Unpredictable, rare, and occasionally effective…but always entertaining.

Archive for June 2010

Uh, 30 teams could use Cliff Lee

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As of this morning, there were 9 teams in the American League within 8 games of one another and 9 teams in the National League within 4.5 games of each other.  None of the NL teams are more than 2.5 games out of a playoff spot.  Only Toronto is more than 3.5 games out right now.  Obviously, all of these teams have holes and could use some help, but here’s the rub: for whom does it make sense to give up their top prospects to get a Cliff Lee or other top-notch rental?

In the American League, the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox are all legitimate contenders and are battling for two playoff spots.  Toronto, the 9th of the 9 teams lurking, isn’t a serious contender (post about the 2010 Blue Jays coming shortly).  The Twins, White Sox, and Tigers are battling it out in the AL Central, and only the Twins have a positive run differential so far.  Finally, the Rangers and Angels are in contention in the AL West, and don’t look now, but the Texas Rangers have the second best record in baseball.

In the National League, the Braves, Phillies, and Mets are within 2 games of a playoff spot.  In the Central, the Reds and Cardinals play with four also-rans and the loser should be in contention for the Wild Card.  And in the West, somehow, some way, the Padres still have best record in the NL.  The Dodgers, Rockies, and Giants are all within 4.5 games, and I think at least one of them will make a big run; I know I keep doubting them, but the Padres have probably already made their big run.

So all told, we have 17 teams that have a shot at the playoffs (excluding only Toronto) and 8 playoff spots.  The Yankees and Rays could definitely use another pitcher; the Red Sox need a bat and could use a pitcher (and health).  The Twins have holes, but no more than anyone else.  They could use a top-flight pitcher to sit atop their solid albeit unspectacular rotation.  The White Sox and Tigers need more pitching, but mostly they need their current players (particularly the White Sox) to play better.  The Rangers and Angels could both use another pitcher (should I even keep saying that?) and the Angels could use a bat with Kendry Morales out and Hideki Matsui not hitting.

In the National League, everyone can use everything.  The Braves and Giants probably have enough pitching, and the Phillies and Cardinals are most likely set with their lineups.  The Mets need to get everyone healthy (including Carlos Beltran) and get Jason Bay hitting; also, whatever gets Oliver Perez out of the rotation would be a good thing.  The Jeff Suppan experiment isn’t working out for the Cardinals so far, so they’ll be looking to upgrade their rotation.  The Reds need help in the rotation and in the outfield.  The Dodgers are a mess.  I don’t know what to say about the Padres, except “good job so far.”  The Giants are hitting this year, kind of (ok, they’re actually hitting).  And I’m not sure what to make of the Rockies (especially with Tulowitzki hurt).

Anyway, the big fish in the pond is Lee, and if I were in charge of the following teams, I’d have serious conversations about getting him now.

The Rays: First of all, the regular season means more to them because they have the other two best teams in baseball in their division.  So those 15 or so games he’ll pitch in the regular season would mean a lot more to them.  Also, they definitely have the pieces to do this and might want to consider taking a shot; they won’t re-sign him, but the two draft picks they’ll get for letting him walk will soften the blow.

The Twins: I personally think the Twins have just about everything except a top of the line starting pitcher.  This would solve that.  The Twins are notoriously risk-averse though regarding deadline deals, so this would go against their nature.  But they have a chance this year to win the whole thing and should seriously consider Lee.

The Phillies: Ha.

The Mets: I’m still not sure about these guys; was the first half for real?  Or was it mirage?  Johan Santana has been an average starter and they don’t have anyone better.  Mike Pelfrey has been good (but isn’t actually this good) and R.A. Dickey is currently their third-best pitcher.  And the Mets are one team that isn’t shy about making trades.

I think the Rays and Twins have the most incentive to get this done, because I’m not sure either can win the whole thing without him.  And what’s the point of hanging around for 6 months if you can’t close the deal?

Written by Dan Hennessey

June 30, 2010 at 8:27 PM

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Clifton Phifer Lee

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Cliff Lee has been absolutely awesome since 2008.  It came from nowhere, and most people (hand raised) thought it was luck, but he’s kept getting better.  From 2002 to 2007, Cliff Lee threw almost 750 innings in the major leagues.  He posted the following ERA, walk, strikeout, and home run rates per nine innings, respectively: 4.64, 3.09, 6.66, and 1.27.  From 2008 to 2010, Lee has thrown almost 550 innings and posted the following rates: 2.81, 1.35, 7.09, and 0.53.  Basically, he gives up half as many walks and home runs and magically became a better pitcher; who would have guessed?

This season he’s taken it to extremes.  In 87 innings, he’s struck out 76 hitters and walked 4.  Four.  IV.  That’s a 19.0 strikeout to walk ratio.  The closest anyone has come to something like this is Bret Saberhagen’s 1994 season with the Mets, when he struck out 143 hitters and walked only 13.  To top that though, Lee has given up only 3 home runs.

There’s nothing lucky about it either; his BABIPs and strand rates for the past 3 seasons match both the league averages and what he posted earlier in his career.  Check out these numbers though:

Seasons: 2002-2007: 34.3% groundballs, 46.2% flyballs, 19.6% line drives, 0.74 GB/FB

Seasons: 2008-2010: 43.5% groundballs, 36.4% flyballs, 20.1% line drives, 1.19 GB/FB

All of a sudden he became a groundball pitcher; groundballs have a tendency not to go over fences.  But Lee cut his home run rate per flyball in half while allowing 10% flyballs.  There is a distinct change between the 2007 and 2008 seasons.  The numbers from 2002 to 2007 all correspond, and after 2008, the numbers all line up.

So how did he do it?  Well, his fastball started going 2 miles per hour faster(while his changeup and other offspeed pitches stayed the same), so that helps.  He also started throwing his cutter more (at the expense of his fastball); he threw it 4.9% of the time in 2007, up to 6.2% in 2008, 12.4% in 2009, and 17.9% (!) so far in 2010.  He increased the number of swings he got at pitches outside of the strike zone by almost 8 percent.

Before 2008, he threw about 64.4% of his pitches for strikes; since then it’s been 69.3%, up to 72.6% this season.  I would bet the increased strike throwing is an effect of the other success he was having, not a cause.  As he gained confidence, he kept throwing more strikes, and as a result had more success.  The Pitchf/x data I was looking at doesn’t back before 2008, but I bet that Lee has started throwing a lot more to the lower part of the strike zone, reducing both his fly balls and his walks.

It’s fairly impressive to me that someone can do this; it’s completely stupid that it’s Cliff Lee.  My memory of Cliff Lee was that the 2007 Indians let him start 16 games with an ERA over 6 (and a FIP at 5.48) for a team that won 96 games and almost went to the World Series.  They couldn’t even put him on the postseason roster; the deadly Jeremy Sowers/Aaron Laffey combo replaced him for the rest of the regular season.  This was after he went 50-24 the previous three seasons despite an ERA near 4.50.  Then he makes the 2008 as the fifth starter, goes 22-3 and gets traded to Philadelphia the following July for four guys who weren’t the Phillies’ best prospects.  Needless to say, the Cliff Lee era frustrated me.

It’s also strange to think that he might be the best player the Indians got back in the Bartolo Colon trade.  On June 27, 2002, he was traded by the Montreal Expos (thanks Omar Minaya!) along with Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Lee Stevens for Colon and Tim Drew.  Trading Colon was my first experience rooting for a team that was a seller.  Throughout my formative years, the Indians had always been buyers, getting winners such as Jeff Juden, John Smiley, and Kevin Seitzer at the deadline.

The Indians tried to make Phillips their second baseman in 2003, and he hit 0.208 in almost 400 plate appearances…not good.  They left him in Triple-A in 2004 and 2005 and he couldn’t hit there either, so they sent him to Cincinnati before the 2006 season, and Phillips began hitting.  Awesome.  I got to watch this guy be the shortfielder instead.  Sizemore is (was?) great, but I don’t think anyone is sure about his future after injury-riddled 2009 and 2010 seasons.  And 2010 Cliff Lee leads all pitchers in WAR…DESPITE NOT PITCHING IN APRIL.  I hate this game sometimes.

Written by Dan Hennessey

June 28, 2010 at 7:37 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Your 2010 San Diego Padres

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I predicted these guys would be terrible.  I dismissed their hot start.  After today’s games, they are a half-game behind Atlanta for the best record in the National League.  So why am I so dumb?

The Padres are 41-29 (23-16 at home and 18-13 at home) and have outscored their opponents by 60 runs.  They’ve scored the sixth-fewest runs in the league but have allowed the fewest.  Adrian Gonzalez continues to pace the offense; he’s hitting 0.310 with 15 home runs and a 0.409 on-base percentage in 70 games.  Their position players have combined for 11.1 WAR so far, over 3 of which have come defensively.  Referencing UZR, Gonzalez, Tony Gwynn Jr., David Eckstein, and Chase Headley have all played terrific defense to this point.  Only one regular (Nick Hundley) shows a below-average UZR.

Both the starting rotation and the bullpen have been worth about 4 wins (the 19 total WAR would put them at about 39 wins given the proration of a 46-win replacement team, so it’s not far off).  Mat Latos and Clayton Richard have pitched very well, each maintaining a FIP around 3.60 through roughly 80 innings.  Both have decreased their walks and home runs, and while Latos has had a little BABIP luck so far, he’s also increased his strikeout rate to more than 8 per 9 innings.

The bullpen is where the Padres really shine though.  So far 17 relievers have been worth at least 0.9 WAR; the Padres have three of them.  Heath Bell and Mike Adams both have been superb (0.9 WAR each), giving up only 2 home runs between them in 61 innings.  Each has struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings and more than 3 times as many hitters as they’ve walked.  The real star though has been Luke Gregerson (1.4 WAR).  Before landing on the DL, he had pitched 35.2 innings, giving up one home run, striking out 35, and walking only 3.  This comes from a guy who walked almost 4 batters per nine innings last year; it all adds up to a 1.42 FIP and 2.16 xFIP.

The fact that the position players have 11.1 WAR, 3 of which have come defensively and 9 of which are “replacement” means that they are a win below replacement with the bats.  All told, they’re not as bad as I might have thought, but they are walking a very fine line.  They rely heavily on their pitching staff, and in particular, their bullpen to win games and don’t have much margin for error.  An improved defense (roughly -1 WAR in 2009) appears to have greatly helped the pitching staff.  That said, what they’ve done to this point is no fluke; they’ve earned their position atop the standings.  The question is whether they can keep it up through the summer; with each passing day, the answer looks more and more like a “yes,” but I’d feel more confident saying that if they found a bat to add to the heart of their order.

Written by Dan Hennessey

June 22, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Joey Votto

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I have to be honest, before he came to the big leagues in 2007, I had never heard of Joey Votto.  Didn’t know what to expect of him.  Had no idea if he was a big-time prospect.  Given what he’s doing lately, I felt bad about it.  I did a quick Google search of “Joey Votto prospect” to see what kinds of things were written about him before he made the majors.  He was rated as the Reds #4 prospect before the 2005 and 2006 seasons and #3 before the 2007 season by Baseball America, so he was pretty legit; however, I read the following paragraph from a Cincinnati fan site that made me laugh (because I didn’t have to feel bad anymore and a little bit at the person who wrote it…hey, we all miss sometimes).

In addition to his solid hitting skills, Votto possesses some of the best on base skills in the Reds system. Oddly enough, Votto bears many similarities to the man he will be replacing in 2008, Scott Hatteberg. Both have strong on base skills and take a professional approach, but Votto has more power. However, a better comparison for Votto may be Lyle Overbay, a professional hitter who provides solid production, but doesn’t have elite power traditionally found at the position.

Well, he’s been a little better than Hatteberg and Overbay.  Votto finished 4th in the league  in weighted on base average (wOBA), a measure that sums the run value weights of a player’s plate appearances throughout the year to measure total production while hitting.  It’s on the same scale as on-base percentage, so average is about 0.330-0.335 and anything near or over 0.400 is really good.  Votto finished 2009 at 0.418 (behind only Albert Pujols, Joe Mauer, and Prince Fielder) and is at 0.417 as of today, which leads the National League.

Votto was a 4-win player as a rookie in 2008 and was worth 4.5 wins last season despite missing 31 games; he’s already been worth 2.7 wins this season through only 63 games.  He strikes out slightly more than average, but makes up for it by walking in nearly 13 percent of his plate appearances.  Based on FanGraphs pitch type values, he crushes nearly everything thrown at him:

Season wFB/C wSL/C wCT/C wCB/C wCH/C wSF/C
2008 1.59 1.4 -3.51 1.54 0.7 0.1
2009 1.65 1.14 2.41 4.33 0.73 3.4
2010 1.64 2.42 2.93 -0.25 3.77 3.6

He hits the ball all over the diamond and has shown power to all fields.  His spray charts from TexasLeaguers for his career years show a fairly typical pattern in the infield for a left-handed hitter (lots of groundballs to first and second); however, in the outfield, he hits a lot of balls to left field.  Against left-handed pitchers in particular, it seems as though he does not even attempt to pull the ball.  The following spray charts are Votto’s 2009 and 2010 seasons against left-handed pitchers and right-handed pitchers, respectively.

He obviously has a plan, and it’s working a lot so far in his career.  I’m just not sure how many people understand that one of the best four or five hitters in the National League is playing first base for the Cincinnati Reds right now.

Season wFB/C wSL/C wCT/C wCB/C wCH/C wSF/C
2008 1.59 1.4 -3.51 1.54 0.7 0.1
2009 1.65 1.14 2.41 4.33 0.73 3.4
2010 1.64 2.42 2.93 -0.25 3.77 3.6

Written by Dan Hennessey

June 20, 2010 at 10:31 PM

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Fun with Splits

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Hi there, my name is Regression.

April/March 101 20 31 11 0 8 16 8 16 0.337 / 0.396 / 0.717 196
May 118 14 30 7 1 5 20 8 17 0.278 / 0.322 / 0.500 122
June 57 6 10 5 0 3 6 4 6 0.192 / 0.263 / 0.462 92

Hey Regression, I know I look a lot like you, but my name is Injury.

April/March 102 19 22 4 0 6 15 20 16 0.275 / 0.431 / 0.550 166
May 111 16 27 6 1 4 9 12 12 0.278 / 0.360 / 0.485 130
June 55 6 9 2 0 0 2 4 6 0.196 / 0.309 / 0.239 52

I’ll give anyone 5-1 odds that Chase Utley is hurt right now and trying to play through it.  What he needs to do is sit out and get right so he can start helping his team again.

UPDATE: 6/18/10 10:56 AM – I’m a genius.

UPDATE 6/19/10 7:19 PM – I’m still smart but maybe not that great.

Written by Dan Hennessey

June 17, 2010 at 9:43 PM

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Alex Rios

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Today’s post is short, is for everyone, and provides an abject lesson in albatross contracts and organizational patience.  Alex Rios has been a pretty good player since entering the majors in 2004.   He’s been a terrific defender as both a rightfielder and centerfielder and, save for 2009, has been a good hitter since 2006.  After the 2007 season, the Blue Jays dangled Rios in attempt to nab a young pitcher, their attempt to get Matt Cain perhaps being the most notable.  Instead, they signed him to a 7 year, 70 million dollar extension.  Rios continued to play well until last year, when, in combination with Vernon Wells, he helped form one of the least productive and most expensive outfields in baseball.

In August of 2009, Rios was placed on waivers.  Now, most players are placed on waivers during August.  Teams do this to determine who is still is tradeable after they July 31st trade deadline.  If a players passes through waivers unclaimed by the 29 other teams, he can be traded to anyone between August 1 and August 31, after the true trading deadline.  If a player is claimed, his current team can do one of several things: they can pull him off waivers; they can attempt to work out a trade with the claiming team; or they can simply give the player (and his contract) to the claiming team.  Teams often claim players in August that they have no interest in, simply to not allow the player to be traded to another contender.  This is not without risk though, due to the final option listed.

Rios was claimed by the White Sox last summer and the Blue Jays decided to let him go for nothing to get out from under his contract.  I’ve written previously about the disaster that is Vernon Wells’ contract.  In addition to not producing at nearly that level, it costs his team financial flexibility and doesn’t allow for more mistakes.  When the Jays decided to cut B.J. Ryan and trade Roy Halladay, they thought they were going to be rebuilding.  While Rios was a player they should have been rebuilding around, they saw an opportunity to shed payroll and took it.

The beneficiary of all this is Kenny Williams and the White Sox.  Not only did they get a 4+ WAR player for less than his market value, but they increased his value by putting him in centerfield full-time, where he has not only been adequate but has excelled.  The Blue Jays couldn’t do this because their “franchise” was manning centerfield and Rios was shifted to right.  This adjustment alone will add somewhere between 0.5 to 1.0 WAR for Rios in 2010, maybe more if he continues his terrific defense.

There was nothing about 2009 that showed his skill set as a hitter had changed.  He walked and struck out just as often and showed just as much home run power, but had some bad luck with balls in play.  The Blue Jays made a terrible decision when they signed Wells to his extension; now, not only do they pay for it by paying a player much more than his on-field value for 8 seasons, but it apparently cost them a below-market asset to build around.

Gratuitous reference of the day.

Written by Dan Hennessey

June 14, 2010 at 10:14 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

What exactly is “Replacement?”

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The concept of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has been around for years now; basically it attempts to capture all of a player’s value in one number, which is translated to the number of wins he produces over some stiff that could be grabbed out of Triple-A.  Dave C. at FanGraphs wrote a good primer on the topic a couple of years ago if you want to learn more.

Again, it attempts to measure everything a batter does at the plate and in the field, taking into account what position he plays and how much he plays.  For example, simply playing in 150 games produces more value than playing in 100 games because you keep the “Replacement Stiff” out of the lineup.  Admittedly, it does not include too much baserunning data besides stolen bases and caught stealing, and no one really has any idea yet how to measure a catcher’s defense.  For pitchers, it includes number of innings pitched, home runs, walks, strikeouts, as well as the run environments they pitch in (quality of hitters, ballparks, etc.).

Anyway, something I’ve always struggled with regarding WAR is the “wins” portion of it.  If I trade Justin Morneau for Albert Pujols, does that get 1 more win? 2 more wins?  If I remove Pujols from the lineup entirely and call up my 30-year-old Triple-A first baseman, is it really only 8 wins?  Or is it EIGHT wins?  I’ve never had a good grasp on whether that was a lot or not or whether the wins were actually “wins,” as in, on-the-field wins.  The logic was sound, but for some reason I couldn’t get my head around it.

Data for WAR are available back to 2002 (when the defensive data collection began), and so I looked at the 2002-2009 seasons to try to get a better understanding of what WAR means.  First I just copied all of the WAR and standings data for each season for each team.  The resulting table shows the league average for those 8 seasons, as well as the current 2010 data (through Saturday, 6/12):

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Wins / Losses 80.8 81.0 80.9 81.0 81.0 81.1 80.9 81.0 31.1
WAR 35.5 35.0 34.8 35.4 34.6 34.8 35.1 35.1 13.8
Wins – WAR 45.4 46.0 46.1 45.6 46.4 46.3 45.9 45.9 17.3

The first thing I noticed was that the average number of WAR per team seemed about right.  I had always heard that a replacement level team would win somewhere between 40 and 50 games; from this exercise, that number appears to be about 46 wins, more precisely.  To check though, I wanted to see what kind of WAR showed for the worst teams over those 8 seasons.  I took the bottom 10 percent of teams (in terms of wins) and compared their WAR numbers.

The 25 teams averaged 60.4 wins per season; by the Pythagorean formula for win-loss records, they “should” have won 62.7 games.  All told they combined for 521 WAR, or about 20.9 per team.  Subtracting their WAR from their records, both actual and Pythagorean, a replacement level team should win about 40-42 games.  Being major league quality teams, they were probably slightly better than that, just unlucky.  Only the 2003 Tigers (43 wins) and the 2004 Diamondbacks (51 wins) had win totals anywhere close to the replacement level.  Those two teams also had the lowest WARs over the 8 seasons, 2.7 and 11.1 respectively (although your 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates  (1.1 WAR overall) and Houston Astros (-2.3 WAR for the hitters) are threatening to become the poster-child for “WAR ineptitude.”  Side bar: I will never forgive the 2003 Tigers for winning 5 of their last 6 games to avoid becoming the “losingest” team ever.  Damn you, Mike Maroth.

Having done this, I wanted to see if the teams at the top were being given too little or too much credit.  The 26 teams in the top 10 percent (ties included) averaged 99.0 wins per season; by the Pythagorean formula for win-loss records, they “should” have won 96.2 games.  All told they combined for 1,249 WAR, or about 48.0 per team.  From the average in the table above, this should equate to about 94 wins.  So some funky things happen at the outer edges. but well within reason.  To see if the middle showed that kind of error, I looked at the 10 percent of teams closest to 0.500 also.  33 teams finished within 2 games of 0.500 (79 to 83 wins) in these 8 seasons.  They’re averaged 81.2 wins, “should” have won 81.7 games, and averaged 35.0 WAR.  This equates to a 46-win replacement-level team, exactly what the averages tell us.

If winning teams are not given enough credit, and bad teams are given too much credit, then it’s possible that definition applied to “replacement-level” is off.  To be honest, I made a mistake the first time through the calculations and really dug into the components of WAR to make sure I wasn’t missing something important.  I was considering the ramifications of my (erroneous) findings, and starting thinking that the standard needed to be raised slightly (creating fewer WAR),  and the  multipliers applied to the components of WAR be raised (creating greater separation between players; for example, what currently are 2 WAR and 8 WAR players might become 3 WAR and 12 WAR players).

It appears though that WAR does equate on a team scale, just like it’s supposed to.  After all, isn’t that the reason the thing is defined like it is?  If Chase Utley is worth 7 wins and Robinson Cano is worth 4 wins, then them trading teams for a full season should make nearly a 3 game difference.  I can feel confident saying that, in 2005, Carl Everett was exactly a replacement-level player and that A-Rod produced more than 9 wins.

I have some other things I want to do with this data, but I wanted to share the spreadsheet I compiled in case anyone wants to do some tests of their own.

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Wins / Losses 80.8 81.0 80.9 81.0 81.0 81.1 80.9 81.0
Runs Scored / Allowed 746.9 766.1 778.8 744.1 786.5 777.9 752.8 747.3
WAR 35.5 35.0 34.8 35.4 34.6 34.8 35.1 35.1
Wins – WAR 45.4 46.0 46.1 45.6 46.4 46.3 45.9 45.9

Written by Dan Hennessey

June 13, 2010 at 10:13 PM

Posted in Uncategorized