15 August 2017

Crowded House: How A Prospect's Imminent Arrival Will Affect Lineup Decisions

An announced crowd of 4,116 gathered at Prince George’s Stadium, Sunday night, to witness hometown Bowie take on Portland

The Baysox are in a battle for first place, but it was also an opportunity for fans to catch one last glimpse of outfielder Anthony Santander before his Rule 5-mandated promotion on Thursday.  He didn’t disappoint, going 2 for 4 with a home run, showcasing the talent that has him ranked in the upper-echelon of the Orioles’ farm system.

MLB.com currently lists Santander as Baltimore’s ninth-best prospect.  He’s raw, but obviously the power potential is there.  He’s listed at just 6-2, 190, but reportedly looks bigger out on the field.  And, at 22, he may continue to grow into that frame. 

A 2011, international signing by Cleveland, Santander is a switch-hitter, can take a walk, and has the ability to play both corner outfield spots, as well as first base.  As stated before, he needs reps - especially with all the time he has lost to injury. 

Personally, I hate the Rule 5 draft.  While it’s worked out for clubs such as the Orioles in the past (see Flaherty, Ryan), it usually ends up stunting the growth of the key principles involved.  A year of potential development is instead spent rotting away on a Major League bench somewhere. 

With the end of the season closing in, Baltimore will also have the ability to preserve Santander’s rookie status.  That, coupled with the Orioles’ logjams at his natural positions, removes almost any incentive for Showalter to pencil his name in more than once a week.

The players ahead of Santander on the pecking order are some guys named Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith and Trey Mancini.  You’ve probably heard of them, as well as Davismuch-chronicled struggles this year. 

My perfect scenario involves benching Davis, slotting Mancini to first and letting Santander take his lumps in left field.  This, of course, will not happen.  A) Davis is not being paid $21 million dollars to occupy the pine and B) Baltimore still harbors dreams of capturing a wild card spot.  Teams with playoff aspirations don’t tend to hand out starting gigs to unproven rookies. 

To compound matters further, Ryan Flaherty and J.J. Hardy are also approaching the expiration dates on their rehab assignments (though, reportedly, Hardy may need more time on the shelf).  Their return throws the infield into further flux, as Jonathan Schoop and the red-hot Tim Beckham will continue to dominate playing time at second base and shortstop, respectively.

Hardy is making $14 million, in the last year of his contract.  If he’s healthy, the front office will demand his initials be written in the line-up, forgoing the awkward conversation about whether or not that decision holds merit.   

To satisfy everyone’s hunger for playing time, Baltimore could shuffle some of those at-bats to the DH-slot.  Unfortunately, Trumbo – who isn’t exactly setting the world on fire himself – will be spending most of the time clogging up playing time there.    

Meanwhile, cut to a shot of Craig Gentry, Joey Rickard and Ruben Tejada getting completely lost in the complex shuffle.  If the trio is demoted to make room for current DL’ers (and assuming they aren’t lost to waivers), count on at least one of them returning after September 1st

The list of mouths to feed is growing.  Anthony Santander’s hometown is Margarita, Venezuela.  Buck Showalter may need to down one or two adult beverages of the same name to devise a playing-time strategy that is fair to all players involved. 

14 August 2017

Another Fall For Chris Davis


This is not the worst Chris Davis has been, and it's not the worst he's going to be. At 31 years old and in the second year of a massive contract, Davis has been extremely disappointing in 2017 for an O's team that could desperately use the 2013 or 2015 versions of Davis, let alone the one from last season. Instead, Davis has been more like the 2014 version, when he had a similar wRC+ to what he does now (94 then, 93 now) and a wOBA that was just seven points worse.

The strongest sign yet that Buck Showalter and the O's are frustrated and recognize Davis's struggles is that he recently dropped in the batting order. (Showalter also dropped a slumping Davis in the order last August for a while.) On Thursday, Davis received a day off, with Showalter noting to reporters that Davis may not even play on Friday. Instead, Davis found his name on the lineup card, yet he had been dropped from his standard spot at cleanup to seventh. It's also worth noting that Trey Mancini leapfrogged Mark Trumbo, who moved to sixth, with Tim Beckham moving to the leadoff spot and Adam Jones taking over at cleanup. It's not unusual for Showalter to tinker with his lineup in... let's say, interesting ways, but it's hard to ignore a lineup in which Davis is batting seventh (and justifiably so).

The Orioles (read: Peter Angelos) inked a power-hitting first baseman to a huge contract that would start in his age-30 season. Obviously, there were red flags. Things have gotten worse. In 2016, Davis was not nearly as good as he had been the year before (with a 148 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR), but he was fine (with a 111 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR).

Fans were hoping for a rebound, especially since Davis's production throughout his career has been pretty erratic from year to year. As I've noted before, Davis has never had two seasons in a row with a wOBA difference of fewer than 43 points. As of right now, that number is 18, meaning that streak will probably come to an end. Instead of a jump in production, Davis has continued to fall, and the only real comforting thought is his track record: maybe he'll just bounce back because he's done it before.

But again, things aren't trending in the right direction for Davis. Injuries are somewhat of a concern. Davis dislocated his thumb in June of 2016, which had a negative impact on the second half of the season for him. Then this past June, Davis injured his right oblique and missed about a month on the disabled list. He does seem to be healthy now, but it hasn't resulted in an uptick in production.

Let's run through some other concerns. Davis is striking out 36.5% of the time, which is ridiculous, even for him (career 31.7 K%). His .210 ISO is approaching the worst mark in his O's career (.209 in 2015). He's continuing to offer at fewer pitches in the strike zone (53.3%), and is again swinging a bit less overall (42.1%). Both marks would be career lows. He's also making less contact on out-of-zone pitches (47.4%), which would also be a career worst. And all of this is coming with opposing pitchers being less afraid to challenge him in the zone (43.5 Zone%, highest since 2014).

Davis's deteriorating pitch recognition skills are a serious problem. Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer highlighted as much in his June piece, "Chris Davis Has Become MLB’s Caught-Looking King":
Davis, though, is taking called strikeouts to an unprecedented extreme. After striking out looking 56 times in both 2014 and 2015, he set an all-time single-season record last year with 79 punchouts, breaking the previous record of 72 set by Jack Cust in 2007. (Cust is the only other hitter ever to top 67.) And Davis seems determined to obliterate his own record this year. The average hitter this season has struck out looking at a rate that would translate to 30 punchouts per 600 plate appearances. Davis has already been rung up 35 times in just 208 plate appearances, putting him on pace for a ridiculous 109. The 11-strikeout gap between Davis and the next-most-frequent looking-K victims of 2017 — Keon Broxton and Ryan Schimpf, who are tied with 24 — is as big as the gap between those two and the 11 hitters who are tied for 39th place. Davis is the king of caught looking. And while striking out isn’t awful in the abstract, he can’t hit homers if he doesn’t swing.
Davis's oblique injury occurred a couple weeks after that post was written, so topping his dubious record from last season may be out of reach. Still, despite missing that time, Davis is the current leader in called strikeouts with 51. That's four more than Aaron Judge, who has stepped to the plate 125 more time than Davis.

Davis not swinging the bat, even at strikes, is worrisome. But things haven't gone as well even when he makes contact. Let's look at three of Davis's batted ball statistics from 2015-2017, courtesy of Statcast. Keep in mind that for all of the ranks, the minimum is 30 batted balls.

Exit velocity
2015: 91.9 mph (18th)
2016: 90.8 mph (t-61st)
2017: 89.2 mph (t-79th)

Barrels/PA
2015: 9.9% (t-6th)
2016: 8.0% (29th)
2017: 6.1% (t-96th)
Barrel = Well-struck balls with an expected BA/SLG above .500/1.500

Average batted ball distance
2015: 217 feet (t-12th)
2016: 213 feet (t-19th)
2017: 210 feet (26th)

Davis's offensive skills were always going to deteriorate at some point in the next few seasons. That's how things work with first basemen. Unfortunately, he has declined faster than anticipated. In reality, Davis hasn't really been good since the first half of 2016, when he posted a wRC+ of 123.

This is the part where we talk a little more about Davis's $161 million contract (in which he's paid $23M per year, with $6 million of that deferred without interest per year). The non-deferred part of his contract runs through 2022, and he'll be receiving deferred payments through 2037.

Unless things turn around in a hurry - and it's still possible Davis rights the ship - the Orioles will be paying money for a long time to a player who isn't very good, without receiving the exceptional upfront production they were hoping for. The most positive thing you could really say about the Davis deal at the time was that the O's decided to spend that money on any player at all. It still looked misguided, and it will almost assuredly end up being discussed and mocked the same way that Ryan Howard's and Albert Pujols's contracts are. That's how things work with aging first basemen. But even those guys didn't fall off as quickly as Davis has.

There's really not much else to say. Davis's contract is unmovable, and he either starts playing better or he doesn't. He's still going to find his name in the lineup card on a daily basis as long as he's healthy. If this is the new normal for Davis, there's a lot of disappointment to come.

Photo via Keith Allison. Stats via FanGraphs and Statcast. Salary information via Cot's.

09 August 2017

Dylan Bundy Has Been Just What The Orioles Needed

Dylan Bundy hasn't been amazing this year. He's not a Cy Young candidate, and he doesn't get discussed among the best pitchers in the game. He isn't one, at least, right now. But for the second season in a row, he has maintained his health, and he's producing actual, needed results in a rotation that has been filled with question marks and disappointment for most of the season. Simply put, he's more than been up to the task.

Most recently, Bundy was excellent in Monday night's win over the Angels. In seven innings of two-run ball, Bundy struck out 10 and didn't walk a batter while mainly relying on his fastball and infamous slider/cutter.
It was one of Bundy's best starts of the season, and it just so happened to come after he held the Royals scoreless over eight innings in his previous outing (while only throwing 93 pitches).

The Orioles have continued to give Bundy extra rest when they can, with the apparent goal for him to throw about 180 innings. Some think that's too much, while some don't think he should be limited at all. I tend to lean on the more cautious side. For now, though, Bundy seems fine. Perhaps the additional rest has helped. In the first half of the season, his average fastball velocity was 92.45 mph. In the four starts after the break, he's averaging just under 93 mph. That's not much, but everything little bit helps.

From mid-July on last season, after Bundy transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation, he averaged 94.8 mph on his fastball. So that is definitely a decrease of a couple miles per hour from last season, but there's also one major difference in Bundy this year. He's throwing his slider/cutter! (And he's using it about 20% of the time.) One concern among scouts (and obviously notorious cutter hater Dan Duquette) is that throwing the cutter too often can lead to a decrease in fastball velocity. I'm not saying that's directly the reason for Bundy's velocity decline, but it can't be easily discounted.
It's worth pondering whether Bundy can be a top-of-the-line starter with an average fastball velocity (the major league average for starting pitchers this season is 92.3 mph). Bundy is easily one of the Orioles' best options, but, well, any decent starter would be in the team's current situation. You might take the resurgent Kevin Gausman over Bundy, but that's it.

Most importantly, Bundy seems to be healthy. And he has taken a step forward this year, even if his velocity hasn't followed suit. In his 71-plus innings last year, Bundy had a 4.52 ERA and a 5.24 FIP. In a little over 134 innings this year, he's lowered both, with an ERA of 4.15 and a FIP of 4.70. His strikeouts have taken a bit of a tumble (from 9.04 K/9 to 7.17), but he's also issuing fewer free passes (from 3.77 BB/9 to 2.68).

There's no saying Bundy doesn't have another gear. He could be even better next season, especially since the O's will surely be done talking about innings limits with him. But even if this current version is what he's going to be, that's still pretty good! The Orioles need more cost-controlled young pitching. Obviously Bundy's hype from 2012 got many people excited and hoping he could be a superstar, but he'd be far from the only amazing talent to not end up being phenomenal. The Orioles went through this with Matt Wieters. The hype can get out of control, and there's almost nothing a player can do to live up to that potential. Sometimes it can be just as simple as having a good player is better than a bad player.

It's been well discussed that the Orioles will need starting pitching next season. They sure do, with only Bundy and Gausman penciled in as starters. But you could do worse than building a rotation around those two pitchers, with Gausman under team control through 2020 and Bundy through 2021. It would be nice if the Orioles could develop more pitchers to join them, or even just add some veterans who aren't terrible. It seems easy, but maybe it's not.

08 August 2017

Who Hits Like Hays?

Austin Hays has been on a tear this year. Actually, he has been on a tear for abut a year and a half.  When drafted, the common refrain was that he did basically everything average.  Hitting, power, running, fielding, arm...all average.  That is why he lasted to the third round.  Hays had no obvious tool that could drive his way through the minors and his collegiate career was not against the highest of competition.

So, the Orioles drafted him and he went on the aforementioned tear.  Hays has shown a great approach at the plate, which seems to play up his contact ability.  He also is a bit aggressive, but his contact rate is high enough that he does not strike out all that much, but rather produces weak contact on pitches he probably should be taking.  That has not been a detriment at low A, high A, or AA, but it may be more troublesome in the Majors if his ability peg him as a sub-.270 hitter as opposed to his consistent .330 performance in the minors.

Register Batting
Year Lev PA HR BA OBP SLG
2016A-1534.336.386.514
2017AA15310.333.362.632
2017A+28016.328.364.592
All 58630.332.369.582
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/4/2017.

Last week, a reader asked for me to do some similarity scoring for batted ball profiles.  The reader noted that Jonathan Schoop's profile looked awfully similar to Austin Hay's.  When one looks at batted ball profiles for Major Leaguers while including only the stat line available for Minor Leaguers as well, you wind up comparing ground balls, line drives, and fly balls as well as whether the batter pulled the ball, went to center, or to the opposite field.  These similarities only consider that.  They do not consider how many walks or strikeouts a batter has or even the quality of the contact.  They simply look at effectively the launch angle and direction.

Austin Hays this  year has been a strong pull hitter with over 50% of his batted balls going to left field.  He also is a pretty even fly ball / ground ball with a tendency to hit line drives more than his peers. Below are the results for Austin Hays in comparison to batted ball profiles for players during the 2016 season in the Majors (top and bottom 5% comps):

Name Total
Gregory Polanco 34
Asdrubal Cabrera 37
Josh Donaldson 59
Carlos Beltran 60
Alex Gordon 66
Edwin Encarnacion 71
Victor Martinez 71
Jason Kipnis 73
----- -----
Ian Desmond 209
Jean Segura 209
Adam Eaton 214
Jonathan Villar 214
Eric Hosmer 215
Yunel Escobar 218
Joe Mauer 223
DJ LeMahieu 270
Howie Kendrick 284

Polanco is the batted ball profile that immediately comes to my mind for Hays.  I think a major difference between the two has been the amount of power shown this season for the 22 yo Hays (~.260 ISO) and what Polanco managed at age 21 at the same level (~.150).  The second difference is Hays' poor ability to walk while Polanco was able to bring in league average walking ability.

Power tends to have more staying than walks in the minors, but the two players do seem to be in the same orbit.  Asdrubal Cabrera also had a similar profile at that age and actually looked a great deal more like Polanco.  He too had an ISO around .150 and an average walk rate.  Similar to Polanco, Cabrera retained a decent walk rate to balance out a batting average that collapsed from a .300 minors hitter to a .265 majors hitter.  On the bottom end are all players with extreme groundball rates and a tendency to usually hit the ball to center or to the opposite field.

Again, for emphasis, the similarities are simply who at the MLB level has the most similar or least similar batted ball profiles.  It does not consider any other aspect of hitting.  It should also be known that hitting mechanics can be altered significantly upon reaching the majors.  That said, usually it does not.  As long as Hays keeping making contact, he will be hitting the ball similarly to a group of rather solid talent.

07 August 2017

The Future of Zach Britton

In case you hadn't heard, the Orioles didn't trade Zach Britton. Despite what seemed like strong interest from multiple teams, most notably the Astros, the non-waiver trade deadline passed and Britton stayed in Baltimore, gaining a save and win in the week since. Details surrounding the deal have begun to leak out, with multiple reports saying that the Astros may have been a bit stingy with their prospects, and as such the Orioles decided to keep their dominant closer.

But, for how long? While the Orioles have played well since the deadline and find themselves in the midst of the wild card hunt despite what remains a sub-.500 record, it seems Britton's future with the club is still very much in doubt. MASN's Roch Kubatko has repeatedly questioned the likelihood of the team agreeing to a substantial raise for Britton in arbitration, which brings up inevitable speculation that the team may yet end up dealing him before the 2018 season.

The issue seems to revolve around the fact that Britton, who is making $11.4 million in his second to last year of arbitration, may be in line to make as much as $12-13 million next season. This would track with raises for guys like Aroldis Chapman ($3 million raise in his last arbitration season), Wade Davis ($2 million), Greg Holland (nearly $4 million, but was non-tendered leading into his last arbitration year), and Kenley Jansen ($4 million). Given the number of holes the team is facing in the rotation as well as other arbitration raises to players like Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and Brad Brach, there may be concern that spending top dollar for one year on Britton doesn't quite fit into the budget. Indeed, spending potentially 10% of the payroll on a closer may be unpalatable, especially if the team fails to make the postseason this year.

The choices, then, are: tender Britton a deal with an almost certain salary increase and keep him, tender him a contract and trade him, or non-tender him. Kubatko's reporting hasn't explicitly entertained the notion that Britton will be non-tendered, but if front office misgivings about a salary increase for Britton are public knowledge it could torpedo any leverage that the club would have to make a deal immediately after the season. Given the repeated insistence by the front office that the Orioles are attempting to compete in 2018, however, it also seems unlikely that the team will want to move Britton for less than they could have gotten at the deadline.

That said, it is almost certainly the case that Britton's injury plagued season had something to do with the less than stellar trade offers. Over his last four outings as of August 6, however, he's been his usual fantastic self, throwing 3 1/3 perfect innings. His velocity has returned and he looks like the Britton of old, just maybe a couple of weeks later than would have been ideal. If he really is back, there is going to be some serious regret on the part of contenders that could have had him if the offer had been better.

Continued outstanding performance will certainly keep his trade value up, even though relievers historically have been valued more highly at the deadline than in the off season, but anything less than a dominant August and September will raise very interesting questions. Certainly, the idea that the Orioles would simply non-tender Britton and get nothing in return seems totally insane, but the fact that there isn't an iron clad commitment to pay Britton an expected arbitration raise opens up the remote possibility that it could happen. If teams sense that Britton may be non-tendered, the likelihood that the Orioles would get anything approaching the return they were offered at the deadline seems implausible. What both Britton and the Orioles really need is for him to continue to pitch well, which would open up multiple options in the off season, maybe even including signing him long term.

Even if he doesn't pitch great down the stretch, however, it isn't impossible to imagine that teams will be interested in him on a one year deal worth something like $14 million. Zach Britton, even at that price, surely does not have negative value. The Orioles wouldn't have much trouble moving him regardless, but of course the return could be much, much lower than someone with Britton's talent level deserves. So, the solution is: Pitch great and things will be fine! Maybe I should just send the whole team a memo...

02 August 2017

Orioles Take the Road to 2018

While so much focus on the trades laid on whether or not the club is built to be a contender or refreshed the prospect ranks, I think a bit more nuance might be best.  The post will look at a few areas of the club and what exactly the future holds.

Shortstop and Third Base

In early October 2014, the Orioles solved the left side of the infield for three seasons.  They inked J.J. Hardy to a three year deal (and an evergreen fourth year) to create a defensive stalwart combo between him and Manny Machado.  Machado kept up his end, but Hardy quickly developed a problematic left labrum issue that sapped his power and, eventually, a bad back that sapped his defense.  At the time, it looked like a decent solution, one that I was only mildly against.  It has turned into one of the worst contracts in Orioles history.

In 2017, Hardy never seemed to get healthy and his body appears broken down.  Two days ago, he was placed on the 60 day DL, which is where players go and are never heard from until November.  The club has trotted out Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Flaherty, and Ruben Tejada.  Schoop simply does not have the range and has trouble getting down onto balls.  Flaherty has yet to have the bat that was rumored on his minor league scouting reports.  What Tejada lacks in defense, he lacks more in offense.  All in all, none are good solutions.  Machado can play there, but it remains to be seen where exactly he envisions himself.  Is he an otherworldly third baseman or is he one of the handful bashing shortstops?

A few weeks back, the Orioles inquired on Adeiny Hechevarria.  He has two years left of team control and will be earning about 4.5 MM next season.  The Orioles allegedly floated a low minors arm and Hyun Soo Kim.  The deal supposedly ended with the salary offset the Orioles were looking for.  Instead, Hechevarria went to the Tampa Rays.  With Tampa, his defense has been great and he seems to hit the ball hard.  Maybe the Rays are looking to revamp the swing because as good as the statcast metrics look, he has done nothing at the plate.

The Rays made their decision though and seem to be sticking with it because they jettisoned Tim Beckham to Baltimore.  Jettison is the right word, the Rays grew weary over the years with Beckham's behavior.  Several instances of lagging on the field and rumors beyond appear to evidence their alleged irritation and the eventual transaction of a young-ish, defensively able, decent bat for a shortstop player to an in-division rival.  In return, the Rays got an interesting, but not too interesting pitching prospect in Tobias Myers.

Tim Beckham
Age PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ UZR(SS)
25223.222.274.42993-2.1
26215.247.300.434991.3
27345.259.314.40796-1.8
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/1/2017.

What may make Beckham special is that while he plays an average-ish shortstop, he is also capable of playing second base and third base.  This enables him, if he does start, to adapt to whatever the Orioles choose to do with Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado.  The offensive output is fairly playable as well.  Not exceptional, but playable.  In the end, this move gives the club three years of control (Beckham is entering his first arbitration) for player who could solve holes at several positions.  He is not exceptional and their are some considerable red flags attached, but it could be a boon.  It is a move that builds for this year and next and perhaps two more.

Starting Rotation

The sense is that the Orioles attempted to deal Zach Britton for at least one starting pitcher to plug into the 2018 rotation.  For one reason or another, that did not happen at the trade deadline and now we can all assume whatever we wish to assume about anything.  Moving on, the Orioles did one major move that potentially could improve the 2018 rotation: trading for Jeremy Hellickson.  Hellickson was acquired for the aforementioned Hyun Soo Kim as well as some international money and Garrett Cleavenger.  In other words, the Orioles sent away things they do not use for something they could use.  Now, Hellickson is a free agent at the end of the year, but he could help next year's rotation by letting the fatigued Dylan Bundy have extended rest for the remainder of the season or even be shut down completely.

Anyway, that is the hope.  The 2018 rotation looks to be Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and three people who have never been in my kitchen.  Who are those three men?  I do not know.  Ideally, something happens over the next couple months with Jayson Aquino, Alec Asher, or someone out in the ether like Lucas Long making themselves known.  Otherwise, a good portion of the 50 MM or so coming off the books will need to be devoted to rounding this group out.

Outfield

All signs appear to point to Austin Hays gracing the big league club at some point.  His batting approach does not appear to include walking, so that is always a concern.  However, he mashed HiA pitching and continues to mash AA pitching, so a jump to Baltimore would not be unheard of.  He will likely struggle, but that seems to be a logical move.  Cedric Mullins is also making a similar claim.  Add those with Joey Rickard, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, and Trey Mancini, and, well, that is your likely outfield bucket.

Ideally, the club finds someone, anyone, to pick up Trumbo for nothing.  He has some value, but it does not offset his contract and he really no longer has a place on this club with Mancini appearing to continue his breakout season.  Mancini lacks the athleticism to be a long term solution for the corner outfield positions.  His best spot is a Trumbo-less designated hitter position.  That really leaves Rickard, Jones, Hays, and Mullins to figure things out.  One outside of the box idea is that perhaps Jonathan Schoop's range has collapsed so much that a move to right field might be in order.

Catcher

Perhaps the only two conclusive misses for this past trade deadline are that Welington Castillo and Seth Smith are still around.  We do not know what the markets were and I did not hear anything on Castillo at all, which makes sense because the only non-move that made me nervous is the presence of Castillo.  As we have already established, a lot of money probably needs to rain down on the rotation and Castillo may hamper that slightly.

Last winter, Castillo was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks.  They could find no takers willing to go through arbitration with Castillo.  The Orioles made their way to him once he hit the open market and gave him a player option for 6 MM.  Castillo is not a good catcher and his bat has been stuck in the doldrums, so it is becoming increasingly more likely that he accepts the option.  This would not be ideal for the club because Caleb Joseph has shown he deserves to be around and Chance Sisco is polishing off his minor league career to be promoted next Spring.

Conclusion

Several media reports have put the Orioles down as losers at the deadline.  They failed to get anything out of the commodities they possessed.  Even the most blatantly unneeded and somewhat wanted commodity, Seth Smith, remained with the club.  With the industry discussing the coming cliff after the 2018 season without a strong farm to deal with the likely mass exodus.

It is true that the commodities that the Orioles have the rights over could have buoyed the system somewhat.  Rumors have it that Britton was effectively worth a cost controlled 2018 starting pitcher plus two interesting prospects (read: not top 100).  The question then becomes to what extent does Britton really improve the farm by trading him?  What really is the loss in value come this winter?  If the loss is as much as a top tier minor league 2018  ready starting pitcher, then is that really worth all that much.  A general study would state that value is about 25 MM, but the median value is about 4 MM.

In other words, a forest of prospects is very meaningful, but a solitary tree does not mean all that much.  Britton's value would have been fully in the trade column if he could pull back a top 10 truly elite talent, but that did not appear to be the case.  So while the Orioles should have moved Britton, perhaps, there simply was not a true location to send him for it to mean all that much.

In turn, the trade deadline for the club was much more about tinkering for 2018.  It is doubtful that the club can finish out 35-21 in the remaining games to win it all.  That is why you did not see the club make any win now moves.  The moves were simply to shoulder this season and build for another run next year.  That probably is the most you can ask for when the return value on the deals was firmly in a gray area.

Easy deals, top 10 prospect deals, would be something I would trust to a potentially outgoing senior executive.  However, deals with nuance truly requires whoever will be leading the club over the next few years to make that decision.  Many of us have said it, Duquette needs an extension or the club needs to find who that next chap with the splendid title is.  From there, the future can be directed.

01 August 2017

So you're telling me there's a chance!

There a lot of ways you can sum up the Orioles 2017 season.  Most of them involve colorful, four-letter words.  In times of insanity, sometimes we must comfort ourselves with humor, lest bleakness envelope us completely.  So, let’s sprinkle in a few quotes from the timeless (and aptly-titled) Farrelly-brothers classic, Dumb and Dumber

Do you want to hear the most-annoying sound in the world? 

For baseball fans, it has to be the sound from a front office in denial.  For weeks, the Orioles’ brass has done a good job talking out of both sides of their mouths, promising both fire-sale and contention in practically the same breath.

We live in the bright and glorious age of advanced metrics and baby-faced, whip-smart general managers.  Despite this, it often feels like the Orioles’ baseball department procures their analysis from the contents of a crumpled-up newspaper. 

Here’s a neat fact: Fangraphs pegs the Orioles with a 3% chance of grabbing a wild card slot (sterling when compared to their .4% chance of winning the division).  To add insult to injury, even the last place Blue Jays have better odds.

Baseball fans aren’t stupid.  They can spot a dud when they see one.  Look no further than the Orioles’ middling attendance numbers, this season (26,704, 19th in MLB).  And yet, there was Dan Duquette, on Monday, confidently informing reporters that Baltimore is going for it. 

While the quote sounds like a man trying his best to get fired, long-tenured Orioles fans can detect the strong whiff of ownership behind the rhetoric. 

I do believe the Orioles will play better down the stretch – not so much because of their controversial-acquisitions, but because the law of averages states the overall-talent of this club is too great to play .429 ball, as they did in May and June. 

Still, when your best-case scenario involves an appearance in a one-game-playoff, it’s time to burn the ships and rebuild with the future in mind.  The Orioles have done neither, failing to capitalize on expendable assets (Zach Britton, Brad Brach) and going out and acquiring players who will have little to no re-sale value. 

The perfect epitaph for the Orioles’ season is the quote from this gem of a D&D scene.



Well, minus the whole redeeming part.  Redeeming implies light at the end of a dark tunnel.  It would mean that all this agony would someday be worth it.  There is little to no evidence that will be the case.  


31 July 2017

The One Move the Orioles Should Really Make Today

The MLB non-waiver trade deadline is today, but you probably knew that already. Despite some rumblings that the Orioles were on the fence about being buyers or sellers, we here at the Depot have pretty much been on the “seller” side of things for some time. And as Jon explained last week, being 3.5 games back with 6 teams in front of you is not an easy task to overcome, and it’s a big reason why sites such as Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus have the Orioles odds of making playoffs (in any form) so low.

Is a mid-level veteran rotation arm really going to move the needle on this team and propel them to a wild card spot? No, it won’t. It will help (in the case of the Jeremy Hellickson trade, it helps in providing innings), but the team would also need improvement from all of their core players, specifically the starting rotation. So the Orioles should be selling and the fact that we’ve made it this far without any moves has to be a little troubling (again, I’m not counting Hellickson). But fear not, as of the time of this posting (9 AM ET), there is still 7 hours for the team to come to its senses and deal some players for something in return.

The players who are set to become free agents after the season are the obvious places to start, especially considering that the team has plans on competing in 2018. While there are 7 players set to enter free agency in the offseason (including Welington Castillo, who has a $7 million player option), none are likely to bring back returns that will help Baltimore next year or in the future.

Minimal Return
Probably More Valuable to Orioles Considering How Little the Return Would Be
DFA/Release Candidates
Sure the Orioles could (i.e. should) also look to clear the salary owed to Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, and/or Darren O’Day, but their combination of performance and remaining money owed doesn’t lead one to believe that anyone would be willing to take them, even for minimal return. So, if the Orioles are planning on being competitive in 2018 (which, in my opinion is debatable), the one player they absolutely need to trade today before the deadline is Zach Britton.

While it appears that the Orioles will not lose much from their free agents, they will have plenty of holes to fill. And as we’ve discussed before on this site, there isn’t anything in the high minors ready to contribute next year (if you’re a believer in Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle, I think the best case scenario is they can play their way to Baltimore after the 2018 All-Star break). The Orioles will need to fill (at least) 2 rotation spots, a SS (or 3B depending on where they decide to play Manny Machado), an upgrade in one (if not 2) outfield spots, and possibly even another catcher. Those holes can’t all be filled via free agency, and even if they could, it’s unlikely the team would spend enough for the team to be markedly improved.

Zach Britton is the one player that the Orioles can trade at the deadline whose return could fill one or two of those holes in 2018. Granted, it’s unlikely that he’ll bring back a superstar on the cusp of a major league call-up, but a package of 1 or 2 high minors prospects who could be solid contributors and 1 or 2 well-regarded prospects in the low minors is reasonable. If the Orioles aren’t going to trade Machado, then Britton is the one guy who can bring back some talent that can help the team sooner rather than later.

Barring any sort of injury, Britton’s value shouldn’t decline between now and the offseason, so it’s true that the Orioles could wait to get a package they like until then, but I do believe the time is now to trade Britton. He is the kind of elite bullpen arm that literally every contender could use, and the presence of Britton even on an already GREAT bullpen, makes that team much more dangerous in the postseason. And while there may be more teams looking for Britton’s services in the offseason, I think the Orioles can capitalize on some trade deadline desperation and sell Britton as someone who can impact 2 seasons.

Obviously, if Baltimore doesn’t get a deal that they like, they shouldn’t accept a deal just for the sake of accepting it. And in fact, with Britton’s injury earlier this season, some teams may be skeptical of whether or not Britton is healthy, which would be a cause of concern in acquiring him (another may be his salary). However, based on what Britton has shown since returning from injury, he appears to be pretty similar to what he was last year. The time to trade Zach Britton is today, and while losing him may hurt, the one thing the Orioles have been good at is finding cheap and effective relief arms. Britton makes every team in contention much better, and trading him is the best chance the Orioles have to give this group of players one last championship run in 2018.

27 July 2017

Trade Retrospective: Wade Miley vs. Ariel Miranda

When Wade Miley was acquired at the non-waiver trade deadline in 2016 for Ariel Miranda, there was legitimate reason to believe the Orioles had not dramatically improved their pitching situation. Miley had not posted an ERA under 4.34 since 2013 and was mired in, frankly, a poor season in Seattle. Miranda, on the other hand, had progressed quickly through the Orioles' farm system after coming over from the Cuban leagues and had put up solid, if unspectacular, numbers at every level. As we know, Miley has been (to be charitable) a low grade tire fire as an Oriole while Miranda has quietly been pretty decent in Seattle, despite a certain blogger arguing that Miley had figured things out in April and May.

It seems to be yet another ill-fated deadline move made by General Manager Dan Duquette, whose history at the non-waiver deadline has been checkered during his time in Baltimore. He infamously traded Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop for Scott Feldman, dealt away Zach Davies (who has become a relatively decent back-end starter himself) for two months of Gerardo Parra posting a .671 OPS, and got 20 lights-out innings from Andrew Miller in exchange for top pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez. This is... not amazing, to say the least. His overall best deal was probably getting Bud Norris for LJ Hoes and Josh Hader in 2013, though Hader is off to a decent start to his career in Milwaukee and Norris had an epic, $8 million meltdown in 2015 after a solid 2014. 

But was this move as bad as it seems? If you go by straight results, the answer is an unequivocal "yes, good lord, yes." Miranda has put up a 4.16 ERA to go along with a 1.145 WHIP for the Mariners, while Miley has countered with a ghastly 5.79 ERA and 1.733 WHIP during his time in Baltimore. If you could do a straight-up swap of those numbers, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that the Orioles would feel significantly better about their 4th starter slot right about now.

Of course, a straight swap is unrealistic for any number of reasons, but most notably that Baltimore and Seattle are not exactly the same in terms of being run environments. Historically, Camden Yards has been a hitter's haven (say that five times fast) while Safeco Field has been more forgiving to pitchers. This may explain the differences in xFIP between the two: Miley has put up an acceptable 4.66 xFIP this year, with Miranda posting a 5.33. 

xFIP grants pitchers a league average home run rate, arguing that year-to-year fluctuations are essentially noise, and in Miley's case this may be accurate. Before coming to Baltimore, Miley was pretty good at limiting home runs. This year, however, Miley has one of the worst HR/9 marks in baseball at 1.43. So, we've solved it! Miley went to Baltimore and gives up a ton of homers, while Miranda got to go to a better park and gives up fewer homers. Done and done.

While that's a convenient narrative, it turns out to perhaps not be so simple. Miranda has somehow been worse than Miley this season, with a shocking 1.73 HR/9 rate. So how is Miranda even above water this season? Well, for one thing, he does a good job of limiting hard contact and having pretty good command. He gives up homers, to be sure, but he doesn't put a ton of baserunners on which limits the overall damage. Miley, on the other hand, is more like Oprah: "you have a walk, and you have a walk!" Wade is walking an almost unfathomable 5.4 hitters per game, which is both far and away the highest in baseball this year and the worst mark of his career. So, Miley lets guys get on base all the time while also allowing lots of homers. That is not a recipe for success. On the other hand, Miley has a better than league average strikeout rate while Miranda prefers to pitch to contact.

So, did Duquette screw up? Yes, but not necessarily because Miranda is actually a much better pitcher than Miley. I think the numbers indicate that, while Miley has better peripheral stats without question, it may be the case that those stats do not tell the whole story. Miranda is, ironically, a guy that seems to have the ability to outperform his peripherals while Miley does not. Miranda would actually fit in perfectly with the O's overall philosophy of "we literally do not care about ERA estimators," while Miley's stat sheet on Fangraphs indicates that he is an okay pitcher getting unlucky. Watching him pitch this year, however, throws about 500 gallons of cold water on that theory. Additionally, Miley consistently underperforms his peripherals and, really, does nothing particularly well other than generating ground balls. So, it's not that Miranda is so much better, it's that Miley is bad, has been bad for a while, and has gotten worse since the Orioles traded for him.

In the case of Miley vs. Miranda, we find in favor of (drum roll)....getting better pitchers! But seriously, folks, those pining for the Miranda who got away probably wouldn't be much happier if he was still here and Miley was not, though he also doesn't cost $10 million. Miranda probably wouldn't be a sub-4.50 ERA guy in Baltimore, but there's also nothing that necessarily indicates he'd be a plus-5.50 guy, either. Miley, unfortunately, is. That's reason enough to say that this deal isn't something Duquette should lead with in his next job interview.

26 July 2017

Checking in with Trey Mancini

Left fielder Trey Mancini has been one of the lone bright spots in the Baltimore Orioles 2017 campaign. In each of the previous two seasons, Mancini made his way into the top 10 in Baseball America's list of organizational prospects, and so far has fulfilled his promise at the Major League level. While most rookies can be expected to struggle some at the plate, Mancini has put up a slash line for the Orioles similar to what he was doing for the organization's minor league affiliates. His OPS with the Major League club has eclipsed that for all but one year of his time spent in the minors.

Today, Mancini ranks as the 38th best rookie since 2017 in wRC+, a measure of pure hitting ability. His 127 wRC+ indicates that he's batting 27% better than the league as a whole, similar to the offensive performance put up by Francisco Lindor, Mookie Betts, and George Springer in their rookie seasons.

Earlier articles on this very website pointed to Mancini's very high HR/FB rate as a cause for his offensive performance, and a possible area of regression. When Mancini started the season, his 70% HR/FB rate was unsustainable, and it has fallen back to earth - kind of. His current 21.7% rate is still very high, 27th highest in the league among qualified hitters, but well within the range of an excellent power hitter.

However, Mancini hits ground balls too frequently to turn this HR/FB rate into the kind of attention that fellow rookie Aaron Judge is receiving. 50.7% of balls put into play by Mancini are ground balls, the 22nd highest rate in the league and mostly similar to league-average or below-average hitters.
As shown in the above batted ball trajectory chart, Mancini hits as many balls at steep downward angles (ie, into the dirt) as he does flat balls that are likely easily fielded grounders and balls at the 15 to 20 degree angle that are the most likely to be hits.

When hitting line drives and fly balls, the most preferable batted ball types, Mancini's average exit velocity of 96.4 miles per hour ranks 19th in the league this season. Of course, Mancini's average exit velocity is weaker when considering all batted ball types because he hits ground balls so frequently.

Notably, Mancini's power extends to all fields. Observe his spray chart, color-coded by exit velocity:
On balls in play that Mancini gets a solid bat on, he's generally hitting them to all fields. His weakly pulled grounders are not atypical for power hitters (and are the basis for shifting the infield against left-handed ones). That he hits line drives to all fields is notable, and promising for continued batting average success.

Most of the pitches Mancini sees are low and away. Most likely related: Mancini generally hits ground balls on pitches low and away that he puts into play. Fortunately, Mancini appears to exhibit a decent eye, swinging primarily at pitches middle and in:
While he has strong ground ball tendencies against pitches in all locations, Mancini is more likely to hit these middle-in pitches for fly balls, and hits line drives most frequently on pitches in the middle and bottom thirds of the zone. That he does a relatively good job of avoiding pitches that he almost definitely hits on the ground is another good sign for a 25-year-old who will likely rely on his bat to be a successful Major League ballplayer. If Mancini can avoid hitting as many balls into the dirt, he could improve his offensive performance even further.

Mancini is the Orioles' second best hitter this season in wRC+, and showing potential for consistent hitting and clear opportunities for improvement. The latter might not sound as positive, but identifying areas of weakness is a necessary first step toward improvement. If Mancini can reduce his GB% to something resembling the league average, or average among other power hitters, the Orioles might have a very scary hitter on their hands.

If the Orioles knew what they had on their hands in Mancini, they might not have been as eager to sign Chris Davis or Trumbo to longer-term and higher-priced contracts. As it stands, the Orioles have a good, young, controlled power hitter on their hands to fill the role of 1B/DH/OF-only-if-you-have-to.