Hot takes on the hurlers with the game’s hottest heaters! Hoorah!

Episode 7: Duck

The Style: Again, hardly anything.

The Substance: Sam’s topic is the A’s, and specifically, the seemingly rebuild-oriented trades they made prior to the 2012 season. At the time of the recording, the A’s are pressing toward playoff position, so Sam raises the question of whether they will end up regretting trading Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey. As Ben says it, “They would certainly look a lot more like a playoff team, if they still had those guys.”

As they dig in, though, they note that the actual, realized value of the players received nearly equals that of the players traded away. Sam sets the Gonzalez deal, which netted the A’s Derek Norris, A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone, apart from the other two trades, because Gonzalez was “so far from free agency; it’s not like they traded a guy with five years of service time, or anything.” They agree that it doesn’t look crippling, and acknowledge the long-term gains the A’s should make, but stop short of exonerating Beane. Sam is left wondering if Beane is “a little too conservative” about when to reload, and when to go for it.

Ben’s topic is the most prevalent, hotly-debated topic of discussion in baseball, at the time of the recording: the Strasburg Shutdown. The Nationals continue to insist that Stephen Strasburg, their wunderkind ace coming off Sept. 2010 Tommy John surgery, will be shut down somewhere around 150 innings pitched. They have not wavered or moved off that message, despite the fact that they sit in first place in the NL East. It’s building, at this point, moving toward the total debacle it will become in the fall, but not there yet.

Sam is unconvinced by the rhetoric. He says at one point that Strasburg is “obviously” going to pitch in October, and later, he circles back to the topic and asks how Ben thinks the Nationals can feasibly structure the shutdown to fit the need to use Strasburg in the playoffs. Ben takes the Nationals more at their word, but wants to talk about how the plan should be implemented, if it must. He’s also intrigued by the team’s choice to be so forthcoming and insistent about their intentions. Sam mentions that he would run such a tight-lipped ship that the issue would never even come up. Ben more or less agrees. They touch on the heart of the thing, but mostly wrestle with this idea of how the Nationals have managed the situation publicly, for this time, anyway.

The Supplement: Ah, the A’s. They were as fascinating in the summer of 2012 as they are now, in the winter of 2014. I very much doubt you’ve managed to escape the observation, as Billy Beane ostensibly strips down another winner and reloads, that the moves he made during that winter of 2011-12 mirror the ones he’s making now. While I’m sympathetic to the idea that the A’s are getting too little credit for some inspired ideas, sustaining competitiveness in the long term without giving away the present, I don’t want it to be because the Josh Donaldson trade is a profile fit for the Gio Gonzalez trade. There are real reasons to like the Donaldson deal for Oakland, but a fuzzy comparison to another transaction isn’t one. Nor should the two offseasons be painted with such broad brush strokes that the differences between them are washed away.

No, the way to see the upside the A’s have for 2015 is to divorce oneself from their Hot Stove activity altogether, and focus only on their roster. (Come to think of it, that’s the best way to evaluate any team, at any time. Looking too hard at recent moves or changes can create a trees-and-forest problem.) The A’s will have Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir back at the front of their rotation. They will eventually supplement that pairing with Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, if those two recover well from Tommy John surgery. Drew Pomeranz showed signs of breakout potential last season, and now has a shot at winning a job in the rotation. A myriad of back-end starters could easily fill in whatever spots remain there, including both of the pitchers Beane obtained in the Donaldson deal, and perhaps the one he got for Jeff Samardzija.

Billy Butler’s contract isn’t the niftiest bargain Beane has ever struck, but it gives the team a stable right-handed bat around which to rebuild the middle of the lineup. Brett Lawrie and Marcus Semien could deliver as much value in 2015 as Donaldson and Jed Lowrie did in 2014, simply because Semien could outperform Lowrie (who had a down year) by as much as Lawrie under-performs Donaldson’s standard. A trade for Ike Davis replaced Brandon Moss even before Beane traded Moss. There were a ton of injury problems in the outfield for Oakland last season, and if John Jaso or Craig Gentry can stay on the field even a little bit more, it could make a big difference.

The chances remain good that the A’s will take a step back in 2015. Gone are Luke Gregerson, Lowrie, Donaldson, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Samardzija and Moss. That’s a tough crew to replace, even for a team whose strength has always been extracting unexpected value from players. I just wanted to point out, because I have yet to do it anywhere else, that the winter’s shuffling has been a new, different, unique endeavor on Beane’s part, and shouldn’t be either dismissed or embraced just because Beane did something similar three years ago.

On the Strasburg thing, there will be much more said in future episodes, so I’ll try not to blow everything out right now. To address the one issue Ben and Sam took as most central on that particular day: I would not have told anyone if I expected to shut down Strasburg before the end of that season, including and especially Strasburg himself. Misinformation, misdirection and secret-keeping are important parts of gaining the upper hand in baseball. The White Sox and Rangers both withheld the news that they had starting pitchers headed for Tommy John surgery, in the run-up to the 2012 trade deadline. It helped them, because the teams with whom they were negotiating trades for replacements—the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs, as it turned out—couldn’t use those situations as leverage. (if you object to the immorality of lies by omission, remember that there’s something bloodthirsty and ugly about the leverage those trade partners would have wielded in the alternative scenario.) The Nationals were at a poker table, showing off their cards.

More troubling than the headaches created by publicizing the decision, though, is the fact that I suspect telling Strasburg about the shutdown stole its efficacy, anyway.

If you believe that a rehabilitated but young elbow ligament is exposed to undue risk by a full season’s workload, the implication is that it’s cumulative stress, not in-game or rest-related factors, that drives that risk. It seems totally counterintuitive, to me, to ask a world-class competitor to pace himself as though throwing for a full season, even as you inform him that he will not actually do so. It’s like limiting pitch counts, the most common tool teams used during the early 2000s in order to avoid abusing young arms. The problem is that every limitation, every outer bound, creates a new finish line. A pitcher will empty his tank as close to the finish line, as he perceives it, as he can. The Nationals are lucky that Strasburg didn’t re-injure himself in the final few starts before that artificial endpoint.

Episode 8: Screen Door

The Style: Ben isn’t here. Sam has Ian Miller, of Productive Outs, on as a fill-in co-host. Sam says Ben is in British Columbia, “where I’m 90 percent sure he has mistakenly gone to celebrate the London Olympics.” Good line. Sarcasm is not the most oft-used club in the podcast’s bag, if you will. Needling one another is relatively rare. That’s what makes it so good each time it does happen.

The Substance: Both host and special guest bring the same topic to the table, so for one episode, the show reverts to its old, one-topic format. The specific subject: Matt Harvey’s big-league debut.

Harvey just pitched his first game with the Mets, earlier in the day. He struck out 11 in 5.1 innings pitched, and left a distinct impression on many surprised viewers. Sam mentions that what most draws him to Harvey’s strong showing is the departure from what he had expected. Harvey, Sam notes, drew comparisons to Mike Pelfrey coming out of the draft, and one of the morning papers in New York had called him a future third starter. When he hit 98 miles per hour with his fastball and showed off an absolute wipeout slider, Sam says, Harvey announced himself as something more.

Both co-hosts talk about the fact that Harvey’s fastball command was less than ideal, and that opposing batters helped him out by swinging awkwardly at pitches that weren’t close to being strikes. It’s just one start, and it may have been something less than representative. Still, the two agree that Harvey’s stuff blew them away. Sam’s encapsulation: the performance was “not conclusive, but it’s suggestive,” and Harvey just might have an ace future.

The Supplement: Harvey sure did have that ace upside. In 36 big-league starts, he has a 2.39 ERA and 261 strikeouts. Of course, he’s also had Tommy John surgery already. It’s interesting, though, that that one start seems to have so accurately pegged what Harvey could one day become. Sam mentioned some manipulation of the Baseball-Reference Play Index that gave him about a 50/50 chance, based on dominant starts early in a pitcher’s rookie campaign, of Harvey going on to become a stud. I found one, too. Here are the 15 players who have struck out at least 10 batters in their debut start, since 1969:

11Steve Woodard1997-07-28 (1)MILTORW 1-0 8.0100112091
21Pedro Astacio1992-07-03 (2)LADPHIW 2-0 9.0300410087
31Johnny Cueto2008-04-03CINARIW 3-2 7.0111010181
41Aaron Harang2002-05-25OAKTBDW 6-0 7.0300310078
51Tim Wakefield1992-07-31PITSTLW 3-2 9.0620510076
61Stephen Strasburg2010-06-08WSNPITW 5-2 7.0422014175
71Bob Shirley1977-04-10SDPCINW 12-4 8.2440411075
81J.R. Richard1971-09-05 (2)HOUSFGW 5-3 9.0732315075
91Kazuhisa Ishii2002-04-06LADCOLW 9-2 5.2200310072
101Matt Harvey2012-07-26NYMARIW 3-1 5.1300311070
111Daisuke Matsuzaka2007-04-05BOSKCRW 4-1 7.0611110170
121Don Aase1977-07-26BOSMILW 4-3 9.0932211068
131Mark Prior2002-05-22CHCPITW 7-4 6.0422210164
141Thomas Diamond2010-08-03CHCMILL 3-4 6.0733310053
151Tim Hudson1999-06-08OAKSDPL 3-5 5.0733411148
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/16/2014.

Injuries ruined a couple of these careers, and could certainly ruin Harvey, yet. Counting only whether they had at least some stretch during which they demonstrated dominance, though, I get eight up, seven down. It’s remarkable to me that one performance, even a first performance, even when facing as many as 30 batters, can be so predictive of a player’s future. With Harvey, the optics matched the stat sheet, so maybe you even peg the probability (as of the end of that first day in MLB) a bit higher than this suggests. Sam is right to say that there’s nothing conclusive here, but it’s awfully, wonderfully suggestive. Everywhere I look, lately, there’s a lesson: You can tell how good a pitcher is going to be really, really quickly, and it’s not always right to fight the instinct to do so.

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