Ballparks and Starting Pitching

October 29, 2007

This winter the Mariners will be looking to improve the roster in many ways as they attempt to become a playoff team. Of particular concern should be the starting pitching. We’ve already touched on the problems here at the Hardball Review, but I’m going a little further.

The back of the rotation was terrible. Ramirez/Feierabend/Weaver were a combined 45 runs below REPLACEMENT level. They sucked; the M’s are looking for new guys.

Check out these numbers I stole from Studes.
Type Avg Slg OPS RC/G
FB .265 .720 .978 6.70
GB .236 .259 .495 1.44
LD .719 .948 1.663 63.62
K .000 .000 .000 0 (actually, probably negative, I made up the last row)

If it isn’t already obvious to you, this should remedy that. As far as pitchers go K>GB>FB>LD. Line drives aren’t a particularly repeatable skill compared to the other three, so I’ll focus on the other 3. I don’t think this is private information. I am pretty sure most GM’s have figured this out by now. The Mariners face a scarcity of talent with limited resources. They can’t sign everybody they want. Some teams have more resources, some have less. Players are not equally valuable to all teams. Baseball is not a zero-sum game.

The M’s need to take on a moneyball strategy. First of all, moneyball DOES NOT mean walks are good. The Oakland A’s for many years felt that walks were an undervalued skill in the market for baseball talent and they exploited that to their advantage. When teams realize how important walks are, they become less exploitable and you have to move on to a different undervalue skill. If they continue to just get all the high OBP guys they would not be successful. Moneyball means taking something undervalued and using that for your benefit in baseball. For the Mariners, I would argue that we should be able to find pitching that is more valuable to us than other teams. Let’s start with what we know.

1) The Mariners play in Safeco Field; it is a bad park for RH Hitters, averageish for LH Hitters.
2) We have a bad defense. Maybe getting rid of big Richie and Ibanez will help, but it is still not good. Both our outfield and infield were second worst in the AL.
3) The Mariners have lots of money.

To address the first issue, build your staff to your park. Washburn is a perfect example of a guy who will pitch worse in every park but ours. Left handed flyball guys are more valuable to us than the Rangers. Guys like that can be had for cheaper since other teams do not find them as valuable as we do.

Secondly, the defense sucks, a lot. The team’s FIP was better than league average (what!) The team got screwed on defense where ineptitude cost the team .25 runs a game, or 40 runs and 4 wins over the course of a season.

So what they should is obvious, either upgrade the defense or make it so they hurt you less.
Upgrading the defense almost certainly will result in a degrading of the offense, potentially a wash. However, there is a simple way to keep the ball away from them. Strikeouts. I am not saying that we are the only team that wants strikeouts; I am saying a strikeout is worth more to the Mariners than almost any other team. Any team with below average defense benefits more from strikeouts than teams with above average. Again, strikeouts are good, we know this, but they are marginally better for the Mariners than anybody except the Devil Rays. Overpaying a bit for them is fine. But do you trust Bavasi?

Remember, every pitcher benefits from Safeco. A guy with a 4.51 era (league average) will see his ERA drop to 4.37, the equivalent of a couple of wins. Their run support, however, also falls. Some pitchers, (left-handed flyball types) are better here than anywhere else and would expect an even larger reduction in their eras. These guys should perennially be high on the teams list. Strikeout guys are marginally better here than elsewhere, but are so valuable elsewhere that any front office, especially ours, is going to have some problems acquiring that talent. Until we leave Safeco average LH flyball types should be high on the priority list. The team has holes. The key to overcoming those holes is to zero-in on our competitive advantage, right handed hitters are worse in Safeco, and exploit it to free up resources for say, competent 1B/DH production. The reverse is that left-handed hitters are far more valuable than right-handed hitters. Hopefully the FO realizes this.

 -Ken

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Guillens Hole

October 23, 2007

With Jose Guillen opting out of his contract in the near future, in search of greener pastures, the Mariners find themselves with a hole in their offense. Make no mistake; Guillen leaves the Mariners with a significant hole.

 

The first notion that we should dismiss (one I have heard spouted by fans at various get to gathers) is that the Mariners found Jose Guillen on the scrap heap. This fallacy is followed by another which states that there are more Jose Guillens just waiting to be picked up for pennies on the dollar. If your definition of “scrap heap” includes players that are getting 5 million guaranteed (with roughly another 3 million in incentives and a mutual option for 9 million the next season) —- then Guillen was on the scrap heap. This isn’t to say that Jose Guillen was a unique opportunity, players like him come along all every so often. Let’s not kid ourselves; Jose Guillen bargain contract included the following baggage: 1) recovering from a serious injury and 2) had the reputation as a headcase. In spite of this the Mariners guaranteed him 6 million (the extra mill was for the buyout if needed), because he was in his prime and he’s an above average player. Imagine the contract Guillen would have gotten if his reputation had been better and he had been healthy. My guess would be it would have been a 4 for 40 type contract. I don’t think another Jose Guillen caliber player will be available for next season at pennies on the dollar.

 

His defense was poor but his offense was above average. I have much more faith in the accuracy in his offensive numbers than I do in the accuracy of his defensive numbers, but why don’t we assume Jose Guillen is an average RF all around. This means that the Mariners need to find an average RF to replace him. Considering that the Mariners have overachieved in terms of Pythag last year, the Mariners have the doubly (is that even a word?) difficult task of improving on this team.

 

Maybe Adam Jones or Wlad Balentein go bananas next season and fill the void nicely. I think that this is an optimistic projection. Both of those young men would almost certainly exceed Guillen in terms of bang for the buck, but the Mariners primary concern right now should be getting more production (regardless of the cost). The short story on Jones and Balentein is that both strike out a ton and I don’t feel comfortable projecting either of them to hit enough to become an average RF. Also Jones could be headed to LF which means that the M’s still need to find someone to play RF next year. Given the other areas of weakness on this team, I would rather the Mariners have this situation wrapped up. Instead the Mariners have another player to replace, and this time he isn’t terrible.

 

Remember in order to win the division next year, the Mariners would likely need to dramatically improve.

 

The ray of sunshine is that the Mariners have a few holes to fill this offseason, and many of them will be easier to fill than RF. The two rotation slots, 1B, LF, 2B or DH slots are all candidates to be upgraded. If Bavasi does it right, he can improve this team.

 

Feel free to chime in with any names that could fill the void left by Guillen.

-Brent


New Study on Pythagorean Baseball

October 22, 2007

Bill James released a study on the Pythagorean theorem of baseball, looking specifically at teams that over perform their record. His paper on the study can be found in the comments section.

The Mariners this season had a ridiculously high difference between their actual wins and their Pythagorean wins. Even higher was the Arizona Diamondbacks (9th highest overperformance in baseball history). Fans are fond of saying that the local 9 will continue to outperform their pythag for whatever reasons (reliever, clutch hitting, William F. Bloomquist), and everybody is sure they will, but will they?

I’ll make it quick, the answer… kind of. James looked at the top 100 over and underperforming teams in history. He compared their over/underperformance of year 1 with the next year. The results: Teams that were in the top 100 next year DID over perform their Pythagorean record(the Mariners’ over performance is #28 in baseball history), although by only 1/2 a win. These are the teams that outperformed by the most and they only outperform by ½ win. Whatever magic they had didn’t seem to carry over. Teams that underperformed would do so again, but by an even smaller margin. For all teams in baseball history the correlation coefficient between year 1 and year 2 was .04. Negative 1 would represent a perfectly negative relationship (as one went higher, the other went lower), 1 would represent a perfectly positive relationship (as one went higher, the other went higher). .04 essentiallly means it is pretty random and over/underperforming one year had almost no relationship with over/underperformance last year. Teams just do not possess that skill.

On an interesting note, when comparing a team that overachieved with a team that didn’t overachieve, but had a similar RS/RA ratio, the team that overachieved performed better than the other by about 3.5 games.

Conclusion: It could go either way. The Mariners are far from a lock to beat their pythag again. There is about a 50% chance they will do better than expected next year, but there is a 50% chance they won’t. Teams have not shown the ability to consistently outperform their runs ratio. Going forward, we will need to look at the Mariners as what they are. They are a 79 win club that needs to add at least 10 wins to consider themselves playoff contenders.


Minnesota Twins ’07: Inside the Numbers (Part 1)

October 21, 2007

Minnesota Twins: Inside the Numbers

The Minnesota Twins 79-83 finish, a 17 game difference from 2006, has left many a Twins fan wondering just what went wrong. From the outside, the club seemed to have made few changes from the squad that came storming back to take the AL Central on the final day of the season in ’06, with the main difference being an injured Francisco Liriano. That couldn’t possibly contribute a difference of 17 games, could it? The answer is no, but here are some numbers that certainly didn’t help.

.210/.291/.271

You guessed it, that’s Little Nicky Punto’s batting line from this season. These numbers simply look dreadful until you look even further into them.

Consider:

Punto trailed only Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, and Jason Bartlett (all rather useful hitters, mind you) on the Twins for number of plate appearances. Yes, you guess it, Ron Gardentool (remember than nickname, we’ll refer to it again later, and frequently) allowed LNP (Little Nicky Punto) to come to the plate an incredible 536 times. It is reprehensible to allow someone who compiles a 52 OPS+ to go to the plate that many times. Even if he played Brooks Robinson caliber defense, he’d still be well below 0 on the VORP scale. As is, Twins fans had to settle for a meager -27.1 VORP (-26.9 other sources list) and a paltry 44 runs created. In fact, simply replacing Punto with a replacement level player (0 on the VORP level of usefulness) would have gained the Twins 3 wins! You can’t make that stuff up, folks!

.264/.330/.391

Now this one might be a touch tougher to figure out. This, Hardball Review faithful, represents the Twins overall line as hitters. From the outset, a casual fan (a.k.a. one that is obsessed with batting average) might see the .264 mark (good for 9th in the league) and think “gee, the Twins weren’t that bad offensively.” WRONG. To give you an idea how bad a .391 SLG is, or perhaps more importantly a team OPS of .721 is, this is the equivalent of having former Twin Luis Castillo bat for you ever single at bat for an entire year. YIKES! What’s even scarier is that there were 2 teams in the AL (in our own division, in the White Sox and Royals) that posted even more dreadful OPS+ numbers than our meager 93. This is an area we’ll need to improve if we’re going to make a run next season.

34

Nope, I’m not referring in anyway to Kirby Puckett here. In fact, I’m referring to the most games any single player logged at the DH slot for the Twins this past season. That player was the upstart Jason Kubel, who figures to man LF for the Twins next year (and hopefully for many years to come). Among the mediocrities that held the ‘prestigious’ role of DH for the Twins last year include Jeff Cirillo, Mike Redmond (love the guy, but please, please let’s see less of him Gardenweasel), Jason Tyner (the new cult hero in Minneapolis now that Lew Ford’s been shown the door…we can only hope Tyner is soon to follow), Rondell White, Garrett Jones, and a dash of Josh Rabe, Matthew LeCroy, and the recently waived Luis Rodriguez. Yes, that’s right, a list of DH’s that wouldn’t cut it in Rochester, and maybe not even in New Britain. Those players combined for a WHOPPING 84 games in the DH slot. It’s almost inconceivable how bad that is. If we can simply replace those players with a modest league average or near it OPS, that could prove rewarding on Punto-esque levels. Ahh yes, dare to dream!

2

Simple number here to wrap up the ‘negative’ portion of this entry, but it bears mentioning. This was the first year since 2003 that the Twins were the stingiest in the AL in walks allowed. They finished second to division counterpart Cleveland. On the surface this may seem a bit simple. In fact, the Twins only walked 10 more batters than the Indians (who led the ML, as well), but it marked a season where the Twins bullpen didn’t hold up as well as it had in years past (8th in bullpen ERA coming off previous years of 1st and 3rd), and where the starters their highest BAA since 2003. It wasn’t a huge decline by any means, but it provided just enough of a change, when coupled with the Twins offensive woes, to prove devastating over the long season. I don’t want to come off as a ‘doom and gloom’ type blogger. Next time, I will do the same type of entry with signs of success brewing for the Twins future. Until next time, GO TWINS!


The Rotation

October 18, 2007

Hello everyone, I’m Graham. Brent’s invited me to post on his new blog, so I hope I can live up to his posting standards. I almost certainly won’t post as often as he does due to my chaotic schedule, but I’ll be sure to do my best.  I also plan on spelling words in true English, so if the use of ‘centrefielder’ and whatnot annoys you, skip my posts. Now that we’re done with the online version of a firm handshake, let’s get on to more interesting things…

There are currently 3 starting pitchers under contract (OK, we have club control over Horacio Ramirez too. But hahahahaha no.) to the Mariners for 2008 – Felix Hernandez, the best young arm in the game, and supporting acts Miguel Batista and Jarrod Washburn. I won’t go into any sort of depth about Felix since every Mariner fan on the planet knows plenty about him (if you want to read even more, I suggest reading this article by Jason Churchill).

Washburn and Batista have had less words devoted to them over the course of their Mariner careers, and that’s probably because they’re fairly boring pitchers. Both sit right at league average, taking different routes to get there. Batista (although he has a reputation as a groundballer) tends towards average in his gb/fb distribution, and gives up too many free passes while maintaining an average K rate, but he kept the ball in the yard and limited line drives.

Washburn is your prototypical flyball pitcher, relying on outfield defence. Jarrod prevents home runs a little better than one might expect – this is probably due to most HR regression ignoring the difference between LF at Safeco and RF. Since Washburn is a leftie, he’s going to have less trouble dealing with the left handed batters and the corresponding short porch in right.

So, those are our guys. A #1, and then two average pitchers, who would assumedly then slot in at #3 and #4. Two slots to fill. The following suggestions have filtered in from the various corners of the blogosphere:

1) Trade for Johan Santana (MIN)
2) Sign Curt Schilling (BOS)
3) Convert one of Ryan-Rowland Smith or Brandon Morrow to become starters
4) Use Cha-Seung Baek
5) Make a trade with the Devil Rays for one of their extras
6) Trade for Noah Lowry (SF)
7) Trade for Scott Olson (FLA)

I think those are the major ones, anyway. Let’s go through their respective merits in order.

1) There is absolutely no doubt that Johan Santana is one of the best pitchers in the game. However, everyone knows this, and as a result the Mariners are not going to be able to match some of the offers that the Twins will receive. Rumour has it that the Dodgers have already offered Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp for him – to give you an idea of what sort of package that is, Kershaw is amongst the top pitching prospects in the game, and Kemp is only a little worse than Adam Jones. Can we match that without destroying the farm system? No. Pass. Oh, and the Twinkies apparently didn’t bite on that, which means they want even more. Scary.

Pros: Awesome pitcher, true #1, potentially devastating 1-2 punch with Felix.
Cons: Not going to happen.

2) Schilling’s a decent pitcher. He strikes out his fair share of batters, and although he’s an extreme flyballer, he doesn’t let anyone on base cheaply. No walks, no HBP – he’s got great control, and would slip in fine behind Felix as our #2 for a couple years. However, he’s old and a massive injury risk in recent years (IP totals of 93, 204, and 151 in the past 3 years), and there’s almost no way he comes on the cheap. We’d probably be looking at a 2+ year deal for lots of money, and that’s a pretty massive gamble. If Schilling were to go down at any point, we’d be using Tacoma’s rotation, and paying $9M or so for the privilege. And he’s likely to keep declining, too. Anyone feel like rolling that dice? I don’t.

Pros: Flyball pitcher with excellent control should be helped by Safeco, possible #2.
Cons: Age-related decline, injury risk, $$$.

3) This one’s a bit interesting. How easy is it to convert relievers to starters? What sort of pitcher is best at making the transition? While that sounds like it would make a fascinating research project, I don’t have time to take a look and see how conversion projects have turned out. What I will say, though, is that relying on having one of RRS and Brandon Morrow turn into a starting pitcher by Spring Training is crazy, because there’s a decent chance you then have 0 starters and no backup plan. It’s a cool project (and I’d bet on RRS making a better starter than Morrow in the short term) and I hope it yields results, but again, it’s a gamble. Starting is a different beast entirely to what they’re used to, and they’ll need to increase their stamina, control, and secondary pitches. If they don’t, things will get ugly.

Pros: Cheap young #5s with upside. Hurray!
Cons: May be just as bad as Horacio Ramirez while they’re learning how to start. May not be able to start at MLB level at all.

4) We know what we’re getting with Baek. He’s got below average stuff but great control, and he lets batters put the ball in the air a lot. He’s also essentially free, and the Mariners don’t have to do anything in particular to use him. I believe he’s best left stashed in Tacoma as a backup plan, but should the reliever-starter experiments go well, the team will have enough depth to cover it.

Pros: Decent #5, cheap, straightforward move.
Cons: He’s not great and we lose some depth.

5) The Devil Rays have something like young 6 pitchers they could happily insert into their rotation next year. Kazmir and Shields are obviously untouchable, but the rest of them might be had for the right price. They’re very likely undervalued as well – folks will look at those high RA numbers and get scared off. As many of you will know, Tampa Bay’s defence could be very generously described as ‘terrible’ last year. My numbers have their D costing them slightly less than one run a game, and THT and co. are in the same ballpark. Spare, young, potentially undervalued pitchers? Sign me up. The problem here is that TB’s front office are doubtless fully aware of this, whereas ours? Not so much.

Pros: Cheap, young, undervalued pitching
Cons: Bavasi is probably one of the ones undervaluing them.

6) Noah Lowry is one of the Giant’s youngsters, and he had a great ERA last year. What could entice General Manager and card-carrying moron Brian Sabean to give up such a pitcher? Perhaps towering first baseman Richie Sexson, along with a prospect or two? Awesome. The problem here is that Noah Lowry actually sucks, and that shiny ERA is a mask for some terrifying peripherals. As a result, Sabes will drastically overrate him and demand more in a trade, and Bavasi might actually give it to him. And then Lowry will pitch like a #5.

Pros: Trade might actually work out.
Cons: Noah Lowry sucks.

7) Scott Olsen needs out of Miami. He’s a bit of a headcase, which will scare some teams off, but he’s young, left-handed, and has talent. The incidents he’s been involved with are a black mark against his name, to be sure, but beggar’s can’t really be chosers. If a deal can be worked out with the Marlins (who must be over that Ichiro thing by now, surely), and the M’s talk to Olsen and decide that he’ll be better behaved, then why not go for it?

Pros: Good young leftie with upside
Cons: A bit mental, no track record, unknown trade demands.

I’ve devoted a lot of words to possible pitcher replacements, but in many ways it doesn’t really matter. I mentioned Tampa Bay’s defense being terrible last year – ours wasn’t anything to write home about either. In fact, improving the defense (which cost our starting pitchers 41 runs last year) to even league average would make a huge difference in our ability to stay competetive. After all, pitching is only part of the run prevention equation. The M’s weren’t Devil Ray bad, but we had some awful fielders going for us. Ibanez and Sexson were the most notable offenders, with Guillen and Betancourt contributing as well.

So the Mariners have a job to do – find two extra pitchers and improve our woeful defense. The free agent market is dicey at best; from what I can see Carlos Silva(?!) is considered the cream of the crop this time through. It might be more advisable for Bavasi to go the trade route, or even down the more novel reliever-conversion path. Interesting times, for sure.

I don’t envy Bill his job right now, because it’s going to be tough. Hopefully he doesn’t blow anything up while trying to patch up our pitching staff.

Good grief, that was a long post. I’m sorry I didn’t go more in depth with stats (believe me, I have a lot when I comes to pitchers, but I was trying to keep it under 1000 words. And I failed utterly). As always, comments, critiques, and questions are welcome.

-Graham


Jose Lopez: Short and Long Term

October 14, 2007

     At the risk of trivializing the Mariner’s other needs this offseason, the Jose Lopez problem should be thoroughly addressed this offseason. There are more pressing needs, but I don’t find any of them as interesting. Jose Lopez is a young middle infielder who could quite easily become an average 2B and still has the potential to be an All Star several additional times (this time earned). While Lopez’s poor performance makes a PR conscious organization like the Mariners eager to find a replacement, Lopez’s potential makes a PR conscious organization like the Mariners scared to trade him.

 

     The problem with Lopez is two fold: the common answer is that Lopez has played in a park that does nothing to hide his weaknesses. After looking over his Safeco hit chart, I think it is fair to say that the park cost him in the neighborhood of 10 extra basehits. This is a very rough projection but if we assume that he were to get 10 extra base hits and it resulted in 5 more homeruns and 5 more doubles his line would have been .270/.296/.412. That isn’t great but it is promising for a 23 year old middle infielder. Lopez only had one extra base hit to the right side of diamond and I don’t think he’s going to start hitting for power to the opposite side of the field in the near future.

 

     The second problem is that Jose Lopez swings at too many pitches that he can’t handle. I am not referring to his low walk totals, because walks do not necessarily tell us the kind of pitches he is swinging at. Here are the criteria I would apply to a hitter to determine what kind of pitches a batter is going after:

1)      BB:K ratio- How a batter is controlling the strikezone.

2)      Pitches per PA- How selective a batter is at the plate. (not all strikes at pitches that a batter can handle)

3)      GB/FB/LD% and HR/FB- If a hitter is swinging at pitches he can handle he should be posting good line drive rates and HR/FB rates. (A handful of players are exceptions to this rule).

4)      BABIP- The test I have built in to bail out hitters who are weak in #2 and #3. Ichiro is a better hitter when he beats the ball into the ball into the ground and gets to first before the shortstops throw. Hitters with abnormal BABIP’s (high and low) should be looked at on a case by case basis to determine the cause for the anomaly be it luck or a repeatable skill or a combination of the two.

 

     Lopez’s BB:K rate is .31 which is below the league average of about .50. Strike one against the friend of Felix. Jose Lopez sees 3.46 P/PA which puts him at 73 of 82 with 500 PA’s (AL). Jose Lopez hits a large number of ground balls and gets less than his share of line drives. His HR/FB is also well below average. He probably got unlucky with a .269 BABIP last season, but considering he has average speed and plays in a park that slows groundballs and turns them into outs, I think it is reasonable to expect Lopez to post a lower than average BABIP.

 

     Fixing Jose Lopez in the short term is as easy as shipping him to another team, preferably one that plays in a park that hides his weaknesses. Lopez will begin to look better strictly on the basis of playing half of his games in another park. For a GM looking to prove himself, this trade is one that will almost certainly make him look smart in the short term.

 

     The long term fix to Lopez is not as simple as a change of scenery. Lopez needs find a way to hide his weaknesses. Waiting for a pitch that he can drive would be an excellent start. I am extremely skeptical of any player whose breakout ability depends so heavily on his pitch recognition ability to go from well below average to above average. This isn’t going to happen overnight and until this improves I see his ceiling as an average player.

 

     I don’t think that Mariners have the patience to wait for Lopez to develop his pitch recognition skills and will cut bait on him before he breaks out. If they do, then we must all wait (which means we will need to be patient) several seasons to know what we are getting with Lopez. A happy medium between the two won’t work because it would be foolish for the Mariners to hang on to Jose Lopez unless they are committed to keeping him around for the duration of his current contract. Why give Lopez two years of AB’s to improve his pitch recognition skills only to let someone else reap the rewards (at pennies on the dollar)?

 

     Jose Lopez has a greater trade value now, than he will at any other time in 2008 and probably 2009 . Jose Lopez’s isn’t due for a big breakout in his current park in the near future and he isn’t getting any younger. The older Lopez gets the less value he has as a player who could break out.

 

     I’m 100% comfortable with trading Lopez for a piece(s) that is a better fit for the Mariners to win in either the short or the long term.

 

     Thanks for taking the time to read this, welcome to the site and comments/critiques are always welcome.

 

-Brent


Welcome to the rest of your lives.

October 11, 2007

Well, I’d like to kick off this blog with a welcome.  My name is Brandon Warne, and I’ll be one of the 4 bloggers that will primarily comprise the blogosphere of this place…..

Edit: My name is  Brent Schwartz, but those around the Seattle-net-o-sphere would know me as as etowncoug. Hopefully you don’t think you will enjoy reading this site. The other authors will edit this little get to know you section when they get the chance.

Look forward to hopefully interacting with some readers

Peace

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