18 September 2017

Coming to the Defense of Jeremy Hellickson (Sort Of)

Jeremy Hellickson
(photo via Keith Allison)
The Orioles traded for Jeremy Hellickson on July 28 for Garrett Cleavenger, Hyun-soo Kim and international bonus money. Depending on how high you value that international bonus money (and Hyun-soo Kim for that matter), the addition of Hellickson did not cost the Orioles much in return. This is true especially when considering the Orioles wouldn’t have done anything with the international money anyway (the same can be said for Kim, with respect to his playing time). We’ve discussed before that while it did seem odd that the Orioles were adding pitching at a deadline where they should have been selling, it was a defensible move given that the Orioles needed innings from their starters to get through the 2017 season. Hellickson, whose durability is one of his better assets as a pitcher, fit that requirement at a minimal price.

No one expected the acquisition of Hellickson to realistically help the Orioles make the playoffs (despite such statements from the front office), but Hellickson’s performance has fallen well short of even minimal expectations. Since his arrival, he’s been…bad. He has a 7.29 ERA, a 6.57 FIP, and a strikeout to walk ratio of 27/16 (1.69) in 45.2 innings pitched. Amazingly, he’s done all this with a BABIP of .228. He’s even failed to provide the beleaguered Baltimore rotation with innings, as his 45.2 have come in 9 games started, which means he’s barely been giving more than 5 innings per start.

Where Hellickson has really gotten hurt is from the home run. He’s given up 12 since joining the Orioles, which is actually kind of impressive (his HR/9 is higher than both Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman, no small feat). Hellickson’s tendency to give up home runs is not really a secret. Outside of an injury shortened 2014 with the Rays where it was 9.6%, his HR/FB ratio hasn’t been under 10% since 2011. It’s currently at 16.2% with the Orioles (15.0% for the 2017 season), the highest of his career. To make matters worse, Hellickson (who has never been a groundball pitcher) is allowing more balls to be hit in the air than ever. During his time with the Orioles, his groundball rate sits at 33%. The league AVERAGE for starting pitchers in 2017 is 44.0%. It would be easy to point at Hellickson’s profile as a fly ball pitcher not faring well in a hitter friendly ballpark like Camden Yards, however, he’s coming from 1.5 seasons in hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park, which has profiled as a much better place for home runs over the past two seasons.

Is it possible that Hellickson’s been a little unlucky? It’s certainly a difficult argument to make considering just how bad he’s been. The first thing that jumps out is his left on base percentage, which currently sits at 49.8% during his time with Baltimore. This is well below his career mark of 73.7% and the 2017 league average at 72.6%. Additionally, his contact profile during his time with the Orioles doesn’t look much different than previously, and actually looks slightly better than his career levels, with an increase in soft contact by almost 6.5%.

Of course, those two data points probably aren’t enough, and you can’t deny the absurd number of home runs that Hellickson has given up since August. While certain pitchers are definitely more homer prone than others, a HR/FB ratio from major league pitchers will generally regress towards the mean eventually. Not only that, but I would argue that Hellickson has suffered a little bit of bad luck on the timing of those home runs as well. Of the 12 home runs he’s given up as an Oriole, only 5 of them have come with the bases empty. Of the remaining seven, 4 have come with one man on and 3 home runs have come with 2 men on. Add it up and 23 of the 40 runs he’s given up have come via home runs (58%), which again, is kind of incredible. Compare that to his career home run numbers prior to joining the Orioles. Only about a third of the home runs he gave up (49 of 151) were with men on, while the percentage of runs he allowed via the home run was at 43%.

Furthermore, the location of pitches allowed for multi-run home runs looks to be pretty good overall. Below is a sequence of images that shows the pitch location for each of the 12 home runs he’s allowed as an Oriole. The first shows with the bases empty, the second with one man on base, and the third with 2 men on base.

As you can see, the pitches with the bases empty (all fastballs or cutters) are not located well. However, the pitch locations with men on base are mostly on the edge or off the plate. The highlighted pitch below (a hanging curve ball to Albert Pujols), is the only really terrible pitch near the edge of the zone. The other pitches that resulted in a home run with men on base look to be well located, and the result can likely be chalked up to bad luck, good hitting, or both. Of course, there is an argument one can probably make that the quality of Hellickson’s pitches (or lack thereof) allowed the hitters to get to some of those pitches, decreasing the amount of “luck” involved here.

Overall, the Orioles’ acquisition of Hellickson has not provided the quality or (maybe more importantly) the quantity of innings that the front office or fans had hoped for. However, it’s not something to get too worked up about. Baltimore did not give up much to get him, and despite a nice little run by the team following the trade deadline that kept them in contention of the second wild card spot, the Orioles have not been serious contenders since the middle of the summer. There is no denying that Jeremy Hellickson has not been good while wearing an Orioles uniform, but he’s also been a little unlucky. Sometimes both can happen when you’re dealing with a small sample size, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

13 September 2017

The Orioles Have A Mark Trumbo Problem

This past offseason, the Orioles signed Mark Trumbo to a three-year, $37.5 million deal after he had a bounce-back year at the plate. In 2016, he posted a 124 wRC+ (.358 wOBA) while hitting 47 home runs. This season, with about a half a month left to go, Trumbo has been much worse, with a wRC+ of 85, a wOBA of .303, and just 23 home runs. He's walking a little less and striking out less, yet his isolated power has dropped by more than 100 points (.277 to .170) and his HR/FB rate has fallen from 24.6% (career high) to 14.4% (close to his career low of 14.3%). Last week, Joe Wantz looked deeper into Trumbo's frustrating season.

So Trumbo has been bad (-0.8 fWAR, -0.2 bWAR), and he has two years left on his contract ($12.5 million in 2018 and $13.5 million in 2019). He'll also have $1.5 million deferred each season, which is due to be paid from 2020-2022. Plus, he has limited no-trade protection and may reject a trade to seven clubs each year.

The money is an issue, and clearly the O's could use those funds elsewhere. But remember, Trumbo's deal could have been larger, and worse. One offseason worry was that the Orioles would bid against themselves when there didn't appear to be a market for Trumbo - like a miniature version of the market for Chris Davis, though the Tigers apparently had serious interest. Dan Connolly even guessed Trumbo would receive a contract in the "four-year, $60-65 million range" that didn't seem completely crazy, at least until the market collapsed for power hitters who didn't have other skills to offer.

But even if the O's seemed to get somewhat of a discount for Trumbo, the real concern continues to be his fit on the roster. Trumbo is a defensive liability in the outfield, but he doesn't hit well unless he's playing in the field. Jon has pointed out the following several times:

Trumbo as RF (1,028 career PA): 131 wRC+
Trumbo as DH (987 career PA): 90 wRC+

It should also be noted that he has a career 108 wRC+ at first base (1,434 career PA) and just a 88 wRC+ in left field (507 PA in stretches in 2012 and 2014).

If Trumbo were able to hit effectively as a designated hitter, that would be one thing. But that isn't the case. Because of the emergence of Trey Mancini (used in left field) and the acquisition of Seth Smith (a left-handed platoon partner in right field), Trumbo has seen much less time in the outfield (783 innings last year, 241 so far this year). He shouldn't be in the outfield anyway, but the O's need him to hit.

The Orioles have also decided that he's not really an option at first base. When Chris Davis has been injured and out of the lineup this year, the O's have used Mancini there instead. Mancini has seen 313 innings at first base. Trumbo has 15.

So the O's still owe $26 million to a 1B/DH who will barely be used at first base and can't produce effectively enough at DH. Is there any way the O's could unload him to a team that has a need at first base and/or designated hitter? There don't appear to be many options. Teams usually don't fall over themselves for a limited defensive player who hasn't played first base regularly for several seasons. He may still be useful there, but it's an unknown at this point. And it's not an encouraging sign that the O's rarely use him there.

The Royals have a bunch of noteworthy upcoming free agents, the most relevant in this situation being first baseman Eric Hosmer. Perhaps the Orioles could entice the Royals to take Trumbo in exchange for Ian Kennedy ($62.5M through 2020) or Jason Hammel ($9M in 2018, $12M mutual option in 2019 with $2M buyout). Could the O's convince the Rangers to swap Cole Hamels ($22.5M in 2018, $20M club option in 2019 with $6M buyout) for Trumbo? And here's an idea from Jon: Try to send Kevin Gausman and Trumbo to the Dodgers for Rich Hill (due $34M through 2019) and Hyun-Jin Ryu ($7M in 2018).

Then there are teams like the Red Sox and Rockies who will have openings at first base, but maybe they'll just bring back their current options instead of trading for a less ideal solution. All of these are just guesses, and many opposing fans would probably be horrified at the idea of dealing for multiple years of the Trumbo experiment.

When Trumbo first signed his deal, it seemed like it wouldn't be that hard for the O's to move him if they really wanted (except for the limited no-trade protection). Of course, that was before Trumbo posted career-worst numbers. Trumbo's a tough sell now, both to other teams and to fans, many of whom are rightfully upset that he's not hitting but are also irritated that he's the likely reason why the O's no longer perform their pie celebration. (Then again, do you really want to be on the same side as Jason La Canfora?) Regardless, there hasn't been much for the O's to celebrate lately, and that is hardly all Trumbo's fault.

Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Salary information via Cot's.

How Bad Has The O's Offense Been This Past Week?

If there's one thing the Orioles couldn't afford to do heading into a crucial 10-game road trip, it was to stop hitting. Through the end of August, the O's offense had been fantastic, and it was mostly a group effort. Unfortunately, while the pitching has somehow held up over the last week, the offense has been truly awful.

Halfway through their road trip (three losses against the white-hot Indians and two losses to the Blue Jays), the Orioles have scored nine runs. Over the last seven days (including a 9-1 loss to the Yankees in Baltimore), the Orioles have scored 10 runs (tied for worst in the majors with the Angels).

In that span, the O's have the worst wRC+ (23), worst fWAR by almost double (-1.5), second-worst isolated power (.093), worst walk percentage (3%), and third-highest strikeout percentage (27.6%). And as Matthew Castelhano pointed out yesterday, the O's haven't had a multi-run inning since their dramatic 7-6 win over the Yankees on Sept. 6.

Over the last week, only two Orioles have a wRC+ over 100: Tim Beckham (139) and Adam Jones (107). Every other regular has a wRC+ of 52 (Trey Mancini) or below. The numbers are ugly.

Meanwhile, despite scoring only nine runs on the road trip, the O's rotation, barely hanging on by a thread, mostly did the job (thanks to plenty of assistance from the bullpen). In the five road games, the O's allowed 19 runs (under four per game). That type of effort is more than acceptable for this group, and yet the O's completely squandered it. They now sit three games under .500 at 71-74 and only have about a 1% chance of making the playoffs. It's all but over.

Obviously we're just talking about a week here. The O's offense has still been one of the MLB's best in the second half, and they could start hitting again at any moment. But the team's margin for error was tiny, and the offense completely collapsed when they needed it most.

It was probably unfair to keep expecting them to perform at such a high level, but that was really the only way the O's had a path to the postseason. Time to play the kids!

12 September 2017

Trey Mancini is as Fast as Adam Jones

Baseball is a rather wonderful sport with a variety of ways to appreciate it.  It can range from a pure reactionary level of enjoyment with bias expectations at every turn, the pure notion of fanaticism, to heavily entrenched awareness of historical outcomes and uncertainties related to those potential outcomes.  One elusive area for many who appreciate the game has really been the scouting side.

Scouting to many is a black box.  A scout watches a player, tries to often qualitative evaluate ability and future ability.  That then is conveyed down a path to the public at large.  It can be frustrating to try to understand the process.  It is also curious how the public sphere of scouting resembles an echo box of scouting writers hitting and missing on the same exact players where one might consider there to be more variation.  Largely, the public industry has become rankings and enough of a description to be able to tweet out or participate on a message board with some manner of scouty credibility.

What has improved over the year is the technology and the ability to access that technology.  We can easily acquire fastball velocity, movement of pitches, and flight paths of balls.  We can see how able a player is at covering ground and making catches in the outfield.  We can see a player's coverage at the plate and exit velocity of batted balls.  We also can now see maxed out running on the basepaths to give us a good idea on player speed.

In the past, we have largely relied on play by play derived measures to develop speed metrics.  We look at stolen bases and caught stealing, we look at defensive range in the outfield, we compare ability to advance on batted balls, and how well a player stretches out hits.  Now, we have another tool in our tool belt and it does something grand: it measures a player's top speed on the basepaths.

Statcast measures sprint speed, the top speed a player achieves when maxed out running the basepaths.  For reporting, MLB requires ten events of maxed out running and calculates top speed by the fastest second.  What this can miss is acceleration.  Players may be able to reach top speed more quickly than others in the course of a 4 second or so run, but this metric gives us a good idea of top end running ability.

By looking at all qualified players this year, we can devise a frame of mind for a 20-80 scale.  My scale is based on the assumption that the average qualified baserunner is a 50 score.  I also assumed a more traditional take that every increase in score of 10 is equivalent to a standard deviation of the population.  We we wind up having is an average speed for a MLB player of 27.1 ft/s and a standard deviation of about 1.2 f/s.  This gives us the following tool grade table:

Grade Speed (ft/s)
80 30.7
75 30.1
70 29.5
65 28.9
60 28.3
55 27.7
50 27.1
45 26.5
40 25.9
35 25.3
30 24.8
25 24.2
20 23.6

Byron Buxton has recorded the highest average sprint speed with 30.2 ft/s, so this scale would see him as a 75.  As you would expect the possibility of a player being three standard deviations from league average would be pretty astounding, so even a player like Buxton is unlikely to be rated an 80 based on this methodology.

However, that is not true for 20 grade speed.  We actually have four who quality as 20 grade speed when rounded: Miguel Montero (23.8 ft/s), Juan Graterol (23.4 ft/s), Brian McCann (23.3 ft/s), and Albert Pujols (23.0 ft/s).  Graterol, McCann, and Pujols actually are recorded below the 20 rating, which shows that an extreme lack of speed can be made up for with other qualities and context.  Largely, being a designated hitter or catcher where speed is not completely required with some element that past success and a big contract can keep you on a roster for awhile.

Where do the Orioles stack up?

Speed (ft/s) Grade
Gentry, Craig 28.5 60
Beckham, Tim 27.5 55
Rickard, Joey 27.5 55
Jones, Adam 27.1 50
Tejada, Ruben 27.0 50
Mancini, Trey 27.0 50
Schoop, Jonathan 27.0 50
Machado, Manny 26.9 50
Smith, Seth 26.4 45
Trumbo, Mark 26.3 45
Hardy, J.J. 26.2 40
Joseph, Caleb 25.8 40
Castillo, Welington 25.1 35
Davis, Chris 25.1 35

I think a couple things jump out to me.  Trey Mancini may be able to unlock some potential in left field if he can figure it out.  I have been getting negative reports on his fielding ability and that his athleticism is decreasing.  However, if he can maintain a 27 ft/s sprint speed for a few years and improve through experience in left field, then he can be an average defender out there instead of the mess (with infrequent very nice plays) that we have witnessed this year.

The second thing that popped out to me is that the Orioles are not exactly a club that values team speed.

For the most part, the above graph does not show that speed means success.  Speed often means being terrible because speed is a young man's tool.  Fast teams are typically young teams and teams who employ young players tend to be terrible teams.  Still, one might be concerned with how uniquely slow the Orioles are.

Thinking long-term, I wondered how the Orioles have faired over the past few years.  Particularly, I wondered how established future Orioles have measured up.

2015 2016 2017
Tim Beckham 27.6 27.7 27.5
Adam Jones 27.7 27.6 27.1
Jonathan Schoop 26.4 27.1 27.0
Manny Machado 27.7 26.6 26.9
Mark Trumbo 27.1 26.7 26.3
Chris Davis 26.1 26.2 25.1

The sprint speeds tend to follow what we would expect.

  • Beckham shows solid average speed for a shortstop or second baseman, wherever he may finally wind up.  He does not shows any decreasing trend.  
  • Adam Jones went from about what one would consider a 55 rating to a 50 rating, which is a sizable drop.  He comes off as the fifth slowest CF in baseball for 2017.
  • Schoop's depressed 2015 was likely due to his knee injury.  On the slower end of second basemen, but not exceptionally so.  He also looks to have below average, but acceptable speed for a corner outfield position.
  • Machado is what we generally expected. He has bulked up and he is not the guy who stole 20 bases a few years ago.  He is settling into the 45/50 range, which he should maintain through his prime years.
  • Trumbo's numbers are what we have seen in the outfield this year.  As a RF, he would be tied for second slowest (with Nick Markakis) and just a tad slower than Seth Smith.  Although he seems to hit better when playing in the field, it seems the corner outfield will not be an acceptable place for him.
  • Davis dropped from slow to dreadfully slow this year.  That has shown up in his 2B:HR rates and his decreased movement around first base.  That level of speed erosion is troubling for a player who is in the second year of a very long contract.  The hope here is that Davis has a lower body injury that will heal this off season, but I have heard nothing about that.

Statcast's Sprint Speed will be something we should take a note of in the years to come to get a better handle on a player's physical abilities as well as maybe being an indication for injury.

07 September 2017

With A Couple Of Recent Moves, O's Show They're Desperate (updated)

Sometimes, you have to push all of your chips (or a whole lot of your chips) to the middle of the table and just go for it. For the Orioles, that rarely means pulling off a huge trade or making a big signing. It means going for things in their own kind of way, and with a couple of recent moves, the O's showed that they're not afraid to push the limit a little bit with one of their young starting pitchers (Dylan Bundy) and one who has yet to appear in a major league game (Austin Hays).

On Tuesday, the Orioles made the seemingly difficult decision to bump Ubaldo Jimenez from the starting rotation. I don't say difficult because he's been good, because he hasn't. Since the Orioles inked Jimenez to his team-record contract (for a pitcher) in 2014, he's been moved to the bullpen a few times and has somehow stuck around and not been traded or released.

There's never really a bad time to remove Jimenez from the rotation, but doing so now seems at least somewhat curious. While Jimenez has been far from good this season, with a 6.80 ERA and 5.54 FIP in about 130 innings pitched, Chris Tillman (7.85 ERA, 6.77 FIP in 83 2/3 innings) will continue to make starts. Even Jeremy Hellickson, who wasn't having a good year when he joined the Orioles near the trade deadline, has been pretty awful since then, with a 6.87 ERA and 5.86 FIP in seven starts and 36 2/3 innings.

Clearly the Orioles have starting rotation issues; that's nothing new. But removing Jimenez from the equation still seems puzzling. Not only is he not the worst-performing pitcher in the rotation, but the move back to using five starting pitchers adds a little extra stress to Bundy's workload.

There's no question the O's are a better team with Bundy on the mound. But the O's have also been relatively cautious with Bundy in the second half and will now be asking for more out of him while he inches closer to the "around 180" innings mark Showalter discussed in July. Currently, Bundy has thrown 159 1/3 innings, and with the benefit of some days off on the schedule, figures to have about four starts left:

- Sept. 10 at Cleveland (extra day of rest)
- Sept. 15 at New York (normal rest)
- Sept. 20 vs. Boston (normal rest)
- Sept. 26 at Pittsburgh (extra day of rest)

It's also not inconceivable that the Orioles could use Bundy against Tampa Bay on October 1st, the team's last game of the season, if it's a must-win game.

For most pitchers, that proposed schedule is not really an issue. But many pitchers do not have Bundy's injury history and limited workload, and the Orioles have already backed off using him too heavily in the second half (to great success). He's pitched on normal rest only two times since the all-star break (July 18/23 and Aug. 7/12), and now it seems like the O's want him to do that in consecutive starts.

Maybe things will change, or the Orioles have some other alignment in mind to give Bundy more rest. As demonstrated over the last few years, you can't ever really close the door on another start by Jimenez. Or maybe this is truly the schedule in mind, and they're looking to push Bundy a little harder than intended because a playoff spot is still in reach (as of today, they have about a 14% chance at a wild card slot). That doesn't sound like the best way to exercise caution with a young player who's still building up his arm, but this is also what can happen when a team paints itself into a corner and doesn't have another worthwhile option.

On Tuesday, the Orioles also made the decision to promote Austin Hays (and designate Jayson Aquino for assignment). Hays, 22, has moved quickly through the O's system - Low-A Delmarva last season, and High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie this year - and excelled at every level. Hays was listed at the end of MLB.com and Baseball America's top 100 prospects lists this summer, and he was also recently named among the "10 Biggest Breakout Prospects of 2017" on Minor League Ball.

Still, the move to bring up Hays was surprising, for a number of reasons. At 3:42 on Tuesday, the Bowie Baysox tweeted out the following:
Then just a couple hours later, Hays's promotion was announced. That's awkward! Things change and sudden moves are made, but that doesn't mean those with Bowie are thrilled to see Hays promoted... for him to sit on the bench. Hays apparently wasn't added in enough time to play on Tuesday night, and his name wasn't in Wednesday's lineup before the series finale against the Yankees was rained out and postponed to today.

You get why the O's would want to add Hays, period. He's an enticing player. Craig Gentry also recently broke a finger and was placed on the disabled list. And while the O's like Joey Rickard's speed and outfield defense, he's been pretty miserable with the bat lately (52 wRC+ in the second half). So Hays will seemingly fill the right-handed part of the right field platoon with Seth Smith. But, at least for now, the Orioles are not scheduled to face a left-handed starter until CC Sabathia next Friday. Yes, that means he can still pinch-hit, pinch-run, and play defense. But is it worth it to start his service time clock for such a limited role? For what it's worth, Keith Law doesn't think so.

Hays is the favorite to earn a starting corner outfield spot when the Orioles break camp next spring (the other going to Trey Mancini), so maybe this is a whole lot of worry over nothing. Filling the needs of the major league club is always the top priority, but in this case, it seems like a very small need. Plus, things like service time and moving a player even a little closer to arbitration matter for the Orioles, who are reluctant to negotiate extensions and buy out arbitration years. Just ask Jonathan Schoop, let alone Manny Machado.

The Orioles have a bunch of young players to get excited about. Obviously there's Machado and Schoop, but there's also Mancini, Kevin Gausman, Bundy, and now youngsters like Hays and Chance Sisco who could earn serious playing time next season. With Chris Davis around and important financial decisions to make on Machado, Zach Britton, and now Schoop, the O's need all of the cost-controlled talent they can get. You can't ever fully protect players, but you can plan and maneuver to the best of your abilities. Hopefully the O's know what they're doing, but at least when it comes to young pitching, that hasn't been the case for a while.


Update: Buck Showalter has already thrown a curveball. Contrary to the report above about Ubaldo Jimenez's move to the bullpen and an apparent five-man rotation, it appears Chris Tillman is the one headed to the bullpen. Wade Miley, Gabriel Ynoa (surprise), and Jeremy Hellickson will start the O's next three games this weekend, followed by Jimenez, then probably Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy (or vice versa; we'll see). If that's the case, Bundy will indeed get even more rest before his next start.

That could mean the O's plan to keep Bundy on extra rest throughout the remainder of the season, which is probably best for him. Or things could again change. Perhaps things depend on how Ynoa and Jimenez perform in their next starts. The O's still seem desperate to find any kind of starting rotation help, but maybe they won't be pushing Bundy too hard after all. Stay tuned.

06 September 2017

Mark Trumbo and the Career Year

Everyone knows that Mark Trumbo was pretty great in 2016. He led the American League in home runs with 47 after being traded for a backup catcher and was a key cog on a playoff team. He was rewarded with a three year, $37.5 million contract extension in the off season, and everyone lived happily ever after. Well, ok, not really. Trumbo has struggled mightily in 2017, posting career lows in wOBA, ISO, and SLG, and will likely fall short of 30 homers, much less 40. He's also been sub-replacement level by fWAR and continues to be a DH-only option. With the rise of Trey Mancini and the continued presence of Chris Davis, Trumbo's reasonable-seeming deal now looks like a minor albatross.

So, what happened? First and most obviously, Trumbo's home run power from 2016 evaporated. 47 home runs was always going to be difficult to replicate, but a lot was made of Trumbo's supposed launch angle changes that took him from being a good power hitter to a great one. In an age in which launch angles have become a major focus for a lot of hitters, this made sense and tracked with the idea that Trumbo always had elite power but didn't take enough advantage of it. The problem, here, is that the only thing that really changed in 2016 was Trumbo's home run output. By measures like fWAR and WRC+, Trumbo had one of the least productive 40 homer seasons ever. This doesn't mean he was bad, of course, but it does show that, aside from the homers, Trumbo just didn't do much of anything else better than he'd done in the past. Consider:

Career BABIP: .288
2016 BABIP: .278
Career K Rate: 24.8%
2016 K Rate: 25.5%
Career BB Rate: 6.8%
2016 BB Rate: 7.6%

You get the idea. The one thing that did change was Trumbo's home run to fly ball rate. A ridiculous 24.6% of Trumbo's fly balls resulted in home runs, up from a career norm of just over 18%. This essentially explains the difference between Trumbo's 2016 and the rest of his career. This season, that number is all the way down to 14%, accounting for the worst isolated power and slugging percentage numbers in his career. Other than that? Things really don't look that much different. He's hitting the ball somewhat less hard than last season but is not significantly off from his career average, and his walk and strikeout rates are both better than his career.

The second thing that's happened is likely related to the first, and it's his dramatic decline in ability to handle inside pitches. The heat maps below are from 2016 and 2017, and we can clearly see that Trumbo demolished inside pitches last year but has struggled mightily this season.

The differences are stark. Trumbo has been able to effectively handle pitches on the outer half of the plate this season, but simply hasn't been able to turn on the inside pitch like he did in 2016. Worryingly, this looks similar to his career worst year of 2014.

Trumbo did rebound after 2014, but by now it should be clear that 2016 is a pretty big outlier in his career, at least in terms of his surface numbers.

Trumbo has been a bit better of late, posting an .806 OPS since the latter part of August, but even then has only hit a couple of homers. Perhaps he will buck his normal trend of having poor second halves and save his season in September, but there's still the issue of Trumbo being owed over $25 million over the next two seasons. It's fair to wonder what the Orioles saw to reward him with a relatively lavish deal, especially given that power hitters with no defensive value went extremely cheaply last off season. One has to wonder what the Orioles lineup could have looked like with a Mancini/Pedro Alvarez/other cheap lefty bat platoon situation at DH that would have cost about 1/10 of Trumbo's overall deal.

The contract was not a massive overpay at the time, but given that Trumbo is having (at best) a replacement level season means it is going to be difficult for him to live up to even a modest deal at this point. With Mancini establishing himself as a legitimate big league hitter and Chris Davis not going anywhere, the O's are somewhat stuck. It's hard to imagine that Trumbo has much trade value, and he's clearly making too much money to release or move into a part time role. At the worst, he can serve as a cautionary tale (because Bud Norris and Travis Snider didn't, apparently) about the pitfalls of paying for career years. At best, maybe he rediscovers some of that fly ball magic and powers the O's to another playoff appearance.

05 September 2017

Looking Ahead: What Should the Orioles Do With Tim Beckham?

The O’s kicked off the week with an ugly loss, but the Slam it Like Beckham 2017 tour continues to chug along at a steady pace. 

The infielder again tapped into his power stroke, connecting in the bottom of the first for a home run measured at 376 feet.  The opposite-field blast extended his career high to 19, and marked his 7th in 33 games with Baltimore.

It seems all Beckham has done is rake since he’s arrived.  He’s won over teammates and fans with his stellar play.  Likewise, Baltimore’s promo department wasted no time cashing in the hype (hence Monday’s t-shirt giveaway). 

So, has the first pick of the 2008 draft tapped into some fountain of potential?  Or is he riding an unsustainable wave of good fortune whose apex is bound to crash at any moment? 

The answer, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between.  The real question is, how does Mr. Beckham fit into the club’s long-term plans?

To me, there are two avenues that make sense: double down or cash out.  AKA, discuss the viability of a long term contract or explore the off-season trade market.

Option A: Double Down

Baseball contracts are like grains in a sieve, constantly shifting.  One thing’s for sure: if you’re sold on something, you should try your best to lock it down.  After all, yesterday’s overpay may turn out to be tomorrow’s bargain, when adjusted for salary inflation.

With that in mind, if the Orioles believe Tim Beckham is their guy, they should look to buy him out of his arbitration years.  It could be a three-year year deal with a club option totaling $25-30 million.

Beckham’s play, thus far, has been other-worldly.  His return ticket to planet Earth will be scheduled any day now.  Even in the event he completely regresses, however, the modest commitment wouldn’t be back-breaking to the organization.

What you’re buying into is the upside: that offensively he’s a poor man’s Jonathan Schoop with slightly better wheels.  That defensively he can hold down the fort at short, with the versatility to slide over to second or third in a pinch.  If he can do all that, he’ll be a bargain in that price range. 

So, what’s the incentive for the Beckham camp to willingly sign off on a deal that could leave millions on the table?  Well, they have access to the same regression models as everyone else.  They have to figure Beckham’s not going to hit .394 all season, as he did for the month of August.  Why not cash in and lock in multi-generational security for his family?  

Besides, the Orioles are paying J.J. Hardy’s cadaver $12.5 million.  I think they could scrape together some change from under the proverbial couch cushion to pay for Beckham.   

Option B: Cash Out

On the other hand, there may not be a better time for the Orioles to flip their new acquisition than this coming off-season.

With their most-recent impressions of Beckham being his second-half surge, opposing general managers will have to listen with at least feigned-interest should Baltimore come calling.  

And, if the interest is expressed the other way around, the Orioles can’t afford not to listen.  Their farm system lacks blue chippers at virtually every position.  Simply put, it needs massive work.  

In the meanwhile, they could sign a serviceable veteran to keep the fires warm until minor-leaguer Ryan Mountcastle proves he’s ready for the show.   

It’s highly doubtful this scenario would happen, mainly because the Orioles are philosophically-opposed to trading established players.  Also, Beckham seems to fit their idea of coveted player perfectly (low walk rate, average power, high K-percentage).  Still, it’s an avenue worth at least exploring.  

01 September 2017

How The Orioles Have Performed Against Top Pitching

The Orioles, supported by MLBs best offense in the second half, have pulled off a seven game winning streak (and counting as of Wednesday) while placing themselves in the midst of the playoff race. Don’t look now, but the Os are one game behind the Twins for the second wild card spot and just two and half behind the suddenly slumping Yankees. Playoffs may indeed be in the future for the Orioles.

But this begs the question of how the Orioles hitters might perform in the playoffs. Playoff teams are typically better than the average team, and that means on average that their pitchers are of better quality than usual. How have the Orioles performed against top pitchers? To test this, using Statcast data, I looked at how Orioles batters performed against pitchers in the top third, middle third and bottom third of wOBA. Here’s how they did against pitchers in the bottom third.

On average, the Orioles have over-performed against pitchers in the bottom third of MLB, but Statcast thinks they’ve been lucky. Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop all have above average performance against these pitchers, but Tim Beckham has an amazing .624 wOBA against them. As an Oriole, he has a .550/.571/.900 line against these pitchers in 21 PAs. In addition, Chris Davis is showing some decent plate discipline against bad pitchers with a 16.5% walk rate and a 32% strikeout rate. That’s a potential red flag because it suggests that Davis is able to see pitches when bad pitchers are throwing them. If so, this may be a skill problem and not an overall sight problem. Meanwhile Jonathan Schoop has an 8.3% walk rate and a 21.8% strikeout rate, suggesting that it’s easier to get walks against bad pitchers than good ones.

The Orioles have done about average against pitchers in the middle third of MLB. A number of players are above average against these pitchers (Jones, Schoop, Machado and Smith) but the one who has really gone bananas is Tom Beckham. His .484/.515/.806 line in 33 PAs is making him a terror to all mediocre pitchers. Chris Davis, with a 13.5% walk rate and a 38% strikeout rate, doesn’t have terrible numbers against average pitchers, but it’s clear to see how his performance has gotten worse. His .284 wOBA is below average against these pitchers, and suggests his success has largely been due to his performance against bad pitching. Schoop has a 4.4% walk rate and a 23.2% strikeout rate, showing that he still has plate discipline issues against decent pitchers.

The Orioles have done slightly above average against top pitchers with Schoop, Castillo, Mancini and Gentry leading the charge. Adam Jones has a 1.85% walk rate, a 24% strikeout rate and just a .182 wOBA against the best pitchers. This suggests that we should perhaps expect another quiet postseason to go along with his postseason career line of .155/.206/.207. Simply put, he doesn’t seem to be good enough to go head-to-head with MLBs top pitchers. Chris Davis has a slightly below average wOBA of .256 against top pitchers, but an 8.89% walk rate and a 45.6% strikeout rate suggest that he’s largely been solved by top pitchers. He’s probably not the guy you want to use against an ace.

Jonathan Schoop has gone back to his free-swinging ways against top pitchers, and it seems to be working for him. He may have only a 4.25% walk rate to go with a 20% strikeout rate, but he has a .361 wOBA against the best pitchers. It seems he’s a threat against anyone if he just puts the ball into play.

Manny Machado has struggled with his plate discipline against the best pitchers with a 5.1% walk rate to go with a 25.4% strikeout rate. His actual wOBA is considerably below average against the best pitchers, but Statcast thinks his performance has been above average. It seems clear that Manny need to work on his plate discipline though if he’s going to do well against the best pitching. Meanwhile, Mark Trumbo is showing an ability to perform at the same level offensively regardless of the pitcher. This might make him more valuable than expected to a playoff team, and therefore suggest his value is higher than one might think.

Tim Beckham is taking apart bad and decent pitching, but good pitchers aren’t having any trouble with him. His .181/.250/.273 line against top pitchers in 12 chances is slightly worse than his line against other pitchers. Part of his problem may be a low .222 BABIP.

It’s worth noting that this data is descriptive as opposed to predictive. It could be that knowing the results of a players previous 100 plate appearances against good pitching gives us no insights about his next 100 plate appearances. But that stated, some of these results are what one would expect to see.

This data suggests that the Orioles are slightly above average against top pitching. But it also suggests that the Orioles have largely taken advantage of bad pitching this season and have a number of batters that can hurt bad pitchers. If so, the Orioles may be in for some bad news this October if they make it to the playoffs. A merely above-average offense will struggle to make up for the Orioles weak pitching staff. If the Orioles can’t find a way to pound good pitching, any playoff appearance is likely to be short.

31 August 2017

Monster-cini: Projecting Trey Mancini's Next Ten Years

One of the shining bright spots this year has been the emergence of Trey Mancini as a bona fide major leaguer.  It has been a development that has surprised many in the field.  Mancini has a solid approach, a shorter swing than in the past, and has overcome problems others have foreseen with his decreasing athleticism.  Yes, his time in the outfield seems to be dictated more by the presence of Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis than by any actual ability to play left field, but when you have a decent bat then the manager needs to find you a place to play.

Looking forward, it may be useful to try to envision who Mancini might well be.  Using his current line:

Standard Batting
2 Yr2 Yr2 Yr47325.297.347.531
162 162 162 62833.297.347.531
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/30/2017.

I tried to find batters aged 25 with similar profiles.  The closest statistical profiles I found were: Rico Brogna, Mike Young, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Richie Sexson, Mike Marshall, Cory Snyder, Stephen Drew (?), Raul Mondesi, and Al Martin.  I used this population to predict the average outcome for Mancini each year.  What we get is below:

2018 26 515 22 .269 .332 .468 2.3
2019 27 561 23 .272 .341 .477 2.8
2020 28 538 21 .274 .350 .468 2.8
2021 29 433 17 .283 .347 .481 2.4
2022 30 485 18 .267 .337 .455 2.1
2023 31 411 15 .258 .320 .444 1.3
2024 32 417 14 .251 .318 .424 1.0
2025 33 317 11 .249 .319 .421 0.7
2026 34 310 8 .227 .291 .363 -0.2
2027 35 273 7 .210 .270 .338 -0.7

The above projection would be rather ideal for the club even though the first two seasons will experience some redundancy with Davis and Trumbo both around.  However, it is more than likely that Mancini should be able to slide into 1B or DH in 2020 depending on how Chris Davis ages.  This version of Mancini is the kind of player a team like the Orioles will need if they chose to throw down trailers full of cash at Machado.

Now, what would an exceptional career look like?  I took the above pool and cut it in half and kept the five players with the best career moving forward.What would a best outcome career look like? I took Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Richie Sexson, Raul Mondesi, and Al Martin.


That would be a stunning career and one that would keep the playoff window open for the club in the years to come.  That said, let's do a different sub-grouping.  That sub-grouping would be the low walk, high strikeout group: Raul Mondesi, Cory Snyder, Richie Sexson, Rico Brogna, and Mike Marshall.


Let us pretend I did not run those numbers.  However, he would still be a useful role player.

29 August 2017

O's Offensive Resurgence Has Been A Group Effort

One strange thing about the season's first half for the Orioles is how mediocre the offense was. You expected the starting pitching to not be good, but the offense was far from great. At the all-star break, the Orioles ranked just 22nd in the major leagues in runs scored and were generally unimpressive offensively.

In the first half, really only Trey Mancini (135 wRC+) and Jonathan Schoop (131 wRC+) were overly productive. Caleb Joseph's 95 wRC+ stood out because it was a significant jump for him, but other than Mancini and Schoop, the only two regulars to post a wRC+ over 100 were Chris Davis (105) and Seth Smith (102). The rest ranged from average to below average (Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Welington Castillo) to not very good or bad (Joey Rickard, Hyun Soo Kim, J.J. Hardy).

To say that things have clicked in the second half, though, would be an understatement. While the starting pitching has also been better -- 5.75 ERA/5.31 FIP first half vs.  5.18 ERA/5.18 FIP -- the offense has been right near the top among all MLB teams. Since the break, the Orioles are second in runs scored (248), first in wRC+ (120), first in home runs (72), fourth in on-base percentage (.341), and first in slugging percentage (.493).

So what's changed? A .325 BABIP has helped (compared to .301 in the first half). Castillo (163 wRC+), Smith (148), Machado (144), Gentry (135), Schoop (133), Jones (131), and Mancini (116) have all been hitting extremely well. Even Davis, who has a wRC+ of just 102 on the season and has struggled mightily at times, is almost back over the 100 wRC+ mark in the second half. That only leaves Rickard (64 wRC+), who's in Triple-A Norfolk until rosters expand, and Trumbo (61 wRC+) as the only regulars who haven't hit well.

Oh, right. There's also been the small addition of Tim Beckham to help solidify the top of the O's lineup. Since joining the Orioles a month ago, Beckham has a wRC+ of 185 and has been worth nearly two wins above replacement. In the last 30 days, Beckham's 1.7 fWAR is tied with Machado for sixth-best in the majors. His wRC+ is seventh-best. No one could have predicted Beckham would play like this, and his performance has helped vault the Orioles back into serious playoff contenders.

To recap, in the first half, the O's had just four regulars with a wRC+ over 100. In the second half, they have eight. As with many things, the true talent of the O's offense is probably somewhere between both halves.

The bad news is that the offense might have to keep being this good or close if the O's are going to take the second wild card spot, thanks to inconsistent starting pitching. The good news, though, is that Beckham seems to be a real find for an inexpensive price, Machado is back to being Machado, Schoop seems to have taken a leap forward, and Mancini has hit better than many of his biggest supporters could have predicted. The future of the Orioles is uncertain, but at least there are a couple more things to get excited about.

28 August 2017

How the Orioles Spent Some of Their International Bonus Allotment

Joe Reisel's Archives

For the past few seasons, major league teams have been limited in the amount of money they can spend on signing young international free agents - at least without being subject to subsequent penalties. Actually, teams can sign as many players as they want for less than 10,000 USD; the limits apply to signing bonuses greater than 10,000. Depending on various circumstances, teams can give bonuses up to their total specified limit. A team that cannot, or does not want to, spend their limit can trade pieces of their limit to other teams, which increases the spending limit for the acquiring team.

It is well known that the Orioles have little interest in spending up to their limit on international signings. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone; when General Manager Dan Duquette was the general manager of the Red Sox, he declared that the bonuses given to young Latin American players were too high and that it made better financial sense to scout and sign players from non-traditional countries in Latin America, Europe, and (especially) Asia. He has followed that philosophy with the Orioles.

Because the Orioles will not use their ability to sign international free agents, and because other teams would like to spend more than their initial limit, the Orioles have aggressively traded bonus pool money for other players. The Orioles included international bonus pool amounts in the Jake Arrieta trade (as if Arrieta and Pedro Strop themselves weren't enough for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger.) More bonus pool amounts brought them Chris Lee, who is considered one of the Orioles' better prospects.

The Orioles were able to trade 2017-2018 international signing bonus amounts beginning July 2. On that day, they acquired Matt Wotherspoon, a right-handed pitcher, from the Yankees and Jason Wheeler, a left-handed pitcher, from the Dodgers, each for international bonus amounts. It is, I think, important to realize that actual money isn't being exchanged - it's just permission to spend money. As a result of these trades, the Yankees and Dodgers can spend more money than they were originally allowed and the Oriole can spend less. Wotherspoon and Wheeler were assigned to Norfolk.

Through August 26, Matt Wotherspoon has gone 3-1, 2.28 with Norfolk.. Photo Courtesy Scott Sears/Norfolk Tides
Matt Wotherspoon is representative of a fairly common AAA player - a right-handed relief pitcher without great stuff but is able to get batters out by commanding his pitches and avoiding hard contact. As a full-time relief pitcher, Wotherspoon has had an ERA greater than 3.00 only once - in a ten-inning end-of-year stint in AA Trenton in 2015. There's no reason to think that (1) if he got a chance, he couldn't be an effective low-leverage major league relief pitcher or (2) that he's ever going to get that chance.

Because he's a relief pitcher who joined the Tides on July 2, I haven't seen much of him - 17 batters - but have seen enough to at least not contradict my initial impression. There has been one ball that has been hard-hit off him. He's walked three and struck out five. There have been four ground balls and five fly balls/popups. He's 25. Most likely, he is going to be what he is.

Jason Wheeler pitched three innings for the Minnesota Twins in 2016 Photo Courtesy of Steven Goldburg/Norfolk Tides.
Jason Wheeler is representative of another fairly common AAA player - a left-handed pitcher, usually a starter in the lower levels, who starts by serving as a long relief pitcher. When the inevitable rain-induced doubleheaders or promotion-driven bullpen days occur, this pitcher will get a chance to make a start and, if he pitches well, will be introduced into the starting rotation. Previous examples of this pitcher on the Norfolk Tides are Chris George (2010-2011), Chris Jones (2014-2015), and Andy Oliver.(2016).

Because these pitchers don't have above-average stuff and aren't particularly more effective against left-handed batters, their chances of having a successful major-league career are slim. Although George and Oliver had played in the major leagues before they had evolved into the described role, none of the three ever parlayed their success as lefty swingmen into a major-league appearance. Jason Wheeler is 27 and he's unlikely to earn more than the three major-league innings he got with the 2016 Twins. His role in the Orioles' organization is to help AAA Norfolk get through the year when the big-league team has pitchers on the AAA-Majors shuffle.

It's important to remember that the Orioles gave up nothing tangible to acquire these pitchers (and other players.) They simply gave other teams their right to spend money signing international free agents. Many of the players to whom that money will go will never develop, and get released without ever reaching A-ball, much less AAA. Wotherspoon and Wheeler are AAA players, right now. It's defensible to not spend 4-5 million USD annually signing teenage Latin American talent, and to trade the right to spend the money you wouldn't spend anyway to acquire players already in professional ball.

I will state that I do not agree with the Orioles' current approach to completely ignore the Latin American talent market. I believe they need to invest more in Latin America. But the Orioles' could spend up to 5.75 million USD on international prospects. If I could acquire AAA players for letting other teams spend up to even 1 million USD of my allotment - remember, I'm not giving up actual cash - I probably would.

25 August 2017

What's Next For Miguel Castro?

The Orioles are going to need starting pitchers next year. Well, they also need starting pitchers right now, but there's almost nothing that can be done about that. Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jeremy Hellickson are scheduled to become free agents. Wade Miley has a team option for $12 million (and a $500,000 buyout). If they all depart, that leaves Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman as the team's two penciled-in starters.

There are options at Triple-A Norfolk, even if they aren't good ones. One name, Jayson Aquino, is a little more interesting than the others (Alec Asher, Chris Lee, Vidal Nuno, Logan Verrett, Tyler Wilson, Gabriel Ynoa, etc.). Perhaps he'll get a shot late this season or in 2018. That's about it, though, in terms of immediate starting rotation help in the O's minor league system.

That's what makes it intriguing to ponder the next step for Miguel Castro. Signed by the Blue Jays in 2012 as an amateur free agent, Castro is still only 22 years old. The Orioles, though, are the third major league team he's played for, and this is the first time he's found some success. While coming up in the Blue Jays' system, he was first used as a starting pitcher. That didn't quite work out, and he was eventually shipped to the Rockies as part of a package of prospects to acquire Troy Tulowitzki in July 2015. He hasn't started a game since, either in the majors or the minors.

In 32+ major league innings combined with the Blue Jays and Rockies in 2015 and 2016, Castro posted an ERA over 6 each year. The Rockies had seen enough and designated him for assignment in March, so in April the Orioles were able to acquire Castro for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Castro first joined the O's in mid-May, and he's been a pretty regular contributor out of the bullpen in July and August.

Castro, who, according to Brooks Baseball data, throws a four-seamer, slider, and changeup, has posted a 2.74 ERA over 46 innings. He's made strides in walk and home run prevention, at least compared to his brief stints in Toronto and Colorado:

Castro BB/9
2015: 5.09
2016: 3.07
2017: 2.35

Castro HR/9
2015: 2.04
2016: 1.84
2017: 1.17

However, his strikeouts have also decreased each year:

Castro K/9
2015: 9.17
2016: 7.36
2017: 4.89

After posting BABIPs over .320 in his first two seasons, Castro is currently running a BABIP of just .210. He's also stranding runners at a higher than normal rate (80.8 LOB% vs. league average of 73.6% for relievers). It's easy to like what Castro is doing, but it's toough to know what to trust.
On Wednesday, the Orioles got a huge helping hand from Castro in their 12-inning win over the A's. After Zach Britton's consecutive save streak came to an end and the Orioles went to extra innings, they needed someone to step in and hold things down for a while for a bullpen with just Darren O'Day remaining (and he had pitched in three straight games, and four of the last five).
Castro did just that, hurling 3 2/3 scoreless innings and giving Manny Machado some time for more late-game heroics.

At the very least, it seems like stretching Castro out to become a starter wouldn't be a difficult transition. He's already been used in short appearances and longer ones. On July 30, he threw just a third of an inning and was ineffective. In his next outing, he was summoned after another bad Tillman start and tossed six shutout innings.

Still, his lack of strikeouts with his current pitch arsenal causes hesitation. In 2017, the average major league starter has a K/9 of 7.9. Only one qualified starter this season has a lower K/9 than Castro's 4.89. That would be Ty Blach of the Giants at 4.38. Blach is a former fifth-round pick who's doing an even better job of avoiding walks and home runs. Maybe Castro could do something similar, but it's tough to find success and maintain it year after year when you're not missing bats. Major league hitters are too good at finding ways to maximize damage when they make contact.

Before coming to the Orioles, Castro's fastball velocity was about 97 mph. This year, it's closer to 96 mph. There isn't much change in vertical movement, but his fastball is generating more movement horizontally. The same is true for both his slider and changeup. Just look at the movement Castro can generate with his fastball:
You see in the above clips what he can do with his fastball and slider. His changeup still seems to be a work in progress, and he only throws it about 11% of the time anyway. But why isn't he able to consistently get more whiffs? Even his best swing-and-miss pitch, his slider, has taken a slight dip (though it's still getting whiffs on more than 51% of swings).

Another strange thing for Castro is that he's getting batters to chase more, but they're making more contact. His O-Swing% went from about 25-26% in 2015/2016 to almost 37% this season. But after posting O-Contact% numbers of 48% and then 55% in 2015/2016, that number has jumped to almost 66%. Overall, batters are swinging more against him, and they're making more contact. And somehow, it's working. He's about in the middle of the pack in terms of average exit velocity on batted balls, so maybe that should be considered a victory. But it's not like he's been great in limiting hard contact.

The best part of Castro is the Orioles seem to have something in him, even if it's unknown exactly what that is. Plus, he was acquired for almost nothing. He's young, cheap, and under team control for a long time. After watching other pitchers leave Baltimore and get more out of their talents -- in some cases, almost immediately -- it is a nice change for the O's to get actual contributions from a discarded and overlooked pitcher.

Castro may not project as a solid starting option or even as any kind of long-term, shutdown reliever, but he is helping right now and does possess a couple of pitches that flash his potential. The Orioles don't need him to be amazing; they just need him to do a decent Miguel Gonzalez impression. Is that too much to ask for?