Would signing Zack Greinke next winter really be that bad?

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty)

Throughout the 2011-2012 Hot Stove season we have frequently looked ahead to next offseason, with its presumed bumper crop of studly free agent pitchers, including (at the moment) Cole Hamels (age 29), Matt Cain (28), Zack Greinke (28), Francisco Liriano (29), Shaun Marcum (31), Brandon McCarthy (29), Anibal Sanchez (29), and Jonathan Sanchez (30). A handful of attractive names — James Shields (31), Gavin Floyd (30), Dan Haren (32) and Ervin Santana (30) — have club options, but said options are mostly reasonably priced and it seems unlikely that any of that quartet would be bought out.

Prior to the Big Trade, it was generally expected that the Yankees would be all over Hamels should he make it to free agency, and rightly so, as it’s not every offseason an elite left-hander makes it to the open market. The case for Hamels is a no-brainer: Since breaking into the league in 2006, Hamels is tied for the 13th-most valuable pitcher in all of baseball, producing a stellar 3.39 ERA/3.63 FIP/3.42 xFIP line over 1,161.1 innings with a beautiful 8.45 K/9 and 2.26 BB/9. The only left-handers ahead of him on that list are CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

So unless Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro somehow convinces Hamels to take a way-below market extension a la Jered Weaver — and it’s extremely difficult to envision this happening, as the numbers suggest Hamels could very well be in line for a $161 million CC Sabathia-type deal — or is able to convince Phillie ownership that they can indeed afford another $100 million-plus pitcher, next offseason’s pursuit of Hamels will likely rival both last winter’s Lee sweepstakes and the 2008-2009 Sabathia drama as one of the craziest ever. However, in the aftermath of the Montero-Pineda deal, an additional wrinkle has been thrown into the mix, namely whether the Yankees determine they can afford to add Hamels in light of all the talk of an austerity budget.

While I personally feel the Yankees would be nuts not to do whatever it takes to land Hamels, if they do decide the lefty is too pricey or doesn’t even end up becoming available, there’s another, arguably slightly better, younger (and perhaps most importantly, presumably slightly cheaper) option that seems an even surer bet to reach free agency next winter, and that’s former Cy-Young-award-winner Zack Greinke. While the lefty Hamels has commanded much of the attention, Greinke’s future availability seems to have gone somewhat overlooked, and so I thought I’d point out why he should be just as much of a Yankee target as Hamels, if not moreso.

For one, on that aforelinked list of most valuable pitchers since 2006, Greinke is above Hamels, checking in at 7th with a 3.41/3.14/3.39 pitcher triple slash in more than 200 fewer innings than Hamels along with a sterling 8.68 K/9 and equally drool-worthy 2.33 BB/9. Of those top 30 pitchers, the only hurlers with a higher K/9 are Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw and Jake Peavy, and the latter hasn’t been at that level since 2009. The only ones with superior FIPs are Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson.

This past season, Greinke — always a strikeout-heavy pitcher — upped his game to levels of even more ridiculousness, leading all of MLB with a career-high 10.54 K/9. His 2.98 FIP was 9th in the league, while his 2.56 xFIP was first. These are big boy numbers, and the only reason you likely didn’t hear more about Greinke’s huge year was because he started the season injured and was also betrayed by his defense, as his 3.83 ERA was fueled in part by the second-highest BABIP (.318) of his career that helped fuel the third-lowest strand rate (a below-league-average 69.8%) of his career.

The following chart helps underscore just how good Greinke has been since breaking into the league full-time in 2004 (as always, click to enlarge):

An increase in K/9 every season save one? That’ll do nicely. As he’s matured as a pitcher, Greinke also brought his GB% rate up from the mid-30%s to a career-high (and above-league-average) 47.3% in 2011. Given Greinke’s dramatic improvements on what had already been several very good pitching performances, I was also curious to take a look at his stuff:

Greinke has three legitimate weapons against righties in his four-seamer, slider and curveball, each of which generate above-average Whiff rates. Somewhat unexpectedly, Greinke’s heater has lost about 1.5mph since 2009, although this hasn’t seemed to hinder its effectiveness, as his Strike% and Whiff rate has improved in each successive year, while his In-Play% is on a three-year decline. It’s helpful to know that Greinke doesn’t need to be routinely dialing it up to 94mph to be successful with the heat, although it’ll be important to keep an eye on that velocity this coming season to see whether it takes another dip.

Greinke doesn’t really throw his change to righties, and per the PITCHf/x data he appears to have added a two-seamer in 2010, although again, given the myriad classification issues that frequently arise when analyzing this data, it’s possible there are some four-seamers being misclassified. Although the extremely low Whiff rates on the two-seamer would seem to indicate that this pitch is indeed a sinker. He went from throwing it nearly 30% of the time to batters on both sides of the plate in 2010, to under 10% of the time last season — I’m not sure what to attribute the decrease to, as the sinker appears to have helped him generate more grounders, but perhaps it’s as simple as Greinke wanting to further diversify his arsenal.

As you might expect, Greinke’s Whiff rates aren’t quite as robust against lefties, though they’re still plenty high. What he’s missing in four-seamer Whiff% he more than makes up for in Changeup Whiff%.

In sum, we have a pitcher who misses a ton of bats, has a knockout slider to complement his blazing fastball, and who also appears to have added a two-seamer/sinker to his repertoire to help spike his ground-ball rate. So essentially, Zack Greinke is a right-handed, younger version of CC Sabathia. I think we’d all happily sign up for that.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Greinke’s social anxiety disorder. I’m not a psychologist nor do I have any way of quantifying how his mental state might impact his performance, though it’s been speculated by many that Greinke may not have the intestinal fortitude to flourish under the microscope on the biggest stage in the world in the Bronx. Brian Cashman essentially echoed that sentiment during last offseason as the Yankees passed on acquiring Greinke via trade, despite the pitcher’s apparent protestations that he was indeed cut out for and eager to pitch in New York.

Even if the Yankees — and presumably, other teams — have concerns over Greinke’s head, the fact that the cost of acquiring him is just money and not prospects should help ease some of the worry. It also may help knock his price down. While the numbers indicate Greinke should probably be paid as though he were CC Sabathia, the questions about his make-up may hinder him from reaching that financial plateau. If Greinke can be had for, say, $108 million over six years ($18 million per is probably a conservative estimate) however, his market could end up depressed if GMs are afraid to pay him like an elite pitcher due to any lingering fears about SAD. Per FanGraphs’ much-derided $/WAR calculation he’s been worth an average of $25.6M per season since 2008), I don’t see any rational reason for the Yankees not to run with that deal all the way to the bank.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 30th, 2012

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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Sunday Open Thread

Alex Rodriguez
"You pay attention to someone else, I'm gonna take a nap." (AP/Kathy Willens)

You know what happens in exactly three weeks? Spring Training officially opens. Pitchers and catchers are due to report on February 19th, which just means they just have to physically be in the Tampa area and let the club know they’re there. They don’t even have to show up to the complex, that will happen for the first time the next day. Either way, we’re down to just three weeks of offseason. Hooray for that.

Here’s your open thread for the night. You folks know what to do by now, so have at it.

What’s Your Countdown?

Holy crap, baseball is so close I can almost taste it. Like many of you, I have several countdowns going, one at work, one on my computer, on my calendar… and so forth. It’s only a matter of time before we have to stop paying attention to less interesting sports to turn our attentions to diamonds, curveballs, dingers and TOOTBLANs. I can’t believe I’m this excited to complain about Derek Jeter leading off and Robinson Cano swinging at crazy pitches to foul them off rather than just taking a damn walk every once in a while.

The problem is, there’s a lot of different was to go with your countdown. Do you start at when pitchers and catchers report? Wait for Spring Training for begin? Is Opening Day the only one that really counts? Let’s break down the different events and see what the best place is to be waiting for.

Pitchers and Catchers report.
Pro: It’s the first thing to happen.
Con: There’s no games to be had.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

In less than a month, the optional reporting date for batteries rolls around. The pitchers and catchers can show up if they want and begin their stretches, long-toss, short-toss, running up and down the steps – whatever it is they’d like to do. Here’s where a few pictures start trickling in from the beat writers and official twitter accounts, along with Best Shape of His Life stories and subtle comments about who was lazing off during the offseason (Phil Hughes, don’t hide). It’s hard not to be excited about the reporting date, because getting the pitchers to the spring complexes is pretty important — hard to play a game if you don’t have a pitcher — but in essence, you’re waiting for a day when there’s no games.

The fact is, it’s an optional reporting day for only a small part of the team. There’s a solid chance that most of the people won’t even be there, and Mo only knows when all the beat guys are going to show up. The day, besides being a great day when the cogs of baseball start to break the rust and begin to turn, is a day of nothing. If you’re counting down to actual baseball, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, unless you can be satisfied by pictures of CC Sabathia running steps and Phil Hughes looking not-so-chubby. Like the pitchers and catchers themselves, the fans need to warm up to the constant stream of baseball information that we haven’t had in what seems like so long. The cold, dark offseason is done. Baseball is back. (Cue YES music.)

Or…. maybe you’re waiting for some actual games. Maybe you can only be satisfied by the crack of the bat and the thwock of the catcher’s mitt and the analyzation of pitch types and batting stances. In that case, you’re most likely looking forward to…

Spring Training games begin.
Pro: Actual baseball being played!
Con: Games don’t matter, and managers treat them like so.

(AP Photo)

In Spring Training 2011, A.J. Burnett didn’t issue a single walk.

There’s so much hope in the Florida sun! So much excitement! Baby Yankees running around striking out major leaguers! Rotation competitions (that aren’t actually competitions)! Hope for the hopeless! The weak competition, plus the rust coming off the rest of the league, usually makes the fans feel pretty optimistic about everything. This is gonna be the year. Look at all our players! They look awesome! Totally get a ring in 2012, guys. I can feel it.

There’s nothing better than Spring Training in the sense that after a cold, hard offseason nothing hits the spot like baseball. It’s like hot chocolate after dragging yourself down a snowy street or your air-conditioned house when it’s boiling and humid outside. Real baseball, with hits and strikeouts and eye-rollingly bad plays, and pitchers, and outfielders… God, what’s better, honestly? It’s a breath of fresh air with the hopes and dreams of everyone waiting.

Of course, the games don’t matter. They’re try-outs for the invites and practice for the veterans, and usually feature three to four innings of what one might call “competitive baseball” before the AAAA outfielders come in. There’s funky lineup changes, pitchers trying to make pitches work (when they don’t), hitters testing out new everything, players in strange positions, all the stuff that makes a fan go nuts when he (or she) sees it happen. And, as I mentioned earlier, the wins and the losses are both equally meaningless. It’s frustrating, when watching a game, to know it means nothing.

If you actually need that competition, you’re stuck waiting for…

Regular Season begins.
Pro: Actual, real baseball that counts.
Con: Far away.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s here. The real season. Stuff counts. Anything could happen. The rotation is (probably) set. The lineup has been decided. Alex Rodriguez has hopefully avoided embarrassing himself for a whole month. Phil Hughes is skinny again.

Go time.

Is there any better guaranteed day in the year than Opening Day? Real, actual baseball, with players and teams that mean it, and games that matter towards that offseason that seems like it’s never going to come. While game one is, relatively speaking, just as important as game 162, the first is always the best. Our acceptance level of bunting, manager dumbass-ness, and general stupidity is at a high because baseball is baseball and thank god it’s back. Hell, maybe no one will actually whine about the lineup because it’s been so long.

Ok, that’s unlikely.

But just think about how long the regular season is from now: over two months. It doesn’t seem like a lot typed out, but every day with no real baseball is a painful one, especially when you’re watching Spring Training and waiting and waiting and waiting for it to matter. Staring at a baseball game knowing it’s utterly insignificant can be pretty bad, and knowing even more there’s a month or a week to go before things start counting sounds worse.

For me, pitchers and catchers is the day. It’s just so soon, and there’s so much possibility, and everything’s so close – I just can’t help it. I’ve got a countdown widget and everything.

What are you waiting for?

Mailbag: Quality Starts

(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

David asks: What do you think about QS % as an important measure of starting pitchers? Given the Yankees’ ability to score runs, and their strong bullpen, I’d place a high value on a pitcher’s ability to deliver quality starts, i.e., to be “consistently good.” On that basis we of course notice or confirm a number of things from 2011 AL pitchers with 140+ innings:

  • CC Sabathia was of course consistently good at #10
  • Michael Pineda was #8!
  • A.J. Burnett‘s problems are NOT the occasional blow up; he’s consistently ineffective (worst in the league)
  • Freddy Garcia wasn’t too far behind CC in consistency at #17
  • Ivan Nova was middle of the pack at #27 (in the neighborhood of Gio Gonzalez, John Danks, Alexi Ogando, Phil Humber)
  • Hiroki Kuroda was #14 in the NL, as a solid number two should be

I think that “quality starts” themselves are kinda silly, or at least the term “quality start”  is silly. Three earned runs (why don’t we count unearned runs? they count on the scoreboard) in six innings is a 4.50 ERA, and that would have been a 116 ERA+ in 2011. If they changed the name of the stat to something like “decent start” or “winnable start,” them maybe it would be easier to swallow. That’s how I think of a quality start, it’s a winnable game for the Yankees with their offense and bullpen. My extension, QS% would just tell you how often a certain pitcher threw — not will throw — a decent or winnable game.

Quality starts are in no way predictive, they’re an output stat. They tell you the end result of the game without telling you how it happened. Did the pitcher throw eight innings of one-run ball with four hits, one walk, and nine strikeouts? Or six innings with three earned runs, two unearned runs, ten hits, three walks, and two strikeouts? In terms of quality starts, those two are the same thing. They’re kinda like the pitching version of RBI. We know the run came in, but we don’t know how it came in. Quality starts and RBI don’t tell us how likely the player is to do it again.

Like I said, I consider a quality start to be a winnable game for the Yankees, and that’s basically all I look for out of the back of the rotation, the Burnett’s and Hughes’ and Garcia’s in 2012. If the Yankees get a quality start out of those guys half the time, they’re well ahead of the fifth starter curve. I wouldn’t consider QS% to be a great measure of success or a high one percentage to be all that great without knowing more. It’s a great quick reference thing, but I have a tough time putting more stock into it, kinda like OPS. We have better metrics these days, but the old ones are still okay for a quick glance.

Saturday Night Open Thread

Had a pretty crummy day dealing with some computer issues, so I need something to cheer me up. For whatever reason, remembering that A.J. Burnett was good once upon a time always seems to do the trick. Where do you think that curveball went?

Anyway, here is your open thread for the night. The Knicks are playing, plus the NHL Skills Competition is on at 7pm ET (on NBC Sports). That’s kinda like there Homerun Derby, but with more events and not as boring. Talk about whatever you like here. Enjoy.

Kuroda speaks for first time since joining Yankees

The Yankees officially announced the Hiroki Kuroda signing — a one-year, $10MM contract with a full no-trade clause — earlier this week, and yesterday he spoke publicly for the first time since agreeing to come to New York. “[The Dodgers] were unable to ever make a formal offer, I couldn’t wait any longer,” said Kuroda to Dylan Hernandez. The right-hander confirmed he received offers from several teams but only seriously considered the Yankees and the Hiroshima Carp, his former team in Japan. He turned down more lucrative offers to wear pinstripes.

“They have an incredible tradition,” said Kuroda of joining the Yankees. “They contend for the championship every year. I wanted to play for a team like that. When you get to my age, you don’t know how much longer you can pitch and I wanted to experience that before my career ended.” Kuroda never got to pitch in the playoffs in Japan, and the Dodgers qualified for the postseason only twice in his four years there. “To be a part of a team like that is something I will be proud of.”

Kuroda also spoke briefly about his relationships with Russell Martin, Clayton Kershaw, and Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Hernandez says that Kuroda’s wife and two school-age daughters will remain in Los Angeles while he is in New York this summer, and he’s preparing for 2012 as if it will be his last season. “There will be a lot of change,” he said. ““Not only a baseball player, but also as a person, I think this will be an important year for me.”