We’re just over a week into the regular season, and many baseball memories – positive and negative – have been inserted into the history books. Ryan Braun‘s three-homer game, Emilio Bonifacio‘s rapid-fire succession of BABIP singles, Tim Hudson‘s sensational Giants’ debut, a bunch of aces being aces, and the Mets/Phillies/Angels, etc.., bullpen implosions – just another week in paradise. While individual player statistical sample sizes are still way too small to draw meaningful conclusions, team totals are already ramping up, allowing us to make some somewhat informed judgments regarding what may be in store for some clubs the rest of the way.
April and even May can be somewhat frustrating in a sense for the analytically-inclined baseball fan. The sample sizes are way to small to make meaningful conclusions. Those same months can be quite insightful for the traditional scout in all of us. What the trained eye tells us at this time of year is more relevant than any stat line. At the team level, however, there are some simple indicators that can offer hints as to what is in store for clubs as the season unfolds. Let’s touch on a couple of them today, while digging a little deeper into a few clubs’ first-week performances along the way.
First, we can gain insight into the level of a team’s floor by looking at the net number of strikeouts/walks they accumulate of both sides of the ball, i.e., (offensive BB – offensive K) + (defensive K – defensive BB). This is a “technical merit” type indicator, tracking the net total of totally free outs a club takes from/gives to their opponents in a given time frame. Below are all 30 teams’ final net K/BB for 2013, as well as their 2014 mark through April 8.
|2013||OFF BB||OFF K||DEF BB||DEF K||+/- K/BB||2014||OFF BB||OFF K||DEF BB||DEF K||+/- K/BB|
You will note that the vast majority of the 2013 playoff teams fared quite well in this simple metric, and that most of the weaker teams fared quite poorly. While this method can help assess a team’s floor, it doesn’t do as good a job with its ceiling. It doesn’t take batted-ball authority, or fit to one’s home park into account, so a team like the 2013 Red Sox, who excelled in those areas, can afford to strike out more at bat and issue more walks than most and still succeed. It doesn’t take offensive or defensive batted-ball mix into account, so a team like the 2013 Pirates, who allowed a massive number of ground balls, can still succeed. A strong score, however, gives clubs a cushion, a margin for error that allows them to not hit the ball as hard, or allow a less optimal batted-ball mix, and still succeed. On the other hand, if you’re busted in all categories like the 2013 Astros, or can’t strike out anyone like the 2013 Twins, this method quickly assesses your predicament.
Some early-season observations triggered by this indicator:
– The Indians are not striking out. No, we should not expect Nyjer Morgan, David Murphy and Lonnie Chisenhall to continue to perform as they have to date, but by the same token, we should not expect Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher to continue to struggle. Most interestingly, the club as a whole has seemingly taken on the personality of Michael Brantley, who has struck out twice in 29 plate appearances through April 8. Yes, they have played three games against the Twins and their low-K staff, but after whiffing 12 times on Opening Day against the A’s, the Indians have been in full contact mode. Their offense has a high floor, and with guys like Kipnis, Brantley and Carlos Santana all at or about to reach their respective peaks, their ceiling might not be so bad either.
– The Royals aren’t striking out either, and their pitching staff doesn’t walk anyone. Their floor is indeed higher than that of most clubs, but I would submit that their ceiling isn’t as high as many believe, despite the presence of young, upwardly mobile potential stars like Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez. The reason why is the identity of their top two hitters in the order, to whom they appear committed to entrusting upward of 1400 plate appearances. Let’s take a look at Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante‘s plate appearance frequencies and relative production by BIP type data for 2013:
|Aoki||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Infante||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
In the frequency tables, you will not that both players are in the furthest lower reaches of the K rate spectrum (percentile ranks 1 and 4, respectively, for Aoki and Infante). That’s about it for the good stuff, as Aoki hits more grounders than just about anyone, and Infante hits a lot of relatively innocuous fly balls, though his 2013 line drive percentile rank was above average at 61. Aoki was basically the same guy in his first season as a regular in 2012, and the only change in Infante’s profile is a gradual increase in fly balls, not a good thing unless they’re hit at above the authority threshold at which damage tends to occur. Infante’s 2013 line drive tendency doesn’t appear to be a true skill, as it’s been above average twice and below average twice over the last four years.
The truly bad new is in the production by BIP type table. Both players significantly overperformed their true talent level in 2013 after adjustment for context. Both rank among the weakest fly ball hitters in the game, each with 35 adjusted relative production, scaled to MLB average of 100. Both are moving to a fly ball-killing environment in KC. Both hit their line drives more weakly than the MLB average, as well. Both overperformed on grounders in 2013, Aoki because he’s running to first base as he swings, and Infante because of pure luck, as his speed isn’t difference-making. Both players’ ability to make very consistent contact gives them relatively high individual “floors”, especially with regard to batting average. Their inability to hit the ball very hard will likely not allow them to raise themselves very high above that floor. On top of it all, Infante ranks among the most extreme pull hitters in the game, and lacks the power to reap any of the benefits that go along with the substantial risks faced by this type of hitter. Think of Aoki as a lesser-talented, late-career version of Ichiro Suzuki. Both hitters could be staring at .270-.300-.360ish seasons, as early as this year, which puts severe strain on the Royals’ offensive ceiling.
– The Pirates’ ceiling might be lower this year, but their floor has risen. A.J. Burnett, who allowed the most grounders on the Pirates’ 2013 grounder-generating machine, is gone, so they have to find another way. So far, so good, as the club is walking more at the plate (19 walks combined by Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte through April 8), and striking out more of their opponents (check out Charlie Morton‘s 11 K in 12 IP). They’ll still get more than their share of grounders, even with Burnett’s absence. The Pirates’ fundamentals are sound – they aren’t going away anytime soon.
– The Brewers’ pitching staff just might be for real. Very quietly, Miller Park has been one of the most hitter-friendly parks around in recent seasons. The best way to tame such a park is to miss bats, and the Brewers struck out 64 hitters in 65 innings through April 8. Ironically, the one pitcher who hasn’t racked up the K’s so far is perennial team leader Yovani Gallardo, who has just seven K’s in 12 2/3 shutout IP to date. He’s shut down the Braves at home and the Red Sox in Fenway, neither an easy feat. One of the quiet recent stalwarts in the Brewer rotation has been Marco Estrada. Let’s take a look at his plate appearance frequency and production by BIP type data to get to know him a little better.
|Estrada||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
While Estrada is not a “stuff” guy, he still misses his share of bats because of deception and just enough raw stuff. His high K rate (81 percentile rank in 2013) and low BB rate (15) gives him significant margin for error. Toss in his top of the scale popup rate (96) and that margin grows further. His 2013 line drive rate was miniscule (4), though regression can be expected there. Outside of the liners, his frequencies were in line with career norms.
He does allow harder than average contact across the three major batted-ball types, but his high popup rates keeps his overall contact management score (95 adjusted relative production) better than MLB average. His true talent level is well better than his actual 2013 ERA of 3.87. Having a guy like this in the mid-to-lower part of your starting rotation makes you a potential contender.
– The Dodgers are striking out an awful lot. It’s early, but Juan Uribe (11 in 36 at-bats), Andre Ethier (9 in 29) and Adrian Gonzalez (8 in 32) are leading an early K onslaught. Uribe’s hot start with the bat has been rocket-fueled by a .480 BABIP. There are obviously a number of reasons why this club should win in 2014, but contending clubs generally don’t make a practice of giving substantial at bats to the likes of Dee Gordon – despite his strong start – Tim Federowicz, Drew Butera, or whoever the catcher du jour might be. They lack the depth usually possessed by the game’s best clubs, and what depth they do have is currently being tested. There is some downside here.
– Why aren’t the Tigers striking anyone out? It’s been balanced out by their offense’s similarly low K rate, but what is going on with the Tiger starters outside of Max Scherzer? Excluding the 2013 Cy Young Award winner, their starters have whiffed only 23 batters in 40 1/3 IP through April 8. Justin Verlander is the leading culprit, with only 5 K in 14 IP. Something to watch as the season unfolds.
Another simple metric that I like to track early in the season is each team’s average starting pitcher innings per game. Again, this is the type of metric that tends to measure a team’s floor – rolling through relief pitcher innings this early in the season sparks attrition, and before you know it you can be deep into your AAA bullpen, with even the odd AA callup here and there. This early in the season, starters aren’t fully stretched out – note the 2013 full-season MLB average of 5.90, which is a half 2013 standard deviation above the 2014 year-to-date average of 5.80 innings per start through April 8. For that reason, let’s look at the team ranks instead of the numerical averages in the table below to look for some early trends.
|2013||AVG SP IP||2014||AVG SP IP|
|ST DEV||0.22||ST DEV||0.41|
Among teams we’ve already discussed, the Royals currently rank first in this metric – another reason to call them a “high floor” club. The Tigers’ starters, though not racking up K’s, are still lasting deep into games. The Brewers ranked 16th in this metric last season, and are 5th thus far in 2014. The Pirates’ ranking has also jumped significantly, from 23rd in 2013 to 7th so far this season, without the presence of Burnett. The Dodgers, despite all of the cash invested in their rotation, have dropped from 8th in 2013 to 25th thus far in 2014. For all of the good things we said about the Indians’ low-K offense, they are averaging only 5.01 starter innings per game thus far, dead last in a category in which they finished a lowly 25th last season.
Now for some observations about some other clubs’ performance in both metrics.
– Neither metric is particularly kind to the 2014 Cincinnati Reds. They are striking out often (nine each for Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips, plus 7 in 22 at-bats for Billy Hamilton) and are walking more batters than expected (11 BB in 20 1/3 combined IP from Tony Cingrani and Homer Bailey). Their decline from 2nd in 2013 starting pitcher innings per start to 14th thus far in 2014 is just as concerning, however. Cingrani and Bailey have averaged 5.25 IP per start, and they’d be in an even worse place if not for an unlikely seven-inning outing from Alfredo Simon.
– The Red Sox are stressing their bullpen in the early going. Clay Buchholz lasted just 4 1/3 IP in his only start, and Felix Doubront has averaged just four IP in his two. Toss in an early 11-inning game against the Brewers, and you have the potential for early-season attrition. On the plus, side, the Sox’ staff has racked up the K’s in the early going, with their pen notching 31 in 27 1/3 IP. Offensively, however, the 2014 Bosox might not draw as many walks as some of their predecessors, with A.J. Pierzynski and Jackie Bradey yet to walk in their combined 44 plate appearances.
– The Diamondbacks have some real issues at the core of their 2-8 record. Last year, the Diamondbacks ranked 10th in starting pitcher innings per start with 6.03. So far in 2014, they’re 21st with 5.42. If you remove Wade Miley‘s three starts from the equation, the average plunges to 4.95. The team’s floor was lowered – though its ceiling was increased – by the acquisition of Mark Trumbo, who has had a powerful start to his career in Arizona. What was a relatively high BB, low K offense now has the potential to be the opposite, with the early 2014 shortfall in the offensive BB category. On the mound, the early BB rate is up sharply, led by Trevor Cahill‘s 8 BB in 13 2/3 IP, and the bullpen’s rate of over 5 BB per 9 IP.
– The Rangers need to get the cavalry back. They ranked a middling 15th in starting pitcher IP per start in 2013, but rank only 27th at 5.28 thus far this season. Yu Darvish‘s presence will perk them up in this regard, but they need more help, as they’re averaging just 4.73 IP per start aside from Darvish and Martin Perez. Their team net K/BB performance has also been hampered by Darvish’s season-opening absence, as the back-of-the-rotation trio of Tanner Scheppers, Joe Saunders and the already-departed Nick Martinez has walked 10 batters in 18 2/3 IP to date.
– The Mariners are one interesting, high-variance bunch. There is absolutely no telling how many – or how few – games this group can win, especially in what appears to be a historically level AL playing field. They ranked 18th in starting pitcher IP per start last season, but are 8th so far in 2014. This includes two dominant Felix Hernandez starts – but also an injury to the similarly dominant-to-date James Paxton, which has sent him to the DL. It doesn’t include any help from Hisashi Iwakuma or Taijuan Walker – both currently on the mend from spring training injuries – but it does add by the subtraction of the horrific performances they got at the back of their rotation in 2013. Check out Joe Saunders’ 2013 plate appearance outcome frequencies and relative production by BIP type, just for fun.
|Saunders||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
Not a pretty picture. A very low K rate (5 percentile rank) and above average BB (55) and line drive ranks (67). There was simply no margin for error, despite a career best ground ball rate (87 percentile rank). Unless Saunders was a super contact manager, this spelled trouble. He instead managed contact poorly, allowing well above average contact authority (120 adjusted relative production on all BIP) across the board. Saunders didn’t need the Mariners’ poor 2013 outfield defense to have a miserable season. Simply removing him and some other 2013 incumbents from the mix has made the Mariners better.
The Mariners’ net K/BB situation appears improved as well, and this is again largely attributable to the starting rotation – Hernandez and Paxton have combined for a 32/4 K/BB in 26 1/3 IP their four starts. The Mariners’ upside is largely driven by an abundance of talented youngsters on their way up. Some, however, have been rushed to the majors (Mike Zunino, Roenis Elias). Some have been handed roles/levels of responsibility for which they are likely unprepared – 700+ plate appearances and an everyday job for Abraham Almonte? Some better players have been demoted to lesser roles – see Michael Saunders, fifth outfielder, and the organization still seems to struggle with the concepts of roster construction (no long reliever, for example) or 40-man-roster management (spending spots on potential short-term fillers Elias and reliever Dominic Leone, non-impact talents with basically no AAA experience). If you haven’t watched Almonte play, you must. He reminds me of Brandon Jennings of the Detroit Pistons – he has obvious tools, with solid speed and sneaky raw power, but is a mistake machine. In the course of one weekend, he’ll hit a homer, steal a base, make three baserunning errors and misjudge a couple fly balls. A big leaguer, sure. Entitled to more plate appearances than Robinson Cano? Uh, no.
All of this said, Brad Miller is a dude, Lloyd McClendon and his staff may have fixed Dustin Ackley – he is much more consistently covering the outer portion of the plate so far this season – and they have the AL’s best record to date without needing to be carried by Robinson Cano. They are still somewhat defensively challenged, especially in the outfield, but have improved. If there is a true “wildcard” big league squad, this is it.
– Lastly, the San Francisco Giants’ fundamentals – and the corresponding floor – appear to be relatively unchanged. It sure feels like their ceiling has increased, however. Overall, they’re striking out a bit more, but that’s been offset by a lower pitching staff BB rate – just 12 BB in 70 IP through April 8. Their staff’s contact management ability, already a strength, has been bolstered by the arrival of Tim Hudson, one of the best contact managers in the game’s history, who has been brilliant in his first two starts. Quickly, let’s look at his 2013 plate appearance frequency and relative production by BIP type data to see what the Giants have added to an already strong rotation.
|T.Hudson||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
Hudson’s below average 2013 K rate (40 percentile rank) and slightly above average BB rate (39) doesn’t offer much in the way of margin for error, but his impeccable batted-ball mix really doesn’t require it. He doesn’t allow fly balls (2 percentile rank) or line drives (20 – his fourth straight season at 23 or below). His ground ball percentile rank of 92 was actually his LOWEST in four years. As an added bonus, he induced popups (56 percentile rank) at a better than MLB average rate for the first time in his career.
His BIP mix gives him room to breathe authority-wise. The few fly balls he did allow were hit slightly harder than the league average. He’s moving from one spacious park with good outfield defense to an even more spacious park with good outfield defense – well, good CF and RF defense. A healthy Hudson just could put the Giants over the top in what is likely to be season-long battle with their hated rivals to the south, the Dodgers.