Episode 13: TIE Fighter

The Style: We’re back to almost no banter. While both co-hosts have loosened up and the show is increasingly free-flowing, they remain committed to a format that demands brevity. I continue to search for internal consistency, for some kind of logic behind the audio clips Ben chooses to lead the show. If he’s choosing them at anything other than random, though, he is doing so using allusions or connections I can’t decipher.

The Substance: Both co-hosts choose to talk about outfielders. Sam goes first, talking about Yoenis Cespedes. He notes that Cespedes has had a remarkably strong rookie campaign, especially since returning from an injury on June 1. Over that two-month stretch, Cespedes has batted .347/.391/.593, mind-boggling numbers that match his stats from the Cuban Serie Nacional, to Sam’s surprise. That leads Sam to posit that hitters who succeed while swinging at bad pitches get a bad rap, and that many onlookers weigh approach much too heavily relative to the other elements of hitting. He wonders whether the instinct to mistrust players with aggressive approaches in a way we wouldn’t mistrust patient players might be a bad one.

Ben notes that Cespedes’s big-league work remains a relatively small sample, but agrees that he appears to be a reliable hacker. He is not, however, one of the 25 or 30 most swing-happy players in the league, so he’s hardly hopeless that way. Ben asks whether it’s actually true that people so mistrust aggressive hitters, when they’re on, but Sam reminds him (drawing upon his own background as a former Angels reporter) that even Vladimir Guerrero was viewed with a cold eye, even after establishing himself as a superstar.

Ben’s pet outfielder for the day is Jayson Werth, who has just returned to the Nationals after an absence of nearly three months. The gist of the query is: Will this really help Washington? Can Werth turn things around?

Recall that Werth hit .232/.330/.389 in the first year of the monster contract to which the Nats signed him prior to the 2011 season. After that rough start and a wrist injury that has already halved his 2012 campaign, Ben and Sam wonder how much the 33-year-old has left. Sam notes that Bryce Harper has made Cespedes look downright patient in recent weeks, and might need to be benched or demoted if it continues, which makes Werth’s return somewhat reassuring, but neither is terribly bullish on Werth himself.

At the time the Nationals signed him, the deal was considered a statement, an intentional overpay of sorts, designed to give notice to the league that Washington intended to turn itself around. Ben riffs a bit on that concept, and he and Sam agree that if that is ever the real motivation for a major transaction, it’s likely an ineffectual mistake, but moreover, that that’s probably not a real (at least primary) motivation for a major transaction very often. In Werth’s specific case, neither host is ready to tear the Nationals to shreds for making the trade, but nor do they hold out much hope for Werth to return value on his deal.

The Supplement: Sam brought up Cespedes at, essentially, the highest point of value he would ever reach. June and July 2012 are far and away the best two months of his career to date. After riding that mid-season hot streak to a .356 total OBP in 2012, Cespedes has come in at .294 and .301 the last two years. He continues to hit for power, and after briefly letting his strikeout rate get out of control in 2013, he reeled it back in in 2014, swinging 220 more times and missing 40 times fewer than he had the year before. He maintains a strong fly-ball rate, too, and he turned in the third-highest Defensive Runs Saved total among all left fielders in 2014, thanks in no small part to the best outfield arm in baseball. Still, he’s never been the same since around the time of this episode.

Now 29, Cespedes might yet have a career year with the loaded Tigers offense in 2015, but the smart money says he won’t. Sam was right, on a macro level. There are many different approaches that work for big-league hitters, and approach is hardly the only thing that determines success or failure. As it turns out, though, most free swingers do eventually come back to the pack. Maybe most very disciplined hitters do, too. Cespedes, though, is a data point favoring the argument that you can only run from your swing rate for so long. His walk rate has sagged each season of his career, from 8 percent to 6.5 percent to 5.4 percent, and in fact, it was 3.3 percent after he was traded to Boston on July 31 of 2014.

Jayson Werth, meanwhile, was just waiting for Ben to doubt him. From the time of his return from injury (and concomitant discussion on the podcast), Werth hit .312/.394/.441 for the rest of 2012, and then he hit one of my all-time favorite playoff home runs in October. In 2013, he hit .318/.398/.532. In 2014, .292/.394/.455. Here are the MLB leaders in OBP since the start of 2012, given a minimum of 1,300 plate appearances:

Rk Player OBP PA From To Age G Tm
1 Joey Votto .439 1473 2012 2014 28-30 335 CIN
2 Andrew McCutchen .405 1995 2012 2014 25-27 460 PIT
3 Mike Trout .403 2060 2012 2014 20-22 453 LAA
4 Miguel Cabrera .401 2034 2012 2014 29-31 468 DET
5 Joe Mauer .395 1667 2012 2014 29-31 380 MIN
6 Jayson Werth .394 1505 2012 2014 33-35 357 WSN
7 Paul Goldschmidt .386 1776 2012 2014 24-26 414 ARI
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/13/2015.

Werth has also delivered value on the bases, even as he moved into his mid-30s. He continues to steal bases with unbelievable efficiency (27-for-31 since 2012, 123-for-141 in his career), grounded into only nine double plays in 144 opportunities in 2014, and took third base on 20 of 43 singles hit while he was at first in 2014, according to The Bill James Handbook 2015. He’s been worth 8.9 WAR over the past two seasons, according to Baseball-Reference. It just happens that Ben and Sam brought him up at the one time (since 2007) when it seemed clear he was done being a nearly star-level player.

Episode 14: This is Gonna Be Ugly

The Style: Apparently, someone is badgering the guys to take the show daily, literally. It’s Monday, and they recount the way they were hounded (they’re half-joking) by some guy seeking Saturday and Sunday shows. Sam informs us that he does the show while basked in the “soft glow of the light that keeps my compost worms from escaping.”

The Substance: To Sam’s great chagrin, both hosts want to talk about the Royals. They lead off by discussing Jeff Francoeur and Yuniesky Betancourt, because one (Francoeur) hit a game-winning home run amid a career-worst season, while the other (Betancourt) was designated for assignment amid a season typical of his career. Broadening things, Ben brings us up to date on the team, which is the worst in the American League. He’s spoken with Kevin Goldstein (#RIP) and asked whether things were going as well, better or worse than would have been expected a year or two ago, when the narrative around their farm system first bubbled up. Kevin told him it’s going worse, though not by nearly the margin some panicked Royals fans might imagine.

Sam is crushed. That’s exactly the way he wanted to introduce the topic. Instead, he asks whether the team should still be picturing itself contending in 2013 and beyond, or whether they need to somewhat hedge and string out the rebuild. He mentions that the AL Central is a winnable division over the next few seasons, and expresses cautious optimism that the Royals can continue to generate value from a farm system that remains strong.

Sam puts it to Ben: Are Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas (each of whom have disappointed in 2012) still future superstars, or are they damaged? Ben is unsure. While each has played a fairly large amount at this stage (Hosmer is very near 1,000 plate appearances already; Moustakas is pushing 800), and each has encountered some adversity, neither has proven so helpless as to make Ben dismiss the scouting plaudits that they’ve carried up the chain. He’s ambivalent about the future, but unwilling to call the system a bust.

Trying to find some mooring for the conversation, Sam brings up the Nationals, who bet on their own young talent by signing Werth before 2011 and trading for Gio Gonzalez prior to 2012. In that light, he asks Ben, should the Royals exercise patience in the coming months, or make the addition or two (or three) needed to turn themselves into contenders, the way Washington did?

Ben, again, hedges, suggesting the team remain willing to wait if needed, but keep their eyes open for the opportunity to make a major upgrade. He discusses the long-held concern among Royals fans, that Dayton Moore will prove unable or inept at the moment of truth, when a significant upgrade is needed to finish off a winning team. Sam dismisses that issue, more or less, expressing confidence that Moore can at least evaluate a major free agent or trade target when he needs to do so. Ben remains unconvinced, noting that Moore’s most brilliant stroke to date is either a trade for Alberto Callaspo or buying low on Melky Cabrera—whom he promptly dealt for the atrocious Jonathan Sanchez. Sam muses on that, then wonders whether Moore will be able to find the help the Royals need on the middle infield. Ultimately, they leave more questions than answers, but that’s the nature of the topic at hand.

The Supplement: Just let it sink in for a moment: People were getting impatient for Hosmer and Moustakas to start mashing, already, in early August, 2012. They’ve each more than doubled their total number of times at bat since then, and the mashing is still not happening. Hosmer has a 104 OPS+ through four seasons. Moustakas is at 82. These two players are 25 years old, three years from free agency and were just the corner infielders for the American League champions, but they’re huge disappointments, at this stage.

Credit Dayton Moore, then, for not placing undue trust in either his pair of young sluggers, nor the one on the brink of the Majors. He went the Nationals route over the ensuing winter, trading Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for James Shields and Wade Davis. He went out and signed players, guys like Jason Vargas and Omar Infante, loading the team up to compete even though it didn’t feel like the time was right to go for it. If Ben and Sam had been given perfect foreknowledge of Hosmer’s and Moustakas’s struggles since they recorded this episode, I feel sure they would have recommended a more patient course. Moore gambled, and he won.

No one will ever call this Royals farm system a bust, because it produced a fistful of the players who made one of the most memorable runs in recent playoff history. That said, they haven’t won 90 games, and it’s hard to bet on them to do so in 2015. Their Pythagorean record in this, their season of triumph, was 83-79. Obviously, that’s a long way from dominance. Maybe Lorenzo Cain will prove to be the Second Superstar, the consistent force Alex Gordon needs as backup in order to keep the team in competitive position in a much stronger AL Central than 2012 Sam and Ben knew. Maybe Hosmer, in particular, still has serious growth potential. For now, Moore looks like a genius, and weirdly, if things only go south from here, he will almost look smarter. He will have salvaged something beautiful, valuable and extremely memorable from a farm system essentially falling flat.

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