Archive for May, 2010

How to Fix Greinke

Two months into the season, the reigning American League Cy Young winner has just one victory. Zack Greinke, who managed 16 victories last season despite playing for a terrible Kansas City club, has been abandoned by his offense this year, as they are scoring just 2.97 runs per game when Greinke takes the hill. In fact, the Royals are just 2-9 when Greinke pitches, a testament to just how bad his teammates are.

But when assigning blame for Greinke’s problems, we can’t forget Greinke himself.

He has been significantly worse than he was a year ago. Most notably, Greinke’s strikeout rate has taken a tumble, falling from 9.50 K/9 last year to just 7.04 K/9 this season, ranking 21st in the American League in that category after finishing third in 2009. Fewer strikeouts increase the need for the Royals defense to make plays behind him, and their below-average gloves are rarely up to the task.

What’s caused Greinke suddenly to morph back into a strike-throwing, pitch-to-contact guy, rather than the blow-you-away ace we saw last year? His breaking ball.

A year ago, hitters swung and missed at 9 percent of Greinke’s curveballs, and a whopping 25 percent of his sliders. This year, hitters are whiffing on just 4 percent of curveballs and 11 percent of sliders.

The slider is clearly his out pitch — he throws it most often in two-strike counts. But he has not been able to get hitters to swing through the breaking balls nearly as often. To try to understand why this is happening, I asked our resident graphing guru, Dave Allen, to look at his off-speed stuff. Here’s what he found:

The first graph shows the vertical height of the curves and sliders that are being swung at, both this year and last. Hitters have adjusted to Greinke’s breaking balls: After chasing a lot of them down in the zone, they’ve now primarily been going after the ones he hangs up in the zone. The second graph shows why this has translated to fewer whiffs: Hitters have been laying off those low breaking balls that they couldn’t touch in 2009.

It appears opposing scouting reports on Greinke suggest hitters should take the two-strike breaking ball, which was Grienke’s bread-and-butter knockout pitch a year ago. And because hitters aren’t chasing breaking balls down out of the zone, Greinke will have to alter his two-strike approach if he wants to get back to Cy Young form.


Best Underhyped Catchers

Raise your hand if you know who Matt Wieters is. I hope a lot of you out there have your virtual hand up. Now raise your hand if you know who John Jaso is. Ryan Hanigan? Carlos Ruiz? Now, there is probably a lot fewer of you with hands up.

Minor League hype is a fickle beast. For every Jason Heyward, there are five Brandon Woods. Many regarded Wieters as the savior of the Baltimore Orioles on his way through the minors. His numbers certainly supported that belief, but they have yet to show up where it counts. This isn’t writing Matt Wieters off as a future Major League star. He just turned 24 so he has plenty of time to adjust to the bigs and begin posting the numbers people dreamed out of him. While we wait to see if that will occur, some catchers that got nowhere near the hype of Wieters have nonetheless turned in some valuable seasons for their big league clubs.

Ryan Hanigan isn’t a sexy prospect but he does one thing particularly well and that’s draw walks. His 31 walks in just 293 plate appearances helped him to a .361 OBP with the Reds. Hanigan, whom the Reds signed as an undrafted free agent back in 2002, has had an even bigger success story this year with a .338/.449/.486 triple slash line while splitting time with Ramon Hernandez. It is a small sample, but Hanigan’s .409 wOBA has made him the seventh most valuable hitting catcher in the majors, despite being a part-time player. Hanigan is almost certainly not going to maintain numbers that lofty, but ZiPS projects him to post a .334 wOBA going forward, which almost exactly matches ZiPS’ .336 wOBA projection for Wieters. Maybe someone should start a Ryan Hanigan Facts website.

John Jaso also flew under the hype radar when he failed to show much power in the minors. What he did show though was good plate discipline and low strikeout rates, which helped to maintain a high average and impressive OBP. Getting an extended look in Tampa due to an injury to Dioner Navarro, Jaso has made his case for keeping the starting job with a .324/.449/.493 line.Jaso’s 8.5 percent strikeout rate is just behind Hanigan’s 8.1 percent and, among catchers with at least 50 trips to plate this year, they rank second and third respectively, with only A.J. Pierzynski bettering the unheralded pair.

Hype of minor league players is generally well founded. It comes from quality scouting reports and/or fabulous numbers. Hype doesn’t always equate to Major League results though, and certainly does not guarantee instant success. Sometimes it takes awhile and sometimes, solid Major League catchers appear out of seemingly nowhere.


Defense is Biggest Surprise in S.D.

It was easy to overlook the Padres in the springtime. After all, their most recognizable face, Adrian Gonzalez, doubles as their only legitimate bat and he spent the offseason popping up in various trade rumors. The rest of the lineup and the pitching staff was filled with various unknowns — not in the sense that the Padres had no idea who was playing where, but in the sense that nobody had reason to know about these guys. Projecting anything but a last-place finish seemed optimistic.

As we near June, the Padres are not only out of the cellar, but actually way up in the attic. So, how are they doing it?

For one, the Padres’ rotation leads the league in xFIP, meaning they own the aspects their pitchers can control — namely strikeouts, walks and getting ground balls. It’s not just the defense-free parts of pitching the Padres have succeeded at, though. Clayton Richard and Jon Garland have sub-3 ERAs and former top prospect Mat Latos isn’t too far behind. The team’s pitching staff has been the best in baseball for the first two months of the season.

In addition to pitching well, The Padres’ staff also maintains the third-lowest batting average on balls in play throughout the league.

That kind of success is a credit to the Padres’ stellar defense and the cavernous ballpark they play in. David Eckstein is no longer a shortstop with a weak arm, but one of the more range-blessed second basemen around. Chase Headley is back at third base and ranks second on the team in ultimate zone rating, UZR, the number of runs above or below average a player allows at his position. Even the Padres’ center-field platoon of Tony Gwynn and Scott Hairston is excelling defensively despite sharing playing time. Those parts combine with the rest of the team to form the unit that ranks second in UZR and first in defensive runs saved in the league.

The one group of players that was expected to excel for the Friars was their bullpen. Sure enough, the Padres’ relief corps has also been the best in baseball, turning games into six inning affairs and converting nearly every lead the team gets into a victory. Closer Heath Bell has led the way, but unheralded setup men such as Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams have each been lights out as well. The Padres bullpen is both deep and talented, and has given Bud Black numerous options with which to shut down opposing hitters in close games.

Perhaps we should have seen the Padres success coming after all. Given the recent success of teams like Tampa Bay and Seattle in past years, this is hardly the first time a young rotation with a stellar bullpen and excellent defense has surpassed expectations.


Reds Offending the NL

For those readers without a rooting interest in the National League Central, you might be surprised to learn that the perennially strong St. Louis Cardinals currently have company atop the division standings. Your first inkling might be: Is it the Chicago Cubs and their $147 million payroll? Actually, no. Well, what about the 2008 wild card-winning Milwaukee Brewers? Guess again.

With their 7-5 win versus Pittsburgh on Monday night, the Cincinnati Reds now stand at 26-19, tied with St. Louis. Whether Cincy’s success will last, it’s hard to say. How the Reds have gotten where they are — that’s easier to understand.

The answer is offense.

As you can see in the following table, the Reds are currently scoring runs at a faster pace than they did in 2009. After ranking 11th among 16 NL teams in runs scored last season, the Reds are currently ranked fifth in that category.

Reds' runs scored and run allowed
YEAR	RS	Rk	RA	Rk
2009	673	11th	723	8th
2010	217	5th	212	12th

Yet raw run totals don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Otherwise, one might assume — seeing that the Reds have slipped four spots in terms of runs allowed — that they had simply offset their offensive gains with defensive shortcomings.

In fact, that’s not the case. If we look at the club’s batting and pitching wins above replacement numbers (bWAR and pWAR in the table below) for last year and for the season to date, we find that Cincinnati’s pitching has actually stayed relatively consistent (10th last season; 11th this year) while the batting is significantly better.

Reds' wins above replacement
YEAR	bWAR	Rk	pWAR	Rk
2009	9.5	15th	10.4	10th
2010	6.7	5th	4.5	11th

What does WAR tell us that pure stat of runs scored doesn’t? Well, a couple important things. For one, WAR is park-adjusted. Seeing as Cincinnati’s home field, Great American Ballpark, plays as a hitter’s park, it makes sense that their pure run totals might be inflated. Secondly, WAR is context neutral. That means it only considers what a given batter does at the plate, thus teasing out the effects of so-called “clutch” hitting, which demonstrates high degrees of variance season to season.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that it’s the Reds’ offense that has helped them get where they are.

The logical question then is: From where are the Reds getting all this production? The answer: Basically from everyone. Though OPS+ isn’t a perfect measure — it’s generally acknowledged that it undervalues the importance of on-base, as opposed to slugging, percentage — it’s very helpful for understanding where a player stands relative to league average — and where players stand relative to each other.

The following table gives the OPS+ numbers at each position for Cincy’s batters this year as opposed to last.

Reds OPS by position
Pos	2009	2010	Diff
as C	90	125	35
as 1B	112	134	22
as 2B	106	118	12
as 3B	78	120	42
as SS	77	104	27
as LF	84	126	42
as CF	74	74	0
as RF	105	94	-11

With the exception of right field (where they’ve dropped 11 percent relative to league average) and center (where they’ve broken even), the Reds are consistently improved across the board. In particular, third base (where Scott Rolen is currently hitting .287/.353/.581) and left field (where Jonny Gomes has taken over the majority of playing time) have proven to be significant improvements over their 2009 counterparts.

Monday night was no different. On the strength of 10 hits, five walks and a couple of 3-for-4 performances from Orlando Cabrera and Drew Stubbs, the Reds showed the Pittsburgh Pirates what they’ve been showing the National League these first 40 or so games: an improved ability to push runners across the plate.


A Chink in the Rays’ Armor

At 32-12, the Tampa Bay Rays are on top of the baseball world. Despite playing in the toughest division in baseball, they currently enjoy a six-game gap over their nearest competitor, easily the largest lead of any first-place team in the game. They have outscored their opponents 240 to 138, and their plus-102 run differential is also the best in baseball by a significant margin. The Rays are a very good
baseball team.

However, while they have played well, there are several reasons to expect a pretty significant step back may be forthcoming.

Offensively, the Rays just haven’t been that good, despite being just six runs off of the league lead in scoring. They’ve racked up their runs through timely hitting rather than good hitting, the latter of which is much more likely to be sustained over a full season. As a team, the Rays are hitting .231/.311/.370 with the bases empty (10th best in the AL), but have hit .294/.368/.462 with runners on base (2nd best in AL), and those clutch hits have put a lot of extra runs on the
board.

How many? Based on their .333 Weighted On Base Average (league average is .326), we’d have expected the Rays to score 211 runs so far this year, or 29 fewer than they’ve actually scored. Historically, it’s been shown that 10 runs are worth about one win to a team, so the Rays have gained approximately three wins just by making their hits count. (To read specifics about how they’re producing clutch hitting see this post.)

While getting clutch hits is fun and nice to root for, historically this isn’t the kind of thing that teams can actually specialize in. Over time, pretty much all teams regress back to being about as good (or bad) at hitting with men on base as they are with the bases empty. Good hitting is a repeatable skill — timely hitting is (mostly) not.

So, while the Rays’ record is sparkly, and even their Pythagorean Expected Record is impressive, there are chinks in the armor. With Carlos Pena struggling, Ben Zobrist hitting like it’s 2006 again and the team struggling to find a productive designated hitter, this isn’t the offense of a team that will win 70 percent of its games. While their strong start to the season will help them in their quest for a playoff berth, the Rays would be wise to not rest on their laurels if they want to hold on to their spot atop the American League East.


The Truth about Aramis Ramirez

One of the big reasons the Chicago Cubs have had success in recent years is third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez has put up some great seasons ever since he joined the Cubbies in 2003, and has become a key part of their offensive game plan. But this year, he’s hitting .167 with a .234 OBP while slugging .280. For six straight seasons, Aramis has posted a weighted on-base average of .380 or greater (.330 is about league average). This season, he’s posting a meager wOBA of just .237. So what’s wrong with the Cubs slugger?

To begin with, Ramirez’s strikeouts are way up. Last season, he struck out in 14.1 percent of his at-bats (league average is usually around 19 percent), slightly better than the 15.4 percent mark he’s posted over his entire career. This season, Ramirez is taking the walk of shame a whopping 23.1 percent of the time, the highest since his rookie season back in 1998. It is very unusual for a hitter to see such a large increase in strikeout rate from one year to the next.

Delving further into his rising strikeout rate, we can see that Ramirez is actually swinging at fewer pitches this year and making contact less often when he does get the bat off his shoulder. To compound the problem, Ramirez is making less contact on balls inside the strike zone, while getting his bat on the ball more often on pitches outside the strike zone. Last year, he made contact on 88.8 percent of balls in the zone. This year it’s 83.3 percent. And on balls outside the zone, he’s gone from making contact 65.6 percent of the time, to 68.7. Missing hittable pitches, while making contact on pitches off the plate that are not easy to square up, is not a recipe for success.

In essence, the numbers bear out the phenomenon generally known as “pressing.” As a reaction to his slow start, Ramirez is chasing more balls and overswinging at those he thinks he can hit. It’s not working, though, and the Cubs need to do what they can to get their slugger back to his old ways. He knows how to hit — he’s just lost right now.


The Trouble with Trevor

Losers of seven games in a row entering yesterday, the Brewers desperately needed a win against the first-place Reds. Holding a 4-2 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers weren’t aware that the unceremonious end to Trevor Hoffman’s storied career was on the horizon. While the 42-year-old closer has been bad this season, suffice it to say he hasn’t had worse stuff this season than he had yesterday. Thanks to TexasLeaguers.com, we have this sad-looking graph that shows neither Hoffman’s fastball nor legendary changeup had any horizontal movement against Cincinnati:

Scott Rolen’s game-tying home run came on one of those straight change-ups, leading to Hoffman’s third loss and fifth blown save of the season. Even if last night is viewed as an anomaly, there are plenty of indicators that Hoffman is pitching at an all-time low level. Not since 2002 — when FanGraphs started tracking pitch stats — has the right-hander’s changeup been below-average relative to the rest of the league. This season, it has been one of the least valuable 20 changeups in all of baseball, worth 2.2 runs below average. (It was 8.3 runs above average in 2009.) His fastball, which has always been a weapon merely as a counter to the change, has taken a predictable beating as a result. The pitch has a tiny 2.1 whiff rate (versus a league average of around 8 percent), and batters are having no problem hitting it hard and into the air.

Always a fly-ball pitcher, Hoffman is allowing elevation at never-before-seen heights in 2010. Since 2002, Hoffman’s ground-ball percentage has been between 30 and 40 percent every season. This year, through a little more than 50 balls in play, he’s allowed just seven ground balls, for a minute 13.7 ground-ball rate. Considering that 20 percent of the fly balls he’s allowed have left the stadium, we’re seeing a bad combination of epic proportions. Hoffman’s 13.15 ERA is probably higher than it should be, but considering a career-high walk rate, his fielding independent pitching (FIP) suggests it should still be 10.48.

This season, the Brewers have trusted their worst pitcher with one of their most important roles. It is strange to think about Hoffman in any inning besides the ninth, but if the right-hander understandably doesn’t want to retire on this note, then he can’t be trusted with anything besides mopping up until some semblance of good stuff comes back.

According to CoolStandings.com, the Brewers now have a 6.1 percent chance of making the playoffs as they stand eight games back of the Reds. It’s likely that those 6.1 percent of simulations in which the Brewers made the comeback were not with Hoffman pitching high leverage innings.


Do Fewer Walks Mean More Wins?

The Minnesota Twins have issued the fewest walks of any team in baseball, despite playing in the league that features the designated hitter. There isn’t even another team within shouting distance of their 2.40 BB/9 ratio — the Phillies are next at 2.8 walks per nine — and the Twins’ strike-throwing ways are one of the main reasons they sit atop the American League Central.

Obviously, not giving out free passes is a good thing for a pitcher, but just how valuable of a skill is it? Let’s find out.

One way of measuring a single variable’s effect on an overall result is to determine the coefficient of determination. That is essentially a five-dollar phrase for “how much does Thing A cause Thing B to happen?” or, if you’re mathematically inclined, it’s the square of the correlation between two things.

This coefficient can be between 0 and 1, where zero is no relationship between two items and one is a perfect relationship (when one thing happens, so does the other, every single time), and these relationships can be either positive or negative — a negative correlation suggests that when one thing happens, the result is less
likely to occur.

So, what does this show the relationship between walks and winning percentage to be? The coefficient of determination between team BB/9 and team winning percentage since the wild-card era began is 0.21, a number that suggests that it’s not the only thing you need to win games, but it’s a pretty good thing to succeed at. In other words, it means that 21 percent of a team’s winning percentage can be explained simply by walk rate. And since 1995 (the dawn of the wild card), 57 percent of playoff teams have finished in the top 10 in all of baseball in BB/9 ratio.

While you still need to do things like score runs (as the Seattle Mariners are currently proving night in and night out), assembling a pitching staff of strike-throwers will get you well on your way to winning baseball games. Just ask the Twins.


What’s Lackey Lacking?

John Lackey has never been a strikeout artist. He’s never struck out 200 in a season nor reached the hallowed ground of recording one K per inning for a season. But this year, it’s getting a little ridiculous. He’s striking out batters at a career-low rate (5.58 per nine innings) and he’s getting battered around the park, such as he did in a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. This isn’t what the Red Sox thought they were buying with their $85 million.

Normally, when a pitcher has an unexpected bad start, the traditional “luck” statistics (batting average on balls in play, strand rate and home run rate) tell the tale. But in this case, they don’t. Lackey has a .308 batting average on balls in play (which usually ends up at .300 across baseball) and has stranded exactly 70 percent of runners, which is also right around league average. He’s even giving up the standard amount of home runs per fly ball (8.5 percent this year, usually around 10 percent across baseball). It’s not a case of poor luck, it seems.

Looking at batters’ swing rates when they step in the box against Lackey doesn’t help much, either. Batters are reaching at offerings outside the zone about as often as usual. It seems that Lackey is missing the zone a little (45.2 percent in the strike zone, 50.4 percent career) and batters are making more contact than usual (84.1 percent contact rate, 80.3 percent career). But why are batters making more contact with his pitches?

He hasn’t lost any velocity. His fastball and curveball are within 0.2 mph of their career levels. The slider and changeup have actually gained oomph, but perhaps that is part of the problem. The difference between his fastball and changeup has gone from 8.2 mph for his career to 7.1 mph this season. But Lackey throws the changeup only around 5 percent of the time, so that effect probably isn’t huge.

The answer may lie in Lackey’s curve in the end. At FanGraphs, we keep a statistic that tries to put value on the results of each type of pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal. By using game state statistics before and after a slider, for example, we can assign value to that pitch. Looking at Lackey’s career, his fastball (plus-27.6 runs career) and curve (plus-51.8 runs career) have always been his best pitches. His slider has usually been around scratch or better (plus-6.4 runs career).

This year? His fastball (plus-1.1 runs) and slider (plus-1.2 runs) have been doing fine. For only the second time in his career, however, the curveball is currently negative (minus-1.6 runs). Though neither the horizontal movement, vertical movement nor the velocity numbers show anything really unique about his curveball this season, the pitch is just not providing good results for Lackey this year. Why? It’s hard to know, but don’t be surprised if we start to hear murmurs about him tipping his pitches.

On Sunday, Lackey threw the curve 31 times. It actually resulted in a strikeout three times, so it wasn’t terrible, but the curve also resulted in three singles and Ramon Santiago’s two-run homer. If you’re wondering what Lackey is lacking, it seems it’s his signature curve.


The Best Pitch in Baseball

Adam Wainwright pitched 233 innings during the 2009 season while posting a 2.63 ERA and a 3.11 FIP and earning himself a fair share of Cy Young Award votes. It would have been perfectly acceptable and understandable if Wainwright’s performance took a step back this season as hitters adjusted and Wainwright’s ERA increased. Yet the 28-year-old hasn’t taken a step back, and so far, he’s actually taking a step forward by pitching well enough in his first seven starts to record an ERA of 2.08 and a FIP of 2.55.

Seemingly the only change in Wainwright’s approach is an increase in the amount of breaking balls used. Earlier this season on TMI, Mark Simon noted how frequently Wainwright was using his curve last year, and he is even more reliant on his breaking stuff this season.

Throughout his career, about half of the pitches Wainwright threw were fastballs. This season he’s throwing his heater less than 42 percent of the time and instead focusing on his always excellent slider and curve. FanGraphs’ linear weights based on pitch type give run values for each offering, and for his career, Wainwright’s curve is worth 45.2 runs above average and his slider 35.3 runs. It’s a stark contrast from the minus-7.6 runs his fastball is valued at, or the plus-3.9 run value of his change-up.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Wainwright’s success is how predictable his usage has become. The only counts in which Wainwright is throwing a fastball more than 50 percent of the time are obvious fastball situations (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, and 3-2). He’s using his curveball more than 70 percent of the time in 0-2 counts, and nearly 60 percent of the time in 1-2 and 2-2 counts.

When Wainwright gets ahead –- and he usually does –- batters have to know the hammer is on the way, and yet they still can’t hit the thing. Nearly 13 percent of the curves Wainwright has thrown have been swung at and missed and roughly 70 percent have been strikes –- whether it be of the foul, called, or swinging variety. As far as out pitches go, it’s hard to find one that gets the job done as often as Wainwright’s curve, and it’s easy to see why he’s on the path to a career year.


Holland Set to Rule the World

Pop quiz: Under what circumstances is it reasonable to be excited about a pitcher who posted a 6.12 ERA last season?

Answer: When that pitcher is Texas Rangers left-hander Derek Holland.

Derek Holland’s first season in the Majors was superficially poor. He went 8-13 with 26 homers allowed and had a 6.12 ERA. But look a little bit closer, at the events over which Holland — or any pitcher — exerts the most control, and the young lefty’s season has to be considered a success.

He posted a strikeout rate of 6.96 K/9, a walk rate of only 3.06 BB/9, and induced ground balls on 41.5 percent of balls in plays (only slightly below league average of around 43 percent). All that added up to a 4.38 xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, normalized for home-run rate), which is designed to look like ERA, but removes all the elements of luck. For a 22-year-old in his big league debut, a 4.38 xFIP is excellent.

So what’s the disconnect here? Basically everything that could go wrong for Holland did go wrong. His batting average on balls in play was .321, compared to a league average right around .300. His left-on-base percentage (a.k.a. strand rate) came in at 64.7 percent, below a typical figure of 70 percent. Home runs per fly ball? Yep, he got unlucky there, too, conceding homers on about 15 percent of fly balls, even while the average pitcher finds his number settling somewhere in the range of 10 percent. These are all elements of pitching that the pitcher has little control over. When these stats deviate heavily from the norm, it usually points to luck.

All of which is why there was some confusion among the sabermetric ranks when Texas opted to begin the season with the less talented Matt Harrison in the big league rotation while Holland got sent down to Triple-A. Such confusion was justified: Holland breezed his way through six Pacific Coast League starts (38 2/3 IP, 37 strikeouts, seven walks — good for a 2.44 xFIP). Over six starts of his own, Harrison struggled, posting a mediocre 4.82 xFIP before finding his way to the 15-day disabled list with bicep tendinitis.

Yesterday, making his season debut in Harrison’s vacated rotation spot against the A’s, Holland pitched like the guy we could have expected. He went six innings, struck out seven, walked one, and induced grounders on over half of his balls in play. He didn’t allow a run and earned him a much-deserved win.

If Holland is able to come close to matching last night’s performance in his next start — most likely next Monday, at home, versus the struggling Angels — he is almost certain to take Harrison’s spot. Such a course of events would be quite intriguing, as it should give the Rangers — along with Colby Lewis, Rich Harden, C.J. Wilson, and Scott Feldman — one of the deepest starting rotations in the league.


Who’s Really Carrying his Team?

Today on ESPN.com, Jerry Crasnick writes about players who are carrying their teams in a variety of ways. And while we can’t put a number on any emotional or intangible lift a player gives his squad, we do have some cold, hard numbers that tell us which guys are really carrying their squads. To start, let’s look at which players have the highest percentage of their team’s wins above replacement.

Name                 WAR          %
Shin-Soo Choo        1.5        14%        
Nelson Cruz          1.9        13%       
Chase Utley          2.5        13%        
Alex Rios            1.7        12%       
Andrew McCutchen     1.1        12%
Michael Bourn        1.2        12%
Vernon Wells         2.0        11%
Jered Weaver         1.1        11%
Franklin Gutierrez   1.4        11%      
Justin Morneau       2.2        10%

Based on the numbers, no one is carrying his team quite like Choo, but that’s a byproduct of being an excellent player on a bad team. The same can be said for McCutchen and Bourn. But I think the spirit of carrying a team implies something more. To make it relevant, you have to be able to carry a team that wins.

Therefore, let’s give extra credit to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay of the Phillies. The pair has the most WAR of any batter (2.5) and pitcher (2.2) respectively this season and account for 23 percent of a first-place team’s WAR.

Moving to the American League, Nelson Cruz and Justin Morneau are both are off to scorching starts for division-leading clubs. Morneau’s 2.2 wins above replacement is already more than half as many wins as he has in any season of his career, including his 2006 MVP season and accounts for 10 percent of the Twins’ total WAR. Cruz’s 1.9 wins above replacement is possibly more impressive given that he did that in only 19 games before hitting the disabled list with a hamstring issue. He’s been a force in a lineup that has so far disappointed in offensive production. His production has accounted for 13 percent of the Rangers’ total WAR.

On the other end of the spectrum are some players that teams were counting on to perform and have faltered so far. Chief among those would be Aramis Ramirez (-0.9 WAR) of the Cubs, who has been well below replacement level.

Howie Kendrick (-0.5 WAR) and Erick Aybar (-0.2 WAR) of the Angels have seen bigger than expected regressions from their highs in 2009. Both are under replacement level and are a big reason why the Angels have been so disappointing. Over in Boston, a team that Theo Epstein built on pitching and defense has seen good hitting and the expected solid defensive play, but has been completely let down by its vaunted pitching staff. Josh Beckett’s struggles are highly visible (0.5 WAR), but the entire staff has been less than dominating, and excluding Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, the bullpen has combined for -0.6 WAR. Defenders can only do so much when the ball is being lined all over the park.


Johnson is the New Ibanez

If the Atlanta Braves could have one mulligan from this past offseason, it probably would be their decision to non-tender second baseman Kelly Johnson. While the Braves have struggled to hit for power, Johnson has supplied it in droves for the Arizona Diamondbacks this season. He has 10 home runs already, which is as many as all Braves not named Jason Heyward have hit. But although Johnson’s torrid start has been impressive, it’s unlikely he’ll remain this good throughout 2010.

Johnson first showed signs of his potential in 2007, when he hit .276/.375/.457 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) as the Braves’ full-time second baseman. He struggled in the next two years, however, hence the non-tender. In many ways, the start to his 2010 season resembles that breakout season. His walk and strikeout rates are back in line. His batted ball data also line up fairly well, although Johnson is hitting a few more fly balls in 2010. Still, the results on those fly balls have been much better. Of the 35 fly balls he’s hit, 10 have left the park (28.6 percent). That mark is almost certainly unsustainable during the course of a full season and is higher than any hitter’s rate last year.

In 2009, only seven NL hitters cleared the fence with more than 20 percent of their fly balls. Mark Reynolds led the way with 26 percent. (See list below.) One thing that stands out about the names you see is that they all have high career isolated power (ISO) numbers, a statistic that is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage. Among last year’s leaders in home run rate, only Raul Ibanez doesn’t have a career ISO of .200 or higher, and he’s close at .194. Johnson has a career ISO of .178, so he is a prime candidate to regress.

2009 N.L. HR/FB Leaders / Career Isolated Power:
Mark Reynolds    26.0%  /  .247
Ryan Howard      25.4%  /  .301
Prince Fielder   23.1%  /  .261
Adrian Gonzalez  22.2%  /  .225
Raul Ibanez      21.1%  /  .194
Adam Dunn        21.1%  /  .270
Albert Pujols    20.1%  /  .293

Ibanez actually provides a cautionary tale of his own. Before his mid-June injury last season, he hit 22 home runs on 85 fly balls, a 25.9 percent rate, while his career rate is just 13 percent. From his mid-July return through the end of the season, he hit 75 fly balls, only 12 of which left the park (16 percent). That percentage still ranks above his career mark but certainly brought down the numbers he produced during his powerful start.

Even when Johnson does come back to Earth, he’ll likely continue to produce for the Diamondbacks. Sabermetrician Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection, which he updates daily, has Johnson pegged for a .219 ISO the rest of the way, so his power should remain intact even when more of his fly balls start dropping into gloves or gaps. He won’t sustain his .355 ISO for the next five months, but a .251 mark, per ZiPS, would represent a huge step forward for Johnson.


Matt Kemp’s Disastrous D

Headed into the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers were considered favorites to win their third straight NL West title, but they now find themselves sitting in fourth place. The team activated Manny Ramirez off the disabled list over the weekend and will gladly welcome his bat back into the everyday lineup, but scoring runs has been the least of the team’s worries. A lack of run prevention is the shovel that the Dodgers have dug themselves in a hole with.

For starters, the Dodger pitching staff has really struggled to find the plate. Their starters have walked 4.36 batters per nine innings pitched, which is the highest mark in the National League. It’s possible that their pitchers are afraid to throw strikes because their defense isn’t catching anything. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has the Dodger defense costing the team 25.5 runs so far relative to average, worst in baseball. John Dewan’s defensive runs saved metric agrees, knocking the Dodgers defense to the tune of -19 runs. The primary problem? Matt Kemp, who was publicly called out by general manager Ned Colletti for his poor defense two weeks ago. While Kemp did win a Gold Glove last year, the Dodger GM’s assessment of his center fielder’s defensive butchery is confirmed by the data.

DRS says he’s cost the Dodgers -14 runs; UZR has him at -11.8, which is by far the lowest in baseball at his position. That’s a staggering amount of runs this early in the season. The worst center fielders might do that over the course of a year, not over the course of thirty or so games. (For context, Vernon Wells had the worst UZR among center fielders last year at -16.6.) While there’s bound to be some noise in such small sample stats, there is no doubt that the normally reliable Kemp — who had a UZR of 3.1 last year — has been bad in the outfield, whether judged by the eyes or the numbers. As Colletti said, “It’s a shame that he would go from where he was a year ago to revert back to when the ball goes up in the air and you’re not sure where it’s going, or if it’s going to get caught.”

If the Dodgers are going to make up the ground they’ve lost in the early stages of the season, they must get back to some very basic, fundamental principles of the game. Pitchers need to throw more first pitch strikes and stop issuing so many silly walks, and their fielders, particularly Matt Kemp, need to start getting to more balls.


Giant Surprise in Right

While the San Francisco Giants have put together one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball, they entered the 2010 season with legitimate questions about where they’d find any offense. A month into the season, one of the early answers has been Nate Schierholtz, a guy who didn’t even crack their opening day lineup.

After collecting three hits Thursday night, including his first home run of the season, Schierholtz is now hitting .381/.458/.587, and is establishing himself as a potential every-day player for the Giants. He had shown the ability to make contact and hit for power in the minors, but an undisciplined approach led to unproductive major league results, such as his career .329 on-base percentage. However, Schierholtz is showing signs of offensive development at age 26.

In addition to the three hits Thursday night, he also drew his seventh walk of the season, which doesn’t sound that impressive until you realize that he managed only 16 walks in 308 plate appearances a year ago. He’s managed to work his way on base while simultaneously cutting down on his strikeouts, which is no easy feat. The combination of improved contact and better selectivity has allowed Schierholtz to make the most of the offensive skills he’s been given, and the Giants have to be thrilled with the results to date.

He won’t keep hitting .381, of course, but Schierholtz’s overall game is fairly similar to that of former Giants outfielder Randy Winn, who combined gap power, good contact skills and quality defense in the outfield to become one of San Francisco’s better regular players. UZR thinks very highly of Schierholtz’s glove in right field, so if he can sustain the newfound patience and keep hitting doubles with some frequency, the Giants may just have found a new right fielder.


J.D. Drew and Other Bargains

It is difficult to find a bargain on the free-agent market. While teams can often find players who fit their needs, they often have to pay through the nose to get them. For example, Torii Hunter is a perfect fit for the Angels, but at $18 million per year, they’re paying a heavy premium for his services.

In his column today, Jayson Stark examines some of the most untradable contracts in baseball. But there are still values to be found on the free-agent market. Here are five guys who have turned out to be excellent free-agent bargains.

J.D. Drew, Red Sox (2007 — five years, $70 million): The Boston faithful might not appreciate him, but after his rocky debut season with the Red Sox, Drew has been excellent. In each of the past two years, his OPS has been above .900, which placed him in the top three among AL outfielders. According to Dollars, a metric we use at FanGraphs that converts wins above replacement to what a player would receive as a free agent, Drew has been worth $47.1 million in his three years in Boston, which is more than $5 million more than he is being paid. As long as his performance doesn’t completely crater over the next two years, he’ll have been worth every penny.

Ryan Dempster, Cubs (2009 — four years, $52 million) Dempster began his career as a starter, but moved to the bullpen when he signed with the Cubs in 2004. After he struggled in 2006 and 2007, they moved him back to the rotation for the 2008 season, and Dempster responded brilliantly, posting a 2.96 ERA in 206 2/3 innings. He still pitched well in 2009 after the new contract (3.65 ERA in 200 innings), and has started strong once again in 2010. According to Dollars, he was worth $16.4 million last year while being paid $8 million (his contract is back-loaded). He’s not an ace, but dependable midrotation starters are extremely valuable.

Casey Blake, Dodgers (2009 — three years, $18 million) The Dodgers liked what they saw of Blake after acquiring him from the Indians in a 2008 midseason trade, and they re-signed him before the 2009 season. In the first year of his new contract, he was incredibly valuable to Los Angeles, registering an .832 OPS while playing excellent defense at third. That performance was worth $20.7 million, so he’s already paid for himself. That’s some good news for Dodgers fans, considering the team gave up catcher Carlos Santana, one of the best prospects in baseball, in the trade to get him.

Juan Rivera, Angels (2009 — three years, $12.75 million) Rivera isn’t as good as Drew, but his salary is also much lower. The Angels paid him just $3.25 million last season and he produced an .810 OPS, which was worth more than $14 million. This year hasn’t gone as well, but it won’t take much for him to be worth his salary. Like Blake, he’s already paid for himself anyway.

Brad Penny, Cardinals (2010 — one year, $7.5 million) Penny’s return to the NL has gone very well to date, and he’s looking like Dave Duncan’s newest reclamation success, though he did pitch well down the stretch for the Giants after faltering with the Red Sox. His new splitter has produced ground balls aplenty and he has kept the ball in the park. He won’t sustain his 1.99 ERA, but he doesn’t have to justify the Cardinals’ minor investment in his right arm. According to Dollars, he’s already been worth $4.1 million, and it’s barely May.


Hamels is Pitching Like an Ace

Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels put on a pitching clinic Tuesday night. In eight innings, he struck out eight Cardinals batters and walked two, allowing just one run to cross home plate. His signature changeup was in fine form: According to Pitch F/X data from BrooksBaseball.net, Hamels threw 23 of his 28 changeups for a strike, and St. Louis hitters swung and missed at 11 of those off-speed offerings.

Expect more performances like this from Hamels in the days to come. Although the 26-year-old entered Tuesday’s action with a 5.06 ERA, he lowered that mark to 4.42 last night. And his peripheral stats suggest that he has been one of the best starters in the National League to this point.

In 38 2/3 innings, Hamels has whiffed 10.24 batters per nine innings, while allowing 2.79 walks per nine. Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Clayton Kershaw and Bud Norris are the only Senior Circuit pitchers with a higher K rate. Hamels is doing a great job of getting batters to chase his stuff off the plate, as opponents have swung at 31.6 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone. (The major league average this season is 27 percent.) That’s a career-best rate, and it places him in the top 10 among NL starters.

Despite the strong peripherals, Hamels’ numbers have been dragged down by abnormally high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and home runs per fly ball figures. Hamels has suffered from a .356 BABIP in 2010, compared with a career .298 BABIP. Also obscuring his excellent pitching is a 16.7 percent home run per fly ball rate, well north of his career 11.9 percent clip and the league average, which typically sits in the 10-12 percent range. Hamels was also a bit unlucky last season, as his strikeout, walk and home run rates were virtually identical to his 2008 marks. However, his BABIP went from .270 to .325, and his ERA jumped from 3.09 to 4.32.

With fewer bloop hits falling in and fly balls finding the stands less often, Hamels should see his ERA dip this season. He currently holds a 3.31 expected fielding-independent ERA (xFIP), which gauges a pitcher’s performance based on strikeouts, walks and a normal home run per fly ball rate. That places Hamels seventh among NL starters.

Roy Halladay may be the talk of the town, but Hamels gives the Phillies a second ace.


Three Fast Starts to be Believed

Not long ago, Denard Span looked like nothing more than a grade C prospect who failed to make good on his tremendous athletic ability. Then, something changed, and quickly. Span developed a more patient approach at the plate, which led to him drawing more walks and getting better pitches to hit. Fast-forwarding to today, Span is an extremely valuable regular on a winning team. Breakouts can seemingly come from out of nowhere, but there are statistical indicators that tell us which are more real than others.

Naturally, at this time of the year we view players with a certain air of suspicion, and rightly so; Small sample sizes make trusting early season statistics difficult. However, there is a point in time when certain stats can become more trustworthy than others. A study done by Russell Carlton showed that after 50 plate appearances, a player’s swing habits can be a reliable guide to what’s going on. In the case of Colby Rasmus, his swing habits give us a substantial reason to believe he’s a changed man. According to O-Swing percentage (which is a stat we use at FanGraphs that measures the percentage of swings a batter takes at pitches outside of the strike zone), undisciplined batters greatly decrease their odds of reaching base by mercilessly hacking at everything thrown their direction. (This shouldn’t surprise anyone.) Rasmus did not really show great plate discipline last season, evidenced by a paltry .307 on-base percentage. He swung at 25.9 percent of pitches thrown out of the zone last year, but this season, he’s decreased that number to just 17.8 percent. As a result, Rasmus has drawn more walks (17) than teammate Albert Pujols (15) and he’s taking more advantage of pitches he’s finding to his liking. The result? A line of .316/.436/.658. People have projected stardom for Rasmus since he was a first-round pick in 2005, and it appears the 23-year-old is figuring things out.

Like Rasmus, Oakland’s Daric Barton is also demonstrating a tremendous amount of selectivity at the plate, with an O-Swing percentage of just 13 percent. Barton’s been known for this for a while, but he is also making a lot more contact when he does swing. He’s getting the bat on the ball 89.7 percent of the time when he swings, a 4.8 percent increase over his career rates. When you’re not swinging at a lot of bad pitches, and making that much contact with the pitches you do swing at, good things are bound to happen, and they are so far for Barton. He’s never going to hit for a ton of power, but he has a .407 OBP and should be an on-base machine for years to come.

Chicago Cubs left-handed reliever Sean Marshall is another breakout to believe in. In the early goings of the season, we see that his curve has about 2 more inches of downward movement according to Pitch f/x data, and he’s throwing his curve 41.5 percent of the time. Batters against Marshall have an O-Swing percentage of 33.0 this season, and his career rate is 23.0. Translation: He’s getting a lot more guys to chase out of the zone, because he’s throwing a curve with more movement. While he’s not going to be confused with a flamethrower anytime soon, his average fastball velocity is up from 87 mph to 89.3 mph, a considerable increase. A better fastball helps set up the off-speed, and it helps when that off-speed pitch is a filthy, knee-buckling curveball like Marshall’s. He’s fanned 18 and walked just two batters in 14 innings, and his dominance could give the Cubs the flexibility to move Carlos Zambrano back into the rotation.


Ryan Ludwick is Well-Protected

On the heels of Ryan Ludwick’s somewhat innocuous 1-for-3 performance Sunday against the Reds, it might seem odd to focus on the Cardinals right fielder today. But there was a lot of intrigue in those few at-bats, and a lot of food for thought.

Ludwick’s strong season to date has garnered some notice. He is batting .290, he’s walking more than 10 percent of the time, and he has an isolated power above .190. These all are benchmarks he met back in the halcyon days of yore (aka 2008, when he also hit 37 home runs), but fell short of last year. So what has changed?

For starters, manager Tony La Russa has him hitting second this year after usually batting him fourth or fifth the past two seasons. The stated reason for the switch was to get Ludwick more fastballs while hitting in front of Albert Pujols. So far, so good. Thus far, Ludwick is seeing fastballs 57 percent of the time, which is the most he’s seen in five years. In Sunday’s win against Cincy, 10 of the 13 pitches Ludwick got were fastballs.

This would seem like a silly new strategy because Ludwick crushes fastballs. A statistic on FanGraphs measures a batters’ effectiveness versus each type of pitch and produces a runs above average figure for each offering. In his career, Ludwick has been most successful against the fastball, to the tune of 53 runs above average. Compare that to his success against the curve (plus-3 runs) and the change (plus-7.8 runs), and you get a sense of how much he enjoys the fastball. His run-producing single Sunday came on a fastball.

So why are pitchers throwing him the fastball? Convention wisdom says that Pujols lurking in the on-deck circle has something to do with it. Fastballs find the strike zone 54.1 percent of the time across baseball, compared to 44.7 percent of the time for curveballs and 42.9 percent of the time for changeups. (Thanks to Daniel Moroz of Beyond the Box Score for those numbers.) If pitchers are worried about Pujols coming up next, it makes sense they’d want to make sure not to walk Ludwick and use a pitch that they could command against him.

Lineup protection is an easy explanation for all the fastballs Ludwick is seeing, but there has been research that shows that lineup protection is a myth. Whether you are inclined to believe J.C. Bradbury or conventional wisdom of lineup protection, the bottom line is that Ludwick is seeing more fastball this year. And that’s a boon to his bottom line.