Archive for March, 2012

Reed Johnson: The Fourth Outfielder

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Following a sub-par 2010 season with the Dodgers, the Cubs brought Reed Johnson back to the friendly confines on a minor league deal in 2010. Johnson won a spot on the active roster during spring training, and rewarded the Cubs by posting a .309/.346/.467 in 266 plate appearances. The Cubs then rewarded Johnson by bringing him back for $1.15 million this season.

Following a strong return to the Cubs in 2011, the Cubs brought Reed Johnson back as their fourth outfielder. Can a repeat of his 2011 results reasonably be expected? If not, what is his role with the Cubs?

Johnson was actually not expected to be the fourth outfielder in 2011. That role was supposed to be filled by Tyler Colvin, who many anticipated would get fairly regular playing time against right handed pitchers in both corners of the outfield, as well as some spot duty for Marlon Byrd in center field. Barring injury, Johnson was only expected to get regular playing time subbing for Kosuke Fukudome against left handed pitchers. But a typically hot start by Kosuke Fukudome and a 10 home run April by Alfonso Soriano provided only limited playing time for Colvin, who struggled mightily all season and spent much of the year in Iowa.

Johnson, on the other hand, had his best offensive season since at least 2008, and Mike Quade clearly considered Johnson his fourth outfielder by the end of April. With that said, no one should expect Reed Johnson to be able to match his 2011 numbers, particularly against right handed pitchers. For his career, Reed Johnson has posted a .266/.324/.382 against right handed pitching. In 2011, Johnson put up a .312/.361/.468 in 157 plate appearances against right handed pitching.

How did Johnson do this? As is typical in an outlier year with a small sample size of plate appearances, the answer is BABIP. Johnson posted a .410 BABIP against right handed pitchers last season. The odds of him repeating that performance are extraordinarily slim.

It would be more reasonable to expect Johnson to put up numbers in line with his .305/.330/.467 against left handed pitching in 2011, with significantly worse numbers more indicative of his career averages against right handed pitching.

This doesn’t mean that Johnson has no value to the 2012 Cubs. David DeJesus, who will be the regular starter in right field against right handed pitching, struggles against left handed pitching. And while age has reduced Johnson to a fringy fielder in center, he is still solid in both corner outfield positions.

Considering Dave Sappelt and Tony Campana are essentially ready to fulfill their roles as career bench outfielders, this is likely Reed Johnson’s last season with the Cubs. But Johnson is the sort of guy the Cubs might want to transition to their coaching staff if he retires after the season. He is a smart player who has turned pretty unremarkable tools into a ten year major league career, and guys like that tend to make pretty good coaches.  Johnson is also an easy player to root for, which I will be more than happy to do in a season that will probably be his swan song with the Cubs.

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Chet’s Corner: A Glance Ahead to April

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Spring training excites me for about 4 days.  It’ s the unofficial official start of a new season.   The excitement starts to subside when I realize that the band of new players brought in over the summer is nothing to get real excited about.  Even when a new player flashes some serious potential it’s still only spring training.  It’s as if the training wheels still need to come off to see the proof.   It reminds me of fake baseball.  It’s not real.

All this being said, three players have actually caught my attention this spring so far.  Those players are Travis Wood, Joe Mather, and Jeff Samardzija. 

Let’s start with Samardzija.  Earlier I posted asking folks to list this years breakout player.  There were a few who chose Shark purely because he was due, yet it seemed as though they regretted it.   So far in Spring ball, Shark has delivered.  A lot of people may not be so high on Jeff, but take away that 10 million dollar albatross signing bonus and possibly being rushed to the majors a bit, and you have a guy coming into form.  Then again, it is only spring training, this is yet another perfect example of what could be a desert oasis that could turn into a dry bed of sand once we remove our spring goggles.  All that aside,  I am pretty sure he will secure one of the 2 remaining spots in the rotation.  See you in April Jeff!

Joe Mather is yet another in a long line of utility guys, who I have never heard of, that light up spring training pitching.  Do I trust that Mather will keep this going come April? No.  Should I? No.  He is the carbon copy of spring fling.  He looks great in a scaled down uniform, but throw on those pinstripes and he will probably fade back to reality.   However, with the likes of Tony Campana getting one hit so far it looks as though the squad could use a speedy outfielder on the bench.  Joe Mather, see you in April!

Where to start with Travis Wood?  A lot of people wanted to see this guy shine.  Spring training has been a personal hell for Travis on the field however.  He currently totes a 25.00 + ERA in three outings.  I know it’s early and ERA doesn’t say everything, being an overrated stat and all, but that number is a little too large to ignore.  I personally wanted to see Travis get that fifth rotation spot if for no other reason than I didn’t get excited with the other candidates.  Oh well, we still have half of spring left.  He could always have an epiphany and turn this thing around. 

Other then these observations I took a look at our schedule.  Feast your eyes on April and you will notice we play a heavy diet of NL Central teams to start the year.  I will be curious to see where this team sits at the end of the month.  I think the question on everybody’s mind right now is, will they be competitive?

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Paul Maholm: Third Starter to the Rotation Party

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

When Paul Maholm signed a one year 4.75 million dollar contract with the Cubs in early January, the response of the fan base as a whole was similar to the type of pitcher he is: uninspiring.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh with my description of Maholm, but he’s not exactly the type of pitcher that is going to provide a spark in the middle of the rotation. The pitcher has never had a season above .500 in his seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates in which he qualified for the league leaders. He’s also never had a season with more than ten wins, which I recognize is more of a reflection of the organization he was a part of.

I am no expert on the play of Paul Maholm other than the occasional start against the Cubs over the last six years, but I’ve seen enough to cast an opinion of him. He’s the type of pitcher that will never win you a game, but rather the guy that has the chance to keep a team in a game. For this team, I’m not completely sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. In 26 starts in 2011, Maholm gave up one or no runs in eight starts. On the flip side he only really bombed three starts (Yes this is something I arbitrarily made up while writing this), which I determine as allowing 6+ runs in at least 5 innings of work.

Again I don’t mean to rail on Mr. Maholm, because I think he can an effective starter at the three spot as long as our expectations for him are in line with what we’ll see. Expectations that I believe that are mild across the board.

Maholm is an inning eater that will get through 5+ innings in every start barring injury. In fact Maholm only had one such start last season, a 6-0 loss to the Marlins in early April where he gave up six earned in 3.2 innings. The Cubs haven’t had that kind of consistent inning eater at the three spot since Lilly was traded to the Dodgers in 2009, albeit Lilly is a much better pitcher than Maholm.

A major reason why Maholm consistently gets a healthy does of innings is because he takes so few pitches to get an at bat result. He averaged only 3.57 pitches per at bat in 2011, which was third in the National League. This is a good thing and bad thing for Maholm. His average amount of pitches lends itself to not giving up too many walks — 50 in 2011 — but when he does get deep into counts, walks follow.

Another positive to Maholm is that he has good control over his stuff. He doesn’t have any pitches that will wow you, but he’s effective enough to get outs. According to the 2012 Bill James Handbook, Maholm threw his fastball 52% of the time.  His average speed on the pitch is around 87 MPH, but rarely hits above the 89 MPH mark. He splits the rest of his pitches predominately between a change up and slider, although he doesn’t throw either above 20% of the time. This to me means he’s picking his spots with his fastball in hope for ground balls, which is something we should see a lot of during his starts.

The Rotation

While Dempster and Garza duke it out for the top dog spot (I expect Garza to pull it out), Maholm has been assured that he’s no longer pitching for a spot in the rotation.

“He’s done well and he’s slated to be one of the starters,” Sveum said Tuesday. “Right now, with the year he put up last year and the way he’s throwing the ball, I don’t see him not being in the rotation.” (Source: Chicago Cubs Report by Doug Padilla)

I do expect Maholm to bounce back record wise in 2012, but I can’t help but feel that the rest of his stats will take a step back. 8-10 wins with a 4+ ERA and 1.50 WHIP are reasonable expectations for him in conjunction with general expectations for this team.  If he can pitch any better than that, then I will believe the FA signing was a success.

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My Fantasyland: The Beginning

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

There are two things that I love more than anything, aside from the Cubs, Bills and my wife (although not in that order of course). Those two things are fantasy sports and yard sale Saturdays. In a twist of fate, those two came together one crisp autumn morning.

I wake up Saturday mornings with a sense of refreshment, but also excitement about the adventures that await me on my neighborhood tours. While the coffee pot boots up, I turn on my computer and map out my destination(s) coordinates carefully to ensure no gas is wasted. Occasionally my wife wakes up and shares the experience with me. Although on this lucky day, my traveling circus was a solo mission.

The morning started out great with the purchase of a new Callaway golf bag, which was likely someone’s unopened gift from the previous Christmas. There was still  bit of wrapping paper attached to the bottom rim of the bag and did smell a bit like a balsam fir.

The next house was loaded with books and magazines for all ages. You would have thought that these people had been running an illegal black market library in the tool shed behind their house for years. (Author’s note – I’m not entirely sure if running a library out of your shed is illegal or not, so you might need to check that) I’ve had good experiences with yard sale books before so I looked through them the most efficient way I know how, pulling each one out of it’s stacked lineup.

There were books about jungles and computers. Scuba diving and teaching. Children’s books and “Adult” books. Until finally I came across exactly what I was looking for: Fantasyland by Sam Walker.

Walker’s book recounts his quest to become the champion of the “Tout Wars” rotisserie baseball league, a league which is reserved for some of the best baseball brains in the world. Jason Grey, Ron Shandler, Bill James and Matthew Berry are just a handful of names of guys that participate in this league. Big bucks and pride is involved in this league that started in the early 80’s during the birth of fantasy sports.

Fantasyland gives America's obsession of fantasy sports an accurate memoir and is a must read if you are into a quirky take on sports statistics.

Fantasyland gives America’s obsession of fantasy sports  an accurate memoir and is a must read if you are into a quirky take on sports statistics. It is also the book that sparked my interest in both fantasy sports and writing about them.

I have to admit that fantasy baseball isn’t my strength in the world of imaginary sports, but I do enjoy the strategy behind it. Roto leagues or salary cap leagues create an even tougher experience for fans who want to go beyond their standard “set lineups once-a-week” league.

Over the next few months I’m going to tell my own story of my own “Fantasyland.” Musings of my own  rules and thoughts about drafting, managing multiple teams and fantasy smack talk no-no’s. Feel free to tune me out during the season if news of the imaginary doesn’t tickle your fancy, but my thoughts will still be here if you want to come back when no one is looking.

In an effort to build some rapport with our lovely VFTB readers, I’d like to leave you with my number one rule when building a fantasy team. Most of you that participate will be drafting in the coming two weeks, so some expert advice could do you well.

Josh’s Fantasy Rule #1  Don’t draft players from your favorite team.

The reason for this is although fantasy sports are fun, you should never want to cross your Cubs winning mojo with your fantasy winning mojo. Those two mojos just don’t mix. I used to break this rule often and would find myself pulling my hair out on Sundays as Soriano accomplished a Golden Sombrero. The only Cubs player that I put on my draft list this year is Starlin, but for fear of ruining his season, I passed on the 21-year-old when the time came to draft him.

When the choice between Matt Garza and Mat Latos is staring you the face, choose the later. For only bad things can come of drafting your favorite players.

With the VFTB Brackets in full swing (I absent mindedly missed that sign up otherwise I’d give an update) I’d also like to put the feelers out there for a baseball league. Feel free to contact me at my email or social media outlets so I can gauge interest.

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Soto’s Seesaw

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

It wasn’t that long ago the Geovany Soto was being compared to Johnny Bench.  Soto’s performance in 2008–.285/.364/.504, starting in the All Star Game, winning the Rookie of the Year, and generally taking the league by storm–put him into elite company.  However, his subsequent performance has forced many to rethink those early comparisons.

Put simply, Soto has been riding a statistical seesaw the last few years.  2009 was a nosedive season (.218/.321/.381) plagued by injuries and off-the-field issues.  He failed to dodge the injury bug again in 2010, but when he was on the field he looked like his former self (.280/.393/.497), giving Cubs fans reason to hope his ’09 campaign was an anomaly.  Unfortunately 2011 (.228/.310/.411) proved it wasn’t.

The fact is, Soto doesn’t fall into the usual whatever-you-get-at-the-plate-is-a-bonus category of catchers.  He’s proven he can be a legitimate offensive threat–one that could be mighty handy for this Cubs team that looks to be FAR short of production and pop.

And while the seesaw pattern of his career ought to be due for a swing back to the positive side this season, the prognosticators over at Fangraphs aren’t convinced.  Bill James is the most optimistic, guessing at predicting a line of .252/.345/.450.

I’ll be looking for Soto to improve in a few key areas this season.  Like almost every other Cub, he needs to cut down on his strikeouts.  He’s always floated around a 20% strikeout rate, but last year it shot up above 26%.  It’s not realistic to think his offense will improve if he can’t learn to be more selective at the plate.

Along with that, I’m also looking (hoping) for a significant bump in his batting average.  (And yeah, I know that’s not the most popular measuring stick, but since he pulls a pretty steady average of .090 points for his walks and HBP, I’m targeting the area where he has shown a lot of fluctuation–between .218 and .285.)  Even a modest .050 point improvement–which would be only his third best season so far–would be a significant improvement over the anemic .228 he posted last season.

Finally, I want to see him make it through the season without another momentum-killing visit to the Disabled List.  Since his rookie campaign, Soto hasn’t made it through the season without a tweaked shoulder, wrist, or groin.  Considering he’s already missed some Spring Training with a groin strain, maybe this is unrealistic.  But few Cubs take longer to heat up after a trip to the DL, so consistent playing time might be the simplest solution for what’s ailed Soto in the past.

I like Soto–not nearly as much as Lizzie, but certainly more than Joe.  For his sake and the Cubs’, I hope he can turn things around at the plate and give Theo and Jed a reason to invest in him.  When he’s at his best, his hitting is what separates him from his peers.  But if he fails to improve at the plate this season, the Cubs might be inclined to go with a younger, cheaper option.

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