Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bryce Harper, How Soon They Forget

This morning on MLB Network Radio there was a discussion of the best young outfielders in the game today. The hosts and callers seemed to coalesce on this ranking:

  1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
  2. Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers
  3. George Springer, Houston Astros
  4. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
  5. Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
Trout, sure, I get it. Puig has been fabulous this year: currently second in the NL in batting, on base, and slugging; first in on base plus slugging, first in bat flips. Springer, top-rated prospect in the Astros system, was called up in mid-April and started slowly. He was batting .185 with a .254 on base percentage and .215 slugging percentage, striking out over a third of his plate appearances, through his first 16 games. Since then, though, he's .338/.442/.750, striking out 27% of the time. Heyward was great as a rookie and has been inconsistent since.

But Harper fourth? He was an All-Star his first year. He was better his second year, though he missed time with injuries, as he has this year. But here's why I'd rate Harper second in this group:

   Age 19 Season  PA   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS 
   Trout         135 .220 .281 .390 .672
   Puig                In Cuba
   Springer            In College
   Harper        597 .270 .340 .477 .817
   Heyward             In Minors

   Age 20 Season  PA   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS 
   Trout         639 .326 .399 .564 .963
   Puig                In Cuba
   Springer            In College
   Harper        497 .274 .368 .486 .854
   Heyward       623 .277 .393 .456 .849

   Age 21 Season  PA   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS 
   Trout         716 .323 .432 .557 .998
   Puig                In Cuba
   Springer       In College and Minors
   Harper         91 .289 .352 .422 .773
   Heyward       456 .227 .319 .389 .708

   Age 22 Season  PA   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS 
   Trout         232 .281 .371 .531 .901
   Puig          432 .319 .391 .534 .925
   Springer            In Minors
   Harper          Turns 22 in October
   Heyward       651 .269 .335 .479 .814
(Source is Baseball Reference. Seasonal age is the player's age as of June 30. PA = plate appearances, BA = batting average, OBP = on base percentage, SLG = slugging percentage, OPS = on base plus slugging)

See the point? Harper was Rookie of the Year at an age at which none of the other guys were major league regulars. Last year, despite missing time with injuries, he had what was arguably the seventh-best season by a 20-year-old since World War II (not bad when 1-6 are Trout, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Robinson, and Ken Griffey Jr.). The injuries are worrisome and could limit him in the future. But I just don't see how you can say he's not the second best young outfielder in the game.

UPDATE: I just remembered - I got 1-4 right but I forgot that Giancarlo Stanton was the consensus No. 5, not Heyward. His numbers:

   Age  PA   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS 
   19         In Minors
   20  396 .259 .326 .507 .833
   21  601 .262 .356 .537 .893
   22  501 .290 .361 .608 .969
He's 24 now. He is older than Trout and Harper, younger than Heyward and Springer. I'd rate him third. Trout, Harper, Stanton, Heyward, Springer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - May 27

Aaron Hicks may be having his struggles at the plate for the Twins, but he has this playing center field thing down. 

Reality Check: Adam Wainwright

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is a regular on MLB Network Radio on Sirius/XM. Yesterday he was asked about Adam Wainwright, the ace of the Cardinals' pitching staff. He remarked that Wainwright is great but underappreciated, noting that he wasn't named NL Pitcher of the Month in April despite leading the league in a number of categories.

That made me think: Which categories?

ERA? Nope, his 1.20 ERA was second to Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto's 1.15. Pitcher of the Month Jose Fernandez was fourth at 1.59.

WHIP? No, he allowed 0.78 walks and hits per inning pitched, fourth in the league after Cueto (0.77), the Giants' Tim Hudson (0.74) and the Cubs' Jason Hammel (0.69). Fernandez was right behind Wainwright at 0.83.

Strikeouts? Wainwright was sixth with 42. Strikeout percentage? Eleventh, 25.3%. Strikeout to walk ratio? Seventeenth, 3.82. Fernandez was first, first, and sixth.

Pitches in the strike zone? Wainwright was 16th, 52.7%, ahead of Fernandez's 19th-place 52.3%. How about getting batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone? Fernandez led the league with 37.2%; Wainwright was 23rd at 30.7%. 

Keeping the ball in the park? Only 2.6% of Wainwright's fly balls allowed went over the fence, second best in the league, a percentage so freakily low it's almost certainly a product of some luck. (Sure enough, it's a higher-but-still-outstanding 6.3% in May.) 

He didn't lead the league in innings pitched (third) or batters faced (sixth). He didn't allow the lowest batting average on balls in play (fourth). He didn't lead in baserunners left stranded (eighth). 

The only category I could find in which Wainwright led the league was wins. He was tied for first with the Dodgers' Zack Greinke with five. But even that's a little suspect; in a league in which the average pitcher got run support of 3.97 per nine innings in April, the Cardinals supported Wainwright with 5.80, seventh in the league, higher than Greinke (5.60) and Fernandez (5.45), to name two.  

In short, other than wins, I couldn't find anything in which Wainwright led the league in April.

Sweet Play of the Day - May 25

Collin Cowgill has started only four games in left for the Angels this year. Outside of Mike Trout, in fact, the Angels have had a mix-and-match outfield this year, with Cowgill and Kole Calhoun in kind of a platoon in right and a whole cast of characters seeing time in left with Josh Hamilton injured. In any case, Cowgill made the most of his appearance the Sunday before Memorial Day.

Sweet Play of the Day - May 22

How Yasiel Puig avoided breaking his wrist on this catch, I don't know. I was listening to a Mets broadcast a couple days ago and they were still talking about this catch.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Trailing 30 - May 25

Time to dust off this feature from last year. In April, the players of the month were Jose Abreu of the White Sox and Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies. Pitchers of the month were Sonny Gray of the A's and Jose Fernandez of the Marlins (sob). But the month ending April 30 is a somewhat contrived limit, isn't it? In this feature, I look at the past 30 days, every Sunday, and list the league leaders. It tells you who's been hot of late, not just for the a given month. This is possible through the magic of Fangraphs and its fabulous Leaders application.

   American League             National League
   Team W-L                    Team W-L      
1. Detroit         17-9     1. San Francisco   19-8        
2. Los Angeles    17-10     2. Miami          16-12        
3. Toronto        17-11     3. St. Louis      15-11         
4. Seattle        16-11     4. Colorado       15-11   
5. Oakland        16-11     5. Pittsburgh     13-12        

   Worst Team W-L              Worst Team W-L
1. Texas          10-17     1. New York        9-16      
2. Boston         10-15     2. Philadelphia   10-14       
3. Houston        11-16     3. San Diego      11-16      
4. Tampa Bay      12-16     4. Chicago        11-15
5. New York       12-14     5. Cincinnati     11-14

   Batting Average             Batting Average     
1. Cabrera, Det    .376     1. Puig, LA        .414        
2. Cano, Sea       .368     2. Tulowitzki, Col .378             
3. Altuve, Hou     .364     3. Smith, SD       .365           
4. Kinsler, Det    .360     4. Pollock, Ari    .346          
5. Martinez, Det   .359     5. Gomez, Mil      .345       

   Lowest Batting Average      Lowest Batting Average  
1. Hart, Sea       .158     1. Espinosa, Was   .136          
2. Santana, Cle    .176     2. Brown, Phi      .161         
3. De Aza, Chi     .183     3. Hicks, SF       .172
4. Callaspo, Oak   .191     4. Venable, SD     .184           
5. Bradley, Bos    .195     5. Davis, Mil      .185            

   On-Base Percentage          On-Base Percentage  
1. Choo, Tex       .436     1. Puig, GA        .508            
2. Martinez, Det   .419     2. Tulowitzki, Col .477            
3. DeJesus, TB     .414     3. Smith, SD       .453         
4. Moss, Oak       .413     4. McCutchen, Pit  .434              
5. Cabrera, Det    .411     5. Stanton, Mia    .432       
   Slugging Percentage         Slugging Percentage   
1. Moss, Oak       .705     1. Tulowitzki, Col .767        
2. Martinez, Det   .699     2. Puig, LA        .758     
3. Encarnacion, Tor.685     3. Smith, SD       .716       
4. Franciso, Tor   .636     4. Jones, Mia      .644       
5. Cabrera, Det    .634     5. Stanton, Mia    .640        
   Home Runs                   Home Runs
1. Encarnacio, Tor   12     1. Tulowitzdki, Col  10
2. Martinez, Det      9     2. Puig, LA           8        
3. Cruz, Bal          9        Stanton, Mia       8          
4. 4 with             8     4. J Upton, Atl       7
                            5. 4 with             6

   Runs                        Runs    
1. Dopnladson, Oak   22     1. Tulowitzki, Col   26        
2. Reyes, Tor        21     2. Pence, SF         21       
3. Dozier, Min       20     3. 4 with            19
4. 6 with            19     

   RBI                         RBI      
1. Davis, Bal        22     1. Puig. LA          28        
2. Encarnacion, Tor  21     2. Tulowitzki, Col   20      
3. Jones, Bal        20        Stanton, Mia      20       
4. 6 with            19        Ozuna, Mia        20
                            5. Goldschmidt, Ari  19             

   Stolen Bases                Stolen Bases             
1. Escobar, KC       11     1. Gordon, LA        16            
2. Altuve, Hou        8     2. Hamilton, Cin      9     
   Jennings, Tor      8     3. Cabrera, SD        8   
4. 4 with             7     4. Young, NY          7
                            5. 4 with             6

   Saves                       Saves
1. Perkins, Min       9     1. Romo, SF          11
   Rodney, Sea        9     2. Melancon, Pit      9
3. Robertson, NY      8        Rosenthal, SL      8
4. Holland, KC        8     4. Roriguez, NY       7
5. Nathan, Det        7        Reed, Ari          7 

   ERA                         ERA
1. Hughes, Min     1.08     1. Vogelsong, SF   1.35
2. Gray, Oak       1.75     2. Samardzija, Chi 1.38
3. Iwakuma, Sea    1.76     3. Greinke, LA     1.55
4. Weaver, LA      1.77     4. de la Rosa, Col 1.86
5. Wilson, LA      2.28     5. Hudson, SF      1.89

   Worst ERA                   Worst ERA
1. Vargas, KC      6.37     1. Volquez, Pit    6.83
2. Danks, Chi      6.37     2. Morales, Col    6.67
3. Masterson, Cle  5.94     3. Colon, NY       6.39
4. Peavy, Bos      5.55     4. Harang, Atl     6.11
5. Gibson, Min     5.53     5. Kendrick, Phi   5.76

   WHIP                        WHIP
1. Iwakuma, Sea    0.72     1. Cueto, Cin      0.70
2. Gray, Oak       0.86     2. de la Rosa, Col 0.90
3. Weaver, LA      0.87     3. Teheran, Atl    0.91
4. Hughes, Min     0.90     4. Roark, Was      0.92
5. Keuchel, Hou    0.90     5. Wainwright, StL 0.92

   Strikeouts                  Strikeouts
1. Kluber, Cle       53     1. Cueto, Cin        43       
2. Price, TB         44     2. Strasburg, Was    39
3. Darvish, Tex      42     3. Cole, Pit         38
4. Lester, Min       40        Kennedy, SD       38
5. Tanaka, NY        38        Estrada, Mil      38

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reality Check: Harmon Killebrew

I was watching a Twins broadcast and the announcers were discussing Aaron Hicks's struggles at the plate. Through May 11, Hicks was batting .160 with a .235 slugging percentage. That's pretty bad; among pitchers with at least 15 plate appearances, 13 are batting and slugging higher. (Hicks has heated up since, going 7-for-21, but his batting average is still below .200.) The announcers were reminiscing about Twins great Harmon Killebrew. One of them, I think it was Bert Blyleven, said that when Killebrew would visit the batting cage after he retired, his advice to hitters was, "Keep swinging." The announcers talked about how Killebrew was a free swinger but when he made contact the ball went a long way.

Today, we have the technology to precisely measure that. Tigers rookie Nick Castellanos leads the majors in swinging, having swung at 59.3% of the pitches thrown to him. The Cardinals' Matt Carpenter is the other extreme, swinging 33.6% of the time. So Castallanos keeps swinging, while Carpenter doesn't. But pitch-by-pitch data weren't available in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s when Killebrew played. So we'll have to go by strikeouts and walks.

Obviously, a guy who strikes out a lot is taking a lot of swings. Killebrew struck out 1,699 times in his career, 27th most all time. He led the AL in strikeouts once and was in the top ten seven other times. But does that make him a free swinger?

Not if you look at his bases on balls. Killebrew is 15th all time with 1,559 walks. He led the American League in walks four times, was in the top three eight times, and in the top ten 13 times. In his years as a regular (1959-1972), among players with at least 1000 games played, Killebrew had the 24th lowest ratio of strikeouts to walks in the majors. Compared to his walks, he struck out less frequently (1.01 strikeouts per walk) than Pete Rose (1.03)!

So whoever heard him say, "Swing away," must've missed when he added "at pitches you can hit; otherwise, take your base on balls."

Sweet Play of the Day - May 21

This is not only a great play, it's clutch. Fifth inning, Marlins up by two runs, but Phillies have the bases loaded with two outs. Giancarlo Stanton is better known for his bat than his glove, but this catch preserved the lead.

Sweet Play of the Day - May 19

Actually, three.

First, on the first pitch of the game, Nationals vs. Reds, Billy Hamilton at the plate.

Same game, extra innings, two gems by Brandon Phillips and Hamilton preserve the tie in a game the Reds won in 15.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - May 17

I've contained my Jose Fernandez grief to a manageable level, so it's back to work...I figure it must be laziness or something on my part that I haven't listed a catch by the Mets' Juan Lagares yet. The guy really is an amazing centerfielder.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Throwing Strikes, Getting Strikes - May Update

Over the winter, I did a series of articles about how pitchers' ability to throw strikes affects outcomes. The research is here, here, here, and here. The basic conclusion is this: throwing strikes is good, getting strikes is better. 

Last year, these pitchers threw the largest percentage of pitchers in the strike zone:
     Pitcher           Zone%   W-L    ERA  WHIP
  1. Bartolo Colon     58.5%  18-6   2.65  1.17
  2. Cliff Lee         56.9%  14-8   2.87  1.01
  3. Bronson Arroyo    56.1%  14-12  3.79  1.15
  4. Jordan Zimmermann 55.0%  19-9   3.25  1.09
  5. Jose Fernandez    55.0%  12-6   2.19  0.98
  6. David Price       54.0%  10-8   3.33  1.10
  7. Julio Teheran     53.2%  14-8   3.20  1.17
  8. R.A. Dickey       53.1%  14-13  4.21  1.24
  9. Shelby Miller     53.1%  15-9   3.06  1.21
 10. Travis Wood       53.0%   9-12  3.11  1.15
Data from FanGraphs. Zone% = percentage of pitches in the strike zone.

And these pitchers got batters to swing at the largest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone:
     Pitcher        O-Swing%   W-L    ERA  WHIP
  1. Hisashi Iwakuma   36.5%  14-6   2.66  1.01
  2. Cole Hamels       36.5%   8-14  3.60  1.16
  3. Patric Corbin     35.3%  14-8   3.41  1.17
  4. Adam Wainwright   34.5%  19-9   2.94  1.07
  5. Homer Bailey      34.1%  11-12  3.49  1.12
  6. Andy Pettitte     34.1%  11-11  3.74  1.33
  7. John Lackey       33.8%  10-13  3.52  1.16
  8. Felix Hernandez   33.6%  12-10  3.04  1.13
  9. Dillon Gee        33.4%  12-11  3.62  1.28
 10. Jordan Zimmermann 33.2%  19-9   3.25  1.09
Data from FanGraphs. O-Swing% = percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which batters swung.

For a frame of reference, the average ERA last year was 3.87 and the average WHIP was 1.30. In case you were wondering, NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw was 35th in Zone% and 13th in O-Swing%. AL winner Max Scherzer was 16th in Zone% and 48th in O-Swing%. 

Obviously, these aren't perfect measures, but they're not bad. The pitchers listed above are all really good. How about this year?
     Pitcher           Zone%   W-L    ERA  WHIP
  1. Bartolo Colon     58.5%   2-5   5.36  1.37
  2. Phil Hughes       56.9%   4-1   3.92  1.28
  3. Zach McAllister   56.1%   3-3   3.89  1.30
  4. Nathan Eovaldi    55.0%   2-1   2.86  1.11
  5. Robbie Ross       55.0%   1-4   5.04  1.52
  6. Alfredo Simon     54.0%   4-2   2.89  1.08
  7. Henderson Alvarez 53.2%   2-3   3.33  1.40
  8. Jordan Zimmermann 53.1%   2-1   2.92  1.32
  9. Cliff Lee         53.1%   3-3   3.64  1.29
 10. Jesse Chavez      53.0%   2-1   2.47  1.03
Data from FanGraphs. Zone% = percentage of pitches in the strike zone.

     Pitcher        O-Swing%   W-L    ERA  WHIP
  1. Masahiro Tanaka   40.0%   5-0   2.57  1.00
  2. Felix Hernandez   38.0%   3-1   2.73  1.10
  3. Phil Hughes       37.0%   4-1   3.92  1.28
  4. Jose Fernandez    36.7%   4-2   2.44  0.95
  5. John Lackey       36.4%   5-2   3.57  1.21
  6. Tim Hudson        36.3%   4-2   2.09  0.81
  7. Francisco Liriano 35.4%   0-3   4.64  1.45
  8. Stephen Strasburg 35.3%   3-2   3.42  1.35
  9. Roberto Hernandez 35.2%   2-1   4.08  1.46
 10. Dallas Keuchel    34.8%   3-2   3.68  1.18
Data from FanGraphs. O-Swing% = percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which batters swung.

There are two ways you could look at this year's leaders. With the obvious caveat that we're not a fourth of the way through the season, so this isn't a large sample, you could look at that list and see some misfires. (All data are through Sunday, by the way.) I mean, Colon and Ross have been legitimately bad, and Liriano and Hernandez have would you put it...not very good? So has the throwing strikes is good, gettng strikes is better rule broken?

Or is there a better explanation - that maybe Colon et al have pitched better than their record might indicate, and they could be positioned to perform better, and that the perhaps surprising performance of Hughes and Alvarez and Keuchel might be sustainable?

I'm guessing that's the case, but we'll check in later in the season for an update. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - May 13

What makes Troy Tulowitzki amazing isn't that he makes plays like this. It's that he makes plays like this while also leading the league in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, home run frequency, total bases, and runs scored. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - May 7

Here's a general rule: Any play that gives me an excuse to post a clip of Indians radio announcer Tom Hamilton making a call (his is the second audio segment) stands a good chance of showing up as Sweet Play of the Day.

In other news, did you know Nyjer Morgan was back in the majors? He played in Japan last year.

Sweet Play of the Day - May 6

This is actually scary, if you ask me. This is a total reflex move that, had Jesse Chavez been an instant slower, would've been one of those turn-your-head-away plays.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What's Going On With: The Milwaukee Brewers

This is Part 6 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. Let this segment be a lesson in getting while the getting's good. When I started writing about the top three teams in baseball, the Brewers had the best record. They don't anymore. So we've hit the teams with worst records (here are the links to the Chicago CubsHouston Astros, and Arizona Diamondbacks), third-best San Francisco Giants, and the now-best Detroit Tigers. Now, the second-best (but best at the start of the week) Milwaukee Brewers.

How Good Have They Been? The Brewers are 22-13, a .629 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 102-60. After a smoking hot start, they've lost six of their last eight games.

How Much of a Surprise is This? Three National League Central teams made the postseason last year. The 74-88 Brewers were not one of them. At best, they were viewed as a dark horse team that might be able to break .500. When I wrote about the Diamondbacks, I said that they were the most disappointing team in baseball. The Brewers are the most unexpectedly good. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 55% chance of making the postseason.

What's Been Right? The Brewers have scored 3.97 runs per game, just below the league average of 3.98, but pitching's been the strength. The Brewers' 3.11 ERA is fourth-best in the league. The starters have a fourth-best 3.14 ERA. The relievers' 3.07 isn't a lot better than league, but the bullpen leads the league in saves with 15 and has blown only four, giving it a second-best 79% save percentage. The defense has been decent, converting 71% of balls in play into outs, second most in the league. So the surprise has been pitching-driven. The headliner is closer Francisco Rodriguez, who has converted all 14 of his save opportunities and has allowed, in 18 innings, 26 strikeouts, 12 baserunners and no runs at all so far.

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

The pitchers have maybe been a little lucky. They've allowed just a .219 batting average with runners in scoring position compared to an average of .237. That's probably not sustainable. But that's about it. Nothing that screams "regression to the mean." 

What's The Outlook? The Brewers have cooled some. K-Rod is going to allow runs at some point. Starters Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo, and Kyle Lohse currently have ERAs of 2.17, 2.47, and 2.72, respectively, compared to career averages entering the season of 4.11, 3.72, and 4.35, respectively, so they are likely to give up ground. But the Central has been a weak division (currently tied for worst in the majors with the AL West), with only the Cardinals, who have struggled to score runs, above .500 other than Milwaukee. If the Brewers just play a game over .500 the rest of the way, they'll win 86. A few wins more and they're the surprise entrant in the postseason.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - May 5

They're at it again. Brian Dozier and Kyle Gibson, for the second time in a week, brought new excitement to the second-to-first 4-1 putout.

What's Going On With: The Detroit Tigers

This is Part 5 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 wrapped up the teams with the worst records (here are the links to the Chicago CubsHouston Astros, and Arizona Diamondbacks), and the third-best San Francisco Giants, it's on to the second-best team, the Detroit Tigers

How Good Have They Been? The Tigers are 18-9, a .677 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 108-54. After starting the year 7-6, they've hit their stride, going 11-3 since April 18, including six in a row going into tonight's game.

How Much of a Surprise is This? The Tigers are always perennial candidates for a top record. They're a good ballclub playing in a weak division. As of today, they're the only AL Central team with a winning record. Playing 76 games a year against sub-.500 teams helps your record. Finding the Tigers among the top three isn't a surprise.

What's Been Right? The pitchers have allowed the second-fewest runs in the league, 3.81 per game, and their starters have the best ERA, 2.73, by far. That's not a surprise. Nor, really, has been the bullpen's second-worst 5.24 ERA; the Tigers never seem to have good relievers. But when your starting five is Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly, you need don't a great bullpen. Porcello's 3.66 ERA is the worst of that bunch, and Verlander's 2.68 is only third-best.

The offense has been good enough, scoring 4.84 runs per game, fifth in the league. You figure that will improve once Miguel Cabrera (.270/.319/.414, two home runs so far) gets hot, as he inevitably will.

A lot was made of Detroit's defensive upgrade this year, moving Cabrera from third to first and getting a full year from slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias. Iglesias is out with stress fractures in both legs, but the Tigers have turned 69.5% of balls in play into outs this year, fourth in the league, a big improvement over last year's third-worst 68.2%. That's helped the pitching staff, already a strength.

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

There are some causes for concern here. The Tigers are 6-2 in one-run games, a pace that they're unlikely to continue. They're hitting .318 on balls in play, best in the league, while the pitchers are allowing .289, the fourth lowest. One or the other's likely to move toward the league average of .297. More notably, the hitters are batting .285 with runners in scoring position, while the pitchers have allowed just .211. The league average is .247. It's pretty likely that the batters or pitchers, or both, will do worse as the year progresses. 

What's The Outlook? The Tigers seem to have been somewhat lucky to be where they are. But this is a team that could be playing .500 ball and still lead its division. The Tigers may not play win at a .667 clip the rest of the way, but Baseball Prospectus rates them as the most likely team in the AL to make the postseason and win the Series, and it seems about right.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dillon Gee, Cy Young Contender

Nice research by Aaron Gleeman over at Hardball Talk - since last May 30, the Mets' Dillon Gee (for those of you who aren't Mets fans or fantasy players - he's a righthanded starting pitcher) has the fifth best ERA in the majors. Here's the article. Here's the key quote:
Check out where his 2.66 ERA ranks among all MLB pitchers with at least 20 starts during that nearly year-long span:
     Jose Fernandez    1.56
    Clayton Kershaw   1.89
    Zack Greinke      2.29
    Max Scherzer      2.53
    Dillon Gee        2.66
The two obvious reactions: (1) Dillon Gee, huh? (2) Man, that Jose Fernandez.

Sweet Play of the Day - May 4

Nolan Arenado is getting to be a regular here. (Incidentally, he's still top 10 in the majors in assists - currently eighth.)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - May 3

White Sox Cuban slugging sensation Jose Abreu overcomes a sort of wardrobe malfunction. Added bonus: The last clip features Indians radio broadcaster Tom Hamilton, one of the more animated guys in the booth today.

What's Going On With: The San Francisco Giants

This is Part 4 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 wrapped up the teams with the worst records (here are the links to the Chicago CubsHouston Astros, and Arizona Diamondbacks), we'll move on the winners. Here's the team with the third-best record, the San Francisco Giants.

How Good Have They Been? The Giants are 20-11, a .633 winning percentage. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 105-57. There's been a lot of movement among the top teams in baseball, with teams slipping in and out of the top spots. The Giants make it on the strength of a five-game winning streak and nine wins in their last ten games.

How Much of a Surprise is This? Playing in the same division as the high-payroll, star-studded Dodgers, there weren't a lot of people picking the Giants for first. Most had them improving from last year's 76-86, which tied them with the Padres for third in the NL West. Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and ESPN projected 85-88 wins. This is a team that was supposed to have been decent, playing great so far.

What's Been Right? The offense is scoring 4.16 runs per game, sixth in the National League, with a lot of power. Isolated Slugging is slugging average minus batting average--it measures how many extra bases a batter gets per base hit. San Francisco's isolated slugging is .173, second in the National League, as the team's hit the second-most homers in the league. Brandon Belt, Mike Morse, and Buster Posey are among league leaders. All told, considering their tough home park, the Giants have probably been the second- or third-best offense in the league, after Colorado.

The Giants' 2.99 ERA is second in the league, but adjusted for AT&T Park, it's been just a bit above average. The bullpen's been the strength, as the starters' 3.58 ERA is about average. Giants relievers have a ridiculous 1.86 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, enabling the Giants to come from behind to win 5 of the 14 games they've trailed after four innings.

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

Several factors--record in one-run games, batting average on balls in play, percentage of fly balls leaving the park--suggest that San Francisco hasn't been particularly lucky. But here's a warning sign: Giants pitchers have allowed a .194 batting average with runners in scoring position, lowest in the NL, and way below the league average of .237. That's not likely to be sustained. The Giants seem pretty likely to give up more runs going forward, all things being equal.

What's The Outlook? The Giants are having a nice comeback season from a disappointing 2013. There's nothing in the numbers to suggest they can't continue to be a decent team, in contention for the postseason (Baseball Prospectus gives them a 77% chance of getting there), though the reliever ERA and batting average against with runners in scoring position indicates that some of their pitchers have been playing over their heads so far.

Sweet Play of the Day - May 2

Found out about this one via Hardball Talk. It's a college game. LSU (in purple) is the visiting team, leading 4-0 in the ninth inning. Texas A&M, the home team, rallies to tie the game in the last of the ninth and has the bases loaded with two outs. A&M shortstop Blake Allemand hits a screaming drive down the left field line, LSU left fielder Jared Foster in pursuit, for the apparent game-winner.

LSU won it in the tenth, 5-4.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Nolan Arenado, Ball Magnet

This morning I was scrolling through baseball stats at the mobile site, and I noticed something curious. This is the list of major league leaders for assists: 
Rk Tm G Inn A ▾ Pos Summary
1 Troy Tulowitzki COL 27 234.0 101 SS
2 Aaron Hill ARI 29 260.0 92 2B
3 Starlin Castro CHC 26 230.0 91 SS
4 Alexei Ramirez CHW 29 260.0 90 SS
5 Brian Dozier MIN 26 238.2 87 2B
6 Jimmy Rollins PHI 24 204.1 87 SS
7 Nolan Arenado COL 30 267.0 83 3B
8 Marcus Semien CHW 29 251.0 83 2B-3B
9 Jose Altuve HOU 28 249.1 81 2B
10 Ben Zobrist TBR 30 237.2 80 2B-OF-SS
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/2/2014.

Tulo, Hill, Castro, Ramirez, Dozier...all make sense. They're middle infielders, and middle infielders get a lot of ground balls. But there's the Rockies' Nolan Arenado tied for seventh. He's a third baseman. That seems out of place.

Arenado is in just his second year, but he's already won plaudits for his glovework. He won the National League Gold Glove last year as a rookie, and he hasn't let up this year. Still, how unusual is it for a third baseman to rank in the top ten in assists?

Really unusual, it turns out. As in, it hasn't happened since baseball expanded in 1961. The only third basemen in the 53 seasons since then to have finished in the top 20 in major league assists were Brooks Robinson (No. 13 in 1967), Ron Santo (No. 15 in 1967, No. 20 in 1966), Brandon Inge (No. 19 in 2006), Clete Boyer (No. 19 in 1962, No. 20 in 1961), and Graig Nettles (No. 20 in 1971). Nobody's been close to the top 10 until now.

Is this a fluke? I figure there are three things that could give Arenado a big advantage. First, handedness. Right-handed batters hit grounders to the left side of the infield more than left-handed batters, and managers load up on right-handed batters in order to gain a platoon advantage when they face lefties. Do the Rockies feature an unusual number of southpaw pitchers, resulting in opposing lineups full of right-handed batters, hitting grounder after grounder to third?

This year, lefties have pitched 37% of Colorado's innings. That's a lot. But it's not extreme: The Rangers, White Sox, Angels, Rays, Phillies, and A's all have had a greater proportion of innings pitched by lefties. So Arenado's pace isn't because he plays behind a steady stream of left-handed pitchers. 

How about the pitchers' tendencies themselves? Do Rockies pitchers, in an effort to keep batted balls out of the thin air at Coors Field, generate tons of ground balls? 

Again, yes, but it's not dramatic. Rockies pitchers have induced grounders on just under 49% of balls in play. That's high, but not highest: The Pirates, Phillies, Giants, and Dodgers have all gotten more. So that's not the explanation.

Finally, how about games played? Have the Rockies played more games than others, giving Arenado a chance to see more balls hit his way? Again, kind of yes. The Rockies have played 30 games so far, second-most in the majors. But other than the Tigers, every team's played at least 26. Maybe when the games even out, two of the players below him on the list above, Marcus Semien and Jose Altuve, will pass him. But that's probably it, at least on that basis. (And no, Arenado's assists aren't inflated by shifting, because, as Rockies Zingers points out, the Rockies do relatively little shifting.)

More likely, he just slows down. When a player's on pace early in the season to do something that's never been done before, the easy answer is to assume that he won't do it, either. But for a while here, I'm going to keep track of Arenado's assists and see if he can keep hanging with the middle infielders.