Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Look at Jeff Kobernus

The Red Sox selected Jeff Kobernus from the Washington Nationals in the Rule 5 Draft, then immediately traded him to the Tigers for Justin Henry.  Not a very highly touted prospect, John Sickels of Minor League Ball ranked him 19th among Washington Nationals prospects before the 2012 season, Kobernus is expected to contribute at the major league level, if not as a starter then as a bench player.  The Tigers are now without Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly, so Kobernus could potentially take one of their roles, but he has to remain on the 25-man roster all year or risk losing him. 

Kobernus has been pretty consistent on AVG and OBP, while showing a little boost of power in 2011, though below average overall:

2010 (A) - .279/.316/.346, 5.0% BB%, 16.9% K%
2011 (A+) - .282/.313/.387, 4.0%, BB%, 16.7% K%
2012 (AA) - .282/.325/.333, 5.2% BB%, 15.6% K%

Kobernus has below average walk rates, which have resulted in below average on-base percentages.  This could prevent him from being a top of the order hitter, which is what he was projected to be when he was drafted.  Another issue seems to be durability, as he has only surpassed 500 PA once, in 2011 and might already be labeled as injury-prone.

As a right-handed bat, he hits much better against left-handed pitching.  2011-2012 totals:

Vs. LHP - .313/.357/.429, 6.7% BB%, 11.6% K%
Vs. RHP - .269/.298/.338, 3.5% BB%, 18.5% K%

The Tigers are actively looking for a right-handed OF to platoon with Andy Dirks in LF, although they probably want someone with more power and experience than Kobernus.  If these numbers translate to the ML level, then Kobernus might be a pretty good platoon player, getting most of his playing time against left-handed pitching.

Kobernus’ best asset is his speed.  He has stolen 120 bases in only 290 games, including 53 in 2011 and 42 in 2012.    It’s a shame that he doesn’t have a better walk rate, as he could be seen as a future lead-off hitter instead of a fringe starter/bench player.  His great speed could mean that Quintin Berry wouldn’t have a role as they would be similar players with similar roles.

As far as defense, Kobernus is seen as an above average defensive second baseman, having above average range and a good arm.  Save for 4 games at SS, he has always been a second baseman, which could hurt him from being a ML player if he can’t hit well enough to be a starter.  The Tigers seem to think he can play the OF, which could give him Ryan Rabun-like versatility as far as defense is concerned, but much better.

The Tigers are definitely focusing on speed and defense as his hitting isn’t going to wow anyone.  If Kobernus can play above average defense in the OF as he can at 2B, he’ll likely stay on the roster all year and could carve out a nice career as a bench player.  Quintin Berry provided a bit of a spark last year with his speed and the Tigers are probably banking on Kobernus to do the same in 2013 (regardless of how Berry projects in the future, it was exciting to see his speed, at least for the first month).  With Omar Infante’s contract running out at the end of the year, Kobernus could be in competition for the starting 2B job in 2014 if he impresses enough in 2013.

Tiger fans should be excited, if only for the possibility of great defense and speed off the bench.  He might not have the impact of a Dan Uggla, but the Nationals could regret losing him in a few years.  Unless, of course, the injuries become a problem, a legitimate concern.  The Tigers are expected to contend in 2013, so it might seem strange to take a chance on a player that hasn't played above AA.  But considering the role he'll be in and the players he's replacing, it's a risk worth taking.  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Can Rick Porcello Regain His Slider?

The Tigers have resigned Anibal Sanchez.  Whether or not you agree that it was a good deal or an over-payment, it does leave the Tigers with six starting pitchers and only five rotation spots.  There are several solutions to this, one being to send Drew Smyly down either in the minors or in the bullpen or even send Rick Porcello to the bullpen for depth.  But the popular opinion around the internet has Rick Porcello being traded and he’s even drawing interest from other clubs.

Porcello didn’t have a terrible year, at least not as bad as his ERA would lead you to believe (4.59 ERA).  His strikeout rate has increased for the 3rd straight year (5.46 K/9) as well as his ground ball rate (53.2%).  This resulted in a respectable 3.91 FIP and 3.89 xFIP, the lowest totals of his career.  The reason for the high ERA can be attributed to the poor infield defense and his league leading .344 BABIP suggests just that.  However, there was something else that went wrong with Porcello, and that was his slider.  In fact, it was so bad that FanGraphs suggested that he stop throwing that pitch altogether.

So how bad was it?  According to Pitch f/x, hitters teed off of Porcello’s slider with a batting line of .394/.405/.615 last year in 109 AB.  But just one year prior, hitters only hit .227/.268/.313 off of Porcello’s slider in 150 AB and it could be argued that that was his best pitch that year.  So what made it really good in 2011 and very bad in 2012, ignoring small samples for a moment?  One theory is the velocity of that he threw it at.  In 2011, he threw his slider at 75.1-88.5 MPH (averaging 83.2 MPH).  In 2012, he threw it harder at 78.5-90 MPH (averaging 85.1 MPH), an increase of about 2 MPH on average.  The extra velocity flattened the pitch out and made it more hittable. 

If Porcello is unable to regain his slider, he’s basically a fastball/sinker and changeup pitcher and he might be better used out of the bullpen without a third pitch.  But if he is able to get his 2011 slider back (or develop a different 3rd pitch altogether*) along with his other improvements, he’s primed to have a breakout year next year, especially if he’s traded to a team with better infield defense.  

*Like maybe focusing on his curveball more often?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sanchez was a good signing

While perusing some of the message boards in the aftermath of the Anibal Sanchez signing, I was confounded by the grumbling about “how we overspent”, or “there goes Verlander and Cabrera”. I doubt the team will lose either of those players because of this signing. I realize that payroll seems to be entering unprecedented territory, but what seems to be the most overlooked truth of this entire situation, is that baseball revenues are also entering unprecedented territory. The sum of television revenues are on the verge of pretty much doubling from approximately $77M to the $150M range. The team is projected to have a payroll in the mid $150Ms right now with Sanchez, the team ran for several years in the $130M range on the old TV revenue schedule, I don’t see how bumping payroll $20M is this week’s sign of the apocalypse.
While I do believe there are CERTAIN budgetary constraints in place, I don’t see this move as the move that will cost us Verlander or Cabrera. This move is going to cost us Max Scherzer after the 2014 season. Scherzer is a Scott Boras client and is going to test the market. We just purchased a pretty good pitcher for 5 years on the low end of what is likely to be the beginning of a very strong inflationary cycle in player contract values. If Sanchez got this amount in 2012, just imagine what Scherzer will get after 2014. While I understand that after the 2014 season Verlander is scheduled to be a free agent also, I expect that we will probably begin contract extension talks with Justin right about now. Zach Grienke has set the bar, Justin Verlander now knows what he can expect to ask for, and the Tigers now know what about they would be expected to pay. Just like with Sanchez, DD and the crew have long stated the desire to keep JV a Tiger for life, while Scherzer as a Boras client is much less likely to take that track at a time JV has stated his desire to remain with the club. Two years prior to contract expiration is traditionally about the timeframe where organizations that WANT to keep their players longer term will begin contract extension talks. It seems to me now that most of the “big moves” that involve external free agents are out of the way, it is time to turn our attention to internal contract issues, and that is exactly what I think the organization is going to do.
I do believe the first element of fallout from this signing is that Rick Porcello is likely to be traded. DD almost ALWAYS holds his cards close to the vest and RARELY states what his trade intentions are. With Porcello, DD has pretty much said he could be had in “the right trade”, which is more than DD usually gives up to the public. If I am to translate DD speak from that remark, it pretty much says to me Porcello is a goner. Porcello, I think if traded to a team with decent infield defense, could be a pretty effective pitcher, especially in the National League, which is where I suspect he will be traded to. Boesch too is likely a goner for the same reason. Andrew Oliver has already been traded in what I guess DD assesses was “the right deal”. With Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Phil Coke and Brennan Boesch all in their arbitration years, and with Al Alburquerque and Andy Dirks knocking on the door, Anibal Sanchez provides one roster spot with cost certainty over the next 5 years. This also allows for the Tigers to reduce the uncertainty of arbitration by giving the Tigers room to part ways with a few of these players. As stated above, I believe this winter, those players will be Rick Porcello and Brennan Boesch, with the team taking another year on the remaining players.
All things put together, if the organization can develop another starting pitcher this year (are you listening Casey Crosby?), I wouldn’t’ be surprised to see the team trade Scherzer next winter when he might be at “maximum trade value”, especially considering Scherzer is the one more likely to leave via free agency in my opinion. This Anibal Sanchez signing gives the organization much greater flexibility to work its way through the big arbitration classes over the next few years, and MAY cost us Porcello and eventually Scherzer, but I like our chances this year and maybe next with a rotation of JV, Scherzer, Fister, Sanchez and Smyly much better than a rotation of JV, Scherzer, Fister, Porcello and Smyly, and that’s the bottom line here. This was a great signing, and in a few years, this will look like a bargain.
Now, if we can just get one more big bat.  I'd like it much if we could put together a package centered around Porcello and Castellanos, along with others not named Garcia or Rondon to get Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins.  That would be the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thoughts on Performance Enhancers and the Hall of Fame

Next month baseball writers will be voting on players for the Hall of Fame.  Over the last couple of years, the ballots have gotten pretty big mainly due to the fact that they’ve refused to elect anyone with any link to performance enhancing drugs.  Unlike Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, who are permanently banned due to gambling and the Black Sox Scandal and therefore ineligible for the Hall of Fame, players need to be caught 3 times using performance enhancers to get a lifetime banned and put on the ineligible list.  Therefore, players caught 1-2 times are still eligible for enshrinement, even though the voters are hesitant to let them in.  However, their actions aren’t completely unjustifiable; rule 5 taken directly from the Baseball Hall of Fame website states:

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

Voters are simply implementing the integrity clause to keep out otherwise statistically deserving players. 

There are several factors that can lead voters to change their minds.  This website shows that steroids don’t really give players a competitive advantage.  A common conspiracy theory is that MLB juiced the ball during the 1990s to increase the offense to get fans interested in baseball again after the 1994 strike and that commissioner Bud Selig not only turned a blind eye toward steroid users but actually encouraged them.   Keeping the players out of the Hall of Fame could be viewed as unfair if this is true, especially considering the vagueness of the steroid policies and the fact there was no formal testing until 2005.

A common misconception is that steroids have not been banned until 2005, but that’s not entirely true.  Steroids have been banned in MLB since 1991 when then Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a memo stating, “The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players or personnel is strictly prohibited.... This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs ... including steroids or prescription drugs for which the individual in possession of the drug does not have a prescription."  If players were made aware of the banning and ignored it, then maybe keeping them out of the Hall of Fame is the right thing to do.

Personally, I have to side with the voters in keeping them out.  The Steroid Era is a black eye in baseball and rewarding the players by putting them in the Hall of Fame seems to just ignore that.  Some people like to compare this time to the 60s and 70s when it was a well-known fact that players were taking amphetamines and maybe in time voters will view it as such and elect them in.  But we’re in a time with the internet and technology that can tell us a lot more information than the 60s and 70s, although the media might be making a bigger deal out of this then it actually is, which adds to the negative impact of this time. 

It is however a Hall of “Fame” not a Hall of “Stats” or a Hall of Merit .  These players should be held to a higher standard other than just having just the stats.  Why have the “integrity, sportsmanship, character” clause in the voting rules, if voters are just going to ignore it?  Why ban steroids during the 90s if there’s no punishment or drug testing?

 Notable players linked to PEDs on the 2013 ballot:

           ·         Barry Bonds – During the BALCO investigation, admitted to using a clear substance
and cream
but thought they were nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and rubbing balm.       
           ·         Mark McGwire – Admitted to using steroids in 2010 during the 1998 season when he broke the HR record. 
           ·         Rafael Palmiero – Was Banned in 2005 for violating MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy.  
           ·         Roger Clemens – Named in the Mitchell Report.   
           ·         Sammy SosaLawyers claimed that he had a positive drug test during the 2003 season.  

Therefore, my hypothetical ballot for the 2013 Hall of Fame is:
            1.    Jeff Bagwell
            2.    Mike Piazza
            3.    Edgar Martinez
            4.    Alan Trammell
            5.    Curt Schilling
            6.    Craig Biggio
            7.    Larry Walker
            8.    Tim Raines

Voters can vote up to 10 players.