Author Archive

Finding The Next Fernando Rodney

You won’t find the next Fernando Rodney simply with statistics.

Perhaps Rodney’s first 10 innings or his first 100 pitches — or some other relatively early sample — contained something to suggest he’d be able to maintain his incredible quality throughout an entire season. But by that point it was too late: By making him closer, the Rays guaranteed Rodney would fly off the waiver wire.

Many — like me — tried to get a jump on the Rays’ closer situation following Kyle Farnsworth‘s injury and picked up Joel Peralta. There were plenty of reasons to think Peralta would get the nod. He saved six games for the Rays in 2011. He struck out a batter per inning in 2010, and he was near that mark in the two surrounding seasons. His ERA- and FIP- were each less than 90 in both 2010 and 2011. He was a quality reliever and — at least looking at recent performance — he was Joe Maddon’s seemingly best choice after Farnsworth.

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The Difficulty in Predicting Saves

The basic fantasy baseball stats –- wins, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts -– may be ultimately flawed in themselves, but once the entire puzzle is put together the best pitchers find their ways to the top of the list. Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez: these guys find themselves at the top of fantasy draft boards and the WAR leaderboards every season.

But oh, the save -– fantasy baseball’s great monkey wrench. The save is a monster in and of itself, as evidenced by the furious Closer Run. Players with little other value find themselves highly coveted simply on the basis of being the one tabbed with finishing out the ninth inning on a nightly basis. With just 30 such jobs available, identifying those prepared to move into that role can determine the balance of power in a league.

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Park Factors, Team Factors, and Drafts

Consider Adrian Gonzalez. No doubt, he has been an impact player – both on the field and for fantasy owners – over the past three seasons. Gonzalez is sixth among first basemen in homers over that stretch, along with ranks of ninth in AVG, sixth in runs and sixth in RBIs. Now, with Gonzalez’s winter move to Boston, the possibilities appear endless. After averaging 35 HRs per season, could an escape from PETCO mean 50 homers? Could a cleanup spot in the stacked Red Sox lineup mean 120 RBI after an average of 106? Indeed, every available projection system suggests that the highly favorable situation for Gonzalez will increase his performance across the board, potentially making him one of the top three fantasy first basemen in the game.

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Breaking Down Michael Young’s Blast

Chants of “Replay!” rained down on Tropicana Field in the fifth inning of the second American League Division Series game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers on Thursday afternoon.

Although we all know that home crowds can exaggerate at times, the controversy here was real. Michael Young was seemingly out on a half swing with runners on first and second and one out in the fifth. Instead, the umpires ruled that Young checked his swing, and on the next pitch, Young took Chad Qualls deep to center field to increase the Rangers’ lead from 2-0 to 5-0.

Top five plays (all percentages from Rangers’ standpoint):

Top 5th, 1 out, 2 on: Michael Young HR, +15.3 percent win probability (77.2 percent to 92.5 percent)
Top 4th, 2 out, 0 on: Ian Kinsler HR, +11.2 percent win probability (57.7 percent to 68.9 percent )
Top 3rd, 1 out, 1 on: Elvis Andrus single, Matt Treanor to third, +5.2 percent win probability (51.9 percent to 57.1 percent)
Top 2nd, 1 out, 0 on: Nelson Cruz double, +4.2 percent win probability (47.6% to 51.8%)
Top 3rd, 0 out, 0 on: Matt Treanor hit by pitch, +3.9 percent win probability (50% to 53.9%)

(No play in the Rays’ favor had a WPA > 0.038)

It’s hard to call this a turning point in the game, as the Rangers already held the lead and were threatening. Instead, this was more of the breaking point for the Rays. The Rays’ win expectancy entering the play was already low at 22.8 percent. The home run lowered the Rays’ win probability to 7.5 percent, putting the Rangers in cruise control both in the game and in the series, with two of the three remaining games coming at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The play comes out to a total WPA of +15.7 percent. However, part of what makes this play so big and so important in the scope of this game is that, by some accounts, Young should have been out before it even happened. According to the WPA inquirer at The Hardball Times, the situation if Young is called out — two outs, runners on first and second, and a two-run Rangers lead in the top of the fifth — comes out to a 26.6 percent win expectancy for the Rays. That still wouldn’t put optimism into many Tampa denizens, but at least it gives the Rays a fighting shot with players such as Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford yet to receive two or three at-bats. This adds about 4 percent to the win probability difference of the play, as the combination of the check swing called for a ball followed by the home run cost the Rays about a fifth of a win.

It’s easy to say that the call and the play don’t matter at all, as the Rays didn’t even manage to muster a run against C.J. Wilson and then the Rangers’ bullpen. However, that’s a basic case of the fallacy of the predetermined outcome. C.J. Wilson may have been forced to pitch more carefully or under more pressure in the later innings, and perhaps the Rays could have pushed a couple of runs home. By that same token, it’s possible that Josh Hamilton, hitting after Michael Young, would’ve hit a three-run home run instead. We simply don’t know what would have happened, and the home run certainly changed the landscape of the game.

Young’s home run gave the Rangers an insurmountable lead and has pushed the Rays to the brink of elimination. That play certainly wasn’t the only reason the Rays lost — an anemic offense and constant pressure from Rangers hitters deserve blame and credit respectively. When it comes down to one moment in Game 2, though, the Young home run was the biggest moment of the game and of the season to date for these two teams.

Infield Shift: Cincy’s Now Rules the NL

Before this season, which team would you have said had the best infield in the National League? Likely answer for most baseball fans: the Philadelphia Phillies. Their infield has two former NL MVP winners in Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard; you also could make the case that Chase Utley probably could have won that award once or twice. On top of that, Placido Polanco was replacing the light-hitting Pedro Feliz at third base.

As expected, Philadelphia’s infield has been solid, posting 8.7 wins above replacement to date this season.

However, the best infield in the National League right now isn’t in Philly; it belongs to the Cincinnati Reds. No wonder Cincy is the surprise leader of the NL Central.

With Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera, the Reds’ infield already has been worth 10.6 WAR; that’s more WAR than all the batters from nine different teams, including the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels. It’s also the best of any starting infield in the National League. Among all MLB clubs, only the Boston Red Sox’s infield (WAR of 12.3) is performing better; the Reds are even ahead of the highly paid New York Yankees infield, which is registering a WAR of 10.5.

Votto’s .429 wOBA leads the entire National League — including Albert Pujols — and is third to only Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera in MLB overall. Plus, but by all accounts, Votto is a tremendous fielder. Ultimate zone rating (UZR) has Votto as four runs better than the average first baseman to date this year and 14 runs better over his career, both fantastic numbers.

With the presence of Utley and Robinson Cano‘s breakout this season, Phillips has fallen under the radar a bit, but he’s still among the elite second basemen in the league. Phillips always has had decent contact skills, but he’s doing a bit more with them this season, posting a .358 wOBA; that currently ranks as the highest of his career. The reason he doesn’t get as much play as Utley, Cano or players like Ian Kinsler is that much of his value comes from his fantastic glovework. Phillips won a Gold Glove in 2008 and pretty clearly deserved it: He posted a plus-16 UZR that season. Phillips has finished in the top eight in the Fielding Bible award voting every season since 2007, and his plus-4 UZR to date suggests that he’s well on his way to another top-caliber season with the glove at second base.

Rolen’s 2010 performance is more of a surprise, given that he turned 35 the day before Opening Day and hasn’t hit for big-time power since 2004, when he hit 34 home runs and posted a tremendous .284 ISO (isolated power, as explained here). He has 17 homers to date this season, although he’s out indefinitely with hamstring issues. His absence is the biggest reason to worry about the Reds’ ability to stay atop the NL Central.

Even while healthy, Rolen is unlikely to maintain his late-career power surge. His 14.7 percent homer/fly ball rate is his highest since that 2004 season and is more than 8 percent higher than his average from the past three seasons. Not only that, but according to HitTracker Online, Rolen’s average home run speed of 101.6 mph is 1.6 mph slower than the league average; this suggests he’s not hitting the ball as hard as most other power hitters. Still, even if Rolen regresses in the second half, he should be an above-average hitter thanks to his solid plate discipline and contact skills, and his always-great defense (plus-26 UZR since 2006) will be valuable.

That said, with the trade deadline approaching fast, there is still room for improvement. Cabrera has been awful at shortstop, as his .286 wOBA ranks only above Ryan Theriot and Alcides Escobar among qualified NL shortstops. And the fact that the Reds still have the NL’s best infield in spite of Cabrera is a testament to the excellence of Votto, Phillips and Rolen. Cabrera still brings roughly average defense to the table, but he’s a black hole at the plate. He doesn’t walk (20 this season) and has little to no power (three homers thus far). As such, he’s been only a 0.5 WAR player. If the Reds want to outlast the St. Louis Cardinals, shortstop is one position that they could look to upgrade before July 31, possibly with Stephen Drew or other shortstops on the market.

The Reds have Rolen and Phillips under contract until 2013, and Votto is under team control until 2014. The core of this infield and this stunning Reds team will be around for at least the foreseeable future. Even without a solid regular shortstop, this infield has performed as the best in the National League and should be one of the best for years to come.

Liriano’s Meltdown

On April 12, the Minnesota Twins claimed possession of first place in the AL Central with a 5-2 win against the Boston Red Sox. Since then, the Twins have been in sole possession of first for 76 days and tied for one. For the first time since then, Minnesota is no longer atop the Central after losing to the Detroit Tigers, 7-5, on Monday night. Although the Twins battled back to within a run in the eighth inning, Twins ace Francisco Liriano‘s four-run, first-inning meltdown was simply too much for the Twins to recover from.

Liriano started the inning by hitting Austin Jackson with a pitch. It was downhill from there, as the game log shows.

It certainly doesn’t appear that Liriano was getting burned by dribblers through the infield. Three of the five hits in the inning were classified as line drives by Baseball Info Solutions; another, Miguel Cabrera‘s double, was a deep fly ball. It also doesn’t appear that Liriano’s velocity was down in the first inning, either. He threw 13 fastballs in the inning, averaging 93.8 mph. That’s almost exactly in line with his fastball velocity on the year.

Liriano put himself in a very bad situation with the hit batsman and then a bunt hit by Ramon Santiago. Then, as happens to even the best pitchers, he was burned by good hitters and poor location. After a single by Ryan Raburn loaded the bases, Cabrera hit a slider which was down out of the strike zone for a double. In the next at-bat, Liriano’s second pitch to Brennan Boesch was simply asking to be hit for extra bases.

Allowing cheap baserunners is particularly problematic for Liriano, as he struggles from the stretch relative to the rest of the league. The average pitcher has allowed batters to slug .396 with the bases empty this year, and .415 with runners on. Against Liriano this season, the opposition is slugging .313 with no one on base and .374 with men on. So even though the lefty is better than the league with runners on, the gap between his performance with the bases empty versus men on is larger than most.

This four-run inning by the Tigers raised their win expectancy to 78.8 percent before the Twins even got to the plate. Liriano managed to throw five strong innings despite his poor opener, but it simply wasn’t enough. The Tigers scored enough early and managed to hang on. As a reward, Detroit is now in first, and the race is on.

Johan’s Slow Decline

Old Johan Santana, he ain’t what he used to be, ain’t what he used to be. Oh sure, it’s tempting to look at his 2.96 ERA and 1.20 WHIP and say he’s still the same old dominant Santana, maybe with a tiny bit missing off of his fastball. But that’s just not the case.

At FanGraphs, we have a “dashboard” where you can select the stats you’d like to see for each player. Let’s recreate a dashboard for Santana here so his decline can come into stark focus. We’ll start in Minnesota in 2006, just because that was seemingly the beginning of the downward turn for him.

Year	K/9	BB/9	GB%	SwStr%	FB MPH	xFIP
2006	9.44	1.81	40.60%	13.20%	93.1	3.12
2007	9.66	2.14	38.00%	14.00%	91.7	3.43
2008	7.91	2.42	41.20%	11.40%	91.2	3.66
2009	7.88	2.48	35.70%	11.30%	90.5	4.13
2010	6.55	2.76	35.80%	 9.40%	89.2	4.49

The table sort of pulls it all together, doesn’t it? Since 2006, so many key indicators have gone the wrong way. The starkest of the group is Santana’s strikeout rate, which has gone from elite (9.66 K/9 would have been fifth among qualified starters last year) to below-average (so far this year, 7.01 K/9 is the league average). While his walk rate is still above-average (3.47 BB/9 is the league average this year), it’s certainly not the elite rate it once was.

Santana has never been a ground-ball guy, but now he’s sporting the eighth-worst ground-ball rate in baseball among qualified starters. He used to get swinging strikes on that nasty changeup to offset the fly-ball part of his game, but even that is slipping recently. Also, his fastball velocity is degrading slowly and now doesn’t crack 90 mph on average.
The last stat, xFIP, is a number on the ERA scale that attempts to strip out batted-ball luck and corrects for home run rates. It’s an expected fielding-independent pitching number, in other words, and it sums up Santana’s entire slow decline in one place. It may be tough to believe, but Santana is, in many ways, an average starting pitcher right now.

Joe Maddon Gets Creative

Recently, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has employed an unorthodox strategy against pitchers with great change-ups. Ever since Dallas Braden and his nasty change threw a perfect game against the Rays, Maddon has stacked his lineups with players who bat with the same hand as the starting pitcher in order to neutralize that pitch. The change-up is a pitch that is typically used to neutralize opposite-handed hitters, and so Maddon is attempting to take away this advantage from pitchers with great change-ups by reducing the number of opposite-handed hitters in the lineup. So far, the strategy has worked pretty well.

Most notably, on May 29, the Rays torched White Sox lefty John Danks for eight runs with a lineup that included four left-handed hitters. On Wednesday night, the Rays faced right handed change-up specialist Shaun Marcum of the Toronto Blue Jays, who had a 2.77 ERA entering the gme. The Rays lineup still included three left-handed hitters, as it’s essentially impossible for the Rays to remove Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Reid Brignac from their line-up at this point. However, the Rays sent up switch-hitters Ben Zobrist and Dioner Navarro to bat right handed against Marcum, and even more telling was that they not only used right-handed catcher Kelly Shoppach as the DH, but they hit him clean-up.

Did it work? Marcum’s line — four innings, 10 hits and seven earned runs — certainly suggests it did. Shoppach, Navarro, and Zobrist were a combined 3-for-6 against Marcum, including a home run by Navarro.

A look at the Pitch F/X data suggests that Marcum still threw his change-up as often as he normally does, so he didn’t alter his game plan much. In his 12 previous starts, Marcum threw 21.1 percent change-ups, and 14 of his 67 pitches (20.9 percent) were change-ups on Wednesday night. It was still effective, as he threw 10 of the 14 (71.4 percent) for strikes and drew swinging strikes on three (21.4 percent) of them, both marks well above the league average. However, that swinging strike mark is five points below his average for the season, suggesting that hitters weren’t fooled quite as often by the pitch.

Despite the early success, Joe Maddon may not exactly be on solid ground with these decisions. In their careers, both Marcum and Danks aren’t significantly better against opposite-handed battters. Instead, they have performed at roughly the same level against these hitters, showing no real platoon split. The “Danks Theory,” as some are calling the strategy, has worked, but it may take switch hitters out of their comfort zones, and it’s possible that neutralizing the change-up may come at the cost of making a pitcher’s fastball or curveball more effective. It will be interesting to see whether the Rays continue to trot this odd strategy out there even if they get shut down a few times.

The “Truest” Franchise Player

As Tim Kurkjian writes in his column today, Chipper Jones is a unique player. Not only has he starred for the team that drafted him No. 1 overall, but he has stayed with that team for his entire career. And isn’t that what you’re looking for with the first pick, a player to build your franchise around? So this got us wondering, is Jones the “truest” franchise player? In other words, of all the No. 1 overall picks of all time, has he delivered the most value to the team that drafted him? Let’s find out.

To figure this out, we are going to add up the total number of wins above replacement (WAR) that each No. 1 pick produced for the team that drafted him. Adrian Gonzalez, for example, has been a very valuable player, but he has produced almost all of his value for the Padres, not the Marlins, the team that drafted him. With that in mind, here are the five players who have produced the most WAR for the club that drafted them.

5. Harold Baines, 30.3 WAR, Chicago White Sox, No. 1 pick in 1977
Baines was a consistently above-average hitter, as his wOBA never dipped below .333 during either of his first two stints with the White Sox. For a time, he was a decent defensive right fielder, but never great, and he spent the last 10 years of his career primarily as a DH. As such, he only topped 5.0 WAR in a season once, in 1984, when he hit 29 HRs with a .304/.361/.541 line. He was a lock for between 2.0 and 4.0 WAR for 10 years. As a consistently above-average player, Baines was quite valuable to the White Sox, but his age and lack of defensive value hurt him later in his career, when he split time between Chicago as well as Texas, Oakland and Baltimore.

3. (tie) Darryl Strawberry, 36.7 WAR, New York Mets, No. 1 pick in 1983
Strawberry had a fantastic run with the Mets from 1983 to 1990. He won the Rookie of the Year in 1983 with a 26 home run, .371 wOBA, 3.0 WAR season and never looked back. All eight of his seasons with the Mets were worth at least 3.0 WAR, as he combined great power — isolated power above .240 every year from ’85 to ’90 — with great discipline — he walked more than 10 percent of the time in every year with New York. He even mixed in some great defense, producing a plus-35 TotalZone between 1989 and 1990. Various problems derailed Strawberry’s career after he left the Mets to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in free agency. Strawberry would only put up 6.5 WAR over the rest of his career.

No. 3 (tie) Alex Rodriguez, 36.7 WAR, Seattle Mariners, No. 1 pick in 1993
This era of Rodriguez’s career saw him as among the better defensive shortstops in the majors (plus-22 TotalZone from 1996 to 2000) and the fantastic hitter we still know today. He would win four Silver Sluggers with Seattle, putting up wOBAs of .444, .379, .399, .397, and .433. These are fantastic numbers for any position but are eye-popping for a solid defensive shortstop. As such, it only took Rodriguez five full seasons to equal the performance of Strawberry over nine.

No. 2 Ken Griffey Jr., 72.4 WAR, Seattle Mariners, No. 1 pick in 1987
Back in the day, Griffey was in a class all his own. He was among the best defensive center fielders in the game, including a staggering plus-32 TotalZone in 1996. He had more seasons with a wOBA above .400 then below .400. Griffey was simply a dominant force in baseball for 11 years after his call-up in 1989, excelling at every facet of the game. His performance through age 30 compared extremely favorably with those of Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays, three of the best outfielders to ever play the game. Unfortunately, injuries derailed the rest of his career and his return to Seattle was simply not productive at all. Still, a team can’t ask for more out of a first overall pick than what Ken Griffey Jr. gave Seattle from 1989 through 1999.

1. Chipper Jones, 83.6 WAR, Atlanta Braves, No. 1 pick in 1990
Jones has been the best of both worlds for the Braves, spending his entire career in Atlanta and producing over that span. Jones has never put up any of the eye-popping seasons like Griffey’s 10.2 WAR 1996, but he’s been consistently excellent. Since 1995, Jones hasn’t put up a season with fewer than 2.9 WAR, and he’s eclipsed 7.0 WAR four times (including his 1999 MVP season) and 6 WAR eight times. Jones is the prototypical combination of power and discipline, putting up isolated power scores above .200 and walk rates above 11 percent every year of his illustrious career. As it turns out, the numbers also tell us that Jones is the “truest” franchise player.

For a broader view, here’s a look at every No. 1 overall pick who has made an All-Star team, and how they fared for the team that drafted them relative to everyone else. This only includes position players.

Russ Martin’s Injury Could be a Blessing

Dodger fans and fantasy owners alike had plenty of reasons for disappointment with Russell Martin‘s 2009 season. The catcher saw a drop in basically every batting measure, from AVG, HRs, and RBIs to walk and home run rate. This is especially alarming for a 27-year-old hitter who is supposed to be entering his peak years. The news seemed to get worse for the club when it was revealed yesterday that Martin will miss at least four weeks with a pulled groin. But upon further review, this might be good news.

The biggest issue last year Martin was his precipitous drop in power, which can be seen through his ISO, or Isolated Power. ISO is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage, and measures raw power by looking at extra bases per at-bat. Martin’s ISO dropped from .176 to .079 over the past two years, and went from fourth best among catchers in 2007 to 2nd worst in 2009.

Martin’s ability to pull the ball with power just fell off a cliff in 2009. On balls hit to left field, Martin ran a .220 ISO or better each year prior, but last season he only managed a .119 ISO on balls hit to left. The key is a lack of home runs. He hit just four dingers to left last last year, which is seven fewer fewer than he managed in both 2007 and 2008. Adding to the issues, he hit more infield flies to the left side than ever before. With balls hit to the left side comprising over 40% of his balls in play, this was a major factor in his power loss.

There is, however, a good chance that Martin’s power sees a moderate pickup this season, as we could just be seeing some bad luck. HR/FB rates don’t tend to stabilize until after 300 balls hit into play, and Martin only hit 176 balls to left field last year. For his career, Martin has hit a homer on 6.7 percent of fly balls, but that figure was just 3.9 percent last year. That means we should expect Martin to perform closer to his career rates, although a full return to his 2007 level (9.7 percent) is very unlikely.

There has been growing speculation that Martin has been overworked behind the plate, and he led the majors with 414 starts behind the plate over the last three seasons. Some say this is the reason for his decline in production. Therefore, this groin injury could be a blessing in disguise as it should spare Martin’s knees from some unneeded wear and tear. Even before the injury, manager Joe Torre expressed a desire to limit Martin’s games played at the position. If Martin is able to come back from this injury and produce at a high level once again this year, it could be that this period away from catching was one of the reasons why.