Sunday, January 19, 2014

Tipping Our Pitches on a Lazy Sunday

I started 2014 with a New Year’s Resolution, something I can’t ever remember doing before in my life. I told myself that I would write more in 2014 than I did in 2013. I’ve actually been more successful with this resolution that you’d think, despite this is my first published post of the calendar year. I’ve been diving deep into my annual prospect ranking, a labor of love that takes more time and effort every year that I seem to remember going into the process. So despite appearances to the contrary, I actually have done a fair amount of writing this year. While you’ve yet to see the fruits of my labor, I promise you that sometime in mid-Feb (or March, let’s not get crazy here), you will see ten straight days of prospect info from yours truly, which will hopefully be worth the wait. Ranking the system is always a lot of fun, and this year is no different. While there’s little doubt about who the top three players in the system are, 4-15 are more interchangeable than usual. That speaks to both the depth of the org (good!) and the relative lack of near-term, impact talent (bad). There are several players on the list who I haven’t been able to see yet, most notably last year’s 1st round draft pick, OF Clint Frazier. I’m already counting down the days to my annual pilgrimage to sunny Goodyear, Arizona, where I’ll get to see Frazier, Lindor, and the rest of the players in the system once again. To say I’m excited would be an understatement, especially as I gaze out my back window at the freshly fallen snow. With those warming thoughts out of the way, let’s move on to the news surrounding the Indians here as the offseason ticks away…

The Indians have six players eligible for salary arbitration this offseason, and so far they’ve only been able to settle with two of them. Lefthanded relievers Marc Rzepczynski ($1.375 million) and Josh Outman ($1.25 million) agreed to contracts, leaving Justin Masterson, Michael Brantley, Vinnie Pestano and Josh Tomlin still to go. Masterson is going to be the most difficult sign, as the salary figure submitted by the Indians is over $3 million less than the figure that Masterson’s agent has requested from the club. The Indians offered $8.05 million to their ace, while Masterson countered with $11.8 million. It’s the biggest gap of any arbitration case in all of baseball, and this is really going to test the Indians’ arbitration success streak. The club hasn’t gone to formal arbitration with a player since 1991 (Jerry Browne and Greg Swindell, in case you were wondering), and they’d very much like to agree to a long-term deal with Masterson to avoid the process altogether. Seeing the two sides this far apart is not a good omen for those negotiations though, and it'll be interesting to see how the arbitration process affects the ongoing negotiations between Masterson and the club on a long-term deal.

There was some interesting news out of the Indians bullpen this week, as the Toronto-based National Post revealed that closer-to-be John Axford was tipping his pitches while with the Brewers in 2013. Immediately after he was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cards staff met with Axford and told him that St. Louis hitters knew what pitch Axford was throwing before it even left his hand. In the Post article, Axford said, “I recall, sitting in that room when they told me that, a few different games running through my mind, including blown saves, and thinking, ‘Maybe that’s why they didn’t swing at that slider that was just out of the zone.’” That Axford was able to have the relative success that he did as a Brewer speaks to the quality of his stuff, because tipping pitches can be death for a closer, especially a guy like Axford that works off of a straight fastball/slider combo. Looking deeper into the numbers during his 2013 season, the pitch tipping issues make a lot of sense.

Something clearly happened when Axford put on a Cardinals uniform, as his numbers returned to their elite 2011 level with the Redbirds. The Cardinals have been a model organization as far as acquiring and developing talent, and their advance scouting is a big part of that success. In 54 2/3 IP with the Brewers last year, Axford recorded 54 K, issued 23 walks and allowed a 4.45 ERA. He was touched up for 10 HR, and allowed a total of 85 baseruners. As a Cardinal, in 10 1/3 regular season innings he struck out 11, walked 3 and gave up just 2 earned runs (1.74 ERA). He didn’t allow a homer, and just 14 runners reached base against the flamethrowing righty. Could it just be that Axford happened to perform well in a small sample size? Possibly, but if he also made a mechanical change as a Cardinal (not tipping his pitches, for example), that’d be a logical explanation as well. Yet a third factor in Axford’s resurgence is the spike in his fastball velocity as the season progressed, which Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus helpfully charted out for us here:

After the trade, they let Axford in on the secret. He's not giving away the information, since it would be valuable to opponents, but he appreciates what his new club has done for his career.
"There's a small specific thing that I won't mention, but it's something that a team that's scouting you will see, since they're trying to see if you're tipping pitches or doing something a little bit differently," Axford said. "They've been seeing it for the last few years, they've shared it with me and we've worked on it since."
The pictures included in this (free) R.J. Anderson piece on Baseball Prospectus really tell the story. With the Brewers, Axford was throwing his breaking ball from an almost abbreviated delivery. His hands broke far lower, his left knee only got as high as his belt and his left foot stayed parallel to the rubber. When throwing his fastball, his hands break at his chin, left knee comes up to his chest and his left foot torques behind the rubber. While these seem like somewhat subtle differences, major league hitters are incredibly good at picking up and exploiting nuances like this once they know what to look for. And in the era of advanced scouting and video, you can be sure that the opposing coaches and hitters knew what to look for.

Axford’s ERA+ in his breakout 2011 season was a dominant 202 (over 73 2/3 innings). His ERA+ as a Cardinal was a similar 217, albeit over a far smaller sample size. If Axford is even a decent closer, $4.5 million (or $6 million if he finishes 63 games in 2014) is a solid deal. If he returns to his 2011 self, it’s a flat-out steal. One thing to remember; Axford is a traditional slow starter, struggling in the month of April throughout his career. He has allowed a 6.28 ERA in 28 2/3 April innings, almost a full 3 runs higher than any other month. Indians fans can be fickle when it comes to their closers, so hopefully we can cut Axford a little slack even if he struggles out of the gate as an Indian. If his mechanics do regress to the point where he loses his delivery and/or starts tipping his pitches, I just so happen to have the solution to those problems. I like the Axford signing more and more as the offseason progresses, and think he’ll fit right in at the back end of the revamped Bullpen Mafia.

In addition to the velocity chart for Axford, Lindbergh gave us a transaction analysis of the Axford deal when he signed. Lindbergh’s work was more about the general strategy of the Indians in assembling their bullpen than Axford himself, and it makes for very interesting reading. Both before and during the Tito Francona Era, the Indians have had an identified, go-to Closer© that the manager would go to in save situations. But that Closer© hasn’t necessarily been the best pitcher in the Indians bullpen in any given year. Whether we’re talking about Cody Allen in 2013, Vinnie Pestano in 2011/12, Raffy Left in 2008/09, Raffy Right in 2007, Bobby Howry in 2005, the club has frequently employed a better pitcher in the setup role than the closer role. Note however that the designated Closer© was never removed from his role, even as Joe Borowski was posting an 89 ERA+ to Raffy Right’s 307(!) ERA+ in 2007. The rationale for keeping a “better” arm in the setup role is threefold; one, it allows for all the pitchers in the bullpen to have a clearly defined role. Everyone knows when they are going to pitch, and can prepare themselves mentally and physically in a consistent fashion from day to day. Two, it allows for more flexibility with your best arm. A manager does not have to save Cody Allen to start the 9th inning with no one on base and a three-run lead. Rather, Cody Allen can be called on in the bottom of the 7th with one out and the bases loaded in a one-run game, leaving Chris Perez to face the easier situation that develops in the 9th. Third and almost as important as the first two, it helps to keep arbitration costs down. Right or wrong, Cody Allen coming off of a 40-save season is worth much, much more in arbitration than Cody Allen coming off of a 50-hold season. Lindbergh sums it up here more succinctly that I could:
That’s the way this works. The Indians always have a certified, capital-c Closer, but he’s normally not the best pitcher in their bullpen, and they don’t break the bank to get him. It’s not that they subscribe to the cult of the closer mentality—as Francona said, he has no doubt that Bryan Shaw could do the job—but they realize that some pitchers prefer the predictability of predefined, rigid roles, and they also realize that there’s some benefit to keeping a stud in a setup role, where they can use him more flexibly and keep his cost down.
So don’t look at the Axford signing as an endorsement of the importance of the closer role, or a vote of no confidence in Allen. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The Indians needed a late-inning arm to replace the one they lost when Joe Smith left, and it just so happens that most of those innings will be in the ninth.
I’ve long been lauding the merits of having a front office and manager who are on the same page, and the bullpen construction is just another example of that playing out in Cleveland. Francona had a similar model in Boston with setup arms like Mike Timlin, Hideki Okajimi and Daniel Bard who were as good or better than the 9th inning arms trotted out in Fenway Park. Francona is comfortable with the concept, Antonetti and Shapiro fully endorse the idea and so the Indians will enter 2014 with a Closer© who might not be the best pitcher in the bullpen, but will make for a better overall bullpen experience, while at the same time keeping their best relievers affordable in the arbitration process. It’s an example of the Indians identifying and exploiting a market inefficiency, something that they’ll need to continue to do in order to be competitive in today’s game.

The biggest baseball related news from this week has little to do with the Indians, on the surface at least. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed ace lefthander Clayton Kershaw to a 7-year contract worth $215 million. That’s more than twice the entire 2013 Indians payroll, albeit spread out over seven years. He’ll make more next season than the entire 25-man Houston Astros roster took home in 2013. It’s the highest AAV in baseball, and the deal is an absolute slam dunk, no-brainer for the Dodgers for two big reasons. One, because Kershaw is probably the best pitcher on the planet, and as a 25-year old is only getting better (which is a scary thought). And two, because the money is pretty much pocket change for the Dodgers franchise. It may seem strange (especially to an Indians fan) to call $215 million “pocket change,” but consider the TV deal that the Dodgers have agreed to. The TV deal that pays the Dodgers $340 million per season over eight years to broadcast their games. Not a total of $340 million, but $340 million per year for the next 25 years. That’s a mind-boggling number, especially when you look at the Indians TV deal with Fox Sports Ohio. FSO is paying the Indians…wait for it…$400 million. Over 10 years. $40 million a year. $300 million less than the Dodgers per season. That’s before they sell a single ticket, Dodger Dog, or Clayton Kershaw authentic Dodgers jersey (that a Dodger fan can purchase KNOWING that he’ll be able to wear it as long as Kershaw is a player. Probably even to Cooperstown for Kershaw’s HOF induction ceremony). Oh, and the way the Dodgers have structured the TV deal restricts how much they have to pay into revenue sharing, although MLB hasn’t approved the deal as constructed just yet.

Let those numbers sink in a little, and try not to get to depressed. The Dodgers just signed the best pitcher in baseball to a contract that will pay him less than 10% of their annual TV revenue. It’d be almost like the Indians re-signing Masterson to a 7-year, $26 million contract. Think that’s going to happen anytime soon?

The always-fantastic Jonah Keri did a great breakdown of the deal from both a talent and revenue perspective, and as you’d expect, the Expos fan does not forget about the small-market clubs:
Yes, that’s a lot of money, no matter how you parse it. The thing is, there’s no way to evaluate a Dodgers contract and, say, a Pirates contract the same way…Really, the only losers here are baseball’s small-revenue teams. The Dodgers play in a market that dwarfs Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Kansas City in both size and financial opportunity. Over the years, MLB has made some attempts to remedy that imbalance, starting with the revenue-sharing advances that followed the 1994 strike. But baseball, like every other enterprise, is reactionary; the league waits for a problem to come along, and only then tries to whip it. The TV money flowing into the game is, in many ways, a boon to all, with the new national deal adding $26 million to every team’s top line in 2014. Unfortunately, the league failed to anticipate the massive gulf that would develop between the have and have-not teams once the wealthiest clubs signed their new local deals. The Padres make $60 million a year from their TV contract, while the Dodgers make $340 million. The notion that these two teams compete every year in the same division is kind of insane, and the existing, outdated revenue-sharing structure isn’t going to fix that.
Will the small-market owners rise up in rebellion during the next CBA negotiations (due to take place after the 2016 baseball season)? Or will they simply take their slice of the revenue sharing pie, content to make piles of money on their business investment whether the team has a consistent chance at the World Series or not? That’s the billion dollar question, and it’s one that we Indians (or Pirates, Rays or Royals) fans might not like the answer to. As it is though, the best that a team like the Indians can hope for is that they draft and develop someone like Clayton Kershaw, keep him in the org for five seasons after his MLB debut and then trade him prior to free agency for a Colon-esque haul of prospects. Because unless the player in question is willing to give a ridiculous “hometown discount” (spoiler alert: he will not be), the Indians will never be able to resign a player like Kershaw or Mike Trout even if they are lucky/talented enough to draft and develop him. If Clayton Kershaw were a Cleveland Indian, we’d be talking about whether or not to trade him before or during the 2014 season, not about the massive contract he had earned by winning multiple Cy Young Awards before his 26th birthday. That’s a harsh and sad reality, but it’s a reality nonetheless.

The Indians inked another outfielder to a minor league deal this week, a contract that got a little more attention than it normally would have because of the player’s personality. Nyjer Morgan is 33 years old, played the 2013 season in Japan and put up an OPS+ of just 63 with the Brewers in 2012. But a crazy nickname, an entertaining twitter persona and an outgoing personality all combine to make Morgan a memorable figure, and thus the signing of Tony Plush to a minor league deal makes for “news” in January. The fact that precious little else seems to be brewing on the shores of Lake Erie certainly has something to do with it as well. Morgan appeared in 108 games with Yokohama last year, the majority of those (71) in CF. He hit .298/.361/.434 in 424 AB with 11 HR and 50 RBI, stealing just three bases while being caught twice. He can play all three OF positions, and that will serve him well in Columbus if he accepts the minor league assignment that is sure to await him following spring training. If nothing else, Goodyear will be a little more exciting this year, as a locker room with Swisher, Giambi and Tony Plush will be sure to have plenty of quoteable material for the scribes suffering from sunburn in the Arizona desert. But iff I had to bet on one of them making the Indians roster out of spring training (not that I think there will be room for either), I’d put my money on Jeff Francouer.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the coaching news that came out of the Indians family this week. Former Indians DH Travis Hafner has been unable to find a team this offseason, so he’s joined the coaching staff at Division II Notre Dame College in South Euclid. Mr. Perfect himself, Len Barker, is the head coach at Notre Dame, and Hafner will join Barker on a part-time, volunteer basis. Hafner’s wife is the cheerleading coach at Notre Dame, and he’s clearly comfortable in the greater-Cleveland area so the move makes sense on that level. As a former Division II “athlete” (benchwarmer), I can only imagine how excited the Notre Dame players are to have Pronk suddenly show up to be part of the coaching staff, no matter how part-time his role ends up being. Hafner was one of my all-time favorite Indians, and watching him hit during his prime (namely 2004-2006) was always a thing of beauty. I still think it’s a crime that he never so much as made an all-star team, owing primarily to the superior name recognition and marketing of Boston’s David Ortiz. I hope he ends up finding a role as a player at some point in 2014, but if not, this could be a great introduction into a career as a hitting coach. Notre Dame takes on my alma mater, Mercyhurst University, in Erie, PA on April 22. I’m sure Hafner hopes to be in a major league dugout by then, but if not, I know plenty of Erie-area Tribe fans who will be happy to catch a glimpse of Pronk in the Notre Dame dugout.