26 May 2016

You Don't Have To Like The Orioles Striking Out So Much, But You Knew It Was Going To Happen

I hope you're sitting down when you read this: The Orioles assembled a team of power hitters, and they are striking out a lot. Sometimes, they are going to have games where they impress with powerful home run displays. They've done that. Other times, they are going to frustrate and run off stretches when they're not scoring a bunch of runs and look lost at the plate. They're in the middle of one of those brutal stretches right now, and Tuesday night's 19-strikeout, extra-inning loss was a prime, tough-to-watch example. They even managed to follow that up by striking out 18 times in nine innings on Wednesday.

Apparently Tuesday's struggles frustrated some more than others. Peter Schmuck of The Baltimore Sun singled out Adam Jones's quote in this Jon Meoli story about strikeouts being "part of [the Orioles'] DNA as a team." As usual, Jones had other interesting things to say, but it's not all that surprising that someone focused on the DNA comment and wrote something negative about it.

No one likes to see his or her favorite team's hitters constantly flail away at the plate, especially in crucial situations. It's maddening. As of last night, the O's were 10th in the majors in strikeout percentage, so surely fans of the teams above them feel similarly at times just as often, if not more.

Maybe Schmuck's angle is that O's batters shouldn't accept their whiffing ways, or that saying they're going to strike out means they aren't doing anything to prevent it. Or maybe the larger point is about wanting games to be more aesthetically pleasing (more balls in play, etc.) instead of swing and miss after swing and miss. The former seems ridiculous, but perhaps the latter is a discussion worth having. I don't really share that opinion, but many do.

Anyway, unless you really think Jones's comments mean the O's aren't trying or aren't striving to get better, then nothing about what the Orioles have done at the plate should be surprising. They rank 10th in runs per game in the majors, and the goal is still to score as many runs as possible. Maybe they should even be striking out more, considering the various free-swinging sluggers in their lineup.

In a March post for FanGraphs -- titled "Are the Orioles Going to Strike Out Too Much?" because everyone knew the Orioles put together a lineup full of windmills -- Dave Cameron noted that "team strikeout rate doesn’t really have a negative impact on the number of runs a team scores relative to expectations" before moving on to an analysis of extreme strikeout teams underperforming their BaseRuns projections.

Along those lines, it's reasonable to worry about the team's level of production in clutch situations as the season goes along, because high-strikeout teams might not be as good in that department. But it is silly for Schmuck to assert that "opposing advance scouts just [discovered] how vulnerable the Orioles are to a steady diet of offspeed stuff that breaks under and around the strike zone." The O's are a collection of mostly veteran players that have been heavily scouted, so give both them, the pitchers they are facing, and advanced scouts more credit than that. You don't think teams in the American League East know several O's hitters are vulnerable to pitches out of the strike zone? If not, then they need new scouts.

The Orioles haven't looked good at the plate lately. Some of that is the result of a long season, with normal ebbs and flows. Some of that is because this is what the O's lineup will occasionally look like. And some of that is because of certain players getting more playing time than they probably should, or batting in non-optimal spots in the lineup. The O's roster has holes that Buck Showalter can't hide.

In both 2014 and 2015, the O's were in the top 10 of highest strikeout percentage teams, and they still finished with top 10 offenses. In 2013, the O's were much lower in strikeouts (23rd) but placed fifth in runs scored. None of those teams won the World Series, because the number of strikeouts isn't the sole determinant of who prevails and who doesn't.

If you want to criticize anything, then rail against how this team was put together. But considering that the O's are still eight games above .500, that would be strange timing.

25 May 2016

What Happened To Brian Matusz?

Here's what’s crazy about the Brian Matusz situation: he was good last year. Legitimately good. Just last year! Against 206 batters, split nearly evenly between righties and lefties, he had a solid 71 ERA-, 85 FIP-, and 98 xFIP-. His K-BB rate was an excellent 17.5%, nearly 30% better than a league-average reliever.

But he couldn’t find it again in 2016. Against 35 batters he put up an ERA- of 290, FIP-, of 303, and xFIP- of 248. That’s while striking out a paltry 2.9% (just one batter!) and walking an astounding 20%. On top of that, he surrendered three HR in six innings, with two coming in the same game.

It's just six innings, but -- what the hell happened?

Matusz stopped throwing strikes. Hitters waited him out, taking their walks, and crushed what he gave them, refusing to strike out. The speed with which hitters caught up to him, and the severity with which they tagged him, is odd to me. Matusz was never stellar but he was never this bad.

His Zone% plummeted:

Hitters didn't chase like they did in 2015. In particular, they spat on his fastball and slider, which he'd used as strikeout pitches:

In 2015, these two pitches accounted for 50 strikeouts and 12 walks of 206 batters, amounting to a 24.2% K rate and 5.8% walk rate.

In 2016, these pitches accounted for one strikeout and seven walks of 35 batters, for terrible 2.8% strikeout and 20% walk rates.

When they did get a pitch to their liking, batters didn’t miss. Opponents' Z-Contact% jumped from 67.2% to 75.8%.

Hitters connected with his fastball and change-up more often:

When they connected, they did more damage:


These weren't fluke hits. Exit velocity shows Matusz's fastball, and to some extent his change-up, were very hittable:


Whew. That's a pretty ugly story. The speed and magnitude of hitters' adjustment to Matusz astounds me. Was it bad luck? Poor sequencing? It wasn't velocity; his fastball was down about 0.80 MPH, which isn't good, but that drop isn't enough to explain the graphs above. And his other pitches were flat or even up. His horizontal release points separated out a bit compared to last year, but again, could those fractions of an inch really make that much of a difference?

The first graph tells the story to me: Matusz lost his command. He couldn't locate his fastball like he used to in order to put hitters away. That, and perhaps some pitch-tipping (or amazing advance scouting) led to hitters laying off the heater and the slider because they were ahead in the count. Thus the high walk rate and increased damage on pitches in the zone.

Finally, his HR/FB rate of 30% indicates some bad luck. Matusz had been keeping the ball on the ground better than ever before; his GB/FB rate of 1.10 was the highest of his career. That's what you want to see from a pitcher who's not striking out a lot of batters.

He'll be back in the majors. Matusz is left-handed, 29 years old, and making reasonable money. He's one season removed from a good year and his struggles came on so rapidly and sharply that other teams may see them as a fluke. Besides, his stinker of a 2016 is only six innings.

Plus, he's coming from the Orioles. Some team is bound to look at him and think they can do what the Cubs did to Jake Arrieta. Neither the Orioles nor the Braves need him, but there are 28 more teams who might.

Fare thee well, Brian Matusz. You never lived up to your promise as the number four overall pick, but you were a good reliever for a few years and you deserve a tip of the cap from this fanbase.

24 May 2016

Looking Back At Fangraphs' Projections

After a fourth of the season is in the books, the Orioles are 26-16 and have the second highest winning percentage in the majors. Naturally, this vindicates Fangraphs which projected that the Orioles would win the AL East this year. Wait, what’s that you say? Oh yeah, they projected the Orioles to be in last place and not first. On the bright side, at least they didn’t project the Orioles to win 72 or 73 games. I guess the obvious question to ask is what happened.

For starters, it’s worth noting that the Orioles aren’t their largest miss. When comparing their actual winning percentage to their projected winning percentage, Fangraphs has been worse when projecting the Twins (off by 21.9%), Phillies (off by 17.3%), Braves (off by 14.1%) and Astros (off by 15.9%). Meanwhile, Fangraphs projected the Orioles to have a 49.4% winning percentage and the Orioles actually have a 61.9% winning percentage. On average, Fangraphs is off by 6.77% or roughly 11 wins per team over a full season. If someone had projected that each team would go .500, then they’d be off by 7.73% or 12.5 wins per team over a full season. So far, Fangraphs has been more accurate than just presuming that each team would go .500, but not by very much. It is still early in the season though, but at the current moment, well.



As for the Orioles specifically, Fangraphs projected that the Orioles would score 4.64 runs per game and the Orioles have actually scored 4.55. The Orioles are on pace to score 15 runs fewer than Fangraphs projected. This is reasonably close and suggests that Fangraphs overestimated the Orioles offense. These results illustrate that the problem with their projection wasn’t runs scored. Rather, their problem was with runs allowed. Fangraphs projected that the Orioles would allow 4.69 runs per game. The Orioles have actually allowed 3.98 runs per game. The Orioles are on pace to allow 116 runs less than their March projections and 83 runs less than their current projections. If the Orioles can keep that up, then they’ll prove the computers wrong.

The reason for the discrepancy obviously comes on the pitching/defense side of things. But is it all of the pitching? Fangraphs originally projected that the Orioles starting pitching would pitch 935 innings, with a 4.38 ERA and thus give up 455 earned runs. So far, they’re actually doing pretty well with this prediction. The Orioles starting pitching is on pace to throw 914 innings with a 4.44 ERA and to give up 451 earned runs. The Orioles starting rotation would be on pace to allow 461 earned runs if it threw 935 innings. It’s pretty clear that Fangraphs has nailed the Orioles’ starting pitching so far.

The problem is that Fangraphs also projected that the Orioles bullpen would pitch 523 innings, with a 3.76 ERA and give up 218 runs. So far, the bullpen is on pace to pitch 521 innings, but with a 2.67 ERA and thus give up 154 runs. In addition, Fangraphs projected the Orioles to allow 86 unearned runs. So far, the Orioles have allowed 10 and are on pace to allow just 39. Back in March, I wrote an article discussing how Fangraphs projected standings is likely flawed due to how it accounts for unearned runs. It seems like that flaw has come back to bite them.

This flaw has a surprisingly large impact. Using a t-test, Fangraphs' projected runs allowed on the team level is statistically different then the actual results so far (t>.9781). But Fangraphs' projected runs allowed and actual runs allowed by the starting rotation isn't statistically different (t>.1410). This is also the case for the bullpen (t>.2019) suggesting that they're doing a reasonably good job projecting starter and reliever performance. But a t-test comparing the amount of total unearned runs allowed by team to the projected number of unearned runs allowed by team is statistically different at the <.0001 level. Their inability to predict unearned runs significantly weakens the value of their runs allowed projections. Fangraphs' results in this regard are so poor that the Orioles aren't the most egregious case. The Royals, Indians and Rays are each on pace to outperform their projection by over 50 runs. They were projected on average to give up 77 unearned runs and are on pace to allow 21 each. That can't be good.

Using the Wayback Machine, since Fangraphs doesn’t save its original depth charts, it’s possible to review Fangraphs’ projections on March 11th, 2016. So far, a number of crucial pitchers in the bullpen have outperformed Fangraphs’ assumptions. For example, Fangraphs thought that Zach Britton would be good, and projected him to allow 19 earned runs while throwing 65 innings. Britton is on pace to allow 13 runs while throwing 76.66 innings. But Brach is the real lynchpin. Fangraphs projected Brach to give up 21.75 runs over 55 innings. Brach is on pace to give up 12.7 runs over 98.5 innings. That’s a 26 run swing right there, presuming he throws 98 innings in relief. Givens is on pace to give up 13 fewer runs than projected. McFarland, Bundy and Matusz are the only underperforming relievers and they’ve thrown 37 of the bullpens’ 135 innings. After those three, the reliever with the worst results is Darren O’Day with his 2.76 ERA.

Furthermore, the Orioles four elite relievers are throwing 60% of all the innings thrown by the bullpen despite being projected to throw 44% of the innings. Bullpens have better ERAs when their best pitchers throw more innings. That, combined with unexpectedly strong performances from Worley (0 ER in 14 innings as a reliever) and Wilson (1 ER in 8 innings as a reliever) has meant that the Orioles’ bullpen has vastly over performed.

On the defensive side, the Orioles may rank poorly in Fangraphs’ Def stat (20th in MLB), but they only allowed 18 errors in their first 42 games. The Orioles allow .55 unearned runs per error which is worse than league average. But they have the fifth lowest error per game ratio in MLB and is why the Orioles have given up so few unearned runs. On a simplistic level, if the Orioles continue to give up few errors, they’ll allow few unearned runs. On a more complex level, does this mean that the Orioles defense is better than it appears? The Orioles fielding weakness is corner outfield defense, which UZR may not be able to measure properly. Their BABIP is league average, but it would take an analysis to determine the type of batted-ball contact that their pitching has allowed. Further, Inside Edge noted in a blog post that the Orioles rank tenth in defensive giveaways.

The Orioles have outperformed Fangraphs expectations so far due to their excellent bullpen and their ability to avoid unearned runs. They have been slightly lucky, but it makes sense that a team with a strong bullpen will get lucky. Going forward, perhaps this suggests that the Orioles shouldn’t be focusing on adding starting pitching, but perhaps adding a good reliever to ensure the bullpen can continue performing at its current level. It’s pretty clear that the Orioles’ plan is to hope that their offense will maintain its current standard and that their bullpen can continue dominating.

23 May 2016

Book Club: The Only Rule Is It Has To Work

Disclaimer: Ben Lindbergh and I wrote this piece on Spring Training performance and the John Dewan Rule, so I know him somewhat.  Sam Miller was my editor during my stint writing for Baseball Prospectus and we actually briefly discussed potential talent to acquire for the Stompers...very briefly.

Before computers were a staple in most homes, I had baseball cards.  My favorite ones were not the sought after rookie cards, but those that covered a player's final season and all that came before.  Rookie cards mattered if they included minor league seasons.  Hours were then spent with my brother "drafting" teams, constructing lineups, piecing together rotations, and arguing which team was superior.  We would create model ballparks and discuss differences between playing fields in how they impacted performance.  That is what my brother and I did when it rained or snowed or if we were up at 1am and UHF channels were boring.

With that kernel to my being, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller wrote a book that slots right into the more primordial substrates in my brain.  In The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, the duo write about their experience in jockeying into position to run a professional baseball team for a season.  No, they were not able to instruct the best players in the World at the MLB stage.  Instead, they worked with a rung of very, very good baseball players; the kind that exist on the lower rungs of professional baseball.  For a season, they ran baseball operations for the Sonoma Stompers.

While those familiar with the Baseball Prospectus and Five Thirty Eight writings of the two might expect an analytical book, that is not what this is.  Yes, the authors underpin their choices with analysis, but that is not the focus.  The focus is how exactly do you incorporate these ideas into an organization that would likely benefits from those ideas, but is greatly suspicious of your ability.  In other words, this book is primarily a process oriented book about people without industry credibility figuring out how to implement change.

The preponderance of and imperfect approach to achieving some level of control of the club is what gives the first half of the book its amazing helium.  Ben and Sam clash with the manager who the players generally dislike, but still admire more than Ben and Sam.  Navigating through that is quite compelling.  It actually is something a reader can look at and think of how it may reflect their own experiences in their industry.

The second half of the book though unravels a bit.  For reasons often beyond their control, their team begins to fall apart.  This leaves the authors into a great deal of self reflection.  The second half winds up taking on a completely different tone and somewhat gets lost in itself.  In a way, we learn more about Ben and Sam, but that increased knowledge does not exactly inform us about who they are within the context of running this club.  It turns from applied memoir to a more traditional in-the-mind memoir.

If I was to compare it to another work, I would call it a Full Metal Jacket book.  Like Full Metal Jacket, the first half is at times stunning and impactful.  I read many things that I have actually seen quite similar in the experiences of friends in MLB analytic departments.  The second half, like Full Metal Jacket's second half, takes on a different tone and I am a bit nonplussed as to how, as a reader, I am to take it.  There certainly are memorable moments in that second half, but it struggles to sustain the energy that continually fuels the first half.

Yes, you should pick this book up.  It is one of the best baseball books to come out in the past few years.  No, it is not transcendent.  It won't make you question your beliefs unless you are one of those data science or die stereotypes that supposedly fill up mothers' basements.  It is however a solid and enjoyable case study.  There are lessons to be learned, though you might have to figure out what exactly those are on your own.

-----

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team
by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller
368 pages
Henry Holt and Co.

20 May 2016

A Farewell To Jimmy Paredes

On Monday, Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com broke the news that 27-year-old infielder/DH Jimmy Paredes had been claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays. Kubatko included this quote from O's GM Dan Duquette in a later column.
"The O's tried but we just didn't find a fit for Jimmy Paredes on this year's team when it was time for him to be reinstated. Jimmy worked hard with us and we appreciate his contributions over the past two seasons." 
The big switch-hitter showed flashes of promise at the plate over 277 first-half plate appearances in 2015, slashing .299/.332/.475 with 10 homers before falling off a cliff after the All-Star break. Interestingly, his BABIP remained around .370 in the second half, but the power disappeared and his K% shot up from 24.9 to 39.3%.

Sidelined with a wrist injury to start the season, Paredes went 9-for-27 with a homer in a short rehab stint with Norfolk before coming off the DL and forcing a roster crunch that led to Duquette placing him on waivers. As a side note, his last three rehab games were against Buffalo (the Jays' AAA affiliate), so perhaps Toronto's scouts, who are notorious for picking up powerful 1B/DH types off waivers (see Edwin Encarnacion), got a good look and liked what they saw. Maybe he would have cleared waivers had Norfolk not played Buffalo. Who knows.

It's safe to say that the reason Paredes was placed on waivers in the first place was defense. The O's definitely saw the potential in his bat, even during his horrid second half swoon, or else he wouldn't have given him so many at-bats post All-Star break. But with Ryan Flaherty able to provide above average infield glovework off the bench and Hyun Soo Kim forcing his way into more playing time wherever Buck can fit him in, the O's simply didn't have a pressing need for Jimmy Paredes on the team anymore.

This whole thing reminds me a lot of when the Jays put Danny Valencia on waivers last August due to a roster crunch. The A's immediately snapped him up and he has mashed for them since then, going off for a three-homer game just a few days ago. I'm not saying Paredes will suddenly blossom into a 30-homer threat, but there are a few reasons to keep an eye on him as he begins his tenure with Toronto.

The player that Paredes gets compared to the most is Robinson Cano, and looking at his swing you can see why.



The Blue Jays broadcast didn't hesitate to make the comparison in his Toronto debut, and they linked the two by dropping the name of legendary Dominican hitting guru Luis Mercedes, whose claim to fame is shaping Sammy Sosa, and who also currently works with Edwin Encarnacion and...you guessed it, Robinson Cano. According to Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez, Paredes has been working with Mercedes since 2012.

One of Paredes' perennial weaknesses has been his coverage of the outer half. He's always been able to pull inside pitches, but a big key to his mini-breakout in the first half of 2015 was how he was able to handle outside pitches.


Here's a heat map showing his power zones (going by SLG) in the first half of 2015. Paredes took most of his at-bats as a lefty last year, and hit 24 of his 29 extra-base hits as a lefty. Take a look at that big red area outside from the LHB perspective.


He was able to achieve that elite outer-half SLG by taking the ball the opposite way with authority when he needed and generating more flyballs on outside pitches instead of slapping them into the dirt. The stats support this: from 2014 to 2015 his FB% rose by 6%, his Hard% rose by 4%, and his Oppo% rose by 5%.

Here's a GIF of the home run he hit on his very first swing as a Blue Jay.



That looks awfully close to the kind of swings he was taking early in 2015, so either he's a hot starter, or he's beginning to get his outer half power stroke back.

His main woes down the stretch last year stemmed from contact issues. Despite swinging at a higher rate than ever before in 2015, Paredes saw his Contact% drop from 74.8 to 65.6. He was missing pitches inside and outside the zone, and that resulted in a swinging strike rate of almost 20%, which would've led all of baseball by almost three per cent if Parades had enough PA to qualify.

There's no doubt Paredes is a very flawed player, and this post isn't meant to be an attack on the Duquette's decision to let him go. He'll probably continue to be plagued by contact problems, and his power is seriously limited as a righty. But if he can build on the approach he was taking early on in 2015, he could develop into a nice power bat in the homer-friendly Rogers Centre.

19 May 2016

How Good Would Manny Machado Be In An 8 Team League?

Manny Machado has had quite a season so far.  He’s always been excellent defensively, but his offensive progression has continued. From 2012-2014, he was just average offensively. But in 2015, he took some real strides as he put up a .286/.359/.502 line for a wRC+ of 134. This year, he has a .333/.387/.653 line with a wRC+ of 181 while playing shortstop. It’s arguable that he’s been the best player in baseball so far. All in all, it’s possible he’s having a better season than Barry Bonds Bryce Harper down in Washington.

All of this got Patrick, Jon and I wondering. It’s pretty clear that Manny is adequate in a thirty team league. How good would he be in a smaller league with only eight teams? Would his performance still be as impressive?

In order to test this, I looked at every players performance from 2013-2016 and determined the best 111 hitters (turns out I included Derek Norris twice on my list) with at least 8 hitters at each position. I also determined the best 48 starting pitchers over this period and 64 relievers. The way I determined the best players over this period consisted of a bit of looking at WAR, a bit of looking at stats like wRC+ and FIP and a bit of using my own judgement.  A list of the players I used can be found here (teams were determined largely at random). They probably aren’t perfect, but are close enough.

Next, I determined their wOBA from 2013-2016 against pitchers on this list and pitchers that aren’t on this list. I did this using Pitch f/x data from April-Sept in 2013, 2014 and 2015 as well as 2016 data up until May 13th. This gives me an idea how these batters performed against both the pitching they would face in an eight team league and also how they perform against pitchers that don’t make the cut. The batters that do poorly against the best pitchers likely wouldn’t be successful in a league with eight teams.

Machado has a good, but not great wOBA against the best pitchers in the league at .348. According to Fangraphs’ rule of thumb, this is above average but not great. But he also ranks 94th out of 111 batters on this list. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that it’s difficult to perform well against the best pitchers.

Indeed, there are relatively few batters on this list that are great against the best pitchers. Jose Bautista, Mike Trout, Jose Abreu and Joey Votto all have a wOBA above .370 against these pitchers, but lower than .400. Miguel Cabrera demonstrates why he’s worth the big bucks as he has a .409 wOBA against the best pitchers and .417 against all of the other pitchers. It doesn’t appear to matter whether the pitcher is good or not, because he’ll still crush them.

Other players like Ender Inciarte, Ben Zobrist, Martin Prado and Kevin Kiermaier have below average numbers against the other pitchers but are effective against the best pitchers. This suggests that such batters may do better than expected in an eight team league and may be useful pieces to add for the playoffs.

Also, there are a number of players that do well against bad pitchers, but poorly against the best pitchers. Randal Grichuk and Jackie Bradley Jr. have worse numbers against the best pitchers then Camden Depot favorite David Lough. Mookie Betts has a .393 wOBA against other pitchers, but only a .269 against the best pitchers, suggesting that the Red Sox may want to hold off on a contract extension for him. Dexter Fowler, Baltimore’s favorite villain, has a .380 wOBA against bad pitching (80th out of 111) but only a .280 against good pitching (15th). Bryce Harper has the best numbers in the sample against other pitching (.436 wOBA) but only a .326 wOBA against the best pitching (69th). That’s something to keep in mind the next time the Nationals choke in the playoffs.

Of course, Manny was mostly average offensively in 2013 and 2014. The chart below shows how he’s done each year. I didn’t rank him each year, but it’s worth noting that his performance has been roughly consistent regardless of whether he’s faced good pitching or bad pitching. This suggests that he’s highly dangerous against pitchers regardless of whether they’re the best or not.  Also, a wOBA of .377 against the best pitchers puts him in the rare elite with just the best players if he can maintain that. In retrospect, these numbers suggest that Manny was primed for a breakout in 2015. It also suggests he might be a top five offensive player.


On the whole, many Orioles players are able to perform well against good pitching. Adam Jones was only about average against both good pitching and other pitching. That’s not bad for a center fielder in an eight team league. Jonathan Schoop is terrible against both bad and good pitching, but is ranked 24th against the best pitchers. It is reasonable to presume that his numbers are skewed, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s due to his poor 2014 or good 2015. Mark Trumbo has a .340 wOBA against the other pitchers and a .320 wOBA against good pitchers suggesting that he isn’t going to struggle against the best pitchers.

On the other hand, both Wieters and Reimold have shown signs of struggling against the best pitchers. Wieters has a .331 wOBA against other pitchers, but only a .285 against the best pitchers. Reimold has a .326 wOBA against other pitchers and a .285 against the best pitchers. Reimold also has a high K% rate against the best pitchers, suggesting that he’s not a good option in those situations.

But the biggest worry is Chris Davis. Davis ranks 107th out of 111 batters against the other pitchers but has only a .307 wOBA (39th out of 111) against the best pitching. His home run rate is twice as high against the other pitchers as it is against the best pitchers. Davis seems to struggle against the best pitchers and therefore unsurprisingly has a .224 wOBA in the postseason in a small sample of only 26 PAs. Davis seems to be a player that will get you to the playoffs, but isn’t going to lead you to a world series.



As for Manny, it’s pretty clear that he’d be good in an eight team league or even a four team league. Top ten players usually are pretty valuable regardless of the number of teams. In an eight team league, his wOBA+ is roughly 110 or his bat is worth 8 runs. If he’s able to maintain his 2015 numbers, then his wOBA+ should probably be around 120-125 and his value with the bat will be worth maybe 15 to 16 runs. Considering his elite defense at either shortstop or third base, we’re probably talking about a 4 to 5 win player in just an eight team league. That’s pretty good. You could contract 22 teams and he’d still be a star.

It seems fair to say that Manny is one of the best players in the league. That’s probably true regardless of the league’s size. The Orioles should be glad they have him and be excited about his future.

17 May 2016

An Update of MASN's Economics

On May 6th and 7th, MASN responded to the Nationals request to send the case back to the RSDC for a second arbitration. In support of this effort, Mr. Haley, the executive Vice President and CFO of MASN wrote an affidavit. He wrote that the Nationals have received fair market value as determined by Bortz Media, a longtime MLB consultant that developed the RSDCs established methodology.  He noted that the Nationals received over $9.6 million in 2015 from profit distributions and tens of millions more via rights fees ($42M). Finally, he stated that the Nationals partnership interest has increased from an initial 10% to its current 17%. As MASN’s EBITDA has grown, so too has the Nationals’ asset value in MASN.

The Nationals have received a considerable amount of cash via profit distributions. As stated above, they received over $9.6 million in 2015, from 2014 distributions. Alan Rifkin wrote an e-mail two years ago, which showed the Nationals received $6.76 million in 2012 (based on 2011 results), $7.56 million in 2013 (based on 2012 results) and $9 million in 2014 (based on 2013 results). In addition, the Nationals' received a distribution for non-resident tax withholding payments. Mr. Wyche, the Managing Director of Bortz, developed a table in 2012 with the Nationals’ Rights Fees as proposed by MASN and the Nationals projected profit distributions from 2012-2016. It makes sense to compare the Nationals projected and actual profit distributions. Here’s a chart that puts everything together, with (P) standing for projected and (A) standing for actual/derived.



MASN has had larger distributions than expected despite the ongoing lawsuit. This makes sense because the Orioles and Nationals weren’t particularly successful from 2005-2011 but were extremely successful from 2012-2016. This resulted in higher ratings and therefore likely higher advertising revenue. It was impossible to predict that this was going to happen and therefore MASN was unable to account for it back in 2012.

MASN also appears to have distributed less cash in 2014 than in 2013. In all likelihood, this probably has little significance. For starters, MASN isn’t required to distribute all of its profits as distributions. Just because they distributed less cash doesn’t mean they earned lower profits. Also, the amount of cash in question is a few million dollars and therefore not a large sum. It’s probably worth keeping an eye on though.

Mr. Wyche also included a chart complied from the MLB Financial Information Questionnaires (FIQs) for media rights payments from 2005 through 2014 that compares the Nationals’ and Orioles’ relative media rights payments to all other MLB clubs. The CBA explains in Article XXIV that this questionnaire is completed by each of the Major League Clubs and submitted, together with audited financial statements, on an annual basis for each revenue sharing year to the Office of the Commissioner.  It appears that this chart shows the media rights payments as defined by the clubs themselves.

These rankings indicate that the Nationals were paid above average rights fees from 2005-2008, average rights fees from 2009-2012 and below average rights fees in 2014. The Nationals 2013 rights fees of $61.2 million were the third highest in baseball and are a combination of the rights fees received from MASN and a $25 million payment from MLB.

This $25 million payment corresponds to the difference between MASN’s calculated rights fees and the now-vacated RSDC Award for 2012 and 2013. MLB made this payment to the Nationals in order to buy more time to find a solution to the current dispute. This payment isn’t a loan and the Nationals are allowed to keep this $25 million regardless of the result of this case. However, the Nationals will be required to repay MLB from any extra revenue they may receive from a favorable RSDC decision. If the RSDC decision is reinstated then MLB receives $25 million from the extra MASN payments.

It’s worth noting that this methodology understates the actual amount that the Nationals received. MLB actually gave the Nationals $32.8 million, but deducted $7.8 million for revenue sharing. All other media rights revenue is determined before revenue sharing and therefore the Nationals’ accounting method understates the actual value of the money they received.

It’s worth remembering that in March 2012, the Nationals argued that fair market value for their media rights in 2013 was $113.3 million. It turns out that the $61 million they did receive trailed only the Yankees ($89 million) and another club. Unless that other club received a larger rights fee then the Yankees, it would have been the largest in the majors by roughly $25 million and at least $50 million more than the team that received the fourth largest amount. It is safe to say that the Nationals significantly overvalued the fair market value of their media rights fees.

At the same time, it’s concerning to note that the Orioles and Nationals ranked only 18th and 19th in total media rights fees for 2014. They’re probably closer to the average than it appears as the difference between 3rd and 20th in 2013 was roughly $24.6 million. It’s also worth noting that this chart doesn’t include profit distributions and that MASN will renegotiate its contracts with its major carriers in 2018.

To be clear, MASN believes that the Bortz Methodology should be used to determine fair market value and therefore what other teams receive is mostly irrelevant. Using this formula, MASN has an interest in maximizing its revenue in order to ensure the largest possible profit because it determines MASN's profit margins and therefore a reasonable rights fee for each team.

All in all, the new data provides an update on MASN's financial situation and each team’s rights fees. It suggests that MASN is distributing more money than originally projected. It suggests that the Nationals requested media rights fees in 2012 were unjustifiable. Finally, it makes it clear that MASN is paying the Nationals and Orioles rights fees lower than that of the median MLB team.

13 May 2016

Pandemonium In The Court

The newest chapter in the dispute between MASN and the Nationals was written this weekend, as MASN replied to the Nationals request that this case be sent back to the RSDC for a new arbitration decision.  As a quick recap, back in 2014, the RSDC determined that the Nationals rights fees were worth roughly $300 million from 2012-2016. MASN was unhappy with this decision and took the matter to court. Last November, MASN was victorious and the decision was overturned. Ever since, the parties have attempted to determine future steps.

These attempts have resulted in nothing more than a mess. MASN and the Orioles have appealed the Judge’s decision because they feel the RSDC is no longer an appropriate forum for this case. Likewise, MLB and the Nationals have appealed the Judge’s decision because they feel that the RSDC’s prior award shouldn’t have been vacated. In addition, the Nationals are attempting to compel MASN to go to a new arbitration hearing in front of the RSDC, prior to the resolution of these two cases. In response, MASN informed the Court that it is likely to both oppose the Nationals’ motion to compel and seek a formal stay of that arbitration. In addition, MASN and the Nationals are arguing about the relevant timelines for just about each motion. The Court attempted to coordinate with each side to determine an appropriate process, and the Nationals responded by demanding that all conferences with the Justices’ primary law clerk be transcribed. It is nothing less than complete pandemonium that has quickly devolved into arguments over insignificant matters.

In response to this pandemonium, the Court “suggested” that it was “considering” sending this matter to mediation to reach a consensus on the next steps and an acceptable timeline. Mediation took place on April 12-13, 2016 and was seemingly unsuccessful causing the original Court mandated timeline to be imposed on the two parties. MASN was required to respond to the Nationals request to compel arbitration by May 6, 2016. The Nationals were given until May 27, 2016 to reply to MASN's response while MASN was given until May 27th to make a motion for a stay. The deadline for the Nationals to respond to MASN's response is June 17th and the parties are expected to meet in court on June 20th.

The Nationals argue that a delay causes them harm because they are receiving rights fees that are unilaterally determined by MASN. Since the Nationals agreed to use different counsel, they see no reason why this case can’t go back in front of the RSDC immediately.

The new documents show how MASN's argument can be summed up in three points. First, the Nationals’ motion will not accelerate the resolution of this dispute, but rather only waste judicial resources and time. If either side wins on appeal then the results of a new arbitration would be moot. Second, it is fundamentally unfair to compel MASN to arbitrate before a tribunal controlled by MLB when MLB is attempting to reinstate the prior tribunal’s decision.

Third and in my opinion, most important, the Court did not order the parties to arbitrate before the RSDC nor has the RSDC summoned MASN to another arbitration hearing. Indeed, MLB wrote a letter to the parties stating that MLB will not make any determinations about a reconvened process until the Nationals’ motion to compel is addressed by the Court.  It is clear that the MLB Commissioner, not MASN, has the ability to convene the RSDC and has so far declined to do so. It’s unreasonable to hold MASN responsible for MLBs actions in this regard.

MASN further argues that the Nationals aren’t suffering substantial financial harm from this delay since the Nationals are still receiving millions of dollars in the interim, and that they can’t contend they are “at a competitive disadvantage to other MLB Clubs”, since their team value, revenue and payroll have increased significantly since 2012 and is in the top tier of all MLB clubs. In addition, they note that this situation can be resolved quickly if the Nationals agree to arbitration at a neutral forum such as the AAA.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that the Court should attempt to expedite the process as much as possible because this conflict has lasted for over four years. MASN appears to be sympathetic to this argument as they state they would be willing to re-arbitrate this dispute immediately in front of a neutral form independent of MLB. I would question whether allowing a new hearing would in fact be productive and whether MASN can be compelled to return to arbitration when the RSDC hasn’t asked them to do so.  Furthermore, it certainly would be ironic if arbitration, traditionally a method used to relieve congested dockets in the courts, would simply cause this docket to be even more clogged.

The implications of a decision either way would seem to be minimal. If the Nationals lose, then they would need to wait until after the Appellate Court has ruled before requesting that the case return to the RSDC. If still necessary, it would take several months to determine that the RSDC is the proper venue, and to give each side enough time to perform its due diligence and create their arguments. If the Nationals win, then the aforementioned steps will presumably be completed concurrently to the appeals and thus reduce the time waiting for a new decision. Ultimately, the most important factor isn’t when the bodies make their judgement, but how the Appellate Court and if necessary the RSDC will rule.

12 May 2016

A Closer Look At Joey Rickard's Defense

If there's anything surprising about Joey Rickard so far, it's been that his bat has been decent but his glove has been underwhelming. At the very least, Rickard was supposed to provide a decent outfield glove as a fourth outfielder type. Instead, he's been installed as the team's everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter.

Right now, Rickard has a wRC+ of 99. The league average left fielder also has a wRC+ of 99. However, the average leadoff hitter has a wRC+ of 109. I've been critical of Rickard offensively and still don't quite understand why he's being used the way he is, but at the plate, he's been fine for now. Getting league average offensive output from Joey Rickard is perfectly acceptable. And it's not surprising or a knock on him at all that he's in the bottom half of leadoff hitters in terms of production. He has not been a disaster there by any means, but he hasn't been great. So it's a little strange that he has such a stranglehold on the leadoff spot in the lineup.

Still, in terms of wins above replacement, Rickard rates negatively. The driving force there by Fangraphs' and Baseball-Reference's versions of WAR (currently -0.3 in both) is his poor early defensive ratings (and a tiny slice is that he has done some bad things on the basepaths). Rickard has spent a decent amount of time in all three outfield positions, and he's amassed a UZR of -6.5 (UZR/150 of -33.9) and a DRS of -6. Now, it's tough to state definitively what exactly a full season's worth of defensive metrics actually means, let alone about 250 innings. So who's is to say that Rickard can't improve, or isn't at least close to average?

But I don't think it's unfair to say that while he's made a few nice plays in the field, Rickard has not come as advertised with the glove. In his time in the minors, Rickard logged more than 1,000 innings each in center field and right field. In left field, he logged more than 500. So he's had a lot of experience. Still, playing competent defense at the major league level is an entirely different animal.

All right, so let's get to some examples. Here's one of Rickard's first tough chances on the season. Take a look:
View post on imgur.com

You'll notice a few things. First, it was a nice effort, so that's something. The ball was just out of his grasp, and it would have looked pretty nice were he to have made the play. You'll also notice that Rickard didn't take the best route to the ball, and that also it maybe wasn't the best decision to dive and take a chance. Yes, of course it's easy to say that after the fact. But that's what happens with split-second decisions. Flashy plays always look impressive, but sometimes just keeping the ball in front and avoiding mistakes is the job of an outfielder. We'll revisit Rickard's route-taking and decision making.

A day later, Rickard had a semi-tough chance on a ball in front of him:
View post on imgur.com

I think even Rickard would tell you that he should have caught that ball. But wait, the play isn't over.
View post on imgur.com

Rickard stayed with the play, gathered the ball, and rifled it home to nab the runner. Nice throw.

Here was a pivotal play in a tie game:
View post on imgur.com

Rickard struggled with the transfer and ended up double-pumping before unleashing a throw too late to catch the runner at home. Maybe it's a bit unfair to be too harsh on this play; the weather was wet, and that didn't make things easy. But Adam Eaton was just rounding third when Rickard scooped up the ball, and it wasn't like the throw was coming from deep in the outfield.

Here was a decent play by Rickard on a line drive to right-center:
View post on imgur.com

One thing to pay attention to on hits to the outfield is how quickly a fielder reacts to a ball, particularly a line drive. When the camera shifts to the outfield after a hit, you can tell if a fielder is slow to react and/or gets a bad read. If the fielder is already off and moving -- in the right direction -- then that's a great sign. In the play above, Rickard is already moving. The ball carries a bit more than Rickard anticipates, so he has to jump at the last second to snag the ball. Maybe he got a little lucky, but that ball was also roped.

In a late-game play against the Yankees, Rickard misplayed a carom off the wall in right field:
View post on imgur.com

There's not much to say here, as it seems like he just missed the ball. But these little things add up.

Among the GIFs in this post, here is what I think is Rickard's second-best play:
View post on imgur.com

He reacts to the ball off the bat relatively quickly, though he doesn't take a direct route to the ball. Again, line drives are tricky. But even though he hasn't had a bunch of difficult chances yet, less than ideal routes to the ball will make it hard for Rickard to truly utilize his speed and run down tough chances.

But here's my favorite play from Rickard so far:
View post on imgur.com

Plays like that make me think there's still time for Rickard to show he can be a competent outfielder. Considering how he was described when the Orioles selected him in the Rule 5 draft, I expected Rickard to be a little more polished in terms of reads and routes. But he is a rookie, and he at least won't be asked to play center field unless Adam Jones gets hurt again. Besides, Rickard's arm is OK, but it plays much better in left field.

-----

I think the Orioles are still trying to figure out what they have in Rickard. If I had to guess, I would say he'll regress a bit with the bat and improve with the glove. I'm more than happy to be wrong that he shouldn't be playing every day, especially as the team's leadoff hitter. Still, at 20-12, the O's are in no position to panic or really change anything. That's probably not what Hyun Soo Kim or Nolan Reimold want to hear.

Regarding Rickard's outfield defense, it's evident that speed is not everything. Clearly being fleet of foot helps an outfielder, but reading the ball off the bat and taking an efficient route to a fly ball or line drive is more important. It's also key to pick and choose the right spots to lay out for a ball. These are things a rookie may learn, but there's no guarantee of that, either.

10 May 2016

Extending Jonathan Schoop

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Extending Jonathan Schoop
by Joe Wantz

Jonathan Schoop was a popular breakout candidate for 2016, and for obvious reasons. Despite an injury that caused him to miss nearly half the season, he produced 15 home runs, a .279/.306/.482 slash line, and a 112 Weighted Runs Created Plus (WRC+) in 321 plate appearances. While making projections based on a half season’s work is a bit iffy, there was considerable optimism that Schoop could hit 25-30 home runs while playing solid defense at second base.

So far, however, Schoop’s 2016 results look considerably worse, with just an 89 WRC+ mark through his first 97 PA to go along with a 90 point dip in his OPS. That said, he has also increased his (admittedly awful) walk rate, cut his strikeout rate, has a career low BABIP that should improve, and is hitting the ball harder and more consistently than any other point in his career. Even though the surface stats don’t look like it so far, Schoop may still be on the way to a breakout campaign.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Schoop does put up the big numbers a lot of people thought he would. ZIPS’s rest of season projections have Schoop hitting .258/.291/.440 with 16 more home runs and 1.4 WAR. This seems reasonable, but a bit low for a true breakout. So let’s say that Schoop finishes the season with something like a .260/.310/.450 line with 25 total home runs. Combined with solid defense, this would look like a +3 WAR season. I’m sure both the Orioles and Schoop would take that!

If he reaches those levels, Schoop would be headed into arbitration next season with a career total of 4.3 WAR or so with three years of service time and would be in line for a modest salary in arbitration. But what if the Orioles decided to give him a contract extension instead of going to arbitration? Certainly they would want to buy out at least one or two free agent seasons in addition to arbitration years, so Schoop would be in line for a four or five year deal.

In an interesting wrinkle, last week Schoop signed a deal with Fantex, Inc. according to MLB Trade Rumors. This contract will pay him $4.91M in exchange for 10 percent of his future earnings. Schoop is among the first wave of young MLB players to enter into this kind of accord, so it is not clear how or if it would impact his desire for an early extension. MLBTR posits that it is likely to have a chilling effect on long term extensions, primarily because it mitigates the necessity of securing a solid payday prior to arbitration and free agency. As such, the Orioles may not be able to sign Schoop to a bargain-level extension.

Still, let’s assume there is likely be some mutual interest in an extension. The chart below looks at second baseman who have received contract extensions since 2013, along with their total WAR through their contract year. I also included a “2016 value” column, which attempts to account for overall salary inflation by applying a 7% increase per year since the contract was signed.


Name
Contract Year
Years
Amount
2016 Value
Service Time
Age
WAR
DJ Lemahieu
2016
2
$7.8M
$7.8M
3
27
3.4
Logan Forsythe
2016
2
$10.2M
$10.2M
4
29
5.3
Dee Gordon
2016
5
$50M
$50M
3
28
9.7
Josh Harrison
2015
3
$24.5M
$26.2M
3
27
6.1
Brian Dozier
2015
4
$20M
$21.4M
2
28
6.8
Jedd Gyorko
2014
5
$35M
$40M
1
25
2.4
Jason Kipnis
2014
6
$52M
$60.3M
2
27
8.7
Matt Carpenter
2014
6
$52
$60.3M
2
28
8.3
Jose Altuve
2013
4
$12.5M
$15.1M
1
23
2.1

Note: Extension data from MLB Trade Rumors, WAR data from Fangraphs

This is, overall, a pretty impressive list. Gordon, Kipnis, Dozier, and Altuve are all top 10 second baseman overall. Carpenter was a second baseman when he signed his deal, though he has since played predominantly at third. Interestingly, the list skews older: the average age at the time of a contract extension is 27 years old. Schoop will play next season at age 25. Considering average peak performance years, Schoop is actually in a better place than most of these players even though he would lag behind the big names in terms of on field performance.

His closest comp in terms of skillset on this list would probably be Jedd Gyorko, though Schoop will have 900 more PA at the end of this season (assuming around 600 in 2016) than Gyorko had when he signed his contract extension. The Padres moved aggressively on Gyorko, who hit 23 homers in his rookie season, by rewarding him with a 5 year $35M contract. Since he signed the deal, however, he has hit just .232/.291/.378 with 30 home runs in 942 PA and was traded to the Cardinals this past off season for Jon Jay. This is clearly not the outcome the Padres would have wanted and it illustrates the bust potential of long-ish term extensions for mostly unproven players. Schoop has probably shown a bit more than Gyorko had when he signed his deal, especially in terms of playing time, but they are pretty similar players: they hit homers, they strike out, they don’t walk, and they play solid defense. That kind of player is valuable, especially at second base, but can also have a very low floor as Gyorko showed in 2014 and 2015.

So what would a Schoop contract extension look like? Gyorko should potentially serve as a cautionary tale. While 5/40 (Gyorko’s 2016 contract valuation) is not a huge contract by current standards, it is a significant investment if it doesn’t pan out. The Orioles also do not sign arbitration eligible players to extensions very often, with just 7 total since 2004. Of those, only Nick Markakis would have had as little service time as Schoop will after the season. Schoop’s youth, injury history, and boom or bust game may also scare the Orioles (a notoriously cautious organization) from making a long term commitment.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s say the Orioles were interested in a longer term investment in Schoop. The Gyorko deal seems like the absolute upper limit; Schoop has yet to truly establish himself, despite his obvious potential, and his game has notable shortcomings. I don’t think they would just want to buy out arbitration years given that it’s probably not terribly likely Schoop suddenly becomes Manny Machado, so all the 3 year or fewer extensions are out. In the end, I think they’d want to do something like what Minnesota did with Dozier, perhaps more like 4/30 with a team option (that would probably have to be significant in terms of dollars). For the Orioles, this would be a relatively low risk move that buys out arbitration years and potentially two free agency years of a player they clearly like and who has significant upside. For Schoop, it guards against injury or bad performance, potentially raises his arbitration year salaries, and sets him up for free agency by his age 30 season. Of course, with the Fantex earnings, Schoop may feel much less urgency to sign away free agency years.

Will this happen? History tells us it probably won’t. Something like 4/30 and an option makes sense on paper, but it’s a fairly low overall payday for a guy who was considered a big time breakout candidate and who could very well earn twice that in terms of value. The Orioles may be scared off by his injury history and inability to get on base, not to mention that the +3 WAR projection for this season is likely on the optimistic side. Still, all life is risk, and this seems like a pretty good one for both sides to take.