Lava Flow for May

In “The Opposite” episode of Seinfeld, Jerry discovers a peculiar balance in his universe:

Jerry: Played cards last night.

Elaine: Oh yeah? How’d you do?

Jerry: Broke even.

Elaine: You always break even.

Jerry: Yeah, I know; like yesterday I lost a job, and then I got another one, and then I missed a TV show, and later on they re-ran it. And then today I missed a train, went outside and caught a bus. It never fails! I always even out!

In May the Volcanoes won 10 games, and lost 10 games.  After 60 games, the Volcanoes have a record of 29 wins and 31 losses.  In their 12 series, the Volcanoes have gone 3-2 in six series, 2-3 in five series, and took a 1-4 thumping at the hands of the Hypnotoads.  They have just enough offense to win 29 games (Lindor hitting .324 with 17 HRs and 42 RBI) and enough bad starting pitching to lose 31 (six pitchers have started for Margaritaville in 2019, each has an ERA of over 5.00).  Kenley Jansen has 11 saves, but has given up five home runs in 28 IP and blown three saves.

A somewhat quirky – but ultimately useless – fact:  The Volcanoes have not played any extra-innings games in 2019.  Such is the journey to a .500 season.

Three Up

Shane Bieber 

April’s “Three Up” featured two starting pitchers – Luis Castillo and Domingo German – and May’s “Three up” features three more starting pitchers.  Through Memorial Day, Volcano pitchers rank No. 3 (Castillo), No. 14 (German), No. 16 (Brandon Woodruff), No. 18 (Mike Minor), and No. 21 (Shane Bieber) in MLB for lowest OPS allowed.  The potential to throw five of the top 21 (and with Jake Arrieta and Jose Quintana “lurking” at No. 50 and No. 54) starting cards in 2020’s rotation is a big turnaround from the end of the 2018 season, when the returning Volcano starters were Ervin Santana, Andrew Cashner, Michael Fulmer, Dinelson Lamet, Cole Hamels and Brandon McCarthy (we still haven’t given up on Lamet – who is expected back for the Padres soon).  A big part of the turnaround was pick No. 20 in the March draft – Bieber.  While BP was somewhat “down” on Bieber, stating, “The plus-plus command gives him a pretty high floor of capable innings eater, but the lack of advanced stuff or any true out-pitch is what keeps him from topping out as anything more than that,” Shandler was more optimistic, noting, “Still some Dom uncertainty, but otherwise this is a skilled young SP looking at a potential breakout year.”  Through 10 starts / 63.2 IP for the Indians, Bieber has resolved the “Dom uncertainty,” increasing his K/9 rate from 9.26 (in 2018) to 11.17.  Perhaps he does have a true out-pitch after all!  We might be looking back at this start against the Orioles on May 19 as the game where Bieber “announced his presence with authority.” Bieber pitched a complete-game shutout, allowing five hits (all singles), no walks and striking out 15. Bieber also appears to have resolved his split issues (he is rated a 6R pitcher in his 2018 card), allowing an OPS of .665 vs lefties and .639 vs righties so far for the Indians.

Mike Minor

The most unlikely of the Volcano breakout starters, Minor is a 31-year-old lefty – pitching in Texas – who did not throw a major league pitch in the 2015 or 2016 MLB seasons (shoulder surgery – nobody recovers from shoulder surgery).  Shandler heaped this praise on Minor, “a back-end innings eater without much room for growth.”  We love those guys!  Through Memorial Day, Mike Minor is leading MLB pitchers in WAR with 3.6.  (You can re-read that sentence again – it is not a typo).  So what type of WAR projection did Minor have heading into the 2019 season?  Steamer gave him a projection of 2.1, Zips a projection of 1.7 and BP a projection of 3.  Through 11 starts, Minor has more than doubled his average season WAR projection of 1.4.  So what is the secret to Minor’s success?  According to the Rangers manager Chris Woodward (and if you read it in the Dallas Morning News, it must be true), “he puts on his Superman cape and gets it done.”  Minor was going to be “the guy” for the Atlanta Braves – who selected Minor No. 7 overall in the first round of the 2009 draft.  Minor progressed and 2013 was his breakout season for the Braves, throwing 204 innings with a 1.09 WHIP and a 3.21 ERA.  Then shoulder discomfort in the 2014 season (4.77 ERA) shut down for spring training at the start of 2015 and shoulder surgery cost him all of 2015 and 2016. The Royals gave him a shot in their bullpen for 2017, and Minor responded with a 2.8 WAR season. He used that to jump-start a shot in the Rangers’ starting rotation for 2018 with mixed results. FanGraphs noted, “While all should be fine going into 2019, it could be better. His fastball velocity increased almost every month (92.6 mph to 92.8 to 93.2 to 93.5 to 94.1 to 93.9) … Minor seems to have fully recovered from shoulder surgery and improved as the 2018 season went on. Hope other owners didn’t notice and buy low.” So far in 2019, Minor has increased his K/9 rate to 9.17 – above his 2018 rate of 7.57 and almost to his rate of 10.20 out of the bullpen for the Royals. Minor’s K/9 rate is also above his rates of 7.28 and 7.96 when he was breaking out for the Braves in 2012 and 2013. Minor’s fastball velocities follow a similar trajectory: 91.7 mph in 2013, 94.9 mph (out of the bullpen for the Royals) in 2017, 93.2 mph (starting for the Rangers) in 2018 and 93.4 mph in 2019. It’s been the rare happy ending to a pitching shoulder surgery story. (I’ll leave Googling Mark Prior as a homework exercise for extra credit).

Brandon Woodruff

Another piece part of the Volcanoes’ 2019 draft was Brandon Woodruff, taken with pick No. 90.  Draftalyzer had Woodruff rated at No. 101, so he was a small reach, but I also had made trades so that after pick No. 93 I would not be on the board again until pick No. 138.  Filling a 2019 I-75 season bullpen slot with the potential for a 2020 I-75 season starter was a prime objective in the 2019 draft.  The Brewers had three converted relievers they were penciling into their starting rotation for the 2019 season – Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta.  After a slow start – 6.00 ERA in his first two starts – Woodruff has emerged as the best of this trio.  If the May 16 Orioles game was Bieber’s breakout, then May 26 against the Phillies is Woodruff’s breakout.  Woodruff allowed one hit (a solo homer to Andrew Knapp), no walks and struck out 10 over eight innings.  For the month of May, Woodruff made five starts (picking up four wins), pitched 33 innings, allowed 17 hits and a 1.36 ERA, walked seven and struck out 37.  But what you’re really asking is “how is Woodruff’s hitting?”  SI answers that question: “The 26-year-old is hitting a gaudy .429/.467/.571 in 2019 with a pair of doubles and two runs driven in, and since debuting two years ago, he’s put up a career line of .313/.371/.469.” Oh yeah … and against the Phillies on May 26 Woodruff was 2-for-3 with a double and 2 RBIs at the plate. Such is the journey of a “Three Up” pitcher.

Three Down

Robinson Cano

Oh no … not Robinson Cano.  From trading for Cano midway through the 2014 season through the 2018 season, Cano has 833 hits in 2,830 at-bats for the Volcanoes (.294 batting average), scoring 405 runs and driving in 432 runs while hitting 122 home runs.  His middle-of-the-order bat from his second base position was a big part of the 2017 and 2018 championship teams.  Sadly, Father Time seems to be catching up on the 36-year-old Cano, as he is slashing 241/.287/.371 for the Mets in his first 45 games.  We’ve seen it before. As the “Metsmerized” blog points out, there are some ways that Cano can get it turned around this season: “After posting a 6.4% walk rate and 15.9% strikeout rate (a career-worst mark) in 2015, those numbers mostly improved each year through 2018 (9.2% walk rate, 13.5% strikeout rate).  So far in 2019, Cano is drawing walks at just a 5.5% clip, while he’s striking out 19.9% of the time. … He’s always been one to swing the bat more than the average hitter. But once he gets back on track, increased aggressiveness within the strike zone will hopefully lead to more contact. And if his quality of contact remains at its current level, that should lead to positive results.”  Positive results are much awaited for Cano!

Manuel Margot

Who doesn’t like athletic, 24-year-old outfielders?  At age 21, he was BP’s No. 18 prospect (eight slots ahead of Cody Bellinger, 13 slots ahead of Ronald Acuna Jr., 39 slots ahead of Juan Soto).  At age 22, his No. 2 PECOTA comp was Andrew McCutchen.  His first two MLB seasons produced a low OBP (.313 in 2017, .292 in 2018), and all those outs drove his WAR down to .6 in 2018.   Draft-alyzer loved Margot (36th pick rating) – driven a lot by Zips 2.4 WAR projection for 2019 and No. 1 comp of Marquis Grissom.  (Grissom’s age-25 season was a 4.8 WAR season, earning Grissom ninth place in the NL MVP voting).  I didn’t like Margot as much as Draft-alyzer (1,000 sub-par MLB at-bats are 1,000 sub-par MLB at-bats), but was ultimately swayed by Shandler’s “Still, foundation is forming, as seen in gains in ct% and HctX, Steady growth is likeliest scenario; however, if skills coalesce more quickly, he’s got HR/SB upside” to give Margot a shot if the draft price was cheap enough.  By the seventhround (pick 93) the price was cheap enough, and Margot became a Volcano.  His hitting regressed, as he has slashed 238/.262/.325 through Memorial Day.  As CBS Sports notes, “On the bench for the fifth time in seven games, Margot looks to be the Padres’ clear fourth outfielder at this point with Wil Myers, Franmil Reyes and Hunter Renfroe all starting at least five games during that span. … Margot’s poor on-base skills (.279 OBP) and lack of power (108) have made it difficult for manager Andy Green to justify keeping his name on the lineup card on a regular basis.”   When you’re pining for Margot’s 2018 OBP of .292 as “the good old days,” something has gone horribly wrong.  Margot’s task for the rest of 2019 is clear:  get on base and figure out how to hit Major League pitching.

Brandon Morrow

Yeah he gets injured a lot: “Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Brandon Morrow will miss the rest of the 2018 MLB season because of a lingering elbow injury.” But he also can dominate when he’s healthy.  Balancing both these truths about Morrow, MLB TV rated Morrow as the 10th-best relief pitcher in MLB heading into the 2019 season. The retention flyer the Volcanoes took on Morrow on cut-down day doesn’t seem to be paying off.  Morrow has yet to throw a pitch in 2019, and the prospects for his first 2019 pitch are still uncertain.  The Cubbies Crib puts it this way:  “The right-hander underwent offseason elbow surgery after missing the entire second half of 2018. When he was healthy last year, he was lights-out, slamming the door emphatically throughout the first half to the tune of a 1.47 ERA and 1.076 WHIP in 35 appearances. Really, at this point, you can’t count on him ever throwing another pitch for the Cubs – because if you’re betting the bullpen on those odds, you’re either A) delusional or B) negligent.”  At this point, I’ll cling to “delusional” and hope that Morrow has some good post-All-Star-breakouts left in his arm.  Such are the mental gymnastics on the journey of a “Three Down” player.

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