Archive for September, 2009

Ben Zobrist’s WAR

File this under “unlikely results”:

When the Rays acquired Ben Zobrist in the Aubrey Huff trade a few years back, the most impressive tool in his shed was his ability to reach base. Throughout the minors his career .429 on-base percentage made him a desirable stopgap if nothing else. The Rays incumbent shortstop Julio Lugo was moved shortly after and uber prospect B.J. Upton shifted to third base. Zobrist would rack up 198 plate appearances that season, posting a measly .260 OBP and barely hitting a ball out of the infield.

The Rays would persevere with the now 28-year-old Dallas Baptist University product and start him on opening day 2007. In 105 plate appearances his line was .155/.184/.206. Brendan Harris would take over at shortstop – someone with fall-down range – and Zobrist would rake in Triple-A. An injury would sideline Zobrist in 2008 but when he finally reached the majors he took off: blasting 12 home runs in 227 plate appearances.

This was a guy who had the bat knocked out of his hands during his major league stint and someone who hit 23 minor league home runs in 1,642 plate appearances. There was absolutely no way this power surge was legitimate, right? Well, I doubted him based on this information and apparently I was quite wrong. Zobrist secured a starting spot at second base once Akinori Iwamura went down to injury and could finish with 600 plate appearances this season. He’s hit 25 homers and 25 doubles to go with his .924 OPS.

Is this his true talent level? Heavens no. His UZR at second base is 16.1 runs. Former shortstops should perform better at second base, but expecting such a performance again is a bit much. Heck, odds are his power display isn’t legitimate either. Awards aren’t given out on true talent level and expected futures though. It’s all about the actual performances and for that reason Zobrist should garner some AL MVP votes and claim the Rays team MVP award as one of the best stories and best performances of 2009.


The Underheralded Rookie Pitchers

There are few things in baseball that get fans as excited as the new young star pitcher. Whether it was Dwight Gooden, Ben McDonald, Josh Beckett, Mark Prior, Felix Hernandez, or David Price, the promise of a potential ace is something that every fan base goes nuts for. There’s something special about having a truly dominating starting pitcher take the hill every five days.

Price got all the hype headed into the season, and perhaps his struggles have led to a bit of disappointment in the crop as a whole. But once you look past the fact that he didn’t dominate in the way some were expecting, there’s a whole lot of talent in this rookie pitching crop.

I talked about the emergence of Brett Anderson a month ago. He’s not only got a bright future, but he’s showing that he’s already one of the better pitchers in baseball. As a 21-year-old lefty, he’s running a 3.3 K/BB ratio while maintaining a 50% GB%. And he’s getting better as the year goes on. He might not have the sizzle of the names listed above, but he’s not that far away from being a #1 starter.

In the NL, Tommy Hanson is doing something similar. His first five starts were a bit rough, as he struggled with his command and ran a 17/18 BB/K rate in 29 innings. Since the calendar turned to June, however, he’s been lights out – 92 innings, 76 H, 27 BB, 89 K. This is the kind of line you should expect him to put up. He’s that good.

We just talked about Derek Holland last week, so I’ll spare the recap of that other than to say that he’s been much, much better than his ERA would indicate.

After those three, you’ve still got a strong crop of guys. J.A. Happ, Randy Wells, and Jeff Niemann have had strong rookie seasons, even if they aren’t quite as talented as the trio mentioned above. Rick Porcello has held his own as a 20-year-old without an out pitch, which is impressive in its own right. Brad Bergesen, Ricky Romero, and Mark Rzepczynski showed terrific sinkers and a good feel for pitching.

And finally, there were the relievers – Neftali Feliz stole the show late, but Andrew Bailey, Luke Gregerson, and Darren O’Day were lights out all year long. Daniel Bard flashed brilliance at times, while Chris Perez and Sergio Romo showed significant potential as well.

This is just a remarkably deep group of good young rookie pitchers. Injuries and attrition will send a lot of them by the way side, but don’t be surprised if we look back in five years and realize that a large handful of the best pitchers in the game all put themselves on the map in 2009.


A Minor Review of 2009: San Francisco Giants

Prospect ranking season is just around the corner. In anticipation of that, we present an intro series looking at some of the players who deserve mentioning but probably will not be appearing on their teams’ Top 10 lists. The popular series is back for the second year.

San Francisco Giants

The Graduate: Merkin Valdez, RHP
As Buster Posey will probably tell you in private, there are not a lot of rookies that get a fair shake in San Francisco. Valdez was one of a few rookies that saw “significant” playing time in 2009. The right-handed reliever allowed 57 hits in 49.1 innings of work and posted a walk rate of 5.11 BB/9 and a strikeout rate of 6.93 K/9. A former hard-throwing top prospect, Valdez has had injury problems and his lack of minor-league options meant that San Francisco had to hold on to him all year even though he struggled. With a fastball that sits around 95 mph, Valdez is an intriguing commodity but he needs to improve his secondary pitches (He threw the heater more than 80% of the time).

The Riser: Dan Runzler, LHP
This was a hard pick to make because A) Runzler may sneak onto the back end of the Top 10 list for the organization (I like him a lot) and B) Most of the other risers definitely vaulted themselves onto the Top 10 list. Although he is a middle reliever right now, Runzler could be a very good one. The southpaw has crazy ground-ball rates (60%+ in his career) and his fastball has been sitting around 95 mph in the Majors (7.1 innings). He’s not just a LOOGY, either. Runzler has held lefties to a .189 career batting average and righties are hitting just .181. Don’t count him out as a future closer.

The Tumbler: Nick Noonan, 2B
Noonan did not make a huge tumble in 2009 but the 2007 supplemental first round pick out of a San Diego high school did certainly take a step back. His OPS has dropped from .809 in his debut to .730 in 2008 and .728 this year. He’s also seen his strikeout rate go from 9.7 to 19.6 to 21.1%. As well, he stole just nine bases this year in 14 attempts after nabbing 29 in 2008. With a .136 career ISO, Noonan offers just a little pop and now he’s stopped running, which means he’s a singles hitter that hit just .259/.330/.397 in high-A ball.

The ’10 Sleeper: Hector Sanchez, C
Sanchez made his North American debut in 2009 and held his own with the bat in rookie ball. The 19-year-old catcher batted .299/.403/.410 and showed a good grasp of the strike zone for his age with a walk rate of 12.0% and a strikeout rate of 17.9%. Impressively, though, it’s his defense that gets talked about the most and he threw out 45% of base runners attempting to steal. Like some other Giants we know and love, he needs to watch his weight.

Bonus: Clayton Tanner, LHP
Tanner received some consideration for “The Riser” category before I realized he was listed as the sleeper prospect in the 2008 minor review. The southpaw can be labeled as a soft-tosser, which limits his ceiling to a degree, but the Australian continues to make improvements and have success. Tanner posted a walk rate of just 2.71 BB/9 while repeating high-A ball for the second year.The 21-year-old also increased his strikeout rate over 2008 from 6.46 to 7.82 K/9. In 139.1 innings, he allowed 132 hits but gave up an alarming 18 homers (1.16 HR/9). Tanner needs to work on throwing better quality strikes.


A Minor Review of 2009: Oakland Athletics

Prospect ranking season is just around the corner. In anticipation of that, we present an intro series looking at some of the players who deserve mentioning but probably will not be appearing on their teams’ Top 10 lists. The popular series is back for the second year.

Oakland Athletics

The Graduate: Andrew Bailey, RHP
Oakland graduated a ton of rookies in 2009 but Bailey did far more than what was expected of him. Mainly a starter in the minors, Bailey came to the Majors and asserted himself as the club’s go-to guy in the ninth inning. With a handful of games remaining in the season, the right-hander has 26 saves in 30 attempts and has allowed just 49 hits in 81.1 innings of work. He also has a solid walk rate at 2.66 BB/9 and a good strikeout rate at 9.85 K/9. Bailey will certainly be in on the Rookie of the Year discussion.

The Riser: Sam Demel, RHP
Taken out of Texas Christian University as a senior in the third round of the 2007 draft, Demel is on the cusp of pitching in Oakland. He split 2009 between double-A and triple-A. His control is the biggest thing holding him back. Demel posted a 2.76 walk rate in high-A but it jumped to 5.85 BB/9 in triple-A. Overall, he allowed 50 hits in 61.2 innings of work. Demel also has very good ground-ball rates in his career and he has allowed just two home runs all season. His repertoire includes a fastball that can touch the mid-90s, a very good changeup and a slider.

The Tumbler: Brett Hunter, RHP
With a high-90s fastball and a wipe-out slider, Hunter has all the makings to be a dominating closer. He slipped in the 2008 draft because he was dealing with injuries but the A’s got him signed away from his senior year at Pepperdine University after watching him throw well in the summer. Unfortunately after a nice, albeit brief, debut in ’08, his command and his control both deserted him in 2009 in low-A ball. He allowed 38 hits in 47.1 innings of work but posted a walk rate of 11.22 BB/9 (59 walks). The 22-year-old has a big mountain to climb in 2010.

The ’10 Sleeper: Jeremy Barfield, OF
The son of former Blue Jay/Yankee Jesse Barfield, Jeremy has even more raw potential than brother Josh Barfield. Originally selected in the ninth round of the 2006 draft by the Mets, Jeremy went to junior college and eventually signed with Oakland in the eighth round of the 2008 draft. The outfielder has intriguing power potential and he hit well in his debut but slipped a bit in 2009 after playing full-season ball for the first time. Jeremy hit .302/.380/.467 before the All-Star break but just .234/.317/.332 afterward. The right-handed hitter also struggled against southpaws with a batting average of just .228.

Bonus: Andrew Carignan, RHP
Carignan was ranked as the sleeper for Oakland during the 2008 Minor Review series. Unfortunately, the right-handed reliever never had an opportunity to make good on that potential as he was hurt (forearm/elbow) and appeared in just two games all season long. If he can get back on the mound in 2010 with the stuff he showed in 2008, then he still has a chance fulfill his promise as a late-game reliever (likely a set-up man). Carignan biggest need right now is to improve his command/control but the layoff certainly will not help.


Lind Finishing Up with a Bang

Last night Adam Lind capped a break-out season with a three-HR burst. Together with Marco Scutaro and Aaron Hill, he provided some excitement in an other wise forgettable year for the Toronto fans.

Lind has emerged as a major power threat. Those three bring his total up to 35 and his wOBA of .394 makes him one of the ten best hitters in the AL this year. Here I display his HRs in a way I started doing over at Baseball Analysts. Along the bottom I plot the horizontal location of the pitch he hit for a HR. Lind stands to the right of the image as a lefty. Then I connect that point to the horizontal angle of the HR. I color coded the lines by pitch type, with the same colors used here in the pitchf/x section. Just to make things a little simpler I grouped all fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and cut) into one group.

x_ang
Lind has great plate coverage, hitting HRs on pitches across most of the plate. In addition he has power to all fields, hitting a number of opposite (left) field HRs. For the most part he pulls inside pitches and goes the other way with outside pitches.

There are some other interesting trends. The sliders (red) he hit for HRs were all on the inside half of the plate, while the changeups (yellow/orange) were middle-away. He pulls changeups more often, while going the other way with fastballs.

As Dave Cameron noted a couple months ago Lind’s trip to this point has been bumpy (with concerns of the dreaded AAAA tag coming into this year), but he has made it in a big way.


LaRoche Living Up To The Hype

The Piraes trade of Jason Bay has been slow to bear fruit. Three of the four players they received haven’t lived up to expectations – Brandon Moss has played at replacement level all season, Craig Hansen has been injured, and Bryan Morris was terrible and then hurt in A-ball. But, the key player to the deal was Andy LaRoche, and after a rough start to his Pirates career, he’s finally making fans appreciate the deal.

In September, LaRoche is hitting .347/.395/.640 in 82 trips to the plate. The most encouraging part for Pittsburgh fans has to be the power – 12 of his 26 hits have gone for extra bases this month after not having more than seven XBH in any prior month this season. Perhaps just as important, his revival has come after he hit just .188 in July and .205 in August, and looked to be on the verge of playing himself out of a job in 2010.

As a 26-year-old, LaRoche isn’ a kid anymore. He’s not going to keep getting chances bases on his minor league numbers, so a strong final month of the season was exactly what he needed. And, with the hot stretch, he’s raised his overall season line to .260/.335/.408, which makes him a league average hitter for the season.

As a solid defender at third, league average offense is enough to make him a pretty decent player. For the season, we’ve got him valued at +2.5 wins, which would be worth about $11 million on the free market. With an average across-the-board skillset, LaRoche isn’t likely to ever turn into a star, but for where Pittsburgh in his their rebuilding effort, he’s a better fit for the organization than keeping Bay would have been.

It took a while, but the Pirates can finally point to something more than hope for why they made the deal. With a strong finish to the season, LaRoche has given the team reason for optimism going forward, and that’s something that has been missing in Pittsburgh for quite a while.


How Are the Stars Acquired: Outfield & Summary

Same rules as before: ranked by WAR and 300 plate appearances at that position to qualify.

Center field

Franklin Gutierrez – traded
Matt Kemp – drafted
Nyjer Morgan – traded
Michael Bourn – traded
Mike Cameron – free agent
Ryan Sweeney – traded
Denard Span – drafted
Torii Hunter – free agent
Rajai Davis – waivers
Curtis Granderson – drafted

Scoreboard:
4 traded
3 drafted
2 free agents
1 waivers

Corner outfield:

Matt Holliday – traded
Carl Crawford — drafted
Justin Upton – drafted
Ichiro – free agent
Shin-Soo Choo – traded
Ryan Braun – drafted
Jayson Werth – traded
J.D. Drew – free agent
Raul Ibanez – free agent
Nelson Cruz – traded

4 traded
3 free agents
3 drafted

Overall, we sampled 115 of the league’s best and brightest. Of those, a combined 54 players were either drafted or signed as an amateur free agent by their current clubs. An additional two were plucked on waivers or through the Rule 5 draft and 44 more were traded for. Only 15 players were signed as major league free agents, and it’s hard to classify many of those signings as blockbuster in magnitude.

There are some teams that take the scouting and drafting game less seriously than they should. I doubt those teams read this website, but if they did and wanted to take one statistic – one message – from this series, it’s this: 47% of 2009’s best players were “just prospects” at one point or another. That’s not to include all of the players traded at early points of their career either. Meanwhile only 13% were signed as free agents.

Free agency may get all the hype and buzz, but the draft is where teams find impact talent.


Previewing the Playoff Matchups: NL

Last time we looked at the possible (and almost certain) playoff matches in the American League. With about five games left, lets turn to the senior circuit which has a surprising amount of spots left in flux.

Technically the NL East is still in play with the Braves being five behind the Phillies with five games remaining. We can go ahead and chalk that one up to Philly though. St. Louis has already clinched the NL Central and the Dodgers have clinched at least a Wildcard berth giving us two teams for sure and another baring a Mets-style collapse. The last spot is between Atlanta and Colorado for the most part with San Francisco technically still in consideration at five back with, again, five to play.

So what are the likely matchups? They are a lot harder to predict than the AL as the division leaders are all within 2.5 games of each other, but the current trends would have the Dodgers playing the Cardinals and the Phillies grabbing the Rockies. That basic structure will hold as long as the Dodgers hold onto their 1.5 game lead as the best record in the NL and the Rockies (or Giants I suppose) take the Wildcard.

Other scenarios would necessitate the Rockies dropping their current three game lead over the Braves, who would then being paired up with the Dodgers, should they maintain the best NL record. If both NL West teams collapse and the Braves prevail in the Wildcard and the Dodgers lose out on the best record, then things again become a toss up depending on who prevails between the Cardinals and Phillies.

Confused yet? Luckily, we’ll all know what’s what by the end of the week, but in a final few games in which the playoff participants are all almost figured out, at least there’s something worth watching for in the NL.


How Are the Stars Being Acquired: Infield

Ranked by WAR amongst players with at least 300 plate appearances:

First base

Albert Pujols – drafted
Prince Fielder – drafted
Adrian Gonzalez – traded
Miguel Cabrera – traded
Mark Teixeira – free agent
Kevin Youkilis – drafted
Derrek Lee – traded
Ryan Howard – drafted
Joey Votto – drafted
Kendry Morales – amateur free agent

Scoreboard:
5 drafted
3 traded
1 free agent
1 amateur free agent

Second base

Ben Zobrist – traded
Chase Utley – drafted
Dustin Pedroia – drafted
Felipe Lopez – traded
Robinson Cano – drafted
Ian Kinsler – drafted
Aaron Hill – drafted
Brian Roberts – drafted
Placido Polanco – traded
Brandon Phillips – traded
Juan Uribe – free agent

Scoreboard:
5 drafted
4 traded
1 free agent

Third base

Evan Longoria – drafted
Ryan Zimmerman – drafted
Chone Figgins – traded
Kevin Youkilis – drafted
Alex Rodriguez – traded
Pablo Sandoval – amateur free agent
Casey Blake – traded
Mark Reynolds – drafted
Michael Young – traded
Scott Rolen – traded

Scoreboard
5 traded
4 drafted
1 amateur free agent

Shortstop

Hanley Ramirez – traded
Derek Jeter – drafted
Troy Tulowitzki – drafted
Jason Bartlett – traded
Marco Scutaro – traded
Yunel Escobar – drafted
Erick Aybar – amateur free agent
Brendan Ryan – drafted
Rafael Furcal – free agent
Elvis Andrus – traded

Scoreboard
4 drafted
4 traded
1 free agent
1 amateur free agent

All told we have a breakdown of: 18 drafted, 16 traded, 3 free agents, and 3 amateur agents. I’m sure most people see the developing theme here, but let me state the obvious: the best players in baseball this year were not acquired on the free agent market. Despite the hype and headlines that come with big-time contract signings and hot stove nature, the aggression on the trade, draft, and international scouting fronts seems to pay off with more impact players. Maybe it’s a one-year fluke or maybe it’s just an infield thing. We’ll cover the outfield and wrap up the series tomorrow.


Atlanta Streaks into Wild Card Contention

Over the past three weeks Atlanta has done everything in its power to add a little more excitement to the end of the regular season. They have gone 16-3 and catapulted themselves into the NL playoff picture. By Cool Standings’ reckoning they now have a 21% chance of winning the NL Wild Card. Here is how that 16-3 run has affected their Wild Card hopes (again based on Cool Standings numbers):
wc_prob

Their chances grew only a little bit in the first two weeks, but in the last week the Braves have gone 6-0 while Colorado 3-3. As a result their WC chances have quadrupled from around 5% to over 20%.

In the past two weeks (which misses the beginning of their torrid pace, but is one of the splits that FanGraphs provides) their batting has provided a nice jolt, with a wOBA of 0.348. But their pitching and defense has been the major reason for the success. Their FIP has only been slightly above average 4.05, but their ERA has been 2.9. This is courtesy of a low BABIP, but more so of a huge 83% LOB. Their pitching has been very clutch, (1.43 clutch over the past two weeks, for an explanation of clutch see here), performing better in high leverage situations like when runners are on or when the game is tight.

So over the past two weeks Atlanta has preformed well, and either got a little lucky or raised to preform even better in the most important situations, depending how you look at it. Either way the great run has added a second race of interest in the last week of the regular season.


Athwart the Numbers: Keppinger, Francisco, Decker

Remember when I did that thing last week where I cherrypicked from Bill James for my own personal profit? Well, I’m about to do that again, stat. But before I do, a quick note on the title of the present document.

I don’t think I’m too far off base when I say that there comes a time in every man’s life when he begins to write for a nationally recognized, widely lauded baseball analysis website. Oh sure, it comes a little earlier for some of us — and here I’m thinking in particular of the 7-year-old Chinese prodigy Bang Qiu Nao, who’s done some excellent Pitchf/x stuff for the Chinese Professional Baseball League. For others of us, it comes later, maybe — or never at all, as was the case with my great uncle Vittorio who tended the land in Puglia, lived the country life, and wrote only about basketball.

One thing I’ve noticed in my own fledgling career as a baseball analyst is how you see a lot of guys who go inside the numbers, who look between the numbers, who claim to go beyond the numbers, or who just get all up on the numbers. However, despite some really extensive and boring research, I have as yet to find anyone willing to go athwart the numbers.

What does it mean to go athwart the numbers? I don’t know exactly. But I’m gonna try and do it: for my children, and my children’s children, and my children’s children’s children.

And while I’ll undoubtedly take all the credit for embracing this most overlooked of prepositions, I’ll be wrong to do so. I’ve stolen the idea wholesale from my friend Ross. Despite the fact that he’s recently given up on life — i.e. started law school* — when he was alive, Ross not only used athwart routinely, but he also wrote the most interesting possible article about stadium financing ever. If and when he’s allowed to actually practice law, someone should hire him real hard.

*I won’t say where exactly, but I will tell you: it’s where fun goes to die.

Anyway, like I say, Ross has left us here in Portland. We’re going to miss him. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to pour out the first sip of this forty in his honor…

Thank you.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming: three more from our Numbers-as-Narrative experiment.

Jeff Keppinger, Everyman, Houston
I don’t know what Keppinger’s like in real life. Maybe he cusses at strangers and kicks dogs. Maybe he stuffs ballot boxes and deals arms. But my guess is he doesn’t. My guess is, if his numbers are any indication, he’s the most considerate, responsible fellow anyone has ever met. Why do I say that? Regard (Field% and Lg Field% are at primary position only):

Season	Team	PA	K%	Lg K%	Prim Pos (Inn)	Field%	Lg Field%
2004	Mets	123	6.0%	19.0%	2B (257.2)	.987	.984
2007	Reds	276	5.0%	19.2%	SS (390.2)	.989	.972
2008	Reds	502	5.2%	19.7%	SS (880.2)	.980	.974
2009	Astros	320	11.3%	20.2%	3B (464.2)	.959	.958

These are Good Guy numbers. Keppinger has routinely struck out at a quarter or third the league rate. He’s careful. He’s capable of playing basically any position on the diamond. He’s accommodating. And when he plays those positions, maybe he doesn’t exhibit all the range in the world (his UZR/150 numbers aren’t great), but he’s sure-handed when he gets to the ball. He’s reliable.

Here’s what I think about Keppinger: I just put him down as my emergency contact number on a form I just filled out. QED.

Juan Francisco, Corner Guy, Cincinnati
Francisco’s proof that, while you can’t necessarily walk off the island, you can try to jack dongers from it all the way to the major league city of your choosing.

In how many stat categories can we name the tune that is Juan Francisco? Let’s try three (not including PAs).

Season	Team		PA	BB%	K%	ISO
2006	Reds (R)	190	3.2 %	19.2 %	0.126
2007	Reds (A)	562	4.1 %	30.1 %	0.195
2008	Reds (A+)	541	3.6 %	23.8 %	0.219
2009	Reds (AA)	464	4.4 %	20.8 %	0.22
2009	Reds (AAA)	99	4.2 %	26.1 %	0.239

You could maybe even pare that down to two cats if you wanted just to use his BB/K ratios, but with them seperate like this you can really feel the hackage. Unfortunately for Francisco, these aren’t really the peripherals of a major leaguer. His BB-rates put him in Yuni Betancourt territory. His K-rates aren’t the worst, but approaching untenable (especially given the low walk rate). The guy with the most similar ratio (at the MLB level, that is)? Aaron Rowand. And even Rowand walks a little over 5% (5.5%, to be exact).

The good news for Francisco is that he’s only 22 and has only got stronger by the year. As I mention (eventually) over at Hardball Times today, he’s fun to watch when he makes contact. Ball go far, indeed!

Jaff Decker, Little Guy, San Diego
Is it too soon to declare Jaff Decker a lock for major league stardom? Probably. Is it too soon to declare him a Sabermetric Hero? No way.

Say hello to these things:

Season	Level	PA	BB	SO	AVG	OBP	SLG	wOBA
2008	Rookie	216	55	36	0.352	0.523	0.541	0.509
2009	Low A	455	85	92	0.299	0.442	0.514	0.434

The 19-year-old Decker has more patience than certain Shakya Buddhists I’ve met. I swear, I don’t know if it’s a rumor, but I heard he’s got all of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step tattooed on his body. Regardless of whether that’s true, it’s obvious that Decker has an incredibly discerning batting eye.

Baseball Prospectus has Decker slashing .275/.421/.489 at his peak, with an EqA of .315 — the top projection in all the Midwest League. There are other, higher projected EqAs in the minors, but they mostly belong to physical specimens like Cody Johnson (6-foot-4, 230 lbs) and Mike Stanton (6-foot-5, 205 lbs). Decker’s listed in BA’s Propsect Handbook at 5-foot-10, 190 lbs with little projectability left in his frame. Regardless, he seems to have the chops to be a top flight hitter.

In other words: he’s a Natural.


The Best Defensive Team Of The Decade?

I think most people know that the Seattle Mariners put a good defense on the field this year. I’m not sure many people realize that this may be one of the best collection of defenders we’ve ever seen.

The M’s currently lead baseball in UZR by a huge margin. They are +84.5 runs above average, more than 20 runs ahead of second place Tampa Bay. Their team UZR total is the highest of any club in our data set, which goes back to 2002. In fact, the Mariners are only the fourth team in the last eight years to post a UZR over +70. The M’s passed that mark a month ago.

Amazingly, the team has achieved a record setting UZR despite making 102 errors. Their .982 fielding percentage ranks 23rd in baseball, and they have lost 13 runs from their UZR total thanks to the miscues – only the Nationals have cost themselves more runs via the error.

In fact, if we just focus on range, which is what most people associate UZR with, the Mariners are a staggering +91.2. Last year, the Rays put a track squad on the field and led baseball in Range Runs at +69.0, and they’re basically matched that with +62 range runs this year.

The 2008 Rays got to the World Series in large part because of how good their defenders were at covering ground. The 2009 Mariners have been 30% rangier than the 2008 Rays. There’s a reason the team leads the American League in ERA despite ranking 9th in the league in FIP. Franklin Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Adrian Beltre have formed the nucleus of an historically great defensive team.


How Are the Stars Being Acquired? Catchers

On to the next position: logically being the catcher spot. Let’s jump right into the list, based on WAR of players with at least 300 plate appearances at catcher:

Joe Mauer – drafted
Victor Martinez – traded
Brian McCann – drafted
Jorge Posada –drafted
Yadier Molina – drafted
Miguel Montero – amateur free agent
Mike Napoli – drafted
Kurt Suzuki – drafted
A.J. Pierzynski – free agent
John Baker – traded

Scoreboard:
6 drafted
2 traded
1 free agent
1 amateur free agent

70% of the list was developed by their current teams. Mauer is the poster child. I feel like I should’ve added a few empty spaces after Mauer’s name because he’s just that good. He was also the first overall pick in the draft, something that none of the other catchers can say. Here’s a list of rounds in which those six were drafted:

Mauer 1st
McCann 2nd
Posada 24th
Molina 4th
Napoli 17th
Suzuki 2nd

Well that portrays the inherent wackiness of drafting catchers. I did more research on this a while back and found the difference between picking a catcher between 31st and 60th overall and picking one between 61st and 90th overall is minimal at best and that drafting first round catchers doesn’t guarantee much of anything. That last point is obvious about any position, but really, evaluating catchers is extremely tricky. Those teams that do it well at least once try and hold onto their talented backstops as much as possible; maybe that’s part of the reason that only one free agent catcher is amongst the top ten, and his reputation is that of a jackass.


How Are the Stars Being Acquired? Relief Pitching

Earlier we looked at where the best starting pitchers came from this year, this time let’s focus on their relieving counterparts. For the rankings I used plain ol’ FIP since relievers home run rates don’t regress to a central mean like starters and instead of the top 30, I used the top 15. Here are those players and how they were acquired by their current teams:

Phil Hughes – draft
Jonathan Broxton – draft
Chan Ho Park – free agent
Mike Wuertz – trade
Kiko Calero – free agent
Matt Thornton – trade
Brian Wilson – draft
Trevor Hoffman – free agent
Heath Bell – trade
Luke Gregerson – trade
Andrew Bailey — draft
Rafael Soriano – trade
Huston Street – trade
Joakim Soria – Rule 5
Joe Nathan – trade

The count:
7 traded
4 drafted
3 free agents
1 Rule 5

This is a similar pattern to the one established for starters. Of those acquired in trades, only Soriano and Street were truly established as top of the line relievers – although I suppose you could make the case that Wuertz was quite solid in the past as well.

Let’s take a closer look at the four drafted relievers.

Hughes was a former top-flight starting prospect for the Yankees. You have to figure he’ll make the transition back to starting at some point but Joba Chamberlain hasn’t flipped from Mariano Rivera’s Robin to the next Josh Beckett quite yet, so maybe the Yankees are hesitant to make the switch once more; no matter how easy of a long-term decision it seems to be.

Broxton too started games in the minors for the Dodgers. 50 of his 87 games came as a starter, and his numbers weren’t too poor in either capacity. The Dodgers let him make the switch full-time beginning in 2006.

Wilson is the only true reliever of the quartet. He started three games in low-A during his debut season and that was that.

Bailey started for the A’s throughout his minor league career. In fact, 47 of his 73 games came as a starter. He made the jump from Double-A to the majors this year in a full reliever capacity and hasn’t looked back.

The old adage is that anyone who can throw strikes can make it as a reliever. At the same time, a lot of failed starters are transitioned to the pen. Beyond the top 15 guys like Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, J.P. Howell, and even Trevor Hoffman were starters at some point in their career before making the transition.


A Great Day

I generally try not to write about the Mariners too much here, as I figure if you wanted to read my ruminations on Seattle’s team, you’d just go over to USSM. But, last week, Felix Hernandez’s start against the Blue Jays sent me down a road that I found interesting, so hopefully you’ll forgive a brief Mariner-related post here.

On Thursday, Felix had some of the best stuff he’s ever had, including these two ridiculous “change-ups” (thrown at 91 MPH apiece) which should probably be outlawed in the interest of fairness. Even though the Blue Jays managed to get four runs off of him, thanks to a Vernon Wells home run, he was a dominating force for eight strong innings. On the same night that he set his season high in strikeouts with 11, he also ran a 15-2 groundball rate.

Generally, groundballs and strikeouts are substitutes for one another. Hitters tend to swing through pitches up in the zone more often, so there’s a trade off between K and GB. When you can rack up both in the same game, odds are pretty good that you’re going to win, because the opponents just aren’t going to be able to string together any kind of rally.

So, I asked David to query the game logs over the last eights years to find the performances where a starter racked up the most combined GB+K in the same game. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most impressive performance came from Brandon Webb. On September 21st, 2005, he faced 28 batters – 26 of them either pounded the ball into the ground or struck out. In fact, that start is one of only three games since 2002 where the starter got a grounder or a strikeout from 90 percent of the batters he faced.

The other two performances of that quality? Webb, again, on May 20, 2006… and Zach Day. Not the name I was expecting either. But on May 1st, 2003, he shutout the Brewers by getting a staggering 23 groundballs, while also mixing in five strikeouts. He faced 31 batters, and got a combined 28 grounders and strikeouts.

Injuries derailed Day’s career, so he’s not going to be well remembered by future generations, but for one day at least, he was a force to be reckoned with.


A Minor Review of 2009: San Diego Padres

Prospect ranking season is just around the corner. In anticipation of that, we present an intro series looking at some of the players who deserve mentioning but probably will not be appearing on their teams’ Top 10 lists. The popular series is back for the second year. Previously, we looked at the Colorado Rockies.

San Diego Padres

The Graduate: Everth Cabrera | SS
A Rule 5 draft pick, Cabrera helped to fill a glaring hole in the middle of the diamond with his play at shortstop. Just 22 and with no experience above A-ball prior to 2009, the speedy infielder hit .267/.344/.366 in 358 at-bats. He also stole 24 bases but was caught seven times. He’ll also need to work on becoming more consistent, but that should come with experience. At worst, he looks like a big-league utility player.

The Riser: Sawyer Carroll | OF
There were a number of prospect who really stepped forward this year for the Padres organization but Carroll gets the nod here. He hit for average over three levels and his combined line on the year was .317/.413/.489 with 40 doubles in 479 at-bats. As a right-fielder, Carroll could stand to increase his power output (eight homers) but the .171 ISO is a step in the right direction. His plate rates were very nice with an 18.0% walk rate and a 19.5% strikeout rate. The 23-year-old left-handed batter has hit very well against southpaws in his short pro career, including .333/.423/.500 in 2009.

The Tumbler: Allan Dykstra | 1B
It came down to a coin flip between Dykstra and Kellen Kulbacki, but the former won out because the latter’s season was ruined by injury. Dykstra was the club’s No. 1 draft pick in 2008 but he’s struggled since entering pro ball and he was less-than-impressive in low-A in 2009. His line of .226/.397/.375 was just plain bad, although his walk rate of 20.2% was eye-popping. He may have actually been a little too passive at the plate for his own good. Dykstra hit just .204 with the bases empty versus .249 with runners on base. Despite the bad numbers, the 22 year old should move up to the California League in 2010. It’s a league that tends to inflate hitters’ numbers.

The ’10 Sleeper: Nick Schmidt | LHP
You have to feel sorry for Schmidt, who was cursed the moment he was taken as a first-round draft pick by the organization. He missed the 2008 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He opened 2009 in low-A ball where he dominated (as he should have given his age and experience level). He allowed just 38 hits in 51.2 innings of work and posted a strikeout rate of 10.28 K/9. His walk rate was poor at 4.01 BB/9 and it suggested that he might struggle at higher levels. That is exactly what happened when he moved up to high-A. Schmidt posted a walk rate of 5.06 BB/9 and his strikeout rate dropped to 5.06 K/9. He allowed 68 hits in 48 innings. Control is the last thing to come back after surgery, so Schmidt stands a good chance of improving in 2010.

Bonus: The ’08 sleeper was Eric Sogard. He had another underrated season, this time in double-A where he hit .293/.370/.400 in 457 at-bats. The left-handed batter doesn’t hit southpaws well (.214 in ’09) and he’s not a great defensive player so he’s likely headed for a career as a platoon or utility player.


Playoff (Effectively) Baseball Tonight in Detroit

Today’s most important game is at 7pm when the Tigers host the Twins. The Twins sit just 2 games behind the Tigers and the two teams will play in Detroit the next four games. This gives the Twins a chance to close the gap and make the playoffs.

After this series both teams play a three game set to finish the regular season this weekend–the Twins at home against the Royals and the Tigers at home against the White Sox. Minnesota needs to take at least three of four from the Tigers to have a realistic shot heading into the weekend. Just a split sends them back home still down two and they would need a ton of help from the Sox.

Tonight’s game features Rick Porcello versus Nick Blackburn. If you are a fan of strikeouts this might not be the game for you. As I noted last week Blackburn is second to last among starters with just 4.2 K/9. Porcello is not much better, sixth from last with just 4.5 K/9. What you will see a lot of is two-seam fastballs, both throw the pitch over 60% of the time. As expected by the lack of strikeouts neither two-seamer misses many bats (Blackburn’s has a whiff rate of 6% and Porcello’s 9%). Blackburn makes up for it with excellent control, only walking 1.9 per 9 (tenth best in the league), Porcello with extreme ground ball tendencies, 55% GB per BIP (fifth best in the league).

So enjoy tongith’s game, one of the most important of the regular season for both teams, and expect to see a lot of balls in play.


Defense Hits The Market

This upcoming free agent class has generally been derided as one of the weaker groups in recent history. After seeing the likes of CC Sabathia and Derek Lowe hit the market last winter, this group lacks the same pizazz. However, there is one area where this group of free agents is particularly strong – defense. Those in the market for premium defensive players will have a lot of options this winter.

Need a second baseman? Placido Polanco is arguably the best defensive player at the position in baseball. Felipe Lopez can field the position fairly well, too.

Shortstop? Jack Wilson, again perhaps the best defender at the position in the game, may be available (if the Mariners don’t pick up his pricey $8.6 million option). Even if Wilson doesn’t hit the market, Adam Everett will be available.

Third base is more loaded than any others. Adrian Beltre, Chone Figgins, Pedro Feliz, and Joe Crede are among the very best glove guys in the game at the hot corner.

How about the outfield? Mike Cameron, Randy Winn, and CoCo Crisp (assuming KC turns down his option) will be available.

That is a lot of premium defenders all hitting the market at the same time. Last year, we saw a glut of players with the opposite skillset – big power hitters who belong at DH. Teams forced those guys to take huge pay cuts, though it’s tough to determine how much of that was the recession and how much was a new appreciation for defense.

This winter will be a better test. Defense has been remarkably undervalued for the last decade or so, but it’s making a comeback, thanks to the successes of teams like Tampa Bay and Seattle. With a surplus of elite defenders all becoming free agent eligible at the same time, we’ll get a better view of just how much the value of defense has shifted in the eyes of major league baseball teams.


A Minor Review of 2009: Colorado Rockies

Prospect ranking season is just around the corner. In anticipation of that, we present an intro series looking at some of the players who deserve mentioning but probably will not be appearing on their teams’ Top 10 lists. The popular series is back for the second year.

Colorado Rockies

The Graduate: Seth Smith | OF
He didn’t get 130+ at-bats in 2008, which is the amount needed to eliminate his rookie status, but Smith did spend more than 45 days with the club prior to roster expansion on Sept. 1. That means he was technically no longer a rookie in 2009. However, we’ll give him some props since most people didn’t realize he lost his eligibility last season. Teammate Dexter Fowler also had a nice season in Colorado, but Smith’s line of .297/.383/.520 in 323 at-bats was an unexpected bonus. He also showed solid plate rates with a 12.5% walk rate and a 19.2% strikeout rate. Yeah, he plays in Colorado but an ISO of .223 is still mighty impressive. It’s also rare for a 26-year-old player to be a reliable bat off the bench.

The Riser: Juan Nicasio | RHP
The Rockies organization is known for effectively mining talent in Venezuela but Nicasio could be a steal for the club out of the Dominican Republic. A little old for a Latin player in low-A ball, the right-hander is a late-bloomer who allowed 110 hits in 112 innings of work. Nicasio also posted a walk rate of 1.85 BB/9 and a strikeout rate of 9.24 K/9. His ERAs were a little high in his previous two seasons (both in short-season leagues) but he has posted three solid FIPs: 3.75, 2.40, 2.57. His repertoire includes a low-90s fastball that touches 95-96 mph, as well as a slider and changeup.

The Tumbler: Joseph (Tyler) Massey | OF
The Rockies organization handed Massey some big cash to sign as a 14th round selection out of a Tennessee high school. He was young in 2009 (19) and played in full-season ball but more was expected than a line of .220/.261/.290 with just 19 extra base hits in 404 at-bats. Given that he projects to be a corner outfielder or first baseman, the .069 ISO is disappointing. Massey will be given a do-over in 2010, as he was obviously overwhelmed by the speed of professional baseball games.

The ’10 Sleeper: Radames Nazario | SS/3B
Nazario, 22, has been kicking around the Rockies system for a few years now with modest results (in part due to injuries), but he showed some signs of life in high-A. At 6’0 165 lbs, he needs to get stronger to weather the long season. He hit .287/365/.422 in the first half of the year but just .167/.220/.235 after the All-Star break. Twenty-seven of Nazario’s 89 hits were doubles, so he currently possesses gap power. With a little more meat on his bones, his ISO of .116 should climb.

BONUS: The ’08 sleeper was Eric Young Jr. and he’s finally getting the recognition that he deserves after some solid minor-league seasons. I won’t say much else because he will be on the Rockies’ Top 10 list.


How Are the Stars Being Acquired? Starting Pitching

For the majority of major league teams, this is the final week of their season. This means back to the planning board for the front offices as they decide whether to buy this off-season, sell, do both, or attempt to remain static moving forward. One thing is for sure: every team in the league – barring perhaps the Yankees – could use more star power. So how do you acquire stars?

Let’s start with the starting pitchers. Obviously “star” is a word with ambiguous meaning. For some it means a guy who will move tickets, sell jerseys, and land them a marquee spot in the highlights on nights he pitches. For others it means one of the best pitchers in the league whose performance should bring the attention and spotlight, but everyone knows that’s not always a guarantee.

For this set of exercises I’m choosing to define star as the latter. I’ve taken the top 30 starters as told by THT’s xFIP metric. Why xFIP? Because it normalizes home run rates and saves time in noting certain pitcher performances in ballparks like those Oakland and San Diego. From there I noted how each was acquired by their current team. Here’s the list:

Javier Vazquez – trade
Tim Lincecum – draft
Dan Haren – trade
Roy Halladay – draft
Zack Greinke – draft
Jon Lester – draft
Josh Johnson – draft
Justin Verlander – draft
Ricky Nolasco – trade
Adam Wainwright – draft
Chris Carpenter – free agent
Felix Hernandez – amateur free agent
Josh Beckett – trade
Joel Pineiro – trade
Ubaldo Jimenez – amateur free agent
Cole Hamels – draft
Wandy Rodriguez – amateur free agent
Yovani Gallardo – drafted
Gavin Floyd – trade
Brett Anderson – trade
Jorge de la Rosa — trade
Jason Hammel – trade
CC Sabathia – free agent
Ryan Dempster – free agent
Roy Oswalt – draft
Aaron Harang – trade
Max Scherzer – draft
Chad Billingsley – draft
Joe Blanton – trade
Clayton Kershaw – draft

That works out to 11 pitchers acquired via trade, 13 in the draft, 3 as amateur free agents (read: intentional in this case), and 3 as actual free agents. Of those three, Sabathia is the only one signed to a large deal; Carpenter was a pet project for Dave Duncan and a similar tale exists for Dempster’s signing.

The best pitchers in baseball aren’t being acquired on the free agent market. Teams looking for their ace pitcher this off-season should take note.