31 March 2015

FIP and the Ball-Strike Count II

In my previous post about FIP, I discussed how pitchers give up harder contact in a hitters count resulting in more extra base hits and weaker contact in a pitchers count resulting in more singles. This means that while BABIP doesn’t change much based on count, the effect of the hits based on the count does. I attempted to find metrics that might help predict which players could benefit from this but was unable to do so.

In this post, I decided to look at pitchers that gave up weaker than average contact and see how their ERA and FIPs compare to each other. From 2000-2013, I looked at all pitchers that gave up fewer than average doubles, triples and home runs while giving up a larger than average percentage of singles on balls in play. Presumably, pitchers that fit this profile give up weaker contact than pitchers that don’t and therefore should have a lower ERA than FIP. This test should help determine the impact of giving up weaker contact.

There were 117 pitchers that fit these criteria and many of them were ones that one might expect. For example, star closers such as Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel, Joakim Soria, Ryan Cook, Jim Johnson (not including his terrible 2014), B.J Ryan and David Robertson were all on this list. So were guys like Rick Porcello, Brett Anderson, Brandon Webb, Chien-Ming Wang, Doug Fister and Derek Lowe. These pitchers are well known for giving up a lot of ground balls and allowing only weak contact. A list of the entire 117 pitchers can be found here.

It should come as no surprise that the pitchers on this list record more saves than their average usage would suggest. These pitchers threw only 9% of total innings while recording 20.8% of total saves. It makes sense that pitchers that can avoid giving up hard contact end up being used as closers.
However, there are some surprising results when we compare their ERAs to their FIPs. Only 58 of the 117 pitchers on this list actually have an ERA lower than their FIP. The mean ERA is 3.73 while the mean FIP is 3.78 or about a difference of .05. This is minimal and unimportant. This suggests that even pitchers that end up allowing weaker than average contact still have an ERA that’s similar to their FIP.  It appears that despite the fact that FIP doesn’t differentiate between a single, double or triple the stat still accurately describes performance.

The pitchers that primarily are able to outperform their FIP are those that are able to avoid giving up any type of hits whether they’re singles or for extra bases. There have been 26 pitchers that give up fewer 1B, 2B, 3B and HR than the 35th percentile. They have an average ERA of 3.03 and an average FIP of 3.55. But then again, it’s questionable whether that should be attributed to pitcher skill or to defense.

This doesn’t mean that FIP is necessarily 100% accurate. Some have proposed that Chris Tillman has extra value not measured via traditional statistics because he is able to keep opposing batters close to the bag and therefore prevents steals, prevents runners from advancing multiple bases on a hit and creates more double plays. But it is interesting to see that FIP “works” even in a situation where we’d expect it to fail.

This analysis indicates that pitchers do have some effect on how hard their pitches are hit and therefore whether impact the likelihood of a batter getting an extra base hit. Some pitchers appear to be better than average at preventing hard contact than other pitchers while most pitchers give up weaker contact in favorable pitch counts. I have been unable to determine an impartial way of determining which pitchers should be expected to give up weaker contact than their peers but it appears that someone using the eye test or knowledge about pitchers can predict this with reasonable accuracy. However, FIP appears to be accurate even when looking at pitchers that allow weaker contact than their peers. I am not quite sure how this can be the case but facts are facts. This possibly indicates that FIP is a better metric than its detractors suspect and suggests that people shouldn’t necessarily dismiss it simply because they find things that it doesn’t measure.

30 March 2015

Kevin Gausman Should Be in the Orioles' Rotation

Photo by Keith Allison
It's no secret that the Orioles have six starting pitchers and only five rotation spots. Some fans have clamored for Ubaldo Jimenez to be the odd man out, while others have pointed to Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman being the only members of the staff with minor league options. Gausman, however, was quite effective out of the bullpen for the Orioles in the postseason, a role he apparently may find himself in again come Opening Day.
This isn't incredibly surprising news. Gausman is the least established member of the rotation, having yet to spend an entire season on an MLB roster. And putting him in the bullpen or in Norfolk are likely the two easiest options for Buck Showalter. But that doesn't mean either is the best decision. Obviously the decision does not exist in a vacuum, but putting Gausman in the rotation is deserved enough that the Orioles should make doing so a priority, and deal with whatever roster crunch ramifications come of it.

Here's how ZiPS projects the six rotation candidates to perform in 2015:

While acknowledging that, aside from Gonzalez, the numbers here are pretty similar, Gausman's FIP (4.05) projects to be the best of the group, and his WAR (1.6) projects to be second to Chen (1.8). It's fair to say that, while not head and shoulders above the group, Gausman projects to be the best starter of the bunch in 2015, something Baseball Prospectus 2015 claims he already was by the end of the 2014 season. Gonzalez projects to be, by far, the weakest.

While projections are more reliable than Gausman's small sample as a starter in the Majors, since they also account for age and minor league performance, Gausman's month to month progress as a starter is also encouraging.

Gausman joined the rotation full time in July, making five starts that month, as well as five starts in August and September. Small sample size warnings apply, but here's a look at how Gausman fared by month.

On top of projecting to be the team's best starter, Gausman's K/9 and BB/9 moved in the right direction each month he was in the rotation.

Using a slightly adjusted sample, here's how all of the team's starters fared in the second half. Ubaldo Jimenez is excluded, as he only pitched 20 1/3 innings.

Just like the previous chart, this is a small sample. While keeping that in mind, this is further evidence that Gausman, in the small sample we have of him as a full-time MLB starter, has more than held his own among this current group of starters. Miguel Gonzalez, just as in the 2015 projections, again stand out as the weak link.

It seems unlikely that the Orioles are going to leave Jimenez out of the rotation to start the season, in which case it would make the most sense for Gonzalez to be the odd man out of the rotation. Jon has written here before about the possibility of moving Gonzalez to the bullpen. Unless the Orioles are again going to limit Gausman's innings, there is no reason he should go to the bullpen or Norfolk instead of Gonzalez.

Regardless of how the Orioles make room for Gausman in their 2015 Opening Day rotation, the advantage of having him in the rotation, despite the lost roster flexibility in doing so, is the best decision the team can make with their 24-year-old starter pitcher.

27 March 2015

The Orioles Shouldn't (and Likely Won't) Keep Both Rule 5 Pitchers on the Roster

The Orioles really like Logan Verrett and Jason Garcia, their two Rule 5 picks. They'd like to keep both of them, though doing so would be incredibly difficult. Here are some of Buck Showalter's recent comments on the topic, courtesy of Roch Kubatko of MASN:
"Conventionally thinking, it would be hard, and especially in the American League. Rule 5 guys, you don't hide them anymore. They have to pitch and they have to be able to present themselves. . . . The days of taking a Rule 5 and sticking him in the end of the dugout for the whole season so you can have him the next year, that doesn't exist anymore. Especially a pitcher. They've got to pitch. And not just because it's the American League East. It could be any team, but especially in the American League, where the lineups are so deep with the DH. Is it possible? Sure, it's possible, but it creates some challenges for your bullpen because you don't know what you've got. You're not going to know until about June or July what you've got." [Emphasis added.]
As a reminder, Rule 5 picks have to stay on a team's 25-man roster for a full season. So unless the Orioles make a trade for Verrett or Garcia, in order to keep them they'd have to stay on the major league roster. Keeping both would not only be improbable, but illogical. Verrett, 24, has at least logged more than 300 innings in Double- and Triple-A. But because of injuries (he had Tommy John surgery in 2013), Garcia, 22, has yet to pitch above Single-A. Verrett is obviously the more likely of the two to stick for a full season. And yet, the O's don't want to lose Garcia, either. The Red Sox didn't think any team would pick Garcia in the Rule 5 draft (there's an interesting anecdote on that here), so they'd clearly welcome him back with open arms. Keeping Garcia would be intriguing, but it's also a luxury the Orioles can't afford. They'll need every bit of help if they're going to repeat as AL East champions, and keeping two unproven relievers would be impractical.

Let's break down the current pitching situation for the O's. Here are the starting options:

Chris Tillman*
Wei-Yin Chen*
Bud Norris*
Ubaldo Jimenez*
Miguel Gonzalez
Kevin Gausman

... and bullpen options:

Zach Britton*
Darren O'Day*
Tommy Hunter*
Brad Brach*
Wesley Wright*
Brian Matusz**
Ryan Webb**
T.J. McFarland
Logan Verrett
Jason Garcia

Single asterisks indicate pitchers who are locks to be on the roster; double asterisks signify possible trade candidates. Jimenez has to be in the rotation or the bullpen. Gausman could either be in the rotation, in the bullpen, or optioned to Norfolk. The same goes for Gonzalez. Hunter is a lock because he has five-plus years of service time (meaning he can refuse a minor league assignment). The same is true for Wright. Brach is out of options, and the O's surely want to keep him. Matusz is out of options, but he's a much-discussed trade candidate. Webb, who's also out of options, is another trade option. And McFarland will probably start the year in Triple-A Norfolk.

There are a bunch of options here for Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette to consider. Putting Jimenez, Gonzalez, or Gausman in the bullpen would take away one bullpen spot from a reliever. If a starter is sent to Norfolk, the O's could keep Webb or Matusz on the roster. Or they could keep Verrett as the long man if a starter is optioned and both Matusz and Webb are traded. But that's not even factoring in Garcia, who would in all likelihood need Matusz and Webb to be gone and a starter to be optioned to Norfolk. That seems entirely unlikely for an entire season.

Showalter has said the O's could open the season with 13 pitchers. That would keep an extra pitcher for a few days, but it wouldn't have much of an impact on the rest of the season. As they should, the O's are looking for every conceivable advantage, especially when it comes to roster construction and flexibility. And they have thrived on roster gymnastics and utilizing the Norfolk shuttle the past few years. But there aren't many players on the roster who can be optioned as needed, particularly in the bullpen. That could present some challenges, and it may be a reason to look out for a trade or two before the season gets underway.

26 March 2015

Orioles Catching Options to Start the Season

Earlier in the week, Roch Kubatko of MASN reported Matt Wieters would start the season on the disabled list, as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery.  Last Tuesday, Wieters caught in a game for the first time since May 4, 2014.  Shortly after, the team shut Wieters down due to tendinitis in his surgically repaired elbow.  Despite getting good news after an x-ray came back clean, it’s looking more and more likely that Wieters will begin the 2015 season on the disabled list.  Due to the missed time after being shut down for an entire week, this isn’t necessarily a surprise, especially since Orioles manager Buck Showalter has stated that Wieters would not make the opening day roster as a designated hitter.  Furthermore, he isn’t even needed as a DH, as Matt examined last week.

So if Wieters won’t be on the opening day roster, who will be performing the catching duties for Baltimore?  The answer is likely to be Caleb Joseph, who handled catching duties along with Nick Hundley last year when Wieters’ season ended due to injury.  Joseph earned high praise for defense (especially in the pitch framing department), but his bat was anemic.  His 2014 batting line of .207/.264/.354 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in 275 plate appearances was good for a 72 wRC+.  Despite being well below average at the plate, his play behind it allowed him to produce 0.8 WAR (according to Fangraphs).  And since Fangraphs doesn’t account for pitch framing, it’s very likely that his production is understated.

With Joseph the likely starter, that leaves a roster spot for a backup catcher.  Besides Wieters and Joseph, there have been six other catchers make an appearance in spring training.  Of those six, only 3 remain in major league camp this spring: Steve Clevenger, Ryan Lavarnway, and J.P. Arencibia.  Spring training statistics don’t matter, but here’s how each has performed so far.

If one simply looks at those meaningless numbers, it would appear that no one even wants the backup catching job to start the season.  While none of the current candidates are swinging even a luke warm bat this spring, they wouldn’t have even made it this far if they haven’t had some previous success with the stick.

Clevenger has been a decent hitter in the minor leagues (especially against right-handed pitching), however he has never found consistent success or playing time in the majors, as evidenced by his .210/.270/.295 line in 341 plate appearances.  Lavarnway is a former (almost top) prospect who showed excellent power in the minor leagues (the guy hit 34 combined home runs in AA, AAA, and MLB as a 23 year old in 2011), but has never been viewed by evaluators as someone who could handle his position (he’s a catcher, but in name only).  Additionally, like Clevenger, his career batting line in the major leagues (.201/.249/.315 in 301 PA’s) fails to come anywhere close to his production in the minors.
Steve Clevenger (photo via Keith Allison)

Finally, there’s Arencibia, who actually is a former top prospect (he was ranked #48 by mlb.com in 2011).  Like Lavarnway, Arencibia’s main asset is his power.  However, unlike Lavarnway, Arencibia has actually showed the ability to hit for power in the major leagues.  Another way that he’s similar to Lavarnway is that he doesn’t bring much else to the table offensively or defensively (Fangraphs has his defense being worth -1.7 runs during his career).  Yes, he’s shown he can hit for power in the majors, but when you have a career on-base percentage of .255, it’s not going to help much.

Barring some sort of trade or major revelation in the next two weeks, the opening day backup catcher position is Steve Clevenger’s to lose.  Not only has he performed at least as well as the other options, he also provides a platoon partner for Caleb Joseph as the only left-handed hitting option.  Additionally, he’s likely the best defender of the 3 backup options remaining as well (Showalter has previously praised Clevenger’s defensive work this spring).  If that weren’t enough, Clevenger has an option remaining (Lavarnway and Arencibia do not) and is already on the “at-capacity” 40-man roster (Lavarnway and Arencibia are not).  When Wieters does return, the Orioles could then easily option Clevenger to Norfolk, without having the threat of him being claimed off waivers, as would be the case with the other options.

Let’s be honest, none of these options look all that great.  However, we’re likely only talking about a couple of weeks at most, barring any additional setbacks with Matt Wieters’ elbow. No matter who gets the role of backup catcher, it isn’t something that will make or break the Orioles 2015 season.