Archive for September, 2010

The AL East Should Fear The Twins

Billy Beane once said that “his stuff” — a reference to the Moneyball philosophy — doesn’t work in the playoffs. He was making an important point: The best team isn’t always left holding up the championship trophy. Other factors are in play come October, notably the draw each team is dealt.

We looked at every team with at least a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs, and then determined their most favorable and least favorable playoff matchups.

The teams we studied were: Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies; no offense to teams on the fringe of that group.

Rays

Best opponent: Yankees
Worst opponent: Twins

Tampa has built its team knowing the strength of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist in the outfield; at last update, the outfield has been worth 29.7 runs above average. The pitching staff has a lot of fly-ball guys taught to lean heavily on that group. However, against the Twins, who hit the fewest fly balls of any AL offense, that strength would be neutralized to a degree. The Rays should be anxious to play the Yankees in the ALCS, specifically to use their strength on the basepaths to wreak havoc on Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli behind the plate.

Yankees

Best opponent: Rangers
Worst opponent: Twins

Credit the Twins for being a thorn in the side of the AL East. The New York offense is built around the home run ball, but this season, the Twins’ pitching staff has the second-lowest HR/9 in the American League. On the other hand, the Rays’ fly-ball staff is a little homer-happy, and balls are always going to fly out of the yard in Arlington. Of the two, the Yankees are hoping they draw Texas in the first round of the playoffs. The pitching staff is the third-most wild in the American League, and the Yankees are second in the league at drawing walks.

Twins

Best opponent: Rays
Worst opponent: Rangers

The Twins have long shown a tendency toward pitchers with very good control that don’t beat themselves. With the exception of Francisco Liriano, this often leads to sacrificing strikeouts. That combination meshes really well with a Rays offense that leads the American League in both BB percentage and K percentage, the latter by almost 2 percent. It stands to reason the Twins’ pitchers could limit the walks while striking out more than usual against a team like that. They don’t want to take that starting staff to Texas; the Twins have posted a team 5.96 ERA at the Rangers’ ballpark over the past four seasons.

Phillies

Best opponent: Giants
Worst opponent: Rockies

The Philadelphia pitching staff has allowed a .771 OPS this year to left-handed batters — versus a .693 OPS to right-handed batters. The Rockies can put four lefties in their lineup on a given night. Jason Giambi can also mash Brad Lidge. The team would rather face San Francisco, take their chances with Aubrey Huff and face a pitching staff that allows the most fly balls in the league.

Reds

Best opponent: Padres
Worst opponent: Braves

The Reds have an offense that depends on hitting home runs; they could have up to six people potentially reach 20 home runs, and their hitters were second in the National League in the rate of fly balls getting over the fence. Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe will limit HRs, so that would be a negative matchup for Cincy. Given that the team’s pitching staff has a lot of moving parts and still a bit of uncertainty, you know they’d like to take their chances with the weakest offense possible. That belongs to the sub-.700 OPS San Diego Padres, who, even when ballpark adjustments are taken into account, are pretty bad at the plate.

Braves

Best opponent: Giants
Worst opponent: Phillies

The Braves would enjoy a matchup with the Giants quite a bit. First, Atlanta leads the National League in BB percentage — it’s the only team in the league walking in more than 10 percent of its plate appearances. As a counter, the Giants give up the most walks of any NL-contending pitching staff. Second, the Braves’ grounder-heavy pitching staff could help neutralize a guy like Buster Posey, who actually hits a lot of balls on the ground (47.5 percent). The team is happy they won’t play the Phillies in the first round (divisional squads can’t meet each other), and you can bet they’ll hope they don’t play them at all. Philadelphia’s big left-handed bats, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, just aren’t good matchups for a staff of right-handed pitchers.

Rangers

Best opponent: Twins
Worst opponent: Yankees

The Rangers’ playoff hopes are invariably tied to the pitching performances of Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson, both of whom should be thrown twice in any series. More than the Rays or Yankees, the Twins in particular have the biggest gap between their performance against left-handed (.747 OPS) and right-handed (.784 OPS) starters. The only AL team worse against southpaws is, in fact, the Rangers (.730 OPS). Therefore, you can bet they wouldn’t look forward to matchups against CC Sabathia or Andy Pettitte, to say nothing of the major leagues’ best offense.

Giants

Best opponent: Rockies
Worst opponent: Phillies

Colorado would be a nice matchup for the Giants, particularly due to an offense that struck out more often than any other NL contender. The Giants will have a playoff rotation of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito — so strikeouts are inevitable. That’s a great staff, but ultimately Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt might be better — especially against a generally anemic offense.

Padres

Best opponent: Giants
Worst opponent: Braves

Offensively, the Padres are a team that hits a lot of ground balls (the most of any NL contender), and by the Pitch Value metrics at FanGraphs, they have been the third-worst team in baseball against the fastball. Conversely, Braves pitchers thrive on good sinking fastballs. The Padres would much rather run into the Giants, against whom they are 10-5 this season. The Giants and Padres play similar styles of baseball — winning with pitching and defense — although San Diego does it a little bit better.

Rockies

Best opponent: Reds
Worst opponent: Giants

The Rockies have one of the game’s best pitching staffs, and a boom-or-bust offense that strikes out a lot, but can hit the ball hard across the diamond. The Rockies’ staff could help neutralize Cincy’s homer-happy offense. A Rockies-Giants NLCS would not be fun for fans of offense; those are two low-scoring squads. The Rockies’ contact issues would likely be exacerbated by facing San Francisco’s staff.


Remember Randy Johnson In 2004?

The MVP has traditionally been awarded almost exclusively to players on winning teams; this methodology has led to some great seasons getting overlooked at times.

Here are five examples of great seasons that took place within the context of absolutely terrible teams, including one 2010 candidate.

Cal Ripken
1991 Baltimore Orioles (67-95)
11.1 WAR
This is arguably the best season by a shortstop ever. Ripken hit .323/.374/.566 while playing some terrific defense at the game’s hardest position. His .407 wOBA was third-best in baseball behind lumbering sluggers Frank Thomas and Danny Tartabull, but Ripken ran circles around those two in defensive value.

Johnson made up an astounding 89 percent of his team’s total WAR. It’s one of the great wasted seasons in the history of the game.
And yet, even with a historical season from their star player, the Orioles were still awful, finishing ahead of only the Cleveland Indians in the American League.

While Ripken had to carry the offense by himself, he couldn’t do anything to help the pitching, which was among the worst in the league. Sam Horn and Randy Milligan were not enough to help Ripken score the runs needed to overcome problems at getting opponents out, and so Baltimore had to endure a miserable season in the year that their franchise icon had the best year of his career.

Randy Johnson
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (51-111)
9.9 WAR
Part of a legendary run of some of the great pitching seasons ever, Johnson’s 2004 season stands out as an oasis in the driest desert you could imagine. He was a dominant workhorse, throwing 245 innings with a league-best 2.30 FIP. He struck out 290 batters, avoiding giving too much responsibility to one of the league’s worst defensive teams. He pitched deep into games because the bullpen behind him was atrocious. And yet, he “only” won 16 games (against 14 losses) because Arizona had the worst offense in baseball.

How much did Johnson carry that team? Everyone else on the roster combined for a total of 1.2 WAR. Johnson made up an astounding 89 percent of his team’s total WAR. It’s one of the great wasted seasons in the history of the game.

Barry Bonds
1995 San Francisco Giants (67-77)
7.7 WAR
Bonds had some better years when he was older, yes, but in a strike-shortened 144 game season, he hit .294/.431/.577. This was back when he was still a young, spry athlete, so he hit 33 homers, stole 33 bases and played a really good defensive left field.

Even with the game’s best all-around player in the lineup every day, the Giants still managed to finish in last place in the NL West. They just didn’t have enough talent around Bonds, especially on the mound, where the immortal William Van Landingham was the team’s best pitcher.

Ryan Zimmerman
2010 Washington Nationals (61-84)
7.0 WAR
By WAR, Zimmerman has been the best player in the National League this year, combining terrific offensive numbers (.304/.389/.512) with Gold Glove defense (plus-15.9 UZR) at third base. His teammates have not lived up to their end of the bargain, though, and the result is another losing season for the Nationals. Don’t blame Zimmerman, though — he’s accounted for 23 percent of his team’s WAR.

Carlos Pena
2007 Tampa Bay Rays (66-96)
6.2 WAR
The Rays struck gold with Pena in 2007, picking him up for nothing over the winter and then watching him blossom into one of the game’s premier power-hitting first basemen. He hit .282, launched 46 home runs and drew 102 walks. His .430 wOBA was the fifth-best in baseball that year, and he was no slouch at first base either. However, he was surrounded by the remains of the old Devil Rays era and the team was not able to capitalize on his breakout season. Tampa Bay finished with the worst record in baseball, but Pena’s performance helped the Rays avoid the shame of a 100-loss season — and then he helped propel them to the World Series in 2008.

You’ll note that Steve Carlton’s 1972 season is not mentioned, and that’s because we have WAR data for pitchers going only to 1980. However, it’s likely his 27 wins on a 59-win team would have put him on this list.


Baseball’s Least Valuable Player

The Houston Astros have a large problem on their hands — and we don’t even mean their current 66-73 record.

The team did a good job this season of building towards the future; those efforts have been rewarded with a third-place standing in the NL Central that likely could be much worse (they’re playing strong right now, at 7-3 in their last 10).

The long-term future isn’t so rosy, though.

After the 2006 season, when the Astros missed the playoffs by 1 1/2 games, they made a splash by signing Carlos Lee to a six-year, $100 million contract. It seemed like an odd decision at the time. The market for Lee didn’t appear overly competitive. Even if it was, the contract still seemed out of line. Lee produced numbers that would justify that type of contract just once in his career — and that was in his 2004 season with the Chicago White Sox. Since then it had become clear that while he could hit, his fielding was a liability. That can become a problem in the National League.

The first two seasons of the contract looked just fine, as Lee justified his salary with 3.6 and 3.9 Wins Above Replacement, or WAR (explained more here). But in 2009, the situation started to look troublesome, as Lee produced just 2.1 WAR. Converted to dollars, that is $9.3 million — or about half of what the Astros actually paid him. This year Lee has been even worse, producing worse than a replacement player — that is, a theoretical player freely available in a minor league system. Lee has been 0.7 wins worse than a replacement player, costing his team $2.9 million in addition to his $18.5 million salary, or a $21.4 million discrepancy. That’s not something Houston can afford if it wants to contend in the future.

We’ve seen this many times in the past few years. A player might be at the end of a long-term contract, the contract might have been poor from the start, or the player might have unexpectedly declined. There has been no discrepancy worse than Lee’s, which means that he has had the least valuable season in history, based on dollar value. But there have been some particularly poor performances per contract. Let’s take a look at some of the worst.

Jose Guillen, 2009
Guillen is an example of a contract that should never have been signed in the first place. If the Kansas City Royals had designs on contending during Guillen’s tenure with the team — 2008 through 2010 — they didn’t do much else to further that goal. It didn’t help that Guillen performed worse than most could have imagined. In 2008 he produced minus-1.8 WAR, which created a $20.1 million gap between his salary and value. Overall with the Royals he produced minus-1.3 WAR. It was a bad contract from the start, but few envisioned it being that bad.

Bernie Williams, 2005
The New York Yankees certainly signed Williams for at least one year too many, but that’s the price they had to pay for competing with the Boston Red Sox. Their arch rivals came close to signing Williams after the 1998 season, but the Yankees came back at the last minute with a seven-year, $87.5 million contract. Not many players can roam center field briskly at age 36, and Williams was no exception. He produced minus-2.2 WAR in 2005, the contract’s final year, creating a nearly $20 million discrepancy. The Yankees did realize plenty of value earlier in the contract; Williams produced a WAR of 5.0 in each of the contract’s first four years.

Todd Helton, 2010
A nine-year extension for a 27-year-old superstar might not seem like a bad deal, but that wasn’t exactly the case with Todd Helton and the Rockies. The nine-year, $141.5 million contract he signed in 2001 didn’t take effect until 2003. Helton produced heavily in the first two seasons, 6.9 and 7.1 WAR, but after that his production dropped. He has had a few good seasons since, but injuries have sapped his power. The contract would have looked a lot better had it been enacted in 2001, rather than 2003. Helton got a few too many years.

Alfonso Soriano, 2009
Any time a player signs an eight-year deal, the team probably knows that the last year or two will hurt. But the third year? That’s what the Cubs realized with Alfonso Soriano and his $136 million contract. He earned $16 million in 2009, but produced 0.0 WAR. He has recovered a bit in 2010, but he’s still not playing to the level of his contract. The Cubs signing Soriano was not a mistake. Giving him so many years was, though.

Jason Kendall, 2007
It’s tough to fault a team for signing a 28-year-old superstar catcher to a long-term deal, so the Pittsburgh Pirates get a pass for their six-year, $60 million contract to Jason Kendall. He helped justify it by producing 4.7 and 4.6 WAR in years two and three of the deal, but that didn’t bring the Pirates closer to contention. They eventually traded him, leaving Oakland to realize the worst year of the contract, 2007. Decline can be expected from a 34-year-old catcher, but minus-0.7 WAR after a 3.1 WAR season? That seems excessive. Kendall ended up costing the A’s and Cubs $2.7 million, or $15.7 million when factoring in his $13 million salary.

Gary Matthews, 2009
Sometimes one year can make a big difference. Gary Matthews had never established himself as any type of star during his first five years in the league. But then in 2006 he went on an offensive tear and produced 3.9 WAR. This enticed the Angels, who signed him to a five-year, $50 million contract. They set the example for why teams should not sign players based on one good year. It took Matthews just two seasons to produce a negative WAR, and in the third he produced minus-1.1 WAR, costing his team $5 million, or $15 million counting his salary. They ended up eating the remainder of the contract after the season.


A Blueprint For The Giants

Although the National League West might not be the home of offensive behemoths, at least one of the run-starved trio of the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies will reach the playoffs. It might be tempting to write all those teams off because of their lack of punch, but history shows that you don’t have to be an offensive machine to have a parade in November.

As you can see in the graphic below, five of the 19 teams that have won the World Series in the past 20 years — there was no postseason in 1994 thanks to the strike — had offenses that were below the league average in that given year. The 1995 Atlanta Braves were a whopping 45 runs below average yet won it all thanks to some guys named Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz on the mound.

This is good news for the Giants especially; they’ve posted the worst offensive numbers of any contending club this season. (See the second chart, below this paragraph.) Their problems at the plate have kept them looking up at the Padres for most of the season and have inspired general manager Brian Sabean to make several moves to bolster the offense, including acquisitions of outfielders Pat Burrell, Jose Guillen and Cody Ross.

The Giants don’t have the Hall of Fame pitching trio that the Braves had, but their pitching has been strong enough to keep them in the race. Their team strikeout rate of 8.11 K/9 is second-best in baseball. Although they don’t have a balanced team, they may be able to make it work in October. To get there, however, they’ll have to jump over a team with a similar pedigree.

The Padres have scored just 589 runs — only three more than the Washington Nationals — and are certainly not an offensive juggernaut. They, too, have been carried by their pitching staff; they are the only team that has a higher strikeout rate than the Giants. However, their home park plays a large role in driving runs down, and given the environment in which they play half their games, their overall offensive performance is not so bad. They are comparable to the Florida Marlins of 1997 and 2003 as well as the 2005 Chicago White Sox and 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, each of which ended up winning it all.

There are enough examples of mediocre offenses being carried to world championships by their teammates to know that each of the eight teams that make it to October has a legitimate chance. However, being able to score runs in bunches certainly helps.

The New York Yankees have won five championships since 1996 on the backs of some big hitters. Last year’s New York offense wasn’t just the best in baseball — it was one of the best in baseball history, putting up a whopping plus-198 weighted runs above average that is easily the best of the championship clubs from the past 20 years. Both times that the Boston Red Sox won it all, they did so with strong offensive clubs, and the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993 with a lineup full of good hitters.

The ability to score runs is why the Yankees are again looked at as one of the favorites, as they have the best offense in baseball yet again.

However, don’t overlook the Minnesota Twins, who have hit better than any team other than the Yankees and have done so without Justin Morneau in the second half of the season. Jim Thome has filled the gap better than anyone could have anticipated, and his .278/.407/.635 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) mark is nearly the equal of Morneau’s numbers before he landed on the disabled list. With Thome and Mauer in the middle of the lineup and a deep lineup that doesn’t have any holes, the Twins can hit with the big boys and shouldn’t be underestimated come playoff time.

Over in the National League, the upstart Cincinnati Reds have mashed their way to the NL Central lead. MVP candidate Joey Votto gets most of the credit, but underrated performances from guys at key positions, such as Ryan Hanigan and Paul Janish, make the Reds a hard team to pitch around. The Reds are the team to back in the Senior Circuit if you want a club that can put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard.

The lesson from recent history, however, is that big-time scoring isn’t the only way to the promised land. It helps, certainly, but all these teams can point to at least one World Series champion with a similar offense and attempt to follow in its footsteps.


How Halladay, Lincecum Get It Done

In case you haven’t heard, some folks are calling this the year of the pitcher. And the National League playoff will feature some of the best arms in the game, including Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, Aroldis Chapman and others.

Using Pitch f/x data — you can find out more about that here — we decided to take a look at these four hurlers and break down what makes them so nasty.

Halladay’s cutter

Halladay mixes and matches three effective pitches with movement: a mid-90s sinking two-seam fastball, a high-70s curveball and a low-90s cutter; he recently added a mid-80s changeup. Almost everything Halladay throws is a good pitch, but the cutter is his “out” pitch. He threw it more than 32 percent of the time this year — and got it for a strike more than 70 percent of the time.

To understand these graphs, think of them as a heat map. The “warmer” the color, the more often that’s where the ball is. It’s on a blue-red scale, where blue is “never” and red is “all the time.” So a yellow part of the plot would be a cluster of pitches in that specific area, while green is a smaller cluster.

Halladay’s cutter has a late, sharp sink to it, moving toward left-handed hitters and in the opposite direction of his sinker. With this type of movement, he uses the cutter more often against left-handed hitters, as the pitch gets in on their hands and is hard to drive. His new changeup gets batters to whiff more often, but the cutter puts the ball in play for easy groundouts.

Lincecum’s change

The Giants’ star is often complimented for the speed of his two-seam fastball given his height and weight — but Lincecum’s most deadly pitch is clearly the mid-80s changeup he throws 16.5 percent of the time against right-handed hitters and 25.8 percent of the time against left-handed hitters. Lincecum also has a high-70s curveball and a mid-80s slider that he mixes into his arsenal.

Lincecum gets right-handed hitters to whiff 25.4 percent of the time with his changeup, while left-handed hitters whiff 27.7 percent of the time on the same pitch both in and out of the strike zone. With both horizontal and vertical off-speed movement, Lincecum’s changeup is located slightly more inside to right-handed hitters than it is to left-handed hitters. It’s flat-out filthy.

Hudson’s sinker

Hudson throws two fastballs almost 70 percent of the time: a low-90s four-seam fastball and a high-80s, sinking two-seam fastball. On the other 30 percent of his pitches, Hudson mixes a variety of above-average off-speed pitches: a mid-70s curveball, a low-80s changeup and a mid-80s slider — and just for good measure, Hudson occasionally throws a mid-80s splitter and a high-80s cutter, allowing him to throw different pitches at different speeds that move in different directions. Hudson uses the slider against right-handed hitters and the splitter against left-handed hitters to induce swinging strikes. Nevertheless, the sinker is Hudson’s most used and most valuable pitch. He throws it more than 34 percent of the time to both righties and lefties.

Of the 472 outs by balls put in play Hudson recorded, 43.4 percent of them were due to the sinker. Hudson’s sinker moves toward right-handed hitters and away from left-handed hitters. It has the opposite effect of Halladay’s cutter, and he uses it more against righties to get in on their hands.

Chapman’s fastball

Chapman has thrown just 185 pitches this season, but the excitement is palpable whenever he shows up. His fastball was clocked at 105.1 mph earlier this year. That’s an insane speed for a ball to travel from a pitcher’s hand to a catcher’s mitt.

Because the above graph is harder to see at ESPN.com horizontal image widths, you can also open it at a bigger size, and in a new window, by clicking here.

Looking at the scatter plots above, we can see each fastball that Chapman threw, each of which is labeled by its speed and color-coded by pitch outcome. The 105.1 MPH fastball recorded on September 24 against Tony Gwynn Jr. is circled in red. In that particular at-bat (in which Gwynn struck out), he threw pitches at the following speeds: 102.6, 103.7, 102.5, 104.1, 105.1, 103.1, and 101.5 miles per hour. The plot on the right is a closer look at just the strike zone, showing numerous called strikes right down the middle of the plate. Bottom line: the guy throws straight gas. And it’s fun to watch.


When Do MVPs Peak?

We are nearing the end of the MLB season, and the discussion frequently turns to who should win the postseason awards. There are many debates about criteria should be taken into account for winning each award, especially the Most Valuable Player trophy. Should pitchers earn votes even though they could win the Cy Young Award? Does the award go to the best player in the league or to the player who is most valuable to his team’s success? Should only players on playoff teams be considered?

Besides these criteria, the voters often voice a preference for players who perform better during the last few months of the season, arguing that those who step up their game down the stretch deserve bonus points.

To see whether voters actually follow through on this stated preference for MVP winners, all the winners since 2002 will be examined to see whether their performance at the end of the season helped them toward winning. To do this study, I compared the players’ final wOBA to each month’s total. Here is the average monthly difference in wOBA for the 16 winners when compared to their season total.

From these numbers, it can be seen that the winners’ best months were at the beginning and end of the season. The MVPs’ best performing month was August and worst was May.

One issue with this approach is that in some seasons the MVP was so much better than the rest of the league that even if his performance slacked at the end of the season, he was still much better than everyone else being considered. This scenario was definitely the case when Barry Bonds was putting up wOBAs of over .500 for multiple seasons.

But if you want to get a feel for this with an easy-to-understand graph, check out the average month-by-month performances of every MVP from 2002 to 2009 based on wOBA. As you can see, there is a tremendous surge in August, and September is the next-best month.

Besides the winners turning it on toward the end of the season to help their cause, did the second-place finishers hurt their cause by not performing better during the same time? Here are the differences in the monthly wOBAs when compared with the yearly final:

The runners-up definitely don’t perform as well as the winners in the last couple of months. Voters may have a couple of candidates in mind, and the one who finishes better could get the voter’s final vote. This happened in 2006, when MVP runner-up Albert Pujols ended the season with a wOBA of .448 and MVP Ryan Howard had a wOBA of .436. Pujols had wOBAs of .394 and .475 in August and September, while Howard put up .481 and .516 numbers to take home the hardware. His team didn’t make the postseason, but Pujols’ did.

So what does that now tell us about this season? Let’s take a look at the month-by-month wOBAs of some of this season’s leading candidates.

Although the MVP award should be judged on an entire season’s worth of work, there is some evidence that players who heat up in August and September may sway a few voters their way compared with players who struggle during that same time period. That could doom Cano, who had by far his best month back in April. Hamilton would seem to be the runaway choice for AL MVP and Pujols the pick in the NL right now. However, the Cardinals’ recent slide could change the narrative and put Votto in great shape to take home the National League hardware. Remember, a lot can change in the season’s final month.