Yu Darvish

TJ, Japan and the Six Man Rotation

by JDCam 05.05.15

The epidemic of Tommy John surgeries sweeping the major leagues shows no signs of abating. Already in 2015, the Mets Zach Wheeler, Rangers ace Yu Darvish and the Royals Tim Collins have undergone the procedure, to name but a few.

While the long term effects of procedure do not compare, the prevalence of elbow issues for pitchers in the major leagues are starting to draw comparisons to the long term effects of concussions in the NFL. What remains clear is that the number of pitchers undergoing TJ remains high, approximately 1.1 per team in 2014.

The implications TJ surgery has on various levels of the game is a fascinating discussion. At a youth level there is a need for a greater breadth of creditable research on how to develop and maintain arm strength in a sustainable way, when to introduce young pitchers to offerings that put a greater strain on their arm (such as breaking balls) and arm conditioning regimens which can be followed at all levels of youth baseball to begin to decrease the risks of TJ.

A useful starting point and road map for this conversation can be found in the differing models of youth baseball in the United States and Japan.

Year TJ/Team NPB TJ/Team MLB
2012 0.833 2.30
2013 0.667 1.63
2014 0.083 1.10

At the major league level the particulars and possibilities are no less fascinating. A starting pitcher in 2015 and a starting pitcher in the 1960s have very different roles, naturally. It is easy to overlook how the statistics have traced the arc of the starting pitching role, the introduction of the ‘quality start’ being the most striking example of this (not to mention its alteration from 7 innings with 2 runs or less conceded to 6 and 3).

Pitching is an increasingly specialized trade with innings shared in greater and greater numbers between the rotation and bullpen (ever see a MLB team break camp with 13 pitchers in the 1970s)? With the combination of career threatening injuries to pitchers at a consistently high level and the explosion of power arms in recent years, one wonders if MLB teams could ever field 6 man rotations consistently?

Jose Fernandez in another pitching start rehabbing from season ending surgery

Jose Fernandez in another pitching start rehabbing from season ending surgery

This is a popular practice in Japan, where despite overusing and overexposing young and talented arms at the youth level through tournament play, the clubs of the Nippon League ere on the side of caution with starting pitching. Typically Japanese teams feature a 6 man rotation, with a season typically featuring a day off per week; the idea of a particular pitcher generally occupying a spot on a particular weekday is not uncommon. This raises interesting economic questions around the subject of a 6 man rotation. The most exceptional starters would probably be lined up on weekend days when more fans have an opportunity to attend games. This would however, create a divergence in pitching quality between weekdays and weekends, with the Kershaws and Scherzers of the world being trotted out on Saturday and Sunday while the J.A Happs and Trevor Mays perhaps occupying the Thursday matinee.

A further intriguing possibility would be a more extreme reduction in work load for back of the rotation starters and splitting innings between two or more multi-inning bullpen options, much like a traditional spring training game is handled. There are several problems with this notion (length of game, matchups)

Whatever the path forwards, there are certainly disturbing trends emerging in the status of pitchers who have undergone TJ surgery. According to a recent article from ESPN’s Stephania Bell ‘since 1999, of the 235 MLB pitchers have undergone TJ surgery, only 32 have undergone a revision – but one-third of them have occurred in the last year’. This data disturbingly points toward the misnomer that TJ recipients somehow miraculously strengthen their arms through their rehab and end up pitching at the same level and with the same effectiveness as they did prior to their surgery.

The bottom line here seems to be that despite an increasing willingness of pitchers to have and/or repeat the procedure the long term effects are still incredibly unpredictable. MLB seems to be moving forwards with a number of different research studies, educational programs and even technology aimed at reducing and limiting the number of pitchers that require TJ surgery, including obtaining data as specific as which pitches place the greatest long term biomechanical strain on various parts of the throwing arm.

MLB needs to continue its own in house research about the logistics of a possible 6 man rotation (expanding rosters, the potential stress placed on relievers, the potential for extra jobs creating some good will with the players union to name but a few).  While positive steps are being taken, pitchers are not yet carefully protected by major league baseball and out understanding of the specific relationship between work load and arm health will continue to limit this understanding, to the detriment of the most important players on the diamond.

Yoan Moncada’s signing marks controversy in MLB amateur Process

3.09.15

Cuban 19-year-old Yoan Moncada completed a celebrated courtship last week when he signed with the Boston Red Sox, receiving $31.5 million in up-front bonus money. This bonus easily marks the largest bonus in professional baseball history, and it has sparked debate over amateur signing reform in MLB. With Rob Manfred taking over as commissioner, the responsibility of creating a more equitable system may be the most underappreciated need of his regime, as it speaks to baseball and ethical issues around the globe.

Baseball has three very distinct systems for acquiring players that are first-time eligible for major league contracts. First is the Rule 4 draft, also known as the amateur draft or first-year player draft. This is for American and Canadian amateurs, typically 18-22 years old, and goes by round in reverse order of regular season standings from the year before. There have been a myriad of wrinkles added to the draft, which can all be read about here. A second method is for players who have signed professional contracts in foreign leagues, such as Jose Abreu (Cuba), Yu Darvish (Japan) and Jung-ho Kang (Korea), a posting fee may be required to negotiate a buyout of the player’s other professional contract. Posting fees are blind-auction, all up-front to the current team that holds the player’s contract. When the Rangers posted $51.7 million for Darvish prior to the 2012 season, baseball created a hard cap for these posting fees to attempt to maintain competitive balance in the signing of these players.

Yu Darvish commanded so much on the open market in 2012 that MLB changed the way they do business surrounding foreign professionals.

The last method is for international amateurs, primarily in Latin America and the Carribean. Players who turn 16 on or before June 1st of the calendar year are eligible for bonus offers from MLB teams to sign minor league contracts. Teams have a soft cap of $3 million for signing bonuses of these players, and every dollar over $3 million gets taxed at 100%. In addition to the tax, penalties for following years are enforced, and get more stringent the more a team exceeds the cap.

Since Moncada still had his amateur status, he was eligible for the international amateur free agent signing policies. The Red Sox did not need to pay a posting fee, but could only be signed by teams using their $3 million for international draft pool money. With Moncada receiving $31.5 million, the cost to the Red Sox with tax was $63 million, all up front.

Let’s put this number into perspective: Only 23 free agents have signed contracts with total values greater than this figure of the entirety of the past 5 seasons. The second highest bonus to an amateur was earlier this offseason, when 17-year-old Cuban SP Yoan Lopez received $8.25 million from the Diamondbacks (costing the team $13.5 million). Stephen Strasburg received $7.5 million in his bonus in 2009, and the bonus coupled with his $15.1 million deal for four years marks the most lucrative amateur signing for an American citizen. (Since 2009, the MLB has put in place even more stringent bonus pools for the North American amateur draft). Moncada’s figure is the largest number ever shelled out for an amateur player, and may stay that way if rule changes come into play. It is also the largest cost paid out for any player in one calendar year.

Strasburg was the last of a draft era – where signing bonuses were larger than what they are today.

This deal represents a perfect storm of issues all coming to a head, some of which are not baseball related. First, Moncada is a tremendous talent, a potential all-star prospect, and is 19 years old. He is by far the oldest of the amateur signees from the Caribbean who have made multi-million bonuses. This means he is more physically developed, and it is easier to see his awesome tools. He is more of a sure thing. So, why is he so much older? In case you haven’t heard, foreign policy between the US and Cuba has drastically changed in the past months. With recent changes to those politics, it is no longer a defection and abandonment of your culture to pursue the MLB dream (some defection stories can be incredible). He hit the market at the perfect age for money, where he has shown top-prospect promise, all while still being younger than many U.S. prospects.

For high success, high revenue teams, it can be very difficult to acquire good young talent. You draft late in the first round, missing out on can’t miss prospects through the draft. Baseball’s revenue sharing and luxury tax makes every dollar spent on MLB talent even more costly for teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. Teams are trying to find ways to get young price controlled players. The Dodgers did it by paying Dan Haren’s contract for the Marlins. The Yankees seemed to realize this, and signed every amateur they could this offseason. The Red Sox don’t need Moncada, in a personnel sense: they have all their infield locked up for several years. They are just acquiring young talent in a cost effective way, like any good organization should do. The Yankees did something similar this offseason.

At first glance, this move seems anything but cost effective. With all the tax and penalties, how can you justify $63 million to a minor league shortstop? A glaring truth for the big-spenders in MLB is the lack of fear of the penalties. A new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is coming up in December of 2016. Sure, the Sox can’t spend on international players for 2 seasons. Within 1 year, the system probably will be overhauled anyway. Changes could come to the format as early as next year, rendering punishments for over-spenders moot.

The big debate comes with what should be changed to the system. Most people agree that spending 4 times more on Moncada is not equitable, but there is no easy or just fix. The most popular choice in the MLB front office – met with severe resistance from MLB’s player’s association – is an international amateur draft, which Manfred wants to implement as soon as 2016. There are huge concerns in the transfer here. What to do about all the Cuban-born players who are older, wanting a shot at the majors? Or, what about the next Yu Darvish? Exceptions will still need to be made for foreign-born, already-professional players. Where do those exceptions end?

Another concern with the international draft is having two separate amateur drafts. This would heavily reward poor teams, far past a level of reasonable competitive balance. The worst team would hypothetically get first pick at two different elite talent pools. Some then vote for one universal player draft, which has many of its own concerns. The age difference between 16 (minimum age in international pool) and 18 (minimum in American pool) creates immense physical discrepancies – far greater than the difference between high school and college players- and some questionable ethics regarding foreign- born talent. Do you change the age to a universal 18? And it is easy to forecast modern economic imperialism when it comes to this player draft; if the CBA is not explicit, this system could result in teams trying to get cheap foreign born talent, because they know they could lure a impoverished 16-year from Latin America far easier with less bonus money. The ethics of the universal player draft could get very questionable in a matter of a few years.

Ultimately, the largest concern is how inequitable the draft pool money is in comparison to the value of the drafted players. As Moncada showed, amateurs on the free market are worth way more than the draft bonus slot would indicate. The #1 pick in the US would make tons more if he were a free agent. So, that brings us to abolishing the draft altogether, and adapting a system similar to European soccer leagues. That has the possibility of killing competitive balance, practically ensuring higher revenue teams get all the best young talent.

To ameliorate this, Jeff Cameron of Fangraphs proposes an inverse cap on player spending, with the teams that spend more at the big league level having less to spend at the amateur level. While I love this principle, in actuality it would run into the problem of bad contracts: the Phillies would never be able to get out of their current hole, because of the terrible contracts they have signed. It would be a revolving door of aging players getting paid too much, since you would never be able to spend on young talent. In addition, drafts seem to be an essential part of the American sports experience, and resistance to a pseudo-open market would be severe.

Lastly, there is an idea of making the minor leagues independent, but still heavily subsidized by MLB. If we gave a couple years for player development, say until 20 years old or so, the good prospects would float to the top more reliably, and then they could hit an open market (or be drafted), making the bonus money go to the more deserving player. This is similar to the hockey/NHL minor league system. This runs into the competitive balance issue, as well as getting into trouble with young players who advance through the minors quickly, such as Bryce Harper.

Moncada – along with his 6’1″ frame, monster athletic ability and potent switch-hitting bat – may forever change the way business is done in Latin American baseball.

Ultimately, this issue needs to be about paying the players fair market value, while keeping competitive balance as a priority. I don’t think the universal first year draft is necessarily a bad thing, I am just concerned that the bonus pools will not be expanded enough to represent market price for players. A drafted player has so much less bargaining power than a player on the open market; MLB knows this, and wants to keep the cost of these players low for business. If we can set a priority of higher bonuses for drafted players, and be quick to adapt some of the nuances of the draft, a more equitable draft can maintain balance in the game, all while supporting a global economy, rather than colonizing it.

Divisional Preview, Part 1: AL West – the best division in MLB?

By Conway West 02.06.15

Now that football season is over, JDCam and I will take a look at each division in baseball, highlighting things we are excited about. Up first is the AL West. After these columns, we will dig a little more in depth into teams. The wins under each team are the actual 2014 wins, the Steamer projected wins, and then Conwaywest and JDCam predictions (JD Cam’s team finish in the division is in parenthesis).

The AL West went from the weakest (by wins) in 2013 to the second strongest in 2014, trailing the AL East by 1 win. In 2013, the Rangers infamously made game 163 in large part due to beating the snot out of the hapless Astros (51 wins). The Mariners and  Angels wildly underperformed in 2013 as well.

 

In 2014, the Mariners and Astros improved by 16 and 19 wins, respectively. Neither of these teams improved as much as the Angels, who had the best turnaround in baseball with a 20-win positive swing. Coming into 2015, every team in the AL West feels like they have a solid chance to make the playoffs – every team feels their stock is at least stable, if not on the rise. With an ever-improving Astros, and the Mariners hitting their prime, this division should challenge the AL East for the best in baseball.

 

1. Seattle Mariners

2014: 87 wins; Steamer 2015: 89 wins; Conwaywest: 90 wins; JDCam: 87 wins (2nd, WC)

In: Nelson Cruz, Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith, JA Happ

Out: Michael Saunders, Chris Denorfia, Brandon Maurer, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Chris Young

 

Things to like: King Felix (and Felix Day); Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager; bullpen depth; young promising rotation arms; new acquisitions; Mike Zunino’s pitch framing.

Things to worry about: consistent offense from someone besides Cano and Seager; rotation’s recent injury history; Mike Zunino’s plate discipline.

 

The Mariners built on their 2014, which finished one win short of the postseason, with a solid offseason, where they got less lefty-heavy and didn’t lose major pieces (in fact, Kendrys Morales may be addition by subtraction). With a talented young core supplemented by the big name free agent Nelson Cruz, it would take a lot for the Mariners to go backwards this year. As long as they get something out of the Ruggiano/Smith platoon, and the James Paxton/Taijuan Walker starter duo stays healthy, Mariners look prime for the postseason for the first time in 13 years.

 

Seattle fans might have more to cheer for than just the King’s Court this season.

2. Oakland Athletics (wild card)

2014: 88 wins; Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conwaywest: 86 wins; JD Cam: 82 wins (3rd)

In: Billy Butler, Ike Davis, Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist, Tyler Clippard, Marcus Semien, Kendall Gravemen, Sean Nolin, Josh Phegley.

Out: Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, John Jaso, Derek Norris, Jed Lowrie, Jason Hammel, Alberto Callaspo, Jonny Gomes.

 

Things to like: Bevvy of MLB-caliber young arms, led by near-elite Sonny Gray; plate discipline; Zobrist’s and Stephen Vogt’s versatility; Lawrie’s potential; team defense.

Things to worry about: lack of elite talent/production; extreme lack of infield depth; Billy Butler in 2015 looking like Billy Butler in 2014; lots of innings from unproven pitchers.

 

No team radically changed their roster more than the A’s, who confused media and fans alike by their offseason. While no one has to agree with what Billy Beane did this offseason, any baseball savvy mind should understand the intent: get younger, cheaper, and don’t lose any wins. He nearly accomplished it: as stated in a previous article, the A’s lost a couple wins now for $12 million in payroll and more youth at the MLB level.

 

The A’s look like the top wild-card contender in the AL. They don’t do anything elite, but don’t have any gaping holes, and turn more batted balls into outs than anyone. This is a team built for regular season success, and I believe they have all the makings of a contender again in 2015, even if we can’t name half their lineup.

 

Stomper may be the only thing with an Oakland A’s jersey that won’t be traded in the coming months.

3. Los Angeles Angels

2014: 98 wins; Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conwaywest: 82 wins; JD Cam: 88 wins (1st)

In: Andrew Heaney, Josh Rutledge, Matt Joyce.

Out: Howie Kendrick, Gordon Beckham, Jason Grilli, Kevin Jepsen.

 

Things to like: Mike Trout and his great contract; Garrett Richards ‘ return; league-leading offense.

Things to worry about: Josh Hamilton and his awful contract; Garrett Richards’ knee injury; rotation #2-5; Will Joe Smith be good in the bullpen again?

 

The Angels were baseball’s most improved team last year, and still have some room to grow in 2015. Josh Hamilton could turn around his steep decline in recent years and be productive, and last year’s bullpen started dreadful to finish the year as one of the league’s best. I am also a huge Garrett Richards fan, and believe he could be a Cy Young winner if he recovers from the gruesome knee injury he suffered in September of last year. And of course, Mike Trout will keep being Mike Trout.

Unfortunately, I see many of the Angels pieces regressing this year. One of these years, Jared Weavers loss of velocity will hurt him, and the rest of the rotation has some question marks. Losing Howie Kendrick hurts, and there are no good replacement options. No one in the bullpen looks like they will be shut-down option. I see this team sliding just slightly, and with the division getting better, this could mean 15 less wins.

 

4. Houston Astros

2014: 70 wins; Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conwaywest: 78 wins; JD Cam: 76 wins (5th)

In: Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, Dan Straily, Jed Lowrie, Pat Neshek, Luke Gregerson, Hank Conger.

Out: Dexter Fowler

 

Things to like: Jose Altuve’s contact skills; 600 PAs from George Springer; Dallas Keuchel’s remarkable renaissance; Chris Carter’s raw power.

Things to worry about: swing-and-miss rate for Astros not named Altuve; corner infield production; back end of the rotation.

 

The Jose Altuve Jump Swing. Not too many humans can do that.

Could the Astros be a winning team in 2015? Seemed almost unthinkable late in 2013, when they lost 111 games and had so little to even build on at the major league level. Things are different now, as the usually tight-fisted ‘Stros went out and bought a couple high-end relievers, a couple bats, and traded for Evan Gattis. This builds off their formidable young core of Altuve, Springer, Keuchal, and soon-to-be Carlos Correa.

 

As these young guns develop as bonafide stars, the Astros could see their multiple-year tanking strategy pay off. They won’t win the division this year, but if 2015 can prove to be a turning point where they get above .500. I don’t see it happening in this difficult division, but they still could improve by 10 wins.

 

5. Texas Rangers

2014: 67 wins; Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conwaywest: 74 wins; JD Cam: 80 Wins (4th)

In: Yovani Gallardo, Ross Detwiler…. Can Prince Fielder count?

Out: Alex Rios, Neil Cotts, the injury curse of 2014.

 

Things to like: Adrian Beltre continuing to defy time; Yu Darvish leading a solid top 3 starters; the possibility of Jurickson Profar; strong pedigree of success from core players.

Things to worry about: staying healthy; residual effects of injuries; playing defense; offense is still a couple hitters short.

The Rangers are one of the more peculiar cases of 2015. Riding the recent success of 2 World Series appearances, the 2014 team looked to improve by supplementing their aging core with an elite farm system and marquee aquisitions. Adding Prince Fielder to the mix also gave reason for optimism in Texas. None of that panned out. Texas had more DL days than any other team in baseball by 3 full seasons (2100 games worth!).

 

The Rangers may need more than just a healthy Darvish to return to the postseason.

With the high hopes of 2014, many could think that 2015 is a new year, bringing the wins back to North Texas. I don’t see this happening. Shin-soo Choo, Fielder, Gallardo and Beltre all have seen their best seasons already, and although Beltre is still elite, the others are not. This team could not field last year, either, a trend that won’t be reversed by adding Fielder and Choo full time. And there are concerns about the health of Darvish; without him, the Rangers may rely on some weak back-end rotation arms. I see another disappointing season in Arlington, giving the Rangers tough decisions on how they will build for their future.