31 August 2015

Arrivals And Departures (8/31/15): 5% Is Not 5%

At least nice weather is coming...

This year the Orioles have diverged from T.S. Eliot: August is the cruelest month.  Through the heroics of Jason Garcia, the club saw their playoff chances rise as high as 36.2% according to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds modeling.  However, that same modeling has now assessed their odds as below 5%.  In other words, there is still a chance, but four other clubs stand a better chance at snagging that last Wild Card entry.  Also note that this commentary does not include the results from Sunday's games.

If one only considers Games Back, it might still look competitive to some:

Rk     Tm W   L   W-L%   GB   Playoff %
1 KCR 80 49 .620 --- 100
2 TOR 73 56 .566 --- 100
3 HOU 72 58 .554 --- 98
4  NYY 71 57 .555 --- 96
5  TEX 67 61 .523 --- 49
6  MIN 66 63 .512 1.5 16
7  LAA 65 64 .504 3.5 17
8  TBR 63 66 .496 4.5 7
9  BAL 63 66 .496 4.5 4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/30/2015.

However, I advise that one should consider playoff percentage as it also tries to account for team strength, opposition, and that other clubs are bunch in for the race.  The Orioles, 4.5 games back, have a considerably more difficult time leap frogging to the final Wild Card because they have to best four other clubs.  This is highly unlikely.  One might also remember that it was highly unlikely for the Yankees to crater and lose their first place spot to the Orioles.  At the time, their odds were a 75% chance of retaining that position.  However, they have given that placement to the Blue Jays for the time being.  Point being, we should not expect the Orioles to make the playoffs at this point, but we should also not be shocked if they do.  Pleasantly surprised, yes.  Shocked, no.

One might remember from previous statements of mine in various media that before a season begins I consider the season in play if a club has a playoff projection about 5%.  It might be confusing that that particular red line moves upward during the season for me.  It is not that 5% is not 5% is not 5%.  By definition, a 5% club in March has the same odds to make the playoffs as a 5% club at the end of August.  What differentiates the number for me is that a 5% club at the end of August has better evidenced itself as being a 5% club while one in March may experience certain luck (e.g., health, unexpected breakout seasons) and actually be a better team than initially projected.  Additionally, a 5% team in August has less time to improve itself through player acquisitions or uncover fast rising players in the upper minors.  Simply said, we know more about a club in August than we do in March, so I feel more comfortable accepting the projection model's odds and the lack of opportunity to improve the level of talent on the squad.

Looking at the legacy of the Showalter / Duquette era...

Boiling up over the past month, there has been a small, but vocal, subgroup of Oriole fandom that has firmly rooted itself into the belief that Buck Showalter needs to be fired.  Likewise, a season-long belief that somehow the organization was arrested from action due to the Toronto Blue Jays' inquiry on Dan Duquette has also firmly been entrenched by some as fault for the Orioles not making the playoffs.  These two ideas seem incredible to me.

Since 2012, the Orioles have been the winningest team in the American League with a record of 337 wins.  For perspective, from 2008 through 2011, the Orioles lost the most games in the American League with 380 losses.  Again, the current era turned the worst team in the league into the best team in the league in terms of overall multi-year performance.  That speaks to the overwhelming success that Baltimore has seen over the years.  Yet, somehow there is a vocal group that is very upset that the current club is 4.5 games outside of the playoffs.  That is a bit mind numbing.  This club has come so far that some have a Ricky Bobby perspective (If you're not first, you're last).

Showalter is highly esteemed for his ability to manage players and the respect his players show for him.  He is the quintessential manager any club would want helming their team.  I have yet to read any competent argument indicating otherwise.  The only points brought up have been the extent of "Buck looks lost" and "Buck cannot figure out how to win."  On the first point, that is pretty much just a collection of words people throw together when they feel something, but cannot find anything tangible to express that feeling.  One can simply ignore that as gibberish.  The latter, well, it is demonstrably false and also seems to fail in understanding how a baseball season can play out.

With respect to Duquette, I agree in that we should question his competency, but disagree that the will-he-leave-or-won't-he issue amounted to much.  Addressing the latter, a front office is a large collection of people and moving parts.  Duquette being considered for a different role would not prevent him in acting to better the club.  A firm payroll limit likely had more to do in hindering the club in improving its talent base.  The firm payroll limit was why the club decided to roll the dice with several fringe outfielders and hope for the best (an approach that worked amazingly well the previous three years).  In the end, it did not work out.  Sometimes the five or six players you collect wind up all crapping out.

Additionally, there has been some mumblings about Duquette not caring about the direction of the club which also seems demonstrably false.  The Jason Garcia situation seems to be the best example that the Orioles are interested in the future of this club.  Duquette is not maximizing this season to better himself on the way out.  Instead, he is holding on to a fringe power arm prospect to better the club's chances in future seasons.

However, I would like to introduce nuance and explain my displeasure with Duquette.  My concern is that the minor league system has not improved from MacPhail's tenure.  In fact, it is worse.  MacPhail had a system that was a collection of a couple shining elite prospects and a few second tier guys with one or two loud tools.  MacPhail also had a system that largely ignored international amateurs and publicly said that a club would be unwise to invest too much in that area.  All in all, the few shining prospects often placed the club around 10th best as a farm system.  Duquette's system has a couple injured elite prospects and a few second tier guys with low ceilings.  Duquette, who came in with an interest in attacking the foreign markets, has a system that largely ignores international amateur talent.  This system now finds itself as one of the worst in baseball.

From my perspective, spending a couple million here or there on guys like Delmon Young or Everth Cabrera was misguided.  I can understand maybe picking up one of them, but if that prevents you from bringing your international investment up to maximally allowed without incurring a penalty, then that appears to be a poor practice.  In effect, I think this results in the club unwilling to acquire top tier international talent as well as being unable to sign a bevy of hard throwing pitchers, which is a reason why Jason Garcia may be more important to the Baltimore organization than say another system with a firm international effort.  To be clear, the Orioles annually spend the least or second least money on international amateurs in all of Major League Baseball.  I have yet to see any evidence to show that this is a good approach to take.

Yes, I agree that when the playoff window is open that it is important to maximize your resources to push yourself through that window.  I contest that an extra two million is going to impact that window much.  Maybe it does.  Maybe it is too difficult to recognize who is a breakout two million dollar player and who is not, so it makes sense to collect as many as possible.  Maybe it makes sense to offer guaranteed contracts to pitchers or hitters who wind up being released in Spring Training.  I think it is an approach that has not worked and will unfortunately manifest itself in coming years to those who pay attention.

And now for Arrivals and Departures...
I think we can pass for now.  Maybe something fun happens today.

28 August 2015

Microtrends: Kevin Gausman's Weak Contact

Since he moved into the Orioles' rotation again, Kevin Gausman has pitched to mixed results. He's put up an uninspiring 4.26 ERA in his ten starts, albeit with a 3.78 FIP. His strikeout rate has jumped from years past, to a solid 21.0%, and he's issued free passes at a meager 4.7% clip; however, poor sequencing (as evidenced by a 67.5% strand rate) has done him in. Taking into account his past performance, though, I found one element of his 2015 starts especially interesting.

Gausman only started five games in 2013, all of which went pretty disastrously — he allowed 21 runs in 24.2 innings, chiefly because of a .351 BABIP. Becoming a starter full-time in 2014, he improved considerably in terms of preventing runs, with a 3.57 ERA across 20 outings. That came despite a subpar .304 BABIP, indicating that hitters still hit the ball hard against him. Over his first 25 career starts, Gausman gave up a hit on 31.3% of the balls put in play against him, a rate that didn't bode well for the future.

The future, as they say, is now. Gausman's 2015 starts have seen him limit the opposition to a .264 BABIP — tremendously lower than we'd expect based on his history. Unlike strikeouts and walks, balls in play take a long time to stabilize, so this could dissipate over a larger sample. The descriptive measures here, though, would suggest that Gausman's weak contact will remain.

By the various batted-ball statistics FanGraphs provides, Gausman has upped his game in virtually every regard:

Starter LD% GB% FB% PU% Soft% Med% Hard%
2013-2014 24.2% 40.5% 32.4% 2.9% 14.6% 54.3% 31.2%
2015 18.8% 41.9% 33.3% 5.9% 26.3% 46.8% 26.9%

Fewer line drives and hard-hit balls, along with more popups and soft-hit balls, will generally lead to a depreciated BABIP. That's held true for Gausman, whose process has changed to create these results.

In his 2013 and 2014 starts, Gausman relied primarily on three pitches: a four-seam fastball, a slider, and a splitter. The former occupied 68.3% of his overall pitches, while the usage rates for the latter two came in at 8.0% and 18.0%, respectively. He's thrown the fastball just as often during his 2015 starts — a 68.2% clip doesn't differ much at all from the mark he established prior. His shiny new curveball has slid in nicely, replacing the slider with a clean 8.0% usage rate. And the splitter has remained a solid secondary offering, at 16.2%. Which of these three pitches has helped him the most?

The four-seamer, and it's not very close. Hitters battered the slider for a .392 BABIP, and their current .375 figure against the curveball conforms to that. The splitter's .298 BABIP before 2015 has also remained stable, at .290. By contrast, 31.1% of Gausman's four-seam fastballs in play used to go for hits, whereas 24.8% of them have done so thus far. That massive drop accounts for almost all of the variation in Gausman's BABIP, meaning that fastballs have made the difference.

Earlier this year, Jeff Sullivan observed that Gausman had started to throw more high fastballs. That trend from Gausman's bullpen time has carried over to his tenure in the rotation:

First image includes all 2013-2014 appearances.

The higher fastballs have consistently gone for fewer hits when put in play, so increasing their quantity means Gausman's been able to suppress the BABIP against him. Even at the major-league level, most hitters really can't make solid contact on a high heater in the upper 90s; Gausman appears to have realized that, at long last.

Gausman will take the hill tonight against the Rangers, hoping to sustain Baltimore's faint postseason dreams. He may allow some hits on balls in play — over the long term, very few (if any) starting pitchers can maintain a BABIP in the .260s. But this profile shows that he can continue to turn balls in play into outs; if he starts to strand runners as well, he could become Baltimore's next overperformer.

27 August 2015

Is Miguel Gonzalez Broken?

In Matt Perez's solid midseason post on Miguel Gonzalez and his continued ability to outpitch his peripherals, he concluded:
When it comes down to it, Gonzo has been good the past few seasons and is well on his way of having another strong season. Sometimes it’s just better to be lucky than good and no one is going to care about his FIP if he continues to perform at such a high level.
Gonzalez's surprising, confounding success has been a popular and intriguing topic among many O's fans and writers, both on this site and others. The worry with Gonzalez has been: How long can he keep this going? It's possible we've received the answer, and unfortunately it's coming in the thick of the O's hunt for a playoff spot.

Since late June, Gonzalez has been terrible. It's late August now, so he's dealing with a continued stretch of poor results. Overall, Gonzalez is still technically outperforming his FIP -- he has a 4.78 ERA and a 5.08 FIP -- but not nearly to the ridiculous extent of his three previous seasons. I wrote a couple weeks ago for MASNsports.com that Gonzalez hasn't been able to maintain the low BABIP and high strand rate of years past. But it's not like he's been a completely different pitcher. His strikeouts are up a bit, his walks are about the same, he's getting more ground balls, opposing batters aren't hitting the ball as hard against him, he has maintained his velocity, etc. 

That brings us back to Ryan Romano's excellent analysis in the offseason breaking down how Gonzalez pitches with the bases empty vs. with runners on base. Ryan noted that Gonzalez opts for more sinkers instead of four-seamers with runners on base, which led to fewer fly balls and multi-run homers. We obviously know that Gonzalez has pitched much worse this year with runners on base, but let's see if he's altered his pitch usage from years past.

With runners on base this season, Gonzalez has opted for fewer four- and two-seamers and replaced them with sliders. With the bases empty, Gonzalez has thrown even fewer two-seamers and fewer splitters. So maybe it's not surprising that he has allowed a bunch of non-solo home runs in 2015.

Let's check out his pitch locations from previous seasons to this one.

Bases empty:

And with runners on:

Gonzalez has kept the ball lower than normal with the bases empty, while he's been keeping the ball more in the middle of the plate (along with inside and outside) when the bases are occupied. It's obviously a smaller sample of innings than what Gonzalez had from 2012-2014, but perhaps this partially explains why Gonzalez's BABIP has jumped significantly and his HR/FB rate has more than doubled when runners are on base.

These seem like fixable problems. It would be more concerning if his velocity dipped or he stopped getting strikeouts (not that he's spectacular in either category). Then again, we're also talking about a pitcher who appeared out of nowhere and produced quickly. It wouldn't be that surprising if he slowly flamed out, though it would be disappointing.

Still, it's not like the Orioles have a bunch of great starting pitching options heading into 2016 -- and they definitely don't right now. The O's will likely have to replace Wei-Yin Chen in the rotation next season, and if Gonzalez is no longer the 2012-2014 version, eventually they'll have yet another hole in the rotation to fill.

Gonzalez was a great find, and he's really helped the Orioles these last few years. But if you're worried about him going forward, you're not alone.

26 August 2015

What WPA Teaches About The 2015 Orioles

Just five games ago, it seemed like the Orioles had finally turned the corner and were set to make a run to at least secure a wild-card spot. The Orioles lost each of those next five games and are now at .500. Orioles’ fans are feeling despondent while Manny Machado apparently boiled over in the locker room after the latest Orioles heartbreaker. Why have the Orioles struggled this year?

In 2014, the Orioles scored 705 runs while hitting 211 home runs and are on pace to score 715 runs and hit 212 home runs this year which means that their offense hasn't gotten worse. The pitching hasn’t performed as well as the Orioles allowed 505 runs through August (3.74 R/G) in 2014 and have so far allowed 498 runs this year (4.01 R/G).  Allowing an extra quarter of a run per game shouldn’t be the difference between winning 96 games and flirting with .500.

Looking at the Orioles’ Win Probability Added (WPA) and Clutch statistics from 2012-2015 can help explain why the Orioles have struggled this year. For those unfamiliar, WPA determines the change in the likelihood that a team will win from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. The Clutch statistic measures how well a player has performed in high leverage situations.

The first chart, which measures the Orioles’ offense from 2012-2015, shows that the Orioles have scored a standard amount of runs. The problem is that they haven’t been in the right situations and is why the Orioles are projected to have a negative clutch score for the first time in the sample. In contrast, the Orioles’ offense was very clutch in 2013 and reasonably clutch in 2012 and 2014. This is also why the Orioles’ offensive WPA is on pace to be worth 2 wins while it was worth over 6 wins in 2013 and 2014.

While the Orioles are on pace to score 715 runs in 2015, the Orioles’ wRC suggests that they should only be scoring 687. This is lower than what the Orioles scored from 2012 through 2014 and could indicate that Orioles’ fans feel like their offense isn’t as good as it has been in past years because they've scored more runs than expected. 

The next chart shows that Orioles’ starters have a better ERA in 2015 than they did in 2012 or 2013 but have a considerably worse win-loss record and have a lower WPA. The data also suggests that the Orioles’ starters have been only average in the clutch as opposed to 2014 where they came up big in crucial situations. Unlike in previous years where the offense was able to offset the starting pitching weaknesses, it appears that the Orioles have been unable to recover from their starting pitching performances.

The third chart shows that the Orioles 2015 bullpen has had the best ERA out of the four bullpens when using either standard ERA or leveraged ERA (a metric that I use which grades relievers based on their innings pitched and game leverage to ensure that a closer is given more credit than a middle reliever for bullpen performance). Unsurprisingly, the solid 2015 bullpen has a high 59% win rate (equivalent to a 96-66 team) which is the best of any Orioles club over that period with the sole exception of the extremely clutch 2012 bullpen that had a 74.4% win rate (equivalent to a 121-41 team). Yet while this bullpen has been extremely effective, it hasn’t resulted in producing wins according to WPA compared to those other bullpens.
The reason for this can be explained partly by game leverage and partly by comparing saves, holds and blown saves to previous years. In 2015, the Orioles bullpen average game leverage has been 1.05. Their average game leverage ranged from 1.15 to 1.30 from 2012 to 2014. This means that they haven’t been able to pitch in as crucial of situations as they have in the past. This explains why the Orioles’ bullpen is on pace to have only 42 saves and 48 holds in 2015 despite having mid-50 saves from 2012-2014 and between 67 and 97 holds from 2012 to 2014. It would appear that the Orioles bullpen hasn’t had as many opportunities to pitch with a lead as they have previously and consequently saves, holds and blown saves have all decreased.

It should come as no surprise that the Orioles are 17-22 in one run games and 10-15 in two run games because those are the ones most dependent on luck or clutch performance. If the Orioles were to have won as many one and two run games as they’ve won games decided by three or more runs, then they would have another ten wins and would likely be in a fight with the Blue Jays to determine the AL East winner.  Their problem is that they simply haven’t been clutch.

In previous years, the Orioles have been successful by getting a lead to their bullpen and letting their bullpen save the day. In 2013, the Orioles ultimately fell short because the bullpen couldn’t hold onto enough leads and win enough games. This year the bullpen has done well when given a lead (except for this past week) but it just hasn’t happened often enough. The story that the data seems to be telling is that the bullpen has been placed in a situation where they’re trailing by a small amount instead of leading by a small amount and the offense just can’t quite get that hit that would give the bullpen a lead. There’s only so much a bullpen can do in those situations.

The Orioles are still .500 and have over a month to play. Their team is really built to win in September and if the Os do go on a run and take the second wild card spot then no one will care what happened earlier this year. But if the Orioles don’t end up making the playoffs, then people will look at these close games and wonder what could have been with just one more solid offensive player or slightly better pitching from the starting rotation. 

24 August 2015

O's Swept By Twins; So, Now What?

The Orioles lost again to the Twins yesterday, dropping Baltimore to one game above .500 and 6.5 games out of first place in the American League East. Right now, they're only two games back of the second wild card spot (Rangers), but two teams (Angels and Twins) are only 1.5 games out. The Rays are 2.5 games out. So the O's have their work cut out for them -- especially with a remaining schedule that looks like this:

4 at Kansas City Royals
3 at Texas Rangers
3 vs. Tampa Bay Rays
3 at Toronto Blue Jays
3 at New York Yankees
3 vs. Kansas City Royals
3 vs. Boston Red Sox
4 at Tampa Bay Rays
3 at Washington Nationals
3 at Boston Red Sox
4 vs. Toronto Blue Jays
3 at New York Yankees

That's really difficult! The only silver lining is that the Orioles are chasing many of those teams, so if they get hot, they can make up ground in a hurry.

Well, maybe there's another advantage: The Orioles are done playing the Twins. Minnesota won all seven of its games against the Orioles this season, and the recent four-game series sweep in Camden Yards was probably the O's most frustrating series since they lost all four games to the Royals in the American League Championship Series. In that infuriating series, the O's lost those games by a total of six runs.

In the Twins' series, the Orioles were outscored by 16 runs, but the majority of those came in the first-game blowout loss (15-2). Blowouts happen; the O's moved on. But they simply could not break through. That aggravating, unrelenting feeling -- winning being so close, yet so far away -- resurfaced, and it was just as awful as last October. Sure, the stakes weren't nearly as high, but losing such winnable games, particularly when a team needs them most, is agonizing.

Really, the O's have no one but themselves to blame. In the last three games, the Twins demonstrated a similar characteristic that worked so well for the Royals last postseason. They worked counts and fouled off pitches. They got on base, with a seemingly endless assault of bloops, broken-bat singles, and infield hits. They used their speed and forced the O's into errors. And they took advantage of every mistake. Maybe no example is better than in yesterday's 12-inning loss, when the Twins took advantage of two errors on relatively routine grounders to shortstop (by Manny Machado, filling in for an injured J.J. Hardy) and third base (by Jimmy Paredes) to score the go-ahead and eventual winning run. Eduardo Escobar not only reached with one out on Machado's error, but he took the extra base and ended up on second by not hesitating.

On the other hand, the Orioles didn't hit well and squandered opportunities. They didn't tack on insurance runs. In consecutive games, Darren O'Day blew a 3-1 lead; Brad Brach allowed an inherited, go-ahead runner to score (after intentionally walking Escobar for some ridiculous reason); and Zach Britton blew a save with two outs. By making a couple of extra plays, the Orioles could have taken three of four. But they didn't.

If you want to count the Orioles out, you'd be justified in doing so. They frequently look like a team that's a player or two short: one that wins a few games, then loses a few; one that gets effective starting pitching for a stretch but doesn't hit well enough, and then will struggle to get pitchers past the fifth inning but will score a bunch of runs. Inconsistency is the mark of a decent but not great team.

But the Orioles also seem to thrive at times like these. They were mocked after Hisashi Iwakuma's no-hitter. They won their next four games against the A's. Unfortunately, they also don't have a whole lot of games remaining against teams like the A's.

If the road weren't rough enough, the Orioles also have to play for an extended stretch without Hardy, who's headed to the disabled list after injuring his groin. Hardy hasn't looked right for most of the season, and he's also been bothered by an assortment of injuries (shoulder, oblique, etc.). His defense will be missed, but his offense (52 wRC+, worst among 27 shortstops with more than 300 plate appearances) won't. Jonathan Schoop was ridiculed for his 65 wRC+ last season. Hardy's 2015 has been disastrous and is worth being talked about alongside the failure of so many of the team's corner outfielders. If you want to deride Dan Duquette for going with a slew of platoon outfielders, that's fine. He has clearly made mistakes. But you can't blame him for everything, and Hardy's underperformance has been critical.

It's fitting that the Orioles are headed to Kansas City after being swept in close, maddening fashion. They have 39 games left to play, and things could go south in a hurry if they let it happen. So they might as well face what agitates them most and go right after the team that ended their 2014 hopes.

21 August 2015

Should We Worry About Matt Wieters's Plate Discipline?

All data as of Thursday, August 20th.

Matt Wieters has had a pretty volatile career with the bat. After displaying seemingly limitless potential in the minors, he stumbled out of the gate, posting an 89 wRC+ across 2009 and 2010. Two prosperous years (110 and 107 wRC+) followed that, but the hardship of 2013, when he plummeted to 87, didn't give much hope for the future. Then came 2014, when he smashed his way to an abbreviated 134 wRC+. Thus far in 2015, he's sustained some of that success, with a mark of 106 in his 171 trips to the plate. As he prepares to hit the free agent market in the offseason, prospective teams may want to note the unnerving occurrence that has impacted his performance.

Wieters has always made pretty good contact, regularly possessing hard-hit rates above the MLB average, and 2015 has not seen him change significantly in that regard. Moreover, he's popped the ball up a lot less than ever before, and his line-drive rate has spiked. He therefore seems to have earned his current .167 ISO and .347 BABIP; unless his hamstring injury hamstrings limits him, those should remain high.

Something has regressed for him, though. He always used to limit his strikeouts and accrue a good amount of walks, but that hasn't held true for 2015:

Season uBB% uBB%+ K% K%+
2009 6.8% 82 22.3% 124
2010 8.1% 102 18.7% 101
2011 8.2% 110 15.2% 82
2012 9.5% 128 18.9% 96
2013 6.6% 89 18.0% 90
2014 5.4% 75 17.0% 83
2015 4.2% 59 24.6% 118

As Wieters ages, he'll need to rely more and more on these skills, so their sudden deterioration doesn't bode well for the future. Let's look through his peripherals to decipher the source of his struggles.

Wieters has always swung at a fair amount of pitches outside the strike some, with a career O-Swing% of 31.6%. Perhaps uncoincidentally, pitchers facing him have generally avoided the zone, throwing 46.0% of their pitches there. Those trends haven't moved much in 2015 — Wieters owns an identical 31.6% O-Swing%, along with a marginally-higher 46.6% Zone%. If Wieters hasn't declined in these regards, something else must be behind his depressed walk rate.

His counterparts behind the dish haven't done him any favors. 64.4% of the pitches he's seen this year have gone for strikes, compared to 62.8% for his career and 63.4% based on the aforementioned PITCHf/x data. Should he stick to his approach, this will come down as he compiles more opportunities against poorer backstops. But this can't account for the massive drop he's undergone.

Earlier this year, I examined Manny Machado's situational aggression. Like (I assume) most hitters, he's always swung at more pitches when the ball count inches near four. Although Wieters has always trended similarly, he's taken that to a new extreme this season:

2009-2014 O-Swing% Zone% xStr% 2015 O-Swing% Zone% xStr%
0 Balls 25.4% 34.7% 51.2% 0 Balls 27.6% 32.8% 51.4%
1 Ball 38.2% 34.6% 59.6% 1 Ball 40.7% 33.0% 60.3%
2 Balls 43.6% 38.5% 65.3% 2 Balls 50.7% 41.8% 71.3%
3 Balls 47.6% 50.3% 73.9% 3 Balls 63.6% 56.9% 84.3%

After two balls, Wieters's theoretical strike rate has spiked, to a significantly greater degree than it used to. This means that, while he's retained his patience during the earlier part of at-bats, he's ditched it thereafter. The effects of this become clear when we look at his ability to capitalize on three-ball counts:

Year(s) PA 3-Ball PA 3-Ball PA% BB BB/3-Ball PA
2009-2014 2701 563 20.8% 211 37.5%
2015 171 34 19.9% 7 20.6%

He's made it to the brink of a free pass to a slightly lesser degree than he did in years past, but he hasn't taken nearly as many fourth balls, confirming the shift from his count-based swing marks. Maybe Wieters feels that he must chase more pitches in these situations, to fend off the effects of aging on his power. In any event, sustaining this pattern would keep his walk rates in the Jones range.

A decline in walk rate doesn't necessarily portend offensive inadequacy, as it can also accompany a lower strikeout clip. Wieters obviously hasn't benefited from that: His present 76.9% contact rate (down from 80.7% for his career) gives him a bloated 11.2% swinging strike rate, erasing any memory of his 9.0% overall mark and bringing up his 2015 strikeout rate.

The most common type of pitch has given Wieters the most trouble:

Year(s) Hard Breaking Offspeed
2009-2014 7.2% 14.7% 13.6%
2015 10.0% 15.5% 12.5%

At the same time that his whiff rates have stayed about the same against breaking and offspeed offerings, Wieters has swung and missed a ton more at the hard stuff. Because they comprise about 60% of the pitches he encounters, this explains virtually all of the rise in his swinging strike rate.

Based on the fastball location against him, we can see why this has occurred. High heat has always confounded Wieters:

That's stayed the same thus far, so it makes sense that pitchers would target it:

Wieters has yet to cover up this hole in his swing, and if that remains the case, he'll continue to go down on strikes at a high level. The game is all about adjustments, which he has yet to make.

Wieters will almost certainly never fulfill the potential that many deemed he could. If these developments in his offensive profile stick around, his bat might fall even shorter of that potential than ever before. With as many free agents as the Orioles will have this offseason, they may want to look elsewhere for their rotation's next battery mate.

20 August 2015

Appreciating Buck Showalter's Bullpen Usage

In this piece praising the Orioles' and Cardinals' bullpens, David Schoenfield looked at some of the differences between how O's manager Buck Showalter and Cardinals' manager Mike Matheny handle their respective relief corps:
Orioles manager Buck Showalter is a little unique in his handling of his pen. They lead the majors in relief appearances of more than one inning with 106. The Cardinals have just 58 such appearances, although both Britton and Rosenthal have gone more than three outs six times. What Showalter prefers to avoid is using a reliever on two consecutive days, let alone three. Tommy Hunter, now with the Cubs, is the only Orioles reliever to appear in three straight days this year, which he did once. Showalter has used a reliever on consecutive days just 44 times; Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has used a reliever on three or more consecutive days 26 times and two or more 84 times, leading to some concern that he'll burn out the pen by October.
Showalter is frequently complimented as being an excellent bullpen handler, and the above demonstrates some of the reasons why. He's fine with relievers working a little longer, but he doesn't want them to get overworked by pitching too often on consecutive days.

Using Baseball-Reference.com's invaluable Play Index, we can extend the search terms a bit. Since the 2011 season (Showalter took over in 2010, but you can't start the search in the latter part of that season), the Orioles are second lowest in using relievers in consecutive games. They're also second lowest in ERA in the times they do opt to use relievers on zero days' rest. In terms of using relievers after one day of rest, they're in the middle (18th) during that span (and again are second lowest in ERA). After two days of rest? The O's are 11th (and fifth in ERA). Talented relievers deserve plenty of credit, but Showalter's handling is also a big part of the success.

The O's again boast one of the best bullpens in the majors. They rank fourth in ERA (2.68), t-fifth in FIP (3.29), fourth in K/9 (9.05), 18th in BB/9 (3.27), sixth in HR/9 (0.71), sixth in GB% (47.6%), and fifth in WPA (3.61).

Observations From The New York-Penn League All-Star Game

Tuesday night I attended the New York-Penn League All-Star game, which was held at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, MD, home of the Orioles single-A minor league affiliate Aberdeen IronBirds. The New York-Penn League is a short season league that typically begins in mid-June after the Rule 4 player draft, and runs through the beginning of September (some websites, such as Fangraphs label it as level A-). The late start of the season allows recent draft picks to begin their professional baseball careers soon after signing. As such, the league is typically filled with recent college draftees, younger international prospects who have progressed past the Dominican Summer League and Rookie ball, and organizational filler. For example, Orioles 2015 first round pick DJ Stewart has spent his entire season in Aberdeen after signing. Top prospects will play in the league, but they’re typically not there very long.

Photo from milb.com
As someone who does not specialize in minor league prospects/players, this year’s version of the NY-Penn League All-Star game did not have many recognizable prospects. There were only maybe a couple of players who I had even previously heard of, all of them coming out of the 2015 draft. Part of this may be due to the fact that the All-Star game is held so late in their season, which makes it more likely for better prospects who start the year there to be promoted to Low-A (the Red Sox Andrew Benintendi is an example of that this year). Having said that, there were still several relatively high draft picks from 2015 on the rosters, such as LHP Tyler Alexander (2nd round-Detroit, did not pitch), RHP Drew Smith (3rd round-Detroit), OF Joe McCarthy (5th round-Tampa Bay), and Jake Cronenworth (7th round-Tampa Bay).

Quick disclaimer: I am not a scout. What follows are just my observations from watching the game. Any radar gun readings come from the stadium gun, which are typically not 100% accurate.

Let’s start with the two players who represented the Aberdeen IronBirds.

Orioles Farmhands

SS Ricardo Andujar

On the surface, Andujar is having a decent season in short-season ball, batting .287 at the shortstop position. Look any further than that though and it becomes obvious that he was likely chosen for the game because Aberdeen doesn’t have another hitter who warrants a selection to an all-star game. His complete line for the season is .287/.311/.362. He’s also walked in only 2.8% of his PA’s in 2015 and just turned 23 years old. In other words, he’s a non-prospect.

In fairness, he played well Tuesday night, going 1-2, lining out hard right at the left fielder and getting an infield single. In the field he had some range at SS and showed off a decent arm from the hole, but he’s not going to be part of the organization’s long term plans.

RHP Ryan Meisinger

Meisinger is a local kid from Dunkirk, MD who was drafted by the Orioles out of Radford University in the 11th round of the 2015 draft. He’s a big, strong guy, listed at 6’4”, 240 lbs. He’s got a thick lower half (which may not bode well for the future), but he doesn’t seem to use it as much as he could, as he appeared to have a stride that cut off some of the momentum in his motion just before his point of release. I would think that a slightly longer stride would benefit him (and possibly add a tick or two of mph), but what do I know?

Meisinger pitched the top of the 9th inning for the South team, retiring all three batters he faced, getting two groundouts and a flyout. From my vantage point, he appeared to throw mainly fastballs and sliders, with his fastball sitting in the low 90’s on the stadium gun. He’s having a good year for Aberdeen, pitching to the tune of a 2.81 ERA, with respective strikeout and walk rates of 35.5% and 6.5% in 16 innings pitched. Having said that, a 21 year old college draftee pitching well in short-season leagues isn’t exactly breaking news and the fact that he’s already in a bullpen role at this level doesn’t provide much confidence that he’ll be much more than an organizational arm.

Other Players of Note

RHP Mitch Gueller (Philadelphia Phillies)

Gueller was the highest drafted player in the game, going to the Phillies in the first round of the 2012 draft. He leads the league in ERA (1.84 in 53.2 IP) but did not look sharp on this night. He got hit hard and gave up 3 runs in his inning of work, with his fastball generally sitting between 86-88 on the stadium radar gun. BP’s Tucker Blair had some more details from his view.

1B Dexture McCall (Houston Astros)

McCall, a 31st rounder in the 2014 draft who played the majority of the game as the North’s designated hitter was recognized as the game’s MVP after going 1-3 with a double, a walk, and 2 RBI’s. His double was hit hard, but it was off Gueller in the first inning, so he wasn’t the only one who hit well that inning. As a first baseman who doesn’t hit for power (minor league slugging percentage of .353), McCall had a good game, but is not someone to watch.

RHP Jordan Holloway (Miami Marlins)

From what I saw, Holloway had the quickest fastball of anyone in the game, touching 96 on the stadium gun. His inning got off to an unlucky start with a broken bat infield single and a hit and run induced single (the ball went right where the SS had been before he broke to cover the bag) that put runners on first and third. Things snowballed from there as a wild pitch scored a run, followed by another run on a throwing error by third baseman Victor Acosta.

Holloway definitely has a good fastball and what looked like a sharp curveball (although from my vantage point, I couldn’t discern the horizontal movement), but he really struggled with control, especially the curve, which he mostly left up (out of the zone) or put in the dirt. His results in 2015 show the same, as he’s struck out and walked the same number of batters in his minor league career. He looks like an interesting arm (especially for a 2014 20th round draft pick), but he’s got a ways to go. Fortunately, he’s only 19, so he has some time to figure things out.

OF Joe McCarthy (Tampa Bay Rays)

McCarthy didn’t do much during the game, going 0-2 with a strikeout and a groundout, while only needing to make routine plays during his time in LF. However, he had what looked like the most relaxed at-bats of anyone during the game, with a very calm and quiet approach, even with 2 strikes, which isn’t much of a surprise considering he just finished his junior year at the University of Virginia. Despite being picked in the 5th round in 2015, McCarthy is a potential major leaguer if he returns to full health. According to Keith Law of ESPN, McCarthy was a potential first round draft pick prior to the 2015 season with a good approach and potential for above average power. Unfortunately, a back injury caused him to miss 2 months of his collegiate season, which caused him to slip in the draft.

OF Stone Garrett (Miami Marlins)

Garrett had a perfect day at the plate going 2-2 with a double and a walk. His single was of the cheap variety, but the double was ripped to left field off what I believe was a low 90’s fastball from Phillies farmhand Alejandro Arteaga. Garrett is only 19 years old, and is enjoying a breakout year after struggling during 2014, his first year of professional baseball. He probably strikes out a little too much (about a quarter of the time), but with a quick swing and a .296/.350/.581 line in 2015, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him show up on the back end of Marlins prospect lists this offseason. Listed at 6’2” and 195 lbs, he has a little bit of room to get even stronger.

17 August 2015

July Rundown Of MASN Articles

Here's the collection of posts I wrote in July for MASNsports.com. Better late than never, I guess.

O'Day has been better than ever: Darren O'Day is having another phenomenal season. He's putting himself in a nice position to receive a nice raise in his next multiyear deal, which may come from a different major league club.

Looking at Chris Davis in right field: The Chris Davis in the outfield experiment is not over, but he has been at first base more in August. You can mostly thank the Gerardo Parra acquisition for that. Anyway, Davis has been on a tear lately at the plate, and that's something the Orioles desperately need.

O's offense could use Hardy's power: O's announcers typically offer plenty of platitudes regarding J.J. Hardy's professionalism and intangibles. They also rightly praise his defensive acumen. Still, they often leave out his truly terrible offensive numbers this season, which end up being the worst of his career.

14 August 2015

Dan Duquette's August Waiver Trades (2012-2014)

As the non-waiver trade deadline came and went, fan bases began gnashing their teeth over missed chances as incoming shooting stars turned into airplane lights.  To console their audience, general managers and beat writers alike repeated the age worn mantra that the non-waiver trade deadline is an arbitrary deadline; that weaknesses can be shored up in August.  This is true.  Big trades do happen in August when the players involved are massively overpaid in relation to their performance.  That is true for when the Dodgers and Red Sox hooked up with the Dodgers agreeing to pay for the past sins of handing deals to Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett.  More cash strapped teams like the Orioles tend to aim quite a bit lower.  In this post, we will review what Dan Duquette's August deals were made for the Orioles.

Joe Saunders - photo by Keith Allison
In 2012, the Orioles were fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs for the first time since 1997.  Duquette made moves to try to shore up his bullpen.  On August 12th, the Orioles acquired J.C. Romero for at-the-end-of-the-road organizational filler Carlos Rojas.  Romero had been a very good and sometimes great reliever for the previous decade.  However, it all fell apart in St. Louis in 2012 with Romero being assigned to AAA.  Dominating AAA, the Orioles spent essentially nothing to get Romero from the Cardinals.  He proceeded to pitch as he did with the Cardinals and sputtered through five August appearances.

This led to the Orioles recalling failed starter Brian Matusz and putting him in the LOOGY role next to the more robust southpaw Troy Patton.  With such a long history of failure and only a couple stellar outings under his belt, the Orioles decided to trade from their bevy of right handed relief options and sent Matt Lindstrom out West as compensation for struggling lefty Joe Saunders from the Diamondbacks on August 28th.  It appeared the intention was for Saunders to spot start, if needed, and be a veteran lefthander out of the pen.  However, that did not happen.  The Orioles had difficulty filling out there rotation with Hammel ailing and Chen tiring.  Saunders effectively was handed a spot in the rotation and pulled off seven Houdini starts to end the season.  He was also handed the ball for the play-in wild card against Texas and provided 5.2 innings of one run ball.  Saunders did the same later in the series against the Yankees.  Likewise, Matusz was surprising elite when used as a lefty specialist.  Things did not wind up how it seems they were expected to, but it seems fair to say in hindsight that this deal was essential.

Xavier Avery - photo by Keith Allison
When 2013 rolled around, the Orioles were struggling to get into the playoff picture.  They wanted a right handed bat to provide some offense at the designated hitter position.  Danny Valencia had been crushing lefties, but the club moved on August 30th and sent AAA depth OF Xavier Avery for struggling, ailing professional hitter Mike Morse.  Briefly, my concern at the time was dealing for a redundant part with season long leg issues while giving up a minor league player who was young, still raw, and had options.  What transpired was that Morse apparently had an injured wrist that he did not disclose and was of negative value for the Orioles, taking plate appearances away from better hitters.  Avery remains a raw talent, but is not so young anymore.  In the end, the deal did not work out, but the club was not exactly hurt.  I would maintain though that dealing out fringe mid-level prospects hurts the club's ability to have complementary players on larger deals.  Though that is splitting hairs a bit.

Anyway, the club finished 12 games out of first place and 6.5 games behind the wild card.

There was a different feel in 2014,the club enjoyed August mostly sliding around 6 to 9 games ahead in the AL East.  However, the club had a few areas where upgrades were desirable.  David Lough was enjoying a deceptively solid season, but was providing sub-optimal performances with his bat.  Additionally, Manny Machado going down with a knee injury made the club thin at third with Ryan Flaherty backed up by Chris Davis or whoever was visiting from Norfolk.  On August 30th, Duquette made two deals.

In the first one, a struggling (243/309/354) OF Alejandro De Aza was considered a probable non-tender.  The Orioles, however, decided to give De Aza a shot and managed to acquire him for RHP Mark Blackmar and RHP Miguel Chalas.  Blackmar is one of those lackluster four pitch mix command and control guys who get by in the low minors with being able to get guys to chase pitches that more advanced pitchers simply won't swing at.  He is turning in another solid season starting in AA, but is doing so with 3.9 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9.  That pitch to contact style won't play well in the Majors.  Chalas has a mid 90s fastball with life and, well, not much else.  He currently is getting eaten up in Charlotte.

Alejandro De Aza - photo by Keith Allison
Back to De Aza, though.  De Aza wound up replacing David Lough in left field as his bat blossomed again with a slash of 293/341/537.  What was surmised as a De Aza/Delmon Young platoon shifted to a De Aza show with 20 games started in September.  He then continued to rake in the Tigers and Royals series in the post season.  With such an impressive month and a half under his belt, the Orioles tendered De Aza a contract for 2015.  De Aza proceeded to repeat his 2014 season, but was horrible for the Orioles and stellar for the Red Sox.  De Aza is once again a likely August trade candidate.  For their troubles, the Orioles acquired Joe Gunkel who is like Mark Blackmar, but with one less pitch.

In the second deal, the Orioles tried to address their third base issues by acquiring Kelly Johnson and Michael Alamanzar (who had originally been the Orioles' Rule 5 pickup).  Kelly Johnson had begun the year with the Yankees, but had not performed.  The Yankees in need of better infield options acquired Stephen Drew from the Red Sox in exchange from Johnson.  Johnson spent less than a month with the Red Sox before he was packaged off to Baltimore.  Michael Alamanzar is apparently a favorite fringe prospect for the Orioles.  They tried to stash him through the Rule 5 draft, but injury and lack of opportunity resulted in them handing him back to Boston where he was not appreciated.  The Orioles were able to acquire both for Ivan DeJesus and Jemile Weeks.  De Jesus quickly left Boston while Weeks stayed on with a solid September that turned into a 2016 contract that went South.

For the Orioles, Johnson provided a league average bat with poor defense.  He made it to the postseason roster and saw a single uneventful at bat in each of the series.  Johnson was essentially a non-factor.  Meanwhile, Alamanzar has likely not enjoyed his season in Norfolk.  He will go as far as his bat takes him and his bat tends to accompany him only between the dugout and home plate.  It would not be surprising to see him in another organization in 2016.

All in all, there have been meaningful trades in August, but with players who were largely considered to be worthless.  The Orioles have had good fortune smile on them on a few occasions.  Joe Saunders helped take the Orioles into the post season in 2012.  However, it should be noted that it was originally considered a move to shore up the bullpen by taking advantage of his splits.  In 2014, a largely unwanted outfielder was acquired and turned back into a prime version of himself.  Maybe the Orioles saw something there or maybe they simply shrugged and took a chance on a proven, yet struggling player.  It worked out here, but it did not work out with Romero, Morse, or, perhaps, Johnson.

As it stands, here are some potential players that are upcoming free agents who could potentially help in left field:
Rajai Davis, Tigers (251/305/410)
Alejandro De Aza, Red Sox (266/321/434)
Delmon Young, Free Agent (270/289/339)
Austin Jackson, Mariners (250/294/352)
Drew Stubbs, Rockies (222/294/444)
Marlon Byrd, Reds (246/298/474)
Will Venable, Padres (261/322/388)
Too bad De Aza is not currently in left.  Duquette tends to make his move toward the end of August from the scraps of talent that make their way through the waiver wire.  I imagine that this season will be no different.

13 August 2015

Yes, Orioles Should Keep Jason Garcia In The Bullpen

This past Sunday, the Orioles found themselves with a choice between extreme lefty specialist Brian Matusz or Jason Garcia in the bottom of the 11th with one man on and two outs.  The next three batters were Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and David Murphy.  Buck decided to push the winning run to third by intentionally walking both Trout and Pujols for Matusz to face the left handed Murphy.  It was basically a one in four shot of getting out of the inning, which I would argue was the best scenario for Matusz and it was likely a better situation than having Garcia face Trout or Pujols.  It did not work out, Murphy hit a long season and the Orioles fell to the Angels.  In response, there was a lament for Tommy Hunter.

This past Wednesday, another game went into extra innings.  Such affairs generally tax a bullpen.  It surely did not help that Tillman was chased in the third and the bullpen had to keep it together.  In the end, the Orioles relied on MehFarland with Darren O'Day in reserve.  Garcia apparently was not an option, which is understandable given that it was a high leverage situation.  At this point, one might argue that not much is great down in Norfolk to replace Garcia with Chaz Roe down and Mychal Givens up, but someone like Oliver Drake (recently voted by players and managers as the best reliever in the International League) should be able to be passable.

This leaves us with a general question as to why exactly is Garcia here?  Since coming off the DL after experiencing a dead arm issue this Spring and going through a laborious month-long rehab stint in the minors where his velocity improved but did not get back to the upper 90s, Buck has seemingly gone out of his way to not pitch Garcia.  He has appeared in one game in a blowout situation.  It appears the arm issue is still present because Garcia has not warmed up in consecutive games.

This is a problem.  As it stands, Garcia is a junk inning pitcher.  His value is essentially at replacement level if not slightly below.  That would be fine as a junk inning pitcher, but he hurts the club in that he cannot save the bullpen by pitching multiple innings and there appears to be no rubber in his arm.  That kind of role is best served by someone who can be very flexible in innings and when they appear.  It was what helped T.J. McFarland stick with the club and why it was largely thought that Garcia would eventually be sent back to the Red Sox organization.

That said, you can see why the organization wants Garcia.  Though he has had injury issues, he has a live arm when healthy that produces a loud upper 90s fastball and a curveball with plus potential.  He is a valid late inning power arm prospect, which the Orioles are in short supply.  If the Rule 5 status was not keeping him on the active roster, he would be pitching for the Orioles in Frederick or, perhaps, trying to work through things in Bowie.  The general expectation is that he would be ready for prime time around late 2017, which is an example of showing that Dan Duquette cares to some degree to continue building to the future instead of using a more stable bullpen.  Of course, that stability we are discussing is about the last man in the pen and that position is rarely consequential. 

Anyway, Garcia has to make it to September 1st.  To remain on the club and be optionable for next season, he needs to be on the active roster for 90 days.  If he finishes the season, he bests that mark by seven days.  In other words, he cannot go back on the DL again.

This leaves us with the question about what the Orioles should do moving forward.  Should they cut their losses and discard a fringe late inning power arm prospect in exchange for a more dependable junk inning pitcher or should they keep hiding him on the roster?  The bullpen was exposed this past week as a product of the club having its sixth and seventh extra inning games of the season within four days of each other in combination with a starter being chased early.  The likelihood of that happening again would seem quite remote.  Second, the last guy in the bullpen typically would see about one game every seven to ten days, which is what Garcia has seen. 

It is also hard to imagine that the next best guy would have performed differently in those given game situations.  Would Drake or Givens be much better facing Trout or Pujols than Matusz was facing Murphy?  Would Drake deliver a significantly better performance than McFarland did on Wednesday?  Those two events do not exactly seem to have been greatly affected by Garcia on the roster.  You could argue that Tommy Hunter would have been nice in those situations and I would agree with that.  However, the club effectively dealt Hunter for Parra, so that ship has departed the dock.  It also seems a bit conservative to bring up Drake to protect the bullpen from the scenario this past week, which is unlikely to occur again over the next two and a half weeks.

In the end, Garcia does make the club weaker, but that additional negative value is quite small and likely inconsequential.  The determination of the Orioles making the playoffs is more likely to reside with how well the starting pitchers pitch as opposed to how well the club covers them when an early exit is made.  The scouts were quite enamored with what they saw in Garcia in 2014 and the front office appears to have bought into it even though Garcia has not been that guy in 2015.  If you have trusted the process that has led to the Orioles making the playoffs in two of the past three years, then you should probably trust the process here as there are many factors we do not know.  And, the factors we do know, we should recognize that they are largely inconsequential for the role Garcia is seemingly assigned.

In fact, if you think the club needs a more flexible arm in the pen, then I would suggest that the team could make due with a short bench over the near term.  Junior Lake and Nolan Reimold are largely redundant.  If that need for an arm is present, then optioning Lake and bringing up a guy like Drake makes sense.  Moreso, a move like that does little to impact the flexibility of the batting lineup.