Archive for May, 2008

Catcher Goodness At No Cost(e)

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself – the desire for a bad pun was just too strong. But, yes, this post is about Chris Coste, the 35-year-old journeyman Triple-A catcher who is trying to convince the Phillies to never send him back down, and doing a pretty good job of it. After hitting his fifth home run of the season last night, Coste now has the highest OPS (.999) of any catcher with at least 100 plate appearances in 2008. Among that group, he’s third in batting average, second in on base percentage, and first in slugging, giving the Phillies an offensive boost from behind the plate.

This isn’t the first time Coste has blistered major league pitching either. He hit .328/.376/.505 in 213 plate appearances with Philadelphia back in 2006, and his career major league line now stands at .316/.363/.498. Since making his major league debut at age 33, Coste has been worth approximately three wins more than an average catcher. That’s a huge contribution from a guy who was living the Crash Davis persona for a decade.

Realistically, though, no one could have seen this coming, and that it continues is one of the more improbable story lines in baseball. Despite being a three time All-American for Division III Concorida College, Coste couldn’t find an organization willing to give him a minor league job, so he hooked on with the independent Frontier League, where he played from 1996 to 1999. He did enough to earn a minor league contract from the Indians in 2000, and he kicked around various Double-A and Triple-A affiliates for the next six years. He never stood out as anything spectacular, posting a career .286/.335/.421 mark. He was a serviceable minor league catcher, but nothing more. In fact, in 2006, he was hitting .177/.236/.272 for Scranton before getting the call to Philadelphia to make his debut. When you see a 33-year-old posting a .508 OPS in Triple-A, you’re not thinking that he’s going to get to the majors and start hitting from day one.

But that’s exactly what Coste has done. Since arriving, he’s done his best Gary Carter impression, and his offensive performance as a big leaguer would fit right into any Hall of Fame catcher’s resume. Coste certainly isn’t going to end up in Cooperstown, but he’s hitting like someone who deserves to be remembered as more than the 33 year old rookie. His story is the kind of thing they make movies out of, but they can worry about that when he’s done. Right now, it looks like it will be a while before he’s ready to hang up his spikes.


Player Search Update

I’ve updated player searching. I think it works a lot better now and hopefully you will too. Minor league and major league players now appear on one page and the search algorithm is now much better at picking up misspelled player names and inexact matches.


I Thought You Had Power?

Minnesota and Tampa Bay completed one of the more interesting trades of the winter when the Rays sent former #1 overall pick Delmon Young to Minnesota for a pu-pu platter of interesting players. Young had been thought of as part of the foundation of Tampa’s rebuilding project, and had just finished playing an entire season as their starting right fielder at the age of 21. Due to his physical stature, offensive potential, and some issues with maturity, the most common comparison heard when scouts discussed Young was Albert Belle. The Twins certainly believed that they were getting a potential cleanup hitter that they could build their offense around, and gushed over Young’s bat after the deal was announced.

Two months in, Minnesota has to be wondering where the power went. Young not only has failed to hit a home run in his new digs, he’s also only racked up 10 extra base hits and a meager .071 Isolated Slugging Percentage. That’s lower than Tony Pena Jr’s career ISO, and as we mentioned yesterday, he might be one of the worst hitters in baseball history. Young isn’t supposed to be hitting like a middle infielder, and he’s certainly not supposed to be hitting like one of the feeblest middle infielders around.

Where has the power gone? Well, take a look at these two charts.

ISO

GB/FB/LD

The first graph is his ISO, which shows that his current performance is well below average compared to just a normal hitter, not even accounting for the fact that he’s a corner outfielder without much defensive value. The second chart, however, shows the main problem – a skyrocketing ground ball rate and a nosediving line drive rate. After hitting the ball on the ground 46.6% and 46.3% of the time respectively the last two seasons, Young’s groundball rate is currently at 62.7%. For comparison, Luis Castillo’s career ground ball rate is 62.9%, and I’m sure that the Twins’ fans who remember him slapping the ball onto the Metrodome astroturf weren’t expecting Young to do a spot on impression.

Ground balls and power just don’t go together. The guys who hit the ball on the ground 60% of the time or more are slap-hitting infielders. In fact, of the five guys currently posting a GB% over 60%, Young is the only one who doesn’t play shortstop. You can’t become the next Albert Belle by constantly driving the ball into the ground, so it’s time for someone in Minnesota to talk to Delmon about his swing and get him lifting the ball again. Until he remembers how to get under the ball and drive it with authority, he’s going to be a colossal disappointment and a hindrance to the Twins’ playoff chances.


Reviewing the 2007 Draft: NL Third Round

For the next two weeks, in honor of the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft on June 5-6, I will be devoting my posts to a review of the 2007 draft. Today, let’s take a look at how some of the key National League third round picks are faring in their first full season in professional baseball. We are starting to get into a territory where the quality of picks really begins to think out.

Tony Thomas (Chicago) had an excellent offensive junior season at Florida State University and a solid pro debut in 2007, but his numbers are average this year while playing at High-A ball. The second baseman currently has a line of .269/.317/.401 with three homers and nine stolen bases in 182 at-bats. Thomas has walked only seven percent of the time and he has struck out at a rate of 25 percent.

Brian Friday (Pittsburgh), a Rice University grad, is showing the makings of a solid big league utility player, or possible starter. So far this season, in High-A ball, he is hitting .309/.388/.433 with one homer in 194 at-bats. Friday’s base running needs a little work as he has been successful in only 50 percent of his attempts (eight for 16). He has walked 9.8 percent of the time, with a strikeout rate of 16.2 percent.

Steven Souza (Washington), a prep third baseman, is holding his own in A-ball. He currently has a line of .266/.348/.392 with two homers and eight stolen bases in 79 at-bats, but he hasn’t played since May 6. He has walked 9.2 percent of the time, but has struck out at a rate of 32.9 percent.

Despite being drafted out of college, Jonathan Lucroy (Milwaukee) has moved relatively slowly and is currently playing in A-ball, where he has a line of .314/.389/.524 with eight homers and six stolen bases in 185 at-bats. The catcher’s bat appears ready for a promotion but his defence might be holding him back.

Lars Davis (Colorado), a Canadian catcher, has struggled offensively in A-ball. He is currently hitting .215/.277/.323 with three homers in 93 at-bats. Davis has walked 6.2 percent of the time, with a strikeout rate of 28.6 percent.

Right-hander Scott Carroll (Cincinnati) began the year in A-ball and posted a 3.75 ERA in 48 innings, with 50 hits allowed, 16 walks and 24 strikeouts. He was recently promoted to High-A ball and has made one start. Carroll allowed five runs in 5.2 innings of work.

Jameson Smith (Florida), drafted out of community college, has struggled with the bat in A-ball. The 21-year-old catcher is hitting .221/.357/.279 with no homers in 68 at-bats. The left-handed batter is only 2-for-14 (.143) against southpaws. He has as many walks as hits (15) this season.

Left-hander Eric Niesen (New York) currently has a 5.20 ERA in 45 High-A ball innings. He has allowed 52 hits. Niesen has posted rates of 5.60 K/9 and 3.80 BB/9.

Shortstop Brandon Hicks (Atlanta), drafted out of Texas A&M University, is showing surprising power with 11 homers in 148 at-bats. He has hit four in his last 10 games. He currently has a line of .257/.358/.588. He has walked 13 percent of the time, but struck out at a rate of 42.1 percent.

Matt Spencer (Philadelphia) has struggled to hit for average as a pro after signing out of Arizona State University. He currently has a line of .249/.300/.370 with four homers in 181 at-bats in High A-ball. Spencer has walked 7.9 percent of the time but has struck out at a rate of 22.4 percent.

The Mets just did not have a lot of luck drafting college relievers in 2007. Stephen Clyne (New York) currently has a 10.42 ERA in 19 High-A ball innings. He has allowed 26 hits and 10 walks.

Both Cincinnati and Arizona took interesting, young Puerto Rican infielders – Neftali Soto and Reynaldo Navarro – but both have been playing in Extended Spring Training so far this season.


Chipper’s Company

Coming into play yesterday Braves third baseman Chipper Jones sported a .418/.495/.674 slash line, thanks in large part to his 77 hits in 184 at bats. In an 8-1 win over Milwaukee last night, Jones went 2-4 with two walks, raising his numbers to .420/.500/.670. Make no mistake: Chipper is playing out of his mind right now and doing much of the gruntwork in preventing the Braves from getting off to a terrible start. However, he is not the only player in recent history to get off to such a torrid start.

Trent McCotter, in a Retrolist message, passed along the following five instances of a player starting his season 77-184, or better:

Andres Galarraga, 1993: 80-184, .435/.462/.701, 1.163 OPS
Rod Carew, 1983: 79-184, .427/.473/.535, 1.008 OPS
Lenny Dykstra, 1990: 77-184, .418/.486/.546, 1.032 OPS
Paul O’Neill, 1994: 77-184, .418/.511/.703, 1.214 OPS
Todd Helton, 2000: 77-184, .418/.511/.815, 1.326 OPS

Pretty impressive stuff. Trent also acknowledged that this did not take into account years when a good amount of play by play files are missing so there may be others not mentioned here.

Curious about what happened from here I looked at the overall numbers of these players as well as what happened from their 185th at bat on. Here are their numbers starting with at bat #185 (their season totals in parentheses):

Andres Galarraga: 94-286, .329/.366/.538 (.370/.403/.602)
Rod Carew: 81-287, .282/.370/.331 (.339/.409/.411)
Lenny Dykstra: 115-406, .283/.386/.390 (.325/.418/.441)
Paul O’Neill: 54-188, .295/.408/.503 (.359/.460/.603)
Todd Helton: 139-396, .351/.440/.644 (.372/.463/.698)

While all five posted OPS counts over 1.000 during their 77-184 “streak” just Helton kept it up during his post-hot start plate appearances. On average, these five guys posted a .310 BA onwards from their scorching start. If Chipper were to hit .310 for the rest of the season, assuming his total number of at bats will be in the same range as the last few years, he would go 97 for his next 312, putting him at 174-496 to finish the season; that would be a .351 batting average.

Realistically, and with regards to this small group, Chipper has two options:

a) sustain a BA higher than .351 from last night to the end of the season, giving him the highest BA of the group (Helton hit .351 for the rest of his season after starting out .418, giving him a .372 for the season)
b) begin to regress, finishing the season with a tremendous slash line albeit not nearly as impressive as .418/.495/.674.

It is not very likely Chipper will finish the year with a BA over or around .400 based either on this evidence or our own intuition; however that does not, in any way, make what he is currently doing any less remarkable. We all tend to understand how difficult it is to sustain a .400+ batting average primarily because nobody has done so in recent years and Chipper is at the point of difficulty right now where a 2-5 night actually decreases the average.

Still, a large part of me is hoping he can somehow pull it off as it would be great for baseball.


How The Mighty Have Fallen

At the end of the last decade, the American League boasted a pretty remarkable group of shortstops. It had almost always been a position of light hitters, but Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter provided all-star bats at the position and led to something of a revolution at the position. In fact, in 1998, the average American League shortstop hit .274/.323/.407.

10 years later, and things are back to normal. American League shorstops are hitting .254/.305/.354 so far this year, and if you’re filling out your All-Star ballot, you’re going to hard pressed to get excited about the shortstop vote. Derek Jeter is going to be the starter, but he’s hitting .280/.333/.382 and playing his usual awful defense. Michael Young will probably be the backup, but he’s hitting .278/.339/.408 and, like Jeter, is pretty lousy defensively, and his offensive production gets a boost from playing half his game in a hitter friendly park. Neither of them are having all-star seasons, but realistically, what are the alternatives?

Jhonny Peralta is hitting for power, but he has a .282 on base percentage. You have to be Ozzie Smith defensively to make an all-star team when you’re making outs that often, and Peralta is no Ozzie Smith.

Marco Scutaro is getting on base at a nifty .372 clip, but he has no power, and he’s Marco Scutaro.

Everyone else is either having a bad year or a bad career. The dearth of talent at the position is really pretty shocking, especially considering the quality of the players playing shortstop just ten years ago.


He’s Hitting What?

Tony Pena Jr plays a good shortstop, so the Royals have given him a mostly regular job at shortstop over the last year and a half. During that time, we have learned one clear truth.

Tony Pena Jr can’t hit.

I’m not talking about Pena struggling at the plate. I’m not saying he’s a bad hitter for a major leaguer. I’m saying that Tony Pena Jr might be one of the worst hitters ever to put on a major league uniform. He’s unbelievably bad. For the season, he’s hitting .160/.181/.200. The average pitcher in the National League is hitting .141/.180/.177. At least he’s better than them as a group, but the margin couldn’t be much smaller.

While Pena’s not really this bad, he is pretty terrible. For his career, he has a 2.2% BB% thanks to a 39.06% O-Swing%. He swings at almost 40% of pitches out of the strike zone, and due to that aggressiveness, he never ever walks. But it’s not like his aggressiveness comes with its own rewards, because he’s not good at making contact either. His contact rate is just 79.44%, and his career K% is 17.1%. This isn’t a guy who is swinging at everything because he can actually put the bat on the ball. He’s just swinging at everything because… well, I have no idea why.

Even when he does make contact, pitchers don’t care. His Isolated Slugging % this year is a dreadful .041 (and .080 for his career), as he has just five extra base hits on the season. Most of that is because he’s an extreme groundball hitter with a career GB% of 55.8%. When you pound the ball into the ground, you’re basically hoping for a single at best, and that limits the value of your hits. In fact, most guys with extreme groundball tendencies and some speed teach themselves how to bunt so that they can maximize their skills, but Pena’s not even good at that – he has seven career bunt hits. For comparison, Luis Castillo got 16 bunt hits last year.

Pena is the complete package – ridiculously aggressive with poor contact skills, no power, and an inability to bunt himself on base. Add it all up, and you get a guy with a career .242/.261/.321 line that no amount of good defense can compensate for. I wasn’t sure I would ever see a team give regular at-bats to a guy with less offensive ability than Rey Ordonez, but along came Tony Pena Jr.

Royals fans, you have my sympathy.


Reviewing the 2007 Draft: NL Second Round

For the next two weeks, in honor of the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft on June 5-6, I will be devoting my posts to a review of the 2007 draft. Today, let’s take a look at how some of the key National League second round picks are faring in their first full season in professional baseball.

Right-hander Jordan Zimmerman (Washington) is looking like the steal of the second round, having out-performed a number of higher-drafted pitchers so far. He posted a 1.65 ERA in 27 High-A innings before moving up to Double-A. He allowed 15 hits and eight walks. He struck out 31. So far in Double-A, Zimmerman has posted a 3.80 ERA in 21.1 innings. He has allowed 19 hits and 11 walks. He has struck out 20.

Third baseman Jake Smolinski (Washington) was drafted out of high school and has played both third base and second base in his pro career. He hit well in his debut (.305 in the Gulf Coast League) and earned a spot in full-season ball in 2008 at the age of 19. He is currently hitting .261/.338/.402 with four homers in 184 at-bats. He has walked 9.4 percent of the time and has struck out at a rate of 17.5 percent.

Despite a .296 average in his debut, Brian Rike (Colorado) has moved slowly for a college draft pick and is currently hitting .267/.393/.483 with 10 homers in 180 at-bats in A-ball. He has also stolen 10 bases in 14 attempts. Strikeouts are a concern as he has whiffed 34.4 percent of the time, but he has also walked at a rate of 15.1 percent.

The Marlins organization has to be pretty happy with outfielder Mike Stanton. The 6-5 outfielder will be 18 all season long and is currently posting a line of .273/.332/.494 with eight homers in 176 A-ball at-bats. Unfortunately, he is still raw and has struck out 35.8 percent of the time and walked only 5.4 percent. All in all, not bad for an 18 year old in full-season A-ball.

At 6-11, Scott Moviel (New York NL) towers over opponents at the age of 20. He has struggled in A-ball, though, with a 6.15 ERA in 45.1 innings. He has allowed 59 hits and has posted rates of 6.55 K/9 and 2.98 BB/9.

Eric Sogard (San Diego), 22, has moved quickly through the system and is currently hitting .320/.434/.412 in 194 at-bats at High-A ball. He has yet to hit a home run and he doesn’t steal a lot of bases so his value is tied directly to his average and his ability to get on base. So far, he has posted excellent rates by walking 17.5 percent of the time while striking out only 10.1 percent. He’s probably due for a promotion to Double-A.

Jess Todd (St. Louis), a college-reliever-turned-pro-starter, has been brilliant so far for the Cardinals organization. He began the 2008 season in High-A ball and posted a 1.65 ERA in 27.1 innings with 18 hits allowed. He posted rates of 11.52 K/9 and 2.30 BB/9. So far in Double-A, Todd has posted a 1.19 ERA in 22.2 innings with 13 hits allowed. He has rates of 7.54 K/9 and 2.38 BB/9.

Brant Rustich (New York NL) did not make his season debut until May 9 and has struggled at A-ball. The 23-year-old reliever has a 7.94 ERA in five games and has allowed two runs or more in three of his appearances. He has walked three and struck out three.

Despite posting a respectable 3.00 ERA in the Gulf Coast League in 2007, prep lefty Michael Watt (Los Angeles) has remained in extended spring training in 2008.


Jose Reyes: Then and Now

While taking full advantage of my MLB Extra Innings package last night a scrolling bottom line informed me that Mets shortstop Jose Reyes hit his 7th home run. At that point it dawned on me that a) Reyes is on pace for a career high in home runs and b) I have not been bombarded with Reyes on the national media circuit as much as the last couple of years.

Reyes has steadily improved from the time of his initial call-ups until now but, while scanning his statistics, I found that we can actually trace his improvement by comparing two seasons: His 2004 campaign and numbers accrued through the first 49 games of this season.

2004: 53 G, 56-220, 16 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 33 R, 14 RBI, 5 BB, 31 K
2008: 49 G, 58-208, 12 2B, 5 3B, 7 HR, 31 R, 24 RBI, 20 BB, 31 K

2004: 2.2 BB%, 14.1 K%, .271 OBP/.373 SLG, .644 OPS
2008: 8.8 BB%, 14.9 K%, .338 OBP/.486 SLG, .823 OPS

Everything is very similar with the exceptions of added power and an increase in walks. His increase in extra base hits and walk frequency has turned a player with the makings to be another Nick Punto into a legitimately effective offensive threat.

The years in between the two shown above saw Reyes make great strides towards improvement. Take a look at how his frequency of walks has increased through the years:

josereyes.bmp

From 2005-2007 he went from walking 3.7% of the time all the way to 10.2%; inversely, his K% dipped to the 11.2%-12.5% range. This year, however, Reyes has been walking less and regressing to his strikeout rates of four years ago.

Oddly enough, he currently has a WPA of 0.00; he has a +4.44 +WPA and a -4.44 -WPA. Also odd, is Reyes’s BABIP of exactly .300. It has been suggested elsewhere, on numerous occasions, that speedy players are much more likely to post consistently higher batting averages of balls in play due to their ability to leg out infield singles or bunt hits. This has not been the case for Reyes (career .308 BABIP), who, by many accounts, is one of the fastest players in the entire game.

To check the reasons behind his decrease in walks and increase in strikeouts I turned to the swing data here to compare this year to last. Reyes is swinging at the same amount of pitches outside the zone yet making 7% less contact on those swings. He has also swung at 5% less pitches in the zone and is making close to 1% less contact. Pitchers have offered 6% more pitches in the zone than last year as well.

The increase in pitches seen in the zone could go a long way towards explaining the decrease in walks and his significant drop in out of zone contact definitely contributes to the explanation behind his strikeout increase. I’m sure Reyes will be fine and his Mets won’t play this poorly all year long, but I find it very interesting that we can seemingly track his improvement by comparing two half-seasons, five years removed.


Kazmir’s Return Big For Rays

As of right now, the Tampa Bay Rays (I didn’t say Devil!) are tied with the Cubs for the best record in baseball. They are playing with confidence and really seem to feel they belong at the top. Some of this confidence stems from the knowledge that, every fifth day, Scott Kazmir will toe the rubber. The actually productive component of arguably the worst trade of all time broke out last season, leading everyone without the luxury of an 163rd game in strikeouts.

Oddly enough, Kazmir missed the entire month of April and the Rays still managed to go 15-12. Since his return he has not missed a beat and the team is currently 31-21.

In five starts he has gone for 30 innings, giving up 19 hits and 10 walks, striking out 32 in the process. Omitting his first start, Kazmir has gone 26 innings, giving up just 13 hits and 7 walks, with 27 strikeouts to boot; additionally, his last four starts have an average game score of 71.

Kazmir is yet to surrender a home run and has kept runners off base as evidenced by his 0.97 WHIP. Those who do manage to get on have been stranded 79.3% of the time. He has been in the 1.27-1.48 WHIP range the last three seasons primarily due to his walks. Since he does not surrender many hits—a .247 BAA from ’05-’07—he should experience even more success with some added control.

Now, 79.3% is quite high for LOB but if/when he regresses and more runners score, it does not mean he will not be effective; rather, he just won’t be Sandy Koufax anymore.

Last year he posted his highest BABIP against at .341; spreading his balls in play with 15.6% LD, 43.1% GB, and 41.3% FB, Kazmir may have been a bit unlucky. This year, surrendering 7% more line drives (22.7%), he currently has just a .265 BABIP. His career numbers also suggest this frequency of line drives should decrease to the 18% range.

When put together, all of this suggests Kazmir’s production may not sustain its current pace, but a slightly regressing Scott Kazmir is still better than the vast majority of major league pitchers.


Marmol and Flyballs

This morning, I mentioned that Jason Bergmann had the second highest flyball rate in the major leagues among pitchers with at least 30 innings. Only one pitcher in baseball allows hitters to put the ball into the air with more frequency than Bergmann, but in a striking contrast, Carlos Marmol couldn’t be any more different as a pitcher than Bergmann.

Marmol has been a revelation out of the Cubs bullpen the last two years after struggling in the rotation during 2006. As a reliever, he’s blowing hitters away with his power fastball/slider combination, having scrapped the curve he used as a starter in favor of the harder breaking ball. His 93 MPH fastball and 81 MPH slider are both knockout pitches, and his huge jump in strikeout rate shows the effect of the new pitch and the increased velocity since moving to relief full time.

K/9

Marmol leads all major league relievers with 47 strikeouts, and Joel Hanrahan is the only other guy over 40 on the year. With a strikeout rate exceeding 12.0 K/9, its easy to see why Marmol has been successful. It’s hard to score runs if you can’t make contact.

However, when hitters do put the bat on the ball against Marmol, odds are its going to be a flyball. When looking for a late inning relief ace to protect a one run lead, a flyball isn’t necessarily the outcome you’re looking for in a lot of cases. In fact, Marmol’s flyball rate is so extreme that he’s going to have to sustain an unbelievably low HR/F rate in order to keep from giving up a few high leverage home runs. While relievers do post lower HR/F rates than starting pitchers, even the great relievers are going to have problems keeping their HR/F rates below 5% consistently, and that’s really where Marmol is going to have to live considering how often the ball reaches the outfield when hitters make contact.

He’s undoubtedly one of the best relief pitchers in the game, but if I’m a Cubs fan and Marmol comes trotting in to protect a one run lead, I’m going to be hoping like crazy for a strikeout, because his non-strikeout events could be rather scary.


Reviewing the 2007 Draft: NL Supplemental

For the next two weeks, in honor of the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft on June 5-6, I will be devoting my posts to a review of the 2007 draft. Today, let’s take a look at how some of the key National League supplemental first round picks are faring in their first full season in professional baseball.

Nick Noonan (San Francisco) was considered an advanced high school hitter when he was drafted and he has held his own this season in A-ball. He is currently hitting .283/.310/.429 with two homers in 191 at-bats. He needs to show more patience, though, having walked only 3.2 percent of the time, while striking out at a rate of 17.6 percent.

Jon Gilmore (Atlanta) did not receive a call up to full-season ball until May and he has struggled with the bat. The 19-year-old third baseman is hitting .143/.172/.143 in 56 at-bats. He has struck out at a rate of 17.9 percent.

Clayton Mortensen (St. Louis), 23, has been solid since beginning his pro career. Currently in High-A ball, Mortensen has a 4.12 ERA in 54.2 innings and has allowed 53 hits. He has rates of 6.75 K/9 and 2.89 BB/9. He has done an excellent job of keeping the ball on the ground and has induced more than 2.6 groundballs for each flyball.

The Dodgers usually prefer raw high schoolers with high draft picks, but the club took James Adkins and he is on the fast-track. Currently pitching in High-A ball, Adkins has a 4.07 ERA in 48.2 innings. He has allowed 49 hits and rates of 8.14 K/9 and 3.51 BB/9. Adkins has struggled in his last two outings by allowing seven earned runs in nine innings of work over two starts.

Eddie Kunz (New York NL) is a groundball machine, inducing more than eight grounders for each flyball in his debut. This season, in Double-A, the 6-5, 265 pound reliever is inducing groundballs at a rate of 3.25 per flyball. His ERA is a little high at 4.43 (He has allowed five earned runs in his last two outs spanning two innings) and Kunz has allowed 24 hits, but he has yet to allow a homer in his pro career.

Michael Burgess (Washington) slid out of first round consideration because a number of scouts doubted the prepster’s ability to hit pro pitching. He hit .318 in his pro debut and has held his own so far this season. Currently, he is hitting .258/.323/.516 with 11 homers in 182 at-bats. Burgess has walked 8.6 percent of the time and has struck out at a rate of 33.9 percent, a number that obviously needs to shrink.

After he hit .286 in his pro debut last season, Charlie Culberson (San Francisco) was promoted to full-season ball to begin to 2008 but he has struggled. The 19-year-old is hitting .156/.233/.220 in 109 at-bats. Culberson has walked 5.2 percent of the time and struck out at a rate of 24.8 percent.

Josh Smoker (Washington) has appeared in only two pro games and has been held back in extended spring training, but he should play in the New York Penn League this summer. The 19-year-old southpaw is talented, but raw. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud (Philadelphia) also has yet to appear in full-season ball this season.


A Dash of Colon

Last week, Dave Cameron wrote about the Free Talent All-Stars; players who did not require much return either in personnel or salary to acquire, and how they were performing. Most of these players garnered the moniker “low risk/high reward” because teams are giving up very little for them; perhaps these players will experience a career renaissance and produce at a very high level. I also conducted a study of low risk pitchers in the last issue of SABR’s statistical newsletter, By the Numbers.

This offseason, two particular low risk pitchers seemed to stand out from the pack: Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. Both had lousy 2007 seasons which, when coupled with their expensive contracts, made their performances look even worse. Both, however, had caveats to their struggles. Colon’s numbers were a bit deceiving and Garcia was pitching with a significant injury.

Colon signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox while Garcia is still awaiting his shot at auditioning for several interested teams.

Back in February, Josh Kalk pointed out how Colon’s 2007 statistics were more on the deceiving side, noting that his FIP was over 1.5 points lower than his ERA; he also had a ridiculously low LOB% compared to the rest of his career.

In just two starts for the Red Sox this season, Colon has gone 12 innings, surrendering 11 hits and three walks, while striking out 8 batters. He has won both games and has an FIP of 2.68. Though much too early to proclaim Colon has “found it” he has definitely looked much more in tune than the last couple of years. So what happened in 2006 and 2007?

Well, from 1998-2005 his LOB% was 70.8 or higher; in 2006 it was 66.1% and in 2007 it fell to 63.5%. In that same eight year span his BABIP topped out at .313; in 2006 it was .319 and in 2007 it rose to .364. In 2006 he also gave up 14.9% HR/FB, the highest percentage of his career.

Last year he actually reduced his BB/9 from 2.63 to 1.76 and still managed to post a 1.62 WHIP, meaning he got hit around. As evidenced by his decrease in line drives and vast increase in BABIP it seems Colon was very unlucky last year. Perhaps not unlucky to the point that, in a perfect world, he would have gone 13-3 with a 3.00 ERA but unlucky because his 6.34 ERA did not nearly tell enough of the story.

Colon may not be the dominant force he was at the beginning of his career but he doesn’t need to be to produce at the level at which this Red Sox team expects him to.


Bergmann Wants To Stay This Time

On May 15th, I wrote this:

They (Washington) won’t win a championship with Perez-Hill-Lannan-Redding, but they’re the epitome of what you can do with freely available talent when you’re willing to take some flyers on guys with question marks. Along with that comes the downside of what they’ve gotten from their #5 starters, however. Washington has done well filling the front four spots in their rotation, but they’re going to have to do some more work to get a fifth starter who won’t cancel out all the work already done.

At that point in time, Jason Bergmann had given up 16 runs in 12 1/3 innings for a sparkly 11.68 ERA and had spent the previous month in Columbus while the Nationals tried other options. However, the night I posted the article above, Bergmann got the call back to the majors and returned in style, with seven shutout innings against the Mets. He followed that up with another seven shutout inning performance against the Phillies, and then tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings against the Brewers on Memorial Day. In all, since getting the call back from Triple-A, Bergmann has given Washington 19 2/3 scoreless innings, a stretch that includes a nifty 6/22 BB/K rate.

However, Bergmann was sporting a 2/12 BB/K rate during his disastrous first three starts of the year, so we can’t really chalk up the difference in results to an improvement in his ability to work around the zone. The change can really be tied to one simple fact; Bergmann is an extreme flyball pitcher (his 58.4% FB% is second highest in baseball), and his performance hinges on how often those fly balls go over the wall. During his first three starts, five of his 23 flyballs left the yard, but he hasn’t given up a single home run despite allowing 29 flyballs in his most recent three starts.

Obviously, neither his early home run rate nor his late home run suppression are sustainable, and the truth of his abilities lies between the two extreme performances. However, due to Bergmann’s proclivity for letting opponents put the ball in the air, Nationals’ fans should continue to expect inconsistency, as his ability to keep runs off the board is almost entirely tied to his home run rate.


Jay Bruce is Pretty OK

Jay Bruce arrives with a 3-3 night, including 2 walks. Reds fans rejoice:

“Did he actually touch the ground, or did he just glide from base to base?”On Baseball and The Reds

“Jay Bruce will never record an out in his Major League career.”The Reds Rocket

“Thats what we call a debut!”Reds Minor Leagues

“Wow. That’s all I can say. Just, wow.”Redleg Nation

“Corey Patterson better get comfy in his spot on the bench, center field is now occupied.”Redlegs Rundown

“Bruuuuuuce, Bruuuuuuce”The Real McCoy

“As a side note: Jay Bruce.”Reds Pitchfx

“No, he’s not the savior, […]”Dusty Baker


Four Reasons – Aaron Heilman Edition

One of the perks of working for Redlasso is that I am constantly patrolling baseball blogs for all teams. This no-doubtedly keeps me apprised not just of the statistics but also some of the inner workings of teams I would otherwise not be familiar with. One of the articles I came across this morning, over at Mets Fever, initially confused me. The post discussed Adam Rubin’s assertion that the Mets were seriously thinking about sending Aaron Heilman to AAA in favor of Carlos Muniz.

Now, Heilman has not gotten off to the greatest start in reliever’s history, but here are four reasons why the Mets should not send him down.

1) HR/FB
David Appelman wrote about home runs per flyball a few hours ago, explaining that pitchers will generally be in the 10% range. In 2006, Heilman gave up 5.4% HR/FB; last year, 9.1%. This year it is currently 17.9%. It is not very likely he will sustain this pace. He might not regress to the 5-9% range but even something around 12% will cause some of his barometers to drop.

2) Rates of Balls in Play
From 2005-2007 Heilman had an average LD/GB/FB breakdown of 21%/45%/34%. Right now he is at 15.8%/47.4%/36.8%. He has given up ~5% less line drives yet his BABIP of .327 is much higher than the .290, .283, and .263 of the last three years. More of his flyballs are leaving the yard and more of his grounders are finding holes. Additionally, his BA against has been between .222 and .229 the last three years, nowhere near the .274 clip at which opponents are currently hitting him.

3) Mets Starters Are Not Helping
The starting rotation is averaging around 5.81 IP/start, just slightly over 5 2/3 innings. Last year the rotation came in at around 5.95. The bullpen is needed more because the starters are not going very deep into games, giving the Mets three relievers with 23+ games: Pedro Feliciano (26), Heilman (24), and Joe Smith (23). Unlike Feliciano and Smith, Heilman is not a specialist reliever and therefore has accrued more innings.

4) ERA Can Be Misleading for Relievers
Heilman has a 5.81 ERA and a 5.38 FIP, meaning his controllable skills have not been much better than the earned runs results; however, his ERA and FIP numbers are likely to regress when his HR/FB goes down. Additionally, of his 24 games, 17 have been good, or at least not terrible, meaning his high numbers are a direct result of just 29% of his outings.

Now, in defense of those considering the option, Heilman is walking 4.44 batters per nine innings, way up from the 2.09 last year. Still, though, he is striking out 9.23 per nine innings, way up from 6.59 last year. Due to the double increase he still has a respectable K/BB ratio. Another area of concern is his velocity. No, he isn’t throwing slower but rather has increased speed on all of his pitches. His slider has jumped from 83-84 mph to 87.1 mph. With a fastball at 92 mph the difference in speeds might not be large enough to make the slider effective.

Heilman may not repeat the successes of the last few seasons but he is not very likely to finish this season the way he has started it. If the Mets want to make a move to shake up the bullpen, perhaps they should bring up a starter that can go deeper into games rather than send down he who has been a consistent key cog over the last few seasons.


Here A Catcher, There A Catcher

If you have MLB.tv, you’re well aware that MLB has opened up voting for the 2008 All-Star Game, as the commercial every half inning reminds us constantly. And while the game itself doesn’t mean anything, regardless of Bud Selig’s protestations, being named to the team is still considered a pretty big honor among the players. In some cases, the choice is obvious – not voting for Albert Pujols is a felony in Missouri, for instance – but in others, the picture is a little more muddied. Nowhere is the water darker than behind the plate in the National League, however, and it’s not for the usual reasons.

A decade ago, the NL catcher position was Mike Piazza and a host of catch-and-throw guys who hit like catch-and-throw guys. The landscape has changed a bit, however, as the current crop of young backstops are showing that they have some punch at the plate as well as behind it. In no particular order:

Brian McCann

In his third full year, McCann is showing that his ’06 season was no fluke and he’s significantly better than he showed last year, and at the age of 24, he appears to be blossoming into a full blown superstar. He’s hitting .333/.394/.603 while drawing as many walks as strikeouts (18 apiece). Contact and power together are the signs of greatness at the plate, and McCann is showing the ability to hit the ball frequently and with violence. He doesn’t even have to maintain this level of success to be one of the game’s truly great players, but if he does, you can start polishing his Cooperstown plaque now. He’s just 24 years old, by the way.

Geovany Soto

The leading candidate for National League rookie of the yaer, Soto is matching McCann at the plate, hitting .299/.401/.569 in his first year of regular work. However, his underlying skillset isn’t quite as good as McCann’s – he strikes out a lot (27.5%), which means he’s going to have to sustain his much higher than average batting average on balls in play to keep hitting for average. This isn’t to say he can’t, but slow footed catchers don’t usually show up on the league leaders in BABIP, so even though he’s spraying line drives all over the field, we should probably expect a little regression. Like McCann, though, he could fall a long way and still be a very good playerl, and at age 25, he appears to be at the start of a nice career as well.

Russell Martin

Also 25 years old, Martin doesn’t have the power that either McCann or Soto possess, but he’s a great contact hitter with the ability to drive the ball into the gaps, and he’s clearly the best defensive catcher of the group mentioned so far. If you liked Jason Kendall in his prime, you’ll love Martin, and the Dodgers certainly do.

Ryan Doumit

The late bloomer of this group, Doumit is already 27 and scouts don’t love his work behind the plate, but he can hit, and the new regime in Pittsburgh seems committed to maximizing his value as an offensive minded backstop. He’s not as good as the .350/.383/.573 line that he’s currently posting, and his extreme aggressive approach can lead to him getting himself out too often, but the power is legit. His drawbacks might limit him to being the new B.J. Surhoff, but that’s still a quality player, especially if the Pirates can figure out how to keep him behind the plate.

Chris Snyder

Snyder’s behind a quality part-time backstop in Arizona the last two years, and now, given the chance to play regularly, is showing that he can thrive as an every day player. His .277/.377/.492 isn’t as eye popping as the first few guys on the list, but they’re just setting the bar ridiculously high. Snyder’s proving that you can count on him for a .775-.800 OPS from behind the plate, and every team in baseball would have gladly taken that kind of production from their catching position if offered before the year started. Like Doumit, he’s 27 and unlikely to become a star, but he’s the kind of valuable role player that you find on championship clubs.

Assuming the NL only takes three catchers, you have to omit two of the guys above as well as Bengie Molina, who is on pace to have the best season of his career at the age of 34. Picking the catchers for the N.L. All-Star squad this year won’t be easy. I’d bet on McCann, Soto, and Martin, but you could make a case for Snyder, Doumit, and even Molina.

How fitting that in the year that Mike Piazza hangs up his spikes, the National League has multiple successors to his throne.


Those Home Run Blues

We’re about two months into the season, and it’s not a bad time to look which pitchers are allowing too many home runs. Fortunately, there’s a useful metric on FanGraphs to do just that. It’s called HR/FB and while I’m sure many of you are familiar with it, here’s a brief summary of how it works.

There’s been a number of studies done on HR/FB and for the most part, they conclude that pitchers do not have control over how many home runs they allow on outfield fly balls. Your typical starting pitcher should be expected to have a HR/FB of around 10% every year. Anything that deviates from 10% could be contributed to the park he pitches in, or to “luck”. So let’s look at who has been allowing an inordinate number of home runs this season:

Roy Oswalt (23.4%) – Oswalt leads baseball with a rather ridiculous HR/FB rate. Basically one in four of his fly balls have become home runs. I don’t care where he’s pitching, this is just Oswalt having some terrible luck. He’s never had a HR/FB above 12.9% to end the season. A couple weeks ago, Eric Seidman asked if you should trade Oswalt in your league; the answer is still no and now is another prime opportunity to go acquire him.

Brett Myers (21.4%) – Sure he plays half his games in Citizen’s Bank Park and he does have a career HR/FB of just over 15%, but 21% even for him seems quite high. He probably isn’t due for such a drastic adjustment as Oswalt, but I’d imagine it should start to trend towards his career average. He hasn’t allowed a home run in his last two starts either, so perhaps he’s well on his way to normalcy.

Carlos Villanueva (16.9%) – Currently, Villanueva leads baseball with a 2.09 home runs per 9 innings. He’s about as much as a fly ball pitcher as he is a groundball pitcher so he really shouldn’t be tied for 5th with most home runs. While Miller Park isn’t all that favorable to fly balls, he should be able to do considerably better in the home run department and decrease is ERA by more than a little come season’s end.

Johnny Cueto (16.4%) – It looks like the phenom has himself a bit of a home run problem. Since he hasn’t been around for very long, it’s a little tough to say if this is just a luck thing, or of it’s a real problem. I’d venture to say it has more to do with luck then anything else, even if he does play in a park that is prone to home runs. Unfortunately, Cueto is an extreme fly ball pitcher and isn’t expected to be particularly stingy with home runs in general.

Mike Mussina (16.4%) – We all know about Mussina’s decline in fastball velocity. John Walsh’s research suggests that mis-located fastballs of the slower variety could certainly cause an increase in home runs and it’s possible that could be happening to Mussina. I still think his HR/FB should drop as the season continues, but it’s hard for me to be enthusiastic about.

Johan Santana (15.9%) – Santana developed a home run problem last year and it seems to have continued into this year. Shea stadium is slightly worse for home runs than the Metrodome, but it really doesn’t explain such a high HR/FB. It’s hard to imagine it won’t decrease as the season goes on, but unless it drops back down to around 10% or lower, it will be difficult for him to return to sub-3 ERA levels.


A Little Bullpen Work Never Hurt

In Sunday’s 18-inning marathon between the Reds and Padres, pitchers Aaron Harang and Edinson Volquez made uncharacteristic appearances out of the bullpen. After ruffling through eight different pitchers in twelve innings, the Reds found themselves out of traditional relief resources. Harang came in for the 13th-16th innings while Volquez pitched the 17th before surrendering a walkoff home run with two outs in the 18th. Though odd that they pitched out of the bullpen, period, the actual ingredients comprising these appearances are even more interesting.

Harang had pitched just three days earlier, against the same Padres, experiencing his worst start of the season. In it he went just 5.1 innings, giving up 10 hits and 5 runs; he also walked two and struck out seven. This start had been one of just two stains on an otherwise very solid albeit unlucky season for the Reds ace. In his career, Harang had never pitched on just two days rest. Based on his performance against the Padres, perhaps he should more often!

Okay, I’m kidding, and would never base a statement like that off of just one game but Harang might have pitched his best on Sunday. In four innings of relief work he gave up just two hits and struck out nine batters. His nine strikeouts happened to be his season high. Harang was clearly aided by imposing shadows, causing some feeble and futile swings from Padres hitters; for a guy as unlucky as he throughout this season this goes down as positive karma in my book.

Volquez, on the other hand, had pitched two days prior, striking out 12 Padres hitters in six innings of two-hit, one-run work. Volquez has been so good this season that his ERA actually went up after that outing. On Sunday, though, Volquez went 1.2 innings, walking one and striking out two. He also gave up one hit which proved to be the game-winner. With two on and two out in the bottom of the 18th, he gave up a walkoff three-run home run to Adrian Gonzalez.

Despite garnering the loss, the three runs were all unearned because, a few plays earlier, Joey Votto botched a routine play to first base. Volquez pitched six tremendous innings on Friday, giving up one run, and yet he raised his ERA; on Sunday he gave up a three-run home run and his ERA went down.

Based on the WPA results, Volquez’s -.216 deemed this his worst appearance of the season while Harang’s +.568 was far and away his best.


Reviewing the 2007 Draft: NL First Round

For the next two weeks, in honor of the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft on June 5-6, I will be devoting my posts to a review of the 2007 draft. Today, let’s take a look at how some of the key National League first rounders are faring in their first full season in professional baseball.

Josh Vitters (Chicago NL) has been injured and has only played in four games so far this season at the A-ball level. Fellow prep third baseman Matt Dominguez (Florida) had a late start to the season after beginning in extended spring training. He has appeared in only five games.

Pittsburgh fans were disappointed with the club’s selection of college reliever Daniel Moskos. The lefty has been shifted to the starting rotation but his numbers have been nothing special in High-A ball: 4.89 ERA in 42.1 innings with 41 hits. He has rates of 5.95 K/9 and 2.13 BB/9.

Matt LaPorta (Milwaukee) was the surprise pick of the early going in the 2007 draft. The Brewers could not turn down the opportunity to draft his powerful bat, even though they already had Prince Fielder at first base. LaPorta has been shifted to the outfield where it is a stretch to call him an even average fielder. However, he has done nothing but hit and could see the majors by the end of the year. In Double-A this season, the 23-year-old has hit .293/.402/.602 with 13 homers in 181 at-bats. He has walked 13.2 percent of the time and struck out 17.5 percent.

High school shortstop Peter Kozma (St. Louis) was supposed to possess an advanced bat for a prep player and he has done nothing to change that view. In A-ball this season, Kozma is hitting .280/.356/.409 with three homers in 164 at-bats. He has walked 10.6 percent of the time and struck out 20.6 percent.

Outfielder Jason Heyward (Atlanta) is another high school player that has been outstanding so far this season. He has a line of .330/.368/.495 with six homers in 194 at-bats. Heyward has walked 6.9 percent of the time and struck out 18.1 percent. The left-handed batter is also hitting .388 against southpaws.

Like Detroit’s Rick Porcello, prep pitcher Tim Alderson (San Francisco) skipped A-ball and made his full-season debut at High-A ball. He has an ERA of 3.68 in 51.1 innings. He has rates of 6.84 K/9 and 3.51 BB/9.

San Diego’s first round pick Nick Schmidt pitched in just three games before injuring his elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery. He should be ready to pitch again in 2009.

So far so good for the National League, as the above players represent a very impressive haul for the 2007 first round.