Archive for Outside the Box

Still More NPB Prospect You Should Know

The third of the series. Parts one and two of the trilogy are available on vhs.

Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, 29) – I consider Iwakuma, by some measures, to be the second best MLB pitching prospect currently active in NPB. Tall and stringy at 6’3, 170 lbs, Iwakuma is a fairly standard fastball/slider/forkball righty. He can reach 95-95 mph with his fastball, but mostly works around 90-91. None of his three main pitches strike me as outstanding, but he commands them all well and can be dominant when he’s keeping the ball down in the zone. The fun fact about Iwakuma is that early in his career, he used a “two stage” delivery, in which he brought his front leg up, then back down without touching the dirt, the up again before finishing his delivery. You can check it out in this 2002 clip of Iwakuma facing Ichiro in an MLB-NPB All-Star game. Two stage deliveries were banned in NPB a couple years ago, so he and others, notably Ken Takahashi and Daisuke Miura, had to rework their mechanics. This and other factors caused Iwakuma to spend a few years in the wilderness, which I chronicled at my main haunt after last year’s WBC. Iwakuma is signed through next season, and assuming his remains in good health, will be eligible to move cross-Pacific after next season.

Tsuyoshi Wada (LHP, SoftBank Hawks, 29) – Wada is another guy who could come over after the 2011 season. Wada reminds me of Dallas Braden (or rather, Braden reminds me of Wada), with his arsenal of a 86-87 mph fastball, a good circle change, and a solid slider. To use a cliche, Wada knows how to pitch. He’s had a strikeout rate in the 7-8 for most of his career despite a fastball that’s average even in NPB. I found game footage of Wada’s August 25th start against Orix. He didn’t have his best stuff, but it’s enough to give you an idea of what he throws.

Chihiro Kaneko (RHP, Orix Buffaloes, 27) – Wada’s opponent on the 25th was Chihiro Kaneko, who I think is the most underrated pitcher in Japan. Kaneko thoroughly outclassed Wada on the 25th, striking out 12 and walking none while allowing two earned runs over an 8-inning, 97 pitch performance. He did surrender a triple to Munenori Kawasaki, whom we discussed earlier. Kaneko has excellent command of a good fastball that sits around 91-93 mph. He augments the fastball with a battery of breaking pitches, most notably a slider and a changeup, witch both sit in the low 80’s, and a sub-70 mph curveball which I would like to see him throw more often. Kaneko is in his fourth full season so he’s a ways away from free agency, but he’s definitely one to watch.

That’s it for me on prospect mini-profiles for a little while. If you have any more guys you want to see, let me know and I’ll pick ’em up in the next round.


More NPB Prospects You Should Know

Picking up where I left off last time

Norichika Aoki (OF, Yakult Swallows, 28) – In a post-Ichiro, post-Matsui NPB, Aoki reigns as the consensus top hitter. I’d actually go so far as to say that he”s the best pure hitter Japan has produced since Ichiro. Aoki is a line drive hitter with occasional power who uses the whole field. He’s also a disciplined batter, walking about as often as he strikes out, which is rare in Japan. Aoki is short and somewhat stocky at 5’7.5, 182 lbs, but is a good runner with tremendous range in the outfield. The only knock on his game is his rather weak throwing arm, which may limit him to left field at the MLB level. For video, I dug up some batting and fielding highlights and a breakdown of his swing on YouTube.

Hiroyuki Nakajima (SS, Seibu Lions, 28) – Nakajima gets my vote as Japan’s second best hitter, behind Aoki. Nakajima doesn’t quite match up with Aoki’s pure contact skill or plate discipline, but is still very good in both categories and adds a bit more gap power to the equation. Nakajima is a back-leg hitter, with a big stride that he will occasionally shorten up. On the turf, Nakajima plays a solid shortstop, among many good shortstops in his league. The best video I could find of Nakajima was this one, of him hitting an opposite field home run off Dicky Gonzales (I know, not the best competition). Also of note in the video, you can see that he’s made friends with teammate Dee Brown. The high-five routine they do after home runs shows up on Japanese highlight shows.

Wei-Yin Chen (LHP, Chunichi Dragons, 25) – Last offseason, Chen was probably the more outspoken about wanting to be posted than any other NPB player. Chen is Taiwanese, but signed with Chunichi as an amateur out of high school, apparently without any provisions to make him a free agent if he and the team can’t agree to a contract during the annual negotiations (as veteran foreign players who sign from 3A or Korea usually do). This is an unusual situation, but not unprecedented, as the first couple postings for Dominican players the Hiroshima Carp had signed as amateurs, including current Giant Ramon Ramirez. Chen does appear to be serious about MLB, as he hired agent Alan Nero last offseason, and I expect him to push to be posted again this year.

Chen features NPB’s top lefty power arsenal, primarily throwing fastballs and sliders, while mixing in occasional forkballs and the random big, loopy curve. His fastball reaches 95 mph or so, but usually sits around 90-92, while his slider breaks in on righthanded batters and sits in the 85-87 range. Chen has been letting his pitches get up in the zone much more this season, and is showing more of a flyball tendency than he did last year.

The Chen video I have is two hours of game footage from his August 17 start, against Seth Greisinger and the Giants. The video occasionally switches to a Yokohama game, but still gives you a better sense of what Chen throws than a 10-minute highlight reel will.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAyoigqsLt8

NPB Prospects You Should Know

You’ve heard plenty about Yu Darvish and Matt Murton. Over my next couple posts, I’ll be introducing some MLB prospects currently active in Japan that you might not be aware of, but should be. These are guys that mostly likely won’t be coming over this offseason, but have sufficient upside to make them interesting prospects if/when they do.

My criteria for selecting players to include in this series:

* must be good
* must be on pace to become eligible to move to MLB by age 30 or so
* must be playing at the NPB level already

Kyuji Fujikawa (RHP, Hanshin Tigers, 30) – We’ll start with Japan’s top relief pitcher. Fujikawa has been a strikeout machine since getting healthy in 2005, hovering around 13 K/9 each year. This year he’s racked up 63 Ks in 45.1 innings of work, for a 12.51 mark. Fujikawa gets it done with a rising four-seam fastball that sits in the 93-96 mph range, and a hard forkball that frequently finds it’s way into the dirt. On the downside, Fujikawa has tweaked his delivery a bit over the years, and isn’t always consistent with his mechanics. Fujikawa has been known to be interested in moving to MLB for quite some time, but Hanshin has made it clear that they intend to hang on to him, so we’ll have to wait another two years or so before he’s eligible to make the jump via free agency. Here’s a video clip of him entering a recent Tigers game.

Takeya Nakamura (3B, Seibu Lions, 27) – Like Ryoji Nakata, Nakamura is, um, large. His nickname is “Okawari-kun,” “okawari” meaning “another serving” and “kun” being an informal version of “san.” Unlike Nakata, Okawari-kun is good. He’s struggled this season with injuries, but led Japan in home runs in 2008 and 2009, with 46 and 48, respectively. He also led Japan in strikeouts, with 162 and 154, again respectively. Despite his girth, Nakamura plays a respectable third base, with a good first step and a quick release on his throws. At the plate he’s a pull hitter, as you can see in this clip of all his 2008 home runs (including on at 1:29 off Darvish). I don’t really see Nakamura as an MLB prospect, but he’s a fun player nonetheless.

Munenori Kawasaki (SS, SofBank Hawks, 29) – Kawasaki is the consummate small-ball player: he makes contact, steals bases, puts bunts down, and plays good infield defense. Kawasaki typically hits for average, as well; he’s currently fourth in the Pacific League with a .327 mark. Unsurprisingly, the one thing Kawasaki has never done much of is hit for power. His next home run will be his fifth of the year, and a new personal best. Kawasaki has qualified for NPB domestic free agency, meaning that he can file for free agency and move to another NPB team this offseason. No one expects him to do that, though, and with another year of service time he’ll be eligible to move overseas. He’ll be an interesting prospect if he chooses to, I kind of see him as an infielder version of Scott Podsednik. YouTube didn’t turn up a lot of great results for Kawasaki, but there is this one.

I’ll be back shortly with another round of prospects to look it. Got questions? You have the floor.


Worth Reading: God and .500

I found Tangotiger’s most recent post on what if every player in the majors leagues was exactly the same as something anyone who has the slightest interest in baseball analysis should read.

Suppose that God herself came to you and told you that she was going to do something devious: for the 2011 baseball season, every team would have 25 players of identical talent, with all 30 teams being equals.


Trades in Japan

While hundreds of thousands of MLB fans stay glued to mlbtraderumors.com in anticipation of July 31’s non-waiver trade deadline, another trade deadline will pass, probably uneventfully, on the other side of the Pacific.

Earlier this week, the Yomiuri Giants and Rakuten Golden Eagles consummated NPB’s ninth* in-season trade this year, exchanging pitchers Masafumi Togano and Hideki Asai. This may not seem like a huge number, but it’s the most in-season trades I’ve seen in any season since I started following Japanese baseball closely. For comparison’s sake, last year NPB saw a single in-season trade: Seibu acquiring pitcher Taiyo Fujita from Hanshin for futility infielder Keisuke Mizuta. 2008 had four in-season trades.

I can’t quite explain the increase in activity. Many of the deals that happened this year were for teams to address depth problems caused by injuries. It’s unusual in Japan to see established players traded for prospects. Accordingly, the players that have changed hands this year were either bench players, relief pitchers or non-prospect fringe players. In my view, Orix pulled the heist of the season when they got Masayuki Hasegawa, a starter with a good arm but a poor medical record, and Go Kida, a proven pinch hitter; in exchange for Yuichiro Mukae, a 28 year-old outfielder with a career .180 batting average.

In spite of the activity this year, trades happen much less frequently in NPB than MLB. Why is that? For me it starts with the impracticality of them. NPB has 12 teams split between two six-team leagues, which is akin to an MLB division. Of the nine trades this season, only two have been intra-league, and one was Chiba Lotte sending outfielder Kenji Sato to Nippon Ham for nothing in return (musho trade, a uniquely NPB phenomenon). Beyond that, teams rarely have their hands forced by impending free agency or unwieldy contracts — though Yomiuri did move Hideki Okajima to Nippon Ham for two younger players a year prior to his free agency a few years ago.

An additional reason is that players moving from one team to another is less ingrained culturally in Japan than it is in the US. It’s not unusual for a player to spend his entire career with the team that drafted him. And when Seibu traded Mizuta last year, his teammates saw him off with a ceremonial douage, despite his insignificant role on the team.

* Edit, August 1: There were actually 11 trades made in season. I missed one and mistakenly identified another as having happened during spring training. For a full list please see here.


Top Chef Voltaggio Adds Twist to Ballpark Food

It’s rare I get to write about my two favorite things in tandem. Baseball and Food.

Today, as Top Chef runner-up Bryan Voltaggio offered his unique twist on ballpark food at a Frederick Key’s game, I made the two-hour drive in traffic from Arlington Virginia up to Frederick Maryland to check out his creations.

I got to Harry Grove Stadium at 6:00pm sharp – the time the gates opened – and was greeted by a mostly full parking lot and a line of people that started at the gate and made its way well into the parking lot. Apparently I was not the only one eager to see what chef Voltaggio had in store.

Inside the ballpark, the chef had taken over one of the standard concession stands and turned it into a “Volt” concession stand for the night. He was orchestrating the whole thing in person, and throughout the ballpark his family and friends could be seen wearing Fredrick Key’s shirts with Volt 21 printed on the back. The number “21” represents the 21 course tasting menu offered at his restaurant Volt in Fredrick, for which there is nearly a full year’s wait to make a reservation.

Once in line, Volt’s staff took your order before you made it to the counter to speed things up and keep the line moving. After originally ordering one of everything so I could write up a thorough report, I soon realized that there was no way on earth I could eat or carry all that food – 16 items! I ended up pairing down considerably to just five smaller items.

I apologized for changing my order so drastically, paid and received my food. I carefully balanced all my food and went off to a nearby corner of the ballpark to start tasting.

For me the highlight was the Gazpacho “Dipping Dots” Rock Shrimp Ceviche. These really were just like Dippin’ Dots, but instead of chocolate and vanilla, it was small frozen spheres of heirloom tomatoes. Quite refreshing on a hot day and an interesting twist on something I do not usually get at the ballpark. Am I alone in failing to understand how Dippin’ Dots still exist?

The other dishes I tried were the Coriander Crusted Yellow Fin Tuna (not my favorite), a Soft Shell Crab Sandwich with Pickled Fennel-Cucumber Slaw (pretty good) and a Chocolate Covered Banana which was a great way to finish things off. I also snagged some Summer Truffle Pop Corn to eat while watching the game.

I had meant to try the Lamb Hot Dogs but in my haste to change my order, I forgot, and I had no plans on waiting in a line wrapped around the entire stadium. However, the people I talked to seemed to enjoy them.

Overall it was a lot of fun and a seemingly huge success for the Frederick Keys and chef Voltaggio. On average the Keys said they have an attendance of about 4,500 and with chef Voltaggio they managed to draw a crowd of 7,135.

WHAG-TV reports that Bryan’s business partner says “there will be another ‘Volt night’ sometime in the near future.”


Interesting New Import Pitchers – Pacific League

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on a few pitchers that are new to Japan’s Central League. Judging by the response the post got, the names were a lot more interesting to me than anyone else, but I promised a Pacific League edition, and here it is.

Bill Murphy (LHP, Chiba Lotte Marines) — Lefty Murphy has been a success story this season: he started the season in the bullpen, where he did well, and was moved into the rotation where he won his first six decisions. He’s K’ing nearly a batter an inning and has been a reliable 6-7 inning starter for the surprising post-Bobby Marines.

Juan Morillo (RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) — “Explosive fastball, no command” was the book on Morillo in the US. It was more of the same in Japan at first, as four walks in his first five NPB innings earned him a trip to Rakuten’s farm team. He made a promising return after a month, striking out four in 2.2 innings, but left his May 23rd complaining of elbow discomfort after facing two batters, and hasn’t been heard from since.

Bobby Keppel (RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters) — Keppel has had the most success of all the new import pitchers in Japan this year, posting a 10-1 record and a 2.72 ERA. This is for a team that hasn’t had much success in the win column — Keppel is credited with 10 of the team’s 36 wins. So are we looking at the next Colby Lewis? Probably not. Lewis’s command of the strike zone really set him apart in Japan. Keppel hasn’t been nearly as impressive, with a 48/28 K:BB ratio in 86 innings pitched. Keppel also padded his numbers a bit in interleague games, which are over for this year.

Buddy Carlyle (RHP, Nippon Ham Fighters) — Carlyle is an interesting case, as he spent his age-23 and age-24 seasons in Japan with Hanshin back in 2001-02. After bouncing around Triple-A, the majors, and Korea for the last eight years, he’s back in Japan with Nippon Ham. This return engagement hasn’t gone well — 31 hits and 10 walks in 22.2 innings over four starts earned him a quick demotion, and he’s fared even worse at the minor league level with a 7.14 ERA.

By my count, four pitchers currenly on MLB rosters were under contract with NPB teams last season: Lewis, Scott Atchison, Brian Sweeney, and Chris Resop. Each took a different path back to MLB, so despite the varying results of the pitchers highlighted in this post, we could see some of these guys re-emerge in MLB.


Wanted: Ubaldo Jimenez Community Analysis

We realize the post: Ubaldo’s Unimpressive Start, caused a bit of a stir in the comments section with many people agreeing and disagreeing to various degrees.

Because of the strong opinions on both sides of the argument, we’d like to invite those with particularly strong thoughts and analysis on Ubaldo Jimenez’s continued success to submit posts to our community blog.

We will publish the two most well thought out and detailed posts on the agreeing side and the disagreeing side in our Community Blog as well as our homepage, as long as we receive submissions that are up to the high Community Blog standards.

To begin submitting an article, click here.

I would also like to take a moment to remind people to please be courteous in the comments section. Ad hominem or any sort of personal attacks on people will not be tolerated, so please keep it civil. We would like to continue to keep our comments completely open.


Pitch Counts in Japan

A post I wrote last week over at NPB Tracker got me thinking about how many pitches NPB starters actually throw, so I queried the data I’ve collected for this season. Here are the results:

Read the rest of this entry »


Interesting New Import Pitchers – Central League

Each year, the 12 NPB teams carry a total of 60-70 foreign players on their rosters. For a variety of reasons, this group usually turns over by more than half from year to year. Partially because of this turnover, we see a lot of players with interesting backgrounds come through Japan. In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the more interesting pitchers who are new to the Central League this season.

  • * Chih-Lung Huang (RHP, Yomiuri Giants) – Hailed by some in the Japanese press as the next Chien-Ming Wang, Huang is a 21 year-old righty out of Taiwan. He grew up a fan of NPB, and last offseason spurned MLB interest to sign an ikusei contract with his favorite team, the Giants. Ikusei is a special roster designation usually used for younger players; the word itself means “training” or “development”. Huang performed well in his farm team appearances this season, and was promoted from his ikusei status all the way to the top roster to make an emergency start last weekend. He was quickly demoted after two appearances, but showed a promising sinking fastball, and it looks like he’s a solid prospect.
  • * Casey Fossum (LHP, Hanshin Tigers) – Fossum failed to crack Hanshin’s opening day rotation over concerns with his velocity, but joined the team a couple weeks into the season and has been a serviceable mid-rotation arm. He’s got a 3.88 era in 46.1 innings with 41 K’s and 21 BB’s.
  • * Gio Alvarado (RHP, Hiroshima Carp): If I had an NPB All-Joy team, Alvarado would definitely be on it. After kicking around the low minors, Mexico and the Indy Leagues for 10 years, Alvarado earned an NPB contract with back-to-back strong seasons in Salt Lake City and Albaquerque, two of the tougher pitching environments in AAA. He opened the season in the number two spot in the Carp’s rotation, but was quickly demoted after allowing 12 earned runs in his first 16 innings pitched. Alvarado is back with the top team, and took his first NPB win on June 12.
  • * Dioni Soriano (LHP, Hiroshima Carp): Another All-Joy type, Soriano took the path less traveled to Japan: he played at the Carp Academy in his native Dominican Republic, moved on to China, and then spent a few years in Japan’s Independent Leagues before signing an ikusei contract with the Carp last season. Soriano reached the top level in May. Though he’s only made three appearances so far, Soriano shows solid velocity and could become a much-needed lefty option for the Carp. Fun facts: the Cubs have two other products of the Carp’s Dominican Academy: Esmailin Caridad, who was also an ikusei player; and a slightly more famous Soriano.
  • * Chris Bootcheck (RHP, Yokohama BayStars): Bootcheck fits the good velocity, poor command reliever mold that some NPB teams have been able to work with. So far, the velocity has been there, and he’s throwing strikes, as evinced by his 11:0 K:BB ratio, and the fact that he’s given up 17 hits and three home runs in 9.1 innings of work. Most of that hit total comes from two bad outings, so hopefully he’ll get a chance to sort things out.

In an upcoming post I’ll take a look at a few interesting guys in the Pacific League.


NPB Notes: Arm Slots & Other Updates

First a correction/retraction. In my most recent FanGraphs post on Junichi Tazawa, I re-ran a snippet from a post I published on NPB Tracker over a year ago, discussing the young righty’s time in Japan’s Industrial Leagues. One observant reader caught the improbability of this quote: “in his last appearance [Tazawa] didn’t allow any runs, but was nicked for 7 hits in 2 innings”. I did a little digging and couldn’t find any evidence of such appearance, so it looks like I was mistaken on that specific item. The Japanese site Draft Reports, however, has Tazawa’s pitching lines from 2008, and in general he was more hittable in relief appearances made after several starts (duh). So I’ll stand by the observation that Tazawa wore down after heavy workloads in Japan, but admit that I backed it up with incorrect data.

I brought up the submariner Shunsuke Watanabe in our chat last week, and here’s a little more on him: video of an appearance against Yomiuri in a 2009 pre-WBC warm-up match and velocity data from over the last year or so. With a fastball that maxes out at 80mph, Watanabe is perhaps the softest throwing starter in Japan. At the other end of the low arm slot scale is Yakult closer Chang Yong Lim. Some of you might remember Lim from last year’s WBC, when he closed for Korea and surrendered the eventual game-winning hit to Ichiro. Lim isn’t a submariner, but throws from a side-arm slot and runs his fastball into the mid-90’s. Here’s some video and velocity data.

How is the ‘Fat Ichiro’, Ryoji Nakata doing? Not well — .231/.268/.359 slash line through 42 farm team plate appearances. Nakata is perhaps a victim of NPB’s single-level minor league system — he’s behind two other first base prospects who are performing much better.

Matt Murton has taken to Japanese baseball like a fish to water so far, sporting a healthy .351/.400/.529 line as of May 31 Jeff Fiorentino, on the other hand, has struggled to a .235/325/.324 line.

Yu Darvish is striking more guys out this year, 95 in 86 innings pitched so far. Overall he’s in the midst of a frustrating season with a pedestrian 4-4 record despite a 1.67 era, while his Nippon Ham Fighters languish in last place. Darvish has surrendered seven unearned runs in his 11 starts this season, which is surprising given that Ham’s fielders won seven Gold Gloves last season, winning every position except pitcher and one outfield spot.


Tommy John for Tazawa

Greetings Fangraphians. I have awakened from my six-week Fangraphs slumber to bring you… analysis of Junichi Tazawa’s surgery.

Last month, the Red Sox learned that Tommy John surgery would knock their #3 prospect out of commission for the next 12 months or so. Let’s take a look back at how they got here.

Tazawa signed with Boston in November 2008, after a four-year career with Shin-Nihon Oil Eneos of Japan’s Industrial Leagues. The Industrial Leagues are comprised of amateur teams fielded by Japan’s corporations, such as Toyota and Yamaha. I’m sure someone will ask how the Industrial League compares to the American minors in terms of talent, but to me it’s an apples and oranges situation in that the Industrial Leagues have a mix of NPB draft prospect talent, and guys with corporate jobs who happen to play baseball. That said, I’d say the better Industrial League teams probably grade somewhere around Indy Leauge ball.

I was probably more impressed than most to see Tazawa reach the Bigs last season. Based on the observation that it usually takes younger Industrial League pitchers at least a year or two of pro seasoning before they begin to perform at the top level in Japan, I expected Tazawa to hit a wall at some point his first pro season. Here’s a quote from an article I wrote last February:

[…] In America, he will have to adjust to the reality that even in 2A there will be guys capable of hitting his best stuff. This will challenge him to improve on his approach on the mound and preparation for the game.

It turned out that 2A wasn’t a huge challenge for Tazawa, and he did well in two 3A starts before finding the wall I envisioned at the MLB level. The Industrial Leauges are a long way from the pennant race in AL East, and that got that far in 10 months was quite an achievement.

So hindsight being 20/20, was he rushed?

In the post I referenced above, I also made a note about the mileage on Tazawa’s arm coming into the Red Sox contract:

Looking at last year’s Intercity Championship, which Tazawa’s Eneos won, Tazawa started on Sept 1, Sept 4, pitched relief on Sept 6, started again on Sept 8, and finally closed out the tourney with two innings on Sept 9. That was a total of 28.1 innings in nine days, with no more than three days rest in between apparances. I don’t have pitch count data, but I recall reading that he had gotten around 150 in one game last year* (not sure if it was this tournament or another one). And he did wear out down the stretch — in his last appearance he didn’t allow any runs, but was nicked for 7 hits in 2 innings.The upside here is that the Red Sox certainly won’t put this kind of strain on Tazawa’s arm. He’ll be put under pitch counts and watched carefully. The adjustment he’ll have to make is pitching on a regular, routine basis, instead of the short, extreme bursts of activity with long breaks in between.

* In researching today’s post, I found an article that said he had thrown 158 pitches in the September 4, 2008 game.

One thing I didn’t foresee was that Boston have him pitch from the windup. Tazawa always worked from the stretch in Japan, probably because he spent most of his Industrial League career as a reliever. His workload also increased from 103 Industrial League innings to 134.2 across three levels in the States.

So was he rushed? I have the sense that injury problems were to some extent inevitable, but yeah, it does feel like the Red Sox were aggressive with him.


UZR and Jason Bay

Today the Boston Herald and Deadspin homed in on Jason Bay’s 13-run change in his 2009 UZR. John Tomase of the Boston Herald writes that “UZR owes Jason Bay an apology” and Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky writes that “it’s foolish to jump aboard the Sabermetrics bandwagon.”

John Tomase goes on to say:

… Ultimate Zone Rating, which was treated as Gospel this winter during all the discussions of defense around these parts.

Let’s just say that it’s not UZR’s fault that it’s been treated like gospel, and anyone who actually reads FanGraphs should know that we definitely don’t treat single-season UZR like gospel either. Dave Cameron addressed “not liking or agreeing” with UZR last year in his Bay vs Cameron article and Jack Moore consulted multiple defensive metrics in his contract analysis of the Jason Bay signing.

Even with the UZR improvements, Bay is still listed as -35 runs below average since 2007. Some will point to his poor 2007 as the result of still recovering from knee surgery, but his problems in the outfield continued to plague him in 2008 between playing in PNC and Fenway.

All the other defensive metrics seem to agree that he has been pretty sub-par since 2007 as well. John Dewan’s +/- has him at -18 runs. Sean Smith’s Total Zone has him at -47 runs and Brian Cartwright’s WOWY based system likes him the best at -8.2 (having him at +9 in 2009).

Now there’s no doubt that, in 2009, it seems most systems have him somewhere around average, which is a fairly large departure from his 2007 and 2008 metrics, but let’s not forget that the fans themselves seemed to think Bay was below average in 2009. Tom Tango runs the Fans Scouting Report each year and they rated Bay a 2.69 on a scale of 1-5, which placed him 48th of the 71 rated left fielders.

Do we need to average out every single defensive system for each player to get a decent picture of his defensive abilities? Probably not. But when in doubt (like some of you were with Jason Bay), you can always get a second opinion, and a third opinion. Right here on FanGraphs we now carry two separate defensive systems (UZR and John Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved) for all players.

Baseball statistics can be a valuable tool in your toolbox when analyzing a player. Often times they can be one of the most useful tools in your toolbox, but there’s really no reason to throw that tool away completely, just as you wouldn’t throw away scouting information. And as I’ve said before, a lot of times the metrics you use actually do contain “scouting” information.

New information and better models are coming out all the time and this is not unique to baseball. Analysts use the information that’s available to them and in light of new information, there’s a chance that the previous analysis might be wrong.

But the alternative as Barry Petchesky wrote is that “it’s foolish to jump aboard the Sabermetrics bandwagon.” Suppose we go back to the days of batting average and fielding percentage; to how many players would batting average or fielding percentage “owe an apology”?


Some Thoughts on Batted Ball Data

Colin Wyers wrote a post today about potential bias in batted ball data. While I don’t have anything in particular to say about the results of his bias study, I have to disagree with his conclusion and debunk some of the information provided about the differences between Stat Corner tRA and FanGraphs tRA, which he uses to illustrate his point:

For starters, the difference in tRA between FanGraphs and Stat Corner is a poor stat to illustrate GB/FB/LD bias because there are other differences in the way both sites calculate the stat. Let’s take Felix Hernandez this year, for whom BIS and Gameday have very, very similar batted ball profiles for 2010.

         GB      LD     FB 
BIS     67.6    13.5   16.6 
GD      65.8    13.2   15.8

Now, here’s the difference in FanGraphs tRA vs StatCorner tRA

FG – 4.62
SC – 5.05

Almost a half a run difference. Why are they so different? It’s probably the component park factors, mainly on LD% and HR%, I would imagine.

Actually, I’ll plug both of those stat lines into the FanGraphs tRA calculator and see what I get: 4.62 and 4.70. So, about .08 of the differences is because of GB/FB/LD differences and the other .35 is park factors (or potentially slightly different weights).

Furthermore, if you look at individual player GB% correlation from 2003 to 2008 between BIS and Retrosheet data, you get .94. That’s among all players, whether they pitched 1 inning or 200 innings. Here’s the others:

GB% – .94
FB% – .85
LD% – .72

It’s not like the two data sources are telling you completely different things. For the most part, they agree, especially on GB%.

Baseball Info Solutions also rotates their scorers, to try and avoid any scorer bias as Ben Jedlovec stated here:

BIS Scorers are assigned “randomly”. We’re not using a random number generator, but it’s almost as effective. Scorers have a designated number (Ex. Scorer #11) which are then rotated through different slots in the schedule. If scorers 7 and 8 are scoring the late (west coast) games one day, they’ll be rotated to early games the next time around. There’s some miscellaneous switching to accommodate vacation, etc. too. In the end, everyone’s getting a good mix of every team in every park.

We also have several different quality control methods in place to make sure that scorers are consistent with their hit locations and types. We added some new tests this season using the hit timer to flag the batted ball data, so the 2009 data is better than ever.

Ben continues with:

BIS gets an almost entirely new set of video scouts each season. If you’re seeing the same “bias” in the same parks year after year, I can’t see how it would be related to the individual scorer.

It’s also important to note that BIS has an additional classification of batted ball data, Fliners, which is not displayed on FanGraphs and lumped in with Line Drives and Fly Balls. Fliners come in two varieties, Fliner-Line Drives and Fliner-Fly Balls.

Colin tackled the line drive issue before on the Hardball Times, in which Cory Schwartz of MLBAM responded:

our trajectory data is indeed validated as thoroughly as all of our other data: not just once, but three times: first, by a game-night manager who monitors the data entered by the stringer, second by a next-day editor who reviews trajectories against video, and third by Elias Sports Bureau. We take great care in the accuracy of all our data, including trajectories.

None of this is to say that your original premise is not true: line drive vs. fly ball is indeed a somewhat subjective distinction that may be influenced by a number of factors, not just press box height. But I disagree with your assertion that the accuracy of our quality is inferior in this (or any other) regard.

Now we know that there is subjectivity in batted ball stats, but in Colin’s conclusion he writes:

In the meantime, consider this my sabermetric crisis of faith. It’s not that I don’t believe in the objective study of baseball. I’m just not convinced at this point that something dealing with batted-ball data is, at least wholly, an objective study. And where does this leave us with existing metrics that utilize batted-ball data? Again, I’m not sure.

For me, this is a bit of an extreme conclusion to make. For stats like GB% I think there is little to be concerned about, but once you get to LD%, I think you should realize there is some subjectivity involved. Is it worth disregarding entirely or having a “sabermetric crisis of faith” over? In my opinion, probably not.

We all want best data possible and there are some exciting projects underway to collect more granular and precise data, but in the meantime, I don’t see any reason to dismiss the data that is currently available. Better batted ball data will certainly lead to more accurate results; I don’t think it will show completely different results.

Authors Note: This was an expansion on my thoughts from a comment I posted on insidethebook.com


The iPad = My Baseball TV

The first thing I did on my iPad was check out how the FanGraphs app looked on it. It works, but truth be told you’re better off using the website on an iPad, which will work in its entirety. I much prefer the FanGraphs app on the iPhone to the website, but it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to use it on a bigger screen. Now if you could use the FanGraphs app as an iPad widget and leave it in the corner all the time or something, that would be cool.

The second thing I did was download the MLB At Bat 2010 for iPad.

MLB.tv through MLB At Bat 2010 works great on the iPad. While I was doing the live chat yesterday, I had the iPad propped up with whichever game I wanted to watch that was not blacked out. It’s like having a handheld television, specifically designed to watch baseball games.

And of course you have all sorts of statistical overlays available to you while you watch the game. Want to know which players are in the field, or want to see a boxscore while watching the game? No problem, those are all available right at your fingertips.

There’s also a high resolution MLB Gameday view, where you can see each at-bat, pitch by pitch along with lineup, boxscore, and video highlights. You can pull up so many extra “stat boxes” that it will more or less fill up the entire screen. It all looks really great and because you can’t access the web based MLB Gameday on your iPad, this is really the only official MLB live scoring option available to you.

The downside is that it costs $15 dollars, again. And I say again because I already have MLB At Bat 2010 for my iPhone, which cost $15 dollars too. I also noticed a few opening day bugs, which weren’t show stoppers or anything, but caused the application to crash on me a couple of times. I’m sure these will get ironed out pretty quickly.

While it’s one of the more expensive apps you’ll purchase, it does provide the most robust and prettiest live scoring experience on your iPad, mainly because of the lack of Flash software that will prevent many popular web based solutions (including MLB’s very own) from working. And if you have an MLB.tv subscription and an iPad, getting MLB At Bat 2010 for the iPad is really a no brainer.


Bill Simmons on Sabermetrics

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Bill Simmons‘ most recent column in which he “finally joins the revolution” and highlights stats such as UZR, WAR, FIP and BABIP!

The more I played around with fangraphs.com, the more I realized, “Hey, there’s really something here.” The numbers for Boston players jibed with what I had been watching all last season. For instance, Jacoby Ellsbury had lousy instincts in center, his jumps were routinely late, he took bad angles on balls, he drove me crazy week after week … and yet, he is fast and committed only two errors all season. How bad could he have been? Well, UZR wasn’t fooled.


The Fat Ichiro

A few weeks ago, Alex Remington published an article covering a Harvard study overweight baseball players. Had Harvard expanded their study to Japan, they could have included Ryoji Nakata, Japan’s portly rookie.

When Nagoya’s Chunichi Dragons drafted Nakata out of Asia University in the third round of last year’s NPB draft, he immediately took over as Japan’s roundest player. At a Fielder-esque 5’6 (171 cm), 260 lbs (118kg), Nakata inherited the distinction from Japan’s previous reigning heavyweight, Seibu’s Takeya Nakamura, who is comparatively svelte at 5’9 (175cm) and 224 lbs (102kg). Nakamura’s game matches his size: he’s a third baseman was a good first step, who has led Japan in home runs each of the last two seasons (46 and 48 respectively).

Nakata is different. He’s a first baseman, and lefthanded-hitter who relies on contact skills and strike zone control. In college, he was a gap hitter with a career slash line of .278/.355/.438, though this was dragged down by a horrible .102/.185/.184 Autumn 2008 season. You can get a sense of what he looks like at the plate in this spring training at bat against Orix reliever Daisuke Kato. Like many Japanese contact hitters, Nakata kind of turns himself towards first base on his follow through, which I think will make him vulnerable to NPB-level fastballs over the outside part of the plate. On the plus side though, he motors to second on the left fielder’s misplay, and advances to third on a sacrifice fly.

Skills aside, conditioning and stamina are the obvious concerns here. While Nakata appears to cover short distances surprisingly well enough, I doubt he’ll hold up over of the course of even a professional farm team season. He was visibly winded after running a sprint in a video I saw, and was finished a 4k run three laps behind his rookie teammates. And it will remain to be seen how the duration of the season affects his physique, and how that in turn affects his game.

So for me, putting it all together, Nakata has “pinch hitter” written all over him. He’s an unconventional player and it’ll be interesting to see how he develops with Chunichi’s farm team this season.


Yu Darvish: Real Deal?

Author’s note: Minor edit toward the end.

Yes. Here’s why:

– Darvish has had three straight seasons better than than any one Daisuke Matsuzaka managed in Japan. In each of the past three years, he’s posted a sub-2.00 era and a whip of 0.90 or better. Matsuzaka never achieved either figure during his time in NPB.

– NPB batters find him nearly unhittable. Over the last three seasons, he’s hits/9IP were: 5.84 (2009), 6.10 (2008), 5.33 (2007). Nippon Ham’s strong defense plays a role here, as Darvish’s BABIP was .241 last year. But Darvish keeps the ball on the ground, and his number was well ahead of the team average of .291.

– He throws six or seven pitches for strikes in game situations. According to my un-trained scouting eye, five of them are potentially above-average MLB pitches: his fastball, slider, forkball, curve and shuuto (two-seam fastball). To get a sense of how Darvish mixes things up, take a look at the velocity chart his opening day start.

– He’s got velocity. Darvish usually works his fastball in the 92-93 range, but is capable of running it up to 95-96.

– He changes speeds. Darvish’s curveball bottoms out at under 60mph, and he has other offerings in the 75-85mph range.

– Darvish is young (not yet 24), and “projectable” (6’5, 188 lbs).

– He eats up innings. Darvish has averaged about eight innings per start over the last three years.

Darvish does have a few minor areas of concern:

– He throws a lot of pitches. Darvish threw 147 pitches on opening day, in a complete game losing effort. Back in July 2008, Darvish threw 165 pitches in a loss.

– He hasn’t put up a truly dominant strikeout season. Over the last three years, Darvish has been in the 8-9 K/9IP range, but given his stuff and the number of pitches he throws, I’d love to see him put up 12-13 K/9IP season.

– The amount of mileage on his arm is somewhat of a concern, though not as much as it might be. Darvish throws a lot of pitches and goes deep into games, but gets plenty of rest between starts. His career high for innings is 207.2, in 2008. Matsuzaka, on the other hand, was abused to the tune of 240.1 IP during his age 20 season. Still, Darvish missed the last month of the 2009 season with lower body strains.

The question I most commonly receive from readers is “when will Darvish come to the majors?” The answer is that Darvish has been outspoken about not wanting to make the leap to MLB. This is a stark contract to most other NPB stars — Koji Uehara, for example, talked for years about his dream of playing MLB ball before he actually did.

This is where Darvish’s ethnicity comes in to play. Darvish is half Iranian, but born and raised in Japan. He said in an interview prior to the 2007 Japan Series that growing up, he tried to fit in and gain acceptance with the other kids by performing on the baseball field. This in turn fueled his desire to succeed as a pro in Japan. I’ve also heard speculation that he’s reluctant to play in America because of a possible perception of anti-Iranian sentiment*, but I can’t remember seeing a quote attributed to him on the subject.

In any event, all the MLB teams will have an eye on him, just in case.

* a little disclaimer here: I’m not meaning to comment on the possible presence of anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States; I’m merely attempting to underscore the fact that Darvish’s background is uncommon for a ballplayer, which may make his situation a little more complex than we’re used to as fans.


A New Approach to the Fifth Starter

As we saw yesterday in my introductory post, there is really is no point in wasting time and resources trying to enter the season with five starters earmarked for 25+ starts. No. 5 starters, in the traditional sense, just don’t exist. The best bet is to focus on securing four starters that can make 24 starts or more. In the fifth spot in the rotation, a three-man job-share could then be developed and it would break down like this:

1. A long reliever who would serve as the seventh arm in the ‘pen and be expected to make eight to 10 starts on the year. Ideally, this would be a proven veteran who could stick at the MLB level all season.

2. A pitching prospect that projects to be a fringe No. 3 or 4 with two or three minor league options remaining. He would be introduced to the Majors in this low-pressure role over the next two to three seasons before officially (hopefully) graduating to the role of a reliable third or fourth starter. In this role, the pitcher would need to make about 10 starts at the MLB level each season.

3. A minor league “veteran” pitcher (somewhere in the 25-30 year old range) who has been unable to stick in the Majors – and still has at least one minor league option left – and can be relied on to make at least five starts on the season.

Let’s use a real team (The Toronto Blue Jays) to flesh out this example.
No. 1 starter: Ricky Romero
No. 2 starter: Shaun Marcum
No. 3 starter: Marc Rzepczynski
No. 4 starter: Brett Cecil

The job-share in the fifth spot would include:
1. Brian Tallet, as the long-man (0 options)
2. Brad Mills, as the prospect (2 options)
3. Lance Broadway, as the minor-league vet (1 option)

If all goes well, we can expect this group to make 23 starts out of the fifth spot, which more than most teams can hope for… and it leaves a little room to exceed expectation if one pitcher performs better than expected. But we should also have a safeguard because injuries and other unexpected situations always arise. In triple-A, Toronto would have a reliever capable of going 3-4 innings (Sean Stidfole, 3 options) to replace Tallet, along with two emergency starters that could fill in to replace Mills (Rey Gonzalez, 3 options) and Broadway (Randy Boone, 3 options).

This may seem like a lot of moving parts or a lot of resources to tie up in this situation but we know that a team is going to struggle to find five reliable starters each season (four will be tough to find for some), so it makes sense to plan ahead. Seven teams used 10 or more starters each that made 23 or fewer starts last season. Most of those pitchers will filling in the gap in the fifth hole in the rotation.

The best part of the Jays plan above, is the cost efficiency. Tallet will make $2 million in 2010 for his role as a spot starter and long man out of the bullpen. Mills and Broadway would make just over the minimum MLB salary when in the Majors, while the other three pitchers – if needed – would make exactly the minimum. In other words, you’d be filling a minimum of 23 starts on the year for less than $3 million. As well, by ensuring that everyone but Tallet has options remaining, the club will not risk losing any of these players in 2010.

Obviously this plan is not going to score a team 20 quality starts, so the goal would be to expect a league-average perform from the job-share when the 23 starts are averaged out. Even so, that’s solid value for less than $3 million. And if a significant injury strikes Tallet, Mills or Broadway, it’s not a catastrophic situation; you can have the other two pitchers pick up the slack, or bring up one of your back-ups. If you look at some of the pitching performances received from fill-in starters or supposed “No. 5 starters,” you find that the performances are most often well below league average. Scrambling to fill starts can also result in throwing millions of dollars at pitchers like Sidney Ponson to make five or six disappointing starts before a release is mercifully made.

So, to recap… This job-share plan is good because…
A) The inevitable pitching injuries will have a lesser (negative) impact
B) It will help train young pitchers for an eventual larger role
C) It’s cost efficient

It’s at least worth a try because we know the currently model is flawed for most – if not all – clubs.


Fifth Starters Don’t Exist

We read a lot of scouting reports and hear people comment that a pitcher’s potential is that of a No. 5 starter. Teams spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours crunching data to build a successful five-man rotation, but it’s all in vain. The truth of the matter is that these mythical creatures don’t actually exist.

If we look back to the 2009 season, only two teams had five starters on their pitching staffs that made 24 or more starts: the Chicago Cubs and the Colorado Rockies.

  • All 30 teams had at least one pitcher make 24 or more starts.
  • Twenty-six teams had two pitchers make 24 or more starts.
  • Then the number drops to 22 teams that had three pitchers make 24 or more starts.
  • Then we hit a cliff. Only nine teams were able to rely on four pitchers to make 24 or more starts.

    This may not be the most scientific way to look at the situation, but it’s quick and dirty and gets the point across. Only about a third of the teams in Major League Baseball had four reliable starters. Less than 10% of teams could make a claim that they actually had a “No. 5 starter” last season. Sure, you could say that some of these teams had another “quality guy” earmarked for the No. 5 role but injuries created the gap. But we know injuries in the starting rotation are inevitable each season, so it makes sense to start planning for that likely scenario. San Diego, Washington, Seattle and Cleveland could not even claim to have a No. 2 starter. Each of those four organizations had just one starter that made more than 24 starts on the season.

    Every season, most of the teams in baseball scramble to fill holes in their starting rotations and most of the headaches come from trying to fill the gaping hole in the fifth spot in the rotation. In ’09, seven teams used 10 or more pitchers to fill the black holes in their starting rotations.

    Tomorrow, I will suggest a new approach that some teams might want to consider for their starting rotations.

    * * *

    For interest’s sake, here are some other articles discussing No. 5 starters:
    1. A classic by Jeff Sackman from December 2006
    2. R.J. Anderson touching on the subject at FanGraphs
    3. FanGrapher Matthew Carruth discussing the issue at Lookout Landing
    4. Chuck Brownson tying it all together at The Hardball Times

    I’m sure there are other interesting articles on the subject… and these were just the tip of the iceberg that I discovered.