23 May 2017

Orioles Defense: Outfield Gains Countered by Infield

The Orioles have a reputation, particularly in Baltimore, of being a relatively solid defensive team.  True, discussion lingers about woeful corner outfield defense, Jones getting older, and various breakdowns here or there in the infield.  However, the club carries a reputation of being solid when out on the field.  However, most of that reputation appears to have been earned from several seasons ago and carried, by and large, by Manny Machado's inebriatingly awesome feats at third base.

Consider this simple table showing Ultimate Zone Rating by catcher, infield, and outfield.  The catcher value also includes an adjustment for Baseball Prospectus' pitch framing stat plus a projection for this season based on previous seasons pitch framing success (2017 pitch framing numbers so far are junk as MLBAM is trying to adjust to a new system).  Additionally, the 2017 numbers are extrapolated to a full season.

C* IF OF sum
2012 23.4 -9.4 -19.6 -5.6
2013 10.7 46 -6.1 50.6
2014 23.9 20.5 34.3 78.7
2015 17.9 9.9 -1.4 26.4
2016 14.5 24.1 -36.7 1.9
2017** 12.4 0.8 -13.1 0.1

 Outfield defense has always been a bit of an issue for the Orioles.  2014 was a bit of an outlier as the entire club seems energized by a healthy and spectacular David Lough and strong supporting roles from Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Steve Pearce.  Beyond that season though, the outfield tended to struggle with balls emerging from the infield.  Part of this reason has come from trouble when perfectly fine outfielders have to cover for other players.  Other issues arise from once fleet star defenders poorly adjusting to a loss of a step or two.  Regardless, outside of that lone season, outfield defense has not been a great strength of this club.

On the other hand, infield defense has been a strength.  This is perhaps outsized by Manny Machado's amazing 2013 season when he got to everything.  His 2014 season was utterly spectacular and he still shows solid range, exceptional hands, and stunning accuracy.  That said, while he has plus plus range, it is not what it was that 2013 season when he was simply stunning with plus^plus range.  Machado has thickened up slightly and has had some surgery, so maybe that took away some measure of that insanity.  However, a very solid +15 third baseman remains.  Much of the Orioles defensive brilliance was built on that.

That brilliance was largely a strength with plus play from JJ Hardy and good support from Jonathan Schoop and Chris Davis.  Davis still looks like Davis.  Below average skills off the bag and plus skills on the bag.  However, 2017 has seen Hardy look clunky out there.  He seems to have lingering issues with his back which makes his first step a little slow and his ability to get down on balls a bit worse.  He needs to get healthy or he needs to sit.  The annual concern about Jonathan Schoop is also coming to look like reality.  Schoop has managed to stick at second, somewhat surprisingly, due to nimble play around the bag, soft hands, and a strong arm.  The concern had been that as he ages, his lower half with thicken up.  This would decrease his low end speed and make it difficult for him to get down on grounders.  We have seen that quite a bit this year.

At catcher, we have a lot of the same in years past.  Wieters made a name for himself as a defensive wiz prior to the acceptance of pitch framing metrics.  That said, he is a very solid catcher and any diminishing of those skills were replaced by Caleb Joseph's excellent pitch framing.  This season, Castillo combines very good non-pitch framing skills with terrible pitch framing skills.  Joseph is able to offset much of that, so we have a rather similar defensive outlook there behind the plate again.

In the outfield, the Orioles have seen some solid play by a risen Joey Rickard, who should actually get accolades for his defensive performance this year.  He has managed to be a bit more realistic on his chances of getting to fly balls and toning down that senseless aggressiveness has been a boon for him.  Seth Smith has also provided plus defense, which validates my thoughts of his defensive play coming into the season.  Hyun Soo Kim and Trey Mancini have also provided some solid innings in the outfield.  Beyond them, Mark Trumbo is Mark Trumbo.  He is a butcher out there.  And, Adam Jones, I hate to say it, but he is missing a lot of Texas Leaguers in front of him and is not gunning runners down.  It seems that it does not matter much whether he plays his preferred depth or sits back deeper.  My thought was that when Jones would shift back, that he would be nabbing higher value batted balls.  My thought also was with more competent corner defense that he would be able to control his playing area more effectively.  So far, those things are not happening.  He is performing, overall, the same.

Anyway, the outfield has improved.  The infield has lost some luster.  Catching is the same.  So, where is the club offensively and with pitching?  Offensive, the same level of play is coming out of the box--about league average.  However, the Orioles have put up one of the worst performances of the year on the basepaths and are in line to be worth about -3 or 4 wins through poor decision making in the field and maybe some infamously plodding baserunners.  Pitchers, things look the worse they have during Duquette's era by a smidge.  The starters look worse than last year and so do the relievers.

So far, this doom and gloom has not been devastating in the won-loss column, so hopefully that continues or, perhaps, the Orioles start performing in ways that make the win column look more explainable.

22 May 2017

Orioles Pitchers Have Mastered The Clutch Popup

All data in this article does not include Sunday's game.

Every year, baseball fans can look forward to a few constants. The MLB-wide strikeout rate will increase. Mike Trout will be the best player in the American League, and Clayton Kershaw the best pitcher in the National League. And the Orioles will defy expectations, spitting in the face of BaseRuns, third-order winning percentage, and every other model out there.

This season — in the last regard, at least — has been no different. While the O's have gone 25-16 and are neck-and-neck with the Yankees in the AL East, the numbers don't back them up. FanGraphs gives the team a 20-21 expected record, and Baseball Prospectus estimates Baltimore should be 20.5-20.5 (don't ask). It's a familiar story for Birdland, but one element of it is a little different from the past.

Both FanGraphs's and BP's models think the Orioles offense has been unlucky. The real difference comes on the pitching side of things:

  Metric    Actual    FG (predicted)    BP (predicted) 
RS/G 4.78 4.90 5.17
RA/G 4.44 4.98 5.18

On first glance, the pessimism with runs allowed makes sense — to this point, Baltimore's pitching staff has allowed a .333 wOBA, the fifth-highest in MLB. But it's spread that wOBA so as to avoid runs. While the Orioles' .343 bases-empty wOBA is the second-worst in the majors, their .321 wOBA with runners on base comes in 12th. Only the Astros have stranded more baserunners than the Birds this season.

With the bases empty, the O's rank 23rd in strikeout rate and 27th in walk rate. With runners on base, they're 28th and 26th, respectively. Suffice to say, this is not a team that blows hitters away. Where Baltimore has done well is limiting base hits when it counts — the club has MLB's highest BABIP (.328) with no one on, and the fourth-lowest BABIP (.267) with men on.

Now we get to the heart of the matter — the reason the Orioles have given up so few runs this year, the reason they're near the top of the division instead of wallowing around .500. When pitching from the windup, Orioles hurlers have a 2.5 percent popup rate (meaning infield fly balls make up 2.5 percent of all their balls in play). When they're pitching from the stretch, that increases to 6.9 percent.

How rare is a jump like that? Since 2002, when Baseball Info Solutions began tracking batted-ball data, none of the 480 team seasons has stood out to that degree:

Let me put this another way. Over those 16 years, these are the biggest disparities in popup rate by situation:

  Rank    Season  Team   BE_Popup%    MOB_Popup%    Differential 
1 2017 Orioles 2.5% 6.9% -4.4%
2 2017 Mets 1.3% 4.3% -3.0%
3 2017 Red Sox 2.8% 4.9% -2.1%
4 2017 Pirates 2.1% 4.1% -2.0%
5 2012 Reds 2.7% 4.7% -1.9%
6 2003 Angels 3.3% 5.1% -1.8%
7 2012   Nationals  2.5% 4.2% -1.7%
8 2017 Giants 2.4% 4.0% -1.6%
9 2009 Marlins 2.8% 4.3% -1.5%
10 2010   Athletics  2.9% 4.4% -1.5%

You see a few more 2017 teams on the list, but none have gone above 5 percent, much less 6 percent. There's really been no one else like the Orioles.

For at least one Baltimore pitcher, this skill is nothing new. In 2016, Dylan Bundy got 7.1 percent popups with the bases empty, and 9.6 percent popups with runners on. Thus far in 2017, though, he's taken things to the next level: His popup rates in those respective situations are 5.0 percent and *deep breath* … 11.8 percent. And many of his teammates have followed suit — Brad Brach (13.1 percent), Alec Asher (12.9 percent), and Mychal Givens (10.7 percent) are among those in the double-digits from the stretch.

Approach-wise, it's unclear whether the Orioles can keep this up. Pitches in the upper part of the zone are the best for infield fly balls, yet when runners reach base, Baltimore goes low. No other team in baseball has thrown more low pitches with men on. This seems to suggest Bundy and co. will trade those popups for ground balls, which turn into hits far more often.

Still, we can't ignore what's already happened. Last year, the O's induced 70 popups with runners on; this year, they've already racked up 36. Even if they can't sustain that 6.9 percent clip, no one can take those 36 flies away from them. No team in that 16-year sample has broached 6 percent over a full season, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Baltimore has a fly ball-inclined pitching staff, and if those fly balls are of the lazy variety, that'll just make things easier for

We've been saying a lot of things about the Orioles aren't sustainable for a long time now. The 2012 record in one-run games, the 2014 rotation's overperformance, the 2016 power — through thick and thin, the O's just seems to have a way of proving us wrong. Maybe this…

GIF via MLB.com

…is just the latest oddity for Birdland to get accustomed to.

17 May 2017

How is Dylan Bundy Doing This?

If I told you that a team's best pitcher was striking out just over 6 batters per 9, had a ground ball rate that was the second worst among qualified pitchers in baseball, and has seen a significant velocity decline from a year ago, chances are you'd assume this team was not very good.

In fact, this team is (shocker!) the Orioles and the pitcher is (you guessed it!) Dylan Bundy.  Bundy's fast start has many O's fans dreaming of him becoming the ace everyone predicted he would be, and his surface numbers certainly support that theory. He has gone at least 6 innings in every start in 2017 and has yet to give up more than 3 runs in any outing. In short, he's been a rock at the front of a rotation that has so far been hit with injury, inconsistency, and outright badness through the first six weeks of the season.

Look deeper, though, and there seem to be more questions than answers. Bundy has certainly not risen to the top of the rotation through conventional means, as pitchers with declining velocity and strikeout rates generally do not see more success than failure. So, how is he doing it? Well, he has stopped giving up walks and home runs, is limiting hits on balls in play, and is (stop me if you've heard this one before) stranding runners at remarkable rates. Indeed, Bundy's season exhibits some of the classic warning signs for regression, and his FIP and xFIP numbers indicate that Bundy is not likely to run a 2.26 ERA for long.

So, classic Oriole starting pitcher, right? Well, maybe not. Bundy is limiting hard contact and inducing the third most pop-ups in baseball, which is a skill he also exhibited last season. While he is running a probably unsustainably low BABIP of .255, there is also nothing in his batted ball profile to suggest that a major regression is necessarily coming. A low ground ball rate does correlate with a low BABIP, but Bundy somewhat established a profile a fly ball prone pitcher last year as well. He has also maintained a solid K/BB ratio, and with increased command it is possible that he's establishing a low-walk baseline.

What is of legitimate concern, and probably can't be ignored, is the drop in both velocity and strikeouts. Bundy's fastball averaged 93.8 mph last year, while this year it is a much more modest 91.7. That velocity drop likely corresponds with his precipitous fall of nearly two strikeouts per 9 innings, which is the really troubling part. While it is not a topic of polite dinner conversation around Baltimore these days, the fact is that Bundy has an extensive injury history, including shoulder calcification that may be unique among MLB pitchers. He has been durable in terms of throwing a lot of innings, but it is difficult to ignore that decreased velocity often portends injury.

Regardless of injury concerns, though, in general it's very difficult to succeed in this era with a K rate that is well below league average, and this also makes his insanely high strand rate particularly problematic. If he was striking out a batter per inning it would be easier to buy that he has a skill at stranding runners, but a low K rate combined with a low BABIP makes that regression monster look pretty hungry. Of course, maybe the Orioles put something in the clubhouse water that makes the pitchers amazing at stranding runners.

If we can separate ourselves from the injury conversation, I actually think that Bundy has been more real than lucky so far. While a lot of the numbers scream regression there are some equally valid reasons to think that this may not be far off from who he is. I doubt he maintains an ERA below 2.50 this year without a big uptick in strikeouts, but his current FIP of 3.38 seems like a perfectly reasonable number for him to hit the rest of the way, given his batted ball profile and his ability to limit baserunners due to walks. From watching his starts, he does seem to have much more confidence and poise on the mound, even when his command or stuff have been off. That's hard to quantify, but what if I told you that the guy with the low K rate and decreased velocity looks like an ace? Well, then I'd be talking about Dylan Bundy.

16 May 2017

Time To End The Craig Gentry Experiment

Let’s say you’re going to make a pizza at home.  You have all the ingredients to make a delicious pie: pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, onions, etc.  And then, for some reason, you have a box of yellow raisins.

This is not a knock against yellow raisins.  They’re all right by themselves; they’re just not a topping you’d probably ever want to see on a pizza.  They don’t complement the other ingredients. 

Craig Gentry is that box of raisins.

The Orioles signed the 33-year-old veteran, hoping he could provide outfield defense and speed on the base-paths.  Gentry has been in the league since 2009, and has posted a positive WAR in every season he has appeared in at least 64 games.  Thus, it seemed a reasonable dice-roll for a club that specializes in such off-season moves.  

The signing threw him into the backseat of the Orioles’ clown car of corner-outfielder/first-basemen/DH-types.  Buck Showalter deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for the way he’s been able to divvy up time between them, while still winning ballgames.  

They toyed with using Gentry as the weak-side of a leadoff platoon with fellow newcomer, Seth Smith.  It’s not a large sample size, but Gentry’s production (.290 OBP when leading off) is hardly anything to write home about.  

He’s seen his playing time shrink, accordingly.  When he does get into games, it’s usually as a pinch-runner or defensive-replacement - supposed areas of strength for the University of Arkansas product.    

That was another factor that led to Baltimore signing him in the first place – many of the Orioles’ outfielders do not share Gentry’s defensive prowess.  Merely from the eye test, we can see he’s faster tracking down balls than some of his lead-footed brethren.  Whatever acumen he provides is not enough, however, to avoid receiving negative fielding marks on sites such as ESPN and Fangraphs.    

Overall, he's posted a -0.2 WAR.  So, if he’s not providing positive value on offense or defense, one might quote John C. McGinley’s character from Office Space: What would you say, you do here?

Teams use phrases like “provides veteran smarts” and “gives professional at-bats” as explanations to justify keeping guys like Gentry around.  But, in an era of bullpen specialization and hyper-utility players, there’s not much room for corner-outfield defensive-specialists who don’t add much at the plate.

Besides, as I mentioned, Baltimore has plenty of options to turn to (Smith, Joey Rickard, Hyun Soo Kim).  Every hapless Gentry at-bat is an opportunity that could have gone to a player on the upswing of his career. 

Gentry is barely receiving playing time.  He's kind of just there, sitting around like a third set of car keys.  The Orioles would be better served using that roster spot to shore up their bullpen, which has been a leaky faucet of late.  With Zach Britton on the DL, it’s an all hands on deck situation.  Whatever form of relief help that exists in the minors may and will be summoned. 

It’s time to trade him in for some anchovies or at least some pineapple.  

15 May 2017

J.J. Hardy Needs To Make An Adjustment

J.J. Hardy is in what is likely the final year of his contract with the Baltimore Orioles. Sure, he’s got a $14 million option ($2 million buyout) for the 2018 season, but there is no chance that gets picked up if he continues to play the 2017 season the way he has started it. Interestingly enough, according to Cot’s Contracts, that 2018 option vests if he reaches 600 plate appearances in 2017, or a combined 1,150 combined plate appearances between the 2016 and 2017 season. He must also pass a team physical following the 2017, which history tells us can sometimes be a challenge. He’s not going to get to a combined 1,150 between 2016 and 2017, but he is currently on pace for 638 PA’s in 2017.

J.J. Hardy (photo via Keith Allison)
Vesting options aside, Hardy’s most recent contract hasn’t looked all that great for the Orioles, as he’s been worth 2.3 fWAR over the first two years of the deal for a total cost of $24 million (though due to lack of viable SS options available for a team in a competitive window one could argue that it’s not quite as bad as it looks – still not good though). The way 2017 is shaping up for Hardy, it has a chance to look even worse as he’s currently been worth -0.5 fWAR. Both DRS (-1) and UZR (-0.9) say that Hardy’s typically stellar defense has taken a step back this year (albeit in a very small sample size). But if you haven’t been paying attention (just kidding, I know you have), it’s Hardy’s hitting that has absolutely cratered the early part of his season. He’s hitting a (easy) career worst .203/.240/.276 that’s been good for a 37 wRC+. His walk rate is 2.0% below his career average and his K rate is 4.8% above his career average. His line drive rate is down (his fly ball rate is up…we’ll get to that in a second). There is literally nothing positive to discuss when it comes to Hardy’s offensive performance this year.

So why is this happening? Hardy is 34 years old, so it’s entirely possible that his natural physical abilities just aren’t what they used to be, though if that’s true, 2017 has so far been a very steep cliff to fall from. Hardy’s value as a hitter has always come via his power, which is much better than the typical MLB shortstop. But his power is strictly to left field (his pull side). In fact, only 10% of his home runs since 2009 have gone to center or right field. And this year, he is only pulling the ball 31.6% of the time, which is well below his career average of 44.2%. In fact, the last time he pulled the ball below 40% of the time (37.3% in 2009), Hardy finished the year with .229/.302/.357 line, good for a 75 wRC+. While Hardy’s increase in flyball rate is good considering his profile, the fact that he’s not pulling those flyballs is not promising.

As you can see in the figure below, Hardy’s strength as a hitter has always been a fastball in (and up).

This makes sense given his profile as a pull power hitter. As you can see in the progression of images below, pitchers have gradually thrown Hardy inside fastballs less often as his career progressed. They appear to be doing so even less in the early months of 2017.

So Hardy is seeing fewer inside fastballs than ever in 2017. So what is happening to those pitches that find their way into that zone? Not much, as Hardy isn’t turning on them and hitting them with authority like he used to.

Additionally, while I don’t want to lean on exit velocity too much for this analysis with only 1.25 years of data, there is a stark difference between Hardy’s exit velocity on inside pitches between 2016 and 2017 (exit velocity shown is for all pitches thrown, not just fastballs).

It’s possible that Hardy’s bat has just slowed down and he isn’t getting around on those inside pitches as quickly as he used to. It happens as a player ages. With Hardy’s injury history, it’s also possible that he’s not playing at 100%, but we have no way of knowing that. Assuming he’s healthy, he may need to start cheating on inside fastballs or change his approach and commit to hitting the ball the other way, most likely sacrificing his power in the process. He may need to do both, since cheating on the inside fastball will only last for so long until the league catches on.

It’s still early in the season, so there is time for Hardy to turn his dismal start around. However, it’s entirely likely the J.J. Hardy is no longer the hitter he used to be, and that may be ok, if he can find a way to successfully adjust his strategy at the plate. Even if that is the case and Hardy turns his season around, the Orioles may want to hope that he doesn’t reach 600 plate appearances.

12 May 2017

Seth Smith Acquisition Is Paying Dividends

In a move that was roundly praised during the offseason, the Orioles added Seth Smith from the Mariners in exchange for Yovani Gallardo and cash (about $2 million). Because of the difference in salaries, the trade netted the O's some minimal cost savings as well. In terms of roster construction, the deal was at least a little curious. At the time, the O's seemed to be in the market for speed and better outfield defense. The O's also struggled when facing left-handed pitching in 2016, yet still made the move for Smith, a hitter who wears out right-handed pitching but doesn’t bring much else to the table.

Even though the O’s were and still are somewhat thin in the starting rotation (though they do have a seemingly endless supply of long relievers riding the Norfolk shuttle), it made sense to dump Gallardo, who was terrible and not 100 percent healthy in his first and only season in Baltimore. And the O’s were not only able to shed Gallardo, but able to land a competent player in Smith at the same time. (To Gallardo's credit, he's throwing harder this year, seems healthy, and has been decent.) It's hard to find an ideal fit when you're trying to dump a player that you don't want, but it's hard to argue that the O's could have done much better (except, you know, how the whole signing Gallardo part went in the first place).

The Orioles have not just received a good hitter in Smith, but one who has, so far, flourished in his leadoff hitter role. While playing almost exclusively against right-handed pitching -- 73 of his 75 plate appearances have come against right-handers -- Smith has been on a tear since the start of the season. His 160 wRC+ leads the club (he's two points ahead of Trey Mancini), and he’s consistently been on base. His .400 on-base percentage leads the team, comfortably ahead of Jonathan Schoop (.355).

A few things stand out when digging into Smith's batted ball and plate discipline data a bit (keep in mind, though, that it's only mid-May). He's pulling the ball half the time (career 43.1%), hitting the ball harder (38.5% hard-hit balls compared to 32.3% for his career), and avoiding weak contact (7.7% soft-hit balls compared to a 15.6% career mark). Among players with at least 50 plate appearances, that soft contact percentage is tied for sixth lowest in the majors.

Just take a look at Smith's zone breakdown in terms of exit velocity, courtesy of Baseball Savant. The first chart is 2016, and the next one is so far in 2017:

That's a lot more red, and a lot less blue.

As you'd expect, Smith is seeing the ball well and making lots of contact. He's not chasing as many pitches, swinging a bit less overall, and making a ton of contact when he does swing outside the zone (74.4% vs. 62.4% for his career).

Here’s the part you probably expected: Smith is unlikely to keep hitting this well, so who knows how long this will continue. He’s riding a BABIP of .347 (career .301), and he’s never posted a wRC+ above 131. While the O’s have to love Smith performing 60 percent better than the league average hitter, they’d certainly take 30 percent as well.

Bringing Smith on board was a smart move, but maybe it seemed like more of a luxury addition considering the rest of the Orioles' collection of outfielders. Smith has clearly been a useful left-handed bat, though, in a lineup that is frequently finding itself without the team’s other left-handed hitting outfielder, Hyun Soo Kim. Smith is providing the on-base skills that Kim demonstrated last season, but with more power.

Kim could be on the move at some point during this season, but Smith isn't going anywhere. And if he keeps this up, he'll be the Orioles' latest success story in getting the most out of an undervalued player.

11 May 2017

Pedro Alvarez - A Pleasant Surprise in Right Field

Joe Reisel's Archives

When the Orioles had announced that they had re-signed free agent Pedro Alvarez to a minor-league contract, and that they were sending him to Norfolk with the intention of converting him to an outfielder, those of us who pay attention to the Norfolk Tides baseball games were dismayed. Last season, we were treated to the experiment of Christian Walker trying to play left field, and it wasn't pretty. And we had less reason to be optimistic about Pedro Alvarez' playing the outfield. Walker, at least, had been a competent first baseman; Alvarez has widely been regarded as a butcher both at third base and at first base. Walker was reasonably athletic-looking; Alvarez has a body reminiscent of Prince Fielder. There wasn't any reason to think that Pedro Alvarez would be anything less than a train wreck in right field.

It's been a month, and I've had plenty of opportunities to see Alvarez play. He's been playing right field, which is a reasonable plan. As a former third baseman, he's got at least a fairly good throwing arm, and right field in Harbor Park is the smaller of the corner fields because of a party deck jutting into the field from the right-field corner. I've seen Alvarez play eleven games in right field; a total of 100 defensive innings (one seven-inning doubleheader game and one twelve-inning game.) And he hasn't been terrible.

Actually, he's been quite a bit better than terrible. In these 100 innings, he has fielded 43 batted balls. (There's also been one home run hit onto the right-field party deck roof, but one can't expect any right fielder to field that.) Of those 43, five were ground balls through the infield and all five went for singles. Again, it's not reasonable for us to expect a right fielder to turn those ground balls into 9-3 putouts. Three of those ground ball singles occurred with no one on base; it is true that on the other two, a runner on first went to third.. However, in each case the single occurred with two outs and a very fast Syracuse Chief on first base - Rafael Bautista and Brian Goodwin. I think we can cut Alvarez some slack for not holding those runners to second base in those conditions.

Twenty-four of those batted balls were, in my judgment, fly balls (as opposed to line drives.) Alvarez was able to catch twenty-two of them for outs. Alvarez doesn't always look elegant and he doesn't run the best routes, but he has more range than I thought he would and he covers enough ground. One of the balls that fell in was hit down the right-field line and went for a double; it's possible although far from certain that the ball "should" have been caught. The other was a pop fly that fell into no-man's land between the first baseman, the second baseman, and Alvarez - and Alvarez was able to recover and force a runner out at second base. And after catching one of the other fly balls Alvarez was able to double a runner off second base.

That leaves fourteen line drives. Every one of those batted balls went for a hit; eleven for singles and three for doubles. I classified four of those line drives as "hard"; essentially, if they weren't hit right at the fielder they'd go for hits. Another one I classified as '"soft"; that was a ball that just got over the infield and rarely do outfielders catch them. The others were medium-speed line drives and it's not good that Alvarez didn't catch any of them.

But, upon further review, there were only two, maybe three, that I would have expected an outfielder to catch. Some of the line drives found a hole in the infield and landed a few feet behind the infield dirt; it's not Alvarez' fault that he couldn't catch them. Others were well-placed; Alvarez could have caught them had he been positioned differently but then he would have given up other territory.

And here too Alvarez is showing his lack of experience. On two of the line-drive singles, a runner scored from second (and on one of them, the batter took second on his throw home.) And, while on three line-drive singles he was able to hold a runner on first to a one-base advance, on another a runner on first advanced to third.

On balance, Alvarez has made 90-95 percent of the plays I would hope a good right fielder would make. Pedro Alvarez has impressed.

10 May 2017

Adam Jones is Playing Deeper, but is it Helping?

This offseason, the Orioles somehow convinced Adam Jones to play deeper in center field. It's long been posited that Jones would net better defensive metrics, and therefore the Orioles would be improved, by his playing deeper in the outfield. The theory is that Jones, like most outfielders, is faster coming in on the ball than running away from home plate. Jones, for his part, has resisted this change for at least a little while and relied on his knowledge of hitters and counts before relenting.

Whether Jones' playing deeper has helped his cause is questionable, however. On average, Jones is playing 323 feet from home plate in 2017, compared to 300 feet in 2015 and 307 feet in 2016. According to Statcast, not one of the 65 balls in play to center field have gone for hits so far this season. In 2016, just two of the 402 balls in play to center field went for hits.

Jones' ultimate zone rating per 150 innings (UZR/150) in 2016, one of the stats that suffered in 2016, was -9.9. This followed two years of UZR/150 of over 8.0. Early returns in 2017 are less than ideal; Jones' UZR/150 this season is -7.5 - slightly better than last year but still worse than average.

The Orioles' outfield UZR/150 sits at -7.0 so far in 2017, another slight improvement from -11.2 in 2015. The UZR/150 of the outfield in 2015 was just -1.0. While outfield personnel changes, and the combination of Rickard/Mancini/Trumbo is not helping the overall ability of the outfield, that's not a marked improvement from year to year. At the same time, it's hard to know what would have happened but for Jones playing deeper. Perhaps his playing deeper has like Wayne Kirby told Jon Meoli, allowed for more flexibility in the positioning of the less capable outfielders on the roster and helped the team defense compared to what it would be if Jones played 15 feet in.

More important than any of the on-field outcomes is how this story has played out between Jones and the front office. Per Jon Meoli's excellent article on the rationale and early returns, the decision was less of a conversation and more of an edict. Jones claims to have wanted to further his understanding of the team's defensive metrics and voice his opinion as, you know, the guy who actually had to carry out the change, but was never given the opportunity.

The way this played out is less than ideal. I don't want to be the "never played the game" guy - I never played the game - but it's important for analysts in the front office to understand what such a change means for Jones, the man responsible for following their recommendations. I don't mean to assume that the professional analysts simplified the rationale into aggregates, but "playing deeper" means something different when speaking about averages compared to trusting a player's intuition on individual pitches. While recommendations may have been given for scenarios, Jones is certainly not receiving advice on his positioning in-game. Following general orders to "play deeper" takes away the experience Jones has accrued over years of playing decent outfield defense.

At the same time, trusting Jones to know exactly what's best not only for himself but for his partners in the outfield would be naive. The best situation would have been for the Orioles to have Jones and the analysts to sit and work together, to communicate, and to formulate a plan in a partnership between the subject matter expert and the consultant. Even if the result was identical, the fact that Jones was unhappy enough to say it to the press is less than ideal and instructive for the Orioles, other Major League teams, and all professional organizations in existence. It's important to understand and appreciate nuance, and involve the people carrying out the work in the decision-making process.

09 May 2017

Four Ways to Define an Ace (None are Orioles)

Last week in response to a column one of my colleagues wrote about Dylan Bundy, a reader stated that Bundy was too slight in build to become an ace.  That specific, and rather unfounded, assertion did not interest me much, but it led me somewhere else.  On Twitter, I posted the following poll:

I chose those four options with a purpose.  When we generally think about aces, we think about long term performance and, for most general managers, three years is a payoff  window you expect when you throw down big money on an arm.  During that time, you expect a solid cumulative performance, but also the idea that the pitcher will not give you a trash season.  Below is the grouping of pitchers who qualify from 2014 through 2016 using fWAR.

The Highlander Model
18 WAR total
Minimum 5 WAR per season

There can be only one.  This model was a distant second behind first and just barely finished above third.  This model is quite exclusive.  While six pitchers qualified under the cumulative condition, only Clayton Kershaw (22.7/6.5+) and Corey Kluber (18/5.1+) passed the muster on maintaining a 5+ WAR per season.  If I had a fifth option, it would have looked like 21/6+, which Kershaw would have hit.  Regardless, a minimum 5 WAR season is typically a top 10 starting pitcher performance and clearly an upper tier first rotation slot starter.

Kershaw really stands alone here, but that is not exactly historically unique.  In the past twenty years, ball slinging luminaries such as Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Johan Santana, and John Smoltz never climbed to this rarified air.  However, from 1990 until Kershaw's brilliance, we can sprinkle in brilliant campaigns by Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee.  There is only a stretch in the mid 2000s where no one was at this mark.

In other words, the 18/5+ is a model that is the beginning of the third act of Highlander.  The 21/6+ is the model that is the end of the third act of Highlander.

The Raubritter Model
15 WAR total
Minimum 4 WAR per season

By far, this definition won the poll with over 50% and no need for a second round run off.  This level takes its name from the German word originally used to create the term Robber Baron.  These pitchers run the pitching world and there are enough of them to populate a gentleman's club with a poorly made lake lying above a series of large towns.  A minimum of 4 WAR per season tends to mean that every one of those three seasons, the player was an above average first rotation slot starting pitcher.

Kershaw and Kluber rule the roost here, but David Price (17.3/4.4+), Max Scherzer (17.0/5.2+), and Chris Sale (16.6 gain entry/5.2+).  This grouping is one with which there are no obvious weak links.  All are exceptional hurlers who you never really expect to come into a game performing sub-optimally.  Below this run, you begin to run into a few pitcher, while quite exceptional, have some red flags to wave from time to time.

The Kumite Model
12 WAR total
Minimum 3 WAR per season

Kershaw is Frank Dux, Kluber is Ray Jackson, and Sale is that punk Chong Li.  Price and Scherzer also play major roles.  However, this needs to be a full length film and few of the actors can speak well and the dialogue is wretched, so lets add.six more fighters.  On come Madison Bumgarner (14.1/4.0+), Jacob deGrom (12.0/3.2+), Johnny Cueto (14.2/4.1+), Jose Quintana (14.6/4.8+), Jon Lester (14.9/4.3+), and Jake Arrieta (16.1/3.8+).  At a 3 WAR plus level, the minimum performance is within the top 30 starting pitcher performances each year.  This is a level where every pitcher has given at least a respectable first slot performance.

At this point, the club no longer feels all that exclusive.  There are only 11 aces though, which means when parsed evenly almost two thirds of MLB would be without elite pitching.  That might make you think that we are currently in a state of poor pitching talent, but this definition (while normalizing for innings pitched) actually is rather consistent over time.  Additionally, you have players like deGrom, Cueto, and Bumgarner who sometimes seem completely lost when entering a game.  It is not a common occurrence, but there feels like with this group that you might have a decent chance at times.

The Oprah Model
9 WAR total
Minimum 2 WAR per season

You get an Ace!  You get an Ace! Everybody gets an ACE!  Well, not quite.  Almost everybody gets an ace and some clubs get two or maybe three.  It depends on the year.

cWAR Min
Zack Greinke 12.3 2.2
Dallas Keuchel 12.2 2.7
Stephen Strasburg 11.8 3.4
Chris Archer 11.5 3.1
Cole Hamels 11.4 3.0
Justin Verlander 11.0 2.9
Gerrit Cole 10.2 2.3
Carlos Carrasco 10.1 2.5
Masahiro Tanaka 10.0 2.3
Collin McHugh 9.9 3.0
Gio Gonzalez 9.8 2.9
Jeff Samardzija 9.3 2.6
John Lackey 9.2 2.5

At this level, you see some guys where there are arguments about whether they belong to the next class.  Pitchers such as Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Archer, Cole Hamels, and Justin Verlander sound vaguely like ace pitchers and certainly have enjoyed seasons where it would be a given assumption.  The baseline for this group is well below first slot pitchers.  The 2 WAR minimum doubles the pitcher pool from Kumite model, so the worst that anyone has performed in this group is as a below average two slot starter.  Only four of the new batch remained above the first slot 3.0 WAR red line.


In the end, I think the crowd was quite wise on this question and I think this also shows how well WAR is being incorporated in common sense baseball assessment.  Most people chose a definition that would define only five pitchers as Ace pitchers.  That passes the sniff test for me.  For instance, you can expect about 15 pitchers having a WAR above 4 in a single season.  However, to do that three seasons in a row, it collapses that group by about two thirds.  That ability to be a dependable top flight pitcher is what I would call an ace.

Bring on the Raubritters.

04 May 2017

What Leveraged ERA Says About The Orioles Bullpen

On April 16th, the Orioles bullpen gave up four runs in three innings. The consequences were drastic – the Orioles Pythagorean expectation dropped from .524 to .504 (as of 5/3/17), costing them .4 of a theoretical win. This game accounted for four of the forty runs allowed by the bullpen this year, inflating their bullpen ERA by .42 runs. And also, anyone who bet on the Orioles to win that day by ten runs or more ended up losing their wager. But the Orioles, who boasted leads of 6-0 and 11-1 ended up winning easily by a score of 11-4.

On a more serious note, this game illustrates the problem with bullpen ERA. The typical way to determine bullpen ERA treats runs allowed in a close game equally to runs allowed in a blowout. But this doesn’t make sense because runs allowed in a close game are far more valuable than those allowed in a blowout and teams make sure that their best pitchers (at least to some extent) pitch in more close games than blowouts.

Consider the following example. For the sake of simplicity, suppose two teams have a bullpen each with only two relievers. For both of these teams, one reliever is the closer who pitches in close games and one is a long man that pitches in blowouts. If one team has a closer and long man that each have a 3 ERA, while the other team has a closer with an ERA of 0 and a long man with an ERA of 6, then both bullpens have the same bullpen ERA. And yet, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that the team with the closer with an ERA of 0 will have a better bullpen than the other club.

At the same time, it’s impossible to just ignore the performance of relievers in blowouts. On April 28th, the Orioles bullpen gave up nine runs in three and a third innings, blowing a game in which they held  leads of 9-1 and 11-4. The inability of Vidal Nuno to get through an inning successfully helped put the Orioles in a save situation which they were unable to convert. Runs allowed in close games are more valuable than those allowed in blowouts, but all runs still have an impact in a game
The way to deal with this problem is to use something called leverage index. Leverage index measures which situations are tenser than others and assigns a value to them. The stat is normalized so that on average the leverage is 1.00. In tense situations, the leverage is higher than 1.00 (up to about 10) and in low-tension situations, the leverage is between 0 and 1.0. A metric called gmLI, the leverage index when the pitcher entered the game, can be used to determine which relievers are used in the tensest moments and can quantify the difference in importance between the innings thrown by two different relievers. Once we know about this metric, determining a bullpen’s leveraged ERA is reasonably simple. It’s simply (ERA*Innings Pitched*gmLI)/ (Total Innings Pitched By Bullpen* Bullpen Averaged Leverage).

I was thinking about this when I saw Joe’s article yesterday. Joe noted that the Orioles bullpen “finds itself out of the top 10 in all the statistics in which they had previously been dominant.” With a bullpen ERA of 4.12 so far this season (as of Tuesday), the Orioles’ bullpen hasn’t been impressive. But how does their leveraged bullpen ERA compare with their regular bullpen ERA? Here’s how the calculations look.

The Orioles rank 14th in regular bullpen ERA, but 9th in leveraged bullpen ERA. Their numbers aren’t as good as the elite teams like the Indians, White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs, but they’re definitely in that second tier of clubs. The reason for their improvement can be shown by this second chart.

This chart shows the difference between regular bullpen ERA and leveraged bullpen ERA for all teams in the league. The Orioles, with nearly a one run difference, rank third. The average difference is .46 runs, but for the Orioles its .99 runs. This makes sense because the back of the Orioles bullpen is terrible, but the top relievers have been pretty good.

It’s a similar story when it comes to FIP. The Orioles bullpen FIP is 4.06 and ranks 14th but their leveraged bullpen FIP is 3.49 and good for 12th. The delta between their bullpen FIP and leveraged bullpen FIP is .57 – the tenth highest in the majors and considerably higher than the .35 average.

The reason for the difference between the Orioles leveraged bullpen ERA and their bullpen ERA is because the guys at the end of the bullpen have been poor. Nuno, Drake and Crighton have combined for a 7.27 ERA in 17.33 innings – roughly 20% of the innings that the Orioles bullpen has thrown, but have an average gmLI of about .3. Meanwhile, the heart of the Orioles’ bullpen so far: Britton, Givens, Hart and Brach have an average ERA of 1.58 in 45.66 innings with an average gmLI of 1.78. These four pitchers are performing.

As Joe pointed out, O’Day is definitely a concern with a 5.56 ERA so far this season. He’s been used in crucial situations as his 1.85 gmLI illustrates. His FIP is 3.63, largely due to his avoiding giving up home runs so far this season. If nothing else, O’Day is allowing LHB to hit only .118/.211/.118 this season and hasn’t given up an extra base to anyone yet.

However, Baseball Savant thinks that O’Day has gotten somewhat lucky with pitches into play this season. He’s given up only a .275 wOBA in those situations, but should have allowed a .331 wOBA. This could be bad news for his ERA. Still, either he’ll start pitching better against right handed batters, will be used primarily against left handed batters or will be used in less tense situations. The Orioles have enough good relievers that they can afford to use O’Day as a middle reliever if need be.

For bullpens, not all runs allowed should be considered equal because managers can choose when to use their best pitchers. Therefore, managers can use their worst pitchers in blowouts and their best pitchers in close games. This means that determining bullpen ERA requires a leverage component since a run allowed in a blowout isn’t as damaging as a run allowed in a one run game. This is why it’s a good sign that the Orioles bullpen has a better leveraged bullpen ERA than a normal bullpen ERA. Even if the sixth and seventh reliever in the pen struggles, they can still be sure to use them only in the least crucial situations. That’s why the Orioles’ bullpen looks better than bullpen ERA suggests and why Orioles fans should be cautiously optimistic about the bullpen.