The 30: Pitching Ain’t Easy

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As the calendar flips to June, starting pitching uncertainty begins to settle into something more concrete. With two months in the books, it’s getting tougher to chalk up lousy performances to small sample size. And for the struggling teams with surprisingly successful starters, those pleasant developments quickly become trade bait.

How teams address their new realities will go a long way toward shaping their futures, both for the rest of this season and well beyond. For the way-out-of-contention Phillies, the big question is what they might do with their top veteran starters. The Orioles are hanging around in a muddled AL East, but one former All-Star is struggling badly. The Mets must decide how long to ride with a six-man rotation. And the Royals, despite a 29-19 start, find themselves trying to make do with half a rotation.

So don’t, don’t, don’t let’s start. It’s Week 8 of The 30.

Best Bat Flip of the Week

After focusing on the week’s best bat flip last season, this year we decided to expand our horizons to include everything from run-saving outfield grabs to miming shortstops. After all, who are we to limit the purview of this completely unprestigious, made-up distinction? Still, when a truly special flip occurs, The 30 will be there to chronicle it — even if it means traveling to another continent.

The Korean Baseball Organization is known for hitters who flip the bat so aggressively that they make Yasiel Puig homer celebrations look like high tea at Buckingham Palace. But even by those standards, the flip unleashed by the Lotte Giants’ Jung Hoon last week belongs in a class by itself. It deserves perfect scores for flair, and especially for originality. Our words won’t do this thing any justice. Just sit back and enjoy:

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National Nightmares

Our five lowest-ranked teams all hail from the NL.

30. Milwaukee Brewers (17-34 record, minus-65 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (19-33, minus-73, LW: 28)
28. Miami Marlins (20-31, minus-21, LW: 27)
27. Colorado Rockies (22-26, minus-28, LW: 29)
26. Cincinnati Reds (22-27, minus-25, LW: 26)
25. Oakland A’s (20-33, plus-1, LW: 25)
24. Chicago White Sox (23-26, minus-42, LW: 24)
23. San Diego Padres (25-27, minus-8, LW: 23)
22. Boston Red Sox (22-29, minus-48, LW: 17)
21. Toronto Blue Jays (23-29, plus-25, LW: 21)

As the franchise has plummeted from World Series winner to bottom-feeder in little more than half a decade, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has received a lot of well-deserved flak. From the money and dollars invested in an overrated-even-in-his-prime player to the inability to recognize the dangers of age curves, the Ryan Howard contract was a nuclear disaster. After re-signing Cliff Lee in 2010, Amaro then kept him around for too long, allowing Lee to put up stellar numbers for an 89-loss team rather than flipping his ace talent for prospects and avoiding the downfall that followed. Meanwhile, the outfield put together this spring has been an abomination, featuring a former superstar long past his prime (Grady Sizemore), a genial fellow who set the world on fire for 70 games in 2005 and has done little since (Jeff Francoeur), and a serial at-bat waster who’s a lovely fantasy baseball asset but otherwise just a space-filler (Ben Revere).

Now fans are wondering why Amaro hasn’t been more aggressive in calling up the team’s top pitching prospects, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin. Never one to shy away from responding to his critics, Amaro maintains he has a plan: “[The fans] don’t understand the game. They don’t understand the process. There’s a process. And then they bitch and complain because we don’t have a plan. There’s a plan in place and we’re sticking with the plan.”

But should those fans have any reason to trust that it’s the right plan? And even if it is, is Amaro the right guy to see it through?

For all of these failures, the thinking behind dishing out multiple albatross contracts was at least understandable. While signing and then keeping big-ticket players like Howard and Chase Utley well into their thirties wasn’t the smartest approach for the team’s long-term success, ownership was delighted that it produced five straight years of averaging 40,000-plus fans at Citizens Bank Park, in addition to a gigantic local TV contract.

Still, we’ve been calling on Amaro to blow everything up for a while, and there might be no better time than the present. Howard is hitting for more power than he has in years, and the Phillies could absorb a big chunk of what remains on his deal to pick up a prospect or two. Utley still wants to remain a Phillie, but he has softened his no-trade stance a bit. Aaron Harang has been surprisingly dominant and is on a one-year, $5 million deal, and Cole Hamels is the team’s one true in-his-prime blue-chipper.1

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There’s talent in the minor league system, including Nola, Eflin, and superstar shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford, but then it quickly gets thin. And much of that comes back to Amaro. He’s made four major vet-for-prospect deals over the past six years, and just one brought back any substantial talent. Trading Lee to Seattle in 2009, along with Hunter Pence to San Francisco and Shane Victorino to the Dodgers in 2012, brought back no viable major league production. Last winter’s deal that sent Jimmy Rollins (who’s in the last year of his contract and is hitting an eyelash above the Mendoza Line) to the Dodgers in exchange for Eflin (who has shown good command as a 21-year-old at Double-A Reading, albeit with a modest strikeout total) is the only one that could be classified as a success — and even that’s still pending.

With a lack of young talent up and down the organization, Amaro really should be patient and wait until he finds the best deals for all of his chips. He helped create the problem in the first place, though, so if Amaro wants fans to not “bitch and complain” about the moves he’s making, those same fans can offer a simple message when it comes to the 2015 trade deadline: Don’t mess this up.

Rangers Revival

Texas rides a red-hot lineup back to respectability.

20. Arizona Diamondbacks (23-26, plus-13, LW: 19)
19. Atlanta Braves (25-25, minus-13, LW: 18)
18. Baltimore Orioles (23-26, minus-1, LW: 16)
17. Texas Rangers (26-25, minus-1, LW: 22)
16. Tampa Bay Rays (26-25, plus-13, LW: 14)
15. Seattle Mariners (24-26, minus-18, LW: 20)
14. Cleveland Indians (24-26, plus-4, LW: 15)
13. New York Yankees (26-25, plus-10, LW: 13)

Over the past two years, Chris Tillman has gone from All-Star to Guy Who Needs To Be Demoted Or Put On The DL For A Made-Up Reason. Based on this year’s 5.94 ERA and two-month-long piñata impression, it would appear that Tillman has experienced a sudden drop in skill and effectiveness. However, there’s one problem with that line of thinking: He was never that great in the first place.

As much as advanced stats have weaved their way into everyday baseball conversation, it’s still tough not to get seduced by the kind of surface stats Tillman put up in 2013 and 2014. Over those two seasons, he combined to go 29-13 with a 3.52 ERA. Only three AL starters (Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and C.J. Wilson) won more games during that time frame, and only Scherzer posted a higher winning percentage. Tillman’s ability to reel off wins — he had an 11-3 record in the first half of 2013 — earned him that All-Star nod.

Yet, in the process of earning that gaudy win total, Tillman benefited from both strong defense behind him and stellar bullpen support. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Orioles fielders saved 95 runs more than the average team in that 2013 and 2014 stretch, second in the American League behind only the slick-fielding Royals. Meanwhile, O’s relievers ranked seventh in the majors by park-adjusted metrics.2

Strip out those factors, and even with a 29-13 record, you could argue that Tillman was a below-average pitcher in both 2013 and 2014. He struck out fewer batters than league average, allowed more home runs, and, going again by fielding-independent numbers, he was actually the sixth-worst ERA-title-qualified starter in the American League. If you had to bet on one fairly high-profile starter turning into a pumpkin in 2015, Tillman would have been a pretty good pick.

This year, very little seems to have changed when it comes to Tillman’s physical skills or pitch repertoire. He still throws four-seam fastballs more than 60 percent of the time, and he still mixes in some curves, changeups, and the occasional other secondary pitch. He’s also throwing as hard as ever, actually cranking up most of his pitches by about 1 mph compared to last year.

Instead, a combination of weaker command and the expiration of that 2013-14 luck has torpedoed his numbers. Tillman has walked 28 batters in 53 innings, his highest walk rate since 2010, when he lasted just 11 big league starts and put up a 5.87 ERA. His batting average on balls in play sits at .329, up 62 points compared to last year and 52 points above his career mark. According to ESPN research, his Well-Hit Average3 has climbed to .166, up 22 points compared to 2014 levels and 18 points from his career numbers. Perhaps the biggest blow has come to Tillman’s strand rate: It’s plunged to 66.9 percent, ranking in the bottom 15 among AL starters and down sharply from both his 2014 and career levels.

All of this puts O’s manager Buck Showalter in a tough spot. Bud Norris should be ready to come off the DL any day now, but he got torched in six starts before getting felled by bronchitis. Kevin Gausman might have the best arm in the organization, but he’s on the shelf himself with a shoulder injury. Combine those factors with Tillman’s role as the de facto ace4 on a staff that’s full of no. 4 starters, and it’s tough to envision any in-organization change. By fielding-independent numbers, only Ubaldo Jimenez looks better than league average, and counting on Jimenez over the long haul is never a comforting thought.

Still, GM Dan Duquette never has been one for blockbusters, and the franchise stood pat with a similar collection of uninspiring arms over the past few seasons, so we can reasonably expect Baltimore’s starting rotation to remain roughly the same for the rest of the year. It’s an approach that’s worked in the past — producing two playoff appearances in the previous three years — but Tillman’s fall to reality gives the O’s a murky future.

The Twins? THE TWINS!

Minnesota’s unexpected run continues.

12. Pittsburgh Pirates (26-24, plus-34, LW: 12)
11. New York Mets (28-23, plus-6, LW: 10)
10. Chicago Cubs (26-22, minus-2, LW: 8)
9. Detroit Tigers (28-24, minus-1, LW: 6)
8. Los Angeles Angels (27-24, plus-8, LW: 9)
7. Minnesota Twins (30-19, plus-21, LW: 11)

The Mets’ 2015 season has doubled as a challenge to one of baseball’s eternal truths: You can never have too much starting pitching.

With right-hander Dillon Gee scheduled to come off the disabled list to start Wednesday against the Padres, the Mets will go to a six-man rotation. And the thing is, six spots might not even be enough, as New York has seven starters who look ready for the majors. So let’s take stock of the Seven Samurai:

• The six-man rotation’s main purpose is to protect Matt Harvey. With a strikeout-to-walk ratio greater than six-to-one, the Dark Knight has returned from Tommy John surgery without missing a beat. However, that dominance carries with it a weird curse: There’s no way the Mets can cap Harvey’s innings at around 180 (as the organization had hoped) if their ace keeps pitching seven innings or more per start while part of a five-man rotation. By going to six starters, they’re hoping Harvey can make it through the regular season and potentially into the playoffs (if the Mets make it that far) without hitting his innings cap. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, emphatically approves of this plan.

• Unlike Harvey, Jacob deGrom isn’t on a strict innings limit, but the defending rookie of the year topped his career high in pro ball by tossing 178.2 frames last year. He’s a pivotal part of the rotation, he’s averaging more than six innings a start, and he sports the lowest ERA among Mets starters who’ve been in the rotation since Opening Day. If the team makes it to October, deGrom would be badly needed, so the six-man rotation should help ease concerns of overworking the soon-to-be-27-year-old.

• After a hot start to the season, Bartolo Colon has seen his ERA climb to 4.72. Even still, we’re talking about a pitcher with a 54-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio — elite command that drops Colon’s fielding-independent numbers about a run lower than his ERA. Add in his wildly entertaining at-bats, and Colon is a damn superhero. Nobody’s taking his job.

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• Noah Syndergaard’s first four starts in the majors have been as good as any Mets fan could’ve possibly hoped for. Through 24.2 innings, Syndergaard has fanned 22 batters, issued just five walks, allowed one homer, and delivered a 2.55 ERA and 2.57 FIP. His fastball averages nearly 98 mph, and he complements it with a virtually unhittable curve. If taking Colon’s job is tough, stealing Syndergaard’s away could be as challenging as lifting Thor’s hammer.

• Saturday’s rough outing against the Marlins marked the fourth straight start in which Jon Niese has allowed four or more earned runs. He’d never done that at any previous point in his eight-year big league career. Hell, he’d never even done it in three straight starts. His curveball, an important part of Niese’s eclectic, six-pitch repertoire, has looked especially awful, as batters whacked it at a .385 clip in May. Niese hasn’t indicated that he’s hurt, and he allowed one earned run or fewer in five of the six starts before this current ugly stretch, so these struggles could soon pass.

• When healthy and pitching well, Gee is a league-average starter. He’s a pitch-to-contact right-hander who might have unlocked some hidden ability in his first five starts this season, when he posted a career-best 59.2 percent ground-ball rate. That’s a great skill for any team to have in a fifth starter, let alone a sixth starter, but when it comes to the rotation, the Mets are clearly not any team. If Niese’s cold spell ends soon, Gee could find himself as the odd man out.

• With Syndergaard now pitching in the Show, the undisputed best pitching prospect in New York’s system is Steven Matz — and boy is he killing it right now. Working in the pitchers’ nightmare that is Triple-A Las Vegas, Matz has flashed a brilliant 1.98 ERA while striking out 70 batters, walking 23, and allowing just 49 hits and three home runs in 68.1 innings. Matz turned 24 on Friday, he’s put up impressive numbers throughout his minor league career, and he owns three potential major league-quality put-away pitches in his fastball, curve, and changeup. There’s no guarantee Matz will outperform Niese or Gee if the Mets call him up soon, but he’s certainly better than a less-than-100-percent Gee or the Niese we’ve seen over the past few weeks.

As the New York Post’s Ken Davidoff recently wrote, the Mets are a sub-.500 team in games played against teams other than the Phillies, and the schedule will get tougher as the season goes along. Moreover, they’ve gone just 12-15 after a blistering start to the season. Lucas Duda’s emergence has been impressive, but more offensive help is needed, especially with David Wright’s health status still up in the air. An arm-for-bat trade would make tons of sense, even if it doesn’t bring a sought-after name like Troy Tulowitzki to Flushing.

Whatever direction the Mets decide to go in, given the team’s weaknesses and this year’s deep class of NL contenders, sticking with what they currently have in the majors seems like it’d be the wrong call.

Welcome Back, Champs

The red-hot Giants vault into this week’s top tier.

6. San Francisco Giants (30-22, plus-12, LW: 7)
5. Kansas City Royals (29-19, plus-49, LW: 2)
4. Houston Astros (31-20, plus-22, LW: 5)
3. Washington Nationals (28-22, plus-16, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (29-20, plus-52, LW: 3)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (33-17, plus-60, LW: 1)

Before the season, I worried the Royals’ starting rotation would struggle without James Shields. In addition to robbing K.C. of a good pitcher, the loss of Shields in free agency seemed like it could put innings-related pressure on a combination of mediocre veterans and relatively raw kids, creating a potential cascading effect that could extend all the way to the bullpen, ultimately turning an impervious collection of relievers into a major regression candidate. Add it all up, and I was bearish on K.C.’s chances to repeat as a playoff team.

Turns out, that prediction was partially correct but mostly wrong. By multiple metrics, Kansas City’s rotation has ranked as one of baseball’s worst, but the Royals have still been one of the best teams in baseball, riding a much improved offense and a still-formidable bullpen and defense to the third-best record in the American League.5

Don’t expect that high-wire act to last. Combine the unlikelihood of Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas all turning in monster seasons with the team’s fortunate hit sequencing, and it’s tough to see these sky-high offensive results continuing through to the fall. In order for the Royals to survive and thrive in the rugged AL Central, they’ll need better results from their starting five — especially Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas.

Guthrie just might be the worst starting pitcher in the majors right now. The veteran right-hander’s ERA jumped by nearly two full runs in his last start, a one-inning, 11-run drubbing at the hands of the Yankees. Beyond mere runs allowed, though, he has shown very little to suggest he should be taking the ball every fifth day in the majors. In 48.1 innings, Guthrie has struck out a paltry 19 batters, walked 16, hit four, surrendered 64 hits, and given up nine home runs.

Meanwhile, Vargas is a pitcher with a career full of subpar strikeout rates and a lack of the kind of ground-ball-heavy repertoire you’d want to see in a pitch-to-contact pitcher. That’s not a typical recipe for sustained success. Many questioned the four-year deal Kansas City gave Vargas in November 2013, but he fared well in Year 1, benefiting from Kauffman Stadium’s pitcher-friendly dimensions and the Royals’ stellar outfield defense. Still, Vargas’s skill set leaves him perennially living on the edge; a few more walks and a few more feet on those fly balls — as we’ve seen this year — and suddenly he’s borderline waiver bait. In addition to an ERA and FIP over 5.00, Vargas’s 8.4 percent walk rate and the 1.5 homers he’s allowed per nine innings are his worst results since a disastrous 2006 campaign with Miami.

It’s not immediately obvious who’d replace either pitcher  let alone both  should these struggles persist. Danny Duffy could return from the DL in the next few days, but the lefty had limped to a 5.87 ERA before going on the shelf. Brandon Finnegan, the young southpaw who looked good in a short stint as a rookie reliever last year but projects as a starter long-term, has struggled mightily to find the plate in 2015  whether at Double-A, Triple-A, or in a brief cameo with the big club. Beyond those two, it’s hard to expect anyone on the big league roster or in the high minors to grab a spot in K.C.’s rotation and thrive  unless you still haven’t given up on the Joe Blanton Experience. And then there’s Chris Young, who’s currently defying the baseball gods with his extreme fly ball approach, which worked for a while last year … until it didn’t.

Now, none of this means the Royals’ rotation woes are necessarily fatal, or even more damaging to a team’s playoff hopes than, say, the Indians’ porous defense or the Tigers hitting into double plays every 10 seconds. But the large number of starting pitchers likely to become available over the next few weeks as the trade deadline rises into view, combined with the boost in revenue the Royals received from last year’s World Series run and this season’s success, should prompt GM Dayton Moore to take action.

The Royals don’t necessarily need another Shields in Kansas City this year. They just need something better than what’s already there.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Stats, Jonah Keri, The 30, Baseball, MLB Power Rankings, Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Baltimore Orioles, Chris Tillman, New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri