SweetSpot: Over/under 2013

One thing casual baseball fans do is overrate the importance of one player. In the NBA, you build a team around one superstar. If you have two, you can win 27 games in a row.

But it doesn't work that way in baseball. Look at last year's Tigers. They had the arguably the best pitcher in the game in Justin Verlander, the best hitter in the game in Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder, one of the 10 best hitters. They still won just 88 games in a weak division.

You can even overcome the loss of a great player, like the Cardinals did in 2011 when Adam Wainwright, the Cy Young runner-up in 2010, went down in spring training and they went on to win the World Series.

Still, that doesn't mean some players just seem more important than even their statistics or Wins Above Replacement would suggest. Which brings me to Jered Weaver.

The Angels are going to score runs. Even if Mike Trout regresses a bit and Josh Hamilton misses 50 games and Albert Pujols hits .271 with 26 home runs, they're going to score runs. The big questions for the Angels revolve around a revamped rotation that now includes Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson alonside Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Vargas and Blanton are what we call innings eaters, but Vargas has to show he can succeed away from Safeco Field and Blanton has a 4.79 ERA over the past three seasons in the National League. Hanson has had injury issues in recent seasons, and Wilson had minor surgery in the offseason to remove some bone chips from elbow. That's a lot of risk in slots No. 2 through No. 5, and there isn't much depth behind those guys other than Garrett Richards.

So, yes, Weaver is very important to the Angels, maybe the most important player in baseball for 2013.

Weaver had his own DL stint in 2012, missing three starts with a lower back sprain and spasms, and after averaging 224 innings per season from 2009 to 2011, threw just 188.2 last year -- although he still managed to go 20-5 and finish third in the Cy Young voting.

So they need him not just to remain healthy, but maybe tack on an extra 40 innings as well.

Weaver remains one of the most singular, fascinating pitchers of his generation, from his slingshot, across-the-body delivery to his ability to confound hitters with a fastball that rarely cracks 90 mph (he averaged 87.8 mph last season). Even though his strikeout rate has dipped from 26 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2012, he remained as good as ever, holding batters to a .214/.265/.340 battling line last year. He does this even though he pitches up in the zone. Here, check the location of his fastball against left-handed and right-handed batters in 2012:

Jered Weaver ESPN Stats and InformationLefties hit just .185 with three home runs in 222 at-bats off Weaver's fastball in 2012.
Jered Weaver ESPN Stats and InformationRight-handed batters hit just .209/280/.390 against Weaver's fastball in 2012.


Obviously, he paints that corner against lefties with artistry that would make Greg Maddux proud. Against righties, even though the pitches are often over the middle of the plate, he changes speeds and gets enough movement that hitters don't make solid contact.

That's one of the hallmarks of Weaver's success: Hitters don't get good wood against him. If you've read this blog much, you're probably familiar with the theory that pitchers don't have a lot of control over what happens once the ball is put in play. The statistic that tracks this is BABIP -- batting average on balls in play (removing home runs from the equation). Anyway, most pitchers are going to be around .290 to .300 in BABIP (the MLB average was .293 in 2012); if they're well above or below that figure in one season, they'll likely move toward that .300 figure the next.

SportsNation

Over or under on Jered Weaver winning 17.5 games?

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    75%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 754)

Now, fly ball pitchers do generally allow a slightly lower BABIP than ground ball pitchers, and Weaver is an extreme fly ball pitcher, but he takes BABIP and gives it a severe kick in the groin. Amazingly, his BABIP has decreased five consecutive seasons:

2007: .312
2008: .298
2009: .278
2010: .276
2011: .250
2012: .241

Certainly, having a good outfield defense helps a pitcher like Weaver. The Angels' outfield defense was tremendous in 2012, which helps explain why Weaver's BABIP decreased -- and why he remained effective despite the lower strikeout. Using Defensive Runs Saved, here are the Angels' overall runs saved totals since 2007, with the primary outfielders listed from left field to right field with the top reserve:

2007: -24 (Garret Anderson 0, Gary Matthews -13, Vlad Guerrero -3, Reggie Willits -10)
2008: +5 (Anderson 0, Torii Hunter -4, Guerrero -7, Matthews -7)
2009: +17 (Juan Rivera +16, Hunter +12, Bobby Abreu -2, Matthews -7)
2010: -24 (Rivera -12, Hunter -10, Abreu -11, Peter Bourjos +13)
2011: +4 (Vernon Wells -8, Bourjos +12, Hunter +9, Mike Trout +2)
2012: +45 (Wells +2, Trout +23, Hunter +15, Bourjos +9)

The 2013 outfield alignment of Trout, Bourjos and Hamilton could be even better than last year. Which is good news for Weaver -- and great news for the Angels. If Weaver gives them 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings, he should be a Cy Young contender again. And hitters will continue to wonder why they can't hit the guy.

Twins story: Joe Mauer still the man

March, 24, 2013
3/24/13
2:00
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On a day when Joe Mauer has a lot of work to catch up on because he played in the World Baseball Classic, he takes some time to sign autographs. As Mauer signs baseball after baseball, a lady tells him about her grandchildren and how she knows Mauer will just love having twins. She says she's excited for him and can't wait to watch him as a dad. It's as if she believes Mauer is part of her extended family.

People who say we shouldn't have heroes anymore have never spent much time with the Twins catcher. Mauer is one of the last of a dying breed, the perfect hometown hero.

He grew up in St. Paul and was selected by the Twins as the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. For Mauer, playing for the Twins is not just a job.

"It's all I've ever known," Mauer said about playing in his hometown.

Mauer knows there is a lot responsibility resting on his shoulders this year. He will be handling the pitching staff again this year, the Twins need him to consistently get on base and they need his bat in the lineup every day. Plus, he has an added charge this year -- Mauer and his wife, Maddie, are expecting twins. He takes it all in stride and doesn't ask for much help, though he says that may change.

[+] EnlargeMauer
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesJoe Mauer hit .319 with 10 home runs and 85 RBIs in 2012.
"We'll need a lot of help here come the end of the summer," Mauer said. "We're very excited. I can't wait."

Mauer has had a busy spring with his participation in the World Baseball Classic and now back with the Twins he is trying to get to know the many new pitchers on the Twins staff in the last few weeks of spring training. As he showed in the WBC, where he hit .429, his bat appears ready. Last season, he led the majors with a .416 on-base percentage.

Mauer says when he is at the plate this year he is going to try and do exactly what the situation calls for because he knows if he can find a way to get on base the guys batting behind him, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau, will drive him home.

"I just try to have good at-bats," Mauer said. "Obviously getting hits is a great thing but getting on base and making the defense work a little bit is kind of the goal of manufacturing runs. Just try to work the counts and get on base any way I can."

Tom Brunansky, the Twins' new hitting coach, said Mauer’s approach to the plate is first and foremost a gift. That's not to say Mauer doesn't work hard, but as Brunansky describes Mauer's talent as a "great gift from God" he talks about Mauer in a tone that suggests it's a talent that doesn't come along often.

"He's [also] pretty smooth and solid in his approach," Brunansky added. "He doesn't get too excited. He doesn't get all riled up. Hitters, we tend to get ourselves out. There's a key word that we like to use and that's trust. He trusts his ability to be able to do the things he wants to do. ... The thing about Joe is that he understands his zone and he's not afraid to hit with two strikes. And it comes back to that word of trust. He has no fear in the fact that he trusts his ability."

Last season, three of the top 10 batting averages in the majors were from catchers, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Mauer. The position of catcher has more wear and tear on the body than other positions on the field, yet with the Mauer being a pivotal part of the lineup the Twins have to find ways to keep him in there every day.

In 2012 Mauer caught 74 games, played first base for 30 games and was the DH 42 times. Manager Ron Gardenhire says what position Mauer plays will be a day-to-day decision. He doesn't have a set number of games he expects Mauer to catch.

"I always go and check with him if he catches two days in a row," Gardenhire said. "There’s going to be one of those days where he's going to get foul tips and really beat up and those are the days I guard [him] and I talk to him. It's all about conversations on how he is feeling and keeping his bat in the lineup."

Mauer says he wants to be behind the plate every chance he can get. He still loves being a catcher.

"Being back there, making those decisions on every pitch, one or two pitches in a game can matter a whole bunch," he said. "So being in the middle of that, your teammates looking for you to make those tough decisions, I love being the guy to do that. Yeah, it's tough on your body. It can be a little mentally draining but I wouldn't have it any other way."

Mauer enjoys showing his pitchers that he's there for them. As a catcher he wants to do whatever is best for his pitchers.

"You're trying to get outs to help your team win," Mauer said. "I think everybody understands that here. With the new guys it's going to take a little time for them to see what I'm all about and for me to see what they are all about. So, it's a fun, unique relationship; you have to have a lot of trust involved."

He says he builds trust by knowing his pitchers' strengths. Each day is different -- a pitcher may not have his best stuff one day, so Mauer figures out what is working that game to get the best pitching performance.

SportsNation

Over or under on Joe Mauer hitting .320?

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"That's the thing I've learned over the years," Mauer said. "You've got to be prepared and call the right pitch but the main thing is having your pitcher convinced about that pitch. That might not necessarily be your favorite pitch at that point but if he's convinced [about the pitch] I'd rather have him throw it then maybe something else he might not be as confident with."

Vance Worley, the right-hander acquired from Philadelphia this offseason, worked with Mauer for the first time on Friday against the Yankees. Worley had a rough outing, pitching five innings and giving up eight hits and five runs. However, Worley says it won't take him much time to get to know Mauer, but that it's just a matter of "learning each other."

"Today he just came out and said just make sure you work a little bit more down," Worley said. "Just [Mauer] coming out here and trying to slow it down for you a little bit, that's the biggest thing he can do."

Last year Twins catchers had a tough time catching guys on the basepaths, as their caught stealing percentage, 18 percent, was last in the American League. (Mauer's caught stealing percentage was 25 percent, the lowest of his career.) At times in 2012 Mauer's mechanics and the position he threw from behind the plate looked a little different from his form in his earlier years.

"I don't know if he's throwing different but I think he's had some injuries that have changed some of his mechanics," Gardenhire said. "His arm is still there, he's still got a cannon. I think the tendencies are when you are not able to work on things like that a lot you get a little long with your actions."

Gardenhire says he is happy to have former major league catcher Terry Steinbach on the Twins coaching staff this year. He's going to be working with Mauer all year long.

"The one thing [Steinbach] has been talking to [Mauer] about is being a little shorter with everything and he's working on it," Gardenhire said. "So there's change and that has to happen as you get a little older, too."

Gardenhire says he worries about a lot of things but "not Joe."

His manager trusts him. His coaches trust him to do what the team needs, his pitchers trust him and as he walks by the fans waiting for an autograph you can tell they trust him, too. They know Mauer will treat them well -- the hometown kid who made it big.

"You know, to have my grandparents at every home game for the last nine years, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's nice, definitely thankful that I'm in this position. I'm excited for another year."

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. Follow her on Twitter @Anna_McDonald.
Freddie Freeman leads hitters with seven home runs this spring, followed by Domonic Brown and Mike Morse with six. Bill Baer wrote on Brown's big spring the other day:
Last year, 15 players hit six or more home runs in spring exhibition games in the range of 45-80 at-bats. There was no correlation whatsoever between their spring hitting and regular season hitting.


Bill looked back at 2011 and 2010 and found the same thing.

Now, that doesn't mean Brown's spring doesn't mean anything. It could mean something or it could mean everything. Maybe it's the first step to Brown reclaiming his top prospect luster of a few years ago. (Darin Ruf, by the way, hit a walk-off home run on Friday and was then optioned to a Triple-A, clearing the way for Brown to play every day, at least until Delmon Young returns from the disabled list.)

The key to remember about Brown is he's still just 25 and has 492 plate appearances. His star potential may be slim, at least compared to what it was projected at one time, but he lacks the major league experience to say he has no star potential. Just look at his Phillies teammate, Chase Utley. Through his age-25 season, he had 439 PAs and a 91 OPS+. (Brown's OPS+ is 90.) Utley's big breakout didn't arrive until he was 26. That doesn't mean Brown is Chase Utley, whose career path is somewhat unusual.

How unusual?

SportsNation

Over or under on Domonic Brown hitting 19.5 home runs?

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I looked at all players since 1990 who had between 400 and 600 plate appearances through their age-25 seasons and an OPS+ between 85 and 95. There were 25 such players. Utley is easily the class of the group, with the other "bests" including J.T. Snow, Xavier Nady, Jeff King, Michael Tucker and Ryan Doumit. Again, it's a small group and there are guys there who never did much at all.

But that's the Chase Utley group. Brown has played through his age-24 season. His comparative group also consists of 25 players, and includes a more interesting list of players: Carlos Quentin, Carl Everett, Bobby Higginson, Tony Clark, Mark Whiten, Aaron Rowand, Franklin Gutierrez and Jeffrey Hammonds, among others. Josh Reddick is here, and he had a nice breakout season last year with the A's at 25. Ruben Mateo is here and ... well, let's not go there.

How will Brown do in 2013? I'm still cautiously optimistic. He could have a Reddick-like year -- maybe less power but better on-base skills. He lacks Reddick's defense, however, so that limits his overall value, but I think he could be a productive player on a playoff team.
I have the Nationals as the team to beat in the National League, but give the Braves a fighter's chance of winning the NL East. No, I don't really know what fighter's chance means either, other than "anything can happen."

SportsNation

Over or under on Dan Uggla hitting 29.5 home runs?

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I do believe the Braves have the second-best club in the NL heading into the season, as the Reds will find life in the NL Central a little tougher this year without the Astros and improved Cubs to beat up on.

A key to Atlanta beating Washington will be second baseman Dan Uggla. Now 33, Uggla saw his streak of five straight 30-homer seasons end as he dropped from 36 to 19. There were still some positives for his offense -- he led the NL with 94 walks, so despite a .220 average he still posted a respectable .348 OBP.

While the Braves are counting on improved performances from youngsters Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, and Justin Upton playing like he did in 2011, an improved Uggla can further boost an offense that ranked seventh in the NL in runs.

Mark Smith of Capitol Avenue Club has an excellent in-depth look at Uggla's contact skills and outlook for 2013, complete with cool heat maps, writing:
Uggla’s sweet spot is middle-in, which shouldn’t be surprising, and in 2012, it saw a substantial drop in contact rates. This, however, can be explained in two ways. One, Uggla is losing his ability to make contact, or two, it’s no worse than 2008. Unfortunately, the maps don’t go back to 2008, so we remain in the dark a little bit. But seeing the other numbers react in a similar manner indicates he might have done this before, and it is more troubling now that he’s 33.

Two years ago with the Marlins, Uggla created a career-high 115 runs. That total was down to 76 last season. He's certainly capable of creating an additional 15 runs or so -- worth about 1.5 wins. The problem for Atlanta: What if he slides even further? With his subpar defense, Uggla's not of much value if his hitting declines, and the Braves don't have much on the bench behind him.

Will his power return? I suspect the days of Uggla as a 30-homer guy are behind him. What do you think?
From Buster Olney's blog today Insider:
Ryan Howard has been hammering the ball this spring, driving the ball the other way; being out with an injury, he said, allowed him to refocus and review videotape from 2008 and realize that he had stopped concentrating on taking the ball to left-center and left field.


My first thought on reading that: Is that just something a player says, especially one who has been in decline like Howard? If true, why would a player deviate for three years from something that made him one of the most feared hitters in the league?

The blog cites Howard looking at video from 2008. I don't have data from 2008 from ESPN Stats & Information, but I do have data from 2009. But that's OK; Howard was actually better in '09 than '08 (.279/.360/.571 versus .251/.339/.543), so whatever was working was working both years.

Let's ignore last year, since he was recovering from the Achilles injury suffered in the 2011 playoffs, and compare 2009 to 2011. In 2011, he hit .253/.346/.488. Here are his various rate stats for 2008, 2009 and 2011:


The main thing to take away from this: He hit fewer home runs primarily because he was hitting fewer home runs on the fly balls he hit. His strikeout and walk rates weren't any worse than in '08 and '09.

Now, let's compare his hit chart from 2009 (on the left) versus his hit chart from 2011:

HowardESPN State & InfoRyan Howard says he needs to get back to hitting the ball more to left and left-center.


Do you see much difference there? I don't.

Breaking down the numbers:

2009: 17 of 45 home runs hit to left or left-center (38 percent)
2011: 10 of 33 home runs hit to left or left-center (30 percent)

2009: 15.5 percent of fly balls hit to left or left-center were home runs
2011: 10 percent of fly balls hit to left or left-center were home runs

2009: 113 balls in play hit to left or left-center (26.0 percent of all balls in play)
2011: 102 balls in play hit to left or left-center (26.2 percent of all balls in play)

SportsNation

Over or under on Ryan Howard hitting 34.5 home runs?

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    54%
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I see no evidence that Howard's approach somehow changed between 2008 and 2012. He was hitting the ball to left field and left-center just as frequently. The only evidence is that he's not hitting as many home runs -- which, to me, indicates a guy whose bat speed has probably slowed down just a whisker.

I have no doubt Howard believes he needs to hit the ball to the opposite field more often. That was a big part of his success, his enormous raw power allowing him to seemingly flick the ball over the fence in left-center. It's also possible he's working only to fix what happened when he returns midseason last year from injury (although five of his 14 home runs were hit to left or left-center). The numbers, however, have shown a player in decline for several seasons now. Hey, I hope he rebounds -- it's fun watching Howard smash a lot of home runs -- but the odds of him hitting 45 home runs again are slim.

Roy Halladay isn't done just yet

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
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When baseball fans talk about Roy Halladay, it seems to be done in the past tense these days. "He was one of the most dominant pitchers of his era," or "his sinker was nasty." It is hard to fault them after the season Halladay had, finishing 2012 season with a 4.49 ERA, in part due to a right shoulder injury that sapped 2 mph off his fastball. Even manager Charlie Manuel seems to have lost faith, describing Halladay as merely "serviceable."

Just one year ago, he was described as the staff ace, the Cy Young runner-up in 2011.

Things aren't looking better as the 2013 regular season approaches. In 11 spring innings, Halladay has allowed nine runs (all earned) on 12 hits and six walks. His velocity has not improved either. MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki reported scouts clocking his velocity between 86 and 88 mph, while others came in with readings below that. Halladay's fastball averaged at least 92 mph from 2008-11, according to FanGraphs.

The truth is, Halladay is attempting to come back from one of the most historically severe declines in baseball history. Going by Baseball-Reference WAR, Halladay's decline from 8.5 in 2011 to 0.7 in 2012 is the seventh-steepest decline among starters in the post-integration era, minimum 150 innings thrown in both seasons.

Of the 20 biggest declines listed above, Halladay (35) was the second oldest behind only Jim Bunning (36) in 1968. Unlike Steve Carlton in 1973, Dwight Gooden in 1986 and Zack Greinke in 2010, none in the 30-plus age club set an impossibly high bar with a tremendous season; rather, all declined rather precipitously. If it is any consolation, Halladay was one of only two, along with Catfish Hunter, in the 30-plus club to at least post a positive WAR in his decline year.

Bunning and Hunter were the only ones to continue to decline, however. Johnny Sain bounced back with 2 WAR, Javier Vazquez 2.7, Esteban Loaiza 3.6, and Mike Moore 4.4 in the ensuing season. Hunter never recovered his modest ability to miss bats. Bunning not only couldn't miss bats as much, but he overall become more hittable. He enjoyed success throughout much of his career with a BABIP in the .250-.280 range, but it ranged from .297 to .309 in the final four years of his career.

Aside from Hunter, the other five had at least one average (2 WAR) season left in them, but only Sain (2.9, 1953) and Bunning (2.7, 1970) had theirs at least two years removed from their historically bad decline. In other words, even if there was a recovery, it wasn't long lasting.

SportsNation

ZiPS projects Roy Halladay's ERA at 3.42. Do you have the over or under?

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For Halladay, however, his peripherals weren't that much worse than in 2011. His strikeout rate only declined by 3 percent, his walk rate only increased by 2 percent, and his BABIP only increased by three points. However, he induced 6 percent fewer groundballs and allowed twice as many home runs in a per-fly ball basis, while also allowing 4.5 percent more line drives.

Halladay rose to prominence on the back of an ability to generate groundball outs, miss bats with frequency and limit free passes. If those continue to vanish, then his decline will be more severe than we could have anticipated even two years ago. Still, Halladay is by no means done. Greg Maddux pitched well into his 40s even after the erosion of his bat-missing capabilities. Halladay, like Maddux, has shown pinpoint control of his pitches and can continue to use guile to prolong a Hall of Fame career.

(Special thanks to Crashburn Alley writer Ryan Sommers (@Phylan) for doing the research that inspired this article.)

Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.
If you like the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the NL West in 2013, you probably like Matt Kemp's chances of repeating his spectacular 2011, when he was arguably the best player in baseball. Some would argue there wasn't actually an argument to be had.

After missing just 11 games over the previous four seasons, Kemp played just 106 games and had surgery after the season to patch up a torn labrum and clean up his rotator cuff on his left, non-throwing arm. He couldn't swing a bat until January and just played his first few spring training games (he's 0-for-8 with three strikeouts, not that anyone is counting yet).

Anyway, despite the shoulder problems, Kemp's rate stats were close to what he put up the year before:

2011: .324/.399/.586, .380 BABIP, 14.7% HR/FB
2012: .303/.367/.538, .354 BABIP, 14.6% HR/FB

That last stat is home run percentage on fly balls, which he maintained despite the shoulder injury. Kemp's 2012 was really two seasons, however. He hit .417 in April with 12 home runs. He went on the DL on May 14 with a strained hamstring, and from May 1 to the end of the season hit .273/.333/.445. In September, his control of the strike zone vanished as he struck out 32 times and drew only five walks, hitting .222.

SportsNation

Over or under on Matt Kemp hitting 32.5 home runs?

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Discuss (Total votes: 680)

So he has two things to prove once the season kicks in: Show his shoulder is healthy, and show that September was just a result of playing through that banged-up shoulder. He's never been a big walker (he drew 74 in 2011 thanks to 24 intentional walks), but if he's to remain one of the game's best hitters he can't swing with the reckless aggressiveness he did in September.

What's your prediction? The projection systems all have him hitting 29 to 32 home runs, with a similar triple-line slash as 2012. I'm going to take the high end of that and put his over/under at 32.5 home runs. He's been a durable player in his career, so I expect him to play his usual 160 or so games.
A couple of weeks ago, SportsNation asked if Stephen Strasburg will pitch 200 innings this season; 66 percent of the voters responded that he will.

Before we get into how Strasburg will pitch, I wanted to point out a recent study published by Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus. Russell looked at many variables on pitcher injuries and predicting pitcher injuries. He writes, "It's clear that the biggest risk factor for injury is previous injury. How big? Turns out the answer is 'very.'"

Strasburg
Of course, Strasburg had a clean bill of health last year. Does that bode well for 2013 or the future? Not necessarily. Russell, again:

And no, just because you made it through last year without getting hurt, it doesn't reset the clock (although it does seem to ameliorate the problem).


Those results may not surprise you, but we shouldn't assume Strasburg will be healthy just because he was last year. Now, with that study in mind, and with the knowledge that the Nationals have a deep bullpen and may still be conservative with Strasburg's innings, I'd probably take the under on the 200. But we're not asking that here. We're asking what Strasburg's ERA will be in 2013. (Although his health could affect how well he pitches.)

Here are his 2012 numbers and three projections for the upcoming season:

2012 ERA: 3.16
2012 FIP: 2.82
2012 xFIP: 2.81
2013 ZiPS: 2.69
2013 Bill James: 2.68
2013 Oliver: 2.46

SportsNation

Over or under on Stephen Strasburg having a 2.65 ERA?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,194)

There's a reason the projection systems expect Strasburg to improve: He was the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 with at least 150 innings to strike out more than 30 percent of the batters he faced. The scary thing is there's room for improvement. While he dominated right-handed batters, who hit .185 off him, lefties hit .271/.326/.387. Among right-handed pitchers who faced at least 200 left-handed batters, that ranked just 35th in OPS allowed. Heck, Kyle Kendrick allowed a lower OPS versus lefties.

So, using those projections as a guideline, let's put the over/under on his ERA at 2.65.

In the past three seasons, only seven times has a National League pitcher posted an ERA under 2.65 -- and four of those came from Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay (Josh Johnson, Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright are the others.)

What do you think? Is this the year Strasburg becomes a Cy Young contender?
A reader suggested this one in Tuesday's chat: 91 home runs from the Braves outfield trio of Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton.

We start with last year's totals:

Heyward: 27
B.J. Upton: 28
Justin Upton: 17

SportsNation

Over or under on the Braves outfield hitting 90.5 home runs?

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Well, 72 is a long way from 91. If we sub in Justin Upton's 2011 figure -- 31 home runs -- then we're a lot closer at 86. There is also the possibility that Heyward, at 23, is just tapping into his power potential, and that B.J. Upton could hit 30 moving into a little better home run park.

Could all three hit 30? Sure, it's a possibility, although two teams have ever had three outfielders hit 30:

1941 Yankees: Charlie Keller (33), Tommy Henrich (31), Joe DiMaggio (30)
1963 Twins: Harmon Killebrew (45), Bob Allison (35) Jimmie Hall (33)

Killebrew also played first and third during his Twins career, but all 137 of his starts in '63 came in left field. Those were two pretty good teams, by the way. The Yankees won the World Series and the Twins hit 225 home runs while leading the AL in runs scored and won 91 games.

Can the Braves outfielders hit 91 home runs?
ESPN Insider Dave Cameron wrote last week about speed being the Toronto Blue Jays' secret weapon. Their not-so-secret weapons are the 1-2 punch of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of the batting order.

SportsNation

Over or under on Edwin Encarnacion hitting 33.5 home runs?

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Encarnacion had a breakout season in 2012. He changed his hitting approach (keeping both hands on the bat through his swing) and did a better job laying off pitches outside the strike zone, leading to a career-high 42 home runs.

The power wasn't a complete fluke; Encarnacion had hit 26 home runs with the Reds back in 2008 and 21 with the Blue Jays in 2010 in just 332 at-bats. he can turn on any fastball and is primarily a pull hitter: Only three of his 42 home runs went to right field or right-center.

But how much of Encarnacion's power surge was the new approach at the plate and how much of it was luck? His home run percentage on flyballs was a career-high 18.7 percent, but only 3.6 percent higher than in 2010. Projections systems have Encarnacion at around 30 home runs, but the systems factor in only the numbers, not the mechanisms for achieving those numbers. In Encarnacion's case, the improvement may be real.

What do you think? I'll be a little more optimistic and set the over/under at 33.5 home runs.

SportsNation

Over or under on Jose Bautista hitting 36.5 home runs?

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    78%
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    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,990)

As for Bautista, his production for 2013 is a question of health. He hit 54 home runs in 2010, 43 in 2011 and 27 in 92 games in 2012 before undergoing surgery on his left wrist (check out Stephania Bell's injury analysis on Bautista here). Stephania writes:
Any wrist injury is always a cause for concern with a power hitter, but not all wrist injuries are created equal. The key to retaining power is regaining adequate motion through the wrist to allow the hitter to maintain his normal swing. ... Bautista's injury was not to the tendon itself, but rather to the protective sheath around it. After the original injury last year, the torn tissue would aggravate his wrist as he attempted his batting motion. Repairing the tissue removes the source of the problem. If he has been able to recover the motion to swing the bat freely -- by the sounds of things, he has -- then the potential for him to return to his prior level of play is high.

Entering his age-32 season, the projection systems range from 31 to 39 home runs for Bautista. His home run percentage on flyballs was 20 percent last year -- not far off his 2010 and 2011 percentages of 21.7 and 22.5. What did drop a little last year was his walk rate -- from 20.2 percent in 2011 to 14.8 percent. (With more help around him in the lineup, Bautista's intentional walks fell from 24 to 2; hitting .241 instead of .302 also led to fewer free passes.)

Let's split the middle on the projection systems and put Bautista's over/under at 36.5 home runs. Too low?

I'm inclined to take the over on both. Which means it could be a very good year in Toronto.

Over/under: Robinson Cano's WAR

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
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Since Robinson Cano has been in the news with his contract talks as he enters his final season before free agency, let's do an over/under on him.

Now, it's a little difficult to pick the right category for him since he's been consistent. The past four years he's hit 25, 29, 28 and 33 home runs, scored 103 to 105 runs and hit between .302 and .320. His durability has been remarkable, missing just seven games in four years (and going back, just 12 games in six years). The only thing that has fluctuated has been his walk totals: 30, 57, 38, 61, leading to some variance in his on-base percentage.

So let's go with an over/under on WAR. That has also gone up and down a bit. From Baseball-Reference.com:

2009: 4.1
2010: 7.8
2011: 5.2
2012: 8.2

SportsNation

Over or under on Robinson Cano having 7.0 WAR?

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    45%
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    55%

Discuss (Total votes: 996)

Since his offense and playing time has been pretty consistent, some of that variance comes from how his defense was evaluated. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved. Not surprisingly, he rated a little better in 2010 and 2012:

2009: 0
2010: +16
2011: +1
2012: +15

Since 10 runs is roughly equivalent to a win, he earned about an extra 1.5 WAR from his defense in 2010 and 2012. Another factor is the declining production at second base in the American League:

2009: .274/.336/.425
2010: .264/.327/.390
2011: .262/.320/.398
2012: .249/.310/.372

The gap between Cano and his peers was larger than ever in 2012, one reason he arguably had a stronger MVP case than Miguel Cabrera (he had a higher WAR). Anyway, let's put the over/under at 7.0. What do you think?
One of the key players of 2013 is Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. After ranking 13th in the National League in runs in 2012, the Dodgers are looking for Gonzalez to provide that second big bat alongside Matt Kemp.

But who is Adrian Gonzalez right now?

During his peak years with the Padres, he combined power and walks to put up numbers that made him one of the best hitters in baseball. He ranked 26th in the majors in wRC+ in 2008, fourth in 2009 and 13th in 2010. After a trade to the Red Sox in 2011, he had another big season, hitting a career-best .338 and ranking ninth in the majors in wRC+.

Buried in that terrific season, however, were a few red flags. That year was fueled by a .380 average on balls in play -- tied with Kemp for the highest mark in the majors and well above Gonzalez's previous career best of .340. His home runs had dropped from 40 in 2009 to 27 and his walk rate declined from 17.5 percent in '09 to 10.3 percent.

SportsNation

Over or under on Adrian Gonzalez hitting 25.5 home runs?

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    58%
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    42%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,302)

Those red flags came to light in 2012. His home runs fell to 18, his walk rate plummeted to 6.1 percent and Gonzalez ranked 59th in wRC+ -- still a good season but not a great one.

So what to expect from Gonzalez in 2013? He still hit .299 in 2012 with 47 doubles. If he gets his walks back up, his OBP will climb back closer to .375 instead of below .350. But what about his power? The projection systems are predicting a few more home runs, but not above 30.

Let's set the over/under at 25.5. What do you think? Does Kemp have a big guy hitting behind him in the Dodgers' lineup?
With Felix Hernandez and the Mariners reportedly close last week to signing a $175 million contract that would make him the highest-paid pitcher in the game, Buster Olney is now reporting that the extension is not close to being finished, with a source citing an "elbow issue."

I'm not exactly sure what that means. Hernandez has never missed a start and you could say that every pitcher has a potential elbow or shoulder issue. That's what happens to pitchers; most of them get hurt eventually. Hernandez has pulled out of the World Baseball Classic, but said that's because he didn't wish to participate while still negotiating. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik told MLB.com on Sunday that he's seen Hernandez throwing at Safeco Field and "he's his normal self."

OK, aside from all that, Hernandez has pitched a lot of innings at a young age. Since 1950, only nine pitchers threw more innings through their age-26 seasons since Hernandez, and since 1980, only Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden, both of whom got hurt -- Gooden before turning 27, Valenzuela at age 27. But that was a little different generation and especially in Valenzuela's case, he threw a lot of innings while also throwing a lot of pitches (he walked 99-plus batters four times). If we look at the past 10 seasons, here are the 10 pitchers besides Felix with the most innings at age 26 ... and then their innings the following season:

Roy Halladay, 2003 Blue Jays: 266 (133)
CC Sabathia, 2007 Indians: 241 (253)
Justin Verlander, 2009 Tigers: 240 (224.1)
Roy Oswalt, 2004 Astros: 237 (241.2)
Mark Buehrle, 2005 White Sox: 236.2 (204)
Felix Hernandez, 2012 Mariners: 232 (???)
Johan Santana, 2005 Twins: 231.2 (233.2)
Javier Vazquez, 2003 Expos: 230.2 (198)
Joe Blanton, 2007 A's: 230 (197.2)
Brandon Webb, 2005 Diamondbacks: 229 (235)
Mark Mulder, 2004 A's: 225.2 (205)

SportsNation

Over or under on Felix Hernandez pitching 225 innings?

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    58%
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    42%

Discuss (Total votes: 976)

All except Halladay made 30 starts the following year, although as you can see some eventually broke down -- Santana, Webb and Mulder (his age-27 season was his last full year). Again, you can take any group of 10 pitchers and some of them are going to break down. This just reaffirms that any big-ticket pitching contract is a big risk.

OK, the over/under question: Basically, we're asking if you think Hernandez will remain healthy and make 30-plus starts for the eighth consecutive season. He's averaged 238 innings the past four seasons, so let's set the over/under at 225 innings.
Let's get back to some of our over/under predictions for the upcoming season. I just wrote the offseason report card for the Nationals, so let's vote on Bryce Harper and his home-run total.

First, here's the list of most home runs in an age-20 season:

SportsNation

Over or under on Bryce Harper hitting 29.5 home runs?

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    57%
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    43%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,070)

1. Mel Ott, 1929 Giants, 42
2. Frank Robinson, 1956 Reds, 38
3. Alex Rodriguez, 1996 Mariners, 36
4. Tony Conigliaro, 1965 Red Sox, 32
5. Ted Williams, 1939 Red Sox, 31
6. Mike Trout, 2012 Angels, 30

And that's it for the guys who hit at least 30. Only nine more hit at least 20, a group that includes Hall of Famers Al Kaline, Orlando Cepeda, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays. (The other three were Bob Horner, Giancarlo Stanton and Vada Pinson.)

As a 19-year-old rookie, Harper hit 22 home runs in 139 games. Over his final 44 games (41 starts) and 179 plate appearances, however, he hit .327/.384/.660, including 12 home runs. That prorates to 43 home runs over 650 PAs. I wouldn't be surprised if Harper hit 43 home runs, but the various projection systems are understandably a little more conservative. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projects 26 home runs; others are similar.

I'm a little more bullish and will put the over/under at 29.5. Can he become the seventh 20-year-old to hit 30 home runs?
Jerry Crasnick has a story today on Aroldis Chapman's conversion from the bullpen to the Cincinnati Reds' rotation.

It's a two-park risk equation, of course: 1) Losing Chapman's dominance out of the bullpen (38 saves, 1.51 ERA, 15.3 K's per nine, .141 batting average allowed); 2) Will it work?

For the first question, the Reds can afford to make the move because of their bullpen depth: New closer Jonathan Broxton won't match Chapman's statistical dominance, but considering Chapman blew four saves (all games he took the loss as well), the Reds' ninth-inning save percentage may remain the same. If anything, using Chapman as a 71-inning reliever -- where a lot of those innings are wasted in two- and three-run saves -- is under utilizing a valuable asset. Beyond Chapman, you have Sean Marshall, Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover, Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and Alfredo Simon. It should be one of the best bullpens in the National League once again.

SportsNation

Over or under on Aroldis Chapman throwing 150 innings?

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    48%
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    52%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,879)

Will the move work? As a reliever, Chapman could just rear back and fire his 100-mph heater past helpless hitters. He threw his fastball 88 percent of the time last year, mixing in a slider. Some will say he'll need to add a third pitch, but that's not necessarily true if he can command his fastball. The obvious comparison is Randy Johnson, who made a pretty good living as a fastball/slider guy.

There haven't been a lot of successful reliever-to-starter conversions. C.J. Wilson, who spent four seasons in the Texas bullpen, is the best recent example. Alexi Ogando pitched out of the bullpen as a rookie in 2010 with the Rangers, had an excellent season in the rotation in 2011, but was moved back to the pen in 2012. (He may be back in the rotation this year.) Chris Sale was a reliever as a rookie with the White Sox, but he was drafted as a starter and used in the pen to limit his innings. Three conversions last year worked with mixed results: Jeff Samardzija showed top-of-rotation potential with the Cubs but Neftali Feliz got injured and Daniel Bard lost his ability to throw strikes.

SportsNation

Over or under on Aroldis Chapman having a 3.25 ERA?

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    43%
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    57%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,932)

What do you think? Let's assume the Reds will be somewhat conservative with Chapman and put his over/under at 150 innings -- about how many Stephen Strasburg threw last season for the Nationals.

As for his ERA, that's a little more difficult to project. I like his chances to succeed; his command was much improved last year, with his walk rate cut in half. Even if that regresses a little, he can still be effective with his stuff. I'll put the over/under on his ERA at 3.25.

For all the adulation given the Nationals' pitching staff last year, the Reds actually allowed the fewest runs in the league, a pretty remarkable achievement considering they play in a hitter's park. If Chapman's conversion works, they could be No. 1 again.

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