Friday was the deadline for 155 arbitration-eligible players and their MLB teams to agree on salaries or exchange desired numbers for 2020. This year, big names including Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Aaron Judge, George Springer and Noah Syndergaard are among those who either came to a settlement amount before the deadline or are headed to an arbitration hearing.
According to Jeff Passan, all 30 teams have adopted the so-called file-and-trial approach — if the sides file a number, they’ll head to trial, cutting out the post-exchange-date negotiations that were prevalent even five years ago — making Jan. 10 an underappreciated day on the baseball calendar.
Below are some names notable names and figures. (Teams are listed alphabetically, and all deals are for one year, unless otherwise noted.)
Expected to go to hearing: Shane Greene
Contract agreements: Dansby Swanson ($3.125 million), Mike Foltynewicz ($6.425 million); Johan Camargo ($1.7 million); Adam Duvall ($3.25 million); Grant Dayton ($655,000); Luke Jackson ($1.825 million)
Contract agreements: Kyle Freeland ($2.875 million)
Expected to go to hearing: George Springer
Contract agreements: Jorge Soler ($7.3 million)
Expected to go to hearing: Brian Goodwin
Contract agreements: Ross Stripling ($2.1 million); Julio Urias ($1 million); Enrique Hernandez ($5.9 million); Cody Bellinger ($11.5 million — record for first-time eligible); Corey Seager ($7.6 million)
Expected to go to hearing: Jesus Aguilar
Contract agreements: Jose Urena ($3.75 million)
Contract agreements: Omar Narvaez ($2.725 million)
Expected to go to hearing: Jose Berrios
Contract agreements: Robert Gsellman ($1.225 million); Jake Marisnick ($3.3125 million); Noah Syndergaard ($9.7 million); Steven Matz ($5 million); Edwin Diaz ($5.1 million); Marcus Stroman ($12 million); Michael Conforto ($8 million)
Contract agreements: Adam Morgan ($1.575 million)
Contract agreements: John Gant ($1.3 million)
Contract agreements: Joey Gallo ($4.4 million)
Breakout pitchers to draft in fantasy baseball
Even in this age of analytics, it’s not easy to assemble a quality fantasy pitching staff. Pitching workloads are in decline, and the advent of the “opener” is accelerating the death of the win and, alarmingly, the quality start. Consider that in each of the past three seasons working forward, only 58, 57 and 61 pitchers met the qualification threshold for an ERA title, with those easily the three lowest totals of the divisional era (starting in 1969). The 2019 season also saw starting pitchers average a record-low 5.18 innings per start — a 3.5% reduction from 2018 alone and down 15.2% from 2014, or just five seasons prior. There were a total of 1,183 quality starts last season, which represented a drop of 621 from the league’s 2014 total.
When it comes to pitching, perhaps there’s a better title for these times: “The age of streaming.” Ah, but how does one assemble a more matchups-based or even streak-oriented pitching staff? As pitching workloads decrease, so does the potential payoff from your draft-day investments, forcing a more discount-driven strategy — especially at the lower tiers of your roster. You need to take more skills-driven chances at the draft table, while being sharper at identifying those waiver-wire gems.
That’s where this column comes in. One way to identify such draft-day gems (not to mention learn the lessons necessary for in-season transaction success, as you’ll see with some of the individual notes below) is to examine the numbers from previous seasons for pitchers whose traditional rotisserie statistics belie their skill sets. Wins, saves and ERA might be the measures in our beloved game, but the ability to miss bats, throw strikes and command the strike zone are the traits you truly want. Pitchers who exhibit an exemplary combination of the three tend to be set up for the greatest success, and those whose wins/saves/ERA were mediocre are often the ones most discounted.
They’re my annual “Kings of Command,” individuals who met an exclusive set of minimum statistical baselines exhibiting these skills.
Kings of Command baseline numbers
Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following minimum baselines from the 2019 major league season. You’ll see that these baselines have been adjusted since last year’s column, to keep up with the ever-changing game. The aim here is to identify pitchers who perform ahead of the league’s average in each.
Total batters faced (TBF): 200 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 12.0% or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 62.0% or more
Command rate (K’s per walk or K/BB): 3.0 or more
Total batters faced (TBF): 100 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 13.5% or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 61.5% of more
Command rate (K’s per walk or K/BB): 3.0 or more
In 2019, only 78 pitchers (36 starters and 42 relievers) met all of these criteria in either role. Included among that group were both Cy Young Award winners, Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander — as well as the pitchers responsible for 923 of the 1,020 total Cy Young balloting points (or 90.5%), Trevor Hoffman relief award winner Josh Hader, each of the top four as well as 19 of the top 25 pitchers overall on our Player Rater, and each of the six highest-scoring as well as 12 of the 15 highest-scoring overall pitchers in terms of fantasy points.
The nine pitchers listed below also met these criteria, despite falling considerably short of the accomplishments of the rest of the bunch, whether on the field or in fantasy baseball leagues. They still compared favorably to this headline-grabbing group, however, signaling that even a small change or better luck might propel them to greatness in 2020.
These “Kings of Command” are listed in alphabetical order, along with their 2019 Player Rater finishes and fantasy point totals using ESPN’s standard scoring system.
Why he’s on here: Burnes’ 2019 was, on the surface, hideous. Among 373 pitchers who faced at least 200 batters, his 8.82 ERA was third-worst. The seeds are here for something great, though, beginning with a slider that enjoyed a major league-best 36% swinging-strike rate (minimum 200 thrown). That pitch was largely behind his 12-strikeout, season-opening March 31 start. Burnes’ four-seam fastball also ranked among the league’s leading offerings in terms of spin rate.
How he could improve: Besides better health, as he spent two weeks on the IL with a shoulder issue in July, stronger command of said fastball would help. Burnes located too many four-seamers low in the strike zone, surrendering 8-of-17 home runs on pitches in the lower half. That’s why he reported to spring training committed to changing his approach, and a strong Cactus League showing might again net him a rotation spot –and the higher ceiling that’ll come with it.
Why he’s on here: He was the No. 1 RP and No. 50 player overall selected (on average) last spring. After flopping to the tune of seven blown saves, a 5.59 ERA and 15 home runs allowed, he will be this year’s poster boy for “going the cheap route” at the position. Diaz’s draft stock has understandably plummeted, but don’t overcorrect, considering he still had the fifth-best swinging strike rate (19.5%) as well as a well-above-league-average K:BB (4.50) and first-pitch strike rates (63.9%).
How he could improve: A return of his career-best 2018 control would help, but better luck might be all it takes for Diaz to reclaim his status as one of the league’s premier closers. His 16.3% HR/FB rate in 2019 was eighth-highest among qualified relievers, not to mention nearly seven full percentage points higher than his 2016-18 combined number, while his .381 BABIP was second-highest among said relievers and 89 points higher than his 2016-18 number (.298).
Why he’s on here: Injuries paved the way for Fried to claim a spot in Atlanta’s 2019 Opening Day rotation. By year’s end, he was one of only three ERA-qualified pitchers with at least 24% strikeout and 50% ground-ball rates plus an 8% walk rate or less, joining German Marquez and Stephen Strasburg in that exclusive company. Fried also showed one of the wider average velocity ranges with his four-seam fastball, as well as between his four-seam fastball and changeup, giving him a good array of pitches.
How he could improve: Keeping the ball down can only help his cause. Fried’s 26.1% line-drive rate was 16th-highest among 61 ERA qualifiers, resulting in 75 of his 174 total hits allowed. That might ultimately be the best way to lower his 39% career Statcast hard-contact rate, dropping his HR rate back to the 0.66 per-nine-innings ratio it was at during his minor-league career. If Fried’s command looks sharp during Grapefruit League play, he might be ready to take the leap to stardom.
Why he’s on here: He’d have met the qualifications as both starter and reliever in 2019, had he faced 17 additional batters while in the latter role following his August waiver move to the Reds. By the way, he even met the reliever qualification thresholds we’re using while working as a starter. Gausman’s career-to-date production might be seen as a disappointment, but he showed a spark after said bullpen transition: 31.9% strikeout and 5.5% walk rates, plus a 94.5 mph average four-seam fastball velocity.
How he could improve: The Giants plan to use Gausman as a starter, but note their lack of a clear ninth-inning option. Whittling his pitch selection down to just his fastball/splitter made him a more dominating — and intriguing — force in short relief, but he’ll call home the most pitching-friendly venue of his career (even with the fences moved in), if he’s indeed locked into the rotation. The team at least hasn’t been afraid to quickly shift starters into late-inning relief roles (see: Anderson, Shaun).
Why he’s on here: Between IL stints, Heaney was one of the better-performing command artists of the past two seasons, one of only 15 who can boast at least 25% strikeout and 3.75 K:BB ratios and more than 40 starts. While his ERA+ (98) and FIP (4.21) might’ve been forgettable, he did sprinkle in signs of greatness, including back-to-back double-digit strikeout games in July 2018 as well as in both June and August 2019, or his 3.12 ERA over his first 10 starts of 2018.
How he could improve: Health, health, health, and oh, by the way, health. In those same two seasons, Heaney made three trips to the IL for a combined 98 days pf absence for elbow (twice) and shoulder issues. That’s a problem for a pitcher with a 2016 Tommy John surgery on his résumé. Much of his path to success is obscured by the injury question, but it would also help if he could reduce his near-40% fly- ball rate, an oddity for a pitcher who relies upon a sinker as much as he does.
Why he’s on here: Wait, the Tigers, baseball’s worst team (47 wins), needed a closer? Believe it, as Jimenez graduated into the role following the trade of Shane Greene, going 9-for-10 converting saves with a 3.06 ERA and 30.3% strikeout rate in 19 appearances. Equipped with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and slider, Jimenez was once considered one of the game’s most intriguing future-closer candidates, but oddly, by the time he inherited the role he was seemingly completely forgotten.
How he could improve: A continuation of the much-improved control Jimenez showed in his new role would pay the largest dividends, as he walked only 7.9% of the batters he faced with a 70% first-pitch strike rate during that two-month stretch. He also failed to walk any of the final 35 batters he faced. Keeping the ball down might also help, as he had the sixth-highest fly-ball rate among qualified relievers. Even with no change in skills, Jimenez might sleepwalk his way to 25 saves and 85 strikeouts.
Why he’s on here: He faced 227 batters and had a 3.19 FIP in 2019, which was 13th-best among pitchers who made at least 10 starts (he made 11), yet had a 7.13 ERA, which was fourth-worst among that same group. Keller’s minor-league prowess, though, supports his prospects toward a significant step forward in 2020, as he whiffed 25.5% of the hitters he faced with a 3.12 ERA in his career there and was widely regarded a top-10 starting pitching prospect at this time a year ago.
How he could improve: A reversal of Keller’s miserable luck, as he had a .478 BABIP and a 59.6% LOB rate — numbers that are unfathomably unfortunate. It would also help if he could cure his first-inning issues during his first taste of the majors. His ERA in the game’s first frame is 10.64. He can also stand to improve the command of his fastball, considering opponents hit .461/.495/.719 against it. Keller is one of the most critical starters to watch during spring training.
German Marquez, Colorado Rockies
2019 Player Rater: SP52/170th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 340 (SP39)
Why he’s on here: Evaluated in its entirety, Marquez’s 2019 was a significant disappointment relative to the buzz that surrounded him entering the year, as he was selected (on average) 28th at his position and 110th overall in ESPN leagues. He began the year with a 3.48 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over his first 13 starts, but struggled to keep the ball down thereafter, allowing 20 homers and a .246 ISO in his final 15 outings, before succumbing to a tired arm in late August.
How he could improve: Getting out of Coors would be nice. However, among the realistic options is a return of the 52% HR-minimizing ground-ball rate he posted between the 2018 and 2019 All-Star breaks. Recapturing the feel for his filthy, whiff-generating slider alone might help as the pitch had a 22.2% swinging-strike rate in the aforementioned start to 2019, but only 16.9% thereafter. Just be sure not to set your high-end expectations at an ERA crown (or anything close to it).
Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates
2019 Player Rater: SP58/180th overall
2019 fantasy point total: 288 (SP56)
Why he’s on here: He seems to be scratching the surface of a major breakthrough every year, having made the 2017 list while also meeting the 2018 thresholds. Yet he’s never cracked the top-50 starting pitchers on either the Player Rater or in fantasy points scored. Still, Musgrove has showed good incremental growth, his 170 1/3 innings in 2019 a professional high, while his 17 quality starts earned him a spot in the majors’ top 25.
How he could improve: Musgrove has a considerable weakness, that being his struggles pitching from the stretch rather than the windup. In the past three seasons combined, he has surrendered a wOBA 35 points higher with men on base than with the bases empty, backed by strikeout and ground-ball rates more than 3% and 6% lower in those situations. One would think that’s something coaching can fix, a trait that puts him on spring watch lists. However, after this many years it’s a legitimate, potentially lasting question.
Kings of Command master list of qualifiers
Listed below, with starting pitchers on the left and relief pitchers on the right and in ascending order of their 2019 FIP, are all 78 pitchers who met all of the Kings of Command criteria in 2019.
Ex-Blue Jays reliever Mike Bolsinger adds owner Jim Crane, staffer Derek Vigoa to lawsuit vs. Astros
Former major league pitcher Mike Bolsinger amended his lawsuit against the Houston Astros to include Astros owner Jim Crane and baseball-operations staffer Derek Vigoa, according to a document filed in a Los Angeles court Thursday.
Bolsinger, 32, filed a civil suit Feb. 10 alleging the Astros had engaged in unfair business practices and negligence via a “duplicitous and tortious scheme of sign-stealing.” In Bolsinger’s last major league outing, on Aug. 4, 2017, the Astros scored four runs in a third of an inning against him while allegedly using their trash-can-banging system on 12 of the 29 pitches he threw.
The initial complaint named the Astros organization but included so-called Doe defendants, allowing it to be amended to add individuals allegedly involved. Others who allegedly participated in the scheme, which has enraged players and fans and caused consternation across the sport since spring training began, could join Crane and Vigoa as defendants.
Crane has been under scrutiny since a news conference Feb. 13 during which he said the Astros’ cheating during the 2017 season “didn’t impact the game” and that “I don’t think I should be held accountable.” After an investigation into Houston’s sign stealing, MLB fined the Astros $5 million, docked their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and suspended manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for one season. Crane fired both on Jan. 13, the day commissioner Rob Manfred released his report on the matter.
Vigoa, who is listed on the Astros’ website as senior manager of team operations, was an intern in 2016 when he introduced Luhnow to a system developed by the baseball-operations department called “Codebreaker,” according to a Wall Street Journal story. An Excel-based algorithm designed to decode signs, it was used “in an inappropriate way,” Manfred said Tuesday.
The Astros did not respond to a request for comment. Bolsinger’s attorney, Ben Meiselas, declined comment.
Bolsinger’s complaint seeks monetary damages for the scheme “harming his career.” The Toronto Blue Jays designated Bolsinger for assignment after his outing against the Astros, and he has not returned to the major leagues, spending the past two seasons with the Chiba Lotte Mariners in Japan. “What took place in Houston on August 4th could and did prove to be the death knell” of Bolsinger’s big league career, according to the complaint. Of the 60 Astros home games in 2017 tracked by fan Tony Adams, Aug. 4 had the highest total of trash-can bangs: 54.
Additionally, Bolsinger asked for the Astros to redirect the nearly $31 million players received via postseason shares to “charitable causes focused on bettering the lives of children with an emphasis on charities in Los Angeles as well as a fund for elderly retired professional baseball players in need of assistance.”
Though the lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County, the jurisdiction of a potential case has yet to be determined. The complaint said the Astros have “member-investors involved in the fraudulent scheme who reside in Los Angeles, California” — and Crane reportedly owns property in the Los Angeles area. A January story in Variety said he bought the home of actress Michelle Pfeiffer and her producer husband, David E. Kelley, for $9.1 million. The property, according to Variety, is next door to another in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood that Crane has owned since 2010.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy says he was changing signs every pitch vs. Astros
FORT MYERS, Fla. — As a catcher who spent parts of four seasons playing in the American League West between 2016 and 2019, Jonathan Lucroy found himself in a unique position to observe the sign-stealing tactics of the Houston Astros while needing to plan against the scheme.
Lucroy, who is now with the Boston Red Sox, played for the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels in the AL West during that span. And, as a division rival, he saw up close the effectiveness of Houston’s actions.
“I knew about that two years ago, that it was going on,” Lucroy said Thursday. “I know it just recently came out. Everyone in baseball [knew], especially in that division that played against them. But we were all aware of the Astros doing those things and it was up to us to outsmart them, I guess you could say.
“It’s kind of hard when you have a computer program that breaks your signs. We actively changed signs. Every single pitch, we were changing signs. You had to because they would relay them to second, stealing them from first, too — from between your legs. They had a very intricate system going on. We were well aware of it, and it was a challenge. It was a mental challenge to really overcome that. It’s easier said than done. But it’s a shame, and I’m glad it came out and it came to light.”
Lucroy said that Mike Fiers informed him of Houston’s tactics once they became teammates in Oakland in 2018. The revelation led Lucroy, who signed a minor league deal with Boston earlier this week, to create more and more intricate sign-calling patterns to preemptively fight any tactics used by the Astros. Working with different pitchers called for different tactics as well.
Lucroy added that he never heard the banging of a trash can, but he would not have been listening for it in the first place.
“[Pitchers] don’t want to sit there and try to think about decoding your signs and thinking about your indicators and all the different things that you’re doing,” said Lucroy, a 10-year major league veteran. “They want to sit there and just worry about executing. Some guys can handle it and some guys can’t. It was very difficult to do.
“The guys were calling time and stepping out of the box as you take time to put your sign sequence down, and it was making games long and leaving guys out there. Their system, not only did it work with them having the signs and being able to see them, but it made our guys sit out there longer. You had to put down a more complex set of signs and everything. I’m glad it’s been taken care of. It was out of hand and it affected the games in a lot of different ways.”
According to Lucroy, the Athletics informed Major League Baseball about their experience with the Astros, but no investigation was started until Fiers went on the record with The Athletic in November.
Athletics general manager David Forst confirmed to The Mercury News last week that Oakland complained to the league well before MLB’s investigation commenced.
Word began spreading quickly about the Astros, and Lucroy said he would text others around the league about what he had learned.
“It was crazy, some of the pitches they would take,” Lucroy said. “It was like, ‘Man, these guys are some of the best hitters I’ve ever seen.’ It all made sense when I found out how they were doing it. Then it was like, ‘What are we going to do?’ I was with Oakland, and we had let MLB know, and they just called and said something. They didn’t go through the whole investigation. It wasn’t until Fiers came out publicly that they went and looked at it really hard.”
Paranoia played a massive role in shaping Lucroy’s preparation for Houston. Sign stealing has always been a part of the game, but Lucroy said Houston’s efforts extended beyond what he had seen. At times, Lucroy said, players would look out into the outfield to see if anyone in the bullpen had binoculars.
“I remember a game with Edwin Jackson. He’s a guy I’ve been around a long time, so I knew that I could get real complicated on signs and he would be OK,” Lucroy said. “It was a mental workout. We were switching signs every pitch — every single pitch — because you had to. If you didn’t, they were going to get it and go up there and take advantage of it.”
While Major League Baseball has discussed new technology to allow pitchers and catchers to communicate without putting down signs, Lucroy has been skeptical about its effectiveness and its ability to not be hacked.
“They’ve talked about the earpieces, the radio transmitters, but the thing is, someone is going to hack into that, too,” Lucroy said. “There’s some kind of CIA-spy thing out there where someone will figure something out. I don’t know. We’ve talked about it as a union, amongst ourselves as players, and there’s gotta be something we can do to make it easier. The NFL does it with their quarterbacks. There must be something we can do.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred gave Houston’s players immunity from punishment in order to extract as much information as possible about the scandal, but Lucroy said Astros players deserve punishment for their actions, echoing the massive wave of player comments across the league in spring training.
“Guys do steroids and they get punished. Guys cheat with steroids and get punished. I saw that in 2011 with the Brewers with that whole situation there,” Lucroy said. “That guy [Braun] got punished. For me, the hardest part, and everyone else has been saying this, you’re taking money.
“Guys are out there on the mound — and it may be a Triple-A up-and-down guy and he gets rocked because you’re stealing signs like that and gets sent down and never plays again. Or a guy who gets his career ended ’cause he goes out there and gets rocked. This game is a business, and if you’re not performing, you don’t play. Guys have families and have kids. That’s the hardest part for me.
“These guys were essentially taking money away from players and their families and their kids. That’s the hardest thing for me to swallow. I just think we should play the game the right way. If you want to steal signs, put them on second — and I’ve been on teams that have done that. That’s normal and part of the game. Doing it illegally? That’s tough, especially with how it affects your livelihood.”
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