31 December 2014

The Orioles Are Still Excellent Defensively

The Orioles have not done much this offseason, though they still reportedly plan to sign or trade for an outfielder and maybe bring in another reliever. That's not the type of offseason that many fans are clamoring for. But as currently constructed, the Orioles still have a solid core of players and figure to be competitive in an improved American League East.

Regardless of this offseason's moves, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette know that defense matters. They are proponents of defensive shifting; the O's are one of the most frequent shifting teams in the majors. The Orioles are projected to be a top defensive team again in 2015, along with the Royals and Rays. Last season, the O's ranked second in Ultimate Zone Rating and third in Defensive Runs Saved. In 2013, they finished third and 11th, respectively.

Baltimore's infield defense could be outstanding in 2015, if Manny Machado is able to stay on the field. The O's already have a very good combination up the middle in J.J. Hardy at shortstop and Jonathan Schoop at second base. Chris Davis is adequate at first base. Steve Pearce fares better statistically at first, though the O's may rely on him to log more outfield innings (where he is also decent). Matt Wieters, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, may not be ready for opening day (though Machado, recovering from knee surgery, should be). Fortunately, the Orioles have a pretty good defensive backup in Caleb Joseph. Wieters is the superior offensive option and is strong defensively, though he does not grade well as a pitch framer. Joseph's data sample is much smaller, but he appears to be a better pitch framer. He also controlled the running game well in his 78 games behind the plate last season. The hope is that Wieters rounds into form both offensively and defensively, but there's no guarantee of that. He also could serve as the designated hitter more often, especially in April and May.

Moving to the outfield, Adam Jones posted positive UZR and DRS numbers for the first time since 2008 and 2010, respectively, so it's possible that last season was a fluke of sorts. But even having him improve overall to the level of an average center fielder would be a nice upgrade. On the corners, the combination of Alejandro De Aza and Pearce could be an improvement on the Nelson Cruz/Nick Markakis duo. Markakis and particularly Cruz performed better in the field than expected last season, but they are both on downward trends and expecting anything better than average defense from them going forward would be a mistake. Bringing in a Colby Rasmus/Nori Aoki type would certainly help, as would an increase in playing time for David Lough, a superb corner outfielder. But the addition of Rasmus or Aoki would obviously make for a more crowded outfield.

Strong team defense the last couple seasons has been a tremendous help to O's pitching staffs. That's likely a large reason why O's starters have been so effective at stranding runners. A strong defense doesn't lead to great pitching, but it doesn't hurt. It certainly is one reason (along with good fortune, etc.) why a starting staff can pitch effectively while not striking out many batters or getting a bunch of grounders. The same goes for the Royals, another excellent defensive team (as the Orioles are well aware).

The O's offense will almost assuredly take a step back. They finished eighth in the majors in runs last season and sixth in wRC+. And a big bat addition is not likely. But outstanding defense, decent pitching, and a good but not great offense still may amount to a pretty good team. It's not a terrible formula, and the O's also haven't locked themselves into any potentially disastrous contracts this offseason. That doesn't mean they are done spending money, and they shouldn't be. But there does appear to be a method behind this team's relatively quiet offseason.

Photo via Keith Allison

30 December 2014

Free Agents Will Break Your Heart

Everyone knows that prospects will break your heart. Many prospects touted as the next big thing have ultimately failed. But top free agents that are unsuccessful with their new team don’t seem to have the same stigma attached to them. It seems the common perception is that top free agents are more likely to be productive than the top prospects. Certainly, casual fans get excited when they see their team sign a top free agent and usually are willing to trade prospects for top players.

I wanted to see whether this perception is accurate so I looked at all prospects ranked in Baseball America’s Top Hundred list from 1998-2007 and all free agents that earned an annual salary of at least five million, have completed their contract, and whose contract information was either in MLBTR or ESPN’s transaction tracker. These free agents were primarily players that signed a contract starting from 2007 to 2014. A more detailed description of my methodology can be found here.

Position prospects ranked 1-10 produced an annual average of 2.08 fWAR while free agent position players earning $15 million annually produced 2.09 fWAR per year. In addition, 56% of the prospects and 60% of the free agents produced more than 1.5 fWAR per year. This indicates that these position prospects were about as successful as the top free agents.

Free agent position players that earned between ten and fifteen million and those that earned between five and ten million performed similarly. Position players earning between ten to fifteen million produced on average 1.24 fWAR per season while those earning between five to ten million produced 1.13 fWAR. The position players that earned between ten to fifteen million did have slightly higher success rates as 41% were successful and 22% were stars. In contrast, 34% of the position players that earned between five to million were successful and 19% were stars. But in general, there’s little difference between position players that earned ten to fifteen million and those that earned five to ten million. This suggests that the best strategy for teams is to go after top position free agents or to stick with the ones that are affordable.  

Free agent position players that earned between $5 and $15 million annually performed similarly to position prospects ranked 51-100. The prospects produced an annual average of 1.06 fWAR while the free agents produced an average of 1.17 fWAR. 32% of the prospects and 36% of the free agents produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. They also performed similarly to position prospects ranked between 26 and 50. Position prospects ranked 26-50 produced 1.34 fWAR per year while 35% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. It is worth noting that position prospects ranked 26-50 from 2003 to 2007 averaged 1.5 fWAR per year while 46% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year.

Position prospects ranked 11-25 produced 1.63 fWAR per year while nearly 47% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. These prospects are easily better than free agents earning between $5 and $15 million annually but not as good as the top position free agents.

The chart below shows position category results.

Pitching prospects ranked 1-10 weren’t as successful as the top free agent starting pitchers. These prospects produced 1.98 fWAR on average per year while the top free agent starters produced 2.74 fWAR per year. 61.11% of the prospects and 70% of the free agents produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. However, pitching prospects ranked 1-10 from 2003-2007 performed similarly to the top free agent starting pitchers. These prospects produced 2.36 fWAR on average per year while 81% of these prospects ultimately produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. Pitching prospects ranked between 1 and 10 from 2003 and 2007 may not have had the same ceiling as the top starters but they arguably had a higher floor. Still, it appears that the top free agent starters are better than the top pitching prospects.

Pitching prospects ranked 11-25 performed similarly to free agents starting pitchers that earned between $10 and $15 million annually. From 1998-2007, the pitching prospects produced an annual average of 1.58 fWAR and 43% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. However, from 2003-2007 the prospects produced an annual average of 2.18 fWAR and 58% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. Free agent starting pitchers earning between $10 and $15 million annually produced an average of 1.85 fWAR and 53% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year.

Pitching prospects ranked 26-50 from 1998-2007 produced an annual average of 1.01 fWAR produced an annual average of 1.05 fWAR while 31% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. Those ranked between 26 and 50 from 2003 to 2007 produced an annual average of 1.05 fWAR while 35% produced at least 1.5 fWAR. Free agent starting pitchers that earned between $5 and $10 million annually produced an average of 1.04 fWAR while 30% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year.

Pitching prospects ranked between 51 and 100 from 1998 to 2007 produced an annual average of .73 fWAR while 20% produced at least 1.5 fWAR per year. There was no difference between the 1998 to 2007 and the 2003 to 2007 results.

If one believes that Baseball America is getting better at predicting pitching prospect performance over time then it makes sense to use the 2003-2007 prospect results. In fact, it makes sense to presume that current prospects will be even better than those ranked from 2003-2007. Therefore, it suggests that pitching prospects ranked from 1-10 have similar production to free agent starters earning $15 million or more, pitching prospects ranked from 11-25 have similar production to those free agent starters earning $10 and $15 million and those pitching prospects ranked from 26-50 have similar production to free agent starters earning between $5 and $10 million.

If one believes that Baseball America simply had good luck when selecting top prospects from 2003-2007 then this suggests that pitching prospects ranked from 1-10 are similar but better than those free agents that earn between $10 and $15 million and prospects ranked from 26-50 are similar to free agents that earn between $5 and $10 million.  

The chart below shows pitching category results.

Ultimately, the following groups have similar production:

  • Free Agents earning at least $15 million per year = Prospects Ranked 1-10
  • Free Agent Starting Pitchers earning between $10 and $15 million annually = Pitching Prospects Ranked from 11-25
  • Free Agent Starting Pitchers earning between $5 and $10 million annually = Pitching Prospects Ranked from 26-50
  • Free Agent Position Players earning between $5 and $15 annually = Position Prospects Ranked from 51-100
Prospects ranked by Baseball America have become significantly more productive and valuable over the years. Today the best free agents have similar success rates and production to the best prospects. Maybe it is time to start saying that free agents will break your heart.

25 December 2014

Merry Christmas From Camden Depot

The Orioles haven't made a noteworthy acquisition yet this offseason -- and they may not at all. If that's got you feeling down, go ahead and rewatch Delmon Young's bases-clearing double from Game 2 of the American League Division Series once or a dozen times. (And rejoice, I guess, because Young will be back next season.)

That should help, at least. And if it doesn't, then just remember Young's timeless playoff motto: "Keep your booty loose and go out there and play baseball." Words to live by, really.

 Happy Holidays, everyone. And thanks for reading.

24 December 2014

Team-Controlled Players Have Seen a Pay Cut

I understand that sometimes when I write sabermetric posts that they can be hard to follow. What I'm going to try to do in the future is write a paragraph or two discussing the relevant points at the start of the article.  I'm hoping that doing this will make them easier to follow and make clear what I think are some of the most important points to note.

Abstract: In this post, I intend to show that both the cost of a free agent and team-controlled win (defined as a player with fewer than six years of service time) have increased from 1996 to 2013. The cost of a free agent win is increasing more than 3.9% annually more than a prospect win from 2004 to 2013. This indicates that team-controlled players are being underpaid compared to free agents. It also means that any attempt to determine a discount value for keeping prospects in the minors needs to consider that the value of a prospect win increases over time by 3.9%.

A few months ago, Lew Pollis wrote an article discussing the historical cost of a win in free agency from 1996 to 2013. He determined how much money teams spent on free agents in a given year (regardless of whether they were signed that year or not), used Fangraphs WAR to determine their production, and then divided the two. It is possible to use his method to do the same thing with team-controlled players and see whether their value has changed over that 17-year time frame. This makes it possible to determine whether a team-controlled win has increased in value compared to a free agent win and therefore if prospects are becoming more valuable over time.

The amount of money spent on payrolls has increased significantly from 1996 to 2013. Teams spent $984 million on payroll in 1996 and $3.138 billion on payroll in 2013. Team-controlled players (players with less than six years of service time) earned $357 million in 1996 and $1.323 billion in 2013. Extended players (players with more than six years of service time but did not sign in free agency) earned $420 million in 1996 and just $504 million in 2013 while free agents (players that have more than six years of service time and were signed in free agency) earned $207 million in 1996 and $1.31 billion in 2013. The chart below shows how much money free agents, team-controlled players, and extended players earned from 1996-2013.

The amount of production that each group produces partly explains this trend. Free agents have produced roughly 200 WAR per season from 1996 to 2013. However, extended players produced 324 wins in 1996 but only 110 in 2013 while team-controlled players produced only 478 wins in 1996 but 703 wins in 2013. The chart below shows the number of wins produced by each group annually from 1996 to 2013.

The cost of a win for each group of players has increased over the sample but the cost of a free agent and extended player win is increasing at a considerably larger rate than the cost of a team-controlled player win. The cost of a free agent win has increased from $1.04 million in 1996 to $7.03 million in 2013. The cost of an extended player win increased from $1.3 million in 1996 to $4.55 million in 2013. The cost of a team-controlled player win increased from $750,000 in 1996 to $1.88 million in 2013. The chart below shows how this changed over time.

Not only is the actual amount for a free agent win considerably more than the cost of a team-controlled player win but the annual rate of increase for a free agent win is more than twice that of a team-controlled player win. Over the entire sample, the value of a future team-controlled win increases by 5.6% (1.11/1.05) each year while for the past 10 years it has increased by 3.9% each year. Either way, this indicates that teams would save on player costs by keeping their prospects in the minors for extra time.

It appears that team-controlled players earning under a million dollars and those earning over a million dollars are seeing their cost per win increase at a similar rate. From 2005 to 2013, team-controlled players in each of these categories saw an annual increase of roughly 4%. I used 2005 to 2013 because players earning under $1 million were remarkably ineffective in 2004 while those earning over $1 million were remarkably effective. 2004 appears to be a clear outlier and therefore shouldn’t be used as a baseline.  This chart shows the change over time.

In addition, prospects do not appear to be receiving significantly higher signing bonuses.  According to the Associated Press, teams spent $150 million on the draft in 2004 and $208 million in 2013, meaning that signing bonuses have increased by only 4.3% per year over that period. This is similar to the increase in salaries for team-controlled players during that time period and therefore doesn’t indicate that teams are paying more in signing bonuses while paying less in salaries.

This indicates that both the minimum salary is too low and that team-controlled players don’t receive large enough salary increases in arbitration. In order to keep pace with free agent salaries they should be earning $3.4 million per win instead of $2.2 million per win and therefore their salaries should be roughly 50% higher. This raise in salary should come partially via an increase in the minimum salary and partially via an increase in arbitration.

Over the 17-year period, it is clear that team-controlled players are becoming considerably more valuable compared to free agents. The amount of money that it takes to purchase a win in free agency is growing at a considerably faster rate than the amount it takes to purchase a win with a team-controlled player -- team-controlled players produce nearly 70% of wins while free agents only produce 20%.

This is probably good for the game because it allows for greater parity. As it becomes more and more expensive to get value in the free agent market, then large market teams get less benefit for having a higher payroll. But it also means that prospects and other team-controlled players receive unfair compensation for their efforts.

23 December 2014

Should the Orioles Take Advantage of San Diego's Outfield Surplus?

SD signed the "Swinging Friar" to play OF
(photo via Nathan Rupert)
We here at Camden Depot have spent much of our time this offseason talking about what the Orioles should do about their outfield.  With six starting pitchers, a strong bullpen, and an infield already occupied by some pretty good players, the outfield is the most obvious place for improvement in Baltimore, especially after the departures of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.  As the San Diego Padres continue to collect major league outfielders, it’s natural to look at their surplus and see if any of those players would look nice in Oriole orange, so let’s do that now.

This is not going to happen. Additionally, there have been rumblings that San Diego may try to use Myers as a part of a package to get Cole Hamels.

The 32-year-old outfielder has a very similar profile to Alejandro De Aza (look at their Baseball-Reference pages and see that they’re basically the same player), so acquiring Venable wouldn’t make sense.  Additionally, Venable plays good defense in center field (something none of the new acquisitions do well) and is under contract in 2015 for a very affordable $4.25 million, so it’s likely the Padres aren’t all that motivated to move him.

Smith had a career year in 2014 during his first season in San Diego, batting .266/.367/.440 (AVG/OBP/SLG), which was good for a wRC+ of 133.  Not only was did his hitting improve, but his walk rate jumped to 13.2% (career 10.6%) while his strikeout rate dropped to 16.7% (career 18.8%).  It doesn’t appear to be luck driven either, as his BABIP was at his career level and his batted ball statistics were mostly near career averages as well (save for a huge drop in infield fly balls).  And although Smith may not initially be thought of as a good defender, he’s actually decent in left field, being worth 4 Defensive Runs Saved in almost 3,000 innings.

With a career wRC+ of 63 against left-handed pitching (123 wRC+ against RHP), Smith is strictly a platoon bat.  However, with the versatility of Steve Pearce, the Orioles should be able to move some players around so that Smith would never have to see a left-handed pitcher.  He signed a two-year, $13 million extension in July, so he would be a good trade target for Baltimore considering his relatively low salary and two years of control. He didn’t receive a no-trade clause as part of that extension, but he was given assurances by the team that he wouldn’t be traded after signing, which likely decreases the chance (or increases the price) of the Padres dealing him.

Carlos Quentin career statistics (*combined DRS between LF and RF)
Make no mistake, Carlos Quentin can hit a baseball, and it doesn’t matter if it’s being thrown by a right-handed pitcher or a left-handed pitcher (he’s actually better against RHP).  Additionally, Quentin is only owed $8 million in 2015, with a $10 million mutual option in 2016 (with a $3 million buyout), which according to Marc Normandin, is no longer an issue.

However, if you look at his outfield defensive numbers in the table above, he loses quite a bit of value when he’s actually in the field.  Essentially when Quentin plays, he’s a better version of Delmon Young, without the platoon issues.  However, that’s the other issue with Quentin: His lack of durability has limited him to no more than 340 plate appearances in a season since 2011.  Looking at his injury page on Baseball Prospectus is downright frightening, and injuries to both knees have caused him to miss 240 games since the start of the 2012 season.

Quentin belongs in the American League where he can avoid playing the field altogether.  As long as he’s healthy, Quentin would be a good target for the Orioles as a replacement for Delmon Young/full-time DH.  Based on his injury history, the Orioles should be able to acquire Quentin cheaply in terms of prospects, and if they could get the Padres to cover at least half his salary (if not more), he’d be a gamble worth taking.

When the Justin Upton deal went down, Maybin was the first Padre outfielder that came to my mind, resulting in this tweet.

After taking some additional time to think about it, two years and $16 million may be a little expensive for Maybin’s services (Maybin is owed $7 million in 2015, $8 million in 2016, and a $9 million club option in 2017, with a $1 million buyout).  Similar to Quentin, Maybin’s track record of health (or lack thereof) is concerning, to the point that it would be foolish to count on him for a full season.  Due to knee, wrist, and shoulder injuries, he’s tallied only 329 plate appearances the last two years, and those plate appearances haven’t gone well (a 30 wRC+ in 57 PA’s in 2013 and a 77 wRC+ in 272 PA’s in 2014).

Thanks to decent hitting (96 wRC+), excellent center field defense (24 DRS), and good baserunning (15.4 BsR), Maybin was worth 6.5 fWAR between 2011-2012.  And as a former top prospect (ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him #29 in his 2009 top 100), he’s the obvious upside play of this group.  As a prospect, he was projected as a possible 30 home run bat.  He hasn’t hit for much power in the major leagues (career ISO of .110), but at 27 years old (he’ll play the 2015 season at 28), there is still a chance that power shows up, although that chance is admittedly small.

Even if the Padres provide some financial relief, a Maybin acquisition is risky.  Not only is his health a major concern, but his strengths (defense and baserunning) don’t have as much value to a team like the Orioles, who already have two similar players in David Lough and De Aza on their roster.

Cameron Maybin potentially has the chance to add more value to the 2015 Orioles than any other of the San Diego outfielders, but the chances that he stays healthy AND hits well are relatively small.  For a team that plans on contending in 2015, the Orioles probably shouldn't be taking the chance of both happening in 2015.


Seth Smith, Carlos Quentin, and Cameron Maybin could each be a possible fit for the Orioles.  None of these players should cost too much in terms of prospects (especially true for Quentin and Maybin), but whether it’s platoon issues, injuries, or ineffectiveness, each player comes with his own limitations.  Given the makeup of the roster and the Orioles' plans for contention in 2015, Carlos Quentin (if healthy) is likely the best (and most realistic) San Diego outfielder for Baltimore to target this offseason.  Although as mentioned previously on Camden Depot, the Orioles could do just end up doing nothing, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.