Archive for June, 2009

The Morgan-Milledge Deal

Over the last few years, one of the easier running jokes in baseball was to suggest that any available outfielder would interest the Washington Nationals. Jim Bowden couldn’t hide his love of toolsy, athletic underperformers, so every kid who had ever been ranked on Baseball America’s Top 100 and became available gravitated towards the nations capital. So, it would be easy to continue to chuckle right along with the old joke, as today, Washington traded for another outfielder, completing the rumored Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan swap by agreeing to exchange Joel Hanrahan for Sean Burnett as well.

However, this move is different. Morgan doesn’t follow the previous pattern – he can actually play baseball, especially defense. Washington’s outfield has combined for a -24.5 UZR this year, easily the worst in baseball (the next lowest is the Blue Jays at -19.2). The combination of Elijah Dukes, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Austin Kearns, and Willie Harris have been disastrous in the field, which is a pretty significant problem when you’re trying to develop a young pitching staff.

Morgan is far form a defensive liability. He has 743 innings between LF/RF and a career UZR of +15.4, along with 391 innings in center field and a UZR of +11.9. Those numbers are off-the-charts awesome. If Nyjer Morgan was really a +35 UZR/150 center fielder, he’d be in the conversation for the best defensive outfielder of all time.

Now, he’s almost certainly not that good. There’s a lot of noise in small sample UZR numbers, and we only have about one full season’s worth of data on Morgan as an outfielder. Odds are Morgan is just a good defensive CF, not the best that anyone has ever seen. If we were to project his defensive value going forward using a regression, we’d likely end up expecting him to be something like a +10 to +20 center fielder, which puts him in the category of guys like Carlos Gomez, Franklin Gutierrez, Mike Cameron, Rajai Davis, and Darin Erstad.

Given what we know about Morgan’s skillset and his status as one of the fastest players in the game, this shouldn’t be that surprising. He has the physical skills to be a terrific defensive player, after all, so when the metrics and the scouting reports agree, there can be increased confidence in the result.

Of course, guys that are this good at defense usually aren’t much offensively. Morgan follows the pattern of a slap-hitting groundball guy who tries to get on base via a horde of singles to compensate for his lack of power. Unlike Gomez and Erstad, though, Morgan has shown some adeptness at making this work for him – his career line in the majors is .286/.351/.376, which translates to a barely below average .322 wOBA.

That’s the high end of what the Nationals should expect going forward, however – it is based on a career .346 batting average on balls in play, and while fast guys do better than average at getting on via contact, .346 is still tough to sustain. If his BABIP falls down to .320 or so, about what ZIPS projects for him going forward, than he’s more of a .310 wOBA guy.

A .310 wOBA and +10 defense in center field is still a pretty nifty player, though. Over a full season, that would make him a +2 to +2.5 win player, or right around league average. Considering that his lack of service time means he’ll be making the minimum the next couple of years, the Nationals are getting a pretty significant value in this particular outfielder. The upside isn’t super high, but he’s instantly one of the better players on that team, and will make them better both in 2009 and going forward.

For the Pirates, they get to try to figure out how to extract some value from Lastings Milledge, who would have to take several steps forward before he was as good as Morgan is now. Can’t say I’m a fan of this move for Pittsburgh, but that’s getting to be a theme lately. The Pirates have made a series of head-scratching moves of late, and this one just continues that trend. Hanrahan is a nice buy low candidate, and a better bet for the future than Burnett, but relievers just aren’t that hard to acquire. The Pirates get worse now for some hope of getting better in the future, but that hope is tied to a belief in Lastings Milledge’s improvement that I don’t have.

Good trade for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals. For once, they finally acquired an outfielder with some usefulness.


Does Cito Gaston Work for Boston?

Manager Cito Gaston’s surprise return to the fold in 2008 breathed new life into a floundering organization. The Toronto Blue Jays’ skipper, though, may be at fault for the club’s mid-season demise in the standings.

On May 19, the Jays club was 2.5 games ahead of Boston and 3.5 games ahead of New York in the American League East standings. Now, on the last day of June, the club is in fourth place and seven games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. How did this happen?

As of June 20, the Jays club had played 78 games (41-37). Five regulars had played 76 games or more: Aaron Hill, Marco Scutaro, Adam Lind, Vernon Wells, and Alex Rios. Two of those players (Rios and Wells) have been terrible this season and were also left in the No. 3 and 4 holes in the lineup until mid-June.

Two other players are obviously being over-worked by the manager. Hill appeared in just 55 games last year due to a concussion. Despite the time off, the manager has failed to ease the second baseman back into regular play. Scutaro, the club’s undisputed spark plug in the first two months, had never really been a full-time player until last year when he appeared in 145 games. At 33, he’s no spring chicken.

As for Lind, he’s survived remarkably well as the youngest player of the five at 25 years of age and he’s also spent just 26 games in the field. His 50 other appearances have come as the club’s designated hitter.

These five players are obviously playing a lot… so let’s look at the monthly splits and let the stats do the talking for a minute.

Adam Lind
April: .315/.400/.533
May: .264/.333/.453
June: .354/.431/.544

Vernon Wells
April: .283/.345/.465
May: .252/.300/.361
June: .210/.259/.350

Alex Rios
April: .248/.304/.366
May: .302/.359/.509
June: .232/.291/.379

Aaron Hill
April: .365/.412/.567
May: .307/.331/.480
June: .234/.278/.477

Marco Scutaro
April: .281/.421/.506
May: .322/.397/.421
June: .235/.325/.333

As you can see above, four of the five players are down significantly in June. I’m sure management has seen the numbers, but the powers that be are now between a rock and a hard place. The regulars need rest badly, but how do you take them out of the lineup now that the playoffs are (not so) slowly slipping away? The main focus on the Jays this season has been the injuries to the pitching staff and the club’s reliance on young, unproven hurlers. But those pitchers have not been the club’s downfall, whatsoever. The team’s ERA/FIP for the past three months: 4.34/4.37 in April, 4.23/4.35 in May, and 4.22/3.91 in June.

As a side note, I’d also like to point out the disappointing use of veteran back-up infielder John McDonald. The fifth-year Jay has been used in just 28 games this season with just 26 at-bats. That is the most embarrassing use of any player in the Majors this season… and yes, he’s spent the entire season on the roster and has been healthy the entire time. Twenty-six at-bats. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not the way to use you bench… Or treat your veteran players. You know, the ones you’d have to turn to if your starting shortstop or second baseman suddenly got hurt…


Another Look at HRs at the New Yankee Stadium

A lot has been made of the large number of HRs at the new Yankee Stadium so far this year. AccuWeather speculated that the way wind traveled travelled through the new Stadium was responsible for the additional HRs. Greg Rybarczyk determined that the dimensions of the park are not, in fact, exactly the same as the old Yankee Stadium. AccuWeather since came to the same conclusions as Greg, that it was a change in outfield dimensions and not wind that was responsible for the change.

Greg determined that the biggest difference in outfield dimensions is in a portion of right field where the wall is between 2 and 9 feet closer to home plate and 2 feet shorter than in the old Yankee Stadium. This portion of the wall was already relatively close to home plate, the famous short porch in right.

The HR numbers are way up, and I wanted to see if they were up in this location that both Greg and AccuWeather identified as having the biggest difference in outfield dimensions between the two stadiums. So I looked at the HR per ball in air rate by angle for the old Yankee Stadium from 2005 to 2008 (I am using the GameDay data and that is the extent of it) and for Yankee Stadium so far this year. The thick lines is the estimate and the thin lines indicate the standard errors. An angle of -45° corresponds to the 3B line, 0° to right up the middle (second base) and 45° to the 1B line. Here is the rate for right handed batters.

rhb_hr_se

In left field there is almost no difference in HR rate, but in right field there is a slight increase in 2009 compared to pre-2009. The confidence intervals overlap so the difference is not statistically significant. Along the right-field line there is actually a drop in HR rate, but since there have been so few balls hit there is no statistical confidence in this difference.

Here is the same image for left handed batters.

lhb_hr_se

Here there is a real statistical difference. Between about 5° and 35° the HR rate has been statistically higher in 2009 than pre-2009. This data is for all hitters and is not corrected for level of hitter, as park factors are. So it could be that there have just been more power lefties hitting at Yankee Stadium this year compared to 2005-2008. But since the largest increase in HR rate is in the same area of largest outfield fence change I think it is that fence change that is responsible.

The new Yankee Stadium has an even shorter porch in right field, and, it seems, LHBs will be the primary beneficiary.


No Really, Brandon Inge Should Be Your Tiger

Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson are probably both shoe-ins to be representing Detroit in the All Star Game, but believe it or not, Brandon Inge is the guy who deserves to be in St. Louis the most. Inge is having the season of his life, with a .382 wOBA to go along with some very good defense. Pretty impressive for someone who struggled to find regular work the season prior.

A former catcher turned third baseman, Inge evidently has worked his behind off to make himself an effective defender at the hot corner. When Ivan Rodriguez came to Detroit, Inge was asked to move to third base. He scuffled in his first season to the tune of a -18 UZR per 150 games in his first season at the position, but the following seasons Inge improved to +6, +13, +9 and +8. This season he’s been a +13 per 150 games.

Being the lesser bat than Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen, Inge was tagged with the super-utility role last season, but was less than super. Spending most of his playing time as Ivan Rodriguez’s backup, he also played third on occasion and even…wait for it…center field. Yep, Inge was the Tigers 2008 Opening Day center fielder while Granderson was on the shelf. When Pudge was traded to the Yankees, Inge took over as the Tigers’ everyday catching job once again, but for the season he posted a .297 wOBA, his worst season since 2003, that fateful year the Tigers lost 119 games.

After watching a $135 million + payroll tank it last year, Dave Dombrowski remembered that defense is important, went out and got Adam Everett and Gerald Laird this past winter, and reinstalled Inge at the hot corner. Now thanks to defense and good starting pitching, the Tigers find themselves in 1st place, and Inge is having his finest season to date.

Inge has been improving upon his patience at the plate, walking now in 11% of his plate appearances two seasons running. What’s really boosted his value is his career-high .249 isolated power. Inge has always had average power, but this is quite out of line with what he’s done, and it’s not likely that one of every five of his fly balls he hits will continue to clear the fence.

Inge is projected to hit for a .338 wOBA the rest of the season, which is respectable when you can pick it like he can. Because of that skill, Inge was a over a 3 win player two years in a row in 2005-2006, and thanks to a hot start is well on his way to being the quietest 5 win player of the season.


You Still Do Not Appreciate Him Enough

When Ichiro Suzuki was diagnosed with an ulcer that would cause him to miss at minimum eight games, people began to crawl out of the woodwork to question many aspects of Ichiro’s game. Whether he would reach 200 hits for the 9th straight season. Whether, coming off a .747 OPS season, Ichiro should not be traded.

I think we can say that Ichiro is off to a healthy start in proving his skeptics wrong. Again. With 110 hits through 67 games and 312 plate appearances, Ichiro is ahead of even his record-setting 2004 season. Over the same 762 PAs that he received that season, his current rate would net Ichiro with 269 hits.

Not only is the average as healthy as ever, but the power is at nearly an all-time high. Only Ichiro’s 2005 season, a year marked by a change in approach to increase his slugging at the expense of some of his average, has seen a higher isolated slugging percentage, and its .133 mark is a mere five points ahead of his current .128. In other words, so far in 2009, Ichiro is hitting for average like it is 2004 and hitting for power like it is 2005. The only thing he is not doing at the plate is drawing walks, but it is pretty difficult to level that as a legitimate claim against him when he is experiencing the level of success as he has been.

Interestingly, pitchers seem to be trying to offer him those walks. Continuing a nearly uninterrupted trend since 2004, Ichiro is seeing less pitches in the strike zone than ever before. Instead of laying off of them and taking more walks, Ichiro has in fact increased his rate of offering at balls. Of course, he also makes contact on them 86.7% of the time, a flatly absurd number.

Not satisfied with just decimating the calls for decline at the plate, Ichiro has stepped up his defensive game as well. Long praised for his great arm, Ichiro is putting up the best Range numbers of his career.

Adding it all up and Ichiro is on pace to eclipse even his 2004 season in terms of win value. Worth three wins already, Ichiro’s projected playing time would have him worth just under seven wins were he to maintain his lofty rates.


Searching For Reasons

Last week, Dave discussed how inept analysts have become in terms of assessing when players considered to be over the hill fall off said hill. Most wrote off David Ortiz as being done, washed up, having nothing left in the tank, and then June rolled around and he “found his stroke.” Personally, I think the problem extends way beyond just determining when aging players become washed up, and deals more with our obsession to find reasons capable of explaining potentially unexplainable phenomena.

There are certainly areas within the game of baseball that lend themselves to individual skills and not chance, but there are an equal number of areas that fluctuate randomly. Trying to pinpoint a single reason as to why one of these random fluctuations occur makes very little sense and proves to be nothing more than a futile exercise. Not everything can be explained, concisely wrapped up in a neat little bun, and then brushed aside as an issue solved.

Over the weekend, a good friend of mine and I were discussing Johan Santana and how he has not looked like himself lately. After several back and forth ideas, wondering about Santana’s health or the competition he had been facing, it dawned on me that this might be a non-issue and searching for an explanation could pave the way to inaccurate claims being dished out. In a piece I wrote for BP earlier in the year, I investigated the idea of consistency, checking to see if it mattered or if consistency itself was stable. Short answer: consistency itself was inconsistent. Johan may have looked mortal recently, but the fact that his performances did not match his early season dominance really does not tell us anything. At season’s end, we are probably going to look at his gamelogs and chalk this recent stretch up as a rough patch everyone goes through that eventually corrects itself.

Think about that Raul Ibanez fiasco a few weeks ago and how that almost exponentially found itself the topic of interest amongst sports sites, radio stations, and television productions.

If I recall correctly, Person A, who partakes in a fantasy league, asked Person B about Ibanez’s revival. Person B then looked into the numbers and wrote a lengthy diatribe about Ibanez’s career, searching for a definitive reason as to why Raul had been hitting like Albert Pujols. In his search for a reason, performance enhancers were brought up, and within days, Person B had to defend himself on national television against Ken Rosenthal. No, Robothal isn’t Dave Winfield-esque in stature, but the point remains that searching for a reason to explain what could potentially amount to nothing more than an extended hot streak not necessarily foreign to Raul, who has posted some insane streaks in years prior, led to an extremely overhyped media frenzy.

There are certainly times when looking for a reason makes sense, like with the current performance of Jimmy Rollins, but for the most part doing so is useless. Non-Pujols players always fuse together various ups and downs in a season before arriving at their bottom line. Just because a player slumps and then gets hot doesn’t mean that he lost some skill in the former and gained it back in the latter. Assign grains of salt to reasoning or explanations derived from small samples of data, especially if they involve an area of the game that fluctuates randomly.


Snell Needs A New Home

For a guy with a pretty nondescript track record, Ian Snell sure is making a lot of news lately. Five days ago, the Pirates optioned Snell to Triple-A, at his request, so he could work on getting back to the pitcher he was a couple of years ago. The Pirates organization are clearly fed up with him, and it seems likely that the feeling is mutual. Today, Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington was quoted as calling the contract extension he gave Snell a year ago “a mistake”, and then went out to say that while the contract made sense at the time, “you could argue very easily that we missed on the player.”

He finished the remarkably negative public quotes by talking about “salvaging” the deal, either by trading Snell to someone else or bringing him back to the majors as a relief pitcher. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of his future in Pittsburgh, is it?

Given the comments and the situation, you’d think that Snell had been the worst pitcher in the history of baseball or had physically assaulted a teammate or something. But, no, he’d just struggled a bit with his command and stranding runners, which has led to an ERA (5.36) that’s about a run higher than his FIP (4.56). That’s the kind of performance that gets you banished from Pittsburgh nowadays?

It’s not like Snell can’t pitch anymore, either. Yesterday, in his first start in Triple-A, away from the “negativity” of the situation at the major league level, he threw seven innings, gave up two hits, walked one, and struck out 17 batters. At one point, he blew away 13 Toledo hitters in a row. I know it’s Triple-A, but you can’t rack up 17 strikeouts against professional hitters without some talent.

If the Pirates are tired of Ian Snell’s personality, there should be a pretty decent sized line of teams ready to take him off their hands. The “mistake” contract that Huntington refers to pays Snell $3 million this year, followed by $4.25 million next year, which means that the total obligation to Snell going forward is about $6 million through the end of 2010. The contract then contains two fairly reasonable club options that would be no-brainer pickups if Snell stays healthy and shows a bit of return to his previous form.

In a market where a bunch of contenders are pining for a starting pitcher, Snell would make a really good buy-low option for practically all of them. At worst, he’s a capable #5 starter, and he’s got the talent to be significantly more than that. Maybe it won’t work out for him in Pittsburgh, but this seems like a case of the Pirates flushing an asset for reasons that better management would be able to overcome.

Don’t be surprised if you see Snell pitching well for some other team in the next few weeks.


A Minor Slugfest

The high-A California League is known for being an offense-boosting league. Sunday’s game between Lake Elsinore (San Diego affiliate) and High Desert (Seattle) goes to show why you have to take minor-league statistics from players in that league with a grain of salt. Lake Elsinore defeated High Desert by the football score of 33-18. The two teams combined for 58 hits in a single game.

According to the Baseball Almanac, the most runs scored by a single team in a Major League Baseball game is 36, set by the Chicago Colts (now the Chicago Cubs) against the Louisville Colonels (which joined the National League in 1892) on June 29, 1897. The most runs scored by two teams combined at the Major League level was 49. That occurred on August 25, 1922 when Chicago (again) defeated Philadelphia by the score of 26-23. Minor league records are harder to discover, but interestingly, the most lopsided minor league baseball game had Corsicana defeating Texarkana by the score of 51-3 in the Texas League in 1902. Corsicana’s Jay Justin Clarke hit eight home runs in that game (He hit just six in his nine-year MLB career).

Back to the present, let’s have a look at some of the individual players from Sunday’s game. On the Lake Elsinore side, all nine players had at least two hits. Six players had four hits or more. Another Clark(e), this one a first baseman named Matt Clark, had a big game. In just his fourth game since being promoted from low-A ball, he went 5-for-6 with two home runs, seven runs scored, five RBI and two walks. One of the Padres’ top hitting prospects, third baseman James Darnell, was in just his second game since a promotion and he went 4-for-7 with five runs scored, two doubles, a homer, and three RBI. Felix Carrasco, a first baseman who has been in the league all season long, went 4-for-7 with four runs scored, two doubles, a triple, and six RBI.

For High Desert, six players had three hits or more. Designated hitter Joseph Dunigan was the only starter in the game not to get a hit and he went 0-for-5 with one strikeout. Leadoff hitter James McOwen extended his league-record hitting streak to 36 games with a 2-for-6 day. He also homered and drove in four runs. Carlos Peguero went 4-for-6 with a triple, homer, two runs scored and four RBI. Kuo Hui Lo went 4-for-6 with four runs scored, four RBI, a double and two homers.

The biggest prospect on the Seattle team raised his average up to .346. Alex Liddi, an Italian-born third baseman, went 2-for-6 with two runs scored, a double, and two strikeouts. The 20-year-old is having a breakout season (surprise, surprise) and some caution should obviously be used before getting too excited about his offensive numbers in 2009.

Catcher Jose Yepez, a formers Jays farmhand who began the year in independent baseball, went 3-for-4 two runs scored, a homer and four RBI. He then took to the mound for the pitching-thin High Desert club and promptly gave up five hits, including four home runs, and recorded just one out. Another hitter – Deybis Benitez – had to come in to get the final two outs (and he didn’t allow a hit).

Starting pitcher Nathan Adcock had a terrible game, to say the least. He allowed eight runs on seven hits and two walks. Oddly, though, he did not give up a homer, while recording just two outs. Juan Zapata came into the game and gave up six runs in 1.1 innings of work on eight hits and one walk. Natividad Dilone drew the next shortest straw and he allowed eight runs on four hits and five walks during 2.1 innings of work. Travis Mortimore was the only pitcher in the game to go at least an inning without allowing a run. He worked a total of 1.2 innings and allowed two hits and one walk, but otherwise walked away unscathed.

On the mound for Lake Elsinore, starter Jeremy McBryde gave up 11 runs on 13 hits and one walk in 4.2 innings of work. Three long balls were hit against the right-hander. Reliever Allen Harrington had a bad game with four runs allowed on five hits in one inning of work. He gave up two homers.

It will be interesting to see how the pitchers for both clubs recover from the brutal assault. Of the seven legitimate relievers used, only one (Matt Teague at 5.40) now has an ERA below 6.68.

After games like this, it’s no wonder why it’s impossible to judge baseball prospects on statistics alone – especially as long as clubs like High Desert and Lake Elsinore continue to exist.


Wakefield’s Fastball Redux

A couple weeks ago Other Dave noticed that Tim Wakefield has one of the best fastballs so far this year. He suggested that Wakefield’s fastball is so successful, despite working in the low-70s with average movement, because it is a good 7 or 8 mph faster than his knuckleball and keeps hitters off balance. I really liked this idea and wanted to see if Dave was correct.

So I went through and looked for at-bats in which Wakefield threw a fastball after throwing at least one knuckleball in that at-bat, and found the difference in speed between that fastball and the knuckleball that immediately preceded it. First let’s look at the run value of a fastball based on its speed, the black line is the average and the gray standard errors. The run value is the change in run expectancy after the pitch, so a negative number is good for Wakefield.

wake_sp

To begin with notice that his fastball is quite good, -0.02 runs per pitch is -2 runs over 100 pitches, which is great. Interestingly after Wakefield’s fastball gets up around 72 mph there is no increase in effectiveness with an increase in speed. This is pretty surprising, generally the faster a fastball the better the outcome. Now let’s look at the run value of a fastball based on how much faster it was than the preceding knuckleball.

wake_dif

Here you see a clear consistent, if noisy, trend. As the fastball gets faster compared to the previous knuckleball its success increases. These two graphs together tell us that it is not the absolute speed of Wakefield’s fastball that determines its success, but its speed relative to the previous knuckleball.

Just as Dave suggested the success of Wakefield’s fastball is indeed tied to how much faster it is than his knuckleball, and since his knucleball is so slow he can be effective with his low-70s fastball.


What We Learned In Week Twelve

We’re nearly at the end of June, and 23 of the 30 major league teams are within six games of a playoff spot. If you like parity, 2009 is your kind of season. Let’s see what we learned last week.

Chad Gaudin is still talented.

The well traveled Gaudin had his two best starts of the season last week, shutting down the Mariners and Rangers in succession. His line for the week: 15 IP, 5 H, 1 HR, 3 BB, 20 K. His FIP for the season now stands at 3.76, and he’s stayed healthy enough to throw 71 innings in the first half of the year. The Padres have thrown a lot of spaghetti at the wall in assembling their pitching staff, and Gaudin looks like he’s going to be one of the pieces that sticks.

We might have to start taking Joel Pineiro’s sinker seriously.

After years of struggling to find himself, it looks like Pineiro’s decision to become an extreme groundball pitcher has taken hold. Between two starts last week, 76% of his batted balls were hit on the ground, just a ridiculous total. He now has the highest groundball rate in the majors, at 61.9%, despite never being over 50% before. Whatever Dave Duncan had him adjust, it’s working tremendously well, and his renovation of his approach is one of the reasons St. Louis is fighting for the NL Central title.

Franklin Gutierrez isn’t just a glove guy.

After being given the Mariners center field job, Gutierrez has thrust himself into the conversation for the title of best defensive outfielder in baseball. He’s earned the nickname “Death To Flying Things” by catching practically every fly ball hit against Seattle. However, Gutierrez’s bat has been the aspect of his game making noise in the last week, as he’s hit .391/.462/.609 in the last seven days. When a gold glove center fielder posts a .472 wOBA, that’s a pretty awesome week, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mariners have been winning games of late – their center fielder is playing like an MVP lately.

Andre Ethier wants to be more like Adam Dunn.

A strange season for Ethier continued this week, as he went 3 for 18, but all three hits were home runs, and he hit them in the same game. He also drew four walks and struck out five times, so half of his 24 plate appearances ended with one of the three true outcomes. Up until this year, Ethier has always been more of a gap power/solid defense kind of player, but now his strikeouts are up, his home runs are up, and his UZR is way, way down. It will be interesting to see how he finishes the season, because it’s a bit strange to see guys just totally switch skillsets mid-career.


The Mark DeRosa Trade

That loud collective groan you heard over the weekend was the sound of Cub fans reacting to one of their favorite players getting traded to their hated division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. When Mark DeRosa was moved to the Cleveland Indians for a trio of C grade pitchers, it was a salary clearing move to enable the Cubs to sign Milton Bradley, who has predictably been unable to stay in the lineup, and over the weekend was called a piece of excrement (to keep it PG) by his manager for his “shenanigans”. Before trading DeRosa, the Cubs signed Aaron Miles, lord of the .228 wOBA. Good times in Cub Town.

The Cardinals gave up one pitcher that is worth more than the three the Indians traded to obtain DeRosa’s services by trading Chris Perez, who has been regarded by most prospect watchers as a top 100 talent. He was all but anointed to be the St. Louis closer headed into the season, but wasn’t quite able to nail down the job. Depending on how you view Perez is how you evaluate this trade, and of course there is the other shoe still yet to drop. Perez is a fastball/slider reliever who can brings the heat at an average of 94 MPH. To give you an idea of Perez’s “stuff”, here’s his movement chart from 5/18/09.

5213_p_0_200905180_game

With two above average offerings, the problem with Perez has never been his repertoire, but rather his command. In 113.1 innings pitched throughout the minors, Perez struck out 12 batters per nine innings, but walked 6 per nine. In the 65.1 big league innings, he’s struck out 10 batters per nine but walked 5.2 per nine and has a FIP of 4.38. It’s that lack of command that has prevented him from ascending into the high leverage innings, and he lost his manager’s trust this year, with an average leverage index of a .84, compared with an LI of 1.34 the previous season.

If the Indians can coax Perez into throwing more strikes, they’ll have a good, cheap high-leverage reliever under team control for the next five years, making this deal a real win. If that doesn’t happen, he’s basically another Kyle Farnsworth, which still has some value, but isn’t exactly a rare commodity.

Mark DeRosa is a La Russa guy if there ever was one, in that he’s a veteran who can play a bunch of different positions, and the good news for Cardinal fans is he can actually hit a little bit. With Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick and Chris Duncan slumping at the same time and Troy Glaus still on the shelf, the Cardinals in sore need of some run production. DeRosa is not a world-beater, but is projected to hit for a .348 wOBA the rest of the season, and he will probably be playing third base more often than not. The Cardinals are getting a .296 wOBA from the position, so they’ll gladly take it.

DeRosa’s not a plus defender at 3B by any stretch (-8 UZR per 150 games career), but neither was Joe Thurston. The last three seasons DeRosa’s been near a 3 win player or better, and should give the Cardinals about ~1-1.5 WAR the rest of the way. In a division in which the cellar-dwelling Pirates are just five games out, that could mean a world of difference for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals may have paid a stiffer price than they’d like by giving up their “future closer” for a half a season’s rental, but chances are Perez’s command never quite comes around, and they still would have been driven to the market once Ryan Franklin’s magic closer beard gets shaved off, or when he becomes a free agent in 2010, whichever comes first. I have to also think this trade was made not to just get DeRosa, but to keep him away from Milwaukee and Chicago, who also were expressing an interest.


Nationals Deal Solid Defender, Look For Replacement

I wrote about the Nationals defensive issues two weeks ago, and now they’ve gone and puzzled me even more.

Over the weekend reports suggested the Nationals are interested in Pirates outfielder Nyjer Morgan, the best despite an iffy bat has statistically the best defender in baseball . Apparently the Nationals were hoping to swap out wild child Lastings Milledge for Morgan in a good ol’ fashion challenge trade. In terms of assets, Morgan makes sense for the Nationals. He’s a bit older than you would expect (28) for the reasonably newcomer but has an excellent handle on defense and a below average bat that won’t sink a team.

What confuses me, is the Nationals then dealt Ryan Langerhans to the Mariners for Mike Morse. Langerhans is 29-years-old, a fantastic defender, and Langerhans has always hit better in the minors than Morgan. His weak 2007 was mostly due to bad luck on balls in play. Even if you argue Langerhans is slightly worse on defense, he closes the gap on offense and availability, since, you know, he’s already in the Nationals system.

While Milledge has a laundry list of past transgressions, it’s hard to believe the Nationals value him approximately the same as they value Morse. Milledge is a 24-year-old outfielder with two seasons of league-average hitting. Morse is 27, has no real defensive position and in his only real exposure to the majors hit about as well as Milledge.

So if the Nationals are interested in essentially trading Milledge and Langerhans for Morgan and Morse they gain nothing. The desire to dump Milledge’s baggage is understandable, but considering their 40-man roster already contains eight non-Milledge outfielders, it seems like they could stand to reshuffle assets to other positions than the outfield.

As for the Mariners, they get their Endy Chavez replacement for a spare part. Maybe the Mariners outfield defense will remain the best in the league after all.


Bizarre Bazardo

In the past four years, Yorman Bazardo has played for four organizations (Florida, Seattle, Detroit and how Houston), being traded twice, designated for assignment twice and outright released once. Seems strange for a guy with a career ERA of 4.61 in Triple-A and who is just 24 years old, so what might be contributing to Bazardo’s seeming unattractiveness as a prospect?

First, because I like the hard evidence better, let us take a quick tour through his numbers. Bazardo does a good job of missing bats but has also had some issues finding the zone. His reduction in pitches outside the zone is a big reason why he is seeing the level of success this season in Triple-A for Houston that he is. Bazardo has also been a prolific groundballer, holding above the 50% mark as a starter. Based strictly on missing bats, finding the zone and keeping the ball on the ground, you would think Bazardo would rank as an above average Major League starter right now.

The problem has been turning those missed bats into strikeouts. That did not happen in 2008 and that torpedoed Bazardo’s stay with Detroit. Still, that usually corrects itself, as it has so far in 2009, so you would think that giving up on Bazardo so early still seems odd.

Here is where we get into the less clear issues. For one, there is speculation that Bazardo is not actually 24. If true, that would certainly explain teams being more willing to cut ties with him. Another issue might be his attitude, rumors of markup issues dogged him in the past. I could only speculate, and I won’t, on the severity of them if they were, in fact, present. Maybe the scouts see something that limits his ceiling. Even if all three of these were true, it still strikes me as odd that so many teams have passed him on in such inglorious fashions.


Perplexed About Lee

As Dave noted earlier this afternoon, several teams are currently trying to improve their starting pitching, presently plugging holes either internally or via stopgap veterans. Two of the bigger names on the market, Erik Bedard and Jake Peavy, have battled health issues all season, vastly reducing their perceived value in the market, especially given the haul of prospects required to entice their respective employers. Another name tossed around a bit, Brandon Webb, is out for the season and potentially half of the 2010 campaign.

Rumors regarding Roy Oswalt have been floated with increased regularity as well, but his no-trade clause combined with a very lucrative contract and Drayton McClane’s unwillingness to realize the current incarnation of his franchise is doomed, makes the Astros ace hard to move. The other popular trade candidates are Jarrod Washburn, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Jason Marquis, and potentially, Aaron Harang.

All of this brings us to Cliff Lee, currently a better pitcher than any of the guys mentioned above, who also has a pretty favorable contract relative to his contributions. Lee makes $5.75 mil this season with an $8 mil option for next season. His 2010 salary will actually be $9 mil on the option based on the incentive stipulating a $1 mil raise should he win the Cy Young Award in either 2008 or 2009. Seeing as he won the award last year, the incentive has kicked in.

With the Indians tanking and Lee’s value likely higher than it ever will be, it makes sense for Shapiro to kick the tires on a potential deal netting him prospects, but for some reason, more rumors and trade talks have involved guys like Marquis, who is actually making almost double Lee’s salary this year, and is a free agent at the end of the season with no option on which to hang his head. I am honestly perplexed as to why Lee has not attracted more attention; or if he has, why we have not heard about it yet. It is almost as if teams are still waiting for the massive regression to occur, when we now have a year and a half of awesomeness from the Indians lefty proving his worth.

Since the beginning of last season, Lee has thrown 334.1 innings over 47 starts, with a 2.67 ERA almost matched by an equally low FIP, a 1.17 WHIP, a sub-2.0 walk rate, and a 4.2 K/BB ratio. The only thing missing is the reputation that usually accompanies the name of a pitcher with numbers like that over an extended period of time. It is time to start realizing that Cliff Lee has become a very good pitcher, not a back of the rotation upgrade. If any of the Phillies, Brewers or Rangers is serious about solidifying their rotation by trading a young stud prospect, they should start amping up efforts to acquire Lee. He might not win the Cy Young Award again, but given his contract and current established level of performance, as well as the lack of health issues, no other pitcher being discussed as a trade target would be a more significant upgrade.


The Underrated Brad Bergesen

The Orioles have a lot of good young pitchers. David Hernandez made his major league debut earlier this season, and top prospects Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz aren’t too terribly far behind. Toss in Jake Arrieta and Brandon Erbe, and Baltimore has as good a crop of pitching prospects as any organization in baseball.

But, for all the big time velocity arms that are on their way to Camden Yards, Brad Bergesen and his 89 MPH fastball has snuck into the team photo and is threatening to stick around. I’m going to go so far as to say he’s the best pitcher that most people have never heard of.

Bergesen is the classic kind of pitching prospect that slips through the cracks. A fourth round pick back in 2004, he worked his way through the minors with average stuff and no out pitch, leading to rather boring looking strikeout numbers, which is the main way pitching prospects get recognized. His minor league K/9, by year/level:

2005: Short-Season A: 6.8
2006: Low-A: 5.1
2007: Low-A: 7.0, High-A: 5.6
2008: High-A: 7.8, Double-A: 4.4
2009: Triple-A: 7.4, Majors: 4.1

Usually, a pitching prospect isn’t going to get much respect if he’s punching out less than a batter per inning, especially in the lower levels. Pitching to contact in low-A is usually a sign that your stuff isn’t major league quality, and when your fastball tops out at 92, the suspicion is confirmed.

However, the strikeout obsession has led to a lot of missed evaluations on groundball specialists, and Bergesen is proving to be exactly that. Pitch F/x shows that his fastball has similar amounts of vertical movement to some guy named Roy Halladay, so we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that Bergesen has a 54% groundball rate through his first twelve major league starts.

When you can command a sinking fastball and have an off-speed pitch to keep opposite handed hitters at bay, you can be an effective major league starter. Bergesen doesn’t have the same potential as some of the more hyped arms in the Orioles system, but don’t discount his strengths and write him off as a no-stuff guy who belongs in the bullpen. Command, sinker, and change-up – it’s the recipe for a solid back-end starting pitcher.


Change of Scenery: Michael Aubrey

I love under-the-radar minor-league moves. After years of player-development mediocrity, the Baltimore Orioles organization is slowly redeeming itself. We probably all know about prospects like Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, and Chris Tillman, but the organization did not have a ton of depth at the first base position – outside of converted catcher Brandon Snyder, who was recently promoted to triple-A.

This week, the Orioles organization picked up former first-round pick Michael Aubrey, who never reached his potential in Cleveland thanks to a rash of injuries. The left-handed hitting first baseman could offer a complement to the right-handed hitting Snyder. Aubrey also provides some immediate help if the club – likely out of the playoff race – decides to jettison veterans Aubrey Huff (at the end of a three-year deal) and/or Ty Wigginton (in the first year of a two-year deal).

Aubrey has actually been fairly health the last two seasons, having appeared in a career high 114 games last year and 57 games this season. After seven minor league seasons, it’s clear that the first baseman needed a change of scenery, having appeared in just 15 big-league games (all in 2008). This year, Aubrey was hitting .292/.322/.448 with 16 doubles and five homers in 212 at-bats. Despite some injuries at the MLB level to players such as Travis Hafner, Aubrey never received consideration for big-league playing time.

He’ll end his Cleveland career (presumably) with a line of .295/.356/.475 in more than 1,500 at-bats. The 27-year-old former Tulane University star has below-average power for a MLB first baseman, but he can hit for a solid batting average with gap power and he is an above-average fielder. It’s a very nice low-risk, medium-reward move by an organization that is getting better by the season.


HITf/x Contrast of HR and non-HR Hitters

As Matthew told us about a couple of weeks ago a new age of baseball data is upon us. Sportsvision and MLBAM released the HITf/x data from April 2009, which gave us information on the speed and angle of the ball of the bat for all batted balls. One thing I was interested in is how the swings of high strikeout high home run hitters differ from those of non-home run low strikeout hitters. Since the data only covers one month we do not have enough data to analyze individual hitters in depth, so here I pooled two groups of hitter to get more data. I choose the most extreme strikeout/home run hitters and none home run/stikeout hitters to highlight the differences.

In the home run group I choose five hitters from last year with greater than 25% HR/FB and greater than 25% K/AB: Ryan Howard, Jack Cust, Adam Dunn, Jim Thome and Chris Davis. The non-home run group was five hitters with less than 5% HR/FB and under 10% K/AB: Placido Polanco, Yuniesky Betancourt, Jason Kendall,Ichiro Suzuki and Ryan Theriot. For each group I plotted the speed of the ball off the bat versus the vertical angle of the ball off the bat, the vertical angle ranges form -90, a ball hit straight into the ground, to 90, a ball popped straight up. With a 0 angle hit being parrallel to the ground.

figure

The non-HR hitters hit balls with a below 0° vertical angle slightly harder than HR hitters, but for balls with above 0° vertical angle HR hitters hit the ball much harder, with the difference increasing as the vertical angle increases. I guess that is not terribly surprising, HR hitters hit balls in the air very hard and non-HR hitters don’t. Balls on the ground they hit about the same.

One interesting difference is the angle where the speed peaks. I think that you can roughly interpret this as the vertical angle of the swing of the bat as it hits the ball. The greatest speed of the ball off the bat happens when the ball is hit squarely and this should result in the ball coming off the bat at the same angle as the swing of the bat. If you believe this interpretation it looks like the angle of the non-HR hitter’s bat as they hit the ball is just above 0°, roughly parrellel to the ground. While for the HR-hitters the angle is around 10 or 15°, a slight upper-cut.

When data from more months are released we will be able to analyze individual hitters in the same manner.


J.D. Martin Deserves A Shot

As we head towards the trading deadline, it seems like every contender in baseball is shopping for a starting pitcher, and they’re all complaining that there aren’t any available. The guys who were expected to be available aren’t as of yet, thanks to trips to the disabled list or the fact that they’re teams just aren’t ready to sell yet, so organizations like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Texas are just cooling their heals, trying to patch their holes internally while hoping that the market opens up in July.

Well, I have a suggestion. Rather than sitting around for a month, losing games that will come back to haunt you in September, why not give a kid a shot who deserves one and certainly won’t be getting one in his current organization. That kid is J.D. Martin, currently destroying the International League as the ace of the Syracuse Skychiefs.

Martin was signed as a minor league free agent over the winter by the Nationals to provide some Triple-A pitching depth, and while the Nationals have a lot of problems, they don’t lack for young pitching options in their rotation. It’s unlikely that they’ll be giving Martin a look this summer, and if he’s not traded, he’ll probably spend the whole year in Syracuse.

However, he’s earned a shot at the big leagues. A former first round pick of the Indians in 2001, he’s overcome some arm problems and has begun to show durability that was always a question mark. Despite standing 6’4, Martin is a strike-thrower with a below average fastball who lives off of his change-up. That package works a lot better in the minors than it does in the majors, but extreme users of this skillset can provide useful innings in the big leagues.

Martin is definitely an extreme strike thrower. He’s walked 7 batters in 70 innings so far this year while racking up 52 strikeouts and a league average groundball rate. When you pound the zone that often and aren’t getting torched for copious amounts of fly balls, you’re doing enough things right to get hitters out. This is, essentially, the Minnesota Twins model of pitching. Carlos Silva, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn have all been successful in the Twin Cities while throwing below average fastballs over the plate a lot.

Other teams are still skeptical of the command-and-change-up right-handed pitcher, however, and guys like Martin have trouble finding a major league job. While it’s true that there’s almost no star potential in this skillset, and the upside offered is that of a #5 starter who will depend on his defense to help him get through 5 or 6 innings, that kind of pitcher can help a contender in the right situation. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Texas could all use a guy like Martin right now.

If they’d overlook the lack of big time velocity, they’d find that there are pitchers out there who could be acquired right now and could help patch a hole in their rotation. J.D. Martin deserves a shot in the majors, and with all the teams currently whining about the lack of available pitching, one of them should give Washington a call and give the kid an opportunity.


What’s Wrong with Rollins?

With now over 300 plate appearances into the season, it’s hard to keep saying it’s just a slump for Jimmy Rollins. To the chagrin of his fantasy owners and fans of the reigning World Champs, the 2007 MVP is currently the worst hitting regular shortstop in baseball. His .255 wOBA translates to -20.5 batting runs. His manager, Charlie Manuel recently said Jimmy needs to “sit and relax”, meaning Rollins is going to ride some pine for a while and try and sort things out.

While I’d like to point to his .218 BABIP and blame bad luck, it is a little more dubious than that. Rollins really is trending downward in all the wrong places.

        BB%     LD%     IFFB%   HR/FB   wFB/C   Spd    UZR/150
2007    6.4     19.9     7.5    10.7     0.58   8.8     6.3
2008    9.4 	24.0    11.8     7.2    -0.12   7.8    15.0
2009    5.1     16.5    14.4     5.4    -1.57   5.7     4.0

What really rears it’s ugly head is that J-Roll is really having some major hang-ups with the heat, to the tune of -1.57 runs per 100 fastballs pitched. He’s also not striking the ball with authority, as evidenced by a plummeting line-drive rate and a hike in infield flies. It could be something as simple as a flat swing, or it could a slowing bat. That’s where scouting comes in, and someone who regularly watches the Phillies can feel free to help me fill in the blanks.

There’s also that drop in his speed score and UZR, which could have other implications, as in maybe he’s lost a step. At 31-years old, I’m hardly saying Rollins is finished, though I think this could be the beginning of the end of Rollins best days. Of course, he also could win another MVP next year and make me look really stupid.

Regardless of whether he’s entering a decline phase or is just in the slump of a lifetime, there has to be a little hand-wringing going on in Philadelphia over their star shortstop.


Maybe Maybin Time?

Cameron Maybin’s stay in the minors could be coming to an end soon. The Marlins’ collective centerfielders aren’t getting the job done, ranking in the bottom third of the league in offensive and defensive contributions. Meanwhile, Maybin has scorched Triple-A in his second month at the level. Overall, Maybin is hitting .323/.404/.452 with a homerun, four stolen bags, and a passable BB/K ratio.

Maybin is only 23-years-old and he’s outhitting the PCL average of .271/.341/.414 by a fair margin. Despite missing a few games after an altercation with an umpire, June has been Maybin’s month. Entering last night Maybin was hitting .377/.472/.492 in the month with a near 1:1 BB/K ratio. A nice contrast from Maybin’s May, in which he hit .270/.333/.413 and struck out twice as much as he walked.

Maybin spent about a month in the majors to begin the year, and according to Cots was just shy of 60 days of service time opening the season. That puts him in the ~90 days range, which means he’s about two and a half months from reaching a full year. With that in mind, the Marlins only have a few more weeks to wait until they can promote Maybin and avoid chipping away on his cost-controlled time.

There’s also the question of whether Maybin is indeed ready for major league action. Given a limited sample size of just under 200 plate appearances, Maybin has hit a pedestrian .242/.309/.345; although, the incumbent group of centerfielders is not doing much better, with a combined line of .272/.321/.443. If Maybin is able to make contact better than 70% of the time, he could do a lot better.

Maybin looks like a special talent, one the Marlins are going to be careful with. Being two games back of the Phillies is going to test the Marlins resolve on whether the extra help for a playoff push is worth the potential long-term cons.