Archive for June, 2010

Five Major Disappointments

While everyone is talking about who’s going to make the All-Star team, here are five players we can be sure won’t be spending July 12-14 in Anaheim, unless they’re paying their own way. Starting with Matt Kemp, here are 2010’s biggest disappointments.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers
After signing a two-year extension in the offseason and hobnobbing with a Hollywood hottie, Kemp has put together a poor 2010. After hitting close to .300 last year, Kemp is hitting just .258 with a .316 on-base percentage. And his fielding has been even worse. While UZR may not be the most reliable in small samples, his mark of minus-16.5 is by far the worst of any center fielder in baseball, and it’s not even close.

Chone Figgins, Mariners
Figgins reached base nearly 40 percent of the time last season, but his OBP has dropped down to .337 this year. Some of this may stem from losing his line-drive stroke, but he’s also striking out far too often. Figgins has taken the walk of shame 17.5 percent of the time over his entire career but is striking out five percent more often this season. For a player who doesn’t have power and relies heavily on speed, he needs to put the ball in play a lot more often.

Adam Lind, Blue Jays
Lind made huge strides in 2009 but has regressed to his previous levels of performances. After swinging at about 25 percent of pitches outside of the zone in 2009, Lind is chasing pitches at a 32 percent rate. He is even swinging at more pitches inside the zone and is making far less contact overall. This has led to his strikeout rate rising almost 9 percent compared to last year, and he’s hitting just .204/.265/.344 on the year.

Randy Wolf, Brewers
The Brewers were counting on Wolf to anchor their rotation when they signed him to a three-year, $29.75 million contract this offseason, and he hasn’t performed up to expectations. Wolf is throwing 6 percent more balls compared to last season and is walking batters at nearly twice the rate. The result? A 4.92 ERA.

Trevor Hoffman, Brewers
The fact that the Brewers have two players on this list should partially explain their .447 winning percentage. During Hoffman’s historic career, he has been known for two things: “Hells Bells,” and his changeup. The music still plays whenever he comes in for a save, but the changeup doesn’t trot in with him. Since 2008, Hoffman has lost nearly 4 inches of downward movement on his change. When you can no longer keep hitters off balance with your fastball, losing movement on your most important pitch is a death sentence. The 42-year-old has allowed seven homers in 24 innings, and his days as a closer appear to be finished.

Liriano’s Meltdown

On April 12, the Minnesota Twins claimed possession of first place in the AL Central with a 5-2 win against the Boston Red Sox. Since then, the Twins have been in sole possession of first for 76 days and tied for one. For the first time since then, Minnesota is no longer atop the Central after losing to the Detroit Tigers, 7-5, on Monday night. Although the Twins battled back to within a run in the eighth inning, Twins ace Francisco Liriano’s four-run, first-inning meltdown was simply too much for the Twins to recover from.

Liriano started the inning by hitting Austin Jackson with a pitch. It was downhill from there, as the game log shows.

It certainly doesn’t appear that Liriano was getting burned by dribblers through the infield. Three of the five hits in the inning were classified as line drives by Baseball Info Solutions; another, Miguel Cabrera’s double, was a deep fly ball. It also doesn’t appear that Liriano’s velocity was down in the first inning, either. He threw 13 fastballs in the inning, averaging 93.8 mph. That’s almost exactly in line with his fastball velocity on the year.

Liriano put himself in a very bad situation with the hit batsman and then a bunt hit by Ramon Santiago. Then, as happens to even the best pitchers, he was burned by good hitters and poor location. After a single by Ryan Raburn loaded the bases, Cabrera hit a slider which was down out of the strike zone for a double. In the next at-bat, Liriano’s second pitch to Brennan Boesch was simply asking to be hit for extra bases.

Allowing cheap baserunners is particularly problematic for Liriano, as he struggles from the stretch relative to the rest of the league. The average pitcher has allowed batters to slug .396 with the bases empty this year, and .415 with runners on. Against Liriano this season, the opposition is slugging .313 with no one on base and .374 with men on. So even though the lefty is better than the league with runners on, the gap between his performance with the bases empty versus men on is larger than most.

This four-run inning by the Tigers raised their win expectancy to 78.8 percent before the Twins even got to the plate. Liriano managed to throw five strong innings despite his poor opener, but it simply wasn’t enough. The Tigers scored enough early and managed to hang on. As a reward, Detroit is now in first, and the race is on.

Strasburg Not an All-Star

Though Stephen Strasburg has made just four major league starts, there is already some buzz that he deserves to make the All-Star team. It seems likely that he’ll end up getting picked by Charlie Manuel, the manager of the NL team, but if the All-Star Game is a representation of the season’s best players, especially when it comes to the pitchers, who aren’t voted on by the fans, Strasburg should not be considered this year. Other pitchers –- those who have been with the big club since Opening Day — have done more for their teams this season.

Strasburg should have six starts in the majors by the time the rosters are announced July 6. Even though his stats are at historical levels for someone who has made four starts, it has been just four games, and those starts have been against the Pirates, Indians, White Sox and Royals, the 30th-, 24th-, 20th- and 17th-ranked offenses in baseball. When the Royals are the best offense you have seen this season, your stats should be taken with a grain of salt.

With 34 players on the All-Star roster, there will probably be 12-14 pitchers selected, and three or four of them will be relievers. That means there are roughly 8-10 spots for starting pitchers. Using WAR, we can pinpoint 11 NL starting pitchers who easily surpass Strasburg in terms of value.

The main reason Strasburg’s WAR is below that of these pitchers is his lack of starts (about one-third fewer than the rest of the league’s starters when the rosters are set), yet even if he continues to pitch at his current level in his next two starts, it will still be hard for him to pass most of the pitchers listed above in seasonal value. He has the quality, but not the quantity, and if we’re just going by the numbers, he’s not an All-Star. Not this year.

Dickey vs. Strasburg

Last night, Stephen Strasburg lost his first game as a major league pitcher, though not through much fault of his own, as his team fell to the Kansas City Royals, 1-0. Meanwhile, in Queens, N.Y., R.A. Dickey threw eight shutout innings for the New York Mets, continuing to offer his team a much-needed boost in their rotation. What do these two guys have in common?

Absolutely nothing.

Strasburg’s fastball averages 97.7 MPH, and he throws it 58 percent of the time. Dickey’s fastball averages 84.3 MPH, and he throws it 18 percent of the time. Dickey, of course, relies on a knuckleball to dance around and get outs. Strasburg just overpowers hitters with an assortment of pitches that is usually reserved for video games. But despite their disparate approaches, both have found success in getting big league hitters out this year. We thought it would be fun to compare how they’re doing it.

For Strasburg, it’s not that complicated. His plan is to get ahead in the count (67 percent first-pitch strikes), usually with his high-velocity fastball. Then, he makes hitters chase an assortment of pitches they can’t hit. Opponents have swung at 35.5 percent of the pitches he has thrown out of the strike zone, but made contact just 34.6 percent of the time. For comparison, the next-lowest contact rate on pitches outside the zone by a starter is 48.1 percent, by Jorge de la Rosa. When he gets hitters to chase, they come up empty, and he racks up the strikeouts.

Dickey can’t do that. Hitters are chasing his pitches slightly less often (29.3 percent), but are making contact twice as frequently — 70.2 percent of the pitches that opponents swing at outside of the strike zone they put the bat on, a pedestrian number that doesn’t explain how Dickey is striking out nearly seven batters per nine innings. The key for him is not to get hitters to fish, but to swing through pitches that they think they can whack.

Where Dickey has actually excelled this year has been on missing bats in the strike zone, where his 80.3 percent contact rate puts him just behind the league leader in that category, Clayton Kershaw. Yes, that’s right, hitters have an easier time making contact with a strike thrown from Stephen Strasburg than they do from R.A. Dickey, despite the Grand Canyon-sized difference in velocity. Here is a chart showing Dickey’s dominance in the zone. The red squares indicate a high percentage of pitches in that zone, blue is a low percentage.

As you can see, despite the erratic nature of the knuckler, Dickey is living right around the strike zone. And considering how hard of a time hitters have hitting it when it is in the zone, that’s good thing. He’s putting the knuckler in the zone, and yet, opposing hitters have not been able to catch up to it.

These two guys could not be any more different, but both are giving their teams a chance to win on a nightly basis.

The 2010 WAR All-Stars

It’s that time of year again: the time for hand-wringing about the way Major League Baseball selects its All-Star position players. Is there a way beyond all the gnashing of teeth about the alleged silliness of fan voting, stuffing the (virtual) ballot box, and so on? Maybe not. But there are more objective methods of measuring overall player value available to the public than in the past. Bloggers have come up with some ingenious suggestions for using multiple seasons or even full-blown projections to generate “true talent” All-Star teams, but let’s take a more simple approach using FanGraphs’ implementation of Wins Above Replacement to see what players have been the most valuable at each position in the league so far this season (as of June 22).

Joe Mauer is having a good season (if slightly disappointing for him) and just barely squeaks ahead of Victor Martinez. Mauer’s teammate Justin Morneau, on the other hand, is having a season even Albert Pujols would be proud of. Robinson Cano is stepping out from the shadows of more celebrated Yankees by having a dominant season at the plate and being above average in the field. Marco Scutaro is having a well-rounded season at shortstop, even if his presence is also a testimony to the relative weakness at that position in the American League this season.

This is about what we’ve come to expect from Evan Longoria, and given that he is only partially through his third season, that we have such high expectations for him says as much about him as any other superlatives. Fellow Ray Carl Crawford is having a good year even by his lofty standards, and Alex Rios, coming off a disastrous 2009, looks like one of the best outfielders in baseball. Two Rangers round out the All-WAR AL All-Stars: Josh Hamilton is the third outfielder mostly on the strength of his recent offensive outburst, and Vladimir Guerrero still has enough left in the tank to outhit the rest of the primary DHs in the AL.

There isn’t as much competition among the NL catchers, and Brian McCann is clearly the class of that group this season. Adrian Gonzalez, not surprisingly, is a major part of the Padres’ current revival. Chase Utley is having a down season relative to his usual standard, but it’s more than enough to be the best second baseman in the National League. Troy Tulowitzki is currently leading all NL shortstops but is also out for a couple of months, and Hanley Ramirez is right behind him at 2.2 WAR. Ryan Zimmerman is having another excellent year behind the veil of Strasburg mania. Marlon Byrd is playing less like the stopgap everyone thought he would and more like, well, an All-Star. Matt Holliday is the second best outfielder so far in the National League; despite not really having heated up with the bat yet, UZR is impressed with his glovework (in a small sample size).

The big surprise on the WAR leaderboards is the Giants’ Andres Torres, a capable player, but not someone one would have seen as an All-Star before this season, in which he has played well on both sides of the ball. There aren’t any “primary DHs” in the National League, of course, but Albert Pujols has been the most valuable hitter in the National League other than Gonzalez so far, and really, it would be laughable to have an All-Star Game without the best player in baseball, wouldn’t it?

Best Rookie Class Ever?

While Rookie of the Year is usually a humble award relative to the MVP and Cy Young, the race for this year’s title may be just as exciting as those for the other major awards around baseball. Mike Fitzpatrick recently called the rise of 2010’s young crop of big league players a “Rookie Revolution,” but do the numbers match the hype? Indeed they do.

Compared to past seasons, MLB has seen an upshot in production from first-year players that is relatively unprecedented. First-year batters have amassed 9.0 wins above replacement thus far this season, and if they attain as many plate appearances as they’ve averaged since 2002, are on pace for 35 WAR for the season, which would beat the 2008 record of 27.6 by a significant margin. If rookie pitchers reach their same inning pitched total as last year, they’ll put up 37 WAR, tops since 2002.

While you’ve no doubt heard about the two big names in this class, it’s not just Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward making waves. Detroit’s Brennan Boesch is slugging an absurd .617 on the season, best among all rookies in baseball. His teammate, Austin Jackson, is hitting .308 with ten stolen bases in eleven tries and playing quality defense in center field. Third baseman David Freese of the Cardinals and first baseman Gaby Sanchez of the Marlins may be older rookies, but their numbers are not very amateurish. Freese is hitting .306/.370/.425 and Sanchez has an .819 OPS. Mets first baseman Ike Davis has impressed New York with his glove, but his eight homers have also helped an offense that has needed power. Like Davis, Rangers first baseman Justin Smoak hails from the 2008 draft class, and like Ike has hit eight dingers on the year. Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has been solid in his forty games in Chicago, hitting .266 with very good defense.

Rookie pitchers are even threatening their bat-wielding counterparts on the mound. Besides Strasburg, Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake was the first player since Xavier Nady to go directly to the major leagues from college, but his 3.02 ERA and 4.06 Neftali Feliz of the Rangers has lit up radar guns around baseball with his 100 MPH fastball, but his 2.90 FIP and 2.87 ERA are just as exciting.

Incredibly, all of the players listed have a bunch of competition on the way. The Giants recently called up star catcher Buster Posey, who has hit .303 in twenty games so far, and the Indians called up catcher Carlos Santana, who has serious power behind the plate. The Pirates called up third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick of the 2008 draft. Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton was on pace for sixty homers in the minors this year, and the nineteen-year-old hit a grand slam for his first big league homer in Miami after being called up last week.

While we don’t know if this is the best year for rookies of all time, it certainly is on pace to be the greatest in recent memory. Luckily for us, we don’t just get one year of these guys either. Baseball will be blessed with these players for a long time.

Johnson Mows Down Rays

Josh Johnson’s fastball is very good. But against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, it was nearly unhittable — and this was against the eighth-best fastball hitting team in the majors.

FanGraphs’ pitch type run values had Johnson racking up 1.42 runs for every 100 fastballs thrown (a career-best ratio). And though he wouldn’t throw 100 heaters on Sunday — only 61 four-seamers — he was every bit as dominant as that number suggests, and perhaps more.

Johnson’s final line on the day included eight innings, six hits, one earned run on a Carl Crawford home run, zero walks, and nine strikeouts on 117 pitches — 87 of which were strikes (74 percent). Each of Johnson’s main pitches were whiffed at least 10 percent of the time: 13.3 percent of his 30 sliders; 17.7 percent of his 17 change-ups; and 21.3 percent of his 61 four-seam fastballs. He also threw a handful of two-seam fastballs, but the story of the day was Johnson’s four-seamer which averaged 95 miles per hour and topped out just shy of 98 MPH.

In Johnson’s prior 14 starts, batters were swinging and missing at his four-seam fastballs a little less than 10 percent. Sunday was different: Johnson usually throws the pitch for strikes 65 percent of the time, but on Sunday, more than 80 percent of his four-seamers were a strike of any variety. Johnson pounded the zone with heat and the Rays simply couldn’t do much with the pitch all day, either missing or fouling them off. The most egregious offender was Jason Bartlett, who in one plate appearance facing Johnson managed four swings and whiffed on three of them.

Of course it’s hard to blame Bartlett for such struggles as he was essentially fed to a roaring lion. Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena both missed on four Johnson pitches, but they saw nine and seven pitches apiece. In fact, only two Rays who faced Johnson managed to make contact on every swing — those being Reid Brignac and John Jaso on a combined 10 swings. That may not seem like a big accomplishment, but on Sunday it was one worthy of enshrinement.

Is Bonderman Back?

Like so many young pitchers, Jeremy Bonderman’s significant promise was hampered by the injury bug. He caught it in 2007, starting with blisters and ending with pinched lateral cartilage in his right elbow that cost him most of September. In 2008 matters got worse. After 12 largely ineffective starts he hit the DL again, this time requiring shoulder surgery. His 2009 comeback didn’t quite work out, leaving concerns about his ability to recover and become the pitcher scouts once envisioned he could be. But in 2010, he has started to change some of those negative opinions.

Last night’s start ranked among his best of the season. Facing the Washington Nationals, Bonderman pitched seven innings, requiring just 95 pitches to record those 21 outs. He allowed just five hits and walked none. His biggest, and perhaps only, mistake came in the seventh, when Adam Dunn hit one over the wall in right-center. With the score then 7-2 it didn’t much matter. Bonderman went on to retire three of the next four hitters, ending his night in a strong fashion. He ended the night with seven strikeouts, giving him 59 in his 75 1/3 innings .

What stood out about Bonderman’s night was his slider usage. In 2006 and 2007, the best years of his career, he went to his slider about 35 percent of the time. That level of usage was justified because it was clearly his best pitch. But pitchers who throw a high percentage of sliders appear to be at risk for arm injury. Bill Bray, Kiko Calero, Brad Lidge, and Mike Wuertz are recent examples of slider-heavy pitchers who have spent time on the DL with arm injuries. Bonderman, it appears, understands how the usage affected his arm. He threw it just over 20 percent of the time last year, and is at around 25 percent this year, still a significant drop from his 2006-07 usage.

The 26 he threw last night was right in line with that percentage, and as usual Bonderman used the pitch effectively. He generated three swings and misses, all of which came on strike three. The only mistake he made with it was hanging one to Dunn in the seventh after throwing him two earlier in the at-bat. The slider might not be all the way back, as hitters laid off it half the time. When Bonderman’s slider is at its best hitters will chase it more often, either making weak contact or swinging and missing.

To compensate for the lower slider usage, Bonderman has employed a two-seamer, and with much success. It has been an effective, if not slower, pitch this season. In 2006 he averaged 93 miles per hour with the fastball, and in 2007 that was still at 92. This year he’s averaging just over 90 mph with the fastball. Last night, though, he averaged 91.7 mph and maxed out right under 94. Hitters had trouble with the pitch, too, as they swung and missed seven times in 55 pitches. That made for an overall 11.7 percent whiff rate, 2.5 points better than his season average.

Jeremy Bonderman might never be the pitcher that scouts envisioned when he was a first-round pick in 2001. It appears, however, that he is far from done. Not only has he pitched well so far this season, but he has demonstrated improvement, especially in his last few starts. His two-seamer, slider combination has been an effective one. He is well on his way to a solid season, no small accomplishment for a pitcher who missed the bulk of two years after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Petco Not Helping Pads

Anyone that has ever been to — or even seen — a game at Petco Park knows that it kills home runs. Opened in 2004, the home of the San Diego Padres consistently ranks as the toughest park in which to hit a home run. While some may see this as a disadvantage, an extreme park factor can be used to a team’s advantage if their front office keeps it in mind while building their roster. And while the Padres are a surprising success this year, it’s not because they’ve built a team catered to their park.

San Diego’s pitchers currently allow the third fewest fly balls of any pitching staff in the majors, at just 33.5 percent of the time. Instead, the Padres’ pitching staff is right up there with Cleveland and St. Louis as one of the more ground ball-heavy staffs in the game. Ground balls, of course, are not subject to the dynamics of a particular stadium nearly as much as fly balls are.

One reason a team might attempt to keep balls out of the air is poor outfield defense. If you don’t have great defenders in the outfield, it makes sense to keep the ball away from them as much as possible. However, according to the fielding metric UZR, the Padres have had the third best defensive outfield this year, posting a mark of plus-12.7 runs so far. While the sample size is small, the Padres are starting three outfielders (Will Venable, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Scott Hairston) with a history of above-average defense, all of whom run well.

Telling a pitcher to induce fly balls is tricky, because you run the risk of giving up more home runs. But since fly balls typically produce the lowest batting average compared to line drives and grounders, and since Petco reduces the risk of homers, the Padres can feel more comfortable than a usual team when balls are flying through the air. Ground balls are good, but for the Padres they may not always be the best option. They may have the most wins in the National League, but it doesn’t mean San Diego is doing everything right. The Friars should try to utilize the vastness of Petco Park, as it could pay dividends in the near future.

Doc and CC Were Both Unlucky

Tuesday night offered baseball fans a rare opportunity: not only the chance to see a rematch of last year’s World Series participants, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, but also the chance to see each team send its respective ace to the Yankee Stadium mound, Philly’s Roy Halladay and New York’s CC Sabathia.

Unfortunately, no pitchers’ duel materialized. Halladay conceded three home runs, Sabathia wasn’t exactly at his sharpest (walking three in seven innings) and the Yankees won by a distinctly unduelish score of 8-3.

Meanwhile, in a less publicized (and considerably less attended) affair, C.J. Wilson of the Texas Rangers and Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins gave us the game we might have expected from Halladay and Sabathia, allowing only six hits and three runs between them over 13 collective innings.

Yet, despite the cosmetic difference in run total (11 on the one hand, five on the other), these two games help demonstrate that simple runs-allowed numbers are hardly the best way to determine whether a pitcher has truly “shut down” the opposition.

More on that in a second. But first, let’s consider the Wilson-Johnson matchup.

Again, in terms of superficial returns, we see Wilson allowed two earned runs and Johnson allowed only a single earned run. But even a casual glance at the box score reveals that while Johnson struck out seven and allowed only one walk, Wilson struck out six but also walked six. Intuitively, we understand that Johnson controlled the opposition’s batters better than Wilson. The question is: How much better?

Luckily, we can find out. Graham MacAree of StatCorner has done work that gives us the expected run values for every event within a pitcher’s control. Those events and their respective run values are as follows. (Note: In the version below, the expected run value for home runs has been integrated into the outfield fly ball run value according to the principle that home runs occur on approximately 11 percent of outfield flies.)

Of course, it’s not as if every time a pitcher records a strikeout, it takes 0.105 runs from the other team’s score. Anyone who’s watched a game knows that striking out the opposing pitcher with two outs in the bottom of the third is a lot different than striking out the other team’s cleanup hitter with the bases loaded, no outs, etc. Still, these events are generally the things over which a pitcher has control, and all of them stabilize pretty quickly.

So what happens if we look at the Wilson-Johnson game in the context of expected runs? This:

Here, we see the degree to which Wilson’s walks penalized him — to the tune of roughly two runs. All told, we should have expected Wilson to allow three runs over his six innings pitched. That’s not a huge difference from the two he actually allowed, but it’s still noteworthy.

Now here’s what happens if we do the same thing for the Halladay-Sabathia game:

Two notes here. First, look at Halladay’s expected runs: a hair under four. Why so much lower than the six he actually gave up? Because Halladay allowed three homers, but he did so on only eight balls to the outfield. Again, these expected run totals don’t take into account Halladay’s opposition (in this case, the heavily armed Yankees), but still: Three home runs on eight fly balls is bad luck any way you slice it.

The careful reader will note a second something as well: Although he allowed more actual runs than Wilson (three to two), Sabathia conceded fewer expected runs. And it makes sense, too. Just look at Sabathia’s line compared to Wilson’s. More strikeouts? Check. Fewer walks? Check. More grounders and fewer flies? Double-check. Sabathia controlled the game better than Wilson, even if the results don’t reveal such a thing.

In a season that has seen two perfect games and a should-have-been perfecto, it’s important to recognize that sometimes luck isn’t on a pitcher’s side. On Tuesday, Wilson benefited from luck. Halladay? Not so much.

Angels are Getting Lucky

Despite the generally accepted wisdom, a team’s win-loss record is not always the best measurement for how well it has been performing during a season, especially early on. Statisticians prefer to do whatever they can to increase the sample sizes of their measurements, and while each game yields just one win and loss, it involves roughly 75 plate appearances and hundreds of pitches. Therefore, a team’s record is more prone to fluctuation than its overall hitting and pitching stats are. Evaluating teams based on the more numerous plate appearances provides a more sound measure of a team’s performance to date.

One such method of evaluation along those lines is BaseRuns, which is a formula used to predict how many runs scored and allowed a team should incur based on the number of hits, walks, home runs, stolen bases and total bases. Those predicted run totals can then be put into another well-tested equation, called Pythagorean Record, to produce how may wins and losses a team should have based on those more stable predictors.

We can compare that predicted record to a team’s actual record to find out which teams have been especially lucky or unlucky. Three teams stick out from these results as being especially lucky, Pittsburgh being one. It probably is surprising to hear Pittsburgh regarded as lucky, given its 23-40 record, but consider that the Pirates’ run differential is minus-140 runs, by far the worst in baseball. The Pirates should hold MLB’s worst overall record, but instead, they sit six games ahead of the Orioles. The Astros have similar benefits, having MLB’s third worst run differential but a record about six games better than expected. Trumping all teams, however, the Los Angeles Angels sit as baseball’s luckiest team by this measure.

It is not atypical to find the Angels considered a “lucky” team by analysts. Quite often, their difference in actual wins over predicted wins is chalked up to savvy baserunning, a reliable bullpen and steady guidance from manager Mike Scioscia. Skeptics of these write-offs have extra reason to scoff this season, as the Angels have been successful on just 40 of 61 stolen base attempts (66 percent) and their bullpen has a 4.79 ERA, which is third worst in the AL.

Projected over a full 162-game season, the Angels are on pace to win a whopping 16 more games than BaseRuns indicates they deserve. As it stands now, they are 36-30 and own a .545 winning percentage, which would be good for about 88 wins. Yet they’ve scored exactly as many runs as they’ve allowed, and based on their overall profile, BaseRuns says the Angels would be lucky to even be .500 and that their record should be 29-37, which would give them 72 wins over a full season. Angels fans might be flying high right now with their team’s recent success, but they would do well to exercise cautious optimism for the rest of 2010.

Johan’s Slow Decline

Old Johan Santana, he ain’t what he used to be, ain’t what he used to be. Oh sure, it’s tempting to look at his 2.96 ERA and 1.20 WHIP and say he’s still the same old dominant Santana, maybe with a tiny bit missing off of his fastball. But that’s just not the case.

At FanGraphs, we have a “dashboard” where you can select the stats you’d like to see for each player. Let’s recreate a dashboard for Santana here so his decline can come into stark focus. We’ll start in Minnesota in 2006, just because that was seemingly the beginning of the downward turn for him.

Year	K/9	BB/9	GB%	SwStr%	FB MPH	xFIP
2006	9.44	1.81	40.60%	13.20%	93.1	3.12
2007	9.66	2.14	38.00%	14.00%	91.7	3.43
2008	7.91	2.42	41.20%	11.40%	91.2	3.66
2009	7.88	2.48	35.70%	11.30%	90.5	4.13
2010	6.55	2.76	35.80%	 9.40%	89.2	4.49

The table sort of pulls it all together, doesn’t it? Since 2006, so many key indicators have gone the wrong way. The starkest of the group is Santana’s strikeout rate, which has gone from elite (9.66 K/9 would have been fifth among qualified starters last year) to below-average (so far this year, 7.01 K/9 is the league average). While his walk rate is still above-average (3.47 BB/9 is the league average this year), it’s certainly not the elite rate it once was.

Santana has never been a ground-ball guy, but now he’s sporting the eighth-worst ground-ball rate in baseball among qualified starters. He used to get swinging strikes on that nasty changeup to offset the fly-ball part of his game, but even that is slipping recently. Also, his fastball velocity is degrading slowly and now doesn’t crack 90 mph on average.
The last stat, xFIP, is a number on the ERA scale that attempts to strip out batted-ball luck and corrects for home run rates. It’s an expected fielding-independent pitching number, in other words, and it sums up Santana’s entire slow decline in one place. It may be tough to believe, but Santana is, in many ways, an average starting pitcher right now.

Joe Maddon Gets Creative

Recently, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has employed an unorthodox strategy against pitchers with great change-ups. Ever since Dallas Braden and his nasty change threw a perfect game against the Rays, Maddon has stacked his lineups with players who bat with the same hand as the starting pitcher in order to neutralize that pitch. The change-up is a pitch that is typically used to neutralize opposite-handed hitters, and so Maddon is attempting to take away this advantage from pitchers with great change-ups by reducing the number of opposite-handed hitters in the lineup. So far, the strategy has worked pretty well.

Most notably, on May 29, the Rays torched White Sox lefty John Danks for eight runs with a lineup that included four left-handed hitters. On Wednesday night, the Rays faced right handed change-up specialist Shaun Marcum of the Toronto Blue Jays, who had a 2.77 ERA entering the gme. The Rays lineup still included three left-handed hitters, as it’s essentially impossible for the Rays to remove Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Reid Brignac from their line-up at this point. However, the Rays sent up switch-hitters Ben Zobrist and Dioner Navarro to bat right handed against Marcum, and even more telling was that they not only used right-handed catcher Kelly Shoppach as the DH, but they hit him clean-up.

Did it work? Marcum’s line — four innings, 10 hits and seven earned runs — certainly suggests it did. Shoppach, Navarro, and Zobrist were a combined 3-for-6 against Marcum, including a home run by Navarro.

A look at the Pitch F/X data suggests that Marcum still threw his change-up as often as he normally does, so he didn’t alter his game plan much. In his 12 previous starts, Marcum threw 21.1 percent change-ups, and 14 of his 67 pitches (20.9 percent) were change-ups on Wednesday night. It was still effective, as he threw 10 of the 14 (71.4 percent) for strikes and drew swinging strikes on three (21.4 percent) of them, both marks well above the league average. However, that swinging strike mark is five points below his average for the season, suggesting that hitters weren’t fooled quite as often by the pitch.

Despite the early success, Joe Maddon may not exactly be on solid ground with these decisions. In their careers, both Marcum and Danks aren’t significantly better against opposite-handed battters. Instead, they have performed at roughly the same level against these hitters, showing no real platoon split. The “Danks Theory,” as some are calling the strategy, has worked, but it may take switch hitters out of their comfort zones, and it’s possible that neutralizing the change-up may come at the cost of making a pitcher’s fastball or curveball more effective. It will be interesting to see whether the Rays continue to trot this odd strategy out there even if they get shut down a few times.

Strasburg’s Amazing Command

Stephen Strasburg’s first start Tuesday exceeded all expectations, especially in terms of dominance: He racked up 14 strikeouts without a walk, throwing just 94 pitches over seven innings. That electrifying stuff (displayed with 17 swinging strikes) combined with pinpoint command is what makes the 21-year-old so extraordinary. For Strasburg, everything builds off his high-90s fastball; he throws both a four-seamer and a two-seamer, which he blew past batters Tuesday for eight of his swinging strikes. And his secondary pitches are great as well. He has a high-80s circle change that he locates low in the zone, and a low-80s, knee-bending curve.

On Tuesday, he had everything working. Using the pitch f/x data, and focusing on the location, pitch type and results broken up by batter handedness, let’s take a closer look at just what kind of craziness the Pirates were trying to hit.

In the graphs below, the pitches are color-coded: Taken pitches are faded, and those that are swung at are in full color. Whiffed pitches (swinging strikes) are marked with an x, and hits are circled. This leaves foul balls or outs as full color with no markings. The images are from the catcher’s perspective.

Strasburg was beyond nasty against righties. A full 50 percent of the pitches they swung at were missed, well above the league average of less than 20 percent. The two hits were opposite-field singles to shallow right, as Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge desperately did all they could with a pair of outside high-90s fastballs. But mostly it is tons of whiffs, on fastballs up in the zone and on changeups and curves low in the zone. Also, notice how everything is near the zone –- when he misses, it’s not by much. That demonstrates Strasburg’s amazing command; the fact that he can pitch at those velocities and with that much movement and still be so tightly around the zone with his pitches is astounding.

Against lefties Strasburg expertly keeps the ball low and away, which is where lefties typically do the least damage. The home run allowed to Delwyn Young, a change low in the zone, was an exception, and a mistake he will certainly learn from. Still, even facing opposite-handed hitters, he got a ton of whiffs on fastballs up-and-away and on curves and changeups down-and-in.

Anyone who watched the performance knows that he put on a clinic. These images tell some of the story, but he really has to be seen to be believed. It isn’t always going to go this well for Strasburg, but in his major league debut he, impossibly, exceeded the hype. This kid is special.

Atlanta’s Surprising Star

For your surprising statistic of the day, check out who leads the National League in batting average. Recognize the name on top — Martin Prado? If you don’t, it’s not a big deal. Not even the prospect experts at Baseball America noticed Prado’s ascension until it was obvious to anyone paying attention. Only now, in the midst of his third straight quality season is the Braves second baseman starting to get his due.

Prado, 26, never made a Braves Top 10 Prospects list at Baseball America. When he broke camp with the team in 2008, after cups of coffee during the two previous seasons, he was supposed to be just a utility infielder, someone who could play in place of Chipper Jones at third, Yunel Escobar at short, and Kelly Johnson at second. Yet despite a sprained thumb that kept him out for 59 days, the Braves still managed to get Prado 254 plate appearances in which he hit .320/.377/.461. Those are impressive numbers for anyone, much less a reserve.

In 2009 Prado again broke camp as the primary utility man. But when Kelly Johnson started to struggle, Prado found his name on the starting lineup more frequently. By July he was the regular starter at second base. The Braves nearly doubled his playing time in 2009, giving him 503 plate appearances, and hit .307/.358/.464. That’s when people started to take notice.

The Braves took a gamble on Prado this winter. Johnson was up for salary arbitration, but rather than pay him an increased salary after a year during which he struggled, the Braves decided not to tender him a contract, implicitly handing the job to Prado full-time. Once again Prado has rewarded their confidence. In addition to leading the NL in hitting (.325), he ranks fourth among senior circuit second basemen in OPS (.819). (Of course the leader in that category is Kelly Johnson, so let’s not give Atlanta too much credit.)

After a slow start, the Braves are now in first place in the NL East, in no small part because of contributions from two players making around the league minimum, Prado and Jason Heyward. While Heyward gets the hype because of his age and prodigious power, Prado, because he plays a premium defensive position, has contributed equally to the Braves record. He has been worth 1.7 Wins Above Replacement, while Heyward is just a fraction better at 1.8.

Prado is still under-appreciated and he probably always will be. But Martin Prado has made the most of his opportunity and is a big part of why the Braves currently sit in first place, even if he’s overshadowed by his teammates. For years, Martin Prado was overlooked, but given how well he’s played in the big leagues, it’s time to give him his due — the man is one of the better second baseman in baseball.

Javier Vazquez’s Revival

On May 1, Javier Vazquez had an ERA of 9.78, and those who had asserted that he did not have the personality to succeed in New York were pointing to his first five starts as more proof that he just couldn’t cut it in the Bronx. A month later, however, and Vazquez is shutting up his critics, including a sterling performance yesterday against the Blue Jays, allowing two runs over seven innings while striking out nine. How has he turned his season around so quickly?

The big key has been keeping the ball in the park. In his first five starts, Vazquez faced 112 batters and allowed eight home runs, or one every 14 plate appearances. In his last five starts (and one very brief relief appearance), he’s faced 126 batters and allowed just three home runs, or one every 42 plate appearances. The drastic drop in balls flying over the wall has allowed Vazquez has to the big innings to a minimum, which have always been his Achilles heel.

The drop in home runs have come, in large part, due to two factors that are likely related –- a surge in strikeout rate and a run of games against teams that feature right-handed power hitters. Vazquez has been downright horrible against left-handed hitters this year — they are hitting .283/.383/.566 against him — but over the last month, he has been able to match-up against line-ups that don’t feature an abundance of lefty sluggers.

On May 12th, he faced the Detroit Tigers, whose two biggest bats belong to righties Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera. On May 17, he faced the Mets, who feature Jason Bay and David Wright as their best sources of power. On May 27, he ran into the lefty-heavy Twins and predictably struggled, but was able to rebound in his last two starts against the Orioles and Blue Jays, both of whom rely on right-handed hitters for most of their power.

If Vazquez is going to maintain his recent success going forward, he’s going to have to figure out how to get left-handed hitters out again. While he’s always been better against right-handed hitters (.662 OPS against in 2010), the difference this year is remarkable, and his problems against lefties have been the source of most of his struggles. While Yankee fans should be encouraged by his recent outings, they may want to wait until he blows away a team with some good left-handed bats before they get too excited.

The “Truest” Franchise Player

As Tim Kurkjian writes in his column today, Chipper Jones is a unique player. Not only has he starred for the team that drafted him No. 1 overall, but he has stayed with that team for his entire career. And isn’t that what you’re looking for with the first pick, a player to build your franchise around? So this got us wondering, is Jones the “truest” franchise player? In other words, of all the No. 1 overall picks of all time, has he delivered the most value to the team that drafted him? Let’s find out.

To figure this out, we are going to add up the total number of wins above replacement (WAR) that each No. 1 pick produced for the team that drafted him. Adrian Gonzalez, for example, has been a very valuable player, but he has produced almost all of his value for the Padres, not the Marlins, the team that drafted him. With that in mind, here are the five players who have produced the most WAR for the club that drafted them.

5. Harold Baines, 30.3 WAR, Chicago White Sox, No. 1 pick in 1977
Baines was a consistently above-average hitter, as his wOBA never dipped below .333 during either of his first two stints with the White Sox. For a time, he was a decent defensive right fielder, but never great, and he spent the last 10 years of his career primarily as a DH. As such, he only topped 5.0 WAR in a season once, in 1984, when he hit 29 HRs with a .304/.361/.541 line. He was a lock for between 2.0 and 4.0 WAR for 10 years. As a consistently above-average player, Baines was quite valuable to the White Sox, but his age and lack of defensive value hurt him later in his career, when he split time between Chicago as well as Texas, Oakland and Baltimore.

3. (tie) Darryl Strawberry, 36.7 WAR, New York Mets, No. 1 pick in 1983
Strawberry had a fantastic run with the Mets from 1983 to 1990. He won the Rookie of the Year in 1983 with a 26 home run, .371 wOBA, 3.0 WAR season and never looked back. All eight of his seasons with the Mets were worth at least 3.0 WAR, as he combined great power — isolated power above .240 every year from ’85 to ’90 — with great discipline — he walked more than 10 percent of the time in every year with New York. He even mixed in some great defense, producing a plus-35 TotalZone between 1989 and 1990. Various problems derailed Strawberry’s career after he left the Mets to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in free agency. Strawberry would only put up 6.5 WAR over the rest of his career.

No. 3 (tie) Alex Rodriguez, 36.7 WAR, Seattle Mariners, No. 1 pick in 1993
This era of Rodriguez’s career saw him as among the better defensive shortstops in the majors (plus-22 TotalZone from 1996 to 2000) and the fantastic hitter we still know today. He would win four Silver Sluggers with Seattle, putting up wOBAs of .444, .379, .399, .397, and .433. These are fantastic numbers for any position but are eye-popping for a solid defensive shortstop. As such, it only took Rodriguez five full seasons to equal the performance of Strawberry over nine.

No. 2 Ken Griffey Jr., 72.4 WAR, Seattle Mariners, No. 1 pick in 1987
Back in the day, Griffey was in a class all his own. He was among the best defensive center fielders in the game, including a staggering plus-32 TotalZone in 1996. He had more seasons with a wOBA above .400 then below .400. Griffey was simply a dominant force in baseball for 11 years after his call-up in 1989, excelling at every facet of the game. His performance through age 30 compared extremely favorably with those of Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays, three of the best outfielders to ever play the game. Unfortunately, injuries derailed the rest of his career and his return to Seattle was simply not productive at all. Still, a team can’t ask for more out of a first overall pick than what Ken Griffey Jr. gave Seattle from 1989 through 1999.

1. Chipper Jones, 83.6 WAR, Atlanta Braves, No. 1 pick in 1990
Jones has been the best of both worlds for the Braves, spending his entire career in Atlanta and producing over that span. Jones has never put up any of the eye-popping seasons like Griffey’s 10.2 WAR 1996, but he’s been consistently excellent. Since 1995, Jones hasn’t put up a season with fewer than 2.9 WAR, and he’s eclipsed 7.0 WAR four times (including his 1999 MVP season) and 6 WAR eight times. Jones is the prototypical combination of power and discipline, putting up isolated power scores above .200 and walk rates above 11 percent every year of his illustrious career. As it turns out, the numbers also tell us that Jones is the “truest” franchise player.

For a broader view, here’s a look at every No. 1 overall pick who has made an All-Star team, and how they fared for the team that drafted them relative to everyone else. This only includes position players.

Galarraga’s Historic Efficiency

Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers came within one poor umpire’s call of the 21st perfect game in major league history Wednesday night. It’s hard to imagine that anyone — including the offending umpire, Jim Joyce — feels good about it. Moreover, it’s hard to believe that nothing — be it an overruling from the commissioner’s office or expansion of the league’s use of replay — will come from this unfortunate incident.

But Galarraga’s performance represents another, slightly less obvious accomplishment.

In an alternate baseball world, where pure evil does not momentarily possess Jim Joyce and force him to thwart all our hopes and dreams, Galarraga pitches a perfect game in a mere 83 pitches.

Though we don’t have pitch counts for the earliest three perfectionists — Lee Richmond (1880), John Montgomery Ward (also 1880), and Cy Young (1904) — the 17 most recent performances are accounted for via Baseball Reference (via Retrosheet). Of those, only Addie Joss’ effort of 100-plus years ago was completed in fewer pitches (74) than Galarraga’s would-be perfecto Wednesday night.

Here’s the list of perfect games, from fewest to most pitches thrown:

In the majors this season, the average plate appearance lasts 3.85 pitches. Of 148 qualified pitchers, Anaheim Angels pitcher Jered Weaver throws the most per plate appearance (4.27); Minnesota Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn, the least (3.30).

The average plate appearance in Galarraga’s pseudo-perfecto? A mere 3.07.

Of course, much of Galarraga’s efficiency is attributable to his lack of strikeouts. Besides Joss’ performance — which, it needs to be said, occurred when the leaguewide strikeout rate was 3.7 K/9 (as opposed to 7.1 K/9 this year) — Galarraga’s three strikeouts is the lowest mark in perfect-game history.

It goes without saying that a perfect game requires a great deal of luck. The “average” perfect game still sees the pitcher allow about 18 balls in play. Considering that a ball in play generally has about a 30 percent chance of falling for a hit, the chances of 18 consecutive balls in play being fielded cleanly comes to 0.7^18, or 0.16 percent.

And that’s just for a pitcher striking out a full third of the batters he faces. For Galarraga and his three strikeouts, the odds were even lower: 0.7^24, or 0.02 percent. That’s 1 in 5000. And that figure still doesn’t account for the absence of walks, hit by pitches, errors, etc.

As for the odds that such an improbably efficient and lucky perfect-game bid would be ruined on the very last play of the game by a bad call?

Unfortunately for Armando Galarraga, they were 100 percent Wednesday night.

Why Patience Means Power

Perhaps the tortoise had something on the hare –- he knew how to walk. A select group of players this year are taking the tortoise’s path to success by increasing their walk rates significantly. In particular, improved plate selectivity is working well for Josh Willingham, Justin Morneau and Franklin Gutierrez, and is the reason why their fast starts should be believed.

Morneau’s big season is similar to another player who recently rode an increase in walks into a huge season. Between 2008 and 2009, Adrian Gonzalez saw his walk rate increase 6.9 percent, which compares favorably with Morneau’s 6.7 percent increase in the same category this year. Gonzalez’s corresponding career-best OPS was not all driven by the walks alone -– Gonzalez also put up a career-best slugging percentage last year, just as Morneau is doing this season.

A quick glance at the table above shows that improving your walk alone is not the magic key to success. For every Morneau on this list, there is a struggling Jason Kubel to serve as anecdotal evidence in that regard, although even he has shown signs of coming around lately.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to notice the success stories. As measured by ISO (isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average), Colby Rasmus, Willingham, Morneau, Aaron Hill and Kevin Youkilis are all enjoying years more powerful than their career rates. In fact, the average 2010 ISOs of the 10 men on this list are 6.2 percent better than their career ISOs.

The theory is pretty simple: By being more patient, these guys are getting into good hitters’ counts and getting better pitches to swing at. When they don’t get the pitch they’re looking for, they simply wander on down to first base, helping their team by avoiding outs. Increasing walk rate isn’t the only way to improve, but as we’re seeing from these notable spikes in patience, it is certainly one way to make yourself a better player.

Moyer is Mr. Consistency

Over the past eight seasons, few pitchers have been as consistent from season to season as Jamie Moyer. However, if you merely peruse his ERAs over those years, you probably wouldn’t come to that conclusion, as he has had ERAs ranging from a very good 3.27 in 2003 to a 5.21 mark the following season that had many assuming his career was just about over. But when we strip away some of the luck factors and look more at his peripheral statistics, we can see that the 47-year-old has been about as consistent as anyone in baseball during that time.

A good way to strip away the luck factors and still focus on a single statistic is by using Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP). Over the past eight years, Moyer’s xFIPs have ranged between 4.53 and 4.86, which clearly is a much tighter range than his ERAs. How does this compare to other pitchers, though? To answer that question, I looked at the standard deviation of xFIPs from 2003-10 for each pitcher with five or more seasons in that time frame. The following table summarizes the results:

A Mark Of Consistency
These are the top pitchers in standard deviation of xFIPs from 2003-2010. (Min. 5 seasons)

Rank	Name	     xFIP SD	Seasons
1	Cole Hamels	0.06	5
2	Mike Hampton	0.08	5
3	Jamie Moyer	0.10	8
4	Gary Majewski	0.11	5
5	Jason Johnson	0.13	5
6	Chien-Ming Wang	0.14	5
7	Kyle Davies	0.15	6
8	Chris Capuano	0.15	5
9	Brett Tomko	0.16	7
10	Victor Santos	0.19	5

Moyer has been more consistent than most of his peers when you remove defense and luck, and his steady run is longer than that of anyone who is ahead of him on the list. There were 433 pitchers who fit the above criteria, and the group had an average standard deviation of 0.72. Moyer’s peripherals have been stable enough to put him in the first percentile of consistency (on a season-to-season basis) when measured with xFIP.

How does he do it? Well, Moyer has had the right mix of strikeouts and walks to keep his xFIP stable over the eight-year sample. Looking at his pitch-type information from FanGraphs shows that the results are not completely surprising, as Moyer hasn’t really changed his repertoire during the time frame in question. He has deployed the same 81 mph fastball, 79 mph cutter, 68 mph curveball and 75 mph changeup each and every season. And since he has never relied on velocity, he hasn’t had to worry about it fading over time like most pitchers do.

Additionally, Moyer’s batted-ball profile, while not traditionally considered a peripheral stat, has looked pretty similar from year to year. Opponents have had around a 20 percent line-drive rate, and ground ball and fly ball rates right around 40 percent each. It appears that having similar stuff each year has led to similar results on balls in play, and it explains why Moyer has been able to continue to succeed into his late 40s.