Archive for December, 2009

The Tale of Tommy Davis

A Google search for “Jason Bay + Run Producer” brings back 91,100 hits. Bay’s name and “RBI Guy” brings back 159,000 hits. “Jason Bay + good hitter” only brings back 160,000. The funny thing is that Bay has topped 105 RBI throughout his career only twice despite being a constant force in the middle of the Pirates’ and Red Sox’ lineups. He’s really not much of a “RBI Guy”. Which brings up another point — a warning, though: stop here if you don’t feel like reading another piece that discusses how RBI totals can fluctuate heavily (and sometimes amusingly) on a year-to-year basis.

For those who chose to read on, consider Tommy Davis. He has more than a few things in common with Bay. Both are left fielders, stand around 6’2”, and weigh around 200 pounds. Davis even played with the Mets at one point. In 1962, as a 23-year-old, Davis played his best season of ball. He hit 27 homers, held a line of .346/.374/.535, stole 18 bases, and had 153 RBI. Focus on that last statistic. 153 runs batted in. Since 1961, that ranks as the sixth most RBI in a single season and, until 1998, was the most. Since then, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, and Alex Rodriguez have managed to pass Davis, including two seasons with more than 160.

There are about a dozen different fun tidbits to pull from Davis’ ensuring career. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most:

Davis had 153 RBI in 665 at-bats. Over the next two years, he racked up 1,148 at-bats and 174 RBI.

Davis never had reached the 100 RBI plateau, and never would do so again. In fact, he never reached 90 again.

In 1962, he spent the majority of his time batting fourth. This remains true through the 1968 season. In 1969, he spent most of his time hitting third rather than cleanup.

His teams kept him there in large part because of that huge RBI season. To be fair, he also had a .910 OPS that season, but his OPS in the immediate seasons afterwards: .816, .708, and .729 (after skipping an extremely short 1965 season for Davis).

Bay is a better hitter than Davis ever was, but if for no other reason than Bay’s health, hope a similar fate isn’t awaiting him.


Cubs Land Marlon Byrd

After a few months of shopping around, the Cubs finally settled on Marlon Byrd as their new center fielder, signing him to a 3 year deal worth a reported $15 million. What should Cubs fans expect from their new center fielder?

Essentially, the epitome of an average player. Byrd is, across the board, about as average as it gets. His career wOBA is .332, and that’s based on a skill set that is neither strong nor weak at any one thing. He walks some, strikes out some, and hits for some power, though he’s not a slugger.

Given that this is a big time buyer’s market, pretty much any deal is going to look good in comparison with other contracts signed in prior years, and this one is no different. In over 4,000 innings in center field, his career UZR/150 is 0.0.

Jack of all trades, master of none, thy name is Marlon Byrd. To be fair, he’s been a bit above average the last few years, but the Cubs are signing him for his age 32-34 seasons, so they should be building some regression into his past performances. Projecting him as a +2 win player going forward is fair.

$5 million a year, even on a three year deal, is a good contract for the Cubs. He fills a hole and should provide a solid performance at a cost of less than $3 million per win. Even in this kind of market, that’s a move worth making. Byrd is not a star, but he’s good enough at everything to be a useful role player, and the price was right for the Cubs.


Inflation And Prospects

Until last year, baseball had seen steady salary inflation of nearly 10 percent per season for over a decade, as free agents cashed in on ever growing contracts. Teams counted on this inflation to justify long term deals, as the assumption was that a player would not decline much faster than salaries grew, keeping his relative value fairly steady even if he lost value on the field.

That assumption has to be thrown out the window now, however. Despite signs of economic recovery in the U.S. (the stock market is going to close up 20 percent in 2009), we’ve seen a significant pullback in spending for the second consecutive year – Jason Bay notwithstanding.

Trying to project future inflation now is just a guessing game. Will salaries increase again in the future? Probably. How quickly? No idea. Teams are learning how to restrain themselves from spending sprees in the winter, finding value in players they used to overlook. The acceptance of concepts such as replacement level have taken some of the mystique away from veteran players with track records, as teams are less willing to pay for what a player did in the past.

What I think will be interesting to watch is how this unpredictability of future salary growth will affect how willing teams are to pour money into scouting and player development. During the age of booming inflation, players with 0-4 years of service time were remarkably valuable, as they could provide production at minimal cost.

If we do not return to that kind of inflation, however, the relative salary difference between young players and veterans will be significantly smaller than it has been in the past. And with a smaller gap in cost, it may be become more viable to build a team with established players.

For instance, this winter, teams have been able to sign useful major league players for a couple million dollars. Kelly Johnson got $2 million from Arizona. Adam Everett got $1.5 million from Detroit. A ton of average-ish infielders signed for $5 or $6 million per year for one or two years.

If that remains true in future years, then it reduces the desire to spend millions on prospects with fractional chances of making the majors. The previous cost differences were great enough to make it worth investing in a lot of prospects, reaping the benefits from the ones who make it, and building a team of good young players to avoid having to pay the market premium. But now, if we continue to see years where near average players can be had for $2 to $3 million per win, then the player development calculation makes less sense.

If we don’t see a real up-tick in spending next winter, expect some teams that have traditionally focused on building from within to do less of that going forward. Buying wins in free agency, rather than developing them through the farm system, may be the new trend if inflation doesn’t return.


Arizona Raids Non-Tender Market, Adds Kelly Johnson

After a disappointing season with Atlanta, 27 year old 2B Kelly Johnson was non-tendered and hit the market. In a deal made official on Wednesday, Arizona added Johnson for one year and $2.35M, who will become the Diamondbacks starting 2B in 2010, replacing Felipe Lopez, who was traded to Milwaukee before the 2009 trading deadline.

Johnson’s career was off to a great start with Atlanta. In his first three seasons in the majors, Johnson posted wRC+ numbers of 99, 121, and 116, and even despite poor defense at 2B, Johnson compiled 7 WAR in those first 3 seasons.

Johnson fell off a cliff in 2009, however. His defensive numbers rose to average for the first time in his career, but his wRC+ fell to a putrid 86, leading to his first season below 1.0 WAR. With a .224/.303/.389 triple slash line, GM Frank Wren had enough, and the team did not tender a contract to Johnson. Said contract would likely have garnered in the 3-4 million dollar range, given Johnson’s 2009 salary of 2.85M, his second year arbitration status, and his poor 2010 season.

That said, Johnson is a perfect breakout candidate. We saw nothing in his plate discipline or isolated power numbers to suggest that 2009 was anything more than a product of poor luck on balls in play. After 2007 and 2008 years with BABIPs above .330, regression (and more) hit Johnson in the worst way. His BABIP nosedived all the way to .249, leading to the 50 point AVG and OBP drop and 80 point SLG drop that resulted in the worst season of his career.

With this in mind, it is much more likely to see a year with production akin to 2008 – .346 wOBA, 112 wRC+ – than 2009. Especially if Johnson’s UZR numbers are truly an indication of increased defensive skills, Johnson could approach the 3 WAR level, if not surpass it – a number that compares very favorably with Mark DeRosa, who signed with the Giants for leaving the D’Backs with a great asset for not only 2010 but also 2011, Johnson’s third year of arbitration.

What we see here with this move is Arizona taking advantage of the largest pool of talented arbitration eligible players in recent memory that has resulted from the downturn in the economy. Not only do the Diamondbacks pick up a talented player with a high chance of rebound for 2010, they also pick him up at a below-market rate in 2011. We also saw this with the Nationals signing of Matt Capps. One of the major stories from this offseason could be the development of this market. We do know one thing: the Diamondbacks played it perfectly with their addition of Johnson.


Fan Projection Targets: New Year’s Eve ’09

Happy New Year’s Eve (Day)! Let’s crank out one more set of fan projections before the decade is over. Today’s players: Mark Ellis, Josh Willingham, and Luke Hochevar.

It seems like just yesterday that A’s second baseman Mark Ellis was the toast of the on-line baseball nerd community for his outstanding second base fielding. We threw a collective fit (or at least released a collective sigh) when he signed a far-below market deal with Oakland (right before the market collapsed). Our thoughts on Ellis today? As I’m typing this, he hasn’t even passed the threshold for fan projections. Sure, Ellis missed much of 2009 due to injury, but are our memories that short? C’mon.

About this same time last season, the Jim Bowden-run Nationals were seemingly intent on fielding Ryan Zimmerman, a pitcher, and seven outfielders. One of the many outfielders acquired in Bowden’s final bonanza before the end of his career as a baseball executive was Josh Willingham. While sometimes forgotten between Elijah Dukes, Nyjer Morgan’s incredible year in the field, and Adam Dunn’s amazing (in very different ways) year at the plate and in the field, Willlingham had another season that was below average with the glove, but good with the bat. But what will he do going forward?

We certainly need more pitcher projections, and for this last one we have another forgotten man: 2006 #1 overall draft pick Luke Hochevar. While he has been generally disappointing in the majors so far, Hochevar did have several dominant starts last season, including a 13 strikeout game. Which Hochevar is the real one? How will he fare against (fading) expectations in 2010?

Click here to enter your projections for Ellis, Willingham, and Hochevar.


Does Beltre Make Sense to Boston at $10M?

Adrian Beltre is still a free agent and Scott Boras is still his agent. Matt Holliday is still a bigger name and will still receive a bigger contract, but discounting the assumed stare-down between Theo Epstein and Boras over Beltre’s contract demands is amusing if nothing else. A few weeks back Boston trotted out manager Terry Francona to talk up Casey Kotchman. Why Kotchman? Because if the season began tomorrow, Kotchman would man first while the incumbent, Kevin Youkilis, moved across the diamond to third. Epstein also talked up Kotchman in the press, focusing mostly on his strong contact skills.

Pretend, for a moment, that Youkilis would field equally at third and first. I know he wouldn’t, but just pretend. Over the last three years, Kotchman has hit .279/.346/.421 while the ‘disappointing’ Beltre has batted .269/.318/.444 with 59 homers. Those numbers aren’t park-adjusted, which means Beltre is still being punished heavily for playing within Safeco’s constricting park. Even so, Beltre is only four OPS points off. Defensively Kotchman is above average for a first baseman while Beltre is well above average for a third baseman. Putting it all together, Kotchman’s career best season (2.5 WAR) is barely better than Beltre’s worst season since 2002 (2.4 WAR).

In fewer words: Beltre is a better player than Kotchman. How much better and how much money is the upgrade worth to Boston?

Let’s dive back into the Youkilis-to-third predicament first. His career sample at first is more than double his time at third (~3,802 innings versus just under 1,600) and in those spans we have UZR/150 of 8.6 at third and 6.5 at first. That implies he’s actually better at third base, although most of that time at third base came in 2004. Youkilis was 25 then, not 31 like next season. For the sake of argument, let’s say Youkilis is five runs worse at third than first next season. Feel free to adjust that as you see fit, but remember it’s better to be conservative than optimistic.

With that in mind; estimate Beltre at ~10 runs defensively and ~5runs offensively. That makes him a three and a half win player. Kotchman is probably good for a win, maybe a bit more. Let’s say the difference is two wins and then factor in the Youkilis transition. Overall a 2.5 win upgrade. Wins are going for roughly $3.5M so Beltre is worth $8.75M more than Kotchman. Meaning the tops Boston should give Beltre is just under $9M. Given Boston’s placement on the win curve and how much those additional wins could help to distance themselves from Tampa, it seems the reported asking price of $10-15M isn’t too far-fetched after all.

Worth noting: one of the four players represented by Boras on Boston’s roster is J.D. Drew, who shares quite a bit with Beltre in the means of unfair criticism and a sentence to perennially underrated purgatory. I wonder if they would get along and tell war stories.


Fan Projection Targets – 12/30/09

With the excellent feedback we’ve had to the Fan Projections, it’s becoming more difficult to find players with too few votes. It’s for that reason that a couple of today’s targets are over the 30-ballot threshold. Still, none of these guys is close to the century mark, either.

Said targets are Kelly Johnson, Martin Prado, and Ryan Roberts.

Johnson has just inked a deal with Arizona for one year at $2MM.

Prado is the man who stole the starting second base job from Johnson last year in Atlanta.

Roberts took over starting duties in Arizona last year after Felipe Lopez left town, posting a 108 wRC+ in 351 PAs.


On the Closer Position: The Save and RP Usage

One of the most interesting aspects of roster construction in today’s major league baseball is the bullpen , and how it revolves around the closer. The closer position has reached mythical status in today’s MLB, exemplified by Mariano Rivera. Since 1996, the game for the Yankees has been to find a way to lead after eight innings, and then to turn the ball over to the undisputed best one-inning pitcher in the history of the game.

Rivera may rank behind Trevor Hoffman in terms of career saves, but Mo’s 14 year span of dominance is unprecedented. And yet, he only ranks 76th on Sean Smith’s list of pitchers by WAR. Hoffman is all the way down at number 209. For me, the idea that a role with such a seemingly low value can be placed in such a high regard evokes some sort of curiosity.

Today, we look at how the position of the closer has evolved since the inception of the save, the statistic which will be forever linked with the closer. The save was introduced in 1969, but the idea of the one-inning closer which we are so familiar with did not immediately catch on. Goose Gossage, for instance, is specifically noted as having the ability to earn a multiple-inning save with regularity. In today’s game, on the other hand, it is an event when a closer is called upon to make a two-inning save. Let’s take a look at the average innings per game finished for those pitchers with 30 saves or more since 1969. Games is used instead of saves to account for blown saves as well as games entered that weren’t save situations.

Two things jump out right away. First, the sheer numbers of 30 save guys ballooned in the 90s and the new millennium. Second, as we already knew, for the most part, “closers” pitched many more innings in the early parts of what we can call the “Save Era.” The correlation between IP per game is high, with R^2 = .56. We especially see this decline around 1986, when the average IP/G for these players drops from 1.51 to 1.32. Tom Henke’s 34 save season in 1992, in which he pitched 57 games and 55 2/3 innings, was the first 30+ save season with less than 1 IP/G.

Things have been relatively constant since the strike of 1994. From 1995-2008, the average IP/G for 30 save closers ranged from 1.03-1.07, with only two pitchers (Danny Graves in 2002 and Ryan Dempster in 2005) going over 1.25. The role of the closer has now been quite well-defined, and the Goose Gossage style of pitcher is dead.

Here, we can see the undeniable effect that the save has had on the game of baseball. The way teams build rosters is different. The way managers attack game strategy is altered. The market for relief pitchers has changed. Between these and other changes, we’ve seen one simple statistic dramatically effect the way the game is played.


Why Should We Care About the Hall?

Because we care about the players and the players care about the Hall of Fame.

The average player probably was on his high school team and before that may have played some little league or grade school ball. From there either he went to college or straight to the minors. There are exceptions to that, but again this is the average player. Some players last through their 30s; others burn out. Either way, that’s at least a decade of dedication to the game. Hate Barry Bonds for any reason you want, but his first wife is baseball and his long-time mistress is breathing.

The pay is good and the fame is probably pretty sweet at times too, but let’s not ignore the disappointment that some of these guys feel when the Hall call never comes. Yet we care about the snubs. We make case after case for the snubs. The competitiveness and glory-seeking doesn’t simply vanish upon filing of retirement papers. Jon Heyman Tweeted that if Jack Morris played on non-World Series teams, he wouldn’t consider Morris a Hall of Famer. Think about that for a moment. His vote for Morris is based almost entirely on luck; meanwhile, Bert Blyleven’s candidacy is in the shadows over bad luck with certain metrics. Life is funny, isn’t it?

The guys like Blyleven and Tim Raines have a type of fan support that some would describe as obnoxious. They’d say that some people need to remove their nose from the spreadsheet because the game isn’t played on Baseball-Reference.com. Besides being a silly thing to say, those people miss the point. Rich Lederer, Jonah Keri, and Tom Tango didn’t waste those words to come off as omniscient or as holier than the non-believers. They spent those words because they care about those players and 99.9% of all Hall cases are based on numbers, just not the numbers that make sense to people like them.

And you know why those guys care about the players? Not because of their numbers – although they certainly help – but because in the end, those players enhanced the game-watching and -attending experience. Keep that in mind the next time someone writes a piece bemoaning the deserving nature of a future candidate. The motive isn’t to be a pain in the neck or trendy. It’s an exhibit of appreciation earned through merit.

Isn’t that what the Hall should really represent?


The Bay Deal and the Time Value of Money

One thought process seems to be that Jason Bay and agent Joe Urbon were silly to take what could be a heavily back-loaded contract from the Mets in favor of Boston’s deal which offered more cash upfront. The idea stems from this Peter Gammons piece which includes this nugget of information:

While the Mets offer is four [years] for 65 [million], it’s so backloaded that I’ve been told by Mets people that it’s far less than what the Red Sox were offering in present-day value

Present-day value is important because $100 today is more valuable than $100 a year from today. If the two offers were equal in dollars, however constructed differently, with one deal being front-loaded and the other back-loaded, then the agent should have his player sign the front-loaded contract. That scenario doesn’t match reality though. Boston reportedly offered four years and $60M while the Mets offered four years and $66M. More present-day value or not, Urbon and crew were correct to take the Mets offer. Here’s why.

Let’s assume Boston offered Bay 4/$60M split evenly across the four seasons; which is to say $15M in 2010, 2011, and so on. Meanwhile New York’s offer is more in total dollars, but most of the payout is located in the final two seasons. For our purposes, let’s say the money breakdown is 10/15/20/21. Using the time value of money formula and a discount rate of one’s liking, you can quickly figure the adjusted totals in present-day value. In this example, Boston’s deal is worth roughly $56M while the Mets’ offer is worth nearly $61M, or a spread in $5M, almost identical to the unadjusted spread.

Say one gets really aggressive with the discount rate and bumps it to 10% with the same contract breakdown. The Boston offer would be worth $52M in present-day value while the Mets’ offer worth $56M. Closer, but still no cigar. Keep that discount rate and get creative with the back-loading, say, 7/12/22/25; it’s even tighter at $52M and $55M. Still though, the Mets offer is worth more.

Barring some really ridiculous discount rate or extensive back-loading of the contract, there’s just no way around it. New York offered more dollars.


Mets Add Bay

The inevitable finally happened today, as the New York Mets added LF Jason Bay on a four-year deal with a vesting option for a fifth. Bay will, of course, be the next starting left fielder for the Mets and will likely push Fernando Martinez to either the bench or the minor leagues.

This deal definitely improves the Mets’ offense for 2010. Bay’s roughly +30 run bat replaces Martinez’s, which only projects at -5 to -10 runs against average. Bay’s bat combined with Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright gives the Mets a scary top of the order for opposing pitchers.

That’s about where Bay’s effectiveness ends. Bay’s defense is questionable at best. Even with the park effects with the Green Monster on Boston LFs, it’s hard to imagine Bay as an above average defensive left fielder. UZR has Bay at -54.7 runs over four years, including 1.5 poor years in Pittsburgh. TotalZone thought Bay was decent last year, at +4, but still rates him at -40 runs overall in the last four years. The Fan’s Scouting Report has Bay as a below average LF.

His non-SB baserunning numbers do look decent, as he is roughly a +1 to +2 runner by Baseball Prospectus’s EQBRR statistic. Still, that’s pretty insignificant, and it’s safe to say that his value comes from his batting.

Of course, the real interesting point of the contract is the dollar value. The Mets will pay Bay 66 million dollars over the four guaranteed years of the contract, and the vesting option reportedly pays an amount similar to that 16.5M AAV. Given the current market, $3.5M per WAR, the Mets are expecting 4.5 wins per season out of Bay. Is Jason Bay the type of tier-2 superstar that deserves this contract?

As a 31-year-old with what we tend to call “old people skills” – high power, poor defensive range and average-at-best speed – Bay can be expected to decline at a faster rate than the average player. He has averaged 2.1 wins per season since 2007, although giving higher weight to his better 2008-2009 seasons vs. his replacement-level 2007 gives a weighted average closer to 2.8-3.0 wins, close to the 3.1 wins that the fans have projected him to at the time of this writing. Yes, it’s possible his defense is better than UZR/TZ/FSR think, but it would take a 15-20 run swing in his defensive value to produce market value with this contract. This is without even considering the effect that playing in Citi Field could have on his offensive value.

The Mets can afford to overpay given their place on both the revenue curve and the win curve. However, this contract could really hamstring their situation in 2012/2013 as Bay declines, and it could also severely hamper the development of Fernando Martinez. This move appears to be one of the more significant overpays of the offseason, and it by no means vaults the Mets into the playoffs. Much needs to go the Mets’ way for this contract to work out as planned, and it appears that this is just yet another example of Omar Minaya overpaying for a veteran presence.


Pitching Outside the Box, Literally

So long as you didn’t bring the party too hard over the Christmas holiday, there’s a chance you remember the article I submitted for the readership’s consideration last week. In said article, I roundly praised research conducted by Lookout Landing’s Jeff Sullivan this past August — research in which he explored the relationship between pitcher contact rates and strikeouts. Moreover, I posted a Top 10 Leaderboard of the starting pitchers (50 IP and up) with the best Contact%.

Well, in the comments section of said article, user Toffer Peak brought to our collective attention a study done by user matthan over at DRaysBay. Matthan is the user name of Matt Hanna, and his work is an exciting complement to Sullivan’s as it gives us some idea of the importance of Out-of-Zone Swinging Strikes (OZSwStr%) relative to In-Zone Swinging Strikes (InZSwStr%).

The relevant article provides all the answers your little heart would desire — complete with a Google spreadsheet of every pitcher from last year — but the relevant content for our purposes is this formula that Hanna concludes is the best fit for calculating Expected Strikeout Percentage (eK%). Said formula goes:

eK%=(ClStr%*.9)+(Foul%*.5)+(InPly%*-.9)+(InZSwStr%*1.1)+(OZSwStr%*1.5)

The Adjusted R-Squared is: 91.4%

The surprising result here is the degree to which OZSwStr% is weighted over and above InZSwStr%. Nor does that even account for the fact that the average for OZSwStr% (4.89%) is already about twice as a high as InZSwStr% (2.73%).

Once we adjust for that difference as well, OZSwStr% comes out to roughly 2.5 times more important than InZSwStr%. If I’m being honest, I’ll say right now that that runs counter to what I would’ve guessed. My impression has always been, if a pitcher can throw a pitch past a swinging batter but still place said pitch within the strike zone, then he (i.e. the pitcher) would be truly unhittable. What Hanna’s research suggests is quite the opposite, in fact: A pitcher who is able to induce swings (and misses) at pitches out of the zone is, in fact, most likely to tally big strikeout numbers.

This research is quite relevant to the present interweb site, as FanGraphs carries both O-Contact% and Z-Contact% on every player page and in the leaderboards section.

And though, much like Forrest Gump, I’m not a smart man, I thought it might make sense to create a leaderboard in which O-Contact% (or OZSwStr%) was given its due. To that end, what follows is a Top 10 list of the starting pitchers with 50+ IP who led the league in what I’ll call Adjusted K. In fact, what I did was to find how many standard deviations all such pitchers were from the mean in both O-Contact% and Z-Contact%. I then multiplied the O-Contact% standard deviation by 2.44 and averaged it with the Z-Contact% standard deviation. Here are the results (SDO = Standard Deviations from O-Contact% mean / SDZ = Standard Deviations from Z-Contact% mean):

This list greatly resembles the one we looked at last week — with one exception, that is: Freddy Bloody Garcia. Granted, he only pitched 56 IP through nine starts last year, but it appears to be a skill he’s carried throughout his career, as his 46.5% lifetime mark suggests.

So that’s one thing. Now here’s another question of some interest, I think: Which pitchers posted the biggest O-Contact%/Z-Contact% splits in 2009? In other words, which pitchers are best at getting swinging strikes outside the strike zone despite allowing somewhat frequent contact within it. Truly, this would be a list of pitchers who use their talents most efficiently, getting swings and misses outside of the zone, where they are more valuable. Here’s a list of such pitchers (SD O-Z = Standard Deviation of O-Contact% minus the standard deviation of Z-Contact%):

Some of those guys are what you might describe as a pretty big deal. Carpenter and Wainwright, certainly, were at least part of the Cy Young convo in the National League — and both accomplished the feat while conceding a below-average contact rate on balls in the strike zone.

There are certainly other questions to ask about this work. I’m in Paris right now, though, so I’m probably not gonna ask them for at least a couple days.


New York Mets: Top 10 Prospects

General Manager: Omar Minaya
Scouting Director: Rudy Terrasas

FanGraphs’ Top 10 Prospects:
(2009 Draft Picks/International Signees Not Included)

The Major League squad may still look a little rough around the edges but the minor league system is starting to round into shape. The first four players on the list all received consideration for the top spot, while the last six could all face big breakout seasons. The ’09 draft did not infuse much talented into the system.

1. Fernando Martinez, OF, Majors
DOB: October 1988 Bats: L Throws: R
Signed: 2005 non-drafted international free agent (Dominican Republic)
MLB ETA: Now 40-Man Roster: Yes Options: 2

Although some have already, it is far too early to give up on Martinez. Just 21 years old, the Dominican outfielder just needs to have a healthy season. When he did get on the field in ’09, he hit .290/.337/.540 with an ISO of .250 as a 20 year old in triple-A. That is pretty darn impressive. He reached his ’08 total in home runs in about half the at-bats. Martinez actually had a career-high OPS of .877 in ’09. He also kept his strikeout rate below 20% at 18.8%, but it would be nice to see more patience at the plate (5.9% walk rate). At the MLB level, he was over-matched and hit just .176/.242/.275 in 95 at-bats. With a career line against southpaws of .237/.308/.392, he has some work to do against lefties. Despite that, he still has a chance to be a very good player.

2. Ike Davis, 1B, Double-A
DOB: March 1987 Bats: L Throws: L
Signed: 2008 1st round – Arizona State University
MLB ETA: Mid-2011 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

A lot of eyebrows were raised (including mine) when Davis hit zero homers in his ’08 debut, which spanned 239 plate appearances. He responded to the criticism in a big way in ’09 and split the year between high-A and double-A while slugging 20 homers and 31 doubles. At the higher level, the first baseman hit .309/.386/.565 in 233 at-bats. He posted a wOBA of .426 and an eye-popping ISO of .256. Davis also showed a willingness to take a walk (11.2 BB%) but his strikeouts started to get out of hand (29.0 K%). He has some work to do against lefties, as seen by his OPS split: .672 against left-handers compared to 1.000 against right-handers. One caution about Davis’ breakout season: He’s a slow-footed player that posted a BABIP of .350 at high-A and .381 in double-A, so we’re likely to see his batting average come down in 2010, especially if the strikeout rate remains high.

3. Jenrry Mejia, RHP, High-A
DOB: October 1989 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2007 non-drafted international free agent (Dominican Republic)
MLB ETA: Late-2011 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3
Repertoire: 90-96 mph fastball, curveball, change-up

Mejia did not turn 20 until after the season ended and he reached double-A as a teenager, which says a lot about his potential. The right-hander began the year in high-A where he posted a FIP of 2.52 and allowed 41 hits in 50.1 innings. He showed good control with a walk rate of 2.86, but that jumped to 4.67 BB/9 in 44.1 double-A innings. His strikeout rate of 7.87 also increased with the promotion, though, to 9.54 K/9. Mejia allowed just two home runs on the season, thanks to a ground-ball rate just shy of 60%, which is outstanding for a flame-thrower. He dominated left-handed batters, as seen by his 10.71 K/9 rate against them, and they hit just .247 against Mejia despite a .354 BABIP. After making just 19 starts in 2009, the talented youngster should open 2010 back in double-A but he could reach the Majors by the end of the season, if needed.

4. Wilmer Flores, SS, Low-A
DOB: August 1991 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2007 non-drafted international free agent (Venezuela)
MLB ETA: Mid-2012 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

Another young player, Flores is just 18 years old and he spent much of the year playing in low-A ball at the age of 17. Overall, he had a ‘foundation year’ with a line of .264/.305/.332 in 488 at-bats. His BABIP was just .305 so we can expect to see a bump in that in the future even though he lacks blazing speed. Flores has raw power, but he posted an ISO of just .068. He needs to show more patience at the plate after posting a walk rate of just 4.3% but he handled the bat well and struck out just 14.8% of the time. Because he profiles as a third baseman down the line, Flores will need to focus on getting stronger and driving the ball more (12.5 LD%) in 2010. He’ll likely be pushed up to high-A this coming year.

5. Jonathon Niese, LHP, Majors
DOB: October 1986 Bats: L Throws: L
Signed: 2005 7th round – Ohio HS
MLB ETA: Now 40-Man Roster: Yes Options: 2
Repertoire: 88-92 mph fastball, cutter, curveball, change-up

Many Mets were cursed by injuries in ’09 and Niese was one of them. A torn hamstring tendon ended his season prematurely in August after he had made just five MLB starts. Despite that fact, Niese left a solid impression after posting a 3.25 FIP in 25.2 innings. His most effective pitch was a newly-honed cutter. Earlier in the season, the southpaw showed his MLB-readiness by posting a 3.38 FIP and 55% ground-ball rate in 94.1 triple-A innings, while also showing good control with a walk rate of 2.48 BB/9. Niese should be healthy and ready to go in spring training so he has a good shot at winning a spot in the MLB starting rotation.

6. Brad Holt, RHP, Double-A
DOB: October 1986 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2008 supplemental 1st round – University of North Carolina – Wilmington
MLB ETA: Late-2010 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3
Repertoire: 89-94 mph fastball, curveball, splitter

Holt had two distinct seasons in ’09. After a dominating pro debut, he opened ’09 by posting a 3.18 FIP in nine high-A starts. He also posted a strikeout rate of 11.22 and showed solid control (2.70 BB/9). Moved up to double-A, though, Holt struggled with a 5.01 FIP (6.21 ERA) and allowed 58 hits in 58.0 innings, despite a BABIP of just .292. His walk rate rose to 3.57 BB/9 and his strikeout rate plummeted to 6.98 K/9. He also struggled with the long ball (1.40 HR/9), and his ground-ball rate on the season was poor at 38%. Holt, 23, will certainly return to double-A in 2010 and look to conquer the league in his second try.

7. Ruben Tejada, SS, Double-A
DOB: September 1989 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2006 non-drafted international free agent (Panama)
MLB ETA: Mid-2011 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

The organization has been extremely aggressive with the slick-fielding shortstop. Despite hitting just .229/.293/.296 in high-A in ’08, the Mets promoted Tejada to double-A in ’09 and he hit .289/.351/.381 in 488 at-bats. His wOBA jumped from .277 in ’08 to .346 in ’09. He also showed improved base running and was successful in 19 of his 22 attempts. Tejada is a free swinger, who posted a walk rate of 7.0% but struck out just 12.1% of the time. He should move up to triple-A in ’09 but he’s currently blocked by incumbent shortstop Jose Reyes. Luckily for Tejada, the veteran player was injury-prone in ’09. The youngster could also slide over to second base.

8. Josh Thole, C, Triple-A
DOB: October 1986 Bats: L Throws: R
Signed: 2005 13th round – Illinois HS
MLB ETA: Now 40-Man Roster: Yes Options: 3

This converted catcher has his share of doubters, but he’s done nothing but hit over the past two seasons with a batting average above .300. He even received a 17-game trial in the Majors at the end of the season and hit .321/.356/.396 in 53 at-bats. At double-A, Thole hit .328/.395/.422 in 384 at-bats. The left-handed hitter has walked more than he struck out for three straight seasons and posted a BB/K at double-A of 1.24. He doesn’t need to be platooned, as he actually has a better career batting average against southpaws (.317 vs .284). On the down side, Thole has little power and posted an ISO of .094 in the minors and .075 at the MLB level. Defensively, he’s still learning the position but he improved his throwing in ’09 and nabbed 30% of runner trying to steal.

9. Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, Double-A
DOB: August 1987 Bats: L Throws: R
Signed: 2008 3rd round – Azusa Pacific University
MLB ETA: Mid-2011 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

Nieuwenhuis’ first full pro season was a success, as he hit .274/.357/.467 in 482 high-A at-bats, while also playing a solid center field. The speedy player also stole 16 bases in 20 attempts and showed surprising power with an ISO of .193. His strikeout rate was high at 28.1% but he offset that a bit with a solid walk rate at 11.1%. He has work to do against southpaws after hitting just .235/.294/.348. The outfielder received an eight-game trial in double-A and he should head back there in 2010.

10. Jeurys Familia, RHP, Low-A
DOB: October 1989 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2007 non-drafted international free agent (Dominican Republic)
MLB ETA: Late-2012 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3
Repertoire: 88-94 mph fastball, curveball, change-up

Familia is a hard-throwing right-hander who is still quite raw. However, despite being basically a one-pitch pitcher in ’09 (the fastball), he more than held his own in low-A ball at the age of 19. In 134.0 innings, he allowed just 109 hits, thanks in part to a .283 BABIP. He showed good control for his age with a walk rate of 3.09 BB/9 and his strikeout rate was modest at 7.32 K/9. His ground-ball rate was just shy of 50% at 48.8%. Familia did not allow a home run to a left-handed hitter all year (217 batters) but his strikeout rate was just 4.83 K/9 against them. If Familia can continue to grow as a pitcher, he could be a real breakout candidate in 2010.

Up Next: The Baltimore Orioles


The Yankees’ Win Curve

A while ago, we talked about the marginal value of a win, and how it differs from team to team, changing the calculation on what a team should pay for a given player given what they already have on the roster. The wins that have the largest impact on playoff odds are in the upper-80s, so if you’re a slightly better than .500 club, adding another additional win or two can have a pretty dramatic impact on your chances of playing in October.

For a team that isn’t likely to contend, the marginal value of each win is pretty low, which is one reason why those teams often go young and give prospects a chance to play rather than upgrading the roster with more expensive veterans. However, the win curve has two sides where the marginal value of an additional win is low, and in New York, we may be seeing evidence of how a team responds when their marginal value of a win is way past the peak.

The Yankees have made a bunch of good moves this winter, adding Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson, and Javier Vazquez to a roster that was the best in baseball a year ago. Their true talent level, as currently constructed, is probably that of a 100 win team. The Yankees are going to be very good in 2010.

So, perhaps we should not be so surprised that New York is bargain shopping in left field, avoiding the likes of Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. They are at the other end of the win curve, and it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of money there either. The marginal value of the 101st, 102nd, and 103rd win in terms of playoff odds is really quite small. And that’s approximately the upgrade that Holliday would represent over the current production that Gardner offers in left field.

The Yankees have entered the prime area of significant diminishing marginal utility. They are so good that adding another high quality player doesn’t help them that much in 2010, and because of the long term contract that is required, they’d be risking future flexibility to add wins that may actually matter for an upgrade that just isn’t necessary.

It’s a rational decision made by smart people who understand just how good their roster currently is. In the past, New York has pursued every big ticket free agent on the market because they represented a real, tangible improvement in their quest to bring home another championship. Given how well Brian Cashman has put together this roster, though, a big ticket left fielder is superfluous. He’s right to keep his money locked up. They just don’t need another good player.


2009’s Toughest Pitches

Before the start of this season, I wrote a piece that mentioned the toughest pitches to hit in 2008. I them promptly forgot about the data that I had pulled to write that. Now fast forward to a few days ago, when I was again curious about the pitches that garnered the highest percentage of swings and misses. I ended up re-doing my work, but in a vastly more efficient manner (it’s nice to know that I’ve gotten smarter in at least some areas) this time around, so maybe I won’t forget and let this go to waste.

Anyways, last year’s toughest pitch was Ryan Madson’s changeup thrown to same-handed (that is, right-handed) hitters. Back then I broke each pitcher-pitch combo down into four groups, separated by role, starter or reliever, and batter handedness, same or opposite. This time, I am less inclined to do so, preferring to focus on bigger samples and effectiveness spread across platoon situations. I can still break it down like that in the future should the need arise, but for this year’s hardest pitch to hit award, I’m keeping it on the level.

And the winner of that award for 2009 goes to Brandon League. It’s a rather remarkable win, because the pitch in question, a changeup — or, possibly, a splitter — was a new one for League, who up until 2009 was a dominant fastball pitcher that tossed out a slider once in awhile. In 2009, League introduced the splitter pitch and relied on it, using it roughly 35% of the time. And boy did it work. 35% of the time that Brandon League threw that splitter, the hitter swung and missed. It was five percentage points better than the person-pitch in second place, an old friend, Ryan Madson’s changeup, at just under 30%.

Third and fourth place went to Jonathan Broxton and Huston Street’s sliders, in that order, and Francisco Rodriguez’s changeup rounded out the top five.


Should We Award Jobs Based on Spring Training?

At one point or another, everyone has been exposed to the concept of the spring training position battle. Whether it comes down to the fifth rotation slot or the final bench spot, these competitions are always made out to be the stories of the spring. Undoubtedly spring training has lead to some dismissals and promotions over the time, but should it?

Most agree that spring training stats are irrelevant which means the exhibition season is more about process than results. If Gabe Kapler hits .100/.200/.100 – which he basically did last year – it’s not the end of the world as long as he appears in shape and isn’t swinging at everything (or nothing). Pitchers often work on new grips or arm slots – amongst other things that become overhyped as reasons for a potential breakout season – so that 6.50 ERA from the staff ace isn’t concerning. The most common scenarios in which the idea of an open spring competition is used includes:

– Young players looking to crack the roster
– Two players of near equal value
– Non-roster players with a history of success

In each case we have some idea of expectations. Even with younger players we can assume league average performance for some of the top young talents and less from more fringe prospects. The second scenario seems to be the most likely where spring performance can be used while minimizing risk and accounts for the majority of middle reliever battles. Meanwhile, in the final tier, you have guys like Eric Hinske in 2008 coming off a down season. He shows health and no reason to believe the previous season was because of decaying skills and in exchange finds a spot on the 25 man.

I suppose we rely heavily on the past in any situation while weighing the newest information, but not being complete slaves to it. That seems like the way it should be. So maybe teams don’t really make decisions based on 20 games in the springtime, but rather 20 games in the springtime and the x before it.


2009 Is Not A Constant

I would like to make a plea with anyone who plans on writing anything about how a team’s off-season has gone – please, please, please do not treat 2009 as a constant.

This happens all the time. Team X added Player Y but lost Player Z, so they are about the same as they were. Or sometimes it will appear in a slightly different form – the team brought in this guy to replace the big hole they had last year, so with that improvement and no obvious downgrades, they’re going to be even better!

All of these statements presuppose that each team should expect to get something close to equal to the 2009 performance of all the players they are retaining from last year’s roster. But that’s not even remotely close to true, and everyone knows it. We all know about career years and how you have to expect regression after a player does something way outside the ordinary, but regression doesn’t just serve to bring players back to earth after a big year.

Regression “fixes” a lot of problem spots from the prior year, even if the team doesn’t make a serious effort to change out players. The Royals got a .253 wOBA out of their shortstops a year ago. I don’t care how bad you think Yuniesky Betancourt is, you have to expect that number to be higher this year. They didn’t do anything to improve their shortstop position this winter, but the level of production they got from the position in 2009 is not their expected level of production for 2010.

It isn’t just individual players performances, either. Last year, the Phillies had a LOB% of 75.0% despite a pretty mediocre 4.36 FIP as a team. They stranded a ton of base runners, something that is not an easily repeatable skill. They could pitch much better, thanks to the addition of Roy Halladay, and still give up more runs than they did a year ago.

This applies across the board. Injuries, clutch hitting, variance in run distribution – all of these are subject to extreme amounts of regression, and they all had a significant impact on how some teams performed last year, both in terms of “raw” wins and losses and things like runs scored and runs allowed. You cannot just look at a team’s prior year won loss record – or even their pythagorean record – make some adjustments for the off-season transactions, and presume that’s a good enough estimator of true talent for the 2010 team.

However, it’s done all the time. I’m not just talking about mainstream writers here – you’ll see this kind of “analysis” on pretty much every blog and commentary about baseball, sabermetric or otherwise. For whatever reason, it’s become acceptable to just plug in the new guys numbers in place of the old guys numbers and call it a day, pretending like everything else from last year is not going to change at all.

That’s lazy and it’s wrong. Don’t do it.


The O’s Enviable Outfield Logjam

The Baltimore Orioles have a difficult task ahead of them the next few years with three juggernauts ahead of them in the American League East. However, since Andy MacPhail took over baseball operations in 2007, the Orioles have positioned themselves for a bright future. Part of this is manifested in their crowded, young, and skilled outfield.

The two best players in the outfield are right fielder Nick Markakis (26 in 2010) and center fielder Adam Jones (24). Combining ZiPS, CHONE, and my own projections for offense and Jeff Zimmerman’s UZR projections and CHONE’s TotalZone for defense, Markakis projects as a +21/150 hitter in 2010, and +2 defender in right field for about 3.6 WAR.Jones’ projections vary more widely, but he comes in at about +9/150 hitting, +1 fielding (both Jones and Markakis had surprising down years defensively in 2009) for about 3.2 WAR. Those are the obvious guys. For the remaining outfield spot, the Orioles have three candidates: Nolan Reimold, Felix Pie, and Luke Scott.

The 26 year-old Reimold will probably begin 2010 in left field, assuming he recovers well from ankle surgery. Reimold came on strong in 2009, projecting at about +12/150 offensively. His defense was less impressive, and he projects as a about a -6/150 defender in left field. Overall, that’s about about a league-average player. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty in his defensive projection, and he is young.

While Reimold is the popular choice to start in left field, it’s not obviously the correct choice. While Felix Pie projects as the worst hitter in the group a -4/150, he’s also as good or better than Jones as a center fielder (+2), which would translate to about +12 in left field. So he projects as about a league average (2.0 WAR) player, and is the second-youngest player in the group (only to Jones). While he probably won’t ever be the superstar people though he would be become before the Cubs started jerking him around (as is their tradition), he’s young, good, and has little enough service time that it’s understandable why other teams are interested in obtaining him, and also why the Orioles have so far refused to sell him for a bag of magic beans.

Scott is the odd man out in this situation, but it’s hardly due to a lack of talent. As a hitter, he projects at +11/150. Despite being primarily a designated hitter in 2009, his past performance in the field suggests that is a waste of his talents, as he projects as +2 in left field — clearly better than Reimold. Overall, that makes Scott about a 2.5 WAR player.

The Orioles are in an enviable position of not only having excess talent in the outfield, but not necessarily having to trade any of them. Scott is an underrated player, but given his age (32), arbitration status, and the Orioles overall situation, he should be the first to go. But it’s not as if his arbitration award will be onerous relative to his value. If he’s willing to move to first base (despite his defensive ability), that would fill a hole for the Orioles. But he might have the most value in trade to a team that needs a left fielder, where his skills are best utilized as a 2-2.5 WAR outfielder rather than a 1-1.5 WAR DH.

Pie is the wildcard, as he’s barely older than Jones, and perhaps the most defensively skilled player of the group. Baltimore has understandably committed to Jones in center given his superior bat (although Pie has better plate discipline). While Reimold is the popular choice to start in left, Pie’s far superior defensive skills make him more than just a fourth outfielder. For the future, the Orioles might be best off trading Pie and/or Scott for prospects and/or filling another area of need in the majors. On the other hand, especially in Pie’s case, he’s young, cheap, and skilled enough that they don’t have to trade him, and can certainly find something for him to do around the office. Not many teams find themselves in such a comfortable situation.

Click here to enter your projections for the Orioles various outfielders.


Frank Wren Likes Lottery Tickets

Frank Wren’s modus operandi to the 2010 offseason: Replace younger, healthier players with older, more injury prone players. He’s not a doctor, but he plays one in real life. Actually, I’m not here to pick on Wren. You can make arguments for all of his acquisitions this offseason. But seriously, this is getting weird.

Last week Wren traded Javier Vazquez and essentially replaced him with Tim Hudson. Hudson threw a grand total of 42 innings last season for the Braves, and it was enough to convince him to re-sign him to a 3-year/$28 million deal. That pretty much sealed Vazquez’s fate as a Brave, as no one was interested in picking up Derek Lowe’s ugly contract. Vazquez has thrown over 200 innings the past four seasons, averaging 5.3 WAR per season during that span. Hudson has been a 5+ WAR pitcher four different times over his career, and the success rate of Tommy John surgery is pretty good. This might work out just fine, and at least the Braves got a decent return for Vazquez.

The Braves also replaced 30-year-old Rafael Soriano with 38-year-old Billy Wagner, who is also is coming off of Tommy John surgery. Soriano was a 2 WAR reliever in 2009 but has a checkered injury history of his own. Still, he showed us last season what he is capable of. Soriano surprisingly accepted arbitration, but the Braves had no trouble finding a taker for his services, swapping him to Tampa Bay for Jesse Chavez.

Now the Braves are replacing Adam LaRoche with Troy Glaus. Glaus is reported to have signed for a $2 million deal, with incentives. The deal is pending a physical, but the well-respected Dr. Lewis Yocum has already given the thumbs up on Glaus’ surgically repaired shoulder to interested parties. It’s worth noting that it was more than just Troy’s shoulder that limited him to just 14 games last season; he also experienced troubles with his back.

Glaus will play first base with the Braves, which should help health-wise. When he’s right, he is plenty productive. Over his career, his wRC+ is 123, and in his last healthy season Glaus posted a 131 wRC+ with the Cardinals in 2008. For the money, this is a nice upside play in an iffy 1B market for Wren and Co. On the flip-side, they’re obviously showing that they are not counting on a whole lot from Glaus.

I’m seeing a lot of roster-churning going on, but I’m not sure I’m seeing a lot of progress. If anything, it looks like they’ve taken a step back. Jason Heyward could go Cameron Maybin on the Braves, Matt Diaz may not be able to handle regular duty, and Glaus, Wagner and Hudson are all too familiar with the disabled list.

The Braves were in shouting distance of the wild card last year. If they want to send Bobby Cox out a winner, filling their needs with a bunch of injury-risks in hopes of improving seems like an “interesting” way to go about accomplishing that task. Considering some of the alternatives, it might have been the best, but definitely not the safest approach. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.


The New “Moneyball” Approach

It is not very controversial to state that “Moneyball” was a divisive book. Michael Lewis wrote some things that can only be interpreted as denigrating to the scouting community, painting a picture of an out-of-touch collection of old men being replaced by smarter, better analysts. It should have been no surprise that people who considered themselves scouts, or had a lot of respect for the profession, were offended by some of the stuff Lewis wrote.

I wonder how different the book would be if it written today, though, because we are currently in the midst of a market correction based on statistical analysis agreeing with long held scouting beliefs. Defense is at a premium while high strikeout sluggers are struggling to find offers, and this charge is being led by the “smart teams” that Lewis would espouse are doing things the right way.

The Mariners focus on defense under Jack Zduriencik is a well known story by now. But, they aren’t the only ones heading that direction. The Boston Red Sox signed Mike Cameron to replace Jason Bay and have made their interest in Adrian Beltre well known. The A’s signed Coco Crisp and currently have an outfield with three center fielders penciled in as starters. Defensive specialists Adam Everett, Alex Gonzalez, Jack Wilson, Placido Polanco, and Pedro Feliz have all signed, while the guys who provide value with their bats are still sitting on the market.

The teams that use statistical analysis the most are doing what their scouts have been recommending for years. Stats geeks are validating the insights of scouts. If Lewis was following the game right now, documenting stories from inside a “smart” front office, the tone would have to be dramatically different, even if the point was still the same – good teams spend money on undervalued assets.

Timing really is everything. That Lewis chose to write the book when on base percentage was undervalued created a division between stats and scouting that simply would not exist if the book was written today. With the new found appreciation for defense and its place in a player’s total value, stats and scouts agree more than they disagree at the moment.

Perhaps the subtitle for the sequel to Moneyball should be “Why The Fat Scout Was Right All Along”.