Table of Contents

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Misery of Jay Bruce

I hadn't looked at FanGraphs' Cincinnati Reds team page lately.  Too painful.  But I popped over there tonight to have a look.  After momentary smiles at what Devin Mesoraco and Todd Frazier have managed this year, and a nod of "yeah, pretty solid" at Billy Hamilton, I found myself scanning through the rest of the numbers with predictable dismay.  I knew it would be bad, and hence my need to stay away until now.  But it is a story of despair and agony.  Cozart's .259 wOBA.  Phillips' injury-shortened season with rate states still down from last year's disappointment.  Votto's 272 PA's.  

As I scanned, though, I realized that I was missing Jay Bruce.  I looked again, and couldn't find him.  Finally, I realized that he was on page 2.  Jay Bruce.  -11.7 offensive runs vs. average.  -16 runs in the field by UZR.  -1.3 WAR.  

To call it the worst season of Bruce's career is a massive understatement.  Bruce has always been at least "solid."  This year, he hasn't just been average or disappointing.  He's been disastrous.  With the exception of his base-stealing totals (I haven't looked, but I'm guessing that was from earlier this year?), everything in his line has shown decline.  Walk rates are down.  Strikeout rates are up.  OBP is down.  ISO is down.  BABIP is down.  HR/FB is down.  It goes further:

Bruce's ground ball rate is WAY up.  His fly ball rate is down.  His line drive rate is down.  Bruce has become a groundball machine, which prevents his power from helping him do anything productive...and hence the low ISO.

Earlier this season, he was talking about trying to improve his approach, becoming more selective and looking for his pitch to hit.  His plate discipline profile doesn't match that anymore:

This year, Bruce has swing at more pitches outside the zone, and fewer pitches in the zone, thanany year of his career.  His overall swing rate is down, but that's mostly because pitchers aren't throwing the ball in the zone as often as they did in 2013--if he'll swing out of the zone, they don't have to challenge him.  He's making contact at a decent rate, but it's clearly not hard contact; he's hitting the ball into the ground.

Pitchers aren't throwing that much differently to him.  

A few more fastballs (by pitchf/x, that increase is mostly two-seamer fastballs).  A few more change-ups.  Fewer sliders.  It looks to me like pitchers just aren't as concerned about him this year.  One of the classic ways to get Bruce out was to bury a slider down and in on him, but it's as if pitchers no longer have to rely on that pitch to get through the at-bat.

Earlier this season, I wrote about how Bruce was going to the opposite field more often in 2013.  This year, well:

It's pretty tough for me to say without some summary statistics, but it looks like more of a pull-oriented distribution this year.  For one thing, while he had a nice number of home runs scattered between center field and left field in 2013, every single one of his home runs this year was to his pull side.  Similarly, his ground ball outs (purple) to the infield are all clustered to the pull side.  In the outfield, I'm not sure that I see a specific pattern, and looking only at ground balls, line drives, or fly balls didn't really help (not shown here).  

::sigh::  There's no insight here from me (as usual).  It's been a miserable season, and I certainly don't see anything here that I can identify as something that Bruce needs to do to get better.  He just needs to get better at everything.  My hope is that a big part of the problem has been his leg injury, as Bryan Price has alluded to several times this month.  With an offseason to heal, hopefully Bruce can be in line for comeback player of the year honors in 2015.  If he doesn't I don't see a way to expect much improvement from the Reds' offense...even if they are able to bring in some help.  

How pessimistic should we be?  Well, Bruce's ZIPS projection entering the season was for him to hit .254/.329/.485 with a .344 wOBA.  His updated projection?  .240/.312/.444 with a .328 wOBA.  According to the algorithm, there's still reason to expect him to be a solid hitter.  That's encouraging, despite how bad he's been this year.  But that's a far less intimidating line than he projected to be before his struggles this year.

...I'm not even going to talk about his fielding.  I'm just hoping that's short term injury + fielding stat volatility.  The key word there is hoping.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Using Sound to Scout Players

Sorry for my absence.  Part of it is that the Reds have frankly been rather hard to watch over the past month.  But the issue is that my family and I are living in France for the semester.  We arrived a few weeks ago, and are starting to find our way.  I'm traveling with my university's students in their study abroad program.  It's an amazing experience, but it definitely is hard to keep up on baseball when 7pm EST games start at 1am local time.

In any case, I was listening to Effectively Wild today.  Robert Arthur was on a few weeks back talking about his study that evaluated how the audio signature of the crack of the bat related to the result of the batted ball.  It's great stuff.  His principle finding was that the peak frequency (i.e. pitch) differed substantially between ground ball outs, ground ball hits, line drives, and home runs.  Better-struck balls result in higher frequency sounds.  That makes sense, because those sounds are the result of faster bat speed and more energy being put into the ball.  It's really exciting stuff, and indicates that there's probably quite a lot to the claims that we hear from Baseball People about the sound of balls coming off bats.

The potential applications of these data are really exciting.  The most exciting thing is that these data could be used as another way to evaluate hitters.  Bat crack data should be able to tell us some combination of how hard, and how squarely, batters are hitting balls.  Only those with exceptional power should be able to achieve the highest pitch of bats cracking, once we controlled for bat type and (maybe) pitch type.  Better hitters should have consistently higher pitch than poorer hitters.  My guess is that pitch data should be less noisy than BABIP data, and so they might be useful when we're trying to make "Bonafide or Bonifacio" judgements.

This could be used to evaluate pitchers as well.  Are pitchers really inducing weaker contact?  Or are hitters squaring up the ball well, but just hitting it to defenders unusually more often.

The challenge is the data collection.  MLB compressed games will help, but it's still a lot of data to gather, isolate, sort, and then analyze.  Hopefully some young, enterprising people will go after this, as it has enormous potential.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How Many Runs Makes a Win?

I'm sort of gearing up to do some historical work on the Reds (I hope!).  One of the questions I wanted to answer was how many runs equals a win.  We did something like this in SABR 101x, but something about the algebra didn't seem right at the time, and the estimates we were finding seemed low.

In any case, I decided to instead generate this estimate in a fairly inelegant way called the "+1 method" (mentioned here by Patriot, though in a different context).  The approach is:

  1. For each year in baseball history, find the average PythagenPat record based on average runs scored and runs allowed per team.  This will, obviously, be a 0.500 record, unless there is a clerical error.
  2. For each year, find the expected PythagenPat record if you add 1 run scored to the average team.  This will be, barely, a 0.500+ record.
  3. Figure the expected number of wins each year based on those two records.  This will vary depending on the number of games, and, of course, the expected record.
  4. Calculate the difference between the "0.500 record" wins and the ".500 record +1 run" wins.  This gives you the wins per run.
  5. Take the reciprocal of wins per run.  This is runs per win.
I actually added 0.1 runs instead of 1 run, just to avoid changing the run environment.  It probably doesn't matter.  I also tried it using +1 run allowed or -1 run scored, and it really didn't change the estimates.

Here are the results!

In addition to my run per win estimate (the blue line), I've also added straight-up total runs scored per game (i.e. runs scored + runs allowed for each game).  In the past, I've advocated just using total runs scored per game as a shorthand for the runs per win estimate.  You can see that it tracks pretty well (although it consistently underestimates the correct number over most of baseball history.

To get away from the noise of the 1800's, let's just look at the live ball era:

Ok, so from this you can see that runs per win (again, focus on the blue line) tracks between 9 and 10 runs pretty consistently.  But it definitely does vary with run environment.  As runs per game increases (orange line), so too does the number of runs you need to score to win a game.  That makes sense.

When I was working on my player value series, and as the WAR frameworks at FanGraphs and Baseball Reference were being developed in the mid-2000's, you often heard people say that 10 runs = 1 win.  That was pretty much true from 1993-2009.  But as the run environment has plummeted over the past several years (the strikeout era?), the runs needed per win has decreased as well.  In 2013, I have it at 9.07 runs per game.  It's a small thing, but something to keep in mind as we look at different eras over baseball history.

Also, different leagues unquestionably differ in runs per win.  The AL should always require more runs per win than the NL, at least since the debut of the designated hitter.  But I just wanted a blanket per-year conversion, so...

I'm sure these numbers are available elsewhere, but for those interested I'm posting a spreadsheet with these data on google docs.  If you use those data for a project that is published somewhere, please link back to this post.  All data pulled from the Lahman Database.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Reds History, Graphically

I had a fun idea for a graphic that summarized the Reds' regular season winning percentages, playoff appearances, and top players over their history.  Here is the result:

You can click it to make it larger.

Some Takeaways:

Winning Teams

Based on a five-year moving average, the Reds have had six collections of winning teams: the late 1890's, the late 1910's-1920's, the late-30's-early-40's, the teams of the 60's and 70's, the 1990's, and the current 2010+ teams.  All but one of these winning stretches have at least produced one playoff appearance.  The playoffs weren't a thing in the 1800's, although the Reds never finished in first place in the National League until 1919.  Of the successful stretches of Reds teams during times when the World Series was an annual event, only the current incarnation has not won a World Series.

The highest winning percentage in Reds' history is not the Big Red Machine's peak in 1975, but rather the 1919 Reds team that won the World Series in the Black Sox scandal.  They went 96-44 (.686 WPct in 140 games).  That was a brilliant team, and the fact that their victory was tainted by what happened with the Black Sox just make that episode all the more irritating.  There's no reason to think that they couldn't have won that series anyway.

For the stat-minded Big Red machine fan, though, fear not: the 1975 Reds have the best PythagenPat winning percentage in Reds history (their mark of .662 just edged out the 1919 team's .654 PythagenPat).  The best PythagenPat winning percentage for the current Reds' squad was last year, 2013, at .576 (2010: .567; 2012: .558).

Losing Teams

The Reds have also have really only gone through four extended stretches as losing teams.  These include the 1900's, the 1930's, the mid-40's/early 50's, and then Jim Bowden-era from the late 1990's through the 2000's.

Great Players

I listed the top-26 players by rWAR (courtesey of Baseball Gauge).  I would have included more, but I ran out of space (sorry, Frank McCormick!).  Not surprisingly, the 1960's and 1970's, the most successful stretch in Reds history, were home to a lot of the great players from the Reds' past.  But I was surprised at how many of the great Reds players appeared not just during the peaks in the 20's and late 30's (as would be expected), but also during the big swoon in the early 30's.  That said, when you look at it, most of those greats were either finishing up their careers, or just starting out during that time...and many of them were responsible for the successes of 1938-1944.  I'm looking forward to digging into those teams a bit more.

The Cost of the Strikes

In 1981, because of a player strike, MLB played a shortened season.  And for some reason, the justification for which seems lost to history, they opted to take the winners of the first half and the second half as the teams that made the playoffs.  Meanwhile, the Reds, who had the best record in their division overall, went home in October.

In 1994, the Reds were in first place when the season ended, again due to a player strike.  That team would repeat their success and go to the playoffs in 1995, but it's hard not to wonder what might have been.

I tend to side with players over owners most of the time these days when it comes to financial disputes. I might not like that players make bazillions of times more money than people who do more important work outside the entiertainment industry.  But society has made its choices on how it spends its money, and I'd much rather the players share in those profits than it stay in the pockets of owners.  That all said, the strikes have come at awful times for the Reds.

Afterthought: I have no memory of writing it, but I found this somewhat similar post from 2009 after writing this article.  Funny when that happens!

Monday, August 04, 2014

Chapman abandons change (mostly)

So, less than two weeks ago, I wrote about how Aroldis Chapman's improvement this year can arguably be traced to the debut of his change-up.  Well, as Jeff Sullivan noted, almost coinciding with when I wrote that, Chapman now seems to be moving away from using his change-up.  In fact, he's thrown the pitch in only 1 of the last 5 games, and 2 of the last 8:

The reason appears to be that he has a hard time throwing the change-up for strikes.

The good news was that while he was not throwing it for strikes, he was usually missing down (assuming he was even trying to get it in the zone).  Nevertheless, it does look like the pitch has fallen out of favor.  So much for my last piece on him! :)

I personally hope that he can continue to work it in, even as a show-me pitch.  Hitters can catch up to his fastball if they know that it is coming.  The slider is a fantastic pitch, and I'm sure he can be quite successful as a fastball/slider reliever.  But a third pitch against right-handers, at least, would be one additional thing that hitters need to keep in their minds as they step in to face him.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reds do nothing at trade deadline.

So the trade deadline has come and gone, and we have no news of any sort coming out of the Reds front office.  There were rumors that the Reds were in the mix for Alex Rios (who was not traded), and were dangling Mat Latos (I wonder if folks have injury concerns?) and Ryan Ludwick (who would take him?) on the market.  In the end, though, it looks like there won't be a big blockbuster deal of any sort for the Reds until the offseason.  Yes, there can be smaller deals on players who squeak through waivers.  But we won't see big impact deals.

Normally, I am not the sort who will argue to do something for the sake of doing something.  But in this case, I think the Reds really needed to make a decision: are they going for it, or are they done?  For reference, here are BPro's playoff projections, which have usually been among the more optimistic for the Reds this season:

15% isn't completely out of it.  But this is a team that had 50/50 shot as recently as the all-star break.  They've really collapsed, and frankly I think a 0.500 team is more indicative of what the Reds are than where they were at the all-star break.  Maybe I'm just feeling pessimistic.

In any case, here are the Reds options:

They're Going For It

If the Reds are going for it, I think it's almost impossible to look at their current active roster and think that what they have will be enough.  They are currently starting Skip Schumaker, Bryan Pena, and Chris Heisey in three of their starting spots.  I can live with Heisey in left field because of what he does with the glove, but Schumaker and Pena are not acceptable solutions for a playoff team.  It's no surprise, then, that the Reds' offense has been miserable for the past several weeks.

To have any kind of reasonable shot at the playoffs, they needed to add a significant bat.  There really just was no alternative.  I don't know what was available, and maybe there wasn't much out there.  But if you want to go for it, but can't find a good bat, then I think you have to conclude that the Reds aren't going to make it.  In which case, they should go for option two:

Concede the Season

The Reds do not have any major free agents leaving this fall.  But they have a large group of players who would leave the following season: Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Johnny Cueto, and Alfredo Simon.  Furthermore, they have at least one player who has played vastly above the level at which one could reasonably expect him to ever again in Alfredo Simon.  They also have a substantial increase in payroll coming in 2015, thanks to many of their young infielders coming up for arbitration eligibility, and several of their other players getting incrementally more expensive on their contracted deals.  With the market willing to pay for pitching, I think this was a missed chance to sell a part (especially Simon!), pick up some prospects that can help the team in 2015 and 2016, and, perhaps most importantly, re-tool the team to make it more financially viable and flexible next year.

But, they didn't do that.  So we're left with a season that is close to lost.  And really, I'm not sure how much better we can hope that the Reds will be in 2015.  So while I guess I'm glad they didn't do anything disastrous today, I think this was a missed chance to improve the Reds moving forward.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The New Aroldis Chapman

The Reds' worst-kept secret is how amazing Aroldis Chapman has been this year, and the story of what he is doing differently to become so dominant.  Chapman is arguably in the midst of the best season of his career:
(sorry about the size of that one--click to make it bigger).

I know he had the 1.51 ERA is 2012.  But his strikeouts are at to 2 k/inning (18 k/9) on the season, his walks are stable, and he's allowed just one home run on the year.  He's been ridiculous***.

***This calls for a graph dump!

So how has he done it?  Well, part of it is that his velocity is up about two mph this year after averaging "just" 98 or so the prior three years.  Here's Brooks' Baseball's graph of that:
Aroldis has had months in which he has averaged over 100 mph.  But he's never had three consecutive months like this before in terms of sheer power.

The other thing that appears on this graph, of course, is that Aroldis is throwing his change-up again for the first time since 2010.  Here's a look at all of his games on the year in my favorite plot for identifying pitches:
It's pretty straightforward.  Chapman throws crazy-hard, with a fastball that breaks back away from a right-handed hitter while traveling at roughly the speed of sound.  And on top of that, he has a change-up that breaks almost 10 inches away from a righty, and then a slider that breaks in toward the right-handed batter's back foot.  The change-up and slider break opposite directions and travel roughly the same velocity.

Chapman is throwing both of his secondary offerings much more often this year:
After living almost exclusively with this fastball at times from 2011-2013, he's dropped his usage of that pitch into the high 60% range.  Instead, he's now throwing a quarter of his pitches as sliders, and is working in change-ups at a consistent, low rate.

The change-up has been very effective for him:
When he first started throwing it in May after coming back from the DL, batters had no idea what to do with it, and were swinging and missing 50% of the time he threw it.  They've since learned to lay off it (because they can't hit it: the pitch has a 95% whiff rate when they do swing on the season!!), and so we're seeing that whiff rate decline.  But, concurrently, we're seeing a spike in his fastball whiff rate.  So far in July, his fastball has induced the highest percentage of strikeouts of any month in his career.  It's correlational, but it sure looks like the use of his change-up has strengthened the impact of his fastball.  'Cause the fastball wasn't already an amazing pitch....

One last thing: on a recent Redleg Nation Radio, Bill Lack asked whether Aroldis gets beat more often when pitching down in the zone than when pitching up in the zone.  Here is are opposing batters' slugging percentages against Chapman in different parts of the zone.

First, left-handed batters:
(also known as "good luck, fella").  Lefties have gotten good wood on the ball when throws in the strike zone down and away, but otherwise are basically hopeless against him.

Now, right-handed batters:

Bill's perceptions hold true here.  When Chapman is throwing in the bottom half of the zone against righties, he's actually been hit pretty well during his career.  When he elevates the ball, however, it's been pretty much lights out.  And this isn't the pattern you always see either.  Here's a link to Cueto's graph; he gets it up in the top part of the zone as well.

Chapman seems to have noticed.  This year, he's throwing up in the zone more than in prior years, especially with his fastball:

All of Chapman's success this year is made all the more amazing by the fact that he suffered a serious head injury in spring training.  He's been one of the bright spots on the team thus far.  I don't know if he'll still be on the team by the end of the year, as he would seem to be a nice trade chip if Jocketty decides the Reds need to sell off some parts.  I think someone would overpay for him.  But it's fun to enjoy him while he's still a member of the Reds.

All graphs courtesy of the amazing Brooks Baseball.