Table of Contents

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Film Review: Pelotero

A quick look at the Reds' roster reveals three players from the Dominican Republic: Johnny Cueto, Alfredo Simon, and Ramon Santiago.  That's 12%, which is right around average: overall, in major league baseball, of the 1013 players to wear a big league uniform this year, 101 are from the Dominican Republic.  And yet, we rarely hear much about the journey those players make to get here, aside from the annual highlights of the latest 16-year olds to sign with big league clubs.

Pelotero, a documentary by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jonathan Paley, tells the story of two players approaching their first day of eligibility to sign with big league clubs: Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano.  While Batistia is attracting some interest from scouts as the documentary begins, it's Miguel Sano who is getting the most attention.  If you follow prospects, you've already heard of Miguel Sano: he is a top prospect at third base coming off a huge year last season, and were it not for the failure of his Tommy John ligament, he'd probably be looking at a major league call-up this season.  Best wishes to him on a fast, full recovery.

Interestingly, the story of Sano's signing is far from straightforward.  Neither is Batista's.  It is their stories that make up this documentary.  It is frankly riveting: we have deception, underhanded dealings, corruption...  Some of the scouts working for MLB teams come out of this looking horrible, and I think we'd be naive to think that these are the only cases like this.  While the recent rule changes that have tightened how much teams can spend on international free agents might have reduced the profile of these signings in recent years, there's little reason that I can see to think that the cases we get to see in this film are particularly exceptional.

It's a great film, and highly recommended.  Even my wife and mother, the latter of whom was visiting when we watched it, found it engaging and provocative.  Baseball is the focus of the film, but it's really just the context in which the story is told.

The one criticism I have about the film is that of omission.  While both of these players ultimately do win the lottery and attract attention from major league teams, there are a lot of kids who basically forego secondary school in the Dominican Republic to concentrate fully on playing baseball.  And then, when they don't make it, what are they left with?  I've written a little bit about this before, but MLB's affect on the Dominican Republic really needs further investigation.

For more on Pelotero, check out Carson Cistulli's interview with one of the directors last January.  Carson's interview is what made me aware of the film in the first place.  Pelotero is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

What caused increased use of term "sabermetrics"?

Ok, first little ditty stemming from the course.  In his introduction, Andy Andres pointed out, using the Google Ngram viewer, that the use of the term sabermetrics started with Bill James coining the term in 1980, started to fade after his last abstract in 1988, but then rose again starting around the year 1998.  I've always thought of Moneyball as the major force driving the increased interest in (and thus use of the term) sabermetrics.  But it was clearly on the rise before Moneyball's release in 2003:

Why?  Well, if you look at the graph, I'm proposing one possible reason: the rising interest in fantasy baseball.  Fantasy baseball became far easier to play as the internet took off in the mid-90's.  For many of us, myself included, fantasy baseball is the gateway drug into sabermetrics.

Of course, it certainly might run the other way, too: increased interest in sabermetrics might be driving more people to be interested in playing fantasy baseball.  But I'd guess that more come from fantasy than are driven to it.

Just a thought!

edX Sabermetrics 101 is live

Andy Andres' SABR101 course is online and running!  I will be diving into the first batch of materials tonight, but I did take a look at the course discussion forums.  Wowzers.  The introduce-yourself post has 203 replies already!  I've never been in a massively open online course before, so this will be interesting if it keeps up at this pace.

In any case, there's been talk of a Red Reporter study group.  If that happens, I'll be there!  As I mentioned last month, I'm also planning to use a lot of the content at that course as inspiration for posts here.  I'm more than happy to let the comments here be used for course discussion, if anyone out there is also reading this.

Thoughts on the Reds & Chase Field

Chase Field was my local ballpark for seven years.
Photo Credit: Not That Bob James
In my series preview today of the Reds and Diamondbacks, I posted some doomy and gloomy thoughts on the current state of affairs:
So.  At the time that I write this (prior to end of the last Dodgers game), the Reds are in the midst of a 4-game losing streak.  They're 7.5 games behind the Brewers.  And thanks to a modest surge by the Pirates, the Reds now sit in 4th place in the NL Central.  Finally, the Reds' playoff odds, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, have dropped below 10% for the first time this season.  It's a tough time.  The offense has been very poor, and the bullpen has been even worse.  Despite the strong performances by the starting pitching, the Reds have been a sub-0.500 team, in terms of both real wins and PythagenPat record. 
Is there hope?  Sure.  Latos and Votto could return, Bruce could catch fire, Frazier & Mesoraco & Cueto and the rest could keep on keepin' on, and the Reds could go on a tear.  But they're at the point that they will need to go on a heck of a run to get back into contention.
John Fay and C. Trent Rosecrans are already starting to talk about the Reds' potential trade chips.  Cueto's at the top of the list, of course.  He's cheap for his value, and there's not a team in baseball that wouldn't love to have him.  None of us are privvy to the Reds' true financial situation, but they are facing what could be a major escalation in payroll next year.  First-time eligible arbitration players Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, and Zack Cozart are in line for big raises.  And other salaries are going up, while very little salary is scheduled to go off the books.  It could be that the Reds are set up to absorb that hike in payroll, which could allow them to field much the same team next year as they did this year (hopefully in good health!).  But it just seems like a lot of money.  I'm not sure what the coming few months will bring, but if the Reds don't rebound, I think we could be looking at some significant roster changes.  Of course, maybe that's what this team needs...
But, I also took some spent a moment to reminisce about Chase Field, which was fun:
The Reds return to my old haunts.  I spent 7 years in Phoenix (hence the AZ in my username), and for a lot of that I lived only about 10 minutes away from the ballpark in South Phoenix.  As a result, I've probably seen more games there than any park other than Riverfront.  It's a really nice place to take in a game.  I never thought I'd like indoor baseball.  But when the heat is blazing outside, it was an incredibly comfortable, pleasant place to kick back and enjoy a ballgame.  It's the place where my oldest "saw" her first ballgame as a two-month old (the night of Carlos Quintin's debut, when he hit his first major league home run), and where I got to watch live games in the first World Baseball Classic.  I also got to see a 2007 playoff game there (Cubs v. Dbacks), which was the only playoff game I've ever attended in person (go ahead, make fun of me).  I have pretty great memories of that ballpark.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Prospecting the Altoona Curve, Part 2: Pitchers

Continuing my look at the Altoona Curve, I'm turning my attention to pitchers today.

As with the hitters, the projection is the pre-season Oliver projections.  I like to use Oliver for minor leaguers, in particular, because of its emphasis on minor league equivalencies, and because it usually reports more players than anyone else!

Top Prospect: RHP Nick Kingham
Kingham was a 4th-round selection out of high school in 2010.  Now in his age-22 season, the 6'5" Kingham posted the best season of his young career last year with a 2.89 ERA across high-A and AA last year, and with peripherals to match.  This year he hasn't looked quite as strong, at least in terms of his peripheral numbers.  His strikeout rate has been down, and his walk rate has been unimproved from last year.  Entering the season, Tim Williams reported that he'd been adding velocity, while Marc Hulet was talking about him needing to learn to use his height and pitch in a downward angle.  He's obviously the guy that I'm most interested to see pitch...although I don't think the schedule matches up.

Top Performer: RHP Adrian Sampson
Sampson was drafted in the 5th round in 2012 out of community college.  He had a very nice season in low-A that year, but struggled a bit last year at high-A; his strikeouts took a big hit, even as he demonstrated exceptional control.  Perhaps as a result, he was left off all but the deepest Pirates prospect lists.  This year, now pitching in AA, his strikeouts are back up to mostly-respectable rates, and he's continuing to show good ability to avoid the walk.  He is listed as 6'3", 200 lbs, so he has good size.  Beyond that, the best info I've found on him was here: high-80's to low-90's fastball, good curve.  If I'm reading the schedule right, he should be in line to pitch on Saturday when I head to see the Curve.  I'm looking forward to watching this guy.  The Pirates have been aggressive in promoting him, and this year it seems as if it's paying off.

The Other Name: LHP Joely Rodriguez
Calling Rodriguez a "name guy" might be overstating things, but he managed to be ranked right along with Adrian Sampson in the pre-season lists that were deep enough to include him.  Rodriguez's 2014 stat line makes him look like a soft-tossing lefty.  Interestingly enough, despite his low career strikeout rates, Rodriguez actually was featured in a Nathaniel Stoltz profile as a power lefty.  He throws hard for a lefty, sitting in the low-to-mid-90's, and, thanks to the Pirates emphasis on it, is showing a good change-up.  Still, at some point, the stuff needs to play up and result in performance.  While he hasn't been bad, he's been the weakest of the Pirates' trio of 22-year old starters thus far.

The Veteran: LHP Brandon Mann
The top strikeout rate on the team actually belongs to Brandon Mann, who has largely thrown out of the bullpen.  He's also 30 years old, apparently did not play in organized baseball last season, and before that spent two years in Japan.  He last appeared in the affiliated minors in 2010 with the Dodgers after being cut loose by the Tampa Bay Rays, who drafted him as an 18-year old in 2002.  He's not a prospect, and is undoubtedly pretty far down on the depth charts.  But he's left-handed, so you never know, right?  Kudos to him for working his way back into affiliated baseball.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Joey Votto's Injury

Get well soon, Joey Votto.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison
John Fay's article this morning on Joey Votto's injury was a little disturbing.

First, this quote from Bryan Price, which appeared in another article yesterday (I think?):
"The soreness – I can't say it's completely gone – but it's much more controlled," Price said.
"But the strength deficit is still a concern. To me, it made more sense to get Joey as close to 100 percent – that may not be possible this year – but as close to it as we can and give him a better foundation on which to play as opposed to getting him back at 50 percent because we didn't give him an extra week to 10 days to get that stability back in in his leg."
I teach a human anatomy & physiology course, but I'm certainly not qualified to provide medical analysis. So take the following with a grain of salt: this just seems weird to me. If it's just a quadriceps strain, as was originally reported, it seems like this is something that should be able to heal with rest. But this sounds more like ligament/tendon/fascia/cartilage troubles, which are notoriously slow to heal because they don't receive good blood supply.

And then there's Votto's own comments on the injury:
Asked what he could do now that he couldn't do because of the injury, Votto wouldn't go into specifics.

"That's really none of your business," he said. "I'm not going to tell you that. I'm getting stronger. I don't really want to tell you what I couldn't do before and what I can do."


Again, it's Votto's right to keep quiet about the injury to the media. A couple of days before he stayed back on the trip, he was asked if he was healthy.

"I feel fantastic," he said.

We know that wasn't the case.

"I like to lie a lot – I usually just tell people I feel great," Votto said.
I get that he's frustrated, and that he's a private guy. But as a fan, this kind of thing is hard to read without becoming alarmed. Something about it reminds me of Albert Pujols' struggles with plantar fasciitis. While Pujols has been quite good this year, his leg issues dogged him for at least a full season...and there was talk that it might never go away.

So, I worry that Joey Votto is dealing with chronic troubles with his knee.  He's already had part of his meniscus removed, and then had a second surgery to repair some sort of additional damage.  Yes, he was healthy all of last season.  But now, he's suffering from soreness and weakness from the same general area.  Hopefully, this is just a matter of temporary inflammation that can be brought under control.  But ...well, yeah, I'm worried.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Prospecting the Altoona Curve, Part 1: Position Players

I live fairly close to Altoona, PA, which is the home of the Altoona Curve.  They are the Pirates' AA affiliate, and as such get a pretty constant stream of prospects that go through the club, only to arrive in Pittsburgh a year or so later.  I've long wanted to pay closer attention to my "local" club.  I'm heading to a game in a little over a week, so I thought I'd do a short post profiling the Curve's starting lineup.

The "Rank" I'm reporting below is from Chris St. John's consensus preseason prospect rankings.  They aren't perfect, but I'm more interested in who is on the prospect radar than who is the #8 vs. #9 prospect in the system.  All projections are courtesy of Oliver, and are preseason projections.  Bold-faced players are the team's regulars.

Top Prospect: Alen Hanson, SS
Hanson is the clear top prospect among the position players--you could argue he might be the only one--ranking in the top-10 on pretty much everyone's list.  While there are apparently some questions about his defense, his fielding projection is quite strong (though shy of Gift Ngoepe's fielding projection).  He is (along with Willy Garcia) the youngest player on the team, and yet projects with the second-best MLB wOBA of anyone on the ballclub.  Offensively, he's hit solidly thus far in his second look at AA pitching (half season last year), and is showing good improvement from last year.  But I think it's worth noting that he has the lowest walk rate on his club among the starters.  He walked better at lower levels, but has yet to do so at AA.

Top Projection: Stetson Allie, 1B
The former pitching prospect-turned position player is known as a power threat, and he has hit 8 home runs thus far after hitting 21 last year.  He apparently revamped his swing a bit from last season.  It hasn't changed his peripheral numbers, but he's continued to hit very well in AA after mashing his way through A-ball last year.  If he continues to hit like this, I think he's likely to show up in some of next years' prospect lists.

Best Start to 2014: Keon Broxton
At 24, Keon is a getting to be a bit old for this level.  But he's had a lot of fun this season, which is his first with the Pirates after spending his career with the Diamondbacks.  He has posted his best wOBA of his career (so far) along with the lowest strikeout rate of his career.  I don't know much about him, but I did find it amusing that he once beat out Paul Goldschmidt for the 10th spot on Marc Hulet's 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks top 10.  Whoops!

Two other guys
Willy Garcia is the other 21-year old on this squad, and has been a below-average hitter while piling on the strikeouts in the early part of the season.  He had a decent full year in High-A ball last year, however, so it may be best to let him fight through his struggles in AA.  

Gift Ngoepe was one of the players I got to see in Altoona last season.  He's a fun, scrappy little guy who plays great defense up the middle (last year at shortstop, this year at 2B).  He's also off to a nice start with the bat...but unfortunately, his lack of power and ample contact issues will probably prevent him from making  much of an impact at the major league level.  

A look at the Curve's pitching will come some other night!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Series Preview: Reds at Phillies

I wrote a series preview for the series against the Phillies at Red Reporter.  Not long before it went live, we got the news of Votto's MRI on his knee.  Like just about everyone, I probably overreacted.  And fortunately, we've since learned that it's probably not a major injury.  That said, it's still concerning, especially given that it happened to the same knee that gave him so much trouble two years ago.

In any case, amongst all the doom and gloom, a lot of us started thinking thinking about where the Reds are, and the potential of where they could be in a few years.  The Phillies are an aging team, and one that seems to lack a clear plan to transition into a younger, better ballclub.  They are locked into a number of large contracts that, despite their considerable market size, may be limiting their ability to get better.  The Reds aren't nearly as old as the Phillies, but they have committed themselves to a number of large contracts.  It may be a bit cynical, but one doesn't have to squint too hard to see a cautionary tale there for the Reds.  If things don't break right for the Reds, they could look a bit like the Phillies in a few years when the pitching leaves via free agency.

For more, check out badenjr's comment and my response.

Is Todd Frazier Seeing More Pitches?

John Fay penned a nice profile on Todd Frazier yesterday for the Enquirer.  In it was this little nugget from Todd:
Frazier credited hitting coach Don Long and assistant hitting coach Lee Tinsley for helping him.

"They really don't get too in-depth with me," Frazier said. "But they see little things and help me out with that. Everything's been nice and slow. I'm seeing a lot of pitches. I rarely do that."

Frazier has been taking so many pitches that his father, Charles, mentioned it.

"He said, 'You look so comfortable up there. I've never seen you take so many pitches in my life. I'm kind of getting frustrated seeing you take the those pitches down the middle.' I said, 'Dad, it's not the pitch I'm looking for.'

"Those Jersey people get a little hasty. They understand now that I'm working on something and it feels pretty good up there."
Here are his FanGraphs plate discipline stats:

Frazier is showing a very slight drop in his overall swing rate this year compared to last year.  That is despite a slight increase in the number of pitches he's seeing in the strike zone (zone % is up 1%).  However, it appears to be due not to taking pitches in the zone (as suggested by the quote).  Rather, Todd is showing an increased tendency to take pitches out of the zone (lower O-Swing%).

This drop in swing percentage also seems to span across all pitch types:
Frazier just loves to swing at offspeed pitches, no?

What does it all mean?

It's hard to pin any one thing to these plate discipline statistics.  The first expectation I would have is that he'd show increased walk rates.  And he's not:

However, he is showing a number of improvements that could be linked to his decreased swinging rates:

  • He's shown a big improvement in his strikeout rates, as I discussed in this post.  Todd may be chasing fewer pitches out of the zone, resulting in fewer swinging third strikes.
  • He's also showing decreased swinging strike percentages (11% this year after 11.5% last year, 11.8% career).
  • He's showing better results when he barrels the bat: his BABIP is up a bit compared to last year (though actually down from his career average of .285), and his home run per fly ball rate is also up (career 13.6%).
Frazier may not be a star, but he's a very nice player to have on a ballclub.  He contributes excellent defense at a demanding defensive position (+11 UZR/150 for his career, very similar DRS numbers), and is an above-average hitter who appears to still be getting better.  He has contributed an average of 3 WAR each of the last two seasons, and is headed for arbitration this offseason for the first time.  Given his tendency for a low batting average, he's likely to be a bargain throughout arbitration, unless he goes crazy with his power numbers.  I'm looking forward to watching him play at the hot corner for years to come.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

WAR Graphs for Pitchers

David Appleman made a neat new addition over at FanGraphs: WAR Graphs for Pitchers!

Here's one:

Source: FanGraphs -- Jose Rijo, Jack Armstrong, Tom Browning
These are one of my favorite tools for evaluating player careers, especially for questions about hall of fame eligibility.  Therefore, it's very nice to have FanGraphs making it so easy to produce them.  The only wish I have was that we had a choice of WAR metrics: their standard FIP-based WAR, and RA/9 WAR.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Should Billy Hamilton swing less?

Embedded in my Rockies series preview at Red Reporter yesterday was this bit on Billy Hamilton.  I thought it was an interesting little digression, even if it's basically amounting to lamenting what a player does not do rather than what they do (a bias I usually try to avoid):
Billy Hamilton returned to the starting lineup Sunday after a long time off, and immediately had an impact. He got on base three times, and scored the first run of the game thanks to an errant (and arguably rushed) throw by Justin Morneau on a bunt single, followed by a Skip Schumaker groundout. This is the first series preview that I've done this year in which his actual wOBA meets or exceeds his projection. There's no question that he's been better since his awful first two weeks. And, according to the measures at FanGraphs, he is already about a third of the way to his projected season WAR. Therefore, the projections, at least, think that what we've seen of Hamilton, in sum, is a good indication of what we'll see from him moving forward.

There was a short but interesting discussion on a recent FanGraphs audio about the Minnesota Twins' apparent new hitting strategy, which basically involves taking a lot of pitches (they rank last in baseball in Swing %). One of the arguments that Dave Cameron made is that the players who stand to benefit most from a more selective approach are hitters like Hamilton. Hamilton is not a guy who gains a lot when he swings the bat, compared to a guy who has a lot of power and can add real value when he places the bat on the ball. Hamilton's offensive value is entirely wrapped up in his ability to get to first base, and little else.

Hamilton's swing rate is actually right about average (45% career vs. 45% MLB average), but that hasn't translated into a lot of extra walks (only 5% walk rate). I think he can be effective when he hits the ball on the ground, but he is not really a ground ball hitter (46% career ground ball rate is about average). Given that he makes good contact (86% career vs. 79% MLB average), however, I'd love to see a Hamilton that adopts a Marco Scutaro-type hitting approach: be patient, take pitches, and only swing when you get your perfect pitch...or when you have to with two strikes. His contact rate should make him an effective two-strike hitter.

Of course, that's easier said than done. Hitters can't just change their approach at the drop of a hat. They are reaction machines that have trained themselves to make split-second decisions in a time frame that doesn't allow a thoughtful, considered approach. One can't discount the argument that a hitter's aggressiveness (or patience) is part of what has made him successful to this point in his career, and trying to become more patient (or more aggressive) could have unintended, negative consequences on other aspects of how a player hits. But that doesn't stop me from dreaming about it!

History of Crosley Field

The +Cincinnati Museum Center ran a nice little note on the history of Crosley Field on their Google Plus page yesterday.  Here it is:

Since baseball season is in full swing, we thought it was high time we shared some good old-fashioned baseball history.
On May 17, 1912, Redland Field – the fifth home of the Cincinnati Reds – was dedicated. The facility was located at the corner of Western Avenue and Findlay Street (as seen below). At the time, it was the largest playing area in the major leagues and the first two-tiered stadium in Cincinnati.

In 1934, it was renamed Crosley Field, after the prominent Powel Crosley Jr. purchased the Cincinnati Reds franchise to ensure the team would remain in Cincinnati. Crosley not only had a natural love for the game, but he also had the image, money and business experience to head a successful major league franchise, especially during an economic depression. Crosley soon became one of the game’s great innovators. Before he owned the team, he had personally broadcast the first Cincinnati baseball game ever heard on radio. After he purchased the franchise, he hosted professional baseball’s first night game in 1935.

On an unrelated note, I really like Google Plus.  It seems like twitter is the central hub for most baseball-related social media.  I do try to post my articles over there, but unfortunately it doesn't seem like it gets the traffic to be worth investing much more time there.

Do fast runners protect hitters behind them?

One of the interesting insights that Joey Votto offered in Eno Sarris's interview at the end of March was the idea that having Billy Hamilton offered lineup protection.  This was a neat insight, and it makes sense: with Hamilton on first base, pitchers are more likely to throw fastballs to the batter to give their catchers a chance to throw them out, and certainly will avoid burying sliders and curveballs in the dirt.  That gives the batter a better shot at getting a good pitch to hit.

It does fly in the face of some past research, however.  In The Book, Tom Tango et al found that hitters actually hit WORSE with speedsters on first base than without.  Presumably, this effect was because they were distracted by the baserunner's antics as much as the pitcher would be.  There's on-the-field precedent for this as well: Joe Morgan famously demanded that runners hitting in front of him not steal bases while he was batting because of this distraction.  

So which is it?  Ben Lindbergh took another look at this yesterday...and found support for both arguments.  Sort of:
  • Batters do see more fastballs with speedsters on first than with basecloggers on first (71% vs. 67%).  
  • But despite seeing more fastballs, batters hit WORSE with speeders on first than with basecloggers (.273 TAv vs. .281 TAv)
Ben also pointed out that in The Book, they found that older batters were less distracted than younger batters.  So, hitting despite distractions might be something that can vary across hitters, and is something that hitters can learn to do.  Votto might be particularly good at it.  And really, if there's someone who would be good at this, it'd be Votto.

I might also expect, based on where their eyes are looking and their angle from the plate, that this distraction would be largest for righthanded hitters batting against left-handed pitchers.  Maybe if I get a play by play database running this summer with my Sabermetrics class, this might be something to look at!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reds Strength of Schedule, by Month

Here's something I thought might make for a nice visual: a month-by-month look at strength of schedule.  Click on the image for a larger view:

There was a lot of talk about the Reds' tough April schedule.  But when you account for the fact that the Reds got 9 games against arguably the two weakest teams in the league, it actually balanced out very nicely.  May, on the other hand, features 11 games against four of the top five teams in baseball (based on FanGraphs projections).  That stretch against the Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers that begins on Monday is just brutal.

The good news is that the two months with the lightest schedules, July & September, are still to come!

Monday, May 12, 2014

MLB Strikeouts Rising, Walks Not

One of the things I meant to address in my piece on strikeout rate last Thursday (but forgot!) was the fact that strikeouts are up across the board.  There's been a lot of discussion of this year's spike: MLB-average strikeout rate has cleared 20% for the first time (at least as far back as I've looked at it), and is now at 20.5%.  It was 19.9% last season.

This spike is not a new trend, however:
I just went back to 1980, but strikeouts have been consistently on the rise over the last 35 years (at least).  The slope has been particularly steep since 2006, and has increased every year by an average of 0.5%.

Interestingly, walk rate has simultaneously been almost flat.  This comes despite the fact that on-base percentage has become so much more heavily emphasized in the game over that stretch.

The question, of course, is what's causing the surge in strikeout rate.  Are hitters steadily becoming more willing to trade contact for power?  They could also be biasing toward taking more pitches, but if that were true one would expect walk rates to also increase.

Or is it the pitchers who are just becoming better and better, leaving hitters in the dust?  Or a bit of both?

Furthermore, when is this trend going to slow down?  It might not slow, without action by major league baseball.  This was the subject of a recent roundtable discussion on Effectively Wild.  I think there's a legitimate argument that MLB might need to follow Brian Bannister's suggestion and lower the pitching mound.  Otherwise, we're on pace to see strikeouts occur in one out of four plate appearances by the middle of the next decade.  Yikes.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cueto's Velo On the Rise

As C. Trent noted in his wrap from last night's game, Johnny Cueto's fastball velocity is on the rise.  Here are his game-by-game fastball velocities over the past two years:
And last start, he actually threw harder as the game went on:

That's crazy.  And very exciting.  Cueto is having an extremely special season right now.

Now, I will say that I have seen some claims that spikes in velocity can precede injury.  The logical argument is unclear to me, but I think(?) the idea is just that extra velocity = extra strain = extra risk.  But the only evidence I've seen for this was Matt Harvey's 2013 season.

In any case, I'm choosing to be excited about this.  Cueto has been beyond fantastic this season, and I'm enjoying every minute of it.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Swings and Misses: Surprising Changes in 2014 Hitter Strikeout Rates

Todd Frazier is striking out far less often in 2014.
Photo Credit: Andrew Mascharka
It's May.  And when it comes to trying to draw anything from individual player statistics, we're still in small sample size land..  But short of just reporting what players have done thus far, most of us are at the point that we want to start using the 2014 data to actually infer something about changes in talent.  But with most everyday players only logging between 100 and 150 PA's, what can we actually say?

In Pizza Cutter's now-classic study (which he re-did here), he found that the first statistics to stabilize in a season--meaning the first stats that can provide some meaning beyond the noise--was strikeout rate.  Specifically, he found that when you have 60 PA's, you can use those PA's to explain roughly 50% of the variation in that player's next 60 PA's.  All other hitting statistics are more volatile than that, requiring even more PA's to get a large enough sample to provide that level of prediction.  

Strikeout rate is a funny thing for hitters, because higher strikeout rates are often correlated with increased performance when you compare across players, rather than decreased performance.  Yes, strikeouts are generally bad things.  But players who strike out more tend to be more willing to take pitches they can't handle (this leads to more walks, and sometimes better BABIPs), and tend to swing harder (this leads to more power).  

Nevertheless, given that most everyone has 60 PA's by now, I thought it would be interesting to look at who has seen the biggest shifts in strikeout rate across major league baseball...and how that has correlated to their performance thus far.  I'm only looking at players that have more than Pizza Cutter's requisite 60 PA's, and am comparing their 2014 strikeout rate to their projected strikeout rate (based on an average of their Oliver, Steamer, and ZIPS preseason projections...rarely did those systems show substantial differences among them, but I decided to take the average anyway).

Largest Increases in Strikeout Rate Across MLB

This is the group that people tend to worry about: players who experience a big spike in their strikeout numbers.  And we see a lot of cases like that on this list.  Junior Lake, for example, has been striking out an absurd 42% of the time for the Cubs...and there's no question that he's struggled.  Pablo Sandoval--who I thought was supposed to have a good year based on his offseason weight pictures?--has similarly seen a big spike in his strikeout rates, and has had a horrific start to the season.  

But there are some others on this list who it's hard to get too concerned about.  Mike Trout is second only to the amazing Troy Tulowitzki (my long-time man-crush) at the top of the WAR leaderboards, and there's a sizeable gap between him and the rest of the field.  He's striking out more this season...but honestly, is anyone worried about him?  Justin Upton, similarly, is off to another great start this year.  Sure, his BABIP and HR/FB rates are probably not sustainable, but that's to be expecting when you're wOBAing 0.420.  I don't see anyone sounding alarms about his increased strikeout rate.

Overall, it is the case that more players on this list--and remember, these are the extremes--have underperformed than overperformed, to the tune of about 0.025 wOBA points.  As a group, these players were expected to be slightly above average (0.319 wOBA), but they've been below-average thus far.  So the lesson?  A large spike in strikeout rate can be reason to be concerned about a player, but it's also not a reason to panic.

Largest Decreases in Strikeout Rate Across MLB

If the first list had players we should worry about, this is the group that many of us will want to get excited over.  And at the top of this list, at least, you do see some of the early season's most exciting and surprising performances.  Charlie Blackmon has been a revelation in Colorado, and has gone from solid to brilliant in ability to avoid the strikeout while performing at MVP-caliber levels.  Miguel Montero similarly looks to be rejuvenated this year, and Derek Norris seems to be breaking out.  

Most players on this list, however, have shown more modest changes in performance.  Wilin Rosario, Jeff Baker, and Travis d'Arnaud are struggling despite making more contact.  Players like Pedro Alvarez, Brandon Moss, and Ike Davis--guys who have historically had strikeout "problems" aren't yet showing any increase in their performance as a result of their apparent increase in ability to avoid the strikeout rate.  Overall, players with a dramatically reduced strikeout rate in the season are showing only a slight increase in their overall performance this year (an increase of ~0.014 wOBA units).

Overall Relationship: do changes in strikeout rates lead to changes in performance?

With the caveat that wOBA is not at all stable right now, I did do a quick comparison between the difference in projected and actual strikeout rate versus the difference between projected and actual wOBA.  Here's what I found:

So, it's not a strong effect.  If I was doing this right--on full-season data, for example--it would be a stronger effect, because wOBA would have stabilized better.  But even now, we can see a small, predictive effect: unexpectedly low strikeouts leads to higher wOBA, and vice versa.  The correlation is -0.26.

2014 Cincinnati Reds Hitter Strikeout Rates

For all of the complaints that I keep hearing about the Reds offense, on the whole the team's regulars have hit better than projected, wOBAing 0.342 thus far compared to 0.319 expected.  Most of that is driven by the stupendous performances of that catching corps: Brayan Pena and Devin Mesoraco have been amazing.  I'm also not weighting the averages above by PA's (due to independence concerns), so they are probably (definitely) having too much impact on those totals.

Still, most Reds players are right about where you'd expect them to be based on preseason their projections.  Brandon Phillips pops up as the only Reds player to see more than a 5% increase in his strikeout rate: a subject that C. Trent Rosecrans wrote about recently.  He's actually hitting better since C. Trent's article (see May split) but Phillips has done little this year to suggest that his struggles last year were entirely driven by injury.  I'm hopeful that he can still be productive, but he's probably the hitter that I'm most worried about on the Reds (and I'm not the only one).  My little pseudo-study here of 2014 players, however, at least suggests that a spike in strikeouts is not necessarily indicative of disaster.

On the other side of the coin is Todd Frazier.  While he just hits the + 5% cutoff I arbitrarily set for a "green dot" in my spreadsheet, he's seeing virtually the same change in his strikeout rate as Brandon Phillips...just in the better direction!  I haven't seen Frazier getting a lot of attention for his very nice start thus far, but it's been great to see him anchor down the hot corner.  Between his offense and his excellent defense, it's no surprise that Frazier is at the top of the Reds' WAR leaderboard.  Based on his performance thus far, he's been the Reds' MVP!

Given how unreliable wOBA is right now, I don't think we can conclusively link the changes in the players' performances to their changes in strikeout rates.  But I'm comfortable saying, at the least, that when a player has a sharp increase in his strikeout rate in a month's time (~60-100 PA's), that is reason to be somewhat concerned.  And when a player shows a sharp drop in strikeout rate, there is reason to be optimistic.  

So with that in mind, all signs look good on Todd Frazier.  And, unfortunately, the opposite is true of Brandon Phillips.  

MLB to Podcasters: Stop Talking About Our Sport!

Oh, good grief:
At the request of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, Apple removed several baseball-related podcasts from iTunes on Wednesday. HardballTalk broke the news Wednesday morning when Aaron Gleeman, one of HBT’s lead writers, learned that his Minnesota Twins-related podcast known as “Gleeman and the Gleek” had been taken down by Apple. By midday, the list had grown to include another Twins-related podcast “Talk to Contact,” a Yankees-themed podcast on the site “It’s About The Money, Stupid,” and the Cubs-centered podcast on “Bleacher Nation,” among others. Awful Announcing catalogued the reaction on social media, which was swift, fierce and uniformly negative.
This strikes me as an instance of MLB failing to oversee its legal department.  I appreciate that MLB sent an open letter requesting that the affected podcasts be restored.  But as Wendy Thurm points out in her article (linked), their claim here is pretty much absurd to begin with.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Cingrani to the DL

Tony Cingrani had a rough game yesterday.  He didn't give up a ton of runs in his 4 innings of work, but he threw a lot of pitches and clearly wasn't sharp.  Furthermore, in the 4th inning, his velocity started to really slip.  After that inning was over, I wrote this on the twitter:
Here that is graphically:
Big drop, right?

Seconds after my tweet, I started seeing reports that Nick Christiani was warming in the bullpen.  Cingrani was lifted.  It ended up being a pretty bad night for the bullpen, but sending Cingrani out there to pitch again would have been risky...not just because he wasn't throwing well, but because it seems likely that pitchers throwing when they're tired are at risk for injury.

Then, this afternoon, we got word that Cingrani was being placed on the DL:
Cingrani was clearly unhappy with the move. "I don't know why they do a lot of things. I don't agree with it," he said. "But if they don't want me to injure myself, I understand. I think I can keep throwing, but they're exercising caution."
I commend Bryan Price and his staff for acting quickly on this.  They are protecting a young pitcher from himself.  It might well be that Cingrani would be fine in his next start.  But this break will allow him to (hopefully) recover, and to build some arm strength so that he can get back to being himself.  Furthermore, it has the additional benefit of helping to limit his innings.  Cingrani only threw 135 innings last season after throwing 150 the year before.  I would guess that the Reds won't want him throwing more than 180 innings this year (or thereabouts).  If 15 days means three starts, that's potentially around 15-20 innings that Cingrani will log onto his arm.

Billy Hamilton running fast, but running into outs

Billy Hamilton loves to run.  But maybe
he loves it a little too much?
Photo Credit: Josh May
Edit: I wrote this post prior to Billy's hand injury in the first inning of tonight's game.  I thought about not publishing it, but early word is that it will only keep him out a few days.  Therefore, I figured I'd go ahead and post it.

Despite our hopes that he can become a multidimensional player, Billy Hamilton's calling card is his legs...and in particular, his ability to steal bases.  This season, however, while he already has 11 stolen bases, he also has been caught stealing 5 times, for a 69% success rate (though Wednesday night's game)

We've seen amazing things happen when he's on the bases.  When he's successful, Hamilton's speed can unquestionably transform innings.  But we've also seen scenarios this year where Billy has either gotten on base to lead off an inning, or entered as a pinch runner, and then immediately get thrown out.  What had been a promising inning is suddenly cut short before it can even begin.

The question with any base-stealer is whether his successes outweigh his failures.  One way that we can calculate this is to look at the linear weights values for baserunning.  On average, stolen bases have a linear weights value of +0.193 runs.  This means that, on average, a stolen base in an inning results in almost 0.2 more runs scored in that inning than in innings in which no stolen base occurred.  Billy has 11 stolen bases, so we can estimate that he has contributed 2.1 more runs with his steals than would be expected if he'd stayed on first base (or second base, as if often the case).

Each time a runner is caught stealing, however, it essentially kills an inning.  You had a runner on base, and now you have an out and no runner on base.  The average effect of a runner being caught stealing is to decrease the expected runs scored in an inning by 0.437 runs!  Billy has been caught stealing 5 times, so he's cost the Reds an estimated 2.2 runs this season.

Overall, this means that Billy's successes on the basepaths has been negated by his failures (+2.1 runs from SB's, but -2.2 runs from CS's).***   You can see these numbers on FanGraphs (albeit with slight differences).  Hamilton's wSB is +0.1 runs, indicating, again, that he has basically broken even thus far.

***We could break it down in a more nuanced fashion and take into account the outs and men on base in those innings, but this will be close to these values.  I'm also using linear weights that are based on 1974-1990 run environments, not 2013 environments, and so that will also change these values slightly.

The message is that Billy arguably needs to get better about picking his spots.  Everyone in the ballpark knows that he is running at almost every opportunity.  Under that scenario, even Hamilton is going to have a hard time doing any better than breaking even.

Three caveats:

1. Perhaps in response to this very issue, Billy just announced that he's going to try to slide head first more often.  This is apparently what he has done in the past in the minor leagues.  The evidence indicating that head first slides are faster than feet-first slides seems marginal at best.  But if he is more comfortable using that approach, it might result in better success rates.  Hopefully he is able to find a hand protector that works and prevents a Josh Hamilton-style injury.

2. Billy Hamilton's speed may have an additional effect, in that it may give Joey Votto the chance to see more hittable fastballs.  Here's a blurb from Eno Sarris's Joey Votto interview on this:
Protection, if it comes at all, might come from someone in front of him in the order. “The best lineup protection is when Billy Hamilton is on base in front of me, and it’s not about protection, it’s that I get a more predictable pitch to hit — fastball,” Votto said. We’ve seen how it takes a perfect throw home, pop, and throw back to second to catch Billy Hamilton, so we know that the pitcher would rather throw a fast pitch home. And knowing that will help Votto. 
You can make a very reasonable argument that as long as Billy is breaking even on the basepaths, this form of lineup protection for Joey Votto completely justifies his actions.  I'm cool with that.

3. Even if Billy's stolen base game isn't netting the Reds bonus runs on the basepaths (at least not yet), his prowess on the basepaths (going first to third, scoring from third, etc) has generated +1 run thus far.  It might seem like a low number given some of his heroics already this season.  But the argument is that, some of the time, Hamilton would have scored anyway even if he hadn't taken the extra base.

A Final Aside

Hall of Famer Barry Larkin was particularly efficient on the basepaths, stealing successfully in 379 of 456 attempts (83%).  In 1995, he swiped an absurd 51 out of 56 bases, which was worth 8 runs above average (+41.5 runs via the stolen base during his career!).  Man, that guy was good!