28 February 2017

Mark Trumbo is the Ideal Orioles Leadoff Hitter

Mark Trumbo - Ideal Leadoff Hitter
In the early days of this current era of data science, one managerial choice that would cause ire was the batting order.  Modelers would use newly appreciated existing metrics, on base percentage and slugging, to regress lineup position against total team runs scored.  That was based on work by past luminaries in the field, such as Cyril Morong, Tom Tango, Ken Arneson, and Ryan Armbrust.  This enabled fans to figure out what was the best lineup.  You can use that tool for yourself here.

Here, we will use that approach to assess the Orioles.  On proof of concept, we shall do something simple.  Let's assume that Welington Castillo, Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy, Hyun-soo Kim, Adam Jones, Seth Smith, and Mark Trumbo would play every game and that their performance would be in line with 2017 ZIPS projections.  We can plug in their projected OBP and SLG to find out what lineup would be best for the Orioles.  The tool finds two lineups producing equal value and above all other lineups:

LF Hyun-soo Kim
1B Chris Davis or 3B Manny Machado
C Welington Castillo
DH Mark Trumbo
3B Manny Machado or 1B Chris Davis
2B Jonathan Schoop
CF Adam Jones
SS J.J. Hardy
RF Seth Smith

In general, parts of the lineup make sense and other areas are rather curious.  Kim leading off makes sense because the tool values leadoff men who do not make outs and, according to ZIPS, he will have a .370 OBP.  That sets the table for the batters following.  Davis or Machado following him makes sense because you want to maximize your chances of being able to score this OBP-abled Kim.  Castillo as the third hitter seems questionable, but this model acknowledges that league data shows that the third hitter in the lineup faces remarkably fewer RBI situations than hitters in the second, fourth, or fifth slots.  The rest of the lineup makes some traditional sense.  You can read up more about this kind of lineup optimization here.

Perhaps what is more interesting about the above lineup tool is that the difference between the projected best lineup and worst is 59 runs.  That difference of six to seven wins is large, but less so when you consider the worst fathomable lineups are something no manager would ever do.  Meanwhile, the best lineups are quite close to what we traditionally envision.  For instance, the worst projected lineup is one with Davis, Machado, and Trumbo filling out the final three slots in the batting order.  It would never occur to Buck to arrange his hitters like that.  So, the major take home message for all has been, in effect, lineup order rarely matters because a manager's lineup is usually incredibly similar to what this tool projects to be the best lineup.

Now, I think there are obvious problems with this tool.  By using a league wide population as a data set and then applying regression, we are assuming that each batter in each lineup position exists separate from other batters.  What I mean is that Manny Machado in this tool does not have Kim in front of him and Castillo behind him.  Machado, instead, follows the league average leadoff hitter and is followed by a league average third slot hitter.  This lack of connectivity between players is an issue.  Yes, ideas like lineup protection are poorly evidenced, but I am more referring to how hitter ability improves run scoring chances.  This makes sense.  If you have an elite OBP generator in front of you, your lineup position is potentially more productive than the league average lineup position.  Overall, that may have great impact.

With that in mind, I decided to create a new tool and run a different regression model.  This model did not consider on OBP or SLG metrics.  Those metrics were strangely revolutionary over a decade ago, but have their limitations.  They encapsulate a great deal of information that include different skills that may be useful in different scenarios.  Instead, I focused on event rates of walks, strikeouts, and various batted ball results against Runs Batted In minus Home Runs (based on the assumption that home run RBIs of the batter were lineup independent).  Each lineup position took into consideration the performance of that player, but also the players who bat before that player.  The data set I used was league wide and by team from 2007 to 2016. 

Using this approach frees ourselves from only considering a player by a context-free lineup position.  Once I developed the formulas for each batting position, I then compared the expected runs to actual runs and resulted in a trendline fit with a R(2) of 0.84.  I wondered how well the model would work if each lineup position was normalized and wound up with a R(2) of 0.68.  In other words, consideration of lineup order was a major consideration in improving the fitness between the relationship of expected runs and actual runs.

At this point, we can go back to that original dataset of nine Orioles hitters.  Remember, this is a concept piece, so we should not take this exercise as how many runs the Orioles will score or even that this lineup is universal and invulnerable to handedness.  Instead, we should merely look at this as a simple exercise to see where the different kinds of production appear to fit best using this lineup position model.

In this post, my limited coding know how leaves me unable to create a computer program to figure out the best lineup.  Therefore, I decided to go about this using some knowledge about where certain players might fit best (until Patrick Dougherty finishes the build and runs the model, which will be a later post).  I began with the assumption that Chris Davis is ideally the cleanup hitter.  From there I took the other eight hitters to see who increased his value the most in the three spots ahead of him.  What I found is that Davis has the most expected RBIs if Seth Smith, Hyun-soo Kim, and Manny Machado batted in front of him.  He would stand to see 87 RBIs in addition to his 46 HR RBIs (over the course of 162 games played).

I then moved on to Manny Machado in the third slot, which goes against the rationale of lineup optimization perspective that began this article.  While, the Smith and Kim were a good one-two punch before Machado, a little shifting around of names found a far batter solution with minimal impact to Chris Davis' projected RBIs.  The result was fairly surprising in that the model appears to think that the best one through four for the Orioles is Trumbo, Smith, Machado, and Davis.  With great certainty, I can tell you that this model is the only thing on this Earth that has suggested that Trumbo should lead off.

Before revealing the rest of this "ideal" lineup, let me explain some things about run opportunities.  Trumbo leading off does make some sense in that each position in a lineup is greatly dependent on the abilities of those who come before the player.  For instance, if you are a cleanup hitter then you will not exactly want a great OBP player leading off.  Why?  A good OBP player leading off will let the inning go to the second and third hitters.  Past the first inning, that leadoff hitter stands a good chance of batter when the worst batters in the lineup have hit right in front of him and likely were turned into outs.  Those second and third hitters that follow the leadoff hitter will also become outs the majority of the time.  This means that there is a great chance of the inning ending and the clean up hitter coming up as the first or second batter without no one on base.

That makes sense, right?  You want to maximize the batters on base immediately before you best base clearing hitter, but also isolate them enough from inferior hitters who rack up outs and put the base clearing hitter in scenarios where there is nothing on base to clear.

Well, the next question comes to why then have such an extreme home run hitter batting first and not fifth to clean up what Davis cannot get to?  The reason against that is that Davis does two things really well: (1) knocking in base runner with a lot of homeruns and (2) getting a lot of strikeouts which ends innings.  This means Trumbo has to contend with a player who will often clean the table by homerun or striking out.  With a strikeout, the inning ends or players do not move up a base.  That decreases run opportunities.  There is a logic there that the model is expressing.  It is possible that putting a secondary base cleaning threat at leadoff, you give him more plate appearances to knock himself in as well as making most of a poor situation at the bottom of the order with poor hitters racking up outs.

After some more tinkering, the final model projection is:

DH Mark Trumbo
RF Seth Smith
3B Manny Machado
1B Chris Davis
CF Adam Jones
2B Jonathan Schoop
LF Hyun-soo Kim
C Welington Castillo
SS J.J. Hardy

In the end, this lineup looks like a wholly reasonable lineup if the only thing you did was flip Trumbo and Jones.  That flip will often be made due to the belief in speed needing to be in the leadoff position, which might be a questionable conviction.  The Trumbo leadoff model suggests a 162 game production of 834 runs, while a Jones leadoff model nets 827 runs.  Seven runs, so not that big of a deal.

What is interesting is if one flips Seth Smith with Mark Trumbo.  A simple flip of the first two batters while leaving everyone else the same.  Run production drops from 834 to 797.  Thirty seven runs.  That seems very drastic to me.  Very, very, very drastic.  In the traditional data model above, a flip of two players would result in a very minor change in run production.  Is that because it would literally result in a minor change of run production or is it because the flip assumes all positions are context neutral to that position.

One other lineup to test would be this one: Kim/Smith/Machado/Davis/Trumbo/Jones/Schoop/Castillo/Hardy.  This is a very generic, normal lineup.  How is it viewed? 782 runs.  Here we have an "ideal" lineup generating 834 runs and a perfectly normal lineup getting dropped to 782 runs.  That spread is nearly equal to what the traditional model thinks the difference is between the best and worst lineups possible.

It may well be that in order to have a useful lineup optimization tool that you need to consider chaining production, linking the players in the lineup into a greater entity than just assuming a player's talent is independent of others by the assumption that they are surrounded by league average talent and abilities.

I am unsure whether I truly believe this, but, after several days of hammering it, I am at a loss as to what I might not be considering.  Have we really neglected the importance of lineup construction because of a simple overly normalized lineup tool presented over a decade ago?

27 February 2017

Developing Utility Men

Joe Reisel's Archives

As teams feel more and more obligated to devote more and more roster spots to pitchers, defensive versatility - the ability to play more and more defensive positions - has become more and more important. Major league organizations are aware of this and are at least considering trying prospects at multiple positions to increase their versatility and consequently their values. In 2016, the Orioles tried Christian Walker, who had played exclusively at first base in his minor-league career, in left field; however, that was more of a desperation move because Chris Davis was blocking Walker at first base than a real hope that Walker could learn to play left field.

Walker was not the first player the Orioles tried at an unfamiliar position. It's not unusual for a player to rise through the ranks and get blocked at AAA. Back in 2014, the Tides were playing infielder Steve Lombardozzi in left field and the story was that he was being groomed as a left fielder. In reality, he was probably being groomed as a utility player. I decided to look back at the ten years Norfolk was the Orioles' AAA affiliate to see if the Orioles were emphasizing versatility.

I chose to focus on middle infielders, because it seems that most recently teams have begun to look for middle infielders who could also play third base and the outfield.. However, the nature of AAA baseball makes it hard to determine whether a player is being groomed for multiple positions or whether he's playing multiple positions out of desperation. AAA teams almost always carry twelve pitchers (or more), which leaves teams with at most a four-man bench. And AAA teams are often playing short-handed. When a player is promoted to the major-league team, especially if the promotion is likely to be short, often the AAA roster spot isn't filled. And when a player is demoted from the big-league team, the former big-leaguer has 48 hours to report - and the player being promoted leaves immediately. Finally, if a player on the 40-man roster but not the 25-man active roster is Designated for Assignment, he cannot play for his minor-league team while Designated.. It's not unusual for teams to have ten or eleven position players able to play a given game - and that forces the manager to be creative in filling out his lineup.

At a first cut, I identified all players who played at least ten games at either second base, third base, or shortstop in each season the Norfolk Tides were the Orioles AAA affiliate (2007-2016.) There were a total of 71 player-seasons. Then, I looked for players from that group who had played ten or more games at three of the following four positions - second base, third base, shortstop, and outfield. There were nine seasons that met those criteria:

Cesar Crespo, 2007: Cesar Crespo was a 28-year-old veteran of 132 big-league games who, in the previous two seasons, had played a full season of AAA after signing with a new team as a minor league free agent. Both of those teams had used Crespo as a utility man, and he continued at Norfolk (33 games at second, 21 at short, 39 in the outfield, 7 at third base.) He became a minor-league free agent once again after the season and never played again.

Melvin Dorta, 2009: Melvin Dorta was a 27-year-old who had played 15 games with the 2006 Washington Nationals. Like Crespo, Dorta had had a career as a AAA utility player and continued that trend in 2009 (35 games at second, 33 at third, 10 at short, and 19 in the outfield.) And, like Crespo, Dorta became a minor-league free agent after the season. Unlike Crespo, Dorta played one more year (with the Phillies organization), as a utility man.

Brandon Pinckney, 2009: Brandon Pinckney was another 27-year-old. He spent his career in the Indians organization but was unable to get to AAA; the Indians released him in April 2009. After a brief stint in the Atlantic Association, the Orioles signed him to provide AAA depth and he delivered (10 games at second, 42 at third, 24 in the outfield.) He became a minor-league free agent and spent part of 2010 in the Phillies organization and part in the Athletics' organization. He never played in the major leagues.

Justin Turner, 2009: Justin Turner was a 24-year-old whom the Orioles acquired from the Reds in the Ramon Hernandez trade. And it does look like the Orioles were grooming him as a versatile utility player (80 games at second, 15 at third, 14 at short.) Turner was capable of better things, however; the Mets claimed Turner on waivers in 2010 and he eventually became the Dodgers' regular third baseman.

Blake Davis, 2010: Blake Davis may be the player most obviously developed as a utility player. He started his professional career with the Orioles' organization in 2006, and reached Norfolk in 2009. He was purely a shortstop; but he didn't hit much and the Orioles didn't think he'd be a full-time shortstop. In 2010, he played 18 games at second, 22 at third, 22 at short, and 11 in the outfield.) In 2011, he became more of a full-time outfielder at Norfolk; but then he moved back and played 98 games at shortstop in 2012. He spent the 2013 season in the Brewers organization and the 2014 season in the Pirates organization before going unsigned.

Nick Green, 2011: Nick Green was a 32-year-old veteran of 392 major-league games, mainly at second and short. But by 2010 he had begun playing all around the infield; and after signing as a minor-league free agent he played as a utility player at Norfolk (20 games at second, 3 at third, 36 at short, 22 in the outfield.) Green was traded to the Rangers in July 2011 (for Zach Phillips) and eventually got back to the majors for 25 games with the Marlins in 2012-2013.

Brendan Harris, 2011: Brendan Harris was a 30-year-old veteran of 485 major-league games, about half at shortstop, a quarter at second base, and a quarter at third base. He already had a reputation for versatility when the Orioles got him from the Twins in the J.J. Hardy trade. Harris lived up to his reputation as a versatile infielder with Norfolk in 2011 (45 games at second, 36 at third, 51 at shortstop, 2 in the outfield.) Harris wasn't happy with the Orioles and they willingly let him leave as a minor-league free agent; he played 44 games with the Angels in 2013 and his career ended in June 2015.

Cord Phelps, 2014: Cord Phelps was a 27-year-old infielder whom the Orioles claimed on waivers from the Indians in November 2013. Phelps had a reputation as a good-hit, no-field second baseman, and it was clearly the Orioles hope that he could develop into a switch-hitting bat who could play multiple positions. With Norfolk, he played 31 games at second, 28 at third, 6 at shortstop, and 31 in the outfield. Despite a memorable 7-game stretch in which he had three walk-off hits, Phelps didn't hit as well as hoped and left the organization as a minor-league free agent. He spent 2015 in the Phillies' organization and did not play in 2016.

Steve Lombardozzi, 2014: Steve Lombardozzi had been a utility infielder for the Nationals before they traded him to the Tigers in the Doug Fister trade; the Tigers sent him to the Orioles for Alex Gonzalez just before the season. Lombardozzi was sent to Norfolk in May, and the Orioles did seem to be trying to increase his versatility (38 games at second; 16 at third, 5 at short, 22 in the outfield.) Lombardozzi was sold to the White Sox in the following off-season, and ended up in the Pirates organization for 2015 and the Nationals in 2016.

There seem to be four cases (Turner, Davis, Phelps, and Lombardozzi) in which the Orioles were actively trying to develop players to play multiple positions. It didn't work; the Orioles got nothing out of these players. It may have worked for Justin Turner himself; it's possible that his versatility got him a shot at a major-league career which he has turned into a 64-million-dollar contract. It's also true that none of those players projected to be stars and trying them at other positions may have been the only way to get value. Either way, we should be skeptical when the Orioles emphasize making a player more versatile. They haven't gotten much out of it.

23 February 2017

Spring Training Roster Battle: Corner Outfielder

After a flurry of moves over the last few days, the Orioles have plenty of options for a handful of roster spots. Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter put a premium on having worthwhile fringe roster choices, and that should yet again be the case this season. The O's seem to value players with minor league options remaining more than most teams, and the Triple-A Norfolk shuttle figures to be in use as much as ever in 2017.

With that in mind, let's look ahead to the possible opening day roster. Not every player the Orioles want to keep has a minor league option left, so they'll have to make some tough decisions in key spots.

Here are the likely locks (with the assumption that Chris Tillman will start the season on the new, 10-day disabled list).

C: Welington Castillo
C: Caleb Joseph
1B: Chris Davis
2B: Jonathan Schoop
SS: J.J. Hardy
3B: Manny Machado
DH/OF/1B: Mark Trumbo
LF: Hyun Soo Kim
CF: Adam Jones
RF/LF: Seth Smith
UTIL: Ryan Flaherty
SP: Kevin Gausman
SP: Ubaldo Jimenez
SP: Dylan Bundy
SP: Wade Miley
RP: Zach Britton
RP: Brad Brach
RP: Mychal Givens
RP: Darren O'Day
RP: Donnie Hart

That's 20 locks. That leaves spots for at least two more outfielders, maybe a corner infielder/bench bat, and two more pitchers. It's worth noting that because of April off-days, the Orioles don't need their fifth starter, Tillman (if healthy), until later in the month.

Let's take a look at the first battleground, corner outfield, while a future post or two will look closer at the reliever and potential infielder battle.

Battle 1: Corner Outfield

Realistic options:
Joey Rickard, Aneury Tavarez, Anthony Santander, Michael Bourn, Craig Gentry

Adam Jones asked for more defensive-minded outfield help a few weeks ago, and Duquette recently obliged by signing Craig Gentry and Michael Bourn to minor league deals. Last year, the Orioles broke camp with five outfielders (Rickard, Jones, Trumbo, Kim, and Nolan Reimold). The first four are back, but Reimold is gone. Pedro Alvarez, basically a DH-only player at this point in his career, is also not around. Because of his absence, Trumbo figures to get more work at DH this season.

Throwing a wrench into things are the two Rule 5 picks, Tavarez and Santander. Tavarez, along with Bourn and Gentry, seems to fit what the O's roster lacks: speed and improved corner outfield defense. Gentry is the more well-regarded defender of the group, something which both scouts and the advanced defensive metrics agree on. Bourn is no longer a good option in center field and doesn't have a great arm, but he does still have range suitable enough for the corners. Tavarez seems to fit that mold as well, though he lacks the major league track record of Bourn and Gentry.

At 22, Santander is the youngest of the group, and probably the one with the highest ceiling. John Sickels listed Santander as the No. 5 prospect in the O's system, while MLB Pipeline placed him 15th. Fifth does seem aggressive, but then again, the Orioles' farm system is far from highly rated. It's sad (though amusing) that a Rule 5 pick can immediately be considered a team's top five prospect.

Unlike the other outfield options, Santander is more known for his offensive talents. It's almost impossible to read something about him without a comparison to Victor Martinez. Still, he has a few things working against him sticking with the Orioles: he had offseason shoulder surgery, which he's working his way back from; he's never played above Single-A ball; and he has to stick with the major league club for at least 90 days to stay in the organization. With some disabled list and roster wizardry, it wouldn't be impossible for the Orioles to try and keep Santander around; the shoulder concerns could help in that regard. But that roster spot could also be used to keep around a late-game defensive outfield replacement, which figures to be used often to protect leads with Kim, Smith, and Trumbo on the roster. Maybe it all depends how Santander's shoulder progresses.

Orioles fans are more than familiar by now with Rickard, who they hope transforms into someone like Gentry: a right-handed platoon bat with strong defensive skills. Gentry has a career 97 wRC+ against opposite-handed throwers, while in limited duty last year, Rickard posted a 131 wRC+ against lefties. Rickard isn't that good against southpaws, but it does make you wonder how useful he'd be in that role, especially if his defense improves.

Rickard's defense was talked up a lot last year, but he struggled at times. While he made some flashy plays, he did not always read the ball well off the bat and missed some plays a quality defender would make. Some of that could easily be chalked up to being a rookie. Still, Rickard has minor league options remaining, meaning the O's can give any of the other outfielders a look, if they choose.

There's one more curveball here, and it's that Bourn has an opt-out date of March 25 if he's not on the major league roster. So if the Orioles want to keep him around, he'll need to make the club this spring.

Prediction: I think the Orioles will start the season with Rickard and Bourn on the opening day roster, while placing Santander on the 60-day disabled list. I think they'll send Tavarez back to Boston, and they'll release Gentry (while also trying to keep him in the organization).

Showalter covets the flexibility that Bourn provides, and I think it matters that he joined the team last year and is familiar with what his role will be. Showalter also loves Rickard and took the chance to mention a bunch of times in the second half of last season that they really could have used him (he was out with a thumb injury and didn't play after July 20). There's a case for starting the year with Bourn/Gentry on the roster, optioning Rickard, and giving Gentry a chance, but I would guess that won't happen. And I think the O's will opt to try and keep Santander over Tavarez, though it'll take some slick roster maneuvering throughout the year.

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More from Camden Depot:

- Yesterday, I joined Derek Martin on his Upon Further Review podcast to talk some Orioles baseball. Thanks to Derek for the invitation; it was a fun conversation. Check it out.

- Jon answered some questions for Cards Conclave's "Playing Pepper" series. You can see some of his thoughts on the O's offseason along with some predictions for the upcoming season.

21 February 2017

Spring Training 2017: Three O's With Something To Prove

It’s February, but DMV-residents were treated to a preview of spring over the weekend.

Temperatures surged past 60, and streets were marked by the symphony of skateboards, children, and barking dogs.

Spring represents a whole bunch of clich├ęs about new beginnings and slate wiping. For baseball, of course, it means spring training is finally on the doorstep.

For some players, it represents a chance to make a new mark. For others, it is a chance to change an old one. Here are three Orioles who have the most at stake this spring training:

Tyler Wilson, RHP 

In 2016, Tyler Wilson went on a 10-game stretch where he posted a 4.58 ERA, while averaging nearly six innings a start. Then, he hit a rocky patch and was shipped off to Norfolk. By the end of the season he was back, but was relegated to random, bullpen work.

With Chris Tillman (shoulder) out for spring training and questionable to begin the season, a number of players stand to benefit. Wilson is in that group, which also includes the Mike Wrights and Logan Verretts of the world. (Ed. note: After some recent moves, Vidal Nuno and Gabriel Ynoa are also in the mix.)

Wilson is an undersized right-hander with a 90 MPH fastball and an average change-up and slider. At 27, he’s too old to be considered a true prospect, but he has shown incremental improvement over the years.

The former UVA-standout is a control specialist, which is a polite way of saying low strikeout-totals.  However, he did post a reasonable K-rate in AAA (7.4 K/9 between three seasons), which translated to 4.9 in the big leagues.     

He needs to do a better job of keeping the ball in the yard (15 home runs allowed in 94 innings) but, realistically, what you want from your fifth starter is a guy who can hold his own against big-league hitters and absorb innings.  Wilson has proven he can do that reasonably well. 

With a good spring training performance, he can reinsert himself into the starter-discussion, and make long relief closer to his floor – not his ceiling.

Trey Mancini/Joey Rickard 1B/OF

Okay, I cheated, but I couldn’t resist throwing these players in together because, well, they strike me as similar players who are at similar crossroads, career-wise.

They are both right-handed hitters around the same age (Mancini is 24, Rickard is 25.  Mancini has more pop but Rickard has more defensive-versatility in his ability to play all three outfield spots.  That makes them prototypical players for the Showalter regime.  On the other, it makes them harder to stand out, in an already-crowded field.*

Currently, Rickard has the larger portfolio of major league success, appearing in 85 games last year. He posted .696 OPS in his first taste of big-league action before succumbing to season-ending thumb surgery.

The Orioles responded, this off-season, by signing everyone under the sun. They traded for Seth Smith, a lefty who can play both corner spots. They brought back Mark Trumbo, who will split time between right field and DH. They sent spring training invites to veteran outfielders Craig Gentry, Logan Schaefer, Chris Dickerson, and David Washington.

And, don't forget Baltimore's rule 5 selections Anthony Santander and Aneury Tavarez, who both play - you guessed it - outfield positions.  Throw in incumbent left fielder, Hyun Soo Kim, and you've got yourself a party. 

As for Mancini, he made a memorable - albeit brief - 2016 debut, smacking three home runs in five games. A first baseman by trade, he has but one obstacle in his path. Unfortunately, that obstacle (some guy named Chris Davis) is in year two of a $161 million, mega-deal and is going nowhere.  While Mancini could split time between first and DH, Trumbo's presence means opportunities for the latter would be limited. 

Mancini and Rickard might be squeezed out by the numbers game.  Then again, the duo could make that decision much harder by simply raking, this spring. At the very least, it would improve their stock as trade bait, if Baltimore chooses to shore up areas where it is not so loaded.

J.J. Hardy

It might seem an odd choice to include the 34-year-old veteran on this list. Hardy won’t be busting his butt to make the team. However, he does enter spring training with things to prove.

For starters, he needs to flash some of that old pop he used to show so readily. In every full-season he played, from 2007 to 2013, Hardy hit no fewer than 22 home runs. Up to that point, his career-slugging percentage was .428.

It’s been a different story, the past three years. Injuries have sapped his playing time and affected his counting stats, but he hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire when he has played. From 2014-16, he’s slugged a pedestrian .346.

Part of it could simply be attributed to a natural product of aging. However, while everyone gets old, not everyone has a chance to play professional baseball. Hardy not only has that chance, but he is young enough to merit one last, multi-year contract for big money if he is motivated enough. 

2017 is the last guaranteed year of the extension he signed in 2014. The Orioles hold a club option for 2018, but would be unlikely to exercise it if Hardy tanks at the plate again.

Hardy is still an excellent defender, but glove-first middle infielders can be had for much cheaper than his $14 million option. Plus, the Orioles have Manny Machado, whose natural position is shortstop.

However, if he can post a respectable OBP, with 15-20 home runs, the Orioles might be open to negotiating another extension. Or, if the club is out of contention, he could be interesting trade candidate, if he is willing to waive his 10-5 rights.

Getting off to a fast start would definitely help. With that in mind, Hardy needs to show up for spring training showing that he’s healthy, focused, and is seeing the ball well.

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Update: The field got even more crowded yesterday as Baltimore signed veteran outfielder, Michael Bourn, to a minor-league deal.  He will join the O's in big league camp where he will compete for a job.

20 February 2017

Orioles Assemble Interesting, Flexible Pitching Depth

Dan Duquette doesn't need any extra motivation to go out and search for intriguing or overlooked depth pieces for the roster. Finding and utilizing fringe players has been a staple in the Duquette and Buck Showalter era for the Orioles, and they've excelled at sorting through the options and finding players that fit. And that obviously includes the starting rotation.

The O's rotation is not overly frightening for opposing lineups, and that's even with assuming Chris Tillman's right shoulder heals in time for a mid- or late-April return. As fourth or fifth starter types, Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley can pitch well in stretches, but they're still wild cards. Plus, the O's likely intention for Dylan Bundy to pitch out of the rotation for the entire season is both compelling and concerning. Of the five options right now, only one of the group, Kevin Gausman, brings comfort to fans.

That brings us to the collection of long relievers the Orioles now have behind them. Duquette has assembled a cast of characters who individually are not overly exciting, but together all have the ability to start and pitch in relief. And unsurprisingly, they all have options remaining.

Before the offseason began, the Orioles had an underwhelming group that included Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Joe Gunkel, Chris Lee, Parker Bridwell, and Jayson Aquino. In separate moves with the Mets in November and February, the O's purchased pitching depth in Logan Verrett and Gabriel Ynoa. Again, both players have options, so the Mets more or less gave them away. Then, most recently, the Orioles acquired Vidal Nuno from the Dodgers in exchange for minor leaguer Ryan Moseley. That's not a steep price either, but at least it involved an actual exchange of players.

T.J. McFarland, who was designated for assignment to make room for Nuno, was already out of options. So it's not surprising that he was jettisoned, though he still could return and end up in Norfolk.

As you'd expect, all three acquisitions have their flaws. Nuno, the more established of the group, is likely to get more work since he's a lefty, but he has some flyball and home run concerns. Verrett is also not overpowering, and last year he struggled with control (6.5 K/9, 4.2 BB/9 in 91 2/3 innings). Ynoa, meanwhile, is a groundball-inducing type, but he is the worst of the three when it comes to missing bats and still needs to work on his breaking pitches (which need "more consistency," according to Duquette).

Considering the small cost to add them, though, of course they all have their weaknesses. But you can still see the logic here. Instead of opting for an aging starter type like Doug Fister or Jake Peavy, Duquette chose to spread whatever available money around and also maintain roster flexibility, which he greatly values. In addition, the Orioles already had one of those established starter types in Yovani Gallardo (not as old, though) and yet justifiably traded him away to help shore up another position of need (corner outfielder) by hauling in Seth Smith. Starting pitchers aren't cheap for a reason, but even after trading away Gallardo, the Orioles' rotation doesn't seem to be much worse off, if any.

Now, the O's are not positioned not have to rely on Wilson and Wright if/when rotation issues arise. The depth should not be considered great and could easily struggle, but Showalter has shown he can still make things work with a seemingly underwhelming staff.

It didn't seem wise to head into the season having to again depend on Wright and Wilson, who along with Worley finished in the Orioles' top 10 in innings pitched last year. Worley is gone, but Wright and Wilson are not, though Nuno, Ynoa, and Verrett seem to have leapfrogged them in the pecking order. If the Orioles to rely on any of them heavily, trouble could on the horizon, but it's not inconceivable that a few of them could play small, helpful roles.

15 February 2017

Say Goodbye To Dylan Bundy's Training Wheels

It was reported yesterday that Chris Tillman received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right shoulder in December, and that he would not be the Orioles' opening day starter and could begin the year on the disabled list. That's not catastrophic news for the chances of the 2017 Orioles, but it's certainly not good.

In the short term, not that much changes. The Orioles could go out and sign a starter, but the free agent market was pretty already weak in starting pitching to begin with. And now, some available starters are Henderson Alvarez, Jorge de la Rosa, Doug Fister, Mat Latos, Jon Niese, and Jake Peavy. Clearly, they're all flawed in some way.

Then again, the O's internal options after Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Wade Miley -- Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Jayson Aquino, Logan Verrett, T.J. McFarland, Chris Lee, Parker Bridwell, Joe Gunkel, and the newly acquired Gabriel Ynoa -- all have their shortcomings as well, without the benefit of much (or any) past major league success.

There's no real need to panic (yet, at least), both because Tillman is good but not great and that rest might do him well and he could be fine when the Orioles need him. Because of off-days in early April, the Orioles can get by without a fifth starter until mid-April. So who knows just yet if the Orioles choose to wait things out or make a minor signing or acquisition.

After trading Yovani Gallardo to the Mariners, the Orioles' rotation of Tillman-Gausman-Bundy-Jimenez-Miley, in some order, was pretty much set. Before Tillman's injury threw a wrench into those plans, the only real question was how the Orioles would use Bundy out of the gate.

Any reasonable expectation for Bundy's first major league work in four years would have included something around 40-50 average-ish innings out of the bullpen and simply getting through the year without any physical setbacks. Instead, Bundy threw almost 110 innings, started 14 games (all after the all-star break), and posted an overall ERA of 4.02 (3.08 in relief, 4.52 as a starter). And, again, he did all of that while throwing about 65 combined innings in 2014 and 2015 (after missing the entire 2013 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery). Bundy's numbers were more impressive out of the bullpen and his velocity dipped after moving into the starting rotation, but just getting him through the year unbroken was a moral victory.

As long as the O's had their five healthy starters to begin the 2017 season, there was some thought the O's could hold Bundy back a little at the beginning of the year and keep his innings down by using him in a relief role. With Tillman on the shelf, you can throw any chance of that happening out the window. The Orioles will need Bundy during the season's first week, and as long as he stays healthy, he could realistically pitch 160-plus innings in 2017. That's another large jump.

Still, even though there's nothing wrong with fans for being wary of Bundy breaking down, perhaps he's ready for this expanded, full-time role. He has the benefit of at least knowing he's going to be starting in the upcoming season. He's experimenting with his infamous cutter. He's committed to throwing his changeup, a welcome addition to his pitch arsenal. Whether Bundy's body is ready for an entire season in the rotation or not, we're going to find out.

14 February 2017

Using Statcast to Project Isolated Power

Through my youth, there were basically only a few statistics one needed to know.  Homeruns, batting average, runs batted in, stolen bases, and, only if you were a bit wonky and had time on your hands, doubles and walks.  My youth was largely dictated by what someone back in the late 1800s who knew more about cricket than baseball thought newspaper readers would want to know.  In the past 16 years, though, we have experienced a renaissance as fans and clubs have begun to use computers, statistics, and approaches developed in other field to know more about the game.

Some of these new approaches required new technology.  One such approach is Statcast, which uses multiple cameras to identify elements such as players, the baseball, and a bat.  This is combined with radar data and the reward is a ton of data.  While one can use this data to evaluate pitchers, baserunners, and fielders, we will be using it in this column to discern ability in hitters.  Specifically, whether exit velocity of a batted ball can be related to the power metric, isolated power.  And, then, if one or two seasons of exit velocity data can be used to accurately project future performance.

Now, the first step in figuring out how useful these measurements might be is to compare them in season.  I only looked at player who had 300 plate appearances in both 2015 and 2016.  What we find is that average hit distance (forgive the error in the graphic below, it is average hit distance not home run distance) and barrel rate correlate very strongly with isolated power in the same year (p < 0.01 for both variables).  This means that these two ways to measure velocity and contact quality are related in-season to isolated power.  The regression model connecting those measurements to the metric isolated power was also significant (<0 .01="" p="">
Below is a graph comparing expected ISO with ISO for 2015 with the accompanying R2 value:


So all of this informs us that hit quality is connected to isolated power.  That should be obvious, but it is helpful to be able to see that here.  However, what we are really interested in is whether these values are meaningful from one year to the next.  In other words, is this simply a descriptive correlation or is it a predictive correlation. 

We will do a very simple comparison.  We will simply compare R2 values for expected ISO using the 2015 developed model vs. 2016's ISO.  This simple comparison will help show whether the formula using Statcast measurements better correlates with next season's values than simply using the actual ISO from the year before.  The comparison between 2015 ISO and 2016 ISO is not shown, but the R2 was 0.5026



What we find is that the Statcast method improves the predictive capability by about 15%.  That is remarkable, but is not earth shattering.  If your decision making process was simply finding the players with strong ISO, then this technique would help but it might take a decade or so for that to be able to be seen through the noise.  In general, I do not find this to be much of a silver bullet.  That said, it may be a hesitant flag for some players and suggest some players that should be expected to regress downward or upward.

Here is a list of players who the model thinks most underperformed.  In other words, who does this model think should have had a bigger 2016 than they actually did.

 
2016 ISO
2016 xISO
Diff
Miguel Cabrera .247 .295 .048
Josh Harrison .105 .147 .042
Brandon Belt .199 .239 .040
Howie Kendrick .111 .149 .038
Kendrys Morales .204 .242 .038
Buster Posey .147 .184 .037
Albert Pujols .189 .226 .037
Alex Gordon .160 .197 .037
Adeiny Hechavarria .075 .109 .034
Yonder Alonso .114 .147 .033
Troy Tulowitzki .189 .222 .033
Nick Markakis .129 .161 .032
Mitch Moreland .189 .220 .031
Yadier Molina .120 .151 .031
Adam Jones .171 .201 .030

One name that jumped out to me was Kendrys Morales.  He had a solid year last year, but the model thinks it should have been considerably better.  If the model better accounts for his talent, then we might see something closer to that expected isolated power.  It may well be that playing in Kansas City depressed his value a bit and some of his hard hit balls should have fallen in.  A different point of view would be that perhaps his isolated power was depressed because he is below average in converting singles into doubles.  That might explain why Pujols is up here as well.

Here is a list of players who the model thinks most overperformed:

Player 
2016 ISO
2016 xISO
Diff
Brian Dozier .278 .201 -.077
Nolan Arenado .275 .224 -.051
Mookie Betts .216 .170 -.046
Robinson Cano .235 .190 -.045
Ryan Braun .233 .189 -.044
Curtis Granderson .228 .187 -.041
Jay Bruce .256 .216 -.040
Edwin Encarnacion .266 .229 -.037
Zack Cozart .172 .137 -.035
Anthony Rizzo .252 .217 -.035
Ben Zobrist .174 .140 -.034
Carlos Santana .239 .208 -.031
Didi Gregorius .171 .140 -.031
Jose Bautista .217 .187 -.030
Gregory Polanco .205 .175 -.030
Josh Donaldson .265 .235 -.030
Rougned Odor .231 .201 -.030

I would have thought that the model would list speedster after speedster, guys who stretch singles into doubles.  That does not appear to be the case here.  Many of these players are rather plodding.  The closest Oriole on this list is Jonathan Schoop who comes in at a -.024, which is not a good thing to hear given how uneven and somewhat underwhelming his season was last year.

This made me wonder though about how things change over time.  For instance, is the over or under production from batted ball performance to expected batted ball performance a skill.  Are over producers always over producers.  What was remarkable was that the average difference between 2016's difference and 2014's difference was .011.  The greatest difference was .046.  This suggests that there is some element that I am missing.  The ability to over or under produce appears to be repeatable, so therefore likely having to do with a skill.  The next step is finding that skill.

13 February 2017

The Bowie Boost for First Basemen


Joe Reisel's Archives

Christian Walker (2013-2015 Tides), first baseman on the All-Harbor Park team. Photo courtesy of Steven Goldburg / Norfolk Tides
After I wrote about the Norfolk Tides' catchers while they were an Orioles affiliate, I began to look at the Tides' first basemen of the same time period. I intended to do a similar survey of the first basemen, hoping to find general patterns among a long list of memorable and not-so-memorable names. (Anyone remember Robbie Widlansky?) But I re-discovered something much more interesting and potentially more important than a list of names and trivia. It involved four first basemen were unlike any of the catchers.

Brandon Snyder, Joe Mahoney, Christian Walker, and Trey Mancini arrived in Norfolk as highly-regarded, but not uber-regarded, prospects. (Among the catchers, Matt Wieters was an uber-prospect while none of the others were well thought of.) And all four of the first basemen were coming off outstanding performance at AA Bowie.

Brandon Snyder (facing camera) (2009-2011 Tide). Photo courtesy of Megan Morrow / Norfolk Tides.


The below table shows their Bowie performances.

 
Age
G
PA
Slash
OPS
Snyder
22
58
233
.343/.421/.597
1.018
Mahoney
23-24
137
564
.300/.356/.518
.874
Walker
22-23
112
480
.292/.360/.488
.849
Mancini
23-24
101
429
.350/.399/.604
1.003

While Mahoney and Mancini were, perhaps, older than you'd like for AA players, all four put up some pretty impressive numbers. You might like them to take a few more walks, but these numbers are nonetheless impressive on the surface.

But when they were promoted to AAA Norfolk, all four looked a lot more ordinary, as shown in the below table.

 
 
G
PA
Slash
OPS
Snyder
22-24
285
1167
.256/.317/.394
.711
Mahoney
25
132
536
.265/.319/.389
.708
Walker
23-25
313
1332
.260/.324/.429
.754
Mancini
24
125
536
.280/.349/.427
.775

Yes, I know that Norfolk is a level up from Bowie and that Norfolk is a terrible hitter's park. The fact remains that there have been four first basemen who performed very well at Bowie, achieved some prospect love, and then looked much less impressive at Norfolk. And Brandon Snyder and Joe Mahoney - whose careers are essentially defined - have been what we should have expected based on their Norfolk production, not their Bowie production.

Two years after starring at Bowie, Joe Mahoney was out of baseball. Photo courtesy of Allison Veinote / Norfolk Tides.
But this boost appears to be limited to first basemen. The statistics of other Orioles prospects such as Brandon Waring, Jonathan Schoop, L.J. Hoes, and Xavier Avery were not inflated (as much, at least) at Bowie. Obviously I don't believe that there is something special about first basemen that would cause their performance to be uniquely boosted by Bowie. I'm sure that a more detailed analysis would identify shared characteristics that Prince Georges Stadium favors.

As fans, we should learn this lesson - be skeptical of players in general, and first basemen specifically, who produce apparently dominant numbers at Bowie. Wait and see how they do at Norfolk before project them to be a future star. Brandon Snyder, Joe Mahoney, and (most probably) Christian Walker failed to live up to the promise of their Bowie performance.

But at least as compared to the others, Trey Mancini may still become a productive major-league player. Yes, his Norfolk performance dropped significantly from his probably-unsustainable high at Bowie. It's still better than the performance of the other three. While Mancini almost certainly won't be the star hinted at by his Bowie performance we can still be optimistic that he can become a useful major-league player.