30 November 2017

Richard Bleier's Weird Season

In previous posts, I've discussed the low ERA and low strikeout rates of both Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro. Still, Bleier's season is even more peculiar that I thought.

Using Baseball-Reference's Play Index, I searched for seasons in the Expansion Era (since 1961) where pitchers have posted an ERA under 2 and a K/9 of 4 or below (minimum of 50 innings pitched). Here are the results (sorted by year):

Rk Player SO ERA SO9 IP Year
1Richard Bleier261.993.6963.1201730BAL574.37219
2Shigetoshi Hasegawa321.483.9573.0200334SEA633.78292
3Terry Leach221.952.6973.2199238CHW513.52199
4Dan Quisenberry481.943.11139.0198330KCR692.86210
5Dan Quisenberry201.732.8962.1198128KCR402.94209
6Rick Camp331.912.74108.1198027ATL773.42195
7Greg Minton331.813.7379.2197927SFG463.00196
8Tom Murphy471.903.44123.0197428MIL703.74189
9Dale Murray311.034.0069.2197424MON322.87374
10Jerry Bell201.662.5570.2197224MIL253.55183
11Mudcat Grant581.863.86135.1197034TOT803.52193
12Ron Kline481.683.83112.2196836PIT562.76173
13Frank Linzy381.513.5795.2196726SFG573.35223
14Hal Woodeshick301.923.8470.1196633STL593.65189
15Frank Linzy351.433.8681.2196524SFG572.93253
16Terry Fox231.713.5758.0196226DET443.15241
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/27/2017.

No one accomplished what Bleier did for 14 seasons. Since 1983, it's only happened three times!

Unless you think Bleier is the next Dan Quisenberry, a large portion of Bleier's success was due to good fortune. That doesn't mean he pitched poorly, of course. It'll just be extremely difficult to repeat his effectiveness to that level.

Bleier can still be useful, and the Orioles acquired him for basically nothing last February. But he probably won't post another ERA under 2. Nothing about that should be surprising.

29 November 2017

Trading for Stanton and Other Half-Baked Notions

Let’s get this out of the way right now and say that the Orioles are not going to trade for Giancarlo Stanton. The reasons for this are as obvious as the no doubters Stanton blasts with regularity: His massive 10 year, $295 million contract, his opt out provisions, his cost in prospects, his extensive injury history, and his no trade clause. Any one of these would be enough to tank a deal, but all of them, combined with the the fact that the Orioles front office regularly loses sprints to snails, makes it an utter and complete impossibility.

Having said that, let’s make a deal!

First, let’s consider what Stanton is. An MVP winner? You bet. An elite power hitter? Sure. An injury prone, not super young guy with a lot of mileage and whose team is seemingly desperate to move him? Well, yeah, that too. You know, there was a guy the Orioles traded for once. An “old 30” kinda guy. The kind of guy that, if he played now, would probably be in Stanton’s position; an older, highly paid player on a team going nowhere that has the ability to take a new team to the next level. I’m not saying Stanton is Frank Robinson, but let’s take a look at their numbers through their age 27 seasons, just for fun.

Stanton: .268/.360/.554, 146 OPS+, 267 homers, 672 RBI, 34.1 WAR
Robinson: .303/.389/.557, 148 OPS+, 262 homers, 800 RBI, 47.4 WAR

The biggest difference between the two players is Robinson’s durability. Through his first 8 seasons he played in 1190 games, while Stanton has played in a relatively paltry 986. Robinson was also a more complete hitter and player, but Stanton gets the edge as a power guy. The point here is not to say that Stanton is as good as Frank Robinson, because he’s not, but that adding a player like him would be in the same realm of magnitude as when the Orioles acquired Frank before the 1966 season. MVP’s don’t get traded in their prime very often, yet that’s exactly what is likely to happen this offseason. Stanton is a great player when healthy, and none of his injuries are of the chronic variety, so there’s at least a chance he has gotten over the health hump and can consistently play 150+ games. If that happens, you’re talking about a top 5 or so player in baseball.

So Stanton is great. We know that much. Why would the Orioles make this deal? Well, other than the fact that they wouldn’t, they’d do it because they have decided to throw caution to the wind and try to win a World Series in the next few years. They’d also do it because (bear with me, here) they’ve just signed Manny Machado to a ten year, $300 million extension, and Alex Cobb, and Tyler Chatwood, and Mike Minor, and, you know, a couple more pitchers! What an offseason they’ve had in my fevered brain.

Realistically, this would be far out of the realm of possibility for the Orioles at their current payroll level, but let’s say they’ve gone as crazy as I have and will commit to running a $180 million payroll for the foreseeable future. Suddenly, there’s room in the budget not only to sign Machado but to bring in another huge piece. And, since Stanton is the craziest one of all, he’s decided that he wants to play in Baltimore and be the modern day Frank Robinson. It’s all coming back around, folks!

Under a $180 million budget we can make this happen. In our offseason blueprint series, we set a budget of $155 million, and within that, the team would be able to pay guys like Cobb and Chatwood. Stanton will make $25 million this season, and assuming Cobb and Chatwood sign for their BORAS projections, they're already at the $180 million cap. But! Since the Orioles are going to deal Austin Hays, Hunter Harvey, and Ryan Mountcastle to the Marlins for Stanton, Miami is also going to take Mark Trumbo and be grateful for it. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, we’ll be needing to trade those guys to get Stanton. We subtract Trumbo’s $12.5 million salary and add it onto Machado’s projected $17 million arbitration deal and, bingo! $180 mil on the dot.

Easy enough? Ok, obviously not. Trading the team’s best two position prospects and arguably the most talented pitcher in the organization is a very steep price, though shedding the Trumbo deal makes it sting a bit less. But, if we assume that Machado bounces back to his pre-2017 level and the pitching improves with the additions of Cobb, Chatwood, and whoever else, adding a +7 WAR bat suddenly makes this team look like a legit contender. Even if the Orioles only sign one of the better arms on the market (which, let’s be honest, they’d basically have to do if they went this route), the addition of Stanton itself might be enough to get this team back into the playoffs.

Also, come on. Are you telling me you’d rather have Austin Hays than this:

I mean, really. Adding Stanton to a team with Machado, Schoop, Jones, Davis, and Mancini would, if nothing else, be incredibly fun. While I know that it's not going to happen, and that there are pretty good arguments for why it shouldn't happen even if it could, Stanton could hit 70 in Camden Yards. For late November, in an off season that hasn't exactly been a rip roaring joyride, that's not the worst dream in the world.

Dan Duquette, I've laid it all out. The rest is up to you. Godspeed, sir.

28 November 2017

Does Half Make a Whole: Jason Vargas and Kevin Gausman

Unless you won the World Series today, baseball is about tomorrow.  And tomorrow is about yesterday and some number of the days before.  What I mean is that regardless of your level of statistical thought, you likely are looking at yesterday to figure out just what tomorrow might look like.  Some players make these predictions feel more certain.  For instance, a pitcher who pitches the same every month of the year, you probably feel rather confident that next year will be more of the same.  Meanwhile, a pitcher with remarkable differences between his first and second halves may provide a more exciting effort at fortune telling.

There are three schools of thought.  One, that the first half of the season is indicative of what a player really is.  That offseason preparation and spring training includes approaches that typically stay the same so that the first half is a better illustration of a player while the second half results from things that happened in the first half that are not reproducible.

The second perspective is that the second half performance is indicative of future performance because it is most recent.  A slight tinker to approach may unlock a player and that player will take that forward.  Or perhaps injury occurs and that injury moves forward with the player.

The third perspective is that the first and second half are simply unimportant series of events that are better treated as a whole than in parts.  That development does not neatly progress linearly or as arbitrarily episodically as season halves are set up.  Therefore, go with the whole enchilada instead of reducing your sight by going halfsies.

This offseason, the Orioles have two players that fall into the whole half season argument.  Jason Vargas was lights out in the first half of the season and the lights went out in the second half:
1st half: 106.1 IP, 2.62 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 2.0 fWAR
2nd half: 73.1 IP, 6.38 ERA, 5.94 FIP, -0.3 fWAR
His first half was so good that BORAS considered him as a 4/80 contract even at the ripe age of 35.  The second half lowered him down to 2/17.2, which is a considerable drop.  Of course, the two halves could not be more different in terms of production.  Is he a good, but fortunate, 2 WAR pitcher? Or is a a replacement level workhorse?  Supposedly, the Orioles are kicking his tires.

A little different and closer to home is Baltimore's own Kevin Gausman.
1st half: 97 IP, 5.85 ERA, 4.75, 1.1 fWAR
2nd half: 89.2 IP, 3.41 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 1.4 fWAR
OK, so Gausman being a second half starter is a bit of a product of his ERA and a never dying narrative, but he is included here as an introductory example because, well, ok, I don't know. Look! An Oriole player.  I guess we can always go back to Ubaldo Jimenez' last season with the Indians.

Anyway, what is the method?  I looked at all pitchers from 2012-2016 whose WAR/100 in the first half was 1 win better or worse than the second half.  I then devised two models. One model simply looked at their year long performance and matched it against their performance the following year.  The second model was applied to each group (i.e., better second half, worse second half) to devise a way to weight the halves in the prediction for the following season.

Pitchers who performed remarkably better in the second half.
Linear Model
2018 production = 0.547*(2017) + 0.071
R2 = 0.50

As expected, the previous year does a decent job projecting WAR rate for the upcoming season.  These exceptional swing in performance seemed to indicate that a half season's worth of performance did not make it much better of a prediction tool than a half season (first half model, R2 = 0.47; second half model, R2 = 0.43).  In other words, the linear models appear to show that half or full season performance for this cohort almost equally accounts for the next season performance.  Therefore, a big second half bump in performance does not appear to provide any indication in a new set level of improvement in performance.  There is a better indication in this group that the lower first half performance might be slightly more indicative of next season performance.

Regression Model
2018 production = 0.571*(2017 1st Half) + 0.311*(2017 2nd Half) + 0.016
R2 = 0.48

For this cohort, the regression model appears to agree with the linear models in that the lower first half performance (much greater coefficient value) has more weight in estimating future performance.  However, the regression model does not account for  next season performance any better than the simpler linear models.  Again, the take home is basically that if all things are equal then maybe look at the first half performance of pitchers in this cohort.

Pitchers who performed remarkably worse in the second half
Linear Model
2018 Production = 0.665*(2017) + 0.072
R2 = 0.49

The model values a slightly different than the previous cohort, which is likely an aspect of regression to the mean.  Pitchers who are performing well enough to last the first half and then see a big uptick in performance likely had a decent year, so they would be more inclined to see a decrease in their rates.  Meanwhile, a pitcher who was kept in the rotation with a poorer second half probably has displayed a higher level of talent in the long run, so the regression is less.  Regardless, the linear model here decently accounts for the data and the linear models for the halves are not remarkably different (R2 = 0.48 for both).

Regression Model
2018 Production = 0.361*(2017 1st Half) + 0.393*(2nd Half) + 0.015
R2 = 0.51

Similar to the linear model, the halves were valued similarly as expressed in their coefficient weighting.  The regression model in general did as well accounting for the data as the linear model did.

The safe conclusion is that the data is incredibly noisy and improved or decreased performances in the second half are not terribly more informative than full season performance.  The only caveat might be that for pitchers who see an improvement in their second half performance might be better judged by their first half performance.  Doing so, probably would not be meaningful in most cases, but in a close decision between a couple pitchers then it might be prudent to entertain the idea that the performance in the first half might be more meaningful moving forward to next year.

22 November 2017

Cup of jO's: Expecting a Sleepy Thanksgiving Weekend

Front offices never rest, but the gears of player acquisition certainly slow down during the holidays.  Clubs tend to be working with reduced staffs.  Players often do not want to deal with the intricacies of contract negotiations.  Agents have difficulty at times reaching either side at a level of interest to complete a move.  Transactions likely will occur, but probably nothing of note once this evening arrives.

This leaves us with a few rumors to gnaw on while we do anything to avoid discussing politics with our extended families this weekend.  The one of the forefront of media is the availability of free agent starting pitching.  The Orioles will need to acquire a couple arms and they appear to be kicking the tires on several second and third tier starters.  The focus appears to be settling on Jason Vargas, Tyler Chatwood, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn.

Vargas is your journeyman whose two attributes are that he uses his left arm to throw a ball and the first half of 2017 he was a bit dominant.  However, he will be 35 next year and has never been shown to be all that decent of a pitcher, including the second half of last season.

Chatwood is one of those pitchers to dream on.  He throws hard and was once touted as having an absolutely brilliant hammer curve.  He will be moving away from Coors where his pitches work better and are easier to sequence.  However, the only thing that has really made him see success is his uncanny knack to generate absolutely terrible contact.  One wonders if that is sustainable.  Also, he is not exactly a workhorse and has had two Tommy John operations in his career.

Cobb is everyone's second favorite pitcher.  At times, has been brilliant.  He has shown an ability to hang in the AL East.  However, he depends heavily on a two seamer, which MLB teams are beginning to adapt to.  Plus, he too has never been a picture of health.  Lynn is good when healthy, but he too has gone under the knife.  He also profiles as a likely candidate to suffer another injury because he relies so heavily on his fastball.

Another rumor percolating is a potential Zach Britton trade.  The idea behind that would be that the club could get a piece for the future while finding a less expensive reliever on the market.  The way this would work would be this: the Orioles would deal Britton for a potential future piece.  Let's say the piece would be someone like the Cubs' center fielder Albert Almora who is also Manny Machado's cousin.  In turn, the club takes off the 12 MM in Britton's expected contract and puts it into Mike Minor, another lefty, at 3/27.  The play would be that Minor provides the club an excellent left handed reliever to replace Britton while the Cubs would get someone with a much higher ceiling than Minor.  I am not saying that would work, but that would be the idea.  Not investing Britton's contract into another reliever would seem somewhat short-sighted as this club no longer employs an elite pen and needs every solid arm it can muster if it wishes to be competitive.

What should also be a rumor, but something I have heard nothing much about, is targeting a left handed starting outfielder. Yes, the club just acquired Jaycob Brugman for not much.  He is an adequate center fielder defensively who has some gap power. He is also an extreme platoon hitter who gets eaten up by left handed pitchers, so maybe he gets into a platoon with Rickard if an unfortunate solution to center field is required.  Regardless, you should expect Brugman in Norfolk to begin the year.

More fully fledged solutions would be someone like Jarrod Dyson, who was stunning in the outfield and against right handers.  Or maybe Curtis Granderson if you believe the cliff he fell off of last summer could be scaled again.  Regarding the previous rumor, Almora is a right handed bat, so that would not solve that particular expressed need.

So...here we are.  Waiting. Wondering. Do you all have any thoughts that I would find interesting?

21 November 2017

Is There a Potential Bad Contract Swap With the Giants?

Mark Trumbo (photo via Keith Allison)
A little over a week ago, Dan Connolly of Baltimore Baseball wrote an article that suggested a trade of Mark Trumbo to the San Francisco Giants could make sense for both teams. The return to the Orioles potentially centered around either Jeff Samardzija or Matt Moore, two of the Giant’s higher priced, but underperforming starters. He cited an article from the Chicago Tribune that suggested a similar “bad contract” trade in which the Cubs would send Jason Heyward. With the Giants looking to upgrade their outfield (they ranked last in fWAR in 2017 at 0.8), getting Heyward would actually improve one of San Francisco’s needs, although the likelihood that Heyward does not opt out of his current contract would complicate things. So could the Orioles do something similar with Mark Trumbo as Connolly suggests?

The better return for the Orioles here would be Samardzija, but he also comes with a heftier contract. Samardzija has 3 years and $18 million per year left on his deal. Ultimately though, a Trumbo/Samardzija trade on the basis of bad contracts doesn’t work because Samardzija’s contract isn’t bad as Connolly believes. Yes, he’s owed a lot of money over the next 3 years, but he’s a quality pitcher. Despite a 4.42 ERA in what looked like a down year, Samardzija’s 2017 season was actually very productive. His strikeout rate (24.2%) was the highest it’s been since 2012 (the year he began starting) and his walk rate (3.8%) was easily a career low.

Connolly correctly points out that home runs were certainly a problem for him in 2017, but everyone has been giving up home runs the last couple of seasons and Samardzija’s 13.8% HR/FB rate only ranked 33rd out of 58 qualified starters in 2017. Add everything up, and Samardzija was worth 3.8 wins above replacement in 2017 according to Fangraphs. Even if you prefer Baseball-Reference’s method of WAR, Samardzija was still worth 2.4 wins above replacement. While his contract isn’t a steal, Samardzija is a legitimately good pitcher, not a salary dump candidate. And with the Giants indicating their intent to contend in 2018 (it is an even year after all), I see no reason as to why they would want to part with Samardzija.

Matt Moore, similar to Samardzija, had a down 2017 season. He finished with a 5.52 ERA (a 4.75 FIP) and was worth 1.0 fWAR. At -0.3 WAR, Baseball Reference thought he was slightly below replacement level. It was easily the worst full season of his career. Still, Moore was almost a perfectly decent pitcher in 2016, throwing nearly 200 innings, with both an ERA and FIP just north of 4, and ending up at 2.3 fWAR. Moore is still young (2018 will be his age 29 season), was once a top prospect, is relatively cheap ($9 million, with another relatively cheap $10 million club option in 2019), and has previously shown electric stuff. This combination of factors makes him more desirable than one would initially think given how poorly he pitched last year. It’s why picking up his 2018 option was an easy decision for the Giants. As Connolly correctly points out, the Giants would likely want more than just Trumbo for Moore, but I disagree in that I don’t believe the Giants would want Trumbo at all.

I would assume that the Orioles would take either Samardzija or Moore in return for Trumbo (and change) any day of the week. These trade ideas don’t work is for two reasons. The first is that the contracts of Samardzija and Moore are not all that bad. Samardzija is a very good pitcher, and Moore’s contract is relatively small, especially if you take into account his pedigree and the chance that he bounces back even a little bit in 2018. The second (and most important) reason is that I don’t see how Trumbo fits anywhere on the Giant’s roster.

Connolly thinks Trumbo could fit on the Giants’ roster by mentioning that Trumbo and Brandon Belt can both play either first base or the corner outfield. While defensive metrics show Belt to be a slightly below average outfielder over his career (in about 460 innings), Trumbo is essentially unplayable in the outfield, especially if he’ll be playing most of his games in the NL West, where many of the stadiums have very large outfields.

Additionally, while the defensive metrics view Trumbo as a positive at first base, Belt is also the superior defender there, averaging 3 more defensive runs saved per 1,000 innings than Trumbo (Trumbo trails in UZR/150 by 0.9). And while Belt doesn’t have the power that Trumbo does, he’s been the much better (and more consistent) hitter over the course of his career (Belt owns a career 128 wRC+ compared to Trumbo’s 106). Mark Trumbo is simply not a fit for the San Francisco Giants roster.

Realistically, a trade involving Mark Trumbo would likely be a salary dump returning no one of significant value, and definitely not a quality major league pitcher in my opinion. There are probably teams with bad contracts that the Orioles should be talking to, but I believe they’d be wasting their time with the Giants. A couple of weeks ago, Jon tweeted the following with respect to a potential Trumbo trade.
Like it or not, that’s probably the best Orioles can hope for this offseason.

20 November 2017

Jayson Aquino - Former Rockie, Blue Jay, Pirate, Indian, Cardinal, Oriole (?)

Joe Reisel's Archives

In every season Jayson Aquino has spent with a full-season team, he's been charged with ten or more losses. Photo courtesy of Steven Goldburg / Norfolk Tides

In a recent Depot article, Jon dismissed most of the 2017 Norfolk Tides starting pitchers as "a decent collection of AAA workhorses, but not exactly a [group from which]you feel comfortable bringing more than one player up." Having watched 52 Tides games at Norfolk's Harbor Park in 2017, I more or less agree with that statement, although I think it a little harsh. Gabriel Ynoa rebounded from a truly dreadful first half with an impressive second half, and I would like to see what he could do as a fifth starter. Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright have each pitched around 140 major-league innings. While that's probably not enough to prove that they can't be major-league pitchers (see 2009-2011 Chris Tillman), they've pitched poorly enough that they will only get another chance out of desperation (see 2012 Chris Tillman.) Most of the other pitchers the Tides trotted out to start games are, indeed, AAA roster filler.

With one exception. At age 20, Jayson Aquino was a top-ten prospect in the Colorado Rockies' system, upon which he went a combined 0-10 for Tri-Cities (short-season Class A) and Asheville (Class A.) Since then, he's been a fringy prospect, occasionally appearing toward the bottom of top-30 prospect lists and bouncing from team to team, ending up with the Orioles before the 2016 season. He spent most of 2016 at Bowie before getting a late-season promotion to Norfolk; overall, he pitched well enough to be in the 2017 Norfolk rotation.

In the aggregate, Aquino didn't pitch well. Neither his basic stats (3-10 record, 4.24 ERA, 41/89 BB/K ratio in 115 innings) nor more analytical measures (as detailed by Jon in his article) are impressive. However, in the 8 games I saw Aquino pitch I saw enough to suggest that he might be a usable major-league pitcher - not a star, not necessarily even a key member of a staff, but someone who could give a team 20 starts of acceptable performance. It's important to realize that we're not looking for perfection out of Aquino's starts, but merely reasonably good performance.

April 14 vs Charlotte - 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 SO

There's nothing negative about this performance at all. In the third inning, Aquino gave up two singles with one out but got Yoan Moncada to ground into a double play. The Knights scored their run in the fourth when Logan Schafer committed an error on an inning-ending fly ball that allowed Ryan Raburn to score from first. (The Tides' official scorer is more inclined than I to call borderline plays hits, rather than errors.) Aquino gave up a leadoff double in the fifth inning but stranded the runner at second base.

May 5 vs. Durham - 7 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 SO

This game is the first suggestion that there's more to Aquino than is apparent from the year-end summay line. In the second inning, Aquino gave up four runs to the Bulls on a walk, three singles, a sacrifice fly, and a double. .But he retired all nine batters he faced in the third, fourth, and fifth. In the sixth, he did give up a run on a walk, a swinging-bunt groundout, and a single. But in the seventh, he walked the first batter before picking him off and getting two groundouts. It's impressive that he righted himself after a bad inning and ended up with a line that isn't terrible. (That second inning raised his season ERA from 3.96 to 4.24.)

May 18 vs. Charlotte - 5 2/3 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 5 BB, 1 SO

Not a good performance. He gave up a walk and home run to the first two batters and put at least one man on base in almost every inning after that. But only one other run resulted from all those runners, as Aquino (and reliever Paul Fry, who finished the sixth inning) stranded eight Knights. If one is looking for a silver lining, the fact that the Knights had twelve baserunners (one reached on an error) in six innings and only scored three runs at least says that Aquino could work his way out of jams.

June 4 vs. Rochester - 6 2/3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 SO

Aquino pitched six shutout innings before weakening in the seventh. In those first six innings, the Red Wings only had one mild threat, when a two-out double put runners on second and third in the fifth inning. In the seventh, however, the first two batters singled - the second a soft fly ball to right field that fell in, allowing the runner on first to go to third - and the third batter hit a sacrifice fly. One out later, a triple scored the runner from first and knocked Aquino out of the game.

June 18 vs. Louisville - 8 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO

Aquino didn't pitch quite as well as the line indicates. The Tides' official scorer is overly generous to pitchers when determining if runs are unearned, and the run Aquino allowed could easily have been an earned run. Also, a batter-runner was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple. And the wind, at least at the start of the game, was blowing in from center field. Nevertheless, this was a good performance. 

July 25 vs. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre - 6 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 4 SO

Another game in which Aquino wasn't all that sharp, but with the help of his defense (2 double plays and a caught stealing) and his ability to avoid the big inning he was able to keep the opponents in check and his team in the game. The first two batters produced the first run on a double off the center-field wall and a single; the other two runs scored in the third when, with two outs, a walk was followed by a home run. Not a perfect performance, but not terrible either.

July 30 (Game 2) vs. Columbus - 5 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 5 BB, 3 SO

Aquino did not pitch well in this game. In the second inning, a batter-runner was thrown out trying for an inside-the-park home run. The Clippers scored all four runs in the third inning, on two doubles, two singles, a home run, and a walk; they could have scored more except for a fine play on a line drive by shortstop Luis Sardinas. Again, in the two innings Aquino pitched after that four-run third he avoided serious trouble and allowed no more runs.

August 31 vs. Gwinnett - 4 2/3 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO

The Tides' played a very sloppy last home game of 2017, and Aquino didn't pitch well - although he probably deserved better results than he got. After pitching two scoreless innings, he gave up a three-run home run in the third. He should have gotten out of the fourth inning 1-2-3, but with two outs third baseman Sardinas dropped a routine pop fly. Aquino struck out the next batter, but Francisco Pena was unable to block the third strike and the runner reached on a wild pitch. An infield single followed by a wild throw led to one run, and ultimately four runs scored in that inning. Another run scored in the fifth before Aquino was lifted.

From these eight games, there a two major reasons why I think Jayson Aquino would be capable of handling a low-level position in a starting rotation. First, none of these eight games were true "disaster starts" in which there is nothing positive to report. Indeed, of all his starts - including those I didn't see - in only two did he not pitch at least four innings (in one of which he was pulled early to save him for a promotion.) And second, he was always able to rebound and pitch well after he enduring a big inning.

Again, I am in no way suggesting that Jayson Aquino is going to be a star or even an important major-league pitcher. I'm not even saying the Orioles were wrong to let him explore minor-league free agency while awarding spots to Alec Asher, Stefan Crichton, Chris Lee, Yefry Ramirez, or Jimmy Yacabonis. I am saying that Jayson Aquino deserves a real shot at a major-league job, perhaps in what I would call the T.J. McFarland role; and, if I were a bad team trying to get through the season (such as the Tigers, White Sox, or Athletics), I would offer Aquino a real chance to be the #5 starter.

Actually, I must confess the real reason I like Jayson Aquino as the pitcher. In that April 14 start, Yoan Moncada - the White Sox second base prospect who was seemingly regarded as the greatest prospect since sliced bread - was in the lineup. Aquino's command and control of breaking stuff made Moncada look like an overmatched high schooler. I know that we're suppose to ignore such individual plate appearances when evaluating players, but I won't. Any pitcher who can make a Yoan Moncada look that bad has got something to offer.

19 November 2017

The Orioles Are Interested In Being Interested

One constant among nearly every MLB offseason is that the Orioles are going to be interested in lots of players. That has no bearing on whether they'll actually follow through, of course. The O's are the department store customer who's not only just browsing, but who really has no desire to purchase anything that's not on the discount rack. If you're familiar with the pros and cons of free agency, that's not a horrible strategy. Still, the annual charade can be exhausting (though mildly amusing).

Just check out which players the Orioles are reportedly "interested in" in the past couple weeks:
There will be more. Still, it makes sense that the Orioles would have interest in the tier of starting pitchers under Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. Even though O's ownership likely wouldn't be thrilled with another four-year deal near or above the $50 million it took to sign Ubaldo Jimenez, if they want to bring aboard the services of Cobb or Lynn or maybe even Chatwood, it could take something close.

The Orioles always cast a wide net in their free agent search, but it's one that's filled with holes. Dan Duquette would probably tell you the O's target potential bargains who slip through the cracks; as O's fans have learned, those players often slip through for a reason.

The O's have found success using these strategies in the Duquette/Buck Showalter era, but they need real help in the starting rotation. Sometimes you can't get around paying what actual upgrades cost. And, well, if you do, you might end up selling Vargas and Tillman as the main upgrades to a rotation that's destined to fail again - and in perhaps the final seasons that Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Zach Britton will be in Baltimore.

16 November 2017

Cup of jO's: Tyler Chatwood's Batted Balls

Previously, I had noted that Tyler Chatwood was a serious diamond in the rough kind of potential arm that appeared to be overlooked.  Since then, there has been a few predictions as to how much he would cost.
MLB Trade Rumors: 3/20
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs: 3/30
and, our own,
BORAS: 4/41
BORAS, of course, had some conditional prognostication.  If BORAS projected out all of his games at Coors Field as full season performances, Chatwood would be worth only a non-roster invite.  However, BORAS projected a full season on the road as being worth a six year deal at 24 MM per year.  In other words, Chatwood performed like a backend 2017 Orioles starting pitcher these past two seasons at Coors field and on the road he did an impression of a shade below Clayton Kershaw.

National writer Keith Law quibbles with that outlook:
Chatwood had much better results on the road (3.69 ERA), but it was all results on balls in play, as his walk, strikeout and home run rates were close to even, and he doesn't get left-handed hitters out anywhere.
That seems to be a bit unfair.  Let us look at performance over 2016 and 2017 against left handed hitters.
Tyler Chatwood* 212/308/383, .301 wOBA (16th of 84)
Sonny Gray 247/309/386, .301 wOBA (16th)
Danny Salazar 220/314/393, .302 wOBA (19th)
Max Scherzer 227/307/419, .312 wOBA (27th)
Yu Darvish 242/307/412, .309 wOBA (24th)
Jake Arrieta 227/325/396, .313 wOBA (29th)
Dylan Bundy 259/319/446, .326 wOBA (43rd)
Ubaldo Jimenez 293/372/559, .392 wOBA (84th)
* - Only considering performance against left handed hitter on the road.
This stellar performance should be expected.  Chatwood's curve drops a stunning 4.2 more inches when on the road and ranks as one of the highest spin rates in baseball.  A curveball with a high spin rate results in a lot of soft contact.  So, this really looks like a pitcher whose offerings improve considerably on the road in ways that can be explained with what we know about pitching.

I maintain that everyone should be clamoring for him.

15 November 2017

How Did Adam Jones Turn Things Around?

Even if you were the biggest Adam Jones fan in the world, you were still met with this fact before the start of the 2017 season: His offensive production was slipping. In pretty steady fashion, Jones's production decreased in each season since 2012 (his best offensive year):

2012: 127 wRC+
2013: 119 wRC+
2014: 117 wRC+
2015: 111 wRC+
2016: 97 wRC+
Data via FanGraphs

As is often the case, you could partially explain Jones's subpar 2016 numbers on injuries. In April of that season, he missed some time with a ribcage injury. Later in the year, he also missed some time with back and hamstring injuries. It's hard to know if those injuries affected him more than in other years, because he rarely seems to miss much time. In fact, Jones hasn't been on the disabled list since September of 2009, when a sprained ankle ended his season. That's hard to believe. Jones has played in at least 137 games in every season since 2009. Of course Jones gets hurt, but he just seems to deal with it and keep moving along. You know, by staying hungry.

In 2017, Jones bucked the trend and increased his offensive output. His wRC+ increased by 10 points, to 107. His BABIP, a career low .280 in 2016, fortuitously jumped back up to .312. He hit three fewer home runs than the year before, but managed to hit nine more doubles.

After seeing those numbers, I expected that Jones hit the ball harder in 2017. But he didn't. Let's look at some Statcast data for the last few seasons:

2015: 87.7 avg. exit velocity (t-242), 176 avg. distance (t-194)
2016: 88.3 avg. exit velocity (t-219), 183 avg. distance (t-146)
2017: 86.6 avg. exit velocity (t-270), 167 avg. distance (t-289)
Data via Baseball Savant

OK, so that's a little surprising, and isn't all that encouraging.

Let's keep digging. Jones still struck out in the 17-18% range, which he's done since 2015. He hit the ball on the ground a bit more than the previous season, and his fly ball percentage dipped as well (for the first time since 2013). How about his distribution of balls in play? In 2017, he pulled the ball about 41% of the time. There's nothing out of the ordinary there. But Jones didn't hit the ball up the middle as much (about 30%) and instead served the ball to right field more (about 29% of the time). It was his highest mark since 2010.

So Jones didn't hit the ball harder, but he did hit it on the ground a little more and punch more balls to right field. Not hitting the ball hard and pulling the ball less isn't a great sign, but it does represent him making the most of the current abilities. His plate discipline changes also reflect that. Jones has always chased a lot of pitches, and that was still the case this past season. While he dialed back his overall swing percentage, there's something more noticeable: His contact rates improved.

Picture an Adam Jones strikeout. Most likely, it involves him chasing a slider down and away. This season, though, while Jones chased just as many pitches, he made contact on 68.5% of them. In 2017, the average major league batter made contact on out-of-zone pitches 62.7% of the time (better than Jones's career average). Jones's previous-best O-Contact% of 64.3% came all the way back in 2008.

Last season, Jones finished tied for 50th in O-Contact% (among all qualified batters). In 2016, Jones finished just 104th. In 2015, he was only 89th.

Does all of this mean Jones is now a contact hitter? Not exactly, but he has sort of been trending in that direction and is closer to the middle of the pack. He's never walked much, and in an era when lots of hitters strike out frequently, he's a few percentage points below the major league average. That's not because he's patient, but because he'll swing early and often. And maybe he'll be able to do things like this:

Or like this:

A little more often.

Or maybe not. Players' ascent and deterioration don't always happen in linear fashion, which is part of what made Jones's yearly slips frustrating. Anyway, he might not hit 30 home runs again, but if he's truly improved his skills to foul off bad pitches and earn himself better ones, or to fight off tough pitches and have some of them drop in instead of him whiffing, then he might be able to stave off his decline for a couple more seasons. At 32, Jones has a lot of wear and tear, but I don't think anyone would say he's done just yet.

14 November 2017

Orioles Should Target These Starting Pitchers for Norfolk Depth

In years past, I noted how an important aspect of constructing a solid MLB roster is to have flexibility in the MLB roster where players can be shifted around to no negative effect and all to have a few guys on the farm who can step in without being a disaster.  While it may seem like the Orioles suffered with a rotating cast of starting pitchers, they really did not come from the farm.  The actual starting rotation remained fairly healthy and threw the first pitch often.  Let's look back over the years at the top three contributors to the rotation from the farm.

2012 239 4.47
2013 132.2 5.13
2014 118.7 4.43
2015 167 3.34
2016 157.1 5.53
2017 61 4.33

Most impressive was the 2012 performance where more than one starting pitcher's worth of innings was needed to fill the void.  That year, of course, saw the emergence of Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez as legitimate rotation arms.  2015 also saw a mighty impressive performance from Kevin Gausman as the sixth arm with a 100.1 strong innings (4.00 FIP).  Seen as a whole, having a reliable 6th, 7th and even 8th pitcher is important because one or two starting pitchers is bound to get hurt enough to visit the disabled list (or having a strong supporting rotation lets a pitcher go on the DL in the first place.

2017, the starting rotation was pretty much a disaster.  The club flirted around with having the worst ERA- in team history, but fell short at 129 (1991 Orioles are the worst with a 132 ERA-).  If you want a larger focus, then the 2017 starting rotation, since 1954, was the 24th worst starting rotation ever.  What might be more interesting is that it was done with an incredibly healthy starting rotation with only 61 innings needed from the farm.  While contractual obligations limited the kinds of moves the Orioles could make, it was pretty apparent that the farm offered little that was appreciably better than what the starting rotation currently employed.

The short of it is, the club needs a strong AAA pitching staff.  And, well, that is not what is currently present at Norfolk. Assuming that the Orioles have Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and three external solutions to the starting rotation, then Norfolk's current rotation looks like: Alec Asher, Jordan Kipper, David Hess, John Means, and Yefry Ramirez.  That is a decent collection of AAA workhorses, but not exactly a situation where you feel comfortable bringing more than one player up.  Asher may be needed for a bullpen role and that really leaves you with some stretches who have not shown enough performance at AAA or, even, AA to provide much confidence.

With that in mind, if I ran the Orioles, I would want to add two more rotation talents whom I would have slightly more confidence in as not being complete losses at the MLB level who would be added to David Hess, Yefry Ramirez, and probably Alec Asher.  The others would work on things down at Bowie.  Existing arms like Christopher Lee and Brandon Barker would see various roles emerging from the bullpen.

Minor League Free Agents
When I sit back and think about the kinds of pitcher to target as rotation depth, I consider a couple things.  I would want someone who is in the top half of starting pitchers at the MiL AAA level for swinging strikes and for DRA.  Second, I want them as young as possible.  That really is it.

Who is on that list who is also a MiL free agent?
Ryan Carpenter, LHP
David Hurlbut, LHP
Drew Hutchison, RHP 
Ryan Carpenter, LHP (26 yo)
DRA: 2.39
Swinging Strike %: 10.7%

Carpenter was never considered much of a prospect.  He is a control guy who mixes in decent enough fastball, changeup, and curve.  Carpenter shines a bit more than Hurlbut and Hutchison.  While they barely made both cutoff marks, Carpenter had one of the best DRAs and a slightly higher swinging strike rate.  The optimistic wrinkle is that around the mid-season mark, Carpenter added a slider to his pitches and saw his season turn around.  His first half saw him pitch to a 5.15 ERA and his second half, with the slider, when down to 3.37.

That said, the Rockies apparently did not see enough of an upside and let him go.  I think the ceiling on him is perhaps a better T.J. McFarland if it all works out.  McFarland was a lefty who showed no handedness advantage and was just a hair away from being a useful swing man.  Carpenter might be able to be a hair better than McFarland.  That would be useful.

David Hurlbut. LHP (27 yo)
DRA: 3.95
Swinging Strike %: 10.3%

Hurlbut looks like a lesser Carpenter.  He too had a rebirth in the second half of the season.  Actually, it was really just one horrific May outing.  He does not see much of an improvement against lefties and gets by on three average pitches, but he locates them well and seems to have enough deception in his delivery to make guys miss.

However, twice drafted by the Twins and in the Twins' system these past 6+ years, Hurlbut has been aggressively average.  He has never exactly looked good at any level, but holds his own with some thinking that perhaps a breakout is possible.  It appears that the Twins have given up on that breakout and with his inability to be a LOOGY he does not have much of a safety net.

Drew Hutchison, RHP (26 yo)
DRA: 3.97
Swinging Strike %: 10.2%

Until sometime in 2015, Hutchison was considered a future workhorse for the Toronto Blue Jays.  It all came crashing down.  Teams started hitting him hard; especially the teams that were able to stack up powerful lefties.  The Pirates thought they could turn him around and dealt out a wobbly and expensive Francisco Liriano, past prospect Reese McGuire, and stalling prospect Harold Ramirez.  There have not been any clear winners there, but the Blue Jays might get something out of McGuire and the wobbly Liriano remained wobbly, but was able to fetch the unexpectedly excellent Teoscar Hernandez from the Astros this past year.

Anyway, the Pirates could not fully right the ship.  They were able to improve him from being horrendous against southpaws to acceptable, but he could not crack a non-playoff Pirates roster.  That said, he would have surely appeared in Baltimore last year.

Are these guys better than the batch last year?
At the levels at which the three above performed, yes.

DRA SwgSt%
Tyler Wilson 6.20 7.9%
Gabriel Ynoa 5.52 8.3%
Jayson Aquino 4.65 10.3%
Mike Wright 4.31 9.5%
Jordan Kipper 4.94 5.6%
Alec Asher 5.97 6.9%

Kipper's 5.6% mark was the worst swinging strike rate in the International League for pitchers with 50 or more innings pitched.  Asher and Wilson were not far behind.  Only Aquino had an above average rate.  As far as DRA is concerned, none of the Norfolk rotation appeared as average or better.  Now, Ynoa is already gone--to Tampa.  [Ed. note: Vidal Nuno signed a minor-league deal with the Rays. Ynoa is still with Baltimore. We regret the error.] Wilson and Aquino are minor league free agents.  Wright and Asher are on the roster bubble with Asher having one more option remaining.  Kipper, I believe, is Rule 5 eligible, but that kind of performance would make many teams question as to how he could get through an MLB lineup with such hittable offerings.

I could understand bringing back Aquino, but I would prefer someone whose peripherals are slightly better. Yes, Aquino is a year or three younger then the three arms I identified, but youth is not all.  There has to be another gear that can get him to perform well enough at the MLB level.  Regardless, last year AAA SP performance was poor and it appears the best way to move forward is with some new blood.

10 November 2017

Caleb Joseph Is The Favorite To Start Now, And That's More Than Fine

It's clear by now that the biggest concern for the Orioles roster is the lack of starting pitching options. If the O's don't do anything significant to fix the rotation, then maybe none of the rest of the roster issues really matter that much. Still, the O's could use a defensive outfielder and an upgrade at utility infielder, with maybe one or both hopefully being decent left-handed bats. They could also try to part ways with Mark Trumbo to create some lineup flexibility, but that won't be easy.

But even though Welington Castillo predictably declined his $7 million player option for 2018, catcher is not a position the O's really have to fret about. That's because they have Caleb Joseph.

Joseph doesn't have Castillo's prowess with the bat, but he's far from a disaster. Besides a disastrous, RBI-less 2016 campaign that included a painful injury that certain O's beat reporters were rarely hesitant to mention, Joseph has mostly been around the MLB average mark for catchers.

Caleb Joseph wRC+ (and MLB average wRC+ for catchers)
2014: 71 (93)
2015: 88 (85)
2016: 8 (87)
2017: 82 (89)
Data via FanGraphs

You might not be thrilled with that. But combined with what Joseph brings to the table defensively, a league average bat is more than acceptable.

By DRS data, Joseph has been a highly touted defender behind the plate in his four seasons (+32 from 2014-2017). He's been above average overall in terms of throwing out opposing baserunners, though he was below average last season (though, to be fair, he did have to catch nearly 30 more innings of Ubaldo Jimenez, who's notoriously slow to the plate and easier to steal off of). He's also been a strong pitch-caller and good at blocking pitches in the dirt.

FanGraphs does not use UZR to measure catcher defense and instead lists DRS data. And while DRS data does apparently factor in "handling of the pitching staff via things like pitch framing and pitch calling," it's not as well regarded as framing data at Baseball Prospectus. Here's how Joseph ranks in FRAA (framing runs above average):

Caleb Joseph framing runs above average
2014: 15.2 (7th)
2015: 10.8 (11th)
2016: 7.8 (13th)
2017: 13.1 (8th)
Data via Baseball Prospectus

He's not the best, but he's pretty good and is clearly above average when it comes to adding extra strikes for his battery mate.

Considering everything, it's not surprising that BP lists Joseph as being worth more in his four seasons (5.8 WARP) than Baseball-Reference (4.1 bWAR) and FanGraphs (1.7 fWAR). Even if pitch framing is becoming a skill that's more difficult to carry over from year to year, Joseph has stayed pretty consistent in his career. And if he's able to maintain that level of production the next few years, all the better.

In Joseph, the Orioles have a good pitch-framer with good enough throwing, blocking, and hitting skills who is under team control for three more seasons. He made $700,000 last season after losing to the O's in arbitration, and as a Super Two player, he still has three more arbitration years remaining.

The O's are likely to have a patchwork pitching staff next year and beyond, and it won't hurt to have someone behind the plate for 100 or so games to aid their hurlers a bit. And even if pitch framing is not something that's easy to teach, it couldn't hurt Chance Sisco's defensive development as the backup to hopefully learn something from Joseph. Maybe that's wishful thinking, and of course there's no way of knowing what exactly Sisco will offer in 2017 (surely more offensively than defensively), but a Joseph-Sisco tandem could be a good and interesting combination.

09 November 2017

Orioles 2018 Blueprint Follow-Up: Why I Decided to Non-Tender Zach Britton

Zach Britton (photo via Keith Allison)
A couple of weeks ago, some of the writers here at Camden Depot went through our annual exercise of outlining our vision of how the Orioles should approach the offseason. My blueprint was the first to be published, and within it, I made the somewhat controversial decision to non-tender Baltimore closer Zach Britton. By doing so, the move saved me $12.2 million in payroll, but significantly weakened my proposed bullpen. For our fictional exercise, I thought the move was necessary to make the club as competitive as it could be for the 2018. And instead of getting into all of the reasons as to why I thought it was best to non-tender Britton within that piece (essentially inserting 1,000+ word tangent), I promised that I would post a follow up article detailing my reasons for doing so. Well, here it is.

With one more season of Manny Machado and Adam Jones, I wanted to put the best team possible on the field to compete in 2018, without much consideration as to what the team would look like in the following season. To do accomplish that, the two main things I was focused on in my blueprint was strengthening the bench with players who could play multiple positions and remaking the starting rotation. A more complete bench was the easy task, and in my view that goal was accomplished by signing Jon Jay, Howie Kendrick, and Cliff Pennington.

There is no getting around the fact that the 2017 Baltimore starting rotation was terrible. The only good thing about them was that the 3 worst performers were all going to be free agents.

2017 Baltimore Orioles SP Ranks
Like many of the other writers, I believed the lack of quality starting pitchers in the minor league system meant that it was essential to sign at least 3 starting pitchers. I believed that the only way to significantly improve the rotation was to get the best starting pitcher available, and in my mind that was Yu Darvish. With Darvish costing $17.3 million per year (and considering all the other areas this team needed to improve as well as a limited budget), my decision essentially boiled down to whether I would want Britton or Darvish. I chose Darvish.

The main reason I felt why I ad to go with Darvish was due to just how BAD the Orioles starting rotation was in 2017/could be in 2018. The Orioles have proven that they don’t need a great rotation to be successful and make the playoffs. However, the 2017 rotation was so bad (combined with the lack of internal options), I believed that anything less than Darvish would be applying a band-aid to a wound that required 40 stitches. And while he’s looked at as an injury risk, he’s coming off a sub-par season, where he was still worth 3.5 fWAR (3.9 bWAR). He’s averaged 4.1 fWAR (4.2 bWAR) per 180 IP over the course of his career. To put that into perspective, the Orioles haven’t had a starting pitcher eclipse the 3.0 fWAR mark since Erik Bedard did it in 2006 (4.6) and 2007 (5.0).

Comparing average Yu Darvish against Zach Britton at his absolute best (2.5 fWAR during the 2016 season), the Orioles get an additional 1.6 wins for the added cost of $5 million. I realize that Darvish would come with an additional 3 years of commitment according to our BORAS projection system, but as I mentioned, I was only concerned with 2018. Granted that average Darvish versus the best Britton argument doesn’t work when using bWAR bWAR (which based on run prevention instead of FIP), but what is the likelihood we see 2016 Britton again in 2018? It’s not impossible, but coming off an injury-plagued season with good (but not great) numbers, I think it’s highly unlikely.

Britton missed most of May, all of June, and the beginning of July due to a strained left forearm. He was then shut down for the rest of the season after his September 18th appearance due to an MCL sprain in his left knee, an injury that was serious enough for him to receive a stem cell injection. When he did pitch, he was effective, but certainly not his usual self, finishing with career worst strikeout and walk rates (since being transitioned to the bullpen full time).

Obviously I don’t know exactly how bad either of those injuries are, but that forearm injury (combined with his performance) was a big reason why teams weren’t offering a trade package the Orioles liked at the deadline. Along with the knee injury, he didn’t do anything the last two months of the season to bring his trade value back up. When you combine the injuries, the performance, and the assumption that he’ll make $12.2 million in his 4th and final year of arbitration, I don’t believe that he has much trade value. This kind of torpedoes the idea of tendering him a contract and trading him later in the offseason. If the Orioles couldn’t find an attractive offer at the 2017 trade deadline, they’re certainly not going to find a better one this offseason. Furthermore, I don’t think his value will be that high at the 2018 trade deadline if the Orioles are out of it. The only way the Orioles get a good package for him is if he pitches like he did in 2016 again and there’s a desperate contender who needs a closer. Again, that scenario is possible, just not probable.

The need to greatly improve the starting rotation, combined with the injury questions and decreased trade value of Zach Britton, led to my decision to non-tender him. I ultimately thought the $12.2 million saved could be better spent to make the team better in 2018. So if I were actually sitting in the GM chair in real life, would I still take the same course of action? Probably not (actually, almost definitely not).

For the purposes of our blueprint exercise, I stand by my decision. But I don’t think it’s a smart one to make in real life. And that’s not because the fans would probably be pissed about non-tendering a favorite (although that should be given consideration as well). The real reason you don’t non-tender Zach Britton is because it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be able to reinvest those savings into players that will improve the team. The readers who commented on my blueprint started to hit on this topic a bit. Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, and all of the other players we proposed to sign are human beings. They have a choice of where they want to play. If they don’t want to play in Baltimore, they’re not going to sign with Baltimore. The blueprint exercise takes that choice away from them. Non-tendering Britton in real life could very possibly yield a team without Zach Britton and an extra $12.2 million. That may be ok for the owners of the team, but from the perspective of being competitive, the Orioles would be decidedly worse off.