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November 18, 2009

On the Beat

Midweek Update

by John Perrotto

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Zack Greinke knew he was the best pitcher in the major leagues. The Royals' right-hander's belief in his performance, though, went beyond having the confidence one needs to be an elite player at the highest level of baseball. He knew the advanced metrics said so, too.

Greinke won the American League Cy Young Award on Tuesday by a landslide, as he received 25 of the 28 first-place votes. During his conference call with members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Greinke revealed that he is an aficionado of sabermetrics.

While Greinke speaks the language of VORP and SNLVAR, he wasn't so sure those members of the BBWAA who were on the panel to vote for the Cy Young were as up on their acronyms. Thus, Greinke wondered if he might lose out to Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez.

"Felix had a great season, and his win total and loss total was that much better than mine," Greinke said. "I'm also a follower of sabermetrics, and I'm interested into going into details of what you can control as a pitcher, what you can't control and everything like that. Felix had some luck with his ERA and stuff because he had such great defense behind him. I didn't know if the writers would just look at the wins and losses and strikeouts and ERA or if they would look deeper into the stats. They did look deeper, and I appreciate that."

Cy Young voters have long used wins as their primary measuring stick, yet Greinke won despite tying for seventh in the AL with 16 victories. Hernandez, Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia, and the Tigers' Justin Verlander had 19 each to share the league lead, and the Red Sox's Josh Beckett, the Rangers' Scott Feldman, and the Blue Jays' Roy Halladay were all 18-game winners.

Hernandez wound up with two first-place votes, and Verlander got the other. Greinke clearly outpointed both in BP's popular starting pitching metrics. Greinke had a major league-best 9.4 SNLVAR, while Hernandez had 8.4 and Verlander had 7.0. Greinke's .681 SNWP also topped the majors, while Hernandez had a .634 mark and Verlander finished at .581. Greinke's 88.3 VORP was the highest among major league pitchers, while Hernandez's was 75.1 and Verlander's was 60.6.

Greinke, who was introduced to statistical analysis by Royals rotation mate Brian Bannister, had the best single-season SNLVAR since Roger Clemens also finished with 9.4 in 2006 for the Astros. No one has had a higher mark since Johan Santana's 9.6 for the 2004 Twins.

"I've thought about it a little bit," Greinke said of where his season stood relative to recent history. "I don't know exactly how it happened. I had a streak of a lot of good luck early and that helped me find my confidence. I started to pitch really good and really stayed in a good groove all season."

Greinke did not allow an earned run in his first four starts, a span of 29 innings, and his ERA did not go over 1.00 until his 11th start on May 31. He finished with a 2.16 ERA and had quality starts in 26 of his 33 outings.

It would seemingly be hard for Greinke to top his 2009 season but the 26-year-old, feels he has room to grow. "There still some things I can improve upon," Greinke said. "I still make a bunch of mistakes during the game. I'm not quite there when it comes to repeating my mechanics the way I should. I'm getting a little tired here and there and not staying as strong in every game during the course of the year as I could."

Greinke has proven to be a quick learner. He said he had conversations with two of the top starting pitchers in the major leagues, who he declined to name, during the 2008 season, and both told him the key to success was focusing solely on the next pitch and forgetting what happened on the pitch before.

"One has what you would call great stuff and the other doesn't, but they both have the same approach," Greinke said. "My main goal this season was to focus on every pitch and not give in to any batter, every game to be as focused as I could. I felt if I didn't make mistakes and had the same mindset for every pitch and every occasion that I could be successful."

The downside to winning the Cy Young, though, is that Greinke will become more visible. He has social anxiety disorder, and admittedly is uncomfortable with personal interaction. In fact, he gave an amazingly honest answer about how he would react to possibly becoming famous. "I hope it's not like everyone will start coming up to me and saying, 'Hey Zack, hi,'" Greinke said. "I hope it doesn't end up being that way. I don't like a lot of attention."

---

While projection systems like PECOTA take a lot of guesswork out of making predictions, one of the great things about baseball is no one can ever be totally sure what will happen during the course of the season.

For example, it is extremely doubtful that anyone had the exact winning ticket of Athletics reliever Andrew Bailey winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award, and Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan capturing the same honor in the NL back when spring training started. Both players spent 2008 at Double-A and were not expected to make an impact in the major leagues in 2009.

"It was the last thing on my mind," Bailey said. "It was the first time I had ever been invited to major league spring training. All I was hoping to do was to make a good impression on the major league staff and maybe get a call-up later in the season if they needed someone to pitch out of the bullpen."

Coghlan had been a second baseman throughout his career, and figured he would spend the year at Triple-A New Orleans rather than making 120 starts in left field for the big league club. However, everything changed when rookie center fielder Cameron Maybin struggled and was shipped to New Orleans on May 8. The Marlins reshuffled their outfield by calling up Coghlan, moved right fielder Cody Ross to center field, and shifted left fielder Jeremy Hermida to right.

"I got called into the office (at New Orleans) and was told I was going to learn how to play left field," Coghlan said. "I played one day there, and the next day I was in the major leagues. It happened so fast. I could have never envisioned it happening that way."

Bailey wound up moving into the closer's role with the Athletics and had 26 saves and a 1.84 ERA in 83 1/3 innings while ranking eighth in the AL with 4.118 WXRL. Coghlan hit .320/.390/.460 with a .294 EqA in 565 plate appearances. Bailey seemed the logical choice in the AL based on BP metrics, as he led all major league rookies with 6.0 WARP1 and AL first-year players with a 36.5 VORP.

However, Coghlan's choice is certainly open for debate when looked at under the WARP1 and VORP prism. Coghlan finished fifth among NL rookies with 34.5 VORP and seventh with 2.7 WARP1. Phillies left-hander J.A. Happ was the VORP leader with 46.7, and Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen was first in WARP1 with 5.0.

---

The theory has been posited that left fielder Matt Holliday, the most coveted free agent on this offseason's market, will re-sign with the Cardinals because Mark McGwire has been hired as St. Louis' hitting coach. McGwire has been away from the baseball spotlight since his retirement following the 2001 season, but he and Holliday have worked together over the years. They first met in 2006 when Holliday was playing for the Rockies and Mike Gallego, McGwire's former teammate with the Athletics, was Colorado's third-base coach. Holliday and his family rented a house in Malibu last winter, in part to get away from all the trade rumors that were dogging him in Denver, but also so he could again work on his hitting with McGwire.

However, Holliday's agent, Scott Boras, said last week during the general managers' meetings in Chicago that McGwire actually wound up hindering his client. Holliday, who was living in Malibu when he was traded to the Athletics, hit .228/.276/.376 with three home runs in his first 24 games and 108 plate appearances in the AL. "After five weeks, (Holliday) went back to his old stance," Boras said. "From that point on, he was the same player he has always been."

Holliday went on to finish the season with a combined .313/.387/.545 line with 24 home runs in 156 games and 670 plate appearances with the Athletics and Cardinals. Boras was referring to McGwire advising Holliday to ditch the leg kick in his swing during their winter sessions. Once Holliday went back to the leg kick in early May, his production picked up.

However, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold points out that it is not entirely accurate to say that McGwire messed up Holliday's swing. Instead, Holliday takes responsibility for making the change. "I thought it I could minimize (the leg kick) or tone it down, maybe even go to a stride that I could be more consistent," Holliday told Goold in August. "It worked really well in the cage and during soft toss and so I stuck with it for awhile. Once the games rolled around, it was better and I had better timing with it. I was trying to eliminate it still at the beginning of the season. I got off to a rough start and had to go back to what I was comfortable doing.

Holliday elaborated, "It is what McGwire suggested, but I made the decision to try it. I started doing it back in 2005 or 2006. I started doing it because I had a hard time staying back. My body wanted to come forward. It just allowed me to gather myself and my swing. It's more about staying on your backside and not coming forward. It's more of a timing thing than anything else."

Holliday said the decision to eliminate the leg kick was made in an attempt to give him a better chance of covering the whole plate by beginning his swing later. However, Holliday said he talked to McGwire in early May, and the former slugger said it was time to go back to the leg kick, even though it looks awkward. "It's not that I'm swinging hard, but when I'm going good, it looks violent," Holliday said. "It doesn't feel violent."

---

In the case of McGwire, we have seen how being suspected of using steroids has greatly damaged his Hall of Fame candidacy. He hasn't come close to getting the 75 percent of the vote necessary from members of the BBWAA with 10 or more years of service to gain induction at Cooperstown.

This winter, we will find out how much spitting hurts a candidate. Roberto Alomar will be on the ballot, which will be mailed to voters next month, for the first time. The former second baseman is seemingly a strong candidate, as he was a 12-time All-Star and won 10 Gold Gloves.

However, Alomar is also remembered for an ugly incident on September 27, 1996, while playing for the Orioles: he spit in the face of home-plate umpire John Hirschbeck after being called out on strikes. Alomar defended himself at the time by saying Hirschbeck used a slur on him. Alomar also said Hirschbeck had been acting irrationally because he had one son die of a rare disease called adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) and another who had been stricken with it.

Major League Baseball suspended Alomar for the first five games of the 1997 season, and he donated $50,000 to ALD research. Alomar and Hirschbeck later made amends and the umpire, who was on sick leave at the end of this past season while he battled cancer, said he bears no grudges. "I sincerely hope the writers are able to look past that one incident," Hirschbeck told the New York Daily News' Bill Madden. "I certainly have. It's long over with and a lot more good has come out of it than you can ever believe. If that was to cost Robbie the Hall of Fame, I would feel awful. When I was diagnosed with cancer, Robbie was one of the first people to call me to see how I was. I have to say if the spitting incident was the worst thing Robbie ever did, then he's lived a real good life."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: It appears the Mets are indeed going to be major players in the market this winter, as they plan to target Holliday to play left field, with Jason Bay their second option, and Chone Figgins, who would move from third base if signed, being their fall-back if they land neither of the sluggers. They also are expected to make aggressive bids on right-handers John Lackey and Joel Pineiro. Even though Dodgers manager Joe Torre has scrapped his plans to retire after next season and now looks likely to stay through 2011, hitting coach Don Mattingly remains in line to be his successor. Mark DeRosa, because of his versatility and power, is expected to draw plenty of offers as soon as teams can begin talking money on Friday. In terms of the number of teams interested, he will likely be the most popular player on the market. The Orioles have interest in right-hander Braden Looper and third baseman Pedro Feliz as free agents. The White Sox would like to sign free-agent catcher Henry Blanco, though the Padres want to retain him.

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

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