Peter Gammons: A late January look at some 2018 story-lines

I get every argument. J.D. Martinez is older than Justin Upton, and, lord knows, the Red Sox are the only team in baseball over the luxury tax threshold because of Pablo Sandoval. I also get how hard the man has worked to get to 45 home runs, and his likely ability to stay healthy as a DH to AGE 35.

I get Mike Petriello’s piece on how the sport has skewed younger with the comparison of 1990 and 2017, when the percentage of Runs Above Replacement for players 30 and over has dropped from 69.1 per cent to 32 per cent in 2017. Yet I look at the last three world champions and see nine significant 30-plus Royals in 2015, eight with the 2016 Cubs, seven with the 2017 Astros.

I appreciate that Martinez wants to play the outfield, the Red Sox want him to DH, that DHs getting 500 plate appearances have dropped from 9 in a 14 team league in 2012 – to five in a 15 team league in 2017. I get that Jackie Bradley, Jr. had better numbers against lefthanded pitchers. I get that Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez were two of the 11 players with the biggest difference between result and what should have been results, w/OBA and xw/OBA. I get that Martinez’s power is right-center.

Scott Boras is never afraid to hold his hand for the deal he envisioned from the outset. The Red Sox learned the hard way when they lost Mark Teixeira, and when they lost out on Jayson Werth, they ended up with Carl Crawford, a marriage that didn’t work for either party. So somewhere, with imagination and outs and fancy parentheticals, there is a compromise between seven years-$200M, and five years-$100M which may have already moved North to $125M.

With the youthful lineup and speed the Red Sox have around Martinez—and Alex Cora has already speculated about having the first team to have four players with 20 homers and 20 steals apiece—if Martinez remains healthy, doesn’t mind the East wind blowing across three months a season and the misanthropic Calvinists in the New England audience, he could have the boffo numbers to take back on the market with a buyout after two or three seasons in which his A.A.V. skews close to $30M.

And Boras and other agents maintain the Red Sox revenues are close to $600M annually.

Eventually, unlike Washington, there is a path to rationality. Boras seemed to be frustrated by Dombrowski, but never suggested dealing with him was like dealing with Jello, to which the president of the United States has been likened.

Eric Hosmer is going to work out, be in Kansas City or San Diego in all likelihood. Neither are fits for his loft power like Fenway Park, but he plays 2018 at age 28. Jake Arrieta and Mike Moustakas? Not so certain, as much as Arrieta may be a staff leader.

There will be some nervous players and wives and children three weeks from, and Boras will find owners who are as restless as teenagers. This isn’t 1987. It will work, in many cases, just not the way general managers and agents thought it would on Thanksgiving Day.

****************************************

Too often, baseball is analyzed by Zoroastrians, believing that the eyes of baseball executives and scouts are the blind side of the past, while there are many who have devoted their lives to sitting behind home plates in ballparks from Bellingham to Kissimmee.

But Miguel Cabrera is an example of a player whose future was evaluated by his former manager Brad Ausmus, whose eyes are as perceptive as anyone in the business. And those observations have indeed been quantified by the best of the analytics.

Miguel Cabrera’s 2017 numbers made him appear to be a declining star: his .243/.329/.399 was below league average, and the result-oriented w/OBA put him in the section with Daniel Descalso. But Ausmus predicts a big comeback season, based on Ausmus’ eyes and analytics and what he says is Miggy’s intense desire for greatness. “He really wants to prove he is still a premium player.” Says Ausmus. “Miggy cares about being great. It matters. And from what I watched last year and know of him, I think he’ll come back.”

Thanks to the phenomenal Network Research staff headed by Nate Purinton and Mike Petriello of Statcast, it seems Ausmus was right on. Using xwOBA—which measures how balls were hit and their hit predictability, Cabrera indeed was one of the unluckiest hitters in the game.

The difference between his w/OBA and the xwOBA was far and away the greatest of any player with a minimum of 250 at-bats (see below), nearly double that of runner-up Mitch Moreland.

(250 AB min)  xwOBA/ wOBA/ Difference
Cabrera:              .382/ .322/ -.060
Moreland:            .371/ .335/ -.036
V. Martinez:        .344/ .311/ -033
Avila:                   .401/ .368/ -.033
Pujols:                 .326/ .294/ -.032
K. Morales:        .358/ .326/ -.032
B. Moss:              .336/ .305/ -.031
Motter:               .288/ .259/ -.029
J. Martinez:        .411/ .386/ -.025

Tiger fans may have little hope in 2018, but Cabrera and Victor Martinez were two of the unluckiest hitters in the game. And for those Red Sox fans screaming for Dave Dombrowski to give J.D. Martinez seven years and $210M, Moreland (2) and Hanley Ramirez (11) were two of the 11 hitters in this unlucky category. Which, with $100M on the table for J.D. Martinez and places held for Blake Swihart and Bryce Brentz, makes the run to the first of March in Fort Myers all the more interesting.

 

BREWERS AND PITCHING

The Brewers are indeed a sleeper wild card contender, but while they keep being attached to speculation about free agents like Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn, unless owner Mark Attanasio jumps in—and he did once to sign Kyle Lohse—they are not planning on a big ticket pitching item. Their starters’ ERA was fifth in the National League, second to the Cubs in the Central Division.

They got 41 wins and a 3.41 ERA out of Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies. They have Brent Suter, Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo for depth.

But the most important part of the plan is to develop Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff, who have shown flashes of front end talent, as starters, then hope to get Corbin Burnes out of the system to join them.

If you’re looking for this year’s Robbie Ray? Try Hader, winner of the annual Jeremy Roenicke lookalike contest.

 

INDIANS BREAKOUTS

Speaking of breakouts, Looking for someone else who could make that kind of power surge this season? Look to Yandy Diaz of the Indians. Diaz hit one home run in 179 plate appearances last season, never more than 7 in a minor league season.

But Statcast had the 5th highest exit velocity numbers of any hitters in the majors—95 MPH or better 50.8 per cent of the time. Unfortunately, his average distance was 125 feet, which prompted one Indians official to say, “Yandy hits a lot of hard ground balls to second base.”

But after being sent to the minors last season,, Diaz started to get the ball in the air, and the Indians believe he can be an important part of their offense, especially playing with Alonso, a fellow Cuban who learned to launch last season.

Diaz gives the Indians extraordinary depth. Jose Ramirez is marked down for third base, but he can play second and third and Diaz can play third. Jason Kipnis can go back to the outfield if necessary.

So if Diaz continues to hit the ball hard—and his hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills indicate he should—then he can be one of those guys in June we’re asking, “where did this guy come from?”

The other is center fielder Bradley Zimmer, who may be one of the most important players for the Indians to be a 100 win team. Bradley Zimmer had his negative streaks, he got hurt and played only 101 games, but in spring training the Indians eyes will be on him as candidate as their breakout player in a season they again expect to make a run at 100 wins.

Zimmer is the classic tools player whose swing was expected to take awhile to develop because of his long arms. He hit .241 with a .307 on base and .692 OPS, but he had flashes of electricity. He is an exceptional defensive centerfielder with a big arm. He is one of the five or six fastest runners in the American League. He hit 8 homers in half a year, stole 18 bases, and has convinced Terry Francona that his makeup comes with exceptional accountability.

In an outfield where they don’t know what to expect from Michael Brantley and where Kipnis will play the majority of his games, Zimmer could be a huge part of a championship team.

 

PIRATES ABILITY TO COMPETE

The sense among other teams on Josh Harrison’s request was that interested teams like the Yankees, Mets, and others now believe the Pirates have to trade him.

Well, that will not be the case, not right now. In fact one general manager yesterday said he thought while no one question’s Harrison’s sincerity, it may make it more likely that he will play the first two or three months of the season in Pittsburgh.

Surprisingly, the gist of opinion from the GMs I talked to was that the Pirates did well in their two trades in terms of talent, despite the public reaction. The Pirates ability to compete will be based on their young pitching, particularly the depth of young pitchers: Iván Nova, Jameson Taillon  Tyler Glasnow, Joe Musgrove, Mitch Keller. Acquiring Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick gave them two high velo relievers to set up for Felipe Rivero.

They look at the strides Moran made driving the ball and hit 17 homers in 78 games in triple-A for the Astros and see someone whose line drive and fly ball rates should play in Pittsburgh. What they need is to get Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte back where they were in 2016.

Marte was suspended for half the season, had only a .712 OPS and did not look like the same player. The Pirates claim all his metric indicators were the same, say he has been working hard this winter and should come back.

Polanco’s OPS dropped 100 points, his homer halved from 22 to 11, and the feeling was that he tried too hard to up his launch angle, worked too hard at power and got away from his athleticism. That will be a focus this spring.

As fans in Pittsburgh call for owner Bob Nutting to abdicate his throne, the Pirates may just be better than most people in Pittsburgh think today. How much better? Check back in September, 2019.

Comments

  1. Ghost of Fenway says:

    Some great info Peter, but some of this stuff is way over my slightly educated head: “Zoroastrians” “boffo numbers” and what the heck is “xwOBA”… aside from that love the optimism on the Pirates, Indians should be back as Division champs, and the Red Sox are going to struggle to keep up with the rest of the big 4 with or without JD Martinez.

  2. No surprise that Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez had so many hits taken away, when you combine fielding analytics with how hard these guys hit the ball and how slowly the run. Here in Detroit we’re hoping to squeeze one more season out of Martinez before (hopefully) Cabrera takes over as DH in 2019.

  3. Please Peter, I know you’re a Democrat. Love ya, but keep Trump out of it.
    He now speaks for the working middle class. those who work hard for those insane ticket prices like me.

  4. Charles R. says:

    Agree with Zeke. Had to stop reading MMQB because Peter King can’t get through a column without a Trump bash. Have loved reading Gammons for 40 years, but I don’t read sports columns for the cheap shots of liberal writers at the POTUS. Please, just stick to baseball.

    • PG has earned the right to make any commentary he wants. If a Republican in Congress would stand up and call Trump on his idiocy, maybe PG wouldn’t have to.

  5. love the orange jello crushing. keep it up!

  6. Peter,
    Been reading you for 30 years, but enough of the politics – especially Trump bashing – it is insulting and unnecessary.

  7. To each his own — but its continues to amaze me that some people still think that Trump, with his cabinet of billionaires, weekly trips to Mira Lago and truly obscene tax cuts for the rich, speaks for the working class. Speak your mind, Peter.