Author Archive

The Impressively Poor White Sox Offense

Brayan Pena is a 33-year-old backup catcher who has amassed 1820 PA across 11 seasons, producing a .259/.299/.352 line and a 75 wRC+. The takeaway point from that first sentence is that Brayan Pena has been among the worst hitters in the league over the last decade, which is probably something you knew about him without any prompting. Pena’s a fun-loving character and he’s passable behind the plate, so he’s made a career for himself in the big leagues despite the very limited offensive production.

Reflecting on Pena is simply a way to put the 2015 White Sox in perspective because the White Sox are essentially hitting like Brayan Pena as a team this year. On the season, they’re hitting .241/.295/.357 (77 wRC+). They’re five percentage points worse than the Phillies (82 wRC+) at the plate without removing the Phillies’ pitchers from the equation. Take pitchers out of the equation and the White Sox’ 78 wRC+ is nine percentage points worse than the 29th place Phillies (87 wRC+). The White Sox offense is historically bad.

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The Emergence of Lorenzo Cain, Hitter

Very recently, Lorenzo Cain started for the American League in the All Star Game. He was entirely deserving of the honor and was not merely a product of the Royals’ impressive get-out-the-vote campaign. Cain entered the break with a 140 wRC+ in 322 PA, putting him 23rd among qualified hitters between two gentlemen named Jose Bautista and Joc Pederson. Cain’s offense alone would get most players into the Midsummer Classic, but it certainly helped that he’s been a superlative defensive outfielder and had 4.0 WAR at the end of the first half.

The best center fielder in baseball is Mike Trout. That’s not opinion or analysis, it’s a fact. It might as well be one of the laws of physics. Any debate on the matter is manufactured for shock value. Andrew McCutchen has a very strong case for the next spot on the list. It’s probably not bulletproof, but it’s difficult to refute. After McCutchen, the waters get a bit murkier, but Lorenzo Cain is a strong candidate for number three.

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Jose Abreu, Pitchers, and Ongoing Adjustments

One of the things I find most interesting about baseball is how often players seem to try new things and then how often those changes seem to make little to no difference in their overall productivity. Batters alter their stances and pitchers try new grips and patterns all the time, but it’s actually pretty rare that a player makes a small change and becomes significantly different. A whole lot of effort goes into small changes, but the vast majority of these changes don’t seem to make a big difference, yet everyone is always making them. It seems like a lot of wasted energy.

Except that it’s not wasted energy as much as it’s about context. One reason all of these tweaks don’t have huge impacts is that everyone else gets a chance to respond to the adjustment very quickly and make their own. There’s so much information available to players and they’re generally a perceptive bunch. If Clayton Kershaw suddenly threw Paul Goldschmidt a 50-grade knuckeball, I would wager that Goldschmidt wouldn’t do much damage against that first one. Theoretically, Kershaw spent lots of man hours working on the pitch, but most hitters have faced knuckeballs and they would very quickly figure out that Kershaw has one and when he likes to use it. A pitcher adjusts, and then the hitters adjust to that adjustment. It goes on and on forever. If you don’t constantly tinker, you might be left behind.

At the beginning of 2014, there were a lot of questions about how well Jose Abreu would perform in the major leagues because we didn’t have any information about Abreu in the context of the American professional regime. His raw tools had our attention, but until we saw him face professionals in the American context, our information was rather limittarget=”_blank”. The question at hand was how Abreu would adjust to the major leagues.

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A History of Josh Donaldson in Foul Territory

If a person came up to you and made the claim that Josh Donaldson was the best player in baseball, you would actually have to refute his or her case with legitimate evidence. If someone said Rajai Davis was the best player in the league, you could just roll you eyes and get on with your day, but Josh Donaldson is close enough to the top of the list that a counter-argument is required. Is he a better player than Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, or even Bryce Harper? Probably not, but he’s worth considering.

He’s worth considering, in large part, because he’s a great hitter. Donaldson ranks 18th in wRC+ since 2013 (min. 500 PA) at 140. An average defensive third baseman with a 140 wRC+ is something like a 6 WAR player over a full season. But, as I’m sure you know, Donaldson is not an average defensive third baseman. He’s one of the very best.

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Aggression Isn’t the Reason for Joey Votto’s Resurgence

Joey Votto is a passive hitter. Over the last five seasons, he’s swung at around 40% of the pitches that have been thrown in his general direction. During that same span, the average hitter swung at 45-46% of pitches he faced. Over 2,500 pitches, that’s a difference of about 125 swings, or something like 0.77 swings per game. Despite the fact that Votto is one of the most conservative swingers in the league, one fewer swing than an average hitter per game makes the difference appear small.

Commentators and fans have frequently criticized Votto’s approach. He’s paid more than $22 million per year and many people equate that kind of money with power hitters who collect RBI. The criticism of Votto is that if he were less concerned about his own statistics (read: walks) and was more willing to put the ball in play, his team would score more runs. Votto’s an on-base machine because he has an excellent eye and derives a good portion of his value from reaching via the walk. This isn’t new information and the criticism has been ongoing for at least a few seasons.

The advanced stat community has defended Votto because he’s an excellent offensive player and there isn’t a lot of evidence that his club would be better off if he were more aggressive — and Votto himself has voiced similar opinions. Votto argues that if he was more aggressive, his overall value to the team would decline even if his home run or RBI totals went up. Based on the evidence we’ve compiled over the last couple of decades, it seems like he’s right. The funny thing is, in 2015, Votto is actually walking less and his results have been terrific. Did Votto listen to the critics?

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Both Sides of the Phil Hughes Argument

So much of the analysis we do in baseball follows a pretty simple formula. We notice a player is getting different results, we look for explanations for the change, and then we speculate about whether the latter caused the former and if it will continue. Baseball includes so much random variation and you have to make decisions all the time about how much information is enough to rule out randomness as an answer. When it came to Phil Hughes in 2014, we didn’t have to worry too much about randomness as an explanation.

Hughes rattled off the best K/BB ratio of all time and was somewhere between very good and excellent for the first time in his career. While we can chalk lots of leaps up to random variation, Hughes seemed immune because he was such a drastically different pitcher in Minnesota compared to New York. It appeared to be quite clear why Hughes was so much better. He stopped issuing walks and pounded the strike zone. He bumped up his strikeouts as a result, and seemingly cut his home runs because he was in better counts and not in Yankee Stadium.

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A.J. Burnett Fits Perfectly in Pittsburgh

I don’t believe in soul mates. I don’t think that there is one perfect match out there for everyone or that most of life is just a quest to find them. But just because there isn’t a perfect fit doesn’t mean there isn’t a best fit. You can’t win every hand of blackjack, but you can still play a strategy that’s better than any other strategy. This is a baseball website, so when we put this in the context of baseball players, we find the Pittsburgh Pirates and A.J. Burnett. While the Pirates and Burnett aren’t soul mates, they’re as pretty close to an optimal fit as you’ll find in the game today.

This isn’t a new discovery. There was plenty of attention paid to Burnett’s career rejuvenation in the Steel City as it occurred, and Dave was kind enough to remind us of that fact when he reviewed the Pirates one-year contract with the pitcher this last December. Dave’s thesis, unsurprisingly, was that this reunion made sense because of how well the player matches the team, but also that Burnett was another year older and would probably not be the pitcher they remembered from 2012 and 2013.

Dave was half right, at least so far. Burnett and the Pirates are helping each other in 2015, but instead of easing into retirement, Burnett is having arguably his best season as a professional. Certainly, it’s wise to factor in some regression to his 2014 numbers, but even if you do that, he’s right on track to finish 2015 at a very similar level as his previous two seasons with the Bucs.

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The Can’t-Miss Prince Fielder

Numerous people have told me that the Grand Canyon is something I have to see in person. It’s supposedly one of those things in life that doesn’t disappoint and you can’t quite appreciated it until you’re standing there ready to be swallowed up by it’s rocky majesty. Having never traveled west of Dallas, I’m just assuming these people are telling the truth. Maybe the Grand Canyon is better on an HDTV.

I remember having that feeling as a kid traveling to Comerica Park to watch Mark McGwire come to town two years after he broke the single-season home-run record. My family bought tickets to a game during that series specifically to see a Mark McGwire dinger in person. He hit one in the three-game set and slashed .333/.385/.677 in 13 PA against my favorite team. The Tigers won two out of three. It was pretty much exactly what you wanted as a young baseball fan.

Under much different circumstances, I had a similar feeling when Prince Fielder made his Tigers debut at Comerica Park twelve years later. I have a very vivid memory of Fielder taking a huge cut in his first plate appearance that day. It was one of those swings you could hear from the upper deck and you knew if he had made contact that ball would have traveled a very long way. Power is impressive on television, but you can’t always appreciate just how quickly a ball leaves the playing field when you’re watching on your sofa.

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The Best 40 Games of Zack Cozart

It probably doesn’t shock you to learn that the three best hitting Reds so far this year all play the infield. Based on what you know about the Reds, it’s only slightly shocking to learn that Jay Bruce isn’t in the team’s top three in wRC+, but Todd Frazier and Joey Votto are obviously right up there and Brandon Phillips, while sometimes overrated, isn’t a bad hitter. Except Brandon Phillips isn’t number three on the list. That was a test. It’s actually Zack Cozart and his 127 wRC+ through 144 PA this year.

As a learned baseball fan, you’re immediately jumping to the conclusion that Cozart has had a nice little run during the first couple months of the season, but there is simply no way he’s actually this good. It’s a totally defensible position to weigh Cozart’s first 1,799 PA from 2011-2014 more highly than the 144 from 2015. That’s just good science. Entering 2015 you had an opinion about how good Cozart is at hitting and 36 games isn’t going to change that.

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Max Scherzer Might Be Getting Better

Ever since the Diamondbacks selected Max Scherzer in the first round of the 2006 draft, his potential has been readily apparent to everyone who has watched him pitch. Anytime you have a pitcher with significant fastball velocity and movement, and at least one very strong secondary pitch, the sky is the limit. Stuff is pretty easy to identify early on, but becoming an elite pitcher requires more than raw ability.

For the first few years of his professional career, Scherzer had a classic case of “he should be better.” He was a solid contributor in Arizona and in his early years in Detroit, but if you watched his stuff on any given night, you were left wondering why he was above average rather than great. The biggest hurdle for Scherzer was repeating his rather chaotic delivery to the point where he could utilize his stuff effectively day in and day out. Adding a curveball certainly helped, but the turning point came in mid-2012 when Scherzer figured out how to find a consistent release point. He never looked back.

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A Look at Quality of Contact Profiles

It seems like it should matter how hard you hit the baseball. That statement probably seems self-evident, but until this year we haven’t really had a whole lot of evidence to demonstrate whether that’s true. We have an old month of HITf/x data from 2009 and there’s non-public data about exit velocity, but until StatCast data arrived this year, we didn’t really have the tools to determine how much quality of contact matters.

Last week, FanGraphs launched quality of contact statistics courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions to add to this effort. The methodology isn’t based solely on a raw exit velocity, but the data stretches back to 2002 and it’s publicly available now and easy to manage. As soon as people realized the data was available, the sabermetric masses went to work to run preliminary tests on the data. One of the interesting things that showed up right away was that the data didn’t do a great job predicting itself in the future and things like Hard% didn’t correlate with stats like BABIP or LD% as well as we might have otherwise thought.

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Getting the Astros to 90 Wins

When MLB added a second Wild Card in each league for the 2012 season, making a version of the postseason got easier. More teams were invited into the season’s final month, even if you want to make conditioned arguments about how adding the extra teams changed the nature of in-season roster decisions. Over three seasons, we’ve had six second Wild Cards who averaged just under 90 wins per team per season. It’s a small sample as far as trends go, but the values have been lower in the National League and have generally decreased each year.

As a result, we can essentially say that the average second Wild Card will win about 90 games this year. It might be more or less, but it’s a fairly safe starting assumption. It’s an assumption you take into account when thinking about your team’s chances of making the playoffs. We’ve seen teams make the postseason with fewer wins, and in an age of increasing parity, 88 might do the trick as well. In general, a 90 win team has performed well enough that they will very likely make the playoffs under the current regime.

Which brings us to the 14-7 Houston Astros who currently lead the AL West by four games on April 30. The Astros, if you haven’t noticed, have been bad for quite a few years, and there was an expectation entering the 2015 season that they would remain relatively unimportant to the AL playoff picture. They averaged 58 wins over the previous four seasons, and while they built a team that our Playoff Odds machine projected for 78 wins in 2015, that’s a far cry from the amount needed to make the postseason, as we just learned.

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Nick Martinez is Different, Maybe Better

At some point this year, the samples will be large enough that every post doesn’t have to come with a massive disclaimer. Of course we’re dealing with minuscule samples, but interesting things can happen in minuscule samples even if they don’t provide a lot of externally useful information. In particular, the first month of a baseball season can bring some extremely unusual and compelling stat lines, especially when dealing with metrics that are designed to be useful over larger samples. Enter Nick Martinez.

Martinez was the 564th pick in the 2011 draft and likely only has a safe spot in an MLB rotation this year because he is a member of a Rangers organization that has been decimated by injuries. While we saw Martinez toss 140 innings in his age 23 season in 2014, they were bad innings. He posted a 113 ERA- and 128 FIP-, both of which are still using park factors that treat Globe Life Park as if it’s more hitter friendly than it’s played since the renovations. If we’re being generous, he pitched like a replacement level starter and you might argue he was worse.

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Collin McHugh Continues to Trust His Slider

On Wednesday, Collin McHugh pitched well against the Ben Zobrist-less Oakland A’s. Zobrist’s absence made the A’s a weaker version of themselves, but they were still a tougher opponent than the hapless Rangers he saw five days earlier. While McHugh only tossed 5.2 innings and faced just 23 batters, he tied Trevor Bauer for the single-game strikeout lead for 2015 with 11. Although unlike Bauer, McHugh walked zero A’s instead of five Astros.

This is largely noteworthy because Collin McHugh was one of the most prominent breakout players from a year ago, and we’re dying to know how much of that breakout we should take to heart. In 2014, McHugh was a 3-4 win player, who could have been a solid number two starter on almost any team in the league and he posted those numbers in under 160 innings. If McHugh is actually that able, the Astros have five more seasons of a very good pitcher who can help anchor their next playoff rotation.

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Assessing Kevin Kiermaier’s Potential

If someone asked you to guess which right fielder provided the most value on the defensive side of the ball last year, the only logical answer is Jason Heyward. Heyward was so far above his compatriots that you almost wonder if he was simply not supposed to be a right fielder and that Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup card handwriting was somehow confusing the players and sending them to the wrong positions.

Heyward posted 32 defensive runs saved and a 24.1 ultimate zone rating in 1317 innings in right field. No one else was even in the ballgame, but if you had to guess who was second, it might be a little more difficult. Enter Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier’s 14 DRS and 16 UZR in right field landed him at second on a list of right fielders sorted by DEF, which is UZR and the positional adjustment.

DEF is a cumulative statistic, meaning more opportunities can lead to higher numbers. Heyward’s DEF was 17.3 and Kiermaier’s was 13.3, but Kiermaier played just 526.1 innings in right field last year. If you convert those marks to a rate statistic, say UZR/150, then Kiermaier rockets up to an insane 56.6 UZR/150 while Heyward settles just above 20. By the numbers, Kiermaier was the most dazzling defender we saw in right field last year.

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The Non-Speed Components of Double Plays

Last week, we rolled out some minor tweaks to WAR, one of which was the addition of wGDP. If you haven’t read the primer, wGDP is a measure of double play runs above average and captures how many runs you save your team by staying out of double plays.

In general, it’s a minor piece of the overall puzzle with the best and worst players separated by less than a win of value over the course of a full season. Staying out of double plays helps your team, but even the best players don’t stay out of a large enough number to swing their value in a big way. Introducing wGDP makes WAR a better reflection of reality and that’s a good thing, but it also allows us to better measure the GIDP column we’ve all seen for years because it puts double plays in the context of double play opportunities.

Dave and August have already looked at some surprising and obvious players who are great at staying out of double plays, but I wanted to consider this new statistic from another angle. For the most part, it seems like staying out of double plays should be a base running issue, as you have to be fast enough to get to first before the infield twists it.

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2015 Positional Power Rankings: Right Field

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.

As usual, we’ll kick this off with a graph of each team’s projected right fielders by WAR, while also acknowledging that 0.4 wins here or 0.3 wins there isn’t really a tangible difference.


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Why Wasn’t Kole Calhoun a Prospect?

In the grand scheme of things, evaluating a baseball player’s current ability isn’t that difficult. If you have a sampling of their statistics and have a chance to watch a handful of their games, a reasonably informed observer will come up with a pretty good estimate of the player’s current talent level. Figuring out how good a player is right now requires some skill, but it’s nothing compared to having that same information about a player and attempting to forecast six years into the future.

That’s the job of a scout. You get a handful of looks at a 19 year old, you talk to a few people, you glance at some numbers, and then you’re asked to predict what that player is going to look like at 25. It’s a big ask and as a result, there’s a pretty big margin of error. A good scout should be more accurate than a decently competent observer, but no one would expect a scout to be right on every player. There’s just too much uncertainty involved.

One would hope that a scout doesn’t miss any Mike Trouts or bet high on many Jeff Larishs, but they’re going to miss good players and speak highly of bad one’s during the course of their careers. That’s especially true with respect to very young players.

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Ian Desmond Develops a Weakness

Ian Desmond is a success story. There isn’t another way to spin it. He spent his first two seasons as a big league regular playing below big league regular levels. He was fortunate to be young enough and on a team that wasn’t quite ready to compete, otherwise he might not have gotten another real opportunity. After two plus years at the major league level, he was sitting on 1,302 plate appearances and 2.5 WAR.

That’s a fine number for most of the world’s population, but with Nationals gearing up to become real contenders in 2012 Desmond was entering a sink or swim kind of season. He was 26, a good base runner, an average defensive player, and he only looked average at the plate if you compared him to other shortstops. Something had to change or the Nationals would have had to look elsewhere.

Obviously, something changed. Desmond’s defense got better and he started to hit for power. While he wasn’t known for Vottoian command of the strike zone, he held his own while also connecting for extra bases. His glove started to come along and over the last three years he’s at 14 WAR in 1,850 PA. A terrific success story and reason enough to pump the breaks after any down season early in a player’s career.

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Aaron Hill’s Polarizing Defense

The way in which people evaluate defense fascinates me. Not because I find defense fascinating, per se, but because it strikes me as a very different evaluation process than the one most people use when evaluating offensive performance. I think this applies to both casual and die-hard fans, just to varying degrees.

Offensive evaluation is largely based on basic accounting. As a fan, analyst, or someone directly connected to the game, you weigh a player’s offensive actions against one another to develop an idea of their performance. Some people might choose to use a linear weights structure, or some might think only in RBI or RISP, but the methodology is largely consistent for each person. Each plate appearance is weighed based on its importance and not on the outcome.

Some will choose to treat each PA pretty equally, some will choose to place a lot of weight on certain moments, but it’s a predictable process. When evaluating defense, I believe things get much less clear.

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