Rubby could spell K-Rod for Sox

Predictive analysis of baseball statistics is an art, and there are very few well-accepted rules and principles. Even still, common sense dictates that it’s ridiculous to read too much into one performance. So to compare Rubby de la Rosa to an MLB star based on 10 electric fastballs in the 9th inning of a 15-10 Houston shootout would be simply outlandish. But, hey, why not?

The Background

De La Rosa’s pitch speed was touted as his single best attribute when he arrived in Boston as part of the package traded from LA in the Gonzalez-Crawford-Beckett deal. He was coming off Tommy John surgery, but the list of pitchers to match or surpass their pre-surgery velocity upon their return is too long to post. Below is a sampling of stats from De La Rosa’s 2011 campaign (he missed a full season to surgery, except for one brief appearance in 2012:

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS GF IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2011 22 LAD 4 5 3.71 13 10 2 60.2 54 26 25 6 31 60 1.401 8.0 0.9 4.6 8.9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/7/2013.

Rubby (pronounced “Ruby,” as in red) was used primarly as a starter in his rookie season with Los Angeles, and drew comparisons to Pedro Martinez due to his height (5’11”) and also due to his sizzling fastball and wicked changeup. In fact, the Sox hired Pedro as a Special Assistant this spring to work specifically with De La Rosa, and Pedro raved about the 24-year old’s prospects. Clearly, Rubby has the “stuff” to be a top-end starter: the average velocity on his fastball was 95.4 MPH in 2011, which would rank third in the majors this year (behind Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg) amongst qualified starters. While De La Rosa has worked as a starter with Pawtucket in 2013, the organization has made it clear to manager John Farrell that he can use De La Rosa with the big-league club in whichever bullpen capacity is necessary to win.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros

Rubby de la Rosa delivers in the 9th inning against Houston last night.

The Performance

While there were many noteworthy aspects in Tuesday’s outing, Rubby impressed me most with the command he showed with his fastball while managing to maintain his velocity. De La Rosa threw all of his pitches — fastball, changeup and slider — and racked up strikeouts on his slider and fastball. His ability to get ahead in the count allowed him to vary the speed of his pitches over the course of his outing on nearly ever pitch:

rubby speed

The ability to stay in a pitcher’s count makes his pitch selection more unpredictable for the batter, allowing him to capitalize on the exceptionally low 63.9% contact percentage he generates when he throws his changeup. Also, his fastball was simply electric in his Sox debut: he managed 2 swinging strikes on the pitch that he threw, on average, at 98.17 MPH. If he managed to keep that velocity for the remainder of the year, he would vault directly to the top of the leaderboard for relievers’ average velocity, surpassing Cincinnati’s Ardolis Chapman and Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera. De La Rosa also warmed in the pen on Sunday afternoon with the Red Sox leading 4-0, but Farrell deemed the situation too “high leverage” to bring him in. Finally, in front of a nearly empty stadium during a 15-10 slugfest, Rubby made the most of his first opportunity to pitch for the Sox.

The Comparison

Those who watched the 2002 Angels-Giants World Series remember an energetic young Venezuelan by the name of Francisco Rodriguez.

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K-Rod follows through on a pitch during his time with the Angels.

Much like Rubby De La Rosa, K-Rod burst onto the scene in the Angels bullpen late in the season; he made his major league debut on September 18th, 2002, which is more than five weeks later in the season than De La Rosa debuted for the Sox in 2013. In 2002, Rodriguez pitched in five games before the playoffs, striking out 13 batters while allowing exactly zero runs. He experienced even greater success for the Angels in the playoffs, where he struck out a whopping 28 batters over 11 games while posting a 1.93 ERA. In doing so, he cemented himself as one of the key pieces helping Anaheim to a World Series title. While PITCHf/x data is not available from 2002, K-Rod’s bread and butter consisted of his sizzling fastball coupled with a biting slider. It’s a slightly different arsenal than De La Rosa’s (Rubby’s might be even deeper due to his advanced changeup), but both were clearly gifted with elite power “stuff” as emerging young pitchers.

For those who are weary about how De La Rosa’s arsenal and approach will translate to a late-inning relief role from the starting niche he’s held all year in AAA, consider the following: K-Rod was a struggling starter for Angels single-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga in 2001 (the year before his debut), posting a 5.38 ERA and an 11.6 K/9 (while his major league rate over his first three years was 14.59 K/9). In a similar career trajectory to K-Rod, Rubby De La Rosa has yet to truly embrace his potential at Pawtucket in a starting role. Perhaps the transition into a late-inning role is just what he needs — and just what the Red Sox bullpen needs — to become the elite pitcher his “stuff” dictates he should be. So, in a year where the Red Sox are unexpectedly contending for a title, taking a chance on a pitcher like De La Rosa might just be the wild card that pushes them over the edge — hey, it worked for the Angels.

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Remember this little guy?

The Risks

There are a number of risks for both the Sox bullpen and De La Rosa’s development if they decide to convert him to a late-innings reliever. As noted above, one spectacular performance in one game is a small sample size, and De La Rosa can be erratic with his command, especially with his fastball. The last thing a pitcher wants to do in a strikeout situation is to walk a man, particularly when Rubby’s HR/9 rate has not been ideal in Pawtucket (1.06). But the Sox have holes to fill in their injury-depleted bullpen, and you have to think that De La Rosa can fill in better than Pedro Beato or Jose De La Torre due to is elite arsenal of strikeout weapons.

Finally, there are a couple of risks the Sox must consider as they pertain to Rubby’s development as a pitcher. There is a slight bit of concern about re-injuring his surgically-repaired elbow if he slots in during late-inning situations. There is more strain on the arm as a bullpen piece than as a starter because the pitcher throws so much harder over a much shorter period of time in the ‘pen. If the Red Sox truly view De La Rosa as the “next great Pedro”, they’d be kicking themselves if they took the risk of putting him in the bullpen only to see him blow out his elbow again. But, when contending for a title in Boston, sometimes the “now” must precede the “future” in calculated situations. Putting De La Rosa in the ‘pen may be one such risky decision.

Also, if Rubby experiences any sort of failure in a high-leverage situation, it could emotionally ruin the great prospect (think Richie Sexson’s grand slam in Cla Meredith’s forced MLB debut). One must remember, however, that this is not Rubby’s first rodeo: his debut came in 2011 with the Dodgers as a 22-year old and he’s shown a great deal of resiliency already to recover from Tommy John surgery. If I’m manager John Farrell, I consider De La Rosa ready for the limelight right now. I take a chance and stick him in some pressure situations to see if I can’t make lightning strike twice: the 2013 Red Sox version of vintage K-Rod could be the last piece to put Boston over the edge in their contention for the 2013 World Series Championship.

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The Flyin’ Hawaiian Starts August Hot

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Shane Victorino, AL Player of the Week.

Shane Victorino’s durability and consistency over the course of his seven year career gave Red Sox GM Ben Cherington reason to offer him $39 million over three years. Ultimately, Victorino took a discount to join the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and his passion for the game is apparent to Boston fans. Turns out Victorino recently completed his best week of the season, and was awarded with the AL Player of the Week:

Split G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Last 7 days 6 6 30 26 4 9 1 0 2 6 0 0 1 2 .346 .400 .615 1.015
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/7/2013.

Victorino, along with spark-plug Jacoby Ellsbury, have guided the top of a Red Sox order that sits second only to the Tigers atop the AL in runs-scored per game at 4.98. In this post, I’ll attempt to project Victorino’s short-term and long-term future with the Sox. To do so, I’ll use a statistic called wOBA to demonstrate his batting trends.

What is wOBA?

Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) combines the value of getting on base (utilizing the player’s OBP) with the value of driving in runs (by using the slugging percentage). The general principle underlying the metric is that the mere act of reaching base is nearly twice as valuable as hitting an extra-base hit. It is simply one of the many tools that evaluators use to determine production and estimate a monetary value for a player’s services. It should be noted that the actual number associated with wOBA is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless — that is to say, wOBA should be treated as an ordinal rather than a cardinal statistic. Also, the statistic does not take into account any fielding value the player offers to the team. A thorough history and guide to the use of wOBA as a statistic can be found here.

Short-Term Projection

Victorino’s career tendency is to start the season slowly, but steadily pick up around the beginning of May. His hitting usually peaks around mid-June, then steadily declines as the season progresses towards September.

Victorino season

While the first two months of Victorino’s 2013 campaign largely resembled his career averages, his uncharacteristic dip in July likely rang alarm bells in the Sox’ front office. This might explain their unexpected trade interest for both Giancarlo Stanton and Alex Rios in the weeks leading up to the July 31st trade deadline. While it’s easy to attribute Victorino’s July struggles to a .274 BABIP lower than his career .297 clip, there may be more to his diminishing performance than poor luck. Victorino’s swing profile suggests that he hit the ball in the exact same way between the two months (~20% LD, ~39% GB, ~41% FB). but his 3.3% infield-hit percentage in July as compared with 10.5% in May may have been the difference-maker leading to his lower production. This should come as no surprise, as Victorino has been continuously hampered by hamstring injuries throughout the year. Victorino’s hot start to August has been due his uncharacteristically high propensity to hit for extra bases (.700 SLG). but I’d expect him to come back to earth in the coming week or so. To be a productive Major Leaguer, Victorino must fit into his niche of getting on base and utilizing his speed to create offense. This seems less and less likely with every limp that Victorino takes upon leaving the batter’s box towards first base.  In any case, the Sox will have to turn to other players aside from the AL player of the week for offensive pop for the duration of their road trip.

Long-Term Projection

Sox GM Ben Cherington must have had faith that Victorino’s production would continue in order to give him a 3-year deal with an annual salary of $13 million. Victorino’s career trend in wOBA, while erratic, might provide insight into Cherington’s decision to do so:

Shane Victorino year

The upward dip at the tail end of the trend-line is clear, and Victorino might recover from his sub-par 2012 in a similar way that he improved his wOBA during his first four years in the bigs. Also, Victorino’s recovery from a sub-par 2010 season may have made Cherington confident that he could recover from an even more dismal 2012 tilt.

Also, it’s not all about hitting. Much of Victorino’s value arrises from his defense and strong arm in the outfield. The affinity that his ribs have for various nooks and crannies in Fenway’s right field is both worrisome for his health and exciting for any fan eager for a jaw-dropping defensive snag. While Victorino often appears reckless and injury prone, the truth of the matter is that Victorino has had only three stints on the disabled list in his entire career prior to 2013 (the last was in 2010) and the maximum amount of time he’s spent out of action is 22 days. Even despite his appearance as injury prone, Victorino has never played in less than 131 games since becoming a full-time player. Given the fact that he’s only 32 years old, his durability should be sustainable for the length of his three-year contract. While $13 million in salary might be a tad high (I projected Jacoby Ellsbury to sign a free agent contract with AAV $13 million yesterday), the value that Victorino brings with his bat, glove, arm, and veteran clubhouse leadership suggests that Cherington made the right move in locking up the Sox right-fielder for 3 years. It doesn’t hurt that he’s in possession of the most recent AL Player of the Week trophy.

Free Agent Case Study #1: Jacoby Ellsbury

While the Red Sox are poised to make a run deep into October, it is easy to forget that everyday center-fielder and leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury will be a free agent following the 2013 campaign.

ellsbury

For this inaugural post in Dave Roberts’ Dive, I’ll explore the possible market value for Ellsbury and give a prediction on whether GM Ben Cherington decides to keep the flashy outfielder in Beantown. Here goes.

The Numbers

Ellsbury’s single biggest asset is his speed, and thus it is imperative that he reach base to offer value to his team. His .361 OBP ranks 5th amongst all Major League center-fielders and is reminiscent of the .376 clip he posted during the 2011 season in which he finished second in the AL MVP voting. While his walk-rate remains below-average at 7.6%, his stellar OBP suggests that his ability to reach base is unaffected by his aggressive plate appearances. His 2013 WAR checks in at 4.1 so far and is third-tier amongst MLB center-fielders — the elite Mike Trout (6.9) is in the first-tier whereas break-out Carlos Gomez (5.6) and Andrew McCutchen (5.4) round out the top three.

In 2011, Ellsbury showed signs of being a four-tool talent (sorry, Jake, I don’t think that arm will ever develop into a cannon) that might anchor the top of the Sox lineup for many years to come. But Ellsbury has been unable to regain the power that rendered his 2011 season a success. If he lives up to his ZiPS projection of 8 homers, is will be a far cry from his 2011 production of 32 taters. His .344 wOBA is in the same range as teammates Daniel Nava and Mike Napoli and ranks nowhere near elite.

The Intangibles

Ellsbury is a dynamic ballplayer and a dynamic personality. His aggressive play and extreme athleticism means that fans could be in for a spectacular play at any time. But it is this same aggressive play that makes Ellsbury injury prone. He missed significant time in 2010 after colliding with teammate Adrian Beltre while chasing a pop-up and lost much of 2012 after dislocating his shoulder while attempting to break-up a double play. Because Ellsbury makes his living by being aggressive in the batter’s box,  on the bases, and in the field, it is unlikely that a team would ever ask him to “tone it down” to protect him from injuries.

Even still, Ellsbury often plays the game as if he’s afraid to injure himself, especially while running the bases. He can often be caught dogging it to first base on a routine ground ball or jogging down the line after popping up. While he presumably fails to give 100% because he’s afraid to re-aggravate a recurring leg injury (he’s had hamstring and groin problems in the past), the behavior only lends credence to the observation that he is “injury prone”.

Finally, Ellsbury is represented by the infamous Scott Boras, who has yet to connect with GM Ben Cherington on a long-term deal with any player.*

The Market

Center field is a premium position and there have been many high-profile signings in recent years. Below is a listing of recent free agent signings (and contract extensions in italics):

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Ellsbury’s market value will be significantly affected by how far the Red Sox go into the playoffs and how much he’s helped them along the way. Center-fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s emergence as the organization’s 2nd-top prospect in 2013 will also likely affect the way they value Ellsbury’s talent.

The Suitors

I envision many west-coast teams to be in play for Ellsbury. The Athletics have an opening with Coco Crisp coming off the books and Seattle has needed a center-fielder ever since Ichiro was shipped east. Texas has an opening in the outfield due to the likely free agent attrition of Nelson Cruz and I’d also expect the Yankees to be in play. Minnesota, Houston, and the White Sox all have needs, but I don’t expect them to compete financially.

Prediction

Ellsbury will command a 5-year, $65 million contract. The Red Sox will deem the price too steep and the Texas Rangers will overpay for Ellsbury’s services as they watch their championship window shrink. Jackie Bradley, Jr. will assume the center-field duties from Ellsbury to start the 2014 campaign. Fair warning: the Yankees can never seem to spend enough money and it would not be the first time that the Bombers pried a center-fielder from the Sox via free agency if they signed Ellsbury. Sox fans should certainly hope that Jacoby does not live by the motto, “what would Johnny do?”

*Cherington agreed to sign Boras client Stephen Drew at $9.5 million for one year following the 2012 season.