Archive for May, 2008

Catcher Goodness At No Cost(e)

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself – the desire for a bad pun was just too strong. But, yes, this post is about Chris Coste, the 35-year-old journeyman Triple-A catcher who is trying to convince the Phillies to never send him back down, and doing a pretty good job of it. After hitting his fifth home run of the season last night, Coste now has the highest OPS (.999) of any catcher with at least 100 plate appearances in 2008. Among that group, he’s third in batting average, second in on base percentage, and first in slugging, giving the Phillies an offensive boost from behind the plate.

This isn’t the first time Coste has blistered major league pitching either. He hit .328/.376/.505 in 213 plate appearances with Philadelphia back in 2006, and his career major league line now stands at .316/.363/.498. Since making his major league debut at age 33, Coste has been worth approximately three wins more than an average catcher. That’s a huge contribution from a guy who was living the Crash Davis persona for a decade.

Realistically, though, no one could have seen this coming, and that it continues is one of the more improbable story lines in baseball. Despite being a three time All-American for Division III Concorida College, Coste couldn’t find an organization willing to give him a minor league job, so he hooked on with the independent Frontier League, where he played from 1996 to 1999. He did enough to earn a minor league contract from the Indians in 2000, and he kicked around various Double-A and Triple-A affiliates for the next six years. He never stood out as anything spectacular, posting a career .286/.335/.421 mark. He was a serviceable minor league catcher, but nothing more. In fact, in 2006, he was hitting .177/.236/.272 for Scranton before getting the call to Philadelphia to make his debut. When you see a 33-year-old posting a .508 OPS in Triple-A, you’re not thinking that he’s going to get to the majors and start hitting from day one.

But that’s exactly what Coste has done. Since arriving, he’s done his best Gary Carter impression, and his offensive performance as a big leaguer would fit right into any Hall of Fame catcher’s resume. Coste certainly isn’t going to end up in Cooperstown, but he’s hitting like someone who deserves to be remembered as more than the 33 year old rookie. His story is the kind of thing they make movies out of, but they can worry about that when he’s done. Right now, it looks like it will be a while before he’s ready to hang up his spikes.


Player Search Update

I’ve updated player searching. I think it works a lot better now and hopefully you will too. Minor league and major league players now appear on one page and the search algorithm is now much better at picking up misspelled player names and inexact matches.


I Thought You Had Power?

Minnesota and Tampa Bay completed one of the more interesting trades of the winter when the Rays sent former #1 overall pick Delmon Young to Minnesota for a pu-pu platter of interesting players. Young had been thought of as part of the foundation of Tampa’s rebuilding project, and had just finished playing an entire season as their starting right fielder at the age of 21. Due to his physical stature, offensive potential, and some issues with maturity, the most common comparison heard when scouts discussed Young was Albert Belle. The Twins certainly believed that they were getting a potential cleanup hitter that they could build their offense around, and gushed over Young’s bat after the deal was announced.

Two months in, Minnesota has to be wondering where the power went. Young not only has failed to hit a home run in his new digs, he’s also only racked up 10 extra base hits and a meager .071 Isolated Slugging Percentage. That’s lower than Tony Pena Jr’s career ISO, and as we mentioned yesterday, he might be one of the worst hitters in baseball history. Young isn’t supposed to be hitting like a middle infielder, and he’s certainly not supposed to be hitting like one of the feeblest middle infielders around.

Where has the power gone? Well, take a look at these two charts.

ISO

GB/FB/LD

The first graph is his ISO, which shows that his current performance is well below average compared to just a normal hitter, not even accounting for the fact that he’s a corner outfielder without much defensive value. The second chart, however, shows the main problem – a skyrocketing ground ball rate and a nosediving line drive rate. After hitting the ball on the ground 46.6% and 46.3% of the time respectively the last two seasons, Young’s groundball rate is currently at 62.7%. For comparison, Luis Castillo’s career ground ball rate is 62.9%, and I’m sure that the Twins’ fans who remember him slapping the ball onto the Metrodome astroturf weren’t expecting Young to do a spot on impression.

Ground balls and power just don’t go together. The guys who hit the ball on the ground 60% of the time or more are slap-hitting infielders. In fact, of the five guys currently posting a GB% over 60%, Young is the only one who doesn’t play shortstop. You can’t become the next Albert Belle by constantly driving the ball into the ground, so it’s time for someone in Minnesota to talk to Delmon about his swing and get him lifting the ball again. Until he remembers how to get under the ball and drive it with authority, he’s going to be a colossal disappointment and a hindrance to the Twins’ playoff chances.


Reviewing the 2007 Draft: NL Third Round

For the next two weeks, in honor of the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft on June 5-6, I will be devoting my posts to a review of the 2007 draft. Today, let’s take a look at how some of the key National League third round picks are faring in their first full season in professional baseball. We are starting to get into a territory where the quality of picks really begins to think out.

Tony Thomas (Chicago) had an excellent offensive junior season at Florida State University and a solid pro debut in 2007, but his numbers are average this year while playing at High-A ball. The second baseman currently has a line of .269/.317/.401 with three homers and nine stolen bases in 182 at-bats. Thomas has walked only seven percent of the time and he has struck out at a rate of 25 percent.

Brian Friday (Pittsburgh), a Rice University grad, is showing the makings of a solid big league utility player, or possible starter. So far this season, in High-A ball, he is hitting .309/.388/.433 with one homer in 194 at-bats. Friday’s base running needs a little work as he has been successful in only 50 percent of his attempts (eight for 16). He has walked 9.8 percent of the time, with a strikeout rate of 16.2 percent.

Steven Souza (Washington), a prep third baseman, is holding his own in A-ball. He currently has a line of .266/.348/.392 with two homers and eight stolen bases in 79 at-bats, but he hasn’t played since May 6. He has walked 9.2 percent of the time, but has struck out at a rate of 32.9 percent.

Despite being drafted out of college, Jonathan Lucroy (Milwaukee) has moved relatively slowly and is currently playing in A-ball, where he has a line of .314/.389/.524 with eight homers and six stolen bases in 185 at-bats. The catcher’s bat appears ready for a promotion but his defence might be holding him back.

Lars Davis (Colorado), a Canadian catcher, has struggled offensively in A-ball. He is currently hitting .215/.277/.323 with three homers in 93 at-bats. Davis has walked 6.2 percent of the time, with a strikeout rate of 28.6 percent.

Right-hander Scott Carroll (Cincinnati) began the year in A-ball and posted a 3.75 ERA in 48 innings, with 50 hits allowed, 16 walks and 24 strikeouts. He was recently promoted to High-A ball and has made one start. Carroll allowed five runs in 5.2 innings of work.

Jameson Smith (Florida), drafted out of community college, has struggled with the bat in A-ball. The 21-year-old catcher is hitting .221/.357/.279 with no homers in 68 at-bats. The left-handed batter is only 2-for-14 (.143) against southpaws. He has as many walks as hits (15) this season.

Left-hander Eric Niesen (New York) currently has a 5.20 ERA in 45 High-A ball innings. He has allowed 52 hits. Niesen has posted rates of 5.60 K/9 and 3.80 BB/9.

Shortstop Brandon Hicks (Atlanta), drafted out of Texas A&M University, is showing surprising power with 11 homers in 148 at-bats. He has hit four in his last 10 games. He currently has a line of .257/.358/.588. He has walked 13 percent of the time, but struck out at a rate of 42.1 percent.

Matt Spencer (Philadelphia) has struggled to hit for average as a pro after signing out of Arizona State University. He currently has a line of .249/.300/.370 with four homers in 181 at-bats in High A-ball. Spencer has walked 7.9 percent of the time but has struck out at a rate of 22.4 percent.

The Mets just did not have a lot of luck drafting college relievers in 2007. Stephen Clyne (New York) currently has a 10.42 ERA in 19 High-A ball innings. He has allowed 26 hits and 10 walks.

Both Cincinnati and Arizona took interesting, young Puerto Rican infielders – Neftali Soto and Reynaldo Navarro – but both have been playing in Extended Spring Training so far this season.


Chipper’s Company

Coming into play yesterday Braves third baseman Chipper Jones sported a .418/.495/.674 slash line, thanks in large part to his 77 hits in 184 at bats. In an 8-1 win over Milwaukee last night, Jones went 2-4 with two walks, raising his numbers to .420/.500/.670. Make no mistake: Chipper is playing out of his mind right now and doing much of the gruntwork in preventing the Braves from getting off to a terrible start. However, he is not the only player in recent history to get off to such a torrid start.

Trent McCotter, in a Retrolist message, passed along the following five instances of a player starting his season 77-184, or better:

Andres Galarraga, 1993: 80-184, .435/.462/.701, 1.163 OPS
Rod Carew, 1983: 79-184, .427/.473/.535, 1.008 OPS
Lenny Dykstra, 1990: 77-184, .418/.486/.546, 1.032 OPS
Paul O’Neill, 1994: 77-184, .418/.511/.703, 1.214 OPS
Todd Helton, 2000: 77-184, .418/.511/.815, 1.326 OPS

Pretty impressive stuff. Trent also acknowledged that this did not take into account years when a good amount of play by play files are missing so there may be others not mentioned here.

Curious about what happened from here I looked at the overall numbers of these players as well as what happened from their 185th at bat on. Here are their numbers starting with at bat #185 (their season totals in parentheses):

Andres Galarraga: 94-286, .329/.366/.538 (.370/.403/.602)
Rod Carew: 81-287, .282/.370/.331 (.339/.409/.411)
Lenny Dykstra: 115-406, .283/.386/.390 (.325/.418/.441)
Paul O’Neill: 54-188, .295/.408/.503 (.359/.460/.603)
Todd Helton: 139-396, .351/.440/.644 (.372/.463/.698)

While all five posted OPS counts over 1.000 during their 77-184 “streak” just Helton kept it up during his post-hot start plate appearances. On average, these five guys posted a .310 BA onwards from their scorching start. If Chipper were to hit .310 for the rest of the season, assuming his total number of at bats will be in the same range as the last few years, he would go 97 for his next 312, putting him at 174-496 to finish the season; that would be a .351 batting average.

Realistically, and with regards to this small group, Chipper has two options:

a) sustain a BA higher than .351 from last night to the end of the season, giving him the highest BA of the group (Helton hit .351 for the rest of his season after starting out .418, giving him a .372 for the season)
b) begin to regress, finishing the season with a tremendous slash line albeit not nearly as impressive as .418/.495/.674.

It is not very likely Chipper will finish the year with a BA over or around .400 based either on this evidence or our own intuition; however that does not, in any way, make what he is currently doing any less remarkable. We all tend to understand how difficult it is to sustain a .400+ batting average primarily because nobody has done so in recent years and Chipper is at the point of difficulty right now where a 2-5 night actually decreases the average.

Still, a large part of me is hoping he can somehow pull it off as it would be great for baseball.


How The Mighty Have Fallen

At the end of the last decade, the American League boasted a pretty remarkable group of shortstops. It had almost always been a position of light hitters, but Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter provided all-star bats at the position and led to something of a revolution at the position. In fact, in 1998, the average American League shortstop hit .274/.323/.407.

10 years later, and things are back to normal. American League shorstops are hitting .254/.305/.354 so far this year, and if you’re filling out your All-Star ballot, you’re going to hard pressed to get excited about the shortstop vote. Derek Jeter is going to be the starter, but he’s hitting .280/.333/.382 and playing his usual awful defense. Michael Young will probably be the backup, but he’s hitting .278/.339/.408 and, like Jeter, is pretty lousy defensively, and his offensive production gets a boost from playing half his game in a hitter friendly park. Neither of them are having all-star seasons, but realistically, what are the alternatives?

Jhonny Peralta is hitting for power, but he has a .282 on base percentage. You have to be Ozzie Smith defensively to make an all-star team when you’re making outs that often, and Peralta is no Ozzie Smith.

Marco Scutaro is getting on base at a nifty .372 clip, but he has no power, and he’s Marco Scutaro.

Everyone else is either having a bad year or a bad career. The dearth of talent at the position is really pretty shocking, especially considering the quality of the players playing shortstop just ten years ago.


He’s Hitting What?

Tony Pena Jr plays a good shortstop, so the Royals have given him a mostly regular job at shortstop over the last year and a half. During that time, we have learned one clear truth.

Tony Pena Jr can’t hit.

I’m not talking about Pena struggling at the plate. I’m not saying he’s a bad hitter for a major leaguer. I’m saying that Tony Pena Jr might be one of the worst hitters ever to put on a major league uniform. He’s unbelievably bad. For the season, he’s hitting .160/.181/.200. The average pitcher in the National League is hitting .141/.180/.177. At least he’s better than them as a group, but the margin couldn’t be much smaller.

While Pena’s not really this bad, he is pretty terrible. For his career, he has a 2.2% BB% thanks to a 39.06% O-Swing%. He swings at almost 40% of pitches out of the strike zone, and due to that aggressiveness, he never ever walks. But it’s not like his aggressiveness comes with its own rewards, because he’s not good at making contact either. His contact rate is just 79.44%, and his career K% is 17.1%. This isn’t a guy who is swinging at everything because he can actually put the bat on the ball. He’s just swinging at everything because… well, I have no idea why.

Even when he does make contact, pitchers don’t care. His Isolated Slugging % this year is a dreadful .041 (and .080 for his career), as he has just five extra base hits on the season. Most of that is because he’s an extreme groundball hitter with a career GB% of 55.8%. When you pound the ball into the ground, you’re basically hoping for a single at best, and that limits the value of your hits. In fact, most guys with extreme groundball tendencies and some speed teach themselves how to bunt so that they can maximize their skills, but Pena’s not even good at that – he has seven career bunt hits. For comparison, Luis Castillo got 16 bunt hits last year.

Pena is the complete package – ridiculously aggressive with poor contact skills, no power, and an inability to bunt himself on base. Add it all up, and you get a guy with a career .242/.261/.321 line that no amount of good defense can compensate for. I wasn’t sure I would ever see a team give regular at-bats to a guy with less offensive ability than Rey Ordonez, but along came Tony Pena Jr.

Royals fans, you have my sympathy.


Reviewing the 2007 Draft: NL Second Round

For the next two weeks, in honor of the upcoming MLB Amateur Draft on June 5-6, I will be devoting my posts to a review of the 2007 draft. Today, let’s take a look at how some of the key National League second round picks are faring in their first full season in professional baseball.

Right-hander Jordan Zimmerman (Washington) is looking like the steal of the second round, having out-performed a number of higher-drafted pitchers so far. He posted a 1.65 ERA in 27 High-A innings before moving up to Double-A. He allowed 15 hits and eight walks. He struck out 31. So far in Double-A, Zimmerman has posted a 3.80 ERA in 21.1 innings. He has allowed 19 hits and 11 walks. He has struck out 20.

Third baseman Jake Smolinski (Washington) was drafted out of high school and has played both third base and second base in his pro career. He hit well in his debut (.305 in the Gulf Coast League) and earned a spot in full-season ball in 2008 at the age of 19. He is currently hitting .261/.338/.402 with four homers in 184 at-bats. He has walked 9.4 percent of the time and has struck out at a rate of 17.5 percent.

Despite a .296 average in his debut, Brian Rike (Colorado) has moved slowly for a college draft pick and is currently hitting .267/.393/.483 with 10 homers in 180 at-bats in A-ball. He has also stolen 10 bases in 14 attempts. Strikeouts are a concern as he has whiffed 34.4 percent of the time, but he has also walked at a rate of 15.1 percent.

The Marlins organization has to be pretty happy with outfielder Mike Stanton. The 6-5 outfielder will be 18 all season long and is currently posting a line of .273/.332/.494 with eight homers in 176 A-ball at-bats. Unfortunately, he is still raw and has struck out 35.8 percent of the time and walked only 5.4 percent. All in all, not bad for an 18 year old in full-season A-ball.

At 6-11, Scott Moviel (New York NL) towers over opponents at the age of 20. He has struggled in A-ball, though, with a 6.15 ERA in 45.1 innings. He has allowed 59 hits and has posted rates of 6.55 K/9 and 2.98 BB/9.

Eric Sogard (San Diego), 22, has moved quickly through the system and is currently hitting .320/.434/.412 in 194 at-bats at High-A ball. He has yet to hit a home run and he doesn’t steal a lot of bases so his value is tied directly to his average and his ability to get on base. So far, he has posted excellent rates by walking 17.5 percent of the time while striking out only 10.1 percent. He’s probably due for a promotion to Double-A.

Jess Todd (St. Louis), a college-reliever-turned-pro-starter, has been brilliant so far for the Cardinals organization. He began the 2008 season in High-A ball and posted a 1.65 ERA in 27.1 innings with 18 hits allowed. He posted rates of 11.52 K/9 and 2.30 BB/9. So far in Double-A, Todd has posted a 1.19 ERA in 22.2 innings with 13 hits allowed. He has rates of 7.54 K/9 and 2.38 BB/9.

Brant Rustich (New York NL) did not make his season debut until May 9 and has struggled at A-ball. The 23-year-old reliever has a 7.94 ERA in five games and has allowed two runs or more in three of his appearances. He has walked three and struck out three.

Despite posting a respectable 3.00 ERA in the Gulf Coast League in 2007, prep lefty Michael Watt (Los Angeles) has remained in extended spring training in 2008.


Jose Reyes: Then and Now

While taking full advantage of my MLB Extra Innings package last night a scrolling bottom line informed me that Mets shortstop Jose Reyes hit his 7th home run. At that point it dawned on me that a) Reyes is on pace for a career high in home runs and b) I have not been bombarded with Reyes on the national media circuit as much as the last couple of years.

Reyes has steadily improved from the time of his initial call-ups until now but, while scanning his statistics, I found that we can actually trace his improvement by comparing two seasons: His 2004 campaign and numbers accrued through the first 49 games of this season.

2004: 53 G, 56-220, 16 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 33 R, 14 RBI, 5 BB, 31 K
2008: 49 G, 58-208, 12 2B, 5 3B, 7 HR, 31 R, 24 RBI, 20 BB, 31 K

2004: 2.2 BB%, 14.1 K%, .271 OBP/.373 SLG, .644 OPS
2008: 8.8 BB%, 14.9 K%, .338 OBP/.486 SLG, .823 OPS

Everything is very similar with the exceptions of added power and an increase in walks. His increase in extra base hits and walk frequency has turned a player with the makings to be another Nick Punto into a legitimately effective offensive threat.

The years in between the two shown above saw Reyes make great strides towards improvement. Take a look at how his frequency of walks has increased through the years:

josereyes.bmp

From 2005-2007 he went from walking 3.7% of the time all the way to 10.2%; inversely, his K% dipped to the 11.2%-12.5% range. This year, however, Reyes has been walking less and regressing to his strikeout rates of four years ago.

Oddly enough, he currently has a WPA of 0.00; he has a +4.44 +WPA and a -4.44 -WPA. Also odd, is Reyes’s BABIP of exactly .300. It has been suggested elsewhere, on numerous occasions, that speedy players are much more likely to post consistently higher batting averages of balls in play due to their ability to leg out infield singles or bunt hits. This has not been the case for Reyes (career .308 BABIP), who, by many accounts, is one of the fastest players in the entire game.

To check the reasons behind his decrease in walks and increase in strikeouts I turned to the swing data here to compare this year to last. Reyes is swinging at the same amount of pitches outside the zone yet making 7% less contact on those swings. He has also swung at 5% less pitches in the zone and is making close to 1% less contact. Pitchers have offered 6% more pitches in the zone than last year as well.

The increase in pitches seen in the zone could go a long way towards explaining the decrease in walks and his significant drop in out of zone contact definitely contributes to the explanation behind his strikeout increase. I’m sure Reyes will be fine and his Mets won’t play this poorly all year long, but I find it very interesting that we can seemingly track his improvement by comparing two half-seasons, five years removed.


Kazmir’s Return Big For Rays

As of right now, the Tampa Bay Rays (I didn’t say Devil!) are tied with the Cubs for the best record in baseball. They are playing with confidence and really seem to feel they belong at the top. Some of this confidence stems from the knowledge that, every fifth day, Scott Kazmir will toe the rubber. The actually productive component of arguably the worst trade of all time broke out last season, leading everyone without the luxury of an 163rd game in strikeouts.

Oddly enough, Kazmir missed the entire month of April and the Rays still managed to go 15-12. Since his return he has not missed a beat and the team is currently 31-21.

In five starts he has gone for 30 innings, giving up 19 hits and 10 walks, striking out 32 in the process. Omitting his first start, Kazmir has gone 26 innings, giving up just 13 hits and 7 walks, with 27 strikeouts to boot; additionally, his last four starts have an average game score of 71.

Kazmir is yet to surrender a home run and has kept runners off base as evidenced by his 0.97 WHIP. Those who do manage to get on have been stranded 79.3% of the time. He has been in the 1.27-1.48 WHIP range the last three seasons primarily due to his walks. Since he does not surrender many hits—a .247 BAA from ’05-’07—he should experience even more success with some added control.

Now, 79.3% is quite high for LOB but if/when he regresses and more runners score, it does not mean he will not be effective; rather, he just won’t be Sandy Koufax anymore.

Last year he posted his highest BABIP against at .341; spreading his balls in play with 15.6% LD, 43.1% GB, and 41.3% FB, Kazmir may have been a bit unlucky. This year, surrendering 7% more line drives (22.7%), he currently has just a .265 BABIP. His career numbers also suggest this frequency of line drives should decrease to the 18% range.

When put together, all of this suggests Kazmir’s production may not sustain its current pace, but a slightly regressing Scott Kazmir is still better than the vast majority of major league pitchers.