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August 1, 2013

Transaction Analysis

Astros Distributed Elsewhere

by Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller and Jason Parks

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Bud Norris for OF-L L.J. Hoes, LHP Josh Hader, and a compensation pick. [7/31]

On July 5, 2011, Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi reported that Bud Norris was “considered part of the Astros’ future.” Later that year, Ed Wade was fired, Jeff Luhnow was hired, and the Astros’ future changed. Since then, Norris—like every Astro, evidently even the pre-arb ones—has been considered expendable. Norris avoided a trade at the 2012 deadline—maybe because he wasn’t making much money yet, or maybe because his ERA at the end of July was over 5.00—but circumstances made it unlikely that he’d survive a second one.

Norris received a $3 million salary from the Astros in his first year of arbitration eligibility, which made him the highest-paid player in Houston and stuck a flashing “available” sign on his back. He’s 28, which is ancient in Astros years. And he has a sub-4.00 ERA and a clean bill of health, which made him mighty attractive on a market without much starting pitching.

Before 2012, Norris always had healthy strikeout rates held back by toxic walk and home run rates. This year, that arrangement has reversed itself: Norris has a career-best walk rate and home run rate, and a career-low strikeout rate. There’s no immediately obvious explanation for the new Norris: his velo isn’t down, and his pitch selection hasn’t changed dramatically. Nor is he getting more grounders: he’s allowing as many fly balls as ever, but they haven’t been leaving the park at the customary rate. It could be that he’s trying to pitch to contact, but if so, that strategy hasn’t manifested itself in a higher rate of pitches inside the strike zone. Whether intentionally or not, Norris is recording fewer whiffs, though he’s also getting ahead of guys much more often—in 63.8 percent of plate appearances, compared to a career rate of 58.5.

To believe that Norris is something better than the mid-4.00s ERA guy he’s been before (and that his xFIP says he is now), you have to believe that he’s figured out how to sustain a below-league-average HR/FB rate, which seems like a long shot. In Camden Yards, and in the AL East, his gopheritis could come back with a vengeance. However, he should benefit from Baltimore’s superior defense, especially if doesn’t start missing more bats.

The other issue with Norris—and it’s a doozy—is that he’s as close to a righty specialist as a starter can be. Lefties have hit .306/.365/.494 off him this season (.268/.354/.443 lifetime). He’s primarily a fastball/slider guy, sliders are subject to large platoon splits, and he doesn’t have a great change, which leaves him without an effective out-getter against southpaws. Although he goes to the slider with two strikes against southpaws pretty regularly, he’s thrown them the change slightly more often this season—17.5 percent of the time. However, it hasn’t gotten great results. The average changeup thrown by a righty to a lefty gets 26 percent whiffs/swing. Norris’ comes in at a little more than half that, 14 percent. In the words of Dan Brooks, “If you were to give his changeup a grade on the 20-80 scale in terms of the whiffs it generates against LHB, it’d be about a 35.” And remember that decline in strikeout rate? It’s come almost entirely against left-handed hitters.

Year

K/9 vs. RHB

K/9 vs. LHB

2009

7.9

9.7

2010

8.3

10.3

2011

9.1

7.9

2012

9.3

8.3

2013

8.0

5.1

Norris was scheduled to start against the Orioles on Tuesday night. While he was scratched due to trade talks, O’s skipper Buck Showalter revealed what his approach against Norris would have been, saying, “Originally off of Norris, I had eight-left handed hitters out there.” So now we know how Showalter thinks his opponents should neutralize his newest acquisition.

Norris might have been the ace of the Astros, but he’s a back-end starter in the AL East, and his ERA is probably going to go up. If you’re looking for an encouraging stat, I do have one to offer: of the 102 starters with at least 100 innings pitched this season, Norris has had the highest average opponent OPS (.766), which is to say he has faced the toughest competition. This move is a marginal upgrade that doesn’t address the Orioles’ lack of a true top-of-the-rotation type, but it does fill the hole that used to hold Jason Hammel, an impending free agent who went on the DL with a sore elbow today—an ominous sign, in light of his injury history. The O’s are half a game up in the race for the AL’s second Wild Card spot, so every win counts, and Norris gives them additional rotation depth through 2015, when they’ll hope to have some high-ceiling arms to go with him.

With Norris on his way to Baltimore, Carlos Pena designated for assignment, and Jose Veras in Detroit, Erik Bedard is now the Astros’ top earner at a measly $1.15 million. Even the Marlins have multiple players making more than that. But the prospect stockpiling is proceeding as planned. —Ben Lindbergh

HOUSTON ASTROS
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Acquired RHP Kyle Smith from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for OF-R Justin Maxwell. [7/31]
Acquired OF-L L.J. Hoes, LHP Josh Hader, and a compensation pick for RHP Bud Norris. [7/31]

Smith’s got a statline custom made for generating mock trade proposals: over two seasons since the Royals popped him in the fourth round, he has struck out 10 per nine while walking a quarter as many. He’s 20 and ripping through High-A, where he’s the youngest pitcher on the team and has the best ERA in his rotation. He’s the first sleeper you’ll find if you want to go looking for unheralded Royals farmhands. But how unusual is his performance? At a basic performance level it’s not that unusual at all. Smith is the eighth Wilmington starting pitcher in the past five years to a) post an ERA lower than the team’s average, b) strike out at least three batters for every walk and c) do it while 21 or younger. Those eight show a huge range of prospectworthiness:

  • 2013: Smith, 2.85 ERA, 3.31 Ks/BB, 20 years old
  • 2012: Jason Adam, 3.53 ERA, 3.42 Ks/BB, 20 years old
  • 2012: Yordano Ventura, 3.30 ERA, 3.5 Ks/BB, 21 years old
  • 2011: Jake Odorizzi, 2.87 ERA, 4.68 Ks/BB, 21 years old
  • 2010: John Lamb, 1.45 ERA, 6.0 Ks/BB, 19 years old
  • 2010: Will Smith, 2.80 ERA, 12.75 Ks/BB, 20 years old
  • 2009: Mike Montgomery, 2.25 ERA, 3.83 Ks/BB, 19 years old
  • 2009: Danny Duffy, 2.98 ERA, 3.05 Ks/BB, 20 years old

Non-prospects, elite prospects, and a stat line for a pitcher in High-A doesn’t necessarily get you even in the ballpark. Not all skills translate upward to the same degree, and there are simply ways to beat or get beat at that level that barely apply in the majors. “The scouting reports don't match the drapes,” Jason Parks tweeted today. “Diminutive RHP with fringe FB and plus CB.”

Zach Mortimer scouted Smith for the Eyewitness Accounts last month, so we have a very detailed and very recent assessment of him. Smith was throwing 90 mph, straight.

Overall, Smith is a good athlete with an idea of what he wants to do on the mound. He has an easy plus curveball in his arsenal. As he progresses it will be difficult for him to get hitters off of his curveball. Fastball command will have to be pristine, or it will be punished. Smith is shorter than listed and small frame creates bare minimal plane on fastball. The changeup is still a major work in progress. Ultimate future may be in the bullpen; fastball may tick up in bursts, and will be able to attack with curveball.

Of course, going back to that list above: Will Smith, the non-prospect, has for now contributed more in the majors than anybody else, with the debatable exception of Duffy. Not a lot, but something, and he might very well have a long career while once-elite guys like Montgomery and Lamb might not. From Houston’s perspective, there’s safety in numbers. —Sam Miller

L.J. Hoes has a name that’s conducive for adolescent punning, and adolescent punning rarely gets old, but the skill-set and impact potential are what really matter. Hoes’ value is found in his fundamentals and overall approach to the game. The 23-year-old outfielder is a tough out at the plate, with good bat-to-ball skills and a mature approach that allows for on-base ability and favorable hitting conditions. What Hoes lacks is a singular tool that grades out as plus, or an up-the-middle defensive profile, as left field is the best fit given the run and arm. The power is below average, so he’s basically a hit tool left fielder with some on-base potential and good baseball skills. That makes him an interesting player on a 25-man roster, and possibly a major league regular if the bat really plays, but the reality is probably a bench outfielder or a role 4 player.

Josh Hader is a projectable arm with a lively present fastball, working in the upper-80s/low 90s and achieving good moment from a low three-quarter slot. The fastball has plus potential, and if Hader can add to his frame and maintain his mechanics, he could offer a meaty pitch in the plus velocity range, enhanced by above-average arm-side run and sink. The curveball is an iffy pitch at present, and could morph into a slider as he develops, which will be a better fit for the arm slot and make it easier to throw for strikes. The changeup flashes some promise, but the arm speed is still inconsistent and has a long way to go.

The 19-year-old lefty is a long-term project, but the arm is interesting and the body offers some promise if he can add strength without losing any athleticism. You have to like a lengthy lefty with a lively fastball; the rest can develop over time. He’s not a high-impact prospect, but he’s a player to keep an eye on going forward, especially if the breaking ball takes a step forward or morphs into one with more consistency. If there’s one worrisome sign, it’s that the reports on his makeup haven’t been great. That can always derail a promising arm, especially if the makeup is tied to work ethic and approach to the game. —Jason Parks

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired OF-R Justin Maxwell from the Houston Astros in exchange for RHP Kyle Smith. [7/31]

When the Royals traded Wil Myers for James Shields, Jeff Passan suggested one justification for the deal:

Perhaps the most important point is why the Rays and A's wouldn't deal two years of Shields or three years of Anderson for Myers' entire pre-free agency career: He's a right fielder, and corner outfielders, while not a dime a dozen – see: Reggie Sanders, Jose Guillen, Jeff Francoeur and the misery they've unleashed upon Kansas City – are not exactly bank-breaking sorts, either. Whether it's Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel or Ryan Ludwick, it's easy to find someone cheap who can hit in a corner-outfield spot.

I’d argue it’s harder than even Passan allows, but the point has some validity. And when a Willingham, Kubel, or Ludwick isn’t available, there’s always the platoon option. It’s hard to turn two mediocre parts into one good starting pitcher, but teams turn two mediocre parts into one good corner outfielder quite frequently. Maxwell is probably someone cheap who can hit in a corner-outfield spot, with his floor being someone cheap who can hit lefties in a corner-outfield spot.

Maxwell is 29 and he has finally, this year, edged past one full year’s worth of big-league plate appearances. That’s a red flag, of course. He was a Triple-A regular as late as age 27, and his “breakout” as a regular has coincided with a variety pack of injuries: a broken hand and a concussion this year, a bone chip in his ankle last. In what amounts to one full season over two years with the Astros, he has looked good -- no, great -- in a uni, slugged 20 home runs, produced a league-average, slugging-heavy OPS, been worth 2.7 WARP, and generally graded out as an average defensive center fielder, if not a bit better. He hit a 471-foot home run. There’s swing-and-miss in his game no matter who he’s facing, but he’s a career .253/.370/.455 hitter against lefties, with a walk every six trips to the plate.

There’s versatility stacked on top of versatility there: he can start, or he can be a platooner/fourth outfielder, and if he starts he can do it at center or a corner, and if he’s a fourth outfielder he can serve as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He’ll be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason.

One interesting footnote to this move. At various points this summer, the Royals have assured us that they don’t hit home runs because it’s too hard to hit home runs in Kansas City. And that they don’t draw walks because pitchers come right at batters in Kansas City, where it’s too hard to hit home runs. This leaves, presumably, contact and batted balls as the Royals’ best offensive outlet. This is where Justin Maxwell gets his offense, since 2012:

  • HR rate: 52 percent better than league average
  • BB rate: 73 percent better than league average
  • K rate: 145 percent worse (higher) than league average
  • BABIP: 3 percent better than league average

A useful player is a useful player, and limited markets are limited markets, and Maxwell at a corner will likely help suppress the opposition’s BABIP. But if Dayton Moore really feels so strongly about the ballpark’s effects on offense you might expect him to go after a specific type of hitter, and Maxwell’s not that. —Sam Miller

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

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