23 February 2017

Spring Training Roster Battle: Corner Outfielder

After a flurry of moves over the last few days, the Orioles have plenty of options for a handful of roster spots. Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter put a premium on having worthwhile fringe roster choices, and that should yet again be the case this season. The O's seem to value players with minor league options remaining more than most teams, and the Triple-A Norfolk shuttle figures to be in use as much as ever in 2017.

With that in mind, let's look ahead to the possible opening day roster. Not every player the Orioles want to keep has a minor league option left, so they'll have to make some tough decisions in key spots.

Here are the likely locks (with the assumption that Chris Tillman will start the season on the new, 10-day disabled list).

C: Welington Castillo
C: Caleb Joseph
1B: Chris Davis
2B: Jonathan Schoop
SS: J.J. Hardy
3B: Manny Machado
DH/OF/1B: Mark Trumbo
LF: Hyun Soo Kim
CF: Adam Jones
RF/LF: Seth Smith
UTIL: Ryan Flaherty
SP: Kevin Gausman
SP: Ubaldo Jimenez
SP: Dylan Bundy
SP: Wade Miley
RP: Zach Britton
RP: Brad Brach
RP: Mychal Givens
RP: Darren O'Day
RP: Donnie Hart

That's 20 locks. That leaves spots for at least two more outfielders, maybe a corner infielder/bench bat, and two more pitchers. It's worth noting that because of April off-days, the Orioles don't need their fifth starter, Tillman (if healthy), until later in the month.

Let's take a look at the first battleground, corner outfield, while a future post or two will look closer at the reliever and potential infielder battle.

Battle 1: Corner Outfield

Realistic options:
Joey Rickard, Aneury Tavarez, Anthony Santander, Michael Bourn, Craig Gentry

Adam Jones asked for more defensive-minded outfield help a few weeks ago, and Duquette recently obliged by signing Craig Gentry and Michael Bourn to minor league deals. Last year, the Orioles broke camp with five outfielders (Rickard, Jones, Trumbo, Kim, and Nolan Reimold). The first four are back, but Reimold is gone. Pedro Alvarez, basically a DH-only player at this point in his career, is also not around. Because of his absence, Trumbo figures to get more work at DH this season.

Throwing a wrench into things are the two Rule 5 picks, Tavarez and Santander. Tavarez, along with Bourn and Gentry, seems to fit what the O's roster lacks: speed and improved corner outfield defense. Gentry is the more well-regarded defender of the group, something which both scouts and the advanced defensive metrics agree on. Bourn is no longer a good option in center field and doesn't have a great arm, but he does still have range suitable enough for the corners. Tavarez seems to fit that mold as well, though he lacks the major league track record of Bourn and Gentry.

At 22, Santander is the youngest of the group, and probably the one with the highest ceiling. John Sickels listed Santander as the No. 5 prospect in the O's system, while MLB Pipeline placed him 15th. Fifth does seem aggressive, but then again, the Orioles' farm system is far from highly rated. It's sad (though amusing) that a Rule 5 pick can immediately be considered a team's top five prospect.

Unlike the other outfield options, Santander is more known for his offensive talents. It's almost impossible to read something about him without a comparison to Victor Martinez. Still, he has a few things working against him sticking with the Orioles: he had offseason shoulder surgery, which he's working his way back from; he's never played above Single-A ball; and he has to stick with the major league club for at least 90 days to stay in the organization. With some disabled list and roster wizardry, it wouldn't be impossible for the Orioles to try and keep Santander around; the shoulder concerns could help in that regard. But that roster spot could also be used to keep around a late-game defensive outfield replacement, which figures to be used often to protect leads with Kim, Smith, and Trumbo on the roster. Maybe it all depends how Santander's shoulder progresses.

Orioles fans are more than familiar by now with Rickard, who they hope transforms into someone like Gentry: a right-handed platoon bat with strong defensive skills. Gentry has a career 97 wRC+ against opposite-handed throwers, while in limited duty last year, Rickard posted a 131 wRC+ against lefties. Rickard isn't that good against southpaws, but it does make you wonder how useful he'd be in that role, especially if his defense improves.

Rickard's defense was talked up a lot last year, but he struggled at times. While he made some flashy plays, he did not always read the ball well off the bat and missed some plays a quality defender would make. Some of that could easily be chalked up to being a rookie. Still, Rickard has minor league options remaining, meaning the O's can give any of the other outfielders a look, if they choose.

There's one more curveball here, and it's that Bourn has an opt-out date of March 25 if he's not on the major league roster. So if the Orioles want to keep him around, he'll need to make the club this spring.

Prediction: I think the Orioles will start the season with Rickard and Bourn on the opening day roster, while placing Santander on the 60-day disabled list. I think they'll send Tavarez back to Boston, and they'll release Gentry (while also trying to keep him in the organization).

Showalter covets the flexibility that Bourn provides, and I think it matters that he joined the team last year and is familiar with what his role will be. Showalter also loves Rickard and took the chance to mention a bunch of times in the second half of last season that they really could have used him (he was out with a thumb injury and didn't play after July 20). There's a case for starting the year with Bourn/Gentry on the roster, optioning Rickard, and giving Gentry a chance, but I would guess that won't happen. And I think the O's will opt to try and keep Santander over Tavarez, though it'll take some slick roster maneuvering throughout the year.


More from Camden Depot:

- Yesterday, I joined Derek Martin on his Upon Further Review podcast to talk some Orioles baseball. Thanks to Derek for the invitation; it was a fun conversation. Check it out.

- Jon answered some questions for Cards Conclave's "Playing Pepper" series. You can see some of his thoughts on the O's offseason along with some predictions for the upcoming season.

21 February 2017

Spring Training 2017: Three O's With Something To Prove

It’s February, but DMV-residents were treated to a preview of spring over the weekend.

Temperatures surged past 60, and streets were marked by the symphony of skateboards, children, and barking dogs.

Spring represents a whole bunch of clich├ęs about new beginnings and slate wiping. For baseball, of course, it means spring training is finally on the doorstep.

For some players, it represents a chance to make a new mark. For others, it is a chance to change an old one. Here are three Orioles who have the most at stake this spring training:

Tyler Wilson, RHP 

In 2016, Tyler Wilson went on a 10-game stretch where he posted a 4.58 ERA, while averaging nearly six innings a start. Then, he hit a rocky patch and was shipped off to Norfolk. By the end of the season he was back, but was relegated to random, bullpen work.

With Chris Tillman (shoulder) out for spring training and questionable to begin the season, a number of players stand to benefit. Wilson is in that group, which also includes the Mike Wrights and Logan Verretts of the world. (Ed. note: After some recent moves, Vidal Nuno and Gabriel Ynoa are also in the mix.)

Wilson is an undersized right-hander with a 90 MPH fastball and an average change-up and slider. At 27, he’s too old to be considered a true prospect, but he has shown incremental improvement over the years.

The former UVA-standout is a control specialist, which is a polite way of saying low strikeout-totals.  However, he did post a reasonable K-rate in AAA (7.4 K/9 between three seasons), which translated to 4.9 in the big leagues.     

He needs to do a better job of keeping the ball in the yard (15 home runs allowed in 94 innings) but, realistically, what you want from your fifth starter is a guy who can hold his own against big-league hitters and absorb innings.  Wilson has proven he can do that reasonably well. 

With a good spring training performance, he can reinsert himself into the starter-discussion, and make long relief closer to his floor – not his ceiling.

Trey Mancini/Joey Rickard 1B/OF

Okay, I cheated, but I couldn’t resist throwing these players in together because, well, they strike me as similar players who are at similar crossroads, career-wise.

They are both right-handed hitters around the same age (Mancini is 24, Rickard is 25.  Mancini has more pop but Rickard has more defensive-versatility in his ability to play all three outfield spots.  That makes them prototypical players for the Showalter regime.  On the other, it makes them harder to stand out, in an already-crowded field.*

Currently, Rickard has the larger portfolio of major league success, appearing in 85 games last year. He posted .696 OPS in his first taste of big-league action before succumbing to season-ending thumb surgery.

The Orioles responded, this off-season, by signing everyone under the sun. They traded for Seth Smith, a lefty who can play both corner spots. They brought back Mark Trumbo, who will split time between right field and DH. They sent spring training invites to veteran outfielders Craig Gentry, Logan Schaefer, Chris Dickerson, and David Washington.

And, don't forget Baltimore's rule 5 selections Anthony Santander and Aneury Tavarez, who both play - you guessed it - outfield positions.  Throw in incumbent left fielder, Hyun Soo Kim, and you've got yourself a party. 

As for Mancini, he made a memorable - albeit brief - 2016 debut, smacking three home runs in five games. A first baseman by trade, he has but one obstacle in his path. Unfortunately, that obstacle (some guy named Chris Davis) is in year two of a $161 million, mega-deal and is going nowhere.  While Mancini could split time between first and DH, Trumbo's presence means opportunities for the latter would be limited. 

Mancini and Rickard might be squeezed out by the numbers game.  Then again, the duo could make that decision much harder by simply raking, this spring. At the very least, it would improve their stock as trade bait, if Baltimore chooses to shore up areas where it is not so loaded.

J.J. Hardy

It might seem an odd choice to include the 34-year-old veteran on this list. Hardy won’t be busting his butt to make the team. However, he does enter spring training with things to prove.

For starters, he needs to flash some of that old pop he used to show so readily. In every full-season he played, from 2007 to 2013, Hardy hit no fewer than 22 home runs. Up to that point, his career-slugging percentage was .428.

It’s been a different story, the past three years. Injuries have sapped his playing time and affected his counting stats, but he hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire when he has played. From 2014-16, he’s slugged a pedestrian .346.

Part of it could simply be attributed to a natural product of aging. However, while everyone gets old, not everyone has a chance to play professional baseball. Hardy not only has that chance, but he is young enough to merit one last, multi-year contract for big money if he is motivated enough. 

2017 is the last guaranteed year of the extension he signed in 2014. The Orioles hold a club option for 2018, but would be unlikely to exercise it if Hardy tanks at the plate again.

Hardy is still an excellent defender, but glove-first middle infielders can be had for much cheaper than his $14 million option. Plus, the Orioles have Manny Machado, whose natural position is shortstop.

However, if he can post a respectable OBP, with 15-20 home runs, the Orioles might be open to negotiating another extension. Or, if the club is out of contention, he could be interesting trade candidate, if he is willing to waive his 10-5 rights.

Getting off to a fast start would definitely help. With that in mind, Hardy needs to show up for spring training showing that he’s healthy, focused, and is seeing the ball well.


Update: The field got even more crowded yesterday as Baltimore signed veteran outfielder, Michael Bourn, to a minor-league deal.  He will join the O's in big league camp where he will compete for a job.

20 February 2017

Orioles Assemble Interesting, Flexible Pitching Depth

Dan Duquette doesn't need any extra motivation to go out and search for intriguing or overlooked depth pieces for the roster. Finding and utilizing fringe players has been a staple in the Duquette and Buck Showalter era for the Orioles, and they've excelled at sorting through the options and finding players that fit. And that obviously includes the starting rotation.

The O's rotation is not overly frightening for opposing lineups, and that's even with assuming Chris Tillman's right shoulder heals in time for a mid- or late-April return. As fourth or fifth starter types, Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley can pitch well in stretches, but they're still wild cards. Plus, the O's likely intention for Dylan Bundy to pitch out of the rotation for the entire season is both compelling and concerning. Of the five options right now, only one of the group, Kevin Gausman, brings comfort to fans.

That brings us to the collection of long relievers the Orioles now have behind them. Duquette has assembled a cast of characters who individually are not overly exciting, but together all have the ability to start and pitch in relief. And unsurprisingly, they all have options remaining.

Before the offseason began, the Orioles had an underwhelming group that included Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Joe Gunkel, Chris Lee, Parker Bridwell, and Jayson Aquino. In separate moves with the Mets in November and February, the O's purchased pitching depth in Logan Verrett and Gabriel Ynoa. Again, both players have options, so the Mets more or less gave them away. Then, most recently, the Orioles acquired Vidal Nuno from the Dodgers in exchange for minor leaguer Ryan Moseley. That's not a steep price either, but at least it involved an actual exchange of players.

T.J. McFarland, who was designated for assignment to make room for Nuno, was already out of options. So it's not surprising that he was jettisoned, though he still could return and end up in Norfolk.

As you'd expect, all three acquisitions have their flaws. Nuno, the more established of the group, is likely to get more work since he's a lefty, but he has some flyball and home run concerns. Verrett is also not overpowering, and last year he struggled with control (6.5 K/9, 4.2 BB/9 in 91 2/3 innings). Ynoa, meanwhile, is a groundball-inducing type, but he is the worst of the three when it comes to missing bats and still needs to work on his breaking pitches (which need "more consistency," according to Duquette).

Considering the small cost to add them, though, of course they all have their weaknesses. But you can still see the logic here. Instead of opting for an aging starter type like Doug Fister or Jake Peavy, Duquette chose to spread whatever available money around and also maintain roster flexibility, which he greatly values. In addition, the Orioles already had one of those established starter types in Yovani Gallardo (not as old, though) and yet justifiably traded him away to help shore up another position of need (corner outfielder) by hauling in Seth Smith. Starting pitchers aren't cheap for a reason, but even after trading away Gallardo, the Orioles' rotation doesn't seem to be much worse off, if any.

Now, the O's are not positioned not have to rely on Wilson and Wright if/when rotation issues arise. The depth should not be considered great and could easily struggle, but Showalter has shown he can still make things work with a seemingly underwhelming staff.

It didn't seem wise to head into the season having to again depend on Wright and Wilson, who along with Worley finished in the Orioles' top 10 in innings pitched last year. Worley is gone, but Wright and Wilson are not, though Nuno, Ynoa, and Verrett seem to have leapfrogged them in the pecking order. If the Orioles to rely on any of them heavily, trouble could on the horizon, but it's not inconceivable that a few of them could play small, helpful roles.

15 February 2017

Say Goodbye To Dylan Bundy's Training Wheels

It was reported yesterday that Chris Tillman received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right shoulder in December, and that he would not be the Orioles' opening day starter and could begin the year on the disabled list. That's not catastrophic news for the chances of the 2017 Orioles, but it's certainly not good.

In the short term, not that much changes. The Orioles could go out and sign a starter, but the free agent market was pretty already weak in starting pitching to begin with. And now, some available starters are Henderson Alvarez, Jorge de la Rosa, Doug Fister, Mat Latos, Jon Niese, and Jake Peavy. Clearly, they're all flawed in some way.

Then again, the O's internal options after Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Wade Miley -- Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Jayson Aquino, Logan Verrett, T.J. McFarland, Chris Lee, Parker Bridwell, Joe Gunkel, and the newly acquired Gabriel Ynoa -- all have their shortcomings as well, without the benefit of much (or any) past major league success.

There's no real need to panic (yet, at least), both because Tillman is good but not great and that rest might do him well and he could be fine when the Orioles need him. Because of off-days in early April, the Orioles can get by without a fifth starter until mid-April. So who knows just yet if the Orioles choose to wait things out or make a minor signing or acquisition.

After trading Yovani Gallardo to the Mariners, the Orioles' rotation of Tillman-Gausman-Bundy-Jimenez-Miley, in some order, was pretty much set. Before Tillman's injury threw a wrench into those plans, the only real question was how the Orioles would use Bundy out of the gate.

Any reasonable expectation for Bundy's first major league work in four years would have included something around 40-50 average-ish innings out of the bullpen and simply getting through the year without any physical setbacks. Instead, Bundy threw almost 110 innings, started 14 games (all after the all-star break), and posted an overall ERA of 4.02 (3.08 in relief, 4.52 as a starter). And, again, he did all of that while throwing about 65 combined innings in 2014 and 2015 (after missing the entire 2013 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery). Bundy's numbers were more impressive out of the bullpen and his velocity dipped after moving into the starting rotation, but just getting him through the year unbroken was a moral victory.

As long as the O's had their five healthy starters to begin the 2017 season, there was some thought the O's could hold Bundy back a little at the beginning of the year and keep his innings down by using him in a relief role. With Tillman on the shelf, you can throw any chance of that happening out the window. The Orioles will need Bundy during the season's first week, and as long as he stays healthy, he could realistically pitch 160-plus innings in 2017. That's another large jump.

Still, even though there's nothing wrong with fans for being wary of Bundy breaking down, perhaps he's ready for this expanded, full-time role. He has the benefit of at least knowing he's going to be starting in the upcoming season. He's experimenting with his infamous cutter. He's committed to throwing his changeup, a welcome addition to his pitch arsenal. Whether Bundy's body is ready for an entire season in the rotation or not, we're going to find out.

14 February 2017

Using Statcast to Project Isolated Power

Through my youth, there were basically only a few statistics one needed to know.  Homeruns, batting average, runs batted in, stolen bases, and, only if you were a bit wonky and had time on your hands, doubles and walks.  My youth was largely dictated by what someone back in the late 1800s who knew more about cricket than baseball thought newspaper readers would want to know.  In the past 16 years, though, we have experienced a renaissance as fans and clubs have begun to use computers, statistics, and approaches developed in other field to know more about the game.

Some of these new approaches required new technology.  One such approach is Statcast, which uses multiple cameras to identify elements such as players, the baseball, and a bat.  This is combined with radar data and the reward is a ton of data.  While one can use this data to evaluate pitchers, baserunners, and fielders, we will be using it in this column to discern ability in hitters.  Specifically, whether exit velocity of a batted ball can be related to the power metric, isolated power.  And, then, if one or two seasons of exit velocity data can be used to accurately project future performance.

Now, the first step in figuring out how useful these measurements might be is to compare them in season.  I only looked at player who had 300 plate appearances in both 2015 and 2016.  What we find is that average hit distance (forgive the error in the graphic below, it is average hit distance not home run distance) and barrel rate correlate very strongly with isolated power in the same year (p < 0.01 for both variables).  This means that these two ways to measure velocity and contact quality are related in-season to isolated power.  The regression model connecting those measurements to the metric isolated power was also significant (<0 .01="" p="">
Below is a graph comparing expected ISO with ISO for 2015 with the accompanying R2 value:

So all of this informs us that hit quality is connected to isolated power.  That should be obvious, but it is helpful to be able to see that here.  However, what we are really interested in is whether these values are meaningful from one year to the next.  In other words, is this simply a descriptive correlation or is it a predictive correlation. 

We will do a very simple comparison.  We will simply compare R2 values for expected ISO using the 2015 developed model vs. 2016's ISO.  This simple comparison will help show whether the formula using Statcast measurements better correlates with next season's values than simply using the actual ISO from the year before.  The comparison between 2015 ISO and 2016 ISO is not shown, but the R2 was 0.5026

What we find is that the Statcast method improves the predictive capability by about 15%.  That is remarkable, but is not earth shattering.  If your decision making process was simply finding the players with strong ISO, then this technique would help but it might take a decade or so for that to be able to be seen through the noise.  In general, I do not find this to be much of a silver bullet.  That said, it may be a hesitant flag for some players and suggest some players that should be expected to regress downward or upward.

Here is a list of players who the model thinks most underperformed.  In other words, who does this model think should have had a bigger 2016 than they actually did.

2016 ISO
2016 xISO
Miguel Cabrera .247 .295 .048
Josh Harrison .105 .147 .042
Brandon Belt .199 .239 .040
Howie Kendrick .111 .149 .038
Kendrys Morales .204 .242 .038
Buster Posey .147 .184 .037
Albert Pujols .189 .226 .037
Alex Gordon .160 .197 .037
Adeiny Hechavarria .075 .109 .034
Yonder Alonso .114 .147 .033
Troy Tulowitzki .189 .222 .033
Nick Markakis .129 .161 .032
Mitch Moreland .189 .220 .031
Yadier Molina .120 .151 .031
Adam Jones .171 .201 .030

One name that jumped out to me was Kendrys Morales.  He had a solid year last year, but the model thinks it should have been considerably better.  If the model better accounts for his talent, then we might see something closer to that expected isolated power.  It may well be that playing in Kansas City depressed his value a bit and some of his hard hit balls should have fallen in.  A different point of view would be that perhaps his isolated power was depressed because he is below average in converting singles into doubles.  That might explain why Pujols is up here as well.

Here is a list of players who the model thinks most overperformed:

2016 ISO
2016 xISO
Brian Dozier .278 .201 -.077
Nolan Arenado .275 .224 -.051
Mookie Betts .216 .170 -.046
Robinson Cano .235 .190 -.045
Ryan Braun .233 .189 -.044
Curtis Granderson .228 .187 -.041
Jay Bruce .256 .216 -.040
Edwin Encarnacion .266 .229 -.037
Zack Cozart .172 .137 -.035
Anthony Rizzo .252 .217 -.035
Ben Zobrist .174 .140 -.034
Carlos Santana .239 .208 -.031
Didi Gregorius .171 .140 -.031
Jose Bautista .217 .187 -.030
Gregory Polanco .205 .175 -.030
Josh Donaldson .265 .235 -.030
Rougned Odor .231 .201 -.030

I would have thought that the model would list speedster after speedster, guys who stretch singles into doubles.  That does not appear to be the case here.  Many of these players are rather plodding.  The closest Oriole on this list is Jonathan Schoop who comes in at a -.024, which is not a good thing to hear given how uneven and somewhat underwhelming his season was last year.

This made me wonder though about how things change over time.  For instance, is the over or under production from batted ball performance to expected batted ball performance a skill.  Are over producers always over producers.  What was remarkable was that the average difference between 2016's difference and 2014's difference was .011.  The greatest difference was .046.  This suggests that there is some element that I am missing.  The ability to over or under produce appears to be repeatable, so therefore likely having to do with a skill.  The next step is finding that skill.

13 February 2017

The Bowie Boost for First Basemen

Joe Reisel's Archives

Christian Walker (2013-2015 Tides), first baseman on the All-Harbor Park team. Photo courtesy of Steven Goldburg / Norfolk Tides
After I wrote about the Norfolk Tides' catchers while they were an Orioles affiliate, I began to look at the Tides' first basemen of the same time period. I intended to do a similar survey of the first basemen, hoping to find general patterns among a long list of memorable and not-so-memorable names. (Anyone remember Robbie Widlansky?) But I re-discovered something much more interesting and potentially more important than a list of names and trivia. It involved four first basemen were unlike any of the catchers.

Brandon Snyder, Joe Mahoney, Christian Walker, and Trey Mancini arrived in Norfolk as highly-regarded, but not uber-regarded, prospects. (Among the catchers, Matt Wieters was an uber-prospect while none of the others were well thought of.) And all four of the first basemen were coming off outstanding performance at AA Bowie.

Brandon Snyder (facing camera) (2009-2011 Tide). Photo courtesy of Megan Morrow / Norfolk Tides.

The below table shows their Bowie performances.


While Mahoney and Mancini were, perhaps, older than you'd like for AA players, all four put up some pretty impressive numbers. You might like them to take a few more walks, but these numbers are nonetheless impressive on the surface.

But when they were promoted to AAA Norfolk, all four looked a lot more ordinary, as shown in the below table.


Yes, I know that Norfolk is a level up from Bowie and that Norfolk is a terrible hitter's park. The fact remains that there have been four first basemen who performed very well at Bowie, achieved some prospect love, and then looked much less impressive at Norfolk. And Brandon Snyder and Joe Mahoney - whose careers are essentially defined - have been what we should have expected based on their Norfolk production, not their Bowie production.

Two years after starring at Bowie, Joe Mahoney was out of baseball. Photo courtesy of Allison Veinote / Norfolk Tides.
But this boost appears to be limited to first basemen. The statistics of other Orioles prospects such as Brandon Waring, Jonathan Schoop, L.J. Hoes, and Xavier Avery were not inflated (as much, at least) at Bowie. Obviously I don't believe that there is something special about first basemen that would cause their performance to be uniquely boosted by Bowie. I'm sure that a more detailed analysis would identify shared characteristics that Prince Georges Stadium favors.

As fans, we should learn this lesson - be skeptical of players in general, and first basemen specifically, who produce apparently dominant numbers at Bowie. Wait and see how they do at Norfolk before project them to be a future star. Brandon Snyder, Joe Mahoney, and (most probably) Christian Walker failed to live up to the promise of their Bowie performance.

But at least as compared to the others, Trey Mancini may still become a productive major-league player. Yes, his Norfolk performance dropped significantly from his probably-unsustainable high at Bowie. It's still better than the performance of the other three. While Mancini almost certainly won't be the star hinted at by his Bowie performance we can still be optimistic that he can become a useful major-league player.

10 February 2017

Do The Orioles Need To Start The Season Strong?

The Orioles begin their 64th season in Baltimore on April 3, and a strong first month of the season could be very beneficial as they seek their fourth postseason berth in six seasons. The last time the Orioles had posted such an impressive postseason run was from 1969 through 1974, when they appeared in the American League Championship Series five-out-of-six years, and captured a World Series trophy in 1970. Since their run of postseason appearances began, the Orioles have played roughly 25 games before the calendar changes over to May. The exception to this was in 2015 when the team played just 20 games before May 1st, including an 8-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox in front of about 45,969 empty green seats, and two empty orange seats. 

I like to take the first 25 because that amount of games usually gets you through the first five weeks of the baseball season, and it also allows a television broadcast (MASN, for example) the ability to get away from the 13-for-46 graphic, for example, and begin showing the players' batting average on the season. Also, once a team has eclipsed their first 25 games, there's a pretty good idea of what a team needs to improve on, or what they need to continue to excel at.

Since their return to the postseason in 2012, the Orioles have compiled records through their first 25 games of 16-9, 15-10, 13-12, 12-13, and 15-10. Take notice of the 12-13 record in 2014. The year they won the AL East, and advanced to the ALCS, they were hovering around the .500 mark entering the first week in May. While still respectable, they've posted better records in the other two seasons that ended in a postseason berth (16-9 in 2012, and 15-10 in 2016). Analyzing historical results through Baseball-Reference, dating back to 1871, the top-200 performing teams have all won 17 games or more. Teams that have claimed 17 victories of the first 25 have made it to the postseason 98 times, and have won the World Series 29 times. 

The last time the Orioles won 17-of-25 was 12 years ago, back in 2005. That team held first place for 69 calendar days, and were as far as 14 games over .500 until June 21. A six-, eight-, and nine-game losing streak throughout the season's final months saw a collapse worse than a demolished building, and they finished 14 games under .500. That was the worst finish for a team that won 17 or more games in their first 25 since the 1978 Oakland Athletics. In that season, the A's won 19 games out of their first 25 and spent 57 calendar days in first place. They finished that season with just nine victories in their final 45 games, and an overall record of 69-93. 

So, what would happen to the 2017 Orioles if they struggle mightily through their first 25 games? While not completely impossible, a fourth postseason berth may not be in their future, and with their window of opportunity for a championship closing ever-so-quickly, they may be reduced to just one final opportunity to bring a title back to Baltimore. 

The bottom-200 team performances since 1871 have teams winning no more than eight games in their first 25. Out of those 200 teams, just two have made the postseason, and only one team went on to win the World Series. The 1981 Kansas City Royals made the postseason as a Wild Card team and were swept by the Athletics in the American League Division Series, while the 1914 Boston Braves were victorious in the World Series, sweeping the Philadelphia Athletics in four games. The 1988 Orioles finished the season with an overall record of 54-107, after beginning that year just 2-23, the worst overall record for a team, winning just twice in their first 25 games.

Alas, just because a team doesn't win 17 games doesn't mean their shot at the postseason automatically evaporates. Good teams, though, are expected to win games, regardless of what month it is. As you can see below, the previous 16 World Series Champions didn't all break 17 wins; however, they were all good teams, and all but two put up winning records in their first 25 games. 

Start strong. Finish strong. The formula for success.

09 February 2017

A Look At Fangraphs Projections

Certain things always happen during the offseason.  Free agents are signed, players are traded for, tons of digital ink is spilled discussing all the possible rumors and Fangraphs predicts that the Orioles will be the worst team in the AL East. At this point, it probably isn’t very surprising to learn that Fangraphs expects the Orioles to win ten fewer games in 2017 than they did in 2016. It’s probably more surprising to learn that Fangraphs does project the Rangers to win twelve fewer games in 2017 than they did in 2016. But how accurate is Fangraphs exactly? They certainly missed on the Orioles last year, but did they do better predicting other teams’ results?

Fangraphs had a surprisingly good year from a wins perspective in 2016. They were off by roughly 5.6 wins per team in 2016. In contrast, presuming that teams that every team would win 81 games would have been off by slightly more than 9 wins per team making it roughly a 40% improvement than just picking each team to win the same amount of games.

While they successfully predicted the record of 11 teams within 3 wins of their 2016 results, they also were off by 9 or more wins for 6 teams. Interestingly, Fangraphs did a worse job projecting five other teams than the Orioles in 2016. Presuming that each team would go .500 would have resulted in being off by 9 or more wins for 14 teams, while being within 3 wins for only 6 teams. This indicates that while Fangraphs had poor predictions for a number of MLB teams, using these predictions is better than using nothing at all. It also shows that Fangraphs should be expected to have poor predictions for roughly 20% of MLB teams.

Fangraphs did a decent job predicting runs scored for each team as they were off on average by .266 runs per game. If someone knew that teams would average roughly 4.48 runs per game, and predicted that each team would score that amount, then they would have been off by roughly .289 runs per game. Given that it’s hard to know before the season how many runs will be scored, this shows that Fangraphs had some success at predicting runs scored. Fangraphs did better when it came to runs allowed. On average, Fangraphs was off by roughly .3 runs per game. If one presumed that each team would allow 4.48 runs per game, then presuming each team would allow the same amount of runs means that the average prediction would have been off by .36 runs per game. Clearly, using Fangraphs projections have some value.

Fangraphs does worse when trying to project earned and unearned runs. Fangraphs was off by an average of 59 earned runs per team. If one used the actual number of runs scored, than presuming that each team allowed the same amount of earned runs would have resulted in the projection being off by 51.4 runs. If one used the number of earned runs projected to be scored by Fangraphs, then the average team would have been off by 69.6 earned runs. This isn’t an impressive result.

Likewise, the Fangraphs projections predicted that each team would allow 75 unearned runs. In reality, teams only allowed 52.76 runs. This is a pretty big difference. On average, Fangraphs was off by 23.7 unearned runs per team. If one presumed that each team gave up an equal amount of the actual unearned runs allowed, then each team would have been off by 10.4 unearned runs. If one used the number Fangraphs projected, then each team would have been off by 22.9 unearned runs. This indicates that Fangraphs is unable to project unearned runs. It also suggests that Fangraphs is unable to successfully predict the number of runs allowed in a season, but has the ability to guess which teams will allow the most or least runs only in context. This isn’t as useful as how many runs a team will allow.

The Fangraphs projections undoubtedly have some predictive ability and are better than using nothing. Sometimes, that can be very valuable. For example, suppose someone builds a model that can successfully predict whether a stock on Wall Street will go up in value that works 5% more accurately than the current models. This model may only have minimal predictive ability but is still good enough to be worth billions of dollars. A small increase in predictive ability can be highly valuable.

However, it doesn’t change the fact that a small increase in predictive ability is still only a small increase. Sure, it tells us more than we knew before, but that’s not the same as calling it gospel. The model in the paragraph above will fail a large percentage of the time. Such a model can both have extreme value, but still be wrong a significant amount of the time.

What does this mean for Orioles’ fans? The Fangraphs projections do have some validity to them, but they’ve historically missed on a large percentage of teams. Their results should be taken seriously, but with the understanding that they aren't holy writ. They’re neither perfect nor worthless. The same is probably true for PECOTA. They’re better than nothing, but that doesn't make them great.

08 February 2017

Throw (Good) Curveballs with Men on Base

Two weeks ago, I showed that pitchers can throw curveballs that reliably depress the exit velocities of hitters. There were many of directions I wanted to go with this, including determining whether the ability persists year to year (I believe it does, generally - a pitcher can always work on his curveball) and whether the ability presents itself in the minors (I imagine it would, but it's possible that pitchers really develop their curveball early at the MLB level rather than in the minors). Both pieces of follow-up research would offer strong opportunities for action at the Major League level; scouting and fairly shallow research could be used to identify pitchers with a top-notch second pitch early on. However, both pieces of follow-up research require something that doesn't exist: data. Baseball Savant doesn't have complete 2015 Statcast records, and no Statcast data is available for Minor League teams, at least publicly. If you're a professional baseball team that wants me to answer these questions...

Instead, I turned my attention to slices of data that did exist within the available Statcast data. Spin rate didn't show any correlation with the depression of exit velocity. This was a little surprising given what we know about spin rates and curveballs. But spin rate is not in and of itself a good thing; there can be meaningless spin on a ball, and curveballs are among the pitches that tend to have the largest amount of total spin being meaningless. Perhaps separating useful from meaningless spin on curveballs and comparing it to exit velocity depression would yield more valuable results.

I also looked at the bast state at the time of the pitch. considering any instance with at least one man on base to be an instance in which the pitcher would throw his pitch from the stretch. This is not always true; some pitchers pitch from the stretch in bases-empty situations, and some pitch from the windup regardless. Some mix it up! In general, my expectation was to find that pitchers would do worse from the stretch overall, whether by an inability to generate torque and spin with a faster move to the plate, or a push to reach back and throw harder curveballs that don't drop as much, and as such get hit for line drives more often.

The results were counter to my expectations: pitchers tended to depress exit velocities at the same rate with men on base than with the bases empty. Right handed pitchers shown because the Orioles only had righties throw curveballs in 2016:

It seems that, in general, pitchers that can throw good curveballs can throw them in any situation. Pitchers whose curveballs depress exit velocity do so consistently.

This is particularly useful for crafting pitch sequences with runners in scoring position. In some cases, fastballs are considered ideal to prevent the opportunity for runners to steal. However, with a pitcher on the mound whose curveball regularly depresses exit velocities (ie, induces ground balls), it may be advantageous to rely more heavily on the curve and ask the pitcher to generate outs rather than hold runners. At the very least, pitchers with good curveballs should not shy away from using them when the other team is threatening.