Archive for April, 2010

John Buck Has a Big Night

Toronto Blue Jays catcher John Buck had a big night on Thursday, blasting three home runs against the Oakland As.

The graph doesn’t really convey Buck’s contribution (only showing two of his home runs). Any team’s total WPA (adding up WPA plus and minus) is always equal to either +.500 or -.500. Buck’s WPA last night was .449. That doesn’t mean his offense was worth almost 90% the Jays’ victory, of course, since there were negative WPA contributions (as always for any team) as well. But it’s still an impressive number. WPA is a cool toy for quantifying a game story, not one responsibly recommends it as a way of evaluating player skill. But it is fun to look at occasionally.

But about player skill… Now, if less than four weeks of a season is a small sample size, then one game is, well… But Buck’s power surge wasn’t a total fluke. Full disclosure: I’ve always irrationally liked John Buck. I can be pretty honest about him, though. He’s not a defensive whiz, especially when it comes to controlling the running game. Marc Hulet has been impressed with Buck’s work with the Blue Jays pitching staff this season; I’ll have to take his word for it.

As for offense, Buck hasn’t quite turned out to be the second coming of Mike Piazza. Buck hit 18 home runs in 2007, although his problems with contact and poor BABIP skill resulted in only a .319 wOBA. In 2009, when he was clearly on his way out with Kansas City, he had a career-high .332 wOBA — good for a catcher. Still, in 2009, as in every other year of the Dayton Moore Era, Buck was sharing time (at best) with another catcher, in this case Miguel Olivo* (and before him, in 2007, there was Jason LaRue).

* To be fair, Olivo is so awesome that he’s currently displacing Chris Iannetta in Colorado (ahem).

While Buck has a putrid .296 career on-base percentage, this is less because of an refusal to take walks than a poor batting average grounded in low average on balls in play. In 2007 and 2008, Buck had above average walk rates, and wasn’t too bad in 2009 in limited playing time. But he very high strikeout rate (around 25% for his career, and edging upward). While his O-Swing percentage in 2010 reflects his overall struggles at the plate in 2010 (until last night, at least), he’s usually only slightly below average. It’s his poor contract rate that kills him, around 75% for his career, and under 70% in 2009 and almost down to 60% so far this season.

Buck isn’t what you’d call a good hitter, although he’s adequate for a catcher. However, one thing he has done increasingly well is get the ball in the air (which also contributes to his low BABIP). Starting in 2007, he began to hit flyballs around 45% of the time, and a respectable amount of those flies have gone out. While he had a bit of bad luck with that in 2008, more recently years have seen him at about 14% HR/FB and up. According to Hit Tracker, other than 2008, Buck’s true home run distance and speed of bad have been clearly above average almost season. While 2008 can’t be ignored as a ‘mere outlier’, 2007 and 2009 do seem to be closer to his true talent level, power-wise. Buck’s current ZiPS Rest-of-Season projection calls for a .211 ISO, which is in-line with his 2007 (.207) and 2009 (.237) numbers. Perhaps moving out of the home run-suppressing Kauffman Stadium will make a difference as well. It will be interesting to watch.

Anecdotally, I’ve personally heard some cool stories about monstrous John Buck homers, which is sort of fun, because those stories are usually told about players like Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard. Objectively speaking, John Buck isn’t anything particularly special as a baseball player. But he’s got some power at the plate, and last night, it showed up.


One Night Only: Weekend Edition

Is it possible to have too much of a kinda decent thing? This edition of One Night Only seeks to find out!

[Note: All minor league numbers are courtesy of StatCorner. HR/BIA = Home Run per Ball in Air. MLB average for starters is 6.5%. MiLB average is I-don’t-know-what.]

Arizona at Chicago (NL) | Saturday, May 01 | 1:05 pm ET
Starting Pitchers
D-Backs: Dan Haren (R)
34.0 IP, 10.06 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, .310 BABIP, 47.3% GB, 18.2% HR/FB, 2.90 xFIP
Projected FIP: 3.15 (FAN) 3.24 (CHONE) 3.17 (ZiPS)

Cubs: Carlos Silva (R)
26.0 IP, 5.19 K/9, 1.04 BB/9, .215 BABIP, 41.0% GB, 3.3% HR/FB, 4.10 xFIP
Projected FIP: 4.89 (FAN) 4.67 (CHONE) 4.53 (ZiPS)

Persons of Interest
Sabermetric orthodoxy suggested that, at the time of its consummation, the trade between Chicago and Seattle that sent Carlos Silva to the Cubs was a win for the Mariners and for Mariner GM Jack Zduriencik. May 1st is too early to draw any hard and fast conclusions, but if you’d asked a fair sample of non- or only semi-drunk people which player — Silva or Milton Bradley — would have the higher WAR on this date in the history of our nation, very few of them would’ve gone with “the considerably more obese one.”

And yet, here we are, with Silva having earned almost a full win above replacement for his new team. “What gives?” maybe you’re asking. Don’t worry: Dave Cameron’s all over that. A couple-few days ago, he wrote:

Silva, who throughout his entire career has struggled mightily with left-handed hitters, has held them to just three singles in 37 plate appearances in his first four starts. And all three of those singles came in his last start. In his first three appearances, he was perfect against LHBs, as they went 0 for 22 against him.

–snip–

So, naturally, the first thing I did was take a look at his pitch selection. Silva’s lived primarily off of his two-seam fastball for most of his career, which is why he’s posted such large platoon splits. The pitch works against righties, but not against lefties.

Sure enough, Silva has finally decided to abandon his fastball-only approach to pitching. He’s thrown his sinker just 56.5% of the time (compared to 83.1% last year), and has replaced with his change-up, which he’s now thrown 30.7% of the time.

If you’re like me (spiritually ambidextrous, needlessly hifalutin), one thing that appeals to you is to watch a player just after you’ve been given some razor-sharp analysis on his play. In this case, I predict that an entire nation of baseballing nerds will watch with rapt attention as Silva unleashes his changepiece all over some D-Backs*.

*Yes, this is as gross as it sounds.

All-Joy Alert
Kelly Johnson was a pre-season All-Joyer. This is me telling you, “I told you so hard.”

An Historical Fact
On roughly this date, in 1886 in the Year of Our Lord, in this same exact city, the eight-hour work day went some way to becoming a reality.

If I Had My Druthers
• The work day would only be six hours.
• Actually, make that four hours.
• Everyday would be Saturday.

Colorado at San Francisco | Sunday, May 02 | 4:05 pm ET
Starting Pitchers
Rockies: Jhoulys Chacin (R)
21.3 IP, 8.86 K/9, 4.64 BB/9, .280 BABIP, 54.9% GB, 4.6% HR/BIA, 3.53 FIP (Triple-A)
Projected FIP: N/A (FAN) 5.02 (CHONE) 4.79 (ZiPS)

Giants: Jonathan Sanchez (L)
24.1 IP, 12.21 K/9, 4.81 BB/9, .282 BABIP, 34.6% GB, 0.0% HR/FB, 3.58 xFIP
Projected FIP: 4.02 (FAN) 4.07 (CHONE) 3.93 (ZiPS)

Persons of Interest
Tonight marks the first Major League start of the season for young righty Jhoulys Chacin, who the Rockies have chosen to take the place of the injured Jorge de la Rosa in the Colorado rotation. In terms of watchability, Chacin’s start is right up the baseball nerd alley*, on account of he’s a pitcher, he’s a prospect, and he’s making (more or less) his debut.

*Yes, this is as gross as it sounds.

What kind of prospect? Depends on who you ask. Our own Marc Hulet placed him second on the Rockies prospect list, writing:

With the ability to keep the ball on the ground and a repertoire that includes two plus pitches (fastball, change-up), Chacin should develop into a No. 3 starter at worst.

Baseball America roughly agrees, placing special emphasis on his changepiece, which the authors describe as his best pitch, and one capable of negating left-handed batters. In either case, it appears as though the challenge for Chacin is his control. Stay tuned as this situation develops!

The reader might also care to cast a gaze at the San Francisco outfield, where Andres Torres and Nate Schierholtz are getting their share of starts in center and right, respectively. Torres, in particular, presents an interesting case to the baseballing nerd. Did you know, for example, that CHONE projects Torres at 2 WAR for the season? Or, how about, did you know that said WAR are projected to come in only 107 GP and 346 PA? After you’ve wiped all the coffee off your monitor, you might consider pointing your web browser to Torres’s player page, where you’ll see that a large portion of his projection is based on the 10.0 UZR — again, in limited playing time.

None of Which Is Even to Mention
Giant starter Jonathan Sanchez and Colorado prospect Eric Young Jr. The former is among the league leaders in strikeouts; the latter has recently been called upon to replace a more-hobbled-than-usual Brad Hawpe. Reports suggest that Colorado will try to get EY more than his share of reps at the Major League level.

A Little Known Fact About Jhoulys Chacin
His first name, when spoken aloud, sounds exactly like the call of the Russet-backed Oropendola, a bird found commonly in Chacin’s native Venezuela.

If I Had My Druthers
• Andres Torres would get the start in center for San Francisco.
• Eric Young Jr. would get the start in left for Colorado.
• The dulcet tones of Jon Miller’s voice would put me into a state of blissful waking sleep.


Ryan Howard’s Extension

In the four seasons from 2006-2009, Ryan Howard has accumulated 16 wins, according to http://www.baseballprojection.com/war/h/howar001.htm . If we look at all players born since Babe Ruth, for the same age group as Ryan Howard, that puts him in the top 200 players, along with teammates Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.

Ryan Howard was already signed for the 2010 and 2011 seasons before he signed his latest extension. Therefore, we are looking to see what happens to the great player in the third through seventh seasons following his established performance level. Focusing on the 178 great players born between 1895 and 1971, the list is headed by Willie Mays at 37 wins, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, each at 36 wins. Here’s how these great players aged:

Age 27 to 30: 21 wins
Age 31 to 32: 9 wins
Age 33 to 37: 11 wins
Age 38 onwards: 2 wins

This does not look good for the Phillies. While a win costs about 4 to 5 million dollars today, each win in the 2012-2016 season will cost somewhere around 7 million dollars. Granting a five-year extension, two years out, to a typical star player should be worth around 77 million$, not 125 million dollars.

Perhaps Howard is a special case. We already gave him a special consideration, seeing that the group average was 21 wins at age 27 to 30, while he was at 16. We’ll give him the following two further considerations: let’s set the minimum win level for the previous four seasons at 20 (which brings us down to 87 players), and a minimum win level of 8 wins for the next two seasons (which implies that we expect Ryan Howard to be healthy and very productive for the next two seasons). That leaves us with 61 players, with the following results:

Age 27 to 30: 25 wins
Age 31 to 32: 12 wins
Age 33 to 37: 16 wins
Age 38 onwards: 4 wins

We are being extremely generous to Ryan Howard with our comparables. We’ve got the four prior seasons totalling 25 wins (compared to the 16 for Howard’s last four seasons) and 12 wins for the two upcoming seasons (of which Howard has played only one month so far). And under those very unrestrictive parameters, the expectation is to get 16 wins for the five years that Howard signed. And if we increase the cost of a win to 8 million dollars per win, that’s 128 million dollars for five years.

Therefore, in order to justify this contract, we have to take the most optimistic position we possibly can on every parameter we have considered in order to justify the extension as a fair deal. And when you are that optimistic, you probably have a big chance of it blowing up in your face.

Given that we’ve shown that, on average, this deal was not good, the question remains: what are the odds the deal will turn out to be good? It’s a bad deal to buy a lottery ticket… unless you are the winner. Looking at a more restrictive pool of players (minimum 16 wins in the previous four years, at least 4 wins in the next two years, paying 7 million dollars per win), we have a total of 161 players in our pool (who averaged 22 wins in the 4 previous seasons), of which 20% generated at least 18 wins in the five years that we are focused on. And generating at least 18 wins is worth at least 125 million dollars. The odds are therefore as follows:

50% chance of deal being worth at least 10 wins (for an average of 18 wins)
25% chance of deal being worth 4 to 9 wins (for an average of 7 wins, or a value of 50 million$)
25% chance of deal being worth 3 or fewer wins (losing over 100 million dollars in value)

This means the Phillies have a 50/50 shot of either breaking even or facing an albatross. Ideally, you want a 50/50 shot of having a good deal and 50/50 on a bad deal. And that’s presuming that Ryan Howard was a superstar who averaged 22 wins, not 16.

***

There’s 101 players born since Babe Ruth, limited by the following:
– 2400 or more PA in the 27-30 age group
– at least 16 wins in the 27-30 age group
– at least 4 wins in the 31-32 age group

The totals for these 101:
– 22 wins at age 27-30
– 10 wins at age 31-32
– 11 wins at age 33-37

Here’s everyone born since Mike Schmidt (29 of those 101 players), ordered by best to worst at age 33-37:

27-30   31-32   33-37   Player Name
32	17	34	Schmidt	Mike
27	19	22	Henderson	Rickey
20	10	21	Palmeiro	Rafael
20	11	21	Sosa	Sammy
35	11	20	Boggs	Wade
16	9	18	Butler	Brett
16	14	18	Thome	Jim
27	6	18	Yount	Robin
17	10	17	Gwynn	Tony

19	15	16	Biggio	Craig
21	14	16	Ripken	Cal
28	13	15	Bagwell	Jeff
24	6	12	Murray	Eddie
28	12	10	Giambi	Jason
21	11	10	Hernandez	Keith
22	8	10	Thomas	Frank
21	10	10	Williams	Bernie
22	10	9	Trammell	Alan
18	6	8	McGriff	Fred
16	8	8	White	Devon

17	6	7	Salmon	Tim
18	10	6	Puckett	Kirby
22	8	3	Belle	Albert
30	7	3	Griffey	Ken
19	8	2	Cirillo	Jeff
16	5	2	McReynolds	Kevin
19	10	1	Murphy	Dale
16	7	0	Vaughn	Mo
18	6	-1	Barfield	Jesse

So, you have a one-third chance of being Jim Thome, a one-third chance of being Frank Thomas, and a one-third chance of being Mo Vaughn.

Ryan Howard was paid like he had a 100% chance of being Jim Thome.


The Quick Trigger: Prospect Promotions

Lars Anderson, Mike Montgomery, and Drew Storen share few things in common, aside from the fact that they’re both professional ball players. However, all three players can be lumped together as top prospects that recently received minor league promotions.

Anderson was moved from double-A to triple-A by the Boston Red Sox. The big first baseman was repeating double-A for the second straight season after an uninspired .233/.338/.345 in 447 at-bats. His ISO dropped from .211 in ’08 to .112 in ’09 and he lost more than .100 points on his wOBA.

Despite the struggles, I felt pretty good about predicting a rebound for the 22-year-old prospect while writing the 2010 Top 10 list for the Red Sox. I ranked him fifth overall and said: “There were a few good signs, including the fact that he maintained a solid walk rate (12.3%) and his strikeout rate did not skyrocket (25.5%, similar to his career norm – which admittedly is high to begin with)… Anderson will be just 22 for much of 2010, so he has time to turn things around.”

Other prospect rankers felt he was still a Top 10 prospect, as well. Baseball America and Keith Law both ranked Anderson at No. 4, while John Sickels had him at No. 8, and Baseball Prospectus had him ninth overall.

Anderson was hitting .355/.408/.677 at the time of his promotion. With the positive impact that the Mets organization has received from the promotion of Ike Davis, perhaps the Red Sox organization is hoping for a similar spark at some point this season. That seems a little too aggressive but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Montgomery proved to the Kansas City Royals that he was far too good for A-ball so he was bumped up to double-A. The southpaw is just 20 years old so it’s mildly surprising to see the organization be so quick to promote him. With that said, the club is lacking pitching depth at the upper levels of the system. As well, Montgomery had success in nine high-A starts in ’09 after beginning the season in low-A.

During the off-season, I ranked Montgomery as the No. 1 prospect in the Royals’ system. I was joined by three of the other four rankers. Law chose to rank him third behind Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

At the high-A level in ’10, Montgomery allowed just 14 hits and four walks in 24.2 innings of work. He posted an 11.88 K/9 rate and a 55% ground-ball rate. Despite his early success, the Royals would have to be pretty desperate to bring Montgomery up this season. He’s still young and has a limited number of pro innings under his belt. And the club is not in a position to win this season.

An ’09 first round draft pick by the Washington Nationals, Storen was a slight-overdraft in part because he was considered near-MLB ready. It took less than a month of the 2010 season for him to move within a step of the Majors with a switch from double-A to triple-A.

All four of the prospect rankers had Storen as the third best prospect in the system behind Stephen Strasburg and Derek Norris. In the 2010 Second Opinion, I ranked Storen at No. 4 on the Top 10 list, after giving a little extra love to current MLB starting shortstop Ian Desmond.

Storen projects to be the club’s closer of the future, although a rejuvenated Matt Capps will give the prospect plenty of time to ease into the Majors. Last season, Storen pitched at three levels and compiled a 1.95 ERA with 21 hits allowed in 37.0 innings of work. The 22-year-old former Stanford pitcher had an ERA of 0.96 in seven games and had allowed just five hits in 9.1 innings. He walked just one batter and struck out 11.

It’s great to see the prospect values increasing for all three players. However, don’t get too excited and expect them to make significant MLB impacts in 2010.


Ian Kennedy Settling Into the National League

In the past few days I’ve discussed two components of the Yankees-Tigers-Diamondbacks trade over the winter. Both Austin Jackson and Edwin Jackson present interesting cases. The former has gotten off to a hot start despite some concerning peripherals, and the other has gotten hit around a bit in two of his five starts. Arizona has actually seen better from another pitcher their received, 25-year-old right-hander Ian Kennedy.

In March I wondered about Kennedy’s potential in the NL. He flopped during his limited exposure with the Yankees, but a move out of the AL East might have been the boost Kennedy needed to get going. He is, after all, a former first-round draft pick who so consummately dominated the minors during his first professional season that he essentially forced the Yankees to call him up (well, that and Mike Mussina’s breakdown). An impressive September earned him a rotation spot in 2008, but that ended in disaster.

In Arizona it appears things are starting to come together. Throughout the minors Kennedy displayed excellent strikeout skills, 9.9 per nine innings, or 28 percent of the batters he faced, while walking just 2.8 per nine. During his Yankees tenure he struggled in both areas, but with the Diamondbacks he has excelled. In 30.1 innings he has struck out 27, 8.01 per nine, or 21.6 percent of all batters faced. He has also kept his walk rate low, just 2.37 per nine. This success hasn’t exactly shown up in the results yet — he owns a 4.45 ERA — but there are some signs that could change.

Kennedy’s biggest problem this year has been the home run. He has allowed 2.08 per nine, or one every 15.6 batters faced. The home runs have been concentrated, with the Dodgers hitting three and the Phillies two, each in a single game. That type of home run rate stems from his ridiculously high HR/FB percentage. Kennedy will not see 17.9 percent of his fly balls leave the park this year, so his home run rate should drop as the season progresses. This shows up in his xFIP, 4.07.

In terms of batted balls, a pitcher like Kennedy, who doesn’t blow away hitters, could do more to induce ground balls. In the minors he induced about 39.7 percent grounders, which is just a tick above where he currently sits, 37.9 percent. He has mixed in a two-seamer more frequently this year, so perhaps as he throws that more he’ll generate more grounders. That will not only help produce more ground ball outs, but will also help his efforts to keep the ball in the park.

While he has always been a four-pitch pitcher, Kennedy showed reluctance to use his curveball in 2008. Instead he used his fastball 63.3 percent of the time. Some pitchers can get by with that usage level, but when the pitch averages 89.1 mph, secondary stuff becomes necessary. Kennedy went mostly to his changeup, but that apparently was not fooling AL hitters. This season he has thrown 56.5 percent fastballs, though that includes many more two-seamers. He has relied heavily on his changeup, throwing it 20.6 percent of the time, but has also mixed in his curveball much more frequently. It accounts for 16.9 percent of his pitches. This comes at the cost of his slider, a pitch that AL hitters destroyed in 2008.

There are still some negative signs with Kennedy, starting with his .225 BABIP. That will come up, but his declining home run rate could off-set that. Combined with a high strikeout rate — and only 2 of 27 have been of the pitcher — and a low walk rate, and he could certainly turn in a good season. It’s too early to definitively conclude that Kennedy’s luck will change for the better, but there are some indications that it will.


FanGraphs Chat – 4/30/10

A break from our usual Wednesday schedule, we’re doing this week’s on Friday, and we’ll run from 12 to 1 pm eastern. The guys over at RotoGraphs will also be here to answer questions.


FanGraphs Audio: Chris Liss of RotoWire

Episode Twenty-Four
In which the guest asks you to excuse his French.

Headlines
Lost in Translation
Asking the Big Questions
Letting a (Fantasy) Player Play
… and other candid observations!

Featuring
Chris Liss, RotoWire Higher-Up

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

Audio on the flip-flop.

Read the rest of this entry »


Austin Kearns’s Career Revival

If anybody’s career looked over after the 2009 season, it was Austin Kearns. The right fielder was coming off two seasons with wRC+ numbers of 72 and 79 respectively. He only appeared in 166 games due to injury. His HR/FB rate and BABIP plummeted. His fielding fell from excellent to merely average in the corners. All in all, Kearns went from a nearly 4 win player to a replacement level player all in the span of two years.

Kearns is seeing a complete career revival in Cleveland this year. No, he’s not going to come anywhere near maintaining the ridiculous 205 wRC+ he’s posted in 51 plate appearances. Still, the .340 wOBA projected by the ZiPS rest of season projection is a far cry above the sub-.300 wOBAs he posted in his final two years in Washington.

The key to Kearns’s year so far is power – mostly in the form of seven doubles, but also in two home runs. Kearns’s seven doubles already surpasses his total from 2009 and is only three behind his total from 2008. His walk rate is down, but that’s partly because of a higher Zone% and Contact% than any we’ve seen in his career. As pitchers realize that Kearns is once again a major league quality and even possibly an above average hitter, they will likely nibble more, and Kearns’s walk rate will regress towards his career mean of 11.5%. His power will decline, as the doubles will likely turn into singles, but Kearns still, as the ZiPS projection suggests, has a chance at being an average hitter even after a good amount of regression.

Kearns suffered from multiple injuries in 2008 and 2009, including loose bodies in his elbow, a stress fracture in his left foot, and a right thumb injury. Prior to these injuries, Kearns had been playing at an all star level. Thanks to a 10+% walk rate and solid power, Kearns was able to post above average wOBAs in both 2006 and 2007. Combining that with star-level defense in right field – +14 UZRs for two years in a row, Kearns was worth 3.8 wins a year in 2006 and 2007. With the injuries left in the past and with Kearns still only 29 years old – he turns 30 in May – there was still a chance for a career revival. The roll of the dice only cost Cleveland a minor league contract. Kearns has rewarded them well so far in 2010.


One Night Only: Awesome Is Their Middle Name

There’s no place like home, America — especially if your home has a sweet TV in it with the Extra Innings package.

Texas at Seattle | Friday, April 30 | 10:10 pm ET
Starting Pitchers
Rangers: Colby Lewis (R)
23.2 IP, 10.65 K/9, 4.56 BB/9, .317 BABIP, 36.7% GB, 8.3% HR/FB, 3.91 xFIP
Projected FIP: N/A (FAN) 3.99 (CHONE) 4.39 (ZiPS)

Mariners: Cliff Lee (L)
231.2 IP, 7.03 K/9, 1.67 BB/9, .326 BABIP, 41.3% GB, 6.5% HR/FB, 3.69 xFIP (2009)
Projected FIP: 3.16 (FAN) 3.43 (CHONE) 3.47 (ZiPS)

Persons of Interest
For the majority of tonight’s game, the Safeco Field mound will be occupied by a POI (that’s Person of Interest, people — get with it) to the Baseballing Enthusiast. Let me count the ways.

If spilling ink were a possible thing to happen on this wild and beautiful series of tubes we call the internet, then that’s exactly what you’d say this author has done in re Colby Frigging Lewis. And while I’ve been mistaken more often for developmental psychologist Howard Gardner than I have for a real-live Baseball Talent Evaluator, I’m thinking that maybe my very emphatic support for Lewis has earned me some kind of credibility in that area.

So, that’s one thing.

Another thing is how tonight represents the first start of the season for Prize of the Offseason Cliff Lee. Our very own Dave Allen wrote the killerest article about Lee in the Mariners Annual. Rather than reproducing it here in full, allow me to summarize for you: Cliff Lee is off the hizzy.

Want something more specific? You gots it: the cool thing about Cliff Lee is his location. His change-up, almost without exception, is in the low-away quadrant of the strike zone against righties; his cutter, almost always right on a righty’s hands. If hitting is timing and pitching is messing up timing, then Cliff Lee is awesome.

Five Bizarre Connections Between Colby Lewis and Cliff Lee
Put away those Ouija boards, kids, and prepare to get your minds freaked. Behold these five bizarre connections between tonight’s starters.

1. Both pitchers have two first names.
2. Both have the initials C.P.L. (Colby Preston Lewis, Clifton Phifer Lee.)
3. Both pitchers have pitched in the East: Lee in the NL East, Lewis in the Far.
4. Owing to the fact that they’re both so nasty, neither Lewis nor Lee has ever, in fact, kissed his mother with that mouth.
5. Lewis’s secretary was named Kennedy; Lee’s, Lincoln. Don’t even look it up, it’s true. You’ve got the Cistulli Guarantee on that.

Other Players Will Be There Tonight, Too
And all of them will probably strike out.

If I Had My Druthers
• Colby Lewis would steal fire from the gods and give it to humans.
• Colby Lewis would fashion all humankind from clay.
• Colby Lewis would continue to pitch out of his mind, thus validating my continued presence on this, the internet’s clearinghouse for baseball nerdom.


FanGraphs Audio: The Freak Out City Red Sox

Episode Twenty-Three
In which the panel is two doctors in the house.

Headlines
The Red Sox: Freak Out City?
Barry Zito: Same Guy?
Should We Ever Throw Kyle Blanks a Fastball?
A Very Subjective Game Report: KC at Toronto
… and other learned ejaculations!

Featuring
Dave Allen, Doctor of the Heat Map
Matt Klaassen, Doctor of Philosophy of Philosophy

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

Audio on the flip-flop.

Read the rest of this entry »


I’m Just Another Fool

The best take I’ve read about the Ryan Howard extension had nothing to do with win-to-dollar analysis or aging curve critiquing. Nope, it was Jonah Keri’s entry into the Howard content marathon. For full disclosure: I do consider Keri a friend and he is my editor elsewhere. Neither plays a role in my fandom over his piece. Keri’s article extends beyond the field. He nary mentions runs batted in or home runs hit. Instead he focuses on subjects like appealing to authority, open-mindedness, and the role Twitter plays in instant reaction.

Read the rest of this entry »


Should You Boycott the Diamondbacks?

By now, you’ve probably heard about Arizona’s proposition SB1070 — the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” — which was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23, just two weeks after MLB announced that the 2011 All-Star Game would be held in Phoenix, for the first time ever. The law will go into effect in three months. It “requires a reasonable attempt to be made to determine the immigration status” if “reasonable suspicion exists” that the person is an illegal immigrant. Because of the high proportion of Latin and Hispanic players in baseball, and the Diamondbacks are one of the most prominent (and most mobile) of all Arizona corporations, that means that baseball — and the Arizona Diamondbacks — are caught squarely in the middle of all this.

Boycotts and picket lines for Diamondbacks games have already been threatened. There was a picket line at Coors Field yesterday, and there’s a Facebook page calling for a picket and boycott of tonight’s game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Seattle blog HorsesAss.org called for the Mariners to pull out of the Cactus League. Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney came out in favor of a boycott of D-Backs games, and New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica called for next year’s All-Star Game to be moved out of Phoenix. The blog La Nueva Raza called for a complete boycott of all things from Arizona. So has Rep. Raul Grijalva — a Democrat from Arizona, advocating a boycott against the state he represents.

The team feels unfairly squeezed, issuing a statement to the Arizona Republic newspaper: “Although D-backs’ Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick has donated to Republican political candidates in the past, Kendrick personally opposes (Senate) Bill 1070… The D-backs have never supported (Senate) Bill 1070, nor has the team ever taken a political stance or position on any legislation.” It’s hardly a full-throated condemnation, but the team is certainly trying to set itself apart from the bill. Certainly, if any of these boycotts take hold, they could stand to lose a fair amount of cash. The issue of moving the All-Star game is bigger, though. All-Star Weekend is a major revenue driver for a city, as it lasts for days and is the center of the baseball universe for the better part of a week, with no other games taking place.

Many have pointed out that there is Arizona precedent for a sports league to relocate a major event on the basis of a disagreement with state law. In 1991, the NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona after the governor canceled observance of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. That had an immediate effect: the holiday was approved by voters in 1992, and the 1996 Super Bowl took place in Tempe. A similar action by MLB would likely provoke a similarly strong reaction from the Arizona electorate, though a strong reaction is no guarantee of a repeal of the bill.

But is a boycott fair? Is it fair for baseball fans to punish the Arizona Diamondbacks for being based in a state which has passed a law that is unpopular in other states? Is it sensible to assume that refusing to see Diamondbacks games is the best way to change the law? Is it sensible to assume, as Dave Zirin of The Progressive writes, that “a boycott is also an expression of solidarity with Diamondback players such as Juan Gutierrez, Gerardo Parra, and Rodrigo Lopez”?

Whether or not the bill lives or dies will have little to do with whether Robert McCartney or Mike Lupica decide to go see the D-Backs when they’re in town. So it’s purely a decision about your personal morality. I’m not quite sure where I stand. What about you?


Chris Tillman Throws No-No in AAA

With the big league club sporting a 4-17 record in Baltimore, it’s safe to say it’s been a rough season so far for the Orioles. The encouraging news is that the club has actually received some respectable starting pitching with the exception of recently demoted Brad Bergesen.

Along with four solid performers at the MLB level, there is another pitcher in triple-A currently banging on the big-league door, yet again. Chris Tillman, once the club’s top pitching prospect, made 12 starts in the Majors last season at the age of 21. The pitching depth in the organization allowed the club to send him back to the minors at the start of the 2010 season to put in some extra skill development time.

His numbers last year were OK given his age, but he clearly had some work to do. Tillman posted a 6.10 FIP and his HR/9 rate was 2.08. A lot of his pitches were put into the air (37.0 GB%) and he didn’t strike out that many batters (5.40 K/9). A look to his pitch-type values suggests that he was suffering from poor fastball command, a must-have to succeed in the Majors.

Tillman’s 2010 season did not start all that well. Perhaps he was disappointed with his demotion. Or perhaps he was just a little rusty. He accumulated just 9.2 innings over his first three starts and allowed nine runs. In his third start, he hit bottom and lasted just one inning with four hits and four runs allowed. It was no doubt embarrassing for the youngster.

Something clicked after that. In his fourth start, Tillman went eight innings and allowed just three runs on seven hits and no walks. He stuck out five and posted his best GB/FB ratio of the season.

The right-hander, now 22, clearly saved his best performance for his fifth game. Last night against the Gwinnett Braves, Tillman threw a nine-inning no-hitter. He walked just one batter (former Tigers prospect Brent Clevlen) and struck out six. The fly-ball pitcher also relied heavily on the ground-ball with 13 worm-burning outs compared to six in the air.

While perusing the post-game information, I came upon this comment from Tillman, which was recorded by MiLB.com reporter Daren Smith: “I was pitching around my fastball. I had my curveball when I needed it. I was able to throw my changeup and my cutter. My catcher [Adam Donachie] did a great job calling pitches and I had three or four great plays behind me.”

Tillman had been working on a cutter this spring. It sounds like he’s having enough success with it now to utilize it during a no-hit bid, which is encouraging news. The development of a cutter has had a profound effect on the careers of quite a few pitchers in the Majors, such as Roy Halladay. The work on the cutter could also explain his early-season struggles, although I cannot confirm that.

Tillman was a top prospect even before adding the fourth pitch to his repertoire; it’s encouraging to see a talented player – who has experienced more successes than failures in his career – realize the importance of always trying to get better.


His Name… Is Jaime

There are six starting pitchers who, in the first month of the season, posted a groundball rate of a little more than 60 percent, ranging from Derek Lowe (60.5%) to Tim Hudson (63.3%). None of the other names would surprise you either – Felix Hernandez, Ricky Romero, Joel Pineiro, and Jorge de la Rosa are all well known as extreme groundball pitchers, and their sinkers are working well to begin the 2010 season.

However, none of them are even close to leading the league in groundball rate. St. Louis rookie Jaime Garcia is lapping the field, with a ridiculous 71.2% groundball rate through his first four starts. The gap between Garcia and Hudson is as large as the gap between Hudson and C.J. Wilson, who ranks 15th on the list.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a Cardinal pitcher is leading the league in inducing grounders, given that we’ve recently talked about Dave Duncan’s magic touch. However, Garcia’s not your standard pound-the-zone-with-a-sinker guy, as he has four pitches that he mixes in – a fastball, a slider, a curve, and a change. In getting his 14 groundball outs last night, he threw just under 60 percent fastballs, for instance.

Perhaps most impressively, he’s not just running up his totals by dominating left-handers. He’s faced 18 LHBs this year compared to 85 RHBs, as opposing managers have been stacking the deck against him and running out almost entirely right-handed line-ups. It hasn’t mattered, as they’re hitting the ball on the ground against him at a 68 percent clip. Of course, that’s better than the left-handers, who have hit the ball on the ground 90 percent of the time.

You don’t need a degree in regression to know that Garcia won’t finish the year with a 1.04 ERA, but given how he’s attacked hitters so far, we may have a new leader in the clubhouse for National League Rookie of the Year. Even in just 26 innings of work, he’s shown that he’s got the stuff to sustain quality performances, and he’s got the added benefit of having Dave Duncan around.

He’ll have to prove he can stay healthy for the long haul, but in terms of whether he’s good enough to get major league hitters out, Garcia is answering that question very quickly. This kid is for real.


What We Learned from MiLB: Week Three

The lessons from week three on the farm.

Carlos Peguero and Koby Clemens can hit for power outside of California.

In 2008, Peguero and Clemens were both sent to High-A for the first time as 21 year olds. After a modest cumulative line of .283/.345/.451, the Mariners and Astros respectively opted to return them to High-A in 2009. This time both in the California League, they were among the hitter haven league’s most dangerous players, Peguero hitting .271/.335/.560 while Clemens posted a career-best .345/.419/.636 batting line. However, neither was given much publicity this winter as an offensive prospect, as the assumption was that both had seen inflation effects due to playing in High Desert and Lancaster.

In the last week, Peguero accumulated a hit in every game (dropping his average to .378, somehow), and hit six home runs to join Mike Stanton atop the minor league home run leaderboard (with 9 total). Clemens wasn’t as prolific, but with two more homers, he’s leading the Texas League with seven jacks through 19 games. Now scouts and prospect analysts alike are being forced to retrace our steps, and make sure the initial opinions of these players were fair. I think it was with Clemens, certainly, who has now been relegated to first base and strikes out too often. His patience was always slightly above-average, but not enough to handle the offense needed to stay at first base. I’m now guessing he eventually spends time in the Major Leagues, a testament to a lot of improvement in 2-3 years, but I’d be surprised if he spent much time starting.

Peguero, on the other hand, might be something. Strikeouts have always been his problem, but the whiffs are down significantly this season. The power has always been there, but there is nothing untapped about it anymore. A team like the Mariners, low on power and in a field beneficial to left-handed pull hitters, might be able to get something out of a guy like this.

Ethan Hollingsworth has a good FIP.

Zero home runs. One walk, two HBP’s. Twenty-five strikeouts. 26 innings in four starts. All told, we’re talking about a FIP of 1.62 for the Colorado Rockies fourth-round pick in the 2008 Amateur Draft. In the California League.

Last season had to be considered a disappointment for the 22-year-old Western Michigan product, as he posted a 4.37 ERA between Low- and High-A. But taken in context, and things look a little better. First, half his season was in Asheville, the South Atlantic League’s most hitter-friendly environment. His ERA splits in that league were telling: 6.07 ERA at home, 2.06 on the road. Then he went to the California League, an environment death on pitchers and fielders alike. While plagued by 77 hits allowed in 59.3 innings there, the .392 BABIP certainly seemed a little high.

Back in Modesto to start this season, Hollingsworth isn’t giving his fielders much to work with. He’s a pretty traditional low-90s, 4-pitch guy, but there’s something to be said for those pitchers that have the confidence to attack the zone with their stuff. I always go back to a guy like Joe Mays when thinking about pitchers like Hollingsworth, and if Mays can have middling success in the Majors, I don’t see why Hollingsworth can’t, too.

The Salem Red Sox have a good middle of the order.

Three players on the High-A Salem Red Sox roster are responsible for 13 of the team’s 19 home runs. These three are batting .365 and slugging .630, while the rest of the team is hitting .247 with a .365 SLG. There is just no denying that the 14-6 Red Sox owe their winning record to the performances of Ryan Lavarnway, Will Middlebrooks and Oscar Tejeda.

Lavarnway is the elder statesman of the group, as he will turn 23 in August. A sixth-round pick in 2008 out of Yale, Lavarnway was a guy that hit .467/.531/.873 as a sophomore, and followed it up with an injury-shortened .398/.541/.824 junior season. While his catching abilities are debateable, as he’s fairly green at the position, and is still only splitting time there this season. But the bat will play, as he’s now at .360/.407/.667. I’d like to see Boston commit to turning him into a catcher while challenging his bat, so we can really see what’s here.

Middlebrooks was a guy the Red Sox bought away from a two-sport scholarship at Texas A&M on the signing deadline in 2007, and has looked very raw ever since. But things seem to be coming together a bit for Middlebrooks this year, and he’s now showing some consistent patience and gap power. He’s hitting .353/.421/.559 in the earlygoing, and continuing to show off a rocket arm at the hot corner.

Finally, there is Tejeda, the youngest of the sluggers at just 20 years old. You can sort of tell as much, what with his 17-1 K/BB ratio through 78 plate appearances. But he’s also growing up quickly, as his five home runs are already the highest he’s hit in a single-season. Anytime a 20-year-old middle infield is hitting .382/.385/.658 in High-A, it’s big time news. While I’m not as quick to anoint him as a breakout prospect as I am Lavarnway and Middlebrooks, he might just be the one with the biggest potential of all.


Why We Watch

Contrary to a narrative that — against all odds — has yet to die, it’s probably fair to say that most people find their way to sabermetrics not as a replacement for baseball, but as a means to appreciating baseball more fully. This, I’m almost positive, is the case for my fellow writers here at FanGraphs*, and also for the largest segment of the readership. It’s a fact: we like watching baseball. The numbers simply enhance our understanding of — and, thus, our capacity to enjoy — the experience.

*Except for Dave Allen, that is, who — as I’ve mentioned before — would like the robots to take over, stat.

Here’s my question today, though: why do we watch? Or, more specifically: all things being equal, what compels us to watch one game and not another?

Obviously, team allegiance is a powerful motivating factor. The popularity of SB Nation’s and other, unaffiliated team-specific sites is evidence enough of this. But when our fave team isn’t playing — or just for those of us without very strong ties to our hometown teams — what is it exactly that we’d like to see?

Below are five criteria that some disgustingly haphazard polling has elicited. Feel very free to provide other suggestions in the comments section.

Pitching Matchups
In any given contest, and assuming about six innings per start, a starting pitcher will be involved in roughly a third of a game’s plays. If a certain, unspecified demigod is pitching for a certain, unspecified team located near or around the Dallas Metro area, the odds of a life-altering (or merely ecstatic) viewing experience are pretty good. Make that two notable starters and, just as with so much mint-flavored gum, the pleasure is doubled.

Statistically Notable (or Otherwise Compelling) Players
If the pitching matchup is no great shakes, it’s still possible that three or four or five players between the game’s two teams offer some sort of intriguing storyline. Very often the players might share some of the traits of the All-Joyer (i.e. underrated by traditional metrics, unlucky in a way that xFIP or BABIP might explain). Also, it could just be as simple as liking the looks of a certain player*.

*Side note: while Jayson Werth’s chances of remaining with Philly have probably taken a hit, I have it on good authority that that Ruben Amaro is very interested in signing Jayson Werth’s beard to a long-term deal.

Rookies (and Debuts)
Hope is a powerful force. If it weren’t, lottery tickets would probably be way less popular. In baseball, nothing embodies hope like the rookie player. Stephen Strasburg, and his imminent arrival in the Majors, is so highly anticipated because of feats we think he might accomplish. It’s smart of us, this instinct: if we’re in the business of witnessing the amazing, it’s smartest to invest in relatively unknown, but promising, commodities.

Seasonal Context
Remember last year’s Game 163 between Detroit and Minnesota? I do. I was cheering for the Twins outta my mind despite the fact that I have almost zero connections to that team/city.

Quality of Broadcast
As I mentioned just yesterday in re CSN’s Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, there are times when the broadcasting team makes a game less watchable. There are other cases — like when Vin Scully is wrecking the mic — where you couldn’t give two frigs about which teams were playing. (Seriously, Vin Scully is like the Platonic Grandpa. Sabermetrics schmabermetrics: if Scully says something, I accept it as incontrovertible fact, owing to his cadence and obvious capital-W Wisdom.)


Reality Check

I enjoy using the BaseRuns formula as a sanity check for team performance to date. There are big flaws in simply taking a team’s actual runs scored and allowed and applying the Pythagorean formula to come up with expected wins. It assumes that the actual run totals are sacrosanct when they are anything but. Especially so early in the year when factors such as competition faced and home/away splits are more likely to be dramatic.

I ran through each team coming into play today and noted the difference in what BaseRuns said the team should have scored and allowed and their actual results so far. There is little surprise at the bottom of the table; Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston and Pittsburgh have all legitimately played atrociously. Pittsburgh has actually been more than doubled up on runs allowed versus runs scored and if they kept playing at this level, BaseRuns says they would be a 39-win team.

The top of the table also is not shocking, but it does affirm some early season surprises. The Yanks are on top, but second place belongs to those stingy Giants, leading the league in run prevention. The Cardinals, Rockies and Twins follow suit, even though the Twins have gotten lucky so far on their own solid run prevention numbers.

Among teams that BaseRuns decrees are ten or more games off their straight pythag win-loss record are the Rays, currently 13 wins lucky but still a legit top ten team. The Blue Jays are ten games unlucky on their projected pace and the White Sox are 14 games on the same side of the ledger.

By far the biggest outlier is the New York Mets. They have scored 86 and allowed 69 for a pythag pace of 95 wins. According to BaseRuns they should have scored 82, but allowed 88 for a BaseRuns pace of just 76 wins. That is a mammoth 19-win spread and a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about jumping on the Mets bandwagon for 2010. That’s not to say it cannot be done, but they need to up their level of play dramatically.


Good GMs, Bad Agents

Ryan Howard’s massive new extension brought forth various responses, many of them focusing on Philadelpha General Manager Ruben Amaro and his front office. Most of the reactions I read were negative, some were positive. None of what I read praised Howard’s agent, Casey Close.

Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office are regularly and rightly praised for transforming a laughingstock with a small budget into a stacked monster with a small budget. The crowning achievement of Tampa Bay’s front office (so far) is undoubtedly signing third baseman Evan Longoria, then (2008) quite new to the big leagues, to a contract that guarantees him less over the guaranteed portion of the the contract (2008-2013) than Ryan Howard will be paid in 2010. It also includes three club options for 2014-2016. Longoria’s 2010 base salary (without prorating his signing bonus) is less than one million dollars. Nothing I have read says anything about the job done by his agent, Paul Cohen.

Last month, in reference to Barry Zito, R.J. Anderson wrote,

Should we really mock players for making prudent financial decisions when we praise management for doing the same?

I’m curious about something very much like this, with agents standing in for players. When we (and “we” here is not merely rhetorical, it includes me) praise/condemn a deal, we usually mean good or bad for the team’s budget. I know that some of us will sometimes call it a “win” for the player, or a “fair deal for both sides,” but I don’t think I’m being inaccurate in saying that is not the usual discourse on these matters. If the deal is good/bad for the team, we say that the general manager or front office did a good/bad job.

Take an agent like Casey Close, or, I don’t know, let’s pick someone non-controversial… Scott Boras. Close or Boras will come up, but usually the best that is said about them outside of sabermetric circles is that “they are part of the process” and that “it’s their job to get their clients the most money.” Sabermetric circles mostly avoid “Boras is the devil” talk. This isn’t another “agents are just doing their job” peice. Well, not exactly, although that is true.

What interests me is not the lack of praise for agents who are good at their job (although I think Mystery Team is probably sick of being unable to sign anyone). What interests me is the comparison of the negative cases: while someone might call a general manager “terrible” or “incompetent” because of foolish contracts, I’ve never read a piece going on at length that an agent should be fired because of an extremely team-favorable contract. One can quibble over specific circumstances, but just as it is the GM’s job to look at his team’s future and the player’s likely performance down the line when establishing what he can pay a particular player, it is the the job of the agent to do the same in the players’ interest. The agent has to be able to evaluate talent and the market down the road. I’m not trying to pick on any agent in particular — one would need to look at each agent’s clients to see how they made out. This would be an interesting comparative project.

Our current focus is understandable. Most of us are fans first, we want our teams to do well, and so we admire/denigrate GMs who sign good/bad deals. This also give us the urge (that some resist) to get angry with agents for “just doing their jobs.” My question to us, not as fans, but as (amateur) analysts going forward: what about the agents who (might be) doing their jobs badly?


New Split: Pitch Types by Count

For pitchers there’s a new table in the splits section, Pitch Types, which shows the percentage of pitches each pitcher throws on any particular count. Here’s what the MLB averages looked like in 2009:

As you might have suspected, as the count gets more in favor of the pitcher, out come the breaking pitches. And typically, the more behind the pitcher gets in the count, the more fastballs are thrown.


Edwin Jackson’s Changeup Doing Him No Favors

Last night Edwin Jackson experienced the worst start of his career. It isn’t particularly close, either. The 10 runs he surrendered in just 2.1 innings trumps his next worst start, his final one of the 2009 season, in which he allowed eight runs in five innings. While it’s almost certainly an aberration, his start did continue a trend that we’ve seen so far this year from Jackson. He has started employing his curveball and changeup more often.

Just last year, as Dave Allen noted, Jackson used his slider more often than he had in years past. After throwing the pitch 22.5 percent of the time in 2007 and 20.6 percent in 2008, Jackson threw 25.5 percent sliders in 2009, the year in which he pitched more than he had previously in his career. Since Jackson is primarily a fastball-slider guy, he ended up going to the fastball more often, but also lessened his reliance on his third pitch, a changeup that hasn’t served him well in the past three years.

Last night Jackson threw 55 pitches. While he used his fastball a bit more often than he had in previous starts, he also used his changeup and curveball more often — and used both more often than his slider, which he threw just four times. Neither the curveball nor the changeup helped him much, as the results make clear. In fact, all three secondary pitches failed Jackson in the first inning. On an 0-1 count to Troy Tulowitzki Jackson threw a curveball low and in, and Tulowitzki lined it for a double. The next batter, Carlos Gonzalez, saw a 1-1 curveball below the zone, but he ripped it down the line for a two-RBI double. Jackson then went to his bread and butter, the slider, on the first pitch to Miguel Olivo, but left it up in the zone. That resulted in a ground rule double.

This increased use of his curveball and changeup was not a one-start occurrence. Maybe he used them more often because he wasn’t feeling the slider — he threw it four times and the results were double, foul, double, swing and miss. But the trend has spanned his five starts this season. His changeup use has increased from 6.6 percent in 2009 to 9.4 percent so far this season. His curveball rate has increased even more, going from 2.3 percent to 7.4 percent. While Jackson might benefit in the long run by adding two serviceable pitches to his repertoire, he still has some work to do with them.

The biggest problem with his increased changeup and curveball usage is that it has taken away from his best pitch, the slider. According to pitch type values the slider was by far his best pitch in 2008 and 2009. His curveball also proved a weapon in 2009, so perhaps working it in more frequently would be to his benefit. His changeup, though, has never been a good pitch, ranking in the negatives every year since 2007. It has been a particular disaster this year, yet he uses it more than his curveball, a pitch that appears to be better.

The one major complication I can think of in this case is employing dual breaking pitches. While his slider and curveball might be superior to his changeup, I imagine the stress on his arm is far greater when he throws the former two pitches. The change, then, might be a necessary evil, a different look that can help preserve his arm. Given how poorly he throws it, though, maybe he should go to it less frequently.