• Rick Ankiel, Comeback King?

    Posted 21 hours ago

    Baseball is a game of failure, forcing players to find, utilize, and ultimately rely on their strengths. It is hard to find someone who exemplifies that more than Rick Ankiel. He pitched for the Cardinals in 2000 and was so good that he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Then the NLDS came along and Ankiel could not throw strikes. He gave up four runs on two hits, four walks, and five wild pitches. It could have been a fluke, just the nerves of his first postseason appearance, pitching against Greg Maddux, no less. Totally understandable, except he could not get through the first inning of his next start. It was the second game of the NLCS and Ankiel was pulled after twenty pitches, five of which went to the backstop.

    Things never got much better. In 2001, he threw 24 major league innings and walked 25 batters. He was demoted all the way to Rookie League that year, sat out the 2002 season, then had Tommy John surgery in 2003. He returned as a reliever in 2004 and posted a 4.75 FIP in ten innings. Things were bleak until the Cardinals offered to play him at a different position. Rick Ankiel came back in 2007 as an outfielder and he was good! He was known for making unbelievable throws, but also managed to hit 74 home runs during his seven seasons. Not bad for a former pitcher. He retired after the 2013 season, having made a comeback for the ages.

    And he wants to do it again.

    Rick Ankiel is working to return to the majors as a left-handed reliever at age 39. He played in one game during the Bluegrass World Series last year, where he racked up two hits and four RBI in four plate appearances, not to mention that he threw out a runner at the plate. But then, he did the one thing few people ever thought he would do again: he took the mound. He only faced one batter, but he struck him out on four pitches. It was enough for Ankiel to wonder whether he could get a chance to once again experience the game from at the position that had been so cruel to him.

    All of this is bananas. The astonishingly quick rise and then fall from pitching stardom. Reinventing himself as an outfielder. Succeeding in the major leagues for seven seasons after contemplating retirement. As if that was not challenging enough, last October Rick Ankiel had an ulnar collateral ligament repair with internal brace construction. A UCL tear generally results in Tommy John surgery, which has a 12 to 18 month recovery time. If Ankiel had required another Tommy John, any potential comeback would have been pushed into his age-40 season and, as he mentioned on a recent Cardinals spring training broadcast, likely would not have happened at all. “If it had been a total reconstruction, he said, “I probably would’ve passed and just moved on. I would’ve missed all this year and then we’re all the way to next spring training and that’s just a long time.” When I heard Ankiel’s interview, I wondered whether primary repair surgery would help or hinder his comeback effort, and went searching for an answer.

    Primary repair surgery is still fairly new. The first major league pitcher to have it was Seth Maness during the 2016 season. There is very little data about how it compares to Tommy John and not all UCL tears are eligible for primary repair. If a ligament is torn in the middle, a player will require Tommy John which involves creating a new ligament out of tissue taken from another part of the body. If it is torn near the bone, however, primary repair comes into play. It involves minor repairs and providing a sort of abutment around where the ligament is anchored to the bone. The recovery timeline ranges from seven to nine months, or nearly half of what it takes to rehab from the Tommy John procedure.

    Seth Maness is the only case study I could find at the major league level. He is not a one-to-one comparison, since his arm had gone through about four major league seasons while Ankiel’s played somewhere around nine. Given Ankiel’s 2003 Tommy John, his surgeon actually repaired a reconstructed ligament. There are a lot of questions and variables to consider.

    First, let’s take a look at Maness’s numbers before and after his surgery. He hit the “dead arm” phase in 2016, so the data below includes the 2014 and 2015 seasons, plus the 2017 season following his surgery, which would parallel Ankiel’s planned return. The sample size from the major leagues in 2017 is small, so our conclusions will rely heavily on Maness’s time with the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate.

    Seth Maness Pre- and Post-Primary Repair
    Season IP K/9 BB/9 AVG FIP GB% FB% Pull% Oppo%
    2014 80.1 6.16 1.23 .253 3.38 56.0% 25.1% 37.8% 26.9%
    2015 63.1 6.54 1.85 .301 3.78 55.9% 25.0% 37.6% 22.9%
    2017 (MLB) 9.2 3.72 1.86 .372 6.99 51.3% 23.1% 38.5% 20.5%
    2017 (AAA) 47.0 6.70 1.53 .318 4.74 47.2% 34.6% 37.4% 31.9%

    The first thing that pops out are the consistencies. Maness’s strikeout rate in the minor leagues was consistent with what it had been during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Hitters continued to pull the ball at the same rate, and the number of walks he issued was fairly similar as well. These are good signs.

    However, Maness relied heavily on groundballs for his success. It felt like every time he was on the mound, he would induce a double-play. His groundball percentage dropped significantly, 4% in the majors and 9% in the minors. Naturally, his flyball rate jumped, rising to 9% in the minor leagues. His FIP jumped an entire point from 2015 to 2017, as he relied increasingly on the defense behind him. He also lost about two miles per hour on his sinker, slider, and fastball during the 2016 season. He never regained that velocity. If Ankiel wants to be major-league ready, he will need one of these secondary pitches. Can he avoid the slowdown that plagued Seth Maness? Only time will tell.

    Maness was released by the Royals in 2018 and currently plays in the Atlantic League. He never quite regained the effectiveness he had prior to the injury. That said, it does not spell disaster for Rick Ankiel.

    First, Ankiel relied more on strikeouts than groundballs, which may surprise some given his difficulty throwing strikes. While the outcome Maness relied on took a hit, his strikeout rate held fairly steady. His ability to put the ball in the zone was not impacted, which is obviously great news for Rick Ankiel. Second, Maness relied most heavily on his sinker, then fell back on his changeup or fastball when needed. Ankiel has said he would rely on a curveball and high fastball. Maness did not have a curveball so there is no available data to compare. As for the fastball, there was a dip in velocity which is cause for concern.

    Things are looking up since Ankiel hit 89 mph in the Bluegrass World Series last year when he was not even “in pitching shape.” That outing, such as it was, also occurred before the primary repair surgery, so the ligament was weakened. That velocity tops Maness’ fastball average at 88 MPH in 2017. However, because Ankiel has historically been more reliant on this pitch, he will need to achieve a significant uptick in velocity (or undergo a significant change to his repertoire) in order to compete, especially because he wants to compete not only in the minor leagues as Maness did, but in the majors.

    Finally, though it is difficult to isolate the surgery’s effect, it did not appear to increase the rate at which Maness walked hitters. He was not suddenly wild, nor did his control evaporate. After the onset of the yips, Ankiel could rarely throw strikes. If he has overcome the anxiety, which he says he has, then it all comes down to his ability to control the location of his pitches. Can he do that as effectively as he did in 2000? The answer is yet to be determined, but using Seth Maness as a case study indicates that the primary repair surgery may not necessarily be what undermines Ankiel’s pitch control.

    The only narrative in sports that is better than a comeback story is a second comeback. It’s something fans tend to root for. The first time he was challenged in this sport, Ankiel’s solution was to climb a different mountain, and conquer the outfield instead of the pitching mound. This time, things will likely be harder. There are many questions yet to be answered, questions that we would have even without the additional red flag of a surgery. The chances here are remote. Could this be the year he overcomes the very problem that hindered him in the first place? That remains to be seen, but Seth Maness provides a hopeful if narrow blueprint for Rick Ankiel’s return to the major leagues, or at least, he offers a limited answer on one important part of Ankiel’s journey that could hold him back. I sure hope he makes it.

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  • 2019 Razzball Fantasy Baseball Staff Picks

    Posted 23 hours ago

    Welcome to another season of Razz-matazz Fantasy Baseball. For those of you wondering, that actually was Grey’s second choice for naming this site, but as you can see, Razzball won out, much to the chagrin of jazz fingers around the world. And just one ball. No multiple balls I guess. Shame. Shame. Shame. But here we are with another year of staff picks. So what’s the goal with this? Hashtag content, baby. (That’s the technical term.) There’s another goal though, one less self-fulfilling, unlike your mother. Despite the modern advancement of technology and science, we still have no way to have every writer provide their extended (or in Tehol’s case, I always hope abbreviated) take on every single player in the MLB. We try though! And so we have this quick-and-easy (I regret burning my “yo momma” joke now…) presentation that provides you, the Razzmatazzball community a viewer-friendly and succinct breakdown of how we feel about the upcoming season.

    So without further ado, here are our Official 2019 Razzball Picks! (Be sure to share yours in the comments section!)

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  • The 18th Out, Part 9: Custom QS Stratification And The QS$ Revolution

    Posted 1 day ago

    So excited to be back! Wild horses couldn’t keep me, Mr. Moving Averages away from what I have in store for you here, in Part 9 of The Eighteenth Out. I’m burning the midnight oil to get all of this information out before drafts take place, and if I lock up a Newcomer of the Year award in the meantime, then so be it. There’s so much custom content to provide today I’ll cut the jokes short and get right to work. Ok, maybe one because if you can’t tell by now I am a sucker for the pop culture of my childhood. Hold on to your giant dark helmets ladies and gentlemen; This series is now officially moving at LUDICROUS SPEED, and we’re at serious risk of going plaid.

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  • Jose, How’s Your Knee By Indians’ Early Plight

    Posted 1 day ago

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    Jose Ramirez fouled a ball off his knee and was carted off the field.  *long, painful swallow*  Say what now?  Thankfully, it turned out Jose Ramirez simply has a knee contusion and was carted off the field because he had reached his steps for the day.  *claps hands*  “Okay, guys, call me a cab, my FitBit says I’m done-zo.”  That’s Jose Ramirez once he reaches 10,000 steps.  I hear ya, Jo-Ram!  I once sat down on an escalator because I had reached my “floors” for the day.  I’m not over-exercising and dying young.  Nuh-uh!  You don’t mess with age expectancy.  I’m already down on Ramirez in a non-sexual way, so this doesn’t change my stance on him, and, if you like him, it doesn’t sound like it should change your feelings either, since he appears healthy.  Anyway, here’s what else I saw in spring training for fantasy baseball:

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  • How Billy Eppler has been quietly constructing a winning ball club

    Posted 1 day ago

    Mike Trout is just the glue for a larger project. 

    Signing Mike Trout to a twelve-year, $430 million dollar contract extension is the equivalent of the Green Bay Packers’ contract extension of Aaron Rodgers. They are no-brainers because both players could be considered the greatest and most talented at their position ever (relax Patriots fans). Trout is worth every penny of his contract extension, regardless if he ever wins a World Series title or not.

    When anybody mentions the Angels, it will now be about Mike Trout’s new contract, which is the largest contract in the history of American sports. What is not often mentioned are the moves that Angels GM Billy Eppler has been making to create a legitimate contender in the AL West. Just take a look at his most recent offseason moves:

    Mar. 19, 2019: Signed OF Mike Trout to a twelve-year $430 million extension

    Jan. 20, 2019: Signed RHP Cody Allen to a one-year $8.5 million deal

    Jan. 11, 2019: Acquired INF Tommy La Stella from the Chicago Cubs

    Jan. 11, 2019: Signed SP Tyler Skaggs to a one-year $3.7 million contract (avoiding arbitration)

    Dec. 29, 2018: Signed C Jonathan Lucroy as free agent to a one-year $3.35 million contract

    Dec. 22, 2018: Signed RHP Matt Harvey on a one-year $11 million contract

    Dec. 20, 2018: Signed RHP Trevor Cahill on a one-year $9 million contract

    These aren’t necessarily premium all-star players, but they are capable of making a big impact for the Angels in 2019. It’s apparent that Eppler is prioritizing pitching (and obviously Mike Trout) to solidify his rotation and bullpen. He’s has been very thorough at everything he’s done since coming to the Angels in October of 2015.

    Yes, he inherited maybe the greatest baseball player we’ve ever seen in Trout, but he also inherited one of the worst farms systems in MLB. He set out to build an infrastructure based on player development, domestic and international scouting, and an innovative analytics group whose sole job is to do baseball research on future competitive advantages.

    He even made current manager, Brad Ausmus, complete a nine-hour written test during his managerial interview process. This test consisted of several statistical probability questions, but it was the candidate’s reasoning of how they came up with their answer that Eppler was interested in, thus proving once again why it’s always important to “show your work.”

    Even with the loss of pitcher Shohei Ohtani (perhaps the biggest acquisition of Eppler’s career) due to Tommy John rehab, he’ll still remain a hitter who will help protect Trout in the lineup in 2019. Eppler is hiring more scouts and analysts for what he calls “the information race” to help his front office’s decision making. The Angles shifted the least out of any team in baseball last year, so he’s looking to lean more on his analytics team this season.

    He turned one of the worst farm systems into one that recently produced MLB Pipeline’s 16th overall prospect, 19-year-old prep outfielder Jo Adell. It’s clear the Angels need to score more runs in 2019 than they did last year as they ranked 15th in MLB. Adell’s .897 OPS during his time in Double-A will certainly help the team create more runs.

    The Angels could actually make a run in the postseason and if they do, it won’t be because of Mike Trout. It will because of their improved pitching and ability to put more guys on base for Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun, and Albert Pujols to drive in.

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  • 2019 Positional Power Rankings: Shortstop

    Posted 1 day ago

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    After taking a look at center fielders and designated hitters yesterday, our positional power rankings continue with shortstop.

    We’re in a golden era for shortstops. The late-1990s/early 2000s heyday of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada was not only pretty cool — at least before injuries and position changes broke up the band, and PED revelations retroactively dimmed our appreciation — but it ushered in an era of bigger, more powerful players at the position, and that trend has raised the bar for offensive production. Last year, shortstops hit a collective .259/.317/.416 for a 97 wRC+, five points higher than it had been in any other season since 2002 (as far back as our splits go), and trust me, it was worse than that previously, despite occasional concentrations of thumpers. In 2018, shortstops even outhit second basemen (93 wRC+) by a handy margin, something unseen within the narrow timeframe of our splits and constituting roughly a 10-point swing relative to the 2002-2017 period, in which second basemen outhit shortstops by a 95-89 margin according to wRC+.

    It’s true that last year’s surge was helped by the inclusion of Manny Machado — who led all shortstops with a 141 wRC+, but has returned to third base as a Padre — and Javier Baez. But the top two hitters for the position from 2017, Zack Cozart (!) and Corey Seager, missed most of the season, with the former playing more third base than second base as well, and even Carlos Correa wasn’t really himself.

    No, this is about the likes of Baez, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story, Didi Gregroius, and even Jose Peraza — all of them 28 or younger, all but Gregorius 25 or younger — breaking out while offsetting the declines of Elvis Andrus and Brandon Crawford, the position’s geezers. More than ever, shortstop is a young man’s position. In 2018, nobody older than 31 (Crawford, Alcides Escobar, Jordy Mercer) made even 150 plate appearances as a shortstop. That trio all played at least 100 games at short, the lowest total of over-30 shortstops to do so since the majors expanded to 30 teams in 1998. As recently as 2016, there were six such players, and in 2014, 10; for the 1998-2017 period, the average was 7.4.

    We haven’t even talked about defense. Yes, these guys are selected primarily for their gloves and arms, but with the decreasing rates of balls in play brought about by increases in strikeouts and homers, teams can get away with a bit less leather all around the infield. Even with a bit of decline in that area according to UZR (all shortstops were a net 2.8 runs in 2018, down from 20.6 in 2017), shortstops combined for 90.4 WAR, an increase of 18.2 over 2017, and 9.7 more than in the second-best year within this range (2016). The best of the current shortstops are still in their primes, and younger models, such as Willy Adames, Adalberto Mondesi, and Amed Rosario, all of whom are entering their age-23 seasons, are staking their claims to full-time play. Fernando Tatis Jr., ranked third on our Top 100 Prospects list and a babe of just 20 years old, will be up sometime soon. For as much as the current game has on- and off-field issues that need addressing, we should still savor the chance to watch this concentration of talent.

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