Author Archive

How Can We Predict Stolen Base Talent?

Predicting the ability to steal bases is not something you think you need to do. You did not say to yourself over breakfast, “I wonder if Michael Bourn can steal bases?” You already knew he could. And maybe that’s what made breakfast so delicious.

But if we want to push the frontier of base running, if we want to see the end of the home run era become the beginning of the efficient base running era, we have to do this thing we thought we did not need to do. We have to be able to predict stolen bases.
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Cubs Sign Scott Hairston, Edge Closer to Hopeful Season

The Yankees, Mets, Braves and Phillies were all in pursuit of Scott Hairston, and it wasn’t until last week that it appeared the Cubs even had a chance. Now the oft-wanted role player is joining the Chicago Cubs on a 2-year deal worth up to $6 million after incentives.

Hairston’s well-documented ability to hit left-handed pitching (119 wRC+ against lefties, 86 wRC+ against righties) has earned him quality playing time in the majors, but never a starting gig. That trend should continue as he joins a Cubs outfield alignment already featuring a pair of lefties in David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz.

Schierholtz has a career 96 wRC+ against righties and 90 wRC+ against his brother southpaws. On the merit of two consecutive strong seasons against right-handers (123 wRC+ in 2011, 126 wRC+ in 2012), Schierholtz figures to earn a hearty 500 PA as the Cubs anti-righty platoon mate.

DeJesus, meanwhile, owns a much more pronounced platoon split. His strong defense across the outfield and 117 wRC+ against righties keeps him in the lineup most days, but his 80 wRC+ against lefties may make him — despite being the more proven hitter — a possible platoon partner for Hairston as well.

All told, Hairston and his surprise suitors together make an increasingly interesting team, rich both in flaws and talents. With Hairston and a few other Scotts — Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Kyuji Fujikawa (“Scott,” to his friends, I believe) — the Cubs look like they may need a hunting cap in 2013. The playoffs may not be out of reach.
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The Changing Caught-Stealing Calculus

Leafing through an old Sports Illustrated, I recently happened upon this stellar article by Mr. Albert Chen entitled “Revenge Of The Base Stealers,” in which Chen analyzed the league’s continued shift towards base-pilfering over base-trotting.

With the whimper-death of the Steroid Era, league strategies have swung towards old-school baseball. Most winning teams now employ some combination of great defense, strong base-runningitudes, and notable pitching-miraculosities. As such, wise teams have found employs for otherwise marginalized speedsters.

The net result has been an uptick in the value of a stolen base, according to linear weights:

SB-CS Run Values

This chart shows how the cost of a caught stealing (the red line) is trending towards zero (meaning a caught stealing is costing less — in fact, much than its .400 runs high point in 2000) while the gains from a stolen base (0.161 runs in 2012) have remained strong.

Whither belongs the blame for this change? Simply: Home runs. And where do we wander from here? In short: Deep into the heart of Speedster Kingdom.
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De-Lucker X: The Final 2012 Numbers

Remember when the Playstation 2 came out, and then Sony released a newer, smaller version of the original Playstation, called the PSone? After that, people started calling the original Playstation console the PSX, or Playstation X. Today, we are going back to the original console version of the De-Lucker, so grab your nearest mint copy of Final Fantasy VII and buckle in!

Why DLX?

FanGraphs recently re-did how we calculate wOBA for all the players. In an effort to give base-running its own stand-alone category and run/win value, we reduced wOBA to a hitting-only metric and took out SB and CS. That’s where the problem with the De-Lucker 2.0.

DL 2.0 used the Fielding Independent wOBA formula, which includes stolen bases. In order to keep things parallel, we now must revert back to the Should Hit formula — essentially:

0.09 + 1.74(HR%) + 0.39(BB%) – 0.26(K%) + 0.68(BABIP)

The De-Lucker part comes in when we plop an xBABIP in the place of yonder true BABIP. Jeff Zimmerman and Robert Boden (slash12) have been working on and promoting what I believe is the best xBABIP formula out there, so let us once again use that.

Beneath the jump: More caveats! All sorts of data! Downloadable Excel spreadsheets! Fewer video game references!
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Do the Rays Need Offensive Help?

The Tampa Bay Rays may be great at pitching and defense, but they do not score many runs… Right? MLB Trade Rumors thinks so:

The Rays could address multiple needs by dealing a top-of-the-rotation starter. Their offense ranked 18th in MLB in runs scored, so there’s clearly room for improvement.

-Ben Nicholson-Smith, 10/31/12

ESPN suggested just as much:

…[Justin] Upton would give Rays a badly needed presence in the middle of their lineup.

-Buster Olney, 11/11/12

And even in the sabermetric sphere, we tend to hold that axiom:

Alas, the Rays’ hitting was an entirely different story, as they finished just 11th in the league in scoring. Yes, they certainly were undone by crummy luck in close games. But the crummy luck might have gone largely unnoticed if the Rays had scored 30 or 40 more runs.

-Rob Neyer, 10/27/12

But the consensus does not gel with the very leaderboards that ranked them the No. 8 MLB offense in 2012, according to wRC+. The disconnect between popular perception and the reality of their past and future production comes from two key sources: (1) Three especially cold months of run production in 2012 and (2) the under-appreciated pitcher’s haven, Tropicana Field.
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The Next Great Knuckleballer

What if former MLB knuckleballer Joe Niekro taught a 7-year-old how to throw a knuckleball for strikes? And what if that seven year-old stuck with the game and the knuckleball — threw two perfect games in Little League and got named to five consecutive all-star teams heading into a high school career?

In general, there is no such thing as a knuckleball prospect. The fingernail special is the go-to pitch for normal prospects or pitchers who have to reinvent their careers. That is what makes predicting the next great knuckleballer a near impossibility. Last night, R.A. Dickey became the first knuckleballer in history to earn a Cy Young award, but Dickey himself pitched several seasons with the Rangers before adding his deadly knuckler, and even then, it took years to get to a Cy Young level.

There is a reason Dickey was the first Cy Young knuckleballer, though. The man has in some ways reinvented the knuckleball, throwing two versions of it — fast and slow versions — which allow for a 10-mph range on his flutterball. If youngsters learn Dickey’s Bugs-Bunny-pitching-style, then they could perceivably position themselves as knuckleball prospects, but it still seems unlikely.

Who would willingly throw a knuckleball in high school when scouts are looking for fastballs and curveballs? Well, for a 15-year-old native of Plant City, Florida, knuckleballs have been the key pitch to a young successful repertoire — ever since Joe Niekro taught the fluttering pitch to her.
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2013 NPB Free Agents in Context

Earlier this week, the great NPB prospect maven, Patrick Newman, ran down a list of the 2013 NPB free agents of interest. He identifies five free agents as likely candidates for impact in the MLB:

1. RP Kyuji Fujikawa
2. SS Hiroyuki Nakajima
3. SS Takashi Toritani
4. 2B Kensuke Tanaka
5. RP Hideki Okajima (who is poised for his second tour of MLB duty)

Newman — a Japanese speaker and a far more qualified scout — offers about the best scouting and contract analysis for which one could ask. But today, let us study the coin’s tail and examine the stats of these players in context with their leagues.

NOTE: My wOBA+, FIP+ and BABIP+ calculations are league adjusted only, not park adjusted.

RP Kyuji Fujikawa
Newman calls Fujikawa, rightly, the head of the class. I have previously examined Fujikawa’s impressive numbers and prognosticated on how his numbers would transition in the MLB. My conclusion, based on his numbers, is that he could easily be a high-leverage reliever in the MLB, starting on day one:

Two of the last three seasons have not been particularly his best years, but even at his worst, Fujikawa is an excellent NPB pitcher. I think we can expect anything from 70 FIP- to 90 FIP- from him in the MLB — at least for a season or two.

SS Hiroyuki Nakajima
I have written about Nakajima on several occasions (when the Yankees paid his posting fee, when the Yankees looked like they might execute a sign-and-trade, and when he put up another great year in the NPB in 2012), and I suspect he could be a starting infielder for a good number of MLB teams.

Newman reports Nakajima’s aging range will lead to an infield job outside of shortstop, and I have little reason to doubt that. In all likelihood, he will sign as a utility player, but I think he very well could play himself into a starting job, much like Norichika Aoki did in 2012.

I am bullish on Nakajima and think he could reasonably do as Aoki did and translate much of his offensive numbers cleanly into the MLB. If not a perfect 1:1 translation, Nakijima should still have no problem hitting in the 100 wRC+ to 110 wRC+ range, which is great for a middle infielder.

SS Takashi Toritani
According to Newman, Toritani has a better hope of sticking at shortstop than Nakajima, but since his offensive production is so walk-heavy — a trait that does not bode well for (domestic) minor leaguers since walk-rates do not translate cleanly into the MLB — teams may not offer him much in the way of either playing time or remuneration. If he can bring his strong offense and decent defense to the States (or Canada), he would make for a healthy catch:

He had a particularly good 2011 season, but the 119 BABIP+ was clearly a departure from his recent norm, so I think we can consign him to a a 115ish wOBA+ in the NPB. It is hard to say exactly how those numbers would translate into the MLB, but my developing rule of thumb is to make it worse by 20 points, which would be about 95 wRC+, which is 10 wRC+ points better than the league average shortstop.

SS Kensuke Tanaka
Tanaka may be the only second baseman of the three infielders testing the MLB markets, but he grades as the best defender. Also, Newman says Tanaka is possibly willing to sign a minor league contract, which should essentially guarantee he will be in the US (or Canada) within the year. His numbers do not suggest he would make for a suitable starter in the MLB, but given his versatility and small ball skills, he could make for a quality utility player for many teams:

Tanaka profiles much like a 75 wRC+ to 95 wRC+ infielder. If his defense is as good as Newman suggests, and if he is able to hitting in the upper levels of that range, then Tanaka will have no problem competing for a bench spot — or even a starting role on a team struggling for infielders. In all likelihood, though, he is Kaz Matsui with even less offense, but more defense.

RP Hideki Okajima
Blast from the past! Okajima has finished his one-year spirit journey through the NPB and is poised for an MLB comeback. He lasted only 7 MLB games in 2011, and then the Yankees released him in February 2012, but in Japan, he dominated like an MLB veteran should. He appears well-poised to play a valuable role out of an MLB bullpen in 2013:

Okajima’s first three seasons in the MLB were exceptional. If he is healthy and feeling younger, he could again post numbers in the 80 to 90 FIP- range.

Much of these projections are optimistic. There is always a chance any one of these players could have their leg snapped within the first month and never be the same again. They might also have certain skillset that for whatever reason just does not translate into MLB parks or against MLB hitters/pitchers. But regardless of the possibilities, the relatively thin infield market and the, as always, wealthy reliever market may be richer than we might think.


From the Majors to the NPB: Analyzing MLB Expats


Data!

On Monday, I took a look at how the new ball in Japan’s NPB league may be affecting the predictability of Japanese talent. The first signs are good: It looks like the new, standardized baseball in Japan — a ball which mimics the MLB design, starting in 2011 — may be resulting in more direct skill translations into the MLB. This means MLB franchises will be able to identify priority athletes better and extend more appropriate contracts and posting fees.

In the comments of that article, KJOK of Seamheads.com suggested — quite rightly — that the conversion conversation should go two ways:

…I think it is important to examine the players that went TO Japan since the new ball was introduced, and see how they also performed against expectations.

Let’s do just that.
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Reassessing NPB Talent Levels

Here are the four rookie position players above 3.0 WAR in the 2012 season:
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Adam Greenberg Gets His Shot

The Marlins will be giving former Chicago Cubs farmhand the at bat he lost seven years ago. According to multiple sources, the Marlins are signing Adam Greenberg to make an appearance in their series against the New York Mets:

Greenberg, on July 9, 2005, was hit in the back of the head on the first pitch from Marlins reliever Valerio de los Santos, giving Greenberg a severe concussion and effectively ending his MLB career. I was watching the game with my mother. I remember it well.

And now, after a public campaign to get Greenberg another shot at the majors, the long-time minor league and independent league 31-year-old player will get his chance.
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Addison Reed: Shutdown Numbers, Meltdown Stuff

In 2011, White Sox reliever Addison Reed faced 293 minor league hitters and struck out 111 while walking only 14 of them. It was a good year for Reed. He went from A-Ball, to High-A, to Double-A, to Triple-A in 3 months and 15 days.

In 2012, Reed has faced 229 major league hitters and struck out 52 while walking 18. He has also allowed two more home runs than in his time in the minors while facing 64 fewer hitters.

Despite all this, the AL Central-leading, supposedly rebuilding Chicago White Sox have called on the rookie Reed to perform as the team’s closer. And even with his his 4.82 ERA, the White Sox have stuck with him and have been rewarded with the 9th most net shutdowns in the American League (28 shutdowns, 9 meltdowns, 19 net SD) and a total of 28 saves.

So have the White Sox done it? Have they finally found the heir to the ghost of Bobby Jenks? Or have his recent struggles been a portent of pending trouble?

Well, Reed has a few oddities on his stats sheet, and depending on which items we consider aberration and which we consider omens, it can alter the way we see the 23-year-old relief ace.
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Kyuji Fujikawa: Japan’s Mariano Rivera

In a recent article discussing the latest crop of international talent, valued commenter “Nate” offered a great, concise preview of soon-to-be international free agent Kyuji Fujikawa, who’s presently playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball league:

Kyuji Fujikawa – Closer for the Hanshin Tigers. Closest thing Japan has had lately to a Mariano Rivera-type. He’s 32, but will be a full free agent, so won’t require a posting fee. Expensive teams that forgot to buy a bullpen should look at him *cough* Angels *cough*.

And Nate is correct many times over; not only does one of Japan’s best relievers appear ready for a jump across the river, but he also has every chance to be an elite reliever in the United States.

Take a look at his numbers in Japan:

This is legit. And he could make for a talented addition to a number of teams in 2013.
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Pitch Location and Swing Angles: Dunn and Bruce

Last Thursday, I took a stab at predicting how batter’s swing influences their ground ball / fly ball splits. One of the most important retorts to the research (a retort made both in the comments and on The Book blog) was that pitch location was the determining factor of bat angles — what I was attributing to hitter tendencies (at least for hitters who have big GB/FB platoon splits).

Consider today’s offering a second puzzle piece — hopefully an edge piece — in what is a 1000-piece puzzle of understanding GB/FB splits. Today I offer the case study of two (essentially randomly picked) hitters with large GB/FB platoon — Adam Dunn and Jay Bruce.

The results surprised me, twice, and in the end, it appears these two hitters employ different swing patterns, suggesting there may be traction with my original theory, even though pitch location does have a considerable affect on swing angles.
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Drew Pomeranz Needs Better Secondary Pitches

Drew Pomeranz takes the mound today for the Colorado Rockies. The 23-year-old lefty came into the 2012 season with Matt Moore expectations, but so far has Jamie Moyer results. On Tuesday, he takes the bump aiming for a solid 4.0 IP against the playoff contending Atlanta Braves, and if he hopes to salvage anything from his forgettable rookie season, he will need to get his secondary pitches working for him.

Pomeranz has improved over the last two months, as his K-rate and BB-rate have both moved in the right direction:

But in order for his success to grow, Pomeranz will need to dramatically alter his approach, and that starts with his curveball.
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Swing Planes and Predicting GB-FB Splits

On July 18, 2009, Willy Aybar, who had not played in 6 days, who could barely play second base and had hardly proven himself as a hitter, got the start at second against eventual the AL Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke. Aybar went 4 for 4 with a game-deciding double.

Rays manager Joe Maddon told the media the choice to start Aybar had been a deliberate one, a decision based in the front office’s proprietary analysis. I remember the event — reading the post-game interview moreso than seeing the game — because it marked the first time in my baseball-viewing experience where I had seen a lineup decision apparently based according to ground ball and fly ball data.

Entering the 2009 season, Greinke had a 37.9% ground ball rate — making him one of the league’s more extreme fly ball starters (this has since changed). Aybar, meanwhile, finished his short career with a .349 wOBA against fly ball pitchers and a .300 wOBA against ground ball pitchers.

Since that July 18 game, the Rays have continued to be one of the very few teams to game the underappreciated GB-FB splits game. I suspect one of the main reasons for that is that teams — namely managers — cannot easily identify and predict the splits. Today, I would like to put forth a theory that suggests we can identify — with decent success — GB-FB splits after just watching a hitter take batting practice. Here is the theory:

THEORY: Batters with an uppercut swing will succeed more against ground ball pitchers, and hitters with a more level plane will succeed more against fly ball pitchers, and — naturally — hitters who can swing on both planes will have a smaller overall split.

Let’s examine:

NOTE: Many GIFs are under the jump. The page may load slowly.
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Daisuke Matsuzaka on Waivers: A Worthy Gamble

On Monday, the Boston Red Sox activated Daisuke Matsuzaka and sent David Ortiz to the DL. On Tuesday, they put Daisuke on waivers.

The recent Dodgers-Red Sox super-trade cleared the slate of expectations for Boston’s 2013 team, and it seems unlike they would be interested in giving Dice-K another chance while their minor leagues brim with newfound pitching talent. And though it is unwise to call the recent trade a salary dump — given the talent they got in return — it appears all postseasons bets are on hold for now. According to Paul Swydan, the Red Sox should have six open roster spots heading into next season, and one of those does not likely belong to the veteran, oft-injured Matsuzaka.

BUT: Despite having TJ surgery last May, despite hitting the DL with a back strain last month and despite being less than a month away from his 32nd birthday, Matsuzaka has a career-low walk rate and his best strikeout rate since 2008.

And he could be a worthy gamble for a team in contention.
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The Rays Bullpen Makes Big Spenders Look Dum

The double-surprise success of Fernando Rodney has received appropriate documentation and laud, but a grander epic is unfolding daily in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen.

The Rays ‘pen has the second best ERA and third best FIP in the MLB. Their ERA trails only the National League Reds, and their FIP has only one AL rival, the New York Yankees. Only the Rangers (30) and the Diamondbacks (35) have fewer meltdowns than the Rays bullpen at 36 (and the Rangers have a much better offense, meaning fewer meltdown opportunities).

And it has been the same story since 2008. The Rays bullpen has made relief magic on a mom-and-pop-store budge:


Source: USA Today.

The Rays are paying approximately one (1) Jonathan Papelbon this season for one of the best bullpens in the Majors. And they are accomplishing this one excellent pitch at a time.
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Felix Hernandez, John Jaso Outwit the Rays

Felix Hernandez‘s perfect game on Wednesday was a testament to both his excellent stuff, but also a well-deserved outcome for an excellent game plan executed by he and catcher John Jaso. A former Ray himself, Jaso appeared to know just how to approach the Rays lineup, getting increasingly good results as the game went along:

That’s 5 swinging strikes through the first 61 pitches, and then 19 through the remaining 53 pitches. How did Felix do this? He and Jaso took advantage of an aggressive Rays plan by placing filthy breaking stuff further and further from the zone.
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A Mixed Showing for International Rookies

The 2012 MLB season began with a very public bounty of international talent — Japanese stars, Cuban expats and even a Taiwanese surprise. With the season dipping into its final six weeks, we are beginning to see both the good and the bad of these international players who made the direct transition to MLB rookie.

SP Yu Darvish — The biggest star from Japan since Daisuke Matsuzaka has had a very Daisuke Matsuzaka season — much despite steady predictions of the opposite. Well, actually, he has an 86 FIP-minus and 94 xFIP-minus. That’s at least a better FIP than Daisuke’s rookie year, but an identical xFIP.

Dave Cameron has written extensively on Darvish lately, noting Darvish has a command problem, the league has realized Darvish has a command problem, and Darvish has a scary group of command problem comparables.

At the same time, though, Darvish has been adjusting his approach to a less-aggressive (compared to the NPB) league. He has been toying with his repertoire, and I would not be surprised if he entered the 2013 season with a streamlined pitch selection that sets up his elite slider (one of the best in the league) more effectively and simply.
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Jamey Carroll: The Game Shortstop Du Jour

Anyone who plays FanGraphs: The Game in the shortstop category can attest to this fact: It is hard to find good production at shortstop. Actually, given the budget constraints of The Game and the quickly-adapting pricing algorithm, it’s hard to find good production anywhere.

The technique I have been employing is to start stars (typically $8 or up) against terrible competition (i.e. bad pitchers or the Cubs lineup) and then start regression candidates (typically $3 to $5) when there is no obvious winner among the stars matchups. I am proud to report this method has produced one of the better outfielders and starting pitchers — at least among the FanGraphs super secret Writer’s League.

In his FanGraphs: The Game strategies piece for RotoGraphs, Zach Sanders suggests players avoid starting anybody on bad matchup days. My approach goes counter to that; I say regression possibilities always leave room for a good matchup (the notable exception being starting pitching — some days, there really is no good play to make).

So where does Twins infielder Jamey Carroll fit in all this? Well, he’s the unlikely regression candidate that I’m going to ride to the finish line.
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