Just a bit outside

Is Justin Verlander done?

Fantasy owners can start worrying about Justin Verlander. Tigers fans can start fidgeting. The Detroit Tigers have no choice. 

Verlander is in the second year of a then-record extension that will lock him up until 2019 for close to $200 million. Like last year, he’s starting off slowly. Because he’s one year older, and because he’s worse this year through June compared to 2013, it’s a valid question. 

Verlander eventually picked up steam in September, and was indomitable for most of October. 

Six days ago, Sports Illustrated writer Cliff Corcoran opined that Verlander was no longer an ace. Through 13 starts up until six days ago, Verlander had a 4.19 ERA / 3.82 FIP / 1.465 ERA, good for a 100 FIP / 103 ERA - generally making him a league average hurler. 

Here’s some chilling facts — Verlander’s hits per nine innings have increased steadily going on four years. The pattern of decline carries on as his walks per nine innings has increased in the same span. Verlander once struck out 10.1 batters per nine innings en route to winning 19 games in the non-MVP and non-Cy Young year. Through 13 starts that number has plummeted to a career low 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

Consistent with the four-year pattern of decline, his adjusted ERA has gone from back-to-back and league leading 172 adjuster ERA in 2011 and 162 adjusted ERA in 2011. Consider those dominant, essentially making Verlander the best starting pitcher in the American League. In a down 2013, Verlander had a 121 adjusted ERA. That’s not bad, a number but — welp — Bartolo Colon’s (142 adjusted ERA) excellent but age-40 season last year was better. The performance was so scintillating the Mets gave Colon a two-year $20 million deal. In case you couldn’t tell, I wasn’t being sarcastic. But Colon made $3 million in 2013, taking a make-good deal after being busted for ‘roids. Verlander raked in $20 million, so there. 

As Corcoran reported last week, Verlander had given up five runs or more in four of his past five starts. The rough stretch culminated in Corcoran’s harsh* conclusion after Verlander allowed six runs in a 7-3 loss to the Blue Jays. 

*But probably fair, at least for this year, which is like, scary. Man where’s Doug Fister when you need him. 

Man does Corcoran look smart, and every other baseball writer-slash-analyst who’ve come to the same conclusions about Verlander. Verlander’s diminished status has been a popular topic the past two weeks. 

Wednesday night, it got even worst. 

Verlander gave up seven runs in an 8-2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. He worked 5.2 innings, allowing eight hits, including a home run from Jose Abreu, a double for Connor Gillespie and a triple from Adam Eaton. Verlander struck out six and walked four. Verlander had already thrown 122 pitches without getting out of the sixth inning. He was outpitched by John Danks, the definition of mediocre*. That’s the offense’s fault as much as Verlander, whose Wednesday night BABIP rose to .412, a fairly high and unlucky number compounded by a 52 percent ground ball rate. There were stupid cheapies, including a high fast ball to right that just plummeted before Torii Hunter could get there, and a knee-high liner by Gordon Beckham. The seven-run sixth inning was revealing though. Shit. He was cruising but for a second-inning home run up until then. The game was close. And then it wasn’t. For most of 2014, that’s been typical of Verlander. 

*In a good, peak Aaron Cook kind of way. 

"Verlander" and "route" have been on the same sentence in five out of six games, and that’s no longer a good thing. 

His curveball’s a mess. The fastball has lost 2 mph to an average of 92.4 mph*, according to Pitch/Fx’s data. 

*Brooks Baseball, however, has Verlander’s June average four seam velocity at about 95 mph. 

But I think we’re obsessing over Verlander’s velocity. Yes, it’s been hittable. No, it’s not as slow as Mark Buehrle (83 mph) and Jered Weaver’s (87 mph) averages. 

I think the lesson here is that Verlander’s human after all. He underwent abdominal surgery during the off-season, and may not be fully recovered. That doesn’t exonerate his dropping velocity, but it could be messing him up to the point of ineffectiveness. He’s certainly not the first starter to struggle with relying on more command. That list includes CC Sabathia, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana and Josh Beckett, and that’s just in the radar-gun era. 

I’m not saying this is true for all baseball players. And velocity isn’t the end all of getting good results, or even racking up strikeouts. It certainly helps, especially if the heat has movement and command behind it. Brandon League, for example, throws hard, but was striking out less than 7 batters per nine innings — roughly league average. Felix Hernandez’s velocity has been dropping as well, and yet he not only racks up high strikeout rates and averages, but is also thriving like nothing happened. 

I’m not ready to stick a fork in Verlander just yet. 

Verlander is allowing a 16.7 ground rate, which is kind of funny because that’s a career high. The worrisome part is the drop in strikeout and walk rates. Verlander has struck out 22 percent of batters he’s faced in his career, and as recently as last year, sported a good 23 percent K rate. This year, that’s down to a puny 16 percent. His walk rate’s up to 9 percent, almost 2 percent higher than career norms. But then again his swinging strikes rate is along career lines.

Sometimes it’s bleak, sometimes it isn’t. But baseball players aren’t exactly robots. Their careers aren’t lineal. Off years happen. Off-half seasons happen. Shit happens. 

Verlander may have likely peaked, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be better than the Jeff Francis mirror-image we see before us today. 

Chris Sale’s 2014 splits against lefties: 37 plate appearances, two hits, .057 BA / .108 OBP / .165 OBP / 8 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. 

He gave up his first hit Saturday. And then his second in the same game. Both came against Josh Hamilton.

Fit and fluffy.

Fit and fluffy.

Clayton Kershaw says mount me after Jose Abreu jacked a two-run bomb on his first day off the DL. 

Big Man With Helmet crashes into Big Man With Tools of Ignorance. 
Now who’s ignorant. 

Big Man With Helmet crashes into Big Man With Tools of Ignorance. 

Now who’s ignorant. 

Mo Vaugn, enforcer. Bob Melvin, observer. 

What does a historic month mean for White Sox and 1B Jose Abreu going forward

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   Through 30 games of baseball, White Sox rookie 1B Jose Abreu is the best player in the American League. 

   Awards wise. 

   For only the second time in like, ever, Abreu’s the first rookie in his first month to win the Rookie of the Month and the Player of the Month at the same time. 

   Fellow Cuban emigre Yasiel Puig is the other. 

   It’s an even rarer feat, and quite a recent phenomena, given that MLB* began giving out monthly ROY awards in 2001. Since then, Abreu has been preceded by others, not quite as lucky, good and both in their first months, including Angels CF Mike Trout, SP Jeremy Hellickson of the Tampa Bay Rays, Dontrelle Willis of the Miami nee Florida Marlins and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. 

   *The league gave out one Player of the Month honors for the first time in 1958. It was divided into the American League and National League winners from 1973 onwards. Tommy John won for the National League, and Graig Nettles for the American League. 

   White Sox GM Rick Hahn did a good thing by not spending $68 million on a rookie pitcher. The Yankees, on a good investment it seems, plunked three times that for Masato Tanaka. 

   Though franchises ideally want to grow its own players through the draft, making sure to take advantage of three cost-controlled years, before gradual increases in arbitration, it has recently found an outlet to circumvent this with international free agency. MLB has since plugged the international market by controlling how much teams can spend on the international pool. 

   There are a few exceptions to this rule — teams can still spend as much money as the market bears for MLB-eligible rookies who’ve played in recognized professional leagues around the world. Cubans over 23 years of age and have played in a league* that technically can’t be recognized by a U.S. institution or company for three years are also exempt. 

*Regardless of age, a Cuban defector isn’t subjected to international signing limitations if he’s played in five years of professional ball. 

 Abreu isn’t exactly cheap, and calling him a value first baseman is only relatively accurate. Compared to Adrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto and Albert Pujols, he’s underpaid. Compared to James Loney and Matt Adams, he’s making too much. 

   And he wasn’t exactly risk-free, though a Cuban import has just about been as guaranteed as it gets. It was widely assumed, however, that the well could put into surface some pretty terrible players. Hahn may have as easily bungled into the next Alex Guerrero.

   But power and pitch selection, more than so-called tools, are safer bets. Signing Abreu and blowing out his earning projections by at least $20 million more was a risk Hahn and the White Sox felt was necessary. Gordon Beckham won Chicago’s last rookie of the month award, back in 2009, back when people thought he was bound for stardom. 

   Abreu brought the added bonus of giving the White Sox its first player of the month since Magglio Ordonez, in 2003. Yup, they won a World Series without a player of the month and a bunch of no-aces.  

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What’s wrong with Hector Santiago

No one needs fancy metrics to tell us that Hector Santiago has gone from sleeper to nightmare. For once, the win-loss record says it all. 

The lefty strikeout machine is now 0-5 after blowing a late lead Friday night against the visiting Texas Rangers. Up 2-0 through five innings, Santiago unraveled in the sixth. Shin Soo Choo led off the sixth inning with a home run. The Rangers scored four more runs after that, an outburst that left the Angels 0-6, or more clearly, winless, in all of Santiago’s starts. 

A 5.01 ERA / 4.98 FIP isn’t predictive by all means, but it reflects how awful Santiago has been. Never a groundball pitcher, he’s now sporting a career low 30 percent ground ball rate. Angels fans remember Ervin Santana as a self-professed home run pitcher. He’s never had a season below a 35 percent groundball rate. And when he was living up to his name as a home run pitcher — from 2011 to 2012 — Santana was sporting career high, two-year average groundball rate of 44 percent. 

Santiago is in trouble. His flyball tendencies has always left him prone to averages of at least 1.00 home run per nine innings, numbers that wouldn’t look too awful beside a two-year average of 9.00 plus strikeouts per nine. Now he’s striking out less batters. 

His walk rates remain problematic, but continues to decline after two seasons and a month of baseball. In 2012, Santiago walked a Morrow-esque 5.12 batters. By and by, he’s gotten that down to 4.18 BB/9 in six starts with the Angels.

The half a number decrease in walks has led to almost losing an entire strikeout. Pitch/FX data has shown us that Santiago’s fastball is his best pitch, saving him about six earned runs per season. Not only is it his best pitch, it’s also better than the league average four-seamer.

With its rapid incorporation of such data , the Angels may be encouraging Santiago to throw his best pitch more often. He’s not Bartolo Colon, but Santiago throws his four-seamer 66 percent of the time. He shaved four percent off his changeup and two percent each for his cutter and slider. Those pitches actually improved with judicious use, and Santiago’s changeup remains promising. His four seamer however has so far been below average, but really not by much. 

He’s also just getting tagged. 

Santiago’s swinging strike rate has dropped 3 percent to 5 percent. His contact rate is up eight percent to 88 percent. He’s getting touched on pitches thrown in the zone, and batters haven’t exactly been swinging more aggressively. Hitters have been laying off a lot of Santiago’s off-zone offerings. 

Maybe he’s tipping pitches. Maybe he’s hurt. Maybe it’s Mike Butcher*.

*See however, Skaggs, Tyler, i.e. the Pitching Coach May Have the Least Fault. Having said that, it’s the perfect time to re-iterate my stance at hiring someone like Oakland’s Curt Young.  

We’re evaluating Santiago for a month, but his sleeper status may not have been deserved in the first place. He’s not going to crap the place out like Joe Blanton. He’s not C.J. 2.0, though. He’s more like Jerome Williams: better to have him than not have him.

But lefties get jobs for a reason. If luck, and the currently absent marine layer cooperates, Santiago could give us Williams-like runs of non-quantifiable value. 

A bullpen demotion beckons, and then he starts building value by mopping up three to four inning blowouts and two-inning appearances on close games. Watch him make a dynamite spot start or two. And then it all balances out. 

See the list of players White Sox rookie sensation Jose Abreu belongs to after one month of play

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about 1B Jose Abreu and what he’s done. 

Suddenly more valuable than Miguel Cabrera and leading the Chicago White Sox’s rejuvenated first-to-last offense, Abreu has also hit 10 home runs in one month. He broke that rookie record, and the RBI one with a league leading 32 RBIs. So it seems the White Sox just plucked Albert Pujols, in terms of raw run production numbers and power, out of thin air. Or whatever the humidity level is in Cuba. 

Only 51 times have been done what Abreu’s accomplished. For the most part the list will give great comfort to White Sox fans. It includes repeat performances by great (and sometimes juiced) players. The last player to accomplish the feat, Justin Upton, blasted 12 in one season. He’s a pretty good hitter. 

As artificial as the list looks for evaluating overall hitting prowess, it does include great hitters — Bonds, McGwire, Griffey, Junior, Willie Stargell, Larry Walker, Matt Williams. Most of the time, a hitter who’s cleared more than 10 home park walls in one month have served stretches of above average sources of hitting. 

For the most part, the early returns look good on Abreu. 

But it’s also April. He does strike out a lot. And no matter how many records he breaks, or how many multi-homer games he’s had, the list also includes Jonny Gomes, Vinny Castilla and Brady Anderson. Fine, you recognize those names. Here’s one for ya — Chris Shelton. 

Relevant for one fantasy week, Shelton blasted 10 home runs in one week with the Detroit Tigers. He would hit eight the rest of the way — but a source of 18 home runs at the catcher position would have been a boon to any team. The potential was there. Look at the list. Bask in the list. At best he’ll be Alfonso Soriano. At worst he’s Ryan Klesko. We’re not talking Bondsian here. We’re talking Upton. 

Pretty good players, pretty strong hitters. 

Shelton was a pretty strong hitter. His contact begged to differ. The rest of the way Shelton’s usefulness ebbed with the rise of moving pitches. For the most part, Abreu is handling moving pitches, by the crude mechanism of reveling in his success in the age of the cutter. 

Who knows. It looks like the bat speed’s there. For now he’s catching up enough and has the requisite power to turn misses into long balls. Like, wow. The guy is huge. Chicago may have found Frank Thomas. Jim Thome’s on the list. So is Andres Gallaraga, Not so the Big Hurt, who’s nonetheless in the Hall of Fame by way of First Ballot. 

This could be huge. This could be Dave Kingman, which is fine the way the game’s played. 

Abreu’s making some scratch, but less than what premium first basemen are making. Pujols is at $240 million. Votto’s at $220 million. Abreu’s signed for $66 million. 

It was on blind faith, and the early returns are good. He’ll see more strikeouts than not, and in the end could have the same street value as Vinny Castilla. That’s really not a bad thing. 

Shelton’s case was an anomaly. 

Abreu’s going to be just fine. 

   Chicago White Sox rookie 1B Jose Abreu set two records Sunday after hitting a two-run shot off David Price in the sixth inning of a 9-2 victory vs. the Tampa Bay Rays.

   Abreu’s home run, a MLB-leading 10, extended his rookie record through the month of April.

   His two-run shot in the sixth, and a two-run single in the seventh, gave Abreu 31 RBIs through April, beating Albert Pujols’ previous record of 27. 

   Last year, Abreu was playing in Cuba for less than $30 a month.