30 January 2015

Should Teams Focus on Run Prevention?

In my previous article, I argued that the Orioles should avoid spending money on any pitching free agents in order to spend resources on position players that can provide offense and defense. My argument was that excellent fielders can turn good pitchers into excellent pitchers and so on and so forth.  But it’s also possible that excellent fielders combined with excellent pitchers can prevent enough runs that even a mediocre offense can score enough to win. Does it make sense for teams to primarily focus on run prevention?

In order to answer this question I looked at all starting pitchers that threw at least 100 innings for a given team from 1935-2014 and put them into quartiles based on FIP. Then I looked at all teams from 1935-2014 and put them into quartiles based on their Fangraphs fielding metric. 

The first chart shows fielder and pitcher performance order by fielding ratings. E/F stands for ERA/FIP while RA9/F stands for RA9/FIP. I include these stats to measure the impact of defense based on a proportion rather than just a total. Here it is below.

This chart shows that the value of having a good defense decreases when you have good starters. For good fielding teams the difference between ERA and FIP is greatest for the worst pitchers. For poor fielding teams this is still the case but the difference is minimal. It is still better to have excellent pitching than having average pitching but teams have limited resources and may not be able to easily afford top pitching.

The second chart shows pitcher and fielder performance ordered by pitcher ratings.

This chart shows that good pitchers (those in the second quartile) that have the best fielders prevent more runs than the best pitchers with the worst fielders. Bad pitchers that have the best fielders prevent as many runs as good pitchers with bad fielders. Bad pitchers with the best fielders behind them give up only 3 more runs per 200 innings than good pitchers with good fielding. The best pitchers do prevent more runs on average than worse pitchers but good fielding is able to significantly limit the gap.

The chart also shows that even the best fielders are unable to do much for the worst pitchers. It is true that the worst pitchers with the best fielders have an RA9 nearly .7 points lower than the worst pitchers with the worst fielders. It’s also the case that teams with the worst pitchers and best fielders give up 4.7 runs on average per 9 innings and are still ineffective.

This next chart shows how it worked in practice for the 2014 Orioles.

The chart shows that the Orioles have seen this happen first hand. The only starter we had that had an above average FIP was Gausman and he was the only starter who underperformed his FIP. The other starters had an FIP that was either in the third of fourth quartile and mostly outperformed what their FIP suggested. One could argue that the Orioles actually did have a rotation of below-average starters and were able to succeed due to superior fielding. It’s not that Chris Tillman or Wei-Yin Chen are good necessarily but that they have an excellent defense supporting them.

Miguel Gonzalez outperformed his FIP by a substantial amount. There have been 8,487 starters that have thrown 100 innings for one team in a given year from 1935 to 2014. In 2014, Miguel Gonzalez has the tenth highest E-F and the fifth highest RA9-F. Players with similar seasons include Jorge Sosa in 2005 and J.A Happ in 2009. It seems likely that Miguel Gonzalez should expect significant regression if used as a starter next year.

It appears reasonable to argue that the Orioles have been able to prevent runs because they have a large number of decent starters that are able to succeed because they have a strong defense behind them. They may not have the best pitchers in MLB but good defense can fix a lot of problems.

In order to continue being successful, the Orioles need to consider pulling a trick out of the Rays playbook. The Rays typically offer pitching prospects long term deals before they are proven in order to save money and then trade them a few years before they become free agents. Of the Rays 10 starters that have thrown the most innings for the Rays from 2005-2014, they traded seven, had two get injured and currently control only Alex Cobb.  In contrast, the Rays only traded four of their ten offensive players with the most PAs from 2005 to 2014. Three of those four were traded this offseason in order to save money.

The Rays were able to do this because their fielding has been ranked #1 by Fangraphs from 2008 to 2014. Having good fielders supporting their pitchers allows them to risk giving guaranteed money to unproven pitchers and risk trading their proven pitchers to other teams.  They weren’t that aggressive when it came to position players because they needed to focus on offense and fielding in order to win.

The Orioles should consider a similar strategy.  Signing Gausman and especially Bundy to long-term contracts later this year will save the club money if they are successful. Trading a starter like Wei-Yin Chen or Chris Tillman could potentially net a reasonable return while solving our rotation questions.

Excellent fielding is more helpful for decent pitching than excellent pitching. That means that teams shouldn’t focus on trying to find the best fielders and starters at the cost of offense. Spending money in free agency to improve pitching is a luxury that a team with limited resources simply can’t afford. The best plan is to use most available resources for offense and fielding.

29 January 2015

Orioles Acquire Travis Snider, Gain Additional Depth

Travis Snider (photo via Tom Hagerty)
After failing to bring back Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, the Orioles have been in the market for another outfielder for much of the offseason.  While they missed out on the free agents (which left us a little confused), they finally landed their man by acquiring outfielder Travis Snider from the Pirates for minor league pitcher Stephen Tarpley and a "player to be named later."  Let’s take a quick look at Baltimore’s new outfielder and also see what they had to give up to get him.

What the Orioles Received
Travis Snider was the 14th overall pick in the 2006 draft.  As a top prospect, Snider absolutely crushed the ball during his time in the minors, hitting a combined .309/.383/.525  in 2200 plate appearances across all levels.  That success in the minors never really carried over to the majors though, as he basically resembled a typical quad-A player (someone too good for AAA, but not good enough for the majors).  Here’s what Snider has been able to do over the course of his major league career.

2008 20 80 2 5 23 .301 .338 .466 114
2009 21 276 9 29 78 .241 .328 .419 95
2010 22 319 14 21 79 .255 .304 .463 105
2011 23 202 3 11 56 .225 .269 .348 65
2012 24 185 4 17 48 .250 .319 .378 92
2013 25 285 5 24 75 .215 .281 .333 74
2014 26 359 13 34 67 .264 .338 .438 118
7 Yrs 1706 50 141 426 .246 .310 .406 95
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/28/2015.

The overall numbers aren’t too encouraging, but the good news is that 2014 was his best season by far, as he produced career marks in almost every offensive category. So which version of Travis Snider will the Orioles get in 2015?  On one hand, it’s hard to ignore the rather sizable sample of Snider’s struggles prior to last year.  On the other, Snider just had a much better season at the plate than the recently departed Nick Markakis (albeit in less PA’s) and is a former top prospect that will only turn 27 in the next week. After several years of being one of the best outfielders in baseball, it’s easy to forget that Alex Gordon struggled on offense until his age 27 season.  I’m not saying Snider will have an Alex Gordon type breakout, but some guys take a little bit longer to figure it out.

Having said that, Snider may not even be an everyday player.  Back in December, Matt looked at a rumored deal that would have sent Brian Matusz to the Pirates in exchange for Snider and took a quick look at Snider’s possible platoon issues.  While his overall splits don’t scream “platoon player”, there are legitimate reasons to believe Snider is not a good option against left-handers, including a strikeout rate over 33% and the fact that he hasn’t been given much of an opportunity to even face left-handed pitching (277 career PA’s).

Earlier in the offseason, we here at Camden Depot stated that an outfield consisting of Jones/Pearce/De Aza/Lough actually wouldn’t be much worse than 2014’s group.  However, it’s not unreasonable to think that this group (minus Jones) has a higher chance to disappoint (especially offensively) than not, so picking up Snider as another outfield option was a nice move by the front office to hedge their bets.  Additionally, Snider doesn’t cost much (he signed for $2.1 million in 2014) and is under team control next year as well.  It’s a good pickup, especially when considering that both De Aza and Pearce will be free agents after the season.

What the Orioles Gave Up
In order to get Snider, the Orioles gave up left-handed pitcher Stephen Tarpley and a “player to be named later”.  Tarpley was the Orioles 3rd round pick in the 2013 draft out of Scottsdale Community College.  He spent all last season pitching in Aberdeen (Short Season A-Ball), sporting a 3.66 ERA over 66.1 innings, while striking out 60 and walking 24.

This offseason, Tarpley was rated by Baseball Prospectus as the Orioles 9th best prospect (subscription required and recommended).  Essentially, Tarpley shows good stuff on the mound, but he lacks polish on his command and his secondary pitches.  BP’s prospect team sees him as having the ceiling of a number 3 or 4 starter, but a more realistic role of a 6th inning reliever/long man in the bullpen.  So while he does have a higher ceiling than some of the pitchers ahead of him on that list (pitchers not named Bundy or Harvey), he has a way to go to reach that ceiling.

The other player going to the Pirates in this deal is currently unknown, and according to Roch Kubatko of MASN, that player likely won’t be known until spring training.  However, Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reported that left-hander Steven Brault could be the PTBNL.  Brault was drafted in the 11th round of the 2013 draft and spent the 2014 season between Low-A Delmarva and High-A Frederick.  I couldn’t find much else on him, so I asked Tucker Blair of Baseball Prospectus for some insight:
“Steven Brault is an athletic-framed lefty that was signed out of Regis University, which has never seen a player make the majors. I've seen Brault quite a few times while he was with Aberdeen, Delmarva, and Frederick. He generally sits 90-92 with average present command, but his fastball has some sink and run on it. He also has a SL, CB and CH, with the first two fringy. The CH has some deception and fade to it, and is largely the reason his numbers have been so productive throughout his first two seasons. He hides the pitch well out of his hand. Brault has enjoyed success so far in pro ball due to his loose arm and that deception, but I lean more towards him being a role 4 relief type, as I haven't seen the consistency in his mechanics and the stuff leans mostly towards the average side. There isn't a ton of room for mistakes, which I think will be exploited some at the higher levels. For now, he's an intriguing option as a backend starter type.”

Overall this trade appears to be a good one for both teams to make.  Travis Snider gives the Orioles the outfielder they’ve been searching for all offseason long, at minimal cost in terms of dollars and prospects.  As for Pittsburgh, they end up with one intriguing pitching prospect (possibly two) for a player who would have struggled to find at-bats next season.  Baltimore fans may have preferred the Brian Matusz for Snider swap that was discussed earlier, but it’s unlikely that Baltimore will miss Tarpley (or Brault, if he is the PTBNL). Tarpley may have the ceiling of a number 3 or 4 starter, but he’ll begin the 2015 season as a 22 year old having yet to reach Low-A.  In other words, it’s probably going to take a while for him to get there, if he ever does.

As a team planning on contending in 2015, Travis Snider is worth much more to the Orioles than either of the minor league players they gave up for him. Snider gives the Orioles another solid option in the outfield or off the bench.  And if they’re lucky, there’s even a chance he’s more than just a solid option.  When this deal was announced, our own Matt Kremnitzer asked an interesting question that's important to remember when considering this trade.

If you’re being honest with yourself, I bet you probably agree with him.