05 May 2016

How To Fix The Orioles' Biggest Flaw

The Orioles have a huge problem. Actually, they’ve got a number of them. I mean, it isn’t good that none of Rickard, Kim or Trumbo can play passable defense in the outfield and therefore the Orioles have two competent defensive outfielders. It is worrisome that the Orioles have no infield depth to speak of, and JJ Hardy will be out for the next six weeks. It’s problematic that the Orioles basically have four 1B/DHs on the roster: Pedro Alvarez, Mark Trumbo, Hyun Soo Kim and Chris Davis, and have a fifth in Jimmy Paredes expected to return from the DL in the near future. It can’t be good that Zach Britton is day-to-day, that Dylan Bundy has two strikeouts in seven innings, and Hunter Harvey is back on the DL with yet another injury.  But all of that can be worked around and pales in comparison to their real problem. The real problem is their starting rotation has been a dumpster fire or a complete disaster.

At the team level, it doesn’t look so bad. Sure, they have a 4.62 ERA good for sixth worst in the AL. And yes, opposing batters only have a .218/.336/.294 line with runners in scoring position with zero home runs, a .260 BABIP, a 13.5 K% rate and a 10.1 BB% rate. Opposing batters are going to start hitting for power with men on base, with potentially disastrous results for this staff.  It isn’t a good sign that the Orioles rotation is averaging only 5.29 innings per start, which is the eleventh lowest rate in the majors since 1974 (total sample size is 1294). In the interest of full disclosure, the Reds (10-16), Brewers (10-15) and Rockies (12-13) starting rotations all average fewer innings per start than the Orioles. And let’s not forget the Orioles only have 8 quality starts so far this season, good for a 32% rate. League average is 48%.

But if you ignore those small details, they also have a respectable 3.97 FIP and a 4.14 xFIP.  They have a surprisingly poor LOB% of 68.7%, good for third worst in the AL. It seems possible that some of the starting rotation’s problems should be blamed on the defense and that the rotation is middle of the pack. After all, why would a defense with an Rickard, Jones, Trumbo outfield and having JJ Hardy on the shelf struggle?

But the problem comes into focus when you look at the pitchers individually. Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman have done well. Tillman may only be averaging 5.33 innings a start (although a severe rain delay hurt him in this regard), but he has a 2.81 ERA, a 26% K-rate and has been worth 1 fWAR.  Aside from one game where he struggled, he’s been excellent. Gausman has played in only two games, but has a 2.45 ERA, a 22.7% K-Rate and a 3.53 FIP.  All in all, these guys are showing ability.

But the rest of the rotation has been terrible. Tyler Wilson is the only other starter with an ERA below 5.00 as a starter, and has an FIP of 5.35. He’s extremely hittable with a strikeout rate of just 12.2% and a walk rate of 2.4%. He could possibly be serviceable with a good defense, but the defense has some issues. No, I don’t care how he has performed as a reliever. Vance Worley has an ERA of 5.06 and an FIP of 4.57. He’s got the best K-BB% on the team at 17% and has an excellent K% rate of 23.4%. He’s struggled due to a high HR/9 rate and a low LOB%. Ubaldo Jimenez has been his usual Jekyll-and-Hyde self with two good starts and two poor ones. He has an ERA of 5.20, but has an FIP of 4.70 and an xFIP of 3.92. He’s likely better then he’s performed so far, although it isn’t likely that he’ll be a staff ace. Gallardo and Wright have also struggled, and Gallardo is currently on the DL and throwing an 88 mph fastball when healthy. Jimenez and Gallardo are the only two guys in this list that have a track record suggesting that they can start, and Gallardo certainly has had issues to start this year. Unless you believe in Wandy Rodriguez, it’s not like the Orioles have much help available in the minors. All in all, it’s pretty clear that the Orioles only have three starting caliber pitchers.

The Orioles could look into trading for a starter, but without a farm system or excess payroll it’s hard to see who they can add. Also, it’s questionable how much one starting pitcher will help their rotation given that they need three. Not to mention that it’s just the beginning of May and it’s hard to trade for a pitcher before July.  The Orioles have roughly another sixty games until the all-star break and probably need a solution before that point of the season.

This rotation is going to make it hard for the club to win games and is going to kill the bullpen. Most of these starters largely can’t go deep into games and aren’t effective even in their limited playing time. That’s why the Orioles should go outside of the box and use a four man rotation.  But I have a different idea of how that would work than the usual.

Tillman and Gausman would be the #1 and #3 starters respectively. They pitch every five games. If you have two legit starters, you might as well use them. The guys in the #2 spot are Jimenez/Worley and the guys in the #4 spot are Gallardo/Bundy (with Gallardo hurt, Wilson takes his spot). The first starter goes through the order twice and the second starter goes through the order once. This results in the two starters facing 27 batters and hopefully going through at least six innings but hopefully seven. This allows for a six man bullpen of Britton, O’Day, Brach, Givens, Matusz and McFarland.

A team can play a maximum of twenty games without an off day. So, the schedule would look something like this:

As you can see, Tillman and Gausman are on a regular schedule. The combo starters get between three and four days of rest per start. This is normally considered short rest, but these pitchers will have a much reduced workload. In addition, it is possible to have Worley go four innings instead of Jimenez every once in a while and to have McFarland start instead of Gallardo, Wilson, Wright or whoever. Wilson, Wright and McFarland all have options remaining and therefore it would even be possible to swap them out regularly to ensure that each gets enough rest.

The starting pitchers wouldn’t be very happy with this plan. Gallardo and Jimenez aren’t going to be getting many wins if they can’t throw five innings. But Gallardo is throwing his fastball at 88 and has a 7 ERA. If he can’t improve on that, it’s not like he’s going to be in huge demand come next free agency. Jimenez is performing better, but he’d have a chance to factor in the decisions of over 40 games.  With decent performance, he could easily be a twenty game winner.

This plan would mean the bullpen is a man short. But it would also mean that the rotation would have a better chance of going six or more innings in a given night. If these pitchers can go deeper into games, then the bullpen will remain in better shape. This plan would require Tillman and Gausman to successfully produce. If they struggle, or aren’t able to average six innings an outing on a regular basis, then this will be problematic. But the alternative is hoping that starting pitchers that have been poor so far and have a bad track record will suddenly become good. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Orioles do have a lot of flaws, but they’re largely offset by the fact that they’re able to crush the ball. The offense, with a wRC+ of 119, is ranked the best in the AL. They’ve scored a respectable high 4.5 runs per game. Their hitting will make up for a lot of weaknesses. And if the Orioles are willing to go outside of the box to fix one of their largest flaws, they may just defy the projections yet again this season.

04 May 2016

Why Brad Brach Might Be Even Better

Heading into the 2016 season, the Orioles projected to have a very strong bullpen. Any group of relievers will benefit from the presence of Zach Britton and Darren O'Day, sure, but the O's figured to have a nice mix of  talented young players and veterans.

Things don't always go according to plan, but they have so far for the O's bullpen. Excluding Brian Matusz, who has yet to pitch three full innings, every reliever has an ERA of 3 or below. Every reliever not named T.J. McFarland (3.15) and Dylan Bundy (3.96) also has a FIP under 3. Britton, O'Day, and Mychal Givens have strikeout rates of at least 11.7 per nine innings, and Brad Brach has a K/9 of 9.4.

With a blend of short and long relievers at his disposal, Buck Showalter has done a masterful job of spreading around the work to make up for a starting rotation that rarely makes it through six innings. That doesn't mean every reliever has been used in the most favorable spot; obviously you can nitpick with some of the decisions in various situations. But that's nearly impossible to do for a bullpen that carries such a heavy burden and workload.

O'Day and Britton are almost always used in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, which allows Showalter to deploy Brach and Givens to put out fires in the sixth and seventh innings. I've written a decent amount about Givens recently, but Brach merits more praise for what he's transformed into. 

For MASNsports.com last season, I wrote about how Brach was talented enough to slide into O'Day's role, were he to leave in free agency. He didn't, of course, giving Showalter plenty of relief options to choose from this season. 

Brach, who primarily throws four-seamers, splitters, and sliders, joined the Orioles in 2014 and immediately gained about 1.5 mph on his fastball (to 94.7). Last year it jumped to 95.3, and so far this year he's up to 95.5. He's also thrown his slider harder every season since, along with throwing many more splitters. As Ryan Romano wrote early last season, Brach has taken full advantage of the increased velocity and nasty horizontal movement of his splitter, as it's become a legitimate weapon. Opposing batters had a much more difficult time squaring up on Brach's splitter, and the same has held true early this season. He's also throwing the splitter even lower in the zone.

Another large reason for Brach's success is that he's not a liability against left-handed hitters. In his career, right-handed batters have a .297 wOBA against him, while lefties have a wOBA of .283. He gets more strikeouts against right-handers, but allows home runs about twice as often. 

Looking at one year of data can be misleading, but after struggling a bit against lefties in 2014 (.334 wOBA), Brach excelled against them in 2015 (.238 wOBA) after adding more splitters to his repertoire. It's not surprising that he'd throw more splitters, as it generates more whiffs per swing by a wide margin.

Brach might not strike out 10 batters per nine innings again like he did last season, but if he keeps that number somewhere above nine, cuts down on his walks, and does a better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark, he'll be a more efficient and effective pitcher. And right now, that's exactly what he's doing. 

03 May 2016

So Much Depends On A J.J. Hardy Glistening With Sweat

Three weeks ago when I started to write this post, the idea of J.J. Hardy succumbing to an injury was something projected and apparently misdirected.  The concern I have held since last September focused on Hardy's torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder.  The injury hampered him at the plate last year, resulting in an average exit velocity of 88 mph.  That drop was in part due to reduced strength, but also in changed mechanics.  The pain was severe enough that Hardy drastically shortened his stroke and relied more on his throwing shoulder and forearms to decelerate the bat as opposed to his lead shoulder.

This past offseason, Hardy increased his weight lifting to strengthen the muscles around his labrum.  Surgery on a second labrum tear has a rather poor prognosis and Hardy, at this stage in his career and having experienced a labrum surgery in his younger days, did not desire to go under the knife.  Therefore, the approach was to leave the torn labrum as is and let the muscles provide the stability.  In response, his exit velocity has popped up to around 96-98 mph.

The hope was that with a stronger shoulder that Hardy would revert back to his 20 home run days.  Earlier this season, a few writers bathed in the wonder of Hardy's two home run night in Boston.  Perusing the box score, that looked like a marvelous step back in time for Hardy.  However, if you actually watched the game, then you saw both home runs were squeakers around the Pesky Pole and likely would have been outs or, optimistically, doubles in other parks.  That said, the strengthened shoulder has appeared to improve Hardy's ability to hit doubles and right now he is performing as a league average shortstop at the plate (244/291/410, .302 wOBA, 0.5 fWAR).  Add that to his solid play at short and you have a fringe All Star level of play.

However, Hardy is now injured.  No, it is not his shoulder, which admittedly could go at any moment.  He broke his foot with a time table ranging from four to eight weeks.  Unfortunately for the Orioles, whose farm system has largely been neglected over the years, there is no immediate replacement.  This is not uncommon though.  Few teams have the ability to readily replace any player who goes down at any position.  What is particularly tough is that the Orioles should be one of those clubs.  Their infield is effectively Leftover Salmon.  Between songs, the Orioles starters can exchange instruments.  Schoop can arguably play second, short, or third.  Machado is a world class third baseman with a glove and a lesser star at shortstop.  All the club needs is a useful second baseman, shortstop, or third baseman and the world will continue to spin.

What the club has are broken veteran toys.  Some talk places Pedro Alvarez or Chris Davis at third base.  This should immediately be seen as a horrific mistake.  To walk through this, let us establish a few facts.  One, Alvarez was so poor at playing third base for the Pirates that he was pressed into service at first base and then sparingly used when he failed at that.  He would be replacement level at best.  That would cost the club between one and two games in comparison to what Hardy provided.  It is hard to imagine Davis being much better.  His significantly better bat would likely be cancelled out by an even worse ability to handle third base.  All of this would create an awful sort of synergy when paired with the current crop of Orioles' left fielders.  Missed balls at third will be doubles instead of outs.

Options not yet on the club include Ryan Flaherty and Jimmy Paredes.  Paredes will make people pine for Wilson Betemit.  Flaherty can replace Hardy's bat, but his adequate glove is a fall from Hardy's.  Paul Janish is another possibility out there.  Janish may be the best defensive shortstop in Orioles system, but you would not be able to tell from a stat line whether he was in the batter's box or if the pitcher pitched to no one.

There is nothing else left.  In the end, a loss of maybe a win or two does not seem like much.  One might also consider that this club was projected as a fringe playoff team.  That Gallardo has been a mess and that the club has holes in the corner outfield in terms of defense.  That makes a couple wins potentially quite meaningful when one looks forward to the playoffs.  It also makes one quite thankful for the Orioles season opening winning streak.

So much depends on a J.J. Hardy
Glistening with Sweat
Between two white bases

27 April 2016

Bottom Of O's Lineup Not Pulling Its Weight

The Orioles' offense this year has primarily been carried by three middle-of-the-order bats: Manny Machado (200 wRC+), Mark Trumbo (192 wRC+), and Chris Davis (142 wRC+). Besides success in limited at-bats by Nolan Reimold and Hyun Soo Kim, the rest of the lineup has been around average -- J.J. Hardy (103 wRC+), Joey Rickard (90 wRC+) -- or significantly below.

First, with Hardy, remember that his two home runs near Pesky Pole in Fenway Park are bumping up his numbers. Of course they count, but they are also the only two homers he's hit this season. Still, after his disastrous offensive campaign in 2015, anything close to average production would be a significant improvement.

Let's also have a chat about Rickard. He got off to a scalding start, with an endless array of grounders, bloops, and flares dropping in for hits. But his batting average on balls in play has come back down to earth, he's not drawing walks or hitting the ball hard, and he's striking out as much as Adam Jones. Rickard also hinted that opposing pitchers are being more forceful in attacking him. He's done a pretty good job in terms of pitches seen per plate appearance, but it's much more important to actually get on base.

Of course, you'd take a 90 wRC+ from Rickard, a fourth outfielder type, if he were a plus defensive outfielder. That was the notion passed along from beat reporters during the spring, and I don't think it's out of the question for him to be above average defensively or at worst average, at least in left field. But he's had his missteps, doesn't always look fluid, and early on has rated poorly by both UZR and DRS metrics -- the latter of which has placed him below replacement level on both FanGraphs (-0.4 fWAR) and Baseball-Reference (-0.5 bWAR).

Jones, who still seems to be dealing with a rib-cage injury, has certainly struggled as well (64 wRC+), but so has nearly every other regular who bats sixth and below: Matt Wieters (81 wRC+), Jonathan Schoop (70 wRC+), and Pedro Alvarez (61 wRC+). With Schoop, you can at least point to a low BABIP (.204) for hope for a quick turnaround. He's also been above the league average when it comes to hitting the ball hard. But, obviously, plate discipline will continue to be a concern for him.

Wieters is playing for his next contract, but he's looking the same as always at the plate: above average for a catcher, but not much more than that. The main positive is that he appears to be healthy, and he could pick things up as the season goes along. But you should know what Wieters is at this point, and he's not a star.

Alvarez has picked things up as of late, and he has walked a ton (15.7 BB%). Alvarez has yet to hit his first home run for the Orioles, which is somewhat surprising, because even Rickard has one. Kim, Caleb Joseph, and Ryan Flaherty are also homer-less so far.

In terms of bottom-of-the-order upside in the next few weeks or months, it's probably with him and Schoop. Now would also be a good time to remove Rickard from the leadoff spot and stop playing him every day. It was smart to ride that wave for a while, and if he starts hitting again, he could always move back to that role. A lineup isn't set in stone, and there's nothing wrong with batting Rickard ninth for a while. The Orioles really don't have a good leadoff hitter type for that spot, and maybe ensuring that Machado, Davis, and Trumbo bat as much as possible is the way to go. The second spot is ideal for Machado, but not at the cost of batting a below average hitter first.

Like many fans, I'd like to see more of Kim. Reimold has also made a case for more playing time, but considering his injury history, I think it's smart to spread out his at-bats. Maybe they're being spread out too far. You can also argue that either Kim or Reimold should be playing more than Rickard. Reimold is far from a defensive wizard, and gauging from limited action Kim is clearly not that kind of player either, but the early thought that Rickard was far enough superior defensively to make up for OK plate production doesn't seem to be the case. Trumbo should play right field against right-handed pitchers and DH against lefties (which he basically is), but more outfield at-bats should be up for grabs.

26 April 2016

A Closer Look At Trumbo's Remarks

David Laurila recently wrote an article in Fangraphs, discussing an interview he had with Mark Trumbo. Trumbo discussed his plate discipline and stated that he is best when he is aggressive rather than selective. He stated that he’d love to have the ability that players like Goldschmidt and Votto have to control the strike zone but that simply isn’t one of his strengths. He further noted that he likes to swing more at pitches that are up, especially if they’re off-speed pitches.  This is very interesting, but is it accurate?

The way I like to determine whether a batter can control the strike zone is by measuring the frequency of his swing rate. This data is found via pitch fx and ESPN Stats and Information. Measure the percentage of pitches in the strike zone that he swings at and divide by the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone. This methodology isn’t perfect because it inflates the value of batters that swing often, but it does give a rough estimate. Mark Trumbo doesn’t have the ability to control the strike zone as well as Goldschmidt or Votto. Trumbo swings at roughly 2.35 strikes for every pitch outside of the strike zone he swings at. In contrast, that ratio is 3.7 for Goldschmidt and roughly 4.9 for Votto. Indeed, Votto swings at nearly the same percentage of pitches in the strike zone that Trumbo does, but at fewer than half of the pitches clearly outside of the strike zone.

To be fair, Trumbo and Goldschmidt each are thrown roughly 40% balls, 40% strikes and 20% pitches that are in the middle and can go either way. Votto sees roughly 42% balls, 22% pitches in the middle and roughly 35% strikes, which likely gives him an incentive to swing less frequently. Still, there’s no question that those two players are better at controlling the strike zone than Trumbo. In fact, Trumbo is actually below average in this ability; his 2.35 ratio ranks roughly 75th out of 433.  He’s probably correct that attempting to control the strike zone would be a poor way to efficiently leverage his strengths.

Next, Trumbo stated that he likes to swing at pitches that are up. The data indicate that this is correct, as from 2013-2015, he swung at 74% of pitches up in the strike zone. He swung at only 71% of pitches in the middle of the zone and only 65% of pitches low in the zone.  It makes sense also, as he has a .516 wOBA when putting pitches in the upper part of the strike zone into play, but only a .472 against pitches in the middle of the strike zone and a .445 wOBA against pitches that are low in the strike zone. However, he does struggle to put pitches up in the zone into the field of play. He only puts 30% of pitches up in the zone into play, compared to 44% for other pitches in the strike zone and 35% for pitches close to the strike zone.  The question is whether the better results when swinging at pitches up in the zone are worth it, considering the significant challenge of putting those pitches into play.

The question becomes stronger when looking at hard and off-speed pitches in various parts of the zone. He only swings at 66% of off-speed pitches in the upper part of the strike zone compared to 74% of pitches in the other parts of the strike zone. That’s disappointing because he has a .626 wOBA against soft pitches high in the strike zone, but only a .475 against pitches in the middle of the strike zone and .414 against pitches low in the strike zone. The caveat is that he puts only 38% of soft pitches high in the strike zone into play, but 52% of those in the middle of the strike zone and 45% of those low in the strike zone.

He swings at 77% of hard pitches in the upper part of the strike zone, compared to only 71% of pitches in the middle of the zone and 57% of pitches low in the zone.  His wOBA when putting hard pitches in the upper part of the zone into play is .466 which is slightly worse than his .470 wOBA against hard pitches in the middle part of the zone and his .478 against hard pitches in the lower part of the zone.  His HR Rate is 6% against hard pitches in the upper part of the zone and over 7% against hard pitches elsewhere in the zone. Finally, he puts only 27% of hard pitches high in the zone into play compared to 40% of pitches in the middle of the zone, 44% of pitches low in the strike zone, 35% of pitches that are close to the strike zone and 28% of pitches that aren’t in the strike zone.

It’s pretty clear that he enjoys swinging at off-speed pitches that are high in the strike zone because he’s able to crush them if he puts them into play. The problem is that it’s hard for him to put those pitches into play. As a result, his best overall results are when he swings at pitches in other parts of the strike zone.  He’d probably be better off sacrificing some home runs by swinging at fewer pitches up in the zone for singles by swinging at more pitches lower in the zone.

The third argument that he made was that he’s better off when he’s selective rather than aggressive.  The way I determine whether a hitter is selective rather than aggressive is by measuring a players’ swing rate over a given month. Months in which a batter swings more often are labelled aggressive, while those in which he swings less often are labeled selective. For Trumbo, I used April-September for 2013-2015, resulting in 8 selective months and 8 aggressive months. 

I found that pitchers didn’t pitch Trumbo much differently when he was being selective or aggressive. The percent of pitches out of the strike zone was roughly the same in both samples. He faced a slightly lower percentage of strikes and more pitches that were on the border when being selective. When he was selective, he swung at the same proportion of strikes divided by balls as he did when he was aggressive. This suggests that any success he may have had wasn’t due to him receiving fewer pitches outside of the strike zone or swinging at better pitches.

Despite this, Trumbo had better results when being selective rather than aggressive.  His walk rate was 8.63% when selective and 4.98% when aggressive while his strike out rate was 25.46% when selective and 27.47% when aggressive. This results in a good-sized improvement on balls not put into play with a minimal increase in the total plate appearances ending in a walk or strikeout. Likewise, perhaps randomly, he had better results when putting the ball into play when being selective rather than aggressive. Interestingly, his home run rate was 5.4% when being selective, but only 3.4% when being aggressive.

The reason for his improved success on plate appearances resulting with the ball not being put into play is pretty clear by the next graph. As expected, when he swung less, his called ball and called strike percentage increased. However, his swinging strike and foul percentage decreased by a larger quantity than his called strike percentage increased. In addition, his in play percentage was lower when selective rather than aggressive, but only by a minimal amount. A greater frequency of balls plus a lower frequency of strikes resulted in fewer strikeouts, more walks and being more productive.

All of this begs the question of why Trumbo acts the way he does. After all, with a better plan of attack, he’d likely be a better player and help his team become more successful. This question can largely be answered by a quotation from Big Papi. In this article, Buster Olney writes the following, “Big Papi doesn't like to concede anything against the shift even though he's confident he could hit the ball to the left side -- because he knows that in order to do that, he'd have to surrender the power that has been the backbone of his career. He'd be hitting singles instead of homers. "If I did that," he said, "I'd be selling oranges back in the Dominican." It seems a number of power batters like Trumbo feel that their value is signified primarily by the amount of home runs that they hit. If that number drops, their value drops with it.

This makes a lot of sense when thinking back 15 years ago. In 2000, stats like wOBA, wRC+, OBP or SLG weren’t in vogue. Rather, players were judged by their batting average, number of home runs and RBIs. Sure, stats like stolen bases mattered and a players’ defense/position was taken into account. But if you couldn’t hit for power, then you needed to hit for average to be valuable. Trumbo is far more likely to be successful hitting for power, then hitting for average. If Trumbo feels the same way as Big Papi, then Trumbo likely feels that his value is best determined by the amount of home runs he hits. He’s most likely to hit a home run if he swings at off-speed pitches high in the zone. And if his value doesn’t change much if he has a .260 batting average of a .240 batting average (while ignoring walk rate), then he’s going to be interested at swinging at the pitches that offer the highest chance of a home run.

It would make sense if he did feel this way. The Diamondback’s GM, Dave Stewart, stated that Trumbo is so valuable because he was able to hit the ball out of the park and that right now, his primary home run threats are Goldschmidt and Trumbo. Trumbo has received a lot of reinforcement suggesting his value is hitting home runs.

Likewise, this explains why he thinks he’s better being aggressive than selective. It’s impossible to hit a home run if you don’t swing. The only way he can be successful is if he hits the ball, and logic fools us into thinking it’s more likely to put the ball into play by swinging especially frequently.

If so, the Orioles’ challenge is to ensure that he understands how production works and how he’s valued. Especially on a team like the Orioles, that have a large number of players that can crush the ball, it needs to be made clear that stats like wOBA describe production better than stats like home runs and RBIs. If Trumbo can be convinced that his value will be greater with a higher wOBA rather than higher home run and RBI totals, then this will be beneficial to both parties. Specifically, he should swing less frequently, especially at pitches up in the zone.

It’s pretty clear that Mike Trumbo is most productive when he’s selective rather than aggressive and when he tries to put the ball into play rather than solely aim for home runs. Trumbo wants to hit off-speed pitches up in the zone because he is able to crush them for home runs.  If he wants to maximize his production, he needs to focus on hitting the pitches that he’s able to put into play most frequently while still having good results.

22 April 2016

Clogging The Pipeline

The opening-day roster for the 2016 Norfolk Tides - the Orioles AAA affiliate - was, if not unique, certainly unusual. No one on their roster was a prospect promoted from AA. Oh, infielder Ozzie Martinez and relief pitcher Jason Stoffel spent 2015 at Bowie, and swingman Terry Doyle wasn't promoted to Norfolk until the end of July. But those three players all had significant AAA experience before 2015 and were playing below their level because of organizational need. Those weren't "promotions"; they are more accurately described as "restorations." Not until Game 5 was a player promoted from AA to the Tides - 27-year-old Cuban pitcher Ariel Miranda.

What does this mean? First, the Orioles are as willing as any team to promote a top prospect directly from AA, bypassing AAA. In the Showalter Era, the Orioles promoted Manny Machado, Dylan Bundy, and Kevin Gausman from Bowie to Baltimore (Gausman was later optioned to Norfolk.) Jonathan Schoop was the only comparable prospect who played at Norfolk before being promoted to the Orioles.

Bowie is closer to Baltimore than is Norfolk, and it's easy for the Orioles administration to keep track of AA players at Bowie. They probably have a better sense of whether and when a top prospect can handle the jump to the majors than other teams. Also, it's easier to call a player up from Bowie if he's needed for a tryout in case of injury or doubleheader. So it makes sense for the Orioles to keep a good prospect at AA rather than promoting him to AAA.

It's also obvious that more than almost any other team, the Orioles stash players on their AAA roster to extend the major-league roster. (I was listening to a Detroit Tigers radio broadcast, and their announcers commented that the Orioles routinely shuttle players to and from Norfolk.) This trend is most evident with the bullpen arms as the Orioles often promote pitchers for short stints when the bullpen has been overworked. By stockpiling experienced pitchers on the AAA roster, that keeps other pitchers - who may otherwise be promoted to AAA - at lower levels.

Equally apparent is the fact that the Orioles don't have many good prospects, and most of their better prospects are at lower levels. There was really only one prospect at Bowie who mastered AA in 2015. One of the reasons the Orioles didn't promote anyone from AA to AAA is that there weren't many who deserved it.

But it's possible that the Orioles use of the AAA roster is becoming counterproductive. The one prospect who did enough at AA in 2015 to warrant promotion to AAA was first baseman Trey Mancini. Mancini, who turned 24 in March 2016, hit .359/.395/.586 in 84 games after being promoted from Class A Frederick. Even though Christian Walker would likely return to Norfolk, Mancini could also have been promoted as a first baseman/DH, especially after the Orioles decided to move Walker to the outfield.

Instead, the Orioles have loaded the Norfolk roster with AAA veterans taking Mancini's spot. Right fielder Dariel Alvarez remains a legitimate prospect. And Henry Urrutia, whose chance at becoming a major leaguer disappeared when he missed most of 2014 with a sports hernia, is still around. But the Orioles added two corner players from other organizations - Joey Terdoslavich and L.J. Hoes. Both those players have spent many years at AAA and have failed chances to establish themselves in the majors. It makes no sense to me why you would clutter the AAA roster when you have a prospect ready for the move. I hope that these decisions don't harm Trey Mancini or the Orioles in the long run.

20 April 2016

Mychal Givens And Going Up In The Zone

In his first 30 innings last year as a major leaguer, Mychal Givens was dominant. He finished with an ERA under 2, struck out more than 11 per nine innings, and walked fewer than 2 per nine. His 1.73 FIP and 2.38 xFIP were also outstanding. Duplicating those numbers, or something close, over a full season would be fantastic enough, especially since he's 25 years old and under team control for a long time.

So far in 2016, if you just look at Givens's ERA in limited work (6.2 innings after last night's loss to the Blue Jays), you would think he's stumbling somewhat out of the gate. He now has a 4.05 ERA and has allowed a home run (which is noteworthy only because he gave up just one last season). But Givens has been relatively unlucky on balls in play. Opposing batters have hit the ball harder and been pulling the ball more often than last season, but his batting average on balls in play is still high at .571. Before last night, it was .727.

So yes, that's the kind of thing that can happen in small samples. Despite that unfortunate number, though, Givens has a strikeout rate over 17, thanks to him recording 13 of his 20 outs via the strikeout. In fact, all 13 of Givens's strikeouts have been on swinging strikes (or foul tips into the catcher's mitt).

So is Givens doing anything different so far? Pitch usage wise, not really. Per Brooks Baseball, he's still mostly throwing four-seamers and sliders, and he has only thrown two changeups. His pitch velocity has also held steady. He's still throwing his four-seamer about 95 mph, with his slider in the mid-80s. He is getting slightly more horizontal movement with his fastball, but his vertical movement has more or less stayed the same.

Givens is getting more whiffs on both his fastball and slider, though, and one reason might be vertical location. Givens is throwing his slider higher in the zone, but he'd prefer to bury that pitch low and away to get swings and misses. He was very good at doing so last season, and his whiff percentage was slightly higher with his slider. But the more notable change has been with his fastball. After throwing fastballs a bit below the zone last year, Givens is throwing them a touch above it now.

Let's shift to some data from Baseball Savant. Nine of Givens's strikeouts have been on pitches up in the strikezone. Eight of those came on fastballs, and one was a slider. The other four strikeouts all came on sliders down in the zone. Last season, of Givens's 38 strikeouts, only 11 were on pitches up in the zone (all fastballs). Meanwhile, 22 of his strikeouts were on pitches down in the zone and five were on pitches in the middle. So maybe there's something to this.

Or perhaps this is all nothing. You can't believe everything a player or coach says, but Givens also talked about this very topic with Steve Melewski of MASN only a month ago:
“I talked to Darren O’Day and he’s good about doing that,” he said. “I tried it out last year and it worked pretty well. I’ve wanted to get better at doing that and commanding that.

“It can disrupt timing and you get batters to chase pitches out of the zone with two strikes. You’re just trying to change eye levels and not let the batter get too comfortable looking down and down in the zone. Just trying to change eye level and to get consistent doing that.”
If this is indeed the influence of submarine riseballer Darren O'Day on the sidearm-throwing Givens, then the results are encouraging. Givens still seems like a work in progress, and it's not guaranteed that he was actually as good as his 2015 numbers indicate. But he seems open to trying new things, and that's important for someone with a platoon split issue against left-handed hitters who could use any extra weapon or strategy to retire opposing hitters.

Many times, pitchers work on things in the spring and simply scrap them later. Maybe this is what Givens will do. But for now, it's something to keep an eye on.

Stats from Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant as of April 19. 

19 April 2016

Why Schoop Needs More Patience

Jonathan Schoop is known for both his impressive power, especially for a second baseman, and for his propensity to strikeout.  He’s expected to be a big part of the Orioles’ offense, and continuing his upward climb will significantly enhance the Orioles’ prospects for success. So, I was intrigued to see an article from Jon Meoli, discussing how Schoop feels about his plate discipline.

To a large extent, there were few surprises. Schoop said that he felt like he had a great 2015 and that gave him confidence in himself. It would be extremely odd if Schoop said that a strong 2015 didn’t give him confidence in himself. But then Meoli also quoted the following:
"I feel like I'm selecting a lot better," Schoop said. "I'm better than two years ago. I'm better than last year. I'm swinging at more strikes, and eventually, they have to come throw a strike. Three years ago, I was helping the pitcher a lot. I kind of eliminated that a little bit, but I've still got a long way to get better at it."
Jon, very seldom do they … get him out a whole lot in the strike zone," manager Buck Showalter said. "It's just trying to take him off the sweet spot of the bat with some movement, and some deception, and some balance issues.
"I've loved the way they've concentrated on it. Now, we go to the next level, if you can carry it over into the season. It would be a big asset for us if we could get better at it."
This is a bit of good reporting that gives insight into Schoop’s approach and fits pretty well with the data. Mike Petriello noted that Schoop led the majors last year at swinging at strikes in the strike zone. He also was one of the most likely to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. In short, Schoop’s strategy is to just swing at the ball and hope to make contact.

This hasn’t worked particularly well for him in past seasons. He had a walk rate of just 2.8% and a strikeout rate of 24.6% last year. My metric that measures production on walks and strikeouts by both ratio and quantity, ranked Schoops’ 2015 walk/strikeout performance 31st out of 338 batters. A 24.6% strikeout rate is high and extremely damaging when paired with an extremely low walk rate. He may think that he’s selecting better, and Buck may argue that pitchers rarely get him out in the strike zone, but that doesn’t make it so. The only saving grace is that he was able to pound the ball last year, but you've got to wonder just what he could become.

This might suggest that a less aggressive approach may help solve this problem. Since he has a low rate of contact, a more passive approach would allow him to swing at pitches he’s most likely to put into play and would presumably improve his walk rate while having minimal impact on his strikeout rate.

This can be successful for some players. I suggested that Chris Davis should try to do this last month. This also would work well for a player like Adam Jones. From 2013-2015, Adam Jones shows significant improvement in the months when he swings less frequently compared to when he swings more frequently. As the chart shows, Adam Jones swung at an average of 61.64% of all pitches in months where he swung most frequently, but only 55.31% in months where he swung less frequently. Despite this, his In Play% dropped from 21.82% to 21.51%. The lesson is simple, when Adam swings less frequently, he’s more likely to swing at pitches that he can hit. As a result, his wOBA is .368 with a 3.65% walk rate and an 18.85% strikeout rate in the months when he swung less frequently and only a .325 wOBA with a 2.76% walk rate and a 20.34% strikeout rate in the months where he swung more frequently.

This probably means that Adam Jones is able to be more selective when selecting pitches to swing at but decides not to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised if Adam Jones subscribed to a philosophy that significantly undervalued walks and overvalued base hits.

The problem is that taking a less aggressive approach doesn’t always work. For example, look at Ben Revere. Ben Revere is known for being a player that has an elite contact tool. The chart below shows how he performed in the eight months in 2013 to 2015 when he swung least frequently and in the eight months during that period where he swung most frequently.

Sure enough, Revere improved his wOBA not in play when he swung less frequently. His BB% went from 3.18% to 4.41% but his K% went from 9.21% to 9.73%. His called Ball% increased by 3.6% while his called strike rate increased by only .18% and his In Play% decreased by only .86%. He definitely showed better plate discipline. But his overall wOBA remained the same because he put fewer pitches into play and he has his best results when putting pitches into play.

It turns out that Schoop also falls in this category.  When looking at the months he swung less frequently compared to the months he swung more frequently in 2014 and 2015, when he swung less frequently, his called strike rate increased more than his called ball rate. His rate of putting the ball into play was roughly the same in each set of months. In short, this data suggests that he should swing often because he is terrible at determining whether pitches are going to balls or strikes.

This becomes apparent when looking at what he did in the second half of 2015. In July, he swung 57% of the time and in August/September he swung 63%. He swung at over 80% of pitches in the strike zone over that period of time and nearly 40% pitches that were clearly balls. It’s like he’s not even trying to figure out whether pitches are in the strike zone and is just trying to swing at them.

Admittedly, it probably let him focus on just hitting the stuffing out of the ball if he knows he’s going to swing at most pitches close to the strike zone. But it suggests that pitch recognition is a big problem for him. It appears that it’s hard for him to tell whether a pitch is going to be a ball or a strike. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he put an average of 35% of balls into play when he swings for his entire career and only 32.3% from July to October of 2015. It’s hard to hit the ball when you don’t know where it will go.

At first glance, he seems to have improved this season. After all, he has an 5% BB rate, a 17% K rate, but most importantly a .932 OPS and a 164 wRC+. He only has a decent OBP, but he’s crushing the ball. If he continues to hit doubles at his current pace and ends up hitting 60 for the season, people aren’t going to complain. Here's his numbers.

His plate discipline is about where it's been prior to this season. Fewer fouled balls and more pitches into play has caused him to reduce his strikeout percentage. But the main reason why he's doing so well is because he's just crushing the ball. He has a 1.094 OPS and a .472 wOBA when putting the ball into play. It doesn't even matter whether he puts strikes or balls into play. He has a .434 wOBA against pitches put into play that are in the strike zone and a .588 wOBA against pitches put into play that aren't in the strike zone.

There are two ways to deal with this situation. The first is to simply say that he's doing well enough and there's no reason to change his approach. After all, if he ends the season with a .932 OPS, then who cares how he does it? The only thing I'll note is that he currently only ranks 37th out of 195 qualified players in wOBA in pitches put into play and he's behind players such as Delino DeShields, Wilson Ramos, Dexter Fowler, Tyler White and Jeremy Hazelbaker. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's early and there have been some fluky performances. I'll take the under on Fowler having a .510 OBP as he does currently.

The second way is to presume that he's been hot lately and that this likely isn't sustainable. If so, his poor plate discipline is going to cost him when he stops having such excellent results when putting pitches into play. Even if it is sustainable, teams are going to stop throwing him strikes because he'll swing at pitches outside of the zone and he'll turn into such a dangerous hitter. It's worth noting that one of the reasons why Harper has such good results is because he's become more selective and therefore has incredibly high walk and strike out rates. If better plate discipline had good results for Harper, it seems reasonable that it would have good results for Schoop also. After all, it's a good thing if Harper puts the ball into play, right?

The ideal way to address this situation is probably spending hour after hour studying film and going through stimulated at bats to work on practicing pitch recognition and learning where pitches will actually go. Presumably, figuring that out will allow Schoop to use his physical abilities to the utmost.  The answer the Orioles’ went with is to swing and pray.

Fortunately for the fans, it’s likely that Schoop will be successful either way. He’s pretty good at hammering pitches and plays a premium defensive position.  But with slight improvement in this regard, he could have a similar career to Dan Uggla. With significant improvement, he could turn into a younger version of Robinson Cano. Both of these second basemen had 30 home run power in their primes and Schoop potentially has even more power. The difference is that these batters also have better plate discipline. Uggla largely had a walk rate of about 12-13% and a strikeout rate of 22-23% per year, while Cano had a walk rate of about 8% and a strikeout rate of about 12% per year. Schoop is far worse in this regard than both of these players.

The reason why is simple. Uggla struggled to put balls into play and did so at a similar rate as Schoop. But he was excellent at only swinging at pitches that he could hit and thereby getting a lot of balls. Likewise, Cano also has an excellent eye and is considerably better at making contact than Schoop. They had better plate discipline. Schoop had significant success last year when making contact regardless of where pitches were thrown, but doesn’t have as good of an eye as those players.

Schoop is likely going to be a good player at least until his early 30s. His power and hit tool will allow him to be at least average offensively. But how his plate discipline develops will ultimately determine his ceiling. He needs to decide whether he wants to be decent or the next Robinson Cano. If the Orioles can develop him properly, he could be special.

15 April 2016

Yovani Gallardo Has Two Sliders

During his first start for the Orioles on April 11, Gallardo threw 96 pitches - 67 of which PITCHf/x determined to be sliders. A look at the movement of his 96 pitches (with gravity - this is what the batter saw) shows two very distinct clusters of sliders. One looks the way you might expect a slider to look: dropping lower in the zone, traveling from left to right across the plate. The other cluster stayed up, dropping about 10 inches with the help of Mother Nature, and never actually slid. Instead, the second bunch of sliders stayed straight. They look the way you would expect a fastball to look.

PITCHf/x classifications are determined today by algorithm, although it has been done by hand in the past. It's certainly possible that these are simple misclassifications as a result of that estimation model. Gallardo's fastball was only thrown about 4 miles per hour faster on average than his slider - a major difference, but one that can easily be spanned by arm fatigue. Gallardo's fastest slider on April 11 was thrown at 87.5 miles per hour. It's entirely conceivable that an algorithm could label an 87.5 mile per hour slider that doesn't slide as an 88 mile per hour fastball.

At the same time, Gallardo has a short bit of a history with these two types of sliders. The vast majority of Gallardo's straight sliders is from 2015 onward, indicating that he could have added a slider with a different spin and a different movement path to his arsenal. According to PITCHf/x, Gallardo is also increasing the number of sliders he throws every year. If there were a sudden spike in slider usage, I might be more apt to consider it a fluke pointing to an issue in the algorithm's ability to classify Gallardo's pitches.

This leaves three possibilities (or some combination thereof, I suppose) to explain why PITCHf/x thinks Gallardo is throwing so many sliders, and in two distinct types. The first is that PITCHf/x is simply misclassifying Gallardo's fastballs as sliders for some reason and with some regularity. The second is that Gallardo actually did throw an obscene amount of sliders on April 11 and that they have always been more common for him than fastballs, he just isn't getting the break on them the way we would want to see. The final possibility is that Gallardo actually has two sliders that he throws in two different ways, on purpose, for different effect.

John Walsh at the Hardball Times put together a helpful pitch identification primer in 2009, in which he describes sliders as generally falling between fastballs and curveballs in terms of both speed and movement. He also identifies sliders that don't have any horizontal spin or break at all, pitches with essentially no movement. Here's how he describes the specific subset of sliders that we are possibly seeing from Gallardo:
[I]f the axis of spin is aligned with the direction of the pitch (like a football toss, or a … gyroball), there will be no break. I believe this is what we are seeing when we see a pitch with no movement. I wouldn’t call these gyroballs, by the way. Or maybe I should—in any case, a number of different pitchers throw sliders that fit the description, and I don’t believe it’s anything new.

While it's pretty cool to throw the same pitch two ways for two different effects (which, uh, might make them two pitches?) - if that is the case - it hasn't necessarily helped Gallardo. His batting average allowed on decisive sliders - ones that ended the plate appearance - from 2012 through September 2015 is 0.239, while his slugging percentage on decisive sliders is 0.370. When it's broken into the two categories of sliders, it's clear that one is more helpful than the other.

Pitch Type
Traditional Slider
Straight Slider

Pitches in red are what I'm calling Straight Sliders.
Notice that Gallardo hasn't thrown what I called a straight slider very often over his career. However, 49 of those came in 2015 alone, and he looks to have thrown about 20 in his first 2016 start as well. While the straight slider hasn't burned Gallardo for extra bases yet, it's worth keeping an eye on. If he means to get movement across the plate, it's a major issue that Gallardo is suddenly less and less capable of doing so. If he is using a straight slider as a pseudo-fastball for some reason, batters seem able to hit it pretty well. Gallardo's next few starts for the O's may shed more light on whether he's actually throwing this many sliders and whether he's throwing straight ones on purpose. If the latter is true, we're probably in the process of watching Gallardo reinvent his pitch arsenal, and arguably to one that gives up more hits.

14 April 2016

How The Orioles Can Be Projected To Win 118 Games

The Orioles received no respect from the projections this offseason. Fangraphs projected the Orioles to win only 80 games and PECOTA had them at 72. Despite the Orioles spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the offseason, the general public was not expecting much from the Orioles. Then the Orioles had a nice seven game win streak and all of a sudden the calculations shifted.

As one can imagine, some fans got excited. Jonah Keri wrote an article asking whether we might have underestimated the O’s again.  Matt Kremnitzer wrote that we should enjoy the Orioles’s suprising win streak because they are playing well and its fun. Steve Melewski joked that “Orioles are MLB's only remaining unbeaten team. Pecota is not available for comment.” It’s questionable whether Melewski will retract his statement in the unlikely event that the Orioles suffer a losing streak this season. ESPN Stats and Info reported that only 28 teams since 1903 have started 7-0 and better and 5 of those won the World Series. Eutaw Street Report and Camden Chat both decided to write articles talking about how Orioles' fans should enjoy this but that the team wasn't going to win 162 games.

Alas, CBS maliciously jinxed the Orioles by noting that they were on pace to win 162 games before Wednesday’s game. Unsurprisingly, the Orioles lost a game in which they stranded ten baserunners, had a runner thrown out at third, and scored only two runs. The dreams of a perfect season were over. As Roch said (), “the ’72 Dolphins can pop the champagne corks.” Thanks CBS.

But while the win streak may be over, its impacts on the standings remain intact. No one can deny that the Orioles are leading the AL East. Jon wrote a number of statements about teams that have gone 7-1. It turns out that the team with the worst overall result to start the season 7-1 was the 1977 Oakland Athletics. They ended the season with a 63-98 record. The most wins that a team that has started a season 7-1 is 103 shared by the 1968 Tigers, 1990 Athletics and 2002 Yankees.

Most importantly, it has also resulted in improved rankings in the projections. As Jeff Sullivan wrote, the Orioles chances of making the playoffs increased by nearly 15% from the start of the season to 4/11 and that they doubled their playoff chances. As of 4/14, Fangraphs now projects the Orioles to win 82 or 83 games (Fangraphs Playoff Odds project the Orioles to win 81.8 games while Fangraphs Projected Standings have the Os winning 83) with a 30% of reaching the playoffs while PECOTA has the Orioles as an 80 win team with a 21.9% of reaching the playoffs.  That’s a pretty large bump in the standings for only eight games. Perhaps it has something to do with the interesting tidbit that 43.3% of teams that have a seven game winning streak make it to the playoffs. Others have been more pessimistic, including this largely incoherent article from the Washington Post.

Sure, this is good news. But what if we want to be even more optimistic? Suggesting the Orioles will win ONLY 103 games is definitely harshing my buzz. It’s possible to be even more optimistic as long as we forget just about everything we know about MLB.  Forget all knowledge about current players and farm systems and historic distributions of wins in MLB.  That knowledge simply isn’t going to tell us what we want to hear. Dilbert's boss explains everything via this comic strip.

In such a case, all we’d know is that the Orioles have gone 7-1 in 2016. The chances of that happening are really low; there’s only a 3.1% chance of a random binary sequence resulting in the same outcome 7 out of 8 times and only a .7% chance of it resulting in the same outcome seven times straight. Obviously, these are highly unlikely and therefore would strongly suggest that the Orioles have a better than even chance of winning a ball game.

In order to determine the Orioles actual chances of winning a game, we’d have to resort to using basic probability. The chances of the Orioles winning a game if they go 7-1 could be derived using the following formula:

(8 choose 1) * (x ^ 8) = .5
Solving this equation leads to a result of x ~ .707

This suggests that the Orioles should have a 70.7% chance of winning any of their remaining games provided that the assumptions above are true. If so, they should be expected to win another 111 games. Add that to the 7 games that they’ve already won, and they should be expected to win 118 games. Even before yesterday’s loss, this method suggests that the Orioles were on pace to win 147 games.

Of course, this method requires us to ignore everything we know about MLB. If we take player quality into account, then it’s highly implausible that the Orioles’ players are that much better than average. If we take historical win distributions into account, then it’s easy to understand that there is a low likelihood of even excellent teams winning seven games in a row and that few teams win 100 games. If we even just used runs scored and runs allowed to determine Pythagorean wins, then the Orioles would still be expected to win ONLY 115 games. I suppose that wouldn’t be a bad result.

So, if anyone feels discouraged about yesterday’s loss, then they can take heart. This method suggests that they should never have been expected to win 162 games, despite articles suggesting that they were on that pace, but rather only 147. And even now, they should still be expected to win 118 games.

But if someone offers you a bet that the Orioles will win 118 games, myself and the other Camden Depot writers strongly urge that you take the under.