David's Blog

On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest.  Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!

“Baseball’s amateur talent pipeline is a system that’s exploitative and deplorable “

Houston, You Have a Problem

JULY 21, 2014


A little less than two months ago, the Houston Astros used the no. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft to select Brady Aiken, a left-handed pitcher out of Cathedral Catholic High School in California. Within 48 hours, they had agreed to pay the 17-year-old a reported $6.5 million signing bonus, tying the highest bonus ever given to a high school pitcher, but still $1.4 million below slot value. Aiken was set to receive his payday and the Astros were set to save some change, and nobody gave the matter a second thought.

At least until Friday, when the signing deadline passed without Aiken actually nking a contract. What happened? Well, plenty, and very little of it’s good for Houston. The circumstances by which Aiken and the Astros failed to translate the deal from handshake to paper make this the most interesting transaction story since at least the Marlins–Blue Jays blockbuster trade in 2012, and this situation only stands to get more bizarre as time passes.

First, a little draft contract background: Most first-round draft picks sign professional contracts, but not all. It’s normal for one first-rounder to turn down his offer and try again later — even pitchers, and even relatively high first-rounders — and you might recognize certain players who’ve done so recently: Gerrit Cole, Karsten Whitson, Tyler Beede, Mark Appel, and now Aiken. While it’s less common for the no. 1 overall pick not to sign, it’s not unprecedented: Danny Goodwin didn’t sign in 1971 and Tim Belcher didn’t sign in 1983.

What makes Aiken’s case so unusual is that the Astros pulled their offer after his physical, which revealed that his left UCL (the ligament that gets replaced during Tommy John surgery) is unusually small. Even that isn’t unprecedented, though: In 1996, the Texas Rangers slashed their bonus offer to their first-round pick, R.A. Dickey, when a post-draft physical revealed that Dickey didn’t have a UCL in his throwing elbow at all. Back here in 2014, the Astros cut Aiken’s bonus offer from $6.5 million to about $3.1 million, the lowest number they could offer while still recouping next year’s no. 2 overall pick as compensation if Aiken failed to sign.

I’m not an orthopedist, so I can’t tell you whether Aiken’s small UCL will make him more injury-prone going forward. The problem is that even if I were an orthopedist, I wouldn’t be able to predict Aiken’s future based on what Houston found in his MRI results. By all accounts the small UCL is a congenital issue, not an injury, and Aiken has been playing at a high level for several years without any abnormal difficulty or discomfort. And that’s problematic for the Astros, because it means they reneged on a pre-draft deal following a physical that didn’t actually reveal that Aiken was hurt, or that he’d be more likely to get hurt in the future.

Aiken and his adviser, Casey Close, were justifiably taken aback by this turn of events, calling out the Astros for their shoddy practices and Major League Baseball for allowing this to unfold. In the uncertainty over the state of Aiken’s health, rumors began to swirl that the Tiny UCL Affair of 2014 was actually a smoke screen to cut Aiken’s bonus and use the savings to help sign other players. MLB regulates how much teams can spend on draft picks, and the Astros entered post-draft negotiations with an overall signing budget just north of $13 million. The league places a dollar amount on each draft pick in the first 10 rounds, so if you add up the numbers for each pick, you get the total salary cap each team is allowed to spend on its draftees. If one player signs for less than the recommended slot, the team can use the savings to sign other picks to richer bonuses, including players in the last 30 rounds, who’d ordinarily only be able to sign for $100,000. If a team goes over its spending limit, the league taxes the overage. If a team goes over by enough, it loses draft picks in coming years.

The Astros were particularly focused on trying to sign two other players: Jacob Nix, a high school pitcher from Orange County who, like Aiken, was nominally committed to play college ball at UCLA, and Mac Marshall, who was rated as a second-round talent but slipped to the 21st round because his stated commitment to play at LSU was so strong teams believed they couldn’t sign him. Remember the $1.4 million the Astros were supposed to save for signing Aiken below slot value? They’d earmarked most of that money for fifth-round pick Nix. The draft bonus slotting system allocated $370,500 for the no. 136 pick, but Nix had reached a verbal agreement for almost four times that amount. The Astros ultimately upped their offer to Aiken to $5 million in the minutes before the deadline, but Aiken was through negotiating by that point. When they failed to sign Aiken, the Astros lost the nearly $8 million associated with the no. 1 overall slot, and thus lost the cushion they’d planned to use to lock up Nix and, if possible, Marshall. If Houston’s attempts to lowball Aiken had worked, the team could have easily gotten him, Nix, and Marshall. Since those attempts failed, however, Houston lost all three, plus the money associated with their draft slots, which totaled more than two-thirds of the team’s overall 2014 draft budget.

And it gets worse. Aiken and Nix could file grievances against the Astros for breaking their verbal agreements and sue to become free agents, a status most recently granted to Barret Loux, the unsigned no. 6 overall pick in the 2010 draft. If Aiken and Nix fail to achieve free agency, both have the option of attending a junior college and reentering the draft next year or going to UCLA and trying again in three years.

There’s a chance UCLA may no longer be an option for Aiken, however, because both Astros owner Jim Crane and GM Jeff Luhnow made a point of saying they’d been negotiating with Close on Aiken’s behalf. Having an agent is against NCAA rules, though standard practice is to look the other way in the case of MLB draftees, unless someone drops a dime on the player. (You might remember an incident involving the Phillies early this year that got Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler suspended and made Jason Monda the most famous med student in the Pacific Northwest.)

While the overall level of complexity involved in this story is staggering, this last part makes identifying the blameworthy party very simple. The Astros, a multimillion-dollar corporation that could find $3.4 million in the change jar on the nightstand, tried to nickel and dime a kid who’s trying to break into an industry that’s stacked the deck against him, and then they tattled on him to the NCAA once they failed to get their way. Think about this: In any industry other than sports, a laborer without a contract could work for any company in the industry and negotiate as high of a salary as the market would bear. Aiken’s only contract leverage is to go to college and play in exchange for having only part of his education covered, but in order to maintain that leverage, at least by the letter of the law, Aiken has to negotiate without professional help against a team of professional negotiators from Houston. Aiken isn’t old enough to vote.

And Houston can do this because most sports fans are conditioned to be shocked when athletes make millions of dollars to play a game, but be OK when owners pocket tens or hundreds of millions for not playing a game. In the Ken Burns Baseball documentary, George Will, of all people, argued that because fans pay to see players, the players ought to get most of the financial rewards. Apart from sports fans, I don’t know who’s less labor-friendly than Will — Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, maybe?

Baseball’s amateur talent pipeline is a system that’s exploitative and deplorable from a labor relations standpoint even when management operates in good faith, and what the Astros did to Aiken is beyond deplorable.

On the eve of the signing deadline, CBS’s Jon Heyman quipped about the Astros ignoring the human element. I imagine he intended it as a cute little jab at the front office’s disregard for the traditions and norms of standard baseball practice, which Heyman, in conspicuously facile fashion, described as “sabermetrics.”

Still, Heyman stumbled onto the essential truth of the situation. This isn’t about sabermetrics or how the Astros chose to rebuild. This is distinctly about the human element. If your word is not your bond, if you’re willing to brazenly exploit teenagers to gain an edge, endangering their educational and professional futures out of spite, you might lack an appreciation for the human element. I’d say you lack humanity altogether.



"The grass isn't always greener on the other side," 

Utley's loyalty defies logic

Sam Donnellon, Daily News Sports Columnist

Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014

NOT EVERYONE can be Derek Jeter.

Chipper Jones won his only world championship as a rookie. Cal Ripken Jr. was in his second season when the Orioles beat the Phillies to win his only World Series in 1983.

Tony Gwynn reached the World Series twice, in 1984 and 1998, when his San Diego Padres were beaten in five games by Detroit and swept by the Yankees, respectively. Now in his 11th season with the Mets, his career batting average an even .300, David Wright has played in the postseason just once, when the Mets lost to the Cardinals in a seven-game National League Championship Series, in 2006.

These are a few guys who, off the top of my head, chose to remain with their original teams as those teams went into decline, or a "rebuild." Gwynn played through a few of them, Ripken too, and both managed to be first-ballot Hall of Famers despite it. Jones will undoubtedly follow them there and Wright, depending on how well he maintains his day-to-day excellence as he advances into his 30s, might get enough votes someday as well.

Which brings me to Chase Utley and the health-based contract he signed last August at age 34 and his oft-stated desire to finish his career here, regardless of the circumstances.

"The grass isn't always greener on the other side," he said during the All-Star Game media session last Monday. "I've picked some brains over the course of the last few years. I really enjoy Philadelphia. I love playing baseball in Citizens Bank Park. I love playing in front of Philly fans. There's no better place to play in my opinion. Obviously, winning is important and you want to do that, and I would like to do that in Philadelphia."

Here's the problem with that last part: There is no Jorge Posada or Andy Pettitte or Mariano Rivera to try to do that with. And the well of money that fueled all those big contracts under which the Phillies now buckle appears to be currently capped. So while the Yankees would likely be willing to take on the contracts of both Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels (and pay the luxury tax it would entail), the Phillies will swap you any number of their stars and starters not named Utley and pay much of their salary as well if you can help them bolster even a little bit a minor league system that was rated among the five worst by several outlets when this past season began.

The Phillies' owners showed a willingness to spend when their park was filled and their team was filled with players in their prime. But the deals that sent Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino elsewhere, and this past winter's bargain-hunting free-agent mentality, suggest strongly that Utley is in store for the same kind of rebuild under which Wright has possibly played the best years of his career, the kind of rebuild under which Ripken and Gwynn spent most of their careers.

Even Jones, who experienced only two losing seasons over his 18-year career, can speak to the perils of staying with the same team as it revamps and replenishes. After reaching the postseason in each of his first 11 seasons, Chipper played in the postseason just once over his final seven.

So why then, would Utley want to stay? It's the question Jonathan Papelbon asked a few weeks ago, the one that fueled his recent surge in local unpopularity, if that's even possible. Pap's smears have moved the dial so low at this point that he could could rip Mike Schmidt and Roy Halladay in the same sentence and it wouldn't even move.

And yet it's a valid point. Utley faced the very real possibility just a couple of years ago of being out of baseball for good by now. At 35, unsure of how long this second life will last, why choose to play your last few years in rebuilding mode?

I get Gwynn, who grew up just up the road from San Diego and had both his extended and immediate families nearby. I get Ripken, who grew up outside Baltimore and whose father was a career Oriole, for the same reason.

Even Wright, raised in Norfolk, Va., where the Mets had their Triple A affiliate for decades, makes more sense than Utley's loyalty to a town a continent away from where he and his California-raised wife have built the home in which they plan to spend their post-baseball lives together.

Why not get an early start and play some postseason ball for those first-place Giants?

Who wouldn't want to do that?

Utley, if he can be believed. And since the guy has spent his career avoiding hyperbole and talking straight (when he has spoken at all), he can be. He may rethink his stance, he said last week, "if someone at some point comes up to me and says, 'You're not wanted in Philadelphia anymore.' " And while it's not likely to be phrased like that, the plain truth is that Utley likely will be forced, over the next 9 days, to choose between the two things he loves the most: playing for us, or playing to win.

Either way, we lose.



“Hitting isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be.”



The Curious Case of Mark Buehrle

By almost every metric, Mark Buehrle is a thoroughly average pitcher. So how has he managed to find such success, especially at his age?


In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article, there’s a now-famous quote from MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr: “You go throughThe Sporting News for the last 100 years, and you will find two things are always true. You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money.”

It turns out there’s another constant that Fehr forgot to mention: Players will strike out more each year than they did the last. The ever-increasing strikeout rate has been baseball’s one inexorable force since the live ball era began in 1920, as this list of the National League’s1strikeout rate over 10-year intervals shows:


Strikeout Rate





















With the exception of a brief and slight decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the strikeout rate has steadily increased since Warren Harding was president. Batters are now about three times more likely to strike out than they were during the Roaring Twenties, and the rate of increase seems to be accelerating: More strikeouts have been added to the game in the last 20 years than in the previous 40.

There are many reasons for this, but the simplest is that pitchers are throwing harder than ever. In 2003, the average fastball in the major leagues registered 89.9 mph; in 2013, that number was 91.7 mph. Pitchers throw harder in shorter stints, and when one breaks down, another hard thrower is ready to take his place. Hitting isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be.

Neither is pitching for those who aren’t strikeout artists. In 1988, Minnesota’s Allan Anderson struck out 83 batters in 202.1 innings … and led the AL with a 2.45 ERA. That same year, John Tudor struck out 87 batters in 197.2 innings with the Cardinals and Dodgers … and managed an even better 2.32 ERA. That doesn’t happen anymore. Of the 100 best pitching seasons since 2000, as ranked by Baseball-Reference.com, the pitcher struck out at least 150 batters in 92 of them. A pitcher who doesn’t throw hard, and doesn’t have a gimmick pitch, and doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, can’t be a successful starter in the major leagues. He might be able to do it once with a lot of luck, but he can’t do it year after year after year.

Unless he’s Mark Buehrle.

Everyone makes mistakes. One of mine is that it took me a long time to appreciate Buehrle, and not just because every time he pitched for the White Sox, I had to listen to Hawk Harrelson sing his praises. I mean, Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round out of some college no one had heard of,2 he almost never hit 90 on the radar gun, and he didn’t strike anyone out. Sure, he reached the major leagues just 14 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow in 1999, but he was never a top prospect. He wasn’t much of a prospect, period. During his first full season in the majors, I fixated on his mere 126 strikeouts in 221 innings far more than on his 16-8 record, 3.29 ERA, or AL-leading 1.066 WHIP. He was a junk-tossing left-hander, and those guys always get figured out eventually.

Only, Buehrle hasn’t gotten figured out, and he’s currently helping fuel the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff hopes. Despite pitching in arguably the AL’s best home run park for hitters for most of his career, he’s produced only one bad season: 2006, the sole year when his ERA+ dropped below 100 and, conveniently if less meaningfully, the only year when he finished with a losing record. He’s been consistently above average without ever being elite. He’s earned a single Cy Young vote just once, in 2005, and the category in which he’s most often led the league is hits allowed, four times.

He’s led the league in hits allowed four times because he throws a lot of innings, and because he gives up a lot of contact. And he gives up a lot of contact because the one thing he does not do is miss bats. After getting called up midseason in 2000, Buehrle struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings, a ratio a tick higher than the league average at the time. He’s posted a below-average strikeout rate every season since, and has struck out 150 batters just once in his career.

Once upon a time it wasn’t uncommon for a left-handed finesse pitcher to enjoy a long and successful career without striking anyone out. In the 1970s and early 1980s, guys like Jerry Reuss and Jim Kaat were on their way to winning well more than 200 games while striking out barely a batter every other inning. Paul Splittorff, the winningest pitcher in Royals history, struck out 100 batters in a season just twice in his career. Ross Grimsley threw more than 2,000 innings in the majors and struck out just 3.3 batters per nine innings. In 1975, Randy Jones led the NL with a 2.24 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young vote despite striking out just 103 batters in 285 innings. The next year, he threw evenmore innings (315.1) and struck out even fewer batters (93) … and he won the Cy Young Award.

Of course, it was a lot easier for a left-handed finesse pitcher to succeed without a lot of strikeouts back then because no one posted a lot of strikeouts. Jim Palmer, a right-hander, had a brilliant Hall of Fame career and struck out just 13.7 percent of the batters he faced. Missing bats was optional then, but it isn’t anymore. Except for Buehrle. In 2007, Buehrle was worth 6.1 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, one of the 100 best seasons by a starting pitcher since 2000. He struck out 115 batters that year, the fewest of anyone in the top 100.

A magician never reveals his secrets, so we may never know how Buehrle pulls off his prestige, but we can look for clues in the career of the prototypical Crafty Lefty, Tommy John. Before he transmogrified into a ligament, John was better known for a major league career that spanned 26 seasons. He never threw all that hard and, particularly after his surgery, rarely struck anyone out, but he pitched in the majors until he was 46 and won 288 games.

In his 1984 Baseball Abstract, Bill James described “The Tommy John family of pitchers” as having “5 things in common.” James wrote:

1. They are all left-handed.
2. They are control-type pitchers.
3. They cut off the running game very well.
4. They receive excellent double-play support.
5. They allow moderate to low totals of home runs, lower-than-normal totals for a control pitcher.

This combination of abilities or tendencies enables this family of pitchers to be effective and to win at unusually high levels of hits per game, which then is another defining characteristic of the group.

Points four and five are essentially the same thing. James didn’t have access to ground ball/fly ball data 30 years ago, but he’s basically saying that Tommy John–style pitchers are extreme ground ball pitchers; ground balls lead to double plays and don’t lead to home runs. John himself allowed more than a hit per inning in his career, but many of those runners were wiped out on 6-4-3s.3

Buehrle would fit into the Tommy John family of pitchers perfectly, except for one small detail: He isn’t a ground ball pitcher. His career ground ball rate of 45 percent is just barely higher than league average, and thanks to spending most of his career at U.S. Cellular Field, he has surrendered 333 home runs in 3,009 career innings, a rate of exactly 1.00 per nine innings; John allowed 302 home runs in a career that spanned 4,710 innings. Thanks to all of those home runs in addition to hits surrendered on balls in play, Buehrle has allowed a higher batting average (.272) than John did (.265), even with a higher strikeout rate.

All of those home runs also mean that Buehrle’s slugging average allowed (.419) is substantially higher than John’s (.367). The batting line against Buehrle for his career — .272/.315/.419 — is, like everything else about him, uncharacteristic of an above-average pitcher.

Consider this: Since 1950, 174 pitchers have thrown at least 2,000 innings in the majors while posting a career ERA under 4.00. Buehrle has the highest OPS allowed of them all:


Batting Line



Mark Buehrle




Bartolo Colon




Greg Swindell




Bill Gullickson




Ross Grimsley




*Because Buehrle has such a low strikeout rate and strikeouts don’t lead to errors, his rate of unearned runs (9.4 percent) is higher than average (about 8 percent over the last decade). But that works out to only an extra one or two runs a year.

To find a pitcher with a better ERA than Buehrle, you have to go all the way down to Dick Ellsworth at 17th, who posted a 3.72 ERA and a .716 OPS allowed. Based on his stuff, and what hitters do to his stuff, Buehrle shouldn’t be nearly as effective as he’s been. The mystery thickens.

The first thing to consider when a pitcher gives up substantially fewer or more runs than expected given batters’ performance against him is whether he pitches better or worse with men on base or in scoring position. Tom Glavine was legendary for changing his approach with men on base, as his splits demonstrate:

No one on base: .256/.304/.384
Men on base: .260/.340/.369
Men in scoring position: .252/.358/.356

With no one on, Glavine would pump strikes to try to keep the bases empty, and if he gave up the occasional solo home run, so be it. But once men reached base, he kept pitches away from the heart of the plate, preferring to put another runner on over allowing a run-scoring hit.4 It certainly worked for him.

Well, here are Buehrle’s career splits:

No one on base: .271/.311/.418
Men on base: .274/.319/.421
Men in scoring position: .270/.325/.426

If anything, Buehrle’s performance appears to get worse with runners on base. While that’s not really the case — those numbers are skewed by the fact that sacrifice flies don’t count against a hitter’s batting average, and by definition a sacrifice fly can occur only when there’s a runner on third base — Buehrle doesn’t pitch significantly better with ducks on the pond, which would have explained why he’s so much stingier with runs than with baserunners.

It’s not hard to find other things that distinguish Buehrle from most pitchers. He works at a faster pace than all of them, getting the ball back from the catcher, throwing the ball, and repeating. He almost never shakes off a catcher’s sign. He doesn’t throw between starts. He rarely works out in the offseason. He’s remarkably consistent in throwing at least six innings every time out. In his most recent start, Buehrle went just five innings against the Rays, and afterward he did everything butfall on his sword:

“I’m frustrated with myself,” he told reporters. “To go five innings, that’s not really called for. I’m upset with it … I put the bullpen in a tough situation. I need to go deeper into games to give us a chance to win.”

Never mind that Buehrle gave up just two runs in those five innings, or that his Blue Jays won the game. In Buehrle’s world, that outing was an extreme outlier, snapping a streak of 13 consecutive games in which he’d pitched six innings or more. Of course, that streak was nothing special: From May 2004 to July 2005, Buehrle went six innings or more in 49 consecutive starts, the longest run by any pitcher since Steve Carlton’s 69-start streak ended in 1982.5

And above all, Buehrle has been incredibly, even freakishly, durable throughout his career. He’s never been on the DL. Since starting the 2001 season in the White Sox rotation, he’s made 30 starts and thrown 200 innings every single year. If he reaches 200 innings this season, he will be just the eighth pitcher ever to do so in 14 consecutive years, joining Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, and Greg Maddux, all Hall of Famers. Buehrle will be just the fifth pitcher — after Young, Mathewson, Spahn, and Perry — to make 30 starts 14 years in a row.

But none of those traits, valuable or unusual though they may be, explains the central conundrum of Buehrle’s career: How can he allow so many hits and walks and homers, and yet so few runs?

After conducting an extensive amount of research, I’ve come up with just two reasons why Buehrle has been consistently more successful than either his stuff or his performance should allow:

1. He fields his position really well.
2. He holds runners really well.


Regarding point no. 1: Buehrle has long been considered one of the best fielding pitchers in the game, and after Kenny Rogers and Mike Mussina retired, Buehrle won four consecutive Gold Gloves from 2009 to 2012. But how much is a Gold Glove–caliber pitcher really worth?

More than most of us probably realize. With the standard caveat that defensive metrics are flawed, it’s worth noting that according to Baseball Info Solutions, Buehrle has been an above-average defender almost every season since it started tracking the data in 2003. Since then, he’s been 46 runs above average with his glove, good for roughly four runs per season. Considering he’s on the field for only about 200 innings a season, that’s phenomenal, and it works out to Buehrle being worth 18 runs above average with his glove over the course of a hypothetical full season.6 To put that in perspective, consider that over his career, Troy Tulowitzki has been about 12 runs above average over a full season.

That’s right: The numbers say that, inning for inning, Buehrle adds more value with his glove than Tulowitzki, or Dustin Pedroia, or Adrian Beltre, or almost anyone else. After learning that, the most reasonable conclusion is that defensive metrics are cuckoo nuts. However, keep in mind that Tulowitzki is being compared to the average shortstop, and the average shortstop is a terrific fielder. Buehrle is being compared to the average pitcher, and let’s be frank: The average pitcher sucks at fielding his position. Most pitchers seem to lose the ability to throw a baseball accurately the moment their foot leaves the rubber. Mere defensive competence is valuable on the mound in a way it never would be elsewhere on the diamond.

Thanks to providing an extra Gold Glove defender whenever he pitches, Buehrle has allowed a below-average batting average on balls in play (.294) during his career, even though he pitched in front of some aging White Sox defenses after they won their world championship in 2005. And his own defense has led to more double plays than expected from a comparable pitcher. He’s turned 48 double plays himself, whereas a typical pitcher in the same number of innings would have turned about 28. Despite not being a ground ball pitcher, Buehrle’s own defense and the fact that fewer strikeouts mean more balls in play have allowed him to induce double plays in 14.3 percent of potential situations,7compared to the league average of a little less than 11 percent.

And then there’s point no. 2, which is that trying to steal a base against Buehrle is suicide, and he’s been known to nudge a few people over the cliff. In his 15-year career, Buehrle has allowed 58 stolen bases. Total. This year, not a single runner has even bothered to try.

Technically, 24 runners have been caught stealing with Buehrle on the mound, so attempted base stealers are successful about 71 percent of the time, which is about league average. But citing that stat alone ignores Buehrle’s freakish ability to pick off baserunners and deter steal attempts in the first place. He’s picked off a runner 94 times in his career.8 Since World War II — which is about as far back as we have reliable data — here are the career leaders in pickoffs:



Steve Carlton


Andy Pettitte


Mark Buehrle


Jerry Koosman


Kenny Rogers


While Carlton’s record is safe, he also threw more than 5,200 innings in his career. Inning for inning, Buehrle has the highest pickoff rate in recorded history for anyone with at least 1,600 innings.9

These are little things, but if a pitcher does enough little things well, he can bridge the gap between being an innings-eating, league-average pitcher and a legitimate no. 2 starter. Buehrle picks off six or seven baserunners a year, converts five or six infield singles into outs with his glove, and turns two or three extra double plays. That’s an extra out nearly every other start.

In fact, if we add together the value of Buehrle’s ability to pick off runners before he throws a pitch with his glove work after he throws a pitch — which Baseball Info Solutions does with its Defensive Runs Saved statistic — we find that Buehrle has saved himself 85 runs since 2003 alone. That works out to 34 runs saved over a full defensive season, which means leaving the world of Tulowitzki behind and reaching the planet inhabited by Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive player in the universe. For his career, Simmons has saved an average of 32 runs above average per season.

And that, in essence, is the secret of Buehrle’s success: He’s a thoroughly average pitcher, but thanks to what he does before and after he hurls the ball to home plate, he saves more runs than any defensive player alive inning for inning.

Could it be that simple? Could good defense alone be the difference between being a journeyman innings-eater and assembling the brilliant career that Buehrle has? Well, consider that while Buehrle’s career ERA is 3.79, his FIP — which estimates what his ERA should be based on the number of walks, strikeouts, and homers he’s allowed — is 4.12. As Ben Jedlovec, vice-president at Baseball Info Solutions, put it: “Coincidentally or not, his Defensive Runs Saved over his career closely corresponds with the magnitude of the difference between his FIP and his ERA. In other words, the difference between Buehrle’s career FIP and ERA can be explained by his DRS.”

So yes, it might actually be that simple.

At age 35, Buehrle is better than ever this season. He has a career-best 2.64 ERA and was named to his fifth All-Star Game even as his fastball continues to decline; after coming in about 85 mph as recently as two years ago, his fastball has averaged 83.5 mph this year. Buehrle’s success this season owes a lot to a change in his approach, as he’s throwing his sinker on the inside corner to right-handed hitters more than ever before.

He also won’t continue to pitch this well: Buehrle has a career-low home run rate this season without any change to his ground ball rate, and that’s unlikely to continue. But there’s no evidence of a decline, either. In this, Buehrle also falls into the Tommy John family of pitchers, of whom James wrote, “A lot of them seem to go through their best years in the 30s or even mid-30s.”

With no end in sight to Buehrle’s boring yet consistent and highly effective mound work, it’s fair to at least wonder if we’re watching a future Hall of Famer. I asked Jay Jaffe, Sports Illustrated writer and inventor of the JAWS rating system, widely considered to be the authoritative system for evaluating Hall of Fame merit, and his response was pretty definitive: “Buehrle has been a very good pitcher for a long time, but I don’t see anything close to a Hall of Fame career.” Jaffe compared Buehrle to “guys like David Cone, Dave Stieb, and Bret Saberhagen: good-to-great pitchers with much higher peaks but less staying power, and DOA upon arrival on the BBWAA ballot.”

That seems fair. After all, even Tommy John himself isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Buehrle has one trump card in his pocket, however, and it will garner him very serious Hall of Fame consideration even as it will astound the baseball industry if it happens: He could win 300 games.

Buehrle has 196 career wins at the moment, and likely will break 200 before the end of this season. Thanks to a pitching style that typically ages well and his proven ability to take the ball 30 times a year, amassing 100 more after that is more likely than you’d think.

Buehrle turns 36 next year; from his age-36 season on, John won 117 games. Fourteen other pitchers won 100 games after their age-35 season, and while some of them were all-time greats and others were knuckleball pitchers who lasted forever, it’s worth noting that Jamie Moyer won 165 games (!) after he turned 36. Rogers, another finesse lefty who played Gold Glove defense and had a ridiculous pickoff move, won 92 games after he turned 36.

There are two main impediments to Buehrle winning 100 more games aside from the obvious one that it’s hard to predict any pitcher winning 100 games in the future. The first is that his fastball can’t lose a lot more velocity if he hopes to remain a viable pitcher. Moyer was able to succeed in his later years with a fastball that averaged 81 to 82 mph, which seems to be the lower bound for a non-knuckleball pitcher, no matter how crafty he is.

The second impediment is that it’s not clear Buehrle wants to stick around long enough to get to 300. He’s openly talked about retirement several times, even before he signed his current four-year deal. He’ll have banked more than $135 million by the time his contract expires next season, and he may not be willing to stick it out until he’s 44 or 45 years old.

Still, the mere fact that 300 wins isn’t a completely ridiculous notion is a testament to how Buehrle’s success defies everything we’re taught about pitching. Buehrle is one of the best pitchers in baseball right nowwith a repertoire that wouldn’t get him drafted if he were 21 years old, let alone 35. I mean, try to imagine the conversation between an area scout and his crosschecker:

Scout: There’s this kid I’m really excited about here. I think we should take a flyer on him. He’s left-handed and throws 83-84.

Crosschecker: Wait, 83-84? A really projectable arm, then?

Scout: No, I doubt he’s going to add any velocity.

Crosschecker: Um, OK, so what’s the hook? He’s not one of those submarine pitchers you’re always trying to get us to draft …

Scout: No, pretty conventional throwing motion, actually.

Crosschecker: So, a lot of deception in his delivery? Tough for hitters to pick up on?

Scout: Not particularly.

Crosschecker: [Pause.] He’s really tall? Gets a lot of downward plane on his pitches?

Scout: Nah. He’s 6-foot-2. He is a little pudgy, though.

Crosschecker: So … uh … why are you excited about him?

Scout: Well, he’s got really good command.

Crosschecker: Like, he never walks a batter, ever?

Scout: Of course he does. But he works the corners of the plate well.

Crosschecker: And … ?

Scout: He holds runners unbelievably well.

Crosschecker: He holds. Runners. Well.

Scout: And he fields his position incredibly well.

Crosschecker: Fields. His position. Well.

Scout: Yep. So, what do you think?

Crosschecker: I just want to make sure I have my facts straight. So he throws 83 to 84?

Scout: Well, that’s his four-seamer. He throws his cutter around 80.

Crosschecker: [Silence.]

Scout: So, should we put him up on the draft board?

Crosschecker: Um, yeah, let me talk to the scouting director first. Hey, didn’t you tell me you worked construction before you got into scouting?

Scout: Yeah, why do you ask?

Well, that pitcher is now the ace of a team that’s fighting for the AL East title. The Blue Jays have put their hopes of ending a 21-year playoff drought on a pitcher who wouldn’t be the hardest thrower on most good high school teams. More amazingly, they were smart to do so. In a world filled with guys who throw 99 mph and miss bats like someone sprayed wood repellent on the ball, Buehrle continues to show there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Slow and steady really can still win the race, and there’s no one slower or steadier than Buehrle


“Unfortunately in baseball, ethics are worth exactly 0.0 WAR.”



Houston Astros fail to sign Brady Aiken, world does not end

By John Sickels on Jul 18 2014, 7:54p 178 

As everyone in the baseball world knows, the Houston Astros and first round pick Brady Aiken failed, to, ah, come to terms today.

I've been keeping my powder dry on this one, waiting for developments since all we really had to go on before today were rumors and leaks. We still don't have the full story yet and we may never do so, but here are my initial reactions as we ponder what happens next.

***We won't know how this story ends for at least five years. The Astros could end up looking wise if Aiken's arm falls off, or foolish if he wins a Cy Young Award.

***What exactly was in the medical report? The Astros aren't saying and legally they can't say much more than they already have, with GM Jeff Luhnow pointing out that "I still have to abide by Federal HIPAA regulations." Keep that in mind as this story moves forward: what ever was in the medical report, we may only hear Aiken's side of it.

***I'm not a scout, but the attacks being made in some quarters against the scouts who studied Aiken strike me as unfair. To the best of my knowledge, there were no hints or rumors of arm trouble of any kind and almost every team would have picked him.

***I'm not a lawyer, but as near as I can tell, everyone acted within the rules of the CBA. I don't see what kind of legal case can be brought here.

***I'm not a business major, but it looks to me like both sides were acting within what they perceived to be their best interest and within the commonly accepted boundaries, such as they are, of hard-ball negotiating. 

Aiken is taking a huge personal risk by passing up $5,000,000, and the Astros are taking a severe public relations hit and losing an opportunity to boost the farm system. But both sides have calculated that the benefits of their position outweighed those risks. I think I would have made a different calculation if I were in either sets of shoes, but that's why I'm not a GM or an agent. It's not a game that I would be comfortable playing personally. 

***In the end, it could work out well for the Astros if they get a better player next year. Even under the best of circumstances (Aiken develops into Clayton Kershaw), fallout from this wouldn't show up in the win-loss column for another three years at the earliest, if it ever shows up at all. It is a setback, but it is not the end of the world for the rebuilding effort. That's why you diversify, so that everything isn't dependent on a single player being a success, particularly from a risky demographic like "high school pitcher."

The public relations hit is a bad one, but it is recoverable if the rebuilding effort works. This will be a footnote if the team starts winning games soon, and Aiken wasn't going to help them win games for awhile.

***In the end, it could work out well for Aiken, if he goes to junior college next year, stays healthy, gets drafted really early again and gets signed with a team he is more comfortable with. I think it is a higher risk than the one the Astros are running. It would have been better for everyone if Aiken had signed, but he didn't and that's his call.

The guy I do feel bad for is Jacob Nix, who got caught in the crossfire here. I don't think he has a legal case: even the loss of his verbal agreement is (as far as I understand) within the CBA limits given that no contract was signed. Nix has a case that he is the most injured party here if he gets hurt and never gets that kind of money offered again. Of course, Nix is hardly a risk-free guy himself, being a high school pitcher who didn't have a great senior year and was wanting more than slot money himself. That said, they did have a verbal deal, and while Nix may not have a legal case, he does have an ethical one.

The trouble here is that for the Astros to not sign Aiken and still honor the verbal agreement with Nix, they would lose their next two first round picks. Be honest, if you were the Astros, would you do that? From the point of view of the front office, it would be a disservice to the entire organization (and the fans too) to make that trade.

Unfortunately in baseball, ethics are worth exactly 0.0 WAR.



“holding out for an extra million dollars when you've been offered five million is like hitting on 20 in blackjack”


July 19, 2014



Baseball is a zero-sum game, in which one team always wins and one team loses. A month ago, the Astros used the first pick in the draft to select San Diego high school pitcher Brady Aiken. Aiken featured an upper-90s fastball from the left side and control that high school pitchers with his kind of heat don't often have. The Astros were ecstatic to get a young pitcher with such huge upside, and Aiken was ecstatic to start his pro career and get paid millions of dollars to do it. That's a win-win, and yet on Friday both sides lost, after the deadline for draft picks to sign pro contracts passed without Aiken's signature on an Astros contract.

Initially, the two sides agreed on a $6.5 million contract, but the Astros rescinded the offer amid reports that something was found in Aiken's pitching elbow during his medical exam (later revealed to be a potential issue with his left ulnar collateral ligament). At that point the team offered Aiken 40 percent of his slot's value, the minimum required to recoup a first-round draft pick next season should the player fail to sign. As you might imagine, this upset Aiken and his adviser, Casey Close, who have maintained throughout this process that Aiken is fully healthy. Reports on Friday had the Astros going to Aiken with increasing offers (up to $5 million) as the deadline got closer and closer, but by that point Aiken wasn't interested. It's unclear if he was holding out for the figure he had initially agreed to or if he was fed up with the Astros and had already resolved to go in a different direction.

The end results for both sides aren't happy. The Astros miss out on a promising young player, the supposed prize for having the worst record in the game in 2013. There are real advantages to picking first in the draft besides simply getting the top overall pick, including picking first in each round* and having the largest pool of bonus money to spend on signing draft picks. So, not only do you get the first pick and the first pick in each successive round, but also you have the most money with which to entice high-upside high-schoolers to join your team. But because the Astros didn't sign Aiken, they didn't get the bonus money that went with his pick, and because they didn't get that money, they couldn't sign two other players they had hoped to nail down in high school pitchers Jacob Nix (fifth round) and Mac Marshall (21st round). Now the Astros don't get Aiken, they don't get Nix, and they don't get Marshall. Whoops.

*You'll know how unfair this is if you play any fantasy sport because if your league doesn't have either an auction draft or a snake draft someone is going to freak out.

One thing Houston will get is a compensation pick in next year's draft. The CBA deems that a team failing to sign its first-round pick gets the pick one slot further back in next year's draft. For the Astros, they'll get the second overall pick next year, meaning they may have missed out on some good players but they'll be picking back up top again next season. It should be noted, though, that if they fail to sign that pick, no further compensation pick would be awarded.

Aiken, Marshall and Nix are quite a loss for an organization attempting to rebuild through the draft, but for Aiken, the repercussions of this uncompleted transaction are probably far worse. The Astros will miss Aiken, but they'll pick in the first round again next year and every successive year between now and when the Earth crashes into the Sun. But Aiken's window to cash in is much shorter. Before the draft, Aiken looked like one of the most desirable prospects in the known baseball world. That kind of thing is very valuable to a major-league team, and they'll pay heavily for it, but it also has a way of changing fast. Look at the consensus first overall pick last year, Mark Appel, who has struggled mightily in Class A. He may still be a great pitcher, but you have to think that at this point that it's even money that he even reaches the majors at all. If Appel had been available in this year's draft, he wouldn't have gone first overall and he might not have been a first-round pick. Aiken looks like the next great thing now, but in a year he very well may not.

Aiken has undeniable talent, but the fact is that most players drafted don't make the majors. While it's true that the odds are far better for first overall picks than for anyone else, it's also true that most high school pitchers don't sniff the majors at any time in their careers. Injuries and the inability to develop are the culprits there, to the point where holding out for an extra million dollars when you've been offered five million is like hitting on 20 in blackjack. You might get that ace, but more than likely you're just going to lose everything. Aiken may yet have a great career in front of him. The Astros may have been rude and bumbling and deceitful in their dealings with him. But at the end of the day they did offer him $5 million to play baseball.

Now Aiken may go to UCLA, where he had previously committed to attend, and he'll hope to play well enough and stay healthy enough to get picked high again when he re-enters the draft in three years. Alternatively, he can enroll at a junior college and be eligible for the draft again next year. The guess here is, barring any other developments, that is what he'll do. Here's hoping he can stay healthy until at least then.

In the rush to condemn the Astros it should be pointed out that if indeed there is a problem with Aiken's left elbow that puts his future productivity in doubt, it's reasonable for the Astros to pay less, at least in the closed one-team-for-each-player market that is the MLB draft (a topic for another day). To me, the problem comes when the Astros offered Aiken $5 million. How bad could Aiken's elbow really look if they were willing to offer him $5 million to sign? What's the difference to the Astros whether Aiken gets $5 million or $6.5 million? At the same time Houston was offering Aiken $1.5 million less than what the two sides had previously agreed upon, the Astros offered another draft pick, Marshall, $1.5 million. There may be nothing untoward there at all, but it sounds a bit fishy. It sounds like the Astros decided they could sign both Aiken and Marshall instead of just Aiken if they could convince him to take less money. In fact, it sounds like they thought they could sign more than just those two had Aiken accepted their restructured $3 million offer. Just as Aiken turned down $5 million to play baseball because he was hoping for $6.5 million, the Astros seemingly turned down having Aiken because they wanted Aiken and Nix and Marshall. Now, like Aiken, the Astros have nothing.

There may even be more fallout from this as the MLBPA has hinted at legal action against the Astros, presumably for offering contracts to Aiken and Nix and then backing out on them. It's unclear as of this writing what the union would seek to accomplish through a lawsuit, but it could be as simple as obtaining free agency for Aiken (and presumably Nix). Daniel Schoenfeld at the website Beyond The Boxscore looked at what Aiken could make should he become a free agent and concluded it would be a six-year contract for $20 million. Frankly, that sounds low to me. If the first overall pick in the draft were suddenly a free agent and could sign with any team without that team being penalized in any way (no loss of draft picks, no loss of players as in a trade, etc.), there would be teams willing to bid twice that. But even if I'm wrong and Schoenfeld is right, that's $14.5 million more than what Aiken was set to receive from the Astros. Which, you know, isn't bad.

While that possibility represents a best-case scenario for Aiken, it likely represents a worst-case scenario for MLB, which doesn't want to see a player who "skirted" the draft rewarded, even if that player's supposed skirting was at least in part due to the way the drafting team conducted negotiations. That's an expensive precedent and one that the teams and MLB want no part of.

This story is still unfolding, and it will likely be a while before we get any closure on what really happened between Aiken and the Astros. All we know, at least right now, is that when the Astros and Aiken played baseball, they both lost.