Just a bit outside

Johnson’s season sinks lower, DFA’d by Oakland A’s

It’s good to be Billy Beane, even on days where he loses out big. 

Deposed closer Jim Johnson eventually cost the Oakland A’s $10 million worth of heart ache. No one has talked about the groundball specialist since losing his designation to lefty Sean Doolittle, and there really aren’t lessons to be learned. 

The A’s and its fans almost don’t care because of the team’s 100-win pace. The bullpen’s depth wasn’t really diminished. Doolittle signed a five-year extension, peculiar by Oakland’s standards, only to see him be worth $10.5 million over that span, an astounding discount for a guy with just three walks since taking over ninth-inning duties. Dan Otero, Luke Gregerson and Fernando Abad have been stingy with runs and have taken on larger roles. 

Meanwhile, Johnson’s sinker turned into a junk pitch, leading to a terrible 55 adjusted ERA. He’s carrying a bloated 6.92 ERA, allows more than a home run while walking five batters per nine innings, and isn’t exactly known for his strikeout ability. 

On the surface however, Beane essentially chose to gamble on the right pitcher. He might have known something about Grant Balfour, and karma’s a bitch because the O’s knew something about Johnson before rescinding a three-year deal with Balfour. In the end the A’s were better than ever, and none of it had anything to do with Johnson, whose blown saves hindered the A’s chase for 100 wins. 

But just because it failed doesn’t mean it doesn’t illustrate why teams, even the smarter ones with front offices headed by Beane, stock up on proven relief arms, saves be damned. Conventional sabermetrics suggest having a dominant relief ace as a precursor to playoff success. The dissonance comes from the way such arms are acquired. Is it fair to give Craig Kimbrel, admittedly young, entering his peak and currently the best at his position, as much money as a No.2 starting pitcher with the same track record? Arbitration certainly recognizes the value of a ninth inning ace, awarding Johnson $10 million, about $3 million more than market price, the bone of contention being its over-reliance on the saves stat, more than say, adjusted ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio and FIP, more accurate (though still flawed) tools for evaluating arms who go 110 percent in one-inning increments. 

But saves matter because it acts as a shorthand. Beane’s failure with Johnson wasn’t born of a naive view of an imposing 101 saves. On surface, that means 101 additional wins. Johnson’s ability to keep the O’s on a playoff trajectory despite its run differential and one-run margins of victory may have had more to do with luck and an overall solid bullpen. But he was an extreme ground ball pitcher with a three-year track record of success. Not only could he keep the runs down, he topped out at 90 innings one year as a reliever before breaking out as a top shelf closer. 

The idea was beyond reproach — the A’s upgraded on a relief ace, because it recognizes that such things aren’t fungible, based on said reliever’s track record of prolonged success, a huge plus when investing in volatile performance indexes. Before allocating $10 million to a one-inning pitcher, the A’s had secured its offense, starting pitching and other bullpen parts. It was ultimately house money that didn’t keep the A’s from getting budgeted out of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. 

 So it’s like whatever. Consider this Johnson’s possible career epitaph. Here lies a tall guy who had back-to-back 50-game seasons before turning into a junk baller. 

The A’s aren’t too torn up about it. 

The Biggest, Most Handsomest Trade Target

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   The hounds have been released. With the Devil back in Tampa Bay, trade talks involving soon-ish-to-be free agent all star starter (Whew) and Cy Young winner David Price, will only escalate. 

   The Rays appear motivated, more so because 3B Evan Longoria continues to struggle and RF Wil Myers is out for a protracted period, with early August an optimistic possibility. There’s no point in trying. Tampa Bay has been down this road before, and we’re just talking about the Rays (and not the Devil Rays) edition. 

   Remember Scott Kazmir when he appeared like a lefty ace, a Cliff-ish Lee clone known concurrently as Tampa Bay’s first big trade victory* as well as its first ace-like hurler. 

   *Mets fans curse the day Mets GM Jim Duquette traded the lefty prospect for non-prospect but pro Victor Zambrano. Zambrano wasn’t even that good when Tampa Bay pilfered a pitcher drafted 15th overall. Zambrano’s only advantage over a younger, better and cheaper player was that he was a switch-hitter. 

The few Rays fans at the time appreciated Kazmir, who debuted at 20 and was loosely a homegrown product. From 21- to 24-years-old, Kazmir went 45-34, with a 3.51 ERA / 3.72 FIP / 2.39 K-to-BB ratio, striking close to 10 batters per nine innings, and by adjusted ERA was 27 percent better than the average starting pitcher. At 23, Kazmir had a career high 5.8 bWAR, about a six-win value, at half a million dollars. 

   Kazmir was 25 with a 4.89 ERA in about 111 innings when the Rays traded him mid-season to the L.A. Angels of Anaheim. The Rays didn’t get much back — a relief pitcher who’s going down in history as the first relief plumber, Super Alex Torres, and Sean Rodriguez, the Natty Ice to Ben Zobrist’s Knucklesandwich IPA. Still, it was a viable relief pitcher who gave the Rays a 1.72 ERA in 39 games as a 25-year-old last season. Rodriguez was still beer, and deployed correctly by party meister Joe Maddon, got the job done because cheap booze exists for a reason. 

   Kazmir continued to be expensive. He was good for half a season with the Angels, and was on his way to the Sugar Land Skeeters after two seasons of subpar pitching. 

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   And that’s how Andrew Friedman and his front office has been running things. Absent top 10 picks by virtue of winning, they’ve flipped a very valuable asset — one they have a lot of — to run a good, postseason-ready team. By trading ace-looking but still above average pitchers like James Shields, Matt Garza, 

  Price has lost velocity, but still throws hard, especially for a lefty who hits his spots. His 3.10 FIP is lower than his career 3.36 FIP, plus a ridonkulous 7 plus stirke outs-to-walk ratio. His 10 strikeouts per nine, while walking just 1.3 per nine, shows a dominant pitcher, the truce ace Jeff Samardzija just ain’t. 

   But as many teams — specifically the Philadelphia Phillies — have failed to clinch postseason berths by front-loading on starting pitching. For years Tampa Bay has managed to end seasons with plus run differentials because it has built a deep arsenal of pitchers, starters and relievers alike, like they were sushi from a conveyor belt. 

   Price is the kind of arm that can deliver a top 10 prospect like SS Addison Russell, whom the Chicago Cubs acquired with fearless abandon, for two excellent and established starting pitchers. 

   Price may look prohibitive, but it’s also not assured that Tampa Bay would trade him. They’ve let contracts lapse before. They’ve done it Carl Crawford. So it goes. Price may be the type of fixture that allows the Rays to sell tickets. Trade him, and they’ve got to start winning to make up for lost sales, dim as those numbers already are. From the perspective of good media practices, the Rays are just as likely fine with getting draft compensation. Sure, this season didn’t work. But the difference has been small but crucial — health. Coupled with Evan Longoria’s prolonged slump, and the aging of Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar’s bats, Tampa Bay couldn’t sustain the loss of Wil Myers, himself struggling before a fielding blunder got him taken out for at least two months. 

   Things could get back to normal. After all, the team has more pieces to trade, before even dipping into the Price goldmine. 

   It’s tempting. Every conversation with interested teams will begin thusly:

- Los Angeles Dodgers: OF Joc Pederson or SP Zach Lee …

- Seattle Mariners: SS Nick Franklin AND SPs James Paxton AND Danny Hultzen, or straight up plus-minus prospects for SP Taijuan Walker. And throw in James Jones, so the Rays can add David DeJesus to the Seattle-bound mail.

-Cleveland Indians: SS Francisco Lindor AND SP Danny Salazar …

- New York Yankees: Um, so … C Gary Sanchez and RP Dellin Betances? Moving on, don’t count on this dream from happening. 

   Notice that not all prospects are created equal. As the A’s have displayed, the value of players has gone upside down. One great prospect fetched two proven pitchers. That’s how that trade should have been digested. 

   Under that scenario, Zobrist, DeJesus, Escobar and Bedard would have little value. Other teams might even consider it a favor to take on their contracts, giving up nothing of value but money in the end. 

   Price would break that threshold. He’s good enough to be the kind of player who’s worth more than a hot shot prospect. It’s a lost summer. The Rays can bite on the lure. Or call it even and wait for next year, a final run with Price. 

   They’ll likely not get the same value they could for Price anyway, and any deal involving Lindor and perhaps C Carlos Santana must be weighed against the value of offense to elite pitching. And like Crawford but unlike Shields, Kazmir, Garza, Jackson and all the bevy of starters they’ve gotten the max through trades, Price is the face of the Rays’ franchise. 

   Tampa Bay might just hold on to that. 

   Don’t be surprised if the Rays aren’t moved by the trade deadline. 

Cubs fans still don’t know how to spell his name either. 

Cubs fans still don’t know how to spell his name either. 

Shark Attack. 

Shark Attack. 

The One Dollar Man
There’s moneyball, and then there’s dumpster diving. 
A’s GM Billy Beane may have found Taco’s equivalent of a toilet seat made of cocaine, plucking pitcher Brad Mills from the Milwaukee Brewers’ dustbin on Tuesday for a PTBNL or cash. 
Eventually, both sides settled on cash. 
The A’s cut the Brewers a $1 check. 
The lefty went 4-2 with a 1.56 ERA in 14 games, 12 of them starts, for Triple A Nashville. He owns the lowest ERA in Triple A, and hasn’t allowed more than one run a game. He carried a 0.87 ERA in his last five starts, before making his first big league start Friday against the Boston Red Sox.

The One Dollar Man

There’s moneyball, and then there’s dumpster diving. 

A’s GM Billy Beane may have found Taco’s equivalent of a toilet seat made of cocaine, plucking pitcher Brad Mills from the Milwaukee Brewers’ dustbin on Tuesday for a PTBNL or cash. 

Eventually, both sides settled on cash. 

The A’s cut the Brewers a $1 check. 

The lefty went 4-2 with a 1.56 ERA in 14 games, 12 of them starts, for Triple A Nashville. He owns the lowest ERA in Triple A, and hasn’t allowed more than one run a game. He carried a 0.87 ERA in his last five starts, before making his first big league start Friday against the Boston Red Sox.

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. 

Old Man Game — not a compliment in MLB. 

Old Man Game — not a compliment in MLB. 

Team D. 

Mike Trout was about to drive in Howie Kendrick to break a 1-1 tie Tuesday night vs. the Oakland A’s. A’s LF Yoenis Cespedes not only let the ball drop, he bobbled it before getting a throw off. Sid Bream would’a scored on someone else’s arm. Not the Cuban Missile’s.

Test Oakland LF Yoenis Cespedes’ arm at your own risk. 

Angels 2B Howie Kendrick attempted to break a 1-1 tie on Mike Trout’s eighth inning double after Cespedes bobbled the ball. Not. Even. Close.

Strike Three Yer Out

A’s C Derek Norris was twice hit in the head by O’s 3B Manny Machado over the weekend. Against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Tuesday night, it happened again. 

Aybar tapped Norris in the head in the fourth inning. It happened once. Norris stayed in the game.