28 July 2015

What if the O's Went All In?

There have been many rumors about how the Orioles may act at the trade deadline. First, the Orioles were thought to be buyers. After being swept by the Yankees they were considered to be sellers. And as I write this post, the Orioles once again are considered buyers, maybe. If the rumors are true, it sounds like no one knows what the Orioles will do... not even the Orioles themselves.

There are many reasons why the Orioles would consider selling. The Orioles have nearly played 100 games and are roughly at .500. Simply put, time is running out for them to make a run and it's questionable whether even a good stretch would be enough to make this club a playoff team. Even if it is, the Orioles will be hard-pressed to catch either the Yankees or Astros and would likely end up playing in the wild-card game on the road. It would be a shame to trade away some of the few prospects that the Orioles have remaining in order to simply play in one playoff game.

On the other hand, there are a number of good pitchers available on the trade market and therefore it seems likely that Darren O'Day and Wei-Yin Chen would bring back an underwhelming return. Buying teams will be able to offer the Orioles 50 cents on the dollar for these pitchers knowing that the Orioles' only choices are to either trade them or watch them leave in free agency.

In addition, there isn't much in the farm system that can help the Orioles compete in the near future. Kevin Gausman will likely be in the majors full-time starting in 2016 and may make up for the loss of Chen. Caleb Joseph can take over the catcher position for Matt Wieters. Christian Walker will be ready for the majors but would be a poor replacement for Chris Davis. Guys like Dariel Alvarez and Henry Urrutia could perhaps be used as corner outfielders. There are a few other arms in the upper majors that may be successful relievers. The only real talents in the minor league system would be asked to replace valued veterans. As Jon wrote earlier, this may be the Orioles last run for awhile. If so, it behooves the Orioles to make it count.

This begs the question of what the Orioles could do if they decided that they wanted to win this year at all costs. It would probably make sense to target an outfielder or two, an elite starter, and another reliever for the pen. Another outfielder would improve the Orioles' offense and ensure that the O's didn't need to rely on players that are question marks. An elite starter would help anchor the Orioles' rotation. Not to mention that Chen and Miguel Gonzalez would make a strong No. 2 and No. 3 and either Chris Tillman or Ubaldo Jimenez could be a good No. 4 if they can be successful consistently. The Orioles do have a strong bullpen already with Zach Britton and O'Day and adding another elite reliever would help the O's lock down leads as well as make things difficult for opposing offenses in a possible playoff series.

These three trades are one way that the Orioles could fill all of these holes.

Trade No. 1: Kevin Gausman and Michael Wright for Josh Reddick and Drew Pomeranz.

Josh Reddick has often struggled to stay healthy. In his one year where he played 150 games, he was a star for the Athletics and put up a .242/.305/.463 line with 32 home runs and a wRC+ of 108. In general, when healthy Reddick is a capable defender in right field with an above-average bat. This year, Reddick is putting up career numbers with a .282/.336/.452 line good for a wRC+ of 122 partly due to recognizing who he is. Reddick is under contract until 2017 and would solidify right field for the next year and a half.

Drew Pomeranz hasn't had much success as a starter but has been excellent as a reliever. Opponents are only batting .159/.280/.175 against him in limited time as a reliever this year. However, he'll be arbitration eligible at the end of this season and the Orioles will only have a limited amount of control over him and it's not like he's a proven reliever. As such, I think he has limited value.

Kevin Gausman has a lot of promise and could become elite. However, the Orioles have gotten some value from him due to his pitching 200 innings over three seasons. He also will become eligible for arbitration starting in 2018 and if effective will quickly become expensive. This lessens his value because the Athletics won't be able to enjoy more than one year where he's making the minimum.

The other problem is that he still throws only two pitches and isn't an established starter. He still is reasonably young but time is running out quickly if he's going to contribute to a club as a bargain as a cost-controlled starter. As a result, his value is lower than one may have thought.

This deal is a risk for the Athletics because they'd be trading a good chunk of quality talent for primarily a single prospect. Ordinarily, the Athletics would be able to trade Reddick for a number of promising prospects. However, it's an opportunity that they can't afford to pass up because they're unable to sign elite talent free agents and having the chance to add an elite talent close to the majors like Gausman is hard to pass up. Having Sonny Gray and Gausman in their rotation could help them win for the next three years before trading both players for more prospects.

Trade No. 2: Caleb Joseph, Christian Walker, and Parker Bridwell for Jeff Samardzija and Geovany Soto.

This deal would give the Orioles the elite starter that they need to lead their rotation for both an attempt to make it to the playoffs as well as a playoff run. It would also prevent the Blue Jays from trading for Samardzija and thus weakening a competitor. Geovany Soto could take over the backup catcher position and would give the Orioles an option that could give Matt Wieters a rest.

The White Sox would gain their catcher of the future. Caleb Joseph has had success in the majors and won't be arbitration eligible until 2017. They would also add a potential first baseman and reliever.

Trade No. 3: Mike Napoli for Bud Norris and Oliver Drake.

This deal gives the Orioles an offensive player in Napoli that has been terrible this year but has been good in the past and could possibly bounce back with a change of scenery.

Bud Norris would be included in the deal because the Orioles would have no room for him after these trades and in order to make the money work out better. Oliver Drake has the potential to be a solid late-inning reliever if he can fix his walk problems and is currently crushing AAA. All in all, the Red Sox would save some money and get a potentially interesting prospect. It's considerably more than what they received for Shane Victorino.

These trades would give the Orioles a bullpen consisting of Britton, O'Day, Pomeranz, Chaz Roe, Brad Brach, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz. Ideally, I'd like an upgrade from Hunter but I don't think that's going to be so easy to find. Samardzija would give the Orioles the elite starter that they'd need to make it to the playoffs and give them someone that could compete against aces in the playoffs. Chen and Gonzo would make acceptable No. 2 and No. 3 starters while Tillman could be a strong No. 4 if he can have one of his usual strong second halves. Adding Reddick would help solidify the Orioles' outfield. Adding Napoli would allow the Orioles to potentially move Davis to left field. If Napoli can bounce back then the Orioles' offense would be looking pretty scary.

It would be a hard task to come back from their current deficit of seven games back in the division or even three and a half back in the wild card. But if they could then the Orioles would have an awfully strong club. They would be one of the best teams in the American League and making it to the World Series wouldn't be surprising.

On the other hand, the Orioles would have given up Gausman, Joseph, and Walker. That means they would need to find a new catcher for 2016. The Orioles would also need a new starter and that starter wouldn't have the potential to be elite. The Orioles' minor league system has minimal talent and a good chunk of it would have been traded away. Even worse, most of the top prospects remaining have been injured for most of the year. If Hunter Harvey wasn't able to prove himself healthy then the O's may have the worst minor league system in the majors.

But if the Orioles wanted to go all in then they don't have much to trade. Something like this would hurt the Orioles' future but would give them a legitimate chance in the present.

That's really the question. Do you decide to take your shot this year and damage your 2016 and 2017 prospects at winning or do you bide your time and hope you get another chance? It's awfully risky either way.

27 July 2015

Arrivals and Departures (7/27/2015): The Sea Was Calm

Coming out of the All Star break, the Orioles found themselves in no man's land. The club's first half performance was at times exceptional and at other times miserable; and it all left them smack dab in the middle of the AL East and Wild Card hunts. However, by being smack dab I mean that the prize was in sight, but they were accompanied by several other clubs with similar aspirations, talent, and expectations. The hope, at the time, was that the club would become famished or thirsty or hungry and start winning the majority of their games as the non-waiver trade deadline approached

What transpired was more shuffling and the club finds themselves just about where they were two weeks prior. They are certainly not out of the race, but the closer you get to that finish line the less optimistic one is about being stuck in the pack. You want to see some acceleration and space. The Orioles have not provided that. In fact, the word is slowing growing that the Orioles will be sellers, but their players have not been widely reported as being a part of active talks. As such, this column will try to tease out that last vestige of hope with thoughts on a potential deal.

The challenge facing the club is how exactly can they improve upon this season and, perhaps, next season with one of the worst farm systems in baseball and next to no excess room to take on any payroll? One target mentioned is Justin Upton (and for the purpose of this exercise let us forget his oblique issue). Upton has almost 5 MM left with his contact and he is probably viewed as a 1 win increase player for competitive clubs (which is worth about 15 MM, twice market rate). A one to one deal would be something akin to Upton for Hunter Harvey, assuming that he is considered a 50th-75th ranked prospect with his injury. A one for two deal could conceivably be Upton for Mike Wright and maybe Chance Sisco. The Orioles should try to slide Bud Norris into this deal simply to get rid of the salary.

For the Orioles, they might want to try to expand this deal to pay itself forward. This might include trying to find a way to improve outfield corner depth. With that in mind, the focus would be on someone like Wil Myers. Injuries and poor performances have sullied the shine he once held. However, not all hope is lost. I would still peg him with a 15 MM value (equivalent to a 50-75 overall ranked hitter). Below is a rough idea for a deal:
Justin Upton, RF +10 MM
Wil Myers, LF +15 MM
Kevin Gausman, SP +25 MM
Chance Sisco, C +5 MM
Bud Norris, P -3 MM
David Lough, OF ~
Sisco's inclusion permits the addition of Norris as a cost offset. Plus, it also gives the Padres more catching depth. Lough provides them with another centerfield option as well as being a guy who just might be useful enough to them next year. San Diego would probably prefer a SS or a more solid CF upper minors contributor, but the Orioles do not have that. Other teams might.

Finally, we can do a silly, convoluted deal.
Upton and Myers, +25 MM
James Shields, -25 MM
Clint Barmes, SS ~
15 MM
Gausman, Sisco, Norris, and Lough +27 MM
J.J. Hardy, -10 MM
This gives both clubs a couple things they need. It gives the Padres a cheap SP, a full fledged MLB SS, a good catching prospect, a flyer on a centerfielder, and some salary relief with Shields gone. For the Orioles, it improves their play this year with Upton in right field. Myers may be ready to return to action in late August and provide some help in left or as a designated hitter. He would also be cost controlled for the Orioles for the next several years. Clint Barmes provides some shortstop filler to cheaply spell Hardy who has disappointed. The rest of the year will see whether Barmes or Flaherty is worse there and open up discussion this offseason whether to shift Machado over. Finally, Shields provides back to mid rotation pitching for the next three years at the tune of 3/24 if you count the money from the Padres and the Hardy sunk costs as discounting Shields' pay. Needless to say, eight man trades with money are rare deals and are often things of fantasy.

In fact, one might even say consideration of the Orioles as a buyer at this date is also a fantasy.

40 man roster

24 July 2015

O's AAA Veterans Have No Trade Value

In an earlier article about the Norfolk Tides, the Orioles' AAA affiliate, I reported that many of my colleagues believed that Paul Janish was the best defensive shortstop they had seen in over 20 years of watching baseball. I didn't fully describe them in my earlier article, but those colleagues were long-time minor league executives (including the legendary Dave Rosenfield) and baseball writers.

Based on that observation, a commenter to another article suggested that another team might want Janish or Steve Clevenger, and so the Orioles might be able to get a useful player back if they trade them. In response, Matt Kremnitzer conservatively replied that he doubted that Janish or Clevenger had any trade value. It's possible that Clevenger might have value, but based on recent history, I will proclaim that Janish has no trade value whatsoever. In 2012, the Orioles had at Norfolk a player similar to Janish with a better track record of success. Indeed, as it turned out, this player proved to have significant value and has proceeded to have a highly successful career. The Orioles did trade this AAA veteran in August.

That player was Pat Neshek. I won't repeat Neshek's entire backstory, but he pitched very well for the Twins in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, he hurt his arm and underwent Tommy John surgery and spent 2010 and 2011 recovering. He signed with the Orioles in 2012 and pitched very well - in 44 innings, he had a 7-49 BB-K ratio, a 2.66 ERA, and 11 saves. He was, in many respects, the pitcher equivalent of Paul Janish - a specialist, who had had some success in the major leagues but had not experienced that major-league success for several seasons. Neshek was 31; Janish is 32.

The Oakland Athletics were engaged in a tight division race with the Rangers and felt that they needed bullpen help. They asked the Orioles about Neshek, and the teams agreed on an exchange. Of course, Neshek has gone on to pitch well since he joined the Athletics, making the 2014 National League All-Star Team and signing an eight-figure contract with Houston this past offseason.

All in all, Neshek has proven to be quite a useful player, especially for a player signed to a minor-league contract as a free agent. When the Orioles dealt Neshek to the Athletics, what did they get for him? Cash. Not a player of any stripe, cash.

The purpose of this history is not to berate the Orioles for not recognizing that Pat Neshek had more value and that they should have kept him; the Orioles had a similar pitcher in Darren O'Day and there wasn't room for Neshek in Baltimore. The purpose is to remind us of how little trade value AAA veterans have. If the Orioles are going to improve themselves for the rest of this season, it won't be by exchanging bargain-basement signings for quality major leaguers.

23 July 2015

Exploring the Orioles' Corner Outfield Trade Targets

The Orioles have been mentioned a few times as a potential landing spot for a corner outfielder, and Dan Duquette is doing his due diligence in pursuing an upgrade (even if it potentially involves Kevin Gausman, or even Bud Norris, hilariously, to possibly free up some money). The O's are often reported to be in the running for multiple players, which doesn't really mean anything. Lots of teams have interest in lots of players, after all. But the Orioles rarely make that top-of-the-line acquisition; they are more likely to sign Nate McLouth in the middle of the season or trade for Alejandro De Aza or Scott Feldman (oops). That's why it was reasonably surprising when they struck a deal last season with the Red Sox for Andrew Miller, the most dominant relief pitcher on the open market.

The O's could again use another excellent reliever, but so could most teams. They could also benefit more by picking up a front-line starting pitcher than a slight corner outfield improvement. But with Kevin Gausman back in the rotation and Chris Tillman turning things around -- along with the price a very good starting pitcher would command in this seller's market -- that's not expected to happen.

It's nearly as unlikely that the Orioles will be able to acquire any of the best outfielders available on the open market. But the speculation continues, and there will be a handful of trades involving talented players in the next week and a half. Obviously the O's front office needs to figure out what type of talent, if any, they want to go after, and whether or not they can cobble together a respectable package from an underwhelming farm system for a notable upgrade in talent.

So, even if it ends up just being for the fun of it, let's parse the corner outfield trade market (in improbable and plausible categories). I'm also going to assume the Orioles can take on the rest of a rental player's contract for this season, but then again they sold a draft pick to the Dodgers to save money a few months ago, so who knows for sure.

Improbable Full-Time Acquisitions

Yoenis Cespedes 
Career 116 wRC+. LF: +25 DRS/+24 UZR.
Free agent in 2016.

Cespedes is not a skilled center fielder, but he is a good left fielder with a cannon for an arm. The Orioles may be in the market for a hitter with better on-base skills. However, Cespedes's power is undeniable, and even if he doesn't take a walk often, he'd provide the Orioles with another solid bat in a lineup that could use another solid bat, period.

Justin Upton
Career 121 wRC+. LF: 0 DRS/-10 UZR; RF: +19 DRS/+8 UZR.
Free agent in 2016.

Cespedes gets the slight nod over Upton because the two are at least similar offensively and he's better in left field (though the O's could always play Upton in right field, unless you're ecstatic with the Chris Davis experiment). Upton, though, is also currently dealing with an oblique injury.

Ben Zobrist
Career 118 wRC+. RF: +28 DRS/+36 UZR; LF: +3 DRS/+2 UZR.
Free agent in 2016.

Zobrist can play anywhere on the field, and he can handle himself well at nearly every position (though he mostly plays second base and corner outfield). If that wasn't flexible enough, he's also a switch-hitter who posts similar production from both sides of the plate.

Jay Bruce 
Career 110 wRC+. RF: +28 DRS/+25 UZR.
2016: $12.5M; 2017: $13M club option ($1M buyout).

A lefty with power, Bruce is having one of his best offensive seasons. He hasn't played left field since 2008 (and only 41 innings). The team that trades for him would also have him under contract through the end of the 2017 season, and about $26 million for those two years is more than reasonable. Trading for Bruce would also keep the Orioles from searching for yet another corner outfielder this upcoming offseason when Davis and possibly Steve Pearce depart via free agency.

Carlos Gonzalez 
Career 118 wRC+. LF: -4 DRS/-2 UZR; RF: +10 DRS/+9 UZR; CF: +9 DRS/+5 UZR.
2016: $17M; 2017: $20M.

A trade for Gonzalez probably won't happen because of the amount of money involved. He's a pretty good defensive right fielder (he hasn't played center field since 2011). Still, he does not hit left-handed pitching well, he's not nearly as good of a hitter outside Coors Field, and he's battled injuries for a couple of seasons.

Carlos Gomez
Career 99 wRC+. CF: +83 DRS/+78 UZR.
2016: $9M.

Considering his fantastic 2013 and 2014 seasons, Gomez is having a bit of a down year both offensively and defensively. Still, he'd present an upgrade offensively and a massive improvement in the field since he's overqualified to play left or right field (and Adam Jones isn't moving from center). In that sense, it would be wasteful to acquire a center fielder and then stick him in left field. It would be nice to have Gomez around for $9 million next season, however.

Plausible Platoon Bats

Seth Smith
Career 114 wRC+. LF: +3 DRS/+12 UZR; RF: -9 DRS/-7 UZR.
2016: $6.75M; 2017: $7M club option ($0.25M buyout).

Smith is very good against right-handed pitching; not so much against lefties (though he is this season). His contract seems reasonable, though the O's haven't had much luck with paying decent chunks of money for platoon outfield bats.

Marlon Byrd
Career 102 wRC+. LF: -3 DRS/-2 UZR; RF: +26 DRS/+14 UZR.
2016: $8M club option.

Byrd would be a good fit for the O's and he can hit left-handed pitching. They also don't don't have to pick up his option.

David Peralta
Career 118 wRC+. LF: -1 DRS/-2 UZR ; RF: +7 DRS/+4 UZR.
Team control through 2019.

It's unlikely he'd be dealt, but he's been excellent against right-handed pitching (limited sample size) and is a decent outfielder. The story of him reaching the major leagues is also pretty cool.

Ender Inciarte
Career 86 wRC+. CF: +15 DRS/+13 UZR.
Team control through 2019.

Inciarte plays all three outfield positions well. But he's not a very good hitter and is awful against lefties. Neither Peralta nor Inciarte would come cheaply, though, with that many years of team control left.

Ben Revere
Career 86 wRC+. CF: -23 DRS/+2 UZR.
Team control through 2017.

There's a big divide between his defensive skills according to DRS and UZR. He has lots of speed, but he's not a good hitter.

Gerardo Parra
Career 94 wRC+. LF: +26 DRS/+21 UZR ; RF: +50 DRS/+37 UZR.
Free agent in 2016.

He's having a career year in 2015, but he does not hit lefties well.

Josh Reddick
Career 104 wRC+. RF: +54 DRS/+45 UZR.
Team control through 2016.

When healthy, he's a very good outfielder and right-handed pitching masher.

Shane Victorino
Career 106 wRC+. RF: +45 DRS/+41 UZR.
Free agent in 2016.

He's injury-prone, is making $13 million this season, and has stopped switch-hitting.

Jeff Francoeur
Career 89 wRC+. RF: +52 DRS/+33 UZR.
Free agent in 2016.

No longer a plus outfielder. Generally better against left-handed pitching.

Dominic Brown
Career 94 wRC+. LF: -15 DRS/-21 UZR; RF: -14 DRS/-12 UZR.
Team control through 2017.

Bad outfielder. Can't hit lefties.

Ichiro Suzuki
Career 106 wRC+. RF: +98 DRS/+117 UZR.
Free agent in 2016.

Obviously no longer nearly as effective offensively or defensively. Still an above average corner outfielder.


Feel free to note your favorite outfielder of the names mentioned or throw out other names of interest, if any. If the O's make a move for anyone noteworthy, it'll be fascinating what type of trade package it requires.

As expected, most of the platoon bats are not intriguing. Only a couple of them would present upgrades; the others would come cheaply but would include a lot of hope for a lightning-in-the-bottle type of scenario -- which has been in the Orioles' wheelhouse.

As the Orioles drop another game back of the Yankees, they could really use a boost, whether that's in the starting rotation or everyday lineup. It's clear they need help and maybe aren't as good as they thought they'd be before the season. Or maybe they don't need help because even one or two moderate upgrades won't be enough. No one said this would be easy.

22 July 2015

What Gausman Needs to Learn

Pat Holden wrote before the season started that the Orioles needed to put Kevin Gausman in the rotation because he was one of the Orioles' top five starters. The Orioles’ rotation has struggled with consistency this year as only Gonzo, Jimenez, and Chen have performed well and therefore the Orioles are hoping that Gausman can help strengthen the rotation. It makes sense to look at his statistics to see whether he is likely to fulfill that role.

As a starter from 2014-2015, 70.1% of the pitches that Gausman threw were fastballs. This was the 7th highest percentage out of 169 starters that pitched at least 100 innings over that time frame. It’s possible to be a successful starter while throwing such a large percentage of fastballs and indeed pitchers like Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller threw a larger percentage of fastballs while still being successful. This first chart (using data from ESPN's stat and information portal) shows the percentage of pitches that Gausman threw in 2014-2015 against batters based on whether they’re left-handed or right-handed and based on whether there are runners on base.

Gausman doesn’t throw a splitter but rather a changeup that acts like a splitter. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to it as a splitter in this article. He primarily throws his fastball and splitter against left-handed batters while occasionally throwing in his changeup and slider. He rarely uses his slider against left-handed batters especially when men are on base, possibly suggesting that he lacks confidence in the pitch against lefties. He primarily uses his fastball against right-handed batters but uses his splitter and slider with the same frequency as secondary pitches. This next table shows how successful he has been using these pitches against left-handed batters.

So far, Gausman has had poor results with his fastball against left-handed batters with the bases empty but has been more successful with men on base. This could hint at either a mechanical problem or could simply be nothing more than luck. However, opposing left-handed batters have hit his fastball at a .293/.371/.457 line suggesting that left-handed batters are able to crush his fastball. Opposing batters are also able to crush his slider as they average a .500/.500/.500 line against it. Limited data suggests that he is less effective with the bases empty than with men on base.

His split-change has been devastating against left-handed batters. Most are unable to hit it in any circumstances and opposing batters have put up a line of only .176/.222/.230.  His normal change-up has also been hard for left-handed batters to hit as they average only a .250/.250/.250 line against it. Limited data suggests that he is less effective with this pitch with the bases empty than with men on base. This next chart explains why Gausman has been effective or ineffective with each of his pitches against left-handed batters.

Opposing left-handed batters swing at fewer fastballs when the bases are empty than when men are on base and this has resulted in an large increase in called balls but a minimal increase in called strikes. In addition, opposing batters are less likely to miss his fastball when the bases are empty than when they’re on base. It’s as if these batters are able to better read when his fastball will be a ball or a strike in those situations and therefore they have better results. This could be just random variation but it looks like something worth noting.

Gausman’s split-change has resulted in a considerable amount of swinging strikes by left-handed opponents despite the fact that it’s rarely thrown in the strike zone. This gives him a pitch that he can go to when he has two strikes on a left-handed batter and needs to get a strikeout. This pitch also seems to be more effective with men on base than not but Gausman has benefited from a high foul ball rate when the bases are empty.

Gausman primarily throws his slider in the strike zone and therefore is able to pick up a large percentage of called strikes. Unfortunately, most sliders are designed to rarely be in the strike zone and as a result it probably isn’t surprising that opposing batters are able to crush it when they do make contact.

Most of Gausman’s regular change-ups against lefties end up being called balls. In an extremely limited sample, batters often don’t miss when swinging at his change-up when the bases are empty but have had difficulty when men are on base.

The data seem to indicate that Gausman struggles when pitching to left-handed batters when the bases are empty. This could either be due to small sample size or could mean he has a mechanical problem when pitching in the windup. In any event, the results when left-handed batters hit his fastball are below-average and for his slider is awful. His split-changeup is a very good pitch but isn’t designed to be thrown for a strike. In order to be successful against left-handed hitters, Gausman needs to figure out how to upgrade his fastball.

This next chart shows how Gausman has performed against right-handed batters.

Gausman’s fastball is very good against right-handed batters when the bases are empty but gets hit hard when runners are in scoring position. He has shown an ability to use his splitter in order to get strikeouts but has struggled when opponents have been able to make contact probably due to small sample size. Right-handed batters have struggled to hit his slider when there have been runs in scoring position but they have crushed it in every other situation. This next chart shows how right-hand batters have hit his pitches.

Right-handed batters are usually able to make contact with Gausman’s fastball. What is interesting is that his fastball is more likely to result in a called strike when the bases are empty than when runners are in scoring position. It appears that batters are swinging at strikes more in those situations and that could be why right-handed batters are doing better with runners in scoring position than when the bases are empty.

In a limited sample, right-handed batters have mainly simply been unable to make contact with Gausman’s split-change when runners are in scoring position. They’ve put only two of his 80 splitters with a man on base into play. Likewise, they’ve only put four of his 59 splitters with the bases empty into play. He may not throw his splitter often against right-handed batters but they struggle to hit it when he does.

Gausman throws his slider for strikes way too often when the bases are empty and as a result it causes a lot of called strikes and gets pounded when batters do swing. Interestingly, he doesn’t throw his slider for strikes as often when there are runners in scoring position. He gets fewer called strikes with the pitch in that situation but also causes batters to miss considerably more often and doesn’t get pounded when batters do make contact. This indicates that his slider is an effective pitch in certain circumstances and may become more effective with further practice.

The data suggest that Gausman has a number of weaknesses that he needs to address before he can truly realize his potential. He does have an excellent split-changeup but his slider is terrible. It’s hard to be a starter with only two pitches. Shelby Miller is able to be successful throwing the fastball 70% of the time but he has two dominant other pitches that he can throw while Gausman only has one.

The problem is that Gausman thinks that he can be successful with just using his fastball and split-change against left-handed batters while using his slider solely and rarely against right-handed batters. The Orioles have discussed having Gausman throw a curveball, but ESPN's portal suggests that he didn't throw a single curveball in 2015 in the majors. As Buck said in the article, "Kevin’s leap is going to be if he can command the secondary stuff. He’s not going to sit out there and throw 96-mph fastballs by major league hitters if that’s all he can do."

Realistically, he either needs a much improved fastball (probably not likely) or he needs to figure out how to throw a slider or a different third pitch. Until he learns that, he’ll be able to be a decent starter but will never be able to reach his potential role as an ace.

17 July 2015

Don't Waver: The Orioles Made the Right Move With Markakis

Not counting J.J. Hardy's struggles at the plate this season, the most obvious spot to blame for the Orioles' scattered offensive issues is corner outfield. The Orioles have been shuffling between Alejandro De Aza, Steve Pearce, Travis Snider, Delmon Young, David Lough, Nolan Reimold, Chris Parmelee, and now Chris Davis. De Aza (traded) and Young (designated for assignment) are gone, but the rest remain. It seems unlikely that the Orioles will be able to carry this many outfielders for the rest of the season, and it's also probable that they'll continue to pursue trade options.

That brings us to Wednesday's Baltimore Sun column by Dan Connolly. In it, Connolly remarks on the team's non-Adam Jones outfield issues, and he also includes intriguing quotes from Buck Showalter and Jones on dealing with the revolving door of outfielders. Read the article and see what you think.

Let's get this out of the way first, because not much has changed on the Nick Markakis/Nelson Cruz front. It's common for writers and fans alike to look back and say, hey, the Orioles should have brought back Markakis and Cruz (they won the American League East last year! etc.). Both topics have been covered at Camden Depot multiple times, the most recent being on Cruz. In his column, Connolly writes, "Besides having to replace their leadership and potential offensive production, the Orioles have missed a duo that started a combined 217 games in the corner-outfield spots last year. . . . Things, it now can be said, have not worked out as planned."

Obviously the Orioles figured most, if not all, of their corner outfielders would have performed better offensively. And it's hard to look at how Cruz hit in the first half and wonder how that would have helped this year's Orioles.

Still, there's this:

2014: 4.35 runs per game (5th in AL)
2015: 4.40 runs per game (4th)

Anyway, let's focus on Markakis. Do you think the Orioles have missed Markakis's leadership or clubhouse chemistry factor? Perhaps you're right. It's also impossible to prove, just like saying the lack of Jonathan Schoop's "easy smile and playful fun nature" in any way contributed to the O's struggles earlier in the season. The "missing leadership" rationale is frequently applied to fit a narrative when nothing otherwise will.

Instead, when focusing on tangible evidence of Markakis's play in recent years and the first portion of this season, it's more of the same. As Connolly notes, the Orioles were concerned about Markakis requiring offseason neck surgery. And maybe his recovery from that injury has played a part in his power outage.
Markakis could need more time to fully recover. Watching him in his prime was a joy, and it would be wonderful if he returned to form. But his dwindling power has been a concern for a few years now. According to data from Baseball Heat Maps, here are Markakis's average fly ball distances since 2012:

2012: 284 feet
2013: 271
2014: 268
2015: 260

Now let's check out some batted ball data from FanGraphs. Markakis is not hitting the ball as hard...

2012: 32.6 Hard%
2013: 28.8
2014: 27.3
2015: 27.1

... or pulling it:

2012: 34.2 Pull%
2013: 32.9
2014: 31.4
2015: 29.9

And that's led to an increase in him hitting the ball on the ground:

2012: 41.8 GB%
2013: 46.6
2014: 45.9
2015: 51.4

If Markakis were a faster runner and able to leg out more infield hits, that might be less of an issue. But speed is not part of his game. It's probably a bit fluky that he doesn't have at least one home run, especially since he's hit 20 doubles. Regardless, his .353 slugging percentage would be the worst of his career.

Also, his .381 on-base percentage is very good, and it would be his best mark since 2008. But he's been fortunate on balls in play (.345 BABIP; .317 career mark), and it's unlikely he'll be able to carry on with a walk percentage near 12% (career around 9%), especially since he's seeing the highest percentage of pitches in the strike zone (for him) since 2010 (51.2%). He's not able to do as much damage with one swing, and pitchers are starting to go after him more.

Markakis has a wRC+ of 108, and that would have helped the Orioles somewhat. It's higher than Snider (94), Pearce (89), De Aza (70), and Lough (70). Parmelee and Reimold have hit better, though in much smaller samples. But both UZR and DRS have the O's group of right fielders better defensively than Braves' right fielders (nearly all defensive innings belonging to Markakis):

Orioles RF: +0.6 UZR, +4 DRS
Braves RF: -0.1 UZR, -2 DRS

And remember, the Braves still owe Markakis $31.5 million over the next three seasons.

This team has flaws, but it's still in the playoff race. And yes, the corner outfield plan hasn't worked out so far. The Chris Davis in right field experiment is in full swing, and if he somehow manages to be a mediocre defender, it could work. But thanks to improvements from other players (Manny Machado and Jimmy Paredes, in particular), the O's offense has been just fine (frustrating at times, but fine). Meanwhile, the team's offseason indecision on the starting rotation has probably hurt the team more (not opening a spot for Kevin Gausman) than not bringing Markakis back. But sometimes it's hard to let go.

15 July 2015

Back to the Grind: A Last Hurrah?

With the festivities of the largely irrelevant All Star game concluded, the Orioles will get back out on the field on Friday and continue to fight for first place in the American League East. Currently, they sit third in the AL East with only one team between them and the Yankees. That said, the Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays are within one game of each other, so it is a rather tight race. If we are merely concerned about the Wild Card, then the Orioles are 3.5 games back.  However, several more teams are in contention for that prize. All in all, this year is similar to 2012, 2013, and 2014 in that the Orioles are in a poor position with somewhat disappointing performances from many players, but that there is still a chance for a fortuitous October.

Tm   W   L   W-L%   GB     Playoffs
NYY 48 40 .545 --- 73%
TBR 46 45 .505 3.5 32%
BAL 44 44 .500 4.0 18%
TOR 45 46 .494 4.5 29%
BOS 42 47 .472 6.5 14%
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/14/2015.

All that said, I am not writing to review the first half of the season and provide some conjecture about what the second half has in store for the fan base. You can find those articles in abundance elsewhere (or read Matt's good/bad post from Monday). What I wish to consider is a view from a higher altitude and out to the horizon in order to consider the health of the club over the next several years.  To me, that seems more interesting than trying to figure out how the club can appreciably improve their talent while also having basically nothing of much value to trade out. This is not meant to diminish or make inconsequential the play on the field this year, but to simply provide an opinion on the general state of the franchise.

Duquette's Contribution
Dan Duquette is given a great deal of credit for what the Orioles have accomplished. He has helped lead this club to meaningful October play twice in his three years, but there is a question as to whether he has led someone else's team. During Dan Duquette's first trip to the playoffs with the Orioles, the club was built largely with pre-regime players earning 70% of the club's fWAR while making up 48% of the players donning the uniform. His major contributors that year were Nate McLouth, Wei-Yin Chen, and Jason Hammel. Joe Saunders and Miguel Gonzalez also provided meaningful performances. That said, most of Duquette's contribution consisted of rotating players in and out of the back end of the active roster to find useful performances. All in all, the club was largely Andy MacPhail's, but with a decent and varied garnish. Arguably, this was what helped the Orioles get over the hump and the greater narrative was that Duquette improved the worst players on the active roster, which made the rest of the team better.

In 2015, Duquette has been responsible for nearly 2/3rds of the roster. The fWAR contribution has increased from his 2012 30% mark to 2015's 35% mark.  In other words, the core of this team is still largely one of the work done prior to Duquette. This is not to call irrelevant what Duquette has done. His actions have been directed at improving the fringes of the roster with fringe MLB veteran play while leaning on the existing core group of players. In turn, we have seen a club buoyed by very good, but not excellent play of a couple stars (most consistently represented by Adam Jones). The question is not if Duquette can meaningfully fill out a roster. He has done that quite well and it is something that he appears to do much more proficiently than MacPhail did. It is whether he is able to seamlessly transition from one core group of players to the next.

Onward to 2016
After this season, several additions of various importance brought in by him will be departing: Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Darren O'Day, Steve Pearce, and Wesley Wright. The pre-Duquette players likely to leave include Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, and Tommy Hunter.

Although much has been made of this exodus, the club is actually in pretty good position. The only major losses appear to be a void in the rotation and hole at first base. At catcher, Matt Wieters appears likely to be replaced by the very capable (potential All Star) catcher Caleb Joseph while being backed up by the somewhat disgruntled Steve Clevenger. Chris Davis' position at first base seems a bit more in flux. This year, at various points, he has been bumped off in favor of placing Steve Pearce and Chris Parmelee there. It would not be surprising to see someone completely different there beyond 2015. Christian Walker, a personal favorite of mine, is probably too much of a roll of the dice for a team with playoff expectations, so first base is an area likely to be solved outside of the organization. In the corner outfield, the club will probably be a carousel. Steve Pearce has become a fringe performer again and the club has no solution from within, so this year's weakness is likely next year's weakness. The starting rotation is likely to see the departure of both Chen and Norris, which would result in Kevin Gausman finally achieving a full role as a starter as well as pinning hopes on Mike Wright or a one year coverage until Dylan Bundy hopefully takes a role in the rotation.

Below is a short synopsis of the major considerations for future payroll.

Name 2016 2017 2018
Adam Jones $16.33M $16.33M $17.33M
Ubaldo Jimenez $13M $13.5M FA
J.J. Hardy $12.5M $14M $2M [FA-*]
Dylan Bundy Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb
Chris Tillman Arb Arb FA
Miguel Gonzalez Arb Arb FA
Brian Matusz Arb FA FA
Zach Britton Arb Arb Arb
Travis Snider Arb FA FA
Ryan Flaherty Arb Arb FA
Manny Machado Arb Arb Arb
David Lough Arb Arb Arb
Brad Brach Arb Arb Arb
Kevin Gausman Pre-Arb Arb Arb
T.J. McFarland Pre-Arb Arb Arb
Jimmy Paredes Pre-Arb Arb Arb
Jonathan Schoop Pre-Arb Arb Arb
Caleb Joseph Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb
Steve Clevenger Arb Arb Arb
Signed 3 3 1
Dollars Committed $41.8M $43.8M $19.33M
Contract Options 1
Option Values $14M
Arb Eligible 0-0-10-0 0-0-14-0 0-0-17-0
Arb Costs $39.3M $55M $66.8M
Other Players 12 8 7
Other Costs $7.92M $5.28M $4.62M
Payroll (no options) $89.1M $104.1M $90.8M
Payroll (options) $89.1M $104.1M $104.1M

About half of next year's roster is currently not well accounted. The baseline to fill those spaces is 8 MM, but the club has the capability to use somewhere between 35 and 40 MM to fill 10-12 spaces. That money could be used to afford a major piece and some bit players or a couple fringe starters with some bit players. Arbitration figures may come into play for 2017 and make any multiyear contract for an elite player slightly more difficult. It is hard to tell what direction the club will go. Whether they will try to find a Bud Norris style player at the deadline to help out this year and next or go into the offseason to focus on players they think they can improve (e.g., Aaron Harang). Needless to say, much of the turnover will utilize fringe MLB players and minor league journeymen.

Why the fringe and journeymen? The Orioles have one of the worst minor league systems in baseball. The club currently has three blue chip prospects: Dylan Bundy, Hunter Harvey, and Jomar Reyes.  Bundy has had his development derailed with a litany of injury issues. Harvey has suffered injuries and is unlikely to contribute meaningful at an MLB level for several years. Jomar Reyes has loud tools, but is also several years away. AAA contains some interesting fringe active roster players like Christian Walker, Tyler Wilson, and Mike Wright, but none of those appear likely to provide great immediate or eventual value. Anyone who has visited Bowie will also likely tell you that nothing appears enticing there as well.

For several years, the public line has been about how the club has been graduating talent and that is why the minor league system has had the appearance of having poor quality. Sure, graduations of guys like Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman certainly are difficult to replace. However, it cannot be denied that the club has traded away draft picks and international money to acquire players with fringe value or simply to cut money. In any given year, these deals can be absorbed by exploiting the international market or domestic draft in other years. Duquette's regime has placed a priority on the MLB roster, so his tenure has resulted in minimal investment in the minor leagues. Eventually, a club will feel the impact of underutilizing the acquisition and development of amateur talent. I think with the current crop of Major Leaguers going out, fans will begin to see how rotten the wood is under the veneer.

Of course, that is the difficulty when constrained by a budget. If your club is on the precipice of the World Series, then spending on players that might help five or six years down the line does not appear to be a great investment. This is particularly true for front office personnel who will rarely be around when those players might emerge and provide utility on the field. Instead, the decision the front office has made these past several years is to take several millions dollars every year to sign or retain guys like Alejandro De Aza or Delmon Young instead of signing top flight elite talent out of Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. Personally, I would rather have Christian Walker on the bench with a highly respect 16-year-old player in the Dominican facility than having Delmon Young on the roster, but I do see the argument against that.

I would also suggest that Duquette has made two transitional moves. One, signing Ubaldo Jimenez for four years. Two, extending J.J. Hardy and keeping Manny Machado at third base. At the present, neither of those decisions appear to have been great ones. Mind you, neither are awful. Jimenez has had a poor season and a very good one. He is the frustrating guy everyone thought he was even though it seems most local folks pretended otherwise when he signed. Keeping Machado at third was the conservative move, but may have resulted in a hearty albatross hung around the Oriole bird's neck. Both of those decisions have time to play out well, so we shall see.

So what is the point of this article?
Enjoy the now. These past several years have been absolutely grand with the club playing meaningful baseball. It was something a whole generation of Orioles fans had missed out on. That said, it appears that the window is closing, the club has few cheap internal pieces to replace the mid-level players who are leaving, and money appears to be tight over the next three years. The forecast is one that is a slow constriction as opposed to a complete drop-off. Machado and Jones will make this team respectable, but the club needs some elite talent to complement them -- talent that is not at the moment readily apparent within the system.

So make this year the year you finally buy that Orioles jersey you always talk yourself out of or maybe upgrade those seats to something closer to the field. This just might be the team's last big run for a little while.

14 July 2015

Why You Can't Just Look at WAR to Determine a Player's Ability

The other day, I got into an argument about Rick Porcello. One person made that argument that if you believe in fWAR, Porcello has been good. He’s been worth 8.4 fWAR over the past 3.5 years or about roughly 2.4 fWAR per year, primarily due to a strong FIP and the ability to pitch a lot of innings. If one win costs $7.5 million then paying $20 million per year is a slight but not huge overpay. Writers at Fangraphs have also argued that Porcello is underrated, that he’s developed nicely into a 3-win player, that moving to Boston will make him better, that he deserved a huge payday, and that paying $20 million per year is reasonable. Paul Swydan, an author for Fangraphs, wrote an article in the Boston Globe suggesting that Porcello is the 13th-best pitcher in baseball.

On the other hand, I made the argument that Porcello is a slightly better version of Bud Norris. Let me explain why I made that argument and why just looking at WAR to decide pitchers' value isn’t always the best idea.

This first table compares Norris and Porcello’s performances from 2012-2015.

Porcello has a number of advantages. He’s been healthier so therefore he’s thrown more innings, but he also throws more innings per start. His win-loss record is slightly above .500 while Norris’s was slightly below .500 and they have roughly the same ERA. The main difference is that Porcello has a FIP that’s 0.4 runs lower than Norris and that’s why he has a considerably higher fWAR than Norris but a similar RA9_WAR.

This second table compares Norris and Porcello’s performance from 2012-2015 with the bases empty, runners on base, and runners in scoring position.

Porcello does a good job pitching with no one on base. He has a decent strikeout rate and more importantly an excellent walk rate. He gives up a standard home run rate, but it ends up resulting in fewer home runs than average due to a low fly ball rate. When no one is on base, Porcello is an ace. Meanwhile, Norris does a poor job in those situations. He gives up a lot of walks and has a horrific FIP of 4.68.

The problems start for Porcello when runners are on base. His K-BB% drops from 15% when the bases are empty, to 5.2% when a runner is on base, to 2.8% when a runner is in scoring position. The amount of fly balls that he gives up stays the same, but he also allows more home runs due to a higher HR/FB%. His HR/FB% is higher than average for reasons that will become clear later in the post. Unsurprisingly, his FIP goes from 3.25 with the bases empty, to 4.58 with a runner on base, to 4.8 with runners in scoring position.

Meanwhile, Norris improves when men are on base. His K-BB% jumps from 9.6% to 14.4% and his HR/9 rate drops from 1.3 with the bases empty, to 1 with a runner on base, to 0.85 with runners in scoring position. Unsurprisingly, Norris has a better FIP when pitching with men on base than when pitching without men on base.

The bottom line is that Norris becomes more effective when runners are on base while Porcello is less effective. The problem with that is that ERA measures what actually happens so by definition, it takes Porcello collapsing with runners on base into account. After all, that causes him to allow more runs which counts against his ERA. FIP doesn't have a way of differentiating between how Porcello does with men on base and with the bases empty. The formula presumes that a pitcher will perform the same with runners on base than with the bases empty and therefore doesn’t take into account the fact that Porcello does a terrible job pitching with the bases empty. It seems reasonable that this flaw means that in this case, ERA is a more effective estimator than FIP. At the very least, it indicates that FIP is a bad estimator to determine Porcello's performance. Honestly, if any of the two pitchers has had bad luck it’s probably Bud Norris, as one would expect him to have a lower ERA than his FIP which isn't the case.

Furthermore, Porcello’s performance in this regard has been reasonably consistent. This is what he’s done from 2012-2015.

His performance has been pretty much consistent. It's true that he did better with the bases empty in 2013 than he has in previous years. He has also performed slightly worse with the bases empty in 2015. Likewise, when men are on base the numbers are also reasonably consistent. His 2015 FIP is a bit worse due to an elevated HR/FB% but his 2015 xFIP is in line with normal figures.

The only case where there’s a significant change is in 2014 when runners are in scoring position. In those situations, his FIP was 3.9 while his average FIP from 2012-2015 was 4.8. But the reason why his FIP was so good in 2014 in those situations was because of a 4.8% HR/FB rate and not because he was able to fix his poor K-BB%. A 4.8% HR/FB rate is not sustainable and indeed his xFIP for 2014 with RISP is similar to his 2012-2015 average.

Basically, the data show that Porcello hasn’t had a good K-BB rate with men on base in any year from 2012 to 2015 and that his success in 2014 was due to avoiding home runs with men on base. That's not a strategy for success.

This next table is created with data from ESPN's Stats and Information portal and further shows how Porcello has done from 2012-2015 with men on base.

It tells pretty much the same story. I'm including it because it has statistics like OPS and wOBA that may be more useful to the user, It also shows how a deflated BABIP also contributed to Porcello’s success in 2014. Looking at Porcello’s performance in 2015, we can pretty safely say that his good fortune didn’t continue. A pitcher doesn't often have a .684 OPS with an 11.60 K% and a 9.00 BB%.

One might wonder why Porcello was able to give up fewer home runs in 2014 than he did in other seasons. This next table, using data provided by ESPN Stats and Information, shows how many fly balls Porcello allowed with RISP from 2012-2015.

Porcello's fly balls weren’t hit as hard in 2014 with RISP as they were in 2013 and 2015 but they were hit as hard as they were in 2012. That could be seen as a good sign, but the problem is that Porcello only allowed 40 in those situations in 2014. This is an awfully small sample and in light of his 2015 results, it appears that it was just fortunate chance. This is especially supported by the fact that his fly balls were hit roughly just as hard with men on base in 2014 as they were in 2012 and 2013. He's been pounded pretty badly in 2015.

The next question is why does Porcello struggle to get strikeouts when runners are in scoring position? This is easily answered by looking at the results of his pitches over the period using data from ESPN Stats and Information. Here’s a chart.

Porcello throws more strikes when the bases are empty than when there are runners in scoring position while also allowing fewer balls being put into play. This results in him having a higher percent of called strikes when the bases are empty than when runners are in scoring position as well as also allowing more foul balls. It would seem that batters are better able to predict where his pitches will go when batters are in RISP chances than not. All in all, more strikes and fewer balls put into play results in more strikeouts and fewer walks when no one is on base.

This next table shows how batters perform against Porcello’s pitches.

Porcello appears able to throw his fastball for strikes and can use it to get strikeouts. The problem is that batters absolutely annihilate them when they put them into play. Batters hit the pitch so hard in fact, that it probably is a bad idea to throw it. In addition, batters also crush his curve/slider when they put those pitches into play. Those pitches appear to be slightly successful when no one is on base but result in absolute disaster when men are on base. The bottom line is that he only has an effective sinker and changeup. It turns out that there's a major difference between being able to throw five pitches and being able to throw five pitches well.

Naturally, the Red Sox have adjusted to this fact by changing what pitches he throws. This next table shows the percentages of each pitch he throws each year.

For some reason, the Red Sox have decided that Porcello should throw his fastball more often and that he should throw his changeup and sinker less often. Or they’ve decided he should throw his worst pitch rather than his best pitches. I have no idea why they'd resort to this strategy but it turns out that having a pitcher throw his worst pitches more often results in him having a worse year than average.

This suggests that his results in 2015 have been earned and that they aren't representative of how he could perform used properly. It also makes one wonder whether what the Red Sox are planning and whether they can use him properly.

If one just looks at WAR, FI,P and health, then Porcello appears to be a good pitcher. He’d almost definitely be considered above average if not a solid No. 2. Given that he's been healthy, it would seem reasonable to give him a large contract based on his prior performance despite his poor ERA.

However, if one takes a more in-depth look at his stats, it quickly becomes clear that he’s terrible when men are on base or in scoring position and was successful in 2014 solely due to luck with home runs. It seems he doesn’t have a viable fastball, is unable to throw strikes in the clutch, and that his ERA is probably a better predictor of his true ability than his FIP. This probably means that he’s a No. 5 starter and his true ability is limited. I suppose he may be better than Bud Norris but certainly not worth $20 million per year.

That’s exactly why one can’t just look at WAR to gauge ability. While WAR is helpful, it’s solely a number that summarizes a pitcher's performance without providing much insight into why a pitcher performs the way he does. Sometimes that insight makes it clear that a pitcher isn’t as good as one would otherwise think.