Three Strikes: Craving hitters, PED update and more change in Oakland
The Seattle Mariners may have signed slugger Nelson Cruz a year too late. Last season, when they didn't pony up enough money to keep Cruz from signing in Baltimore for one year and $8 million, the lefthanded-heavy Mariners missed the playoffs by one game with an offense that ranked last in the league in OPS and on-base percentage and 11th in runs. It was an expensive whiff.
Now that Cruz is a year older — he'll turn 35 next July — Seattle signed him to too long of a contract (four years, $57 million) to make sure they got him this time. Over the past five years, only two players have hit 30 home runs at age 36 or older (David Ortiz and Alfonso Soriano). Good luck with that.
What happened in a year? Well, Cruz did hit 40 home runs for the Orioles in 2014, three more than anybody else in baseball. And the Mariners found out that Corey Hart, Austin Jackson, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak and the like were not viable answers to supporting their $240 million investment in Robinson Cano.
What also happened is that the Mariners — and every other club in baseball — are coming to grips with the reality that there are so very few legitimate available bats these days. Cruz, a bona fide power hitter, is one of them. The days are over when you can confidently project a minor league prospect to hit in the majors or a confidently expect an underachieving journeyman to fill an important spot in your lineup. It's not that hitting has become so bad; it's that pitching has become so good.
We all know strikeouts keep going up — nine straight years now. And we all know how deeper, harder-throwing bullpens are shutting down offense late in games. But an overlooked aspect to this era of pitching dominance is that walks are down to their lowest per-game level since 1968. Bases on balls have decreased 16 percent just since 2009. The game has changed dramatically in a short period. Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cosart told me the difference in the quality and variety of pitching today is "night and day" from when he first broke in — and he made his debut in 2011!
Think about these parallel trends you'd think are opposing: Pitchers are bringing higher velocity with more movement to the mound while their control is getting appreciably better. (This trend is abetted by umpires, who are calling more and more low strikes — probably because the trend away from four-seamers and toward hard two-seamers, cutters and sliders prioritizes sinking, running and cutting the ball at the knees or below. Low, hard pitches with movement that are harder to hit are also harder to call.)
Every team has woken to this new reality, which is evident in player movement this offseason. Ten of the first 13 free agents to reach agreement have been hitters. (The three pitchers are the ho-hum A.J. Burnett, Zach Duke and Jason Frasor.) The top five hitters are off the board already (Russell Martin, Victor Martinez, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Yasmany Tomas), while none of the top five pitchers have been grabbed (starters Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields, and relievers Andrew Miller and David Robertson).
It's a bizarro world. It's a world in which the Blue Jays can brag about spending $82 million on a quality hitter, Martin, when that hitter is a 31-year-old catcher with a lifetime .259 batting average. It's a world in which the Red Sox gave Sandoval $95 million, more than twice as much money as the Diamondbacks gave Martin Prado two years ago despite nearly identical numbers. It's a world in which the pitching market has a glut of available arms through free agency or trade.
It's a good time to be Melky Cabrera. The 30-year-old journeyman is now the best hitter available on the market, with a career slash line (.286/.339/.415) that is similar to what Shane Victorino, then 32, brought to free agency just two years ago (.275/.341/.430). The Red Sox were widely criticized for giving Victorino $39 million over three years. Since then, hitting only has become harder to do and harder to find. Wait until you see what Cabrera gets; it's a good bet to be far beyond Victorino money.
2. The latest numbers from MLB's battle against PEDs
The Independent Program Administrator of baseball's collectively bargained drug program released his annual report yesterday as required by the CBA, and nobody seemed to notice. I imagine that's progress for baseball. The game took so much heat for the Biogenesis scandal and the shameless shenanigans of Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, but an update on its steady handling of the PED issue has merited a collective yawn.
Here are two key takeaways on the numbers. First, Therapeutic Use Exemptions for Attention Deficit Disorder (which after physicians' review allows a player to use stimulants that are otherwise banned) have held steady since 2011 (105, 116, 119 and 113). Second, non-stimulant PED busts have declined (none in 2013, one this year) after a spike in 2012 (seven), when baseball was caught off guard with the rise of synthetic testosterone. Credit should go to the union and MLB for agreeing to more sophisticated testing protocols, though don't think the cheaters aren't working to stay ahead of the science.
Baseball also did increase the number of urine-based tests by 59 percent. Put another way, the average number of tests for a player on the 40-man roster jumped from 3.4 in 2013 to 5.3 in 2014.
When it comes to blood tests for HGH, however, not much is new. Baseball has won the PR war on HGH by being out front of other sports on this issue. It became the first sport to use a blood test for HGH in 2012, though that amounted to an announced test because players were tested for it only when they reported to spring training. In 2013, the players and owners agreed to unprecedented in-season testing for HGH, but few such tests were actually done. MLB conducted only 188 more blood tests for HGH in 2013 than it did with no in-season testing in 2012.
This year the two sides agreed to expand the blood tests again with an additional 400 random such tests. But the overall number of blood tests increased by only 166, to a total of 1,535 for the 1,200 or so players. An important part of the testing is the theatre of it — the idea that you might get caught rather than the actual possibility of it — in part because the detection window of HGH, said to be about 24 hours, is so short.
3. The Athletics' biggest star? Billy Beane
I would not recommend that the face of your franchise be the general manager, but that is what has happened to the Oakland Athletics. Billy Beane is a cold-blooded day trader, avoiding emotional connection to his properties and always churning his roster to find incremental improvement.
The down side is that the team is left with no ballast, not at least as far as homegrown players a fan can see rise through the system and become identifiable with the franchise. The upside is that Beane's manic maneuvering works, for the most part. Oakland has the second-best record in baseball over the past three years and the sixth-best record over the past 15 years. So when Beane dumps a young star in third baseman Josh Donaldson, trading him to Toronto for a guy who can't stay on the field in Brett Lawrie and three growth stocks, he gets the benefit of the doubt that other general managers do not. He must know what he's doing. After all, he's the master recycler.
Donaldson knew this was coming. He was there long enough — two full seasons and parts of two others — to know that the Oakland clubhouse is a bus depot. People hang out a bit, but otherwise they are just passing through. Even when things go well, as they did through July last year when the A's had the best record in baseball, Beane must tinker. He made five trades in July and August — because, he explained, he could see that the team was leaking oil and needed upgrading just to get in the playoffs — and wound up yet again failing to get past its first postseason matchup.
Beane has traded away 67 players in the past five years — the equivalent of two and a half teams — and he still has a few shopping days this year to ship out Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Moss and any other chip that suits him. Among those Beane sent packing in recent years even before the Donaldson trade include Chris Carter, Yoenis Cespedes, Gio Gonzalez and Tyson Ross.
In 2011, 48 men played for Beane's team. Since then, 98 percent of that roster has been turned over, and 26 of those players have been traded or sold. By trade alone he moved eight starting pitchers who combined for 134 of the 162 starts that year. Only two players remain from the 2011 team: Coco Crisp and Eric Sogard. Anybody buy a ticket last season to watch those guys hit a combined .237?
Only three drafted players contribute to the major league team: pitchers Sean Doolittle, Sonny Gray and A.J. Griffin. Only three players are signed through 2016: Billy Butler, Crisp and Doolittle. The accepted modern wisdom of locking up young players does not apply in Oakland, not with that dump of a ballpark.
Gertrude Stein, though she more famously had been referring to her plaintive nostalgia of Oakland, had it right when it comes to the city's baseball team: there is no there there. The franchise has made no headway on a new ballpark, joining Tampa Bay as the only franchises to have missed out on the greatest ballpark building booms ever known. (Atlanta, meanwhile, already is getting a second bite of the new-stadium apple.) And because of that failure by the franchise, Beane has no future for which to plan. It's a year-by-year, player-by-player existence. The one constant is Beane.