2017 Position Preview: First Base, League Context, Chris Carter, and Eric Thames

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

thamesIt’s no secret that home runs were way up in 2016.  One-hundred-eleven players hit at least twenty home runs in 2016, easily topping the 64 from 2015 and 2014’s 57.  With no obvious explanation for the home run surge, speculation has ranged from pitchers throwing more cutters to hitting adjustments against hard throwers and even “juiced” baseballs.  Whatever the cause, 2016 saw the second-most home runs ever in a major league season.  There were an average of 1.16 home runs hit per game: a higher per-game average than during most of the steroid-infused years of the 1990s and 2000s.

Although only two Brewers players topped twenty home runs for the team, they did help usher in the year of the homer.  Brewers collectively hit just a handful more homers than the league average.  And several lineup regulars set new personal single-season records in home runs: Jonathan Villar (19), Scooter Gennett (14), Kirk Nieuwenhuis (13), Domingo Santana (11), and Hernan Perez (13).

But when it came to raw power, there was only one Brewers player really worth talking about: Chris Carter.  And not just a team leader; Carter’s battle with Nolan Arenado for the National League home run title in the season’s final series was the highlight of an otherwise fairly forgettable year on the field.  They wound up tied at 41.

Carter, who hit .199 with 24 homers and 64 RBIs in 2015, made $4,175,000 in 2015 in his first year of arbitration. The Houston Astros let him go rather than pay the likely more than $5 million salary he would have commanded in arbitration in 2016.  The flaws in his game that led to his being non-tendered were apparent during Carter’s 2016 season with the Brewers; he maintained his low contact rate and struck out a league-leading 206 times.  But he also hit some monstrous home runs.

And yet, despite his prominent place atop the National League home run leaderboard, Carter couldn’t get a 2017 contract.  The Brewers weren’t interested, despite the fact that they had no obvious replacement candidate at the time.  Carter settled for a 1-year, $3 million contract from the New York Yankees, a meager deal reflective of just how little teams value power in light of last year’s surge.

To fill the gap, the Brewers looked to Korea, plucking lefty Eric Thames from the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization.  Thames, a Korean League MVP and owner of a 40/40 season in 2015, hit for a 1.162 OPS over four foreign seasons and turned his success into a 3-year, $16M deal with the Brewers.

Prior to that, Thames was the definition of a AAAA player.  He performed well enough in the high minors, with a triple slash line of .312/.389/.506 over three seasons.  And there were reasons to be optimistic following Thames’ 2012 campaign with the Blue Jays, in which he posted a .193 ISO over 394 plate attempts.  But 2013 was disastrous; Thames’ 30% K-rate and dreadful defense doomed him to the minors, from whence he would not return to MLB.

Until now. So what are we to make of Thames with the Brewers going forward?  Assuming the power sticks (and there’s no guarantee it will, as explained below), he couldn’t be going to a better park for a lefty masher than Miller Park.  And given his contract and the Brewers’ lack of a serviceable bat at the position, playing time won’t be an issue in the same way it was prior to Thames’ time in Korea.

But there’s a notoriously short track record for players coming from Korea and having success in the States.  And Korean players generally benefit from smaller parks and a hitting philosophy that does not emphasize on-base skills; in other words, Korea was perfectly suited to Thames’ predilection to swing at first-pitch fastballs.  Add that to the relative success of Thames’ Korean teammates last season (of the top eight NC Dinos players in plate attempts, all but one hit above .297), one definitely gets the sense that offensive output in Korean baseball is inflated.  So I’m not bullish on Thames, but I see the appeal.

While there’s little chance Thames will put up another 40-home-run season in his transition year, it doesn’t seem likely any of his NL Central competition will, either.  In fact of the expected NL Central first basemen, STEAMER projects only Anthony Rizzo to top 30 home runs – and then just barely.  Thames’ STEAMER projection comes pretty darn close to Rizzo’s:  their ISO is within .002 points, and while it’s safe to say Rizzo’s going display more on-base prowess than Thames, their slash lines are otherwise remarkably close (.279/.381/.523 for Rizzo, .272/.350/.515 for Thames).

It’s an optimistic projection to be sure, but if it proves accurate, Thames may push Rizzo as the most productive first baseman in the division, ahead of even Joey Votto.  I think Thames will fall short of those lofty goals given his trouble making contact and his rather average batted ball profile, but Brewers fans probably won’t be able to gripe much for his rather small contract.  With a win above replacement currently valued at around $7+ million, Thames could be an excellent return on investment even if he’s not Anthony Rizzo.

 

 

Closers and superficial baseball analysis

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Former AL Manager of the Year Buck Showalter. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

In the aftermath of the two Wild Card games, the popular dissection (including on ESPN immediately after Mets-Giants) involves a juxtaposition of game outcomes based on closer appearance (or non-appearance): “One team loses without its closer pitching, another loses when its closer blows the game.”

These are true statements, in terms of both history and in the sense that closers do not manufacture guaranteed outs.  We know this because we’ve all seen blown saves.  And so it’s curious that the closer has been elevated to something of a mythical stature, no doubt due to the fact that some of baseball’s most legendary pitchers (e.g., Mariano Rivera, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage) have earned their Hall of Fame credentials in that role.

But let’s not forget that guys like Fernando Rodney (nearly top-30 all time in saves and rocking a career 3.69 ERA) are also closers.  As anyone who has played fantasy baseball for any length of time can tell you, the closer role is one of the most volatile in baseball.  Being a team’s “closer” is a double-edged sword:  it sets the player up for a nice payday later on, but the odds are against any individual pitcher succeeding in that role for very long.  More often than not, the closer is just a guy with perhaps a slightly better skill set than the rest of the bullpen, but who is never really placed in the best opportunity to succeed thanks to always taking the ball in the 9th inning.

Zach Britton, the Orioles closer, was not just a guy this season, and had yet to pitch in the Wild Card game as the bottom of the 11th inning approached in the tie affair.  Clearly Baltimore’s best pitcher (0.54 regular-season ERA, which is the only ERA Britton would have this year), everyone expected the lefty Britton to get a shot against the heart of the Blue Jays order, consisting of right-handed hitters Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion.  He did not get that opportunity; instead, Buck Showalter sent in the homer-prone, generally terrible Ubaldo Jimenez.  The results were predictable: single, single, home run.

Showalter’s decision was indefensible, certainly not justified by Britton’s platoon splits (he is also very good against right-handers).  Showalter’s narrow-mindedness cost the Orioles in two ways:  first, Showalter was saving his closer for a time when his team had the lead, which of course was never guaranteed to happen; and second, because the Orioles’ closer was also the team’s best pitcher, he never made it into a tied, winner-take-all playoff game.  The reality is that Britton, label or not, was simply in a better position to get those three outs than Jimenez.

Terry Collins made a different decision in a similar situation in Wednesday’s Mets-Giants game.  With a tie in the top of the 9th inning, Collins brought in his closer against the bottom half of the Giants order.  This was at least a defensible decision, if not the correct one.  Familia is one of the Mets’ best relievers, has a good strikeout rate and the best groundball rate on the team.  It was reasonable to expect him to slice and dice his way through Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan, and Joe Panik.

That illusion quickly fell away.  Familia was wild, missing badly with two pitches to Crawford and sending two more right down main street.  Crawford deposited pitch #4 into left field.  If the signs of trouble were not manifest then, they certainly were even as Familia struck out Pagan on six pitches, at least two of which Pagan should have clobbered but fouled off.  Panik’s at-bat ended with a seven-pitch walk; five pitches missed the strike zone by a mile.  One would expect Collins, by this point, to have had Josh Edgin or Jerry Blevins warming to face the left-handed Connor Gillespie, but instead Collins left his right-handed closer in.  The game would effectively end with Familia’s third pitch to Gillespie, who went yard on a sinker up in the zone.  Familia threw nearly 30 pitches in the inning; one wonders whether any other reliever would have had a similarly long leash.

One team loses without its closer.  Another loses with him.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  The better point here, lost in baseball writers’ attempts at irony, is that there is nothing magical about a closer.  It’s just a label thrown on a guy who traditionally pitches in what is typically the last inning of a game, and oftentimes prevents that pitcher from being used in the most optimal situations.  Yet, in true Halloween fashion, the “closer” continues to haunt playoff teams.

Brewers and Mets aren’t obvious trade partners for Lucroy

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

As has been reported for a couple days now, the Mets are interested in acquiring Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy.  The Mets have a clear need at catcher; they rank 20th in catcher fWAR, and the position is collectively slashing  an abysmal .214/.294/.310.  Travis d’Arnaud, a once-heralded prospect just a few years ago, has so far this season contributed to the woeful state of the position, slashing just .238/.293/.328 (72 wRC+).

Pardon me if, like the Brewers, I’m not weak in the knees by the Mets’ straight-up offer of d’Arnaud for Lucroy.

The main attraction from the Brewers standpoint would be d’Arnaud’s pedigree and remaining team control.  This from Mets GM Sandy Alderson in 2012, upon acquiring d’Arnaud from Toronto in 2012 as part of the R.A. Dickey deal:

“We viewed d’Arnaud, and I believe the industry views Travis, as the top catching prospect in the game,” Alderson said. “And not just the top catching prospect, but the one who is closest to major league ready, if not now major league ready. In addition, we think his upside is such that he could be a significant player for us over the next many years.”

D’Arnaud was, indeed, close to “major league ready,” if for no other reason than he wound up logging nearly 100 at bats for the Mets in 2013.  The results would suggest otherwise, though.  D’Arnaud was dreadful in his cup of coffee, and followed that up in 2014 with a full season’s worth of barely-above-replacement-level production.  2015 looked like d’Arnaud’s breakout season (he hit .268/.340/.485), prompting such laudatory articles as this from Mark Simon of ESPN.

Prophetically, the opening paragraph of Simon’s piece is as follows:

Travis d’Arnaud is on the cusp of becoming really good. It’s something those who judge baseball players for a living have been saying about him for the last three seasons. And yet one scout I regularly speak with says you have to be patient with catchers and give them time. The time for d’Arnaud, who turns 27 in February, is right now. But his biggest challenge may be staying healthy.

Indeed, d’Arnaud missed half of last season with an elbow injury, and has again spent time on the disabled list in 2016 with a shoulder injury.

While there’s no doubting d’Arnaud’s status as a former top prospect, there is ample reason to question the value of his remaining team control.  D’Arnaud is arbitration eligible for the first time next year, and he’s slated to become a free agent in 2020.  Don’t mistake d’Arnaud’s lack of service time for youth, though: d’Arnaud is already 27, and while Simon was right to remark about the necessity of patience with catchers, d’Arnaud is running out of time to prove his mettle at catcher.  There are already calls from the notoriously impatient New York media for him to change positions to preserve his health.

So in sum: the Mets want 1.5 years of arguably the top catcher in baseball in exchange for 3 years of a maybe-decent, often-injured once-prospect.  I’ll pass, thank you.

This isn’t to say the Mets aren’t in any sense a match for the Brewers on a Lucroy trade; it just seems very unlikely.  The player most likely to draw the Brewers’ interest is the Mets’ top prospect, 1B Dominic Smith, who is a power-hitting lefty widely regarded as a top-50 prospect in baseball generally.  A member of the 2013 draft class, Smith is currently slashing .284/.344/.447 in AA Birmingham.  The Mets have their own long-term question mark at 1B, though, with Lucas Duda set to be a free agent in 2018.  As a team with the pitching to remain competitive for some time, it seems unlikely the Mets would be willing to mortgage the future for an outside shot at the playoffs this season and whatever next season might bring with Lucroy.

Beyond Smith? Not much that would be of obvious interest to the Brewers, unless their plan is to simply stockpile talent regardless of position.  It’s not that the Mets’ farm clubs are devoid of talent; it’s just that the team’s 2nd to 7th best prospects all play SS and OF, positions at which the Brewers are currently loaded.  Perhaps SS Gavin Cecchini could shift to 2B, but I’m doubtful the Mets would be willing to pull the trigger on d’Arnaud and Cecchini for Lucroy.  And here again we have a useful building block for the Mets going forward, as their current 2B, Neil Walker, is a free agent at years’ end.

This is all to say that I find it highly unlikely Lucroy is dealt to the Mets before the trade deadline.  With that deadline looming, there’s certain to be much more noise in the coming days.

 

Trade Suitors for Lucroy

By Nathan Petrashek

Jonathan Lucroy isn’t penciled in to start for the National League in this year’s All-Star Game, but it is nonetheless a nice showcase for baseball’s third-best catcher by fWAR (2.4).  In addition to being highly skilled, Lucroy is tremendously affordable and under team control through 2017, so he’s not necessarily a one-shot rental for any team looking to acquire him as the Brewers rebuild.

There was speculation that the Brewers could lock up Lucroy to a long-term contract, but in light of Lucroy’s comments yesterday that there were no ongoing extension talks, that outcome seems unlikely.  Although Lucroy doesn’t have much choice in the matter, he did reaffirm that he wants to play for a contender.  As luck would have it, that’s likely to be the nature of the team to make a play for Lucroy.  The Brewers are, by all accounts, demanding a king’s ransom for the 30-year-old catcher, so lets look at some possible landing spots.

  • Texas Rangers.  This has been the team most connected to Lucroy in the past few days.  That’s no surprise; Houston is hot on the heels of the division-leading Rangers, who are middle-of-the-pack in terms of catcher fWAR and are currently leaning on journeyman Robinson Chirinos behind the plate. The Brewers reportedly had a cadre of scouts recently at the Rangers’ Class A affiliate.  Probably not coincidentally, RHP Dillon Tate, MLB.com‘s #31 prospect, pitched in games on July 5th and 9th.  The Rangers have another top RHP prospect, Luis Ortiz, in AA, but the Brewers will almost certainly check in on Texas’s top prospect, Joey Gallo, an MLB-ready 3B/OF whom the Brewers passed on in the 2012 draft in favor of Victor Roache.
  • Boston Red Sox.  The Brewers have already matched up with the Red Sox once this year, trading IF Aaron Hill for two mid-level Boston prospects.  Boston is just two games back in the AL East, and has received terrible production from their catcher position, which currently consists of 27-year-old Sandy Leon and 35-year-old Ryan Hanigan.  A rotation arm no doubt tops Boston’s want list, but if Boston is unable to improve its starting pitching through the trade market, it just might look to build on its offensive strength by adding Lucroy.  Boston has plenty of highly ranked prospects that might interest the Brewers, including top-tier talent in IFs Yoan Moncada and Rafael Delvers.  If Boston is unwilling to offer up one of those elite prospects, the Brewers might consider RHP Anderson Espinoza (MLB.com’s #34 prospect), an international signee currently pitching in A ball who can hit 100 MPH with his fastball and is developing plus secondary pitches.

*UPDATE: Boston has since traded Espinoza to Oakland for Drew Pomeranz.  The Red Sox have one other top-100 prospect, Andrew Benintendi, but being an OF (a position at which the Brewers are stocked), that may not be enough to move the needle.  One other interesting player is Sam Travis, one of the 1B prospects in baseball.  Travis is currently hitting .272/.332/.434 at AAA Pawtucket.

  • Cleveland Indians.  Despite leading their division, the Indians are dead last in baseball for catcher fWAR (-.9).  The once highly touted Yan Gomes has been trending toward awful for a few years now, and this season he’s slashing just .166/.201/.315.  The Indians’ offense hasn’t been terrible, but Lucroy certainly presents an upgrade at the plate.  The Indians may be even more interested in pairing Lucroy’s elite pitching framing skills with their dominant rotation (Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Tomlin, Bauer).  The top of Cleveland’s farm system is outfielder heavy, a position at which the Brewers already have ample minor-league talent.  But there are some attractive options a bit further down on Cleveland’s prospect list, including the powerful lefthanded firstbaseman Bobby Bradley (MLB.com’s #83 prospect).  The Indians’ system also boasts two high-end lefties pitching in the low minors: Brady Aiken, the unsigned #1 draft pick in 2014, and Justus Sheffield, a 2014 first-rounder.

In support of the new IBB rule

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Last Saturday, word broke that Major League Baseball was considering altering the intentional walk rules by allowing the manager to signal an intentional walk, thereby allowing the batter to take first base, without having the pitcher actually throw four pitches outside the strike zone.

Here’s how ESPN led off its article covering the proposed changes:

A new strike zone could be on baseball’s horizon and the old-fashioned intentional walk could be a thing of the past after both were agreed to by the competition committee at Major League Baseball’s owners meetings this week, sources said.

The potentially dramatic changes could be in effect by next season.

For purposes of this article, let’s focus on the “intentional walk” portion of the quote, which is incredibly misleading.  The rule change described above is not a “potentially dramatic change,” nor does it make the old-fashioned intentional walk “a thing of the past.”  The intentional base on balls (IBB) has been around since 1870 and isn’t going anywhere.  It’s still a thing under the proposed rule, and the batters will be recorded as reaching base on an IBB.  The proposed rule doesn’t even burden managers any more than usual, as managers already signal an IBB to their pitchers.  Literally the only change is that a pitcher doesn’t need to throw four “pitches” that more closely resemble soft tosses.

Maybe it’s ESPN’s hyperbole, maybe it’s that the gut reaction of baseball aficionados to any type of rules change seems to fall somewhere between disgust and paranoia, but there’s been an awful lot of criticism of the new IBB rule.  Bob Uecker and Bill Schroeder spent about an hour combined during last Saturday’s game broadcasts complaining about the proposed change.  There wasn’t a whole lot of reasoning there, just a general kind of grumping.  As best I can tell, their principal objection is that under the current rule there’s a chance a pitcher might throw a wild pitch, or the catcher might allow a passed ball.

That’s true … but so what?  The notion of the intentional walk itself isn’t under attack (although some arguments have been made toward that end previously).  Rather, these are attacks on the manner in which the IBB is achieved.  But isn’t it important that the procedure comport with the game’s strategic objectives?  If we regard a batter reaching base as a strictly averse outcome to the defending team, why shouldn’t that team be able to concede any old base it wants to a batter?

This actually creates a distinction between the IBB and the vanilla walk.  Under the old rule, the mechanism of achieving a BB and an IBB was the same: throw four balls outside the strike zone.  The only difference was the subjective intention of the pitcher, which, admittedly, was often pretty easy to discern.  Under the new rule, an IBB actually denotes a specific way in which the batter reaches base.  The new rule creates a clear distinction and gives the IBB added significance:  An IBB signifies that the opposing manager has chosen to award the batter a base, whereas a BB signifies that the batter has reached base on four balls thrown outside of the strike zone.

Depth Assessment: Colin Walsh & Alex Presley

By Nathan Petrashek

With the red-hot Cubs easily leading the NL Central with a .750 win percentage, these seem like dark days for the 16-22 Brewers.  Fair to say there won’t be October baseball in Milwaukee, but there remains the matter of whether the Brewers can generate a sufficient number of wins to keep fans at least semi-engaged with the team throughout the summer.  In that spirit, today we’ll look at two players who were relative unknowns coming into the season, but have found themselves thrust into important roles throughout April and May.

We’ll begin with infielder Colin Walsh, a Rule 5 pickup from the Oakland Athletics this winter.  Walsh has bounced around the St. Louis Cardinals and Athletics organizations since he was drafted in the 13th round in 2010.  He’s performed reasonably well at every minor-league level, but has played very little baseball above the AA level prior to this season.  Walsh’s claim to fame is that he’s an on-base machine, taking a remarkable 124 walks in 2015 with Oakland’s AA affiliate (.447 OBP).

That on-base trend had continued in 2016 with the Brewers, where Walsh has taken a base on balls in 14 of his 58 plate appearances (.328 OBP).  Unfortunately, that is about the only aspect of Walsh’s offensive profile that has translated to the major league level.  While Walsh was regularly hit well over .250 in the minor leagues, he sports an unsightly .093 batting average on the season, with just one extra base hit.  Power has never been Walsh’s strong suit, but he did display some pop in the minors, so there’s reason to expect Walsh to improve in that regard and from a contact perspective.

The big question is whether he will stick around long enough for that to happen.  As a Rule 5 pick, Walsh has to remain on the MLB roster or be offered back to the Athletics.  Walsh received plenty of starts at 3B at the beginning of the season, but with Scooter Gennett back and Aaron Hill now manning third, his playing time has steadily decreased and he has been mostly relegated to pinch hitting duty (where, as alluded to earlier, very little hitting has occurred).  The Brewers may opt to keep Walsh around as a super utility flier, but there’s very little justification for his presence otherwise on the 25-man roster.

Conversely, Alex Presley has seen his playing time increase steadily as a result of strong early returns from the 30-year old outfielder.  Logging starts at all three outfield positions, including most recently left field, Presley has slashed .267/.348/.433 through 69 plate attempts, including a double and 3 home runs.  His .167 ISO is as good as or better than in any of his other major league seasons, and with a .283 BABIP, there remains slight room for improvement.  In wRC+ terms, Presley has been league average this season, which is not bad for a bench bat occasionally forced into starting duty.

The key to Presley’s success appears to be his ability to keep the ball off the ground.  Presley for his career has typically hit about half his batted balls on the ground, but he’s managed to convert about 10% of those this year to fly balls.  If Presley can continue that trend, as well as something close to his current 11.6% walk rate, throughout the course of the season, Brewers fans might do well to keep an eye on his at bats.

The Case for Keeping Chris Carter

By Nathan Petrashek

Its undeniable Chris Carter is on a tear.  In his last three games, he’s cleared the fence four times, chipping in a double and single to boot.  On the season, Carter has a robust .287/.356/.713 triple slash line, a dramatic improvement over last season’s .199/.307/.427 line, which got him non-tendered from the Astros last season.  As further evidence, Carter is rocking an elite 167 wRC+.  For context, Trevor Story, whose performance has arguably been the story (pun intended) of April, has a 132.

Carter, who is on a one-year deal but is arbitration-eligible and under team control for the next two seasons, will undoubtedly be talked about as a trade candidate for the rebuilding Brewers.  But there are clues that David Stearns has not committed to a “full” rebuild, and keeping Chris Carter may just be in the team’s best interests.

There’s no doubt Carter is one of the premier power bats in the game.  Carter has hit the 8th most home runs in baseball between 2013 and 2016.  He’s also 8th in ISO over that span, with .252.  There are certainly fleas (33.4% K rate, worst in the major leagues over that stretch), but when he makes contact, the ball flies.

Carter’s power is a bit of a big deal this season because the Brewers don’t have a lot of true home run threats, a departure from years past.  Ryan Braun, who has five so far, will get his share, but beyond that the power situation doesn’t look so hot.  Domingo Santana (3 HR, 7 2B) is probably the next best power hitter on the team, and while his future looks bright, he’s generally hitting leadoff and is still a bit of an unknown quantity.  Jonathan Lucroy is a good pure hitter, but struggled last season and is only slugging .420 so far this year.  And beyond that … woof.  The Brewers are currently middle-of-the-pack in HR and SLG, and a fair amount of that is due to Scooter Gennet (4 HR, 4 2B) who has never been a power bat and is, in any event, currently on the DL.

On the whole, the benefits of keeping Carter and letting him play out the year well exceed the benefits of a potential trade.  Carter can make baseball in Milwaukee watchable for 2016, and potentially beyond.  I mean, the guy hits 430-foot home runs.  That IS an asset, as it keeps folks interested and helps put butts in seats as the Brewers rebuild.  The cost of keeping Carter the next couple seasons will be minimal.  Contrast these matters with the potential benefits of a trade.  While Carter is a premier slugger, the problems inherent in his game mean he is not nearly as important to other clubs.  It is not reasonable to expect Carter to return anything close to a high-end prospect.

That’s not to say the Brewers shouldn’t trade him if they get a great offer.  They should.  I just don’t see that forthcoming, and meanwhile, Brewers baseball is pretty fun.