Checking in on Kevin Slowey

While most of the attention has been paid to Francisco Liriano, it turns out another Twins starter might be on the trading block. In yesterday’s (Insider only) column, Buster Olney says that the Twinkies are “very much willing to talk” about dealing right-hander Kevin Slowey. Minnesota has excess starting pitching (if such a thing exists) and the Yankees are in need of some, so it’s a match made in baseball rumor heaven. Let’s explore…

Changeup! (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Slowey, 27 in May, is the epitome of a homegrown Twins pitcher. In parts of four big league seasons since being drafted in the second round of the 2005 draft, he’s unintentionally walked just 77 batters in 473.1 IP, good for a 1.46 uIBB/9. Add in all two of the intentional walks he’s issued, and it’s still a 1.50 BB/9. Among pitchers with at least 400 IP since 2007, only Roy Halladay (1.42 BB/9) is a better control artist. That’s what Minnesota preaches, pound the zone and limit walks.

If a pitcher is around the zone that much, he’s bound to give up a fair amount of hits, and Slowey is no different. Opponents have hit .276 with a .307 BABIP against him in his career, and his strikeout rate is pretty unspectacular at 6.86 K/9. Slowey’s swing-and-miss rate is consistently below average and declining, from 8.7% in 2008 to 7.7% in 2009 to 6.2% in 2010. He doesn’t make up for the lack of strikeouts with ground balls either, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Slowey’s career ground ball rate is just 31.6%, the lowest of any pitcher in the game since he debuted. Worst of all, his ability to get grounders is trending in the wrong direction…

Green is grounders, blue is fly balls, red is line drives.

That’s a bit of a problem. A mediocre strikeout rate and basically no ground balls is a recipe for disaster in Yankee Stadium, though at least Slowey mitigates the damage somewhat by limiting walks. Left-handed batters have also given him trouble (.354 wOBA against), though he doesn’t exactly shut down righties either (.330 wOBA against). On the contract front, Slowey was arbitration-eligible for the first time heading in the 2011 season, during which he’ll earn $2.7M. Slowey is also be under team control in 2012 and 2013, a nice little perk.

While he may not have the sexy peripheral stats that Liriano does, Slowey does offer the same questionable health track record. He’s been on the disabled list in each of the last three years, each time with an arm issue. Last year it was a triceps strain (15 days missed), the year before it was surgery to remove bone chips from his wrist (101 days missed), and the year before that it was a biceps strain (34 days missed). Slowey’s also missed a total of 38 days with a sore elbow, an ankle contusion, a tight oblique, a wrist contusion, and an infected hangnail over the last three years, though none required a DL stint. Clearly, the guy is a risky proposition.

As much as I love the low walk rate, it’s basically Slowey’s only redeeming quality. I loathe the whole “pitch to contact” approach, especially when we’re talking about an extreme fly ball pitcher. If the guy is a ground ball machine like say, Sergio Mitre, then I can deal. But fly balls? No way, that’s asking for trouble. Add in the injury history, and there’s enough red flags here for me to say the Yankees should steer clear of Slowey. I’d rather see them roll the Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia dice than give away a prospect(s) for the Twins’ right-hander.

Open Thread: March 6th Camp Notes

Awesome. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

News of the day…

Here’s your open thread for the night. The Knicks are the only local team playing a meaningful game, but SNY is showing a replay to today’s Mets-Red Sox game while MLB Network will carry a replay of the Angels-Diamondbacks game. You all know what to do, so fire away.

Major League ManBan?

I wonder if Manny Banuelos will be in pinstripes before a September call-up.

Also winner of the 'Best Photo Day Picture' contest without question. (Getty Images/Al Bello)

Calm down, I’m not saying it’s a good idea. But I also don’t think it’s impossible. Let’s review what we know and see how likely it is.

First: he’s rocked Spring Training with five strikeouts (including Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Inge looking) and a walk in 3 IP. He went from scraping prospect lists (in 2010, he was 96 on Keith Law’s and didn’t show up on Baseball America) to being in the top 20. Michael Kay and John Sterling are singing his praises in between being in awe of Ryan Pope’s college (Savannah College of Art and Design) and confusing Brandon Laird with his brother, Gerald. Keith Law thinks he could pitch in the majors now. Frankie Piliere loves his three plus pitches. He’ll be only 20 next week. Life is good.

We also know he’s not going to break camp in the Bronx. He’s been penned to start with the Trenton Thunder, which is exactly where he belongs. He has a whopping 15 IP above A-ball and last year threw only 65 IP due to an appendectomy in the beginning of the season. It was an impressive 65 IP with a 2.58 ERA and an 11.8 k/9, but a small sample nonetheless. Though we’ve yet to see how well he can perform over a full season facing batters above A-level, it’s obvious that Banuelos has something going. The peripherals are there.

Make no mistake, it’s not a good idea to have ManBan pitching August games in the Bronx. If Banuelos is putting on pinstripes, the fifth starter problem hasn’t been solved. Someone is probably injured. The AAA kids aren’t doing well enough to get the call themselves. If Banuelos blows through a few months of AA, puts on his Scranton Yankee outfit and absolutely dominates, I think he’s just as likely to be promoted. Is there a chance that he is chosen to pick up that fifth starter spot over some of the older kids? I think so, especially if the numbers are there. If Warren, Noesi and Phelps are struggling (or simply not as good), it doesn’t seem sensible to use them over a surging Banuelos.

It’s also not unfeasible to bring Banuelos up straight from AA, which is the more likely possibility than a short stint in Scranton. Taking a pitcher straight from AA and plopping him into a major league rotation might seem like a big jump, but it’s been done before with plenty of success: CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, and Cole Hamels all never sniffed AAA before they played with a big club. Rick Porcello played only one year in High A before the Tigers stuck him in their rotation to post a 3.96 ERA the next year. Interestingly enough, Mark Prior threw only 90 innings of minor league ball (though this included seven AAA games) before he was called up by none other than Larry Rothschild.

If Banuelos comes up for an extended period of time – perhaps filling in for a June injury and a Mitre failure to perform – the Yankees would have to put him on a pretty strict innings limit. The most innings Banuelos has ever thrown was 109 back in 2009. We know enough about Joba’s rules that I don’t have to get into it, and Hughes was skipped several times in 2010 but still threw almost 80 more innings than his previous year. We all watched Hughes’ second half taper off as he climbed over that limit, and the last thing we want is to watch Banuelos have several brilliant starts and hit a wall. If all of ManBan’s starts go six innings, that’s just about eleven starts before he’s pitching over his 2010 IP. Hopefully, he’s not needed for that long.

While I don’t think it’s the best idea to put Banuelos in pinstripes this year, I can certainly see it happening. It wouldn’t be too bad, either, as long as the Yankees are careful with his innings and don’t throw him to the wolves the way the Tigers did to Jeremy Bonderman the year they lost 119 games. I think we’re safe from a losing season of that caliber, but the fact is that Banuelos’ arm seems pretty damn nice and it shouldn’t be thrown about willy-nilly. From what it’s worth, I think the Yankees can figure out how to turn him from prospect to number-one starter and I am personally super excited to see him in the rotation. While I don’t think he’s definitely going to show up this year, I wouldn’t put it past the Yankees to bypass Warren or Noesi and see what Banuelos can do.

Link Dump: K-Long, Banuelos, NY-Penn League

Some spare links for a rainy Sunday in the Tri-State Area…

Q&A with Kevin Long

Hitting coach Kevin Long gets a lot of rave reviews around these parts, in part because of his work with guys like Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, and more recently Derek Jeter. Marc Carig sat down for a chat with Long, who spoke about how and why he decided to get into coaching, the toughest part of his job, his book, and whether or not he wants to someday manage a team. Check it out, it’s a great read.

Banuelos vs. Perez

Manny Banuelos has been the talk of spring so far and why not? He’s been extremely impressive in a pair of two-inning outings despite being a 19-year-old in big league camp, but this isn’t anything new. At this time last year, Rangers’ lefty pitching prospect Martin Perez was doing the same thing, but he went from a 2.71 FIP in Single-A (with a brief, late season call-up to Double-A) in 2009 to a 4.24 FIP in Double-A in 2010, seeing his prospect stock take a hit. John Sickels compared the two, concluding that they are “different but even.” Banuelos has the higher floor and the edge in intangibles and performance, but Perez offers more projection and upside.

Penn League Report

Just wanted to take a second and point you in the direction of a new site called Penn League Report, which will be providing news, updates, and more from the short season NY-Penn League, which houses the Staten Island Yankees. It’s run by Dave Gershman of Beyond The Box Score fame, and you can follow along on Twitter at @NYPL_Report. Today he offered up a brief scouting report on Yankees farmhand Tommy Kahnle. We need more information about the lowest levels of the minor leagues, so this is a welcome addition to the blogosphere. Add to your bookmarks, RSS feeds, etcetera, etcetera.

2011 AL East Busts: part 2 of 2

New York Yankees: Robinson Cano

2010 wOBA of .389. 2011 projected wOBA of .360

Laziest superstar EVER. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Despite the absence of both Larry Bowa and Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano had a career year in 2010. His game took a huge step forward in terms of power and on-base skills. His walk rate inched up close to 10%, and he increased his ISO to .214, the latter being good enough for second-best for all second baseman. As Mike noted in Robbie’s 2011 season preview, he was the team’s best player by all methods of evaluation.

In 2011 PECOTA sees Cano taking a step back from his lofty levels of production, projecting a batting line of .299/.347/.488, a .360 wOBA. This would be worse than Cano’s 2010 or 2009, and resembles closely his 2007 season when he put together a .358 wOBA on .306/.353/.488 hitting. The problem with this is that this seems to be largely out of line with what most people expect from Cano this season. It’s possible that this reflects a bit of optimism about Cano’s natural progression, but some of the arguments are quite persuasive. Mike for one noted Cano’s constancy in terms of production:

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

On Friday, Mike Jaggers-Radolf at Yankee Analysts took a similar tack towards Cano’s conservative Marcel projection (.354 wOBA with a .300/.347/.476 line)

[The] numbers don’t point to any particular abberation that would wipe away the progress he’s made in 2009 and then again in 2010. His BABIP in those seasons, for example, was right in line with his career norms. While his OBP suggests improved discipline, his discipline numbers don’t demonstrate any heavy outliers. He didn’t, for example, double his career walk rate in 2010. Most of his numbers were more gradual improvements, the kind of improvements one would hope a smart ball player would make as his career advances. In light of all this, Marcel’s 2011 projection seems too conservative.

In a lot of ways, having this discussion about whether a .360 wOBA is too conservative for a second baseman is a testament to how talented Cano is and how lucky the Yankees are to employ his services. A .360 wOBA in 2010 would have ranked 5th best in 2010, 3rd in 2009 and 7th in 2008, and it also projects as the second-highest wOBA of any 2B in 2011, ahead of Pedroia, Uggla and Kinsler and behind only Chase Utley. This is a long way of saying that like Mike Jaggers-Radolf and Mike Axisa, I’m optimistic that Cano can outperform these relatively meager expectations and wouldn’t be surprised to see a more bullish projection next year once the systems have another full season of data. I’m not a gambling man, but I would love to plunk down twenty bucks on Cano beating a .360 wOBA.

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista

2010 wOBA of .422; projected 2011 wOBA of .365

One of the terms of Bautista's new contract is that he can wear his glove like that whenever he wants and no one can say boo about it. (AP Image)

It is entirely reasonable to wonder whether Jose Bautista’s 2010 season will be viewed with the same credulous sense of “he hit how many home runs?” as Brady Anderson’s 1996 season is viewed now. Prior to hitting 50 home runs for the Orioles, Anderson was a career .250/.349/.393 hitter with an OPS+ of only 101. In 1996 he hit .297/.396/.637, and never came close to touching that level of production the rest of his career. Bautista’s power profile was even worse than Anderson prior to last year. He was a career .238/.329/.400 hitter with an OPS+ of only 91. Last year, though, he clubbed 54 home runs en route to an insane line of .260/.378/.617.

Many have noted, though, that Bautista’s 2010 performance might not be such a fluke. Joe Pawlikowski was one of them over at Fangraphs, arguing that it’s at least possible that Bautista’s famed swing change could lead to sustained success. PECOTA seems to take the easy way out and simply splits the difference. A wOBA of .365 would be well north of anything Bautista had done prior to 2010, but it’s also a substantial drop from his .422 mark last year. In a way, PECOTA’s projection probably mirrors what most analysts would forecast if given the chance. No one would be eager to label the entire season a fluke and predict him to return to his .750 OPS days, just as no one actually predict him to slug over .600 again.

It’s appropriate to end with this analysis by BP’s Ben Lindbergh, an analysis that really encapsulates all the moving parts when dealing with projecting difficult cases. The emphasis is mine.

In some cases, players get lucky. In others, they simply cease to be unlucky, and in still others, their true talent level takes an unanticipated step forward. Once those seemingly anomalous seasons take place, PECOTA incorporates them into its projections for the following year and revises its estimates upward, but rarely anticipates a repeat performance, barring a favorable spot on the aging curve.

That doesn’t stop us from identifying players whom PECOTA might like more than the prevailing opinion, but where does it leave us with a few of this year’s trickiest test cases? Take Javier Vazquez (please). As someone whose ERA has routinely failed to match his peripherals (or more accurately, the peripherals we generally expect to predict ERA), Vazquez has come with plenty of baggage even at the best of times. Nonetheless, after Vazquez bought another ticket out of New York with an abysmal performance last season, PECOTA foresees a rebound to a sub-4.00 ERA and a healthy strikeout rate in Florida. Meanwhile, 2010 super-slugger Jose Bautista is projected to shed nearly half of his homers (which would still leave him with his second-best season to date).

In the case of each player, we can do more than simply throw up our hands and attribute last year’s surprising performance to divine dice rolls. Vazquez experienced a sizeable velocity drop (whose effects can be quantified); Bautista made well-publicized changes to his stance and swing. PECOTA doesn’t know those things, but you and I do, even though we might not know their precise significance. Given the increasing granularity of baseball data capture, perhaps the passage of time and future additions to PECOTA’s code will make it possible to adjust the forecasts not only according to what numbers were produced, but to a greater degree, how they were produced. For now, feel free to indulge your inner PECOTAs, but remember to forecast responsibly.

Tampa Bay Rays: John Jaso – 2010 wOBA of .341; projected 2011 wOBA of .319.

Jaso with GM Andrew Friedman, who is no doubt pointing out some new market inefficiency he discovered over breakfast. (AP Images)

John Jaso may have a very limited major league track record, but it’s still a bit odd to see such a projected drop-off from PECOTA. Jaso placed 5th in Rookie of the Year voting this offseason after logging over 400 plate appearances for the Rays as their catcher (so long, Dioner). His increase in playing time was partly the result of him doing one thing very, very well: take walks. In 2010 John Jaso was to taking walks as Kevin Youkilis was to being ugly, and he also shared Youkilis’ disciplined approach at the plate. His walk rate was the second-highest of all catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. The Process Report ’11 noted rather poetically that Jaso’s approach at the plate was based on a very selective eye:

Jaso’s offensive approach is simple too. Jaso will not swing if he determines a pitch is on its way outside of the strike zone. Labeling this an approach is probably being too casual, as Jaso’s pitch selection seems to teeter on the thinnest border between obsession and religion. At times, it seems Jaso follows the scripture of Youkilis, where swinging at a poor pitch is a sin – one punishable by eternal damnation and pitchfork poking.

In 2011 PECOTA projects Jaso’s OPS to drop nearly 50 points with an OBP of .347 and a slugging percentage of .355. This is largely predicated on a slight decrease in walk rate (13.1%) and a fairly low BABIP of .270. Jaso sported a robust OBP throughout his minor league career, so this would surely be a disappointing mark for him in 2011. The Rays have options, though. The Rays always have options. They can use Jaso against righties and have him avoid the tougher left-handed pitchers, and then deploy lefty-murdering Kelly Shoppach against the CC Sabathias and Jon Lesters of the league. They’re also working out Robinson Chirinos at catcher this spring, and his PECOTA projection is very impressive. If for some reason Jaso can’t live up to the standard he set for himself in 2011 the Rays ought to have good flexibility at catcher regardless.

Open Thread: March 5th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The latest from Tampa…

  • The Yankees and Nationals played a wild one today, with the former Expos prevailing 10-8. CC Sabathia got smacked around in his 2.2 IP of work, then said he wasn’t going to lose any sleep. In fact, the second start of spring hasn’t been kind to the left-hander, historically. Brett Gardner had a double and a triple, Jorge Vazquez and Austin Romine a double each, and Jesus Montero went 2-for-3. The Yankees scored all eight runs in the fourth inning. Some pitchers that won’t be on the team come Opening Day (Romulo Sanchez and Daniel Turpen) blew the lead late. Here’s the box score.
  • Jesus Montero took a foul tip off his right hand, but there’s no real concern about an injury. “I’ll wait to see how Monty’s finger is tomorrow, but he finished, and he had great strength in it,” said Joe Girardi. “Those hurt, but as a catcher you’ve just got to take it.” (Chad Jennings)
  • Andrew Brackman threw 30 pitches in the bullpen then another 25 to batters in a simulated game; his groin/hip issue was tested with a comebacker on the first pitch. The big right-hander is likely to get into a game either Monday or Tuesday. Warner Madrigal also threw live BP while Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova, Dellin Betances, and Adam Warren all threw bullpen sessions. (Jennings, Marc Carig & Erik Boland)
  • Frankie Cervelli is in high spirits despite his fractured foot. “I’m positive,” said the catcher. “A lot of people in the world, they don’t have legs, they don’t have arms. I’m healthy. It’s going to be okay.” (Boland)
  • The Yankees are doomed to finish third this year because pitchers were busy practicing their putting on the backfield instead of working on a new pitch. What teh hell? (Ben Shpigel)

Here’s the open thread for the night. The Isles and Nets already played, but there’s a ton of college basketball on plus a replay of today’s Marlins-Red Sox game on MLB Network. Chat about whatever, go nuts.

Cashman speaks up about non-tendering Aceves

Easy on the back, Ace. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

One the biggest surprises of the Yankees offseason was the non-tendering of The Mexican Gangster, Al Aceves. Ace eventually went on to sign a guaranteed Major League contract with the Red Sox, which of course drew the ire of some fans. It’s completely understandable, Aceves was fantastic in pinstripes (particularly in 2009) and a likable dude, so it sucks seeing him go to Boston. PeteAbe caught up with Brian Cashman yesterday, who spoke about the decision to cut Aceves and the team’s efforts to re-sign him…

“I offered him a minor league contract; that was it. I wasn’t going to do anything more than that,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said tonight.


“Because of the back issue, we could not give him [a major league contract]. He was throwing off the mound for us and he always hit a wall,” Cashman said. “So we ultimately continued to fail throughout the entire process to get him off the DL and active. He had a lot of success for a period of time, but then ultimately we’d had to take steps back and we’d have to shut him down and re-do the treatment.

“We decided to non-tender him and offer him a non-guaranteed deal. But obviously when healthy you certainly know what he can do.”

Aceves originally injured his back in Fenway Park on May 8th, and he didn’t pitch in the big leagues again. He made it to Triple-A on a rehab assignment in early-August before suffering a setback, then again made it to Triple-A on another rehab assignment a few weeks later before suffering another setback, this time a season-ender. Aceves then needed surgery after breaking his collarbone while riding his bike during the offseason, an activity that may or may not have been a) part of his rehab, or b) completely forbidden by the team/doctors given his back. As far as we know, he never had surgery to repair the bulging disc in his back despite rumors that he would.

It’s entirely possible that the Yankees screwed up here and were wrong about the health of Aceves’ back, an error that would be compounded by his defection to their biggest rival. It’s also possible – actually very likely – that the Yanks and their medical staff know him better than anyone and decided to move on. If there’s one thing I know about back injuries, it’s that they don’t just go away, especially without surgery. If Aceves is healthy though, boy wouldn’t it be nice to have him in camp as a fifth starter candidate right now?

As I’ve said before, I like Ace and wish him the best of luck, just not when he can do something to hurt the Yankees.