Archive for Busting Out

The Life of Brian’s Fastball

The Giant’s Brian Wilson is a fun player. He looks more rock star than ballplayer, what with his mop hair, tattoos and tight pants. He even brings his own brand pyrotechnics to the mound with a blazing fastball that at times has been clocked in the triple-digits. While Wilson accumulated 41 saves for the Giants last year, those saves came with a bloated 4.62 ERA. His 3.93 FIP indicates that he pitched a little better than his ERA, but that is not what you would by and large hope for from your closer.

This year, Wilson has emerged from being a .6 win player to a 2.3 win relief ace. 2+ wins represents the upper echelon for relievers. So why the improvement?

Wilson’s heater has long been his meal ticket. His average velocity has seen a nice bump from this year to last, from 95.7 to 96.5 MPH.

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Not only has he been able to crank up the heat, but perhaps more importantly the pitch also has considerably more movement than before. Looking at his Pitch F/x numbers, Wilson’s fastball used to be straight as an arrow, averaging just less than half an inch of horizontal movement. This season, Wilson’s fastball has much more tail, with -3.5 inches of horizontal movement. It’s probably no coincidence that batters went from slugging .390 against Wilson in 2008 to just .301 this season.

What’s more, Wilson has improved upon his control. Last season he walked a little over 4 batters per nine innings, this season he’s down to about 3.4 per nine.

With an enhancement in ‘life’ to his fastball and increased control of the pitch, “B-Weez” has blossomed into one of the game’s best closers. Giant fans haven’t enjoyed this kind of “Smoke on the Water” in quite some time.


Saltalamacchia Injury May Be a Blessing

It’s never good when a team loses its No. 1 catcher. But it’s especially bad timing for the Texas Rangers organization with the club 4.5 games behind Los Angeles for first in the AL West division and narrowly (0.5 games up on Boston) leading the Wild Card race. To this point, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has started 71% of the club’s 116 games (and the rate was far worse prior to August). Rookie back-up catcher Taylor Teagarden has started just 34 games behind the plate (29%). I would argue, though, that the loss of Saltalamacchia to right arm soreness/numbness is not a loss at all.

Manager Ron Washington has favored Saltalamacchia to a fault. The 24-year-old catcher has an offensive line of .236/.293/.375 with nine homers in 280 at-bats. His putrid on-base percentage is hurt by both his low batting average and his hack-tastic tendencies at the plate, where he has posted a 7.3 BB%. Saltalamacchia has also posted a lousy strikeout rate at 34.3 K%, the fourth highest K rate in the Majors amongst players with 250+ at-bats. His wOBA is .290, the 23rd worst rate in the Majors.

In truth, a catcher’s offensive contributions are really a bonus. It’s on defense where a backstop really needs to shine. Unfortunately for the Rangers, Saltalamacchia’s glove may be worse than his bat. Amongst catchers with more than 500 innings behind the plate, the Texas catcher is second in errors with seven (and first in the AL). His game calling/receiving skills are nothing to write home about and his range is at the bottom of the barrel. Saltalamacchia has also caught just 19 of the 80 runners trying to steal against him, good for a caught-stealing rate of 24%.

The truth is that, despite showing encouraging improvements, the Rangers pitching staff can still use all the help it can get – and we’ve seen how defense can positively impact results thanks to the presence of rookie Elvis Andrus at shortstop. Saltalamacchia has never been a good fielder, and he probably never will be… But he needs to show something on offense to justify his playing time.

On the other hand, Teagarden has been left to rot on the bench, as Washington tries to single-handedly ruin a young player’s career. What excuse is there for playing a promising rookie only a handful of times during a full Major League season? When he was drafted, Teagarden was widely considered the best defensive catcher in college baseball. His defense made him a sure-fire Major Leaguer, even if he failed to hit (You know, along the lines of what Saltalamacchia has produced this season).

No, Teagarden’s line of .198/.264/.373 is not encouraging, but he’s had absolutely no chance to get into a hitting rhythm. Prior to August and Saltalamacchia’s injury, Teagarden had started back-to-back games only once all year. As the Rangers’ No. 1 catcher in August, Teagarden has hit .200/.314/.533 in 30 at-bats. He’s finally gotten a chance to show his above-average power with three home runs. After walking just three times from May to July, he has five walks in August and is again showing the above-average patience that he showed in the minors. In a very small sample size, Teagarden has shown glimpses of things that Saltalamacchia has proven he does not possess.

Normally, we joke that a manager’s overuse of a pitcher has caused an arm to fall off. In this case, it appears that Ron Washington has caused a catcher’s arm to all but fall off. In all seriousness, though, while Teagarden is far from being the second coming, one can only hope that Texas takes this time to realize that there is life beyond Saltalamacchia.


The Evolution of Scott Feldman

What if I told you that Scott Feldman has had the most effective cut fastball in all of baseball this year — more so than Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay‘s, would you believe me? At least according to the numbers, Scott Feldman has. I have to be honest, I knew next to nothing about Feldman until I found myself goofing around on the Pitch Value leader-boards yesterday afternoon. As a refresher, the pitch values use linear weights by count and by event and then breaks it down by each pitch type so that you can see in runs the actual effectiveness of each pitch. (You can read more about how they work here).

Getting to the fun stuff, Scott Feldman‘s cutter has been worth 22.6 runs, making it the third-most effective offering in baseball among starting pitchers. The only pitch that has been more effective has been Tim Lincecum‘s change-up at a ridiculous 28.2 runs, and Clayton Kershaw‘s fastball, at 23.5 runs. What makes this development a little more interesting is that Feldman just started using the pitch a year ago — throwing it 13.4% of the time. He’s honed his craft and is now throwing the pitch 30.4% of the time. Only three other starting pitchers throw the cutter more often, and those pitchers are Brian Bannister, Doug Davis and Roy Halladay.

Just two seasons ago, Feldman was a frequent rider of the Oklahoma City – Fort Worth shuttle. A former 30th round pick, he was just a so-so side-arming, sinker/slider ROOGY. He completely remade himself last year, throwing from a 3/4 arm slot rather than sidearm, mostly working with the sinker. The results were less than spectacular — a 5.35 FIP over 25 starts. In continuance with that remaking, this year Feldman started leaning heavily on the cutter to compliment his sinker and help him counterbalance southpaw hitters. Check out his crazy reverse platoon splits that have come as a result:

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The overall results have also have been good; Feldman has 11 wins and an ERA of 4.01. Alright, so those baseball card numbers are a bit deceiving. His FIP is 4.57 and he’s still striking out less than 5 batters per nine. That’s still good for 2 wins above replacement so far this season. Whether or not this is something sustainable is very questionable given the low K totals, but I find it fascinating that a Quad-A reliever can transform himself into a half decent starter. It’s amazing what a willingness to learn can do for a pitcher.


Colby Jack

First of all, let me say thanks to David Appelman for inviting me to the party. It’s an honor to be a part of a team of such great writers, hopefully I can maintain the standard of excellence they’ve set. Let’s just get this out of the way right now: I am a Cardinal fan, so please indulge me a bit this morning as sing the praises of the best Cardinal rookie to come along since Phat Albert.

Colby Rasmus is well on his way to winning the NL Rookie of the Year, but early on in the season, it looked like he might have been quickly shuttled back down to AAA. After his first thirty games, Colby was hitting for a meager .263/.343/.379 line as the Cardinals’ 4th outfielder. The isolated plate discipline looked good, but Colby wasn’t really showing the “five tools” he was hyped for in the minors, particularly power. It seemed all too often Colby was watching strike three go by, and his manager preached to him to take a more aggressive approach.

Normally you cringe when you hear a manager telling a kid to stop walking and start hacking, but at least to this point, it’s working for Colby. Since 5/15, Colby is hitting .283/.302/.531, and in the month of June the young Mr. Rasmus is hitting .375/.375/.625. I guess when you’re beating the living hell out of the ball, what’s the point in taking a walk?

Looking at his plate discipline stats, you’ll find he’s no Pablo Sandoval. He does swing at more pitches in the zone than your average bear — the average Z-Swing% is 65.8%, Colby’s is 74.9%, but he’s not just swinging away at any and everything thrown in his direction. His O-Swing% is 24%, which is major league average. In the minors, Colby walked in 11.2% of his plate appearances, so the ability to draw walks is there, at least in potential.

For another oddity, Colby also has reached double-digits in stolen bases in each of his seasons in the minors dating back to his Appy League days, but only has one steal so far this season. I think that speaks more to his team’s philosophy than on Colby’s ability.

What we’re seeing is a 22-year old kid just starting to figure out how good he is, and it’s only going to get better from here. Colby currently has a .336 wOBA and has played freakishly good defense, with a UZR of 12. His rest of season ZiPS projection calls for a modest .323 wOBA which he could easily surpass. Assuming he’s not this amazing at defense, but is at least a +1 win fly catcher in center as his minor league numbers suggest, and we’re talking about not just the Senior Circuit’s best rookie, but one of its best center fielders, and this could just be the tip of the iceberg of what is to come.


Sophomore Mets

The New York Mets organization received key offensive contributions from two rookies in 2008, which helped the club finish second in the National League East division. Neither Daniel Murphy nor Nick Evans was considered amongst the club’s top prospects. Murphy checked in on Baseball America’s Top 30 Mets prospect list at No. 15 and Evans sat at No. 20 (This list was compiled prior to the Johan Santana trade, which cost the organization four of its top seven prospects).

Last season, Murphy appeared in 45 games for the Mets and hit .313/.397/.473 with an ISO of .160 in 131 at-bats. The 23-year-old left-handed batter posted a reasonable walk rate of 12.1 BB% and a strikeout rate that was on the high side for his skill set at 21.4 K%. Murphy, a Florida native, was originally selected out of Jacksonville University in the 13th round of the 2006 draft and played mostly at the hot corner in the minor leagues. His power, though, is below average for the position. Murphy spent his MLB debut in left field for the Mets.

Despite his solid build (6’3” 210 lbs), his bat does not profile well in a corner outfield spot, either, with a career minor league line of .290/.352/.444. The Mets organization realized this and sent Murphy to the Arizona Fall League (AFL), after the 2008 season, to learn second base. Defensively, he had some hiccups (four errors in 15 games) but Murphy also showed enough promise to give incumbent second baseman Luis Castillo reason to be worried about playing time in 2009. Offensively in the AFL, Murphy hit .397/.487/.619 in 63 at-bats.

Evans also has a chance to play regularly in 2009, despite modest debut numbers last season. Only Carlos Beltran and, perhaps, Ryan Church are assured of 500-plus plate appearances in 2009, if healthy. Evans, a right-handed hitter, was a surprised call-up in 2008 and hit .257/.303/.404 with an ISO of .147 in 109 at-bats (50 games). The 22-year-old Arizona native was originally drafted in the fifth round out of high school in 2004 and spent the first half of 2008 in Double-A.

Evans has raw power, but he is still learning how to tap into it. He also does not walk much (8.1 BB% in Double-A, 6.0 BB% in the Majors). The big problem with Evans, offensively, is that fact that he hit just .135/.150/.189 against right-handed pitching, which is downright awful. He killed southpaws, though, with a line of .319/.380/.514. Evans is going to have a hard time playing everyday if he cannot improve that – and it’s something that haunted him in the minors too, although not as dramatically.

Defensively, Evans spent the majority of his time in the minors at first base (284 games out of 313). However, all but three of his appearances in the Majors came in left field. Despite his inexperience, he displayed average range and did not make an error. Evans has a higher upside than fellow sophomore Murphy, but the latter is more Major-League ready.

Murphy certainly appears ready to play everyday at second base for the Mets, and could be one of the biggest surprises of 2009. Evans, though, could use some more time in the minors to work on his approach at the plate (as well as against right-handed pitching) and log some more innings in the outfield. He may be pressed into regular duty, though, if players like Cory Sullivan, Jeremy Reed, and Bobby Kielty underwhelm in spring training.


Ruth, Bonds, Gehrig… Owings?

It’s no secret that Micah Owings is a great hitting pitcher, often causing analysts to refer to him as a hitter that happens to pitch rather than the aforementioned moniker. Reports even circulated prior to the season starting that Owings might get some playing time at first base due to the departure of Tony Clark. Last year, Owings produced one of the best hitting-seasons-for-a-pitcher of all time, thanks to a slash line of .333/.349/.683; he also hit eight doubles, one triple, and four home runs.

In the sixth inning of last night’s Diamondbacks-Astros game, Owings hit a pinch hit, two-run homer to tie the game. The Astros even made a pitching change prior to the at-bat in order to bring in righty Dave Borkowski and Brad Ausmus commented that Owings is the only pitcher over which he has ever discussed sequencing strategies. ESPN had a field day showing highlights and questioning whether or not Owings belongs in the lineup everyday, but the following video segment made me cringe:

They specially selected the ridiculously small sample size of 75 plate appearances in order to further a point that did not necessarily need to be made. Everyone knows he is a tremendous hitter and this comparison did nothing but show a complete ignorance towards the usage of statistics. The hard part about criticizing the video is that the anchors actually used and explained OPS! Granted, OPS is not the end-all, be-all, but for a mainstream show such as Sportscenter to discuss a sabermetric statistic is a pretty big step. Unfortunately, they lost points with the small sample size comparison.

Earlier today on PTI, Michael Wilbon mentioned that putting Owings in the lineup should be done sparingly at first until a large enough sample could be gathered to determine his true ability. Suffice it to say, I was shocked: One ESPN show discussed OPS and another discussed how small sample sizes should not be used to make quick judgments. While discussing sabermetric statistics and explaining how small sample sizes fail to explain anything truly tangible are both important, which do you feel would be best served exploring deeper on mainstream analysis-driven shows?


Eveland and Smith Paying Dividends

This offseason the Diamondbacks struck gold in winning the Dan Haren sweepstakes. The young, 27-year old ace looked mighty fine when placed right next to Brandon Webb. Billy Beane decided it was time to rebuild and sent Haren to the desert for six prospects: Dana Eveland, Carlos Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Gregory Smith, Aaron Cunningham, and Chris Carter. Many had only heard of Eveland and Gonzalez but, as usual, concluded that the other four must have solid value because they attracted the attention of Beane.

Haren has pitched quite well in the early going, legitimately posting a 4-1 record with an FIP of 3.26. Further west, though, Gregory Smith and Dana Eveland have been flying under the mainstream radar and paying dividends to a surprising Athletics team. Of course the season is still young, but these youngsters deserve some credit.

Smith has pitched at least six innings in four of his five starts, and is yet to surrender more than three earned runs in any of them. He currently sports a 1.06 WHIP and an LOB of 75.5%. His line drive percentage of 17.2% expects a BABIP of around .292, yet it currently sits at .226. Additionally, his ERA of 2.73 translates to a 4.20 FIP. He has not been as steady with the luck-based indicators as Eveland but ranks 9th among AL starters with a 0.73 WPA/LI.

Eveland’s ERA of 3.13 translates to a still quite good 3.46 FIP. Allowing 16.8% line drives we would expect his BABIP to be around the .288 mark; it is currently .291, so he has not been unlucky in that regard. He currently ranks 16th among AL starters with a 0.52 WPA/LI, just slightly ahead of teammates Chad Gaudin and Joe Blanton. Yes, four-fifths of the Athletics rotation ranks in the top twenty. His K/BB of 1.86 is nothing to write home about but he has pitched quite well for a 24-year old with just six major league starts entering the season.

Though Eveland pitched poorly last night. based solely on April performance, this trade has definitely benefited both teams, and the Athletics still have four more prospects yet to scratch the surface.


Is Willingham Ready to Bust Out?

Coming into the 2008 season the National League East had been reduced to a three-team race between the Braves, Mets, and Phillies. Nobody pegged the Marlins as potential contenders even with Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis; their subsequent trade to the Tigers did nothing to help the cause.

Looking at the standings right now might require a double take because the three pre-season contenders currently rank 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the division. The first place team? Well, none other than the pesky fish from Florida, who currently sport a 15-10 record and a 1.5 game lead over the Mets and Phillies. This isn’t likely to continue but they have had a good first month and deserve some recognition. One of the major reasons for their early success is the stellar production from leftfielder Josh Willingham. He will not make headlines as a fantasy or statistical superstud, like teammate Hanley Ramirez, but Willingham has quietly become a very solid hitter.

His 2006 and 2007 seasons were pretty consistent, evidenced by the following breakdowns:

  • 2006: 142 GP, .277/.356/.496, 56 XBH, 109 K, 21.7 K%, 0.50 BB/K
  • 2007: 144 GP, .265/.364/.463, 57 XBH, 122 K, 23.4 K%, 0.54 BB/K

Though we are still suffering from some small sample size issues, Willingham has seemingly increased his production levels relative to the previous two seasons. In fact, his RC/27 has vastly increased:

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I would love to say that Willingham will keep this up, as I draft him for my fantasy team every year, but his balls-in-play rates just do not seem to point in that direction. Now, this is not to say he will not have a productive year, but rather that his production is very likely to level off in the coming weeks or months. Here is a look at his GB/FB/LD rates:

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As you can see, his percentage of grounders has increased upwards of ten percent. Due to this increase, his BABIP currently rest at .348, much higher than the .310 and .308 posted in the last two seasons. Another so called red flag is the fact that his HR/FB % has increased from 12% to 23%; while his percentage of flyballs has decreased by about ten percent he is hitting a little over ten percent more of them out of the ballpark.

He could defy the odds and put up an incredible season but it would come with the potential stigma of having high luck-based indicators, IE, a fluke. His numbers should improve from those posted last year but not along the lines of what would occur should we extrapolate his current statistics over the rest of the season.


Busting Out: Corey Patterson

Corey Patterson has always been thought of as a guy with tremendous potential. From 1999 to 2001, Baseball America ranked him as the 16th, 3rd, and 2nd best prospect in baseball respectively. The physical talents were obvious; terrific athleticism, quick bat, legitimate home run power, and serious speed from a guy playing a premium defensive position well. However, Patterson struggled to refine his approach at the plate, and by repeatedly chasing pitches out of the strike zone, he made himself a fairly easy out for opposing pitchers. If you can’t make contact, it is tough to be an offensive asset. For seven years, Patterson simply didn’t hit the ball often enough to live up to his natural talent, which led to him being bounced out of both Chicago and Baltimore and finding himself as an unwanted free agent this winter.

After an offseason of rejection, the Cincinnati Reds offered him a minor league contract on March 3rd, giving him a chance to fight for a roster spot in spring training. After they decided to send Jay Bruce to Triple-A to start the year, Patterson found himself with a regular job, and with the way his 2008 season has started (.57 WPA/LI and the Reds best hitter to date), he may just have found a home where he can remind people of the player they thought he would be.

It all starts with his strikeout rate. Look at the graph of his contact ability throughout his career.

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During his time in Chicago, he was a strikeout machine. As you can see, this is something he’s clearly worked on improving, as the line from his 2005 to 2008 strikeout rate shows a huge decline. So far this year, he’s struck out two times in 46 plate appearances. That’s pretty remarkable for a guy with a career K% of 22.7%. His current K% of 4.8% puts him in a group with noted contact kings Casey Kotchman and Placido Polanco. When you look at the pitch data summary from his Baseball-Reference page, you can see the difference. Even though he’s seeing less strikes than in any other season, he’s only swinging at 72% of those pitches in the strike zone, compared to a career average of 81%.

By being more selective in which pitches to swing at, Patterson has managed to put himself in positions to hit pitches he can do something with, and that’s been manifest in his performance. Of his 11 hits, five are doubles and four are home runs, giving him a .405 Isolated Slugging Percentage that ranks fifth in all of baseball. Patterson’s early season performance isn’t going to be sustained at this level (a 7% swinging strike rate is impossible to keep up), but there are legitimate reasons to believe that he’s adopted a new approach at the plate, and his continued contact ability could be just the ticket to stardom that people have been projecting on Patterson for most of this decade.