31 May 2018

Orioles' 2018 Rotation Has Been Close To The Awful 2017 Version

In early February, while the Orioles were mostly sitting on their hands (along with lots of other teams) and free agent collusion was a popular topic, I said this about the Orioles' rotation options:
That was when, at least for a period of time, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman were the O's top two starters and there wasn't much behind them. A little over a week later, Bundy and Gausman started to get some reinforcements. Andrew Cashner signed on February 15, and Chris Tillman signed on February 19. Cashner's arrival slotted in somewhere between fine and meh (if there's a difference), and Tillman's below that. But they had two things going for them: they were starting pitchers who had performed well in the past, and their names weren't Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley.

About a month later, the Orioles surprisingly added Alex Cobb to the mix, and the O's had their starting five. Cobb signed late and would need some time to get ready, but the hope was that when he joined the team, he'd give them a boost. As we all know now, that was not the case.

The addition of Cobb added some excitement -- even if the O's starting rotation still didn't project to be very good -- and even though it seems impossible now, the O's kinda/sorta looked like the same .500-ish team that, if things broke right, could stay in the hunt for a playoff spot. But, almost since day one, the Orioles have rated poorly in nearly every phase of the game. And, unexpectedly, the 2018 starting rotation has been basically the same level of awful as the 2017 version.

Let's look at some numbers. Here's how the starting rotations from the past two years stack up:

2017: 5.70 ERA (15th in AL), 5.23 FIP, 19.4 K%, 9.4 BB%, 41.5 GB%, 35.0 Hard-hit%
2018: 5.53 ERA (14th in AL), 5.17 FIP, 19.3 K%, 8.0 BB%, 42.3 GB%, 35.2 Hard-hit%

Obviously the 2018 season isn't even half over, so things could improve. And, if anyone doesn't know, the 2017 O's rotation ERA of 5.70 is the worst in franchise history. But this rotation is still pretty close to that group and is really only better in walk rate and groundball rate.

But wait! Let's adjust for the change in offensive production. In 2017, the average AL team scored 4.71 runs per game. So far in 2018, AL teams average 4.50 runs per game. The average AL starter ERA in 2017 was 4.54; the average AL starter ERA in 2018 is currently 4.32.

That changes things, and it leads to the following:

Orioles SP in 2017: 129 ERA-, 115 FIP-
Orioles SP in 2018: 130 ERA-, 120 FIP-

Remember that with ERA- and FIP-, "100 is the league average and each point above or below 100 represents a percent above or below league average," so the lower, the better. That means that through about one-third of the season, the O's rotation has somehow performed slightly worse than last year's rotation.

At this point, you may be wondering if the O's rotation has been better in May, after Tillman was jettisoned to Sarasota. Tillman, after all, made five starts in April and two in May. But, nope, that's not the case:

Orioles SP in March/April: 5.34 ERA, 5.00 FIP in March/April
Orioles SP in May: 5.73 ERA, 5.35 FIP in May

Again, there's still time for improvement. June is about to begin, and it would be a surprise if the O's dealt away any of their starters. David Hess is also getting his shot, and he deserves an extended stay.

But one thing that can be said is the O's are not getting the most out of their starting pitchers. Gausman and Bundy are fine, but they're supposed to be better than that. Cobb was supposed to come in and provide legitimate top-of-the-rotation skills, and he has an ERA close to 7. Cashner has been OK, but nothing more than that.

The Orioles did not get the most out of Ubaldo Jimenez, or Wade Miley, or Jeremy Hellickson, or Yovani Gallardo, or... you get the point. Rotation signings haven't worked. Many prospects haven't developed enough or taken necessary steps. Fringe rotation options have been traded or discarded and gone on to find success elsewhere. International money is not being spent on pitching arms with potential. One person alone can't simply be blamed for starting rotations this bad.

As stated above, the Orioles have a whole lot of issues. They need to get better in many categories. They need to get younger and better. Unfortunately, that still includes the starting rotation, because the pitching woes persist.

Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

30 May 2018

People Have Hypotheses On Why Chris Davis Is Failing

In early October of 2015, Peter Angelos talked to Roch Kubatko about the importance of Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter to continue on doing what they do.  He also dropped what I thought was a bombshell at the time that no one else seemed to notice.  Angelos made it known that it was his intention to re-sign Chris Davis.  That was stunning to me because the thought at the moment was that Davis would pull in a 200+ MM deal, which seemed unthinkable in Baltimore given its status as a small market, lower revenue club.  It was also frightening because Davis is exactly the kind of player who should not have been given that contract.  Alas, Detroit was also curiously interested and the structure of a contract for a 161 MM deal with deferred money was figured out.

It has been a bit of a mess as the club is now into the third year of the deal with not only little to show, but also horrifically diminishing returns.

Standard Batting
11 Y11 Y4895208271.242.324.481114
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/29/2018.

That said, while we were certainly in the corner of this being no good and very bad.  The bolder, yet wise, minds around Baltimore painted the scenario as one that was not about the club losing out on Yeonis Cespedes or Justin Upton, but where Angelos only had the money for Davis alone.  Recently, rumors have come forward that had Duquette been in control that off-season that he would have gone after pitcher Johnny Cueto.  At the time, my industry contacts were saying that Duquette was being forced to sign Davis, but would have been allowed to sign Upton or Cespedes if Davis went elsewhere.  Regardless, the point is that this was not a slam dunk signing and absolutely no consensus was present.

With that in mind, I was no visionary.  I figured the club was looking to harness three or four valuable-ish years to keep that window of competition open and then suffer the last three with a player who would arguably be unplayable.  The issue I always had with Davis was that he had two tools.  He has plus plus power.  While that skill would be able to be MLB quality as he aged, he had a horrific contact skill.  My fear was that if he dropped from where he was (around a 40/45) rating that it would undermine all his power.  And, so, it is.

Chris Davis During Better Days
Davis' decline has been relatively straight forward.  His athleticism has tanked with him going from a first baseman with average speed to one of the slower ones over the past three years.  This is reflected in his loss of secondary power (i.e., doubles), which become important when the ball stops leaving the yard.  His bat speed has grown slower.  His exit velocity has cratered.  His timing is completely off at the plate.  Not only do his skills look missing, but he also appears to have little to no plan when he comes to the plate.

With four and two thirds years left in his deal, it is hard to both see how this club can keep him around or an ownership that is incredibly willing to accept that the money is sunk with nothing to salvage.  Similarly, things have manifested for fans and it sits in three fantastic stories about Davis: he is soft with money, his priority are his kids, and he needs drugs.

Tackling that first fan hypothesis: Chris Davis got soft with his contract.  I think this idea in general is one where people tend to notice how when free agents sign big money deals that their best seasons wind up coming in the years before that deal.  That leads to the idea that once a player is secure in their financial future that they take it easy, coast, and fall apart.  That idea happens to neglect the reality that given the way baseball free agency works, free agents tend to be 30 years old or older.  The age is typically on the downside of a player's age curve.  In other words, players sign contracts when physical skills decrease and injury rates increase.

Studies on this are numerous with considerable weight pointing to this not being a real thing.  Why?  It seems to make sense in our own lives that we have periods of time where we sacrifice in our jobs and push ourselves to our limits.  It is also likely true that we typically are not pushing ourselves to our limit.  In highly competitive environments, employees tend to push themselves fully even beyond the point where their financial comfort is secure.  This becomes more apparent in scenarios where the performance of an individual is public facing.  In other words, Chris Davis has excelled in a field where you have to push yourself hard all of the time.  Second, everyone can see his failures.  With that in mind, it seems highly unlikely that financial security is undermining his play.

The next knock I have seen is that a player performs worse with young children.  It is something that I have seen before with Davis, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis.  However, it tends to not track.  Yes, family obligations.  Typically, this takes on a more gendered take in greater society.  Men are often preferred if they have children as it seems to point toward a seriousness or stability of some kind that seems rooted in far flung misguided notions of the past.  Women on the other hand have to deal with a great deal of negativity with insinuations of how brain chemistry alters and impacts their work performance or how they are expected to care for sick kids.  Personally, I was highly questioned as to why I was taking paternity leave.  It may be 2018, but we have some residual antiquated thoughts.

With baseball players, it seems to be focused on the idea that these guys are getting sleepless nights caring for young children screaming in the night.  Mind you, these families have been adapted and hardened for baseball.  Many players shifted their kids nap times in season so that they can be awake when their father finishes the game.  Pregnancies are planned so that births happen in the off-season.  So with that in mind, do you really think a player with a 161 MM contract is somehow unable to find support for his significant other to take care of the kids the night before a game?  Does that make much sense to you?  It does not for me.

The last hypothesis I commonly see is about Chris Davis' Therapeutic Use Exemption to treat his diagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  It is advised to go back up above and look at Davis' career in the table above.  In 2014, Davis was nabbed for violating the league's rules on performance enhancing drugs.  In previous seasons, he had a therapeutic use exemption for Adderall.  For some reason that still does not seem clear, Davis was unable to secure one for the 2014 season.  He was terrible and resorted to taking the drug when nothing else worked.  It is uncertain how often he took it.  One dose of Adderall will show up in the metabolites found in urine up to four days after taking it.  However, chronic use will keep the metabolites in high enough concentration to be measurable for up to seven days.  Regardless, whatever his usage was in 2014, his performance was terrible.

That off-season, Davis experimented with a time released version called Vyvanse.  It is not Adderall.  Adderall is not time released, it apparently comes on rather suddenly.  Vyvanse takes out the highs and lows.  By taking it, you even out the effect.  Davis came to the conclusion that he preferred this version of therapy for ADHD.  MLB, and really most doctors, prefer time released medications to treat ADHD.  There certainly was some pressure on Davis to seek a TUE for Vyvanse at a level, very least, as a social pressure.  To my knowledge, Adderall is still the most common drug to treat ADHD for players on TUEs.

Anyway, Davis got a TUE for Vyvanse and, supposedly, has continued that treatment.  The common thread you hear is that ever since Davis went off Adderall that his performance has suffered.  This is not accurate.  Davis had another monster season in 2015, his first year using Vyvanse.  Then he signed his deal and then it all progressively fell apart.  While it sounds like a good narrative, it just does not fit well.

When you look at everything on the table, the popularly peddled excuses for poor performance simply are not very credible.  Davis has lost athleticism.  He is no longer a gold glove first baseman.  He no longer hits the ball with authority.  He no longer runs at a decent clip.  It may be a boring excuse, but the likely problem with him is that he is aging.  His chimp days are behind him.

29 May 2018

There Are Still Some Positives For The Very Bad Orioles

The Orioles are a very bad baseball team, and there are more negatives than positives. But that doesn't mean there aren't any positives.

Let's find some to talk about:
  • Manny Machado's 163 wRC+ is far and away the best on the Orioles. His numbers have taken a bit of a dip as of late, but his 2.5 fWAR is still nearly 2 wins better than his next closest teammates (Kevin Gausman and Mychal Givens with 0.7 fWAR).
  • There are reasons to doubt Chance Sisco's catching abilities, but he's been decent so far and has posted an acceptable 91 wRC+ for a catcher (though with a .367 BABIP). The 37.5 K% is concerning, but hey, his 0.6 fWAR is second-best among O's position players.
  • Danny Valencia (116 wRC+), Pedro Alvarez (110), Mark Trumbo (109), and Adam Jones (102) have been useful offensively. Let's not focus on their defense.
  • Trey Mancini's 88 wRC+ doesn't look great now, but he was doing pretty well until his recent slump started. He's still one of the O's best hitters, although it does look like his knee is still bothering him.
  • They've each had their ups and downs, but Dylan Bundy and Gausman have been the O's two best starting pitchers. Maybe, just maybe, they'll both put things together one day. At least they're healthy!
  • In 13+ innings, Tanner Scott has struck out 30% of opposing batters (and he's limiting the walks). He's pitched better than his 4.73 ERA, with a FIP of 2.89.
  • For a while, Richard Bleier was automatic and dominant, keeping an ERA below or around 1. Regression seems to have hit, and his ERA is now up to 2.33. Still, that's more than acceptable, and his FIP still sits at 2.71. 
  • After some early struggles, Brad Brach, Givens, and Miguel Castro seem to be back on track while the O's are without Darren O'Day and Zach Britton.
  • Speaking of Britton, he'll begin his rehab assignment on Wednesday with Triple-A Norfolk. Getting a healthy and effective Britton back will help, and he could still be a trade chip.
  • In three starts, David Hess has thrown 17.1 innings while posting a 4.15 ERA. The peripherals aren't great and the home runs are somewhat concerning, but he's been good enough -- and better than Chris Tillman, Alex Cobb, and Andrew Cashner in a small sample.

If you're looking ahead to the future, you could get excited about this group of players who may make appearances later this season or in 2019: Hunter Harvey, DJ Stewart, Keegan Akin, Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays, and Ryan Mountcastle. There are others worth discussing in the lower levels of the O's system, but it's a group that could use more help.

The Orioles desperately need an infusion of young talent, and hopefully they begin to rebuild by using Machado and their other trade chips to replenish the farm system. There is no question that that's a necessity.

24 May 2018

Chris Davis Has Been MLB's Worst Player In The Past Year

In a way, this is arbitrary. In a moment, I'm going to show you just how bad Chris Davis has been in the last calendar year. But in another way, it's not. In 2015, Davis was very good. In 2016, he was pretty good. In 2017, he was not good. And this season, he's been so bad that it's hard to comprehend. Davis has always been a streaky player, and a player's rise or fall does not always happen in a linear fashion. Still, Davis has been trending down for a while.

As a team, the Orioles are terrible. It's not all Davis's fault. But as the team's highest-paid player and worst-performing position player, well, the criticism is going to come and questions will rightfully be asked.

FanGraphs makes it easy to sort by calendar years, so these numbers are coming from there. In the last calendar year, Chris Davis has an fWAR of -2.0. Among all qualified players, that is the worst. It's not even that close, as the second worst, Albert Pujols, is at -1.5.

Let's just look at hitting then, because Davis is a first baseman, and first basemen are supposed to be good hitters. In the last calendar year, he has a wRC+ of 62. That's third worst, behind Rougned Odor (60) and Billy Hamilton (61). Odor is a second baseman; Hamilton is a center fielder. Those two positions aren't necessarily supposed to have great hitters. More numbers: Davis's batting average (.185) is the worst. His on-base percentage (.267) is second worst. His slugging percentage -- Davis is supposed to be a masher! -- is fourth worst (.349).

In 2018, the league average first baseman has posted a wRC+ of 112. In 2018, Davis has a wRC+ of 30. He already has an fWAR of -1.5 this season; the next two closest players are at -1.0.

Davis's offensive production has completely collapsed. There's not much to say other than to simply wonder: What in the world is going on? Well, that's not entirely true, because after last night's 11-1 loss to the White Sox, Jim Palmer of MASN wondered why Davis isn't trying different things and criticized his approach at the plate.

Here's a portion, courtesy of Jon Meoli of The Baltimore Sun:
"You've got to throw that away, and you've got to make some adjustments. I don't see anything. I don't see a wider stance, I don't see a closed stance, I don't see him dropping my hands. I don't see anything. And we're seeing the results. He's just in a prolonged slump. You know, they say he works hard. Ehh. He told everybody in spring training that he worked with [hitting coach] Scott Coolbaugh. I asked Scott in spring training, I go, 'Hey, you must have really put in a lot of work.' He goes, 'We didn't work.' So, you know, I don't believe anything."
There's more, so make sure to read the rest of Meoli's article. But also, here's part of Palmer's conversation with Rick Dempsey, and it includes a clip of Davis striking out and not following the ball across the plate.
Palmer's criticisms are justified, and he certainly isn't giving a ringing endorsement of Coolbaugh, either. So when Buck Showalter talks about how his players care a lot, and that they're working hard and trying a million things to get things back to how they were, maybe you don't just have to take his word for it. I'm sure the players care -- who really wants to fail over and over again, especially on a large stage? -- but to see Davis struggle this mightily makes you wonder what types of adjustments and fixes the O's are trying to make.

23 May 2018

Brady Anderson Tells The Sun He Doesn't Want To Be GM

No one said hoping for the best was going to be easy. Earlier this morning, Eduardo A. Encina and Peter Schmuck of The Baltimore Sun discussed the current structure of the Orioles front office, including a closer look at the roles of the two Angelos sons, John and Louis, along with Brady Anderson. 

I'll make this quick: It's a must-read, but it's an incredibly depressing article for any fan looking for some clarity in the O's decision-making process. And to make matters worse, it includes Anderson dismissing the notion that he'd want to become the next general manager while publicly lobbying for a higher ranking position, the role of club president. Get a load of this:
Anderson’s growing role in the front office has spawned speculation that he might replace Duquette as general manager, but he told The Baltimore Sun recently that he is not interested in becoming the team’s general manager because the requirements of that role might inhibit his ability to work directly with players. Since becoming a special assistant to Duquette in 2012 and then vice president of baseball operations in 2013, Anderson has had a unique multifaceted role that includes working one-on-one with players and overseeing the team’s strength program.

“I want responsibilities and I have a lot of responsibilities," Anderson said, “but a lot of things I do I might not be able to do if I were the GM. I have aspirations to do more and more and more. There’s no doubt. I’m not going to hide that and I never have. I certainly believe I’m capable of doing more. Look, if I’m doing what I want to do, if I’m doing things that are helping the team, I can help the GM keep his job and keep that sort of continuity."

There also has been speculation that Anderson might be elevated to club president in a role similar to the one played by MacPhail during the late 2000s. Anderson does not deny that such a possibility interests him.

“As far as president and more responsibilities, sure, I’m ready for them,” Anderson said. “But that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Dan’s current status. It really doesn’t. They’re not mutually exclusive — my desires and the current GM having to do something else.”
This is madness. It's stunning to see Anderson feeling this comfortable to talk about exactly what he wants and doesn't want.

It's a wonder how the Orioles were ever able to return to their winning ways from 2012-2016. Whatever goodwill the team built up from their return to relevancy is almost used up, and articles like this describing the current level of dysfunction give fans a glimpse at just how chaotic things really are.

The State Of Orioles Fandom: Hoping For The Best

It is indisputable that the Orioles are staring into the abyss. Hopefully you enjoyed and appreciated the team's recent return to relevancy, but those times are over. Nothing was hidden about the cliff coming after the 2018 season. Unfortunately, the O's took an early wrong turn and disaster has already struck.

At 15-32, with a run differential of -67, and with a farm system that's rated somewhere in the bottom third in the majors, the O's are headed nowhere fast. The best course of action would be to not only trade Manny Machado, but nearly anyone else who could garner a decent return, in order to add young talent to a system that's desperate for it and regroup for a run in a couple years.

And yet... how can fans have much confidence that those in charge will get the necessary, upcoming moves right? According to recent reporting by multiple national outlets, Brady Anderson has leapfrogged Dan Duquette in terms of decision-making power. It wouldn't be surprising at all to see Anderson as the team's next general manager. While Anderson seems like a smart guy and is sabermetrically inclined, he might not even want to be the general manager. Would he prefer to keep his rover role where he has ownership's ear on certain matters, but can also feel free to get his hands dirty and work with certain players in the organization? Is that what a team should even want from its GM? Fans, fairly, might not even have that much confidence in Anderson considering his role in both keeping and bringing in some of the O's current veteran players.

While Duquette seems to be on his way out, Buck Showalter is also in the last year of his deal. Like Anderson, he has a lot of sway in the organization, but it's also unclear what he wants next. Does he want to stay in the dugout, is he after a front office job, or neither? Because the Orioles frequently punt on major decisions, there's a lot of uncertainty -- not exactly the best way to lead a rebuilding effort. Unless, of course, the Orioles don't plan on rebuilding at all, and will try to target major league ready players and yet again ignore the need to fix major organizational problems.

Orioles fans are used to turmoil, and none of this is really surprising. The real surprise was when the O's started winning games again in 2012. What do you do when the people in charge hold on to trade assets longer than they should? How should you feel when a team almost entirely ignores spending on international prospects to add talent to the organization? Isn't it a problem when a "reloading" team trots out three Rule 5 players and expects to compete for a playoff spot? The O's have tried a number of things over the years in an effort to gain advantages (some of which worked), but plenty of them just don't make sense.

There's no hiding the Orioles' dysfunction. And as I was working on this post, baseball analyst and former general manager Jim Bowden said this on a local radio show:
While I have no idea what to actually make of that, that last sentence is horrifying. The power structure in the O's organization is confusing, and it's hard to know who is making which decisions.

But even when things seem like they couldn't be any worse, there's always room for hope. Before the O's ended up with Duquette, they were the laughingstock of the league. They were turned down by multiple candidates who were qualified to become the team's next GM, and for a stretch, it seemed like no one would ever take the job. The O's success under the Showalter/Duquette pairing couldn't have been more unlikely, and yet somehow it happened. No one would have predicted it.

The best Orioles fans can do -- besides things like simply enjoying the remaining games of Machado wearing an Orioles uniform and the quirks and funny moments that happen throughout a 162-game season -- is hope that the people in charge occasionally make smart decisions and get lucky. How sad is that?

A complete teardown is improbable, but perhaps those in charge will ship off some of the team's valuable and spare parts and rebuild this team's core. It's embarrassing that this is the current situation, but that's what happens when an organization is this inept. Against all odds, you have to hope things work out. Weird things happen, and the Orioles are definitely weird.

22 May 2018

2021 is a Fair Target, so Tear Down that Club!

It does not hurt anymore.  What I mean, is that it hurts, but by this point we have grown accustomed to the burden of that pain.  The Orioles are terrible.  They are terrible qualitatively, quantitatively, and anecdotally.  Their terribleness is an encroaching truth that is now ever-present and swelling.  More so, as we look onto the horizon, we get a clear path to behold that things will be getting worse.  As much as local writers have said that, "Oh yeah, the Orioles farm system is poor, but that is because so many have graduated."  We should all now know how false that narrative was.

Yes, the Orioles system is poor.  Yes, the Orioles have graduated several players from that system.  However, those players who have graduated and become successful are close to leaving.  In the wake of Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, not much else happened.  Behind them are Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and Mychal Givens.  Behind them are...Trey Mancini.  What lies in the upper minors are somewhat promising players with significant red flags.  The yield has not been high and the franchise had a bit of a drought on the farm.

What that leaves the organization with is an inescapable trough this year, 2019, and 2020.  The hope being that by 2021, guys like Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle will be hitting their stride on the cheap.  Perhaps Cedric Mullins or DJ Stewart breaks out.  Maybe the Chance Sisco hype stays afloat in spite of all the leaks in that boat.  Maybe some of the pitching talent in the low minors rises as starting options instead of the relief support that actually look like.  Anyway, point being, 2021 looks like the first year we could conceive playing meaningful baseball in October again...if it all hits right.

Players who are not in the 2021 plans should probably be cashed in for chips that could impact that year.  Machado and Schoop are prime examples of players who should be dealt for some lottery tickets.  In fact, Machado should have been dealt over a year ago once they realized the team's fortunes were shot and that they were unwilling to plop down a 300 MM contract.  Schoop is a lesser Machado.  A guy who looks like a solid player. but nothing spectacular.  A 100+ MM contract is possible for him, but appears to be something that would be outside of what a rebuilding club should do.  He has a year more of control left, so he has some value but not an overwhelming amount.  The final big piece to deal out this summer would be Kevin Gausman, who has done a decent job with the Orioles but still looks like a player who could do amazing things with a team that understood him.  The Orioles do not appear to understand him.

Then there are a lot of secondary players who probably have some market, but not much coming back in return.  A player like Adam Jones is useful, but likely would not give the Orioles much to speak of.  In this post, I won't discuss those kinds of players.  I will only discuss the big items.

I also think the Orioles should keep anyone who will be with the club in 2021.  Players like Bundy or Alex Cobb should remain on the roster and be re-evaluated at a later date.  If someone gives you the world for either player then, yes, you deal them.  However, I doubt that and would prefer to see how things go in the coming years.

This leaves us with Machado (0.5 years left), Schoop (1.5 years left), and Gausman (2.5 years left).  Keep in mind, the trade examples that follow are explicitly not ones that I have heard from anyone, so be mindful and try not to spread these scenarios as reality.

Manny Machado SS/3B
Machado has been both revelatory at the plate and quite perplexing in the field.  He is putting up incredible numbers at the plate while his play at shortstop has looked rather dead.  Scouts tend to think that the misplays are simply awkwardness and will straighten up as the season continues.  Such a player represents roughly a 40 MM surplus.  He not only provides wins, but he concentrates that in one player.  Machado will be one of the few individuals out there who could literally change the fortunes of a team.  Lately, he has been linked to the Braves, Dodgers, Cubs, and Diamondbacks.  I will not discuss any of them.  Instead, let's have fun with another team doing quite well in the standings with rather abhorrent play at shortstop: the Brewers.

A 40 MM surplus would bring in players on par with Milwaukee's two best players.  This is a steep price, but the Brewers do not exactly have an incredibly deep system.  A strong yet not fantastical trade would be Machado for 2B Keston Hiura and RHP Corbin Burnes.  Both are backend top 100 prospects.  Hiura was drafted last year and is an advanced polished bat.  There is some concern about his defense, but he could compare on par with what Jonathan Schoop brings to the table.  However, a lack of arm strength would see him wander out to left field where the Orioles may soon experience quite a log jam.  Meanwhile, Burns is an advanced arm that will be ready for his MLB debut later this summer or next.  Not an exceptional talent, but he does look like he can be a starting pitcher.

This combination would do two things for the Orioles.  One, it arguably provides them with middle infield depth, which is something they drastically lack in the system.  Second, it gives them another cheap, controllable arm to let loose.  Of course, no one has connected Machado to the Brewers.

Jonathan Schoop 2B
Schoop is not worth as much as Machado, but he does have control for 2019 to give whatever team acquires him.  One option would be the Diamondbacks who have been rather disappointing at second.  Schoop is a hard one to figure with his value as he has a somewhat inconsistent bat to go along with a limited defensive profile.  It makes him a role player when he is off and an all star when he is on.  That looks like a 15 MM surplus to me, but it would not be surprising to see Baltimore try to hold out for a lot more.

To me, Schoop screams RHP Jon Duplantier.  Currently, Duplantier is eating up AA ball.  He has had some questions related to his health in the past, but appears to have put that behind him.  He throws a fastball with a lot of movement and a good breaking ball.  Duplantier would be ready for a taste of MLB later this year or in 2019.  This would give the Orioles another strong arm for consideration.

Kevin Gausman RHP
Gausman is a frustrating pitcher.  He will have streaks where he is superb and then others where is he rather pedestrian with a mix of blow ups.  Ask around the league and teams are still intrigued by him and believe that the best thing for him would be to get him out of the Orioles system.  I would be willing to deal him because I cannot see how this team can compete in 2019 or 2020, his last year under control.  Dealing him now will help reset the clock on the value.  Of course, the club will be hard pressed to find the kind of perceived prospect Gausman was seen as three or four years ago.

Here, there are few teams who really need another starting pitcher who are also running for a playoff position.  However, I could see the Braves utilizing Gausman and being intrigued about having him for an additional two years.  The Braves could also acquire him for prospects that are outside of their organizational top five due to their impressive depth.  I am putting a 30 MM surplus tag on Gausman and expecting a return of a fringe top 100 hitter and a fringe top 100 pitcher.

Austin Riley is a third basemen who just made the climb to AAA.  He does not look like a world turner, but he does appear to be a decent starting option.  He would be able to spell Machado at third and let Tim Beckham move back to shortstop.  Riley should be ready toward the end of this year or to start next year.  His aggressive approach at the plate aligns well with the Orioles.  LHP Max Fried would be the other target.  Scouts are somewhat divisive with how they view him.  Some see him as a fringe top 100 and others like him a lot more.  He just made his way into AAA and would be a live arm for the club to add that is close to MLB ready.  Fried's calling card is his breaking ball.

It is important to remember that this is sort of an ideal situation where these teams are very interested partners.  Given that, the Orioles could go from a team with two top 100 prospects on the upper end of the minor league systems to seven or eight prospects and one of the best farms in the league.  These prospects however are somewhat high risk.  None of them are top 10 near can't miss kind of guys.  Elite performance is unlikely for these guys.  That said, perhaps one or two find that next gear and, perhaps, several can provide a foundation for the next wave of elite talent to appear and pull the Orioles up by their bootstraps.

21 May 2018

Chance Sisco: Anatomy of a Thrown Out Runner

When Chance Sisco was drafted, he was noted as being a rather novice when it came to the defensive responsibilities of being a catcher.  His skills were uniformly seen as below average, but the potential for him to make those skills adequate was a divisive question among scouts.  Our own research found that poor defensive catchers generally do not make it to the majors, primarily because they are unable to acquire adequate defensive skill.  As Sisco rose through the minors, the common refrain was that he was improving, but he was not adequate.  More specifically, it was considered that his framing and blocking was adequate, but his movement from behind the plate was not ideal.

Last Wednesday, Sisco was challenged and this is what happened:

That marked the 18th time someone ran on Sisco and the ninth time he was able to contribute to a caught stealing.  For players with 150 IP, here are the leaders in % Caught Stealing (as of 5/17):
Name Team % CS
Salvador Perez KCR 63
Jett Bandy MIL 57
Matt Wieters WSN 50
Chance Sisco BAL
Mike Zunino SEA 43
J.T. Realmuto MIA 42
Luke Maile TOR 40
Jason Castro MIN
Pedro Severino WSN 39
Francisco Cervelli PIT 39
That looks fairly impressive and I think it is good to break down what happened in the video above.

So what are the parts of attempting to throw out a baserunner: lead control, hand break to plate, location, pop time, throw, and catch and tag.  Of those parts, the pitcher is in control of the lead and hand break to plate.  The middle infield is responsible for the catch and tag.  The catch is responsible for his pop and throw.

When it comes to lead control, there are a mix of opinions.  Many pitching coaches despise the pickoff throw.  They think it increases pitch count, messes with mechanics, can indicate when a pitcher is actually pitching more easily, and simply does not work.  This perspective usually involves a long staredown (a la Mike Mussina) or simply never really looking over and letting the catcher call a pickoff move.  The other view is the concept on continual disruption to get the runner out of their rhythm.  The Orioles appear to be a team that does not pick off much, and even if they did, it does not appear to help catchers all that much.

In the 1980s, a revolution was afoot.  Dick Bosman, former Orioles pitching coach, was trying to figure out how to limit damage inflicted on his team by the running game.  In the 1980s, running was a major element of the game with several seasons where someone would steal over a hundred bases.  Bosman realized that as pitching coach, he had trouble encouraging catchers to get off their throws and began tinkering with a pitchers time to plate.  What he realized is that a pitcher could use a quick side step and not lose all that much velocity.  He was able to reduce the time a pitcher got the ball to the plate from his hand break from over two seconds to well under two seconds.  From all appearances, it seems the Orioles still retain that perspective.  It is a concept that is loudly preached in the organization.  This helps a catcher quite a bit.

Another thing that can help a catcher is where pitches are thrown.  Dick Bosman has another story regarding the great Ivan Rodriguez who was known as a dominant force against baserunners.  He noted that IRod would call pitches high and outside to put himself in better position to throw runners out regardless of the impact on the at bat.  Eventually, hitters wised up and began expecting those kinds of pitches.  For years, the Orioles have done this.  Pitch maps are all over the place, but when a runner is alone at first, the pitches rise with greater frequency.  From what I can tell on Sisco's successes, he often gets these pitches when runners run.

This brings us to pop time, the time it takes to receive the ball and deliver it to your middle infielder.  Here is a smattering of pop times with ranks (using Baseball Savant).
Name  Team Pop Time Rank (41) MPH
JT Realmuto MIA 1.85 1 88
Gary Sanchez NYY 1.95 4 87
Welington Castillo CHW 1.96 6 80
Matt Wieters WAS 1.99 15 79
Buster Posey SFG 2.01 21 83
Caleb Joseph BAL 2.03 24 78
Omar Narvaez CHW 2.06 31 80
Chance Sisco BAL 2.08 36 78
Kurt Suzuki ATL 2.15 42 81
Sisco has one of the weaker arms in baseball behind the plate.  Of those 41 catchers, only AJ Ellis, Brian McCann, and Tony Wolters get less velocity on their balls.  What is the difference between a Chance Sisco soft-tossed 78 mph pitch and a Jorge Alfaro 91 mph burner?  About 0.07 seconds.  In other words, about 16-21% of the pop time has to do with getting the ball in the air to second.  The rest is getting into position to throw and exchanging the ball from glove to hand.

When we look at positioning, Sisco is better.  Whereas his arm strength is 38th out of 41, his positioning into a throw was 23rd out of 41.  That is below the mean, but not off by much.  Getting the ball out of his glove and into the air?  That is 34th out of 41.  All of that is below average and paints a terrible picture for what he has control over. 

One thing is not being measured though: the placement of his throws.  I do not have the data, but Joseph does an excellent job with his accuracy and delivers the ball well for the middle infielder to use.  I am unsure where it is on purpose, but he seems to hit the lip of the infield grass so that it is delivered right for a tag.  That is what we see in the graphic above.

That leads us to the catch and tag, which is something either the Orioles make a point to find in a player or teach in a player.  JJ Hardy, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and Ryan Flaherty.  They all were excellent at receiving a ball and putting a tag down.  I am not familiar enough with the others yet to deliver anything near decisive.

So what does this all mean? 
Name Team % CS SB/9 Att/9
Russell Martin TOR 23 0.91 1.19
Matt Wieters WSN 50 0.51 1.02
Jonathan Lucroy OAK 31 0.69 1.00
Jorge Alfaro PHI 29 0.68 0.96
Chance Sisco BAL 50 0.47 0.94
Tony Wolters COL 33 0.58 0.88
Luke Maile TOR 40 0.51 0.85
Caleb Joseph BAL 21 0.67 0.84
Pedro Severino WSN 39 0.50 0.81
Robinson Chirinos TEX 8 0.74 0.81
Above you see the top ten catchers for whom the most stolen base attempts are made (at least 150 innings played this season).  For whatever reason, teams are running on Chance Sisco.  It may be that teams see the problems he has and are willing to send runners who have no business being sent to second.  It may be that Sisco indeed places his thrown balls well and that value of that is underrated.  It may be that his %CS will catch up to him.

Regardless, there are good reasons to doubt Sisco as being effective long term against baserunners similar to how Joseph was initially incredible at throwing out runners his first year, too, and is now fairly unimpressive.  My guess is that we will eventually see teams be slightly more selective running against Sisco and perform much better.

18 May 2018

Chris Tillman's Unfortunate, Historic Run

Chris Tillman was placed on the 10 day disabled list on May 11, and there’s no guarantee he will ever pitch in an Orioles uniform again. This is sad, because from 2012 to 2016 Tillman was one of the better pitchers in the American League, winning 63 games and posting an ERA of 3.81 in that time frame while throwing the 10th most innings of any American League starter. Of course, if you’ve been alive and an Orioles fan since the end of 2016, you know that Tillman has, for lack of a better word, been absolutely terrible.

Since 2017 began, Tillman has thrown 119.2 innings. He has posted an ERA of 8.42 and a WHIP of 1.964. He has (this is almost mind boggling) struck out only 76 hitters while walking 68. In 2018, he has more walks than strikeouts, and has gotten swinging strikes on only 5% of his pitches, which is about half the league average and one of the worst marks in all of baseball. While you may have been able to deduce this from the ERA, he has nearly given up a run an inning.

Matt Kremnitzer detailed Tillman’s woes relative to the current environment, but unfortunately what Tillman has done since the start of last season is actually historic. Since 1899, no pitcher who was given 19 starts in a season had a worse ERA in those starts than Chris Tillman did in 2017. Add in the disaster that has been 2018, and Tillman has arguably had the worst 26 start stretch of all time.

Without question, some of this is injury-related, as the shoulder issues Tillman dealt with in 2016 seemed to precipitate this incredibly rapid decline. Despite repeated denials about his health being a major factor in his struggles, it is obvious that something hasn’t been right for over two years. That said, it has become truly hard to fathom what utility the Orioles see in continuing to throw Tillman to the wolves. As recently as May 16, Buck Showalter had this to say regarding Tillman’s rehab from his latest injury issue:

“As soon as we get all the soreness and physical stuff behind him, then we’ll start, so we haven’t really set up that schedule yet until we know that he’s pain-free. After that it will move pretty quickly.”

It’s possible that this is simply normal Buck-speak and that it’s unlikely Tillman returns to the roster anytime soon. On the other hand, the Orioles saw Tillman go through one of the worst seasons ever for a starting pitcher and still brought him back, and then ran him out for seven starts of 10+ ERA pitching, so who knows?

Either way, this is a depressing coda to what had once been a solid career. I don’t think anyone would have considered in, say, 2014, that we’d be here in 2018 talking about Chris Tillman being historically bad.

I was somewhat on board with the Orioles signing Tillman to be the fifth starter, and even said: “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.” My defense was that he would earn $3 million even if he was well below average and simply pitched like he did in 2015. Now, giving me that $3 million and asking me to put it all on black at the Horseshoe Casino seems like a far more sane and safe bet.

17 May 2018

Is It Already Time To Sit Chris Davis More?

Because of his massive contract and continued struggles, Chris Davis is always a popular topic. At the moment, Davis has a wRC+ of only 42. Among all players with at least 100 plate appearances, that's tied for sixth worst. Among anyone who's played first base this year, Davis's 42 wRC+ is second worst behind Ian Desmond's 32 wRC+. In terms of FanGraphs WAR, him and Desmond are tied at -1.0 (worst among all players).

In a post on FanGraphs yesterday about how the Rockies have been historically bad at first base, Travis Sawchik didn't spare the Orioles' struggles at the position: "By using wRC+, the Rockies are a historic outlier when it comes to first-base performance with their wRC+ of 21. Interestingly, the Orioles are second on the list (42)." Of course, almost all of the O's first base work has come from Davis.

It would be stunning for Desmond and Davis to continue being this bad. In the Expansion Era (1961-2018), only seven players have qualified for the batting title and played at least 50% of their games at first base while posting an OPS+ below 80. Here's that group, from the handy Baseball-Reference Play Index:

Rk Player OPS+
1Ian Desmond422018COL155156.171.213.349.562
2Chris Davis462018BAL15074.
3Pete Rose691983PHI555520.245.316.286.602
4Enos Cabell721981SFG413412.255.274.326.600
5Kevin Young731993PIT508386.236.300.343.643
6Darin Erstad741999ANA6388413.253.308.374.683
7Dave Stapleton761983BOS5985410.247.297.363.661
8Lee Thomas781963LAA594529.220.301.316.617
9Mike Squires791981CHW334350.265.312.296.607
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/16/2018.

The most notable name on this list is Pete Rose, in his age 42 season. It's only mid-May, but for now, Desmond and Davis are on this list, and would far and away be the worst of the group.

Over a month ago, I talked about Davis's small contributions and not giving up on him, and a few weeks ago, Matt Perez discussed Davis's various problems and how he's close to not being a full-time player anymore. Since then, he hasn't played much better. Somehow, in just the third year of his lucrative contract, we're already to the point of wondering if Davis should be a platoon player.

The smart move is probably to be patient. The Orioles are bad, Davis's contract isn't movable, and the non-deferred part of his deal runs through 2022. He has plenty of issues to work out, but the O's can offer him time to get out of whatever funk he's in in order for him to hopefully regain some of his offensive prowess.

And yet, at the same time, this does not appear to be a fluke. In previous seasons, Davis's ability to make contact was a concern, but when he hit the ball, he often made solid contact and the ball went far. That is no longer the case:

2015: 149 wRC+, .390 wOBA, .402 xwOBA
2016: 112 wRC+, .340 wOBA, .353 xwOBA
2017: 92 wRC+, .312 wOBA, .335 xwOBA
2018: 42 wRC+, .235 wOBA, .299 xwOBA

That's a look at Davis's wRC+ from FanGraphs and his wOBA and expected wOBA numbers from Baseball Savant over the last few years. Davis is simply not making the same amount of quality contact (even while making slightly more contact overall), and while his power may not be gone, it's definitely gone missing.

How long can a team put up with its first baseman posting a wRC+ below 50? That's the same question the Rockies are asking about Desmond. But Davis is making even more money and is much more entrenched.

As expected, there are obvious signs of frustration with Davis's lack of production. The motivating tactic of batting him leadoff to begin the season failed spectacularly. Then, in late April, Davis was given a couple days off to "get back to being a baseball player." Davis will look OK for a couple of at-bats here and there, but overall, nothing is working.

Considering Davis's current level of production, he should be batting eighth or ninth. If he were to platoon against right-handed pitching, either Mark Trumbo or Trey Mancini should play first base whenever Davis sits against lefties. The Orioles are in a bind at third base as well, with Tim Beckham's injury forcing them into a platoon featuring Danny Valencia and Jace Peterson. At least Valencia is hitting; Peterson is not.

The Orioles have plenty of issues. That's one reason why running Davis out there may not be that big of a deal. Still, he's already among the very worst players in the game, and there's nothing to suggest that's going to change anytime soon. How much leeway does he get? How bad does he have to be before he gets the Chris Tillman treatment? How many bad players can the Orioles keep in Sarasota?

The Davis contract was a gamble, and well intentioned or not, the Orioles lost. Now what?

Photo via Keith Allison. Stats (as of May 16) via Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.