Author Archive

The Angels’ Reluctant Strike Throwers

We’ve all heard an announcer harp on the importance of throwing first pitch strikes. They ramble about the tone of the at bat, the aggressiveness of the hitter, and most importantly – the data. We’ve studied the importance of first pitch strikes for a long time. Nearly 10 years ago, Craig Burley found only eight percent of first pitch strikes were converted into hits during the 2003 season. Meanwhile, the difference between a 1-0 and 0-1 count is about 20 points of average, 90 points of on base percentage, and 40 points of slugging. Based on linear weights, Burley finds the value of a first pitch strike to be 0.07 runs. So, we accept the importance of first pitch strikes. Let’s put a pin in that for now.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have received adequate pitching from their starters. Over 30 games, Angels starters have a 3.87 ERA, 4.04 FIP and 4.01 xFIP. They’re not world beaters by any means – they’re 17th in starter WAR and 11th in RA9-WAR.  Adequacy can take you far in the majors, especially when your offense features Mike Trout. The Angels have managed a 15-15 record, and they trail the Oakland Athletics by just 3.5 games.

Now you have two paragraphs – one about the importance of first pitch strikes and one about Angels starters. Can you guess where I’m going with this? Read the rest of this entry »


Colorado’s Canny Outfield Platoon

This spring, the Colorado Rockies made the unusual decision to break camp with six outfielders. If any roster had the right personnel to overload in the outfield, it was the Rockies. Infielders Josh Rutledge, DJ LeMahieu and Charlie Culberson have plenty of utility (Rutledge did not make the club out of spring training). Backup catcher Jordan Pacheco can also play the infield corners, as can Michael Cuddyer. With Justin Morneau an uncertainty entering the season, the club probably planned on using Cuddyer at first base with some regularity. Additionally, Cuddyer, Morneau and Carlos Gonzalez can be considered injury risks. IN FACT, Cuddyer is already on the disabled list.

So we’ve covered why the Rockies could carry six outfielders: utility. But why did they want to carry them?

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Lineup Genius in Cleveland

The Cleveland Indians weren’t supposed to make the playoffs in 2013. They did, briefly, thanks to a 10-game winning streak to end the season. But analysts, pundits and other words for sports bloggers were not impressed enough by the Indians come-from-behind success to predict a return engagement in 2014. Maybe they’re right. As of this writing, Cleveland resides in the basement of the American League Central, but they’re also just two-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers.

One thing seems certain: Some very smart people are working for Team Cleveland. In addition to their focus on those intangible things we’ve had such a hard time measuring — like manager influence and chemistry — the club has also made some smart decisions about the roster’s composition.
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Scouting Dean Anna as a Pitcher

Saturday was not the best day for the Yankees. Ivan Nova was shaky throughout his first three starts. The Yankees really needed him to eat his share of innings in preparation for a Vidal Nuno-led bullpen day on Sunday. Instead, Nova got spanked. He lasted just four innings, allowed eight runs, four home runs, and partially tore his UCL. The latter item is the worst of an ugly list. Dellin Betances stretched out to 1.2 innings, burning him for Sunday. Matt Daley threw 1.1 innings and allowed six runs. Rather than burn another reliever, the Yankees turned to Dean Anna.

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Long Balls Plaguing Brandon McCarthy

For those who subscribe to FanGraphs+, you have access to informative blurbs on nearly every major league player’s page. When writing about Brandon McCarthy for FG+, Jason Collette credited him with 80-grade social media presence. McCarthy is one of the good guys; he’s likable and easy to root for on many levels.

McCarthy’s had a weird start to the season. His first outing of the season was a mixed bag. In past seasons, his sinker topped out around 91 mph, but this year he has averaged 93 mph with the pitch. He allowed six hits and one walk in that inaugural outing and stranded only 35.7% of his base runners. OK, that’s some unlucky sequencing. Surely the increased velocity will return positive results in the next few outings. Right?

During his April 5 start, he allowed five fly balls. Three of them left the yard. His most recent turn was more impressive. He allowed one fly ball, which left the park. Add it up and McCarthy looks to have some bad luck dragons on his side. He now leads the league with a 41.7% HR/FB ratio, compared with his career rate of just 9.8%.

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The Marlins First Week Juggernaut

Insert generic disclaimer about sample sizes. Remind audience not to read too much into seven games.

Whew. Now that we’re through the disclaimer, let’s reflect on the glory that is one week of baseball. The AL East and AL Central are led by the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers. Not surprising. Nor is it a shock to find the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates sharing the top spot in the NL Central. Then we notice the Seattle Mariners leading the AL West. Cool. The NL West is back in the hands of the San Francisco Giants – at least for now. And in the NL East, the Miami Marlins raced out to an early lead. Let’s look at how they’ve done it.

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Brad Johnson Baseball Chat — 4/3/14

2:48
MLB:
11:48
Comment From Fantasy Guru
Brad!!!!! I need your fantasy guidance this afternoon!!! Should I start Yordano Ventura in Detroit? Over/Under an ERA of 3.50?
11:49
Brad Johnson: Because you have no time to decide, I’ll do this one early.

Yordano was on my short list, he projects to about 1.1 fewer innings than Anibal if you’re able to rework your roster.

11:50
Brad Johnson: I think Ventura will do fine. Detroit has terrible hitting conditions today, which works in his favor.
12:01
Brad Johnson: Ok my dog has finished pooping. We can start.
12:01
Comment From hooha
You are not Eno. Please explain

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Tough Decisions: Gregory Polanco

Coming off their first playoff appearance in a thousand years, the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in a tough spot. On paper, they’re clearly second-best in their division. A whopping 30 out of 31 of us predicted the St. Louis Cardinals will win the National League Central. We did pick the Pirates to take the second wild card, by a thin margin over the Cincinnati Reds. Our depth charts predict the Pirates to be the sixth-best team in the National League. Per WAR, they’re in a virtual heat with the Atlanta Braves. However, nobody (except me) is taking the Colorado Rockies seriously — so maybe they’re actually predicted to finish fifth.

In any event, it’s clear the Pirates are in a position where every marginal run counts. As it turns out, they have a position that could potentially be improved by many runs if only it weren’t for service time considerations. And no, it’s not first base.

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2014 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 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. 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.

Also, keep in mind that these lists are based on rosters as of last week, so weekend transactions are not reflected in the rosters below. In some cases, teams have allocated playing time to different reserves than these depth charts show, but because they’re almost always choosing between near-replacement level players, the differences won’t move the needle much if at all.

Well, we got through six of these things last week and perhaps the most consistent observation was that the Marlins infield is atrocious, but the outfield is here to buck that trend. At least, right field will, as the Marlins are one of five teams that are nearly indistinguishable at the top, followed by seven next-tier groups, and then the rest of the league is probably engaged in some private grumbling.

PPRRF

The graph says there are no superstars here, but I’ll definitely take the over on at least one of the top five posting a six win season.

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Pick `Em: Arizona’s Shortstop Conundrum

There are some teams that wish they had more or better shortstops. With Jose Iglesias now missing an indeterminate amount of time in Detroit, the Tigers may now start Eugenio Suarez. Don’t feel bad if that name is new to you. The Twins and Marlins are poised to start pure fielders Pedro Florimon and Adeiny Hechavarria. The Mets have the never-ending Ruben Tejeda story, and that other New York team will start somebody who used to be Derek Jeter. At least the Yankees have Brendan Ryan in reserve; the rest of these teams lack viable backups beyond their own version of Suarez. On the other end of the spectrum are the Arizona Diamondbacks, which feature three or four viable shortstops.

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Projection Leaderboard Fun Courtesy of ZiPS and Fans

Now that spring training is getting to the point where stats and injuries are beginning to add up, it’s a good time to peek in on some in-season expectations from ZiPS and the Fans. The “Projections” tab on our header is a great place to burn away time at the office. There are currently five projection systems located there and each has a couple surprises.

ZiPS went fully live about a week ago and we’re combining it with Steamer for the WAR projection on our Depth Charts page. The Fans projection is from our crowdsourcing project. The numbers tend to come out a tad optimistic, so keep that in mind. There’s no special reason to be looking at these two systems side by side, but both recently went live for the season and both interest me.

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On the New Collision Rules at Home Plate

It was back during the winter meetings when major league baseball made headlines by announcing their intention to eliminate home plate collisions. On Monday, MLB and the players’ association announced that a new rule will take effect in time for the 2014 season. The rule will be reviewed and possibly tweaked prior to the 2015 season.

The impetus to make a change is obvious, many teams count their catcher as one of their best players. In an otherwise non-contact sport, catchers get knocked off the field all too often. Baseball is a bit behind the curve. Other sports have been protecting exposed players for over a decade, like quarterbacks and kickers in football or goaltenders in hockey. Players like Buster Posey and Yadier Molina have been injured in recent seasons, as these two videos show (video one, video two).

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The Players’ Association May Target Qualifying Offers

With Nelson Cruz signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles, qualifying offers are back in the spotlight. The executive director of the player’s association, Tony Clark, has issued a statement saying he’s “concerned” about how qualifying offers are affecting the free agent market. Unions deal in politics and in this case concerned can probably be read as “we’re going to make this a sticking point in the next round of negotiations.” The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire after the 2016 season, so the MLBPA will have a couple more years of data in their hands before they pursue any changes.

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The Pitcher Who Did the Most With the Least

I recently dreamed that I hit the comeback trail and was signed to a 10 day contract with a minor league team. With a combination of 77 mph cutters, sub-70′s change-ups, and more than a few knuckle balls, I parlayed my short contract to a major league roster spot. The dream ended, as dreams usually do, but it got me thinking about the minimum talent level necessary to pitch successfully in the majors.

When we analyze pitching talent, we’re mostly referring to a function of velocity, movement, command and control. There is a notable intangible that probably deserves mention. I’ll call it craftiness. Basically, the pitcher’s ability to out-think the hitter. Some pitchers seemingly can outperform the results that we might expect from their  speed, movement, and location alone.

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Dodgers Make a Low Risk Investment in Rotation Depth

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Dodgers rotation from a fantasy perspective for RotoGraphs. At that time, the Dodgers had a pool of starters than went 10 deep. Now they have 11 potential starters. Most teams would be satisfied with 10 starters. They might look to add some minor league depth, like a Rodrigo Lopez type, but they probably wouldn’t give out any more major league contracts.

However, the Dodgers have reason to worry about their depth. Chad Billingsley is currently rehabbing from injury. Prospects Zach Lee and Ross Stripling might not be ready in 2014, or the Dodgers may prefer not to rush either pitcher. Stephen Fife is a decent swing man, but the Dodgers would probably prefer to avoid turning to Matt Magill. Josh Beckett and Dan Haren are penciled into the rotation, although both pitchers were less than stable in recent seasons. Beckett in particular is coming off a nerve impingement surgery that limited him to eight starts last season.

So what have the Dodgers done to combat the flakiness of their rotation depth? Why they’ve hired yet another pitcher who fits into the back of the rotation and comes with health concerns.

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The Rays Need Their Depth Early

Yesterday, news broke that right-handed starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson had surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow and will be out until mid-to-late May. The childish part of me wants to make a quip about the loose bodies teaming up with those ever antagonistic free radicals, forcing a counter-insurgency executed with surgical precision. It would seem the childish part of me has succeeded.

The less childish part of me wonders how this setback affects the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014. The short answer is, not much, but there are a number of trickle down effects that are worth exploring.

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The Royals: Curiouser and Curiouser

The Royals receive a lot of attention on these pages and it’s probably an understatement to suggest that not all of that attention is positive. Under Dayton Moore, the club has made some moves that stand out in a head-scratching sort of way. There was The Contest, the Jeff Francoeur era, and the James Shields mega-package to name a few. Now the Royals have made another curious move; they designated Emilio Bonifacio for assignment in favor of Bruce Chen.

Granted, today’s topic is dissimilar from the other moves listed above. The unusual element here is that the Royals designated Bonifacio for assignment just 16 days after the two parties avoided arbitration with a $3.5 million agreement. Arbitration contracts are non-guaranteed, so the Royals are (probably) off the hook for most of that contract. Here is the relevant text from the Collective Bargaining Agreement:

ARTICLE IX – Termination Pay

A. Off-Season

A Player who is tendered a Uniform Player’s Contract which is subsequently terminated by a Club during the period between the end of the championship season and the beginning of the next succeeding spring training under paragraph 7(b)(2) of the Uniform Player’s Contract for failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability shall be entitled to receive termination pay from the Club in an amount equal to thirty (30) days’ payment at the rate stipulated in paragraph 2 of (1) his Contract for the next succeeding championship season…

It is unclear what will come of Bonifacio. Hypothetically, the Royals could try to outright him to the minors. However, it seems like he was designated for financial reasons, which means that the club will either trade or release him. If they do release him, they’ll be on the hook for roughly $580,000.

The other bit of uncertainty comes from the line about “failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability.” Prior to the 2007 season, the Padres released Todd Walker and his $3.95 million salary. Walker and the MLBPA sought legal recourse. Unfortunately for Walker, a .225/.262/.300 performance over 42 spring plate appearances qualified as a failure to exhibit skill.

In the case of Bonifacio, his 2013 slash line wasn’t much better than Walker’s bad spring – .243/.295/.331. However, Bonifacio also stole 28 bases while playing multiple positions, so he did provide value. Per WAR, he was somewhere between a replacement level player and one win. The actual reported figure is 0.6 WAR, but WAR isn’t really accurate to decimal places. The Royals agreed to terms with Bonifacio despite knowing his 2013 production, so they ostensibly believed that he was worth $3.5 million. I’m not sure if that latter point is legally relevant when it comes to filing a grievance. Even if it is not, Bonifacio may have a legitimate case that he did not qualify for the lack of skill clause.

The Royals add a familiar face in Chen, who has been with the organization since 2009. They reached agreement on a one-year, $3 million contract with a $5.5 million option for 2015 and a $1.25 million buyout. The guarantee is for $4.25 million and he could earn an additional $1.25 million if he makes 25 starts in 2014. On the face of it, this seems like a very savvy signing. As Rany Jazayerli laments, the only thing not to like about this deal is that the Royals signed Jason Vargas to four-years and $32 million to be nearly the same pitcher as Chen.

Despite very pedestrian numbers before joining the Royals, Chen has been decent in recent seasons. Since 2010, he’s posted 6.4 WAR and 7.6 RA9-WAR ( a measure of WAR based on runs allowed). That’s closer to league average than replacement level over that four year span. Oliver and Steamer are far from enamored with Chen, since he outperformed league average in peripherals like BABIP and HR/FB last season. However, Chen is an extreme fly ball pitcher, which probably explains the lower than average BABIP. As for the HR/FB rate, Kauffman stadium suppresses home runs by about six percent. In other words, there is some cause for optimism.

He rejoins a rotation that is fronted by Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Vargas. Chen will compete with some combination of Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Wade Davis for a spot in the rotation. According to manager Ned Yost, the job is his to lose.

From a roster and payroll perspective, the pair of moves will cost the club a net total of about $1.33 million in guaranteed money – at least if the most likely scenario comes to pass. The team loses super utility man Bonifacio but picks up a good depth pitcher for an otherwise shallow rotation. Given Davis’ terrible 2013 and the uncertainty around Duffy and Ventura, Chen is probably worth about a win to the Royals. Meanwhile, it’s hard to judge the downgrade from Bonifacio to Pedro Ciriaco. In the best case scenario, neither player would have been needed for more than 150 plate appearances. Ciriaco’s value is entirely in his utility, whereas Bonifacio can also provide value as a pinch runner. Let’s be conservative and call the difference between Bonifacio and Ciriaco half a win.

With these rough estimates, it looks like the Royals improved by about half a win for a net cost of just $1.33 million. If you’re a glass half full-type, that’s a tidy little move. If you’re of the half-empty persuasion, then you’ll probably want to point out that we’re just talking about error margins and fractions of wins – and wins are indivisible in the real world. Either way, what happened on Saturday is curious and may yet become more curious.


A Data-Centric View on Why the Phillies May Want to Avoid Losing

On Sunday, I wrote about the Phillies offseason and how their seemingly wishy-washy approach to rebuilding may, possibly, potentially, could be perfectly rational. Buried within the article was a throwaway comment. I said:

The fans in Philadelphia simply don’t have patience for losers.

Commenters rightly pointed out that this is true of all teams. Instead of letting it go, I argued that Philly fans seem to respond more elastically than fans of other cities.

Perhaps this is a good time to share my credentials. I grew up 20 minutes from the Philadelphia sports complex. I had full season tickets at the Vet during those years when announced attendance was around 13,000 and actual attendance appeared closer to 3,000. The section security guard would sit down and watch part of the game with us because there was nothing to guard. He would go in the dugout between innings and come back with bazooka gum and sunflower seeds, sometimes with autographs. Those were my favorite years of baseball – between 1995 and 2001 - and my hometown Phillies were godawfulterrible.

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The Phillies Take the Middle Road

The FanGraphs community exists in an echo chamber. As far as echo chambers go, it’s not a bad one. We expect baseball teams to (mostly) make objective, rational decisions. But we do have our own pre-conceived ideas about what makes a decision objectively rational. We also have a lot of contrarians in our midst, which prevents an echo chamber from becoming stodgy and outdated. Bill James is a noted contrarian as are many other sabermetricians. That basic instinct – it’s almost an assumption that conventional thinking is wrong – has helped our little closet industry grow to one that front office personnel read on a regular basis.

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The Orioles Play in the Shallow End of Free Agency

For a team hoping to contend in the much vaunted AL East, the Baltimore Orioles have had a relatively uneventful offseason. However, uneventful does not mean that they’ve sat quietly like the Milwaukee Brewers (who have yet to sign a free agent to a major league contract). Baltimore has signed over half a dozen free agents, settled with a handful of arbitration eligible players, and even made a trade. Despite the apparent activity, the Orioles focus has been building depth at the bottom of the roster rather than adding to the core. Spring training will prove to be a crowded battle.

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