The Small Sample Size Crew

Yoslan Herrera went nearly six years between MLB appearances. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Yoslan Herrera went nearly six years between MLB appearances. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The dangers of rushing to judgment based on a small sample size have been nothing if not exhaustively documented by decades of fantastic and comprehensive baseball research. But, if a small sample size at the major league level is all you have to evaluate a player, you’d rather that the small sample size be a good one instead of a bad one, right?

I started thinking about small sample sizes earlier this season when I wanted to catch up with Yoslan Herrera, the Cuban pitcher who split last season between the bullpens of the Los Angeles Angels and their Triple-A affiliate, the Salt Lake Bees. I became interested in Herrera far more than I would any other 16-inning contributor because he had pitched briefly for the 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates…and then did not appear again in the major leagues until last season with the Angels.

Herrera’s gigantic gap between major league appearances felt like a genuinely inspiring story to me — in no small part because it unfolded quietly on the sidelines of the 2014 season — and also because Herrera’s rocky cameo with the Pirates (9.82 ERA in 18.1 innings) looked like a distant memory as he compiled a 2.70 ERA/3.19 FIP with the Angels. Herrera didn’t allow a run in his final 13 appearances — well over half of his season.

It turns out Herrera hasn’t appeared in the majors in 2015, for the Angels or anybody. But what’s even weirder, he’s not even at Salt Lake anymore. Actually, Herrera is in Japan, having signed in January for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

This seems like a weird transaction to me, and not because I’m peering down my nose at Nippon Professional Baseball’s lower quality of play than the majors’. (Which, let’s be honest, the difference in play is probably obvious only to the qualified talent evaluator, a qualification I certainly do not hold.) It seems weird to me because Herrera just showed that he could be a useful contributor to a major league roster, and aren’t there quite a few players currently with big league lockers who have yet to showcase the same abilities?

As I looked around 2014 major league rosters, I found two other players who have experienced a previous 24 months that almost exactly mirror Herrera’s. After prolonged absences from the Big Show, these players performed well in limited time during the 2014 major league season and then found homes in Asia for the 2015 season, where they are again performing well. Yup, that’s a pretty hyper-specific career path, which is probably why I could find only three relevant players.

How did these players end up in Asia? Were there warning signs underneath their productive seasons that kept all 30 major league teams away — including the growing number of front offices who are earning reputations for digging up gold on the waiver wire? Which stateside teams could really use these players now? Let’s have a look.

Aaron Poreda / RP / 2014 Team: Texas Rangers / 2015 Team: Yomiuri Giants

Aaron Poreda Statistics/Projections
Stats/Projections IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
2014 – MLB 21.1 8.86 2.95 5.91 3.51 0.1
2015 – Steamer 9.76 3.52 3.38 3.41
2015 – ZiPS 32.3 8.36 3.62 4.18 3.88 0.1
2015 – NPB 70.1 5.9 2.4 3.33

Prior Résumé: Poreda was a first-round pick in the 2007 Draft, selected by the White Sox with players like Todd Frazier, Josh Donaldson, Rick Porcello and Sean Doolittle just about to come off the board. After making it into the ChiSox bullpen by the 2009 season as a 22-year-old, Poreda was one of four young guns traded to the San Diego Padres at the July deadline in exchange for Jake Peavy. Even though Poreda performed well in his brief time up in 2009 (13.1 IP / 2.70 ERA / 4.45 FIP), he was kept in the Padres’ minor-league system for the next two years, eventually being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2011 Rule 5 Draft. After pitching in only three games (all as a starter) in the Pirates system in 2012, Poreda missed all of 2013 with Tommy John surgery and was signed as a free agent by the Rangers before the 2014 season.

2014 Role: Poreda was a long man/mop-up man for the Rangers in 2014, getting called up in three separate stints, not appearing for the major league team after mid-July and not appearing at all in August or September. Poreda’s Game Leverage Index (the average Leverage Index for the game upon his entrance) was 0.89, whereas the league average gmLI for all relievers in 2014 was 1.15.

Potential Warning Signs: Poreda gave up a killer BABIP both for the Rangers and for Triple-A Round Rock in 2014. In 16.1 innings in the minors last year, he sustained a .488 BABIP, leading to an incredible 6.06 ERA / 1.92 FIP split. In the majors, Poreda gave up a .424 BABIP, which no doubt helped wedge that gap of more than two runs between his ERA and his FIP. Ten of the 30 hits he allowed were doubles, which certainly seems like an indication Poreda was getting hit hard. But it’s also easy to see evidence that Poreda was simply the victim of bad ol’ luck. After starting his season with 8.1 scoreless innings over nine appearances, Poreda gave up his first run of the season on a Chris Carter single that is one of the bloopiest hits you’ll ever see. Poreda gave up another run in his next appearance after pesky Anthony Gose stretched a single into a double, stole third, and then came home on a weak grounder. A run-scoring double by Dustin Ackley was nearly snagged out of the air as it left the infield. Ian Kinsler drove in a run off Poreda on a ground ball with eyes, and Marwin Gonzalez would later do the same. In what could be Poreda’s final major league game, a run trickled in on an infield grounder. These are six of the 14 runs Poreda gave up on the season, making the bad luck look very large indeed.

What Brought Him To Asia: The Rangers sold the contracts of both Poreda and Miles Mikolas to the Yomiuri Giants in early November, as reported by Evan Grant. As Gerry Fraley reported after the deal was official, Poreda received only the most modest of pay raises — although this has probably turned out to be the most lucrative year of Poreda’s career, seeing as he isn’t spending any time in the minors. Plus, Poreda is a starter for the first time since before his call-up in 2009, starting all 11 games he’s appeared in.

Who Could Use Him Now: As reported by Steve Adams of MLBTradeRumors, the Rangers received $150,000-$200,000 in the deal and freed up space on their 40-man roster. This seems like a small reward now that the Rangers are a contending team with a bullpen full of below-replacement options like Tanner Scheppers (18.1 IP / 5.89 ERA / 6.21 FIP), Alex Claudio (13.2 IP / 2.63 ERA / 6.03 FIP) and Anthony Bass (36.1 IP / 4.71 ERA / 4.29 FIP). The Rangers’ bullpen has been, cumulatively, the worst in the majors so far. Selling Poreda’s contract (and Mikolas’ as well) doesn’t quite seem to add up.

Nyjer Morgan / OF / 2014 Team: Cleveland Indians / 2015 Team: Hanwha Eagles

Nyjer Morgan Statistics/Projections
Stats/Projections PA AVG OBP SLG WAR
2014 – MLB 52 .341 .429 .439 0.3
2015 – Steamer .242 .294 .331
2015 – ZiPS 258 .243 .299 .343 0.5
2015 – KBO 42 .273 .405 .333

Prior Résumé: How is it possible that the tiny Morgan — and his alter-ego with a personality of giant proportions, Tony Plush — played in only four full major league seasons? Morgan is the journeyman’s journeyman, having gone on globe-traveling journeys in not one but two sports (the other being hockey). With some help from Morgan’s incredibly thorough Wikipedia page, I count (while excluding three minor league teams that he went on rehab assignments with) Morgan having worn 22 different uniforms since high school. In more or less chronological order: Vernon Vipers, North Okanagan Knights, Nelson Leafs, Delta Ice Hawks, Regina Pats, Prince George Spruce Kings, (now to baseball) Walla Walla Community College, Willamsport Crosscutters, Hickory Crawdads, Lynchburg Hillcats, Altoona Curve, Honolulu Sharks, Gulf Coast League Pirates, Indianapolis Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Phoenix Desert Dogs, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, Yokohama DeNA BayStars, Columbus Clippers, Cleveland Indians, Hanwha Eagles. Wow.

2014 Role: After Morgan’s below-average 2012 (which followed his turn as a vital contributor to the playoff-entrant Brewers in 2011), he played excellently for NPB’s DeNA BayStars in 2013, with a full-season slash line of .294/.361/.434. Morgan appeared in 15 games for the Indians last season, including in their Opening Day lineup, when he drove in the winning run. Even though Morgan put on a hitting clinic while in the majors, he still was sent down in the middle of April and was released without playing a game after a stint on the 60-day DL in a move that was, I guess, mutual.

Potential Warning Signs: Morgan’s 2014 defensive numbers were a career worst, and he produced one of the zaniest bunt attempts ever seen in a professional game, but it’s really hard not to love that prodigious offense. Morgan went 3-for-4 with a homer in his next-to-last game! Sure, he was due to endure some regression, but the strong performance sure made it look like his limp 2012 season was more of a slump than a sign that a former speedster had ended up on the wrong side of the hill.

What Brought Him To Asia: After four months of free agency, from August to December, Morgan signed with the Eagles for a 1-year deal worth $700,000. My guess is this was simply the most guaranteed money available to him. After all, Morgan had just experienced how a great performance in Asia can earn a player a job back in the major leagues.

Who Could Use Him Now: You’ll notice Morgan doesn’t have very many plate appearances even though the KBO is about 60 games into its season. That’s not injuries biting Morgan again: after butting heads with his manager in spring training, Morgan was released from the team early in the season despite a strong start to the year. Major league men who have worked with Morgan (of which there are many, going back to that giant list of teams up above) will know if his release is either an accidental bit of cultural misunderstanding or not a surprise at all, given how Morgan’s personality runs pretty well opposite of baseball’s conservative culture.

The Chicago White Sox, whose playoff hopes are just about all the way down the drain, probably could have used Morgan as a member of their all-below-replacement outfield. The Minnesota Twins, who actually are in the playoff race, at least for the moment, also could really use some outfield help. And since Morgan is a free agent, well, his signing with the perennially bland Twins would be nothing if not entertaining.

Yoslan Herrera / RP / 2014 Team: Los Angeles Angels / 2015 Team: Yokohama DeNA BayStars

Yoslan Herrera Statistics/Projections
Stats/Projections IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
2014 – MLB 16.2 7.02 4.86 2.70 3.19 0.1
2015 – Steamer 7.39 3.23 3.90 3.90
2015 – ZiPS 62.3 6.93 3.18 3.61 3.58 0.2
2015 – NPB 26 9.3 2.8 3.81

Prior Résumé: It feels weird and delightful, given our endlessly thorough Internet, not to know what a major league pitcher did for several years, but this is the case with Herrera. Baseball-Reference has his statistics in the Cuban National Series from 2001-03, and then I can’t find anything until he emerged in 2006, already defected, to sign a 3-year/$1.92M contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After his ill-fated cameo with the big league club in 2008, Herrera spent all of 2009 in the Pirates’ system, followed by cameos in the Venezuelan Winter League and then, in 2010, with the Twins’ affiliate Rochester Red Wings. And then, for two more years…nothing.

This profile in On Cuba Magazine indicates Herrera hung out in his home in Tampa Bay and spent some time in the Nicaraguan League. The profile mentions Herrera’s helpful transition to the bullpen with Algodoneros de Guasave of the Mexican Pacific League but doesn’t mention Herrera’s tenure in the same year with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League. Whatever the case, I count Japan as the sixth country Herrera has lived and played in.

2014 Role: Herrera had two tenures with the big-league club, first briefly in April and then from late August through the end of the regular season. Much like Poreda, Herrera was not trusted with high-leverage situations, with a 2014 gmLI of 0.76. Herrera also was given only one appearance longer than one inning — a very short leash given he has spent most of his career as a starter. It was absolutely mop-up work, but Herrera clearly made the best of it, dragging his ERA from 5.19 at the start of September all the way down to 2.70 at season’s end.

Potential Warning Signs: Herrera always has given up a lot of walks. Even during his turn with the indie league Barnstormers, he gave out 2.9 free passes per nine innings. Against major league competition, that number is understandably destined to balloon: Herrera’s 4.86 BB/9 last season brought down his career BB/9 rate to 5.4. At the same time, though, Herrera also almost never gives up home runs, a trait that goes back years. Between the majors and the minors last season, he gave up three in 66.2 innings.

What Brought Him To Asia: This winter, the Angels non-tendered Herrera but almost immediately signed him to a minor-league contract, a sequence that no doubt saved the club some money. Herrera’s contract with Yokohama appears to be for $250,000, which seems like a really, really low sum. Herrera must have figured he was likely to earn more money via his NPB contract instead of a 2015 major league season that could very well have seen him bounce back and forth between the majors and minors again. Every team in the majors had a few days last December during which they could have secured Herrera’s services, but clearly none of them wanted to do it.

Who Could Use Him Now: As mentioned above, the Rangers possess probably the league’s worst bullpen in the middle of a divisional race. The Oakland A’s also have been noticeably lacking bullpen stability, a major reason why the A’s are a last-place team with the Pythagorean record of a first-place squad.

References & Resources

  • All Asian league statistics via Baseball-Reference.
  • All statistics accurate as of games played on Monday, June 15.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.
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7 years ago

Vernon Vipers, North Okanagan Knights, Nelson Leafs, Delta Ice Hawks… Prince George Spruce Kings

Ye gods, Morgan saw a lot of small* British Columbia towns (and that’s not even counting the ones he played against on the road). That’s the nature of minor league hockey, of course, just like minor league baseball. It’s still odd and funny to run across those names in Hardball Times story.

* Yes, I know Price George isn’t tiny and Delta is part of greater Vancouver.