Saturday, May 2, 2015

April Oddities

Here, in no particular order, are my view of the five strangest things in baseball's first month. (Full disclusure: I am not trying to imitate Jason Stark's Strange but True column, if for no other reason than that Stark is way more clever than I.)

  • The First Place Houston Astros. Five teams finished April with 15 victories. Two, the Cardinals and Tigers, were expected in many circles to win their divisions. Two more, the Mets and Royals, were pegged as wild card contenders. Then there's the Astros. They're viewed as up-and-coming, with a young team (weighted average batter's age 27.3, youngest in the American League) and, according to ESPN Insider Keith Law, the third-best farm system in baseball. But the team was 70-92 last year. The Astros were 51-111 in 2013. They play in the same division as the Angels, who had the best record in baseball last year; the A's, who were a wild card team and had the best run differential in the league; and the Mariners, who were only a game behind the A's and picked by many to win the division this year. Now, granted, the Astros have played the easiest schedule in their division so far, but they have the second-best run differential (1.3 more runs scored than allowed per game) in the league so far. They had the best team ERA, third-best starter ERA, and third-best reliever ERA in the league in April, after finishing 12th, ninth, and fifteenth, respectively, last season. As expected, their batters are striking out a lot (24% of plate appearances, most in the league), and their team batting average of .238 was 12th in the league. But their .316 on base percentage is ninth and their .411 slugging percentage is sixth, so they've made up for the lack of batting average with walks and power. They've probably been a little lucky, and I don't expect them to remain in title contention--this year. But there may be enough here for the team to be a 2016 contender.
  • Clayton Kershaw, 1-2, 3.73 ERA. There are 60 National League pitchers who qualify for the ERA title (one inning pitched per team game played). Kershaw is 32nd. I could list some of the unlikely pitchers who rate higher, but really, anybody ahead of Kershaw's a surprise. The defending NL MVP has led the league in ERA for each of the past four years. Now, granted, he had a 4.08 ERA in May 2014, but that included arguably the worst start of his career, when he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings against Arizona on May 17. The last time before that he'd had an ERA as high as 3.73 was April 2009. So other than the one start last May, this is his worst month in five years. Here's the catch, though: His underlying statistics suggest he was a lot better than his record indicates. His strikeout/walk ratio of 6.1 is seventh in the league and he leads the league in strikeout rate. His fielding independent pitching, which is an ERA-like measure based on strikeouts, walks, and homers (and a better predictor of future performance than ERA), is 2.85, eleventh best in the league. If you normalize that for his unusually high (and possibly bad luck-driven) 22% ratio of home runs to fly balls allowed (fourth highest in the league), it drops to 1.95, which is best in the league. So expect a return to ridiculously good form from Kershaw.
  • 10-13 Washington Nationals. They were a near-unanimous pick to win their division. Several saw them as the best team in baseball and the favorite to win the World Series. So seeing them half a game behind the Marlins and Braves, and fully five games behind the Mets, at the end of April is jarring. Like Kershaw's start, the Nationals' problems don't seem likely to persist. They ended April winning three straight, scoring 34 runs. The pitching's been OK but the team was 11th in the league in both batting average and on base percentage in April. Slow starters in April included shortstop Ian Desmond (.217/.287/.326 slash line; the league average including pitchers was .248/.310/.383), left fielder Jayson Werth (.175/.254/.211), and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.217/.277/.380). Starter Max Scherzer had a 1-2 record despite a 1.26 ERA; in two losses and a no-decision his teammates scored a total of six runs. The return of third baseman Anthony Rendon (currently rehabbing a sprained knee) who finished fifth in MVP voting last year, should help, and I'd expect improvement as players return to form and the amazing Bryce Harper (.286/.440/.545, still the second-youngest player in the league) continues his strong performance.
  • Mike Moustakas, Batsman. I'm don't get too excited about a month's worth of batting statistics. Anybody can get lucky (or unlucky) for a month. Light-hitting Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon and Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias batting .423 and .370, respectively? Not going to last. Neither will some of the poor performances (see next point). But Moustakas may be different. The third baseman was one of several highly-regarded Royals prospects a few years ago. In four years in the majors, he's been a disappointment. His batting averaged declined every year from 2011 to 2014 (falling from .263 to .212), as did his on base percentage (from .309 to .271). His OPS last year, .632, was the lowest of his career, third lowest in the league among players with 500 or more plate appearances, and 25% below the league average, adjusted for park. Last month, though, he was tenth in the league, at .942, 67% better than average. The reason it doesn't appear to be luck is that Moustakas has overhauled his approach to hitting--not easy to do at age 26. He's been an extreme pull hitter. Batting left, he only 20%-30% of his base hits went to the left side of the field in 2012, 2013, and 2014. As a result, he faced an extreme shift, with three infielders to the right of second base, in 71% of his plate appearances last year. He was easy to predict, easy to defense. But this year, he's got 32 base hits. Of them, thirteen singles, four doubles, and a homer--over 56% of his base hits--have gone to the opposite field. That's a real change, and the five extra-base hits indicate that he's not just popping bloop singles out to left. By using the whole field, he's become a different, and, finally, good hitter.
  • Andrew McCutchen, Sub-.200 Hitter. I'm not going to get into this a lot, because I've written about it enough: My concerns about his health here, my analysis of what's wrong with him (mostly, bad luck) here. During April, among 86 National League batting title qualifiers, McCutchen's .194 batting average with 80th, his .302 on base percentage 59th, his .333 slugging percentage 73rd, and his .636 OPS 68th in the league. He had the worst batting average on the Pirates, and the second-worst slugging percentage. Now, hold that for a minute, because I want to talk about fielding. Yesterday, I heard two SiriusXM MLB Home Plate hosts go on and on about how one of the advanced fielding metrics rates Mets center fielder Juan Lagares as slightly below average so far this year, and how this proves that you can't trust some of these new statistics. Look, nobody's going to argue with the idea that Lagares is probably the best center fielder in baseball today. He won the Fielding Bible Award last year and was runner-up the year before. Without getting into the mechanics of how the advanced fielding metrics are calculated (I think they're sound), let's look at what the numbers for Lagares are saying: That he didn't have a fabulous April with the glove. Is that true? I don't know. I didn't watch every play he made, and neither did the folks on the radio. The people who calculate these advanced metrics did. But that's not the point. The point is that the stats are saying Lagares didn't have a great April in the field. So what? Getting back to McCutchen, the stats say that McCutchen didn't have a great April with the bat. Is anybody going to deny that? If a radio host said, "Andrew McCutchen hit .194 in April, therefore he's a bad hitter," we'd call him an idiot. We would also call him an idiot if he said "Andrew McCutchen hit .194 in April, so batting average says he's a bad hitter, which we know if false, so we can't trust batting average." No, no, no. But that's what the guys on satellite radio were saying: if the stats don't say that a great fielder is great every month, the stats are wrong. No, the stats are right, just like McCutchen's slugging percentage is right. But what they measure isn't a player's overall value, it's how they did over a 30 day period. Lagares's defensive numbers in April should be viewed the same way as McCutchen's batting numbers in April: An aberration, unusual but well within normal variation, for an excellent ballplayer. I feel pretty confident in saying that, by season's end, Juan Lagares will be rated as one of the top fielders in baseball, just as I feel pretty confident in saying that, by season's end, Andrew McCutchen will be rated as one of the top hitters in baseball. The fact that the numbers didn't reflect that in April about Lagares doesn't indict the fielding stats any more than McCutchen's .194 indicts batting average.

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