Sunday, December 8, 2013

Scouting Archie Bradley

I haven’t had the opportunity to see Archie Bradley in person yet so I’m relying a lot on YouTube clips and word of mouth.  Here is one clip that the Google machine brought up that shows his mechanics very well.

As an avid Diamondbacks fan, I’m excited to see what Bradley could bring to the table as soon as this spring.  The Diamondbacks rotation, which could change in the coming days with the Winter Meetings tomorrow, looks like it will be Patrick Corbin, Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill as the shoe-ins and there will be a battle between Tyler Skaggs (assuming he isn’t traded), Randall Delgado and Bradley.  

When I look at this rotation, I see a lot of mediocrity and middle-of-the-rotation arms rather than a first-division player who could lead a pitching staff.  With what scouts have said about Bradley, he could be the type of arm to do just that.  

Now, onto the actual scouting of Bradley.  I’ll start from the bottom and make my way to the top.  His high leg kick is what sticks out first when you see him pitch.  His lead knee comes up to his chest level (I’d say the typical pitcher raises his knee to his belly button) and his toe is pointed toward the sky when most pitchers are taught to let the foot relax at the top of balance.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Replacing the Replacements

It's a busy time for Andy and I, with finals and all, so please excuse the lack of actually posts. It also doesn't help that our favorite has been a train wreck and made baseball as a whole much more dreary. Never the mind, Terry Ryan has spelled our malaise for at least a few weeks by handing out moderate free agent contracts (or by Twins' standards, humongous big contracts) to Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.

By this time, if you care enough to come to this site, you've probably read a bit about how Nolasco and Hughes will hopefully be average to a touch above that this season. Nothing special, but not awful.

In a vacuum, that's a fine assessment; one I'd expect from the national media. But it's not that easy to remove the signings from their context. That context being the Twins rotation. Nolasco and Hughes will be replacing the two worst starters on by far the worst rotation in baseball. Their bar to hurdle is set so incredibly far in the basement they won't even have to worry about tripping over it.

Twins starters allowed 546 runs in 871 innings, so 0.627 runs per inning.

Nolasco is projected to pitch 198 innings and allow 95 runs by the Oliver projection system: 0.480 runs per inning.

Hughes is projected to pitch 174 innings and allow 94 runs (Oliver): 0.540 runs per inning.

So if we expected the Twins rotation to stand pat and fill those 372 innings with Andrew Alber, Sam Deduno etc. they could be expected to allow 233 runs. Replacing them with Nolasco and Hughes could be expected to allow 189 runs. That's 44 runs saved over the course of the season.

This is a pretty simple analysis, as the average Twins pitcher isn't replaced, it's the worst two pitchers being replaced. For that reason and that Oliver isn't quite as bullish on Hughes as others, this estimate is fairly conservative and I'm inclined to bump my personal estimate up to the 50-55 run range.

So basically those are my thoughts on the signing. Nolasco and Hughes aren't fantastic, but given the no-production hurlers they're replacing, it's a massive upgrade. That's probably why the Twins paid more than any other team for the pair, Nolasco and Hughes offered more value to this team than any other in the league.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Quick thoughts on The Joe Mauer transition

Well, it’s about time.  The Joe Mauer is moving to first base on a permanent basis and I don’t think it could come at a better time.  Justin Morneau is gone and I don’t think anybody actually thinks Chris Parmelee or Chris Colabello are worthy of taking on the role of full-time Major League first baseman.

The offensive production is what everyone is asking about.  He flat out rakes.  But can he match what first baseman are asked to do?  Hit homers and produce runs?  I say yes.  Remember in 2009 when Mauer missed the first month of the season and came out swinging to hit 28 homers?  Could it have been that his body had that extra time to rest?  Possibly.  Maybe he’ll be able to get back to the 18-25 homer range with a fresh body.  

In 2012, The Joe Mauer played in a career-high 147 games.  30 of those games came at first, 42 at designated hitter and just 74 (72 starts) at catcher.  Is it a coincidence that keeping Mauer from behind the plate put him in more games?  Probably not.  He also produced a just a 4.4 WAR, however, his lowest total for a full season since 2007.  

This goes to show that a lot of his value comes from behind the plate but some people in the industry believe he has the athleticism to become a top defensive first baseman that can not only prevent runs by himself but provide a large target for his infielders.

Anywho, instead of rambling, I’ll share my humble opinion.  The Joe Mauer will most likely provide the Twins fair value at his now home.  If he can improve his power numbers, play in at least 150 games and still show that All American smile, Terry Ryan and co. will be happy the transition is finally being made.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Twins Off-Season Primer

2013 was, as expected, another dud in Minnesota. It ended as a near carbon copy of 2012, and for that matter 2011. Three years of utter futility has me and most other Twins die-hards feeling less than optomistic for the upcoming 2014 campaign. And rightfully so, the team is composed of Joe Mauer and a bunch of scrubs. 

Here's the good news: they have bottomed out. They've reached the bottom of the parabola and are beginning the ascent. Unfortunately, and to keep with with the math imagery, the slope is as small as Florimon's batting average (jokes !!). Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel, it comes in the form of 2015 and it rests on the broad shoulders of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. 2014 is just a bridge year. It's a year to build a team that will complement the phenoms when they're ready. This is the goal.

With that goal in mind, what can Terry Ryan and company do in the months leading up Opening Day?

The first step is to make an honest appraisal of the current roster. First let's take a look at the position players:

Opening Day Starter
Joe Mauer
Ryan Doumit, Chris Herrmann, Josmil Pinto (AAA)
Chris Colabello
Chris Parmelee
Brian Dozier
Eduardo Escobar, Eddie Rosario (AAA)
Pedro Florimon Jr.
Trevor Plouffe
Escobar, Miguel Sano (AAA)
Josh Willingham
Darin Mastroianni, Herrmann
Alex Presley
Mastroianni, Aaron Hicks (AAA), Byron Buxton (AA)
Oswaldo Arcia
Mauer, Plouffe, Willingham, Arcia, Parmelee

Starting with catcher, Joe Mauer is the one player in the organization who will be here for the long term, no matter what. That's a good thing, as he just won his fifth silver slugger and isn't showing signs of slowing down. Behind Mauer, Doumit is an abysmal defender who shouldn't be allowed behind the plate but inevitably will see some time there. Herrmann isn't quite as bad defensively but isn't a Molina either. Herrmann might have a future as Doumit type of player if he can hit Major League pitchers the same way he has on the farm. The long-term option will be Josmil Pinto. By mid-season he should be the full-time backup and essentially split time with Mauer behind the plate. He is the best defender of the three backups and could provide an average bat, which is huge behind the plate.

First base is a trainwreck but it's not as complicated as catcher. Colabello is currently slotted in to get the majority of the time with Mauer and Parmelee playing significant time as well. The only potential long-term answer here is Mauer, but hopefully that won't be for a few years.

Brian Dozier was one of the few bright spots on the Twins last year and solidified himself as a legit starter at second base. I wouldn't be surprised if he took a step back, but the Opening Day job is unquestionably his. Eduardo Escobar will back him up but shouldn't be considered more than an emergency back up. Eddie Rosario will push Dozier as he's likely to start in the high minors (AA or AAA), meaning there's a lot of pressure on Dozier to repeat his 2013 to keep his job in the long term.

As a default, Pedro Florimon Jr. will be the shortstop. He's a terrible option who can't hit, but he's the only guy who can play a passable defensive shortstop on the 40-man roster right now so the job is his. Escobar is just a utility-type back up here too, so they're aren't really other options. In the high minors, Danny Santana could get a shot, the Twins hope he can be the future at shortstop. He's very fast and can hit well enough to not be counted as an automatic out.

Third base is actually kind of exciting. No, not because of Trevor Plouffe. Plouffe is an okay stopgap and will make a swell back up going forward. But MIGUEL SANO. He'll be playing in Target Field by the end of May and hopefully won't stop for a decade.

In the outfield, Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia will hold down the corners. They should provide some power in the lineup and LOL's on defense. Alex Presley will likely get a shot at the center field job at least for a few weeks. Darin Mastroianni will reprise his role as an acceptable fourth outfielder (one that Presley should also be in and no doubt will find himself in eventually). But a change is coming, Aaron Hicks should get another shot to claim a spot and we should see Uber prospect Byron Buxton in the majors by season's end. 

That about sums up the offense, two or three consequential starters, a handful of players who would be decent bench options, another handful of incompetent stopgaps and three or four top prospects that should get a shot.

The two positions that should be most urgently pursued are first base and shortstop. Both of these positions are currently filled with slightly above replacement level talents and don't have an obvious future option, depending on your Mauer outlook.

Beyond that, the Twins could sign another backup catcher, a designated hitter type or a third baseman to improve the team. Mauer's not going to catch more than 100 games this year and I doubt the pitching staff would appreciate 62+ games of Herrmann and Doumit. While Pinto is still an option, he needn't be rushed, so I would understand signing a veteran to a one year deal. DH is occupied by Ryan Doumit by default, and will be a space for Willingham and Arcia to rest their legs. That said, signing a veteran bat in the mold of Eric Chavez, Travis Hafner or Luke Scott would add some much needed power and depth to the bench. Lastly, third base. If Plouffe doesn't improve, it's going to be an issue. And while I'll entertain the idea that Sano would be ready to start Day One, there's no reason to put that kind of pressure on him. But in the meantime, Terry Ryan would do well to make this team slightly more watchable with a competent third baseman.

The outfield and second base need not be addressed because of a combination of the incumbents and the nearness of top prospects to the majors. 

Now, on to the pitchers:

Starting Pitcher
Steamer IP
Steamer ERA
Steamer WAR
Kevin Correia
Samuel Deduno
Vance Worley
Andrew Albers
Kyle Gibson
Scott Diamond
Liam Hendriks

Looking through this list, I'm really only interested in seeing what Gibson and Worley have to offer. Both have the chance to develop into good middle of the rotation guys a la Scott Baker or Matt Garza. They're different pitchers, but I think they have the potential to offer that kind of value. All that said, neither has earned a spot in the 2014 rotation and will have to do so in spring training.

A couple guys who have earned spots in the rotation, at least in my best estimation of the Twins' estimation, are Kevin Correia and Sam Deduno. Both elicit emphatic meh's from me (if there is such a thing). But for now, it's fair to pencil them into the rotation.

Beyond those four, I think everyone is on the same page with Albers, Diamond and Hendriks. They're all good pieces to have in the organization, but should never be relied on to hold down a rotation spot.

I envision a spring training battle between these seven, with Correia having a nearly guaranteed spot and Deduno, Worley and Gibson having a slight edge going in.

The number of spots they'll be competing for will be determined by the number of pitchers acquired in the off-season. Right now, I'd set the over/under at two. Especially given the lack of internal options outside of Alex Meyer, it would really surprise me if the team didn't splurge on at least two fresh arms for the rotation.

Now for the least depressing facet of the roster! The bullpen:

Steamer K/9
Steamer BB/9
Glen Perkins
Jared Burton
Casey Fien
Caleb Thielbar
Brian Duensing
Michael Tonkin
Anthony Swarzak
Edgar Ibarra
Ryan Pressly
Duke Welker

Perkins is a premier reliever right now. And he has help: with Burton and Fien holding down the 8th inning, Thielbar and Duensing doing fantastic work on lefties, Swarzak as a very good long man and Tonkin and Welker potentially developing into very good relievers.

Not to say this bullpen is as good as it could be, but it really shouldn't be a concern for the Twins in the coming months. For example, an 8th inning guy with a longer track record of consistency and health would be an asset. 

The marginal increases from adding bullpen pieces is simply dwarfed by any addition to the rotation or the offense.

I'll wrap this up with a ranking of the objectives I would prescribe for the Twins:

1. Good starting pitcher.
2. Competent shortstop.
3. OK innings-eating starting pitcher.
4. Cheap option for first base and DH.

Any thing else is gravy.

I realize that all these objectives are vague and of varying difficulties to actually achieve. Andy and I will get into the nitty gritty of potential real life fits in the coming week. Until then, this is where Minnesota's roster stands and where their investigation should be focused.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Alex Meyer: Fall Stars Game

When I saw Alex Meyer take the mound for the third inning of the annual Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game, I was pretty shocked to be quite honest.  For an exhibition game in a league meant mostly for development, I thought maybe he would go two at most.  But seeing him go for three innings was exciting and actually made me somewhat believe that the Twins could have a top-of-the-rotation starter on their hands.

He threw 45 pitches and for a game in which showing off “stuff” is equally as important as performance, he did just fine in the pitch count department.  As far as the mechanics go, I can see why some scouts thought he’d be destined for a role in the bullpen in pro ball but he repeats it decently well for a big, lanky north paw.  When I look at mechanics, I think the best thing a pitcher can have is good direction to the plate.  It’s easy to watch but the best indicator of direction is where the pitcher misses with his pitches.  

Watching throughout the evening, his pitches were missing more north/south rather than east/west.  If a pitcher is missing inside and outside, it is an indication he is pulling off pitches and when a pitcher misses up and down, it is just a release point issue which is easier to iron out in the middle of a game. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Andy's 2013 Postseason Awards

  1. Mike Trout
  2. Miguel Cabrera
  3. Josh Donaldson

OK, this year there isn’t as much of a discussion about the Trout vs. Cabrera for this years’ MVP race like last year but that doesn’t mean Cabrera should run away with it.  Trout has had another outstanding year as he posted the AL’s top WAR again at a 9.2 mark.  Cabrera came in fourth despite leading the junior circuit in AVG, OBP, and SLG.  The reason for this is because he plays a less demanding defensive position and at third, he plays is poorly.  His WAR, based purely on offense, was 9.0 and adding in his defense and base-running ability drops him to an overall 7.2.  This year, Baseball Reference were as big of fans of Trout’s defense in the outfield like last year as his overall WAR was lower than his offensive contributions but with him playing a position up the middle and providing more offense, he should be this years MVP, though we all know he’ll lose again.

  1. Andrew McCutchen
  2. Carlos Gomez
  3. Clayton Kershaw

In this race, I decided to not go in the direction that WAR suggests as Kershaw was the winner in this department.  Why I went with McCutchen is because he plays a strong centerfield and provided the most offensive WAR in the NL.  I am a bit biased toward position players when it comes to the MVP because they play everyday and have a chance to contribute all the time instead of once or twice a week, depending on the rotation schedule.  We can’t forget about Go-Go as he keeps improving and showing that the Twins gave up too early on him.  He played great defense in center and his defensive WAR of 4.6 was second only to Andrelton Simmons (5.4).  

AL Cy Young:
  1. Max Scherzer
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma
  3. Chris Sale

Maybe it’s because I didn’t get to watch as much baseball this year as I would’ve liked, but since when did Iwakuma become such an ace?  I really wanted to put him first on my ballot as he had an outstanding 4.40 K/BB and was third in AL innings pitched at 219.2.  I put a lot of weight on innings pitched because it displays health and consistency.  He averaged just under 6.2 innings per game which in the days of specialization in the bullpen, is pretty remarkable.  The reason I went with Scherzer ultimately, is there wasn’t one category he did poorly in and carried the Tigers when Justin Verlander wasn’t the Verlander we know.  He didn’t really allow any base runners as his WHIP was under 1.00 and he still averaged about 6.2 innings per start, meaning he was always taking the bump.  If you have read any of my other writing on pitching, you might know I love strikeouts and velocity, both of which Scherzer has.  He was second in the AL in strikeouts at 240 (Yu Davish led at 277) and Scherzer also trailed only Darvis in K/9 (11.89 vs. 10.08).  According to Brooks Baseball, Scherzer also averaged 94 MPH on his fastball, GAS!

NL Cy Young: 
  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Cliff Lee
  3. Jose Fernandez

There are some voters out there who might think that I screwed Kershaw out of the MVP but that’s their problem not mine.  He was far and away the best hurler in the NL this season.  He had a 1.83 ERA which is something that I can’t wrap my head around especially when his ERA+ is 194, the highest mark since Roger Clemens had a 226 ERA+ in 2005.  

When it comes to postseason awards, team performance doesn’t factor in much to my decision, though it’s impossible to completely forget.  In Lee’s and Fernandez’s case, I didn’t care that their respective teams did so poorly.  Lee did as Lee does and walked just 1.29 batters per nine and he posted a solid 2.87 ERA.  I’ll talk about Fernandez more later on.

AL Rookie of the Year: 
  1. Wil Myers
  2. Jose Iglesias
  3. Chris Archer

Myers was limited to just 88 MLB games this year because the Rays did not call him up June 18 so he would not be eligible for Super Two status in arbitration.  In his partial season, he still provided a 2.0 WAR and hit 13 homers.  He did strike out a bit, more than once a game, but he showed patience at the plate and had a solid .354 OBP.

NL Rookie of the Year:
  1. Jose Fernandez
  2. Yasiel Puig
  3. Hyun-Jin Ryu

It’s sad that “Puig-Mania” might persuade voters to go with Yasiel over Fernandez but there should not be any debate.  At age 20, Fernandez who complete skipped AA and AAA, posted a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts which covered 172.2 innings.  For a young, flame-throwing righty, he also showed command of the zone walked just three batters per nine and he had a 3.22 K/BB.  He also had an outstanding 176 ERA+

AL Manager of the Year:
  1. Terry Francona
  2. John Farrell
  3. Joe Maddon

I have the mindset that a manger can never win a game, he can only lose it.  So, for this category, I have no explanation.  Just observe and soak it all in.

NL Manager of the Year:
  1. Clint Hurdle
  2. Mike Matheny

For explanation, see: AL Manager of the Year

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Morneau and the Future of First Base in Minnesota

I've been leading the 'trade Morneau for whatever you can get' bandwagon for the last 14 months, but today I'm reversing course 180 degrees. Not only do I hope the Twins hold onto him for the rest of this season, but I'd be in favor of re-signing him for next season as well.

The glaring and most obvious reason to re-sign Morneau is 'why not?' Neither of the Chris's (Parmelee and Colabello) have shown they deserve the first base spot in 2014 and there aren't any other options on the farm. Morneau is the best current option and, despite age, has the most upside. Furthermore, Mauer's inevitable switch from catching looks more and more distant by the day. First base is basically wide open for Morneau.

So what? Why pay a 32 year old with middling production (.267/.327/.436 for 2012-2013) $5 million or more? Most of the time I'd agree with you, I'd much rather see the money go towards an international free agent or perhaps a starting pitcher on the market. 

I think this case is different, I think Morneau might be closer to the all-star level of play we saw from 2006-2010. I know, I know, one month does not a good hitter make. BUT I have a larger argument than that! Morneau has had hot streaks before, take July and August of 2012 in which he hit for an .850 OPS or this May/June when he hit above .300. Why should his latest hot month be any different?

For one reason, in those months he was 'hot' in the sense that he had a pretty batting average but still lacked the power you would expect from a first baseman. Despite what you may have thought, Morneau never was a premier hitter but it's fair to expect 25 round-trippers per year and he's barely approached those modest expectations. This August, however, he's launched seven bombs in 88 plate appearances - a 57 home run pace. His seven homers are also a monthly high since July of 2009. And that's not all, he'd also be on pace for 49 doubles. All this while hitting .294 supported by a very sustainable .295 babip. 

It's impossible (and let's be honest, stupid) to say that he's going to be Chris Davis clone for the rest of the season. But the one major missing component from Morneau's game since his 2010 concussion has been his ability to hit for extra bases, as his batting averages have been above average and his defense is still something of an asset at first base. This season he's already just one XBH shy of his 2012 total in 62 fewer plate appearances. If Morneau's power surge is a harbinger of his power ability returning, he's a valuable middle of the order bat and could probably net some serious value in a trade next July ;)

Now the question is, how legit is the newly returned power stroke? Again, only time will tell, but it seems like he's hitting the ball hardly both subjectively (the feeling I get watching the games) and objectively - his 24.1% HR/FB is his highest in any month since July 2010 and four of his seven homers have been classified "Plenty" home runs by ESPN's home run tracker meaning they cleared the fence by more than 10 vertical feet (aka clear home runs). For me, these signs point to Morneau being a 5 HR/Month type of hitter or 30 HR/season. 

That is, if he continues to hit the way he's been hitting. Although he hasn't shown this kind of power since his concussion, his other primary foe (besides lack of power) is his inconsistency. So this is where the 'time will tell' argument comes into play. However, if he can ride this streak into the off-season it'll be a great sign for things to come. The final stretch of each season is often ignored by fans because it's difficult for a struggling player to really make a significant impact on his batting average, wOBA or whatever other metric you prefer. However, guys like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera and plenty of others had their breakout seasons foreshadowed by strong finishes. Perhaps a strong finish from Morneau should be looked at no differently.

EDIT: I completely neglected an Option C: trade him and then re-sign him in the off-season. My worry here is that if he continues raking on a contender, his market will be much hotter this off-season. Rightly or wrongly the market will likely recognize a strong finish from Morneau on a team that is playing meaningful games, if the past is any indication.


What separates the disappointment of the 2012 Red Sox (69 wins) and the first-place 2013 Red Sox (94.5 win pace)?

It's hard to point to any one thing; their pitching has improved, as has the offense and defense. The improvement in the offense is, I think, the most interesting because it hasn't been a result of the superstars stepping up, necessarily:

D. Ortiz     2012 OPS: 1.026    2013 OPS: 0.985
D. Pedroia 2012 OPS: 0.797    2013 OPS: 0.770

Nevertheless, the team has clearly improved to the tune of about a half a run (4.53 runs per game to 5 in 2013). Some of the increase has resulted from better health and the play of Jacoby Ellsbury, however, a surprisingly large amount of the improvement is unaccounted for until you get to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who's sneakily developed into one of the best offensive catchers in baseball.

'Salty' has long been considered a potential masher behind the plate. He came up as the top prospect in the Braves deep farm system, topping out as the #1 ranked minor leaguer (BA) in 2007 - ahead of Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Yunel Escobar among others. That same year he headlined a trade package for Mark Teixeira. Within the next 12 months he was buried by fellow tradees Neftali Feliz, Harrison and Andrus in Texas and was left in a rotation that left him in AAA more often than not. That said, he didn't exactly dominate the PCL (a notorious hitters league) and spent much of his time on the DL.

Exactly three years later after constituting a large part of the Teixeira deal, Saltalamacchia was dealt to Boston for three decent but not impressive prospects. The Red Sox hoped he could inherit the catcher position from Jason Varitek smoothly, but he ended up falling relatively flat. Despite significant power (41 home runs) he didn't crack a .300 OBP in his first full two seasons as a Red Sock (2011-2012) and by all accounts was an average (at best) backstop defensively. The mediocre catching was/is basically expected, he's a big dude at 6'3" 245 lbs. The offense was basically underwhelming. For example, in 2012, he posted a .222/.288/.454 batting line. Needless to say - less than impressive.

In 2013, though, Salty has made a huge jump and is a big reason for Boston's improvement as a team. In a pretty much full-time role he's been great across the board .272/.341/.456 in near full-time work. Compare that to the average MLB player .261/.327/.414. And that includes all players; consider that Salty is significantly above this mark as a catcher. That's been marked improvement for Boston. And while it doesn't account for the entirety of their improvement it's a significant reason they're sitting atop the AL East.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nothing Tonight!

I didn't write anything tonight because Liriano. I can't take my eyes off of it now and when I shut my eyes tonight it's all I'll see.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Week in Review Plus Other Stuff

Obviously, my toxic fandom is just what the Doctor ordered for my new "teams". Pittsburgh lost two out three games to both their division rival Cardinals and the Diamondbacks including a 15-5 blowout with their supposed ace on the mound and three losses in extra innings. Boston is 2-3 this week with a chance to each .500 on the week tonight against the Yankees, I'd wait to post this until after that game is over but it's not entirely likely it will finish until Monday. Lastly, Oakland managed to somehow lose a series to Houston (seriously) but bounced back to take two from Wild Card competitor Cleveland.

I'm not concerned about the Pirates or Red Sox, they're suffering minor bumps in the road that every team endures, but I am slightly concerned with Oakland. With Big Fat Bartolo Colon (that's actually on his birth certificate, no lie) tumbling onto the disabled list, they're going to have to count on Jarrod Parker to lead the rotation, which would be fine if Parker wasn't exactly average. In fact, of their remaining starters only Sonny Gray has been better than average and he's only logged 18 innings. Unlike in Gray's case, it's not a small sample size anomaly for Tommy Milone, AJ Griffin and Dan Straily; they've each made 20+ starts to establish themselves and haven't stood apart. As such the A's will continue grinding away at their bullpen for three or four innings a night and pray that Balfour and co. are still fresh in late September. The upshot of having such a decidedly average rotation isn't that Oakland will fade out of the WC race necessarily, but that the pressure on the offense, defense and bullpen is significantly amplified, reducing their margin of error to near zero.

Actually, I do have similar reservations about the Pirates offense but it's a degree of magnitude smaller. McCutchen alone makes the offense passable and along with the flawed but talented Neil Walker, Starlin Marte, Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin there isn't reason for concern yet. Speaking of the supporting cast, Andrew Lambo made his debut this week (I've written about him before). His first week looks bad (1 hit and 1 walk in 10 PAs) but he showed some impressive strike zone judgement seeing 4.2 pitches per plate appearance* and striking out just twice. His lone hit went for a double. I'm thinking he could actually be a key reinforcement for Pittsburgh both in the outfield and off the bench.

I'd like to quickly make some notes about the team's schedules going forward. Oakland's is particularly intriguing/worrisome, they face the Mariners next in a three game series that they'll have to win because after that it's Baltimore, Detroit, Tampa and Texas. After that they have a pretty easy rest of the schedule with seven games against the Twins and another Houston series. After the A's finish that difficult stretch (Bal, Det, etc.) they could be far enough out of it that they'll have a difficult time making up enough ground. So the next two weeks are crucial for the A's.

Pittsburgh's schedule from here on out is basically playing sub-.500 teams with a few series against Cincinnati and St. Louis and one against Texas. Clearly these will be crucial but for the most part the Pirates' schedule isn't much of a hurdle for the remainder. Boston actually does have a tough test ahead of them with 19 of their remaining 36 games against division rivals Tampa Bay, New York and Baltimore along with one series a piece with Detroit and the Dodgers.

We're getting to the point in the season where the schedule is actually a factor for most teams. Back in June it wasn't really a concern because it would basically average out for most teams. Now with about 35-40 games left, the matchups are significant and should be treated that way. Just another fun part of the stretch run.

*Pitches per plate appearance is a stat that will be gaining momentum in both saber and popular media circles in the next few seasons; I think. It seems to be one of those stats that many people ignore but are important to teams, smart teams. Gabe Kapler has talked on Keith Law's podcast about the metric completely unsolicited as a piece of data Boston presented him with often when he worked with their organization, for one example. I personally see it as one of those obvious 'no duh' type metrics that's somehow not really a large part of outsider analysts' discourse. Clearly, the more pitches a hitter sees, it's to his advantage: the pitcher tires, the hitter sees more of the pitcher's repertoire and walks are more common. There's a whole separate debate about whether or not more pitches is a positive, it'll slow down the game when all the Delmon Young level hackers are out of the league. But like a good Coen Brother's movie, the magic is in the build up. I should note that Lambo's 4.2 pitches per plate appearance would rank ninth in MLB, directly behind Joe Mauer and Jose Bautista. Not bad company.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Smoke and Mirrors

If I asked you last night who Pittsburgh's best starting pitcher is, there's a good chance you'd say Jeff Locke. Locke led the Pirates with a 2.43 ERA, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey for all pitchers. You'd be quite wrong.

A shiny ERA is easy to comprehend and an appealing way to quickly assess a pitcher. The metric does a good job of basically measuring what it says it will and isn't hiding behind any gory mathematics. Given this, Locke's ERA is very impressive, to be sure, but it doesn't take much digging to realize that it is headed for a correction the size of the subprime mortgage bubble.

According to DIPS theory (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics), a pitcher essentially can produce three outcomes and the rest of the play is independent of that work. These three outcomes are strikeouts, walks and batted ball type.

These three components come together to produce a predictive statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching or FIP. FIP has been proven to be more predictive of future ERA than ERA itself (if you care to check this, it's easily google-able). Knowing this much, a basic rule of thumb for superficial use of ERA and FIP could be that ERA tells a story about what happened and FIP predicts what will happen going forward.

For example, Pitcher A throws 6 innings and surrenders 3 hits and 4 walks while striking out 2 en route to allowing 2 runs, that pitcher's day would be better described by ERA but to say his true talent is that of a 3.00 ERA would lose a gambler many bets.

All that to say that what Jeff Locke has accomplished over his first 23 starts is significant. He's produced tons of value for his team and is a huge reason they're sitting atop the NL Central. According to FanGraphs he's been worth 4 wins if you simply use results.

All that also to say that Jeff Locke and his mediocre 3.74 FIP will not continue to produce at a level that rivals Matt Harvey. This stat is fueled by below average strikeout (6.64 k/9 or 17.8% of batters) and walk (4.37 BB/9 or 11.5% of batters) rates. Truthfully, I would argue his FIP may undersell just how mediocre Locke has been as it credits him with keeping fly balls in the park, which he hasn't demonstrated as a skill in the past and therefore is probably not sustainable given his skill set. Given this paradigm, Locke has only been worth 1.4 wins according to FanGraphs.

How is this disparity between ERA and FIP created? A large portion can be explained by babip; his, .256, sits well below the standard average, .300. Over the course of a season that's a difference of about 30 hits. It's been demonstrated time and again that it's nearly impossible for a pitcher to control his babip and therefore should be expected to regress to the mean, .300. The Pirates exceptional defensive positioning and general skill will likely depress his babip below the league average (the team babip is .274) sympathetically hedging Locke's regression to some degree.

Locke has been an okay pitcher but he's produced at exceptional levels in 2013. There's a distinction there that's evident if you've read this far and what he has been will be more predictive of what he will produce going forward.

The regression monster showed himself to Locke tonight in a game which he allowed 8 runs in 2.2 innings against the Diamondbacks. His ERA jumped to 2.90. In all likelihood it will continue to rise; and if there's any gamblers out there, I'd be happy to bet on it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On the Pirates

Of the three contending teams chosen by yours truly to dedicate this space, one has ran away with my heart. Oakland is just too lacking in stars or stories and the Red Sox, well, they're from Boston. The Pirates are the team that has piqued my interest and inspired a fandom that nearly rivals my allegiance to my hometown Twins.

Pittsburgh feels like a 'team of destiny' to the extent that that's possible. They're a group of big name vets and journeymen, top prospect studs and barely on the radar rookies; all surrounding a superstar having an MVP season. Everyone is contributing at what seems like their max potential too, it's not like the Tigers who have been dragged to first place by a handful of all-stars.

They're pretty obviously typecast as David to St. Louis' and Cincinnati's Goliath in NL Central race; any conversation about them begins with their 20 year streak of losing seasons. Despite this being a manufactured storyline to some degree - hard to feel bad for Steelers/ Penguins fans and they are legitimately good - it certainly is easy to buy into.

My lone reservation about the organization is Clint Hurdle. Not many managers are more old-school than he is. At his direction the Pirates have 49 sacrifice hits already, good for the 5th most in baseball, and have issued 32 intentional walks, fourth in baseball. (Interestingly, the Reds blow everyone else away in this category giving free bases to 52 opponents).

One thing I will commend Hurdle on is his readiness to use extreme defensive shifts. The strategy, preached by former Baseball Prospectus writer and current Pirates front office member Dan Fox, is described in great detail here in a very informative article. The shift is a big reason the Pirates are the top defensive team in the National league and it's fruits can be observed in just about every game as a single up the middle is robbed by a perfectly position Clint Barmes or Neil Walker seemingly floating between the first baseman and right fielder.

There will be questionable moves made by Hurdle this year, but it's going to take more than that to take this team that seems to do everything else right out of contention. And I'll be rooting for them with the same gusto as I did with the 2002 Twins.