Archive for April, 2014

Brandon Belt Fooling Around with His Identity

We know not to read too much into statistics at the beginning of the season. As of right now, Allen Craig is hitting a line of .154/.211/.231. Sure, it’s ugly — but then it’s only been 14 games. A year ago, Michael Morse hit six homers in his first 14 games, and then only hit seven more for the rest of the season. The small-sample-size game can work so many different ways. A hot start could indicate a breakout season, but then again it could not. A cold start could indicate a clunker, then again it could not. One interesting story in the first 14 games of the season is Brandon Belt.

Belt is off to a hot start this season, and is tied — with notable power hitters Jose Bautista and Pedro Alvarez — for second in the league in homers, with five. There is reason to think that this is Belt’s year to become a legitimate power threat. Belt’s power did increase from an ISO of .146 in 2012 to .193 in 2013. For context, Adrian Beltre had an ISO of .193 in 2013 and hit 30 home runs.

Given this evidence, and the hot start, it could be that Belt is developing into a first baseman’s mold. A first baseman who can hit for power, hit fourth in the lineup, and drive in RBIs, excites baseball fans.  However, Belt hasn’t been a conventional first baseman. In fact, he goes against the positional identity.

Belt has been well known for his passivity. In his first two full seasons, he had a walk rate of at least 9.1% and a .360 OBP in both of those seasons. Belt has always shown tremendous knowledge of the strike zone. As a 21-year-old, he took a page out of Nick Johnson’s book and posted a walk rate of 17.4% in 77 games at High-A Ball.  Although Minor League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, Belt’s high walk-rate definitely means that he’s no free swinger. Belt is a similar first baseman to Freddie Freeman and Joey Votto. Belt might not be as good as those guys, but the profile remains the same: first basemen who walk a lot and hit well, but don’t hit an outrageous number of homers.

Oddly enough, the passivity for which Belt has been known hasn’t shown up in his hot start. Through his first 14 games this season, Belt has had a walk rate of 4.8%. Again, this is based on only 14 games and therefore there is a lot of time for Belt to show his patience, however the trend is interesting: Belt is known for drawing a lot of walks and not hitting home runs, begins the season by hitting a lot of homers and not drawing a lot of walks.

Belt’s walks are definitely going to go up; he’s too much of a passive hitter to not walk a lot, and you can’t be a viable major leaguer walking only 1.9% of the time. However, the main question is whether or not the power is sustainable. The updated ZiPs and Steamer projections estimate that Belt finishes the season with between 21-22 homers this year. Both systems don’t see Belt having a significant power jump.

However, it is worth noting that most of the dingers Belt has hit have come on pitches that were low and inside.

Belt was able to turn on a loopy off-speed pitch from Zack Greinke that was low and inside, and take it to right-field. Most of Belt’s other home runs have come off of low inside pitches. This is where Belt’s power is coming from.

While the early power surge is promising, Belt may not make a gigantic leap as a power hitter. Neither projection system sees this kind of leap, and pitchers are probably going to learn to avoid throwing inside to Belt. Belt may be a little more aggressive this year, his OBP and SLG may trade some points, however he’s still going to get a good number of walks. It’s too early to tell whether Belt has turned into the power hitting first baseman that most people want him to be. For now, Belt is still Belt — a first baseman with moderate power and a lot of patience.


What Would it Take for Andrelton Simmons to Be the MVP?

Andrelton Simmons is awesome.

If you are reading this article on FanGraphs.com right now, this comes as no surprise to you. And I’m not using “awesome” in the way people use it to describe the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars or whatever vanilla bullshit thing they’re drinking from Starbucks. I’m using it in its literal definition of being awe-inspiring:

awe·some, adjective. inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe: an awesome sight.

The reason you know Andrelton Simmons to be awesome is because of the things he does in the field while playing shortstop. Here, be inspired by awe:

Awesome.

But he’s not a bad hitter, either. In fact, right now, in 2014, he has been a pretty great hitter. His 146 wRC+ is sixth among shortstops and he has a higher wOBA than Hanley Ramirez. His .268 isolated slugging percentage exceeds Edwin Encarnacion‘s mark from 2013, and Edwin Encarnacion slugged 36 dingers that year. In 45 plate appearances, Simmons hasn’t struck out one time. Andrelton Simmons, thus far, appears to be making strides at the plate.

When you’re the best defensive player in the major leagues, you don’t need to do much with the bat to be a pretty great player. Last season, you may be surprised to find out that Simmons, despite not even being a league-average hitter, racked up 4.6 WAR. That total was good for 13th in the National League, right next to teammate Freddie Freeman who finished fifth in the MVP voting and also made a really great stretch in that .gif up there.

Anyway, I’m really starting to bury the lede, although I guess really the lede is right there in the title, which I have to assume you read considering you clicked on it and are now here.

Simmons received a couple of 8th and 9th place MVP votes last season while being a below-average hitter. Simmons, thus far, appears to be getting better as a hitter. Just how much better would Andrelton Simmons need to be at the plate to be the best player in the National League?

Let’s begin:

Intro

First, we need to figure out what our endgame here is. We want Simmons to be the most valuable player in the National League. The average WAR of National League MVP winners over the last four seasons is 7.4. We’re going to see what improvements, in areas other than the field, we can make to Simmons’ game in an attempt to get him to at least 7.0 WAR to get him in the discussion. In order to accumulate the most WAR possible, we’re going to assume that Simmons plays all 162 games and racks up 679 plate appearances for the Braves in this hypothetical MVP season. He played in 157 in his first full-length season last year and figures to play pretty much everyday until something goes wrong. The 679 PA is simply an extrapolation of his 2012 plate appearances.

Batting average

Last season, Simmons batted just .248. Not many people win MVP awards with batting averages under .250. Lucky for Simmons, he appeared to be unlucky. His .247 batting average on balls in play was fifth-lowest of all qualified batters in 2013, and was 50 points less than the league average. We know he isn’t going to sustain a BABIP 50 points less than the league average. However, Simmons does have a flaw in his batting profile that makes him especially susceptible to a low BABIP. He led the MLB with 38 infield pop-ups last season. Infield pop-ups literally never go for hits, so it’s not as easy as just regressing his BABIP back to the league average. His career BABIP is .262 and the league average is .297. Let’s say he cuts into his infield pop-ups a bit and gets a little lucky on grounders finding holes over the course of the season. We’ll meet in the middle and call it .280.

Plate discipline

Simmons’ plate discipline was already the strong suit of his offensive profile and it appears to only be getting better. Last year, Simmons’ contact rate was 87.5%, a top-10 mark in the National League. As I mentioned earlier, he has yet to strike out one time this season, the only starter in the MLB who can still make that claim. Last year, Simmons’ strikeout percentage was 8.4%. Considering his strikeout-less streak to begin the season, we can expect improvement on that number. I’ll side with Steamer on this one, whose updated 2014 projection has him finishing with a strikeout percentage of 7.5%.

As is typical with a player that has such high contact rates, Simmons doesn’t walk much. Why take pitches when you’re one of the best in the league at putting the bat on the ball? Last year, Simmons had a walk percentage of 6.1%. With his improved strikeout rate, we can assume a little bit of improvement in the walk department as well, but not much. We’ll bump it up to 6.5%.

Power

This is the part of Andrelton Simmons’ game that surprised people last season. First, he’s a shortstop, and most shortstops don’t hit for power. Second, he didn’t hit for power in the minor leagues. In 1,042 minor league plate appearances — a little less than two full seasons — Simmons only hit six home runs and never posted an isolated slugging percentage higher than .126. Simmons burst onto the scene last year by hitting 17 home runs and posting an ISO of .149. This year, through 11 games, Simmons has already hit two home runs and his ISO sits at a ridiculous .268.

The power appears to be real and is a result of his approach at the plate, which is unique. Most players with contact rates as high as Simmons — guys like Alexei Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Jose Altuve — make their mark by hitting line drives or hard ground balls that find holes. You usually either sell out for contact by using this approach, or sell out for power by trying to elevate the ball. But not Simmons. Despite having the highest contact rate of any qualified shortstop last season, Simmons also hit fly balls more than almost any other shortstop, giving him the batted ball profile of sluggers like Jay Bruce or Giancarlo Stanton. This allowed Simmons to rack up 17 dingers with a HR/FB% of just 7.9% last year.

His career HR/FB percentage is 8.1%. As he is still in his age-24 season, let’s say he bulks up a bit and is able to muster out 9.0% of his fly balls for home runs in our hypothetical MVP season. With his batted ball profile and improved plate discipline, this gives us 21 HR for Simmons.

Base running

This was also a weird part of Simmons’ game last year, but in the opposite way than the power. In the minor leagues, he stole 54 bases in a little less than two full seasons of service time. He didn’t have an elite success rate (69%), but he clearly has some speed. In 2013, Simmons stole just six bases and was thrown out five times. That is terrible. He only ran 11 times, which certainly has something to do with his poor success rate, but he also wasn’t getting on base at a very good clip last year. With his improved on-base skills in this exercise, he would have more opportunities to run. Let’s say he improves his success rate a bit, too, and racks up about 15 SB.

Last year, Simmons’ baserunning was estimated to have cost the Braves about -1.6 runs. This includes not only steal attempts, but taking extra bases and being thrown out trying to take extra bases on balls in play. If we assume Simmons is a little more efficient at taking the extra base and steals 15 bags while only being thrown out six or seven times, it’s not hard to imagine Simmons’ baserunning score (BsR) going from -1.6 to +1.5. In other words, from very slightly below average to very slightly above average.

Results

Simmons AVG OBP ISO K% BB% BABIP HR/FB%
MVP Simmons .286 .331 .173 7.5% 6.5% .280 9.0%
Career Simmons .261 .307 .150 8.6% 6.1% .262 8.1%

That’s about all it would take. Really, not that drastic of a difference. It’s improvement in every category across the board, yes, but I don’t think there’s a single one of these that couldn’t happen or appears unrealistic for a really good baseball player in his second season in the MLB at age 24.

Convert his offensive numbers into run values and you get a wRAA of 15.2, a BsR of 1.5 (as we stated earlier) and on defense a UZR of 24.6 (his career average). Yes, this assumes that he repeats his ridiculous defensive numbers from last season which likely aren’t sustainable, but he is Andrelton Simmons, after all, and is kind of in unprecedented territory. If he’s done it once before, he can probably do it again. Adjust all of that for position and park and this gives us our magic number of 7.0 WAR.

With the defensive ability that Andrelton Simmons has showcased thus far in his career, he would just need to hit about .285 with a .330 OBP, 20 homers and 15 steals to be in serious consideration for the NL MVP. Consider, say, Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey have slight off-years where they fail to accumulate at least 7 WAR and see both of their teams miss the playoffs. As long as the Braves make the postseason, Andrelton Simmons could bring home more hardware than just a Gold Glove in 2014.


Top 10 Picks in the ’90s: Irrational Trends

The annual MLB Draft is an exciting time for baseball. Dozens of high school and college players convince fans that they have the potential to be future All-Stars, and teams make selections to stock their farm systems with talent to win in the future. But obviously, not every pick can be savvy, and the majority of these selections turn out to be regrettable. The best a team can do is make rational choices to put themselves in a position to succeed. I decided to take a look at the draft classes in the 1990s to see if teams were making these rational decisions. I chose this decade because it’s the most recent one that is almost exclusively filled with players who have finished their careers.

In the 1990s, there was a fairly even distribution of pitchers and hitters selected with early draft picks. Since roster makeup isn’t skewed much in favor of either group, this seems to make sense. Teams are just as eager to get elite pitching as they are to acquire top-tier hitters. This year, 6 of baseball’s 12 highest paid players are pitchers, 6 are hitters.

It’s not surprising that during the ’90s, 45 of the 100 Top 10 picks were pitchers. In hindsight, this seems like it was probably the result of some pretty big mistakes. There are certainly some successful examples. In 1999, Josh Beckett was selected 2nd overall, Barry Zito was 9th, and Ben Sheets was picked 10th. The hope that a pick can turn into a future ace is enough to tempt any GM to take a pitcher. But that usually didn’t go well.

I gathered the career WAR for every draft pick, and here is the expected output for each Top 10 selection.

Draft Curve

This does not paint a pretty picture for teams who decided to go with pitchers. No matter where on the chart you look, picking a hitter gives a team a better expected outcome than a pitcher, and it’s not particularly close. The average hitter taken in the Top 10 achieved a career WAR of 16.0. The average pitcher reached 7.0. That’s a big gap, and the disparity was made on a large scale.

Here’s a year-by-year average for draft picks at each position:

Draft Bars

1999 was an excellent year for pitchers, as I already mentioned. In fact, it was the best year for pitchers. But if you add it to the list of years for hitters, it would rank 6th out of 11.

Clearly, picking hitters seems like the preferable strategy of the ’90s. But teams opted not to do so roughly half the time.

Similar to what position someone plays, there’s another core attribute about a player outside of his scouting reports: whether or not he went to college. College players will be more developed and will have less room to grow. High school picks are considered riskier with higher upside. The data seem to support that. Unlike the difference between hitters and pitchers, the age of a draft pick had a more nuanced effect.

Draft Source

High school players taken at the top (of the top) of the first round are more promising than college players. This is because elite players like A-Rod, Chipper Jones, and Josh Hamilton don’t often slip under the radar when they’re 17 or 18. But what’s interesting is when you make your way to the bottom of the Top 10, college players have a better expected career WAR. I don’t want to make too many guesses why, because honestly I’m not sure. But it’s a very noticeable trend. No matter the reason, it’s clear that teams should be more eager to draft high schoolers with picks 1-5, and college players with picks 6-10. But look at the frequency of high school draft picks by selection.

Draft Source Pick

Teams do the exact opposite of what they should. The earlier in the draft, the more likely a college player is to be selected. 32.5% of Top-4 picks are drafted out of high school, while 68.3% of picks 5-10 are.

To a strong extent, this analysis is not fair to these teams. I’m looking at these numbers in 2014, and it’s easy to go back in time and point out what mistakes teams made in drafts. But these aren’t scouting report mistakes, isolated misjudgments, or bad luck decisions. Teams in the 1990s made consistent poor strategic decisions on a large scale in the draft that were often indefensible.


Sabathia’s Decline = Lincecum’s Decline? Specific Patterns for Velocity Loss?

CC Sabathia‘s recent decline is looking more and more like Tim Lincecum‘s also-much-scrutinized decline.  To make the point, here are some key year-by-year stats for each.

Lincecum
ERA FIP FBv K/9 BB/9 BABIP LD% LOB% HR/FB%
2009 2.48 2.34 92.4 10.42 2.72 0.282 19.2 75.9 5.5
2010 3.43 3.15 91.3 9.79 3.22 0.310 19.5 76.5 9.9
2011 2.74 3.17 92.3 9.12 3.57 0.281 19.1 78.5 8.0
2012 5.18 4.18 90.4 9.19 4.35 0.309 23.8 67.8 14.6
2013 4.37 3.74 90.2 8.79 3.46 0.300 23.1 69.4 12.1
2014* 9.90 6.24 89.9 10.80 0.90 0.393 37.5 48.1 40.0
Sabathia
ERA FIP FBv K/9 BB/9 BABIP LD% LOB% HR/FB%
2009 3.37 3.39 94.2 7.71 2.62 0.277 19.8 71.4 7.4
2010 3.18 3.54 93.5 7.46 2.80 0.281 15.1 75.6 8.6
2011 3.00 2.88 93.8 8.72 2.31 0.318 23.1 77.0 8.4
2012 3.38 3.33 92.3 8.87 1.98 0.288 21.1 71.6 12.5
2013 4.78 4.10 91.1 7.46 2.77 0.308 22.3 67.4 13.0
2014* 6.63 4.82 89.1 9.95 1.42 0.308 21.1 58.8 38.5
* – as of 4/14/14

The velocity loss is perhaps the most publicized common aspect.  Yet, while acknowledging that year 2 of Sabathia’s decline is only about 10% (19 innings) in, it’s shaping up as though there may be many other commonalities:

  • ERA above FIP when it wasn’t the case before
  • Sudden (and permanent?) spikes in HR/FB%
  • An apparent loss in ability to strand runners
  • (BABIP might also be trending up for each, but this is harder to tell, due to the regular noisiness of year-to-year BABIP.  Lincecum also saw his LD% spike, which might not be true for Sabathia.)

Having also been thinking about Nathan Eovaldi lately — who has both elite fastball velocity and an apparent ability to suppress HR/FB (7.0% in 279.2 IP) — I couldn’t help but wonder if these things are systematically related.

I remember there was some attention paid to these things when SIERA was being introduced.  But it turns out most of the attention there was on strikeouts, rather than velocity.  Obviously velocity and strikeouts are positively related.  But (1) Lincecum and Sabathia are actually still pretty good/decent at strikeouts, and this hasn’t prevented their recent struggles; (2) Eovaldi has only elite velocity, and pretty pedestrian strikeouts.  So the real question is: Does velocity itself matter, in addition to strikeouts?

(In the subsequent analysis, I’ll be looking primarily at effects on HR/FB%, LOB%, and ERA-FIP, since those seem to be problems plaguing both of the high-profile cases that prompted this line of thinking.  But there’s otherwise no reason to think those are the only intermediate outcomes where velocity may matter directly.

Also, it turns out that great velocity isn’t required for HR/FB suppression, as a look at the leaderboard in recent years includes some notable non-flamethrowers like Stults, Weaver, and Fister.  Obviously the ballpark matters a lot, too.  But there are also hard throwers near the top, and overall I remained intrigued enough to keep digging.)

Realistically, if there is something there, Sabathia and Lincecum are probably on the more extreme end of the spectrum.  Probably there have been other guys who lost similar velocity but that we didn’t hear as much about because they were better able to adapt or otherwise did not see their overall results decline so dramatically.

What do the results indicate?  By and large, it does appear that velocity matters directly, in addition to strikeouts.  (Regression results below)

HR/FB% LOB% ERA-FIP
OLS FE FD OLS FE FD OLS FE FD
K/9 -.122** .533*** .189 1.118*** .445** .509* .037*** .132*** .151
FBv -.124*** -.841*** -.656*** .140* .953*** 1.155*** -.022** -.155*** -.155***
N 1677 1677 1085 1677 1677 1085 1677 1677 1085
R2 0.015 0.511 0.009 0.125 0.575 0.0265 0.008 0.53 0.029

* = significant at 10%; ** = significant at 5%; *** = significant at 1%

I use 3 different estimation techniques for each outcome:

  • Plain-old OLS
  • Fixed effects (“FE”): estimates results within player, essentially comparing each pitcher’s own years of higher velocity/strikeouts against his years of lower velocity/strikeouts
  • First difference (“FD”): the outcome is now the one-year change in HR/FB% (etc.) for Pitcher A, while the explanatory variables are the one-year change in K/9 and FBv for Pitcher A

Of these, methods 2 and 3 are probably more convincing, since they give results for the same player, where anything else that’s distinct to the player (but invariant over time) gets washed out.  OLS doesn’t do this, and instead mostly compares across players, who may have many differences besides strikeouts and velocity.  In an exaggerated illustration, if our full sample consisted only of Tim Hudson and Felix Doubront, the fact that Hudson is altogether a better pitcher, but sort of a “pitch-to-contact soft tosser,” can make it look like strikeouts/velocity are bad, using OLS, even if having more strikeouts/more velocity is actually good for either player.

Some technical notes:

  • Sample includes player-seasons between 2010 and 2013 with at least 30 innings pitched
  • Standard errors (not displayed) are clustered by player
  • Don’t look too much into the fact that “FE” always gives the highest R2.  Most of this is from all the “specific player indicators” that are now present, rather than the “within-player” aspect, which is the actual point of using FE
  • Starters and relievers are both included.  Part of me prefers to look at just starters, but this allows for much more observations and statistical power.  I’m also not controlling for starter/reliever status, so you’d need to believe that that only matters through its effects on strikeouts and velocity.

You can maybe argue that there are other explanatory variables that should have been included, or perhaps that one needs to be more judicious about the sample to consider.   (I must admit that I threw this together fairly quickly.)  But even if the current analysis is somewhat imperfect, it appears at least plausible that velocity matters directly (for various outcomes), in addition to the rate of strikeouts.

It’s a little too bad, because coming into this season I’d thought there was a decent chance of a Sabathia bounceback, given his partial velocity rebound as 2013 went along.  But that seems to have been only temporary.  While he still may wind up bouncing back when all is said and done, I’m definitely less optimistic than I was a week ago.  Will CC be this year’s version of 2013 Lincecum, who might even tease by FIP/xFIP but continue to underwhelm?


Baseball America Top 10 Prospects Retrospective: Part 1

Part of being a Cubs fan these days is obsessing over prospects. When your product on the field is substandard you have to find something positive to look at and the Cubs farm system is a definite positive. With 2 prospects ranked in Baseball America’s Top 10 (Javier Baez and Kris Bryant) and 7 prospects in their Top 100 there is a lot to be excited about. The primary question that I have then is how successful has Baseball America been at predicting performance? I am going to analyze this over a series of posts that will examine the statistical outcomes of these top prospects while also giving some historical insight on why these players succeeded or failed. So to start off we will go through every Top 10 prospect list that Baseball America has created. Let’s begin with  the 1990 edition which is the first one listed on their website.

 

1990

Name

Position

Team

Career WAR

1

Steve Avery

LHP

ATL

20.3

2

Ben McDonald

RHP

BAL

20.7

3

John Olerud

1B/LHP

TOR

57.7

4

Juan Gonzalez

OF

TEX

36

5

Sandy Alomar

C

CLE

13.6

6

Kiki Jones

RHP

LAD

N/A

7

Todd Zeile

C

STL

22.4

8

Eric Anthony

OF

HOU

0.3

9

Greg Vaughn

OF

MIL

25.4

10

Jose Offerman

SS

LAD

13.7

  What are your initial reactions to this list? I was surprised there was only one player that didn’t make the majors on it. There are also a number of notable players that despite only being 22 years old I still remember playing. I think I had a lot of these guys’ baseball cards growing up. Now that you have had a chance to contemplate that list, let’s dig a little bit deeper into each player.

 Steve Avery-LHP- BRAVES

 Avery was drafted with the third overall pick by the Braves in the 1988 draft behind pitcher Andy Benes and shortstop Mark Lewis. He was a 6’4 lefty that moved through the Braves farm system rather quickly. In his first full professional season (1989) he made it up to AA putting up stellar numbers. Across both A and AA levels he posted a 2.11 ERA in 26 starts with an 8.7 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 rate. So as a high draft pick that rocketed through the minors with great success it made sense that he ranked as the number one prospect in baseball. After 13 starts in AAA in 1990 he got the call to the Major Leagues. He made his debut against the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium and was not very good, giving up 8 ER in just 2.1 IP. His first season in the Big Leagues did not go well as he posted a 5.64 ERA in 99 IP. There were some underlying numbers that indicated some bad luck though and in the next season he proved that he was much better than his debut indicated. Avery went on to become a very good pitcher over the next 3 years.

Year

IP

ERA

FIP

K/9

BB/9

WAR

1991

210.1

3.38

3.82

5.86

2.78

2.7

1992

233.2

3.20

3.37

4.97

2.73

3.6

1993

223.1

2.94

3.26

5.04

1.73

5.2

As he posted these increasingly good season at such a young age (21-23) and on some pretty good Braves teams, he looked to be one of the next great pitchers. Sadly this would be the peak of Avery’s career. At the end of the 1993 season Avery sustained an injury, straining a muscle below the armpit of his pitching arm. While the injury did not require surgery he never seemed to be the same pitcher and some have speculated that it forced him to change his mechanics. Many people have blamed the heavy workload that he had early in his career and the high pressure of a consistently playoff bound Atlanta Braves team. His next three seasons on the Braves while productive where a significant step down for Avery.

Year

IP

ERA

FIP

K/9

BB/9

WAR

1994

151.2

4.04

3.97

7.24

3.26

2.3

1995

173.1

4.67

4.13

7.32

2.7

2.4

1996

131

4.47

3.86

5.91

2.75

2.3

 Following the 1996 season he signed as a Free Agent with the Boston Red Sox. At this point his career was essentially over as he never would pitch more than 130 innings in a season or have an ERA below 5.00 in season again. He hung around the Red Sox for two years and one more season with the Cincinnati Reds in 1999. He was out of the big leagues for several years until he made a brief comeback in 2003 with the Tigers. So was Steve Avery deserving of being ranked as the number one prospect in baseball? Well from a talent perspective certainly, Avery is a perfect example of the volatility of pitching in baseball. That being said he was extremely effective early on in his career for the Braves so I would still consider him a success.

 Ben McDonald- RHP- ORIOLES

 McDonald was drafted first overall in the 1989 draft out of the LSU baseball program. He was a star at both basketball and baseball at LSU. He helped lead the 1988 Mens Olympic Baseball Team to a Gold Medal and also helped lead his LSU team to the College World Series twice. The 6’7 right-hander was one of the greatest College Pitching prospects of all time and had quite a resume coming into professional baseball. The same year he was drafted he made his major league debut against the Cleveland Indians pitching 2.2 innings in relief of Curt Schilling and allowing 1 ER. He would join the Orioles starting rotation in 1990 and performed quite well, finishing 8th in Rookie of the Year voting. He was very mediocre the next 2 seasons before putting up a 4.3 WAR season in 1993.

Year

IP

ERA

FIP

K/9

BB/9

WAR

1990

118.2

2.42

3.58

4.93

2.65

1.6

1991

126.1

4.84

4.20

6.06

3.06

1.3

1992

227

4.24

4.32

6.26

2.93

1.9

1993

220.1

3.39

3.68

6.98

3.51

4.3

It seems like he was rushed to the majors rather quickly and had a bit of an adjustment period. Sure the numbers are not as dazzling as the extreme hype that was on this kid but by 1993 he was becoming an effective pitcher. He would go on to pitch another 2 seasons with the Orioles before signing with the Milwaukee Brewers as a Free Agent.

Year

IP

ERA

FIP

K/9

BB/9

WAR

1994

157.1

4.06

4.16

5.38

3.09

3.1

1995

80

4.16

4.72

6.98

4.28

0.9

In 1995 McDonald had some tendinitis issues in his shoulder. He went on the DL multiple times that season which may have been a warning sign for things to come as his career would soon be derailed by shoulder injuries. He pitched 2 seasons with Milwaukee and then his career abruptly ended as he had a surgery to repair his rotator cuff which failed. He was traded to Cleveland in a deal that brought Jeff Juden and Marquis Grissom to Milwaukee but ended up being returned to the Brewers due to the unsuccessful surgery. His final two seasons looked like this.

Year

IP

ERA

FIP

K/9

BB/9

WAR

1996

221.1

3.90

4.31

5.94

2.72

4.6

1997

133

4.06

3.65

7.44

2.44

3.1

  Ben McDonald is yet another example of the volatility of pitching prospects. A lot of people have likened Stephen Strasburg to McDonald in terms of the hype and the potential injury risks. It is a valid concern and teams should try to learn from players like McDonald in order to figure out how to limit the risks of injury. That being said there is certain inevitability to pitchers getting injured that should be factored into expectations for top prospects.  

John Olerud- 1B- BLUE JAYS

 Olerud was drafted in the 3rd Round of the 1989 Draft out of Washington State University. He was a standout player at WSU as he was effective both as a hitter and pitcher. In 1988 he was a consensus All-American as both a 1B and Pitcher and was named Baseball America College Player of the Year. He was known for wearing his batting helmet while playing 1B. This was a precaution after having an operation to remove a brain hemorrhage (it was discovered after he collapsed during a workout). He was one of only a few players to jump immediately to the Big Leagues and skip the Minors. He quickly established himself as a quality Major League hitter and posted an 8 WAR campaign in just his 4th season.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1990

.265/.364/.430

13.5

17.8

14

.165

122

1.4

1991

.256/353/.438

12.6

15.5

17

.183

115

2.5

1992

.284/.375/.450

13.0

11.4

16

.166

127

3.1

1993

.363/.473/.599

16.8

9.6

24

.236

179

8.1

He played with the Blue Jays another 3 seasons and put up solid but unspectacular numbers. He would then be traded to the Mets in 1996 for right-hander Robert Person. He was very good during his 3 seasons with the Mets. He maintained a batting average over .290 and OBP over .400 and was worth no less than 4 WAR in any season over that stretch. This included another spectacular 8 WAR season in 1998.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1998

.354/.447/.551

14.4

11.0

22

.197

167

8.1

During the offseason before the 2000 season Olerud signed as a Free Agent with the Seattle Mariners. He would become a part of one of the best regular season teams in baseball history as the 2001 Mariners went on to win 116 games. He was a very effective player the first 3 seasons of his deal with the Mariners and had another decent season in his fourth year. He was released by the Mariners in 2004 and hung around on with the Yankees and finally the Red Sox before his career was over. His final career numbers are pretty impressive.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Career

.295/.398/.465

14.1

11.2

255

.170

130

57.7

 Olerud was a sweet swinging left handed hitter with a great eye at the plate (look at that walk to strike out rate). He was also considered a pretty good defensive first baseman and he collected 3 Gold Gloves for his work (if that really means anything). While he may not have been a Hall of Famer he was definitely a great player. He is an example of an elite collegiate hitter that makes a tremendous impact in the Major Leagues. Also a random bit of information, according to Baseball Reference he is the cousin of Dale Sveum.    

 

 Juan Gonzalez- OF- RANGERS

 Gonzalez was signed as an amateur free agent out of the Puerto Rico in 1986 as a 16 year old.  As one would expect it took him a few years in the minors to develop. He progressively moved up a level each year and by 1989 he was hitting very well and even got a September call-up. The 1990 season was a success for him as well as he managed to hit 29 HR HRHR at the AAA level and got another late season call-up. The 1991 season is where he firmly established himself as a big leaguer. He would continue to progress until he peaked in 1993.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1991

.264/.321/.479

7.1

19.8

27

.215

118

1.9

1992

.260/.304/.529

5.5

22.6

43

.269

131

3.0

1993

.310/.368/.632

6.3

16.9

46

.323

164

5.7

He quickly established himself as one of the premier power hitters in the game as he led the league in 92’ and 93’ in HR. This garnered him a significant amount of attention and he was elected into the All-Star game and finished 4th in MVP voting in 1993. He would go on to play with the Rangers through the 1999 season before leaving for the Tigers in 2000. Throughout that time he put up three more 40 HR seasons while also knocking in a lot of runs (157 RBI in 98’). He also garnered even more accolades as he brought home MVP Awards in 96’ and 98’. Just take a look at his peak seasons (age 26 to 29).

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1996

.314/.368/.643

7.6

13.9

47

.329

141

3.5

1997

.296/.335/.589

5.7

18.5

42

.293

127

2.2

1998

.318/.366/.630

6.9

18.8

45

.312

145

4.9

1999

.326/.378/.601

8.1

16.7

39

.276

139

3.6

His bat was tremendously valuable during that stretch for the Rangers which helped propel them to the playoffs. His value takes a bit of hit due to his lack of defense but even as a bat only player he was pretty good. He is ranks very highly on the Rangers career offensive stats. Here are some of his ranks on the all-time Rangers leaderboard according to Baseball-Reference.

Category

His Numbers

Rank

Slugging %

.565

2nd

OPS

.907

3rd

Runs

878

3rd

Hits

1595

4th

Doubles

320

4th

HR

372

1st

RBI

1180

1st

So the team that signed him as a 16 year old kid out of Puerto Rico benefited greatly from their investment. I think that’s one very important point to think about when looking at these rankings. How did that player do with the team that developed them and that they were with at the time of their ranking by Baseball America? So far when looking through this list the players did have most of their success with the team they were on at the time of the ranking. While Gonzalez eventually left the Rangers in 2000 he was only gone for two years (with the Tigers and Indians) and accumulated 6 WAR. He returned to the Rangers for another 2 seasons accumulating another 2.6 WAR before briefly playing for the Royals and Indians. He played a season of Independent Minor League Baseball in 2006 and that was it. His overall career line looked like this.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Career

.295/.343/.561

6.4

17.8

434

.265

129

36.0

 Juan Gonzalez is still considered one of the best players to come out of Puerto Rico. The numbers may not seem quite as impressive as he played in the steroid era and he may have a bit of a cloud looming over him because of that. Still I think anytime that your top prospect goes on to become your all-time leader in HR that is a success.

Sandy Alomar-C- INDIANS

 Alomar came from a baseball family. His father was a moderately successful middle infielder in the 60’s and 70’s and his brother had a very successful career as a 2B that got him inducted into the Hall of Fame. Sandy Alomar Jr. was signed as an Amateur Free Agent out of Puerto Rico in 1983. He played his first professional season in 1984 as an 18 year old kid in the short season Northwest League. He slowly worked his way up through the minors and made his debut 1988 with 1 PA. In 1989 he put up some terrific numbers at AAA and got another brief call up to the majors. He really didn’t have much of an opportunity in San Diego as he was stuck behind Benito Santiago, so during the 1989 off-season he was involved in a big trade that sent him as well as Carlos Baerga and Chris James to the Indians for Joe Carter. The following season Alomar solidified himself at the major league level and would stay there for 18 seasons. He was quite effective in his first season which helped him bring home the Rookie of the Year Award and a Gold Glove. He was also elected to the All-Star team his first 3 seasons in the majors.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1990

.290/.326/.418

5.2

9.5

9

.128

105

2.4

1991

.217/.264/.266

4.0

12.1

0

.049

47

-0.6

1992

.251/.293/.324

4.1

10.0

2

.074

72

1.3

Well I guess that is another example of why looking at All-Star Game appearances as a measure of success is stupid. While he was solid defensively in those first 3 seasons he only had one above average offensive campaign. That being said much of the lack of production was a result of a rash of injuries. In 1991 he struggled with various hip and shoulder problems and in 1992 he tore cartilage in his knee. In 1993 he suffered a back injury that eventually led to surgery. Then of course the strike prevented everyone from playing. In 1996 he finally got healthy and for the next few seasons was able to be moderately productive, including an exceptional season in 1997.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1996

.263/.299/.397

4.3

9.5

11

.134

73

1.0

1997

.324/.354/.545

4.0

10.0

21

.222

131

4.2

1998

.235/.270/.352

4.1

10.3

6

.117

56

0.0

He made the All-Star team all three of these seasons as well. He definitely seemed to have a reputation as a good catcher and he certainly had the ability to be. The injuries he had struggled through prior to these three seasons would return and he would never again make more than 400 Plate Appearances in a season. He hung around with the Indians through the 2000 season before heading to the White Sox as a Free Agent. He would spend several years with the White Sox while also bouncing around to Colorado, Texas, Los Angeles (NL) and New York (NL). When you look back at Sandy Alomar Jr.’s career it can be a bit frustrating. He was obviously talented and had good bloodlines but suffered through a ridiculous amount of injuries. As a kid I always had a very positive opinion of him but looking at the numbers I am a bit disappointed.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Career

.273/.309/.406

4.4

10.3

112

.134

84

13.6

 Alomar appears to be the position player equivalent of Ben McDonald on this list. He had tremendous upside and did put together a few good seasons but his overall career was hampered by injuries. It makes sense as Catcher is arguably the most physically demanding position outside of being a pitcher. When thinking about him in the context of this list I would not consider him a bust but simply as a disappointment.

Kiki Jones- RHP- DODGERS

 Jones was drafted 15th overall in the 1989 draft out of Hillsborough High School. He had a very impressive professional debut in 1989 in Rookie Ball posting a 1.58 ERA in 62.2 IP while striking out 63 and walking 21. He pitched decently in 1990 but only appeared in 9 games which may have been an indication of injuries. 1991 was similar as he reached A+ but only appeared in 10 games. Sadly Kiki would never make it above AA and flamed out in 1993. He did pitch in the minors again in 1998-1999 and again in 2001 but never getting above A+. This is the first player who was a complete bust on the list.

 

Todd Zeile- C- CARDINALS

 Zeile was drafted in the 2nd Round of the 1986 draft out of UCLA. He hit well at every level of the minors and after 3 seasons, made his debut in 1989. When he was called up he was the Cardinals most anticipated prospect of the year. He had played Catcher both  at the collegiate and minor league level but was soon moved to third base to make room for Tom Pagnozzi. In 1990 he played a full season in the majors and would go on to play 5 solid seasons before being traded to the Cubs in 1995 for Francisco Morales, Paul Torres and Mike Morgan.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1990

.244/.333/.398

11.8

13.5

15

.154

102

2.5

1991

.280/.353/.412

9.7

14.7

11

.133

118

2.6

1992

.257/.352/.364

13.2

13.6

7

.107

108

1.9

1993

.277/.352/.433

10.8

11.7

17

.156

112

1.6

1994

.267/.348/.470

10.9

11.7

19

.202

113

2.0

What is interesting is that during Zeile’s time with the Cardinals they were in the midst of an 8 year stretch without making the playoffs. So he played in a rather forgettable era of Cardinals baseball. He was moderately productive during this stretch but certainly not what you would hope to get out of a Top 10 Prospect. After those initial years with the Cardinals he didn’t stick with one team for very long. He played the rest of the 1995 season with the Cubs and was pretty bad (-1.3 WAR) and then became a Free Agent. He signed with the Phillies in the off-season but was traded in August of 1996 to the Orioles. He was fairly productive that season posting a career high in HR (25). The next season he continued to improve and began a stretch of 4 seasons in which he was worth 2 or more WAR while playing for 4 different teams.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1997

.268/.348/.436

12.6

16.7

31

.191

122

2.5

1998

.271/.350/.437

10.6

13.8

19

.166

108

2.3

1999

.293/.354/.488

8.5

14.3

24

.196

109

2.5

2000

.268/.356/.467

11.9

13.6

22

.199

111

2.7

His ages 31 to 34 seasons seem to be his best and most consistent. While he may not have been a star level player, he was a useful major league hitter who posted solid walk rates and above average power. He became the epitome of a journey man as he played for 11 teams over the course of his career and has the distinction of hitting a HR with each one. That is probably his single greatest claim to fame as he is the only MLB player in history to have hit a HR with over 10 teams. He retired at the age of 38 in 2004 after playing his final season with the New York Mets. His final career line looked like this.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Career

.265/.346/.423

10.9

14.8

253

.159

104

22.4

  Are these the kind of numbers you would expect from a Top 10 Prospect? Probably not, but overall he still put up solid offensive numbers and managed to hang around the league for a while. After retiring Zeile began working in the Film Industry. He has his own film production company called Green Diamond Entertainment and has appeared in a few movies and TV shows. He is also married to former Olympic Gymnast Julianne McNamara, so he has done pretty well for himself.

 

Eric Anthony- OF- ASTROS-

 How Anthony got drafted is a truly fascinating story. According to a Sports Illustrated article from 1999, Anthony was a High School dropout working on an assembly line in Houston. Apparently he talked his way into a tryout with the Astros in 1986 and showed off amazing power. His tryout led to the Astros drafting him in the 34th round of the 1986 draft. He quickly showed off that excellent power in the minor leagues. After a 1989 season in which he hit .292/.353/.550 with 31 HR between AA and AAA he landed himself on the Baseball America Top 10 Prospects List. He was briefly called up in 1989 and would go back and forth between the minors and major leagues until 1992. He struggled to keep strikeouts in check and make contact. He did manage to play almost 2 full seasons for the Astros in 1992 and 1993.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1992

.239/.298/.407

7.9

20.3

19

.168

102

1.0

1993

.249/.319/.397

9.1

16.3

15

.148

97

2.1

During the off-season before the 1994 season he was traded to the Seattle Mariners for Mike Felder and Mike Hampton. That trade worked out pretty well for the Astros as Mike Hampton turned out to be a pretty good pitcher for them and Anthony never really panned out. He would never put up a season over 1 WAR again and only lasted another 4 seasons in the major leagues. After the 1997 season he went to Japan to play for the Yakult Swallows for a little bit before returning to the United States. He hung around in the minors until the 2001 season but never again got called up to the majors.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Career

.231/.305/.397

9.7

21.9

78

.166

90

0.3

 In terms of being ranked a Top 10 prospect, Anthony should be considered a bust. He only managed 2 full seasons and struggled to make enough contact for his power to be useful. That being said if you consider where he could be had he not gotten that tryout then it’s hard not to consider him a success. He went from working on an assembly line to be one of the top prospects in the game. Anthony is definitely a classic feel good story that deserves to have a movie made about it.

Greg Vaughn- OF- BREWERS-

 Vaughn was drafted 4th overall in the 1986 draft out of the University of Miami. He had some baseball bloodlines as he was cousin of both Jerry Royster (Middle Infielder in the 70’s and 80’s) and Mo Vaughn. He raked at every level of the minors and by the 1989 season he was hitting well at AAA and got a call up to the majors. He immediately hit for power and put together a 30 HR season in 1993. Here is a look at his numbers while with the Brewers.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1990

.220/.280/.432

7.7

21.2

17

.212

96

0.1

1991

.244/.319/.456

10.1

20.4

27

.212

114

2.4

1992

.228/.313/.409

10.5

21.5

23

.182

104

1.6

1993

.267/.369/.482

13.3

17.7

30

.214

124

5.0

1994

.254/.345/.478

12.1

22.0

19

.224

108

1.5

1995

.224/.317/.408

12.2

19.7

17

.184

84

-0.5

1996

.280/.378/.571

13.1

22.4

31

.291

130

2.3

Vaughn essentially was your prototypical power hitting corner outfielder who didn’t play defensive particularly well. His walk rates and power numbers where pretty good but he definitely had issues making contact. His power hitting prowess did garner enough attention to get him elected to two All-Star Games during his time with the Brewers. During the 1996 season he was traded to the San Diego Padres for Bryce Florie, Marc Newfield and Ron Villone. He finished the 1996 season setting (then) career highs in HR (41) and RBI (117). Vaughn struggled in the 1997 season but broke out big time in the 1998 season.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1998

.272/.363/.597

12.0

18.3

50

.325

151

5.8

His 1998 season secured him another All-Star appearance and also helped him bring home a Silver Slugger Award. Vaughn also finished 4th in MVP voting behind Sosa, McGwire and Moises Alou. His 50 HR’s were overshadowed by record setting seasons from Sosa and McGwire but he was still very impressive. Interestingly enough the Padres decided to trade him in the offseason after this impressive season to the Cincinnati Reds. He was sent with Mark Sweeney for Josh Harris, Damian Jackson and Reggie Sanders. There was initially some tension with Vaughn’s arrival to Cincinnati as the Reds had a no facial hair policy at the time and he had a goatee. According to a Cincinnati Enquirer article from Feb. 3rd 1999 he publicly pleaded for ownership to make an exception to this policy stating that “My two kids have never seen me without it. You guys (the media) gotta lobby for that (a relaxation of the Reds’ no-facial hair policy).” Owner Marge Schott eventually relented and Vaughn went on to post another strong power hitting season (45 HR). The Reds won 96 games that season but just missed making the postseason.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1999

.245/.347/.535

13.2

21.3

45

.289

116

3.5

He finished 4th in the MVP voting yet again behind Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell and Matt Williams. He only spent one season with the Reds and signed with Tampa Bay as a Free Agent. He put together two productive seasons for Tampa Bay before falling off the cliff and out of baseball after 2003. Like any power hitter of this era the cloud of steroids hangs over his numbers. There is no clear evidence that he used them as he does not appear on the Mitchell Report or any other report about steroids. Still many see the sudden increase in power in his 30’s and become suspicious. We likely will never know but what we do know is that he did put up some impressive numbers. Take a look at his career numbers.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Career

.242/.337/.470

12.2

21.4

355

.229

111

25.4

The combination of playing in the steroid era and playing in very few postseasons probably leads most people to forget about this guy. If you simply look at his numbers though, you realize as far as power hitters go he was pretty good. He had an above average BB% and ISO and stole some bases as well (121 career SB). While not a HOF talent he put together a pretty good career.

 

Jose Offerman- SS- DODGERS-

 Offerman was signed as an Amateur Free Agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1986. He tore up the minor leagues starting in 1988 and had made it up to the AA level by 1989. He would play a full season at AAA in 1990 before getting a brief call-up that year. Prior to the 1991 season Baseball America would once again rank him in the Top 10 and he would actually move up to the #4 Ranked Prospect. He split time between AAA and MLB in 1991 before establishing himself as the Dodgers starting Shortstop in 1992. He would receive significant playing time with the Dodgers from 1992-1995 before being traded to the Royals for LHP Billy Brewer.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1992

.260/.331/.333

9.5

16.4

1

.073

94

0.6

1993

.269/.346/.331

10.2

10.8

1

.061

89

1.4

1994

.210/.314/.288

13.1

13.1

1

.078

67

-1.3

1995

.287/.389/.375

13.5

15.2

4

.089

118

1.8

His final season with the Dodgers saw him get elected to his first All-Star game. He was considered pretty poor defensively at Shortstop which was part of the reason he was traded to the Royals in 1995. When you look at Offerman’s numbers he appears to be your typical no power, speedy middle infielder. He did have one season with the Dodgers in which he stole 30 bases although his success rate was only 69.7 percent. In Offerman’s first season with the Royals he moved around the diamond quite a bit, he saw time at SS, 2B and 1B. The following two seasons he settled in at 2B as he started 100 games there in 97’ and 152 in 98’. In 1998 Offerman would put together the finest season of his career.

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

SB

ISO

wRC+

WAR

1998

.315/.403/.438

12.6

13.5

7

45

.124

121

4.6

His peak seasons where pretty good as he took lots of walks, hit for a high average and stole a lot of bases. From 1995-1999 Offerman posted his best offensive seasons at ages 26-30. After his strong 1998 season Offerman signed with the Boston Red Sox as a Free Agent. He would post another strong season in 1999 but would see his numbers start to decline after that. He would bounce around with a number of teams (Mariners, Expos, Twins, Phillies and Mets) until 2005. He would hang around the minor leagues until 2009 at the age of 40. His final career numbers look like this. 

Year

Slash Line

BB%

K%

HR

SB

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Career

.273/.360/.373

11.7

13.9

57

172

.100

97

13.7

  Overall Offerman was an above average middle infielder. He certainly was not someone to build around but more of a complementary piece. In my opinion for a Top 10 Prospect to be considered a success they need to become a player you build around. So from that perspective I consider Offerman a failure but he was still a pretty good ballplayer.

 Final Thoughts-

 Looking at these players in depth can be fascinating and filled with compelling stories. I can’t make a judgment on the effectiveness of Baseball America’s rankings yet as I have only looked at one year but I can give my initial reactions to this information. So far this has only further reinforced my beliefs about prospects. That would consist of one thing.

 1.      Pitching is extremely volatile so keep your expectations for elite pitching prospects in check.

 That is why I really respect the way the Cubs Front office has gone about building the farm system. Spending that first draft pick on an elite position prospect and attacking pitching in volume. I am sure I will develop more opinions as I continue analyzing these top lists but that’s all I can think of right now. I hope you enjoyed this expedition into the careers of Top Prospects and I look forward to posting the next edition of this series later in the week.


Scott Feldman’s Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a 31-year-old right-hander who spent years toiling as a fifth or sixth starter for the Rangers. But then one year he signed with a new team who thought he could be their ace, and so an ace he became. Or did he?

Scott Feldman is off to a remarkable start. He’s pitched 20.2 innings in three starts, and allowed a grand total of 1 run, and only 7 hits. Of the 7 hits, 6 were singles.

Unfortunately, it’s a little too early to believe fairy tales can come true. Let’s find out why.

First of all: Scott Feldman is not striking guys out. Of the 79 batters he’s faced, he’s struck out just 7, which is the second-lowest K rate of any starting pitcher, behind only Brett Anderson. In fact, Feldman is walking (8) and plunking (5) more guys than he strikes out. That does not inspire confidence.

So what’s his secret? Well, opposing batters hit the ball a lot against Feldman, but they don’t reach base safely. When opponents swing and put the ball in play, their batting average (BABIP) is .119. The league average BABIP is about .300, because when you hit the ball at professional defenders, there’s about a 70% chance they will get you out. Several factors influence this average: pitchers causing weak contact, hitters having natural talents (or lacks thereof), hitters being fast enough to beat throws to first, defenses of varying qualities, and just plain old luck. 

Holding opposing hitters to a .119 BABIP screams “luck.” But there are other things we can check first.

Let’s look at Feldman’s arsenal. Is it different? Yes. For the first three years of his career, Feldman leaned on his fastball; from 2010-13 he replaced the traditional fastball with a sinker and a cutter. So far in 2014 Feldman’s primary pitch has been his curveball, which he throws 37.7% of the time; after that comes the cutter, with his changeup and sinker used very rarely.

Here is a list of the top three curveball throwers in 2013, and what % of their pitches were curvaceous:
1. Jose Fernandez (33.6%)
2. Scott Feldman (27.5%)
3. Adam Wainwright (27.3%)

So is Feldman ditching the sinker and leaning on the curve because that will give him better results? Maybe, but if that’s the case, he should have ditched the cut fastball instead: in 2013 his sinker and curve generated ground balls more than half the time, but many cutters went for line drives, including over half of the doubles and triples he gave up. Unfortunately, that’s not the pitch he replaced. It’s the pitch he kept.

So far this year, Feldman’s efficiency as a ground-ball pitcher has actually taken a hit. But it’s too soon to make sense of the data, or at least too soon for me, because the data is confusing. Maybe Feldman is deliberately trying to generate fewer groundballs, or maybe random things are happening and other teams are hitting the ball everywhere.

Either way, the Astros defense has had to work almost every time a batter steps in against Feldman. And not a single Astro has committed an error while he’s pitching. There are a few good defenders on Houston’s team (Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, Matt Dominguez, and Dexter Fowler). But there are also plenty of not-good defenders. One surprise is that shortstop Jonathan Villar, whom I have seen make some bone-headed plays in the past, has so far reversed course from being a bad defender to a good one. But it’s only been two weeks; time will tell.

Indeed, looking at the fairy-tale start to Scott Feldman’s year, “it’s only been two weeks” is the best explanation. He does not strike batters out; he leads all the MLB in hit-by-pitches; his fastest pitch so far has been exactly 90 mph; and he is relying on a patchy defense which has yet to fail him once. The curveball is pretty good, but no starting pitcher can rely on a curve as a primary pitch. And that .119 BABIP is a fluke. Last year Feldman’s opponents went .258 when they put the ball into play, which put him in the top ten among all pitchers. But even if Feldman has a real skill for making the ball go to his defense, .119 is crazy, and he will soon be dealing with twice as many baserunners.

One of these days, the clock will chime midnight and the balls opponents hit off Feldman will start getting past defenders, dropping into the outfield grass, popping out of gloves, or going over the fence. That’s not bad; that’s normal. When midnight tolls, he won’t turn into a pumpkin. But he will turn back into Scott Feldman.


2014’s Most Underpaid and Overpaid Hitters

Winning is expensive in 2014. According to the FanGraphs “Dollar” variable, players in the current market should be paid $5.4m per win they contribute. But, as is the case in such an unpredictable sport, many players are paid too much, and others outperform their pay.

Although baseball is hard to predict, the Steamer projections do an exceptional job forecasting hitter performance. Using these numbers, I want to give a brief preview of what players are expected to be the best bargains and the ones who will be the most egregiously overpaid for this upcoming season. However, I want to avoid making just another list of players who are getting paid a lot and won’t play much (see Alex Rodriguez). Rather, for the overpaid players, I just want to look at guys who will play, but ineffectively. Therefore, I set a minimum at 300 projected plate appearances for each hitter.

The best and worst value players aren’t any surprise. Mike Trout, the supposed best position player in 2014, is getting paid twice the league minimum. The highest paid position player who will play in 2014, Ryan Howard, is projected to perform like a replacement level player.

This chart illustrates what severe outliers these two are.

Howard Trout Pay

That’s not groundbreaking or surprising. Instead of talking about how obviously overpaid and underpaid specific players are, I’ll just present the list of the biggest cases.

1. Mike Trout
WAR: 8.1
Salary: $1m
Value: $42.7m

2. Evan Longoria
WAR: 6.6
Salary: $8m
Value: $27.6m

3. Paul Goldschmidt
WAR: 5.2
Salary: $1.1m
Value: $27m

4. Andrew McCutchen
WAR: 6.3
Salary: $7.5m
Value: $26.5m

5. Buster Posey
WAR: 6.6
Salary: $11.3m
Value: $24.3m

6. Andrelton Simmons
WAR: 4.6
Salary: $1.1m
Value: $23.7m

7. Matt Carpenter
WAR: 4.3
Salary: $1.3m
Value: $21.9m

8. Josh Donaldson
WAR: 4.1
Salary: $0.5m
Value: $21.6m

9. Salvador Perez
WAR: 4.2
Salary: $1.5m
Value: $21.2m

10. Yasiel Puig
WAR: 4.5
Salary: $3.7m
Value: $20.6m

Value Best

This is certainly an exceptional group of players, and they got on this list for a few different reasons. For the most part, age and the renewal/arbitration system played a key role. The Rays’ deal with Longoria is widely considered one of the most team friendly deals in history. Andrelton Simmons just came off one of the greatest fielding seasons of all time, and Salvador Perez has already been worth nearly 3x his salary this season. Also, in hilarious Billy Beane fashion, Josh Donaldson is somehow getting paid the league minimum.

The front offices who have these players are hopefully counting their blessings. Some aren’t quite as lucky, though. Here are the 10 most overpaid players this year.

1. Ryan Howard
WAR: 0.1
Salary: $25m
Value: -$24.5m

2. Alfonso Soriano
WAR: 0.3
Salary: $19m
Value: -$17.4m

3. Mark Teixeira
WAR: 1.5
Salary: $23.1m
Value: -$15m

4. Adam Dunn
WAR: 0.1
Salary: $15m
Value: -$14.5m

5. Dan Uggla
WAR: 0.3
Salary: $13.1m
Value: -$11.5m

6. B.J. Upton
WAR: 0.7
Salary: $14.1m
Value: -$10.3m

7. Prince Fielder
WAR: 2.6
Salary: $24m
Value: -$10m

8. Carl Crawford
WAR: 2.1
Salary: $21.1m
Value: -$9.8m

9. Nick Markakis
WAR: 1.1
Salary: $15.4m
Value: -$9.5m

10. Victor Martinez
WAR: 0.6
Salary: $12m
Value: -$8.8m

Value Worst

A pretty common trend exists here: big free agency signings who aren’t expected to perform as well as they should this year. Prince Fielder is pretty easily the biggest surprise for me on this list, but a $24m first baseman really does need to hit remarkably well to be worth that. Derek Jeter, getting paid $12m and expected to get a WAR of 0.7, just missed the list at 11th.

Overall, young guys are more likely to be underpaid, and older guys are more likely to be overpaid, almost entirely due to the league’s free agency rules. This list is just another tiny reminder in the pile of research that a team filled with young talent will be more cost-effective than building a team through free agency.


MLB’s New Replay System: A Breakdown of Plays So Far

Well well well, MLB has a new replay system set up for every game of this year. Some people – although I would say most – are not too fond of this new system, myself included. They would say that it slows down an already slow enough game, which is true. The way the system is structured allows managers to be exploitative by confirming with their bench to see whether or not it the call should be challenged. This part of the process is what really gets me. Granted I haven’t seen too many games this year but already I miss the arguments between managers/coaches and the umpires; they were fun and made the game pretty interesting (especially when the manager of the team playing against yours got ejected). Regardless, this post is not intended to analyse the dynamics between managers and umpires but rather look at how successful the replay system has been and to examine the tendencies of the challenges. Using the twitter account @MLBReplays I examined all of the calls challenged so far this season. While the sample size is arguably small it did take quite a long time to examine various angles from the 49 calls made (as of the morning of April 9th 2014). For each replay I collected the following information which I then organized into a spreadsheet: Read the rest of this entry »


Alcides Escobar and the Most Unusual Skillset in Baseball

When I first began this piece, the idea was to title it “Who Has the Most Unusual Skillset in Baseball?” then to spend the majority of the time referring to several players and choosing one, based on statistical evidence, that best fit the bill. However, upon seeing what Alcides Escobar accomplished last season, good, bad, and ugly, there really was no argument to be made for anyone else.

Now, when I say unusual, what I am looking for is a player who somehow possesses incredible strengths and infuriating weaknesses at the same time.  In other words, the complete opposite of balance and well-roundedness. When it comes to Escobar, he has tremendous skills in the field, is electric on the base paths, and may very well be the worst hitter in all of baseball.

Let’s begin with Escobar’s defense. Last season, he was unquestionably one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. Andrelton Simmons is better than everyone, we know that, but only he and Yunel Escobar bested Alcides Escobar’s UZR/150 of 12.1. Admittedly, if we turn to DRS, Alcides Escobar looks less impressive. Still, he is pegged by DRS as an excellent defender. He finished 2013 7th among 21 qualified shortstops, right behind Troy Tulowitzki and ahead of Yunel Escobar. Overall, while he’s not Andrelton Simmons, and may not even be the best defensive shortstop not named Andrelton Simmons, almost every defensive metric rates him as a well above average to elite defensive player.

Now, in the spirit of beginning and ending with a positive, this is the time where we must address Alcides Escobar’s hitting. Escobar is the worst hitter in almost every relevant statistic. His ISO of .066 ranked second to last in the league among qualified players, only greater than Elvis Andrus, and we know what kind of power he has. His OBP of .259 was the worst in baseball. (That’s a bad batting average!) His walk rate of 3% was the second worst, superior to only A.J Pierzynski. His wOBA of .247 was easily the worst in baseball, and as a result, his wRC+ of 49 was the worst in the game as well, less than half of what is considered average and the worst mark since Caesar Izturis in 2010. This paragraph feels less and less like a paragraph and more like a checklist of offensive ineptitude. Sure, the argument can be made that Escobar will be slightly less horrible at the plate in 2014, thanks to a depressed BABIP of .264 last season, but aren’t we past that point with him? He did have a BABIP of .344 in 2012, but that was an aberration. Despite his impactful speed, in four full major league seasons, the rest of his BABIP marks are well below .290, including an identical to last season mark of .264 in 2010. Even if his BABIP were to skyrocket from his mostly uninspiring career numbers to above average, something like .300-.305 (unlikely to happen) he would still struggle mightily as a hitter given his lack of power and inability to draw walks.

Now back to a strength of Escobar’s, baserunning. While it is often more difficult to analyze the positive or negative contributions of a player on the base paths, the statistics at our disposal clearly show that Escobar is a difference maker when he reaches base. While 22 stolen bases may not seem like an incredible total, it did tie him for 18th in the league. Also, he was never caught. Not even once! That is an awesome display of efficiency. Beyond that, there are metrics that suggest he is far better than the 18th best base runner. Starting with UBR, which pegs him as the 14th best at 4.0. Not surprisingly, metrics that factor in base stealing look even more fondly upon his work. This includes BsR, or baserunning runs above average, where his score of 8.0 ranked him fifth in the Majors. wSB isn’t far behind, as he comes in at 6th there, at 3.9. The last two stats speak volumes to just how crucial efficient base-stealing is relative to volume base-stealing. Depending on which statistics you value most, Escobar rates as somewhere between a top 20 base runner, to as high as the top five, making him one of the few true difference makers on the bases.

Now that we have examined each element of his game, the question becomes: Given his strengths and weaknesses, what is his value? Does his hitting negate his other contributions, or is he still a positive player? This is why I love WAR! Without it, it would be nearly impossible to even estimate the value of a player like this, given how impactful he is whenever he is on the field, for better or worse. While FanGraphs has him as having been a shade above a one win player in 2013 with a 1.1 WAR, Baseball Reference isn’t nearly as generous, where his WAR was 0.3. Neither of these numbers are particularly impressive, but the 0.3 is especially concerning.

It’s not as if, over the course of his career, he has been much more valuable, either. Based on WAR, FanGraphs views 2012 as Escobar’s best season, with a WAR of 2.1. The problem is, as covered previously, that was the season where his offensive production ballooned to near-league average level (96 wRC+) thanks in large part to a .344 BABIP, something he is highly unlikely to replicate.  It only gets worse when you realize that, while his WAR is reflective of a late game defensive replacement/pinch runner, he was far from that in 2013. He played in 158 games, and somehow managed to compile 642 plate appearances!

It seems that Escobar would fit best as a bench player in the Brendan Ryan/Nick Punto mold. This would require him to be with a team that gets impressive offensive production from the shortstop position, so as to hide his hitting flaws, but is not nearly as impressive on the defensive side, allowing him to contribute in that way. In his current role, however, where he is forced to be the everyday shortstop for a Royals team attempting to compete, he is at best a non-factor.  Isn’t it funny how that’s what we discover about a player who is the complete opposite of a non-factor in everything he does?


Does a Velocity *Increase* Also Predict Injury? (A Primer)

Leading into the currently-young 2014 season, one of the biggest stories in baseball was the rash of pitcher injuries — with UCL injuries and Tommy John surgery seeming unusually frequent this year.

For Patrick Corbin’s case, in particular, my immediate thought was “Hm, I recall he increased his velocity last year”… which of course led me to wonder if the velocity increase actually caused his injury in some way.

I don’t know how common this line of thinking is.  So far as I can tell, the discussion of velocity and injury more frequently goes the other way, that a velocity decrease may be the first sign that something is wrong.  Or maybe this is actually a more common suspicion than I realize.  If nothing else, it seems to merit a closer look/increased discussion.

The logic here is simple: for most players, velocity only seems to decrease from year to year (although it may increase within a season).  So when a player bucks the usual pattern and increases velocity between years, you have to wonder what exactly he did.  At least some of the time, guys may be cheating a little (doing something not entirely sound, mechanically) to get that extra “oomph.”  This is of course is where the injury part enters.  If indeed some guys are cheating, maybe it’s only a matter of time before they blow out an elbow (or shoulder).

So can a velocity increase be a sign that a guy’s cheating and thus a future injury risk?  Answering this thoroughly takes some time and effort, more than I can probably spare this week, but I thought I’d at the very least get some reader thoughts.  Eventually I hope to look at guys from many different seasons,  comparing the injury rate of guys who did vs. did not see a notable velocity increase the preceding season.  (I’ll be using this list of TJ patients, which seems fairly complete.  Probably it would be better to add shoulder injuries, too, if someone has a list.)

For those curious, here are the 2012 and 2013 velocities for the five big names of this year’s “Tommy John cohort.”  Unfortunately there’s hardly anything that can be taken away from such a small list.  Harvey and Corbin had velocity increases (consistent with the conjecture), while the others did not.  But Beachy was coming off a previous Tommy John surgery performed in 2012, while Medlen’s 2012 was partially in the bullpen, so it’s not exactly clear what to make of their 2012 vs. 2013 velocities.

Name 2012 velo 2013 velo Change
Matt Harvey 94.7 95.8 1.1
Patrick Corbin 90.9 92.1 1.2
Brandon Beachy 91.0 90.2 -0.8
Kris Medlen 90.0 89.4 -0.6
Jarrod Parker 92.4 91.5 -0.9

(Overall FB velocities in this table.  Maybe it would have been better to just compare 4-seam vs. 4-seam, but I didn’t want to have to worry about composition for now.)

It might be a few weeks before I myself have time for a closer look.  BUT, if anyone else wants to spearhead the effort sooner, please feel free to do so, and I’m of course happy to help.  As always, reader thoughts and feedback are welcome!