23 October 2015

What To Know About Vance Worley

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The Orioles enter the 2015 offseason with a lot of questions, notably about their pitching staff. The Depot has already released its plans for the winter, but the Orioles didn't hesitate before making their first move. On Wednesday, the team snatched up Vance Worley from the Pirates, who had placed him on waivers. A 28-year-old swingman of sorts with three years of team control left, Worley has a few notable characteristics — many of which, for better or for worse, make him a perfect fit for Baltimore.

He didn't see much interest from other teams.

Players on waivers generally don't have the highest stock. After posting a 4.02 ERA across 71.2 innings in 2015, Worley fits that bill. Still, he pitched his way to a 2.85 ERA the year before, so he certainly has prospered in the past. It unnerves me, then, that so many competitors didn't want to bring him in.

When a team places a player on waivers, any other club can claim him. The priority goes in an inverse relationship to record, and the waiving team's league goes first. In other words, before the Orioles could touch Worley, 21 other teams — everyone in the National League, plus the six teams trailing Baltimore in the American League — had an opportunity to grab him. None of them did so; maybe that means they have other places to spend $2.7 million (his projected salary in arbitration), or maybe the Orioles have overlooked something.

This has happened to Worley before. This July, the Pirates brought Joe Blanton in from Kansas City. To clear a spot for him on the 40-man roster, they designated Worley for assignment and eventually placed him on waivers. At that point, any team in baseball could have picked him up; instead, all suitors declined, and he went to Triple-A. He actually had a better ERA then (3.78) than he did at the end of the season, but he still didn't garner any attention.

After 2011, the Rangers gave up on a little-known sidearmer, whom the Orioles promptly picked up. Darren O'Day rewarded the club's decision, giving them four incredible campaigns. As far as successful pitcher waiver claims go, however, that's about it for Baltimore. Josh Stinson amounted to nothing, as did Alex Burnett and Jorge Rondon (whom the team just designated for assignment to make room for Worley). The fact that Worley has gone under everyone else's radar leads me to believe he could fall into the latter group.

He's a serious overperformer.

At first glance, Worley looks like a typical pitcher — i.e., one whose results match his peripherals. Across 508.2 career innings, he's posted a 3.79 ERA to go along with a 3.76 FIP; taking into account park and league factors yields an ERA- of 99 and a FIP- of 98. With an inflated BABIP (.319) and a typical strand rate (73.6%) to his name, Worley doesn't seem to have benefited from good fortune.

Deserved Run Average, or DRA, begs to differ. Created earlier this year at Baseball Prospectus, DRA gauges a pitcher's performance much more accurately than ERA or FIP can. In DRA's eyes, Worley's been exceptionally lucky: While he's allowed 4.25 runs per nine innings over his career, he should have allowed 5.15 runs.

How does this stack up to the rest of the majors? This scatter plot shows the 169 active pitchers with at least 500 innings. As indicated by the red arrow, Worley sticks out a bit:

More concretely, Worley's RA-DRA differential tops every other hurler in the aforementioned sample:

Rank Name IP RA DRA Diff
1 Vance Worley 508.2 4.25 5.15 -0.90
2 Joe Beimel 680.0 4.38 5.17 -0.79
3 Tim Stauffer 595.2 4.17 4.90 -0.73
4 Brad Ziegler 528.2 2.84 3.49 -0.65
5 Kris Medlen 571.0 3.39 4.02 -0.63
6 Chad Billingsley 1,212.1 4.05 4.61 -0.56
7 Madison Bumgarner 1,171.0 3.33 3.87 -0.54
8 Francisco Rodriguez 892.1 2.92 3.39 -0.47
9 Adam Wainwright 1,569.2 3.25 3.71 -0.46
10 Mike Minor 652.2 4.29 4.75 -0.46

A lone flukish season didn't cause this — Worley's consistently beaten his peripherals. In every year with at least 70 innings, he's allowed about a run fewer than we'd think:

Year Team IP RA DRA Diff
2011 Phillies 131.2 3.21 4.16 -0.95
2012 Phillies 133.0 4.67 5.64 -0.97
2014 Pirates 110.2 3.50 4.43 -0.93
2015 Pirates 71.2 4.52 5.54 -1.02

When Worley's had an above-average RA, he's had an average DRA; when he's had an average RA, he's had a below-average DRA. (Of course, both his RA and his DRA sucked in 2013, but the sample there wasn't too large.) Through good times and bad, Worley has exceeded expectations.

DRA adjusts for a number of external factors that can impact a pitcher, including pitch framing, defense, quality of opponents, and ballparks. Worley hasn't seen any huge gains in this area — for his career, he's received a total of 3.1 Adjusted Runs. Rather, his overperformance simply seems like something baked into his profile. Like Miguel Gonzalez or Wei-Yin Chen (who rank 36th and 41st, respectively, in the aforementioned sample), he's spat in the face of his peripherals.

This doesn't necessarily matter for 2016. DRA does well to describe a pitcher's production, but it doesn't give much predictive value. Nevertheless, it does show that Worley fits a certain mold, which the Orioles have prioritized in recent years. Gonzalez demonstrated in 2015 why that approach doesn't always work, as his output regressed to fit his background statistics; while it's not a sure thing, Worley could do the same.

He's done a great job of holding runners.

But enough of the doom and gloom. Let's look at an area where Worley dominates: preventing stolen bases. Out of the 873 possible stolen-base opportunities in his career, only 26 have led to an attempt. Compared to an average pitcher — against whom runners will take off in about 5% of their chances — this 3.0% clip sets Worley apart.

How does this translate to runs? According to rSB, the stolen-base component of DRS, Worley's netted his clubs three runs via holding runners. Among pitchers with 500 innings since his 2010 debut, that places him 47th — a solid ranking, out of 146 names. He fares even better when we adjust for his lack of innings: By rSB/180, he comes in 30th. This obviously doesn't have a huge sway on his performance, but it's still an asset.

Worley has never thrown to first all that often. His high in pickoff attempts came in 2012, when he notched 43, and he's yet to catch a runner in this manner. He also doesn't have the advantage of a southpaw, who can stare down any advancement threats. Like Chris Tillman, Worley simply manages to make the opposition stay put. Continuing to do so would certainly help him keep a job on the team.

He did much better out of the bullpen.

Before 2015, Worley had started 73 of his 81 career appearances. That changed in 2015, as he entered in relief 15 times while making only eight starts. The latter went pretty poorly for him — he allowed a 4.81 ERA in 43.0 innings —  but the former allowed him to excel, to the tune of a 2.83 ERA. With a 19.1% strikeout rate and 5.2% walk rate, to accompany a 22.1% soft-hit rate and 24.4% hard-hit rate, the relief version of Worley certainly held his own.

This resembles the stories of several other Orioles — to differing extents, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz have done well out of the bullpen after coming up as starters. Unlike those three, Worley has no platoon split, so Buck Showalter won't have to worry as much about matchups if he decides to use Worley in this role. Plus, Worley averaged nearly two innings per relief outing in 2015, so he could fill multiple frames late in games.

Among the many ups and downs of Dan Duquette's tenure atop the Orioles, the bullpen has generally remained sound. Duquette always digs up solid relievers, often crafting them out of one-time starters. (In this way, the Orioles are sort of the anti-Reds, who often try to force their relief pitchers into a starting role.) Although he clearly lacks a lengthy résumé in this role, Worley could certainly become the next out-of-nowhere, respectable Baltimore reliever.

He's shifted his location as of late.

In terms of runs allowed, Worley did better with the Pirates than he did with any other club: His two years with Pittsburgh saw him put up a 3.31 ERA over 182.2 innings. He only struck out 16.7% of the batters he faced, a downgrade from the 18.4% mark he posted prior, so he didn't blow batters away. His play with the Bucs came down to free passes and ground balls: His rate of the latter fell from 7.8% to 5.6%, while his rate of the former increased from 43.7% to 48.1%.

Worley relied on the same repertoire as a Pirate, without any significant changes in usage or velocity. He did alter something, though — his location:

Worley's lower pitches have always gone for ground balls (as they tend to do). He also managed to induce more swings on these offerings, which increased his O-Swing% to 29.7% from 25.6% and helped him limit bases on balls. A downward move may not seem like much, but it can make a massive difference if the pitcher pulls it off capably.

By his batted-ball outcomes, Worley diverges from many current Orioles, most of whom primarily accrue fly balls. He does match up insofar as strikeouts and walks are concerned (both stay low), and pairing that with an ability to keep the ball in the yard would work to his favor. Worley has evolved to a decent pitcher, whose low-balling ability should keep him that way.


In the end, you have an overlooked, overperforming, runner-scaring, bullpen-loving, all-around solid pitcher. The Orioles will clearly import more than just Worley in the months to come, but this looks like a solid first move, albeit one with some downside. After a 2015 season that didn't live up to the standard set in 2014, both Worley and the Orioles will look to improve in 2016.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the analysis. My gut told me Worley was a good pickup but I couldn't have said why. I remember when he came up with the Phillies and pitched very well right out of the gate when they were competitive.

Philip said...

Thanks for the info. I'm still scratching my head.
Because they claimed him off waivers, the Orioles now have to cough up his arbitration salary, which is tantamount to signing him as a free agent for 2.7 million.
But if he had cleared waivers, he could have been signed for much less money.
Your article sure seemed to be damning with faint praise.
What did the Orioles see that was so valuable they were willing to spend near three million to get it, especially when the teams next in the waiver order were far less likely to make a claim?

Jon Shepherd said...

Claims are blind.

Orioles did not know for certain if anyone put a claim on Worley.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

They also could still non-tender Worley if they don't want to pay that much for him.

John said...

Could Worley be a replacement for Gonzalez? Although Worley does not have as much starting history, seems like similar production for half the cost and 3 years younger.

Jon Shepherd said...

Maybe...it is just that we have yet to drink enough tea to see what the leaves say.

Philip said...

ok let me understand:
A guy is put on waivers, and every team
Simultaneaoulsy( within a certain time, say 48 hours) puts in a claim it doesn't, and the claim is awarded to the team with the descending record?
So the Athletics didn't claim Worley, because they'd have been awarded the claim by virtue of a bad record, but the Royals or Rangers might have, but the Orioles, with the lesser record, got the claim, correct?
I still think it was too expensive for the probable return, and I can't imagine that the remaining teams would have been interested at the expected cost, but if I undersaand the process better it is time well spent.

Jon Shepherd said...

Right and the club would have no idea if anyone choosing in from of them actually put in the claim. They also probably will never know if anyone after them put in a claim.

Teams only get a binary response. You got it or you didn't.

Anonymous said...

One could also look at Worley as an O'Day replacement.

This could also be an instance where the Orioles use this time period to try and work out a lesser deal with Worley before non-tendering him, similar to how the Blue Jays traded for Smoak last year, declined his option and then signed him to a smaller deal.

Good article, appreciate pointing out the similarities to Orioles pitchers under Duquette.

Anonymous said...

The reapsn Worley worked better in the pen and the reason why he hasn't had a succesful starting stint since being traded from the Phillis has to do with his numbers second time through the order. He doesn't get swinging strikes. Hs a deceptive called strike pitcher, and he rarely lasted past the 5th inning or second time through the lineup.

Anonymous said...

^-- This exactly. Worley led all of baseball for two years in backwards Ks back when he was with the Phillies. He is 100% dependent on the umpires giving him a large strike zone, and even then he generally throws about 100 pitches to get through the 5th inning.

Unsurprisingly, then, the more starts he gets, the worse he does. You'll notice a correlation there if you look at his time with Pittsburgh also. In 2014, he didn't get any MLB starts until mid-June, and even then he notably wore down a bit in mid-August. When he had an 11-day rest, he proceeded to come back with 2 above-average back-to-back starts to finish out September.

As a Phillies fan, Worley feels a lot like J.A. Happ. He had one year where he grossly outperformed expectations, then another where he regressed a bit, and then he got traded while his value was still fairly high... Whereupon he proceeded to stink up the joint except in limited usage. The difference being that you can count on Happ to give you more innings than Worley (although he's also 5 years older now).

Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis. and comments from readers. But flawed in the following way. Being a fan of both the O's and the Bucs I know a bit more about Worley. The stats that show when he starts and relieves in the same season that show him t be a better reliever are accurate. BUT when he is just a starter like in 2014 with the Bucs he is a much better starter than when he starts infrequuently and is a long reliever. This was also true last year when he pitched for AAA Indy, which you can easily check out. So use him a starter and you'll get the most out of him...or at least Ray Searage did in 2014 at PGH. Or use him as a short reliever. But don't move him back and forth between starting and relieving. I think the O's should put him in the rotation.