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Checking in on Luis Urias

This is a free preview of June 29th’s Newsletter. Consider signing up for a subscription over on the right sidebar if this is your jam. (Or just subscribe to The Athletic San Diego, where my writing can also be found). 

Part two of the two-part Twitter mailbag incoming in five . . . four . . . three . . . ahh, what the heck, here it is:

@jefftsdHow about a compare and contrast of Urias’ 2018 YTD numbers vs. his 2017 numbers? Is his 2018 so far a step backwards, normal growing pains, or do you think his numbers are OK? Just an idea, I don’t remember you recently covering the topic.

Good topic. Just to get the particulars out of the way, Luis Urias is 21 years old and currently playing (mostly) second base at Triple-A El Paso. Through 321 plate appearances, he’s slashing .268/.377/.408 with a 112 wRC+.

The place to start with Urias is the strikeouts, I think. After walking more than he whiffed in every season going into this one, Triple-A pitching has caught up to Urias. He has 64 strikeouts to 43 walks after striking out just 65 times all of last season. The walks aren’t a problem—Urias is actually walking at a career-high 13.4 percent clip, an impressive number given the age and level.

The early concern is that strikeout rate, which has ballooned this season. Going into this year, Urias had an 8.8 percent K rate in his professional career, the stuff of a bat-to-ball legend. This year? It’s at 19.9 percent. As mentioned, Urias is just 21 and at Triple-A, so an increase in whiffs was expected. But even last year, as a 20-year-old at Double-A (and in a tougher hitter’s environment), Urias only K’ed in 12.4 percent of his PAs. It’s not like he needed a bunch of time to adjust to Double-A last season, either; through the first three months of 2017, his K rate was lower than his seasonal mark, at 11.5 percent.

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Horsin’ Around

The wait is finally over. For the first time in three years, horse racing has a Triple Crown winner. Justify, bred in Kentucky and trained by Bob Baffert, coasted to a Belmont Stakes win on Saturday, June 9, wrapping up his quest for the first Triple Crown since the Baffert-trained American Pharoah’s successful bid way back in 2015.

Call me an old fogey, but I long for the days when Triple Crowns just didn’t happen. After Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978—the third one of the 1970s, mind you—no horse turned the trick until American Pharoah. Over that 37-year stretch, however, 13 different horses won the first two legs, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but came up short in the Belmont. Those failed bids—and Tom Durkin’s accompanying calls—remain some of the sport’s most exciting moments.

Over that long Triple Crown drought, the feat loomed tantalizingly close but ultimately felt impossible. Would we ever have another Triple Crown winner, many wondered, as the disappointments mounted. Horses aren’t bred to run the testing mile-and-a-half distance of the Belmont, and they aren’t prepared to win three races in roughly a month, they said. Part of the enjoyment of Triple Crown season came from wondering if each new Kentucky Derby winner could finally be the one to break the crownless streak (or in what manner they’d inevitably come up short in the Belmont).

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The Conflicting Priorities of Andy Green

During yesterday’s game, Andy Green made a curious move. Trailing 5–1 in the third inning, Green pulled a double-switch, removing Manuel Margot from center and putting Matt Szczur in his place. The move perhaps made a touch of strategic sense—it moved the pitcher’s spot from ninth to eighth in the lineup, so new hurler Robbie Erlin didn’t have to bat until the bottom of the fifth. Still, it was super early for a double-switch; avoiding a low-leverage at-bat from the pitcher’s spot in the third inning is hardly a needle-mover. If you believe Margot is a better player than Szczur, you can’t remove him in the third for a double-switch. (And if you don’t, perhaps Szczur should have just started the game.)

Without an easy-to-explain injury—one apparently wasn’t mentioned after the game—the move just didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it perhaps highlighted a difference in priorities between Green and the Padres front office.

The question about who’s better between Margot and Szczur right now is possibly an open one, but we can probably all agree on one thing: Margot has a future in the organization and Szczur does not—at least not unless he’s willing to drop his spare outfielder gig for one as a roving instructor. And even if the switch might have made some sense from a win expectancy standpoint—not a given, by the way—it just didn’t jibe in the big scheme of things. The Padres were facing a left hander and a bad team, and Margot, so long as he’s on the team, should get as many at-bats as is reasonable. Starting him and then removing him after one plate appearance isn’t doing anybody any good.

Of course, if Green is doing everything he can to squeeze an extra point of win expectancy out of a thin roster, maybe it’s hard to blame him.

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Fernando Tatis Jr. is in Good Company

Yesterday, on an entertaining edition of the Gwynntelligence podcast, the guys—HJ Preller and, this time, Woe Doctor—brought up David Marver’s recent tweets on Fernando Tatis Jr., which dovetailed into a good discussion on the riskiness of prospects and the inherent danger in relying too much on one player.

If you follow me on Twitter or have read any of my prospect-related love letters stuff over the last couple of years, you probably have a pretty good idea about my thoughts on Tatis. I once, for instance, ranked him as the Padres top 11 prospects. Yes, all of them. Of course, it’s important to consider the risks broached on Gwynntelligence and by Marver; I certainly understand that Tatis could bust completely or, more likely, simply become a so-so major-league player instead of a superstar, and I don’t want to be charged with overhyping him. The very early performance in Double-A—a .235/.250/.318 slash line with a 28.4 percent strikeout rate in 21 games—is perhaps a flickering warning sign that his developmental path could hit some rocky roads, especially with the way the Padres have fast-tracked him.

Then again, I remain almost unflinchingly high on Tatis, despite the risks and spotty recent performance. It’s certainly plausible that we, as observers of the Padres, are sometimes not great at respecting the risks. But I also think it’s possible that we’re just not used to dealing with a prospect of Tatis’ caliber, one who’s currently rated as a top 10 prospect by three of the biggest prospect-ranking outlets out there (Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com) and just as high (or higher) elsewhere, like ESPN’s Keith Law or FanGraphs.

The Padres haven’t had a prospect this good in . . .well, a long time. First basemen like Anthony Rizzo and Yonder Alonso never even cracked the top 30 on an individual prospect list; Yasmani Grandal hovered around 50; Manuel Margot got close to the top 10 but never into it; even Jake Peavy only reached a peak of 28 back in 2002. The last Padres prospect this highly regarded was probably Sean Burroughs, who hit No. 4 on Baseball America’s list in 2002.

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Sister Jean Is Great, But . . .

I know, I know, it’s a great story. It really is. Loyola-Chicago, a little-known basketball school from Illinois, has reached the Final Four, and their team cheerleader, a sweet, 98-year-old nun known as Sister Jean, is a media sensation. Even me, your resident contrarian, can’t pooh-pooh this story. Or can I? (Hold my beer.)

Now, look, I haven’t paid much attention to March Madness since my team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, took their early (and customary) heartbreaking exit in the second round. But I’ve caught at least parts of most Loyola-Chicago games, and I honestly don’t know a single player on their team by name. Part of that’s my fault, for sure. It’s easy to look up the numbers and names online, and I’m sure there are good, basketball-centered articles out there at places like The Athletic and The Ringer, and perhaps buried somewhere deep in the unnavigable pages of ESPN. But I’m a casual college basketball fan, so I consume most of my college basketball content in snippets from mainstream sources, almost by accident—on SportsCenter, for instance, I just watched an entire segment on Sister Jean that seemed to almost delight in ignoring the players.

I understand the appeal, I suppose. Good story. The non-sports fan is probably going to like it more than an X’s and O’s breakdown of Loyola-Chicago’s  offense . . . but how many non-sports fans are watching SportsCenter at midnight? And how many stories about Sister Jean does the non-sports diehard need? Not this many, I’m sure. The media outlets would likely counter that these types of stories just get more views or hits, but each one of them replaces something that could have been written about strategy, players, or coaches, and maybe those pieces would do well too if given the light of day. There are only so many people on the internet looking for stories about basketball; the ones that are are going to gravitate toward what’s available.

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MRIs and Service Time

What’s the deal with Dinelson?

As we discussed on Monday, Dinelson Lamet left his Sunday start with soreness in his right elbow. The Padres have since diagnosed Lamet with a flexor strain—a muscle issue—and ruled him out for April. At first blush, it’s great news. Anytime an elbow issue finds a pitcher, Tommy John surgery immediately jumps to mind. Flexor strain, then, is a pitcher’s best friend.

Still, like much of Padres Twitter, I can’t quite understand why the Padres haven’t given Lamet an MRI yet. Team doctors apparently diagnosed Lamet through some type of surface examination. That’s cool, I guess—I’m no fan of modern medicine myself, but I’m also not a major-league pitcher or someone who has to make decisions regarding the future of one. It seems like it’d be in the best interest of the Padres, Lamet, and everyone involved to order the MRI, just to double-check whether there could be structural damage in his ligament.

The lack of an MRI so far seems silly, but I like to believe that teams generally act rationally, particularly when confronted with something like this, something that could potentially hurt their on-field product—and, thus, their revenue stream. So . . . what’s the deal?

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Newsletter Free Preview: What’s The Deal With Eric Hosmer’s Defense?

What’s the deal with Eric Hosmer’s defense?

You’ve probably heard it discussed already: The observers generally love Hosmer’s glovework at first, whereas the numbers think he has the range of a lost Tetris block. The former Royal has won four out of the last five American League Gold Gloves at first, nipped only by Mitch Moreland in 2016, yet here are his advanced numbers over the last four years:

Year UZR DRS BP’s FRAA
2014 -0.4 3 8.0
2015 1.0 1 3.6
2016 -8.4 -6 -2.2
2017 -0.3 -7 0.6
2014-2017 -8.1 -9 10

Okay, they’re not exactly terrible, depending on how you look at them, but they aren’t great either. And If you look at them this way, they do look pretty bad: Among the 32 first basemen with at least 1,000 innings played over the past two seasons combined, Hosmer ranks 30th by DRS and dead last by UZR.

Eric Hosmer, Pickin’ Machine?

One of the reasons Hosmer gets touted as a good defender is thanks to his reputation for vacuuming up errant throws at first, particularly ones in the dirt. We don’t generally think about this skill when we think about the fielding ability of infielders, instead turning to range as the driving factor behind fielding prowess. But part of a first baseman’s primary responsibility, of course, is to receive throws from his infield mates. Could the fielding metrics be missing the mark here?

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