Joba’s fat: does it matter?

People are paying just a little attention to Joba

Even after the Yankees put an end to the starter/reliever debate, Joba Chamerlain remains the most talked about player on the team. After the team signed Rafael Soriano the discussion centered not on what Soriano brings to the pen — we all knew that — but on what the signing meant for Joba. But that paled in comparison to the attention he has received since reporting to spring training.

It started last week, when Brian Costello of the New York Post, standing at a distance, observed that Chamberlain put on weight. An up-close look confirmed it, but there was an admission that it might not all have been lard. Chamberlain explained that he added a gym to his home that he used to work out all winter. That sounds good, and it speaks to a certain level of commitment to fitness. But the gut we can see, and therefore it is on the gut we will judge.

In his blog this morning, Joel Sherman discusses the loss of faith in Chamberlain, even as his results improved markedly in the second half of 2010. Of course, he opens with an observation about Joba’s weight. He’s above the level where the Yankees would like him, and apparently they don’t buy the added muscle bit. They apparently see a “wider girth.” Brian Cashman added fuel to the fire by repeating the term, “he’s heavier” this morning, without mentioning anything about how it affects the organization’s view of their once top prospect.

Yet I wonder how much Joba’s weight actually matters. Every year we hear about this player or that showing up to camp in the best shape of his life. Does it really mean anything? Last month at FanGraphs Dave Cameron examined the “good shapers,” i.e., players who showed up to camp last year professing their fitness. A few of them did beat expectations, but many others fell right in line or below. As Cameron concludes, “there doesn’t appear to be strong evidence that it is a significant predictor of a strong season on the way.” Why, then, is anyone worrying about Joba?

If Chamberlain is throwing well, how concerned can the Yankees be about his weight? Sherman addressed this point in his blog post this morning: “the early word out of camp is that Chamberlain is throwing the heck out of the ball…word is that the ball is coming out of his hand easy and hard, and if he can do that consistently than [sic] he could probably waddle around for all the Yankees care.” Chamberlain himself addressed the issue, saying he feels “awesome,” and that he’s in better shape than he was last year.

In the early days of spring, we’re all looking for something we can cling to.* With the Yankees, it seems to rotate by the day. On Monday it was CC’s out clause. Yesterday it was A.J. Burnett and his importance to the team. Today it is apparently Joba and his weight. They’re baseball related, and therefore we pay attention. But I’m not sure that this story in particular means much in terms of the 2011 season. All that matters is how Joba performs. One hundred percent of Yankees fans would prefer a fat Chamberlain throwing gas than a svelte Chamberlain serving up gopher balls. The temptation might be to focus on his weight right now, but in a little more than a month it won’t matter one bit.

*Fat joke resisted.

2011 Draft: Opening Thoughts

Gerrit Cole ain't falling to the Yankees this year. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Now that Spring Training is underway, we can shift our attention from Prospect Profiles to the draft. Instead of jumping right into players and stuff like that, I first want to muse a bit about the draft in general because (I think) this stuff is important.

The Value of Picks

Marc Carig recently spoke to an AL exec who dubbed draft picks “a different currency,” referring to the way they turn into prospects which can help level clubs above and beyond the financial playing field. “Those (big market) teams are smarting up and they’re out-muscling teams in the draft, and internationally,” said the exec. “And it’s those drafted players that they haven’t spent much money on that they’re now turning into Adrian Gonzalez, or turned into Victor Martinez.”

That’s obviously true for the Yankees, who boast a top shelf farm system and will undoubtedly use a few of their prospects to trade for a pitcher at some point. If you don’t have those players to give up, you’re not getting anyone in a trade. Not anyone good, anyway. I didn’t like the Rafael Soriano because of the contract, though surrendering that first round pick (to a division rival!) in a loaded draft is another mark in the cons column. Something that could impact the team long after the right-hander’s tenure in pinstripes is over.

Draft picks are an asset just like money and prospects, they’re expendable at the right price, but their value should not be underestimated.

The Rays

Fourth round pick + above slot bonus ($500,000) = number one starter. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Tampa Bay holds a dozen of the first 100 picks this summer (really a dozen of the first 89), which is the most in draft history. GM Andrew Friedman recently called this year’s draft “among the most important days in the history of this franchise [because] we have a chance in this year’s draft to impact our future in a way that’s unprecedented,” so you know they’re looking forward to it. The Rays are the gold standard when it comes to scouting and player development, so the combination of a high quality draft class and the sheer number of picks can legitimately make this a historic haul for the team.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking the Rays will cheap out. They’ve spent over $21M on the last three drafts, the seventh most in the game, and the only reason it’s not more is because they didn’t sign their first or second round picks in 2009, a rare mishap for them. I’m sure they’ll squeeze in a few college seniors to save some cash, but they’re going to be quality players with the potential to help the team.

Exceeding Slot

Going over MLB’s slot recommendation to sign players isn’t something only the cool kids do anymore. Only three teams still strictly adhere to slot, and two of them (Astros and White Sox) were said to have two of the fourth weakest farm systems in baseball by Baseball America. The third team, the Mets, is under a new regime that has indicated a willingness to pay for premium talent. Whether or not that happens because of the Madoff stuff remains to be seen, but that’s not our concern.

The point is that it’s not just the Yankees and Red Sox going over slot now. Small market teams now recognize that it’s far better to spend $6M on like, six or eight draft picks that one year of 37-year-old Jeromy Burnitz (coughPiratescough). The idea of landing a top ten or a top 15 talent later in the draft because of signability is still valid, just not as much as it was two or three or four years ago.

The New CBA

Everyone’s going to focus on the NFL’s labor talks now, but baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement expires this December. There has already been a ton of talk about changes to the draft, including everything from trading picks to hard slotting to a worldwide draft to overhauling/eliminating the free agent compensation system and everything in between. Therein lies the problem: the uncertainty.

We have no idea what changes are in store for the draft, if any, which is why I suspect that teams will go bonkers to sign as many players as possible. It might be the last time they can spend as they please on amateurs. There’s also added incentive for the players as well, since this might be their last chance to negotiate with a club rather than get stuck adhering to a set number.

A lot can and will change between now and the draft, which will take place from June 6-8th this summer. If it starts to become clear that the draft will be changed drastically in the next CBA, I expect it to turn into a feeding frenzy for top talent. The Yankees really aren’t in a position to take advantage of that though, their division rivals will pick a total of 14 times before their first selection (51st overall) rolls around.

Looking at A.J. Burnett’s whiff rates by pitch

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

During yesterday’s podcast, Joe and I talked very briefly about A.J. Burnett and the swing-at and swing-and-miss rates of his various pitches over the last few years, but I think it’s something worth looking at a little more. After all, his ability to rebound from a subpar 2010 campaign is unquestionably one of the biggest stories of the upcoming season.

Burnett is primarily a two-pitch pitcher, throwing mostly fastballs and curveballs, though he’ll occasionally break out a change from time to time. You’ve got to have pretty good stuff to survive ten-plus seasons in the big leagues with two pitches, which A.J. certainly does. Whether or not that stuff is declining due to age or his Low Pitching IQ™ is another matter all together. I looked at the last three years worth of data, so it’s his last season in Toronto and first two seasons in New York. Let’s start with the ol’ number one…

Fastball

Burnett actually throws kinds of fastballs, but the PitchFX system has trouble distinguishing between his two- and four-seamers. I’ve lumped them all together in one uber-fastball category, which isn’t completely accurate but works well enough for our purposes. He’s consistently thrown the heat two out of every three pitches over the last three years, though he was a bit over that last year, seven out of every ten pitches.

Hitters have swung at Burnett’s fastball(s) about 45% of the team over the last three seasons, pretty consistently as well. A percentage point one way or the other is nothing. His whiff rates have varied wildly though, falling close to three-and-a-half percentage points from 2008 to 2009 before climbed back up a percent-and-a-half last year. It’s worth noting that A.J.’s velocity is gradually declining, which isn’t terribly surprising as he enters his mid-30’s. Still though, he averaged 93.1 mph with the heat last year (down from 94.2 in 2009 and 94.4 in 2008), plenty enough to survive in the big leagues.

Curveball

The hook has been Burnett’s bread-and-butter over the last few years, a pitch that has checked in at 38.9 runs above average since 2007. Only three pitchers own a better yakker during that time: Adam Wainwright, Wandy Rodriguez, and Roy Halladay. Hitters still swung and missed at the pitch with great frequency in 2010, though the whiff rate was down almost three percent from the year before. Overall, Burnett threw the pitch less often, but hitters swung at it more often and made more contact.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that A.J. uses the pitch primarily when ahead in the count, especially with two strikes. If a batter was down 0-2 or 1-2, there was a ~60% chance that they were getting the hook. The lack of whiffs (relatively speaking, of course) helps explain why Burnett had trouble putting batters away at times in 2010, something that really shouldn’t happen with stuff that good.

Changeup

It’s not often that Burnett breaks out his changeup, but we’ve definitely seem him do it on occasional. He’s thrown basically two or three or four changeups per start over the last three years, so the whiff data isn’t terribly reliable. It’s just a really small sample size. If he throws three per start, gets the batters to swing at it about 39% of the time, and the batters miss about 7% of the time, that means he’s getting one swing-and-miss on a changeup for every like, ten starts. The pitch just isn’t a core piece of his repertoire, and he’s tried to incorporate it more over the last few years, but at this point it’s safe to say it’ll never be a go-to pitch for A.J.

* * *

So What Does It Mean?

Damned if I know. I just thought it was interesting that Burnett’s whiff rates for the fastball have fluctuated so much in the last three years, and it’s also noteworthy that his curveball induced about three percent fewer swings-and-misses last year. Really, I surprise the surprising thing is that his whiff rates didn’t completely tank. I was expecting them to be cut in half or something on the heater and curve, but nope.

Obviously Burnett’s strikeout rate fell off a cliff last year, and at least we know the curveball was a prime suspect. A.J. still gets a healthy does of swings-and-misses, though I suppose his location could have been so bad that when hitters did make contact, they were simply crushing the ball. I’m going to go out on a limb and say … that’s something he and Larry Rothschild should work on.

Hug them, but not too closely

Once upon a time, prospect-watching was a hobby reserved for those who scouting the minors and those who were adamant about their Baseball America subscription. The magazine though was a poor substitute for being there. It would arrive at home with stats a few weeks old, and charting the progress of prospects was nigh impossible for the casual fan.

For better or worse, the advent of the Internet has led to an increased attention on the young kids. Everywhere from blogs that focus exclusively on the minors to a revamped Baseball America website to an MiLB.com that nears MLB.com in its ability to deliver stats and video, prospects are everywhere. We, for example, have been able to track the progress of Jesus Montero since he was a wee lad making his states-side debut in July of 2007. As Mike duly noted in DotF that night, Montero homered in his first GCL AB.

As information has become more readily available, fans who seek it out glom onto prospects. We pick our favorites — mine right now is Tommy Kahnle — and hope they stick with the organization long enough to develop into something good. We’ve definitely been guilty of feeding the frenzy, but even still, it’s fun to look back upon days of yore. In Mike’s very first RAB DotF, Austin Jackson, Eduardo Nuñez and David Robertson were in Charleston, Francisco Cervelli was enjoying Tampa and Ramiro Peña and Brett Gardner were AA teammates. Tyler Clippard started for Scranton. Sometimes the kids are alright.

Yesterday afternoon, Mike linked to a sobering bit on prospects though, and it’s worth it to spend some time with the piece. Scott McKinney of Royals Review studied the Baseball America top 100 prospects and determined that 70 percent of those listed fail to maintain a 1.5 per-season average WAR over the course of their careers. While top prospects who are also position players– such as Jesus Montero, as Mike wrote yesterday — have a much higher success rate, only 40 percent of pitchers in the top 20 and 20 percent of pitchers in the remaining 80 find Major League success. The Yankees saw 26.5 percent of their prospects from 1990-2003 maintain that WAR production in the majors.

McKinney, in his piece, is quick to point out that the study does not have predictive effects. He summarizes:

I do want to make clear that the above numbers are aggregates and therefore they cannot be used to predict the success of individual prospects. For instance if a first base prospect is currently ranked #15, that doesn’t mean that he has a 59.3% of succeeding in the majors. It just means that similarly ranked players have had that kind of success rate in aggregate. Players in that group have ranged from absolute failure to legitimate star status. But I do think the empirical evidence provides a basis for realistic expectations for various types of prospects. No team is going to have all or even most of their top 10 prospects succeed in the majors. Usually, they’d be fortunate to have a third of them succeed. For an historically good minor league system, you’ve got a realistic chance at half of them succeeding in the majors.

No one wants to hear that their favorite prospect has an uphill battle to reach stardom. Lately, too, the Yanks have a had a good go of it prospect-wise with Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, among others from the BA lists, enjoying success, as defined by McKinney. But this study helps contextualize trade rumors and crazy trade proposals.

As the General Manager, Brian Cashman has to know the relative worth of his prospects. I’m sure his Minor League guys and baseball ops guys have conducted studies similar to McKinney’s, and I’m sure they know success rates of prospects. When the right move comes around, then, the Yanks will be in a position to pull the trigger. We want Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman and Manny Banuelos to become the second coming of Joba, Hughes and Ian Kennedy, but that’s not a likely outcome. Oftentimes, a trade can net a player who will be more productive in the majors than the prospect he is replacing.

Knowing when to give up potential because it’s too remote or not refined enough is something often lost upon the legions of prospect huggers. As the Yanks face a clear shortage of pitchers, we might just see that skill tested soon.

Reminder: Top 30 Prospects posted

Just in case you missed it, I posted my list of the 30 best prospects in the Yankees’ system last Friday. Check it out if you haven’t seen it, or heck, read it again if you already did.