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Sunday, August 30, 2015

2015 Playoff Preview: The Kansas City Royals

Lorenzo Cain is on his way to a six-win season.  He'll still catch anything, but this year he's
showing improved power and patience.
Photo credit: Keith Allison

As we get ready to turn the page into September, it's time to look toward the 2015 playoffs. The Kansas City Royals, last years' playoff sweethearts, look like a lock to make their return to October baseball, and currently lead all of baseball with a 100% chance of winning their division (at FanGraphs, projection method, and I'm sure that's rounded).  I did profile the Royals in May when they faced the Reds, and the team the Reds faced then bears a lot of similarities to their August version, though with two main differences.  First, the Royals offense had been ridiculous through the first month and a half, but has settled down to post solid-average numbers.  That's still better than last year, but they're not doubling people to death anymore.  Second, their rotation has improved, in no small part thanks to the Royals' acquisition of one former Reds ace, Johnny Cueto.

Still, the hallmarks of this team are constant.  They field better than any other team in baseball, they have a killer bullpen, and they do the rest of it good enough to be a very good all-around team.  And I like them better in the short playoff series format than over the long season because they can leverage their bullpen more, and they can lean on Cueto, and they have some good bench pieces that they will be able to use to mix and match their way through series.  They look really strong, and will certainly be a team that I will cheer for this postseason.

Position Players

I'm making some guesses here.  Alex Gordon has been out with a bad groin injury, but is currently on a rehab assignment and should return to the lineup soon.  He'll take his job back in left field.  That leaves new acquisition Ben Zobrist, Omar Infante, and Alex Rios to divvy up time between second base and outfield.  I've always like Infante and two offseasons ago advocated for the Reds to go after him to help them justify unloading Brandon Phillips.  Nevertheless, had a completely miserable season.  Alex Rios hasn't exactly caught the world on fire this season, but I just don't see how Infante could keep his job once Gordon returns.

I'm burying the lede.  The biggest story on this team is probably the revitalized careers of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.  Last year, Moustakas was sent to AAA due to ineffectiveness.  Last year, Hosmer was a replacement-level hitter.  And then, in October, they both seemed to find their stroke, and it's carried forward into this year.  Both of them have cooled off from their hot starts to the season, but they are both now solidly above-average ballplayers that anchor the team.

And if they're not the biggest, then we have to be talking about the amazing year of Lorenzo Cain.  Cain has hit every bit as well as those others, while playing his typical brand of sparking defense in center field and brilliance on the basepaths.  Last year, you might have argued that his 5-WAR season was due to inflated fielding numbers.  But his bat has taken a step forward this year, and he's in line to reach 6 WAR by season's end.  He might not be the best CF not named Mike Trout just yet, but he has to be in that conversation.

The Royals continue to let Salvador Perez play roughly 5 out of 6 games.  His offense has slipped as the season has gone on, and one has to wonder if the workload has something to do with that.  If I were Kansas City, I'd at least try to get him rest in September now that the division is more or less wrapped up.  He is a good hitting catcher, but he may be too fatigued to show it.

I also want to give a nod to Alcides Escobar as a quality fielding-first shortstop.  I don't think he gets a lot of respect, but he has been solid and dependable the last few seasons.  And this year, he has hit better than two of the other regulars in the Royals' lineup.

Starting Pitchers

Johnny Cueto sure gives this staff a different look, doesn't he?  Cueto hasn't been quite as good for the Royals as he was for the Reds this year (strikeouts and ground ball rates are both down), but I see no reason to expect that he'll be anything but brilliant for them this postseason.  Following him will probably be their other former-Red, Edinson Volquez, who has also had himself a nice season.  Volquez still walks too many, but he gets a good ground ball rate and strikes out his share of hitters.

I still really like Yordano Ventura.  Listed at 6'0", 180 lbs, he looks like a little dude out there.  But he throws hard, has a nice breaking ball, and has looked good whenever I've had the chance to see him pitch.

Their #4 pitcher will probably be one of Danny Duffy or Kris Medlen.  Duffy hasn't been able to repeat the success he had last year.  But Medlen has only just entered their rotation, but is an intriguing option for them.  He's had fantastic success as a starter in the past, of course, and if they can keep him healthy and effective through the end of the year he could be a really nice boost to this staff.  I could even see a scenario where he gets the second start of a playoff series, behind Cueto and before Volquez, on the strength of a strong September and significant veteran cred.  He could be a really good choice, too.


These guys are the best bullpen in baseball.  Again.  Greg Holland has actually had an off year, but it can't be overstated how brilliant Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have been.  They don't even worry about left-right match-ups, really.  Franklin Morales has been quality for them as the lone left-hander in this bullpen, and he barely is ever used in a high leverage situation.  Ryan Madson has been used as their #4 reliever, and his season seems to indicate that he is still capable of closing.

This kind of depth gives the Royals a really nice advantage in the offseason.  Sure, they can ride Cueto to a 7- or 8-inning shutout, great.  But in the other games, if Volquez or Ventura start getting hit, they can bring in their bullpen in the 4th inning and still have a relievers pitch one inning apiece for the rest of the game, knowing all of them have posted sub-100 xFIP-'s and ERA-'s this year.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Better Know a Red: Keyvius Sampson

RHP Keyvius Sampson made his MLB starting debut on Sunday afternoon with a well-pitched ballgame against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Sampson was not a guy on my radar, but he impressed me with good velocity and a nice-looking curveball that he seemed able to throw for strikes.  Here's a profile on the latest Reds rookie to debut in their starting rotation.

Player Profile: History and Statistics

Sampson was drafted in the 4th round of the 2009 draft by the San Diego Padres out of Forest High School of Ocala, Florida.  Sampson is the 3rd major leaguer to hail from his school, joining Reid Nichols ('80-'87) and Jonathan Johnson ('98-'03).  Sampson was promoted all the way to low-A during his first season, albeit only for two games (on start).  The next year, he also threw for the Padres' low-A team, though again in limited action (10 starts, 43 innings).  By 2011, as a 20-year old, he was pitching for their A-ball affiliate, and he progressively was promoted a level per year, reaching AAA by 2013 as a 22-year old.  His minor league career started off brilliantly, with outstanding strikeout rates and acceptable walk rates to go with generally dominant performances.  Marc Hulet ranked him as the Padres' #6 prospect prior to the 2014 season, praising his velocity and noting he had a "potentially plus slider" and a quality change-up, but inconsistent control.

However, once he reached AAA, the more advanced hitters at that level seemed to have the distinct upper-hand. From 2013-2014, he posted an ERA in the high 6's, with a very comparable FIP.  The most obvious problem was that while he continued to post good strikeout rates, his walk rates ballooned to almost 7 bb/9.  In his offseason look at the Padres, Kiley McDaniel again praised Sampson's velocity and change-up, but expressed major concerns about his command and his slider.

The Padres put him on waivers this offseason, and the Reds grabbed him in January.  This year, in limited action the Bats, he hasn't been much better.  His walk rate has "improved" to 5 bb/9, but his strikeout rate has also slipped a bit.  He was doing well at avoiding the long ball, but that could easily have just been luck--in his first game with the Reds, he posted high fly ball rates (36% ground ball rate), although he had a dandy 6:1 k/bb ratio in his six solid innings of work.  The question with Sampson clearly seems to be whether he can avoid walks well enough to let his stuff play up.  Stats:


Given the scouting reports, I expected to see fastballs, change-ups, and sliders.  But this is what we saw:
I don't know if the curve is a new pitch for him or not.  The FanGraphs minor league guys always focused on his other pitches, but this tidbit from mlbtraderumors on the day he was DFA'd by the Padres this offseason mentions him scrapping the pitch.  Nevertheless, Sunday he was throwing it 23% of the time, and to great effect: Brooks Baseball describes it as generating an "extremely high number of swings and misses" compared to other curveballs.  It is the pitch that stood out to me watching him.  I saw him drop it in for a strikeout looking, and then saw it drop into the dirt to induce a chance.  The pitch looked great; hopefully he can repeat that next time.

It's tempting to go further with this, but with only one start to chew on I think it'd be grasping for signal amongst too much noise.  The challenge for the Reds, and for Keyvius Sampson, will be to keep him throwing the ball over the plate over the remainder of the year.  If he can do that, I'd wager he has the stuff to have some success.  If not, things won't be pretty.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Mike Leake Trade

The Reds have said goodbye to #44
Photo Credit: David
The Mike Leake era ended last week as the trading deadline approached.  No doubt having read my call to trade him (for the good of the Reds and for Mike Leake, himself), the Reds shipped him early Friday morning to the Giants in exchange for RHP Keury Mella and 1B Adam Duvall.

What the Reds Gave Up

Mike Leake, RHP, 27 years old
Mike Leake has been a favorite of mine since he was drafted out of Arizona State.  While he's always been in the background behind guys like Cueto, Latos, Arroyo, and Bailey, Mike Leake was involved in all three of the Reds' playoff teams in their recent run (2010-2013).  He literally contributed from day 1, making the Reds out of spring training in 2010 before he'd thrown a pitch in the minor leagues.  He's been remarkably consistent over that time, with a predictable recipe: he doesn't strike out a ton of batters, but he doesn't walk guys either, and he gets a lot of ground balls.  He's been particularly good over the past two seasons as he has gotten his ground ball rate up over 50%, and even spiked his strikeouts to almost 7 k/9 last season.

Despite his smaller frame, Leake has never really had injury problems.  He has been dependable, reliable, and as consistent as a mid-rotation starter will get.  He has always seemed like a good guy, too, despite his stupid shoplifting incident early on (which now is hilarious, in hindsight).  I'll miss him.  San Francisco should be a great fit for him (he will never give up home runs!  ever!), and I'll be cheering for him to get a nice payday this offseason with some deserving team.  He might end up being one of the better free agent deals; a still-young pitcher with reasonable inning totals, no injury history, and a guy who uses his defense.  The Pirates would love him, though I don't know if they'll be able to afford him.

What the Reds Got Back

RHP Keury Mella, RHP, 21 years old
Mella began the season as the Giants #4 prospect according to Baseball America, and by midseason they ranked him #2 in that organization thanks to improved secondary pitches.  Other prospectors have him #1.  Unfortunately, this is the problem with team prospect rankings: not all organizations are created equal.  Despite being one of the best prospects the Giants could offer, Mella most likely ranks behind two of the prospects the Reds received from the Royals for Johnny Cueto.  Kiley McDaniel rated him as a 45 future value prospect, noting that he had a violent dilivery and limited room to continue to develop.

Nevertheless, the results have been consistently good for Keury as he has moved through the Giants' system.  He is set to crack 100 innings for the first time this year, and is still just 21 years old.  The Reds hope he can stick as a starter, and noted that he can probably be a guy who moves quickly.

RHB 1B Adam Duvall, 26 years old
Since being drafted out of the University of Louisville (he's a native of Shively, KY, which is along the inner interstate loop around Louisville), Duvall's calling card has been his power.  He hit 30 home runs in 2012 for the Giants in high-A, and has sported .200+ ISO in all but his first minor league season.  The primary problem is that he doesn't have a lot of other skills.  He doesn't field well, though the Reds will see if might be able to play corner outfield.  His strikeout rates don't really look too terrible for a power hitter, but he hasn't been walking very much since reaching high-A.  This year, his walk rates are down even further, dropping from 8% in 2012-2014 down to 6%.  His upside looks like a potential bench guy who can provide power; that's something the Reds haven't really had since Chris Heisey was shipped to the Dodgers.

Compared to Other Rental Pitcher Deals

In my piece at Redleg Nation on the Cueto trade, I pulled up a set of comparable mid-season rental pitcher deals.  Leake would rank well behind guys like Cueto and Greinke, but fits pretty nicely with names like Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, and Ricky Nolasco; guys who can provide roughly 1 WAR over two months' time.  ZiPS has Leake as providing 0.9 WAR of value over the rest of this season, which seems right to me.

How does this deal compare to those ones?  The Scott Kazmir return seems to be much better than what the Reds got.  Kazmir is having a nice season, but to net a 50 FV catcher (even one who might not be able to catch) along with a 40 FV pitcher is really good for him.  Garza's return also looks better, at least given what they knew at the time.  Grimm was a MLB-ready pitcher, albeit one who hasn't worked out so far in their rotation.  Mike Olt was a top prospect having vision problems, and again seems to not be working out.  But he still had a lot of pedigree at the time.

The return for Leake seems fairly comparable to what the Indians got for Justin Masterson (a 45 FV prospect, although in that case an outfielder), or the return for Jake Peavy last summer (Edwin Escobar as a falling prospect, Heath Hembree as a marginal one).  It seems clearly better than the nothingness the Marlins received for Ricky Nolasco in 2013.

So, based on all of those comparables, I see this is as a fairly even return given Leake's value.  We'll just have to hope that the Reds are right and Mella is able to stick as a starting pitcher.  If so, it'll look like a great deal a few years from now.  If not...well, a good bullpen arm still might be the best return the Reds could hope to get for Leake, given that he might well accept a $17 million qualifying offer if they had given it to him this fall.