Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - April 29


This play by Marlins hurler/On The Field of Play heartthrob Jose Fernandez faked out not only Braves baserunner Tyler Pastornicky but, as you can see in the first camera angle, the Miami camera person as well.

Of course, any fake to first/trap the runner from third play is an excuse for me to re-post this one from 2012 and to welcome Manny Machado back from the disabled list.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What's Going On With: The Arizona Diamondbacks

This is Part 3 of a six-part series looking at the three worst and three best teams in baseball to date, and figuring out why they've done what they've done and whether they'll keep on doing it. We're now up to the worst team in the majors, the Arizona Diamondbacks, with a worse record than the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros.

How Bad Have They Been? The Diamondbacks are 8-21, a .276 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 45-117. They are a remarkable 2-14 at home.

How Much of a Surprise is This? The Cubs and Astros are teams that weren't supposed to be good and have simply been worse than expected. The Diamondbacks, though, seemed like an OK team going into the season. They were 81-81 in 2012 and 2013. Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and ESPN projected 79-82 wins. This is easily the most disappointing team in baseball.

What's Been Wrong? The offense hasn't been great (tenth in the NL in runs per game, sub-.300 on base percentage), the defense has been weak (lowest percentage of balls in play turned into outs), but the problem's been pitching. The team's 5.27 ERA is a full run worse than every other team's in the league. The relievers haven't been bad, but the starters' ERA is a cover-your-eyes 6.32. Josh Collmenter (3.94 ERA in three starts) is the only starter with an ERA below 5. Losing last year's best pitcher, Patrick Corbin, to Tommy John surgery was a bummer, but come on.

Has Luck Been Involved? Please refer here for a discussion of the terms used below, and why I chose them.

There are a couple things that support the notion that the pitching will get better. Diamondbacks pitchers have allowed a .323 batting average on balls in play, highest in the league, a figure that is far enough above the league average of .292 that you'd think there's some bad luck involved, although the Arizona fielders' inability to get to balls may be an unfixable contributor. Only 8.3% of fly balls hit by Diamondbacks hitters have left the yard compared to 12.9% of fly balls allowed by their pitchers. Neither figure is too far removed from the league average of 10.6% but the difference is large enough to make it seem as if either the hitters will hit more homers or the pitchers will give up fewer.

What's The Outlook? We can sit here and agree that the team's starters should improve. Wade Miley (3.54 career ERA entering the season) shouldn't finish the year with a 5.36 ERA. nor  Brandon McCarthy (4.10) at 5.54 ERA (he pitched a strong game on Sunday), nor Trevor Cahill (3.89) at 7.66, nor Bronson Arroyo (4.19) at 7.77. But there isn't a lot of data suggesting that a sharp improvement is imminent. Just for reference, a 5.27 team ERA would be worst for a non-Coors Field National League team since the Astros' 5.42 in 2000.

Sweet Play of the Day - April 28

Rangers centerfielder Leonys Martin shows off his glove and his arm. Just your basic 8-3 double play, starting over the center field wall. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

What's Going On With: The Chicago Cubs

This is Part 2 of a six-part series looking at the three worst and three best teams in baseball to date, and figuring out why they've done what they've done and whether they'll keep on doing it. Having discussed the third-worst team in the majors, the Houston Astros, we now move on to the Chicago Cubs.

How Bad Have They Been? The Cubs are 8-16, a .333 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 54-108.

How Much of a Surprise is This? Like the Astros, nobody expected Chicago, 66-96 last year, to be very good. But, like the Astros, people expected an improvement. Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and ESPN projected 68-75 wins. They were supposed to be bad, but not this bad.

What's Been Wrong? They offense is pretty bad. The Cubs are third-to-last in league with 3.67 runs per game, and an argument could be made that, adjusted for their home park, they're the worst hitting team in the NL. The pitchers have the fourth-worst ERA in the league. The bullpen has logged only two saves in six opportunities, giving the Cubs the fewest saves, the fewest save opportunities, and the lowest percentage of games saved in the league.  

Has Luck Been Involved? Please refer here for a discussion of the terms used below, and why I chose them.

I think the Cubs have been a little unlucky. They're 1-4 in one-run games. That sort of thing is unlikely to persist. On all other measures of luck, they're pretty neutral. Their batting average on balls in play, both on offense and on defense, is average, and while they're batting just .205 with runners in scoring position--suggestive of bad timing--the team's hitting just .231 overall. Their hitters have been a touch worse than average at getting fly balls to leave the park, but their pitchers have been a touch better than at average at keeping fly balls in the park as well, evening things out.

What's The Outlook? The Cubs' hitters and pitchers aren't good, but they haven't been that bad. Expect some improvement, if not necessarily a lot.

Sweet Play of the Day - April 27

I suppose this catch by David Lough of the Orioles gets the nod:

However, given that it occurred in a game with the Orioles, who have the best defensive third baseman in the game, Manny Machado, on the DL, it made me appreciate these plays by the NL version of Machado, Nolan Arenado:

Sunday, April 27, 2014

What's Going On With: The Houston Astros

At some point in May, I'll start up my Sunday "Trailing 30" feature, which lists the hottest and coldest teams and players over the past 30 days. For now, though, I'm going to look at the three teams with the best and worst records in the majors up to this point. It's still April, and trends can and will change. But let's see what we've got so far. 

Let's start with the third-worst team, the Houston Astros.

How Bad Have They Been? The Astros are 8-17, a .320 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 52-110.

How Much of a Surprise is This? Nobody expected Houston, which had the worst record in baseball in 2013 (51-111), 2012 (55-107), AND 2011 (56-106) to be good. But they expected an improvement. Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and ESPN projected 63-67 wins. They were supposed to be bad, but not this bad.

What's Been Wrong? They're last in the league at scoring, with 3.20 runs per game, more than a run below the league average of 4.44. They're fourth in the league in home runs, with 28, but that's the only time they get hits, it seems--they're last in batting (.210) and on base percentage (.282). Their pitching hasn't been anything to write home about--third-worst in ERA, third in walks and home runs allowed--but the offense has been more of the problem. Their All-Star second baseman, Jose Altuve, is the only player batting above .238. 

Has Luck Been Involved? To answer this, I'm going to look at four measures.
  • First, a team's record in one-run games is generally not replicable. Prior success in one-run games is not an indicator of future success, generally. Case in point: The Orioles were 29-9 in one-run games in 2012. Indicator of special skills in late games? If so, they acquired the skill suddenly, having gone 22-22 in one-run games in 2011, and lost it immediately, going 20-31 in 2013.
  • Second, major league hitters, on average, hit .300 on balls in play (i.e., excluding strikeouts and home runs). A figure way off that mark can indicate that some batted balls just aren't (or are) dropping in.
  • Third, about 10% of fly balls leave the park. A homer rate way at odds with that might be skill (Matt Cain of the Giants somewhat famously had a very low rate of home runs per fly ball through 2012, but he's regressed since) but it may be chance.
  • Finally, batting average with runners in scoring position, while a skill, usually indicates chance if it's way different from a team's overall batting average. Good example: The Cardinals set a record with their .330 batting average with runners in scoring position last year, leading to hosannas over the team's ability to bear down in the clutch. This year, they're hitting a decidedly un-clutch .223.

So let's check it out. The Astros are 2-3 in one-run games. Nothing unusual there. Their pitchers have allowed home runs on 12.4% of fly balls and their hitters have gone deep on 13.8% of fly balls. Those are both the second-highest figures in the American League, possibly a Minute Maid Park issue, but in any case not suggestive of luck one way or the other. But two factors may indicate they've been unlucky at the plate: They've hit just .251 on balls in play (their pitchers have allowed a more normal .304) and they've hit only .171 with runners in scoring position (compared to .206 given up by their pitchers). Both of those batting averages are the worst in the league.

What's The Outlook? The Astros have a very highly-regarded farm club, so the future is bright. The present is less so, though the numbers seem to say that their offense won't remain this terrible all season. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

In Defense of the Sport

In case you didn't see it elsewhere, Alan Barra has written a great piece in the Atlantic debunking what he calls "The 4 Bigggest Myths About Baseball." They are:

  • Baseball isn't as competitive as football.
  • Baseball games are too long.
  • Baseball's talent pool has been diluted by expansion and competition from other sports.
  • Baseball is declining in popularity.
If you believe any of these, or you find yourself getting in arguments with people who do, you ought to click the link.

Last Night's Sweet Play

Tampa Bay's Desmond Jennings takes away extra bases from the Twins' Trevor Plouffe.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Albert Pujols, By Himself

Last night Albert Pujols hit his 500th career home run. He is 34 years old and has hit 500 home runs, 529 doubles, and has a .321 career batting average. I thought I'd run a list of all 34-year-olds in baseball history with 500+ lifetime doubles and homers and a .320+ lifetime batting average:
Albert Pujols 500 529 .321 2001 2014 21-34 1978 8638 7394 1440 2370 1517 1074 843 94 37 .409 .599 1.008
Generated 4/23/2014.

Well okay then. Just Pujols. How about if I relax that a bit: 34 years old, 475+ doubles and homers, .315+ lifetime batting average?
Albert Pujols 500 529 .321 2001 2014 21-34 1978 8638 7394 1440 2370 1517 1074 843 94 37 .409 .599 1.008
Generated 4/23/2014.

Still an army of one. Pujols has been really, really good.

What if I knock it down to 450+ doubles and homers, .310+ batting average for a 34-year-old?
Hank Aaron 510 484 .314 1954 1968 20-34 2279 9888 8889 1603 2792 1627 866 991 215 59 .373 .560 .933
Lou Gehrig 464 502 .344 1923 1937 20-34 1999 8941 7397 1771 2547 1880 1396 714 96 99 .451 .643 1.094
Albert Pujols 500 529 .321 2001 2014 21-34 1978 8638 7394 1440 2370 1517 1074 843 94 37 .409 .599 1.008
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/23/2014.

I'm calling that pretty good company.

Pujols may not have as much left in his tank as Aaron, who hit .282 with 140 doubles and 245 home runs after age 34, but up to now, we've clearly been watching one of the greatest hitters of all time.

Last Night's Sweet Play

Sweet plays, to be precise. The Marlins' 21-year-old righthanded pitcher, Jose Fernandez, absolutely toyed with the Atlanta Braves, who came into the game with the second-best record in baseball. His counterpart, 23-year-old lefty Alex Wood of the Braves, took the loss despite giving up four hits, no walks, and striking out 11 in eight innings, as Miami won 1-0.

Fernandez gave up three hits, no walks, and struck out 14. The Braves whiffed at 26 of his 109 pitches (20% of his fastballs and 30% of his curveballs). Despite one lousy start in just five so far this season, he now has an ERA of 1.99 and WHIP of 0.92, both lower than his Rookie of the Year numbers from last year.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Those Kids

The Los Angeles Angels and Washington Nationals are in the middle of a three-game series in Washington that's being billed as the first major league meeting between outfielders Mike Trout of the Angels and Bryce Harper of the Nationals. They're both great young players, of course. Trout was Rookie of the Year in 2012, the year he turned 21 in August, and has been the runner-up in the AL MVP voting in both of his first two full seasons. Harper was a 19-year-old Rookie of the Year in 2012 and an All-Star in each of his first two seasons. The Angels won the first game of the series last night, 4-2, as four Angels pitchers scattered three hits and LA's Raul Ibanez, who at 41 is almost as old as Trout and Harper combined, hit a pinch-hit bases loaded double in the eighth inning to drive in three runs. Trout was 2-for-5 with two singles and a strikeout while Harper for 0-for-3 with a walk and a whiff. The game was the first meeting between Trout and Harper since they were teammates in the Arizona Fall League in 2011.

It made me think: We know these guys are great, but how historically great are they? They're both good outfielders, but they're known mostly for their bats. They're also good baserunners. Through last year, his "age 21" season--the season during which he was 21 on June 30--Trout had hit 62 homers and stolen 86 bases. Through his age 20 season, also last year, Harper had 42 homers and 29 stolen bases. How many hitters in major league history have combined that kind of power and speed? Here's the list:

Hitters with 62 HR, 86 SB through age 21: Mike Trout
Hitters with 42 HR, 29 SB through age 20: Bryce Harper

That's it. Nobody else. Not Rodriguez, not Griffey, not Bonds, not Mays. Just Trout and Harper. 

For those of you in LA or Washington, or with subscriptions to or At Bat 14 (note: a Premium subscription to gets you At Bat 14 for free), the Angels and Nationals games start at 7:05 tonight and tomorrow night.

Last Night's Sweet Play

In case you don't start your day checking videos, here's a fantastic double play from last night's Mets-Cards game.

Monday, April 21, 2014

How High-Quality is a Quality Start?

One of the easier-to-understand new metrics is the Quality Start, a statistic invented by Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter John Lowe in 1985 (according to Wikipedia). (I suppose something that's been around 29 years isn't all that new.) A starting pitcher gets credit for a quality start if he pitches six or more innings and allows three or fewer earned runs. That's it.

The criticism you hear of a quality start is that three runs in six innings is a 4.50 ERA, which isn't very good. Of course, a perfect game's a quality start too. Do quality starts indicate pitching excellence or mediocrity?

I looked at quality starts in 2013. Here are a few tidbits:

  • There were 2,431 games last year, so 4,862 games started. There were 2,556 quality starts. That means about 53% of starts were quality starts. That doesn't sound that impressive. But wait.
  • The leaders: Clayton Kershaw and James Shields had 27, Adam Wainwright had 26, Cole Hamels and Max Scherzer had 25. By percentage of starts: Kershaw had quality starts in 82% of his starts, Shields 79%, Scherzer 78%, and Cliff Lee, Bartolo Colon, Chris Sale, and Matt Harvey all had 77%. Those are all good pitchers, including both Cy Young Award winners. That sounds good.
  • Teams that got a quality start won 65.6% of their games last year. That's the equivalent of going 106-56. That tells you that a quality start gives a team an excellent chance to win. 
All well and good, you're thinking, but do pitchers in quality starts actually pitch well? It turns out the answer is: Yeah, do they ever.

The major league average ERA and WHIP for starters last year were 4.01 and 1.306, respectively. The six-inning, three-run outing with a 4.50 ERA cited above would thus be below-average.

But that's not the norm. In their 2,556 quality starts last year, pitchers compiled a 1.93 ERA and 0.986 WHIP. The closest to those figures: Kershaw's 1.83 ERA and Jose Fernandez's 0.979 WHIP. Yes, it's true that a starter can get a quality start with a 4.50 ERA. That happened 213 times last year, 8.3% of quality starts. But on average, you're getting something like Kershaw and Fernandez when you get a quality start.

Monday, April 14, 2014

UPDATE - Reality Check: Milwaukee Brewers

Yesterday, the Brewers entered play with a 9-2 record, making them the 51st team since division play began in 1969 to start 9-2 or stronger. I ran a table showing that teams starting 9-2 since then have a slightly better than 50% chance of making the postseason. Now they're 10-2. Here's a list of teams since 1969 to start the season 10-2 :

  Year  Team       End of Season
  1971  Giants       Lost NLCS
  1978  Royals       Lost ALCS
  1981  Expos        Lost NLCS
  1981  Dodgers        Won WS
  1984  Padres        Lost WS
  1988  Indians        78-84
  1989  Rangers        83-79
  1990  Reds           Won WS
  1998  Padres        Lost WS 
  1992  Pirates      Lost NLCS
  1992  Blue Jays      Won WS
  1996  Orioles      Lost ALDS
  1998  Indians      Lost ALCS
  1998  Orioles        79-83
  1999  Indians      Lost ALDS
  2003  Yankees       Lost WS
  2005  Dodgers        71-91
  2011  Rockies        73-89
  2012  Rangers       Lost WC
The Brewers are getting into an elite field. They're only the 20th team to start the year 10-2 since 1969. Of the 19 predecessors, all but five were still playing in October. So 74% made the postseason. At this point we can say that if the Brewers don't make the playoffs, it won't be unprecedented, but it will be a bit of a surprise. Teams that start the year 10-2 are generally good teams.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reality Check: Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers are the surprise team of the season so far. (Note to Reds and Red Sox fans: I'm talking about positive surprises.) They enter play today with the best record in the majors at 9-2. Last year, the team was 74-88 and was not considered to be contender this year (projected wins: Baseball Prospectus 80, FanGraphs 79, ESPN 75, On The Field of Play 79).

After just writing that the first week of the season doesn't mean anything, I'm not going to say that the Brewers' hot start means they're a lock for October. But let's look at teams from the divisional era (1969-present) that've started the season 9-2 or better:

  Year  Team       Record  Playoffs?
  1969  Braves       9-2      Yes
  1969  Cubs        10-1      No
  1971  Giants       9-2      Yes
  1972  Astros       9-2      No
  1972  Dodgers      9-2      No
  1974  Expos        9-2      No
  1975  Royals       9-2      No
  1977  Dodgers      9-2      Yes
  1978  Tigers       9-2      No
  1978  Royals       9-2      Yes
  1980  Reds        10-1      No
  1981  Dodgers      9-2      Yes
  1981  A's         11-0      Yes
  1981  Expos        9-2      Yes
  1981  Cardinals    9-2      No
  1982  Braves      11-0      Yes
  1982  White Sox    9-2      No
  1984  Tigers      10-1      Yes
  1984  Padres       9-2      Yes
  1987  Brewers     11-0      No
  1988  Indians      9-2      No
  1988  Yankees      9-2      No
  1989  Rangers     10-1      No
  1990  Reds         9-2      Yes
  1990  A's          9-2      Yes
  1992  Pirates      9-2      Yes
  1992  Blue Jays    9-2      Yes
  1994  Braves      10-1      No
  1996  Orioles      9-2      Yes
  1997  Orioles      9-2      Yes
  1998  Orioles      9-2      No
  1998  Indians      9-2      Yes
  1998  Padres       9-2      Yes
  1999  Indians      9-2      Yes
  2001  Twins        9-2      No
  2002  Indians     10-1      No
  2002  Giants       9-2      Yes
  2003  Royals      10-1      No
  2003  Yankees      9-2      Yes
  2003  Giants      10-1      Yes
  2005  Dodgers      9-2      No
  2006  Mets         9-2      Yes
  2008  Diamondbacks 9-2      No
  2009  Marlins     10-1      No
  2011  Rockies      9-2      No
  2011  Rangers      9-2      Yes
  2012  Dodgers      9-2      No
  2012  Rangers      9-2      Yes
  2013  Braves      10-1      Yes
  2013  A's          9-2      Yes
So if I counted those right, the Brewers are the 51st team to start the year 9-2 or better since 1969. Of those 50 teams, 27 of them, or 54%, made the postseason. (Of the teams that were exactly 9-2, 22 of 37, or 59%, made the postseason, as only 5 of 13 teams starting 10-1 or better were in the playoffs. Good thing the Brewers didn't win more than nine games!) So the Brewers have put themselves into a position in which they have, on paper, a little better than a 50/50 chance of making the postseason. They have as good a chance of continuing to win 82% of their games, though, as they do of sustaining their 1.87 ERA to date.

Friday, April 11, 2014

And Blake, the Much Despised...

You hear about it, now it's actually happened. In last night's White Sox-Indians game, Chicago rookie Jose Abreu had his second consecutive two-homer game. But the coolest thing he did was on a foul ball. As Fox Sports Ohio reports,

But that wasn't even the most shocking part of his night. That came off a foul ball -- a foul ball that was in the process of disintegrating as Abreu literally ripped the cover off it he hit it so hard.

(If you don't get the headline, you really need to brush up on the classics)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Please, Let Him Get On Base.

Because when he does, Billy Hamilton has to be the most entertaining player in the game when on the basepaths.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What We've Learned So Far

We're a week into the season. What can we conclude from the games that've been played so far?


It's only a week, for crying out loud. 

In the week ending last April 24, NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw was 0-1 with a 4.35 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP. Did that tell us anything? In the week ending last June 12, AL MVP Miguel Cabrera batted .167 with one extra-base hit in 27 plate appearances. Did we learn anything from that? In the week ending last May 7, the eventual World Champion Red Sox were 1-6, outscored 47-22, and dropped three straight to the lowly Twins. What did that indicate? A span of seven days over a six-month season is tiny. It is far too small a sample to mean anything. 

It's a long season. We're less than 4% into it. Don't read anything into anything quite yet. Just enjoy the play.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Reality Check: Stretching Them Out

I enjoy The Will Leitch Experience podcast (though I usually skip the episodes involving sports I don't care follow, i.e., pretty much everything other than baseball). Last week he had three consecutive appearances by Joe Sheehan, whose newsletter I strongly recommend. Joe previewed the 2014 season for all 30 teams. When discussing the Cardinals, he and Will talked about plans to move young pitcher Carlos Martinez from the bullpen to the rotation.

Joe mentioned that giving a young pitcher experience in the bullpen to prepare him for a starting role has become rarer in baseball due to the predominance of one-inning specialists. In 1965, the Baltimore Orioles had 19-year-old pitcher Jim Palmer in 27 games: six as a starter and 21 as a reliever. In those relief appearances, he pitched 56 innings, an average of exactly two and two thirds innings per relief appearance. That workload helped prepare Palmer for a Hall of Fame career as a starter.

Since the speaker here was Joe Sheehan, one of the top analysts in the game, the purpose of this Reality Check is not to determine whether Sheehan's assessment is correct. It is. The question is, how right is he?

I looked at five-year periods of baseball beginning in 1965, Palmer's rookie year. I used Baseball Reference's Play Index (invaluable research tool) to count the number of seasons in which a pitcher younger than 25 had at least 15 relief appearances of at least two innings. These appearances, we could reasonable conclude, are better than a shorter stint at preparing a young pitcher's arm for the rigors of starting. Here are the results. In the table, "# Seasons" means the number of seasons within the date range in which a pitcher younger than 25 had at least 15 relief appearances of at least two innings:

   Years   # Seasons   Prominent example
  1965-69     30       Ferguson Jenkins, 25, 1966
  1970-74     59       Bill Lee, 24, 1971
  1975-79     60       Jack Morris, 18, 1978
  1980-84     39       Rick Sutcliffe, 16, 1980
  1985-89     38       Chuck Finley, 16, 1987
  1990-94     15       Pedro Martinez, 31, 1993
  1995-99     15       Chan Ho Park, 15, 1996
  2000-04     13       Johan Santana, 18, 2000
  2005-09      5       Brandon McCarthy, 18, 2000
  2010-14      2       still waiting
Source: Baseball Reference Play Index. 

As you can see, over the past 50 years, there have been several cases of Hall of Fame and All Star-caliber starting pitchers who have begun their career pitching long relief. As the bullpen has evolved into a series of one-inning specialists, Sheehan's right: it's become hard for a relievers to develop the arm strength to move into the starting rotation. We may be looking a future with fewer stars starting out in relief like Ferguson Jenkins and Pedro Martinez and more promising youngsters who break when they try to move out of a short-outing relief role like Joba Chamberlain and Neftali Feliz.