Archive for Player Analysis

Flying High

As a whole, Elvis Andrus’s 2015 season was quite unremarkable. In his seventh year in the bigs, he set career lows in batting average and OBP while finishing with his second-worst wRC+ season of his career. He also stole his second-fewest amount of bases while scoring fewer runs than ever before.

One thing that he can hang his hat on, though, was his power output. Andrus finished 2015 with the second-highest ISO of his career, setting a new career high for home runs in the process. Now, he still only hit seven, but we’re talking about the player who hit zero in 674 PA in 2010. Elvis Andrus hitting seven home runs in a season is like Barry Bonds hitting 85, or Ben Revere hitting three.

Reaching seven home runs was actually quite an extraordinary feat for Andrus, not because of the total itself but because of how it compared to his 2014 season. Andrus hit just two home runs that year, which tied him for second-fewest in the MLB among qualified batters. By hitting seven the next year, he more than tripled his previous total. Only three hitters who qualified both years achieved the same feat:

Player 2014 HR 2015 HR
Adam Eaton 1 14
Matt Carpenter 8 28
Elvis Andrus 2 7

What’s even more impressive is that two of those players, Carpenter and Andrus, had fewer plate appearances in 2015 than 2014. So how did they manage to do it?

I’ve been focusing on Andrus, so let’s continue with him. His HR/FB% went up a little in 2015, but it was only 1% higher than his career average and lower than his output in two of his previous seasons. Since that clearly wasn’t the change, it must’ve been something else. Looking at his batted-ball breakdown, something shows up.

Andrus finished 2015 with a 31.8 FB%, the highest of his career. This was an increase of 10.9% from 2014, which represented the largest increase in FB% of any player between the past two years:

Rank Player 2014 FB% 2015 FB% FB% Change
1 Elvis Andrus 20.9% 31.8% 10.9%
2 Todd Frazier 37.1% 47.7% 10.6%
3 Jay Bruce 34.0% 44.2% 10.2%
4 Adam Eaton 20.2% 27.3% 7.1%
4 Jose Bautista 41.7% 48.8% 7.1%
6 Albert Pujols 35.4% 42.2% 6.8%
7 Daniel Murphy 29.4% 36.0% 6.6%
8 Matt Carpenter 35.2% 41.7% 6.5%
9 Gerardo Parra 23.9% 29.4% 5.5%
9 Jose Altuve 29.7% 35.2% 5.5%

Eaton and Carpenter also both make this list, explaining their power outburst (at least partially). Some of these players aren’t very surprising, only making this list because their 2014 FB% was much lower than their career norm and they were simply regressing to where they should be (see: Pujols, Albert). Others, like Altuve, are only just beginning to explore their power potential.

Regardless of the reasoning, the most important question that comes from this list is whether or not those on it can duplicate their performance. Without looking at individual swings and searching for differences, I decided the easiest way to determine this was by looking at historical data. Since batted-ball data became available in 2002, there have been 19 different qualified players to increase their FB% by 10% or more between consecutive seasons, and then play another qualified season the following year:

Player / Years Year 1 FB% Year 2 FB% Year 3 FB% Y2-Y1 FB% Y3-Y2 FB% Percent Regression
Hideki Matsui 2003-05 23.8% 39.9% 36.3% 16.1% -3.6% 22.36%
Grady Sizemore 2005-07 31.0% 46.9% 46.6% 15.9% -0.3% 1.89%
Bill Hall 2005-07 34.5% 47.9% 41.3% 13.4% -6.6% 49.25%
Aaron Hill 2009-11 41.0% 54.2% 42.0% 13.2% -12.2% 92.42%
Carlos Beltran 2003-05 32.7% 45.9% 37.0% 13.2% -8.9% 67.42%
Jhonny Peralta 2009-11 30.6% 43.4% 44.2% 12.8% 0.8% -6.25%
Derrek Lee 2008-10 33.7% 45.7% 37.6% 12.0% -8.1% 67.50%
Mark Kotsay 2003-05 29.1% 40.8% 35.5% 11.7% -5.3% 45.30%
Jason Kendall 2006-08 25.9% 37.6% 36.6% 11.7% -1.0% 8.55%
Mike Trout 2013-15 35.6% 47.2% 38.4% 11.6% -8.8% 75.86%
Brad Wilkerson 2003-05 36.0% 47.5% 45.0% 11.5% -2.5% 21.74%
Daniel Murphy 2012-14 24.9% 36.3% 29.4% 11.4% -6.9% 60.53%
Derek Jeter 2003-05 21.5% 32.7% 20.7% 11.2% -12.0% 107.14%
Garrett Atkins 2005-07 30.2% 41.1% 44.1% 10.9% 3.0% -27.52%
Adrian Gonzalez 2006-08 33.3% 43.7% 36.6% 10.4% -7.1% 68.27%
Brian Roberts 2003-05 28.7% 39.0% 37.3% 10.3% -1.76% 16.50
Brandon Crawford 2013-15 31.8% 42.0% 33.5% 10.2% -8.5% 83.33%
Bobby Abreu 2003-05 26.7% 36.8% 28.9% 10.1% -7.9% 78.22%
Lance Berkman 2005-06 31.7% 41.8% 37.6% 10.1% -4.2% 41.58%

Only twice did the player make even further gains in their FB%, and the average regression among all 19 of the players was 46.01% toward their first-year numbers. With this in mind, it’s difficult to envision players like Andrus and Frazier repeating their performances from last season. And even if that means we won’t be seeing a double-digit home-run season for Elvis Andrus anytime soon, I think that we’ll be all right without one.


Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr.

Andruw Jones is likely to announce his retirement from Major League Baseball sometime in the very near future. Jones hasn’t been on the MLB radar since his last season in the big leagues back in 2012, when he played 94 games with the New York Yankees but hit just .197/.294/.408. He played 2013 and 2014 with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan Pacific League and hit 26 and 24 home runs, while combining to hit .232/.393/.441. He’ll turn 39 years old in April, so he is likely to hang up his spikes after a 17-year Major League career.

In this column at FanGraphs, David Laurila made an apt comparison between Jones and Jim Edmonds with these numbers showing the similarity:

 

.254/.337/.486, 1933 hits, 434 HR, 10 Gold Gloves, 67.1 WAR—Andruw Jones

.284/.376/.527, 1949 hits, 393 HR, 8 Gold Gloves, 64.5 WAR—Jim Edmonds

 

It’s a good comparison. They were nearly equal in value in their careers and both hit many home runs and won numerous Gold Gloves.

Another interesting player to compare Jones to is more similar when you look at the arc of their careers. Both came up to the big leagues at the age of 19 and were very good players until the age of 30, then experienced a significant drop-off in value from that point on. That other player is Ken Griffey Jr. More on him later.

Andruw Jones came up with the Atlanta Braves in 1996, making his Major League debut on August 15th. He only hit .217/.265/.443 in 31 games in his rookie year but helped the Braves make it to the World Series. He hit two home runs in Game 1 against the Yankees, becoming the youngest player to ever hit a home run in the World Series. The Braves lost the series four games to two, but Jones hit .400/.500/.750 and made his presence known on a national stage.

Jones established himself in center field for the Braves in 1997 at the age of 20. He hit .231/.329/.416, which was below average for a hitter in an era of high offense (96 wRC+), but he was so good defensively that he was worth 3.7 Wins Above Replacement. The following year was the first in an impressive stretch of nine seasons from 1998 to 2006 during which Jones averaged 6.4 WAR per year. Not only did he excel on defense during this nine-year stretch, he averaged 35 home runs per season, 99 runs scored, 104 RBI, 12 steals, and a .270/.347/.513 batting line (119 wRC+). He was a five-time All-Star and won nine straight Gold Glove Awards (he would win a 10th in a row the next year). If Jones had played in the first part of the 20th century, his nickname might have been “Death to Flying Things.” Instead, he was just Andruw Jones. Jones’ best season was a 7.9 WAR year in 2005 when he hit .263/.347/.575 with 95 R, 51 HR, 128 RBI and finished second in the voting for National League MVP. This stretch was the essence of Andruw Jones—a power-hitting center fielder with 35 home runs a year and terrific defense. There were only four players in baseball worth more WAR during this nine-year stretch: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.

Jones was an above-average player again in 2007. He was worth 3.3 WAR thanks primarily to still excellent defense. His hitting dropped off considerably, though. After hitting .262/.355/.553 with a combined 92 home runs over the two previous seasons, Jones hit just .222/.311/.413 in 2007. His 26 home runs were his lowest total since 1999. This would be his last season in Atlanta and his last season with a WAR above 2.0. It was also his last excellent season on defense. Jones would play with four different teams over the final five years of his Major League career and hit .210/.316/.424. His once-great defense dropped off precipitously and he averaged just 0.6 WAR per season.

Those last five journeyman years for Jones could make it hard for people to remember how great he was in the first part of his career. Through the first seven years of his career, Andruw Jones was nearly the equal of Ken Griffey Jr. Both Jones and Junior reached the Major Leagues as 19-year-olds and were power-hitting center fielders. Griffey started winning Gold Glove Awards in his second year in the bigs and won nine Gold Gloves over the next 10 years. Jones won his first of 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards in his third year in the Major Leagues. While both were considered good fielders, the truth was that Jones was significantly better than Junior for an extended period of time and held more of his defensive value in the latter years of his career. Jones was an elite fielder through his age-30 season, then became more of a slightly-below-league-average fielder in his last five years. Griffey, on the other hand, was rarely at the elite level as a fielder that Jones reached and when he declined, it was a significant decline to well-below-average defense in his late 30s.

Griffey was the better hitter, of course, but in terms of overall value, they were very close into their mid-20s. The chart below shows each player’s cumulative WAR by age. Griffey’s WAR advantage after each player’s first seven years was slim, just 38.2 to 36.5.

In a similar number of plate appearances, Jones and Griffey had a similar number of home runs, runs scored, and RBI. Griffey had a significant edge in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Jones was much better on defense. As mentioned above, they were very close in overall value.

Griffey took his game to another level in his age 26 and age 27 seasons, when he averaged 9.4 WAR per year while hitting 105 home runs and slugging .637. Jones averaged 5.2 WAR in his age 26 and 27 seasons, which is great — just not at the same level as Griffey.

The five-year stretch of seasons when Jones and Griffey were 26 through 30 years old makes up the bulk of the difference in career WAR between the two players. During this stretch of ages, Jones accumulated 27.7 WAR and Griffey had 35.6. Again, Griffey was a much better hitter, with a significant edge in average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, along with a large edge in runs, home runs, and RBI. Jones made up some of that difference with his still excellent defense.

This is not to say that Jones wasn’t an elite player. He was. Over the five-year stretch from age 26 to 30 (2003 to 2007), Andruw Jones was seventh in baseball in WAR.

If you expand the range to the first 12 years of his career, from 1996 to 2007, Andrus Jones was also seventh in baseball in WAR, behind Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Curt Schilling. In his first 12 seasons, Andruw Jones averaged 87 runs scored, 31 home runs, 93 RBI, and a .263/.342/.497 batting line with excellent defense.

And that was it. Those first 12 seasons make up nearly 96% of Jones’ career WAR even though he continued to play for another five years. He signed with the Dodgers as a free agent prior to the 2008 season and had the worst year of his career. He hit .158/.254/.249 and his defense went from excellent to average. His WAR for that season was -1.1. He rebounded on the hitting side over the next three seasons but was no longer the defensive stud he’d once been and became a part-time player. Over his last five seasons, he was worth just 2.9 WAR total.

Of course, Ken Griffey Jr. did not age well either. He was injured in 2001 at the age of 31 and finished with the lowest WAR of his career to that point (1.8). From 2002 to 2004, he played an average of just under 70 games per year and had 0.5 WAR per season. He continued to hit well (117 wRC+), but on defense he struggled. From 2004 to 2009, no outfielder in baseball with more than 2000 innings in the field had a worse Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) than Griffey. He was even worse than Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn.

The graph shown earlier reveals the similar arcs of the careers of Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey, Jr. They both were great players through the age of 30 and below average players from age 31 on. Griffey did have more truly elite seasons. He had three seasons with eight or more WAR, which were better than any season Jones had, but they were very close in the number of seasons with four or more WAR (Griffey had 10, Jones had 9).

It will be interesting to see what Hall of Fame voters think of Andruw Jones in five years. Admittedly, there was a 10-WAR difference between Jones and Griffey over the course of their careers, but they don’t seem all that different when you look at their similar career trajectories and their distribution of WAR, particularly in the number of great seasons they each had. Jones played 17 years, while Griffey played 22. But in Griffey’s final five years, his value was below replacement level. It didn’t seem like it because he hit a respectable-looking .247/.340/.444 and had nearly 500 hits and almost 100 home runs, but his defense was a killer that greatly affected his value.

Ken Griffey, Jr. was just voted into the Hall of Fame with 99.3% of the vote, the highest percentage ever. Jim Edmonds was on the same ballot and is now one-and-done with just 2.5% of the vote. How will Andruw Jones fare?


Squeezing a Little More Out of Ryan Vogelsong

The Pirates brought in Ryan Vogelsong this winter, and most Pirates fans believed it was a depth move, and that another move would follow and net them a better option. Recent comments by GM Neal Huntington hint that perhaps they are done, and that Pirate fans should resign themselves to seeing Vogelsong as the #5 starter, at least to start the season.

Vogelsong has not been good for a while. In 2011-12 he threw 369 innings for the Giants with a 3.68 FIP, adding 4.6 WAR.  Since then, 423.1 very mediocre IP with 4.33 FIP generating 0.8 WAR.  Steamer projects 109 IP at 4.38 FIP & 0.6 WAR.

With that in mind, I decided to do a little keyboard coaching to find a path to improvement.

The first unusual thing I noticed on Vogelsong’s Brooks Baseball card is that he throws five pitches in fairly equal proportion:

Let’s look at RHB first. In 2015, he was average, his wOBA against sitting right at .300. Here is the SLG against by pitch for the last five seasons:

His 4-seam, sinker, cutter, and curve all yielded good-to-excellent SLG, yet in 2015 the changeup got hammered, to the tune of .563 SLG (up from the .370 range), and he got less than 5% whiffs (down from 7% previously, and far below the league average of 11.9%). Yet he still uses it 5% of the time. The curve on the other hand, has been good, producing a SLG under .300 in four of five years, and GB% and SwStr% right around average. I’d suggest it’s time to ditch the change against RHB, and rely more on the curve.

Against LHB, he gets torched. Batters mashed a .383 wOBA against him in 2015 and a .346 wOBA in 2014. Here are the numbers by pitch:

His only pitches with decent SLG against in 2015 were the 4-seam (.390) and the cutter (.265), while the other three pitches all have SLG over .630. (The curve at least has a 16% whiff rate). Those three “bad” pitches are used over 60% of the time. While I’m sure he needs to mix those pitches them in sometimes to keep lefty hitters honest, they are simply getting destroyed. So, I suggest he could have some more success if he stopped trying to throw his sinker and changeup — or at least cut way back — and occasionally mixed in the curve as the pitch to keep them honest.

While Vogelsong’s problems likely require a solution more sophisticated than “throw your bad pitches less” (and undoubtedly his coaches have a better view on this than some guy behind a monitor looking at numbers), his recent results suggest he won’t be much above replacement level unless he changes *something* vs. LHB. Obviously, resurrecting his once-good changeup would be the preferred option, but failing that: ditch the changeup and stop throwing the sinker to lefties. Boost 4-seam and cutter usage against lefties, and mix in the curve to keep them honest. Maybe a 4-seam/cutter/curve mix would be enough to get him through the order twice, and if not, his results with his “good” pitches may be good enough for the bullpen.


Pittsburgh’s Next Reclamation Project

During the past three seasons in Pittsburgh, Ray Searage has worked his magic to rejuvenate the careers of struggling pitchers. From increasing the usage of a two-seam fastball to induce ground balls and having a pitch framing expert behind the dish, the Pirates rotation has raised a few eyebrows. A few key pitchers that benefited from Searage were AJ BurnettFrancisco LirianoEdinson VolquezJA Happ, and many more. After seeing the success of these four pitchers, it becomes very difficult to doubt a pitching acquisition made by the Pirates. Therefore, who will be Searage’s next project?

On December 9, the Pirates agreed to send soon-to-be-free-agent second basemen Neil Walker to the Mets in exchange for veteran left-hander Jon Niese. Niece was drafted by the Mets in the 7th round in 2005 out of Defiance High School in western Ohio. Since 2010, he has been a consistent innings eater for the Mets rotation known for inducing a ton of ground balls. In 2012, Niese sported a 13-9 record with a 3.40 ERA and a career-high 2.6 WAR. From 2010 to 2014, Niese was consistently a 2 WAR pitcher, which would project as an average to above-average mid-rotation starter. However, in 2015, he struggled at times and posted a career low 0.9 WAR. Even though he posted a career high 55% ground ball percentage, he was not missing bats much with his 5.8 K/9. It’s safe to say that Niese is seeking a rebound in 2016 and he has come to the right place.

Heading into the 2016 season, I am very high on Jon Niese and believe he fits perfectly in a Pirates rotation managed by Ray Searage. Niese has a repertoire that includes a sinker, cutter, and four-seam fastball that will induce many ground balls. With their statistical findings on defensive alignments outlined in Big Data Baseball by Travis Sawchik, the Pirates could use Niese to their advantage. When looking into some of Niese’s pitch-usage data, I found his situation comparable to that of J.A. Happ. After acquiring a struggling Happ from Seattle during last summer’s trade deadline, Searage noticed a decrease in the usage of his fastball and encouraged him to be more aggressive. Happ adjusted his approach almost immediately and put up an impressive 7-2 record with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts. So how does Jon Niese’s struggles compare to Happ’s? I found my answer after referring to brooksbaseball.net for pitch-usage data in his 2012 season and 2015 season. In 2012, Niese threw his four-seam fastball at 35.7 percent compared to 20.2 percent in 2015. This is a significant difference in a matter of only four seasons. I would also like to note that he reduced his cutter usage by almost 7 percent in that time span.

Upon his return to Pittsburgh, I am expecting Searage to take a similar approach with Niese as he did with Happ. Increasing the fastball usage and being more aggressive will only benefit Niese with an even better defense behind him. Steamers projects Niese to repeat at a 5.8 K/9 in 2016. However, Fans projections sees him returning to a 6.4 K/9. Let’s not forget that he is throwing to pitch-framing extraordinaire Francisco Cervelli, which may work in his favor to get more strikes. While I believe that he will be able to miss a few more bats than last year, his main strength will be pitching to contact and inducing ground balls into the many defensive alignments behind him.

While the Pirates’ projected rotation may seem a bit top-heavy at the moment, look for Niese to be a solid #3 behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. By mid season, the Pirates rotation could be a force with the debuts of top prospect Tyler Glasnow and former second overall draft pick Jameson Taillon. In October, while many may disagree now, watch for the Pirates to be declared the winner of the offseason swap with the Mets.


Tim Lincecum’s February Showcase

Some know him as “The Freak”, while others like myself know him as “Big Time Timmy Jim“. Tim Lincecum is planning on showing if he’s got anything left in the tank sometime next month. This year he had some problems with his hip and ended up getting surgery in mid-September. Here’s a link to a some info about hip labrum surgery for those who are interested. Early in his career he was one of the most dominant starters out there and you could make an argument that for a short period he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball. Over the last four years he’s become a dependable 4th or 5th starter, but the 2015 season was one of the worst of his career.

Age has seemingly caught up with another pitcher. Lincecum is yet another example of a pitcher whose velocity peaked early in his career and has been on a decline ever since. We don’t have PITCHf/x data for his rookie 2007 season, but we have the data for the rest of his career. Besides the 2011 season where he regained some form, he’s shown a pretty consistent decline in velocity over time.

To me, the obvious outlier is the most recent season where he saw his average fastball velocity dip below 88 MPH and about 2 MPH slower than the 2014 season. This is where we can see how his hip issues affected his velocity on the mound. Below is table with his peripheral stats (excluding his rookie season). To give a quick overview, K/9 has been trending downward, possibly relating to his diminished velocity. It doesn’t look like his BB/9 or HR/9 has any significant trend, but FIP has almost always been more generous than ERA.

Season K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP
2008 10.51 3.33 0.44 2.62 2.62
2009 10.42 2.72 0.40 2.48 2.34
2010 9.79 3.22 0.76 3.43 3.15
2011 9.12 3.57 0.62 2.74 3.17
2012 9.19 4.35 1.11 5.18 4.18
2013 8.79 3.46 0.96 4.37 3.74
2014 7.75 3.64 1.10 4.74 4.31
2015 7.07 4.48 0.83 4.13 4.29

As I said before, Lincecum recently had hip surgery and I assume he is nearing the end of his rehab since he’s planning a February showcase to try and secure another contract. Given his uncertain injury status, and his performance over the last four years, he’s likely only going to be able to secure a 1-year contract possibly with some performance bonuses. Teams are definitely taking a risk if they decide to sign him, since over the last two years he has been just slightly above replacement level, accumulating o.1 WAR in 2014 and 0.3 WAR in 2015. I’ll also mention that as a starter in 2014 he was worth 0.3 WAR, and he was worth -0.2 WAR as a reliever.

He’s certainly not the most imposing pitcher to ever set foot on the mound, standing 5′ 11″ and weighing in at 170 lbs (maybe with a wet towel wrapped around his waist); he’s one of those pitchers who needs to use his whole body to gain the necessary momentum to get those 90+ MPH fastballs. If you go back and look at the fastball velocity chart above it’s pretty clear that there was a significant drop in velocity this previous season. I think it’s pretty fair to think that his hip issues had something to do with that phenomenon. Here’s a link to an article from MLB Trade Rumors with some info about his surgery. I remember reading a more in-depth article earlier in the off-season saying that his hip issues were screwing with his mechanics, but I’ve been unable to find a link to that story. But the takeaway should be that he wasn’t healthy. He wasn’t able to generate the necessary power due to his hip issues and his velocity suffered as a result.

So the question becomes, if the surgery was a success and his rehab goes well, what can we reasonably expect from him for the upcoming season? Well that is definitely a tricky question since he’s almost 32, he’s two years removed from throwing in the 90s, and there’s the possibility that he won’t be back with the team that drafted him. I think in the best-case scenario we could see him start hitting his 2012-2013 velocity (~90.3 MPH) and if that’s the case we could start to see his K/9 creep up to around the 9.0 mark again. But that’s just my opinion and my opinion means basically nothing, so I’ll include a comparison.

I was only able to find one example of a pitchers who’d undergone the same type of surgery as Lincecum and that was Charlie Morton. In October 2011 he also underwent the hip surgery. You can check out his velocity chart below. He also had Tommy John the following June so if you’ll humour me and ignore the elbow issues you’ll see that his velocity over the 2011 season dropped from 94 to just under 92, only to return to 95+ after recovery from TJ.

Over the last two years Lincecum has amassed 0.4 WAR and made $35 million. There is no doubt that the Giants overpaid for his service over the last couple of years and I can’t see him getting anywhere near that annual salary. If we go by the market rate of ~$8 million/WAR, on a bounceback contract where a team expects a 0.5 WAR season we could see a contract in the ballpark of $4 million. Even that seems high to me; if I were to venture a guess I would put it around the $2-million mark with incentives. I’m definitely not saying he’s going to be the pitcher from five years ago, but a dependable 4th or 5th starter with the potential to strike out almost 200 batters sounds pretty awesome to me. You’ve always got to wonder if he’s got any magic left in him. Baseball is better with The Freak in it and hopefully he gets back on the mound soon.


Oswaldo Arcia: Dynasty League Steal

Dynasty leagues test the deepest mettle of a fantasy baseball owner. Most good dynasty leagues have a lot of strong owners who have a pretty good view of ballplayers. The key to being a successful dynasty owner is to find players who are undervalued by others. If you can add players to your roster at a relatively cheap cost who have positive net returns for you, you are ahead of everyone else who was unwilling to roster that player.

The American League Central has many up-and-coming, talented players with names like Lindor, Buxton, Kepler, Rodon, Sano, and more. However, one player whose stardust has worn off is Oswaldo Arcia. This stocky Twins outfielder is still only 24 years of age, but with lots of youth coming up in Minnesota he has been surpassed in GM Terry Ryan’s eyes. This does not mean that you, as a dynasty league GM, should be overlooking him. Arcia’s calling card has always been his power, coming from a smooth lefty swing and a strong lower half. 2013 saw him hit 14 homers in a debut effort with the Twins, and 2014 saw 20 more homers at the big-league level. It was not to be in 2015, however, as he struggled mightily with injuries and strikeouts. Strikeouts will be an issue for most power hitters, and Arcia is no exception. However, it is tantalizing power that should draw you as a dynasty owner in. There are two scenarios here: One, Arcia is owned by an owner disgusted by his recent performance and selling low, or two, he is available on the waiver wire. Either way, he is a guy to go get right away, and with a further look, it should be obvious why you need to go out and acquire him.

The Twins have a crowded outfield; they had a crowded outfield last year, and it is not getting any better with Max Kepler coming into the picture. DH is going to be held down with some combination of Miguel Sano and Joe Mauer, and Arcia is going to have to have a monster spring to find playing time. Weird, I’m telling you to go get him, yet I’m telling you that he won’t play?? Think about it: This is an opportunity to buy dirt-cheap low on a player. There were reports out of Rochester, the Twins’ AAA affiliate, of him hitting 450 foot homers. I saw one of them myself. The talent is certainly there.

At this point, I should warn that some wonder about an attitude problem. This can be chalked up to early big-league success followed by struggles. All this kid needs is a change of scenery. He plays an only slightly below-average left field, although he is more comfortable in right, and has an accurate throwing arm from the outfield. His defense isn’t bad enough to keep him out of lineups, and even if it becomes so, he can still DH. A trade to any other team in the American League would give this powerful 24-year-old a chance at reaching his potential. He has been in the Twins organization since he was 16. He was a top-100 prospect prior to 2013 according to BA, BP, and MLB.com. He has been around so long that his younger brother Orlando, a shortstop prospect for the Brewers, has taken the entire spotlight. Don’t let the younger bro overshadow the older — Oswaldo is a power bat who can hit 30 homers in a season given 145 games. He will have to sit against the toughest lefties, the Chris Sales of the world, but what lefty finds guys like that easy? It is a tremendous buy-low opportunity for any dynasty team looking for upside; it is not often you find a guy with 70+ raw power that has shown it in games just lying around on the cheap. Go get him now, and you won’t regret it!


Justin Upton: A Potential Value Trap for the Tigers

Justin Upton’s recent $132.75M/6-year contract with the Tigers does not seem, on the surface, like an outrageous contract. And right now it isn’t; at age 28, Justin should be hitting his prime. Since breaking in with the Diamondbacks, he has been a consistent power threat in a league where consistent power bats are few and far between. To pay $22 million for an outfielder that the Tigers control for two years, potentially six years (Upton has an opt-out clause after two seasons), does not sound extreme when you consider other contracts signed by young, dynamic outfielders; in fact the contract came in below MLB Trade Rumors’ projection of a 7-year/$147 million deal[1]. So why anyone would be concerned about Justin Upton’s deal? Maybe it’s the fact that it took a while for his market to develop this offseason, or maybe it is because he shares the same bloodline as Melvin (formerly known as B.J.) Upton whose production went in the tank after his age-28 season? I get the feeling that Justin could end up as a bad investment for the Tigers. Here’s why.

Exit Speed and Park Factors

Fortunately for Justin, he is getting out of the notorious pitcher’s kingdom that is Petco Park. Unfortunately for Justin, he is moving to another pitcher’s park, Comerica Park. Poor guy can’t catch a break. One concern that I noticed about Upton’s metrics was his exit speed on home runs. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, Upton had an average home-run exit speed of 105.2 mph. The concern here lies when you compare the average exit speed versus his prior years. Take a look at the chart below which compares his FB/HR%, HR totals, and average home-run exit speed.

Year HR HR/FB% Exit Speed
2011 31 14.8 107.3
2012 17 11.0 107.2
2013 27 17.9 106.8
2014 29 17.9 105.5
2015 26 15.2 105.2

The numbers here do not look all that out of line, other than his 2012 season where his HR/FB% was off from the average. Upton usually sits around the high 20’s in terms of total home runs, being pretty consistent except for the outlier 2012 season. But the home-run exit speeds have decreased each of the last five seasons — some seasons the decrease was more than others, but still they have decreased nonetheless. Another aspect of Upton’s stats to look at is his 2015 home-run landing spots overlaid with an outline of Comerica’s dimensions.

comericaPetco

The graphs show the “True” Landing spots according to the ESPN Home Run tracker for the 2015 season. Notice that roughly eight of Upton’s 2015 home runs would not have made it out of Comerica. Only one would have stayed inside Petco, Upton’s 2015 home field. If we used the Comerica park numbers, Upton would have hit 26-8, so 18 home runs. This creates a reason to be concerned, especially since most of Upton’s value is supplied by his ability to drive the ball out of the park, and not his ability to hit for average.

So a value trap you say?

Yes, a value trap. Considering that Upton is 28, paying $22 million a year seems pretty reasonable. In fact, some baseball commentators saw it as a solid investment (and it may turn out to be such). But the caveat is Upton’s opt–out option after two years, similar to the deal Jason Heyward has. If Upton is able to continue to produce nearly 30 home runs a year, he could easily opt out and test the free-agent market again. But if an underlying metric like home-run exit speeds continues to dip and the power numbers take off downhill with it, there is no rational reason for him to opt out and test the market again when he has a $22 million/year deal locked up for four more years.

Therein lies the trap: In an effort to win now by the Tigers, they will either lose Upton after two seasons or they will get trapped by a contract that could eat $22 million of payroll a year, for four years, for a player whose power numbers have dropped and will struggle to provide value in other areas. Is it a great deal for Upton? Of course. Is it good for the Tigers? Short-term, yes. Long-term, there are very few scenarios where they emerge as a winner in the deal. Either they have to pay for Upton again after the 2017 season, or they get stuck with a player who isn’t as good as he once was. Maybe it’s just a hunch but I think the Tigers may be getting the shaft.

[1] www.mlbtraderumors.com/2015/10/justin-upton-mlb-free-agent.html


Started From the Bottom, Now We’re…Average

2015 was the year of Bryce Harper. He led qualified hitters with a 197 wRC+, the highest since the turn of the century among players not named Barry Bonds. This was a vast improvement on his already-impressive 2014 season, in which he totaled a 115 wRC+.

Depending on how you look at things, you could say Bryce Harper was the most improved batter in 2015. I choose not to for two reasons: 1) it’s too easy, and 2) it makes this article more fun. There’s also another more objective reason: with only 395 plate appearances in 2014, Harper didn’t qualify for the batting title.

This poses a question: what minimum do we set to determine who improved the most between 2014 and 2015? If we say that the player needed to qualify for the batting title each year, we get Chris Davis as the most improved batter, who increased his wRC+ from 94 in 2014 to 147 in 2015. If we set no minimum, our wonder-boy is none other than notorious slugger Carlos Torres, the Mets pitcher who upped his wRC+ from -100 to 491.

Clearly, there needs to be some minimum. For the purpose of the article, I’ve decided to set it at 100 PA. This seems a reasonably small enough number to include a wide array of players, but large enough to get rid of anomalies (I’m looking at you Carlos). When we set this minimum, we discover that the batter whose wRC+ increased the most between 2014 and 2015 is… Ryan Raburn. However, since Jeff Sullivan already talked about Raburn, I decided to go with the next name on the list: J.B. Shuck.

If you don’t know who that is, I don’t blame you. I didn’t until I started this research. If you do know him, I’m going to guess that you’re either a White Sox, Indians, or Angels fan. Either that, or you have more time to watch baseball than a college student taking a full course-load of credits. Who’s to say?

The reason the casual fan might not know Shuck is because, well, he’s not exactly a star player. Here are the players with the lowest wRC+ in 2014 of those with at least 100 PAs:

That’s right, he was literally the worst batter that year. Almost as bad as if I were to join the majors. It should be no surprise, then, that he was able to improve so much — he had the lowest starting point. Even so, he still had needed to improve quite drastically in order to surpass Harper’s wRC+ improvement. And that’s exactly what he did:

In 2015, Shuck improved so much that he almost managed to be an average player. But how did he manage to do it? Was it a matter of luck, or did he actually get better?

The number that stands out the most in Shuck’s 2014 season is his .146 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). For those of you that don’t know, that number is quite bad. Like, less than half of what it should be. His BABIP in other seasons is right around league average, so something must have gone amiss last year. Looking at the underlying numbers, some things showed up:

So. His FB% and Pull% numbers were way up as compared to other years. For some context, the league-average FB% has been approximately 34% the past two years, while Pull% has been approximately 40%. These numbers suggest that Shuck spent too much time trying to pull the ball over the fence two years ago, and the video suggests the same thing. Here’s an example of him trying to do just this to a pitch on the outside corner, but instead weakly grounding to first. You can see how he opens his hips before he even starts his swing, forcing him to simply slap at the ball if he wants to make any contact:

And here he is in 2015, driving a similar pitch into left field:

The cause of his change in approach is hard to say. He did get a new hitting coach to start off the year, switching from Jim Eppard to Don Baylor. From 2013 to 2014, the Angels as a team increased their FB% from 33% to 34% and their Pull% from 37% to 42%, so that argument does have some merit. Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that it had an effect. Here’s Shuck’s ISO by zone:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As can be seen on the left, Shuck had trouble hitting anything not on the inside edge of the plate in 2014. This past year, he learned to control more of the strike zone, and even though there’s less red than there was in 2014, there’s also a lot less dark blue. Shuck drove the ball from all parts of the zone to all parts of the field, and his numbers improved because of it.

While Shuck may not be an All-Star anytime soon, his year-to-year improvement is truly remarkable. If he can go from being the worst hitter in baseball to an average one, anyone can. And if that doesn’t inspire the Brendan Ryans of the world, I don’t know what will.


$500 Million Man

A few days ago, Joe Posnanski wrote about the possibility of Bryce Harper getting the first $500m contract ever. I agree with him on how both amazing and ridiculous it would have sounded 2 or 3 years ago. I also agree it is possible, almost likely, to happen. I might not be a Bryce Harper fan but he is so young that is he is on track to accomplish big things. He is not Mike ‘King’ Trout but he is very good.

Harper’s current contract runs through the end of 2018, which is when I assume he would get the big fat check. The Nationals will try to extend his contract before he is a free agent, just like the Marlins and the Angels did with Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout. However, in this post we will assume Harper will not pursue that path, making him a highly-coveted free agent in 2018. I will also exclude the possibility of 9- or 10-year contracts, which would make the mark easily achievable. Let’s run the numbers for Harper’s future:

Year Open market ($m/WAR) Age WAR Projected Value ($m) Cumulative value ($m)
2016 8.4 23 6.8 54.4
2017 8.8 24 7.1 59.2
2018 9.3 25 7.3 64.4
2019 9.7 26 7.6 69.9 73.4
2020 10.2 27 7.8 75.8 153.1
2021 10.7 28 7.8 79.6 236.7
2022 11.3 29 7.8 83.6 324.5
2023 11.8 30 7.8 87.8 416.7
2024 12.4 31 7.3 86.3 507.3
2025 13.0 32 6.8 84.4 595.9
2026 13.7 33 6.3 82.1 682.1
2027 14.4 34 5.8 79.4 765.4

We have here Harper’s projected value profile. As usual, I am using FanGraphs’ model, which has a player’s aging curve that follows +0.25 WAR/year (Age 18-27), 0 WAR/year (Age 28-30),-0.5 WAR/year (Age 31-37),-0.75 WAR/year (38 and older). It also assumes that open-market WAR sits at $8.4m in 2016 and grows at 5% per year. The starting point is Steamer’s 2016 projection: 6.8 WAR.

Three years from now, in the winter of 2018, he will be negotiating his new contract that includes his theoretical peak 27-30 years at ~7.8 WAR/year. The truth is that a 7-year / $500m+ contract would only be likely if by 2018 he can position himself as a player who consistently accounts for almost 8 wins per year. That is the only reason a team would be eager to invest half a billion dollars in a single player, marketing-related reasons aside.

Now, the question comes down to what he needs to do by 2018 in order to cement that positioning. The model needs him to be a 21.2-win player during the next 3 seasons. While Harper might have taken a significant step up performance-wise, we need to remind ourselves that before 2015 he was “just” a ~4-5 WAR guy. In order to meet the model’s expectations he needs to double those numbers, and remain at that level  for 3 years in a row (i.e.: Between 8-9 WAR for that 3-year period). If he meets those marks, Harper would have accrued 40 WAR during his career by 2018. While that is entirely possible, it is not easy. This is the list of highest cumulative WAR by age-25:

Player Cumulative WAR by age 25
Ty Cobb 56.3
Mickey Mantle 52.5
Jimmie Foxx 47.3
Rogers Hornsby 46.9
Mel Ott 45.9
Alex Rodriguez 42.8
Eddie Mathews 39.4
Arky Vaughan 39.4
Tris Speaker 38.7
Mike Trout 38.5

So, two conclusions can be quickly drawn. First, Mike Trout is not human. He is only 24 years old and is already on this list with guys like Cobb, Mantle, Foxx and company. Second, no, it is not an easy task for Harper. I know that you are thinking that he just put up a 9.5 WAR season, why can’t he do it again? Another season like that and he should get to his target easily but, truth be told, those Trout-esque seasons are unlikely to happen. I say this for three main reasons. First, Harper is not an elite defender and has gotten worse every year. For the last 3 seasons (2013-2015), he ranks 37th in UZR/150 out of 60 qualified OF. In 2015, he compiled -8.5 on Defense (Def) metric, per FanGraphs, which is position-adjusted, in his case for RF. Out of the 69 individual seasons with 8 or higher WAR from players 25 or younger, only 5 players (Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mike Trout (!) and Bryce Harper) had -8 or worse Defense. No, it is not impossible but it is hard.

Second, he is an above-average baserunner, but not an awesome one. Lastly, Harper has not exhibited good health over his career. He has had injuries in 2 out of 4 seasons, which may not seem many but in 2013 and 2014 he only played 67% of Nationals games. Predicting health is tough, especially because there are unforeseeable events. You cannot control a hit by pitch at your wrists or a concussion sliding in second base but your health track record is your best bet on your future injury report. Those three things are vital to get to 21.2 WAR during the next 3 years. Harper needs those factors to come in play in order to get to the 7yr/$500m contract. Harper’s advantage is his age – just like Jason Heyward this offseason.

We have implicitly talked about Mike Trout. He is arguably the best player in baseball right now and was on track to smash the contract record, until he negotiated a 6yr/$144.5m contract extension. That will keep him locked up from ages 24 to 29 at LAA. Now, the question is what type of contract will he command in 2020? Mind you, it is hard enough to try to predict what a Free Agent might get in 2016, but still we took a stab a it.

Year Open market ($m/WAR) Age WAR Projected Value ($m) Cumulative value ($m)
2016 8.4 24 9.2 73.6
2017 8.8 25 9.5 79.4
2018 9.3 26 9.7 85.6
2019 9.7 27 10.0 92.1
2020 10.2 28 10.0 96.8
2021 10.7 29 10.0 101.6 101.6
2022 11.3 30 10.0 106.7 208.3
2023 11.8 31 9.5 106.4 314.6
2024 12.4 32 9.0 105.8 420.4
2025 13.0 33 8.5 104.9 525.3
2026 13.7 34 8.0 103.6 628.9
2027 14.4 35 7.5 101.9 730.8

Here is Trout’s projection. Again, 2016 WAR is courtesy of Steamer. We might think the aging curve slightly benefits Trout because it forecasts a ~10% increase in WAR, and he has not posted those 10 WAR seasons since 2 years ago. Then again, let’s toy with the idea. The $500m contract here seems more feasible for three reasons. First, in MLB, you get paid for what you did and not for what you will do.  By 2020, Trout could have ~85 WAR under his belt –he would be 28 years old. That is just ridiculous and will not happen, right? No one, ever, has done that by age 28 (Ty Cobb is the leader with 78.6 WAR). But what if he does? What if Trout is around the 70 WAR mark with 8 or 9 great seasons on his resume? Second, he needs to do what he has already done e.g. Trout has posted two +10 WAR already. The other two seasons were 8 and 9. This guy runs well and plays above-average defense. Trout does it all and will not stop. Third, unlike Harper, Trout has been very much healthy. During the 2013-2015 period, he played 157, 157 and 159 games, respectively. Again, injuries are hard to predict but we will take what he has shown so far as a given, which is good health. Fourth, fair to say, time value of money. A dollar today is not worth the same as a dollar tomorrow. Therefore, getting a $500m contract in 2020 should be easier than in 2018.

In summary, I think Harper can do it but I would not bet on it. From my perspective this is a long shot. If you ask me today on who is more likely to become baseball’s first 500-million-dollar man, I would put my money on Mike Trout to beat Bryce Harper on this as well.

Note: This analysis is also featured in our emerging blog www.theimperfectgame.com


A Quick Look at Alex Gordon

Only a few of the major free-agent names remain available as we approach the new year. One of the most intriguing is Alex Gordon. He’s not only been an excellent fielder over the course of his career, but he’s also been an above-average hitter. His age-25 and 26 seasons were cut short by injury and I think we can give some leeway to a 23-year-old rookie for not having an above-average bat, but otherwise he’s had an excellent career. Here’s are his stats throughout his career:

Year Age G HR RBI OPS OPS+
2007 23 151 15 60 0.72 90
2008 24 134 16 59 0.78 109
2009 25 49 6 22 0.70 87
2010 26 74 8 20 0.67 84
2011 27 151 23 87 0.88 140
2012 28 161 14 72 0.82 123
2013 29 156 20 81 0.75 103
2014 30 156 19 74 0.78 118
2015 31 104 13 48 0.81 120

There’s no doubt that he’s a great baseball player. He’s also accumulated 3 seasons with 6+ WAR since his rookie season. But there’s always the question as to whether a player has peaked or not, especially when their age starts creeping into the 30s. To try and answer this I look at the OPS values he’s put up over the years and extrapolated those numbers into his age-40 season. Below, in black, are the seasons that he’s already played. I’ve also included a line-of-best-fit through the data with the black portion representing past seasons and the red portion representing his future offensive output. Based on the seasons he’s put together, the model predicts that he will peak at about 34 years of age. Most players peak in their late 20s, but it’s not unheard of for players to peak later. Projections should always be taken with a grain of salt, but whichever team decides to take a shot on Gordon could expect his offensive production to remain relatively constant over the next few years.

So what does this graph tell us? Well basically nothing! It’s not very good practice to extrapolate past the range of your data, but it is interesting nonetheless. Also, considering Gordon has been so good for so long it’s tough to assume that he hasn’t peaked yet. That’s not to say he can’t continue to improve or even perform at a high level, but since it’s getting later in the offseason and so much money has been thrown at pitchers let’s assume he signs for 4 years. Below are his projected OPS values and as you can see from the graph above that Gordon may not even be in his offensive prime.

Age OPS
32 0.804
33 0.806
34 0.807
35 0.805

So far I’ve shown you data for Gordon’s career and also used that data to project his performance over the next 4 years. Assuming he signs a 4-year contract this off-season I wanted to find his closest comparables from his career so far and see how those players performed through their age-35 season. In order to compare players I used the Mahalanobis distance for all players that fell into the following criteria; (1) played in every season from their age 29 to 31 seasons, (2) at least 1200 ABs over that time and (3) played every season in their age 32-35 seasons. The Mahalanobis distance was calculated using common offensive statistics standardized by the number of at-bats. Here is a table with the lowest Mahalanobis Distance’s to Alex Gordon through his career thus far as well as their cumulative WAR for their age 32-35 seasons.

Name M Dist WAR
Melvin Mora 0.25954  14.0
Jay Bell 0.30550  10.0
Randy Winn 0.43127  9.7
Bret Boone 0.60615 9.9
Jermaine Dye 0.60776 6.0
Jim Edmonds 0.61443 24.3
Kevin Millar 0.61954  5.6
Ken Caminiti 0.62620  17.5
Lou Whitaker 0.63387  20.5
Ray Durham 0.69760 6.4

Last year Dave Cameron broke down the cost for WAR here and found the number to be somewhere around $7 million. Tim Dierkes projected a 5-year, $105-million contract or roughly $21 million per year. In order to live up to that annual salary, he would have to produce about 3 WAR per season which is 12 WAR for a 4-year contract and 15 WAR for a 5-year contract. Melvin Mora, Jim Edmonds, Ken Caminiti and Lou Whitaker each exceeded that 3-WAR threshold.

As this offseason progresses, offers will undoubtedly be presented to his agent so now it’s only a matter of when he signs. Based on the players that he was compared to, Alex Gordon definitely has the potential, not to mention the ability to exceed the standards of the contract he inevitably signs.