Archive for June, 2010

Five Major Disappointments

While everyone is talking about who’s going to make the All-Star team, here are five players we can be sure won’t be spending July 12-14 in Anaheim, unless they’re paying their own way. Starting with Matt Kemp, here are 2010’s biggest disappointments.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers
After signing a two-year extension in the offseason and hobnobbing with a Hollywood hottie, Kemp has put together a poor 2010. After hitting close to .300 last year, Kemp is hitting just .258 with a .316 on-base percentage. And his fielding has been even worse. While UZR may not be the most reliable in small samples, his mark of minus-16.5 is by far the worst of any center fielder in baseball, and it’s not even close.

Chone Figgins, Mariners
Figgins reached base nearly 40 percent of the time last season, but his OBP has dropped down to .337 this year. Some of this may stem from losing his line-drive stroke, but he’s also striking out far too often. Figgins has taken the walk of shame 17.5 percent of the time over his entire career but is striking out five percent more often this season. For a player who doesn’t have power and relies heavily on speed, he needs to put the ball in play a lot more often.

Adam Lind, Blue Jays
Lind made huge strides in 2009 but has regressed to his previous levels of performances. After swinging at about 25 percent of pitches outside of the zone in 2009, Lind is chasing pitches at a 32 percent rate. He is even swinging at more pitches inside the zone and is making far less contact overall. This has led to his strikeout rate rising almost 9 percent compared to last year, and he’s hitting just .204/.265/.344 on the year.

Randy Wolf, Brewers
The Brewers were counting on Wolf to anchor their rotation when they signed him to a three-year, $29.75 million contract this offseason, and he hasn’t performed up to expectations. Wolf is throwing 6 percent more balls compared to last season and is walking batters at nearly twice the rate. The result? A 4.92 ERA.

Trevor Hoffman, Brewers
The fact that the Brewers have two players on this list should partially explain their .447 winning percentage. During Hoffman’s historic career, he has been known for two things: “Hells Bells,” and his changeup. The music still plays whenever he comes in for a save, but the changeup doesn’t trot in with him. Since 2008, Hoffman has lost nearly 4 inches of downward movement on his change. When you can no longer keep hitters off balance with your fastball, losing movement on your most important pitch is a death sentence. The 42-year-old has allowed seven homers in 24 innings, and his days as a closer appear to be finished.

Liriano’s Meltdown

On April 12, the Minnesota Twins claimed possession of first place in the AL Central with a 5-2 win against the Boston Red Sox. Since then, the Twins have been in sole possession of first for 76 days and tied for one. For the first time since then, Minnesota is no longer atop the Central after losing to the Detroit Tigers, 7-5, on Monday night. Although the Twins battled back to within a run in the eighth inning, Twins ace Francisco Liriano’s four-run, first-inning meltdown was simply too much for the Twins to recover from.

Liriano started the inning by hitting Austin Jackson with a pitch. It was downhill from there, as the game log shows.

It certainly doesn’t appear that Liriano was getting burned by dribblers through the infield. Three of the five hits in the inning were classified as line drives by Baseball Info Solutions; another, Miguel Cabrera’s double, was a deep fly ball. It also doesn’t appear that Liriano’s velocity was down in the first inning, either. He threw 13 fastballs in the inning, averaging 93.8 mph. That’s almost exactly in line with his fastball velocity on the year.

Liriano put himself in a very bad situation with the hit batsman and then a bunt hit by Ramon Santiago. Then, as happens to even the best pitchers, he was burned by good hitters and poor location. After a single by Ryan Raburn loaded the bases, Cabrera hit a slider which was down out of the strike zone for a double. In the next at-bat, Liriano’s second pitch to Brennan Boesch was simply asking to be hit for extra bases.

Allowing cheap baserunners is particularly problematic for Liriano, as he struggles from the stretch relative to the rest of the league. The average pitcher has allowed batters to slug .396 with the bases empty this year, and .415 with runners on. Against Liriano this season, the opposition is slugging .313 with no one on base and .374 with men on. So even though the lefty is better than the league with runners on, the gap between his performance with the bases empty versus men on is larger than most.

This four-run inning by the Tigers raised their win expectancy to 78.8 percent before the Twins even got to the plate. Liriano managed to throw five strong innings despite his poor opener, but it simply wasn’t enough. The Tigers scored enough early and managed to hang on. As a reward, Detroit is now in first, and the race is on.

Strasburg Not an All-Star

Though Stephen Strasburg has made just four major league starts, there is already some buzz that he deserves to make the All-Star team. It seems likely that he’ll end up getting picked by Charlie Manuel, the manager of the NL team, but if the All-Star Game is a representation of the season’s best players, especially when it comes to the pitchers, who aren’t voted on by the fans, Strasburg should not be considered this year. Other pitchers –- those who have been with the big club since Opening Day — have done more for their teams this season.

Strasburg should have six starts in the majors by the time the rosters are announced July 6. Even though his stats are at historical levels for someone who has made four starts, it has been just four games, and those starts have been against the Pirates, Indians, White Sox and Royals, the 30th-, 24th-, 20th- and 17th-ranked offenses in baseball. When the Royals are the best offense you have seen this season, your stats should be taken with a grain of salt.

With 34 players on the All-Star roster, there will probably be 12-14 pitchers selected, and three or four of them will be relievers. That means there are roughly 8-10 spots for starting pitchers. Using WAR, we can pinpoint 11 NL starting pitchers who easily surpass Strasburg in terms of value.

The main reason Strasburg’s WAR is below that of these pitchers is his lack of starts (about one-third fewer than the rest of the league’s starters when the rosters are set), yet even if he continues to pitch at his current level in his next two starts, it will still be hard for him to pass most of the pitchers listed above in seasonal value. He has the quality, but not the quantity, and if we’re just going by the numbers, he’s not an All-Star. Not this year.

Dickey vs. Strasburg

Last night, Stephen Strasburg lost his first game as a major league pitcher, though not through much fault of his own, as his team fell to the Kansas City Royals, 1-0. Meanwhile, in Queens, N.Y., R.A. Dickey threw eight shutout innings for the New York Mets, continuing to offer his team a much-needed boost in their rotation. What do these two guys have in common?

Absolutely nothing.

Strasburg’s fastball averages 97.7 MPH, and he throws it 58 percent of the time. Dickey’s fastball averages 84.3 MPH, and he throws it 18 percent of the time. Dickey, of course, relies on a knuckleball to dance around and get outs. Strasburg just overpowers hitters with an assortment of pitches that is usually reserved for video games. But despite their disparate approaches, both have found success in getting big league hitters out this year. We thought it would be fun to compare how they’re doing it.

For Strasburg, it’s not that complicated. His plan is to get ahead in the count (67 percent first-pitch strikes), usually with his high-velocity fastball. Then, he makes hitters chase an assortment of pitches they can’t hit. Opponents have swung at 35.5 percent of the pitches he has thrown out of the strike zone, but made contact just 34.6 percent of the time. For comparison, the next-lowest contact rate on pitches outside the zone by a starter is 48.1 percent, by Jorge de la Rosa. When he gets hitters to chase, they come up empty, and he racks up the strikeouts.

Dickey can’t do that. Hitters are chasing his pitches slightly less often (29.3 percent), but are making contact twice as frequently — 70.2 percent of the pitches that opponents swing at outside of the strike zone they put the bat on, a pedestrian number that doesn’t explain how Dickey is striking out nearly seven batters per nine innings. The key for him is not to get hitters to fish, but to swing through pitches that they think they can whack.

Where Dickey has actually excelled this year has been on missing bats in the strike zone, where his 80.3 percent contact rate puts him just behind the league leader in that category, Clayton Kershaw. Yes, that’s right, hitters have an easier time making contact with a strike thrown from Stephen Strasburg than they do from R.A. Dickey, despite the Grand Canyon-sized difference in velocity. Here is a chart showing Dickey’s dominance in the zone. The red squares indicate a high percentage of pitches in that zone, blue is a low percentage.

As you can see, despite the erratic nature of the knuckler, Dickey is living right around the strike zone. And considering how hard of a time hitters have hitting it when it is in the zone, that’s good thing. He’s putting the knuckler in the zone, and yet, opposing hitters have not been able to catch up to it.

These two guys could not be any more different, but both are giving their teams a chance to win on a nightly basis.

The 2010 WAR All-Stars

It’s that time of year again: the time for hand-wringing about the way Major League Baseball selects its All-Star position players. Is there a way beyond all the gnashing of teeth about the alleged silliness of fan voting, stuffing the (virtual) ballot box, and so on? Maybe not. But there are more objective methods of measuring overall player value available to the public than in the past. Bloggers have come up with some ingenious suggestions for using multiple seasons or even full-blown projections to generate “true talent” All-Star teams, but let’s take a more simple approach using FanGraphs’ implementation of Wins Above Replacement to see what players have been the most valuable at each position in the league so far this season (as of June 22).

Joe Mauer is having a good season (if slightly disappointing for him) and just barely squeaks ahead of Victor Martinez. Mauer’s teammate Justin Morneau, on the other hand, is having a season even Albert Pujols would be proud of. Robinson Cano is stepping out from the shadows of more celebrated Yankees by having a dominant season at the plate and being above average in the field. Marco Scutaro is having a well-rounded season at shortstop, even if his presence is also a testimony to the relative weakness at that position in the American League this season.

This is about what we’ve come to expect from Evan Longoria, and given that he is only partially through his third season, that we have such high expectations for him says as much about him as any other superlatives. Fellow Ray Carl Crawford is having a good year even by his lofty standards, and Alex Rios, coming off a disastrous 2009, looks like one of the best outfielders in baseball. Two Rangers round out the All-WAR AL All-Stars: Josh Hamilton is the third outfielder mostly on the strength of his recent offensive outburst, and Vladimir Guerrero still has enough left in the tank to outhit the rest of the primary DHs in the AL.

There isn’t as much competition among the NL catchers, and Brian McCann is clearly the class of that group this season. Adrian Gonzalez, not surprisingly, is a major part of the Padres’ current revival. Chase Utley is having a down season relative to his usual standard, but it’s more than enough to be the best second baseman in the National League. Troy Tulowitzki is currently leading all NL shortstops but is also out for a couple of months, and Hanley Ramirez is right behind him at 2.2 WAR. Ryan Zimmerman is having another excellent year behind the veil of Strasburg mania. Marlon Byrd is playing less like the stopgap everyone thought he would and more like, well, an All-Star. Matt Holliday is the second best outfielder so far in the National League; despite not really having heated up with the bat yet, UZR is impressed with his glovework (in a small sample size).

The big surprise on the WAR leaderboards is the Giants’ Andres Torres, a capable player, but not someone one would have seen as an All-Star before this season, in which he has played well on both sides of the ball. There aren’t any “primary DHs” in the National League, of course, but Albert Pujols has been the most valuable hitter in the National League other than Gonzalez so far, and really, it would be laughable to have an All-Star Game without the best player in baseball, wouldn’t it?

Best Rookie Class Ever?

While Rookie of the Year is usually a humble award relative to the MVP and Cy Young, the race for this year’s title may be just as exciting as those for the other major awards around baseball. Mike Fitzpatrick recently called the rise of 2010’s young crop of big league players a “Rookie Revolution,” but do the numbers match the hype? Indeed they do.

Compared to past seasons, MLB has seen an upshot in production from first-year players that is relatively unprecedented. First-year batters have amassed 9.0 wins above replacement thus far this season, and if they attain as many plate appearances as they’ve averaged since 2002, are on pace for 35 WAR for the season, which would beat the 2008 record of 27.6 by a significant margin. If rookie pitchers reach their same inning pitched total as last year, they’ll put up 37 WAR, tops since 2002.

While you’ve no doubt heard about the two big names in this class, it’s not just Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward making waves. Detroit’s Brennan Boesch is slugging an absurd .617 on the season, best among all rookies in baseball. His teammate, Austin Jackson, is hitting .308 with ten stolen bases in eleven tries and playing quality defense in center field. Third baseman David Freese of the Cardinals and first baseman Gaby Sanchez of the Marlins may be older rookies, but their numbers are not very amateurish. Freese is hitting .306/.370/.425 and Sanchez has an .819 OPS. Mets first baseman Ike Davis has impressed New York with his glove, but his eight homers have also helped an offense that has needed power. Like Davis, Rangers first baseman Justin Smoak hails from the 2008 draft class, and like Ike has hit eight dingers on the year. Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has been solid in his forty games in Chicago, hitting .266 with very good defense.

Rookie pitchers are even threatening their bat-wielding counterparts on the mound. Besides Strasburg, Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake was the first player since Xavier Nady to go directly to the major leagues from college, but his 3.02 ERA and 4.06 Neftali Feliz of the Rangers has lit up radar guns around baseball with his 100 MPH fastball, but his 2.90 FIP and 2.87 ERA are just as exciting.

Incredibly, all of the players listed have a bunch of competition on the way. The Giants recently called up star catcher Buster Posey, who has hit .303 in twenty games so far, and the Indians called up catcher Carlos Santana, who has serious power behind the plate. The Pirates called up third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick of the 2008 draft. Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton was on pace for sixty homers in the minors this year, and the nineteen-year-old hit a grand slam for his first big league homer in Miami after being called up last week.

While we don’t know if this is the best year for rookies of all time, it certainly is on pace to be the greatest in recent memory. Luckily for us, we don’t just get one year of these guys either. Baseball will be blessed with these players for a long time.

Johnson Mows Down Rays

Josh Johnson’s fastball is very good. But against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, it was nearly unhittable — and this was against the eighth-best fastball hitting team in the majors.

FanGraphs’ pitch type run values had Johnson racking up 1.42 runs for every 100 fastballs thrown (a career-best ratio). And though he wouldn’t throw 100 heaters on Sunday — only 61 four-seamers — he was every bit as dominant as that number suggests, and perhaps more.

Johnson’s final line on the day included eight innings, six hits, one earned run on a Carl Crawford home run, zero walks, and nine strikeouts on 117 pitches — 87 of which were strikes (74 percent). Each of Johnson’s main pitches were whiffed at least 10 percent of the time: 13.3 percent of his 30 sliders; 17.7 percent of his 17 change-ups; and 21.3 percent of his 61 four-seam fastballs. He also threw a handful of two-seam fastballs, but the story of the day was Johnson’s four-seamer which averaged 95 miles per hour and topped out just shy of 98 MPH.

In Johnson’s prior 14 starts, batters were swinging and missing at his four-seam fastballs a little less than 10 percent. Sunday was different: Johnson usually throws the pitch for strikes 65 percent of the time, but on Sunday, more than 80 percent of his four-seamers were a strike of any variety. Johnson pounded the zone with heat and the Rays simply couldn’t do much with the pitch all day, either missing or fouling them off. The most egregious offender was Jason Bartlett, who in one plate appearance facing Johnson managed four swings and whiffed on three of them.

Of course it’s hard to blame Bartlett for such struggles as he was essentially fed to a roaring lion. Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena both missed on four Johnson pitches, but they saw nine and seven pitches apiece. In fact, only two Rays who faced Johnson managed to make contact on every swing — those being Reid Brignac and John Jaso on a combined 10 swings. That may not seem like a big accomplishment, but on Sunday it was one worthy of enshrinement.

Is Bonderman Back?

Like so many young pitchers, Jeremy Bonderman’s significant promise was hampered by the injury bug. He caught it in 2007, starting with blisters and ending with pinched lateral cartilage in his right elbow that cost him most of September. In 2008 matters got worse. After 12 largely ineffective starts he hit the DL again, this time requiring shoulder surgery. His 2009 comeback didn’t quite work out, leaving concerns about his ability to recover and become the pitcher scouts once envisioned he could be. But in 2010, he has started to change some of those negative opinions.

Last night’s start ranked among his best of the season. Facing the Washington Nationals, Bonderman pitched seven innings, requiring just 95 pitches to record those 21 outs. He allowed just five hits and walked none. His biggest, and perhaps only, mistake came in the seventh, when Adam Dunn hit one over the wall in right-center. With the score then 7-2 it didn’t much matter. Bonderman went on to retire three of the next four hitters, ending his night in a strong fashion. He ended the night with seven strikeouts, giving him 59 in his 75 1/3 innings .

What stood out about Bonderman’s night was his slider usage. In 2006 and 2007, the best years of his career, he went to his slider about 35 percent of the time. That level of usage was justified because it was clearly his best pitch. But pitchers who throw a high percentage of sliders appear to be at risk for arm injury. Bill Bray, Kiko Calero, Brad Lidge, and Mike Wuertz are recent examples of slider-heavy pitchers who have spent time on the DL with arm injuries. Bonderman, it appears, understands how the usage affected his arm. He threw it just over 20 percent of the time last year, and is at around 25 percent this year, still a significant drop from his 2006-07 usage.

The 26 he threw last night was right in line with that percentage, and as usual Bonderman used the pitch effectively. He generated three swings and misses, all of which came on strike three. The only mistake he made with it was hanging one to Dunn in the seventh after throwing him two earlier in the at-bat. The slider might not be all the way back, as hitters laid off it half the time. When Bonderman’s slider is at its best hitters will chase it more often, either making weak contact or swinging and missing.

To compensate for the lower slider usage, Bonderman has employed a two-seamer, and with much success. It has been an effective, if not slower, pitch this season. In 2006 he averaged 93 miles per hour with the fastball, and in 2007 that was still at 92. This year he’s averaging just over 90 mph with the fastball. Last night, though, he averaged 91.7 mph and maxed out right under 94. Hitters had trouble with the pitch, too, as they swung and missed seven times in 55 pitches. That made for an overall 11.7 percent whiff rate, 2.5 points better than his season average.

Jeremy Bonderman might never be the pitcher that scouts envisioned when he was a first-round pick in 2001. It appears, however, that he is far from done. Not only has he pitched well so far this season, but he has demonstrated improvement, especially in his last few starts. His two-seamer, slider combination has been an effective one. He is well on his way to a solid season, no small accomplishment for a pitcher who missed the bulk of two years after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Petco Not Helping Pads

Anyone that has ever been to — or even seen — a game at Petco Park knows that it kills home runs. Opened in 2004, the home of the San Diego Padres consistently ranks as the toughest park in which to hit a home run. While some may see this as a disadvantage, an extreme park factor can be used to a team’s advantage if their front office keeps it in mind while building their roster. And while the Padres are a surprising success this year, it’s not because they’ve built a team catered to their park.

San Diego’s pitchers currently allow the third fewest fly balls of any pitching staff in the majors, at just 33.5 percent of the time. Instead, the Padres’ pitching staff is right up there with Cleveland and St. Louis as one of the more ground ball-heavy staffs in the game. Ground balls, of course, are not subject to the dynamics of a particular stadium nearly as much as fly balls are.

One reason a team might attempt to keep balls out of the air is poor outfield defense. If you don’t have great defenders in the outfield, it makes sense to keep the ball away from them as much as possible. However, according to the fielding metric UZR, the Padres have had the third best defensive outfield this year, posting a mark of plus-12.7 runs so far. While the sample size is small, the Padres are starting three outfielders (Will Venable, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Scott Hairston) with a history of above-average defense, all of whom run well.

Telling a pitcher to induce fly balls is tricky, because you run the risk of giving up more home runs. But since fly balls typically produce the lowest batting average compared to line drives and grounders, and since Petco reduces the risk of homers, the Padres can feel more comfortable than a usual team when balls are flying through the air. Ground balls are good, but for the Padres they may not always be the best option. They may have the most wins in the National League, but it doesn’t mean San Diego is doing everything right. The Friars should try to utilize the vastness of Petco Park, as it could pay dividends in the near future.

Doc and CC Were Both Unlucky

Tuesday night offered baseball fans a rare opportunity: not only the chance to see a rematch of last year’s World Series participants, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, but also the chance to see each team send its respective ace to the Yankee Stadium mound, Philly’s Roy Halladay and New York’s CC Sabathia.

Unfortunately, no pitchers’ duel materialized. Halladay conceded three home runs, Sabathia wasn’t exactly at his sharpest (walking three in seven innings) and the Yankees won by a distinctly unduelish score of 8-3.

Meanwhile, in a less publicized (and considerably less attended) affair, C.J. Wilson of the Texas Rangers and Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins gave us the game we might have expected from Halladay and Sabathia, allowing only six hits and three runs between them over 13 collective innings.

Yet, despite the cosmetic difference in run total (11 on the one hand, five on the other), these two games help demonstrate that simple runs-allowed numbers are hardly the best way to determine whether a pitcher has truly “shut down” the opposition.

More on that in a second. But first, let’s consider the Wilson-Johnson matchup.

Again, in terms of superficial returns, we see Wilson allowed two earned runs and Johnson allowed only a single earned run. But even a casual glance at the box score reveals that while Johnson struck out seven and allowed only one walk, Wilson struck out six but also walked six. Intuitively, we understand that Johnson controlled the opposition’s batters better than Wilson. The question is: How much better?

Luckily, we can find out. Graham MacAree of StatCorner has done work that gives us the expected run values for every event within a pitcher’s control. Those events and their respective run values are as follows. (Note: In the version below, the expected run value for home runs has been integrated into the outfield fly ball run value according to the principle that home runs occur on approximately 11 percent of outfield flies.)

Of course, it’s not as if every time a pitcher records a strikeout, it takes 0.105 runs from the other team’s score. Anyone who’s watched a game knows that striking out the opposing pitcher with two outs in the bottom of the third is a lot different than striking out the other team’s cleanup hitter with the bases loaded, no outs, etc. Still, these events are generally the things over which a pitcher has control, and all of them stabilize pretty quickly.

So what happens if we look at the Wilson-Johnson game in the context of expected runs? This:

Here, we see the degree to which Wilson’s walks penalized him — to the tune of roughly two runs. All told, we should have expected Wilson to allow three runs over his six innings pitched. That’s not a huge difference from the two he actually allowed, but it’s still noteworthy.

Now here’s what happens if we do the same thing for the Halladay-Sabathia game:

Two notes here. First, look at Halladay’s expected runs: a hair under four. Why so much lower than the six he actually gave up? Because Halladay allowed three homers, but he did so on only eight balls to the outfield. Again, these expected run totals don’t take into account Halladay’s opposition (in this case, the heavily armed Yankees), but still: Three home runs on eight fly balls is bad luck any way you slice it.

The careful reader will note a second something as well: Although he allowed more actual runs than Wilson (three to two), Sabathia conceded fewer expected runs. And it makes sense, too. Just look at Sabathia’s line compared to Wilson’s. More strikeouts? Check. Fewer walks? Check. More grounders and fewer flies? Double-check. Sabathia controlled the game better than Wilson, even if the results don’t reveal such a thing.

In a season that has seen two perfect games and a should-have-been perfecto, it’s important to recognize that sometimes luck isn’t on a pitcher’s side. On Tuesday, Wilson benefited from luck. Halladay? Not so much.