Sunday, November 30, 2014

Phillip Hughes, 1988-2014

No, not that Phil Hughes. This Phillip Hughes played cricket, a sport about which we hear next to nothing in the U.S. But on Thanksgiving, the news broke that he died, three days short of his 26th birthday. He suffered head injuries from the cricket equivalent of being hit by a pitch two days earlier.

When I link to other articles here, I'm generally linking to writers at analytically-oriented websites rather than the mainstream media. It's not because I have anything against the traditional journalists, it's just that they don't generally cover the aspects of baseball I'm exploring. Buster Olney of ESPN is one of the best, and he wrote a spot-on piece about Hughes on Friday. You have to be an ESPN Insider to read it (note that if you play an ESPN fantasy game, you're an Insider), but it links what happened to Hughes, a cricketer in Australia, to what goes on in baseball in the U.S.: 
Maybe it's time to evolve to this: Intentionally hitting a batter for any reason is just wrong, and stupid, and dangerous. And if all the players begin to believe this, rather than thinking there is a proper way to retaliate, then progress will be made for all of them.
What happened to Phillip Hughes was an accident. What happens when a baseball player's hit by a pitch often isn't. Think of the game in June when Diamondbacks pitcher Evan Marshall intentionally hit Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, an idiotic move that resulted in the next Brewers hitter, Jonathan Lucroy, hitting a go-ahead grand slam. Or last August when another Diamondbacks pitcher, Randall Delgado, purposely hit Pirates star Andrew McCutchen. Both times, the batter was hit in retaliation for an Arizona batter being hit earlier in the game. Braun took a pitch to his rear end, but McCutchen was nailed in the back by a 95 mph fastball that put him out of play for 14 games. As Olney points out in his article, major league pitchers can't place a ball perfectly from 60 feet and 6 inches away, and a fastball that's supposed to hit a player in the back could easily hit him in the head instead.

Look, I've written a lot about batters being hit by pitches (here, here, and here), because the rate's been rising and nobody seems to have noticed, much less done anything about it. My conclusion, in the last piece to which I linked, is that rising hit by pitch rates are a consequence of rising strikeouts, because batters are more likely to be hit when the pitcher's ahead on the count. (The most dangerous counts for batters, in terms of the risk of being hit by a pitch), are 0-2, 1-2, 2-2, and 0-1, and those are all paths to strikeouts.) But I never talk about hit batters as "plunking" or something innocuous sounding like that. A baseball is a hard object, thrown at high speed from a short distance to a player who's pretty much defenseless. Phillip Hughes was wearing a helmet much more extensive than a baseball batting helmet, and he was killed, accidentally, by a ball that bounced before it came to him. Why should we allow pitchers to throw straight at a batter? Yes, I know, they've done it for over a century and it's part of the game and all that, but tripping baserunners and lacerating fielders with sharpened spikes used to be part of the game too. That sort of thing was legislated out of the game. So should, as Olney suggests, intentionally throwing at batters. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Cuban Ballplayers' Names: Y Do You Ask?

In 2014 there were 13 Cuban-born players who appeared in 50 or more major league games. They are:

Alexei Ramirez 158 32 CHW 657 622 82 170 35 2 15 74 24 81 21 4 .273 .305 .408 .713 SS
Leonys Martin 155 26 TEX 583 533 68 146 13 7 7 40 39 114 31 12 .274 .325 .364 .689 CF
Yoenis Cespedes 152 28 TOT 645 600 89 156 36 6 22 100 35 128 7 2 .260 .301 .450 .751 LF
Yasiel Puig 148 23 LAD 640 558 92 165 37 9 16 69 67 124 11 7 .296 .382 .480 .863 RF
Adeiny Hechavarria 146 25 MIA 574 536 53 148 20 10 1 34 26 86 7 5 .276 .308 .356 .664 SS
Jose Abreu 145 27 CHW 622 556 80 176 35 2 36 107 51 131 3 1 .317 .383 .581 .964 1B
Dayan Viciedo 145 25 CHW 563 523 65 121 22 3 21 58 32 122 0 1 .231 .281 .405 .686 RF
Yunel Escobar 137 31 TBR 529 476 33 123 18 0 7 39 43 60 1 1 .258 .324 .340 .664 SS
Yasmani Grandal 128 25 SDP 443 377 47 85 19 1 15 49 58 115 3 0 .225 .327 .401 .728 C
Brayan Pena 115 32 CIN 372 348 23 88 18 1 5 26 20 42 2 3 .253 .291 .353 .645 1B/C
Kendrys Morales 98 31 MIN/SEA 401 367 28 80 20 0 8 42 27 68 0 0 .218 .274 .338 .612 DH
Yonder Alonso 84 27 SDP 288 267 27 64 19 1 7 27 17 36 6 1 .240 .285 .397 .682 1B
Aroldis Chapman 54 26 CIN 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 RP
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/28/2014.

Of them, you'll note, over a third have first names starting with the letter Y. Those ranks will increase in 2015, as the Diamondbacks signed Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas to a six-year, $68.5 million contract this week. That'll make six Cuban players with a first name starting with Y. In 2014, the only players appearing in 50+ games with a first name starting in Y that were not Cuban were Mariners reliever Yoervis Medina, Yankees/Padres third baseman Yangervis Solarte (both from Venezuela), Indians catcher Yan Gomes (Brazil), and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (Puerto Rico). 

It turns out there's a reason. As this article explains
...the preponderance of names starting with the letter Y may reflect the contact Cubans had with Russian advisers sporting names like Yuri and Yevgeny in the years when the Soviet Union was bankrolling Castro's revolution.
That probably explains the Y-names for Medina and Solarte, both hailing from socialist Venezuela. That's also why the Cuban player who saw the most playing time this season, Alexei Ramirez, has a name you'd associate more with Russian than with a Spanish-speaking island.

So there you have it. Cuban ballplayers have first names starting with the letter Y because their parents wanted to pay homage to the USSR.

Sorry, that's all I've got for now. You'll have to find something else to read while you're standing in the checkout line at Target.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Red Sox Fans, Meet the New Left Side of Your Infield

Not really.

Last year, Red Sox third basemen (primarily Will Middlebrooks, but also Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt) batted .211 with a .271 on base percentage and .308 slugging percentage. Those are all pretty bad! That ranked them 14th in the 15-team American League with a .580 OPS. That's pretty bad, as they weren't particularly close to the Royals, 13th with .658. Red Sox shortstops (primarily Bogaerts and Stephen Drew) batted .250 with a .316 on base percentage and and .369 slugging percentage. That ranked them seventh in the league in OPS. (Red Sox fans will probably be surprised the team's shortstops ranked in the upper half offensively. Keep in mind that shortstops collectively had the lowest OPS in the league, and that Bogaerts hit far better at short (.266/.333/.391 slash line) than at third (.182/.217/.300)).

So by signing free agents Pablo Sandoval, who was the Giants' third baseman last year, and Hanley Ramirez, who played shortstop for the Dodgers, Boston could be seen as upgrading both positions. But they're not; Sandoval will indeed become the team's third baseman, but Ramirez is slated to play left field, where he will join a very crowded Boston outfield that includes Yoenis Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Jackie Bradley, Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, and Holt. Obviously, some of those players will be traded (the leading candidate is Cespedes, acquired at last year's trade deadline from Oakland; the 29-year old has one year remaining on his contract at a reasonable $10.5 million). The shortstop job will apparently be Bogaerts's. 

But what of Sandoval and Ramirez? What can Red Sox fans expect?

Both are coming from two of the toughest parks in baseball for hitters, going to one that is good, though not for the reasons usually cited. Let me explain that. Per the 2015 Bill James Handbook, over the past three seasons, Dodger Stadium, where Ramirez played the past two years, suppressed runs by 12%, doubles by 5%, and triples by 57%. (When I say "suppressed" I mean that there were 12% fewer runs scored in Dodger games at Dodger Stadium than at Dodger games on the road). It was actually an OK place for home runs, boosting homers for right-handed batters like Ramirez by 7%, but it suppressed other hits enough that right-handed batting average took a 7% hit.

Sandoval's a switch hitter, but the Giants' AT&T Park hurt everybody. It suppressed runs by 16%, doubles by 4%, and homers by 34%. With its large outfield, it increased triples (not exactly Sandoval's specialty) by 36%, but overall it suppressed left-handed hitters' batting average by 1% and righties by 7%. It reduced homers from both sides of the plate by about a third. Overall, Dodger Stadium was the the fifth-toughest National League park in which to score a run, and AT&T Park was the second-toughest. 

By contrast, from 2012-2014, the Red Sox's Fenway Park increased scoring by 8%, the second highest boost in the American League. Contrary to its reputation, it's not an easy place in which to hit a home run. In fact, it's been the toughest American League park for left-handed hitters, decreasing long balls by 28%. For righties, it increased home runs by 3%. Overall, though, it boosted batting average by 6%, doubles by 36%, and triples by 13%. Its small foul areas reduced foul outs by 27%, the most in the league.

So Sandoval and Ramirez are moving to friendlier ballparks for hitters. The thing is, neither of them have suffered much from playing in pitchers' parks their entire careers--Ramirez in Miami and Los Angeles, Sandoval in San Francisco. Here are Ramirez's home/road splits:
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/26/2014.

And here are Sandoval's:
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/26/2014.

Each player was more effective at home than on the road. That's normal in general, but not so much when a player's home park is tough on hitters. As a team, the Dodgers had an OPS 41 points higher in away games, while the Giants' team OPS was five points lower at AT&T than on the road. So for whatever reason, Ramirez and Sandoval were less affected by their home park than their teammates. Both are likely to get a benefit from Fenway, though not as much as some may expect, given that their penalty for their prior home parks was less than usual.

Neither should be hurt much by Fenway's homer-suppressing properties, though. Ramirez bats right, and Fenway's favorable for right-handed sluggers. As a switch hitter, Sandoval mostly bats left, but his career home run percentage from the left side--3.4% of plate appearances--isn't high. Among 54 left-handed and switch-hitting batters with 500 or more games played since 2008 (Sandoval's rookie season), Sandoval ranks last in home run rate. So he's not a home run-dependent guy, at least in the regular season.

That brings up two odd splits of Sandoval's. First, his record in the regular season and the postseason:
Regular season 869 3533 3215 398 946 192 19 106 462 11 12 259 464 .294 .346 .465 .811
Postseason 39 167 154 21 5313 0 6 20 0 0 10 22 .344 .389 .545 .935
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/26/2014.

If the only time you saw Sandoval play was during the postseason, you'd think he's an elite slugger. He's not. He's a very good hitter, but not the Hercules that he's become in October. And the Red Sox are smart enough to not read too much into his performance over 39 games.

Next, his performance against right- and left-handed pitching:

Like most switch-hitters, Sandoval fares better when batting left. You heard a lot during the postseason that he was pretty useless against left-handed pitching. As the table shows, that was certainly true in 2014. But that's not the norm for him. Expect him to be better against left-handers in 2015.

A few other tidbits about Sandoval and Ramirez:

  • Ramirez has acquired a reputation for being injury-prone. That's been true over the past two years, during which he's missed 110 Dodger games, but it wasn't the case up until then. From 2006 to 2012, he played at least 151 five times and 142 once. The only season he missed substantial time was 2011, when he had shoulder surgery. During thpse seven seasons, the only shortstop to play more games than Ramirez's 1,007 was Derek Jeter with 1,060. So for most of his career, he's been durable. Now that he's on the wrong side of 30, though--he turns 31 next month--staying in the lineup may be a challenge, made easier by the move to the outfield.
  • The Red Sox are pretty disciplined at the plate, swinging at only 28% of pitches outside the strike zone (third lowest in the majors) and making contact on 80% of swings (tenth highest). Sandoval's 84% contact rate was 51st among 146 batting title qualifiers this year, and Ramirez was 72nd at 82%. So they'll both fit in by that measure. But Ramirez chased 29% of pitches outside the strike zone (76th highest), while Sandoval, a notorious free swinger, was first at 45%. What's doubly remarkable is that despite leading the majors at swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, he made contact on 80% of such swings (the major league average was 63%), seventh highest in the majors. He swings at, and hits, just about everything. His free-swinging ways make him possibly the most entertaining batter to watch. (The link, to an article by Baseball Prospectus's Sam Miller, never fails to make me laugh.)
  • A lot has been written about Sandoval's physique. He is, put bluntly, fat. It hasn't affected his hitting, and he's a surprisingly good third baseman, with quick reactions and a strong arm, but there's plenty of reason to worry that he'll age quickly. However, he does have the option of moving to DH if his fielding deteriorates, on the theory that 39-year-old David Ortiz won't last forever. 
  • Ramirez is the rare player to return to a team that traded him away. He was 21, with two major league at-bats under his belt, when he was traded by the Red Sox following the 2005 season with three other prospects (one of whom, pitcher Anibal Sanchez, panned out) to the Marlins for starter Josh Beckett, third baseman Mike Lowell, and reliever Guillermo Mota, who in turn was flipped for, among others, outfielder Coco Crisp. Beckett, Lowell, and Crisp all played key roles for the 2007 World Champion Red Sox, so that swap worked. 
Overall, these signings improve the Red Sox, though it's incumbent on them to sign some free agent starting pitchers and/or trade some of their surplus outfielders for starters. Red Sox starting pitchers had a 4.36 ERA last year, third-worst in the league, and it was 4.68 excluding Jon Lester, who was traded for Cespedes at the trade deadline. Ramirez and Sandoval have their talents, but they don't pitch.