30 October 2014

Adam Jones, the Free-Swinging (and Very Good) Slugger

If you follow the Orioles at all, then you know Adam Jones chases lots of pitches outside the strikezone. Out of all qualified major leaguers, Jones's 40.3 O-Swing% was eighth highest in 2014. Over the past three years, it is the second highest (41.9%). Unsurprisingly, Jones also swings and misses a lot. He swung and missed at 14.1% of total pitches seen in 2014, tied for eighth in the majors, and over the past three seasons he has whiffed 14.2% of the time (sixth highest).

It's nearly impossible to follow along with an O's game on Twitter without someone discussing Jones's plate discipline. Here's a sampling of things that were said during Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, which happened to be the O's last game of 2014:

You get the point. Most of that is fan frustration. And some is because it's really easy to point out the apparent silliness of a player swinging and missing, especially on a pitch in the dirt or far outside the strikezone. Surely you wouldn't have swung at that obvious ball, right?

One of the best things about sports is that various players are able to succeed in different ways. Some players are big; some are small. Some are slow, yet some are fast. In baseball, some players are patient at the plate, and some aren't. Jones's at-bats are rarely works of art. You won't confuse Jones's batting approach with Brett Gardner's or Dustin Pedroia's. When he steps to the plate, Jones is going to swing the bat early and often -- sometimes wildly so.

And guess what? Jones is actually pretty good at what he's doing. Among all qualified MLB center fielders in 2014, Jones was tied for ninth in wOBA (.340). He was tied for eighth in the park-adjusted wRC+ (117). Over the last three years, he's sixth in wOBA (.350) and tied for sixth in wRC+ (121). His 14.1 wins above replacement (fWAR) over the past three seasons, which factors in all his talents on the baseball field, ranks fourth. Baseball-Reference calculates Jones's worth at 12.8 wins over the past three seasons.

Jones's career offensive numbers are not amazing, but they're solid for a center fielder. He's not Mike Trout. He's not Andrew McCutchen. But he's in that next tier of center fielders (or however many tiers there are below Trout), and that's not a bad place to be. His low on-base percentages can be frustrating. But his power numbers cannot be dismissed just because he doesn't draw a bunch of walks.

Many fans seem even more frustrated with Jones in the postseason. He has a career .151/.207/.208 slash line in 13 playoff games. That is truly awful. But that's just 58 plate appearances -- just a couple weeks' worth of trips to the plate. Jones's biggest problem (besides some bad fortune) in the playoffs isn't necessarily his plate discipline -- which is never fantastic -- but that he is facing a higher percentage of quality pitching. Sure, that's true for every hitter in the postseason. But not every good hitter dominates in the postseason, either. In 217 postseason plate appearances, Robinson Cano has a .222/.267/.419 batting line. Josh Hamilton has a .207/.272/.386 line in 162 plate appearances. Those lines are both better than Jones's, but they've also been accumulated over a much larger sample.

The great Eddie Murray once went 25 straight postseason at-bats without reaching base (not counting reaching on an error). That's the second most all time. Murray was very good in the postseason -- .258/.366/.459 in 186 plate appearances -- but imagine the snide comments and hot takes if Twitter had been around during Murray's rotten six-game stretch. (Also interesting: Including reaching on an error, Cano failed to reach base in 24 consecutive at-bats. That's the most all time.)

The postseason is weird. It's a different brand of baseball than regular season ball. Buck Showalter had some interesting comments on that topic the other day:
"If I was going to change the playoff format, I'd make you play seven days in a row, just like during the season," Showalter said. "[Relievers] can't pitch every day. You want to really see the exact same things show up in the postseason? Play seven days in a row instead of all the off-days. We played seven games in 17 days. Something doesn't seem right about that."
Perhaps that's just sour grapes, but Showalter seems to be pretty honest. Still, the O's also benefited from the playoff format and were able to use Andrew Miller more often than they normally would. I doubt most fans would complain if playoff baseball was more like regular season baseball, but I doubt any changes are coming on that front.

Adam Jones is a very good player, and he is one of the Orioles' best. If the O's reach the playoffs again sometime in the near future, he'll probably perform better offensively. Really, he can't get much worse. But don't let those 13 disappointing postseason games ruin what Jones is able to accomplish each regular season.

Photo via Keith Allison

29 October 2014

2015 Steamer Projections for the Orioles' Arbitration-Eligible Hitters

Last week, I looked at the Orioles' pitchers who are arbitration eligible this off-season. This post is on the arbitration-eligible hitters. Just like last week, my purpose is not to offer opinions or projections, but instead to provide what I hope is a useful resource as the baseball off-season gets ready to start.

Photo by Keith Allison

Chris Davis
Arbitration year 3
2014 salary: $10.35 million

2015 Projection

*Counting projections are not yet available for most players who didn’t end the season on a team’s roster. As you can see from wRC+, Davis is projected to be 19% above average next season, offensively 

Matt Wieters
Arbitration year 3
2014 salary: $7.7 million

2015 Projection

Alejandro De Aza
Arbitration year 3
2014 salary: $4.25 million

2015 Projection

Steve Pearce
Arbitration year 3
2014 salary: $850K

2015 Projection

Steve Lombardozzi 
Arbitration year 1
2014 salary: $517K

2015 Projection

Ryan Flaherty
Arbitration year 1
2014 salary: $512K

2015 Projection

Just like when I did the pitchers, I'm not condoning or condemning the projections here. Instead, I put this together as a resource to use during the off-season, and included a widely used projection system to help give a reference point for the arbitration-eligible players. If you want to look through projections on your own, head over to Fangraphs, where you can find them on each individual players' page.

28 October 2014

Davis Could Provide Cruz-like Production in 2015

As Pat discussed last week, Nelson Cruz is headed for free agency and will be seeking a multiyear deal. If Cruz does not accept the Orioles' expected qualifying offer and/or the two sides do not reach an agreement on a contract extension, the O's will have to find a replacement for arguably their best hitter from 2014. (Steve Pearce's slash line and advanced numbers were clearly better, but Cruz also finished with 300 more plate appearances. That wasn't Pearce's fault, but it still matters.)

There's a player on the O's roster who won't be splitting his time between a corner outfield spot and designated hitter, so he won't be filling Cruz's shoes. But he has similar offensive skills, is below average defensively, is coming off a suspension for using a (mostly) banned substance, and will be working on a one-year contract (if the O's tender him one). That player, of course, is Chris Davis.

Jon Shepherd noted the similarities between Cruz's 2014 and Davis's 2015 situation earlier this month. The Orioles are going to be looking for offensive production, and it doesn't matter where it comes from. So let's get this out of the way: The O's should bring Davis back for his third and final arbitration-eligible season. Davis avoided arbitration last year by accepting a $10.35 million offer. But he took a major step back offensively from his outstanding 2013 season, which cost him at least a few million dollars. If the O's bring him back, he'll probably be looking at a 2015 salary of around $12 million. That's still a lot of money, sure, but it's also for a single season. Cruz had red flags of his own, and the O's were able to bring him in for only $8 million (plus incentives) -- also for just one season. One-year deals are team friendly and minimize risk. Teams having the qualifying offer in their back pocket is also an interesting wrinkle.

Cruz has never had a full offensive season (500-600+ plate appearances) quite as bad as Davis's 2014 (94 wRC+ in 525 PA). Cruz came close in 2012, with a wRC+ of 106 in 642 PA. But overall, they have been similar offensively throughout their careers:

Nelson Cruz: 3,860 PA, .268/.328/.501, 118 wRC+
Chris Davis: 2,842 PA, .253/.322/.493, 115 wRC+

Davis walks slightly more (8.4 BB% to 7.9%) but also strikes out a lot more (31 K% to 22%). They are not on-base machines; they make up for that by hitting for power. Cruz has been slightly better over a longer period of time. But Davis is also six years younger. Age doesn't matter quite as much in a one-year situation, but Davis, who will turn 29 in March, is a pretty good bet to have a rebound season now that he's fully recovered from an oblique injury he suffered in April. He will probably never be as good as he was in 2013, but that doesn't mean he suddenly lost the ability to be an offensive weapon.

Davis had a terrible, perplexing 2014 season. He walked more than he ever had, yet he struck out the most since 2009. His 24.6 line drive percentage was his highest since 2011, but his .242 BABIP was the lowest of his career. Previously, in a season in which he received more than 137 plate appearances -- all but 2010 -- his BABIP had never been below .324. And he chased fewer pitches outside the strikezone than ever before (31.6 O-Swing%), but he also swung at about 5% fewer pitches than in 2013 and made less contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone. His HR/FB rate also dropped off from an amazing though unsustainable 29.6% in 2013 to 22.6% in 2014 (almost exactly his career average).

Davis's oblique injury very well may have been a nagging issue for him throughout the year. And opposing teams continue to utilize defensive shifts against him more each season, which is certainly affecting his numbers as more of his ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field get swallowed up. But the real concern for Davis is something that Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs noted in August:
[I]n 2013, Davis was 1.7 runs better than average per 100 fast pitches. He was 3.1 runs better than average per 100 offspeed pitches. Those are extraordinary marks, if you consider how many pitches a guy tends to see each season. You can see how Davis took a step forward in 2012 — he shortened up his swing a bit and made himself better able to handle the heat. The next year, Davis carried over his improvements, and also beat the living crap out of offspeed pitches. He was never bad against the slower stuff, but last season he feasted. This year, it’s half of a completely different story. Davis has been just about the same guy against fastballs. Yet against non-fastballs, he’s had all kinds of problems, to the tune of a decline of about five runs per 100 pitches.

Quick and easy: Davis can still handle a fastball. He’s seeing fewer of them, though, as he’s getting pitched more carefully, and he’s been a mess against the rest of everyone’s repertoire.
Opposing pitchers likely believe they've identified a weakness in Davis's approach, and he's going to have to prove he can deal with non-fastballs. Cruz, who feasts on fastballs even more than Davis, has previously dealt with pitchers trying to throw him more offspeed pitches. He's able to work around them and get fastballs that he's able to handle and hit out of the ballpark.

But what if Davis doesn't adjust? Well, then the O's can let him walk after the season. And what if he's good? Then they can extend him the qualifying offer or work out some type of fair contract extension -- though paying top dollar for an aging first baseman is not an optimal strategy (e.g., Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, etc.). Still, that would be a good problem to have, and it would mean Davis took a big step forward after a regrettable 2014.

Photo via Keith Allison

27 October 2014

Why the Orioles Don't Need Nick Markakis

Nate noted on Thursday that the Orioles need to figure out who will be playing in their 2015 outfield because players like Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Delmon Young will soon be free agents. They need to decide whether Steve Pearce is a full-time left fielder or if he is just a one-time wonder. Can Alejandro De Aza bounce back from a poor 2014 and start hitting left handed pitching? Can the Orioles afford to let Cruz and  Markakis leave? It doesn’t seem likely that the Orioles will keep Cruz, so one of the major questions the Orioles face is what they should do with Markakis. 

I would be happy if the Orioles are able to sign Nick to an extension for three years and $30 million. But I believe that if the sides were close that they would have agreed on an extension already. The World Series will end on Tuesday or Wednesday and then the Orioles will have a few days to decide between exercising Nick’s option, offering Nick a qualifying offer (QO) or letting him leave without compensation.

Exercising Nick’s option and offering Nick a QO that he accepts will cost the Orioles roughly the same amount of money. But if he is offered and refuses a QO then the Orioles would likely receive a compensatory draft pick. Matt Murphy claims that the value of such a pick was worth about $5.3 million in 2014. The only ways it makes sense to exercise Nick’s option is if one believes that he’s worth $20 million in 2015 or if he'll refuse to exercise his option. I don't think any of those are plausible.

I agree with Nate that $15 million for Markakis is only a slight overpay. But I generally don’t believe in overpaying to keep players. The Orioles have probably been negotiating with Markakis's agents long enough to determine whether he’d accept a QO. If the Orioles aren’t sure whether Markakis would accept a QO then I’d make him the offer and risk him accepting it but otherwise I’d look for other options.

The outfielders currently on the Orioles for 2015 are David Lough, De Aza, Pearce and Adam Jones. Jones will be starting in center field barring injury and Pearce is a lock to be a full time player after his strong 2014 and is a candidate to play LF which leaves the only hole at RF.

Lough and De Aza are both good enough defensively to play RF. The only problem is that they both have a certain weakness hitting. Here’s a chart showing their 2014 and career offensive wRC+ against left-handed and right-handed pitching.

De Aza 2014
De Aza Career
Lough 2014
Lough Career
wRC+ vs Lefties
wRC+ vs Righties

While De Aza and Lough are adequate at hitting against righties neither are particularly good against lefties. All the Orioles need to add is another outfielder that can play right field and hit against righties to complete their outfield.

Emilio Bonifacio is one potential free agent target. Bonifacio put up a .365/.411/.548 line against left handed pitching in 2014 for a wRC+ of 170. For his career he has put up a .291/.340/.380 line against lefties for a wRC+ of 94. Scott Van Slyke of the Dodgers put up a .315/.415/.630 line against lefties in 2014 for a wRC+ of 193 and has a career line of .268/.362/.530 with a wRC+ of 151. Alex Rios is interesting. He struggled last year but did hit .325/.353/.545 against left handed pitching with a wRC+ of 142. For his career he has a .290/.334/.466 line against lefties for a wRC+ of 109. All of these players are potential free agent targets to create a platoon in right field.

If the Orioles were unable to get one of these free agents then they could target trade options such as Ben Revere or John Mayberry Jr. Both of these players are strong against lefties and can play acceptable defense in right field but are considered fringe players. Both could likely be obtained for a minimal return and would be good platoon options. Failing that, the Orioles may decide to look in house. Daniel Alvarez has shown good offensive ability against left handed minor league pitchers with a combined .352/.379/.509 line. He could probably use another year in Norfolk and likely has a limited season but could see major league success in such a limited role.

But perhaps the best fit would be Nori Aoki. Nori Aoki had a .363/.428/.435 line against lefties in 2014 for a wRC+ of 150. For his career he has a .319/.371/.406 line against lefties for a wRC+ of 117. He also does decently against righties with a .273/.346/.380 line. Aoki is unable to hit for much power but does a good job of getting on base. Aoki isn’t an excellent defensive outfielder but he is competent and has a powerful arm. Unlike everyone listed aside from Rios, Aoki should be projected to be an everyday player.

If the Orioles were able to sign Aoki then they would only need to keep one of Lough and De Aza. Given their similar skill sets and the fact that De Aza will cost at least $4 million more than Lough it seems likely that De Aza is either a non-tender or trade candidate. An outfield of Lough, Jones and Aoki against right-handed pitching with Pearce at DH would be strong defensively and above average offensively. Against left-handed pitching, the O's could field an outfield of Pearce, Jones and Aoki leaving the DH spot for a player that hits left handed pitching like Delmon Young. Young would be an excellent fit on this club as outfield depth, a right handed DH and a top pinch hitter.

Building an outfield with these players would only be a slight downgrade from having Markakis and would be considerably cheaper. The saved money could be used to add another quality reliever like Koji. After all, the O's bullpen was one of their greatest strengths in 2014. Failing that, it would give the Orioles some flexibility to go after a top starter in a trade.

I still think that it makes sense to sign Markakis to an extension for 2015 and beyond at a reasonable cost. I don’t think it would be terrible to offer Markakis a QO and have him accept it. But if Markakis does go elsewhere then the Orioles have plenty of options. The Orioles could use Markakis but they simply don't need him.

Photo via Keith Allison

25 October 2014

The Inconsistent Norfolk Career of Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson in 2014. Photo courtesy of Norfolk Tides/Christopher McCain
While the Orioles were enjoying their postseason, and everyone's attention was focused on the present, it seemed unlikely to me that anyone would want to read about their past or their future. My interest and expertise - their farm system in general and their AAA affiliate at Norfolk is particular - necessarily focuses on the Orioles' future (and past.) But now that their 2014 run has ended, perhaps fans will now look forward to the future and you may be interested in what I saw at Norfolk.

Going back to 2012, the first year of the Orioles' recent run of success, one of the unsung contributors was right-handed pitcher Steve Johnson. Johnson was called up in July for a brief period after somewhat unexpectedly pitching well at Norfolk, was optioned back, and then recalled for good after the September roster expansion. Johnson pitched in twelve games (four starts, eight relief appearances) for 38 1/3 innings. In those innings, he was credited with four wins and blamed for no losses, with a 2.11 ERA. While the Orioles may very well have earned a wild-card berth even without his contributions, Johnson and Joe Saunders supported the fast-fading Orioles rotation in the final month.

Johnson was considered for an important role on the 2013 Orioles' staff. Unfortunately both for him and for the Orioles, he started the season on the disabled list with a lat strain. He spent 2013 shuttling between Baltimore, Norfolk, and the Disabled List. He was ineffective (7.47 ERA in 16 innings) with the Orioles; moderately effective (4.11 ERA in 46 innings) with the Tides; and presumably successful during his time on the DL.

The Orioles solidified their pitching staff for 2014, and Johnson was no longer considered a contender for a key role. Instead, there was a feeling that if he could recover his 2012 form, he would be a nice bonus and/or insurance policy. Instead, Johnson again spent much of the season on the Disabled List and the rest of the season recovering from his time on the Disabled List. He had a 7.11 ERA in thirteen Norfolk starts and an innings-pitched total more in keeping with a high-school draftee in the Gulf Coast League - 13 starts, 38 innings pitched.

2012 wasn't Johnson's first stint with Norfolk. In 2011, he was pitching very well at AA Bowie when Norfolk needed some more starting pitchers. Johnson got the promotion and made seventeen starts at Norfolk. He wasn't very effective, with a 5.56 ERA in 87 innings. So I've seen Johnson in four different seasons at Norfolk; two in which he was poor (2011 and 2014); one in which he was so-so (2013); and one in which he was excellent (2012). That got me wondering - what were the differences between good Steve Johnson and bad Steve Johnson? Was it just good fortune? Even if he was recovering from injury in 2014, did he regress to his 2011 form or was he bad in a different way?

The table below shows, for each season, the number of total plate appearances I saw and recorded in each of the past four seasons, and the outcomes (on a percentage basis) of those plate appearances. The batted-ball outcomes combine hits, outs, and errors; I arbitrarily included hit batsmen in with the walks. A ground ball is any low-trajectory batted ball that was not or would not have been caught in the air by an infielder (had one been in the right position.) Finally, the distinction between a fly ball and line drive reflects my judgement; for what it's worth, Baseball Info Solutions has not questioned my decisions in the games I've recorded for them.

Plate Appearances
Ground Balls
Fly Balls
Line Drives

Observation #1 - Johnson is not a ground-ball pitcher. 35.6% of the batted balls he allows are ground balls. For every ground ball hit off him, almost two fly balls/line drives are hit.

Observation #2 - Johnson's 2012 success can be attributed to two things. First, his 2012 walk rate was by far the lowest of his four Norfolk season. Second, he had a low line drive rate (for him) and a high ground ball rate (also for him.) It's admittedly speculation, but it's possible that his decreased walk rate reflected improved control, and consequently he wasn't working behind in the count as much and didn't have to make as many easily-hittable pitches. I do have the raw data to explore that hypothesis, and so perhaps I will do so later in the offseason.

Observation #3 - Johnson was ineffective in 2011 and 2014 for different reasons. In 2011, Johnson simply surrendered too many line drives. While not every line drive is the prototypical "screaming liner", and some line drives are soft line drives, all of them are low-trajectory balls that wouldn't hit the ground before passing the infielders. It's been established that line drives turn into base hits more than fly balls or ground balls. So if, like Johnson, you're giving up line drives to nearly 20% of the batters you face, you're giving up a lot of base hits.

In 2014, perhaps because he was recovering from two years of injury and consequent low usage, Johnson walked too many batters. In the games I saw, Johnson walked 21% of the batters he faced; over the entire season, he walked 16%. In a more common measurement, that's 7.1 walks per nine innings.

Johnson has been outrighted off the Orioles' 40-man roster and will most likely become a free agent. The Orioles may try to re-sign him to a minor league contract and hope he recovers. We'll know what to look for to determine the degree of his recovery.