Archive for April, 2013

Adam Wainwright Is a Huge Bargain

There’s a pretty obvious trend happening these days in baseball, and it’s that teams simply refuse to let top homegrown talent reach the open market. This is especially true when it comes to young pitching, where Matt CainCole HamelsFelix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander have all each signed extensions for at least $100 million since the beginning of the 2012 season. Clayton Kershaw, expected by most to be retained by the Los Angeles Dodgers before he reaches free agency after 2014, may soon top them all with baseball’s first $200 million pitcher contact.

That’s a whole lot of money given to keep some of the brightest pitching in the game right where it is. And considering the ever-increasing displays of wealth, it might be understandable that the March news out of St. Louis that the Cardinals had extended Adam Wainwright seemed to fly under the radar. After all, his new deal guarantees him a relatively paltry $97.5 million over five seasons starting in 2014, perhaps less than half of what Kershaw is expected to get.

Yet as we head into the final week of the first month of the season, it isn’t Kershaw who has been the most dominant pitcher in baseball, nor Verlander, Darvish, or anyone else: it’s Wainwright, who has struck out an astonishing 37 in 37 1/3 innings against just a single walk. Before he walked Washington’s Bryce Harper in the sixth inning of a 2-0 St. Louis win on Tuesday night, he’d become the first pitcher since the 19th century to strike out more than 30 batters before issuing his first walk of the season.

It’s an incredible accomplishment, yet as with his contract extension, few seem to be taking notice.

Quick recovery

Wainwright’s achievements are so impressive not just because of where he is, but because of where he was. On the eve of the 2011 season, Wainwright blew out his right elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of St. Louis’ eventual run to the championship. That he came back at the low end of the usual 12-to-14 month estimate to even make the Opening Day rotation in 2012 was nice enough, but taken at face value, his relatively pedestrian 14-13 record and 3.94 ERA looked like a once-dominant pitcher struggling to return to form after a serious injury.

Wainwright’s consistent production

*Missed 2011 for Tommy John surgery

Year K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP
2009 8.19 2.55 0.66 3.11
2010 8.32 2.19 0.59 2.86
2012 8.34 2.36 0.68 3.10

In truth, it’s really yet another example of why top-level pitching stats like won-loss record and ERA can be more than a little misleading.

As seen in the chart at right, Wainwright’s important peripherals — strikeouts, walks, and home runs per nine innings — were nearly identical in his post-surgery year as they were in his last two healthy seasons, when he had two top-three NL Cy Young finishes. Unlike most pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, who often struggle with placing the ball even if velocity has returned, Wainwright’s control remained exactly where he’d left it.

If Wainwright did have any post-surgery hangover in 2012, it lasted all of eight starts. After a 7-5 loss in San Francisco on May 17, Wainwright had lost six of his first eight outings with an ugly 5.77 ERA and an uglier .298/.358/.497 batting line against. On May 22, he shut out the San Diego Padres while holding them to just four hits; including that game, he allowed just a .294 on-base percentage along with a 144/36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his remaining 24 starts. Even with the slow start to his first post-injury season, there’s not a single National League starter — not Kershaw, not Stephen Strasburg, not Cliff Lee — who can boast a better FIP since the start of 2012 than Wainwright’s 2.78. Only Hernandez, at 2.74, tops him in the American League.

If anything, the new Wainwright, boasting a four-seam fastball he rarely threw earlier in his career, is more dangerous than the one who was one of the top pitchers in the league before his elbow gave out. No, he isn’t going to maintain a strikeout rate which is 37 times his walk rate for the entire season, but through five starts — and all necessary warnings about “small sample size” do apply here — Wainwright has increased his swinging-strike percentage to 11.1 percent. That’s not only an excellent rate, but it is well above his previous high as a starting pitcher, 9.6 percent in 2010.

Major boost

For the Cardinals, Wainwright’s return to form has not only been welcomed, it’s been imperative. Their pitching staff is deep in talent, but it was also nearly as deep in questions headed into the season. Wainwright’s longtime rotation running mate Chris Carpenter was shut down early in spring with a shoulder injury and has likely thrown his last pitch, while lefty Jaime Garcia missed much of last year with arm concerns of his own. Adding to that, reliable Kyle Lohse defected to the rival Milwaukee Brewers, while the bullpen has been in turmoil ever since closer Jason Motte went down with an elbow injury. In large part due to Wainwright — as well as emerging young star Shelby Miller — the Cardinals can boast a major-league best 2.35 rotation ERA.

Wainwright turns 32 years old in August, making him older than any of the other starters who scored huge extensions, and he’s also got the elbow surgery in his recent past, so it’s not difficult to see why his deal wasn’t quite as financially earth-shattering. Yet for the last year, Wainwright has not only been at or near his pre-surgery levels, he’s again been one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Cardinals got their man for tens of millions less than similar pitchers close to free agency, and so far, he’s making that investment look like a wonderful decision.


The Blue Jays Offensive Problem

After winning the off-season by acquiring stars like Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays came into the season with high hopes. The AL East was as open a race as it has been in years, and Toronto looked poised to make the leap into being a strong contender. However, with the first month of the season nearly in the books, the Blue Jays are in last place, and at 9-14, they’re already 6 1/2 games behind the division leading Red Sox.

Even with the struggles by R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson, the biggest letdown has been on offense. The Blue Jays rank 28th in the majors in wRC+, ahead of only the lowly Marlins and equally struggling White Sox. It might be tempting to look at the ridiculous number of strikeouts that Colby Rasmus (42.9% K%), J.P. Arencibia (38.6% K%), and Brett Lawrie (32.5% K%), especially because all three are posting an on base percentage below .290 — but a deeper dive into the numbers suggests that the whiffs are not the problem.

Overall, the Blue Jays are striking out in 21.2% of their plate appearances, the eighth highest total for an MLB team (with pitcher’s excluded so as not to bias the list towards NL clubs). However, before you go blaming those strikeouts for the team’s offensive problems, look at the combined offense totals for the league’s 10 highest strikeout clubs, and then the 10 lowest strikeout clubs.

10 Highest K% teams: .244 BA, .314 OBP, .411 SLG, .317 wOBA, 100 wRC+, 894 runs
10 Lowest K% teams: .259 BA, .324 OBP, .395 SLG, .316 wOBA, 99 wRC+, 880 runs

The teams that strike out less hit for a higher average and get on base more often because of those extra balls in play turning into hits, but the higher contact rates come at the cost of less power, so the teams making lots of contact are actually slightly less productive overall. While we tend to think of strikeouts as a sign of offensive ineptitude, the reality is the Blue Jays are striking out less than the Braves, and Atlanta currently has the #1 offense in baseball by wRC+. The Indians, Mets, Reds, and Red Sox are also in the top 10 for strikeout rate by their hitters, and they aren’t having any problems scoring runs.

In fact, despite the notion that more contact means more productive outs that advance runners, there isn’t even much evidence to suggest that the high strikeout teams have been less efficient at scoring runs than the lower strikeout teams. As I wrote about on FanGraphs on Thursday, we can use the difference between a team’s performance in a couple of different metrics to determine how well they’ve done at turning their hits into runs. I’ll spare you all the nerdy details — you can click the link if you want to see how this efficiency metric is created — but, as the table below shows, Toronto has been the second worst team at turning their baserunners into runs, which many could attribute to their hacktastic ways.

Team Missing Runs
Indians (7.2)
Padres (8.7)
Dodgers (10.1)
Blue Jays (11.5)
Angels (13.6)

However, the larger picture doesn’t support the notion that it’s the strikeouts causing the team to strand all those runners. Again, using the top 10 teams in K%, we find that the high strikeout offenses are producing almost exactly as many runs as expected based on their raw batting lines. While the Blue Jays have dramatically underachieved, the Reds and Mets are #2 and #3 overall — St. Louis is first, if you were curious — in extra runs added through offensive efficiency, and both Cincinnati and New York are in the top 10 in team strikeout rate.

So, if it’s not the strikeouts and the low batting average, why are the Blue Jays struggling to score? The simple answer — and I know it won’t be a very popular one for those looking to point the finger at someone or something — is that balls just aren’t falling in. The Blue Jays team batting average on balls in play of .253 is last in the majors, 41 points below the league average for position players. While the Blue Jays do employ guys like Jose Bautista who regularly post low BABIPs because of his extreme fly ball tendencies, the Jays rank just 14th in fly ball percentage overall.

After their off-season makeover, the Toronto now has a number of slap hitting speed guys who are the kinds of players who usually post higher than average BABIPs. Emilio Bonifacio has a career .334 BABIP, but right now, he’s at .244. Brett Lawrie has a .308 BABIP for his career, but is at .217 for 2013. Maicer Izturis is a .294 career BABIP guy, but has just a .148 mark this season. While it’s tough to see guys make outs for weeks on end and think things are likely to improve, these guys all have established track records as significantly better offensive performers than they’ve been to date, and the primary driver of their 2013 struggles have been a lack of balls falling in for hits when they do make contact.

A single month sample of a player’s BABIP has little predictive value, so there’s no real reason to think Toronto’s going to spend the rest of the year hitting balls right at people. They might not reach full offensive potential until Jose Reyes returns, but there’s reasons for optimism surrounding the Blue Jays offense. When the hits start falling in, the runs will follow.


Clayton Kershaw’s Historic Trajectory

Opening Day was a festive occasion for Los Angeles Dodgers fans this year, and not just for the usual reasons. Spectators streamed into grand old Dodger Stadium, fresh off a winter renovation worth $100 million, content in the knowledge that for the first time since 2003 they would be watching a team that wasn’t owned by the despised and departed Frank McCourt. New stars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford dotted a lineup that just a year before had included low-budget placeholders like James Loney and Juan Rivera, as the Dodgers welcomed the defending champion San Francisco Giants to town.

By the end of the day, the Dodgers stood victorious with a 4-0 win, but the score hardly told the story. Homegrown ace Clayton Kershaw had not only thrown a complete game shutout, he’d taken matters into his own hands to break a scoreless tie by hitting his first career homer, a shot to center off George Kontos in the eighth. No pitcher had pulled off the same feat — a shutout and a homer on Opening Day — in six decades.

The young lefty had somehow found a new way to impress, and if Dodger fans take such feats for granted, they might be forgiven. Their ace has been so consistently excellent that even a rare poor outing, like Wednesday night’s loss to San Diego, comes as something of a surprise. Before getting touched for five runs (three earned) by the Padres, Kershaw had gone 17 straight starts having allowed three runs or fewer; it’s become almost expected to assume he’ll dominate at this point.

Yet to merely place him among the ranks one of the greatest pitching talents in the game today is almost an injustice, because the same could be said about David PriceStephen StrasburgJustin Verlander or a half-dozen other members of the true pitching elite. With every start, Kershaw is continuing to lay the groundwork for a career that is already on the path to baseball immortality.

When Kershaw struck out San Diego first baseman Yonder Alonso with a letter-high fastball in the second inning Wednesday night, he became just the 16th pitcher in big league history to strike out 1,000 hitters before the end of his age-25 season. The list is a who’s who of pitching royalty, including seven Hall of Famers — Bert Blyleven, Don Drysdale, Bob Feller, Catfish Hunter, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Hal Newhouser — one active pitcher well on his way (Felix Hernandez) and one derailed only by off-field issues (Dwight Gooden).

No hits

Kershaw gives up hits at a historically low rate.

PLAYER IP H/9*
Ed Reulbach 999.1 6.40
Sam McDowell 1305.0 6.79
Walter Johnson 2070.1 6.89
Clayton Kershaw 972.1 6.95
*Through age 25

If Kershaw maintains his current strikeout pace, he’ll end the season with around 1,215 career punchouts. That would not only give him the ninth-most in history by age 25, it would make him the second-most prolific lefty pitcher by that age, behind only former Dodgers great Fernando Valenzuela.

As impressive as that is, Kershaw ranks even higher on the list of pitchers who simply do not allow hits. In the history of the game, dating to the 19th century, exactly four pitchers have thrown as many innings as Kershaw has (972 1/3) through their age-25 season and allowed fewer than seven hits per nine innings (see table).

Ed Reulbach and Johnson made their debuts more than a century ago in a game that scarcely resembled what we see today. “Sudden Sam” McDowell’s strikeout prowess was perhaps matched only by his complete inability to know where the ball was headed when it left his hand.

As one might expect, standing among legends in strikeouts and limiting hits puts Kershaw high on the most notable list of all: run prevention. ERA+ is a simple yet effective way to measure runs allowed for pitchers from different eras, because it’s adjusted to include park factors and the league average. A score of 100 would be exactly league-average for a given year; each point above that is equal to 1 percent better than average.

List of greats

In terms of ERA+, Kershaw is in elite company.

PLAYER IP ERA+*
Walter Johnson 2070.1 176
Ed Reulbach 999.1 154
Smokey Joe Wood 1416.0 150
Roger Clemens 1031.1 141
Tom Seaver 1039.0 141
Hal Newhouser 1609.0 141
Clayton Kershaw 972.2 140
*Through age 25

Kershaw is one of only three in the last 60 years to post a career ERA (with 970 innings pitched through age 25) at least 40 percent better than the league average. Standing with Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver as his only contemporaries in that time is more than a little impressive, given that both ended their careers in the conversation for “best pitcher ever.”

If we shift our view to more advanced statistics using fielding independent pitching (FIP), the story remains the same except that more all-time greats enter the picture. Narrowing the scope to post-World War II play, just 10 pitchers top Kershaw’s 3.01 FIP at this point in his career. Again, we see Blyleven, Clemens, Gooden and Seaver, but now we also find Steve Carlton and Don Sutton — Hall of Famers both. With rare exceptions, if a pitcher has accomplished as much at this age as Kershaw has, it means that something very, very special is happening.

That truth was displayed when Kershaw won the NL Cy Young Award in 2011, becoming not only the youngest winner since Gooden in 1985, but one of just 13 hurlers to win the unofficial Pitching Triple Crown — leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts — since the Cy Young came into existence in 1956. He followed that with an equally outstanding 2012, which arguably should have earned him back-to-back awards, losing to R.A. Dickey largely on the strength of the knuckleballer’s fantastic narrative.

Five years ago, a 19-year-old Kershaw shocked legendary broadcaster Vin Scully — who has seen a few things in his time, to put it lightly — with a spring training curveball so vicious that Scully dubbed it “Public Enemy No. 1.” Even at the time, that began comparisons to Dodger Hall of Fame lefty Sandy Koufax, an absolutely unfair burden to place on a player less than two years out of a Texas high school.

Since then, Kershaw has done nothing but meet and exceed those expectations, and at some point in the near future, the Dodgers are almost certainly going to sign their ace to a long-term deal that will likely make him the first $200 million pitcher in baseball history. That’s great news for Dodger fans, but it’s good news for baseball as well; with every start, Kershaw continues on a trajectory that might end with his living among the all-time greats. Unless he happens to be mowing down your favorite team on a given night, it’s worth pausing to admire this kind of performance while it’s right in front of us.


Go For the Ks, Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg had his workload managed for him last year, and he wasn’t particularly thrilled about it. This year, Strasburg is attempting to manage his own workload, adopting a pitch-to-contact approach to getting batters out in an attempt to keep his pitch counts down and help him stay fresh for September and October. The only problem is that it might not actually make things any better.

In the 251 innings Strasburg pitched from 2010 to 2012, opposing batters made contact just 74% of the time they swung the bat, the third lowest rate in the Majors for a starting pitcher. The lack of contact translated into a 31% strikeout rate, easily the highest K% of any starter, and it wasn’t even close. Clayton Kershaw, the pitcher with the next highest strikeout rate, checked in at 25.9%. The gap between Strasburg and Kershaw was as large as the gap between Kershaw and Anibal Sanchez.

Through his first three starts of 2013, Strasburg hasn’t looked anything like the Strasburg of old, at least in terms of contact. Opposing hitters are making contact on 80% of their swings, and his strikeout rate has fallen to just 19%, slightly below the league average. Meanwhile, his ground ball rate has spiked from 44.5% to 56.9%. Strasburg has essentially traded strikeouts for ground balls. Crash Davis would be proud.

However, despite the change, Strasburg hasn’t actually become that much more efficient. During the last three years, he averaged 3.92 pitches per batter faced while racking up a ton of strikeouts. As a pitch-to-contact groundball guy, he’s averaged 3.87 pitches per batter faced this season. Even if he stays on the mound for 220 innings this year, he’d face approximately 900 batters over the course of the season. At his current rate, that would take him 3,486 pitches. With his 2010-2012 numbers, 900 batters would take 3,526 pitches. That’s 40 fewer pitches over the entire year. One fewer pitch per start.

Even if we think that there’s some kind of learning curve, and that Strasburg will become more efficient as he gets more comfortable trying to get ground balls, the data shows that there just isn’t a big difference between the number of pitches thrown by groundball pitchers or strikeout pitchers.

The 25 starting pitchers with the highest ground ball rates in the majors last year — minimum 100 innings pitched — combined to average 3.69 pitches per batter faced. The 25 starting pitchers with the highest strikeout rates averaged 3.89 pitches per batter faced, so the groundball pitchers were more efficient on a per batter basis. However, because groundball pitchers have to rely on their defense to help them make outs, and there are more opportunities for batters to reach on a ground ball, the pitch-to-contact guys also faced more batters each inning. Here are the total comparisons for both groups.

Type Pitchers Per Batter Batters Per Inning Pitchers Per Inning
Groundball Pitchers 3.69 4.25 15.68
Strikeout Pitchers 3.89 4.14 16.10

Over 220 innings pitched, the total difference in pitches per inning amounts to 92 fewer pitches thrown by the ground ball group. That’s basically three fewer pitches per game, which might be enough to earn Strasburg one extra batter over the course of each start. However, in exchange for that marginal gain in pitch efficiency, there’s a trade-off in performance.

The strikeout pitchers combined to post an ERA- of 87 last year, which means that as a group, they prevented runs at a rate 13 percent better than the league average. Meanwhile, the ground ball pitchers posted an ERA- of 102, so they gave up two percent more runs than league average while they were on the mound. Put simply, strikeout pitchers are more effective than ground ball pitchers, because strikeouts are outs and ground balls are only sometimes outs.

This doesn’t mean that ground balls are evil and that Strasburg should go for a strikeout of every batter, of course. There is a balance to be struck between complete domination and efficiency, and pitchers like Roy Halladay — at least, the healthy version we used to see — have shown that you can use both ground balls and strikeouts to great success. Strasburg doesn’t need to maintain a 30% strikeout rate to be a great pitcher.

But, he should aim higher than the 19% he’s struck out during his first three starts. If he keeps pitching to contact at this same rate, he’s going to give up more hits and more runs, and the cost to the team won’t be worth having him save a few extra pitches per start. Pitching to contact sounds like a good idea in practice, and there are times when it makes sense to just fire the ball down the middle and dare the opponent to do something with it, but more often than not, a pitcher’s best option is to just dispatch the opposing hitter himself. Leaving the defense out of the equation might be fascist, but it’s also more effective, and it doesn’t actually run up your pitch count in a meaningful way.


Angels Are in Trouble

As the summer turned into the stretch run in 2012, the Los Angeles Angels were one of the most dangerous teams in baseball. Albert Pujols had shaken off his early-season troubles, Mike Trout had replaced Vernon Wells to establish himself as a legitimate superstar, and midseason acquisition Zack Greinke had joined Dan Haren, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson to form one of the more intimidating rotation quartets in baseball. From the time the Boston Red Sox came to town Aug. 28 through the end of the season, the Angels won 22 of their final 33 games, the second-highest winning percentage in the big leagues.

Never one to sit still, owner Arte Moreno opened his wallet over the winter to once again add the best hitter available on the market, enriching outfielder Josh Hamilton by $133 million. Hamilton joined an offense that already had the third-highest team weighted on-base average in baseball last year without him. Considering the two teams ahead of the Angels on that list, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, each suffered serious departures this winter, the Angels could have entered the season rightfully expecting one of the most potent offenses in baseball.

But despite the embarrassment of riches both on offense and in the checkbook, 2013 couldn’t have started off worse for the club in almost every way. The Angels might be rich, and they might be talented, but no amount of payroll hides the fact that this team is facing some serious trouble.

Lethargic start

After getting swept at home by the Oakland Athletics, the Angels head into their weekend series with the Houston Astros with the worst record in the AL West (2-7). Yes, worse than the Astros.

Hamilton spent most of his first week embroiled in off-field controversy surrounding his return to Texas; on the field, coming off the highest seasonal swinging-strike percentage since the stat was first tracked in 2002, he struck out in 10 of his first 20 plate appearances and still had just four hits through Tuesday. Pujols has at least shown power with two home runs, but he has admitted to being somewhat limited by ongoing issues with plantar fasciitis.

It gets worse on the mound. Weaver is now out for at least a month with a fractured left elbow, and there were serious concerns about his performance even before that. Wilson, the club’s other big-ticket addition along with Pujols prior to 2012, went from a .200/.297/.275 (BA/OBP/SLG) line against in the first half of his debut season as an Angel to .275/.351/.456 in the second half before having offseason elbow surgery. Thus far, he has done little to calm the team’s fears, allowing 15 baserunners in 11 innings. Behind them, Greinke, Haren and Ervin Santana have moved on, leaving the new-look rotation a patchwork affair.

Now, if you’re thinking the second week of April is far too soon to write off a team, you’re absolutely right. Hamilton long has been known to be a streaky hitter who will get his numbers in bunches, and opposing pitchers will tremble all season at a quartet of Hamilton, Pujols, Trout and Mark Trumbo. No matter what else happens, the offense alone ought to keep the Angels competitive.

Mound woes

The pitching, however, is problematic, and what was a tenuous situation even before Weaver was injured has gone downhill quickly. No Angels starter pitched more than six innings in the team’s first seven games, and now they have to get by with Garrett Richards rather than Weaver, who is arguably one of the most irreplaceable starters in the game simply because of the fact that the rest of the rotation is hardly what it once was.

In place of Haren, who had a 3.58 ERA in 13 second-half starts, there’s former Mariner Jason Vargas, who has a career 3.38 ERA in Safeco Field and a 5.12 mark everywhere else. He gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings against the A’s in Thursday’s loss.

Rather than Greinke, there’s Tommy Hanson, undeniably talented but with an extensive recent history of arm trouble. Losing the declining Santana is less of a concern, but Joe Blanton in his spot is hardly anyone’s idea of a difference-maker.

It’s of course the issues with Weaver that are the most troubling, because it’s actually his right arm that might be more concerning than his fractured left one. Weaver’s fastball velocity has been declining since the middle of last season, and it bottomed out at 85 mph in his last start before he got hurt. It’s not unrelated that his first-half ERA of 2.97 last year increased to a lousy 4.56 in the second half; in 11 innings so far in 2013, Weaver had walked and struck out an even six apiece, neither of which should provide Angels fans with much confidence.

Unfortunately for general manager Jerry Dipoto, the options available to him to improve his roster are limited. In years past, the Angels had no problem going after the big arm they needed during the season, adding Haren in 2010 and Greinke in 2012. But after years of moves like that — those two trades alone cost them quality prospects Patrick Corbin, Jean Segura and Tyler Skaggs — and losing draft picks for signing high-profile free agents, the farm system is barren, ranking dead last in Keith Law’s organizational rankings. Only one of Law’s top seven Angels prospects is a pitcher, and Nick Maronde might need more seasoning after spending much of last season in the high Class A California League.

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and a team with this offensive core won’t go quietly. But in a division with contending teams in Oakland and Texas, along with the improving Seattle Mariners, this club should know the danger of a slow start more than most — last year’s 6-14 start put the Angels in a hole they never could recover from, no matter how well they played at the end.

That’s a problem given that both the Athletics and Rangers have won six of their first eight, and the Angels can’t count on a new Trout arriving to save the day this season. For an expensive team with high expectations, the Angels have put themselves in a spot that might be difficult to come back from.


Why Everyday Interleague Play Screws the NL

With the Houston Astros move to the American League West, the American League and National League both have 15 teams again. In one sense, this makes things more equitable, as now each team has to overcome four division rivals to guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs. Under the old system, NL Central clubs had to beat out five other contenders, while AL West clubs only had to best three of their opponents. The more teams you have fighting for the same playoff spot, the less likely each one is to come away the victor, so shipping an NL Central team to the AL West could be seen as a move to make things more fair.

However, there’s an unintended consequence to having 15 teams in both leagues; mandatory interleague match-ups nearly every day. Under the old 14/16 arrangement, MLB would confine interleague match-ups to several distinct periods, where nearly every game was an interleague match-up for a week or two. Now, each team has to deal with randomly dispersed interleague match-ups, and this change puts several NL teams at a real disadvantage.

With random interleague match-ups, NL teams no longer have the luxury of adjusting their rosters to prepare for road trips to AL cities. Previously, an NL club could stash a decent hitting first baseman in Triple-A, call him up for the week or two of the season where a DH was going to be necessary, and then go back to having their regular DH-less roster for the games against their NL opponents. This format puts three game trips to AL parks in the middle of otherwise normal parts of the schedule, leaving the senior circuit teams to wage interleague warfare with their NL rosters.

There are a few National League clubs who will do just fine. The St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, have a roster that is perfectly adaptable to American League baseball. With power hitting Matt Adams (a career 114 wRC+ in his limited major league time) sitting on the bench behind starting first baseman Allan Craig, they have a classic DH already on their roster. Or, if they wanted, they could simply shift Matt Carpenter — who is transitioning to second base simply because the Cardinals have too many good hitters and he needs somewhere to play — to the DH spot, upgrading the team’s infield defense without taking one of their regular bats out of the line-up. In fact, the Cardinals may be a better team in AL parks than they are in NL parks, simply because of the extra flexibility that having a DH would give them.

Likewise, the Washington Nationals will be just fine when they they swap out their pitcher for another bat, as they have 26-year-old Tyler Moore and his .256/.320/.500 career line to insert into the batting order. 19 of Moore’s 41 hits went for extra base hits in his rookie season last year, so he’ll provide another source of power when the Nationals head for American League cities. As if the Nationals didn’t already have enough offense already.

However, there are other NL clubs who don’t have ready made Designated Hitters, and are going to be at a real disadvantage when they have to make a decision on how to use their bench to replace the pitcher in AL parks. The Atlanta Braves, for instance, have two games in Toronto at the end of the month, and if Brian McCann’s shoulder isn’t ready for him to come off the DL by that point, they’re going to have to make some interesting decisions.

Their bench currently consists of a catcher (Gerald Laird), two utility infielders (Blake DeWitt and Ramiro Pena), and a pair of reserve outfielders (Reed Johnson and Jordan Schafer) who would have a hard time scaring a child into handing over their candy, much less intimidating a big league pitcher. The guys on the Braves roster who fit the DH profile are currently needed to play the field, and so Atlanta’s sole option may be to use those games as a day of rest for their defensively challenged starters, while Toronto gets to roll Edwin Encarnacion out there in the middle of their line-up.

The DH issue has long given American League teams an advantage in head to head match-ups, which is one of the reasons AL clubs have won 52.4% of all the interleague games played since 1997. Now, though, the everyday interleague game means that NL teams will have even less of a chance to adjust for their excursions to the lands where pitchers don’t hit. The pain won’t be felt evenly, and NL clubs who happen to be carrying an extra bat to begin with will have a more significant leg up during those games than their NL foes. The difference might not seem all that meaningful, but when division races are decided by a single game, every little margin matters. If the Cardinals or Nationals end up squeezing out a division title on the last day, it might just be due to the fact that they have a roster built for a fair fight in American League ballparks.


Dodgers, Yanks Have Lefty Problem

Of the approximately 150 pitchers to begin this season in the starting rotation of a big league team — we say “approximately” because some teams have taken advantage of early off-days to avoid using a fifth starter — 45 are left-handed. That’s just below 30 percent of expected starts going to southpaws, which aligns nicely with the actual percentage of plate appearances that came against all lefty pitching last season (29.8 percent).

That’s a sizable amount of plate appearances to account for, and so clubs must construct their rosters with the ensuing platoon splits in mind. But not all lefty starting pitching is created equally, and here we’re talking about much more than just the obvious differences between Clayton Kershaw and Jeff Francis. Whether by design or by circumstance, left-handed starting pitching is no way dispersed equally throughout the big leagues — some teams have to deal with up to four times as many southpaw starters in their divisions than others.

By mapping the lefty starters in each division against offensive tendencies, we can identify contenders who are most hurt and helped by the uneven distribution of southpaws.


 

Hurt: New York Yankees

On Opening Day in the Bronx, the Yankees faced lefty starter Jon Lester and his Boston Red Sox. As one might expect, Yankee manager Joe Girardi attempted to respond by loading his lineup with as many right-handed bats as he could against the Boston southpaw.

Last year, when the club had the fourth-best wRC+ in baseball against lefty pitching, that lineup would have included Derek Jeter, Russell Martin, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher.

But this season, limited by various injuries and a tight offseason budget, the best Girardi was able to come up with was a group that included bench players and castoffs like Ben Francisco, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, and Vernon Wells. The quartet combined for just two walks in 12 plate appearances; the Yankees ended up falling to their rivals by a score of 8-2.

It’s fair to note that the litany of problems facing the Yankees this season stand to give them trouble against pitchers of all shapes and sizes, but the rag-tag lineup underscored a larger concern — the club looks to have an extremely serious problem hitting southpaws in 2013. Of the 10 Yankees on the current active roster who had at least 50 plate appearances against left-handed pitching in 2012, only Travis Hafner, Nunez and Kevin Youkilis managed even a league-average wRC+ against southpaws. Hafner is unlikely to see much time against lefties, so that leaves New York with a large portion of their lineup that will struggle to hit southpaws — yes, even Robinson Cano, who had only a 78 wRC+ against his fellow lefties.

That’s a big problem in a division where every team except Baltimore has at least two lefty starters, including defending Cy Young Award winner David Price and up-and-coming star Matt Moore in Tampa Bay. While the Red Sox added lefty-killers Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino this winter and the Toronto Blue Jays can still rely on Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the Yankees can best hope to tread water while hoping their injured right-handed stars return sooner than later.


Hurt: Los Angeles Dodgers

If you don’t like lefty pitching, then the NL West is a tough place to be. Each team here starts the season with two lefties in its rotation, which means that every club has to prepare to see eight lefty starters within the division — tied with the Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, and New York Mets for the most in baseball.

The Dodgers may luck out in that they don’t have to face their own ace lefty (Clayton Kershaw), but it’s a bigger problem for them than their rivals because the club has serious problems against lefties. They finished tied for 24th in wRC+ against southpaws in 2012, and the 2013 roster isn’t exactly built to improve upon that. The most notable addition to the lineup this year is Carl Crawford, who brings just an 83 wRC+ against lefties over his career, and the inability — or unwillingness — to find a suitable platoon partner for Andre Ethier (76 wRC+) has plagued the team for years.

While a full season of Adrian Gonzalez (career 115 wRC+ against lefties) rather than James Loney (77 wRC+) at first base will ameliorate that somewhat, the loss of Hanley Ramirez (135 wRC+) to injury for most of the next two months is going to further inhibit the club against southpaws. More than anything, the team needs Matt Kemp to prove he’s fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery to destroy lefty pitching as he did in 2011.

He’s been unable to do that in the early going, and if not, the team could be in for more than a few games like the one they suffered through on Tuesday, when Madison Bumgarner dominated them over eight shutout innings.


Helped: Cincinnati Reds

There are only five lefty starters in the NL Central, and the Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are both actually going with all-righty groups after Aroldis Chapman and Chris Narveson ended up in the bullpen. What’s more, since three of those five are Jeff Locke, Jonathan Sanchez, and Travis Wood, it’s not exactly as though the lack of quantity is being made up for with high quality.

The lack of tough southpaw starters in the division benefits the Reds, who traded lefty-killer Drew Stubbs over the winter and just lost Ryan Ludwick (coming off a very good 149 wRC+ against lefties last season) for the next three months after dislocating his shoulder. That doesn’t mean they’ll be totally punchless against the lefties they do see, because Joey Votto hits absolutely everyone and Todd Frazier showed success against southpaws last year, but this is now a team that’s well-equipped to handle righty pitching.

That’s a tendency which is shown in the splits, because Votto (192 wRC+ in 2012 against righties, as opposed to 145 wRC+ against lefties), Jay Bruce (128/99), Shin-Soo Choo (160/78), Jack Hannahan (100/78) and Brandon Phillips (102/96) all hit better against righty pitching than lefties last season. That’s the heart of the Cincinnati order, and Chris Heisey, expected to fill the Ludwick void, has had better success over his career against righty pitching as well.

This is a good Reds team that should be able to hit no matter who is on the mound, but this can give them a slight edge in a division they were already favored by many to win.


Helped: Kansas City Royals

The only place with fewer lefty starters than the NL Central is the AL Central, which started the year with only two southpaw starters once Scott Kazmir landed on the disabled list. While Chris Sale is a quality pitcher, Jose Quintana still has much to prove.

That’s good news for the Royals, who beat out only the Cleveland Indians and non-contenders Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, and Marlins in wRC+ against lefties in 2012. Ned Yost’s club had 14 different hitters gather at least 50 plate appearances against southpaw pitching last season, and a mere three — Billy Butler, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez — managed to be league-average.

That leaves an awfully large amount of plate appearances against southpaws that generally ended poorly, whether it was the 201 times up for Eric Hosmer (a horrendous 63 wRC+), 179 to Jeff Francoeur (79), and even 254 to Alex Gordon (84). There’s some hope here because Perez is now healthy and expected to see more playing time, and Francoeur traditionally has been better against lefties, but the Royals made few changes on the offensive side of the ball, importing only Elliot Johnson and his 67 wRC+ against lefties in 101 plate appearances.

For a team desperately trying to break a losing skid that’s measured in decades, every little advantage can help, and this works in Kansas City’s favor.


The Future of the Reclamation Projects

In 2012, youth was served. Mike Trout was the game’s best performer at age 20, while Bryce Harper had perhaps the best age-19 season in baseball history. Buster Posey won his first MVP at 25, while David Price became a Cy Young winner at 26. The A’s and Orioles both rode very young rosters into surprising playoff berths. It was a good year for the young.

There’s still some great young talent in baseball, and as Harper showed on Opening Day, he’s just getting started. However, this year, there are some interesting players to pay attention to on the other end of the spectrum. If 2012 was the year of the youngster, 2013 might just be the year of the reclamation project.

Scott Kazmir is the most high profile comeback story of the spring, as the Indians gave him a non-roster invite to camp after he showed some improved velocity during winter ball, and he ended up winning a spot in their rotation. Kazmir hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2011, and he only faced 14 batters — retiring just five of them — that year. In 2010, Kazmir’s last full year in the big leagues, he posted a -1.1 WAR, making him one of the worst pitchers in baseball that season.

Formerly a power pitcher, Kazmir was last seen throwing 87 MPH fastballs to the few batters he got to face in 2011, and his early decline was easily traced to his drop in velocity. Thanks to the fact that PITCHF/x cameras are installed in a few Cactus League ballparks, we can note that Kazmir’s fastball averaged 92 MPH this spring, and his slider was coming in around 81, the kind of velocity he hasn’t shown on his breaking ball since 2007. That year, Kazmir struck out 27% of the batters he faced and posted a +5 WAR season.

Getting the snap back on his slider is perhaps even more important than his fastball velocity, though the increase in both suggest that Kazmir’s arm may be healthier now than it has been in years. While spring training numbers aren’t usually worth the pixels they take to display, Kazmir’s 13/1 K/BB ratio in Cactus League action is also quite encouraging. It’s one thing to just throw hard again, but Broken Kazmir also couldn’t throw strikes with any regularity. The combination of velocity and missing bats while pitching within the strike zone suggests that there might actually be something to Kazmir’s return story.

Of course, the abdominal injury he suffered on Monday might slow his return, and is even threatening to land him back on the Disabled List, a reminder that durability is still a major question mark. For Kazmir, though, he has to at least be encouraged that it isn’t his arm that’s hurting this time, and a ribcage injury isn’t likely to shelve him for the entire season. If Kazmir is able to stay off the DL and make his return to the big leagues as scheduled on Saturday, don’t be too shocked if he looks more like he did in Tampa Bay than in Anaheim. Kazmir’s command has never been good enough to let him get by without his velocity, but now that he seemingly has it back, he could be a favorite for Comeback Player of the Year.

He won’t be the only one in the running, though. The AL features a pair of former hitting stars trying to get back to their prior glory, and both ended up as veteran reserves on young teams – Miguel Tejada in Kansas City and Jason Bay in Seattle. While Bay probably shouldn’t have beaten out Casper Wells for the final outfield job with the Mariners, there are some reasons to think that he might have something left to offer in a part-time role.

Even as his career fell apart with the Mets, Bay has still shown some effectiveness against left-handed pitching. In 338 plate appearances against southpaws since 2010, he’s hit .246/.355/.401. That might not look like an amazing performance, but it was good for a 112 wRC+, meaning that his overall offensive line against lefties was 12 percent better than the league average. Since he’s almost certainly going to get most of his starts when a southpaw is on the mound, Bay’s numbers could be in for a legitimate improvement simply due to the way he’s likely to be used. Now, given his lack of defensive value, Bay’s not going to be a great player even as a platoon bat against southpaws, and the younger guy he replaced also whacked lefties pretty well, but just from a career rejuvenation standpoint, Bay has a decent shot at posting better numbers than he has in years, simply because the Mariners should have the ability to keep him away from right-handed pitching.

The story is somewhat the same with Tejada in Kansas City, though we don’t have any 2012 Major League data for him. However, Tejada did get 288 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in 2010/2011, and he hit .246/.323/.449 against southpaws in those opportunities, good for a 108 wRC+. With left-handed hitting starters ahead of him on the depth chart at both second and third base, the Royals should be able to spell their starters against some LHPs and give Tejada a majority of his at-bats against opposite handed pitchers. While his bat might not be able to catch up to tough right-handers anymore, giving him a steady diet of lefties might just give him the career renaissance he’s looking for.

Over in the National League, the big reclamation project is Marlon Byrd, but unlike Bay and Tejada, he’s not getting protected in a reserve role. The Mets outfield experiment led them to give Byrd a starting job after a decent spring, so the 35-year-old is going to have to hit all comers to get his career back on track. With his aggressive approach at the plate, Byrd’s offensive value essentially has to come through hitting for power, which he didn’t do at all last year — only 3 of his 30 hits went for extra bases — before he was released by the Cubs.

However, while he was miserable for Chicago last year, it was barely more than a month’s worthy of playing time, and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections expect his Isolated Slugging, basically in line with what he did back in 2011 when he was a solid role player for Chicago. If he finds his doubles power again, Byrd’s contact skills and athleticism should allow him to be a useful player for the Mets, and give him a better career sendoff than the ignominious ending he had last season.