If you’ve never given our podcast (The Pool Shot) a try, now would be a really good time — Jeff and I worked our way through both major trades last week, and had a ton of fun doing it. We also hit the Oscar Hernandez acquisition through the Rule 5 draft, catching in general, and the potential weakness of having a fly ball rotation pitching at Chase Field. Here’s the link to the audio player, here’s the feed (if you’re on a phone, just click it), and here’s where you can subscribe on iTunes. We’ve been blown away by the response so far (Episode 8 had about 8,500 plays, and the feed was accessed another 4,000 or so times during the corresponding week). We’ve gotten better at it. I think the best podcasts aren’t like taped radio shows, they’re more like great conversations that you can join in on. It’s been really fun, and I recommend it without reservation. And we really, really appreciate the questions we’ve gotten and especially anyone who’s helped spread the word.
The post from Friday is a good complement to that episode, sorting through each of the transactions from the last six weeks or so in an attempt to figure out what the D-backs’ plan is. Maybe you’ll reach some different conclusions on each of the transactions, maybe you won’t but you’ll still have a different overall feel — I’d love to hear what you think.
One thing raised but not addressed in either The Pool Shot or Friday’s post: how the secrets to this offseason could be unlocked if the team is planning to use a humidor.
Ignore the bullpen for now — I’m going to address that separately this week. But as was reported by several people after a Dave Stewart conference call Friday night, there’s an early plan in place for the rotation: it’s Josh Collmenter, Jeremy Hellickson, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa and an open competition among several guys (Chase Anderson, Robbie Ray, Vidal Nuno, Trevor Cahill, and maybe Andrew Chafin and others).
Chase Field was friendly to home runs last year. Its overall park factor was 1.152, meaning 15% more runs than the average park were scored at Chase (it’s not derived only from D-backs stats). That ranked second. For home runs, Chase ranked just seventh — but you get the idea. It’s easier to hit bombs at Chase than at the average park: about 20% easier, according to ESPN’s park factors.
You can’t hit home runs off of ground balls… or, at least, it’s very hard. It’s a question of fly balls. Home run to fly ball ratio tends to vary randomly, and isn’t generally thought of as a skill — that’s the reason we have xFIP as a statistic. But fly ball rate (and ground ball rate) isn’t random, it’s one of the few things a pitcher can influence. The higher one’s fly ball rate, the greater number of home runs we should expect.
And it’s a fly ball rotation now. Among the 185 starters who pitched at least 50 innings last season, Jeremy Hellickson ranked 34th in fly ball percentage (40.9%). Josh Collmenter, 38th (40.0%). Allen Webster (109th, 32.6%) and Rubby De La Rosa (113th, 32.1%) were much more middle of the road, but keep in mind that they’re replacing Wade Miley, whose fly ball ratio was very low (155th, 28.0%). Also lost from last season’s rotation: Brandon McCarthy (175th, 24.7%), Bronson Arroyo (165th, 26.8%), and possibly Trevor Cahill (162nd, 27.3%).
If we averaged the fly ball rates of the four starters already penciled in, we’d get 36.4%. Last year the D-backs were 27th in fly ball rate (31.4%), but 36.4% would put them 16th. And the identity of the fifth starter matters; if it’s Chase Anderson, averaging the rotation’s fly ball rates would stay pretty steady (Anderson ranked 78th last year, 35.6%). If it’s Vidal Nuno (15th, 43.4%), the rotation’s average would rise to 37.8%, which would have ranked the D-backs tied for 4th-highest in fly ball ratio.
Quality trumps everything — all of us would pick a great fly ball pitcher over a mediocre ground baller. But if you’re picking between pitchers of the same quality, fitting them to your ballpark makes a lot of sense.
The D-backs don’t seem to be doing that. And the folks in the D-backs front office are really smart, so I think we should doubt that they just don’t appreciate that a fly ball rotation is a terrible idea in a homer-friendly park.
The other explanation: it won’t be a homer-friendly park. Research by Dr. Alan Nathan and myself suggests that home runs at Chase could be reduced by something like 37% if a humidor is installed. That assumes that the baseballs aren’t kept in any special storage right now, and are simply exposed to the Phoenix air. By the way, Dr. Nathan vetted my “average humidity” approach, and agrees that it’s probably more telling than using afternoon humidities (since baseballs take about three days to acclimate to the air).
Installing a humidor would not turn Chase into AT&T Park (which had the lowest HR factor in the majors last year), but even if it did, would that be so terrible? Goldy would lose some homers, but he still hits homers at AT&T. Mark Trumbo could hit homers anywhere. Even recent acquisition Yasmany Tomas wasn’t signed up because of slightly above average power, but because of the promise of plus plus power.
If a humidor is installed, the harm that some of the team’s fly ball pitchers might normally experience would be dulled, and Chase would turn into an advantage, instead of being a place that makes most pitchers do so badly that they might be mistaken as mediocre. If a humidor is installed, there’s method to the madness, order to the chaos. Otherwise, the plan still evades me.
- Nick Piecoro was really on point all week, and if I linked to everything great that he did, I’d run out of space. Just after the Montero trade, Piecoro wrote this piece in which he talked to GM Dave Stewart about catching options. I feel a little shaky about anointing Peter O’Brien the future starter, but I have no reason to think my instincts there are anywhere near as good as the front office’s. It’s interesting that Stewart plans to resist trading from reliever depth to fill that or any hole; he’s not wrong that it can get thin quickly, but I think wrong that it will, for this particular team. Even with the loss of Eury de la Rosa, the team could essentially staff two entire bullpens, and the depth the team has in relief prospects is unusual. In the same piece, Stewart listed Oliver Perez as one of six possible extension candidates, which seems to me like a symptom of the same problem. You don’t sign relievers like Perez to long-term deals. You trust young guys, because they’re more easily replaceable, and you look in February or March to see if any good veterans have been passed over, just like Perez was last year. Perez can’t be last year’s Perez, in terms of how he was acquired.
- Piecoro also wrote at the end of the Winter Meetings on how the D-backs have more rotation options now — listing sixteen pitchers who have a shot to start in 2015. Six is not good enough, eight is a luxury. I’m not sure what to call this. Hopefully there will be a system in place to let the cream rise — even if that means someone like Allen Webster takes a back seat. Once the Miley trade became final, Piecoro also talked with Stewart about how they targeted “power arms” in Webster and Rubby De La Rosa. Maybe one of the Webster/RDLR/Ray group will be the “frontline starter” the D-backs hope, although dedicating three rotation spots to find that out doesn’t necessarily make the tradeoff worth it, unless the other two guys prove useful or usable.
- Would anyone mind if I started to refer to Rubby De La Rosa as “RDLR” from now on? Comment to veto.
- At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron liked the Miley trade for the Red Sox, and August Fagerstrom wrote that Miley seemed to be underrated by the crowd. Really excellent piece by Fagerstrom, which I recommend very highly. The comparison to Jeff Samardzija is very telling, especially considering it takes no allowance for Chase Field to see the similarity; the shift in Miley’s use of the strike zone is also very eye-opening.
- At ESPN Insider ($), Keith Law had a great, brief write-up on the Miley trade, with some really perceptive comments on Allen Webster and RDLR. Suffice it to say: neither is a good bet to do well in a rotation. Sounds unnecessarily negative, but Law is pretty convincing as to why. Law also wrote up the Montero trade, and he was not quite as friendly to the D-backs. Still, it was good to learn what another person thinks of Jeferson Mejia and Zack Godley.
- Really enjoyed what Evan Altman had to say at Cubs Insider about the new Miguel Montero/Jon Lester battery the Cubs bought last week. Good place to start if you plan to follow what happens next for Montero, whose plaintive tweets captured the hearts and minds of all D-backs fans.
Any of you know where do I’m going to ?
— miguel montero (@miggymont26) December 9, 2014
- At Venom Strikes, Joe Jacquez wrote up a recap of the Winter Meetings. Most of it matches up closely with Piecoro’s summary, but Jacquez has some other thoughts on the Bob Nightengale tweet which stated that the D-backs resisted a Kemp-for-Pollock offer, and countered with an offer of Archie Bradley for Kemp. Jacquez writes that there’s no chance that it’s true — I disagree strongly. One half is a Dodgers offer, that says little about the D-backs. But even if the Dodgers only ate as much as the Kemp contract as they did in the trade with the Padres, Bradley for Kemp still makes a ton of sense, and I completely believe that the D-backs made that offer. Sure, Bradley-type pitching prospects are not easy to find, but he’s far from the top pitching prospect in baseball now, and the team believes it has acquired other guys with similar upside (and they’re probably right). And if we’re just talking about whether or not the rumor is true, one has to at least consider the fact that Stewart and Kemp are very close.
- Marc Topkin had a great, short piece on catcher Oscar Hernandez go up right after the D-backs selected him first overall in the Rule 5 draft at the end of the Meetings. The pick explained what Stewart meant after the Montero trade that there were things they “knew” they could do — that’s the beauty of having the first pick overall. This one is going to be interesting, and Hernandez’s chances of sticking on the Active Roster out of spring training seem 50/50 at best. There’s a way to do it, though; either by entrusting a different catcher with 140+ starts (which few catchers can manage), by giving up on the season, or by essentially carrying three catchers, if one of them is able to help out at other positions (they could re-obtain Jordan Pacheco, for example). Regardless, the team would probably do well to set up an instructional program for Hernandez for the whole season, so that he can still work on his hitting. Arizona has a nice little advantage there, with their spring training facilities so close by; he can be in extended spring and on the 25-man roster.
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