31 January 2014

Bud Norris and Trying to Avoid the Bullpen

Before the end of the trade deadline last year, the Orioles picked up Bud Norris from the Astros in exchange for prospects L.J. Hoes and Josh Hader. The O's also shipped a 2014 compensation draft pick to Houston in the deal and received an international signing bonus slot.

In 50.2 innings after joining the Orioles, Norris pitched all right. His 4.80 ERA was somewhat misleading, thanks to a .382 BABIP. He also had a K/9 of 10.13 (career 8.51 K/9) with Baltimore, which was impressive, but his walks were slightly up as well (4.26 BB/9; career 3.76 BB/9). He was fine, but not special, which is OK considering the various starting pitchers the Orioles have trotted out to the mound over the years.

Year Age Tm ERA IP ERA+ HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2009 24 HOU 4.53 55.2 91 1.5 4.0 8.7
2010 25 HOU 4.92 153.2 80 1.1 4.5 9.3
2011 26 HOU 3.77 186.0 100 1.2 3.4 8.5
2012 27 HOU 4.65 168.1 87 1.2 3.5 8.8
2013 28 TOT 4.18 176.2 98 0.9 3.4 7.5
5 Yrs 4.36 740.1 91 1.1 3.7 8.5
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/29/2014.

Norris is all but assured of a spot in the 2014 starting rotation, but he clearly has some red flags:
  1. He's not very good against left-handed batters (lefties have a .355 wOBA against him; righties have a .310 wOBA). His slider isn't nearly as effective against lefties. He throws the slider 45% against right-handed batters, but just 27% of the time against left-handed ones.
  2. He doesn't work late in games (has only pitched 43.2 innings beyond the sixth inning) because he struggles with lineups the second and third time through. First time: .244/.318/.379; second time: .261/.333/.421; third time: .276/.356/.463. For reference: 2013 MLB splits for the same category (first: .250/.309/.390; second: .259/.319/.411; third: .270/.331/.429). That third time through a lineup is a nightmare for Norris. Also, on pitches 1-100 he is fine, with an tOPS+ around 100. But after 100 pitches, his tOPS+ jumps to 176.
  3. He's a back-end starter who has already seen a decline in velocity and strikeout rate. (See table below.)
  4. There's been some talk of him eventually moving to the bullpen (though that likely won't happen right away).
Norris's strikeout rate and average fastball velocity from 2009-2013:

YearK/9FB Velo

That's not a great sign. But one positive is that Norris has improved his walk rate since his first two seasons (over 4 then, now around 3.5). He's also thrown at least 153 innings in each of the last four seasons. So he is both durable and a starting pitcher, which are two things that interest the Orioles.

Norris turns 29 in March, and he won't be a free agent until 2016. He's clearly not an ace, but the Orioles do control his two remaining arbitration-eligible years (he will make $5.3 million in 2014).

Bud Norris (via Keith Allison)
Considering the stable of arms the Orioles have in the minors, a pitcher like Norris may eventually get pushed out of the rotation -- maybe not this season, but 2015 is more likely. Obviously the Orioles have had their issues developing prospects, but you'd have to figure that at least one or two of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Hunter Harvey, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Mike Wright will be able to stick in the majors in the next few years. If not, well, the O's will be in trouble.

Still, as noted above, Norris may find himself in the bullpen in the near future, even if the Orioles didn't have several of promising pitching prospects in the pipeline. He's fine as a fourth or fifth starter right now, but that may change in a hurry.

Norris more than likely would be an effective closer, but would not have to be limited to a one-inning role. Despite his flaws, he's still relatively effective before he faces a lineup a third time through, so he'd be able to handle a multi-inning or long relief role in the bullpen. Tommy Hunter has turned himself into a useful reliever and is someone who can pitch for two or three innings at a time, if needed. Like Norris, Hunter struggles against lefties (they have a .364 wOBA against him; righties have a .297 wOBA). And although Hunter has a BB/9 around 2 while Norris's is almost twice as high, Norris's career K/9 is about 3.5 more than Hunter's strikeout rate (4.88) as a starting pitcher. Hunter's K/9 as a reliever is up to 7.11. In the bullpen, if Norris's strikeout rate increased a little and his walks decreased a bit, he'd be a solid relief option.

I'm not calling for Norris to be sent to the bullpen. He's going to be in the rotation and given plenty of opportunities this season. It's not as if, at this exact moment, the Orioles are overflowing with effective starting pitching options. The O's also likely didn't acquire Norris and hope he'd soon move to the bullpen. But things rarely go as planned. Hunter hasn't panned out as a starter. Neither has Brian Matusz. Relievers are fickle, but that doesn't mean they don't still have some value.

Stats via Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Brooks Baseball.

30 January 2014

In 2013, FA Hitters More Often Hit the DL and Had Worse Injuries than Pitchers

Yesterday, Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin said this on MLB Radio:

It is an interesting statement.  Two out of every three free agent pitcher signings ended up on the DL.  You always need to be aware and cautious.  However, I would challenge a few things with this statement:
  1. I assume all free agent pitchers includes relievers as well as lowly paid starters with enough questions behind them that they have a high fail probability.  If we are talking about a starting pitcher like Garza, do we really want to include all of these other players in the mix.
  2. 67% sounds like a lot, but what is the DL rate of position players?  Did pitchers disproportionately wind up on the DL?
Thankfully, these are all things we can count with ease.  I do need to define a few things though.

Population: I included starting pitchers and position players who either signed a multi-year deal in excess of 10 MM or a single season in excess of 5 MM.  This left me with 16 starting pitchers and 23 position players.
Disabled List: This may not really need to be defined, but I wish to be explicit here.  I am only counting trips officially on the DL and I am not counting a player leaving the team for a funeral, a birth, or some other personal reason.  This may be somewhat unfair as some position players may be able to hide on the bench with an injury while a starting pitcher typically needs to pitch or will go on the DL.  One example of a player who misses a lot of games, but does not find himself on the DL is Marco Scutaro.  Last year, he missed 22 games due to day-to-day issues, but never gave up his active roster spot.

2013 Starting Pitcher Free Agents
Below is the list of pitchers we are including in this post:

Zack Greinke 30 Dodgers 6 $147,000,000 Y 29
Anibal Sanchez 29 Tigers 5 $80,000,000 Y 24
Edwin Jackson 30 Cubs 4 $52,000,000 N 0
Hyun-Jin Ryu 26 Dodgers 6 $36,000,000 N 5
Ryan Dempster 36 Red Sox 2 $26,500,000 N 0
Jeremy Guthrie 34 Royals 3 $25,000,000 N 0
Brandon McCarthy 30 Diamondbacks 2 $15,500,000 Y 57
Joe Blanton 33 Angels 2 $15,000,000 N 0
Hiroki Kuroda 38 Yankees 1 $15,000,000 N 2
Hisashi Iwakuma 32 Mariners 2 $14,000,000 N 0
Dan Haren 33 Nationals 1 $13,000,000 Y 14
Andy Pettitte 41 Yankees 1 $12,000,000 Y 19
Kevin Correia 33 Twins 2 $10,000,000 N 0
Brett Myers 33 Indians 1 $7,000,000 Y 116
Scott Feldman 30 Cubs 1 $6,000,000 N 0
Scott Baker 32 Cubs 1 $5,500,000 Y 141

On DL 7 44%

>50 games 3 19%

Among these pitchers, only 44% wound up on the disabled list.  That seems to me to be quite a departure from the 67% Melvin cited.  To be fair, I imagine he also included relievers and pitchers below the 5 MM mark.  I think it might be fair to provide some conjecture here.  I would imagine relievers are injured more often than starters because relievers tend to he hard throwing pitchers with violent deliveries.  Those characteristics tend to mean that mechanics are somewhat poor and that probably leads to a higher injury rate.  Additionally, I imagine starting pitchers who fetch less than 5 MM have significant questions attached to them and health might be one of those.

That all said, Melvin made that comment in context with Matt Garza.  That seems to me to be an unfair comparison.  Pitchers who teams think are worth significant contracts tend not to suffer an injury rate as high as the quote suggests.  But, is it high?

2013 Position Player Free Agents
Using the same contract stipulations, here is the position player list:

Josh Hamilton RF 32 Angels 5 $123,000,000 N 7
B.J. Upton CF 29 Braves 5 $75,250,000 Y 18
Nick Swisher 1B 33 Indians 4 $56,000,000 N 9
Michael Bourn CF 31 Indians 4 $48,000,000 Y 23
Angel Pagan CF 32 Giants 4 $40,000,000 Y 87
Shane Victorino RF 33 Red Sox 3 $39,000,000 Y 34
Torii Hunter RF 38 Tigers 2 $26,000,000 N 4
Cody Ross LF 33 Diamondbacks 3 $26,000,000 Y 56
Adam LaRoche 1B 34 Nationals 2 $24,000,000 N 6
Marco Scutaro 2B 38 Giants 3 $20,000,000 N 22
Russell Martin C 30 Pirates 2 $17,000,000 N 7
Melky Cabrera LF 29 Blue Jays 2 $16,000,000 Y 72
Ryan Ludwick LF 35 Reds 2 $15,000,000 Y 116
Ichiro Suzuki RF 40 Yankees 2 $13,000,000 N 0
Jeff Keppinger 2B 33 White Sox 3 $12,000,000 N 13
Kevin Youkilis 3B 34 Yankees 1 $12,000,000 Y 132
Lance Berkman DH 37 Rangers 1 $11,000,000 Y 52
Jonny Gomes LF 33 Red Sox 2 $10,000,000 N 0
Maicer Izturis 2B 33 Blue Jays 3 $10,000,000 Y 36
Stephen Drew SS 30 Red Sox 1 $9,500,000 Y 25
A.J. Pierzynski C 37 Rangers 1 $7,500,000 Y 14
Mark Reynolds 1B 30 Indians 1 $6,000,000 N 0
Mike Napoli 1B 32 Red Sox 1 $5,000,000 N 6

On DL 12 52%

>50 games 6 26%

For this season, both the percentage of players who spent time on the DL and the percentage of players who spent lengthy stays on the DL were greater than those for pitchers.  The quote now seems to break down on both of the points I suggested.  Of course, this is with my stipulation of only considering players with large investments being made by the team.  In other words, Melvin is probably being 100% truthful, but he may be altering his population to fit his needs.  For instance, it might be more beneficial when talking to an agent to bring up a statistic that suggests that pitchers are incredibly brittle.

All in all, this might be a situation where the cart might be leading the horse.  What I mean to say is that players who appear healthy wind up get a large salary because teams are confidant they will get proper value out of the player.  That probably is not true all of the time, but it likely is a major factor when teams think about how much money to offer.

A second point not explored in this post is what exactly happens after year 1 in a multi-year deal?  We would need more seasons of data, but it would be interesting to see how much value is retained into year 2, 3, 4, and 5 as a contract progresses.  Is there a higher injury rate for pitchers over several years?  Do hitters tend to retain their performance to a higher degree than pitchers.

Regardless, the take home here is that you might want to reconsider repeating Melvin's quote because it certainly appears misleading.

29 January 2014

An Update on the Orioles' Efforts in Korea and Kim Seong-min

Last week, I mentioned that when we tend to have a question that needs answering by someone with their feet on the ground in Korea, Yonhap News' Jee-ho Yoo is that person.  I was introduced to him when the original Kim Seong-min signing occurred and then blew up in the face of the Orioles' front office.  Amazingly, it was Camden Depot that sought out the Korean media before any of the more established news outlets in this area.  Instead, they were reporting simply the words coming out of the front office, which was obviously covering themselves.  Anyway, good times.

Continuing from last week's chat, I also asked Jee-ho for his thoughts on the aftermath of Kim Seong-min fiasco and the future of the Orioles in Korea.

JS: A couple years have passed since the Orioles were punished for their actions in prematurely signing Kim Seong-min.  Is the team still banned from KBA events?  Do it appear that the Orioles are still quite active in scouting amateur baseball in Korea?

JY: They are still banned from the KBA-sanctioned events.  When the Orioles signed a Korean pitcher (i.e., Yoon Jung-hyun) last July, I was just curious about the ban and asked the KBA about it.  I was told that their scouts remained under the ban.  Since then, I have spoken to scouts for other big league clubs.  They told me they have specifically read signs, "No Baltimore Orioles scouts allowed," or something to that extent at amateur tournaments.

I am not sure if they are even allowed to appeal the ban.  But, at the same time, the KBA said last year that it would be "difficult" to enforce the ban anyway.  Unless a scout were to show up wearing a Baltimore cap or a polo shirt with the Orioles logo, I do not think KBA officials or whoever will check IDs of every scout in the seats in every game.

When Yoon signed last July, the Baltimore scout who recruited him said the Orioles will keep looking for players in Korea within the boundaries of the rules.  I had put that in my article at the time.  At this time, though, I am not sure if they are "very active" in watching amateur baseball, but they did sign that kid, who was actually a college dropout in Korea.

JS: Is the Orioles' organization viewed differently than other MLB organizations?

JY: You know how sports fans have short memories?  I get the sense that most fans, except for the really hard-core ones, have long forgotten about the whole Kin Seong-min / Orioles situation from almost two years ago.  So, I am not sure if people here necessarily have feelings about the Orioles one way or the other.  Yes, big baseball fans would still associate the name Orioles with that status check saga, but I think they would be in the minority.

I do not know about "respect" per se, but fans here tend to follow clubs with Korean players for obvious reasons.  So the LA Dodgers were hugely popular over here in 2013, thanks to Ryu Hyun-jin, as they had been in the past when Park Chan-ho pitched there.  Fans also got a heavy dose of the Cincinnati Reds on television with Choo Shin-soo.  Now that Choo has signed with the Texas Rangers, I expect the Rangers to be Korea's favorite American League club in 2014 and beyond.

This probably has nothing to do with respect fans have but you would see a lot of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees paraphernalia around these parts, caps, shirts, hoodies, bag packs, what have you.

JS: Kim Seong-min is now in Japan playing baseball.  Have there been any updates on him?  Is he still viewed as a greedy player in Korea or has that view changed?

JY: There has not been much on Kim.  He is apparently still pitching for a Japanese college.

Poor kid.  He was still a teenager when all that circus happened.  As far as the view on him now, I think it is the same situation with the Orioles.  People have mostly forgotten about the young man and they probably do not really care one way or another.  The last time any paper wrote about him was almost a year ago.


As always, good stuff from Jee-ho.  Here at the Depot, we will continue following the Orioles' efforts in Korea and will keep an eye out for Kim Seong-min in the news.  It is still an amazing story that every Orioles' fan should be well-versed in.  Orioles scout a guy and send a positively glowing report home, team signs him for 575k, other teams confused by reported scouting report of High Schooler who was not considered a top draft pick in KBO, deal breaks down as Orioles did not follow well-known signing process and banned from contacting Seong-min for a month or two, KBA bans Orioles from events, team flies Seong-min to USA to scout and finds a player completely different from the international scout's report, Orioles do not sign him and KBA bans Seong-min, and then Seong-min goes to college in Japan to pitch.  In other words, the team was inept and severely messed up a player's life.  Hopefully, the college dropout signing will go better for the team.

28 January 2014

Could Ervin Santana Improve the Orioles Rotation?

Ervin Santana (photo via Keith Allison)
Unless you count signing players to minor league deals with spring training invites and failed physical exams, it’s been a pretty slow offseason for the Orioles.  Spring training is just around the corner, and there are only 9 free agents remaining on Keith Law’s top 50 free agent list.  Having said that, many of them don’t fit the current Baltimore roster, who still need to improve at several positions to be considered serious contenders.  One of those positions is starting pitcher, but as Matt mentioned yesterday, with the signings of Masahiro Tanaka and Matt Garza, the number of difference makers on that market is quickly becoming diminished.  One of those pitchers, Ubaldo Jimenez, was the topic of yesterday’s post.  Today, we’ll take a look at Ervin Santana.

Santana has primarily worked with three pitches during his career, relying heavily on his low 90’s fastball and low 80’s slider, while occasionally throwing a change-up (<10% of the time).  He’s been durable as well, with two separate 15-day DL stints in 2009 for UCL sprain and triceps soreness in his throwing arm. Here is a quick look at how Santana has pitched over the course of his career.

Year Age Tm ERA IP ERA+ HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2005 22 LAA 4.65 133.2 91 1.1 3.2 6.7
2006 23 LAA 4.28 204.0 106 0.9 3.1 6.2
2007 24 LAA 5.76 150.0 79 1.6 3.5 7.6
2008 25 LAA 3.49 219.0 127 0.9 1.9 8.8
2009 26 LAA 5.03 139.2 87 1.5 3.0 6.9
2010 27 LAA 3.92 222.2 102 1.1 3.0 6.8
2011 28 LAA 3.38 228.2 111 1.0 2.8 7.0
2012 29 LAA 5.16 178.0 74 2.0 3.1 6.7
2013 30 KCR 3.24 211.0 127 1.1 2.2 6.9
9 Yrs 4.19 1686.2 100 1.2 2.8 7.1
Generated 1/27/2014.

As you can see, it’s been an up and down career, with his best year coming in 2008 and his worst in 2012.  In fact, among qualified starting pitchers in 2012, Santana ranked dead last in fWAR, producing -1.0 wins.  This wasn’t all entirely due to bad luck either, as his .241 BABIP in 2012 was a career low.  However, in 2013, he rebounded nicely by adding a sinker, which not only helped him keep the ball in the park (a HUGE issue for him in 2012), but also allowed him to pitch more effectively against left-handed batters, who had a .371 wOBA against him in 2012 compared to a .296 wOBA in 2013.  He was also able to decrease his walk rate by more than 2% while also slightly increasing his strikeout rate.

Santana is ranked #6 on Keith Law’s 2014 free agent list (ESPN Insider required, and recommended), and like many of the higher profile free agents remaining, comes attached with the loss of a draft pick for the team that signs him.  This isn’t something that should necessarily prevent a team from signing him, as long as there is a need and the team is contending for a playoff spot, meaning the added value of a win is extremely high.  Additionally, the fact that signing Santana results in the loss of a draft pick likely makes him available at a lower price than the market would otherwise bear (see 2013 Kyle Lohse).  In fact, Santana began the offseason seeking a contract worth more than $100 million, but has now reduced his asking price to somewhere in the 4 year, $60 million range.

Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun recently quoted Orioles GM Dan Duquette saying that he expected the team to have a payroll of $100 million entering the season, meaning they had about another $17 million to spend.  However, despite that ability to spend and Santana’s current asking price of $15 million annually, Santana won’t provide very much of an upgrade to the projected starting rotation.  Take a look at the starting rotation depth chart in the 2014 Baltimore Zips projection posted at Fangraphs in December.

Depth Chart courtesy of Fangraphs
While the Orioles clearly lack an ace in their starting rotation, they do have roughly league average pitchers occupying the #1 to #5 spots in the rotation.  And at just over $10 million total, it’s a very cost effective group.  Assuming that Santana produces 3 fWAR in 2014 (Steamer projects him at 2.7 fWAR), then slotting him in the rotation at the expense of one of Gonzalez, Norris, Chen, or Gausman only adds approximately 1 more win to the 2014 Orioles.  And unless there would be additional significant improvements made by the team (highly unlikely this close to spring training), that one additional win Santana provides them will not only cost them approximately $15 million annually and their 2014 first round draft pick, but it's also unlikely to make them any more of a playoff contender than currently constructed.