Table of Contents

Sunday, March 30, 2014

2014 Opening Series Preview

The Cincinnati Reds kick off the 2014 season against the reigning NL Central champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.  The stats I'm reporting here are almost all 2013 totals, aside from the projected team wins at the top of the table.  Clearly, the Cardinals were nothing short of dominant, particularly on offense and in their starting rotation.  And despite losing Carlos Beltran, this team still seems stacked in both areas, thanks to a few key additions, as well as their remarkable depth.  Furthermore, the big Achilles heel for the Cardinals last year, their fielding, seems to largely have been remedied thanks to departures of problematic fielders (Beltran, Freese), and the addition of good fielders (Bourjos, moving Carpenter to 3B, moving Wong/Ellis to 2B).

The honest truth is that, on paper, the Cardinals just don't really have any weaknesses.  They hit, field, start, and relieve as well just about any team in baseball.  They're going to be very, very tough this year.  But that, of course, is on paper.  And it's why we play the games!

Great American Ballpark

I'm not going to routinely preview Great American Ballpark when I do series previews this year.  But as this is the first series of the year, I figured I'd give it a moment to shine!

Park Factors
Basic Runs: 101
HR (LHB/RHB): 110/114

Great American Ballpark continues to strongly favor the home run, but tends to play as only a slight hitters' park after trending toward a substantial hitters' park in the mid to late 00's.  When the ball stays in the park, all types of hits are slightly depressed.  But when batters get the ball up in the relatively short power alleys, they can get some fairly easy home runs.  In the image above, I compared GABP to the Nationals' park, which plays almost perfectly neutral to both right-handed and left-handed hitters.  You can see that the Reds' stadium is very comparable, except in the power alleys in both left and right field.


All numbers are projections.  The Reds are suffering from the injury bug, which most recently hit Devin Mesoraco and landed the Reds' starting catcher on the DL to start the season with an oblique injury.  All reports have been good and we expect a speedy return, but it will not happen by opening day.  In the meantime, Tucker Barnhart gets to make his big league debut--at least on the roster.  The projections quite like Tucker, showing him an equivalent batter to most everyone on the bench not named Chris Heisey (probably a stretch) and a brilliant defensive player (not at all a stretch).  I'm hopeful that the Reds will give him a chance to play while he's here, because it will likely be a short visit.

It's hard to do anything but admire what the Cardinals have assembled here.  It's not just their starting lineup, which is stacked with talent.  They also have an extremely deep bench, with players who, as recently as last season, were starting players on this or other teams.  Jon Jay will surely receive a good number of AB's as the 4th outfielder, while Mark Ellis is likely in something like a platoon with Kolten Wong at 2B.  Daniel Descalso can play all over as well, though perhaps not with grace.  Former PED user Jhonny Peralta somehow became a solid fielder in Detroit.  The consensus seems to be that his fielding is overrated a bit by UZR, but he doesn't embarass himself out there.  And the guy has been a consistently good hitter.  And how about Peter Bourjos?  He derives a lot of his value from his fielding and baserunning, but the guy has some hitting prowess as well.  If he can stay healthy, the Cardinals should be thrilled with that deal.

So, they're good.  Everyone keeps making a big deal about their performance with runners in scoring position last season, and how that's unlikely to happen again this year.  Here's the thing, though: they don't need to be special with RISP to have a great offense.  They should have a great offense because they are loaded, top to bottom, with good hitters!

Starting Rotations

With Mat Latos still getting back his strength following early spring training knee surgery, the Reds will give Alfredo Simon at least one start.  The projection above is for him as a reliever, but the WAR probably isn't too far off--generally, we should add at least a half run to a pitcher's ERA & FIP when he moves from relief to the starting rotation.  A 4.4-4.6 ERA would put him in replacement-level territory.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, look very strong 1-4.  Lance Lynn might be the weakest of that group when matching up with the Reds, because he doesn't have a good weapon against left-handed hitters...and the Reds are a lefty-dominant offense (by talent, not numbers).  There was some supposed competition for the 5th starter slot.  Joe Kelly nominally won that, but as old fantasy buddy Andy Beard pointed out, by spring stats (and talent), Carlos Martinez should have gotten the nod.  One suggestion has been that by putting Martinez in the bullpen to start the year, the Cardinals can limit his innings and have him still able to pitch in the postseason.


The place where the Reds' injury bug has hurt the most has been the bullpen.  Without Chapman and Marshall, the Reds have gone from a stacked bullpen to one that could struggle to finish up games.  Still, like I said in my season preview, I'm pretty impressed with Logan Ondrusek's numbers from last season, and I'm comfortable with our top 3.  Another consequence of the injuries: without Marshall, the Reds only have one lefty in the entire pen.  Bryan Price will have to carefully choose the best spot to deploy Parra.

But as for the rest, I was sort of hoping that the others would have at least shown some recent dominance in the minor leagues.  The only one who fit that bill was Trevor Bell (in AA last season).  Nick Chrstiani's and Curtis Partch's numbers look pretty pedestrian.  Partch was something of a surprise to make the roster, winning the spot at the last minute over Rule 5 draftee Pedro Beato.  He throws harder than anyone in the pen (with Chapman out), but seems to have little idea of where it's going.

I don't love the Cardinals' pen as much as I love the rest of their team...but they're still really good.  Trevor Rosenthal is a legitimate stud in the back of the pen.  Everyone else, aside from maybe the back end of the pen, is capable and formidable.  I mean, sheesh, Kevin Siegrist posted a 0.45 ERA last year!  He's not likely to do that again, but he struck out 11.3 k/9.

The Cardinals are unquestionably the team to beat this year.  But if the Reds want to win the division, they'll just have to be better!  Maybe it won't be the most likely outcome, but there are scenarios in which the Reds will top the Cardinals by season's end.  Getting off to a good start in this series would make those just a bit more likely.

Play ball!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Prospecting Reds Hitters with Oliver

Update: Pitching prospect profiles are here.

I freely admit that I don't follow the minor leagues as well as I perhaps should.  Here's an initial attempt to rectify that.  Below, and in a subsequent post, I'm reporting Oliver projections for each of the Reds Top-40 prospects.  This post features hitters, and the next post will feature pitchers.

Caveat: No matter what the system, projection systems are NOT the ideal method to evaluate minor league players.  Scouting-based approaches work better, period.  But I can't scout.  And blending Oliver with top prospect lists was something that I took to doing when I was into fantasy baseball a few years ago.  If nothing else, it's place to start when trying learn players.  Keep in mind that all numbers below are projections for what the player would do in the major leagues.  In most cases, that's not relevant to what they'll do in the minors this season.  But it gives you an idea of how well they have developed to this point.

We'll go in descending order of 2014 age:

Age-25 Players

As you'd expect with a prospect list, starting oldest and moving to youngest will not start you with your organization's best prospects; most of the good players have already graduated by the time they are 25.  On the plus side, it makes the projections more useful, because these guys are at an age where they are approaching as good as they will get.  Usually.

Neftali Soto was taken out of his Puerto Rican high school in 2007, the same draft that netted the Reds Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, and Zack Cozart (for a fun example of why I shouldn't express opinions, check out my draft-day thoughts on Zack Cozart in that link!).  He's just never developed any kind of plate discipline, and that probably limits his ability to put his power to good effect.  He might make a good power-hitting reserve, but he's not a starter.

I was surprised that Ryan LaMarre was already this old.  But college picks don't have a lot of time to make adjustments.  He projects as a terrible hitter right now, but his fielding numbers are superb.  The Reds are in a 40-man roster pinch right now, and it wouldn't be surprising to see LaMarre sent through waivers.  I'm sort of hopeful they can hang onto him, because you can do worse things with your 5th outfielder than to have an elite defensive player.

Age-24 Players

H-Rod was recently released, and Chris Buckley's kid, Sean, missed most of last season, and things aren't looking great for him.  Ryan Wright didn't hit for the first time in his career last year in Bakersfield, but he still looks like a great fielder.  He'll need to rediscover himself in AA this year if he's going to contribute to the Reds, because time's running out.

Age-23 Players

Here's an age where we start to see a lot of good players making their big league debuts.  Not coincidentally, Billy Hamilton is set to be the Reds' starting center fielder, and Oliver is quite bullish on him: replacement-level (or maybe even sub-replacement?) hitting, but amazing value on bases and in the field gets him to an average overall player.  Can you imagine how good he could be if he could just get his OBP to league average (~0.315)?  I get giddy just thinking about it.

Tucker Barnhart is also on the cusp.  Given that he's already on the 40-man roster, it sounds like he might get the nod for opening day if Devin Mesoraco's injury sends him to the DL.  I've been following him as a Redleg Nation spotlight player, and it's exciting to see him getting close--and with a quality projection, no less.  Barnhart is an elite defensive catcher.  If he can hit at all, he can be a quality backup in the near future.

I don't know much about the other two guys on this list: Seth Mejias-Brean and Juan Silva.  Marc Hulet had Mejias-Brean as his sleeper pick for 2013, and he delivered:
The Sleeper: Seth Mejias-Brean, 3B: One of my favorite sleeper picks from last off-season, Mejias-Brean hit more than .300 for the second straight season while showing intriguing gap power. He doesn’t possess eye-popping power but he does enough things well that he could eventually find himself starting at the hot corner at the big league level and the Reds’ current third baseman Todd Frazier is by no means irreplaceable.
Both Mejias-Brean and Silva are projected to be solid hitters in the big leagues right now, and offer solid fielding at their positions.  I'm keen to see what they do in AA this year; if nothing else, they seem like good depth and bench fodder.  The prospect guys don't seem tremendously impressed with either.

Age-22 Players

Junior Arias has a good baseball name.  He also plays an elite defensive position well, and had a nice first half of the hear that flashed both speed (40 SB's) and power (10 HR's) while repeating Dayton.  He struggled in Bakersfield, though, and will probably start there again.  Kyle Waldrop showed power last year at Bakersfield (21 HR), but not much else (0.304 OBP).

Age-21 Players

Reds #1 pick last year, Phillip Ervin, was terrific when he was healthy last season.  He's already showing a darn impressive projection that suggests he could hack it in the majors right now.  Now, I don't believe that--seems like a selection bias issue with MLE's to me.  But given the Reds' rather light outfield talent right now, I certainly wouldn't mind if they tried to fast-track him a bit if they feel he can handle it.  A 0.330 wOBA would rank fourth among Oliver's projected Reds players right now.  Frazier is #3.

As for Yorman Rodriguez, I'm surprised that he projects so poorly.  He put together a pretty solid season last year across A+ and AA-ball, despite being young for his level.  Oliver thinks I'm reading too much into that.  Or, he thinks that legitimate prospects should be wOBAing more than 0.330 each level.  I dunno.  The prospect people still like him, so I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic on him.  I'd sure like to see a little better contact rate than the 27% he posted last season, and the negative fielding projection surprises me given his toolsy reputation.

Age-20 Players

Jesse Winker had an outstanding season at Dayton last season, which came on the heels of a spectacular half-year in Billings the year before.  Scouts apparently like the hit tool a lot.  He's showing great walk rates, good contact rates, nice pop...he just looks really good thus far.  His fielding apparently will limit him to LF, but I have no problem with modest power, high on-base outfielders in corner slots as long as they are solid enough in the field.  There's even talk that he could skip Bakersfield and go straight to AA Pensacola this season.  As with Ervin, the Reds need help in the outfield.  If Winker can develop quickly, that'd sure help.  Also, he seems like a good guy.

Jose Ortiz also got an impressive projection.  That's about where Brayan Pena shows up in projections, and Ortiz hasn't played higher than rookie ball yet.  I think that's probably a bit of a ridiculous projection, but Ortiz had a very solid season in Billings last year, with good power and decent on-base skills.  He'll be one I watch in Dayton this year.

Age-19 Players

Neither Thompson or Franklin were ranked highly on any of the lists last season, and neither projects very well in Oliver.  And that's expected, because they're still teenagers!

Methodology discussion (for those who enjoy the esotericals):
I'm using Oliver for two reasons.  First, the translations across levels of the minor leagues were a major emphasis during the development of Oliver, and it therefore has a reputation (at least) as one of the better systems for for looking at how young players will perform as they transition into the major leagues.  Second, and more importantly, it's the only system that publishes projections for just about every player in organized baseball! That makes it about the only choice when you're going deep into an organization's prospects.

Also, I opted to use Chris St. John's consensus Reds prospect list because he already did the work.  His approach did end up giving more collective weight to the Red Reporter lists than any other source, which...  look, I love the guys at Red Reporter.  They're great, and they frankly do great work keeping an eye on the prospects.  But my feeling is that it would have been more appropriate to just give RR one vote, not four. :)  In any case, the point was not so much to worry about whether Dude A is ranked 5th or 7th, but rather to get a general feel for the top prospects in the Reds' system.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 Reds Preview: Wrapping Up

2014 Reds Season Preview

As a final summary, here are some overall Cincinnati Reds team projections from both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.  I haven't been reporting BPro's projections for individual players because I'm not currently a subscriber, but for comparison's sake I think it is interesting to compare their team projections side by side with FanGraphs'.

Cincinnati Reds Team Projections

Both have updated since I started this series, and have seen their numbers shift a bit (in fact, since I made this table, they shifted again.  Sorry!)  But both also seem to be largely in agreement at this point.  The Reds project as an above-average run-prevention team (though not overwhelmingly so...and less so than I anticipated), on the strength of good fielding and good pitching.  But they also project as a below-average hitting team, mostly due to offensive holes at LF, CF, and SS, plus a weak bench.  CF (Hamilton) and SS (Cozart) are projected to make up most of their offensive shortcomings with fielding, but left field is projected to get very poor production.  The overall result is a Reds team that is projected to be skirting right around 0.500.

The disparity in playoff odds are largely driven by what is happening with other teams.  FanGraphs projects the Pirates to win 84 games, and thus introduce a lot of competition with the Reds for the division title.  Baseball Prospectus has the Pirates at just 79 wins, freeing up opportunities for the Reds to take the division if the Cardinals falter.

Here's another look at the FanGraphs team projections to put the Reds into some context:

The Reds are projected by FanGraphs to trail the Cardinals and the Pirates in runs scored.  I'm pretty surprised to see the Pirates' offense projected to be this good, but perhaps I don't give PNC's park factor enough credit (97), or I don't take GABP's park factor (102) into account enough.  Furthermore, despite run prevention being the Reds' strength, they are projected to be well behind the Cardinals in that department, thanks largely to the Cardinals rotation (even with Joe Kelly!)

I do think it's interesting that, after trying to adjust for the park factors, the Reds are projected to more or less be exactly the same team as the Rockies.  There are some similarities in the FanGraphs projections.  Both teams have a lineup that features top-tier stars and massive holes in production.  Both have a rotation that is deep (or, at least projected to be deep), but without a top-tier ace.  And, as a result, both are projected to be 81-81 teams.

My own bias, of course, is that both FanGraphs and BPro are missing low on the Reds.  They just don't feel like a 0.500 team to me.  They do have holes in the lineup, but I'm pretty hopeful that something will work out in left field.  I think both Ludwick and Heisey have large error bars around their projections, and therefore hope that at least one of them will come in a lot higher.  I think that the Billy Hamilton experiment will work out in center field (i.e. he can at least pull 2 WAR).  The rotation seems stacked with solid talent, and at least three some of those have a chance for a Cy Young caliber season.  And the bullpen, if it can get healthy again, should excel.  The good news is that the error bars on team-level projections like this has to be something like + 10 wins, if not more.  I'm still optimistic.  But it's cautious optimism.

What do you think?  How are the Reds going to shape up this season?  What are their biggest weaknesses, biggest strengths, and biggest keys that will swing their season one way or another?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Joey Votto is speaking my language

Despite a rough time in Kansas City a few years ago, Eno Sarris has been turning in some amazing content that blends interviews with analysis in recent months.  One of his best yet (#fanbias) was this piece on Joey Votto and his hitting approach that appeared yesterday at FanGraphs.  Votto notes that he thinks he actually was swinging too much in the strike zone last season.
Take, for example, his command of the strike zone. Some in Cincinnati were beating the drum for Joey Votto to swing at more pitches. Even his General Manager commented that he might benefit from swinging at more pitches with men on base. Too bad. Votto saw things a little differently: “I swung too much in the strike zone last year.” 
In general, Votto has swung less at pitches inside the zone as his career has progressed — 73.4% over his first four years, 66% over his last three. And in general, his contact on pitches inside the zone has increased, if marginally — 83.9% his first four years, up to 86% the last three. So when he says that he’ll swing less in the strike zone this year, he’s talking about really swinging at the pitches he wants to make contact on. In other words, he’d like to be “more in that [Joe] Mauer category, really efficient, swinging at a really low rate inside the strike zone, and outside the strike zone, very rarely swinging.” Nobody swings less than Joe Mauer.
Eno does a great job of breaking all of this down, but I thought I'd offer a graph.
So.  Yep!  Swing rate at balls in the zone has declined, until last season.  Also, this:
So, overall, Votto has trended toward fewer swings overall.  But while he kept his amazing ability to avoid swinging at balls out of the strike zone last season (tied for 5th overall in MLB), Votto increased his swing rate slightly last year because he was offering at more pitches that were in the zone.

As Eno noted, Votto has seen a slight uptick in his contact rates as a result of being more selective in the zone.  And while we know his contact rate, we don't know the quality of that contact, so perhaps that would show even better returns for Votto's increased selectivity.  But there is a counter to this: Votto had his best offensive season in 2010.  Therefore, if he's shifted his approach since that time, he might be shifting away from what is optimal in terms of his production.

My take is this: the physical tools of a hitter changes as he ages.  Votto is 30 years old, and it's possible that some of the talent that permitted him to do what he did in 2010 isn't with him anymore.  Votto has shown an uncanny ability to make adjustments to maximize the value of whatever capabilities he has at the time (think the 2012 playoffs when he did nothing but walk due to his injured knee).  I trust him to adopt the approach that will maximize his value.  This is a guy who has been worth 25 fangraphs WAR over the past 4 years, and that's after losing about 2.5 WAR for his fielding.  He's a fantastic player.

Before I close, another bit from Eno's article I just loved:
And if the idea is to move him in the order to a spot that fits him better, Votto was contrite: “I don’t care.” He admitted that he knew “a guy like Tango” would say to hit him second or fourth, but as long as Votto is near the top somewhere, he doesn’t care. A guy with a “high career ISO” like himself would probably be a little more valuable somewhere outside of the leadoff spot, but that’s for the manager to decide, and where he is in the lineup hasn’t mattered to him in the past.
Exactly. Honestly, I think this is the first player--heck, this is the first person on the field, managers included--that I've ever seen that is aware of Tom Tango by name, much less he and his co-authors' work on lineups.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go order a Joey Votto jersey...

2014 Reds Preview: Bullpen

2014 Reds Season Preview

Today, we turn our attention to the Bullpen.

While Aroldis Chapman won't start the season with the Reds, signs are good that he'll be able to return and rejoin the squad mid-season.  Therefore, I'm leaving his brilliant projection.  Time will only tell how quickly he is able to return to his level of dominance--I mostly worry about his control in the short term.

In the meantime, with both Broxton and Marshall likely starting the year on the DL, the names being mentioned for 9th-inning duties include Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover, Manny Parra, and...Logan Ondrusek?  I'm all for the first three, but I was surprised to hear Ondrusek's name mentioned and immediately thought it was another example of the Reds loving him a bit too much.  But when I pulled up his numbers, I was surprised: Ondrusek arguably posted his best year of his career last season, despite the career high ERA.  His k/9 skyrocketed over 8 per nine for the first time, while his walk rate fell to a career low.  It was a far cry from the horrific 6 k/9 : 5 bb/9 season he posted in 2013.  I don't know if he can replicate last year's peripherals.  The projections sure don't think so.  But if he can, I have a bit more hope than I did.

The other three all project well; Sam LeCure (I heart @mrlecure), Manny Parra, and (to a lesser degree) J.J. Hoover all look really solid.  Parra probably should get a projection bump given that he has so dramatically changed his repertoire; he's not the same pitcher he was in prior seasons.  Things drop off pretty quickly after that, but any GM worth his salt should be able to scrounge up a decent middle reliever in a pinch.

Aside from all the injuries, one of the big concerns will be Jonathan Broxton.  Everything about him indicates decline.  His fastball velocity is down, last year dipping below 94 mph for the first time in his career.  And he's mostly a fastball pitcher, throwing four-seamers, sinkers, cutters at almost equal frequencies (~30% each), with only the occasional slider or curve.  I'm no pitching expert.  But I do know that 94 mph isn't very special in a bullpen arm, and I wonder if he should consider mixing in more off-speed stuff to be effective.

Next up...putting it all together again...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 Reds Preview: Starting Pitchers

2014 Reds Season Preview

The pitching staff experienced a significant departure when Bronson Arroyo left the Reds.  I plan to do a retrospective on him, but suffice to say, his tenure with the Reds was one filled with great memories and a lot of surprises.  I think I basically underrated him throughout most of his career with Cincinnati.

In his place, the Reds hope to fill the rotation with a healthy Johnny Cueto and a full year of Tony Cingrani.

Let's look at the projections!  Below are projections for the starting rotation.  As with the hitters, I'm reporting projected WAR over a full season, which for starting pitchers I'm defining as 180 innings.  I am in no way accounting for what probably should be somewhat conservative playing time projections for Johnny Cueto and (maybe?) Mat Latos.  I'm also providing some basic scouting info on velocity and pitch types.  I'm doing a lot of lumping here: %Fst = Fast pitches, so four-seamers, two-seamers, sinkers, and cutters; %Brk = breaking balls, so curves and sliders; %Off = Offspeed pitches, so change-ups, splitters, and (for lack of a better place for them) knuckleballs.  Those data are based on 2013 pitch usage, so for David Holmberg we have a whole 3 innings of work to go by.
The strength of the 2014 +Cincinnati Reds is their starting rotation.  All five project to be solid starters, even if none of them can really be said to be an Adam Wainwright-level ace.  Mat Latos projects the best of the bunch, and had the 2013 season by most measures.  But it's close to a toss-up between he, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey for the title of best pitcher on the staff.  I also think it's neat to see that each has a bit of a different style: they all throw their fastballs about the same rate (some favoring four-seam fastballs, others favoring sinkers), but Latos plays off his breaking pitches, Cueto plays off his change-up, and Bailey is somewhere in between (he uses a splitter instead of a change).

At #4 we have Mike Leake, who has long been a favorite of mine.  He mixes six different pitches, focuses on avoiding walks and getting decent ground ball rates, and has become a reliable innings-eater despite not having stuff that induces a lot of strikeouts.

Tony Cingrani is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch.  His approach just seems nonsensicle.  Yes, he's left-handed, but he threw his 92-mph fastball more often than just about anyone in the majors (82% of his pitches last season were fastballs!).  He has three other pitches, but last year, at least, he didn't use them much, preferring instead to focus on his fastball.  It reportedly has very good movement, and that accounts for his outrageous strikeout rates.  But I think it's an open question whether that approach will continue to work in the big leagues.  If he stops fooling people and sees that strikeout rate decline, his walk rate is going to get him into trouble quickly...unless he can simultaneously get that under control.  I listened to Craig Fehrman's interview on Effectively Wild Wednesday night, and he made the comment that he'd believe in Cingrani until it stops working.  That's probably the right attitude to have.

As good as our top-5 look, the Reds' biggest challenge is that they don't have much depth.  The kid they acquired this offseason in exchange for Ryan Hanigan, David Holmberg, doesn't look ready--at least not according to the projections.  Holmberg's strikeout rates have not been impressive in AA thus far, and I'd certainly like to see him pitch in AAA before bringing him up.  The best of the veterans looks to be Jeff Francis.  Francis may have gotten hammered in his time with the Rockies last season, but Coors Field will do that to you in 70 innings.  He also posted 8 k/9 last season, and has posted xFIPs between 3.79 and 4.29 each of the last four seasons when he has had the chance to pitch in the majors.  Yes, his career ERA is 0.7 runs higher than his career xFIP, so maybe he's a guy for whom DIPS theory doesn't work very well (in a bad way).  Still, I see him as the Reds' 6th best starter right now, even though I get the impression that he's about 8th in line.

The final option is Alfredo Simon.  The projection above is for Simon as a reliever.  If we apply generic rules to convert his projection to starting, we would bump up his ERA (and similar stats like FIP) by least a half-run, which puts him in the mid four's.  Simon has thrown a full complement of pitches in his time with the Reds, including a splitter, a fairly slider-like cutter, and a curve ball to go with his fastball.  Therefore, I think he's the kind of pitcher who shouldn't be unusually bad at making this transition.  Over the short term, I think he can be an ok backup.  But if he starts to log substantial innings due to injuries to our starting 5, the Reds will likely be hurting.

Monday, March 24, 2014

2014 Reds Preview: Position Players

2014 Reds Season Preview

This week is Reds Preview Week at the 'ole blog.  The Introduction is here.  Time to get down to brass tacks!

Below I'm reporting projections for all Reds position players, including a smattering of potential bench candidates.  The projections are 50:50 averages of Steamer and ZIPS, which I chose because they will be updated throughout the season;  I might use this spreadsheet as a basis for series previews or other kinds of check-ins during the season.  Maybe!  All counting stats (WAR, baserunning, and fielding) are reported as per-year totals, which I set to 550 PA for catchers and 650 PA for everyone else.  This includes bench players.  The idea is to get an idea of player talent, not accurately project playing time.


The biggest, obvious problem here is Ryan Ludwick.  The projection systems aren't at all buying that he's due for a resurgent season: average offense and poor fielding in an outfield corner mean for near-replacement level production.  They have good reason to be skeptical, too: he'll turn 36 in July, he's coming off a shoulder injury, and his 2012 Reds performance, good as it was, was a 472-PA follow-up to an absolutely dreadful campaign in 2011 with the Pirates and Padres.  Can he rebound?  Sure.  But I'm not putting money on it.  If he doesn't recover, the Reds can go with Chris Heisey out there...but his amazing spring notwithstanding, the projections don't look much better for him.

Otherwise, however, I have to say that the starting lineup looks really solid.  Devin Mesoraco looks to be a solid regular catcher, which would be a big upgrade over what the Reds got last year out of their catchers.  Furthermore, Billy Hamilton is projected to be a tick below average, but also not a complete disaster in center field.  Most of his production is his baserunning and fielding, but he is projected to post a near league-average OBP (with zero power).  Interestingly, he is the starter over whom Steamer and ZIPS differ the most.  ZIPS projects a .302 wOBA and very good baserunning and fielding to net 2.5 WAR, while Steamer is much more reserved (.283 wOBA, good baserunning, avg fielding, 0.8 WAR).

Everyone else looks to be more or less in line with what they did last year, with a bit of regression and a few blips thrown in here and there.  Overall, the Reds project to be a very good fielding team (the silver lining to losing Choo), and will have to find enough offense before they get to the 8-9-1 slots of offensive nothingness that Cozart-Pitcher-Hamilton will bring.  Still, if Zack Cozart and Hamilton can do enough with fielding, and in Hamilton's case, baserunning, they still pass as league-average players because the play elite defensive positions.  If Cozart could figure out how to take a walk now and then, however, it'd sure help the cause.


Oh, the horrors!

I like that Brayan Pena can bat left-handed, but he looks like a poor offensive player without much defense here.  But he's a catcher, and it doesn't take a lot to be worth bench job.  Hannahan can at least play the field, and looks like a good enough super-sub if he can get healthy enough to play.  Heisey is easily the strongest bat of the bunch, and can contribute fielding as well.  I expect to see him get some starts against lefties to spell Hamilton or Bruce.

But why on earth did they sign Skip Schumaker?  Yes, he's a lefty, and it looks like he can get on base a little bit.  But he has zero power, and his fielding projection is just horrific.  His career UZR/150 is -13 runs at 2B, -2 runs in LF/RF, and -12 runs in CF.  So...I guess if you stick in in a corner outfield slot, his glove is fine.  But despite decent on-base skills, he has zero power, and won't hit enough to offset the position adjustment.  The more I look at it, the more I dislike this signing.  I don't wish an injury on anyone, and I hope he recovers soon from his shoulder injury.  But in terms of performance, I'd much rather have someone like Roger Bernadina as the 5th outfielder/lefty bat (he can field, power makes up for weaker on-base skills) and Cesar Izturis Ramon Santiago as the middle-infielder.

With all of the injuries, guys like Chris Nelson and Neftali Soto might have a legitimate shot at the roster.  Both contribute some pop, but they don't walk and won't contribute defense.  Soto is a bit more interesting to me because of his slight edge on offense, and his ability to "catch," by which I mean he has donned the gear in professional baseball.  I'm not sure that he'd be any better at it than he is at his other fielding jobs, but it's nice to have an emergency catcher, I suppose.


In preparing this piece, I also happened to plug in numbers for the Cardinals.  For the most part, I thought the Reds matched up pretty well.  Except for two things.

1. The Cardinals don't have a gigantic hole like the Reds do in LF.  In fact, pretty much every player in their lineup can hit.  The exception might be 2B, but at least there they have guys who can field.  The Reds really need Ludwick to find himself again, or have Heisey quickly take his job and discover himself.

2. The Cardinals have a really good bench.  They have guys like Jon Jay and Mark Ellis (when he's not platooning) on their bench.  Those two guys can both be at least borderline starters, and that's probably selling them short.  And on top of that, they have Oscar Taveras waiting to make his big league debut, which would push Matt Adams (I guess?) to the bench.  I mean...sheesh.

Those two things put the Reds at somewhere around a 4-6 win deficit compared to the Cardinals, depending on how much the Reds' bench plays.  They will need to somehow get something from left field while keeping healthy enough to minimize the exposure of the rest of their bench to compete.  It won't be easy.

Fortunately...the pitching!  That's coming up next.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bunting for Sluggers and Sprinters

As much fun as it is to see Jay Bruce hit monster
home runs, sometimes he is just as well-served
when he tries for the bunt single.
Photo credit: Trev Stair
The bunt has a potential to be an important weapon for the Reds this season.  Billy Hamilton, the Fastest Man in Uniform, will try to use the bunt to get the ball on the ground so that he can use his legs to steal first base--especially when batting from the left side.  It can be a big part of his game, much as it was for Willy Taveras.  Obviously, the hope is that he can be a better player than Willy Taveras, but there was a time when he was in the running for both the retrosheet bunt hit record as well as the single-season bunt success record.

Taveras was an especially skilled bunter, but Jeff Sullivan did a piece at FanGraphs this week that demonstrated how hard bunting can be.  It is clearly something for which players can have a lot of success, but he found that the average rate at which bunt attempts are even bunted fair is only about 50% of the time.  And that's for "frequent" bunters; other players are down near 46% of the time.  And that's just bunting the ball fair, not successfully getting on base.  If the bunt is going to be useful for Hamilton, it's clearly a skill he'll have to develop (and he hopefully already has).

But with the increased prevalence of the infield shift, other Reds hitters may see reason to use the bunt.  Jeff Sullivan wrote a follow-up looking at how pull hitters, and especially left-handed pull hitters, can use the bunt to beat the shift.  The idea is so tantalizing: if the infield defense is cheating on you, giving up the entire left side to get four infielders on the right side, then you can get an "automatic hit" just by dropping a bunt toward third base.

Of all the Reds hitters, Jay Bruce would seem to be the best candidate for this approach.  And he clearly does so: Sullivan reported that Bruce has made 30 bunt attempts during Sullivan's 2008-2013 window.  Of his 30 attempts, only 9 went fair, which means the other 21 attempts went as strikes (fouls or whiffs).  But on those 9 fair bunts, 5 were successful: that's an 0.556 clip!  The interesting thing, however, is that Sullivan found that even after successful attempts, defenses were sometimes slow to adjust out of the shift...which means, if you can execute, you can continue to get on base with it at a high clip.

(Also, as an aside, the second animated gif in Sullivan's piece of Hank Conger's "successful" bunt hit is required viewing)

Just this morning, David Laurila posted a great quote from Brandon Moss on the advantages of using the bunt against the shift.
“If you’re able to get one down, it works two ways,” explained Moss. “Either it shifts the defense back over and opens up holes on the pull side, where I hit the ball, or they keep doing it and it’s a free hit. I just have to make sure I get it by the pitcher.”
It's classic game theory, and it works for both pull hitters and speedsters: if the defense knows you won't bunt, they don't have to defend against it, which means they can play back and even shift if necessary.  If they know they have to defend against the bunt, however, they will have to think twice about the shift.  And for a guy like Hamilton, they may have to cheat in on the grass, which gives his ground balls an even better chance of sneaking by infielders when he does swing.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My two cents of pitcher head protection

Like all Cincinnati Reds fans, I'm still reeling from the news of Aroldis Champan's injury last night.  The star closer was hit by a line drive in the face, resulting in facial fractures.  If nothing else, the bones in the area where he was hit (near where his eyebrow and nose meet) are directly in front of his left frontal cranial sinus, so that may have collapsed.  He is getting a metal plate installed in a surgery that began at 5pm Arizona time, which will be reinforcing those areas.  The big concern from all of this, of course, was the possibility of damage to the brain, and the eye.  Early reports are very good, however.  Hopefully, those reports will continue.  Word is that he can be expected to be pitching as early as May, assuming he recovers well and is able to conquer the psychological challenge of getting in front of live hitters again.

Therefore, for the moment, I'm breathing a little easier now than I was this morning.  That reprieve allows one to start thinking about how the Reds will readjust their bullpen (Broxton?  Hoover?  Marshall?), but that can come later.

My other reaction is to immediately advocate measures that would fix this problem.  As Craig Calcaterra noted, it's hard to know how to what to recommend here.  I do think that we're very slowly starting on a trajectory toward requiring some kind of protection for pitchers.  Pitching at the major league level is so difficult, however.  It must require almost perfect balance and coordination to get the ball within a 3' by 1' box sixty feet away.  Therefore, anything that has the potential to disrupt or interfere with that balance seems destined to be rejected.

The IsoBlox padded hat.  Ugly, uncomfortable,
but at least a bit safer?
Still, solutions are already in the works.  This spring, in response to Brandon McCarthy's injury in 2012, MLB approved a new padded cap as an option for pitchers.  It weighs about a half-pound more, but provides a modicum of additional protection against line drives to the head.  Unfortunately, at least thus far, even McCarthy himself has been slow to embrace the cap.  I'd be interested to know if any players in baseball are using it right now; I haven't seen reports of any.  And, given that the ball hit Chapman in the face, it wouldn't have mattered in his case anyway.  There's another level or protection to consider as well: the pitching facemasks used in softball and even some little leagues.  The two in combination would offer a lot of protection.  But would pitchers still be able to throw the baseball with precision while wearing that gear on their heads?

My guess is that it would take some practice, and the transition would sometimes be frustrating to watch.  But yes, eventually pitchers would adapt.  The problem is, as long as protection is entirely optional, I think we're very unlikely to see pitchers adopt the protection on their own.  Some might give it a try.  But my guess is that the moment they start to struggle, someone is going to suggest they go without it.  And then, because Regression, they'll probably start throwing better once they take the gear off, and decide that it's just not for them.

So a league-wide policy, then?  It worked for third base coaches.  Yes, it has a chance to have a meaningful impact on player performance, and thus their livelihood.  And yes, some pitchers--maybe max-effort throwers?--might be impacted more severely than others.  But I see this as a workplace safety issue.  Just as wearing a hard hat on a construction site is a requirement for worker safety, requiring some kind of head protection should probably be something that MLB strongly considers.

Will it happen?  I'm under no illusions that it will happen soon.  A first step would be to improve the hat (or find another) that at least a decent number of pitchers can sign off on, and yet still provides meaningful protection.  But once that's done, I think MLB will need to mandate it if it is going to be used.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2014 Reds Preview: Introductions

2014 Reds Season Preview

The Reds are hoping Cueto spends far less time
watching from the sidelines this year.
Photo credit: twistedmoments
The +Cincinnati Reds are entering the 2014 season with largely the same cast of characters from 2013, with two major deductions: Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo.  Choo is being replaced by speedster prospect Billy Hamilton, whereas Arroyo is being replaced (hopefully) by full seasons of Johnny Cueto and Tony Cingrani.

I think a lot of Reds fans, myself included, were disappointed after a fairly uneventful offseason.  There were rumors early on that the Reds would trade Brandon Phillips, but they apparently found little interest in him.  My favorite rumor was a Brett Gardner for Phillips swap, but the Yankees seemed uninterested in parting with their player--and justifiably so, given his superior production and cheaper contract.  That would have permitted the Reds to slot in either Hamilton or acquire a lower-cost 2B like Omar Infante (who would sign with the Royals) or Mark Ellis (who would be sign with the Cardinals).  None of that came to pass, and so the Reds will have to make do with what they have.

2013 Overall Team Performance

The chart to the left primarily reports 2013 season totals, but also shows projected winning percentage from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.  You can see that both publications project a drop in performance this season from the Reds.  BPro is slightly more optimistic than FanGraphs, projecting 83 wins using PECOTA vs. just 80 wins using a combination of Steamer and ZIPS (note: FanGraphs recently updated their projection and now have the Reds at an even 0.500).

Overall, the 2013 Reds had great pitching and excellent fielding that was let down, to a degree, with a middle of the pack offense.  The hitting wasn't terrible, but played like a fairly extreme stars and scrubs.  On one hand, they got brilliant performances from Votto and Choo, and another solid year from Jay Bruce.  And Frazier, despite his big slump, turned in a league-average year.  But left field, shortstop, and catcher were all offensive black holes, as was second base after Phillips' hand injury.
What saved the season, almost unquestionably, was the starting rotation.  Of particular note was the surprising success of Tony Cingrani, who filled in amazingly well for the oft-injured Johnny Cueto.  Cingrani helped Latos, Bailey, Leake, and Arroyo hold down the fort despite the staff ace only registering 60 innings on the season.

Why the big drop in projected wins?  My first thought was that perhaps the Reds overplayed their Pythagorean record.  But a glance at Baseball Prospectus's 2013 Adjusted Standings page shows this to clearly be wrong:
The 2013 Reds might have come in third place, but their Pythagorean record indicated that they might have played better than they looked.  In fact, their 1st-order winning percentage (just straight PythagenPat) is right there were their second- and third-order wins, which estimate runs scored and allowed based on component inputs.  In most years, you'd expect a team that put up the numbers the Reds did to win about 93 games.

So what gives?  There are two main explanations: loss of talent (free agent departures) and a combination of regression & aging.  Over the next several posts in this series, I'll walk through projections for the position players and pitchers, and try to understand what we can reasonably expect for this team.  I'll say this in preview: I'm seeing a team that, on the surface, looks a lot better than the 0.500 team forecasted by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.  The offense looks surprisingly solid, and the pitching looks strong.  But it's also a team that has very little depth, be it on the bench or in the minor leagues.  If injuries come fast, the Reds may have a hard time compensating.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Was Homer Bailey's Contract An Overpay?

The Reds locked up Homer Bailey this offseason,
but was the cost too great?
Photo credit: David Slaughter
The Reds' biggest offseason player move was unquestionably handing Homer Bailey a $105 million/6 year contract extension this offseason.  While this was exciting for most fans (myself included), reaction around the internets tended to lean toward this being a pretty substantial overpay.

I'm sure that people have done nice analyses of Homer's contract.  I didn't really look around at the time, though.  So, I decided to finally take a look myself.  Well, a few looks.  

Approach #1

The first approach I used is close to what I've been doing for years to understand contracts, and is inspired by people like tangotiger.  It works as follows.
  1. Make a projection for a player during the contract.  I used 2014 Steamer and ZIPS projections for that (courtesy of FanGraphs), and then did a "standard" 0.5 WAR/year decline.  That might be generous aging for a pitcher given pitchers' inherent tendencies to break, but we'll run with it.
  2. Come up with a cost per win translator for each year of the contract.  This is trickier than it used to be, because some of Dave Cameron's recent work has made it clear that the cost per win is not constant anymore; above-average players are getting more dollars per win than below-average players.  Fortunately, in that article he presented a regression line for this relationship, and it showed a really simple relationship: 2 WAR players (i.e. league-average) are getting $6M/win, 3 WAR players are getting $7M/win, 4 WAR players get $8M/win, etc.  I'm assuming that this "bonus" is set in the first year, such that players do not see their $/win decline as their performance declines.
  3. Estimate salary inflation.  I'm guessing wildly here, but based on past increases, as well as the amazing amount of money coming into the game right now with all of the TV contracts, I'm estimating a fairly aggressive 10% inflation on the $/win of an average player.  I'm just going to assume that the extra million bonus a 3-WAR player gets per WAR is fixed and not subject to inflation.
  4. Multiply the estimated WAR each year by the player-specific $/win numbers.  This gives salary value each year.  Then, you just sum up all of the years to get total contract value.
Here's what I got when I did this for Homer:

On the far left are years, my estimated average $/win with inflation, and Homer's actual salary.  I'm assuming the Reds will not exercise their part of his mutual 2020 option, so they pay the $5 million buyout.  Then you have the Steamer projected WAR, his $/win, and estimated salary.  Similarly, I report ZIPS estimated salaries.  Finally, on the right, I'm presenting a projection that would be required for the contract to make sense using my salary model.  In other words, this is apparently how the Reds are valuing Bailey.  Also, please note that I'm ignoring the fact that 2014 is Bailey's last arbitration year; we should really subtract $3 million from his total 2014 salary in each case to account for the fact that players make about 80% of their free agent value in their 3rd arbitration year.

It doesn't look like a particularly good contract, does it?  Steamer and ZIPS have his contract valued at between $50 and $67 million over six years.  Furthermore, Steamer's projection for 2014 is low enough that it doesn't even make sense to give him a 6th year.  The difference between the Steamer and ZIPS projections is entirely playing time: Steamer projects a 3.62 FIP in 173 innings, while ZIPS projects at 3.62 FIP in 192 innings.  Homer has thrown 200+ innings for two consecutive years, and has been very healthy in those seasons.  But just one trip to the DL would drop him into the 170-territory, and the floor in any given season is 0 innings.

To get the contract to make sense, you have to set his 2014 projection to 3.3 WAR.  That's not outrageous; Bailey was worth 3.7 fWAR last season (and 3.2 bWAR), after all.  But that was easily his best season thus far.  It's pretty hard to project that he'll do that again this season, at least based on standard player behavior.

On the other hand, what we're really dealing with here is a projected difference of 0.6 to 0.9 wins.  Given how large the error bars are on projections, this really isn't that bad.  If the Reds have special scouting information that indicates that Bailey really did take a significant step forward last year, and one that he's very likely to continue in future seasons, you could at least make an argument that this is a reasonable projection...

Approach #2

Dave Cameron recently posted a pair of new models that look at free agent salaries.

The first is a model that just takes total projected WAR in a contract and uses that to estimate a player's salary.  It's a simple regression equation, but it explains 95% of the variation in free agent salaries from the offseason.  Not too shabby!  Let's run it for Homer and our various projections:

This is a bit more encouraging.  Based on the regression equation, and our projection systems, Homer Bailey's contract estimate comes in at between $70 million and $85 million over 5 years (or six years, for that matter; he's projected to be replacement level in 2019).

I adjusted the Apparent Reds projection a bit here, because this regression model tends to result in higher estimated salaries than my first approach. Here, a projection of 3.1 WAR gets him where he should be for the contract to be an even value.  That's an 0.4 to 0.7 WAR difference from projections.

Approach #3

In that same article, Cameron also put together a salary estimation "toy."  It's very simple, not horrifically rigorous, but it works pretty well.  You can go to the article to read about it.  I applied it to Homer:

Cameron's toy suggests that, based on the Steamer and Zips projections, the market length of a salary like Homer's would be about 4 years.  But if we extend it to 6 total years, we get total estimates between $72 million and $81 million.  That's pretty close to the regression equation above.

The closest I could get his contract to the actual value was 3.2 WAR.  Push it to 3.3 WAR, and Cameron's toy extends him another year to 7 WAR, and the total contract value shoots to $115 WAR.  But again, the estimates are indicating that the +Cincinnati Reds are valuing Homer by about a half-win higher than the projection systems.


By the numbers, I think it's pretty easy to see why so many see this as an overpay.  Steamer, which has been the champion of pitcher projections the last few years, estimates his monetary value between 50% and 70% of the actual contract value, depending on which approach one takes.  That's a tough pill to swallow, especially when you consider that the salary models I'm using aren't making any allowances for the fact that pitchers are inherently more risky than hitters, aside from the projections.

That said, the other thing that this exercise impressed upon me was that the systems that I, at least, am using are highly volatile when examining long-term salaries.  For the most part, we're dealing with differences of just a half a win.  That's easily within our margin of error.  Any small difference in projection gets compounded with each year of an extension.  This is further enhanced by the fact that the cost per win changes with player quality.  As a result, a difference of less than a win in a projection can result in a $50 million difference in a contract valuation.  In Homer's case, that's half of his salary!

What do you think?  Is it reasonable to project Homer to have a 3+ WAR season in 2014?  Are these salary approaches so sensitive to small changes in player projection that they are almost useless?  Or was this a big overpay by the Reds?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Price on bullpen use

Sean Marshall has historically had good success against
both righties and lefties.  Photo Credit: spablab
I thought this was an interesting comment from Bryan Price on bullpen usage:
"I've said to myself I don't know what it's like to be an everyday player professionally," he said. "But I do understand what it's like to be a pitcher and what these guys go through on days they don't pitch. 'Is so-in-so available?' Well, we got him hot three times yesterday and he pitched the two games before.

"It wasn't really a day off. Sometimes, as a manager (who was a position player), you may see that the guy got loose. But they see it as a day off. It's not. It's completely different. If you don't respect that, you end up over-utilizing your guys – even if they pitch in 65 games.
"There are going to be times when you bring in a right-hander to get that right-hander out based on the history of the pitcher that's in there at the time. But, to me, it just doesn't bode well when you match up. I don't like situational match-up pitchers because they beat up you bullpen. I've never liked it. I'd much prefer to have guys who get lefties and righties out.

"You never want to lose a game because you feel like you have the wrong matchup in," he said. "But if you want the right matchup every single game, you're going to blow out your bullpen."
It's going to be interesting to see whether his stance evolves over the season.

I think he makes a lot of good points, and important ones.  There's no question that platoon splits are real, and you absolutely do gain when you use righty-on-righty and lefty-on-lefty matchups.  I imagine that there are other kinds of match-ups that are worth exploiting, like using sinkerballers, breaking-ball specialists, or power arms against hitters that are particularly vulnerable to those pitcher types.  But I also think he's right about the importance of considering how often a guy is asked to get up and get warm as part of a reliever's usage load.

This is going to sound ridiculous (it's akin to pontificating about how to fly an airplane based on experience playing a flight simulator video game).  But my favorite baseball "video game" is Out of the Park baseball, where you play the role of the general manager and manager.  In terms of reliever usage, what I've taken to doing when deciding what reliever to bring in is to consider at least the next three batters that they will face.  Mostly, I consider handedness, but there's always some weighting for quality as well.  Ideally, there will be a rhythm to the opposing lineup, such that there is an optimal time to switch between a lefty and righty reliever that is spaced by at least three hitters.  Best case scenario, I can plan several innings in advance.  This lets me play matchups, at least in a coarse sense, but also avoid overtaxing my bullpen by using relievers for only a batter or two at a time...except in emergencies, of course!

I think (hope?) that's what Price is talking about here.  Yes, Sean Marshall will get to throw against righties.  But one should still try, at least generally, to use your top lefty reliever against the opposing team's top lefty hitters.  It's much better than blindly following a "Broxton in the 7th, Marshall in the 8th, Chapman in the 9th" plan.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Free Agent Compensation Mess

The Reds' Todd Frazier was acquired via compensation
pick in the 2007 draft.  Photo courtesy of David Slaughter.
One of the biggest features of the latest CBA is a revised free agent compensation system.  The short version, as I understand it, is that if a team makes a "qualifying offer" to a player, which is defined as at least a one-year offer at a certain rate based on current player salaries (last year, it was ~$14 million), his team can receive compensation in the form of a draft pick if he turns it down and signs with another team.  The draft pick usually will come from the team that signs the free agent.

This offseason we've seen a group of free agents really struggle to find employment.  It's a big list: Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kendrys Morales...  All of these players are mid-tier free agents, and all are players who turned down qualifying offers from their teams in order to pursue larger contracts on the open market.  Like we saw in past years, these players all appear to be encountering a significant challenge: these are not top-tier talents, so teams don't want to give up their first round pick to sign them on top of paying their salaries.

The Nelson Cruz example is particularly interesting because he ended up having to settle for a one-year, $8 million contract after turning down a $14 million contract earlier in the offseason.  And ultimately, the main reason he actually got a deal seems to be that the Orioles had already given up their first-round pick to sign Ubaldo Jimenez, which made signing Cruz far less of a consequence for them.  Now, granted, his agents probably misread the market for him; apparently, teams are realizing that low OBP, poor fielding sluggers aren't worth as much as teams used to pay for them.  But this was a pretty big mistake.

Earlier this week, Tangotiger noted that MLBPA has decided not to challenge the compensation system until the next CBA.  I can understand that on some level--trying to renegotiate in the middle of the agreement might make negotiations of the next CBA a challenge.  But the system really seems very unfair to these few players who have to deal with the compensation pick.  It's not just this offseason, either.   I remember Orlando Hudson having similar issues some years ago.

I've always liked the principle of compensation.  It's best merit, in my view, is that it's a small token of recognition that small market teams, in particular, can't always keep their players.  Therefore, when a team loses an important free agent, they get slightly better draft position to help them begin to recover.  A 30-something pick isn't great shakes, but teams have scored some nice players with compensation picks.  Todd Frazier, for example, was the product of a compensation pick under the old system when the Reds lost Rich Aurilia to free agency.  I also like the idea of a qualifying offer: rather than trying to rank players by the TERRIBLE free agent system, the qualifying offer lets the market determine a player's value.  Teams (presumably) won't give a qualifying offer if the player isn't worth it, and so you're effectively letting the market determine if a player is good enough that the team deserves compensation.  To me, that's pretty elegant.

So how do we fix it?  To me, the problem is that the team has to surrender their own pick in order to sign a free agent.  I'm sure there's some important reason for this, but it seems to me that if we just got rid of that component--there would be no cost to the team that signs the player beyond the player's salary, just a bonus mid-30's pick to the team who lost the player--the system would serve its purpose and work quite well.  

As it is, the penalty of the pick means that some players get a raw deal, and teams are less likely to sign mid-tier free agents to improve their teams.  Seems like a lose-lose to me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why Joey Votto Should Probably Hit Second

Joey Votto takes YET ANOTHER pitch.
Image Courtesy of David Slaughter
Somehow, despite posting yet another truly magnificent season that saw him rank second in the league in wRC+, and topping 6 WAR for the third time in the last four years, Joey Votto became a lightning rod for controvery last season.  One of the things that has emerged from all of this is that many of his critics are arguing that he should hit second in 2014, rather than third.  Their reasoning, I think, is that since he "doesn't drive in runs," and insists on getting on base at a league-leading pace, he should hit higher in the lineup and let others drive him in.

While I hate the sentiment that's driving it (Votto is a brilliant player that we should be very thankful to have right now), I think it's actually a good idea to bat him second.  The thing is, even during his MVP season with those magical 111 RBI's, I think Joey Votto should probably have hit 2nd.  The reason?  From a lineup optimality standpoint, the #3 hole usually NOT a very good place to put your best hitter.  One of the biggest reasons is that, typically, the #3 slot in the lineup comes up with the bases empty and two outs more than any other slot.  That's because they bat two spots after the leadoff guy, who (true to their name) will lead off innings an average of two times per game.  That's the highest of any other slot, and thus, by definition, the #3 hitter will have more chances to bat with none on, two outs, than anyone else.  This limits #3 hitter's ability to positively impact the game.

Most of that comes from The Book, which I have a tendency to parrot back as Truth.  Guilty.  But how should we make lineups?  At the risk of misrepresenting their arguments, here are the takeaways that I got from The Book's lineup chapter:

  • Your best three hitters should hit 1st, 2nd, and 4th.  Of those, the #2 hitter should be the best combination of on-base and power skills.  The #1 hitter should have the best OBP.  The #4 hitter should have the best power.
  • Your next two best hitters should hit 3rd and 5th.  Power is desirable from the #3 hitter, because he often will come up with two outs.  All things being equal, the #5 hitter should be a bit better than the #3 hitter.
  • Your remaining hitters should hit in decreasing order of quality.
  • If you have a pitcher, it is often desirable to hit him 8th so that a quality hitter who can get on base hits in front of the top of your order.  Similarly, with a DH, try to get a high OBP, low power hitter in the 9th slot.
Let's run through the Reds 2014 lineup and do some lineup optimization with those principles in mind.  I'll going to use my favorite Markov chain lineup tool that John Beamer released in the 2008 THT annual  (hopefully used properly, unlike that other time) to calculate lineup effectiveness.  And we'll use ZIPS projections, in part because they're pretty bullish on Billy Hamilton (comparatively...).  And we'll do all of this with the caveat that it's pretty unlikely that the Reds will do any of these things this year.

The "Default" Lineup

This is the lineup that is reported on MLBDepthcharts, and it seems like a reasonable take on an opening day lineup based on what we've seen from Bryan Price in spring training.  Let's plug it into our model and see what happens:
Now, let's start optimizing, based on those rules of thumb above.  The Reds' three best hitters are clearly Votto, Bruce, and then one of Phillips, Ludwick, or Frazier, depending on your biases and preferred projection system (and hey, Mesoraco might also be in that group).  Bruce is clearly the guy with the most pure power, so he fits as the cleanup guy.  

That leaves Votto in either the #1 or #2 slot.  He could work very well in leadoff, but then you have a huge gap between he and Bruce.  I like to cluster good hitters together so one is on base for the other to drive in.  Furthermore, Votto's power is such that I'd prefer to hit him lower than leadoff.  That pegs him into the #2 hole.

So...without worrying about leadoff for now, let's try him in the #2 slot:

Joey Votto Hitting 2nd

According to the Markov, we gain 7 runs on the season by shifting him up a slot.  Note that the Markov has no idea about his RBI totals; it's based on average production, period.  

This also has the side effect of splitting up the two lefthanders, Votto and Bruce, in the batting order.  While I wouldn't chain myself to that, I think that's often a good idea to reduce the effectiveness of lefty bullpen specialists.  This also pushes Phillips to #3, which is not a bad spot for him.  He (historically) has had better power than on base skills (despite the projection), so I like him as a #3...

But more on that later.  For now, let's do the other obvious thing from The Book and bat our pitcher 8th.  This gets Zack Cozart in front of the top of our order, rather than our 0.139 wOBAing pitcher (the NL pitcher average last season):

Pitcher Batting 8th

Ok, so not much of an increase, but it's a slight improvement.  

Let's keep playing.  Hamilton, while OBP-heavy, has the 2nd-worst projected wOBA among the Reds' starting eight, so he is not among our top-3 hitters.  Let's move him down to 9th (his projected OBP 3rd-best, so he fits beautifully down there as a secondary leadoff guy) and get our best OBP guy among the Phillips-Ludwick-Frazier-Mesoraco group at the top of the lineup.  While it's very close between them, but Phillips gets the call.  It's a pretty defensible choice, really, and one that could work well given the hopeful return of his baserunning skills.

Phillips to leadoff, Hamilton to 9th

And we picked up 4 more runs.  Nice.  Interestingly, Hamilton's projected OBP is better than Phillips'.  Brandon's advantage is his power.  Leadoff guys can hit homers too, sometimes even with men on base.  And they get more at bats to do so than guys hitting lower in the lineup.

Above, I promoted Ludwick to the 3-hole given that he was batting 5th before.  I'm actually a little optimistic that Ludwick might have a nice little season for the Reds this year.  That said, his projection is below Frazier's and Mesoraco's.  Let's promote Frazier to 3rd with a nod to his power projection, and I'll bump Mesoraco up too:

A final rearrangement

Very incremental.  If you make even the slightest change to the projections of Frazier, Mesoraco, and Ludwick, a different lineup suddenly becomes more optimal than this one.  ::shrug::

Each step above was incremental.  But overall, based on the Markov and these projections, we've improved the offense by ~13 runs (~1.4 wins, using 9.264 runs/win) on the season by simply rearranging the batting order.  The biggest improvements came from getting our best hitter out of the #3 slot (7 runs) and then replacing a below-average hitter in the leadoff slot with an average hitter, albeit one who has a slightly worse OBP (4 runs).  Teams paid ~$6 million per win this offseason, so overall, we're talking about an adjustment worth ~$8.4 million in free agent dollars.

A 1-2 win improvement isn't a lot.  That's why folks say that lineups don't matter much.  But when you're a marginal team like the Reds, a 1-win improvement can be the difference between a playoff berth and going home at the end of September.