31 October 2013

The Contrarian's Guide to the Orioles 2013 Gold Glovers

Taking a Black and Orange perspective, there is a bittersweet appreciation for Gold Gloves.  The Orioles organization is one of the most storied franchises in being awarded the honors, but there has often been great distress over players not being awarded them.  For instance, let's look at Cal Ripken Jr.'s career at shortstop and how often he was overlooked is we assumed that Baseball Reference's Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average metric is a suitable metric for defense (after all, it marks Mark Belanger as one of the greatest shortstops ever, so it has that going for it):

Year Ripken's Rtot Winner Winner Rtot
1983 11 Alan Trammell -1
1984 23 Alan Trammell 15
1985 0 Alfredo Griffin -4
1986 16 Tony Fernandez 4
1987 0 Tony Fernandez 6
1988 -6 Tony Fernandez 8
1989 20 Tony Fernandez 13
1990 22 Ozzie Guillen 12
1991 22 -- --
1992 12 -- --
1993 11 Omar Vizquel 14
1994 17 Omar Vizquel 8
1995 22 Omar Vizquel 1
1996 2 Omar Vizquel 1
From above you can likely surmise that Ripken was cheated out of many Gold Gloves that were won by traditional, athletic, highlight reel shortstops.  Among all AL shortstops, Ripken ranked first in Rtot for shortstops in 1984, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1994.  In Baltimore, it seemed fairly obvious how skillful Ripken was at playing the position, but it was not a strong enough industry perspective for such a transformational figure to eclipse that traditional view of wiry, springy shortstops.

Perhaps two of the biggest overreaches in recent history for the Gold Glove process has been awarding Rafael Palmeiro one back in 1999 when he had only put in 29 games at first base and then the 2008 one that went to rest on Nate McLouth's fireplace mantle.  For the former, it is somewhat understandable why Palmeiro won the award.  He was a great defensive first basemen and he won the honor the previous two years.  Managers and coaches who vote on these things often use their long memory of who excels out there.  They see more of the career of a player than a season, so they may have been completely surprised that injuries had limited Raffy to only 29 games.  It was not a poor selection in terms of assessing talent, just the manner in which these awards are handed out simply cannot see some major trends.

The selection of Nate McLouth is a bit more problematic.  McLouth has never held the title of being a good defensive center fielder.  He did not have it in the minors.  He did not have it in his first few seasons in the Majors.  This is a general scouting view and a view that is largely supported by whatever defensive metric system your heart desires.  He was an offensive centerfielder whose bat overcame his shortcomings in center.  McLouth also looked good out there because his fielding looked like 100% effort and he had great hands.  Whereas a Corey Patterson would run over underneath a ball and catch it, McLouth would run over and successfully dive.  Simply, McLouth had highlight reel plays while putting up one of the worst starting center field performances in baseball.  His final Baseball America scouting report summarizes his defensive play well: "A 'tweener, McLouth lacks the desired power for an outfield corner and the range for center field."

For the most part, I don't really care about these awards or any of the major individual achievement awards in baseball.  Most of them do not make much sense in their methodology.  However, I find myself drawn back into them year after year because they are not meaningless.  They impact the perception of a player and, in turn, impact his value.  To that end, I tend to face again and again comments about how Nate McLouth is a Gold Glove outfielder and is an adequate replacement for Jones or, even, that McLouth should be the center fielder and is superior to Jones.  I am not sure how people come to that conclusion.  Watching a handful of games a week, you can see the limitation in McLouth's range and how that would be a significant impact on a team if he patrolled center field.  In fact, the year he won, he brutalized Pirates' pitching by simply not being able to make plays on balls because he would come a few steps too short.

So, a Gold Glove is not all.  Rawlings knows this to be true.  Many of us who do some level of advanced scouting know it to be true.  However, the Gold Glove is a gold standard for right or wrong.  Rawlings, having had some of their thunder stolen by John Dewan's Fielding Bible efforts, decided this past year to revise their process.  They have incorporated defensive metrics to the extent that they now make up 25% of the voting.  Here is a blurb from a longer article:
The SABR Defensive Index draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball, location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts. The three metrics representing batted ball data include Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, Ultimate Zone Rating developed by noted sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, and Runs Effectively Defended built by SABR Defensive Committee member Chris Dial. The two metrics included in the SDI originating from play-by-play data are Defensive Regression Analysis, created by committee member Michael Humphreys, and Total Zone Rating.
That is an improvement.  The human error from managers and coaches who cannot see every player and who lean heavily on past seasons as well as word of mouth should be overcome if Rawlings wishes to have a more meaningful award.  A similar approach should also be incorporated in other awards in order to improve their precision and accuracy in identifying the right player.  Basically, if we can improve the process in order to better achieve the objective, why not do it right?  Of course, with uncertainty in metrics and the errors with human evaluation in small sample size, we should expect some controversy to continue.

This leads us to the title of this post: the Contrarian's Guide to the Orioles 2013 Gold Glovers.  For the second portion of this article I will try to do my best to dispute the winners and object to the losers.  Some arguments will be easier than others.

Making an argument for those who lost

AL Catcher Finalists:
Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals  ** WINNER **
Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles

In 2012, the analytical community was a buzz with how well Salvador Perez played in only 76 games.  Over a full season, his glove projected to being worth between two and three wins alone.  Added to that, he could hit.  Wieters won that Gold Glove, just as he did the season before.  The third finalist was Joe Mauer who had a resurgent year behind the plate after several seasons where his play was slightly off due to wear, tear, and injuries.

However, Wieters may have been deserving of a third Gold Glove.  Detractors tend to use Defensive Runs Saved to show Wieters fell apart this season with a -13 runs value, by far the worst of his career.  Added to that, the general list of grievances include him calling a poor game or the contradictory perspective that he does not call his own pitches, that he frames poorly, and that he cannot hit the ball (which is usually a tangential point as people express their disappointment that Wieters never became the Switch Hitting Jesus).  Going back to the runs value point, I think DRS' incorporation of pitch handling is ahead of where we truly are with our understanding of the data.  The ability to turn balls into strikes and what not is probably a combination of catcher ability, pitcher ability, and team philosophy.  It also probably can be impacted by differences in umpire schedules, day/night games, and other variables.  As such, I think it is a good ballpark thing to consider, but maybe not an element to wrap into a larger number stating defensive worth because most casual fans have no clue how DRS is compiled.

**Note -- Talked to someone in the know, it appears that DRS uses CERA to describe pitch handling which is a similar approach in general.  I do not have complete understanding of the process, but it looks fuzzy outside of the statistical black box from my perspective.  It is a nice metric to have, but I simply do not put a great deal of trust in one season samples and wonder about how useful it is in general.

What gives me further pause is that pitch handling has not been consistent over Wieters' career.  Some years he has been excellent, others average, and this past year he was awful.  Perhaps the metric is accurately measuring what happened, but maybe it is misidentifying the value associated with the catcher or maybe the measuring technique simply is too noisy and not hone for different player sizes, normalized for umpires, etc.  I think it is a useful number, but I try to look at general trends for it instead of short term events.  On that point, I think when using it that it is hard to ignore historical performance.

In this case, we might find UZR to be a better tool if we assume the three catchers handle their pitchers in a similarly effecrive manner, which is something history would agree with.  Perez leads the group with 16.1 defensive runs saved with Matt Wieters a sliver behind him at 15.4 defensive runs saved.  Mauer is 10 runs behind them and only caught about half the season (658.2 innings).  It is easy to knock Mauer out of the discussion with his partial season.  Between Perez and Wieters, it is a toss up with 0.7 runs likely not being a significant difference.  Given Wieters historically elite defensive performance, the tie breaker lies in his favor.

AL First Base Finalists:
Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals  ** WINNER **
James Loney, Tampa Bay Rays

First base was a "close vote", but it was likely close between Loney, a player with a reputation and numbers saying he is a solid defensive 1B, and Hosmer, a player who looks good and has a good reputation to boot (even though his numbers are pretty average).  If sabermetrics were King then Loney would be the winner.  Well, if it truly was King then the final three probably would have been something like Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, and Loney.  But what about Chris Davis?

Well, we all remember the dead air needing to be filled in 2012 when Mark Reynolds did his Champion League dives at first base to make outs.  He had great hands and made a number of excellent plays with them.  However, his first step was awful and he let a lot of ground outs become doubles or scoring guys from second as the balls scooted into the outfield.  It was something that confused the viewer who trusted Jim Palmer to tell him what is what.  Sometimes mentioning that a play is gold glove worthy is simply confined to that play and not an indication of the greater collection of work.

When Davis entered in as the 2013 starting first baseman, the conventional wisdom was that he would show better reaction and range than Reynolds while not being as sure of hand.  Once out there he performed above expectations.  The part that really showed improvement was his hands.  It took him from being a below average to poor defensive 1B and rose him up to a average to below average first baseman.  It was a great thing to see and brought out of the typeset many glowing words.  Baseball, its origins in a very romantic style of writing, is wont to utilizing hyperbole and, in expected order, made claims of Davis being an elite defender.

So given that, how can we argue that Davis was robbed?  Well, first off, defensive metrics for first basemen have been held in somewhat dubious regard due to positional differences between teams.  Differences in approach can greatly impact how well a player makes certain plays.  For instance, Mark Reynolds was known for holding runners off the bag (which was likely due to his inability to get off the bag after the pitch) which probably made his awful range merely look bad.  Some teams have their first baseman hold the bag hard to prevent leads and stolen bases.  Others have them play loose.  When you look at other positions, positioning probably does not play such an incredible role as it does at first.

So, the couple runs between Hosmer and Davis are pretty insignificant given the uncertainty.  Second, the Orioles lean hard against letting teams run on them regardless who is catching (they were the only team that had fewer than 100 SB attempts against them last year, which is remarkable because teams were above average in getting on base against the Orioles).  With that in mind, perhaps Davis was at a fielding disadvantage that defensive metrics could not identify as currently constructed.

Loney?  I ... am at a loss with that argument.

AL Right Field Finalists:
Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles
Shane Victorino, Boston Red Sox  ** WINNER **
Josh Reddick, Oakland Athletics

I don't have an argument here.  Nick Markakis is not your slightly older brother's Nick Markakis anymore.  His arm, once his calling card, has lost some strength and some accuracy.  Probably tied to that has been the erosion of his speed.  Without the speed from his younger days, he is not positioning himself as well for his throws.  Additionally, the loss of speed lets more baseballs drop in.  He still is a strong gamer who goes all out, but he simply is not the guy he once was.  That was even true when he won his Gold Glove in the past.  He was being rewarded for the reputation gained from past performance.

Now, there seems to be some strangeness in the numbers at Camden Yards.  I discovered this back in the day and that initial pilot study was picked up by others and pushed forward.  What I found was that Adam Jones, Felix Pie, and Markakis performed much more poorly (and consistently poorly) at Camden Yards than on the road.  In a response, Dewan found that this was not the case with visiting fielders and may simply be unique to the Orioles outfielders.  I have yet to see the data, but it seems like an amazing coincidence to me.  That said, I do not see how such a potential misevaluation component could erase the distance in ability I see in Markakis and with the play we saw from Victorino and Reddick this season.

A case against those who won:

AL Center Field Finalists:
Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City Royals
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles  ** WINNER **

There are many a detractor for Adam Jones.  Much of what they say is kind of silly, such as the perspective that him blowing bubbles adversely impacts his game.  That specific call to arms against Jones is one that is taken up because it is easy to see and can feel like showboating, but scientific studies suggest that such behavior might actually improve response and reaction.  In other words, that probably should never be brought up.  Yes, his hands are not the best (which is something we were aware of during his attempt to stick at shortstop), but they simply are a very visual cue of nothing really in particular.  In other words, he does not really commit an absurd number of errors.

The astute detractor instead points toward positioning.  John Dewan highlighted several outfielders and grouped them by whether they played deep or shallow.  What his little study showed was that Jones is tied for 5th in need to retreat on fly balls with 40% of his plays.  Denard Span and Ben Revere with first with 42%.  Aaron Hicks and Alejandro De Aza had the fewest with 31%.  Adding upon this, Dewan took a grouping of the shallow fielders, Jones included, and compared their ability to save runs with all other fielders.  What he found was that on shallow hit balls the shallow group saved about 0.8 runs per player while the regular group gave up 0.2 runs.  For balls hit deep, the shallow group gave up 3.8 runs while the regular depth group saved 2.4 runs.  It certainly suggests that perhaps Jones should play deeper and worry less about balls falling in in front of him.  With his strong arm, it might even put him in better position to throw out runners.  A note on the above mentioned article: it is difficult to fully appreciate what is being reported there because there are major portions of the study that are being withheld.  As I have shown in the past with Dewan, this can be a problem when he has found a nifty thing.

This concern seems to agree with most metrics in determining Adam Jones' defensive range.  He himself has mentioned in the past that these metrics are interesting, but that they do not consider positioning.  It may be that proprietary methods used inside the warehouse see something that the generic, freely available metrics do not.  Perhaps a place like Camden Yards is unique as I alluded to earlier.  There are a lot of perhaps there.  So, perhaps, it might be best to hand the honor to a player who is highly regarded and also has the metrics to back him up.

AL Shortstop Finalists:
Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals
Yunel Escobar, Tampa Bay Rays
J.J. Hardy, Baltimore Orioles  ** WINNER **

J.J. Hardy is an impressive defensive shortstop.  He has carried that reputation throughout his career even though 2013 represents only his second Gold Glove.  That is something both Yunel Escobar and Alcides Escobar lack.  Yunel was noted by sources in the Braves organization as someone who was not incredibly motivated to improve and rubbed a lot of folks in the wrong way.  Yunel was noted by sources in the Blue Jays organization of the same exact thing which blew up in the media when he wore eye black with hate speech on it.  With the Rays, he has been able to actually give a performance baseball men have long thought he was capable of.  Maybe it took time for him to develop or whether he simply started caring, he produced well for the Rays in the field this year by showing solid hands and good range.  Numerically speaking, he performed better at those tasks than J.J. Hardy did according to UZR.

Alcides Escobar is another player plague with inconsistencies.  In 2012, he put in a wretched show at shortstop.  He fumbled and threw away balls that he would have normally made easy plays on and he found himself a step or two off.  There was some rumbling about him losing some mobility in an effort to muscle up on the ball at the plate while other explanations were related to potential impact of minor injuries.  In 2013, the metrics indicate he had great range and above average hands.  Range is what separates Hardy and Escobar.

Metrics would indicate that either Escobar would be a good selection while leaving the impression that Hardy was rewarded for past play even though he did turn in another solid, but not spectacular, season.

AL Third Base Finalists:
Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles  ** WINNER **

It is hard to argue against Machado here.  He is well respected by scouts, managers, coaches, players, and put up one of the greatest UZRs ever for a third baseman.  Evan Longoria is also an excellent defender, but did not approach what Manny did this season.  It is amazing to look back at the beginning of this year, that the extrapolation of his 2012 season suggested a value of 15 runs saves was thought to be overly optimistic.  Instead, he more than doubles that value.  Quite impressive.  I have no argument against him.  The only peculiar entry here is Adrian Beltre who had an uncharacteristically tough season

30 October 2013

Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014: Right Handed Relievers

This post is part of the Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014 Series.  Below you will find links to the other articles.  We will do our best to make sure the links go live with each new update.
C | 1B | 2B (1, 2) | 3B | SS | LFCF | RF | DH | Bench | SP (1, 2) | RHRP | LHRP | Conclusion

Courtesy of masnsports.com

Looking Back

Despite the nearly 50/50 split of team pitching fWAR between them and the lefthanders, the right side of the Baltimore Orioles bullpen enjoys the lion's share of accolades for their pitching prowess. Whether it's Jim Johnson leading the American League in saves (50) for the second year in a row or finishing second in the AL among relievers with 40 shutdown appearances, Tommy Hunter amassing the second most innings for an AL reliever (86.1 IP) or ranking 10th in the AL for holds (21) on a fastball that averaged 96 miles per hour -- good for sixth-best along AL relievers) -- or the steady stream of outs generated by submariner Darren O'Day, the right side of the 'pen grabs headlines and narratives for their conspicuous methods of productivity.

At first glance, the right side of the bullpen doesn't appear to share too many similarities with its lefthanded brethren. Paced by the bowling ball sinker of Jim Johnson and the pure high-90's heat of Tommy Hunter, the Oriole righties display more dominant 'stuff' as compared to the lefties, who generally use location and change of speeds to do their job.

As we did for the lefties, let's look at how the righties went about generating their fWAR, broadly; again, we are limiting our evaluations to pitchers who threw at least 20 innings and rank their seasons by fair run average:

Jim Johnson 74 70.1 2.94 3.45 3.38 7.2 4.12 0.9
Francisco Rodriguez 23 22 4.5 4.28 2.31 -0.72 4.14 0.0
Darren O'Day 68 62 2.18 3.58 3.59 9.67 4.19 0.7
Tommy Hunter 68 86.1 2.81 3.68 3.63 17.40 4.20 0.7
Kevin Gausman 15 23 3.52 2 2.33 4.99 4.75 0.6
Pedro Strop* 29 22.1 7.25 5.51 4.1 -15.21 6.98 -0.3
*Traded to CHC 7/2/2013

Looking at FRA, we find that, Pedro Strop notwithstanding, the righties of the 'pen performed admirably, living in 'good, occasionally great' territory; however, when using Value Added (RE24), we find that Hunter was a top-10 AL reliever, coming in with the sixth highest RE24 for 2013. Comparing FIPs to xFIPs and ERAs, we also see that, aside from midseason acquisition Francisco Rodriguez, the righties of the bullpen performed as expected, with Hunter having a modicum of luck or defensive talent helping him out throughout the season (ERA < FIP).

Let's now discuss lefty/righty splits:

Lefty splits:
Francisco Rodriguez 12.1 0.213 0.282 0.296
Jim Johnson 36 0.275 0.324 0.324
Kevin Gausman 23.2 0.263 0.347 0.313
Tommy Hunter 42 0.294 0.369 0.300
Pedro Strop 9 0.300 0.384 0.379
Darren O'Day 20 0.298 0.394 0.328

Francisco Rodriguez 98.0% 26.9% 57.7% 15.4% 50.0%
Jim Johnson 79.5% 19.8% 56.8% 23.4% 11.5%
Kevin Gausman 56.0% 28.8% 36.4% 34.8% 21.7%
Tommy Hunter 79.3% 22.7% 35.5% 41.8% 18.6%
Pedro Strop 48.2% 28.6% 53.6% 17.9% 20.0%
Darren O'Day 88.5% 24.2% 35.5% 40.3% 20.0%

While his results are skewed by a small sample size, we see that K-Rod fared reasonably well against lefties, with only a couple of long balls really sullying an otherwise stellar showing against lefties. Another surprising and encouraging sign comes from O'Day, who does well against lefties in spite of his submarine arm angle; a batting average against slightly under .300 that is slightly buoyed by a relatively high BABIP shows that while he is best suited for same side match ups, he is able to get the occasional lefty out, usually via the fly ball out. Looking back at his use of O'Day, we do see manager Buck Showalter using O'Day a little more generously than managers typically use their submariners. Johnson's lefty splits are no real surprise, showing his sinker/curve offering to be suitable for getting lefties out without much issue. Hunter historically suffers from poor splits, with his propensity to have problems against lefties exemplified in 2013 by his inflated wOBA against lefties this last season, showing similar trends as O'Day.

Courtesy of csnbaltimore.com

Righty splits:
Tommy Hunter 44.1 0.140 0.162 0.189
Darren O'Day 42 0.154 0.206 0.200
Jim Johnson 34.1 0.266 0.292 0.330
Kevin Gausman 24 0.280 0.335 0.343
Pedro Strop 13.1 0.204 0.364 0.216
Francisco Rodriguez 9.2 0.349 0.490 0.400

Tommy Hunter 86.7% 18.2% 43.6% 38.2% 0.0%
Darren O'Day 89.7% 20.8% 37.6% 41.6% 4.8%
Jim Johnson 78.2% 21.3% 59.6% 19.1% 11.1%
Kevin Gausman 71.9% 21.5% 47.7% 30.8% 15.0%
Pedro Strop 73.0% 27.8% 44.4% 27.8% 30.0%
Francisco Rodriguez 72.5% 28.1% 34.4% 37.5% 25.0%

Right away, we can see how effective and nasty Hunter is on righty hitters; no home runs to go with a minuscule batting average against and wOBA all led credence to Hunter's top-10 RE24 showing for relievers. We also see the similarities between both Hunter and O'Day shine through, with O'Day also showing himself to be a tough at bat for righthanded hitters. Again, we also see the Swiss Army knife style of pitching coming from Johnson's repertoire and a big reason why he excels in the closer's role -- regardless of batter handedness, he has a way to get them out. As effective as K-Rod was against lefties, sans the homer runs, he is ineffective against righties, showing the largest swing in stats when comparing and contrasting effects of batter handedness.

Moving Forward

Much like the southpaws, there aren't too many things to fix on the right side of the bullpen when looking to 2014. While each of the big three -- Johnson, Hunter, and O'Day -- displays a particular weakness that could use shoring up, each of them are effective enough to remain in their given roles for next year without it grossly impacting the team.

For Johnson, a potential key to an improved 2014 will depend on his curve ball and in particular, the location of the pitch. While it still pairs exceptionally well with his two-seam/sinker as a change of speed and change of eye plane, 2013 saw him leave it up in the zone a little more than he did in 2012:

In response, hitters did a little more damage against it:

2012 0.143 0.263 0.200
2013 0.182 0.462 0.242

Overall, Johnson appears to be in decent shape for 2014, and with a little more snap and location to his curve, can improve upon a successful 2013 campaign.

For Hunter, room for improvement lies in his ability to effectively and consistently get lefties out; while he probably won't do it with the flair and panache he does it against righties, his ultimate fate and success depend upon him to develop a wrinkle against lefties. Looking at his repertoire against both lefties and righties, it appears he uses his change up -- easily his least effective pitch per his PITCHf/x pitch linear weights -- exclusively against lefties and is one that hitters have fared well against, in the form of a .624 batting average against and 1.500 slugging percentage. Hunter might find more effectiveness against lefties by scrapping the change and utilizing his curve ball -- hit at a .265 batting average and .588 SLG clip by lefties -- more against lefties, essentially becoming a three pitch pitcher against lefthanders. Given his success with a three pitch repertoire against righties, the idea that less is more might prove fruitful for Hunter in 2014.

The outlook for O'Day is tied to his health. After suffering from some hand issues later in 2013 that ended up being carpal tunnel syndrome, it appears that with an offseason of rest and possibly a cortisone injection, the submariner will be fine for the start of spring training. Beyond the hand issue, given O'Day's submarine mechanics, an increased propensity for hip and back issues arising from the delivery are possible issues that the medical staff could be on the look out for as the season progresses. Injury predilections aside, O'Day's success with his mechanics and ability to get the occasional opposite handed hitter out on occasion bodes well for him to continue to be an effective reliever for the Orioles in a number of roles and situations, primarily against right handers.

Other Options

One glaring omission from the discussion of the 2013 bullpen has been Kevin Gausman and for good reason -- he won't be in the 'pen for 2014. However, this segues well into a potential Gausman replacement for the spot starter/long inning guy that the Orioles are intimately familiar with: Jason Hammel.

Spending most of September in the bullpen after returning from a flexor mass strain in his pitching elbow last year, Hammel did show the ability to come out of the bullpen and pitch effectively. He is no stranger to relief appearances, having logged close to 100 innings in relief as a major leaguer, most of them coming earlier in his career with the Tampa Bay Rays. After a couple of seasons that saw him off to encouraging starts only to scuffle down the stretch while starting, combined with the logjam of starters at the major league level and on the free agent market along with the development of Gausman as the starter the team has always envisioned him to be, Hammel is behind the eight ball with respect to any hopes of starting in Baltimore. While he will garner a modicum of interest on the free agent market as a starter, the quality of free agent starters might put him in a place where a team friendly deal as a reliever might be conducive to his return to the squad in 2014.

Other internal options that could log time in the bullpen also include starter types such as knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa and swingman Steve Johnson, who will look to fill the spot start/long man role with the like of Hammel and lefty T.J. McFarland.

The free agent market for righthanded relievers is similar to the one seen for lefties -- old and injured, but with a few familiar faces. While the Orioles would do well do stand pat with what the current roster provides on top of what is down on the farm, a couple of names on the free agent market do stand out as potentially cheap, incentive laden signings who are looking to bounce back after injuries -- Jesse Crain, Ryan Madson, and Kyle McClellan. Crain, whose 2013 season was one of the more productive ones seen from a non-closing reliever in recent years, will look to return from a shoulder strain that kept him off the mound for the entire second half of the year. He could provide an additional power arm for the seventh and eight innings alongside Hunter, but without the severe left/right splits. Madson, recovering from Tommy John surgery, has had previous experience as a closer an set up man. McClellan, who pitched less than 10 innings in the bigs last year, is a favorite of general manager Dan Duquette and would be a low cost, low risk signing that could get reps in Class AAA Norfolk before joining the club. While McClellan in recent seasons has shown a propensity to give up the occasional homer, both Crain and Madson post career sub-1.0 HR/9 stats, with Crain also enjoying some success in limited innings as a visitor to Camden Yards.

What to Do in 2014

Much like their lefty counterparts, the right side of the bullpen doesn't suffer from too many holes. Should Hunter prove to be too susceptible to the big inning arising from his left/right splits, Johnson again leave too many pitches up in the zone, or O'Day fall victim to injury of ineffectiveness, there are enough arms in the minors and on the free agent market for a low cost solution to be pursued to fill the gaps. Overall, the right side of the Baltimore bullpen is well rounded as they stand. With keeping Hammel as a reliever or signing the likes of Crain or Madson to take the spots left by Gausman's move to the starting rotation and the unlikely return of Rodriguez, the right side of the pen has the potential to be even stronger in 2014.

All data courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball

Courtesy of arcamax.com

29 October 2013

Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014: Starting Pitchers - Part 2

This post is part of the Making the Orioles a Champion in 2014 Series.  Below you will find links to the other articles.  We will do our best to make sure the links go live with each new update.
C | 1B | 2B (12) | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RFDH | Bench | SP (1, 2) | RHRP | LHRP | Conclusion

Chris Tillman (photo via Keith Allison)
Two weeks ago we took a look at how the 2013 Orioles starting rotation performed.  This week, we’ll take a look at what they can do to improve in 2014.

Returning Starters
While Part 1 seemed rather bleak, it doesn’t necessarily mean 2014 will be more of the same.  Based on their production from last year (which can be viewed here) and each player’s contract status in 2014, it’s a pretty safe bet that these four will have their names penciled into the 2014 starting rotation.  The key will be to get more innings out of this group, limiting the starts made by AAA roster filler.

There is no real ace in this group, and though Tillman is still young enough to substantially improve, many talent evaluators see his ceiling is that of a #2 or #3 starter. What the Orioles have with this group is an extremely cost effective (and cost controlled) group of approximately average starting pitchers, which should provide a lot of value.  As a group, these 4 will likely cost the Orioles around $10 million total in 2014, allowing them to use their resources to improve other areas of the roster.  Additionally, if you include Chen’s club option, each of these pitchers will be under team control through the 2015 season.

So that leaves us with one rotation spot to fill.  Since we already have a group of #3 or #4 starters, we’re ideally looking to fill that last rotation spot with an ace (easier said than done).  Let’s take a look at some options.

Internal Options
With Dylan Bundy recovering from Tommy John surgery, Zach Britton and Kevin Gausman are currently the best internal candidates to fill that 5th spot in the rotation.  However, I don’t think it would be wise for the Orioles to commit a starting rotation spot to either of them, as neither has consistently been productive as a major league starting pitcher, as noted in Part 1.

Depending on how the roster shakes out, these two should be given a chance to compete for that 5th rotation spot in spring training, but they’re likely best suited as starting pitching depth, at least to start the season.  One important thing to consider, Britton is out of options (as Jon noted in the 40 man roster update earlier this month), so once he’s put on the 25-man roster, he won’t be able to be sent back down to the minors without passing through waivers.

Free Agent Options

Top of the Class

Since the 2014 free agent market for starting pitchers is relatively weak, it’s probably best for the Orioles to stay away from any starter that will cost them their 2015 draft pick. This should rule out both Jimenez and Santana, who are expected to both receive and decline qualifying offers from their current teams.  Additionally, both Santana and Jimenez were terrible pitchers as recently as 2012, where they combined for -1.1 fWAR, making them 2 of the 3 least valuable qualified starting pitchers in all of baseball.

Garza and Nolasco are a different story.  Since both were traded mid-season, they’re ineligible to receive a qualifying offer.  The general consensus this offseason is that Garza is the best free agent pitcher available, but it’s not as obvious as you may think.  Can you guess which career line belongs to each pitcher?

Player A is Garza and Player B is Nolasco.  Doesn’t it SEEM like Garza has been better?  Over their careers, they’ve virtually been the same pitcher, with the only difference being that Nolasco is a year older.

Either of these pitchers would likely be the best starter on the staff if the Orioles were to sign one.  However, there is a good chance that both Garza and Nolasco will price themselves out of the Baltimore market as teams look to sign an effective starter without giving up a draft pick.  I would advise against a bidding war for either starter, leaving the Orioles to look at other options.

*Jimenez is not technically a free agent as of this posting, but according to reports, he will decline his player option with the Indians and test the market.

Short-Term Contract Candidates
You could also theoretically include Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, and Hiroki Kuroda, but they’re likely returning to their respective teams or retiring.  A.J. Burnett could also be put in this group, though Dave Cameron at Fangraphs expects him toreceive a qualifying offer from the Pirates (and I agree with him), so that rules him out as well.

That doesn’t leave much left here.  In the last 2 years Colon has been the best of this bunch, but he’ll be 41 years old in May, and you never know when his age will finally catch up to him.  Bringing Feldman or Hammel back is an option, but either pitcher gives Baltimore more of what they already have.  Plus, I would expect Feldman to get a Jeremy Guthrie type deal (3 years/$25 million) this offseason from someone, and that “someone” probably shouldn’t be Baltimore.  Having Feldman for a full year would improve the rotation, but I think they can do better.  Arroyo, Chen, Hughes, and Zito are either extreme fly ball pitchers and/or terrible, so…no.  Let’s move on.

Potentially Effective Question Marks
Originally I included “Big Time Timmy Jim” on this list, but the Giants recently re-signed him for 2 years and $35 million (and at that price, they can have him).  So let’s start with Halladay.  Unfortunately, the old Roy Halladay isn’t likely to return and personally, his last two years have been difficult to watch.  He’d be an interesting option on a minor league deal, but I think someone offers him a roster spot with a low base salary and a ton of incentives, provided he wants to continue his career.

Haren is an intriguing option, but there is some uncertainty without much upside.  The speed of his fastball has been declining and it has sat between 88 and 89 mph the last two years.  He’s also become less of a groundball pitcher during that time (ground ball rate of 39.6% and 36% in 2012 and 2013 respectively), making him a bad fit for Camden Yards.  Add that to his age (33 on opening day), and his history of lower back injuries and you’re looking at someone who can probably give you 2.0 fWAR or (slightly) more per 200 innings.  The only problem is he probably won’t pitch 200 innings.

Finally, there is Josh Johnson, who is coming off an injury filled, 81 inning, 6.20 ERA debacle of a season, yet still managed to produce 0.5 fWAR on the limited strength of his peripheral statistics.  Compare his 2013 season to the rest of his career numbers, and you’ll see how out of line it was.

As you can tell, his “luck” stats really stick out, and out of all the available free agent options, Johnson easily has the most upside based on his productive past and his relative youth (he’ll play the entire 2014 season at the age of 30).  Johnson’s fastball velocity has been slightly declining, but his average fastball in 2013 (93.41 mph) was only 0.12 mph slower than 2012, when he was worth 3.5 fWAR.  If Johnson can stay healthy, I think there’s a good chance he’ll be able to return to his previous levels of success…

…but that’s a big if.  The only year he threw over 200 innings was 2009 and his injury page on Baseball Prospectus includes his right elbow (including Tommy John surgery in 2007), forearm, fingers, upper arm, shoulder, back, and left knee.  It took me 10 minutes just to read through it.  Still, the ace potential is there, and it should come at the lowest cost in terms of money and years than anyone else on the market for a pitcher of his caliber.

Trade Options
During the offseason, it will be difficult to find a starting pitcher on the trade market who will be a true difference maker in the 2014 Baltimore rotation.  Most teams view themselves as potential contenders during the offseason, while the teams that don’t would prefer not to have their fans assume that they’re giving up on the 2014 season before it begins.

Having said that, two potential players to target include Trevor Cahill and Rick Porcello.  While neither pitcher would be considered the “ace” that the Orioles need, they are both groundball pitchers (Cahill has a career ground ball rate of 55.3% while Porcello’s is at 52.8%) who would improve the Baltimore rotation at minimal cost, and greatly reduce Baltimore’s issue of allowing home runs.  Both pitchers would be under team control through the 2015 season, as Cahill is guaranteed about $20 million over the next 2 years (with club options for the 2016 and 2017 seasons) and Porcello is entering his second year of arbitration.  Additionally, Baltimore’s outstanding infield defense should increase the value of either pitcher, helping turn all those groundballs into outs.  Neither player should cost a lot in terms of prospects, though I’m not sure if there is a fit with either team.

International Options
I’m not too familiar with starting pitching options on the international market, but a number of news outlets have reported that 24 year old Masahiro Tanaka of the Rakuten Eagles of Japan’s Nippon Professional baseball league will likely be posted by his club this offseason.  I don’t know much about Tanaka, but Jon wrote an excellent piece on him 3 weeks ago here on the Depot.  It has a lot of good information on Tanaka, so I suggest that you read it, if you haven’t already.

Between the posting fee and the contract, acquiring Tanaka could get expensive, especially with the large number of teams that are reported to be involved (Jon suggests the Orioles make an offer of $120 million total).  Signing Tanaka comes with a lot of risk, as Japanese starters have not always made a smooth transition to the states, but Tanaka may be worth the money, as at least one scout has claimed that he’s better than Yu Darvish.  However, due to the financial commitment of the posting fee and the salary, it’s highly unlikely the Orioles become major players for Tanaka.

One Crazy Idea

Empty the farm system for Cliff Lee.  Depending on how much of Lee’s salary the Phillies would agree to pay, it would likely take at least one or more prospects in the Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Jonathan Schoop, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Mike Wright group to convince the Phillies to let Lee go.  While that’s a hefty price, Lee is one of the most consistently productive starting pitchers in all of baseball, averaging almost 6.2 fWAR per season over the last 6 years.  Including his buyout, Lee is guaranteed $62.5 million over the next 2 seasons (his vesting option for 2016 is worth $27.5 million).  There would be some risk considering his age, but with no signs of slowing down and only 2 years left on his contract, the risk would be somewhat minimized.

As mentioned previously, trading for an impact starting pitcher in the offseason presents a considerable challenge.  So even if the Orioles would target Lee, the Phillies probably wouldn’t want to trade him.  It would be a better bet to revisit this proposition in July, when both teams have a better idea of where they stand in the playoff race.


Heading into 2014, there is no doubt that the Orioles need to improve one of the 2013’s worst starting rotations.  We’ve looked at a number of available options above, and since Baltimore is only on the hook for roughly $10 million total for their 4 returning starters, they would ideally spend some money to fill the last spot in the rotation.

Assuming that he doesn’t receive a qualifying offer, the Orioles should aggressively target Josh Johnson to fill the final rotation spot.  Due to his poor showing in 2013, Johnson should be available on a 1 year deal, likely for anywhere in between $5 and $10 million, which is an amount the Orioles should be able to handle.  While it’s a risk due to Johnson’s lengthy list of injuries, there is no such thing as a bad 1 year deal, especially when it comes to adding a potential #1 starter to your rotation.

Baltimore’s minor league system contains several high upside pitching prospects, that for reasons of age, inexperience, or injury aren’t quite ready to contribute to the major league team.  Signing Josh Johnson would allow the team to add an impact starter to their rotation for a run at the World Series in 2014, without the long-term payroll or roster commitments, allowing their young pitchers additional time to progress into productive major leaguers.  A healthy Josh Johnson will strike out hitters more than 20% of the time and induce more ground balls than the average pitcher, two excellent traits for someone who will be pitching half of his games at Camden Yards.

Of course, should the Orioles follow my advice, they need to make sure they take a REALLY good look at the results of his physical exam before signing that dotted line…