29 October 2012

More McLouth: a Simple Post on Future Performance

Aging curves are something we are all familiar with and agree with in principle.  I think that is a fair and safe assumption to make.  A young player will eventually reach his peak athletic performance and then decline until he is no longer valuable to any team.  That simply is how careers work.  Below is one of the standard curves:

From Baseball Prospectus

This is, of course, the age curve for a general population.  What that means is that individuals are likely to adhere to something similar to this curve, but that many players will indeed deviate from this curve.  Even with all of that uncertainty, it certainly helps predict player production and why age curves are included in any projection system you might use.

This brings us back to one of our favorite conversations in the past week: Nate McLouth.  There seems to be some confusion about how people are viewing him.  I decided to dive in the numbers (not very deep, though) to try to visualize the simple projection field for him.  On one perceived side, you have folks who think McLouth's years where he suffered major injuries (2010 and 2011) should directly inform future predictions of talent.  I don't think anyone has suggested something so extreme.

Likewise, there seems to be a misconception that Nate McClouth injury years as well as his go around with the Pirates in 2012, and maybe even his performance after the trade to the Braves in 2009 (because he was sad) should be ignored because he is now healthy and happy.  I think that is the misconception.  Otherwise, it is the point to which the argument is backed up against on the positive side.

Now, just looking at offense, what do these two perspectives show for McLouth?




The red series shows the optimistic view of McLouth.  Gone are his 2009-2011 time with the Braves and his 2012 time with the Pirates.  All that remains are his 2005-2009 Pirates years and his 55 games with the Orioles in 2012.  The blue series includes all of McLouth's time.  The green line is using his blue line data, but filling in any games missing up to 150 with an age regressed expectation based on his career year performance.

The three methods give the following three year projections:



wRC+

Hi Reg Lo
2013 106 92 70
2014 97 86 56
2015 83 75 38
To be honest, none of these projections would surprise me.  I can see McLouth maintaining his skills well enough where he essentially performs the same in 2013 as his Oriole 2012 tenure with decrease performance thereafter.  I can also see his batting fall part with a somewhat normal aging curve.  Yes, I can also see him completely falling apart.  The green series makes the most sense to me if we want to go strictly by numbers and how we understand player aging with McLouth going into his age 31-33 seasons.  Regardless, this is clearly not someone you would want to give a multi-year deal.

How does this fit into baseball in general in terms of left field offensive production?  The following graph was created using data from the Fangraphs team section, which has flaws.  When I look specifically for left fielders, it actually compiles everyone who spent a "significant" time in left field with that compilation including batting numbers when they were not actually at that position, so these numbers may be a bit loose.  However, I think it roughly gives us an idea of what a left fielder might be expected to do offensively.



What we see are a few things:
(1) The Orioles, over 2013, had bottom tier production from their left fielders.  Endy Chavez, Xavier Avery, Steve Tolleson, etc. were not getting it done out there.
(2) The Orioles 87 wRC+ was well behind the league median (97, respresent by the Mets in Red).
(3) The Orioles were also way behind the threshold for first division left field offensive production (111 wRC+, represented by the Rockies in Green).
Assuming these general patterns hold up, you can make the argument that Nate McLouth would be able to deliver average to above average offensive production with a possibility of providing near league worse production.  Of course, what informs whether or not that league worse production comes into play is whether or not you think McLouth's high intensity play leads to higher risk of injury, particularly with a post-30 year old ball player.  It may be noteworthy to mention that McLouth has only put up 400 plate appearances twice in his career.  This is due to him not being asked to play much or being injured and unable to do so.

This leads us back around to Nate McLouth and whether the Orioles should sign him.  I have the same opinion I had coming into this exercise.  I think McLouth can be a league average or above average left fielder.  He is not a first division left fielder.  I also doubt he can stay injury free and see him as a risk for a major drop off in production.  If he wants to come back for a position where he has to fight it out with other players for left field, then I would be happy to have him back.  If the Orioles could rope in a legitimate first division starter and McLouth wants back, then great.  McLouth is a solid option as a fourth outfielder who may sometimes get hot.  He is not much of a centerfielder with his collapsing range and his arm is not going to make right field work, but, with a decent defensive fifth outfielder, McLouth could work out just fine.

28 October 2012

Sunday Comics: Happy Halloween!

I live in New Jersey. As I type this, a hurricane named Sandy is closing in on my part of the country, waiting to strike. I had to come up with an idea quickly, one which would cheer people affected by Sandy up.

So here is Brian Matusz being cute under a wizard hat for Halloween. As I've mentioned before, Matusz's general goofiness makes him a cartoonist's dream come true, so he was a natural choice for this picture.

Stay safe, everyone in Sandy's path, and have a wonderful Halloween!


27 October 2012

The Camden Highball (Episode 4): Searching for Nate McLouth

On the podcast today, I have finally gotten around to editing the track.  It was originally recorded on October 21st, but the discussion applies to today as well as it did on Sunday.  Replacing Nick Faleris on the podcast for this episode is co-writer of Camden Depot, Daniel Moroz.  We have a prequel discussion on what Nate McLouth means for the 2013 season on the Orioles.  We explore other possibilities for the outfield.  An aside about the misperception (in our opinion) of Mark Reynolds' defense at first base.  Some thoughts about internal and external left field options.  We also discuss the future of the Orioles behind the plate and what a Matt Wieters extension would mean.

Episode 4 of the Camden Highball

00:00:00 Music - Castle on the Cumberland by HooDoo Hounds (written by Matt Huddleston; in full at end of podcast - 01:19:00)
00:00:22 Greetings from Jon (with slight change in sound quality)
00:02:00 Mailbag from Phillip in Plano, TX.  Who earned their place on 2013 team?
00:04:00 Using Small Sample Sizes to Evaluate Players
00:10:19 Rolling into LF talk and Nate McLouth
00:16:48 Internal Options - Reimold, Avery, and Hoes
00:26:09 Perhaps a misguided idea about Mark Reynolds playing left field
00:27:40 Mark Reynolds is not a gold glove first baseman
00:34:32 Nick Markakis' defense is considered and his decline; other internal options
00:41:40 Free Agent Target: Josh Hamilton
00:47:25 Free Agent Target: Nick Swisher
00:54:14 Free Agent Target: Melky Cabrera
01:03:30 Daniel discusses centerfielders to shift to left (i.e., Angel Pagan, Cody Ross)
01:07:25 Orioles catchers and a Matt Wieters extension

We are available on iTunes (though we seem to have some problems with updating there).  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.

26 October 2012

2012 Orioles Retrospective: Nate McLouth

I've seen Pirates fans complain about Nate McLouth, and I've seen Braves fans complain about Nate McLouth, and I've seen some Orioles fans be confused when the team signed Nate McLouth this year. Many a joke was made by people (including me) about the O's - the contending O's, fighting for a playoff spot - counting on a guy who hadn't done anything in the Majors since 2009.

But it was McLouth and the O's that had the last laugh, as he hit .268/.342/.435 for the team and then .308/.321/.462 in the post-season. There is no doubt that he gave the team a shot in the arm down the stretch.

And yet, it seems very clear to me that - contra* Jeremy's post - counting on Nate McLouth to be the starting left-fielder for the O's in 2013 is not the best move.

* I assume Jeremy doesn't know Nate personally and doesn't have any actual knowledge about his state of mind and the effects thereof, so I'm not even going to address the arguments about how McLouth can be counted on to continuing playing so well in Baltimore because he's happy here. That stuff is malarkey the vast majority of the time, I think.

Projecting a player's production by looking at what he did in the last two months of a season and seasons three years prior, while ignoring everything in between, is generally wrong. Sure McLouth hit pretty well for the Orioles, but his overall 2012 batting line was just .241/.314/.380 and he accumulated 0.8 fWAR (decent in half a season of work, but not all that great).

Just because McLouth was hurt in the intervening years doesn't mean that's wiped away completely - it negatively impacts not only how much we should expect McLouth to play, but it certainly means we shouldn't ignore the generic effects of aging.

Also, McLouth had about as many plate appearances in 2012 as he did in 2011 and 2010 (each). Over the entire span, he hit .221/.320/.340 - which is quite bad for a corner outfielder. He accumulated -0.4 fWAR. Just for comparison's sake, Nolan Reimold has hit .247/.317/.447 with 1.4 fWAR (in like 400 fewer PA). But sure, McLouth is the "proven guy"*.

* Reimold needs to stay healthy, but so does McLouth, right? Counting the minors, McLouth only has like 200 more PA than Reimold over the last three years (1276 to 1067). Why is one a huge injury risk while the other isn't at all?

To expect a player to continue hitting as well as he did in less than 250 PA at the end of a season - a substantially higher level than he has in years - is a mistake that overzealous fans sometimes make, but that GMs should not.

Even beyond that, one shouldn't expect McLouth's Orioles production to continue. His .306 BABIP would have been his best ever, and his career mark is just .277. So even just adjusting that down (and you better believe his career BABIP is what's more likely to show up in 2013 than 55 games if BABIP from this year), Nate's line falls to around .242/.318/.402 - that's a below average batting mark.

There are good parts of his game - he walks at a solid clip (9% for the O's, 10% career), doesn't strike out a ton (18% for the O's, 17% career), and has a bit of pop (.167 ISO for the O's, .173 career). But those are all merely solid, not great, as evidenced by his career 101 wRC+. A batter who's been almost exactly average in his career - with most of his playing time coming in his prime age 25-27 years - is very unlikely to be better than that (or even that good) when playing his age 31 season.

So we've got a slightly below average hitter at best, probably. Defensively, the numbers and the eye-test (to me, at least), indicate an average-ish left-fielder. His career UZR out there is -3 runs per 150 games, which is actually what you'd expect given his -13 runs per 150 games career in center-field (the positional adjustment between center and left is around 10 runs). The Gold Glove he has, like many of those that are handed out, was... not necessarily deserved.

Sure McLouth is a good baserunner - about +5 runs per full season in his career, 99 steals with an 86% success rate - but that isn't enough to turn a below average offensive, below average to average defensive corner outfielder on the wrong side of 30 who can't be counted on to play all year into a player who a team that wants to contend should give a starting spot to. And beyond the overall ability, McLouth probably shouldn't be starting anyway given his platoon splits (.342 career wOBA against righties, but only .292 against lefties).

Signing him to a one-year $2-3 M contract could be OK value (all of the above does add up to a 0.5 to 1 win player), but it doesn't actually make the O's a better team (they accumulated about a win from left-field in total in 2012). It's more promising him a job and then having to rely on him to do what no one should fairly expect from him that's the issue.

I will have many fond memories of Nate McLouth's contributions to the 2012 Orioles, and I wish him all the best in trying to land a starting gig on another (third-tier) team. If he finds those opportunities lacking, then bringing him back as a 4th outfielder isn't the worst (though his inability to play center in anything other than an emergency situation hurts). (This post was more negative on McLouth than I had originally intended, but it serves more as a counter-point to yesterday's decidedly pro-Nate post.)

25 October 2012

Nate McLouth: Should He Stay or Should He Go?

The 2012 Baltimore Orioles were composed of players from a wide variety of backgrounds and successes. One of the more interesting cases on the team was Nate McLouth. Nate seemed destined for success a few years back as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a hard-nosed young player on a team struggling to build an identity, Nate was quickly anointed a fan-favorite after a break out season in 2008 which gave the fan base a real glimmer of hope.

After filling a 4th OF type role with the team in 2006 and 2007, McLouth was promoted to starting CF in 2008, mostly because the Pirates have constantly traded away players that developed some kind of trade value in hopes of bringing multiple players back in return to build a team for the future. Nate responded to this opportunity by hitting .276/.356/.497 while stealing 23 bases, playing gold glove defense, and drawing 65 walks. This was an amazing season which had McLouth labeled as a star in the making at 26 years old. Pittsburgh responded by signing him to a three year contract extension at a team friendly value of $15.75m, which is a steal for the kind of production he provided in 2008. The team then further rewarded him by continuing their "major league farm team" ways and traded him to the Atlanta Braves the following season for a package including Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez, two of Atlanta's top 10 prospects.

The trade seemed to hurt McLouth personally as he really enjoyed the city and team in PIT and was blindsided after just agreeing to an extension with the team. That was followed by two injury plagued seasons in which he sustained a concussion in a collision with Jason Heyward in the OF, an oblique injury that led to a DL stint, and a sports hernia that robbed him of more than half a season of baseball. The Braves then declined his option making him a free agent, so he tried to go back home again and signed a 1-year deal with PIT. The reunion wasn't the same however as the team and environment was far different than when he left and he never seemed to get comfortable in his second go around with the team. After he was DFA'd by the Pirates, the Orioles signed him to a minor league deal and sent him to AAA, later recalling him in August, aligning the call up of Machado, these two moves drastically altered the team and gave them the push they needed to get to the playoffs.

Third base and left field were black holes for the Orioles for the first part of the 2012 season, with errors and lack of production haunting the team after Mark Reynolds/Wilson Betemit were ineffective at 3rd and Nolan Reimold went down for the season after a promising start in LF. As Machado solidified 3rd base and improved the defense in the infield, McLouth had the same effect on the OF. Seemingly comfortable playing in Baltimore, as showed by his slash line in Camden Yards of .314/.395/.505, Nate responded to the challenge, adding great defense and much needed speed to the lineup, filling two of the major holes this team just couldn't seem to overcome in 2012. After Nick Markakis ascended to the lead-off role and excelled, this team looked to have finally solved one of the missing pieces of the playoff puzzle, then down the stretch against the Yankees, he had a bone broken in his hand and was out for the season, placing doubt on the team's chances again. McLouth was inserted into the leadoff role and responded with a .797 OPS with 6 steals and 5 home runs in that period, helping to fill the gap Markakis left and helping the Orioles to secure the playoff bid down the stretch.

For his career, Nate has hit RHP to a tune of a .793 OPS and LHP to a .649 OPS which opens the door for a 4th OF to get some at-bats, and on a team that also features all the potential that lies in Reimold, who just can't stay healthy, finding a place to get him some at bats could be key. With Markakis back in 2013 in RF and leading off, Jones entrenched in CF, and McLouth showing not only that he can provide great defense in LF, but can play all 3 OF positions if someone needs a day off, he increases his appeal.

The naysayers will point to his stint in Atlanta and the small sample size of success he had in Baltimore, however, his entire stay in Atlanta was marred by nagging injuries that made it impossible to really get his feet wet there playing in only 250 games out of about 410 possible. That all-star player potential is still in there somewhere, and his time in BAL showed that. Nate said in an interview with Dan Connolly that he really liked Baltimore and felt comfortable here, his numbers sure seem to show that, and with a hole in left field, the team will be hard pressed to find speed, defense, offense, flexibility and a desire to play in Baltimore that is also cost effective as Nate should be. You may see a few other teams willing to take a gamble on Nate being back and try to jump in the bidding, but there is a mutual interest from both parties, and for the first time in a long time, we can say that Baltimore offers the chance to play for a contender.

 For a team that has all the potential in the world in Reimold, but can't rely on him to be healthy, Nate would be a great compliment considering the tools that he brings to the team. Having three former gold glove winners in your outfield is a great way to build a championship team, especially when you balance speed, defense and power like few teams can boast, and the team-friendly contract that comes with McLouth would allow us to keep the prospects we have in case we need them to make another deal, and keeps our payroll flexible in case the opportunity arises to add to secure extensions with our young core, or to add a marquis player to the team later.

24 October 2012

2012 Orioles Retrospective: Jim Johnson

I've spent years arguing that Jim Johnson could be an effective closer. Years. It used to be taken as an article of faith amongst fans (as well as some people with the team), that JJ just didn't have the "stuff" to close. Not his stuff - the hard sinker, curve, and change-up - but his "stuff". He just didn't have that "closer's mentality". Seriously.

Here's from September 2011:

"Johnson once blew a save (or two), which resulted in some people deciding that he didn't have the mentality of a closer, or something like that. His career numbers in saves are sparkling: an 0.79 ERA, a 2.8 strikeout to walk ratio and a .175/.221/.200 batting line against (batters are hitting .162/.205/.201 against Mariano Rivera in saves in his career). That's only 16 games, though. Let's expand out and look at all save situations versus non-save situations:

Save situations: 2.91 ERA, 114 1/3 innings pitched, 5.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.55 HR/9, Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.59

Non-save situations: 3.28 ERA, 134 1/3 innings pitched, 6.4 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.54 HR/9, Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.53

More strikeouts in non-save situations, but also more walks; he's pretty much the same guy overall (check out those FIPs). Batters are hitting .252/.304/.340 against him in save situations and .253/.318/.348 in non-save situations. Johnson can close if the team wants him to - he'd be fine at it."

There's some not dissimilar point here from April 2010.

It was entirely unnecessary to reproduce that passage, but it's a nice reminder of where we were once upon a time. Buck Showalter accepted this argument at the end of last season and into this season (though there was some discussion of moving JJ to the rotation), and so Jim Johnson was installed as the closer. Here are his stats for the last two years in a random order:

Year A: 2.67 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 3.42 xFIP, 5.7 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, 62% GB
Year B: 2.49 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 3.63 xFIP, 5.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9, 62% GB

Ah, but what if I add:

Year A: 1.7 fWAR, 2.5 rWAR
Year B: 1.4 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

Then it might be easier to guess. Year A - the season where Jim Johnson contributed more wins to the team - is 2011, of course. Year B is 2012. That's because as the closer, JJ was only rarely* asked to go more than one inning, so he finished with 68.2 IP (in 71 games). Last season, JJ had 91 IP in 69 games.

* He only pitched more than an inning twice, both times getting 2 IP against the Red Sox, in Boston, a month apart.

You don't often see a huge amount of consistency from year to year for relievers, but JJ was pretty much exactly the same guy this season that he was last season. You know, other than setting a club record by picking up 51 saves in 54 chances. He was consistent all year too, with two outings accounting for more than half of the total runs he allowed. In 32 of his 71 games, Johnson pitched an inning facing the minimum three batters*.

* No idea how that compares to the average closer, but it seems good. One data point; in 2009, Mariano Rivera pitched an inning facing the minimum 22 times in 66 games. Though he did go more than more inning more often, Mo faced the minimum in 39% of his outings that lasted an inning or less and Johnson did it in 46% of his.

It's a bit of a shame that JJ's sometimes devastating sinker isn't more of a swing and miss* offering. Though he can gets whiffs on his curve (and sometimes his change-up), pounding the zone with sinkers does keep things move along quickly and prevents walks and homer, but can leave Johnson vulnerable to the BABIP gods. Not that that's often been a problem - his BABIP against is just .279 for his career, and was .251 in 2012 - but, especially as a groundball pitcher in front of a sometimes poor infield defense, getting the K can often be better.

* His 5.4 K/9 is easily the lowest strike-out rate for a pitcher with 50 saves in a season. Next closest is 7.1 K/9, and that was back when strike-outs were less prevalent in general. 

The lack of strike-outs keeps Johnson from being one of the elite relievers in the Majors - even going by ERA, he was just 36th this year - but he's a good, usually* dependable guy to have at the back of the bullpen. The 51 saves might make his price-tag go up though (and he'll be a free agent soon), which means that it might actually be in the Orioles' best interests to shop him this off-season to a team in need of help in that area. Not that I'd mine terribly seeing him try to break his own record next year.

* Having the outcome of the ALDS essentially in his hands (though not really - an actual offense would have been nice), seeing Jim Johnson blow two games after the success he had this year was brutal. Luckily we seem to have avoided returning to the "he doesn't have a closer's mentality" stuff but, humorously may have tilted too far the other way in Game One ("he's a closer, don't bring him into a tie game").

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
 OPS

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

1996 - .282/.322/.466, .788
 OPS

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

1997 - .295/.361/.534, .895
 OPS

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

Sandy Alomar:


1995 - .300/.322/.478, .810
 OPS

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

1996 - .263/.299/.397, .696
 OPS

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

1997 - .324/.354/.545, .900
 OPS

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

Jason Varitek:


1999 - .269/.330/.482, .813
 OPS

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

2003 - .273/.351/.512, .863
 OPS

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

2004 - .296/.390/.482, .872
 OPS

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.