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Entries in free agent (8)

Monday
Feb242014

Cruz to the O's: More Comp Pick Hijinx, or Sign of a Rational Market?

Nelson Cruz reportedly entered the offseason seeking a four-year, $75 million contract. Over the weekend, he settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Cruz's agent might take a page out of Scott Boras' playbook and label this a "pillow" contract designed to re-establish the 33-year-old, Biogenesis-linked slugger's value. If so, it's gotta be the world's lumpiest, hard-as-concrete pillow.

Some will point to Cruz's new deal as further proof that Major League Baseball's free agent draft pick compensation system is broken. In broad strokes, there's plenty to complain about. Free agents who receive and turn down a qualifying offer essentially have a tax levied on their next contract, with interested teams needing to consider not just the monetary value of the player's on-field production, but also the value of the pick they'd lose to sign him (Baltimore had less to lose than most, having already surrendered its first-rounder to ink Ubaldo Jimenez and its Competitive Balance Lottery pick to acquire Bud Norris; they'll lose the 55th overall selection to get Cruz). It's not fair, really.

And yet, you can make a pretty sound argument that in this particular case, Cruz is being paid what he's worth. He launches majestic homers with the best of them, but there's not much else to his game at this point. Consider:

  • Cruz's .319 on-base percentage over the past three seasons is a dead ringer for the overall MLB average, and south of the standards set by corner outfielders (.328) and designated hitters (.323). Once you adjust for park and league factors, his three-year OPS is 12 percent better than the MLB average -- good, but hardly the stuff of fat free agent deals.
  • He has a history of hamstring/quadriceps injuries, which have made him a plodding base runner and fielder. Cruz has taken an extra base between 22% and 30% of the time over the past three years, compared to the 40% big league average. He has been several runs worse than an average major leaguer on the bases each season, according to Fangraphs, and has cost his club about five runs per year in the field as judged by advanced metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Cruz may DH in Baltimore, but he's been DH-worthy for a while now.
  • Players with Cruz's profile -- lots of power, little defensive or base running value, frequently banged up -- tend to age poorly. His Baseball-Reference player comps include Henry Rodriguez (done as a productive major leaguer by age 32), Brad Hawpe (cooked at 31) and Jay Gibbons (last effective at 29). His number one comp according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is Juan Gonzalez. These guys had lots of injury issues (I pulled a hammy just writing this paragraph), but that's kind of the point. Cruz hasn't been a beacon of durability, either. He's not the sort of player you want to sign to a long-term deal, much less the four or five-year pact Cruz initially wanted.

Let's be clear: There's nothing wrong with the O's signing Cruz at this price. It's a short-term commitment, and he's a definite upgrade over the likes of Nolan Reimold and Henry Urrutia. But put it all together, and Cruz projects to be about 1-2 wins better in 2014 than the sort of talent you can pull from Triple-A or the waiver wire. If the cost of a win is around $6 million, it's hard to say that he really got jobbed by the pick attached to his name. The qualifying offer system may well be broken, but Cruz's deal seems to be more a case of sanity prevailing in the C-suite.

Monday
Feb032014

A.J. Burnett Racks up Ks with New Two-Strike Approach

Now that he's committed to pitching in 2014, A.J. Burnett could well alter the playoff landscape -- and prove to be the best free agent value of the offseason. The 37-year-old is still at the peak of his abilities, punching out a major league and career-best 9.8 hitters per nine frames last season, he's looking for a short-term deal, and he won't cost teams a draft pick because the Pirates didn't make him a $14.1 million qualifying offer. Burnett could pitch every bit as well as, say, Masahiro Tanaka in 2014, and clubs won't have to commit the years and dollars that typically lead to free agent pitching deals exploding like cheap ACME bombs. He's basically the NL version of Hiroki Kuroda.

Just how did Burnett manage to post the best strikeout rate ever for a starting pitcher during his age-36 season this side of Randy Johnson (12.6 K/9) and Curt Schilling (10.4 K/9)? He drastically changed his two-strike approach against right-handed hitters, tossing more pitches off the plate and relying on hitters to hack their way back to the dugout.

In 2012, Burnett struck out 21.9 percent of the right-handed hitters that he faced. That was solid, but not all that far above the 20.1 percent major league average in righty-versus-righty confrontations.  Part of the reason for A.J.'s good-not-great K rate was that he threw nearly half (48.5 percent) of his two-strike pitches to righties within the strike zone. Most righty pitchers are less aggressive than Burnett was with two-strikes, looking for chases against same-handed hitters (the average zone rate in two-strike counts is about 42 percent).

Burnett's two-strike pitch location vs. righty hitters, 2012

In 2013, however, Burnett decided to bury more pitches in the dirt when righties had their backs against the wall. Hoping that same-handed hitters would retire themselves, Burnett tossed just 39.9 percent of his two-strike offerings within the strike zone. A lot of those off-the-plate pitches were curveballs, as he relied more on his hook with two strikes this past year (55.3 percent) than in 2012 (48.5 percent).  

Burnett's two-strike pitch location vs. righty hitters, 2013

Burnett's less aggressive two-strike approach paid off: righties chased considerably more pitches outside of the strike zone (41.6 percent, up from 30.5 percent in 2012) and whiffed more often (32.2 percent in 2013, 24.3 percent in '12). By baiting righties, Burnett increased strikeout rate against them to 29.6 percent. Among righty starters, only Yu Darvish (38.5 percent), Justin Masterson (32 percent), and Max Scherzer (31.6 percent) fooled right-handed hitters more frequently.

Possessing a mix of strikeout stuff and ground ball tendencies rarely seen -- the only other starters inducing at least a whiff per inning with a ground ball rate north of 50 were Masterson, Stephen Strasburg and Felix Hernandez -- Burnett could make all the difference for a number of playoff bubble teams. Whether he takes the bump in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly or elsewhere in 2014, Burnett will have righties breaking out in a cold sweat once they're down to their final strike.

Monday
Dec162013

How is Bartolo Colon Still Doing This?

Absolutely nothing about Bartolo Colon screams longevity. His right shoulder is a science experiment, he's an ardent follower of the Body by Boomer Wells fitness plan, and he lobs not-so-fast fastballs almost exclusively. His body failing him, Colon appeared on the verge of retirement eight seasons ago. By looks alone, you might think he did hang 'em up and just decided to dust off his glove for a beer league softball start.

Colon still looks imposing to hitters, though. He's coming off one of the greatest age-40 seasons in history, posting a park-and-league-adjusted ERA 41 percent above average. Among quadragenarians qualifying for the ERA title, only Nolan Ryan (142 ERA+ in 1987), Pete Alexander (160 ERA+ in 1927) and Randy Johnson (176 ERA+ in 2004) were better. Colon's superb work with the A's just earned him a two-year, $20 million free agent deal with the New York Mets.

What makes Colon's late-career resurgence all the more confounding is that his stuff seems so ordinary, so predictable. He doesn't possess Ryan's heat, Alexander's hard curve or Johnson's wipeout slider. Colon practically doesn't even have secondary offerings, throwing his fastball a major league-high 85 percent of the time. It's not fast, either, with an average velocity (89.9 MPH in 2013) nearly two miles per hour under the MLB average for right-handed starting pitchers (91.6 MPH).

How can a one-pitch hurler with below-average zip nonetheless contend for the Cy Young Award? Here are three reasons why Colon is still getting it done with his fastball.

1.) He pounds the strike zone

Colon returned to the majors in 2011 following a year spent rehabbing and getting stem cell treatment for his then-shredded shoulder. Colon's ailments cost him some velocity, but he has compensated with improved control. Since 2011, he has thrown the ninth-highest percentage of fastballs (54.9) within the strike zone among AL starting pitchers (minimum 3,000 pitches). The league average over the past three seasons is just 49.1 percent. By attacking hitters, Colon surrendered the fewest walks (1.6 per nine innings pitched) among all Junior Circuit starters from 2011-13. A younger, harder-throwing Colon wasn't this stingy with walks (his career average is 2.8 per nine frames).

Highest percentage of fastballs thrown within the strike zone among AL starters, 2011-13

 

2.) He gets favorable calls on pitches thrown around the edges of the plate

If there's one advantage to being a soft-tosser, it's that umps are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt on close calls. Colon is a prime example of this phenomenon, enjoying a higher called strike rate than the average MLB starter both on pitches thrown inside of the strike zone and off the plate:

Colon's called strike rate, 2011-13

 

Compared to the average MLB starter, Colon has received an extra 86 calls on pitches taken by hitters over the past three years. That's essentially one extra strike per start. It might not sound like much, but that close call can be the difference between a big inning and another spotless frame.

3.) He rarely gives up long drives on fastballs hit in the air

Overall, batters loft fastballs an average of 266 feet when they hit the ball in the air. Against Colon, however, hitters drove the ball just 259 feet from 2011-13. That puts Colon in the same rarefied air as power pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander (255 feet apiece). Hitters just don't square up Colon's heater, resulting in more cans of corn and warning track shots instead of three-run homers.

By peppering the strike zone, benefiting from umpires' generosity on borderline calls, and limiting hard contact, Colon allowed a .400 opponent slugging percentage on his fastball from 2011-13. That's about 40 points below the MLB average, and bests youngsters with humming fastballs like Stephen Strasburg (.409) and Chris Sale (.413). Colon's no super hero, but he should be able to anchor the Mets' rotation as the Dark Knight of Gotham plots his return in 2015.