28 February 2018

Should Pedro Alvarez Just Be The DH?

The Orioles can never have enough 1B/DH types, so it's no surprise that Pedro Alvarez is back with the O's on a minor league deal. Let's have some fun with it.

Imagine for a moment that Mark Trumbo didn't have two years and $26 million left on his contract. If you had to pick between Trumbo and Alvarez as to who'd have the better numbers as the O's DH in 2018, who would you choose? I asked this very question in a Twitter poll on Sunday. You may be surprised with the results:
It's not so crazy, though! The two players' Steamer and ZiPS projections are close: 105 and 101 wRC+, respectively, for Trumbo, and 112 (!) and 98 for Alvarez. Trumbo is 32 years old and has a career 106 wRC+; Alvarez is 31 and has a career 107 wRC+.

As Jon and others have discussed numerous times on this site, the knock on Trumbo is that he's a bad outfielder who struggles when he's forced to DH. He could play first base on another team, but the Orioles have Chris Davis locked into that position. That means Trumbo is likely to see the bulk of his at-bats as a DH. In his playing career, that hasn't gone well:

Trumbo career DH: 88 wRC+
Trumbo career non-DH: 112 wRC+

Have things been better recently? No. Trumbo has been with the Orioles since 2016, and in his two seasons in Baltimore, he has a 81 wRC+ as a DH (713 PA) and a 133 wRC+ as a position player (554 PA). (For reference, the MLB average DH had a wRC+ of 94 last year.)

For Alvarez, the opposite has been the case. He's performed much better as a DH:

Alvarez career DH: 124 wRC+
Alvarez career non-DH: 107 wRC+

Most of Alvarez's DH work has come with the Orioles, and his DH numbers look even better when counting just the 2016 and 2017 seasons: 129 wRC+ (360 PA). In his 31 non-DH plate appearances, Alvarez has a 73 wRC+.

Career wise, Trumbo has more than 1,000 plate appearances as a DH while Alvarez has just over 400, so the case is stronger that Trumbo hits worse as a DH than it is that Alvarez is much better as a DH. Also, of Alvarez's 410 plate appearances with the O's, 365 have come against right-handed pitching, while just 45 have been against lefties. In his career, Alvarez has a 117 wRC+ against right-handed pitching but a wRC+ of only 70 against southpaws. Trumbo, meanwhile, has not been used as a platoon bat.

So what matters more: Trumbo's shortcomings as a DH, or Alvarez's struggles against left-handed pitching? Probably Trumbo's DH issues, especially since, if Alvarez were the main DH option, the O's could opt to use a right-handed hitter at DH when the O's face a lefty. (That could give some regulars a rest from playing the field that day.) It's tough to get around carrying a DH who's not going to hit as well.

Back to reality. Trumbo does indeed have $26 million left on his deal, and if another team wanted to take him and his salary off the O's hands, it maybe would have happened already. (And it looks less likely now that someone like Logan Morrison had to settle for a one-year, $6.5 million deal with a 2019 vesting option.) Still, if the O's could find a taker for Trumbo's remaining salary (or even, improbably, eat some of it) and then use Alvarez as the main DH, would you do it?

27 February 2018

Gausman is Finding His Inner Tanaka

Kevin Gausman is a stud.  That is how he has been viewed for a long time.  He looked like a polished strong mid-rotation arm coming out of LSU.  In the minors, he overpowered batters with his fastball command and splitter.  In the majors, there are moments or streaks where his fastball and splitter are riding hot while he also drops a fairly respectable curve or slider (depending on the year).  However, those moments and streaks are not common enough for Gausman to be mentioned as a top of the rotation arm or even a mid-rotation arm for any club with serious playoff consideration.

This issue with Gausman is not a new concern.  His breaking balls were always more about potential than where the stood in the moment.  He doesn't get tight spin and he doesn't get much consistency in that spin.  He largely has no feel for the pitch and uses it more as a show me, change of pace offering.  That means his effectiveness is dependent upon pitch movement that runs away from a left hander or into a right hander.  For a right handed pitcher, that often means limited movement of pitches that largely stay in the same plane for a batter.  In other words, Gausman is always playing around the barrel of the bat.

Above you can see a generic chart for what pitches tend to do.  Sliders and curveballs, even cutters, can break away from a right handed hitter with varying downward movement.  The two plane movement helps a pitcher avoid the bat and maybe even the barrel.  Gausman's best pitches come in that top quartile where the movement varies mostly in the vertical, which means if anything flattens out it might well go pretty far.

It is a fairly unique way for a pitcher to pitch.  In fact, here is a list of starting pitchers over the past five years who have thrown both four seamers and splitters for 60% or more of their pitches.
Name FA% FS% Sum
Kevin Gausman 65 15 80
Taijuan Walker 59 16 75
Jorge de la Rosa 34 31 65
Jake Odorizzi 42 22 64
Nathan Eovaldi 53 9 62
The fact that this combination is so rare among starting pitchers suggests that it is simply hard to do this and be successful.  There is a long list of pitchers who are four seam fastball and changeup style pitchers who have been quite lauded, but never lived up to their enormous prospect hype. Dewon Brazleton comes to mind.  When they do appear, like Rich Harden or Johan Santana, their changeup is a more traditional offering than a splitter.  That said, it is a rare combination with respect to finding great success.

Gausman says his curveball is in excellent shape this year, which is something that it feels like we hear every year before the regular season begins and everything unravels.  What is interesting is that he also noted that he picked up a new sinker grip from new Oriole Andrew Cashner.  The piece in that links notes that Cashner's sinker tails into right handers and away from left handers, which all sinkers do (unless you are Charlie Morton).  That pitch may help Gausman, but he is still working that top left quadrant.

Last year, Cashner's sinker came in at -8.2 inches horizontal movement (2.8 inches off his four seamer) and 7.6 inches vertical movement (2 inches below his four seamer).  Gausman's old sinker (he did not throw one last year) had a similar -8.2 inches horizontal movement (same horizontal movement as his four seamer last year) and a similar 7.5 inches vertical movement (about two inches different than his fastball.  The difference primarily is that Gausman has a really good boring four seam fastball that took away an axis of movement with his sinker.  If he could get a little more movement from his sinker then it could be a multiplanar pitch working off his fastball instead of one that sees two more inches of drop.

If it were to become a solid offering, then he would be spending a lot of time with his four seamer, splitter, and sinker.  This is a combination, again, that is not very common in the MLB.  You tend to see this combination in aging pitchers who are moving off their four seamer due to decreased velocity and over to a splitter.  In this circumstances, you see a good bit of a 10/10/50 lean where the pitcher surprises a batter with a four seamer or two seamer while subsisting on the splitter.  Mike Pelfrey and Tim Hudson are two examples.

However, it is a pitch set that you do see in a group of pitcher who share one thing in common: growing up in the Japanese baseball system.
Fav FA% FS% SI%
Hisashi Iwakuma 89 27 21 24
Masahiro Tanaka 92 16 26 20
Hiroki Kuroda 91 7 23 41
Kuroda can probably be knocked out of this grouping, but Iwakuma and Tanaka fit well.  In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a start who came up through the American system to show this style of pitching.  Pelfrey, Hudson, and Anibel Sanchez are the only regular starting pitchers over the past five years to use these three pitches more than 10% of the time.  Gausman also differs quite a bit from any of these pitchers in that he has a truly plus fastball.  These other pitchers fit more in a crafty veteran style.

It will be interesting to see if Gausman can come up with a decent sinker that profiles with more contrast with his four seamer.  Other pitchers have certainly found success with this mix.  Although, it may well be something that has not been a style for MLB raised pitchers for quite a long time.

26 February 2018

The Orioles Have Room To Improve At Many Positions

The Orioles, overall, weren't good last year. They started the season hot, faded, then somehow battled back to make things interesting in late August (68-65 on the 30th) before really fading and losing 22 of their remaining 29 games. Their end-of-season record (75-87) was tied for third-worst in the American League. Their run differential of -98 was also third-worst.

Still, the 2017 Orioles had their moments, and there's some hope that Buck Showalter can right the ship for one last hurrah. You might see how it could happen. It's easy to point out the current flaws with the O's roster, but talking up the best of some of their key (and well-paid) players who had down seasons is possible.

That's important, because just look where the O's ranked in FanGraphs' wins above replacement at every position last year:

AL Ranks
C: 3.7 (2nd)
1B: 1.4 (9th)
2B: 3.7 (4th)
SS: 1.1 (12th)
3B: 2.7 (7th)
LF: 0.1 (14th)
CF: 1.4 (12th)
RF: 1.2 (13th)
DH: -1.4 (t-10th)
SP: 5.5 (t-13th)
RP: 2.3 (t-11th)

Other than catcher and second base, there wasn't much to get excited about. And now, Welington Castillo and his 2.8 fWAR are gone. Fortunately, Caleb Joseph is in line for more work and might be underappreciated by FanGraphs' metric. Baseball Prospectus' WARP, which factors in the well-regarded FRAA to better account for catcher framing, had Joseph much closer to Castillo (2.8-2.1) despite about 100 fewer plate appearances. Throw in some upside from Chance Sisco (though there may be less now with him dropping in top-100 lists) and things don't look so bad at catcher.

The list of O's players who underwhelmed last year is long: Manny Machado (102 wRC+), Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith (gone), Wade Miley (gone), Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez (gone), Jeremy Hellickson (gone), Chris Tillman, and plenty of fringe major league pitching options. Try painting a picture of the O's competing for a playoff spot without Machado, Davis, Trumbo, Gausman, and Tillman performing much better. It's almost impossible.

Maybe Gausman and Dylan Bundy put things together next season and get needed support from Andrew Cashner, Tillman, and Nestor Cortes, or Miguel Castro, or Mike Wright, or Gabriel Ynoa, or someone else. Maybe the O's even use some of their (assumed) payroll room and upgrade the rotation. Maybe Zach Britton comes back feeling well in June and gives the bullpen a shot in the arm. Maybe Machado, Davis, and Trumbo start mashing again -- and things look even better when Jonathan Schoop, Trey Mancini, and Tim Beckham keep hitting. Maybe Austin Hays is the real deal or Colby Rasmus bounces back in a major way -- or both! And maybe Adam Jones turns back the clock for another year.

You might not buy into this team. I don't, really, but that's also not the first time that's been the case and I've been wrong. Spring training is a time for hope, and it's fun to envision one more run for this group of players.

23 February 2018

Where is Dan Duquette? or Is this Brady, Year One?

Who is in Charge?
It is blurry.
There is an idea that takes all sorts of forms: Dan Duquette is not really the head of the Baltimore Orioles operations.  The arguments vary.  One is the well-tread idea that Duquette is playing out the string that Andy MacPhail spun.  The other that we have yet to really explore here is that, what one rival executive once told me, "the two-headed monster in Baltimore" is going through a process where one head is atrophying.  What was once an equal partnership has gradually faded into something quite uneven with Buck Showalter and, perhaps, Brady Anderson taking over the organization.

In years past, much of the credit for overriding Duquette was placed at the hands of Peter Angelos.  As you may remember, when Chris Davis' last team control season winded down in September, Angelos made a rare public comment about how important it was to re-sign Davis.  As the off season dragged on and Davis was deep into negotiations with the Tigers, supposedly Angelos gave Duquette some wiggle room.  If they failed in signing Davis, the money could be allotted to Justin Upton.  However, baseball folks in Detroit convinced their owner to let go of Davis and sign Upton.  Davis then quickly signed a much deferred and option-less deal in Baltimore.

Much more publicized was Brady Anderson's involvement in re-signing two other major allotments over what seemed to be against Duquette's preference.  Anderson was key in the negotiations between the club and Darren O'Day, stealing him at the last moment from the Washington Nationals.  Fast forward, and Anderson was key in finally convincing Mark Trumbo to return to the club.  The Trumbo deal was rumored to have been connected to Buck Showalter's desire to beef up their designated hitter position, a role in which Trumbo has largely failed in his entire career, than to leave that to Trey Mancini who is an ill fit in left field.

That leaves us with this season where every acquisition has been more closely linked to Buck or Brady than Duquette.  Andrew Cashner, a long-time Buck Showalter favorite, was someone who Brady Anderson was in direct contact with since November.  The same is true with Chris Tillman.  Finally, the Colby Rasmus announcement appeared to be devoid of Duquette with Rasmus extolling the virtues of Buck Showalter.

As always, it is hard to tell where the Orioles leadership begins or ends.  Nothing concrete, but rumors did suggest that the Manny Machado trade discussions may have not been conducted by Duquette either.  One gets the creeping and nonsensical idea that Duquette is basically left out of the decision making that has largely taken place this off season.  It may well be that that the Machado rumor is false and that these minor deals are considered minor by the front office, so Duquette lets his competing forces in the front office and clubhouse have those responsibilities while he tries to fill a major ticket item or two.

However, players are getting signed.  Big ticket items are no longer plentiful.  Rotation slots are all locked up except for one.  If last year was a sustainable budget, the Orioles have 30-35 MM left to spend.  Maybe Duquette is targetting Lance Lynn and Mike Moustakas, but they are doing everything they can to make the press report that the club is not interested in those segments of the market.

So, what is left?  I do not know.

22 February 2018

The Orioles Aren't Rebuilding, But They're Not Reloading Either

It's a normal response to frequently ask what the Orioles are doing. They don't operate like other teams, and they don't often do what you want them to. Sometimes that's good, and it has led to wonderfully unexpected things in the Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette era. Hopefully you didn't overlook the return to relevancy.

Regardless, this offseason has been a disaster for the Orioles. The O's weren't open to trading franchise player and soon-to-be-free-agent Manny Machado, but then soon after the Yankees acquired Giancarlo Stanton, that changed. The O's entertained offers, but they never received one that was enticing enough to pull the trigger. They were also at least willing to discuss a trade for Zach Britton. In late December, Britton ruptured his right Achilles' tendon and will miss a chunk of the season.

There's a lot more, of course. Important players are entering the final year of their deals. Contract extensions are not being discussed. Showalter and Duquette are also working on expiring deals. There is almost no part of this team's future that is set in stone other than knowing it's going to be frustrating.

Did you want the Orioles to sell early and get a head start on rebuilding? Too bad. And, well, if you wanted them to go all in -- or, to use Duquette's own word, "reload" -- that ship seems to have sailed. The very reasonable goal heading into the offseason was to inject some life into the starting rotation and add a competent left-handed outfielder to help balance out the lineup. The Orioles have kinda/sorta added to the rotation while also hoping fans will talk themselves into Colby Rasmus or Alex Presley (added on minor league deals).

The Orioles could have done almost anything to their starting rotation and it would have been viewed as a modest upgrade. Still, instead of tackling the deficiencies head-on and at least meeting last year's payroll, the O's have opted to only move the needle in minor and relatively inexpensive ways.

So far, the Orioles have signed two noteworthy starting pitchers. The first, Andrew Cashner, is fine. He's a No. 4 or (preferably) No. 5 starter, and he signed a two-year deal with a club option. The hope is he's not the next Yovani Gallardo. With the second signing, Chris Tillman, the hope is that he's healthy and doesn't pitch the way that Chris Tillman pitched just last season. The O's signed Tillman to a major league deal, for $3 million guaranteed and a bunch of incentives, while a couple other teams were interested in inking him to a minor league deal. Again, while not an amazing option, he's fine. With so many unknowns also in the fold, Tillman has had past success in a tough division.

Added to a very good rotation, Cashner and Tillman could round it out as long as they aren't being counted on to perform better than adequately. But Cashner and Tillman aren't joining a great or even above-average rotation. That's not a knock on Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy; it's just the way it is. Those two guys need more help, and the kind of help they need is more than Cashner and Tillman.

One hope all along is that the O's are just waiting in the weeds to sneak in and sign Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn. (There's no way they sign Jake Arrieta.) But, well, Roch Kubatko doused those hot stove dreams on Tuesday morning:
The Orioles checked on Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, determined that there wasn’t a financial match and moved on from the trio.
That's pretty much been the report all along, unless the prices for those two drop significantly and they accept a short-term deal. Without them, the O's are still surely going to bring in another starting pitcher. The need (more want) for a lefty starter won't go away. And they could always bring in someone like... Scott Feldman, apparently.

The O's plans under Duquette always involve waiting, but what does waiting around do now if the O's don't intend to use any of their assumed payroll room? And yes, it's assumed. Right now, the O's are around $130 million spent, and in 2017 they spent about $165 million on their 25-man roster. What a truly bizarre time this would be to shrink payroll. There's no guarantee that even adding Cobb or Lynn would make the O's playoff contenders, but at the bare minimum the O's need more help to have any chance to flourish this season. That help also includes the ever-present need for actual MLB-quality outfielders who can do things like field and run, and yet two years and $7.5 million for Jarrod Dyson is apparently too risky? Yikes. There is no move that is completely without risk. The Orioles know this, but maybe they want you to think otherwise.

The O's might not be bad in 2018, but they surely don't seem primed to contend for a playoff spot. There are things they could do or could have done that would move them closer to contention while also keeping an eye on not sacrificing the future. But they aren't doing them. That isn't the Orioles' style. They'll only do the things they're comfortable with, and it'll make Showalter and Duquette look even more like miracle workers years down the road.

21 February 2018

The Orioles Shouldn't Tear Down - An Alternative View

Almost six weeks ago, Matt Kremnitzer wrote a piece entitled How Can the Orioles Win You Over? His thesis was that many fans aren't very happy with the Baltimore Orioles organization, primarily because the fans don't know or understand what the Orioles are planning to do in 2018. The offseason had been frustrating, so what can the Orioles do to change our outlook?

How do I feel about the Orioles? As I've written on this site, the Orioles are not the team I root for. I grew up in Chicago and have been a Cubs fan for close to fifty years. I do have a history with the Orioles. I'm a 1983 Georgetown graduate (Hoya Saxa!) and earned my Master's degree (1986) from College Park when the Orioles were DC's team. I've been living in the Hampton Roads, VA area, for 25 years; the Orioles and Nationals have shared local press and cable TV coverage. And, for the past 11 years, I have datacasted games for the Orioles AAA affiliate, the Norfolk Tides. Over the years, I've seen six games in Memorial Stadium and eleven in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

I'll provide a brief summary of datacasting for those who may not know exactly what that is. Most of you probably know about GameDay, the program that provides on-line, near-real-time pitch-by-pitch updates of all major league games. GameDay is also available for all AAA and at least some AA minor league games as well. I sit in the press box in front of a computer and, using a special program, enter each pitch into a central server from which GameDay app users receive their updates. When a ball is put into play, I enter those results as well. Perhaps I'll write an article covering everything I do later this season; you might find what happens at a minor-league game interesting.

One of the side effects of my datacasting is that I have become less emotionally involved with my teams. I've become somewhat of a baseball professional (I do get paid for datacasting), although I do get to - have to - watch and pay attention to the games as games. But I can't allow myself to get emotionally involved. I have to see each game, each inning, each batter, each pitch as an independent event, not a part of a season with a pennant race - or I'll quickly find myself missing pitches, forgetting to advance base runners, and otherwise not performing my function well. I can be thrilled by David Washington hitting a game-tying home run, but I have to get right back to business with the next pitch.

And that feeling has crept into my fandom. I don't watch the Orioles or even the Cubs the same way I did before. On the occasions when I do get to watch or listen to the Orioles play, I want them to win - but I don't have a strong interest in whether or not they've won games I haven't watched or listen to. The game is over; the O's have won or lost; I'll be watching another game tomorrow, or next week, or in a couple of weeks, whenever.

So I'm happy that the Orioles haven't begun a total tear-down. I'm happy that they haven't traded Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop and Adam Jones and Kevin Gausman. Because the Orioles are more likely to play better with those players than without them. Because I'll be more entertained watching the Orioles if those players are still around.

You may say, "Joe, you're a Cubs fan. Surely it was better for the Cubs, better for you as a Cubs fan, that the Cubs were terrible for three seasons and built the team that won the World Series." But, as I look back on it, I'm not sure that it was. Winning the World Series was great. But, at least for me, of all the moments of the 2016 season and post-season, the only one that wouldn't have been as good if it had occurred in a 2013 regular-season game was Game 6 of the NLCS, in which the Cubs won the pennant. And I'm sure there were many Cubs fans who suffered through years of games in which the team wasn't trying their hardest to win and never got to see the finished product.

You don't have to agree with me; in fact, I'm sure almost all of you won't. In fact, I'll even concede that the Orioles are more likely to win a championship eventually if they do trade away their best players and don't worry about wins and losses for a couple of seasons. I'm pointing out the other side.

If you do choose to comment on this article, I ask that you do not tell me that my way of looking at baseball is wrong, that the World Series is all that matters. It may not be your way of looking at baseball, but it's mine - and it's right for me.

20 February 2018

Chris Tillman is Back and I Feel Fine

The Orioles re-signed Chris Tillman on Monday to a one year contract, guaranteeing him $3 million while offering incentives that could bring the total commitment to $10 million for 2018. This was a widely expected move, given the apparent slowness of Tillman's market and the fact that the Orioles are the only team he has pitched for in the big leagues. Tillman has pitched over 1100 innings for the Orioles since 2011, winning 73 games and acting as the de facto ace of the staff, and given the holes in the rotation, a one year deal for not much money always seemed like an obvious one.

The problem, of course, is that Tillman has struggled for the better part of three seasons. Excluding his excellent first half in 2016, in which he put a 3.41 ERA and struck out nearly 8 batters per 9, Tillman has been mediocre or worse since 2015 began. In fact, in total from 2015 to 2017, he has pitched to a 5.12 ERA, a 4.89 FIP, a 1.454 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9.

That's...not great. In fact, not great would be an improvement over whatever this is. This is bad. Really, really bad. Since 2015 began, Tillman has the 7th worst ERA , the 9th worst FIP, and the 13th worst WHIP among all qualified starters in baseball. He is also in the bottom 25 starters in fWAR, putting up just 3.2 wins in that time period.

It's easy to write off Tillman's mind-boggling 2017 as injury-related or simply an extreme outlier, but  his decline was not as drastic or dramatic as maybe it seems. One of Tillman's defining traits during the years he was good, or at least solid, was an ability to get of jams. In 2013, 2014, and 2016, he was well above average in strand rate, and not coincidentally had three of his best seasons. Last year, he allowed over a third of his baserunners to score, which, I'm here to tell you, is incredibly bad. 

Maybe this was a fluke, but his stuff may also be in significant decline. In 2015, he threw his fastball 65% of the time. In 2017, it was down to just over 50%. He gave up by far the most hard contact in his career, had his worst strikeout rate, walked an insane 4.94 hitters per 9 innings, and generated the fewest swings at pitches outside of the strike zone in his career. He also got crushed in the strike zone, with hitters making contact with over 90% of pitches in the zone (side note, Andrew Cashner gave up contact on 92% of all swings on pitches in the zone, so that should work out just fine).

But, take a look at this.

Tillman's strikeout, walk, and home run rate were all generally trending in the wrong direction even prior to his disastrous 2017. What immediately seems possible is that Tillman was always a borderline pitcher who leaned on his defense and slightly above average stuff to generate contact and get outs. Once the defense and stuff declined, however, yikes. It is certainly tempting to blame 2017 on the shoulder injury that limited him to under 100 innings pitched, but these numbers indicate that the injury (unless it's been with him for years) is not necessarily the only factor driving the decline. 

All that said, we're talking about $3 million. I think it's unlikely that Tillman's skill erosion is so extreme that he's now the worst pitcher in baseball at age 29, and more likely that 2017 was simply an extremely terrible and unlucky season. If he even "bounces back" to his 2015 numbers, he'll earn that guaranteed money. With Tillman is almost certainly penciled in as the number 4 starter, though, the Orioles are taking a fairly big risk that 2017 was an aberration and not simply the culmination of a longer-term trend. If they somehow end up signing one of the better free agent pitchers left on the board, this move will probably look better overall than it does now. Even if that doesn't happen, though, there's a modicum of upside here, and I'd certainly like to believe Tillman is a better option than, say, Mike Wright. On February 19, with a rotation spot still open, that's about as good as you can hope for.

DJ Stewart is Hyun Soo Kim

After the 2015 season, Hyun Soo Kim let it be known that he was interested in applying his skills to the Major League game.  Many in Korea predicted automatic success.  Kim was known as one of the best pure hitters that Korea had ever produced.  Athletic though with a bit of a bad body, he could have been called the KBO version of Tony Gwynn.  Combine that with the 2015 success of Jung Ho Kang, widely considered a lesser talent, and there was quite a bit of anticipation.

The scouting outlook that emerged from folks focused on the KBO was a bit rosy.  His speed was noted at average, but in Spring Training and later measured by Sprint Speed in the Majors that kind of fell apart.  Kim was the second slowest left fielder in baseball, just ahead of Melky Cabrera.  He could make decent routes.  He knew his limitations, but that awareness can only blunt the lack of range so much.  The changes in his swing to showcase more of his power in the KBO had to revert and go back to how he originally found success.  That took months to figure out.  All in all, it was a mixed bag.  Kim had to rely on his contact skills with nothing else to keep him afloat.  It worked mid-year 2016, but really at no other time.  He now finds himself back in the KBO and likely to dominate there.

Watching D.J. Stewart in 2016 and 2017, he actually looked a bit like Hyun Soo Kim to me.  Athletic, but bad bodied.  Moderate raw power than can translate into games with the right mechanics and approach.  Below average overall fielding.  The two differences that came forward though was that Stewart had a bit more raw power and he is far more able to apply himself on the basepaths.  Stewart understood and felt comfortable in how fast the game was played while Kim had difficulties (at a higher level).

To compare them, I brushed off my KANG model to project what D.J. Stewart would do (using long-term PECOTA projections) against what Hyun Soo Kim actually did at the same age:


PECOTA through KANG sees particularly more power coming from Stewart.  Stewart also appears to be able to draws more walks as well, but it should be noted that Kim made a point to adapt his game his final year, so you could potentially imagine Kim's power and discipline being underutilized in previous seasons.  Still, Stewart shows more walks and power.

I then wondered how it would look like with Stewart's projections before his 2017 renaissance.

Kim 2012 .291 .358 .382
2013 .302 .382 .470
2014 .322 .396 .488
2015 .326 .438 .541
Stewart -1 2018 .267 .380 .520
2019 .263 .378 .521
2020 .260 .376 .516
2021 .260 .372 .514

They still do not quite match up.  Stewart still shows more power and similar discipline.  However, his hitting ability plummets.  If you squint though, you see something.

The hope for Stewart is that his hit tool appears to be more well-rounded than Kim's.  Yes, the skill set is marginal, but broader.  Also working for Stewart, by likely coming to the Majors at a younger age, his defense should be more capable.  This will make him less of a minus value overall to the club and enable him to have more opportunities to let his ability shine through.  Kim was not afforded plentiful chances when his offensive play would go into funks because of his defensive limitations.

19 February 2018

Player Opt-Out Clauses Could (Have) Really Help(ed) the Orioles This Offseason

The Orioles finally did something last week by signing Andrew Cashner to a 2-year, $16 million deal. According to MLB Trade Rumors, the deal also includes a $10 million vesting option if Cashner throws 340 innings over those two yers. That option turns into a player option if he pitches at least 360 innings. As the article points out, Cashner has only topped 170 innings twice over his career, and has only exceeded 180 innings once, so it’s unlikely that those options will come into play.

This article isn’t going to focus on the Cashner deal though (we covered that here and here). Don’t get me wrong, I think the deal is fine, and it certainly fills a need, though the Orioles have more roster holes to fill, even as players have reported to spring training. The semi-inclusion of the player option in Cashner’s contract actually got me thinking about player opt out clauses in contracts over the past few seasons. The Orioles front office has been pretty adamant about not wanting to include opt-out clauses in their contracts, so I definitely don’t expect them to act on this, but at this point in the off-season, handing out a few multi-year deals with opt-outs after year 1 would be a great strategy to round out the roster. In my opinion, it would be beneficial for both the team and certain players that could help them in 2018.

From the team’s perspective, 2018 is arguably the last season where the Oriole’s competitive window is open to contend. I say arguably, because it really does depend on who (if anyone) they sign to round out the starting rotation. We’ve talked about which players will most likely not be on the major league roster next season so many times that there is no need to lay it out again. And without much immediate help coming from the farm system, the post 2018 landscape doesn’t look too promising at the moment.

With that in mind, the team probably would not like to be committed to many long-term (and likely expensive) contracts during what will almost certainly be very lean years. This makes perfect sense. Not only do they not want to be spending a lot of money during multiple losing seasons, but it’s essential during those bad years to “play the kids” so the front office can get a good idea of which players should stick around for the team’s next competitive window. During the rebuilding process, available roster spot(s) can almost be more important than the veteran salary commitment. Offering players a long-term contract with an opt-out after the first year provides a path for an increased chance at 2018 contention, while also providing an opportunity for that contract to not exceed one year.

Obviously the 2017-18 offseason has been unique in that there have been a lot of players that are still not signed. Regardless of the reason, at the core, those players remain unsigned because they are not getting offers they feel are in line what they’re worth. So from the player’s perspective, a multi-year deal with an opt-out after year 1 seems like a good option, This provides them the opportunity to test the market again next year, while also providing a backup plan should they underperform in 2018. It may even be beneficial to both parties to front load the deals in the first year. In that case, the players maximize their earnings in 2018 (and make the Orioles more competitive), while incentivizing those players to opt out given that the salaries in years 2 through x would likely be lower than fair market value.

I would imagine that a contract structure such as this may be intriguing options to some of the players still left on the market who could help the Orioles, such as a Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. The Orioles could even take this option to someone like Mike Moustakas. With Manny Machado’s move to SS confirmed, signing Moustakas would be an upgrade at 3B. This would move Tim Beckham to a super utility role, one which he is much more likely in which to succeed (I believe Matt Perez suggested signing Moustakas in his 2018 blueprint).

Of course there are downsides to handing out contracts with opt-out clauses after year one. The first is that if everyone has a down year, they all decide to stick around after 2018. This puts the Orioles on the hook for another couple of years in which they likely won’t be competitive. However, if they can be frontloaded, those out years wouldn’t hurt as badly. Additionally, players with upcoming opt-outs will have their trade values diminished in 2018, due to the acquiring team not knowing exactly how many years of that player they’re getting.

Giving out contracts with player opt-outs after year 1 is definitely not without risk, but this offseason, the Orioles and some players were/are both in unique situations where this contract structure may be mutually beneficial. If the Orioles are truly serious about contending in 2018 (and other than publicly saying so, I’m not sure that they are), then this idea should not be off the table, despite the front office’s disdain for doing such things. Maybe if someone mentioned to the front office that player opt-outs are essentially the same as player options they wouldn’t be opposed to it. I mean, they did just kind of give one of those to Andrew Cashner.

16 February 2018

Is Andrew Cashner The O's New Yovani Gallardo?

Before Andrew Casher signed with the Orioles, he already reminded some people of Yovani Gallardo. It probably had something to do with this:

Gallardo in 2015: 184.1 IP, 3.42 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 5.91 K/9, 3.32 BB/9
Cashner in 2017: 166.2 IP, 3.40 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 4.64 K/9, 3.46 BB/9

That was Gallardo's season with the Rangers before signing with the O's and Cashner's pitching line from last season. Cashner's numbers aren't as good (just looking at ERA only can be misleading), but they're a little closer if you instead look at each pitcher's last three seasons before joining the O's:

Cashner previous 3 years: 483.1 IP, 4.26 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.5 BB/9
Gallardo previous 3 years: 557.1 IP, 3.70 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 6.6 K/9, 3.0 BB/9

Simply scouting the stat line performance alone, Gallardo is still the winner. He threw more innings and has slightly better peripheral stats. You can see why the O's wanted Gallardo. And considering the state of the team's starting rotation, you can see why the O's want Cashner.

That doesn't mean the signing is a sure-fire win. It's not because there are, of course, red flags. Bringing in a pitcher with a K/9 under 5 is not reassuring. Cashner has never thrown more than 185 innings in any season. And in his only season in the American League, he posted a 3.40 ERA that was rather fluky and that he's unlikely to replicate. As Jon discussed on Thursday, Cashner as a No. 5 starter sounds a whole lot better than a No. 3.

Still, while it's not hard to paint a picture of Cashner going off the rails in Baltimore like Gallardo did, the O's at least did not pay Gallardo prices. Comparing the career workloads for both when they signed with the O's, Gallardo had thrown about 580 more innings than Cashner. Gallardo deserves credit for being a workhouse, but that larger workload was a concern.

Gallardo's original deal with the O's for three years and $35 million dropped down to two years and $22 million (with a $13 million club option) after the O's oft-criticized (usually unfairly) physical process revealed a shoulder issue of some kind. (Gallardo hasn't been the same pitcher since.) The bargain improved the deal somewhat, but there were still injury worries. On top of that, the O's had to sacrifice the No. 14 overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft because Gallardo had been offered the qualifying offer by the Rangers. The O's also tried to add Dexter Fowler in order to sign two QO free agents, like they had done with Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz in 2014 to double-up and decrease the loss of the draft picks, but that plan fell through.

Gallardo had the better track record when he signed with the Orioles, but he signed a larger contract and had an apparent shoulder concern to worry about. Cashner, meanwhile, hasn't performed as well, but he hasn't thrown as many innings (both a good and bad thing) and signed for less money two years later. While some of that can be credited to the painfully slow offseason and perhaps some kind of referendum on the pursuit of free agents, waiting around and hoping for smaller deals is far from new to the Orioles under Dan Duquette.

It would not be surprising at all to see Cashner post an ERA over 5 in 2018. In his first year in Baltimore, Gallardo put up a 5.42 ERA in just 118 innings. Considering that performance and the options around him not named Bundy and Gausman, Cashner doesn't have to pitch that well to be useful. Still, hopefully the O's have another signing to make, preferably bringing in a pitcher who's better than Cashner.

Statcast Projected Isolated Power Performance in Predicting 2017 Performance

Last February, I took Statcast batted ball data to project Isolated Power performance.  The idea was that big in game power comes from hitting the ball hard and barreling up on it.  I lacked launch angle data, but considered batted ball types.  However, incorporating ground balls, fly balls, and line drives did not improve the model.  Regardless, a model knowing only average distance and barrel per at bat, you could fairly accurately predict Isolated Power performance.  Therefore, if a player underperformed according to the projection then you might expect a bounce back the following season.  However, I wondered whether there were reasons why a player would typically under or over perform the projection.

Looking at the 2016 season, it found the following players whose actual 2016 ISO was the most underperforming in comparison to the model projections:
2016 ISO 2016 xISO Diff
Miguel Cabrera .247 .295 -.048
Josh Harrison .105 .147 -.042
Brandon Belt .199 .239 -.040
Howie Kendrick .111 .149 -.038
Kendrys Morales .204 .242 -.038
Buster Posey .147 .184 -.037
Albert Pujols .189 .226 -.037
Alex Gordon .160 .197 -.037
Adeiny Hechavarria .075 .109 -.034
Yonder Alonso .114 .147 -.033
Troy Tulowitzki .189 .222 -.033
Nick Markakis .129 .161 -.032
Mitch Moreland .189 .220 -.031
Yadier Molina .120 .151 -.031
Adam Jones .171 .201 -.030
Looking at this data, Kendrys Morales jumped out to me.  He was quickly scooped up by the Blue Jays in what seemed like a fairly curious move.  He had been a decent hitter for the Royals, but was not doing anything incredibly productive.  His lack of position also hurt roster flexibility.  A three year deal for a player like that seems a bit like folly.  At the time of looking at this model, I thought well maybe the Blue Jays think his ISO underperformed because of Kaufman Stadium.

Mid-season, you heard similar things about Adeiny Hechavarria when the Rays traded for him.  He was hitting the ball hard and barreling it, so perhaps the Rays thought they could better channel that into more productive hitting.  Anyway, how did these guys do in 2017 compared to 2016?
'16 ISO '17 ISO Diff
Albert Pujols .189 .145 -.044
Yadier Molina .120 .166 .046
Miguel Cabrera .247 .149 -.098
Kendrys Morales .204 .196 -.008
Howie Kendrick .111 .161 .050
Alex Gordon .160 .107 -.053
Nick Markakis .129 .110 -.019
Troy Tulowitzki .189 .129 -.060
Mitch Moreland .189 .197 .008
Adam Jones .171 .181 .010
Buster Posey .147 .142 -.005
Yonder Alonso .114 .235 .121
Josh Harrison .105 .160 .055
Brandon Belt .199 .228 .029
Adeiny Hechavarria .075 .145 .070
32+ -.020
31- .047
All .010
One thing you will notice is that I reordered them by age.  Moreland and up are 2017 seasons played as 32 or older.  Jones and down are age 31 and younger.  What this paltry little sample seems to suggest is that underperforming your expected ISO is a major red flag for players in the mid to late 30s.  It is indicative of something else happening that is eroding performance.  However, for younger players, who are in less of a decline phase age-wise, show significant rebounding in performance.

What does this mean going forward?  Below are the players who most underperformed their expected Isolated Power performance:
Player 2017 ISO 2017 xISO Diff
 Miguel Cabrera .149 .230 -.081
 Mitch Moreland .197 .248 -.051
 Alex Gordon .107 .157 -.051
 Kyle Seager .201 .248 -.047
 Jose Peraza .066 .113 -.047
 Justin Turner .208 .252 -.044
 Matt Carpenter .209 .250 -.041
 Nicholas Castellanos .218 .258 -.040
 Jed Lowrie .171 .209 -.038
 Alcides Escobar .107 .144 -.037
 Albert Pujols .145 .180 -.035
 Chris Davis .208 .241 -.033
 Shin-Soo Choo .162 .194 -.032
 Dansby Swanson .092 .124 -.032
 Ian Kinsler .176 .207 -.031
 Jose Bautista .164 .195 -.031
 Hanley Ramirez .188 .218 -.030
 Nick Markakis .110 .140 -.030
 Yadier Molina .166 .196 -.030
 Joe Mauer .112 .142 -.030
What we see above in this list is a lot of older players who failed to live up to the projections.  If the 2017 data is indicative of anything, this does not bode well for most of these guys.  Younger players on the list are a mix in availability like Nick Castellanos are supposedly available in trade or like Dansby Swanson are not available.  It is these players who we might expect as they age they refine their skills and are able to turn their barreling and distance into something more useful.

Chris Davis, for the Orioles interested readership, will be entering his age 32 season.  Above, that barely places him into the upper range that saw a major erosion in performance.  Molina and Kendrick were really the only two players who bounced back.  The others treaded water or further collapsed.  For those hoping for Davis to reclaim his past greatness, it is a weak indicator that perhaps that simply is unlikely to be in the cards this upcoming season.

15 February 2018

Andrew Cashner is Pretty Pretty Pretty OK

At the Depot, we have a model called BORAS.  BORAS is a model that takes away all our experty opinions and troublesome feelings in order to gauge past performance and age, converting that into a contract.  When BORAS considered Andrew Cashner, it determined he was worth a 3/34 deal.  Peripherals indicate a strong role player in 2015 and 2017 as well as quite good performance on the field in 2017.  His velocity is a concern, it has been dropping.  His strikeout rate collapsed, which is troubling.  His avoidance of home runs last year appeared magical.  In other words, he is a pitcher who carries some red flags despite a passable track record.

What the Orioles signed Cashner to was a 2/16 deal with a 1/10 option which requires 360 IP in 2018 and 2019 total to activate.  If he hits all of his incentives then the deal will push up to 41 MM.  For all intent and purposes, this deal looks good for the Orioles if we assume BORAS is right.  BORAS has performed fairly well so far this year as it does every year, but this peculiar logjam of late might mean we are about to see a lot of contract coming in that are low in years and low in guaranteed pay.

What I mean to say is this, the Orioles signing Andrew Cashner is either terrible or good.  If the club sees itself as a playoff contender and Cashner as its third rotation piece, then we are in terrible territory.  If it sees him as the fifth option in a rotation, then it is pretty good.  Fourth, is, I guess, OK depending on who winds up being that third slot pitcher.

This off season, I have told folks to keep their powder dry and wait until you see the whites of their eyes.  With the Cashner signing, I think we are nearing the point to be concerned.  We are not there yet, we are closer.  We need to wait a little bit longer.  This could still work out.  Or not.  It all depends on what the actual role of Cashner is.  He can be a good pitcher and is perhaps a better candidate to be a good pitcher than someone like Miguel Gonzalez who went for slightly less.

There is still some hope if the next guy through the door is Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb.  If it is Tillman, then, you know, yeah.

Book Review: Keith Law's Smart Baseball

We all can -- and should -- strive to learn something new. That's the main idea behind Keith Law's book, Smart Baseball.

The extended title of the book is Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball, and, well, that tells you plenty. Law undertakes the arduous task of explaining which traditional baseball statistics are misleading or not that informative (part one), and which numbers fans should be looking at instead (part two). Some chapters focus on topics like why batting average is flawed, why pitcher wins can be deceiving, and the issues with fielding percentage. Then, to close things out in part three, Law puts newer stats to use while painting a picture of what's next (including MLB Statcast and how scouting is changing).

If you've ever made your way to, say, the comments section under a MASNsports.com article, or maybe engaged in a debate about baseball on Twitter or *gasp* Facebook, then you know the number of fans who still rely on things like batting average, runs batted in, pitcher wins, and saves to win arguments about the value of current players. Because of the rise of sites like Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus, there aren't quite as many of those fans around, but there are still lots of them. And that's OK, because not everyone has to look at baseball the same way.

But for those fans who want to know more about the game and how to more approximately value what's happening on the field, this book is a tremendous help. For someone looking to simply jump headfirst into baseball analytics, I can't think of many better ways to get started. Even for those who already read lots of analytical writing about baseball, Law's work is still worthwhile and includes new ways to approach much-debated topics.

Law tackles complex subjects and breaks them down bit by bit, slowly adding to each part and showing you why things matter. Why is on-base percentage important? What the heck is WAR, wOBA, or wRC+, and why should you not avoid them? How do analysts even attempt to separate pitching and defense? What makes one fielder better than another, and what's the best way to measure that? Why is the clutch baseball player a myth? For those seeking to learn more about the game they love, Law's book is a quick and informative read.

The last line of the epilogue stuck with me: "Using the best knowledge we have right now while remembering that we may know a lot more in the future is the essence of Smart Baseball." There's always something else to learn, and that's especially true if you can't get enough baseball.


Smart Baseball
Keith Law
304 pages
William Morrow
Paperback available: March 13, 2018

14 February 2018

Darvish: Worst 100 MM Free Agent Pitcher Deal Ever?

The first 100 MM contract signed by a free agent pitcher was Kevin Brown before the 1999 season, which he played at 34.  It was scheduled to take him to age 41 and included many perks, such as private jet flights and what not.  It was shocking at the time.  It would be shocking now.  If you inflated his deal to what free agents are currently getting paid, his deal would be equivalent to a 7/307 contract.  That is a 44 MM salary each year.  So, yeah, that is a stunning deal.  Yu Darvish's 6/126 taken back in time would be around 6/43 in 1999.

In other words, 100 MM means different things over the years as revenue in the game increases.  Still, it marks a major bright line for players to cross.  Only twelve free agent pitchers, including Brown and Darvish, has signed deals passing the 100 MM mark.  When Jake Arrieta inks his name, he might make it a lucky 13.
1st Yr Yrs Total $
David Price 2016 7 217
Max Scherzer 2015 7 210
Zack Greinke 2016 6 206.5
CC Sabathia 2009 7 161
Jon Lester 2015 6 155
Johnny Cueto 2016 6 130
Barry Zito 2007 7 126
Mike Hampton 2001 8 121
Cliff Lee 2011 5 120
Jordan Zimmermann 2016 5 110
Kevin Brown 1999 7 105
Yu Darvish 2018 6 126
While the talk about Yu Darvish as being a great bargain for the Cubs has been the main story line this past week, I thought it at first to be a weird statement.  Darvish arrived in MLB with incredible promise and a dizzying array of pitches.  He pitched very well, but never really transcended the scene to become a feared ace.  He has been largely restricted to that frame of mind about what if he could hit the next level.  That kind of talk feels peculiar now that next season will be his age 31 season.  Add on to that how hittable he was last year and the persistent search to find one easy trick to get him back to where we all thought he was going.

So what I did was compare all of the pitchers in this 100 MM FA club.  I added up the bWAR they accumulated over their previous six years and their previous three years.  Additionally, I did a simple count of seasons in the past six years where they accumulated more than four bWAR.  These are simple metrics, but metrics that give a decent indication of how good a pitcher was and how often he was quite good.
6 yr bWAR 3 yr bWAR >4 bWAR
Kevin Brown 33.6 23.6 5
David Price 27.9 13.4 4
Barry Zito 27.5 10.5 4
Zack Greinke 26 17.5 2
CC Sabathia 24.2 17.7 3
Jon Lester 24.2 8.3 4
Max Scherzer 23.5 16.9 3
Johnny Cueto 22.5 11.7 2
Cliff Lee 20.8 17.1 3
Jordan Zimmermann 19.4 12.1 2
Mike Hampton 19.3 14.8 2
Yu Darvish 19.3 5.8 1
Can we just take a moment and reflect how amazing Kevin Brown was and how we all basically ignored how amazing he was or perhaps that we really on focused on him when he was a 40 year old Yankee pitcher?  How is that guy not in the Hall of Fame?

Anyway, what we see is that Darvish is tied for the lowest 6 yr bWAR tally, clearly lower in the 3 yr tally (and would be at best second lowest if he did not lose a whole season to Tommy John), and the only pitcher with only one season above a four bWAR.

At first blush, it looks like Darvish is leading the pack as the worst 100 MM contract recipient, but we still have that change in revenue issue.  To look at that, I decided to utilize the BORAS model that we use to project free agent contracts.  This works by looking at recent performances and project salary terms based on that performance.  This way we can strip out the differences in pay over time and compare that to adjusted 2018 earnings.
2018  AAV* BORAS Diff
Barry Zito 24.4 16.4 49%
Yu Darvish 21.0 17.3 21%
Zack Greinke 34.4 28.7 20%
Mike Hampton 29.5 24.7 19%
Kevin Brown 43.8 40.4 8%
Jon Lester 25.8 24.2 7%
Jordan Zimmermann 22.0 20.8 6%
Max Scherzer 30.0 28.5 5%
Johnny Cueto 21.7 21.4 1%
David Price 31.0 31.4 -1%
CC Sabathia 27.3 35.0 -22%
Cliff Lee 24.0 32.5 -26%
There have really only been two deals that looked like great signings at the time according to BORAS: CC Sabathia with the Yankees and Cliff Lee with the Phillies.  BORAS considers both to be well below the expected market value.  On the over-committed end, Zack Greinke comes in third place.  Of course, this probably overstates the overpay as much of his deal was deferred, which decreases the cost.  Deferments are not easy to find for all of the deals, so I simply assumed that they did not exist.

Darvish ranks as second worst.  As an overpay of 21%, according to BORAS.  Some will note that this is due to BORAS' inability to differentiate between time lost due to injury and simply being unable to accrue bWAR during terrible performances.  And that may be the rationale.  If we assume that 2016 was increased from 100.1 IP to 180 IP at the same WAR rate and 2015 went from 0 IP to 180 IP with the 2016/2017 average WAR rate, then BORAS would estimate a 5/108 deal (21.7 AAV).  That is pretty close to what he got.  The other pitchers on the list did not have to deal with that situation.  If we assume that Tommy John's mean nothing and performance is projectable, then that places Darvish on the other end in the same grouping as Johnny Cueto and David Price.  This would represent what BORAS would consider an on-market value.  In other words, not a bargain.

This leaves us with the answer as Barry Zito.  His deal awarded him what BORAS considered a 49% overpay.  This off season only one other free agent pitcher may see a 100 MM deal: Jake Arrieta.  BORAS projects him as a 17.3 MM AAV just like Yu Darvish.  He would need a deal paying him 25.8 MM to be on par with Zito.  That seems unlikely to me, but supposedly his agent is trying to push that 25 MM number.  Arrieta would have the far lowest 6 year bWAR with 18.8, but a very respectable 14 bWAR over the past three seasons.

We shall wait and see if Zito is forced to hand over the crown.