16 April 2015

The Connection Between the 2018 All-Star Game and the MASN Lawsuit

The Nationals will host the 2018 All-Star Game.  The Orioles haven’t hosted an All-Star Game since 1993 and were expecting an opportunity to do so in 2016, 2017 or 2018 but weren't awarded one. Roch Kubatko wrote in January that “The Blue Jays, Athletics and Rays are the only other American League teams that haven't hosted the game since 1993, and MLB doesn't figure to be in any hurry to showcase stadiums in Oakland and St. Petersburg.” The Washington Post noted that “in a break from tradition, one league — the NL — will be awarded four straight all-star games (2015 through 2018). The AL will even bat last, as if it was the home team, in 2018.”

Both the Washington Post article quoted above as well as the Baltimore Sun claim that it is possible that the MASN dispute affected the site selection. Peter Schmuck noted that "the real benefit of hosting the All-Star Game would be to the community and local businesses, but it's not reasonable to expect the Orioles to take a huge ongoing revenue hit simply to be good civic citizens for one entertaining week in July." It seems that since MLB has been unable to impose its will on either the Orioles or their owner about MASN, they decided instead to punish the city of Baltimore and its baseball fans. 

This has worrisome implications for MASN. If MASN loses its court case, then in 2017 the MLB  will likely be in a position to determine a media rights fee for the Orioles and Nationals. How will the MLB treat MASN in arbitration where they can make any arbitrary decision that they want? Can the MLB be trusted as a fair arbitrator given their behavior?

MASN has long questioned whether MLB can be impartial as evidenced by its lawsuit with MLB. But I'm beginning to see more and more evidence that the Nationals may question whether MLB should be the arbitrator as well. The Nationals argue in their latest letter to the court that Alan Rifkin, who they claim was counsel for the Orioles in the RSDC proceeding, undertook ex parte discussions with MLB in 2013 and 2014. They further argue that Rifkin was well known to the RSDC members and MLB as he regularly attended MLB owner meetings as the Orioles’ representative and interacted with owners as a peer and not merely as counsel for a party.

MASN argues that this is a faulty comparison because Alan Rifkin does not work for MLB, the RSDC, or any other baseball club aside from the Orioles, while Proskauer Rose represented MLB in 74 separate instances between January 2005 and June 2014. Rifkin stated that he made it a point to have no discussions with those gentlemen, other than to exchange pleasantries during the entire arbitral process. Proskauer Rose also represented the three teams (Pirates, Rays, and Mets) that were on the RSDC. Proskauer Rose works directly with MLB and the relevant clubs and therefore there is the potential for an improper relationship. Rifkin doesn’t represent MLB or the clubs in question and isn't in the same situation.

The Nationals have at other points made clear their displeasure with this process. For example, Theodore Lerner sent MLB a number of letters, including one on July 2013 stating that they were unhappy with the actual result issued by the RSDC and that the matter remained unresolved for such a long period to the “great detriment” to the Nationals. It's reasonable that they'd be unhappy that this case has dragged on for such a long period.

Ed Cohen claimed in an affidavit written on October 20, 2014, that he felt that MLB delayed release of the RSDC award for over two years in response to the Orioles’ threats, allowing the Orioles to present proposals to restructure the parties’ relationship to make it even more favorable to the Orioles. Cohen concludes his affidavit by asserting that "It is his firm belief that the aggressive, multi-form campaign MASN and the Orioles have undertaken since the release of the Award to resist and delay payment of the amounts awarded by the RSDC is part and parcel of a continuing effort by these entities to try to force the Nationals back to the negotiating table to accept some sort of restructuring of the Agreement that would be more favorable to the Orioles’ interests."

Jennifer Bishop discusses in an affirmation how the Nationals filed a petition on July 24, 2014, to confirm the RSDC's Arbitration Award and received a letter from then-Commissioner of Baseball Allan H. Selig directing the Nationals to "withdraw immediately all actions, petitions, motions and/or pleadings that have been filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York." They state that they are filing this petition because the Commissioner has not confirmed the award. Certainly this is yet another example of how the Nationals questioned whether MLB can truly look after their interest.

One may argue that the Nationals believe that MLB is struggling to be a fair arbitrator primarily due to pressure from MASN and the Orioles, but that still means that they question whether they are receiving a fair hearing. If this case was judged by a neutral arbitrator then it's certainly clear that neither side would benefit from any relationships they have with relevant parties nor would the arbitrator have an incentive to wait years before issuing a final decision.

Many people are aware that MLB receives benefits if MASN is forced to pay a high rights fee. A high rights fee increases the amount of revenue in the revenue-sharing pool and also inflates the cost of media rights for other baseball teams. In addition, the ruling that a team-owned RSN should expect to receive lower than a 20% baseball-related cash margin may be used against other team owned RSNs. If MASN is only allowed to earn a 6% baseball-related cash margin they why can't MLB decide to force NESN into accepting a 6% baseball-related cash margin?

Likewise, many people are aware that MLB offered the Orioles a Franchise Value Protection that guaranteed the Orioles a minimum sales price of $365 million. Fewer people are aware that the Franchise Value Protection is adjusted each year based on the growth or decline of local revenues. It also can be adjusted if there is a sale of the Orioles’ interests in either MASN or MLBAM.

This is a final copy of the actual agreement signed by the Nationals, Orioles, and MLB to compensate the Orioles for the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington DC. Note that the last pages of this document state that it was created on March 28, 2005, at 7:42 PM. Here is a draft of the agreement written on March 25, 2005, that discusses how the franchise asset valuation is adjusted annually based on the average rate of growth of local revenues. This draft was written on March 26, 2005, and uses similar language as the draft written on March 25, 2005.  Finally, the minutes of this Executive Council meeting discusses aspects about the franchise asset protection and notes that "the amount of protection would be adjusted according to changes in average club local revenues." The minutes state that this meeting ended on March 28, 2005, at 6:15 PM or mere hours before the final agreement was actually signed.

The growth of MLBAM and the natural increase in club values does make this protection less valuable over time. It's plausible and even probable that the Orioles and MLBAM combined are worth more than the Franchise Value Protection. But given the potential consequences to MLB, it makes sense that MLB would at least consider what could happen if they award the Nationals a rights fee large enough to bankrupt MASN.

I'm not sure whether the Nationals are familiar with the Franchise Asset Valuation clause. The Nationals have stated previously that MLB has not provided the Nationals a copy of Section 1 because it was irrelevant to the Nationals. In addition, Chris Bevilacqua earlier this year discussed BOLP's Franchise Asset Valuation Floor but didn't say anything about these adjustments. However, the Nationals have argued that the Franchise Asset Protection that the Orioles received is significant even without the slight annual increases. Presumably, they'd think it's more relevant with the slight annual increases. Not to mention that if the Nationals weren't originally told the details behind this relevant fact then who knows what else they don't know.

There is conjecture that MLB decided to side with the Nationals when they decided to give them the 2018 All-Star Game while continuing to stub Baltimore. But deciding to award the Nationals the All-Star Game doesn't have any of the adverse consequences that making a decision about rights fees have. Just because MLB is willing to support the Nationals in that regard doesn't mean they'll do so when there could be adverse consequences.

It is clear that MLB gains significant benefits from this decision and therefore it is reasonable to ask whether they can be a fair arbitrator. It is clear that MASN doesn't believe this to be the case, and it certainly appears that the Nationals are unhappy with how things have gone so far. Given the slow pace, one can wonder whether the Nationals as well as MASN wouldn't be happier with a different arbitrator.

A number of respected publications have asked whether MLB has decided to punish the city of Baltimore by not awarding them the All-Star Game due to the fact that MASN hasn’t agreed to respect the RSDC's decision. If MLB is willing to do that then can either the Nationals or MASN trust them to make a fair ruling even if it goes against MLB's own interest? The connection between the All-Star Game and the MASN Lawsuit is that they both show how MLB is willing to use its power in order to achieve their own interests.

15 April 2015

Microtrends: Brad Brach's Splitter

With a mere eight games of Baltimore baseball in the books, we can't make too many concrete observations about the 2015 team. But we can certainly try, and looking at some of the smaller fluctuations — even those among relief pitchers — can give us ideas as to how the season might go. For Brad Brach, the early going might portend better results as the season progresses.

On the surface, Brach has struggled thus far, allowing five earned runs in his 4.2 innings of work. A .563 BABIP will distort any pitcher's results, though, and the peripherals tell a wholly different story: Brach owns a sparkling 2.18 xFIP, mainly because he's punched out six of the 23 batters he's faced. Compared to last year, in which he put up a strikeout rate of 21.2%, that represents a significant improvement, and it's come from one pitch in particular.

A couple months ago, my colleague Matt Kremnitzer noted some changes Brach made in his first Baltimore campaign:
Before this season, Brach had thrown his four-seamer the most, about two-thirds of the time, followed by his slider and splitter. But he threw his sinker 15% of the time last season, which took a chunk out of his four-seam offerings.
After relying heavily on a four-seam fastball for the first three years of his major-league tenure, Brach began to phase it out upon coming to the Orioles. So far in 2015, he's perpetuated that trend:

But he hasn't replaced those heaters with sinkers — his rate of the latter hasn't budged from last year. Rather, he's increased his usage of his splitter:

This has been something of a career-long trend for Brach: As he becomes more and more experienced, he leans more and more on his splitter. With a career SwStr% of 23.6% — well above the 15.5% baseline for the pitch — the pitch has always helped him rack up strikeouts, so throwing it more would certainly help with that.

It's fairly easy to see why Brach's splitter so befuddles batters. Its velocity has only increased:

League-average splitter velocity usually sits at 84 MPH, so 86 makes a sizable difference — one that has undoubtedly assisted Brach in fanning so many hitters.

In addition, Brach's splitter moves differently from most of its contemporaries. In 2014, the average splitter broke 4.5 inches to the right (from the catcher's perspective), and rose 2.5 inches. By contrast, Brach's splitter, since debuting in 2011, has shifted 9.3 inches horizontally, and 0.8 inches vertically. Together with the aforementioned velocity, this unconventional movement makes the splitter a legitimate force, and Brach appears to have finally realized it.

Of course, Brach probably won't stay this good for the whole season. Based on the fact that he walked 11.8% of the batters he faced prior to 2015, I'd say the 4.4% BB% he's posted thus far will regress a bit. Nevertheless, if he continues to utilize his splendid splitter as much as he has, he may progress further as a reliever. After the departure of Ryan Webb and the (early) struggles of Kevin Gausman, the Orioles could use that.

Has the 2015 season just begun? Yes. Will any earnest observations made now look preemptive come October? Probably. But that won't stop us from scrutinizing the inner workings of baseball, and doing what we can to separate the signal from the noise. And in the case of Brad Brach, the former appears to have a hand in what has occurred, and what will occur.

13 April 2015

The Camden Highball (Episode 7): Talkin' AL East in the Year 2015

On today's episode of Camden Highball, Pat and Nate discuss more of last week's Ryan Webb trade and try not to get overly excited about Ubaldo Jimenez's one hit (and more importantly one walk) performance on Saturday.  After that, in light of the Orioles upcoming series against Boston this weekend, we talk with Matthew Kory of Baseball Prospectus and the newly launched BP Boston to get his thoughts on the Red Sox, the Orioles and what to possibly expect from what appears to be a wide open AL East.

Camden Highball (Episode 7): Talkin' AL East in the Year 2015

1:08 - Pat and Nate talk about the Ryan Webb Trade
9:17 - UBALDO!
14:27 - Pat and Nate talk to BP's Matthew Kory about the Red Sox, Orioles, and the AL East

10 April 2015

Orioles Pull Off a Confusing Trade With the Dodgers

As I sat down to write an article yesterday discussing some of the more curious roster moves the Orioles have made in this young season, the following tweet appeared across my timeline.
After reading it, my initial thought wasn’t very profound and basically consisted of, “hmm…interesting”. As I continued writing, another tweet about the trade surfaced across my screen.
With each additional tweet and piece of breaking news regarding what I will now refer to as “The Ryan Webb Trade”, it became more and more clear that my original article idea would not be the one that would be posted, at least not today.

The details of the trade continued to trickle in, and each new piece of information led to additional confusion. Here’s the final tally on yesterday’s transaction:

Orioles Receive 
Orioles Give Up 
  • RHP Ryan Webb 
  • C Brian Ward 
  • 2015 Competitive Balance Draft Pick (Overall Pick #74)

It’s not a surprise that Webb was dealt. Despite being one of the team’s better relievers prior to being sent to AAA after the acquisition of Andrew Miller at the 2014 trade deadline, the Baltimore bullpen (in part because of the congested starting rotation) had become crowded and inflexible due to a combination of Rule 5 Draftees and players without options. Webb, who passed through waivers unclaimed last week, was the odd-man out and was designated for assignment before Monday’s opener. Ward’s inclusion in the deal doesn’t really amount to much. The Orioles catching situation at AAA was very crowded itself, and while he’s an excellent defender, he’s a career .237/.339/.318 hitter in more than 1,400 minor league plate appearances. He’s also 29 years old, so he can't be counted on to produce anything with the stick (including upside).

In return, the Orioles got a right-handed reliever in Rowen and a (MAYBE if you squint) 24-year-old catching prospect in O’Brien. O’Brien has a career .251/.316/.403 career line in 1,200 career minor league plate appearances, including a decent line of .266/.341/.438 in 407 PA’s last year in AA. According to Baseball America’s Ben Badler, O’Brien was the Dodgers 26th best prospect and profiles as a potential MLB backup. Rowen is a 26-year-old sub-mariner whose fastball tops out in the low 80’s, but limits home runs (only 7 in 262 minor league innings!) and induces a ton of groundballs. He has impressive numbers in the minors (1.72 ERA), but you don’t have to feel bad if you’re skeptical about his ability to produce at the major league level. Rowen is signed to a minor league deal and has two options remaining, which the Orioles front office places a lot of value on, but his best-case scenario is likely a (VERY) poor man’s Darren O’Day.

While the Dodgers agreed to take on all of Webb’s $2.75 million salary (which is nice), the most surprising part of the deal is Baltimore’s inclusion of the 2015 Competitive Balance Draft pick, which is pick #74 in this year’s draft. For a team that doesn’t have a very strong minor league system (Baseball Prospectus ranked them 22nd prior to the 2015 season), giving up a draft pick is a curious move. Sure, it’s been successfully argued that the likelihood of the 74th pick ever contributing to the major leagues is small, but there’s still a chance of getting a very valuable player at that spot (Toronto Blue Jays rookie pitcher and van enthusiast Daniel Norris was the 74th overall pick in the 2011 draft). What may be even more important to the Orioles is the loss of the $827,000 of draft pool money that came with that pick. It’s extra funding that goes a long way to helping them have a productive draft, regardless of who they specifically would have picked at number 74.

In the end, the Dodgers come out with the best player in the trade, the 74th overall draft pick in 2015 and an extra $827K in draft pool money, while the Orioles get (minimal) payroll and roster relief, along with some additional flexibility as a result of Rowen’s 2 remaining options. Through a very pessimistic set of eyes, this deal looks like the Orioles traded the 74th pick in the draft to save $2.75 million. The Orioles backed themselves into a bullpen roster crunch (and to a lesser extent, a AAA catching roster crunch), leaving them with very little leverage, resulting in a less than optimal trade. If saving $2.75 million was needed in order to get a better return on an upcoming deal for Brian Matusz (by eating most or all of his salary), then this trade becomes slightly more defensible. If not, then it doesn’t look like there will be much room to make additions at the trade deadline if the Orioles find themselves in contention.

09 April 2015

Investigating Wei-Yin Chen's Early Season Velocity

Wei-Yin Chen isn't a flamethrower. But he does throw slightly harder than the average major league starting pitcher. A pitcher's velocity certainly isn't everything, though it's worth keeping an eye on. And in his first start, Chen's fastball speeds were below his career averages and could possibly be an indication of the reversal of a recent trend.

Since entering the majors in 2012, Chen has an average velocity of 92.5 mph on his four-seam fastball and 91.9 mph with his sinker (or two-seam fastball). In 4-1/3 innings on Tuesday, Chen averaged 91 mph on his four-seamer and 90.1 mph on his sinker. By itself, that doesn't mean much; we're only talking about a few dozen pitches in his first appearance of 2015.

Let's take a look at Chen's average fastball velocities from April in his three previous seasons:

Apr. '1291.090.7
Apr. '1392.090.5
Apr. '1493.092.6

Chen has only ever pitched in three major league games where one of his fastballs averaged below 90 mph: on April 28, 2012; May 20, 2012; and April 26, 2013. So all occurred relatively early in the season.

In his first two seasons, Chen started out the year with lower fastball velocities. But that wasn't the case in 2014, and that improved velocity propelled Chen to his best season as a major leaguer. Chen has actually thrown his fastball harder every season in the majors (his age 26-28 seasons):

It's been nearly a decade since Chen had Tommy John surgery (in 2006), and he's throwing harder now than he has in a long time (and maybe ever). While pitching in Japan for the Chunichi Dragons, Chen's fastball velocity had actually been in decline before joining the Orioles:

2009: 90.7
2010: 90.2
2011: 88.8 (possible leg injury)

Pitchers usually don't see a consistent fastball velocity uptick in their late 20s. But whatever Chen has been doing now that he's in the majors has been working. Perhaps that includes a more disciplined workout regime, better coaching and guidance, and, except for an oblique injury in 2013, pretty good health (no arm injuries, at least).

Interestingly enough, Chen mostly throws fastballs, but he's starting to trade four-seamers for more sinkers:

He hasn't had to trade fastballs for more offspeed pitches; maybe that's something that will happen when he starts to lose velocity. But even if the gradual change in fastball usage hasn't had a dramatic effect, Chen's HR/9 dropped from 2012-2014 (1.35, to 1.12, to 1.11), and his flyball percentage has also dipped in the same span (42.1%, to 41.1%, to 37.5%). Chen's groundball percentage hasn't followed suit, exactly (37.1%, to 34.4%, to 41%), but last season was his career best in that department. Chen is not transforming into a groundball specialist or anything close to one, but it'll be intriguing to see what happens if he continues to opt for more sinkers.

Chen has previously demonstrated that a start or two with lower than average velocity (for him) doesn't mean bad things are necessarily on the horizon. But at some point his velocity is going to stop climbing and will level off and start to decline. As an impending free agent, Chen could be playing for another team before that becomes a real concern. But as the Orioles' lone lefty in the rotation, Chen bears a different kind of responsibility, and the O's would surely welcome a rebound effort in his next start.

Photo via Keith Allison

08 April 2015

How to Fix the Service Time Problem

Keith Law recently wrote an article for ESPN Insider ($$) discussing the Kris Bryant situation. Keith Law notes that the rules state that a player with six years of major league service is able to become a free agent while a player with six year minus one day is not and therefore must play for his current club for another year.  This encourages teams to leave players in the minors for a few weeks of the season in order to gain an extra year of player control even if it means that they won’t have their best players on the roster to start the season.

As summarized by MLBTR, Keith Law proposes the following solution. When a team puts a true rookie on the active roster to start the year, and the player then reaches exactly six years of service, that player gets a special one-year form of free agency in which any team may make a single-season offer but his current team gets the choice to match the high bid. Law posits that this approach would encourage teams to go ahead and add their best prospects to the roster, comforted by the knowledge that they can still maximize team control — even if it ultimately comes at a (potentially much) higher cost in the final season.

This is an interesting idea but probably not one that clubs would consider. Teams pay more for players in first year arbitration as opposed to those that are eligible for arbitration due to being a Super Two and therefore such a plan would cost the teams more money in year four through six. But the real problem is that other teams would be willing to offer inflated sums of money to such a player for the following reasons. They wouldn’t be required to give up a draft pick, it’s only a one year contract for a player in his prime and they’d receive a draft pick the next year if he goes to another team as a free agent. If a player who signs a one year deal gets hurt it isn’t potentially crippling like a six year deal that goes sour. This idea ultimately is bad for small market teams and therefore simply wouldn’t be implemented.

I propose that a player that starts the season and is never sent down to the majors after making it to the majors’ follows the following pay schedule. 

  • His salary for his first three years in the majors will be set by the team provided that it’s at least as large as the minimum salary.
  • His salary for his fourth year in the majors will be set by the team provided that it’s at least as large as four times the minimum salary. Players can’t be optioned after this point without their permission.
  • The player will be eligible for arbitration for his fifth and sixth year in the majors like all other arbitration eligible players.
  • The team will have the option to sign the player for his seventh year in the majors to the larger of the amount necessary for a qualifying offer or 50% larger than his previous years’ salary. If the team decides not to exercise this option they can still offer the player a qualifying option. If the player rejects the qualifying offer then he’ll become a free agent with all rights that belong to a free agent.
The teams would consider this pay structure because it gives them a slight discount in year four because it’s likely that the average salary for a super two player would be less than four times the minimum salary and this would allow them to have star prospects start the year in the majors without giving up a year of team control. 

Players would consider this pay structure because it would encourage teams to call up prospects at the start of a year and would ensure that they either become free agents after six full years of service or that they would at least receive a fair salary in their seventh year of service. It would only be plausible to keep the best arbitration eligible players in they were going to earn a minimum of the qualifying offer in the seventh year.

I think that Keith Law had a good idea about how to encourage teams to have top prospects start the roster in the majors but that it was ultimately weighted too heavily in favor of the players. This idea ensures that both players and teams receive some benefits and therefore makes it more acceptable for both sides.

07 April 2015

Weekly MASNsports.com Posts

I have been invited back to contribute to MASNsports.com on behalf of Camden Depot during the season, and I'll be doing so on a weekly basis. I'll have a post up every Tuesday covering a various topic about the Orioles, so make sure to check that out.

This week's post welcomes in the new season by exploring the Orioles' constant roster moves and the team's ability to get the most out of overlooked players.

You can find the MASN posts on the Orioles Buzz blog along with articles from other O's writers around the O's blogosphere. You can also find links to those posts and more by following @masnOrioles. And, of course, links to Depot articles and more will be posted on our Twitter account: @CamdenDepot.

06 April 2015

The Camden Highball (Episode 6): The Return of the Camden Highball

The 2015 baseball season officially got underway last night with the St. Louis Cardinals defeating the Chicago Cubs 3-0. Today, the Baltimore Orioles begin their 2015 season on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays. With the new season upon us, we thought we would resurrect the old Camden Depot podcast, Camden Highball. It’s something that we are planning to do on a weekly basis, with (hopefully) plenty of guests throughout the season.

Our first guest this week is current contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and founder of Camden Depot, Jon Shepherd. We discuss some surprises on the Orioles' opening day roster and talk predictions for the upcoming season. This week’s show is available to download, but hopefully future episodes will be available in iTunes.

Camden Highball (Episode 6): The Return of Camden Highball

02 April 2015

Did the Orioles Do Right by Jonathan Schoop?

Unlike the 2015 Chicago Cubs, who sent top prospect Kris Bryant to AAA for the beginning of the season even though he's apparently ready for the major leagues,  the 2014 Orioles kept Jonathan Schoop in the major leagues all season even though most observers -- myself included -- thought that he would benefit from more AAA time. These contrasting decisions inspired me to reflect on a team's responsibilities to its fans and to its players.

At the minimum, when a patron buys a ticket to a game all the club owes him or her is five innings (4 1/2 if the home team is ahead) of baseball. And the minimum a club owes its players are the requirements of the Basic Agreement and each player's individual contract. But, at least at a moral level, I believe a team owes a fan their best effort and to try to win. And, I also believe that a team owes a player the chance to develop and to become the best player he can.

Most of the time, these responsibilities do not conflict. But on occasion, one responsibility conflicts with the other. Jonathan Schoop in 2014 most likely was such a conflict. Although it's impossible to say for certain, it's likely that Schoop was the 2014 Orioles' best second baseman and it's also likely that Schoop would have become a better player had he started the season at AAA Norfolk. Which raises a question -- at a basic level, did the 2014 Orioles do the right thing with Jonathan Schoop? Did they appropriately balance their responsibilities to their fans and their responsibilities to Schoop?

This will be a very high-level look at the question. I'm not going to micro-analyze Schoop's contributions to the Orioles nor try to predict exactly how Schoop would have developed at Norfolk. This is an intuitive and emotional question, and the purpose of this article is to identify and raise the questions rather than to necessarily give an incontrovertible answer (although I do provide my own answer).

In answering the high-level question of did the Orioles do the right thing with Jonathan Schoop, there are two arguments which to me carry very little weight. The first is that the Orioles didn't do right by Schoop because (1) they won the division by 12 games, therefore (2) even if Schoop was their best second baseman, it wasn't necessary to play him to win, therefore (3) they could have let Schoop develop at AAA. The problem with that argument is that the Orioles couldn't have known that they would win the division by 12 games and thus that playing their best second baseman wasn't going to be necessary. The second is that (1) a team owes it to their fans to play their best team, therefore (2) the Orioles had to play Schoop or break faith with their fans. The problem here is that a team owes it to their fans to play their best team not only now, but also in their future. If the difference between Schoop and Ryan Flaherty or Jemile Weeks was relatively insignificant, and if not playing Schoop with the Orioles in 2014 would have made him a better player in 2015 and beyond, then the Orioles weren't breaking faith with their fans by sending him down.

No one could seriously argue that Jonathan Schoop played well on offense -- colloquially, "hit well" --  in 2014. Of all players with 400 or more plate appearances, Schoop had the sixth-worst OPS+ (67). Either Schoop would have benefited from more minor-league time, or he's not a good hitter. When you take into account that Schoop hadn't really hit well in his last two minor-league seasons and that he missed half of the 2013 season with an injury, you could conclude that it would have been better for Schoop's career had he been optioned to Norfolk for the start of the 2014 season. By doing so, Schoop might have developed his skills more and become a better player.

It's also possible that Schoop will continue to develop in the major leagues, and that Schoop's future career will be no worse than it would have been had he started 2014 in AAA. Note that here I'm not discussing whether the Orioles would have benefited from slowing Schoop's service time. The goal of a team is to win; the Orioles won in 2014; so it's not necessary to discuss 2020. I'm focusing on whether or not starting Schoop in the major leagues in 2014 will damage his career. To do so, I tried to identify players who were promoted to the major leagues before they may have been ready and who didn't hit well.

I used the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index to identify the seasons similar to Schoop's since 1990. Specifically, I looked for seasons by second basemen, shortstops, or third basemen 23 or younger with an OPS+ of 75 or less, in 400-500 plate appearances. I found seven other such seasons -- Benji Gil in 1995, Cristian Guzman in 1999, "Florida" Alex Gonzalez in 2000, Jack Wilson in 2001, Cesar Izturis in 2002, Jose Castillo in 2004, and Omar Infante in 2005. Some of these players are, unlike Schoop, slap hitters with little power. Others weren't in their rookie season; they had had some significant major league experience before their bad season. That left three players -- Gil, Wilson, and Castillo.

Benji Gil played six more seasons in the majors, none as a regular. He did hit well in two seasons with the Angels at age 28 and 29, but otherwise hit very poorly. Jack Wilson had a 10-year career and made the all-star team at age 26. He too had two good seasons with the bat, but for the most part hit poorly (although less poorly than Gil). Castillo played four more seasons and didn't hit well in any of them. Neither Castillo nor Wilson were considered as good a prospect as Schoop; Gil was considered to be a better prospect than Schoop although he probably wouldn't be today.

While these careers don't prove that Schoop won't (or can't) develop further as a hitter they also don't indicate that he will or can. I think it's probable that the Orioles did damage Schoop's career by having him start 2014 in Baltimore and that they didn't treat him well. On the other hand, they did do the best thing for their short-term interest and their fans by having him start 2014 in Baltimore. Taking all that into account, I think they made the right decision.

31 March 2015

FIP and the Ball-Strike Count II

In my previous post about FIP, I discussed how pitchers give up harder contact in a hitters count resulting in more extra base hits and weaker contact in a pitchers count resulting in more singles. This means that while BABIP doesn’t change much based on count, the effect of the hits based on the count does. I attempted to find metrics that might help predict which players could benefit from this but was unable to do so.

In this post, I decided to look at pitchers that gave up weaker than average contact and see how their ERA and FIPs compare to each other. From 2000-2013, I looked at all pitchers that gave up fewer than average doubles, triples and home runs while giving up a larger than average percentage of singles on balls in play. Presumably, pitchers that fit this profile give up weaker contact than pitchers that don’t and therefore should have a lower ERA than FIP. This test should help determine the impact of giving up weaker contact.

There were 117 pitchers that fit these criteria and many of them were ones that one might expect. For example, star closers such as Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel, Joakim Soria, Ryan Cook, Jim Johnson (not including his terrible 2014), B.J Ryan and David Robertson were all on this list. So were guys like Rick Porcello, Brett Anderson, Brandon Webb, Chien-Ming Wang, Doug Fister and Derek Lowe. These pitchers are well known for giving up a lot of ground balls and allowing only weak contact. A list of the entire 117 pitchers can be found here.

It should come as no surprise that the pitchers on this list record more saves than their average usage would suggest. These pitchers threw only 9% of total innings while recording 20.8% of total saves. It makes sense that pitchers that can avoid giving up hard contact end up being used as closers.
However, there are some surprising results when we compare their ERAs to their FIPs. Only 58 of the 117 pitchers on this list actually have an ERA lower than their FIP. The mean ERA is 3.73 while the mean FIP is 3.78 or about a difference of .05. This is minimal and unimportant. This suggests that even pitchers that end up allowing weaker than average contact still have an ERA that’s similar to their FIP.  It appears that despite the fact that FIP doesn’t differentiate between a single, double or triple the stat still accurately describes performance.

The pitchers that primarily are able to outperform their FIP are those that are able to avoid giving up any type of hits whether they’re singles or for extra bases. There have been 26 pitchers that give up fewer 1B, 2B, 3B and HR than the 35th percentile. They have an average ERA of 3.03 and an average FIP of 3.55. But then again, it’s questionable whether that should be attributed to pitcher skill or to defense.

This doesn’t mean that FIP is necessarily 100% accurate. Some have proposed that Chris Tillman has extra value not measured via traditional statistics because he is able to keep opposing batters close to the bag and therefore prevents steals, prevents runners from advancing multiple bases on a hit and creates more double plays. But it is interesting to see that FIP “works” even in a situation where we’d expect it to fail.

This analysis indicates that pitchers do have some effect on how hard their pitches are hit and therefore whether impact the likelihood of a batter getting an extra base hit. Some pitchers appear to be better than average at preventing hard contact than other pitchers while most pitchers give up weaker contact in favorable pitch counts. I have been unable to determine an impartial way of determining which pitchers should be expected to give up weaker contact than their peers but it appears that someone using the eye test or knowledge about pitchers can predict this with reasonable accuracy. However, FIP appears to be accurate even when looking at pitchers that allow weaker contact than their peers. I am not quite sure how this can be the case but facts are facts. This possibly indicates that FIP is a better metric than its detractors suspect and suggests that people shouldn’t necessarily dismiss it simply because they find things that it doesn’t measure.