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Entries in Texas Rangers (77)

Thursday
Dec262013

Without Choo, Cincy's Outfield in Trouble

With Shin-Soo Choo departing Cincinnati to sign a seven-year, $130 million free agent deal in Texas, the Reds' outfield now features Jay Bruce and two guys who could be offensive black holes next season. Center fielder Billy Hamilton is a blur on the bases, but the slap-and-dash hitter will be lucky not to get the bat knocked out of his hands, much less come close to replacing Choo atop Cincy's lineup. Left fielder Ryan Ludwick, now in his mid-thirties, has to prove yet another career-threatening injury hasn't sapped his power. For a team still intent on battling the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates for NL Central supremacy, the Reds have a lot riding on Hamilton's legs and Ludwick's mended shoulder in 2014.

Can Hamilton's wheels make up for all the outs?

In replacing Choo with Billy Hamilton, the Reds will unquestionably lose a ton of offensive value. The more interesting question is, can Hamilton's Ricky Henderson-on-Red Bull speed possibly compensate for his slack bat?

Hamilton had no trouble reaching base in 2012, walking in 14.2 percent of his plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. But he drew a free pass just 6.9 percent of the time at Triple-A last year, as more experienced pitchers attacked the 6-foot, 160 pound singles hitter in the strike zone. Hamilton might eventually learn how to work the count despite his limited power, a la Brett Gardner, but he figures to struggle at the plate in 2014. Two projection systems, Steamer and Oliver, peg Hamilton for an on-base-percentage slightly over .300 and an On-Base-Plus-Slugging-Percentage (OPS) more than 20 percent below the major league average. That kind of offensive futility would put pressure on Hamilton to create runs on the bases and save them in the field like few other fly catchers ever have.

Just 16 outfielders have managed to be at least an average starter (defined here as two Wins Above Replacement) during a season in which they posted a park-and-league-adjusted OPS (OPS+) that was 20 percent or more below the MLB average. To make that many outs and still provide value, these guys had to cover serious ground and create havoc when they did manage to get on base.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

In the long run, these players seem to fall into three bins. A few improved dramatically with the bat, becoming stars (Kirby Puckett, Carlos Gomez, Willie Davis). Some used their speed to carve out lengthy careers despite remaining easy outs (Otis Nixon, Gary Pettis, Darren Lewis). Others suffered injuries, crashing and burning once their sole standout skill declined (Willy Taveras, Joey Gathright). Hamilton doesn't possess the latent power of a Pucket or Gomez, so his ceiling appears limited if he doesn't develop top-notch plate discipline.

Hamilton's wheels might just be special enough for him to join the list above. He's a top-tier base thief in terms of both quantity (he averaged 79 steals per season in the minors) and quality (an 82.5 percent success rate, plus a 13-for-14 cameo in the bigs). The converted shortstop is also a natural in center field. Even so, the Reds -- last in leadoff OBP in 2012, and first in 2013 -- could have one of the game's most prolific out-makers setting the table for Joey Votto and Bruce.

Can Ludwick shoulder the load in left field?

Ludwick's career has been defined by devastating injuries and improbable comebacks. The 35-year-old must bend the aging curve once again after a season in which he suffered a dislocated right shoulder and showed Hamiltonian power upon returning to action.

Ludwick's slugging percentage by pitch location, 2012

 

Ludwick's slugging percentage by pitch location, 2013

Ludwick wrecked his shoulder on Opening Day sliding head-first on the bases. After undergoing surgery and enduring four months of rehab, he lacked the punch that allowed him to pop 26 home runs and post an OPS that was 30 percent above average the previous season. Ludwick hit just two homers in 140 plate appearances, with an OPS 30 percent below average. It was a small sample, but Ludwick lost nearly 30 feet of distance on his fly balls hit between 2012 (270) and 2013 (244).

Perhaps an off-season of rest and training will allow Ludwick to reach the seats with regularity again in 2014. But that's an awfully big if for a team already punting so much offensive value in center field.

Outside Help

The Reds have committed to Hamilton in center field, so Ludwick looks like the only one who might face competition for a starting spot. Internally, the club's options look bleak. Donald Lutz is a hulking lefty hitter who could platoon with Ludwick, though he didn't exactly excel at Double-A (.741 OPS) and got carved up in the majors (a 1-to-14 walk-to-strikeout ratio). Righty Chris Heisey has declined three years running at the plate. Prospects Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran are toosly and on the 40-man roster, but both are hackers who need upper-level ABs in the minors.

At this point, the free agent market for corner outfielders is Chris Sale thin. Nelson Cruz is still available, though the low-OBP slugger with durability concerns and limited range could turn into a handsomely paid Ludwick clone. Tyler Colvin and Laynce Nix are lefty power bats who could partner up with Ludwick, but both are coming off wretched seasons and make Hamilton look like an OBP juggernaut by comparison. Former Reds farmhand Chris Dickerson offers a better eye and some speed, but also questionable durability and contact skills. Grady Sizemore, the Mark Prior of position players, has reportedly recovered from microfracture surgery on his right knee. The last time he played? September 22, 2011.

On the trade front, LA's Andre Ethier still slugs against righties (.854 OPS last year), though he's owed at least $71.5 million through 2017 as he marches toward his mid-thirties. The Cubs' Nate Schierholtz (.799 OPS against right-handers), projected to make $4.4 million during his final year of salary arbitration, could be a more cost-efficient platoon partner.

Tuesday
Nov262013

To Justify Prospect Hype, Profar Must Solve Breaking Stuff 

The Ian Kinsler-Prince Fielder mega deal clears the way for Jurickson Profar to take over the keystone spot in Texas. The switch-hitter from Curacao, still a few months shy of his 21st birthday, ranked as the top prospect in the game according to both Baseball America and MLB.com prior to the 2013 season, showcasing plate discipline (a career .367 on-base percentage in the minors) and power (.449 slugging percentage) beyond his years at a premium position on the diamond.

Profar's tools and polish didn't immediately translate to the majors, however. The trendy preseason pick for American League Rookie of the Year posted a park-and-league-adjusted OPS that was 24 percent below average, ranking 20th out of 24 newcomers logging at least 300 plate appearances. Profar's struggles against curveballs and sliders are a major reason why he was outhit by fellow rookie middle infielders like Brad Miller, Jose Iglesias, Anthony Rendon, Nick Franklin and Didi Gregoroius. To start doing damage versus breaking stuff, the uber-patient Profar will first have to take the bat off his shoulder.

Profar did an excellent job of taking curves and sliders thrown outside of the strike zone, chasing those pitches less than half as often (14.3 percent) as the major league average (30.8 percent). Unfortunately, his "just looking, thanks" approach extended to breaking balls thrown over the heart of the plate.

Profar's swing rate by pitch location vs. curveballs and sliders, 2013

He swung at a mere 54.3 percent of curves and sliders thrown within the strike zone, well below the 61.6 percent major league average. Profar was particularly gun-shy when a pitcher missed his target: He swung at 47.4 percent of breaking stuff thrown to the middle of the plate. Typically, pitchers pay the price when they throw belt-high curveballs and sliders (hitters slugged a collective .459 last year). Against Profar, however, those mistakes still produced strikes.

By taking juicy curves and sliders so often, Profar rarely made loud contact when he did decide to swing. He slugged just .256 versus breaking pitches, nearly 80 points below the MLB average, and hit a grounder 68.2 percent of the time he put the ball in play.

Despite Profar's rough introduction to the big leagues, Rangers fans shouldn't despair. Other young middle infielders eventually became stars after flailing at the plate as rookies, including Hall of Famer Robin Yount (79 OPS+ as a teenager in 1974), Gary Sheffield (82 OPS+ at age 20 in 1989) and Alan Trammell (89 OPS+ as a 20-year-old in 1978). And, like Trammell, Profar has the defensive chops to play an up-the-middle position throughout his career (he'd be a standout at shortstop if not for the presence of Elvis Andrus).

Many rookies must learn to tone down their plate approach, limiting overzealous swings at junk pitches thrown in the dirt. But in Profar's case, he needs to be more aggressive. When pitchers hang a breaking ball over the middle of the dish, he has to make them pay.

Friday
Nov082013

Newly-Extended Perez Must Improve Breaking Stuff to Take Next Step

The Texas Rangers have locked up yet another young left-handed starter, signing Martin Perez to a four-year, $12.5 million extension with three club options that could extend Perez's stay in the Lone Star State to 2020 and pad his pockets to the tune of $32.5 million.

A perennial top prospect, Perez erased memories of his rough big league stint in 2012 by posting a park-and-league-adjusted ERA that was 14 percent above average (114 ERA+). The 22-year-old enjoyed arguably the best rookie season ever for a Texas lefty, as only Mike Mason (114 ERA+ in 1984) matched him while throwing 120+ innings. Perez displayed sharp control (2.7 walks per nine innings) and racked up ground balls (47.9 percent of pitches put in play), both of which bode well for his future. But he also punched out just 6.1 batters per nine frames, far below the 7.2 average for starting pitchers in this strikeout-saturated era. To get more swings and misses, Perez will have to improve his pitch location with his breaking stuff.

Perez already has an out pitch in his changeup, which generated far more whiffs (39.7% of the time batters swing) than the league average (29.4%) and limited hard contact (.307 opponent slugging percentage, 90 points below the MLB average). His curveball and slider, on the other hand, induced swings and misses just 19% of the time (29.9% average for breaking pitches) and were frequently laced into the gaps (.437 slugging percentage, 92 points above the MLB average).

Why did hitters square up Perez's breaking pitches? The young lefty struggled to command his slider and curve, too often leaving breaking balls over the heart of the plate:

Perez's pitch location with his slider and curveball, 2013

Perez threw 29% of his sliders and curves to the vertical middle of the strike zone, third-highest among lefty starting pitchers in 2013. Belt-high breaking stuff tends to get clobbered, with hitters swinging through just 12.9% of sliders and curves thrown over the middle of the plate and slugging a collective .461. Perez was no exception, getting whiffs 13.8% of the time and allowing a .556 slugging percentage when tossing a belt-high breaking pitch.

The recent history of low-strikeout lefties who nonetheless posted quality ERAs during their rookie season is mixed. On the wildly positive side, Andy Pettitte pitched into his forties and cobbled together a career that may get him some Cooperstown consideration. However, the list of low-K lefties (six or fewer strikeouts per nine) with an ERA similiar to Perez (10-20 percent better than the league average) also includes the likes of Gustavo Chacin, John Lannan and John Halama. To be more like Pettitte and less like Halama, Perez needs to complement his knockout changeup with better-located breaking pitches.