26 April 2017

Strikeout Rate Stabilization and Time

Thanks to the wonderful work of Baseball Prospectus, we understand that strikeout rate - and other offensive categories - stabilize at a relatively small number of plate attempts. While statistic stabilization is commonly referenced, it's worth exploring what this means - and how it can be taken advantage of.

Rate stabilization gives us a sense of how small of a sample size is needed before a player's average talent can be estimated. Baseball Prospectus determines this by finding the sample size at which any randomly selected sample has a high correlation (over 0.70, to be exact) with any other randomly selected sample of the same size. For example, Manny Machado's last 60 plate attempts should feature a strikeout rate that is highly correlated with his strikeout rate over 60 plate attempts in 2015. Further, Manny Machado's strikeout rate over any 60 plate attempts, even non-continuous ones, is highly correlated with his strikeout rate over any 60 other plate attempts. The concept of course makes perfect sense: a player is who he is, and has a true level of ability. The important part is the number of plate attempts it take to estimate with a degree of certainty a player's true talent level.

The concept of rate stabilization is frequently used to make judgments on a player's ability early in the season, or sometimes early in his career - and they should be. The concept of rate stabilization is proven over the entire population of Major League Baseball and holds true overall. However, in the interest of testing heuristics, I sought to understand how much variation there is in a player's 60 plate attempt strikeout rate over time. The addition of time is, I think, very relevant to understanding a player's true talent level, and something that I might argue is missing from the common knowledge on any rate stabilization.

I want to bring time into the conversation of rate stabilization because it allows for players to grow, adapt to the speed of the Majors, change their approach, fix their swing,... Basically for players, especially young players, to mature into the professional ballplayer that they will be for the majority of their careers. It wouldn't be fair to assume Albert Pujols' 13.8% strikeout rate in his first season was his true level of talent and to be repeated for the next 17 years of his career. In fact, Pujols recorded sub-10% strikeout rates in nine of the next eleven seasons.

Was Pujols simply lucky in the first 10 years of his career to consistently record strikeout rates below that of his first year? It's far more likely that his true, natural strikeout rate decreased (read: his true talent level increased) as he grew to know the speed of MLB pitching and learned tendencies and pitch sequences and studied film and practiced. Pujols probably practiced a lot. How many other players can we identify as elevating (or lowering) their level of true talent rapidly - before seasons end or before they become a coveted free agent?

I believe we can, and I set out to do so among Orioles players. Consider this a proof of concept. By examining the rolling 60 plate attempt strikeout rate of Orioles players, we can observe instances in which a batter is striking out more or less often (a LOWESS line makes this trend easier to pick out). We expect some variation, obviously, since performance over 60 plate attempts is simply correlated with performance over 60 other plate attempts. However, a player that is consistently lowering his 60-plate-attempt strikeout rate may have actually improved his ability to not strike out (be it through better contact rates, zone awareness, or pitch recognition). In an attempt to parse out which changes are worth taking note of, I also plotted the number of standard deviations from the mean strikeout rate that the 60-plate-appearance strikeout rate falls. Sustained periods of time that are greater than 1 standard deviation are worth considering as repeatable, new normals. Doing so would require digging into data and talking with the player to understand why his strikeout rate is so different than normal, and if it's a new repeatable skill.

Take, for example, Machado. His 60-plate-attempt strikeout rate has increased over the last few hundred rolling instances of 60 continuous plate attempts. Although Manny's rolling 60-plate-attempt strikeout rate is still less than one standard deviation from his mean, we might begin to wonder whether his true strikeout rate is a bit higher than it was when he entered the league. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Although, yes, all else equal, a lower strikeout rate is better, all is rarely ever equal. Strikeouts are usually the price of hitting for more power. This is not an exercise to say that Machado should change his approach at the plate lest his value drop because of his strikeout rate, but instead to recognize that in hitting for more power, Manny's strikeouts might increase.

Consider also Mark Trumbo, whose extraordinary 2016 was his third out of the last four years to feature a strikeout rate of less than 25%. Trumbo has demonstrated a strikeout rate about a half of a standard deviation below his career average for long enough that we might begin to question whether his recent performance is a better indicator of his talent than his career average:

Ryan Flaherty's 60-plate-attempt strikeout rate has consistently increased since 2013, ranging from a full standard deviation below his career average to nearly a standard deviation above average. Perhaps it's no surprise that offensive opportunities have dried up for Flaherty:

And finally, Joey Rickard has only six plate attempts this season but rolling plate attempts over seasons shows a pretty dramatic decrease in 60-plate-attempt strikeout rate. With some practice and some exposure to Major League pitching, Rickard may have learned to handle the strike zone a little better than when he first entered the league. This is an instance where a player's improvement would merit some further investigation; Rickard has never been much for on base percentage, but slight changes in approach might have made his offense slightly more valuable than expected. Obvious follow up questions that seek to determine whether Rickard has actually gained more control of the strike zone include whether Rickard is swinging less often, swinging at pitches out of the zone less often, whiffing less often, and walking more (walk rate stabilizes over 120 plate attempts).

Rickard is also a fine example of an instance in which this method might be used to judge a young player's performance with more information than his career averages or any randomly selected 60 plate attempts. We should expect Rickard to have grown and adapted to Major League pitching; to expect his potential and performance at ages 25-30 to match identically his performance at age 24, which he was getting his very first exposure to the Majors, would be rather shortsighted. Rickard may not ever be a stud (he won't be), but he might scratch the replacement level mark this season as a batter with a 15% strikeout rate instead of the 20% strikeout rate he's projected by ZiPS and Steamer to exhibit.

A prospect with more promise or better peripherals might show a similarly snaking rolling 60-plate-attempt strikeout rate over his first season or two. This might prompt a team to focus on or reinforce plate discipline, contact, or control over the zone depending on the drivers of the change in strikeout rate. Similarly, if an established player exhibits a strikeout rate consistently below his career strikeout rate, a team might consider his career average to underestimate his ability to reduce strikeouts.

25 April 2017

Is Brad Brach's Elevated Fastball Taking Him To New Heights?

If you’re a regular follower of the Orioles and hear the name Devin Jones, you’re likely to think of the player who was shipped to the Padres to acquire Brad Brach. Many minor baseball trades are made throughout the year that pass by and are never really pondered again. Unfortunately for Jones, the Brach-Jones swap is not one of them, and it’s enough to make you feel a little sorry for him. It’s not his fault that Brach has seemingly transformed into a dominant, late-inning relief force.

And that's sure what Brach appears to be right now. He isn’t an overnight success; he didn’t make his Orioles’ debut in 2014 and immediately wreak havoc. Instead, he’s shown improvement each year. That’s often what fans think of when a prospect or young-ish player develops: slow and linear growth. It often doesn't work out that way, but for Brach, it basically has (at least since coming to Baltimore).

He made his debut with the Padres in 2011 and pitched seven innings. Here are his innings pitched and FanGraph's WAR totals for the seasons since:

2012: 66.2 IP, -0.5 WAR
2013: 31.0 IP, -0.1 WAR
2014: 62.1 IP, 0.2 WAR (first year with Orioles)
2015: 79.1 IP, 0.9 WAR
2016: 79.0 IP, 1.6 WAR
2017: 10.0 IP, 0.5 WAR (so far)

Since joining the Orioles, Brach has been perfecting his repertoire and finding out what works. In 2014, he had an ERA of 3.18. Then it was 2.72 the year after, 2.05 in 2016, and right now it’s zero. It won’t stay at zero (shocking, I know), but Brach is off to a tremendous start to keep his streak of increased production going. His fielding independent stats back that up as well: Brach’s FIP was 3.90 in 2014, falling to 3.47, then 2.92, and now the current 1.52. Again, it won’t stay that low, but steadily increasing in strikeouts per nine innings (currently at 11.70) while cutting down on walks per nine from about 3.5-4 to around 3 is a great sign. 

Through the 2015 season, much of Brach’s improvement was due to his nasty changeup/splitter (let's just call it a changeup, since that's what Brooks Baseball does). Brach essentially throws three pitches: a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. After throwing the changeup over a quarter of the time in 2015, though, he surprisingly decided to throw less of them. In its place, he now throws more four-seamers and sliders (and even fewer sinkers, which is now a rare offering for him).

Pitch usage data via Brooks Baseball
It’s unknown exactly why Brach stopped leaning as much on the changeup. There’s a strong case that Brach should have been throwing his splitter even more; Jeff Sullivan made that exact observation last May over at FanGraphs. Yet, Brach started doing the opposite!

Why did he do that? Well, the growth of swing-and-miss results on his four-seamer and slider is easy to see. The changeup is still arguably his best pitch when he needs a whiff, but his other two offerings are not that far behind and he's been comfortable throwing them more:

Whiffs per swing data via Brooks Baseball
Brach is currently generating whiffs on nearly 40% of swings with all three of his pitches. It's early in the season, of course, but that's still absurd. Looking closer, note the consistent increase with Brach's fastball. He's been getting more swings and misses with that pitch every season since he came to Baltimore.

So how's he doing it? Before this season, you could chalk a chunk of it up to a velocity increase. Brach's velocity jumped a few miles per hour after joining the Orioles, which he credits to a mechanical adjustment on the rubber that was suggested by former coaches Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti. Brach's average fastball velocity last season was nearly 96 mph; in 2013, he was throwing 93 mph. Even still, Brach's velocity is down this year compared to where it was last April, and yet the results are still there (and better).

At least two things have helped him to achieve this success with his fastball. First, he has been able to get more vertical movement on the pitch. And second, he's been throwing it higher in the zone:

Vertical pitch location data via Brooks Baseball
Just look at the heatmap for Brach's four-seamer in 2015, 2016, and 2017. They make it even easier to notice what's happening. Brach isn't messing around, and he's looking to throw his fastball on the inner third and up if he can.

Perhaps it's just an early trend, at least to this degree. Or maybe, like Darren O'Day, the Tampa Bay Rays, and many others, he's learning the power of the high fastball and its ability to combat the growing number of upper-cut swings.

Let's get to some GIFs. Here's Brach in the season's opening series throwing a high fastball by Josh Donaldson:



Here's one from April 7, when Brach fanned the side against the Yankees. The first was a called strike on a fastball, and then next two were swings and misses by Aaron Judge and Pete Kozma:



A few games later in Toronto, Brach climbed the ladder and struck out Troy Tulowitzi on an elevated four-seamer:



Brach's BABIP isn't going to stay at .063. He's not going to keep stranding 100% of baserunners. But this version of him is even scarier than the one throwing filthy changeups all over the place (and he still has that pitch in his back pocket if he needs it; he just isn't needing it as much).

Remember when the Mets reportedly wanted Brach in exchange for Curtis Granderson? It's easy to see why they wanted Brach, and it looks even better now that the Orioles didn't pull the trigger.

Jonathan Schoop's Extension Depends on His Ultimate Position

When Jonathan Schoop was in the minors, it was often reported in the local minors reports that the Orioles had two great shortstop prospects in Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop. The greatness was based primarily on that they stood at shortstop while hammering the ball at the plate. The negative view of Machado was that he would get too thick for shortstop and the power would not translate over to third base.

What we have seen from Machado is that his athleticism and agility have overcome his further physical development. He does not have the greatest range at third base, but he has the motor coordination and strong arm to minimize that detriment (something that becomes slightly more obvious when he takes over at shortstop). In other words, Machado's warning flags never amounted to much.

How has Schoop performed against his warning flags? They are still readily apparent. It became more obvious that Schoop did not have the range or ability to get down on the ball to play shortstop. He was then tested at third base, where his arm fit and he had less ground to cover. The hot corner proved to be a little too hot for him and he had trouble reacting to batted balls and, again, getting down on grounders. Schoop's move to second filled a major void in the Orioles lineup, but was also considered a potential benefit to him by setting him further away from home plate. He has done well there. Defensive positioning has covered up his range issues, he has very soft hands, good footwork around the bag, and an arm that can make up for mistakes. Still, he has trouble getting down on grounders, which does not bode well for him as he moves now into his later 20s.

His defense so far this season has looked very rough (all metrics find him 25th to 28th best 2B fielder this year) and it would not be surprising to begin hearing of an attempt to shift him to another position. Now, I have not heard a peep from the front office about moving Schoop, but it is a topic that tends to get touched on with any evaluators. The minority opinion amongst the evaluators (e.g., scouts, front office analysts) is that Schoop will hit enough for anyone to put up with his defensive shortcomings for the next five or so years. The majority opinion is that Schoop needs to be reacquainted with third base and see if he has aged better in reacting to batted balls. That would not likely happen with the Orioles who seem more and more invested with Machado at third base. The rest think Schoop is a natural first baseman with a strong arm. Most third first evaluators, thinks first base is the ultimate landing spot. My suggestion of left or right field was scoffed at because of Schoop's issues with range. I still lean in that direction, but feel quite a bit of uncertainty when everyone who does this for a living is telling me that, no, Schoop should never play corner outfield. 

As you can imagine this muddles up the extension outlook. Schoop as a second baseman makes him far more valuable to the Orioles instead of him needing to shift to the corner outfield or, ugh, first base. Those other positions are, largely, defensively less difficult, so you tend to find greater offensive production there. That makes Schoop's offensive production less meaningful compared to who else is available for those positions. Now, Schoop's mix of plus power, average hit tool, and lack of walks made him a difficult player to find age similar comps. This led to me being more exploratory than usual and work beyond the position and the recent past. I found the closest comps for him to be: Joe Pepitone, Sammy Sosa, Matt Williams, Cory Snyder, Gary Gaetti, Benito Santiago, Dale Sveum, Pedro Munoz, and Pedro Garcia. The 50th percentile performance based on that grouping is shown below for 2018-2023 for Schoop.

YearAgePAHRAVGOBPSLGWARValue
20182656919.246.291.4011.310.7
20192749321.257.305.4572.318.5
20202850523.265.316.4792.711.8
20212944524.273.327.5013.125.1
20223046320.265.319.4582.519.9
20233148422.256.312.4552.419.2

To be honest, I am actually surprised how well the model suggests Schoop will perform. The model sees minor improvements to contact and on-base percentage while seeing a significant upturn for power that will stabilize Schoop's value. That value comes to 115.2 MM on that six-year extension. With two of those years being arbitration years, we can expect that "market" value to be more in line with 105.4 MM.

At third base, the total offensive profile is similar, so we would come up with similar numbers. A corner outfield position would drop the offensive value a bit (performance stays the same, but the population of good hitting outfielders is greater than it is at second base). His value as a league average left fielder or right fielder would be 84.8 MM over those six years or about 78.1 MM with the arbitration effect. First base struck that down to 71.2 MM or, with arbitration, 65.3 MM.

As it stands, I think the options are clear:
1) Do not sign Schoop to an extension and let him play out the string at second base. At end of term, consider value at second base or transition to another position on club. The point being that it may not make much sense to go through the growing pains of a position switch, which may only be beneficial to the eventual team signing him.
2) Extend Schoop as a 2B/3B. Keep him at second base until a better option arrives. Then, shift him to a corner outfield position or have him replace an outgoing Machado.

Option two might be an expensive option if Schoop ultimately cannot competitively play for the Orioles at second or third. It would cost the club about $6 million a year compared to other likely similar options for left or right field. But, yes, it seems the extension game comes down to a 30 MM bet if Schoop can settle in.

24 April 2017

Wade Miley's Winning Combo: Great Command And Great Framing

Russell Martin is many things — a Canadian, a three-true-outcomes hitter, a strong defender — but above all else, he's an excellent judge of pitch location. Since 2007, the first year of PITCHf/x data, Martin has swung at 20.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, ranking 27th among 567 qualified hitters. (For what it's worth, he's also swung at 59.2 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, which is 124th in that sample.) Maybe it's because he plays behind the plate, or maybe it's just an innate talent; whatever the reason, he can usually tell the difference between balls and strikes.

We can understand, then, why he got a little miffed here:



With the Jays trailing the O's 5-3 in the sixth inning, Martin worked the count to 2-2 against Wade Miley. The left-hander uncorked a sinker that fell right on the edge of the PITCHf/x-defined strike zone, and though Martin checked his swing, Brian Knight rung him up. It was the eighth strikeout of the night for Miley, continuing an unforeseen run of dominance from the Orioles starter.

Heading into the year, most of us didn't expect much from Miley. FanGraphs' Depth Charts projected the southpaw to put up a 4.48 ERA and 4.34 FIP over 169.0 innings — the marks of a wholly uninspiring, mid- to back-of-the-rotation arm. Yet over his first three starts, Miley has earned a sterling 1.89 ERA and 3.15 FIP. While his walk rate (11.1) is elevated and his ground ball rate (48.7 percent) is in line with his career average, he's struck out 33.3 percent of opposing hitters. Even in this young season, that ranks fourth in the majors.

But wait. Looking at his PITCHf/x plate discipline metrics, we don't see much improvement from past years. If anything, Miley has performed worse in 2017:

  Year(s)    O-Swing%    Z-Swing%    Swing%    Contact%    SwStr%    Zone% 
  2011-16  30.7% 63.5% 45.4% 81.0% 8.6% 44.8%
2017 31.3% 66.7% 45.7% 81.2% 8.6% 40.7 %

Miley's whiff rate hasn't budged from past years, and he has the unsavory combination of fewer pitches in the zone and more swings in the zone. How, then, has he fanned a third of the batters he's faced?

Well, aside from fortuitous sequencing — which is to say, luck — Miley's accumulated a lot more strikes than you'd expect, based on his zone and O-Swing rates. The trend has affected each of his starts:

  Start    Pitches    Strikes    xStrikes 
  4/9    100    56    51 
  4/14    101    66    61 
  4/20    101    70    67 
  Total    302    192    179 
xStrikes = Pitches * (1 - (1 - O-Swing%) * (1 - Zone%))

Getting those extra calls has given Miley an above-average strike rate (63.6 percent) and looking-strike rate (28.1 percent). That's made him a power pitcher, of sorts, and resulted in a lot of weird looks like the one Martin showed above.

So does Miley stand any chance any chance of keeping this up? Or will his greatness fade away, like so many other early-season success stories? (Remember April 2016 MVP Joey Rickard?) He probably won't have a higher strikeout rate than Max Scherzer by the end of the year, but Miley has a couple of factors working in his favor.

Baseball Prospectus debuted a metric called CSAA in February, which isolates a pitcher's ability to get called strikes as a proxy for his command. I'll let BP explain the details:

A pitcher with good command should be more predictable for the catcher—their pitches often end up in the locations, and with the movement that the catcher expects. This skill results in easier receiving for catchers, and additional called strikes for the pitcher. Once we aggregate the data cross thousands of pitches, CSAA is able to tell us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots.

By this metric, Miley's always excelled. This year, though, he's taken things to another level:


As of this writing, Miley's 4.59 percent CSAA ranks third in the majors, trailing fellow left-handers (and past Cy Young winners) Dallas Keuchel and Clayton Kershaw. For whatever reason — maybe he's better with his sinker, which he's used more often this year — Miley's command has taken a huge leap forward in 2017, and his strikeout rate has spiked in turn.

But command, I'd argue, is not the most significant variable at play. As noted, Miley's command is nothing new (albeit not to this extent), yet he's never overperformed his expected strike rate like this. The bigger factor in his 2017 success seems to be the second half of the called-strike tandem — the man behind the plate.

While the Orioles brought in Welington Castillo and his lead glove to start at catcher, he hasn't manned the position every day. Caleb Joseph has gotten the nod four times this season — on April 9, 14, 20, and 22. If you've been checking the dates in that table above, you'll notice something: Joseph has caught all 19.0 innings Miley has thrown in 2017. Needless to say, it's shown.

In case you went into a coma during the mid-aughts to avoid another miserable year of Orioles baseball and just woke up, I'll fill you in on the secret around Baltimore: That Caleb Joseph fella? He's pretty good at framing. This year, he's posted a .029 CSAA, the highest in the majors. Since his 2014 debut, he's saved the Orioles 27.1 runs in less than 2,000 innings.

Miley certainly appreciates what Joseph has done for him, as he explained to PressBoxOnline's Rich Dubroff:
"Not to knock at Welington. I've thrown to him. He's outstanding as well," Miley said. "Something about Caleb from spring training. I don't know what it was. I know he works hard back there for me. We've got a good thing going right now. 
"As a pitcher, you've got a catcher back there working really hard for you, and you see that. You kind of build off of that, build off the energy you see him giving, and you go from there."
Whether "works hard" is just boilerplate athlete talk or a subtle nod to Joseph's framing prowess/dig at Castillo's framing ineptitude, we'll never know for sure.

Earlier in that piece, Buck Showalter swears there's nothing to the Miley/Joseph pairing, and that he doesn't believe in the idea of personal catchers. If Castillo catches Miley more often, it'll certainly put a dent in his numbers; still, it shouldn't sink him entirely. Joseph has worked with some pitchers more than others — last year, he caught a large chunk of Ubaldo Jimenez's innings, more so than any other Orioles regular:

  Pitcher    Joseph Innings    Innings    Joseph% 
Kevin Gausman 27.0 179.2 15.0%
Chris Tillman 23.2 172.0 13.8%
Ubaldo Jimenez 57.2 142.1 40.5%
  Yovani Gallardo  25.0 117.1 21.2%
Dylan Bundy 32.0 109.2 29.2%

Some catchers seem to have a rapport with a given pitcher (or are just better at catching), and while Showalter understandably doesn't want to disrupt his schedule to accommodate that, he'll tweak things so guys like Jimenez and Miley can throw a few more innings to their backstop of choice. That helped Jimenez a couple of years ago, and it could work in Miley's favor this season.

As Martin and the Blue Jays have spiraled out of contention, the Orioles are, once again, flying high in April. No team in the American League has a better record than the Birds, and Miley has been the team's second-best starter to this point (can't knock Bundy, I'm afraid). His ERA won't remain below two for the entire season, or below three, but it's clear that he's not the 6.17-ERA starter we saw in the second half of 2016. Someone with command like this, who pitches to a catcher like Joseph, is bound to rack up strikeouts and keep runs off the board.

20 April 2017

Why WAR-Based Systems Underestimate Elite Relievers

People using WAR based systems to value players typically think that relievers are overvalued by baseball clubs.  Way back in 2010, an article printed on Fangraphs made the following claim:

WAR, as you probably know, doesn’t think much of relief pitchers. The very best relievers in the game are generally worth +2 to +2.5 wins over a full season, or about the same as an average everyday player. This has caused quite a few people to state that WAR doesn’t work for relievers, because the results of the metric don’t match what they believe to be true about relief pitcher value. I think it works just fine.
While the quality of their work is very high, the quantity is low, which limits their total value. It’s nearly impossible to rack up huge win values while facing less than 300 batters per season. Yes, each of those batters faced are more critical to a win than a regular batter faced, but this is accounted for in WAR.

Since that article, there appears to be a consensus that the WAR based systems still seem to undervalue relievers compared to actual baseball clubs, but people are now trying to understand the reasoning for that gap. Ron Arthur of 538 noted that teams with a good bullpen or more likely to hold a one-run lead and therefore made a hypothesis that this may be a reason why relievers seem to be overvalued by front offices relative to the sabermetric consensus. An article in Baseball Prospectus asked why teams seem to be willing to spend millions on relievers when WAR(P) tells them that spending on relievers is a mistake. The author argues that WAR(P) doesn’t do a good job measuring reliever value and that Win Probability Added (WPA) helps explain teams reasoning. Finally, a more recent article in Fangraphs notes that there’s a sizable and growing gap between the public’s valuation of elite relief arms and the industry’s valuation.

I think the reason why WAR-based systems struggle to quantify the value of relievers is because of a focus on value over replacement rather than value over average. If one focuses solely on value over replacement, than a 1 WAR starter who pitches 200 innings is just as valuable as a 1 WAR reliever who pitches 60 innings. In this scenario, since a replacement player by definition produces 0 WAR, each player contributed 1 WAR more than a replacement player. And since a replacement level starter is better than a replacement level reliever, it makes sense to argue that the 1 WAR starter is even more valuable than the 1 WAR reliever.

However, the results are different if one focuses on value over average. Suppose there are two pitchers on two teams; one pitcher produces 2 WAR over 60 innings and another that produces 2 WAR over 200 innings. If we presume that each team’s pitchers throw 1450 innings total and that the average team produces 14.3 pitching WAR, then the team with the pitcher that threw 60 innings needs to earn 12.3 WAR over 1390 innings to be average while the other team needs to earn 12.3 WAR over 1250 innings to be average. This example illustrates how two pitchers can earn the same amount of WAR, but one pitcher can help his team more than the other pitcher.

Focusing on value over average is probably a better strategy than focusing on value over replacement. Each year, pitchers earn roughly 430 fWAR split out among all 30 teams. From 2000-2016, there has been only one team with negative pitching WAR. Ultimately, most teams have a large population of pitchers that are above replacement and therefore need to consider not only how best to maximize WAR but to minimize innings pitched. Innings are a finite constraint that aren’t given enough consideration in WAR-based systems.

Recently, maybe even this week, Fangraphs updated its methodology for how to determine pitching WAR. It’s complicated but a simple and incomplete version of their method is that they determine Wins Per Game Above Replacement (WPGAR), multiply this by the innings pitched and then throw in a few more adjustments. For our purposes, the only relevant fact is that their methodology focuses on replacement rather than average.

In order to determine a Wins Above Average metric, I determined that on average from 2010-2016, an average pitcher earns 1 WAR per 101 innings. Therefore, to determine Wins Above Average, I take a pitchers WAR and subtract from it (Innings/101). For a more complicated Wins Above Average metric, I’d use Fangraphs methodology for determining wins above average and see whether our numbers are similar, but I didn’t learn about their updated methodology in enough time to perform the necessary calculations.

This metric is friendlier towards elite relievers than Wins Above Replacement. For example, from 2010-2016, 2016 Zach Britton ranks 402nd in WAR but 184th in Wins Above Average.
There aren’t so many surprises in the top ten pitchers. The absolutely amazing Clayton Kershaw is ranked #1 despite throwing only 149 innings. Rich Hill ranks 10th with a strong 110 innings. But in the next top 10 pitchers, there are relief pitchers Jansen, Miller and Betances. Chapman is ranked 21st and Britton is ranked 25th.

I built a basic model converting Wins Above Average to projected salary to see how elite reliever salaries might compare with this metric instead of using Wins Above Replacement. The model could use some improvement and isn’t ready for primetime, but it seemed to indicate that relievers might be 30-40% more valuable using Wins Above Average instead of Wins Above Replacement. If so, this could help explain why elite relievers are receiving higher salaries than WAR-based systems suggest.

WAR-based systems presume that players replacing other players are only at replacement level. This presumption means that relievers that can earn 2 WAR while throwing in just sixty innings are valued equally to starters that earn 2 WAR if they throw in 200 innings. Until WAR-based systems can find a way to take production over a limited period into account, it seems plausible that they will continue to underestimate the value of elite relievers.

19 April 2017

Trey Mancini and the Audacity of Small Samples

Trey Mancini is, as of April 18 and through 39 career plate appearances, running a wRC+ of 282. Barry Bonds had a career mark of 173. He has a career wOBA of .539. That slacker Babe Ruth? A mere .513. He has more extra base hits in his career than he does singles. Take that every player ever! If he retired today, he'd leave with a career batting average higher than every player in history not named Ty Cobb (assuming we got rid of minimum plate appearance numbers, but only for Mancini). In short, he's an absolute beast.

Well, ok, maybe those comparisons are a little crazy. Not unlike Mancini's start! He's been about as great as you could ever expect someone to be, especially considering that he was never ranked as a top prospect and is learning to play a new position in the Majors. While he may not end up beating Babe Ruth's career wOBA, he's already done more this season than many would have thought back in November.

So what's driving this early career success? Well, that's a little difficult to discern. Oh, wait, no it's not. 70% of his fly balls have been home runs. He's on pace to destroy every offensive record in baseball history because, of the ten times he has hit the ball in play and in the air, seven of them have been home runs. This is both amazing and utterly, ridiculously unsustainable.

Of course, we all know that, or at least we should. But it's not like Mancini is only hitting wall scrapers. According to Statcast, he has the tenth hardest hit ball of the year (the rocket he launched against Ben Taylor of the Red Sox), so we know that he has the capability of squaring up Major League pitching. Here's the problem: other than the homers, he isn't exactly tearing the cover off the ball. JJ Hardy has a higher average exit velocity than Mancini this season and only 38% of Mancini's balls in play are considered "hard hit." He is hitting line drives at a below average rate and and has hit the ball on the ground 50% of the time. He has also continued his career trend of not walking much and striking out a ton, though this certainly isn't a barrier to playing for the Baltimore Orioles.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that, first and foremost, it's April. Weird things happen in April and September, and those are the only months that Mancini has worn an Orioles uniform in meaningful games. The home run pace will absolutely fall off, and probably very soon, though he has likely quieted at least a few critics who questioned his bat speed and swing earlier in his career. When the homers do inevitably stop coming at such a furious pace, however, it's fair to question exactly what the O's have in Mancini.

Certainly, the team showed confidence in him by bringing him north from Florida and playing him nearly every day in the two weeks of the season, but it's worth noting that the O's didn't exactly seem ready to make a commitment to him as a cornerstone of the team prior to 2017. Despite tearing up the minors and winning the Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year award in 2015, the O's signed both Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo to long term deals, guys who will occupy Mancini's most likely long term defensive positions for the conceivable future. The fact that he has been at least adequate in the outfield has to be encouraging, but it seems hard to believe that this was in the long term plan considering that he didn't play a single game in the outfield in 2016.

Of course, circumstances have a way of changing plans. Mancini's great start should, at the very least, earn him the right to stay with the big league club for the foreseeable future. Even if he's not Ruthian the rest of the way, he could be a major asset to a team that needs one.



18 April 2017

After the Goldrush: Orioles may regret not dealing their closer at the peak of his value

The Orioles’ young season received an early blow this weekend.  Ace closer, Zach Britton, was placed on the 10-day DL after experiencing pain in his throwing arm.

That sounds dire, but quotes emanating from Camden Yards have been optimistic.  As of this writing, Britton has been diagnosed with a “forearm strain” and will not receive an MRI.

The O’s will shut the lefty down for a week or so and see how his body responds.  Expect the club to proceed super-cautiously with the 29-year-old lefty.  The last thing they want is for Britton to blow his UCL while compensating for another injury.

So, while the initial news is good, the long-term prognosis is still a bit cloudy.  It offers a preview into how tenuous the world of relievers can be: hero today, gone tomorrow.

For every Mariano Rivera, there are five or ten other guys with electric stuff whose arms simply disintegrated.  Savvy organizations, such as the early-2000s Oakland A’s, recognize this and ship those guys out while their “stock” is high.

As history has shown, the returns for these guys can be fantastic – franchise-altering even.  It’s not to say that the Orioles would be better off without Britton, but he may be more valuable as a trade chip.

Worse, they may have missed their chance to cash in for the highest return.

Let’s rewind to last December’s winter meetings.  Baseball had just witnessed the postseason, and the birth of a new age of enlightenment.

Indian’s manager, Terry Francona led his team to the precipice of a title – in large part to his shrewd and aggressive deployment of relief pitcher, Andrew Miller.  On the other side of the field, Joe Maddon’s Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman and won it all.

As for Britton, all he had done was put up his most-dominating season to date.  Here is a snippet of his excellence:

67 innings, 2-1, 0.54 ERA, .863 WHIP, 47 saves, 9.9 K/9, 2.5 WAR

Saves aren’t a sexy statistic to the analytic community, but elite closers still hold some “ooh-ah” currency for front offices.  The Dodgers, under the whip-smart direction of Andrew Freidman, just spent $80 million to retain the services of reliever Kenley Jansen.

Britton, who leads MLB this season with five saves, is tied with Tom Gordon for the second-longest consecutive saves streak with 54 (30 behind record-holder Eric Gagne).

His legend only seemed to grow, with his infamous non-usage in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game.  So, why trade such a valuable commodity?  The answer lies in the word “valuable.” 

Despite his age, he still has one more arbitration year left before he is eligible for free agency.  Two, full seasons of dominance from Britton would have been an enticing proposition for a team that needed a closer but was less-willing to make long-term commitments.

Teams are reticent to give up their best prospects, these days, but they might be more willing after seeing the returns Cleveland and Chicago got.  Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are still counting the king’s ransom they received for Chapman and Miller:

Chapman trade:
Gleyber Torres SS
Adam Warren RHP
Billy McKinney OF
Rashad Crawford OF

Miller trade:
Clint Frazier OF
Justus Sheffield LHP
Ben Heller RHP
J.P. Feyereisen RHP

Not every player on this list will become a major league regular, much less a star.  But, they (most-specifically Torres and Frazier) represent something everything organization covets: upside.

As my collegue Nate Delong highlighted, the Orioles aren’t exactly bursting with minor league depth.  The big league roster features aging players at key positions, so the time is now for them to be developing the next wave of stars.

Any time you can trade a reliever for starting, position player, it’s a win.  Position players appear in more games and are thus worth significantly more WAR over their careers than all but a handful of closers.

Britton was sublime last year, but even he was due for some regression, as evidenced by a 1.94 FIP and a .230 BABIP.  That’s certainly been true, so far.

It’s a tiny, sample size, but he has looked hittable (10 hits allowed in 7 frames of work) and has seen his walk rate increase (3.86 BB/9 versus 2.42 last season). 

It is unknown whether these struggles were due to the injury or not.  Sometimes, closers become stale fruit overnight.  Britton wouldn’t be the first, Oriole’s closer who experienced success, only to crash and burn his way out of town (see Johnson, Jim).

And, it’s not as if Baltimore didn’t have a perfectly-capable replacement, waiting in the wings.  That’s Brad Brach, whom ESPN called “baseball’s most underrated reliever.”

Buck Showalter stopped short of naming Brach the replacement.  But, with other arms like Darren O’Day also struggling, its likely Brach will be the guy until Britton returns. 

The Orioles have shown they can pluck bullpen arms off the scrap heap.  Knowing they had Brach waiting in the wings, the Orioles should have worn out the speed dial on teams like the Washington Nationals, who were seeking relief help and had prospects to burn.

It also made sense, from a PR-perspective.  Trading Britton in-season would be a highly-unpopular move to fans; it gives the impression that they are giving up on the season.

However, the backlash would be quieter in the winter, when many fans are preoccupied with the NFL.  Also, any hurt feelings would be mitigated if Baltimore had received one of those Godfather-packages like the Yankees got.

Now, fast-forward to the present.  The Orioles are off to their customary fast start (56.4 April winning percentage over the past five seasons) and own one of the best records in baseball.  At this point, moving Britton is not even close to being on their radar.

Right now, Showalter and the Orioles would settle for having “Great Britton” back in the line-up.  It’s possible he’ll be back soon.  Whether he’s effective or not is another story.

Either way, it’s clear they missed their chance to leverage an incredible trade asset, at the apex of its value.

17 April 2017

The Orioles Have Positional Depth; Lack Positional DEPTH

The 162 game, 6 month schedule of the baseball season is incredibly grueling, and as a result teams rely on contributions from more than the 25 individuals who initially make the roster out of spring training. In many cases, teams require contributions from more than the 40 players who make up the 40-man rosters. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and fatigue can play a pivotal role over the course of a long season at multiple positions, so it’s important (to the most practical extent possible) that teams fill their 25 and 40 man rosters with players who can provide adequate production at each position in the event the starter goes down, or in a best case scenario, just needs a day off. As MASN writer Steve Melewski mentioned in a recent article he posted, the Orioles have a lot of depth stashed in the minor leagues, particularly on the position player side at AAA affiliate Norfolk.

“The Orioles’ Triple-A Norfolk team is a club with a lot of experience - major league experience. The Tides have seven position players with over 300 games of major league experience: Pedro Álvarez (851), Chris Johnson (839), Robert Andino (481), Paul Janish (459), Chris Dickerson (355), Johnny Giavotella (353) and Logan Schafer (318).
Norfolk’s position players have combined for 3,799 big league games played, which is more than three major league clubs (Padres, Brewers and Reds) opened their 2017 season with. Members of Norfolk’s opening day roster have hit 289 career big league homers, 88 more than the Padres began the season with (201).”

Those paragraphs suggest the organization has a lot of depth. It’s false. Let’s start with Alvarez. After spending last season in Baltimore, Orioles fans are pretty familiar with him. He’s had a solid if unspectacular major league career to this point (career .238/.311/.449 hitter, translating to a 107 wRC+), and he’s actually a really nice player to have stashed in the minor leagues. Signing him to a minor league deal in the offseason is a great move in a vacuum. However, as is also well-known at this point, he’s best suited for a platoon DH role, and based on the make-up of the active roster, he likely sits 4th on the depth chart. Granted, he’s spending time in the minors to work on his outfield defense. But even if you think he’ll become passable in the outfield (while I have not seen him play there yet, I don’t), he’s probably going to need to hit as well as 2016 Mark Trumbo to justify a level of defense that is “not completely embarrassing”. Again, Alvarez on a minor league deal is a good player to have, and one of the better options to adequately fill in case of a rainy day, but he’s a redundant luxury to have in the organization.

Infielders

While doing a little bit of research for this post, I stumbled on something that surprised me.
I had remembered that the Braves signed Johnson to that contract, but for some reason I thought that had been completed AT LEAST 2 years ago. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Ryan Flaherty is the only backup infielder capable of playing SS, 3B, or 2B, so the Orioles are essentially a J.J. Hardy (somewhat common) and Manny Machado or Jonathan Schoop injury (less common) away from not only Flaherty seeing significant playing time, but one of these three players doing the same.

Career Statistics (UZR/150 for position noted after player's name)

Of all the options here, Johnson (who is actually injured at the moment) is the most accomplished player of those four. He’s a tick worse than your average hitter, is a lousy defensive third baseman, and at first glance, having him stashed in the major leagues appears like a good idea (especially if someone else is paying that salary, which according to Cot’s, is Cleveland). However, Johnson has not been anywhere near productive at the plate since 2013, when he rode a .354 BABIP to a .321/.358/.457 slash line. His offensive success appears to depend entirely on a favorable BABIP, as the 3 years where he’s had a wRC+ over 100 all involved a BABIP of AT LEAST .334. In the last 3 seasons (with about 2 seasons worth of plate appearances), Johnson’s wRC+’s have been 82, 70, and 63.

Robert Andino and Paul Janish are organizational veterans at this point who (to borrow some scouting lingo), “can pick it” in the field, but can’t “hit a lick”. And while Janish’s glove work makes him a nice veteran to stash in the minors “in case of an (extreme) emergency”, I’m not sure Andino is a viable option to consider for the major league roster at any point of the season. Although, if the Orioles are out of it by August, I suppose you could hope for an Andino call up as an excuse to re-watch this highlight, and to see if his Orioles media photo continues its natural progression.



Despite minor league success, Johnny Giavotalla hasn’t shown an ability to hit or field in the major leagues and is limited to second base, so that’s not ideal. I know what you’re thinking; “Hey, that Giavotella guy is a former prospect so at least he’s probably young and maybe has some upside”. He’ll turn 30 in July. Time comes for us all.

Outfielders

As mentioned, there is plenty of (defensively challenged) outfield depth on the major league roster, so let’s take a quick look at the minor league outfield depth.

Career Statistics (UZR/150 is the combined number for all OF positions)

I probably shouldn’t even include Michael Choice here, but as a former top prospect, I decided to throw him in. He’s not even playing regularly in Norfolk, which gives an indication on where he’s at on the depth chart. Logan Schafer has some defensive value, but not enough to make up for a non-existent bat. Of these three outfielders, Chris Dickerson looks like he could be interesting as legitimate outfield depth who can also actually play defense, but he hasn’t played in the majors since 2014. It’s worth noting as well that the majority of his accumulated fWAR came from 2008 and 2009 (those seasons were accompanied with BABIP’s of .410 and .360).

I realize that this article is likely a little nit-picky. None of these players are even currently on the 40-man roster, so they are only considered depth in theory. Additionally, every organization employs players with MLB experience in their upper minors (sometimes as actual depth and sometimes as roster-filler). And to be honest, the lack of outfield depth in AAA isn’t an issue as long as the Orioles don’t care about outfield defense (and to this point, they haven’t), since there is plenty of outfield depth in Baltimore (not even accounting for the re-signing of Michael Bourn). In my opinion, it’s the infield that is particularly concerning. After Ryan Flaherty, there isn’t a single option in AAA that should see playing time. This is where the lack of prospect depth could really hurt the Orioles. Yes, the players discussed in this article have major league experience, but they are known quantities. They offer no surprise upside that a fringe average or better prospect could provide upon their call-up. Additionally, the majority of these players have not been productive for 3 years (if ever), so I find it unlikely they would even be replacement level if called upon. So while some out there may prefer major league experience despite what I just outlined, I think we can all agree to hope for good health, so these players don’t accrue major league service time in 2017.

14 April 2017

Notes on Alec Asher's Norfolk Start

For the first time in the 2017 season, the Orioles need a fifth starting pitcher. Chris Tillman is still sidelined with his shoulder injury, so the Orioles will reach down to AAA Norfolk and promote Alec Asher to make the start on Saturday. Asher will be on regular rest on Saturday because he last pitched on Monday, and that's probably why the Orioles chose him. It's nevertheless a fortunate choice because (1) Asher was the only Norfolk starting pitcher who hadn't had a terrible start and (2) our own Jon Shepherd's performance projection model is most optimistic about Asher than any of the other candidates.

I was the datacaster for Asher's Monday start against the Gwinnett Braves (Norfolk's home opener) and will share a few details about the start. This is only one start, and there's no guarantee that this performance is typical. I was going to also say that Gwinnett is not a good hitting team, but the Braves scored 23 runs in the next two games, so Gwinnett may be better offensively than I thought. Also, the conditions were generally favorable, with a strong wind that started out blowing out to left field but shifted toward a right-to-left crosswind.

There's nothing wrong with the basics: 4 1/3 IP, 4 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 6 strikeouts. He was pulled in the fifth inning after - I am guessing here - nearing a 75-pitch limit.

Asher faced sixteen batters and ten put the ball in play. It's a little concerning that only one batter hit the ball on the ground. I consider five of the ball put in play to be fly balls and four to be line drives. Two of the fly balls were hit to the right-field warning track (Pedro Alvarez was able to catch them - but that's another story) and may have been home runs with a less-strong wind. That doesn't agree with Jon's observations. I can assume that this game was an aberration - perhaps he was too pumped up for a home opener or to be with a new organization, and so his sinker may have been less effective - but it still happened.

Asher did have good control. He had 3 2-0 counts; 1 3-0 count (which was, of course, one of the 2-0 counts), 1 3-1 count, and 4 3-2 counts.

On the other hand, Braves batters were able to spoil a lot of his pitches. Fourteen of his 74 pitches were foul balls and there were six at-bats of six or more pitches. For completeness, Asher had 27 balls, 13 called strikes, 10 swinging strikes, the 14 foul balls, and 10 balls put into play.

Again, I wouldn't read too much into this one game. My overall take is that it was (obviously) a good outing, but hardly a dominant one. Based on this performance, I would be surprised if he had a dominant start on Saturday; but otherwise he could range from fairly effective to utterly ineffective. Which doesn't say much.


12 April 2017

What Is Up With Buck Showalter's Usage Of Hyun Soo Kim?

Up to this point, Hyun Soo Kim has had a very strange season-plus with the Orioles. To summarize, the Orioles wanted him! They signed him last year, after all, for two years and $7 million. Then, Kim performed poorly during spring training and Buck Showalter et al. seemed to sour on him. The Orioles reportedly "talked internally about potentially trying to" get out of his contract, and when that didn't happen, they tried to convince him to accept an assignment to Triple-A Norfolk.

That didn't happen, either, so Kim made the opening day roster, was booed by fans, and sat the bench. He barely played in April and early May, but started to play in late May as he kept producing. The Orioles didn't have better options, and he forced their hand. An average defender at best, his skills are with the bat, and he posted an impressive 119 wRC+ with an on-base percentage of .382 that was the best on the team. I've written a couple other posts about Kim detailing his accomplishments. Jon also wrote a post last October that examined Kim's KBO splits and posited that he should get more of a chance in a full-time role.

Let's just get right to it: Why are the Orioles not looking to play Kim more? They do not have very many on-base weapons, and they need to get better in that department. Last year, the Orioles ranked ninth in the American League with a .317 OBP. Against right-handed pitching, who Kim almost exclusively played against, the O's were tied for sixth (322). Kim doesn't get all the credit for that -- it's well-worn territory that the Orioles were much better against right-handed pitching last season -- but his 129 wRC+ vs. right-handers was second on the team only to Mark Trumbo (146). So far this season, the O's are second worst in the AL in OBP; Kim has the 10th most plate appearances on the team.

Showalter views Kim as a platoon bat, period. That sounds fine, even if it disregards the possibility that he could still get on base at an effective enough clip against same-handed throwers. How low is the bar here? Craig Gentry is getting leadoff at-bats!

But, three things. First, Kim isn't in the lineup against every right-handed starter (he is not in the lineup tonight against Steven Wright, who's a knuckleballer, but he still throws that pitch with his right hand). Second, Showalter frequently removes Kim from games around the sixth or seventh inning for defensive purposes, especially when the Orioles have the lead. That occasionally robs Kim of a plate appearance per start. And third, despite working his way to the second spot of the lineup last year and excelling in that role, Kim has been slotted seventh in the batting order so far this year despite his on-base prowess.

Part of the issue why Kim doesn't play more is roster construction. The Orioles re-signed Trumbo, and he's almost always going to receive his at-bats at DH. That is pushing someone like Trey Mancini to be an inexperienced outfielder, and he's trying to learn on the job. It would also help Kim if Showalter trusted him more in the field, but that just doesn't seem to be an option at this point.

It's early in the season. Players get hurt, and things can change quickly. But it does seem clear that Showalter, or Duquette, or some front office members didn't really want Kim around in the first place and won't give him a chance in an expanded role.

What exactly is going on? If the Orioles were planning to use him this way, why didn't they try harder to trade him during the offseason to at least get something in return? Kim is not a star, but he's useful, and this seems like a poor use of resources.