Saturday, June 30, 2012

On Stats and Skills

Because I'm cool, I spent tonight texting diatribes to Andy about the common misuse of stats. I tried to describe my feelings of how they ought to be used, especially by fans. This proved to be difficult to capture, even considering how most of the messages were the length of a short-story (Andy can attest). Anyway, I'm going to try to explain myself a little better in this space and won't stop until I'm done: stream-of-consciousness style.

My main gripe is one that I have absolutely no basis to gripe about. I could be completely wrong, but it's worth exploring. It's the idea of what people see when they look at a stat-sheet.

What do you see when I tell you Joe Mauer has a .325 batting average, 13.4% walk rate, 2.4 WAR and 35 RBI? How do you weigh the importance of each stat? Is batting average more important to you than the WAR? There is no right answer.

However, my contention is that statheads try to summarize players to a fault. A couple caveats, first off, I often do this. Secondly, they do a fantastic job of summarizing players.

That said, why should we want to summarize players into one stat? It's immensely valuable for front offices, the great research that is done on the internet and maybe even message board arguments. But it is really boring. WAR doesn't you anything about a player. A 6-win player from last season could be either Jose Reyes or Mike Napoli.

No shit, right? Right. Well because my thesis here is fully half-baked, that's the best I could do there. The basic point is that WAR isn't a beautiful statistic. You can't see WAR on a baseball field.

But on the other hand, you have batting average. Which has almost been marginalized a tiny bit in the post-Moneyball world. This is a beautiful stat. It tells you about a physical ability of the player. It's a numerical manifestation of the 'hit tool' that you'll always hear about with prospects.

Similar thing with walk rate. It's another component that describes what you see on the field. For pitchers strikeout rates, walk rates and ground ball rates are all manifestations of what you see on the field.

Interestingly, the statheads are the ones who advocate such stats. By 'such stats' I mean ones that are direct outcomes of skills (k/9, bb/9 and more abstractly: contact rates and walk rates). And by 'advocate' I mean use as the basis of all analysis. On the other hand traditionalists will advocate for stats that even further removed from the actual physical action: byproducts of the direct outcomes (ERA specifically). Not to say ERA doesn't have it's place. In my case, I may give it even more weight than the average saber-nerd.

Back to what statistics tell us. My overall goal when I set out with this half-baked idea (now leaning towards 2%-baked) was to say each stat has it's own story. Each tells us something unique in the abstract. Each will manifest differently for each player in the specific. They act as component parts to describe a ballplayer.

I'm not going back to read that whole mess, sorry if there were spelling/grammar errors. And honestly, I'm sorry you even read this much. I'm going to try to converge my new "philosophy" with my baseball watching and see if I can work it out a bit. If I was a better writer maybe I could explain better too. Regardless, this won't be the last time this blog sees my rambling, but hopefully next time it will be more interesting.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mr. Brightside: Levi Michael

A little over 12 months ago, the Twins drafted Levi Michael out of the University of North Carolina. Much of the blogosphere was quick to anoint him as the next Twins' shortstop. The heir apparent had a strong three years as a Tarheel, playing a significant role for two College World Series teams.

Levi was hailed as a gritty gamer. The kind of players managers would trade their first-born son for. The kid could hit, showed solid approach and could pick it anywhere in the infield. Michael was as sure-fire a top pick as there was in the draft.

I should mention that although he was considered very talented and a very safe pick, there were legitimate concerns. For one, his ultimate potential wasn't (and isn't) awe-inspiring: a solid-average hitter playing an average shortstop or second base. Another was his performance as a junior, which didn't quite live up to his sophomore campaign and led to the questions about his offensive ceiling.

All that said, most Twins' fans who care about prospect-related happenings were quite excited about having Levi in the system. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 6th best prospect in the Twins' organization: giving praise to his approach, line-drive swing and speed. To top off all the excitement, the Twins gave him a very aggressive assignment; letting him break into the pros in Hi-A Fort Myers. For reference, that's the same league #1 overall pick Gerrit Cole was assigned to this season.

To say it as nicely as possible, the first half of his inaugural season did not go well. In 199 at-bats, he was hitting .216/.306/.291. Downright awful. Even as an optimist, the only positive I could see was a decent walk rate. He wasn't hitting. He wasn't showing power. He was striking out. He only stole ONE base. And he wasn't even the full-time shortstop, playing equal time at second base. By the end of May, expectations had surely been lowered. Reactionary as it is to make any judgements off a two month stint in the minors, this was about as bad as it can get.

Now, here come the positives. The first has been his June. It seems he has found his stroke, hitting .311/.400/.422. In 45 at-bats, Levi 14 hits, 4 for extra bases. On top of that, his walk rate hasn't dipped at all, staying at a very good rate. I'll be the first to tell you that one good month (or one good 3-week span) doesn't say much about a player. However, I think this June's Levi Michael, is the one we'll see in the future.

I say this for a couple reasons, the first of which is his age. Levi decided to forgo his 2009 high-school senior season, in order to enroll early at UNC and play third base for their baseball team. The fact that he had a great season is besides the point. However, as a result of this, Levi was a very young draft-eligible junior last year. 12 months doesn't seem like a ton, but in baseball development, it's huge. As a 21 year old in the Florida State League this year, he's been about two years younger than the average player he's faced. Combine that with his lack of professional experience, and his struggles should have been expected.

The struggles should have been expected to a degree (maybe not this much), but his response has been spectacular. Always getting high-marks for being a baseball rat (Baseball Prospectus), his ability to make adjustments was supposed to be very good. And now he's showing it, with his impressive June.

To me, the improvement Levi has shown is more impressive than sustained solid production. The best prospects in baseball often stall out before they make it to the majors, because they can't (or won't) adjust to better competition. The jury is still out, to be sure, but the adjustments Levi has made in Hi-A bode well for his chances of continued improvement and, eventually, making an impact for the major league team.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Adapting Expectations - Moving Forward

Over the past month, I've written a couple pieces on both how a lower run scoring environment has affected the production of hitters and pitchers. Clearly, we're living in a different world today compared to ten years (my reality is strongly tied to what's happening in baseball). But that doesn't make the recalibration of batting averages or ERA any easier. Without looking back at the league averages, it's tough to remember if an ERA at 3.50 is exceptional or average. Well, luckily for us, smart baseball nerds have solved this issue by developing stats that can weed out changes in run environment.

Hit the jump-

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Adapting Expectations - Pitchers

A couple weeks back, I wrote a piece on how the offensive environment had changed over the last decade or so. I posited that we should adjust our usual milestones according to the lower run scoring environment. It's pretty obvious we should not only shift our assumptions of offense, but we should also consider the effect on pitchers.

When I was in my formative baseball years in the early 2000's, I learned that an ERA in the mid-4's was pretty solid. Even knowing the change in run environment, I never really considered how it would affect pitcher's statistics. Well, the "average pitcher" has changed quite a bit since then:

Year          ERA / Kper9 / BBper9
2012          3.97 /  7.5    /   3.2
2011          3.94 /  7.1    /   3.1
2010          4.08 /  7.1    /   3.3
2005          4.29 /  6.4    /   3.2
2000          4.77 /  6.5    /   3.8

Even though I do prefer RA vs. ERA (which doesn't account for subjective error scoring) I chose ERA just because it's more familiar for me and probably for the reader. What you can see over the past dozen years is average ERA has dropped dramatically by 0.80 points. It's interesting to note that an average ERA these days is under 4 (actually 4.03 in the AL, but the idea holds). Also, you can see there are big improvements in strikeout rate and walk rate. You might wonder how much the saber movement influenced this change, as a major tenet of their canon is to get away from "pitch-to-contact" pitchers and towards strikeout pitchers.

It's not right to attribute the huge change in the average ERA all to strikeouts and walks, as there are thousands of potential reasons for this. But one more aspect that's pretty easy to look at with numbers is the defense behind the pitchers. The importance of defense has been emphasized in the last five years or so, so maybe that is part of the reason for the lower run environment.

Year          Defensive Efficiency
2012               .694
2011               .694
2010               .691
2005               .693
2002               .695
2001               .691
2000               .687
1999               .685

From this data, it looks like defense did improve from '99 to '02, but then plateaued from then on. Even though it's tempting, it's dangerous to attribute to changes in ERA just to defense from '99 to '02 and the change from '02 to '12 on just strikeouts and walks.

Regardless of the reason, strikeouts have gone up, while ERA and walks have gone down. ERA's in the low 4's aren't good anymore and mid-3's aren't as spectacular as they once were. Clearly, the benchmark for pitching has been raised. Go forth and do what you will with this information.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Personal Catchers Follow-up

Similar to the TJS follow-up, I wanted to get Andy's unique opinion on his personal catchers post as somebody who has to manage a pitcher-catcher relationship. Again, some insightful answers that can shed some light on some of the aspects we as baseball viewers often wonder. Also again, if you have any questions, put them in the comments section and I'm sure Andy will answer them.

Friends, you're going to have to make the jump-

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Relevant Excerpts

I mused about where Twins top pick Byron Buxton will fit among the Twins' top prospects here. I figured he would slot in slightly below Miguel Sano but above everyone else, noting that in the national rankings they would be fairly close. Well, in a recent article Keith Law, ESPN's resident baseball scout, answered the same question:
I'd take him over their current top prospect, Miguel Sano, and that's saying something. The separator for me is that Buxton almost certainly stays in the middle of the field and adds value there, while Sano is already on a corner and may keep moving down the defensive spectrum even as he mashes his way up to Minneapolis.
Jim Callis, draft expert of Baseball America, also weighed in his draft chat today:

I thought Buxton was the best player in this draft, but I'm giving the nod to Sano.

Two of the best in the business can't agree on who's better right now, although it doesn't really matter. The fact of the matter is the Twins now have two of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball. The future is bright for offense in Minnesota. Now, pitching is another story...

Trevor Plouffe, Useful Player

When Trevor Plouffe was drafted in the first round of the 2004 MLB draft, the Twins hoped they had found their power-hitting shortstop of the future. Fast forward 8 years, and it's clear they did not.

Trevor never was a reliable defensive option, committing 173 errors in 801 career minor league games. This despite having solid range and a plus arm. As a result, he was given the opportunity to try third base and later first base, second base, left and right field. So from his deficiencies at shortstop was born a veritable Swiss Army knife of a player.

(More after the jump)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Draft Review

Some thoughts on the Twins' draft:


It would be hard not to be excited about Minnesota's selection of Byron Buxton with the second overall pick. It sounds like the sky is the limit, and at the very least, the speed and arm will make him an elite defensive centerfielder.

Because the signing deadline is July 13th this year, I think we will be able to see what he can do in a professional setting before the year is out. My guess is the Twins' take the conservative route and send him to Elizabethton once he signs, and have him spend 2013 in Beloit. Regardless, I'm happy that we don't have to wait until mid-August to see him sign like we would have in past years.

One last thought regarding Buxton is where he would fit among Twins' top prospects. I would personally slot him behind Miguel Sano, but ahead of Eddie Rosario and Oswaldo Arcia. I think Buxton and Sano will be close in most national ratings, putting Sano probably in the 8-12 range and Buxton in the 12-20 range.

-College pitchers:

The Twins' spent picks #42, 63, 72, 130 and 160 on college pitchers who all project to be relievers. Although, most were a firm departure from the classic control guys the Twins have favored in the past. They pretty much all sit mid-90's and have a chance to be dominant relievers. Seeing as they were drafted out of college, they should be relatively close to the majors. I wouldn't be shocked if we saw one or two of these guys reach the majors by the end of next year.

-J.O. Berrios (32nd overall to the Twins):

I mostly want to write about him here because his name sounds like if Cheerios decided to make a fruity cereal. But also because he's a little guy who throws really hard. Scouts began to excited about him when he threw a no-hitter against an Puerto Rican all-star team led by #1 overall pick, Carlos Correa. Berrios has the most upside of any pitcher taken by Minnesota in the draft, and although he's a long way away he will be interesting to keep an eye on.

-Adam Brett Walker (97th overall to the Twins):

Adam Walker is a beast. I've seen him play college ball on ESPN3 a few times, and I know two things: 1) he's huge and 2) he can hit. I saw a few analysts who put 80's on his future power, which means it has potential to be elite. Any potentially elite tool is fun to watch develop, especially power. Walker should rival Sano as the most powerful prospects in the Twins system. Some analysts threw out comparisons to Mike Stanton, although those are probably more because of his body than hitting skill. Walker is a big kid, with tons and tons of power, but he'll need to hit the ball more consistently to make it to the majors. Also, I've always known him as Adam Brett Walker, but refers to him as Adam Walker, so I'm interested in seeing what he'll go by in the future.

Fun facts: His dad was a running back for the Vikings in 1987 and he was born in Wisconsin.

-Players drafted by the Twins you can see in the CWS:

The NCAA playoffs are in 'Super Regional' stage, so you still have the opportunity to see some of the Twins picks before they enter the minors. These include:

DJ Baxendale, RHP, Arkansas (pick 310)
Sean Hagan, LHP, St. John's (pick 880)
Kaleb Merck, RHP, TCU (pick 1000)

-Also interesting to note that the Twins only drafted 8 high school players. Two of them from Puerto Rico. They may figure that high-schoolers will be more difficult to sign under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Draft Preview: Part Deux

The pervading belief going into the 2012 MLB Draft is that it's a relatively weak draft class with little of the top-flight talent seen in recent years (i.e. Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and David Price). This doesn't bode well for a team picking at the top of the draft, like the Minnesota Twins at #2 overall. I would like to throw in the qualifier that there is simply little obvious top-flight talent. There is a mess of about 6 players that occupy the top of most draft boards and each have a shot at being a worthy choice #2 pick in any draft, though they do all have their shortcomings (significant in some cases). My partner-in-crime, Andy Johnson, wrote a summary of three of the top prospects in this years draft including the consensus top two in Byron Buxton and Mark Appell as well his man-crush Mike Zunino. Here are a few other options the Twins will have with their first choice:

Carlos Correa: It's difficult to emphasize how important age is for a potential draftee. Rany Jazayerli recently did a study that showed that, on average, the youngest quintile of a draft class is expected to significantly outperform their older counterparts.  Especially for high school hitters, which is relevant for Correa as he is a 17-year old shortstop fresh out of Puerto Rican high-school (or their equivalent). So Carlos has that going for him - which is nice.

Aside from his young age, Carlos has the ability to play shortstop, absurd hitting potential and boasts a projectable, big body at 6'4" 190 lbs. While he may outgrow his position and be forced to move to third, his bat could play at any position. Scouts love his athleticism and all-around hitting talent and rave about his plus power potential. Correa has been shooting up big boards in the last month topping out at #1 on Kevin Goldstein's list for Baseball Prospectus and #2 overall for Keith Law. The 'low man on the totem pole' on Correa is Baseball America who have him rated at #6 overall. The youngin' has the potential to be the best player to come out of this year's draft, but as a 17-year old, he will take a long time to develop and carries a lot of risk.

Kevin Gausman: I'm not great at this, but I'm like 95% sure that Gausman means 'man who throws gas'. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I'll run with it. Gausman does indeed throw gas; his fastball, sitting in the mid-90's and occasionally hitting 99, can match anyone in the draft class. He also throws a mean change-up that Law puts a 60 on (20-80 scale). Two plus pitches to go along with a 6'4" frame is a nice starter kit for a future top-of-the-rotation pitcher. He needs to find more consistency with a breaking ball, although his slider does flash plus potential.

Until recently, the LSU product was viewed as the third best college starting pitcher in the draft, behind Mark Appell and Kyle Zimmer. However, with Appell as the favorite to go 1.1 and Zimmer falling due to injury Gausman could very well be the best available option at #2.

Lucas Giolito: Hands down the pitcher with the most upside in draft, Giolito is the biggest wildcard in the draft. Entering the season, most experts had him #1 on their draft boards and a likely target for the Twins at #2. However, he missed most of his high school season with a sore elbow, scaring many teams away from spending a top pick on him. Others aren't convinced the injury is serious in the long-term, as an MRI revealed no structural damage and doctor's gave him a clean bill of health. Although it's easy to understand why teams will be wary with him as so many young pitchers are missing entire years with elbow injuries and soreness like this cannot be totally ignored.

Before the injury, Giolito, 6'6" 230 lbs, hit 100 mph with his fastball, showed a hammer curve in the mid-80's and solid change-up. Pretty much a perfect package coming out of high school. He's an interesting case, if he was picked by Houston at 1.1 nobody would say it was reach. Conversely nobody would be shocked if he wasn't drafted at all based on signability concerns (he probably wants a ton of $$$).

So what should the Twins do?

I can't say I have a favorite this year. I just hope the Twins go with whoever is the best available player on their draft board. Some players would get me more excited than others, like Buxton, Correa, Giolito or Appell. But, I don't think there really is a wrong pick to be made here. And there are plenty of good options. The college guys are the least risky, will be able to make an impact by the beginning of 2014 and all fit perfectly with the current needs of the major league team. The downside is their upside is limited as none project as elite players.

The high-school guys on the other hand all have elite potential but come with some serious risk. Buxton might be the safest of the group. His elite speed and great arm give him the tools to play a great center field for years to come, though his hitting ability is very raw. He's kind of like a rich man's Aaron Hicks (for you Twins fans out there). All the tools are there, but he'll have to develop his bat to stick in the majors. If Buxton is taken #1 overall, then Correa is likely to be in the mix for the Twins (see below), he recently came into MN for his second private workout with the club, so they are clearly interested. Giolito, even though I'd love him, is probably too risky based on his injury and possible money demands. The Twins will probably pass on him and take somebody with fewer question marks.

All in all, from what I've read, I believe the Twins will take Byron Buxton with their first pick. In that scenario, everyone in Minnesota should be very excited. However, Houston has yet to commit to a guy at 1.1, so there is the possibility the Twins won't even get a shot at Buxton. In this case, I think it comes down to Appell and Correa, and I think they go with Appell. This choice would be more up for a debate. Our very own Andy Johnson is not a huge fan and he isn't alone.

Regardless of which player they pick, I trust the Twins scouting staff to do a good job and net a future big leaguer on Monday and I'm excited to see what happens.

UPDATE 5:26 PM: ESPN's Jim Bowden tweeted:

Still nothing is set in stone, so this obviously subject to change, but Bowden is reasonably reliable source of information so it counts for something. If Appell is the #1 selection, Byron Buxton is the expected choice at #2. Although there is an outside chance at Carlos Correa or Kevin Gausman.