Archive for April, 2010

Austin Jackson’s Fatal Flaw

Austin Jackson is an interesting ballplayer. The Detroit Tigers center fielder is hitting .330/.394/.468 out of the leadoff spot. And thought the ultra-athletic rookie is far from a finished product, you can’t argue with his numbers thus far. But how about this one: 34 percent. As in, the 23-year-old is striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances. That’s Mark Reynolds’ territory. Jackson is being talked about as a rookie of the year contender, but can he sustain his excellence with his current strikeout rate?

The most obvious reason to doubt Jackson is his batting average on balls in play, which currently sits at .492 and is the highest in baseball. Last year, the league leader in BABIP was David Wright at .394, so we can expect Jackson’s BABIP to come crashing down. But it appears his high BABIP is a little more than just luck, and is a byproduct of the way he is being pitched.

Like a lot of young players, Jackson clearly enjoys hitting the fastball. A look at his pitch-type values shows that he’s 0.93 runs above average (per 100 pitches) against the heater. Compare that to a -1.68 against changeups, and you suddenly have a pretty good idea of what to throw to Jackson. In his column today, Tim Kurkjian discusses the fundamental failings of some of the game’s top young players, and Jackson’s inability to hit off-speed stuff fits that topic. So far this season, Jackson has been seeing a large number of fastballs, as pitchers are no doubt testing the young hitter. He’s been challenged with the heat 68 percent of the time. In contrast, teammate Miguel Cabrera — a proven fastball hitter — has seen 56 percent fastballs. Jackson has been thrown changeups 11 percent of the time, and we should see that number continue to rise as opponents figure out his weakness. Also, Jackson swings at pitches outside the strike zone just 1.0 percent more often than the league average. However, he has a significant issue with making contact on pitches outside the zone: 57.9 percent compared to an average of 64.5 percent.

It’s clear that Jackson needs to make some adjustments if he’s still going to be in the AL Rookie of the Year race in September. As a leadoff catalyst, his job is to get on base and into scoring position for the club’s run producers. A player with a strikeout rate of more than 30 percent is not going to get the job done over the course of a full season. If we regress Jackson’s BABIP to a still-high .380, he’s going to produce an on-base percentage around .323. If we lower his BABIP to the current league-average of approximately .300, his OBP suddenly becomes a welcome-back-to-the-minors .276.

The scouting report on Jackson is no doubt filtering through the league as we speak: Changeups, preferably out of the zone. It will be up to the rookie to adjust. If he doesn’t, the next five months of the season will be rough when his BABIP comes back down to earth.


The DH Problem

The designated hitter spot presents American League teams with an opportunity that their NL brethren don’t get to take advantage of. This seems like an advantage that every team should exploit, but as we’ve seen so far in 2010, that doesn’t always happen.

Thus far this season DHs are hitting a combined .246/.336/.412 in 1,228 plate appearances, which is pretty much league average. In terms of batting average, only catchers have fared worse. The DH spot ranks fourth in OBP, behind right field, left field, and first base, and ranks fifth in slugging, behind those same positions plus center field. Shouldn’t players who have no responsibilities other than to hit perform better than their two-way counterparts? Theoretically this is the case, but in practice, a number of teams end up featuring former stars with big contracts in the DH role, because they have no other place to play them.

The A’s, Red Sox, and Indians have suffered their most from their designated “hitters.” Eric Chavez ranks the best among the three with a .236/.279/.345 line. The other two, David Ortiz and Travis Hafner, have combined for a .180/.273/.324 mark, not much better than what those teams would get if they let their pitchers hit. Normally players who produce these numbers would sit on the bench, but these three players will make a combined $36 million in 2010. While continued poor production might force Ortiz and Chavez from the lineup since their contracts expire after this season, Hafner has two years and $28.75 million left on his deal. The Indians will probably give him every chance to revert to his former self.

A few years ago, Ortiz and Hafner received big-money deals to exclusively serve as DH, but as baseball puts a greater emphasis on defense, we’ll see if players with no value in the field continued to be paid like stars. Considering Jermaine Dye hasn’t been able to find a deal to his liking, it seems unlikely.


Felix is Down, Beckett is Up

Both Felix Hernandez and Josh Beckett were given hefty contract extensions this past offseason, with both of their teams paying them to pitch like aces. Both right-handers were on the mound Monday night, and while one of them is looking like a very wise investment, the other is not. And there’s a pretty simple explanation as to why.

King Felix drew the Kansas City Royals to close out his April slate and held the hot-hitting Royals to two earned runs through seven innings. Hernandez did walk three but also struck out seven. The most notable thing about his outing — besides the fact that his team failed to score while he was in the game — was his ground-ball rate. Prior to the start, 62 percent of batted balls against Hernandez this season were of the ground-ball variety, a mark that will represent a career high if it holds up. (His career ground-ball rate is 57 percent.) On Monday night, 14 of the 23 balls put into play by the Royals were on the ground — or roughly 61 percent.

The reason for Hernandez’s increased ground-ball rate is his increased sinker velocity. Pitch f/x data collected from the 2009 and 2010 seasons says Hernandez is throwing his sinker nearly 94 mph on average thus far this season, while the pitch was closer to 90 mph last season. The 24-year-old might lose some velocity over the grind of a long season, but for now, Herandez’s sinker is simply overpowering hitters, and his 2.15 ERA suggests as much.

As for Beckett, he was striking out just 5.96 batters per nine innings entering Monday’s affair with the Toronto Blue Jays and had a 5.26 ERA. The Jays lead the league in strikeout percentage, making them the perfect opponent for Beckett to rack up some K’s against, right? Wrong. Beckett lasted all of three innings while allowing eight earned runs on nine hits to go with three strikeouts, three walks and a home run allowed. His ERA is now 7.22.

The biggest shifts in Beckett’s game are an increased number of changeups and a decreased number of swinging strikes. Beckett is using his changeup more than he ever has with Boston, and the results have not been pretty. FanGraphs’ run values suggest the changeup is his worst pitch on a rate basis, and it’s not particularly close. For every 100 changeups, Beckett is costing his team nearly three runs. What’s odd about that is last year, when Beckett had a 3.86 ERA, his change was his most valuable pitch. For every 100 times thrown, it was worth 2.16 runs. This year, he is throwing it more than 14 percent of the time. Last year, he threw it 8.6 percent of the time. Obviously, something is wrong with the offering. And a look at the chart below tells the story: Beckett is leaving his changeup up in the zone far more frequently.

Meanwhile, only 7.4 percent of Beckett’s pitches are resulting in swings and misses, a stark contrast to his career percentage of 9.9 percentage. Swinging strikes correlate pretty well with strikeouts, so this is not what Boston wants to see from its $68 million-dollar man.

In both cases, the alterations to their pitch repertoires and the contrasting degrees of success could be just coincidence or small sample sizes playing with the numbers. Whatever the truth is, both the Red Sox and Mariners will need their aces to thrive if their playoff hopes are to be categorized as anything but just hopes.


San Diego’s Secret Stars

The San Diego Padres lost Sunday. This qualifies as news because lately they’ve been playing like the best team in baseball. Before Sunday’s loss, the Padres had won eight consecutive games, including sweeps of divisional foes Arizona and San Francisco. And in ESPN.com’s latest MLB Power Rankings, San Diego is No. 7.

Although superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is doing his thing, hitting home runs in each of the past four games, the key to the Padres’ early success is a bunch of no-names.

Chase Headley, a former hotshot prospect who previously struggled to adjust to the big leagues, has found his stroke in April. His .371 batting average easily paces the team. Although the third baseman is not a huge power threat, he has seven extra-base hits and six stolen bases, providing all-around value. Based on FanGraphs’ wins above replacement statistic, Headley has been worth 1.1 wins (compared with Gonzalez’s 1.0), making him the team’s co-MVP through the first three weeks of the season.

Headley isn’t the only low-profile guy carrying his weight. Outfielder Will Venable has provided some much-needed power to a lineup that lacks punch beyond Gonzalez. His .262 average might not look like much on the surface, but nine of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases, giving him a ridiculous .312 isolated slugging percentage on the season. (Isolated slugging is simply slugging minus batting average, which allows us to measure the power output of a player by excluding singles.) For comparison, Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers posted a .303 ISO last season.

Wrapping up the trio of unheralded early-season Padres hitting stars is catcher Nick Hundley. Like Venable, his .262 batting average isn’t all that impressive, but instead of supplying power, Hundley is busting out the walking stick. He’s drawn eight free passes in 13 games, driving his on-base percentage up to .380, a remarkably high number for a backstop. Although the base on balls is a less sexy way to derive value, there is no more important offensive skill than the ability to get on base.

It’s unlikely that Headley, Venable and Hundley will continue to perform like stars because none of them has a track record that suggests he can sustain his performance. But if you’re looking for the reason the Padres are in first place, look no further than these three. And considering none of the members of the trio is older than 27, it’s possible they’ve turned a corner in their development. If they all continue on their current career-year course, the NL West will be a lot more interesting.


The Secret to Livan’s Success

Livan Hernandez saw his unlikely scoreless streak end at 17 innings yesterday, as he gave up the first of two solo home runs that would give him his first loss of the season. It was the kind of start that serves as a lesson for why wins and losses don’t matter, as the Nationals offered no run support. But the loss does nothing to taint what has been the best April of Livan’s career, coming in a season where even the most optimistic of projection systems saw him as a 5.00 ERA pitcher. There are a lot of explanations for why Hernandez won’t be sustain his success going forward — his 9-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, for instance — but none more so than a hitless streak that would make Ubaldo Jimenez jealous.

Hernandez has pitched from the stretch in 29 plate appearances this season, and in none of those has he allowed a hit. In all, opponents are hitting a ridiculous .000/.138/.000 when their teammates are on base against Livan, which explains why two solo home runs on Thursday are the only runs that have crossed the plate in the 24 innings Hernandez has pitched this season.

At FanGraphs, we track a stat called Left on Base Percentage, which monitors the rate that pitchers strand baserunners. League averages usually hover between 70 and 72 percent, and while better pitchers can routinely be above-average, pitchers of Livan’s ilk see a great deal of variance. Stranding runners is a huge part of run prevention, which is why the season Hernandez had his best LOB% (2003 – 78.7 percent) corresponded with his best full-season ERA (3.20). And the year of his worst LOB% (2008 – 64.8 percent) led to a career-worst ERA (6.05). This season, Livan’s Left on Base Percentage is a perfect 100 percent, a rate difficult to sustain for three starts, much less an entire season.

In his career, which spans 2,750 innings, Livan has been identical with the bases empty (.780 OPS allowed) and with runners on base (.782 OPS allowed). His stuff doesn’t get better from the stretch, his delivery isn’t more deceptive. People will say that Hernandez is succeeding because he is “bearing down” with runners on base. This is not true. He is merely in the midst of an amazing stretch of good fortune. While a career revival makes a good story, this is a tale more likely to end with regression to the mean, and another below-average, innings-eating season for Hernandez.


Why Boston will Finish Third

What would you have said if I had told you before the season began that the Padres would be leading the NL West on April 22? Odds are you would have called me crazy, and justifiably so. But here we are, and that’s because crazy things happen, especially in short time frames.

While what has happened so far can’t be taken as gospel of what will happen over the rest of the season, we can see that some things have shifted. By looking back at preseason projections and applying them to what has already occurred, we can get an updated look at how teams and players may perform this year. To explain the methodology, I’m going to use the Phillies as an example.

In the April 5 edition of ESPN The Magazine, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections predicted that Philadelphia would win about 93 games. They have won 9 of their first 14 games already, so does that mean they are going to win 84 games the rest of the year to bring their total to 93? No. We wouldn’t expect them to play worse the rest of the year just because they got off to a good start.

Our best assumption is that they are still a 93-win team the rest of the way, so we simply take their projected win percentage (.571) and apply it to their remaining games (148), making their updated projection 94 wins. They have added a win to their preseason expected total by playing so well in the first two weeks of the season.

For an updated look at how ZiPS thinks your team will finish the season, here are the updated projected standings through April 20, rounded to the nearest win:

Even though they are currently leading the NL West, the Padres are still projected as the third-worst team in the majors, behind the Blue Jays and Astros. The Jays are also off to a good start (9-7), but keep in mind that they have yet to play the Yankees, Rays or Red Sox.

The Red Sox’s falling into third place was the only major change when comparing the update with the original predictions. For the preseason ZiPS predictions in The Mag, the Red Sox were projected to win the AL East. After their slow start, they are now projected to miss the playoffs. That slow start created a large hole that they now have to dig out of, and with two good teams in the division, it won’t be easy. While Boston’s slow start isn’t reflective of how good the Sox are as a team, their place in the standings may just be “real,” because they now have to play better than their true talent level in order to close the gap. They may be able to do it, but it will now be an upset if the Red Sox make the playoffs.


Fukudome’s Fast Starts

Kosuke Fukudome wasted no time winning Cubs’ fans hearts in 2008, hitting a game-tying three-run home run in his major league debut, and blistering the baseball in his first month in the majors. At the end of his first April, he was hitting .327/.436/.480 and looked like a star.

The rest of the season didn’t go quite as well. Fukudome hit .241/.340/.355 from May through September, showing little power and earning a late season benching. In 2009 we saw much of the same. In his 89 April plate appearances Fukudome hit .338/.461/.592, an improvement even over his hot April 2008. The rest of the way he hit .245/.360/.393, again a bit better than 2008 but still a disappointment after another torrid start.

He’s again off to a good start — he’s hitting .297 — yet Cubs fans have been conditioned to expect much worse once the calendar turns to May. Why has he hit so much better in April than the rest of the year?

It is tough to assign cause to such a small sample, however, we can see a discrepancy in his batted ball types in April compared to the rest of the season. In the first month of the year, Fukudome hits the ball in the air and drives it with some regularity, as seen in the graph below. It shows the percentage of flyballs to each zone divided by total balls in play, with the colors showing slugging percentage — the redder the better. As you can see, he turns into a groundball machine as the season wears on. And after driving the ball to right field seven percent of the time in April, that number drops to three percent the rest of the year.

If you’re more of a numbers person than a graph person, Fukudome’s career GB percentage in April is 41 percent, compared with 50 percent the rest of the year.

At a glance, it might seem like hitting ground balls isn’t all a bad thing. Ground balls, after all, produce hits at a greater rate than fly balls. But that only touches on one dimension of hitting — and even then, it’s not a particularly compelling argument. Last year in the National League ground balls produced a .234 batting average, while fly balls produced a .224 average. (Line drives, the third type of batted ball, had a .728 average.) But slugging percentage on fly balls is considerably higher than on grounders. NL hitters slugged .595 on fly balls last season, while they slugged just .255 on ground balls. It’s pretty hard to hit a groundball over the wall.

While some hitters can benefit from hitting the ball on the ground, Fukudome does not profile as one of them. He possesses the power to hit near or in the middle of the order, having hit 31 homers for the Chunichi Dragons in 2006. However, he doesn’t take advantage of this power once the calendar flips to May. He’s off to a strong start again, and he has kept the ball in the air at a greater frequency than in his past two seasons. Maybe it’s Fukudome’s year, but until he shows the ability to hit fly balls and line drives in the later months, don’t expect an improvement.


What was La Russa Thinking?

On Saturday, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets played one of the classic National League games of all time. After 20 innings and 652 pitches, every player on both rosters — save Oliver Perez, Chris Carpenter, Brad Penny and Adam Wainwright — had been used. Position players pitched two full innings and one (Joe Mather) took the loss for Tony LaRussa’s team.

Along the way, there were plenty of swings in momentum. At FanGraphs, we use a statistic called “Win Probability Added” to measure the change in likelihood of a team winning as events unfold. For example, when Skip Schumaker hit a double to open the second inning, he added 6.1 percent to St. Louis’ chance of winning the game.

As you can see by the accompanying game graph, there were some single plays that stand out. Some of these swings in win probability were directly due to managerial decisions, and now that we’ve had a day to digest this epic game, it’s still hard to understand what La Russa was thinking with some of his decisions in extra innings.

Perhaps his most harmful was the decision to double-switch out cleanup hitter Matt Holliday, because it allowed the Mets to intentionally walk Albert Pujols and take advantage of the situation. Even with Holliday under the weather, choosing to have the pitcher’s spot due up behind the game’s best hitter is simply a poor choice.

On two separate occasions (in the 12th and 14th innings), the Mets took advantage of Holliday’s absence by intentionally walking Pujols to load the bases. Both times, La Russa chose to let a relief pitcher swing the bat in situations where an out would decrease their odds of winning by 15.4 percent, a staggeringly high total for one play. La Russa left actual hitter Bryan Anderson (and his career .362 on base percentage in the minors) on the bench while his pitchers flailed away.

Even if you think Anderson isn’t much of an offensive force, the gap between he and a relief pitcher at the plate is enormous. The average major league pitcher got on base just 18 percent of the time last year, and as relievers, Jason Motte and Blake Hawksworth bat infrequently, so that even overstates their abilities. With two chances to win the game, La Russa chose to let two of the worst hitters in the sport swing the bat.

Even still, those plays may not have been the biggest errors of the night. Ryan Ludwick’s caught stealing in the 19th inning cost his team 21.6 percent in win probability. Had he been ruled safe, the Cardinals odds of winning would have increased by just 4.2 percent. In other words, he would need five successful steals in that situation to cancel out just one caught stealing, and Ludwick had a career 57 percent success rate prior to the attempt. Henry Blanco, the Mets catcher, has thrown out 43 percent of all base stealers in his career. The odds were simply not in Ludwick’s favor, and getting thrown out was a huge blow to the Cardinals. It was yet another bad decision on a night full of them. The Cardinals threw away three great opportunities to win, and eventually, the Mets won by default.


Are the Astros Really This Bad?

The Astros are off to a rollicking 1-8 start, finally getting a win yesterday against the Cardinals after opening the season with eight consecutive losses. They aren’t losing a bunch of close ones, either. Through the first nine games, Houston has allowed 45 runs while only scoring 19. According their Pythagorean Win expectation, they have earned their 1-8 record. But are the Astros really this bad? After all, they do have former All-Stars such as Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt and, when he returns from injury, Lance Berkman.

However, even before Berkman’s DL stint, the Astros were expected to be terrible. CHONE’s “optimistic” projection forecasted the Astros for 72 wins this season. CAIRO, another projection system, saw the Astros being even worse in 2010, at 69-93.

The Astros have been heading this direction for a while. While Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence are good players in their prime seasons, and Michael Bourn is a useful piece, Berkman and Oswalt aren’t the forces they were a few years ago, and Carlos Lee’s bat is heavily offset by his poor fielding. (And right now, Lee is “hitting” .086 with zero extra-base hits, so he can’t even fall back on his bat.) Other than that core, there is altogether too much reliance on players best suited for the part-time duty (Kaz Matsui) and others who may not be suited for the major leagues (J.R. Towles). The pitching isn’t quite as disastrous, but that’s only relatively speaking — the drop-off after Oswalt and Rodriguez is sharp, and the bullpen is nothing special, despite general manager Ed Wade’s predictably silly $15-million investment in Brandon Lyon this past winter.

Despite the fact that it is only the second week of the season, it is no longer early in Houston. With a 1-8 start to the season, the Astros would have to win 59 percent of their games the rest of the way to end up with 90 wins on the season. This team simply isn’t good enough to play at that level for five and a half months. It’s too early to say that they’re definitely the worst team in baseball, but it’s not too early to write off their playoff chances.


The Rangers’ New Ace?

Most baseball fans — even those who count themselves among the TMI readership — were probably a little surprised to find that someone named Colby Lewis had not only signed with the Texas Rangers this offseason, but was immediately considered a prime candidate for a starting rotation. If the name sounded somewhat familiar, it’s because Lewis entered 2010 with over 200 Major League innings under his belt, having made appearances at the highest level every year but one from 2002 to 2007. As for the quality of those innings, well, you be the judge.

In 217 innings, Lewis had a 6.71 ERA with 155 strikeouts with 124 walks. He was awful. But after a couple of years playing in Japan, he showed the kind of stuff that made him a supplemental first-round pick of the Rangers back in 1999, as he had eight strikeouts for every one walk while playing for Hiroshima.

Lewis’s numbers in Japan certainly impressed a couple of the projection systems we host at FanGraphs. Sean Smith’s CHONE projections call for Lewis to end 2010 with 167 innings, a 3.99 ERA, and a 1.13 WHIP. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projects Lewis for a 4.39 ERA in 176 innings. Not incredible, but still serviceable when one considers Lewis’s home ballpark (which ranks among the top-third of all parks in run inflation).

Yesterday’s start in Cleveland, however, might create even loftier expectations. Obviously, small sample size caveats abound here, but Lewis’s final line against the Indians was excellent. In 5 1/3 innings, he struck out 10, walked four, and allowed just two runs. Remarkably, those 10 whiffs came against just 24 batters faced, meaning Lewis fanned more than 40 percent of opposing batters.

Of particular note are the 15 swings-and-misses Lewis generated on the night. In a study published last summer, Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing finds that there is a great deal of correlation between swinging strikes and strikeout rates. Starting pitchers, on average, induce a swing and miss a little more than eight percent of the time. Last year’s strikeout leaders Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander finished 2009 with swinging-strike rates of about 11 percent. Last night, Lewis managed to generate whiffs on a full 13 percent of his pitches.

Does this mean we can expect to find Lewis’s name among the list of strikeout leaders by year’s end? My guess is no. But he could still be a success without striking out 200 batters. In any case, his is a compelling story, and one that will be a pleasure to follow for the remainder of the 2010 season.