Closing to Open: What Game 162 tells us about 2012

[If you’ve been reading this site for any amount of time, you already know how talented Chris is. But, this post deserves a little introduction anyway only because it’s premise is so creative. I didn’t edit a word — even his British tendency to spell “defense” with a “c.” I generally dislike season previews because, we’re all just guessing, but this thing is just awesome. –Mark]

By Chris Glover

Sometimes a single season, game or even at-bat can serve as a microcosm for a wider reaching trend. The selection of a defensively skilled player over a lumbering slugger might signal a shift in a franchise’s priorities or a single plate appearance where a player looks composed and then clueless before belting the ball into the cheap seats might serve perfectly as a summary of his inconsistent career to date. For the Rays in 2011, their microcosm was Game 162. Every time you re-watch the game, or even just the highlights, you will notice an out that was so close to a hit, a walk that was so close to a strike out, or, of course, a hit that was so close to a foul ball (okay you probably noticed those two the first time round). It’s through that lens that we will review 2011 while raising, and hopefully answering, some questions about this team in 2012.

David Price goes 4 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 5 ER on 97 pitches

(or, who is the ace of this staff?)

Whatever happened in this game, it goes without saying that the success of the rotation is going to be the major driving force behind the Rays’ success in 2012. It’s amazing to think that Price may not be the best pitcher on the Rays staff, perhaps even as soon as this season. For what it’s worth, I’d suggest Price is still a little underrated and too much attention was paid to his 12-13 record last year – a measure which has little correlation to how well an individual player actually pitched. Price’s expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) (which is more predictive than ERA, which still relies on the quality of a pitcher’s supporting defence and a large slice of luck) was 3.32, better than Tim Lincecum (3.36), CJ Wilson (3.41), Ian Kennedy (3.50) and Jered Weaver (3.80) all of whom received top-six finishes in their respective Cy Young voting.

Price improved from 2010 in almost all (controllable) areas of his game, striking out more batters, walking less and generating more ground balls. It was really his inability to strand baserunners and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which hurt him along the perception of him being a true ‘ace’. Those two measures are generally thought to be outside of a pitcher’s control and improved luck will likely see Price take the ‘next step’ so many are waiting for.

The odd game like this from Price shouldn’t detract from another excellent season and another step on the way to becoming recognised as one of the top handful of pitchers in the league. What’s even more exciting, of course, are his partners in crime with Shields, Moore and Hellickson forming a potentially elite trio of their own. Some are expecting regression from Shields and particularly Hellickson, but there is a decent case to me made for each player being able to replicate last season’s success.

Shields actually decreased his strikeout rate and walked more batters in 2011 than 2010, with a lot of his success being due to an improved ground ball rate and some better luck with runners in scoring position and with his supporting defence. In truth, his pure ability probably lies somewhere between 2010 and 2011, but with an increasingly effective curveball being used to compliment his dominant changeup, we can be fairly confident that he should fall more towards last season than his poor 2010 campaign.

As for Hellickson, this time last year he was still ranked ahead of Matt Moore among Rays’ prospects and didn’t disappoint in his rookie season, coming in with a sub-3.0 ERA on his way to rookie of the year honours. Many are predicting some regression from Hellboy thanks to an unsustainably high strand rate (82%) and low BABIP (.223) but there is reason to believe that there are counteracting factors which should soften this blow, chiefly a likely improvement in his strikeout rate, which at 5.6 K/9 was well below the 9+ rate he had shown in the minors. ZiPS forecasts Hellickson to have a 3.6 ERA and an ERA+ of 112, which would rank him as a number two starter on 20 different teams.

Oh right, and then there’s this guy Matt Moore, uber-prospect, playoff winner and possible wizard. Some are already predicting him to be the pick of this talented bunch, a prospect that should terrify all in the AL East. Moore’s prospects deserve a post of their own, suffice to say we should all be very excited.

We can’t say that we won’t see pitching lines like Price’s in game 162 again in 2012, but it’s pretty safe to suggest they will be few, and far between. Luckily for us, on that historic night in September the Rays had enough to get over Price’s shaky outing, starting with a couple of typically well timed hits in the eighth.

James Shields warming up in the bullpen

(or, who’s heading there this season?)

With the game slipping away, we caught a glimpse of Shield warming up in the ‘pen, presumably to give him the 2/3 innings he needed to reach 250. While we won’t be seeing Shields in the bullpen anytime soon, it’s looking all but certain that two from Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb are headed there or down to Durham.

Davis has been vocal this offseason about not wanting to pitch in relief, and there’s nothing wrong with his attitude in that regard – he should want to stay in the rotation – while Niemann has been more diplomatic. The forecast models all pretty much have Niemann and Cobb pegged as 4.0 ERA guys, while they are less decided on Davis, with predictions ranging between 4.0 and 4.8.

Davis, whose changeup and curveball were both lit up over the past couple of seasons, may be more suited to the bullpen, where he could potentially crank-up his fastball to the mid-nineties and get back to the power pitcher he was when he cracked top prospect lists just a couple of years ago. Niemann has tended to struggle during the third and fourth time through the order though, so he too may well be suited for a long relief role. That would leave the inexperienced but impressive Cobb who will likely get a long look this March.

There are factors at work outside of just on field talent here, with Davis locked into a team friendly deal until 2017 (including team options) while Niemann will be subject to the potentially expensive arbitration process for the next couple of seasons. Niemann is however out of options, surely locking him in to a role in the majors in one form or another. It would be surprising if this race is decided just on the results of this month’s games, but it does appear to be a genuinely open competition and one which is only just beginning. Whatever the decision for opening day though, it’s likely all three of these guys will get starts this year due to injury, loss of form or scheduling.

8th inning: Damon blooper, Zobrist double, Kotchman hit by pitch, Fuld walks

(or, can the new arrivals replace the departed players’ production)

Has the start to an inning ever better reflected a team’s offense? An ugly blooper from Damon just crept past Eduardo Nunez’ glove before Zobrist lined the first pitch for a double, Kotchman took one on the hands to load the bases and Fuld held his nerve to walk in the first run on six close pitches. Damon, Kotchman and Fuld accounted for a total of six wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) last season and replacing that production was, and possibly still is, a major question heading into the new year.

Luke Scott and old friend Carlos Pena are the men charged with the task of replacing the departed Damon and Kotchman, and on paper, they look well placed to do that and more. While we can’t quantify Damon’s off-the-field impact, his work at the plate was uninspiring and Scott won’t have to do much to match, or exceed Damon’s production. The Rays’ got a combined .321 wOBA from the DH for the season, good for an 11th place ranking for the season and the 16 HRs from the position is hardly anything to get excited by.

Scott struggled himself throughout 2011 until being shut down in July but was still able to post an isolated power mark of .182, which would still have ranked 6th on the Rays in 2011. A return to his career average rate of .230 would have trailed only Longoria (.251) last season. ZiPS forecasts Scott for a .245 / .325 / .447 slash line with 16 HRs in just 378 appearances, not too dissimilar from Upton’s 2011 (.243 / .331 / .429 23 HRs) minus the speed (and of course defensive ability). Scott’s lack of extreme platoon splits (.339 wOBA vs L and .366 vs R) suggests he will get plenty of opportunities to get to the plate and his floor should be around Damon’s 2011 campaign providing he can stay healthy, with good power upside.

While the Damon to Scott could be argued to be a potential lateral move, the change at first must be viewed as an upgrade for even the most pessimistic of Pena forecasters. While Kotchman’s 2011 will be tough to replace, it would be a huge stretch to suggest Casey was the man to do it when you consider the luck he had in blooping and bleeding his way to a .306 average (his .335 BABIP was 12th among all players with 500 PAs). Pena needs no introduction in these parts, though some caution must be noted about expecting a return of his 2007 vintage form. We can however reasonably expect something close to his 2008-09 production with perhaps a slight decline in power from the 30-35 to the 26-30 range to pair with a lot of whiffs, a lot of walks and a solid glove. There is some concern about Pena moving back to the offensively stingy Trop at his age, but the majority of his home runs last year would have cleared the fences in most parks, and it’s not like Pena is leaving a hitter’s paradise. Scott, Pena and a full season of Jennings might not generate too much attention around the league, but given what they are replacing they look like a great combination of high floor players with a good amount of upside.

8th inning: BJ Upton just misses out on a grand slam

(or, how will Upton do in what is probably his last season as a Ray?)

If the start of the 8th inning summed up what went right with the Rays in 2011, it might also sum up the fortunes of BJ Upton over his whole career. With the Yankees reeling and the bases loaded, Upton came to the plate to face Luis Ayala, who started him off with a slider middle and in which, well, didn’t slide. Upton didn’t quite get a hold of it, and with a “I was this close” gesture that summed up his career to some in Tampa, he showed how close he was to blowing the game wide open.

In this lowly blogger’s humble opinion, that viewpoint is a touch unfair, but understandable given Upton’s alternation between flashes of sheer brilliance and frustratingly wild swings. However, since Upton became a regular first teamer in 2007, only 11 American Leaguers have amassed more wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) and the list of those players behind BJ includes perennial All-Stars and perhaps higher rated players like Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton and Mark Teixeira.

The ‘contract year theory’ is one that is still up for debate and I don’t think we’re going to be swayed too much by the ‘best shape of his life’ stories from spring training, but there is always that lingering possibility that this is the year Upton ‘puts it all together’. Most projection systems have him settling in around the .250 / .340 / .430 vicinity, also believing that his 20+ HR power is for real. With his abundant talent you could suggest that he still has a chance to far eclipse these marks, but then there’s always the chance that he’ll just fall short once again. If nothing else he will be fun/maddening/exciting/frustrating to watch.

“There it is, long drive, deep to left . . . gone”

(or, how good can Longoria really be?)

When the team absolutely needed a big hit, there’s few players you would have wanted to step to the plate other than Evan Longoria, but just how good can he be? Despite battling through oblique and foot injuries for the whole season, Longoria still managed to put together a good season, finishing with a .244 / .355 / .495 line along with 31 HRs and a .251 isolated power mark. Given his struggles with injury and bad luck with hits dropping in (.239 BABIP last season), there’s no reason to think he won’t drag that average back to right around his career .275 rate while 30 HRs looks like the floor rather than the ceiling for Longoria’s impressive power.

There’s still a feeling that there’s more to come from Longoria despite the fact that he ranks behind only Albert Pujols in wins above replacement (per FanGraphs) since entering the majors in 2008. Admittedly, a lot of that value is derived from the unproven defensive statistics which make up that measure, but in Longoria’s case I don’t think there’s much of a gap between the stats and the eyeball test – he is one of, if not the, best defenders at the hot corner.

With a line-up that looks as dangerous as any the Rays have ever enjoyed, combined with a (hopefully) healthier season, there’s no reason Longoria can’t improve on his 6th placed MVP vote from 2010, and deliver his best season yet.

“Line shot down the left field line”

(or, do we need another excuse to watch this?)

There’s no real lesson or question here. Just that baseball is back and it promises to be another great season for the Rays.

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