Archive for the ‘BABIP’ Category

Better Luck Next Year: Cincinnati Reds

August 31, 2009

You could say that a deficit of 19.5 games (that’s how far the Reds are behind the Cardinals as of this morning) isn’t likely to be made up in a year–especially not when there are three more teams between you and first place–and you’d be right. But the Reds have some intriguing young players and have been dragged down by some pretty devastating injuries, so it’s worth taking a look.

2010 Reds now under contract, with 2009 WAR
C Ryan Hanigan (0.9)
1B Joey Votto (2.7)
2B Brandon Phillips (2.3)
3B Scott Rolen (3.0)
SS Paul Janish (0.6)
LF Chris Dickerson (1.8)
CF Drew Stubbs (Rookie)
RF Jay Bruce (1.0)

Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Aaron Harang (4.18)
Bronson Arroyo (5.10)
Johnny Cueto (4.75)
Homer Bailey (5.23)
Micah Owings (5.75)
Bullpen: Francisco Cordero (3.18), Nick Masset (3.84), Danny Herrera (4.05)

Bad, but filled with promise. Stubbs should be a hell of a player. Bruce is having a nightmare of a season, but was the top prospect in the game not two years ago, and he’s been terrific in right field. Phillips plays good D and can hit better than the league-average line he’s put up so far. Votto is a stud who missed a bunch of games this year, and his defense (by UZR) looks pretty bad for 2009, but was +10 runs (roughly +1 win) in 2008; a rebound by him should be expected and will make a huge difference.

Harang has taken a bit of a step back from his “unheralded ace” status of a couple years ago, but is still a solid pitcher, and all of the other four starters have shown signs that they can be very good pitchers (some more likely to be than others, but it’s all possible). This is a team, however, that will badly miss Edinson Volquez, who is expected to miss most of the 2010 season. Their bullpen is full of guys with pretty ERAs; most bullpen ERAs can’t be trusted, but given the sheer number of them, you have to figure they can find three or four talents in there that can anchor their 2010 ‘pen in front of Cordero.

Then again, they could just decide to blow the whole thing up any day now. Their odds are long, and Harang, Arroyo and Cordero are all pretty expensive. But let’s just say they decide to go for it. And anyway, why would they have picked up the last year and a half of Rolen’s contract if they weren’t going to go for it?

What They Need to MAKE Happen
1. Get an impact player at catcher or shortstop. Impact catchers are hard (okay, impossible) to find on the open market. Bengie Molina wouldn’t be a bad gamble at the right price (decent defensive skills and an OPS close to average qualifies as “impact” by catcher standards), but I’m sure someone (very likely his current club, the Giants) will overvalue his veteran leadership and RBIs and drive him well out of reasonable range.
At shortstop, I’m sure they can get the recently departed Alex Gonzalez back for a song, but that’s approximately one song more than he’s worth at this point. His defense has been good, but his bat has completely vanished, and comebacks by middling shortstops at age 33 aren’t good bets (even if the bat comes back, the defense slips–see Guzman, Cristian).
So unless someone like Molina falls into their laps or they can swing an improbable trade for an underutilized catcher on someone else’s team (I’m looking at you, Chris Iannetta), the focus should be on getting a better shortstop. The best of the free agent class is likely to be Marco Scutaro, though Miguel Tejada is out there too, and there are several likely to be available in fairly minor trades who could give you a +2.5-win-or-so performance.

2. Separate Dusty Baker from Willy Taveras and Everyone Like Him. I’d be all for firing Dusty Baker–the man just doesn’t know what he’s doing–but if you can’t do that, you’ve got to purge your team of all possible gutsy, toolsy players so that Dusty can’t be tempted to actually use them. Taveras is a blindingly fast runner, an excellent defensive center fielder, and an overall crap player because he can’t hit to save his life. He’d be a fine pinch runner/defensive replacement, but Dusty would use him way more than that. Drew Stubbs needs to be the center fielder of both the future and the present for this team. No more Taverases and Corey Pattersons, anywhere, ever. Unfortunately, Taveras is owed $4 million for 2010 for some reason, so if he’s healthy, he’ll likely be given every opportunity to win a spot on the team. So come to think of it, just fire Dusty already.

3. Find a platoon partner for Chris Dickerson. The Reds have two reasonable options for left field: Dickerson and Laynce Nix. Nix has shown some nice power and both have played good D, but Dickerson is the better player, and both are lefties who can’t hit lefties. It would be ideal if the Reds could move Nix for a similar bit player who bats right-handed. Dickerson is a career .289/.388/.460 hitter against righties. If they were able to pair someone like the Tigers’ Ryan Raburn (.242/.355/.516 vs. LHP this season) with that, they could have the equivalent of something like a $10-12 million player for the cost of essentially two minimum salaries. (I have no particular reason to believe that Raburn would be available, but guys like him certainly will be–many are likely hidden away in AAA because of their inability to hit righty pitching.)

What They Need to HAVE Happen
1. Jay Bruce needs to get good fast. This was a guy that was projected as something like a .300/.350/.550, 40-HR hitter with good D in the outfield corners, and quickly. The defense has been there in ’09, but the offense has been offensive, with 18 homers but a .207 batting average and a .287 OBP through Saturday. On one hand, there are all kinds of reasons to expect him to bounce back; he’s very young, he’s walking more and striking out less than in 2008, and he’s been victimized by an almost unbelievably low .202 BABIP, so there’s no question that a lot of it is bad luck. On the other hand, though, his line drive and ground ball rates have plummeted while his fly ball rate has shot through the roof (35.2% in 2008, 49.6% in 2009), which isn’t conducive to getting a lot of hits. He’s very likely to be a productive player in 2010 regardless, but getting back to hitting the top half of the ball every now and then would probably help a lot.

2. Scott Rolen needs to stay healthy. It’s hard to believe Rolen will be just 35 years old in 2010; in some ways, he’s seemed old since pretty much the day he arrived with the Phillies 13 years ago. From 2004-2008 he played 142, 56, 142, 112 and 115 games, and if he plays every remaining game in 2009 he’ll still end up in only 132 for the year. But when he’s on the field, he’s still a star. He plays excellent defense — if not as excellent as five or six years ago when he was the best-fielding 3B anyone who missed Mike Schmidt’s prime had ever seen — and is currently hitting .312/.368/.466. Much of that was in the tougher American League, and there aren’t a lot of markers to suggest that he’s benefiting from a lot of luck, so .300/.370/.480 or so would be a reasonable expectation from a healthy Rolen in 2010. This is a team, as I’ve said, whose status as a contender kind of on the brink as it is, so they badly need every game they can possibly squeeze out of Rolen.

3. Either Johnny Cueto or Homer Bailey needs to fulfill his potential. A year or two ago, they were two of the better pitching prospects in the game, and while Cueto has been much better than Bailey in the majors, neither one has come close to doing what people thought he could do. One of those two guys needs to take the leap and form a strong 1-2 with Harang. The good news is that in his last two starts, Bailey is 2-0 with 11 hits, 5 walks, 11 strikeouts and an 0.60 ERA in 15 innings; the bad newses are that (a) Cueto has seemed to get worse every month he’s been in the majors, and (b) those performances dropped Bailey’s ERA all the way from 7.53 to 6.04.

The Reds are going to have a tough time avoiding the 90-loss mark this year, and they’re not going to emerge from Spring Training ’10 as anything like favorites. But if all these things happen and they get a couple more little breaks here and there, I can see them winning something between 85 and 90. And is it really that hard to see 87 wins or so being enough to win the Central?

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Prince Albert and the Crown

August 18, 2009

The other day, I opined in passing that, standing first in HR and RBI and (then) fourth in batting average, Albert Pujols had the best chance to win a Triple Crown that we’d seen in a good long while.

And, well, does he, really? I mean, it’s obviously still not likely (it never is), but what are the chances? You probably know by now that I’m not going to sit here and give you precise mathematical odds, but let’s look at the English major’s version of the question: can we envision it actually happening?

Albert went 1-for-4 on Monday, so this morning is batting .325. Leader Hanley Ramirez’s Fish didn’t play, and he’s been on fire lately and now stands at .356. Already not looking good. Pujols does have the HR lead by one over Mark Reynolds, though (39 to 38 after both hit one yesterday), and is just two behind Prince Fielder for the RBI lead, 105 to 107.

I’m going to commit a big no-no right off the bat and assume away HR and RBI. ZiPS calculated for the rest of the season thinks Albert ends up with 50 HR and 138 RBI, and that that will best Reynolds by two in the former and drop six behind Fielder in the latter. So even in the two categories he’s closest in, he’s only a favorite to hold one of them. But I’m going to assume he does get both; it just feels like the more likely result to me, and anyway, the bigger hurdle will obviously be the batting average. Also, if Pujols goes on the kind of hot streak he’ll need to in order to win the batting title, odds are he’ll be piling up the HR and RBI too. So in reality, I’m sure there’s not even a 50% chance that Pujols ends up leading in both HR and RBI, but let’s just say he does it.

Now. The Marlins have 44 games left, and Hanley has averaged 3.88 AB per game played. Say he starts every one of those 44 games; at that rate, he’s got 170 more AB. This season, he’s been BABIPing out of his head, with a .404 batting average on balls in play that’s unsustainable by anybody; his pre-’09 career BABIP was approximately .340. So say he reverts back to that, and maintains his current HR and strikeout rates. He strikes out in 18% of his ABs (31 times), homers in 4.2% (7), and gets a hit in 34% of the remaining 132 (45). That makes him 52 for 170, a .305 BA over the rest of the season (seems unrealistically low, doesn’t it? Wonder if I’m doing something wrong…oh well, pressing on). That still puts his overall 2009 batting average at a robust .340.

By the same AB/G * Games Remaining formula, Pujols ought to have 147 AB left in his season. He’ll need 57 hits in those 147 AB–a .388 batting average the rest of the way–to put him at 192/563 = .341 for the year.

Pujols has been a bit down on BABIP this year (.294), either because he’s been unlucky or because he’s hitting more flies and fewer liners. But let’s assume, again, that he gets back to his career BABIP (.321) and keeps the other rates the same. 11.4% Ks (16), 9.2% HRs (14), and 32.1% of the remaining 117 ABs are hits (38). That makes him 52 for 147 (.354), and puts him at just .332 for the year…but if just five more hits fall in (or leave the yard) somewhere in there, he’s right where he needs to be.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Not likely, sure, but with just five hits’ worth of better-than-average luck and with a slide back toward the mean by Hanley, it could happen! And just last year, from July 10 to August 31, Pujols played in 45 games and hit .392. So I’m not sure there’s anything Pujols can’t do, but if there is, hitting .388 in 43 games ain’t it.

So, sure, it can happen. If Hanley slips back to .340 or so (if he stays at .356, Albert has to put up a .450 average the rest of the way to catch him). And if the current #2 in average, Pablo Sandoval at .330, doesn’t finish just as strong as Pujols does. And if Pujols holds off Reynolds for the HR title and Prince for the RBI one.

So the odds of this actually happening are probably tiny. Not statistically insignificant, not one in a million, but small enough for most of us lay folk to write it off more or less completely. Still, though, it’s absolutely possible (certainly more likely than Mauer hitting .400, which we’re still hearing a lot about), and probably the “best” odds at this point in the season that anybody has had in many years. I think it’s something we should really keep an eye on for at least the next week or two (though if he goes 0-for-9 in the next two days or something, it’s basically all over).

‘Hoos on Third

August 11, 2009

So I went to the University of Virginia for some degree or other some unspecified number of years ago*, and I loved the school, and the “city” of Charlottesville, more than just about any other non-living thing ever, and so I have a soft spot for baseball players who were Wahoos. And for everyone else who was, too: Tina Fey, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Tina Fey, Katie Couric, Tina Fey, Edgar Allan Poe, Tina Fey…and so on.

*Pozterisk! I act like I’m all anonymous and everything, and yet I get the sense that I’ve probably put enough personal information in these posts to allow a motivated individual to locate my social security number, annual income, favorite N*Sync member, and home address with just a few simple Googlings. Well, I’ll save you the trouble: it’s JC, by far.

On the baseball side — alone, perhaps, among all worthwhile pursuits — UVA has a fairly short and undistinguished history. Though I suppose most colleges outside of California would have to say the same. There’s somewhat questionable Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey, and there was one of my all-time favorite no-names, former Yankee first rounder Brian “Buck” Buchanan (who, at least as a Twin, swung at almost literally every pitch as though it had just spat on his mother in front of him), but that was just about it, until recently.

Now, of course, there’s the golden boy, 4th overall 2005 draftee by his sort-of-hometown Nationals, Ryan Zimmerman. For several years now, he’s looked for all the world like the next Natural, and we’ve been waiting for him to break out and be a star, and you had to figure he’s already the best position player ever to come out of UVA. And, well, his playing for the Nats has meant that nobody’s really noticed since that 30-game hit streak ended, but the breakout is on and in full force. At .306/.372/.537, he’s currently putting up career highs in batting average, OBP, SLG and (predictably) OPS and OPS+, and has already tied his career high in homers (24) with a third of the season to play. His always-stellar defense, at least according to UZR, has taken another step up. Thanks in large part to that D, WAR has him as the most valuable mortal in the Major Leagues (second overall to Pujols, of course). As I type this, he’s working on another hitting streak — 13 games, so far — and has been on fire during the Nats’ recent winning streak.

And yet, one could, if one wanted to risk the wrath of the WAR gods, make a pretty strong case that not only is he not the most valuable non-Albert in the NL; not only is he not even looking like the best UVA position player ever right now; but he’s not even the best UVA position player currently playing his own position in his own league. That honor, or so the argument would go, is Mark Reynolds’.

Yep, Mark Reynolds, a college teammate of Zim’s (Reynolds seems to have played short, at least when the two played together, which fell outside my time there), drafted one year earlier and fifteen rounds later by the D-Backs (he was actually the third Cav selected in that draft). He isn’t the fielder Zimmerman is, though he won’t hurt you either: his UZR/150 is -0.9 to Zimmerman’s staggering +19.2, but his bat has made up for a good chunk of that. Thanks in large part to an otherwordly-hot start to this month (he’d hit .424/.500/1.091 with 7 HR in 8 games through Sunday), he’s moved into a tie for the Major League home run lead.

The guy known only (if at all) as the current all-time single-season strikeout leader, a guy who hit just .239 in 2008, with moderate patience and a ho-hum 28 homers (in a home run hitter’s ballpark) to go with those 204 Ks, now sits at .290/.377/.613 for 2009 and is on pace for 52 homers, about 110 runs and 115 RBI, and nearly 30 stolen bases at a respectable success rate. If Pujols’ Cardinals were the bad team and the Diamondbacks the good one, Reynolds would be a favorite to wrest the MVP award (however undeservedly) from the hands of the demigod himself. He’s probably a good bet to finish second or third as it is.

One thing, though: Reynolds’ strikeout rate hasn’t changed at all. Well, that’s not true; it’s all the way down to 36.7% from his 2008 high of 37.8%. But he’s on pace to accumulate many more plate appearances and thus to shatter his own record, with 218 strikeouts. Put another way (appropos of nothing, but interesting), he’s already struck out 107 more times in 2009 than Pujols has, 151 to 44. Used to be 107 was a high number for one guy to put up in a season. Ha!

And not much else underlying those numbers has changed, either. He’s swinging at about the same number of pitches both in and out of the zone, and is making contact only slightly more often. He’s hitting ground balls at the same rate (35.8%), fewer line drives (17.7%, down from 19.1), and more fly balls (46.5%, up from 45.2). But hitting a fly ball 1.3% more of the time doesn’t turn 28 home runs into 52.

The difference, then? Well, there are two. First, there’s that pesky BABIP thing again. Guys who strike out almost 40% of the time do not also hit .290 — not without a ton of luck. Here’s another awesome B-R/P-I list: highest batting average by a player with at least 170 strikeouts in a season. Four guys have topped .290: Ryan Howard in 2006 (181 K, 58 HR, .363 BABIP); Sammy Sosa in 1998 (171 K, 66 HR, .325 BABIP); Bobby Bonds in 1970 (189 K, 28 HR, .388 BABIP), and Jim Thome in 2001 (185 K, 49 HR, .356 BABIP). All except Sosa had a BABIP at least 30 points higher than their career BABIP. And Sosa struck out 40 fewer times (nowhere close to 40%) and hit 14 more homers than Reynolds is on pace to. The highest batting average by a player to strike out 200 times, of course, is .239, since Reynolds himself is the only one who has done it. It takes a lot of luck, and to the extent that you don’t have that, it takes a ton of home runs.

Reynolds’ BABIP right now? .371. He’s young enough that that significantly impacts his career number (currently .358), but in his one other full season, 2008, his BABIP was .329, right about what you’d expect from a power hitter who hits it hard.

Second, while he’s hit fly balls at almost the same rate as last year, a ridiculous 29.8% of them have left the park. How crazy is that–put the ball in the air, and there’s a nearly one-in-three chance that it goes out? This after HR/FB rates of just 16.2% in 2007 and 18.2% in 2008.

Sure, he could’ve just gotten stronger, be hitting balls farther, and 29.8% isn’t unthinkable, but it’s out there. Think of the strongest guys you can since 2002. Dunn? 22.6% career, with a high of 24.2. Pujols? 20.3/22.5. Teixeira? 19.1/22.4. Prince? 19.6/23.9. To get close to 29.8%, you have to go to the very strongest meatheads in the game (and I use that term fondly): Jim Thome (28.0/35.4 since 2002), Ryan Howard (31.8/34.9). So, yeah, it’s doable, maybe it’s legit. But do we really think Reynolds — a college shortstop, remember, listed at 6’2″, 220 — is the new Ryan Howard (6’5″ and a dubious 256)?

I think he’s probably not. And sure enough, a quick glance at HitTracker Online shows Reynolds leading the NL with 12 “Just Enough” homers — HR that would’ve been long outs with a slightly stiffer breeze or one fewer bite of Wheaties that morning. Now, you usually have to hit with a ton of power just to be on that list at all, and Reynolds also owns the single longest homer in the bigs this year. So this is a strong, strong guy. I just don’t think he’s 50 homers strong. I’m going to throw out wild guesses because they’d be fun to check on later: from August 10 (since the data I’m using is through August 9) through the end of the season, Reynolds will hit .250 with 9 HR (giving him 45).

So he’s a year older, he’s been a lot luckier, and in the long run I don’t think there’s any way on earth that Mark Reynolds is anywhere near the player that Ryan Zimmerman is, but it’s clear that, strikeouts and all, he’s turned himself into a hell of a player anyway, and I’ll sure be rooting for him. And at least right now, in a sport in which most kids get drafted at 18 or pulled out of Central America at 16, the two best third basemen in the National League, and maybe in all of baseball, attended one of the two or three best public institutions in the country. That’s… something.

Weird Wright

June 18, 2009

Hey, real baseball!

By any reasonable analysis you want to do, David Wright is having the best offensive year of his career. He has (through Tuesday) a career-high 161 OPS+, .430 wOBA, and already has 6 wins above replacement according to BP’s WARP3 (which is insane). He’s leading the NL with a .365 batting average (40 points over his career high) and a .458 OBP (42 points over his career high), while posting a .526 SLG that’s right in line with his career average of .532. He’s even stolen 18 bases, second in the NL (though he leads in CS with 8, already a career high in that category, so he’s barely breaking even when he runs and probably should go back to being more selective).

The amazing thing you probably already know is this: Wright, who has a career full-season low of 26 HR, is doing all this while having hit just four homers all year. He’s on pace to hit 11 all season, or three fewer than he hit in 283 PA as a 22 year old rookie in 2004. He’s balancing some of that out with doubles, but he’s only on pace for 8 more of those than in ’08 (50 total, but he’s always hit a lot of doubles), so his Isolated Power is down 70 points from ’08; that SLG is being sustained mostly by that astronomical batting average.

Some have written that it’s too hard to hit HR in the Mets’ new park, so you might think that had something to do with it. Doesn’t look like it, though; while overall scoring at Citi is pretty low, it’s actually been the fifth most homer-happy park in the Majors so far, and in fact Wright has hit three of his four homers at home.

It gets weirder still. Look at these numbers (lifted straight from FanGraphs):
GB/FB: 0.95 (2008), 0.94 (2009)
LD%: 25.6% (2008), 25.9% (2009)
GB%: 36.2% (2008), 35.9% (2009)
FB%: 38.2% (2008), 38.2% (2009)

So Wright is hitting line drives, grounders and fly balls in almost exactly the same proportions as he did last year. Even fewer of those fly balls (4.6% this year, 7.6% last) are staying in the infield. We’d expect him to be hitting HR at more or less the same rate, even a tiny bit better…but, well, obviously, that ain’t happening. You have to assume he’s getting unlucky, homer-wise; he has to be hitting the ball pretty hard to maintain that BA, but the ones in the air just aren’t carrying quite far enough.

So, we should expect the homers to come around. He’s not likely to hit 30 again this year, but it’s not unreasonable to expect him to hit ’em at a 30-HR pace from here on out (which would give him a total of about 22 for the season).

But there’s a big, huge, flashing neon warning sign for Wright that has nothing to do with his HR power or batted ball types, and this is the incredible part to me: Wright is putting up that huge batting average not only while keeping the ball in the park when he does hit it, but while striking out once per game. He’s struck out between 113 and 118 times in each of his four full seasons, but now he’s already struck out 61 times in 61 games, which over a full season would top his career high strikeout total by 40+. His walk rate is up very marginally, while his strikeout rate is up by over a third. That’s bad.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about BABIP, so let me just remind you: that sort of thing (a strikeout per game + a .365 BA) just doesn’t happen. It varies a little based on the percentages of GB/LD/FB players hit, but when they don’t hit a homer or strike out, we expect everybody to have a 30% or so chance of getting a hit (that is, a .300 BABIP). Wright’s BABIP right now (well, through Tuesday) is .485. By comparison, Joe Mauer is hitting a ridiculous .429 right now, and his BABIP is “only” .443. Ichiro! is hitting .354, pretty close to Wright’s BA, but with a BABIP of .374; he’s done it by striking out about 1/3 as often as Wright.

A different perspective: Wright’s .485 BABIP leads the #2 (PA-qualified) guy in the majors in that category, Kevin Youkilis, by 76 points. There is no one within 76 points of Wright, and then there are 43 guys within 76 points after Youk. The 2008 leader BABIP’ed .396, 89 points below Wright’s ’09 number.

So you get the point by now: it’s not going to last. Something’s got to give–Wright has to start making better contact, or his batting average will start coming way, way down, and then if he doesn’t also start hitting home runs (and playing better defense, which is another weird thing I haven’t even touched on here), it’ll take a huge chunk of his value right down with it.

Wright has had an amazing first 62 games, and is an amazing player. There’s really no telling what this guy can do. But I’m pretty confident in this: whatever he does, he’ll look like a very, very different player over these last 100 games than he did over the first 62.

Luckiest and Unluckiest Pitchers So Far

May 15, 2009

One of the most interesting of many, many interesting things on FanGraphs is the pitching leaderboards’ E-F stat, which is simply the pitcher’s current ERA minus his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which I’ve mentioned a few times–an attempt to measure what his ERA “should” be, with defense, park and luck taken out of the equation). A negative number means the pitcher has been lucky — the ERA is lower than it “should” be — while of course a positive number means the opposite. So here are your leaders on both ends of the spectrum so far:

AL’s Luckiest: Trevor Cahill, A’s.
Cahill has put up some awfully strong-looking numbers for a rookie on a terrible offensive team: 2-2 with a 3.69 ERA in seven starts. His FIP, though, is an astronomical 6.18. Why? Well, he’s not striking anybody out, at just 3.23 per nine innings, and yet he’s walking more than one batter for every two innings, which gives him an awful 0.70 K/BB ratio. He’s getting by right now on some combination of luck, defense, and forgiving ballparks (he’s made four of his seven starts at home in the pitcher-friendly McAfee Coliseum, and another one at Safeco), having held batters to a very lucky .256 BABIP.
Prognosis: the kid’s 21 years old and a solid prospect, with a minor league history of very solid K rates (one of the best in the minors in ’08), respectable walk rates and almost no homers allowed, which makes me think the current flyball rate is a little fluky. He’s probably not really a 3.69 sort of pitcher right at the moment, but I doubt he’s a 6.19 one either. He should be fine.

AL’s Unluckiest: Gavin Floyd, White Sox.
Funny enough, Floyd was one of the luckiest in 2008, with a FIP of 4.77, essentially identical to this year’s 4.63. But his ERA in 2008 was 3.84; in ’09 to date, it’s 7.32. What goes around, I guess. Floyd is having more control trouble this year (4.81 walks per 9 to 2008’s 3.05), but is balancing it so far by giving up fewer HR (0.92 to 1.31). The big difference, natch, is the BABIP: he got unbelievably lucky last year at .268, and is unbelievably unlucky so far this year at .380.
Prognosis: Problem is, I don’t think the Sox or their fans would have been happy with even just a 4.63 ERA this year after what he turned in last year. So if you were expecting that, you’ll be awfully disappointed. Also, the HR rate drop doesn’t seem real; he’s giving up about the same percentage of line drives and fly balls and has an almost identical GB/FB ratio to ’08, so the only difference is that fewer of those fly balls have gone over the fence so far. That’s likely to regress, so if Floyd can’t find the strike zone more often, he could be in for a very rough year indeed. Just not 7.32 rough.

NL’s Luckiest: Jair Jurrjens, Braves.
3-2 with a 2.06 ERA in 8 starts (48 innings), Jurrjens’ start has led at least one dude (the bald guy from Princess Bride again) to believe he’s quietly becoming one of the best pitchers around. But Rob Neyer always points out that it’s really, really tough to succeed while striking out less than five per nine, and Jair is at 4.5, with a very unsustainable .244 BABIP. Accordingly, his FIP is 4.09 — still very respectable, but more than two runs higher than his current ERA.
Prognosis: Well, his opponent BABIP in 2008 was a very typical .311, but his strikeout rate was a much more palatable 6.64, and so he still posted a 3.68 ERA with a FIP that essentially matched it. And he’s only 23, so there’s reason to believe he’ll improve on even those solid numbers. His pitch speed and selection are very similar to what they were in 2008. If he can get that strikeout rate back up and start getting grounders again when it is put into play (his GB/FB ratio is less than half what it was last year) — and I don’t see any immediate reason to believe he can’t — he should be totally fine, even considerably better than the above-average pitcher his current 4.09 FIP suggests he is. He just hasn’t suddenly become Pedro Martinez or something.

NL’s Unluckiest: Ricky Nolasco, Marlins.
Strkeouts are good (7.5 per 9). Walk rate is up, but still very good (2.6 per 9). But his ERA is 7.78. FIP says it “should” be 4.34. Problem is, when a batter doesn’t strike out against him, he’s hitting almost .400.
Prognosis: That BABIP obviously can’t last, even with the Marlins’, um, unspectacular defense behind him. He is getting hit quite a bit harder than he was in ’08 — 26% of balls put in play off of him are line drives, compared to just 19% in both 2007 and 2008 — which is why that 4.34 FIP is up about six tenths from last year’s. He’ll be fine. I mean, he won’t win a bunch of games with the way the Fish are going right now, and he might not be the potential ace he looked like last year, but he’s at least an average pitcher, and is probably considerably better than that.

Re-Projecting Youkilis

May 5, 2009

Content is going to (continue to) be a little light over here for the next couple days. Real work beckons.

Here’s a fun little exercise. Everybody knows it’s early…but it’s not that early. Lots of guys are doing a lot better, or a lot worse, than anybody expected. What if we were (well, specifically in this case, PECOTA was) right about those guys all along…starting now? That is, from today forward, the hitter performs exactly as we expected. What does that end up looking like?

We’re going to start with the guy they used to call the Greek God of Walks.

Kevin Youkilis’ entry in Baseball Prospectus 2009 lauds Youk’s sudden transformation “from an above-average, patient hitter into a legitimate power threat,” but then hints pretty forcefully that it’s all a mirage. The book notes that a number of his homers just barely cleared the wall, and that he put up an awfully high .347 BABIP that we can expect to come back down. Faced with his impressive .312/.390/.569, 29 HR, 91 R, 116 RBI from 2008, PECOTA saw this line from him in ’09, which must’ve been awfully disappointing to The Nation:

AVG OBP SLG HR R RBI
.275 .366 .475 21 81 84

To date, though (through Sunday, actually), Youkilis has put up this line, leading the league in average, OBP and SLG and in the top ten in just about everything else:

.407 .519 .714 6 23 20

If we start with that line and then give him another 491 PA/441 AB (PECOTA’s projected PA minus the ones he’s already had) at exactly the rates that PECOTA projected for him above, then (so, he hits .275/.366/.475 the rest of the way), we get this final combined line:

.296 .393 .518 24 89 89

The runs and RBI still look a little low, and honestly, it’s hard to see anybody hitting in the middle of that Red Sox lineup and not ending up with 100 of both. Otherwise, though, that line is a pretty gigantic jump from what PECOTA had him pegged at. If PECOTA was exactly right about his true talent and he performs exactly to that talent the rest of the way, his hot start nonetheless lets him coast to near-superstar-level numbers. On the other hand, if, as is at least equally likely, PECOTA was wrong and 2008 was a lot closer to his true talent, this start could propel him to a runaway MVP season. Amazing what one little month can do.

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part III: The Florida Marlins

April 19, 2009

Let’s get right into it. The Marlins stand at 10-1 this fine Sunday morning, and they come by it honestly–they’re hitting well enough to get by and pitching like a staff full of Johan Santanas (with a team ERA+ of 153, that actually beats Santana’s career 145). Most figured them for third or fourth, and Baseball Prospectus thought they’d lose 90 and finish behind the Nationals. What the hell?

What they’re saying: Come on, no one talks about the Marlins. My law school friend Jeff, the only Marlins fan I know (or even know of), puts up a new, increasingly excited facebook status with every win. That’s all I got.

Okay, seriously:

  • The Herald’s Linda Robertson says that the Marlins’ winning is a good sign, which is why they pay her the big bucks.
  • Josh of Jorge Says No! opines that the Fish, alone among your surprising-starters, are for real.
  • USA Today’s Mel Antonen spotlights the Fish and Jays as “low-payroll, high-expectations” teams, and seems to conclude that the former are the most likely to keep it going.

So there are some expectations here. I think there were some expectations among some people coming into the season, actually, given that they won 84 games last year. But nobody expected a .909 start, and now nobody has any clue what to expect.

Reasons for Hope: Well,

  • Nobody knew what to expect from these starters. The oldest among them (Ricky Nolasco) is 26, and with just 388 big-league innings, he’s got at least 100 innings on each of the other four. Part of the Marlins’ projected struggles came from rather gloomy projections for each of the five starting pitchers, and each of them could significantly beat those projections. With the possible exception of Anibal Sanchez (who can hold his own), all are hard throwers who rack up strikeouts, which is exactly what they need with this defense–which is, um, not great. If this pitching staff is even half as good as they’ve looked so far (aside from Nolasco, who has struggled but will rebound), they’re in much better shape than most people thought.
  • They have one of the four best players in the Major Leagues, and you could make a good case that he’s the best. Hanley Ramirez looked like a terrible defensive shortstop in his breakout 2007, but measured out as more or less average in 2008, and has been downright good in the way-too-early going in 2009. If Hanley can hit and run like Hanley does and play a good shortstop, that’s about the best weapon a team could have. And he hasn’t really started hitting yet this year.
  • About three years ago, Jeremy Hermida was expected to be a superstar by now. He stumbled a little in ’06, had a very nice year in ’07, took a huge step back in ’08, and now seems to have been more or less forgotten (though playing for the Marlins has that effect). He’s still just 25, and one thing I’ve noticed is that if everybody thought you had that kind of talent once, you probably did, and might start showing it at any time (there are, of course, a few exceptions–I’m looking at you, Delmon). Hermida is doing a fine job in the early going, and I expect him to significantly outperform most of his projections. Also, Cameron Maybin was a top prospect even more recently, and he can’t be as bad as he’s played through the first eleven.

Why it won’t happen:

  • Emilio Benifacio. He of the .679 OPS and 76 OPS+ in about half a season’s worth of career PA and an underwhelming .285/.341/.362 minor league line. Not a good player. Guys like this don’t suddenly become good players. His flukish, scorching hot start will probably keep him in the lineup much longer than he deserves, and he’ll be seriously costing the Marlins runs starting…now.
  • That BABIP thing again. They’re batting .354 on balls they put in play, which is about 25 points above the usual major-league leading team BABIP. The culprits, not surprisingly, are the guys who are playing miles over their heads–Bonifacio at a ridiculous .500, catcher John Baker at .444, and Dan Uggla (a good hitter, but not a .314 hitter) at .429. Those bloops and dribblers will stop finding the holes quite so often, a few line drives will be scorched right at somebody, and those BABIPs will slip back toward .300. And then they’ll stop scoring runs.
  • On the other hand, maybe Maybin just isn’t as good as we all thought (or just isn’t ready yet). After the guys I just mentioned, he has the highest BABIP at an unsustainable .389. But he’s struck out in 43% of his plate appearances, so he’s still hitting a dreadful .219/.286/.250. If he’s terrible and Hermida doesn’t have a big breakout year, this team will have a hard time scoring runs once its luck starts to even out.
  • Speaking of luck due to even out, they’re hitting like Albert Pujols (.340/.438/.530) with runners in scoring position. That won’t last, either.
  • Their pitching staff may be great, but it’s not going to be this great. Four of the starters and the team’s closer all have ERAs under 2 (Nolasco is the odd man out, struggling at over 6).

So basically, aside from Maybin and Nolasco, everything that coul;d possibly have gone right for them so far, has, and any of it could (and probably will) start going wrong again.

What PECOTA Says: the forecasting system liked the Marlins to lose 90 at the start of this year, and their updated Playoff Odds Report, surprisingly, hasn’t changed much. They’re ending up an average of 73-89, and missing the playoffs 93.41% of the time.

My take: That seems extreme. The team has already won 10 of its first 11 (of course, the odds were last put together when they were 9-1, but I doubt one more win changes things much at this point), and would have to play just a little better than .400 the rest of the way to make it to 89 losses. I don’t see that happening. The forecasts are based on pitching projections that I think are suspect–I expect all five of the starters to outperform what PECOTA sees for them. That said, they’re going to have a really tough time keeping up with the Mets and Phillies in this one. I see them going 78-84, five or six games ahead of the Nationals for last, with a chance to get a little lucky and break .500 (but still fall 10+ games behind New York and Philly).

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part II: The Seattle Mariners

April 17, 2009

Full disclosure: I love the Twins more than is probably healthy, but to the exact extent that it’s possible to love two teams in the same league, I love the M’s. And I love their weird-ass fans, who I think I’ll probably have to write a whole thing about someday. But today is not that day.

As I type this on Thursday night, the Mariners, who ended ’08 all alone at the bottom of the AL with 101 losses, are 7-2, all alone at the top of the AL, and three games clear of all the other teams in the sorry-looking West.

What they’re saying: Yesterday, I noted that people didn’t seem all that excited about the Orioles’ hot start. Those Mariner fans? Not so much. My sense is that when this season started, nobody in the Northwest actually noticed. But nine games later and they’ve won a bunch of them? Well now!

  • Rob Neyer notes in passing while on a trip to Seattle that “the good citizens are wondering if the Mariners will ever lose again (seriously: people here are talking about 2001 and they’re not kidding).”
  • The Olympian’s Gail Wood would like you to avoid making the mistake of thinking that these are last year’s Mariners. She extols their leadership, their pulling together, and their stringing together of hits, and is very excited indeed.
  • The Seattle Times’ Larry Stone encourages everybody to get giddy for the hot start and home opener, but then basically says it ain’t gonna happen.
  • The P-I’s (hey, didn’t they fold?) Gerry Spratt notes that Wednesday night’s Mariners game out-ratingsed American Idol, Lost and Law and Order in Seattle.

So basically, the fan base is now freaking the geek out. Good idea? …Well, yes it is. As Stone says above, why not go nuts? It’s the home-opening series. It’s baseball in the best modern stadium in the game. Go for it, people. Yet, onward:

Reasons for hope: Well, they’re not going to win 116 games. Only two teams ever have, and there will be another, but it won’t be this bunch. They’re also not going to win 100. But there are reasons to think they might be playing games that mean something in September:

  • Ichiro! hasn’t been around for this. The leadoff hitter and face of the franchise just made his season debut yesterday. He’s 35 and not likely to be the truly great player he was in ’01 and ’04 and ’07. But he’s awfully good. He’s maybe the only player you can count on to get on base at a good clip without really drawing walks, and he’s an excellent fielder and baserunner. Ichiro means that Junior doesn’t have to drag himself around the outfield, and that Endy Chavez doesn’t have to lead off (I have to assume he’ll be dropped to 9th once the effects of his season-opening hot streak disappear). These are good things.
  • That outfield defense is unbelievable. With Chavez, Ichiro! and Franklin Gutierrez, the M’s are starting top-flight center fielders in every outfield spot. It really is a treat to watch these guys run around, especially in the vast emptiness that serves as Safeco’s outfield. They also have the best defensive third baseman in the league in Adrian Beltre, and though the rest of the infield (the lumbering Branyan/Sweeney combo, the enigmatic Jose Lopez and the sure-handed, awesome-named, lead-footed Yuni Betancourt) is a singles-hitter’s dream, the Mariners have put together a mostly-flyball staff, which plays to the strengths of both their defense and their spacious park.
  • Eric Bedard is healthy. Under old management, the Mariners made a foreseeably terrible trade with the O’s to nab Bedard, and it got worse when Bedard proved hurt, unhappy and ineffective. Through his first two starts, though, Bedard has thrown 13 innings, struck out 15 batters and walked just 1 with a 2.08 ERA and a crazy 1.53 FIP, looking much more like the Bedard they thought they were getting (3.88 K/BB ratio, 3.19 FIP in 2007) than the one they did get in ’08 (1.95 K/BB, 4.32 FIP). If he stays healthy, along with Felix Hernandez, 40% of their games will be started by one of the ten or so best pitchers in baseball.
  • Adrian Beltre is in a contract year. There is evidence that players do perform better when their continued employment or a big raise is on the line, and the last time Adrian was in that position, he had one of the best years a third baseman has ever had. He’s put himself in a bit of a hole on the trip back to that level, but you never know.

Why it won’t happen: Well, it might. But concerns:

  • The other 60% of the rotation is awful. Carlos Silva, probably the most overpaid active player in baseball (thanks again to the prior administration), is an extreme ground-ball pitcher (at least when he’s not completely lost, which happens), and he’s not as bad as his ERA is going to look, but as long as it’s Betancourt, Lopez and Sweeney/Branyan trying to track down the ground balls he induces, he’s going to keep looking about that bad. They’ve been trying to dump Jarrod Washburn since the end of ’08, and there are good reasons for doing so, and for the same good reasons, it hasn’t worked.
  • There’s no real offense here. Chavez and Betancourt look pretty awesome right now, but they’re not. Of the nine starting position players, only Beltre, Lopez and maybe Ichiro figure to be above-average hitters for their position, and they won’t be by much. When this team wins, they’ll have pitching, defense, and a bit of good luck to thank. Lots of close games.
  • They’ve been lucky so far, though not in the same way as the Orioles; they’ve got a very solid run differential and reasonable BABIP. But they’ve scored about an average number of runs, and have had to hit .362 with runners in scoring position to do it. When that number comes down to earth, they could have some problems.

What PECOTA is saying: Before Thursday night’s game against the Angels (which looks like a loss as I near the end of this), Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report had the M’s finishing 79-83 on average (good for a virtual tie for second in their craptastic division), and with a 28% chance of making the postseason. That is huge for a team that lost 101 last year.

My take: I was one of the crazy few who actually thought the Mariners would win about 80 games before the season started, and obviously I like what I’ve seen so far. The brilliant Dave Cameron at the brilliant USS Mariner blog would say that I need to adjust that figure upward for the fact that they’re now 7-3: that record + my original expectation of .494 play over the next 152 = 83-79. And I have no doubt that that’s mathematically accurate, but I’m not going to do it. I think BP’s projection is basically dead-on; this is a near-.500 team that, if it gets a little lucky and the A’s and Angels get a little unlucky, has a pretty decent shot at making a run at the postseason. That’s not 2001, but it’s a pretty solid six-month turnaround for the new bosses.

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part I: The Baltimore Orioles

April 16, 2009

Thing three is the first of a four-part series (assuming teams 3 and 4 are still relevant to this exercise two and three days from now) discussing teams that have gotten off to surprisingly hot starts in this first week and a half or so.

The first victim is the Baltimore Orioles. Before I get into it, I just want to point out that the American League East standings as of Wednesday morning looked exactly the opposite of how I think most people expect(ed?) them to look at the end of the season: Orioles, Blue Jays, Rays, Yankees, Sox (I had a totally unnecessary table in here, but it was coming up with about a mile of space ahead of it for some reason).

You gotta love April.

What they’re saying: Actually, I can’t find anybody who’s all that excited about the Orioles yet, despite their 6-2, first-place start (as I sit down to write this on Wednesday night, they’re hopelessly behind the Rangers, so they’ll fall to half a game behind the Jays once the latter finish off the Twins, but still, 6-3! The Orioles!). On Tuesday, someone asked the Yahoo universe whether the O’s were contenders…but the answer was pretty uniformly “no.” Earlier this week, the CBS Sports rankings guy rated them 15th and generally seemed skeptical, but at least he called them “interesting.” The common sentiment among Marylanders seems to be “they look like contenders…for now.” Or, perhaps more commonly: “the Ravens’ season starts in only five months!”

This lack of optimism could be because the team has had eleven straight losing seasons, or maybe because they started 6-1 just last season, about which at least one young O’s and “fundamentals” fan got very excited. They then lost six of their next eight, though they didn’t hit the wrong side of .500 for good until July 12, which is easy to forget when they follow that up with one of the worst second halves of recent memory.

So, no real buzz about these guys yet. But is there any chance that this is anything more than a bad team having a good week?

Well, no (Sorry, Cal). But let’s look at why.

Why they might keep it going: Well, the best prospect in baseball is waiting in the wings, and should be here soon, and placeholder Gregg Zaun is hitting .136/.269/.273. George Sherrill isn’t a real Major League relief ace, but he’s also unlikely to end with a six-plus ERA. Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are immensely talented young players who might really have taken huge steps forward from last year to this one.

Why they won’t: A few reasons.

  • They’ve played .750 (now essentially .667) ball while being outscored. Before even counting the thumping tonight, the O’s had scored 50 and given up 50. Consider: they’re playing the best they can possibly be expected to play, and they should still really only be playing .500 ball. As I type this, the Rangers are up 17-4, so that becomes -13. Run differential and Pythagorean records really don’t mean anything at this point, but I do think that when a surprisingly “hot” team has actually been outscored, that’s sign one that things aren’t all they seem.
  • Coming into Wednesday night, Jones and Brian Roberts both have BABIPs of over .500, which is just silly. Generally, if you put the ball in play and it doesn’t go over the fence, you have a little better than a 30% chance of getting a hit; the theory on it all is still kind of in flux, but anything much over .300 is usually considered to be luck, and a good sign that you’re in for a bit of a hard fall when your luck evens out. The whole team is BABIPing .334, which is lucky but not insane, but still–when two of your big bats are finding the holes better than 50% of the time, you just can’t help but win a few ballgames you probably shouldn’t expect to.
  • Okay, seriously–I watched the last inning of the O’s 7-5 win at Texas on Wednesday night, and with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, Sherrill gave up two towering fly balls that missed clearing the fence by a combined total of about five feet. That’s just not the kind of thing that yells out “sustainable pattern of success.” I know that I said he’s not a 6-ERA pitcher, but so far, according to FIP, he’s pitched like a 5.35 one. And Guthrie has pitched like a 4.50 one, twice his actual ERA. This is really, when you look at it on paper, one of the most unimpressive pitching staffs in the Majors, and nothing from these first nine games really changes that.

What PECOTA is saying: Baseball Prospectus does this crazy thing every day where they take the teams’ current records, simulate the rest of the season a whole bunch of times (a million, actually) based on the performances projected by their PECOTA system, and then post the standings and each team’s odds of reaching the playoffs (sorry if that link is subscription-only). Before the end of the games tonight, with the O’s at 6-2, BP had them going about 77-85, which means .464 ball the rest of the way, and with an 8% chance of reaching the Great October Crapshoot.

I think both of those numbers are high. There’s just too much of this that’s unsustainable (didn’t even touch on Melvin Mora or some of the non-Sherrill relievers), and PECOTA has been getting a lot of bad baseball-nerdy press for seriously man-crushing on Wieters, which has to affect those simulations. I think they end up about where they did last year–we’ll call it 71-91, a two-win improvement–but with steady mediocrity, none of the surprising-respectability-followed-by-soul-crushing-collapse stuff from ’08.

I’ll be sure to revisit that prediction after Roberts hits .390, Guthrie wins the ERA title, and they win the Series.