A growing conversation in the past few weeks has been about the Orioles' catching position. It was thought this year was going to be a lost year and that catcher wouldn't be a major consideration (or shortstop for that matter) even in light of a horrific offensive showing. The two Orioles on the major league squad manning the position are Ramon Hernandez and Guillermo Quiroz. The guy most talked about replacing these folks is last year's 1st round pick, Matt Weiters.
Ramon Hernandez is an injured and undependable catcher. His inability to block pitches and react to poorly located balls often gives spectators the idea that he is nonchalant in his work. That really is far from the truth, but it seems to make people feel better if they can turn physical limitations into mental ones. People can be blamed more for the latter. What I think we are observing is the physical decline of Hernandez. We signed him at age 30, which is old for a catcher. Particularly, for a catcher's defense. Age usually results in more injuries and four out of his past five years have been involved at least one major injury that sidelined him. Of course, we signed him less for being a better defensive option that the old and fading Javy Lopes (and Ramon was better defensively than Javy), but also because Ramon was an above average offensive catcher. His first season he was well above average (an OPS of 90 is average for a catcher), he second year was average, and this current one has been poor. I fear that this might be Ramon's last multiyear contract. I think it is likely that he does not rebound offensively or defensively . . . and a catcher with poor motor response who cannot hit is only worth so much. He does seem to be pulling the ball more than he has in years past. I wonder if he is cheating on fastballs.
Quiroz was a highly touted prospect in the Blue Jays system. Well, not at first. He was signed as a 17yo international free agent. His defense was excellent and much of his minor league career he average about 0.12 PB/9. That is outstanding. His 4th season he was promoted to HiA and began to display some power as he jumped from 21 to 41 extra base hits. The following season at AA, he broke out with 890 OPS (he was 21yo). He tried to play through a collapsed lung, but had to be shut down as he could no longer run. As he progressed, he began to lose the plate discipline he showed in AA and his defense started to erode. Part of that was blamed on a broken hand. Baltimore is now his fourth organization and his future does not look much brighter than being a backup catcher. He still flashes power and could be something if his contact rate improves, but he has shown to be a target for opposing base stealers to take advantage of. He will probably turn out to be slightly better than Geronimo Gil (how did that guy ever get to start?). He is fine as a backup, but nothing more.
Weiters was the 5th overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft. He fell that far because of fears of Boras' demands. Weiters proved difficult to sign, but right before the deadline his father called Peter Angelos and was able to get the ball rolling. He didn't play short season last year, but was impressive in Hawaii*. This year he was slotted in to the lineup in Frederick where he has proceeded to deliver a 333/421/582 line, which is a 136 OPS+ for the Carolina League. His equivalent line in the majors would be 258/319/426, which is a 102 OPS+. Right now, Wieters is an above average offensive catcher. Right now, his defense is probably on par with Ramon and maybe on par with Quiroz. Right now, Weiters is the best catcher in the organization. That is a problem.
There are a few reasons for keeping Weiters in the minors. First, he may have holes in his offensive game that will be easier to work on in the minors than in the majors where the quality and placement of pitchers is significantly better (remember Weiters is in HiA ball). Second, Weiters also will have to learn at the MLB level how to call a game, which probably takes some time. Third, this will be Weiters longest and most grueling season ever. To add the physical strain of being a catcher to the mental strain of adjusting to the MLB game . . . it is asking a lot.
Weiters probably develops just as well in HiA. In another month, promote him to Bowie and let him ride the year out there. His bat is looking good enough that I would start eyeing another position for him to play when he gets to be an amazing hitter and a poor catcher (around age 27 or 28). Ramon needs to go. If his value can rise high enough, send him off this summer. If not, try to package him this winter. The problem with this winter is that there are a few guys like Hernandez out there who will take 1 year deals for significant less money (Barajas, Estrada, Barrett, Irod, LoDuca). Last offseason would have been better. We may not be regretting the loss of Lastings Milledge, but I imagine we could have gotten something in exchange for salary relief and similar production from some other retread catcher.
I have thought of him as a catcher until about a month ago. His hitting is just unbelievable. He could be a truly special player at several positions. I would start him out in the majors as a catcher, but would give him some looks at other positions when he felt more comfortable. That being said, if Tim Beckham or Pedro Alvarez is not available . . . Posey would be a nice acquisition with the 4th pick in the draft. Posey would be MLB ready about the time it would be a good idea to shift Wieters to another position.
15 May 2008
14 May 2008
Posted by Jon Shepherd at 07:33
Daniel Cabrera pitches tonight against the typically patient and talented Red Sox offense. He has been able to string together six seemingly good games in a row. Several of his game scores were not impressive during this period as three were in the 50s. This helps give the impression that he has changed and is a much better pitcher. In fact, quotes are beginning to be dug up by unnamed scouts declaring the Cabrera has turned the corner and is now a legitimately fulfilled talent. Now, he might be. He might actually be a very good pitcher now. He certainly is throwing differently as in he has really imploded in any start this year other than his first. He has certainly comes close several times during this stretch though. I mentioned in a previous post how his peripheral numbers do not make any sense and that he is more truly a 3 or 4 and not an ace as his current ERA suggests. Today we are going to look more into his batted ball data.
I have taken his batted ball data from baseball reference and normalized it to the 2007 AL batted ball data. As you may realize, changes in batted ball data can be explained by: 1) changed pitch run (this is quite rare for an established pitcher to drastically change how his pitches run to the point that his batted ball data would also change dramatically), 2) improved defense (this can greatly improve or hinder BABIP, but typically teams do not make wholesale changes in defense from year to year), and 3) pure luck (batted balls are typically not uniform in their dispersion over the course of partial seasons and sometimes full seasons). Using that base knowledge, we are able to discern potential discrepancies in Cabrera's batted ball data.
Infield and Outfield - BABIP of balls hit to these respective areas
BABIP - Overall batting average of balls in play
First, Middle, and Third - BABIP of balls hit to these areas of the field, including the outfield
GB, FB, LD - BABIP of balls classified as groundballs, fly balls, and line drives.
When you look at a graph like this, you look for extreme differences. A difference of about 20% is a good rule of thumb for identifying extremes. Using that as a benchmark we have these weird BABIPs: overall BABIP, infield, third, middle, groundballs, and line drives. It is good to categorize the data because it can give us better ways to identify what is going on here. BABIP alone shows that something weird is going on, but the rest of the data suggests why.
Fielding cannot really be relied on as having changed. Much of the difference looks like it applies to groundballs going up the middle and to the right as well as line drives in the same area. The only difference in the infield is Luis Hernandez and he got benched because of poor defense. There are seems to be little reason to think that Brian Roberts or Melvin Mora have been significantly better at what they do this year. In the outfield, we have Adam Jones and Luke Scott. I think we can say Luke Scott improved our defense. I also think Adam Jones is better than Corey Patterson. I also think the differences between this year and last is just not enough to explain the differences. What is telling is that difference in line drive percentage. You can explain away grounders by suggesting Cabrera is inducing weak groundballs, which is plausible (though I doubt with his repertoire of four seamers--it should be noted that althought I see little difference between pitch quality this year and last beyond placement . . . I could certainly be wrong about the quality of his stuff compared to last year). You really can't explain his dramatic difference in line drives. Line drive success has little to do with good defense and more to do with simple luck. Not only is his line drive percentage unsustainably depressed . . . the line drives that are actually hit off him are going straight to his defenders at an unsustainable rate. Add this to my doubts about the groundballs being more effectively covered and you have a guy who is ripe for a downturn in success.
I will be bold and predict that Cabrera has trouble tonight. Some people will point to his 116 pitches in his last outing. Others will just say he is no good. Or maybe he will balance a dozen plates and toss 8 innings and give up a run or two. My guess though is that he will eventually drop down to about an era in the high 4s by the end of the season. He has been lucky avoiding baserunners and getting out of jams. His LOB% is about 10% above where it should be. His K/BB is 1 when people are on base, which is a third worse than league average. There just isn't much to like with him going up against a team with the 3rd most walks, best obp, and the best slg in the AL. Anyway, cross your fingers
13 May 2008
Posted by Jon Shepherd at 09:33
I have added a new feature to this weekly column: the Pythagorean Expected Wins. This method is often scrutinized, so I felt it would be interesting to throw it up there and see how it responds throughout the season. This method will not predict playoff chances. I have also narrowed the viewable field. I will continue to do this as the season goes on in order for us to more easily discern the differences between the methods presented.
PECOTA has downgraded the Orioles' chances from 1:176 to 1:205. ELO has actually upgraded us from 1:16 to 1:15.
PECOTA has downgraded the Orioles' chances from 1:176 to 1:205. ELO has actually upgraded us from 1:16 to 1:15.
12 May 2008
Posted by Jon Shepherd at 11:45
One topic that comes up time and time again is how strong and durable pitchers used to be. Gone are the days where a pitcher would finish half the games he started. Gone are the days that no one needed a LOOGY. These are things we often lament. Right in hand with that lamenting is a palpable anger toward today's pampered pitchers. These guys are given strict pitch counts in the minors right into the majors. Gone too are the days when it was common to hear about some obscure prospect in PCL who threw 255 pitches in a single game that lasted 18 innings. It just isn't done.
So . . . why?
The first culprit is money. In 1976, the Reserve Clause was shot down. This enabled free agency and it changed the way a lot of different aspects in baseball were handled. In terms of pitching, it affected a few things. First off, it increased the value of pitching. Not only did the current game or season matter, but also seasons down the road. You had to invest a significant amount of money into a pitcher and you would not want to take a loss on it. This may have been the main pushing force of the five man rotation. Although, the five man rotation was not unheard of before the ruling, it quickly became the norm after it. Of course, as you may remember, the Orioles switched to the five man rotation in 1983 when Joe Altobelli took over.
Now, what the five man rotation does is give the pitcher more time off between starts for rest. The idea behind this is that pitching is a violent action. It is also not a very normal way to use your body. Quite unnatural. It follows reason that chronic repetition would result in physical damage. More time off between starts should equate to allowing the body to recuperate. Others argue against this though because it results in an uneven workout schedule. In the 4 man rotation, you would take a day off, throw a side session, then take a day off between starts. There is really little reason to think an uneven schedule hurts performance for any athlete that is not obsessive compulsive about such things. In my opinion, the value of a 5 man rotation is only a plus if the amount of strain forced on a pitcher requires an extra day of rest. It should also be expressed that not all arms are alike.
After the five man rotation was cemented in, pitch counts started popping up on the horizon. As far as I can tell, concern about pitch counts emerged in the late 80s and early 90s as drafted pitching prospects began making serious mint. The philosophy seeped into the majors in order to help preserve oft-injured pitchers (i.e. Saberhagen) or with fresh faces (i.e. Josh Beckett). The number typically chosen is 100. The PAP system goes with that. Top tier pitchers usually throw about 100 pitches per game. Even guys who claim not to use counts (i.e. Oziie Guillien) still seem to have pitchers that hover around the 100 mark.
That is the weird thing. Coaches who believe in pitch counts and those who don't . . . they do not vary much in terms of when a pitcher should be taken out. Again, this is now a bright line criteria. There is variation from arm to arm, some seem to be able to handle more and some less. This is pretty much regardless of coach. It seems that either no one uses pitch counts or that pitch counts just don't vary from normal performance measures.
This got me to wonder some things:
1. Training and development is better now than it was in the past
2. Players are more athletic and stronger now than they were
3. Pitching, which is more reliant on tendons and ligaments, has less potential to benefit from improvements in other areas of training and sport medicine. For instance, you can strengthen a pitcher's legs, but you cannot strengthen his tendons and ligaments to withstand a higher degree of torque.
As technology and knowledge increases, so does the player's ability to perform, which is most likely to benefit a hitter more so than a pitcher due to the physical limitations placed on each activity.
That reminded me of this study. Read it. Seriously, read it. Good stuff. It is not perfect, but it provides a great approximation of how developed talent has increased over the years. Some interesting things pop out in that study. The ten best hitters ever in order from best to worst:
Bonds, Ted Williams, Aaron, Musial, Mays, Frank Robinson, Yaz, Ricky Henderson, Cobb, and Mantle.
Honestly, it makes sense. People often overlook how good guys like Ricky and Musial were. It is also interesting to think that Ted Williams would still kill in today's game.
Anyway, if players have gotten better . . . wouldn't pitching have gotten tougher if you assume that hitters will benefit more due to not being so reliant on tendons and ligaments? To this extent, we can use league quality as a coefficient to determine how today's pitching load per start compares to other eras. For this napkin scratching effort I am considering all starting pitching data in the AL from 1969 to 2007. I am predicting pitch counts based on the method I previously used. I am also normalizing the pitch counts based on the competition level of the league, taken from this graph.
The black line is raw SP Pitches per Game and the orange line is league quality adjusted SP Pitches per Game.
What is interesting to note here is that as pitch counts are reduced, the league quality coefficient somewhat accounts for it. This suggests that league quality is causing a decrease in pitching counts. Others have countered that it might just be a relationship with runs per game. So, I ran another one with runs per game and as you can see there is much more variability in the runs per game adjusted line (black) and the league quality adjusted.
League quality appears to be affecting the number of pitches a SP throws. This suggests that pitch counts are either not followed or are more complex than a single line. It appears as if pitchers are being used quite similarly to how they were back in the 70s even though IP/G has dropped from 6.2 in 1973 to almost 5.2 in 2007.