Archive for April, 2011

Carl Crawford’s Lefty Issues

Carl Crawford became a top-of-the-order hitter in his first full big league season, at age 21. Batting almost exclusively in the top three spots, he developed into an All-Star and the best player in Tampa Bay Rays history. He banked the best season of his career in 2010, making his fourth All-Star team, winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, finishing seventh in MVP voting, and propelling Tampa Bay to an achievement few ever thought possible: their second AL East title in three years. His success was so overwhelming, the Boston Red Sox gave Crawford a seven-year, $142 million contract, the second-richest deal in club history.

Then the Red Sox started the season 0-2. Terry Francona promptly dropped his left fielder to No. 7 in the Boston order — the lowest Crawford had batted since 2003 — against Rangers lefty Matt Harrison on Sunday.

But really, it was the other way around. For eight long years, Crawford’s managers misused him. Boston’s 0-2 start simply offered an excuse to make what might turn out to be one of Francona’s smartest moves of 2011.

In exactly 1,600 career plate appearances versus left-handed pitching, Crawford has hit just .270/.315/.381. For comparison’s sake, Jeff Francoeur, one of the most notorious hackers of his generation and a whipping boy for many baseball writers and analysts, has hit .268/.310/.425 for his career. Even Neifi Perez’s .672 career OPS isn’t far off Crawford’s .696 mark versus lefties.

Despite what’s now nearly a decade of futility against southpaws, Crawford has never seen anything close to a platoon, let alone been dropped from his perch at or near the top of the order. At first, this made some sense. When Crawford began his career in 2002, the then-Devil Rays were a joke of a team, licking their wounds after the ill-fated Hit Show saw Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco and Vinny Castilla blow up the team’s building efforts and financial situation in one offseason spending orgy. Tampa Bay saw a future star in Crawford, and wanted to give him every chance to grow into a successful everyday player.

Lou Piniella took the reins in 2003, found little in the way of dynamic, young talent and installed Crawford as his leadoff hitter. In 184 times up versus lefties that year, Crawford hit an abysmal .263/.283/.302. The next season, Crawford saw big improvement in both his overall game, and in his efforts against left-handers. His OPS versus lefties spiked 180 points (.295/.346/.418). But in 2005, Crawford’s production versus lefties nosedived again, to .244/.293/.326, the D-Rays won 70 or fewer games for the eighth straight year, and Piniella was out of a job.

Joe Maddon took over in 2006, rightly waiting to see what his young players had to offer before making big decisions. What he saw from Crawford in the next two years was a hitter who looked like he could hack it against pitchers of all stripes. Crawford hit a solid .288/.341/.436 versus lefties in ’06, then a career-best .318/.350/.437 against them in ’07. The Rays were maturing as a young club, a new wave of intriguing players had filtered in, and Crawford was going to be Maddon’s go-to guy, a five-tool player who would play (and bat high in the order) against everyone, no matter the circumstances.

That’s when the law of averages kicked in, and Crawford’s truer tendencies re-emerged. From 2008 through 2010, Crawford hit a blistering .316/.367/.493 versus righties, but just .259/.312/.372 versus lefties, right around his career average. Ever the lineup tinkerer and fearless decision maker, Maddon showed he would do just about anything to find the smallest edges — except drop Crawford lower in the order versus left-handed pitchers.

Left with a problem
These left-handed hitters are all considered stars. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at their career numbers against southpaws.

Player OPS vs. RHP OPS vs. LHP
Ryan Howard 1.039 .769
Josh Hamilton .984 .786
Prince Fielder .974 .796
Andre Ethier .915 .676
Carl Crawford .816 .696
Whether it was the team’s 0-2 start or other factors that prompted Francona to drop Crawford down to seventh in the order yesterday, the Red Sox could be better for it, while also being unique in taking such action. The Phillies’ Ryan Howard has always been a mediocre hitter versus lefties, posting a career OPS of just .769 against them, with an awful .316 on-base percentage. But the politics and optics of the situation dictate that Charlie Manuel keep batting his $125 million slugger in the middle of the lineup against any and all pitchers, just as other managers stubbornly give prime lineup spots to other hitters when career-long tendencies suggest they’re wrong in doing so.

The Red Sox should still play Crawford every day. As the game’s best defensive left fielder, and one of baseball’s most dynamic baserunners and base stealers, he offers plenty of value even when he’s not hitting. There’s even an argument to be made that his speed is even more valuable at the bottom of the lineup because he can take chances without worrying about robbing the likes of Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez of RBI opportunities.

Once the Sox’s lineup gets cooking, it will be very interesting to see if Francona keeps Crawford near the bottom of the lineup.

The Giants Keep It In The Park

The strength of the San Francisco Giants is undoubtedly their pitching staff, which annually ranks among the best in baseball. Led by ace Tim Lincecum and a collection of hard-throwing relievers, the Giants once again led all of baseball in strikeout rate last year, but the thing that makes their pitchers special isn’t their ability to miss bats, but rather their unique ability to rack up a ton of outs on fly balls.

This might not sound like a particularly sexy skill for a pitching staff to possess, but most fly balls that are not caught become extra-base hits and about 10 percent of the time they fly over the wall for a home run. Pitchers who give up a lot of balls in the air tend to do so because they throw a lot of fastballs up in the strike zone, where hitters are prone to chasing pitches that they can’t get the bat on. That’s why a lot of fly ball pitchers are also good strikeout pitchers. The problem is that when a pitcher who lives in the high part of the strike zone misses with his location the ball can get hit very hard and far, so these pitchers often give up a lot of homers; for example, Ted Lilly had the lowest rate of ground balls in baseball last year and gave up a staggering 1.49 home runs per nine innings.

While most pitchers tend to hover around a rate of 10 percent of their fly balls leaving the yard, this does not hold true for pitchers who wear the Giants’ jersey, and it hasn’t for quite some time. Only 8 percent of the fly balls allowed by San Francisco pitchers in 2010 went over the fence, and as usual that was the best mark in baseball. This isn’t anything new — the Giants’ staff has been beating the league average on home runs per fly ball rate for a decade now.

Since 2002 (the first year our batted ball data is available at FanGraphs), the league average HR/FB rate is 10.4 percent with 27 of the 30 teams within 1 percent of that mark on either side. Very few pitchers have shown a constant ability to post a better than average rate in this category over large amounts of innings, so this isn’t a skill that teams have been able to cultivate among their pitchers. Except for the Giants. Their HR/FB rate since 2002 is just 8.6 percent, and the gap between them and the next best team (Oakland at 9.3 percent) is equal in distance between the second-place team and the ninth-place team (the Dodgers).

Put simply, no team is even close to the Giants in keeping its fly balls in the yard, and it hasn’t really mattered who the pitchers on the staff have been. While you might suspect that the low HR/FB rates posted by Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jason Schmidt are simply due to their high-quality pitches, the team has also seen the likes of Russ Ortiz, Brett Tomko and Matt Morris prevent home runs during their stints in San Francisco. And, to make things even more interesting, none of the pitchers who have shown this ability while in the Bay Area have been able to take those skills to other cities and keep their home run rates as low as they were previously.

The most natural explanation in situations like this would be the home park that the team plays in, and indeed AT&T Park is one of the toughest places in baseball for a left-handed hitter to hit a home run. The long distance to the right-field wall, combined with the wall’s height and proximity to a body of water which can produce some stiff winds, make it a challenging place for lefties to pull the ball out of the park.

However, the way their home park plays does nothing to explain the fact they also have the lowest rate of home runs per fly balls on the road since 2002 as well, coming in at just 9.1 percent. That’s higher than their home mark of 8.0 percent, but still quite a bit better than average. It is true that their road games involve a number of stints in Petco Park, but their division also includes the homer-havens of Colorado and Arizona, so we can’t give credit to their rivals’ parks, either.

Despite turning over the pitching staff several times and pitching in a way that suggest that their home park is not the sole factor (though it is certainly one of the factors), the Giants have continually been among the league leaders in home run prevention. The only constant during the past nine years has been Dave Righetti, who has been the pitching coach for that entire stretch. When I asked him about this phenomenon during spring training, however, he didn’t seem to have any more answers than I did.

He dismissed the notion that he encourages his pitchers to walk hitters rather than groove pitches that they might hit out of the park, responding with a firm “absolutely not” when asked if he coached his pitchers to avoid giving in when behind in the count. I also asked him if he or the organization specifically targeted or developed pitchers who they thought could limit home runs, and he said that they did not — they try to get pitchers who could limit walks and get strikeouts, just like everyone else.

And yet, whether it is intentional or not, the Giants have been able to cultivate a pitching staff that consistently gives up few home runs despite putting the ball in the air with some frequency. Even during the playoffs last year, facing some of the game’s most impressive power hitters, they allowed just nine home runs in 15 postseason games.

Whether it’s Righetti, the park, the pitchers or some really long-lasting good fortune — or, most likely, a combination of all of these things — the Giants have been better at preventing home runs than any other team in baseball, and it is perhaps the biggest reason that their pitching has annually been among the best in the game.

Don Mattingly’s First Mistake

Don Mattingly won his first game as a major league manager Thursday night, as his Los Angeles Dodgers knocked off the San Francisco Giants behind a stellar pitching performance from Clayton Kershaw. However, while all of his moves “worked” in retrospect, Mattingly made one big rookie mistake that could have cost the Dodgers the game — he left Kershaw in the game too long.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Dodgers capitalized on some defensive miscues to break the scoreless tie and take a 1-0 lead. However, after Rod Barajas lined out for the second out of the inning, Bruce Bochy opted to intentionally walk Jamey Carroll to load the bases and bring Kershaw to the plate, forcing Mattingly to choose whether to let Kershaw hit in order to pitch the seventh inning or go to the bench and then use a reliever to get the next three outs.

Mattingly chose to stick with Kershaw, which is understandable considering how well he had been pitching. However, like football coaches who punt far too often on fourth down, that’s a conservative call that actually lowers a team’s chances of winning.

Let’s start with Kershaw’s offense — he’s one of the worst hitting pitchers in baseball, having accumulated just 10 hits (all singles) in 132 major league at-bats. He’s drawn just four walks and struck out 46 times, and his lack of ability to hit the ball with any authority has led to a miserable .076/.103/.076 career mark. And remember, that’s his line against pitchers of varying quality — if he consistently had to face Tim Lincecum, his numbers would be even worse.

Charitably, we can say that there was approximately a 7.5 percent chance that Kershaw would have reached base safely in that situation, extending the rally and pushing the Dodgers’ lead to two or three runs. Those odds are not good, and predictably, Kershaw bounced out to first base to end the inning.

If Mattingly had chosen to pinch hit, he likely would have turned to Marcus Thames or Xavier Paul. While Paul would have given them a left-handed bat to counter the right-handed Lincecum on the mound, he’s also a young player without much of a track record in the major leagues, so the safe assumption is that Thames would have been the one to get the call.

While he’s on the roster for his ability to hit lefties, Thames still holds a career line of .236/.296/.480 against right-handed pitchers. Again, we have to adjust those numbers downward to adjust for Lincecum’s abilities and the fact pinch-hitters fare worse than normal on average, but Thames still had at least a 20 percent chance of getting hit and another 7.5 percent chance of getting on via hit batsman, walk or error. Thames was four times as likely to produce a positive outcome in a critical situation in which any base hit would have likely plated multiple runs, and he also presented a real opportunity for a grand slam that would have essentially put the game out of reach.

There was a significant opportunity cost to letting Kershaw bat in that situation, and Mattingly traded away a real chance for an expanded lead for the right to keep Kershaw on the hill in the seventh inning. Kershaw rewarded his manager with a three-up, three-down inning, but given that he was facing the 6-7-8 hitters in the Giants’ order, this was a job that could have easily been entrusted to Matt Guerrier.

After all, the Dodgers thought enough of Guerrier to sign him to a three-year contract as a free agent this winter. Guerrier is not nearly as good as Kershaw, but he’s an effective reliever, and he could be trusted to get out Miguel Tejada, Brandon Belt and Pablo Sandoval, especially with the pitcher’s spot looming if the Giants were able to get a rally going. However, this isn’t about Guerrier — the run expectation of the two situations is so large that Mattingly could have handed the ball to almost any other reliever in the seventh inning and still come out ahead.

The difference between Thames and Kershaw hitting in that situation was more than two-tenths of a run in expected value. Kershaw’s career 3.17 ERA translates to an expectation of .35 runs allowed per inning, so Mattingly could have chosen a pitcher with an ERA of 5.00 (.55 runs per inning, creating that same two-tenths of a run gap) and had it be a push. Using Thames to pinch hit and any reliever with an expected ERA below 5.00 would have been a better bet than letting Kershaw bat for himself and then pitch in the seventh inning.

In the end, it didn’t end up costing the Dodgers a win, but this is the baseball version of punting on fourth-and-1 from your opponent’s 30-yard line. Mattingly can create a significant advantage for his team by more aggressively pinch hitting for his starting pitcher in high-leverage situations and accepting the fact that, while the reliever will not be as good as the pitcher you’re replacing, the drastic upgrade at the plate with a chance to blow the game open is more than worth it.