Five surprising first-half performers

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I grew up listening to Operation Ivy. No, I’m not going to bore you with
my one-time affinity for late 80’s ska-core, but there’s a line from
“Knowledge” that always rings true in my head, especially as it relates to my
experience as a baseball fan:

“All I know is that I don’t know
nothing.”

I’m a subscriber to sabermetrics and all that jazz, but if
everything turned out like the PECOTA and ZiPS projections told us they
would, well, our great game would be pretty darn boring, now wouldn’t
it? Fortunately, you can always set your watch to the fact that a few
surprise contributors will emerge during the first half of any given
season, some of them even becoming All-Stars. This is mostly intended to
be a fun exercise to keep us occupied with only the Home Run Derby on
the docket for tonight, so don’t take this too seriously. Anyhow, here’s
my list. Please leave us yours.

Brennan Boesch, Tigers: You really have to wonder where the Tigers
would be without him. In a season where Jason Heyward was voted to the
National League All-Star team, this 25-year-old outfielder has been the
best rookie hitter in all of baseball. It’s not even remotely close. In
fact, it’s no stretch to say he’s been one of the best hitters in the
American League, as well. Boesch, who posted a .273/.319/.434 batting
line over parts of five season in the minors, currently ranks fourth in
the AL in batting average (.342), slugging percentage (.593) and OPS
(990) and fifth in on-base percentage (.397). While I worry about where
his ultra-aggressive approach at the plate will take him in the
long-term, it has worked like gangbusters thus far.

Jaime Garcia, Cardinals: When I imagine what Dave Duncan saw in
Garcia during spring training, I think of Charles Montgomery Burns
famously tenting his fingers together while letting out his trademark
“excellent.” Duncan’s latest creation is third in the National League
with a 2.17 ERA through 17 starts. The 24-year-old southpaw has never
had an ERA higher than 2.27 at any point this season. Garcia, who missed
most of last season after Tommy John surgery, has found success in the
major leagues this season thanks to his sinker, inducing groundballs
56.1 percent of the time, nearly matching that of Joel Pineiro (56.3
percent), who ironically left the Cardinals over the winter. You won’t see
Garcia in the All-Star Game, but he has stepped in to be a fine No. 3 to
Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter during the first half.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays: Perhaps the biggest surprise of them all,
we’ve known Bautista to be a decent little utility player with some pop
and a poor batting average. Or — and let’s be honest now — you didn’t
know him at all. It doesn’t matter how we got there, because we all know
him by now. Not only did the 29-year-old Bautista surpass his previous
career-high of 16 homers by June 4, he incredibly leads the major
leagues with 24 home runs at the All-Star break. Not bad for someone who
was sent down to the minor leagues by the Pirates just two years ago.
Granted, there’s a little luck involved with the homers and he’s still
batting just .237 — right in line with his .238 career batting average
— but he has to be doing something right. Not that I particularly care,
but how he is not in tonight’s Home Run Derby is pretty baffling. It
would have been an appropriate way to affirm his first half.

Andres Torres, Giants: Hyped more for his speed than his ability
with the bat, some might remember Torres as a highly-regarded prospect
with the Tigers’ organization in the early aughts. Now 32 years old, he
has finally found a home in the Bay Area. Torres hinted at a
breakthrough by batting .270/.343/.533 in 152 at-bats in 2009, but it
was natural to be skeptical given that he had no track record of success
in the major leagues. Not only has Torres picked up from where he left
off last season, he has been one of the National League’s most valuable
players during the first half. No kidding. In addition to batting
.281/.378/.483 with seven homers, 29 RBI and 17 stolen bases, he has
also been one of the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball. For
the sabermetric set, only Matt Holliday tops Torres among NL outfielders
in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Bet you didn’t know that.

Colby Lewis, Rangers: The Rangers were met with some fierce
competition before they signed their former farmhand to a two-year, $5 million contract
in January, but there were still many who doubted whether Lewis could
actually replicate his impressive numbers from Japan. After all, last we
saw him, he posted a 6.45 ERA with the Athletics in 2007. It was one
thing to see it in scouting reports and stat sheets, but the first half
has been enough to tell us that this is a completely different pitcher.
With an increased focus on his electric slider (his best pitch even
before he left for Japan), the now 30-year-old right-hander is 8-5 with a 3.33 ERA and 1.12 WHIP
through 17 starts. He currently ranks ninth in the American League with
105 strikeouts in 110 2/3 innings. He has proved to be one of the
offseason’s best bargains.

The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the exception because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed, I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.

Report: Yankees sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal

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Update (12:02 AM EST): Rosenthal adds that Chapman’s contract includes an opt-out clause after three seasons, a full no-trade clause for the first three years of the contract, and a limited no-trade clause for the final two years.

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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Yankees have signed closer Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. Mark Melancon recently set the record for a contract earned by a reliever at $62 million over four years. Chapman blew that out of the water and many are surprised he didn’t fetch more.

Chapman, 28, began the 2016 season with the Yankees but he was traded to the Cubs near the end of July in exchange for four prospects. The Cubs, of course, would go on to win the World Series in large part due to Chapman. The lefty finished the regular season with a 1.55 ERA, 36 saves, and a 90/18 K/BB ratio in 58 innings between the two teams.

Chapman was the best reliever on the free agent market and, because he was traded midseason, he didn’t have draft pick compensation attached to him.

The Yankees don’t seem to be deterred by Chapman’s domestic violence issue from last offseason, resulting in a 30-game suspension to begin the 2016 regular season.