Archive for April, 2010

Austin Jackson’s Fatal Flaw

Austin Jackson is an interesting ballplayer. The Detroit Tigers center fielder is hitting .330/.394/.468 out of the leadoff spot. And thought the ultra-athletic rookie is far from a finished product, you can’t argue with his numbers thus far. But how about this one: 34 percent. As in, the 23-year-old is striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances. That’s Mark Reynolds’ territory. Jackson is being talked about as a rookie of the year contender, but can he sustain his excellence with his current strikeout rate?

The most obvious reason to doubt Jackson is his batting average on balls in play, which currently sits at .492 and is the highest in baseball. Last year, the league leader in BABIP was David Wright at .394, so we can expect Jackson’s BABIP to come crashing down. But it appears his high BABIP is a little more than just luck, and is a byproduct of the way he is being pitched.

Like a lot of young players, Jackson clearly enjoys hitting the fastball. A look at his pitch-type values shows that he’s 0.93 runs above average (per 100 pitches) against the heater. Compare that to a -1.68 against changeups, and you suddenly have a pretty good idea of what to throw to Jackson. In his column today, Tim Kurkjian discusses the fundamental failings of some of the game’s top young players, and Jackson’s inability to hit off-speed stuff fits that topic. So far this season, Jackson has been seeing a large number of fastballs, as pitchers are no doubt testing the young hitter. He’s been challenged with the heat 68 percent of the time. In contrast, teammate Miguel Cabrera — a proven fastball hitter — has seen 56 percent fastballs. Jackson has been thrown changeups 11 percent of the time, and we should see that number continue to rise as opponents figure out his weakness. Also, Jackson swings at pitches outside the strike zone just 1.0 percent more often than the league average. However, he has a significant issue with making contact on pitches outside the zone: 57.9 percent compared to an average of 64.5 percent.

It’s clear that Jackson needs to make some adjustments if he’s still going to be in the AL Rookie of the Year race in September. As a leadoff catalyst, his job is to get on base and into scoring position for the club’s run producers. A player with a strikeout rate of more than 30 percent is not going to get the job done over the course of a full season. If we regress Jackson’s BABIP to a still-high .380, he’s going to produce an on-base percentage around .323. If we lower his BABIP to the current league-average of approximately .300, his OBP suddenly becomes a welcome-back-to-the-minors .276.

The scouting report on Jackson is no doubt filtering through the league as we speak: Changeups, preferably out of the zone. It will be up to the rookie to adjust. If he doesn’t, the next five months of the season will be rough when his BABIP comes back down to earth.


The DH Problem

The designated hitter spot presents American League teams with an opportunity that their NL brethren don’t get to take advantage of. This seems like an advantage that every team should exploit, but as we’ve seen so far in 2010, that doesn’t always happen.

Thus far this season DHs are hitting a combined .246/.336/.412 in 1,228 plate appearances, which is pretty much league average. In terms of batting average, only catchers have fared worse. The DH spot ranks fourth in OBP, behind right field, left field, and first base, and ranks fifth in slugging, behind those same positions plus center field. Shouldn’t players who have no responsibilities other than to hit perform better than their two-way counterparts? Theoretically this is the case, but in practice, a number of teams end up featuring former stars with big contracts in the DH role, because they have no other place to play them.

The A’s, Red Sox, and Indians have suffered their most from their designated “hitters.” Eric Chavez ranks the best among the three with a .236/.279/.345 line. The other two, David Ortiz and Travis Hafner, have combined for a .180/.273/.324 mark, not much better than what those teams would get if they let their pitchers hit. Normally players who produce these numbers would sit on the bench, but these three players will make a combined $36 million in 2010. While continued poor production might force Ortiz and Chavez from the lineup since their contracts expire after this season, Hafner has two years and $28.75 million left on his deal. The Indians will probably give him every chance to revert to his former self.

A few years ago, Ortiz and Hafner received big-money deals to exclusively serve as DH, but as baseball puts a greater emphasis on defense, we’ll see if players with no value in the field continued to be paid like stars. Considering Jermaine Dye hasn’t been able to find a deal to his liking, it seems unlikely.


Felix is Down, Beckett is Up

Both Felix Hernandez and Josh Beckett were given hefty contract extensions this past offseason, with both of their teams paying them to pitch like aces. Both right-handers were on the mound Monday night, and while one of them is looking like a very wise investment, the other is not. And there’s a pretty simple explanation as to why.

King Felix drew the Kansas City Royals to close out his April slate and held the hot-hitting Royals to two earned runs through seven innings. Hernandez did walk three but also struck out seven. The most notable thing about his outing — besides the fact that his team failed to score while he was in the game — was his ground-ball rate. Prior to the start, 62 percent of batted balls against Hernandez this season were of the ground-ball variety, a mark that will represent a career high if it holds up. (His career ground-ball rate is 57 percent.) On Monday night, 14 of the 23 balls put into play by the Royals were on the ground — or roughly 61 percent.

The reason for Hernandez’s increased ground-ball rate is his increased sinker velocity. Pitch f/x data collected from the 2009 and 2010 seasons says Hernandez is throwing his sinker nearly 94 mph on average thus far this season, while the pitch was closer to 90 mph last season. The 24-year-old might lose some velocity over the grind of a long season, but for now, Herandez’s sinker is simply overpowering hitters, and his 2.15 ERA suggests as much.

As for Beckett, he was striking out just 5.96 batters per nine innings entering Monday’s affair with the Toronto Blue Jays and had a 5.26 ERA. The Jays lead the league in strikeout percentage, making them the perfect opponent for Beckett to rack up some K’s against, right? Wrong. Beckett lasted all of three innings while allowing eight earned runs on nine hits to go with three strikeouts, three walks and a home run allowed. His ERA is now 7.22.

The biggest shifts in Beckett’s game are an increased number of changeups and a decreased number of swinging strikes. Beckett is using his changeup more than he ever has with Boston, and the results have not been pretty. FanGraphs’ run values suggest the changeup is his worst pitch on a rate basis, and it’s not particularly close. For every 100 changeups, Beckett is costing his team nearly three runs. What’s odd about that is last year, when Beckett had a 3.86 ERA, his change was his most valuable pitch. For every 100 times thrown, it was worth 2.16 runs. This year, he is throwing it more than 14 percent of the time. Last year, he threw it 8.6 percent of the time. Obviously, something is wrong with the offering. And a look at the chart below tells the story: Beckett is leaving his changeup up in the zone far more frequently.

Meanwhile, only 7.4 percent of Beckett’s pitches are resulting in swings and misses, a stark contrast to his career percentage of 9.9 percentage. Swinging strikes correlate pretty well with strikeouts, so this is not what Boston wants to see from its $68 million-dollar man.

In both cases, the alterations to their pitch repertoires and the contrasting degrees of success could be just coincidence or small sample sizes playing with the numbers. Whatever the truth is, both the Red Sox and Mariners will need their aces to thrive if their playoff hopes are to be categorized as anything but just hopes.


San Diego’s Secret Stars

The San Diego Padres lost Sunday. This qualifies as news because lately they’ve been playing like the best team in baseball. Before Sunday’s loss, the Padres had won eight consecutive games, including sweeps of divisional foes Arizona and San Francisco. And in ESPN.com’s latest MLB Power Rankings, San Diego is No. 7.

Although superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is doing his thing, hitting home runs in each of the past four games, the key to the Padres’ early success is a bunch of no-names.

Chase Headley, a former hotshot prospect who previously struggled to adjust to the big leagues, has found his stroke in April. His .371 batting average easily paces the team. Although the third baseman is not a huge power threat, he has seven extra-base hits and six stolen bases, providing all-around value. Based on FanGraphs’ wins above replacement statistic, Headley has been worth 1.1 wins (compared with Gonzalez’s 1.0), making him the team’s co-MVP through the first three weeks of the season.

Headley isn’t the only low-profile guy carrying his weight. Outfielder Will Venable has provided some much-needed power to a lineup that lacks punch beyond Gonzalez. His .262 average might not look like much on the surface, but nine of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases, giving him a ridiculous .312 isolated slugging percentage on the season. (Isolated slugging is simply slugging minus batting average, which allows us to measure the power output of a player by excluding singles.) For comparison, Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers posted a .303 ISO last season.

Wrapping up the trio of unheralded early-season Padres hitting stars is catcher Nick Hundley. Like Venable, his .262 batting average isn’t all that impressive, but instead of supplying power, Hundley is busting out the walking stick. He’s drawn eight free passes in 13 games, driving his on-base percentage up to .380, a remarkably high number for a backstop. Although the base on balls is a less sexy way to derive value, there is no more important offensive skill than the ability to get on base.

It’s unlikely that Headley, Venable and Hundley will continue to perform like stars because none of them has a track record that suggests he can sustain his performance. But if you’re looking for the reason the Padres are in first place, look no further than these three. And considering none of the members of the trio is older than 27, it’s possible they’ve turned a corner in their development. If they all continue on their current career-year course, the NL West will be a lot more interesting.


The Secret to Livan’s Success

Livan Hernandez saw his unlikely scoreless streak end at 17 innings yesterday, as he gave up the first of two solo home runs that would give him his first loss of the season. It was the kind of start that serves as a lesson for why wins and losses don’t matter, as the Nationals offered no run support. But the loss does nothing to taint what has been the best April of Livan’s career, coming in a season where even the most optimistic of projection systems saw him as a 5.00 ERA pitcher. There are a lot of explanations for why Hernandez won’t be sustain his success going forward — his 9-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, for instance — but none more so than a hitless streak that would make Ubaldo Jimenez jealous.

Hernandez has pitched from the stretch in 29 plate appearances this season, and in none of those has he allowed a hit. In all, opponents are hitting a ridiculous .000/.138/.000 when their teammates are on base against Livan, which explains why two solo home runs on Thursday are the only runs that have crossed the plate in the 24 innings Hernandez has pitched this season.

At FanGraphs, we track a stat called Left on Base Percentage, which monitors the rate that pitchers strand baserunners. League averages usually hover between 70 and 72 percent, and while better pitchers can routinely be above-average, pitchers of Livan’s ilk see a great deal of variance. Stranding runners is a huge part of run prevention, which is why the season Hernandez had his best LOB% (2003 – 78.7 percent) corresponded with his best full-season ERA (3.20). And the year of his worst LOB% (2008 – 64.8 percent) led to a career-worst ERA (6.05). This season, Livan’s Left on Base Percentage is a perfect 100 percent, a rate difficult to sustain for three starts, much less an entire season.

In his career, which spans 2,750 innings, Livan has been identical with the bases empty (.780 OPS allowed) and with runners on base (.782 OPS allowed). His stuff doesn’t get better from the stretch, his delivery isn’t more deceptive. People will say that Hernandez is succeeding because he is “bearing down” with runners on base. This is not true. He is merely in the midst of an amazing stretch of good fortune. While a career revival makes a good story, this is a tale more likely to end with regression to the mean, and another below-average, innings-eating season for Hernandez.


Why Boston will Finish Third

What would you have said if I had told you before the season began that the Padres would be leading the NL West on April 22? Odds are you would have called me crazy, and justifiably so. But here we are, and that’s because crazy things happen, especially in short time frames.

While what has happened so far can’t be taken as gospel of what will happen over the rest of the season, we can see that some things have shifted. By looking back at preseason projections and applying them to what has already occurred, we can get an updated look at how teams and players may perform this year. To explain the methodology, I’m going to use the Phillies as an example.

In the April 5 edition of ESPN The Magazine, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections predicted that Philadelphia would win about 93 games. They have won 9 of their first 14 games already, so does that mean they are going to win 84 games the rest of the year to bring their total to 93? No. We wouldn’t expect them to play worse the rest of the year just because they got off to a good start.

Our best assumption is that they are still a 93-win team the rest of the way, so we simply take their projected win percentage (.571) and apply it to their remaining games (148), making their updated projection 94 wins. They have added a win to their preseason expected total by playing so well in the first two weeks of the season.

For an updated look at how ZiPS thinks your team will finish the season, here are the updated projected standings through April 20, rounded to the nearest win:

Even though they are currently leading the NL West, the Padres are still projected as the third-worst team in the majors, behind the Blue Jays and Astros. The Jays are also off to a good start (9-7), but keep in mind that they have yet to play the Yankees, Rays or Red Sox.

The Red Sox’s falling into third place was the only major change when comparing the update with the original predictions. For the preseason ZiPS predictions in The Mag, the Red Sox were projected to win the AL East. After their slow start, they are now projected to miss the playoffs. That slow start created a large hole that they now have to dig out of, and with two good teams in the division, it won’t be easy. While Boston’s slow start isn’t reflective of how good the Sox are as a team, their place in the standings may just be “real,” because they now have to play better than their true talent level in order to close the gap. They may be able to do it, but it will now be an upset if the Red Sox make the playoffs.


Fukudome’s Fast Starts

Kosuke Fukudome wasted no time winning Cubs’ fans hearts in 2008, hitting a game-tying three-run home run in his major league debut, and blistering the baseball in his first month in the majors. At the end of his first April, he was hitting .327/.436/.480 and looked like a star.

The rest of the season didn’t go quite as well. Fukudome hit .241/.340/.355 from May through September, showing little power and earning a late season benching. In 2009 we saw much of the same. In his 89 April plate appearances Fukudome hit .338/.461/.592, an improvement even over his hot April 2008. The rest of the way he hit .245/.360/.393, again a bit better than 2008 but still a disappointment after another torrid start.

He’s again off to a good start — he’s hitting .297 — yet Cubs fans have been conditioned to expect much worse once the calendar turns to May. Why has he hit so much better in April than the rest of the year?

It is tough to assign cause to such a small sample, however, we can see a discrepancy in his batted ball types in April compared to the rest of the season. In the first month of the year, Fukudome hits the ball in the air and drives it with some regularity, as seen in the graph below. It shows the percentage of flyballs to each zone divided by total balls in play, with the colors showing slugging percentage — the redder the better. As you can see, he turns into a groundball machine as the season wears on. And after driving the ball to right field seven percent of the time in April, that number drops to three percent the rest of the year.

If you’re more of a numbers person than a graph person, Fukudome’s career GB percentage in April is 41 percent, compared with 50 percent the rest of the year.

At a glance, it might seem like hitting ground balls isn’t all a bad thing. Ground balls, after all, produce hits at a greater rate than fly balls. But that only touches on one dimension of hitting — and even then, it’s not a particularly compelling argument. Last year in the National League ground balls produced a .234 batting average, while fly balls produced a .224 average. (Line drives, the third type of batted ball, had a .728 average.) But slugging percentage on fly balls is considerably higher than on grounders. NL hitters slugged .595 on fly balls last season, while they slugged just .255 on ground balls. It’s pretty hard to hit a groundball over the wall.

While some hitters can benefit from hitting the ball on the ground, Fukudome does not profile as one of them. He possesses the power to hit near or in the middle of the order, having hit 31 homers for the Chunichi Dragons in 2006. However, he doesn’t take advantage of this power once the calendar flips to May. He’s off to a strong start again, and he has kept the ball in the air at a greater frequency than in his past two seasons. Maybe it’s Fukudome’s year, but until he shows the ability to hit fly balls and line drives in the later months, don’t expect an improvement.


What was La Russa Thinking?

On Saturday, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets played one of the classic National League games of all time. After 20 innings and 652 pitches, every player on both rosters — save Oliver Perez, Chris Carpenter, Brad Penny and Adam Wainwright — had been used. Position players pitched two full innings and one (Joe Mather) took the loss for Tony LaRussa’s team.

Along the way, there were plenty of swings in momentum. At FanGraphs, we use a statistic called “Win Probability Added” to measure the change in likelihood of a team winning as events unfold. For example, when Skip Schumaker hit a double to open the second inning, he added 6.1 percent to St. Louis’ chance of winning the game.

As you can see by the accompanying game graph, there were some single plays that stand out. Some of these swings in win probability were directly due to managerial decisions, and now that we’ve had a day to digest this epic game, it’s still hard to understand what La Russa was thinking with some of his decisions in extra innings.

Perhaps his most harmful was the decision to double-switch out cleanup hitter Matt Holliday, because it allowed the Mets to intentionally walk Albert Pujols and take advantage of the situation. Even with Holliday under the weather, choosing to have the pitcher’s spot due up behind the game’s best hitter is simply a poor choice.

On two separate occasions (in the 12th and 14th innings), the Mets took advantage of Holliday’s absence by intentionally walking Pujols to load the bases. Both times, La Russa chose to let a relief pitcher swing the bat in situations where an out would decrease their odds of winning by 15.4 percent, a staggeringly high total for one play. La Russa left actual hitter Bryan Anderson (and his career .362 on base percentage in the minors) on the bench while his pitchers flailed away.

Even if you think Anderson isn’t much of an offensive force, the gap between he and a relief pitcher at the plate is enormous. The average major league pitcher got on base just 18 percent of the time last year, and as relievers, Jason Motte and Blake Hawksworth bat infrequently, so that even overstates their abilities. With two chances to win the game, La Russa chose to let two of the worst hitters in the sport swing the bat.

Even still, those plays may not have been the biggest errors of the night. Ryan Ludwick’s caught stealing in the 19th inning cost his team 21.6 percent in win probability. Had he been ruled safe, the Cardinals odds of winning would have increased by just 4.2 percent. In other words, he would need five successful steals in that situation to cancel out just one caught stealing, and Ludwick had a career 57 percent success rate prior to the attempt. Henry Blanco, the Mets catcher, has thrown out 43 percent of all base stealers in his career. The odds were simply not in Ludwick’s favor, and getting thrown out was a huge blow to the Cardinals. It was yet another bad decision on a night full of them. The Cardinals threw away three great opportunities to win, and eventually, the Mets won by default.


Are the Astros Really This Bad?

The Astros are off to a rollicking 1-8 start, finally getting a win yesterday against the Cardinals after opening the season with eight consecutive losses. They aren’t losing a bunch of close ones, either. Through the first nine games, Houston has allowed 45 runs while only scoring 19. According their Pythagorean Win expectation, they have earned their 1-8 record. But are the Astros really this bad? After all, they do have former All-Stars such as Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt and, when he returns from injury, Lance Berkman.

However, even before Berkman’s DL stint, the Astros were expected to be terrible. CHONE’s “optimistic” projection forecasted the Astros for 72 wins this season. CAIRO, another projection system, saw the Astros being even worse in 2010, at 69-93.

The Astros have been heading this direction for a while. While Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence are good players in their prime seasons, and Michael Bourn is a useful piece, Berkman and Oswalt aren’t the forces they were a few years ago, and Carlos Lee’s bat is heavily offset by his poor fielding. (And right now, Lee is “hitting” .086 with zero extra-base hits, so he can’t even fall back on his bat.) Other than that core, there is altogether too much reliance on players best suited for the part-time duty (Kaz Matsui) and others who may not be suited for the major leagues (J.R. Towles). The pitching isn’t quite as disastrous, but that’s only relatively speaking — the drop-off after Oswalt and Rodriguez is sharp, and the bullpen is nothing special, despite general manager Ed Wade’s predictably silly $15-million investment in Brandon Lyon this past winter.

Despite the fact that it is only the second week of the season, it is no longer early in Houston. With a 1-8 start to the season, the Astros would have to win 59 percent of their games the rest of the way to end up with 90 wins on the season. This team simply isn’t good enough to play at that level for five and a half months. It’s too early to say that they’re definitely the worst team in baseball, but it’s not too early to write off their playoff chances.


The Rangers’ New Ace?

Most baseball fans — even those who count themselves among the TMI readership — were probably a little surprised to find that someone named Colby Lewis had not only signed with the Texas Rangers this offseason, but was immediately considered a prime candidate for a starting rotation. If the name sounded somewhat familiar, it’s because Lewis entered 2010 with over 200 Major League innings under his belt, having made appearances at the highest level every year but one from 2002 to 2007. As for the quality of those innings, well, you be the judge.

In 217 innings, Lewis had a 6.71 ERA with 155 strikeouts with 124 walks. He was awful. But after a couple of years playing in Japan, he showed the kind of stuff that made him a supplemental first-round pick of the Rangers back in 1999, as he had eight strikeouts for every one walk while playing for Hiroshima.

Lewis’s numbers in Japan certainly impressed a couple of the projection systems we host at FanGraphs. Sean Smith’s CHONE projections call for Lewis to end 2010 with 167 innings, a 3.99 ERA, and a 1.13 WHIP. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projects Lewis for a 4.39 ERA in 176 innings. Not incredible, but still serviceable when one considers Lewis’s home ballpark (which ranks among the top-third of all parks in run inflation).

Yesterday’s start in Cleveland, however, might create even loftier expectations. Obviously, small sample size caveats abound here, but Lewis’s final line against the Indians was excellent. In 5 1/3 innings, he struck out 10, walked four, and allowed just two runs. Remarkably, those 10 whiffs came against just 24 batters faced, meaning Lewis fanned more than 40 percent of opposing batters.

Of particular note are the 15 swings-and-misses Lewis generated on the night. In a study published last summer, Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing finds that there is a great deal of correlation between swinging strikes and strikeout rates. Starting pitchers, on average, induce a swing and miss a little more than eight percent of the time. Last year’s strikeout leaders Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander finished 2009 with swinging-strike rates of about 11 percent. Last night, Lewis managed to generate whiffs on a full 13 percent of his pitches.

Does this mean we can expect to find Lewis’s name among the list of strikeout leaders by year’s end? My guess is no. But he could still be a success without striking out 200 batters. In any case, his is a compelling story, and one that will be a pleasure to follow for the remainder of the 2010 season.


Seattle’s Left Field Problem

What do Jeffrey Leonard, Greg Briley, Kevin Mitchell, Mike Felder, Eric Anthony, Vince Coleman, Rich Amaral, Jose Cruz Jr., Glenallen Hill, Brian Hunter, Rickey Henderson, Al Martin, Mark McLemore, Randy Winn and Raul Ibanez have in common? From 1990 through 2004, each player in turn was the regular starter in left field for the Seattle Mariners. Not a single player repeated during that entire span. When Raul Ibanez occupied the primary starting role from 2004 through 2008, it marked the first time that the same person played left field regularly in consecutive years since Phil Bradley did in 1986 and 1987.

With Ibanez in Philadelphia, however, the Mariners left field carousel is back. Last year, the position was manned by Endy Chavez, Ryan Langerhans, Wladimir Balentien, Michael Saunders and Bill Hall. Saunders and Langerhans are in Triple-A Tacoma, while the other three are with other organizations.

For now, the de facto starter is Milton Bradley, but there are problems with that arrangement even without discussing Bradley’s off-field baggage. He has had surgery on both knees in the past, and in 2009 he he missed games with minor pains in his left quad, groin, right calf, right hip, both hamstrings, left knee and right quad. Safeco Field holds a vast expanse of real estate to cover in left field, and Milton Bradley attempting to cover that much ground is bad for the team’s defense and bad for Bradley’s future health.

It would be a tougher decision if the Mariners were playing Bradley in left field in order to make room for a Vladimir Guerrero-type bat at DH, but they’re not. Most projection systems have the Mariners’ current DH platoon of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney at replacement level, meaning that they are not any better than what you’d expect to get from a player claimed on waivers. (Last year, Griffey was worth 0.3 wins above replacement, and Sweeney was 0.4.) There is no one blocking Bradley from moving to designated hitter. Not to mention the fact that Bradley had the best year of his career in 2008, when he posted a 4.6 WAR as a full-time DH for the Rangers.

With Bradley at DH, left field is opened up for a platoon of Eric Byrnes and either Ryan Langerhans or Michael Saunders; either pairing would provide solid defense coupled with enough hitting to allow Bradley to move to DH with no overall loss in left field. The Mariners are costing themselves about two projected wins with their current arrangement and, needing to make up ground in the AL West, cannot settle for another sub-par left fielder, even if that is the norm for the organization.


Diagramming Big Papi’s Demise

David Ortiz shifted his approach at the plate in 2009, perhaps hoping to generate more power on inside pitches. But instead, the results have been that he’s not pulling the ball with power.

Over the winter, FanGraphs’ pitch f/x guru Dave Allen studied Ortiz’s struggles at the plate, focusing on Ortiz’s power and plate discipline. He concluded that Ortiz was swinging at pitches outside the strike zone and that it was a tendency developed over time — dating back to the days of the prehistoric and lovably clutch “Big Papi” era. But that wasn’t the surprising part. What shocked Allen was the type of pitches Ortiz swung more at in 2009: high pitches and inside pitches.

The above graphs are from the catcher’s perspective. The contours are estimates of Ortiz’s swing rate (and contact rate). So for a pitch at the solid line (50 percent contour), there is a 50 percent chance Ortiz will swing at it. Ortiz will swing at a pitch between the solid and dotted contour between 50 percent and 75 percent of the time. He will swing at pitches inside the dotted line more than 75 percent of the time. The graph shows that in 2009 he was more likely to swing at pitches up-and-in as compared to in 2007 and 2008. The next graph shows the same thing but for his contact rate — the probability he makes contact with a pitch if he swings. The contour lines here are 80 percent (solid) and 90 percent (dotted). Since the area inside the 2009 contour lines is much smaller, there is a smaller area in which he made consistent contact compared to 2007 and 2008.

In his study, Allen surmised that perhaps Ortiz thought he would generate power only on inside pitches, so he forced the issue rather than taking these pitches as balls and waiting on better offerings.

But this shift in approach led to a drastic decrease in Ortiz’s power to right field. In short, he was sapped of any power when he pulled the ball. It also led to a decay in offensive production. In 2009, Ortiz posted a career low in home runs per fly ball, and he has yet to homer this season. So far in 2010, Ortiz has put only four balls into play that were not groundouts. Two went toward left field, one to center and one to right. This is counterintuitive to his aggressiveness on inside pitches.

Here’s an illustration of his drop-off in pull power:

Interestingly, pitchers are feeding Ortiz fewer changeups and more breaking pitches (specifically curveballs) this season. It could suggest other teams think Ortiz’s bat control has diminished with his wrist injuries. In fact, his wrists could be so exaggeratedly slow that when he swings expecting a fastball, he makes contact with changeups. And, sadly, that might be an improvement over Ortiz’s typical 2010 result of a grounder or infield pop. Another discouraging sign for Papi this season is that he has missed on 44 percent of his swings, while the league average is 20 percent.

Is Ortiz done? It’s too early to say. On Monday, Ortiz took a ball to the warning track in center field and wound up with a double. It could be a spark — or it could be an ember from a waning flame due to age and injury.


How Weather will Affect the Twins

Outdoor baseball. Minnesota. April. Those are three things that, when put together, don’t get you overly excited about what may be in store. The historical mean temperature on April 12th in Minneapolis is 45 degrees, according to weather.com. In 1962, it was 12 degrees on this date, which doesn’t really scream take me out to the ballgame.
How will playing outdoors in the still nearly frozen tundra affect the game?

Chris Constancio wrote an article for the Hardball Times in 2007, looking at the relationship between temperature at game time and home run rate. He found a statistically significant decrease in the likelihood of a batted ball flying over the fence when the temperature dropped, which is a rather intuitive result. It’s hard to hit a baseball when your hands are frozen. Constancio writes:

“Game-time temperature is a significant predictor of whether or not batted balls leave the ballpark … A batted ball has a 4.0% chance of leaving the park during a game played in 70 degree conditions, but only a 3.5% chance of becoming a home run in a game played in 50 degree conditions.”

The teams that play outdoors at the most similar April temperatures are the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers. The average April low in Minny and Milwaukee is 36 degrees, while in Denver it’s 32 degrees. Of course, the Twins don’t play at altitude, so they can’t expect their new park to match the offensive levels of Coors Field. And the Brewers can always close the roof at Miller Park if it gets too chilly. Look for Target Field to normally be the best pitchers park in baseball in the early months of each season.

This year, however, they may have received a gift from Mother Nature — the forecasted high for Monday afternoon’s game against the Red Sox is a balmy 66 degrees, and then jumps to a ridiculous 74 degrees on Tuesday and 78 degrees on Wednesday, threatening historical record highs. For 2010, Minneapolis is apparently going to do its best Miami impersonation, so the Red Sox and Twins should be able to put some runs on the board.

Next year, however, assuming things return to normal, prepare for a lot of low-scoring ballgames to begin the year.


Hanson, Wells, do it Differently

It was a treat to watch a matchup Thursday night between two sophomore hurlers: the Atlanta Braves’ Tommy Hanson and Chicago Cubs’ Randy Wells. Hanson finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last season, while Wells was sixth. Clearly, both pitchers have the potential to play large roles in their respective organizations’ futures. However, when they take to the mound, these two hurlers employ very different, yet effective, approaches.

Last season, Hanson’s fastball sat at 92 mph, while his slider came in at 83 mph, his curve at 75 mph and his seldom-used change-up at 83 mph, according to Pitch Type velocities at FanGraphs. In the first inning of last night’s game, the 23-year-old came out like a man possessed and was throwing his fastball 96-97 mph, his slider 89 mph and his curve 75 mph. The Cubs hitters were simply overmatched, and Hanson struck out the side (with a walk of Derrek Lee mixed in).

Hanson came out in subsequent innings and took a little off his pitches; the adrenaline had clearly drained a bit. Even so, he was still pumping his pitches in at a higher velocity than last season’s averages. When all was said and done, he had struck out seven batters in 5 1/3 innings, while issuing three walks and two solo homers. Along with the seven K’s, another seven of his outs came on fly balls and two were via the ground ball.

A former minor league catcher who couldn’t hit, Wells is already 27 years old. The late bloomer came into the first inning of last night’s game showing respectable velocity at 88-92 mph. His approach, though, was to induce contact with his heavy sinker. Wells’ ground-ball rate was just shy of 50 percent in 2009 (while Hanson just scraped 40 percent). The Cubs pitcher had his good sinker working Thursday, and he made the Braves hitters look like they should all take up new careers on the mound. And he did it without mid-to-high-90s heat.

Wells induced 13 ground ball outs; that’s important because it means none of those batted balls were a threat to go over the wall for a home run, or to split the outfield defense for a bases-clearing triple. Just two of his 18 outs came in the air. When Wells did get into trouble, he was able to defuse the situations with three double plays. Jason Heyward, Atlanta’s rookie phenom, was rendered impotent by Wells’ approach. The right-fielder could not get any lift on the ball. He rolled into a force play in the second inning and then, after breaking his bat, grounded weakly back to Wells in the fourth. All the Braves hitters shared his frustrations.

In 27 starts in ’09, Wells posted a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 3.0, while Hanson came in at 2.6 WAR in 21 starts. While the Braves right-hander is clearly a crowd favorite for his radar-busting velocities and eye-popping counting stats, Wells has shown that he can be an equally effective big league pitcher — albeit with a lower overall ceiling — by pounding the lower half of the strike zone with sinkers and pitching to contact.


Projecting a Realigned MLB

On Monday, nestled in his comments on potential radical changes, Rob Neyer called for some simulation work, saying the following:

“When thinking about the impact of realignment, additional wild cards, or whatever, it would be shockingly simple to set up some simulations and figure out what it would mean for competitive balance, fairness, fan interest, TV ratings, attendance, etc.”

With the help of a season simulation that decides the outcome of each game using the log5 formula, we can address the impact different realignment options would have on the 2010 season. I will measure the impact by comparing playoff probabilities across the various alignments. The alignments simulated were the current divisional alignment, an alignment based on 2009 record and an alignment based on 2009 payroll. The divisions in the realignment options were created using a snake system based on each criterium, and the fallout is as follows.

MLB, Realigned By 2009 Record

NL 1 NL 2 NL 3 AL 1 AL 2 AL 3
Dodgers Phillies Rockies Yankees Angels Red Sox
Marlins Giants Cardinals Tigers Twins Rangers
Braves Cubs Brewers Mariners Rays White Sox
Astros Padres Reds Indians A’s Blue Jays
Mets Diamondbacks Pirates Royals Orioles
Nationals

MLB, Realigned By 2009 Payroll

NL 1 NL 2 NL 3 AL 1 AL 2 AL 3
Mets Cubs Phillies Yankees Tigers Red Sox
Braves Astros Dodgers White Sox Mariners Angels
Cardinals Giants Brewers Indians Blue Jays Orioles
Reds Diamondbacks Rockies Twins Royals Rangers
Nationals Pirates Padres Rays As
Marlins

I used CHONE projections (specifically the Starting Lineup Projected Standings) for the team’s strengths and simulated each season 10,000 times. The resulting playoff probabilities are as follows:

Projections Of Realigned MLB

NL Current 2009 Record 2009 Payroll
Cardinals 74% 70% 64%
Braves 62% 63% 55%
Rockies 40% 33% 31%
Dodgers 39% 37% 35%
Phillies 38% 53% 40%
Diamondbacks 27% 29% 45%
Cubs 21% 21% 35%
Brewers 21% 20% 16%
Mets 16% 16% 16%
Marlins 13% 13% 12%
Reds 13% 11% 8%
Padres 12% 12% 8%
Nationals 8% 8% 6%
Giants 8% 8% 13%
Pirates 4% 3% 8%
Astros 4% 3% 8%
AL Current 2009 Record 2009 Payroll
Yankees 83% 93% 86%
Red Sox 64% 84% 80%
Twins 47% 35% 21%
Rangers 45% 34% 25%
Rays 33% 53% 41%
Angels 33% 28% 20%
Indians 27% 18% 10%
White Sox 22% 14% 7%
A’s 17% 14% 37%
Mariners 13% 10% 31%
Tigers 7% 4% 14%
Royals 5% 3% 13%
Orioles 3% 8% 6%
Blue Jays 1% 2% 9%

A few observations:

The big takeaway is this: The Red Sox benefit from being in a non-Yankees division, becoming nearly as close to a playoff lock as the Yankees themselves. And New York even sees its playoff odds increase in both realignments. The bottom line is that splitting up these two teams just makes it more likely that both of them make the playoffs.

In the NL, there are only a few instances where playoff probabilities change drastically. One is the Phillies becoming the top projected team in their division under the 2009 record alignment. The other is because of the relative weakness of Division 2 in the 2009 payroll alignment, allowing some weaker-projected teams to make the playoffs more often.

In the AL, most of the large swings in playoff probabilities result from moving into or out of divisions that have either the Yankees or Red Sox.

The Rays, one of the teams most often seen as the biggest victim of the current alignment, pass the Twins and Rangers to become the third-most-likely team to make the playoffs in either realignment.


How Zito got his Groove Back

When the Giants signed Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million contract after the 2006 season, few thought he would live up to it. He was four years removed from his stellar Cy Young season at the time, and in the ensuing years had shown signs of decline. His strikeout rate declined, his home run rate increased, and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) returned to league average after years of falling far below it.

In 2009, however, Zito experienced a turnaround of sorts. His strikeout rate rose to 7.22 per nine innings, his highest rate since 2001. His walks also dropped back to around his career rate (3.8 per nine), as did his home runs allowed (0.8). Along with this went his ERA, 4.03, much closer to his career average than his previous two seasons. And after shutting out the Astros for six innings last night, it appears Zito has been reborn. What changed for him?

Part of it was the return of his curveball, a weapon that failed him during his first two seasons in San Francisco. Another large part of his transformation came from an increased use of his slider. Zito started employing a slider in 2005 after performing poorly in 2004. He didn’t throw it too often, never using it more than 8.5 percent of the time in 2005 or 2006. In 2009, however, he used it more than his curveball, throwing it 18.6 percent of the time against 18.2 percent with his curveball. During his 2010 debut on Tuesday night, Zito continued using his slider effectively.

Of the 90 pitches he threw, 11 were sliders, or 12.2 percent. He went to the changeup and curveball more often, though neither was as effective as the slider. Only one of the 11 sliders ended up outside the zone, and Zito generated three swings and misses off the slider, more than the changeup and curveball combined. Additionally, he threw eight of those 11 sliders in a two-strike count, signaling that it could be employed as his primary out pitch this season. In his six innings of work, the southpaw fanned six, walked one, and allowed just three hits in the Giants’ 3-0 win.

It seems that Zito learned something during his poor 2008 season, when he had a career-high 5.15 ERA. That was when he started increasing his slider usage, and it proved his most effective pitch. In 2007, he threw his slider 4.3 percent of the time. In 2008, 9.8 percent and last year 18.6 percent. In his 2010 debut he employed his curveball and changeup more frequently, but picked his spots with the slider. It worked out for him. The slider is what turned Barry Zito back into an effective pitcher.


The Sports Guy and FIP

I join many others in welcoming Bill Simmons to the statistical revolution in baseball. While statistics have always been an integral part of baseball, we have learned to tinker with them to more accurately reflect what happens on the field, and more importantly, what will happen. One of the more difficult puzzles to crack has been evaluating pitchers due to how entangled their performance is with that of their defenders. Accepting the move from ERA to Fielding Independent Pitching is probably the single biggest step one can take on the right path of separating the two, and Simmons has made that leap.

The Sports Guy made the case for FIP in his piece by referencing White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, who posted a decent 3.71 ERA last year, but whose secondary stats added up to a more mediocre 4.47 FIP. Given that Jenks’ ERA was significantly lower than his FIP, he concluded that Jenks wasn’t as good as his traditional numbers made him appear. While this is usually true, and the process he used to make his conclusion works most of the time, there is one more important number to check.

Home Runs allowed, an important input to the FIP formula, are not as skill-based as had been thought throughout history. Research has shown that pitchers have little control over how often a fly ball actually leaves the yard. In fact, if you want to predict how many home runs a pitcher will give up in 2010 you are better off looking at his 2009 ground ball ratio rather than his 2009 home run totals, the latter of which can occasionally include some good or bad luck due to wind, park, or random variation.

That is why xFIP exists, to correct those home run rates. It is simply the FIP formula with an expected home run rate based on fly ball totals, rather than actual home run rate. Substituting for the average amount of fly balls that turn into home runs leads to more accurate future projections than just looking at FIP by itself. Sticking with Simmons’ example of Bobby Jenks, he certainly did look like garbage at times last season, in large part because 17 percent of his fly balls went for home runs. That’s nearly double his career rate and well above the league average, which is around 11 percent. While Jenks’ ERA of 3.71 didn’t match up well with his 4.47 FIP, his xFIP of 3.63 shows that Jenks had some bad luck on fly balls clearing the wall.

Bobby Jenks rediscovered his strikeout touch in 2009 (8.3 K/9) and kept his walks low (2.7 BB/9). If his home runs hadn’t ballooned, he would have been seen as one of baseball’s best closers. While Bill was right to look at FIP to see whether Jenks’ ERA reflected how he really pitched, making that last small step to using xFIP to project his future performance will give him, and you, an even greater advantage.


Shawn Marcum’s Revival

The Indians and the Blue Jays had something in common on Opening Day. While both staffs feature a number of promising arms, each of their Opening Day starters hadn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2008. Jake Westbrook, understandably, struggled during his start four Cleveland. In four innings of work he threw 82 pitches and just 47 for strikes. That led to four walks. Combined with five hits, including a two-run home run by White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, and Westbrook surrendered five runs in his return. For Shawn Marcum, however, it was a different story.

Marcum has never been an overpowering pitcher. His fastball tops out at 88 mph, and over his career he has relied on his secondary pitches to keep hitters off-balance. He features a full arsenal, including a cutter, changeup, slider, and curveball, which allows him to throw his fastball only 40 percent of the time. While his cut fastball grades well, Marcum’s favored secondary pitch is his changeup. It averages around 81 mph, giving it only five to six mph separation from his fastball, but it is his most effective weapon.

The changeup played a large part in Marcum’s Opening Day no-hit bid. He deployed it liberally, throwing it 29 times out of 92 pitches, according to Pitch F/X. While Marcum has favored the changeup in the past, he hasn’t typically thrown it this frequently, usually using it about 20 percent of the time. Then again, it was incredibly effective during this start. Only eight times did the umpire call his changeup a ball. The Rangers swung and missed at it 11 times, including four to end at-bats, accounting for two-thirds of Marcum’s strikeout total for the day.

To measure the break of a pitch, the Pitch F/X system compares it with a pitch that has no spin. If a pitch had no spin, gravity would act on it to a greater degree than it would a pitch with backspin, so a pitch with no spin would drop faster. Because of this, many pitches have a positive vertical break. This doesn’t mean that the pitch broke upward, but rather that it didn’t drop as quickly as a pitch with no spin. A fastball with 10 inches of vertical break, for instance, stayed 10 inches higher than the same pitch if it had no spin.

The effectiveness of Marcum’s change comes not from its separation from his fastball, but from its movement. His four-seam fastball has a vertical break of around 10 to 11 inches. His changeup has a vertical break of around 5 inches, so while a pitch with no spin would drop more, the changeup drops considerably more than the fastball. The movement keeps hitters off-balance, as they oftentimes think they see fastball, only to have the ball drop under their swings.

For the past seven seasons Blue Jays fans got to see Roy Halladay, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball over that span, start on Opening Day. Seeing Marcum, over a year removed from meaningful baseball, might have been a disappointment at first, but he certainly gave them something to cheer for. It was a disappointment to see Vladimir Guerrero single with one out in the seventh inning to break up the no-hit bid, and then to see Nelson Cruz hit a home run to tie a game the Jays would eventually lose. But Marcum certainly gave Jays fans something to look forward to. He, and his changeup, could lead the Jays to a few unexpected wins in the 2010 season.


Yankee Stadium a Pitcher’s Park?

It didn’t take long for criticism to rain down on the new Yankee Stadium last season. From fans pining for the mystique and aura of the old stadium, which was still standing across the street, to the pundits who claimed it more a mall than a ballpark, everyone had an opinion about what was wrong with the park. But a few games into the 2009 season, another issue emerged: Baseballs were leaving the park at an alarming rate. The effect seemed so pronounced, in fact, that commentators came up with a new name for the Stadium: Coors Field East.

Through the season’s first two months the park lived up to the moniker. The Yankees came to bat 921 times during that span and hit 45 home runs, or one every 20.5 plate appearances (PA). Opponents didn’t have quite as much success, hitting 42 home runs in 983 PA, one every 23.4 PA. That was still far ahead of the AL pace for those two months, a home run every 35.2 PA. The Yankees claimed that the new stadium’s dimenions were identical to the old (though a few sources disputed that notion). But something appeared to be a bit different at the new park.

Two months represents a small sample, especially regarding park data. Park factors are most accurate when using a three-year sample, so a two-month sample might mean nothing. To that end, the stadium experienced a statistical correction in June. While the Yankees hit home runs at a slightly less rapid pace, one every 22.3 PA, their opponents saw a precipitous drop, hitting a home run once every 41.8 PA. Opponents never got close to their early-season marks, hitting a home run every 37.7 PA from June through season’s end. The Yankees hit a home run every 24.8 PA from June through September, a bit lower than their April and May pace.

Yankees	PA	HR	PA/HR	Opp.PA	Opp.HR	Opp. PA/HR
April	298	15	19.87	311	13	23.92
May	623	30	20.77	672	29	23.17
June	490	22	22.27	502	12	41.83
July	604	24	25.17	603	16	37.69
August	539	26	20.73	517	15	34.47
Sept	623	19	32.79	603	16	37.69
Total	3177	136	23.36	3208	101	31.76

There is no doubt that the Yankees benefitted from their new park, though that appears to be by design. The lineup featured not only three lefties, but also four switch hitters. Each of those four switch hitters has displayed more power from the left side over his career, and each also exceeded his career power numbers from the left side in 2009. After losing two lefties this off-season, the Yankees added three to their starting lineup, so perhaps we will see a similar effect this season.

But despite all those home runs, Yankee Stadium actually leaned towards being a pitchers’ park, according to ESPN’s Park Factors. While it ranked first in HR factor, it ranked second to last in doubles, with only Petco Park — considered the most cavernous park in the league — more heavily suppressing doubles. But, again, all of this uses just one year’s worth of data. In order to get a better read on how the park plays we need to study it over multiple seasons. As we saw in April and May, a few months of aberrant production can skew a season’s worth of numbers.