31 August 2017

Monster-cini: Projecting Trey Mancini's Next Ten Years

One of the shining bright spots this year has been the emergence of Trey Mancini as a bona fide major leaguer.  It has been a development that has surprised many in the field.  Mancini has a solid approach, a shorter swing than in the past, and has overcome problems others have foreseen with his decreasing athleticism.  Yes, his time in the outfield seems to be dictated more by the presence of Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis than by any actual ability to play left field, but when you have a decent bat then the manager needs to find you a place to play.

Looking forward, it may be useful to try to envision who Mancini might well be.  Using his current line:

Standard Batting
2 Yr2 Yr2 Yr47325.297.347.531
162 162 162 62833.297.347.531
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/30/2017.

I tried to find batters aged 25 with similar profiles.  The closest statistical profiles I found were: Rico Brogna, Mike Young, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Richie Sexson, Mike Marshall, Cory Snyder, Stephen Drew (?), Raul Mondesi, and Al Martin.  I used this population to predict the average outcome for Mancini each year.  What we get is below:

2018 26 515 22 .269 .332 .468 2.3
2019 27 561 23 .272 .341 .477 2.8
2020 28 538 21 .274 .350 .468 2.8
2021 29 433 17 .283 .347 .481 2.4
2022 30 485 18 .267 .337 .455 2.1
2023 31 411 15 .258 .320 .444 1.3
2024 32 417 14 .251 .318 .424 1.0
2025 33 317 11 .249 .319 .421 0.7
2026 34 310 8 .227 .291 .363 -0.2
2027 35 273 7 .210 .270 .338 -0.7

The above projection would be rather ideal for the club even though the first two seasons will experience some redundancy with Davis and Trumbo both around.  However, it is more than likely that Mancini should be able to slide into 1B or DH in 2020 depending on how Chris Davis ages.  This version of Mancini is the kind of player a team like the Orioles will need if they chose to throw down trailers full of cash at Machado.

Now, what would an exceptional career look like?  I took the above pool and cut it in half and kept the five players with the best career moving forward.What would a best outcome career look like? I took Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Richie Sexson, Raul Mondesi, and Al Martin.


That would be a stunning career and one that would keep the playoff window open for the club in the years to come.  That said, let's do a different sub-grouping.  That sub-grouping would be the low walk, high strikeout group: Raul Mondesi, Cory Snyder, Richie Sexson, Rico Brogna, and Mike Marshall.


Let us pretend I did not run those numbers.  However, he would still be a useful role player.

29 August 2017

O's Offensive Resurgence Has Been A Group Effort

One strange thing about the season's first half for the Orioles is how mediocre the offense was. You expected the starting pitching to not be good, but the offense was far from great. At the all-star break, the Orioles ranked just 22nd in the major leagues in runs scored and were generally unimpressive offensively.

In the first half, really only Trey Mancini (135 wRC+) and Jonathan Schoop (131 wRC+) were overly productive. Caleb Joseph's 95 wRC+ stood out because it was a significant jump for him, but other than Mancini and Schoop, the only two regulars to post a wRC+ over 100 were Chris Davis (105) and Seth Smith (102). The rest ranged from average to below average (Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Welington Castillo) to not very good or bad (Joey Rickard, Hyun Soo Kim, J.J. Hardy).

To say that things have clicked in the second half, though, would be an understatement. While the starting pitching has also been better -- 5.75 ERA/5.31 FIP first half vs.  5.18 ERA/5.18 FIP -- the offense has been right near the top among all MLB teams. Since the break, the Orioles are second in runs scored (248), first in wRC+ (120), first in home runs (72), fourth in on-base percentage (.341), and first in slugging percentage (.493).

So what's changed? A .325 BABIP has helped (compared to .301 in the first half). Castillo (163 wRC+), Smith (148), Machado (144), Gentry (135), Schoop (133), Jones (131), and Mancini (116) have all been hitting extremely well. Even Davis, who has a wRC+ of just 102 on the season and has struggled mightily at times, is almost back over the 100 wRC+ mark in the second half. That only leaves Rickard (64 wRC+), who's in Triple-A Norfolk until rosters expand, and Trumbo (61 wRC+) as the only regulars who haven't hit well.

Oh, right. There's also been the small addition of Tim Beckham to help solidify the top of the O's lineup. Since joining the Orioles a month ago, Beckham has a wRC+ of 185 and has been worth nearly two wins above replacement. In the last 30 days, Beckham's 1.7 fWAR is tied with Machado for sixth-best in the majors. His wRC+ is seventh-best. No one could have predicted Beckham would play like this, and his performance has helped vault the Orioles back into serious playoff contenders.

To recap, in the first half, the O's had just four regulars with a wRC+ over 100. In the second half, they have eight. As with many things, the true talent of the O's offense is probably somewhere between both halves.

The bad news is that the offense might have to keep being this good or close if the O's are going to take the second wild card spot, thanks to inconsistent starting pitching. The good news, though, is that Beckham seems to be a real find for an inexpensive price, Machado is back to being Machado, Schoop seems to have taken a leap forward, and Mancini has hit better than many of his biggest supporters could have predicted. The future of the Orioles is uncertain, but at least there are a couple more things to get excited about.

28 August 2017

How the Orioles Spent Some of Their International Bonus Allotment

Joe Reisel's Archives

For the past few seasons, major league teams have been limited in the amount of money they can spend on signing young international free agents - at least without being subject to subsequent penalties. Actually, teams can sign as many players as they want for less than 10,000 USD; the limits apply to signing bonuses greater than 10,000. Depending on various circumstances, teams can give bonuses up to their total specified limit. A team that cannot, or does not want to, spend their limit can trade pieces of their limit to other teams, which increases the spending limit for the acquiring team.

It is well known that the Orioles have little interest in spending up to their limit on international signings. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone; when General Manager Dan Duquette was the general manager of the Red Sox, he declared that the bonuses given to young Latin American players were too high and that it made better financial sense to scout and sign players from non-traditional countries in Latin America, Europe, and (especially) Asia. He has followed that philosophy with the Orioles.

Because the Orioles will not use their ability to sign international free agents, and because other teams would like to spend more than their initial limit, the Orioles have aggressively traded bonus pool money for other players. The Orioles included international bonus pool amounts in the Jake Arrieta trade (as if Arrieta and Pedro Strop themselves weren't enough for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger.) More bonus pool amounts brought them Chris Lee, who is considered one of the Orioles' better prospects.

The Orioles were able to trade 2017-2018 international signing bonus amounts beginning July 2. On that day, they acquired Matt Wotherspoon, a right-handed pitcher, from the Yankees and Jason Wheeler, a left-handed pitcher, from the Dodgers, each for international bonus amounts. It is, I think, important to realize that actual money isn't being exchanged - it's just permission to spend money. As a result of these trades, the Yankees and Dodgers can spend more money than they were originally allowed and the Oriole can spend less. Wotherspoon and Wheeler were assigned to Norfolk.

Through August 26, Matt Wotherspoon has gone 3-1, 2.28 with Norfolk.. Photo Courtesy Scott Sears/Norfolk Tides
Matt Wotherspoon is representative of a fairly common AAA player - a right-handed relief pitcher without great stuff but is able to get batters out by commanding his pitches and avoiding hard contact. As a full-time relief pitcher, Wotherspoon has had an ERA greater than 3.00 only once - in a ten-inning end-of-year stint in AA Trenton in 2015. There's no reason to think that (1) if he got a chance, he couldn't be an effective low-leverage major league relief pitcher or (2) that he's ever going to get that chance.

Because he's a relief pitcher who joined the Tides on July 2, I haven't seen much of him - 17 batters - but have seen enough to at least not contradict my initial impression. There has been one ball that has been hard-hit off him. He's walked three and struck out five. There have been four ground balls and five fly balls/popups. He's 25. Most likely, he is going to be what he is.

Jason Wheeler pitched three innings for the Minnesota Twins in 2016 Photo Courtesy of Steven Goldburg/Norfolk Tides.
Jason Wheeler is representative of another fairly common AAA player - a left-handed pitcher, usually a starter in the lower levels, who starts by serving as a long relief pitcher. When the inevitable rain-induced doubleheaders or promotion-driven bullpen days occur, this pitcher will get a chance to make a start and, if he pitches well, will be introduced into the starting rotation. Previous examples of this pitcher on the Norfolk Tides are Chris George (2010-2011), Chris Jones (2014-2015), and Andy Oliver.(2016).

Because these pitchers don't have above-average stuff and aren't particularly more effective against left-handed batters, their chances of having a successful major-league career are slim. Although George and Oliver had played in the major leagues before they had evolved into the described role, none of the three ever parlayed their success as lefty swingmen into a major-league appearance. Jason Wheeler is 27 and he's unlikely to earn more than the three major-league innings he got with the 2016 Twins. His role in the Orioles' organization is to help AAA Norfolk get through the year when the big-league team has pitchers on the AAA-Majors shuffle.

It's important to remember that the Orioles gave up nothing tangible to acquire these pitchers (and other players.) They simply gave other teams their right to spend money signing international free agents. Many of the players to whom that money will go will never develop, and get released without ever reaching A-ball, much less AAA. Wotherspoon and Wheeler are AAA players, right now. It's defensible to not spend 4-5 million USD annually signing teenage Latin American talent, and to trade the right to spend the money you wouldn't spend anyway to acquire players already in professional ball.

I will state that I do not agree with the Orioles' current approach to completely ignore the Latin American talent market. I believe they need to invest more in Latin America. But the Orioles' could spend up to 5.75 million USD on international prospects. If I could acquire AAA players for letting other teams spend up to even 1 million USD of my allotment - remember, I'm not giving up actual cash - I probably would.

25 August 2017

What's Next For Miguel Castro?

The Orioles are going to need starting pitchers next year. Well, they also need starting pitchers right now, but there's almost nothing that can be done about that. Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jeremy Hellickson are scheduled to become free agents. Wade Miley has a team option for $12 million (and a $500,000 buyout). If they all depart, that leaves Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman as the team's two penciled-in starters.

There are options at Triple-A Norfolk, even if they aren't good ones. One name, Jayson Aquino, is a little more interesting than the others (Alec Asher, Chris Lee, Vidal Nuno, Logan Verrett, Tyler Wilson, Gabriel Ynoa, etc.). Perhaps he'll get a shot late this season or in 2018. That's about it, though, in terms of immediate starting rotation help in the O's minor league system.

That's what makes it intriguing to ponder the next step for Miguel Castro. Signed by the Blue Jays in 2012 as an amateur free agent, Castro is still only 22 years old. The Orioles, though, are the third major league team he's played for, and this is the first time he's found some success. While coming up in the Blue Jays' system, he was first used as a starting pitcher. That didn't quite work out, and he was eventually shipped to the Rockies as part of a package of prospects to acquire Troy Tulowitzki in July 2015. He hasn't started a game since, either in the majors or the minors.

In 32+ major league innings combined with the Blue Jays and Rockies in 2015 and 2016, Castro posted an ERA over 6 each year. The Rockies had seen enough and designated him for assignment in March, so in April the Orioles were able to acquire Castro for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Castro first joined the O's in mid-May, and he's been a pretty regular contributor out of the bullpen in July and August.

Castro, who, according to Brooks Baseball data, throws a four-seamer, slider, and changeup, has posted a 2.74 ERA over 46 innings. He's made strides in walk and home run prevention, at least compared to his brief stints in Toronto and Colorado:

Castro BB/9
2015: 5.09
2016: 3.07
2017: 2.35

Castro HR/9
2015: 2.04
2016: 1.84
2017: 1.17

However, his strikeouts have also decreased each year:

Castro K/9
2015: 9.17
2016: 7.36
2017: 4.89

After posting BABIPs over .320 in his first two seasons, Castro is currently running a BABIP of just .210. He's also stranding runners at a higher than normal rate (80.8 LOB% vs. league average of 73.6% for relievers). It's easy to like what Castro is doing, but it's toough to know what to trust.
On Wednesday, the Orioles got a huge helping hand from Castro in their 12-inning win over the A's. After Zach Britton's consecutive save streak came to an end and the Orioles went to extra innings, they needed someone to step in and hold things down for a while for a bullpen with just Darren O'Day remaining (and he had pitched in three straight games, and four of the last five).
Castro did just that, hurling 3 2/3 scoreless innings and giving Manny Machado some time for more late-game heroics.

At the very least, it seems like stretching Castro out to become a starter wouldn't be a difficult transition. He's already been used in short appearances and longer ones. On July 30, he threw just a third of an inning and was ineffective. In his next outing, he was summoned after another bad Tillman start and tossed six shutout innings.

Still, his lack of strikeouts with his current pitch arsenal causes hesitation. In 2017, the average major league starter has a K/9 of 7.9. Only one qualified starter this season has a lower K/9 than Castro's 4.89. That would be Ty Blach of the Giants at 4.38. Blach is a former fifth-round pick who's doing an even better job of avoiding walks and home runs. Maybe Castro could do something similar, but it's tough to find success and maintain it year after year when you're not missing bats. Major league hitters are too good at finding ways to maximize damage when they make contact.

Before coming to the Orioles, Castro's fastball velocity was about 97 mph. This year, it's closer to 96 mph. There isn't much change in vertical movement, but his fastball is generating more movement horizontally. The same is true for both his slider and changeup. Just look at the movement Castro can generate with his fastball:
You see in the above clips what he can do with his fastball and slider. His changeup still seems to be a work in progress, and he only throws it about 11% of the time anyway. But why isn't he able to consistently get more whiffs? Even his best swing-and-miss pitch, his slider, has taken a slight dip (though it's still getting whiffs on more than 51% of swings).

Another strange thing for Castro is that he's getting batters to chase more, but they're making more contact. His O-Swing% went from about 25-26% in 2015/2016 to almost 37% this season. But after posting O-Contact% numbers of 48% and then 55% in 2015/2016, that number has jumped to almost 66%. Overall, batters are swinging more against him, and they're making more contact. And somehow, it's working. He's about in the middle of the pack in terms of average exit velocity on batted balls, so maybe that should be considered a victory. But it's not like he's been great in limiting hard contact.

The best part of Castro is the Orioles seem to have something in him, even if it's unknown exactly what that is. Plus, he was acquired for almost nothing. He's young, cheap, and under team control for a long time. After watching other pitchers leave Baltimore and get more out of their talents -- in some cases, almost immediately -- it is a nice change for the O's to get actual contributions from a discarded and overlooked pitcher.

Castro may not project as a solid starting option or even as any kind of long-term, shutdown reliever, but he is helping right now and does possess a couple of pitches that flash his potential. The Orioles don't need him to be amazing; they just need him to do a decent Miguel Gonzalez impression. Is that too much to ask for?

23 August 2017

How Pitch Sequencing Can Affect Outcomes

The 2017 Baltimore Orioles starting rotation has been a bit of a mess. Maybe with some data and some advance planning, the starting pitchers can become more effective. If we can identify the two-pitch sequences to end plate attempts and compare outcomes to those sequences, we may find that some pitches work well together, with one setting up the next. This can be considered a proof of concept; the same sequencing can be extended to sequences of three and four pitches for more granularity (at the expense of sample sizes).

To put together these sequences, I first needed pitch-by-pitch data. PitchFX is great for that, if you can get your hands on it. I set up a database of PitchFX records from 2015 to today (and counting!) using the MLBAM Gameday records stored in XML for what seems like perpetuity. From there, finding pitches that end plate attempts is fairly straightforward, as is finding the pitch that preceded it. Because my database only goes back two and a half seasons, data is a little limited, especially for the youngest members of the Orioles rotation.

Consider Dylan Bundy, whose slider is identified as a high-quality pitch by BrooksBaseball.net, noting its high swing-and-miss rate. Fangraphs gives Bundy's slider a much higher value rating than any of his other pitches (his next highest rated pitch per Fangraphs' weighted values is his Changeup). Bundy's slider appears most effective when paired with his four-seam fastball given the triple-slash outcomes of pitch sequences involving a slider (and that end within one pitch of a slider being thrown):
Limited to the 10 most frequent two-pitch combinations to end plate attempts
Bundy has used a four-seam and slider combo nearly 50 times in some order, and the results have been great. Batters are hitting 0.100 off of either pitch when paired with the other. The SL-FF combination produces a slightly higher on-base percentage, which leads me to believe that the fastball is occasionally thrown after the slider goes for a ball and results in some walks.

However, Bundy's slider isn't entirely unhittable. When he goes back-to-back with sliders and the second one ends a plate attempt, they're getting hit well. Batters are slashing roughly .350/.400/.400 when putting a second consecutive slider in play. While this doesn't account for all the times a SL-SL sequence did not result in the plate appearance being terminated, it definitely looks like Bundy should be cautious to throw his slider multiple times in a row - which makes sense, and isn't unique to Dylan Bundy. A batter is expected to get better at identifying a pitch and tracking its movement the more often he sees it.

Kevin Gausman likes to throw heat - and he's good at it. But with sequencing in mind, Gausman might find that the pitch he throws most isn't his best pitch, and that his most frequent pitch sequence isn't doing him any favors. Gausman throws four-seam fastballs over 60% of the time, but they tend to get hit well when batters see them back-to-back. Gausman's split-finger fastball, however, is frequently involved in positive outcomes.

The FS-FS sequence to end a plate attempt has yielded a .180/.260/.270 slash line since the beginning of the 2015 season, and a FF-FS or FS-FF sequence has resulted in a lower batting average and on-base percentage than the more common FF-FF sequence. If Gausman wants to throw hard, and it looks like he does, the pitching staff should encourage him to mix more split-finger fastballs to the mix.

Gausman's full stats show that he throws the FF-FF combination significantly more often than any other pitch sequence, which we should expect given how frequently he throws the four-seam fastball. The positive outcomes on a FS-FS combination come on just 65 instances of that sequence ending a plate attempt, and may be subject to a small sample size. That number of plate attempts is far fewer than the point at which most pitching statistics stabilize. Since the outcomes are so positive, it probably wouldn't hurt for Gausman to test throwing FS-FS sequences more frequently, or just to throw his split-finger fastball instead of his four-seam fastball in some instances.

This type of sequencing can be extended to more pitches to map the value of mixing pitches within a plate attempt, or it can be used to find two-pitch sequences throughout plate attempts that don't result in outcomes. For instance, Gausman's FF-FF sequence might not have the best outcomes when a batter connects with the pitch, but it might coerce more swings and misses or swings outside the zone during an at bat. At the very least, it's helpful for pitchers, catchers, and coaches to understand the value and risk in throwing specific pitches back to back.

22 August 2017

Jonathan Schoop Is Not A Serious MVP Contender, And That's OK

If you dare head to the comments section under a Roch Kubatko or Steve Melewski MASN post, follow along with Twitter banter, or *shudder* read what fans have to say about the Orioles on Facebook, you may be aware that some think Jonathan Schoop deserves more adulation for his impressive 2017. Schoop, in his age 25 season, is having a career year. Across the board, his offensive numbers are superb: .302/.351/.538 batting line, .372 wOBA, 132 wRC+. He's already mashed 27 home runs this year (previous high was 25), and somehow he's walking 5.6% of the time, which, if you watched Schoop bat any time before this season, seemed impossible.

Unsurprisingly, Schoop's wins above replacement totals on FanGraphs (3.4) and Baseball-Reference (4.2) this season are far and away career highs. He may even end up doubling his previous bests, from just last season. This is what fans hoped Schoop could become, even if he does leave some things to be desired in the field (range, flexibility) and on the basepaths (he's not fast). Regardless, it's hard to ask for too much more from Schoop when he's hitting like this.

But just because Schoop has shown massive improvement and is hitting very well does not make him a deserving MVP contender. You may or may not have seen this tweet from a couple weeks back (or this recent follow-up) that, for some reason, compared Schoop and Aaron Judge by using some counting stats and other things in Schoop's favor. How many times have you seen offensive counting stats (with extra-base hits, even) listed without home runs? That's a little weird; I wonder why that is.

Anyway, let's take a current look at the American League leaderboard (position players only; sorry, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber), ranked by FanGraphs' WAR:

1. Jose Altuve (6.1)
2. Aaron Judge (5.9)
3. Mike Trout (5.6)
4. Andrelton Simmons (4.8)
5. Mookie Betts (4.6)
6. Justin Upton (4.1)
7. Jose Ramirez (4.0)
8. Carlos Correa (3.9)
9. George Springer (3.7)
10. Steven Souza Jr. (3.7)
11. Didi Gregorius (3.7)
12. Elvis Andrus (3.6)
13. Justin Smoak (3.4)
14. Jonathan Schoop (3.4)
15. Francisco Lindor (3.3)

Even if you hate WAR for whatever reason, this is a good starting point. You could argue that Schoop's place is a little low among the names around him. You could even argue, I don't know, that maybe Simmons and Betts and some others don't deserve as much credit for being outstanding defensive players (while still being good at the plate).

But I have no idea how you'd go about realistically placing Schoop above Altuve, Judge, or Trout. Sure, Trout missed some time, but he's still otherworldly and is always more productive than everyone else. His 198 wRC+ demonstrates just that. Altuve (167 wRC+) is a machine and plays the same position as Schoop. And to take this back to Judge, even with his second half struggles, his 163 wRC+ is still third best in the AL (Schoop is tied for 13th). All of Trout, Altuve, and Judge are getting on base at a clip of .413 or above while hitting for a lot of power. Schoop has the power part down (not quite as much, but still a lot) but has an OBP of .351. Can he increase that mark more without walking even more? That seems like a ton to ask for, but perhaps Schoop has another level.

That's not really the point, though. Schoop is having a very good season. He is not having a great season, and he hasn't been one of the four or five very best offensive players in the AL. That's not a knock at all, and every team needs players like Schoop. Usually, this type of thing for many fans just means they think their guy isn't getting enough attention. I don't think that's true, but I probably can't convince you of that anyway.

Everyone Missed on Parker Bridwell

Parker Bridwell was once considered a diamond in the rough.  Joe Jordan's group believed in him and threw down a 625k signing bonus on him in 2010.  His calling card was an intriguing sinker/cutter/slider combo that was devastating when on, which was actually quite rare but tantalizing enough that he peaked in the Orioles system around 2012 as a B level prospect.  Bridwell peaked as our 7th ranked prospect in 2012, but continued troubles eroded expectations.

Bridwell could never consistently control or command his sinker or cutter and the Orioles eventually insisted on him to ditch the sinker and to focus on his four seam fastball.  It took what was special about him, the sinker/cutter/slider combo and made him an ordinary minor league pitcher.  Other organizations still held out hope.  The slider would flash plus and scouts who saw him earlier remembered what he was capable of doing with a fully utilized combo.  On several occasions, the Phillies (where many of the Orioles execs under MacPhail wound up during the Duquette era) tried to acquire Bridwell.  The Orioles kept saying no until the flashes of above average pitches with a potential plus working combo faded away.

In April, the Orioles dealt Bridwell to the Angels for cash considerations, which was rumored around 50k.  At the time, I asked an executive for another club why his team passed on Bridwell and he replied, "Is there really anything interesting left? None of his pitches are plus, he cannot throw a change up, and he does not know where the ball will end up. We are trying to win games here and have no room to see if he can be what he was four or five years ago."

It is important to note that Bridwell was worth 50k.  That fact accompanies what the front office executive said and shows that not only did the Orioles give up on him, but that no one was beating down the door to beat out what the pitching starved Angels were offering.  That illustrates how low Bridwell's value had dropped across the league.  The game is unfortunately littered with once promising pitching prospects who never really performed well at any level.  The difference here is that Bridwell wound up doing something that even the Angels did not expect.

2017 Pitching Gamelog
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/21/2017.

Over the past month, a couple of articles have been written on Bridwell's turn into a top notch performer for the Angels.  Pedro Moura wrote for the LA Times about how the Angels told him to change his approach.  They told him to no longer focus on throwing four seam fastballs.  He was told instead to focus on his sinker and cutter, what had originally made him such an interesting prospect.  In the Baltimore Sun, Eduardo Encina notes much of the same with the main emphasis being that Bridwell was told not to emphasize his four seamer and change.

Personally, I noticed a couple things.  First, when Bridwell was dealt, a deep dive in social media showed a common refrain from previous Orioles and their family which was a message to Bridwell that things will be better outside of the organization.  I first noticed it when Davies was dealt out and it pops up over and over again.  Second, Bridwell appears to have a smoother windup and is slower to the plate.  His cutter plays well against his sinker, but it no longer flashes plus.  His slider though has gained several inches in depth.  He still has trouble locating it, but it can really disrupt the at bat for a batter.

It appears to me that the organization's focus on making Bridwell a four seam/change up pitcher with a quick approach to the plate led Bridwell away from what he did well and limited the athleticism he could utilize in his pitches.  Those two prongs made it difficult for the club and any opposing organization to see that there was still a decent amount of talent underneath the seemingly wrong-headed developmental approach.

Before we skip too far down the Parker-Bridwell-Is-Now-A-Glorious-Pitcher route is to note that we are talking about 12 starts with a great 2.88 ERA.  His peripherals though suggest he has experienced a wonderful amount of luck.  Half of his earned runs (14) are due to a player scoring himself with a home run.  Only 14 of 80 baserunners have scored on him without directly hitting a home run.  He holds a 83.8% left on base figure, which is about 20% higher than one should expect (70-72%).  A typical LOB% would have him at a 3.27 ERA.

However, keep in mind how few runs are coming in off those home runs and consider his very low 5.5 k/9 rate, which would make him having the second worst rate in baseball if he qualified with innings.  They are a major reason why his FIP is 4.55.  As well as why his DRA is 5.26.  In other words, his peripheral metrics which are a better predictor of future success than ERA suggest that Bridwell's 77 innings of ace-like performance is abnormal.  Instead, we should expect him to slot in as a fifth pitcher in a rotation.  The Orioles though could use one of those, too.

21 August 2017

Orioles Don't Actually Consider Themselves A Playoff Contender

At the trade deadline, nearly everyone expected the Baltimore Orioles to be sellers. And it would have been a prudent move. On July 31, the team was in 4th place of the AL East with a record of 51-54, 6.5 games behind in the division and 4.5 games out of the second wild card. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, they were behind 3 other teams fighting for that second wild card. As we’ve discussed before on this site, it’s difficult to leap frog that many teams, even if the overall games behind seems surmountable.

Instead of selling, they bought at the deadline by bringing in Jeremy Hellickson to improve the starting pitching and Tim Beckham to fill a void at shortstop left by J.J. Hardy’s ineffectiveness and (eventually) his injury. Who knows how close the team actually were to selling. It did seem for a while that Zach Britton was close to being dealt, along with possibly Seth Smith. But that didn’t happen.

Even though neither of those moves were what anyone else expected, they were defensible. The 2017 starting rotation was so bad that they needed someone just to pitch innings to finish out the season. This was needed not only so they could provide Dylan Bundy some rest as the season closed, but also because there were no viable options in AAA to call up. Bringing in Hellickson was an upgrade that helps the team finish out the season at the cost of a non-prospect and Hyun-soo Kim (and international bonus money, of course). It wasn’t necessarily buying at the deadline, it was survival.

As for the deal that brought Tim Beckham to Baltimore, there wasn’t much to analyze. The Orioles brought in a capable shortstop that could hit for some power, who was controllable through the 2020 season. And this able to be done for the measly cost of a pitcher in short-season A ball. Again, it was a perfectly defensible trade, even if it wasn’t what was expected.

Regardless of the actual reasons, the front office stated that those deals were made because they were still going for it in 2017. And I get why they have to say that. The Oriole players don’t need to hear that the front office has given up on the season, and the fans don’t need to hear that the front office has given up on the season. Furthermore, it’s entirely probable that many members of the team's management believe that they’re a playoff team, but their actions don’t show it.

The Orioles have since fallen 11.5 games behind in the AL East. And while they’ve nudged nominally closer to the second wild card (4 GB), they are tied for that spot with Tampa Bay, and now have 4 additional teams ahead of them (not to mention one more team just a game behind). It’s a big hill to climb, and that’s reflected in their current odds of making the playoffs, which dropped to 1.9% according to Baseball Prospectus. Is there a chance they make it? Sure! But to put this into perspective, since 2013 (that’s as far back as the playoff percentage data goes at Baseball Prospectus), no team has made the playoffs with odds at this point in the season. The worst odds a team overcame were the 2016 New York Mets, who were at 13.4% by August 21.

So yes, there is a chance, but there are at least two things the organization is doing that indicate that they are not taking that chance seriously (not that they should). The first is the declaration that J.J. Hardy will be the starting shortstop when he returns from the disabled list (although Showalter seems to have taken a step back from that initial statement). The second is by giving a roster spot to Rule 5 Draft selection Anthony Santander.

Santander had spent the entire year on the 60 day disabled list with shoulder and forearm injuries. Prior to this season, he had yet to reach AA, although he had performed well in High-A in 2016, hitting .290/.368/.494 in 574 plate appearances. Before the start of the season, Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs rated Santander as a prospect with a future value of 40 (a below league average player), with future hit and game power tools grading out as average (he rated both in their present state at 30 out of 80, well below average). Since Santander hasn’t played much in 2017, I’d expect that his scouting report has remained unchanged (Eric’s report can be found here). Despite that, Santander hit very well this year in AA during his rehab assignment, with an excellent line of .380/.458/.780 in 59 plate appearances. After using the full extent of his rehab assignment time, the Orioles had to place him on their active roster or offer to return him back to Cleveland. They chose to keep him.

While I believe that keeping Santander and putting him on the roster was the right decision, it’s another reason that the front office doesn’t take their playoff chances all that seriously. As I mentioned, the odds of them making the playoffs are not good, and in order to make the playoffs, the Orioles will need to squeeze every remaining win out of this roster they can. By putting Santander (another corner OF/1B I might add) on the active roster, Baltimore is either going to give extremely important playing time to someone who hasn’t played meaningful baseball above single-A, or they’ll bench him and essentially play with a 24 man roster. Neither is a good option if you’re trying to make the playoffs in a race that leaves little room for error. And while having Santander on the roster at the expense of someone more capable will only be for a 2 to 3 week stretch until rosters expand in September, the Orioles don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of weeks.

Who knows, maybe Santander will continue to hit the ball well in the major leagues and this will not only help the Orioles but look like a stroke of genius. Stranger things can happen. But I would not bet on it. This seems like a situation where the Orioles want to have their cake and eat it too. And while every once and a while that is possible, most times it is not.

You can find Playoff Percentages for previous seasons below:

15 August 2017

Crowded House: How A Prospect's Imminent Arrival Will Affect Lineup Decisions

An announced crowd of 4,116 gathered at Prince George’s Stadium, Sunday night, to witness hometown Bowie take on Portland

The Baysox are in a battle for first place, but it was also an opportunity for fans to catch one last glimpse of outfielder Anthony Santander before his Rule 5-mandated promotion on Thursday.  He didn’t disappoint, going 2 for 4 with a home run, showcasing the talent that has him ranked in the upper-echelon of the Orioles’ farm system.

MLB.com currently lists Santander as Baltimore’s ninth-best prospect.  He’s raw, but obviously the power potential is there.  He’s listed at just 6-2, 190, but reportedly looks bigger out on the field.  And, at 22, he may continue to grow into that frame. 

A 2011, international signing by Cleveland, Santander is a switch-hitter, can take a walk, and has the ability to play both corner outfield spots, as well as first base.  As stated before, he needs reps - especially with all the time he has lost to injury. 

Personally, I hate the Rule 5 draft.  While it’s worked out for clubs such as the Orioles in the past (see Flaherty, Ryan), it usually ends up stunting the growth of the key principles involved.  A year of potential development is instead spent rotting away on a Major League bench somewhere. 

With the end of the season closing in, Baltimore will also have the ability to preserve Santander’s rookie status.  That, coupled with the Orioles’ logjams at his natural positions, removes almost any incentive for Showalter to pencil his name in more than once a week.

The players ahead of Santander on the pecking order are some guys named Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith and Trey Mancini.  You’ve probably heard of them, as well as Davismuch-chronicled struggles this year. 

My perfect scenario involves benching Davis, slotting Mancini to first and letting Santander take his lumps in left field.  This, of course, will not happen.  A) Davis is not being paid $21 million dollars to occupy the pine and B) Baltimore still harbors dreams of capturing a wild card spot.  Teams with playoff aspirations don’t tend to hand out starting gigs to unproven rookies. 

To compound matters further, Ryan Flaherty and J.J. Hardy are also approaching the expiration dates on their rehab assignments (though, reportedly, Hardy may need more time on the shelf).  Their return throws the infield into further flux, as Jonathan Schoop and the red-hot Tim Beckham will continue to dominate playing time at second base and shortstop, respectively.

Hardy is making $14 million, in the last year of his contract.  If he’s healthy, the front office will demand his initials be written in the line-up, forgoing the awkward conversation about whether or not that decision holds merit.   

To satisfy everyone’s hunger for playing time, Baltimore could shuffle some of those at-bats to the DH-slot.  Unfortunately, Trumbo – who isn’t exactly setting the world on fire himself – will be spending most of the time clogging up playing time there.    

Meanwhile, cut to a shot of Craig Gentry, Joey Rickard and Ruben Tejada getting completely lost in the complex shuffle.  If the trio is demoted to make room for current DL’ers (and assuming they aren’t lost to waivers), count on at least one of them returning after September 1st

The list of mouths to feed is growing.  Anthony Santander’s hometown is Margarita, Venezuela.  Buck Showalter may need to down one or two adult beverages of the same name to devise a playing-time strategy that is fair to all players involved. 

14 August 2017

Another Fall For Chris Davis

This is not the worst Chris Davis has been, and it's not the worst he's going to be. At 31 years old and in the second year of a massive contract, Davis has been extremely disappointing in 2017 for an O's team that could desperately use the 2013 or 2015 versions of Davis, let alone the one from last season. Instead, Davis has been more like the 2014 version, when he had a similar wRC+ to what he does now (94 then, 93 now) and a wOBA that was just seven points worse.

The strongest sign yet that Buck Showalter and the O's are frustrated and recognize Davis's struggles is that he recently dropped in the batting order. (Showalter also dropped a slumping Davis in the order last August for a while.) On Thursday, Davis received a day off, with Showalter noting to reporters that Davis may not even play on Friday. Instead, Davis found his name on the lineup card, yet he had been dropped from his standard spot at cleanup to seventh. It's also worth noting that Trey Mancini leapfrogged Mark Trumbo, who moved to sixth, with Tim Beckham moving to the leadoff spot and Adam Jones taking over at cleanup. It's not unusual for Showalter to tinker with his lineup in... let's say, interesting ways, but it's hard to ignore a lineup in which Davis is batting seventh (and justifiably so).

The Orioles (read: Peter Angelos) inked a power-hitting first baseman to a huge contract that would start in his age-30 season. Obviously, there were red flags. Things have gotten worse. In 2016, Davis was not nearly as good as he had been the year before (with a 148 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR), but he was fine (with a 111 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR).

Fans were hoping for a rebound, especially since Davis's production throughout his career has been pretty erratic from year to year. As I've noted before, Davis has never had two seasons in a row with a wOBA difference of fewer than 43 points. As of right now, that number is 18, meaning that streak will probably come to an end. Instead of a jump in production, Davis has continued to fall, and the only real comforting thought is his track record: maybe he'll just bounce back because he's done it before.

But again, things aren't trending in the right direction for Davis. Injuries are somewhat of a concern. Davis dislocated his thumb in June of 2016, which had a negative impact on the second half of the season for him. Then this past June, Davis injured his right oblique and missed about a month on the disabled list. He does seem to be healthy now, but it hasn't resulted in an uptick in production.

Let's run through some other concerns. Davis is striking out 36.5% of the time, which is ridiculous, even for him (career 31.7 K%). His .210 ISO is approaching the worst mark in his O's career (.209 in 2015). He's continuing to offer at fewer pitches in the strike zone (53.3%), and is again swinging a bit less overall (42.1%). Both marks would be career lows. He's also making less contact on out-of-zone pitches (47.4%), which would also be a career worst. And all of this is coming with opposing pitchers being less afraid to challenge him in the zone (43.5 Zone%, highest since 2014).

Davis's deteriorating pitch recognition skills are a serious problem. Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer highlighted as much in his June piece, "Chris Davis Has Become MLB’s Caught-Looking King":
Davis, though, is taking called strikeouts to an unprecedented extreme. After striking out looking 56 times in both 2014 and 2015, he set an all-time single-season record last year with 79 punchouts, breaking the previous record of 72 set by Jack Cust in 2007. (Cust is the only other hitter ever to top 67.) And Davis seems determined to obliterate his own record this year. The average hitter this season has struck out looking at a rate that would translate to 30 punchouts per 600 plate appearances. Davis has already been rung up 35 times in just 208 plate appearances, putting him on pace for a ridiculous 109. The 11-strikeout gap between Davis and the next-most-frequent looking-K victims of 2017 — Keon Broxton and Ryan Schimpf, who are tied with 24 — is as big as the gap between those two and the 11 hitters who are tied for 39th place. Davis is the king of caught looking. And while striking out isn’t awful in the abstract, he can’t hit homers if he doesn’t swing.
Davis's oblique injury occurred a couple weeks after that post was written, so topping his dubious record from last season may be out of reach. Still, despite missing that time, Davis is the current leader in called strikeouts with 51. That's four more than Aaron Judge, who has stepped to the plate 125 more time than Davis.

Davis not swinging the bat, even at strikes, is worrisome. But things haven't gone as well even when he makes contact. Let's look at three of Davis's batted ball statistics from 2015-2017, courtesy of Statcast. Keep in mind that for all of the ranks, the minimum is 30 batted balls.

Exit velocity
2015: 91.9 mph (18th)
2016: 90.8 mph (t-61st)
2017: 89.2 mph (t-79th)

2015: 9.9% (t-6th)
2016: 8.0% (29th)
2017: 6.1% (t-96th)
Barrel = Well-struck balls with an expected BA/SLG above .500/1.500

Average batted ball distance
2015: 217 feet (t-12th)
2016: 213 feet (t-19th)
2017: 210 feet (26th)

Davis's offensive skills were always going to deteriorate at some point in the next few seasons. That's how things work with first basemen. Unfortunately, he has declined faster than anticipated. In reality, Davis hasn't really been good since the first half of 2016, when he posted a wRC+ of 123.

This is the part where we talk a little more about Davis's $161 million contract (in which he's paid $23M per year, with $6 million of that deferred without interest per year). The non-deferred part of his contract runs through 2022, and he'll be receiving deferred payments through 2037.

Unless things turn around in a hurry - and it's still possible Davis rights the ship - the Orioles will be paying money for a long time to a player who isn't very good, without receiving the exceptional upfront production they were hoping for. The most positive thing you could really say about the Davis deal at the time was that the O's decided to spend that money on any player at all. It still looked misguided, and it will almost assuredly end up being discussed and mocked the same way that Ryan Howard's and Albert Pujols's contracts are. That's how things work with aging first basemen. But even those guys didn't fall off as quickly as Davis has.

There's really not much else to say. Davis's contract is unmovable, and he either starts playing better or he doesn't. He's still going to find his name in the lineup card on a daily basis as long as he's healthy. If this is the new normal for Davis, there's a lot of disappointment to come.

Photo via Keith Allison. Stats via FanGraphs and Statcast. Salary information via Cot's.

09 August 2017

Dylan Bundy Has Been Just What The Orioles Needed

Dylan Bundy hasn't been amazing this year. He's not a Cy Young candidate, and he doesn't get discussed among the best pitchers in the game. He isn't one, at least, right now. But for the second season in a row, he has maintained his health, and he's producing actual, needed results in a rotation that has been filled with question marks and disappointment for most of the season. Simply put, he's more than been up to the task.

Most recently, Bundy was excellent in Monday night's win over the Angels. In seven innings of two-run ball, Bundy struck out 10 and didn't walk a batter while mainly relying on his fastball and infamous slider/cutter.
It was one of Bundy's best starts of the season, and it just so happened to come after he held the Royals scoreless over eight innings in his previous outing (while only throwing 93 pitches).

The Orioles have continued to give Bundy extra rest when they can, with the apparent goal for him to throw about 180 innings. Some think that's too much, while some don't think he should be limited at all. I tend to lean on the more cautious side. For now, though, Bundy seems fine. Perhaps the additional rest has helped. In the first half of the season, his average fastball velocity was 92.45 mph. In the four starts after the break, he's averaging just under 93 mph. That's not much, but everything little bit helps.

From mid-July on last season, after Bundy transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation, he averaged 94.8 mph on his fastball. So that is definitely a decrease of a couple miles per hour from last season, but there's also one major difference in Bundy this year. He's throwing his slider/cutter! (And he's using it about 20% of the time.) One concern among scouts (and obviously notorious cutter hater Dan Duquette) is that throwing the cutter too often can lead to a decrease in fastball velocity. I'm not saying that's directly the reason for Bundy's velocity decline, but it can't be easily discounted.
It's worth pondering whether Bundy can be a top-of-the-line starter with an average fastball velocity (the major league average for starting pitchers this season is 92.3 mph). Bundy is easily one of the Orioles' best options, but, well, any decent starter would be in the team's current situation. You might take the resurgent Kevin Gausman over Bundy, but that's it.

Most importantly, Bundy seems to be healthy. And he has taken a step forward this year, even if his velocity hasn't followed suit. In his 71-plus innings last year, Bundy had a 4.52 ERA and a 5.24 FIP. In a little over 134 innings this year, he's lowered both, with an ERA of 4.15 and a FIP of 4.70. His strikeouts have taken a bit of a tumble (from 9.04 K/9 to 7.17), but he's also issuing fewer free passes (from 3.77 BB/9 to 2.68).

There's no saying Bundy doesn't have another gear. He could be even better next season, especially since the O's will surely be done talking about innings limits with him. But even if this current version is what he's going to be, that's still pretty good! The Orioles need more cost-controlled young pitching. Obviously Bundy's hype from 2012 got many people excited and hoping he could be a superstar, but he'd be far from the only amazing talent to not end up being phenomenal. The Orioles went through this with Matt Wieters. The hype can get out of control, and there's almost nothing a player can do to live up to that potential. Sometimes it can be just as simple as having a good player is better than a bad player.

It's been well discussed that the Orioles will need starting pitching next season. They sure do, with only Bundy and Gausman penciled in as starters. But you could do worse than building a rotation around those two pitchers, with Gausman under team control through 2020 and Bundy through 2021. It would be nice if the Orioles could develop more pitchers to join them, or even just add some veterans who aren't terrible. It seems easy, but maybe it's not.

08 August 2017

Who Hits Like Hays?

Austin Hays has been on a tear this year. Actually, he has been on a tear for abut a year and a half.  When drafted, the common refrain was that he did basically everything average.  Hitting, power, running, fielding, arm...all average.  That is why he lasted to the third round.  Hays had no obvious tool that could drive his way through the minors and his collegiate career was not against the highest of competition.

So, the Orioles drafted him and he went on the aforementioned tear.  Hays has shown a great approach at the plate, which seems to play up his contact ability.  He also is a bit aggressive, but his contact rate is high enough that he does not strike out all that much, but rather produces weak contact on pitches he probably should be taking.  That has not been a detriment at low A, high A, or AA, but it may be more troublesome in the Majors if his ability peg him as a sub-.270 hitter as opposed to his consistent .330 performance in the minors.

Register Batting
All 58630.332.369.582
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/4/2017.

Last week, a reader asked for me to do some similarity scoring for batted ball profiles.  The reader noted that Jonathan Schoop's profile looked awfully similar to Austin Hay's.  When one looks at batted ball profiles for Major Leaguers while including only the stat line available for Minor Leaguers as well, you wind up comparing ground balls, line drives, and fly balls as well as whether the batter pulled the ball, went to center, or to the opposite field.  These similarities only consider that.  They do not consider how many walks or strikeouts a batter has or even the quality of the contact.  They simply look at effectively the launch angle and direction.

Austin Hays this  year has been a strong pull hitter with over 50% of his batted balls going to left field.  He also is a pretty even fly ball / ground ball with a tendency to hit line drives more than his peers. Below are the results for Austin Hays in comparison to batted ball profiles for players during the 2016 season in the Majors (top and bottom 5% comps):

Name Total
Gregory Polanco 34
Asdrubal Cabrera 37
Josh Donaldson 59
Carlos Beltran 60
Alex Gordon 66
Edwin Encarnacion 71
Victor Martinez 71
Jason Kipnis 73
----- -----
Ian Desmond 209
Jean Segura 209
Adam Eaton 214
Jonathan Villar 214
Eric Hosmer 215
Yunel Escobar 218
Joe Mauer 223
DJ LeMahieu 270
Howie Kendrick 284

Polanco is the batted ball profile that immediately comes to my mind for Hays.  I think a major difference between the two has been the amount of power shown this season for the 22 yo Hays (~.260 ISO) and what Polanco managed at age 21 at the same level (~.150).  The second difference is Hays' poor ability to walk while Polanco was able to bring in league average walking ability.

Power tends to have more staying than walks in the minors, but the two players do seem to be in the same orbit.  Asdrubal Cabrera also had a similar profile at that age and actually looked a great deal more like Polanco.  He too had an ISO around .150 and an average walk rate.  Similar to Polanco, Cabrera retained a decent walk rate to balance out a batting average that collapsed from a .300 minors hitter to a .265 majors hitter.  On the bottom end are all players with extreme groundball rates and a tendency to usually hit the ball to center or to the opposite field.

Again, for emphasis, the similarities are simply who at the MLB level has the most similar or least similar batted ball profiles.  It does not consider any other aspect of hitting.  It should also be known that hitting mechanics can be altered significantly upon reaching the majors.  That said, usually it does not.  As long as Hays keeping making contact, he will be hitting the ball similarly to a group of rather solid talent.