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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Ike Davis and Appreciating OBP *UPDATED*

April 19, 2010

I never thought I’d put “Mike Francesa” and “interesting” together in the same sentence but a Mad Dogless Mike had former Mets GM and all-around nincompoop Steve Phillips on his WFAN radio show this afternoon, to talk about Mets rookie 1B Ike Davis. Davis got the call this afternoon and he’ll be debuting at first and hitting 6th for The Mets tonight against The Cubs. What peaked my interest in the exchange was the talk of how On Base Percentage is more greatly appreciated than ever before (“due to Billy Beane and the whole Money Ball phenomena,” said an audibly bitter Phillips) and how the ability to tell a ball from a strike, is “the 6th tool,” to use when evaluating a players skills.

Appreciating the batter’s eye is ancient history to anyone who cares about baseball, let alone has a fantasy team. I don’t really like to play in a league without OBP, since I understand how Batting Average only really tells a small part of the hitter’s story. It feels foolish and inauthentic to simply use AVG, when there are plenty of useful players who may not be hitting, but are still getting on base. Isn’t the object of the game – to not get out? What Francesa and Phillips (and most of the baseball media) fail to acknowledge is that “Moneyball” has nothing to do with OBP in particular. Billy Beane was simply looking to take advantage of market inefficiencies when constructing a team on a limited budget. Now that smart front offices (most with far deeper pockets) have caught on to OBP, “Moneyball” is moving on to the next undervalued facet of the game, defense. I don’t expect these guys to grasp that kind of higher thinking but I thought today’s conversation was a nice start.

One guy who’s playing “Moneyball” right now is Yankees DH Nick Johnson. Johnson is hitting an anorexic .158 on a 6 for 54 drought. His OBP however, is currently .402. Not all together unexpected in such a small sample size, especially when you consider Johnson’s switch back to the AL. If you’d like to see why Johnson is hitting at such a poor clip, you need not look any further than his .217 BABIP. But lets not get crazy now. The old guys just got that OBP was imporant. We don’t want to throw too many numbers at them. Well Francesa brought up Johnson, in regard to the changing perceptions in baseball towards OBP. In spite of the anemic AVG, the New York media is not getting on Johnson, Francesa said, due in large part to the newly found appreciation of OBP. Speak for yourself, but ok, that’s cool. Johnson isn’t in fact terrible because his AVG currently is. Of course, Francesa immediately undid any good will he may have garnered from me, by comparing Davis to Jason Heyward, since both display a good eye (Davis BB 11.2% of the time in 233 AA PA last season) and Heyward’s probably the only rookie he can name. Welcome to New York, no pressure kid.

I think Davis projects fairly similarly to Johnson. Perhaps he doesn’t have as great a command of the plate as Johnson, but he projects a little more pop. I’m not sure about his glove, but Davis did look like The Mets best 1B back in Spring Training. That’s not saying a great deal, but it might be enough for Jerry Manual to keep his job for a couple of weeks, if Davis provides a spark. Davis is worth a flyer in deep leagues and could make an impact in 12 team leagues, particularly if you use OBP.

*Note: I think the comparison that Keith Hernandez made during last night’s game was perhaps more accurate. John Olerud’s rookie season, compare somewhat favorably to Davis’ minor league numbers. It’s tough judge Davis on his past as he suffered from a strained oblique muscle last season, which he blames for sapping his power.

Mike Axisa, over at Fangraphs disagrees, point to Adam LaRoche as a better comparison. What do you think?

Davis went 2-4 with an RBI in his first game. Nice first game!

Good luck Ike. You’re going to need it.

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Finding A Balance

April 16, 2010

I’m going to cover some basics today. Since friend of TTO, Tim gave a shout today on his music blast, I imagine I may get some curious visitors who may not be as deep in the fantasy game as some. I don’t want to scare anyone away with talk of BABIP or FIP or prospects from far away lands, so lets look at some basics of fantasy baseball. Maybe a few people who enjoy baseball, but aren’t into fantasy will dig a little primer. Well here it goes.

When constructing fantasy rosters, it’s common for owners to pick players in the draft that compliment one another’s skill sets. The object of this strategy is to fill their rosters will a variety of players, the sum of which should add up to balanced offensive numbers. The classic example is drafting Ichiro and then coming back to draft Adam Dunn. These two players are diametric opposites. Dunn is the reigning god of Three True Outcomes: HR, BB or K. No speed but awesome power. Ichiro swings at and hits everything. He has modest power but steals his share of bases. Dunn the classic cleanup hitter who will drive in runs while hitting in the middle of the order. Ichiro bats lead-off, there-by getting the most plate appearances in the Mariners lineup. Batting first, he’ll score many more runs than he will drive in. Simple enough. I like to play in a league that counts On Base Percentage. This places even more value on a guy like Dunn. He may only be a career .249 life time hitter for average, but because he walks to much he gets on base at an astounding .384 OBP. Ichiro on the other hand, carries a lifetime .332 Batting Average, but his free swinging amounts to only a .377 OBP – less then Dunn’s.

Going down my roster, I have some similar analogies in my lineup. Free swinging Giant, Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, who I like to call “Fat Ichiro.” Of course he has more power then Original Recipe Ichiro, but being a big boy, won’t steal too many bags. He’s a free swinger in the Vlad Guerrero (post-Montreal) mold. Nick Swisher is like Dunn-lite. Good pop, K’s a ton and will take a lot of walks. These sorts of player pairings allow the varied player-types to fill holes in your production, so that you don’t find yourself ahead a lot in one category and failing miserably in others. Some owners will intentionally gear their teams towards extremes, in an attempt to overwhelm the opposition in one category, while “punting” others. I don’t feel punting offensive categories is a viable strategy in mixed team leagues, 12 teams or shallower, but could be used advantageously in larger leagues where you’ll be rostering many more replacement level players (or worse). I’m going to stick with 12 team or fewer strategies here for simplicities sake.

Now lets apply this idea towards our pitching staff. When selecting pitchers, I like to use the same principle that I apply to building my offense. In my experience, it seems the balance principle is not as regularly followed for pitching as it is for hitting. I frequently face teams who are heavy on strike-outs but will have inflated ratios (ERA and WHIP) and vice-versa. Of course your ace starting pitchers should produce across four categories (in a standard 5×5 game), much like many of the heavy hitters who will be drafted early on. When we go a little deeper down the line though, you’ll have to make choices between pitchers who’s skills will translate into production in one category, but perhaps a deficiency in another. Many of those high strikeout, power pitchers that you’ll find available later on in a draft will walk a lot of people. That’s sort of how it goes in baseball. Guys who throw gas, Yankee’s A.J. Burnett for example, tend to give up a higher than average amount of walks. Of course there are always exceptions, but I’ll use A.J. to describe a certain type of pitcher.

Last year A.J. sent 8.48 batters per nine down on strikes, while giving 4.22 batters per nine free passes. Both of those numbers are well above the league averages of 6.99 K/9 and 3.46 BB/9. I know from viewing that A.J. is “effectively wild.” He’s a guy who’s pitches have such great movement, that they’ll often end up outside the strike-zone. When A.J. is on, his ball breaks late, making batters swing at a ball that suddenly moves. A patient hitter can exploit his lapses in command and draw a walk, while more aggressive hitters are more likely to go down flailing. So Burnett K’s a lot of guys and BB’s a lot of guys. Along the way he finished with around league average ratios of 4.04 ERA and 1.40 WHIP (BB + Hits/9). One knows from watching him, he can be dynamite some days or a disaster on others.

In Bizarro World, White Sox lefty, Mark Buerhle is A.J.’s opposite. In fact A.J.’s thin and clean shaven, while Buerhle’s a big guy with a beard. See, just like that Star Trek episode! I’ve already raved about Buerhle here before but I’ll do it again since he’s pitching today and I need a big win tonight. The dependable Buerhle is a control freak, who doesn’t strike many guys out (4.43 K/9 1.90 BB/9 in ’09). If A.J.’s that fast sports car that’s fun to drive, but will sometimes break down and cost you a lot of money, Buerhle’s a Honda Accord. Nothing flashy but easy to drive and he’ll be on the road a long time. So long in fact that Mark Buerhle’s pitched more innings than anyone since 2001. Admittedly, a fact like that doesn’t mean much more than the guy’s dependable and not terrible, but we like dependable and not terrible. Buerhle strikes out far fewer batters than the league average pitcher, so he’s going to hurt us a bit there. His ERA and WHIP however are pretty damn good for a guy you’ll find hanging around hours into your draft, waiting to get picked: 3.84 ERA and 1.25 WHIP last year. Now if you take the two of these guys and squish them together, you get a sort of super-pitcher, like “The Thing With Two Heads,” except they’re both white! What you get is a nice balance and balance wins.

Hopefully that balance will pay off tonight, as Buerhle tries to shut down the woeful Indians again. I need a well pitched game tonight from the lefty, since the highly volatile Carlos Zambrano, blew up my ERA and WHIP yesterday with another less than satisfactory performance. I’ll give him a Mulligan since the wind was blowing out at Wrigley yesterday but Big Z better get his act together or he’ll be riding the fantasy pine!

So to sum it up: When you’re building a better fantasy team, select players who’s numbers work together in tandem and you’ll get the most out of your picks. Don’t get too caught up in balance that you over-look serious bargains you might find, just keep it in mind. I’ve found a pleasant by-product of this plan is that you’ll often end up with some players who might be seriously under-valued by other owners but compliment your squad perfectly.

Because I can’t help myself…

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Opening Day With Pops

April 5, 2010

Easter has passed, Passover’s passing, the leftovers are in the fridge and the first game is in the books. I’m glad I was able to get home in time to catch about half of Yanks vs. Sox Part 1 and I feel lousy for JP who had both CC and Beckett going against one another and expected a low scoring affair. I hate to say it but I’m happy I didn’t bet the house on CC or Beckett in my draft/auction this year. I just hate having my pitchers get pummeled by those AL East lineups, especially when they play in favorable hitters parks. A lot of fantasy baseball owners don’t seem to put much stock in that, but it definitely entered my mind when I passed on Beckett in the 3rd round of my keeper league draft and went with Nelson Cruz. I wasn’t aware of Beckett’s 4.53 ERA lifetime at Fenway at the time, but there’s one more ‘actual fact to snack on and chew.’

This morning, I raced my friend over to Kennedy Airport (you know ‘Goodfellas?’ that’s where the Lufthansa Heist was held) so she could catch her flight back to Frisco and I could make it back to my folks house in time for Johann’s first pitch. It’s always a festive atmosphere on opening day over there in Flushing, as Met fans gather with naive optimism and tailgate it up beneath the Northern Boulevard overpass. It may just be another day at the chop shops across the street, but today’s a holiday Flushing and I was glad I could spend some time watching a game with pops.

See my father is old school baseball, like Willy, Mickey and The Duke. He was a high school baseball hero at James Monroe in The Bronx, playing alongside Mets great, Ed Kranepool as both a pitcher and a catcher. Pops lit it up from both sides of the plate and got a look from a few big league scouts. He was on some Hank Greenberg, Original Hebrew Hammer shit. As fate would have it though, he injured his throwing elbow and what might have been a professional baseball career ended prematurely. Of course today he would have had Tommy John Surgery and still might have had a shot at a comeback, but back then it wasn’t even an option. His love for the game never waned and he’s passed it on to me – along with a clear instructions to not throw too many breaking balls. So for better or for worse, (I’d like to think better) there we were in their two bedroom apartment in Flushing, watching the game that he taught me to love.

Pops is a Mets fan and he follows The Yankees too, but he isn’t up on all but the biggest names outside of the two teams respective divisions. He’s still very knowledgeable and has a treasure trove of baseball memories in his head, but he’s not up on  Sabermetrics or “Moneyball,” outside the casual reference a color guy may spit out on TV. Pops likes to hear about my fantasy baseball team even though he’s never heard of half of the guys.

“Fuckin’ Pujols is the best, huh?” he says to me, as we watch the first of Albert’s two, leave Great American Bandbox. “Fuckin’ A right. That’s why I keep him.” I replied. “We use OBP too, so he’s got even more value in my league.”

“So he walks, his OBP goes up, and you get credit? Not just for his average?” He asked, His interest peaked.

“Yeah. He’s always got an insane OBP.”

“Of course. Nobody wants to pitch to him!” He stops and thinks for a few moments.

“So a guy like Swisher’s pretty good in your league then.”

“Yup. Got him too sometime late in the draft. He may drag down my average a bit, but he’s a walk machine and he should be able to hit 30 in the new Yankee Stadium.”

“Man. That place is a lot different than the old Stadium. With death valley in left center. If you could hit it out past the monuments, that’s some shot!”

461 feet out to left center to be exact when pops was growing up over there. Some shot indeed.

“There must have been a lot of extra basehits in that park, huh? Outfielders better have good legs. Like Citi I guess.”

“Of yeah. That’s why The Yanks always had those great, athletic Centerfielders, like The Mick before his knees went.”

“Like Mookie!” My mom chimed in from the kitchen.

Bottom of the 4th. The Mets are leading The Marlins 2 – 0 and threatening with bases loaded and one out. Unfortunately the next better is Alex Cora and not Jose Reyes. The left handed hitting Cora smokes a line drive off of Josh Johnson to the left of second base. The liner looks like it’ll end up a basehit, until Hanley Ramirez lunges to his left to snare the ball about an inch before it hits the infield dirt. Ramirez steps on second to double off Jeff Francoeur, and end the inning.

“Nice play” I say, switching over to Cards – Reds on ESPN. “Hanley’s not really know for his D.”

He wrinkles his bearded mug and waves a dismissive hand, “He’s supposed to make that play. He’s positioned perfectly against the lefty hitter.”

I nod in agreement. Neither Gary, Keith or Ron make any mention of the perfect positioning of the Marlins infield before they go to commercial. To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if they mentioned it when they returned from break though, since those guys are pretty much on the ball when it comes to the game within the game.

“The Marlins pitch well. They’re going to be better then The Mets again this year.” Pops says.

“Wouldn’t surprise me. Their D is terrible though. They give away too many outs. With a bullpen as lousy as Florida’s, you can’t do that. They just don’t seem to get the value of defense.” He turns and listens. “That’s the new shit. Like The Rays and The Mariners. Defense is the new OBP. It’s an undervalued commodity. See there are all kinds of new defensive metrics being used now that try to get a better picture of how good a fielder a player really is.”

“Well it’s pretty easy to see. If he drops the ball, he drops the ball.” He laughs.

“That’s not the whole picture though. Sure you want good hands, but what good are they if the guy never gets to the ball?” I shuffle two steps to my right and backhand an imaginary grounder to demonstrate. “What about the guy that never gets to the ball though? He sucks worse than the guy who drops it. At least the guy who drops it, has a chance at it right?”

He sits back and ponders quietly.

“But how do you measure that?” He asks. I’m a little in over my head now but I’ll give it a go.

“Well there are a bunch of guys who record every game and come up with an average. Like player X will get to a ball hit ten feet to his right X number of times… They get an average and then from there you can measure individual players and say Derek Jeter had a rating of 6.6 over the average replacement player last year. That’s called UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating. You add all that in with the player’s offensive Value Over Replacement Player and you can get a more accurate idea of how good a player really is.” I think I’m going a bit to fast but I want to illustrate a point.

“So smart teams are saying, ‘why should I spend 16 and a half mil on a home run hitter like Jason Bay, when I can get a guy who can be about as valuable with their glove, like Mike Cameron for five million.’ Not to say they’re equal, but obviously Cameron’s going to cost a lot less and he’ll help your pitchers a whole lot more.”

He soaks it in for a bit. “So the Marlins should spend what little money they have on defense I guess.”

“Probably. They still get a lot more out of their money than The Mets.”

He shakes his head in bewilderment mutters “Fuckin’ Muts,” before getting up to leave with mom and enjoy the lovely weather. They won 7-1.