Just a bit outside

Hide the ball vs. Show the ball

I have three Atlanta Braves starters on my fantasy team’s rotation. #notashamed

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. 

Giants, Braves receive early returns in a pair of free agent starting pitchers

Free agency pays. Old pitchers come back from injuries. 

The San Francisco Giants are better off with Tim Hudson than without him. Though the Atlanta Braves weren’t counting on two season-ending surgeries to wipe out its deep source of starting pitching, spent a draft pick and about $6 million more than what it would have taken to retain the 38-year-old right hander. 

To be fair to Atlanta, the narrative isn’t about them giving up on Hudson. The team had just cause. There was an apparent logjam in the rotation. Though Hudson has been worth the salary over the past three seasons, he’s attempting to return from a brutal injury — the first time he’s ever broken a bone in his career. He’ll be 39 in July. 

The Braves acted decisively after facinig the prospects of losing Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen for the season, while going an entire month without Mike Minor. Like the time they lost Hudson late in 2013 when Eric Young Jr. accidentally stepped on his foot instead of the first base bag, the Braves were counting on Freddy Garcia or somewhere along that price range when GM Frank Wren decided to pass and go with youth. 

And in turn, losing Hudson may have encouraged the Braves to sign a motivated, younger and perhaps at this point, better starting pitcher. 

Through three starts before allowing four runs in a Friday night win, Santana has excellent slashes of 0.86 ERA / 1.95 FIP / 2.09 xFIP. He’s striking almost four full batters and walking one less per nine innings over career norms and is every bit the ace he looked while with Kansas City. 

There’s some career anomalies that should balance him out. He’s allowing less home runs more by virtue of luck and the benefit of three good starts. His BABIP — though traditionally below league average in his career, an indirect proof of typically inducing weak contact — is 40 points below career averages at an unsustainable .245 BABIP. 

Hudson has been excellent for the Giants through his first four starts, though nowhere near as locked down as a Santana rebirthing in the National League. 

His run prevention numbers have been commanding: 2.40 ERA / 2.68 FIP / 2.79 xFIP, a .236 BABIP partially the result of a 56 percent ground ball rate playing behind an excellent defense. 

When both pitchers regress to their respective norms, Santana will be a tad better. The two’s overall optmistic outcomes — sub 4.00 ERAs and a two-to-three-win value — will relatively be the same. 

Under reasonable terms, the Giants and Braves plucked their rotation’s best piece out of last year’s free agency, at least for now. The Braves are waiting on Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran has almost been as good (1.80 ERA). The Giants hope Matt Cain settles down, and Tim Lincecum doesn’t go through further decline as Madison Bumgarner waits for fortune to normalize his seemingly slow start. 

At some points Hudson was Atlanta’s best pitcher last season. The same could be said for Ervin in Kansas City. Right now, they’re carrying that role as their team’s flawed rotations sorts out. 

The early receipts are good. There’s still no better tool than past performance. 

DESTINATION MANNY: Why the Marlins could win the World Series this year

Fans of teams salivating over trading for RF Giancarlo Stanton will have their fantasies quelched, for the time being, at least, because Miami thrives on impermanence. 

Hold your horses, Rangers. Keep your young pitchers Red Sox, Hold your wallet, Yankees.

After rallying to a hot start that almost seemed logical and sustainable, Miami lost six of seven games from April 10, getting dominated by the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies for back-to-back series sweeps.

Reeling off a 5-1 record gave way to a 6-10 record, after the Nationals came back for an uppercut, shoriyuken style, to take two of three. 

The Nationals will remain the antithesis to this argument. 

Against Philadelphia, Miami lost two one-run games. All three were save situations. Heading into Sunday’s inter-league series ender vs. the Mariners, the Marlins are 8-10, with a 10-8 adjusted record. At the end of he game, the Marlins had completed a sweep, and sit in third place in the NL East, behind the first place Braves and Nats. 

A healthy and peak-sih return from Cole Hamels could tilt third place, but it’s more than likely to just fend off the New York Mets for last place. 

Three weeks in, we’re seeing something the Marlins never displayed in 2013 — and that is win more or just as much games as it loses. To summarize, these here kids can play .500 ball. 

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Atlanta Braves RP Luis Avilan gave up five runs on four hits in an inning of work. SP Ervin Santana worked six innings, struck out 11, walked two and allowed a solo home run to Phillies 1B Ryan Howard. 

There’s really something wrong with that equation. 

Indians SP Salazar has historic night of extremes and what it says about his future

   Cleveland Indians SP Danny Salazar is amazing when he’s on and awful when he’s not. Against the Chicago White Sox at home Thursday night, he was both.

   Salazar struck out 10 hitters. From the first to second inning, he recorded all six outs by way of the K. White Sox 1B Jose Abreu homered. Otherwise White Sox hitters looked as off-balanced as David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s video for “Dancing in the Streets.” They looked like they were dancing. 

   It got stranger and historic.  

   Salazar recorded all his outs but one* through the punch out. Before the fourth inning, Salazar had done what no other pitcher since 1914 had done — record 10 or more strikeouts without throwing a single pitch in the fourth inning. Only Seattle’s Felix Hernandez had struck out as many batters in less innings (10 Ks in 4.0 innings, one earned run, four walks in a 3-2 win against the L.A. Angels of Anaheim). 

   The 24-year-old was yanked with one at bat left in the fourth inning. He had allowed five runs on six hits and two walks, with two HRs and a double. He’d thrown 93 pitches and allowed three fly balls and three ground balls. In his first start against the Minnesota Twins on April 4, Salazar allowed 14 fly balls to four ground balls. For the season he’s got more home runs allowed (3) than starts (2).  

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Freddy Garcia Gets Fingered

 “Thank God we signed Freddy Garcia.”

— Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez

Signing Freddy Garcia at this stage in his career constitutes no such victories. But when you’re managing a team that lost its two best young pitchers to second TJ surgeries, you’ll be kneeling in front of whatever higher power for sending Garcia your way. 

Oh, and Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd won’t be ready until late April to early May. Ervin Santana signed late and might miss a couple of weeks as he gets up to game speed. 

If there’s a team who momentarily needed any body that’s half-breathing, it’s the Braves. But Gus Schlosser will take Garcia’s spot instead. 

Who?

The Braves cut ties with the 37-year-old crafty righty after it was clear that they had no intention of promoting him to the big league roster. 

Garcia was average in 2013, going 4-7 with a 4.37 ERA / 94 adjusted ERA for the Baltimore Orioles and the Braves. He was pretty good with the Braves. Or pretty lucky. He threw 31 innings over three starts and six appearances, with a 1.65 ERA. He also started Atlanta’s most important game last season, Game Four of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a must win. He gave up two runs over six innings. The Braves were winning. The Braves lost. 

Garcia was set to make $1.5 million had he made the big league roster, but Atlanta instead chose the 24-year-old Schlosser. The right-hander flashed dominant stuff in the low minors, having back-to-back 8.00 plus strikeout-to-walk ratio. That hasn’t translated Double A Mississippi, striking out six batters per nine innings. Still, he flashed a sub 3.00 ERA and did well in five spring appearances, including two starts. He struck out more than eight batters per nine innings, worked 13.1 innings and carried a 2.03 ERA. 

Atlanta has a Golden Goose that shits out starters. 

Gonzalez will go with Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, David Hale and Schlosser to start the season. Atlanta won’t likely need a fifth starter until mid-April, and by then Santana will most likely be ready. 

No, they didn’t need Garcia after all. 

Santana, Johan not Ervin, inks deal with the Baltimore Orioles

For all purposes, Johan Santana gave his left nut to the Minnesota Twins, and was completely castrated by the time he left the Mets. 

Don’t feel bad for Santana, once the best pitcher in baseball. In his career Santana has cleared close to $160 million in earnings, and was once baseball’s highest paid pitchers. He averaged $25 million a year in his last two seasons with the Mets* before the team bought him out for $5.5 million

*Santana missed the entire 2013 season. Because Mets. 

Despite initial scouting reports that pegged his fastball at 81 mph tops, Santana was signed to a $3 million minor league deal by the Baltimore Orioles. He’s not just the highest paid minor leaguer thus far, but he can earn $5.05 million if he pitches enough games for the mothership. 

It’s no less responsible than the Angels signing Mark Mulder to a minor league deal that could have topped out at $6 million. After all, Santana was pitching in 2012, and is one year younger. 

Santana’s fastball-changeup combo won’t work, not in the American League East and its smaller stadiums, if he can’t get his velocity back up. He’s not quite the Santana Orioles fans were lusting after. Ervin might just have to wait longer, until the Blue Jays snap. Baltimore may be done shopping. The Duke don’t pay $3 million base salaries to guys he expects to stash in the minors for perhaps the entire season. 

That belief could turn into fool’s betting odds.Santana enters his age-34 season having lost two of five entire seasons. He hasn’t made more than 30 starts since 2008, the last year he was good, the last year The Killers held any significance. There’s scores of college kids fucking and drinking who think The Killers is a retro act. 

It doesn’t take Sloan-sold formulas to figure out the state of Santana. His fuel tank blew in service of a then non-existent Mets conceit of having a pitcher throw a no-hitter. 

Baltimore would have been better off stealing Ervin Santana now, especially since the team’s core has until 2015 before another turnover. If they’re really done spending, Joe Saunders would have been a better option. 

But weirder things i.e. Bartolo Colon has happened in the near past. Santana’s former team is gambling that Colon happens again. So why not Santana in a new team? You kinda wish he stayed in the National League while avoiding Colorado at all costs, but there’s also a creeping sensation that it might not matter in the end. 

Astros sign RHP Williams, a case study in effective dumpster diving practices

The Houston Astros look mighty smart this off-season, and you could even forgive them for signing Scott Feldman to a long-term pact because $10 million a year is affordable for any team, more so to one that owns its own cable network. 

GM Jeff Luhnow built his front office chops by honing St. Louis’ scouting and talent development into the juggernaut that reached the World Series twice in three seasons, so no one’s really surprised at how Houston shifted from being results oriented to being process oriented. 

The Astros agreed to an incentive-laden one-year deal with swingman RHP Jerome Williams Monday. It’s an underwhelming move by all accounts. But the principle behind it isn’t. 

After returning to pitch stateside in 2011 for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, he’s compiled a 19-18 record in 79 games* and in 351 innings has allowed a 4.46 ERA / 85 adjusted ERA / 6.0 k/9 / 2.22 K-to-BB ratio. 

*More than half of which came as a starter. 

There’s almost no saving grace, except an extreme 50 percent ground ball rate, decent ERA independent of fielding and keeping a once troubling walk rate** that chased him out of the league under control.

*Comparable to Feldman’s. 

**He sported an 8.0 B/9 rates in his last stint with the Cubs, and that didn’t really go down after moving to the Washington Nationals. Taiwan and Far Eastern medicine fixed all that. 

   There may have been troubling developments in 2013 that made the Angels blush at paying the veteran about $4 million after arbitration. His line drive and fly ball rates are up and his ground ball rates are down. But his velocity actually increased a mile an hour each for his four seamer (92 mph), cutter (89 mph), curve ball (79 mph) and change-up (85 mph).

   I’d much rather bet on Williams, as the Astros have done, than wager on a 36-year-old whose career ended five seasons ago, because of shoulder problems. Or one more round with Joe Blanton in any role.

   Because here’s the thing where common sense kicks in.

   Call it the Dan Duquette Doctrine. When asked what made him think Wei Yin Chen could succeed in the Majors during the 2012 season, the Duke had a simple answer — he’s a lefty, he throws more than 90 mph and he’s good at hitting his target. Replace “lefty” with “extreme ground baller” and you’re pretty much operating on the same no-shit principle.   

  Ground balls won’t always deflate homeritis. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Williams is sometimes.

   In three seasons, Williams never had a GB rate below 47 percent, and yet he averaged more than a home run per nine innings, with below league average HR/FB rates that never went below 13 percent* and it’s more than bad luck. Williams relies on a cut fastball as his most used secondary pitch. Thing is, if the ball doesn’t cut, it’s a batting practice cock shot. If Williams’ cutter was any more effective, I doubt we’ll be talking about him being non-tendered, or finding gainful employment with any other team but the Astros. 

*I’m cheating. Kind of. Williams’ lowest HR/FB ratio was 12.8 percent, and that’s when he pitched just 44 innings in his first season in Anaheim. While on the subject, Williams plays in a notorious run suppressing environment. 

   Contrast that to Chen, an extreme fly ball pitcher (career 36 percent) with essentially the same strikeout, walk and home run rates as Williams, but has a better HR/FB ratio and is less prone to hanging meatballs over the plate. That basically comes out to about half a run allowed a game over the course of one season. If you think, oh, that’s hardly a difference, let me give you an illustration:

   Pitcher A posts six Ks, 2.5 walks and 1.12 HR per nine innings. At the end of the season, assume he throws 140 innings and ends up with a 4.56 ERA. 

   Pitcher B has the same peripherals, throws 140 innings and ends up with a 4.04 ERA. 

   That half-run difference valued Chen at two wins. Williams meanwhile was worth less than half-a-win. 

   But a process that works takes more than one step. Identifying pitchers like Williams, who owns the sort of tools few people in the world possess isn’t by any means an end point. Consider how well a pitcher did last season. Plus points if he actually pitched. Subtract points if the pitcher last saw action five years* ago. Add points if the pitcher is a no-name projected to prevent runs as effectively as free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana. 

*I badly want need Mark Mulder to succeed, and I’ve settled that bar low to accommodate my selfishness: seven to 10 games, 5.00 ERA thereabouts. Fuck, one Major League start is a rousing success. But I’m not betting my Cup Noodles stash, even if I have the opportunity to double it, with an added incentive of winning a gigantic bottle of Tapatio and a month’s supply of limes.  

   Using Steamers’ equation, here’s a comp for five pitchers and how they’re projected to do in 2014:

- Williams: 4.28 ERA / 3.93 FIP in 96 innings.

- Santana: 3.96 ERA / 3.71 FIP in 192 innings.

- Jimenez: 4.03 ERA / 3.79 FIP in 186 innings.

- Feldman: 4.35 ERA / 3.99 FIP in 173 innings.

- Bronson Arroyo: 4.49 ERA / 4.25 FIP in 202 innings.

In case you’re into torture porn and get high on schadenfreude, here’s ZiPS’ projections for Blaton and Mulder:

Blaton: 118 innings, seven K’s and a shade under two walks per nine, 76 adjusted ERA.

Mulder: 10.2 innings, more than five K’s and three walks per nine, and a 75 adjusted ERA.  

   So of course the Angels hang on to Blanton and pursue Mulder while allowing Williams to play for division rivals. 

   The likelihood of Williams appearing in 170 effective innings isn’t as great. He’s probably best suited to start some games, and come in long relief on others. Barring injuries, Jimenez, Feldman and Santana are worth more wins, and are clearly better pitchers when everything’s taken into account. 

   But signing Williams shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum of other variables. Come hell, they’ll be comfortable giving us more Bo Porter faces. At this stage, however, Luhnow has assembled a young first four — Feldman, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock. Behind them and arranged for a competition for a fifth spot in spring, including Williams, Dallas Kuechel and former first round pick Alex White. Sometime soon Mark Appel and Mike Foltynewicz could be big league ready. 

   Dumpster diving is firstly a numbers game. The Astros have learned to rummage the right way.