22 October 2012

2012 Orioles Retrospective: Mark Reynolds

Mark Reynolds did not have a particularly good 2011. Though he hit pretty well, his atrocious defense at third-base ate into his value enough that he ended up being only barely above replacement level. With a dearth of good options coming into this season though, Reynolds was sent right back out to the hot corner. 6 errors in 15 games quickly put that effort to an end; especially since he wasn't making up for his lead glove with his bat (just .143/.260/.206 in April, as he K'ed a ton and hit for no power).

Things started to turn around after that - Reynolds hit .308/.457/.654 in the first couple weeks of May - but a strained oblique landed him on the DL. He came back striking out less (and thus hitting for a somewhat higher average), but the power was still lacking. At the trade deadline, Mark Reynolds - who had hit 44, 32, and 37 homers the previous three years - had just 8 longballs in 79 games and was slugging .367.

From August 6th to September 8th though, Reynolds went on an absolute tear; .320/.431/.773. He homered 3 times in 3 games (twice in the opener) in Boston as the O's won a par. He went to New York and had a two home run game leading to a W, and then did it a again two days later. The Birds went up to Toronto, and we went deep twice more (the O's again took two of three on the road). Then the Yankees came to Baltimore on September 6th (Cal Ripken Jr. Statue Day), and Reynolds hit two home runs again. He added another round-tripper in the third game of that series. 29 games. 13 home runs.

Reynolds fell into a slump again to end the season, and continued it into the playoffs where he struck out 10 times in 25 plate appearances with just 3 hits (all singles) and a walk. Still, that one hot streak was enough to push his season batting line to an above average .221/.335/.429. He struck out less frequently than he ever had before, in (a still high) 29.6% of his times to the dish. He had the best season of his career when it came to working walks, drawing a free pass in over 13% of his plate appearances (excluding intentional walks).

It was pretty much just the power-outage that hurt him. Perhaps Reynolds had re-worked his swing or something, since his line-drive rate (according to FanGraphs) went way up - from just over 13% in the past two seasons (pretty low) to over 20% (a career high) - while his flyball rate was a career low. Fewer flyballs means that even a small drop in power would lead to a more substantial drop on home run production, and Reynolds HR/FB rate was his lowest since his rookie season (though 18% is still pretty good).

One would think that hitting more line-drives could drive up a player's batting average, and though he hit just .221 Reynolds did have his highest BABIP since 2009 at .282 (was ~.260 the last couple seasons). Trading some strike-outs for singles is good, but trading some strike-outs and some home runs for singles isn't especially helpful. Still, at least he made his home runs count; 6 came against the Yankees and 7 against the Red Sox, of his 23 total.

On the other side of the ball, things were perhaps a little more ambiguously interesting. Reynolds shifted across the diamond to first-base, and people began to talk about him being a Gold Glove caliber player over there. It strikes me now that perhaps this is no dissimilar to the story from Moneyball where - in an effort to bolster Scott Hatteberg's confidence as he transitioned to first - he was repeatedly told that he was a "pickin' machine".

Reynolds posted a -3 UZR at first-base this year - better than his -5 at third (in only 15 games!), but still below average. It seems like he often makes plays that look like they're hard, but they only appear hard because he had a tough time with them. The fall-down stretch at first can be a display of coordination and athleticism, or it could be the mark of a guy isn't the best at making a regular stretch (or both). The many sliding stops seem good, but they often just display a lack of range. The numbers didn't get better as the year went on, either, but that gets into some small (or, one should say, even smaller) sample sizes. Plus, when you account for the positional adjustment (allowing for first-base being easier to play than third), Reynolds had the second worst defensive season of his career.

Sure the metrics aren't exact, but all the ones I've looked at are in agreement that he's not a good first-baseman. "Fall-down" range at third-base isn't going to translate into excellent first-base play all that often. Maybe if he keeps working at it he can be adequate over there, but a Mark Reynolds who isn't hitting 30-35 home runs just isn't a useful player for a team looking to be at all competitive (and, perhaps at this point in his career, not even for a team that isn't). Given that, I'm not sure it's really worth bringing him back for 2013, despite his desire to return. Maybe a really cheap contract (definitely not his $11 M option), while not counting on him to start every day. Perhaps even in a platoon role to compliment Chris Davis and Wilson Betemit, as Reynolds has a career 123 wRC+ versus lefties (105 versus righties). That's a lot of all-hit no-field guys to keep on the roster though.

In any case, it was always enjoyable seeing Mark Reynolds hit those long home runs while in an Orioles uniform. The Sheriff of Swatingham indeed.

21 October 2012

Sunday Comics: The Janitor

So you know how Jim Johnson's picked up the nickname 'The Janitor' for cleaning things up in the 9th so often and so well this past season?

...I did this.

Considering that just the other day I drew Buster Posey as Captain America, I guess I've got a nickname theme going here.

19 October 2012

2012 Orioles Retrospective: Jason Hammel

When Dan Duquette traded Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom, a lot of Orioles fans were not particularly pleased. "Guthrie's the team's only real starter." "He's the O's #1 guy." And so on. Hammel didn't do much of anything in Tampa Bay, and then followed up two solid seasons in Colorado with a down year in 2011. I thought that Guthrie and Hammel could be expected to be about equally good in 2012, but that Hammel had a better chance of providing the O's with above average production. And I still ended up underestimating Jason Hammel. Boy what a difference one pitch can make.

Hammel added heavy use of a two-seam fastball to his repertoire in 2012, and it proved quite effective. Always a pitcher who could get a few groundballs, he became one of the best in the league at it (his 53.2% groundball rate was 9th in the AL amongst pitchers with at least 100 IP). That improvement allowed Hammel to post the lowest home run rate of his career (0.7 HR/9). When he had gotten groundballs in the past, it was usually with his off-speed stuff. This year though, it was with that sinker; almost 60% of the time that that pitch was put into play, it was on the ground.

Normally there might be some sort of trade-off keeping the ball on the ground and getting strike-outs, but not only did Hammel keep the ball in the yard but he also set a career high by striking out 8.6 batters per nine. After being around 7 K/9 in 2009-2010, that fell off to just under 5 K/9 in 2011 - so seeing a rebound (and then some) was hugely encouraging. Let's compare the whiff rate on his various pitches from this season to that 2009-2010 stretch, which was his previous best:

Year Fastball Slider Curve Change-up
'09-'10 10% 25% 37% 28%
2012 17% 38% 43% 19%

The "fastball" combines the two-seamer with the four-seamer. Breaking them out for 2012 it's 15% and 20%, respectively. As primarily a fastball-slider guy, it's easy to see why Hammel's strike-out rate jumped so much - he started missing way more bats. The sinker and the slider tend to work well together, and he started going to the slider more often this year as he added the sinker - from ~17% of his offerings to over 22%.

Hammel velocity also improved; the 93.5 mph that his fastballs (both similarly) averaged this year was a career high. The change-up, though he only used it sparingly, was up to over 88 mph. Power pitchers who also get groundballs are pretty rare. Here's the list of guys with at least a 50% GB rate, a 93+ mph fastball, and at least a 7 K/9 from this year: David Price, Edison Volquez, and Jason Hammel.

All that, and his control didn't fall off a cliff either. While a 3.2 BB/9 isn't great (and it's worse than the low-to-mid 2s he posted in '09-'10), it's perfectly serviceable for a guy who brings everything else to the table that Hammel did (and is actually better than the 3.6 BB/9 from 2011). Here's the list of guys with the GB/K/velo numbers from above who also walked fewer than 5 guys per nine: David Price, Jason Hammel. That's it.

It's truly a shame that a knee injury kept Jason Hammel out from almost all of the last month and a half of the season, because he was on pace to have the best season of his career (2.9 fWAR in 118 IP translated to about 4.2 fWAR in 170 IP - he had between 170 and 178 IP each of the three previous years). Hammel came back for the playoffs though, and largely picked up where he left off; 11.1 IP, 11 K, 4 UIBB, 3.18 ERA.

There are certainly some doubts about what Hammel will do next year (he's under team control for one more season - another nice bonus from the trade) given his history, but I think he's just not the same pitcher he used to be. While a 3.43 ERA, 3.29 FIP, and 3.46 xFIP might not happen again, there's good reason to think he can be an above average starter in 2013. And if he's able to stay a little healthier, that might even translate into a more valuable season. It's been a while since the O's have had an Opening Day where they could be pretty comfortable throwing their #1 out against whoever the opposing team has, but that might be the case next year.

16 October 2012

The Orioles Had a Topsy-Turvy Post-Season

The Orioles offense was not very good in the post-season - that can't be denied. Almost nobody hit, and they only scored 2.5 runs per game (that obviously didn't get it done). One sort of interesting aspect to the playoffs though, was how topsy-turvy everything went for the O's. Down was up, up was down. To wit:

* This team was largely carried by their historically successful bullpen. That pen had a 2.73 ERA in the playoffs, which is good but (a) not much better than their 3.00 during the regular season, (b) not that impressive given that they had their top guys going (ie, no Kevin Gregg), and (c) against a Yankees team that also stopped hitting. Mostly it was on Jim Johnson - he of the 2-1 record, 51 for 54 on saves, and 2.49 ERA - who went 0-1, with 2 saves in 3 chances and an 8.44 ERA.

* The starting pitching, which was shaky for much of the season, was superb. They had a 4.42 ERA in the regular season, and an ERA of 2.00 in the playoffs. They upped their strike-out rate from 6.9 K/9 to 7.8 K/9, while keeping their walk rate at 3 BB/9 and not giving up a single home run. And Joe Saunders started twice!

* Speaking of Saunders, he struck out 4 or more batters in less than half of his starts for the Orioles (3 of 7). So, of course, he recorded 4 and 5 K's in his two game.

* Offensively, the O's lived by the home run his year - they hit the second most longballs in the Majors, with 214 (about 1.3 per game). In the playoffs they hit just 3 (0.5 per game).

* Who did the hitting also took a decided flip. The worst position for the team this year was second-base, where the assorted players the O's trotted out (mostly Robert Andino and Ryan Flaherty) hit a combined .213/.273/.323 (.596 OPS). In the post-season, Andino hit .417/.417/.500 and Flaherty hit .273/.273/.545 (with a homer) for a combined .870 OPS that was the highest from any position for the team.

* The third worst OPS during the season came from left-field. Nate McLouth hit .308/.321/.462 (with one official homer) to put that position right behind second-base in the playoffs.

* Manny Machado drew just 9 walks during the season, for a 4.4% walk rate. In the post-season he walked twice (8.7% walk rate). He and Matt Wieters were the only Oriole batters to walk more than once.

* Adam Jones had the best offensive season of his career (.287/.334/.505), but did nothing in the playoffs (.077/.074/.077).

It was all pretty weird - and, in many cases, painful - to watch. For most of the season, people were saying "this just can't keep up". And them in the post-season, very few things actually did keep up. But, it should be noted, they were happening in the post-season.

15 October 2012

Can we assume Wieters will hit better next time in the playoffs?

Jon Shepherd contributed to this article.

There has been some data that suggests that catchers peak later offensively in their careers than the average player. The narrative often attached to that late boost in offensive prowess is that a catcher has to deal with the mental hardships that come with taking care of a MLB staff and that exhausts a catcher from developing quickly from an offensive standpoint.  A second competing narrative is that a catcher's appearance in the majors is not a product of his offensive game, but of his defensive game.  As such, catchers with under developed offensive skills are more likely to be promoted and learn at the major league level than catchers with under developed defensive skills. 

The former idea of mental adaptation comes up a lot though in a variety of ways.  In a playoffs-related chat at Baseball Prospectus last week, Dan Evans suggested that the first time a catcher goes to the post-season his offensive production can suffer because he's focusing so much on his pitching staff. To put it another way, he is thinking so much about his pitchers that his mind is dulled for handling his own offense. This came up in reference to Matt Wieters, who ended up batting a dismal .125/.197/.167 in the playoffs. Jon was nice enough to provide me with a non-exhaustive list of catchers who had multiple post-season appearances over the last couple decades, so I could preliminary look at how they did their first time there versus their second (counting "first time" as the first year in which they had at least 10 plate appearances in the playoffs.)  The was not intended to be an exhaustive study on the subject, but a quick pilot study to see if there was any indication as to whether this truly is a topic to invest more time.

The list: Javy Lopez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jason Varitek, Jorge Posada, Dan Wilson, Chris Hoiles, AJ Pierzynski, Yadier Molina, and Carlos Ruiz.

The first time this group of players were exposed to handling pitchers in the playoffs, they had an average OPS of .692. In the season preceding that post-season, they had an average OPS of .784. So, while acknowledged that the playoffs do only provide a small sample size, the catchers fared worse in the playoffs than they did in the regular season by an average of about 91 points or a reduction of 12%. This decrease would be in line with general conventional wisdom about offensive performance decreasing in the playoffs for all players in that pitchers in the playoffs tend to be better as a function of the best teams being in the playoffs. Worse teams with likely worse pitchers are not present for hitters to beat up on. 

The second time the catchers went to the playoffs, they had an average OPS of .674 - so that is a little bit worse than the first time. That isn't that bad though, when you account for their average OPS during the regular season on .742. So their OPS fell by only 69 points, on average, or a 9% decrease in performance.

This is only nine players, of course, likely with different levels of responsibility when it comes to handling their respective pitching staffs and the quality of pitching each of them faced while hitting may not be the typical quality of post-season pitchers. Again, this is a pilot study. A difference between a 12% decrease and a 9% decrease in relation to their regular season stats does not appear to be incredibly significant.  At least, it does not seem to be an interesting enough result to look more deeply into the numbers.  The idea is interesting and likely merits greater study, but nothing immediately emerges from this pilot study to indicate there is something really meaty here. A major problem for many statistical-minded folks is to be at arms with established lines of thought.  Where this has made sense in order for this approach to gain a strong foothold in every front office, it can sometimes overlook great ideas and concepts that statistical analysis has difficulty in assessing.  Perhaps there is truth to the mental hardship being placed on a playoff newbie catcher or maybe there is a general narrative that is being forced on catchers who happen to do poorly in a handful of plate appearances.

The work done here is largely inconclusive.  Maybe someone else can find much more merit to the idea than we did.  Our personal opinion is that Matt Wieters' line during the playoffs this year will not mean much to what he will do the next time he gets into the post season, fingers crossed, in 2013.

The full data (with an extra year for some catchers who were fortunate enough to see October over and over):

Javy Lopez:

1995 - .315/.344/.498, .842

1995P - .300/.302/.525, .827 OPS, 43 PA

1996 - .282/.322/.466, .788

1996P - .365/.426/.625, 1.061 OPS, 61 PA

1997 - .295/.361/.534, .895

1997P - .125/.207/.250, .457 OPS, 29 PA

Sandy Alomar:

1995 - .300/.322/.478, .810

1995P - .220/.233/.366, .598 OPS, 43 PA

1996 - .263/.299/.397, .696

1996P - .125/.125/.125, .250 OPS, 16 PA

1997 - .324/.354/.545, .900

1997P - .274/.303/.507, .809 OPS, 76 PA

Jason Varitek:

1999 - .269/.330/.482, .813

1999P - .220/.227/.512, .739 OPS, 44 PA

2003 - .273/.351/.512, .863

2003P - .294/.351/.706, 1.057 OPS, 37 PA

2004 - .296/.390/.482, .872

2004P - .245/.295/.472, .767 OPS, 61 PA

Jorge Posada

1998 - .268/.350/.475, .824 OPS

1998P - .227/.414/.500, .914 OPS, 29 PA

1999 - .245/.341/.401, .752 OPS

1999P - .182/.217/.409, .626 OPS, 23 PA

2000 - .287/.417/.527, .943 OPS

2000P - .204/.353/.278, .631 OPS, 68 PA

Dan Wilson:

1995 - .285/.330/.3444, .774 OPS

1995P - .061/.114/.061, .175 OPS, 35 PA

1997 - .270/.326/.423, .749 OPS

1997P - .000/.000/.000, .000 OPS, 13 PA

Chris Hoiles

1996 - .258/.356/.474, .830 OPS

1996P - .158/.292/.316, .607 OPS, 24 PA

1997 - .259/.375/3419, .794 OPS

1997P - .143/.280/.286, .566 OPS, 25 PA

AJ Pierzynski:

2002 - .300/.334/.439, .773 OPS

2002P - .344/.371/.500, .871 OPS, 35 PA

2003 - .312/.360/.464, .824 OPS

2003P - .231/.333/.462, .795 OPS, 15 PA

2005 - .257/.308/.420, .728 OPS

2005P - .262/.313/.571, .884 OPS, 48 PA

Yadier Molina:

2005 - .252/.295/.358, .654 OPS

2005P - .286/.286/.371, .657 OPS, 35 PA

2006 - .216/.274/.321, .595 OPS

2006P - .358/.424/.547, .971 OPS, 59 PA

Carlos Ruiz

2007 - .259/.340/.396, .735 OPS

2007P - .333/.400/.444, .844 OPS, 10 PA

2008 - .219/.320/.300, .620 OPS

2008P - .261/.346/.391, .737 OPS, 52 PA

2009 - .255/.355/.425, .780 OPS

2009P - .341/.474/.591, .1.065 OPS, 57 PA

14 October 2012

Sunday Comics: Thank You, Orioles

This was not something I wanted to draw this early. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this until November, to be honest, but here we are.

I didn't get to watch the last game of the season as I've been spending this weekend being a nerd at New York Comic Con doing stuff like this (and sadly not at a table selling this yet, but maybe someday). I'm crushed that it all ended against the Yankees, but at the same time I'm so beyond proud of this team for clearly overachieving what they were predicted to do on paper. They took us on one heck of a ride this year. And hey, they certainly gave the Yankees a good scare, didn't they? 

Thank you, Orioles, for making me fall in love with baseball all over again this year. 

12 October 2012

The 2012 Baltimore Orioles

Couldn't bring myself to write something up about the Orioles losing Game Five of the ALDS. Instead, a look back (in no particular order) at some favorite memories from 2012 (with some help from O's fans on Twitter):

* The best moment of season for me - the one that was the pinnacle of the "is this even real?" feeling that permeated everything - was Chris Davis on the mound in Boston. Not only did he pitch 2 scoreless innings, but he struck out 2 - including Adrian Gonzalez, on three pitches! For a long while, Davis had more pitcher wins than Cliff Lee. And not to be forgotten, it was an Adam Jones three-run homer that gave the O's the 9-6 win.

* There was the September 6th game against the Yankees in Baltimore - Cal Ripken Jr. Statue Day - when New York scored 5 runs in the 8th to tie the game at 6-6 (after the O's went ahead on homers by Wieters, Andino, and Reynolds). And then the Orioles countered with Adam Jones, Mark Reynolds (again), and Chris Davis each going deep in quick succession to make it 10-6 and get that W.

* There was Manny Machado coming up as a 20 year-old, when the O's needed a third-baseman, and hitting two home runs in his second game in the Majors.

* Then there was Machado with a - I dared to say - Jeter-ian play against the Rays, faking a throw to first on a grounder before spinning and catching the runner rounding third.

* There were the packed houses in the home games of the ALDS, as the play-offs finally came back to Baltimore. And the Orioles coming back after a tough lose in Game One to get back into the Win Column (!) in Game Two.

* There was the return of the cartoon Oriole Bird.

* There was Chris Davis being strong enough to hit a broken bat home run. And strong enough to destroy a baseball against James Shields, who struck out 15 on the day, to give the O's a 1-0 win.

* There was Miguel Gonzalez, who no one expected to do anything (and most had never heard of), pitching like a top of the rotation starter for stretches - especially in Yankee Stadium.

* There was Adam Jones hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th against the Phillies. And hitting the game-winning home run in the top of the 11th in Seattle. Starting the year scorching hot. Signing a contract to keep him in Baltimore for years to come.

* There was the previous day's game in Seattle that went 18 excruciating innings, before Taylor Teagarden drove in the winning run in the wee hours of the morning (for us watching on the East coast, at least).

* There was JJ Hardy hitting a game-tying home run in the bottom of the 13th against the Tigers after the O's fell behind, and then Teagarden sending everyone home happy with a two-run bomb three batters later. 

* There was the joyous celebration in the locker room after the O's beat the Rangers in Texas in the Wild Card game.

* There was Joe Saunders pitching well in helping the team win elimination games in the play-offs. Twice!

* There was Nate McLouth walking the O's off with a single against the Rays (driving in Manny Machado), and then Chris Davis carrying him around on his shoulders.

* Heck, there was Nate McLouth in the ALDS, being the best position player on either team, after months of jokes about the Orioles actually playing Nate McLouth.

* There was that crazy finish in Baltimore against the Yankees, where Mark Teixeira grounded into a game-ending double play (but not really). Mark Reynolds, Lew Ford, and JJ Hardy all took CC Sabathia deep in that one.

* That came shortly after the Orioles took two of three in New York, with Mark Reynolds hitting two home runs in each of those victories.

* There was Ryan Flaherty capping a six-run first inning against the Red Sox in their final series in Baltimore by hitting a grand slam.

* There was Matt Wieters capping a six-run 10th against the White Sox with a grand slam earlier in the year, giving Flaherty the idea.

* There was Nick Johnson going 0-26 in April, but getting hit by pitches three times and stealing a base.

* There was Omar Quintanilla doubling his career home run total (from 3 to 6) in the span of about two weeks.

* There was Mark Reynolds patenting his "fall-down" stretch at first-base.

* There was Darren O'Day throwing funny but almost always effectively, Pedro Stop never giving up runs early in the season (and his hat), Jim Johnson saving oh so many games with a dirty sinker, Tommy Hunter touching 100 mph as a reliever, Brian Matusz being almost untouchable out of the pen, and even Kevin Gregg sometimes not being awful (or it not mattering given the O's were behind when he came in). Also Troy Patton still paying dividends from that Miguel Tejada trade.

* There was Steve Johnson making his father - and a lot of other O's fans - proud, somehow throwing a 90 mph by people (and that 65 mph curve!).

* There was Jason Hammel adding a new pitch and potentially turning into a top of the rotation type starter.

* There was Chris Tillman finding some of the velocity we thought was lost forever, and bringing hope back for his career.

* There was Buck getting ignored by Mark Reynolds when looking for a high five.

* There was the Orioles somehow, someway, winning yet another one-run game.

* There was extra-inning win after extra-inning win after extra-inning win...

* There was Orioles Magic. There was a lot of it. Maybe more than we'll ever see in a season again. And it was awesome.

ALDS Game Four: Orioles 2, Yankees 1

Elimination game. Joe Saunders on the mound. The Orioles had the Yankees right where they wanted them.

The Good:
  • Joe Saunders did it again, pitching around just enough guys to not have it come back to bite him while inducing a couple double plays (including one on a long flyball that Nate McLouth made a great catch on and was able to double off a runner). Can't complain at all about 5.2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 5 K. The best part was probably Saunders striking out Derek Jeter after a lengthy at bat, and then following up by K'ing Ichiro and Mark Teixeira.
  • The bullpen came through. Tommy Hunter blew 97 mph fastballs by A-Rod. Troy Patton got Curtis Granderson. Luis Ayala managed to strand some inherited runners. Brian Matusz got Robbie Cano. Darren O'Day is the best (2.2 scoreless, K'ing A-Rod again - third time in the series). Pedro Strop showed that he was not only still alive, but why he was counted as one of the team's better relievers early in the season with 2 scoreless of his own (with 2 K's). And Jim Johnson closed it out.
  • If you knew that the Orioles had given an outfielder almost $90 M this year, based on this series you'd have sworn that it was to Nate McLouth and not Adam Jones. Beyond the defense, McLouth homered, doubled, and walked at the plate. You could argue that he's been the best position player on either team so far. Nate McLouth!
  • Manny Machado - all of 20 years old - not some of the best at bats on the team. He worked a walk early, and then lead off the 13th with a double before scoring the winning run on JJ Hardy's own two-bagger.
The Bad:
  • The offense is still almost entirely a black hole. Chris Davis struck out 3 times and looks not very much like he did during his hot streak to end the season. Adam Jones looks completely lost. Matt Wieters might be close to doing something, but is just off enough to keep popping out (or popping one down the third-base line for a hit). Jim Thome getting benched for Lew Ford might be the right call at this point, as Thome can't seem to actually hit anymore and some of the ball/strike calls are making his plate discipline not so useful. Hard to say if Mark Reynolds is slumping or not, because him taking an 0-fer and K'ing twice isn't exactly "new" - hope he runs into one at some point though.
The Final:

Extra-innings again, and this time the Orioles held strong, eventually scraping one run out and making it stand up. This series has been unbelievably close, with either team easily having been able to sweep in three games if a break had gone their way in each game.

And so it comes down to Game Five. Jason Hammel (3.43 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 3.46 xFIP) going up against CC Sabathia (3.38 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 3.20 xFIP). Can the Orioles continue the Magic?

Chris Tillman: What Changed?

While Joe Saunders was announced as the game four starter instead of Chris Tillman, who has had a stand out half season, it seemed like a good enough time to take a deeper look at Tillman and try to figure out just what changed from the last two seasons to this year.

Tillman arrived as a key piece in the Bedard trade back in 2008, where he was the 67th overall prospect on Baseball America's list in 2008. Tillman arrived with a lively FB that could reach mid 90's, and a looping hammer curve combo that had scouts drooling. During his first season in the Orioles organization he put up spectacular numbers, often overwhelming opposing batters in AA Bowie (where I saw him a few times) before moving up to AAA for the last half of the season. In AAA, his numbers were even better than in AA and it seemed like the Orioles had a legit future SP on their hands. In 2009, he continued to put up good numbers in AAA before getting the call to the big league club just before the trading deadline and despite a 5.40 ERA in 12 starts, the potential could be seen. Unfortunately this is a trend that would continue on through 2011. Some starts in AAA, some starts in MLB, a stellar start where it looks like he had figured things out, followed by a shellacking where he didn't make it through 4 innings. This was a pattern. That is until 2012, where he began the season in AAA and once again found himself called to the big league club in July, this time however, the results were much different.

In the 2012 regular season Tillman put up a 9-3 record in 15 starts with the Orioles, pitching to a 2.93 ERA and improving many of his peripheral numbers that he has had success with in the minors but could never get them to that level in the majors. Improvements in BB/9 (2.51) and K/9 (6.91) as well as avg allowed (.205) and WHIP (1.05) have led him to a successful season in the majors, and there is even more potential there, as he has had years in the minors with numbers closer to 10 K/9. That begs the question: What has changed?

Two years ago the Orioles scrapped Tillman's long-loopy curve in favor of a more compact power curve that has slightly different tilt, instead of the straight over the top 12-6 break, now it's more of an 11-5. Also at the same time he developed a cutter, which started taking pitches away from his curve and change up. The biggest impact in this down period for Tillman was a 2 mph drop in velocity across the board, which is interesting considering "cutter-gate" this season in reference to Dylan Bundy, his cutter, and the views and opinions of Dan Duquette and Rick Peterson. Between the fastball command problems he's always had, the drop in velocity, and the adjustment of a new pitch, he became very hittable at the ML level.

In 2012, under the watchful eye of Rick Peterson, Tillman gained back the 2 mph he had previously lost in 2010, improved his fastball command, lowering his walk rates, and keeping his home run rates down. Chris also traded in some of the cutters he was throwing for an improved change up, which he now throws considerably harder than the 78 mph offering he had thrown before. Coming in at an average around 84 mph with sharper movement than before, he throws the change about 14% of the time now compared to closer to 10% before. He has always thrown his fastball around 60% of the time, which is why the velocity and command are so important to his success. His ground ball % is actually the lowest of his career this year, and his K% is lower than it has been in the minors at just over 6%, however he's been getting more flyballs that stay in the park, as well as more infield pop ups mostly due to well placed FB and the harder change up. His .205 average against has gone a long way towards his success this season and has laid the ground work for that potential that he has teased for three years to finally be realized. Tillman will be a candidate for the 2013 rotation come spring training, it's up to him to prove himself again and earn it though, since that is the New Oriole Way.

10 October 2012

ALDS Game Three: Orioles 2, Yankees 3

It all comes down to three games in New York, where the Orioles went 6-3 this year. That bring should bring some confidence, but it's still the Yankees at home in the play-offs. A Hiroki Kuroda vs. Miguel Gonalez match-up could go pretty much any which way, but Gonzalez's season high in strike-outs of 9 came in New York against the Yankees. And his second highest was 8 in... New York, against the Yankees. So there is that.

The Good:

  • Miguel Gonzalez continued his almost inexplicable domination of the Yankees; 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 8 K. Just a fanastic start, hitting his spots and throwing the fastball by people. This is the same guy who had a 6.17 ERA in Double-A last year. Amazing.
  • Darren O'Day pitched. Given his recent performance, I don't really need to elaborate. But I will, because the strike-out he go in his perfect inning was of Derek Jeter.
  • Nate McLouth had two hits and stole a couple bases. Well, he stole one base after being "caught" the previous time, when he got in to second safely but was "helped" over-sliding the bag by Derek Jeter's tag (and, perhaps, foot).
  • The one person to bet on Ryan Flaherty being the first Oriole to hit a home run this post-season - maybe is mother? - can collect their infinity dollars. Ryan Flaherty!
  • Slightly less surprising but still really awesome was Manny Machado going deep as well (and his wasn't one of those cheap Yankee Stadium homers like Flaherty's was). 20 years old, hitting a home run against the Yankees in New York in the play-offs. Just a tiny bit more impressive that what I was doing at 20. 
All of the above was written before the 9th inning. Notice the happy tone! Didn't feel right to erase it, as those good things did happen. But oh boy are they going to be forgotten quickly.

The Bad:
  • Adam Jones did pick up a hit - a grounder through the infield - but still looked bad at the plate (pressing?). He also "allowed" New York's first run when he took a poor route on a flyball over his head in center-field that turned into a two-out RBI triple.
  • JJ Hardy, Matt Wieters, Jim Thome, and Mark Reynolds went a combined 0-19. Hard to score if almost no one hits, and can't win if you don't score.
  • Raul Ibanez. Homers off Jim Johnson to tie the game in the 9th (pinch-hitting for A-Rod), and then homers off of Brian Matusz to win the game in the 12th. Raul Ibanez is going to be remembered by O's fans just like Jeffrey Maier, I suspect. Probably worth writing more on this but... can't.
The Final:

No words. Just horrible, horrible feelings...

The O's can still win this series, but their chances have shrunk dramatically. Given that they took a lead into the 9th, they absolutely had to win this game.

Brooks vs. Adrian: Who's the Better Glove?

The other night during the Orioles' one game Wild Card Showdown against the Rangers, Cal Ripken, Jr., who was doing color commentary, mentioned that he thought Texas slugger Adrian Beltre was the best fielding third baseman he had even seen. When Ernie Johnson, the play-by-play man, questioned whether Beltre was even better than Brooks Robinson, Cal hesitated a bit, then responded in the affirmative. Yes, Cal Ripken, Jr. believes that Adrian Beltre is a better defensive third baseman than Brooks Robinson.

But is it actually true? In my opinion, it's impossible to reliably compare defense across eras but we can try. Using Baseball-Reference.com's Defensive WAR calculations (based on Sean Smith's Total Zone rating), we can at least see how dominant each player's defense was compared to their peers and see how it shakes out.

Brooks Robinson was a major league regular three years before Cal Ripken was born and was well on his way to his first Gold Glove when Cal was born in 1960, the first of 16 consecutive Gold Gloves that Robinson would win. While I'm certain that young Calvin Edwin was watching Orioles baseball all his life, he probably couldn't be a good judge or even recall much of those early years watching Brooks man the hot corner. Most of Cal's recollections are likely from the time his age hit double digits. Cal would have been 10 at the beginning of the 1971 season so we can start from there. Brooks played full time and at a high level from 1971-1975. In 1976 and 1977, he played sporadically and poorly. So for the sake of this post, I will assume Cal's memories of Brooks as a great player come mostly from the 5 season span from 1971-1975.

We will compare those 5 seasons to Adrian Beltre's most recent five seasons and see how they stack up.

Here are the top 10 third basemen in terms of Fielding Runs over the last 5 seasons as reported by Baseball-Reference.com:
Rk            Player Rfield From   To   Age
1      Adrian Beltre     91 2008 2012 29-33
2      Evan Longoria     71 2008 2012 22-26
3        Scott Rolen     46 2008 2012 33-37
4    Placido Polanco     39 2008 2012 32-36
5      Jack Hannahan     36 2008 2012 28-32
6       Brett Lawrie     34 2011 2012 21-22
7     Ryan Zimmerman     34 2008 2012 23-27
8       Brandon Inge     28 2008 2012 31-35
9     Kevin Youkilis     27 2008 2012 29-33
10         Joe Crede     26 2008 2009 30-31

By this measure, Beltre is the best and it's not even close. Even if you assume what Evan Longoria could've done if he'd been healthy this season, Beltre likely would beat him by 10 fielding runs. (By the way, how good is Brett Lawrie's glove? He's right in the middle of this list despite only 168 major league games under his belt.)

Here are the top 10 third basemen in term of Fielding Runs from the 5 season spanning 1971-1975:
Rk              Player Rfield From   To   Age
1      Brooks Robinson     90 1971 1975 34-38
2        Graig Nettles     83 1971 1975 26-30
3         Mike Schmidt     38 1972 1975 22-25
4              Ron Cey     36 1971 1975 23-27
5           Buddy Bell     35 1972 1975 20-23
6        Darrell Evans     31 1971 1975 24-28
7    Aurelio Rodriguez     29 1971 1975 23-27
8       Eric Soderholm     26 1971 1975 22-26
9         Ken McMullen     16 1971 1975 29-33
10        Jerry Kenney     16 1971 1973 26-28

It's Hall of Famer Robinson and Graig Nettles (who probably should be in the HoF) and nobody else. For the 5 season spans for each player:

                    Rfield   rTZ
Adrian Beltre         91      42
Brooks Robinson       90      83

So it could be argued that Beltre was a wee bit better than Brooks over the two 5-year spans in question. Although, in terms of Total Zone, a Gold Glove caliber defender will score a TZ of 15 or more in a season. Brooks had 4 out of 5 of those seasons with a TZ of 15 or more. Beltre had none.

And as you my have noticed, these were Beltre's age 29-33 seasons; Robinson's were from his age 34-38 seasons. If we look at Robinson's 5 seasons from the same age span, he has an Rfield of 97 and three seasons over 15 rTZ, all over 20 and two over 30. Beltre's never had quite that kind of run.

Athletes get better as the years go by. It is very possible that if you took Beltre back to the 1960's he would have been Brooks' superior with the glove. But since we have to judge these things in the context of the eras they played, you have to compare their relative dominance to their peers. And given all that, I'd have to respectfully disagree with Cal. Adrian Beltre may be the best defensive third baseman of his generation but I don't think he's any match for Brooks Robinson.

The Camden Highball (Episode 3): The Fan Never Dies

On the podcast today, we are recording on the Orioles/Yankees ALDS travel day.  I (Jon Shepherd) am joined by Nick Faleris from Baseball Prospectus.  We discuss a good deal about the series so far.  I discuss how attending Game 2 of the ALDS had an effect on my fandom, including the feeling to argue balls and strikes when you are 400 yards from the plate.  The Janitor, Jim Johnson, is discussed at length about whether he is elite, postseason performances, and the future.  Jones also gets a bit of a spotlight for his troubles at the plate.  Finally, we preview the upcoming games in New York and how I think everything is in the Orioles' favor at the moment. The recording was made Tuesday night (October 10, 2012).

Episode 3 of the Camden Highball

00:00:00 Music - Watchin' the Orioles by Songs from the Moon (in full at end of podcast - 00:38:30)
00:00:14 Greetings from Jon and Nick
00:01:44 Jon Shepherd's Experience at the Yard for Game 2, the Sadness of the Press Box, and Relating to the Grinch
00:07:15 Nick Commenting on the Dichotomy of Fandom and Analysis
00:12:22 The Janitor - Making Messes and Keeping Order
00:23:39 Constant Concern and Good Fortune
00:27:40 Preview for Games 3 through 5 in the ALDS

We are available on iTunes.  It stands to be quite an exciting series of games between now and then.  If you have any question you would like to pose to us, feel free to mail them via CamdenDepot@gmail.com or via the Camden Depot Facebook page.

09 October 2012

ALDS Game Two: Orioles 3, Yankees 2

Even if tonight's game wasn't literally a must-win, going to New York down 2-0 would have been mighty troublesome for the Orioles. They needed a good start from Wei-Yin Chen, and to actually score some runs against long-time O's nemesis Andy Pettitte.

The Good:

  • Given that the strength of the O's pitching staff was supposed to be the bullpen, it might be mildly surprising how decently the starters have pitched so far. Wei-Yin Chen continued the trend; 6.1 IP, 8 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 BB, 3 K.  Another trend was Buck Showalter hanging with his starter too long, letting Chen come out for the 7th to see the Yankees line-up for the 4th time. Two hits and a run later, and he was pulled for Darren O'Day (who struck out A-Rod, the only batter he faced) - though O'Day probably should have started the inning (and this time Buck got burned).
  • And Brian Matusz continued his stellar relief work, pitching 1.1 scoreless innings and striking out a pair. And he's not just a LOOGY, as some suggest; right-handed batters against Matusz the reliever are now just 1-25 with 9 K's to 2 unintentional walks.
  • Jim Johnson was once again called on in the 9th, and this time he delivered; two easy groundouts and a strike-out of Alex Rodriguez.
  • Chris Davis picked up a pair of hits, and drove in 2 runs. He's continued swinging a hot bat in the post-season.
The Bad:
  • For much of the game, many O's batters seemed to just be flailing at the ball at the plate. Notably Adam Jones and Manny Machado to my eye, but they certainly weren't the only offenders.
  • JJ Hardy made a rare error at short, and Matt Wieters allowed a rare pitch to get by him behind the plate. Mark Reynolds made an error (no one surprised there).
  • More Wieters; a throw in the 1st had Ichiro dead to rights at home, but Wieters made a couple of lunging tag attempts that allowed Ichiro to evade him and end up getting in there safely. Amazing play on Ichiro's part, but Wieters has to find a way to turn that into an out.
  • More Hardy; in the 3rd, he failed to score from second on a single by Adam Jones and stopped at third. He would have been in there if he had went, and the third-base coach was waving him in, but Hardy didn't pick him up and instead allowed A-Rod to fool him at third.
The Final:

Huge win for the Orioles, who tie up this series. They'll need to take two of three in New York, but they're perfectly capable of doing that (they went 6-3 there this year). Exorcised some demons, beating the Yankees in a play-off game, with Jim Johnson closing things out. Another one-run with for the O's; just like they wrote it up. Have to say that watching this game was way, way more stressful than watching the O's go for win #70 late in September (as in previous seasons). But I'll take the trade-off, to watch some October baseball in Baltimore.

08 October 2012

ALDS Game 2 Preview

Game 1 of the ALDS was everything Orioles fans have come to expect from this team, until the 9th inning. It was a close, hard fought game with a staff ace performance from CC Sabathia, and a strong showing by Jason Hammel and the stand out Orioles bullpen, a 2-2 game into the top of the 9th didn't surprise many people. An uncharacteristically off night from stellar closer Jim Johnson ended in a 7-2 Yankees win, but that is just one game, and this team has already moved on and is thinking about game two.

This is not a team that mopes about losing a tough game, they will come out for game two ready to even this series up before heading to New York, and there is not one player in that clubhouse that doesn't believe that is exactly what will happen. Johnson has been lights-out all season, and had his worst outing of the season at a very inopportune time, however what is done is done, and Buck won't hesitate to run him out in a 1-run game in the top of the 9th tonight. That's just what great closers do, they forget about a bad inning as soon as they hit the dugout, they forget about a bad pitch as soon as they step on the rubber for the next one. Jim Johnson will be alright, and so will the rest of the Baltimore Orioles.

Andy Pettitte has dominated the Orioles throughout his career, but he has not faced them in over two years. With a career 27-6 record against them, he has more wins against them than any other team in his 16 year career. He has a lifetime record of 16-4 with a 4.11 ERA in 23 career starts at Camden Yards. Matchup to watch: Adam Jones who hits .353 lifetime against Pettitte. Oriole pitcher Wei-Yin Chen threw 24 innings against the Yankees this season, going 1-2 in four starts. Matchup to watch: the HR. Chen has given up 6 HR in 24 IP against the Yanks this season, no one player has had outstanding success against him, it's been someone new each game, so he needs to focus on not giving up the big hit at the wrong time.

A lot of Monday Morning Buck Showalters out there have been criticizing Jones for not bunting Hardy over to 2nd when he led off the 8th with a single. General rule is that you don't want to take the bat out of your best player's hand with a bunt, and not scoring in that situation is just another example of how this team gets a little too reliant on HR. Despite losing a couple mph on his pitches this season, Pettitte is still a crafty left handed veteran, and his numbers are in line with his career averages when extrapolated. For the Orioles to win tonight, they are going to have to get to Pettitte early and give Chen a little breathing room.

This series is far from over and no one is going to roll over tonight, but taking one of these games at home is key for the Orioles to win the series. With a date with Kuroda looming as the series switches back to NY, it is important to get a win here and not face elimination in every road playoff game this season, even if they are 1-0 so far in them. With the largest crowd of the season toughing out a nearly 3 hour rain delay last night at Camden Yards, the team will need more of that tonight, getting the crowd involved has been a welcome surprise as the season has gone on, as it has been a long time since this team has played for full, raucous crowds, and that atmosphere has helped to excite the young players and give them more motivation to win.

Not that they need more motivation than their own manager. Buck Showalter was jettisoned by his previous teams the year before they went on to a World Series victory the following year in both New York and Arizona. With eliminating Texas already,who advanced to the ALDS the year after firing Buck, the Buck revenge tour rolls on, facing another of his former employers. If Arizona had made the playoffs, Hollywood themselves could not have delivered a better script. It's time for the team to rally around their rock and win for Buck. It's time to #BUCKleUp.

ALDS Game One: Orioles 2, Yankees 7

Orioles. Yankees. The two teams fought until the bitter end for the AL East title, and now square off in the AL Division Series. New York sent ace CC Sabathia to the mound, while the O's countered with Jason Hammel, who was their best pitcher this year but had barely appeared in the Majors in the last two months (though Hammel did have a slightly lower FIP this year, 3.29 vs. 3.33). Even playing in Baltimore, the match-ups probably favored the Yankees.

The Good:

  • Jason Hammel's command was shaky (he left some balls up in the zone, and mostly got away with it) and so was his control (walked 4). But he had some movement on his pitches and some giddy-up on his fastball (down a tick from his 2012 average, but still 92-94), and was able to minimize the damage. Like with Joe Saunders on Friday, Buck stayed with Hammel longer than I (and many, judging by the comments on Twitter) thought was prudent, and once again it worked out fine. Can't complain too much about 5.2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 5 K. It was good enough that I'd be comfortable seeing Hammel make a potential Game Five start.
  • Darren O'Day continued his fantastic season, coming in with two on and none out and getting Jeter (who bunted), Ichiro (with Andino throwing to Wieters to cut a run down at the plate), and A-Rod (K'ed him swinging).
  • Brian Matusz followed O'Day, walking Teixeira but striking out a pair (Swisher, Granderson) in pitching a scoreless 8th.
  • Nate McLouth had another clutch hit, driving in two runs to give the O's an early 2-1 lead. 
  • Chris Davis picked up a couple hits against Sabathia, and made some nice plays in right-field (including fielding a bounce off the scoreboard and gunning the runner down at second).
  • Lew Ford had two hits as well - one a double.
The Bad:
  • Troy Patton only retired one of the four batters he faced, walking the first two batters of the 7th inning before being pulled. His teammates picked him up though.
  • With the game tied going into the 9th, Buck went to Jim Johnson* to face the bottom of the Yankees' order. Given that CC had saved the NY pen completely at that point, I probably would have left Matusz in there (and first guessed this decision). Lead-off better Russell Martin took JJ deep for the game-winning home run. Then four more hits to pile on and make it 7-2. He retired one batter. Not a good night for Johnson, following the "interesting" outing he had in Texas. He could have picked a better time for the regression to hit.
  • The O's had multiple opportunities against Sabathia (including a lead-off double by JJ Hardy in the 8th), but just couldn't get the runs across when they needed to. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters were a combined 0-8 - the Birds need those guys to produce in this series.
* Just want to note that the problem isn't that it wasn't a save situation - using a closer in a tie game is generally somewhere between fine and good - but that Matusz should have been able to pitch another inning and saving Johnson for the next inning in case the game went to extras might have made more sense. It is funny that we've gone from "Jim Johnson doesn't have the closer mentality - he can't pitch in save situations" to "Jim Johnson can only pitch in save situations".

The Final:

Given that it was tied going into the later innings, this was a game the Orioles had to win. No matter the O's record on the road and in New York this year, winning both games in Baltimore was very big for them in this series. Just a huge punch in the gut in that 9th inning. Go get 'em tomorrow, I guess. As Jeff Sullivan said, the "Orioles [are] in position to win the series with a negative run differential". I'd take that.

07 October 2012

The ALDS: How They Match Up

                                                         Credit: Steph Diorio

As our talented friend Steph Diorio illustrated above, the Orioles emerged Friday night riding high above the Texas Rangers in the Wild Card round of the 2012 AL Playoffs. End result, 5-1 Orioles and a date with division rival New York Yankees in the ALDS. Before 2012, one might have looked at the Orioles versus Yankees as another David versus Goliath matchup. The Orioles with their fourteen consecutive years of losing seasons and less than $82 million dollar payroll versus the Yankees, perpetual playoff favorites with just about $198 million in payroll for 2012. This 2012 season just goes to prove why the game isn't played on paper.

In hindsight, 2011 featured a bit of foreshadowing for the Baltimore Orioles. A scrappy team in 2011, the team was beginning to see which players were part of this team for the long haul and which players just weren't going to remain in their roles long term. In the last series of the season, facing the Boston Red Sox who were fighting for their playoff lives, the Orioles knocked them out of contention with a dramatic upset win on the final day of the season. That attitude and successful underdog persona followed the team into 2012. After getting off to a hot start, the Orioles were fairing much better than anyone had expected, but just about everyone kept saying to wait, that they would regress to the norm soon enough, everyone that is but the team itself.

At the end, 162 regular season games, and one do or die wild card game later, the Orioles find themselves at home on Sunday evening facing their division rivals to start a best of five series that will see either the upstart underdogs, or the most expensive team in all of baseball going home. For this series, the previous 14 years don't matter, the payroll amounts doesn't matter, even expectations don't matter. For the 2012 series the teams evenly split an 18 game season series 9-9 with the Orioles outscoring the Yankees 92-90.

Pitching Matchups:             2012 Statistics Versus Orioles
NYY                                 IP      Record      K    BB     ERA

Sabathia                         18.1      0-2        19      6       6.38
Kuroda                            15.1      1-1         7       1       2.93
Pettite                                                  N/A
Hughes                            22.2      2-2        19      4       4.76

BAL                              2012 Statistics Versus Yankees

Hammel                         16.0       0-1       14       7      3.94
Chen                             24.0       1-2       18       6       5.25
Tillman                           8.0        1-0        5        2       6.75
Gonzalez                       13.2       2-0       17       1       2.63
Saunders                       5.1        1-0         2       2        3.38

The Orioles were actually 3-6 at home and 6-3 on the road against the Yanks this season, after starting off the series 0-4 at home in the first four games, so home field might not be such an advantage after all. One thing is for sure, Camden Yards will be a completely different environment on Sunday and Monday than it was for the first 5 home games of this series.

Other details that should be mentioned, Andy Pettitte, the Yankees game 2 starter has been an Oriole killer his whole career with a 27-6 record and 3.52 ERA in 40 career starts against them. The announced starters for games 1-3 are Sabathia v. Hammel, Pettitte v. Chen, and Kuroda v. Gonzalez as of right now. Look for Buck to try to matchup late in the game to try to match Cano against lefties where he is much less effective, while trying to keep Teixeira matched against righties where he is less dangerous.

The key to success for the O's is to get some quality innings out of their starters, to get to that bullpen that is so effective with a chance to win the game.  When division rivals meet in the playoffs almost anything can happen, the one thing you can be sure of however, is that the Orioles will fight until the final out and at this point, you shouldn't bet against them.

06 October 2012

Wild Card Game: Orioles 5, Rangers 1

So here they are. The Orioles finally made the play-offs, and they had to travel to Texas to face a team that's beat up on them some this year. They used their best starters trying to win the AL East, leaving them with Joe Saunders as the only really option to take the mound. The same Joe Saunders who was 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in his career at the Rangers' ballpark. And Texas had Yu Darvish (3.90 ERA, 5.1 fWAR) going for them. The odds were certainly against the O's, as they have been all year.

The Good:

  • Joe Saunders! I was hopping for Saunders to get through the line-up once, and then maybe stay in until he saw Josh Hamilton again. But Buck left him out there inning after inning - not even pulling him after he had retired Hamilton for a third time. And it worked! Sure he was helped out by three double plays, but if you had offered me a 5.2 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 4 K line from Saunders, I would have taken it 100% of the time. It was definitely stressful to watch - especially when he came out with some shaky control - but Joe deserved every standing ovation O's fans were giving him from their living rooms.
  • Darren O'Day relieved Saunders after the lefty was allowed to retire Adrian Beltre (seemed crazy at the time, but hey, Buck Magic). O'Day did what he's done so often this year - and then some; 2 IP, 1 H (infield single), 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K. Credit to Andy MacPhail* for picking him up off wavers... from the Rangers.
  • Brian Matusz was asked to get out Josh Hamilton, and absolutely dominated him - three pitches, three strikes.
  • Jim Johnson made things a little too exciting in the 9th, but escaped a bases loaded situation to shut the door.
  • Orioles batters came through when it counted over and over again, with RBIs from JJ Hardy, Adam Jones, Nate McLouth, and Manny Machado. Nothing fancy, just some clutch hits.
* Thanks to commenter Greg for pointing out that O'Day was actually picked up in the window between when MacPhail left and Dan Duquette came aboard. So another thing to probably thank Buck for.

The Bad:
  • Generally speaking, the offense did very little against Darvish. Hard to really hold that against them too much though. 7 of the team's 8 hits were singles, and they only walked once compared to 12 K's. But hey, the O's beat James Shields and his 15 strike-outs this week too.
The Final:

Wow. Just amazing, amazing stuff. The O's are going to the "real" playoffs! Oriole Magic in full effect. We'll see how long it can continue, as the Birds face the Yankees, with whom they split the season series (though the did outscore New York 92-90). But they're playing with house money... and winning.

05 October 2012

The Camden Highball: From Yellowstone with Hope and Fear

On the podcast today, we are in the midst of playoff fever.  I (Jon Shepherd) am joined by Nick Faleris from Baseball Prospectus.  We discuss a good deal about the wild card match up between the Orioles and Rangers.  We have worries and concerns, but it is unmistakable to be in a position to run the table in October is a great place for Baltimore to be.  Camden Depot is also proud to reintroduce the book club and we are eager to present Weaver on Strategy as our first selection.  We will post more in depth on the Book Club later.  You have two weeks to acquire the book and read the first third of it.  The recording was made Thursday night (October 4, 2012).

Episode 2 of the Camden Highball

00:00:00 Music - Indiana by ABADABAD (in full at end of podcast)
00:00:20 Greetings from Yellowstone (or a bit North)
00:01:57 A One Game Playoff with Rangers is What the O's Want
00:05:00 Saunders is an Odd Choice
00:08:24 Fear of Darvish
00:10:10 Constant Concern and Good Fortune
00:17:45 A Bullpen is Hard
00:21:55 Camden Depot Book Club: Weaver on Strategy

We are available on iTunes.  It stands to be quite an exciting series of games between now and then.  If you have any question you would like to pose to us, feel free to mail them via CamdenDepot@gmail.com or via the Camden Depot Facebook page.

01 October 2012

Who Should the Orioles Start in a Wild Card Game?

The Orioles have clinched a play-off spot. Wow. That feels a little weird to write after the last 14 years (especially given expectations going into this season), but it's true. The team is guaranteed at least a Wild Card spot, and given the schedules of the respective teams (O's on the road versus the Rays, while the Yankees host the Red Sox at home), that's the most likely route the Birds will need to go through to reach the World Series. With Oakland finishing the year against the Rangers and the Orioles holding a one-game lead over the A's, I'd expect the Friday AL Wild Card game to be played here in Baltimore. The question is, who should start that game for the O's?

The options more or less shake out as:

Wei-Yin Chen - 4.11 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 4.36 xFIP this year. He'd be going on short rest, is already approaching 200 innings, and has looked a little gassed in recent outings as it is. As he's been one of the team's better starters this year, not being able to run him out multiple times in a potential ALDS isn't the best. Plus, skipping him over and giving him some extra rest would not only allow Chen to pitch twice in the five-game series but could improve his performance there as well.

Chris Tillman - 2.78 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 4.36 xFIP. By my count, he's on schedule to pitch the last game of the season in Tampa, but depending on where the O's sit in the divisional race he could probably be bumped back. I'd think having Tillman start twice in the ALDS would be the preferred path for the Orioles, which could happen if he just throws on the side and then starts Game One on Sunday the 7th and Game Five on Friday the 12th. There's no other real way to see him twice, unless he starts game 162 against the Rays but only goes a couple innings so that he could come back on short rest.

Miguel Gonzalez - 3.45 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 4.70 xFIP. He's had a great surprise season, but I'd say he's just plain not as good as Chen or Tillman. He's also on schedule to pitch game 161, which would knock out the Wild Card game but put him on schedule to pitch games one and five of the ALDS. Given the Orioles Magic going on this season, counting on Gonzalez in that way just might be wild enough to work. If he doesn't start against the Rays, he could pitch the Wild Card game - that would entail a longer lay-off (similar to Tillman not pitching until Game One).

Joe Saunders - 4.07 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 4.26 xFIP. He's the only guy who would pitch the Wild Card game on exactly normal rest, and I would think the Orioles would prefer starting one of the three above guys twice in the ALDS instead.

Steve Johnson - 2.86 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 3.87 xFIP (as a starter). He would also being going on mostly normal rest (one extra day), and has done a really nice job for the team since his call-up, but with the leg injury he may not be able to go (he's getting an MRI on it).

Jason Hammel - 3.43 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 3.47 xFIP. He's pretty clearly been the team's best starter this year, but he hasn't pitched in almost three weeks and has only 8.2 IP since mid-July. Even if he's healthy, I'm not sure you can trust him to make the start in a win-or-go-home game. If he's available and the O's are magically way ahead, letting him come out for an inning or two might be useful to see if he can start in the ALDS, but I wouldn't count on it.

I'd probably be inclined to start Saunders, while having Johnson (or some other "starter") coming in from the pen relatively early (maybe 2-3 innings from Joe then 2 from the next guy). That would hopefully get the team into the mid-to-later innings where the "normal" bullpen can take over.

In fact, the Orioles could easily throw starter after starter at the A's (matching righties and lefties) for 2 innings at a time. With the ability to set their roster for just the one game, the staff could be something like Saunders, Steve Johnson, Bundy, Phillips, Hunter, Arrieta, Matusz, Ayala, Patton, O'Day, Strop, Jim Johnson. Then they could drop Bundy/Phillips/third guy for Tillman/Chen/Gonzalez for the ALDS. The O's could even match up* pretty well, theoretically, with Saunders (L) - Johnson (R) - Matusz (L) -Arrieta (R) - Patton (L) - Hunter (R) each taking an inning before Strop, O'Day, and Johnson finish things off. With an off-day both before and after the Wild Card game, that shouldn't really mess things up for the pen.

* The A's have a higher OPS against righties than lefties this year (.717 vs. .705), but a higher OPS against lefty starters than righty starters (.724 vs. .707). So yeah, there's that.

Is it worth using two of the teams lesser starters instead of just going with their #1 (whoever you think that might be - pick a name out of a hat, maybe)? In his career, Joe Saunders has a 2.3 K/BB ratio his first time through the order. That drops to 1.8 the second time, and 1.4 the third time. Chris Tillman has a 2.5 K/BB ratio this year overall. Gonzalez is at 2.1 overall (and has actually struck out way more batters in his second go through the order than the first). So while Saunders may not be the Orioles' best starter, using him for a few innings - and just looking at 2012, Saunders has a 5.1 K/BB the first time through the order, declining to 2.3 on the second - and then going to the pen should pretty much replicate what you'd expect to get from riding things out with someone else. That gap between the various O's starters is relatively small, and the variance in a single game is going to wash out whatever differences are there. That is, they probably wouldn't be costing themselves much if anything in the Wild Card game, while potentially also setting themselves up better for the following series.

ALDS rotation would then be something like:

One: Tillman
Two: Chen
Three: Gonzalez
Four: Saunders/Johnson
Five: Tillman

In game four (or three, if they so choose), the O's would be in a position to do the same kind of as in the Wild Card game, having Saunders start with Johnson (if healthy) ready to come in after a couple trips through the order. If Buck preferred, he could also swap Tillman and Chen, allowing the lefty to pitch twice.

If the division title is still in play though (and there's a fair chance it will be), then obviously all bets are off. Using Gonzalez and Tillman in Tampa Bay to try to win the East leaves Saunders for the Wild Card game by default, but also means that the O's don't have a starter on normal rest (if Steve Johnson can't go) for a potential Thursday tie-breaker with the Yankees, unless Hammel is back (I'd think doubtful). Then I guess Tommy Hunter or Brian Matusz or Jake Arrieta would be pressed into action, which probably wouldn't bode terribly well for the Orioles' chances considering none of those guys has started a game in over a month. It would also leave Tillman unable to start Game One of the ALDS on normal rest.

The O's could go for more of a "bullpen approach" in the tie-breaking game as well, but trying that and losing (having to settle for the Wild Card) could mean having to rely on Joe Saunders for 6-7 innings on Friday - those are some risky options. Really, it would be best if the Yankees got swept while the O's won tonight and then had Dylan Bundy and Chris Davis entertain us by starting Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Don't even care which of the two throws a no-hitter.

Jonathan Schoop From A Defensive Perspective

I really enjoyed writing the last post about the defensive side of the ball, so I decided to do some more defensive driven posts, next focusing on the other player directly affected by Manny's move to 3B, Jonathan Schoop.

I was inspired by Matt P. in the comments section, and I apologize for giving kind of a short answer with not much depth to it, but the reasoning was because I was thinking about writing this post and he was a step ahead of me. So, first up, let's talk about Schoop. He is the enigma to most fans this season, he has been Machado's double play partner for the better part of the last year between Frederick and Bowie, and has been moved around the infield from SS to 3B and later to 2B over his few professional seasons. This is generally unusual for a top 100 or so prospect (no. 82 on Baseball America's 2012 pre-season list) as you want young players to get comfortable, develop good fielding habits and really master their position. While he hasn't particularly excelled at any of the three spots, he has played fairly average at all three.

As usual with defense, statistics don't tell the whole picture here, and being in the minor leagues, the statistics kept are spotty at best. Looking solely at the errors he has made, in his four professional seasons, by year:

Age         Level        Position    Games   Errors

17          DOM           SS           67          20
18            RK             SS          54          18                 
19           A-/A+         SS          43          13
                                  2B          64           7              
                                  3B          23           8                            
20           AA              SS          39          8                 
                                  2B          88          13

Schoop has a career fielding % of .951, which is not very good, however, seeing him in the field he's not as bad as it sounds. He has a very strong arm, however, being slightly slower to the ball than other players drives him to hurry the throw to try to hide his slow footwork with his arm. The times I've seen him get in trouble or make errors, he was either slow to the ball laterally and rushed a throw off target, or when he would make a concentration mistake with his glove, such as a bobble, or picking the glove up before the ball gets to it. He has shown that he makes most of the solid plays where he doesn't have to range too far, he's got the arm to make up for some mistakes, but the longer the throw, the less likely that it would be on target. If I had to project him at a position defensively, I would say he's a 2B with a very strong arm. He seems the most comfortable there, however if he is being showcased as a trade chip, leaving him at SS makes the most sense for now to show teams that he can play adequate enough defense there to pair with his very solid bat. 

All in all, Schoop looks to be a good offensive prospect, and while he is still young and can improve, his defense needs some work, mostly his hands, and getting faster footwork, especially in the side to side direction. With 2B a glaring question mark this offseason, Schoop could be a person of interest if he's not traded and would make the offense even more formidable, however with defense given more emphasis in the latter half of the season, that could hurt him in a competition.              

30 September 2012

Sunday Comics: Orioles Magicks

There's a Fullmetal Alchemist joke in here if you squint.

Matusz, Patton, Strop and Jim Johnson wanted to try Orioles Magic out for themselves, so they turned to alchemy. It just got Buck mad because they made a mess in the 'pen. Alchemy's not a clean science, folks.

If you know me or read some of the things I write over at Charm City Yakyuu, by the way, you'll know that I enjoy drawing Brian Matusz. He's awkward and goofy and that's a cartoonist's dream come true. 

See you with more art next week! (And once the offseason picks up in November, you might just see the return of my CCY segment Draw Your Orioles!)

29 September 2012

Who Gets the Credit for the 2012 Orioles?

Executive Vice-President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette (there's a mouthful) is getting a lot of credit for building this Orioles team that ended the franchise's streak of 14 losing seasons and he does deserve some credit. But if we are to assume that the most important part of a team's success in the actual talent on the field, how much credit goes to his predecessors?

(Regardless of proper title, all heads of baseball operations for the Orioles will be referred to as a General Manager or GM going forward.)

I decided to find out. I took a list of every player who made an appearance for the Orioles in 2012 and assigned them to their GM of origin. This is a real oversimplification as it does not take into account coaching staffs or minor league development teams. Perhaps the new people Duquette brought to the organization had a big impact on the turnaround of Chris Tillman, for instance. But that's impossible to quantify.

I credited the GMs if the draft pick, the trade, the free agent signing or the waiver claim was made during their tenure. There are some minor exceptions dealing with mid-year regime changes or contract extensions. Brian Roberts, for example, would no longer be an Oriole if Andy MacPhail had not extended him through 2013. On the other hand, Nick Markakis was extended by MacPhail but he would have still been under team control in 2012 whether he was extended or not. So Roberts is credited to MacPhail  instead of Frank Wren (the GM who drafted him) but Markakis still falls under the Mike Flanagan/Jim Beattie regime that selected him in the 1st Round of the 2003 amateur draft.

If you want to see the individual transactions that brought the principle members of the Baltimore Orioles to town, go here. The below lists assign each player to a GM but does not detail how they got here.

Here are the player breakdowns starting with the most recent GM:

Dan Duquette 

Nate McLouth
Wilson Betemit
Nick Johnson
Bill Hall
Jim Thome
Steve Pearce
Lew Ford
Steve Tolleson
Luis Exposito
Taylor Teagarden
Ronny Paulino
Ryan Flaherty
Omar Quintanilla
Endy Chavez
Jason Hammel
Wei-Yin Chen
Darren O'Day
Joe Saunders
Miguel Gonzalez
Luis Ayala
Matt Lindstrom
Stuart Pomeranz
Dana Eveland
Randy Wolf
J.C. Romero
Miguel Socolovich

I'm giving Duquette credit for Darren O'Day even though the Orioles claimed him on November 2nd of last year and the Orioles did not introduce him as GM until November 8th. Andy MacPhail had been gone for almost a month but some of his staff were obviously making some of these decisions but since it falls closest to Duquette's start than MacPhail's departure, I'm giving it to him.

Andy MacPhail 

Adam Jones
J.J. Hardy
Chris Davis
Manny Machado
Mark Reynolds
LJ Hoes
Xavier Avery
Robert Andino
Chris Tillman
Pedro Strop
Troy Patton
Brian Matusz
Steve Johnson
Dylan Bundy
Zach Phillips
Jason Berken
Kevin Gregg

Mike Flanagan 

Matt Wieters
Joe Mahoney
Jake Arrieta
Zach Britton

Mike Flanagan gets credit for Matt Wieters because he drafted him shortly before he was removed from the job. Andy MacPhail took over in late June and signed Wieters but did not actually draft him.

Mike Flanagan/Jim Beattie 

Nick Markakis
Nolan Reimold

Flanagan and Beattie served as co-GMs for three seasons. I will split credit in terms of player value between Flanagan and Beattie since I don't know if either man had championed either player before they were drafted.

Syd Thrift

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is still under his original team control so Thrift gets some credit for drafting him way back in 2001.

Then I totaled up the fWAR (collected from Fangraphs.com) for each GM's associated players. Here's the breakdown:

fWAR by GM for 2012 Orioles

Not surprisingly, Andy MacPhail leads the field. He was, after all, GM for 4.5 of the 6 most recent seasons. It is a bit surprising that his players have delivered 44% more WAR than Dan Duquette's. His leaders are Adam Jones (4.6), J.J. Hardy (2.5), Chris Davis (1.7) and Chris Tillman (1.1). Brian Roberts (-1.1) and Tommy Hunter (-0.5) were the laggards.

Dan Duquette's most successful moves were with the pitching staff with Jason Hammel (2.9) and Wei-Yin Chen (2.1) leading the way. Joe Saunders and Miguel Gonzalez have both delivered 0.8 WAR in a relatively short amount of time and Nate McClouth has chipped in 1.5 WAR in just 49 games. Endy Chavez (-0.9), Omar Quintanilla (-0.4) and Ryan Flaherty (-0.4) dragged down the overall totals.

It's easy to forget the contributions of the late Mike Flanagan as a GM. Most of his WAR total is wrapped up in Matt Wieters (3.8) but he also had a hand in drafting Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold. He also selected Jeremy Guthrie off of waivers from the Indians back in January 2007. Dan Duquette was able to flip  Guthrie for Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom and then Joe Saunders. But that is not accounted for in these totals.

Jim Beattie gets partial credit for Markakis and Reimold.

That echo from the past is Jim Johnson, who gains Syd Thrift a shoutout on this list.

It would be interesting to do this at the end of each year to see how the quickly (or slowly) Duquette's influence moves from a minority to a majority. But for this team in particular, the core of the team was assembled by MacPhail. Duquette deserves credit for deftly adding some low-cost pieces to the Oriole pitching staff and some cheap but useful hitters like Betemit and McLouth but this team is still MacPhail's.