22 January 2013

Orioles Have Issues at 2nd, Should Consider Kelly Johnson

Last season, the Orioles got very little production from their second basemen. Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, Omar Quintanilla, and Brian Roberts had a total wOBA of .261. Only the Tigers had a worst combined wOBA (.253) from their second basemen. The O's group wasn't just terrible at the plate: Their wins above replacement of -2.5 -- weighed down by awful hitting, bad baserunning (4.0 runs below average on the basepaths), and poor fielding (-12.2 UZR) -- was the worst in the majors by a full win.

Gone are Andino (traded to the Mariners for outfielder Trayvon Robinson) and Quintanilla (signed with the Mets). Flaherty and Roberts are still in Baltimore, and the new addition is Alexi Casilla, acquired via waivers.

Casilla isn't much of an improvement, but he is a modest one. He has a career .286 wOBA and hit .241/.282/.321 (.266 wOBA) last year in 106 games, the most he's ever played in a single season. He occasionally entered games as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement, though, which explains why he only had 326 plate appearances. Casilla had a solid 8.1 UZR last year, but for his career he's a replacement-level defender -- exactly, actually: 0.0 UZR. He does add some speed (13.1 career baserunning runs above average), which is useful. Considering the O's avoided arbitration with Casilla and signed him to a $1.7 million deal (with a $3 million club option in 2014), it's not a bad gamble, especially since Flaherty and Roberts are obvious question marks.

Flaherty had his moments (his most memorable probably being his Game 3 home run against the Yankees in the American League Division Series). A Rule 5 pick from the Cubs, he managed to stick with the O's all season, and he will compete for some starts at second base and a few other spots (he managed to fill in at times at first base, shortstop, third base, and both corner outfield positions). But he hit just .216/.258/.359 (.270 wOBA), and while some improvement wouldn't be surprising, he's an OK option at best.

The same can be said for Roberts, though for different reasons. Roberts hasn't played in more than 60 games since 2009, and he returned for just 17 games last year before straining his groin and eventually having season-ending hip surgery last August after doctors discovered a labrum tear. Other previous injuries of the past few seasons include a herniated disc in his lower back, an abdominal strain, and multiple concussions. When Roberts was finally able to return in 2012, a remarkable achievement considering the difficulty he had dealing with nagging concussion effects, he wasn't the same player, hitting .182/.233/.182 (.193 wOBA).

Unfortunately, Roberts continues to battle with a never-ending assortment of injuries. On Thursday, Buck Showalter hinted at a minor setback for Roberts in the offseason, which turned out to be "'some minor stuff going on' related to his surgically repaired hip." That may be why Roberts had sports hernia surgery in December. Roberts said he's fine, though, but it's yet another injury concern for the 35-year-old.

So the Casilla/Flaherty/Roberts combination is far from ideal, and there also aren't many answers in the minors. Jonathan Schoop may eventually be able to play second or third base at the major-league level, but he's not ready right now and will most likely spend the entire season in the minors. Yamaico Navarro, acquired in a trade from the Pirates for another minor leaguer, also isn't a very good fallback plan.

But signing Kelly Johnson might help. He's a free agent and 30 years old, and he's spent parts of seven major league seasons with the Braves, Diamondbacks, and Blue Jays. He's had two down years since his extremely impressive 2010 campaign, when he hit .284/.370/.496 (.378 wOBA) and posted a WAR of 5.8. In 2011, he was shipped to Toronto in August and posted a combined batting line of .222/.304/.413 (.315 wOBA), and then last season he hit .225/.313/.365 (.299 wOBA). He's about a replacement-level runner and defender in his career as well, though last season he had one of his worst in the field (-6.9 UZR).

But most of Johnson's value is at the plate, where he has some pop. Or, at least, he has previously shown the ability to hit for power. His slugging percentage has dropped in each of the last three seasons, and his isolated power dropped from .212 in 2010 to .140 in 2012 (his career low). That partially explains why he's out of a job right now. It's not surprising to find out that Johnson's HR/FB rate of 15.6% in 2010 was the highest of his career. His career average HR/FB rate is 11.7%, though it's probably between 12-13% when factoring in two odd seasons with the Braves when he had rates of 7.6% and 7.5%, respectively, despite having rates of 13.8% and 10.3% in Atlanta, respectively, in 2005 and 2007. (He missed the entire 2006 season after having Tommy John surgery.)

Johnson had a 13.7% HR/FB rate last season, which is a little above average for him. But he also hit way too many groundballs (45.2%) and not enough fly balls (33.7%). Those numbers are above/below his career averages by a few percentage points and are a factor in his power outage.

Just like the other second base options listed above, there's no guarantee that Johnson would contribute much next season. But Dan Duquette seems to relish constantly signing and discarding various fringe players, stashing them at Norfolk for a rainy day. Maybe Johnson could have a Nate McLouth-like contribution to the Orioles next season, or he could be signed one day and then be gone a few days/weeks later. There wouldn't be much risk, though, so it would make some sense.

21 January 2013

Earl Weaver, a Book Club, and Spring Training

I was too young to remember Earl Weaver, but I am old enough to remember Earl Weaver.  I think he is someone who is everyone for he can be anyone to anybody.  He can be viewed as the old school, kick-dirt-on-the-ump manager who simply knew how to win as he never had a losing season during his initial 15 year run with the club.  To those who are traditional stat hounds, then he is the guy who said you win with pitching, fielding, and home runs.  To the more modern stat hounds, he is the guy who hated the bunt, hated the stolen base, loved base runners (and the walk!), great defense, and good pitching.  He is all of these things, which makes him a legend and well deserving of that statue in Camden Yards for what he gave to the Baltimore Orioles, their fans, and baseball, in general.  In one man, you have a throw back and you have the proto-sabremetrician.  Those two perspectives often war with each other in their relationship with baseball, but both have Weaver as their baseball god because he fits with their dogma.

The first thing that pops up in my head is not who he was, but a graph.  It is a simple graph and ten years after initially making it...I still am unsure what it means.  This is the graph:



The initial takeaway from this graph is that it appears that Weaver's teams underperformed during the first half of his run with the Orioles while overperforming during the second half of his tenure.  It may well be this is just coincidence.  I don't know.  However, it does fit into his phrase that was turned into a book:
It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.
That is something that I think we should all take to heart.  The basic point that it is likely impossible to know everything, so be sure to challenge yourself continually in order to become better.  It applies to all walks of life, but this is a baseball blog and I will focus on that.  You can see it in the sabremetric world where over the past ten years there is a stronger embracing of the qualitative data that scouting provides.  You can see it in the traditional world as the industry slowly sees how valuable new metrics are.  Simply, we all strive to be better and we can be better as we keep an open mind and honestly try to learn how to use new tools.  As soon as one become a fundamentalist to one school of baseball thought, so much gets lost and so many arguments become exercises in creating and obliterating straw men.

A while back, I decided that what Camden Depot needed was a book club and I selected a number of excellent books.  After several attempted tries to bring it up to life with a good following failed, it was left on the dust bin, but now it seems fitting that I will start it off with one of Weaver's books.  The format with simply be blog posts instead of the initial podcasts.  I will not be providing summaries of the chapters, but on specific things that pique my interest.

Weaver on Strategy


Chapter 1 - Spring Training
It may be boring, but it works.

Continuity
Weaver focuses on one aspect on Spring Training that he thought was consequential: players learning his style.  Much is ballyhooed about the Oriole Way.  If you have been a long time reader of the site, I am a bit dismissive of the Oriole Way as many teams during that time and slightly before viewed their systems as harmonious from top to bottom.  This is not to say that the Oriole Way was not important, but that it likely was no better than the Dodger Way or the Reds Way.  I think what really comes forward is that integrating a team is so much simpler when the manager does not need to treat players in an incredibly unique fashion.  Drills in the big league camp would not be dissimilar to ones being carried out in rookie ball.  That level of familiarity reduces teaching time on this of minor consequence and increases time for evaluation of a player.  It also may improve evaluation of a player because a player is paying more attention to the play as opposed to a new way to perform that play.

He also makes a point using defensive wunderkind Mark Belanger as an example.  He mentions how sometimes people confuse the execution of fundamentals with talent.  Belanger was well endowed with both, but the point is made that if someone was perfect in their fundamentals at short they would still need the talent of Belanger to equal his ability.  That is, you cannot teach anyone into being Mark Belanger.  A player needs to have the ability to be made into Bellanger.  Without that ability, coaching and managing cannot make up the difference.  So, yes, continuity in instruction is important, but it means little without talent.  Both are essential in creating and maintaining a successful franchise.

Off Season Programs
He was apparently also big into off season programs.  It is actually quite interesting to read how advanced he was for his time.  He certainly has a habit of throwing in numbers and percentages that do not mean anything other than placeholder specifics to support his point of view, but he tends to generally get the overall message down.  A player who stays in shape will be better prepared to perform.  That way, a player can maximize his time in Spring Training to show off what he can do so that he makes the team or, if his place is secure, work on a pitch or two as Jim Palmer did.

Weaver also makes a point about how 35 years old is very old for an infielder and that as time moves on you begin to not be able to make up that lost athleticism.  This jumped out at me because it was a lucid acknowledgement of player aging, which would not be ground breaking in the early 80s.  However, teams would often (and still do) pick up broken players from free agency with great hope that they we rekindle the performances of many seasons past.  This too jumped out at me as our opening day second baseman is 35 year old Brian Roberts who has been greatly limited in workouts over the past several seasons.  The points working against Roberts likely are the reason why the team is hoarding marginal second basemen in the likes of Ryan Flaherty, Alexi Casilla, and Yamaico Navarro.

Pitcher Velocity
By this time, speed guns were common in many organizations and the Orioles used them.  They were actually one of the first clubs to use technology.  You could say they were a mix of the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees.  They had decent money behind the team (their bonus baby signings before the institution of Free Agency greatly sped up the team's ability to compete) and used emerging ideas and technology to give themselves extra chances for success (e.g., speed guns, psychological evaluations).  Anyway, my point being about pitcher velocity is that I assume that Weaver would be a great judge of pitcher velocity and makes this statement stand out:
With the kind of pitching we had in 1979, we didn't believe a young pitcher like Sammy Stewart would break in, but the man was throwing 92 miles per hour, and those guys are few and far between.
There is a post that appeared on Camden Depot in 2011, there were 73 relievers who threw on average 93 miles per hour and above that year.  There were 18 starters who averaged 93 and above.  In other words, 92 miles per hour is considered unimpressive these days while it stood out in the late 70s.  That should give you some pause when you think about making an argument about how talent is watered down these days and the game is not as competitive.  Go back in time and the play in the 1970s is probably more comparable to what AAA is these days.  Things have changed.

Specialization
A major part of Spring Training for Weaver was that it was a time where he would try to envision the best way to construct his 25 man roster.  He would see how his players performed and determine how he could fit them all together.  Here is an excerpt:
You need someone for each job that needs to be done when the time arises.  In spring training, I'll look for a guy who can pinchhit, a guy who can pitch middle relief, maybe a player who can go out to the outfield for late-inning defense.  When I was looking at Gary Roenicke, a  right handed hitter, to play left field, I wanted someone else to be there in case Gary didn't hit.  In this instance, we had John Lowenstein, a left handed hitter.  Lowenstein is worth his weight in gold: he can play all three outfield positions and some third base, he hits for power, and he knows his job.  He's always ready when you need him, and he's a perfect player for anyone's bench.
Lowenstein is really the dream for many a writer who longs for the strategy and implementation of platoons.  He is what you wished Wilson Betemit to be.  Lowenstein was Betemit, but with a sufficient glove.  He was not a great fielder, but he was not as dreadful as Betemit is.  Perhaps the best comparison for Lowenstein these days would be Seth Smith.  Both can stand at all outfield positions and have heavy platoon splits that favor themselves against righties.

This brings up something else which is how difficult it is to actually employ platoons and to give too much consideration to having one tool bench players.  As batters got better, pitching became more specialized to handle the increase in offensive capability (you cannot sleep through the last third of a lineup any more as almost every guy on a team can launch a minorly misplaced ball into a courtyard).  Greater specialization meant an increase in bullpens, which swallowed up spots on the bench.  Now, with what freedom remains after guaranteed free agent contracts is applied primarily with middle relievers.  It used to be common that every team had a surprise rookie traveling north from Spring Training to play a position in the field.  That is a rarity these days and big news when it happens.  As such, only a few teams really excel with using splits and those teams are, surprise, sabremetrically influenced teams: Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.

-----

Be sure to grab yourself a copy of the book.  I will be covering the rest of the chapters in the weeks to come.  There are some interesting tidbits beyond what I discussed.

Next Chapter: The Offense: Praise Be the Three Run Homer!

20 January 2013

Sunday Comics: Three-Run Homers

My original plan was to draw Buck and Duquette being 're-inaugurated' due to their recent extensions and this weekend being inaugural weekend. Something very sad happened on Friday, however, and so I took the opportunity to use this week's cartoon to say goodbye to Earl instead.

I drew this with a very heavy heart. I haven't felt like this since I drew Gary Carter almost a year ago.


19 January 2013

Seasons with More Saves than Strikeouts

In 2012, Jim Johnson became the pitcher with the most saves in a major-league season in which he had more saves than strikeouts. Most pitchers — even closers — will have more strikeouts than saves. Before about 1990, closers were not limited to one-inning saves, and pitched substantially more innings than today's closers. So they would earn more strikeouts than saves. And today, even though closers are more and more limited to one-inning outings at the longest, most are power pitchers who strike out more than one batter per inning, and so usually have more strikeouts than saves.

Only fifteen pitchers — actually thirteen pitchers, because Todd Jones did it three times — have had a season of fifteen or more saves with more saves than strikeouts. As we shall see, of these fifteen, none are truly comparable to Jim Johnson's 2012, either because they were substantially older than Johnson, their ratio of saves to strikeouts was more even than Johnson's, because they were substantially less effective than Johnson, or for more than one of the above reasons. Below is a list of all such seasons; the columns should be self-explantory:

Player

Team

Year

Age

Saves

Ks

SV/K Ratio

ERA+

Jim Johnson
Baltimore
2012
29
51
41
1.24
170
Brian Fuentes
Anaheim
2009
33
48
46
1.04
112
Todd Jones
Detroit
2008
40
18
14
1.28
90
Todd Jones
Detroit
2007
39
38
33
1.15
108
Todd Jones
Detroit
2006
38
37
28
1.32
115
Bob Wickman
Cleveland
2005
36
45
41
1.09
171
Dustin Hermanson
Chicago AL
2005
32
34
33
1.03
221
Braden Looper
New York NL
2005
30
28
27
1.03
105
Danny Graves
Cincinnati
2004
30
41
40
1.02
108
Jose Mesa
Pittsburgh
2004
38
43
37
1.16
132
Danny Kolb
Milwaukee
2004
29
39
21
1.86
147
Mike Williams
Pittsburgh
2002
33
46
43
1.06
145
Dave Smith
Chicago NL
1991
36
17
16
1.06
65
Dan Quisenberry
Kansas City
1984
31
45
41
1.09
152
Russ Christopher
Cleveland
1948
30
17
14
1.21
141

I'm going to dismiss the three most-long-ago of these seasons. In 1991, Dave Smith was signed to be the Cubs' closer. He was moving from a pitcher's park to a hitter's park and was ineffective; and then hurt his arm. Dan Quisenberry was a unique pitcher, a sidearming sinkerballer who developed a knuckleball and, at his peak, was one of the two most dominating relief pitchers in history. Russ Christopher suffered from a heart condition caused by a childhood illness which forced him out of baseball after 1948. Their stories apply to Jim Johnson even less than the others'. Finally, Brian Fuentes is not especially relevant to Jim Johnson because Fuentes throws left-handed, and so could (and did) have long-term success as a left-handed relief specialist after he lost his closer role.
From a saves-to-strikeouts ratio standpoint, the pitchers who are reasonably close to Johnson are Todd Jones (all three seasons) and Jose Mesa in 2004.
  • Todd Jones, obviously, was able to retain his job as the Tigers' closer through 2007 and most of 2008, although he was a consistently less effective pitcher. He lost his closer's role midway through 2008 and retired after the season.
  • Jose Mesa remained the Pirates closer for 2005, although he didn't pitch well. In 2006, he did pitch well as a setup man for the Rockies. But in 2007, he pitched ineffectively for the Phillies and Tigers, and that ended his major-league career.
From an age standpoint, the pitchers who are reasonably close to Johnson are Braden Looper in 2005, Danny Graves in 2004, and Danny Kolb in 2004.
  • After his 2005 season, Braden Looper joined the Cardinals as a free agent. He had a solid year as a setup man in 2006; then converted to a starting pitcher and pitched fairly well for the Cardinals in 2007-2008. He signed with the Brewers as a free agent for 2009; he had a 14-7 record despite pitching poorly. He never pitched again.
  • After his 2004 season, Danny Graves pitched himself out of the closer's job in 2005, getting released in late May after posting a 7.36 ERA in 18 innings. The Mets signed him as an extra bullpen arm, and he was only slightly less ineffective, with a 5.75 ERA in 20 innings. In 2006, he pitched 14 innings with the Indians in 2006, with a 5.79 ERA and never pitched in the majors again. His major league record after 2004 — 52 2/3 innings pitched with a 6.32 ERA.
  • After his 2004 season, the Brewers traded Danny Kolb to the Braves, where he failed to hold the closer's job while posting a 5.93 ERA. He then returned to the Brewers, where he pitched fairly well in 2006 as a right-handed short reliever. He joined the Pirates for 2007; he pitched three innings before his major-league career came to an end.
From an effectiveness standpoint (as measured by ERA+), the only pitcher truly close to Johnson is Bob Wickman in 2005. Dustin Hermanson in 2005, Kolb in 2004, and Mike Williams in 2002 are somewhat close so I'll look at them as well.
  • In 2006, Bob Wickman started the year as the Indians' closer and didn't pitch nearly as well as he did in 2005, although he was still effective. In July, he was traded to the Braves where he pitched extremely well as the Braves closer, 18 saves in 28 games with a 1.04 ERA. Much like 2005, he started 2007 as the Braves' closer and didn't pitch nearly as well as he did for the Braves in 2006, although he was still effective. He was released on September 1 and signed with the Diamondbacks, for whom he pitched 6 2/3 innings. He was declared a free agent and did not sign with another team; he never pitched in the majors again.
  • In 2006, Bobby Jenks replaced Dustin Hermanson as the White Sox closer. Hermanson pitched six innings with the White Sox. He had hurt his back in September 2005; the six innings in 2006 were the last he pitched in the major leagues.
  • We've looked at what happened to Danny Kolb above.
  • Mike Williams served as the Pirates closer in 2003, even though he pitched ineffectively (6.27 ERA). He was traded to the Phillies at the trade deadline, for whom he served as a setup man. He continued to pitch ineffectively and never pitched in the majors after 2003.

Conclusions

Having more saves than strikeouts, as Jim Johnson did in 2012, is an unusual occurrence. In general, none of the other pitchers who accomplished that were able to remain as effective. What's especially striking is that none of these pitchers remained in the major leagues for more than four years after these seasons, and none remained in the majors as a relief pitcher for more than three years. For Johnson's and the Orioles' sake, we should hope that Johnson's future is different. Still, it would probably be a good idea for the Orioles to have a Plan B for their closer.