20 January 2017

The Orioles Bring Mark Trumbo Back

Mark Trumbo is back in Baltimore. He's re-signing with the Orioles for three years and $37.5 million, which is more than reasonable -- and much less than he was anticipated to receive when he hit free agency after rejecting the Orioles' qualifying offer.

Trumbo was pegged to land a contract of at least four years and somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 to $60 million. That market never materialized, and the Orioles didn't bid against themselves. Trumbo's deal with the Orioles includes some deferred money because of course it does, but that has little effect on what seems like a solid signing.

Did you want the Orioles to sign a quality, full-time outfielder? Would you have been fine with signing Chris Carter for the DH spot and using that money to beef up the rotation? Will this signing leave enough money or roster space for the O's to add a speedy, defensive outfielder type, like Michael Bourn? Those are legitimate concerns. But the Orioles went with the power hitter who they are familiar with, and they didn't have to pay a ridiculous price. In fact, the O's may be looking at a relative bargain.

Anyway, who's ready for more Trumbombs? Enjoy this YouTube highlight reel below of all 47 of Trumbo's 2016 taters.

18 January 2017

Some Details About Trey Mancini's 2016 AAA Season

Joe Reisel's Archives

Photo courtesy of Les Treagus / Norfolk Tides.
As an milb.com datacaster and as a scorer for Baseball Info Solutions, I watch a lot of Norfolk Tides games. And I tend to focus on the "little picture" - I get absorbed in what's happening right there and right then, in front of me. That's my job; I record each pitch and play results, be it the first inning, the sixth inning of an 11-2 blowout, or the bottom of the ninth of a tie game. Needless to say, at times the pitches, plays, and batters all blur together. The plays I remember are plays that are dramatic or crucial, that can break through the rhythm of balls, strikes, fouls, and balls put into play. An unfortunate (for me) consequence is that my impressions of players are overinfluenced by those dramatic moments.

And so my impressions of Trey Mancini are less positive than perhaps they should be, based on his statistical line. I remember several close games, in which the Tides were tied or trailing by one run, when Mancini - who usually batted third - came to the plate with runners in scoring position. And, based on his earlier performance in similar situations, I expected him to swing-and-miss at the first pitch and subsequently make an out, failing to drive in a run or even advance the runners.

But was this perception accurate? During the season, did Mancini swing at the first pitch? When he did swing, how often did he miss? How many pitches did he see during his at-bats? I could review my scoresheets (yes, I have to keep scoresheets on paper during my games and yes, I keep them - I have four binders with eleven years' worth of Norfolk Tides scoresheets) and spot the specific instances I remember. But that would be so few plate appearances as to have little value. Instead, I looked at all of Mancini's plate appearances in games I scored. Over the season, I have records of 44 of Mancini's games, encompassing 188 plate appearances.

Did Trey Mancini tend to swing at the first pitch?

Not in the games I scored, no.. He took the first pitch 123 times and swung at the first pitch 65 times. He put the ball in play 15 times, and was hit by the first pitch once.

How did he do when he saw only one pitch in an at-bat?

Not terribly well in the games I saw. He had only four hits in the fifteen at-bats - but three of those hits were home runs. Adding his HBP, that gave him a slash line of .267/.313/.867 when he saw only one pitch in a plate appearance. The slugging percentage is nice, but the on-base percentage and (especially) the batting average are lower than usual for a one-pitch plate appearance.

How many pitches did he see in a typical plate appearance?

Just under four in the games I saw - 3.99 to be precise to the hundredths place. A complete breakdown follows:

1 pitch: 16 PA
2 pitches: 26 PA
3 pitches: 43 PA
4 pitches: 28 PA
5 pitches: 33 PA
6 pitches: 25 PA
7 pitches: 12 PA
8 pitches: 4 PA
10 pitches: 1 PA

What did he do with all these pitches?

Called Balls: 268
Called Strikes: 114
Swinging Strikes: 114
Foul Balls: 123
Put in Play: 117

It's noteworthy that 37.78% of his plate appearances ended without the ball being put in play. At first glance, that seemed high. And it is a little bit high for Mancini; overall with the Tides he put the ball in play in 32.65% of his plate appearances. For comparison, 28.16% of the Norfolk Tides plate appearances ended without the ball being put in play; for the International League as a whole, the figure is 28.92%.

The main takeaway from this review is that my impression of Mancini as an overaggressive hitter was wrong. He didn't swing at the first pitch an inordinate amount of time; he did see a reasonable number of pitches per plate appearance. There isn't any reason for me to be concerned that Mancini is too aggressive and that aggressiveness will be a flaw exposed at the major league level.

17 January 2017

How Much Will Kevin Gausman Earn in Arbitration?

Have you ever been denied a raise? Have you ever had your employer list all the reasons why you don't deserve one? This is the frustrating situation Kevin Gausman is in. He asked the Orioles for $3.55M, but the Orioles countered with $3.15M. The two sides couldn't agree on an amount by last Friday's deadline so the Orioles, apparently operating under the file-and-trial policy, will see Gausman in court.

A separation of $400k isn't a lot, not when Dellin Betances and the Yankees are $2M apart. But to Gausman, it's real money, about an extra year of salary at the MLB minimum of $535k. Plus, his filing is 12.6% above the Orioles'. How many of us can go out and get a 12.6% raise?

From the Orioles' point of view, $400k may seem trivial, but as shown by the Yovani Gallardo trade, they're seeking savings wherever they can get it. The team is taking Caleb Joseph to court over $300k, a lesser amount.

I decided to examine Gausman's arbitration case. Will he receive $3.55M or will he have to settle for $3.15M? The arbitration panel must pick either the Orioles' offer or Gausman's. They can't split the difference.

Methodology

I'll use only IP, ERA, wins, and W-L% to examine Gausman's case. While you and I may look at information like fastball velocity, K-BB%, and DRA to better understand a pitcher's worth, teams and agents present more traditional stats to arbitrators. According to Ben Nicholson-Smith at MLB Trade Rumors:
Teams and agents don't want to risk alienating arbitrators with wOBA, xFIP or UZR, so they stick to the basics. Wins don't necessarily indicate how effective a pitcher has been, but they will impact how much he gets paid. Innings pitched, ERA, RBI, runs, homers and doubles figure in, along with other back-of-the-baseball-card stats like batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Comparable Pitchers

Both sides will compare Gausman to other players. This year five first-year Super-Two starting pitchers have avoided arbitration. Including Gausman, they are:

Name Age IP ERA W L W-L% Arb-1 Salary ($M)
Matt Shoemaker 29 436.10 3.76 32 27 0.542 3.25
Danny Salazar 26 484.10 3.72 33 27 0.550 3.40
Jacob deGrom 28 479.10 2.74 30 22 0.577 4.05
James Paxton 27 286.00 3.43 18 15 0.545 2.35
Trevor Bauer 25 552.10 4.42 30 32 0.484 3.55
Kevin Gausman 25 451.60 3.99 23 31 0.426 ?

Coincidentally or not, Bauer's Arb-1 salary of $3.55M is exactly what Gausman filed for. Can Gausman claim he's Bauer's equal?

I don't think so, at least, not in the arbitrator's eyes. While Bauer's ERA is noticeably higher than Gausman's, Bauer's pitched 100 more innings and has not only more wins but a higher W-L%.

This comparison alone may sink Gausman's chances. His agent must argue that Gausman's ERA advantage makes up for the difference in IP, W, and W-L%. That's a valid argument to make; I think all available data shows Gausman is the superior pitcher. But MLB arbitrators don't consider all data, and 100 IP is a huge hill to climb. I don't think Gausman's agent can do it.

We can remove two more more pitchers from the list of comparables:
  • Jacob deGrom has an NL Rookie of the Year award and a seventh-place Cy Young finish to his name, not to mention a sub-3 ERA and and a superlative .577 W-L%. Gausman has no such bonafides.
  • James Paxton has a similar number of wins as Gausman but over 150 fewer innings pitched. Paxton has hit the DL in each of the past three seasons and has had mixed results when on the mound. If Gausman's agent uses Paxton -- who earned $2.35M in arbitration -- as a point of comparison, Gausman should switch agencies.
We're left with Danny Salazar and Matt Shoemaker. Each have better ERA's than Gausman. They each have about 10 more wins and a much higher W-L% than he does. Salazar's pitched about 30 more innings than Gausman; Shoemaker, about 15 fewer.

Unfortunately for Gausman, Salazar earned $3.4M, quite close to $3.55M. If Gausman can't claim he's equal to Salazar, the arbitrator has no incentive to award Gausman more money than Salazar. The story with Shoemaker, who earned $3.25M, is similar. Gausman has only a 15 IP advantage on Shoemaker but is inferior in every other way. The arbitrator has no incentive to pick the amount that's above Shoemaker's salary.

Conclusion

Based on the evidence that the arbitrators likely will see, I expect the them to rule in favor of the Orioles and pay Gausman $3.15M. Gausman's a better pitcher than Trevor Bauer, but Bauer's outperformed Gausman in the metrics arbitrators typically see. Hopefully Gausman and his teammates will excel in 2017 and give Goose a more productive second trip through arbitration.

16 January 2017

If The Orioles Move On From Mark Trumbo, It Won't Be Because Of A Draft Pick

The Orioles have done some unconventional things under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter. Some of those things have produced tangible results, while some others may be best described as perplexing.

One area in which Duquette has tried to gain an advantage involves draft picks. The Orioles have not been shy about signing qualifying offer players, which means they're tied to draft pick compensation and their asking prices could be discounted. They've also traded competitive balance draft picks multiple times in order to shed salary during the season that could be used to add another player.

The Orioles' front office, or maybe mostly Duquette, must believe treating draft picks this way gives them some type of edge, and maybe it has. This strategy is frustrating and easy to mock, but even if it's only helped the team marginally, the overall results are still there. The Orioles haven't had a losing season since 2011, and they have compiled the best record in the American League since 2012.

That brings us to the ongoing Mark Trumbo saga. The Orioles seem to still want Trumbo back, but only at a certain cost. As Ken Rosenthal reported last week, Trumbo may be inclined to accept a three-year deal now, despite previously seeking at least four years. That "would at least appear to create room for negotiation," whatever that actually means.

On top of that, Duquette is doing his best to convince Trumbo, Trumbo's representation, and anyone else who will listen that, hey, the draft pick compensation matters in this case. In a recent interview, Duquette said that "as far as the Orioles go, we kind of like the value of that draft pick that’s been enhanced with the negotiation from the new collective bargaining agreement. In other words, it’s about the last time that you can acquire that level of pick for a compensation draft pick."

If you want to take Duquette's comments at face value, that's up to you. It's usually a better idea, however, to judge actions instead of words. And, again, the Orioles have not been shy about giving up draft picks if they think it will be beneficial.

Instances of the Orioles sacrificing MLB Draft picks under Duquette:
  • July 2013: Acquired Bud Norris and an international bonus slot for L.J. Hoes, Josh Hader, and a competitive balance pick (ended up being 37th pick)
  • Feb. 2014: Signed Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz (lost picks No. 17 and No. 55)
  • April 2015: Traded Ryan Webb, Brian Ward, and a competitive balance pick (ended up being 74th pick) to Dodgers for Ben Rowen and Chris O'Brien
  • Feb. 2016: Signed Yovani Gallardo (lost pick No. 14)
  • May 2016: Traded Brian Matusz and a competitive balance pick (ended up being 74th pick) to the Braves for Brandon Barker and Trevor Belicek
As a result of qualifying offer players signing with other teams, the Orioles also added a couple picks: Nelson Cruz signed with the Mariners (added Ryan Mountcastle at No. 36 in 2015); and Wei-Yin Chen signed with the Marlins (added Cody Sedlock at No. 27). Mountcastle and Sedlock are two of the better prospects in the O's system, which both tells you that extra picks matter, and that the Orioles' farm system is not in great shape.

So here's the final tally of gained and lost picks:
Extra draft picks: Nos. 27 and 36
Forfeited/traded draft picks: Nos. 14, 17, 37, 55, 74, 74

Maybe you don't mind the Orioles missing some of those later picks. It depends how you view the MLB Draft. I look at it as a glorified lottery, meaning every extra pick gets you a little bit closer to potentially landing a talented player. Still, the O's have tried to use both the qualifying offer and competitive balance pick systems to their advantage, however minuscule it may be.

It's always nice to have an extra draft pick, but the Orioles have also assembled a win-now roster. The future is uncertain; several key players will likely be departing in the next few years. Is this really the time to start worrying about draft picks, just because the pick compensation system will be changing?

The win-now state of the roster is also why it's frustrating that the Orioles didn't make a serious run at Edwin Encarnacion. Trumbo is apparently seeking something in the three-year, $40-$50 million range. Encarnacion signed with the Indians for three years and $60 million (with a club option in 2021). Both players are 1B/DH types, and Trumbo is a few years younger than Encarnacion. Encarnacion, though, is the much better hitter.
Encarnacion's wRC+ of 134 last year was his lowest in the past five seasons. In 2016, arguably the best offensive season of Trumbo's career, he posted a wRC+ of 123 (he also had a 124 wRC+ in 2012). Even at his absolute best, Trumbo falls short of Encarnacion by a decent margin.

If the Orioles didn't want to spend on Encarnacion and don't want to risk disrupting the clubhouse (and fanbase?) with a Jose Bautista signing, moving on from Trumbo still makes sense in ways that have nothing to do with a draft pick (though that's an added bonus). Chris Carter brings similar skills to the table for less money. A Pedro Alvarez reunion at DH, possibly paired with Trey Mancini, would be cost effective. And while the roster is getting rather full with outfield options, there's still a chance the team can add an actual decent defensive outfielder (even if it's Michael Bourn).

The Orioles are playing hardball with Trumbo. It's not wise for them to bid against themselves, so don't think the draft pick is any significant motivation. It hasn't been before, and the O's are doing what they can to maximize the performance of the major league roster. That's what they've done, and it's worked, even if some of the moves have been misguided. Don't go and start taking Duquette's word on things now.

Stats via FanGraphs. Transaction and contract info via MLB Trade Rumors and Cot's.

13 January 2017

Body Type Impacting Pitch Framing: Not So Fast

A couple weeks ago, Travis Sawchik (now with FanGraphs but previously covering the Pirates beat) discussed a notion in the industry that pitch framing down in the zone, while a skill, is heavily influenced by the catcher's body type.  The way in which Sawchik's article is laid out is effectively a smattering of case studies.  The discussion is about how few tall catchers are elite and a couple are terrible.  This is not how I would like to explore this issue, so I went with a full population study.

What I did was take the 50 catchers over 2014-2016 who had received the most pitches down in the lower third of the strikezone and outside of the strikezone to the sides and below of that strike area.  Those strikes turned balls and balls turned strikes were converted to a runs per 1000 pitches metric.  The fewest number of pitches caught in that area was Kevin Plawecki with 4056.  The greatest was Salvador Perez at 24582.  The top two catchers by far were Tony Wolters (39.9 runs saved per 1000 pitches based on 4222 pitches) and Francisco Cervelli (39.0 rs/1000 based on 15169 pitches).  Dioner Navarro (-44.7 rs/1000; 10894 pitches), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (-42.3 rs/1000; 6285 pitches), and AJ Ellis (-40.5 rs/1000; 5002 pitches) were by far the worst.

Just looking at those numbers, Wolters is the second shortest catcher in the group and Cervelli is right smack dab in the middle.  However, Navarro is the shortest guy on the list while Salatlamacchia and Ellis are 6'3" and in the top 13 for height.  That all does not exactly mean all that much.  What might make this work a little better is to batch this into four groups: 5'10" and shorter, 5'11" and 6', 6'1" and 6'2", and 6'3" and above.

Height Avg RS/1000
% abv avg
5'10" and <
7+/-27
71
5'11 and 6'
0 +/- 15
43
6'1" and 6'2"
4 +/- 20
47
6'3 and >
-10 +/- 21
42

Visually, there appears to be a trend line, but it is not significant.  ANOVA also is unimpressed even though the average makes the 6'3" and above batch look different.  Additionally, the percent above average looks pretty unremarkable for players above 5'11".  If one could fathom a reason to do so, eliminating Saltalamacchia and Ellis from the tallest group would result in a -3.2 +/- 16.  In other words, it might be what really powers these appearances of a trend are the existence of a few remarkable players pushing that trend.  I tried to compare them by their performance against their height to no avail.  The worst quartile were on average taller (6'1.5"), but only differed by an inch with the best performers (6'0.5").

It may well be what people are observing is that catchers who are poor at framing pitches low do other things quite well.  Part of this might appear to be a size issue because those other things are related to size, but that is more a tangential correlation than an actual correlation.  In other words, by taking into account for height you are measuring something that is related to why some players are poor lower pitch framers, but have not actually figuring out the true reason for it.

11 January 2017

Chris Carter is Still There for the Taking

While the Orioles bid seemingly against themselves for Mark Trumbo, there's another player available for a lot less money that could fill the same role. 30-year-old Chris Carter, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, is currently a free agent after the Brewers non-tendered him to avoid arbitration. Mark Trumbo, the Orioles' most recent power hitting reclamation project, is expected to get a contract somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 years and $60 million. Chris Carter was projected to get $8-10 million in arbitration this year, but MLB Trade Rumors expects him to sign a one-year deal for less than that given the availability of power bats and his incredibly streaky history.

Carter actually profiles more like Davis than Trumbo, with more extreme BB% and K% rates than Trumbo. Even in his very bad 2015, Carter posted a wRC+ of 104. Compare that to Trumbo's equally bad 2015, when he posted a wRC+ of 107.


However, Carter rebounded from his poor 2015 campaign to have a solid 2016, posting 41 home runs and a .222/.320/.457 slash line. Nothing groundbreaking by any means, but certainly worth a look if he can put up anything like that in 2017. Carter might have even had more home runs to his name if he was hitting in Camden Yards - check out his 2016 spray chart overlayed on OPACY:
Source: Baseball Savant, Statcast
Carter also made it onto the Statcast leaderboard for number of balls barreled up on, defined as "well struck balls with an expected batting average/slugging percentage of .500/1.500." He finished 2016 with 56 barrels, 8th in all of baseball and immediately trailing Mike Trout and Evan Longoria, (57 each).

Anecdotally, when a player exhibits a strong three true outcomes profile, he also has platoon splits that show he should only play when matchups are favorable. Carter has hit righties and lefties about equally, so there's no reason to think he should be anything but a full-time player for the Orioles, whether it's at DH, spelling Davis at first, or (gulp) in the outfield.

Carter should be a DH. But since the Orioles appear willing to try and hide a bad fielder with a good bat in the outfield, I should mention that Carter has 549 innings in left field and 17 in right, and he's posted roughly a -30 UZR/150 in both.

I don't put much stock into this because each of these pitchers is good enough to know where to pitch opponents, but the Red Sox' aces, David Price and Chris Sale, each through a number of pitches in the upper right portion of the zone, which is up and away for Carter:

Carter tends to hit pitches in those locations well and with authority:
Again, it's an imperfect comparison. Saying Carter would hit Sale and Price well just because of pitch location charts completely ignores pitch types, quality, and scouting reports. It's just worth noting that if Sale and Price miss, Carter could be one of the hitters that really makes them pay.

There's no fancy math or stathead secret in play here: Chris Carter is likely to give whichever team signs him the same production that the Orioles will get from Chris Davis and someone will get from Mark Trumbo. Baltimore has already sunk a lot of money into Chris Davis, and is thinking about doing the same with Trumbo. Why spend that cash on a multi-year deal for a flawed right-handed power bat (to be clear, I mean Trumbo) that will carry through what is potentially a mass exodus from Baltimore after 2017? Especially when there's potentially a very cheap one-year deal for essentially the same production sitting right in front of the team.

10 January 2017

Manny Machado Is Dan Duquette's Kobayashi Maru

Kobayashi Maru is a term that is gradually entering into common parlance.  Very gradually.  It is a term I have largely ignored, but it kept coming up and I consulted Wikipedia.  The term comes from a simulation test that cadets go through in the Star Trek series.  The scenario is one where a starship has a choice to response to a distress beacon of a civilian ship in a highly contested demilitarized zone.  If the captain chooses to go in, the enemy appears in an unwinnable battle.  If the captain chooses to ignore the beacon, the crew is demoralized and loses faith in the captain moving forward.  The test is not to see if the captain can make the right decision; there is no winnable solution.  The test is how does the captain handle a situation in which winning is not possible.  Manny Machado is Dan Duquette's Kobayashi Maru.

The Orioles currently hold onto the rights of Manny Machado for two more seasons, 2017 and 2018.  In 2017, his arbitration is assumed to be around 11 MM.  It will likely increase to about 15 MM in 2018.  These numbers sound like a great deal, but Machado's true value is like somewhere in the 120 MM range (roughly 60 MM per season) in excess of his cost.  He is worth that if you assume his level of play rises to an average of 8 wins each season.

For a club like the Orioles, dealing an 8 win player who makes 11 MM a year effectively means that you are trading yourself out of playoff contention.  As is, the club is a fringe high 80s win club.  With Machado elsewhere and nothing but high minors prospects coming back, you have a team that hopes to break even.  It is a losing scenario as that 11 MM saved might bring back a second division starter in the remains of free agency.  It is a losing scenario for 2017 and likely 2018.

However, the issue at play might well be 2019.  Do the Orioles really have a plan?  The minors is bereft of talent, arguably.  The jewel of the farm is Chance Sisco, a young high minors catcher whose does not possess MLB ready catching skills and whose offensive profile entails high contact and plate discipline.  While some like Keith Law choose to indulge themselves in hyperbole and call him "at worst...an average catcher", the industry is more varied in their response.  A sizable portion (though still a minority) has difficulty imagining Sisco with his poor footwork, slow pop times, and weak framing skills to be able to improve to a competent level behind the  plate.  Previous work I have presented here shows that it is quite rare for a poor defensive catcher to ever make the Majors as a catcher.

Going beyond Sisco, you have your Sedlock, Akin, and Harveys.  These are low minors pitchers who would typically find themselves in the 6-15 range in more flourishing systems.  Or a Ryan Mountcastle who has an interesting bat, but no real position.  What this amounts to is that the club has difficulty finding the needed, cheap internal options required to field a contender on a mid-league payroll.  If you scoff at the notion that the Orioles are stretching things at a mid-league payroll, then please remember that MLB itself with all of its jockeying to keep and get money considers the Orioles as roughly the 20th monied team in baseball.  This is an argument I put forward almost ten years ago.  It makes sense and MLB goes along with it even though the Orioles anger a lot of people who calculate these things.  Anyway, the way the roster is constructed the team basically runs out of the needed horses to compete just as the moment Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette have their contracts terminate after the 2018 season.

2017 and 2018 are it and Machado is rather essential for this club to be a playoff contender, but it looks dire after that.  With a payroll in the 160 MM range, Machado at 30-40 MM is a difficult fit in there.  Added to that, why would Machado choose to take a contract that he could sign anywhere and sign with a team who lacks the young, quality players needed to make the club competitive.  Does Machado care more about Baltimore than about winning?  That would seem to remarkable to me for a player who shut his season down in 2014 in the midst of a playoff run.  He can walk and he likely will walk and the best the Orioles will see from him in that scenario is a complementary pick after the first round for one of the top five players in baseball.

If the Orioles deal Machado, they lose.  They simply cannot replace what is heading out with the money they have if it was even possible to replace that value.  Likewise, if they hold onto Machado for two years to see him walk, then they have left a crater of a franchise for whoever takes over.  It will be a near complete loss except for the fun memories of an aging Chris Davis around the clubhouse.  So, let's explore what a deal might look like.

One place to look is at the Adam Eaton deal between the Nationals and White Sox.  Eaton is owed 5/37.4 on his contract.  If you assume he maintains a 4 WAR pace with a post 30 0.5 WAR decline and cost is 8 MM/win, then he is a 148 MM player.  Surplus value on his would be 110.6 MM.  Using recent comps for prospect value, the White Sox received Lucas Giolito (69.9 MM), Reynaldo Lopez (29.8 MM), and Dave Dunning (10.3 MM, adjusted from Victor Wang's original research for a B level pitcher).  That total value come to 109 MM, which is 1.6 MM short of what Eaton's value is.  That is a close hit.

Oh, I see your face just went pale.  Yes, Eaton has a surplus value of 110.6 MM and Machado's is ~120 MM.  They are very roughly equivalent in surplus value.  Sure, what you are feeling is sadness.  Five years locked into a small contract is helpful to develop surplus value.  Machado with two years are arbitration, less so.  While exclusive negotiations has some merit, it means simply you are able to pay market value up front without any true competition for a player like Machado. 

Again, though, think about it.  Why would Machado want to sign long term with the Orioles?  The club has almost no cost controlled talent in the minors ready to bubble up and provide complementary performance to Machado.  That is necessary for a team who has apparently maxed out their payroll and are unable or unwilling to spend 4-6 MM on outfielders (e.g., Peter Bourjos, Rajai Davis).  If you know you are going to pull in a 30+ MM per year deal, do you take it and hamstring the Orioles payroll or do you go for a much larger payroll that has the flexibility to support you with other talent?  In other words, maybe the best way to keep Machado is to trade him for the talent needed to be appealing.

Dealing him this year has grown difficult as the third base market has progressively shrunk.  Dealing Machado and signing Justin Turner would have been ideal.  Dealing Machado would mean replacing him with Trevor Plouffe or Luis Valbuena, players who look fitting for a fringe backend divisional club and not for a contender.  Regardless, dealing Machado and seeing a full return of 120 MM in value would be ideal for the Orioles future, but would also suggest that the rest of the club needs to be sold.  That is hard to do right after a playoff season.

Anyway, let's see what 120 MM gets you and why not go for the heart.  The Yankees are a pretty obvious fit.  They have the money to sign Machado in the now as well as long term.  They also have a rich minor league system after a long decade of neglect by the previous regime.  Depending on what you want, you could acquire a soon to be MLB quality SS in Gleyber Torres (62 MM), a near ready athletic and strong right fielders in Aaron Judge (38.2 MM), a promising left handed starting pitcher in Justus Sheffield (15.6 MM), and a fringe starter/relief arm in Dillon Tate (5 MM).  Torres is in a Machado defensive mold with average range, but great reflexes and arm.  If Machado really wants to play shortstop in two years, Torres could slide to the hot corner.  Otherwise, you could exchange his name for Clint Frazier and have a pretty solid outfield inked out.

Once a year passes, the value takes a large hit.  You could go big and grab a Torres or you can diversify your portfolio a bit and take a boat of prospects back given the dearth of the current farm.  I will take the latter approach using current names as types of players who could be looked at next year.  For this exercise, the Astros line up nicely.  For 60 MM, you can include a very young but  well accomplished bat in Kyle Tucker (22.4 MM), a young hard throwing righty in Forrest Whitley (16.5 MM), another right handed horse in David Paulino (15.6 MM), and a once shiny centerfield prospect in Daz Cameron (7.1 MM).

Basically, you go from two starting position players and two good arms to a starting position player several years away, a fringey position player and two good arms.  Prospects with positional starting capacity are worth a ton.  In the end, the most likely trade scenario is one to consider next year.  This year seems done and never appeared much to be a likelihood.  This GM would need to have full permission of ownership and some major bravado to deal Machado after a playoff season.  Instead, we have an abyss lying in front of the club for 2019.  I am unsure how they get out of it.  Every possible direction for action seems like a major loss at this point.

07 January 2017

What To Know About Seth Smith

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Our long, citywide nightmare — also known as The Yovani Gallardo Experience — is over. The owner of the fourth-highest cFIP in the majors will weigh down Seattle's rotation in 2017, as the Orioles dealt Gallardo to the Mariners yesterday in exchange for Seth Smith. The 34-year-old outfielder will make $7 million in 2017, thereby saving the Birds at least $6 million (Gallardo is due $11 million this year and has a $2 million buyout for next year).

Aside from salary, Smith appears to differ from Gallardo in three key regards:
  1. He's a hitter;
  2. he's a lefty; and
  3. he's a competent major league baseball player.
On that last note, let's elaborate! Smith brings a career triple-slash of .261/.344/.447 to Charm City, which has been good for a .343 wOBA and 112 wRC+. Thanks to that dependable bat and a not-terrible glove (more on that below), Smith's been worth 13.1 fWAR and 11.7 rWAR across 3,711 lifetime plate appearances — he's been just about an average player, which the Orioles will gladly take as they try to contend in 2017.

He has a good eye, and possibly a great one.

The Orioles, as you may have heard, don't walk very much as a team — they've placed in the bottom half of the majors in free pass rate in the last four seasons. Strikeouts have become a problem as well in recent years: After putting up the 11th-highest K rate in the majors in 2014, Baltimore's been in the top 10 in 2015 and 2016. Plate discipline, in other words, is something for which the Orioles are wanting.

At the beginning of his career, Smith had some plate discipline. From 2007 to 2013, he swung at 27.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone (the 214th-highest mark out of 429 qualified hitters), along with 61.6 percent of pitches inside the strike zone (233rd-highest); simultaneously, he made contact on 78.2 percent of his swings (134th-lowest). All that resulted in a 10.0 percent walk rate and 19.3 percent strikeout rate across those years — respectable figures, albeit nothing impressive.

But Smith became quite impressive in 2014, when he arrived in San Diego. That campaign, he reduced his O-Swing rate to the 18th-lowest among 146 qualified hitters, at 23.2 percent, while his Z-Swing rate dipped to the 34th-lowest at 59.2 percent. And he accomplished that as he made far more contact, posting the 69th-lowest figure in the majors at 81.1 percent. A more patient approach and better judgment on his swings gave Smith a superb 13.2 percent walk rate and 16.7 percent strikeout rate. His 0.79 BB/K ratio was on par with David Ortiz, and better than Edwin Encarnacion and Andrew McCutchen, among many others.

Did Smith undergo a legitimate breakout? That was the conclusion drawn by MLB.com's Corey Brock, FanGraphs' Matt Klaassen, The San Diego Union-Tribune's Dennis Lin, and others. These writers attributed Smith's improved plate discipline — which boosted his wRC+ to a career-best 131 — to the Lasik surgery he'd undergone the previous summer. It certainly seems that being able to see would help a hitter out. Maybe with sterling vision, Smith was finally reaching his potential.

Sadly, that narrative has deflated after two campaigns in humid Seattle. During 2015 and 2016, with his eyes presumably still intact from the surgery, Smith walked in 10.7 percent of his plate appearances, while striking out in 21.1 percent. His O-Swing rate (24.6 percent), Z-Swing rate (58.2 percent), and contact rate (76.4 percent) all began to regress toward his prior career levels. The breakout faded, and Smith returned to normal.

For 2017, what does this mean? The rational expectation is that Smith will maintain his 2015-16 level of play; that's what Steamer foresees, calling for a 10.7 percent walk rate and 21.2 percent strikeout rate. Still, the potential for a resurgence remains in place — plate discipline doesn't necessarily fade with age. If Smith remembers how to judge pitches again, he could again reach the Ortiz level of plate discipline.

He doesn't fare too well against fellow lefties. 

Last offseason, after the Pirates non-tendered him, the Orioles reeled in Pedro Alvarez on a one-year deal. Though Alvarez threw right-handed, as virtually all nominal third basemen do, he hit from the left side of the plate. This meant he'd perform poorly when facing left-handed pitching — to such an extent that he'd be virtually unplayable against southpaws. Understanding this, Baltimore deployed Alvarez accordingly: He received only 42 plate appearances versus a left-hander last year, compared to 334 versus right-handers.

Smith, too, hits left-handed (although he also throws left-handed, which thankfully prevents him from manning third base and doing this). And like Alvarez, he's always come up short against same-handed opponents:

  Handedness   PA BB% K% ISO   BABIP   AVG OBP SLG   wRC+  
L 558 9.3%   22.9%     .109   .251   .202     .282     .312   60
R   3153    10.9%  18.7% .200 .309 .272 .355 .472 121

Smith's wRC+ against righties puts him 28th among 101 hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances; he's tied with Evan Longoria and slightly ahead of Nelson Cruz. Meanwhile, his wRC+ against lefties ranks 322nd, in a sample of...327 hitters. So he does pretty well for himself when the pitcher throws with his right hand, and pretty terribly otherwise.

The BABIP and ISO troubles don't stem from an altered batted-ball distribution — Smith has an identical ground ball rate against righties and lefties. But he's made hard contact much more often off the former (33.5 percent) than the latter (24.4 percent). As with many platoon-hindered hitters, that's probably due to the location patterns he encounters:


Righties give Smith more pitches to hit, which he obviously capitalizes on. Lefties stay far, far away from him, thus preventing him from doing damage.

As with Alvarez, Smith's platoon split is most likely set in stone at this point — having turned 34 in September, Smith is what he is. With their new outfielder in the fold, the Orioles will likely have no need for Alvarez's services going forward; Smith will presumably team up with Joey Rickard in a corner outfield spot. If both players can maintain their solid production against opposite-handed pitching (Rickard had a 131 wRC+ off southpaws as a rookie), Baltimore will have a reliable platoon supporting its lineup.

He excelled in the first half of 2016, then struggled in the second half. 

Like another former Oriole and current free agent, Smith started 2016 off on the right foot. He sailed to a .298/.423/.544 batting line and 166 wRC+ in April, and although he couldn't match that in the subsequent months, he still entered the All-Star Break with a .277/.366/.450 triple-slash and 127 wRC+ to his name. When he came back, though, things took a turn for the worse: Smith limped his way to a .202/.306/.361 line in the second half, good for a measly 85 wRC+.

Smith's decline in the later months of 2016 wasn't really because of plate discipline — while his strikeout rate rose from 19.4 percent to 21.8 percent, his walk rate also went up from 10.8 to 11.2 percent. He appeared to fall off thanks to his ISO, which sunk from .173 to .156, and his BABIP, which plummeted from .310 to .236. Without his power and average, no amount of plate discipline could save Smith.

Did Smith stand any chance of sustaining his first-half numbers, or was the decline destined to happen? His ground ball rate didn't change much from before the All-Star Break (48.1 percent) to afterward (47.7 percent), nor did he lose a great deal of hard contact (34.6 percent first half, 32.4 percent second half). But he did undergo a massive change in one regard: His popup rate doubled, from 2.8 percent to 5.4 percent after the Midsummer Classic. Infield fly balls almost always turn into outs, so that obviously put a damper on Smith's season.

Smith's second-half struggles were in large part unlucky. It's plausible he puts them behind him and returns to his first-half level of play, thus breaking out in 2017 (although we saw how well that thinking worked out in 2014). On the flipside, the popup problem could remain in place, which would continue to depress Smith's BABIP and ISO. The hard contact and ground ball consistency should help his cause, but if he can't hit his air balls out of the infield, he'll be stuck as a mediocre hitter.

His defense fell off a cliff in 2016.

From 2012 — his first year outside Colorado, which some evidence suggests may skew defensive metrics — to 2015, Smith compiled 2,794.1 innings in the outfield. In that time, he earned 6 Defensive Runs Saved and 6.2 Ultimate Zone Rating runs, which averaged out to 2.8 DRS/1300 and 2.9 UZR/1300 (about a full year's worth of innings). In other words, he was a modestly above-average corner outfielder, which coupled with his talent at the plate to make him a decent player.

That success didn't carry over into 2016, though. Last season, despite spending only 730.0 innings in the outfield, he cost the Mariners 7 DRS and 7.9 UZR, translating to 12.5 DRS/1300 and 14.1 UZR/1300. On a rate basis, Smith dropped off by more than a win and a half, which despite the small-sample caveats that come with defensive metrics is cause for concern.

How does FanGraphs' Inside Edge data appraise his decline? (As a primer: Inside Edge scouts put each play into one of six buckets, based on how often an average fielder would make it, then evaluate how often the defender in question succeeds on such plays. It's simpler than it sounds, trust me.) Let's look at his results from 2012 through 2015, and from 2016:

Year(s) 0%   1-10%     10-40%     40-60%     60-90%     90-100%  
  2012-15   0.0% 5.0% 16.7% 25.0% 92.0% 99.8%
2016   0.0%   0.0% 0.0% 12.5% 100.0% 99.3%

The plays in the 90-100 percent bucket — referred to as "routine" — make up the majority of all plays a fielder will encounter, so even the smallest change there can portend a larger shift in overall output. This might not be the case for Smith, though, as he failed to make just one of the 150 "routine" plays he faced last year.

Rather, the more difficult plays seem to have caused Smith's problems in 2016. He couldn't field anything in the 1-10 percent bucket ("remote") or the 10-40 percent bucket ("unlikely"), and his clip of 40-60 percent successes ("even") was cut in half. This trend points to an unsettling culprit: Father Time. Smith still knows how to position himself to handle the easy plays, but as he enters his mid-30s he may be losing the speed and instincts necessary for the tougher ones.

This may not be the sole cause. While Smith's generally kept himself healthy, he dealt with a groin injury earlier in the season, which might have hampered his performance in the outfield. Convalescing from that, with a full offseason to rest and rehab, might allow him to return to the field an above-average defender again. And, of course, this did all happen in a mere 730.0 innings; perhaps the Inside Edge scouts misjudged a few plays and screwed up Smith's numbers. From what we know about defensive aging curves, though, we shouldn't be too optimistic about Smith's glove going forward.

***

Let's wrap up with some glass-half-full analysis. Smith is a satisfactory outfielder: He can take a walk (and won't strike out too often), he hits righties well, and he might have some upside if he can rediscover his early-2016 magic, which will hopefully compensate for a possible defensive decline. With the $4 million they'll save this year, maybe the O's can bring in a fifth starter to shore up their rotation, or a right-handed outfielder to pair with Hyun Soo Kim. With just one trade, Dan Duquette partially filled a gaping hole on his roster and got rid of an albatross — I guess it was worth the wait.

05 January 2017

Baseball America Is Striking Out Ranking Pitching

Previously, I noted that Baseball America has volatile results when ranking pitching prospects. Baseball America had significant success from 2008-2011 while having other poor stretches earlier in its rankings days. Unfortunately, it appears their performance has regressed when ranking pitchers in the top ten.

From 2010-2016, Baseball America ranked 18 unique pitchers in the top ten of its rankings. The pitcher with the best performance so far is the deceased Jose Fernandez, although Julio Teheran and Gerrit Cole are likely to overtake him in future years. In addition, pitchers like Shelby Miller, Alex Reyes and Julio Urias have the potential to be great pitchers. Pitchers like Stephen Strasburg, Jeremy Hellickson, Yu Darvish and Arlodis Chapman provided decent value to their club while still being under team-control.



However, when we compare these results to the pitchers ranked in the top ten from 2000-2009, it is easy to see how this crop of pitchers falls short. There were six unique pitchers from 2000-2009 ranked in the top ten that contributed 25 or more wins of surplus value as a team controlled player. The only pitchers with remaining eligibility that have contributed more than ten wins of value are Julio Teheran and Gerrit Cole, both of which are unlikely to contribute even 20 wins of surplus value. If Jose Fernandez was able to stay healthy, then he probably would have reached the 25 wins of surplus value mark, but unfortunately that wasn’t meant to be. Baseball America will need to hope that its 2016 trio of starters, Julio Urias, Alex Reyes and Lucas Giolito, are more successful than the previous 15 starters. Yet, Giolito has already been traded by the Nationals suggesting they don’t think he’ll be successful.



Even more egregious, Baseball America was successful at ranking pitchers from 2010-2016 that were ultimately worth over 20 wins, but they failed to rank them as top ten pitchers. Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale were both ranked by Baseball America and were worth over 25 wins. However, both of these starters were ranked between 11 and 25th in 2010 and 2011 instead of top 10. In addition, with one year of eligibility remaining, Jake Arrieta was ranked between 51st and 100th in 2010 and has contributed 19.2 wins of surplus value. It’s likely that Arrieta will end up contributing roughly 25 wins of surplus value. This shows that there was a trio of pitchers from 2010-2016 that are likely to break at least 20 wins of surplus value, if not 25, but Baseball America failed to rank them in the top ten.



In addition, there are a lot of up and coming pitchers that are showing promise to break 20 wins that weren’t ranked in the top 10. Matt Harvey has barely thrown for more than 500 innings, but has still contributed 11.75 wins of surplus value and has two years of eligibility remaining. If he can stay healthy (a big if), then he’ll likely contribute more than 20 wins of surplus value. He was ranked between 51 and 100 by Baseball America, which makes him a big miss. It seems like Chris Archer has been around forever, but he still has three years of team-controlled eligibility remaining and has contributed over 10 wins of surplus value. With a team friendly contract, he has a strong chance of contributing more than 20 wins of surplus value as a team-controlled pitcher. He was ranked between 26 and 50 twice and between 51 and 100 once. Zach Britton may be a closer, but has still contributed over 9 wins of excess value and has two years of team-controlled eligibility remaining. He has a strong chance of contributing more than 10 wins of excess value and being a better value than nearly every single pitcher that Baseball America ranked in the top ten. Other starters like Sonny Gray, Aaron Sanchez, Jake Odorizzi, Noah Syndergaard, Yordano Ventura, Kevin Gausman, Michael Fulmer and Steven Matz are showing potential to contribute a considerable amount of excess value but weren’t ranked in the top 10 by Baseball America. There have been pitchers with strong potential to be great, but weren’t ranked highly enough by Baseball America.



Even worse than this is the number of top pitchers that weren’t ranked by Baseball America from 2010-2016 but started their careers during that period. Jose Quintana and Corey Kluber have two years each of team control remaining and have contributed 18.86 and 17.2 surplus value wins. They’re likely to have contributed at least 20 surplus value wins and maybe even 25 before all is said and done. Tanner Roark, Jacob DeGrom and Kyle Hendricks have each been worth more than 10 wins of surplus value. Roark has three years of team control remaining and the other two pitchers have four. These three pitchers are likely to contribute more than 20 surplus value wins and could get to the 25 mark. None of the three were ranked. Iwakuma, Keuchel, Miley, Lynn and Miguel Gonzalez have all contributed more than 10 wins of surplus value and have at least one year of team control remaining. Keuchel and Iwakuma are likely to contribute roughly 15 wins of surplus value.


From 2010-2016, there have been 76 pitchers that have contributed at least 5 surplus value wins to their clubs as team controlled players. Only 37 of these pitchers were ranked from 2010-2016. The ranked and unranked pitchers have contributed roughly the same amount of value so far. It will start to get ugly soon however. Only 3 pitchers out of the top 10 ranked pitchers still have eligibility remaining, Arrieta with one year and Teheran/Harvey with two years. All ten of the top unranked pitchers have eligibility remaining, and 6 of the 10 have more than one year remaining. Once that happens, the unranked pitchers will likely be much more valuable than the ranked pitchers.

More to the point, the top ten pitchers from 2010-2016 so far have probably been Bumgarner, Sale, Quintana, Kluber, Roark, Arrieta, Fernandez, Strasburg, DeGrom and Teheran. Only three of these pitchers were ranked in the top ten and only Teheran has a chance to stay in the top ten in a few years. Four of the ten were not ranked from 2010-2016. None of the top six were ever ranked in the top ten by Baseball America either. Pitchers like Keuchel, Hendricks, Cole and Archer are nearly in the top ten already and have multiple years to break into the top ten while Fernandez and Strasburg are out of eligibility. It’s very possible that only one pitcher ranked in the top ten by Baseball America from 2010-2016 will end up being one of the top ten pitchers that had their rookie year during that period.

Given a poor six year stretch of failing to rank the top pitching prospects in the top ten, it is highly likely that people using Baseball America to rate prospects will notice a problem around 2020. If they can't predict the top pitchers, then their rankings will lose significant value.

04 January 2017

Has Ubaldo Jimenez Always Struggled In The First Inning?

The calendar has now flipped to 2017, and the Orioles continue to bide their time with respect to offseason transactions. After several years into the Dan Duquette era, it’s something that is unsurprising, yet still frustrating. Without any news or even rumors of substance to inspire, expand on, or elaborate, relevant blog post topics can be in short supply*. So this week, I turned to the beat writers in an attempt to manufacture some inspirado and provide an idea to discuss as I arrived closer to my soft deadline to post an article.

*Note: This sentence was written before the news of the Jesus Montero signing

I found it when reading over Roch Kubatko’s Orioles New Year Resolution article, which ran Monday, as it contained a hypothetical resolution for Ubaldo Jimenez. As Kubatko points out, Jimenez had trouble being effective in the first inning of his starts in 2016. So I thought I would try to take the relatively simple route of trying to explore whether this has been a problem for him in the past, with the hope that it may help us frame expectations in 2017. This was put together pretty quickly, so it’s not very scientific (and possibly not even all that original), but who knows, it may be interesting. It’s not like there is a well of noteworthy Orioles news occurring at the moment.

As you can see from the table below (and from watching games), the first inning was extremely painful for Jimenez in 2016. The table also shows that the other innings were not all that great either.

2016 Performance of Ubaldo Jimenez in Inning 1 Compared to Innings 2-9 (click image to enlarge)

First off, it’s obvious that there are sample size issues here when comparing the two data sets because of their different sizes. I’m not going to do anything about it because this is just for fun. If you’re able to make it to the very last column in that table, you will have noticed that every metric in the first inning was notably much worse than innings 2 through 9 (except the GB/FB ratio, although more of those flyballs in the first inning were landing on the wrong side of the fence). How bad was Jimenez in the first inning? Every batter he faced was basically Mike Trout, but better (Jimenez 1st inning wOBA against of 0.428 is higher than Trout’s career wOBA of 0.409). Without digging down into the details, the poor guy even appeared to have worse luck in the first inning based on these numbers (look at that BABIP!).

Jimenez’s extremely poor performance in the first inning seems counterintuitive for two reasons. One, he has not started tiring yet, and two, opposing batters are seeing him for the first time (although this is just conjecture). Before we discuss this any further though, let’s move on and see if the rest of his career mirrors his 2016 performance.

Career Performance of Ubaldo Jimenez in Inning 1 Compared to Innings 2-9 (click image to enlarge)

Jimenez made his MLB debut in 2006, but he only faced a TOTAL of 30 batters, so I decided to exclude that data. There is a lot going on in that table, so let’s look at a figure that shows how his ERA and FIP compare to each other and change from the first inning compared to innings 2 through 9 over the different seasons of his career.

Click image to enlarge

That’s a little bit easier on the eyes (I think). Jimenez is all over the map here, showing some wild swings between performances in the first inning and the rest of the game throughout his career. And while the 2016 season took it to the extreme, there have been previous years where he’s had trouble at the beginning of the game, although his FIP in those years is either in sharp contrast to his ERA (2007 and 2009) or relatively stable (2012). Additionally, he’s had several other seasons where his production in the 1st inning compared to the others has not varied much.

The fact that Jimenez’s delivery is so complicated means he could require more time than a normal pitcher to find his mechanics and get settled in, but I’m not sure that alone can account for such a large difference in performance. The issues that Jimenez experienced in the first inning in 2016 were serious, but it was also just 24.1 innings. Additionally, he had a pretty big issue with innings 2-9 as well. Based on this limited (and unscientific) look, I don’t think there is strong evidence suggesting that Jimenez needs to specifically pitch better in the first inning compared to the others. He just needs to pitch better, period.