Archive for April, 2008

Roy “The Complete Game” Halladay

Blue Jays righty Roy Halladay has earned his reputation as being a top-tier pitcher, one of the best this decade. Predominantly utilizing a combo of fastballs, cutters, and curveballs, Halladay keeps the ball on the ground, generating grounders just about 60% of the time. Though he has suffered some injuries in the last few years, when healthy, going late into games is not an issue; he has pitched 220+ innings in four of the last six years. This durability has led to 32 complete games since 2002, seven more than closest competitor Livan Hernandez. The entire AL had 64 complete games last year and Halladay accounted for seven of them.

There have been 16 complete games this year and Halladay currently has four of them. Additionally, his other two starts have seen him go for seven and eight innings respectively. Oddly enough, despite pitching a complete in each of his last four starts, his W-L in that span is 1-3. His three consecutive complete game losses ties a Blue Jays record set in 1980 by Jim Clancy. The last pitcher to lose consecutive complete games is another Roy: Roy Oswalt, who did so in 2006.

The last major league pitcher to throw four consecutive complete games? Well, that would be Halladay back in 2003. The all time record for consecutive complete games belongs to Jack Lynch, with 198; his record was compiled between 1881 and 1887. Halladay would need an average of 33 starts in each of his next seasons just to make 198 starts, let alone go the distance.

Very interesting about his complete games is that he is not overextending himself by throwing a ton of pitches. Through 49.2 innings he has thrown 648 pitches, which amounts to an average of 13 per inning. His complete games have consisted of the following pitch counts: 110, 117, 107, 112. The Blue Jays have scored 115 runs this year, just 17 of which have come in Halladay’s six starts. The team has provided an average of 4.67 runs/gm in non-Halladay games and just 2.83 runs/gm for their ace. Hopefully the team can start scoring runs or else this former Cy Young Award winner may find himself qualifying for next month’s edition of unluckiest pitchers.


Red Sox Have Depth at First Base

If there is one area in the minor league system that the Boston Red Sox have depth it is at first base. And a lot of it has to do with the over-sized wallet that the club has, probably as much so as its solid scouting department.

Lars Anderson was drafted in the 18th round of the 2006 amateur draft, but he was not an 18th rounder in terms of talent. The prep first baseman also was not a consensus first or second round pick so teams knew he would be a difficult sign; more often then not those players end up in college in hopes of improving their draft stock (and the subsequent paycheck).

He was given $825,000 to sign, more money than Boston’s supplemental first round pick Caleb Clay received. After sitting out the 2006 season thanks to the ongoing contract negotiations, Anderson began his career in 2007 as a 19-year-old in full-season A-ball. He batted a respectable .288/.385/.443. This season, at the hitter’s haven known as Lancaster, Anderson is hitting .300/.400/.544 with five homers in 90 at-bats.

Michael Jones, 22, was drafted out of junior college in 2004 in the 25th round and has moved slowly through the system despite a career line of .309/.387/.466. This season in Greenville, Jones is hitting a robust .419/.480/.628 in 86 at-bats.

His teammates, as well as fellow first basemen, Anthony Rizzo and David Mailman are significantly younger. Rizzo is in full-season ball despite being only 18. He was drafted in 2007 in the sixth round and received about $200,000 more to sign than the average player in that round. This season, Rizzo is hitting .373/.402/.446 in 83 at-bats, but he has yet to hit a homer.

Mailman, was drafted a round later in 2007 but received even more money to sign – $550,000 because he was strongly committed to Wake Forest University – which was almost $400,000 more than any other player received in that round. Mailman, 19, has struggled with the batter this season with a line of .203/.298/.257 but has stolen six bases in nine attempts (despite having below average speed). He has also been spending time playing left field for Greenville.

Aaron Bates, 24, was a senior draft pick in the third round of the 2006 draft after he turned down Florida in 2005 in the eighth round as a junior. Now in his third season, Bates is hitting .264/.361/.292 in 72 at-bats. He is struggling to hit for power after slugging 29 homers and driving in 101 runs last season while splitting time between Lancaster and Portland.

Chris Carter is a former 17th round pick of Arizona’s out of Stanford University, who has done nothing but hit as a pro. He has a career line of .310/.390/.519 and is in his third season at Triple-A. Carter, 25, is currently batting .302/.368/.417 but has yet to hit a homer this season with 96 at-bats to his credit.


Dave Bush Sent Down Due to…Um…

The Milwaukee Brewers optioned Dave Bush to their AAA Nashville club this week following an 0-3 start with a 6.75 ERA. This irked many in the statistical community, especially MGL, because not only is Bush pitching better than the barometric numbers indicate, he is pitching right on par with normal #3 or #4 starters.

The problem, after looking into it more, is not necessarily that Bush’s optioning stems from his slow start but that it may have to do with his Jekyll-like transformation once runners get on base. In 1649 career PA, batters are posting a .253/.307/.420 clip against Bush while the bases are empty. When occupied, though, this jumps to .314/.355/.546 in 1121 PA. Despite these numbers, if the decision to option Bush stemmed from a kneejerk reaction to a small sample size, this argument does not even hold water.

This year, with 57 PA, opponents are hitting .320/.404/.560 with the bases empty. In 47 PA, they are hitting just .263/.340/.368 with runners on base. In the early going he has allowed a higher percentage of runners to reach base but has actually reduced his slash line once they get to their respective bases.

Ned Yost attributed the move to control issues. In his four 2008 starts, Bush has thrown 57.6% of his pitches for strikes. In 2007 he threw 65.6% strikes out of 2972 pitches. In 2006 he threw 66.4% strikes out of 3021 pitches. He has thrown a lower percentage of strikes, putting himself into more “Hafta’ Counts” and forcing himself to pitch from behind. The Brewers had a pitching surplus entering the season, often fostering rumors of trading Bush and/or Claudio Vargas.

Seemingly happy with the production from Ben Sheets, Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan, Carlos Villanueva, and Manny Parra, the team felt they could handle letting Bush get his control back in a few minor league starts. The decision was definitely based off of a small sample size and, in that regard, makes little sense, but I hope they realize it is way too early to sell their stock on Bush.


The Underrated $64 Million Man

Adrian Beltre signed a 5 year, $64 million contract with the Mariners after his amazing 2004 season. Anyone expecting a repeat of that kind of performance was in for an instant disappointment, and Beltre failed to live up to even more modest expectations during his first year in Seattle, posting a .255/.303/.414 and being proclaimed a free agent bust. That label has stuck, and it’s still fairly common to see Beltre written about as an overpaid, under performing disappointment.

It’s just not true.

Beltre has been one of the better third baseman in the American League for the better part for the last two years, and he’s putting the finishing touches on an April that is one of his best months since coming over from the Dodgers. In last night’s game against Cleveland, he went 2-2 with a single, a three run home run that broke a 2-2 tie in the 9th inning, and three walks to reach base in all five of his trips to the plate. His 2008 line now stands at .309/.409/.553, or basically indistinguishable from what David Wright is giving the Mets and Aramis Ramirez is putting up for the Cubs. There isn’t a third baseman in the American League off to a better start to the season than Beltre.

He doesn’t have to keep hitting like this to justify his contract, however. In 2006 and 2007, Beltre put up two seasons of similar quality to each other, establishing himself as a slightly better than league average hitter while playing a quality defensive third base. Among American League third baseman, the only guys with an argument as superior players are Alex Rodriguez and Mike Lowell. While he’s obviously not in A-Rod’s class, you have to wonder how much their respective home parks are influencing the opinions of Lowell and Beltre. Put Lowell in Safeco and Beltre in Fenway and I’m not sure this is still a conversation we’re having.

Even if Beltre doesn’t sustain his April performance (and he probably won’t – he’s a very streaky hitter who always has good months and lousy ones), he’s still an above average major league player, 2-3 wins better than a replacement level third baseman, and in the American League, that makes him a borderline All-Star. The Mariners didn’t sign him to recreate his 2004 season in perpetuity – they signed him to be a quality player at the hot corner, and that’s exactly what he is.


The Unluckiest April Pitchers

When discussing the early season productivity of a player it is important to remember that the barometric statistics analyzed by those on television often have better evaluative indicators beneath the surface. Many of these indicators deal with luck, or a lack of luck, and provide a more telling window into what should be expected from the player in the coming weeks and months. Dave Cameron wrote earlier today about Nick Johnson and how, based on his high percentage of line drives but low BABIP, Johnson has experienced an unlucky streak this month. Using a slightly expanded method to the ones currently used to determine luck (relative to GB/FB/LD and BABIP) I decided to figure out the unluckiest pitchers of the month.

Initially the method consisted solely of BABIP and the difference between FIP and ERA (FIP-ERA) but I then extended it to include their current W-L records. Though anyone at least casually versed in statistical analysis will explain the faults of a W-L record, fans that simply love the game without analyzing anything equate W-L records to quality.

A pre-requisite also found its way into the criteria in that the FIP could not be above 4.30, a cutoff I usually look for when determining the difference between good and average. This way players like CC Sabathia and Barry Zito could be avoided; players who, despite having large FIP and ERA discrepancies, still had very high FIP and ERA counts. In summation, the players I considered to be the unluckiest were those with high FIP and ERA discrepancies, a high BABIP against, and a W-L record that does not do a good job of representing the quality of games pitched. This left me with the following four candidates:

    Nate Robertson: 6.91 ERA, 4.18 FIP, -2.73 FIP-ERA, .333 BABIP, 0-3 W-L
    Nick Blackburn: 3.45 ERA, 2.72 FIP, -0.73 FIP-ERA, .347 BABIP, 1-1 W-L
    Ian Snell: 4.45 ERA, 3.03 FIP, -1.42 FIP-ERA, .358 BABIP, 2-1 W-L
    Zach Duke: 5.34 ERA, 3.97 FIP, -1.36 FIP-ERA, .369 BABIP, 0-2 W-L

So, of these guys, whom do you consider to be the unluckiest this month?


Dr. Laffey Dissects the Yankees

Deciding to take a short break from the NBA playoffs I tuned into ESPN last night and took in the Yankees/Indians game. Hoping to see a strong performance from a longtime favorite of mine, Mike Mussina, I was instead treated to a great performance from a young Indians lefty named Aaron Laffey. One of those recently recalled to fill the void left by Jake Westbrook’s DL stint, Laffey, a guy just eight months and one day older than me, pitched admirably through his 5.2 innings of work. His end line of 5.2 IP, 3 H, 4 ER really did not do him any justice as the runs scored primarily as a result of bad luck and a lack of aggressive defense.

For five innings, Laffey had a no-hitter going, throwing just 63 pitches. He mixed his fastball, slider, and changeup well, in turn keeping many of the Yankee hitters off-balance; he also induced four popups/foulouts. Nobody hit the ball hard off of him all night except for Bobby Abreu, who flied out to deep centerfield in his first at-bat, and roped a single to leftfield in the sixth inning. All but two of the balls put on the ground by the Yankee bats were weakly hit. Through the fifth inning these were easy outs, but during the sixth inning they proved to be a major factor in bad luck joining him on the mound.

The sixth inning started off with a weak grounder in between shortstop and third base from Melky Cabrera. Jhonny Peralta got his glove on it but the weakly hit ball, combined with the speed of Melky, ultimately resulted in an infield single. Derek Jeter followed with an even weaker groundball to third base. Casey Blake charged but stumbled while attempting to get the ball of his glove. With first and second, Abreu hit the aforementioned single, loading the bases in the process. Laffey then hit Alex Rodriguez in the ribs causing Cabrera to score. In terms of WPA (-.130) and Leverage Index (3.45), this was the biggest play of the game. Check out the big spike in the game graph below:

20080428_yankees_indians_0_blog.png

Still holding onto a 2-1 lead, Laffey went right after Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui, inducing two more weak groundballs; this time they went to first baseman Ryan Garko. Garko’s lack of aggressiveness in charging these grounders led to Jeter and Abreu scoring. A fourth charged run to Laffey’s line scored when Morgan Ensberg singled Rodriguez home off of reliever Jensen Lewis.

Overall, Laffey looked extremely sharp and his pitch usage made the Yankees look a bit foolish at the plate. Though his numbers did not necessarily paint a descriptive picture of his performance last night, Indians fans should be very encouraged at what this kid may be capable of.


Plate Discipline Leaderboards

All the stats made available yesterday in the player pages are now on the leaderboards.

Interesting to see the afore mentioned Nick Johnson with the second best O-Swing% (percent of pitches swung at outside the strike zone) this season. He truly does have great plate discipline.


Nick The Unlucky Stick

Nick Johnson is having one of the more remarkable Aprils in recent memory, and not just because he’s managed to stay healthy for an entire month. No, instead, Nick Johnson is becoming the new poster child for why looking at results, and not the underlying skills, can lead to problems.

Johnson is posting a .216 batting average, so the easy narrative here is that he’s still getting his legs back under him after missing all of the 2007 season after a violent leg fracture in 2006. Perhaps the injury robbed him of some of his power, or he’s adjusting to a new swing that doesn’t allow him to drive the ball as far?

Or maybe he’s just hitting the ball on the screws, but it’s still finding it’s way into the defenders gloves? This is what his batted ball statistics certainly suggest. Johnson’s currently posting a 28.1% line drive percentage, fifth highest in the National League. Line drives go for hits 74% of the time, so if you’re smoking liners all over the field, you generally get a lot of base hits out of it. Not surprisingly, LD% correlates very well with batting average on balls in play, and as Dave Studeman showed four years ago, you can generally estimate a hitters BABIP by adding .11 or .12 to his LD%. Following this, and looking at Johnson’s line drive rate, we’d expect him to be posting a BABIP in the high .300s.

It’s actually .241, or about what we’d expect if he had a line drive rate of 12-13% – half of his actual line drive rate. Johnson is currently among the league leaders in LD% and simultaneously has one of the lowest BABIPs in the league. That’s pretty remarkable.

How much has it impacted his performance? Well, after seeing a similar thing happen to Chipper Jones during the 2004 season (LD% of 20.4%, BABIP of .251), JC Bradbury invented Projected OPS (PrOPS for short), which creates an expected BA/OBP/SLG line based on a player’s batted ball profile. It’s not perfect, but if you want to see a list of guys who are due for a regression to the mean, the extreme ends of the PrOPS leaderboard is a good place to start.

According to PrOPS, Nick Johnson’s batting line so far should be something like .336/.493/.549. It’s actually .216/.392/.432. The difference between his results and the expected results is 120 points of batting average, 100 points of on base percentage, and 130 points of slugging percentage. PrOPS thinks Johnson’s been something like the 5th best hitter in the National League in April, putting him just behind some guys named Burrell, Utley, Pujols, and the aforementioned Chipper Jones.

I’d say it’s safe to say that Nick Johnson is just fine. As always, the questions surrounding him should be about his health, not his abilities. If he avoids the disabled list, he looks poised for a big 2008 season.


Today In FanGraphs: 4/28/08

Cust Cussing (Dave Cameron)
– Dave takes a look at Jack Cust’s off the charts performance.

Is Willingham Ready to Bust Out? (Eric Seidman)
– Will Willingham continue his terrific season for the first place Marlins?

Keeping a Rookie Pitcher Grounded (Marc Hulet)
– What’s so special about top Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson?

Maximizing Potential (Dave Cameron)
– It looks like Chien-Ming Wang has a new trick up his sleeve.

Plate Discipline Stats
– Go look at them in the player pages!

Pitching Trio of the Month (Eric Seidman)
– It’s probably not any three pitchers on the Pirates’ staff.


Pitching Trio of the Month

One of the hot topics during spring training revolved around the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and how this would be the year they experienced significant improvement. Photos surfaced of an interesting shirt Troy Percival donned on which he compared Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza to John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery. Steve Phillips added fuel to this fire by repeatedly mentioning how the shirt compared the three Rays youngsters to Greg Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. With no disrespect towards Avery, he is not Greg Maddux, and any comparison to one of the best pitching trios in the history of the game is going to generate some buzz. As of right now, Kazmir is yet to pitch and Garza has not yet met expectations; Shields, however, has pitched quite well.

Great pitching trios are so valuable for the more obvious reason that, over the course of any given three game series, the team is likely assured of having at least one solid starter on the mound. Seeing as April is about to come to a close I decided to take a look at the WPA totals of starting pitchers from 2002 until now to generate a basic list of the best recent pitching trios. The only real “rule” stipulated that all three of the pitchers needed to have a positive WPA. For instance, last year, the combination of CC Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, and Paul Byrd accounted for a WPA of 7.13. This would normally qualify as second-best across the league, but the numbers broke down as follows: Carmona at 4.25, Sabathia at 3.49, Byrd at -0.61. Clearly the WPA total belonged to CC and Fausto; Byrd actually brought their total down. Here are the top trios from 2002 until now:

2002 – Athletics: Barry Zito (3.85), Tim Hudson (3.28), Mark Mulder (3.15)
2003 – Cubs: Mark Prior (4.37), Kerry Wood (4.05), Carlos Zambrano (2.46)
2004 – Twins: Johan Santana (5.52), Brad Radke (3.61), Carlos Silva (0.61)
2005 – Astros: Roger Clemens (5.77), Andy Pettitte (4.86), Roy Oswalt (3.91)
2006 – Tigers: N. Robertson (2.92), Justin Verlander (2.29), Kenny Rogers (2.21)
2007 – Padres: Jake Peavy (4.61), Chris Young (2.67), Greg Maddux (1.17)

A month into this 2008 season and there are three rotations very close to each other: the Cardinals (2.20), Mariners (2.11), and Angels (2.08). The Cardinals trio in question is Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, and Braden Looper; the Mariners are Felix Hernandez, Carlos Silva, and Jarrod Washburn; the Angels are Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, and Jered Weaver.

Update: The Indians can also be thrown into the mix, but not with Sabathia. The combo of Lee, Carmona, and Westbrook are currently at 2.35. Add them into your consideration. As I mentioned in the comments, though, for potential Mariners fans reading here, Bedard does not count because he does not qualify for inclusion yet. Clearly he is a better choice than Washburn, but the question pertains to the aforementioned threesomes.

Felix Hernandez is the best of the nine pitchers comprising these three teams but, overall, none of them appear to be on the same level as some of the aforementioned trios. Here’s the question: If you had to win a three-game series, which of these three 2008 trios would you pick, and which of the 2002-2007 trios would you pick?


Plate Discipline Stats

About two years ago I attempted to delve further into plate discipline with two articles: Dissecting Plate Discipline Part 1, Part 2.

And then a year later I took an additional look at plate discipline: More on Plate Discipline

All batters now have plate discipline stats available dating back to 2005. Here’s what they are:

  • O-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone.
  • Z-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone.
  • Swing%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter swings at.
  • O-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
  • Z-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with inside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
  • Contact%: The overall percentage of a batter makes contact with when swinging the bat.
  • Zone%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone.

What you’ll want to know is the major league averages for each stat:

Season O-Swing Z-Swing  Swing  O-Contact Z-Contact Contact   Zone
2005     20.3%   68.0%  46.0%      51.8%     88.3%   80.8%  53.8%
2006     23.5%   66.6%  46.1%      57.4%     88.5%   81.0%  52.6%
2007     25.0%   66.6%  45.9%      60.8%     88.2%   80.8%  50.3%

All the location data is from Baseball Info Solutions and you can find all these stats in the player pages at the very bottom: Vladimir Guerrero


Maximizing Potential

For years, Chien-Ming Wang has been the poster boy for successful pitching without strikeouts. He’s used a dominating sinker to induce a ton of ground balls, allowing him to keep hitters off the bases even without generating swings and misses. By throwing strikes and getting hitters to pound the ball into the dirt, he’s turned himself into a front line pitcher and helped analysts get away from evaluating pitchers solely by strikeout rate.

However, unlike some other groundball artists, Wang has always had strikeout stuff. He throws a 91-95 MPH fastball and an 83-86 MPH slider, and both pitches have serious movement. For comparison, his velocity on these two pitches basically matches what John Smoltz throws to a tee, and only 15 pitchers in baseball history have recorded more strikeouts than John Smoltz. Most pitchers with low strikeout rates simply don’t have the ability to make hitters miss, but Wang’s stuff has always suggested that he should be able to, but was choosing to focus on pitching to contact instead.

That may be changing (as last night’s 9 strikeout performance hightlights). Here are his strikeout rates and ground ball rates plotted on respective graphs:

K/9

GB/FB/LD

The K/9 and GB% are going the opposite direction, and both are doing so fairly quickly. In 2008, Wang’s posting a league average strikeout rate and a GB% that, while above average, doesn’t put him in the class of extreme sinkerball types. This is after he posted an increase in his strikeout rate last year that corresponded with a slight decline in his ground ball rate. Pitcher aging curves have shown that, for most pitchers, strikeout rates peak early and declines as a player ages – Wang is seeing the opposite of that happen right now.

He’s always been an interesting pitcher, and this new development just makes him even more curious.


Keeping a Rookie Pitcher Grounded

Ignore the shiny 1.50 ERA that Boston rookie Justin Masterson has after just one major league start. ERAs are overrated at the best of times. The most important numbers on Masterson’s April 24 line against the Angels were the two hits allowed in six innings and the 11-3 ground outs to fly outs. Thanks to Boston’s impressive pitching depth, he was returned to Double-A after his first major league appearance.

Masterson, 23, was originally selected by Boston in the second round (71st overall) of the 2006 amateur draft out of San Diego State University. He is already perhaps one of the best pitchers in professional baseball when it comes to inducing ground balls. This is important because ground balls cannot fly out of the ballpark for a home run. Ground balls cannot sail over the heads of outfielders for bases-clearing triples. If you can find a ground ball pitcher that can also miss a lot of bats and strike out a ton of batters, then you have something special.

And Masterson is right on the cusp of being something special. He won’t strike out a ton of batters, as he averaged 7.20 K/9 in his minor league career coming into 2008. But he doesn’t walk many batters (career 2.04 BB/9) and he keeps the ball in the yard, having allowed only eight homers in 185.1 career innings prior to this season (0.39 HR/9). Keep in mind he also pitched at the launching pad known as Lancaster and allowed only four homers in 95.2 innings. This season in the minors, Masterson was averaging 3.57 ground balls for every fly ball. Last season, between High-A ball and Double-A he averaged 2.46 – including 2.05 at Lancaster and 3.52 in Portland.

The best ground ball pitchers in the majors in 2007 included Derek Lowe, Felix Hernandez, Fausto Carmona and Brandon Webb, heady company and a group for Masterson to aspire to join.


Is Willingham Ready to Bust Out?

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

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

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

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

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

willinghamrc27.png

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

willinghamgbfbld.png

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

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


Cust Cussing

Last season, Jack Cust was one of the out-of-nowhere stories of the year. He’d received all of four plate appearances in the majors from 2004 to 2006, and had essentially been relegated to Triple-A slugger while bouncing from organization to organization. The Padres sold him to the A’s for cash after Oakland experienced enough injury problems that they felt they needed a warm body, and Cust responded to the opportunity by hitting .256/.408/.504 and becoming a key part of their line-up.

2008 hasn’t gone as well. He’s currently sitting at .161/.373/.242 through 83 plate appearances, one of the stranger batting lines you’ll ever see. He has just seven hits on the season, but he’s drawn 20 walks in 22 games, so he’s posting a respectable on base percentage despite the fact that he’s just not hitting. Generally, you’d look at a .161 batting average and conclude that the guy is just in a slump, and that regression to the mean will make that bounce back in the not too distant future. Jack Cust isn’t your normal hitter, though. He strikes out at unbelievable 41.4% clip, making contact less often than just about any other position player in recent history. Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn combine to cover the top three spots in single season strikeout totals in major league history, and even they didn’t get particularly close to striking out in 41% of their at-bats with career rates of 35% and 32% respectively.

I was going to show you a chart of the K% for those three plotted next to each other, but realized it wouldn’t be very helpful, because Jack Cust’s markings aren’t on it. See, the Fangraphs K% chart tops out at 40%, and Cust is consistently above that mark. He’s literally off the charts.

When you strike out as much as Cust does, you have to be amazing when you make contact. Last year, Cust was, posting a .366 batting average on balls in play and whacking 26 home runs in 124 games. So far, in April, Cust’s batting average on balls in play is down to .242, and only one of his seven hits are home runs. Even when he hits the ball, it’s not going anywhere, and that’s made him a significant liability at the plate during the first month of the season. With the signing of Frank Thomas to be the regular DH, Cust is going to have to play left field to keep his spot in the line-up. Unfortunately for him and the A’s, he’s about as good at that as he is at making contact. He might be the worst defensive player in baseball – if he’s not, he’s close.

Add it all up, and the A’s have a guy who has to torch the ball when he hits it in order to be a valuable player, and when he’s not driving the ball, he’s the least productive regular in the major leagues. Due to his defensive problems, it’s going to be harder and harder for the A’s to justify penciling him into the line-up if he doesn’t start producing better results when he makes contact. The A’s are surprising a lot of people by standing at 16-10 through 26 games, but they’re not going to be able to stick with Cust killing them in the field and at the plate forever.


Lince-Who?

The San Francisco Giants currently sport one of the worst offenses of all time, but have posted an 11-14 record on the strength of some quality pitching. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, both of whom have been anointed by various pundits as the best young pitcher in the National League in the last year. Lincecum, in particular, is getting plaudits at the moment, as he’s off to a terrific start to the 2008 campaign, and his tiny frame and unique delivery make him interesting to watch even when he’s not dominating. However, the Giants don’t just have a big two, and there’s a guy getting lost in the hype shuffle.

K/BB

See that green dot? That’s Jonathan Sanchez, San Francisco’s 25 year old southpaw with a knockout slider. He’s struggled with command problems and nagging health issues around his arm, but he’s healthy now and making hitters look foolish. His fastball doesn’t have the velocity it used to have, but he makes up for it with a slider that’s among the best swing-and-miss pitches in the game.

Using that weapon, he’s reinstating himself into the discussion of potential aces hanging out in San Francisco. In fact, the K/BB ratio above makes a pretty strong argument that Sanchez is a better bet for the future than Cain, and the difference between he and Lincecum isn’t nearly as large as most people would believe.

When you’re talking about good young arms in baseball, don’t forget Jonathan Sanchez.


Danks Perfect For Five, Burres Great For Eight

While Tom Gorzelanny may have had a no-hitter through 4+ innings on Thursday, John Danks threw five perfect innings this afternoon before his bid at history came to an end. Two major roadblocks stood in the way of a potential perfect game coinciding in the form of Brian Burres completely shutting down the White Sox offense. Burres went eight innings, giving up three hits and no walks, while striking out four en route to his third win of the season. He threw 98 pitches, two-thirds of which were strikes. Danks lost the perfect game but still had a very effective outing, lasting 6.1 innings while giving up just four hits; he did not walk a batter and struck out four. Of his 92 pitches, 64 were strikes (69.5%). The game looked completely even through the first five frames as evident by the steady polygraph pace in the game graph:

danksnono.png

After five innings, no runs had scored, nobody had been walked, and the only two hits had been singles off the bats of Jim Thome and Carlos Quentin. Danks quickly lost his perfect game and no-hitter when Adam Jones singled to start the sixth inning. Jones swiped second base and came around to score on Guillero Quiroz’s first major league home run. A tad rattled, Danks gave up a single to Luis Hernandez; after giving up nothing for five innings he surrendered three consecutive hits. He settled down after the Hernandez at-bat, though, retiring Brian Roberts, Melvin Mora, and Nick Markakis. Heading into the bottom of the sixth the Orioles had staked Burres to a 2-0 lead.

A Toby Hall single in the bottom of the sixth broke Burres’s streak of 12 consecutive batters retired but he would not allow another runner to reach base for the rest of his time on the mound. After inducing a Juan Uribe groundout to the end the eighth inning his day came to an end. The Orioles provided three insurance runs in the top of the ninth off of Octavio Dotel before Matt Albers and George Sherrill closed the game out in the bottom half of the inning. Though the White Sox did score a run on a bases loaded hit by pitch from Carlos Quentin, it was too little, too late. Joe Crede flied out to end the game as the Orioles won 5-1.

Coming into this start, Burres’s numbers (2-1, 3.63 ERA) were a bit deceiving, as his K/9, BB/9, K/BB, BAA, and WHIP were all below the league average. In fact, he had a K/BB of just 0.90, surrendering 10 walks to go along with just nine punchouts. This helped to translate his 3.63 ERA into a 4.82 WHIP. Despite all of these below average rates he completely dominated a first-place offense simultaneously bringing the Orioles into a first-place tie with the Red Sox.


Dustin McGowan Pulls a Gorzelanny?

Earlier today I wrote about Tom Gorzelanny’s interesting and less-than-accurate game last night, when at one point he had a line of 4.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 7 BB, 4 K. What I did not realize is that Blue Jays righty Dustin McGowan had a very similar game against the Rays. While discussing some of our favorite young pitchers, Fangraphs reader and Tampa Bay Rays blogger Tommy Rancel said, “…if you thought the Gorzelanny game was weird, you should have seen McGowan against the Rays. He struck the first two batters out on six pitches and ended up walking 7 in just four innings.”

Facing 22 batters in 4+ innings, McGowan gave up 4 hits and 4 runs, striking out 6 and walking 7; this topsy-turvy performance in part led to quite the streaky game graph:

bluejaysrays.png

He threw 88 pitches with a perfect split of 44 strikes and 44 balls. As Tommy mentioned, his first inning was strong: He struck out Akinori Iwamura and Carl Crawford on six pitches and induced a groundout from BJ Upton with another three pitches, ending the frame with eight strikes out of nine pitches. In the second inning, McGowan’s accuracy took a hit, throwing just nine strikes out of 17 pitches. Despite this, he still managed to strike out Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, and newcomer Gabe Gross; a walk to Eric Hinske was his only blemish.

The Blue Jays scored two runs off of Andy Sonnanstine in the top of the third, but McGowan could not shut the Rays down in the bottom half of the inning. After walking Dioner Navarro and surrendering a single to Jason Bartlett, Iwamura sacrificed the runners to second and third. Crawford knocked in Navarro on a groundout, to get one of the runs back, before Upton went down swinging. Again, McGowan’s accuracy was subpar, throwing just 11 strikes out of 20 pitches. Through three innings, he had a 2-1 lead and had compiled the following line: 3 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 6 K. Of his 46 pitches 28 were strikes.

He fell apart in the fourth inning but managed to limit the damage. With one out, Evan Longoria tripled and promptly scored on an Eric Hinske single. After Hinske unsuccessfully attempted a steal of second base, McGowan proceeded to walk Gross, Navarro, and Bartlett to load the bases. Luckily, Iwamura flew out to leftfield to end the threat. The inning saw him throw 32 pitches, just 11 of which were strikes. The game was tied 2-2, but McGowan’s line now stood at: 4 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 5 BB, 6 K.

The Blue Jays jumped back on top, 3-2, in the fifth but McGowan again went walk-crazy in the bottom of the inning. After Carl Crawford singled and stole second, he walked Upton and Pena to load the bases. John Gibbons had seen enough and brought in Brian Tallet to potentially record a “Houdini.” Things did not go well for Tallet as all three inherited runners scored; the Rays went onto win 5-3.

From 2000-2007, there have been 200 games in which a pitcher walked 7+ batters; this averages out to 25 games per season. With 30 teams and 162 games per team there are 4860 games in a year (give or take). On average, a miniscule .005 percent of the games this decade, or 0.83 games per team, have seen pitchers walk this many batters. Last night there were two games going on at the same time that accomplished this statistical rarity.


What Do You See?

When you look at the following graph, what is your initial reaction?

RC/27

Now, take that reaction and add the following information:

1. Catcher
2. Turns 32 years old in two weeks
3. Right handed pull hitter, your team plays in a park that hates right handed pull hitters

Okay, now, let’s go through the formula. If you take Initial Reaction + Position Knowledge + Age + Park Suitability and your conclusion is Contract Extension, congratulations, you’re qualified to work for the Mariners. They just extended Kenji Johjima through the 2011 season. Johjima’s a solid player and has been a real asset since arriving from Japan, but the timing of this move seems odd. Top prospect Jeff Clement is tearing the cover off the ball in Tacoma, and while his defense is underwhelming, the team could really use a left handed bat in the line-up. Extending Johjima ensures that Clement will be moving to first base or designated hitter, reducing his value to the club and taking away the chance to balance the line-up.

The Mariners just continue to fail to learn lessons from their past mistakes. The organization consistently gives overly long contracts to replaceable declining veterans, then gets surprised when those guys don’t perform at their career averages. I’m sure they’ll be stunned in several years when Carlos Silva and Johjima are struggling and eating up a good portion of the payroll along with premium roster spots.


From Sleeper to Surgery to Sleeper Yet Again

Davis Romero, who just turned 25, is not the most well-known southpaw with the last name ‘Romero’ in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. That distinction goes to 2005 first round draft pick Ricky Romero. Davis is a diminutive starting pitcher (5-9, 140) from Panama, who was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 1999.

Prior to 2007, Romero posted career minor league numbers of a 3.37 ERA, 8.15 H/9, 2.43 BB/9 and 9.70 K/9. Impressive numbers but Romero continually had to prove himself at every level due to his size, or lack thereof. In 2006, Romero finally earned a late-season promotion to Toronto and posted a 3.86 ERA in 16.1 innings, but allowed 10.47 H/9 and 3.31 BB/9. He also had only 5.51 K/9.

In the spring of 2007, Romero’s body broke down and he underwent labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder and missed all of 2007. The good news, though, is that he is back and pitching in Triple-A Syracuse. The even better news is that Romero has looked very good, considering the severity of the surgery – one that many pitchers never make it back from.

While throwing with a strict pitch count, Romero has posted a 1.54 ERA in four starts. Over 11.2 innings, Romero has allowed only four hits and two runs. He has also struck out 13 and has not allowed a hit to a left-handed batter. On the down side, Romero has walked seven and is allowing as many flyballs as groundballs.

Even so, Romero is an interesting player to keep an eye considering the scarcity of quality left-handed pitching at the major league level.