Knuckleballs

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Archive for May 2010

Carlos Marmol

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At age 23, Carlos Marmol made his major league début with the Cubs as a starter.  He was mostly dreadful in 2006, finishing with an ERA over 6.00.  Since then, he’s settled in as the setup man and now the closer for the Cubs and for the most part has been very good.  Since 2007, he’s averaged over 11 strikeouts per nine innings in each season, finishing in the top ten each season; this year, his strikeout numbers have been absolutely stupid.  Here’s a summary of Marmol’s rate statistics for his career, followed by his totals:

Season G / GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB FIP xFIP
2006 19 / 13 77.0 6.90 6.90 1.64 0.265 70.2% 28.9% 11.8% 6.47 6.22
2007 59 / 0 69.1 12.46 4.54 0.39 0.276 91.0% 31.3% 3.9% 2.72 3.67
2008 82 / 0 87.1 11.75 4.23 1.03 0.185 78.1% 34.6% 9.9% 3.62 3.71
2009 79 / 0 74.0 11.31 7.91 0.24 0.262 77.7% 35.8% 2.6% 4.06 5.13
2010 21 / 0 22.2 17.47 5.56 0.40 0.376 90.9% 34.3% 7.7% 2.06 2.27

Season ERA SV / BS IP TBF H HR BB IBB HBP SO H/9
2006 6.08 0 / 0 77.0 356 71 14 59 2 5 59 8.3
2007 1.43 1 / 1 69.1 285 41 3 35 3 4 96 5.3
2008 2.68 7 / 2 87.1 348 40 10 41 3 6 114 4.1
2009 3.41 15 / 4 74.0 335 43 2 65 3 12 93 5.2
2010 1.59 9 / 2 22.2 96 13 1 14 0 3 44 5.3

Marmol has always had issues throwing strikes, particularly in 2009.  He got away with it (mostly) by not allowing home runs and being a little lucky.  What really strikes me though is that with such high strikeout and walk rates, there is a lot of walking at the end of plate appearances against Marmol (either to first base or back to the dugout).

A couple of weeks ago, Dave A. at FanGraphs noted that Brandon Morrow, Clayton Kershaw, and Rich Harden lead starting pitchers in keeping the ball out of play via walks, strikeouts, and hit batters.  They had “Ball-Not-In-Play” percentages in the lows 40s.  Check out Marmol’s career, and in particular, his start to 2010:

Season Team TBF Ball-Not-In-Play
2006 Cubs 356 125 35.1%
2007 Cubs 285 138 48.4%
2008 Cubs 348 164 47.1%
2009 Cubs 335 173 51.6%
2010 Cubs 96 61 63.5%

This year he’s moving away from his fastball and moved toward his slider more and more.  He’s also throwing harder (almost a full mile per hour faster than any previous season) and batters are not making contact with anything.  O-Contact % is the percentage of pitches that are hit that aren’t strikes (that a hitter swings at), and Z-contact % is the percentage of pitches that are hit that are strikes.  Hitters are hitting only 60% of the pitches they swing at, 20% below the major league average; he also leads the league by almost 5%.

Season Team O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2006 Cubs 51.3% 84.6% 77.7%
2007 Cubs 44.9% 80.1% 67.0%
2008 Cubs 51.3% 82.5% 73.6%
2009 Cubs 52.8% 81.6% 73.0%
2010 Cubs 35.2% 71.7% 59.4%
2010 ML Average 65.6% 88.2% 80.9%

It’s easy to see from his Pitchf/x data that Marmol might not have any idea where the ball is going when he throws it.  It’s almost impossible to keep up what he’s doing, but after watching him walk a Ranger and strike three out in the 9th inning during Sunday’s game, it sure seemed to me that some good major league hitters simply don’t have much of a chance against him right now.

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Written by Dan Hennessey

May 25, 2010 at 9:46 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Carlos Lee

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Since 2000, Carlos Lee has been very consistent.  While he’s always been slightly overrated, he learned early in his career to walk enough and make enough contact to really be a valuable hitter.  Of course, he’s given a lot of that back in left field, particularly since he’s been an Astro.  He averaged 151 games, 29 home runs, 101 RBI, 87 runs scored, and a 0.291 batting average from 2000 to 2009.  Most projection systems had him doing it again, hitting 0.290 with 25-30 home runs in 2010.

Season Team G AB PA H 2B HR R RBI BB SO SB AVG
1999 White Sox 127 492 517 144 32 16 66 84 13 72 4 0.293
2000 White Sox 152 572 619 172 29 24 107 92 38 94 13 0.301
2001 White Sox 150 558 605 150 33 24 75 84 38 85 17 0.269
2002 White Sox 140 492 576 130 26 26 82 80 75 73 1 0.264
2003 White Sox 158 623 671 181 35 31 100 113 37 91 18 0.291
2004 White Sox 153 591 658 180 37 31 103 99 54 86 11 0.305
2005 Brewers 162 618 688 164 41 32 85 114 57 87 13 0.265
2006 Brewers/Rangers 161 624 695 187 37 37 102 116 58 65 19 0.300
2007 Astros 162 627 697 190 43 32 93 119 53 63 10 0.303
2008 Astros 115 436 481 137 27 28 61 100 37 49 4 0.314
2009 Astros 160 610 662 183 35 26 65 102 41 51 5 0.300
2010 Astros 39 148 158 30 3 5 16 16 8 21 1 0.203

So far in 2010, it’s not been pretty.  It took him 26 games to hit his first home run; he now has 5, 3 of which he hit in the past week.  His walk rate is the lowest since his rookie season, and his strikeout rate is the highest it’s been in 6 years.  His BABIP is way down, a function of his line drive rate being cut in half; most of the shift has been toward flyballs, of which he’s hitting fewer out of the park than he ever has before.  He’s seeing fewer fastballs and isn’t hitting any type of pitch well.  He’s being thrown fewer strikes than ever, and to make up for it, he’s chasing a lot more pitches.  This could be the result of his teammates being as bad as they’ve been in his career.

Based on the pitchf/x data compiled from TexasLeaguers.com, he’s swinging less and whiffing more, and the actual charts show exactly what he’s swinging at.  Changeups seem to be the major culprit, as he went from swinging and missing at just 5.5% of changeups he saw in 2009 to 14.9% this season.

2008 2009 2010
Pitches Seen 1650 2254 528
Strike 64.2% 62.3% 62.7%
Swing 49.0% 46.4% 46.6%
Whiff 6.3% 5.5% 7.4%
Foul 20.0% 16.3% 15.3%
In Play 22.7% 24.6% 23.8%
Ball 35.8% 37.7% 37.3%

For comparison’s sake, here’s Joe Mauer’s 2009 swings.

Do I think that, at age 34, El Caballo is done?  No.  I think he’ll be ok…but just ok.  They days of Carlos Lee being a significantly above average hitter are over.  He’ll probably finish the season at 0.260 with 22 or so home runs and 85 RBI and gladly collect the 37 million dollars he’s owed the next two years.  The Astros are bad, and an aging sunk cost is not going to help them get better soon.

Written by Dan Hennessey

May 20, 2010 at 11:21 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Why I hate the sacrifice bunt

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Editor’s Note: If you care at all about what you’re about to read (and can handle a little bit of advanced math), I strongly encourage you to read “The Book,” written by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin.

I was watching Saturday’s Angels-A’s game, when, in the fifth inning with a 3-2 lead, the Angels started with a Juan Rivera double, Mike Napoli single, and a Brandon Wood single.  Now up 4-2 with runners on first and second, having knocked starter Tyson Ross out of the game, and facing left-handed pitcher Jerry Blevins, Erick Aybar, batting right-handed,  laid down a sacrifice bunt (presumably at the discretion of Mike Scioscia).  The FanGraphs play log demonstrates just how poor of a decision this was (please click the last link; I’m about to spend the next two paragraphs talking about it).

The first two columns shows the pitcher and hitter in every plate appearance throughout the game.  The next four columns show the game state: inning, outs, runners, score.  The play is then described in full detail.  The “RE” and “WE” columns are the columns I want to focus on.  “RE” is run expectancy, or additional runs the team batting can expect to score based on the current game state.  The “WE” is win expectancy, or chance of winning the team chosen has based on the current situation.  You’ll notice that at the beginning of every inning, each team is expected to score 0.58 runs.  After each play, the game state changes and both the run and win expectancy change with it.  One more important thing to note is that run expectancy does not account for runs previously scored.  Therefore, if a player hits a grand slam, he’ll decrease the run expectancy (because the next hitter doesn’t get to hit with the bases loaded) but raise the win expectancy.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the fifth, you can see the part of the game I described earlier.  After Wood’s single, the Angels, on average, would score about 1.61 runs and have an 85.8% chance of winning.  Lucky for the Angels, 3 of the next 4 players got hits, tacked on 3 more runs, and finished the inning with a 94.3% chance of winning.  The result of the bunt itself decreased the Angels chances of scoring; their run expectancy decreased to 1.50 runs and their win expectancy dropped slightly to 85.7% (the last two columns show the changes in the expectancies for each action).  The bunt here only served a purpose if the next hitter hit a fly ball on which the runner at third could now tag up and score.  In other words, Scioscia gave up an out in order to play for one more run in the fifth inning of a game he led 4-2.  He took the situation with the fourth-highest run expectancy and decreased it.  Call me crazy, but I’m going keep my outs and play for a bunch of runs, especially with the lead, and especially at home.

I don’t like the sacrifice bunt because of several reasons, chief among them is that the batting team is spending its sole resource (outs) to gain one base.  There are times and situations to attempt a sacrifice, but in the fifth inning of a game the batting team is winning is not among them.  You also give the pitcher and the defense something they would have had to earn otherwise.  The second reason is that most of the time, it’s a boring play; the bunt goes down and the throw goes to first and all that happened is that we’re closer to the end of the game.  Now, exceptions occur when the bunter has speed or lays down a particularly good bunt or the defender makes a bad play; let’s just say I didn’t show up to the ballpark to see a hitter give himself up by hitting the ball 20 feet when it doesn’t help his team win.  The third reason is that it sends a bad message to the hitter; in the middle of a rally (as the Angels were), the leadoff hitter bunts?  Maybe he shouldn’t be hitting leadoff.

Like I said, there are situations to bunt (you’re going to want to click that link).  For instance, I 100% support National League teams having the pitcher bunt with a man on base (or for that matter, when any really poor hitter is at the plate with men on base).  Also, late in games when one run can literally win you a game (like in the bottom of the 14th or the top of the 19th in this monster).  It’s also important to do it occasionally to keep the defense honest; if the defense knows there is no threat of a bunt, it can play back in presumably better defensive position.  Early in games, in normal run scoring environments, there’s not enough reason to take the bat out of the hands of a decent major league hitter.  As this situation showed, just because the desired result was achieved doesn’t mean the decision behind it was sound.

Written by Dan Hennessey

May 17, 2010 at 9:53 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Phil Hughes

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Yankee fan and loyal reader Mike B. mentioned to me that Phil Hughes was off to an impressive start.  I agreed and said I wasn’t surprised; he has had the pedigree of an ace since he was drafted in the first round in 2004 out of high school.  I am slightly surprised that after being jerked around by the Yankees for the last couple years (much like Joba Chamberlain), he has taken to starting so quickly.  He always had been a starter though prior to 2009, so again, it isn’t a huge surprise to me.

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Hughes’s minor league career, but it was good.  He struck out a hitter per inning at every stop and didn’t allow too many walks or any home runs.  He started 21 games for the Yankees in 2007 and 2008 and was average.  Last year he was Mariano Rivera’s caddy, mowing down hitters in the 8th inning to get to Rivera.

The biggest change for Hughes was that his strikeout rate went way up compared to when he started; his walk and home run rates stayed the same and his BABIP stabilized quickly.  Most pitchers are better as relievers than as starters.  They don’t have to conserve energy for pitch 90; they just have to get through pitch 15, so usually they throw harder.  To be worth two wins as a reliever is pretty impressive, particularly given that he had never done it before.

So far in 2010, he’s given up one home run in 39 innings while striking out 39 and walking 14.  His BABIP and his home run per fly ball rates are too low to sustain and will rise as the season goes on; however, I think we’re still looking at a pitcher who finish the season with an ERA between 3.00 and 3.50, so long as he can keep the strikeouts up and the walks down.  In 2009, he ditched his slider (easily his worst pitch) and developed a cutter, and no one has figured out how to hit it.  It’s the best cutter in the game right now (even ahead of Roy Halladay).  He’s getting more swings at pitches that aren’t strikes because he’s now throwing four pitches that he can command (his curveball has always been regarded as a great pitch).

I know a lot of people who have had criticisms of this blog  and my way of thinking about baseball think I’m too much about numbers and don’t “watch what’s on the field.”  I’m sure if you asked scouts what’s new about Hughes, they might talk about his cutter or his command or his deception; well, sometimes the numbers can spell out what otherwise might not be obvious.

Written by Dan Hennessey

May 14, 2010 at 10:05 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

What’s wrong with David Wright?

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Yesterday morning I woke up and read this article and this article about David Wright’s early season struggles.  David Wright is a member of The Wet Bandits, and while I haven’t been paying as much attention this year as I have in the past, I thought he was doing fairly well.  I checked his fantasy numbers at the beginning of yesterday and he was at 0.277 BA, 17 runs, 7 home runs, 22 RBI, and 8 stolen bases; in other words, he was definitely helping the old Bandits. (not that that translates to helping real baseball teams always; hello Juan Pierre!)  Reading the quotes in these stories, I thought Wright was in a huge slump:

Wright won’t admit it, but Citi Field has gotten inside his head and he can’t shake it. If a park can haunt a baseball player, then Citi Field is haunting Wright. How else to explain how it has shrunk Wright’s power since the move over from Shea?

And how about this one:

Early in a game, or early in a count, pitchers are busting him inside with fastballs to knock him off the plate, to make him uncomfortable. And then they spin breaking balls away, or come back inside with fastballs.  Clearly, he is not comfortable at the plate; scouts are noticing that he is flinching at breaking pitches, a tendency that they believe started after Wright was beaned last summer in a game against the Giants.

–snip–

Wright is also striking out more than ever; he currently ranks third in the league in that category, after a year in which he had 140 strikeouts while playing in fewer games. His career high before last season was 118, and although it figures that he’ll make adjustments as this season progresses, his current pace would result in 213 strikeouts in 2010.

I looked a little deeper to see if there were other things that were out of line with his career norms.  His slash line as of today was 0.293/0.417/0.552, which is code for really good.  He’s posting a career-high walk rate (17.4%) and a career high ISO (0.259); as a result he also has a career-high OPS.  One of my first posts was about David Wright’s 2009 season, in which he posted a career-high strikeout rate and BABIP; those rates mirror what he’s doing so far this, except he has re-introduced the home run to his arsenal.  My guess was that his BABIP would come down but he’d hit more home runs and be just as good a hitter.

I was kind of right.  He’s striking out 37(!) percent of the time, which is insanely high for a hitter this good.  It’s almost twice his career-high rate not counting last season.  His batted ball types are roughly the same, except a lot of fly balls have been home runs so far.  This help keeps his batting average up, because lots of fly balls are caught for outs.  If you hit more over the fence, fewer get caught.  He’s among the league leaders in turning fly balls into home runs, but also in turning at-bats into strikeouts.

He’s seeing fewer fastballs than ever before, which makes sense given his current set of teammates.  He’s swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone and hitting a lower percentage of them.  Overall, his contact rate is down almost 8 percentage points, despite seeing more pitches in the strike zone than he has since his rookie year.

So far, he’s managed to get away with all of the strikeouts by hitting a lot of home runs and walking a lot.  He’s been one of the most valuable hitters in the game so far, but some of it might be smoke an mirrors.  His strikeout rate is really high, and we can only say “small sample” for so long.  Research has shown that at roughly 150 plate appearances, a player’s strikeout rate has some predictive value for the rest of the season.  Maybe there is something in his head.  Maybe he’s scared of the ball.  Maybe he hates his home park.  Maybe since he’s the best player and third baseman (on a terrible team) in the country’s largest city, he catches too much heat from the media.  Maybe he needs a little outside help.  If I was a Met fan, I know that I’d be worried slightly about Wright, but that I would also take him on my team in a second.  He’ll probably be really frustrating to watch day-in and day-out, but over the long haul, I’d rather have him on my side.

Editor’s Note: While researching the leaderboards for the early season statistics, I found this little gem.  The post where I kiss Chase Utley’s ass for 1,500 words is coming, that I can promise you. Also, it took Juan Pierre 144 plate appearances and Chris Coghlan 106 plate appearances to get their first extra base hits; until then, their batting averages equaled their slugging percentages.

Written by Dan Hennessey

May 12, 2010 at 10:19 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Kelly Johnson

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Editor’s Note: The following is the first in what becomes hopefully a series of posts by guest writers.  If you have an idea for a post, let me know or just write it and send it to me.  The guest posts will be posted through me after I have read and formatted them, and comments will be moderated by me.  However, I will not censor the conversation, and I hope the guest-posters will be treated just like I am – with slight disgust and general disregard. The first post is by my brother, Bryan; call it nepotism, call it “being a homer,” just don’t call it good baseball writing. Without further ado…

So, if you’ve been watching baseball lately, you’ve noticed that a certain second baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks has been going off. I know I have, as this hot streak of 6 homers in 7 games has revived my lifeless fantasy team. As of April 30th, Kelly Johnson is hitting 0.320 with 9 homers and 18 RBI; 17 of his 24 hits have gone for extra bases.  The current NL home run leader is drawing more walks now than he ever has, as his walk rate is at a 14.6%.  His April has been terrific, already out-producing what the Diamondbacks could have expected of him (and what they are paying him for); what is important now is to see if he’s going to continue performing at this level or fall off à la Chris “The Hammer” Shelton in 2006.

Johnson has played basically 3.5 seasons in the majors, and his 162 game averages are:

BA R H RBI HR BB SO BABIP SB OPS
0.267 91 147 71 17 68 119 0.310 9 0.795

Pretty good. His best seasons came in 2007 and 2008 and are pretty much carbon copies of each other. Batting averages around 0.280, mid teens for home runs, about 70 RBI and 90 runs scored. Given the lack of quality second basemen, you wonder if Bobby Cox got too frustrated with his slow starts.

Taking the Dan Hennessey route, I figured we could look at some fancy stats to determine if Kelly Johnson is going to challenge Pujols for the Triple Crown, fall off to his typical production, or land somewhere in the middle (Editor’s Note: Part of this is discussed here, where I consider the effect of a hot start on a season’s stats).  Johnson’s ISO (isolated power = ((2B + 3B*2+HR*3)/AB)) right now is at 0.466 (Editor’s Note: it’s basically slugging percentage minus one base per hit; therefore it measures only the bases accumulated on extra base hits).  As I said before, 17 of his 24 hits have gone for extra bases, and more than half of those have left the yard. Last year was his worst, and I think the beautiful BABIP shows part of the reason why (NOTE: BABIP is my favorite stat and I try and throw it into any discussion/argument/what-have-you.  Oh, you think Kobe’s better than LeBron?  Well, let’s check the BABIPs, guy – it’s that bad.).

Anyway, last year Johnson’s BABIP was a paltry 0.247, and he hit 0.224 in 106 games. He fell out of favor pretty quickly and became the odd man out as Bobby Cox went with Martin Prado and Omar Infante (NICE!). This year, his BABIP has increased to 0.288 through 21 games, and the ball appears to be finding holes or the pool in right center field rather than a glove. Even a BABIP of 0.288 seems like it’s even too low for him to stay at for the entire season and it could increase to his career average of 0.310.  Another important factor is his strikeout-to-walk ratio.  This year, he’s walked 13 times in 89 plate appearances and struck out 15 times. For his career, he almost strikes out twice as much as he walks (216 BB to 374 K).

I think that he’s going to start coming back down to Earth a little and probably start striking out more. His power numbers will dip and singles will probably be more of a regular occurrence than homers. He won’t fall off as hard as Chris Shelton and end up in the minors in June, and I feel safe saying that he won’t be in the discussion for MVP. I say he outperforms the averages and finishes somewhere like 0.290, 25 HR, 90 RBI and becomes the waiver wire pickup of the year, propelling my fantasy squad “Belmonte Up With It” to a title.

Editor’s Note: Another thing to notice is that Johnson is seeing fewer fastballs than ever but crushing the ones he does see.  In April he was hitting near the bottom of the Arizona lineup, but lately he has been given the opportunity to leadoff; it will be interesting to see if the types of pitches he see changes given his hot start and position in the lineup.

BA

R

H

RBI

HR

BB

SO

BABIP

SB

OPS

0.267

91

147

71

17

68

119

0.310

9

0.795

Written by Dan Hennessey

May 6, 2010 at 9:04 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Ian Kennedy

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Ian Kennedy was a first round pick of the Yankees from USC in 2006; he started 2007 in High-A ball, then was promoted to Double-A and then Triple-A.  He pitched well at all of these stops, compiling a 1.92 ERA in 140 1/3 innings.  In September, he was called up by the Yankees and pitched 19 innings, during which he struck out 15 batters.  Based on this performance, Kennedy was given a spot in the rotation for 2008 and subsequently forgot how to throw strikes.  He walked 20 batters in 23 2/3 innings (while striking out 16) and was sent to Triple-A; when he was recalled later in the month, he walked fewer batters but gave up 4 home runs in 14 innings.  He hurt his shoulder in August in his first appearance back from the minors and didn’t pitch in 2009.  During the offseason, he was part of the Curtis Granderson-Edwin Jackson-Max Scherzer trade, and for the most part was an afterthought on the move to Arizona.

Kennedy is a flyball pitcher, which generally spells trouble for pitchers in Arizona.  Despite being a flyball pitcher, he had done a fairly good job of limiting home runs in the minor leagues.  Going from the American League East to the National League West was only going to help also.  In the minors, he had very good strikeout rates, but while pitching for the Yankees those numbers didn’t translate to the big leagues.  Much of Kennedy’s success going forward is going to hinge on him finding a way to miss more bats while not giving up home runs.

So far in 2010, Kennedy is walking a fine line.  In 6 starts and 37 innings, he has struck out 30 hitters, walked 10, and given up 7 home runs (which is currently the most in the league).  Nearly 15% of flyballs hit off of Kennedy are leaving the yard, a number that should come down some but is a yellow flag given Kennedy’s history with the long ball.  He’s getting crushed at the bottom of National League lineups, but he’s been fairly lucky with respect to his BABIP splits so far, leading to a higher than expected number of stranded runners.

There are a lot of forces in play here, so Kennedy is an interesting guy to watch the rest of the year.  His home run rate is worrisome, but potentially fluky.  His ability to throw strikes is a question mark but absolutely necessary.  He’s getting outs when he needs them, which really isn’t a proven skill.  And the hitters doing the most damage are not the best hitters in the opposition’s lineup.  My guess for Kennedy’s 2010 season: 28 starts, 160 innings, 4.25 ERA, 130 strikeouts, 55 walks, 20 home runs allowed, and an 9-7 record.  He’s only 25, so if nothing else, this should be a season on which to build.  Like the Diamondbacks need another young player with potential.

Written by Dan Hennessey

May 5, 2010 at 9:08 PM

Posted in Uncategorized