Archive for April, 2015

Hanley Ramirez and Batted-Ball Data

It seemed like this post was practically going to be able to write itself. Hanley Ramirez has been hot at the plate, and he’s tied for the big-league lead in homers, with 10. There are hundreds of hot streaks by so many players every single season, but this year we have the treat of new data, and Ramirez’s has seemed particularly remarkable. I thought this would be simple and straightforward, but instead we have something more complicated and kind of boring to what I assume would be the majority of people. Keep reading, though! There’ll be some .gifs. You love .gifs.

If you’ve paid attention to Gameday, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve started to get some early-season batted-ball data. It hasn’t been complete, but it’s been fairly consistent, as one of the first signs of the rolling out of StatCast. It can be tricky to find and preserve that information, but thankfully for the masses, there’s Baseball Savant, which I feel like I must link in every post. There, for the first time, we can sort hitters by batted-ball velocities. The industry has had HITf/x for years, so this isn’t progress for them, but it’s progress for us, on the outside. And we all love a new toy.

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Brett Lawrie Saw 10 Straight Breaking Balls, Twice

Brett Lawrie doesn’t really have a problem with breaking balls, not if you zoom out on his career. He’s whiffed on sliders (14%) and curves (8%) at about an average rate (13% and 11%, respectively), which follows his overall whiff rates (8.6% for Lawrie, 8.5% is average).

Opening week, in three games against the Rangers, Lawrie saw ten straight breaking balls… twice. He’d never seen ten straight breaking balls before.

“They’re not going to stop until I make an adjustment,” Lawrie admitted before a game with the Mariners. But that statement’s not enough to uncover what it’s like to see a barrage of breaking balls like Lawrie did. And what it means, and how you claw your way out of a hole like the one he found himself in.

Lawrie’s a loquacious dude: he’ll keep talking if you let him. So, at one point, I asked him about the thought process when something like this was happening, and he obliged. You can’t edit an inner monologue like this, especially when you know he’s describing what it feels like to strike out four times on 12 straight pitches:

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Julio Urias, the Dodgers, and the History of Teenage Pitchers

For all her conspicuous virtues and manifest talents, late singer Aaliyah was almost certainly mistaken in her assertion that age “ain’t nothing but a number.” It is a number, that’s true, but it’s a number that represents the number of years a thing or person or some other manner of noun has existed. Which, that’s more than nothing.

In the context of baseball prospect analysis, age is decidedly not nothing. As both anecdotal evidence and also more rigorous statistical evidence* suggest, age relative to level is predictive of future major-league performance, where younger relative to level is better. One finds, for example, that players who debut at a younger age produce higher prorated WAR figures than players who debut at an older one. It’s not because they’re younger that they’re better, of course. Rather, their respective teams have generally recognized that they’re capable of handling the highest level of competition. And it follows that, if they’re able to handle that level of competition en route to their respective peaks, then they’re also generally able to handle it in the decline phase of their careers, too.

*Such as the sort produced by Chris Mitchell.

The relationship between age and performance and level is the foundation for the considerable and deserved excitement regarding Mike Trout’s career — not only for his career up the to present day, but also the prospect of what his career will have been once it’s finished. Trout has recorded the highest WAR among all hitters ever through his age-22 season, for example. That’s not only impressive, but probably also predictive. Because consider: basically all of the next 20 guys on that particular leaderboard are now in the Hall of Fame.

Players who, like Trout, combine youth and talent are notable. And, all other things being equal, it’s reasonable to expect that the prospects who are producing the top performances at the youngest ages will develop into the best players.

This question of talented youth is relevant today largely because of the Dodgers, their rotation, and their top pitching prospect left-hander Julio Urias. The Dodgers possess the largest major-league payroll by roughly $50 million. They also possess the sort of expectations associated with that kind of payroll — and, over the first month of the season, the club has more or less met those expectations. As of today, for example, they lead the NL West by two games and feature nearly a 90% chance of winning that division according to the numbers and methodology used at this site.

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An Effect of Shifting, or an Effect of April

Life is funny sometimes. While working on a post about an interesting little quirk in the 2015 increase in runs per game, Neil Weinberg tweeted out the following.

This was the exact quirk that I noticed that led me down the particular rabbit hole I’m about to drag you into. If you go to the league leaderboard, you’ll notice that the league as a whole is hitting .249/.314/.390 this year, good for a .310 woBA. That is almost an exact match for the .251/.314/.386 line the league put up last year, and by wOBA rounded to three decimal places, it results in the same .310 mark.

The fact that April 2015 offense is equal to total 2014 offense is interesting, because it suggests that offense might be ticking up this year, ending the trend of the last few years. April is almost always the most pitcher friendly month of the season, with cold weather knocking down baseballs that will generally fly out of ballparks in warmer months; additionally, most teams haven’t yet had to rely on their pitching depth yet, as the full toll of injuries manifests itself more later in the year than it does at the beginning of the season.

But that’s not the part that got me interested; it’s the part that Neil noticed. League batting is basically the same as it was last year, but league runs per game are up a decent amount, going from 4.07 R/G last year to 4.26 this year. That’s nearly a match for the league’s run scoring levels of 2011, back when league wOBA was .316. So offense is up a bit from a runs perspective, but not up much at all from an individual outcome perspective. What’s driving that difference?

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JABO: Jose Altuve Was Always Good, But a Few Tweaks Helped

Sure, he’s the shortest regular of this century, but Jose Altuve has managed big things. Last year, he put up the second-best batting average of a second baseman in the free agency era, broke the Astros’ single-season record for hits, and showed the best pop of his career. A few changes to his game helped him be even better.

“Oh he’s always been this good, I remember when I first saw him in the Venezuelan Summer League and was amazed,” laughed his current hitting coach, Dave Hudgens. But he agreed that a small change to his batting stance over the last few years may have made a difference.

Here’s Altuve in 2013. Watch his front leg.

Here’s Altuve this year. Watch his front leg again.

See it? Altuve added a little bit of a more dramatic step with his front leg in early 2014. “Not too much, just a little,” Altuve said of the change. “I wanted to do an early step, not a big leg kick.”

The change has helped him in a couple different ways. “I recognize pitches earlier now that I’m doing that,” Altuve said. Hudgens agreed that the step has helped him start his entire swing and thinking process earlier. Altuve has always made a lot of contact — he’s in the top ten in contact rate this year — but his ability to make contact took a leap forward with the step.

Read the rest on Just a Bit Outside.


Checking In on the Disaster Positions

On the eve of this season, we at FanGraphs compiled our annual Positional Power Rankings, examining the projected depth charts at every position for every team. Things are very exciting at the top of these rankings — monitoring the center field situation for the Angels, for example, will be a thrill for the foreseeable future.

Also a thrill — at least for this impartial observer — was the situation at the very bottom of the same rankings. While just about every position for just about every team has been serviceably filled by the end of winter, a few slipped through the cracks here and there. Of the dozens of major league positions amongst the thirty teams, only four were projected to produce at below replacement level. Here we will examine just how things are going for those four positions, plus starting here with a fifth position that, while projected for marginally above replacement level, lagged remarkably behind the other 29 teams:

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Eno Sarris Baseball Chat — 4/30/15

11:11
Eno Sarris: I’ll be here shortly

11:12
{“author”:”aubolessi”}:

12:00
Comment From Thorn
How excited should we be over Foltynewicz? Thinking of dropping Dickey or Niese for him in my 15 teamer.. thoughts?

12:00
Eno Sarris: No changeup, no command. Still, I guess I might drop Dickey.

12:00
Comment From Every Cub
Facing Gerrit Cole and Arqiumedes Caminero in the same game should be against the rules. SAVE US MR. MANFRIED

12:00
Comment From Zack
I just traded Adrian Gonzalez for Jose Abreu *drops mic*

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The Red Sox Bizarre Rotation

The Boston Red Sox rotation began the season with some scrutiny as the starting five was filled with average to above average types and no pitcher resembling an ace. That scrutiny has turned to criticism as we near the end of the first month of the season and that rotation has allowed more runs than any other starting group in the American League and their 5.75 ERA is the worst in Major League Baseball. The rotation has gotten off to a terrible start, but the offense has produced and the Red Sox will still enter May with a winning record at 12-10. While a bloated ERA has generated calls for the Red Sox to make a trade for a starter, the current rotation has pitched better than its ERA would indicate. Going forward, the Red Sox rotation should get much better results than we have seen so far.

The Red Sox have given up a lot of runs, but the rotation’s FIP is a middle of the road 3.91. The Red Sox and Cleveland Indians are the only two rotations in MLB to have their ERA and FIP differ by more than one, and for the Red Sox that number is 1.84. The team’s walk rate at 8.8% is a little too high, but they make up for the high walk rate by striking out 22.9% of hitters. Their 14.9% K-BB rate is in the upper third of American League teams. Individually, there is not a single starter with a lower ERA than FIP.

IP ERA FIP xFIP
Clay Buchholz 25.0 5.76 2.65 2.79
Joe Kelly 23.2 4.94 3.60 3.19
Justin Masterson 22.2 5.16 3.57 3.88
Wade Miley 15.2 8.62 4.83 5.88
Rick Porcello 32.0 5.34 4.92 4.08

In a more visual form:
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Searching for This Year’s Called Balls on Pitches Down the Middle

This is one of those posts I like to write over and over. We’re always getting new information, meaning we’re always getting new borderline calls, and when there’s room for error around the fringes, that means there’s a non-zero chance something could go more dreadfully wrong. Like, say, a pitch being taken down the middle, and getting called a ball. Humans are perfect at nothing, not even the things that we think we’re perfect at, and a baseball season has a whole lot of pitches in it. Lots of opportunities for funny, uncommon mistakes. When it occurs to me, I try to find them.

I don’t do it because I delight in pointing out when umpires mess up. I really don’t, because their job is harder than my job, and I don’t like to pile on. Everyone’s capable of stupid mistakes. I do it because, think about it. We’re used to seeing questionable calls around the edges. But, right down the middle? It’s the kind of mistake you want to investigate, because you feel like something must’ve happened. My goal when I do this is to try to understand why the call got made how it did. Find an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable. I don’t know why this interests me so much, but, here we are, and no one on staff has told me to stop.

We’ve had weeks of baseball in 2015. There’s nothing particularly significant about right now, but let’s reflect anyway on what’s taken place. Let’s search for those called balls on pitches taken down the middle.

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NERD Game Scores for Thursday, April 30, 2015

Devised originally in response to a challenge issued by viscount of the internet Rob Neyer, and expanded at the request of nobody, NERD scores represent an attempt to summarize in one number (and on a scale of 0-10) the likely aesthetic appeal or watchability, for the learned fan, of a player or team or game. Read more about the components of and formulae for NERD scores here.

***

Most Highly Rated Game
Washington at New York NL | 19:10 ET
Strasburg (24.0 IP, 100 xFIP-) vs. deGrom (24.1 IP, 102 xFIP-)
Washington right-hander Stephen Strasburg was an elite amateur prospect known for his plus-plus arm speed who was selected first overall in the 2009 draft. Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom was a markedly less elite amateur prospect selected 272nd overall (and signed for $95,000) in the 2010 draft. Here are their average fastball velocities roughly a month into the season: 94.2 mph and 94.0 mph, respectively. One finds that those are the seventh- and tenth-best such marks among the league’s 112 qualified pitchers). One concludes that all human endeavor is afflicted by awfulest chance.

Readers’ Preferred Broadcast: New York NL Television.

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Getting the Astros to 90 Wins

When MLB added a second Wild Card in each league for the 2012 season, making a version of the postseason got easier. More teams were invited into the season’s final month, even if you want to make conditioned arguments about how adding the extra teams changed the nature of in-season roster decisions. Over three seasons, we’ve had six second Wild Cards who averaged just under 90 wins per team per season. It’s a small sample as far as trends go, but the values have been lower in the National League and have generally decreased each year.

As a result, we can essentially say that the average second Wild Card will win about 90 games this year. It might be more or less, but it’s a fairly safe starting assumption. It’s an assumption you take into account when thinking about your team’s chances of making the playoffs. We’ve seen teams make the postseason with fewer wins, and in an age of increasing parity, 88 might do the trick as well. In general, a 90 win team has performed well enough that they will very likely make the playoffs under the current regime.

Which brings us to the 14-7 Houston Astros who currently lead the AL West by four games on April 30. The Astros, if you haven’t noticed, have been bad for quite a few years, and there was an expectation entering the 2015 season that they would remain relatively unimportant to the AL playoff picture. They averaged 58 wins over the previous four seasons, and while they built a team that our Playoff Odds machine projected for 78 wins in 2015, that’s a far cry from the amount needed to make the postseason, as we just learned.

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Effectively Wild Episode 667: The New Frontier in Pitching Statistics

Ben and Sam talk to Jonathan Judge about BP’s new pitching metrics and the challenges and opportunities ahead of statisticians who are still trying to uncover new truths about baseball.


Checking In On the Padres’ Defense

You shouldn’t need very much of an introduction. Beginning a few months ago, the Padres became one of the most interesting teams in baseball, totally out of the blue. The new front office completely overhauled a bad roster, and as a part of their maneuvering, they pretty clearly prioritized offensive punch over defensive capability. For a few weeks, now, the Padres have been playing games. It’s easy to see how they’ve done as a team. It’s easy to see how well they’ve been able to hit. Defensive performance is a little more hidden. So, let’s quickly check in on the Padres’ team defense.

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Home-Field Advantage With No Home-Crowd Advantage

Before this post gets published, the White Sox and Orioles will begin a baseball game in Baltimore played before no one. The few scouts in attendance will keep to themselves, and those watching from elsewhere will be unheard. There will probably be birds, and birds are always making noise, but we’re generally pretty good at tuning them out, because they never shut up. Two things, before going further:

(1) Of course, what’s going on in the rest of Baltimore is of far greater significance than what’s going on inside Camden Yards. For every one thought about the baseball game, there ought to be ten million thoughts about the civil unrest, and what it means and what’s to learn. My job, though, is to write about baseball, and so this is a post about baseball. I am qualified to do very few other things.

(2) The game will be played under extraordinary circumstances, but it’s also one game. A sample of one is, for all intents and purposes, no better than a sample of zero, so we’re not going to learn much today. We’d need a few thousand of these to really research and establish some conclusions. The post basically concerns the hypothetical, inspired by what’s taking place.

Home-field advantage exists in all sports. It’s a known thing, to varying degrees. The first thing that occurs to most people, as far as an explanation is concerned, is that the team at home has people yelling in support of it. The team on the road, meanwhile, has people yelling other things at it. The average person prefers support over mean and critical remarks. Now, consider the game in Baltimore. Strip the crowd effect away completely. What could that do? What might we expect of the home-field advantage of a team that plays with no fans?

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a couple years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from the most current iteration of Kiley McDaniel’s top-200 prospect list and (b) not currently playing in the majors. Players appearing on any of McDaniel’s updated prospect lists or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

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JABO: Casey McGehee, Leadoff Hitter

When the Giants watched Pablo Sandoval leave as a free agent this off-season, they didn’t really have any internal replacements ready to take his place at third base. With most of their money allocated towards re-signing pitchers Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, and Sergio Romo, the team ended up bargain-hunting for a new third baseman. They found their man in Miami, importing Casey McGehee from the Marlins, as they continue to be a franchise that emphasizes hitting for contact; McGehee’s primary calling card as a big leaguer.

Preferring this skill has worked out well for the Giants over the years, leading them to underrated players like Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, Joe Panik, and Nori Aoki. While other teams have chased power in an environment where it has become ever more scarce, the Giants have been content to single their way to three World Series titles. So while McGehee is an unconventional third baseman — he hit just four home runs last year — the Giants targeting an underpowered contact hitter shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.

Unfortunately for the Giants, the beginning of McGehee’s career in San Francisco has been a disaster. After an 0-3 performance on Tuesday night, he’s now hitting .160/.207/.255, and if you can believe it, he’s actually been even worse than that line would suggest, because BA/OBP/SLG don’t account for the extra harm that comes from hitting into double plays. And nobody in baseball hits into double plays like Casey McGehee.

McGehee has already hit into eight twin killings this year; no one else has done more than five times, so he leads the league in GIDPs even though he hasn’t actually played enough games to qualify for the batting title yet. That McGehee is leading the double play charge shouldn’t be a huge surprise, however, as he hit into a whopping 31 double plays last year, tied for the eighth highest single season total in Major League history.

McGehee is basically the perfect storm of a double play candidate. He specializes in making contact and hitting ground balls, only unlike most guys who pound the ball into the ground, he’s remarkably slow. McGehee has the batted profile of a leadoff hitter and the foot-speed of a designated hitter; if he comes up with a man on first base and less than two outs, there’s a pretty good chance that two outs are on their way.

So when you take into account the negative value of the extra outs McGehee is making by hitting into double plays — and at FanGraphs, we have a metric called RE24 that does just that — we find that he’s been the very worst offensive player in baseball to date, some 12 runs below a league average performer. That’s kind of remarkable, considering he’s only played in 16 games. While the Giants early-season struggles are not solely McGehee’s fault, no one has done more to single-handedly bring down their team’s ability to score runs than the Giants third baseman.

Unfortunately, the Giants still don’t really have an alternative at third base; that’s why they had to trade for McGehee in the first place. So, the team is probably just going to have to keep running him out there and hope he turns it around, but since he’s going to be in the line-up, they should think about doing something to reduce the likelihood of McGehee threatening Jim Rice’s single-season double play record (36), set back in 1984. Since there’s no real good alternative if they benched him, I’d instead like to suggest something even more radical; make him the leadoff hitter.

Read the rest on Just a Bit Outside.


Sonny Gray Has Evolved

I attended the Oakland A’s game last night, something I do a few dozen times a year, and Sonny Gray happened to be on the mound plying his trade against a talented Anaheim squad. Though he was shaky in the first inning (his career ERA in the first inning is 4.50, so there could be something to that), he settled down to go eight innings with two earned runs, six hits, one walk, and six strikeouts. He was efficient, looked like an ace, and the A’s won the game.

I moved to the Bay Area just before Sonny Gray was getting his first shot in the majors. In relation to how many games I’ve gone to in Oakland, I’ve witnessed an inordinately high number of his starts in person, so I’ve been able to witness how he’s grown and evolved as a pitcher over the past few years. As April comes to an end, I’m confident enough in those changes to finally write about them. To frame our discussion, let’s begin with a chart of Gray’s fastball usage (separated by type), from the time he was promoted in 2013 until now:

Sonny_Gray_Fastball_Usage

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Chris Iannetta’s Transformation

By framing runs above average on StatCorner, Chris Iannetta was 54th of 78 catchers that caught at least 1000 pitches last year. This year, he’s first. All it took was a little studying. After reading up, a little twist of the butt and a new relaxation technique was enough to change the fortunes of a 32-year-old backstop.

Some credit should go to Hank Conger, really. Because of his exacting manager, and his own inquisitive mind, Conger has spent a lot of time reading up on the best catching techniques. Conger admitted that he’d read all about where Jason Castro said he put his butt in order to give the umpire a better look at lefties.

And Conger made sure Iannetta knew what he knew. “We talked about it a lot,” admitted Iannetta about framing and his former teammate. “We talked about it in the offseason. We texted. We talked about it all spring.”

One of the things they talked about was the positioning that Jeff Sullivan spotted. “I have wider shoulders, so I have to make sure they can see around me,” Iannetta said. “I try to angle my body, I’ve tried angling my body a little.”

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Dave Cameron FanGraphs Chat – 4/29/15

11:30
Dave Cameron: It’s Wednesday, so let’s do some chatting.

11:30
Dave Cameron: I’ve opened up the queue a bit earlier than normal, but we’ll still start around noon.

12:01
Dave Cameron: Alright, off we go.

12:01
Comment From Brandon
So is Hutchison officially bad yet

12:01
Dave Cameron: No, but he should be a contender’s #4 or #5 starter, not their #2.

12:02
Dave Cameron: One minute break…

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Joc Pederson Taking the Adam Dunn Path

Joc Pederson does not fit the traditional “three true outcomes” profile visually. Listed at 6-foot-one and 185 pounds, Pederson plays center field and is a far cry from the lumbering slugger personified most in Adam Dunn over the past decade. However, Pederson has been a high walk, high strikeout player with decent power throughout his minor league career with some very good comps and that has carried over so far in Major League Baseball in the early part of the season.

Over the past three seasons, Pederson has moved quickly and steadily to the three true outcomes looking at the level where he received the most plate appearances in each season.
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