Archive for June, 2009

The Morgan-Milledge Deal

Over the last few years, one of the easier running jokes in baseball was to suggest that any available outfielder would interest the Washington Nationals. Jim Bowden couldn’t hide his love of toolsy, athletic underperformers, so every kid who had ever been ranked on Baseball America’s Top 100 and became available gravitated towards the nations capital. So, it would be easy to continue to chuckle right along with the old joke, as today, Washington traded for another outfielder, completing the rumored Lastings Milledge for Nyjer Morgan swap by agreeing to exchange Joel Hanrahan for Sean Burnett as well.

However, this move is different. Morgan doesn’t follow the previous pattern – he can actually play baseball, especially defense. Washington’s outfield has combined for a -24.5 UZR this year, easily the worst in baseball (the next lowest is the Blue Jays at -19.2). The combination of Elijah Dukes, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Austin Kearns, and Willie Harris have been disastrous in the field, which is a pretty significant problem when you’re trying to develop a young pitching staff.

Morgan is far form a defensive liability. He has 743 innings between LF/RF and a career UZR of +15.4, along with 391 innings in center field and a UZR of +11.9. Those numbers are off-the-charts awesome. If Nyjer Morgan was really a +35 UZR/150 center fielder, he’d be in the conversation for the best defensive outfielder of all time.

Now, he’s almost certainly not that good. There’s a lot of noise in small sample UZR numbers, and we only have about one full season’s worth of data on Morgan as an outfielder. Odds are Morgan is just a good defensive CF, not the best that anyone has ever seen. If we were to project his defensive value going forward using a regression, we’d likely end up expecting him to be something like a +10 to +20 center fielder, which puts him in the category of guys like Carlos Gomez, Franklin Gutierrez, Mike Cameron, Rajai Davis, and Darin Erstad.

Given what we know about Morgan’s skillset and his status as one of the fastest players in the game, this shouldn’t be that surprising. He has the physical skills to be a terrific defensive player, after all, so when the metrics and the scouting reports agree, there can be increased confidence in the result.

Of course, guys that are this good at defense usually aren’t much offensively. Morgan follows the pattern of a slap-hitting groundball guy who tries to get on base via a horde of singles to compensate for his lack of power. Unlike Gomez and Erstad, though, Morgan has shown some adeptness at making this work for him – his career line in the majors is .286/.351/.376, which translates to a barely below average .322 wOBA.

That’s the high end of what the Nationals should expect going forward, however – it is based on a career .346 batting average on balls in play, and while fast guys do better than average at getting on via contact, .346 is still tough to sustain. If his BABIP falls down to .320 or so, about what ZIPS projects for him going forward, than he’s more of a .310 wOBA guy.

A .310 wOBA and +10 defense in center field is still a pretty nifty player, though. Over a full season, that would make him a +2 to +2.5 win player, or right around league average. Considering that his lack of service time means he’ll be making the minimum the next couple of years, the Nationals are getting a pretty significant value in this particular outfielder. The upside isn’t super high, but he’s instantly one of the better players on that team, and will make them better both in 2009 and going forward.

For the Pirates, they get to try to figure out how to extract some value from Lastings Milledge, who would have to take several steps forward before he was as good as Morgan is now. Can’t say I’m a fan of this move for Pittsburgh, but that’s getting to be a theme lately. The Pirates have made a series of head-scratching moves of late, and this one just continues that trend. Hanrahan is a nice buy low candidate, and a better bet for the future than Burnett, but relievers just aren’t that hard to acquire. The Pirates get worse now for some hope of getting better in the future, but that hope is tied to a belief in Lastings Milledge’s improvement that I don’t have.

Good trade for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals. For once, they finally acquired an outfielder with some usefulness.

Does Cito Gaston Work for Boston?

Manager Cito Gaston’s surprise return to the fold in 2008 breathed new life into a floundering organization. The Toronto Blue Jays’ skipper, though, may be at fault for the club’s mid-season demise in the standings.

On May 19, the Jays club was 2.5 games ahead of Boston and 3.5 games ahead of New York in the American League East standings. Now, on the last day of June, the club is in fourth place and seven games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. How did this happen?

As of June 20, the Jays club had played 78 games (41-37). Five regulars had played 76 games or more: Aaron Hill, Marco Scutaro, Adam Lind, Vernon Wells, and Alex Rios. Two of those players (Rios and Wells) have been terrible this season and were also left in the No. 3 and 4 holes in the lineup until mid-June.

Two other players are obviously being over-worked by the manager. Hill appeared in just 55 games last year due to a concussion. Despite the time off, the manager has failed to ease the second baseman back into regular play. Scutaro, the club’s undisputed spark plug in the first two months, had never really been a full-time player until last year when he appeared in 145 games. At 33, he’s no spring chicken.

As for Lind, he’s survived remarkably well as the youngest player of the five at 25 years of age and he’s also spent just 26 games in the field. His 50 other appearances have come as the club’s designated hitter.

These five players are obviously playing a lot… so let’s look at the monthly splits and let the stats do the talking for a minute.

Adam Lind
April: .315/.400/.533
May: .264/.333/.453
June: .354/.431/.544

Vernon Wells
April: .283/.345/.465
May: .252/.300/.361
June: .210/.259/.350

Alex Rios
April: .248/.304/.366
May: .302/.359/.509
June: .232/.291/.379

Aaron Hill
April: .365/.412/.567
May: .307/.331/.480
June: .234/.278/.477

Marco Scutaro
April: .281/.421/.506
May: .322/.397/.421
June: .235/.325/.333

As you can see above, four of the five players are down significantly in June. I’m sure management has seen the numbers, but the powers that be are now between a rock and a hard place. The regulars need rest badly, but how do you take them out of the lineup now that the playoffs are (not so) slowly slipping away? The main focus on the Jays this season has been the injuries to the pitching staff and the club’s reliance on young, unproven hurlers. But those pitchers have not been the club’s downfall, whatsoever. The team’s ERA/FIP for the past three months: 4.34/4.37 in April, 4.23/4.35 in May, and 4.22/3.91 in June.

As a side note, I’d also like to point out the disappointing use of veteran back-up infielder John McDonald. The fifth-year Jay has been used in just 28 games this season with just 26 at-bats. That is the most embarrassing use of any player in the Majors this season… and yes, he’s spent the entire season on the roster and has been healthy the entire time. Twenty-six at-bats. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not the way to use you bench… Or treat your veteran players. You know, the ones you’d have to turn to if your starting shortstop or second baseman suddenly got hurt…

Another Look at HRs at the New Yankee Stadium

A lot has been made of the large number of HRs at the new Yankee Stadium so far this year. AccuWeather speculated that the way wind traveled travelled through the new Stadium was responsible for the additional HRs. Greg Rybarczyk determined that the dimensions of the park are not, in fact, exactly the same as the old Yankee Stadium. AccuWeather since came to the same conclusions as Greg, that it was a change in outfield dimensions and not wind that was responsible for the change.

Greg determined that the biggest difference in outfield dimensions is in a portion of right field where the wall is between 2 and 9 feet closer to home plate and 2 feet shorter than in the old Yankee Stadium. This portion of the wall was already relatively close to home plate, the famous short porch in right.

The HR numbers are way up, and I wanted to see if they were up in this location that both Greg and AccuWeather identified as having the biggest difference in outfield dimensions between the two stadiums. So I looked at the HR per ball in air rate by angle for the old Yankee Stadium from 2005 to 2008 (I am using the GameDay data and that is the extent of it) and for Yankee Stadium so far this year. The thick lines is the estimate and the thin lines indicate the standard errors. An angle of -45° corresponds to the 3B line, 0° to right up the middle (second base) and 45° to the 1B line. Here is the rate for right handed batters.


In left field there is almost no difference in HR rate, but in right field there is a slight increase in 2009 compared to pre-2009. The confidence intervals overlap so the difference is not statistically significant. Along the right-field line there is actually a drop in HR rate, but since there have been so few balls hit there is no statistical confidence in this difference.

Here is the same image for left handed batters.


Here there is a real statistical difference. Between about 5° and 35° the HR rate has been statistically higher in 2009 than pre-2009. This data is for all hitters and is not corrected for level of hitter, as park factors are. So it could be that there have just been more power lefties hitting at Yankee Stadium this year compared to 2005-2008. But since the largest increase in HR rate is in the same area of largest outfield fence change I think it is that fence change that is responsible.

The new Yankee Stadium has an even shorter porch in right field, and, it seems, LHBs will be the primary beneficiary.

No Really, Brandon Inge Should Be Your Tiger

Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson are probably both shoe-ins to be representing Detroit in the All Star Game, but believe it or not, Brandon Inge is the guy who deserves to be in St. Louis the most. Inge is having the season of his life, with a .382 wOBA to go along with some very good defense. Pretty impressive for someone who struggled to find regular work the season prior.

A former catcher turned third baseman, Inge evidently has worked his behind off to make himself an effective defender at the hot corner. When Ivan Rodriguez came to Detroit, Inge was asked to move to third base. He scuffled in his first season to the tune of a -18 UZR per 150 games in his first season at the position, but the following seasons Inge improved to +6, +13, +9 and +8. This season he’s been a +13 per 150 games.

Being the lesser bat than Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen, Inge was tagged with the super-utility role last season, but was less than super. Spending most of his playing time as Ivan Rodriguez’s backup, he also played third on occasion and even…wait for it…center field. Yep, Inge was the Tigers 2008 Opening Day center fielder while Granderson was on the shelf. When Pudge was traded to the Yankees, Inge took over as the Tigers’ everyday catching job once again, but for the season he posted a .297 wOBA, his worst season since 2003, that fateful year the Tigers lost 119 games.

After watching a $135 million + payroll tank it last year, Dave Dombrowski remembered that defense is important, went out and got Adam Everett and Gerald Laird this past winter, and reinstalled Inge at the hot corner. Now thanks to defense and good starting pitching, the Tigers find themselves in 1st place, and Inge is having his finest season to date.

Inge has been improving upon his patience at the plate, walking now in 11% of his plate appearances two seasons running. What’s really boosted his value is his career-high .249 isolated power. Inge has always had average power, but this is quite out of line with what he’s done, and it’s not likely that one of every five of his fly balls he hits will continue to clear the fence.

Inge is projected to hit for a .338 wOBA the rest of the season, which is respectable when you can pick it like he can. Because of that skill, Inge was a over a 3 win player two years in a row in 2005-2006, and thanks to a hot start is well on his way to being the quietest 5 win player of the season.

You Still Do Not Appreciate Him Enough

When Ichiro Suzuki was diagnosed with an ulcer that would cause him to miss at minimum eight games, people began to crawl out of the woodwork to question many aspects of Ichiro’s game. Whether he would reach 200 hits for the 9th straight season. Whether, coming off a .747 OPS season, Ichiro should not be traded.

I think we can say that Ichiro is off to a healthy start in proving his skeptics wrong. Again. With 110 hits through 67 games and 312 plate appearances, Ichiro is ahead of even his record-setting 2004 season. Over the same 762 PAs that he received that season, his current rate would net Ichiro with 269 hits.

Not only is the average as healthy as ever, but the power is at nearly an all-time high. Only Ichiro’s 2005 season, a year marked by a change in approach to increase his slugging at the expense of some of his average, has seen a higher isolated slugging percentage, and its .133 mark is a mere five points ahead of his current .128. In other words, so far in 2009, Ichiro is hitting for average like it is 2004 and hitting for power like it is 2005. The only thing he is not doing at the plate is drawing walks, but it is pretty difficult to level that as a legitimate claim against him when he is experiencing the level of success as he has been.

Interestingly, pitchers seem to be trying to offer him those walks. Continuing a nearly uninterrupted trend since 2004, Ichiro is seeing less pitches in the strike zone than ever before. Instead of laying off of them and taking more walks, Ichiro has in fact increased his rate of offering at balls. Of course, he also makes contact on them 86.7% of the time, a flatly absurd number.

Not satisfied with just decimating the calls for decline at the plate, Ichiro has stepped up his defensive game as well. Long praised for his great arm, Ichiro is putting up the best Range numbers of his career.

Adding it all up and Ichiro is on pace to eclipse even his 2004 season in terms of win value. Worth three wins already, Ichiro’s projected playing time would have him worth just under seven wins were he to maintain his lofty rates.

Searching For Reasons

Last week, Dave discussed how inept analysts have become in terms of assessing when players considered to be over the hill fall off said hill. Most wrote off David Ortiz as being done, washed up, having nothing left in the tank, and then June rolled around and he “found his stroke.” Personally, I think the problem extends way beyond just determining when aging players become washed up, and deals more with our obsession to find reasons capable of explaining potentially unexplainable phenomena.

There are certainly areas within the game of baseball that lend themselves to individual skills and not chance, but there are an equal number of areas that fluctuate randomly. Trying to pinpoint a single reason as to why one of these random fluctuations occur makes very little sense and proves to be nothing more than a futile exercise. Not everything can be explained, concisely wrapped up in a neat little bun, and then brushed aside as an issue solved.

Over the weekend, a good friend of mine and I were discussing Johan Santana and how he has not looked like himself lately. After several back and forth ideas, wondering about Santana’s health or the competition he had been facing, it dawned on me that this might be a non-issue and searching for an explanation could pave the way to inaccurate claims being dished out. In a piece I wrote for BP earlier in the year, I investigated the idea of consistency, checking to see if it mattered or if consistency itself was stable. Short answer: consistency itself was inconsistent. Johan may have looked mortal recently, but the fact that his performances did not match his early season dominance really does not tell us anything. At season’s end, we are probably going to look at his gamelogs and chalk this recent stretch up as a rough patch everyone goes through that eventually corrects itself.

Think about that Raul Ibanez fiasco a few weeks ago and how that almost exponentially found itself the topic of interest amongst sports sites, radio stations, and television productions.

If I recall correctly, Person A, who partakes in a fantasy league, asked Person B about Ibanez’s revival. Person B then looked into the numbers and wrote a lengthy diatribe about Ibanez’s career, searching for a definitive reason as to why Raul had been hitting like Albert Pujols. In his search for a reason, performance enhancers were brought up, and within days, Person B had to defend himself on national television against Ken Rosenthal. No, Robothal isn’t Dave Winfield-esque in stature, but the point remains that searching for a reason to explain what could potentially amount to nothing more than an extended hot streak not necessarily foreign to Raul, who has posted some insane streaks in years prior, led to an extremely overhyped media frenzy.

There are certainly times when looking for a reason makes sense, like with the current performance of Jimmy Rollins, but for the most part doing so is useless. Non-Pujols players always fuse together various ups and downs in a season before arriving at their bottom line. Just because a player slumps and then gets hot doesn’t mean that he lost some skill in the former and gained it back in the latter. Assign grains of salt to reasoning or explanations derived from small samples of data, especially if they involve an area of the game that fluctuates randomly.

Snell Needs A New Home

For a guy with a pretty nondescript track record, Ian Snell sure is making a lot of news lately. Five days ago, the Pirates optioned Snell to Triple-A, at his request, so he could work on getting back to the pitcher he was a couple of years ago. The Pirates organization are clearly fed up with him, and it seems likely that the feeling is mutual. Today, Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington was quoted as calling the contract extension he gave Snell a year ago “a mistake”, and then went out to say that while the contract made sense at the time, “you could argue very easily that we missed on the player.”

He finished the remarkably negative public quotes by talking about “salvaging” the deal, either by trading Snell to someone else or bringing him back to the majors as a relief pitcher. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of his future in Pittsburgh, is it?

Given the comments and the situation, you’d think that Snell had been the worst pitcher in the history of baseball or had physically assaulted a teammate or something. But, no, he’d just struggled a bit with his command and stranding runners, which has led to an ERA (5.36) that’s about a run higher than his FIP (4.56). That’s the kind of performance that gets you banished from Pittsburgh nowadays?

It’s not like Snell can’t pitch anymore, either. Yesterday, in his first start in Triple-A, away from the “negativity” of the situation at the major league level, he threw seven innings, gave up two hits, walked one, and struck out 17 batters. At one point, he blew away 13 Toledo hitters in a row. I know it’s Triple-A, but you can’t rack up 17 strikeouts against professional hitters without some talent.

If the Pirates are tired of Ian Snell’s personality, there should be a pretty decent sized line of teams ready to take him off their hands. The “mistake” contract that Huntington refers to pays Snell $3 million this year, followed by $4.25 million next year, which means that the total obligation to Snell going forward is about $6 million through the end of 2010. The contract then contains two fairly reasonable club options that would be no-brainer pickups if Snell stays healthy and shows a bit of return to his previous form.

In a market where a bunch of contenders are pining for a starting pitcher, Snell would make a really good buy-low option for practically all of them. At worst, he’s a capable #5 starter, and he’s got the talent to be significantly more than that. Maybe it won’t work out for him in Pittsburgh, but this seems like a case of the Pirates flushing an asset for reasons that better management would be able to overcome.

Don’t be surprised if you see Snell pitching well for some other team in the next few weeks.

A Minor Slugfest

The high-A California League is known for being an offense-boosting league. Sunday’s game between Lake Elsinore (San Diego affiliate) and High Desert (Seattle) goes to show why you have to take minor-league statistics from players in that league with a grain of salt. Lake Elsinore defeated High Desert by the football score of 33-18. The two teams combined for 58 hits in a single game.

According to the Baseball Almanac, the most runs scored by a single team in a Major League Baseball game is 36, set by the Chicago Colts (now the Chicago Cubs) against the Louisville Colonels (which joined the National League in 1892) on June 29, 1897. The most runs scored by two teams combined at the Major League level was 49. That occurred on August 25, 1922 when Chicago (again) defeated Philadelphia by the score of 26-23. Minor league records are harder to discover, but interestingly, the most lopsided minor league baseball game had Corsicana defeating Texarkana by the score of 51-3 in the Texas League in 1902. Corsicana’s Jay Justin Clarke hit eight home runs in that game (He hit just six in his nine-year MLB career).

Back to the present, let’s have a look at some of the individual players from Sunday’s game. On the Lake Elsinore side, all nine players had at least two hits. Six players had four hits or more. Another Clark(e), this one a first baseman named Matt Clark, had a big game. In just his fourth game since being promoted from low-A ball, he went 5-for-6 with two home runs, seven runs scored, five RBI and two walks. One of the Padres’ top hitting prospects, third baseman James Darnell, was in just his second game since a promotion and he went 4-for-7 with five runs scored, two doubles, a homer, and three RBI. Felix Carrasco, a first baseman who has been in the league all season long, went 4-for-7 with four runs scored, two doubles, a triple, and six RBI.

For High Desert, six players had three hits or more. Designated hitter Joseph Dunigan was the only starter in the game not to get a hit and he went 0-for-5 with one strikeout. Leadoff hitter James McOwen extended his league-record hitting streak to 36 games with a 2-for-6 day. He also homered and drove in four runs. Carlos Peguero went 4-for-6 with a triple, homer, two runs scored and four RBI. Kuo Hui Lo went 4-for-6 with four runs scored, four RBI, a double and two homers.

The biggest prospect on the Seattle team raised his average up to .346. Alex Liddi, an Italian-born third baseman, went 2-for-6 with two runs scored, a double, and two strikeouts. The 20-year-old is having a breakout season (surprise, surprise) and some caution should obviously be used before getting too excited about his offensive numbers in 2009.

Catcher Jose Yepez, a formers Jays farmhand who began the year in independent baseball, went 3-for-4 two runs scored, a homer and four RBI. He then took to the mound for the pitching-thin High Desert club and promptly gave up five hits, including four home runs, and recorded just one out. Another hitter – Deybis Benitez – had to come in to get the final two outs (and he didn’t allow a hit).

Starting pitcher Nathan Adcock had a terrible game, to say the least. He allowed eight runs on seven hits and two walks. Oddly, though, he did not give up a homer, while recording just two outs. Juan Zapata came into the game and gave up six runs in 1.1 innings of work on eight hits and one walk. Natividad Dilone drew the next shortest straw and he allowed eight runs on four hits and five walks during 2.1 innings of work. Travis Mortimore was the only pitcher in the game to go at least an inning without allowing a run. He worked a total of 1.2 innings and allowed two hits and one walk, but otherwise walked away unscathed.

On the mound for Lake Elsinore, starter Jeremy McBryde gave up 11 runs on 13 hits and one walk in 4.2 innings of work. Three long balls were hit against the right-hander. Reliever Allen Harrington had a bad game with four runs allowed on five hits in one inning of work. He gave up two homers.

It will be interesting to see how the pitchers for both clubs recover from the brutal assault. Of the seven legitimate relievers used, only one (Matt Teague at 5.40) now has an ERA below 6.68.

After games like this, it’s no wonder why it’s impossible to judge baseball prospects on statistics alone – especially as long as clubs like High Desert and Lake Elsinore continue to exist.

Wakefield’s Fastball Redux

A couple weeks ago Other Dave noticed that Tim Wakefield has one of the best fastballs so far this year. He suggested that Wakefield’s fastball is so successful, despite working in the low-70s with average movement, because it is a good 7 or 8 mph faster than his knuckleball and keeps hitters off balance. I really liked this idea and wanted to see if Dave was correct.

So I went through and looked for at-bats in which Wakefield threw a fastball after throwing at least one knuckleball in that at-bat, and found the difference in speed between that fastball and the knuckleball that immediately preceded it. First let’s look at the run value of a fastball based on its speed, the black line is the average and the gray standard errors. The run value is the change in run expectancy after the pitch, so a negative number is good for Wakefield.


To begin with notice that his fastball is quite good, -0.02 runs per pitch is -2 runs over 100 pitches, which is great. Interestingly after Wakefield’s fastball gets up around 72 mph there is no increase in effectiveness with an increase in speed. This is pretty surprising, generally the faster a fastball the better the outcome. Now let’s look at the run value of a fastball based on how much faster it was than the preceding knuckleball.


Here you see a clear consistent, if noisy, trend. As the fastball gets faster compared to the previous knuckleball its success increases. These two graphs together tell us that it is not the absolute speed of Wakefield’s fastball that determines its success, but its speed relative to the previous knuckleball.

Just as Dave suggested the success of Wakefield’s fastball is indeed tied to how much faster it is than his knuckleball, and since his knucleball is so slow he can be effective with his low-70s fastball.

What We Learned In Week Twelve

We’re nearly at the end of June, and 23 of the 30 major league teams are within six games of a playoff spot. If you like parity, 2009 is your kind of season. Let’s see what we learned last week.

Chad Gaudin is still talented.

The well traveled Gaudin had his two best starts of the season last week, shutting down the Mariners and Rangers in succession. His line for the week: 15 IP, 5 H, 1 HR, 3 BB, 20 K. His FIP for the season now stands at 3.76, and he’s stayed healthy enough to throw 71 innings in the first half of the year. The Padres have thrown a lot of spaghetti at the wall in assembling their pitching staff, and Gaudin looks like he’s going to be one of the pieces that sticks.

We might have to start taking Joel Pineiro’s sinker seriously.

After years of struggling to find himself, it looks like Pineiro’s decision to become an extreme groundball pitcher has taken hold. Between two starts last week, 76% of his batted balls were hit on the ground, just a ridiculous total. He now has the highest groundball rate in the majors, at 61.9%, despite never being over 50% before. Whatever Dave Duncan had him adjust, it’s working tremendously well, and his renovation of his approach is one of the reasons St. Louis is fighting for the NL Central title.

Franklin Gutierrez isn’t just a glove guy.

After being given the Mariners center field job, Gutierrez has thrust himself into the conversation for the title of best defensive outfielder in baseball. He’s earned the nickname “Death To Flying Things” by catching practically every fly ball hit against Seattle. However, Gutierrez’s bat has been the aspect of his game making noise in the last week, as he’s hit .391/.462/.609 in the last seven days. When a gold glove center fielder posts a .472 wOBA, that’s a pretty awesome week, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mariners have been winning games of late – their center fielder is playing like an MVP lately.

Andre Ethier wants to be more like Adam Dunn.

A strange season for Ethier continued this week, as he went 3 for 18, but all three hits were home runs, and he hit them in the same game. He also drew four walks and struck out five times, so half of his 24 plate appearances ended with one of the three true outcomes. Up until this year, Ethier has always been more of a gap power/solid defense kind of player, but now his strikeouts are up, his home runs are up, and his UZR is way, way down. It will be interesting to see how he finishes the season, because it’s a bit strange to see guys just totally switch skillsets mid-career.