Midnight Player of the Week, 9/23 – 9/29: Craig Gentry, Rangers OF

Last Week: 9 for 23, 2 BB, 7 R, 3 RBI, 6 SB (0 CS), .391/.462/.435

The end of September is obnoxious, in that it claims to be more important than the rest of the season. Craig Gentry could have started seven games in June, with the same results for both him and his team, and few would mention his performance that week as a key factor behind the Rangers still having a chance at the World Series. Few would even remember that specific week, because the middle months of baseball bleed into each other, until BAM!, the losses are no longer droplets of blood, they are gashes in the torso. The atmosphere changes because we change. September, a month like any other, tricks us anew each year. The fans, the media, the players and the coaches all see the end on the horizon and create the heightened pressure of September from fear of meeting that end. What’s more, and what’s truly remarkable about baseball in September, is that millions of people before us experienced the exact same thing, unintentionally building the mythology, just as we unintentionally perpetuate it.

A few weeks ago, the Rangers were suffering a lot of gashes. Seven in a row, at one point. They ceded the second Wild Card to the Indians after spending most of the season contending with the A’s for the division. Ron Washington felt the situation was dire, I’d imagine. His team’s trajectory was unmistakably downward and there wasn’t much time to change it. Perhaps these things went through his head when he decided to make a change.

Historically, Craig Gentry has been a bench player. So far this season he’s had 284 plate appearances, the most in his five-year career, playing left and center field behind David Murphy and Leonys Martin, respectively. In these last 10 games, however, Gentry has played every inning. The Rangers went 8-2 in those games, and 7-0 this week, erasing what was, as of last Monday, a two-game deficit on the Rays. You know and I know that the Rangers’ turnaround is not necessarily dependent on Gentry’s “promotion.” At least, there’s no way I can prove it. Still, Gentry’s performance is more than a neat coincidence.

Take yesterday’s game. The Rays and Indians had already won, so the Rangers needed a win against the Angels to keep their season alive. Gentry went 2 for 3 with a walk, a run scored and two batted in. No one in the game, on either side, affected the outcome as much as he did. I’m measuring that by Win-Probability Added. You will see that Gentry is credited with .257 WPA, which simply means that his actions increased the Rangers’ chance of winning by 25.7 percent. The big play was this two-run single in the bottom of the fifth against Jason Vargas; Texas went from 55 to 70 percent likely to win with that swing of the bat. Of his two stolen bases later in the game, the second resulted in a score. In fact, that stolen base neutralized somewhat Ron Washington’s frustrating decision to bunt Gentry over. Washington would have been content to bunt Gentry to second; instead, after the stolen base, he bunted Gentry to third, a much better place to be with one out.

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His biggest game came yesterday, but Gentry’s weeklong performance (e.g. this run-saving throw) earned this recognition. And it shoudn’t be a surprise. Ron Washington is a frustratingly conventional manager who needed to face dire circumstances before he put a speed guy in left field. David Murphy is not a bad fielder, but I believe the reason Washington stuck with him in left for so long is his power–though it may be middling, it is still greater than Gentry’s, and left field is supposed to be a slugger’s position. I can understand Washington’s reasoning there even if I don’t agree with it, but I don’t understand why Leonys Martin has been the starter in center all season. Martin and Gentry are the same type of player, reliant on speed and contact. Look at the stats, blindly.

A: .262/.314/.388, .322 BABIP, 5.5% BB%, 20.6% K%, 11.2 UZR/150

B: .280/.374/.387, .335 BABIP, 10.2% BB, 15.8% K%, 32.1 UZR/150

By now you get what I’m saying, so you know that Gentry is player B. Gentry outclasses Martin in every respect, yet Martin has gotten 505 plate appearances to Gentry’s 284. Gentry was injured, but only for a month, so only a fraction of the disparity can be explained by that. The BABIPs are similar enough, and Gentry’s career UZR/150 is 29.3 (over 1700+ innings), so the difference between the two players can’t be attributed to random chance, either on offense or defense.

Gentry sat behind two players for most of the season, even though his WAR (3.4) is almost identical to theirs combined (Murphy 0.7, Martin 2.8). Had Ron Washington assessed the talent on his roster better, earlier in the season, the Rangers might not have needed such a long winning streak just to squeak into a play-in for a play-in. Lucky for them, the man they shafted helped mightily in bailing them out.

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Midnight Player of the Week, 9/16 – 9/22: Andrew Cashner, Padres SP

Last Week:

  • (9/16 @ PIT) – 9.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 7 K, 0 BB, W
  • (9/22 vs. LAD) – 7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 R (0 ER), 7 K, 0 BB, L

These were Andrew Cashner’s last two starts of the season. The Padres shut him down today because they value his young arm, which just now seems to be actualizing its vast potential. It’s taken four years and two teams, but Cashner’s electric stuff is worth the trouble. By trouble, I mean a little labyrinth of trades and transactions: franchise player Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo; Rizzo gets called up, but his pull power doesn’t play in Petco Park like it does in the PCL; front-line starter Mat Latos to the Reds for first-base prospect Yonder Alonso; LOGJAM!; Rizzo to the Cubs for then-relief pitcher Andrew Cashner.

The Cashner trade seemed like a last, desperate gasp from a beleaguered Padres’ front office. Essentially, it took them a little over a year to flip one of the game’s ten best hitters for a fireballing but wild reliever who was just coming off a shoulder injury. The Cubs had tried to transition him into the rotation in 2011, but he strained his rotator cuff before he could get to the seventh inning of his first game. So in 2012 the Padres were content to keep to Cashner in the bullpen for a little while, where he could loose his fastball at triple-digit speeds and mix in an offspeed pitch at about 87 mph. Slider to righties, changeup to lefties. The results were passable: in 26 innings of relief, Cashner struck out 29, walked 16, giving up 23 hits and a 3.81 ERA.

That June, the Padres sent him down for three weeks to stretch him out. Like the Cubs, they couldn’t resist his potential as a starter. Like the Cubs, they were foiled by injury. On his third start in the majors, Cashner strained his upper dorsimus back. He came back in September to reduced velocity and a sore tendon. You would be excused for thinking that maybe Cashner just didn’t have the endurance for a starting role.

It’s now 175 innings later, and Cashner has put those concerns to rest for a while. Aside from his health, the main difference for Cashner this season is his sinker. An almost nonexistent part of his repertoire a year ago, the sinker is now the pitch he throws second most after the four seam. Numbers-wise, it’s an increase from 4.18 to 22.02 percent of all pitches thrown. Unlike most sinkers, Cashner’s doesn’t seem any slower than his fastball. It’s average velocity this year is 94.57 mph. Even so, only 11 right-handed starting pitchers have more horizontal break on their sinkers. Here is the first .gif I’ve ever made, taken from Cashner’s start yesterday against the Dodgers.

thegif

This took forever.

Cashner is helped by a nice frame, to be sure. But that pitch started over the chalk on the opposite batter’s box and made it back to the outside corner. In this game, the sinker averaged 95.86 mph and 10.26 inches of horizontal movement toward the right-handed hitter. It topped out at 99.44 mph. Just one more hundredth of a mile per hour, and you could have rounded it up to 99.5, which you could then have rounded up to 100 and felt only a little dirty. That pitch is a weapon. In his two starts last week, Cashner basically abandoned his four seam and relied on his sinker. This list of pitch types by start demonstrates the ascendance of his sinker since April.

His slider and changeup bear mentioning, of course; they are necessary for his success. We know that offspeed pitches keep hitters off balance. A good way to visualize the difference is with a graph like the one below, which plots pitch speed against the order of pitches in any given start. This one shows the pitches from Cashner’s complete-game, minimum-batters-faced masterpiece against the Pirates last Monday.

 

Pirates hitters regularly faced pitches that were 10 mph slower or faster than the previous pitch. Most pitchers in the major leagues strive to do this, of course. Also of course, it’s rare for a starter to do this with a fastball that sits at 95. Because hitters have to sit fastball and adjust to anything else, Cashner employs the changeup and slider (the slider especially) as out pitches. He uses the slider most when he is ahead against righties, and one of every three swings against the slider are whiffs.

The biggest surprise about Cashner might be that, despite the gas and the gaudy slider, he’s only striking out 6.58 hitters per nine innings. A number fitting for Dillon Gee or Wade Miley, but surely out of character for a flamethrowing, full-bearded Texan. We can reasonably expect that figure to rise next season. Cashner succeeded without it this season partly because his sinker generated plenty of groundballs, as sinkers do (67 percent, GB/BIP on that sinker). Chase Headley is one of the best defensive third basemen in the league. Jedd Gyorko has handled the transition to second well and shown good range there. Everth Cabrera will be back from suspension, and his speed plays well at short. Yonder Alonso grades well at first. Next year, Cashner will be 27 years old, in his physical prime. He has the stuff to blow it by hitters, a knack for getting ground balls, and fielders behind him who are all, as major leaguers go, above average at converting ground balls into outs. It took a while, but it seems the Padres got an ace out of Adrian Gonzalez trade.

Midnight Player of the Week, 9/9 – 9/15: Hunter Pence, Giants OF

Last week: 13 for 29, 2 BB, 8 R, 6 HR, 19 RBI, .448/.469/1.103

This award is biased toward hitters, yes. Pitchers won’t start more than twice, relievers won’t pitch in more than five games. Drew Smyly of Detroit seems to be the best present version of the 1980s long-relief fireman. To my mind that role is more valuable than the modern closer. Another discussion for another time. Right now we are talking about how a pitcher might with Midnight Player of the Week. Two complete-game shutouts would win it, and five saves might, especially in September, for a team in the hunt.

But the Wests are thin on huntin’. The Dodgers and A’s look like your division champions in the way that Ian McKellen looks like Gandalf. Meanwhile, the Rangers have slid backwards, into the thick of the wild-card race. So, yeah, they’re huntin’, but no one on their team has been playing well enough for last week’s award. I love me some Joe Nathan, though. He blew a save against the Rays last night, but if he gives me a sparkling week starting next Monday, he would find some new hardware on his mantle the Monday after that. And I mean literally. The fewer questions you ask, the better.

So, we have six teams looking toward next year, and the Astros, who look to 2016. Hunter Pence is a soon-to-be free agent who would help all of them. Yesterday I made a table looking at Pence’s performance over the past three calendar years. More to the point, I showed how those performances ranked among all soon-to-be free-agent outfielders.

pencefaofs

You may notice, he’s been performing better, especially on the bases. I am pleasantly surprised that Bochy has turned him loose on the basepaths. Bochy has a knack for subverting the image of the cranky old baseball man, certainly moreso than Pence’s previous manager, Charile Got Damn Manuel.

If I had waited another day to make that table, I would have been able to use their new all-inclusive offense and defense metrics. Long story short, the new Offense metric adds runs created from batting to runs created from running the bases. Over the last calendar year, Pence ranks second in that metric, after Shin-Soo Choo. Over the last two years, he ranks third, after Choo and Ben Zobrist. Over the last three years, he ranks fourth, after Choo, Zobrist and Carlos Beltran.

Pence will receive a qualifying offer from the Giants, a one-year deal for about $14 million. Since he is 30 years old, coming off his best season, he will decline that for a long-term deal. This is his first and last chance to really cash in on his baseball talent. Someone will give him five years, at around $15 million per year. Nick Swisher is a good comp. Last offseason he was 31 and looking for a job. He had had eight consecutive seasons of at least 20 home runs. The Indians gave him four years for $56 million. Pence is slightly younger, more athletic (the table that never was would have showed you his stolen bases), and freakishly strong.

Dude chokes up like two inches on a giant bat.

He has had six consecutive seasons of at least 20 home runs. Only in his rookie year did he fail to knock 20, and even then it was 17 homers in 484 PAs. That’s 28.4 plate appearances per home run. For his career, it’s been 27.2. Hunter Pence has been pretty much the same, supremely weird ballplayer since he came up in 2007. His weirdness can’t be separated from his talent; it’s possible that if you somehow forbade him from taking his signature ugly on-deck swings, he would cease to be an effective hitter. That swing took him to the majors and helped him succeed. Without it, he may never have been the Astros’ last great trade chip, or a coverboy, or a meme, or a world champion. I’m hoping what’s next for Pence comes in a Giants uniform.

(Unless the price is too high, like six years, $90 million. Then, of course, they can find his production from a platoon of Cheap Veteran A and Minor Leaguer B.)

Midnight Player of the Week, 9/2 – 9/8: Josh Donaldson, A’s 3B

This week: 10 for 25, 5 doubles, 1 BB, 4 R, 2 HR, 5 RBI, .400/.423/.840

It’s been a while. Let’s get back to it.

Josh Donaldson plays dirty. Last Thursday he showed his true colors. Let this article be a celebration of his performance, kept separate from his black soul.

At this point, Josh Donaldson should not surprise anybody. The A’s are in first place the second year in a row, Donaldson being the best position player on this year’s club. Last year, in only 294 plate appearances, Donaldson was an above-average starter. His 1.5 WAR worked out to about 3 over the standard 600 PAs, but his value came primarily from the two most difficult phases of the game to quantify: defense and baserunning. Given the uncertainty behind the most prevalent defensive metrics, Donaldson’s value heading into this season was questionable.

Well, Donaldson is still a plus defender. His range on pop-ups is tailor made for the Coliseum’s spacious foul territory. Major League Baseball called him Tarp Man. I don’t see the name sticking, but you get the point. And even though those balls would fall well into the seats in any other ballpark, Donaldson’s range shouldn’t be discredited. After all, neither I nor the A’s are in the business of projecting his value for another team. The A’s want Donaldson right where he is, because he’s cheap, young, and just a grade below elite.

This table ranks all third basemen with a minimum of 850 PA by WAR over the last two calendar years. Donaldson is sixth, in a closely packed group with Kyle Seager and Martin Prado. Both of them solid starters and underrated, victims of East Coast bias. And when you account for the disparity in plate appearances, Donaldson comes out closer to Evan Longoria and Chase Headley than Seager and Prado.

Sort the table by the fielding metric, Donaldson is sixth, above the great Adrian Beltre. Sort it by wRC+, Donaldson is tied for eighth with Chase Headley, though really that’s tied for sixth, because two of the players above him, Matt Carpenter and Hanley Ramirez, should rightly be categorized at other positions.

The raw counting stats may not be impressive, but remember that this is Donaldson’s first full season. Limiting ourselves to 2013, Donaldson ranks second in WAR (6.4), fourth in wRC+ (142), fifth in OBP (.372), sixth in home runs (21), third in doubles (34), and fifth in hits (154) among all qualified third basemen. He has the most plate appearances and games played on the A’s, and is almost twice as valuable as the second most valuable position player on the roster, Jed Lowrie (3.3 WAR in one less PA). The A’s have succeeded on offense despite last year’s stars, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, both having down years. Josh Donaldson at third and aggressive platooning at every other position keeps them competitive.

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A brief history: Donaldson was drafted in the first round (47th overall) of the 2007 draft by the Cubs. Traded in 2008 to the A’s as part of a package for Rich Harden, Donaldson did not get much love in the prospect lists, even though he was a catcher until at least 2011. That year the Hardball Times and SB Nation ranked him 8 and 13 respectively among A’s prospects, below current Angels utility infielder Grant Green. (I like Grant Green.) This article by Brian McClintock gives a thorough and well-sourced history of Donaldson’s professional career. Since I labeled this paragraph “brief,” I’ll just leave it at that.