Episode 15: Cat Fight – August 7th, 2012. Duration: 15:51.

The Style: The opening is simply audio of cats yowling during a fight, which is not only instantly painful to listen to but also goes on for ten seconds. Ben laments that he can no longer say ‘your hosts, as always’ during the intro because he missed an episode, which Sam follows by declaring that his topic is about his amazing streak of not missing podcasts; Ben is not amused.

The Substance: Sam’s actual topic is Cliff Lee, while Ben has chosen Ben Sheets. After being widely expected to go unclaimed, Lee was claimed on waivers by the Dodgers but the Phillies were unable – or unwilling – to work out a trade. Sam discusses the mixed reactions to the claim and finds it weird that there doesn’t seem to be any clear idea of Lee’s value. He asks Ben how much he thinks Lee is worth, and consequently how much Tim Lincecum would be worth, if he was a free agent.

Ben notes that Lee is signed through 2015, with a vesting option for 2016. He says that while it wasn’t considered a terrible deal when it was signed, there was some concern over Lee being over 30 and not fitting the power pitcher mould, making him more susceptible to a decline from reduced velocity. Ben speculates that as Lee has not really done anything else to damage his stock, the win-loss record (2-6 at this point) might be depressing his value. Sam acknowledges that Lee’s record may have a psychological effect for some but also notes that he has given up more home runs than ever and his K/BB ratio is now merely 5/1, not 10/1. He ultimately agrees that his performance has not changed so significantly from the previous year. He adds that in the context of what seems to be salary inflation over the last 8 months, Lee’s deal actually looks good. Sam also compares Lee’s deal favourably to the lucrative deals recently signed by Cole Hamels ($144 million) and Matt Cain ($112 million).

Moving on to Lincecum, Ben thinks that the length of a hypothetical deal would have come down significantly relative to the start of the season, speculating that four years would be the most any team would give him. Ben doesn’t think Lincecum would get $20 million a year and guesses 4/65. Sam has not thought about it, throwing out 5/90, but adding that it seems high.

They quickly switch focus to Sheets, who has made a comeback and is pitching for Atlanta. Ben notes that Sheets is essentially being paid the league minimum before running down his recent history since his 2010 Tommy John surgery. Sheets signed for the Braves in July and at the time of recording, has a 1.41 ERA over 32 innings, including a start on the day of this recording. He did not strike out a batter in that start and Ben leads on from this to say he is not really buying in to the Sheets comeback, with his fastball velocity well down, only sitting at 90mph, and his walk rate being low despite a poor first-pitch strike percentage. Ben also points out his unsustainably high strand rate. Does Sam think Sheets is ‘for real’?

Sam admits he has not seen Sheets pitch and wonders whether the fact that he has essentially lost several mph off his fastball ‘at once’, with no time to adjust to a different way of pitching, will make it more difficult for him to maintain his success. Ben counters to say that the progression has been a little more gradual than that and he doesn’t think Sheets is a very different pitcher from before, when he was a 4.50 ERA guy. Sam looks at the pitch selection and sees that his FB usage has dropped from 66% to around 50%, so muses that perhaps Sheets has transitioned to become a junkballing veteran more easily than he thought.  They both wonder if Sheets will be in the playoff rotation. Sam is skeptical of Sheets’ success, then wishes he had watched Sheets that day and jokes that they should start talking about their topics so he can research them.

The Supplement: To continue the value theme, it’s clear that all three players have seen their value dropped significantly since. Sheets’ demise came the most quickly, as this episode marked his final good major league start. His next 16 1/3 innings would see him give up 14 earned runs, including five home runs, and he was out of the rotation before the end of the month. Sheets would announce his retirement before the end of the season and made a final, ceremonial start against the Pirates on October 3rd, hurling a scoreless inning. Ben was clearly right not to believe in the comeback, although I wonder if he expected it to fall apart this quickly.

The duo were certainly right that there was no reason to be immediately concerned with Lee’s performance. Despite that 6-9 record in 2012, Lee finished with a 3.16 ERA, excellent strikeout and walk marks, and pitched over 210 innings, before following up with an even better 2013 (222.2 innings, 2.87 ERA, 222/32 K/BB).  However, Lee’s injury-plagued 2014 has completely changed his value again. The Phillies barely had a chance to trade him as the veteran lefty struggled with a flexor tendon issue for most of the season, pitching just over 80 innings and sitting out almost the entire second half. Lee can guarantee his 2016 option of $27.5M with 200 innings in 2015, but his ability to reach that mark now seems in much more doubt than it did at the time of this show and there is no chance anyone would claim the 36-year-old’s contract at this stage, when he is owed $25 million this year and at the very least a $12.5 million buyout in 2016.

The fact that Ben believes Lincecum is worth 4/65 at most, and unlikely to get $20 million a year, is interesting in the context of the Giants’ decision to give him two years and $35 million just over a year later.  Lincecum would be better in 2013, but still far less than what he had been prior to 2012, posting a 3.74 FIP and 1.315 WHIP. It’s a reminder that 2012 was Lincecum’s first bad season and at this point, there had been just four months of poor performance in contrast to four excellent years with San Francisco from 2008-2011. With the Freak unable to even hold down a rotation spot for the duration of 2014, it would be surprising to see him get half of that $20 million AAV when he becomes a free agent at the end of this year.

Episode 16 – Sonar – August 8th, 2012. Duration: 12:34.

The Style: The sonar noise is a lot more pleasing than the cat fight, although my standards have probably been lowered. Ben and Sam indulge in some pop culture discussion, with Ben regretting his decision to watch The Newsroom while Sam has been watching The Hour. This ‘TV segment’ lasts all of 30 seconds before Ben decides it’s over – still a long way from the extended banter of some of the later episodes.

The Substance: Ben surprises and amuses Sam by choosing Mets reliever Tim Byrdak as his topic, while Sam surprises no-one by picking Mike Trout. The Byrdak story is based on Terry Collins admitting that Byrdak, who was diagnosed with a torn anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder, had been overworked. Byrdak had appeared in 56 games and Collins told the media that they had used the left-hander ‘more than we should have’. Ben asks Sam if he is surprised that Collins made these comments, and whether he thinks the team has an obligation to look after the player.

Sam is surprised by the quote and guesses that for Collins to say this, the team was already aware of Byrdak pitching through pain, or at least that there was some issue with his shoulder. Ben agrees that there must have been some kind of consent on Byrdak’s part for the comments to be made. They both reach the conclusion that there’s no real pattern or issue here, with Sam highlighting the fact that he is barely ahead of several other pitchers in terms of games and innings.

They move on to Mike Trout, who has just turned 21, sparking a set of Trout-appreciation articles. Sam wants to know if there is still some possible scenario in which Trout wouldn’t become a Hall of Fame player, or if it is inevitable that Trout becomes an all-time great.

Ben says he can imagine any player failing, having seen other great players fail, but decides he would be shocked if it happened to Trout. He struggles to find a comparison for players with success at Trout’s age, at which point Sam offers the names of 10 players who were ‘stars’ at this age. They include Hall-of-Famers such as Mantle and Cobb, as well as A-Rod, Griffey and Vada Pinson, who essentially had the ‘worst’ career of the group and still made it past 50 wins. Sam says at least six or seven had at least one season better than their age-20 season. Ben finishes by saying it makes sense that we shouldn’t expect players like Trout, who are in the majors at a very early age, to follow the average trajectory, because they aren’t average players.

The Supplement: The issue of overuse has become very relevant as it pertains to young pitchers and Tommy John, but you would be hard-pressed to find a Tim Byrdak reference in many of the articles emphasising the importance of rest and how damaging overuse can be. Despite the comments referenced by Ben, Terry Collins hasn’t stopped doing it, as Howard Megdal highlighted at Sports on Earth. Scott Rice was the next victim, appearing in 73 games in 2013 despite missing a month. That usage was cited as a reason for Rice’s struggles in 2014 by – you guessed it – Collins himself, who brought up the excessive workload “as if somebody beyond his control summoned Rice against his wishes”, to quote Megdal.

This wouldn’t quite be the last time Byrdak pitched in the majors, but it wasn’t far off. The lefty did elect to have surgery, staying with the Mets and going through the year-long rehab. He finally made his return in September 2013 at the age of 39, appearing in 8 games – all losses – and proving largely ineffective, allowing runs in three of those. What it did mean, however, is that Byrdak was able to reach the 1,376 days on a roster required for MLB’s Lifetime Pass, allowing him to get two free seats at any MLB game whenever he wants. Perhaps he didn’t mind the workload either; as he told ESPN in that piece, the shoulder ‘didn’t really hurt’. Byrdak was still looking for work (in hilarious fashion) at the start of the 2014 season and tried out for an independent team as recently as last May, which appears to have been his last attempt at returning.

Just as Sam mentioned in this episode, there still aren’t really any words you can use to describe Mike Trout that do him justice. That’s not to say he has improved on that remarkable season: 2012 is still his best season in terms of WAR, thanks to declining defensive ratings, and his 2014 spike in strikeouts certainly raised some eyebrows. Trout may not have a season better than that year, but he now has an AL MVP award to add to his two second-place finishes (I’m sure the Trout-Cabrera argument will be touched upon in many more of these, so I won’t rehash it here) and has been worth nearly 30 wins through his first 493 major league games. The company is now even more elite, as the Play Index reveals that the only other player who was worth more than 25 wins through their age-22 season is Ty Cobb. If it would be shocking that Trout didn’t have a career for the ages in August 2012, I’m not sure there’s a word for what it would be now.

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