Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Curious Case of Devin Mesoraco

One of the best things about baseball is its inherent uncertainty. While statistical analysis has gone a long way to changing how we view and value the events that make up the game of baseball, there is still a measure of uncertainty. And, a bit of uncertainty makes the game fun. It's a bit ironic that as statistical analysis improves our understanding and valuation of the game, it also threatens to eliminate the mystery that helps make it special. Fortunately, the human element of the game will never be completely understood or predicted, because it would be pretty boring if all the organizations had perfect knowledge of players and their future career arcs. There are definite trends around which events gravitate and cluster, but the outliers and unexpected happenings that make baseball fun remain.

For example, position player prospects typically follow a rather standard linear development curve. It almost seems as if trend line has its own gravity, pulling any potential outliers back into conformance. Typically, either position prospects conform to the develop trend line or they cease to be prospects. Typically, they gradually progress up the ladder making incremental improvements in their game along the way to perform up to the level of the competition. However, every once in a while, a player completely defies the trend, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

A prime example is Devin Mesoraco, whose 2010 story is truly remarkable. Most, if not all, of the professional pundits were writing Mesoraco off, which isn't all that surprising considering his professional production prior to this year:

2007: .219/.310/.270/.580
2008: .261/.311/.399/.710
2009: .228/.311/.381/.692

Now, he's absolutely crushing the ball to the tune of .316/.387/.603/.989. Mesoraco has unlocked his true potential with the help of good health and the wisdom that comes from struggle and experience. Additionally, he may have finally caught up to the aggressive, fast-track development program that the Reds have placed him on. Right now, Mesoraco is proving that the Reds were right to select him in the first round.

In my 2010 prospect rankings, I had Mesoraco at #16. While his pre-2010 production was never impressive, the peripherals were always relatively strong and gave reason for optimism. Additionally, Mesoraco was always going to need a longer development curve, as he was a cold weather high school prospect who missed time due to Tommy John surgery. He was at a position that required more development time than most and yet brought less experience with him to the professional ranks than normal. In short, even the best case scenario was going to involve a lot of games and at bats in the minors.

In the write-up, I stated that for me the statute of limitations on the opinion of Mesoraco as a potential impact talent was one more year. If he didn't put it together in 2010, he was going to slide off my rankings entirely. Fortunately, he is putting it all together and his 20 homeruns have put to rest my question of whether his swing would enable him to generate significant power. At this point, the power seems to be legit.

It's not a stretch to say that Mesoraco is probably the biggest surprise in all of the minor leagues, as he's gone from afterthought/irrelevant to elite/impact in a matter of mere months. And, he's bucked conventional player development ideas and trends to do it, which makes it all the more satisfying for its unexpectedness.

Additionally, Mesoraco's emergence also highlights an interesting and important organizational trend. Take a look:

2010 - Yasmani Grandal, c
2009 - Mike Leake, rhp
2008 - Yonder Alonso, 1b
2007 - Devin Mesoraco, c
2006 - Drew Stubbs, cf
2005 - Jay Bruce, of
2004 - Homer Bailey, rhp

What's missing from this list?

Looking back all the way to 2004, it's rather difficult to consider any of the Reds' first round draft picks a mistake. There's simply no bust on the list. Sure, you can quibble about the massive opportunity cost that came along with the Drew Stubbs selection, but it seems unlikely that any of the these picks are going to flame out and be a huge bust. Mesoraco was the question mark, but as his performance continues over a larger and larger sample size, it's getting more and more difficult to forecast significant regression. Neither Yonder nor Grandal have proven enough to consider them locks, but they are polished college prospects who have much shorter development curves than other prospects, which makes them much lower risk.

All in all, it's been a very strong 7 years for the Reds, who are entitled to take a bow for their strong work. The first round is obviously the best opportunity to land impact talent, but the flame out rate is also higher than might be expected. For the Reds to land a likely impact talent in 7 straight drafts is a pretty extraordinary achievement, especially for a team that previously struggled so mightily in the draft, to say the least:

2003 - Ryan Wagner, rhp
2002 - Chris Gruler, rhp
2001 - Jeremy Sowers, lhp
2000 - David Espinosa, inf
1999 - Ty Howington, lhp
1998 - Austin Kearns, of
1997 - Brandon Larson, inf
1996 - John Oliver, of
1995 - --none--
1994 - C.J. Nitkowski, lhp
1993 - Pat Watkins, of
1992 - Chad Mottola, of

It has taken an absurdly long time to undue the damage done to the scouting department by the frugal and tightfisted Marge Schott, who famously gutted the scouting budget after stating that she wasn't willing to pay people simply to watch games. She decided that the better option was to plow all the money into the MLB roster, which enabled the team to find short-term success. However, this short-term success was actually accomplished by shifting a massive cost onto the back of future Reds teams. By neglecting the farm system, more resources could be poured into the 25-man roster, but it came at the expense of the future as the flow of cost effective, homegrown talent inevitably dried up.

At this point, the future is clearly bright for both Mesoraco and the Reds, as each has managed to make a complete 180 degree turn from their established performance level to get back on track. Mesoraco has stepped forward to give the Reds another potential impact prospect in their system and could easily be playing his way into the Reds major league plans for 2011.

The emergence of Devin Mesoraco when coupled with the selection of Yasmani Grandal gives the Reds two potential "catchers of the future" where a few short months earlier there had been none. The Reds system continues to get deeper and more productive, which makes the team's strong performance at the MLB this year look more and more sustainable.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Trade Deadline Needs & The Jonny Gomes Mirage

Well, the trade deadline is approaching and the Reds are running neck-and-neck with the St.Louis Cardinals. There are a lot of rumblings about the Cardinals making a big move, perhaps even reeling in big fish Roy Oswalt. If that happens, then the Reds could be moving backwards simply by not moving forward. As the old saying goes, if you aren't improving you are just standing still.

That said, what move should the Reds make. Obviously, the one that provides the most bang for the buck. And, the obvious weaknesses in the 25 man roster are 1) leftfield, 2) shortstop, 3) #1 starter, and 4) high leverage reliever. So, the million dollar question is which one should they target?

Let's start with a #1 starter....

First and foremost, we can scratch number 1 starter off the list. Truth be told, the Reds are in fairly good shape in the rotation due to the emergence of Travis Wood and Mike Leake. The return of Edinson Volquez hasn't gone as smooth as hoped, but the potential is there for him to have an impact. At the moment, the Reds may not have a true #1 starter to anchor the rotation, but they have a lot of quality arms with good upside.

If they actually were interested in acquiring a #1 starter, then they should have gone after Danny Haren, who went to the Angels for the unbelievably low price of Joe Saunders, Patrick Corbin, Rafael Rodriguez, and a PTBNL (rumored to be Tyler Skaggs). With Haren off the market, the price is likely to be too high on any of the remaining pitchers who would represent an improvement.

So, what about shortstop?

Well, I'm still not a Orlando Cabrera fan. In fact, he's about as bad as I expected him to be, but at this point it's difficult to imagine being able to acquire a shortstop that represents a significant upgrade. The Reds need an impact player and those are tough to come by at the shortstop position. Improvements in the Reds' W/L record will follow improvement in team Run Differential. Accordingly, the Reds need to focus on trades that will significantly improve the team Run Differential, which will be difficult to accomplish simply by acquiring a new shortstop.

That said, if I was the GM, the one shortstop for whom I'd make a strong play is Jed Lowrie, who could be a legitimate impact bat at either shortstop or second base. Not to mention, he could also spell Scott Rolen when he needs a breather from carrying the entire team on his back. Still, Lowrie may not be quite ready to step into full-time duty after missing most of the season with mono, but he would be an asset both this year and well into the future.

If it's not Lowrie, then maybe it needs to be a high leverage reliever...

I'd love to see the Reds add a high leverage reliever who can work some quality innings, but the volatility of relievers always makes me nervous. One of the worst trades in recent organization history illustrates the problem of dealing for relievers. The Reds shipped Felipe Lopez, Austin Kearns, and Ryan Wagner for a package including a couple of relievers. Obviously, that deal didn't turn out very well. The price was high, but the production was not.

Like most Reds fans, I have fond memories of the 1990 squad that featured the Nasty Boys. The value of having 3 elite, shutdown power arms working high leverage innings cannot be overstated. That said, it's simply not easy to find those guys in this day and age. It's unlikely to be worth it to pay the price necessary to get relievers of this type when they are already established, but the inherent volatility of the position would make trying to identify them before they are established at the MLB level would be equally problematic.

If the Reds were to head in this direction, I wouldn't mind Brandon League of the Seattle Mariners. He has a big arm and very heavy groundball tendencies.

All of which leads us to leftfield...

Leftfield is commonly referred to as an "offense-first" position. While it's true that the lesser defensive demands of the position lends itself to hiding sluggers, the fact remains that, regardless of position, a player's value is a function of his runs created and runs prevented. So, the rules of baseball value don't cease to apply simply because conventional wisdom holds that leftfield defensive doesn't matter. Defense matters....everywhere.

That said, Jonny Gomes, who conventional wisdom holds has been a significant asset to this team, has actually been dragging the team down. If the Reds want to make a push for the postseason and be serious contenders, then they need to remove Johnny Gomes from full-time duty. Plain and simple. Cut and dried.

Gomes certainly has value, but he needs to be used appropriately to bring out that value.
I was high on Gomes when he was first signed and I still like him now, but that's dependent on using him correctly. First, his glove is so poor that it completely drags down the value of his production. It's hard to believe, but his glove really IS that bad. Gomes would be most valuable used as the righthanded portion of a platoon and a power bat off the bench.

During his time in Cincinnati, Jonny Gomes has quickly stepped into the shoes of the faithfully departed Adam Dunn. Gomes isn't just taking the over the 7th position on the lineup card, but also the role of the lightening rod that was inadvertently filled by the Big Donkey.

For years, Dunn straddled the divide between the sabermetricians and the traditional scouts. Sabermetricians used more advanced metrics to value Dunn, while the more traditional scouting valued him based on his tools and how he went about his production. Obviously, depending on what you use to evaluate him, he grades out very differently.

Despite the accolades he receives from some quarters, the truth is that as of now Gomes is producing at almost exactly a replacement level. In essence, the Reds are getting almost no production out of the leftfield spot.

On offense, Gomes is hitting .274/.326/.461/.787, which is hardly inspiring production for an "offense-first" position. Of course, his 13 homeruns and 64 RBI are used as evidence of his "strong production." In truth, even his offensive production hasn't been strong, as evidenced by his 2.0 Park Adjusted Runs Above Average. For comparison sake, Brandon Phillips (7.5), Ryan Hanigan (4.9), Ramon Hernandez (3.2), Joey Votto (35.4), and Scott Rolen (15.3) are all significantly better in Park Adjusted Runs Above Average.

Obviously, his offense isn't really driving his value, which is problematic because we haven't gotten to the disturbing part of his game. Whatever offensive production that Gomes generates above the norm, he then gives right back on the defensive side.

On defense, Gomes rates out as 10 Runs Below Average on the UZR metric. When extrapolated out over 150 games, Gomes' defensive production grades out at 21.7 Runs Below Average. When your defensive performance is so far below average, it takes very strong offensive production to make up for it. Gomes simply doesn't provide enough offense to carry his glove.

Not surprisingly, Jonny's total run production grades out poorly. His Runs Above Replacement is a meager -0.1. In essence, Jonny is replacement level, which is stunningly bad production. The type of production you would expect from the 25th man on the roster when called into action off the bench.

When you translate his total run production into Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Gomes grades out as 0.0 wins. He provides zero wins above what a replacement player would provide.

If the Reds truly want to upgrade, then they need to get better total run production from leftfield. The best acquisition would be Jayson Werth, who over the past few seasons has been roughly 5.0 Wins Above Replacement. Obviously, acquiring Werth more than halfway into the season would limit the amount of games he would get to play for the Reds, but he would still represent a roughly 2 win improvement over the remainder of the season.

By going from Gomes to Werth in leftfield, the Reds could ultimately be going from 85-86 wins to 87-88 wins. That could be the difference between the postseason and another uneventful October.

If the Reds cannot or will not acquire Jayson Werth, then they need to consider internal options. In fact, Chris Heisey or Chris Dickerson might be the better option as the full-time starter. Or, using Jonny Gomes only against southpaws. Or, maybe even a Chris Heisey/Danny Dorn platoon, which personally I'd love to see.

In Dorn's minor league career, he hits .312/.394/.549/.943 against righties, while Heisey hit .339/.415/.506/.921 against southpaws. Of course, the Reds would never give Dorn a legitimate shot at the heavy side of the platoon, but they could also go with Juan Francisco or another lefthanded option.

Whatever they do, they would be hard pressed to get worse total production than what is being provided by Jonny Gomes. It would also allow Dusty to use Gomes in a role that better utilizes his skills and enables him to provide better overall run production.

If the Reds want to make a serious postseason push, then they need to look hard at areas of weakness and figure out ways to improve them. The Reds simply aren't good enough to succeed with replacement level production at an offense first position.

I like Jonny Gomes, but he has to be used correctly. The Reds need to get better production from leftfield, plain and simple.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Perfect!!! Well, close enough...

Travis Wood toed the rubber on Saturday night against the pennant winning Philadelphia Phillies. The rest was almost history, as Wood flirted with perfection before Carlos Ruiz broke it up by opening up the 9th inning with a double. Despite the leadoff double, Wood settled back in to retire the next three hitters without any more damage.

When it was all said and done, Wood tossed 9 shutout innings with 8 strikeouts, 0 walks, 0 hit batters, and only 1 hit allowed. Unfortunately, the Reds offense was up against Roy Halladay and couldn't scrap out a single run. Given that Wood pitches in the era of the pitch count, he wasn't allowed to work any deeper into the game and was denied the chance at the win.

Still, it was an undeniably brilliant performance. He kept the Phillies off-balance with his curveball and changeup, but also overpowered them with a fastball that routinely touched 93 and even 94 mph. Personally, I love the deadfish changeup that he threw on several occasions to righthanded hitters. He started it on the outside corner and let it fade down and away. He also flashed the cutter that chewed up a righthanded hitter or two by getting in on the hands.

On the day, he threw 109 pitches, 74 of which were strikes. Of those strikes, 6 were swings-and-misses, 27 were called, and 41 were the result of contact.

Overall, it was a fairly remarkable performance. In fact, I'm not entirely sure we appreciate how remarkable it was. It was one of the best pitching performances in the history of the organization. Just for fun, let's analyze it in terms of Game Score, which was developed by Bill James and is calculated as follows:

1. Start with 50 points.
2. Add 1 point for every out recorded.
3. Add 2 points for every inning completed after the 4th.
4. Add 1 point for each strikeout.
5. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed.
6. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed.
7. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed.
8. Subtract 1 point for each walk allowed.

Travis Wood's near perfect-o was worth a robust 93 points in terms of Game Score. To give it some context and put the performance in the proper perspective, Wood's 93 Game Score tied him for the 18th best in Reds history. In the history of baseball's first professional organization, only 17 games have been better than Travis Wood's 3rd career start!

Here is the list:

1. Ray Starr: 101
2. Eppa Rixey: 101
3. Paul Derringer: 99
4. Harry Perkowski: 97
5. Johnny Vander Meer: 96
6. Dolf Loque: 96
7. Mario Soto: 95
8. Jim Maloney: 95
9. Jim Maloney: 95
10. Si Johnson: 95
11. Tom Browning: 94
12. Bruce Berenyi: 94
13. Jim Maloney: 94
14. Joe Nuxhall: 94
15. Bucky Walters: 94
16. Johnny Vander Meer: 94
17. Dolf Luque: 94
18. Travis Wood: 93

Those are the names, scores, and links to the box scores for those games. There are several games of note in that list, including:

#5 - April 30th, 1969 Houston Astros vs. Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field

The Astros showed up in the Queen City riding an 8 game losing streak and boasting a 4-20 record. And, with Jim Maloney on the hill for the Reds, it was only going to get worse. Facing a lineup that featured Joe Morgan, Jesus Alou, Jim Wynn, and Doug Rader in the first four slots in the order, Maloney mowed them down in front of 3,898 paying fans. Maloney tossed a no-hitter, striking out 13 and walking 5.

Clearly, he didn't face the best competition, but his stellar performance was good for a Game Score of 95.

#8 - September 16, 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium

The first place Dodgers rolled into town packing an 84-61 record to face the third place Reds who were 7.5 games back. In one of the better pitching battles of the year, and perhaps any year, Tom Browning and Tim Belcher faced off.

Browning took the mound and faced a lineup including the likes of Alfredo Griffin, Mickey Hatcher, Kirk Gibson, and Steve Sax. It made no difference, as Browning pitched his way into the history books with a perfect game. Twenty-seven batters marched to the plate and Browning sent them right back to the dugout.

On the day, Browning struck out 7 and allowed no baserunners. Browning threw 100 pitches, including 72 strikes. He induced 10 outs by groundball and 10 outs by flyball. On the other side, Tim Belcher was the very definition of a tough-luck loser. Belcher also threw a complete game and allowed only a single unearned run. Belcher struck out 7, walked 1, and gave up 3 hits.

Belcher and Browning made such quick work of the hitters that the game was over in 1 hour and 51 minutes. The difference came in the 6th inning when Barry Larkin hit a two-out double down the right field line. Larkin came around to score when the defense let Belcher down. Chris Sabo hit a groundball to third baseman Jeff Hamilton who promptly threw the ball away. Belcher then took matters into his own hands by picking Sabo off first base to end the inning, but that was all the run support that Browning would need on this day.

Browning's performance was one for the ages and earned him a Game Score of 94.

#10 August 19, 1965 Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field

This game is notable for several different reasons, as Jim Maloney allowed no-hits in 10 innings despite walking 10 hitters.

Facing a Cubs lineup featuring Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and Ron Santo, Maloney again flashed overpowering stuff. He faced 40 batters, allowing no hits, but walking 10 and hitting Ron Santo with a pitch. Despite allowing over a baserunner an inning, the Cubs could not muster any hits or runs.

Larry Jackson was almost Maloney's equal, allowing only a homerun to Leo Cardenas, but Maloney didn't need anything more.

Maloney's no-hitter was equal parts impressive and unimpressive, as he obviously flashed overpowering stuff and was the definition of "effectively wild."

His performance was good for a Game Score of 94, but hardly seems more impressive than Travis Wood's performance.


Obviously, Wood's performance was truly one for the ages. It stacks up favorably against just about every game pitched in the organization's history. On the other hand, it's obvious from looking at the highest game scores that one game does not a career make. Pitchers like Bruce Berenyi and Harry Perkowski had their day in the sun, but their respective careers weren't all that impressive.

Wood got off to a great start in his career, but he has work to do to avoid the Berenyi career arc. Still, I was more than a bit impressed, as the fastball looked a tick faster and the curveball looked sharper than his minor league days. Another change is that Wood has slowed the tempo of his windup, which may help him gather himself before his drive to the plate.

Overall, the future looks bright for young Travis Wood, who may well have the necessary skills to build on his impressive performance.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sean Gallagher...Missed Opportunity

Well, I was going to write this last night, but ran out of time. And, now that I've got the time, it's no longer timely. Even so, here are a few quick thoughts on Sean Gallagher.

The San Diego Padres recently designated Sean Gallagher for assignment. Unfortunately, earlier today, the Pirates acquired his services at a very reasonable cost. The Pirates didn't even have to cough up a mid-tier prospect, rather just collect the cash lying around between the cushions of the clubhouse couch. For that cash, the Pirates landed an intriguing pitcher with good upside.

Obviously, Gallagher is someone I've been high on for a while. To me, he's a pitcher with a fastball that averages 92 mph and touches 94 and a curveball with true plus potential. If you want a glimpse of the quality of his curveball, then check out the yakker he drops on Chone Figgins for the strikeout. Also, here's another look at his good fastball and curveball combo.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Gallagher is his age. He seems like he's been around forever, but in actuality he's only 24-years old. His birthday is December 30th, which means that he is younger than the competition he frequently faced coming up through the amateur ranks. And, playing against older, more mature players can aid in a player's development. Additionally, in the minors, his performance frequently earned a bump in value for "age vs. level". Obviously, age plays a big part in a prospect's value and, despite bouncing around the majors a bit, I don't think it's inappropriate to view Gallagher as a prospect.

In his minor league career, Gallagher posted a 2.82 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9, and a 8.9 K/9 in 513.2 innings. His minor league performance outpaces his major league performance, but it's tough not to be impressed with what he did down on the farm. Right or wrong, his minor league performance has been completely overshadowed by his Major League performance. While that typically is perfectly understandable and justifiable, I wonder if that's true or fair to Sean Gallagher.

His Major League career has been characterized by instability, in location (Chicago, Oakland, San Diego), job responsibilities (Starting, Relieving), and health (Knee Injury). When put in this context, I think you have to refer back to the minor league track record to supplement the projection of Sean Gallagher. At this point, I'd love to see what Gallagher can do in the rotation over a much larger sample size.

Gallagher seems like the perfect buy low candidate. A young pitcher with strikeout stuff and a potential plus swing-and-miss pitch. Additionally, given the absurdly low cost to acquire him, the risk/reward balance on acquiring him was tilted massively in our favor. There was very little to lose and quite possibly a great deal to be gained. Given that the Reds will potentially cut ties with both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang after the season, there could be a need for a player matching the description of Sean Gallagher. In essence, he was free talent and the Reds failed to capitalize on the opportunity.

With respect to the value of Sean Gallagher, either the powers-that-be in Major League Baseball see something I don't, or I see something they don't. Whatever the case, Gallagher is now off to his fourth organization. Unfortunately, that organization is not the Cincinnati Reds.