Archive for June, 2010

FanGraphs Audio: Fantasy “Friday” w/Axisa & Sanders

Episode Thirty-Seven
In which the panel is fantastic.

Headlines
Brad Climbing the Lidge?
Rumbles (re: Aging) in the Bronx
Parra: The Manny He Seems to Be?

Featuring
Michael Axisa, Our Man in New York
Zach Sanders, Pod Workhorse

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

Audio on the flip-flop.

Read the rest of this entry »


What the Dodgers Should Do

Overview

The Dodgers are in second place, three games behind the division leading Padres. They’re a game ahead of the Rockies, who I suggested yesterday should be buyers. They won the NL West a year ago, and have mostly the same team back for 2010. This should be a pretty easy decision, right? Unfortunately for Dodger fans, the situation is complicated.

Buy or Sell

Given the team’s place in the standings and the talent on the roster, we can cross “sell” off the list of options in July. Theoretically, they should be buyers, but can they be, and if so, what should they be buying?

The divorce of the McCourts hangs over the entire organization, and while team officials continue to insist that it doesn’t affect their finances, it’s hard to take them seriously after they declined to offer arbitration to any of their free agents and failed to make any meaningful improvements to the roster.

The presumption is, and will likely continue to be, that the team is broke, and can’t afford to take on much in the way of salary. Given the players that are generally available in July, that’s a problem.

There are quite a few players who would make sense for the Dodgers if they could go shopping. They need a back-end starter to give them reliable innings behind the trio of Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Kuroda, and Chad Billingsley, and that’s probably the asset that is most available via trade. Whether its Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, or Ted Lilly, there are quite a few potential #4 starters who could be had for something less than the ransom that a guy like Cliff Lee will demand.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, all three of those pitchers make significant money this year, and they would likely have to ask the GM on the other side of things to pick up a substantial amount of salary in any deal. The last time the Dodgers made that kind of deal, they shipped Carlos Santana to the Indians – whoops. They may not be eager to essentially sell off a young player again after getting burned so badly the last time, especially for a guy who would essentially be a rented role player and may not put them over the top anyway.

After all, this Dodgers roster has some problems that aren’t easily fixed. The outfield defense is awful, but they can’t afford to lose the offense provided by Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, or Andre Ethier in order to upgrade the glovework. They could use a better first baseman than James Loney, but outside of Prince Fielder, there’s probably not a guy out there who would make a big enough difference, and again, Fielder is pricey.

In reality, the Dodgers just need some of their own guys to play better. They can tweak the roster, but they can’t do anything to completely fix it until they have money to spend, and that makes giving up prospects to supplement a half-built playoff team less palatable than is usually the case for a team this close to October baseball.

On The Farm

The Dodgers system has talent, but it’s mostly in the lower levels of the system, which will also hurt their ability to make deals. Even top prospect Dee Gordon is more tools than production at this point, even though he’s made it to Double-A. Considering that the Dodgers are likely going to ask other teams to pay the freight for high salaried players, there may not be enough in the system for them to convince a team to make that kind of move.

Budget

The big unknown. The divorce makes it impossible to assume anything about the ability of the organization to add payroll, so the best we can do is guess that they’ll maintain the status quo.


What the Detroit Tigers Should Do

Overview

The Tigers have exceeded the expectations of many (including myself) in 2010 by not only winning, but by being in the thick of the AL Central race, going back-and-forth with the Twins this week for the divisional lead. Yes, they’ve outplayed their run differential by 3 games, but those wins are “in the bank.” Some regression is to be expected, so the Tigers should be looking to make marginal improvements to improve their chances.

Buy or Sell

Although the Tigers aren’t as talented as the Twins, they’ve managed to stay with them so far. They also have an older roster that isn’t going to get any better (as a group) than they are now, so they really should go for it. There are some areas they can improve to can better their odds of making the playoffs a fair bit without crippling themselves for the future.

While relievers are often overvalued in relation to how much they can help in a partial season, in the Tigers’ case they could probably help themselves more than most teams given how thin their bullpen is beyond closer Jose Valverde, especially after Joel Zumaya’s season-ending injury. There should be plenty of sellers this season with relievers available that won’t cost the Tigers much in terms of talent or money; it shouldn’t be difficult to improve on the likes of Eddie Bonine, Brad Thomas, Ryan Perry, et. al.

Staff ace Justin Verlander projects to pitch better the rest of the season and Max Scherzer is coming around after a rough start to the season, but the Tigers could improve the middle and back of their starting rotation relatively cheaply. Jeremy Bonderman should be adequate if he can stay healthy, but with Rick Porcello in the minors after terrible struggles and Armando Galarraga returning to the reality of being Armando Galararaga, this is an area the Tigers should look at. They probably aren’t in a position to trade for one of the big name starters out there, but adding another league average starter to go every fifth day could potentially add a couple of wins down the stretch without mortgaging the future.

The situation with the non-pitchers is a curious one: they have a few good players and one great one (Miguel Cabrera), but then they also have some mediocre role players like Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago who could be improved upon, but are good enough that it probably wouldn’t be worth the wins that would be added given what it would cost to do so at in-demand positions like third base and shortstop. Barring an opportunity for a trade they can’t pass up, Detroit should be looking to proactively maximize the talent they have. Austin Jackson’s post-April offensive performance is a good reminder that while Brennan Boesch’s BABIP-fueled contributions are “in the bank,” they aren’t likely to continue, and they should be ready to give more of Boesch’s playing time to Ryan Raburn (who’s a much better hitter than he’s shown so far this season), for example. Another idea along these lines would be to give Scott Sizemore another chance at second base (that was cut short at barely over 100 PAs in part because of bad luck on BABIP) and give Boesch’s at-bats to newly-minted “second baseman” Carlos Guillen, a good hitter whose fragile health the Tigers should be looking to preserve. If Sizemore could hit adequately, this would also improve their infield defense.

On the Farm

Beyond the Box Score’s pre-season aggregate farm system rankings had the Tigers’ system at #21. Jacob Turner and Casey Crosby are young pitchers with a lot of upside that the Tigers shouldn’t be looking to move. After that, there are some useful parts and some long-term potential. Some of the useful parts are decent enough and yet aren’t so great that the Tigers should be afraid to move them in the right offer (e.g., Wilkin Ramirez).

Budget

For all the off-season hand-wringing about their budget, the Tigers 2010 payroll is about $134 million dollar, according to Cot’s. Big contracts for Verlander, Cabrera, Guillen, and likely Ordonez (if the Tigers keep winning, his 2011 option will vest, although that hardly seems as devastating as it did the last time it happened) are still on the books for 2011, but Bonderman’s $12.5 million, Johnny Damon’s $8 million, and Brandon Inge’s $6.6 million, among others, are coming off the books. If the Tigers payroll stays at about the same level, they should have some leeway in that regard in 2011.


Span’s Big Numbers Boost

Any time a player achieves a rare feat it surely will lead the discussion the following day. There were a number of notable performances yesterda, but none stood out quite like Denard Span’s 4 for 4 night, which included three triples. Just minutes after the game ended Andy from the B-R blog got the ball rolling, noting that Span is just the 29th player in MLB history to hit three triples in a game. We’ve seen no shortage of accolades since, and rightly so. Span certainly deserves it.

What stood out to me about Span’s night, beyond his chance for a record-breaking fourth triple later in the game, was how dramatically it changed his season numbers. Coming into the game Span was hitting .275/.347/.367, a .332 wOBA. Those aren’t terrible numbers, especially for a center fielder, but they are below the lofty standards Span set for himself in the last two seasons. Those performances established him as Minnesota’s every day center fielder and earned him an extension. This year, in the first year of his new guaranteed contract, he has gotten off to a slow start.

After three triples, a single, and a walk, Span’s numbers have grown to .284/.356/.394, a .346 wOBA. He added four runs above replacement, raising his WAR from 1.8 to 2.2. These are pretty large changes for this point in the season, and they came with one stellar game. It’s this type of thing that gets me thinking about poor performers. We’re always going to see good players go through slumps, and when those slumps come early it’s easier to notice them in the numbers. How would three-triple, one-single, one-walk, and no-out night look for a number of other disappointing hitters?

This would also with any combination of 10 total bases and no outs recorded, including the cycle.

Joe Mauer. Starting with Span’s teammate, Mauer hasn’t had a poor season by reasonable standards. It’s only his 2009 MVP campaign that makes his .353 wOBA in 2010, fourth among catchers (and that includes non-catcher Mike Napoli) look in any way poor. He’s at .302/.378/.431 right now, and if he repeats Span’s feat tonight he’d be at .313/.390/.463. Not quite MVP level right now, but getting there.

Chipper Jones Injuries have slowed him, but there’s still time for Chipper to rebound and power the Braves offense. His line now: .252/.384/.386, very un-Chipper-like. His line after 10 total bases and a walk: .266/.397/.425.

Hideki Matsui. Acquired to hit cleanup for the Angels this year, Matsui has disappointed in the early goings. His .262/.338/.427 line is certainly below his capabilities, though age and injuries have certainly taken their tolls. With Span’s night he’d be hitting .270/.343/.458.

Mark Teixeira. After a slow start it seemed like Teixeira picked it up in May. Then he slumped. Then he streaked. And slumped. And streaked. It’s resulted in a .230/.343/.409 line, which is below where he’s been at this point in any previous season. Add in 10 total bases and a walk and he’s hitting .240/.352/.437.

Matt Kemp. After a couple of games removed from the starting lineup it looks like Kemp’s ready to get get back at it. If he goes 4 for 4 with three triples and a walk tonight he’ll be hitting .270/.328/.482, against his current .261/.318/.455 line.

Adam Jones. Before the season there was much talk of Jones, now 24, breaking out and helping turn around the Orioles. Instead the O’s are the worst team in baseball and Jones has had a rough time getting on base. After a Span night, he’d improve his .268/.295/.437 line to .278/.305/.464. That would, of course, require him to actually draw a walk.

There are plenty more, of course, and all it takes is one good game to give them a huge boost to poor numbers. Just imagine if they have a 10 total base game, start hitting to their career averages, and then have another one of those games in a month. It sounds like that would end any perception of disappointment pretty quickly.


The Older Guys

Back in January, Dave Cameron was discussing the lack of interest in then free agent Johnny Damon, saying:

Abreu was a bargain on a one year, $5 million deal with the Angels, even as he proved that he didn’t really belong in the outfield anymore. Damon, though, is basically the same hitter, just with better defensive skills, and he might have to settle for less than what Abreu got? This is a market correction gone way too far.

Even with the reduced costs of wins, Damon is easily worth $8 to $10 million for 2010. Just like with Abreu last year, teams will be kicking themselves in a few months if they let him sign for peanuts. There are enough clubs out there that could use a +2 to +3 win left fielder that this level of disinterest is simply a market failure.

So let’s see if teams have indeed taken advantage of these older players by looking at a few. I’m going to focus on position players who received one-year deals and had question marks surrounding them due at least partly to their age.

LF Johnny Damon
Free agent age: 36
Signed by Detroit Tigers to 1 year, $8 million deal
2009 WAR: 3.6
2010 WAR: 1.1

Damon, the centerpiece of Cameron’s commentary, finally got a nice-sized deal from Detroit. Although the lefty has gotten on base at near the same rate as last season (.365), the power has been zapped, as he’s only slugging .391, his lowest rate since 2001. However, a 113 wRC+ isn’t that bad given that Damon has a UZR/150 of 19.2 in left field. That adds up to 1.1 WAR already on the season. If Damon continues his current pace, he’ll be worth his contract.

2B Orlando Hudson
Free agent age: 32
Signed by Minnesota Twins to 1 year, $5 million deal
2009 WAR: 2.9
2010 WAR: 1.8

It’s hard to imagine why Hudson only got that $5 million after a very good year with the Dodgers in 2009. He has continued his solid offense with a .337 wOBA, but it’s been his defense that has guided him this season, as Orlando’s on pace for a 16.1 UZR/150. At 1.8 WAR, Hudson’s already been worth his contract and then some.

OF/DH Vladimir Guerrero
Free agent age: 35
Signed by Texas Rangers to 1 year, $5 million deal
2009 WAR: 0.8
2010 WAR: 2.1

Vlad in that hot, homer-happy ballpark in Arlington? It just made too much sense not to have happened. After a down season in 2009 in which he was hampered by injury, Vlad has put up a beautiful line of .327/.374/.538, solid numbers for a DH. Like Hudson, Guerrero has already been worth his contract at 2.0 WAR, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down soon.

1B Aubrey Huff
Free agent age: 33
Signed by San Francisco Giants to 1 year, $3 million deal
2009 WAR: -1.3
2010 WAR: 2.3

What a swing from last season. R.J. Anderson wrote about Huff recently, so I’ll let him explain:

The Giants signed Huff for $3 million on a one-year basis- meaning that just getting a combination of those projected figures probably would have made Huff worth it. Instead they have received one of the best hitters in baseball to date. It’s like a karmic refund for the Edgar Renteria deal turning into a mess.

3B Miguel Tejada
Free agent age: 36
Signed by Baltimore Orioles to one year deal worth $6 million
2009 WAR: 2.7 WAR
2010 WAR: 0.8 WAR

Tejada has not found much success back with the O’s this year, as the third baseman is slugging a career low .379. Add to that a .318 OBP and you have a corner infielder with an OPS under .700. Luckily for Miggy his defense has been above average this year, and if he can muster some pop in the second half of the season, he will most likely be worth his contract in terms of our Dollars metric.

1B Russell Branyan
Free agent age: 34
Signed by Cleveland Indians to 1 year deal worth $2 million
2009 WAR: 2.8
2010 WAR: 1.2

Despite losing some time due to an injury, Branyan has put up a .355 wOBA with very good defense (11.2 UZR/150) at first base. He’s already been worth more ~2.5 times his contract thus far. His initial demands this past winter may have been unreasonable, but there’s no question Branyan truly settled at just $2 million.

These are only a handful of names, and I’ll go through some more later on, but at least on a bunch of these players, Mr. Cameron seems to be on the money.


FanGraphs Chat – 6/30/10


Appreciating Adrian Beltre

Looking to re-establish his value following an injury-marred 2009 season, Adrian Beltre signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Boston Red Sox over the winter. By virtue of fantastic third base defense, Beltre still managed 2.4 WAR in his last season with the Mariners while battling a left shoulder injury requiring surgery to remove bone spurs, among other misfortunes that won’t be spoken of here.

As Beltre’s Seattle tenure came to a close, some characterized the five-year, $64 million pact that the M’s gave the third baseman prior to the 2005 season as a waste of team resources. Beltre, according to the narrative, went bonkers during his last season with the Dodgers, landed stacks-o-cash in free agency and then returned to mediocrity. Unfortunately, the facts get in the way of good copy.

Beltre played six full seasons for the Dodgers. He put up an astonishing 10.1 WAR in 2004, but he was an asset those other years, too. From 1999-2003, Beltre averaged 3.3 WAR per season. And, while uttering Bill Bavasi’s name in Seattle still might produce dirty looks and suggestions of physically impossible acts, Beltre was worth every penny the Mariners gave him.

Safeco Field is a crippling environment for right-handed power hitters. Adjusting for league and park factors, Beltre’s bat was slightly above-average — his wRC+ as a Mariner was 102. That decent lumber was coupled with upper-echelon defense, as Beltre posted UZR/150 marks of +8.8, +19.2, -2.7, +13.4 and +21.2. The former Dodger racked up a combined 16.7 WAR with Seattle, a performance that our Dollars system valued at $67.3 million.

In Boston, Beltre is enjoying his best season since that double-digit WAR total back in ’04. After a four-for-four night against the Rays, he’s batting .349/.387/.561 in 310 trips to the plate, with a .410 wOBA that ranks ninth among qualified major league hitters. He’s flashing the leather again, too, with +12.9 UZR/150. Beltre has already compiled 3.8 WAR this season, trailing only Justin Morneau, Robinson Cano and Carl Crawford among position players. With $15.1 million in Value Dollars, he has already more than justified Boston’s investment.

Beltre won’t keep up this pace at the plate, of course — his batting average on balls in play is .387. By contrast, his expected BABIP is .321, and his rest-of-season ZiPS projects a .327 BABIP. But he’s creaming the ball, with a .211 Isolated Power, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Beltre moved from a park that decreased run-scoring by six percent over the past three seasons (according to the Bill James Handbook) to Fenway and its inviting Green Monster, which boosted runs by 11 percent over that same period. ZiPS has a .362 rest-of-season wOBA for Beltre, and an overall .387 wOBA for 2010.

Beltre’s deal with the Red Sox included a $5 million player option for the 2011 season, which increases to $10 million if he reaches 640 PA this season. Barring some unforeseen injury, the 31-year-old Scott Boras client will opt out and land himself a lucrative multi-year deal this coming winter, whether that be with Boston or elsewhere.

Adrian Beltre is in the midst of a sublime season that’ll almost certainly go down as his best since that monstrous ’04 campaign. But it’s not as though he has been a bust in between those high marks — this guy has always been good.


The Phillies’ Massive Downgrade

On June 25th, the Philadelphia Phillies started Chase Utley at second base and Placido Polanco at third base. On June 30th, a mere five days later, both of these players were on the DL. The Phillies, in their stead, started Wilson Valdez and Greg Dobbs.

The Phillies, last year’s National League champions, find themselves locked in a tough division race. The Braves and Mets find themselves tied atop the Eastern division, with the Phillies one game behind. Entering the season, the Phillies looked like a frontrunner for a playoff spot. Can the same be said now, with two of their key players, including the most talented player on the team, potentially to miss significant time?

Time is likely the main factor here, as the Philadelphia Enquirer reports that the Phillies only know that the two players will each miss “at least two weeks.” Let’s take a look at how much the loss of each player will cost the Phllies.

First off, Placido Polanco will be replaced by Greg Dobbs. Polanco has put up 2 WAR in nearly 300 plate appearances and his season wOBA is exactly equal to his ZiPS (R) wOBA, at .346. It seems fair, then, to consider him a 4.0 WAR/600 PA player – his +5 UZR is right in line with his career +10 UZR/150 at 3B. Dobbs was DFA’d just last week, but much of his poor performance can be blamed on a .191 BABIP. He’s projected for a .323 wOBA – just below average – with below average defense (-7 according to CHONE’s defensive projections) at third. Dobbs projects as a below average player, at 1.5 WAR/600 PA. With the typical player receiving 4.35 PAs in a game, this difference comes out to only about .025 wins per game. It would take 40 games for Polanco’s absence to cost the Phillies a win, or a little over a month.

Polanco is a good player, but Chase Utley is one of baseball’s superstars. He has put up five straight seasons of 6.6 WAR or more and was well on his way to a sixth before this injury. Utley is projected to do essentially exactly what he did in 2009: a .403 wOBA with fantastic, +15 defense at 2B, which comes out to a 7.5 WAR/600 PA player. His replacement, for now at least, is Wilson Valdez. Valdez doesn’t have any projections in the ZiPS system – his CHONE projection has him as a well above average defender but a terrible hitter, with a .285 wOBA and +6 defense at SS. If we give him +10 defense at 2B, which may be generous, Valdez comes out to a roughly 1.0 WAR/600 PA player. This difference, on a per game basis, is far more significant, at about .05 wins per game. It would only take 20 games, then, or about three missed weeks, for Utley’s absence to cost the Phillies a win in the standings.

The Phillies are still a talented team without Utley and Polanco, thanks to players like Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Jayson Werth, to name a few. Losing the Major League’s best 2B in Utley and a good 3B in Polanco even for a minimum of two weeks, however, will likely cost the Phillies nearly a win going forward, and another win for every two weeks this pair misses. The Phillies were around a 35% playoff probability after last night according to both CoolStandings and Baseball Prospectus. A run to the playoffs certainly looks to be a struggle now, even though Atlanta also lost a major piece in Jason Heyward. It’s hard to imagine after the last two seasons, but right now the Philadelphia Phillies are more likely to miss the playoffs in 2010 than challenge for a third straight National League title in October.


Strasburg Breaks NERD

If, over the past month or so, you’ve kept your eyes on the prize that is FanGraphs, you might’ve very well come across my humble attempts at devising a point system to preemptively adjudge the appeal of any given pitching matchup to the baseball nerd aesthetic.

To recap briefly, the resulting number — called NERD — is computed by taking the sum of the z-scores (i.e. standard deviations from the mean) for the following categories (weighted to best fit the tastes of the baseball nerd): xFIP, age, fastball velocity, strike percentage (of total pitches thrown), and swinging-strike percentage. To that total is added a pitcher’s “luck” (that is, ERA-xFIP, capped at 2), and a constant (around 4) to have everything come out approximately on a scale of 0-10. Additionally, because it seems a bit ridiculous to compute a toy stat to the decimal level, I’ve rounded the results.

The final thing I’ve done after all that is to round any scores above 10 down to that number (i.e. 10) and any NERDs below 0 up to that number (i.e. 0). Nor has this really caused any sort of problem. With about 170 pitchers in the sample, only about 10 or 12 have ever gone above or below the 0-10 range — and even then, never by more than 2 points.

Until Stephen Strasburg came along, that is.

Were we still living in a pre-Strasburgian world, these would be your current NERD leaders (rNERD = rounded NERD, aNERD = actual NERD):

What you’ll notice about that group is that they have the good sense not to dominate the rest of the league to such a degree as to to render NERD useless. Francisco Liriano’s un-rounded 11.25 is the highest mark I’ve seen to date, but at least it’s on a human scale.

The same goes for our laggards, whom you see here (in a table that has been, for a reason that only my computer knows, reproduced more poorly than the other two in this post):

Again, despite dipping into the negatives, neither Snell nor Monasterios nor the rest of their incompetent friends reach depths that problematize NERD’s competence unduly.

But cast your eyes all the way to the tippy-top of the NERD leaderboards and you’re faced with this:

Apparently, Stephen Strasburg has no sympathy for this modest experiment, as his NERD score almost doubles that of the next-best pitcher in the majors.

Of course, it’s no trouble to see why Strasburg rates so highly: he’s got an xFIP of 1.54, an average fastball velocity of 97.5 mph, the highest swinging-strike rate in the league, and he’s only 21 years old.

Strasburg’s excellence asks an interesting question of NERD and, by extension, the question we might ask of ourselves when choosing which game to watch on the nights that he’s pitching: Is Strasburg, all by himself, enough of a spectacle to make a game worth watching? Because, really, with the exception of Snell or Monasterios (neither of whom, let it be known, are currently in a major league starting rotation), any pitcher, when combined with Strasburg, will give the game an average NERD score of 10 amongst its starting pitchers.

Put concretely: Is Strasburg vs. Brad Lincoln more interesting than Roy Halladay vs. Josh Johnson? The latter match-up has happened at least a couple of times now, and one of those resulted in a perfect game for Halladay. That’s pretty great shakes. On the other hand, Strasburg really does represent everything of interest to the baseball nerd — to the baseball fan, in general, really.

The ancillary question, of course, is whether it’s smart/necessary to round NERD scores outside of the 0-10 range back into that range. In most cases, it’s not an issue: again, only 10 or 12 players — somewhere in the vicinity of 5-10 percent — ask that question. But NERD is designed to represent the taste of the sabermetrically inclined fan, and so the question is a fine one to ask.

The best answer, for now, is probably to see if Strasburg can keep it up. So long as he does, maybe there just has to be a Strasburg Bonus. In any case, it’s not the worst problem to have.


Rough Night for Relievers

Brad Lidge made his 14th appearance of the season last night. Coming off a disastrous 2009 season by any measure, Lidge’s 2010 has been pretty flawless. His ERA entering Tuesday was a shiny 3.27, his FIP sat nestled just above at 3.40, and his xFIP was a comfortable 2.65. Sure, he had given up some home runs, but at the end of the day, Lidge pitched as well as he ever had before.

Unfortunately, for fans of the Phillies and Lidge alike, Tuesday night brought back some night terrors. With the Phillies up 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Lidge entered and quickly disposed of Ramon Hernandez (on a groundout) and Drew Stubbs (on a strikeout). The Reds’ win expectancy at this point was 0.4%. Suggesting it was highly improbable that the Reds would come back, not to even ponder a victory. Then Brandon Phillips walked on five pitches … 1.4%; then he advanced on defensive indifference .. 1.5%. Orlando Cabrera hit a liner into left placing runners at the corners … 4.2%. And well, you know, Joey Votto came up and did what Joey Votto is wont to do: he homered, tied the game, and gave the Reds a 53.3% shot at winning.

As if that weren’t enough, though, Arthur Rhodes experienced a meltdown of his own versus the brunt of a lacking Phillies’ lineup. Ryan Howard doubled, Jayson Werth walked, Raul Ibanez doubled, and even Ben Francisco and Wilson Valdez got in on that act. Dane Sardinha and Juan Castro too batted in the inning. Yes, that Dane Sardinha.

I’m not willing to figure out the odds, but anytime two relievers with sub-3.5 xFIP compile nearly -1.000 combined WPA, it’s an occasion worth taking note of.


Matt Belisle Is Good … Really

Of all the surprising stories this season, Matt Belisle’s rise to prominence takes the cake for least expected. The 30 year old reliever for Colorado has thrown 47 innings this season. That’s nothing extravagant; he did throw 31 innings for the Rockies last season after all. What is alarming is that he’s striking out more than one batter per inning; this from a guy who split duties between starting and relieving through most of his career and still has a career K/9 under 6.5.

Looking for a change in his pitch usage is futile. He’s throwing the same pitches at about the same rate as before, the results are just drastically improved with a heaping of added swinging strikes. Here are Belisle’s swinging strike rates this season on pitches he’s thrown more than 50 times:

FF: 9%
SL: 12.2%
CU: 16.3%

Here are the whiff rates for the same three pitches last season:

FF: 6.5%
SL: 7.7%
CU: 19.6%

Since it’s only his fastball and slider that have been affected this season, my guess, and this is clearly only a guess, is that it has something to do with sequencing. Luckily, we have the ability to easily check his pitch selection by count on his splits page. Sure enough, it seems Belisle is being far less aggressive with his fastball after getting ahead in the count.

That would seemingly be a common trend amongst pitches; after all, the mantra about establishing the fastball and all that jazz is still mentioned across quite a few telecasts on any given night; but it’s especially true for Belisle. When he gets to two strikes on a batter it’s time for the breaking stuff. On 1-2 counts he’s using his curveball nearly 50% of the time as opposed to using it only 22% last year.

Who knows whether the continued usage shakeup is the only reason or will continue to mystify hitters that oppose Belisle, but through this point in the season, he’s been pretty impressive.


The Other Great Rookie

Due to the ways service time accumulation and “super two” status works, the beginning of June saw a wide collection of the best prospects in baseball make their big league debuts. On June 8th, Stephen Strasburg and Mike Stanton were called up. The 9th brought Brad Lincoln, the 10th saw Jake Arrieta, and on the 11th, it was Carlos Santana.

Of the five guys called up in that four day span, Strasburg has obviously been the star, dominating the National League and making headlines every time he pitches. But, it’s the last of those five names that has actually performed the best since coming to the big leagues. Yes, Santana is even outplaying Mr. Strasburg.

In 16 big league games, he’s collected 17 hits. That doesn’t sound all that impressive until you realize that only five of them are singles. 12 of his 17 hits have gone for extra bases, giving him a .725 slugging percentage.

While that’s impressive, perhaps more so has been his command of the strike zone. Most young hitters struggle with breaking balls and look overmatched at times, but Santana has been anything but, drawing 12 walks in 64 plate appearances while striking out just six times. He’s only chased 20 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, putting him in the company of notable selective hitters like Kevin Youkilis.

Overall, his offensive line reads .333/.453/.725, good for a .490 wOBA. That is shockingly good on its own, but when you factor in that Santana is a catcher (who has thrown out six of 12 attempted basestealers, by the way), it takes it to another level. Santana’s total value in just over two weeks of baseball? +1.3 wins above replacement.

For a comparison, here’s his value extrapolated against Strasburg’s, both projected to a full season’s worth of playing time:

Santana: +10.2 wins per 500 PA
Strasburg: +9.5 wins per 200 IP

We limit Santana to 500 PA since he’s a catcher, and yet, he’s still outproducing Strasburg in value. This is to take nothing away from Washington’s ace, who is legitimately an amazing arm and one of the most exciting things to happen to baseball in a long, long time. However, what Santana is doing for the Indians is awfully impressive, and the comparison illustrates just how well he’s played since his arrival.

Strasburg and Jason Heyward are going to have make room – there’s yet another elite rookie in this class making a massive impact on his team from day one.


The Yahoo Fantasy Baseball API

Today, I’m going to take a look at Yahoo’s Fantasy Sports API. If any of the details are unclear, just leave a comment and we’ll clear ’em up.

The Fantasy Sports API, announced on June 2, 2010, appears to be the only published and freely available API of its kind on the web. Currently baseball and football are included in the API, with basketball and hockey coming later in the year. From here we’ll take it FAQ-style.

What is an API?
In a general sense, an API (Application Programming Interface) is a piece of software that exposes functionality for other software to leverage or integrate. More specific to the web realm, APIs allow sites and applications to retrieve and post data from external services. APIs are the glue that holds Web 2.0 together: mashup sites that incorporate a live Twitter feed or Google Map, buttons that let you “like” a blog post on Facebook, and similar things are all taking advantage of APIs.

So what does the Yahoo Fantasy Sports API do then?
In a nutshell, this API fulfills requests for information with structured data responses. So, if your app wants to know what Barry Zito did in a specific game, or the draft results of a fantasy team, it makes a call out to Yahoo’s API, and gets the requested data back in either an xml or json response. The data in either response format is the same and structured the same way, but have different uses. Xml is a markup language and superset of html, while json is an object notation designed for use with Javascript, but that can be decoded by any popular programming language. The Fantasy Sports API is primarily a read-only tool at this point, but there is an API call post transactions to a team as well.

What data is available?
I’ll admit I haven’t fully sunk my teeth into this yet, but from reading the documentation, it’s mostly metadata associated with running fantasy leagues: draft results, team rosters, ownership status, etc. Individual player stats are available, but which ones specifically isn’t included in the documentation.

Can I set it in action?
Given that the API was only released less than a month ago, there don’t seem to be many live examples yet. The only one I’ve found of a site or app using the Yahoo Fantasy Baseball API is the Pickemfirst app, which I haven’t tried since I am not participating in any fantasy leagues this year. On top of that, usage of this API is limited to non-commercial tools and applications, which may act as a deterrent to potential developers. The hobbyist community is capable of producing great things, though, so it’ll be interesting to see what emerges from the release of this API.


The Houston Astros Have a Future… No, Seriously

The Houston Astros’ top prospect Jason Castro was recalled recently and gives fans of the organization something to look forward to as he acclimatizes himself to the Major Leagues. Through five MLB games, he’s off to a nice start with a wOBA of .392. The even better news for Astros followers, though, is that there are more prospects on the way. And the one that we should be most excited about could one day throw to Castro.

Jordan Lyles, just 19, is currently performing well in double-A. The right-hander has a 3.10 FIP in 93.1 innings of work and has given up 88 hits and just 22 walks, which shows outstanding control (2.10 BB/9) for a teenager. His 85 K total places him in second place in the Texas League, 11 knockouts ahead of teammate Douglas Arguello.

There are a couple small things that Lyles can continue to work on. His ground-ball rate is just average at 44% and better worm-burning numbers could help him when he pitches at home in Houston. His numbers against left-handed batters are not too bad – in part because of a low BABIP – but his strikeout rate drops from 9.95 against righties to 6.35 K/9. This could suggest that his change-up is not an overly effective pitch against lefties – or he’s just not using it enough.

Another interesting stat with Lyles this year is his strikeout rate with runners in scoring position, which is just 4.38 – compared to 9.85 K/9 with the bases empty. This is basically the exact opposite of what you want to see; the more you put balls in play, the more likely you are to fall victim to bad luck (or bad fielding) because you don’t want to give base runners the chance to scamper home. Lyles has been lucky to this point with a .231 BABIP with RISP but that’s unlikely to hold true. The Astros prospect also had a similar statistical trend in ’09. It’s a trend that a lot of pitchers follow, but not to the extreme that Lyles has (a difference of almost 5.50 K/9).

One of the most interesting things about Lyles is that the Houston Astros organization was just about the only club that viewed the right-hander as a potential supplemental first round pick when he was selected out of a South Carolina high school and signed for just under a $1 million. He’s performed better than any other ’08 supplemental pick not names Mike Montgomery or Jake Odorizzi. Kudos to the Astros’ talent oft-maligned evaluators.

With Roy Oswalt’s and Brett Myers’ futures up in the air as the trade deadline nears, Lyles could be positioning himself to aid the organization at some point in 2011. Both Lyles and Castro could help to breathe new life into this stagnant organization. If the organization is smart, it will look to trade both Oswalt and Myers – neither of whom will be around when the organization is ready to compete for a title, anyway – to hopefully acquire some complementary parts to build around the battery of the future.


Pair of Newcomers Powering Houston’s Pen

What happens when an already weak bullpen suffers a rash of injuries? They get fill-ins who didn’t make the major league roster in the first place, of course. The Houston Astros have realized that problem this season. Just after the season started they lost Sammy Gervacio to the DL. Tim Byrdak followed, as did Chris Sampson. Brian Moehler had to take a spot in the rotation because Bud Norris hit the DL. Even Matt Lindstrom missed time not long ago with back spasms. There wasn’t much downside to these loss, however, because aside from Lindstrom none of them were effective. The minor league replacements probably couldn’t do any worse.

In the process of replacing their injured relievers, the Astros actually found two upgrades. Both Gustavo Chacin and Wilton Lopez have pitched very well out of the pen, and have probably earned regular spots even when the wounded return from the disabled list. That might make for a few unpleasant roster cuts, but at this point the Astros have little to lose. The relievers who broke camp with the team likely won’t be around when the Astros turn around the franchise, so it’s best now to stick with the guys who are performing. Chacin and Lopez are doing exactly that.

Lopez gets most of the spotlight, and rightly so. Recalled after Gervacio’s initial injury, Lopez stumbled out of the gate, allowing two runs on three hits, including a home run, in 1.1 innings. He allowed a run in his next appearance, but, despite pitching three scoreless innings in his next two appearances, the Astros optioned him in late April. But after Byrdak got hurt in early May, the Astros invoked the Ten Day Rule and brought Lopez back to the major league team. Again he stumbled, allowing four runs in his first three appearances, but since then he has been nothing but stellar for the ‘Stros.

From May 18 through his appearance last night in Milwaukee, Lopez has allowed just six runs, five earned, in 20.2 innings. He doesn’t do this by overpowering pitchers. Instead he does two things very well. First, he keeps the ball in the park. Second, he walks almost no one. During his stay in the minors he walked just 1.2 batters per nine innings. This year he was walked just three in 30.2 innings, a BB/9 under 1.00. That helps make up for his lack of strikeouts.

Chacin had a four-year history in the majors before coming to the Astros this off-season. He came up with the Blue Jays in 2004, and pitched very well in 2005, a 3.72 ERA in 203 innings. That outperformed his peripherals a bit, so a correction was expected in 2006. Instead what we got was a series of injuries that prevented Chacin from doing much of anything in the following four years. After pitching 87.1 innings in 2006 and 27.1 innings in 2007, Chacin missed all of the following two seasons. He did pitch well for the Phillies in the minors in 2009, but could not crack the major league roster.

Yet this year Chacin has been marvelous. He’s pitched just 17.2 innings since his recall in early May, but he has not only shown excellent results, but also the peripherals to go along with them. His strikeout rate has risen dramatically, to 8.15, and he hasn’t allowed a home run all season. Of course, in 17.2 innings anything can happen, and the safe bet is for Chacin’s home run and strikeout rates to tumble a bit before the season ends. Yet if he keeps up his current trend of striking out lefties (10 of 32 faced) and inducing ground balls against righties (19 of 39 balls in play), he might continue to find some level of success out of the pen.

The one area where Chacin and Lopez have differed is in their ability to prevent inherited runners from scoring. Chacin has inherited 16 runners and has allowed seven to score, 44 percent. That matches Tyler Clippard’s rate, for comparison’s sake. Lopez, on the other hand, has excelled in this area. He has come into pitch with 22 runners on base, and has allowed just one of them to score. So while Chacin has the better rate stats (3.06 ERA, 2.51 FIP vs Lopez’s 3.52, 2.97), Lopez’s performance stands above Chacin’s because of his ability to pitch with runners on base. For a bullpen that allows a ton of baserunners, Lopez has been a boon.

Relief pitchers, we know, tend to realize inconsistent results. They pitch in such short bursts that the random nature of baseball works against them just as sometimes it works in their favor. It’s no guarantee that either Lopez or Chacin continues this performance throughout the season, never mind both of them. But in the moment they’re helping out not only an ailing relief corps, but also an ineffective one. With Chacin and Lopez pitching behind Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon, the Astros have a little hope for victory when their starters leave with a lead. It won’t vault them into contention, but it will at least help them win a few games that their original bullpen would otherwise have blown.


Counterpoint: Why Branyan, Why Now?

Yesterday, Jack Moore gave us a compelling, analytical, and thoughtful defense of the Russell Branyan trade:

The theory behind the Branyan trade – acquiring wins in a down season at a low cost in order to further development and, more importantly, increase revenues – appears solid. What it really depends on is if the Mariners’ evaluation of the prospects involved is correct. If, as the Mariners seem to think, Carrera and Diaz are nothing more than organizational depth, the trade is absolutely the right move, as the wins this season very well could increase potential payroll in seasons to come, and typically, that will mean more wins as well. If it turns out that one of these two prospects is a legitimate Major League talent, then trading that future value for a gain in this lost season is the incorrect move.

Good stuff, and I am not one to doubt the scouting skills of Jack Z and his great staff in Seattle. However, this one is certainly a head scratcher, and after thinking on it, I just can’t find myself in favor of this deal.

I understand the concept of wanting to create an atmosphere of winning, especially for young players and a passionate fan base, even if it means a marginal sacrifice. However, while Branyan could certainly be worth 2.0 WAR for the Mariners going forward, he might stink. He may be worth -1.0 WAR, hitting terribly and playing bad defense. Now I’m not saying that it’s likely, but certainly possible.

The difference, however, is that Branyan’s contribution to the 2010 Mariners, whether it be -3 or 3 wins, will not be the tipping point in their playoff hopes. Their season is pretty much over in terms of playoff competition, so his actual on-field contribution is pretty irrelevant. While the players Seattle gave up weren’t exactly blue chip prospects, their potential value is one that could be of service to the Mariners much more so than Branyan’s current value.

Ezequiel Carrera was ranked as the Mariners’ 12th-best Prospect by John Sickels this past off season, with Sickels writing that Carrera is a, “Speed demon, hits for average, draws walks, good glove, no power, future reserve outfielder but a useful one.” That certainly isn’t an outright endorsement, but Carrera has the potential to give the Mariners something in the long term. With similar comments, Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus rated him 14th in the M’s system. He’s currently hitting .268/.339/.315 in Triple-A as a 23-year-old, nothing too shabby. Baseball America rated him as the Fastest Baserunner in the M’s system, as well as having the Best Strike Zone Discipline. If he plays a solid defense like Sickels said, he could bring some value.

The Mariners also gave up SS Juan Diaz, who was hitting .295/.345/.433 in High-A ball. It’s an offensive-heavy league, no doubt, but at 21 years old, it’s tough to be too down on those numbers. If you don’t believe he can hit, put him in Double-A and ask him to sink or swim.

These two prospects are no lock to ever see a Major League clubhouse outside of Spring Training, but they still have potential for decent upsides, or at least to be used as trading chips when the Mariners are more competitive in (hopefully, for Dave Cameron’s sake) the near future.

I know this may seem cliche, and almost unfair, but I need to see something more quantifiable than “creating a winning atmosphere” as a reason for trading for Branyan. Branyan could destroy the baseball, and he could be terrible, with the greater likelihood somewhere in between. Still, as said earlier, his production won’t mean much tangibly.

Why else don’t I like this deal? Because there are other, cheaper options available. I wrote about one of them in early May, saying that with “nobody else carrying the load, Jack Z should give Gary Sheffield a chance.” Look, if you want to argue about whether or not Sheffield will hit at Safeco, fine. But the larger point still remains: there are free agents out there that can be had, for cheap, that could put up similar numbers to Branyan (i.e. Elijah Dukes). Even if Sheffield or Dukes would only put up 1 WAR, whereas Branyan puts up 3, is the difference that significant to give up two prospects and spend more money?

If Jack Z goes ahead and spins Branyan as a larger package involving Cliff Lee, I’ll take back every word I said. I don’t think this deal is a terrible one, but just one I don’t see very much reason to make if I’m the Mariners.


What the Colorado Rockies Should Do

Overview

As they head into play against the Padres tonight, the Rockies are currently in fourth place in the NL West, five games behind the division leaders. With Troy Tulowitzki on the disabled list, the team has gone into something of a holding pattern to see if they can stay in the race until he returns, but I think that may be a mistake.

Buy Or Sell

The Rockies are very much contenders. They’re a high quality team with some good players, and while they’re five games out of first place, the Padres are almost certainly going to perform worse in the second half than they have so far. The Rockies should absolutely be buyers, and they should be buying sooner than later in order to maximize the amount of wins that a new acquisition can add to their roster.

There are essentially two glaring problems with the team, filling in for their star shortstop notwithstanding – both spots on the right side of the infield. Todd Helton’s power has vanished, and he’s posting a .307 wOBA, simply not good enough for a first baseman who spends half his time in Coors Field. The man playing next to him, meanwhile, Clint Barmes, has been even worse at the plate, posting a .289 wOBA. The lack of offense from these two spots have created problems for the Rockies.

One of those problems is fixable internally. The Rockies have too many outfielders, except one of them isn’t defensively capable and could be a more valuable player at first base – Brad Hawpe. He was primarily a first baseman in the minors, but was shifted to the outfield because Helton had the position locked down. By moving Hawpe to first base, they could drastically improve their outfield defense and get a better bat in the line-up than what Helton is giving them on a regular basis.

The second base issue can probably only be solved by going outside the organization. Barmes is a decent utility player, but he shouldn’t be starting on a team that has World Series aspirations. The team should be shopping heavily for a middle infielder who can handle second base full time and provide an offensive lift, especially if they can find that in a right-handed bat.

The obvious fit, if they can convince the Marlins that they’re out of the race, is Dan Uggla. He’s a consistent +3 to +4 win player with power and patience who would thrive in Colorado, and at $8 million this year and due for another arbitration raise in the winter, he’s too pricey by Florida’s standards.

There are lesser second base options available as well, but Uggla is the natural fit, and you have to imagine that Dan O’Dowd and Larry Beinfest will have a conversation or two during July.

On The Farm

The Rockies have some quality pitching prospects, always useful chips when trying to make a deal, especially with Florida. From Jhoulys Chacin to Esmil Rogers and Christian Friedrich, there are several good arms making their way towards the majors. Given their rotation depth, the Rockies could afford to part with one of these guys in pursuit of an impact player.

Things are not quite as rosy on the position player front, but the team has so much young talent on the major league roster that it’s not a huge problem.

Budget

Colorado isn’t rolling in cash, but they do have some financial flexibility going forward. They have just over $50 million in committed contracts for 2010, and their only significant arbitration cases will be with Barmes and Jason Hammel. Barmes is a non-tender candidate, so assuming the Rockies decline Hawpe’s option, they should have enough room in the budget to be able to fit another impact guy on the roster, such as Uggla.

By locking up Ubaldo Jimenez and Tulowitzki early for bargain rates, the team has given themselves a good foundation of which to build off. Even though they’re in fourth place, I’d like to see the Rockies take advantage of that and make a bold move to win both this year and next.


What the Cubs Must Do

Like Carlos Zambrano, I have reached my boiling point with the Cubs organization. There have been worse seasons than this one, but rarely has one seemed this disappointing. Perhaps that’s because one look at this roster and you realize: this modern era of Cubs success, 2003-2008, is over. An aging roster filled with bad salaries isn’t going to blossom into playoff caliber anytime soon. As I see it, there are two, and only two, moves that the Cubs can make:

1) Fire everybody.
2) Rebuild.

Preferably in that order. I have many written positive words about Jim Hendry, about Tim Wilken, about the Cubs front office in general over the last decade or so, as Hendry helped engineer an era of competitiveness. His mistakes were usually more subtle — the failure to sign Player X, Y or Z — although he’ll be remembered for ill-fated contracts given to Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, and perhaps unfairly, Milton Bradley. But more, with talented rosters that were sometimes chosen by pundits to win a title, this front office and coaching staff never broke the curse that haunts the organization.

The Cubs now need a new leader, one with less personal ties to the assets in this organization, to begin anew. A person that would start with these moves:

1. Trade Ted Lilly and Kosuke Fukudome. This was the main point Jack Moore made in his “What Should the Cubs do” piece from last week, and since then, Lilly only lowered his ERA. The difference between that number (3.28) and his xFIP (4.63) is now staggering, and he represents the most typical mid-season trade chip the Cubs have. Trading Fukudome would mean eating salary in 2011, but if that means acquiring a decent prospect, it’s worth it.

2. Put Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano on waivers in August. This won’t work. But desperate times…

3. Keep Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez. This rebuild is not geared at success in 2011, so selling low won’t do any good. The draft compensation from Lee’s next signing will likely surpass his 2010 midseason trade value. Ramirez is a sure bet to pick up his $14.6 million player option for 2011, so I’m not sure you could trade him now anyway. But keeping him does allow for a bounce-back next season (while adding a year of development for Josh Vitters), which would allow you to trade him July 31, 2011.

4. Trade Marlon Byrd and Carlos Silva. Credit to Hendry where it’s due, as he may have created two assets out of thin air here. Byrd has been extremely valuable, and is signed to a team-friendly contract through 2012. A team like Atlanta, with their outfield problems and limited finances, would surely part with a good young player for Byrd. Silva’s value on the open market is a little less transparent, but given the Mariners commitment to his salary, he’d only come at $4 million for this year and $6 million for next year, without accounting for what the Cubs might kick in, too.

5. Trade Carlos Marmol. This would be wildly unpopular given Marmol’s quest to shatter the K/9 single-season record. But relievers tend to be overvalued in midseason markets, and Marmol would offer a team 2.5 seasons of arbitration-controlled salaries. He would, semi-deservedly, attract the biggest haul of the bunch. The Cubs could also afford to be stingy with their demands, as he might bring in just as much this winter.

Without question, these moves would be met with scrutiny from Cubs fans and media alike, but they also exist the only chance this team has to compete in a couple years. Hopefully the new person in charge could handle easy decisions like getting rid of the Koyie Hill temptation, returning Sean Marshall and Andrew Cashner to their rightful places in a rotation, riding the Tyler Colvin never-ending hot streak, etc. It shouldn’t be difficult.

Ownership groups are not remembered for the sponsors they land, or the renovations to bathrooms they finance. The Ricketts family must be decisive, and quickly, to salvage something from their inherited regime, and to ensure some eventual success.

Dear Mr. Ricketts: Fire them all. Start over. Faithfully, Bryan Smith.


Mauer Power Redux

On May 1st, 2009, Joe Mauer stepped into the Metrodome batter’s box against Kansas City righty Sidney Ponson. Mauer, making his season debut after missing April with a lower back injury, worked a 2-0 count and then smacked a Sir Sidney fastball over the left field wall. The drive set the tone for a season in which the lefty batter, known for lacing line drives, showed unprecedented power.

Mauer, of course, was already among the better hitters in the game. The three previous seasons, he posted a .378 wOBA and a 134 wRC+. But in 2009, Mauer mashed to the tune of a .438 wOBA and a 174 wRC+. Among qualified big league hitters, Mauer’s wOBA placed behind only that Pujols fellow in St. Louis.

The main reason for the offensive uptick was a dramatic increase in Mauer Power. From 2006 to 2008, the first overall pick in the ’01 draft had a .138 Isolated Power. In 2009, Mauer’s ISO spiked to .222. After, as Carson Cistulli would say, jacking a donger on 8.1 percent of his fly balls hit the preceding three years, Mauer hit a round-tripper 20.4 percent of the time that he lofted the ball in 2009.

Heading into 2010, many wondered how much of that extra power Mauer would retain. It would be rash to just expect him to lash extra-base hits and homers at the same rate as in ’09 from now on. At the same time, expecting total regression back to that previous .130-.140 ISO area would be to ignore a power display that holds statistical significance. CHONE projected a .401 wOBA and .178 ISO from Mauer in 2010, while ZiPS had a .415 wOBA and a .189 ISO. The FANS forecast called for a .409 wOBA and a .200 ISO.

So far, Mauer has a .351 wOBA and a 119 wRC+ in 286 plate appearances. Part of that lower-than-expected wOBA can be explained by a .321 BABIP that’s 21 points below his career average, but Mauer’s pop has reverted to his pre-’09 level, and even a bit below it. His ISO is .128, and his HR/FB rate is 4.6 percent.

As Dave Cameron noted over the winter, Mauer has long been a prodigious opposite field hitter. While most batters perform worst when putting the ball in play to the opposite field, hitting lots of weak fly balls and posting mild power numbers, Mauer thrives when he goes the other way. Last season, Mauer’s splits to left field were the stuff of legends:

The above chart is not a typo — Mauer owned a .600 wOBA when hitting to the opposite field, with a .401 ISO. He crushed 16 home runs to left field. This season, Mauer is still a beast when going the opposite way. But his numbers more closely resemble those from 2006 to 2008. He has connected on one home run to left field thus far:

When hitting to center field, Mauer also showed more power than usual and had a higher BABIP in 2009. This season, his ISO and BABIP have come back down:

The 27-year-old has never been a standout hitter when putting the ball in play to the pull side. Most batters post their best numbers when pulling the ball, but Mauer chops the ball into the ground than most — his ground ball rates to the pull side have usually been in the high-seventies, while the average lefty batter hits a grounder when pulling the ball about 59 percent.

In 2010, Mauer has performed even worse than usual when pulling the ball. A low BABIP hasn’t helped, but neither has a sub-.100 ISO. He has yet to go deep when pulling the ball:

On a positive note, considering his backward spray splits, Mauer is pulling the ball less this season — 25.4 percent, compared to 29.3% from 2006-2008 and 32.9% last season.

What should we make of Mauer’s power? I’m not sure, and it’s probably too early to say what effect Target Field has on these figures. My best guess is that he’ll post power numbers somewhere between his ’09 outburst and his current level. Mauer’s rest-of-season ZiPS projects a .164 ISO, and CHONE’s updated projection for June to the end of 2010 had a .174 ISO. Whether he starts hitting the ball more forcefully or merely keeps drawing walks and cracking doubles, Mauer remains one of the most valuable players in the game.


What Do Power Rankings Tell Us?

The idea of ranking every team’s power in a context-neutral situation is something that appeals to many of us sports fans, regardless of how we feel about statistics. The idea of listing each team in a descending order, such that if #4 played teams #5 through #30, we would expect #4 to win, has a certain appeal to most people – it greatly simplifies the MLB, complicated by the two separate leagues and the three divisions in each league.

There could be other measures of power besides future play, such as the strength of a team’s play so far, which is what Beyond the Box Score’s Team Performance Index attempts to measure. Sometimes we get numbers that don’t quite match up with the win-loss records that we’ve seen on the field. Yes, the Astros are still bad, but TPI has the Athletics, a sub-.500 team, at #11, and the Angels, a team that was seven games better at the time of the rankings, at #19.

Unless it’s the first week of the season, however, the “subjective” power rankings you see at megasites like ESPN, Fox Sports, or FanHouse are unlikely to do much other than rank the teams by win-loss record and then adjust that for their records over the previous week of games. Take a look at this graph, generated from the June 21st or 22nd rankings from each of the sites listed:


Click to enlarge

The black line represents a ranking of the teams by victories as of June 21st, with victories in the last 10 games as the tiebreaker. The black boxes represent FanHouse rankings, blue represents CBS Sports, and red represents ESPN. Unsurprisingly, there is little difference from the ranking by simple wins and the ranking from the experts and these sites. What differences we do see can likely be accounted for with the biases of the writer(s), whether or not the teams are on cold or hot streaks, and their position within their division.

The idea of the power ranking should be able to set us up with some interesting discussions. At the most prominent places in which they’re seen, however, the power rankings are nothing more but a slightly modified league standings page, with a comment on what happened to the team over the previous week. The ranking really has little to do with how these teams would fare against each other over the rest of the season.

We should be able to do better. My ideal power rankings would simply rank the projected strength of each team for the rest of the season – in that sense, power is actually ranked, unlike simply using wins and volatile streaks to put teams in order. There could certainly be many different methodologies, just as there are a variety of projection systems for individual teams. As long as we can get to something deeper than simply pointing out which team has more wins than the other teams, I’ll be happy.