31 March 2014

The Optimists and Pessimists Guide to the 2014 Orioles Opening Day Roster: Position Players

The mark of a solid bar room argument is typically one largely dependable fact to attach a rather large voice.  The point of this post and the next is to provide you with that bedrock foundation for any scream fests that might ensure on Opening Day.

Position Players
Matt Wieters
Steamer (S): .323 wOBA; Oliver (O): .315; ZiPS (Z): .321
Optimist - .182 ISO.  While many teeth has been gnashing about Wieters' bat falling apart last year, he still showed his trademark power which makes him a solid catching option as well as having the potential for being one of the best catchers in the game.
Pessimist - 28 years old.  Although fine for a catcher, Wieters' bat was projected to be transformational for a lineup and, with each season, he decidedly shows that it is not.
Steve Clevenger
S: .306; O: .305; Z: .290
Optimist - .398 wOBA.  Clevenger rocked right handed pitchers in Iowa last year and may be able to provide some pop when Wieters rests his platoon bat.
Pessimist - Negative One. Over 244 career plate appearances, Clevenger has shown himself to be below replacement value.

Chris Davis
S: .370; O: .408; Z: .377
Optimist - 39.8% pitches received in the strike zone.  Davis' bat is for real as evidenced by opposing pitchers last year giving him the seventh fewest pitches as strikes in the Majors.
Pessimist - 3.5 WAR. The last first baseman in his late 20s to break out in a single season was Carlos Pena and his follow up performance regressed to 3.5 WAR.
Ryan Flaherty
S: .298; O: .304; Z: .300
Optimist - .359 wOBA. Flaherty's second half performance at the play shows he is capable of high level performance.
Pessimist - .355 wOBA. Flaherty's September wOBA in 2012 did not appear to carry over into the first half of 2013.
J.J. Hardy
S: .312; O: .319; Z: .318
Optimist - 27.2 runs saved above average.  Hardy always provides a solid baseline of defensive value even when he is in one of his power outages at the plate.
Pessimist - .804 RZR.  Hardy had his second worst second in the field according to RZR with the concern being that he is reaching the age where limitations in range begin to cause a good number of grounders sneaking through and poorly set throws.
Steve Lombardozzi
S: .296; O: .291; Z: .293
Optimist - 109 wRC+.  That was the worst offensive season he had in full season minor league ball, which is a number that is considered league average.  Pretty good.
Pessimist - 67 wRC+.  That was his offensive production last year in approximately 300 plate appearances, which is horrific.
Jonathan Schoop
S: .292; O: .311; Z: .309
Optimist - 1.098 OPS.  Schoop was on fire this Spring and perhaps established a new baseline of talent.
Pessimist - 1.118 OPS. Was the number of the only second baseman to exceed Schoop's.  His name is Skip Schumaker.

Nelson Cruz
S: .336; O: .341; Z: .340
Optimist - .069 points of OPS. The improvement the Orioles will see from last year's DHs if Cruz meets his Steamer projection for OPS.
Pessimist - -6.5 runs/150 games. Cruz will be playing a considerable amount of time in left field.
Adam Jones
S: .342; O: .344; Z: .342
Optimist - 6.2 Baseruns.  Last year, Jones scored as one of the best baserunners in baseball.  This aspect of his game is largely overlooked and has really matured over the years.
Pessimist - 3.6% walk rate.  Jones will have to make contact because he simply cannot rely on walks during slumps.
David Lough
S: .316; O: .310; Z: .296
Optimist - 27.3 runs/150 games.  Last year, metrics suggested that Lough might be one of the best defensive players in baseball.
Pessimist - 27 years old.  Players who have rookie seasons at age 27 with the value coming from defense are a pretty sad lot.
Nick Markakis
S: .335; O: .308; Z: .322
Optimist - 18 lbs.  Nick Markakis added that much muscle to his frame this off-season.
Pessimist - -5 runs/150 games.  Nick poor range has been an issue for years and even when he was in top shape.
Steve Pearce
S: .327; O: .328; Z: .325
Optimist - .802 OPS against left handers.  Pearce is quite able to fill in at DH when Cruz wanders out to left field.
Pessimist - 5.2 runs/150 games.  Pearce's only position with a positive defensive metric value is 1B and that position is occupied.
Delmon Young
S: .299; O: .321; Z: .309
Optimist - .812 OPS against left handers.  Young also is quite able to fill in at DH against lefties.
Pessimist - 2010. This was the only year where his offense was considered above average.  The only year.

Paper Orioles 2014: Print Those Playoff Tickets!

A Paper Robin

Each year I use a variety of different win projection tools to keep track of the Orioles’ progress over the year.  The point of this is not to chain yourself to a certain methodology or have any belief in the whole “why even play the games” silly mantra people love to stick to men made of straw.  The point is to give you a rough estimate of where the team is and the general direction we may expect the team to go in. 

A few weeks ago we looked at general projection models and how actual results compared to them.  About 70% of all results come in a near 20 win window around those initial projections.  That may seem useless, but when you compare a team projected to win 85 games versus one who is projected t win 75 games, you wind up with historical evidence pointing toward the 85 win projection club taking their division about 12% of the time.  The 75 win projection club should take it about 2% of the time.  With that sort of difference in past performance, it is difficult to say that these projections are meaningless.

The Systems:
  • mJS (Jon Shepherd model) – This model looks forward to the remaining games on the schedule to develop weighted game scenarios based on opponent frequency and talent levels on different teams.  Talent levels are determined by using the ZiPS projection system and the performance tool on managers that we introduced last week.  Wins are determined by expressing talent level in terms of neutral team win expectations and then applying a log5 function for specific teams.  I do not change the ZIPS projection, so this model is only informed on the current season by accumulated wins and losses only.  That information does not affect the actual projection of remaining games.
  • PWE (Pythagorean Win Expectation) – This model uses runs scored and runs given from the season to date in order to project what will happen in the future.  The generalized equation is: Expected Winning Percentage: (runs scored^2) / (runs scored^2 + runs given^2)   
  • mBP (Baseball Prospectus‘ model) – This model is run by Baseball Prospectus.  They use their own projection model, PECOTA, and, I assume, actually account for in season performance.
  • Parcells (Bill Parcells model) – This model assumes that the season will continue on as determined by your current season record.  As Parcells once said, You are what your record says you are.  Of course, we know this not to be true as a definitive rule because wins are an imperfect measure of a team's ability, but it will be treated as such in this model.
  • fWAR – This model uses the accumulated team fWAR to project future results.
    Additionally, I will also include a league-wide season ending win expectation for the entire league as well.  Remember, this early in the season we will see some strange numbers at times.
 The PWE, Parcells, and fWAR models rely on data, so there will be no preseason model.  If you insist though, each should probably be expressed as 81-81 projected records because these models would see no difference between any teams.

Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds tool is quite down on the Orioles.  It sees the AL East as such:
Tampa Bay 87.8 wins
Boston 85.4
New York 82.1
Toronto 81.2
Baltimore 78.0
A common misunderstanding when people look at those numbers is thinking that those are predicted season ending tallies.  They are not.  They are season projections.  Specifically, they are the 50th percentile projections.  Half the team the team performs above that levels and half the time they perform below that level.  In other words, you would probably expect it to take at least 95 wins to take the AL East crown and 92 or 93 wins to secure a Wild Card slot.  PECOTA sees them as having a 13.6% chance to play in the post season.  Only six teams have a worst shot: Minnesota (7.8%), Houston (1.5%), Miami (4.5%), Chicago Cubs (8.1%), Arizona (12.8%), and Colorado (12.7%).

The mJS projection model is a bit more optimistic.
Boston 92.3 wins
Baltimore 85.8
Tampa Bay 83.6
New York 82.5
Toronto 76.9
That 50th percentile for the Orioles would get the club the play-in Wild Card game at home in Baltimore.  They would be hosting the Rays, but other teams in the conversation would be the Yankees, Royals (81.7), Angels (82.8), and Athletics (82.9).  Below is the projected playoff picture for each league:

American League
East: Boston Red Sox
Central: Detroit Tigers
West: Texas Rangers
WC1: Baltimore Orioles
WC2: Tampa Bay Rays

National League
East: Atlanta Braves
Central: St. Louis Cardinals
West: Los Angeles Dodgers
WC1: Washington Nationals
WC2: San Francisco Giants

Let's play ball!

30 March 2014

Some Unsystematic Observations From the March 29 Norfolk Exhibition

I'm one of the regular milb.com datacasters for the Norfolk Tides. When I'm working, I'm one of the people who input the pitch and play codes that generate the GameDay play-by-play, the final box score, and ultimately the official statistics. I datacasted the Orioles-Tides exhibition game on March 29, so I have a few observations not mentioned in the game summaries I've read.

First, because the game was played in a persistent rain, each inning ended when the pitcher reached twenty pitches. So, the "official" pitching lines aren't quite equivalent to normal pitching lines. Based on the number of outs recorded, rather than innings, the lines are:

Suk-Min Yoon
3 2/3


Yoon's third inning ended with two outs and a runner on second, so he probably could have gotten out of the inning without giving up another run. Davies' second inning ended with one out and runners on first and third; he might have escaped without giving up more runs, but he might not. His fourth inning ended with two outs and runners on first and second; again, he could have gotten out of the inning without giving up another run. Finally, Mike Wright's inning ended with no outs and the bases loaded; he almost certainly would have surrendered more runs had the inning not been ended. So while Yoon's and Wilson's lines can be taken at face value, Davies and Wright pitched worse than their lines indicate.

(It's interesting how one out affects our impression of a pitching line. Yoon's box-score line - 4 4 2 2 0 2 - is only one out better than the line above, yet the line above looks much worse to me. It's not unlike basketball scores - 81-69 looks a lot more one-sided than 85-73 or 77-65, because of the two-digit jump in the tens column.)

The pitch counts for the pitchers are:

Called Strikes
Swinging Strikes
Suk-Min Yoon
Mike Wright

Zach Davies
Tyler Wilson

I wouldn't read too much into these counts. but I mention them because I haven't seen them reported anywhere else.

Next, in Nelson Cruz' second plate appearance, he drew a walk to lead off an inning. Matt Wieters flew out to Quintin Berry at the left-field wall. Cruz tagged from first and advanced to second after Berry stumbled after hitting the wall. I had never thought of Nelson Cruz as a smart or alert player, but this was an alert advancement. Cruz scored on Ryan Flaherty's single.

Also, in the future I'm going to pay attention to the throwing of recent acquisition David Adams. Adams played third base for Norfolk yesterday. In addition to the rain, the wind was generally blowing from right to left (the official box score says "varies", but I blew it - I should have said the wind was blowing from right to left) with frequent gusts stronger than the game-time official 13 MPH measurement. I noticed two of Adams' throws into the wind, and the wind seemed to hold them up. At the same time, his throws were perfect - right on-line, chest-high to the first baseman, in time to get the out. So, I don't know whether Adams has a weakish arm that couldn't cut through the wind, or Adams has a strong-enough, accurate arm and yesterday's wind was so strong that it would hold up even Nolan Ryan's throws.

Finally, and I hesitate to bring this up because it's one exhibition game, in bad conditions, but J.J. Hardy didn't play well defensively. He made no plays at shortstop, which isn't necessarily his fault. However, there were two medium-speed ground-balls hit just to the left of second base that found their way into center field for singles. Again, I may be completely wrong, but it seemed to me that the shortstop could have gotten to those balls; Hardy didn't. It's likely that Hardy simply didn't want to risk injury, especially with Manny Machado out, and that on a dry field in a meaningful game Hardy would have made the effort to make those plays. But yesterday he didn't, and if I watched the Orioles - I can't watch them as often as I'd like because I'm attending Norfolk games - I might pay attention to Hardy to see if he's making all the plays.

29 March 2014

Four Norfolk Tides - What I'll Be Looking For

When a player reaches the AAA level, we usually have a pretty good idea of what kind of player he’s capable of being. They’ve been around a few seasons and have had highs and lows. Nobody suddenly clicks at AAA (I’m sure there are exceptions; I acknowledge them in advance.)

But that doesn’t mean that AAA players are fully formed. Most of them still have some things to work on before they’re ready for their first big-league opportunity, or even after their first big-league cup of coffee. Many of them don’t develop enough; they become AAA lifers and stars of the Atlantic League. A few of them perfect their games, they become major-league mainstays. And a few of them improve a little; they stay in the majors for a season or two.

The four players below are likely to be at Norfolk this season. They are prospects capable of improving enough to be useful Orioles. Each of them has a specific area that I think needs further development before they can reach their potential. I'll discuss what I'm going to be looking for in 2014 for each.

Mike Wright, starting pitcher – Can he induce more outs on balls in play?

Right now, I see Mike Wright as a Brad Bergesen / Jason Berken pitcher, someone who might give you 100 good major-league innings. He’s 24 now, and he’s had outstanding control in the minor leagues to date – 2.10 BB/9. Until last season, however, his strikeout rate was too low – 6.77 K/9 in full-season ball. In 2013 at Bowie, his strikeout rate rose to a more-adequate 8.52 K/9. Although he improved, he gave up more than one hit per inning pitched, as he has done in every season of his career. He’s not going to have a long career doing that.

I’m going to be looking to see if Mike Wright will maintain his higher strikeout rate while reducing his hits allowed rate. He’s not going to turn into a star, but if he can consistently hover just below the 1 hit-per-inning mark as opposed to being just above it, he’ll start to look like an innings-eating right-handed #4 or #5 starter.

Henry Urrutia, hitter – Can he produce more extra-base hits?

Performance-wise, Henry Urrutia resembles his fellow Cuban defector Leslie Anderson. Both are left-handed batters who can hit .290 - .310, but with limited walks and limited home-run power. Anderson, who played in the Rays’ system, was a few years older than Urrutia when he came to the United States and reached a plateau as a AAA star. Urrutia hit well in the minor leagues, but with fewer walks than you’d like and limited home-run power. He then struggled in a major-league stint.

I want Urrutia to succeed, mainly because I think his hitting approach will add a different dimension to the Orioles all-homers-all-the-time offense. In AA Bowie last season, Urrutia hit .365/.433/.550; in Norfolk, he hit .316/.358/.430. He doesn’t have to hit in Norfolk the way he hit in Bowie – I don’t think anyone can – but he does need to bump up the power some. He’s not going to be a home-run hitter, but if he can hit enough doubles to get his slugging percentage to the .475 range I think he’ll have shown he can help the Orioles.

Mike Belfiore Will he be more effective pitching in short relief?

One of the challenges of following a AAA team when the major-league team is in contention is accepting that development of young players falls by the wayside. That’s not quite right – it’s more accurate to say that the development of marginal young players falls by the wayside. The key roles in the Norfolk bullpen in 2013 were filled by Jairo Asencio, Adam Russell, and Manny Delcarmen, all of whom were around for their immediate ability rather than their future. There were two young left-handed relief pitchers – Mike Belfiore and Chris Jones – but while Delcarmen averaged 1.13 innings per appearance and Russell 1.4, Belfiore averaged 2.06 and Jones 2.27.

At this point in their careers, it’s clear that Belfiore and Jones are destined for the bullpen. If I were running the Orioles, I’d be using them in one-inning stints, to see if their stuff will play up if they aren’t pitching as many innings. I’d also be using them to get tough left-handers out, to see if they can fill that role on a big-league team.

Like Mike Wright, Belfiore has given up too many hits. Compared to Wright, he’s been more consistent with his strikeouts but his control hasn’t been as good. I’m going to be watching how Belfiore does in his first inning of his appearances. If he is consistently effective, especially against left-handed batters, then I think he can be useful in the role he’d be likely to play.

Steve Johnson, pitcher – Who is the real Steve Johnson?

Johnson had an outstanding 2012 season, both at Norfolk and in Baltimore, before having a lost 2013 because of injuries and the fact that he had minor-league options left. He’s been around forever, but he’s only 26 (he turns 27 on August 31.) His progress has been slow as it’s taken him two tries to get through every minor-league level (His 2011 half-season at Norfolk was awful; his 2012 half-season was outstanding.) In 2013 at Norfolk, he pitched fairly well with a good strikeout rate.

With Johnson recovering from injury, I want to see what his real ability is. Is he the good Steve Johnson (2012), the average Steve Johnson (2013), or the ugly Steve Johnson (2011)? With him, it’s not anything specific I want to see , it’s his overall performance.

27 March 2014

How Many Games Is a Buck Showalter Worth?

Buck | Keith Allison
A few weeks ago I looked at how well projections perform in comparison to the actual season ending tally of wins.  What we found was that the range was broad (about 75% of outcomes fall in a 20 game range), but that range is anchored strongly to the projection (aka the 50th percentile or push point).  In other words, a team slated to win 80 games is going to be between 70 and 90 wins three quarters of the time when the season ends.  A team slated to win 70 has a three quarter chance to find themselves between 60 and 80 wins.  In other words that connection is pretty accurate even though it severely lacks precision.  In other words, it is a fine baseline to use and indicates a good starting point when thinking about the level of talent for a team.

In that article I compiled projected and actual standings for every team since 2003.  I did not select one projection model over another as they all tend to be similarly accurate.  One thing that struck me about the projections for the Baltimore Orioles was how much this team consistently underperformed according to the preseason projections.

Year Manager exPct Actual Pct Diff Games
2003 Mike Hargrove .426 .438 2.0 162
2004 Lee Mazzilli .494 .481 -2.0 162
2005 Lee Mazzilli .481 .477 -0.5 107

Sam Perlozzo .481 .418 -3.5 55
2006 Sam Perlozzo .475 .432 -7.0 162
2007 Sam Perlozzo .463 .420 -2.9 69

Dave Trembley .463 .430 -3.1 93
2008 Dave Trembley .407 .420 2.0 162
2009 Dave Trembley .457 .395 -10 162
2010 Dave Trembley .457 .278 -9.7 54

Juan Samuel .457 .333 -6.3 51

Buck Showalter .457 .596 8.0 57
2011 Buck Showalter .488 .426 -10 162
2012 Buck Showalter .426 .574 24 162
2013 Buck Showalter .488 .525 6.0 162

In this data set, only three managers have ever outperformed the team's projected wins: Mike Hargrove (in his only season in the data set), Dave Trembley (amidst two and a half other underperforming years), and Buck Showalter.  Showalter has an interesting series of performances.  He had stellar over-performances in his short season debut in 2010 and the mesmerizing 2012 season (one of the greatest unexpected performances of the recent era).  Showalter also put in a very strong year last year.  In 2011, the team did horribly compared to expectations.  You can likely put a lot of that underperformance being associated with Brian Roberts' injuries, Brian Matusz' unraveling, and a couple black hole performances coming from Felix Pie and every pitcher making their way from Norfolk to fill out Matusz' spot.

Anyway, I figure beyond the Orioles' history, this database could be broken out to evaluate all managers as well as maybe how certain managers may affect their team's projections (something no projection attempts to do).  Below is the top 10 managers since 2003 in outperforming their team's expected wins with at least three seasons managed.

Manager Wins Games W/162
1 John Farrell 17.0 486 5.7
2 Fredi Gonzalez 35.4 1042 5.5
3 Tony LaRussa 45.0 1458 5.0
4 Don Mattingly 14.0 486 4.7
5 Ron Washington 31.0 1134 4.4
6 Mike Scioscia 47.0 1782 4.3
7 Jack McKeon 14.0 538 4.2
8 Buck Showalter 30.0 1191 4.1
9 Ozzie Guillen 35.0 1458 3.9
10 Bobby Cox 28.0 1296 3.5

Jim Leyland 28.0 1296 3.5

This list passes the sniff test quite well.  All of these managers are highly regarded at their craft.  The leading manager, John Farrell, has long been considered a great baseball man and only recently was given a chance to manage for the Blue Jays and Red Sox.  I had highly supported the Orioles in employing him over Buck.  Though more time may be needed to evaluate him with respect to this potential metric as he has two exceptional over-performance and one poor underperformance.

All of this said, these are actually some very fascinating numbers.  On the free agent market, a win this past offseason was worth about 6 MM.  If you would solely attribute any deviation from the expected wins to be the responsibility of the manager, then those top eight managers are worth over 20 MM per year.  That is rather remarkable and probably obscures true value of other personnel in the organization.  That said, I would be hard-pressed to say that the teams involved above are paying free agent prices for those increased wins.

Below are the bottom 10:

Manager Wins Games W/162
34 Buddy Black -7.0 1134 -1.0
35 Grady Little -6.0 486 -2.0
36 Dusty Baker -23.0 1620 -2.3

Jim Tracy -20.1 1412 -2.3
37 Eric Wedge -27.0 1620 -2.7
38 Alan Trammell -9.0 486 -3.0
39 Bob Geren -20.4 711 -4.7
40 Jerry Manuel -21.0 579 -5.9
41 John Russell -23.0 486 -7.7
42 Manny Acta -44.4 891 -8.1

Depending on your point of view, this list may not exactly pass the sniff test.  In order to put in three full seasons or more in the big leagues, teams have to think well of you.  The listing actually suggests that as well with 23 of 42 managers having positive W/162 values along with another nine within -1 win.  It appears few highly underperforming clubs' managers last long.  However, I'd also be hard-pressed to fully associate all of the misfortune to the manager alone.  That said, I think you would have a decent leg to stand on to say that Dusty Baker, Jim Tracy, Eric Wedge, Bob Geren, Jerry Manuel, John Russell, and Manny Acta have all managed some disappointing teams even though you do have a few playoff appearances within that group.  Just like the guys at the top of the list, it is probably a bit rash to say that these managers are completely responsible for the entirety of their team's underperformance when compared with their team's expected performance according to projection models.

In the end, I am unsure how many grains of salt to take this little exercise.  Maybe a sprinkle, maybe even a truckload.  I would suggest though to lean more in the sprinkle direction.  That said, Orioles fans should be quite content having a manager falling into the top 10 group as opposed to the bottom 10.

26 March 2014

Why the Last Cavalry Was Overrated but Not the Current

In January, Jon wrote about the sad history of Orioles pitching prospects over the past twenty years. For much of the past twenty years, we've hoped that a set of pitching prospects would help bring us back into contention. And for much of the past twenty years, we've been disappointed.

The last iteration, consisting of Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Radhames Liz, Jake Arrieta and Troy Patton definitely fell short of expectations.* Chris Tillman did have a successful year as a starter. With only one successful year to his credit it's too early to conclude that he in fact is a success. Brian Matusz had one successful year as a starter before getting hurt and never fully recovered. He is on the major league roster but is nothing more than a reliever. Zach Britton has failed to establish himself as a starter. It appears that he will start the year in the bullpen and is running out of chances to help the major league club. Radhames Liz last season pitched in Korea and is now in the Blue Jay organization, unable to help the Orioles.** Jake Arrieta failed to succeed as a starter for the Orioles and was traded to the Cubs with Pedro Strop in return for Scott Feldman. Troy Patton needed labrum surgery and never fully recovered. He is currently a reliever.

* - The use of cavalry in these articles is in reference to iterations of Baseball America's top 100 rankings.  It is not used exclusively to those who were mentioned under that umbrella during the MacPhail era.
** - Article was originally stating Liz' performance last year and was being confused as him still being in Korea.

It appears that the best case scenario of the previous iteration of pitching prospects will result in one starter and two relievers. The other iterations mentioned by Jon had even worse results. One could argue that the Orioles have only had four successful pitching prospects since 1990: Mussina, McDonald, Ponson and Bedard.

Now there is a new batch of pitching prospects consisting of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Eduardo Rodriguez and Hunter Harvey. The question that begs to be asked is whether there’s a difference between this set of pitching prospects and the last set.

In this article about prospects, I note how age impacts the success rate of pitching prospects ranked by Baseball America. Ranked college pitching prospects that don’t make it to the majors by the time they are 23 or ranked high school pitching prospects that don’t make it to the majors by the time they are 22 have lower success rates than those that do.

For the current set of prospects, this isn’t a concern. Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy both made it to the majors by the time they were 22. Eduardo Rodriguez and Hunter Harvey are on pace to do so as well. However, this wasn’t the case for the previous set of pitchers. Zach Britton didn’t make it to the majors until he was 23 despite not attending college while Jake Arrieta and Radhames Liz didn’t make it to the majors until after they were 24. According to my research, this is a warning sign because Baseball America simply had a worse track record with older pitching prospects than they do with younger pitching prospects.

It might be informative to look at other ranked pitchers that went to high school but didn’t make it to the majors until they were 23 as well as other ranked pitchers that didn’t make it to the majors until they were 24 so that we can see how Britton, Arrieta and Liz compare to their peers.

There are some necessary criteria. Britton, Arrieta and Liz were ranked by Baseball America right before they entered the majors so I wanted to make sure I compared them to similar pitchers. Therefore I didn't include a pitcher if he was ranked by Baseball America once when he was 20 but never again and didn’t make it to the majors until he was 23. In addition, I only ranked pitchers that were developed by a farm system. This means that pitchers like Yu Darvish, Arlodis Chapman and Jose Conteras are not included in these rankings. Like last time, I got information of which prospects went to college from the Lahman database.

Below is a table of the twenty-seven ranked prospects from 1998-2011 that made it to the majors when they were twenty-three, didn’t go to college and fulfilled the conditions above similar to Zach Britton.

Of those twenty-seven pitchers, four are average, ten are below average, twelve are very poor and one didn’t have a season in which he threw at least twenty-five innings. Obviously, some of the younger pitchers in that table may improve given playing time. The top pitchers in this grouping are Jarrod Washburn, Ted Lilly, Eric Gagne and Aaron Cook. Eric Gagne was an excellent reliever for three years until suffering elbow and back injuries. Jarrod Washburn, Ted Lilly and Aaron Cook were decent inning eaters but certainly not great pitchers. None of these guys are superstars.
Some of the recent prospects look more interesting. Zach Wheeler, Jarred Cosart, Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson have the potential to be successful. Hellickson is the only one of the four pitchers to be worth more than 1.5 WAR in a season. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been worth 1.5 WAR in two other full seasons.

Jeremy Hellickson does have a career ERA of 3.70 but also has a career FIP of 4.39 and has been worth 4 WAR over 3 years. He suffered an elbow injury earlier this offseason and is expected to miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season. He may become a successful pitcher but it will require considerable improvement.
Chris Archer’s career ERA is 3.47 but his FIP is 3.94 in 158 innings. Jarred Cosart had an ERA of 1.95 in sixty innings but also had an FIP of 4.35. Zack Wheeler has a career ERA of 3.42 but an FIP of 4.17 in one hundred major league innings. None of these three pitchers have had enough playing time to really prove themselves.
All four of these pitchers have better ERAs than FIPs and it will be interesting to see whether their performance more closely resembles their ERAs or their FIPs. ZIPs, Oliver and Steamer are not optimistic for any of these four pitchers for 2014.
It appears that high school pitchers that don’t make it to the majors by the time that they’re twenty-two do not do very well in the majors.

Next is a table of prospects from 1998-2013 that didn’t make it to the majors until they were 24 or older and fulfilled the conditions above.

There are successful pitchers in this grouping such as Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright. Jeremy Guthrie is a solid starting pitcher while Papelbon and Jenks were at one point successful relievers. 

The problem is that there really hasn’t been anyone particularly good since 2006. Adam Crow and Jake McGee look to be promising relievers although neither had a particularly good 2013. There is still hope that James Paxton will turn into a strong starting pitcher. Still of the 21 pitchers ranked from 2007-2014, the best one is arguably Jeff Niemann. Despite being ranked by Baseball America, it seems that we should not be surprised that Arrieta and Liz were also unimpressive. Certainly, there are plenty of other failed pitchers with similar profiles to keep them company.

If a pitching prospect is ranked by Baseball America then it is a sign that they may have what it takes to be a successful starter in the majors.  However, age is also an important sign. If a pitching prospect is old then chances are they are going to flop. When taking age into account it is clear that the previous iteration of pitching prospects were overrated. Pitchers like Britton, Arrieta and Liz shouldn’t have been expected to become successful starting pitchers even though they were ranked and probably shouldn’t have been ranked in the first place. Likewise, Patton was a top pitching prospect but once he suffered a labrum injury it was questionable whether he would ever be the same. In reality, the only pitching prospects with good chances to become starters were Tillman and Matusz. Tillman is our opening day starter while Matusz never fully recovered from an arm injury but has a chance at becoming a successful reliever. Injuries happen.

There are no promises when it comes to prospects. It is unlikely that all four will be successful. But it's good to know that there's a reason why these pitchers were disappointing and that it's probably not an organizational problem. I expect to see some genuinely talented homegrown pitching in our rotation in the near future.

25 March 2014

Picking Up Steve Lombardozzi Is a Smart Move for the O's

Yesterday, the Orioles acquired Steve Lombardozzi from the Tigers in exchange for Alex Gonzalez. The trade makes sense on multiple levels:

Lombardozzi's an Oriole (photo: Keith Allison)
Age. Age isn't everything, but it's something.  Lombardozzi is 25 years old. Gonzalez is 37 and has not been very good for a few seasons now. In fact, he was pretty terrible last season (.177/.203/.230 in 118 plate appearances). With J.J. Hardy healthy and playing every day, the O's do not need a shortstop. That would not have been Gonzalez's potential role on the O's, obviously, but shortstop still seems to be his best position. He played some first and third base for the Brewers last year, and it's possible he could have been the O's starting third baseman for a few games to start the season. But the O's acquired a cheaper, better option in Lombardozzi for depth at both second and third base.

Help at second. Depending on what the Orioles do with Jonathan Schoop, Lombardozzi may end up as the team's starting second baseman on opening day. Since Manny Machado will start the season on the disabled list, presumably meaning Ryan Flaherty will get the nod at third base, the second base options (besides Flaherty) are now Lombardozzi, Schoop, Jemile Weeks, Alexi Casilla, and the recently claimed David Adams. Schoop certainly has the highest upside of that group, but he may be sent to Norfolk to play every day and show that he can perform well at the Triple-A level.

Options remaining. According to Jon, Lombardozzi has three options remaining. Flaherty has two, Weeks has one, Schoop has two, and Adams has one. So that at least provides the O's with some flexibility at their weakest infield position. Lombardozzi is also under team control through 2017.


As a player, Lombardozzi is similar to Flaherty. Offensively:

Flaherty: 438 PA, .221/.279/.378
Lombardozzi: 755 PA, .264/.297/.342

And defensively:

Flaherty, 2B (267.1 inn.): 8.0 UZR, +4 DRS; Flaherty, 3B (114 inn.): -0.3 UZR, -1 DRS
Lombardozzi, 2B (774 inn.): 0.4 UZR, +2 DRS; Lombardozzi 3B (142.2 inn.): 1.4 UZR, +1 DRS

Flaherty seems to be the better fielder at second base (note the sample size), while Lombardozzi may be somewhat better at third. Both have also filled in at times at shortstop and in the outfield, but they likely won't be doing so going forward with the Orioles. Both are better options than Weeks because they are above average defenders. Weeks is not; plus, he isn't all that great with the bat, either.

Losing Gonzalez is not a big deal, and his time on the O's roster would have been limited. So in exchange for him, the O's acquired a 25-year-old switch-hitter who can play multiple positions and who can be sent back and forth between the major league club and Triple-A Norfolk as needed. Lombardozzi may not be a very good player, but he could help the O's this season and beyond, and he's still young enough that he could improve. Besides, the price for him was simply an aging player the team had signed to a minor league contract a couple months ago. It's easy to understand the logic of bringing Lombardozzi aboard.

The worst part of the trade is that we all have to get used to spelling Lombardozzi. Good luck to all the fans who still think Matt Wieters's last name is "Weiters."

24 March 2014

Arrivals and Departures (3/24/14): Outrights and Options

As Spring Training winds down, we should expect a relative flurry of moves due to the Orioles having so many players who are out of options.  One such player was Kelvin De La Cruz.  He was one of the players Duquette offered a 40 man roster deal.  He had pretty much dominated AA and AAA for the Dodgers last year, but they let him depart instead of securing him on their roster.  It was thought that the Orioles would bring him in as a replacement for Troy Patton who will be suspended for the first 25 games or for Brian Matusz who has trade rumors constantly swirling around him.  That might no longer be the case because De La Cruz was designated for assignment with the intention of being outrighted to Norfolk when the Orioles claimed INF David Adams from the Indians.

For De La Cruz, it now gets interesting.  Here are the following scenarios:
  1. De La Cruz is claimed by another club and departs.
  2. De La Cruz is traded to another club.
  3. De La Cruz passes waivers and accepts being sent to Norfolk where he will continue earning the contract that was agreed upon.
  4. De La Cruz, having been outrighted before by the Dodgers, is able to refuse his assignment to Norfolk and elects free agency.  The Orioles are no longer responsible for his salary in this case.
It may well be that De La Cruz is no longer in the Orioles' plans after his spring has seen him having little control or command of his pitches.  This has always been the knock on him.  His stuff looks electric, but he cannot consistently get the same movement on his pitches all the time and has difficulty placing them.  I would call him a poor man's southpaw version of Pedro Strop (in a very loose sense).  I imagine we will soon learn his fate.

David Adams was a rather promising second base prospect in the Yankees system.  Nick Faleris (now with Baseball Prospectus) wrote up Adams for a series we were doing on AL East young talent.  Here is what Nick had to say at the time:
Adams was one of our favorite middle-infield targets in the 2008 draft, potentially providing Top 50 value out of the late third round. The former UVA Cavalier has taken his professional approach at the plate at the college ranks and transitioned well to the low-minors. Thus far, he's walked in a little over 10% of his professional plate appearances, posting just 1.5 strikeouts per base-on-balls. Adams has a lot of moving parts in his swing, and it remains to be seen whether or not it will continue to play at the upper-levels. A reasonable projection has Adams carving-out a career as a solid average regular, with no spectacular tools but enough defensive value to make a .750-775 OPS playable out of the bottom-third of the order. There is top-of-the-order upside if Adams shows enough gap-to-gap pop to force upper-level pitching to respect him (if not, his plate discipline will be negated by pitchers coming right at him looking for weak contact).
That season Adams suffered a pretty awful leg injury, which bottomed out his range.  He has a good eye and still has that gap-to-gap power.  However, he is more of a third baseman these days and lacks the extra power often expected from that position.  In his first taste of big league action, Adams withered up at the plate filling in for Alex Rodriguez at third for the Yankees.  I assume the Orioles see him as part of the contingency plan with third base this season as opposed to second base, which appears ably covered with a wide assortment of players.  Adams has one option left. The Yankees used one in 2012 and, I believe, the last time he was optioned in 2013 was for long enough to count.

23 March 2014

Science of Baseball: The Most Deceptive Repertoire for a Pitcher, Chris Tillman

Predicting a Baseball's Path
Bahill et al. 2005
American Scientist
Imagine being at the center of the most dramatic moment in baseball. It's the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series—two outs, the tying run on second, the winning run on first, and you are the batter. Everything depends on you. The trouble is: The most fearsome pitcher in baseball stands on the mound. He has an awesome assortment of pitches: fastball, change-up, curveball, slider and knuckleball. You want any advantage that you can get in predicting where each pitch will go.

With the crowd going wild and sweat pouring from your every pore, you have to concentrate on the ball that is about to be launched in your direction. You must gather as much information about the pitch as quickly as you can in order to make crucial decisions.

As we will show, you get just a few hundreds of milliseconds to figure out what kind of pitch—perhaps traveling at almost 100 miles per hour—is heading toward the plate. In that instant, you must observe the ball's spin and predict how it will move on its way to the plate. It's a daunting computational task. Luckily, we can describe a few clues for you to use. And you will need them soon, because that fearsome pitcher is rocking back on his pivot leg. In a split second, his arm will swing through a great arc and send a baseball hurtling your way.
Usually, we stick to peer-reviewed original research or, when feeling a bit playful, a thesis.  However, the above article comes from a science magazine and is a piece that is too often forgotten.  The article considers pitch movement, how a pitch chances velocity, and other factors a pitcher can use to deceive hitters.  However, my focus will be on the pitch repertoire they suggest.

4S on left, 2S on right
Much of this is already known, but it is good to get actually empirical data on seam flickers with pitches.  Briefly, what they found was that a four seam fastball and a curveball appear the same.  They look white with a slight red tinge.  Meanwhile, a two seam fastball has two lines on it due to the back seam rolling over and over.  This suggests that batters should have more difficulty discerning differences between a four seam fastball and a curveball as opposed to a two seam fastball and a curveball.  As such, we should expect a larger proportion of pitchers utilizing the four seam fastball / curveball combination and that this pitch selection probably results in a more successful pitcher.

A mix of a four seam fastball and a curveball is actually a rather common one and a pairing that is utilized by many successful pitchers (a third of all starting pitchers who had enough innings to qualify for ERA used this approach).  In fact, 69% of pitcher who throw a four seamer more than 40% of the time also utilized a curveball more than 10% of the time.  The list of pitchers who did that is listed below (note: I combined curveball and knuckle curve designations even though the study did not considered recognition issues with knuckle curves. Locke, Minor, Tillman, and Burnett were noted as knuckle curve throwers).

Shelby Miller 74 19
Jordan Zimmerman 62 12
Clayton Kershaw 61 13
AJ Griffin 59 16
Jeff Locke 58 19
Matt Harvey 58 13
Mike Minor 57 14
Lance Lynn 56 10
Jose Fernandez 53 34
Jose Quintana 53 19
John Lackey 52 10
Chris Tillman 50 17
Stephen Strasburg 49 23
Julio Teheran 47 13
AJ Burnett 46 35
Felix Doubront 46 14
Eric Stults 45 11
Justin Verlander 44 14
Far fewer starters lean on two seamers, which might be telling in and of itself.  Where the 40% or more four seam use had a group of 26 pitchers, the two seam 40% or more use has a group of twelve (15% of qualified SP).  Only Kris Medlen (44% 2S, 18% CU), Joe Saunders (42% 2S, 11% CU), and Bronzon Arroyo (41% 2S, 12% CU) utilize the curveball to any significant extent.  With such a small sample size, it is difficult to tell whether the group mark of 25% is significantly less than the 69% displayed in the 4S group using their curveballs, but it certainly looks like there is a difference between those populations.

Moving forward, there is a great analytical opportunity I hope to be able to investigate further.  We should be able to take a look at optically similar projectiles and compare that to the flight path in a ball at the last point of batter reaction, which is about a third of the way to the plate.  I would think that the more similar in position a pitch is that looks like each other, the more deceptive it will be.  Likewise, there is probably some sweetspot where dissimilar pitches that take the same path will be as confusing as similar looking projectiles with more different paths.