It’s not unusual for a team to pass many of its eligible players through revocable waivers in August, and for the Cubs, who may face a pretty serious 40-man roster crunch in the offseason, 26-year-old outfielder Brett Jackson was among the players waived. With the second-highest priority (2nd-worst record in the Cubs’ league), the D-backs claimed Jackson, then completing a trade by sending Blake Cooper to the Cubs organization. With Cooper the only cost, the D-backs seem to have done well here even with a move that is unlikely to pay dividends, continuing a trend that has seen the Towers front office excel with smallish transactions.
Cooper is a 26-year-old minor league reliever, which tells you most of what you need to know about his value. He hasn’t started a single professional game, and after climbing the ladder from rookie to Low-A to High-A, he stalled out at Visalia. After a cameo at Mobile last season, he started there this year, finally putting up some good numbers in a meaningful sample (1.85 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 31 K in 34 innings), but he struggled after a promotion to Reno (6.00 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, 20 K in 24 innings). I like the idea of young, controllable, option-able bullpens as much or more than the next guy, but when you consider his age and that he’s been a reliever all the way, Cooper hasn’t impressed in 238.1 career minor league innings with a 3.25 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP. Cooper is worth more than nothing, especially since he could theoretically drop down and be a matchups guy against right-handed batters. But he’s eminently replaceable.
Brett Jackson has a more complicated story. There’s a wave of position player prospects in the Cubs organization which is about to crest soon, but back closer to when Theo Epstein & Co. took over, there was kind of a proto-wave of prospects of a quality that’s normal for an organization. Junior Lake was at the tail end of that proto-wave (and D-backs types will remember Lake as beating up the D-backs in Arizona last year). Jackson’s arrival date fit comfortably in the Cubs rebuilding cycle, as the Cubs had every incentive to see what they had in Jackson at the end of the 2012 regular season.
But that’s the only chance Jackson has gotten. He brutalized the lower minors out of college, and looked every bit a top prospect in 2010 and 2011. Some of his stats from 2010 through 2012:
The theme is strikeouts. As Jackson approached the majors, his power went up a bit, his walk rate improved, and his strikeout rate went kablooey. Last year, only one major league player tallied more than 200 strikeouts (Chris Carter, 212). In 2012, combining his Triple-A and Cubs numbers, Jackson had 217. Considering that Jackson has never showed Carter-like power, the strikeout numbers were a serious concern — not just a problem with his game, as it might currently be with the Astros’s George Springer, but a problem so profound it might prevent him from doing anything in the majors.
Since the end of the 2012 season, Jackson’s strikeout problem has also prevented him from doing anything in the minors. In 612 PA since the beginning of the 2013 season, Jackson has struck out another 219 times. His On-Base Percentage, a real strength for Jackson up to but not including his stint with the Cubs, has been an unacceptably low .284 since starting back in Triple-A in 2013.
So Jackson isn’t a very good player right now, but he once showed some promise, and he really only had one problem (albeit a really bad one) that seemed to keep him from being a solid major league player. That’s exactly the type of guy an organization could get lucky with. And while the D-backs org has been terrible in developing pitchers of late, they’ve done well with their young hitters. Jackson is a change of scenery candidate. The chances that Jackson turns into a David Peralta type find are very low. But Cooper wasn’t worth much to the D-backs anyway, and in the hopefully unlikely event that there is a health apocalypse in the outfield again in 2015, there’s a non-zero chance that Jackson will have shown enough to warrant a new major league tryout.
Let’s just say that I think it’s highly unlikely that Jackson will ever help the D-backs in any meaningful way, but that I like this trade from the D-backs perspective. The only thing I don’t like about it is that I’m trying to make “Action Jackson” happen as a nickname for A.J. Pollock, and having another CF type with the actual last name of Jackson may interfere with that. #ActionJacksonPollock
Baseball is almost impossibly interesting in terms of there being millions of things to think about and millions of ways to think about them — oh, and then there’s the fact that the extent of the data we have is incredible, and will only get crazier soon. And so the Saber Seminar in Boston last weekend was so much fun. In addition to hearing from a number of high-ranking baseball executives, there were presentations with new research and just tons of baseball talk. To everyone I met: so great to meet you. And to Dan Brooks and Chuck Korb, specifically: thanks a ton for putting on such a wonderful event for a great cause. And to our readers: be on notice that we have some new material to work with.
On to the “links,” starting not with actual links, but some fun stuff from Saber Seminar:
- Dr. Aaron Seitz, an expert on learning and memory, presented findings of a “visual cortex training” study involving college players. The fact that research has been done that shows that training can be accomplished — even if it is difficult — has to be very interesting to major league teams. Apparently the visual cortex can learn specific things, but generalization of those new skills is difficult — in other words, you can train the brain to pick up orientation information in noise (in the study, ripples in a gray background), but you need to train the brain separately for different orientations (same with different locations off of a focus point). The Big West League team that Seitz worked with saw almost a 5% drop in strikeout rate after the training, which is remarkable — especially since the season started three months after the training sessions. Brett Jackson, anyone? Here’s more information from a piece by the excellent Chris Teeter at Beyond the Box Score earlier this year.
- On a panel about the cost of a win, Matt Swartz of MLBTradeRumors and FanGraphs dropped a very interesting tidbit: by and large, teams get the highest return on investment in free agency on players who play at glove-first positions (2B, SS, CF, C). Next-best is starting pitchers, followed by bat-first positions. Relief pitchers represent the lowest return on investment. Considering the use of free agent relievers also presents a high cost in terms of lost flexibility, this is more confirmation that going young in the bullpen is the best model for all but the richest MLB teams.
- Astros GM Jeff Luhnow answered questions on Saturday, and was extremely impressive. He coached the audience that it’s not enough to just preach change, but to anticipate and answer likely objections (which is definitely something we try to do here). His experience with implementing a shift defense was very enlightening. Essentially, the team started out last year as one of the top five shifting teams (according to Luhnow), but because they kept making exceptions for individual pitchers and situations at others’ requests, they ended the season in the bottom five (same). Luhnow noted that it can be difficult to ask people to change when an advantage is not obvious and may not manifest except through a season’s worth of games. That has the ring of truth. Hard not to be even more jealous of the Astros front office now, considering that Luhnow gets that.
- Measuring catcher framing and defense is still coming together after it burst onto the saber scene last year. Scott Spratt and Joe Rosales of Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) have a version that pays careful note to where the catcher’s mitt is set up during the windup: they call it Strike Zone Plus/Minus. Last season’s leader: Miguel Montero, with 14 Catchers Runs Saved. We knew he was good at framing, but every statistic agrees on that point. Now, as RG has written, if that would interest another team…
- The incredible Russell A. Carleton presented a new kind of thing: “Adult…F/X”. Reminding us of the fact that just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it’s impossible to measure or that it has no effect, Carleton presented some findings after polling some player development and baseball operations types about what their teams do to transition prospects to adulthood. This does seem very important. It’s not just the idea of a language transition; it’s learning how to make one’s own meals, fix a flat tire, etc. As Carleton pointed out, these things may not directly impact a player’s play, but may function as distractions that keep a player from focusing on the types of things an organization would prefer he focus on. It may come down to either having a person who handles all of this kind of stuff for an organization, and it can mean (either alternatively, or in addition) making sure to train players’ traditional points of contact (managers, coaches, trainers) on how to answer them. Carleton shared some similar thoughts a few years ago at Baseball Prospectus, although it was the polling-type research that was the most interesting thing about his presentation on Sunday.
- Former Mariners AGM Tony Blengino examined the best contact managers of all time among pitchers, the guys who did the best at producing the weakest forms of contact; no Randy Johnson, but Brandon Webb made it as an honorable mention for obscenely good numbers in a relatively short career, compared to the guys who made the list. Also, Max Scherzer was among the worst contact managers in the major leagues recently, which is something to remember when the D-backs start looking to make moves in the offseason; if Scherzer’s strikeout, walk or home run numbers slip, he could go from excellent to not-so-great in a hurry if the contact management numbers hold.
- Really enjoyed Dan Rozenson’s presentation on knuckle curves (including spike curves) — had no idea that about one quarter of all MLB curveballs were of this variety. Rozenson controlled for arm strength (using fastball velo) and found that despite a similar spin deflection, knuckle curves were about 2 mph faster than other curves, overall, with a trajectory that might more closely resemble a fastball’s out of the hand. Archie Bradley throws one…
- OK, lightning round. Frank Firke found that the strike zone tends to shift a bit lower at night and in domes, perhaps because of the lights. Really enjoyed Jeff Sackmann’s brilliant use of amateur summer leagues to unlock strength of schedule secrets in college ball. Same for Alan Nathan’s presentation on the physics of bat-ball contact. For the second year in a row, Chris Geary totally demystified a couple of injuries for me, this time re: microfracture surgery and Lisfranc injuries. I found it hard to contain my glee when Tim Britton mentioned a conversation in which Red Sox reliever Burke Badenhop taught him about RE24. Robert Stern’s presentation on subconcussive blows and how players of many sports end up suffering a form of dementia was very eye-opening — after this, I’ll find it hard to consider myself a football fan. Baseball is thankfully fairly free of these subconcussive blows, especially in comparison, but it makes me think back to my rugby days. Finally, my very favorite grain of info of the weekend was from Jared Cross, who is one of the guys who develops Steamer projections: if you guessed that every pitcher would pitch to a league-average ERA, you’d be right within 0.95 runs, on average. The very best projection is right to 0.8 runs. That’s a testament to the randomness of baseball, but it’s also an excellent counter to the argument that since projections systems are all about as successful as each other, it doesn’t really matter which one you use.
- Now the D-backs links. One guy who wasn’t at Saber Seminar this year: Dr. Glenn Fleisig, who studies pitcher biomechanics. He’s suggested that pitcher injuries aren’t necessarily a matter of innings, sliders, etc., but how much a pitcher pitches when fatigued. A fatigued pitcher has trouble repeating his delivery, increasing the chances that something could go wrong. And so it’s with a weird horror that I read Nick Piecoro’s piece on Josh Collmenter feeling fatigue. Not a huge puzzle given the jump in innings. But should the D-backs just shut him down soon? Maybe after he reaches the 145 innings or so? I just remember Fleisig’s words, and the fact that in his final 36 innings of the 2013 season, Patrick Corbin let up 32 earned runs and was clearly pitching fatigued. And then what happened?
- I’ll return to the Collmenter topic later this week unless Ender Inciarte hits home runs in 7 consecutive at bats or something, but another likely topic is the “adjustments” referred to in another Piecoro piece from Saturday night about David Peralta’s recent skid and how Peralta believes pitchers have started to treat him differently. I want to know more specifics, so you will, too. Also from Piecoro, Trevor Cahill‘s start on Friday seemed pretty legit after the D-backs adopted a “show and go” schedule. All the more reason to explore trading Cahill right this second. Someone could take a chance, given recent history of pitchers leaving Arizona and doing well.
- Last week, Jim McLennan at Snake Pit had everything you ever wanted to know about the rise of Chase Anderson. Good notes, and I agree with essentially all of it (the portion that is opinion, I mean). And I’ll make another pitch for a piece on Anderson that I did a few days before that, which was a little more Pitchf/x based. David Gassko had an interesting point at Saber Seminar: pitching optimally would probably mean throwing your best pitches so much that their values meet your worst pitches. In Anderson’s case, given the enormous gap between run values of his fastballs and changeup, that might mean throwing the changeup much, much more. Clearly, the effectiveness of his change would go down, but this is probably something the D-backs could try out now before Anderson gets shut down for the season.
- At Beyond the Box Score, our Jeffrey Bellone examined Brandon McCarthy‘s success since arriving with the Yankees. The turnaround is amazing. Great chart on pitch values as largely an explanation, but still… cripes. Not to beat a dead horse, but McCarthy may do the D-backs front office some favors with his recent success, as something of an advertisement that any particular D-backs pitcher might do better in someone else’s uniform.
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