28 February 2014

Nelson Cruz's Red Flags

On a one-year deal, Nelson Cruz is a useful addition and improves the Orioles' designated hitter situation. In 2013, O's DHs had a dreadful combined slash line of .234/.289/.415. Cruz's slash line in 2013 was .266/.327/.506, which is very close to his career line of .268/.327/.495. He will help by giving the Orioles a boost at DH in nearly every offensive category.

Nelson Cruz (photo: Keith Allison)
Cruz made his major league debut in 2005 with the Brewers, but he did not start playing routinely until 2007, when he appeared in 96 games with the Rangers. He did not hit well in 333 plate appearances (.294 wOBA), and he did not return to the majors until August of 2008. In 133 plate appearances, he raked (.437 wOBA); he's been a regular in the Rangers lineup since.

He put up a .363 wOBA while playing decent defense in 2009, but his best full-time season came in 2010 (.404 wOBA). He even managed to moderately improve his defense and baserunning that season. But his offensive numbers since then have been good, but not close to a .400 wOBA:

2011: .353 wOBA
2012: .335 wOBA
2013: .359 wOBA

After stealing 37 combined bases in 2009 and 2010 (caught eight times), he's swiped only 22 bags the last three years while getting caught 10 times. He would never have been confused with Rickey Henderson and is not that fast anyway, but every little bit helps value wise. Along with his now below average baserunning abilities, Cruz's outfield defense took a sudden plunge in 2011. Take a look:

2009: 8.6 UZR, 0 DRS
2010: 10.1 UZR, +3 DRS
2011: -6.2 UZR, -5 DRS
2012: -3.7 UZR, -13 DRS
2013: -4.3 UZR, -3 DRS

Cruz is not going to be an asset on the basepaths, and he is not a good corner outfielder. Those things all contributed to him not getting the lucrative three- or four-year contract that he was seeking this offseason. Those problem areas (and more) were why Dave Cameron of FanGraphs named Cruz his biggest "land mine" of all the 2014 free agents:
The way that Cruz’s value has been portrayed makes him out to be one of the game’s elite sluggers, when he’s really nothing close to that. While playing half his games in the hitter’s paradise of Arlington, he’s posted OBPs of .312, .319, and .327 over the last three years. Yes, he’s strong, and he hits some impressive home runs, but he also makes a lot of outs in the process.

Toss in poor defense, poor baserunning, always lingering health concerns, a PED suspension, the fact that he’ll be 33 next year, and the draft compensation that is attached because Texas made him a qualifying offer, and Cruz is a DUI away from Red Flag Bingo. It’s one thing to overlook all of these issues because the performance is just so great that the reward is worth the risk, but even a full strength, completely healthy Nelson Cruz is more of an average player than a good one.
Ouch. Granted, Cameron wrote that back in November when many people still figured Cruz would get paid pretty big money on a multiyear deal. Obviously the Orioles did not do that. So Cruz's long-term outlook doesn't necessarily interest the O's much; they are worried about what he'll do in 2014.

The O's would definitely welcome any production from Cruz in the .350 wOBA neighborhood. Adam Jones posted a wOBA of exactly .350 last season, and only three other O's posted wOBAs above .325: Chris Davis (.421), Danny Valencia (.381 wOBA, in 170 PAs), and Steve Pearce (.345 wOBA, in 138 PAs). Valencia's and Pearce's numbers were accumulated in small samples, and while Davis had far and away the best season of his career, there's no guarantee he comes close to replicating his phenomenal numbers. So Cruz's presence should help, since Davis will almost certainly take at least a minor step back.

But even in the short term for Cruz, there are some warning signs to pay attention to. They may not amount to much in 2014, but if he starts to struggle, the following may be some of the reasons why.

Decreasing Fly Balls?

He is not a high OBP guy (career .327), and he relies on power (career .495 SLG). He wants to hit the ball out the ballpark -- something he'll have in common with several of his teammates in Baltimore. He has not had a drastic change in the amount of groundballs and fly balls he's been hitting, but there's been a small one:

Career: 40.1 GB%; 43.0 FB%
2013: 41.9 GB%; 41.2 FB%

(Reminder: Groundballs are more likely to become hits than fly balls, but fly balls have the potential to leave the ballpark.) It's worth noting that his 2012 rates were both around 41%, but in both 2009 and 2010 he was around 45%. So it may not be a major concern yet, but it's worth keeping an eye on -- especially since he'll be playing in another ballpark that welcomes plenty of home runs. Considering Cruz's career 16.6% HR/FB rate, he wants to hit the ball in the air as much as possible. (The 2013 MLB average HR/FB rate was 10.5%.)

Contact and Swing Concerns

Cruz has also been getting worse at making contact on pitches thrown outside the strikezone. His yearly O-Contact percentages since 2009 are 52.5, 61.5, 59.9, 55.1, and 51.6. So he wasn't great at making contact on those pitches in 2009, immediately was better in his career year in 2010, and then has been getting worse each year since. It's an important skill for batters to foul off tough pitches and extend at-bats and eventually get a better pitch to handle.

His overall contact percentages have been a bit above his career mark (72.8%), which is due to Cruz making better contact on pitches inside the strikezone. So that's a positive. But his overall swing percentages have gone from a career high of 50.4% of pitches in 2011 to 47.6% and 46.8% in 2012 and 2013, respectively. That did lead to Cruz not chasing as many pitches outside the strikezone in 2012 (26.6%), but not 2013 (30.5%). (Career O-Swing% of 29.9%.) It also led him to swing at fewer pitches inside the strikezone:

2011: 69.2%
2012: 67.8%
2013: 64%

(Career Z-Swing% of 67%.)

Breaking and Off-Speed Pitch Troubles

This tweet from Buster Olney drew attention to another warning sign:
In 2013, Cruz saw the lowest amount of hard pitches (four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters) and highest amount of breaking pitches (curveballs, sliders, and knuckleballs) since 2009. He's seen mostly the same amount of off-speed pitches (change-ups, splitters, and screwballs). (Note: It's unclear if "off-speed pitches" in Olney's tweet combines Brooks Baseball's breaking and off-speed pitch categories.)

So opposing pitchers have recently started (again) to attack him with more breaking stuff:

Percentage of pitches to Cruz, sorted by year
The 2013 percentages are very close to the pitches thrown to Cruz in 2009. Perhaps Cruz's career isolated power (slugging minus batting average) numbers vs. the three pitch categories has something to do with that:

Hard: .272
Breaking: .189
Off-speed: .196

(Cruz career ISO: .228. 2013 MLB average ISO: .143.)

In 2012, Cruz's ISO was just .116 vs. breaking pitches (though .235 vs. off-speed), and in 2013, Cruz had an ISO of .170 vs. breaking pitches but only .069 vs. off-speed.

Some of those struggles may have to do with the amount of swinging and missing Cruz is doing at non-fastballs. He swung and missed at just 8.5% of hard pitches in 2013, but he whiffed on 18.5% of breaking pitches (about his career average) and 25.2% of off-speed pitches (the most for him since 2007). The steady increase in his whiff percentages on off-speed pitches since 2010 is worrisome. Maybe he's fortunate that opposing pitchers only throw him off-speed pitches 10-11% of the time. Also, for what it's worth, his overall strikeout percentage of 23.9% in 2013 was his highest since 2007.


If the O's had signed Cruz beyond 2014, these issues would be much more worrisome. He could very well have an outstanding season and put himself in position for the payday he thought he'd be getting this offseason (or maybe something close to it). Since he will likely be the O's primary DH, the only thing that matters is if he hits well or not. That's why the O's signed him in the first place.

Stats via Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Brooks Baseball.

27 February 2014

Postcards From Abroad: The Rashomon of Ubaldo Jimenez

They Each Saw Something Different
We here at Camden Depot are a part of a wonderful community of bloggers under the ESPN Sweetspot umbrella.  It sometimes lets us work with some pretty remarkable blogs that focus on other clubs.  One of them, It's Pronounced Lajaway, is a Cleveland Indians blog that is perhaps one of the best team centered blogs out there.  They do a great job catering to the masses as well as providing a lot of insight.  We thought it might be good to give a little more perspective about Ubaldo Jimenez beyond what we have done so far with scouting and media reports on him.

It's Pronounced Lajaway was kind enough to provide us with three different perspectives of Ubaldo Jimenez.  A Rashomon style, if you will.


Stephanie Liscio, co-owner, It’s Pronounced Lajaway     

I always liked Ubaldo Jimenez, dating back to his days with the Colorado Rockies.  I feel like a lot of fans in Cleveland never fully warmed to Jimenez, or always waited for the other shoe to drop when he was scheduled to pitch.  From the moment he was traded to the Indians, there was this perception that he must be damaged goods.  That the Rockies would never surrender Jimenez after his 2010 season unless there was some flaw that the Indians couldn’t see.  (There’s not exactly an overabundance of faith when it comes to the front office, particularly after the Cliff Lee trade). 

At the trade deadline in 2011, I was cautiously optimistic on the Jimenez deal.  The Indians had a poor track record on drafts through the early 2000s, so I wasn’t ready to declare the trade’s centerpieces, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, sure things.  I was haunted by Adam Miller, a highly touted prospect who dealt with major hand issues and never pitched a day in the majors.  To have a player with a proven track record in the majors, even if he’d fallen on hard times, seemed like a much more sure bet.

Once Jimenez arrived in 2011 though, the Indians soon fell out of contention.  By 2012, he was so inconsistent and erratic that you never knew what to expect when he was scheduled to take the mound.  I used to jokingly flip a coin before his starts – heads it would be a good day for Jimenez, tails it would be a bad day.  Even though I’d think to myself “Oh boy, here we go again” during his starts, I still defended him.  Part because I was convinced there was something wrong with him and part because I felt he could somehow be “fixed.”  My husband and father went to a fan event that summer and all of the players had at least a small autograph line, except for Jimenez.  They actually went back to get a second autograph because, according to my dad, “He was so nice, and he was just sitting there all by himself.”  It’s like Jimenez somehow took the brunt of the fan anger, even though there was plenty of blame to go around during the summer of 2012.

By the time 2013 rolled around, I actually saw a lot of Indians fans angrily exclaiming that he should be released; that they should just eat his salary and let him go.  That seemed like a pretty ridiculous option to me, but I understood the frustration behind the sentiment.  As Jimenez continued to improve as the season progressed, my faith in him continued to grow.  However, I encountered so many fans that were still furious with the trade, and that still thought the Indians should release Jimenez.  “Have you watched him pitch lately?”  I’d ask, or I’d share recent statistics with them.  Once they finally stopped complaining (because he was pitching too well for valid complaints) they still didn’t really seem to love him – they just grudgingly accepted him.  I don’t think too many people were sad to see him go, because they never grew that attached to him.  It was just the standard bitterness you often see from Cleveland fans, because of the idea that someone leaves once they finally seem to hit their stride.

Ultimately, I am glad that the Indians trade for Jimenez in 2011.  Hindsight is obviously 20/20 where White and Pomeranz are concerned, but the whole objective for the trade was to make the playoffs.  While they didn't do it that season, the Indians don't make the 2013 Wild Card game without Jimenez as the ace down the stretch.  I went from dread at seeing him take the mound to wishing that he could pitch every day.  While I am sad to see him gone, there is still a small part of my brain that cannot help thinking "at least that ticking time bomb won't go off for the Indians in 2014".  It is hard to fully leave the 2012 paranoia behind.


IPL Staff Writer Adam Hintz

Here at IPL, I was probably the most vocal supporter of the Indians re-signing Ubaldo. For the record, I think 4 years/$48 million is probably a great deal (if not a year longer than my dream contract), and I absolutely wish that the Indians had signed him at that price.

I think it was about mid-September of last season when I realized that the Ubaldo Jimenez who was trotting out to that mound every 5th day was the best pitcher we had at that time. To say that this revelation was shocking would be something of an understatement; Ubaldo was bad in 2011, downright atrocious in 2012, and depressingly ineffective through the first three months of last season. At one point last June I started referring to Jimenez as “the best bad pitcher in the league” given his propensity to give up 2 runs over five innings and somehow need 110 pitches to get through it. It was painful to watch.

But then something happened, and Ubaldo morphed back into an ace. Here in Cleveland a lot of the credit has gone to pitching coach Mickey Callaway, but there’s something to be said for the schedule Ubaldo faced in the second half as well as some inevitable positive regression to the mean. For my part, I’m not completely sure what happened, but the change was dramatic.

On July 14th, Ubaldo gave up 4 earned runs over 4.0 IP against the Royals. Through the end of the season, he did not allow more than 3 earned runs in any start (and he only did that once). He gave up five earned runs in all of September… it doesn’t even matter that half of his innings that month came against the White Sox and Astros, that’s impressive. If the Indians had made the Divisional Series, I have a hard time imagining that any pitcher except Ubaldo would have been on the mound to start Game 1.

But of course, the reason that teams weren’t lining up around the block to give Ubaldo ace money is because he is only a year removed from that god-awful 5.40 ERA in 2012, and he barely looked better than that for half of 2013. Teams didn’t know (and really still don’t know) which pitcher they’re going to get in 2014 and beyond.

I want to believe in Jimenez, but history has taught me otherwise. I think he’s well worth the risk that the Orioles took on him, but there is a very real possibility that he regresses back to 2012 mode and that $48 million becomes a pretty big sunk cost. I guess it all comes down to expectations: if your team just signed Ubaldo to be the centerpiece of their rotation, I fear it’s not going to end very well; but if your team just signed him to be a quality #2 guy in a deep rotation, that is a role he can certainly thrive in relative to expectations.

Overall, I’m okay with Jimenez leaving, but I reserve the right to change my mind if Trevor Bauer proves incapable of walking fewer than 8.5 hitters per nine innings (like he did in the Majors last year). I still feel like the Indians needed Ubaldo more than they realize, but our loss is your gain.

I really hope we don’t regret it.


IPL Staff Writer Chris Burnham 

I'll be honest. I'm not an Ubaldo guy. And his deal with your Orioles is proof of how the pitching market is out of control. But hopefully I won't scare your readers too much. Ubaldo Jimenez is the exemplary "enigmatic pitcher." So much so, that I would think that the best way to describe him would be to borrow from a legendary anecdote from Forrest Gump: He's like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you're going to get.

His time in Cleveland was mostly a disappointment. Even on the day in which the deal was consummated, the Rockies got the whole thing off on the wrong foot by allowing Jimenez to start that evening in San Diego. This, of course, set Cleveland (a scarred bunch, as you undoubtedly know) into a tizzy about "protecting the investment," and all this jazz because he was Chris Antonetti's own "Lee/Sizemore trade." The Indians were banking on the change of scenery thing actually working out and he would be the horse behind Justin Masterson. Or, even the guy who could potentially overtake Masterson as the true ace of a middling rotation, complete with his Cy Young pedigree and intoxicating stuff. The Indians gave up two of their top pitching prospects of the time, so they were expecting big things that, for the most part, never materialized.

(Those two pitchers were Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. Pomeranz still hasn't established himself in the Rockies organization. White was traded to Houston. I guess you could say the Indians won the trade due to Jimenez making a late push towards better than average and having quite a bit to do with getting the Tribe into October for a fleeting nine innings.)

Unfortunately, Jimenez' tenure in Cleveland was mostly a disappointment with a horrific 9-17 2012 campaign in which he carried 5.40 ERA; this unsightly number feeling light considering the constant traffic he was allowing. We saw occasional flashes of what we were hoping we'd see, some of those starts were even dominant, but nothing really consistent until May of last year. New pitching coach Mickey Callaway seemed to find the right buttons to push to keep his wonky mechanics in check. He also told Jimenez to pare down his pitch-mix by relying more on his mid-90s fastball. Who knows what sort of voodoo Callaway tapped into to make it work, but he deserves a significant portion of the $50 million deal. Considering the number of pure hitters parks Jimenez will now face regularly within the AL East, Orioles fans had better hope that Callaway's tutelage have taken deep roots.


Great post from 2012 by IPL writer Ryan McCrystal that looked at what was going wrong with Ubaldo in 2012.

A few recent posts: 
IPL writer Mike Schreiner, Letting Go of Ubaldo
Stephanie Liscio, hoping the Orioles may match as a trade partner for pitching
Adam Hintz talks a bit more about his disappointment

26 February 2014

Orioles Are Locked for 90+ Wins

The title is an arrangement of the tweet I received below when discussing how Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz affected Clay Davenport's projections along with my educated guess as to how Ervin Santana would change those projections:
This perspective as well as the bounty of tweets, follows, and unfollows the Depot collected in response to us being a bit nonplussed about the path chosen by the team this off season as well as to what these additions actually meant with regard to meaningful September and October baseball.  Sort of related due to the similarity in numbers between what he earned and what Nelson Cruz will earn, this Orioles Hangout poll from 2011 was something I also found interesting. When Andy MacPhail signed an old, broken down Vladimir Guerrero, it was done with an incredible amount of fan fare.  That masterstroke, according to that poll of 255 Orioles faithful, resulted in over 67% of them giving him an A- or better (89% gave it a B+ or better).

The Guerrero signing was memorable for me because of two things.  One, I had a series that year that followed Vlad's attempt up old DH mountain.  He finished with a bWAR of 0.4, good for 20th out of 25 all-time.  Two, it resulted in this article railing against my pessimistic view and suggesting that it might well be Vlad's curtain call.  In a series of tweets (of which I have no idea how to find), the author stated that me equating Vlad's 2010 offensive output with Matt Wieters' 2010 offensive output given the context of their respective defensive positions made me a "liar".  Of course, even if my opinion was faulty, that would make me simply misguided as opposed to being a liar.  Really, though, I think what the author was really trying to express was that he was very much emotionally involved with the team and highly invested to see them succeed.  That can be difficult to explain or even comprehend about oneself, so strangely calling someone a liar may suffice.

So where this leads me is about emotional expectation and the use of rather unaware projection modeling.  Why are projections unaware?  They are unable to adequately assume player usage, past (to some extent) or future injuries, weight training, etc.  Basically, all of the reasons why many folks claim that there projections are useless.  However, their inability to clearly predict the future does not mean that are worthless in terms of projecting the future.  In other words, a team projected to win 55 games will not make the playoffs.  The models know enough about the histories of player populations to realize that this event is literally almost impossible.At a projected talent bases increases, then those probabilities grow larger and should give some hope to fans (along with a dose of realism).

In order to show this, I took a projection (devised with PECOTA, ZiPS, or MARCEL) and compared that with the actual results from (2003-2011).  I did not double count years.  From 2003-2009, I used PECOTA projections I had on hand.  From 2010-2011, I used MARCEL.  From 2012-2013, I used ZiPS.  The PECOTA projection model was reported by Baseball Prospectus.  The MARCEL and ZiPS projection models were reported by Replacement Level Yankees Blog.  It may look messy to take things from so many sources, but the point here was not specifically to test a specific model.  It was to casually use models blindly under the assumption they perform rather similar.

Year        St DEV Model
All 9.3
2003 8.8 PECOTA
2004 11.7 PECOTA
2005 7.6 PECOTA
2006 7.5 PECOTA
2007 6.4 PECOTA
2008 9.7 PECOTA
2009 11.7 PECOTA
2010 9.6 MARCEL
2011 10.1 MARCEL
2012 10.9 ZiPS
2013 8.7 ZiPS
So, what does the table above mean?  Hopefully, the graphic below helps.  Each standard deviation includes a certain amount of the population.  If we assume that win deviation is normally distributed, then we would assume that a team will perform within 9.3 games better or worse about 68% of the time.  To cover 95% of all events, a range of 18.6 games better or worse would be expected.  Using this approach, you would expect a team to perform 27.9 games better or worse would happen about 1 times in about 11 seasons.  In our data set of 11 seasons, this has indeed happened only once (2004 Arizona Diamondbacks, 81 projected wins, 51 actual wins).


The last two years there has been some grumbling from the fan base that ZiPS has been unfair to the Orioles in its projections.  Both seasons, the Orioles have, as a team, outperformed the projection using ZiPS.  Of course, a sample size of two is not a powerful sample size and it would make more sense to assume that it was a statistical anomaly unless we identify some mechanism that ZiPS and/or the team projection model has issues with.  For instance, if Buck Showalter is the difference between a 69 win team and a 93 win team then neither projection system will be able to pick that up.  Additionally, Buck needs to talk to his agent because if he was worth 24 wins then he needs to be paid about 144 MM a year.

Below is a sampling of the last two seasons the Orioles enjoyed as well as Clay Davenport's current projection of the team winning 83 games after adding Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz.

exWins range n stdev low high % to 93 % to 96
2012 69 66 to 72 42 8.9 -15 24 2.4 0
2013 79 76 to 82 100 9.4 -30 19 7 2
2014 83 80 to 86 123 9.5 -30 19 16.3 6.5

For better or worse, I expanded the projected win totals in order to get larger sample sizes to work with.  In that first line, the Orioles were projected to win 69 games in 2012.  The Orioles outperformed that mark by 24 games.  To make the Wild Card (93 wins is a decent number to use for that), a team at 69 wins needs to outperform by exactly 24 games.  The Orioles are the only team in that group to perform so well.  Historical events suggest a 2.4% possibility.  In 2013, the Orioles were projected to win 79 games and outperformed that mark by 6 games.  That was not good enough for the playoffs.  What they needed was in the neighborhood of outperforming their mark by 14 games.  In that data set, only seven out of 100 teams have manage to do that.  Of those seven, two did well enough to improve to a point with the divisional crown was a likelihood.

What does the history of teams in the 80 to 86 win bracket look like with respect to under and over performing their projected wins?

The above is a weighted distribution graph.  Just based on this one grouping, it appears that teams that crash, crash to varying degrees.  Perhaps, this has to do with increased play of prospects, dealing of players, or something along those lines.  Still, it holds up pretty well as data that appears normally distributed.  The Orioles would be looking to improve by 10 games over this projection, which has happened about 16% of the time in the past.  Greedy for a division crown?  That number drops to 6.5%.  Those odds would be 1 in 6 and 1 in 15, respectively.  Keep in mind that in Davenport's projection that the Orioles would need to leap frog several teams.  Briefly, it is more likely for the Orioles to over perform and another team to under perform than it is for them to over perform and two teams under perform.  That whole concept though will not be addressed in this post.

Going back to the original tweet suggesting that 90 wins are a lock, a team must to projected to win 98 games or more to have not fallen below 90 wins.  Six teams have been described as 98 win or better teams.  Six out of 330.
Proj. 90+ wins n
98+ 100% 6
97 50% 2
96 50% 2
95 67% 3
94 50% 4
93 43% 7
92 43% 7
91 50% 10
90 80% 5
For projected 83 win teams, four out of ten won 90 games.  In other words, it is possible for the Orioles to be a 90 win team.  History suggests that.  However, that same history also suggests that it is not likely.

Addendum (Model Projections)
Davenport 83-79
FG (STEAMER) 78-84
PECOTA 78-84