Brewers Acqure Francisco Rodriguez

July 13, 2011

Big night for the Brew Crew. Not long after 1B Prince Fielder was announced as World Series MVP, the team announced they had acquired reliever Francisco Rodriguez from the New York Mets. Rodriguez, in the final year of a three year, $39M contract, had been the object of rumors in recent weeks connected him with just about every contender. The move the Brewers comes as a bit of a surprise, though, as it was expected Milwaukee may look to upgrade the left side of their infield. Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt have combined for -2.0 WAR so far in 2011, and the Brewers already traded much of their minor league talent in their offseason deal for Zack Greinke.

The Brewers were actually able to acquire Rodriguez for only “players to be named later.” I’m sure the Mets have their eyes on someone, but for now, the Brewers are free to continue their search with the same available talent – they’ve upgraded their team at little cost. No matter what one thinks of Rodriguez being overrated, and his off the field issues, he improves the Brewers on paper – his 3.16 ERA is the second worst of his career. In nine seasons, he has posted an ERA above 3.00 only three times. The always-maligned Brewers bullpen leads the NL with 20 bullpen losses. They rank 10th in bullpen ERA with a 3.92, and only two pitchers with an ERA under 4.00: closer John Axford (2.83) and ancient LaTroy Hawkins (1.08). Hawkins had an 8.31 ERA last year, and a 2.13 ERA in 2009, and I believe he was a teammate of Satchel Paige back in the ’50′s. So, needless to say, he might not be someone to depend on. Rodriguez is pitching for his next contract, so, even if used in a setup role, one has to believe the effort will be there. I would have already considered the Brewers the slight favorites in the NL Central, so this certainly doesn’t hurt that.

The Brewers do need to get serious about better production from the left side of their infield. McGehee was a quality player in 2009 and 2010, so waiting for him to come around seems sensible. Betancourt, though? He’s been one of the worst players in the league for years. In this space I asked six months ago whether he was the best the Brewers could do. (Through blogger, I’m able to see what posts get the most hits – that entry is the only one not posted in the past two months that is in my top 10 for the past 30 days). The question still stands, but only because he continues to get playing time – he is arguably having his worst season. While trying to work out a deal to upgrade, they might be better off going with minor league veteran Edwin Maysonet, currently .276/.325/.350 at AAA Nashville, with a nice looking 5.23 range factor. I don’t even particularly care for range factor, but goodness – at least see if he can do something positive.

As far as the Mets’ side of the move, I was a little surprised at first to see Rodriguez moved for so little (we think- maybe the PTBNL is better than the usual variety). The more I thought about it though, his standing as a Type A free agent is negated by the fact that there was zero chance New York offered him arbitration. Also, while the Mets are a game over .500, I doubt Sandy Alderson will be fooled into thinking they are legitimate contenders. If this was the best offer he could get, it was time to make the move.

For the rest of 2011, Bobby Parnell or Jason Isringhausen will likely be moved into the “closer” role – my guess is that it will be Isringhausen, since letting Parnell get saves will push the salary he can gain in arbitration skyward. Since he can do just as much to help them win games in the 7th and 8th innings, it makes sense to keep him in that role.

The Excellence of the Pittsburgh Defense

July 11, 2011

Well when you start with James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, excellence really should come as no surpr….

Wait, what? This is a baseball blog? And we’re talking about the defense of the Pittsburgh Pirates??

At the All-Star break, the Pirates find themselves one game out of first place in the National League Central. This is a major surprise, since the last time the Pirates had even a winning record was 1992. The Pirates have been better in every facet of the game this year than last, but their most notable improvement has been in the run prevention category. The previous four seasons, the Pirates had finished in the bottom 3 in the league in runs allowed – in 2011, they rank 4th. Usually extreme leaps in run prevention are directly related to improved pitching, but in this case, the usual pitching numbers don’t show much difference in quality:

-In 2007, the Pirates ranked 14th in runs allowed, 11th in the NL in K/BB ratio, and allowed 1.2 HR/9 – slightly worse than the league average of 1.0.
-In 2008, they ranked 16th in runs allowed, 16th in K/BB, and allowed 1.1 HR/9 (league average 1.0).
-In 2009, they ranked 14th in runs allowed, 15th in K/BB, and allowed 1.0 HR/9 (same as league average)
-Last year, 16th in runs allowed, 16th in K/BB, and allowed 1.1 HR/9 (league average was .9)
-This year, they are 4th in runs allowed, 15th in K/BB, .9 HR/9 (same as league average).

So, compared to last year, part of their improvement comes from allowing home runs at closer to the league average rate, but more of it comes from turning balls into play into outs:

2007: .685 Defensive Efficiency/ 15th in NL
2008: .689 DE/ 15th
2009: .700 DE/ 15th
20101′ 689 DE/ 16th
2011: .716 DE/5th

That improvement can’t be understated. Behind a pitching staff that strikes out fewer batters than any other NL team, the Pirates are turning 4% more balls into outs. Striking out only 6.2 per nine, to get those other 21 outs, Pirates pitchers face 29.2 batters rather than 30.4. Over the course of the season, this means they would pitch to 192 fewer batters.

Check out the effect this has had on some of the Pirates’ starting pitchers:

Charlie Morton:
2010: 2-12, 7.57 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.8 HR/9, .357 BABIP
2011: 7-5. 3.80 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9. .316 BABIP

Morton’s improvement has much to do with the extreme drop in home run rate – an improvement many attribute directly to pitching coach Ray Searange, who noticed that Morton was more effective with a lower release point. This emphasized the natural sink on his 95 mile per hour fastball, and has produced a ton of ground balls, and that’s where the improvement in Pittsburgh’s defense has made Morton’s statistical improvement even more striking.

Paul Maholm
2010: 9-15. 5.10 ERA, 5.0 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, .327 BABIP
2011: 6-9, 2.98 ERA, 5.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, .252 BABIP

Maholm has only one previous season (2008) in his career with a BABIP under .300. Not coincidentally, it was the only season in his career with an ERA under 4.00.

Jeff Karstens
2010: 3-10, 4.92 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9. .309 BABIP
2011: 7-4, 2.55 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 1.6 HR/9, .240 BABIP

Karstens is the most striking example of the assistance the Pittsburgh defense is providing to its mediocre pitchers. Last year Karstens allowed too many homers and struck out not enough batters. This year, he’s doing the same thing and has cut his ERA in half. Karstens is having one of those years which, if the Pirates were in their normal position 20 games under .500, they’d probably trade him to a contender – this might be the best half-season Karstens ever has, his value will never be higher. A .240 BABIP isn’t sustainable, and other than a slightly better walk rate, Karstens is the pitcher he’s always been. I’d expect his ERA to be in the 3.85-4.15 range in the second half.

There are several reasons for the improved Pirate defense. The first is the wonderfully fantastic Andrew McCutchen, leading National League CF with an 8.3 UZR. This was a huge improvement over his performance in the second half last year, and an even bigger improvement over Jose Tabata, a more natural corner outfielder who was overmatched in center. Another big improvement has been at SS, where Ronny Cedeno has a 4.2 UZR, following his -3.6 last year. Cedeno isn’t much of a hitter, so his defense needs to carry his bat for him to be worth his playing time. This year it has done so. At 3B, it’s been addition by subtraction. Pedro Alvarez (-6.2 in 2010, -2.3 so far in 2011) was injured, and replaced by a combination of Brandon Wood and Josh Harrison (4.2 UZR combined). Wood and Harrison can’t hit though – Alvarez can (at least he did last year, and in the minors). The defensive disadvantage with Alvarez in the lineup is more than made up for by his superior bat.

Is the defensive improvement sustainable, or just a fluke? Mostly sustainable I think. The outfield defense with McCutchen and Tabata can cover a lot of ground. The infield defense may take a small step back (Alvarez returning, Cedeno regressing), but should still be above average.

Some credit is due to Clint Hurdle, as well. He’s unafraid to use defensive replacements, and his Rockies teams usually had above average defenses despite playing in spacious Coors Field. It seems possible he and his staff are doing a good job positioning their fielders. If he keeps the Pirates in the race all year, he should run away with the Manager of the Year award.

Mike Trout to Join Angels Tonight

July 8, 2011

The California Angels have announced that Mike Trout has been called up from AA Arkansas. This comes after starting CF Peter Borjous left last night’s game with a right hamstring injury. Depending on who you ask, Trout is either the #1 prospect in baseball (Jonathan Mayo, me), or #2 behind Bryce Harper (Baseball America, just about everyone else).

The #25 pick in the 2009 draft out of Millville High School in Millville, NJ, Trout has hit .338/.423/.503 with 97 over 1148 plate appearances across four levels. This year, he has a .324/.415/.534 line in AA, with 12 doubles, 11 triples, 9 home runs and 28 steals – so I think it is fair to call his game “well rounded.” Trout appears to be the rare type of dynamic player who combines patience, power AND speed. In addition to that, he plays fantastic defense, and has a great arm as well – he threw 90 as a high school pitcher.

So, what is the upside with Trout? Without exaggeration, it’s elite, Hall of Fame level. Anything less than a multiple All-Star teams would be a disappointment. Trout is still only 19, yet there would be no one surprised if he is ready to contribute in a big way right now. With the Angels only a game behind the Rangers in the AL West, even a slight improvement in their outfield situation could make a major difference. Another story that bears watching – if Trout is ready, it may make Peter Bourjos expendable. Bourjos has matched quality defense with an offensive performance that’s right about league average. Or, Trout could be moved to left field and start ahead of Vernon Wells. The thought of Bourjos and Trout together in the same outfield likely makes flyball pitchers Dan Haren and Jered Weaver positively giddy.

It’s possible that we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, of course. Trout doesn’t turn 20 until August, and has never played in AAA. After Blake Beaven tonight, the Angels will see Michael Pineda tomorrow and Felix Hernandez tomorrow – not the type of pitchers one routinely faces in AA. (Wait, what was that? Michael Pineda WAS in AA most of last year? Anyway, my point still stands.) It’s possible that Trout needs more seasoning and will return to the minors. That would likely be in AAA though, he has little left to prove in AA.

This isn’t time to be pessimistic though, or even rational. Angels fans are encouraged to dream of Trout carrying them to the playoffs this year and being the superstar centerpiece to their franchise for the next two decades.

Zack Greinke: A Cornucopia of Statistical Anomalies

July 6, 2011

Some observations:

1. Zack Greinke has a 7-3 record, but only a 5.66 ERA. This ERA is the second worst among National Leaguers with 50 Innings Pitched. This suggest that he has been very lucky, and pitched much worse than his record.

2. Zack Greinke has a 5.66 ERA, but a 2.94 FIP and a 2.15 xFIP (which is FIP, but with Home Runs calculated to 10.5% of fly balls). For comparison’s sake, Roy Halladay has an xFIP of 2.40. For further comparison, when Greinke won the Cy Young Award in 2009, his xFIP was 3.09. This suggests that Zack Greinke has been very unlucky, allowing far more runs than his peripherals suggest.

3. Among NL pitchers with 30 IP, only Roy Halladay has a better strikeout to walk ratio. This suggests Greinke has been excellent.

4. Among NL pitchers with 30 IP, nobody has allowed a higher percentage of baserunners to score. This suggests Greinke has been abysmal.

What the heck is going on?

First off, the simple answers. Milwaukee has the 5th best offense in the NL, so it makes sense that any pitcher would have a W/L record that would exceed his ERA. Also, they have the fourth worst defensive efficiency in the league, so it also makes sense that a pitcher would underperform a FIP that is adjusted to the league, rather than team. Finally, the 15.5% of home runs on fly balls is almost 50% higher than league average. Given that his fly ball rates are actually lower than his career average, it seems like that portion is largely luck. Going against my tendency to speak in absolutes, I can state with certainty that Greinke’s home run to fly ball rate WILL go down.

There’s more going on here than a few extra home runs though. FIP analyzes a pitcher with his current (rather than expected) home run rate, and Greinke’s is about half of what it should be. So why the disconnect?

The first assumption may be that Greinke has largely pitched either very well or terrible, with less middle ground, and a quick glance might lead one to stop there. In 12 starts, he has 5 with a game score of 60 or higher (topping out at 75), 4 with a game score of 39 or lower (bottoming at 15, yuck), and only three in between. In his four worst starts, he’s given up more than half his runs. So he’s pitched mediocre or better on a good hitting team 8 of 12 times, and has a 7-3 record? So when he stinks, he REALLY stinks – the nights where he doesn’t have a feel for it, he gets shelled.

Let’s dig deeper though. In those 4 worst starts, he’s gone 16.3 innings, with four home runs, 7 walks and 21 strikeouts. That’s too many home runs, but it doesn’t seem like he’s been 12.21 ERA bad according to those peripherals. In those bad starts, his striking out one of every 4.04 batters. That’s lower than his season 3.30 rate, but still quite good, right along side Anibal Sanchez, better than Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Josh Johnson. His walk rate in those losses, is (somewhat freakishly) exactly the league average of one every 12.142857 batters. That’s far below his full season rate of one every 21 batters. Just “average.” His home run rate of one every 21.25 batters is awful in those four starts, which explains some of the badness, but not all of it. That’s Brett Myers home run rate for the season. Brett Myers walks on of every 14.9 batters, and strikes out one of every 6.1, and he, in front of one of the few defenses worse than Milwaukee, has a 4.67 ERA. Hmmm.

Now let’s look at Greinke’s eight non-terrible starts. In 52 innings pitched, he has a 3.63 ERA, a tick above the NL average of 3.81. In those starts, he has 68 strikeouts, 7 walks and 6 home runs. Doesn’t it seem like that pitcher with those numbers would be a quite a bit better than league average? First off, he’s striking out one of every 3.07 batters, which is awesome. How awesome? Well, there are no NL starting pitchers anywhere near that number. The only two guys with 30 innings who have struck guys out more frequently are Craig Kimbrel (2.45 ERA), and Tyler Clippard (1.86 ERA). For another comparison, check out a couple Hall of Famers in their best seasons: Sandy Koufax struck out one of every 3.39 in 1965; Nolan Ryan in 1987 struck out one of every 3.22. Of course, they played in eras where batters made contract more consistently, so let’s check a couple contemporaries as well: Pedro Martinez struck out better than 1 in 3.07 batters three times (1999, 2000, and the injury shortened 2001); Randy Johnson did it five times (1995, 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001). Pretty impressive company. He’s walked one of every 29.9 batters, a pace surpassed by only Roy Halladay (31.7) and Edward Mujica (31.0) to this point this season. His rate of a homer every 34.8 batters in these starts is worse than the league average, but far from terrible – it’s a better rate than Wandy Rodriguez and Brandon Beachy, among others having an acceptable to good ERA.

So at his worst, Greinke is like a better version of Brett Myers. At his worst, he’s like much better version of Wandy Rodriguez. So how in the world does he have a 5.66 ERA?

Refer to point #4: “Among NL pitchers with 30 IP, nobody has allowed a higher percentage of baserunners to score.” 54% of the guys who get on base against Greinke end up scoring. The league average is 34%. Only seven other pitchers in the NL have allowed as many as 45%:

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Tm BR R % Scoring PA/HR PA/BB PA/K
Zack Greinke MIL 87 47 54.02% 29.400 21.000 3.303
Aneury Rodriguez HOU 81 42 51.85% 23.364 13.526 6.119
Armando Galarraga ARI 70 36 51.43% 15.231 9.000 7.071
Pedro Beato NYM 41 21 51.22% 77.000 12.833 6.417
Randy Wells CHC 69 32 46.38% 31.833 9.095 7.074
James Russell* CHC 63 29 46.03% 21.889 19.700 6.793
Javier Vazquez FLA 139 63 45.32% 28.643 11.794 6.468
Aaron Heilman ARI 53 24 45.28% 20.857 14.600 4.710
League Average 34.44% 42.500 12.143 5.313

Of the seven other pitchers on this list, six of them have ranged from mediocre to terrible. Only Pedro Beato has an ERA of under 4.50, but then you realize that he’s given up 6 unearned runs, bringing his RAA to 4.81. Of the rest of the group, many walk too many batters – only James Russell walks fewer than one in fifteen. Aaron Heilman is the only who strikes out more than 1/6 of the batters he faces. Greinke does give up home runs more frequently than Beato and Randy Wells, but the pattern here is pretty clear – the other guys on this list have such a high rate of turning baserunners into runs is because they have simply pitched quite poorly. With Greinke, it’s more than that.

If Greinke is allowing an abnormal number of baserunners to score, perhaps he’s simply pitched much worse with runners on base, skewing his results. Here, I think, we are on to something.

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Greinke BA OBP SLG Average NL Pitcher BA OBP SLG
Bases Empty 0.247 0.287 0.430 Bases Empty 0.249 0.311 0.392
Men On 0.274 0.315 0.538 Men On 0.257 0.331 0.389
RISP 0.343 0.397 0.701 RISP 0.249 0.339 0.379

Yikes. So, in general, it seems when the average pitcher has nobody on base, they will pitch more aggressively, leading to a higher SLG and a lower OBP. When a runner gets on base, the pitcher becomes more conservative, more willing to walk the batter in lieu of the big hit – particularly when those runners are in scoring position. Greinke? He’s giving up an slugging percentage 60% higher with runners in scoring position than he is with the bases empty.

Some of this is certainly bad timing. With only 74 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, a couple home runs really jack up the numbers. It seems impossible to think that, over a full season, this wouldn’t begin to even itself out. However, the issue may be one of pitching mechanics rather than anamalous statistics. In the fifth inning of his last start, Greinke was so uncomfortable pitching out of the stretch that manager Ron Roenicke visited the mound in the fifth inning and instructed Greinke to pitch from the windup, even with runners on base. Visually, his leg kick looks much smaller from the stretch. This is usual, but if it’s interfering with his ability to get out the batter, they need to scrap it. A stolen base, on average, gives a player an 18-20% chance of scoring a run he wouldn’t have otherwise scored. That’s significant, sure, but not as significant as retiring the batter who, when hitting a home run, has a 100% chance of scoring himself and everyone on base ahead of him.

Greinke has had mechanical problems before. These problems, coupled with social anxiety disorder, resulted in Greinke almost quitting baseball back in 2006. According to all involved, the social anxiety portion is still completely under control, which is good news. Baseball men can be very good at putting players together again, but not necessarily people.

As far as Greinke’s future, I think he will pitch better in the second half, if only by accident. Even acknowledging serious, serious issues pitching from the stretch, Greinke does enough things right in those situations that the home run/fly ball rate won’t say so extremely high. Even if he doesn’t solve the problems from the stretch, I think we’d see an ERA of 4.00-4.50 in the second half, which would be a serious improvement. If he manages to fix the problem from the stretch and be a bit luckier though? He would profile as a guy who could put up a sub-3.00 ERA and be the much needed complement to Yovanni Gallardo in the Brewers starting rotation in order to make a run at a championship. If that does happen, the Brewers rank just below the Phillies as the best bet to win the National League pennant. As always, “if.”

Two Prospects have Dominated in Nationals’ System

July 5, 2011

You know about Bryce Harper. You may not know about Tom Milone.

We’ll start with Harper. After spending the first three months of the season dominating in Single A Hagerstown to the tune of .318/.423/.554, Harper was promoted to Double A Harrisburg, skipping High A Potomac. In his double A debut, he went two for three with a walk and a run scored. Remember, Harper doesn’t turn 19 until October. For a reference part, an 18 year old hasn’t appeared in a major league game was in 1994. His name was Alex Rodriguez.

At this point, unless he completely flunks AA ball, I’d be shocked if Harper doesn’t debut in September. He’s likely to begin next season in the minors, though if he dominates in AA and hits either in his call up or next year in spring training, that could change.

You probably know all of that already, though. Who’s this Milone guy?

Tom Milone (statistics)was just named the International League pitcher of the week. In his two starts, he pitched 14.1 innings, allowing 1 run, 8 hits, striking out 12 and walking nobody, extending a pattern of dominance that could fly under the radar because of some bad luck. Through 15 starts this season, Milone has what may seem like a pedestrian 6-5 record and 3.38 ERA. It doesn’t take much digging though to find some truly mind boggling numbers:

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Team IP H ER HR BB SO ERA WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 FIP
Syracuse 96 90 36 6 5 101 3.38 0.99 8.4 0.6 0.5 9.5 2.10

Check that again. 101 strikeouts. FIVE walks. His strikout to walk ratio is 20.2. For a point of reference, the career record for K/BB ratio was in the strike shortened 1994 (is this a theme today?) when Bret Saberhagen had 143 strikeouts to 13 walks. Since he surpassed the full-season 162 IP standard, I’m willing to accept this as the record even though the strike shortened the year. If you’re not, last season Cliff Lee had 185 strikeouts and 18 walks. The active career leader (min 1000 IP) is Mariano Rivera, at a tick under 4 strikeouts for every guy he walks.

Milone’s stuff is considered middling, which is why we don’t see him on prospect lists. His fastball is in the mid 80′s, reaching 89 on rare occasion. His changeup seems to be regarded as his best pitch, and he also throws a cutter and curveball. He doesn’t generate a ton of ground balls, so, considering the rest of his arsenal, I would guess it is likely that his home run rate in the major leagues would approach 1 per every 9 innings.

Still, while the walk number is impressive, it is the International League leading strikeout number that stands out to me. Walking too many hitters is bad, but simply avoiding walks isn’t, on it’s own, good. The active leader for lowest career walk rate is Carlos Silva, who has an ERA+ of 93, because he doesn’t strike anybody out and gives up too many home runs. Combining such a low walk rate with such a high strikeout total though? It’s almost impossible not to succeed while doing that. Zack Greinke has been hit hard this year doing it, but he’s also a former Cy Young winner. There are 12 active pitchers with 1000 career innings and a K/BB ratio of over 3 to 1 (courtesy of baseball-reference):

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Player (age) K/BB ERA+
Mariano Rivera (41) 3.9669 205
Dan Haren (30) 3.9444 120
James Shields (29) 3.7611 105
Cole Hamels (27) 3.7435 126
Roy Halladay (34) 3.6753 137
Roy Oswalt (33) 3.5216 134
Zack Greinke (27) 3.4694 112
Javier Vazquez (34) 3.261 104
Cliff Lee (32) 3.2175 113
Jered Weaver (28) 3.1667 128
Jake Peavy (30) 3.0888 116
Josh Beckett (31) 3.0618 115

Nobody on the list lower than a 104 ERA+, ten of the twelve over 112.

So why is Milone’s performance so outpacing his stuff? One theory is that minor league hitters do not deal with pitchers, particularly left handed ones, who can locate and mix their pitches well, but major league hitters do. While there is some evidence to this, I’m having trouble finding an example of someone with such an extreme K/BB ratio in AAA. Milone performance is such an outlier that I’m not sure what we can extrapolate from other data sets.

My guess is that Milone will get a chance with the Nationals at some point this season. His performance has been too good to ignore, despite what the radar gun says. If the Nationals aren’t interested in giving him a chance, somebody else certainly will. Once in the majors, it’s anybody’s guess what kind of success he’ll have. I’m rooting for him though. One of the things I love about baseball is the fact there are many, many ways one can succeed at it. Maybe Milone can’t – maybe he gets hit hard and falls out of the major leagues, and I find this post 10 years from now and laugh. Who knows? Even it’s rare for someone with stuff like Tom Milone to excel, perhaps it’s simply because there’s never been another like Tom Milone.

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