November 4, 2013
Your New Favorite Player
You’re a bit of a flirt, you know that? It’s always a new favorite player with you. Right now it’s Koji Uehara, but before that it was Billy Hamilton, and before that it was Evan Gattis, and there was your Altuve phase, your spring fling with Yoenis Cespedes, your Romo romance, your affairin’ with Haren, your je t’aimes with Tiny Tims. You hooked up with Mike Trout and Zack Greinke before they were household names, with Kyle Blanks and Wily Mo Pena before they weren’t household names. You’ve dated defenders (Franklin Gutierrez, Peter Bourjos) and you’ve cuddled with clods (Jack Cust, Matt Stairs). You’re demanding, but you’re not particularly discerning.
You and Uehara had a good thing, and you'll never forget his 89-percent strike rate in three-ball counts. But while you’ll never stop loving him, your guys’ relationship has probably peaked. Now your mom is starting to ask you about him, and once that happens it’s time for a new squeeze, one your mom knows nothing about. Who will your favorite player be next year? A few suggestions:
One thing that has always swept you off your feet is hard stuff. You like fastballs that go right down the middle and get swinging strikes; you like fastballs that set off the TV broadcast’s little flame graphic on the velo display. You like fastballs that touch 100 to close out the seventh inning. You’re keeping an eye on Nathan Eovaldi, he of the fastest average heater from a starter, but the rest of his performance (whiff rates, K rates, FIP, etc) suggest that he’s nothing but glamour muscles. You definitely like Danny Salazar, with the highest whiff rate on heat. But you’ll probably be crushing on Wily Peralta, whose fastball was (among starters with 100 innings) the fourth fastest in the league, behind only three of your celebrity crushes: Strasburg, Harvey, Fernandez. Peralta probably sucks, but he bumped his strikeout rate by about 60 percent in the second half, and the probability of sucking is what will make you love him so much when he starts April 6-0 with 50 strikeouts. That he’s about six months away from outfatting Bartolo Colon will just make you love him more.
One thing that has always knocked your socks off is a ridiculous relief line. You’ll forgive a lot of sins if a relief line gets fancy enough: Fernando Rodney, of all people, put a plantain in your pocket, for goodness sakes. The toughest part of the pursuit is that—with the exception of past flames Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen, who you’ve moved on from—it’s practically impossible to see the fanciest relief line coming. Best bet this year: you’re going to be all over Sergio Santos. Santos does all the things you love to see in a fancy relief line: his K/BB rate of 7 in 2013 actually undersells him, as half of his walks were intentional. So, really: 28 strikeouts, two walks. From August 18th on, he was reborn as an Ueharaesque strike thrower, getting strikes on 75 percent of his pitches and allowing all of three hits over the final six weeks of the season. Somebody’s going to have a sub-1 ERA with 40 strikeouts and one walk through June, and you’re going quit your job and move across the country to be with him. Maybe it won’t be Santos, but boy oh boy, maybe it will be.
One thing that has always lit your fire is a strong personal narrative of perseverance and triumph. You loved Daniel Nava from day one, and of course we all went through our awkward Erik Kratz phase. Colabello has that: undrafted out of college, he played seven seasons in the independent leagues. Seven! Nava had just one year in the indy leagues which, in terms of time served, makes him Paris Hilton to Colabello’s Nelson Mandela. But, you’ll say, because you’re always trying to put guys like Colabello into the friend zone, Colabello got his shot in the majors and sucked. Not like Nava, who arrived banging. But, while you remember Nava’s debut, the grand slam in his hometown and the hot first week that followed it, Nava immediately afterward became terrible:
- Nava, final 55 games of rookie season: .217/.337/.301
- Colabello, 55 games in rookie season: .194/.287/.344
There’s always a moment in the movie when, after slowly but methodically overcoming obstacles, the hero hits a low that is so low you can’t imagine him coming out of it alive. Five minutes later, though, he’s outside your window with a boom box. Nava could hit, and eventually did hit, and was briefly your favorite player again. Colabello can hit. He hit .352/.427/.639 in Triple-A, leading the International League in all three of those numbers. When the Twins send out a tweet in late June reminding you to vote 25 times for Colabello to make the All-Star game, you’ll create a fake email account so you can vote 50.
One thing that has always turned your engine over is a guy who just follows his passion and doesn’t care much whether he gets recognition for it. All season, Yan Gomes went woefully unmentioned in the Rookie of the Year conversation, even though all season he led AL rookies in the total-value stats. Sure, Gomes was ineligible for the award because he had spent too many days on the big-league roster the year before, but that doesn’t matter; almost nobody realized he was ineligible for the award and they still didn’t champion him. You love catchers. Catchers remind you of your dad, but not your actual dad; the idealized version of your dad that you gave up on in your 20s and have longed for ever since. You’re probably in love with Sal Perez right now. You’re probably in love with Jonathan Lucroy right now. You’ve been chasing Molinas your whole life. (Why can’t you catch them? They’re so slow. It’s a paradox!) You are going to be in love with Derek Norris by the end of the season. Someday you’ll realize that the love of your life is a catcher who has been in your life this whole time, and you were just too caught up in your career to realize it. (Spoiler: It’s Ryan Hanigan.) This year, though, is the year you fall for Yan Gomes: strong-armed power-hitting catcher who can frame a pitch, leg out a triple, and stand in as the lead anecdote of an article praising the Cleveland Indians’ brilliant front office.
One thing that has always replaced your ink cartridge is a guy with unusual physical dimensions. And one thing that has always zested your lemon is a flawed player who you sense could be stealthily valuable if deployed exactly right. Freiman is both! He’s the tallest position player (as listed) in history, or at least as tall as previous record holder Tony Clark; by the end of the season, you will have started a meme involving pictures of Freiman ducking under the dugout ceiling. He is also a flawed player: Rule 5'd away from the Padres last season, then waived by the Astros, and forced to stay on the 96-win A's roster all season because of his Rule 5 status. He was 26 on Opening Day and had never played a game higher than Double-A. But these are Freiman’s lines against lefties in his career:
- 2010: .347/.403/.581 (Midwest League)
- 2011: .347/.433/.603 (California League)
- 2012: .348/.434/.643 (Texas League)
- 2013: .304/.353/.453 (American League)
That last line is good but nothing to get your attention, but, again, that’s after skipping Triple-A completely and landing in a brutal park for hitters. So here’s an outlandish prediction to spark this romance: Nate Freiman will lead the majors in OPS (minimum 100 plate appearances) this year. He will have 104 plate appearances, because the A’s will deploy him perfectly. You’re going to love that line.
Of these five, four will let you down, but finding the wrong favorite players is how you eventually find the right favorite players. You’ll also find time to go on dates with Khris Davis, Caleb Gindl, Jenrry Mejia, Avisail Garcia, Cory Burns, Jason Heyward, Starling Marte, maybe even a resurgent Koji clone Edward Mujica. People might judge you for getting around, but you know that life is for the living, and for the loving.
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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