Archive for March, 2010

Peavy out of Petco a Problem?

This will be Jake Peavy’s first full season with the Chicago White Sox, and it’s well documented that his new home ballpark, U.S. Cellular, inflates home run totals while his former park, Petco Park, suppresses them quite a bit. So we should expect Peavy to give up more home runs — but how many more?

One way to answer the question is to look at the home run per fly ball rates, or HR/FB, of each park relative to Peavy’s fly-ball numbers. We know fly-ball rates normalize more quickly than simple home run rates, and pitchers generally allow homers on about 11 percent of their fly balls. So this approach allows us to take a pretty nuanced look at the problem.

A study by Dan Turkenkopf of The Hardball Times shows us that “The Cell” and Petco have HR/FB indices of 118 and 75, respectively. What that means is that if you multiply those numbers by .11 (percentage of all fly balls that become homers), you discover that about 13 percent of fly balls become homers in Chicago, versus only about 8.25 percent in San Diego.

Before we see how that affects Peavy, let’s look at his record with the Padres.

Peavy away from Petco Park
Season	HR	FB	HR/FB
2004	9	81	11.1%
2005	6	82	7.3%
2006	11	110	10.0%
2007	8	102	7.8%
2008	13	75	17.3%
2009	3	27	7.9%
Total	50	477	10.5%

Peavy at Petco Park
Season	HR	FB	HR/FB
2004	4	81	4.9%
2005	12	105	11.4%
2006	12	130	9.2%
2007	5	121	4.1%
2008	4	100	4.0%
2009	4	53	8.1%
Total	41	590	6.9%

We see a couple of things here. First, Peavy benefited from Petco’s home-run suppression, as seen by his lower HR/FB rate. Also, he gave up a greater number of fly balls at Petco. The latter is due to a significant imbalance in his innings-pitched home/away splits between 2004 and 2009: 591 innings at Petco versus only 458 innings away.

Therefore, we need to figure out how many fly balls Peavy allows on average. Since 2004, he’s allowed 477 flies in 458 away innings (1.04 FB/IP) and 590 flies in 591 home innings (1.00 FB/IP). Basically, he allows almost exactly one fly ball per inning.

If we project Peavy to throw 200 innings, split equally between The Cell and opposing parks, we get something like this:

Home: 100 IP = 100 FB at 13% HR/FB = 13 HR (1.17 HR/9)
Away: 100 IP = 100 FB at 11% HR/FB = 11 HR (0.99 HR/9)
Total: 200 IP = 200 FB = 24 HR (1.08 HR/9)

Of course, this isn’t a stone-cold lock. There are other variables to consider, such as the fact that he is moving to a league with a designated hitter, but 24 is a legitimate estimate.

How does that compare to his usual numbers? Well, since 2004, when Petco opened, Peavy has posted a 0.77 HR/9 rate, meaning that, in any given 200 innings, he’d allow about 17 home runs.

So over 200 innings, Peavy should give up around seven more homers than he did with the Padres. That’s enough to give his ERA a bit of a bump but not enough to prevent him from remaining an elite pitcher.


Closers Worth Less than You Think

As expected, the White Sox will continue to use Bobby Jenks as their closer this year, despite having a superior bullpen arm in Matt Thornton. For the past two seasons, Thornton has been a buried treasure, posting better numbers than the Southside’s closer. For that matter, his FIP (a defense-independent measure of ability) has been better than many other team’s closers.

The White Sox aren’t the only team that does not have their best relief pitcher throwing in the ninth. Kevin Jepsen of the Angels is a better pitcher than Brian Fuentes, and the Mariners’ Brandon League could very well be better than David Aardsma. In one extreme case, the 2007 Indians continued to use Joe Borowski as their closer despite his bloated 5.07 ERA, while they reserved Rafael Betancourt for the eighth inning. Betancourt posted a minuscule 1.47 ERA and 2.22 FIP that year.

For fans that follow these teams, it’s frustrating to see the manager continue to go to the well with these “proven closers” while neglecting to give these elite arms their fair shot at saving games. Well, the aggravation of fans aimed towards the manager in most cases is unnecessary. No, they aren’t using their assets in the best possible way, but the impact isn’t a big as you might think.

With the help of Tom Tango, FanGraphs provides a stat that measures the magnitude of every game situation called Leverage Index, or LI for short. Here’s the gist, and this takes us back to what Sky shared about the Twins loss of Joe Nathan earlier in the month:

-The average situation (think of the starting pitcher’s role) has an LI of 1.
-Closers appear in situations with an average LI of about 1.8, meaning runs allowed by closers are a little less than twice as damaging as the average run.
-Set-up men will see LIs in the 1.3 to 1.6 range.

So while closers on average pitch in more crucial situations, the set-up man pitches in some pretty important situations as well, and often more frequently.

For a practical example we’ll use Jenks and Thornton of 2009 White Sox. What happens if we go back into 2009, only with Jenks and Thornton swapping roles? Jenks posted a FIP of 4.47 over 53 1/3 innings, with an average LI of 1.9. This made him good for 4 runs above replacement level, or about half a win. Thorton threw 72 1/3 innings, with a 2.47 FIP, with an average LI of 1.5. That made Thornton good for 26 runs above replacement level. If you give Thornton’s innings and leverage to Jenks, and vice versa, the difference in runs above replacement comes out to be about a single run. That’s all.

Part of the extra value that a set-up man has is he isn’t restricted to just the ninth inning with a lead. Many non-save situations are crucial to a team’s chances of winning, and in fact, a lot of high leverage situations happen when a team is trailing by just one run — a situation where a manager will almost never use his closer, even though keeping the score close gives his team a chance for a come from behind victory.

Non-closer relievers can be extremely valuable in these middle innings, high leverage situations, so it’s not the end of the world if your team’s manager chooses to employ an inferior pitcher to close out games. Thornton, Jepsen, and League will provide plenty of value, even if they don’t rack up many saves.


Jason Heyward Reality Check

Maybe you heard that some guy named Jason Heyward made the Atlanta Braves’ Opening Day roster. It could have something to do with the sound of the ball coming off his bat, which was a daily discussion at Champion Field in Orlando, Fla. Or maybe it was all those cars that Heyward dented with his devastating drives over the right-field wall.

But more likely, it had to do with how Heyward — despite being all of 20 years old — has dominated every minor league station and seems ready for the majors. While toying with minor league pitchers, he constantly showed his trademark patience — he had 105 walks to 138 career strikeouts, an elite strikeout-to-walk ratio for a young prospect. He also showed more power as he advanced, an excellent sign for his future.

There have been some recent prospects who came to the majors with similar pedigrees at this young age. But a quick scan of their debut seasons might be reason for pessimism regarding Heyward’s upcoming season.

Player	        AB	BA	OBP	SLG	HR	R	RBI	SB
Miguel Cabrera	314	.268	.325	.468	12	39	62	0
B.J. Upton	159	.258	.324	.409	4	19	12	4
Justin Upton	140	.221	.283	.364	2	17	11	2
Delmon Young	126	.317	.336	.476	3	16	10	2

Not quite the list that an Atlanta Braves fan would want to see. But this is why age factors so prominently in the appraisal of prospects — the fact that Miguel Cabrera could come up at age 20 and even put up a slightly above-average season at the plate meant that his future was bright. But if he put the same season up four years later, there would not have been much reason for excitement. So the fact that Heyward will create an entry for himself on this list is almost as important as his results.

But there are also reasons to expect better from Heyward. His minor league walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.76) is miles better than Miguel Cabrera’s decent 0.5 minor league number. His .190 career minor league ISO (slugging percentage minus batting aveage) is barely bested by Justin Upton’s .193 and Delmon Young’s .200. So to put Heyward’s skills in focus, relative to other recent young debuts, he’s got plate discipline better than Miguel Cabrera along with power comparable to Justin Upton.


Jason Varitek isn’t Done Yet

Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was an integral part of Boston’s championship teams of 2004 and 2007, but he’s pretty clearly in the decline phase of his career. The Red Sox are aware of this, given their trade for catcher Victor Martinez in 2009. But believe it or not, Varitek isn’t entirely useless, and this isn’t because of any “intangibles,” the “C” on his uniform, or the time he took a swing at A-Rod while keeping his catcher’s facemask on. Strictly by the numbers, Jason Varitek still has something to offer as a player.

In 2009, Varitek hit .209/.313/.390. And over the last three seasons he hit .229/.322/.390. Those are pretty dreadful lines. However, slugging catchers like Joe Mauer and Brian McCann are far from the norm. Last year, the average catcher hit .254/.321/.396. That means that Varitek’s hitting line is pretty much average for a backstop.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is useful for cases just like this. Since average major league players have substantial value, WAR uses a different baseline, combining offense, defense, and a positional adjustment to see how many wins over a freely available Triple-A talent (a “replacement player”) each player contributes given his playing time. Over a full season, 2 WAR is about average. According to FanGraphs, Varitek was worth 1.2 WAR in 2008 and 1.3 in 2009. What is a replacement level catcher? In similar playing time, Rays catcher Dioner Navarro was worth a -0.2 WAR in 2009. He “hit” .218/.261/.322 and ended up just barely below replacement level.

Varitek, who turned 38 years old is April, is best suited as a part-timer at this point, but he has a role to play for the Red Sox. Martinez hasn’t caught more than 100 games since 2007. It’s extremely rare for any team, even the Red Sox, to have an above-average player on the bench. And though Varitek is probably just a tick below average, that’s still very good for a back-up catcher. Boston looks to be in another tight race this season, and on the days when Martinez isn’t catching, they could do much worse than Varitek, who is still a perfectly useful big league backstop.


Is Jenrry Mejia the Next Joba?

After a year in which three of their best players missed a major chunk of the season, the Mets needed some good news to kick off 2010. They’ve gotten some in the form of the performance of their best prospect, righthander Jenrry Mejia. After striking out more than a man per inning last season as the youngest player in the Eastern League (Double-A), the 20-year-old has been the talk of camp with his electric mid-90s fastball. He’s been so good, in fact, that the club is thinking of promoting him to the big leagues as a reliever. While he might thrive in that role, it would still be a bad decision.

Manager Jerry Manuel has pondered Mejia in the bullpen because he thinks he and Francsico Rodriguez will give the team a dynamic one-two combo to finish games. The problem is that Mejia still has a lot of development left. He admits his command issues, saying that he aims for the middle of the plate and hopes for the best. His slider also needs work, though he does feature an impressive changeup. As a reliever, these secondary pitches would not get the attention they need to improve.

The Mariners and Yankees should both provide cautionary tales for the Mets. Each tried to groom a young starter with ace potential, Brandon Morrow and Joba Chamberlain respectively, in the major league bullpen. While both performed well, they have also struggled in the transition back to the rotation. The Mariners ended up trading Morrow, while the Yankees have seemingly moved Chamberlain back to the bullpen once again.

What’s so bad about the bullpen? After all, both Morrow and Chamberlain have pitched well as relievers. Their teams, though, won’t realize maximum value. Starters affect a much greater portion of a team’s innings. If a team has 1450 IP in a season, a 200-inning starter covers 13.8 percent of the total time. A reliever who throws 70 innings affects just 4.8 percent of total innings. This shows up in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), too. Last year Barry Zito, who had had a 4.03 ERA in 192 innings, was worth 2.2 WAR, while Heath Bell, the NL saves leader, was worth 2.0 WAR. And if you don’t believe WAR, look at the free agent market, where the contracts given to top-flight starters typically dwarf those given to elite relievers.

The Mets might not have as strong a bullpen this year without Mejia, but by allowing him to properly develop in the minors they could see a greater return in the future. That’s not easy to stomach for fans who want to win today, nor is it an easy decision for Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya whose jobs might be on the line, but it is the correct one for the future of the team. Considering the Mets haven’t featured a homegrown ace since Doc Gooden, you’d think they realize it would be foolish to stunt Mejia’s growth.


Eight Arms Poised to Rebound

Ricky Nolasco was one of the biggest disappointments in baseball last year, posting a 5.06 ERA when he was expected to be a front-line starter for the Marlins. However, if you peruse the leaderboards at FanGraphs, you may notice that Nolasco actually pitched really well most of the time; his 3.28 xFIP (which stands for Fielder Independent Pitching, and evaluates a pitcher based on his walk rate, strikeout rate, and ground ball rate) ranked fourth in the National League, ahead of both Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. That bodes well for Nolasco in 2010.

Earlier today, Tom Tango listed a few pitchers who are bound to regress in 2010. I’m here to do the opposite. Along with Nolasco, here are seven other hurlers whose 2009 xFIP gives reason for optimism this season.

Getting back to Nolasco for a moment, the reason his ERA was nearly two full runs higher than his xFIP is because he was remarkably terrible with runners on base. With no one on, opponents hit just .222/.254/.351 off of him, but they teed off for a .317/.371/.562 line with a runner on base. As a result, Nolasco had a LOB% of 61.0 percent, the lowest of any NL starter by a huge distance. Mike Pelfrey had the second-lowest LOB% of any qualified starter at 66.7 percent, with league average being close to 70 percent.

Performance with men on base does not generally carry over from year to year, which is one of the reasons xFIP is a better predictor of future performance than ERA. For instance, in 2008, Nolasco was actually better with men on base than with the bases empty, and he was dominant with runners in scoring position, stranding 75.7 percent of runners. We should expect him to perform much more evenly between those two situations in 2010, and his ERA should go way down, even if he doesn’t really improve as a pitcher.

Below is a table of pitchers with who posted an ERA at least half a run higher than their xFIP in 2009 — you should expect this group to post substantially better results this year.

PLAYER               2009 xFIP           2009 ERA
Ricky Nolasco             3.28               5.06
Carl Pavano               3.96               5.10
Livan Hernandez           4.78               5.44
Cole Hamels               3.69               4.32
Jorge de la Rosa          3.76               4.38
Jason Hammel              3.81               4.33
Mike Pelfrey              4.52               5.03
Josh Beckett              3.35               3.86

Why Porcello Needs More K’s

By conventional wisdom, Rick Porcello is the type of pitcher who is supposed to succeed in the major leagues. He has the perfect pitcher’s physique at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds. He can touch 95 miles per hour and throws two wipeout breaking pitches. It takes a special arm to handle the jump from A-ball to The Show, and Porcello proved he has it last year.

At FanGraphs, we track the runs above average of every type of pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal. These, called “pitch type linear weights,” examine how each pitch thrown alters the expected number of runs scored in the inning. Last season, only 23 starting pitchers — including seven of the 10 who received Cy Young votes — had fastballs that were at least 10 runs above average over the course of the season. Porcello was one of them, ranking between Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia at 14.4 runs above average. This is a case in which the statistics match the scouting reports: Porcello has one of the game’s best fastballs.

The wonder, however, is why these scouting elements that put Porcello in such high standing don’t translate to the strikeout column. Of all starting pitchers to qualify for the ERA title last season, Porcello ranked eighth from the bottom in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) at just 4.69. Of the 23 pitchers on the best fastballs list, the average strikeout rate was 7.61, and only Joel Pineiro had a K/9 ratio lower than Porcello’s. The Tigers right-hander succeeded the same way as Pineiro, with ground balls, at the fifth-highest rate in the majors (Pineiro was No. 1).

Still, to have success going forward, Porcello will need to pitch more like he did in the Tigers’ final game last season, when he left the American League Central tiebreaker with the lead after striking out a career-high eight batters. Sustaining this type of performance for Year 2 isn’t unheard of, and given Porcello’s pedigree, pointing to Bret Saberhagen as an example is fair. Like Porcello, Saberhagen debuted in the majors at age 20, had an ERA 16 percent above league average, had good control and had a below-average strikeout rate. In his second year, Saberhagen went out and won the Cy Young, striking out hitters at a 30 percent higher clip in the process.

The Tigers don’t need Porcello to win the Cy Young this season to win their division. But to reach the peak Porcello’s stuff suggests, pitching coach Rick Knapp must scrap any instruction centering around pitching to contact. More strikeouts are the fastest way to lower your ERA, and Porcello has the stuff to do it. The sooner the Tigers convince their young star of this, the sooner he joins Justin Verlander atop the rotation.


Zobrist the Next Beltre?

By at least one comprehensive measure of value, Ben Zobrist was the best player in baseball last year. Yes, by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the FanGraphs statistic that includes component statistics from both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, Zobrist was worth 8.6 WAR last year as he rode solid defense at second base just barely past Albert Pujols.

It was, to say the least, a surprise. The year before, Zobrist had accumulated a mere 1.3 WAR in his 227 plate appearances. In fact, since FanGraphs started tracking the stat in 2002, Zobrist’s 2009 effort created the biggest gap between a player’s best season by WAR and his second-best season. Let’s check out the rest of the biggest “flukes.”

                   Best WAR   Second-Best WAR    Difference
Ben Zobrist         8.6          1.3             7.3
Adrian Beltre       9.9          4.6             5.3
Richard Hidalgo     6.1          1.8             4.3
Ryan Ludwick        5.7          1.9             3.8
Magglio Ordonez     8.8          5.2             3.6
J.D. Drew           8.3          4.8             3.5
Bret Boone          7.3          3.8             3.5
Jim Thome           7.3          4.8             2.5

Luckily for the Rays, Zobrist’s big season did not come in a contract year like it did for second place on this list, Adrian Beltre. If Zobrist falls back to a Beltre-like level of performance in the future, his 2009 will be seen as a fluke, no two ways about it. On the other hand, this list also shows that not all flukes are created equal. Yes, Beltre has a big gap between his best and second-best years, but his second-best WAR total was pretty good, too.

Richard Hidalgo and Bret Boone provide a cautionary tale for Zobrist as neither came close to repeating their top WAR seasons. In their defense, Hidalgo and Boone both had good pre-2002 years that could not factor into this analysis, so it’s possible the gap between their two best seasons is not quite this large. Ryan Ludwick may yet close his gap, but like Magglio Ordonez and J.D. Drew before him, he doesn’t have Zobrist’s solid infield defense (or positional versatility) to his credit.

Since 2002, the lowest second-best WAR for a player that accumulated 8+ WAR in one season was Beltre’s 4.6. If that’s the best Zobrist does in the future, he’ll still provide the Rays great value in the short-term. Only three second basemen in baseball bettered that number last year. But we should keep in mind the careers of Boone and Hidalgo before we assume Zobrist has established a new level of performance.


A Win for the Twins

With a new eight-year, $184 million contract that includes a full no-trade clause, the Minnesota Twins have essentially guaranteed their fan base that hometown hero Joe Mauer will be spending the majority of his career in the Twin Cities. The guaranteed money is steep — the contract is the fourth-largest in the history of the game — but only pays Mauer as if he’s worth an average of six wins per year over a replacement-level player. He was worth eight wins over a replacement-level catcher a year ago, so even if the power surge of 2009 doesn’t carry over, the Twins still have a good chance of getting their money’s worth.

The risk surrounding this deal is not about 2010 or 2011, but whether Mauer can continue to play well through age 35, when this new contract will expire. Catchers age in dog years, as the physical strain of crouching behind the plate 130-plus times per year takes its toll. However, a look through the history books shows that catchers who can really hit have not just survived, but thrived even after a decade in baseball.

Here are the 10 best-hitting catchers in baseball history through their age-26 season. While John Romano offers a cautionary tale of a guy who didn’t last much past 30, the
list is surprisingly positive for Twins fans. Romano is the exception, not the rule. Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench, Joe Torre and Yogi Berra were all excellent well beyond their age-27 peak, and there is certainly no discernable trend of these catchers flaming out in their early 30s.

While an eight-year deal is a risk for any player, history does not suggest that we should expect Mauer’s bat to wilt in the next few years. He may eventually have to change positions, but regardless of where he plays, we shoul


Three Alarming Spring Performances

It has been a rough spring for a lot of pitchers, and while you can usually ignore spring training results, three guys in particular are pitching in a way that should worry you: Rich Harden (8 1/3 IP, 7 BB, 9 K, 2 HR), Madison Bumgarner (7 IP, 7 BB, 0 K, 1 HR) and Andrew Miller (7 2/3 IP, 8 BB, 2 K, 1 HR). But the most telling number can’t even be found in their stat lines.

Harden is coming off another injury-riddled season, so spring training represents an especially important tune-up, while Bumgarner and Miller are young guys looking to get spots in the big league rotation. Each of these guys have some real incentives to bring their best stuff even in games that don’t count. Walking seven guys while striking out none in seven innings as Bumganer has is very troubling, even if it is just seven innings. But even more telling is fastball velocity.

Over seven innings a pitcher throws about 60 fastballs, and a given pitcher’s fastball speed does not vary by much, so 60 fastballs gives a pretty good picture of a pitcher’s true talent. And fastball speed is tremendously important. The average fastball that is swung at is missed 14 percent of the time, and on average each additional 1.25 mph increases this rate by 1 percent. More swinging strikes mean less contact and more strikeouts. Not surprisingly, there is a clear trend showing that pitchers who throw faster perform better.

This is especially troubling for Harden and Bumgarner, whose fastballs have been noticeably slower during spring training. Last Monday the two pitchers actually faced off in the Ranger’s spring training park in Surprise, AZ, one of the few springing training parks with the Pitchf/x system.

Harden’s fastball was sitting in the 88 to 91 mph range topping out at 92.1 mph. His average speed last year was over 92 mph. Bumgarner worked in the 88 to 90 mph range, topping out at just 91 mph. He was regularity above 90 mph last year in the minors, and his fastball is his best pitch. However, his velocity did start to fade towards the end of last season, which makes his lack of velo this spring even more concerning. Some pitchers can succeed with a slower fastball, but the reduced speed coupled with the very poor performance is not encouraging.

Miller is a cautionary tale for Bumgarner about what can happen when a pitcher’s velocity goes away. Once an elite prospect who could regularly throw 95, his average fastball just 90.9 MPH a year ago, and his stock has tumbled significantly. A disastrous spring certainly won’t help get him back in the Marlins plans.

It’s always possible these guys are still a step behind after a long winter, and that their velocity will return. But when trying to figure out which spring training stat is most telling for pitchers, start with fastball velocity.


Carlos Silva’s Change of Scenery

In the land of spring training cliches, the change of scenery card is often played. “Player A is with a new team, and he’s having a blast! His struggles last year were because of his unhappiness with his old team. Watch out for Player A in the upcoming season!” The Chicago Cubs are sure hoping a new environment will do wonders for Carlos Silva, who they acquired from the Mariners for Milton Bradley. Frankly, it’s hard to be worse than Silva was in Seattle (6.81 ERA the past two years), and if recent history is any indication, a change of address won’t be enough to help his pitching.

For starters, Silva should be quite familiar with the plight of Ian Snell, his former Seattle teammate. Snell, was so unhappy with the Pittsburgh Pirates that he actually demanded a demotion. The Pirates obliged and then traded Snell to the Mariners last July. Snell responded by smiling and pitching worse with the M’s than he had with the Pirates – his FIP was 4.61 in Pittsburgh and 5.23 in Seattle.

Dontrelle Willis seemed poised for a breakout upon leaving the last place and frugal Florida Marlins for the contending Detroit Tigers prior to the 2008 season. Willis’ 5.13 FIP with the Marlins soon looked much better in comparison to the 8.30 and 6.22 FIPs Willis has posted with Detroit during two injury-hampered seasons.

Area code magic doesn’t always work on positional players either. Former top prospect Delmon Young was seen as a victim of a poor organization when Tampa Bay traded him to the Minnesota Twins prior to the 2008 season. Young did hit better with the Twins, going from a .315 wOBA to a .324 wOBA, but posted a career low .312 wOBA in 2009, and his defense has been a nightmare.

The Kansas City Royals hoped the tales of the lethargic and apathetic Yuniesky Betancourt were false when they took him on from Seattle last year. To Betancourt’s credit, he upped his wOBA by four points while wearing blue, but also saw his defense get worse, as he posted a -28.6 UZR/150 with the Royals, a steep decline from his already horrid -18.5 UZR/150 with the Mariners.

Three of the four projections listed for Silva at FanGraphs have him posting an ERA over 5.00 next season. Is there any reason to be more optimistic than that? We know Silva is not going to strike people out (3.0 K/9 for his career), so he’ll have to rely on his defense. On the plus side, he is leaving the DH league for the non-DH league. However, he is also leaving what is widely considered to be the best defense in baseball. And remember, while pitching in front of that defense last year, his ERA was 8.60.

In reality, the Cubs didn’t really want Silva, they simply needed to eat his awful contract (two years, $25 million remaining) in order to convince Seattle to take Milton Bradley off their hands, and the Mariners even threw $9 million into the deal. But if the Cubs think a change of address will reverse Silva’s fortunes, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.


Five Worst Outfielders

In the shift towards appreciating defense, especially in the outfield, guys like Franklin Gutierrez and Nyjer Morgan have seen their stock rise. Fly-catchers are now in demand, as we return to an era where it is acceptable to have a corner outfielder who can’t hit, as long as he catches everything between the foul poles. But while everyone will focus on the finest field, what about the guys on the other end of the spectrum? There are some outfielders, in fact, who are so bad with the leather that they practically eliminate their entire offensive value.

As the transition towards defense-first outfielders takes place, we’re still left with remnants of the last decade, the softball players who can mash a baseball but can’t track one down in the outfield. Even as teams more aggressively move these players to first base or DH, there is still a group of guys who make things interesting every time the ball is hit in the air. Here are the five worst outfielders in baseball from 2007-2009, and their UZR per 150 games.

Brad Hawpe, RF, Rockies: -33.0
Manny Ramirez, LF, Dodgers: -16.0
Delmon Young, LF, Twins: -14.1
Jason Bay, LF, Mets: -13.6
Michael Cuddyer, RF, Twins: -12.4

Yes, that’s right, over the course of 150 games, Hawpe is 33 runs worse than the average rightfielder.

This fraternity of all-bat/no-glove outfielders has thinned out a bit with the move of Adam Dunn to first base and Jermaine Dye’s inability to find an employer, but these five still fly the banner for hulking sluggers in the outfield. Hawpe, Ramirez and Bay certainly hit well enough to still have value despite their misadventures in the field, but Young has actually performed below replacement-level the last few seasons, meaning his negative performance on defense has actually outweighed his offensive contributions, which have also been minimal.

Young seems to have gotten the message, dropping 30 pounds over the winter and reporting to camp in the proverbial “best shape of his life”. It will be interesting to see if it’s enough to keep the Twins pitching staff from cringing, however, as teammate Cuddyer is almost as bad. Perhaps that’s why Minnesota locked up centerfielder Denard Span to a long-term deal last week. Considering he’s flanked by Young and Cuddyer, he’s going to have to catch practically everything opponents hit to the outfield in 2010.


There Might be Hope in Toronto

The Toronto Blue Jays’ front office knew the situation when they traded Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies this winter. Staring upward at three powerhouses in the AL East, and seeing the Baltimore Orioles rapidly improving, they had to reload their farm system with young players if they wanted to avoid a perpetual spot in the cellar. Halladay presented them with the best opportunity to acquire young talent and rebuild the team. And here’s the thing: even with Doc gone, the Jays’ pitching might not be so bad in 2010.

It would seem, at face value, that losing Halladay would be devastating to the Jays’ staff, which allowed 4.76 runs per game, 11th in the AL in 2009. But even though Halladay threw 239 innings, the rest of the rotation was ravaged by injuries and there’s reason to believe the Jays have the depth and upside in their rotation to improve on last year’s performance.

Of the 12 pitchers who started games for Toronto, one was Brian Tallet, a career reliever who posted a 5.41 ERA in 25 starts. Getting him out of the rotation will surely give the club a boost. Another starter was Brett Cecil, a college closer who recently transitioned to the rotation and had a 5.30 ERA. Just 23 years old, Cecil was a first-round pick in 2006, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about a guy who averaged a strikeout per inning in the minors. Add the return of Shaun Marcum, who missed all of 2009 while recovering from elbow surgery, with an improvement from Ricky Romero (the club’s 2005 first-rounder), and it’s not hard to foresee the Jays’ staff improving on its 2009 numbers.

CHONE projects the five presumed Blue Jays starters — Romero, Cecil, Marcum, Brandon Morrow (the Mariners’ 2006 first-rounder acquired in an off-season trade), and Mark Rzepczynski — to post a 4.75 ERA, not much worse than the 4.66 ERA their starters posted last season. It would be highly unlikely for those five to make all 162 starts, but the Jays do have a number of backup plans, including Dustin McGowan, who finally appears healthy after a rotator cuff injury sidelined him in 2009, and Jesse Litsch, who should return mid-season following his own elbow surgery.

None of these guys will be as good as Halladay, at least not this season, but with three recent first-round picks in the fold, there’s reason to believe Toronto’s rotation will be better in 2010, even with Halladay in Philly.


Why Soto will Bounce Back

Chicago Cubs catcher Geovany Soto ramped up his workout routine during the winter, shedding serious pounds after a disappointing, injury-plagued sophomore season. During his Rookie of the Year Award-winning 2008 campaign, Soto batted .285/.364/.504 and ranked third in the majors among catchers with 4.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Last year, he hit just .218/.321/.381, falling to 1.2 WAR.

However, a huge chunk of that slide was due to his minuscule batting average on balls in play, and history suggests that we shouldn’t expect Soto to be nearly as unlucky in 2010.

In 2008, Soto had a .332 BABIP — league average is usually around .300. That figure plummeted to .246 in 2009, despite few changes in his offensive profile. Soto’s walk rate actually rose from 11 percent in 2008 to 12.9 percent in 2009, and he cut his strikeout rate from 4.5 percent to 23.3 percent. The 27 year-old swung at fewer junk pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (17.8 percent, compared to 20.1 percent in 2008) and took a cut at more hittable pitches within the zone (65.3 percent in 2009, up from 64.1 percent in 2008). Soto also made more contact, putting the bat on the ball 78.3 percent of the time he swung in 2009, compared to 74.7 percent in 2008.

Soto’s Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) did fall, from .219 to .163. But that’s still more pop than most backstops display. The average major league catcher posted a .141 Isolated Power in 2009.

For 2010, most projection systems figure that Soto’s BABIP will bounce back to a level near his career .305 mark. Chicago’s catcher possesses rare patience and power at a position where offensive production is often scarce. With more bloops and seeing-eyes singles evading gloves, Soto should post a much better batting line this season.


Cleveland’s Bold Strategy

While losing 97 games last season, the Cleveland Indians were the worst team in baseball at the two facets of run prevention. No other team ranked in the bottom five of Major League Baseball in both Fielding Independent Pitching (28th of 30) and Ultimate Zone Rating (26th), signaling problems with their pitchers and fielders alike. That’s bad, but is it fixable?

A lot of last year’s pitching problems can be blamed on trial and error, as the Indians tried an AL-leading 29 different pitchers on the mound. The hurlers projected to make up this season’s rotation, led by stalwart Jake Westbrook, provide a telling comment on the organizational philosophy for better run prevention in 2010: groundballs.

An average Major League Baseball team turns a groundball into an out about 67% of the time; it’s the most pitcher-friendly ball in play. The Indians rotation, not coincidentally, is built around pitchers that throw sinkers and induce grounders. Westbrook’s return from injury paves the way for this strategy, but he’s joined in practice by Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson and Aaron Laffey. Together, the four have a career GB/FB rate of 2.46 versus the approximate league average of 1.7.

To collect all the wormburners this staff is sure to produce, the Tribe have put together an infield of shortstops. Along with incumbent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, third baseman Jhonny Peralta and second baseman Luis Valbuena both have experience at that position. Like the Mariners, an organization that has built an outfield with two centerfield-caliber defenders (Ichiro Suzuki and Franklin Gutierrez), the Indians are hoping an infield featuring three players with experience at shortstop will be far more efficient at turning grounders into outs. The key to Cleveland’s success is whether these are the correct three infielders. All three ranked below average in Ultimate Zone Rating a year ago, combining to cost the Indians 15.6 runs with their glove.

However, most statheads will tell you that you need at least three years of fielding data to reach an accurate conclusion, and none of these three infielders have played more than 127 games at their current spot. Therefore, we can’t say they are below-average fielders based on UZR just yet. But if you put any faith in the fan projections featured at FanGraphs, there isn’t much reason for optimism: The trio is projected by our readers to cost the club -3.6 runs collectively. The jury’s still out on this threesome, and the groundball-inducing staff will be praying that all of them can live up to their shortstop pedigree. If not, it’s going to be another long year at Jacobs Field.


Russ Martin’s Injury Could be a Blessing

Dodger fans and fantasy owners alike had plenty of reasons for disappointment with Russell Martin’s 2009 season. The catcher saw a drop in basically every batting measure, from AVG, HRs, and RBIs to walk and home run rate. This is especially alarming for a 27-year-old hitter who is supposed to be entering his peak years. The news seemed to get worse for the club when it was revealed yesterday that Martin will miss at least four weeks with a pulled groin. But upon further review, this might be good news.

The biggest issue last year Martin was his precipitous drop in power, which can be seen through his ISO, or Isolated Power. ISO is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage, and measures raw power by looking at extra bases per at-bat. Martin’s ISO dropped from .176 to .079 over the past two years, and went from fourth best among catchers in 2007 to 2nd worst in 2009.

Martin’s ability to pull the ball with power just fell off a cliff in 2009. On balls hit to left field, Martin ran a .220 ISO or better each year prior, but last season he only managed a .119 ISO on balls hit to left. The key is a lack of home runs. He hit just four dingers to left last last year, which is seven fewer fewer than he managed in both 2007 and 2008. Adding to the issues, he hit more infield flies to the left side than ever before. With balls hit to the left side comprising over 40% of his balls in play, this was a major factor in his power loss.

There is, however, a good chance that Martin’s power sees a moderate pickup this season, as we could just be seeing some bad luck. HR/FB rates don’t tend to stabilize until after 300 balls hit into play, and Martin only hit 176 balls to left field last year. For his career, Martin has hit a homer on 6.7 percent of fly balls, but that figure was just 3.9 percent last year. That means we should expect Martin to perform closer to his career rates, although a full return to his 2007 level (9.7 percent) is very unlikely.

There has been growing speculation that Martin has been overworked behind the plate, and he led the majors with 414 starts behind the plate over the last three seasons. Some say this is the reason for his decline in production. Therefore, this groin injury could be a blessing in disguise as it should spare Martin’s knees from some unneeded wear and tear. Even before the injury, manager Joe Torre expressed a desire to limit Martin’s games played at the position. If Martin is able to come back from this injury and produce at a high level once again this year, it could be that this period away from catching was one of the reasons why.


Prince Fielder Poses a Risk

Prince Fielder is a big dude. In fact, according to Baseball Reference.com, he is the only position player in baseball history to weigh over 250 pounds while measuring under six feet tall (he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 270). Fielder puts his size to good use, though; Over the past three seasons he has hit 130 home runs, which place him second among all major leaguers. It’s no surprise that many Milwaukee Brewers fans dread the 2011-2012 offseason, when Fielder will reach the six years of service time required to hit free agency.

Last winter, Mark Teixeira signed an eight-year, $180 million contract, and he’s not a significantly better hitter than Fielder. But, considering the risks a multi-year deal poses, teams may consider Fielder’s weight a deterrent. Only 14 position players in baseball history have weighed more than 260 pounds, and all of them have at least a few inches on Fielder. This leaves us with few players for comparison in terms of body mass.

The two best comparables on the list are Carlos Lee and Dmitri Young. Lee hasn’t faced many weight-related issues, and in fact has remained healthy for most of his career. The only significant time he missed over the past seven years was the result of a Bronson Arroyo pitch that broke his pinky finger in 2008. Young provides a more cautionary tale. Baseball America’s No. 29 overall prospect in 1997, he started his career strong, hitting 72 home runs and 157 doubles in his first five MLB seasons. He posted inconsistent numbers over the next seven seasons and was out of baseball at 34.

Two other names stand out as comparables. Mo Vaughn struggled during his first two years in the league, but broke out at age 25 and became one of the league’s premier sluggers. By age 31 his performance was in decline, and he missed all of his age-33 season to injuries, before finding himself out of the game by 35. Prince’s father, Cecil Fielder, was also out of baseball by age 35.

Prince will be 27 in the first year of his new deal. Chances are, if he continues to produce, some team will take the risk that he can buck the odds and remain a marquee attraction deep into his 30s.


Why 2B/3B Swaps Make Sense

When the Seattle Mariners signed Chone Figgins over the winter, it was widely assumed that he would replace the departed Adrian Beltre at third base. However, when spring training opened, the team had Figgins playing second base, while last year’s second baseman Jose Lopez had moved over to third base. This move appears to be part of a growing trend in Major League Baseball.

More and more, teams are realizing that if you can play a quality third base, you probably have the skills to transition to second, and vice versa. While the traditional view has held second base as a premium defensive position (one of four “up the middle” spots that has generally been regarded as a spot for a good glove guy), modern defensive statistics such as Ultimate Zone Rating suggest that there just isn’t much of a difference between second base and third base.

A year ago, 26 players played at least 50 innings at both second base and third base, and it wasn’t just utility infielders playing part time; Alberto Callaspo, Adam Kennedy, Martin Prado, and Ian Stewart were among the everyday players who spent a decent amount of time at both second and third. As a whole, these players were one run above average at second base per 150 games played and two runs below average at third base per 150 games played. It’s a difference so small as to not be important.

Indeed, it is becoming more and more common for teams to see these positions as interchangeable. The Twins will use second baseman Nick Punto and Brendan Harris as a third base platoon, while the Cardinals signed Felipe Lopez to play both positions for their squad. The mystique of second base as a spot for glove guys and third base as the place where power hitters go is breaking down, as teams find that if you can play one, you can play the other.


Why Joe Mauer will Love Target Field

Over the last couple of days, we have talked about how a player’s skill set can affect his ability to take advantage of his home ballpark. Yesterday’s discussion on Adrian Gonzalez noted that his opposite-field power made him a candidate for teams that have inviting left field areas. And while it’s likely he’ll be playing in a new park in the near future, there’s another elite left-handed hitter who we know will playing in a new park starting next month: Joe Mauer.

With the Minnesota Twins ditching the Metrodome for Target Field, everyone’s wondering how it’s going to affect the 2009 MVP. Mauer has hit 72 home runs in six years in the big leagues, including a career-high 28 a season ago. Of those 72, a staggering 46 percent have been hit to left field, and that number jumped to 58 percent a year ago. Since most of Mauer’s power is to the opposite field, the dimensions that really matter to him in Target Field are the ones to left and left center.

According to Hit Tracker Online, each of Mauer’s 2009 shots to left field went further than 350 feet. If Mauer continues to hit opposite-field home runs at this length, he’ll rack up even more round-trippers, since the dimensions of Target Field suggest that left field may actually be more welcoming to hitters than the Metrodome. At the new park, left field measures in at 328 feet, and left-center at 371 feet; the Metrodome checked in at 343 feet to left and 385 feet to left-center.

We’ll have to wait and see how the weather factors into the hitting environment, but based on the dimensions of the park, Mauer will love his new home more than his old one. And if the reports of him signing a long-term extension are true, he should be very happy in Target Field for years to come.


Why A-Gon is a Great Fit for Fenway

With the San Diego Padres rebuilding and potentially strapped for cash, the rumor engine has been operating at full roar over the possibility of an Adrian Gonzalez trade for the past six months. The Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners have been most frequently linked as suitors, but given Gonzalez’s style of hitting and the respective parks those two teamsplay in, he should be rooting hard to be traded to Boston.

Gonzalez, like most batters, pulls more balls than he pushes the other way. A telling split is Gonzalez’s batted-ball-type ratios. He has a ground ball percentage of 61 percent when he pulls the ball, but when he goes the other way, it is a fly ball 64 percent of the time. Those are significant differences.

Gonzalez is a fantastic hitter to all fields, but he’s especially good when hitting to left field — he had more opposite-field home runs (21, more than anyone else in baseball) than homers to center and right field combined (19) in 2009. According to work published by Greg Rebarczyk in 2007, PETCO Park is about 4 percent harder than average to hit home runs toward left and left-center fields, but Seattle’s Safeco Field is even harder to get the ball out to that area — 10 percent tougher than average.

Given that Fenway Park is roughly neutral when it comes to home runs toward left field, Gonzalez would fare much better in Beantown, where he could use his penchant for opposite-field fly balls to rain extra-base hits off the Green Monster, and home runs over it, escaping the potential death trap of Seattle’s left-center gap. Gonzalez’s agent would do well to try and kill any chance his client ends up in the rainy Northwest.