29 December 2015

Play Indexing: Yup, J.J. Hardy Was Bad In 2015

You know a big reason why J.J. Hardy was awful offensively last season. But it's still startling to see just how bad he was.

Hardy's batting line of .219/.253/.311 was among the worst shortstop seasons in the Expansion Era. And here's how Hardy's on-base percentage in particular ranked among players who played at least 75 percent of their games at shortstop and received at least 400 plate appearances since 1990:

Rk Player OBP PA Year Age Tm G BA SLG OPS
1 Alex Gonzalez .229 407 2000 23 FLA 109 .200 .319 .548
2 J.J. Hardy .253 437 2015 32 BAL 114 .219 .311 .564
3 Cesar Izturis .253 468 2002 22 LAD 135 .232 .303 .556
4 Jack Wilson .255 425 2001 23 PIT 108 .223 .295 .550
5 Juan Uribe .257 495 2006 27 CHW 132 .235 .441 .698
6 Alvaro Espinoza .258 472 1990 28 NYY 150 .224 .274 .532
7 Alfredo Griffin .258 502 1990 32 LAD 141 .210 .254 .512
8 Alcides Escobar .259 642 2013 26 KCR 158 .234 .300 .559
9 Angel Berroa .259 503 2006 28 KCR 132 .234 .333 .592
10 Khalil Greene .260 423 2008 28 SDP 105 .213 .339 .599
11 Cristian Guzman .260 492 2005 27 WSN 142 .219 .314 .574
12 Neifi Perez .260 585 2002 29 KCR 145 .236 .303 .564
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/29/2015.

You had to figure Cesar Izturis's name would show up. And it's moderately surprising that Deivi Cruz's didn't.

Although many impact free agents remain on the open market, the Orioles still have several holes on their projected 25-man roster. They clearly have some question marks, and unfortunately Hardy has to be considered one of them.

Barring any kind of setback with his shoulder, which is something that can't be ruled out anymore, he'll be the shortstop on opening day and for much of the year. But any kind of offensive contribution may end up being a bonus. And even though the Orioles don't seem to have much interest in trying to trade Hardy, he obviously wouldn't be easy to move anyway. He'll make $12.5 million in 2016 and $14 million in 2017, and his $14 million club option in 2018 ($2 million buyout) is fully guaranteed if he's traded (per Cot's). Good luck getting another team to pick up that tab.

The Orioles have some positions to upgrade, so they don't really have the luxury of worrying about Hardy. But fans do. A bounce-back of sorts almost has to be coming, but it might not be as big as fans anticipate.

23 December 2015

Don't Worry About Chris Tillman's K-BB% Decline

Chris Tillman is the icing on the cake of the Erik Bedard-Adam Jones swap of 2008. If the team had gotten only Jones, the trade would’ve been a win. He has become the face of the franchise during the Orioles’ return from exile in baseball’s hinterlands. But Tillman has provided good value also. Although he struggled from 2009-2011, he pitched well from 2012-2014, breaking out alongside Jones, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and others.

2015 was his worst full season yet. Hidden within the high ERA was the fact that the season concluded a three-year stretch where his K-BB% dropped each year, even when accounting for changes in league K and BB rates.

Here are his K-BB rates relative to the league, where 100 is average and higher is better:

  • 2013: 114
  • 2014: 78
  • 2015: 61

This drop alarmed me. Strikeout and walk rates are among the most relevant predictors of a pitcher’s future success (in terms of run prevention). Accordingly, I wanted to understand whether this drop portended doom for the 6’5”, 210-pound righthander.

To check, I gathered all pitchers since 1955-2010 who met the following criteria:

  • Starting at age 24, 25, or 26, experienced two consecutive year-over-year declines, relative to the league each year, in K-BB rate
  • Did not miss a season in this three-year window.
  • Pitched at least 150 innings each year.

120 pitchers met these criteria, 1.3% of pitchers in the 8,944-person sample. The names range from all-time greats to scrubs you’ve never heard of. For all 120 pitchers, I then looked up the following information:

  • Their average number of innings pitched each season for the three seasons following the decline
  • Their ERA- in these seasons.

In this study, the first metric is the best one to indicate how much value the Orioles might get out of Tillman in the next three years. A high innings total means a pitcher is both healthy and good. A low innings total would indicate the opposite, with the possibility that a starter got moved to the bullpen. The length of time is relevant because the Orioles control Tillman for the next three years as they go through salary arbitration.

We can look at this set of results in a variety of ways.

Largest and Smallest Three-Year Declines

The largest three-year K-BB decline happened to Mario Soto from 1982-1984. In those years his K-BB rate declined a whopping 248%. In the three years following his decline, he was demonstrably worse than league average, although not a bad pitcher, pitching 130 IP/year with an ERA- of 112.

The smallest decline happened to two pitchers: Mike Pelfrey from 2008-2010 and Jim Bouton from 1963-1965. Each declined by 9% relative to the league. Pelfrey, who recently signed with the Tigers, averaged 121 IP/year in the three years following his decline, even though his ERA- was a respectable 106. The reason for his low innings total was that Tommy John surgery that cost him most of the 2012 season. His K-BB total actually declined one more year in 2011.

Bouton averaged just 69 IP/year in the three years following his decline with an ERA- of 119. Okay, but not good. The first year after his decline was his last year as a starter; the next two years he was a reliever/spot-starter. (It must be said that in the fourth year after this decline, he signed with the expansion Seattle Pilots and wrote a famous book about the experience.)

Best and Worst Post-Decline Phases

When I say "best" here, I mean "highest average IP/year for the three seasons following the decline". As I said above, a high IP total is an indication the pitcher is performing well. The reason he's doing so is not important for this study.

The best post-decline phase has to be that of Jim Palmer. Yes, Tillman can take solace in the fact that the man who calls half his games also experienced a significant decline in K-BB rate. From 1972-1974 Palmer’s K-BB rate fell by an ugly 107%, finishing at a low of 1.9% in 1974. That wouldn’t play today, but in the mid-70’s that was okay, and Palmer was still getting outs. He continued to do so for the next three years, averaging a whopping 319 IP/year with an excellent ERA- of 70.

Another famous name comes in second place on this list. Steve Carlton’s relative K-BB rate declined 78% from 1969-1971. That didn’t hurt his career any, as over the next three years he averaged 310 IP/year  with an ERA- of 81.

The worst post-decline "career" is undoubtedly that of Noah Lowry, who declined 135% from 2005-2007 and didn't pitch at all after that. The thing is, he was a very good pitcher in 2007, putting up an ERA- of 88. He just suffered a string of injuries that forced him out of the game. Down in the cellar with him is Ricky Romero, whose K-BB rate declined 88% from 2010-2012 and who's thrown just 7.1 major league innings since.

Does K-BB% Decline Explain Variation in Post-Decline IP?
In addition to Palmer and Carlton, several other Hall of Famers show up on this list. Nolan Ryan, Don Drysdale, Dennis Eckersley, Sandy Koufax, Bert Blyleven, and Tom Glavine are all there. Other names you’d recognize are Orel Hersheiser, Dave Stieb, Dwight Gooden, Jon Lester, Andy Pettitte, James Shields, Kevin Brown, Josh Beckett, Carlos Zambrano, Tommy John, Tim Hudson, Cole Hamels, and Max Scherzer.

The presence of such names shows that you can be a good pitcher, even a great one, while experiencing a declining core skillset at a young age. A scatterplot shows conclusively that the magnitude of a pitcher’s K-BB rate decline explains none of the variance in how many innings he will average during the following three years:

Soto, way out by himself on the right side of the graph, probably skews the results, as does the man to his left (Mike Norris with a 203% decline from 1980-1982). If we examine pitchers whose K-BB rate declined between 43 and 63%, a range that places Tillman in the middle, do we get a different picture?

Nope. The relationship is just as non-existent even when looking at Tillman’s direct comparables.
These graphs show that K-BB rate declines happen to Hall-of-Famers, middle-tier innings-eaters, and scrubs alike. If you need further proof, here’s a histogram of post-decline ERA-:
50% of these pitchers have an ERA- of 103 or lower, with the average being 111. The Orioles would take this kind of performance from Tillman; it would certainly beat his 2015 ERA- of 121.

There is probably some survivor bias going on here. If you’re good enough to pitch 150 innings/year for three years starting at age 24, 25, or 26, you’re good enough to compensate for a K-BB rate decline. That, or perhaps strikeouts were never a big part of your game to begin with. Or you pitch to contact enough to limit the damage from walks. Or you're young enough that some team will give you a chance.

Tillman has shown some evidence of adjusting; as his K-BB rate has declined, he’s become more of a ground-ball pitcher in an effort to limit the damage:

This adjustment doesn’t mean that Tillman will be okay, but that indicators of his decline will have to come from somewhere else. The fact that his K-BB rate has declined means nothing for what the Orioles should expect out of him through 2018. Plenty of major-league pitchers have experienced what Tillman is going through and have been just fine. 

You can view the full list of K-BB decliners here.

All data for this post courtesy of FanGraphs.

22 December 2015

How Much Is A Player Opt Out Worth?

Depends.  That is the answer to the title.  Player opt outs (which used to be housed under the term player option) are not new and have always been a bit controversial.  The conventional wisdom is that the team carries all the risk.  If the player does well, he leaves.  If he does poorly, then he sucks at the teat of the poor club.  Of course, this is an amazingly simple way to look at the situation.  Player options, like team options, have cost and benefit associated with them and it helps to perhaps think a bit more on this.

The Player Perspective
For players, the option is about providing themselves a safety net for earnings to protect them against a collapse in their market value.  To that end, so does a  guaranteed year or more tacked on to the end of the deal.  What makes the player option so ideal for the player is that if he is able to improve upon his market value then he is able to option out and benefit from that increase in value.  Past examples of successful option outs include J.D. Drew, Alex Rodriguez, and Zack Greinke.  Past examples of successful option acceptance include Jorge De La Rosa, Brian Wilson, and Dan Haren.

To carry this forward with a concrete example, let's look at Justin Upton who our BORAS model pegged at a 5/85 deal.  From our past use of a comp model (which thinks the BORAS model is underpaying Upton by 28 MM), we had projected three general paths for him:


That translated to these cumulative values:


Let us assume the general framework the player and club is considered is a 7/151 contract, which happens to be the Mean expected value during this time frame.  So the question is where on each of these generalized track would Upton want the ability to reenter the free agent market?  Can he find a sweet spot that would enable him to make his true value or even more?  That largely depends on what the team might consider in its interest.

The Team Perspective
From the team perspective, the issue is about not being saddled with responsibility for the worst case scenario.  Again, we will use the three tracks to consider where it makes sense for the club to agree to an option out.  From our perspective, this is done by considering the probability of value in the Mean and Best cases evening out with the losses potentially accrued.  With a 7/151 contract, the worst track results in a loss of 51.9 MM.  There are no points along the way for the club to come close to that value.  The greatest probable gain is 30.2 MM after the final season of the contract.

Are there any lengths of contract where it would work?  Yes, roughly.  A 4/85 deal could have an opt out any year of that deal.  A 5/106 deal would make sense to allow an opt out after four seasons.

How much less would Upton need to lower his annual earning in order to have an option out make sense with a seven year contract? 
7/142; option after six years
7/137; option after five years
7/134; option after four years
7/127; option after three years
7/124; option after two years
7/116; option after one year

Bringing the Two Sides Together
Let us say that the starting point is a 7/151 contract.  How much should Upton expect to make over the remainder of his career?  Depending on his performance, BORAS (adjusted to make it think 7/151 is the expected deal) thinks he will earn somewhere between 155 and 230 MM over the course of his career with a 7/151 deal.  With the suggested salary structure and Upton's projected career marks, there are really only two points at which he might expect to benefit from an opt out: after Year 1 where if he excels he stands to sign another seven year contract with a 1 MM AAV raise or after year 6 where he stand to make a million less (20.6 MM), but have that converted into a four year deal.  The first option increases his total potential earnings to 233 MM, a 3 MM increase.  The second path puts him in line for a 236 MM payday, a 6 MM increase.

When you put it all together, the deal that makes most sense for the club and for Upton together would be a seven year deal with a player option for that seventh year.  The first year option would simply be cost prohibitive.  For the seventh year option, Upton has that 6 MM buffer which would put the break even point at 145 MM.  One might think there is wiggle room in there for both sides.  For the club, it matters little and for Upton it might make him feel more comfortable in having a say over when he chooses to go into free agency.

All in all, this exercise proved not to be as thrilling as I was hoping it would be.  Even Upton's most optimistic likely career path did not show much reason for him to opt out.  I think the question is slightly more complex than what I show here.  There is value to having control over your own future and when you decide to look for employment elsewhere.  Some players enjoy that control and one would think there is value in it.  Would Upton think that having a four year opt out was worth 17 MM?  Maybe.  It is not an ungodly sum and maybe, just maybe, he is quite unique and performs at a much higher level justifying a larger pay day.  Or maybe it is worth 17 MM to be able to leaving flailing team in search for a more successful franchise.  That sort of thing, I cannot measure.

21 December 2015

Are The 2016 Orioles The 2015 Brewers?

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The team has had an inconsistent run in the past few seasons. Although a playoff berth or two have kept fans relatively satisfied, last year didn't end well — after a promising start, the club faded from contention in the second half. With a few moderate offseason moves, the organization has theoretically improved; doubt for the campaign to come still persists, though. No one knows if the team will return to relevancy or bottom out.

This accurately describes the current state of the Orioles, right? Perhaps, but it also applies to the Brewers one year ago, a middle-of-the-pack team coming off a moderately disappointing, 83-79 record in 2014. For Milwaukee, 2015 went much worse: They collapsed to 68-94, their worst finish in more than a decade. Based on several similarities in the teams' constructions and backgrounds, I think Baltimore could potentially follow in the Brew Crew's footsteps, a prospect that should terrify Charm City.

Both teams have an aggressive approach at the plate.

If one thing has defined recent Oriole teams, it's an incurable allergy to the walk. Over the past four seasons, Baltimore ranks 25th in baseball in free pass rate; individually, the team has finished 15th, 28th, 27th, and 25th across those respective years. That time has seen some offensive highs (a 104 wRC+ in 2014, 101 in 2013) and lows (96 in both 2012 and 2015), demonstrating the volatility to this low-OBP mindset.

From 2011 to 2014, the same applied to the Brewers, who placed 26th in terms of bases on balls. Their hitting fluctuated as well — they finished with wRC+s above 100 in both 2011 and 2012 before dropping to 91 and 93 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. 2015 saw them retain their swing-happy ways, giving them a ranking of 25th in walk rate. At the same time, their offense flatlined: With an 86 wRC+, the Brewers topped only three other clubs. The lack of on-base percentage meant that the team had to rely on power and contact, both of which deserted them in 2015.

The year preceding the relevant one in this exercise (2015 for Baltimore, 2014 for Milwaukee) better illustrates how much this strategy can backfire. In both of those campaigns, the respective teams hit much worse during the second half, because their clout withered away:

 Orioles   Brewers 
 Half  BB% K% ISO  BABIP   wRC+  BB% K% ISO  BABIP   wRC+ 
1st 6.7%  22.3%   .167  .300 97 6.8%  19.8%   .154  .301 99
2nd 7.2%  22.0%   .175  .280 95 7.3%  19.7%   .136  .280 85

The Orioles went from the ninth-best offense in baseball to the 22nd-best, while the Brewers dropped from No. 12 to No. 26. And both did so with slight improvements in their walk rates. The declines occurred elsewhere, in the more fluky contact-based metrics. Teams that take free passes regularly can generally count on those to stick around, even when balls stop falling in or leaving the yard. The fact that neither the current Orioles nor the Brewers of old fit that description leaves (or left) their hitters susceptible to a breakdown.

There's one key offensive difference between Milwaukee and Baltimore, and it doesn't testify in the latter's favor. The Brewers didn't strike out much before this season; their fan rate spiked in 2015, which helped to facilitate their dropoff in scoring. By contrast, the Orioles have run high strikeout rates over the past couple years, which amplifies their risk of a similar crash. Without many walks to keep their offense afloat in the dark times, the Birds will face more of those.

Both teams have possibly solid, yet still iffy rotations. 

A few Orioles starters held their own in 2015. Wei-Yin Chen excelled all-around in his contract year; despite a poor showing after the All-Star break, Ubaldo Jimenez bounced back from a horrendous 2014; Kevin Gausman improved his strikeout and walk numbers; and Chris Tillman performed better toward the end of the season.

As a whole, however, the group didn't meet expectations. Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez each regressed significantly, to an extent that makes a full recovery seems unlikely (at best). Gausman didn't build upon his 2014 display, marking another season in which he fell short of his potential. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson pitched like the replacements they were, and we don't need to revisit the Bud Norris horror show. With Chen — the most reliable starter of the bunch — likely signing elsewhere, and the memories of Jimenez's 2014 lingering, the rotation as it stands now can only offer question marks.

This mirrors the situation in which the Brewers found themselves twelve months ago. Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo, and Kyle Lohse had attained moderate success for them in 2014, but the former two had seen their velocity and peripherals decline, while the latter had turned 36 that October. Younger arms such as Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson hadn't yet blossomed, and beyond them the outlook was grim. Mike Fiers represented the Jimenez of the group: the most dependable starter, simply because no one else stood apart.

It's easy to see how Baltimore's rotation could follow the path of Milwaukee's in 2016. Tillman and Gonzalez remain subpar or get even worse, a la Garza and Lohse, and the Gausman/Wright/Wilson trio treads water as Peralta did. Even if Jimenez and a few other hurlers succeed — Fiers fared quite well before a midseason trade, and Nelson improved further — the struggles of the rest could negate their efforts. Unless Yovani Gallardo or Scott Kazmir bolsters it, the rotation that FanGraphs projects to rank 28th will probably remain at that level.

Both teams have a top-heavy roster.

This connects to the likely rotational woes for the Orioles, as well as the actual rotational woes for the Brewers. Both clubs have adhered to the stars-and-scrubs style of roster construction — the idea that, with a healthy amount of top-notch players, a team can rely on its lesser contributors for a breakout and cruise through a fruitful campaign. For the 2016 Orioles, men such as Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters will fill this mold; the 2015 Brewers hoped that Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, and Jonathan Lucroy would do the same.

As you probably know by now, this approach has its faults. When the players at the bottom of the roster fail to carry their weight — as the rotating cast of Baltimore corner outfielders and designated hitters did in 2015 — the team struggles. The Orioles only played respectably this year because Machado, Jones, and Chris Davis carried them, and Davis's departure takes away one-third of that equation.

Plus, the stars-and-scrubs road counts on all the big names fulfilling their potential. What happens when, for instance, Gomez and Lucroy get hurt, as they did in 2015? The team lacks average players to back them up and/or compensate for their injury-marred output, so it stumbles. The Brewers' dearth of depth had harmed them somewhat before this year, but at least then the elites had shined. This route of team-building brings a razor-thin margin of error. Don't compile adequate scrubs, and you'll become mediocre; pair that with underperformance from your stars, and you'll plummet even further.

All of this, obviously, pertains to the 2016 Orioles. Per Steamer, they have four players — Machado, Jones, Gausman, and Wieters — who should earn at least three wins. Then comes Caleb Joseph, Chance Sisco (on whom I'll take the under), and Ubaldo Jimenez, at two wins apiece. From there, the roster is a collection of possibly average, probably sub-average talent, none of which inspires much hope. While the club certainly has money to spend, it can't plug in that many above-average regulars.

I'm not the first to criticize Baltimore's tendency toward stars-and-scrubs. Writing on the topic two offseasons ago, Dave Cameron correctly argued that:
There’s some validity to taking a lot of crap, throwing it against a wall, and seeing what sticks, but that’s a better plan for a team that is trying to build for the future...
And the Orioles have used this formula to their advantage in the past, by finding value in the Steve Pearces and Nelson Cruzes of the world. Dan Duquette has demonstrated an ability to dig up diamonds in the expansive free-agent rough; the question, then, is can he keep doing so? If he doesn't, Baltimore will head into 2016 with as many scrubs as it had in 2016, along with one fewer star — which looks like a recipe for failure.

Both teams have pretty barren farm systems. 

For Baltimore, one of the larger negative developments to emerge from 2015 was the continued decline of the minor-league pipeline. Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, unquestionably the organization's top two prospects, each had wholly unproductive years due to injury — the former for the third season in a row, the latter for the second. Of all the club's farmhands, only Chance Sisco and Jomar Reyes (and arguably Trey Mancini) stood out this season, and each of them won't accomplish anything at the major-league level until 2017 at the earliest.

Heading into this year, the Brewers' minor-league system hadn't really depreciated — because it had nowhere to fall. They ranked in the bottom five of BP's organizational rankings every season from 2011 to 2015, placing 26th in the latter year. (Baltimore finished 22nd in 2015, from which it'll probably fall a few spots in the upcoming list.) Like the Orioles, the Brewers had some impact talent, in guys such as Orlando Arcia and Tyrone Taylor, but they would need more seasoning to reach their ceilings. This absence of top-level minor leaguers contributed to Milwaukee's aforementioned depth woes, which Baltimore could experience in 2016.

The good news here is that that the Brewers improved their farm system significantly in the past season. Adding Brett Phillips and Zach Davies via midseason trades (ahem), in addition to drafting Trent Clark and Cody Ponce, helped them assemble what BP deemed "talent to make several teams quite jealous". They'll further add to their prospect trove with a high spot in the 2016 draft; perhaps fans of the Orioles can hope for the same in 2017. Of course, getting there requires a whole lot of losing, which is always a hard pill to swallow. Given everything working against them, though, maybe the Birds will have to follow that path.


The Orioles still have a few things on their side. Bundy and Harvey each have a great deal of upside, perhaps more so than anyone in the Brewers' system a year ago (or today). The former will spend the year in the show, and perhaps he'll make it through the trial-by-fire unscathed; the latter could progress faster than predicted, with a clean bill of health on his side. And we never know about guys like Gausman, who could break out, or Tillman and Gonzalez, who could return to their breakout form. With Duquette and company looking to better the club, it will probably fare okay in 2016.

Then again, most people said the same about the Brewers at this time last year. That didn't go according to plan, and although they currently have a bright future, the path to there was pretty ugly. After a few years of prosperity, Baltimore could find itself on the brink of disaster.