22 August 2017

Jonathan Schoop Is Not A Serious MVP Contender, And That's OK

If you dare head to the comments section under a Roch Kubatko or Steve Melewski MASN post, follow along with Twitter banter, or *shudder* read what fans have to say about the Orioles on Facebook, you may be aware that some think Jonathan Schoop deserves more adulation for his impressive 2017. Schoop, in his age 25 season, is having a career year. Across the board, his offensive numbers are superb: .302/.351/.538 batting line, .372 wOBA, 132 wRC+. He's already mashed 27 home runs this year (previous high was 25), and somehow he's walking 5.6% of the time, which, if you watched Schoop bat any time before this season, seemed impossible.

Unsurprisingly, Schoop's wins above replacement totals on FanGraphs (3.4) and Baseball-Reference (4.2) this season are far and away career highs. He may even end up doubling his previous bests, from just last season. This is what fans hoped Schoop could become, even if he does leave some things to be desired in the field (range, flexibility) and on the basepaths (he's not fast). Regardless, it's hard to ask for too much more from Schoop when he's hitting like this.

But just because Schoop has shown massive improvement and is hitting very well does not make him a deserving MVP contender. You may or may not have seen this tweet from a couple weeks back (or this recent follow-up) that, for some reason, compared Schoop and Aaron Judge by using some counting stats and other things in Schoop's favor. How many times have you seen offensive counting stats (with extra-base hits, even) listed without home runs? That's a little weird; I wonder why that is.

Anyway, let's take a current look at the American League leaderboard (position players only; sorry, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber), ranked by FanGraphs' WAR:

1. Jose Altuve (6.1)
2. Aaron Judge (5.9)
3. Mike Trout (5.6)
4. Andrelton Simmons (4.8)
5. Mookie Betts (4.6)
6. Justin Upton (4.1)
7. Jose Ramirez (4.0)
8. Carlos Correa (3.9)
9. George Springer (3.7)
10. Steven Souza Jr. (3.7)
11. Didi Gregorius (3.7)
12. Elvis Andrus (3.6)
13. Justin Smoak (3.4)
14. Jonathan Schoop (3.4)
15. Francisco Lindor (3.3)

Even if you hate WAR for whatever reason, this is a good starting point. You could argue that Schoop's place is a little low among the names around him. You could even argue, I don't know, that maybe Simmons and Betts and some others don't deserve as much credit for being outstanding defensive players (while still being good at the plate).

But I have no idea how you'd go about realistically placing Schoop above Altuve, Judge, or Trout. Sure, Trout missed some time, but he's still otherworldly and is always more productive than everyone else. His 198 wRC+ demonstrates just that. Altuve (167 wRC+) is a machine and plays the same position as Schoop. And to take this back to Judge, even with his second half struggles, his 163 wRC+ is still third best in the AL (Schoop is tied for 13th). All of Trout, Altuve, and Judge are getting on base at a clip of .413 or above while hitting for a lot of power. Schoop has the power part down (not quite as much, but still a lot) but has an OBP of .351. Can he increase that mark more without walking even more? That seems like a ton to ask for, but perhaps Schoop has another level.

That's not really the point, though. Schoop is having a very good season. He is not having a great season, and he hasn't been one of the four or five very best offensive players in the AL. That's not a knock at all, and every team needs players like Schoop. Usually, this type of thing for many fans just means they think their guy isn't getting enough attention. I don't think that's true, but I probably can't convince you of that anyway.

Everyone Missed on Parker Bridwell

Parker Bridwell was once considered a diamond in the rough.  Joe Jordan's group believed in him and threw down a 625k signing bonus on him in 2010.  His calling card was an intriguing sinker/cutter/slider combo that was devastating when on, which was actually quite rare but tantalizing enough that he peaked in the Orioles system around 2012 as a B level prospect.  Bridwell peaked as our 7th ranked prospect in 2012, but continued troubles eroded expectations.

Bridwell could never consistently control or command his sinker or cutter and the Orioles eventually insisted on him to ditch the sinker and to focus on his four seam fastball.  It took what was special about him, the sinker/cutter/slider combo and made him an ordinary minor league pitcher.  Other organizations still held out hope.  The slider would flash plus and scouts who saw him earlier remembered what he was capable of doing with a fully utilized combo.  On several occasions, the Phillies (where many of the Orioles execs under MacPhail wound up during the Duquette era) tried to acquire Bridwell.  The Orioles kept saying no until the flashes of above average pitches with a potential plus working combo faded away.

In April, the Orioles dealt Bridwell to the Angels for cash considerations, which was rumored around 50k.  At the time, I asked an executive for another club why his team passed on Bridwell and he replied, "Is there really anything interesting left? None of his pitches are plus, he cannot throw a change up, and he does not know where the ball will end up. We are trying to win games here and have no room to see if he can be what he was four or five years ago."

It is important to note that Bridwell was worth 50k.  That fact accompanies what the front office executive said and shows that not only did the Orioles give up on him, but that no one was beating down the door to beat out what the pitching starved Angels were offering.  That illustrates how low Bridwell's value had dropped across the league.  The game is unfortunately littered with once promising pitching prospects who never really performed well at any level.  The difference here is that Bridwell wound up doing something that even the Angels did not expect.

2017 Pitching Gamelog
Dec IP R BB SO GSc
W(1-0)6.031451
Dec IP R BB SO GSc
5.025353
W(2-0)6.220456
L(2-1)6.051231
Dec IP R BB SO GSc
W(3-1)6.003566
6.121860
W(4-1)7.021361
W(5-1)7.111471
Dec IP R BB SO GSc
5.043440
W(6-1)7.010465
W(7-1)6.011261
5.041345
W-L:7-177.028184755
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/21/2017.

Over the past month, a couple of articles have been written on Bridwell's turn into a top notch performer for the Angels.  Pedro Moura wrote for the LA Times about how the Angels told him to change his approach.  They told him to no longer focus on throwing four seam fastballs.  He was told instead to focus on his sinker and cutter, what had originally made him such an interesting prospect.  In the Baltimore Sun, Eduardo Encina notes much of the same with the main emphasis being that Bridwell was told not to emphasize his four seamer and change.

Personally, I noticed a couple things.  First, when Bridwell was dealt, a deep dive in social media showed a common refrain from previous Orioles and their family which was a message to Bridwell that things will be better outside of the organization.  I first noticed it when Davies was dealt out and it pops up over and over again.  Second, Bridwell appears to have a smoother windup and is slower to the plate.  His cutter plays well against his sinker, but it no longer flashes plus.  His slider though has gained several inches in depth.  He still has trouble locating it, but it can really disrupt the at bat for a batter.

It appears to me that the organization's focus on making Bridwell a four seam/change up pitcher with a quick approach to the plate led Bridwell away from what he did well and limited the athleticism he could utilize in his pitches.  Those two prongs made it difficult for the club and any opposing organization to see that there was still a decent amount of talent underneath the seemingly wrong-headed developmental approach.

Before we skip too far down the Parker-Bridwell-Is-Now-A-Glorious-Pitcher route is to note that we are talking about 12 starts with a great 2.88 ERA.  His peripherals though suggest he has experienced a wonderful amount of luck.  Half of his earned runs (14) are due to a player scoring himself with a home run.  Only 14 of 80 baserunners have scored on him without directly hitting a home run.  He holds a 83.8% left on base figure, which is about 20% higher than one should expect (70-72%).  A typical LOB% would have him at a 3.27 ERA.

However, keep in mind how few runs are coming in off those home runs and consider his very low 5.5 k/9 rate, which would make him having the second worst rate in baseball if he qualified with innings.  They are a major reason why his FIP is 4.55.  As well as why his DRA is 5.26.  In other words, his peripheral metrics which are a better predictor of future success than ERA suggest that Bridwell's 77 innings of ace-like performance is abnormal.  Instead, we should expect him to slot in as a fifth pitcher in a rotation.  The Orioles though could use one of those, too.

21 August 2017

Orioles Don't Actually Consider Themselves A Playoff Contender

At the trade deadline, nearly everyone expected the Baltimore Orioles to be sellers. And it would have been a prudent move. On July 31, the team was in 4th place of the AL East with a record of 51-54, 6.5 games behind in the division and 4.5 games out of the second wild card. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, they were behind 3 other teams fighting for that second wild card. As we’ve discussed before on this site, it’s difficult to leap frog that many teams, even if the overall games behind seems surmountable.

Instead of selling, they bought at the deadline by bringing in Jeremy Hellickson to improve the starting pitching and Tim Beckham to fill a void at shortstop left by J.J. Hardy’s ineffectiveness and (eventually) his injury. Who knows how close the team actually were to selling. It did seem for a while that Zach Britton was close to being dealt, along with possibly Seth Smith. But that didn’t happen.

Even though neither of those moves were what anyone else expected, they were defensible. The 2017 starting rotation was so bad that they needed someone just to pitch innings to finish out the season. This was needed not only so they could provide Dylan Bundy some rest as the season closed, but also because there were no viable options in AAA to call up. Bringing in Hellickson was an upgrade that helps the team finish out the season at the cost of a non-prospect and Hyun-soo Kim (and international bonus money, of course). It wasn’t necessarily buying at the deadline, it was survival.

As for the deal that brought Tim Beckham to Baltimore, there wasn’t much to analyze. The Orioles brought in a capable shortstop that could hit for some power, who was controllable through the 2020 season. And this able to be done for the measly cost of a pitcher in short-season A ball. Again, it was a perfectly defensible trade, even if it wasn’t what was expected.

Regardless of the actual reasons, the front office stated that those deals were made because they were still going for it in 2017. And I get why they have to say that. The Oriole players don’t need to hear that the front office has given up on the season, and the fans don’t need to hear that the front office has given up on the season. Furthermore, it’s entirely probable that many members of the team's management believe that they’re a playoff team, but their actions don’t show it.

The Orioles have since fallen 11.5 games behind in the AL East. And while they’ve nudged nominally closer to the second wild card (4 GB), they are tied for that spot with Tampa Bay, and now have 4 additional teams ahead of them (not to mention one more team just a game behind). It’s a big hill to climb, and that’s reflected in their current odds of making the playoffs, which dropped to 1.9% according to Baseball Prospectus. Is there a chance they make it? Sure! But to put this into perspective, since 2013 (that’s as far back as the playoff percentage data goes at Baseball Prospectus), no team has made the playoffs with odds at this point in the season. The worst odds a team overcame were the 2016 New York Mets, who were at 13.4% by August 21.

So yes, there is a chance, but there are at least two things the organization is doing that indicate that they are not taking that chance seriously (not that they should). The first is the declaration that J.J. Hardy will be the starting shortstop when he returns from the disabled list (although Showalter seems to have taken a step back from that initial statement). The second is by giving a roster spot to Rule 5 Draft selection Anthony Santander.

Santander had spent the entire year on the 60 day disabled list with shoulder and forearm injuries. Prior to this season, he had yet to reach AA, although he had performed well in High-A in 2016, hitting .290/.368/.494 in 574 plate appearances. Before the start of the season, Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs rated Santander as a prospect with a future value of 40 (a below league average player), with future hit and game power tools grading out as average (he rated both in their present state at 30 out of 80, well below average). Since Santander hasn’t played much in 2017, I’d expect that his scouting report has remained unchanged (Eric’s report can be found here). Despite that, Santander hit very well this year in AA during his rehab assignment, with an excellent line of .380/.458/.780 in 59 plate appearances. After using the full extent of his rehab assignment time, the Orioles had to place him on their active roster or offer to return him back to Cleveland. They chose to keep him.

While I believe that keeping Santander and putting him on the roster was the right decision, it’s another reason that the front office doesn’t take their playoff chances all that seriously. As I mentioned, the odds of them making the playoffs are not good, and in order to make the playoffs, the Orioles will need to squeeze every remaining win out of this roster they can. By putting Santander (another corner OF/1B I might add) on the active roster, Baltimore is either going to give extremely important playing time to someone who hasn’t played meaningful baseball above single-A, or they’ll bench him and essentially play with a 24 man roster. Neither is a good option if you’re trying to make the playoffs in a race that leaves little room for error. And while having Santander on the roster at the expense of someone more capable will only be for a 2 to 3 week stretch until rosters expand in September, the Orioles don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of weeks.

Who knows, maybe Santander will continue to hit the ball well in the major leagues and this will not only help the Orioles but look like a stroke of genius. Stranger things can happen. But I would not bet on it. This seems like a situation where the Orioles want to have their cake and eat it too. And while every once and a while that is possible, most times it is not.

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You can find Playoff Percentages for previous seasons below:
2013
2014
2015
2016

15 August 2017

Crowded House: How A Prospect's Imminent Arrival Will Affect Lineup Decisions

An announced crowd of 4,116 gathered at Prince George’s Stadium, Sunday night, to witness hometown Bowie take on Portland

The Baysox are in a battle for first place, but it was also an opportunity for fans to catch one last glimpse of outfielder Anthony Santander before his Rule 5-mandated promotion on Thursday.  He didn’t disappoint, going 2 for 4 with a home run, showcasing the talent that has him ranked in the upper-echelon of the Orioles’ farm system.

MLB.com currently lists Santander as Baltimore’s ninth-best prospect.  He’s raw, but obviously the power potential is there.  He’s listed at just 6-2, 190, but reportedly looks bigger out on the field.  And, at 22, he may continue to grow into that frame. 

A 2011, international signing by Cleveland, Santander is a switch-hitter, can take a walk, and has the ability to play both corner outfield spots, as well as first base.  As stated before, he needs reps - especially with all the time he has lost to injury. 

Personally, I hate the Rule 5 draft.  While it’s worked out for clubs such as the Orioles in the past (see Flaherty, Ryan), it usually ends up stunting the growth of the key principles involved.  A year of potential development is instead spent rotting away on a Major League bench somewhere. 

With the end of the season closing in, Baltimore will also have the ability to preserve Santander’s rookie status.  That, coupled with the Orioles’ logjams at his natural positions, removes almost any incentive for Showalter to pencil his name in more than once a week.

The players ahead of Santander on the pecking order are some guys named Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith and Trey Mancini.  You’ve probably heard of them, as well as Davismuch-chronicled struggles this year. 

My perfect scenario involves benching Davis, slotting Mancini to first and letting Santander take his lumps in left field.  This, of course, will not happen.  A) Davis is not being paid $21 million dollars to occupy the pine and B) Baltimore still harbors dreams of capturing a wild card spot.  Teams with playoff aspirations don’t tend to hand out starting gigs to unproven rookies. 

To compound matters further, Ryan Flaherty and J.J. Hardy are also approaching the expiration dates on their rehab assignments (though, reportedly, Hardy may need more time on the shelf).  Their return throws the infield into further flux, as Jonathan Schoop and the red-hot Tim Beckham will continue to dominate playing time at second base and shortstop, respectively.

Hardy is making $14 million, in the last year of his contract.  If he’s healthy, the front office will demand his initials be written in the line-up, forgoing the awkward conversation about whether or not that decision holds merit.   

To satisfy everyone’s hunger for playing time, Baltimore could shuffle some of those at-bats to the DH-slot.  Unfortunately, Trumbo – who isn’t exactly setting the world on fire himself – will be spending most of the time clogging up playing time there.    

Meanwhile, cut to a shot of Craig Gentry, Joey Rickard and Ruben Tejada getting completely lost in the complex shuffle.  If the trio is demoted to make room for current DL’ers (and assuming they aren’t lost to waivers), count on at least one of them returning after September 1st

The list of mouths to feed is growing.  Anthony Santander’s hometown is Margarita, Venezuela.  Buck Showalter may need to down one or two adult beverages of the same name to devise a playing-time strategy that is fair to all players involved. 

14 August 2017

Another Fall For Chris Davis


This is not the worst Chris Davis has been, and it's not the worst he's going to be. At 31 years old and in the second year of a massive contract, Davis has been extremely disappointing in 2017 for an O's team that could desperately use the 2013 or 2015 versions of Davis, let alone the one from last season. Instead, Davis has been more like the 2014 version, when he had a similar wRC+ to what he does now (94 then, 93 now) and a wOBA that was just seven points worse.

The strongest sign yet that Buck Showalter and the O's are frustrated and recognize Davis's struggles is that he recently dropped in the batting order. (Showalter also dropped a slumping Davis in the order last August for a while.) On Thursday, Davis received a day off, with Showalter noting to reporters that Davis may not even play on Friday. Instead, Davis found his name on the lineup card, yet he had been dropped from his standard spot at cleanup to seventh. It's also worth noting that Trey Mancini leapfrogged Mark Trumbo, who moved to sixth, with Tim Beckham moving to the leadoff spot and Adam Jones taking over at cleanup. It's not unusual for Showalter to tinker with his lineup in... let's say, interesting ways, but it's hard to ignore a lineup in which Davis is batting seventh (and justifiably so).

The Orioles (read: Peter Angelos) inked a power-hitting first baseman to a huge contract that would start in his age-30 season. Obviously, there were red flags. Things have gotten worse. In 2016, Davis was not nearly as good as he had been the year before (with a 148 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR), but he was fine (with a 111 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR).

Fans were hoping for a rebound, especially since Davis's production throughout his career has been pretty erratic from year to year. As I've noted before, Davis has never had two seasons in a row with a wOBA difference of fewer than 43 points. As of right now, that number is 18, meaning that streak will probably come to an end. Instead of a jump in production, Davis has continued to fall, and the only real comforting thought is his track record: maybe he'll just bounce back because he's done it before.

But again, things aren't trending in the right direction for Davis. Injuries are somewhat of a concern. Davis dislocated his thumb in June of 2016, which had a negative impact on the second half of the season for him. Then this past June, Davis injured his right oblique and missed about a month on the disabled list. He does seem to be healthy now, but it hasn't resulted in an uptick in production.

Let's run through some other concerns. Davis is striking out 36.5% of the time, which is ridiculous, even for him (career 31.7 K%). His .210 ISO is approaching the worst mark in his O's career (.209 in 2015). He's continuing to offer at fewer pitches in the strike zone (53.3%), and is again swinging a bit less overall (42.1%). Both marks would be career lows. He's also making less contact on out-of-zone pitches (47.4%), which would also be a career worst. And all of this is coming with opposing pitchers being less afraid to challenge him in the zone (43.5 Zone%, highest since 2014).

Davis's deteriorating pitch recognition skills are a serious problem. Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer highlighted as much in his June piece, "Chris Davis Has Become MLB’s Caught-Looking King":
Davis, though, is taking called strikeouts to an unprecedented extreme. After striking out looking 56 times in both 2014 and 2015, he set an all-time single-season record last year with 79 punchouts, breaking the previous record of 72 set by Jack Cust in 2007. (Cust is the only other hitter ever to top 67.) And Davis seems determined to obliterate his own record this year. The average hitter this season has struck out looking at a rate that would translate to 30 punchouts per 600 plate appearances. Davis has already been rung up 35 times in just 208 plate appearances, putting him on pace for a ridiculous 109. The 11-strikeout gap between Davis and the next-most-frequent looking-K victims of 2017 — Keon Broxton and Ryan Schimpf, who are tied with 24 — is as big as the gap between those two and the 11 hitters who are tied for 39th place. Davis is the king of caught looking. And while striking out isn’t awful in the abstract, he can’t hit homers if he doesn’t swing.
Davis's oblique injury occurred a couple weeks after that post was written, so topping his dubious record from last season may be out of reach. Still, despite missing that time, Davis is the current leader in called strikeouts with 51. That's four more than Aaron Judge, who has stepped to the plate 125 more time than Davis.

Davis not swinging the bat, even at strikes, is worrisome. But things haven't gone as well even when he makes contact. Let's look at three of Davis's batted ball statistics from 2015-2017, courtesy of Statcast. Keep in mind that for all of the ranks, the minimum is 30 batted balls.

Exit velocity
2015: 91.9 mph (18th)
2016: 90.8 mph (t-61st)
2017: 89.2 mph (t-79th)

Barrels/PA
2015: 9.9% (t-6th)
2016: 8.0% (29th)
2017: 6.1% (t-96th)
Barrel = Well-struck balls with an expected BA/SLG above .500/1.500

Average batted ball distance
2015: 217 feet (t-12th)
2016: 213 feet (t-19th)
2017: 210 feet (26th)

Davis's offensive skills were always going to deteriorate at some point in the next few seasons. That's how things work with first basemen. Unfortunately, he has declined faster than anticipated. In reality, Davis hasn't really been good since the first half of 2016, when he posted a wRC+ of 123.

This is the part where we talk a little more about Davis's $161 million contract (in which he's paid $23M per year, with $6 million of that deferred without interest per year). The non-deferred part of his contract runs through 2022, and he'll be receiving deferred payments through 2037.

Unless things turn around in a hurry - and it's still possible Davis rights the ship - the Orioles will be paying money for a long time to a player who isn't very good, without receiving the exceptional upfront production they were hoping for. The most positive thing you could really say about the Davis deal at the time was that the O's decided to spend that money on any player at all. It still looked misguided, and it will almost assuredly end up being discussed and mocked the same way that Ryan Howard's and Albert Pujols's contracts are. That's how things work with aging first basemen. But even those guys didn't fall off as quickly as Davis has.

There's really not much else to say. Davis's contract is unmovable, and he either starts playing better or he doesn't. He's still going to find his name in the lineup card on a daily basis as long as he's healthy. If this is the new normal for Davis, there's a lot of disappointment to come.

Photo via Keith Allison. Stats via FanGraphs and Statcast. Salary information via Cot's.

09 August 2017

Dylan Bundy Has Been Just What The Orioles Needed

Dylan Bundy hasn't been amazing this year. He's not a Cy Young candidate, and he doesn't get discussed among the best pitchers in the game. He isn't one, at least, right now. But for the second season in a row, he has maintained his health, and he's producing actual, needed results in a rotation that has been filled with question marks and disappointment for most of the season. Simply put, he's more than been up to the task.

Most recently, Bundy was excellent in Monday night's win over the Angels. In seven innings of two-run ball, Bundy struck out 10 and didn't walk a batter while mainly relying on his fastball and infamous slider/cutter.
It was one of Bundy's best starts of the season, and it just so happened to come after he held the Royals scoreless over eight innings in his previous outing (while only throwing 93 pitches).

The Orioles have continued to give Bundy extra rest when they can, with the apparent goal for him to throw about 180 innings. Some think that's too much, while some don't think he should be limited at all. I tend to lean on the more cautious side. For now, though, Bundy seems fine. Perhaps the additional rest has helped. In the first half of the season, his average fastball velocity was 92.45 mph. In the four starts after the break, he's averaging just under 93 mph. That's not much, but everything little bit helps.

From mid-July on last season, after Bundy transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation, he averaged 94.8 mph on his fastball. So that is definitely a decrease of a couple miles per hour from last season, but there's also one major difference in Bundy this year. He's throwing his slider/cutter! (And he's using it about 20% of the time.) One concern among scouts (and obviously notorious cutter hater Dan Duquette) is that throwing the cutter too often can lead to a decrease in fastball velocity. I'm not saying that's directly the reason for Bundy's velocity decline, but it can't be easily discounted.
It's worth pondering whether Bundy can be a top-of-the-line starter with an average fastball velocity (the major league average for starting pitchers this season is 92.3 mph). Bundy is easily one of the Orioles' best options, but, well, any decent starter would be in the team's current situation. You might take the resurgent Kevin Gausman over Bundy, but that's it.

Most importantly, Bundy seems to be healthy. And he has taken a step forward this year, even if his velocity hasn't followed suit. In his 71-plus innings last year, Bundy had a 4.52 ERA and a 5.24 FIP. In a little over 134 innings this year, he's lowered both, with an ERA of 4.15 and a FIP of 4.70. His strikeouts have taken a bit of a tumble (from 9.04 K/9 to 7.17), but he's also issuing fewer free passes (from 3.77 BB/9 to 2.68).

There's no saying Bundy doesn't have another gear. He could be even better next season, especially since the O's will surely be done talking about innings limits with him. But even if this current version is what he's going to be, that's still pretty good! The Orioles need more cost-controlled young pitching. Obviously Bundy's hype from 2012 got many people excited and hoping he could be a superstar, but he'd be far from the only amazing talent to not end up being phenomenal. The Orioles went through this with Matt Wieters. The hype can get out of control, and there's almost nothing a player can do to live up to that potential. Sometimes it can be just as simple as having a good player is better than a bad player.

It's been well discussed that the Orioles will need starting pitching next season. They sure do, with only Bundy and Gausman penciled in as starters. But you could do worse than building a rotation around those two pitchers, with Gausman under team control through 2020 and Bundy through 2021. It would be nice if the Orioles could develop more pitchers to join them, or even just add some veterans who aren't terrible. It seems easy, but maybe it's not.

08 August 2017

Who Hits Like Hays?

Austin Hays has been on a tear this year. Actually, he has been on a tear for abut a year and a half.  When drafted, the common refrain was that he did basically everything average.  Hitting, power, running, fielding, arm...all average.  That is why he lasted to the third round.  Hays had no obvious tool that could drive his way through the minors and his collegiate career was not against the highest of competition.

So, the Orioles drafted him and he went on the aforementioned tear.  Hays has shown a great approach at the plate, which seems to play up his contact ability.  He also is a bit aggressive, but his contact rate is high enough that he does not strike out all that much, but rather produces weak contact on pitches he probably should be taking.  That has not been a detriment at low A, high A, or AA, but it may be more troublesome in the Majors if his ability peg him as a sub-.270 hitter as opposed to his consistent .330 performance in the minors.

Register Batting
Year Lev PA HR BA OBP SLG
2016A-1534.336.386.514
2017AA15310.333.362.632
2017A+28016.328.364.592
All 58630.332.369.582
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/4/2017.

Last week, a reader asked for me to do some similarity scoring for batted ball profiles.  The reader noted that Jonathan Schoop's profile looked awfully similar to Austin Hay's.  When one looks at batted ball profiles for Major Leaguers while including only the stat line available for Minor Leaguers as well, you wind up comparing ground balls, line drives, and fly balls as well as whether the batter pulled the ball, went to center, or to the opposite field.  These similarities only consider that.  They do not consider how many walks or strikeouts a batter has or even the quality of the contact.  They simply look at effectively the launch angle and direction.

Austin Hays this  year has been a strong pull hitter with over 50% of his batted balls going to left field.  He also is a pretty even fly ball / ground ball with a tendency to hit line drives more than his peers. Below are the results for Austin Hays in comparison to batted ball profiles for players during the 2016 season in the Majors (top and bottom 5% comps):

Name Total
Gregory Polanco 34
Asdrubal Cabrera 37
Josh Donaldson 59
Carlos Beltran 60
Alex Gordon 66
Edwin Encarnacion 71
Victor Martinez 71
Jason Kipnis 73
----- -----
Ian Desmond 209
Jean Segura 209
Adam Eaton 214
Jonathan Villar 214
Eric Hosmer 215
Yunel Escobar 218
Joe Mauer 223
DJ LeMahieu 270
Howie Kendrick 284

Polanco is the batted ball profile that immediately comes to my mind for Hays.  I think a major difference between the two has been the amount of power shown this season for the 22 yo Hays (~.260 ISO) and what Polanco managed at age 21 at the same level (~.150).  The second difference is Hays' poor ability to walk while Polanco was able to bring in league average walking ability.

Power tends to have more staying than walks in the minors, but the two players do seem to be in the same orbit.  Asdrubal Cabrera also had a similar profile at that age and actually looked a great deal more like Polanco.  He too had an ISO around .150 and an average walk rate.  Similar to Polanco, Cabrera retained a decent walk rate to balance out a batting average that collapsed from a .300 minors hitter to a .265 majors hitter.  On the bottom end are all players with extreme groundball rates and a tendency to usually hit the ball to center or to the opposite field.

Again, for emphasis, the similarities are simply who at the MLB level has the most similar or least similar batted ball profiles.  It does not consider any other aspect of hitting.  It should also be known that hitting mechanics can be altered significantly upon reaching the majors.  That said, usually it does not.  As long as Hays keeping making contact, he will be hitting the ball similarly to a group of rather solid talent.

07 August 2017

The Future of Zach Britton

In case you hadn't heard, the Orioles didn't trade Zach Britton. Despite what seemed like strong interest from multiple teams, most notably the Astros, the non-waiver trade deadline passed and Britton stayed in Baltimore, gaining a save and win in the week since. Details surrounding the deal have begun to leak out, with multiple reports saying that the Astros may have been a bit stingy with their prospects, and as such the Orioles decided to keep their dominant closer.

But, for how long? While the Orioles have played well since the deadline and find themselves in the midst of the wild card hunt despite what remains a sub-.500 record, it seems Britton's future with the club is still very much in doubt. MASN's Roch Kubatko has repeatedly questioned the likelihood of the team agreeing to a substantial raise for Britton in arbitration, which brings up inevitable speculation that the team may yet end up dealing him before the 2018 season.

The issue seems to revolve around the fact that Britton, who is making $11.4 million in his second to last year of arbitration, may be in line to make as much as $12-13 million next season. This would track with raises for guys like Aroldis Chapman ($3 million raise in his last arbitration season), Wade Davis ($2 million), Greg Holland (nearly $4 million, but was non-tendered leading into his last arbitration year), and Kenley Jansen ($4 million). Given the number of holes the team is facing in the rotation as well as other arbitration raises to players like Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and Brad Brach, there may be concern that spending top dollar for one year on Britton doesn't quite fit into the budget. Indeed, spending potentially 10% of the payroll on a closer may be unpalatable, especially if the team fails to make the postseason this year.

The choices, then, are: tender Britton a deal with an almost certain salary increase and keep him, tender him a contract and trade him, or non-tender him. Kubatko's reporting hasn't explicitly entertained the notion that Britton will be non-tendered, but if front office misgivings about a salary increase for Britton are public knowledge it could torpedo any leverage that the club would have to make a deal immediately after the season. Given the repeated insistence by the front office that the Orioles are attempting to compete in 2018, however, it also seems unlikely that the team will want to move Britton for less than they could have gotten at the deadline.

That said, it is almost certainly the case that Britton's injury plagued season had something to do with the less than stellar trade offers. Over his last four outings as of August 6, however, he's been his usual fantastic self, throwing 3 1/3 perfect innings. His velocity has returned and he looks like the Britton of old, just maybe a couple of weeks later than would have been ideal. If he really is back, there is going to be some serious regret on the part of contenders that could have had him if the offer had been better.

Continued outstanding performance will certainly keep his trade value up, even though relievers historically have been valued more highly at the deadline than in the off season, but anything less than a dominant August and September will raise very interesting questions. Certainly, the idea that the Orioles would simply non-tender Britton and get nothing in return seems totally insane, but the fact that there isn't an iron clad commitment to pay Britton an expected arbitration raise opens up the remote possibility that it could happen. If teams sense that Britton may be non-tendered, the likelihood that the Orioles would get anything approaching the return they were offered at the deadline seems implausible. What both Britton and the Orioles really need is for him to continue to pitch well, which would open up multiple options in the off season, maybe even including signing him long term.

Even if he doesn't pitch great down the stretch, however, it isn't impossible to imagine that teams will be interested in him on a one year deal worth something like $14 million. Zach Britton, even at that price, surely does not have negative value. The Orioles wouldn't have much trouble moving him regardless, but of course the return could be much, much lower than someone with Britton's talent level deserves. So, the solution is: Pitch great and things will be fine! Maybe I should just send the whole team a memo...

02 August 2017

Orioles Take the Road to 2018

While so much focus on the trades laid on whether or not the club is built to be a contender or refreshed the prospect ranks, I think a bit more nuance might be best.  The post will look at a few areas of the club and what exactly the future holds.

Shortstop and Third Base

In early October 2014, the Orioles solved the left side of the infield for three seasons.  They inked J.J. Hardy to a three year deal (and an evergreen fourth year) to create a defensive stalwart combo between him and Manny Machado.  Machado kept up his end, but Hardy quickly developed a problematic left labrum issue that sapped his power and, eventually, a bad back that sapped his defense.  At the time, it looked like a decent solution, one that I was only mildly against.  It has turned into one of the worst contracts in Orioles history.

In 2017, Hardy never seemed to get healthy and his body appears broken down.  Two days ago, he was placed on the 60 day DL, which is where players go and are never heard from until November.  The club has trotted out Jonathan Schoop, Ryan Flaherty, and Ruben Tejada.  Schoop simply does not have the range and has trouble getting down onto balls.  Flaherty has yet to have the bat that was rumored on his minor league scouting reports.  What Tejada lacks in defense, he lacks more in offense.  All in all, none are good solutions.  Machado can play there, but it remains to be seen where exactly he envisions himself.  Is he an otherworldly third baseman or is he one of the handful bashing shortstops?

A few weeks back, the Orioles inquired on Adeiny Hechevarria.  He has two years left of team control and will be earning about 4.5 MM next season.  The Orioles allegedly floated a low minors arm and Hyun Soo Kim.  The deal supposedly ended with the salary offset the Orioles were looking for.  Instead, Hechevarria went to the Tampa Rays.  With Tampa, his defense has been great and he seems to hit the ball hard.  Maybe the Rays are looking to revamp the swing because as good as the statcast metrics look, he has done nothing at the plate.

The Rays made their decision though and seem to be sticking with it because they jettisoned Tim Beckham to Baltimore.  Jettison is the right word, the Rays grew weary over the years with Beckham's behavior.  Several instances of lagging on the field and rumors beyond appear to evidence their alleged irritation and the eventual transaction of a young-ish, defensively able, decent bat for a shortstop player to an in-division rival.  In return, the Rays got an interesting, but not too interesting pitching prospect in Tobias Myers.

Tim Beckham
Age PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ UZR(SS)
25223.222.274.42993-2.1
26215.247.300.434991.3
27345.259.314.40796-1.8
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/1/2017.

What may make Beckham special is that while he plays an average-ish shortstop, he is also capable of playing second base and third base.  This enables him, if he does start, to adapt to whatever the Orioles choose to do with Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado.  The offensive output is fairly playable as well.  Not exceptional, but playable.  In the end, this move gives the club three years of control (Beckham is entering his first arbitration) for player who could solve holes at several positions.  He is not exceptional and their are some considerable red flags attached, but it could be a boon.  It is a move that builds for this year and next and perhaps two more.

Starting Rotation

The sense is that the Orioles attempted to deal Zach Britton for at least one starting pitcher to plug into the 2018 rotation.  For one reason or another, that did not happen at the trade deadline and now we can all assume whatever we wish to assume about anything.  Moving on, the Orioles did one major move that potentially could improve the 2018 rotation: trading for Jeremy Hellickson.  Hellickson was acquired for the aforementioned Hyun Soo Kim as well as some international money and Garrett Cleavenger.  In other words, the Orioles sent away things they do not use for something they could use.  Now, Hellickson is a free agent at the end of the year, but he could help next year's rotation by letting the fatigued Dylan Bundy have extended rest for the remainder of the season or even be shut down completely.

Anyway, that is the hope.  The 2018 rotation looks to be Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and three people who have never been in my kitchen.  Who are those three men?  I do not know.  Ideally, something happens over the next couple months with Jayson Aquino, Alec Asher, or someone out in the ether like Lucas Long making themselves known.  Otherwise, a good portion of the 50 MM or so coming off the books will need to be devoted to rounding this group out.

Outfield

All signs appear to point to Austin Hays gracing the big league club at some point.  His batting approach does not appear to include walking, so that is always a concern.  However, he mashed HiA pitching and continues to mash AA pitching, so a jump to Baltimore would not be unheard of.  He will likely struggle, but that seems to be a logical move.  Cedric Mullins is also making a similar claim.  Add those with Joey Rickard, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, and Trey Mancini, and, well, that is your likely outfield bucket.

Ideally, the club finds someone, anyone, to pick up Trumbo for nothing.  He has some value, but it does not offset his contract and he really no longer has a place on this club with Mancini appearing to continue his breakout season.  Mancini lacks the athleticism to be a long term solution for the corner outfield positions.  His best spot is a Trumbo-less designated hitter position.  That really leaves Rickard, Jones, Hays, and Mullins to figure things out.  One outside of the box idea is that perhaps Jonathan Schoop's range has collapsed so much that a move to right field might be in order.

Catcher

Perhaps the only two conclusive misses for this past trade deadline are that Welington Castillo and Seth Smith are still around.  We do not know what the markets were and I did not hear anything on Castillo at all, which makes sense because the only non-move that made me nervous is the presence of Castillo.  As we have already established, a lot of money probably needs to rain down on the rotation and Castillo may hamper that slightly.

Last winter, Castillo was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks.  They could find no takers willing to go through arbitration with Castillo.  The Orioles made their way to him once he hit the open market and gave him a player option for 6 MM.  Castillo is not a good catcher and his bat has been stuck in the doldrums, so it is becoming increasingly more likely that he accepts the option.  This would not be ideal for the club because Caleb Joseph has shown he deserves to be around and Chance Sisco is polishing off his minor league career to be promoted next Spring.

Conclusion

Several media reports have put the Orioles down as losers at the deadline.  They failed to get anything out of the commodities they possessed.  Even the most blatantly unneeded and somewhat wanted commodity, Seth Smith, remained with the club.  With the industry discussing the coming cliff after the 2018 season without a strong farm to deal with the likely mass exodus.

It is true that the commodities that the Orioles have the rights over could have buoyed the system somewhat.  Rumors have it that Britton was effectively worth a cost controlled 2018 starting pitcher plus two interesting prospects (read: not top 100).  The question then becomes to what extent does Britton really improve the farm by trading him?  What really is the loss in value come this winter?  If the loss is as much as a top tier minor league 2018  ready starting pitcher, then is that really worth all that much.  A general study would state that value is about 25 MM, but the median value is about 4 MM.

In other words, a forest of prospects is very meaningful, but a solitary tree does not mean all that much.  Britton's value would have been fully in the trade column if he could pull back a top 10 truly elite talent, but that did not appear to be the case.  So while the Orioles should have moved Britton, perhaps, there simply was not a true location to send him for it to mean all that much.

In turn, the trade deadline for the club was much more about tinkering for 2018.  It is doubtful that the club can finish out 35-21 in the remaining games to win it all.  That is why you did not see the club make any win now moves.  The moves were simply to shoulder this season and build for another run next year.  That probably is the most you can ask for when the return value on the deals was firmly in a gray area.

Easy deals, top 10 prospect deals, would be something I would trust to a potentially outgoing senior executive.  However, deals with nuance truly requires whoever will be leading the club over the next few years to make that decision.  Many of us have said it, Duquette needs an extension or the club needs to find who that next chap with the splendid title is.  From there, the future can be directed.

01 August 2017

So you're telling me there's a chance!

There a lot of ways you can sum up the Orioles 2017 season.  Most of them involve colorful, four-letter words.  In times of insanity, sometimes we must comfort ourselves with humor, lest bleakness envelope us completely.  So, let’s sprinkle in a few quotes from the timeless (and aptly-titled) Farrelly-brothers classic, Dumb and Dumber

Do you want to hear the most-annoying sound in the world? 

For baseball fans, it has to be the sound from a front office in denial.  For weeks, the Orioles’ brass has done a good job talking out of both sides of their mouths, promising both fire-sale and contention in practically the same breath.

We live in the bright and glorious age of advanced metrics and baby-faced, whip-smart general managers.  Despite this, it often feels like the Orioles’ baseball department procures their analysis from the contents of a crumpled-up newspaper. 

Here’s a neat fact: Fangraphs pegs the Orioles with a 3% chance of grabbing a wild card slot (sterling when compared to their .4% chance of winning the division).  To add insult to injury, even the last place Blue Jays have better odds.

Baseball fans aren’t stupid.  They can spot a dud when they see one.  Look no further than the Orioles’ middling attendance numbers, this season (26,704, 19th in MLB).  And yet, there was Dan Duquette, on Monday, confidently informing reporters that Baltimore is going for it. 

While the quote sounds like a man trying his best to get fired, long-tenured Orioles fans can detect the strong whiff of ownership behind the rhetoric. 

I do believe the Orioles will play better down the stretch – not so much because of their controversial-acquisitions, but because the law of averages states the overall-talent of this club is too great to play .429 ball, as they did in May and June. 

Still, when your best-case scenario involves an appearance in a one-game-playoff, it’s time to burn the ships and rebuild with the future in mind.  The Orioles have done neither, failing to capitalize on expendable assets (Zach Britton, Brad Brach) and going out and acquiring players who will have little to no re-sale value. 

The perfect epitaph for the Orioles’ season is the quote from this gem of a D&D scene.



Well, minus the whole redeeming part.  Redeeming implies light at the end of a dark tunnel.  It would mean that all this agony would someday be worth it.  There is little to no evidence that will be the case.