25 September 2017

What to Make of Gabriel Ynoa

Joe Reisel's Archives

While the play of Austin Hays and Chance Sisco have provided Orioles' fans some hope for the future, the past couple of Gabriel Ynoa's starts have also been positive. On September 15, at Yankee Stadium, Ynoa pitched 4 1/3 innings, giving up 3 runs (2 earned) - which doesn't seem all that impressive until you compare it to some of the other Orioles' starts in that series. And on September 21, Ynoa pitched eight innings against Tampa Bay and gave up only 1 run; an impressive outing by any standard.

People who follow the Norfolk Tides are quite likely stunned by Ynoa's performances, because Ynoa spent much of the 2017 season at Norfolk and, for much of the season, was on the pace for a memorable season. Unfortunately, it was going to be a memorably awful season, a season we share with interns when they note that a starting pitcher is having a bad year. (The gold standard for those seasons in the Orioles' Era is Brandon Erbe's 2010, in which he went 0-10 with a 5.73 ERA. In my first year as a Tides' datacaster, the Tides were still affiliated with the New York Mets, and Jason Scobie went 1-11, 7.91.) After Ynoa's July 7 start, his record was 1-8, 7.64; and I was wondering how Ynoa could have been a Top Ten prospect in the Mets' organization.

However, following his July 7 start - which was his last AAA start before the all-star break, for what that's worth - Ynoa pitched much better. He went 5-1, 2.87; which was enough to bring his final season line to 6-9, 5.25. That's not a good year by any means, but it's not memorably awful. This saga, and his late-season major-league performance, brings up several questions, the biggest one being "Can Gabriel Ynoa be a useful starting pitcher for the Orioles in 2018?"

Of the 45 Tides games I saw in 2017, Gabriel Ynoa was the starting pitcher in six - four in his "bad" first part and two in his "good" second part. In the rest of this article, I will look at some of the details of those six starts.

First, the basic "box score" pitching lines:

Date
Opp
IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
BFP
Apr 29
Syracuse
6 1/3
6
2
2
1
4
25
May 31
Pawtucket
4 1/3
7
3
3
0
2
20
Jun 27
Louisville
3 2/3
5
5
5
2
2
18
Jul 2
Durham
6 2/3
7
6
4
2
3
27
Jul 28
Columbus
6 2/3
8
5
5
0
4
28
Aug 19
Toledo
7
5
3
3
0
5
26

All of the column headers should be self-explanatory except the last, which is "Batters Faced Pitcher" - the number of batters he faced. The April 29 start was his only good start before the all-star break, and the July 28 start was really his only bad start after the all-star break. The two most interesting things are (1) he had good control with only five walks in these six starts and (2) when he pitched well, he was able to work into the seventh inning and go through the lineup three times with consistency. The Tides rarely let a starting pitcher throw 100 pitches, and Ynoa threw that many pitches only in the April 29 start. So, when Ynoa's pitching well, he's efficient.

Next, I'll take a look at the results of the plate appearances against Ynoa. I don't differentiate between batters reaching base and batters being retired on batted balls here. Also, there are a couple of bunt ground balls that I arbitrarily lumped in with other ground balls, and the distinction between "fly balls" and "line drives" is somewhat arbitrary.

Date
Ground
Ball
Line
Drive
Fly
Ball
Walk
Strikeout
Apr 24
6
4
10
1
4
May 31
11
2
5
0
2
Jun 27
6
2
6
2
2
Jul 2
8
4
12
2
3
Jul 28
11
1
12
0
4
Aug 19
6
3
12
0
5

We can see that Ynoa is not a ground-ball pitcher; more balls are are hit in the air than on the ground. To the extent that we can draw any conclusions from six starts, it appears that he might be more effective when balls are hit in the air than on the ground. That works well in Harbor Park with its expansive power alleys, but may be less likely to work in Camden Yards.

Finally, I'll look at Ynoa's pitch results:

Date
Ball
Called
Strike
Swinging
Strike
Foul
In Play
Apr 24
37
19
9
15
20
May 31
21
14
5
11
18
Jun 27
25
14
5
22
14
Jul 2
31
17
7
12
25
Jul 28
32
17
8
16
24
Aug 19
27
14
16
10
22

The striking thing here is that, with the exception of August 19, Ynoa got few swinging strikes and many foul balls. This is consistent with his reputation as a pitcher with okay but not great stuff. Batters are able to make contact with his pitches, even if by fouling them off. But, on the other hand, as we noted above, he's able to go deep into games with fewer than 100 pitches. Give that, he's unlikely that the batters are fouling off good pitches, lengthening at-bats and running up pitch counts. Rather, it appears that Ynoa is pitching to contact, relying on his defense to get outs.

It's almost impossible for Ynoa to be as bad as he was in the first half of 2017. From 2012 through 2016, Baseball America ranked Ynoa among the top 20 prospects in the Mets' organization. That's more in line with his post All-Star break performance. If we assume that his first half was the aberration, then Gabriel Ynoa would be reasonable candidate for a fifth starter job. He's got a chance to hold that job, but he'd have to pitch well our of the gate and it's rare for pitchers like him to do so.


21 September 2017

An Appreciation Of J.J. Hardy

Before the Orioles acquired J.J. Hardy at the end of 2010, they had struggled mightily for a few years to find even a decent replacement at shortstop for the departed Miguel Tejada. After being traded before the 2008 season, Tejada returned to the Orioles in 2010 to play third base (pretty poorly) before he was dealt once again, this time to the Padres at the trade deadline. Tejada even signed with the Orioles one more time, in 2012, but he was never promoted to the majors and was released a few months later.

But this post isn't about Miguel Tejada. It's about Hardy. In the three seasons before Hardy arrived (2008-2010), the Orioles assembled the worst group of shortstops in all of baseball. By FanGraphs' version of WAR, the Mariners had the second-worst production from their shortstops in that span (-1.3). The Orioles, at -4.5, were more than three wins worse. (Baseball-Reference had the O's not quite as terrible, at -2.4 WAR over that span.) The list of nine shortstops during that run was, let's say, uninspiring: Robert Andino, Cesar Izturis (the best of the group), Luis Hernandez, Eider Torres, Julio Lugo, Alex Cintron, Brandon Fahey, Freddie Bynum, and Juan Castro. Some of those men could field well; none of them were very good hitters.

For whatever reason, the Twins wanted to move on from Hardy and the one year of arbitration left on his contract after the 2010 season. Andy MacPhail, then-president of baseball operations, took advantage, shipping Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey to the Twins in exchange for Hardy and Brendan Harris.

That season, Hardy posted one of his best offensive campaigns (113 wRC+) en route to a 4+ WAR season (by both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference). But before that season had even ended, the O's signed Hardy to a relatively rare in-season extension in July. The deal was for three years and $22.25 million, and Hardy easily surpassed that value over the next few seasons (9 fWAR combined from 2012-2014).

The Orioles and Hardy weren't about to part ways yet. Right before the team's 2014 ALCS matchup against the Royals, Hardy signed another three-year extension, for $40 million (and a vesting option for 2018). This time, though, things didn't go nearly as well. After carrying such a huge workload the past few seasons - and in 2012 and 2013 in particular, when he played in 158 and 159 games, respectively - Hardy both struggled to stay healthy and produce at the plate.

He spent the first month of the 2015 season on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder, and he went on to post a career low (until this season) 51 wRC+. He maintained a solid glove, though, and bounced back at the plate next season (89 wRC+). He missed another month-plus during 2016 with a fractured left foot. In the meantime, back issues continued to plague him. Before the 2017 season started, he talked openly about his back pain and inability at times to find relief. Then, after getting off to an extremely slow start at the plate, he broke his right wrist in mid-June.

Obviously it was a shame to see Hardy get injured again. But in a sad way it was also a relief, because while there weren't many good options to replace him, there was also a reasonable case for Hardy shifting to the bench more often. The injury allowed the Orioles to avoid a major decision, and they may have even acquired their starting shortstop for the next few seasons.

The door is almost closed on Hardy's time in Baltimore, but he should always be recognized as one of the players who helped the Orioles in their return quest to relevancy. Besides his quality play for a number of years, the notoriously slow-footed Hardy also scored the winning run in the most exciting, feel-good postseason moment of the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette era:



Listen to that crowd. Hardy didn't go out on top with the Orioles, as few rarely do. Hopefully his playing career isn't over, but even if it is, he helped to give many fans some wonderful memories. Whether that's a moral victory or not, it still matters.

20 September 2017

The Real Tim Beckham


Tim Beckham, Photo via Keith Allison

Not to go all Charles Barkley on you, but just exactly who IS Tim Beckham? Post-hype sleeper breakout guy? Adequate big league shortstop? A guy who got hot for a month and is still the big draft bust he always was? The man who will play shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles in 2018? I think we can be somewhat safe in assuming that he is, at the least, probably that last one. The rest is a bit murkier, as is often the case with players like Tim Beckham.

Beckham was drafted number 1 in the 2008 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, ahead of future MVP Buster Posey and future All Stars like Eric Hosmer and Gerrit Cole. Beckham was seen as an elite level athlete and was ranked as the number three prospect in the draft by Baseball America (who also ranked Pedro Alvarez and Brian Matusz one and two, so take that for what it's worth) , and as such it's not like the Rays went way out on a limb. Beckham projected as a five tool star in the big leagues, and given his age and position, the Rays made an easily defensible decision.

Fast forward to mid-2017, though, and the bloom was certainly off Beckham's rose. While he had finally become Tampa's starting shortstop and put up decent numbers in 2016, apparent attitude problems and other issues led the Rays to trade for Adeiny Hechevarria and thus to look to deal their former number 1 pick. Enter the Orioles, who saw J.J. Hardy's time in Baltimore running out and were in need of an upgrade at short to pursue their short lived playoff hopes. The Birds acquired Beckham at the trade deadline, and he immediately became Babe Ruth. In 132 plate appearances in August, Beckham hit a ridiculous .394/.417/.646 with 50 hits (second most hits in a month ever by an Oriole) and 6 homers, en route to nearly winning AL Player of the Month. This, it seemed, was the guy everyone had been waiting for. Matt Cassidy wrote a post looking at a possible extension and/or trade for Beckham in the off season, and he argued that while Beckham probably wasn't as good as he had shown in August, he also wasn't likely to totally crash and burn and that a long term deal could work out for both sides.

As Matt predicted, Beckham wasn't actually a .400+ hitter. Unfortunately, he's done worse than simply regress back to his career norms. Through September 18, Beckham was hitting just .183/.266/.394 in September with 4 homers. His defense has also left something to be desired, despite grading out fairly well in advanced metrics, committing 9 errors in a month and a half.

So, is this a slump or something more? Well, here's a few metrics for August and September. Try to figure out which month is the slump!

Month K% BB% LD% FB% Hard Hit % HR/FB
A 26.6 10.1 14.6 31.3 34 26.7
B 18.9 2.3 20.6 33.3 34.3 17.6

Kinda hard, right? In general, the numbers look pretty similar. What would explain the huge difference...oh, right, maybe BABIP.

Month K% BB% LD% FB% Hard Hit % HR/FB BABIP
A 26.6 10.1 14.6 31.3 34 26.7 .196
B 18.9 2.3 20.6 33.3 34.3 17.6 .458

Obviously, month A is September and month B is August, but the biggest difference between the two months is that Beckham hit 250 points higher on balls in play in August than September. Now, he did have a higher line drive rate and lower K rate in August, but he has walked much more in September and has hit the ball just as hard. Now, we could look at this a few different ways. Either he got lucky in August, he got unlucky in September, or neither month is his true talent level. I'm gonna go with door number 3, here.

Beckham may very well be a late bloomer, but it was always very unlikely that he all of a sudden figured it all out and was becoming a superstar. By the same token, he certainly isn't the Paul Janish-esque player he's been so far in September. Beckham's 2016 numbers seem to a good approximation of his truth as a player: low walk, high K guy with some pop who can run a bit and hit the ball hard enough to put up an above average BABIP. Even in the September slump, the power he flashed in August has been maintained, and it's not at all unreasonable to view him as a 20-25 homer bat in a full season. With slightly more solid defense, that's a very valuable player.

It seems very likely that Beckham will be the starting shortstop for the O's in 2018. He's entering his first year of arbitration, but given that he has only had one full MLB season of at-bats, he will probably not be in line for a huge salary increase. Under those parameters, Beckham could be a very valuable player next season. A 2-3 win shortstop on a low money deal and under control through 2020 is a fine thing even if he isn't establishing himself as the player the Rays thought they were getting in 2008. It's not clear if the Orioles should invest real money in him or simply ride out his arbitration years, but it is clear that that the real Tim Beckham probably isn't a superstar. He might, however, be the shortstop of the future in Baltimore.


18 September 2017

Coming to the Defense of Jeremy Hellickson (Sort Of)

Jeremy Hellickson
(photo via Keith Allison)
The Orioles traded for Jeremy Hellickson on July 28 for Garrett Cleavenger, Hyun-soo Kim and international bonus money. Depending on how high you value that international bonus money (and Hyun-soo Kim for that matter), the addition of Hellickson did not cost the Orioles much in return. This is true especially when considering the Orioles wouldn’t have done anything with the international money anyway (the same can be said for Kim, with respect to his playing time). We’ve discussed before that while it did seem odd that the Orioles were adding pitching at a deadline where they should have been selling, it was a defensible move given that the Orioles needed innings from their starters to get through the 2017 season. Hellickson, whose durability is one of his better assets as a pitcher, fit that requirement at a minimal price.

No one expected the acquisition of Hellickson to realistically help the Orioles make the playoffs (despite such statements from the front office), but Hellickson’s performance has fallen well short of even minimal expectations. Since his arrival, he’s been…bad. He has a 7.29 ERA, a 6.57 FIP, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 27/16 (1.69) in 45.2 innings pitched. Amazingly, he’s done all this with a BABIP of .228. He’s even failed to provide the beleaguered Baltimore rotation with innings, as his 45.2 have come in 9 games started, which means he’s barely been giving more than 5 innings per start.

Where Hellickson has really gotten hurt is from the home run. He’s given up 12 since joining the Orioles, which is actually kind of impressive (his HR/9 is higher than both Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, no small feat). Hellickson’s tendency to give up home runs is not really a secret. Outside of an injury shortened 2014 with the Rays where it was 9.6%, his HR/FB ratio hasn’t been under 10% since 2011. It’s currently at 16.2% with the Orioles (15.0% for the 2017 season), the highest of his career. To make matters worse, Hellickson (who has never been a groundball pitcher) is allowing more balls to be hit in the air than ever. During his time with the Orioles, his groundball rate sits at 33%. The league AVERAGE for starting pitchers in 2017 is 44.0%. It would be easy to point at Hellickson’s profile as a fly ball pitcher not faring well in a hitter friendly ballpark like Camden Yards, however, he’s coming from 1.5 seasons in hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park, which has profiled as a much better place for home runs over the past two seasons.

Is it possible that Hellickson’s been a little unlucky? It’s certainly a difficult argument to make considering just how bad he’s been. The first thing that jumps out is his left on base percentage, which currently sits at 49.8% during his time with Baltimore. This is well below his career mark of 73.7% and the 2017 league average at 72.6%. Additionally, his contact profile during his time with the Orioles doesn’t look much different than previously, and actually looks slightly better than his career levels, with an increase in soft contact by almost 6.5%.

Of course, those two data points probably aren’t enough, and you can’t deny the absurd number of home runs that Hellickson has given up since August. While certain pitchers are definitely more homer prone than others, a HR/FB ratio from major league pitchers will generally regress towards the mean eventually. Not only that, but I would argue that Hellickson has suffered a little bit of bad luck on the timing of those home runs as well. Of the 12 home runs he’s given up as an Oriole, only 5 of them have come with the bases empty. Of the remaining seven, 4 have come with one man on and 3 home runs have come with 2 men on. Add it up and 23 of the 40 runs he’s given up have come via home runs (58%), which again, is kind of incredible. Compare that to his career home run numbers prior to joining the Orioles. Only about a third of the home runs he gave up (49 of 151) were with men on, while the percentage of runs he allowed via the home run was at 43%.

Furthermore, the location of pitches allowed for multi-run home runs looks to be pretty good overall. Below is a sequence of images that shows the pitch location for each of the 12 home runs he’s allowed as an Oriole. The first shows with the bases empty, the second with one man on base, and the third with 2 men on base.


As you can see, the pitches with the bases empty (all fastballs or cutters) are not located well. However, the pitch locations with men on base are mostly on the edge or off the plate. The highlighted pitch below (a hanging curve ball to Albert Pujols), is the only really terrible pitch near the edge of the zone. The other pitches that resulted in a home run with men on base look to be well located, and the result can likely be chalked up to bad luck, good hitting, or both. Of course, there is an argument one can probably make that the quality of Hellickson’s pitches (or lack thereof) allowed the hitters to get to some of those pitches, decreasing the amount of “luck” involved here.


Overall, the Orioles’ acquisition of Hellickson has not provided the quality or (maybe more importantly) the quantity of innings that the front office or fans had hoped for. However, it’s not something to get too worked up about. Baltimore did not give up much to get him, and despite a nice little run by the team following the trade deadline that kept them in contention of the second wild card spot, the Orioles have not been serious contenders since the middle of the summer. There is no denying that Jeremy Hellickson has not been good while wearing an Orioles uniform, but he’s also been a little unlucky. Sometimes both can happen when you’re dealing with a small sample size, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.