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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, begun in April of 2013 by the present author, wherein that same dumb author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own intution to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

For the purposes of the column, generally, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from a small collection of notable preseason top-100 prospect lists and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. Players appearing on the midseason prospect lists produced by those same notable sources or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft have also, typically, been excluded from eligibility.

For the purposes of this edition of the Fringe Five, however, I’ve altered the rules for eligibility. Owing to lead prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel’s excellent and ambitious organizational prospect lists, which have appeared at FanGraphs all fall and winter, readers have access to useful reports on basically every prospect with a 40-or-better future-value grade. Rather than merely regurgitate McDaniel’s work, then, what I’ve instead attempted to do here is assemble a list featuring the 10-best actual fringe prospects — which is to say, the 10 most compelling prospects to have been omitted entirely from the numbered portion of McDaniel’s organizational lists.

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced last April by the present author, wherein that same ridiculous author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own heart to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column last year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) was any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from all of three notable preseason top-100 prospect lists and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. A more thorough discussion of eligibility, and the criteria for determining it, can be found here.

The basic idea, though: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents might otherwise warrant.

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Basic Questions: Potentially Useful, If Marginal, Prospects

In the 1991 edition of his Baseball Book — a sort of sequel to the earlier Abstracts — the very famous Bill James includes a long section called Basic Questions. Here’s how he introduces it:

What I’ve tried to do… is talk about, write about, as many of the things which are on the minds of the average baseball fan as I can. For each player, I tried to find the basic questions about each major league player. The basic questions about Darryl Strawberry: How’s he going to do in Los Angeles? How will he hit in Dodger Stadium? How much will his loss hurt the Mets? How much will he help LA? What are his career totals going to be? Is he going to hit 500 home runs in his career? 600? How many?

What James then does is proceed — for 180 giant, three-columned pages — to do that very thing.

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2nd Annual Cistulli-Sarris Prospect Face-Off Challenge Competition

For last year’s edition of the Second Opinion, we — i.e. Carson Cistulli and Eno Sarris — offered dueling prospect lists to the reader. One (Eno’s) was a full fantasy roster composed exclusively of players from Keith Law’s 2011 top-100 prospect list; the other (Carson’s), a roster of rookie-eligible players who hadn’t appeared on said list.

The idea — in theory, at least — was to review each list at the end of the season, assess the fantasy value of each player on those lists, apply some kind of handicap to Eno’s list (to compensate for the advantage of picking from more highly rated players), and then announce a winner.

Unfortunately, owing to a lack both of effort and ingenuity, we did precisely none of those things.

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Carson’s Non-Prospect Rookie Picks!

Eno Sarris has submitted to this high-quality publication a list of rookies whom he believes might be of some use to fantasy owners this season. While I certainly respect Mr. Sarris’s able analysis and all-around expertise in the fantasy arts, I also harbor an irrational sense of confidence about my own prospecting skills.

To that end, I submit this: a full fantasy team’s worth of players who still possess rookie eligibility (i.e. no more than 130 ABs or 50 IP in the Majors), but who’ve appeared neither on any iteration of Baseball America’s previous top-100 prospect lists or, because BA’s 2011 edition of same doesn’t come out till late February, Keith Law’s 2011 top-100 list.

While I make no claims about potential playing time for any of the following, it’s my feeling that the players below — were they promoted and given playing time — would outperform the players on Eno’s list.

With a view towards standing by my claims, I’ve challenged Mr. Sarris to a bet. I don’t know exactly how we’ll determine the victor — probably using MLEs or something — but I can tell you for sure that the loser buys the winner a beer at Ron Shandler’s First Pitch Arizona event in November.

May the best nerd win!

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Rangers Touch All The Bases

Even though managers and color commentators alike expend considerable effort in singing the praises of baserunning, research shows us that, generally speaking, runs (and, thus, wins) gained from effective baserunning pale in comparison to the contributions, respectively, of batting, pitching and fielding.

Or, rather, that’s usually the case.

Were it not for their attentive (and sometimes merely lucky) baserunning Tuesday night, it’s unlikely the Texas Rangers would find themselves en route to the American League Championship Series for the first time in the history of the organization.

Yes, the Rangers beat the Rays 5-1 in Game 5 of their ALDS largely on the strength of their legs. How much did they produce on the basepaths? Well, with the help of win probability added (WPA), we can get a sense of that very thing.

Let’s look at the first three runs — all a product of taking an extra base of some kind. In each instance, we look not only at the WPA of the play itself, but also what the play’s WPA would have been had the baserunner in question not taken the extra base. This way we’re also able to find, thirdly, the contribution of the baserunning in terms of WPA.

Note that each of the following three plays either occurred with two outs or involved the making of the second out. Furthermore, each was directly followed by a third out, meaning each play’s relative importance is, in fact, magnified.

Play No. 1

Inning: First
Situation: Josh Hamilton batting, Elvis Andrus on second base, one out, 0-0 tie
Play: On a 3-2 count, Hamilton hits a ground ball to Carlos Pena, and Andrus is off to third base on contact. David Price runs to cover first, where he takes the flip from Pena, and turns around to find that Andrus is on his way home. Price’s throw home is too late to catch Andrus.
WPA: +4.1 percent
WPA with Andrus stopping at third base: -3.5 percent
Baserunning adds: +7.6 percent

Play No. 2

Inning: Fourth
Situation: Ian Kinsler batting, Nelson Cruz on second base, two out, 1-1 tie
Play: With Kinsler batting — and moments after hitting a double when he very well could have made it to third base — Cruz attempts a steal of third. Tampa catcher Kelly Shoppach misses third baseman Evan Longoria badly on the second-base side of the bag, and the ball goes into left field. Cruz runs home to put Texas up 2-1.
WPA: +9.9 percent
WPA with Cruz safe at third: +0.5 percent
WPA with Cruz thrown out: -4.1 percent
Baserunning adds: +9.9 percent (compared with Cruz on second base), +9.4 percent (compared with Cruz on third base), +14.0 percent (compared with Cruz getting thrown out at third base)

Play No. 3

Inning: Sixth
Situation: Ian Kinsler batting, Nelson Cruz on first base, Vladimir Guerrero on second, one out, 2-1 Texas
Play: Kinsler hits a grounder to Carlos Pena. Pena throws to shortstop Jason Bartlett, thus forcing Cruz. Bartlett attempts, but is unable, to complete the double play. Guerrero, meanwhile, has progressed around third base and is headed home. Pena throws to catcher Kelly Shoppach, but Guerrero slides in safely, putting the Rangers up 3-1, and putting their overall win expectancy at about 75 percent.
WPA: +5.7 percent
WPA with Guerrero stopping at third base: -4.3 percent
Baserunning adds: +10.0 percent
All in all, what we find here is that the Rangers gained approximately +27.5 percent from just these three plays. Because a team starts — generically, at least — with about a 50 percent chance of winning, we can say that their baserunning helped them get halfway to their victory.

Of course, none of this is to ignore the dominance of Cliff Lee. With his nine-inning, 11-strikeout performance, Lee was worth +47.7 percent all by himself. However, Lee’s excellence is almost old news by now. Teams winning games so decidedly with their baserunning — that’s a story.


The (anti) Brian Giles Experiment

In 2009, the San Diego Padres finished with a 75-87 record, “good” for fourth in the National League West — or exactly 20 games behind the division-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. The Hot Stove League was lukewarm, at best, for the Padres; their biggest offseason splash was a one-year deal for a little more than $5 million for an innings-eating righty (Jon Garland) whose upside was/is as a third starter.

Then, their No. 1 prospect, Kyle Blanks — one of the more interesting parts on a team of otherwise low-ceiling players — strained his elbow in mid-May, has been out of commission since then and is now due for Tommy John surgery.

That’s a recipe for success, eh?

Apparently it is — the Padres are leading the NL West (although the San Francisco Giants are hanging right around the front now), and they have an 80 percent chance to make October ball.

So, can they keep this up?

The best way to look at what the Padres have remaining is to view it through the context of how they turned the ship around this year.

1. Excellent fielding
After finishing 2009 at 8.7 runs below average (per Ultimate Zone Rating) in the field, the Padres stand at a league-leading 44.5 runs above average — a swing of about 50 runs, or five wins. A number of caveats apply here, as fielding metrics are still in their infant stages and require a rather large sample to become reliable, but a couple of commonsense examples stand out.

Most notable among these is the departure of Brian Giles from right field. Although something like a league-average right fielder in his younger days, the late-30s version of Giles was a poor fit for Petco’s cavernous right field. His UZR of minus-8.3 there last year — in limited playing time, no less — supports the visual evidence. This year, however, right field has been occupied by three younger, more athletic players: Will Venable (570 innings, plus-3.5 UZR), Aaron Cunningham (124, plus-2.1), and Chris Denorfia (115, plus-1.7). Nor does the recent addition of Ryan Ludwick represent any kind of setback: The right fielder’s plus-7.9 career UZR/150 (that is, fielding runs above average per 150 games) suggests he’ll continue to pick up the slack left behind by Giles.

2. An even better bullpen
If former GM Kevin Towers was known for one thing, it was his ability to construct a bullpen from almost nothing. That skill was certainly on display last season, as Heath Bell ($1.26 million), Mike Adams ($415K) and Luke Gregerson ($400K) combined to form as fearsome a bullpen threesome as existed in the league.

This year, the Padres’ bullpen is even better. Bell, Adams and Gregerson are performing roughly the same as last year and — with the exception of Bell’s $2.75 milion raise — for roughly the same money. Additionally, innings that were given to the likes of Luis Perdomo [60 IP, 5.35 FIP (fielding-independent pitching)] and Greg Burke (45.2, 4.37) have been picked up by Ryan Webb (44.1, 3.02), Tim Stauffer (35.2, 2.77), and — more recently — Ernesto Frieri, who has a 19-to-3 K/BB ratio in 10.1 innings.

3. A league-average offense
It’s not exactly sexy, but relative to where their offense was last year (at approximately 30 runs below average), the Padres will take league-average run production.

Because of their home park, the Padres’ offensive stats will always look worse than they are. Even accounting for that, however, there’s little good one could say about Giles’ 2009 triple-slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) line of .191/.277/.271 in 254 PA or catcher Eliezer Alfonso’s .175/.197/.254 in 117 PA.

Padres right fielders batted .225/.288/.366 last year, but that same group has batted .254/.323/.439. And where Padres catchers — mostly Nick Hundley, Henry Blanco and the aforementioned Alfonzo — posted a line of .225/.291/.367 in 2009, that number, under the watch of Yorvit Torrealba and Hundley, has improved to .277/.347/.392.

Improvements in these three areas alone (fielding, bullpen and offensive improvement) represent about an 11-win improvement already over last year’s team — and that’s with 50 games remaining.

OK, so — can this be kept up through the first weekend of October?

There are three things to consider:

1. Base Runs standings
Yes, it sounds nerdy, but don’t be too scared: Base Runs is just a way of estimating how many runs a team should have scored (or allowed) given the events (hits, walks, home runs, etc.) that have occurred in their games. Using these estimated runs scored (and allowed) totals, we can project the amount of wins and losses a team is likely to have in the future.

If we do this for the Padres and Giants, we get projected winning percentages of .544 and .528, respectively. In other words, it’s not luck that the Pads are in first place; they’re justifiably there. (Note: The Rockies have a Base Runs winning percentage of .576, suggesting that they’ve actually been the best in the West. Unfortunately for them, with only 50 games remaining, their chances of closing the gap are low.)

Therefore, if we go merely on Base Runs, we’d say that the Padres look like division winners over the Giants by about three wins (93-69 versus 90-72).

2. Rest of season schedule
Per Base Runs standings, San Diego actually has a slightly easier schedule than the Giants for the rest of the season. Padres opponents have a weighted Base Runs winning percentage of .511, Giants opponents, .512. This also bodes well for San Diego’s chances — or, at least doesn’t hurt them.

3. The “true talent” question
One possible cause for concern in the Padres is that much of their improvement to date — about five wins of it — has been based off of runs saved in the field. As noted above, it’s hard to get any sort of solid grasp on a team’s level of true fielding talent over the course of just one season. In this case, the Padres are no exception. Yes, we can guess that — barring a snap decision to re-sign Giles and install him in center field — they’ll continue to be better than last year. What we don’t know is whether they’ll continue to be this good, league-leading good.

Really, this will be the important question for the Padres: Can they continue to flash the leather as they have to date? If the answer is yes, playoff baseball awaits them. If the answer is no, the Giants might have the talent (and/or luck) to close San Diego’s slim divisional lead.


The Meaning of Age

The Cleveland Indians got beat real hard Wednesday night in Texas, losing 12-1 to a Ranger club that has its eyes on a division championship.

Normally, a blowout loss like this wouldn’t be interesting enough to make these pages. But this game is unique in its own right.

Towards the end of said game, three notable writers shared an exchange on Twitter: KenTremendous (a.k.a. Michael Schur, of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame), Jonah Keri (late of Baseball Prospectus, among other places), and Steve Buffum (keeper of The B-List Indians Blog, part of ESPN’s own SweetSpot Network).

The conversation in question went as follows:

KenTremendous The Red Sox’ CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

jonahkeri Yet active payroll’s still huge RT @KenTremendous The Red Sox’ CF, 1B, LF, C, starter, and final reliever were not on the team a month ago.

stevebuffum @jonahkeri Well, no other team has had injuries. Cleveland’s 3B and SP were in their roles opening day (no one else was).

Schur’s point is well taken: with Kevin Youkilis’ ankle injury during Boston’s 3-2 loss at Tampa, the Red Sox have definitely suffered their share of roster turnover — and have remained competitive in the AL East while doing so. That’s pretty incredible.

Keri’s is, too: one could make the claim — fairly so — that, with their resources, the Red Sox should be able to deal with injuries as they come.

But Buffum really holds the trump card in this discussion, as the Cleveland Indians he’s watching now are almost an entirely different team than the one that greeted him back in the beginning of April.

By way of illustration, here’s that Opening Day lineup:

Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B
Grady Sizemore, CF
Shin-Soo Choo, RF
Travis Hafner, DH
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Matt LaPorta, 1B
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B
Lou Marson, C
Michael Brantley, LF

Now here’s Cleveland’s lineup for July 6 at Texas:

Michael Brantley, CF
Jayson Nix, 2B
Carlos Santana, C
Austin Kearns, RF
Jhonny Peralta, 3B
Shelley Duncan, DH
Andy Marte, 1B
Trevor Crowe, LF
Jason Donald, SS

It should be noted that there’s a little bit of cheating here: Hafner was sitting against Ranger lefty C.J. Wilson in the latter game, and LaPorta got whacked in the head the other night, otherwise he’d be playing, too.

The other changes, though: they’re legit. Cabrera, Sizemore, and Choo are all out with injuries. Grudzielanek was released by the club a month ago. Lou Marson was optioned to Triple-A around the same time. The only holdovers from the original lineup are Peralta and Brantley — which isn’t even to mention that Brantley has spent most of the season in Triple-A!

Question: Why is any of this important?
Anwswer: Because we can learn about a team, and its intents, by looking at how it solves its injuries problems.

Of particular interest is to look at the relative ages of the pre-injury and post-injury lineups. If we assume that, generally speaking, younger players have the chance to improve while older players have reached their developmental ceilings, then we can guess at a team’s motivations for employing one or the other.

The Red Sox have been one of the oldest teams in the league this year, with an average batter age (weighted by at-bats, per Baseball Reference) of 31.4. Last night’s lineup at Tampa — even with several players who weren’t present at the beginning of year — wasn’t actually much lower than that: just 31.1 years old. Players like Kevin Cash (32) and Bill Hall (30), though not terribly exciting, are known quantities, and they’re helpful to a team trying to hold its ground during a bad run of injuries.

The Indians have taken a different approach. Their average batter age this season is 28.3 years old. Against Texas on July 6, however, that number dipped to 26.6 among the starting lineup — almost a full two years younger. While the Indians gave plenty of playing time to older players like the 40-year-old Grudzielanek and 34-year-old Russell Branyan earlier this season, the front office has definitely sought to get younger this past month, in an attempt to give extended trials to younger players. The 26-year-old Trevor Crowe, 25-year-old Jason Donald, and 24-year-old Carlos Santana have all benefited from this tack.

Though it’s by no means infallible, looking at the starting age of a starting lineup relative to the team’s average batting age for a season, can give clues as to the direction a team has opted to take its season. For Boston, post-season baseball is a priority; for Cleveland, it’s developing players for the 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.


Galarraga’s Historic Efficiency

Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers came within one poor umpire’s call of the 21st perfect game in major league history Wednesday night. It’s hard to imagine that anyone — including the offending umpire, Jim Joyce — feels good about it. Moreover, it’s hard to believe that nothing — be it an overruling from the commissioner’s office or expansion of the league’s use of replay — will come from this unfortunate incident.

But Galarraga’s performance represents another, slightly less obvious accomplishment.

In an alternate baseball world, where pure evil does not momentarily possess Jim Joyce and force him to thwart all our hopes and dreams, Galarraga pitches a perfect game in a mere 83 pitches.

Though we don’t have pitch counts for the earliest three perfectionists — Lee Richmond (1880), John Montgomery Ward (also 1880), and Cy Young (1904) — the 17 most recent performances are accounted for via Baseball Reference (via Retrosheet). Of those, only Addie Joss’ effort of 100-plus years ago was completed in fewer pitches (74) than Galarraga’s would-be perfecto Wednesday night.

Here’s the list of perfect games, from fewest to most pitches thrown:

In the majors this season, the average plate appearance lasts 3.85 pitches. Of 148 qualified pitchers, Anaheim Angels pitcher Jered Weaver throws the most per plate appearance (4.27); Minnesota Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn, the least (3.30).

The average plate appearance in Galarraga’s pseudo-perfecto? A mere 3.07.

Of course, much of Galarraga’s efficiency is attributable to his lack of strikeouts. Besides Joss’ performance — which, it needs to be said, occurred when the leaguewide strikeout rate was 3.7 K/9 (as opposed to 7.1 K/9 this year) — Galarraga’s three strikeouts is the lowest mark in perfect-game history.

It goes without saying that a perfect game requires a great deal of luck. The “average” perfect game still sees the pitcher allow about 18 balls in play. Considering that a ball in play generally has about a 30 percent chance of falling for a hit, the chances of 18 consecutive balls in play being fielded cleanly comes to 0.7^18, or 0.16 percent.

And that’s just for a pitcher striking out a full third of the batters he faces. For Galarraga and his three strikeouts, the odds were even lower: 0.7^24, or 0.02 percent. That’s 1 in 5000. And that figure still doesn’t account for the absence of walks, hit by pitches, errors, etc.

As for the odds that such an improbably efficient and lucky perfect-game bid would be ruined on the very last play of the game by a bad call?

Unfortunately for Armando Galarraga, they were 100 percent Wednesday night.