23 April 2014

Tillman Has a Need for Speed

Velocity is not all: it is not movement nor control
Nor deception nor repeatability of a smooth delivery
Velocity cannot alone confuse the batter
Nor take the place of a well thrown curve
So, one may be tempted to trade velocity
For a pitch on the black or to hit the lower third
It may well be, but I do not think I would

--A horrible bastardization of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem


The above is a poem that was originally about love. It is about how love is not an essential thing, but it is highly valued.  Similarly, I think we could think of velocity quite similarly.  A high 90s fastball is thrilling and majestic.  It is rock star.  It is bacon.  It is what adds the zero to an amateur's signing bonus. Or as William Carlos Williams once said, "So much depends on velocity." Or maybe he did not.  That said, the point is simply that a great deal of success depends on how little time a hitter has to react to a pitch as well as how little time a pitch travels through the zone where the bat can reach.

Photo by Keith Allison
Chris Tillman is someone who has dealt with velocity issues. He has always seen a great deal of success when he is able to pound the ball in the lower mid 90s.  Tillman suffered a near collapse in 2010 and 2011 where may a start he had struggled to get above 90 miles per hour.  In 2012, a revitalized Tillman helped lead the Orioles to the players with an explosive fastball.  Last year, saw a little erosion of that initial velocity, but it played well around 92 or 93.  This year, his opening day start saw him gunning around 94 mph. Since then? 91, 89, and 90 as averages. Those last two starts were two of the three lowest average velocity he has had in a game in the past two years.

Why is that velocity drop such a concern? Eno Sarris discussed things in a Sports on Earth article about pitcher aging while referencing Mike Fast's work, which was a better study than the brief one I did the year before in relation to Aroldis Chapman. Anyway, both studies found that a loss of one mile per hour of velocity was on average likely to result in about a third of a run more given up by the pitcher.  That is pretty frightening given Tillman's regression with respect to velocity.

That all said, Tillman sports a 1.71 ERA.  He has been incredibly successful and many a person wonder if he has hit ace status.  What might be ignored is that he current enjoys the highest left on base percentage of his career, which is a metric that is not associated with any perceivable skill.  Second, his home run rate is half of what we would expect it to be, indicating that he has been lucky that fly balls have not been spilling out of the park.  Third, balls thrown into the strike zone are not missing bats as they were the past two seasons.  In those years, Tillman was about to send about 14% of baseball in the strike zone past swinging bats.  In the troubling years before his recent success he was able to only get 9% by batters.  This year he is sitting at 10%.

However, nothing bad has happened yet even though several signs point to an eventual collapse.  I think the trouble with increased contact is largely related to that decrease in velocity.  Teammate Ubaldo Jimenez also suffered a major drop in velocity in the past few years from being a 97 mph burner to a 92 mph chugger. Jimenez' velocity is not the only trouble he has faced. His high maintenance mechanics often have spelled trouble for him and have certainly done so this season. Similar, with great command, control, and sequencing Tillman might also be able to have continued success.

Still, I would be more comfortable if I saw him flash more velocity on a consistent basis. He is too hittable otherwise and his extreme flyball tendencies likely means many a ball may be destined for Eutaw Street.

22 April 2014

O's Weathering Difficult Early Season Stretch

Despite a difficult early season schedule, the absence of Manny Machado, and a couple of nagging injuries that have occasionally kept J.J. Hardy out of the lineup, the Orioles currently have a record of 9-9. They have a positive run differential (by a grant total of one run), are 4-3 in one-run games, and have a .500 record both at home (4-4) and on the road (5-5).

So far, the O's have played seven games against the Red Sox, three against the Yankees, three against the Blue Jays, two against the Rays, and three against the Tigers. Most of those opponents are American League East foes, who the O's will battle all season long. The Tigers are also very good. (It's worth noting that the Orioles have arguably the most difficult schedule in all of baseball.)

So the O's have faced some good teams, but the scheduling quirks have been unusual as well. After a night game against the Red Sox on the third game of the season, the Orioles flew to Detroit for the Tigers' home opener (an afternoon game). They didn't get to Detroit until about 3 a.m. The O's then played four more afternoon games in a row, one of which happened to be the Yankees' home opener (in Derek Jeter's farewell season). And just recently, the Orioles finished up a four-game series in Boston with the following start times: 7:10, 1:35, 7:00 (ESPN Sunday Night game), and 11:05 (Patriots' Day/Boston Marathon). (For some reason, a couple of Red Sox players spent Sunday night in the clubhouse.) Here's Keith Law on that Sunday/Monday scheduling combination:
But at least that stretch is done. At 9-9, the Orioles haven't been great but have certainly been treading water, which is notable because of how important Machado and Hardy are to their success. Position player wise, Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have played well so far -- both offensively and defensively -- but that's not really the case with anyone else on the roster. Nelson Cruz has hit well, as has (surprisingly) Delmon Young, but neither has added anything defensively (Cruz has been particularly awful). Chris Davis has been very effective at getting on base, but his power numbers are not there yet. And no one else, other than backup catcher Steve Clevenger, has a wOBA over .299.

Pitching wise, Chris Tillman has pitched very well, Wei-Yin Chen has been all right, and the bullpen, led by Zach Britton and Evan Meek (of course), has been fine. Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez have both had their struggles, as has Brian Matusz.

But this isn't a full early season rundown of the roster, and it's still too early to start breaking down everyone's numbers. The Orioles haven't even played 20 games yet. The point is that they have played OK, kept things afloat after an early four-game losing streak against the Red Sox and Tigers (two each), and are still in good position to go on some kind of run if Machado returns as his old self and Hardy is able to stay in the lineup for more than a couple games at a time. Assuming Jimenez starts to pick things up, along with Markakis and Davis, the O's should be just fine.

Paper Orioles (4/21/14): A Brand New Season

Orange Phoenix from the Ashes
In the previous installment of Paper Orioles on April 8th, we talked a number of Orioles' fans down off the ledge.  Some were questioning their faith that on Opening Day was kept afloat by the Depot's projection of Baltimore taking a Wild Card this year.  We noted then that no one was doing anything exceptionally different from what we would expect on the team, so this was probably just a simple bump in the road.  Two weeks later, our metric as well as Baseball Prospectus' has basically erased the previous three weeks.  In fact, the Orioles now sit at their highest playoff percentage on BP's Playoff Odds system at 15.1%.

Here is how the projection models have performed so far (before the games on 4/21):



mJS PWE mBP Parcells fWAR Mean
3/31/2014 85.7 81.0 78.0 81.0 81.0 81.3
4/8/2014 84.8 52.3 76.9 54.0 47.3 63.0
4/14/2014 84.6 65.4 76.9 67.5 61.0 71.1
4/21/2014 85.2 80.5 78.0 76.2 71.4 78.3

Perhaps even more exciting for the club is that Manny Machado is getting closer to being ready to play in a MLB game.  His bat was largely uneven and is a rather large question mark, but it is hard to think his performance would be worse than what Ryan Flaherty and Jonathan Schoop have done so far.  However, his glove is light years better than either of theirs at the hot corner.  With him in the lineup, you should start to see the PWE, Parcells and fWAR models to nudge higher by a few games.

19 April 2014

Once Through the Norfolk Rotation

The Norfolk Tides opened the 2014 season with a scheduled eight-game homestand, April 3-10. The first four games were against Charlotte, the White Sox' AAA affiliate, and the second were against Gwinnett, the Braves' AAA affiliate. Because Kevin Gausman might have had to start a doubleheader game in Detroit, and because the April 7 game was rained out, and because an illness forced me to cancel a previously-scheduled trip, I was able to work (either as the milb.com GameDay datacaster or as a BIS contract data gatherer) six of the seven games, and to see all five members of the Norfolk rotation make one start. I'll be discussing my observations in the rest of this article.

Before you prepare your comments implying I'm an idiot for generalizing off the limited sample size of one appearance, I'll tell you that I know this is only one appearance and that my observations probably do not accurate reflect these pitchers' true abilities. I also know that these pitchers have made appearances since I saw them and there's at least one more start to evaluate. Nevertheless, if nothing else, these comments may explain a start that may prove to be anomalous.


Courtesy of Christopher McCain / Norfolk Tides

April 5 - Steve Johnson vs. Charlotte 


During spring training, Steve Johnson had been a candidate for a spot in the Orioles' bullpen, and when he didn't make it was assigned to the Norfolk rotation. Johnson hadn't pitched as a starter in the spring, and so for at least his first start he was on a limited pitch count. He lasted only three innings before being relieved, and although his line was superficially good he didn't really pitch that well:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
3
3
1
1
2
4

Johnson began the game very well, but began to struggle in the second inning. The difference in his performance against the first first five batters he faced and against the last nine batters he faced is quite striking:


Batters 1-5
Batters 6-14
Called Strike
5
7
Swinging Strike
2
4
Foul Strike
5
5
Ball
2
18
In Play
3
5
 (Yes, the breakdown is ex post facto; he walked batter number 6 on five pitches and didn't recover.)

Johnson was having problems keeping the ball down in the strike zone, as indicated by the breakdown of balls in play - five fly balls, three line drives, and zero ground balls.

It wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that Johnson had been working as a relief pitcher, possibly limited to one-inning stints, in spring training. He wasn't used to the demands of starting. Because of this, we should probably note this start as an exception and discount it when evaluating his season.


Courtesy of Elaina Ellis / Norfolk Tides

April 6 - T.J. McFarland vs. Charlotte


As with Steve Johnson, if T.J. McFarland was going to make the 2014 Orioles out of spring training, he would do so as a relief pitcher. So, like Johnson, McFarland spent spring training as a relief pitcher, and also like Johnson, was on a limited pitch count in his first start. McFarland pitched better than Johnson did:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
4
4
1
1
0
5

Unlike Johnson, McFarland didn't noticeably tire at a specific point; he did give up his run in his last inning on back-to-back doubles but recovered to retire the next three batters. McFarland also showed better control than did Johnson:

Called Strike
14
Swinging Strike
9
Foul Strike
11
Ball
24
In Play
11

Although what's more interesting, and perhaps easier to appreciate, is that McFarland was consistently ahead in the count:

0-0
16
1-0
7
0-1
9
2-0
4
1-1
5
0-2
5
3-0
1
2-1
3
1-2
9
3-1
0
2-2
6
3-2
2

This is the number of pitches he threw at the counts, not the number of batters he faced with the counts; he may have thrown multiple pitches in an at-bat with the same count if the batter fouled off a two-strike pitch. Notice how few times he got far behind (2-0, 3-0, and 3-1). McFarland can't overpower hitters, it's important that he both control and command his pitches if he's going to succeed. This game was encouraging; the question is whether or not he can build on it.

Courtesy of Christopher McCain / Norfolk Tides


April 8 - Suk-min Yoon vs. Gwinnett


Suk-min Yoon signed with the Orioles relatively late, in mid-February. That gave him little time to adapt to American baseball, and little time to work himself into condition. April 8 was his first start, and it went terribly:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
2 1/3
11
9
9
1
0


Substantially more of Yoon's pitches were put into play than were those of the other starters:


Called Strike
11
Swinging Strike
4
Foul Strike
6
Ball
20
In Play
17

Comparing the percentage of Yoon's pitches that were put in play to those of the other starters in the games I saw:


Johnson
14.3 %
McFarland
18.6 %
Yoon
29.3 %
Wright
19.8 %
Gausman
17.4%

Obviously, there are a number of reasons why this shouldn't be representative of Yoon's ability. If he continues to struggle, then we might conclude that Yoon was assigned to too high a level for his first North American season, and that, like Henry Urrutia, he would have been better served with a transitional assignment to Bowie.

Courtesy of Christopher McCain / Norfolk Tides

April 9 - Mike Wright vs. Gwinnett


This was Mike Wright's second AAA start for Norfolk; his first was the last game of the 2013 season. And, just as in that game, Wright pitched effectively without being dominant:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
5
5
1
0
1
4

The interesting thing about Mike Wright is that closer looks at his performance don't reveal any unusual tendencies; he's close to normal in just about everything. His pitch breakdown:

Called Strike
10
Swinging Strike
10
Foul Strike
14
Ball
28
In Play
15

And the trajectories of his pitches put in play:

Grounder
8
Line Drive
1
Fly Ball
6

I'm gradually becoming more optimistic about Wright's future. I still think his most-likely career path is that of a Brad Bergesen or a Jason Berken, someone who has about 100 good major-league innings. But I think it's becoming more possible that he can develop into a #4 starter on a good team.

Courtesy of Elaina Ellis / Norfolk Tides
April 10 - Kevin Gausman vs. Gwinnett


This was Gausman's second start of 2014. He was very unlucky; the key hit in a two-run first inning was a bloop double that fell between the left fielder, third baseman, and shortstop. The unearned run in the second inning scored when Jemile Weeks threw the ball into the dugout trying to complete an impossible double play. Gausman could easily have pitched four scoreless innings, and so his pitching line is a little misleading:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
4
4
3
2
3
4

Even though Gausman could easily have pitched four scoreless innings, he again failed to deliver a dominant performance. Every AAA game he pitches without having a dominant performance makes it just that much less likely that he will develop into the Hall-of-Fame caliber, perennial Cy Young Award contender Orioles fans are hoping for. Right now, he's looking more like a solid #3 starter on a championship-caliber team - in the range of Homer Bailey, Anibal Sanchez, or A.J. Burnett. That's still a valuable pitcher and Gausman remains a very good prospect. He just may not be the pitcher to carry the Orioles on his back to a championship.