Archive for February, 2010

The Dead Who Walk Among Us

Zombies.

Yup, Zombies in baseball. It happens. Guys who are clearly shells of their former selves hanging on for no reason. Well, I guess there is the money, but most of these guys already made tons of money. A zombie, you see, isn’t just any bad player who just keeps getting jobs for no reason. To be Undead, one must once have had life — one must once have been good. Paul Bako, for example, has somehow managed to be in and around the majors for more than 10 seasons (left-handed hitting catcher!) while always being around replacement level, but since his FanGraphs-WAR Era (2002-present) “peak” was 0.3 wins in his glorious 2003 season, we can be pretty sure he’s just being Bako (although he’s assuredly still a money-grubbing traitor). No, a zombie can be identified by having once been very good, but now putting on performance that let us know the Life Force has long since departed.*

* We’re talking about zombies here, not arch-liches. In other words, I won’t be discussing Jamie Moyer.

Ivan Rodriguez, is a good example of a zombie. Most of his best years actually predate the FanGraphs Era, but he did have some ~five win seasons in 2003 and 2004 with the Marlins and Tigers. While Zombie Pudge clearly can still play baseball a bit, his offense, always reliant on lots of contact, has pretty much completely eroded, and his defensive skills, once widely admired, are now decidedly average-ish. He’s not useless, but from one a Hall-of-Famer to a part-timer? Zombie Pudge.

Jason Kendall has been fodder for thousands of internet jokes of a couple of years now. While it’s understandable, give his inflated defensive reputation and offensive worthlessness (grit!), Kendall was a pretty great player back in the late-90s/early00s. Heck, he was still pretty good only a few years ago. At this point, though, while his defense might be a bit above average (he had a great year defensively in 2008, although 2007 and 2009 were both poor), his offense… well. Zombie Kendall.

We know that some teams will go gaga for Zombie catchers for what “they’ll bring to the team” (perhaps Washington and Kansas City are the bsaeball equivalents the Underworld). Who are some non-catchers?

Andruw Jones springs to mind, not only for his past excellence and current zombie status, but for the rapidity with which he joined the ranks of the undead. Jones is one of the greatest defensive center fielders ever, and even in 2007, when his bat began to slip, UZR has him at about 22 runs above average. In 2008 he joined the Dodgers, and had clearly fallen under the power of a necromancer. Sure, he was better in 2009 with Texas, but when a guy who used to regularly put up 6 wins seasons has a 0.8 win “comeback,” when he says he’s coming to 2010 Spring Training ready to compete for a starting job in center field for the White Sox and we find it laughable… dude’s a zombie.

Perhaps the most obvious current zombie is Ken Griffey, Jr. Junior was awesome back in the 1990s, and is a surefire Hall of Famer if there was one (I think Jones should be in, too, but I digress). But man, he’s only been over 1.5 WAR once in the FanGraphs Era, and that was back in 2006. Kid Zombie is clearly sucking up a roster slot for feelgood reasons* in Seattle (“he’ll mentor Milton Bradley!”), but isn’t Seattle supposed to be contending in the 2010’s likely tightest division? Maybe Griffey has powers of hypnosis; perhaps he’s a vampire rather than a zombie, I dunno.

* No, I don’t have it in me to discuss Zombie Mike Sweeney.

That’s just a start to get you going. What other zombies slated to play in 2010?


Seattle Mariners: Top 10 Prospects

General Manager: Jack Zduriencik
Farm Director: Pedro Grifol
Scouting Director: Tom McNamara

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

After writing the Mariners’ draft review the other day, it became quite obvious that the Top 10 list did not come from mining the college and prep ranks. A good number of the prospects on this list have come from international signings, while two also came via the trade route. With that said, Dustin Ackley would easily be the club’s No. 1 prospect if I was including ’09 draftees and international signees.

1. Michael Saunders, OF, Majors
DOB: November 1986 Bats: L Throws: R
Signed: 2004 11th round – Tallahassee Community College
MLB ETA: Now 40-Man Roster: Yes Options: 1

Saunders showed some rough edges at the MLB level in ’09 by hitting .221/.258/.279 in 122 at-bats. That MLB triple-slash line came on the heels of a .310/.378/.544 line in triple-A. After stealing 20+ bases in ’06 and ’07, Saunders attempted just 14 thefts in ’09 between the two levels so it would be nice to see him incorporate the running game into his attack a little more often. Although he didn’t show it in the Majors (.057 ISO), Saunders does possess some pop (.234 ISO) and he showed solid defence in left field. With the addition of Milton Bradley and Eric Byrnes at the MLB level, the outfield is crowded in Seattle so Saunders could very well spend much of the year in triple-A but he could be the first man recalled if an injury occurs.

2. Adam Moore, C, Majors
DOB: May 1984 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2006 6th round – University of Texas-Arlington
MLB ETA: Now 40-Man Roster: Yes Options: 3

The club is relying heavily on youth behind the plate in ’09 with the likely tandem of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore. The club chose not to dip into the veteran catcher free agent pool (Yorvit Torrealba, Rod Barajas) this past off-season, save for a few non-roster invites to the likes of Josh Bard and Eliezer Alfonzo. The 25-year-old Moore had a nice offensive showing in triple-A in ’09 by hitting .294/.346/.429 in 340 at-bats. He has some raw power but his ISO rates have slowly eroded away since hitting 22 homers (.236 ISO) in high-A in ’07. His rate in triple-A in ’09 was .135. Moore walks a modest amount (7.1%) but he keeps the strikeout rate at a reasonable level (15.0%). Behind the plate, he threw out 31% of base stealers and still has some work to do on his receiving skills.

3. Carlos Triunfel, 3B, Double-A
DOB: February 1990 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2006 non-drafted free agent (Dominican Republic)
MLB ETA: Late-2011 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

Triunfel was zooming through the minor league system and reached double-A in ’09 as a 19 year old, but the infielder’s season came to a crashing halt when he broke his leg in April. He made it back for the Arizona Fall League where he hit .204 but he was reportedly bothered by his leg. Looking back to ’08, the third baseman hit .287/.336/.406 in 436 at-bats in high-A. He also stole 30 bases in 39 tries so it will be interesting to see if his injury affects his speed going forward. With an ISO of just .119 in ’08, Originally a shortstop, Triunfel does not really fit the profile of a third baseman but he’s expected to play there in the future, unless he can stick at second base. Only 20, Triunfel is just beginning to tap into his potential.

4. Alex Liddi, 3B, High-A
DOB: August 1988 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2005 non-drafted international free agent (Italy)
MLB ETA: Late-2012 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

It’s amazing what a good hitter’s environment can do for a player’s value. With Liddi, though, the improvement is considered to be part league-affected and part realization of potential. Signed out of Italy, the third baseman is still learning the finer aspects of the game and he’ll play 2010 under a much larger microscope after catching fans’ attentions with a line of .345/.411/.594. His wOBA jumped from .314 in ’08 at low-A to .431 in high-A in ’09. Although his plate rates were almost identical to ’08, Liddi made a number of statistical leaps, most notably: OPS from .673 to 1.005, ISO from .116 to .249. The huge increase in power in just one season is a little suspicious and could very well be the product of his environment in high-A. His batting average of .345 (.244 in ’08) was fueled by a .413 BABIP. Defensively, Liddi has shown some improvements at third, but he may never be better than average at the hot corner. If ’09 wasn’t a fluke, though, his bat might be able to play anywhere on the field.

5. Michael Pineda, RHP, High-A
DOB: January 1989 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2005 non-drafted international free agent (Dominican Republic)
MLB ETA: Mid-2012 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3
Repertoire: 88-94 mph fastball, slider, change-up

A beast on the mound at 6’5” 250 lbs, Pineda was let down by his elbow in ’09 as his season was interrupted in mid-May and he did not return until August. The elbow soreness that he experienced is cause for concern going forward, but the right-hander has a bright future ahead of him if he can put the issue behind him. Just 20 in ’09, Pineda posted a 2.73 FIP in 10 appearances (eight starts) in high-A despite playing in a good hitter’s league. He allowed just 29 hits in 44.1 innings of work and showed outstanding control for his age with a walk rate of 1.22 BB/9. His low-90s fastball and good (but inconsistent) slider helped him post a strikeout rate of 9.74 K/9. It will be interesting to see if the organization returns Pineda to high-A in 2010 or pushes him to double-A.

6. Matt Tuiasosopo, 3B, Majors
DOB: May 1986 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2004 3rd round – Washington HS
MLB ETA: Now 40-Man Roster: Yes Options: 2

There are two distinct thoughts on Tuiasosopo. One camp sees the infielder flicking the baseball light switch on thanks to his impressive athletic abilities, while the other camp sees him as a future bench player in the Majors, at best. The third baseman has yet to master the art of consistency. In a season marred by injury, Tuiasosopo broke through in his power numbers (.212 ISO in triple-A) but he continues to struggle to hit for average. Although he shows patience at the plate (13.4%), the infielder also swings at a lot of bad pitches and posted a strikeout rate of 36.7 K% in ’09. In two brief stints in the Majors, he hit just .182/.236/.303.

7. Nick Hill, LHP, Double-A
DOB: January 1985 Bats: L Throws: L
Signed: 2007 7th round – US Military Academy
MLB ETA: 40-Man Roster: Options:
Repertoire: 86-89 mph fastball, curveball, change-up

It’s not often that relievers show up on the Top 10 list but Hill had a solid showing in ’09 and could be an important contributor to the Major League bullpen in 2010. The club lacks a true left-handed reliever, although it has some fringe starters who could shift to the ‘pen, so Hill could help fill that void. Pitching at double-A in ’09, the southpaw posted a 2.76 FIP in 95.2 innings. Despite an average fastball in terms of velocity, Hill posted a strikeout rate of 9.41 K/9. He also showed solid control with a walk rate of 2.26 BB/9 and gets good sink on his offerings (53.5 GB%). Encouragingly, Hill is not helpless against right-handed batters, as they hit just .215 against him.

8. Gabriel Noriega, SS, Rookie
DOB: September 1990 Bats: B Throws: R
Signed: 2007 non-drafted international free agent (Venezuela)
MLB ETA: Late-2013 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

You have to dream a little bit with Noriega. The 19-year-old shortstop has spent the past two seasons in rookie ball so he still has a long way to climb. He showed a nice stick in ’09 by hitting .311/.360/.456 in 206 at-bats. He also improved his patience at the plate over ’08 by increasing his walk rate from 3.4 to 7.0 BB%. Noriega has a little pop in his bat (.146 ISO) but his strikeout rate needs to improve (29.1%). In truth, Noriega’s bat is far from the most impressive part of his game. Defense is where the infielder really shines and those that like him a lot see him as a future Gold Glover at shortstop. He’ll certainly have no issues with staying at the position unless he fills out too much and has to shift to third base, but that should be down the line a ways if it occurs at all.

9. Maikel Cleto, RHP, Low-A
DOB: May 1989 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2006 non-drafted international free agent (New York NL)
MLB ETA: Late-2013 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3
Repertoire: 90-97 mph fastball, slider, change-up

Cleto, like Pineda, had his ’09 season cut short and he made just eight appearances in low-A. Luckily, his season was delayed by visa issues and not an injury. The right-hander is one of the hardest throwers in the system and his fastball can touch the high-90s. Along with his velocity, Cleto has shown good sink, which has produced some good ground-ball numbers in the low minors. Unfortunately, he’s really a one-pitch pitcher right now and there has been talk of moving him to the bullpen where he could develop into a late-game rock. The 2010 season will be huge for Cleto in terms of solidifying his prospect value.

10. Johermyn Chavez, OF, Low-A
DOB: January 1989 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: 2005 non-drafted international free agent (Toronto)
MLB ETA: Late-2012 40-Man Roster: No Options: 3

Chavez slips onto the back end of the Top 10 list after being acquired from Toronto in the Brandon Morrow deal this past off-season. I’ve had a chance to follow him closely over the past three years and I truly believe he has a good shot at developing into a solid big league outfielder. He repeated low-A in ’09 but he was not old for the league at 20. Chavez was second in the league in homers (his ISO rate was 9th) and fourth in RBIs on a not-so-good Lansing squad. After posting a strikeout rate of 27 K% or more in each of the past three seasons, it’s clear that he needs to make a little more contact. Although he’s not a great base runner, Chavez has the ability to nab double-digit steals and he has a strong arm and profiles well in right field. He played a lot of left field in ’08 due to the presence of Moises Sierra, who has one of the strongest arms in the minors.

Up Next: The San Francisco Giants


Seattle Mariners: Draft Review

General Manager: Jack Zduriencik
Farm Director: Pedro Grifol
Scouting Director: Tom McNamara

2006-2009 Draft Results:
First three rounds included
x- over-slot signees ($200,000 or more)

2009 1st Round: Dustin Ackley, 1B/OF, North Carolina
1. Nick Franklin, SS, Florida HS
1S. Steven Baron, C, Florida HS
2. Rich Poythress, 1B, Georgia
3. Kyle Seager, 2B, North Carolina
5x – Tyler Blandford, RHP, Oklahoma State [90-95 FB, SL, CH]

The organization scored a major victory with the best pure hitter in the draft in Ackley. He should move quickly in the system and could even be in the Majors by the end of the season, depending on the club’s needs. The outfielder had a nice debut in the Arizona Fall League where he hit .315/.412/.425. If we’re looking for negatives, he did strike out 19 times in 20 games. With just one homer, he also showed why his bat profiles better in center field than first base.

The club also nabbed prep shortstop Franklin in the first round and he showed some flashes of his potential in 16 pro games. He was aggressive at the plate but he also displayed some pop. Fellow prep draftee Baron did not have as much luck with the bat. He hit .279/.241/.292 in 106 rookie ball at-bats. The 35.8% strikeout rate is worrisome.

The club paid a little extra to lure Blandford to pro ball. He has an electric fastball/slider combination but his control is incredibly lacking. The right-hander has yet to make his debut and he’ll be a project.

The organization obviously felt Poythress had a pretty advanced bat as he spent the majority of his debut in double-A, where he hit .230/.337/.287 in 87 at-bats. His college power has yet to translate over to the minors but he did show some patience (14.4% walk rate). Fellow collegiate player Seager was given an easier assignment: low-A ball, and he hit .275/.360/.346 in 153 at-bats. He showed a good eye at the plate, too, with a walk rate of 12.4% and a strikeout rate of 13.1%.

2008 1st Round: Joshua Fields, RHP, Georgia
2. Dennis Raben, OF, Miami
3. Aaron Pribanic, RHP, Nebraska
14x – Luke Burnett, RHP, Louisiana Tech

This was not a strong draft for the organization. Already 24, Fields has just 31 pro games under his belt and he posted a 6.48 ERA in double-A last year. On the plus side, his FIP was just 3.89 and his strikeout rate showed promise (9.72 K/9). Pribanic showed some flashes of potential but he was dealt to Pittsburgh last season. Brett Lorin (5th round) also joined the right-hander in Pittsburgh’s organization.

Burnett, a hulking hurler at 6’8” 250 lbs, was given some extra dough to sign but he has yet to reward the club with his performance. The main culprit for his lack of success has been his lack of control (5.76 BB/9 in ’09). Raben’s intriguing debut in ’08 was ruined by injury in ’09 and he failed to make an appearance all season.

2007 1st Round: Phillippe Aumont, RHP, Quebec HS
1S. Matt Mangini, 3B, Oklahoma State
2. Denny Almonte, OF, Florida HS
3. Danny Carroll, OF, California HS

Aumont certainly had his moments in the organization but he changed uniforms in the off-season during the Cliff Lee trade with Philly. Mangini has been a disappointment in pro ball. He had his best offensive season in ’09, though, by hitting .273/.339/.424 in 422 double-A at-bats.

The club nabbed a couple prep outfielders in the second and third round but neither has really seized the opportunity. Almonte has struggled with massive strikeouts (His 36.2 K% rate in ’09 was a career low). Carroll has also had significant trouble making contact, but he has flashed some strong stolen base totals.

Nick Hill (7th round) can be found on the club’s Top 10 list and could find a role in the big league bullpen at some point in 2010. Shawn Kelley (13th round) appeared in 41 games for the Mariners in 2009.

2006 1st Round: Brandon Morrow, RHP, California
2. Chris Tillman, RHP, California HS
3. Tony Butler, LHP, Wisconsin HS

Here we find some interest arms; unfortunately all three are pitching elsewhere with Morrow now in Toronto, as well as both Tillman and Butler in Baltimore.

In fact, this whole draft class has been traded pretty mercilessly. Nathan Adcock (5th round) was sent to Pittsburgh along with Pribanic and Lorin. Kam Mickolio (18th round) went to Baltimore along with Tillman and Butler. Fabian Williamson (22nd round) was traded to Boston for closer David Aardsma. Tyson Gillies (25th round) followed Aumont to Philadelphia.

Catcher Adam Moore (6th round) is one of the club’s best prospects and could be the No. 1 backstop in 2010. Right-hander Doug Fister (7th round) has a chance to help in ’10, as well. Southpaw Dan Runzler would have been a nice grab in the 17th round but he returned to UC Riverside and later signed with San Francisco.

Up Next: The Seattle Mariners Top 10 Prospects


Hit the Ball in the Air Against the Twins

The 2009 Mariners did not have the best pitching staff in the American League. They tied for eighth lowest FIP at 4.39, and tied for 10th in xFIP with 4.52. Despite ranking in the bottom half of the league in these fielding independent metrics, the Mariners boasted the best ERA in the AL by a fairly wide margin. Their defense apparently made up the difference, as they led the majors in UZR. A big part of their advantage came in the outfield, where Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez snagged everything that came near them. The result was the highest outfield UZR in the league.

The Twins felt the opposite effect. Their team UZR ranked second to last in the AL, while their outfield defense ranked last. Like the Mariners, they posted a team 4.39 FIP and 4.52 xFIP. But the team ERA was much higher, at 4.50, placing them 11th in the AL. Making matters worse, their pitchers gave up the highest percentage of fly balls in the league, 41.1 percent. They also allowed the third most balls in play, meaning their poor outfielders got plenty of chances.

Only two Twins outfielders accumulated positive UZRs in 2009: Carlos Gomez and Denard Span. That does not bode well for the 2010 team. The former is now a Brewer, and the latter posted his positive contributions from the corners, while running negative in center field. He’ll man the position full-time in 2010, flanked by a combination of Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, and Michael Cuddyer, all of whom posted a UZR/150 of -15 or worse. It looks like a sorry outfield situation in Minnesota.

While Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and, in his best days, Francisco Liriano, can keep the ball on the ground, two-fifths of the Twins projected rotation have trouble in that regard. Both Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey allow tons of fly balls, so it comes as no surprise that their FIPs were quite lower than their ERAs. Both, thankfully for the Twins, boast decent strikeout rates, but when they do allow contact the ball heads to the outfield more than to the infield. With outfielders like Cuddyer, Young, and Kubel, that can present a bit of trouble.

As with most takes on UZR, a few caveats apply here. First, Span hasn’t played enough innings in center field to get a good read on him. During his two major league seasons he’s accumulated only 704 innings, which totals less than a full-time season. We should get a better idea of his ability this year when he’s playing there every day. By most observer reports he does well enough, and I’m fairly confident that he’s not as bad as his -13.8 UZR/150 indicates.

We do, however, have decent samples on Cuddyer and Young. The results shouldn’t encourage Twins fans. In 3767.2 career outfield innings, Young has posted a -11.8 UZR/150. It gets even worse in his largest sample, left field, where in 2130.2 innings he has a -18.9 UZR/150. Cuddyer as played 4457.1 career innings in right field, posting a -10.1 UZR/150. Kubel has a much smaller sample, just 1802.2 career outfield innings, but the -18.7 UZR/150 isn’t encouraging. Nor are the anecdotal accounts of his defense. Thankfully, he’ll probably stay on the bench while the Twins play defense, filling mostly the DH role.

The Twins should feature very good, maybe even spectacular defense in the infield, especially if Nick Punto wins the third base job. But when the they face slugging teams that take a lot of pitches to the outfield, they could face problems. Maybe Span provides above average range once he settled into center field, and maybe the 30 pounds Young dropped this off-season will help him improve his defense a bit. Even with both of those factors, however, the Twins still won’t cover a ton of outfield ground. It could once again play a big role in how the pitching staff fares.


Why Does Vegas Hate the Twins

I always look forward to the release of the Vegas over/unders from the great Vegas Watch. My friend Derek Zumsteg did a great piece on odds in Vegas a few years ago, and due to the bookies fanatical desire to make money, they’ve always struck me as a nice stand in for what they see public perception of each team being. They aren’t predictors of final record, but instead, numbers set to even out the bets, so that they book will make money no matter what happens. To do this, they have to be pretty good at projecting where the money will fall at a given number of wins.

Apparently, Vegas thinks that people with money hate the Twins. If there’s one over/under that stands out like a sore thumb, it’s Minnesota at 82 wins. 82 wins – the same as the White Sox, one win more than the Tigers, tied for the seventh best record in the American League. Really? Seriously?

The Twins had a tremendous winter, as we’ve discussed. They added quality talents in J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, and Jim Thome, plus retained Carl Pavano for a full season (or however much of it he’ll be able to stay healthy for). They got more good news when Francisco Liriano found his fastball and dominated the Winter Leagues, and for those who are into this sort of thing, uber bust Delmon Young showed up at camp 30 pounds lighter.

Their losses? Joe Crede and Carlos Gomez, who accounted for +1.9 wins combined a year ago. They didn’t take a significant hit at any position, unlike their rivals in Michigan, who lost Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, and Edwin Jackson. And yet Vegas shaved an equal number of wins off both the Twins and Tigers records from 2009, despite very different off-seasons.

Honestly, I don’t get it. Sure, there’s expected regression from Mauer (it’s really hard to repeat that kind of season, no matter who you are), but they aren’t likely to get a brutal performance from Alexi Casilla again. CHONE has the Twins as an 86 win team, and there’s certainly upside beyond the expected performances of guys like Young, Liriano, and Hardy. My back of the envelope calculations have them at something more like 87 or 8 88 wins.

Could the Twins win 82 games? Sure. Anything is possible. But smart money will go heavily over on that number, because the Twins are better than a true talent 82 win team. I don’t know what Vegas thinks the perception of Minnesota’s team is, but it’s certainly not the same one I have. And I don’t know too many people who think the Twins are in a dead heat with the White Sox and Tigers for the AL Central. They’re a clear favorite in my books, and I’d expect them to finish well north of 82 wins.


NCAA Weekend Preview: The Enigmatic

In the 2007 draft, Matt Harvey, Kyle Blair and Brandon Workman were considered among the best right-handed prep pitchers available in the draft. And all three, either by intention or by confusion, made a subset of scouts believe that they could be bought away from their college scholarships by large bonuses. Harvey could have been, I think, but Scott Boras played his cards wrong with rumors of multi-million dollar bonus demands. He dropped to the third round, where the Angels hoped they could get him on the cheap. But Blair and Workman were considered signable enough to be drafted in the fifth and third rounds, respectively, and offered large six-figure bonuses to bypass college and enter professional baseball. Ultimately, all three hard-throwing righties decided they would make more money dominating college baseball for a couple years and re-entering the 2010 draft than signing these above-slot offers.

Fast forward three years, and they will make for some very interesting arguments in draft war rooms in June. All three entered the spring still highly thought of — but in six college seasons, only Matt Harvey’s freshman season (2.85 ERA, 10.99 K/9) could be considered dominant, and he still walked 6.5 batters per nine that year. Last weekend, in their first start of opening weekend, they combined for a composite line of 18 hits, 8 walks, 7 earned runs in 15.2 innings. Again, the 18 strikeouts show their promise, but that is just not getting it done. There will be teams that want to understand why these players have been scuffed around so often in college before ascertaining the idea of spending a million bucks on their live arms.

Thankfully, this week I was given some of the same data that these teams might be looking out in June, as the boys at CollegeSplits.com shared their statistics on the three players with me (as they’ve been releasing some data on top prospects at their flagship). I’m going to deal with all three prospects separately, using this great resource to shed some light where possible.

Kyle Blair, rhp, San Diego

Like Harvey, Blair was certainly dominating at times as a freshman, beating the UNC ace with a 12.04 K/9. But as the .219/.332/.286 line that batters posted against Blair suggests, he walked and hit a lot of batters. Last year, Blair missed much of the season with injury, but his 3.15 ERA and 62/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggested a lot of improvement. Blair probably has the weakest stuff of this esteemed group, but he appeared on the rise. Still, teams are going to have to wonder if Blair is ultimately a relief pitcher. The reason that I say this is because he has had significant problems against left-handed hitters. As a freshman, left-handers hit .330/.457/.468 in 94 at-bats, and followed that up with a .273/.351/.343 line as a sophomore. Obviously this is improvement, but it’s a far cry from the .469 OPS that right-handers posted. The encouraging sign is that Blair posted a 1.37 GO/AO vs. left-handers as a soph, versus a career average of 0.92. Certainly, when teams send scouts to see Blair this year, they need to see if he has made legitimate improvements against left-handers, or if his problems with just having faith in his fastball and slider give him a reliever grade.

Matt Harvey, rhp, UNC

If there’s someone that generates legitimate concern from people, it’s Harvey. This is a guy I saw strike out six consecutive batters at one of the 2006 summer’s biggest high school showcases, and since, has pitched a little worse each season. This snowballed last season, when a 5.32 BB/9 and 1.01 HR/9 led to a 5.83 ERA. The difference between one home run allowed (freshman season) and 8 (soph) is pretty much the difference between his two seasons. There wasn’t a change in his groundball rate, but I think we can certainly guess that batters were hitting the ball harder. What I can’t explain is Harvey’s reverse platoon split, as right-handers hit him .059 OPS points better as a freshman (insignificant) but then .204 better as a sophomore. Having seen Harvey pitch, my guess is that his change-up has become a weapon under the great North Carolina staff, but that he still hangs too many curveballs to right-handed sluggers. But his 8.24 BB/9 against right-handers last year I can’t explain.

Brandon Workman, rhp, Texas

When it’s all said and done, if I had to bet on one guy being a starter in the Major Leagues, it would be Workman. The guy has been upstaged in each season in Austin, by Chance Ruffin as a freshman, by Taylor Jungmann last season. He’s a lot easier to figure out, because his platoon splits have been insignificant — he bounced back after a freshman season that left-handers hit .294/.410/.485 against him to hold them to .178/.274/.314 as a sophomore. He’s just a simple power pitcher, and you’re going to get what comes with that: strikeouts, walks, flyballs. Last year, a better Texas defense made Workman look better, and he’ll need that: guys seem to hit balls hard off him. But if he can keep those bad line drives to when no one is on base, the positives will outweigh the negatives with Workman.

Matt Harvey is expected to pitch tonight against Maine. Kyle Blair and Brandon Workman will pitch on Saturday, against San Diego State and Stanford, respectively. I’ll be tracking their progress all spring, on Twitter if not in this space.


Jason Kendall and HBPs

As a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers, I spent the last two seasons subjected to watching Jason Kendall, owner of possibly the league’s worst swing, penciled into the lineup for 150 games per season. It’s bad enough watching a player bat .240, but when that player has no power nor speed and a just plain aesthetically displeasing swing, it makes it even more painful.

Kendall has a good defensive reputation, but I think that it is certainly questionable at this point in his career. His CS% fell to 20% in 2009, and it just seems that too many runners were attempting to steal off of him in 2008, leading to his 43% season that suggested that he was a premiere defender behind the plate. Really, it is only this defensive reputation that is keeping him in the league, as his only two redeemable qualities are the fact that he can play catcher for 150 games and that he gets hit by a ton of pitches.

That’s because Kendall just plain can’t hit. His fantastic years with Pittsburgh are quite simply a thing of the past; since leaving the steel city Kendall’s wRC+ hasn’t eclipsed 100, and over the last 3 seasons it hasn’t exceeded 80. He has no power, and that means almost all of his fly balls are outs, keeping his BABIP and thus triple slash stats all low. What keeps his hitting value just high enough is the fact that he takes a ridiculous amount HBPs each year. This isn’t something that’s started since his decline, either – he’s had at least 9 HBP per season every year of his career, which is 4 more than the average hitter accrues per 600 PAs.

So how much value has Kendall added with his HBPs? Let’s just look at last season. In 2009, Kendall was hit by 17 pitches in 526 PAs. The average hitter in the NL would’ve been plunked by 4.57 pitches in that amount of playing time. Since the linear weight for the HBP is about +.39 runs, that means that Kendall’s HBPwRAA was 4.84 runs – that is, Jason Kendall added about half a win above average through his propensity for getting hit by pitches. In both 1997 and 1998, Kendall was hit by 31 pitches – his HBPwRAA for those seasons comes out to roughly 10 runs each, or a full win just from HBPs.

Without those 5 runs in 2009, Kendall falls even closer to replacement level – even without taking into account his poor throwing ability. It won’t make Kendall any more fun to watch, but at least Royals fans can at least take heart in the fact that all those HBPs he takes have allowed him to tread water just above replacement level.


FanGraphs Timeline

Here’s a timeline of FanGraphs I put together for the Second Opinion intro, but just didn’t make it in there. I had totally forgotten that when the site first launched it didn’t even have BABIP (I think it might have been there under a different name: H%).


(click for full size image)


The Cardinals Weak Spot?

Heading into the 2010 season, the St. Louis Cardinals are considered heavy favorites to win big in a rather weak NL Central. And there are good reasons for that. They have one of the better one-two punches both in their lineup with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, and also in their rotation with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. They have outstanding defense in the “up the middle” positions from Brendan Ryan, Yadier Molina and Colby Rasmus, and have solid players around the diamond all around. Most projections that I’ve seen call for the team to win 88-91 games.

But if the Cardinals do have one potential Achilles heal, it would be their bullpen. Their ‘pen actually posted a 3.67 ERA in 2009, the fourth best mark in the National League, but it was a lucky 3.67 ERA. The team is returning most of the bullpen from the prior season in 2010, let’s take a look at their ERA-xFIP differentials to get a glimpse of just how fortunate they were last year, and an idea of what may happen should their bullpen regress to the mean:

Ryan Franklin, closer – 1.92 ERA, 4.27 xFIP
Kyle McClellan, set-up – 3.38 ERA, 4.42 xFIP
Jason Motte – 4.76 ERA, 4.27 xFIP
Dennys Reyes – 3.29 ERA, 4.44 xFIP
Trever Miller – 2.06 ERA, 3.45 xFIP
Blake Hawksworth – 2.03 ERA, 4.59 xFIP

Their best reliever looks to be a 37-year-old LOOGY, Trever Miller. Yeesh. Ryan Franklin was greatly benefited by a .269 BABIP, a 3.2% HR/FB and an 85.7% strand rate. I don’t think Franklin fits anyone’s definition of a shut-down closer, and should his HR/FB rates go back to 2009 levels (10.4%), it will lead to a lot of teeth-gnashing in Cardinal Nation.

Like Franklin, McClellan is also a pitcher with a low strikeout rate for a reliever, and he’s actually competing with Rich Hill and youngster Jaime Garcia for a spot to be the Cardinals #5 starter.

That leaves converted catcher Jason Motte as the favorite for the set-up role. Motte had the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher in the minor leagues in 2008 (14.85 K/9), but learned the hard way last season that he cannot thrive on mere heat alone, and has yet to discover an effective secondary offering.

It’s surprising to me that the Cardinals have yet to kick the tires on Kiko Calero, who was part of their 2004 team that won the NL Championship, and it’s also surprising that they have steered clear of Octavio Dotel or even the likes of Chan Ho Park this offseason. Maybe their general manager has been lulled into a false sense of security by the ERA that the ’09 team posted, because by all accounts they have money left in the budget to have signed one more relief pitcher. The failure to do so will likely make it easier for the underdogs to sneak up in the standings, unless lady luck strikes again.


Best Shape Of My Life, A Retrospective

In about eight months we should find out how this year’s crop of good shapers fared. Dave listed 28 players who have claimed to be in the best shape of their lives, and a few commenters added to the list. While they’re busy being all shapely, I’m sitting at my work desk pining for baseball. This leads to odd ideas, like the one I had after reading Dave’s bit. What happened to players who last year who made the cliched proclamation?

Using a Google News search ranging from February through April, 2009, I was able to find only five players who declared their shapeliness during spring training. I’m sure plenty more said it, and I’m sure a more intense search would yield plenty of additional results. But for right now five sounds just about fine.

Julio Lugo

In the early days of last year’s camp, Julio Lugo not only said that he fully recovered from his quadriceps injury from the previous season, but also that he was in the best shape of his life. The first two years of his four-year, $36 million deal were his worst since 2002, and 2009 figured to be a big year for him. It didn’t help, then, that about a month after Lugo made his claim he hurt his knee and required surgery that would keep him out for the season’s first month.

Upon his return he did hit better, posting a .329 wOBA over 123 plate appearances. The Red Sox, however, had seen enough. On July 22 they traded him to the Cardinals for Chris Duncan, eating the remainder of Lugo’s contract. To rub it in, Lugo hit .277/.351/.432 over 170 PA in St. Louis. It added up to a 109 wRC+, his best mark since 2006.

Mike Gonzalez

The Braves acquired Mike Gonzalez from the Pirates in the winter before the 2007 season, but got only 17 innings out of him before he required Tommy John surgery. That kept him out from mid-May 2007 until June 2008. Heading into the 2009 season he’d pitched just 50.2 innings for the Braves. Wanting not only to impress the Braves, but to impress the league heading into his walk year, Gonzalez showed up to camp in the best shape of his life.

Used as both a setup man and a closer, Gonzalez got into 80 games and pitched a career-high 74.1 innings — over 20 innings more than his previous mark. His walk rate, while still high at 4 per nine, was still lower than his 2005 and 2006 seasons with Pittsburgh, and his strikeout rate, 10.90, was higher. It was clearly his best season since 2004, and it earned him a two-year, $12 million deal with the Orioles.

Howie Kendrick

Heading into 2009, Howie Kendrick knew something had to change. Over the previous two seasons he had hit well enough, but couldn’t stay on the field long enough to provide his full value. In total he missed 150 days, or about 30 days short of a full season. How can a ballplayer keep himself on the field? By getting into the best shape of his life over the off-season.

At the start it didn’t seem like the off-season workouts helped much. In April and May Kendrick hit .225/.263/.350 over 171 PA. While still healthy, he lost playing time to Maicer Izturis in June. In the second half of the season Kendrick hit much better, though, compiling a .351/.387/.532 line over his final 199 PA. That brought his season wOBA up to .341 which, combined with a slightly better than average defensive season, added up to a 2.0 WAR. Not terrible for a guy with just 400 PA.

Scott Proctor

Being in great shape can help a player in many ways, but it cannot heal an elbow ligament. Scott Proctor found that out last season. He showed up for camp in the best shape of his life, but got into only one spring training game, on Feb. 27. After spraining an elbow ligament he sat out all of March, but on April 1 said he felt no pain in his elbow. Like his proclamation of shapeliness, this meant nothing. Proctor underwent Tommy John surgery, though there are now reports that he’s ahead of schedule. I wonder if he’ll make the same claim again this year.

Chris Lubanski

I had no idea who Chris Lubanski was before researching this post, and I’m kind of surprised. He was the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft, and fared pretty well early in his minor league career. He struggled once reaching AAA, though, and the Royals never added him to the 40-man roster, even when teams could have picked him in the Rule 5 draft. In 2009 he knew he had something to prove, and showed up for camp in the best shape of his life.

At first, it looked like Lubanski’s off-season workouts paid off. Royals manager Trey Hillman called him the MVP of camp, though that didn’t earn him a spot on the big league roster, or even the 40-man. Then, a month into the season he tore his left hamstring, which kept him out until August. He hit poorly upon his return, getting into 12 games and getting just two hits. The Royals shut him down, ending his season. He caught on with the Blue Jays this off-season.


Edwin Jackson’s Increased Slider Use

I was listening to yesterday’s excellent FanGraphs Audio with Carson, Jack and Matt, and they brought up Edwin Jackson. In the episode, they noted Jackson’s soaring O-swing rate last year; wondered whether that had to do with his increased slider percentage; and also considered his strikingly good pitch-value numbers on his slider versus the poor ones for his fastball, in spite of that fastball’s blazing, fourth-fastest 94.5 MPH average speed. I thought those interesting observations warranted further investigation.

First off Jackson is effectively a two-pitch pitcher, rare for a starting pitcher. To RHBs he throws his fastball 60% of the time and slider 37%. Righties rarely see his curve or change. Against LHBs he throws these tertiary and quaternary offerings a little more often, but not by much, going with his fastball 67% of time and slider 20%. So even LHBs see a fastball or slider nearly 9 times out of 10.

As Matt noted, his slider percentage increased last year, from roughly 20% in 2006-2008 to 27% in 2009. This is the big reason for his increased O-Swing%. His out-of-zone sliders get swung at 37% of the time versus 26% of his out-of-zone fastballs. (These are for the pitchf/x zone, which is a little bigger than the BIS zone used for our plate discipline section, so these numbers do not correspond perfectly). The increased use of the slider neatly corresponds to his increased O-Swings.

Like most pitchers, Jackson throws his slider more often when he is ahead and less often when he is behind in the count. In these situations there was little change in slider use in 2009. The increase in sliders came early in at-bats: in 0-0, 1-0, 0-1 and 1-1 counts Jackson threw almost a third more sliders in 2009 than previously, which accounted for the majority of the increase. So it looks like Jackson was more comfortable going to the slider earlier in at-bats and even often starting off with one.

Finally what is going on with his fastball? It seems like dialing up the speed is just not enough. On the average fastball a batter misses with 14% of his swings, against Jackson’s fastballs just 12%. And when the average fastball is put into play, it gives up a slugging of .521, but Jackson’s is .556.

Almost all pitchers need to throw a fastball at the very least 50% of the time to keep batters honest and get strikes, but it would be interesting to see whether Jackson can continue to decrease his fraction of fastballs and increase his fraction of sliders. His 27% in 2009 was already 6th most in the Bigs, but maybe he can push it north of 30% as Ryan Dempster and Brett Anderson have.


The Next Step

Let me start theoretical. I wonder why prospect lists run in order of career potential. In my view, prospects are valuable because they provide Major League Baseball’s best bargain. Find a player ready to contribute from Year One to Year Seven, and the return on investment is ridiculous. In three seasons, Tim Lincecum has been worth roughly $84 million to the Giants. If you didn’t know, he has not been paid that much. However, in a few short years, Lincecum will enter free agency, and he will no longer be a bargain. Teams will bid for his services, and he will be paid appropriately by what the market determines.

In my eyes, prospect lists should attempt to determine a ranking based on what value players will provide when they are under organizational control (first six to seven years). If we follow prospects because they are a bargain, we should only care about their performance when they represent a bargain. Right? Consider yesterday’s posterboy, Garry Templeton, who in a retro prospect list, probably wouldn’t rank very highly. But why not? Templeton was well above the average shortstop with the Cardinals, and was the centerpiece of a trade that netted the Cardinals Ozzie Smith. Templeton provided insane value to the Cardinals.

In fact, in their first seven seasons, Garry Templeton produced 20.5 WAR. Ozzie Smith, who peaked in Years 7-12 of his career, produced just 17.7 WAR in his first seven years. Now, readers, I ask you: why would Smith be considered the better prospect in hindsight? Particularly in today’s environment, when loyalty doesn’t exist with free agents.

************

As I’ve transitioned back into covering minor league baseball, I have begun to see the direction I want my analysis to take — it’s both outlined above, and it exists in the FanGraphs defining stat: WAR. I want to attempt to see prospects in the light that the organizations might: who is overvalued relative to the likely contributions they’ll provide and thus make a nice trade chip, and who should teams be making way for? What value might a prospect provide our team? Eric Hosmer and Pedro Alvarez are right next to each other in Keith Law’s rankings; if each is the player scouts think they could become, what does that look like in terms of WAR (an article for another day?)

This is long-winded, as I so often am, but I’m trying to create a dialogue about what a sabermetric approach to covering prospects can be. And I want your help! It’s no longer about ignoring scouting reports and restricting yourself to MLEs (was it ever?), but about finding the proper routes to evaluating players more accurately — based on development (like yesterday), based on nuance (the sinker series), and based on modern statistical analysis.

Today, I’m going to take a stab at the latter. After the jump, we’ll walk through creating a set of expectations on what the Cubs should anticipate from Starlin Castro (sorry, he’s on the brain).

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Jon Sciambi on Smarter Broadcasting

In case you missed it, play-by-play man Jon “Boog” Sciambi (hired away from the Atlanta Braves by ESPN this offseason) wrote a terrific guest piece at Baseball Prospectus on Tuesday about how sportscasters can better integrate the kind of advanced baseball analysis that goes on here and at BP, inspired by Will Carroll’s recent post “Be Stupid(er).” It’s all worth reading, but here’s the heart of the piece:

The goal is not unveiling newfangled stats; it’s about getting people to understand basic ideas and concepts. To achieve that, we can’t just slap stats up on the screen and explain them. Understanding has to come in the form of analysis. We have to use the stat and explain it…

If Ryan Howard is up, I can talk about RBI and why dependent stats don’t evaluate individual performance well; RBI aren’t what reflects Howard’s greatness, his SLG does. I can mention that Howard’s massive RBI totals may be due to the fact that no player has hit with more total men on base than Howard since 1492 (I believe this is a fact but didn’t feel like looking it up). Point is, there are dead people who could knock in 80 runs hitting fourth in that Phillies lineup. (OK, I probably wouldn’t say that on-air.)

The metrics are getting so advanced that we’re in danger of getting further away from the masses instead of closer… We can’t assume that’s understood just because we understand it. And the only way it gets embedded is to keep beating the audience with it so that it becomes ingrained the way ERA eventually did, even though that once passed for advanced math.

As R.J. Anderson recently wrote, this offseason has featured a terrific number of sabermetric primers (including a series by yours truly). But it has also heard a few “let me catch my breath!” pleas, from fans as varied as John Sickels, Bill Simmons, and Russ Smith of SpliceToday (who quotes the beloved Craig Calcaterra for cover).

Sciambi’s a good broadcaster, and he clearly has his heart in the right place: his goal is to enhance the viewers’ experience of the game, by giving them useful information that they can understand, neither dumbing it down nor sailing it over their heads. That’s a tricky assignment, because it’s always hard to be all things to all people, and it’s hard to be part of any movement pushing a paradigm shift. It’s hard to please a casual watcher who doesn’t know the acronyms or methodology of advanced sabermetrics at the same time that you’re trying to say something that Dave Cameron doesn’t already know. (As Will Carroll notes, last year ESPN tried to make OPS a regular feature of their baseball broadcasts, but apparently their viewers thought it was “too complicated.”)

So what can be done? I think a lot of non-saberheads get hung up on the constellation of acronyms that we use, getting so hung up at all the capital letters that they miss the meaning behind them. (Like Jim Bowden, creator of “OBPATUZXYZ,” or Jon Heyman, inventor of “VORPies.”) So, pace Will Carroll, we need to be willing to let broadcasters be stupid — but with a purpose. The stats around here are pretty easy to read, because they’re all scaled to look like things we’re more familiar with, but we’re not going to see a broadcaster talk about FIP any time soon. However, everyone understands runs and wins, and, as Will Carroll says, anyone can understand a statement like “Albert Pujols was two wins better than Zack Greinke last season.” It has to be justified, but we’ve all heard broadcasters make unsupportable assertions about how many more wins a player adds to his team, or how many runs he saves with his glove. These are just numbers that add support to things they already say. And it can easily be understood. Both by the Jon Sciambis of the world, and the Russ Smiths.


The Good Shapers

Last week, I asked you guys to list the players who had been the subject of the great spring training cliche – reporting in the “best shape of their life.” It is remarkable how many times this story has been written. Here’s the list.

Jonathan Sanchez – San Francisco
Carlos Zambrano – Chicago
Geovany Soto – Chicago
Daisuke Matsuzaka – Boston
Mike Pelfrey – New York
Brian McCann – Atlanta
Tim Hudson – Atlanta
Bobby Jenks – Chicago
Delmon Young – Minnesota
David Price – Tampa Bay
Andruw Jones – Chicago
Russell Martin – Los Angeles
Matt Stairs (!) – San Diego
Oliver Perez – New York
Corey Hart – Milwaukee
Aaron Rowand – San Francisco
Jonathan Albaladejo – New York
Ricky Romero – Toronto
Aaron Cook – Colorado
Kyle Blanks – San Diego
Matt Harrison – Texas
Aaron Harang – Cincinnati
Miguel Cabrera – Detroit
Kyle Kendrick – Philadelphia
Nick Swisher – New York
David Wright – New York
David Ortiz – Boston
Martin Prado – Atlanta

That’s 28 guys, and there were a few in the comments that I omitted, because the cited articles were more about rehabbing from an injury than getting in better shape. Needless to say, that’s a big list. The most notable changes seem to belong to Delmon Young, Jonathan Albaladejo, Matt Stairs (hilariously), and Matt Harrison, who were each reported to have dropped 30 pounds.

Of all the guys on the list, perhaps those four best serve as examples of when this story should be written. Someone drops 30 pounds in a winter, well, that’s newsworthy. A lot of the rest of it, though… it’s just filler. Not that you guys need to be reminded of this, of course.

It will be interesting to look back at this list at the end of the year and see how many of these guys beat their projections. If I don’t do that post by November, someone remind me.


FanGraphs Audio: Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout

FanGraphs Audio writes the songs that like three people sing.

Episode Seven
In which the guest is about to be a doctor.

Headlines
The Sorrow and the Pity
The Garrett Jones Sitch
Flawless Radio Transition
On Composition
… and other timeless classics!

Featuring
Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout

Finally, you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

Audio on the flip-flop.

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Livan Hernandez’s Crazy Streak

Since 1998, three things have been constant: death, taxes, and Livan Hernandez starting at least 30 Major League Baseball games. Hernandez, despite bouncing between eight teams in these 12 seasons, is the only pitcher to accomplish this rather daunting feat. It appears that Hernandez will get a chance to continue his wondrous streak in 2010, as the Nationals have added him on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training and a shot at a starting rotation slot.

This move isn’t terribly interesting, but I find Hernandez’s streak to be fascinating. We’ve seen so many hall of fame quality pitchers in the major leagues since 1998, and the one pitcher that has managed to combine durability with enough skill to remain relevant is Livan Hernandez. Yes, the very same Hernandez that has managed 19.6 WAR since 2002, nearly equivalent to Kenny Rogers (missed all of 2007, retired after 2008) and Freddy Garcia (23 starts since 2006).

Clearly, there is value in consistency. Teams must love knowing that they can plug Livan into a starting slot and rest assured that he will give them 180+ innings, even if they’re not particularly strong of late. His FIP hasn’t been below 4.00 since 2004 and last year’s 4.44 FIP was downright resurgent after a terrible 2007 with the Diamondbacks and a merely poor season split between Minnesota and Colorado in 2008.

It’s not like he was an ace in years prior to our win-value era, either. His best single-season FIP came in Florida’s 1997 World Series run, and that was at 3.57 – respectable, but not necessarily at ace level, and it only came in 17 starts. Livan has been living on pitching to contact and allowing just few enough HRs and BBs to stay in the league. His workmanlike performance has Rally placing him all the way down at 473rd among all pitchers in terms of career WAR, despite this remarkable durability.

And yet somehow, Livan keeps on plugging along. His fastball velocity is all the way down to 84-85 MPH average velocity, and yet he somehow manages to get major league hitters out. Here’s to longevity, and good luck to Livan Hernandez on continuing his streak.


A Look at Weeks

Before Rickie Weeks’ season ended prematurely thanks to a wrist injury, he was enjoying the makings of a career season. He’d hit nine home runs in roughly 150 at-bats while his previous career high of 16 came in 409. His .245 ISO would’ve easily been a career high and his .365 wOBA could’ve tied his previous career high if it remained static throughout the year. Lost, though, is something else about Weeks’ game.

Drafted second overall in the 2003 draft out of Southern University, Weeks’ career has been a bit frustrating, if superior to that Delmon Young fellow. Injuries have allowed Weeks to record more than 500 plate appearances exactly twice. His career .344 wOBA is fine for a second baseman (or anyone really), and when he has been able to stay on the field, he’s posted WAR of 3.3 and 2.1.

So what was ignored? His defensive play over the last few seasons.

Weeks posted a combined UZR score of -22.5 through 2006 (which covers 1,652.3 innings), yet has a 0.5 UZR since (in 2,343.7 innings). The issues mostly stemmed from horrendous error rates, since his range and double-play ability scores out as roughly average throughout his career. Weeks’ throwing appears improved, although maybe Prince Fielder is more graceful than he seems.

There’s improvement here, but do not, under any circumstances, buy into Weeks’ 21.9 UZR/150 as gospel. Besides the fact that 300 innings is an extremely small sample size, note that Weeks’ RngR in 2009 was uncharacteristically good. That means, if you’re placing money or life on Weeks’ UZR range, then gamble on something like -5 < x < 5 runs. Hopefully for Weeks, the wrist injury doesn’t linger and he can get back to where he left off.


Gomes is Back in the Red

Jonny Gomes is good at three things that could be considered employable skills in the baseball world. The first skill being that he crushes left-handed pitching. Klaasen covered this a few weeks back, but Gomes has an expected wOBA against lefties of .354. That’s above average, mind you, however Gomes is a right-handed batter and a poor defender in the corner outfield spots. That combination of skills is readily available throughout the minor leagues. Gomes can play a role on a big league club. That’s for sure. He can also be replaced, which is too bad, because his story is pretty fantastic.

First some background. Gomes is 29-years-old and from a smallish town in California. His younger brother, Joey Gomes, was actually drafted by the Rays, the same team that drafted Jonny years before. At last check, the younger Gomes was playing for the Newark Bears or something. The older Gomes was an 18th round pick in 2001 and quickly rose through the system by mashing baseballs. He launched 30 bombs as a 21-year-old in the hitter friendly California League, then moved on to Double-A where he hit 17 homers as a 22-year-old. In 552 at-bats at Triple-A Durham, split between 2004 and 2005, Gomes homered 40 times. That’s power.

He made cameos for the (then) Devil Rays, but saw fewer than 30 at-bats in 2003 and 2004. Gomes arrived with a sudden impact in 2005; hitting 21 homers and with assistance from a wickedly high BABIP (.352) posted a batting average above .280. He came back the next year and hit 20 home runs in nearly the same number of at-bats. Then he hit 17 home runs in 2007 with exactly the same number of at-bats as 2005. In 2008 he played a smaller role and even spent some time in Triple-A. And similarly split last season between the minors and majors, but found nearly 300 at-bats with the Reds and … of course, hit 20 home runs.

Jonny Gomes can hit home runs. He’s hit 155 split between the majors and minors since Christmas Eve 2002. Why is that date important? Because that’s when Gomes suffered a heart attack. Being the professional baseball player he is, Gomes ignored the symptoms and continued going about his business. He literally slept through a heart attack before passing out and being rushed to the hospital. Somehow he survived and featured enough heart function to play professional baseball and play the role of the gritty hustler.

That’s the other part about Gomes’ employable baseball skills. He’s evidently a great person to be around. During the Rays’ run in 2008, Gomes started the Mohawk haircut and gained popularity (albeit short-lived) for attempting to give Shelly Duncan a few cuts of an entirely different kind. Even before that, Gomes’ reputation as a maniac in the clubhouse is well-known.

The Rays were horrible in 2007, with Gomes contributing a replacement level performance of his own, yet this didn’t stop him from trying to reverse the tide. So, what did he do? What any insane man would do: He bought a plastic rooster. Not only that, he named the rooster ‘Cocky’ and made the entire team personnel rub the rooster before taking the field. Then, during high-leveraged moments, he would sneak into the clubhouse and bring the rooster to the dugout. Unfortunately, Gomes left Cocky somewhere in Camden Yards after an excessive losing streak. Gomes also took part in the Rays’ “Wrestling Night” promotion, wore a customized robe around the clubhouse sent to him by a former teammate, and took a few sips of champagne from Dioner Navarro’s protective cup following one of those magical nights in 2008.

Yes, he’s that hardcore.

None of this makes Gomes’ any more valuable though. If he were a worthwhile player all these antics could be celebrated with sepia-toned fondness and a celebratory tone. Instead I feel compelled to mention that he’s probably not going to repeat last year. His BABIP was a tick above career rates, his walks were down, his strikeouts static, and his HR/FB well above. Even if you’re generous about Gomes in the Great American Ballpark, a .370 wOBA is quite optimistic. CHONE and Marcel have him closer to .340, which seems fair. Even if you bump that expectation up a few points for various reasons (N.L., playing in the field full-time, and maybe being used in a platoon, etc.) there’s still a good gap to make up for and one that leaves Gomes as a marginal player on a good team.

And that really is too bad, because Gomes’ third skill is that of photogenic mastery.


Does the Angels’ Offense Benefit From Divine Intervention?

In the course of a discussion at The Book Blog about the Angels’ (of late) recent outperformance of (some) projections, I was reminded of a related yet quite different issue I’d thought about looking into a while back (and then promptly forgot about). The Angels are one of the teams in baseball that are praised for “playing the right way” and “doing the little things.” Whatever people mean by that, one thing we can say is that recently, the Angels have consistently outperformed their Pythagorean Win Expectation. Looking (somewhat arbitrarily) at the last three seasons in which the Angels have won the American League West and comparing their actual record with what we’d expect given their run differential based on PythagenPat.

2007: Actual 94-68, Expected 90-72, difference +4
2008: Actual 100-62, Expected 88-74, difference +12
2009: Actual 97-65, Expected 93-69, difference +4

I should say right now that this post is not saying that I am not claiming either a) that the Angels “just got lucky” and weren’t as good as their record, or b) that they have some “intangible” ability (perhaps from their manager) that has enabled them to outperform their run differential the last three seasons. Both of those are copouts, at least at this point. For now, I’m only going to look at this issue with reference to their offense.

One might say that they’ve been “good in the clutch.” And that is, in fact, true. FanGraphs’ clutch score, which measures whether players outperform not only their peers, but themselves in high leverage situations, has the following win values for the Angels’ hitter from 2007-2009:

2007: 5.19
2008: 7.34
2009: 3.22

These numbers are impressive, but they sort of beg the question. Unlike relievers, hitters don’t “earn” their high leverage playing time — unless you think most of those scores were put up by Angels pinch-hitters picked for their “clutchness.” This seems to say what we already knew — the Angels won more game than their runs scored indicate that they “should have”. Undoubtedly, there are “clutch hits,” but this doesn’t tell us how they did it — just that they did.

One thing that “right way” teams are praised for is situational hitting. FanGraphs has a stat for that: RE24. While FanGraphs’ primary “runs created above average” stat, wRAA, uses the average change in run expectancy given an event irrespective of the base/out situation, RE24 does incorporate base/out state. For wRAA, a home run is a home run whether the bases are empty with none out or loaded with 2 out, while RE24 takes into account the different base/out run expectation. As I discuss here, if we subtract the average linear weight runs (wRAA) from the RE24, we can see how much better the Angels performed in terms of “situational hitting.”

2007: wRAA +7, RE24 30.5, situational +23.5
2008: wRAA -18, RE24 18.7, situational +36.7
2009: wRAA 88, RE24 92.8, situational +4.8

Impressive. However, it actually doesn’t tell us what we want to know. This tells us that we would expect the Angels to have scored more runs than traditional linear weights (wRAA) would suggest, but the Pythagorean expectation is already using their actual runs scored. We want to know why they outperformed their run differential (for now, from the offensive perspective) — not why they scored more than their linear weights suggest, but why they won more than their actual runs suggest.

Enter WPA/LI. While RE24 takes base/out context into account, WPA/LI goes one step further, by taking base/out/inning into account. You can follow the link to read up, but basically, it’s “unleveraged” Win Probability. It sounds like Clutch, but it’s actually WPA without the Clutch/Leverage element. To use an example to differentiate WPA/LI: with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, for WPA/LI a walk and a home run have the same linear weight, whereas those events would be different for both wRAA and RE24, since they don’t take game state into account. So, if any stat could take into account a player or team adjusting their play to a situtation, this would be it. As I did in my earlier Little Things post for individuals, we can do for teams: convert wRAA to wins (I crudely divide by 10), then subtract that from WPA/LI to get the situational wins above average linear weights.

2007: wWAA +0.7, WPA/LI -1.32, -2.02 Little Things
2008: wWAA -1.8, WPA/LI -1.21, +0.59 Little Things
2009: wWAA +8.8, WPA/LI +6.37, -2.43 Little Things

Now that is just bizarre. With RE24, we saw that the Angels the last three seasons have been very good at maximizing their situational hitting in certain base/out states. But “Little Things” shows the exact opposite in 2007 and 2009. They’re about “even” in 2008, although far short of what RE24 shows, and they’re 2 wins below their traditional linear weights in 2007 and 2009. It’s not just that the Angels’ hittesr aren’t living up to their reputation (according to this measure) of “doing the little things,” it’s the contrast between RE24 and WPA/LI based “little things” that is striking. It’s as if the Angels do a great job of hitting with runners in scoring position when they’re playing in blowouts, but make terrible situational plays (relative to the average run expectancy) in close games. And then if you look at their hitter’s “Clutch” scores from those years… It’s really hard to know what the big picture is.

This post has no conclusion other than to note that the title is ironic. It would be foolhardy to dismiss this all as luck. The Angels have been a very good team no matter how you slice it. And just because we don’t understand “how they do it” at the moment doesn’t mean we can never know. But at the moment, I’m simply struck by the oddity.


David Ortiz’s Power Decline

Yesterday I looked at David Ortiz’s decline in plate discipline values. Today I am going to turn to his power numbers. Because of Ortiz’s inclusion on the leaked 2003 list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, any discussion of his power is going to turn to speculation based on that, but I am not particularly interested in covering that angle and prefer to focus on his numbers.

Ortiz’s power decline has come in a very particular manner. Look at his ISO to each field over the years. His peak years were 2003 to 2007 before his decline began in 2008.

            ISO
       left  center  right
2003   .327   .310   .429
2004   .260   .380   .449
2005   .223   .345   .493
2006   .260   .460   .533
2007   .280   .272   .444
2008   .256   .196   .383
2009   .290   .331   .276

In his peak Ortiz showed a typical left-handed power-hitter split with his biggest power coming to right field. In the past two years, interestingly, his power to left and center held steady while to right it has fallen off. His loss of power has been almost exclusively a decrease in power of pulled balls in play. Showing it graphically (with the number the fraction of balls in the air to each region and the shading the slugging on those):

The fraction of those to deep right and the slugging on those balls in play has fallen off in the past two years, while the fraction of balls in play to the infield and just beyond has risen.

It is interesting that Ortiz has lost power to right while he has tried to swing more at inside pitches, which he would typically pull. It could be that as Ortiz has lost some power to right he has tried to compensate by swinging at more inside pitches in an attempt to get the big pull power on them.

One encouraging sign, as a commenter to yesterday’s post pointed out, is that after a horrid April and May, Ortiz had a much better June through September.

Generally, though, I find it interesting that his power to center and left has been largely unaffected and wonder how that compares to other aging sluggers.