Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jake Takes On: Sam Fuld, Rays Outfielder and Fellow Stat-head

This offseason has been a very interesting one, with the signings and numerous trades that have occured. One of which being the trade that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs. Many people look at that trade and just think it was Matt Garza and a couple of players to the Cubs for 5 prospects, but in reality it involved 2 of the brightest minds in baseball. Those 2 bright minds are Fernando Perez and Sam Fuld.

In the past, Sam did an interview with Baseball Prospectus and showed baseball fans that Brian Bannister wasn't the only player in the majors that is a "stat-head". After getting traded to the Rays, Sam did a podcast with Jonah Keri and it basically made me put Sam's name at the top of the list of people I'd like to interview. I was able to get into contact with him and he obliged my wishes to interview him. I've got to say that this interview has got to be one of my personal favorites that I've done as a blogger.

So sit down with your cup of coffee, mountain dew, what-have-you and enjoy!

Jake- For Rays fans who aren't familiar with you, who is Sam Fuld? What position do you play and what special skillsets do you feel that you give to the Rays?

Sam- I've always been an overachiever who gets the most out of his physical ability. Ever since I was in high school, I've known that I would have to do the little things to get noticed by recruiters, scouts, etc. My style of play hasn't changed, so you'll see me diving for balls in the outfield, taking an extra base on the basepaths and doing whatever I can to get on base.

JL- You come from the same hometown as Jonah Keri, who is a fan-favorite writer of Rays fans. How did you end up playing baseball, rather than football or hockey(2 sports that are more frequently played in a Northeastern state like New Hampshire).

SF- It's not that people don't play baseball in New Hampshire, it's just that the season is so short. Baseball is very popular there, and with both of my parents being fans, playing baseball was a no-brainer for me as a child. Our town actually didn't have a youth football program, so I played soccer along with everyone else. I played basketball, too, which was a horrible decision given my (lack of) height.

JL- You've shared stories of your childhood, in which you'd calculate baseball stats at a very young age. Which were your favorite stats then? Now, especially with your more sabermetrically-inclined background, what is a favorite baseball stat? Is it a traditional stat or a Baseball Prospectus-esque stat?

SF- I think like most fans back in the '80s and '90s I fell in love with the batting average. I just remember being so amazed that Wade Boggs could hit .360 year in and year out. Now there are a lot of new stats that I find interesting, especially the ones on the defensive side like UZR and +/-. But I would say my favorite stat is runs scored. Sometimes with all these new metrics it's easy to lose sight of how to win baseball games (by scoring more runs than the other team). It may not the most accurate measure of a player's success, but it's still something I pay close to attention to.

JL- You may not have the prototypical body or size of most big leaguers, but players like that(Pedroia, Pudge Rodriguez) always seem to use that as a "chip" on their shoulders and end up becoming huge stars. Do you use "trash-talk" regarding your smaller stature as fuel to make you a better player and makes you play harder?

SF- I don't know if I ever had a chip on my shoulder, but I was always realistic with myself. I knew that with my size I would have to work and play that much harder to be successful.

JL- You are one of the currently major leaguers who play with diabetes. How do you go about that? You've said in past interviews that you check levels during the game, but do you also receive insulin treatments during games?

SF- I check my blood sugar with a finger-poke several times during a game. If necessary (my blood sugar is too high), I'll give myself an insulin injection, as well. While I'm playing, my goal is to keep my blood sugar in the 150 range, which is slightly higher than what non-diabetics keep theirs in. It's when my levels get below 80 that I start to feel weak, shaky, irritable, etc.

JL- Most people don't know this, but you are the son of a college administrator and also a senator. Do you have any ideas of what you'd like to do post-baseball? Would you like to dabble in politics? School admin.? Stats Inc.?

SF- Two of the three interest me. I don't ever see myself getting into politics (no offense, Mom) but I've always been intrigued by the notion of teaching/coaching or by staying in the game on the stats side. Like so many other ballplayers, I would also be interested in working in the front office a Major League organization. Hopefully not too soon, though!

JL- How and when were you notified that you were traded to the Rays? Did Hendry/your agent call you first or did Andrew Friedman?

SF- Jim Hendry first contacted me about the trade, and just a couple hours later I spoke with Andrew Friedman. By the afternoon, the news had leaked publicly and that's when all my family and friends began contacting me.

JL- I could be wrong, but I believe that there was a story that a sign saying "Moonlight Graham" was hung above your locker in your earlier days with the Cubs. Did you ever feel that you were going to have that happen to you or were you assured that you'd definitely get at-bats in the long-run?

SF- That September was my first big-league experience, and I knew my role that month was going to be as a pinch-runner and late inning defensive replacement. But let me tell you that those first two and a half weeks before I got an AB felt like two and a half years. I was so fired up when I finally got an AB that I missed a take sign, weakly grounded back to the pitcher and got yelled at by Lou coming back to the dugout. Not how I had planned it.

JL- You were part of a trade that involved fellow super-scholar athlete, Fernando Perez. Have you ever met 'Nando and talked to him? I'm sure a convo between the 2 of you could be about a wide variety of subjects.

SF- I've never met him. I remember playing against him in AA and being really jealous of how fast he was. He also hit the first pitch of a game over the CF fence, and I remember thinking, "I'll never be able to do that in my entire career."

JL- You have also been most known for your gutsy leaps and defensive play, do you ever get a sinking feeling in your stomach that you're going to crash hard into a wall or do you just play "balls-out" and let whatever happens happen?

SF- My mindset is simple when a ball is hit to me. I try to get to it as quickly as possible, and any collateral damage I suppose I'll have to deal with later. It makes for some ugly collisions, but I've lived to tell about them

JL- With your love of baseball stats since childhood and your internship at Stats Inc. as a reporter, how hard is it to turn off the analyst switch on the field? I'm sure that the video-reviewing can be either a positive or a negative for a hitter. Does your past help you or hinder you when slumps possibly occur? Does it make things easier to identify?

SF- I think video analysis and statistical analysis are two completely different things. I'll use video to look at mechanics, but I never use stats to lift me out of a slump- there's just not enough of a sample size for it to be worthwhile. When I'm on the field, it's easy for me to shut off the stats aspect of baseball.

JL- Can you explain your approach in a normal at-bat? Are you a "grinder", in which you "take" with balls you see that are very much out of the strikezone and foul off pitches until you get the pitch you want to hit? Or do you just look for pitches that you can hit?

SF- Outside of specific RBI situations, my goal is to get on base however I can. I think you have to strike a balance with aggressiveness and patience at the plate, so I'll never go up there looking to just take pitches. I'm always ready to hit a pitch that's left out over the plate, but certain situations definitely call for being a little more patient (e.g. wild pitcher, new pitcher, I don't feel too good at the plate).

JL- What is something about you that many baseball fans don't know about you?

SF- I'm not sure many baseball fans know anything about me, so I guess that's kind of an easy question. But I always like to point out that my wife is actually a better athlete than me. She won two college national championships as a goalie in lacrosse.

JL- Who was your favorite baseball player growing up?

SF- Growing up a Red Sox fan, I always loved Wade Boggs, Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks. Later on I loved watching Nomar Garciaparra.

JL- You had quite a Winter League stint in your past, in which you were tops/or near-tops in batting average while walking twice as many times as you did striking out. Did you have any trouble adjusting to playing in a foreign country, where english isn't the primary language?

SF- The culture shock wore off after about two weeks in Venezuela, and after that I really felt comfortable. I knew some Spanish from school and from playing with so many Spanish-speaking ballplayers in the U.S., so that helped. But I made a point to immerse myself in their culture and by the end I loved arepas and their national anthem and even the not-so-warm showers.

JL- How do you spend your offseason and when do you start preparing for the season?

SF- Every offseason has been markedly different from the previous, but this one I spent buying a home in Jupiter, FL and then trying to furnish it. We're not far from the beach, so my wife and I will go over there quite a bit with our one-year-old son. I hit the weight room pretty soon after the season ends, and I start throwing and hitting right around the New Year.

JL- If you weren't playing baseball, you'd be...

SF- Teaching high school math and coaching JV basketball.

JL- Any passing comments that you'd like to leave with Rays/Cubs/baseball fans?

SF- Playing in Wrigley was an unbelievable experience, one that I'll surely miss. It was a rush every time I stepped onto the field there, and those fans had a large part in that. I'm looking forward to hopefully playing in Tampa Bay and helping them continue their recent success.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Moneyballin' 2: Draft Pick Boogaloo?

With the Yankees decision to change their mind on not giving up a 1st round pick on any remaining Free Agent, it gave the Rays a grand total of 9 draft picks before the start of the 2nd round of the 2011 MLB Draft. Nine picks is insane, but if a team that picks after the 18th pick decided to sign Grant will give the Rays 11 picks before the 2nd round.

Why is this post-worthy, you ask? Well, there was a book written about the last time that a team cornered a draft's early rounds. Oakland had their infamous "Moneyball" Draft, in which they basically changed baseball's ways of thinking(or aired out sabermetric's secrets to the public, depending on who you're asking) by having an insane amount of picks early on.

How did the A's(and now the Rays) get so many draft picks? Well, they used MLB's collective bargaining agreement to their advantage. As of right now, teams aren't allowed to trade picks or anything with where you pick, but the current CBA has "draft pick compensation" for teams who lose Type A and Type B Free Agents. Type A Free Agents net the team that they are departing a 1st round pick(as long as its not in the Top 15 picks, which are considered "protected". Otherwise, it's a 2nd or 3rd round pick. Also if a team signs multiple Type As, picks are decided by Elias Free Agent Rankings) and a Supplemental round pick. Type B Free Agents give the FA's former team a pick in the Supplemental round.

By the Rays offering arbitration to Rafael Soriano(Type A), Carl Crawford(A), Grant Balfour(A), Brad Hawpe(B), Chad Qualls(B) and Randy Choate(B) and all players declining arbitration, they netted a 1st round pick #s 24 and 31 from Boston and New York(Yankees) for the signings of Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano and 5 supplemental picks(for Soriano, Crawford, Hawpe, Qualls and Choate signings). Grant Balfour has a chance, albeit a small one, to add to the 1st round total and will definitely add to the supplemental total. However, rumors have him returning to Rays.

Again, why the hoopla and the reasoning behind this blog post?

Well, according to many sources, the 2011 MLB Draft Class is considered to be the deepest draft class in regards to "premium" talent and it's believed to be the last draft class under the current CBA Draft Pick Compensation and Signing Bonus rules. Oh, did I forget to mention the signing bonus rules? Right now, MLB's signing bonuses aren't regulated by rules. The MLB currently gives team "slot recommendations" on what the signing bonus SHOULD be. It's usually what the average of the last 3 yrs of that pick #s bonus amount is, plus/minus 10-15%. However, teams can and will go waaaaay above "slot" to sign the player. More often then not, picks after the 1st round are "over-slot" signings if they're HS-aged players.

So what better way to celebrate the end of how a small-market team can use CBA's rules and regulations to their advantage, than to get as many early draft picks in a "LOADED" draft-class and go insane with signing bonuses? The Rays currently have the 2nd best Farm System in baseball, according to Baseball America, but they can surpass the KC and put a large margin between the 2 teams with a "good"-to-"great" Draft Class. For the Rays, this could mean that the Rays will continually stay in contention by mixing college and HS players. Oh yeah, there's 49 additional rounds after these 9 picks. 58 picks in 1 draft and usually 30-35 are signed.

Little Known Fact to leave readers with: Before the 2010 draft, the Rays never had compensation draft picks for lost Free Agents. Ever.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Crossed Wires: How Timing, Scouting and Bad Analysis Can Effect Perception

Last Friday, a trade broke between the Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays. Great news for this blog, seeing as these are 2 of the 3 teams that I focus on in it. From the looks of things and depending on who is trying to "spin" the trade, it sure looked like Jim Hendry and the Cubs had pulled a fast one on Andrew Friedman of the Rays. In the offseason, games are played in front offices with agents and between GMs.

Ask anybody who gets their sports news from ESPN and ignores pure scouting analysis or sabermetrics, you'd think that the Rays are continuing an offseason-long "firesale". Plenty of Yankee and Red Sox fans believe that the nightmare that kept on haunting both storied franchises is over and done with, the Rays were no longer a championship-calibur team in their eyes. Yet Keith Law and Peter Gammons, both great baseball minds in their own rights, view the trades in wider scopes and see things in different light.

The Tampa Bay Rays aren't "re-building" at all, it's more like re-loading and re-allocating of assets and returning to what got them to the World Series in the first place. The Rays didn't forget where they came from, why should they anyways? A new ownership group who went into this new venture with a singularity mentality that they implemented organization-wide. When you're not going to out-spend or over-spend to get players, you have to find ways to attract Free Agents to buying into this thought and knowing that the team will always be in flux. "Franchise" players will leave for money, the team will decide to trade a player before their dollar value surpasses their projected statistical value and that there's a prospect(or 2) in the minors waiting for a chance to replace the veteran while the team is smart enough to limit the blow on the aforementioned prospect's arbitration clock.

Being "cheap" is a perception, as is being "savvy" and "smart" with your money/assets. Tom Ricketts probably has been called "cheap" a few times in his former life on Wall Street, Stu Sternberg might've as well. When you're running a business, its something you got be or do. If you're a reader of Tampa Bay Rays msg boards, there's a few times during an offseason in which Stu Sternberg/Andrew Friedman are called "cheap" in tirades, rants and diatribes by fans. Sometimes the readers have justifiable reasons why they're calling either Stu or Andrew that, but there's always been a smidgen of distrust surrounding both men.

You have 3 men who worked with each other in Wall Street decide to use their business smarts to run a baseball team in Florida. When you lived through the hell-ish era of the Vince Naimoli-Chuck LaMar regime and then see the team sold to a group from NY, the joy of change is quickly replaced by pessimism and skepticism on how deep the ties to the area really are. In fact, when the new regime declares a rebranding of the franchise and eliminates the location and/or region from merchandise to 80% of it...You can start being cautious about supporting the franchise's efforts to break the lease of the current stadium and have a brand new one built to support the winning franchise that the new regime had put together without spending much (if any) of their own money.

Rays fans have enjoyed the last 3 years of the team: 2 Divisional Champions, tons of All-Star Representation and the right players getting paid with long-term deals. However, fans went into the 2010 season knowing that ownership was going to slash it by 25 to 30 MIL at the end of season and some of the "important" players that helped lead to 3 consecutive "winning" seasons would be gone and almost urged to explore Free Agency. The 2010 season and the timing of the payroll-slashing comments, just so happen to be occurring during a recession in an area that had already dealt with an increase in unemployment. While the team was a force on the field, fans would rather watch on tv than in-person. Nationally televised games magnified the attendance woes. Gave national media reason to blast the team again like they were back to their losing ways.

Enter: The Starting Pitcher Logjam and the Shields Vs. Garza Trade Debate

Going into the 2011 season, it was clear to the Rays front office that one of the non-David Price pitchers in the rotation would be dealt to clear themselves of the logjam they had. Wunderkid Jeremy Hellickson showed enough in his allotted starts to cause some speculation that he was "ready" for a permanent spot in the rotation and one of the incumbent rotations was to be traded. Wade Davis was too new, David Price was far too valuable and Jeff Niemann's value to the team was greater than any trade value that he had accumulated. James Shields and Matt Garza were final 2: Shields' team-friendly contract Versus Matt Garza's reputation as a durable, consistent starter compacted with his "breakout year". Shields' 2010 season was also one of his worst with the Rays, which gave fans enough reason to entice thoughts of "Big Game James" no longer with the Rays. However, the bad season acted as a double-edged sword. Shields' trade value was at its lowest and any trade package for him wouldn't net the Rays anywhere close to the value that remained on his incredibly team-friendly contract in trade packages. It was clear, if Jeremy Hellickson were going to get any sort of shot at pitching a meaningful amount of starts in 2011...Matt Garza needed to get traded.

Enter: The Matt Garza Trade Build-up

Matt Garza's 15 Wins combined with his past season's no-hitter and past playoff accolades garnered attention from teams in need of a middle or top-of-the-rotation Starting Pitchers. However, where Matt Garza was getting traded to hinged on a few factors out of his control. First of all, "The Cliff Lee Sweepstakes" held up any trade of any starting pitcher. Texas, who had long been interested in Garza, was trying to woo Cliff into turning his "hired gun" act into "staff ace" instead. While the Rangers offered the best overall contracts to Lee, in terms of money and length of contract, he took less money to play in a better overall and more comfortable situation as part of the Phillies' attempt to create the greatest rotation ever assembled. Next roadblock for any Garza trade was Zach Grienke's sudden urge to get traded. The Rangers and Yankees, both of whom offered more for Lee's services than Philly, both targeted to trade for Grienke. However, within a day of Grienke changing agent representation, the Milwaukee Brewers quietly swooped in and nabbed KC's former "Ace". This was surprising, especially when the presumed trade package for Zach was believed to be so completely insane that any team wanting him would be basically committing farm system homicide.

Baseball's winter meetings gave Andrew Friedman the ability to talk to GMs who were interested "buyers" for Garza time to negotiate a trade. The Rangers, Yankees, Cubs, Nationals, Brewers and Rockies were believed to all held some interest in Garza. The Brewers dropped out of the picture with Grienke, Nationals and Rockies never seemed to have passed the "kicking the tires" stage and the Yankees dropped out of the trade picture when the price of what it'd take for the Rays to trade Garza within the division was revealed.

The Cubs and Rangers remained interested. However, 2 more roadblocks had to be cleared before Garza was to be traded. First off, Free Agent and recovering former CY winner Brandon Webb needed to decide where he'd try to rejuvenate his career. Both Texas and Chicago, while still holding interest as the finalists for Garza, were 2 of a handful of teams that were "in" on Webb. The Rangers signed Webb, which to some put them out of the running for Garza but in all actuality they had an offer in the days leading to the eventual trade to Chicago that was considered the 1b offer to Chicago's 1a.

The last roadblock before trading Garza was that "If Friedman(the Rays GM) was to trade Garza, Andrew was going to do it on his own terms and take the offer that he wanted or Garza wasn't going to get traded." Both the Cubs and Rangers made offers that fit his criteria, with the Rangers' offer being centered around immediate impact with slightly less potential upside(Frank Francisco+Cash, Derek Holland and Chris Davis all being Major-League Ready, the Rangers swinging a deal for Cubs' prospect Robinson Chirinos then including him in the deal and prized youngster Engel Beltre being the prospect involved from Texas' system) and the Cubs' offer being the best of both(close to "ready" prospects Chris Archer[who's upside is at being a Garza-like pitcher], Robinson Chirinos[who the Rays targeted no matter what], Brandon Guyer[Rays' "type" Outfield prospect], a major league ready sparkplug in Sam Fuld and prized defensive stud in shortstop Hak-Ju Lee).

Enter: The Conclusion/The Trade Finally Happens and the fan backlash that was caused by media-"spinning"

The trade finally happened after about a month or so of deliberating, waiting for roadblocks to clear and the Rays getting what they want to allow themselves to be apt for a trade of Garza and Cubs getting what they want from the Rays in Outfielder Fernando Perez and Pitching prospect Zachary Rosscup, in addition to Garza.

There's some caveats to the trade that, depending how media members spin it, make the trade look like a clear, no-doubt "win" for the team that you want to side with.

Pro-Cubs - Cubs receive Matt Garza, who they feel has top-of-rotation upside, without giving up any prospects that have "star" upside. They gave up a lot to get Garza, but they gave up noone who will for sure come back and bite them in the butt. The 3 prospects(Archer, Chirinos and Lee) that are the intergral parts of the trade are just that, prospects, and they aren't sure-things to pan out or live up to their potential. If they do, the impact will be felt a lot later than Garza's immediate impact will be felt. Also, the Cubs used their abundant farm system depth to acquire a front-line pitcher who another team is starting to be unwilling to pay in his arbitration years. Jim Hendry had started to look like he was on the way out of Chicago, but if this trade works out like he imagines...the Cubs struck it rich without hurting the present roster and future teams.

Pro-Rays - The Rays had a logjam with 6 starters vying for 5 rotation spots. Now they can slot Jeremy Hellickson into the #5 rotation spot and not see much, if any, of a drop-off in the rotation. Doing this, they also cleared 6 million dollars in additional money that can be used to soften the blow that losing Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, partly Jason Bartlett and the few other bullpen pieces that they could potentially lose to Free Agency, leaves. Stu stated that he projects the the Rays payroll to be around 50 MIL in 2011, which leaves the Rays 17 MIL in salary to "play with" for basically 3-4 spots(player with 1B experience, player that can DH and possibly 1-2 relievers with back-end bullpen experience). Imagine the Rays signing Vlad Guerrero or Manny Ramirez to DH, Russell Branyan to play some 1B with Brian Fuentes and/or Jon Rauch giving the Rays a bullpen 1 or 2 relievers with closer experience. The team that Yankee or Red Sox fans were glad to be seeing their proverbial window of contention being slammed shut, now would have found a new window re-opening and being just as dangerous as they were before. Also, the Rays figured out a way to trade a pitcher who was one of the closest to being a "ticking timebomb" while his value was at his highest and his stats were in a dangerous decline. For proof of possible factors showing Garza's decline, check out his month-by-month splits for the last 2 seasons. In 2009, as the season progressed, Garza's strikeout rate increased. In 2010, it actually declined to almost worrisome levels for a flyball pitcher to have. If he continues his ways(low K, high flyball guy), Wrigley isn't a place that you want him pitching. Add to the fact that Garza is a very tempermental pitcher, almost to Carlos Zambrano extremes and he's not going to have a good-to-great fielding team behind him(Check his FIP), Garza's not going to succumb well to the pressure that a large market with a huge fan-following brings. Rays also, in 1 trade, found a co-starting catcher(who could play SS in a pinch) with good OBP skills/good defensive skills and ability to hit for decent power and 4th outfielder that they can use immediately. They also got a starter in waiting, if they find a trade partner for Shields(if he regains something close to old form and the Rays receive a good offer), a potential future starting OFer and a short-stop prospect that you no longer have to wonder "will he stick, defensively?". So if/when the Rays sign a big bat and reliever because of the additional salary that was reallocated, we have Matt Garza to thank.

However, with pro's to always have cons. Fan backlash is the biggest thing. Cub fans think that they gave up way too much for a guy who is nothing more than a #3 starter(what he was with the Rays) and that the Cubs basically sent a possible #2 in the future to the Cubs in addition to other pieces that just give the Rays more weapons to their disposal. On the other side, fans who think that the Rays mgmt is cheap...have even more reason to believe they are. Rather than wanting to spend money on keeping Garza, a fan-favorite(for some reason, probably his ferocity) long-term, they're just gonna be cheap and do this with others in the future. For a team that has a hard enough time drawing fans, they almost have to sign Manny to return fans that now left due to Garza being dealt. Vladdy may be a better fit and cheaper, but do more fans come to see Manny or to see Vladdy? Easy answer, from the business side. Also, fans are displeased on the package received from the Cubs. Most fans are used to star-quality prospects and name recognition, so this package seemed more than underwhelming when it comes to Rays farm system standards(even though Baseball America's Jim Callis has Archer at #4, Lee at #8 and Guyer at #12 in the Rays top 30 prospects). Fans can and will be fickle. However, fans were displeased at first when Delmon Young was dealt to the Twins for Garza and Bartlett.

Its all about how you look at things, I guess.
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