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Jeff Locke and the Pirates Way

Before you understand Jeff Locke, you should know that you probably won’t understand Jeff Locke. This will be a post without a real conclusion, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be interesting!

A couple things we know to be true about Locke: Over the last two seasons, he’s made 51 starts, and has logged 292 innings. In that time, he’s posted a very respectable ERA of 3.69, which puts him in the same company as guys like Jeff Samardzija and Dallas Keuchel. Over that same time period, however, he’s also posted a less-respectable FIP of 4.18, which puts him in the same company as guys like Travis Wood and Edinson Volquez. Put another way: Locke has outperformed his peripherals like few others in baseball.

Now, some things we know to be true about the Pirates: They have, arguably, baseball’s most distinct organizational pitching philosophies, which include both pitching inside and pitching low at extreme rates. As a team, they’ve outperformed their peripherals like few others in baseball, and that’s likely at least partially a result of their organizational pitching philosophies. The last thing we know is that they recently chose Locke over Vance Worley for the final spot in the rotation, which came as a bit of a surprise considering Worley’s dominant comeback last season.

Worley still made the rotation, on account of Charlie Morton‘s injury, but that’s beside the point. The Pirates chose Locke over Worley, and, to an extent, that’s telling. For these facts alone, we have reason to be interested in Locke. It’s not often one finds oneself saying that, so the time is now. Let’s investigate Jeff Locke.
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The Latest R.A. Dickey Experiment

R.A. Dickey‘s entire career has, essentially, been one giant experiment. You know the story by now. Dickey was drafted by the Texas Rangers back in 1996, and took a signing bonus for nearly $800,000 less than what was originally offered after team doctors discovered he just didn’t even have an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. Dickey scuffled through the minor and major leagues for more than a decade before reinventing himself as a knuckleballer and promptly becoming one of baseball’s best pitchers, winning a Cy Young Award in the process.

Dickey’s experiment, obviously, was the knuckleball. But around Dickey, other experiments followed. Like the Mets giving light-hitting catcher Josh Thole regular playing time due in large part to his ability to catch Dickey’s knuckleball. Catching a knuckleball is quite hard, you see. But Thole could do it, and the two built a strong rapport together.

Then, the Blue Jays took over the experiment by trading top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard for Dickey, and, of course, his personal catcher, Thole. In Toronto, Thole’s position was reduced to exclusively serving as Dickey’s catcher. He couldn’t hit worth a lick, but he could catch Dickey’s dancing knuckler, and that was enough to keep him on the roster.

In the offseason, the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a contract worth $82 million, which, alongside incumbent Dioner Navarro, gave the Blue Jays something of a logjam at catcher if they wanted to continue carrying Dickey’s personal backstop on the roster.

Then, on Tuesday, some news:

In 2015, a new R.A. Dickey experiment begins. Maybe you’d prefer to call it a Russell Martin experiment, because Dickey’s largely going to continue throwing his knuckler the same as he ever has. Martin is the one learning something new.
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The Anatomy of a Mike Trout Double Play

Probably should have seen this one coming. Last week, FanGraphs overlord David Appelman announced some minor improvements to the way WAR is calculated on the site, one of them being the inclusion of a double play avoidance stat (wGDP). Shortly thereafter, managing editor Dave Cameron wrote a post regarding The Thing Adam Dunn Was Surprisingly Great At (hint: it was avoiding double plays) and mentioned, in passing, that Mike Trout happened to be the very best at that particular thing last season.

As a quick refresher course, I’ve created an entirely underwhelming flowchart which I believe accurately represents the state of Major League Baseball in the year 2015. My sincerest apologies go out to Sean Dolinar, for I assume this single-handedly ruins all the hard work he’s done over the past couple months in an effort to unify and improve the site’s graphics.

Behold:

TroutFlow

So that’s how we got here. A new stat was born, and, like clockwork, Mike Trout just so happened to be the best at it. Well, he was last year at least. In 2014, Trout led the MLB by creating an additional three runs above average by avoiding the double play. If you want take it back a bit further, here’s what a top-15 leaderboard looks like over the last three years, or since Trout has been a full-time regular:

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JABO: Bryce Harper, Ultimate Post-Hype Sleeper

I came across a stat the other day that took me by surprise. Someone on Twitter was defending Starlin Castro, and made the point that he’s already amassed 1,000 hits before his 25th birthday. I thought to myself, “Surely, that can’t be true. Surely, Starlin Castro isn’t already one-third of the way to a milestone that all but guarantees one’s place in the Hall of Fame.” Turns out, it’s not entirely true, but this is:

846 hits! Not bad, Starlin Castro. Especially considering it was around this time just a year ago when many were leaving Castro for dead after he put up one of the worst offensive seasons by a shortstop in recent history. In hindsight, that notion seems like quite the overreaction, given that Castro followed up the dreadful year with the best offensive season of his career and has re-cemented himself as the young, exciting Cubs shortstop of both the present and future.

But Castro’s case got me wondering: do we, as a community, take young talent for granted? Are we too quick to write off young players as one-hit wonders who burst onto the scene and then struggle — even if those struggles last for a full season or more? Seems to have been the case with Castro. Surely, I thought, there are others like him.

Naturally, my attention then turned to Bryce Harper.

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2015 Positional Power Rankings: Second Base

What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data below is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems, with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.

Yes, we know WAR is imperfect and there is more to player value than is wrapped up in that single projection, but for the purposes of talking about a team’s strengths and weaknesses, it is a useful tool. Also, the author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.

Positional power rankings! Second base! Let’s do this. Here comes a graph of projected team WAR:

2bWAR

Well, would ya look at that. Robinson Cano is still good at baseball. For the third consecutive year, Robinson Cano’s team lands atop the second base rankings of power. There’s a pretty defined top three, a pretty defined top 10, and then the rest. You can see that. Let’s talk about it.

Wait — really quick before we begin, the disclaimer: decimal points of WAR really don’t matter. Team X with 3.0 WAR isn’t demonstrably better than Team Y at 2.7 WAR. It’s less about an exact order and more about visualizing, roughly, where each team falls within the landscape of the league. Okay, now with that in mind, let’s begin.
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White Sox Add Adam Eaton to Long-Term Plan

When the White Sox signed Adam Eaton to a five-year, $23.5 extension over the weekend, the move in and of itself, wasn’t huge news. It wasn’t huge money, and Eaton isn’t a huge player, literally or figuratively. But the move wasn’t just about Eaton, necessarily, rather it was part of a bigger plan.

Take it from Eaton himself:

“I think I’m going to play more than that contract is worth, but again, we want to win here and there’s money to go elsewhere,” Eaton said. “The next three, four, five years, if I can be a savings to bring some guys in, that’s key for us.”

This quote pretty much nails it all. Eaton talks about the value of cost certainty, he talks about being part of a bigger plan, and he talks about what extensions for pre-arb players like this allow teams to do. With the Eaton extension, the White Sox have added a fourth member to a pretty clear “core four” who are now locked up through at least 2018, when the oldest of the bunch (Eaton) will be 32 years old. Both Sale and Quintana have club options for ’19 and ’20, and if all options are exercised by the end of the contracts, here’s what the White Sox are on the books for:

  • Chris Sale: $53.15M through 2020 (two club options)
  • Jose Abreu: $51M through 2019, though he can opt into arbitration when eligible
  • Jose Quintana: $40.15M through 2020 (two club options)
  • Adam Eaton: $42M through 2021 (two club options)

That’s 24 combined years of control for $186.3M, where one of the players is a top-5 pitcher on the planet and one of those players is a top-5 hitter on the planet, and all four guys are playing through their prime years. That’s a pretty enviable position for the White Sox.
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A Preview of 2015 Team Defenses

It’s gettin’ to that time of year when folks tend to preview stuff ’round baseball. Our annual Positional Power Rankings will be coming to the site over the next couple weeks, you’ll surely see all sorts of divisional preview pieces pop up between now and Opening Day, and this right here is going to be a preview of team defenses.

We saw last year where a good defense can take a team. The Kansas City Royals were more than just a great defense, but it was evident, especially during the playoffs, how much an elite defense can mean to a ballclub. The same was true, but on the other end of the spectrum, for the Cleveland Indians. Our two advanced defensive metrics — Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating — agreed that the defense in Cleveland was worth around -70 runs last season. In Kansas City, it was something like +50. That’s a 120-run difference! That’s about 12 wins! Those teams play in the same division! Move 12 wins around and the result is an entirely different season! Defense isn’t the biggest thing, but it’s a big thing. Let’s look ahead.

All the numbers used in this piece will come from UZR and DRS. For the team projections, I simply utilized our depth charts and did a little math. We’re going to take a look at the three best, the worst, the teams that got better, the teams that got worse, and then all the rest down at the bottom. For the upgrades/downgrades, I used the difference of standard deviations above or below the mean between last year’s results and this year’s projections.
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Rafael Soriano: The Last Man Standing

At this point, it only makes sense to talk about Rafael Soriano. That’s not something you hear every day, but it makes sense to talk about Rafael Soriano because these are the remaining names that currently populate our free agent depth charts:

We used to have something like 100 names on our free agent depth charts, and now we’re down to 11. More specifically, those 11. If you weren’t keeping track at home, that’s two catchers who combined for -1.3 WAR last year, a first baseman who’s retiring, a 37-year-old second baseman who’s played nine games since 2012, a group of three outfielders who are projected for a combined -0.6 WAR, another outfielder who’s out for the season, a reliever coming off three consecutive years of elbow surgeries, a pitcher who no longer amounts to much more than a beard, and a closer who’s saved 117 games the last three years.

That’s the long-winded way of saying, Rafael Soriano is the Last Man Standing in this year’s free agent class, and at this point, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
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Giancarlo Stanton and the Value of Intimidation

You’re 11 years old. You toss your flattened “Piña Mango” Capri Sun pouch to the floor of your mother’s dog hair riddled Honda Odyssey and pull the door handle that activates the painfully slow automatic sliding door. As the door creeps along and the heat of the mid-July sun begins to fill the smelly minivan, you grab your sweet airbrushed helmet and -7 Easton Stealth aluminum bat from the backseat and race towards the dusty fields.

As you begin warming up with your teammates by playing a bit of catch (see: chase balls thrown over your head and down that stupid hill into the woods), you can’t help but begin scouting the other team. “Those kids are huge,” you think to your prepubescent self. Your attention is drawn to one child in particular, due in part to his hulking stature but also to the audible POP! of his partner’s glove. With each subsequent throw and POP! of the glove, you and your entire team begin to quiver in your size-7 Mizuno youth baseball cleats, questioning your own talent, self-worth, and ultimate place in this world. POP! Without doing anything, he’s already gotten in your head.

That child is Giancarlo Stanton.
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Oswaldo Arcia and the Relentless 3-0 Hack

Last week, I wrote a post in which I drew a comparison between Oswaldo Arcia and phenom George Springer. All things considered, the two are far from similar players, but this was strictly an offensive comparison. Even then, it wasn’t perfect, but it was something! Springer and Arcia had the two worst in-zone contact rates in baseball, yet carried two of highest isolated slugging percentages. They don’t hit the ball very often, but it’s worth it when they do. For that, they’re both interesting and worthy of a comparison.

This time, there is no comparison. There couldn’t be. Because nobody was even remotely like Oswaldo Arcia in 3-0 counts last year.
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An Attempt to Explain Yasiel Puig’s BABIP

Been talkin’ about BABIP lately. Let’s talk about BABIP again. Let’s talk about Yasiel Puig, and his BABIP.

Last week, I wrote a post on Starling Marte, in which I examined his extraordinarily high batting average on balls in play. I had a hypothesis, and that hypothesis was confirmed. It was far from revolutionary. I knew that Marte was fast, and then I found out that he hits a bunch of line drives and never hits pop-ups. Then I also found out that those three things alone can explain more than 50% of the variance in a player’s BABIP. Again, that’s really nothing new.

The metric I created, BIP Score, featured Marte prominently near the top. Also near the top were a whole bunch of guys with BABIP’s above .330. Yasiel Puig is another guy with a BABIP above .330. It’s way above .330. During his time in the MLB, only two qualified batters have a higher BABIP than Puig. But he’s nowhere to be found in the top half of the BIP Score leaderboard. From the post:

Not everyone with a high BABIP scores well in BIP Score. Yasiel Puig, for example, owns a career .366 BABIP — higher than Marte’s — but actually has a negative BIP Score, thanks to his low line drive and average pop-up rate.

I felt like that warranted an examination of its own. This post is that examination.

I guess, first, we’ll take a look at that BIP Score. That’s how this all started anyway. To get BIP Score, I simply summed the z-scores of every qualified batter’s line drive rate, infield fly rate and speed score and scaled it so 0 was league average. It’s admittedly a quick-and-dirty metric, but the higher the BIP Score, the more likely it is that a player should be able to sustain a high BABIP.

With this methodology, Puig clocked in with a BIP Score of -0.3. To get a sense of the context, let’s look at the other guys around Puig who also clocked in at -0.3.
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How Adrian Beltre Has Defied Father Time

This is it. This is the year Adrian Beltre finally declines.

Yep, you heard it here first, folks. Adrian Beltre is donezo. I mean, come on — dude’s about to be 36 years old. He’s logged 10,001 plate appearances since he entered the league in 1998, a number topped by only Derek Jeter. His defense has declined significantly the past two seasons, no matter what metric you use. He only hit 19 dingers last year after averaging 32 over the previous four seasons. Clearly, all that wear and tear has taken its toll on Beltre. The jig is up! The fat lady has sung.
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The George Springer Who Isn’t George Springer

Let’s play a game. It’s a guessing game! We can play it because I haven’t yet ruined the surprise in the title.

Ready? Oh, wait — that’s right. Before we play, there is one stipulation. You have to know who George Springer is.
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Starling Marte and the Quest for the Perfect Batted Ball Profile

What follows is a brief excerpt from the latest edition of FanGraphs Audio featuring Kiley McDaniel, and also the approximate moment when I started conducting research for this post and subsequently stopped giving my undivided attention to the aforementioned podcast:

A very literal transcript, for those unable to listen to the embedded audio for whatever reason:

Carson Cistulli: Starling Marte is really — uh, is so good.

Kiley McDaniel: How good is he?! (sarcastically)

CC: Well, he’s good! He also has a strange profile — you’re probably aware of this. But, his plate discipline is still not particularly well-developed. But he probably has, at least, one of the best batted ball profiles of any major leaguer at this point.

KM: I remember when I was in Pittsburgh, the sort of — well, I don’t want to speak for the organization — but the question I was asking is, is he the guy that can walk very little and still, like, has the bat-to-ball skills to make it work? And, y’know, hit .280 with a 4% walk rate or whatever his numbers are. And I watched him in Altoona — he was in Altoona the year I was there — and I thought yes, but I wasn’t willing to bet tens of millions of dollars on him being, like, one of the very few guys that can do that. Yeah, he’s definitely a unique fit.

So now you know where I’m coming from.
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Looking For Some MLB Comps for Joc Pederson

I suppose I should preface this by saying I have no scouting background, and I don’t pretend to. What I know about Joc Pederson comes entirely from a.) things written by actual, paid scouts and b.) numbers. This post will be using the latter, and not the former, in an attempt to produce an MLB comparison for Pederson, the Los Angeles Dodgers rookie. If that’s the sort of thing you’re into, great. If it’s not, well, thankfully you haven’t spent too much time reading this so far, and there are myriad scouts’ opinions on Pederson. For instance, here are a couple excerpts from our very own Kiley McDaniel, an actual paid scout:
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Meet the Surprisingly Dominant Back End of the Cubs Bullpen

Seems we’ve been talking about the Cubs more than usual this offseason. Which makes sense — the Cubs are really interesting right now. They’re really interesting right now, and it’s been a while since they’ve been interesting at all. It’s finally their turn. Of course we’re going to talk about them more than, say, the Mets or the Rangers. Sorry, Mets and Rangers.

Bullpens are all the rage in today’s MLB. Starting pitchers are being asked less and less to work deep into games, and so the importance of having multiple bullpen weapons to work the final few innings is at an all-time high. Used to be you’d hear about a team that “played eight inning games.” A team like the Yankees could let out a sigh of relief when they entered the ninth with a lead, because they had Mariano Rivera. Last year, we saw the emergence of the team that played six innings games, as the Royals let out their collective sigh of relief with a lead in the seventh inning as they watched Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland toy with hitters for three innings to close out games.

Everyone would like to have their own version of the Royals’ three-headed monster in the back of their bullpen, which brings us to the back end of the Cubs bullpen.
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Going Low and Away with the Brewers

Back in September, Jeff Sullivan wrote on this very weblog about The Three Most Distinctive Team Philosophies. On Tuesday, I published a piece exploring why Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Wily Peralta fails to record significant strikeouts totals despite possessing elite velocity. This is the result of those posts colliding.
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Wily Peralta and the Case of the Missing Whiffs

The Milwaukee Brewers traded a mainstay of their rotation in Yovani Gallardo to the Texas Rangers last week, as you by now are well aware. When a team trades a mainstay of its rotation, it’s natural to look to the rest of the rotation in an attempt to find who will pick up the slack. Literally, that person will be Jimmy Nelson, who is likely to fill the now-open spot in the rotation. But Nelson’s a fifth starter who is 26 has thrown just 79 innings in the MLB, so the expectations of him are somewhat tempered.

You look to the rest of the rotation and you see Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, two guys whose career trajectories appear to be going down rather than up. Mike Fiers is an interesting case, but believe it or not he’s only a year younger than Garza and since he hasn’t been a big part of the rotation the last two years, the bar isn’t set too high for him, either.

This brings us to Wily Peralta. Peralta is young — he’s just 25. Peralta has been a fixture of the rotation the last two seasons — he’s made 32 starts in each year and racked up 382 innings in the process. Peralta legitimately improved last season — he dropped his ERA-, FIP- and xFIP- while throwing more innings per start. And Peralta is exciting, because he throws really, really hard. But that’s the part I want to talk about.
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What Happens When Billy Hamilton is on Third Base?

When I first dreamt this post up, I figured the title would somehow include the phrase, “Billy Hamilton Effect.” That was before I discovered Eno already wrote a post called “Todd Frazier and the Billy Hamilton Effect” back in July. Point is, there are a lot of unusual ways in which Billy Hamilton affects the game, because Billy Hamilton is an unusual player. We know this because stealing 155 bases in a single season is not usual, and neither is this.

I wrote a post about Frazier last week, examining how he was able to steal 20 bases despite possessing what appears to be just mediocre speed. In that post, I noted that three of Frazier’s 20 steals “were essentially catcher’s indifference.” Catchers indifferences are typically insignificant, but these three were noteworthy because they all happened for the same reason. At the time, I didn’t get into the details because I didn’t want to spoil the premise of this piece, but after I saw the first one, I knew I had to write a post about it.
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How Did Todd Frazier Steal All Those Bases?

I’m gonna go ahead and write about Todd Frazier again.

I wrote about Frazier last week, with a focus on the combination of both power and speed he displayed in 2014. According to a metric devised by legendary historian Bill James in an attempt to quantify one’s combination of power and speed, Frazier’s Power/Speed was third in the major leagues, behind Carlos Gomez and Ian Desmond and ahead of Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen.

That’s really impressive for a third baseman who we didn’t know had this kind of speed and blah blah blah I’m starting to repeat myself from last week. Point is, Frazier did these two things really well. I focused moreso on the power in last week’s post, but the more surprising part is the steals, so I wanted to investigate that a bit further.
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