Table of Contents

Sunday, May 06, 2007

April 2007 Reds Review Part 2: Hitting

As discussed in Part 1, hitting--or at least timely hitting--was a major problem for the Reds in April. Let's take a look at the individual player performances and see what we can learn.

Note: in all of the following graphs, a minimum of 20 plate appearances was required.

How They Hit -- OBP vs. ISO
This graph's format is borrowed from The Hardball Times, and splits batting performance into two categories: getting on base, and moving hitters around the bases. The best place to be is in the top-right, while the worst hitters will be in the bottom-left. Griffey and Hatteberg overlap in this figure. Vertical and horizontal lines indicate National League averages for April.

  • Thanks in part to relatively low offensive production across the board in the National League this month, most of the Reds look pretty good on this graph:
    • How about Josh Hamilton? While I noted that his offensive outburst in spring training was largely due to high on-base percentage, which in turn was the result of unusually high BABIP, his performance in April demonstrated tremendous power in addition to continued ability to get on base--and as we'll see below, his performance this month was bona fide. A two-game slump at the end of the month dropped his OBP a bit, but his brilliant month is still clear as day on this figure.
    • Also exceeding expectations by leaps and bounds this month was Alex Gonzalez, who was named co-NL Player of the Week the last week in April. It may be the last time we see him in the upper-right quadrant this season, but his outburst almost single-handedly won at least one game this month. On top of that, Gonzalez had to deal with some serious medical issues with his son, so kudos to him for bouncing back and finishing so strong.
    • Despite a mid-month slump that may have been related to playing with back problems, Adam Dunn once again took his customary place in the upper-right part of the figure. Nice to see.
    • After posting a career-low 0.316 OBP in 2006, Griffey got off to a great start this year. His power hadn't really showed up yet, but in the games in which I saw him play, he had a large number of near-miss home run balls either get caught or go for doubles. The numbers support that explanation: Griffey's Home Run per Fly Ball rate was just 3%, far below what is typical in this stat (April NL average ~9%), so I think he was just unlucky--or, perhaps, was still regaining strength from his broken hand.
    • Phillips, Conine, Hatteberg, and Valentin also had fine Aprils.
  • Unfortunately, two key Cincinnati Reds struggled miserably this month.
    • Edwin Encarnacion was finally showing signs of life by the end of the month, but for much of April he was absolutely terrible. Reds blogger Doug Gray noticed a change in his stance this season, and it's possible that this might have thrown the guy off. Ultimately, I think he'll be fine--he has shown too much ability with the bat thus far in his young career for one bad month to sour me on him. And he better come around, because he's the most significant right-handed batter the Reds have.
    • Dave Ross was even more miserable than Edwin, but also was starting to show signs of life. I do expect him to decline this season after his amazing 2006, but not to the degree he showed in April. Narron is being very patient with him, but if he doesn't snap out of this in a big way, it may become necessary to move him into a strict platoon with Javier "I can't hit lefties" Valentin. And that'd be ok.
Strike Zone Management - %K vs. %BB
Walk rate and strikeout rate for Reds in April. Horizontal and vertical lines represents NL April 2007 averages. Valentin and Griffey overlap in the upper-left, while Gonzalez and Encarnacion overlap near the middle. There is usually a correlation between walks and strikeouts, with patient hitters in the upper-right and aggressive hitters in the lower-left.

  • Dunn's strikeouts got a lot of attention in April, and rightly so, as they were high even by his record-breaking standards. In 2006, Dunn K'd in 29% of his plate appearances, but this past month he struck out 31% of the time. The bulk of these came immediately after his back spasms, again indicating that he probably should have sat out a few extra games rather than playing through the pain.
  • Griffey had a very unusual month, showing outstanding walk rates as well as excellent, almost absurdly-low strikeout rates. That is not where he has tended to be throughout his career (~3:2 K:BB ratio lifetime), so he's not likely to continue this...but it's a welcome development. Griffey seemingly forgot how to take a walk last season, and his effectiveness this season may be determined by how consistently he is able to get on base--either through a walk or by putting the ball into play. The power should return.
  • Based on this limited sample size, Jeff Conine seems to be a hitter in the mold of the man he replaced, Rich Aurilia--aggressive, with low walk rates but also low strikeout rates.
  • Last season, Ross showed the high strikeout rates he showed in April, but they were balanced by much better walk rates.
Hitting When it Counts - Runs Created vs. Win Probability Added
Win probability versus a more traditional measure of overall offensive production, as measured by runs created (OBP*TB). The regression line indicates the relationship between these two variables in April among the Cincinnati Reds (I don't have an efficient way to pull win probability for all MLB Players). Individuals above the line contributed more to team wins than expected for their given runs created value, and thus were considered "clutch." Individuals below the line "choked" when the game was one the line.
  • Hamilton, Conine, and Valentin all show up as being the best clutch hitters on the Reds squad in April. Hamilton was all-around awesome, but was actually better than awesome when it counted. Conine and Valentin performed well in limited playing time--though I wonder if the RC totals underestimate his production (RC=OBP*TB, and TB does not include walks), as much of his positive performance last month was related to getting on base.
  • Dunn, for all the fretting this season over his ability to perform in the clutch, once again turns out right where you'd expect him to be based on this regression...though admittedly, Reds' hitters didn't do particularly well in April according to WPA, so perhaps the league-average line might be pushed a bit higher, which would make Dunn look a bit worse.
  • Gonzalez had a brilliant April, especially relative to his career averages, and yet finished with a net-negative WPA. What gives? I think the problem is that much of his excellent performance was isolated to a few games near the end of the month, and therefore he only affected a few games in a substantial, positive direction. Furthermore, his big game on April 24th, when he went 4-5 with a double a two home runs, only netted him 0.29 WPA, because much of his performance occurred in low-leverage situations (his 3-run homer in the 5th to take the Reds to an 8-1 game only gave him 0.07 WPA, as the game was already heavily weighted towards the Reds). At other times in the month, he didn't do well in high-leverage situations, which brought his WPA down.
  • The other huge residual was Dave Ross. Ross had an absolutely miserable month, and came to the plate in enough high leverage situations to really hurt the Reds. WPA shows that his performance alone probably cost the Reds two wins below 0.500 in April. Ouch. He has got to get it together for the rest of the season.
  • Juan Castro is right on the line, but despite a fairly low number of plate appearances, his terrible performance may have cost the Reds a full win. Part of this might have been because Narron had a tendency to use the guy as a pinch hitter more often than I think is appropriate...but he also was terrible when he started, even by his standards (0.083/0.154/0.125 overall).
Bad luck, or just bad performance?

Whenever hitters struggle (Encarnacion, Ross), or drastically exceed expectations (Hamilton, Gonzalez), the first thing I look at is is their PrOPS and BABIP, as that is where hitters are most likely to reveal whether their performance was due to luck or skill. Here is a comparison between PrOPS (batted ball-predicted OPS) and OPS for the Reds in April:Diagonal line indicates a perfect match between PrOPS and OPS. Individuals above the line were unlucky in that their OPS wasn't as high as PrOPS indicates it should have been. Individuals below the line had a higher OPS than their batted ball data (which drive PrOPS) indicate they should have been.
  • Most Reds were right on the line, indicating that there wasn't much deviation between batted balls and actual results.
  • Not surprisingly given the Reds offensive struggles, no Reds were pegged as lucky on the month.
  • Josh Hamilton and Javier Valentin may have deserved a bit better offensive results than they actually got. That's insane for Hamilton, and exciting in Valentin's case--he might be in for a nice season, especially if he keeps getting playing time against right-handers. 'Course, I'm hoping Ross rebounds...
  • Also in the "unlucky" column were Edwin Encarnacion, Dave Ross, and Juan Castro. Unfortunately, their PrOPS estimates were still below 0.700, which is completely unacceptable for Eddie and Ross. For Castro, that's right where you'd expect him to be.
    • As an aside, ex-Red Jason LaRue, who I touted as more unlucky than bad last season, is hitting a woeful 0.98/0.156/0.171 with a -0.51 WPA for the Royals this season. Way to make me look bad, Jason. His BABIP is a disastrous 0.182, but he still has good LD% rates (21.7%), which makes that surprising. However, the most significant thing that has happened to LaRue thus far is that his strikeout rates have skyrocketed to absurdity while his walk rates have all but vanished, resulting in an absolutely terrible PrOPS (0.543). It's not quite last season all over again--this time, I think he may have really declined, or perhaps is just so screwed up mentally that he can't hit any more. It also might indicate that I missed something last year that was causing his struggles besides bad luck.
Home run fortune
Using data from Hit Tracker, I've plotted actual home run distance against standardized home run distance, which adjusts HR distance for altitude, temperature, and wind speed. Home runs above the line were helped by the elements. Unfortunately, because Hit Tracker is not yet tracking long fly balls that are not home runs, there is no corresponding data on who should have hit a home run but was prevented from doing so by the elements.

There were six home runs that show up as having been substantially aided by the weather (video of which can all be viewed for free at this link):
  • Dunn's second, hit off Carlos Zambrano on Opening Day, traveled a monstrous 456 feet. Under normal conditions it probably would have "only" gone 421 feet. Needless to say, that's still a homer.
  • Dunn's third, hit off Tony Armas at Great American Ballpark on April 7th. A towering fly ball hit to right field, and bouncing off of Xavier Nady's glove and into the stands, it traveled 373 feet thanks to the wind. Standardized distance was 348 feet...which would have turned Nady's misplay into a double rather than a homer. :) It also had the highest elevation angle of any Reds homer hit in April (50.8 degrees). That's a high fly ball. In fact, no home run hit in all of 2006 at GABP had a higher elevation (closest was Carlos Lee on 5/24/06 off of Brandon Claussen at 48.5 degrees)
  • Dunn's 4th, hit April 10th off of Edgar Gonzalez at Chase Field, traveled 458 feet, and was the longest Reds homer of the month. Under normal conditions, it probably would have "only" gone 436 feet. Homer anyway. Mark Grace's comment: "Well, I guess if you're gonna give 'em up, give 'em up into the next county."
  • Gonzalez's second, hit at St. Louis on April 24th to left field, traveled 368 feet thanks to a substantial tail wind out to left field. It probably should have been a long fly out (342 feet).
  • Dave Ross's first, hit off of Randy Keisler at Busch Stadium on April 26th, traveled 402 feet, but probably should have only gone 348 feet. That would have left Ross homerless on the month.
  • Brandon Phillips' fifth, also hit off Keisler on the 26th, traveled 412 feet, but under normal conditions would have only gone 374. It was hit hard enough that Jim Edmonds might not have caught up with it, but it wouldn't have gone out at that distance.
So that's ~4 homers that would have been either doubles or outs on the month. We'll do this all season and see what a usual number tends to be. Also, Hit Tracker are planning to start recording long fly balls, so we might get to see who is just missing in coming months as well!

And just because I think the HitTracker data are so much fun, here are the five hardest-hit homers of the month, measured by speed off bat (mph):
  • Adam Dunn, 4/10/07, off Edgar Gonzalez of the Diamondbacks at Chase Field: 115.5 mph.
  • Josh Hamilton, 4/25/07, off Braden Looper of the Cardinals at Busch Stadium: 114.4 mph.
  • Adam Dunn, 4/27/07, off Salomon Torres of the Pirates at PNC Park: 114.1 mph.
  • Brandon Phillips, 4/19/07, off Woody Williams of the Astros at GABP: 112.4 mph.
  • Adam Dunn, 4/2/07, off Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs at GABP: 111.9 mph.
The Reds hitting has to improve if they are going to be competitive this season, and I think it will. No one was particularly lucky this month, and there are several guys (Encarnacion, Ross, and Griffey, in particular) who I think will hit better as the season rolls on (Griffey is smacking the heck out of the ball in May as I write this). They might not be among the best offenses in baseball, but they have a chance to be above average--particularly if WunderBoy Josh Hamilton continues to perform at a reasonably high level.

If I was going to pick one guy to watch from this point on, it would be Edwin Encarnacion. Given last year's season of 0.276/0.359/0.473, his minor league record, and his still-very young age, I don't think it's unreasonable to think that he has the potential to produce at an 0.850-0.900 OPS clip for the remainder of this season. If he can come anywhere close to that, it would be huge, as it would give the Reds a big-time right-handed bat amongst the all-lefty outfield trio of Dunn, Griffey, and Hamilton. I think he can do it. We'll see.

Relevant Reds hitting stats for April:
Dunn 102 31% 14% 21% 0.340 0.261 0.363 0.511 0.250 0.874 0.921 0.370 16.3 8.1 0.36 5 100%
Gonzalez 86 14% 7% 28% 0.354 0.329 0.372 0.519 0.190 0.891 0.859 0.382 15.3 8.3 -0.14 0 ---
Phillips 110 14% 6% 19% 0.263 0.263 0.327 0.465 0.202 0.792 0.868 0.342 15.1 3.9 0.42 5 83%
Hamilton 74 22% 14% 25% 0.262 0.266 0.365 0.609 0.344 0.974 1.096 0.408 14.2 7.4 0.70 1 100%
Hatteberg 64 3% 9% 23% 0.296 0.310 0.375 0.448 0.138 0.823 0.896 0.353 9.8 4.3 0.15 0 ---
Freel 94 16% 10% 20% 0.319 0.262 0.340 0.321 0.060 0.662 0.684 0.305 9.2 -1.5 -0.24 5 56%
Griffey Jr. 71 7% 17% 15% 0.264 0.254 0.380 0.390 0.136 0.770 0.782 0.320 8.7 2.2 -0.16 0 ---
Conine 50 10% 4% 21% 0.293 0.292 0.320 0.542 0.250 0.862 0.820 0.363 8.3 4.1 0.40 1 100%
Encarnacion 85 16% 7% 22% 0.270 0.221 0.294 0.260 0.039 0.554 0.671 0.260 5.9 -3.4 -0.37 2 100%
Valentin 36 3% 17% 35% 0.276 0.276 0.389 0.345 0.069 0.734 0.905 0.319 3.9 1.5 0.14 0 ---
Ross 61 34% 5% 19% 0.250 0.179 0.213 0.232 0.054 0.445 0.600 0.200 2.8 -5.0 -1.04 0 ---
Castro 26 31% 8% 25% 0.125 0.083 0.154 0.125 0.042 0.279 0.619 0.138 0.5 -4.1 -0.49 0 ---
Moeller 6 33% 0% 25% 0.250 0.167 0.167 0.167 0.000 0.333 0.531 0.150 0.2 -0.7 -0.08 0 ---
Hopper 6 17% 0% 40% 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.701 0.000 0.0 -1.5 -0.17 0 ---
Cruz 1 0% 0% 0% 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.506 0.000 0.0 -0.3 0.00 0 ---