19 July 2016

More Home Runs are Being Hit Because of the Middle Infield

Over half the season is in the books and one major story of the summer has been that home run rates have exploded to levels akin to the early 2000s.  Some have suggested that all of a sudden that players, all of them, found a new Performance Enhancing Drug that cannot be detected.  Of course, we can logic that out about how everyone just does not start doing something and that therapy treatments are rarely effectively trailblazed by gym rats and muscleheads.  Others have proposed that millennial pitchers lack control and command, leaving balls up in the air to be clobbered.  We dealt with that last week and it seems to hold no sauce.  And then a few folks proclaimed that the ball, while legally within specs, is more juiced compared to other seasons.

I, on the other hand, will make another argument and then I will offer some conjecture.  My argument is that we are not seeing a rise in home run rates around baseball.  What we are seeing are home run rates exploding for middle infielders.  Gone are the years of Cesar Izturises and now we welcome our Jonathan Schoops.  Below is a table with HR/PA rates and percent change from 2015.

American League
2015
2016
%Change
Catcher
0.030
0.028
-5.1
1B
0.040
0.038
-4.6
2B
0.022
0.030
38.3
3B
0.032
0.037
17.1
SS
0.016
0.025
56.3
LF
0.028
0.026
-7.5
CF
0.022
0.025
13.5
RF
0.035
0.036
3.5
DH
0.035
0.041
16.3
Total
0.027
0.032
10.5
T wo/MI
0.031
0.033
4.6

A paired T-Test with Middle Infield included reaches significance at 0.03 while excluding the Middle Infield balloons it to 0.16.  Meanwhile, a comparison with the National League renders a greater jump with values of 0.0002 and 0.003, respectively.  Group it all together and both wind up as significant with 0.01 and 0.04, respectively.

Below is a graphical representation of how each position league-wide is impacted.  DH (not shown) is tucked into Total and Total without Middle Infielders.




























So, the great home run explosion is largely the result of the current crop of middle infielders slugging the ball better than last year's batch.  Roughly, the leagues are seeing a 40% increase in home run hitting from those positions.  That is what is happening.  Now, some conjecture on why it is happening.

While the safe path is to simply call this a remarkable coincidence with so many  young exciting middle infielders this year, such as Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Trevor Story, Marcus Semein, and Roughned Odor.  However, I wonder to what extent defensive shifts come into play here.  For instance, a player like Jonathan Schoop benefits greatly from a shift.  His main detriment is a lack of range while his greatest defensive advantage is his strong arm.  As such, he can play deeper back and utilize a shift to take advantage of his arm and reduce the impact of his limited range.  By doing this, you can get his bat in at second base when before you would need to rely on a more defensive player who likely has a worse bat.

Again, it may just be the ebb and flow of talent has decided to backwell into the middle infield. Or maybe it is a concerted effort to let guys with good bats stick in the middle infield until it is evidenced that they really do not belong there at all.  To a lesser extent, you also see the increase in other shift position like third base and center field.  If you batch position by shift impacted (2B, SS, 3B, and CF) vs. minimally impacted (C, 1B, LF, and RF), you see some stark differences.  Home run rates increased for the shift position by 25% (p=0.006) while minimal shift increased by 2% (p=0.19).

As it stands, it seems untrue to blame millennial pitchers.  It seems highly unlikely that there is some new wonder PED.  It seems curious that a new ball would impact only certain positional hitters.  It seems likely that for one reason or another players who are most employed with defensive shifts are those who also have a much stronger bat than those in years past.

15 July 2016

An Alternative Starting Pitching Solution

Did you know that Matt Wieters' career wRC+ is 98? It surprised me, because when I think of a solid offensive catcher Wieters comes to mind. He reached double digit doubles/home runs for four straight seasons. 2011 and 2012 were especially great, but going by wRC+ they were actually the only seasons that he was an above-average batter.

A wRC+ around 100 is pretty, pretty good for a catcher, but in baseball most backstops fall into one of two categories: bat-first or glove-first. (Excepting Buster Posey, Russell Martin, Salvador Perez and maybe Francisco Cervelli.) If your bat is average or below average as a catcher, it's likely that you're on the roster for your arm and/or your pitch framing abilities. In rare cases, such as Josh Thole, you're on the roster for your ability to catch a certain pitch. Washington's Wilson Ramos is a bat-first catcher. Boston's Christian Vazquez is a glove-first catcher.

Matt Wieters, at this stage of his career, is neither. And that doesn't mean he's useless trash; many teams have worse situations than a ~100 wRC+ catcher with deteriorating defensive skills on their hands. But the other day I was listening to Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller talk about The Extra 2% Rays on their excellent daily podcast, Effectively Wild, and it got me thinking about the Oriole's catching situation. Lindbergh and Miller were discussing the market inefficiencies and radical strategies the impoverished Rays used to realize that extra 2%, and one strategy they brought up was punting offense for elite defense at the catcher position. Just look at some of the names that Tampa Bay has employed to catch over the last few years: Rene Rivera, Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton, Ryan Hanigan, Hank Conger, Kelly Shoppach. Those guys swing twigs at the plate but each of them rank near the top in advanced catching metrics.

Ever since the hype train arrived in 2009, Wieters has started behind the plate whenever he's been healthy. It hasn't even been a question really. From 2011-2013, he led all catchers in number of pitches received. He had tons of potential, a plus arm, and graded as an OK pitch framer. He's still playable now, but with the ridiculous firepower of the 2016 O's lineup, would Baltimore be better off taking a page from the Rays' book and giving more at-bats to a catcher who might be an offensive black hole but will make up for it with caught base stealers and extra called strikes?

I presented that as a hypothetical, but the O's already have just the guy for this experiment, and his name is Caleb Joseph. After suffering a horrific injury in May, Joseph was recalled on June 30 and slid back into his back-up role behind Wieters. It would no doubt be an offensive downgrade, but Joseph doesn't even need to be average at the plate to be a net improvement over Wieters.

His .409 OPS over 75 at-bats this season has been a huge disappointment after a promising 2015 campaign in which he smacked 16 doubles and 11 homers in just 100 games. Most of his offensive struggles this year are due to a .214 BABIP that is due for a rebound, and a sudden change in his batted ball profile.


Goodbye fly balls, hello ground balls. Caleb Joseph is still a fly ball hitter, and his elevated 11.1 IFFB% indicates that he's trying hard to get under the ball but not squaring it up right. ZIPS projects him to post a .640 OPS going forward, compared to Wieters' projected .734 OPS. If, for the purpose of this experiment, we assume he gets regular playing time, Joseph it's not unreasonable to think Joseph could finish closer to his .693 OPS from last season.

Now, here's the stuff that needs to convince you, Buck Showalter, and Dan Duquette that Joseph can more than close that offensive gap with his defense.

The Pitch Framing

It's a relatively new field of research, but Matthew Carruth provides a sortable table of pitch framing metrics at his excellent site StatCorner. At the basis of all framing metrics lie two stats that are super intuitive: zBall% and oStr%.

  • zBall% is the percentage of pitches caught within the strike zone that are called balls. The lower the zBall% the better - you're getting the strikes you should get. The average zBall% in 2012 was 14.5%.
  • oStr% is the percentage of pitches caught outside the strike zone that are called strikes. The higher the oStr% the better - you're getting the strikes you shouldn't get. The average oStr% in 2012 was 7.2%.

Carruth uses these two stats to create an metric called +Calls, which is the number of extra called strikes a catcher is responsible for cumulatively. There's also PerGame, which is like +Calls but on a per game basis. If it sounds simple, that's because it is. The complex part that leads to some error is the fact that the strike zone is tough to define rigorously for the purposes of statistical analysis as it changes game to game, even hitter to hitter.

There has not been too much research into the stabilization point of catcher framing metrics, but Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs, who has written a bunch about the topic, estimates it takes around 1,000 - 2,000 receptions to get a good idea of the talent.

Here is how Joseph stacks up against Wieters over their careers:


Over the past three years, Joseph has gotten 168 extra strikes called for his pitchers. Wieters has "lost" 128 strike calls for his pitchers. This graph makes it look like Joseph's skills are deteriorating, but if we look at the per game stats, a clearer picture emerges.


Among catchers with at least 1,000 receptions this season, Joseph's 1.41 PerGame mark ranks sixth in baseball. His 11.4 zBall% is particularly impressive, trailing only Yasmani Grandal, Kevin Plawecki, and Buster Posey. His 9.0 oStr% is also in the top ten. 

Here is Joseph getting a called strike for Kevin Gausman on a borderline breaking ball around the outside edge:


Wieters, meanwhile, has been bad to awful. Most troubling is his oStr%, which ranked dead last among catchers with at least 4,000 receptions in 2015 and has been below average since 2012. 


I can't claim to have done enough research to be able to quantify the impact that +2.51 extra called strikes per game makes, but given the seemingly unsolvable struggles of the starting rotation, the Orioles should be open to trying out any solution. Especially one that doesn't require making a trade in an extreme sellers market

The Arm

Wieters never boasted elite arm strength, but his CS% was among the league leaders from 2011 to 2013 and I think the perception of his arm strength today has been skewed by that stretch. His arm started to decline in 2013, and he hasn't been the same since undergoing Tommy John in 2014.


Then there's Joseph, who led the AL with a 40.4 CS% in 2014, and his 33.6 CS% from 2014-2015 ranks fifth in baseball. Joseph's track record isn't very long, but he's actually the same age as Wieters. He took six years to get the majors and if you fold in his minor league track record, there's no reason to think the arm isn't legit.

14 July 2016

Matt Wieters HR Hypothesis: Blame Millenial Pitchers' Lack of Self Control

Yesterday, I heard about Matt Wieters' hypothesis about why home runs are up to potentially record breaking numbers after years of power decline.  His thought was that pitchers were being aggressively promoted as a result of fastball velocity as opposed to being able to master command of their pitches.  In other words, pitch locations were wobbling well away from the intended target and getting clobbered.  Cynically, this would be an argument a catcher might make to explain why a pitcher is at fault with a focus on pitchers with no seniority.

To test better conceptualize that, I put together a series of graphs showing home run per fly ball rates from 2008 until 2016.  If mistakes are the issue, then one would expect an increase in that rate as more pitches are squared up on.  Second, if this was an age issue, then that would become evident.  Historically, there are no significant differences between age groups.


The above graph makes it clear that all age groups have seen a major increase in home runs per fly ball.  It simply is not a youth issue and one would suspect that very few players above the age of 31 are without much experience at the MLB level.  I next broke this out into starters and relievers (not shown).  The rate follow the same shape, but with relievers 0.5 to 1.0 % fewer HR/FL than starters.  No significant differences were found for any age group for either relievers or starters.

To gauge how much of an increase we are discussing here compared to the historical (2008-2015) mean, I graphed each age group and separated them by starters and relievers.


There is a U shape here where younger and older pitchers have been more aversely impacted with HR/FL increase in rates.  Again though, all groups have observed significantly higher HR/FL rates.

With these graphs in mind, it is difficult to see much beyond the Wieters' hypothesis about poorly experienced arms making everyone look bad (or good, depending on your point of view).  After writing this up, the Washington Post took some aims at answering whether Wieters was right.  They looked into whether more home runs are being hit (they are), whether fastball velocity has increased (it has, which we have known for quite a while and actually wrote the seminal piece several years ago on this site), whether more mistake pitches down the middle are being hit for home runs (yes, which tracks with more home runs overall being hit though), and whether young pitchers are at fault (not beyond historical norms).

While looking at the batted ball data, the differences are not much and do not appear to be significant.  However, it seems that this noisy data might suggest that there is more hard hit contact and that it siphoned it from the medium hit group.

Season
Soft%
Med%
Hard%
2008
17
56
27
2009
16
57
27
2010
18
52
30
2011
24
52
24
2012
16
56
28
2013
17
53
30
2014
18
53
29
2015
19
53
28
2016
19
50
31
 
 
 
 
 Maybe this means that players are squaring up on the ball better.  I do not know.

Another idea is that perhaps teams are embracing more uppercut style hitters as the league embraces more groundball pitching.  How does that pan out?

Season
LD%
GB%
FB%
2008
20
44
36
2009
19
43
38
2010
18
44
38
2011
20
44
36
2012
21
45
34
2013
21
45
34
2014
21
45
34
2015
21
45
34
2016
21
45
34

 Honestly, if you had told me that the last five years have resulted in a leveling off of batted ball profiles and that we are seeing levels lowers than the pre-PED testing era.  All in all, I am at a bit of a loss.  Perhaps teams and players are more effective with changing swing planes, but I am doubtful of that.  Perhaps the ball is both legal and accidentally a little juiced this year.  Regardless, I do not think Wieters' hypothesis about millennial pitchers works.

12 July 2016

Justice Marks Opts Not To Send The Case Back To The RSDC

Since November 2015, after Justice Marks vacated the RSDCs previous decision, the Nationals have attempted to compel MASN to return to arbitration before the RSDC. The Nationals claimed that a footnote in the Justice’ decision meant that MASN needed to submit to arbitration if the Nationals just changed their lawyers. On the other hand, MASN felt that the sides should agree to submit this case before a different arbitral body and thereby avoid the appeals process. Failing this, MASN wanted its appeal to be heard before a second arbitration case would be heard before the RSDC.

After more than half a year, Justice Marks ruled on Monday that MASN shouldn't be forced to submit to a second arbitration before the RSDC until appeals have been completed. Justice Marks clarified his original decision by stating that his footnote didn’t compel MASN to return to arbitration before the RSDC just because the Nationals changed their lawyers. He further noted that he was unwilling to re-write the parties contract to force its process to move faster than plain language requires.

It’s pretty simple when it comes down to it. As the decision states, it is inefficient for a court to have motions and appeals regarding confirmation and vacature of different arbitration awards, at the same time, all stemming from the same dispute.  In this case, there have been multiple motions and therefore Justice Marks decided it was best to ensure simplicity in order to conserve court resources. In addition, this would have the potential of wasting significant amounts of the parties’ time. Depending on the result of the appeal, a decision made in a second arbitration could easily become moot. And it was highly unlikely that a decision tendered in a second arbitration would be put into effect before appeals were heard for both the first and second arbitration.

As stated previously, the impact of this decision is negligible. This merely delays a future RSDC arbitration until after the appellate court rules on each parties appeal. If the appellate court doesn’t rule in MASNs favor, then it seems likely that this case will eventually go back to the RSDC. Likewise, if the appellate court does rule in MASNs favor, then the results of a second arbitration would be meaningless. This was nothing more than a skirmish.

And yet, it does have some interesting implications. The Nationals have claimed that they’ve receiving unreasonably low rights fees for the past three years. They were hoping to compel MASN to go to arbitration in order to rectify the solution. On Monday, they discovered that they wasted half a year on this motion and have nothing to show for it. Even worse for the Nationals, the current five year contract ends after 2016. It doesn’t appear that the sides will come to a decision by 2017 and therefore this dispute could impact the next contract. This was a costly waste of half a year.

Justice Marks noted that neither party has perfected its appeal as of today. Rachel Thorn, an attorney for MASN, noted previously that for the appeal to have been scheduled for the June term, the perfection date was March 21, 2016. MASN didn’t perfect its appeal by that date because the parties were in the midst of mediation and MLB hadn’t responded to Mr. Hall’s February 5, 2016 letter. It seems that she implied that if the Nationals’ didn’t waste everyone’s time by trying to compel MASN to participate in a premature arbitration, then MASN may have perfected its appeal in March and the case could have been heard in June. Instead, MASN needed to use its resources to respond to the Nationals attempt to compel arbitration. If so, it’s questionable whether even a Nationals victory would have sped up the process.

Mrs. Thorn further noted that the next available terms for the appeal to be scheduled are September 2016 and October 2016, which would require perfection by July 11, 2016 and August 8, 2016 respectively. Given that Monday was the 11th, it seems unlikely that the parties will be ready to submit their appeals by that date. It seems that the earliest this case might be heard is in October, but it’s very possible that this case won’t be heard by the appellate court until 2017. Even after the case is heard, it will still take a few months for them to come to a decision.

Furthermore, it isn’t clear what the Nationals were hoping to achieve by bringing this motion. Even if they were successful, it was unlikely that the RSDCs decision would be implemented before MASN had a chance to appeal Justice’ Marks decision about the first arbitration as well as the RSDCs second arbitration. It isn’t time efficient to attempt to compel MASN to return to arbitration if it meant a delay in the appeals’ process.

Also, suppose the Nationals were victorious on Monday. If MASN was successful in the RSDCs second arbitration, then the Nationals would be in the uncomfortable position of needing a victory when appealing the RSDCs first arbitration. If MASN wasn’t successful in a second arbitration, they could use the results of the second arbitration to strengthen their appeal of the Judge’s ruling of the first arbitration. It seems like the Nationals placed MASN in a win-win situation with this motion while placing themselves in a situation where they couldn’t win.

In the meantime, Manfred has continued to make outrageously biased comments in favor of the Nationals. The Commissioner stated that “It is important to bear in mind the fundamentals. The fundamentals are that the Orioles agreed the RSDC would set the rights fees for MASN and the Orioles every five years. The Orioles have engaged in a pattern of conduct designed to avoid that agreement being effectuated.” Manfred has further argued that “We are intent on making sure that the agreement that gets the Nationals a fair market value for their TV rights is enforced, and we’ll do whatever is necessary to get that.” Yet, Manfred refused to acknowledge that the agreement was also vacated due to evident partiality and therefore that the panel was biased towards the Nationals. It is obviously unreasonable to claim that MASN is at fault for fighting against a decision found to be unfairly biased against them. As this case continues to progress, Manfred is further demonstrating his anti-MASN bias and thereby ruining his credibility. The appellate court will have to wonder if the RSDC is independent enough from the Commissioner to make a fair ruling. The longer MASN is able to delay a final decision, the higher the likelihood that Manfred will make a significant error which proves that the RSDC is an unsuitable arbitrator for this dispute.

All in all, the practical implications of this victory are minimal. But the fact that the Nationals just wasted months on this motion and have yet to win a single victory in this entire case is probably a bad sign for them. Why did they decide to waste several months on a motion which had little importance and a minimal chance of success if they want a decision as soon as possible? One has to question whether the disqualification of Proskauer Rose has had significant implications.

11 July 2016

First-Place Orioles Obviously Aren't Sellers, But Should They Buy?

If you're a glass-half-full type of person, then, at best, you may view the Orioles' trade deadline deals of the past few years as a mixed bag. If you're not, then surely you hated many of them. There are a couple of players who helped the O's -- Andrew Miller, Bud Norris, Scott Feldman -- and also a bunch of guys who didn't. And when you look back at the price to acquire them, it doesn't look so great.

July Trade Players Of Note In The Duquette Era

O’s get: Jim Thome, Omar Quintanilla, Scott Feldman, Steve Clevenger, Francisco Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Andrew Miller, Gerardo Parra, Junior Lake

O’s gave up: Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Nick Delmonico, Josh Hader, L.J. Hoes, 2014 comp. balance pick, Eduardo Rodriguez, Zach Davies, Tommy Hunter, Gabriel Lino, Kyle Simon

I might have left a couple out, but it's clear that the O's didn't get many bargains. The O's pulled off a cream-of-the-crop addition one time: Andrew Miller. Regardless of what you think of the Miller trade, he was very good in an O's uniform.

The rest of the time, Duquette aimed for the middle, or for relatively minor or moderate upgrades, and those moves mostly did not pay off. If the Orioles wanted to go after another reliever -- clearly Buck Showalter craves another left-hander in the bullpen -- they could put together a trade package for that. But many teams desperately need starting pitching upgrades, and nearly all of them will be able to assemble more enticing groups of prospects than what the O's can cobble together. That could lead the Orioles again shooting for a fringe starter.

So how should the Orioles proceed? It's not an easy question to answer. The way I see it, the Orioles could do one of three things. They could do nothing, rolling the dice with what they have and hoping it somehow works out. Second, they could target a few low-risk, high-variance players who wouldn't cost much. That could keep the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Mike Wright, and/or Tyler Wilson out of the starting rotation, even if there's no guarantee the new additions pitch any better. Or third, they could go after a legitimate starting rotation upgrade, whether that's Julio Teheran, Jake Odorizzi, Sonny Gray, Matt Moore, Rich Hill, Drew Pomeranz, Jeremy Hellickson, Ervin Santana, or someone else. Maybe some of those guys aren't on the market. Most likely, the O's would struggle to put together an enticing package for many of those names. And maybe they'd struggle to outbid other teams in the hunt for rotation upgrades. But at least some of those names are within reach.

I've been going back and forth about this. For a while I was in the do-nothing camp, but it's extremely difficult to talk yourself into riding things out with this group of starters. It's just too painful for a core that has a chance to win something significant right now.

The Orioles clearly want to add a left-handed starter. My guess is they would prefer to add two starters to go along with Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, and Yovani Gallardo. Maybe it would be easier to do that by adding someone like Jon Niese instead of Rich Hill. Either way, you're rolling the dice. These guys aren't aces.

You'd figure it wouldn't take a whole lot to acquire Niese. And again, Niese is just one example. There don't appear to be any slam-dunk starters in this market, or anything similar to the skill level the O's acquired when they picked up Miller to improve their bullpen a couple years ago. Maybe the O's could similarly acquire an add-on to a powerhouse bullpen to aid a bad rotation, but it's unlikely they go for a top-shelf reliever again. The O's also probably view Darren O'Day's impending return as the shot in the arm the bullpen needs.

At the minimum, I think the O's need to pursue a starting pitcher of some kind and a left-handed reliever. But no matter what, I won't feel great about it. The O's have the opportunity to make a decent move or two and improve their chances of getting into the playoffs, but in order to do that, they'd hurt an already weak farm system. Just because the Orioles have a low-rated minor league system doesn't mean it's completely devoid of talent. Whether the O's would be able to get the most out of those prospects is a fair question to ask, but that that's even a question is pretty sad for the state of the O's prospect development system currently in place.

This is what can happen when you both refuse to pay top dollar for starting pitching but are also terrible at developing your own pitching prospects. And yet, the O's are still, somehow, two games up in the American League East.

Being a GM is hard. The Orioles need starting rotation help. They also routinely need prospect help. Who's ready for the trade deadline?

07 July 2016

Orioles in First, Which is What Our System Projected

Alleged security camera recording of an alleged drunken,
shirtless alleged Steve alleged Melewski allegedly
destroying alleged computer equipment at an
alleged Best Buy on allegedly York Road, allegedly.
Back in March, mouths were foaming about how the projection models rated the Baltimore Orioles.  Steve Melewski was alleged going to local Best Buys, drinking a six pack in the parking lot, and then going inside to jeer at salespeople in the tablet section.  It was a dark time in Baltimore, but a rather proliferous one for message boards and writers who needed inspiration for fan friendly columns.

Truth be told, the projection models were not exactly in unison.  While Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA had the Orioles at 72 wins, ZiPS and FanGraphs pegged the club at 81 and 82 wins, respectively.  Some took those rosier projection harshly as well without acknowledging that the first place clubs were sitting with 84 wins in those projections.  In other words, two model approaches saw the AL East largely flattened while PECOTA was off on its own doing its own thing, which is what more recent iterations of PECOTA has been known to do as it has been more aggressively updated in the past few years.

At the Depot, I usually put together projections, but time was rushed and I simply was more focused on my CRAP draft system than updating my BUCK patch model to the ZiPS system.  In my gut, the club felt like a fourth place team around 82 wins in a pretty competitive AL East.  Other clubs looked better like Toronto and Boston, but the difference was not all that great.

In the first few weeks of the season, the Orioles won and won often, but typically not all that pretty.  The rotation was a mess, but the offense was humming and the club got some good fortune.  It meant that the data analyst cautious approach continued to note that the Orioles looked uneven and ready to fail.  Keith Law noted that without the winning streak at the beginning of the year, the club had played .500 ball.  Yes, we all know that removing a winning streak makes a team look worse and that there is typically no good reason to ignore a week and a half of games.  Anyway, an allegedly drunken Steve Melewski allegedly ran wild in several more local Best Buys.

In June, I decided to finally go back and figure out what my Buck patch model would have projected in the AL East.  I updated the system to consider the past three seasons each manager managed and each General Manager general managed.  I looked at what ZiPS thought they would do and then what they wound up doing in order to get an idea of the impact of those positions on the success of a baseball club.  All of this is based on my previous work, which I still have trouble believing.  For those without much experience, I simply projected them to not deviate from ZiPS in those seasons.

AL East
adjCD
RankCD
Rank
Baltimore
85
1
1
New York
83
2
4
Toronto
82
3
2
Boston
79
4
3
Tampa Bay
77
5
5
 
 
 
 
AL Central
 
 
 
Royals
92
1
2
Cleveland
88
2
1
Chicago
79
4
4
Detroit
77
5
3
Twins
80
3
5
 
 
 
 
AL West
 
 
 
Houston
88
1
2
Texas
84
2
1
LAAA
81
3
5
Mariners
80
4
3
Oakland
76
5
4

The patch model elevated the Orioles over the opposition as it considers the work by Showalter and Duquette to be exceptional with respect to expectations.  Over 2/3 of the projected ranks are off no more than one from where the clubs currently sit.  The biggest misses are the Twins who have been simply gruesome in part due to a heavy reliance on Minor League data for their projections.  The other big miss is the Rangers who have been blowing up other clubs this year even though they are a bit saddled with an aging and sleep deprived Prince Fielder.

All in all, it seems the data analysis approach has worked remarkably well for most of us doing this.

06 July 2016

Ubaldo Jimenez Wasn't Always Terrible

Your first memories of something are always the most vivid ones. The ones that stick the longest, that you judge the coming ones against. I started getting deeper into baseball in 2010, the year that Ubaldo Jimenez finished third in NL Cy Young voting. With a wicked fastball that averaged 96 and touched 100 MPH at times, a devastating slider and a change that kept hitters honest, Jimenez was the last true ace I can remember getting it done at Coors. By using park and time adjusted statistics, Jimenez' 63 ERA- in 2010 equals what Noah Syndergaard is doing this year, and he kept it up for 221 innings. In Coors!

So that's why sometimes I look at Ubaldo Jimenez' player page on Baseball Reference sometimes. It feels almost like visiting an old friend's grave. Yesterday I was paying my respects, and came across this fun fact. After serving up a grand slam to the Mariners' Seth Smith on Sunday, July 3, Jimenez now has the same home run total in 80 IP this season as he did in 221 IP in 2010. That total is ten.

The back half of the O's rotation is an on-fire garbage can, and Ubaldo likely won't recapture anything close to his 2010 peak down the stretch. Nobody should expect him to. He currently leads all of baseball in earned runs after a few implosions, and he leads the AL in walks. His 4 year/$50M contract is up after next season, and at age 33 with rapidly declining velocity the market for his arm will be thin.

Basically, things are looking down for Ol' Ubaldo, so I thought I would take some time to look back on his dominance with some numbers and GIFs. The first thing that made me fall in love with him is his unique delivery in which he literally looks like he's reaching back for more. The backwards rock and arm extension have always been there, and he experimented with an over the head movement before his delivery in 2015 that was funky.


He might be worth negative 1.3 WAR as of this writing, and he might flame out of the league in a few years, but Ubaldo Jimenez was pretty awesome and it's worth looking back at some of the highlights from his stellar 2010 campaign. 

1. The No-Hitter

The crown jewel of any legendary pitching season is a no-hitter. Jimenez didn't win the Cy Young, but the no-no sure helped smooth over some of his bumps (he ran a 3.7 BB/9 in 2010; some things never change) and make him compare more favorably against prime Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright.

Jimenez needed 128 pitches (throwing just 72 for strikes and walking six batters) to throw the first no-hitter in Rockies history against a Braves offense that was a hell of a lot better than this year's scrubs. He had trouble locating his offspeed and breaking stuff (which led to the six walks) but his fastball was the money pitch, touching 100 MPH several times. Here are some nasty examples.

Exhibit A
97 MPH painted on the inside corner. 

Exhibit B
 A young, pre-faceguard Jason Heyward. So innocent.

Exhibit C
And a particularly devastating splitter to Eric Hinske for good measure.


Other great moments from the no-hitter: Jimenez helped out his own cause with an RBI single, and Dexter Fowler made an incredible diving catch in center to keep it intact. There's something about Dexter Fowler and no-nos.

2. The Scorching Start

If you like wins, Jimenez won 15 of his first 16 starts in 2010. Since the five-man rotation became the norm, only Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, and Joaquin Andujar have accomplished that feat. The gaudy win totals were somewhat aided by the Rockies' potent offense, but he was a straight up workhorse, reeling off 14 consecutive quality starts out of the gates.

Looking at his first 11 starts through April and May, he was completely unhittable.





According to WPA (Win Probability Added), Jimenez alone accounted for over three wins for the Rockies in just 80.1 IP. The stretch included the no-hitter, two complete game shutouts, a 13 strikeout gem, and eight outings with Game Scores of 70 or higher. Perhaps the most impressive part of this stretch is that he managed to keep his ERA under 1.00 for 80 IP while posting a very average 2.7 K:BB ratio.

Jimenez dropped off considerably after the first two months, posting a 4.41 ERA in June and a 6.04 ERA in July. But as Jake Arrieta showed last year, Cy Young voters love otherworldly hot streaks. Especially when they happen at Coors

3. The First and Only Coors Workhorse

The no-hitter pitch count ran up to 128 pitches, and Jimenez followed it up five days later with a scoreless 121-pitch outing. Maybe Manager Jim Tracy was possessed by the spirit of Dusty Baker, or maybe this was normal in 2010, but Jimenez threw 120+ pitches in nine starts that season. He made three of those 120+ pitch starts in a 17 day period in August. All you need to see to understand the kind of toll that takes on an arm is this velocity chart.

For some reason the time axis is messed up, but the sudden drop off in velocity lines up perfectly with the beginning of his 2011 season. We can probably thank Jim Tracy for the 90-92 MPH garbage heaters that we're used to now. 

Jimenez was not impervious to fatigue or the thin Rocky Mountain air. His home ERA was 0.56 higher than on the road, his OPS allowed was a full .100 higher at home, his K/9 was 0.5 lower at home. He was human, and humans get shelled at Coors occasionally, but he was also the first and only workhorse to ever pitch for Colorado.

Here is a complete list of Rockies pitchers who have surpassed 200 IP in a season, sorted by their ERAs. Notice how by ERA+ many of those seemingly pedestrian seasons were actually well above league average when you factor in the Coors effect.


And this is a complete list of Rockies pitchers who have posted sub-3.00 ERAs and qualified for the ERA title.


The Colorado Rockies have only existed for 25 years, but it's safe to say that Ubaldo Jimenez owns the most (only?) dominant season in the team's history. That doesn't change the fact that the O's are paying him $13 million for what's shaping up to be a -2 WAR season, but it makes it a little easier to swallow knowing that Jimenez is kinda, sort of a legend.


05 July 2016

Oliver!


Joe Reisel's Archives



Oliver Drake, consider yourself a major-league caliber pitcher. Photo courtesy of Steven Goldburg/Norfolk Tides.
On June 21, the Orioles recalled relief pitcher Oliver Drake from their AAA affiliate, the Norfolk Tides. I believed that promotion was long overdue, even granting that the Orioles have had several right-handed relief pitchers, because Drake had pitched very effectively. For example, I didn't understand why the Orioles promoted the relatively inexperienced Mychal Givens when Drake was pitching more effectively at a higher level and had a longer track record than Givens.

There's no denying that Oliver Drake has pitched very well for Norfolk. Last season, Drake had a 0.82 ERA - and allowed zero unearned runs - while striking out 66 batters in 44 innings. He did walk 16 in those 44 innings, but he balanced that by only allowing 23 hits and 1 home run. This season, he had a period during which he struggled, but he still has a 2.02 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings. He has allowed more baserunners - 13 walks and 18 hits in those 26 2/3 innings - but over is last 12 innings, he allowed no runs on 5 hits and 2 walks, with 23 strikeouts.

I believe that almost any pitcher who can be as effective as Oliver Drake has been in AAA can and probably should be an effective major-league set-up man, and there's an excellent chance he could be an effective closer at least for a short time. After all, Jim Henderson closed for a season. When you compare Henderson to Drake, it's ludicrous to think that Oliver Drake can't be a closer.

I do understand the reasoning why Drake hasn't been given a real opportunity. He relies heavily on a trick pitch, his forkball / splitter. And he has a deceptive delivery in which he hides the ball from the batter for a long period. There is a legitimate fear that such trickery won't work against big-league hitters and that batters are swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. The thinking is that major-league hitters will not be fooled and will lay off the non-strikes, forcing Drake to throw his rather ordinary fastball for strikes. The batters will respond by hitting him hard and Drake will be ineffective.

While I have no real way of telling whether major-league hitters will be fooled by his deception, I can look at his performance to see if batters are swinging at pitches out of the zone. Over the past two years, I've scored 77 Norfolk games, 50 in 2015 and 27 so far in 2016. We can look at Drake's pitching and determine if Drake is getting a low percentage of called strikes. The theory behind this is that if Drake isn't getting a low percentage of called strikes, then batters aren't exclusively swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone and that Drake can be effective even when he's throwing pitches in the strike zone.

The below table shows the results of the pitches I've Drake throw over the past two seasons:


 
Called Ball
Called Strike
Swinging Strike
 
Foul
 
In-Play
2015
75
29
50
39
25
2016
77
45
36
36
24

That I've seen Drake throw the same number of pitches in the 27 games I've scored in 2016 as in the 50 games I scored in 2015 is simply luck of the draw; for a variety of reasons I've seen more of the games in which Drake pitched this year than last. That the number of pitches is exactly the same is sheer coincidence.

The data shows that when Drake was extraordinarily effective in 2015, Drake got more strikes on swings in 2015 than he has in 2016. But I don't think the data necessarily implies that batters swung at pitches out of the strike zone in 2015 and stopped doing so in 2016. If that were the case, then Drake would have substantially more called balls in 2016 than in 2015. He doesn't. To me, it's more likely that batters were swinging and missing at borderline pitches in 2015 and taking them in 2016. That would imply that Drake doesn't rely on batters swinging at "bad" pitches and that he doesn't necessarily have to throw more hittable pitches.

Oliver Drake has been extremely effective in AAA over the past season-and-a-half. He's earned a real shot at a major-league job. The Orioles have a very good and very deep bullpen, so Drake may be limited to mop-up roles. He's not the "ideal" relief pitcher candidate because he doesn't have a high-90's fastball, but he has earned a real shot at a big-league job. I believe that Drake should be an effective seventh- or eighth-inning reliever and wouldn't have a problem giving him a chance at being a closer.

(Since this article was originally written, Drake was optioned back to Norfolk after two ineffective outings. Two ineffective outings, of course, mean very little and I stand by the opinions expressed in this article.)