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Entries in Cincinnati Reds (36)

Wednesday
Jan112012

Madson's Loss is Cincy's Gain

Ryan Madson had every reason to think he would be basking in the glory of a long-term, eight-figure annual deal by this point in the offseason. The 31-year-old emerged as one of the game's elite relievers since leaving behind any notions of starting in 2007, racking up at least 1.3 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement every season and setting a new career best as the Phillies' closer with 2.2 WAR in 2011. The free agent market for late-inning arms was unusually deep, but there was little reason to think that a guy who ranked in the top 15 in reliever value over the past half-decade would get the short end of the stick.

But alas, that's exactly what happened to Madson. With Jonathan Papelbon (four years, $50 million from Philly) and Heath Bell (three years, $27 million from Miami) inking lucrative long-terms deals, Joe Nathan (two years, $14.5 million) tapped to replace Neftali Feliz in Texas and the Red Sox going the trade route by getting Andrew Bailey from Oakland, Madson's market dried up. Today, reports are that he had to settle for a one-year, $8.5 million deal from the Cincinnati Reds, with possible incentives and a mutual option for 2013. That's a bitter outcome for a guy who was supposedly on the brink of a four-year, $44 million extension with the Phightin's before the Papelbon signing went down.

For Cincinnati, signing Madson goes along with the Mat Latos and Sean Marshall trades as evidence that the club is doing everything it can to achieve NL Central supremacy before perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto hits free agency and deservedly seeks $200+ million following the 2013 season. While $8.5 million isn't a bargain salary for a reliever on a per-year basis, there is far less risk for Cincy because they avoid the pitfalls of giving a leviathan multi-year commitment. They get the benefit of a top-flight closer without the headache of worrying whether his arm will still be attached in 2014 or 2015.

Madson's claim to fame is arguably the nastiest changeup in the game. He pulls the string about 10 mph slower than his fastball (84 mph last year, compared to 94 for the heater), and the pitch generates spit-take chase and miss rates. As Madson's pitch frequency over the past three years shows, he very rarely places his changeup in the strike zone..

Madson's changeup location, 2009-2011

Just 29 percent of Madson's changeups have been thrown in the strike zone since 2009, the fourth-lowest rate among MLB relievers. That's by design, as he uses the pitch to bait hitters into expanding their zones. Check out opponents' swing rate by location versus Madson's change since '09, and then the big league average:

Opponents' swing rate by pitch location vs. Madson's changeup, 2009-2011Average swing rate by pitch location vs. changeups, 2009-2011 

Batters have chased nearly half of Madson's out-of-zone changeups over the past three years, second-best in the majors among relievers over that period:

Highest changeup chase rate among relievers, 2009-2011 (min. 250 thrown)

PlayerChase Rate
Jim Johnson 53.0%
Ryan Madson 49.7%
Cristhian Martinez 49.3%
Joakim Soria 47.9%
Francisco Rodriguez 47.4%
Hisanori Takahashi 45.8%
Blake Hawksworth 45.6%
Joaquin Benoit 44.7%
Kris Medlen 43.4%
Steven Jackson 43.3%

 

All of those chases lead to enough whiffs and wind to power the entire Rust Belt. Take a look at hitters' contact rate by pitch location against Madson's change-of-pace, versus the league average:

Opponents' contact rate by pitch location vs. Madson's changeup, 2009-2011 Average contact rate by pitch location vs. changeups, 2009-2011Madson's miss rate with his change also places second among relievers over the past three seasons:

Highest changeup miss rate among relievers, 2009-2011 (min. 250 thrown)

PlayerMiss Pct.
Brandon League 58.5%
Ryan Madson 55.3%
Francisco Rodriguez 48.3%
Kris Medlen 46.9%
Esmerling Vasquez 45.5%
Joaquin Benoit 45.4%
Jeff Fulchino 43.3%
Huston Street 42.5%
Joel Peralta 40.8%
Michael Wuertz 39.7%

 

You might as well have a pitcher at the plate when Madson tosses a changeup: opponents have a three-year batting average of .126 (best among relievers) and a .191 slugging percentage, a mark topped by just Brandon League and Pedro Feliciano.

Paying Madson is also a far better use of resources than, say, bringing back incumbent closer Francisco Cordero. Sure, Cordero sported a 2.45 ERA last year, but the 36-year-old did it with a disintegrating strikeout rate (15.3 percent of batters faced, continuing a five-year decline) and a Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) above four. When you put the two side-by-side in some key categories, there's really no comparison:

In 2011:

PlayerK Pct.Walk Pct.HR Pct.FIP
Madson 25.2 6.5 0.9 2.54
Cordero 15.3 8 2.4 4.02

 

Three-Year (2009-2011):

PlayerK Pct.Walk Pct.HR Pct.FIP
Madson 26.7 6.8 1.8 2.74
Cordero 18.4 10.2 1.7 3.69

 

As an added bonus, Madson doesn't cost the Reds a draft pick and they will snag a sandwich pick between rounds one and two when Cordero presumably signs elsewhere.

For Madson, signing for one year with an opt-out for 2013 is obviously far from ideal. Save for exceptions like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, the long-term health and performance of even the game's best high-leverage relievers is tenuous. Madson could be nails next year, setting himself up for another run at a Papelbon-esque deal, or he could come down with a shoulder or elbow injury or  just have an off-year, depressing his value and perhaps denying him from ever truly cashing in.

This looked like Madson's time to get filthy stinking rich. He certainly could still do that by being lights-out in Cincinnati and choosing to hit the market again next winter, and in the meantime he gets a nice pay day in 2012. But a reliever is one snapped ligament or a few wall-scraping home runs away from having a drastically different value in the eyes of teams, and even someone as good as Madson is subject to the caprices of life in the 'pen. Reds GM Walt Jocketty will sign this deal with a smile, and Madson with a sigh.

Friday
Dec232011

Reds Get Marshall at High Cost

The Cincinnati Reds swapped some highly-regarded but partially redundant prospects to get top-of-the-rotation arm Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres last week, and now the club has acquired a Francisco Cordero replacement by getting Sean Marshall from the Chicago Cubs for Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt and Ronald Torreyes. Marshall is a big upgrade at the back of the bullpen and is cheap in 2012, but the Cubs may ultimately win this deal by getting an underappreciated starter under team control for years to come.

A sixth-round pick in the '03 draft out of Virginia Commonwealth, Marshall was an unremarkable starter with the Cubs in 2006 and 2007 and a swingman the next two years, but he has since emerged as a high-strikeout ground ball machine as a full-time reliever. The 6-foot-7 lefty has 10.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and a 56% ground ball rate in 150.1 innings pitched over the 2010-11 seasons, ranking 10th among all 'pen arms with 4.4 Wins Above Replacement. Tyler Clippard, Jonny Venters and Matt Belisle are the only relievers to log more innings.

While Marshall's fastball doesn't get much past 90 on the gun, he complements it with a quality cutter and what might be the best curveball among relievers. Marshall's high-70s bender, thrown nearly 40% of the time, has silenced hitters to the tune of a .194 average and a .236 slugging percentage over the past two years. The overall averages for curveballs from relievers are .201 for average and .299 for slugging percentage.

Marshall has uncanny control and command of his curve. He has thrown 51% of his curveballs in the strike zone -- way above the 43% average -- and he rarely hangs a cookie high in the strike zone:

Location of Marshall's curveball, 2010-2011Just 11% of Marshall's curves were tossed high in the zone in 2010-2011, compared to the 18% average for relievers. All those well-placed breaking balls result in whiffs (hitters miss 38% of the time they swing, one of the top 15 rates among relievers) and grounders (Marshall's 55 GB% is in the top 20).

So Marshall is nails, and he'll earn only $3.1 million next year -- also known as "what Jonathan Papelbon will make by May." But Marshall can chase his own free agent riches after 2012, and in acquiring him the Reds weakened their rotation depth. Sure, Cincy can point to a one-through-five of Latos, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo. Rotation plans have a way of exploding like a cheap ACME bomb, however, and their options are murky after that.

Aroldis Chapman's conversion may be waylaid by a sore shoulder. Sam LeCure dealt with a forearm injury last year, and Matt Maloney was claimed off waivers by the Twins. On average, MLB teams called on 9-10 different pitchers to start in 2011. It would be quixotic to think the Reds' rotation, with Latos, Cueto and Bailey all serving DL stints for shoulder ailments last year (and Arroyo's ego getting wounded by so many big flies), won't need extra arms. Unless the Reds are OK spending real cash on a free agent starter, they're stuck scraping at the bottom of the barrel with the Jon Garlands and Brad Pennys of the world.

Which brings us to Wood, an undersized southpaw who won't hit free agency until after the 2016 season. Twenty-five in February, Wood pitched better as a rookie in 2010 (7.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.42 FIP in 102.2 innings pitched) than as a sophomore (6.5 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 4.06 FIP in 106 innings), but a 65 point swing in his batting average on balls in play made the difference look more extreme (3.51 ERA in 2010, 4.84 ERA in 2011).

Wood has a kitchen-sink approach, flinging changeups, curveballs, cutters and sliders as well as a fastball that crosses 90 on a windy day. Perhaps because hitters aren't quite sure what they're going to get, Wood's fastball has been sneaky good. Opponents have hit .259 and slugged .385 against the pitch over the 2010-11 seasons, while starters have allowed opponents to hit .278 and slug .440 versus fastballs over that time frame. He's not bashful about going up the ladder...

Location of Wood's fastball, 2010-2011

...And his high heat is highly successful despite its lack of velocity...

Opponent in-play slugging percentage by pitch location vs. Wood's fastball, 2010-2011

Wood has held hitters to a .355 slugging percentage on fastballs thrown high in the zone, 30 points below the league average for starters. It's very rare for low-octane fastball like Wood's to fare so well high in the zone. Take a look at the average slugging percentage on high fastballs, by velocity. The more zip you've got, the better off you are:

88-90 mph: .427 slugging percentage

91-93 mph:  .375 slugging percentage

94-96 mph: .315 slugging percentage

96+ mph: .239 slugging percentage

Marshall is a superb reliever. But The Hardball Times' projection system, Oliver, expects Wood to out-WAR him in 2012 (2.5 to 2), to say nothing of the four years after that when Marshall will get paid like the top late-inning option that he is and Wood will draw just a fraction of his free-agent worth. Wood's projected WAR total next year tops that of Arroyo and Bailey, too, and he won't be there as an option when the Reds inevitably need a sixth, seventh and eighth starter. The prospects also going Chicago's way aren't elite, but Sappelt (.313/.377/.458 at Triple-A Louisville in 2011) could be a decent extra outfielder, and Torreyes (.356/.398/.457 at Low-A Dayton) is a tiny teenage middle infielder with a promising bat.

It's a lot to pay for one year of Marshall, durable and dominant as he is. Chicago, meanwhile, should get credit for cashing Marshall's one year of remaining team control in to get some assets that could be part of the next competitive Cubs club.

Wednesday
Sep212011

Arroyo and the Long Ball

In a few hours, Bronson Arroyo takes the mound in Cincinnati looking to avoid edging closer to a record set by Bert Blyleven. Usually, it would be an honor to be mentioned alongside the Hall of Fame Dutchman, but not when it comes to the all-time single season record for home runs surrendered. Arroyo has served up 44 dingers in 2011, putting him six shy of Blyleven's record set in 1986.

Arroyo has always had issues with the long ball (his career HR/9 mark is 1.23), but nothing like what he has experienced this year. Heading into today's start, his 2.18 homers per nine innings is the second-highest mark ever among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, according to Baseball Reference. Only the late Jose Lima (2.20 per nine in 2000) got taken deep more often. Blyleven tossed a league-leading 271.2 innings during his record-setting '86 season, so his HR/9 total was "only" 1.7

Some will point to Arroyo's career-high 16.3 home run per fly ball rate as a sign that he has endured some poor luck this season. That HR/FB total is way above his career high of 10.6 percent, and his average opponent fly ball distance of 309 feet is actually below the 314 average he posted the previous two seasons. However, it's also true that Arroyo is giving lots up homers on pitches that are right down the middle of the plate:

Location frequency of Arroyo's HRs, 2011

Twenty-six of Arroyo's home runs have come on pitches located down the horizontal middle of the plate. He's missing down the middle more often overall this year, and he's getting burned more often:

2009: 21.8% of pitches thrown down the middle, 15.2 HR/FB%

2010: 22.1% down the middle, 17.6 HR/FB%

2011: 24.1% down the middle, 23.6 HR/FB%

When you're a soft-tosser like Arroyo, you can't afford to put the ball on a tee for the hitter. Opponents are slugging a MLB-high .738 on pitches that Arroyo throws down the middle, 265 points higher than the league average. If Bronson wants to stop singing the home run blues, he's gotta hit his spots more often.

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