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December 12, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Twins Find Their Identical Match

by Ben Lindbergh

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American League
National League

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Signed RHP Kevin Correia to a two-year, $10 million contract. [12/11]

Inflation isn’t always most striking in the salaries of baseball’s top players. Sometimes it’s the price hikes at the bottom of the market that make you recalibrate your sense of what players get paid. Yes, Zack Greinke got a little more money per season than any previous pitcher had, but Greinke getting really rich wasn’t unexpected. Kevin Correia cashing in, though—that’s when baseball’s new TV-money-mad market really starts to register.

The 32-year-old Correia has never made more than $4 million in a season. His last contract called for two years and $8 million, and since he signed it, he’s been pitching like Kevin Correia, only much more so. The team that gave it to him, the Pirates, were buyers at the trade deadline, but they still wanted to move him. They failed to find any takers, even with only $1 million remaining on his deal. Now he’s receiving a raise.

Embedded within the Twins website story about the signing is a video entitled “Correia’s nine strikeouts.” So low has Correia’s strikeout rate been over the past two seasons—tied for last with Clayton Richard among starters who’ve thrown 300 innings—that at first glance I assumed the video included every Correia strikeout from 2012.* As Sam Miller pointed out on Twitter, one of Correia’s most comparable players, according to Baseball-Reference, is Carl Pavano.** He’s a veteran, he throws 91, and he has good control. In other words, he fits perfectly on the family tree of Twins pitchers. They just don’t make pitchers more Minnesotan than this one.

*The nine strikeouts were all from one start, actually, but that start came against the Astros. And now casual Twins fans who clicked on that page are all telling their friends, “You gotta check out this guy we got, Kevin Correia. Some sort of strikeout artist!”

**Correia’s most comparable players at BP are Tomo Ohka, Jason Johnson, and John Burkett, which isn’t quite as funny but is just as depressing for Twins fans.

There is not a bit of black ink in Correia’s historical stat lines. He’s never received an award vote, so his awards column at B-Ref is completely empty except for his appearance in the 2011 All-Star Game, which looks even funnier when you see it sitting all alone:

Correia, by the way, had an ERA of 4.01 with a strikeout rate of 4.6/9 before that All-Star break, which should teach aspiring replacement-level pitchers an important lesson: if you play for the Pirates, always ask your agent to include an All-Star incentive clause.

According to WARP, Correia was below replacement level last season, and in the two seasons before that, and in three other seasons before that, and, on the whole, has been for his whole career. It’s fair to ask why a team would want to employ Kevin Correia at any price, let alone a high one. You can kind of see it for a team like the Twins, who can hardly fill out a rotation even after adding him and appreciate the fact that he’s never had a serious arm injury and will probably show up for work, as mixed a blessing as that might be. But, boy, talk about your low-upside signings.

The Twins had the lowest staff strikeout rate and third-lowest average fastball last season, and signing Correia is a good way to ensure that they don’t raise those rates any higher in 2013. At the minor-league level, the Twins have lately seemed to be pursuing a new type of pitcher, something I plan to write about soon. But in the big-league rotation, it’s still Correias all the way down.

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Signed 3B-R Kevin Youkilis to a one-year, $12 million contract. [12/11]

This is the sort of signing that separates the hyperemotional fans from the objective analysts. Some Yankees fans developed an almost pathological aversion to Kevin Youkilis during his time with the Red Sox, and that subsection of the populace won’t be pleased to see him in pinstripes, however empty third base would otherwise be in Alex Rodriguez’ absence. Then again, Yankees fans have had to get over their anti-Boston bias before. And maybe they won’t recognize Youkilis without his goatee.

At $12 million, Youkilis didn’t come particularly cheap (unless you compare him to Kevin Correia). But even the banged-up 33-year-old model, who suffered no fewer than 10 day-to-day injuries to seven different body parts (plus a DL stint) last season, was an above-average hitter at third, where New York’s other options had dwindled. He might not be the walker he once was, but he still has the patient approach the Yankees favor: only three hitters with at least 500 trips to the plate saw more pitches per appearance.

Youkilis will play as close to every day as his body allows until Rodriguez returns, after which he’ll rotate between third, first, and DH. If his precipitous BABIP decline over the past few seasons owed anything to bad luck, as opposed to advancing age, increasing infirmity, and rising groundball rate (not a positive trend for someone as slow as Youkilis), there might even be a bit of a bounceback in his bat. Only 14 qualified hitters had a BABIP lower than Youkilis’ last year, though his was higher than those of Curtis Granderson and shift victim Mark Teixeira.

Like every signing the team has made so far this offseason, the Youkilis deal is for one year and a player well past 30. (Relative to the rest of the group, Youk is actually on the young side.) The Yankees really seems to be serious about getting under that $189 million payroll mark, and evidently, they don’t care how old they have to get to do it. At this rate, though, the roster might succumb to natural causes before 2014.

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Signed 3B-R Jack Hannahan to a one-year, $2 million contract. [12/12]

Todd Frazier used to be Cincinnati’s backup infielder, but with Scott Rolen off the roster, Frazier will finally have a starting spot to himself. So now the Reds need someone to back up their former backup, and that’s where Hannahan comes in. The 32-year-old can play any infield position (other than catcher) in a pinch, though he’s primarily a (slick-fielding) third baseman. Despite limited duty, Hannahan has racked up 27 FRAA in the past two seasons, more than anyone else at the hot corner except Brett Lawrie (whose rating may have been bumped up by the shift). Patience is his primary offensive virtue—to the extent that he hits, he hits lefty, which should make it easier for Dusty Baker to find him some spot starts in relief of the right-handed Frazier.

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Reportedly traded SS-R Jake Lemmerman in exchange for OF/2B-L Skip Schumaker. [12/11]

Before they traded for Skip Schumaker and his cute $1.5 million contract, the Dodgers’ deep-pocketed owners weren’t even aware that salaries came that small. Schumaker is a fourth outfielder who can also stand at second and exude all the scrappiness and postseason experience playoff contenders hold dear. Matt Carpenter’s emergence made Schumaker expendable in St. Louis—well, more expendable than he already was by virtue of being Skip Schumaker—and with Adam Kennedy on the open market, the Dodgers pounced on a potential replacement, reportedly on the recommendation of new hitting coach Mark McGwire. Schumaker can’t hit lefties (seriously, not even slightly), but he makes contact and will take a walk, which makes him less of an offensive zero than most utility types. His .345 career OBP is pretty, though he has almost no power.

According to BP alum Mike Petriello, the Dodgers gave up Jake Lemmerman, a 23-year-old shortstop (for now, though he’s already seeing time at other positions and will be a second baseman long term). Lemmerman, a fifth-round pick from 2010, hit .233/.347/.378 for Double-A Chattanooga last season. He’ll probably never be as successful as Skip Schumaker, which isn’t that nice a thing to say about a professional baseball player.

Coming so soon after the Greinke deal, the Schumaker trade seems even less significant, but not every move can make headlines or break payroll records. Rounding out the roster with useful bench parts is boring, but it’s part of successful team-building, too.

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Signed RHP Jason Grilli to a two-year, $6.75 million contract. [12/10]

As I wrote recently, there’s no one more emblematic of baseball’s rising strikeout rate than Grilli. Six years ago, in roughly as many innings as he pitched in 2012, Grilli averaged one strikeout every other inning. Last season, he averaged a strikeout and a half every inning. Grilli’s K rate has risen in every season since 2005, beginning at “embarrassing” and moving past “respectable” into “elite” territory.  Last week, William Juliano wrote about Grilli’s newfound bat-missing ability at the Pinstriped Bible. Among the statistical quirks Juiano came up with: the difference between Grilli’s highest and lowest single-season strikeout rates is the largest ever for any pitcher with at least 50 innings in each. He’s also only the third over-30 hurler to strike out over 13 batters per nine innings, and the oldest to record a rate as high as his was last season.

Even if Grilli’s strikeout success is to some extent a sign of the times, his K percentage improvement is too dramatic to be explained by rising league-wide rates alone. So how has he done it? Looking at stats alone, it’s mostly a mystery. Grilli’s fastball averaged 94.3 miles per hour in 2012, up from 93.1 the previous season. So it has to be his velocity, right? No, not really. In 2007, Grilli’s four-seamer averaged 94.6 in a significant sample, and he struck batters out at roughly half the rate he did last season. Okay, so maybe it’s his slider, which seems to be sharper than ever: it moved half as much horizontally five years ago as it did in 2012. But while Grilli’s slider whiff rate has risen, his fastball whiff rate has risen by roughly the same amount, with no corresponding change in movement. Maybe Grilli is simply hitting his spots more regularly than he used to, though if so, his control hasn’t improved along with his command.

Whatever the explanation—which probably merits a longer article that no one would read—Grilli has done something historic. When we see a player do something anomalous, our natural tendency is to trust it a little less. Some people blame it on steroids; others just regress it, unscientifically, to some sort of mental mean. Either way, we assume it won’t last. But baseball teams don’t seem to be operating under the assumption that Grilli’s strikeouts have a short shelf life. The righty got the highest-leverage outings in the Pirates’ pen in the second half of last season, and if Jon Heyman is to be believed, 10 teams believed in him enough to express interest this winter.

Want one more Grilli tidbit as unusual as his aging curve? The 36-year-old reportedly turned down larger offers to stay in Pittsburgh.

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

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