What’s the next level for Schwarber?

He needs to be challenged.

Hitting prospects 2015

This is a ranking system that considers a base that is stolen to be as valid a unit of offensive production as a base that is attained any other way. It takes the sum of total bases + walks + SBs, adjusts it slightly, and divides by games played to arrive at a score, according to which the players are ranked. (Hitting prospects are starters, not pinch hitters or defensive replacements, so dividing by games is roughly the same as dividing by at-bats or plate appearances.)

The adjustment represented by the “adj points” column is Points minus Games. This adjustment rests on the idea that one total base (or walk or SB) per game is a baseline, required to get you to zero.

Players included here are at South Bend (“sbn”) or higher. I include Eugene (half-season league) numbers and even Arizona League (“cbz”) numbers if a player has advanced to South Bend (A ball) or above.

This is the first Hitting Prospects list I have compiled since 2013, and I find it clarifying. I look at box scores and slash lines pretty closely from day to day and week to week, and yet when I build this data table and then sort by “score,” high to low, the results surprise me. I wasn’t expecting to see Ian Happ at the top of the ranking, now that Bryant and Schwarber are gone. Before today, I would have mentioned Contreras, McKinney, Young and Torres as the best hitting prospects. Now I can see that they’re a little weak in the total-bases department. Too many of their hits are singles. Contreras in particular may not have the pop you would like to see in a righty-hitting catcher. Today, with this list in front of me, the best hitters look like Happ, (Javier) Baez and Zagunis. (I would also mention Matt Szczur, a late bloomer who, if he can turn it up another notch, could find a place in someone’s outfield.)

In major-league stats today, WAR is the standard composite number, which is fine, except that I spend more time trying to rank minor leaguers, who don’t get WARs. Without a convenient composite number, minor-league reputations tend to be internet-scout-driven. (Hype-driven?) The table above attempts a number-driven ranking, superior, I think to OPS, because it takes speed into account.

Meanwhile, below, I have generated scores, based on the same formula described at the top of this post, for a handful of major-league players including Anthony Rizzo and the four “core” 2015 Cub rookies. I sort the table by the Score column, but I have appended the player’s offensive WAR (oWAR) in the column at the far right.

The rankings are roughly similar, but with some disagreements. The discrepancies are mainly, I would say, regarding Trout, Votto and Schwarber. Even though it’s called offensive WAR, oWAR adjusts for defensive position, so that could penalize first-baseman Goldschmidt (5.5) and even corner-OF Harper (6.2) relative to centerfielder Trout (6.8). Also, oWAR may privilege Trout’s high total-base number over Harper’s and Goldschmidt’s and especially Votto’s high number of walks. My formula counts total-base units and walks equally.

I have Chris Davis with a higher score than Kris Bryant. According to oWAR, Bryant is better. I assume that is because Bryant plays a defensive position, third, while Davis stiffs it out at first; but my post is titled Hitting (not Fielding) Prospects. Generally, we have a sense of what position a player plays, and whether he is competent at that position, before we start looking at offensive numbers, and we allow for the difference between center and left, short and second, third and first. So Davis ranks slightly higher in my ranking while I recognize that Bryant is more valuable.

I have no idea why Schwarber’s oWAR is so low. The WAR formulas are a bit complicated for my taste, to be honest.

Why aren’t there minor-league WAR numbers? Apparently, WAR needs a certain data-collecting infrastructure that professional baseball at the minor-league level is not equipped to provide.

Pitching Prospects 2015 (updated)

Here is an updated list, current through Monday, 8/10, of Cub pitching prospects ranked according to the formula K9-(H9+BB9). That’s strikeouts per nine innings minus the sum of hits-per-nine and walks-per-nine. Only two pitchers on the list–Carl Edwards, Jr., and David Berg–have strikeout totals that exceed the sum of hits allowed and walks surrendered. One of them, Berg, has thrown only twelve innings and could drop into negative territory in his next outing. Similar rankings in years past have taught me that very few apprentice pitchers become major leaguers, and that it is appropriate, therefore, to set the bar very high. The rankings certainly indicate that Edwards, Jr., is in a class by himself in the organization.

It’s a little bit of a sanity check that when the Cubs acquired Tommy Hunter recently, Ivan Pineyro was the pitching prospect that the Orioles wanted in exchange. Pineyro ranks fourth among starting pitchers in this table, behind only Markey, Williams and Pena, and ahead of Skulina and (Pierce) Johnson.

Numbers drawn from the Cubs AZL team or from their half-season team (Eugene) in the Northwest League are not included here unless the player was promoted to South Bend or higher, in which case Arizona and/or Eugene numbers are aggregated with the higher-level numbers.

Hot in DesMoines

Apart from Junior Lake, who is sporting an OPS around .900, a couple of Iowa Cubs have been on tears recently: Rubi Silva and Christian Villanueva. Both are hitting around .275, but Silva now has ten HRs and Villanueva has thirteen.

I always liked the way Silva chased flies in right field (on TV during spring training), and I knew he threw out a lot of runners on the bases–62 outfield assists since 2011, including nine this season. On the other hand, he’s twenty-six; and the front office won’t like his four walks in 250 PAs.

Villanueva is 24, but with a June 19 birthday, he misses being league-age 23 by six weeks. With 13 HRs, 51 RBI, and a slash of .275/.331/.498(/.829), plus a highlight-reel glove at third, he’s looking like the prospect the Cubs thought they were getting when they acquired him, along with Kyle Hendricks, from Texas for Ryan Dempster in 2012.

This new affiliate is abominable

The new Cub affiliate in the Northwest League this (short) season is the Eugene Emeralds. The team’s logo is not a gem, however. It’s actually Bigfoot–

–with an emerald-green tinge. The team jersey features a curve-y letter E–with toes sticking up!

Calling themselves the Eugene Bigfeet would be problematic. After all, you want your fans to believe in you. Would you trust a story about what the Bigfeet were seen doing in their game last night, even from someone claiming to be an eyewitness?

It would be a long busride for one of the teams–maybe they could meet in the midwest somewhere–but I look forward someday to a showdown between the Emeralds and their natural short-season rivals in the New York-Penn League, the Vermont Lake Monsters, whose symbol is Champy, an aquatic serpent who arrived at Lake Champlain by way of Loch Ness.

A series like that would be mythical!

Rivalry

In another venue, I made the observation that the vaunted Cub-Cardinal rivalry was not much of a rivalry from their point of view, that is, the view of the St. Louis team and its fans. After all, they have snagged eleven World Series titles since our most recent one in 1908. I was a bit surprised, then, when someone pointed out that head-to-head, historically, it’s us with 1191 wins, them with 1143.

After a quick dip into the record books, here are a couple of observations about our illustrious red-capped rivals.

The Cubs may have had as many or more hall-of-fame players, but the Cards had players who were transcendent, the best of their era: Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Musial, Gibson, Ozzie Smith, Pujols. Players like that attract championships in a way that Williams and Banks and Santo and Jenkins and Sandberg just don’t.

(But wait a moment: Banks in the late fifties doesn’t really belong with the non-transcendents.)

The Cardinals have had first-rate catchers over the years: Torre and McCarver and Ted Simmons and Yadier. The catching position is the backbone of the team on the field; or so it would seem, watching the Cardinals operate.

Then there were the hall-of-fame managers. Whitey Herzog led the Ozzie Smith-led team to a world series in the ’80s plus two seven-game Series losses. Herzog was followed by Torre and then quickly by LaRussa. Torre didn’t have the players that Herzog and LaRussa had.

The Cards won titles in the 60′s under Johnny Keane and Red Schoendienst. Schoendienst managed the team to over a thousand wins with the help of all-time great Bob Gibson and the likes of Cepeda and Brock. (Ouch–that last name hurts!)

Are the Cubs building a team with a trancendent player, a solid backstop and a tough and shrewd manager? I certainly think they’re trying. I could imagine a transcendent player or two among the names already in the Cub organization. Behind the plate, I think they’ve settled on someone long-term. The manager has a heralded career and a clear path to Cooperstown if this hungry team succeeds.

May a great Cub-Card rivalry begin! (Next week in Wrigley won’t be too soon.)

Pitching Prospects 2015

This is a chart that I have neglected for a couple of seasons. Without it, I find that I can’t keep track of the organizational who’s who in the pitching department. I always liked the simplicity of the approach in this table. I used to call this the Marmol Index. I subtracted hits per inning, always a low number with Marmol, from strikeouts per inning, always a high number. I ignored walks and hit batters, which were precursors of a Marmol implosion. But I argued that electric stuff and not control was the sign of a genuine pitching prospect.

Later I calculated a little arithmetic bonus for starting pitchers, on the grounds that they were pacing themselves and not trying to strike everyone out. I had noticed that all the top pitchers in my table were relievers. But I’ve had second thoughts about this bump-up for starters. First of all, it made a simple formula complicated, and I don’t like baseball stats that are overly clever. I also noticed that the starting pitchers in the organization were failing in the majors, too, and not just in my rankings. The few good starters we have had–names like Archer and Cashner and sometimes even Samardzija–did fine in the Marmol index. Meanwhile two of my high-ranking relievers, Beliveau and Rosscup, have become major leaguers, and two others, Buchter and Kurcz, are still battling, putting up good numbers in triple A and just waiting, waiting for a call-up from the Dodgers and Braves, respectively. But if you were in the middle of the pack on the Marmol Index, you are carrying a lunch pail today.

I have added a tweak to the formula, and am no longer calling it the Marmol Index. We have seen, after all, what happened to Marmol in the long run. His wildness did him in, finally, didn’t it? I still calculate strikeouts per nine innings minus hits per nine innings. I still think that’s an indication of electric stuff. But today, in the rightmost column that I sort by to produce the ultimate ranking, I add hits and walks together, per nine innings, and subtract that number from K/9. So I am counting walks. Walks count. A pitcher like Gerardo Concepcion, whose K’s exceed his hits but just barely exceed his BB’s, drops to 45th in the ranking today. The Marmol Index would put him at 14th.

Looking at my top ten: I had already noticed Ryan Williams, because he’s a starter, and so his numbers are more conspicuous in a box score. But I hadn’t noticed James Farris, or Tayler Scott, or Trevor Clifton. Now I will keep an eye on those guys. That’s the purpose of this ranking.

Note that only the top five pitchers have a positive score, meaning that they have more strikeouts than the combined walks and hits allowed.

Cub-watching in Woodbridge, VA

I caught the Nationals-Pelicans (or Potomac-Myrtle Beach) game last Saturday evening. That was the game with the walk-a-thon seventh inning, when the Pelicans received six walks in a row and scored five runs on no hits or errors. The final score was Us 11, Them 1.

MB is a solid winning team (31-16) with much of Kane County’s nucleus from last year. I got a good impression of just about everyone I saw, including the three pitchers (Blackburn, Heesch, Pugliese) and also the solid, if not flashy, middle-infield combo of Penalver and Lockhart, two players who may not ultimately find their best employment opportunities with the Cubs.

Zagunis, a solidly built former catcher from Virginia Tech, looks like the righty version of Schwarber. He gets good rips and has a magnificent batting eye. I read recently in The Cub Reporter how unusual it is for a hitter–Cleveland’s Michael Brantley was the example cited–to collect more walks than strikeouts. Zagunis has 38 walks to 29 Ks. Only one HR so far but three triples, so I suspect his power is mostly to the opposite field at this point. We saw him hit a long double to right center. Zagunis hits leadoff for MB. Why not, when your best hitter has outstanding on-base skills?

Then there’s Chesny Young, a 14th round draft pick last June out of Mercer College in Macon, GA, where he hit .400-something. A year later in high-A, he’s hitting .371, with an .895 OPS in spite of almost all his hits being singles. He’s listed at second base but we saw him in left field (so as not to force Lockhart to the bench, I would guess), while Zagunis played DH in that game. With either guy, the position is not important as long as the bat is in the lineup.

The best body I saw in Woodbridge belonged to Candelario. I used to wonder why scouts bothered with a guy who barely hit his weight, but you do tend to pay attention to a stud athlete. At 21, Candelario has started to put up respectable numbers. He hit a home run the night we were there (although I was in a long food line and can’t tell you much about it), and another the next night.

This is not your father’s high-A Cub team.

Light-tower power

The table below purports to show everybody in baseball last season who was 22 or younger; who showed some pop, with a minimum of nine or ten home runs*; and who started the season at double-A or higher. Twenty-two seems to be the age by which players who are on a fast track get their first exposure to the big leagues, and so a player in that age cohort with any sort of power profile, if he began the season at AA or AAA, made it to the show in 2014, with the lone exception of Kris Bryant. (But don’t tell his agent.) Bryant is the only player in the table who did not play a game in the majors. That doesn’t mean I waved him in, just that there was no one else like him. A couple of high-profile, very young sluggers didn’t make the list–I’m thinking of Joey Gallo (TEX) and Corey Seager (LAD)–but they began their seasons in high-A ball.

I thought three columns for three levels of ball was enough, especially since I was planning to aggregate the numbers. (The values under the MLB, AAA and AA column headers are the number of games played at a level.) Aggregating numbers from different minor-league levels in the same season is done all the time by Baseball Reference, but I may be the first person ever given a spreadsheet tool to play with who thinks it’s a good idea to merge ML and high-minors numbers. I simply don’t know a way to look at these players side by side in one place, unless via the numbers that we have. All the rest is hype. Players who are the same age are not launched on their major-league journeys on the same day. Finding a spot on the field for a given 22-year-old is a very contingent affair. Bryant is a good example, but even those players who managed to produce some major-league numbers in 2014 started earlier or later in the season, depending on external circumstances. Since luck may determine that Player A has a body of major-league work that Player B lacks, I chose not to privilege Player A’s numbers.

So that’s my disclaimer: I crunched some numbers that don’t usually get crunched. The numbers that you are about to see, you are unlikely to see anywhere else. Take them for what they are.

(The order in the table above is by birth date.)

I highlight Arismendy Alcantara’s row in the table because I think he deserves more notice than he often gets. The prospect rankings prior to the 2014 season had him at 100 (Baseball America), 89 (MLB.com) and 83 (BaseballProspectus.com). Those are the highest numbers, and thus the lowest rankings, of any player on the table who made any of the three top-100 lists. (Note the rank column, which contains the latest rankings, which might be earlier than 2014. Baseball Reference prints these rankings on each minor-league player page.) Nineteen of the twenty-one other players on the table have a better ranking than Alcantara.

This might be a good moment to pause and consider what Alcantara and also Baez and Soler accomplished last season. Apart from Bryant, Soler has the highest OPS in the table. Baez’s 32 home runs, 9 with the Cubs, trail only Bryant’s 43 (at AA and AAA), Trout’s 36 and Pederson’s 33 (all at AAA). In this collection of current and future stars, Alcantara is fifth in hits, third in doubles, first in triples, seventh in home runs and fourth in stolen bases. Alcantara had 69 extra-base hits in 2014. In this gathering, only Bryant with 78 and Trout with 84 had more.

Alcantara was a shortstop who, last season, moved to center field to escape the logjam at middle infield. Since then, people seem to want to emphasize his versatility, as though he’ll need a collection of fielder’s gloves to fulfill his destiny as a supersub. I prefer to see him as a small guy with explosive power, a bat you want in the lineup. Alcantara is more than versatile: he can hit enough to play left field now that center belongs to Dexter Fowler (a valuable on-base guy). Many fans will remember the bomb Alcantara hit into the Pepsi Porch (upper deck) at Citi Field in the Futures game in 2013. Then there was this one off of the light tower in Colorado Springs last year just prior to his call-up to the Cubs. If Alcantara wants a model for a player with smallish stature but with speed and power that translates into a successful career, I can think of a few, like Jimmy Wynn or Ron Gant or Jimmy Rollins or even Alfonso Soriano. Another slender fellow, Lou Brock, in his first year with the Cubs in 1962, hit one over the wall in straightaway center (475 feet) against the Mets when they still played at the Polo Grounds.

Alcantara could evolve into a base thief. (Here’s some video evidence of that.) Early in his career a player figures out what he can be and wants to be, but not at twenty-two.

* Chris Owings had only six home runs. I don’t remember why he made the cut, but note his relatively small number of games.

Confessions of a Cubby boomer

There are a lot of Americans my age. They’re called Baby Boomers. It was a post-World-War-II phenomenon, when our servicemen overseas came home, beat their swords into ploughshares, started an economic revival and produced babies. I was born in late 1948. We lived in Chicago on the south side, and I should have been a Sox fan, like my dad; but when I was at an age when boys become imprinted onto teams, Ernie Banks had begun his spectacular early career with the north-side team. Banks made me a Cub fan. I suspect that there are many aging Chicagoans who were swept into the Cubs’ orbit by Banks just as I was.

At home with my kids, I observed a similar dynamic. At a susceptible age they latch on to this or that prominent sports hero and associated team. Thus I have two sons who, growing up far from Chicago, became Cub fans simply because of Sammy Sosa, day baseball, WGN cable channel, and arithmetic: subtract 1987 or 1990 from 1998 (the year of the McGwire-Sosa home run duel), and you get a baseball-impressionable age. Look around our laundry room and you are bound to find relics of Jordan-worship and Favre-idolization. (I never get used to the green-and-gold.)

While I can’t pinpoint the moment, or even the season, I switched from the Sox to the Cubs, it must have happened between June 27, 1958, when I was nine, and September 22, 1959, more than a year later. On that first date, I was listening to the radio in my bedroom when Billy Pierce, a stylish, hard-throwing lefty Sox pitcher, retired the first 26 Baltimore Orioles that he faced. Everybody in Chicago who was baseball-aware at the time, and is still around today, remembers that game. I remember crying when the 27th Oriole, pinch hitter Ed Fitzgerald, swung late and hit a double just inside the right-field line. I must have been a Sox fan to be crying for Billy Pierce.

The Billy Pierce episode reminds me that I had to give up something when I exchanged my Sox allegiance for the thrill of rooting for Ernie Banks. The Sox were a much better team, generally the second or third best team in the AL in a day when only the top team (invariably the Yankees) went to the playoffs–i.e., the World Series. When would the Cubs ever have as good a lefty as Pierce? Ken Holtzman was a possibility, although he mainly flowered with the A’s. Maybe Jon Lester’s first start will be a sign that Cubby boomers can now begin to recoup what they lost when they packed up their loyalties and followed Ernie Banks to Wrigley.

On that second date, 9/22/59, the White Sox won the AL pennant, and air-raid sirens blasted late in the evening in our neighborhood on the south side; but I was unmoved. I was an ex-fan at that point. Nor was I much interested in the World Series, in which the Sox lost to the Dodgers (speaking of teams with newly loyal fans).

Without a specific memory of a conversion experience, I would say that my early Sox fanhood could not withstand the steady pressure of what was going on with the Cubs in ’58 and ’59, the two anni mirabiles (“wonder years”) of Ernie Banks’s career, his back-to-back MVP years. In the table below, I list a dozen MVPs beginning with Willie Mays in 1954, and ending with Mays again in 1965. So take a look a the NL MVPs during the Mays era: there’s something very interesting about those two Banks years.

Notice the Cubs’ two fifth place finishes and two losing seasons. With a couple of exceptions that prove the rule, all of those dozen MVPs apart from Banks, in order to earn the award, were required to take their teams to the NL pennant. The two exceptions are Maury Wills and Mays; but Wills’s Dodger team won 102 games while finishing a game behind the Giants, and Mays’s Giants finished just two games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers. Both Wills’s team and Mays’s 1965 team plus all the other teams–except the Cubs–won at least 93 games. Wills himself stole 104 bases, breaking one of baseball’s unbreakables, Ty Cobbs’s record of 96 steals that had stood for forty-seven years. And Mays was Mays, the consensus best player in the game for this entire period, who would be the automatic MVP any season the Giants won or came very close. Since they only won once and came close once, Mays won two MVPs, same as Banks. Aaron won only a single MVP.

So why didn’t Banks’s team have to win or come close? The answer is simple if we look at his numbers and also focus on the position he played. In his MVP seasons, Banks hit 47 and 45 home runs. He was an efficient shortstop with limited range who won a Gold Glove in 1960. When you play SS and bat cleanup and hit for that kind of power, you add extra value to a team, because you have freed up one of the power positions (left field, right field, first base, third base) for other power hitters. You’ve given your team an extra slugger. The fact that the Cubs couldn’t find other sluggers for those positions, and win more games, is not Ernie Banks’s fault, and he wasn’t penalized for it in the MVP voting. It seems clear that Banks was given extra points for his value-add as a shortstop.

The oft-cited Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic includes a positional adjustment that favors key defensive positions like catcher and shortstop, and I think this adjustment is similar to the rough one that MVP voters made in Banks’s favor. Out of curiosity–sometimes you feel like looking behind the curtain of these complicated statistics–I did a spreadsheet of the WARs of all the starting shortstops, centerfielders and rightfielders in the National League in 1958 and 1959. Then I averaged the numbers at each position, with the assumption that the WAR should be the same at each position, since they purport to already compensate for the different offensive expectations at, say, shortstop and right field. I chose SS, CF and RF because that’s where Banks, Mays and Aaron played, and those are the three that I was most interested in comparing, and making sure they were being measured fairly given the positions they played. And, rightly or wrongly, I left their own WARs off the spreadsheet, since I didn’t consider them replacements for themselves. If I went in with the expectation that the bonus points given to shortstops would not be enough for them to catch up with outfielders, that’s what the results in the tables below seem to show, especially in 1958. The discrepancy was smaller in 1959. Overall, I think WAR makes an honest attempt to boost the value of a shortstop like Banks who can hit.

One slight disclaimer: Baseball Reference gives one starting lineup for every historical (annual) team, and those are the names and the WARs I used, even though a player might not have played every game, but only the most games, at a position. I’m sure BR is more meticulous about calculating WAR at each position, but I did the best I could, and don’t see why my shortcut would have skewed up or down, in favor of one position versus another.

For the record, Banks’s highest WAR was 10.2 in 1959. For Mays, it was 11.2 in 1965, and for Aaron, 9.4 in 1961.

Just in terms of the numbers that we found on the back of our baseball cards: apart from Alex Rodriguez, Banks is the only shortstop ever to hit 40 home runs, and he did it five times. In all of those five seasons, Banks played shortstop exclusively. When he no longer could play shortstop, it was because his legs were going, and his offensive numbers declined steeply. No one ever said he was durable. He was inferior to Mays and Aaron and Frank Robinson and others in terms of durability. Koufax was not durable, either. Both he and Banks were first-ballot Hall of Famers; but a pitcher cannot pitch with a sore elbow, while a hitter can function with a sore knee. Koufax ended his career abruptly, while Banks soldiered on long past his sell-by date, and his numbers were diluted, and so now people look at his career numbers and place him lower than he deserves. Banks was slender–slight, even. In 2006, Jim Hendry referred to Alfonso Soriano as a greyhound. That describes Banks also. That’s how skinny he was, the skinniest power hitter ever. Soriano is the only player I can think of who sometimes reminded me of Banks when he swung. Soriano’s rapid decline in his early thirties is another reminder of Banks.

Banks was the most approachable of famous athletes, and if you hung around Wrigley in the late fifties and early sixties, as I did, you probably had a personal encounter with him. I had a memorable one. My eighth-grade friend Richie Friedman, when we approached Banks in the players’ parking lot after a game, asked, “Going south, Ern?” and our idol responded with an invitation for the two of us to “hop in.” We did, and so Richie and I had Ernie Banks to ourselves for the next forty-five minutes. All I remember about the conversation is that at one point we were discussing Ken Hubbs and I mentioned to Banks that Hubbs was a Mormon, and Banks said he hadn’t heard that.

This would probably have been 1962, Hubbs’s first year, when he was Rookie of the Year and Gold Glove second baseman. Billy Williams had been ROY the year before. Like Hubbs, Lou Brock was a rookie in ’62. Santo was in this third year, at age 22. Let’s see, that’s four hall of famers, counting Banks, before we even trade for Fergie Jenkins. If we could just twist the dials of fate so that Brock stays around, and we keep Hubbs out of that accursed private plane in the snowstorm in Utah, and (in spite of having twisted the dials) we still pull off the Jenkins deal, maybe we overcome our nagging organizational deficiencies and do something in the next few years. Maybe we wouldn’t still be counting back to 1908.

Banks dropped us off near his house and we hopped an eastbound bus on 79th street to get the rest of our way home.

So thanks for the ride, Ernie–no, not that ride in particular, I mean the five-and-a-half-decade romance with a baseball team that continues with me to this day. And thanks for not leaving us before the Cubs got busy and got serious about building an organization, finally, that was worthy of your enthusiasm, your elegance and your power.