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Entries in free agency (6)

Monday
Jan272014

Garza Brings Wicked Slider to Milwaukee

After a few days of uncertainty, the Milwaukee Brewers officially announced their signing of free-agent starter Matt Garza Sunday afternoon, a deal that's reportedly worth a guaranteed $50 million over the next four years with a vesting option for the fifth year. Garza, who spent the first half of last season with the Cubs before being dealt to the Rangers, posted a combined 3.82 ERA and 1.24 WHIP over 24 starts in 2013 en route to a 1.4 bWAR, which was his lowest single-season wins above replacement total since 2007 -- back when he was still tossing for the Minnesota Twins as a mere 23-year-old up-and-comer.

Yet while Garza was largely a disappointment from a pure 'value' standpoint last season, his strongest asset as a starter actually become more lethal than ever before. The asset I am referring to is of course none other than his 'wipeout' slider, which has developed a reputation for being one of the best in baseball. 

More Whiffs than Ever Before

Since 2010, Garza's slider has progressively induced more swings and misses with each passing year. Posting a 38.3% miss rate with the offering four seasons ago is nothing to sneeze at, especially compared to the 30.1% league average that year. However, that number increased to 41.7% in 2011, stayed steady at 41.4% in 2012, and increased to an impressive 44.9% last season, which was the highest rate of any right-handed pitcher who tabbed at least 150 innings.

What makes these improvements somewhat perplexing is the fact that Garza has thrown the pitch in the strike more often with time. In 2010, his slider zone% stood at 38.5% and jumped to 43.4% the following season. By the end of 2012, Garza threw 44.6% of his sliders in the strike zone, and last season remained near that mark, placing 43.7%f of his wicked sliders in the zone. Typically, as pitchers throw more sliders in the zone, their miss% decreases, but Garza's slider seems to be bucking the trend in this respect.

Best in the League? Almost.

Now that we've got a good sense for how Garza's slider has improved in the last four seasons, it's time to see how he stacks up with the competition.

PK%Miss%SwStr%InPl%Chas%
1. Chris Sale (CWS)2,25749.9%40.7%16.5%29.4%33.3%
2. CC Sabathia (NYY)3,18947.9%40.3%18.5%30.6%37.7%
3. Clayton Kershaw (LAD)3,12644.5%42.1%22.5%27.4%38.6%
4. Francisco Liriano (PIT)3,40944.3%42.8%22.3%27.5%41.9%
5. Matt Garza (TEX)2,20343.1%41.8%22.4%30.6%40.8%
6. Justin Masterson (CLE)2,57742.3%37.7%15.8%30.3%29.6%
7. Carlos Marmol (LAD)2,64740.4%37.5%16.2%28.1%32.1%
8. C. J. Wilson (LAA)2,10839.2%37.2%18.5%30.9%39.4%
9. Mat Latos (CIN)3,20538.0%40.7%21.5%32.4%41.4%
10. Ervin Santana (KC)4,82235.6%39.1%18.3%32.2%37.8%

As we can see, Garza's slider has produced gaudy numbers across the board, ranking in the top ten of all pitchers in miss% (41.8%), swinging strike% (22.4%), chase% (40.8%), in play% (30.6%) and strikeout rate (43.1%) who've thrown at least 2,000 sliders since 2010.

Will a change in scenery affect Garza's slider next season with Milwaukee? Only time will tell. But for now, let's just appreciate how masterful the offering has been. 

Friday
Nov292013

McCann Bounces Back at Plate, But Can He Stay Behind It? 

During his twenties, Brian McCann raked like few other catchers ever have. McCann has clubbed the eighth-most home runs (176) among regular catchers through age 29, and his park-and-league-adjusted OPS (117 OPS+) ranks 13th, just behind Gary Carter and Thurman Munson. Those credentials -- at a position where sluggers are practically nonexistent -- earned McCann a five-year, $85 million free agent deal from the Yankees, with a vesting option that could bring the contract's total value to $100 million.

Did the Bombers invest wisely in a down-ballot MVP candidate, ending the procession of punch-and-judy backstops who produced a collective .298 slugging percentage last year, or did they potentially waste six figures on another aging star? The answer to that question depends upon how long McCann remains a threat at the plate -- and how long he can keep squatting behind it. Let's be honest: the prospect of paying top dollar to a guy whose occupational hazards include crouching for three hours a day while getting pummeled by foul tips, backswings and base runners is terrifying. But if his resurgent 2013 season and the history of other sweet-swinging catchers are any indication, McCann might just prove to be worth every penny.

Low stuff no longer a problem

The former Brave endured the worst season of his career in 2012, posting an 87 OPS+ as he tried to play through a right shoulder injury that required off-season surgery. He missed the first month of 2013 rehabbing, but he rebounded at the plate to the tune of a 115 OPS+. The big difference was McCann's performance against pitches thrown at the knees:

McCann's slugging percentage vs. low pitches, 2012

 

McCann's slugging percentage vs. low pitches, 2013

McCann slugged a paltry .310 versus pitches thrown to the lower third of the strike zone in 2012 -- ten points below the major league average. This past year, he slugged .437 against low stuff. He wasn't able to loft those low pitches in '12, hitting a grounder about 54% of the time that he put the ball in play, but he took to air in '13 (42% ground ball rate).

Will McCann hold up behind home plate?

Few doubt that McCann will be a massive upgrade for the Yankees in 2014, but what about in the following years? Will he continue to be an offensive stalwart at catcher, or will he be an ultra-expensive DH? Believe it or not, catchers who rake in their twenties like McCann hold up pretty well in their thirties.

Eleven other catchers have posted an OPS+ above 110 in their twenties while logging at least 1,000 games. Using Baseball-Reference's Play Index Tool, I found how these guys performed from age 30 to 35 (the years covered by McCann's contract if his option vests). Joe Mauer was excluded, as we have yet to see how the now former catcher's career unfolds. Thurman Munson, whose life came to a tragic end at 32, was also excluded. That left nine McCann comps: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Ted Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Gary Carter, Bill Freehan, Darrell Porter, Lance Parrish, and Ivan Rodriguez.

From age 30 to 35, these players continued to hit and mostly stick behind the plate. Collectively, they:

  • Posted an OPS+ of 113
  • Averaged about 113 games per season, with 81 percent of those games coming behind the dish
  • Averaged 15.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

The results aren't really skewed by a few great performers, either: All nine remained average or above-average hitters from age 30-35, and all had at least 11 Wins Above Replacement during that time frame. Nobody busted, and several remained All-Star caliber players.

While this mini-study doesn't prove that McCann will deliver on his mega-contract, it does suggest that he's not necessarily a ticking time bomb destined for the DH spot in a year or two. If he provides the Yankees with 15-16 wins over the course of his contract, it will be $100 million well spent for a team with exceptionally deep coffers and a gaping hole at the position. Many catchers struggle to hold up both offensively and defensively as they age. But, as McCann's career comps show, he's not like most catchers.

Tuesday
Mar122013

Cano's Comps: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Whether he re-signs with the Yankees or takes his talents elsewhere following the 2013 season, Robinson Cano is about to become an absurdly wealthy man. Cano's blend of contact, power and durability, coupled with new TV money swelling owners' pockets, could make him the game's highest paid player this winter.

Is Cano, 30, a good bet to keep producing as he ages? 

To explore that question, I found some players comparable to Cano using Baseball-Reference's Play Index tool and charted their career paths in their thirties. I considered Expansion-Era second basemen who had at least a 110 OPS+, a .280 average and 50+ home runs during their twenties. While you can quibble with those cutoffs, they give us a sample of keystone players who produced at the plate with both contact and power (Cano has a career 123 OPS+ to this point, with a .308 average and 177 homers).

The results are mostly positive, but Cano's comps also include a pair of players who declined dramatically and one active guy who's still great -- when he's capable of taking the field.

Here's the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to Cano's possible post-twenties career path.

The Good

Lou Whitaker 

  • During his 20s: 5,394 PA, 110 OPS+, 37.3 WAR
  • During his 30s: 4,573 PA, 125 OPS+, 34.1 WAR

Sweet Lou was the rare player who was every bit as productive in his thirties as in his twenties. He remained a power threat deep into his thirties, actually hitting far more homers after age 29 (151) than before (93). He also stuck at second base for the duration of his 19-year career with the Tigers, saving a collective 13 runs compared to an average second baseman after age 30, according to Baseball-Reference. Whitaker represents the best-case scenario for Cano: he raked, remained relatively healthy and retained his range.

Ryne Sandberg 

  • During his 20s: 5,385 PA, 112 OPS+, 36 WAR
  • During his 30s: 3,897 PA, 118 OPS+, 28.9 WAR

Ryno emerged as a huge power threat at second base, leading the league with 40 home runs during his age 30 season and finishing with the career home run record among players at the keystone (since broken by Jeff Kent). Sandberg racked up a ton of value from age 30 to 33 (135 OPS+, 24.5 WAR), then got off to a poor start in 1994 and retired. He sat out his age 35 season but returned to the Cubs the following year, producing modestly through age 37.

Roberto Alomar 

  • During his 20s: 6,232 PA, 119 OPS+, 40.9 WAR
  • During his 30s: 4,168 PA, 112 OPS+, 22 WAR

Alomar hit for average during his early Padres years, but he became an offensive dynamo during his mid-twenties as he combined excellent contact skills, a good eye and ample power, all while collecting a cabinet full of Gold Gloves.  He remained a major threat at the dish through age 33, posting a career-best 150 OPS+ and hitting 20 homers during his last year in Cleveland, but his power plummeted upon a trade to the Mets that winter (90 OPS+, 11 HR). He was done as a regular after another sub-par season at age 35 (80 OPS+) and retired after his age 36 season.

Chase Utley 

  • During his 20s: 3,126 PA, 128 OPS+, 33 WAR
  • During his 30s: 2,014 PA, 123 OPS+, 20.3 WAR

Utley was the gold standard among second baseman prior to his injury issues and Cano's ascension as an all-around offensive threat. Now, we're not really sure what to expect. Utley is still darned good when he's on the field, but his knees are held together with Super Glue, Big League Chew and platelet-rich plasma injections from the Philadelphia Phanatic. He could be an MVP candidate in 2013, or he could play 50 games. I placed Utley in the "good" here, but would the Yankees really be pleased if they inked Cano to a megadeal and he provided intermittent, injury-plagued excellence? Thankfully, Cano has been just about the most durable player in the game to this point. But predicting durability can be a fool's errand -- Utley averaged about 675 plate appearances as a full-time player from age 26 to 29.

The Bad

Chuck Knoblauch 

  • During his 20s: 5,279 PA, 112 OPS+, 38.9 WAR
  • During his 30s: 2,108 PA, 91 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Knoblauch batted nearly .300 during before his 30th birthday, and he ramped up his power production as he reached his mid-to-late twenties (he belted 50 homers and slugged .453 from age 26-29, compared to 10 homers and a .373 slugging percentage from age 22-25). After that, the wheels came off. Knoblauch had a good age 30 season at the plate (118 OPS+), but he fell apart in the field as he struggled to make even the most routine throws to first base. Baseball-Reference estimates that he was 15 runs worse than an average defensive second baseman that year. He was even worse the at age 31 (-10 runs in just a half season's worth of games), and he was a full-time left fielder/DH by age 32. After one wretched season in Kansas City, Knoblauch retiredly

The Ugly

Jose Vidro 

  • During his 20s: 3,895 PA, 113 OPS+, 15.5 WAR
  • During his 30s: 1,813 PA, 96 OPS+, -0.6 WAR

Vidro never reached the heights that Cano has during his career, but his post-20s playing record represents every fear talent evaluators have about second baseman declining sharply coming true. Vidro routinely hit double-digit homers and produced scads of contact, batting .304 with 101 homers through age 29, yet he never topped seven homers and hit a hollow .284 in his 30s. Knee, ankle and hamstring injuries made him a statue at second, and he mostly DHed after being traded to Seattle before his age 32 season. Suffice it to say, his bat didn't play at the position. Vidro was done at age 33.

FYI:

I excluded Alfonso Soriano because he was moved off the position at 30 and sent to Wrigley's outfield.