Archive for June, 2008

Hall Query: Todd Helton

I know, I know: Hall of Fame discussions can be a bit tiresome these days. Still, something struck me a bit odd during a conversation with my father recently that merited further discussion amongst all the loyal readers and commenters here. Our conversation dealt with Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies and whether or not his career accomplishments and accolades are “worthy” of inclusion into baseball’s hallowed hall. Essentially, I had contended that it would be very difficult for a Rockie to be inducted. For pitchers, the reasons should be a bit more obvious, but for hitters, they would have to have numbers great enough to transcend the initial, and likely true, belief that they benefited from playing in Coors Field.

Based on win probability statistics, Helton has been one of the, if not the, best first basemen in the National League since his Rookie of the Year-winning 1998 campaign. From 2000-2004 he contributed 26.88 WPA wins, 30.51 context-neutral wins, and averaged 69.78 BRAA per season. Other than his 2002 WPA, which ranked 5th, he finished #1 or #2 amongst NL first basemen in each of these categories, each year.

Since his career began in 1998, and amongst those with at least 1,000 games in that span, Helton’s .332 BA ranks second to only Ichiro Suzuki; his .432 OBP ranks second to none other than Barry Bonds; and his 1.017 OPS ranks fourth to Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez.

The Hall of Fame tests created by Bill James may be a bit outdated in not accounting for park factors and such but still do a good job of stacking up current numbers against Cooperstown equivalencies and/or averages. Based on these it would seem Helton is a borderline case:

Black Ink: Helton=16, Average=27
Gray Ink: Helton=141, Average=144
HOF Standards: Helton=50, Average=50
HOF Monitor: Helton=154, Average > 100

He vastly exceeds the monitor, which serves to award points based on milestones and numbers accrued, but currently falls short in the ink tests; Black Ink measures how often a player leads the league while Gray looks at those who finish amongst the top performers. What hurts Helton from a statistical standpoint is that he looks to be borderline based on the aforementioned tests yet his career home/road splits confirm the theories of Coors dissenters:

Home: 3617 PA, .363/.461/.653, 1.114 OPS, 190 HR, 341 K
Road: 3488 PA, .294/.394/.494, .888 OPS, 120 HR, 467 K

Now, his road numbers are still quite good, and are well above average, but they definitely pale in comparison to the Ruthian efforts at home. Ultimately, though, I’ll pose the following questions:

a) When all is said and done will Helton be inducted? (Keep in mind “will” does not necessarily mean “deserve”)
b) What would it take for a Rockies hitter to be inducted? Equally impressive home/road splits?


MLB Trade Value ’08: #41 – #45

Continuing on in the week long series on the 50 most valuable assets in major league baseball. If you missed the introduction, it can be found here.

Ranking, Player, Position, Franchise, 2006-2008 WPA/LI
45. Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees, 0.14 WPA/LI
44. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Boston, 1.10 WPA/LI
43. Dustin McGowan, RHP, Toronto, 1.59 WPA/LI
42. Chipper Jones, 3B, Atlanta, 10.59 WPA/LI
41. Jake Peavy, RHP, San Diego, 4.91 WPA/LI

Cano’s disastrous 2008 season has hurt his stock, no doubt, but we can’t place too much emphasis on three months of results. He’s a 25 year old second baseman with established offensive skills who has hit a rough stretch, but this isn’t his true talent level. He’s also signed to a below market contract that makes him a bargain for the next four years. He will rebound from his poor start and again take his place as one of the more valuable second baseman in the game.

Ellsbury was tough to slot because opinions about his abilities are so diverse. Boston is obviously in love with his defensive abilities and his willingness to get on base, but the lack of power is a real concern, and I don’t see the star potential in him that other players on this list have. His realistic best case scenario is a quality contributor but certainly not a franchise player. However, because of his current skill level as a premium defender with a bat that can play in the majors, he’s got enough current value that his contract status makes him a huge bargain. League average up-the-middle players command a fortune, so paying Ellsbury $400,000 to provide that value is enough to make Ellsbury a significant asset.

McGowan is in the absolute upper tier of stuff among major league starters, throwing a 95 MPH fastball and an 88 MPH slider that are both legitimate knockout punches. However, he simply hasn’t reached the level of performance that his talent would indicate is possible, and his decline in strikeout and groundball rates from 2007 without any improvement in command has to be a concern. Because he’s still dirt cheap and a high quality arm, he would be a coveted player in the trade market, but he’s going to have to improve soon to avoid becoming the new Javier Vazquez.

Chipper forced himself onto the list with his absurd performance the last few years, proving that he is still one of the better hitters alive even at age 36. The production is so valuable, however, that the market for Chipper would still be quite robust if the Braves ever lost their minds and decided to trade him. Even with only a few more good years ahead of him, the current value is so high, and his contract more than reasonable, that teams would be lining up to acquire the Hall of Fame third baseman.

On talent, Peavy is much higher than this. However, the new contract extension he signed that keeps him in San Diego will cost $52 million over the 2010-2012 seasons, and Peavy isn’t exactly a low-risk starting pitcher. There aren’t many tea s out there that could afford the risk of having a $17 million pitcher with his history of injury problems on the books, and while he’s a really good pitcher, he wouldn’t be as good anywhere else as he is in Petco and the NL West. Like Johan, the contract pushes him much further down the list than he would otherwise be.


Former Top Prospect is Brewin’ Again

Brad Nelson has seemingly been around forever. The former fourth round pick out of an Iowa high school in 2001 was considered a better prospect at one time than current Brewer Corey Hart, who was also drafted out of high school but a year earlier.

However, things changed and Hart has played parts of five seasons in the majors and secured a regular gig last year after hitting .295/.353/.539 with 24 homers in 505 at-bats. Nelson, on the other hand, has yet to have a Major League at-bat and he has spent parts of four seasons in Double-A and parts of four seasons in Triple-A.

Things may be looking up for Nelson, though. Still young at only 25, the left-handed batter, who can play first base and the corner outfield, is currently hitting .304/.417/.507 with 12 homers and 19 doubles in 280 at-bats. The most encouraging numbers are the 55 walks (16.7 percent walk rate) and 49 strikeouts (17.5 percent). Nelson walked a total of 31 times in 2007 (seven percent) during the span of 411 Triple-A at-bats. Nelson has shown good strike zone judgment in the past, as recently as 2006, when he walked 63 times (19.2 percent), albeit with 62 strikeouts (23.4 percent) in 265 Double-A at-bats.

Nelson is likely headed for a career off the bench as he does not hit lefties overly well. This season he is hitting .240/.374/.400 against southpaws and .327/.433/.546 against right-handers. Even so, if his 2008 numbers are for real, he could put together a nice career, perhaps in the mold of Mark Sweeney, most recently of the Dodgers. The biggest question that remains is how well he will hit while receiving sporadic playing time at the Major League level.


Best ‘Pen in the Bigs

Following a recent sweep by the Cubs at Wrigley Field, the White Sox last night got revenge by completing a sweep of their fellow Chicagoans on their own South Side turf. The 5-1 win gave the White Sox a 46-35 record and kept them in first place by 1.5 games over the Minnesota Twins. One of the key ingredients to their success this year has been the bullpen. Joe Morgan discussed how valuable they have been this year and the numbers back it up.

The White Sox bullpen currently has an MLB-best 2.61 ERA and has done so in 213.2 innings, a number lower than everyone except the Anaheim Los Angeles Californian Angels of Los Anaheim. The relief corps has not been called upon an exorbitant amount of time thanks in large part to the White Sox starting staff and their league leading 50 quality starts. That means in 62% of their games so far the bullpen hasn’t even gotten to rear its head until the seventh inning or later.

Overall, the White Sox have an MLB best 3.39 team ERA, and have walked just 227 batters—2.8 per game—which ranks second only to the Twins and their 198 free passes. Here are the five major components of the White Sox bullpen and their numbers:

Bobby Jenks: 32 G, 32.1 IP, 7 BB, 19 K, 1.95 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
Scott Linebrink: 36 G, 33.0 IP, 6 BB, 29 K, 1.36 ERA, 0.82 WHIP
Matt Thornton: 33 G, 31.1 IP, 9 BB, 40 K, 2.30 ERA, 0.80 WHIP
Boone Logan: 33 G, 28.1 IP, 6 BB, 29 K, 2.22 ERA, 1.09 WHIP
Octavio Dotel: 37 G, 36.2 IP, 19 BB, 53 K, 3.19 ERA, 1.36 WHIP

The games played numbers speak volumes toward the lack of overusage or abuse. In fact, you won’t find any White Sox relievers in the league leaders here on Fangraphs until you venture to the second page of players. Looking at all relievers with at least 20 IP—in order to get rid of those who wouldn’t qualify for relief rankings—the ChiSox have four in the top 35 in WHIP as well as three with K/BB ratios above 4.40; the other two chime in at a very respectable 2.79 and 2.71.

One aspect of bullpens I enjoy investigating involves how they were put together. With this team:

  1. Bobby Jenks: selected off Waivers from Angels on 12/17/04
  2. Scott Linebrink: signed 4 yr/19 mil deal this offseason
  3. Matt Thornton: traded from Seattle for Joe Borchard on 3/20/06
  4. Boone Logan: drafted 20th rd in 2002
  5. Octavio Dotel: signed 2 yr/11 mil deal this offseason

Querying and exporting all relievers with 20+ innings allowed me to find some current averages. The average LOB rate for such relievers is 76.80%. Of the five White Sox discussed here, all but Dotel’s 71.7% come in at 78.5% or higher; Linebrink even sits at 92.1%.

In terms of WPA, the average for relievers with 20+ innings is 0.375. So, if we were to build a bullpen consisting of five “average” relievers (with 20+ IP), their WPA would amount to 1.88. Additionally, the average WPA/LI for this parameter is 0.282; five average pitchers with regards to this WPA/LI would combine for 1.41 context-neutral wins. The White Sox five currently have a 4.08 WPA and 3.48 WPA/LI, meaning they are 2.2 WPA wins above an average bullpen and 2.1 context-neutral wins above an average bullpen.

They have allowed the fourth least amount of total bases and have the second lowest OPS against at .687—only Oakland’s .661 ranks higher. Their bullpen may not sustain performance like this all season, but South Side fans should hope they do, considering their relievers have contributed the most win probability success to the team.


MLB Trade Value ’08: #46 – #50

One of the annual pieces I’ve been writing for USSMariner.com the last few years is a baseball takeoff of Bill Simmons’ Trade Value column. Essentially, the concept is to put together a ranking of the most valuable individual assets in the game – this is, pretty much across the board, a different discussion than who the best players in the game are. Age, contract status, and salary all come into play, as they do in real life.

In most cases, our evaluations of value are a lot different than what GMs find when they engage in trade negotiations. Johan Santana is obviously one of the best pitchers on the planet, but as the Twins found out when they put him on the market last winter, the list of inferior players that they couldn’t trade Johan for was very, very long. That was because he was a year away from free agency and a large paycheck, which significantly devalued him on the trade market, even though he’s still a terrific talent.

So, this list is my attempt to figure out what players have the most value in the league. Essentially, the best way to look at a player’s placement on this list is “would you trade him, straight up, for any of the guys listed ahead of him?” I’ve asked that question about every player on this list, and done so from what I would perceive the perspective of both current organizations would be. Over this coming week, I will lay out my view of the 50 most valuable assets in Major League Baseball.

This morning, we start at #50 and work our way up five spots to #46.

Ranking, Player, Position, Franchise, 2006-2008 WPA/LI
50. James Loney, 1B, Los Angeles – 2.55 WPA/LI
49. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Chicago Cubs – 4.63 WPA/LI
48. Johan Santana, LHP, New York Mets – 8.24 WPA/LI
47. Clay Buchholz, RHP, Boston – 0.51 WPA/LI
46. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington – 1.20 WPA/LI

There’s a nice group of good, young, cheap first baseman with solid all-around games, but Loney is the the one I’m hanging my hat on here, with apologies to Casey Kotchman, Joey Votto, and Conor Jackson. If he grows from gap power to legitimate long ball hitter, he’ll be a perennial all-star.

Zambrano is a horse who has thrown 200 innings a year since 2003 and has never posted an ERA over 4.00. He’s been hugely valuable to the Cubs and is signed to a below market contract for a front line pitcher. However, his strikeout rates and velocity are tumbling, and you have to wonder if decline is on the way. You’d love to have Zambrano on your team, but the risk is real.

Santana is one of the easier players to place on this list because he was just traded in a very public negotiation war between several of the highest payroll clubs in baseball. What we found out is that, while everyone wants Johan, no one is willing to give up even one of their best young players to get him. Boston’s list of untouchables was longer than the Magna Carta, and the Yankees repeatedly put together offers that excluded the pitching prospects that everyone else actually liked. Johan’s great, there’s no doubt, but he’s also expensive and slightly less great than he used to be.

After tossing a no-hitter in his second career major league start, Buchholz is one of the kids that Boston put on their off-limits list. The talent is real, but the polish just isn’t there yet, and he has found himself back in Triple-A refining his game. With some improved command, Buchholz has the potential to be the one thing every team covets – a starting pitcher with knockout stuff that makes the league minimum.

Zimmerman could be a top ten player on this list, honestly, as his all around package of skills project extremely well for the future. An elite defensive player with a real bat, Zimmerman just hasn’t performed as well as we would have hoped given his quick success in the majors. He turns 24 in September, and while the potential is still Hall-of-Fame caliber, the current value just isn’t there for a club to give up an elite talent for Zimmerman right now.


Wait, What Happened?

This past week proved to be quite the eventful one in major league baseball. The AL continued its domination of the senior circuit, the Tigers climbed back to .500, the Diamondbacks continued to fall toward .500, C.C. Sabathia dropped his ERA to 3.78 while taking the league lead with 118 strikeouts, and then there were the two events or oddities I will profile here: the Dodgers were no-hit and won, and the Twins faced four former Cy Young Award winners in five days.

First, the Twins: From 6/20 to 6/25 they played and won five contests in their nine-game winning streak, beating Randy Johnson, Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy, and Greg Maddux. Now, they did not beat all four of these pitchers, specifically, as Trevor Hoffman lost Peavy’s game; still, this made me wonder if something similar has ever happened before. Facing four Cy Young Award winners in five games would require two or more award winners to be on the same team as well as the schedule to pan out to one of the following:

a) 3 on one team, 1 on the team played after that series, faced consecutively
b) 2 on one team, 2 on the next team, comprising the final and first games of different series
c) 1 award winner in the final game of a series, 2 in a two-game series, and 1 to start the next

My first thought was that the Braves might factor in here as, from 1997-2002, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine had all at least won one award. If the three of them pitched in a series and the opposing team then faced, say, Randy Johnson in their next game it would work. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything coded for this; if anyone out there does, please let us know if this has ever happened before.

Secondly, the Dodgers beat the Angels last night, 1-0, yet did not record one hit. Their lone run came on two errors and a sac fly in the fifth inning. Jered Weaver and Jose Arredondo combined to surrender no hits—it isn’t officially labeled a no-hitter by major league baseball since the Dodgers only batted eight times.

Though reported that this was the fifth time since 1900 in which a team won while failing to record a hit, the other four all appear to have taken place from 1956 until now. Here are the other four:

1) 4/23/1964, Reds 1-0 Colt .45’s, no-hit by Ken Johnson
2) 4/30/1967, Tigers 2-1 Orioles, 8.2 hitless from Steve Barber
3) 7/1/1990, White Sox 4-0 Yankees, 8.0 hitless from Andy Hawkins
4) 4/12/1992, Indians 2-1 Red Sox, 8.0 hitless from Matt Young

Only in a game like baseball can a pitcher allow no hits to his opposition, while pitching a complete game, yet lose the game and additionally fail to get his efforts recognized as a no-hitter. Such a crazy week in an unpredictable sport topped off with just the fifth hitless win in history.


The Greek God Of Swinging From His Heels

There are a lot of things from Moneyball that have stuck around in the baseball lexicon since the book was published, but perhaps no phrase is more synonymous with a player from the book than the nickname given to Kevin Youkils – The Greek God of Walks. Youkilis, of course, was described as such because of his proclivity for the base on balls during college, and it was his on base skills that got him drafted in the 8th round of the 2001 draft despite his underwhelming physical abilities.

Not surprisingly, Youkilis has continued to live up to the nickname as a professional. Here are his BB% since joining the Red Sox in 2004 up through 2007:

2004: 13.7%
2005: 15.1%
2006: 13.8%
2007: 12.7%

So, it wasn’t any real surprise when Youkilis started the 2008 season in typical fashion. In his first 33 games, up through May 6th, Youkilis drew 20 walks in 145 trips to the plate, and his 16.5% BB% put him on pace for the highest walk total of his career. Since most players see their walk rates increase as they age, it seemed normal that Youkilis was laying the foundation for yet another 100 walk season.

But baseball is nothing if not unpredictable, and Youkilis’ performance since that day just reaffirms that belief. From May 7th to June 1st, Youkilis didn’t draw a single base on balls, going 87 plate appearances without a walk. From that day until now, Youkilis has drawn just 7 walks in 162 plate appearances. For comparison, his 4.9% BB% during these last 40 games is equal to Jose Guillen’s career walk rate, and Guillen isn’t exactly known as a patient hitter.

In fact, let’s illustrate the change in Youkilis’ approach graphically.

BB%

ISO

Youkilis has essentially traded patience for power, going from an above average BB%/average ISO to the exact opposite this year. The crash in his BB% is almost exactly proportionate to the increase in his power output. Coincidence? Probably not.

Hitting results often function as a sliding scale – if you move one thing, something else moves with it. In this case, it appears that Youkilis has decided to swing a bit more often of late, and the result is that he’s driving the ball with more authority. If this continues, we may need a new nickname for Youkilis – I got dibs on The Greek God Of Swinging From His Heels.


Meet Chris Davis

The Texas Rangers offense is pretty scary. Led by huge seasons from Milton Bradley and Josh Hamilton, they score 5.46 runs per game, and are a nightmare for opposing pitchers. However, throughout the 2008 season, there’s been one place they haven’t been able to generate any offense; first base, a position where its usually very easy to find a hitter.

In fact, their first baseman had hit just .225/.309/.339 as a group. From Ben Broussard to Chris Shelton, they simply haven’t been able to find a hitter who could provide legitimate offense, and so now their search has taken them to Chris Davis, newly promoted from Triple-A Oklahoma.

If there is one thing we know about Davis, it’s that he can hit the baseball a long way. Between Bakersfield and Frisco last season, playing at age 21, he hit 36 home runs in 496 at-bats, establishing himself as the premier offensive prospect in the Texas system. In 297 at-bats at Frisco and Oklahoma before being called up to the big show, Davis had launched 23 home runs. He slugged .685 in the PCL, and even though its a hitter friendly league, you can only regress a .685 slugging percentage for a 22-year-old so far.

Davis has serious power, but unlike a lot of left-handed sluggers, he’s not a guy with old player skills who works the count and draws a lot of walks. Davis, who played third base up through last season, is a very aggressive hitter who is willing to expand his zone in order to try to drive the ball over the wall. Since 2006, he’s drawn just 86 walks in 1,042 trips to the plate, although he has gotten progressively more willing to draw a walk as he’s moved up the ladder.

Talking with one scout, Davis was compared to some kind of hybird of Ryan Braun and Mike Jacobs – not as much raw power as Braun, but a better hitter than Jacobs. Interestingly, both Braun and Jacobs tore the cover off the ball upon reaching the majors, so Texas is certainly hoping that history repeats itself. If Davis can put together the .280/.330/.500 line he’s certainly capable of, it will be a big boost to an already potent offense.


Nowhere But Down

Much of my work this week has focused on the ‘Clutch’ statistic kept here, attempting to shed light or help the confusion surrounding its meaning and usage to dissipate. A great discussion took place in the comments section at my post ‘All About Clutch’ wherein it was suggested that the best hitters in the league will struggle to post high clutch scores because, essentially, they would be so high up the performance chart that there would be no higher ground to which their games could be raised. The inverse would then be true for poorer hitters; since their games were so low much more room exists for game-raising performance.

The major confusion stemmed from the fact that a player with a .333 BA in situations with a high leverage index could be less clutch than one with a .225 BA in the same situations. The way the clutch statistic works is that it measures a player against himself, comparing production to what that production would be in a context-neutral environment. Clearly, I would rather have the .333 guy up to bat in a crucial situation and, because of that, heads begin to spin when it is realized that the .225 guy could have a higher clutch score because in all others he hit .200; the .333 guy posted the same BA in all situations, therefore failing to raise his game.

With this in mind I decided to do a little digging in order to see if this generally holds true. I took the qualifying major league players from 2000-2007, first found the average WPA/LI, and then calculated the average clutch score for those with above average WPA/LI as well as the average clutch score for those with below average WPA/LI. Keep in mind that, in the results below, BA refers to the average clutch for below average WPA/LI with AA meaning the same for above average:

2000: 1.15 WPA/LI, -0.10 BA, 0.07 AA
2001: 1.39 WPA/LI, 0.05 BA, -0.10 AA
2002: 1.38 WPA/LI, -0.02 BA, -0.19 AA
2003: 1.15 WPA/LI, 0.03 BA, -0.32 AA
2004: 1.20 WPA/LI, -0.06 BA, -0.25 AA
2005: 1.15 WPA/LI, 0.01 BA, -0.27 AA
2006: 1.07 WPA/LI, 0.22 BA, -0.13 AA
2007: 0.98 WPA/LI, 0.03 BA, -0.14 AA

As you can see, other than in 2000 and 2007, the average clutch score for those with below average WPA/LI was much better than their above average colleagues. Not to say that their clutch scores were earth-shatteringly spectacular, but, rather just much higher and more indicative of game-raising performance. Deciding to go a little deeper, I looked at the top and bottom 10% in each year to see if the results differed:

2000: 0.06 BA, -0.25 AA
2001: 0.03 BA, -0.54 AA
2002: 0.05 BA, -0.87 AA
2003: 0.02 BA, -0.39 AA
2004: -0.20 BA, -0.11 AA
2005: -0.01 BA, -0.46 AA
2006: 0.16 BA, 0.21 AA
2007: 0.34 BA, -0.27 AA

Here we get very similar results; those in the bottom 10% of WPA/LI generally post much higher clutch scores than those at the top. 2004 and 2006 are the exceptions to this “rule” but even they do not differ too heavily; they actually come within ten points of each other whereas every other year is vastly different in the average clutch scores.

Based on these results it would seem that, yes, the players with below average performance are more likely to post higher clutch scores because they have more room to work with, so to speak. I would still rather take, with much confidence, those in the top 10% of WPA/LI in crucial situations, even though the clutch statistic, in its current state, will debit their performance for having nowhere to go really but down.

Now, to clarify the above paragraph, after some tests, there is no correlation between WPA/LI and Clutch, meaning that it is not a concrete rule that all good players will post lower clutch scores and vice versa. From these results, though, it does seem that those with a higher WPA/LI have more opportunity to post lower clutch scores.


Twin Killings

The Minnesota Twins have determined that interleague play is their friend, catching fire while beating up on NL opponents en route to a nine game winning streak. With this surge, they now find themselves a half game behind the White Sox for first place in the A.L. Central, and with the Indians and Tigers continuing to disappoint, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Twins could find themselves fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch.

Which, when you look at their offense, is really quite amazing. Joe Mauer (1.24 WPA/LI) and Justin Morneau (0.72 WPA/LI) are doing their jobs, but as a group, the rest of the position players are just amazingly bad. Look at the following five players who are playing practically everyday for the Twins:

Carlos Gomez, CF: .272/.302/.376, -0.85 WPA/LI
Delmon Young, LF: .275/.326/.366, -1.31 WPA/LI
Mike Lamb, 3B: .222/.260/.299, -1.06 WPA/LI
Brendan Harris, SS/2B: .250/.310/.359, -0.40 WPA/LI
Michael Cuddyer, RF: .254/.323/.382, -0.17 WPA/LI

Five of their nine regulars are below average hitters, including their entire outfield and the left side of their infield. It’s not like Harris and Lamb make up for it with stellar glove work, either. Gomez can be somewhat excused because he plays a legit center field, so his production isn’t that bad relative to his peers, and Young/Cuddyer probably aren’t in any danger of losing their jobs because of their name values. But Minnesota can’t stand pat with this offense and hope they score enough runs, because this nine is not a playoff caliber offense.

Realistically, the Twins should be in the market for a third baseman or a shortstop, and maybe both, if they want to capitalize on this hot streak and make a playoff run in 2008. They simply can’t continue to get this level of non-production from so many hitters and keep winning games. Smoke eventually clears and mirrors crack.


The Kings of Non-Contact

The new “Past Calendar Year” addition to the leaderboards is tremendous. If you haven’t played around with it yet, what are you waiting for?

Here’s my fun revelation of the day. In the last year, here are the league leaders in strikeout totals for hitters.

1. Ryan Howard, Philadelphia – 236 strikeouts in 623 at-bats, 37.7% K%
2. Jack Cust, Oakland – 192 strikeouts in 490 at-bats, 39.2% K%
3. Mark Reynolds, Arizona -192 strikeouts in 509 at-bats, 37.7% K%

After those three, the dropoff in strikeout rate is huge. Mike Cameron is #4 with a 32.6% K%, not even in the same ballpark as Howard, Cust, and Reynolds. But how many people really think of the Arizona third baseman as a Cust/Howard level swing-and-miss machine? I certainly didn’t, at least until looking at this leaderboard.

It wasn’t exactly easy to see this coming either. During his 1216 minor league at-bats in 2004 to 2007, Reynolds posted a 24% K%. With guys who have huge holes in their swings, such as Cust and Branyan, we knew they were strikeout monsters even before they got to the big show. But Reynolds – he didn’t start racking up the Ks until he got to Arizona.

Unlike with Cust, who racks up the strikeouts because he just never swings (34% Swing%, which is just hilarious) and gets deep in counts, Reynolds has legitimate problems making contact. His 63.78% contact rate is the worst in the majors, with only Howard’s 64.35% even within shouting distance.

Because he’s able to drive the ball consistently, he’s still a productive hitter even with the contact issues, but it’s something that Arizona’s coaching staff should be working with him on. It’s very hard to have a sustained career with that kind of low rate of contact, and Reynolds doesn’t draw walks like Cust or Howard to offset some of the strikeouts. If he continues to swing and miss at this rate, it won’t be too long before he’s hitting .210 or .220 due to BABIP variations and, at that point, his job will be in jeopardy.


2004 a Dream Draft for Rays

A team would be pretty happy with a draft if it netted one future Major League All-Star or a couple Major League contributors. The 2004 Tampa Bay amateur draft has already produced four top prospects, one Major League starting pitcher and a few other spare parts that have the potential to see a little time on the Major League roster. What is even more impressive about the Rays’ draft is that the organization secured numerous top prospects without the aid of supplemental selections.

Despite average stuff, pitcher Andy Sonnanstine has had the best value of the 2004 drafted. Taken in the 14th round out of Kent State University, the right-hander is currently a member of the Rays’ starting rotation and has won 14 games over the past two seasons. This year he is 8-3 with a 4.85 ERA in 16 starts. He has allowed 117 hits in 94.2 innings, along with 18 walks and 63 strike outs.

I have already written about Jacob McGee (fifth round) and Wade Davis (third round) this week and they, along with first round pick Jeff Niemann, were the jewels of this draft. Niemann was slowed by injuries but he finally made his long-awaited Major League debut in 2008. Second round pick Reid Brignac, a shortstop, is also one of the Rays’ top prospects and currently playing at Triple-A where he is hitting .270/.320/.453.

Right-hander Matt Walker’s results have never matched his stuff, mainly due to poor control. The 10th round pick out of a Louisiana high school has walked 5.83 batters per nine innings in his career.

Sixth round selection Ryan Royster, 21, is only hitting .235/.285/.304 this season in High-A ball, but the outfielder broke out in 2007 with 30 homers and a .329 average in Low-A ball. Fernando Perez, another second tier outfield prospect, was drafted out of Columbia University in the seventh round. He is currently in Triple-A and is hitting .276/.361/.394. Both players could see time at the Major League level, although neither is likely to be a regular.


Chacon the Barbarian

In case you have not heard yet, Astros pitcher Shawn Chacon and general manager Ed Wade found themselves entangled in a verbal-turned-physical altercation yesterday. The incident, which took place prior to the game, stemmed from some combination of Chacon’s play, the manager’s office, and dinner. For a recap of the actual event, watch the video below:

Now, Chacon mentioned that he hopes this does not prevent him from pitching in the major leagues again, yet I’m wondering why he is pitching in the major leagues right now. Here’s a comparison between his Marcel for this year and his actual numbers:

Marcel: 1.44 K/BB, .266 BAA, 1.50 WHIP, 73.7% LOB, 4.69 ERA, E-F of -0.41
Actual: 1.29 K/BB, .267 BAA, 1.51 WHIP, 72.7% LOB, 5.04 ERA, E-F of -0.64

Marcel did a pretty darn good job of showing where his numbers would hover around and they really are not that good. His LOB rate is right around league average meaning he has not really been unlucky at all or due to regress. His K/BB is 3rd worst in the NL; his HR/9 is 5th worst; his FIP is 3rd worst; and his BB/9 is 7th worst.

Using the ‘last 3 calendar years’ parameter and setting the qualifying cutoff at those with 180+ IP in that span, here are Chacon’s ranks amongst all pitchers–SP and RP–since he was a reliever last year:

K/9 – 185 of 263
BRAA – 188 of 263
HR/9 – 209 of 263
WHIP – 218 of 263
WPA/LI – 227 of 263
BB/9 – 241 of 263
FIP – 253 of 263

Based on his controllable skills just ten pitchers given the chance to pitch as often, if not more, have been worse, and yet it took a physical altercation with his GM to get him off the mound? Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but regardless of his “good start,” I would have very little, if not no, confidence with him in my starting rotation. Maybe the Astros can use this as an excuse to get rid of a low-risk signing that does not appear to offer even medium reward.


Nobody’s Lackey

The ace of the Angels rotation, John Lackey, spent the first eight weeks of the season on the shelf recovering from a strained tricep muscle. Often times, when a pitcher opts for rest, the results when they return aren’t what they, or their teams’ fans, would hope for. Velocity drops and a loss of movement aren’t uncommon, and teams have learned that it’s not generally a great idea to count on getting premium production from a pitcher just coming off the disabled list.

Lackey, however, is bucking that trend in a big way. Since coming off the DL on May 14th, he’s been the model of consistency. Here are some of the relevant markers from 2007 and 2008.

Fastball Velocity: 2007, 90.9 MPH – 2008, 90.6 MPH
Groundball Percentage: 2007, 44.7% – 2008, 44.9%
FIP: 2007, 3.54 – 2008, 3.43

In each of his eight starts since coming off the disabled list, Lackey’s pitched a minimum of seven innings. He’s given up just one earned run in six of those starts. His game scores have ranged from a low of 60 to a high of 70. He’s posted a positive WPA in all of his appearances, and a WPA of .30 or higher in three of those eight starts.

The recovering-from-injury John Lackey is indistinguishable from the completely healthy version, and his success is one of the reason the Angels are putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the A.L. West. Consistency has always been his calling card, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that even something like an arm injury can’t slow him down.


Sonnanstine and E.R.A. Don’t See Eye to Eye

While writing and researching this post it is still hard to believe, for this baseball fan at least, that the Tampa Bay Rays are currently 45-31, a full fourteen games over .500. Not to say I didn’t expect them to be good but their turnaround has been remarkable and very fun to keep tabs on. In looking over some of their statistics I came across this interesting little nugget: Andy Sonnanstine leads the AL in E-F, at 1.53.

E-F, or ERA-FIP as you may have seen at The Hardball Times, does just what the title suggests: it subtracts the FIP from the ERA in order to see which pitchers have been lucky or unlucky with regards to their earned run barometer and controllable skills measure. Sonnanstine has a 4.85 ERA yet a 3.32 FIP. That FIP ranks 8th best in the league and the only other E-Fs higher, in all of baseball, belong to Bronson Arroyo and Ian Snell; their ERAs are 6+ right now.

Adding to my interest level are Sonnanstine’s numbers last year: a 5.85 ERA and a 4.26 FIP, resulting in a 1.59 E-F. So, two years running now Andy has posted an ERA over 1.5 runs worse than his controllable skills (BB, K, HR) would suggest. It didn’t even matter that this year’s ERA is a full run lower. Not surprisingly, his .348 BABIP is the highest in the AL, and his 63.8% LOB rate is the second lowest in the league. For comparison’s sake, the AL average LOB rate at this juncture is 72.36%.

Due to this lack of luck, his win probability metrics have taken some serious hits. Andy’s -0.39 WPA ranks 5th worst in the league while his -0.34 WPA/LI registers 8th from the bottom. Despite one of the best measures of controllable skills in the league, he has statistically been one of the worst contributors to success. Whereas Aaron Harang has been unlucky in terms of his W-L barometer, Sonnanstine has been unlucky in a number of different areas yet currently holds an 8-3 record.

Sonnanstine has been unlucky thus far in terms of the numbers largely out of his control but don’t tell that to his W-L record, which is good enough to introduce himself to plenty of fantasy owners out there.


Found: Verlander’s Velocity

I love the BIS pitch data statistics that are available here on FanGraphs. One of the first things we noticed using that data this season was that Justin Verlander’s fastball disappeared in April. He was throwing 91-92 instead of his usual 94-95, and his performance suffered as a result. He walked 18 and struck out just 20 batters in his six April starts, leading to a 6.50 ERA. His struggles were a major reason why Detroit failed to live up to expectations early on.

As the calender rolled into May, however, Verlander’s velocity started to pick up. After averaging just a 91.9 MPH fastball during his first three starts of the season, his fastball averaged 93.6 MPH during May, and his performance improved right along with the velocity spike. In 39 innings in May, he walked 13 and struck out 24 while posting a 3.92 ERA. It still wasn’t classic Verlander, but it was at least encouraging.

Enter June, and it’s safe to say that Verlander is back. His average fastball is now 94.5 MPH, sixth best in baseball during this month, and the results are what we expected from a guy who looked like an emerging ace last season. He’s walked 10 and struck out 28 batters in 27 1/3 innings, dominating hitters and holding them to a .575 OPS.

Whether it was just a tired arm phase or a mechanical tweak, Verlander’s fastball is back, and he’s pitching like the Tigers thought he would heading into the year. Detroit fans have to be happy to have their ace back to pitching like one, and it’s even more comforting that there’s a verifiable explanation for the improvement. For all the talk of guys learning how to pitch without their best stuff, Justin Verlander is clearly a better pitcher when he’s throwing 95 instead of 92.


Jacob’s Climbing the Ladder

Like David Price and Wade Davis, Jacob McGee is yet another promising, young pitcher in the Rays system. However, the southpaw, like Davis, is finding Double-A to be a little bit more challenging than A-ball.

Born in California, McGee attended high school in Nevada and was drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. He spent two seasons in Short Season Ball and averaged about 7.5 H/9 and 9.5 K/9 during that time. As a 20-year-old, McGee spent a full year in Low-A ball and allowed 6.92 H/9 and 4.37 BB/9. He also struck out 171 batters in 134 innings (11.49 K/9).

He then put up similar numbers the next year High-A ball, although his walk rate dropped significantly to 3.01 BB/9. He earned a late-season promotion to Double-A and held his own with rates of 7.33 H/9 and 11.57 K/9. He averaged more than five walks per nine innings, though.

McGee returned to Double-A this season and is doing OK, but his strikeouts are down: 8.22 compared to a career average of 10.43. His hit rate remains good at 7.26. It’s no surprise that minor league hitters struggle to make good contract against McGee, who has a fastball that can touch the high 90s and solid secondary pitches (a slider and change-up). He has done a nice job of holding right-handed batters to a .236 average this season and lefties are at .213.

At only 21 years of age, McGee remains a very promising prospect and has the potential to be a No. 2 starter at the major league level if he can improve the command of his secondary pitches.


Shiny Calendar Year Rankings

One of the best parts of this site is the accessibility of David Appelman and his willingness to improve and/or update the site to feature more statistics and new parameters for those numbers. The newest addition to the Fangraphs statistical team is calendar year rankings. By going to the leaders page you can now sort not only by month or last 7/14/30 days, but also by the last 1, 2, or 3 calendar years.

For instance, did you know that Ryan Howard, with 145 home runs, has the most in the last three calendar years? Or that Alex Rodriguez ranks second, with 131, fourteen less than Howard?

How about the best and worst WPA counts for hitters in this same span?

BEST
1) Albert Pujols, 18.68
2) Lance Berkman, 17.49
3) David Ortiz, 17.29
4) Vladimir Guerrero, 12.57
5) Ryan Howard, 11.88

WORST
5) Jose Lopez, -3.59
4) Yuniesky Betancourt, -3.73
3) Jack Wilson, -3.86
2) Brandon Inge, -4.24
1) Ivan Rodriguez, -4.93

Hmm. Of the worst five contributors over the last three calendar, two are from the Tigers and two are from the Mariners. In terms of context-neutral wins (WPA/LI), Pujols and Berkman switch places; Berkman’s 17.34 comes in ahead of Pujols’s 16.69.

How about starting pitchers and WPA?

BEST
1) C.C. Sabathia, 9.06
2) Johan Santana, 8.92
3) Roy Halladay, 8.89
4) Brandon Webb, 8.67
5) John Smoltz, 7.91

WORST
5) Dave Bush, -1.94
4) Carlos Silva, -2.79
3) Livan Hernandez, -3.46
2) Jason Marquis, -3.64
1) Matt Morris, -7.83

Wow. Numbers 2 and 3 combine for -7.10 and Morris still comes in 7/10 of a win worse than them. In terms of WPA/LI, Johan reclaims his spot atop the throne with a 10.77, a full 1.60 wins ahead of second-place Brandon Webb’s 9.17. Santana also has the best K/BB (4.45) in this span, as well as the highest LOB% at 78.7%.

It has been reiterated recently that instead of using current seasonal statistics to evaluate players it would be much more accurate to use a rolling projection. While these calendar statistics do not necessarily weight the past any differently they do allow us to see which players have been good enough recently so as to trounce atypical poor early performance.


Arroyo’s Disaster

If there’s been a theme to some of my recent posts, it’s that baseball is fairly unpredictable. From Jim Edmonds’ revival in Chicago, Russ Branyan doing a pretty good Ruth impression after getting called up from Triple-A, and Jose Guillen drawing two walks the day after I write about his 37 game walk-free streak, the game does a good job of reminding us that on any given day, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.

But, as much as we don’t know, there are some things that we do know. One of those things that we can all agree on is that the 2008 Toronto Blue Jays can’t hit. Their offense is sadder than a Lifetime Original Movie marathon. They’re slugging .376 as a team, with Matt Stairs leading the team in home runs… with eight. At the end of June. Their supposed star hitters, Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, are producing more like fourth outfielders. They average 4.0 runs per game and the hitters undermine the great work done by their teammates on the pitching staff.

So, knowing that the Jays are a pitiful offensive club, I have to ask – Bronson Arroyo, how on earth did you manage to give up 10 runs to that club while getting just three people out last night. 12 of the 15 batters you faced reach base. The amount of outs you recorded was equal to the amount of home runs you gave up. Your game score was -9. Negative Nine!

This was easily the worst pitching performance we’ve seen so far in 2008. In fact, in the last 50 years, only 13 starting pitchers have managed to record three outs or less and post a negative game score. Arroyo’s -9 will rank behind only Jason Jenningsperformance last year when he allowed 11 runs in 2/3 of an inning.

Giving up double digit runs while not recording an out past the first inning against the worst offense in baseball? That’s a pretty special performance, but in all the wrong ways. Congratulations Bronson, we’ll remember this game for years to come, even if you don’t want us to.


All About Clutch

Amongst the several great win probability statistics kept here is one simply titled ‘clutch.’ The number measures how well players perform in previously defined clutch situations relative to how they would have performed in a context-neutral environment. It has confused some and come into question from others recently so I thought I would take this time to break it down and try to clear up any confusion or doubts.

The stat is calculated by subtracting the WPA/LI from the WPA/pLI. Now, WPA/LI is an already calculated measure freely available all throughout this site. WPA/pLI, however, would have to be manually calculated by dividing the overall WPA by the average leverage index. As an example let’s use Pat Burrell and his current numbers. Burrell has the third best clutch score in the game at 1.35. He has a WPA/LI of 2.51, a WPA of 4.08, and a pLI of 1.06.

4.08/1.06 = 3.85 and 3.85-2.51 = 1.34. The 1.34 vs. 1.35 is nothing more than a rounding discrepancy. This measures how much better Burrell performed in high leverage situations than all others. If he posted a .900 OPS in crucial plate appearances but an equal OPS in all others, he is not considered clutch. And why should he be? Sure, he posted great numbers in high LI game states but he did not raise his game at all.

This brings me to the first major point: Clutch has different definitions and to understand this statistic we need to be on the same page. No matter how important the media makes clutch performance out to be, it does not refer to performing well with the game on the line. Instead, it refers to performing well in these types of situations relative to all others. The statistic can be summed up by the question, “Does the player raise his game in important situations?” If not, he is not clutch, no matter how great his numbers are in high leverage plate appearances.

The second major point is that being clutch or not being clutch is NOT the same as being good or not being good. You do not need to raise your game in crucial situations to be a great player and those who do raise their games are not necessarily the most talented. A player with a .200 BA that hits .300 in crucial situations is, and should be, considered more clutch than someone with a .333 BA in all situations. The .333 is a better BA but it is not clutch because it did not constitute a raising of the game.

As I pointed out this morning, just 3 of the 33 NL MVP winners from 1974-2007 finished in the top ten in clutch. Barry Bonds, who won the award from 2001-2004, had clutch scores ranging from -0.49 to -1.14 from 2001-2003, and I better not hear anybody discuss those seasons not being insanely productive. His negative clutch score just means that he did not post a 1.980 OPS (exaggeration) in high leverage situations. His high leverage OPS was likely higher than everyone else’s but this statistic works to measure a player against himself since, after all, clutch refers to raising your individual game, no matter how high that game generally turns out.

I hope this clears up some confusion but I have a feeling the vast differences in definitions of this skill/phenomenon/whatever you call it will continue to generate confusion. The media has relied on clutch to the point that we are now mistaking it for good or bad performance. This is incorrect. Clutch means raising your game, not being a good player.