Archive for May, 2012

Andrew McCutchen and Protection

The Pittsburgh Pirates are threatening all-time records for offensive ineptitude. They are scoring just 2.86 runs per game and posting a .266 on base percentage that is tied with the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas for the lowest mark any team has posted since 1900. And yet, surrounded by teammates who are performing at historically inept levels, star center fielder Andrew McCutchen has been brilliant.

Through his first 41 games, McCutchen is hitting .338/.391/.543, racking up 20 percent of the team’s home runs and runs scored totals by himself. Already a budding star, McCutchen is posting a career high in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, and he’s doing it with the worst surrounding cast anybody has had in quite some time.

The Pirates rotation of cleanup hitters – which have included Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Casey McGehee – have combined to hit .199/.258/.280 when batting behind McCutchen. With this kind of protection, you might think McCutchen would be setting a career high in walks and rarely seeing a pitch anywhere near the strike zone.

You would be wrong. McCutchen is actually seeing more pitches in the strike zone this year than he has in any other season of his career.

PITCH F/x Zone%, by season:

2009: 53.9%
2010: 53.0%
2011: 51.4%
2012: 55.1%

As a response to the increased number of strikes he’s seeing, McCutchen is also swinging at more pitches than ever, and the combination of more strikes and more swings has led to the the lowest walk rate of his career. After drawing 89 free passes last year, he has just 13 in the first quarter of the 2012 season, and two of those were intentional.

It’s hard to explain these results under the umbrella of the “protection theory”, which holds that batters get better pitches to hit if there is a quality hitter on deck, as pitchers don’t want to issue a walk that would put a baserunner on for that quality hitter. It’s hard to imagine the Pirates cleanup hitters are intimidating anyone right now, however, so how do we explain why McCutchen is being thrown so many strikes in a line-up that is one of the most futile in the game’s history?

Small sample size would be one explanation, as one example doesn’t prove anything conclusively. But, we can look around the league and see other scenarios where the protection theory would suggest a significant difference from what is actually taking place. In Milwaukee, Ryan Braun’s protector shifted from Prince Fielder to Aramis Ramirez, and the lack of Fielder’s presence was supposed to lead to a significant uptick in walks for Braun as pitchers chose to go after the much weaker hitting right-hander instead.

However, Braun’s percentage of pitches in the strike zone has also gone up from what it was a year ago, like McCutchen, he’s also walking less than he did when he was better protected. In fact, even with Fielder now in Detroit, Braun has yet to draw an intentional walk this season, and his .323/.393/.621 line is the best mark he’s ever posted. The idea that Fielder’s presence was getting Braun better pitches to hit is harder to swallow when Braun gets more strikes and hits even better after Fielder switches leagues.

Or, for another example, simply look to another team within the NL Central, where Joey Votto is mashing the baseball for the Reds but regularly getting stranded by an anemic collection of cleanup hitters behind him. The combination of Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen (along with a couple of appearances from Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick) have combined to post a .648 OPS in the #4 spot in the batting order, 50 points lower than what the Reds #8 hitters have combined for. Votto is perhaps the game’s best left-handed hitter, but despite being protected by a second baseman whose primary value comes from his defense, he’s seen no change in the rate of strikes he’s been thrown. In fact, over the last four years, Votto’s Zone% has hardly moved at all, coming in between 44.4 and 44.9 percent in each season since 2009.

If the protection theory was true, we’d have expected Braun’s walk rate to spike, McCutchen to be leading the league in free passes, and Votto’s performance to fall off once the Reds had to move a middle infielder into the cleanup spot. We haven’t seen any of those things, and it’s worth noting that Miguel Cabrera – the guy now benefiting from the intimidating on-deck presence of Prince Fielder – is having his worst offensive season since 2008.

The protection theory sounds true enough, but it begins to break down once you look at the evidence and think through the conclusions it forces you to draw. After all, the basic premise of the theory is that pitchers are going to change their approach in such a way that it benefits the hitter at the plate who is being protected, making it more likely that they reach base. However, that is the result that the pitcher is supposedly trying to prevent, so the protection theory forces us to believe that pitchers intentionally choose to throw pitches that make it more likely that they have to face the scary on-deck hitter with a man on.

If the protection theory held true in real life, it would be in prominent display in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati right now. The evidence suggests that pitchers simply aren’t pitching McCutchen, Braun, and Votto any differently now than they were when they were better protected, and all three are carrying their teams despite a lack of firepower behind them.

The Year of the Soft Tossing Lefty

It’s no secret that offense in baseball is down across the game, as the days of guys launching 60 home runs in a season seems to be a thing of the past. The modern game more closely resembles the brand of baseball played in the late 1980s, and once again, four runs is enough to get you a win on most nights. We’re going on year three of the Year of the Pitcher, so at this point, it’s time just retire the moniker and note that the game has changed.

Despite the fact that most of the focus has been on the downturn in home runs, however, that’s actually just a small part of the downturn in offense over the last decade. The drop in home run rate has coincided with a continued increase in strikeout rate and, perhaps more importantly, a continued decline on the rate at which batters get hits when they put the ball in play.

In 2007, the league BABIP was .299, the second highest season total in the last 100 years – the only time it had ever cracked .300 was 1930. While home run rates began declining in the earlier part of the decade, the league was still offense-oriented due to the amount of hits that were falling in when batters did make contact. However, league BABIP has declined in each year since 2007:

2007: .299
2008: .296
2009: .295
2010: .293
2011: .291
2012: .288

An 11 point drop in league BABIP might not sound like a big deal, but considering the amount of plays in a baseball season, it adds up fast. For instance, if league BABIP in 2007 had been .288 instead of .299, the difference would have been 1,470 hits over the course of the season. Even small changes in league BABIP can have a significant impact on run scoring.

And, with the league shifting back towards an environment where pitching to contact is rewarded with outs more frequently, there’s one group of pitchers that are reaping the rewards more than others – soft-tossing lefties.

Over the last three years, there have been eight left-handed starters who have consistently pitched with a fastball that averages below 88.0 MPH or below – Mark Buehrle, Chris Capuano, Bruce Chen, Ted Lilly, Paul Maholm, Jamie Moyer, Jason Vargas, and Barry Zito. There are other slow pitch southpaws floating around the league, but these eight are the ones who have been regular members of starting rotations over the last four years. As a group, those eight threw over 1,000 innings in each year from 2009-2011, and they’ve already thrown 375 innings this year.

Their overall results in the core pitching categories have been remarkably consistent in each year:

2009: 6.9% BB%, 15.4% K%, 41.3% GB%
2010: 7.0% BB%, 15.2% K%, 40.1% GB%
2011: 6.7% BB%, 16.2% K%, 40.4% GB%
2012: 7.1% BB%, 15.8% K%, 43.2% GB%

They get just over twice as many strikeouts as walks, but they’re mostly contact pitchers and succeed by throwing strikes, hoping that their defense converts those balls in play into outs. Only now, their hopes are being answered more often than before. After posting a .293 BABIP as a group in 2009, it fell to .284 in each of the last two seasons, and is down to an unconscionably low .252 so far in 2012. In fact, Lilly (.196, lowest in the league), Vargas, Zito, and Maholm are all in the top 10 in batting average on balls in play to begin the 2012 season, while Capuano comes in at #12. 41.7 percent of the dozen lowest BABIPs so far this year belong to left-handers who throw about as hard as a high-school kid.

All these in play outs are helping these eight pitchers post strong results for their respective teams. Their overall ERA is just 3.29, so their composite run prevention puts them in the company of guys like Roy Halladay (3.22 ERA) so far this year. They won’t keep preventing hits on balls in play at the rate they are now, but they are the pitchers who stand to benefit the most from the changing environment of baseball.

Since these guys rarely issue walks, the only way for opposing hitters to mount a rally is to string together a couple of hits and then hope for a home run. However, with fewer batters getting singles and doubles, the home runs they allow don’t do as much harm as they did in previous years. Between them, these eight pitchers have allowed 40 home runs, but 25 of those have been solo homers. Not only does the reduction in hits on balls in play lead to fewer rallies, it leads to fewer runs scoring when one of those 88 MPH fastballs catches too much of the plate and sails over the fence.

The characteristics of baseball in this day and age offers a larger benefit for pitch-to-contact flyball starters than for any other type of pitcher, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that young pitchers such as Tommy Milone are enjoying some early success. While Milone wasn’t a highly thought of prospect due to his lack of velocity, don’t be surprised if more teams start placing a higher value on pitchers like Milone, as their stuff simply plays better in today’s game than it did 10 years ago.

The Free Agent Paying Dividends in Anaheim

This is not how the season was supposed to begin for the Angels. As Mike Scioscia’s club takes the field for their 33rd game of the year, they will stare at a Texas ballclub that has already established a seven game lead in the AL West. Despite their lavish off-season spending, the Angels stand just 14-18, and the struggles of star free agent signing Albert Pujols are the primary reason why. Pujols is embroiled in the longest slump of his career, and by Wins Above Replacement, only Brennan Boesch has been less productive so far this season.

However, lost in the cloud of discussion surrounding what is wrong with their first baseman is the underreported success of the other guy that the Angels pursued this winter – C.J. Wilson.

Lured away from the Rangers with a five year, $77.5 million contract, Wilson’s deal was viewed with skepticism after he struggled to throw strikes in the postseason. Since his command can be shaky and he lacks top shelf velocity, many people have been waiting for Wilson to go off track, and his postseason struggles were offered up as evidence that he wasn’t actually the frontline starter that his numbers suggested.

Based on early returns, we can put many of those concerns to rest – Wilson is continuing to prove that he is a legitimate high-end starter. In fact, his 2012 numbers are almost a dead ringer for his 2011 regular season performance:

2011 – 8.1% BB%, 22.5% K%, 49.3% GB%, 2.94 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.41 xFIP
2012 – 8.9% BB%, 23.1% K%, 51.3% GB%, 2.61 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 3.44 xFIP

Rather than wearing down after carrying the largest workload of his career – including the playoffs, he threw 4,118 pitches over 251 1/3 innings – Wilson is actually looking stronger than ever. After averaging 90.8 MPH on his fastball a year ago, his velocity is actually up to 91.5 MPH this year, and that gap actually undersells the velocity improvement, as average velocity is at its lowest point early in the season. Last April, Wilson’s fastball averaged just 90.0 MPH before climbing to a high of 91.5 in September. Wilson has started 2012 throwing as hard as he did at the end of 2011, and if the usual trend of velocity picking up as the weather gets warmer holds, then Wilson might be sitting around 93 by years end.

That added velocity can help Wilson keep right-handed batters at bay, but he doesn’t need the help against left-handers. Due to the arm slot from where Wilson releases the ball, he is already one of the toughest left-on-left match-ups in all of baseball. In fact, since the start of the 2010 season, Wilson’s held left-handed batters to a .197/.273/.259 slash line, second only to David Price in terms of dominance against LHBs. Like with Price, a large part of Wilson’s success against lefties has come from keeping the ball in the park, as he’s faced 419 left-handed hitters and only allowed three home runs over the last two years and change.

Wilson’s been more vulnerable to right-handed batters who get a better view of the ball coming out of his hand, but to combat this weakness, Wilson is relying a bit more on his change-up so far this year. While it’s not a drastic change as of yet – he’s throwing about three additional change-ups per game this year – the change-up is the pitch that best neutralizes opposite handed hitters, and he’s going to see a lot of strong right-handed bats every time he matches up with his former teammates. The right-handed heavy Texas line-up could present Wilson with a chance to really test out his change-up, as Josh Hamilton may very well be the only lefty he sees tonight.

While he hasn’t received the attention that Yu Darvish – the man who replaced him in the Rangers rotation and will oppose him on the mound in this evening’s match-up – has generated, it’s Wilson who has been the better pitcher to start the 2012 season. With his dominance against lefties and his improving arsenal against righties, Wilson shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. While the Angels may be wishing there was a return policy for their $240 million first baseman, Wilson has been worth every dime so far.

Playoff Contenders Who Can’t Score

Despite being two games under .500 through the first week of May, the Philadelphia Phillies are still projected to make the playoffs. Their rotation boasts five effective pitchers, with three elite starters at the front, and they employ the best active closer in baseball. Pitching was always going to be their ticket to the post-season this year, as the team would go as far as its pitching carried it.

That sentiment rings true now more than ever, as the offense is scoring only 3.6 runs per game. Runs are much tougher to come by without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the lineup, but slow starts from counted on contributors like Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino have rendered the offense anemic quite often through their first 28 games. The Phillies 100 runs ranks 8th in the National League, but their per-game rate ranks 11th.

Obviously, scoring runs and winning games are strongly correlated – the more runs scored, the better the odds are of winning the game. However, this Phillies team is interesting in the sense that their starting rotation is so effective that they could still make the playoffs with a poor offense, which leads to the million-dollar question:

If the offense doesn’t improve and the Phillies make the playoffs, where would they rank among historically low-scoring playoff teams?

The inclusion of extra wild card teams muddies these waters a bit, as there is now a greater chance for everyone to make the playoffs, let alone low-scoring squads. This doesn’t skew our look through history insofar as what has actually happened. With that in mind, it’s imperative to remember that context is key. The Phillies 3.6 RPG average is meaningless without introducing the league average of 4.07 RPG for the senior circuit. Their RPG+, if you will, suggests they are scoring runs at 88 percent of the league rate. Numbers below 100 imply the offense is below average.

That adjusted rate is what we need to make accurate comparisons across various eras and scoring environments. Teams can have lower averages than the Phillies 3.6 RPG but a higher normalized rate given how frequently the league scored as a whole. I went ahead and normalized scoring rates by league and year, throughout history, and found these five teams as the lowest-scoring playoff contenders:

Team Year RPG RPG+
New York Mets 1973 3.78 90.97
Los Angeles Dodgers 1966 3.74 91.37
Houston Astros 1981 3.58 91.62
Los Angeles Dodgers 1996 4.34 92.65
Los Angeles Dodgers 1965 3.75 93.06

The Phillies, at 88.15, would top this list if they and the league continued scoring at the same rate, and they managed to make the playoffs. What’s even more noteworthy is that the NL East-leading Washington Nationals have scored fewer runs – just 93 over 27 games – and with an RPG+ of just 84.17, are the third lowest-scoring team in the National League.

Most of the teams above were from past eras, so what does the table look like if restricted to the Wild Card era of 1995-2011?

Team Year RPG RPG+
Los Angeles Dodgers 1996 4.34 92.65
Arizona Diamondbacks 2007 4.39 93.39
San Diego Padres 2006 4.51 94.73
San Diego Padres 2005 4.22 94.95
Los Angeles Dodgers 1995 4.40 95.05

Again, both the Phillies and Nationals would rank as the lowest scoring teams, relative to their scoring environment, to make the playoffs if all applicable assumptions were realized. While the Phillies aren’t currently in the playoffs if the season ended today, the Nationals are 18-9 and lead the division. While much has been made about the Phillies rotation and offensive woes, the Nationals are essentially in the same boat, albeit with far better overall results.

The added wild card spot throws a wrinkle into this equation, as it’s entirely possible that some teams that just missed the playoffs from 1995-2011 would have qualified for the table above. I looked through the standings in each season of the Wild Card era, identified the teams that would have been the second wild card had it existed at the time, and compared their RPG+ to the five low-scoring teams above. Two teams – the 2009 Giants and 2010 Padres – would stake a claim as belonging on that low-scoring list if two wild cards were in play throughout the entire era.

In fact, the 2009 Giants would have actually been the lowest-scoring team to make the playoffs, as they posted a 91.49 RPG+ that season. They missed the Wild Card by four games – the Rockies won it at 92-70 – while scoring 4.06 runs in a 4.43 run league.

From 1995-2011, of all the teams that made the playoffs or would have made the playoffs if two wild cards were in play, the lowest-scoring team was the 2009 Giants and their 91.49 RPG+. The Nationals are currently at 84.51 while the Phillies are at 88.50. It’s still very early in the season, and both teams could see substantial shifts in their run scoring and prevention, but this is what they are up against. It is very possible that one of these teams will become the lowest-scoring playoff team in history.

Offsetting Value Trades

When Ryan Zimmerman went on the disabled list last week, the Washington Nationals didn’t call up a third baseman to replace him on the roster – instead, they called up super prospect Bryce Harper and installed him in the outfield. The Nationals knew they didn’t have any legitimate alternatives to replace Zimmerman and keep their offense afloat, so they did the next best thing, promoting their best hitting prospect to inject some life into their offense. Harper has been nothing short of a revelation for the Nationals, and his strong start suggests that he’ll remain a part of the roster even after Zimmerman returns.

The Nationals didn’t replace Ryan Zimmerman – they offset his loss. And two other franchises should take a page out of Washington’s playbook and make similar acquisitions to offset recent injuries.

On Tuesday, Evan Longoria suffered a partially torn hamstring and will be on the shelf from 4-8 weeks. On Wednesday, Pablo Sandoval broke his right hamate bone, and the same injury to his left hand last year cost him six weeks of the season, plus rendered him ineffective for the first three weeks following his return. In both Tampa and San Francisco, the loss of a star third baseman is a significant blow, but due the temporary nature of both injuries, the Rays and Giants are unlikely to pursue replacements from outside the organization. After all, it is hard to justify giving up legitimate talent to acquire a player who will need to move to the bench for the stretch run.

However, that doesn’t mean that teams that lose a star player for a significant chunk of the season should just accept their fate and let their playoff chances slip away. While most trades are made as a response to fill a certain need, teams can offset the temporary loss of a star player by upgrading at another position. Having a better stopgap might not be worth giving up a quality prospect, but often times, teams have another position of weakness that can be upgraded as a response to maintain the overall talent level on the roster and balance out the negative effects of the injury.

Neither the Giants nor the Rays have a large enough margin for error that they can afford to accept downgrades of even one or two wins from their expected final tally. As the Rays witnessed first hand last year, one game in the standings can mean everything at season’s end.

Tampa Bay: Catcher (Jose Molina/Chris Gimenez)

With Longoria on the shelf, the Rays can no longer continue to punt offense from the catching position. Molina’s lack of offensive ability has made him a career backup, and Gimenez doesn’t offer any potential with the bat either. With a combined line of .217/.278/.289, the pair have simply not produced at an acceptable level. Molina’s pitch framing might be enough reason to keep him on the roster as a reserve, but a championship contender shouldn’t be giving him regular playing time.

While there aren’t a lot of good hitting catchers on the market, Kurt Suzuki seems the most logical player to target. The 28-year-old is off to a slow start himself, but has been a consistently above average catcher since 2008. Suzuki would represent approximately a two win upgrade over the Molina/Gimenez tandem over the rest of the season, which is the same deficit created by having to replace Longoria with a collection of utility infielders for a couple of months. Additionally, Suzuki offers value not just for 2012 but also for 2013, as he’s under contract for the next two seasons at a budget friendly price of just $11.5 million. With Derek Norris hitting .315/.330/.539 in the PCL, the A’s have a replacement in waiting, so a deal that sends Suzuki to the Rays could be a win for everyone involved.

San Francisco: Shortstop (Brandon Crawford)

Given his minor league track record, the Giants shouldn’t be overly surprised that Crawford is struggling to hit against Major League pitching, and with Sandoval out of the line-up, they’re going to have to get more production from his spot in the line-up. Luckily for the Giants, there are a few players in the game who could act as a hybrid acquisition, both providing depth at third base while Sandoval is on the shelf and a potential replacement at shortstop after Sandoval returns.

Probably the most available 3B/SS in baseball is Juan Uribe, and while he’s been a bust with the Dodgers, he was an important part of the Giants team that won it all in 2010. Uribe is no longer the three win player that he was two years ago, but ZIPS still projects him to be worth 1.5 wins above a replacement level player over the remainder of the season, and even with Crawford’s defensive abilities, he represents about a potential one win upgrade for the Giants. Having a guy like Uribe around would give the team the flexibility to play the match-ups with Crawford and Conor Gillaspie without relying on either of them as everyday players, and if Uribe is rejuvenated upon his return to San Francisco, the Giants would finally have a shortstop with enough power to produce runs at the plate.