03 March 2015

A Closer Look at the Nationals' Letter

Earlier in February, the Nationals sent a letter to the court requesting that MASN pay them the difference between the RSDC decision and MASN's proposal for 2014 as well as the first payments of 2015. The Nationals argue that a ruling for this case was supposed to be issued in December 2014 but won’t be issued until May 2015 at the earliest. This is a considerably longer period than initially envisioned and therefore the Nationals feel that they should receive the amount of money specified in the RSDC decision for 2014 as well as any right payments owed in 2015 before a decision is tendered.

What I found interesting about their letter was the following paragraph:
While MASN and the Orioles have insinuated that there was something nefarious about the $25 million payment that MLB made to the Nationals in August 2013, the new documents show the Orioles knew of this payment all along – and that it was part of the plan to avoid any release of the RSDC’s Award. The payment was meant to get the Nationals to the negotiating table as the Orioles wanted.
See Bishop Aff. Ex. 5 (Doc. No. 549), at -004.
Bishop Aff. Ex. 5 (Doc. No. 549) at -004 consists of two e-mails sent on March 30, 2014. One of these e-mails is from Rob Manfred sent to Alan Rifkin, which in part discusses the $25 million dollar payment. The second e-mail is from Alan Rifkin (MASN lawyer) sent to Rob Manfred that also in part discusses this payment. The Nationals argue that this is proof that the Orioles knew of this payment “all along.”

Alan Rifkin argues on behalf of MASN in these two affidavits that he didn’t know important facts about the loan until many months after MLB and the Nationals entered into a written agreement. These facts include the actual amount, that MLB and the Nationals agreed that MLB would recoup its payment via MASN, and that if MASN was sold MLB wouldn't approve a sale unless MASN agreed to pay MLB $25 million.

I believe that by building a timeline with all of the relevant e-mails it is possible to determine the validity of each sides’ claims.

July 2, 2013: Ted Lerner sent Bud Selig a letter stating that it had been nearly 15 months since this matter was originally addressed by the RSDC without a resolution demanding a final decision by  July 17, 2013. If the Nationals weren’t going to receive the $590 million in media rights fees from 2012-2016 that they requested, then they wanted the larger media rights fees proposed by the RSDC.

July 26, 2013: Rob Manfred sent Alan Rifkin an e-mail stating that MLB determined the Nationals deserved roughly an extra $7.5 million in distributions for 2012. A few hours later that day, Alan Rifkin sent Rob Manfred an e-mail stating that Peter Angelos rejected MLB's settlement proposal for a 2012 recalculation. Angelos felt that MASN paid everything that they owed and was unwilling to pay anything more.

MLB was trying to convince MASN to pay the Nationals an extra distribution for 2012 in order to show the Nationals that progress was being made and that the Nationals should be patient for longer while MLB and MASN tried to find a long-term solution. MLB felt that the Nationals deserved something at this point.

August 25, 2013: It became clear that MASN was not going to pay the Nationals any extra distributions. Rob Manfred conceded this fact in an e-mail to Alan Rifkin where he stated that he will not ask Peter Angelos for the $7.5 million previously discussed. Instead, Manfred stated that he found another way to resolve 2012 and 2013 to allow them to move forward. Manfred did request that MASN would pay the Nationals the equity distribution amount for 2013 based on MASN's proposal no later than March 15, 2014. MASN agreed to this request later that day. 

August 26, 2013: MLB sent the Washington Nationals a letter stating that the Commissioner’s office will send the Nationals roughly $25 million to make up the difference between the RSDC proposed decision and the actual amount paid by MASN. In return for this, the Nationals would have to agree to repay this amount from any extra money received from MASN for 2012 and 2013. Alternatively, the Nationals would understand that MLB would not approve a deal where MASN was sold to Comcast unless either MASN or Comcast agreed to repay the $24.5 million. 

If the Nationals did not receive any extra money for 2012 or 2013 then this document makes it clear that the Nationals will not have to repay this $24.5 million. If MASN wins this court case and Bortz is established as the acceptable methodology, then the Nationals will not have to give MLB any money and MLB will be forced to eat the loss.

These e-mails explain why Alan Rifkin was confused about the entire amount. MLB told Rifkin that they wouldn’t ask MASN for $7.5 million while agreeing to pay the Nationals $25 million. Likewise, there is no documentation proving that Manfred told Rifkin that MLB would expect to be repaid via either a sale of MASN or extra payments from MASN to the Nationals for either 2012 or 2013.

Late 2013: Rifkin claims that he learned at this time that MLB paid the Nationals $25 million rather than $7.5 million. Needless to say, at this point MLB and the Nationals had already come to an agreement and there was nothing he could do about it.

Late March 2014: Rifkin claims that Manfred told him that MLB didn’t give the Nationals the money but had in fact borrowed it from a third-party lender that wanted their money back. Rifkin wasn’t happy. He didn’t feel that the Nationals deserved any extra money and therefore didn’t think that MLB should make extra payments. It is one thing to give someone some money and quite another thing to borrow in order to give someone money.

March 30, 2014: Manfred sends Rifkin an e-mail stating that MLB has paid $25 million up till this point to keep the Nationals happy and therefore wants MASN to pay $10.6 million for 2014. MLB felt that if MASN wanted more time to reach a deal and therefore prevent the issuance of the RSDC opinion that they would need to cover the excess between the RSDC opinion and Bortz for 2014.

March 31, 2014: Manfred told Rifkin that the terms of the deal with the Nationals stated that there were two routes to recover their $25 million. The first was via a sale of MASN and the second was from payment out of additional MASN payments due to the issuance of an RSDC opinion. If the current RSDC opinion was published then MLB would get its money back but otherwise it wouldn't.

These e-mails sent on March 30 and 31, 2014, are what the Nationals quote in their letter as an attempt to prove that MASN knew about the conditions of the $25 million dollar payment “all along.” Rifkin argues that he didn’t learn the full details about the $25 million dollar payment until March 30 and 31, 2014, despite the fact that MLB sent the Nationals a letter on August 26, 2013. This is more than half a year after the deal was made and easily too late to make any protests. I would argue that knowing “all along” about the conditions of the payment would mean learning about them in either July or August 2013 when MASN could take some action or at least protest. 

I do believe that both MASN's reaction as well as MLB's decision do make sense. Certainly, it makes sense for MASN to be unhappy that MLB took out a loan to pay the Nationals money with the condition that MASN ultimately is responsible to pay MLB back without MASN's consent or knowledge.

However, it also seems likely that MLB's only other option was to issue the RSDC decision. If MLB did issue this decision then MASN would be responsible to pay the $25 million for 2012 and 2013 as well as the extra amounts for 2014-2016. MASN would also suffer from an adverse precedent and would be in a weaker bargaining position in the future. One could quite credibly argue that MLB thought it was doing MASN a favor even if it was done in a bizarre way. It also seems clear that MLB didn't believe that the RSDC's established methodology was Bortz despite MASN's claims to the contrary. The RSDC was unwilling to use Bortz unless MASN would make enough concessions to satisfy the Nationals. In hindsight, that probably wasn't possible.

In response to the Nationals' letter, MASN requested that they be allowed to write a reply letter responding to each of the Nationals' points in detail. The Nationals asked the court to refuse this request. Part of their reasoning was doubtless due to the fact that they want the court to make a quick decision and allowing detailed reply letters would simply make things take longer. But part of the reasoning could be that the Nationals were afraid of what MASN could write in a reply letter discussing each of their points. Suppose MASN was able to respond and they could write a document like this putting this claim in context. 

How do you think the judge would respond?

02 March 2015

Should Chris Davis Bunt More to Beat the Shift?

In a mid-February interview on 105.7 The Fan, Chris Davis discussed bunting and beating the shift:
"I think there are definitely situations where I need to bunt, and I know there was some frustration last year obviously with my batting average being as low as it was - not only on my part but the fan base and maybe even on some of my teammates' part - as far as me hitting into the shift . . .  
First of all, when you're not swinging the bat well and you're kind of trying to find it, for me, I want to go up there and have an at-bat. I don't want to just lay a bunt down. There were times last year when I did lay a bunt down, but for me it's really a comfort thing. It's different going out there and working off a machine or even a BP arm and laying balls down the third base line and going into a game and doing it. For me, it was just a comfort thing and I have worked on it this offseason. I've probably worked on it more this offseason than I have in the past. If it's a one-run game, I'm probably not going to lay one down, but there are situations where unselfishly it's probably the best thing to do. It's definitely a weapon I can use against other teams."
Judging by those comments, Davis seems open to bunting more in certain situations. He's also working on his bunting in spring training. Here's proof:
Whether that translates to him bunting more in actual game situations remains to be seen. So this could be something where Davis following through never materializes and it's a lot of talk over nothing.

Davis doesn't want to endure another 94 wRC+ season, and him being an impending free agent could provide some extra motivation. So every little bit (even a few extra singles) matters, but it's worth wondering what "bunt more" means. Should he bunt every time there's a shift? When the stakes are low? When the Orioles could really use a run? Or perhaps just when Buck Showalter wants him to?

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs examined bunting to beat the shift in two posts last year. You should definitely read both, as with most things Sullivan writes, but here are some of his takeaways after breaking things down:
Bunting is a skill, and as with any skill, there’s a distribution in talent. But what’s made abundantly clear is that nothing about bunting is automatic, even for the most prolific bunters in the league. You’re still trying to bunt a really fast and moving baseball with a stick that isn’t that big. . . .
If the defense wants to give the hitter an easy hit, the hitter should take the easy hit, without question. I could never understand how hitters could be so stubborn in the face of a potentially high batting average. Turns out there’s no such thing as an easy hit after all. Oh, bunt singles against the shift look easy when they’re successful, but so do Chris Davis home runs. Most of the time, Chris Davis doesn’t homer.
In his second post, Sullivan notes, "The math is still probably on the side of more bunt attempts. It’s definitely on the side of hitters practicing bunting more often so that they can be more successful when it counts." So Davis is preparing to bunt more often, even if he ends up not showcasing his newfound bunting skills much.

In 2014, only nine major leaguers faced more defensive shifts than Davis. Here are the number of times they bunted the ball fair, with the results in parentheses:

David Ortiz: 0
Ryan Howard: 0
Brian McCann: 3 (1 hit, 2 outs)
Albert Pujols: 0
Brandon Moss: 3 (2 hits, 1 out)
Lucas Duda: 1 (hit)
Mark Teixeira: 0
Adam LaRoche: 1 (hit)
Mike Moustakas: 2 (1 sacrifice, 1 out)
Chris Davis: 2 (1 hit, 1 sacrifice)

Also, here is Davis's bunt single, which also happens to be his only career bunt base hit:

Just because other players who face shifts often rarely bunt doesn't mean Davis shouldn't; perhaps he could even transform into a bunting trendsetter for similar sluggers. But it's extremely unlikely that he's going to start racking up bunt hits, not only because it's difficult, but also because it's more important that he hit the ball out of the ballpark.

Teams are willing to give up the occasional single to Davis. But they also don't think he'll be able to consistently bunt balls down the third-base line (or maybe even the first-base line) for hits. And they're probably right.

So yes, it probably would be smart for Davis to try to lay down a few more bunts in the future. Teams are not going to stop employing shifts against him unless he consistently starts spraying the ball all over the field, and that's not going to happen. The more hits, the better; but he's also not going to be successful on every bunt attempt, and he will make outs. Regardless, Davis's offensive success will be determined by whether he gets his power numbers back up, cuts down on strikeouts, makes better contact, and isn't nearly as bad against offspeed pitches (.051 ISO in 2014 vs. career .230). An open philosophy to bunting could help his overall numbers by some measure, but it's far from a panacea. Still, there's nothing wrong with being prepared.

Photo: Keith Allison

26 February 2015

The Nationals Lost Money Because of the RSDC Decision

Summary: While the RSDC decision allows the Nationals to receive more money in media rights fees than MASN's request, it also causes the Nationals to lose money due to lower equity stake distributions and loss of equity value. The amount that the Nationals lose due to lower equity stake distributions and loss of equity value is larger than the amount they gain in total media rights fees. Therefore this decision causes them to lose money.

Warning! Gory Mathematical and Financial Details Ahead! It’s hard to sufficiently explain how valuations work without using jargon that can be difficult to understand. 

The latest documents from the MASN case shed light on confidential conversations about a possible sale of MASN. These discussions ultimately weren’t fruitful but the parties created numerous pro forma documents discussing potential terms for a sale. These documents include figures that make it possible to determine the equity value of MASN and therefore discuss the total difference in value between MASN and the RSDC's proposals from 2012-2016.

There are two factors that are necessary to determine the equity value of an enterprise. The first is the “exit multiple.” The second factor is the “discount rate.” Let's start with the "exit multiple." Basically, an RSN is valued based on its profits. An RSN that earns $100 million in profits is more valuable than one that earns $10 million. But one wouldn't agree to sell their business for one year's worth of profits by itself. So, the “exit multiple” is used to determine how much more than profits a business should be worth. The "exit multiple" multiplied by profits determines the future value of an RSN.  This also means that if MASN earns less in profit, then it's worth less as an enterprise.

The “discount rate” is used to determine the rate of return necessary for one to invest in a business. This takes into account rates of return for other investments as well as possible risk. Think of it this way. I can invest money in treasuries and be highly certain that they won't default. If I were to buy a 30-year bond for Sears, it is considerably less likely that they won't default. Therefore, I may want to use a discount rate of 2% when buying a treasury bond while using a discount rate of 20% when buying a bond from Sears. I need to receive a higher rate of return from Sears than from U.S. treasuries because an investment in Sears is so much riskier.

These pro forma documents indicate that a fair exit multiple is 15 and a fair discount rate is between 9-11% for a network owned by a media company. They argue that a fair “exit multiple” for MASN under current conditions is between 12 and 15 while a fair discount rate is between 11-13%. The people who drafted these documents believe that the RSDC decision reduces the certainty of future MASN cash flows as well as the viability of MASN as a profitable RSN. In other words, they believe that it is reasonable to claim that a fair “exit multiple” is 15 while a fair discount rate is about 11%. However, they also believe that MASN's value should be discounted due to the RSDC being unwilling to allow MASN to earn a reasonable profit. If the RSDC is going to force MASN to pay unreasonable rights fees, then any buyer is going to refuse to pay full price (even if they were allowed to pay fair rights fees).

By multiplying the last year of free cash flow by the exit multiple listed above one can determine the terminal value of MASN at the end of 2016. Once that is known, it is possible to determine the present value (present value is 2012 and not 2014 because 2012 is when the deal started) of MASN by means of discounting expected income streams using the discount rate while also using the discount rate to determine the present equity value of MASN. 

There have been enough documents that it is possible to determine MASN's revenues, expenses, media rights fees, profits, and equity distribution according to both MASN and the RSDC. This pro forma document created by Allen & Co. has helpful information.

I've also created a document and spreadsheet that discuss in more detail what results I use for MASN's and the RSDC's proposals based on what is in the actual reports. 

According to MASN's proposal, MASN is predicted to earn a profit of roughly $67.7 million in 2016 and therefore has a terminal value in 2016 of $1.01 billion.  With a discount rate of 11% over a five-year period, the present value of terminal value is $603 million of which 83% will belong to the Orioles and 17% will belong to the Nationals. Determining the present value of media rights fees and equity distribution can be accomplished by discounting 11% per year from the amount of each received. For example, the Orioles and Nationals are expected to earn $42M in media rights fees in 2015. That amount is equal to $42M/1.11^3 or roughly $30.7M in 2012 dollars. In order to determine future value, one would increase the amount received by 11% until 2016. So, the $42M that each team receives in media rights fees in 2015 is worth $46.66 million in 2016. The chart below shows how much revenue each team earns from media rights fees and equity distributions using both present and future value using MASN's proposal.

According to the RSDC's proposal, MASN is expected to earn a profit of roughly $24 million in 2016 and therefore has a terminal value in 2016 of $360 million. The present value of its terminal value is $213.5 million. The chart below shows how much revenue each team earns from media rights fees and equity distributions using both present and future value.

This chart shows how much the Nationals and Orioles will earn using present and future value from each of these proposals. I use gross rights fees rather than net rights fees to determine total value because the Nationals currently would be eligible for revenue sharing if they weren’t ineligible due to being in a top 15 market. As a result, they won’t be paying revenue sharing tax on all of the money that they receive in rights fees and therefore using gross rights fees allows for a more accurate comparison.

Both the Orioles and the Nationals will receive increased rights fees from this deal but both will suffer significant losses in equity distributions and equity value. While the Orioles would suffer significantly larger losses if the RSDC decision is upheld, this would also result in the Nationals losing anywhere from $25-50 million dollars over the five-year period.

It is worth noting that a significant amount of the value that the Nationals will lose is from their loss of equity. The Nationals or Orioles will not be able to take advantage of any of this money unless they sell MASN to an outside buyer or if the owners of the Nationals or Orioles sell their team. It is also possible for both parties to agree to a media rights deal that could significantly increase the value of MASN right before selling it to an outside party and therefore increasing the value of MASN. However, pro forma documents written by Allen & Co. show that potential buyers consider the RSDC decision to be a detriment to MASN's value and therefore would reduce the amount that they’re willing to offer. Simply put, potential buyers aren't stupid.

The reason why the Nationals are willing to accept a deal where they lose money is because they believe they can receive higher rights fees in a situation where their media rights are not controlled by MASN. They believe that they can either force MASN to demand higher carriage fees (which will allow MASN to pay the Nationals a larger media rights fee while remaining profitable) or force MASN to sell the Nationals their rights. If the RSDC does decide that Bortz should be used, then MASN will likely be profitable for the foreseeable future and it could be a long time until the Nationals regain control of their media rights.

In the meantime, the value of the Nationals equity stake in MASN has decreased due to the RSDC's decision. At least from 2012-2016, the Nationals would receive more value for their rights if MASN had won rather than the RSDC.

24 February 2015

Examining De Aza's Struggles Against Southpaws

Alejandro De Aza has been a major league regular for three full seasons, though his best offensive work came in limited duty in 2011 when he posted a 150 wRC+ in 171 plate appearances. In the three years since, he hasn't come close to approaching that stat line, and his numbers have actually been trending downward:

2012: 585 PA, 106 wRC+
2013: 675 PA, 98 wRC+
2014: 528 PA, 94 wRC+

When the Orioles acquired De Aza from the White Sox late last August for two minor league pitchers, he was struggling mightily. In 439 plate appearances, he had a slash line of just .243/.309/.354 (84 wRC+). But after the trade, he batted .293/.341/.537 (145 wRC+) in 89 plate appearances and was a useful weapon (obvious small sample size qualifier).

In 2015, Steamer projects De Aza to post a 101 wRC+, which is right in line with what the average major league corner outfielder posted in 2014. But that would also reverse De Aza's downward trend of overall offensive performance over the last few seasons.

De Aza has clearly been better throughout his career against right-handed pitching:

vs. RHP: 103 wRC+ (1,717 PA)
vs. LHP: 85 wRC+ (459 PA)

Somehow, he managed to perform better against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching in 2013 (123 wRC+ vs. 90 wRC+). A .355 BABIP against lefties elevated those numbers. But in 2014, he was truly awful against lefties:

vs. RHP: 113 wRC+ (433 PA)
vs. LHP: 9 wRC+ (95 PA)

That's right: 9 wRC+. So what happened? For one, lefties started to attack De Aza even more on the outside corner of the plate. Here's where De Aza saw pitches from lefties in the 2012 and 2013 seasons combined:

And here's where he saw pitches from lefties in 2014:

De Aza saw fewer pitches in the middle of the plate and more low and away. His whiff rate jumped:

After his improved 2013 against lefties, opposing southpaws went back to throwing De Aza more breaking pitches in 2014 with two strikes:


Overall, his strikeout percentage went from 18.6% in 2012 to 22.5% in 2014. He also chased more pitches outside the strike zone (32.1%; career 28.8%) while making less overall contact (78.2% vs. career 79.9%). That coincided with a drop of his average on balls in play from .339 in 2012 to .317 last season (career BABIP of .330), which has been partially affected by De Aza's infield fly ball percentage rising from 6.2% in 2012 to 10% last season. His HR/FB rate also dropped back to his career average (7.9%) after hovering around 11% in 2013.

The most obvious way to get around De Aza's struggles against left-handed pitching is to stop using him as much against them. Here's his plate appearance totals against lefties since 2012 (with percentage of all plate appearances against lefties):

2012: 147 PA (25%)
2013: 153 PA (23%)
2014: 95 PA (18%)

At the time he was traded to the Orioles, De Aza had faced right-handed pitching 357 times and lefties 82 times. So he faced lefties about 19% of the time. After the trade, De Aza faced right-handers 76 times and left-handers 13 times (so about 15% of the time). That's not a huge change, and maybe it wasn't necessarily done by design. But it makes sense to limit De Aza's at-bats against lefties, and Buck Showalter is adept at utilizing platoon options.

Steve Pearce is the obvious right-handed batter to slide into a corner outfield spot when a lefty is on the mound. But what about the other spot? Travis Snider and David Lough are both lefties and aren't great options to face southpaws either. Perhaps Delmon Young (shudder) could receive some playing time in the outfield when a lefty is on the mound. Regardless, though, fitting all of De Aza, Snider, Pearce, Lough, and Young on the roster may present some challenges.

Perhaps De Aza is due for an uptick in BABIP. Maybe he'll also enjoy the shorter porch in right field at Camden Yards over a full season. De Aza certainly isn't as bad against left-handed pitching as he was in 2014, but he still doesn't fare well against them; they may also have figured out an even better way of handling him. Still, De Aza's numbers against right-handed pitching have mostly remained steady, and they should again in 2015. And there's definitely value in a $5 million decent-fielding corner outfielder who can hit well against right-handers.

Photo: Keith Allison

19 February 2015

The Orioles Keep Adding Fringy Middle Infielders

Despite signing shortstops Rey Navarro (major league deal) and Paul Janish (minor league deal) in November, the Orioles have recently agreed to terms with another infielder and are close to signing yet another shortstop. A couple days ago, the Orioles agreed to terms with Jayson Nix on a minor league deal. Nix is a Ryan Flaherty type -- a utility infielder who can fill in adequately enough (at least defensively) at second base, shortstop, and third. But it was reported yesterday that the Orioles are also close to a deal with Everth Cabrera.

As Joe mentioned yesterday, the Orioles "don't have many promising infielders in the upper levels of their farm system."  So the O's are doing their best to bring in several infielders to compete for a bench spot. Joe already tackled the Navarro and Janish signings, so let's focus on Nix and Cabrera.

Nix has never been more than a fill-in type player. He can field well enough, but he can't hit. He has a career wRC+ of 67, and last year he was truly awful. In 91 combined plate appearances for three teams, he had a wRC+ of -8. FanGraphs had him at -1.0 WAR despite only appearing in 41 games. He is a real long shot to make the major league roster, but could provide some infield depth if he's stashed in Norfolk.

Unlike Nix, there's plenty to note about a potential Cabrera signing. First, his deal would be for one year and about $2.4 million if he passes the O's physical (no guarantees there, obviously). He also has an option remaining, meaning he comes with some added roster flexibility (something Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette value). Cabrera is under team control as well for another year, giving the O's even more flexibility if Cabrera performs well in 2015.

Everth Cabrera
Unfortunately, Cabrera also comes with some on- and off-the-field issues, as several reporters have noted. In 2013, he was suspended 50 games as part of MLB's Biogenesis investigation. Then last November, he was arrested and charged with resisting arrest after being stopped by police for driving under the influence of marijuana. Craig Calcaterra noted that Cabrera was also charged with domestic violence in 2012 (he was accused of  “assaulting his wife by hitting her in the face with a closed fist and slamming her head against the wall”), though the charges were eventually dropped. Considering the O's were willing to take a (low-risk) chance on Delmon Young last season, it's not surprising they'd consider Cabrera.

Unlike Nix and Janish, who are both 32, and Navarro, who is 25 but has never received a major league at-bat, Cabrera, 28, is the most noteworthy move. Navarro is still young enough to improve enough to surprise some people, but Cabrera has had some actual success in the big leagues.

Besides the games missed because of the 2013 suspension, Cabrera has battled hamstring injuries the past couple seasons. He had his best offensive year in 2013, when he batted .283/.355/.381 (114 wRC+) in 435 plate appearances. But after dealing with his suspension and returning the following season, he was terrible. In 391 plate appearances, his numbers dropped -- .232/.272/.300 (65 wRC+). Career wise, Cabrera is a decent enough hitter for a shortstop (86 wRC+). (In 2014, the average major league shortstop had a wRC+ of 87.) But Cabrera is not a plus, or even average, defender. He has a career DRS of -13 at shortstop, and a career UZR of -22.6 (-7.3 UZR/150). He could be an option to play some second base, but he's only played 80 career innings there (and only 2 innings at third).

Cabrera, however, would improve the O's overall team speed on the basepaths. He has 136 career stolen bases, and he's been successful 78% of the time (above the break-even rate of 75%). He was remarkable in 2012 (44 steals in 48 attempts) but less so the last couple years (37 for 49 in 2013 and 18 for 26 in 2014). Those aren't terrible percentages, but the Orioles also don't need baserunners who are going to run into outs. It's possible he'll never approach the raw totals from 2012 and 2013 again, but he's still above average on the basepaths, which has some value.

Are any of these major signings? No. But it's smart for the Orioles to keep trying to improve the rest of the roster, especially since the O's are not interested in paying large sums of money for star free agents. Overall team depth is important, and the O's do have some players prone to injury. The O's already seem to have a decent amount of depth; one or two of these moves should help even more.

For the most part, these minor moves are about roster flexibility. Sure, maybe Cabrera could play some second base, if he proves to be adequate enough defensively. Jonathan Schoop has really struggled against left-handed pitching for some reason, while Cabrera hits better against them. There could be a fit there. But Schoop, Flaherty, Cabrera, and Navarro all have options remaining, which could mean plenty of Norfolk shuttling. As Jeff Long said last week, "Part of out-performing expectations on a regular basis, at least in the Orioles’ case, involves wringing every last bit of value out of each roster spot at the club’s disposal." Showalter and Duquette keep an open mind when looking for any way to improve the club, and roster shuffling has become one of their favorite weapons.

Photo via Keith Allison

18 February 2015

Part 2 - Impressions of the Orioles' (minor-league) Free Agent Signings

In my most recent article, I looked at the three minor-league free agents the Orioles signed to their 40-man roster. In this article, I will look at some of the minor-league free agents the Orioles signed to minor-league contracts. I won't be reviewing every Oriole minor-league signee. Some, I don't know anything about them that you can't find out by looking at their statistics. Others are unlikely to do anything of notice.

Some of the signings were players who had either been released before the end of the 2014 season or had never played in organized baseball before. Most of these signings are roster filler who will fill holes on the minor-league teams, and are unlikely to do anything of interest. But one of these players, Casey Haerther, has shown enough to be possibly interesting even though he's likely being seen as roster filler.

Going into 2015, the Orioles don't have anyone who projects as the AA Bowie first baseman. Christian Walker has moved beyond that level; his successor, Chris Marrero, was himself awarded free agency; and the best bet at Frederick, Trey Mancini, isn't ready. Casey Haerther does project to be a AA-caliber first baseman, but may be more than that. In the Angels system in 2010 and 2011, Haerther put together some James Loney-like seasons - a .300 batting average with some doubles but few walks or home runs. He reached AA in 2012 but didn't play well; the Angels released him after the season.  He spent the last two seasons in independent ball and had an outstanding season in 2014 (.360/.390/.535). He'll play 2015 at age 27 and is probably the best bet to be the Bowie first baseman. If he plays well and the circumstances are right, he might get a cameo with the Orioles.

The other players the Orioles signed were in organized baseball at the end of 2014 and became free agents according to the terms of the Basic Agreement. The Orioles signed several of their own free agents. Chris Jones and Steve Johnson have been in the organization for several seasons; they chose to remain in comfortable surroundings. Both seem likely to begin 2014 as utility pitchers with Norfolk and might see major-league time under the right circumstances.

Another player the Orioles re-signed in whom they believe is Michael Almanzar. The Orioles selected him in the 2013 Rule 5 draft; after he was returned to Boston, they re-acquired him in the Kelly Johnson trade. The only backup infielders on the Orioles current 40-man roster are Ryan Flaherty, Jimmy Paredes, and Rey Navarro. The Orioles also don't have many promising infielders in the upper levels of their farm system. The Orioles have  gone to great lengths to add Almanzar to the organization, so he could see major league time.

The Orioles signed two other middle infielders, with big-league experience. 32-year-old Paul Janish has played 431 major-league games, mostly with the Reds (for whom he was the regular shortstop in 2009 and 2011.) Ozzie Martinez, who turns 27 in May, has played 34 major-league games. Both have good defensive reputations although Janish has been considered better. Martinez is a light-hitting infielder; Janish is a non-hitting infielder. If injuries strike the infield, either Janish or Martinez could see some big-league time.

The Orioles also signed two once-interesting prospects who are still young enough to have some development potential. Rossmel Perez is a defense-oriented catcher who doesn't hit for power; the Orioles catching situation isn't settled and it's possible Perez might see some time as a backup. Derrik Gibson is an "athlete", a toolsy shortstop whom the Red Sox probably promoted too aggressively. He doesn't have power, but he draws walks and can steal bases. If he can hit for average - a big if - he's young enough to develop into a replacement-level regular.

Finally, the Orioles signed a few pitchers who might get on the Norfolk-to-Baltimore shuttle. Cesar Cabral is a left-handed specialist (in his major-league career, he's pitched 4 2/3 innings in 12 games.) He has good strikeout rates but spotty control. Dane De La Rosa is a 32-year-old from independent ball who had knee problems in 2014 but pitched exceptionally well in 2010-2013, with 2013 being spent with the Angels. And Terry Doyle is a 29-year-old minor-league journeyman who pitched very well until he signed in Japan in mid-2012; it took him a couple of years to regain his effectiveness and he pitched well for Gwinnett in the second half of 2014. Any of these three guys might be released in spring training, or they could see an inning or ten with the Orioles if needed.

17 February 2015

What Went Wrong for Ubaldo Jimenez?

The Orioles seem intent to head to spring training with six viable starting pitching options. Every O's fan has his or her opinion about which of the six should be traded, demoted (if possible), or relegated to a long relief role. But the highest paid of the six, and the most ridiculed, is Ubaldo Jimenez.

2014 was not a good year, baseball wise, for Jimenez. In 125.1 total innings, he finished with a 4.81 ERA (and a 4.67 FIP and 4.48 xFIP). He was mostly his own worst enemy, as he wasn't unfortunate on balls in play (.289 BABIP vs. career .292) or home runs (10.9% HR/FB vs. career 8.9%, with most of those earlier low home run totals coming several seasons ago).

Batters swung a career low 39.1% of the time against Jimenez, while making contact a career high 82.3% of the time (82.2% in 2012). He wasn't throwing pitches in the strike zone (career low 47.9%), so batters were content to take walks or get in good counts and look for certain pitches to hit. Despite throwing his fewest amount of innings since 2007, he still maintained his average career K/9 of 8.3. But he walked a career high 5.53 per nine innings (he'd never had a BB/9 over 5), which clearly hurt. Among all pitchers who threw at least 120 innings, Jimenez's 5.53 walk rate was the highest in the majors. Justin Masterson (4.83 BB/9) was second. At least Masterson was close to the third name on the list, Brad Peacock (4.78). Jimenez was in his own category of awfulness.

Jimenez's strikeout and walk rate combination in 2014 isn't unique, but it doesn't happen often. Since 1961, only seven other pitchers (14 total times) had seasons in which they threw at least 120 innings and had a K/9 of at least 8.3 and a BB/9 over 5.5. Nolan Ryan accomplished that feat five times. Randy Johnson, Kazuhisa Ishii, and Bobby Witt each did it twice. And Kerry Wood, Ed Correa, and O's legend Daniel Cabrera did it once apiece.

Rk Player BB9 SO9 IP Year Age Tm Lg ERA FIP ERA+ ▾
1 Nolan Ryan 6.14 10.26 299.0 1977 30 CAL AL 2.77 3.12 141
2 Nolan Ryan 6.63 8.54 131.2 1970 23 NYM NL 3.42 4.03 118
3 Kazuhisa Ishii 6.18 8.57 147.0 2003 29 LAD NL 3.86 4.72 105
4 Randy Johnson 6.16 10.31 210.1 1992 28 SEA AL 3.77 3.61 105
5 Randy Johnson 6.79 10.19 201.1 1991 27 SEA AL 3.98 4.00 103
6 Nolan Ryan 6.00 8.45 198.0 1975 28 CAL AL 3.45 3.67 102
7 Ed Correa 5.60 8.41 202.1 1986 20 TEX AL 4.23 3.78 102
8 Nolan Ryan 5.79 10.35 284.1 1976 29 CAL AL 3.36 2.91 99
9 Nolan Ryan 5.68 9.97 234.2 1978 31 CAL AL 3.72 2.96 98
10 Daniel Cabrera 6.32 9.55 148.0 2006 25 BAL AL 4.74 4.20 95
11 Kerry Wood 5.72 8.67 137.0 2000 23 CHC NL 4.80 4.92 95
12 Bobby Witt 8.81 10.07 143.0 1987 23 TEX AL 4.91 4.54 91
13 Kazuhisa Ishii 6.19 8.36 154.0 2002 28 LAD NL 4.27 4.94 89
14 Bobby Witt 8.16 9.93 157.2 1986 22 TEX AL 5.48 4.83 79
15 Ubaldo Jimenez 5.53 8.33 125.1 2014 30 BAL AL 4.81 4.67 79
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/16/2015.

Not only did Jimenez throw the fewest innings, but he arguably pitched the worst of the group (at least according to ERA+). Witt's consecutive seasons of 8+ BB/9 are also quite remarkable. No one else on this list is even above 7. It's also interesting that everyone on this list was 31 or younger at the time. Unsurprisingly, striking out and walking a bunch of opposing batters doesn't seem to be an aging pitcher's game.

Jimenez also below average in the groundball rate category as well. Earlier in his career, Jimenez posted groundball rates in the high 40s and low 50s, but the last three years, he's finished at 38.4%, 43.9%, and 41.3%, respectively. (The major league average groundball rate for starters in 2014 was 44.6%.)

Jimenez, who mostly throws sinkers, sliders, four-seamers, and splitters, is also dealing with declining velocity, a continuing trend for him.

It's not unusual for pitchers' velocity to decline over time -- specifically around age 29 or so. However, Jimenez has been losing velocity since the end of the 2010 season. 2011 was his age 27 season, so he's been dealing with velocity issues a couple years earlier than normal.

For some reason, Jimenez started throwing more sinkers again. After throwing sinkers 31% of the time in 2013, he threw them more than 40% last season. That was the highest percentage for him since 2009. He also threw his lowest percentage of four-seamers (18.5%) since 2009.

The sinker was a real weapon for him from 2007-2009, though the return to the sinker didn't pan out last season. Jimenez kept his two-seamers down in the zone, but the horizontal movement just wasn't there. (The same thing for his four-seamer.)

Jimenez can still be effective, but he will need to cut down on his walks. Besides the difference in strikeouts and walks, he's similar when it comes to fly balls and ground balls to the rest of the O's rotation. Perhaps that's why Jimenez (maybe at the request of O's pitching coaches) threw more sinkers in 2014 -- to try to rekindle some of the groundball inducing stature from his earlier days with the Rockies. It's also not a bad idea considering the team's excellent infield defense.

It's worth noting that Jimenez admitted to working out less last offseason while he was waiting to be signed:
One of the most difficult aspects for Jimenez was the constant fear of getting injured. In order to reduce the risk, he cut down on his workouts. Instead of throwing from a mound like he usually does in the offseason, Jimenez instead threw long toss on flat ground from 90 or 120 feet. He never once took the mound in the offseason.
At the gym, Jimenez would run less miles than he would normally run, and he almost completely stopped lifting weights. He had become paranoid that even the rumor of an injury could knock down his market value even more.
It's impossible to know for sure whether less offseason training played a large role in Jimenez's disappointing 2014. But it didn't help. Regardless, he pitched poorly, sprained his ankle somehow while walking in a parking lot, and lost his rotation spot. He was then left off the Orioles' American League Championship Series roster.

This isn't exactly how the Orioles envisioned the Jimenez signing going. And they clearly tried to unload his contract (three years remaining on his four-year, $50 million deal) earlier in the offseason. But if he's healthy and throwing strikes, he can certainly be useful in 2015 and beyond. It's not unreasonable to pay $12-$13 million a season for the services of a good, helpful starting pitcher. Surely, the O's would be just fine if Jimenez returned to that level.