Author Archive

Why Isn’t Jason Heyward a Center Fielder?

“If he was such a good outfielder, why doesn’t he play center field?” This is a common refrain echoing around the hallways of UZR Incorporated, a not-entirely baseless question that generally pertains to highly rated corner outfielders. If they’re such defensive dynamos, why not put them in the most important outfield position?

Those in the know recognize that their high advanced stat scores are relative to their peers, so a collection of bad outfielders can help prop up a good corner OF glove. But the question still demands an answer, an answer I think it deserves in the case of Jason Heyward – what’s stopping the Cardinals from playing him in center field every day?

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The Nationals Should Consider Trading Jordan Zimmermann

The Washington Nationals are in an enviable position. The team won 96 games for the second time in three years before bowing out in the division series. They are a talented group, well-built with one of the best rotations in baseball plus a high-octane offense to match.

They are certainly a World Series favorite for 2015 with the talent on-hand. They’re also a team coming to a crossroads. They are in the enviable position of choosing between living for today or planning for the future. Or, most likely of all, they’ll take care of one without tossing the other aside.

As the hot stove season heats up, a number of high-profile Nats names will pop up with regularity. Among their core talent, they have four very good players heading towards free agency at the end of the 2015 season. Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and Denard Span all figure to attract their share of attention as the Nats cannot retain all four players at market prices – to say nothing of workhorse reliever Tyler Clippard.

So what options might general manager Mike Rizzo explore? A rumor connecting Zimmermann and the Chicago Cubs was quickly shot down, but the logical match of the two clubs demonstrates the world at the feet of the Nats front office. They have multiple options in front of them, the best of which requires trading the man who threw a no-hitter in his final regular season start of 2014.

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What does Brandon Morrow Offer?

A quick look over a list of free agent pitchers produces many different types of arms. Top-end near-aces, mid-rotation stalwarts, backend veterans, and high-ceiling lottery tickets. Brandon Morrow is an intriguing lottery ticket for any team willing to take the plunge. Long on promise but short on results, Morrow is the kind of electric arm that front offices simply cannot resist.

At some point, however, potential and stuff lose some of their magnetism. When a guy’s only thrown 90 odd innings over two years, you start to wonder if maybe he isn’t worth the risk?

The thing about Brandon Morrow, of course, is this has always been the knock on the hard-throwing right hander. Remember, this was a pre-arb pitcher traded to Toronto for reliever Brandon League and a minor league outfielder still yet to surpass double-A.

Like so many other power arms, Morrow flashed brilliance and looked the part of a top-of-the-rotation ace at times. Other times, he lacked command, floundered through laborious starts and struggled to stay healthy.

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On Game Theory, 0-2 Meatballs, and You

There was an interesting read kicking around baseball twitter this week, written by A’s fan and blogger Ken Arneson. In it, the computer scientist wonders about a great many things, the most interesting — to me — is his section on pitch selection. It’s Game Theory, I guess, but Arneson lays out four simple criteria for pitchers as they make pitch decisions:

  1. Choose a pitch the batter is likely to predict incorrectly
  2. Choose a pitch the pitcher is likely to throw with good speed, location, and movement
  3. Choose a pitch which will result in a suboptimal swing path, resulting either in a miss or weak contact
  4. Choose a pitch which, if not put in play, worsens the batter’s Prediction State for the next pitch

Makes sense, right? Easier said than done but it at least provides some food for thought. Not long after reading this, and for reasons that are entirely my own, I found myself watching highlights of old A.J. Burnett and Josh Johnson starts. Two power pitchers with filthy stuff, the videos or great starts from yesteryear showed what happens when pitchers like this have it all working.

One thing I observed made me think of the checklist above: both pitchers were able to freeze batters with 0-2 fastballs. Rather than waste pitches, these fastballs were seemingly thrown right down Main Street, middle/middle, over the heart of the plate.

Any pitch thrown in that location could be best described as “suboptimal” but, for pitches with stuff to spare on their best days, it worked as an effective pitch. They froze batters who twisted themselves into knots worrying about the hammer or an elevated fastball, the catalyst for chases.

This brought me to Baseball Savant and then it brought me here. I come bearing GIFs.

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The Obvious Lessons of One Dimensional Hitters

The past week has been particularly instructive for those interested in the real world implications of the word “value.” Despite league-wide offense nearing 40 year lows, some good hitters found themselves either looking for work or on the move with salary concerns in tow.

If you asked most armchair general managers, they would  jump at the chance to add a hitter claiming a 135 wRC+ over the last two years, especially for the low price of $7.5 million for 2015 (plus an option for 2016.) But that describes Adam Lind, traded by the Blue Jays (so they weren’t forced to decline his 2015 option) for Marco Estrada, a swingman who plans on taking the “serviceable” descriptor to its logical conclusion.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals declined the option they held on Billy Butler, another homegrown talent and hitter guy with a reasonable price tag ($12.5 million for 2015).  This is hardly shocking as Butler comes off his worst professional season and the Royals are a team for which times are perpetually tight. But given the going rate for a hitter projecting to produce 20% better than league average, $12.5 mil is a steal, no?

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FG on Fox: Will the Real Eric Hosmer Please Stand Up?

Eric Hosmer looks the part. If you wonder why guys like Hosmer are extended impossibly long lengths of rope at the big league level, you don’t have do much more than look at him. Watch him play first base and listen to a batting practice session and it becomes very easy to understand the hype behind the Royals starting first baseman.

The back of Hosmer’s baseball card betrays his “top of the class” eye test scores. When that tantalizing talent finally starts to deliver, it’s a big moment for fans of the club. When that blue chip talent starts fulfilling his destiny during the first playoff run in 29 years, it’s a dream come true.

Such is the euphoric state of the Kansas City Royals and Eric Hosmer. While it isn’t the first time in his career that he started both looking and producing like a cornerstone infielder, it comes at the most opportune time imaginable. The Royals are dangerously close to winning the World Series and the former third overall draft pick is instrumental in their progress.

He’s drawn more walks in October than any single month during the regular season. He’s hitting the ball with power, counting two homers, two doubles, and a triple in 12 postseason games. The high-leverage nature of these extra base knocks helps muddle the “he turned a corner!” picture. This follows a September in which he knocked another 12 extra base hits after missing most of August with a hand injury.

The problem with putting too much stock in this tiny stretch of great play all is the not insignificant memory of 2200 league average plate appearances. Swing changes and adjustments to approach are well and good, but there is a very large pile of evidence that suggests we already know what kind of production we can expect from the big left-handed hitter.

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Two Jake Peavys

Two different guys named Jake Peavy pitched in the Major Leagues in 2014. One made 20 lacklustre starts for the Boston Red Sox. He was hit hard and hit often and, strangely a little wild. His walk rate brushed up against 10%, higher walk rate than at any point since his first full season in the big leagues.

Another guy named Jake Peavy made a dozen starts for the San Francisco Giants. Starts that were worth about 2 WAR, a nice bump given their playoff race context. He was miserly in his distribution of both home runs and walks – dropping his BB% below 5% and coughing up just three home runs in a Giants uniform. He was very good and was quickly identified as the second best starting pitcher on a playoff team.

The Giants would not be in the World Series without that Jake Peavy. He gave the Giants options (moving Tim Lincecum to the bullpen, an act of mercy for all involved) and now they’re here, competing for their third title in five years. Somebody in San Francisco saw something in Peavy that, with a little fine tuning, could help the Giants win the World Series.

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Why Didn’t Nori Aoki Bunt?

When Nori Aoki came to the plate with runners on second and third with one out in the third inning against Madison Bumgarner, fans on Twitter called out for the slap-hitting outfielder to bunt. Instead he struck out and the rally fizzled. With the game over and the Royals offense stymied but for one Salvy Perez home run, the question remains: should Aoki have laid one down, a safety squeeze or something similar from the Royals vast small ball playbook?

Aoki has 70 “official” bunt attempts over his three-year career, reaching safely more than 30% of the time. Just 20% of those attempts came against left-handed pitchers, as Bumgarner is. Among those attempts, six could be classified as squeezes and four successfully plated runners, according to the Baseball Reference Play Index.

It’s a low-percentage play, all things considered. But Nori Aoki versus Madison Bumgarner is a low percentage play in relative terms. Playing for one run so early in the game is a bit much, even for the Royals, especially in a situation offering a run expectancy of 1.2 runs. It’s a high floor/low ceiling play when jumping on a struggling Bumgarner was probably the right choice.

No Royals scored, so looking back with hindsight makes the decision look bad automatically. Kansas City blazed their trail to the World Series by making questionable decisions and “putting pressure on the defense.” With a strong bunter and an ace still looking for his groove on the mound, the decision is never an easy one. Consider some of the possible outcomes should Aoki have squared to bunt in the fateful third inning.

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FG on Fox: Divergent Strategies, Dominant Bullpens

Not all bullpens are created equal. This postseason, the Kansas City Royals are putting on a show with their backend arms, blowing the doors off any and all competition with their unsubtle charms. What they lack in nuance they make up for in pure, unadulterated filth.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the Giants feature a bullpen that couldn’t be more different than the high-powered Royals relief corps. Where the Royals are young, the Giants are old. Where Kansas City is cheap, the Giants relievers are lavishly paid.

It’s a study in contrasts, right up until the moment when you get around to studying their results. Because this October, the way the Giants pen racks up outs is second to none. Consider the postseason results of these two groups, both forced to run the full Wild Card gauntlet.

2014 postseason IP H R HR K% BB% K-BB% AVG ERA
Kansas City Royals 35 22 7 1 25.7% 9.3% 16.4% .179 1.80
San Francisco Giants 35.1 20 7 7 22.6% 8.3% 14.3% .164 1.78

The manner in which they conduct their business might be different but they are getting spotless results. The Giants benefit from their wizened manager deploying them expertly, eschewing set inning roles and instead using whichever of his four main guys is better suited to the situation at hand.

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FG on Fox: Ambushing First Pitch Fastballs

Good things happen when batters swing at the first pitch of at bat, as they boast a .336 average and .526 slugging percentage on the first pitch this year. Like I said, good things happen when you swing at — and more importantly, make contact with — the first pitch, though of course, this data doesn’t count all the first pitch swings that resulted in fouls or whiffs. Still, swinging early can lead to very good results.

Sometimes called “ambushing” the pitcher, first pitch swings can be even more valuable during the postseason, as hitters and pitchers become more familiar with the patterns and traits of the opposition. Recent history informs pitch decisions as starters face the same team twice or even three times during a seven game series, and for pitchers, familiarity really does breed contempt.

On the whole, batters are more and more willing to swing at the first pitch in October. During the regular season, batters offered at the first pitch 27.4% of the time. Early in the 2014 playoff season, that number is on the rise. Through the division rounds, batters came out hacking more than 32% of the time, using Pitchf/x data made available by Baseball Savant.

Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals stands out as one of the most unlikely hitters to approach his plate appearances this way, but also one of the most successful in these playoffs. As shown at Fangraphs last week, Carpenter hit two home runs and a double on the first pitch against the Dodgers, flummoxing Clayton Kershaw and subverting existing scouting reports on the patient All Star infielder.

Read the rest on Just a Bit Outside.