23 January 2015

Looking at Miguel Gonzalez's Clutch Performance

Perhaps no current Oriole fascinates me to a greater extent than Miguel Gonzalez. Over the past three years, he's magnificently outpitched his peripherals, to an incredible extent. Among starting pitchers with 400 innings since 1871 (of whom there are 1,885), he has the lowest ERA-FIP differential, by a massive margin — the distance between first and second is the same as the distance between second and 17th. Unsurprisingly, others at this site share my enamorment for this man.

For Gonzalez, the discrepancy between expectations and reality comes as the result of two things: preventing hits on balls in play, and preventing base runners from scoring. While he's done pretty well in the former regard — in that aforementioned sample, his .264 BABIP ranks 203rd — he's predicated his accomplishments on the latter, in which his 80.3% mark bests every other hurler in the sample. Because of that, I want to analyze the causes of his LOB%, to see if he'll sustain his otherworldly stranding abilities.

Looking at his situational splits, we can see one thing that stands out:

Situation TBF K% uBB% BABIP HR% wOBA
Bases Empty 1111 17.4% 7.1% .258 4.2% .325
Men on Base 706 16.4% 7.7% .275 2.1% .305

When runners get on, Gonzalez's walk rate, strikeout rate, and BABIP decline, but the absence of home runs prevents those runners from scoring.

His batted-ball profile supports this discrepancy, to some extent:

Situation LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB
Bases Empty 20.6% 37.2% 42.2% 11.0 % 13.5%
Men on Base 22.5% 37.6% 39.9% 14.2 % 7.4%

Fewer fly balls, as well as more popups, will generally beget a lower home run-fly ball rate.

While a difference as large as the 2-to-1 that Gonzalez currently sports will regress in the future, it will probably continue to exist, because his pitching style supports it. Depending on the circumstances, Gonzalez has a different repertoire:

Situation Fourseam Sinker Slider Curve Split
Bases Empty 43.1% 16.3% 13.3% 11.2% 15.9%
Runners On 40.6% 21.3% 13.1% 8.8% 16.0%

His four-seamer — which hitters have knocked out of the park far more than his other pitches — goes down in usage (along with his curveball) when the going gets tough. His sinker steps in to replace it, and as you'd expect, that pitch doesn't lend itself to long balls.

The difference doesn't stop at pitch types, either — he also changes his location:

Bases Empty:

Runners On:

Lower pitches don't go airborne as often as higher ones, which means an approach that prioritizes the latter will lead to fewer long balls.

Again, are any of these monumental differences? No, so going forward, three-fourths of his home runs allowed won't be of the solo variety. But his ability to avoid damage with the long ball seems legitimate, and it probably means that he's a true-talent overachiever.

Steamer projects a 72.2% LOB% for Gonzalez in 2015; for reference, the major-league average in 2014 was 73.0%. While I don't think he'll continue to leave on 80% of his baserunners, I don't see why it'll regress that far, and a solidly above-average rate — and another year of overperformance — strikes me as the likeliest outcome.

22 January 2015

How the Orioles Broke FIP

One could argue that the golden age of the Orioles Franchise was from 1960-1985. Over those 26 years, the Orioles won three World Series, lost another three World Series and were knocked out in the ALCS twice. The Orioles had twenty-four winning seasons over that time frame including eighteen consecutive winning seasons from 1968-1985. They had a cumulative record of 2374-1749 or a winning percentage of 57.6% which was easily the best winning percentage in baseball over that period. The next closest was the Yankees with a winning percentage of 55.6%. Outside of that time frame, the Orioles haven’t made it back to the World Series (although the St Louis Browns did in 1944) and have made it to the playoffs just four times. All in all, it was a pretty good run.

When I was looking at some of the numbers from that 26 year time frame, I noted a few interesting things. Our offense was one of the best in the majors but averaged the third most runs per game. The Red Sox led the majors during that time frame and scored 4.53 R/G compared to our 4.35 R/G. Then again, the Orioles won nearly 240 more games than them over that period or more than 9 wins per season.

The Orioles had an FIP of 3.65 over that 26 year period which tied for ninth in the majors. This is decent but indicates that their pitching was not as good as one would expect from a team that was dominant for 26 years. If the Orioles offense was great but not elite while the pitching was merely good then how were the Orioles so successful over that period of time?

Over that 26 year period the Orioles outperformed their FIP by .29 points. The next best team was the Yankees who outperformed their FIP by .17 points.  In addition, their RA_9 was just .08 points larger than their FIP. The Yankees were the next best club but their RA_9 was .27 points larger than their FIP or nearly three times the difference. In absolute terms, the Orioles allowed only 348 runs more than their FIP suggested.  The next closest team was the Blue Jays who allowed 581 runs more than their FIP suggested. Then again, the Blue Jays gave up that many runs in 12,495 innings while the Orioles gave up that many runs in 37,163. As a result, despite having the ninth lowest FIP, the Orioles allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors over that 26 year period. The data suggest that when the Orioles were elite it was because they had a strong offense and were giving up fewer runs that their FIP suggested. In essence, the Orioles broke FIP.

Last week I noted that even an elite defense should only be expected to outperform their FIP by about .20 points. So how were the Orioles able to outperform their FIP by nearly .3 points? According to Fangraphs fielding metric, the Orioles defense was valued at 1276 runs from 1960 to 1985. The next best team was the New York Yankees and their defense was valued at only 498 runs over that time period. The #2 through #4 teams defensively were worth 1239 runs from 1960 to 1985. The Orioles defense was about two and a half times better than the second best defense in the time frame or by about thirty runs per year. The reason why the Orioles outperformed their FIP by the extent that they did is because their defense wasn't merely elite. It was legendary.

A closer look at the defensive results suggests that the Orioles weren’t elite defensively at each position. Rather, they focused on having strong defensive players at second base (#2), shortstop (#1), third base (#1) and center field (#1) but weren’t particularly good defensively at first base, catcher, right field or left field. All of this makes perfect sense because it is common baseball knowledge that a team needs good defensive players at those positions.  Meanwhile, the Orioles weren’t particularly good offensively at center field (#11), DH (#7), third base (#10) and catcher (#17). They relied on offense from first base, second base, shortstop (it’s more that their players at this position weren’t as bad as most teams) and outfield.

If the Orioles were able to be elite from 1960 to 1985 at least in part due to their excellent defense than it makes sense for the Orioles to try and focus on what once made them great. Excellent defense makes good pitching look like its elite and therefore the Orioles shouldn’t be focusing on trying to find the best pitchers. Rather, the Orioles need to focus on doing the following.

They need to avoid spending big dollars on any pitching free agents. Jim Palmer won three Cy Young awards, had eight twenty win seasons and made it into the Hall of Fame on his first year eligible with 92.6% of the vote. He also benefited greatly due to having an elite defense behind him. Is he a Hall of Famer if he was on the Cubs instead of the Orioles? Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar also had strong ERAs and only decent FIPs. Were they great pitchers or simply lucky to play behind a dominant defense? It seems reasonable to conclude that an elite defense turns great pitchers into Hall of Fame caliber pitchers, good pitchers into great pitchers and decent pitchers into good pitchers. If you don’t have enough resources to focus on everything than ignore pitching and trust your defense to make your pitchers look good.

That allows most of our resources to be devoted on building a strong offense and an elite defense. They need at least two elite players that are strong both offensively and defensively at either second base, shortstop, third base and center field. They need to find another two defensive wizards that can fill the other two positions. And they need three players that are strong offensively that can play at either first base, left field, right field and DH.

What’s interesting is that the Orioles are loosely following this plan. The Orioles have potential elite offensive and defensive talent at third base and shortstop. Schoop is excellent defensively at second base while Adam Jones has elite offensive ability at center field. The Orioles have potential above average offensive talents at first base, catcher and right field. The Orioles would strongly benefit from having an excellent center field option that can both hit and field that could push Adam Jones to right field. It would also be nice to add another platoon bat that can team up with Delmon Young to hit right handed pitching. Still, the Orioles are close to having the offensive talent to be successful.

The Orioles have wasted some resources on pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez. But for the most part their rotation is filled with pitchers that may not seem to be special but have a knack for over performing what is expected from them. They may not be as successful on a team with poor fielders but they're on the team that they're on. More importantly, most of their pitchers are cheap which makes it possible to spend money on the more important position players.

What if the Orioles decided that what they’ve been doing wasn’t working and therefore decided to go back to what has been successful in the past?  This team has a lot of similarities to the Orioles teams in 1960-1985 and with two playoff appearances in the last three years the plan seems to be working.

21 January 2015

With Aoki and Rasmus Off the Board, O's Outfielder Search Continues

With the Dan Duquette situation unresolved and causing confusion, the Orioles still are not doing anything. Not that they have to, necessarily. But if one of the Orioles' annual routines is to target value in the free agent market, then it seems odd that they were content to let Nori Aoki sign with the Giants for somewhere between 50-75 cents on the dollar, depending on who does the evaluating. Last week, Aoki signed a one-year, $4.7 million contract with the Giants. Aoki's base salary for 2015 is $4 million, and the deal comes with a $5.5 million club option for 2016 (with a $0.7 million buyout). He could also earn more with various performance bonuses. Aoki was predicted to get a two- or three-year deal worth at least $7 or $8 million per season, so the Giants clearly got a bargain.

It sure seems that Aoki provided the Giants with a sizable discount. According to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, "A source familiar with Aoki's search said geography and the ability to play for a contender ultimately helped sway him toward San Francisco." So perhaps the Orioles never had a chance, especially if Aoki wanted to play on the West Coast for the defending World Series champions. And perhaps he wasn't willing to sign a one-year deal with any other club.

But the Orioles only seemed to have lukewarm interest in Aoki from the beginning. They were frequently linked to him because, well, it made sense. He's a corner outfielder who gets on base and would not have been overly expensive, and the Orioles just lost Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis to other teams. There was a fit.

There was also a fit with Colby Rasmus, who the O's clearly preferred, but he won't be playing in Baltimore, either. Rasmus has agreed to a one-year deal with the Astros for $8 million That's also far from unreasonable, especially for a one-year deal.

Roch Kubatko offered a reason for why the O's were fine with Rasmus signing elsewhere:
So does this tweet from Buster Olney:
This jibes with the notion that the O's do indeed have a plan. And maybe they do. It's obvious that the Orioles are doing what they can to eliminate much risk in free agent signings. They surely aren't happy after the poor results from the first year of Ubaldo Jimenez's contract. But you can't eliminate all risk. And you probably can't just get by signing minor league free agents and four-A players, especially when teams like the Red Sox and Blue Jays have upgraded their rosters. That's not a vote for the just do something camp, but Aoki and Rasmus both signed more-than-reasonable deals (particularly Aoki) for a single year. Not wanting to ink Markakis and Cruz for multiple years and big dollars makes sense. But drawing such rigid lines for one-year deals? That's a tougher sell. It's not as if the Astros blew that $7 million mark out of the water; an extra million on a one-year deal for a 28-year-old isn't exactly a bridge too far.

Players sign one-year deals because they have flaws. More often than not, they are not fantastic players. Everyone signing a one-year deal is not going to perform like Cruz. It's foolish to think that way. Aoki (career 106 wRC+) and Rasmus (career 103 wRC+) are far from stars or great players, though they certainly are useful. And the O's could very well be just fine with Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, and David Lough playing a majority of the corner outfield innings. But Pearce's talent level is uncertain. De Aza can't hit left-handed pitching. And Lough is superb defensively, but his offensive skills appear to be limited. The O's are high on Dariel Alvarez and his name keeps being mentioned as a corner outfield possibility. But he's also routinely absent in top prospect lists and is of course unproven. It would be odd for the O's, with a talented and competitive roster, to head into the 2015 season relying on anything substantial from Alvarez.

It would be dramatic and silly to believe an Aoki or Rasmus signing would have been the key to a winning season for the O's. But each player would have helped. And with the Duquette cloud hanging over everything, it's perfectly rational at this point to be worried. Buck Showalter and Duquette probably do have a plan of action. But Duquette's future in Baltimore is uncertain, and if the Orioles are looking for value in the open market, it didn't make sense to not be more interested in Aoki.

But have no fear. The Orioles have already moved on to... Nate Schierholtz? Is anyone else ready for this offseason to end?

Photos via Keith Allison

19 January 2015

Possible Compensation if Toronto Hires Dan Duquette

As we discussed in our most recent previous article, the Toronto Blue Jays have been and are interested in hiring Orioles GM Dan Duquette to be their president/CEO. Duquette is under contract with the Orioles through the 2018 season, so the Blue Jays would likely have to compensate the Orioles for letting Duquette out of his contract. Orioles fans - at least some of those who commented on our earlier article - are hoping that the compensation will be one of the Blue Jays' top prospects. In this article, I will look at the other times a team compensated another team for a non-player, and then speculate on whom the Orioles might reasonably expect to get as compensation.

There haven't been many instances of a team hiring a general manager under contract to another team without the original team's consent. The most notorious instance occurred in 2011, when Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox to join the Chicago Cubs. The Red Sox asked for either the Cubs' best starting pitcher, Matt Garza, their best player, Starlin Castro, or their most advanced prospect, Brett Jackson, as compensation. The Cubs refused; while we don't know what their counteroffer was we know that it wasn't what the Red Sox hoped. The teams were at an impasse; Commissioner Bud Selig was forced to resolve the issue.

The Red Sox didn't get what they hoped for. The compensation was Chris Carpenter and Aaron Kurcz; the Red Sox gave the Cubs Jair Bogaerts, a non-prospect whom the Cubs released in June without him having played in a game. At the time of his transfer, Carpenter was the Cubs #13 prospect according to Baseball America, a 26-year-old pitcher who was transitioning to the bullpen. Baseball America stated that he "could eventually develop into a set-up man". Kurcz was a 21-year-old pitcher who had once been the Cubs #25 prospect according to Baseball America, but wasn't then among their top thirty prospects. Kurcz had struck out a lot of batters as a 20-year-old in the Florida State League, but had problems with control. Neither Carpenter nor Kurcz was a top prospect.

The Red Sox may have overreached in their compensation request because they believed there was no precedent for compensating a team when its general manager was hired from another team. If they did so believe, they forgot that after the 1994 season the Cubs, who seem to like hiring star general managers from other teams, hired Twins General Manager Andy MacPhail as their new GM. And the Cubs compensated the Twins with Hector Trinidad. Trinidad was the Cubs #10 prospect after the 1994 season (in a weak farm system); a starting pitcher with great control but not much of a strikeout pitch.

And those are the only instances of a team compensating another team for a front-office signing. When the Cubs signed Theo Epstein, they also signed Jed Hoyer from the Padres and it was thought that the Cubs would compensate the Padres, but the matter kept being put off and eventually the Padres agreed not to press the Cubs for compensation. There have also been five instances in which a team signed a manager who was under contract to another team and compensated the original team with players.

After the 1967 season, the Mets hired Gil Hodges from the Senators. The Mets gave the Senators Bill Denehy and $100,000. Denehy was a 21-year-old pitcher who had been rushed to the big leagues (at least by today's standards) and had pitched poorly (73 ERA+) in 54 innings. Washington's ownership was always short of cash, and the $100,000 was probably more valued than the player.

After the 1976 season, the Pirates hired Chuck Tanner from the A's. The Pirates gave the A's Manny Sanguillen and $100,000. Sanguillen had been considered the second- or third-best catcher in the National League during the early 1970's, but by 1976 was in his early 30's and on the decline. Because the Pirates had some young catchers they were excited about, they were willing to surrender Sanguillen, And A's owner Charles Finley was short of cash, and welcomed the $100,000.

After the 2001 season, the Rays hired Lou Piniella from the Mariners. The Rays gave the Mariners Randy Winn; the Mariners gave the Rays Antonio Perez in addition to Piniella. Winn was named to the 2001 All-Star Game team and was coming off a 120 OPS+ season - but Perez was the Mariners' #3 prospect after both 2000 and 2001.

After the 2011 season, the Marlins hired Ozzie Guillen from the White Sox. The Marlins gave the White Sox Ozzie Martinez and Jhan Marinez; the White Sox gave the Marlins Ricardo Ambres in addition to Guillen. Ambres was released before playing a game in the Marlins' organization. Martinez and Marinez were both top ten prospects for the Marlins before 2011, but both had lost some luster after the season.

And, after the 2013 season, the Red Sox hired John Farrell from the Blue Jays. The Red Sox gave the Blue Jays Mike Aviles; the Blue Jays gave the Red Sox David Carpenter in addition to Farrell. Aviles was a 32-year-old up-and-down utility infielder; Carpenter was a 25-year-old right-handed relief specialist whom the Red Sox waived within a month.

In general, then, we see that the compensation for non-players is typically a marginal player or borderline prospect; better compensation packages such as Randy Winn from Tampa to Seattle will require more compensation than just the non-player. Although the Blue Jays AAA team in Buffalo plays in the International League with Norfolk, I don't claim to be an expert in the Blue Jays system. Nevertheless, there are two players in the Blue Jays' system who seem to me to be similar in value to the compensation examples shown above.

One is Kevin Pillar. Pillar is an outfielder who just turned 26. He is a career .322 hitter in the minor leagues, but doesn't have much power and doesn't draw walks. He spent part of 2013 and 2014 with the Jays; he hit .206/.250/.333 in 110 2013 plate appearances (OPS+ 53) and .267/.295/.397 in 122 2014 plate appearances (OPS+ 97). He's played mostly left field and center field in the minor leagues, and so projects to be a utility outfielder.

The other is John Stilson. Stilson is a right-handed relief pitcher who turned 24 last July. As a collegian, Stilson was an ace starting pitcher and a projected first-round draft pick, but a shoulder injury dropped him to the third round and relegated him to the bullpen. Stilson has continued to be injury-prone and was limited to 34 AAA innings in 2014. He projects to be a set-up man if he can stay healthy.

Duquette's perceived value, that he is under contract for four more seasons, and that the Blue Jays are in the same division as the Orioles may distinguish this situation from those discussed above. Still, based on the precedents above, it doesn't seem likely to me that the Orioles will get a potential impact player as compensation for Duquette. Whether those precedents adequately reflect Duquette's value to the Orioles is another question altogether.

16 January 2015

What Are the Orioles Going to Do With Dan Duquette?

If you're getting tired of hearing about Dan Duquette and the Blue Jays, well, settle in. It was reported in December that the Blue Jays were interested in Duquette becoming the team's new president/CEO, but Peter Angelos did his best to quash those rumors, saying, "We're not relinquishing him, period. He's signed for four more years and we're delighted by the team's performance. We intend for him to remain for the next four years. We're satisfied with him, obviously."

But the story is not going away. As Ken Rosenthal noted on Wednesday:
Jon Morosi chimed in later that night:
But if any trade involving Duquette is "almost done," then Angelos has a fantastic poker face, because on Wednesday night he reiterated that the Orioles expect Duquette to fulfill his current contract. Here's more from Angelos:
"There have not been any changes in the status of Dan Duquette. He is our GM and he is going to remain our GM," Angelos told The Baltimore Sun. "He is concentrating on his efforts to determine the composition of our team for 2015. That is the answer. Period. . . . We are not negotiating with them in any way. They have expressed interest in Dan Duquette, which we understand because Dan is an exceptional GM. But we are not in any negotiations with Mr. Rogers," Angelos said. "We have a contract [with Duquette], and that’s the end of it."
Unfortunately, that's not the end of it. Either multiple reporters are wrong about a conversation or negotiations between the Orioles and Blue Jays regarding Duquette taking place, or Angelos isn't being honest when he says the two teams are not discussing a possible trade. Or maybe something is being lost in translation. The Orioles are, in fact, pretty busy when it comes to off-the-field issues right now, so this situation is not helping.

Clearly, the Orioles have a difficult decision to make. It's worth noting that late Wednesday night, Rosenthal wrote that Angelos's comments were "[a]ll part of negotiating" and that the "bottom line is that Angelos has an employee who wants to be elsewhere. And that is not a healthy situation."

Whatever the case, the O's would be wise to resolve this predicament as soon as possible. If Duquette truly wants to leave, then the Orioles should oblige. Why would a team entrust a general manager (or an executive vice president of baseball operations) to do the best job possible if multiple credible baseball sources are reporting that he is interested in a superior position with another club? That isn't to suggest, as some fans may think, that Duquette is sabotaging the Orioles' chances by refusing to make more moves this offseason. Do you honestly think that had anything to do with the O's letting Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, a personal favorite of Angelos, depart? Do you think Buck Showalter would allow something like that to happen on his watch?

It is awkward that Duquette could leave to work for a division rival; that's likely one major reason why the O's (or maybe just Angelos) seem to be resisting. But the same president/CEO opportunity for Duquette does not exist in Baltimore; Angelos's oldest son, John P. Angelos, is the executive vice president of the Orioles, along with serving as president and chief operating officer of MASN. And he isn't going anywhere.

It's possible that Peter Angelos has discussed the Duquette topic twice and been so forceful about it in an effort to drive up the price for Duquette. But that seems unlikely, as an old-school type like Angelos, who certainly values the power of a contract, probably is not interested in playing games through the media to upgrade the type of prospects or players the O's could receive.

Steve Melewski of MASN, echoing Buster Olney, believes the O's "should aim high" if they deal Duquette away and that they could target "at least two of [Toronto's] higher-rated pitching prospects or at least one established big leaguer." That's a lofty price for a front office member, so perhaps that's wishful thinking. However, Olney returned to the topic last night:
No one knows what "an extraordinary offer" means when it comes to trading for another team's general manager. But if that somehow equates to an actual top prospect or two, then the Orioles should consider a deal, if they aren't doing so already. Duquette has certainly done a great job with the Orioles, but the O's are already in pretty good hands as long as Showalter sticks around, and it's also worth noting that Andy MacPhail did a pretty good job laying the foundation for eventual success in Baltimore before Duquette arrived. That shouldn't take anything away from what Duquette has done.

Maybe the Blue Jays believe Duquette's guidance as CEO can lead them to the promised land, or something. If Duquette wants out, then the Orioles should make a change. Then again, when you see something like this...
... then maybe keeping a less than thrilled Duquette around doesn't sound so bad after all. Or maybe we should admit that we have no idea what will happen, especially since Duquette's hiring was roundly mocked at the time. But whatever happens, just make sure he doesn't take Showalter with him.

Photo via Keith Allison

15 January 2015

Appreciate What Miguel Gonzalez Is Doing... While It Lasts

Miguel Gonzalez's success with the Orioles has been baffling. He showed up out of nowhere and wasn't expected to provide anything, yet he's been pretty good at preventing runs. Since his arrival in 2012, he has thrown the third-most innings for the O's (420.2) and posted the second-lowest ERA (3.49) among starters, despite mediocre peripheral numbers and a FIP of 4.63 in 69 starts.

Other Camden Depot writers have established that Gonzalez has been an enigma, but it may be surprising that Gonzalez is the only player from 1901-2014 who has started at least 60 percent of his games and has thrown more than 400 innings with an ERA+ greater than or equal to 110 and a FIP greater than or equal to 4.50.

Rk Player ERA+ IP FIP From To Age G GS BB SO ERA
1 Miguel Gonzalez 116 435.2 4.59 2012 2014 28-30 75 69 139 308 3.45
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/14/2015.

Others have been close to Gonzalez's feat. The closest was Justin Thompson, who had an ERA+ of 118 and a FIP of 4.41 in 648.2 innings. Bill Walker, Jose Rosado, Wilson Alvarez, Monte Pearson, Wade Miller, and Mike Sirotka were also in the same neighborhood, but not as close.

For now, Gonzalez stands alone, which is both impressive and worrisome. How long can he keep it going? It's unlikely that he will continue to succeed at this rate. Regardless, he has been a fantastic find for the Orioles, is only 30 years old, and is under team control through 2017. He has been a tremendous value, and it's been fun trying to figure out how exactly he's been able to thrive. It's certainly a welcome change from watching talented prospects fail.

Photo via Keith Allison

14 January 2015

Orioles' Defense Isn't as Good as You Might Think

On Monday, Ryan wrote an article discussing how the Orioles' pitching isn't as good as you think. Commenters reasonably argued that FIP consistently penalizes teams with good defense and therefore using that metric will underestimate the Orioles' pitching. However, this does beg a few questions. Do teams with good defenses usually have an ERA lower than what their FIP suggests? If so, how large is the average impact? Steamer projects the Orioles' pitching staff to have an ERA of 4.04 and a FIP of 4.30, or that the O's defense will prevent 42 runs over an entire season. Does this underestimate or overestimate the projected impact of the defense?

In order to answer this question, I looked at each team from 2000-2014 and determined their ERA, FIP, and fielding score defined by Fangraphs. I then split them into quintiles based on fielding score. I didn’t use Fangraphs' defense metric because that punishes AL teams for having a DH. For this kind of analysis it simply isn’t as accurate as the fielding score metric. I also included the 2014 Orioles as their own special category to see whether they were an outlier. This chart shows the results:

Group ERA FIP E-F Difference Between ERA and FIP Fielding
1_Worst 4.55 4.32 0.24 38.32 -48.64
2_Bad 4.36 4.28 0.08 12.74 -17.05
3_Average 4.29 4.25 0.04 7.20 -0.27
4_Good 4.03 4.17 -0.14 -22.84 18.92
5_Best 4.08 4.29 -0.21 -34.69 47.93
2014 Os 3.44 3.96 -0.52 -84.24 56.40

There does appear to be a relationship between teams’ fielding scores and whether or not they do better than their FIP suggests. The teams with the worst defense had an ERA about .24 points larger than their FIP, which meant they allowed over 38 runs per year more than their FIP suggested. Teams with the best defenses had a FIP that was nearly .21 more than their ERA, which meant they allowed nearly 35 fewer runs than their FIP suggests. Fangraphs' fielding metric successfully predicts which teams will do better or worse than their FIP.

However, one would expect the difference between ERA and FIP to be similar to the average fielding score for each group.  As the number of teams sampled increases, it should be expected that potential issues such as sequencing and luck are less of a relevant factor. However, as the fielding score increases (whether negative or positive) the difference between it and a teams’ ERA-FIP becomes more pronounced. For example, the worst clubs have an average fielding score of -49 runs but the difference between their ERA and FIP is only .24 runs or about -38 runs. The best clubs have an average fielding score of 48 runs but a difference between ERA and FIP of only .21 runs or about 35 runs. This suggests that either the Fangraphs' fielding metric inflates the value of defense or that defense has diminishing returns.

The 2014 Orioles had a stunning .52 run difference between FIP and ERA. This is more than twice as high as the difference between FIP and ERA for teams that have even the best fielding scores. In fact, the 2014 Orioles had the third-largest difference between ERA and FIP from 2005-2014. This suggests that the Orioles' defense could be elite in 2015 and still wouldn’t be expected to outperform their FIP by such a drastic amount. The Orioles' defense does explain why they are better than their FIP but not why they were better by nearly 85 runs. It seems that the difference should be closer to 40 runs.

The other test that I did was model the difference using a regression between ERA and FIP for each team from 2000 to 2014 based on Fangraphs' fielding metric.  My results were statistically significant with an R^2 of .3836 or an R of .6194. When I tested all data from 1935 to 2014, my results were statistically significant with an R^2 of .4365 (R of .66).  These are moderate to high correlations and suggest that Fangraphs' fielding metric can be used to predict which pitching staffs will do better than their FIPs suggest.  However, it also suggests that there are other relevant variables and that just using Fangraphs' fielding metric may not consider all relevant factors.  Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that a sample consisting of nearly 2,000 seasons would see an impact from uncontrollable factors such as hit sequencing. As Beyond the Box Score notes, it is likely that disparities between ERA and FIP could be impacted by pitching performance as well as fielding. This could potentially further explain why the 2014 Orioles had such a large difference between their ERA and FIP and could potentially suggest even more inflation in Fangraphs' fielding metric.

Having an excellent defense means that pitchers will give up potentially 30 to 40 runs fewer than their FIP suggests, which is roughly the impact that Steamer projects. This doesn’t explain why the 2014 Orioles were able to allow 85 fewer runs than their FIP suggests, and suggests that unless other factors can explain this discrepancy we should expect significant regression in 2015.

12 January 2015

O's Pitching Isn't as Good as You Might Think

On Tuesday, Matt correctly noted that the Orioles shouldn't perform too poorly on offense this year. Full seasons from Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, coupled with Chris Davis's probable bounce-back, will make this an above-average hitting club. But scoring runs is only half the equation; to win, you have to prevent the other team from doing the same. And Baltimore might see some struggles in that regard going forward.

Let's look at projections. FanGraphs confirms what Matt asserted: It foresees a ninth-place finish in batting WAR. The problem is, it also thinks rather poorly of the club's pitching, as it predicts they'll end the season with a 4.30 combined FIP, giving them the sixth-lowest WAR.

How could this happen? After all, last year the squad's hurlers accrued 14.5 wins more than replacement, good enough for a respectable 15th in baseball. What would cause them to fall from (relative) grace?

Chiefly, more home runs. 2014's team-wide K/9 of 7.23 should carry over, as should its 2.91 BB/9, but its 0.93 HR/9 won't stay the same. The 2015 group's 1.2 mark in the latter regard will theoretically top every other team; even the Rockies will only allow 1.1.

That shouldn't really come as a surprise. This blog's eponymous park lends itself to long balls — it ranked 7th in homer-friendliness in 2014 — and the Orioles have, for some reason, assembled a staff of mostly fly-ball pitchers. Those two ingredients haven't yet come back to haunt them, but they probably will soon.

Of course, fWAR is based on FIP, not runs allowed. If you prefer the latter when gauging a team's performance, then Baltimore looked even more formidable in 2014: Their 25.2 RA9-WAR led the majors. Do they have any chance of replicating that 52-point ERA-FIP gap (which also paced baseball)?

Probably not. Steamer prognosticates a 4.04 team ERA; that's fairly better than their FIP, but still much worse than last year (in which they put up a 3.44 ERA). Looking at it on a pitcher-by-pitcher basis, you can pretty clearly see how each man's backslide makes sense.

Wei-Yin Chen should maintain his modest peripheral-beating power, with a 3.92 ERA and 4.30 FIP (the latter's rise coming because of regression on his walk rate). Chris Tillman, however, probably won't do the same, as Steamer anticipates a 4.34 ERA — exactly a run higher than his 2014 figure. Even in front of Baltimore's sterling defense, a .267 BABIP and 76.7% LOB% are hard to maintain; when those numbers approach the league average, as they tend to do, his output will suffer.

Miguel Gonzalez, who got even luckier than Tillman — among pitchers with 100 innings, he had the highest strand rate by a pretty wide margin — should fall victim to a similar fate, with a 4.56 ERA and 4.94 FIP. Kevin Gausman, one of the biggest reasons behind the 2014 group's low HR/FB%, will probably see that mark get noticeably worse, as it tends to do; if that happens, he'll put up something in the neighborhood of a 4.19 ERA and a 4.27 FIP. And Bud Norris, who had a history of underachieving prior to 2014, Will in all likelihood revert to his old ways, to the tune of a 4.04 ERA and a 4.33 FIP.

With ERAs of 3.12 and 3.22, respectively, Darren O'Day* and Zach Britton will most likely become average relievers, instead of the stars they were when Baltimore won the AL East. Brian Matusz will remain Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter's home run ills will return, and the rest of the bullpen will play like FanGraphs' name for it: "The Others".

*I'll have more on his projection next week.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that true overachievers aren't as common as many people think. The fact that Baltimore seems to have a good deal of them may not be a coincidence — perhaps Dan Duquette sees them as a market inefficiency — but this many, to this extent, reeks of simple luck. Once that runs out, as is its wont, opposing teams will score much more than they used to.

Many teams would kill to be in Baltimore's position right now; they have a solid shot at contending, and a much larger one than they did at this time last year. But if the Birds do fall short, it'll almost certainly be because of their arms, not their bats or gloves.

09 January 2015

Did Jonathan Schoop Make a Subtle Adjustment in the Postseason?

The rookie season for Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop was somewhat of a mixed bag.  With what is likely the strongest arm at second base in all of baseball, he excelled defensively, finishing with 10 Defensive Runs Saved (4th best among qualified second basemen) and leading the position in double play runs.  With J.J. Hardy signing an extension, virtually eliminating Manny Machado’s return to shortstop, Schoop’s defensive play at second base is a welcome sign for the team, as third base (Schoop’s other potential position) appears to be occupied for the foreseeable future.  While his defense was a welcome surprise, his offensive output left a lot to be desired.

Earlier in the season, I had some fun with the Play Index to see how many other teams allowed similarly anemic bats to keep making trips to the plate (the list wasn’t long).  That article was posted on September 19, and statistically speaking, things didn’t turn around for Schoop at the plate over the final two weeks of the season.  Here’s a look at how Schoop compared to the major league average production at second base in 2014.

Other than his ISO, there is not a lot to like in that table.  Schoop’s wRC+ of 65 was the 2014’s worst for second basemen with at least 450 PA’s.  The abysmal batting line of Schoop’s 2014 season is mainly a function of three things: below average contact rates, well below average plate discipline, and a desire to pull the ball.

A typical Jonathan Schoop strikeout in 2014
The site of Schoop swinging and missing at breaking balls well outside of the strikezone was quite common for Orioles fans in 2014.  It’s no surprise that his landing page at Brooks Baseball contains the phrases, “aggressive approach” and an “above average likelihood to swing and miss” against all pitch types and “a very poor eye” against breaking pitches.  Brooks Baseball determines this by using Pitch F/X data and statistics called “Strikezone Discrimination (d’)” and “Plate Approach (c)”.  While it was frustrating watching Schoop during the regular season, he appeared to show improvement during the playoffs.  It’s an incredibly small sample size, but he had a 12.5% walk rate during the playoffs (3 walks in 24 PA’s), compared to a 2.7% walk rate during the regular season (13 walks in 481 PA’s).

When I was first looking into the idea of this post, I had thought I remembered an unusual amount of restraint from Schoop on breaking balls from right-handed pitchers out of the zone.  Perhaps the 3 walks and one of his “good takes” on breaking pitches stuck in my mind.  Looking at the 2014 Strikezone Discrimination chart at Brooks Baseball initially seemed to verify that belief.

2014 Strikezone Discrimination of Jonathan Schoop by month
However, after digging a little bit more, I realized that the sample size for my hypothesis was not only ridiculously small (right handers threw 19 breaking balls to him in the playoffs), but he also offered at more breaking balls that were out of the zone than he took, making it probable that the increased walk rate was just small sample variation.

Breaking balls swung at by Schoop in 2014 postseason
So even though there doesn’t seem to be even a small improvement in his recognition skills with respect to breaking balls from right-handed pitchers (again, VERY small sample size), there was another aspect of Schoop’s approach at the plate in the playoffs that may suggest an improvement, or at the very least an adjustment on his part.

As a power hitting second baseman with good bat speed, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jonathan Schoop does a lot of damage against pitches thrown on the inner half of the plate.  Pitchers know this too, and it’s why they have generally pitched to the outside portion of the plate against him so far in his young career.

However, despite being pitched to the outside corner, Schoop typically will pull the ball, rather than going with the pitch and hitting it to the opposite field.  As you’re probably aware, trying to pull an outside pitch is usually a good way to make outs.  Below is a figure showing his hit distribution throughout the 2014 season.

2014 regular season spray chart
Despite pitchers attacking him on the outside of the plate, 51.2% of the balls Jonathan Schoop put into play were pulled to the left side of the field.  This isn’t necessarily uncommon, especially for a young player.  However, as young players continue to get experience, they start making adjustments based on how they’re pitched to.  And in the playoffs, it appears as if Schoop may have made an adjustment.

2014 postseason spray chart
Pitchers didn’t change their strategy against Schoop in the postseason, but based on the figure to the left, it’s possible that Schoop changed his.  Instead of trying to pull the ball, it appears as if he was more willing to take the pitch up the middle and to the opposite field.  Theoretically, if this is something he can continue to do, pitchers should adjust and work more inside, giving Schoop more opportunities to show off his power.

Of course, it’s tough (i.e., impossible) to definitively draw a conclusion from 7 playoff games and claim that Schoop made a deliberate adjustment in his approach at the plate.  But whether taking the ball to the opposite field was a conscious decision or not, it’s still a good sign.  Schoop was rushed through the minor league system (and to the majors as well), and hasn’t really experienced success with the bat since 2011, when he split time between Delmarva and Frederick.  I’ve previously stated that I’m a big fan of Schoop, but I think a little more time in AAA could be beneficial for him (although unlikely to happen).  Despite his struggles with the bat during the 2014 season, Schoop is still very young, and Steamer projects his wRC+ to improve by 12 points in 2015.   And if the adjustment he made during the postseason was genuine, the chances he takes that step forward becomes that much more realistic.