Archive for April, 2009

Young’s Company

Earlier this week, Dave discussed Padres SP Chris Young and his inability to hold runners, essentially claiming that the former basketball prospect is worse at holding runners than anyone else in baseball is at any other skill. The data certainly matches this accusation, as baserunners are 131-144 off of Young in his career, a 91% success rate. In 2007, Young was historically bad, allowing 44 steals with nary a runner being caught. It is easy to blame the catcher for not throwing runners out but this definitely says more about Young than his backstops.

Curious to see who else has had historically bad seasons I queried my Retrosheet database for all seasons since 1954 in which runners attempted at least 30 steals off of a particular pitcher with a success rate of at least the break-even mark of 75% and sorted by success rate. For the record, though pickoffs are factored into failed stolen base attempts, they are ignored for the purposes of this post.

Not surprisingly at all, Young’s 44-44 in 2007 topped the list. Right behind him is A.J. Burnett, also in 2007, who saw 31 runners successfully swipe bags without any being thrown out. These are the only two seasons that match the querying criteria featuring a 100% success rate.

Four different pitchers benefited from having just one runner gunned down: Dennis Eckersley (34-35) in 1977, Mark Clear (33-34) in 1983, Tim Wakefield (30-31) in 1996 and Dustin McGowan (29-30) in 2007.

That 2007 season does not look too good for pitchers and their ability to hold runners on. Not only does the season house three of the six worst seasons in the Retrosheet era but it also saw Greg Maddux allow 37 steals out of 39 attempts, along with Tim Wakefield and Jose Contreras exceeding the break-even point at 41-49 and 25-31 respectively.

Nine of the 20 worst seasons in this regard have occurred since 2000, while only one took place prior to 1960: Glen Hobbie allowed 30 steals in 32 attempts for the Cubs back in 1959. There are not many pitchers who appeared on several occasions on this list, likely due to the fact that they changed some aspect of their delivery to circumvent the issue.

The most frequent violators were Nolan Ryan (10), Greg Maddux (9), Dwight Gooden (7), Joe Niekro (7), Mike Krukow (6), Tim Wakefield (6), Dennis Eckersley (5), Tom Candiotti (5), Bert Blyleven (5), and Hideo Nomo (5). These pitchers were predominantly either knuckleballers, those with freakishly long windups or notorious for caring very little about the running game.

The numbers and reputations of some of these pitchers certainly suggests that success can still be obtained with no ability to control the running game but they comprise a very small sample of the amount of successful pitchers. Chris Young lacks the stuff of a Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Dennis Eckersley, so he really needs to fix this problem because it is only a matter of time before runners truly exploit his flaw.

The CF wave

Baseball is a highly cyclical environment. Over time, we see shifts in strengths between positions due to seemingly random patterns. In the mid-90s, MLB saw an influx of offensive talent at shortstop that surpassed any that had been seen before – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada pushed the SS position into new offensive territory.

Then, it shifted, and third base seemed to be the spot where talent was flowing. Adrian Beltre, Aramis Ramirez, Eric Chavez, Troy Glaus, Hank Blalock, and Mark Teixeira all arrived within a few years of one another.

There’s another one of these talent surges in process right now, and it’s taking place in center field. The amount of talent currently playing center field in major league baseball is just astounding. Here’s the list of CFs, aged 26 and younger, who have gotten playing time in the majors during the first month of the 2009 season.

Grady Sizemore, Cleveland, 26
Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle, 26
Michael Bourn, Houston, 26
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston, 25
Chris Young, Arizona, 25
Denard Span, Minnesota, 25
Elijah Dukes, Washington, 25
Brett Gardner, New York, 25
B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay, 24
Matt Kemp, Los Angeles, 24
Melky Cabrera, New York, 24
Ryan Sweeney, Oakland, 24
Adam Jones, Baltimore, 23
Dexter Fowler, Colorado, 23
Carlos Gomez, Minnesota, 23
Colby Rasmus, St. Louis, 22
Cameron Maybin, Florida, 22
Jordan Schafer, Atlanta, 22

That’s 18 young center fielders headed towards the prime of their careers. Obviously, guys like Sizemore, Upton, Jones, and Kemp are on another level compared toBourn, Gardner, and Sweeney, but it’s still fairly easy to pick 10 or so of the guys off that list and call them future all-stars. Or, in a couple of cases, current all-stars.

This is just a ridiculous amount of talent all coming into age at the same time. Even moreso than the SS/3B waves mentioned earlier, this one contains both elite talents and a lot of depth. Half of the teams in major league baseball are in possession of a young, talented center fielder. Some of them will flame out while others will move to the corner OF spots, but overall, we’re looking at CF becoming a very strong position going forward for the next 5 to 10 years.

Draft Review: New York Yankees

2008 Draft Slot: 28th overall
Top Pick: Gerrit Cole, RHP, California high school
Best Pick: Brett Marshall, RHP, Texas high school (sixth round)
Keep an Eye On: Corban Joseph, 2B, Tennessee high school (fourth round)
Notes: There is really no way to sugar coat the fact that the Yankees organization had a terrible draft in 2008, which was not helped by the fact that it failed to sign its first pick, as Gerrit Cole opted for college, as well as its second-round pick Scott Bittle, who had injury concerns. Brett Marshall was given an above-slot deal ($800,000) to forgo college after sliding in the draft due to signability concerns.

2007 Draft Slot: 30th overall
Top Pick: Andrew Brackman, RHP, North Carolina State U.
Best Pick: Austin Romine, C, California high school (second round)
Worst Pick: Adam Olbrychowski, RHP, Pepperdine University (fifth round)
Notes: Andrew Brackman was a huge draft talent with a huge question mark as pretty much everyone knew he needed Tommy John surgery, which he underwent before the ink was dry on his first pro contract. Now 23, Brackman is back pitching but in low A-ball. Austin Romine has performed better than expected with the bat so far in his pro career, which will help soften the blow when Jesus Montero has to be moved out from behind the dish.

2006 Draft Slot: 21st overall
Top Pick: Ian Kennedy, RHP, University of Southern California
Best Pick: Joba Chamberlain, RHP, University of Nebraska (supplemental 1st round)
Worst Pick: Colin Curtis, OF, Arizona State University (fourth round)
Notes: In terms of pitching, this is one of the best drafts in recent memory for any team. The club found Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Zach McAllister, George Kontos, Dellin Betances, Mark Melancon, Daniel McCutchen (traded to PIT), and David Robertson.

* * *

2009 Draft Slot: 29th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): Best available talent
MLB Club Need: Relievers, Outfielder, Catcher
Organizational Need: Infielders, Outfielders, Left-handed pitchers
Organizational Strength: Right-handed pitchers, catchers
Notes: The organization will no doubt play its cards close to the chest with the rival Boston Red Sox picking at No. 28. Money should again be no object, and the organization might want to make up for a poor 2008 draft.

Head Scratchers

With April coming to a close today, here’s a scattering of numbers that will make you scratch your head.

Bobby Abreu has yet to hit a home run this season, but he’s stolen eight bases without being caught. Apparently someone forgot to tell him that old player skills include added power and a loss of speed.

Speaking of home runs, the Oakland Athletics have hit eight as a team this month. Adrian Gonzalez and Carlos Pena both have nine home runs, while Torii Hunter and Carlos Quentin have hit eight apiece.

Bengie Molina and Yuniesky Betancourt each have 78 plate appearances and no walks. Marco Scutaro has drawn 22 walks already. Some walks are about respecting power hitters and not giving them anything to hit, but others are entirely a function of how often a batter swings.

James Loney drew 45 walks and struck out 85 times last year. So far, he’s walked 16 times and struck out on just four occasions. Now, if he could just remember how to hit for power, the Dodgers would really have something.

Carlos Gomez laid down 66 bunts last year, easily the most in the league. He laid down three in April. He might be the best defensive outfielder in baseball, but if he’s not able to replicate his 30 bunt hits from last year, he’s going to have a hard time cracking the Twins line-up.

Edinson Volquez has a 46% ground ball rate last year. Through one month, it’s 61%. Unfortunately for him, his BB/9 (6.67) and HR/FB (30.8%) are almost as eye popping.

The Jays New Closer

Scott Downs is pretty good at baseball even though there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. Down is the designated closer now that B.J. Ryan is taking his annual DL vacation. That means fantasy owners are probably learning more and more about one of baseball’s more underrated relievers.

Downs is a lefty, which makes him a rarity at closer despite the obvious advantages one capable of retiring lefties and righties alike brings. Drafted by the Cubs in the third round of the 1997 draft, he would later be traded to the Twins then right back to the Cubs in the Rick Aguilera deal. Just over a year later the Cubs would send him to Montreal for Rondell White, and in 2004 the Nationals would release Downs.

Downs reached the Jays in 2005 and made his last start in 2006. Since then Downs has posted FIP of 4.33, 3.24, 3.39, and so far this season 0.84 thanks to allowing a combined zero walks and homeruns.

Backed by a generally stellar defensive infield, Downs groundball heavy ways (around 60% since joining the Jays) works ridiculously well. As most relievers are, Downs is basically a two-pitch pitcher. An 89-90 MPH fastball that breaks down and in to lefties gets most of the reps while a curveball that has ridiculous down and away movement from left-handers gets the call to finish hitters. The average left-handed curveball breaks 4.5 inches towards righties, Downs’ breaks 7.1 inches towards righties. With stuff like that, it’s not hard to imagine why Downs has been successful at retiring batters of both dexterities since moving to the pen.

And yes, it took a ton of self-restraint to avoid any “Up and Downs” related puns.

Fronting the Rotation: Seattle Mariners

I might be unlucky. Yesterday it was Gil Meche that I cursed with my plans to talk about Kansas City’s top two starting pitchers and today it was Erik Bedard to a milder extent. Oh well. Tonight it’s a look at the surprising Seattle Mariners, led by Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard.

The pair ranked 5th and 9th in the league in FIP coming into play today. We have seen flashes before from both of these pitchers that indicate that each has the raw talent to be among the best, if not the best, pitchers in baseball. Bedard was sidelined with injury issues again in 2008 while Felix lost some of the luster off his extreme ground ball tendencies and started relying far too much on predictable fastballs, as I have made mention of here several times.

But so far in 2009, both have been aces. Felix Hernandez has both raised his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate, always a good combination for an improved season. His ground ball has taken another step back this year which is troubling, but is mainly the result of one particularly fly ball happy start. In his past two outing, Felix’s ground ball rate has been above 60%. Also of note, Felix’s changeup speed continues to rise, and is now sitting at an average of 89.1 miles per hour. That is his changeup. While that seems good on its own, the fact that the gap between his fastball and changeup speeds continues to shrink is probably not great.

Before suffering his worst outing of the season today, Erik Bedard sure looked like the Erik Bedard of 2007. In fact, he looked even better because even in 2007, Bedard started slowly. Not this year, storming out of the gate Bedard’s strikeout rate returned to 2007 levels and he flat out eliminated the walks. That resulted in Bedard ringing up almost ten hitters for each one he walked. For good measure, he’s also increased his ground ball rate.

Bedard got hit around a bit today, but that was mostly due to some poor command on his fastball, leading to three walks and a pair of hit batters. Even when scuffling badly and essentially reduced to throwing only his curveball for strikes, Bedard still managed a decent enough outing. Felix is still relying heavily on his fastball, but he’s actually commanding its location so far this season. If he keeps up his feel for that pitch and Bedard keeps up his health, watch out, we may have another worst to first this season.

Putz Looks Hurts

When the Mets acquired J.J. Putz from the Mariners in a three team, 472 player deal, they believed they had found the relief ace to bridge the gap in the 7th and 8th innings and help them hold on to late inning leads. Putz had been one of baseball’s elite closers for several years, and his power fastball/splitter combo made hitters look silly.

Unfortunately for the Mets, they apparently aren’t going to get the guy they thought they were trading for, because this version of J.J. Putz isn’t particularly good.

His average fastball is down to 92.5 MPH, 2.5 MPH slower than he was throwing last year while recovering from an injury. Those missing miles per hour have made a huge difference in his performance as well – he’s now thrown 11 innings while walking six and striking out just four batters. His K/9 is 3.27.

Huge decline in velocity and a massive drop-off in strikeout rate are two of the main red flags indicating that a pitcher isn’t healthy. Putz spent time on the DL last year with a ribcage injury, but clearly wasn’t himself all season, struggling with serious command issues and only occasionally flashing his previous form. That he is still trying to pitch through an injury would not be any kind of surprise.

The Mets are going to have to get him checked out. They can’t keep handing the ball to a guy who throws like a power pitcher but has lost his power. That’s a recipe for disaster, and it cost them a win today against the Marlins.

Draft Reviews: Baltimore Orioles

2008 Draft Slot: Fourth overall
Top Pick: Brian Matusz, LHP, University of San Diego
Best Pick: Brian Matusz
Keep an Eye On: Bobby Bundy, RHP, Oklahoma high school (8th round)
Notes: A knee injury slowed Bobby Bundy during his senior year of high school and scared off clubs. He was given an above-slot deal to forgo a college career at the University of Arkansas. Bundy will spend another season in short-season ball in 2009. Two more prep players – OF Xavier Avery and 2B L.J. Hoes – have the chance to make noise in the system. Avery has the more impressive set of tools, but Hoes is a more advanced hitter.

2007 Draft Slot: Fifth overall
Top Pick: Matt Wieters, C, Georgia Tech
Best Pick: Matt Wieters
Worst Pick: None
Notes: It’s hard to criticize the Orioles’ selections when the club lacked second and third round draft picks. Fourth-round pick Tim Bascom has had a modest start to his career and posted a 5.24 FIP in High-A last season. In a do-over, Pittsburgh (4th overall) and Chicago (third) – possibly even Kansas City (second) – would probably grab Matt Wieters. Despite lacking the second and third round picks, Baltimore secured a second-round talent with the selection of Jake Arrieta in the fifth round.

2006 Draft Slot: Ninth overall
Top Pick: Billy Rowell, 3B, New Jersey high school
Best Pick: Zach Britton, LHP, Texas high school (3rd round)
Worst Pick: Billy Rowell
Notes: There were questions about Billy Rowell’s maturity and makeup entering the draft and he has done little to quiet those concerns in pro ball. He’s showing a little life with a .282 average in High-A ball this season but his raw power has still not translated to in-game power (one homer in 71 at-bats). Supplemental first round pick Pedro Beato has also been a disappointment. Zach Britton has pitched well so far in his career and he’s holding his own in High-A ball this season, although he’s struggling a bit with his control (12 walks in 19.2 innings).

* * *

2009 Draft Slot: 5th overall
Draft Preference (2006-08): Best available talent
MLB Club Need: Pitching, Pitching, and more Pitching, Third base, Shortstop
Organizational Need: Outfielders, Shortstop, Third base, First base, Left-handed pitching
Organizational Strength: Catcher, Second base, Right-handed pitching
Notes: The club will no doubt look to take the best available player, as seen by its decision to select Matt Wieters despite his huge price tag. However, the club is probably hoping for a good bat to be available with the pick since the future pitching rotation is looking pretty good with Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Brandon Erbe (and even David Hernandez) on the way. But you can never, ever have too much pitching so the club should be a winner either way with the fifth pick.

Small Sample Usefulness

Over the last decade or so, the main sabermetric truisms have been, in no particular order; we like hitters with plate discipline and power, bunting is bad, the modern day bullpen is inefficient, and don’t make decisions based on small sample sizes. The latter is brought up often early in a season, when strange things happen like Mike Hampton striking out 10 batters in a game or Emilio Bonifacio hitting .600 for a week. We trot out the old “it’s early, don’t make any rash judgments” line, and work to convince people that what they’ve seen so far isn’t likely to continue.

However, like most truisms, this is often taken to a non-logical extreme. People have begun to lean on “small sample size” like a crutch that helps them defend their original position in the face of evidence that should convince them that they might not be correct. The evidence might not be overwhelming, but as it begins to pile up, remaining wedded to your preseason thoughts is just as ignorant as overreacting to the performance.

Let’s use Victor Martinez, as an example. I talked about him whacking the ball in April the other day. He’s had a great month, hitting .388/.438/.624 and generally being one of the best hitters in baseball. We can be pretty sure that Martinez won’t keep hitting this well, of course, as it is a small sample of data so far.

However, regardless of what your preseason projection for Martinez was, you should now be quite a bit more optimistic about his performance over the rest of the year than you were on Opening Day. Dan Szymborski released an updated ZIPS projection that accounts for April data (thanks Dan, great stuff!), and ZIPS now thinks Martinez will hit .305/.380/.467 the rest of the season, up from a preseason projection of .293/.366/.447. That small sample size that we’re not supposed to get excited about has increased his projection for the remainder of the season by 34 points of OPS. That’s a significant change.

April is only one month of the season. Things won’t end the way they are now. We do have to be careful about drawing conclusions on small sample sizes. However, let’s not fall into the opposite trap, either – there is useful information to be gleaned from the beginning of the season. Pretending like nothing has changed is just as uninformed as pretending like the current performances will be sustained.

Don’t hang onto your preseason projections like they’re gospel. You’ve got new information in front of you. Use it.

Zimmerman’s 17-Gamer

Ryan Zimmerman has been a bit of an offensive enigma in his young career, posting very solid numbers in his rookie campaign before taking steps backwards in seasons during which his age would call for improvements. After a .348 wOBA that almost earned him Rookie of the Year honors in 2006–some guy named Hanley Ramirez edged him out–Zimmerman has seen this same mark drop to .340 in 2007 and .336 last season. Though defensive ability has kept Zimmerman producing at a level well above the league average, his offensive decline had to be concerning for fans of the Nationals.

This season, however, Zimmerman got out of the gate quickly and is currently riding a 17-game hitting streak. Actually, he has gotten at least one hit in 18 of the 19 games played this season, only posting a donut in the hits column in the second game of the season. Entering last night’s game against the Phillies, Zimm’s +3.0 batting runs and +2.7 UZR had already bested his 2008 totals, combining for +0.9 wins. His wOBA stood at .379 with OBP and SLG marks closely resembling what most thought Zimmerman would reach by his third season.

In this 17-game hitting streak, Zimmerman is 23-73, with a .315/.383/.562 line. Entering the season, CHONE was more bullish on the third baseman than some of the other projection systems, calling for a .371 wOBA in 514 plate appearances. At .379 right now, CHONE basically sees Zimmerman capable of keeping up this level of performance in one way or another. The system projected his OBP/SLG to be around .364/.488 while the current numbers are .360/.526.

If his injuries have subsided, Zimmerman can continue to get on base at his current clip and his power does not regress too precipitously, there are very few reasons why he could not sustain a wOBA above .370. Coupled with solid defense in the +2 to +5 run range and we are talking about a +5 or more win player this season. Zimmerman, as Matthew recently noted, is definitely worth the money in his new extension and despite the small sample size comprising his performance this month, it is very exciting to see Zimmerman show signs of improving with the stick.