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Baseball America 'Insider' Mailbag Volume 2: Valuing Pitchers, Golden Age Of Shortstops & More

(Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB photos via Getty Images)

We’ll keep rolling out subscriber mailbags all week. If you missed yesterday’s mailbag, we covered a lot of topics including the 2022 Prospect Handbook, the A's recent drafts, tall vs. short pitchers, minor league housing and Corey Seager vs. Trea Turner.

Today we're looking at the changing world of how pitchers are valued, a golden age of shortstops and Rule 5 fever.

Max from Maryland asks:

Q: With changes in how pitching staffs are deployed in the bigs - openers, bullpen games, etc etc - are there changes in evaluation and development of pitching prospects? Can we look for a new category of projection - something like a once through the lineup pitcher?

A: Yes. I don’t think we’ll have it adjusted in time for this year’s Prospect Handbook (we’re deeply into producing it already), but I’ve been talking to front office officials and scouts about exactly this subject a lot in recent months, and I think we’ll eventually be tweaking how we describe relievers.

Currently we describe it this way for relievers in the 2021 Prospect Handbook:

BA Grade/Role/Example

60/Game’s best reliever

55/Elite closer

50/Elite setup reliever

45/Lower-leverage reliever

40/Relief specialist

The equivalent starting pitcher roles as described in the 2021 Prospect Handbook were:

75-80/No. 1 starter

65-70/No. 2 starter

60/No. 3 starter

55/No. 3-No. 4 starter

50/No. 4 starter

45/No. 5 starter

40/Fill-in starter

This is a work in progress, but here’s how I would suggest an adjustment we may make to better reflect the current reality. Whereas No. 4 and No. 5 starters used to be valued significantly more than solid relievers, I don’t know if that can be viewed the same way in the 2020s.

Front-of-the-rotation starters are if anything even more valuable than they were a decade ago, something that is once again evident as we go through free agency. A starter that a team wants to send to the mound for two starts in a best-of-5 or best-of-7 playoff series is incredibly important and also hard to find. Because of injuries to Mike Soroka and Charlie Morton, the World Series champs in Atlanta finished the season with one (Max Fried). Houston finished as AL champs with only two/almost three (Luis Garcia, Framber Valdez and Jose Urquidy) after Lance McCullers was injured and Zack Greinke struggled to work his way back from a late-season stint on the injured list. That’s why Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray. Kevin Gausman and others are landing massive deals on the free agent market.

But nowadays, there are starters that a team wants to make a playoff start (or two) and there are starters who are valuable during the regular season, but who slide onto the periphery of the roster come October. Think of what happened with Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly on those Astros and Braves teams.

A team needs these back-end starters to get through a 162-game season, and because of that they have significant value. But in the postseason, the value proposition flips. Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Brooks Raley and Luke Jackson were much more important to their teams’ chances in the playoffs than Odorizzi or Smyly. In the case of No. 4 starters, teams no longer want to give them playoff starts if they can avoid doing so.

On the free agent market, there still seems to be a slight distinction between how a No. 4 starter and a solid reliever is valued. If you look at the deals that someone like Odorizzi or Smyly receives on the free agent market, it’s slightly more than the equivalent contracts for an Aaron Loup, Chris Martin or other high-leverage relievers who aren’t viewed as closers. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the market eventually sees the two come closer in how they are valued on the free agent market

Digging one step deeper, No. 5 starters seem less valuable then before and the true No. 6/7/8 starter who spends most of the year in Triple-A is not nearly as valued as it was a decade ago. The crafty Triple-A pitcher who hits his spots and doesn’t top 92-93 mph isn’t nearly as common as he used to be (when the demarcation line was 90-91). It wasn’t that many years ago that a No. 6 starter could be expected to receive 5-10 starts a year. Now, teams would rather turn that into a bullpen game or use a bulk-innings pitcher along with a heavy dose of bullpen arms.

As the depth starter role has been devalued, teams have come to value pitchers who can effectively get through a lineup one and sometimes two times more than they used to. Drew Rasmussen, Cristian Javier and Tanner Houck were all players who filled those roles on playoff teams. They are seemingly more valuable than the swingman/mop-up man distinction that used to exist. In many ways, they are above the “low-leverage reliever” in a team’s pitching staff pecking order.

There’s one more significant change I would argue. The lefty specialist is largely a relic of an earlier age thanks to the three batters faced rule, but teams now value relievers for their ability to be shuffled on and off the MLB roster. So the up-and-down reliever now is appreciated in a way that wasn’t always the case. An up-and-down reliever (like the Rays’ Louis Head who was optioned 12 times and recalled 12 times in 2021) is valued in part because the team can bring him on or off the roster as the other needs of the staff demand. If an MLB veteran isn’t a high-leverage reliever and is out of options, he’s actually at a disadvantage nowadays in competing for a job against slightly lesser relievers with options who give teams roster flexibility.

A reworked listing could be this. Let me emphasize again, this is a work in progress:

75-80/No. 1 starter

65-70/No. 2 starter

60/Elite closers/No. 3 starter

55/Top-tier high-leverage reliever/No. 3-4 starter

50/Second-tier high-leverage reliever/No. 4 starter

45/Lower-leverage reliever/multi-inning reliever/No. 5 starter

40/Up-and-down reliever/No. 6/7 starter

--J.J. Cooper

Nick from New York asks:

Q: With all the quality shortstops that got drafted in 2021 and the ones selected from the international signings - are we entering another shortstop renaissance like (ARod, Jeter, Garciaparra) times?

A: Howdy Nick, thanks for your question. Certainly we’ve seen an influx of talent at the shortstop position in recent years (and there’s a strong college shortstop class in 2022), but I don’t believe we’ll see the 2021 class as a tipping point for a renaissance on par with the mid-90s crop. That said, the position is as talented as it has ever been with players like Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Bo Bichette, and many others at the major league level. Currently the position is loaded with impact players. However, the 2021 class was very strong and Marcelo Mayer, Jordan Lawlar, Kahlil Watson and Brady House could all be impact players.

This season also saw the emergence of Bobby Witt Jr., Anthony Volpe, Oneil Cruz, and Brayan Rocchio. They are all players with a shot to be impact players at short, though their ability to stick there long term has some question marks. Could we be on the edge of another golden age of shortstops? Much of that depends on how Witt, Volpe, Cruz, and the 2021 pivots progress.

-- Geoff Pontes

It’s kind of crazy how good that trio of shortstops were at the same time. During each of their first five full seasons (spanning 1996-2002) A-Rod posted 35.6 WAR, Jeter posted 23.5 WAR and Garciaparra posted 32.4 WAR. A-Rod had multiple 9-plus WAR seasons and Garciaparra had four straight seasons with 6-plus WAR.

Among the fWAR leaders at the position from 2015-2021, we don’t have a single shortstop who has managed the sort of early-career impact that either A-Rod or Garciaparra displayed in the 90s, though your question certainly speaks more towards the next wave of prospects who aren’t yet playing in the bigs as opposed to the very strong group of young stars we have currently.

At this point I would ID Fernando Tatis, Wander Franco and Bobby Witt Jr. as the three young shortstops who have a chance to get to that sort of tier in the next half-decade or so. I certainly wouldn’t bet on it, but would it shock me if those three managed similar value totals? Not really. Bobby Witt Jr. is one of the best shortstop prospects we’ve had in a long time and he just had an explosive season at the upper-levels of the minors, Wander performed as a ~6 win player in his debut and Tatis played like a ~7.5 win player over 130 games this year.

And as you mentioned, that doesn’t include the historically great high school shortstop class we just had in 2021. None of those 2021 high school shortstops were at the tier of BWJ at the same time, but between Mayer, Lawlar, Watson and House there are some pretty explosive tool sets there.

-- Carlos Collazo

Kristin Johnson from San Diego,CA asks:

Q: When did J.J. Cooper started getting #Rule5DraftFever?

A: Last year’s Rule 5 draft ended on Dec. 10. I took the weekend to recover, loaded up on Vitamin C and started getting 2021 Rule 5 fever on Dec. 14, 2020.

-- J.J. Cooper

Jeremy Pena Edited

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