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December 12, 2013

Transaction Analysis

More Morton

by Sam Miller

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired OF-S Billy Burns from Washington Nationals for LHP Jerry Blevins. [12/11]

Billy Burns was the Nationals’ minor-league player of the year, stole 74 bases, finished second in two separate leagues in OBP, and has spent half his career playing a premium position, center field. And yet the first (and, until now only) time he appeared on this site was in September, in a fantasy article. That’s telling in two ways: 1) he’s not much of a prospect and 2) his name is sexiest for its fantasy possibilities.

The not-a-prospect part comes down to the famous Rexrode Threshold, whereby hitters with patience at the plate but Jughead Jones’ physique can rack up huge walk totals in the low minors (when pitchers don’t have much command) but can’t threaten enough punch to keep pitchers honest at higher levels. Burns has one minor-league home run, and I’d make an uncomfortably large bet that it was inside the park. He has a career isolated power of .067, despite what you would have to imagine are a lot of hustle doubles mixed in. He’s 5’ 9”.

He’s a Billy Beane prospect, which isn’t quite the same as being a prospect but isn’t quite the opposite. Mark Anderson, of our prospect team, writes: “Actually liked him a bit in the EL last year. Top of the scale runner and he knows how to use it. Good base stealing instincts and range in center. Slap hitter with bottom of the scale power. Good approach. More of a 4th/5th OF type than the everyday leadoff type the Nats have pushed him as.”

So go ahead and pencil him in for a couple WARP over the next six seasons, for which he’ll be paid about $3 million, and then sent somewhere for some other misshapen thing.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Agreed to a three-year, $21 million extension with RHP Charlie Morton. [12/11]

If you ever start doubting the value of groundball pitchers—why you would, I have no idea, but it happens—then consider the case of Charlie Morton. In 2010, Morton struck out 6.7 batters per nine and walked 2.6; in 2013, he struck out 6.6 and walked 2.8. Yet his ERA was more than four runs lower.

The difference, or at least part of the difference, is that Morton used to lean on a four-seam fastball, complemented by a sinker that was almost entirely horizontal movement. Now he’s one of the league’s most fastball-exclusive starters, and that fastball is typically a sinker that sinks. His groundball rate went from 47 percent in 2010 to 63 percent this year, the highest rate by a starter (min. 100 innings) in all of baseball by more than three percentage points. His home run rate dropped by more than two-thirds.


Still, Morton’s not much. Pitching in a forgiving ballpark in front of a premium defense, his surface numbers are better than total-value metrics (which put his last season around replacement level) would concede. But if there’s anything that gives the Pirates an advantage over their big-market opponents, it’s their inability to sign the long-term budget-crippling deals that more famous pitchers get. Locking up Morton fills enough innings that they won’t even be tempted to try.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired LHP Jerry Blevins from the Oakland Athletics for OF-S Billy Burns. [12/11]

When we wrote about the many ways the A’s built an exceptional $8 million bullpen, Jerry Blevins co-starred as the undesirable minor leaguer tossed into a veteran salary dump. When the A’s shed Jason Kendall on the Cubs, they got some salary relief and Blevins, a former 17th-round pick who seemed to have figured something out against younger competition that season. Blevins threw 267 innings for the A’s over six seasons, with a 122 ERA+ that matches up nicely during that stretch with that of Brian Fuentes. He was paid less than $3 million for a couple WARP, and now that he’s eligible for arbitration a second time, he brings back a slightly better prospect than he ever was.

Blevins is very long, very lean, most often throws a sinker yet has one of the league’s lowest groundball rates, and was probably miscast in an A’s bullpen that had Sean Doolittle as its generalist lefty and nobody but Blevins to be a specialist. Blevins is prone to walks when facing opposite-handed batters, but he’s not hit hard by them; even with a significantly higher walk rate, he has a reverse overall split over the past three seasons. Only 10 left-handed relievers have held righties to a lower OPS in that time, corresponding to Blevins’ increased use of a changeup-cutter combo against righties. He’s not going to be anybody’s closer or anything, but he’s more valuable throwing 75 innings, and bridging whole segments of lineups, than throwing 55 as one of the league’s less effective LOOGYs.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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