What’s Killing Pablo?

July 7, 2010

Is it lefty pitching or his not being able to find a Fatburger on the road? You be the judge. After posting a monster 2009, Pablo Sandoval has been a huge disappointment to both the San Francisco Giants and fantasy owners alike in 2010. Keeping him for the cost of 12th round pick, I thought I was getting a steal, only to find that Panda’s kung-fu has looked awfully weak so far. So what on earth is happening that can make even the Giants faithful turn on S.F.’s favorite cartoon-character?

Base-running blunders aside, simply put, since a productive April, Panda has been awful at the plate.

I suppose we have to begin any discussion of Sandoval’s hitting woes with a look at his BABIP, since his biggest asset is his ability to make contact. In ’09, his first full season in the bigs,  Sandoval’s gaudy .350 average on balls in play lead to a .330 batting average, good for second in the league behind Hanley Ramirez. As of today, he’s currently mired with a .266 batting average, due to a BABIP that has fallen to .287. Meanwhile, Sandoval has actually seen an uptick in his contact rate (from 82.6% to 83.2% from ’09 to ’10) and a decrease in swinging strikes (currently 8.9% compared to 9.8% in ’09).

Panda is hitting the ball, he’s just not hitting it well.

Digging a little deeper, we find that Sandoval’s LD% has fallen from 18.6% in ’09 to his current 15.9%. Along with the decrease in liners, we’ve seen an increase in grounders, up to 46.2% now versus 44.9% last season, to go along with a marked increase in infield pop-ups: 10.5% now against only 7.9% in the previous campaign. His fly-ball rate has increased from 36.5% to 37.9%, but that hasn’t helped him get the ball out of the yard, as his HR/FB rate is down dramatically from 14% in ’09 to a paltry 5.7% today. Indicative of that loss of power, his ISO has gone done nearly .100 points, from .226 to a surprisingly anemic .127. For some perspective, that nestles him right between Howie Kendrick and Cliff Pennington in league-wide isolated power ranking. While I didn’t believe Sandoval would reach 25 jacks, like he did last year, I figured he’d blast about 20. Going into play today, Sandoval’s only hit 6 HR and none since June 15th.

The Panda has seen some pretty extreme splits so far this season and a lot has been made of Sandoval’s struggles against left-handed pitching. Batting from the right side, the switch hitter has gone 17-91 with 6 BB, 15 K and no HR, equaling a putrid .205/.253/.277 line. Those numbers are in stark contrast to the .379/.428/.600 marks he set last year, when he ate lefties like bamboo shoots. Against righties, he’s been more effective, going .288/.346/.433. He’s even brought down his K rate against righties by over 4%, from 15.9% in ’09 to his current 11.6% mark. Across the board those BB and K rates haven’t changed very much, in fact he’s actually cut down his K’s (8.2%BB/14.5%K last year compared to 7.8%/13.3% now), surprising when you consider his lack of production. Another interesting split are his home and road numbers. In the city by the bay, the Panda’s hitting .316/.374/.865. On the road however, Sandoval’s been a no-show, going .217/.271/.298.

So what’s my prognosis on the Panda? Well ZiPS says he’ll put together a 9 HR/41 R/48 RBI/.306/.356 line from here on out. I’d be as happy as Pablo at an all-you-can-eat buffet to see that and due to his past success against left-handed pitching, I believe he can exceed those marks. I would wager that those road numbers have to pick up well as the season wears on. He’s still young (he turns 24 next month) and I believe the best is still ahead for the talented hitter. If the Giants add a bat, which they have been discussing, that might give him a little bump as well.

I recently offered up Panda and a choice of Jaime Garcia, Kris Medlen or Jason Hammel to an opponent in my keeper league in exchange for either Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez or Jered Weaver (good move or bad?). I didn’t even get a response – this from a guy who was supposedly interested in the hefty third infielder, with Kevin Kouzmanoff holding down his CI slot. Obviously, I’m not looking to give Sandoval away, but in need of pitching help, I’d move him for the right price.

In the end though, the best trade may be the one not made, since I can see Pablo killing the ball in the second half and going a long way towards helping my playoff push. I have few high average hitters on my keeper squad and his ability to hit for average is something that I’ve been banking on all year. If I didn’t have him and needed CI help, I’d throw some offers out to his frustrated owner and see if he’s done his homework. All signs point to improvement, but that’s hard to believe when a player has looked so lost at the plate for two-plus months.

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All Things Considered: Pitchers BABIP

June 2, 2010

No this isn’t a discussion of current affairs or high-minded political talk, spoken by white people in turtle-neck sweaters. I don’t aim that high here at TTO. Instead good sirs and madams (do any chicks aside from my mom read this? That’s a rhetorical question) is a little nugget of knowledge to keep in the back of your melon as you scour the wires or scan your opponents rosters in search of a pitching upgrade.

Forgive me if this is old hat to you, but I’m not going to claim to be a sabermetric whiz. In fact I’ve only really just started drinking the Kool-Aid heavily over the past year or so. By now, most successful fantasy owners have incorporated a multitude of sabermetric statistics into their player evaluation tool-kit though and it seems that their popularity grows by the day. Metrics such as BABIP, FIP, GB%, LD%, BB/K, and others are commonly thrown around by writers on even the most mainstream of baseball sites. These numbers however, are often displayed with little context with regard to what other factors may be at work.

Lets look at a pitchers BABIP against. BABIP commonly referred to when we talk about a player being lucky or unlucky. While an individual pitcher’s BABIP can vary wildly from season to season, we will usually find that a league average BABIP for pitchers lies between .290 and .300. One starting pitcher who has underperformed the expectations and displays a higher than normal BABIP is Edwin Jackson. Yes, I am cherry picking an example, but I wanted to use a player that has underperformed but at the same time, might still hold value in some league. After a successful 2009 campaign, followed by a trade from Detroit to Arizona, Jackson is currently holding a line of 3-6/6.03 ERA/ 1.44 WHIP and 60 K over 68 2/3 innings of work. In spite of that atrocious ERA, his FIP is a slightly more palatable 4.49 due to his high K rate (7.86 K/9) and only slightly inflated walk rate of 3.28 BB/9, in contrast to his career low 2.94 BB/9 from last season. What has been really hurting Jackson is the 15.2% HR/FB rate along with a low 63.6% strand rate. Obviously giving up a ton of bombs while runners are on base is a recipe for disaster, ask his teammate Dan Haren.

Well that’s all well and good, but what about his BABIP? I’m glad you asked disembodied italicized voice! His .324 BABIP seems rather high, right? If we look at that league average number of approximately .300, and his career mark of .310, yes it is higher than should be expected. However we are missing a crucial piece of information here, that I’ve only begun delving into myself this season. If BABIP is the batting average for all hits that do not leave the park, than it stands to reason that a pitcher’s BABIP will be markedly effected by the defense behind him. Lets look at the top five teams as far as BABIP against:

1. SF Giants: .271

2. TB Rays: .272

3. SD Padres: .279

4. NY Yankees: .284

5. OAK A’s: .285

Notice the numbers for the top teams are well under that .290 – .300 range. These are teams that have been not only pitching well, but playing good defense too. If we look at team ratings for fielding range (the number that would most effect BABIP, since if a batted ball falls in for a hit, usually that means a fielder failed to get to it), we’ll notice that the top five teams are in order: Tigers, Padres, Diamondbacks, Giants, Mariners. Neither the Yanks, A’s or Rays made that list, but two of those three teams aside from the Yankees carry a positive Range Rating.

Lets back up and take a look at the bottom five on the team BABIP against list:

26. CHI White Sox: .314

27. PIT Pirates: .322

28. AZ Diamondbacks: .322

29. HOU Astros: .329

30. MIL Brewers: .346

Those are some pretty sorry pitching staffs right now. Interestingly enough, Edwin Jackson’s .324 BABIP is right about at his team’s average, despite of the Snakes fielders doing a good job of getting to batted balls – Note: The outfield defense is a lot better than the infield, so Jackson’s improved groundball rate may actually be hurting him. Regardless, the entire D-Backs pitching staff has been pretty unlucky to go along with being downright bad. An MLB worst 67% LOB rate would confirm that. D-Backs pitchers are allowing a whopping 19.9% of batted balls to be driven for liners, tied with the Reds for 2nd worst in baseball, behind only the hapless Brewers. So ‘Zone pitchers are getting somewhat unlucky but at the same time getting hit hard, compounding problems even more. To further illustrate this, Diamondback pitchers are allowing an astounding 15.2% of flyballs to leave the yard, worst in the league by a lot. That should normalize some, but they play in an extreme home-run hitters park, so you have to expect an elevated HR rate. The Pirates are the next worst team, with an 11% HR/FB rate. Now granted, a lot of this damage has been done by what may be the worst bullpen in baseball, but front line starters like Jackson and Haren have done their share of sucking too this season.

So the moral to this story is, if you really need that sort of thing, don’t just glance at a pitchers numbers and say, “he’s due for regression,” or “he’ll improve,” without looking a little deeper. The numbers need context. I took a long look at Jackson’s last week when his owner ditched him. At first look, I saw a guy who’s due for improvement, which he may well be in some small part. His xFIP is a healthy 3.90 due to K, BB and normalized HR rates. I didn’t bite though, as there are too many factors at play working against Jackson, namely an extreme hitters park with a terrible bullpen to follow him. He may give me K’s, but I believe he’ll provide little else going forward.

To find out team-wide metrics, go to Fangraphs, hit the “Teams” tab and select the stats you want. Simple as that!

For more on Edwin Jackson, check out this enlightening piece by Dave Golebiewski at Fangraphs.

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Holy Diver: Gavin Floyd *UPDATED*

May 17, 2010

In memory of the passing of Metal God Ronnie James Dio, I’m going to discuss another pitcher who’s career has taken a holy dive this season. The White Sox, fans and fantasy owners alike had very high hopes for Gavin Floyd coming into 2010. After a highly successful 2008 campaign, his first as a full-time starter in the majors, Floyd’s results took a dip last season, as he finished 11-11 with a 4.06 ERA and 1.23 WHIP and 163 K’s in 193 innings. Looking deeper at his numbers however, we see his peripherals actually improved, as his FIP went down from 4.77 to 3.77 from 08′ to 09. His 2.76 K/BB ratio was also a dramatic improvement over the 2.07 rate he posted the year before. Down as well were his HR/9, going from 1.31 to .98. So inspite of a drop in Wins from 17 to 11, Floyd actually pitched better, leading me to believe we’d see a solid year out of Floyd in 2010.

1-4 7.00 ERA/1.71 WHIP and 7.2K/3.4BB per 9 over 43 innings in eight, mostly miserable starts. That’s what fantasy owners like me have gotten for thinking Floyd was actually a good buy. The ERA and WHIP are ghastly to say the least, but a K/BB rate like that would lead one to believe that he should be seeing more success. More puzzling is that he’s actually given up less jacks at .8 HR/9, down from .98 and less line drives: 18.2% versus 22.4% last year. In fact his contact rate overall is down from 77.8% in ’09 to 75.7% in ’10. So what’s happened to Gavin Floyd?

This isn’t a matter of a guy facing tough competition. Floyd’s been given a laser show by Cleveland, Seattle and K.C. twice now. If a pitcher’s not going to get fat off of those bums than who’s he supposed to get right against, the Twins? Floyd’s been the unfortunate recipient of a .381 BABIP, tied for third highest amongst all starters. Couple that with a 57.2% strand rate, fifth worst in the game, and you’ve got a very very sad pitcher. I don’t care how many bats you miss, you’re not going to succeed if the hits are falling in like that. Why has Gavin Floyd suddenly become so hittable?

Unlike our last case study in futility Max Scherzer, the problem here isn’t due to a loss in fastball velocity. Floyd has maintained the pitch speed on his hard stuff. He is throwing his four-seam fastball only 29.6% of the time however, leaning on his two-seamer for 19.2% of his pitches, up from only 2% last season. What about his breaking stuff?

From Yahoo: After Sunday’s lost to the Royals, manager Ozzie Guillen was asked if there is a chance the struggling pitcher could be replaced in the rotation, especially with top pitching prospect Daniel Hudson not disappointing in the minors, and Guillen said not yet. “As long as Gavin is healthy … he’s got only one problem, throwing strikes,” Guillen said. “I think (Sunday) he threw only two or three breaking balls for a strike. You’re not going to win that many games doing that.”

Last season, Gavin Floyd’s slider was a very effective pitch and he threw it 16.3% of the time for a Pitch Value of 7.5 Runs Above Average, according to Fangraphs. This season, that value has dropped to -2.9. His curve, which was downright filthy, has also lost a good deal of effectiveness it seems, slipping from a 14.1 RAA in ’09, down to 1.9 this season. Looking at horizontal movement, we’ll note that his slider which was arriving at -.3 inches off of the X-axis is now coming in at +.7 inches. The curve has flattened out a good deal too from 7.3 to an even 5, below the league average of 5.3 inches. So it seems that Floyd’s lost some feel for his breaking pitches and has tried to compensate with a below average two-seam fastball and change-up combination, which he’s thrown a lot more this season than last.

I wish I could look into the future and say with certainty that Floyd will turn his season around. With every start, those prospects seem to grow dimmer. We seem to have a case of a very mixed up pitcher who also happens to be pitching behind a poor fielding team, with the 6th worst UZR in baseball. Another strike against Floyd is that the ChiSox are not hitting and it never helps a pitcher to constantly feel that he’s walking a tightrope without a net. Chicago’s .313 wOBA is 7th worst in the game and there have been few signs of this team snapping out of it. Changes are in order and how those changes will effect Floyd are anyone’s guess.

As for my stake in Floyd in fantasy land? The clock is ticking on the once promising South Sider and it’s almost time to cut bait. I’m going to try my best to move him via trade in the coming days, which might buy him another start on my team. He could be on waivers in exchange for bat soon, since Nick Swisher’s been day-to-day with a bicep injury and I’m thin for bats as it is.

NOTE: I got so sick of seeing his cancerous name in the Ham Fighters rotation, that I dumped him for San Francisco speedster Andres Torres. I couldn’t even bring myself to mention him in a trade. Let someone else worry about when he’s going to bounce back. In H2H you gotta play the hot hand.

While you contemplate Floyd’s fate, enjoy a performance from the man who popularized the devil horns…

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Those Darn Humorless Number Crunchers…

April 30, 2010

Because I miss reading Fire Joe Morgan so much, I’m going to have my own fun with Steve Cameron’s piece entitled, “Baseball Has Gone VORP Speed Ahead,” which ran in the Merced Sun-Star earlier this week. FJM may be no more, but those guys should take heart in knowing that they really touched at the heart of what so many knowledgeable baseball fans think, while listening to broadcasters or reading sports journalists flap their overstuffed gums:

“What the hell are these guys talking about, and why are they getting paid to do it?”

Cameron’s writing is in boldface. My response follows.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

— Mark Twain

When Cameron unloads the Mark Twain early to let us know just where he stands, we know he means business. Dave Cameron is going to bust through the Matrix like Neo and free us Sabermetric robots from our soulless, number-crunching existence!

It is interesting that Cameron uses this Twain quotation, because Twain, in his autobiography, actually credits former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli for those words. Regardless the message is clear. Pin-heads with calculators can throw around a lot of fancy numbers, but real baseball fans don’t need them. We know what’s good. We know what’s right. Robots and numbers are neither good nor right.

As a lifetime fan who also has been a sports journalist for a good share of my adulthood, I think I’ve earned the right to an opinion on numbers. And what they mean to these games we love.

Well that last sentence fragment certainly conveys your love of Baseball.

OK, here’s the first — and most critical — thing to remember about statistics of any kind… Anybody can be right, depending on what stat you choose and how you turn and twist the thing to fit your argument.

I suppose anyone can be right when you are making an argument based on a subjective point of view. What Sabermatricians work to do is take the subjectivity out of the equation and see the true value of a player. Very often a true picture of who a player is can be obscured by such over-emphasized, “tried and true” statistics as Batting Average and Runs Batted In. To judge a player based on those numbers is a disservice to both the player and one’s understanding of the game.

So why am I revved up today?

Keep your diaper on, pops.

Well, I suppose it’s because a very talented sports columnist, Bill Simmons of ESPN.com, seems to have sold himself out to the humorless number-crunchers who have buried baseball in something called “sabermetrics.”

That sell out. He’s worse than Bob Dylan going electric! Or Ice-T playing a cop on Law & Order.

What’s that sound you hear? That’s baseball being buried beneath an avalanche of soul-crushing, mind-boggling Sabermetric numbers. AAARRGH! Run for your lives! No longer will you be able to sit back and enjoy a game, now that you know that RBI just aren’t really indicative of a player’s hitting ability.

I was shocked when Simmons wrote a piece admitting that he’d fallen into the clutches of people like Bill James and others who have managed to convince baseball executives, mainstream journalists and even some serious fans that the sport is ALL about numbers.

Bill James: “Now that we have Simmons, nothing will stand in the way of our fully operational Sabermetric battle station.”

*Gasp* Not only are people whose livelihoods depend on their analyses of the game of baseball being swayed by the ever-increasing volume of quantitative information available. Now the fans themselves are taking another look at the numbers behind the game that they love. Too much book learning ain’t no good for a baseball fan. “Makes the blood angry,” as Satchel Paige would say!

Players aren’t humans, they’re statistics with uniforms. The sabermetric crowd laughs aloud at the old, now-disgraced numbers we used to study on baseball cards — batting average, homers, runs scored and RBIs. These have been replaced with formulae like “OPS-plus.”

Actually baseball players are humans, each with an infinite variety of skills and abilities, which makes analyzing their baseball playing abilities a rather tricky business. Some people aren’t content with the old ways in which player’s abilities are judged, since they can often be very misleading. Some of those people are paid a lot of money to evaluate players, so they feel they should make an informed decision. The nerve of those guys.

What it boils down to is that people into Sabermetrics actually form an evil cabal that seeks to destroy the game of baseball. They like numbers more than baseball players and are working their evil magic to somehow turn baseball players into numbers!

(This is a complicated equation to combine on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for the player’s home park. When numbers are compared against a norm of 100, you wind up with something like Albert Pujols being 44 percent better in this category than an average player in 2009.)

It’s really not that complicated. I didn’t graduate college and I’m not particularly good at math, but I understand this formula:

100 x [(Player OBP)/Park-Adjusted League OBP) + (Player SLG)/(Park Adjusted League SLG) – 1]

The tricky part is the Park-Adjusted League averages. To find this out, we need to do a bit more digging into each ballpark’s average numbers. The point is to not penalize Adrian Gonzalez for playing in big Petco Park, while not getting too nuts about Todd Helton‘s career numbers in Coor’s Field. All the while we are trying to find out how much better “Player X” is than the average guy at that position. Sound fair?

No offense to Bill James, the guru of sabermetrics and a man determined to remove baseball’s soul,

Look at that soulless sea of Red State fans bowing at James and Epstein’s unholy altar of VORP and RC. I suppose if by “remove baseball’s soul,” you mean, “help The Red Sox win two world series,” we are in agreement that Bill James is a bad, bad man. If you mean that Bill James has done a great deal of work that has given baseball front-offices, journalists and fans alike a better way of understanding what they are seeing when they watch a baseball game, then I’m not sure what this statement means.

but I don’t need “OPS-plus” to know that Pujols was miles better than an ordinary schmuck.

Right, we all know That El Hombre‘s the best in the game. But wouldn’t you like to know if Scott Podsednik is actually a good hitter since his AVG is currently .359 or if he’s just got a lucky .424 BABIP?

The sabermetricians now have so many baffling stats within other stats, combined with idiotic acronyms, that the whole thing is laughable.

Because players should be judged solely on hits divided by at-bats and how many runners are on base when those hits occur. On the other side of the ball, we know how good a pitcher is by how many games he wins. Good fielders don’t make errors. ‘Nuff said.

How does Ribby not sound funny and VORP does? Mister Cameron has a strange sense of humor.

How much time does a fan want to spend at the ballpark learning about UZR (a defensive stat that supposedly tells you about a player by dividing the field into 64 zones), VORP, BABIP or FIP?

Cameron should be thankful that people care enough about baseball to want to understand it better and come up with their own methods of valuation to better appreciate what’s happening on the field. If fans didn’t spend time caring about baseball, he wouldn’t have a job.

I suppose heavy drinking and shouting about guys being clutch would be better usage of one’s time at the ballpark to Mister Cameron.

Does that sound like fun?

I actually explained UZR to my father in about 5 minutes, while we watched a televised game on opening day. It was one of the best times I’ve had with my father in recent memory.

Cameron goes on to tell a brief story about a play in a Royals-Blue Jays game the other night, to illustrate for us glassy-eyed Saber-zombies that he knows what good baseball is and is not. He don’t need no cockamaimy numbers to tell him his Royals stink. Fine. But what if you came from another planet and really wanted to know whether Scott Podsednik’s a good hitter or not?

My first clue that we were headed down the wrong road occurred when pro football scouts began judging potential draftees by measuring things like vertical leap, time to run a course around cones, etc.

Shame on those football scouts for wanting to know exactly where their money is going. To hell with jumping, running and throwing. Let me see how the player looks in his uniform and if he’s got heart. And grit. Don’t ever forget grit.

Me, I’ll trust my eyes to see if a guy can play.

So why are you a writer and not a scout?

But personnel directors are terrified to buck the computer — that same device that claimed Mike Singletary was too short to play middle linebacker in the NFL.

Did scouts even use computers back when Singletary was taken by The Bears in the 2nd round of the 1981 NFL draft? Really poor example, since Singletary at least went in the 2nd round. It’s not like he was undrafted or even taken in the 6th round, like Tom Brady, back in 2000.

I love these guys who can judge if a guy’s going to be great, “just by setting eyes on him.” Joe Morgan made the same remark about Jason Heyward during a Mets-Braves broadcast on ESPN last week. Joe said it as though he saw something in this kid that no one else did. I bet someone brought Morgan to see Heyward and said, “Hey Joe Morgan, this kid’s going to be great,” and Joe said, “Yup. When’s lunch?”

Now if Heyward had started off his season going 2 for 49 and got sent back down to AAA, would we hear Joe saying how he thought Heyward was going to be great? How many players has Mister Cameron given his stamp of approval on and how many winners are there in the bunch?

Do statistics have a place in sports? Sure, if you take them in the proper context. And they don’t have to be complicated, either.

The proper context meaning that they do not replace the time-honored, written-in-stone statistics drawn up in the last century. Whether they are indicative of anything important or not, the old statistics are simple and I really don’t want to have to learn a new language in order to relate to a new generation of fans who are better informed than I am.

Even using the most basic stats — like runs scored in baseball — if you take a 3-year or 5-year sample you’re going to find that really good players have really good numbers.

Sure Runs are good to keep track of. That’s not good enough though, as Runs Scored do not tell the entire story. It’s certainly not good enough for baseball front-offices who spend millions of dollars on players based on their performance. It’s not good enough for the fans who want to better understand the game either. If we’re going to follow Cameron’s line of thinking to it’s logical end, why bother keeping track of statistics at all? Why do we care how many home runs Hank Aaron hit or how many hits Pete Rose collected?

Because the pace of baseball allows us the time to ponder these things. I may be in the minority (according to umpire Joe West) but one of the things I love most about the sport is it’s slow pace. Since there is not constant action happening on the playing field, we can talk endlessly about different facets of the game. With so many games played, more than any other professional sport, we get a large sample size with which to test hypothesis and theory, to see if numbers can be duplicated or replaced.

Leave VORP to Mr. Spock, thank you.

One day in the future when we’re all flying around in cars and have vacuum cleaners that talk, my great-great-grandkids will care about VORP, but I’m really far too lazy to try and figure out why The Red Sox signed Mike Cameron.

Phew! That was fun. I’ve been meaning to do a piece like this for a while. I even have post-its filled with stupid things that Michael Kay says, but Cameron’s piece was just an inspired waste of virtual ink. It was like seeing a grapefruit tossed down the middle on a 3-0 count. I just couldn’t help myself to not swing for the fences here, since I’m not even sure if he knows what the hell he’s arguing about in this piece.

At the end of the day, it saddens me to write stuff like that, even while I’m enjoying myself. It’s a shame that many journalists (and people in general) feel so threatened by any new idea that threatens their narrow perception of the world. A piece like this just shows me how complacent Mister Cameron is with his cushy little gig as a journalist. So complacent in fact, that he feels he’s too smart to even bother learning anything new about the game, let alone fact check.

Anyway, back to the basement. I’ve got some more writing about numbers to do.

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Ryan Howard Says, “I’m Rich Bee-yotch!”

April 29, 2010

Interesting happenings from around baseball blogdom…

  • Nice week for those Metropolitans, completing their first 9-1 home stand since 1988, with a sweep of the frostbitten Trolley Dodgers. We like Ike a lot. We like good pitching even more and that’s what the Mets have been showing in the early going. With a weekend match up with the fightin’ Philistines looming, win or lose we can rejoice in knowing that Philly has just dished out the worst contract in baseball. Ryan Howard just bagged $125 million for a five year extension, that won’t kick in until he’s 32. The consensus says that the Phils are phucked and you can add my voice to the choir. The Philly ownership should look forward to paying a good portion of that money to a player that resembles David Ortiz. Unfortunately they won’t have a DH slot to hide his defense. Let the good times roll…
  • Who’s rolling the most grounders in the game right now? Not Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson or Joel Pinero. The man’s name is Jaime. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, on why Jamie Garcia may end the season with National League Rookie Of The Year honors.
  • The Rotoprofessor lists some of the high strikeout guys that you might find lurking on waivers. Figuring out which high K hurler to roster often feels like figuring out The Mystery Of Chess Boxing. Proceed with caution and protect your neck son!
  • Chris Tillman put his new cut-fastball to work while tossing a AAA no-hitter last night and Marc Hulet at Fangraphs breaks him down. Derailed by a slow spring, the once top prospect is making a claim for a job in the Baltimore rotation. Sounds good until he leaves a game with a 2-0 lead in the seventh.

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Rethinking Pitching

April 27, 2010

It is often said that a Major League starting pitcher needs at least three pitches to be effective, while a decent reliever only needs two. The reason behind this is simple. The reliever will usually see a given batter only once before he is removed from the game or the game is finished. The starter on the other hand needs to get through an opposing lineup multiple times, since if he is doing his job correctly, he should be pitching the majority of the game. Managers use their pitchers based on a simple formula. The modern five-man rotation works on the assumption that the starting pitcher will throw around 100 pitches, once every five days. The rest of the six, seven or eight pitchers that a ball club might roster are used in relief of the starters, with various pitchers used in specialized roles that take advantage of a particular pitchers skill set.

In the essay, “Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go To Waste?” published in “Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong,” Keith Woolner from Baseball Prospectus illustrated the folly of modern bullpen usage. The particular problem that he brings to light is that of the modern relief ace being used in what might not actually be the highest leverage game situation. For example, in the 8th inning of a  4 – 1 game, would it not be more prudent for a team to bring in it’s best relief pitcher to face say, a trio of Ludwick, Pujols and Holliday, rather than holding back the relief ace to face Rasmus, Molina and Freese in the ninth?

I believe a lot of the folly of bullpen usage can be blamed on the creation of “The Save,” back in 1969. Relievers and their agents now had a (very much flawed) counting number to tally up and show GMs when it was time to negotiate a contract at the years end. Suddenly relievers had a stat of their own to point to when trying to quantify their abilities. Not long after the creation of The Save, it has become convention to only use one’s relief ace to start the ninth inning – in a save situation. So “the fireman,” who would come into the game in a late inning, high leverage situation and stay on to finish, became “the closer,” the ninth inning guy. Illustrating this, I’ll refer to a chart found in “Baseball Between The Numbers.” In 1974, a closer made his appearance in the ninth inning in just 8.8% of games. Fast forward to 2002 and we’ll see that this number has jumped to an astounding 68.2%, due I believe in no small part to the importance of The Save, when it comes time for off-season contract negotiations. God forbid the closer of a visiting team comes into a tied ninth or in extra innings – even if this makes perfect sense, since if the home team scores the game is over. Meanwhile modern managers save their ace relievers for a Save opportunity that might never arrive.

One need only look at Mets closer and holder of the single season Saves record, Francisco Rodriguez for an interesting take on the usage of modern closers. After recording a record 63 Saves for The LA Angels two season ago, in what was clearly not his finest year, K-Rod went on to sign a $12 million deal with The Mets, making him the third highest paid closer behind only the incomparable Mariano Rivera and the rather volatile Brad Lidge. Frankie may not have even been the most effective reliever on his team during his record setting 2008 campaign. Last week the Mets closer finished a game, where he entered with the bases loaded and one out in the 8th inning of a 3 – 1 contest. He recorded his first five out save in almost five years. Another case in point: during the memorable 20 inning marathon on April 14, 2010, Rodriguez claimed to have thrown nearly 100 pitches in the bullpen while warming up for a possible appearance in just about all of the game’s 11 extra frames. Never mind that The Cardinals repeatedly threatened to score, which would have ended the game right then and there. When The Mets finally did grab a lead, Frankie entered in the 19th inning, dead tired and proceeded to blow the lead.

If we accept that the idea of modern bullpen usage is strategically flawed, than perhaps the concept of the starting pitcher could be rethought as well. Yesterday I received a link from one of my opponents in my H2H keeper league. Thanks to Sean for bringing this great piece from The NY Times Freakonomics blog to my attention. In the article, a reader wonders if there are better ways to use pitchers period, not simply the closer, but the starter as well and along the way he brings up some very interesting points. I won’t cover them all, but here a few of the key elements to the debate:

  • Instead of starting the game with a starter, an “opener” is sent out to pitch the first couple of innings. The openers style would differ drastically from the following pitchers in an effort to mess up opposing batters timing. Think about how difficult it might be to hit a dancing knuckleball, after facing a fireballer.
  • If a pitcher is at an advantage the first time he faces a batter and that advantage is mitigated upon the batter seeing the pitchers offerings through the course of a game, would it not stand to reason that perhaps it would be best to only use a pitcher once through the batting order? That brings me back to my opening, since the need for starting pitchers to rely on third and fourth pitches would be lessened if we follow this model. Few starting pitchers, outside of a team’s best one or two, have effective third and fourth pitches.
  • As used now, a starting pitcher pitches until he fails to get batters out or succumbs to fatigue. Often the later will be the cause of the former. What if pitchers were used in a way that would see them pulled from the game before they ever lose effectiveness to fatigue?

More so than any other American sport, Baseball is a game of orthodoxies, many of which are not particularly sound from a strategic point of view. There are many factors at play when we talk about changing orthodox game strategies. Ego, money, ill-conceived statistics and downright stubbornness often stand in opposition to the path of reason. Sometimes, as in the case of bullpen usage, teams were better off sticking with the old ways of doing things. Other tried and true baseball concepts certainly deserve a rethinking. I can see the value of a reconfiguration of pitching usage – particularly in the case of teams who may not have particularly good starting pitching. While I’m not sure I’d love it from a fan’s point of view (I do so love to watch a starter fight his way through entire game) the ideas make a lot of managerial sense.

It wasn’t long ago that the importance of good ol’ On Base Percentage was under-appreciated. Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” which famously brought light to A’s GM, Billy Beane’s statistically driven model of exploiting market inefficiencies, changed that in a big way. Team defense has come under the microscope in recent years, as smaller market teams look to maximize their payrolls by exploiting new market inefficiencies. With the speed of information forming opinions within the baseball world at a faster pace than ever before, perhaps it’s time for a hard look at how pitching is handled as well.

What do you think? Would you like to see your team employ their pitchers differently? How do you think this reordering of pitching staffs would effect the game?

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The Lineup Card: Baseball Reads From Around The Triple Dubs

April 20, 2010

Interesting reading from around the baseball world:

  • When New York Magazine isn’t sipping Champagne with Astors and giving the mayor hand-jobs for gentrifying NYC, it’s now talking about… defensive metrics?
  • Derek Carty at THT sums up the “Intuitions vs. Quants,” debate, ongoing at the Cardrunners League site. Fascinating discussion between fantasy baseball experts and poker pros, going at it mano y mano in a high stakes fantasy league.
  • Roto Rob says that help is on the way for the Houston Space Monkeys. A peek at some young guys who are primed for take off.
  • Eriq Gardner has something to say about the folly of “Buy low/sell high” advice.
  • The incomparable Grey Albright at Razzball brings the heat on the regular. Today he made a Willie McGee ugly joke that had me spitting up my morning coffee.
  • The Wall Street journal is an interesting place to find a good piece on Jerry Manuel’s rather strange usage of Frankie Rodriguez, during Saturday’s 20 inning marathon in St. Louis.

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