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July 9, 2014

The Lineup Card

Eight Second-Half Decline Candidates

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Jean Machi
Back in the summer of 2010, in the top of the 10th inning of a Triple-A game, the relief pitcher Jean Machi came to bat against the relief pitcher Roy Merritt. Merritt was 24, playing with the organization that drafted him, left-handed. Machi was 28, short and fat and right-handed, and playing with his fourth organization. He had just 43 Triple-A innings to his credit. If you'd had to bet on one of those two players to be playing in Mexico three years later, you'd have bet on Machi; if you'd had to bet on one to be in the majors, you'd have bet on Merritt.

Machi doubled in that plate appearance, and ever since then it's been nothing but surprises from Machi, who finally made the majors with his fifth organization, at the age of 30. (Merritt, to complete the anecdotal lead, was last seen in Mexico last year.) Knowing that resume, anything he does should be considered a surprise, and projections will look askant at him. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I can't: Jean Machi will not continue to produce a higher WPA (as a hitter) than Evan Longoria, David Wright, and Joe Mauer.

Machi's WPA is currently .319. That's exceptional for a pitcher. Since 2000, only nine pitchers have ever bested it over an entire season, including Travis Wood this year, Micah Owings three times, and Mike Hampton in his seven-homer season in Coors Field. Hampton's .663 WPA that year remains the highest by any pitcher in the post-DH era, and Machi is on pace to challenge it. I don't think he will. I think that, if he gets more plate appearances, Machi will do worse. I really do.

Double against Merritt aside, there's no reason to think Machi is very good at hitting. In his lone plate appearance in 2013, he struck out in three pitches against Huston Street. In one of his two plate appearances this year, he grounded out to second. He never hit a major-league pitch out of the infield. That's not proof that he can't hit. But there's no proof that he can.

His WPA is, I will argue, based not on a true talent level but circumstances unlikely to be repeated. Machi was attempting a sacrifice bunt. He laid down that sacrifice bunt, a point to his credit. Then the pitcher fielded that bunt, threw it into right field, and, with one out in the top of the 13th, allowed one Giants baserunner to score and two others (including Machi) to end up in scoring position. It's the 16th most important batting event by a Giant this year, by WPA. Ben Lindbergh has written glowingly about players (like Nori Aoki) who have demonstrated a true ability to reach base on errors, and it's possible that Jean Machi is one of these guys. But predicting the future requires making some assumptions. I'm assuming Machi is not one of these guys.

So there. Sorry, Jean. I hate to be the jerk who brushes aside the good stuff you've done, but peripherals matter; process matters more than results. I doubt you'll keep this up. (Also, as an aside, I worry about Machi's pedestrian strikeout rate as a pitcher, his suspiciously high strand rate, and the plummeting swinging-strike rates on all three of his pitches. But that's off topic.) —Sam Miller

2. George Springer
The problem with Springer is not that he's lacking in power or speed, but rather that he's lacking in contact. His swing-hard-all-the-time approach has left him with the league's highest whiff rate, outpacing the likes of Junior Lake, Brandon Hicks, Chris Carter, and Tyler Flowers. That's not an impressive group, with Carter (at .252) boasting the highest True Average of the four; Springer, for comparison, is at .295. Perhaps Springer will continue to look like an outlier, however, the degree to which he does so is likely to lessen. As great as power and speed are, you need contact to make them play. Right now, that looks like a challenge for Springer. —R.J. Anderson

3. George Kottaras
George Kottaras has a .714 slugging percentage. I'm tempted to just leave it at that. Shouldn't I? Should I tell you his career mark coming into the year? (.406.) Should I tell you how many plate appearances he's had in 2014? (27.) Should I mention that he's been designated for assignment because Cleveland would rather have Chris Dickerson, who hadn't played in the majors until Pittsburgh sent him Ohio-bound? (Cleveland DFA'd Kottaras when they acquired Dickerson.) I guess I could tell you all those things as part of my evidence for Kottaras' likely decline in the second half, assuming he actually plays in the major leagues in the second half, but I'm not sure how much I've added to where I started this thing: George Kottaras has a .714 slugging percentage. I believe he will probably decline. —Jason Wojciechowski

4. The Detroit Martinezes
Who the heck turns into a power hitter at 35? Victor Martinez needs four more homers to equal his season best of 25, accomplished seven years in his prime. Or is this year his prime?

Some were concerned V-Mart could even return from his ACL injury two years ago. I figured he’d be able to climb back into a .300 singles machine. But his slugging is better than Miguel Cabrera right now. He’s also getting pitches to hit because the free-swinging J.D. Martinez, suddenly *his* protection, is mashing everything that moves. He already has a career-best 12 home runs, six of them in the ninth inning and four of those in blowout losses. He’s another nice story, because being released from Houston always contains the markings of a good comeback, but 1.000 OPSes are reserved for Hall of Famers, not fourth outfielders.

Once JD-Mart starts regressing, we’ll see V-Mart receiving fewer pitches to hit, along with his fly balls landing in the mitts of millionaires instead of fans. —Matt Sussman

5. Kurt Suzuki
For this week’s Lineup Card, I decided to take a more scientific approach. I sorted all of the players by declining zone distance trend, such that the players were seeing pitches closer to the center of the strike zone as the season goes on. The logic of this idea was to isolate players who pitchers were challenging more aggressively in the center of the zone, possibly indicating that the player wasn’t as feared as they were formerly.

Jedd Gyorko came up first by this method, but due to his injury, he won’t be playing again soon. A little further down the list, in the 12th spot, was Kurt Suzuki, unexpected success story. Suzuki came from Washington in the offseason to play a better than respectable catcher, even earning an All-Star nod for the hometown team. But in his last roughly 500 pitches in the majors, opposing throwers have decided to see how Suzuki responds to pitches in the dead center of the zone.

It doesn’t take a statistician to see that Suzuki’s zone distance is in a steady decline. Whereas Suzuki started the season strong, ringing up a 129 OPS+ in April/March, his June fell back to a more pedestrian 102, and his last two weeks have been especially poor (.250/.302/.325). It may be the case that Suzuki has been figured out.

PECOTA never bought Suzuki’s breakout, and discerning observers couldn’t pinpoint any particular modification to Suzuki’s approach which would cause such a resurgence. When PECOTA, opposing pitchers, and one’s eyes agree, it seems a good bet that Suzuki will regress. He’s a deserving All-Star on the basis of his first half play, but just don’t expect it to continue. —Rob Arthur

6. Danny Duffy
Duffy’s 2.86 ERA in 18 games, including 12 starts, strikes me as unsustainable for the rest of the year. It would mark a substantial improvement in his performance that is not supported by his peripheral stats. Duffy throws 95 and has a suite of off-speed pitches, but his K rate is a pedestrian 19%--about his career average. He has improved his walk rate, but it’s still fairly high at nine percent (3.3/9 innings). His batted-ball tendencies have not changed, as he still has a strong fly-ball profile (35 percent GB). So, naturally, his .235 BABIP—94 points below his only other somewhat-full season of 2011—raises eyebrows. (The Royals have a superb defense this year, but they have in prior years, too.) Duffy’s first-half FIP of 3.94 would probably give you a better idea of how he’ll play the rest of the year.

Also worth watching is whether he develops a heavy arm late in the year as he completes his recovery from Tommy John surgery. —Dan Rozenson

7. Mikie Mahtook
People scan the Triple-A leaderboards in July and before you know it #free[player x] is twittering. It’s a surprise, for example, not to see #freeStevenSouzaJr (.361/.446/.602) all over the place. Here in Durham, the news of the mostly prospect-free season (sound the well-is-drying-up alarm in Tampa Bay) has often focused on (#free?) Mikie Mahtook. The former LSU outfielder has been aggressively promoted since the Rays drafted him with a supplemental first-round pick in 2011. He was assigned to Triple-A to start 2014 and has flourished. He’s hitting .311/.381/.502. His .191 ISO is a healthy leap in power, which hadn’t quite been there in his first two minor-league seasons. He has stolen some bases (12/14) and hit a few homers (seven), and he won’t embarrass himself in center field, where he mostly plays now that Kevin Kiermaier has gone up to the majors. He’s only 24.

So Mikie likes it, where “it” = Triple-A rather than Life cereal. Free Mikie! However: Mahtook’s numbers are skewed by a .402 BABIP, second in the league only to, um, Steven Souza, Jr. He’s batting .467 against left-handers after hitting a little over .250 against them in 2012 and 2013. Mahtook’s 0.36 BB/K rate isn’t pretty, and it’s not far out of line with his numbers from Double-A last year if you adjust for a higher league. Nor was a scout at the ballpark recently much impressed by Mahtook’s outfielding. And Mahtook isn’t as fast as he looks, either.

So let’s stay calm, for now. We’re not yet sure how good Mikie Mahtook is, summer is getting hot and heavy, and the regression has actually already begun: on June 17, Mahtook was hitting .325/.399/.517. The Rays can certainly afford to wait. It may be that they already have a virtual duplicate of Mahtook on their big-league roster. Brandon Guyer is a cut, toolsy right-handed outfielder with some holes in his game (and a poor BB:K rate) who nonetheless looks promising. And when Wil Myers returns from injury, even Guyer may be out of a major-league job.Adam Sobsey

8. Teddy Roosevelt
After collecting a total of 15 wins from 2008 through 2013, Teddy Roosevelt has already collected 14 wins in 2014. Sure, you can argue that this is a just a continuation of the exponential improvement Teddy has been making since 2011. Sure, you can say that he was called up too early, that giant president racing heads often take a long time to develop, that the addition of William Taft changes the entire dynamic, that Jefferson has lost a step and that Washington is probably racing injured. You can say all those things, but I'm still not buying it. The skills are still the same and I really have not seen a change in approach. Buy the second half at your own risk. —Jeff Quinton

3 comments have been left for this article.

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