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Entries in Arizona Diamondbacks (25)

Tuesday
Dec132011

D-Backs Make Right Call in Cutting Saunders

In 2011, Joe Saunders tossed 212 innings, posted a 3.69 ERA and won 12 games. Judging by those metrics, the Diamondbacks' decision to non-tender the 30-year-old seems curious. After all, why cut loose a workhorse lefty with an ERA much better than the NL average for starters (3.94)? The are two perfectly good reasons: Saunders has little chance of repeating that performance, and he's precisely the sort of pitcher who gets more money than he's worth in arbitration.

Saunders' 3.69 ERA was more the product of favorable bounces and timely outs than skill. Baseball Reference informs us that Saunders' nickname is "Bazooka Joe," but I'm not sure why. He struck out just 12.4% of the batters he faced, which ranked in the 15th percentile among starting pitchers (meaning he was worse than 85% of SP in that category). Saunders' control was OK but hardly Maddux-esque, as his 7.7 BB% placed in the 44th percentile. And he was worse than 82 percent of starters when it came to keeping the ball in the park, allowing a home run in 3.7% of opponent at-bats.

So, Saunders didn't miss bats, was a bit below average in avoiding walks and allowed lots of homers. How, then, did he post a 3.69 ERA when his Fielding Independent ERA was over a run higher, at 4.78? Saunders benefited from a .275 batting average on balls in play, which was 16 points lower than his mark from 2008-2010. He was especially lucky with runners in scoring position, with a .218 BABIP that was 80 points below his 2008-2010 average. In related news, Saunders stranded 77.7% of runners that got on base, compared to 72.1% the previous three years. That kind of Houdini act won't hold up.

Despite Saunders' dubious defense-independent stats, he was in for a handsome payday in arbitration. Research by Matt Swartz shows that arbitration panels mostly judge pitchers by back-of-the-baseball-card numbers: innings pitched, wins and ERA. And Saunders, with back-to-back 200+ inning seasons and 16-and-17 win campaigns in his past, was primed for a 2012 salary in the $8.5 to $9 million range. Considering that Saunders' 2012 ERA may well be closer to five than four (The Hardball Times' Oliver projects a 4.73 mark), that's a lot of coin for mediocrity. Plus, the Diamondbacks have arms like Josh Collmenter, Wade Miley and Barry Enright to fill out the back of their rotation. Top prospects like Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs could debut later in the season, too.

Arizona's decision to non-tender Saunders makes sense whether the team tries to bring him back or not. He's not worth a $9 million salary next season, and other teams know that as well. As such, Saunders might get a multi-year offer but almost assuredly won't get $9 million per year. Players almost always get less money through arbitration than when they can market their services to all 30 clubs as a free agent, but Saunders' ERA and win totals mean more to arbitration panels than to teams who will note the discrepancy between results and process. After all, would you give $9 million to a durable Zach Duke?

 

Sunday
Dec112011

Cahill and K's

The Arizona Diamondbacks fortified their rotation over the weekend, acquiring Trevor Cahill (and reliever Craig Breslow) from the Oakland A's for a trio of prospects: RHPs Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook and OF Collin Cowgill.

Parker is nearly big league-ready and has big upside, having returned from Tommy John surgery to post a 112/55 K/BB ratio in 130.2 innings at Double-A Mobile and then impressing enough in a late-season cameo to earn a postseason roster spot.  Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers says the club is in "go-for-it mode," taking advantage of a window to retain top status in the NL West. However, Towers is no doubt aware that Cahill -- signed through 2015 for a little under $29 million, with team options for 2016-2017 worth a combined $26.5 million -- is a long-term buy with remaining upside.

Cahill (24 in March) has been a slightly above league-average starter to this point in his career, sporting a modest strikeout rate (5.5 K/9), average control (3.3 BB/9) and strong ground ball tendencies (54%). But the right-hander, who whiffed nearly 10 batters per nine innings as a prospect, is starting to miss more bats in the big leagues. He struck out just 11.6% of hitters faced as a rookie in 2009, but he increased that total to 15.1% in 2010 and fanned 16.3% of batters faced in 2011 (the average for starters is 17-18%).

He's getting more Ks by incorporating his breaking pitches more often. Cahill threw his his-70s curveball and his short-breaking, low-80s slider just 10 percent of the time as a rookie. As a sophomore, he threw his breaking stuff 15 percent, and he tossed a curve or slider 19 percent in 2011. Cahill is progressively doing a better job of keeping those breaking balls down, and hitters are swinging over his low curves and sliders.

In 2009, Cahill caught the middle part of the plate often with his curve and slider:

Location of Cahill's curveball and slider, 2009

Fifty percent of his breaking balls were located low in the zone, 29 percent were thrown to the middle portion, and 21 percent were thrown high. Hitters just about never missed those middle and high breakers:

Opponent contact rate by pitch location vs. Cahill's curveball and slider, 2009

Hitters swung and missed at Cahill's curve just 22 percent of the time overall, well below the 28 percent average for starting pitchers. In 2010, Cahill did a bit better in keeping the ball down:

Cahill's curveball and slider location, 2010

He threw 52 percent of his breaking pitches low in the zone, 27 percent to the middle, and 21 percent high in the zone. Those curves and sliders spotted low in the zone induced lots of whiffs:

Opponent contact rate by pitch location vs. Cahill's curveball and slider, 2010

Opponents missed 35 percent of the time they swung at a Cahill breaker. This past season, Cahill very rarely hung a curve or slider:

Cahill's curveball and slider location, 2011

Cahill threw 58 percent of his breaking balls low, 22 percent to the middle of the zone, and 20 percent to the upper third of the zone. Those breaking pitches thrown to the arm side gave hitters fits, and Cahill slightly increased his miss rate with his curve and slider to 36 percent:

Opponent contact rate by pitch location vs. Cahill's curveball and slider, 2011

At worst, the Diamondbacks picked up a young, cost-controlled starter who has gradually increased his workload to 200+ innings and will complement Dan Hudson and Ian Kennedy nicely. But, with Cahill becoming increasingly comfortable using breaking pitches in addition to his quality sinker and changeup, he could yet take a leap forward and become a number two or fringe number one starter. Some think Parker has that upside, too. Still, considering that the D-Backs have an absurd amount of pitching prospects in the pipeline -- Trevor Bauer, Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs to name a few -- picking up Cahill is a solid move that improves the team in 2012 and beyond.

Monday
Nov142011

Transaction Roundup: Carroll, Hill Off the Market

Minnesota Twins signed INF Jamey Carroll to a two-year, $7M contract (pending a physical) with a $2M vesting player option for 2014.

Last offseason, the Twinkies traded incumbent shortstop J.J. Hardy to Baltimore for minor league relievers Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey and signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka of Nippon Professional Baseball's Chiba Lotte Mariners to a three-year, $9.25M deal.

While Hardy hit 30 homers, batted .269/.310/.491 and signed a below-market three-year, $22.5M extension with the O's, Jacobson walked the yard at Double-A, Hoey got lit up in MLB mop-up work, and Minnesota shortstops (Nishioka, Trevor Plouffe, Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert) combined for a rancid .238/.292/.320 line. Plus, the four were a collective 16 runs worse than an average defensive shortstop, according to Ultimate Zone Rating.

Carroll, brought in to be the everyday shortstop, has some concerns. He'll turn 38 in February, the super-sub has never been a full-time starter at the infield's premium defensive position, and he's downright Punto-like in the power department (it's been five years since he slugged over .350). Even so, it's hard to knock the Twins for adding a good source of OBP at a modest price.

Carroll is one of the most selective hitters in the game.  The righty batter has swung at just 35 percent of pitches seen over the past three years, sixth-lowest among MLB hitters. Carroll's patience and contact ability (his 10 miss percentage is just outside the top 10 among MLB hitters over that time) leads to lots of deep counts. With 4.3 pitches per plate appearance, Carroll trails only Jayson Werth, Daric Barton, Nick Johnson, Brett Gardner and Kevin Youkilis. That's how you manage league-average offense (.286/.364/.343 since '09) despite rarely getting the ball out of the infield.

Arizona Diamondbacks signed 2B Aaron Hill to a two-year, $11M contract. The Diamondbacks previously declined Hill's $8M options for Hill in both 2012 and 2013.

Hill did perform well for Arizona after coming over from Toronto as part of a deal for Kelly Johnson in late August (.315/.386/.492 in 142 PA), but he still hit just .246/.299/.356 overall in 571 PA. He doesn't work the count much, with a career walk rate hovering around 6.5 percent, and he seems to be the sort of batter who posts lower-than average batting average on balls in play totals (.255 over the past three seasons, .285 career) due to his hitting many fly balls and more pop-ups that most. That leaves Hill dependent upon his power to keep him from being a liability at the plate. And last year, that needed sock was nowhere to be found.

Hill smacked only eight home runs in 2011. Unless he got a pitch right down the pike, he didn't make pitchers pay. Check out his in-play slugging percentage compared to the league average:

Hill's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011

League average in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011

Hill struggled badly against pitches located on the outside corner, and pitchers were well aware. They pounded Hill away all year:

Opponent pitch location vs. Hill, 2011 About half of the pitches that Hill got were located away, and he slugged just .255 against those offerings. Kosuke Fukudome was the only qualified hitter to show less thump against outside pitches.

Hill is considered a capable defender, and Chase Field is a good place for a righty hitter to re-discover his extra-base power. But I wonder whether the D-Backs simply would have been better off keeping Johnson in the first place and trying to sign the free agent to an extension instead. Johnson figures to be the superior hitting heading forward, with The Hardball Times' Oliver projecting a .237/.322/.415 line for him in 2012, compared to Hill's .244/.299/.395.

 

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