Thursday Morning Coffee: Weeks, Axford, Labor | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

If the highs of opening day seemed limitless, the Colorado Rockies’ offense smacked expectations and hopes back into order. While it’s certainly the case that a healthy Rockies order is a loaded Rockies order, their vicious nine took the Brewers’ pitchers to the shed — the Rockies compiled 19 runs, 41 hits, 7 walks (30 strike outs), and 8 home runs during the three game series. As though Brewers fans needed any more fuel to question the roles of the bullpen, six of the hits, four of the runs, and three of the home runs belong to Brewers closer John Axford. The bullpen faced another long evening, as top prospect Wily Peralta exited with only 5.3 IP recorded, sending manager Ron Roenicke to the pen early and often.

One of the reasons these problems in the Rockies series are amplified is the fact that fans questioned the pitching staff throughout the offseason. I gather that many of us simply flipped a coin on the bullpen, noting the troubles with trying to project success or failure for a relatively rebuilt group of arms. The rotation faced a much higher level of scrutiny, with many fans arguing that the Brewers’ unheralded arms simply would not stand up to the task of 162. Therefore, if a series such as this happened in the middle of a competitive season, we might be able to handle it better and place it into perspective. Right now, these 19 runs in three games are all we have to work with — as much as a dominant opening series where the Brewers arms completely shut down the Rockies might have felt unrealistic, it is difficult to judge this series without acting on our own questions and criticisms of the pitching staff. Realistically, the Brewers’ pitching staff won’t allow six runs per game — that’d be a 972 run season — but in the realm of fan perception and expectations, this rough start does little to reassure skeptics of the Brewers pitchers. If this seems dramatic for game three of the season, it’s only an attempt to address the fan experience of these games; the Brewers’ sudden roster shift last week brought an air of “win-now” attitude, which amplified the feeling of these opening games. How would the rest of our roster answer the bell?

One also might wonder whether the Rockies simply serve as a catalyst for Brewers success. The Brewers finished the 2012 season 31-15 after the Rockies brutally swept our Milwaukee nine at Coors Field.

Rickie Weeks Shreds
Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks improved in the second half of 2012, following a rough start that some attribute to questions about the health of his ankle (and injury recovery). To open the season, Weeks hit 6-for-11, including one home run and one double, and he has five runs scored to show for his efforts — which also include a baserunning out, a stolen base, a hit batsman, two walks, and a strike out.

Last year I examined Weeks’s batting approach during his rough stretch, noting that his discipline trends remained consistent throughout that stretch. Namely, Weeks continued to select his pitch, work counts, and lay off anything that he didn’t like — which resulted in his ability to maintain acceptable walk rates during his rough stretch. If Weeks’s discipline traits remained similar during that stretch, this year we might note the changes in his approach — specifically, Weeks’s total of five HR / BB / K / HBP mean that he batted the ball into play during approximately 64% of his plate appearances. For his career, Weeks bats the ball into play in 60% of his plate appearances, and his rate was 59% in 2012, and almost 61% during his strong 2009-2011 seasons. While a rate of 64% might not seem significant, it’s nearly a 10% increase in batted balls in play for Weeks. Granted, it’s an extremely small sample size, too, but his splits correspond to his strong line drive rate (35.7% of his total PA); notably, Weeks has yet to hit a fly ball.

Over the first three games, Weeks swung the bat approximately 18 times — 15 of those swings occurred on pitches inside the strike zone, while three of those swings were on pitches outside the zone. Meanwhile, Weeks took approximately 28 pitches, including 16 outside the zone (and 1 borderline pitch). Half the pitches that Weeks looked at in the strike zone were sinkers or off-speed pitches, and Weeks only swung at one off-speed pitch outside the zone. This profile looks more like the Weeks we know and love — waiting out plate appearances with patience, looking for his pitch, happily watching the others as they go by. Yet, in this case, Weeks’ swinging results exhibit lethal efficiency thus far — five line drives on 18 swings, six hits, including two for extra bases.

This is Weeks unleashed — he is getting the pitches he wants, and receiving a surprising number of pitches in the middle of the zone. Perhaps most importantly is the fate of off-speed pitches, especially sliders — pitchers are certainly trying to feed Weeks sliders (and splitters, for that matter), but he’s laying off the breakers outside the zone; otherwise, four sliders, two splitters, and two sinkers have landed in what we might call “the middle of the zone.” Since 40% of the pitches Weeks faced in the three game series were hard, moving, breaking pitches of this sort, we might speculate that pitchers are trying to give Weeks off-speed pitches, but simply not locating. Not surprisingly, Weeks enjoyed an absolute feast, and turned his ability to sit and wait for his pitch into well-placed swings, aggressive plate appearances, and effective results.

One might further speculate that this is Weeks unleashed from his injury, and playing fully healthy. One can feel his vigor running on the basepaths, even in his over-aggressive baserunning out. Nevertheless, we need not focus on that negative when the positives are overwhelming thus far; it will be interesting to watch Weeks develop and see if his rate of batted-balls-in-play continues to increase.

John Axford’s One-Run Deficit
One of the most underrated elements of a bullpen is the ability of relievers to keep the game close when their team is trailing. This might sound like common sense — obviously, if a team is within 1-run of their opponent, that teams wants their relievers to be able to preserve that deficit so that their bats can continue to claw back — but, prominent relief statistics leave this area of the game relatively unquantified. Certainly, we might be able to use stats that show a pitcher’s leverage, or show his impact on his team’s winning probability to judge how that reliever works in 1-run games, but that’s hardly what we’d call a “standard” or “prominent” relief statistic. Something like a simple counting stat could do wonders — “1-run games,” or games in which a reliever entered a tie, 1-run lead, or 1-run deficit.

One might argue that it’s especially important to preserve 1-run deficits because late in a game, those deficits allow a team’s offense to gamble on traditional situational batting strategies. Namely, one of the best scenarios in which a team can use sacrifice bunts, or other manufactured-run strategies, is a scenario in which that team is tied, or within 1-run of their opponent. Certainly, the ability of a club to manufacture runs, and use situational strategies to claw back and scratch out a run becomes less advantageous when that team is trailing by 2 or more runs (and, it becomes relatively pointless when that club is winning by 2-or-more runs). Keeping the game close during home games is especially advantageous because the home team gets two of the last three times at bat; if the 8th inning reliever keeps a 1-run deficit in tact, and his team is at home, he has opened a window of opportunity in which his club has two chances to scratch out a run, while only needing to face the opposing order once more in the 9th. Jimmy Henderson effectively opened this window last night, as he “saved” the 8th inning after the Brewers’ offense brought the team within one-run of the Rockies.

Axford faced the same task in the 9th, in order to give the Brewers bats one more chance to claw back in the last turn of the ninth. It should be interesting to note that while the Rockies had a 16% chance of winning the game on opening day when Axford took the mound, the Brewers still had a 16% chance of winning the game last night when Axford entered the game in the 9th. Granted, a team would much rather have their closer entering into situations where the club has an 84% chance to win (by preserving a 1-run lead), rather than a 16% chance to win (by overcoming a 1-run deficit). Yet, Axford’s multi-homer outing nearly guaranteed that the Brewers bats wouldn’t be able to come back, and it certainly guaranteed that the Brewers couldn’t simply use a baserunner and a bunt to try and scratch out a run in the 9th.

In this regard, blowing open a 1-run game while trailing appears to be much worse than blowing a 1-run lead at home. If a reliever simply blows a 1-run lead at home, the team arguably still has the last-turn advantage, and a chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. However, by blowing open a 1-run deficit, the Brewers could not string together one last fighting chance in the 9th.

I argue that we should keep track of these types of games while others focus solely on blown leads. I gather that one of the most important tasks of a bullpen is to “keep the game where it’s at,” especially when it’s a close game. While relievers that “blow” tie games and 1-run deficits don’t have that performance reflected in their statistical record, one might argue that blowing these types of games can be just as detrimental to a team’s chances to building a winning season. In many ways, a winning team must seize as many opportunities as possible — this requires a type of efficiency that goes beyond simply establishing leads and executing “holds” and “saves.”

Labor Update
If you’re waiting patiently — like me — for more news regarding the MLB’s lawsuit against Biogenesis, as well as their inquiry and interrogation of players allegedly involved with Biogenesis, the recent set of contract extensions certainly should help keep you busy. That’s right, we’re entering MLB’s new golden age — the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLB and the Players’ Association notably favors free agency over the draft, and that CBA corresponds with a new television deal that is set to hand teams a lot of revenue. Like other free agency and revenue binges, MLB teams have duly opened their wallets on players. What’s notable in this case is the relative length and size of contracts signed prior to free agency; it used to be that locking up a player at certain distance from free agency guaranteed some benefit to the teams. Now, it’s not quite clear whether that’s the case.

One of the most interesting elements of the MLB labor environment over the last year is the relative explosion in right-handed pitching value. Prior to last year’s trade deadline, I analyzed recent right-handed pitching trades, expressing skepticism and fear over the type of return Zack Greinke might provide for the Brewers. Greinke not only netted a strong Top 100 prospect (and some organizational arms to boot!), but he also turned around and signed an exceptional free agency deal — the WAR-tested ace-in-waiting landed $147 million over six years from the Dodgers, a substantial increase over Matt Cain‘s previous high for right-handed pitchers. The free agency market for pitchers such as Anibal Sanchez and Edwin Jackson followed suit, as those pitchers also received strong contracts for their age, service, and performance-level. One could see Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander licking their chops at these suddenly bullish markets for righties.

(4/2/12: Matt Cain, 6/$127.5)
(7/25/12: Cole Hamels, 6/$144)
12/10/12: Zack Greinke, 6/$147
12/14/12: Anibal Sanchez, 5/$80
12/20/12: Edwin Jackson, 4/$52
2/13/13: Felix Hernandez, 7/$175
3/29/13: Justin Verlander, 7/$180+ (5/$140, 6/$162 w/ option, + replacement of final two years of current extension)

It is staggering to think about the escalation of contract values for right-handed pitchers in such a short amount of time. To place it in perspective, even over a handful of years since CC Sabathia set the bar for pitchers in general (and lefties in particular) with his $161 million pact (and later, his 5/$122 “extension” adding two extra years to his initial deal), the contracts for top southpaw hurlers did not surpass that contractual level. Indeed, contracts signed by Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee — arguably the best southpaws in a position to sign a mega-deal since Sabathia — were respectively worth a mere $144 and $120 million, and they netted fewer years, too. Some front office types consider left-handers to be more valuable than right-handers, arguably due to their scarcity and their purported ability to neutralize left-handed power, and for nearly a decade, the contractual disparity between lefties and righties appeared to show that type of bias toward the south-side of the mound.

One of the factors that was not present for Lee’s and Hamels’s deals, however, was the impending payout for that gigantic, league-wide TV deal (as well as the explosion of local cable deals). Suddenly, teams are showing a clear willingness to spend whatever it takes to make their guy the highest paid player; for righties, Cain can claim it, Greinke can claim it, King Felix can claim, and now Verlander can claim it (and, currently, he takes the cake). That these claims to “Highest Paid Right-Hander in History” escalated within the span of a year is a staggering testament to the financial strength of the MLB.

Perhaps this is the most ironic element of the MLB’s claim of financial damages in their lawsuit against Biogenesis. Obviously, they are attempting to make a legal claim whereby damages are connected to the willingness of Biogenesis to lure players into breaking their collectively-bargained contract with the MLB, but they are making those claims in an environment where the actions of the league’s teams suggest anything but a damaged financial climate. One can only wonder how far these contracts might go, and given the current explosion of contracts, the sky literally does appear to be the limit; over the last two years, I have joked with my friends that Clayton Kershaw will be the first $300 million MLB player, and as crazy as that joke seemed — a statement of escalating contracts — wouldn’t you know, a mere righty just signed a deal worth $28 million-per-season in the middle of the contract. Can the young Dodgers’ southpaw take that $28 million claim, add his mysterious lore from the left-side of the mound, and extend it for a decade? Why not? That contract would only cost the Dodgers roughly one-and-a-half years of their TV contract.

Someone is going to have to revise the history books, for this will certainly be the MLB’s Golden Age. The legal damages in court certainly have a long way to go to catch the robust riches on the field.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
Cot’s Baseball Contracts. BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC, 1996-2013.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2013.

Axford (AP, Jeffrey Phelps):
Strike Zone: TexasLeaguers, Trip Somers, 2009-2013.

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