??   Stanton makes about $37k per plate appearance.  So, in a weekend series, he makes what Judge makes in a year.  Baseball economics is about as rational as the political climate in the nation of Burundi.

In an attempt to get back on track, I have some stats to explain the nature of this article.   The following teams have had the most pitchers with seasons of 162 innings (i.e. qualifying for ERA title) over the last ten seasons:

San Francisco Giants   32

St. Louis Cardinals   32

Tampa Bay Rays    31

Chicago White Sox   29

Chicago Cubs    28

Clearly, no one team stands out.   In fact, the average for all 30 Major League teams over the 10-year period is 24, with Oakland and Minnesota bringing up the rear with 17 each.   But as we have seen, teams generally don’t end up fielding a complete rotation from their own farm systems, and this got me thinking.  Where do these consistently performing pitchers come from??  Thus, I examined every pitcher who had three 162-inning seasons over the last 10 years.  I wished to know what state or country they came from, whether they were drafted out of high school or college, and which schools they went to.  But most interestingly, I wanted to see what team signed or drafted more of these players than any other.   I will save that for the end.

Onto the stats….

Of the 126 players that had three seasons of 162 innings or more in the last ten years:

103 were drafted in the annual MLB draft

20 were signed as Amateur Free Agents

3 were posted or signed from Japan (Hiroki Kuroda, Hishashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish)

Of the 103 that were drafted in the annual MLB draft:

46 were first round picks!!

12 were second round picks

And there was 1 pitcher from the 29th, 30th and 38th round (Kyle Lohse, Scott Feldman, and Mark Buehrle!!)

–    62 of these players were drafted out of college and 41 out of high school.

–    The college with the most pitchers were SD State (Justin Masterson, Aaron Harang, and Stephen Strasburg)

–    Most colleges with multiple players on the list went to big notable programs like USC, Long Beach State, Vanderbilt, etc.   But two players on the list attended Stetson University in Florida.  In fact, they were both Cy Young winners, Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber.  Holy crap huh??

–    30 players went to high school in California, 11 from Texas and six from Florida.   So about 50% of pitchers who had three seasons of 162 innings over the last 10 years were from these three states known for grooming great baseball talent.  However, Ohio had five:  Masterson, Derek Holland, Jon Niese, Chad Billingsley, and Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter.

–    Two players went to the same high school, as Jon Niese and Chad Billingsley both came out of Defiance, Ohio.

–    What struck me as odd is not a single pitcher on my list came from Arizona, Massachusetts or South Carolina, with combined populations of nearly 20 million. Fortunately, Rick Porcello saved NJ from being embarrassingly left off the list.  (Yeah yeah, I know, Mike Trout).

–    One place actually had the highest percentage with 12 players from a population of 10 million people.   Baseball fans would not be surprised to hear that this gem for spotting baseball talent in the Dominican Republic.  Compare that to 10 players on the list from Venezuela, Mexico, Canada and other countries with a combined population of nearly 300 million people.

However, which team does the best job of finding the most pitchers who consistently contribute to a team by pitching 162 innings.  Also known as a workhouse, a very valuable member of a team’s rotation.   There are six teams who have drafted or signed four of these players, nine teams with five, and three teams who have signed six.  Only one team, however, has more than six and they have found TWELVE of these pitchers.

While you are thinking of which team by far has done the best job or sourcing arms, let me share a few other tidbits that I learned while researching for this piece:

Two players on the list were involved in trades for each other: Jake Westbrook and Corey Kluber, who was originally drafted by the Padres (who knew??).  Of the 19 Cy Young award winners on the list, 10 won the award for a different team than the one that drafted them.     17 of the 24 Cy Youngs won by players who were drafted were taken in the first round, and the deepest drafted player to win a Cy Young is Stetson’s own Jacob deGrom in the 8th round.

So enough suspense.  The team that drafted or signed the most pitchers with three or more seasons of 162 innings in the last 10 years is the New Yo…., Bosto…, Chica…. San Fr….. No.  It’s the Texas Rangers.

Here is the list:

Name Signed Round Country High School College From
John Danks Draft 1 TX 2009
Ryan Dempster Draft 3 Canada 2009
Aaron Harang Draft 6 CA CA – SD State 2009
Scott Feldman Draft 30 CA CA – Coll of San Mateo 2009
R.A. Dickey Draft 1 TN TN – Tennessee 2010
Colby Lewis Draft 1 CA CA – Bakersfield 2010
C.J. Wilson Draft 5 CA CA – Loyola Marymnt 2010
Derek Holland Draft 25 OH AL – Wallace State CC 2011
Edinson Volquez Amateur Free Agent DR 2012
Yu Darvish Posting Japan 2012
Tanner Roark Draft 25 IL IL – Univ of Ill 2014
Kyle Hendricks Draft 8 CA NH – Dartmouth 2015

 

And here is the reason:

In 2001, the Rangers signed Alex Rodriguez to a contract the team couldn’t afford.   This eventually led to the resignation of the team’s GM John Hart, and the eventual bankruptcy of the organization.  A-Rod was traded to the Yankees and new GM Jon Daniels changed the philosophy of the organization, stressing long-term value.  Daniels was a Cornell grad who at 28, was the youngest GM in the game.  Oh, and Jon Daniels hired one of his fraternity brothers to take over scouting for him, in essence leading the charge for their new drafting and signing approach.   That fellow Cornell grad and fraternity brother was AJ Preller, who is now the GM of the Padres; a team clearly following the pattern initiated by Daniels.

Thus, in summary, if you happen to find yourself running a Major League team one day and you need to fill out a rotation, draft some California kids in the first round, visit the Dominican Republic, or see a game at Stetson University.   Seems as good an idea as any.

Sincerely,

The Colonel

EarlNColonel@gmail.com

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