12 February 2016

Orioles Re-Sign Four 2015 Norfolk Tides

Joe Reisel's Archives

The Orioles' big-ticket moves have justifiably received most of our and your attention this off-season. But the Orioles organization consists of more than the major-league team; the Orioles have to stock four full-season, two short-season, and two Dominican Summer League minor-league affiliates. To complete the rosters of their upper-level affiliates, the Orioles, like all organizations, sign free agents to minor-league contracts. This offseason, the Orioles re-signed several players who were in their farm system for much of 2015. Four of them saw a lot of action at Norfolk and are likely to start 2016 there, assuming that they don't get released in spring training.

While this article may include some rudimentary statistical analysis, the conclusions are primarily based on my subjective observations during the 2015 season. In 2015, I scored - either as the MiLb.com datacaster or as a scorer for Baseball Info Solutions - 50 Norfolk Tides games.

Pedro Beato, relief pitcher

Pedro Beato was re-signed after being credited with 16 saves in 2015. Photo courtesy of Norfolk Tides/Les Treagus.

Pedro Beato returned to the Orioles in 2015, four years after the Mets selected him in the December 2010 Rule 5 draft. Beato spent 2015 at Norfolk. He served as a set-up reliever to Oliver Drake and as the closer when Drake was in Baltimore. He was credited with 16 saves and a 5-5 won-loss record. He had 2.65 ERA, surrendered 66 hits (five home runs) in 74 2/3 innings with 25 walks and 61 strikeouts. Although he struck out fewer batters than you'd like from a relief pitcher, his performance reflected in these statistics suggest that he could be another Brad Brach or Chaz Roe.

And he could. But I'm not convinced. It seemed to me that he was hit harder than reflected in his numbers. And it seemed that when he struggled, he was unable to right himself. He also was less effective late in the season, although that was probably caused by overwork as most of the bullpen was less effective late in the season. When he entered a game late in the season, I had zero confidence that he would be effective.

Beato could pitch well at Norfolk early in the season, and if he does, could get a call-up if Baltimore needs bullpen help. It's possible that he could pitch well in a low-leverage role - there are plenty of relief pitchers who've had one good 40-inning season - but he's unlikely to have long-term success.

Terry Doyle, starting pitcher (?)

Over 1/4 of Terry Doyle's career minor-league wins were earned in 2015. Photo courtesy of Norfolk Tides/Les Treagus.
The Orioles re-signed Terry Doyle after he went 16-2 with a 2.16 ERA in a 2015 season split between AA Bowie and AAA Norfolk. And he pitched 158 2/3 innings in 26 games (21 starts.) There's nothing wrong with those numbers, and Doyle truly is a valuable pitcher.
As a minor-leaguer. It should be no surprise that Doyle went 12-1, 1.97 at AA; he was a 29-year-old who had already had two good seasons in AAA. He began 2015 as a long reliever at Bowie and moved into the rotation when Elih Villanueva was temporarily promoted to Norfolk. He stayed in the rotation because he pitched very well and because Dylan Bundy was injured. Doyle was promoted to Norfolk in August when trades and promotions wiped out the Norfolk rotation. He continued to pitch well.
Doyle relies on control and command of mediocre stuff to get batters out. As I said, he's valuable in the minor leagues because he can effectively eat up innings, because he can (and has been) used as both a starter and as a relief pitcher, and because he accepts his role. He'll only make the major leagues as a desperation/emergency alternative, but he'll remain in the minor league until his stuff declines from mediocre to poor.

Andy Oliver, relief pitcher

Andy Oliver joined the Orioles system in 2015 after being released by Tampa Bay. With Norfolk, he was used as a middle-to-long relief pitcher; although he's left-handed, he wasn't used as a left-handed relief specialist. He was a top prospect in the Detroit organization after he was drafted, but failed his first major-league trial. Then he completely lost his control, which was never good to begin with. He can strike batters out - he averaged 10 1/2 strikeouts per nine innings last season - but in his career he's walked nearly six batters per nine innings.

I dreaded Oliver's entering a game because there was a good chance that he would be wild and ineffective. And when he's off, he's really off - a lot of long, slow innings with a lot of pitches. But occasionally he would have his control and he'd be effective. And, because he had been a starter for much of his career, he's capable of pitching multiple innings in an outing.
It's conceivable that Oliver will suddenly find his control, pitch well in the minors, and earn a shot in the major leagues. It's more likely that Oliver will continue to struggle, get off to a poor start, and get released after a few awful games in a row.

Sharlon Schoop, infielder

Sharlon Schoop is Jonathan Schoop's older brother. From 2010 through 2012, he had been a AA utility infielder in the Giants and Royals systems. He signed with the Orioles before the 2013 season; he missed 2013 with an injury and spent 2014 in his accustomed utility-infielder role at Bowie. He started 2015 at Bowie, and was promoted to Norfolk when Jayson Nix was released. He primarily played second base when Rey Navarro was injured or spelling Paul Janish at shortstop.
Schoop hasn't hit in the past two years; he hasn't posted an OPS above .600 in his two years in the Orioles system. (That implies that he's either had an on-base percentage below .300, a slugging percentage below .300, or both.) He played a competent but unremarkable second base, at least in comparison to Rey Navarro. I don't think he has the range for shortstop or the arm for third base.
I wouldn't be surprised if, for roster-management reasons, Schoop started 2016 back at Bowie. I see no reason to think that he'll see the major-league roster, except possibly as a reward for loyal service.

09 February 2016

What's Up With Yovani Gallardo's Slider/Cutter?

The Orioles have a problem. Actually, they have a couple of problems. So to be more specific: The Orioles have a starting rotation problem. Overall, it's not very good. That's one reason why the O's can't stop being connected to Yovani Gallardo, who has yet to sign with a team mainly because of the unfair and punitive qualifying offer system that's currently in place.

On the surface, it seems the draft pick compensation issue is the main thing keeping the Orioles from inking Gallardo to a multiyear deal. They need another competent starter who throws a lot of innings, and Gallardo is a competent starter who will likely throw a lot of innings. And while his presence would help the rotation, it's up for debate exactly how much of an upgrade he'd be.

Gallardo, who turns 30 later this month, would rival Ubaldo Jimenez in the O's rotation in terms of career accomplishments. He's no longer the same type of pitcher he was just a few years ago, when he'd average at least nine strikeouts per nine innings and rely on a steady diet of four-seam fastballs, sliders, and curveballs. In 2012, Gallardo posted a strikeout rate of exactly nine; since then, his K/9 has dropped from 7.2, to 6.8, to 5.9 last season. Meanwhile, he's had to focus more on limiting the amount of hard contact against him and trying to keep the ball on the ground.

He still throws fastballs more than 50% of the time, but he now opts for fewer four-seamers and more two-seamers. And while he's seen a relative decline in his fastball velocity, Gallardo has also seen a gradual uptick in his slider velocity the last couple seasons:

Here's one explanation: Gallardo mixes in a cutter, and the difference is sometimes difficult to distinguish. Brooks Baseball labels Gallardo's offerings as sliders. Baseball Savant has him at 209 career cutters thrown (with only two in 2015). FanGraphs has him at 139 total cutters (going back to 2012). Still, the slider and/or the cutter are two of his better performing pitches, along with the curveball.

Gallardo is throwing his slider/cutter more than ever, and he also threw it higher in the strike zone than in any previous season by a decent margin:

Prior to 2015, Gallardo not only focused on keeping the pitch down and away, but also down in general. But last year, he wasn't afraid to keep the pitch in the zone, high or away:

Opposing batters swung more than ever at Gallardo's slider/cutter, but those pitches also generated fewer whiffs. Opponents did have trouble hitting for power against those offerings. One large reason for that: an infield fly ball rate of 41%. It won't be easy to repeat that.

It's unclear whether Gallardo's slider/cutter results are a product of small sample size or suggest anything meaningful. Maybe it's a pitch he's growing more comfortable with and isn't shying away from throwing it in the zone. It seems like Gallardo is a tinkerer who's unafraid to try different things in search of success. Another example of that is his movement to both sides of the rubber the last couple seasons.

Still, it's tough to overlook Gallardo's lack of strikeouts. He can't exactly be considered a question mark, but he's more of a back-end starter in a good rotation (so at least a No. 2 or 3 for the Orioles). By itself, that would be fine. But that depends on the years and dollars he'd command, and it also doesn't factor in the loss of a first-round draft pick. Gallardo's price is clearly dropping, though, which is why the Orioles are hovering.

Perhaps the Orioles would be better off keeping their first-round draft pick and going with a revolving door of Vance Worley, Odrisamer Despaigne, Mike Wright, and Tyler Wilson as the fifth starter. That way, they could ride the hot hand and also maintain some flexibility (though Worley is out of options). But that's also something that occasionally sounds better in theory than in practice, and it doesn't account for an injury to any of the O's other starting pitchers. Gallardo would make the O's a little bit better, but it would come at a steep price.

The Orioles' major league team needs some help. Their farm system needs even more help. No one said this would be easy.

Photo via Keith Allison

08 February 2016

Say Goodbye To The 40-60-80 Rule

Update: I originally included DFA'd players with players that signed extensions because neither set of players went through arbitration. This was poor logic on my part and therefore I'm editing this post to take into account players that were DFA'd and players that signed extensions.

Most baseball fans with an interest in baseball arbitration are familiar with the 40-60-80 rule. The argument is that on average, a player with between 3 and 4 years’ service time will receive 40% of his value, between 4 and 5 years will receive 60% and between 5 and 6 years will receive roughly 80% of his value. The problem is that this rule was actually created in 2007 and therefore is nearly a decade old. Does it still have any validity?

Cot’s Baseball Contracts has developed a spreadsheet with the service time for all players from 2007-2015. By combining that spreadsheet with salary information from the Lehman Database, free agent win costs via Lewie Pollis and RA9_WAR values from Fangraphs, it is possible to determine the cost per win for the categories of players listed above. MLBTR has an arbitration tracker for 2011-2015 that indicates which players went through arbitration/settled on a one year deal in those years and thereby implying which players agreed to long term extensions. This information can be used to determine the cost per win for each of the above categories for both arbitration and extension players during those years.

The chart below shows the amount players from 2007-2015 in each category earned as a function of the cost of a free agent win regardless of whether a given player went through arbitration or signed an extension for either one or multiple years. On average, first year players just earned 25% of their value, second year players earned 38% of their value and third year players earned 54% of their value.

This graph shows how this has changed over time. The amount that second and third year players earn seems to be increasing. It is difficult to tell whether this is a real trend or merely normal variance.

The next chart shows how much a team ultimately paid for players in each category from 2011-2015 as a function of the cost of a free agent win grouped by whether the player signed a multi-year extension or went through arbitration or agreed to a one year deal. The numbers are slightly different as overall players earned slightly more from 2011-2015 then they did from 2007-2015.

Arbitration players earned 29% in their first year, 41% in their second year and 59% in their third year, while Super Two players earned 23% indicating that the rule now is 25-30-40-60. Players that went through arbitration also earned more than players that didn’t. First year players saw a 50% increase, while second and third year players had a 20% increase. Given that this ignores the benefits of controlling a player for a longer time period, this indicates that signing quality team-controlled players to extensions is a good way of saving money.

In general, hitters were cheaper than pitchers regardless of whether they signed extensions or went through arbitration as well as service time. This could possibly be because teams are worried about signing veteran arms due to attrition. It’s almost certainly due in part to the fact that the arbitration process overvalues relievers. In any event, teams pay only a fraction of the cost for a team-controlled position player whether or not they sign an extension or go through arbitration. It isn’t the case for pitchers though. Once pitchers go through arbitration for their third season, they’re roughly earning market value.

This next table shows the cost of relievers and starters. There aren’t many relievers that sign an extension in their first year of arbitration and therefore that number has little meaning. But relievers start getting extremely expensive by their second year and starters get expensive by their third year. In fact, teams actually pay a premium to keep a reliever in arbitration by the time he has five years or more of service time. This sounds weird but makes sense because it allows teams to commit only one year to a questionable asset rather than being forced to give a multi-year contract. It also in part explains why the Orioles were willing to offer Matusz a contract for $3.9M this offseason. It is hard to find deals for relievers once they have been in the league for more than four years and therefore it is cost effective to maintain a minor league pipeline of potential quality relievers.

Likewise, teams pay close to market value for starting pitchers once they are in their third year of arbitration. For example, Bud Norris isn’t a particularly good starter, but earned $8.8M in his last year of arbitration. The value of tendering a starting pitcher in that third year isn’t due to the cost savings, but the fact that he only needs to be signed for one year. The difference between Jimenez and Norris is that Jimenez was signed as a free agent and therefore the Orioles needed to offer him four years (and still have him on their payroll) while the Orioles could offer Norris a one year term and cut him when he failed to produce.

There is only a minimal premium for going to arbitration with a starting pitcher rather than signing him to an extension before the third year. This indicates that the benefit that a team receives from signing a pitcher to an extension comes solely from the last year of arbitration and any discounts they receive on future free agent years. If a starting pitcher is unwilling to trade away free agent years in return for an extension, then it may make sense to just go to arbitration.

Players earn considerably less in arbitration than the 40-60-80 rule suggests they should. This shows that they’re an even bigger bargain than originally considered and further shows the value of team controlled players. It also indicates that teams don’t save a large amount of money from extensions, but primarily benefit from having players under control for larger periods of time. It is also interesting that position players are better deals than both starting and relieving pitchers, perhaps indicating that it makes more sense to grow the bats and buy the arms.

05 February 2016

Guest Post: Joe Sheehan On Why The Orioles Should Sign Dexter Fowler

The following post is from Joe Sheehan, who runs a subscription-only email newsletter that covers all of baseball. Joe was a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has contributed to Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com, and many other publications while being a guest on MLB Network's "Clubhouse Confidential" and numerous radio programs around the country.
On January 27th he dedicated an entire post to the Orioles, explaining that although the team has spent a lot of money this winter it still needs to do more to compete. The post is reprinted here with his permission.
The Tigers have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann and others to improve upon a core that probably wasn't good enough to win.

The Orioles have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Chris Davis and Darren O'Day merely to maintain a core that probably isn't good enough to win.

2B Schoop (R)
3B Machado (R)
CF Jones (R)
1B Davis (L)
C Wieters (S)
DH Trumbo (R)
LF Reimold (R)
RF Flaherty (L)
SS Hardy (R)
IF Paredes (S)
LF Kim (L)
C Joseph (R)
OF Navarro (L)

SP Tillman (R)
SP Gausman (R)
SP Jimenez (R)
SP Gonzalez (R)
SP Wright (R)

RP Britton (L)
RP O'Day (R)
RP Matusz (L)
RP Brach (R)
RP McFarland (L)
RP Roe (R)
RP Garcia (R)

The Orioles have done little to improve upon the team that was 81-81 last season. They spent to retain Davis and O'Day, and they watched Matt Wieters accept a qualifying offer. They return nine of their top ten players by PA and 12 of their top 14 by innings pitched -- losing Steven Pearce, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. Their most significant additions have been Mark Trumbo, the kind of low-OBP slugger they already had in spades, and Hyeon-Soo Kim, who I might call the Shin-Soo Choo of the Korean Baseball Organization. There's no imminent help from the farm; the Orioles' top two prospects, Hunter Harvey and Dylan Bundy, threw 22 pro innings last year. Christian Walker has been buried by Trumbo and the return of Davis.

By their actions, the Orioles seem to believe that they're the 96-66 team of 2014, rather than the .500 team of last year. From 2012-14, the Orioles won 93, 85 and 96 games, but only one of those teams, the 2014 version, was actually very good:

"Bird" Pun Here
                RS   RA  Diff
2015   81-81   713  693   +20
2014   96-66   705  593  +112
2013   85-77   745  709   +36
2012   93-69   712  705    +7

That 2014 team featured a lot of great performances by players who are no longer here. Nelson Cruz hit 40 homers. Steven Pearce had a 930 OPS. Nick Markakis was second among regulars with a .342 OBP. Chen is now gone as well. Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton have demonstrated that they're collectively strong enough to be the core of a deep team but not a shallow one. Last year, Machado made the leap, Davis hit 47 homers, Jonathan Schoop had a strong half-season, and the Orioles were still an 81-win team. They needed to do more than rack the balls again. At least so far, they haven't.

The Orioles have had a consistent approach under Buck Showalter: position players that hit homers and play defense; deep bullpens that get ground balls; starting pitching that mostly stays out of the way. Recent Orioles teams have had low OBPs, high SLGs and short-sequence offenses. They're first in homers in MLB the last four years, with 52 more than second-place Toronto; they're third in SLG behind the Rockies (Coors Field) and Tigers. They're first in isolated power. They're eighth in runs…and just 22nd in OBP.

Now, the Orioles can say they've addressed that by signing Kim, and maybe that works. Kim isn't likely to hit near the top of the lineup, though, and that's what they really need to find. They still have playing time available in the outfield, where Nolan Reimold, Ryan Flaherty and Trumbo are all too prominent on the depth chart. It's hard to identify a leadoff hitter on this roster, which is how you end up with a guy with a .306 OBP slotted there. The Orioles seem very reluctant to give up their #1 pick, as they should be, but it may be time to go get Dexter Fowler.

Fowler would become the Orioles' best leadoff hitter since Brian Roberts. He would slot nicely in right field, as he's a 30-year-old outfielder whose numbers in center haven't been great. He's not going to be very expensive -- maybe 3/45 in a market that priced Alex Gordon at 4/72. Mostly, he'd be a reliable OBP guy for a team whose #2-#4 hitters might very well hit 100 homers and slug .520. Fowler could score 120 runs batting in front of Machado, Davis and Jones.

I don't want to minimize the importance of that #1 pick. As a player, Fowler is a lot closer to Daniel Murphy than he is to David Price, and I recently skewered the Nationals for their decision to give up a #1 for Murphy. Consider those two organizations for a moment, though. Or take the Mets, with their success in drafting and developing prospects. There's a lot of homegrown talent in Baltimore, but of late, their core player-development competence seems to be breaking highly-talented pitchers. There's an argument that a #1 pick has less value to them than it does to a team better able to shepherd young men from amateurs to Orioles.

There's also the importance of this year and next to the Orioles. Wieters is a free agent after this season. Tillman and Kim are free agents after 2017; Jones and Machado after 2018. Davis will be around for a while, but he's at his peak. The Orioles are at the back end of the cycle that began in 2012. This team, the Adam Jones Orioles, won't be around much longer, and the Orioles' farm system isn't going to be replenishing the major-league team for a few years. The tension between wins now and wins later is always present, but for the Orioles, there's a strong argument that the wins Fowler brings now -- pushing the Orioles towards 90 wins -- will have more value than the wins a #1 pick will bring in 2019-21 when the Orioles project to be bad.

As far as the Davis contract is concerned, it's surprisingly reasonable because of the deferred money. A listed 7/161 turns out to be more like 7/127.5 in value, an AAV of $18 million a year. Davis is an impossible player to project -- he's wrapped two huge years around one as a replacement-level player -- but he would need to return about 14 wins in seven years to be worth the money, just two per season. $18 million is Jayson Werth money, it's less than what Choo and Carl Crawford got. The seven years may not work out so well for the Orioles, but the overall investment is low enough to make even that manageable. If this were 5/127.5, it would look different but be a lesser deal.

Just bringing back the core of a .500 team isn't enough, though. The Orioles can't look at 2014's 96 wins and assume that with better health, better luck and some development, they'll be that good again. There were key performances on that 2014 team by players who are no longer here, and their absences were a big part of why 2015 went south. For the Orioles to press the Red Sox and Blue Jays, they need another piece, and Fowler is that piece: he fills a lineup and a roster hole, and the OBP skills he brings mesh beautifully with the Orioles' high-SLG, high-ISO team. It's hard to give up a #1, but it's even harder to spend $120 million on an 83-win team.
I encourage you to subscribe to Joe's newsletter, which is $29.95 for a full year or $16.95 for six months. I've been a subscriber since the beginning and can't recommend it enough. As you can see here, his pieces are thought-provoking and insightful and his analysis pulls no punches. He is on Twitter at @joe_sheehan.

What To Know About Odrisamer Despaigne

Click here for Ryan Romano's archives.

Because the Orioles just don't have enough fringe pitching, they added another arm to their staff yesterday. Odrisamer Despaigne, who came from the Padres in exchange for Aberdeen's Jean Cosme, doesn't have much on his resume. With a career RA of 5.11 and DRA of 4.89 — both of which have primarily come in a park that favors pitchers — he hasn't accomplished anything yet at the major-league level. Nevertheless, a few facets of his profile warrant a deeper look, so we'll put him under the microscope.

He has a lot of pitches, none of which really stand out.

I mean, just look at this list:

Over his two seasons of major-league playing time, Despaigne has used seven different pitches. Three fastballs, two curveballs, plus a changeup and a slider in a pear tree, makes for one hell of an arsenal.

In theory, at least. In practice, well, those pitches don't amount to much. Using the PITCHf/x leaderboards on Baseball Prospectus, I found the average whiff rates for six of Despaigne's seven offerings (annoyingly, there's no ranking for slow curves). By this metric, he trails the major-league mean in every regard:

Pitch  Despaigne Whiff%   MLB Whiff% 
 Fourseam  6.8% 8.6%
Sinker 5.3% 5.8%
Change 10.6% 16.7%
Slider 6.0% 17.3%
Curve 11.3% 13.5%
Cutter 5.9% 10.8%
Averages out of pitchers with at least 200 of each pitch in 2015.

The absence of swinging strikes has kept Despaigne from racking up strikeouts, which he's inflicted upon only 14.1 percent of opponents. That, in turn, is the largest reason why he's posted such mediocre results.

So why haven't these pitches deceived opponents? Two factors seem to be behind it. First and foremost, we should note Despaigne's location tendencies:

As a pitcher who focuses on getting ground balls — and successfully, to the tune of a 51.1 percent lifetime grounder rate — Despaigne has consistently placed the ball down in the zone. Like many hurlers, he's fooled the opposition when he targets them higher; the fact that he's strayed from that approach hasn't helped his case.

Location doesn't account for everything, though. The absence of whiffs has ultimately stemmed from Despaigne's repertoire, which just isn't up to snuff — or, rather, up to stuff. He possesses average-ish velocity, but his movement lags behind. Looking at the three hard offerings, we see a lot of straight pitches:

Pitch Type Despaigne Velo MLB Velo Despaigne HMov MLB HMov Despaigne VMov MLB VMov
Fourseam 91.6 93.3 1.8 4.9 6.9 9.2
Sinker 91.6 92.2 8.0 8.5 4.3 5.8
Cutter 88.2 88.5 0.6 1.4 4.8 5.3
Averages out of pitchers with at least 200 of each pitch in 2015.

To differing extents, Despaigne can throw a hard four-seamer, sinker, and cutter. He just can't make them dance, and that seems to have held him back.

His main offspeed pitch only compounds this problem. You may have heard that Despaigne has a weird changeup. Its velocity (76.7 MPH) falls more than seven ticks below the major-league average of 84.0 MPH. At the same time, it pairs a little less horizontal movement (4.2 inches, compared to the MLB average of 7.8) with a little more vertical movement (6.4 inches, compared to the MLB average of 4.6) than expected. All in all, it should be a pretty effective pitch.

Yet it isn't — in fact, it's really struggled. We know that a large fastball-changeup velocity gap helps the pitcher, so the power isn't the problem. The issue arises from, unsurprisingly, the pitch's movement:

In terms of bite, Despaigne's changeup resembles his hard pitches, which doesn't seem to bode well. Usually, a pitcher wants to keep the hitters on their toes, by bombarding them with pitches that move in unique directions. Because Despaigne lacks that variety (aside from his curveballs), he hasn't been able to net many swinging strikes.

Most pitchers will carry three or four arrows in their quiver, which makes Despaigne stand out. But all the quantity in the world doesn't count for anything without quality. Despaigne will have to change his strategy or add some distinct movement to his pitches if he wants to take the next step.

He's done an excellent job of limiting strong contact.

Despaigne does have some positives — if he didn't, the Orioles wouldn't have bothered with him in the first place. His biggest strength has to do with those ground balls, which have generally turned into outs. A career BABIP of .285 has allowed him to survive without those strikeouts, and if he can keep that up in Baltimore, he may find himself in a regular role.

His peripherals add some credibility to his case. Batters have hit the ball hard 26.3 percent of the time against Despaigne — nearly three percentage points below the average rate. He's paired that with an above-average soft contact rate of 19.9 percent to keep opponents off the board, to a degree. Nor has he received much assistance from his fielders, who rank 15th in DRS over the past two seasons. In front of a hopefully strong Orioles defense, Despaigne could see his BABIP fall even further.

A glance toward his PITCHf/x profile helps us understand how he's attained these results. During 2014 and 2015, major-league hitters made contact on 62.9 percent of their swings outside the zone and 87.3 percent of their swings inside the zone. Despaigne, meanwhile, had an O-Contact rate of 74.4 percent and a Z-Contact rate of 89.8 percent. Balls outside the zone that enter into play will usually become outs, which explains why this combination — lots of contact on bad pitches, without a lot of contact on good ones — has worked in Despaigne's favor.

To a certain degree, this element of Despaigne's performance goes against the grain. Research suggests that ground ball pitchers can't manage contact that well, meaning we'd expect them to run higher BABIPs. Indeed, of the 23 pitchers with 1,000 career innings and a ground ball rate above 50 percent, 15 have BABIPs above .290, with an average of .296. With that said, the pitchers who have avoided hits — the Tim Hudsons and Mike Leakes of the world — have done so with a low-strikeout, low-walk combination, as Despaigne has.

All in all, it's safe to bet on some regression for Despaigne's BABIP, simply because of that metric's volatility. If you have to pick an over/under, though, take the latter. The approach he takes and the tools he uses could help him sustain this

He's really struggled with runners on base, but that probably won't continue. 

Across the past two seasons, 134 pitchers have worked at least 200 innings. With the exception of Clay Buchholz, no one has left fewer runners on base than Despaigne has. He's done a fairly good job of holding runners in place: During that span, opponents have tried to steal 20 times in 331 opportunities, which is around the major-league average. Instead, a complete meltdown at the plate — his .292 wOBA with the bases empty has risen to .365 with runners on — has caused that hardship.

As we'd predict, Despaigne has struck out fewer batters and walked more batters under pressure. Neither of these, however, have prevented him from escaping trouble. A greater BABIP and more home runs bears the blame for that.

Situation BABIP HR%
BE 0.262 2.0%
MoB 0.318 3.0%

This means Despaigne has allowed more solid contact with runners on, right? Actually, he hasn't — his hard-hit rate after someone has reached is 26.0 percent, below his overall mark. He's also netted just as many weak hits in those scenarios, with a 20.1 percent soft-hit rate. Based on his situational heatmap, this makes sense:

For better or for worse, Despaigne has expanded the zone in important situations. This should, theoretically, have granted him a reduced BABIP and home run rate (or at least equal ones). He just seems to have had bad luck, which will presumably regress to normal in 2016 and beyond.

Simply leaving runners on base won't turn Despaigne into a competent starter. With that said, it's definitely a solid first step. If he can combine it with his BABIP tendencies, he could become another Baltimore overperformer (in the style of, say, Miguel Gonzalez). A higher strand rate can work wonders for a pitcher; let's hope Despaigne gets to witness that firsthand.


Despaigne will not be a good pitcher for the Orioles; he'll probably struggle to stay afloat. His pitch variety notwithstanding, the lack of movement could doom him to irrelevance. But he has some things going for him — if he can maintain his low BABIP and begin to strand some more runners, he may survive. As with many areas of the coming season, we'll have to hope for the best.

03 February 2016

Orioles Again To Rely On Bounce-Backs, Hopes, And Wishes

Before the offseason even started, you could see it coming. Chris Davis was the team's top priority, and the Orioles (with Peter Angelos leading the charge) did everything to ensure his return. They should be commended for that, regardless of whether you think they spent too much money to bring him back. It was likely Davis or no other top free agent, and that does matter.

Still, the Orioles were not going to be able to take care of everything on their shopping list. And to be fair, that is usually the case. The Orioles don't spend enough as a mid-market team to go out and replenish their roster when players depart, and they combine that with having a disappointing farm system that is one of the worst in the majors. That makes it difficult to fill a well-rounded roster with cheap, cost-controlled players. (The Orioles have also had good teams recently, and while that's a positive, they've both dealt away some of their better prospects and dealt with injuries and haven't been able to restock their system.)

The O's have been active this offseason. They re-signed Davis and fought off the Nationals to keep Darren O'Day. They rightly extended the qualifying offer to Matt Wieters, who somewhat surprisingly accepted. They traded for Mark Trumbo and signed Hyun Soo Kim. And they've made a boatload of fringe roster moves in an effort to strike gold with one or two players. But that doesn't seem like enough. After those moves, the O's still may be the worst team in the American League East. And even if they aren't, they don't seem to be more than marginally better than any other team. Realistically, no flurry of moves would have done all that much to alter things. It's not like the Orioles were going to sign David Price, Zack Greinke, or Jason Heyward. They need to get better at developing players, in a hurry.

That brings us back to the apparent flaws of the current roster. The team's corner outfield options - Kim, Nolan Reimold, Dariel Alvarez, Joey Rickard, Henry Urrutia - leave a lot to be desired. Kim is a nice, low-risk signing, but he's unproven in the majors and can't be considered a sure thing. Trumbo needs to be included in that mix, but he's clearly a better option at designated hitter or to spell Davis at first base. Davis could also shift to right field some, but that's probably not what the Orioles have in mind after signing him for so much money. An actual corner outfielder, preferably one who is left-handed, would be a nice addition.

And then there's the starting rotation. Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Miguel Gonzalez are all locks to start the season in the rotation. That's hardly an inspiring group. Tillman was awful last season; Gausman has showed promise but the Orioles have refused to commit to keeping him in the major league rotation until now; Jimenez was improved last season but is hardly dependable; and Gonzalez finally buckled under the pressure of outpitching his FIP (and, you know, also dealt with elbow and shoulder injuries).

That's without mentioning the upcoming, riveting battle for fifth starter duties between Vance Worley, Mike Wright, and Tyler Wilson. Names such as Mat Latos, Kyle Lohse, Tim Lincecum, Aaron Harang, Alfredo Simon, and even Jeremy Guthrie and other AAAA starters are still out there. Maybe it's best to pursue that route and hope for the best. Or maybe the Orioles will make a trade.

There are still some talented players available on the free agent market, but some are tied to draft pick compensation (including Yovani Gallardo and Dexter Fowler). The Orioles seem set on holding on to their first-round draft pick. That probably has more to do with the money not being there for such signings; after all, the Orioles forfeited two draft picks to sign Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz just a couple years ago. And it's not like the Orioles hoard their draft picks anyway.

Right now, it seems pretty foolish that the O's weren't willing to be more flexible to sign Scott Kazmir. Not only was he not tied to draft pick compensation, but he would have filled the left-handed starter void left by Wei-Yin Chen. It's unclear whether the O's were scared off more by Kazmir's injury history or his pursuit of a contract with an opt-out, but he would have been a nice signing -- and could have been considered the team's best starting pitcher.

Teams want more good players. The Orioles aren't any different. Without much to fall back on in the minors, the O's don't have much room for error. They again need a Nate McLouth or Steve Pearce type player to surface, or at least get Miguel Gonzalez to pitch like he did from 2012-2014 or get J.J. Hardy or Tillman to somewhat return to form. (Buck Showalter has acknowledged as much, particularly about his starting pitchers, in some of his comments.) Those types of performances shouldn't be taken for granted, especially when the O's need them as much as they do. Maybe it doesn't lead to exciting offseasons, but the O's again seem like a .500 team that with the right push could again be in the playoff hunt. That's the best-case scenario for this team. The worst case? Maybe you should take a look at that rotation again.

02 February 2016

For Top 100 Prospect Lists, F Is A Passing Grade

Executive Summary:

  • Team controlled players contributed 36% of total wins from 1997-2006 and roughly 52% of wins from 2007-2015 indicated the increased value of a successful farm system.
  • Team-controlled position players and team-controlled pitchers contribute roughly the same percentage of production.
  • The top twenty-five team-controlled pitchers produced 60% of total production and the top twenty-five team controlled position players produced 50% of total production.
  • Baseball America successfully identified fewer top ten team-controlled position players and team-controlled position players ranked 26th to 50th than they have in the past. 
  • Ranked team-controlled position players produced 72% of production from 1997 to 2005 but only 61% from 2006 to 2015.
  • Baseball America has volatile results when predicting pitching performance. They were especially successful from 2008-2011 but have largely failed to maintain that success.

There have been a number of articles over the years attempting to determine the value of ranked prospects.  These articles, with the exception of my own, have largely followed the same methodology: determine how much production prospects ranked  for given years at a given spot produced over six years. My work at Camden Depot on the subject differs because I determine the actual time that each prospect is under team control and use actual salaries instead of approximated salaries for each prospect.

The major problem with these methodologies is that it requires most players ranked in a given year to have completed their team controlled years so that their performance can be assessed. This means that it doesn’t allow the audience to determine an idea of prospects’ current worth, but rather only a retrospective view. It’s helpful to know how prospects performed in the mid-2000s, but it would be far better to know how they performed in 2015.  

Therefore, instead of judging prospects by when they were ranked, I decided to determine how much production team controlled players have provided in each year from 1996 to 2014 provided that they were still under team control. A prospect that was ranked #8 in 2011 and didn’t make it to the majors until the middle of 2013 would have his 2013 contributions calculated in 2013 and his 2014 contributions calculated in 2014. In 2020, when he used up his six years of service time, his contributions would not count towards this ranking because he would no longer be a team-controlled player even if he signed an extension. This allows the reader a more current view.

I use RA9_WAR to determine production, Lew Pollis’ documentation of the value of a win while valuing a 2014 win at $7.5M and a 2015 win at $8M, determine actual salaries via Cot’s and the Lehman Database and determine service time also via Cots where available and by my own algorithms and Baseball Reference when not available.  

The chart below shows how much production that ranked and unranked position and pitching prospects contributed each year from 1997 to 2015. While ranked position players have contributed the most production, the graph is reasonably volatile. There was a period from 2008 to 2011 where ranked pitching prospects were at their peak value. Before that, from 2003 to 2006, ranked pitching prospects produced less value than usual. Meanwhile, unranked position prospects did well in 2014 and 2015 and poorly in 2003 and 2004.  All in all, ranked position team-controlled players have contributed the most value, followed by ranked pitchers, unranked position players and unranked pitchers as one would have expected.


This next graph shows how much production team controlled players have produced when ranked, unranked and total by both year and whether they’re position players or pitchers. This graph measures production as a percent and divides the production produced by players in a given category by either all pitchers or position players.

The first thing that is that team controlled position and pitching players have produced a similar percentage of total pitching and position production. One problem when measuring pitching and position production is that position players can earn 570 WAR in a year while pitchers can only earn 430 WAR. This makes sense because position players catch pitches and therefore can frame them as well as field balls put into play, but it does mean that comparing position and pitching production can be like comparing apples and oranges.

The second thing is that team controlled players, both pitching and position, have become more valuable over time. From 1998-2006, team controlled players produced only 36% of total production while from 2007-2015, they’ve produced over 50% of total production. It has certainly become more important for teams to be able to successfully develop their top talent due to the value that younger, team controlled players provide.

This next graph shows the production that ranked players have provided divided by total production for both pitchers and position players by year. This graph shows that ranked position players aren’t producing as much value as they once did. For whatever reason, Baseball America seems to be doing a worse job adequately grading position players than they have done previously. It also shows that Baseball America has periods where they accurately grade pitching prospects and where they do less well.

The margin of error appears to be small for Baseball America and this is because most production is produced by a few top players. On average, the top ten team-controlled pitchers contribute 30.4% of total production while the next fifteen contributes another 30.6%.  Team controlled pitchers ranked below 100 contribute -37.9% of total production due to being primarily below replacement level. It should come as no surprise that the Gini coefficient for team-controlled pitchers is .911.

As a result, team controlled ranked pitchers were extremely successful in 2008-2011 because on average they successfully ranked 8 of the top 10 team-controlled pitching prospects instead of the average 6. They only hit on seven of the top ten in 2008, but they also ranked the top five in that year. In 2011, they only missed on the #4, #6 and #10 pitching prospect and this also inflated their results.  The chart below shows the percent of pitchers ranked whose production was ranked between 1-10, 11-25 and 26-50.

Likewise, the top ten team controlled position players contributed 25.2% of total production while the next fifteen contributed 26%. Team controlled position players ranked below 100 contributed -18% of production due to being below replacement level. The Gini coefficient is slightly smaller for team-controlled position players, but still high at .871.

As a result, Baseball Americas numbers look considerably worse because they were only able to rank 5 of the top 10 position prospects in 2014 and 2015 compared to their average of between 7 and 9. It doesn’t help that they’ve also been unable to rank more than 50% of position players that produced between the 26th and 50th total WAR for position players.

To sum up, team controlled players are becoming more valuable now than they have been in the past. They contributed 36% of total wins from 1997-2006 and roughly 52% of wins from 2007-2015. This indicates that youth is becoming more important.

Pitchers contribute only 430 WAR per season while position players contribute 570 WAR per season. Therefore, in absolute terms, team-controlled position players contribute more production than team-controlled pitchers. However, in relative terms, team-controlled position players and pitchers contribute roughly the same percentage of production, indicating that it’s important to develop both position players and pitching.

Relatively few team-controlled players contribute the vast majority of total team controlled production. The top ten team-controlled pitchers produced 30% of total production and the next fifteen produced another 30%. The top twenty five position players produced half of total production.

Baseball America isn’t doing as effective of a job ranking position players. They’ve predicted fewer top ten position players in recent years and have done a poor job ranking position players ranked 25th through 50th over the past two years. As a result, ranked team-controlled position players produced 72% of total production from 1997-2005 and only 61% from 2006-2015. They only produced roughly 50% in 2014-2015.

Baseball America’s performance is very volatile when it comes to pitching prospects. They were successful ranking pitching prospects from 2000-2003 and 2008-2011 and less successful during other periods. This is because missing on a few top pitching prospects can have drastic impacts. It isn’t clear whether Baseball America has gotten worse at predicting pitcher performance.

It seems that baseball prospects are becoming more and more valuable as players are expected to be productive at younger ages. This makes publications like Baseball America more important and means that reliable rankings are important to adequately assess the status of baseball teams.