Thursday, March 31, 2016

It's Tough to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

That quote's attributed to Yogi Berra, though like most quotes attributed to him, who knows whether he actually said it.

Last year predictions in baseball were particularly hard. The American League had record parity, the can't-miss Nationals missed, the can't-win Astros and Cubs was a tough year. I listed five locks for the 2015 season: the Phillies would finish last in the NL East, the Braves would be second to last, the Dodgers would win the NL West (three for three so far!), the Nationals would win the NL East (didn't make the postseason) and the Twins would finish last in the AL Central (finished second, just three games out of the postseason). Three out of five isn't bad, except that these were my locks. As I said, it was a tough season.

Before the season started, I compiled projected won-lost records from Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, ESPN, and this site. Here's how we all did:

American League East
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Blue Jays    93-69  80-82  82-80  82-80  84-78
Yankees      87-75  79-83  82-80  82-80  82-80
Orioles      81-81  79-83  79-83  79-83  80-82
Rays         80-82  86-78  80-82  80-82  77-85
Red Sox      78-84  88-74  86-76  86-76  88-74

American League Central
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Royals       95-67  73-89  78-84  78-84  79-83
Twins        83-79  70-92  74-88  74-88  70-92
Indians      81-80  80-82  85-77  85-77  84-78
White Sox    76-86  79-83  78-84  78-84  83-79
Tigers       74-87  83-79  84-78  84-78  88-74

American League West
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Rangers      88-74  79-83  75-87  75-87  75-87
Astros       86-76  78-84  79-83  79-83  79-83
Angels       85-77  91-71  87-75  87-75  86-76
Mariners     76-86  87-75  88-74  88-74  89-73
Athletics    68-94  84-78  83-79  83-79  79-83

National League East
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Mets         88-74  83-79  81-81  81-81  84-78
Nationals    83-79  92-70  93-69  93-69  91-71
Marlins      71-91  81-81  81-81  81-81  81-81
Braves       67-95  72-90  72-90  72-90  69-93
Phillies     63-99  68-94  68-94  68-94  64-98

National League Central
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Cardinals   100-62  89-73  88-74  88-74  89-73
Pirates      98-64  81-81  85-77  85-77  85-77
Cubs         97-65  85-77  84-78  84-78  81-81
Brewers      68-94  81-81  79-83  79-83  78-84
Reds         64-98  76-86  75-87  75-87  72-90

National League West
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Dodgers      92-70  98-64  92-70  92-70  94-68
Giants       84-78  84-78  81-81  81-81  84-78
Diamondbacks 79-83  72-90  74-88  74-88  71-91
Padres       74-88  85-77  84-78  84-78  86-76
Rockies      68-94  71-91  75-87  75-87  78-84

Nobody covered themselves in glory. One way to evaluate preseason picks is to calculate the difference between predicted wins and actual wins. On that basis, FanGraphs and ESPN missed by 241 wins, I did by 243, and Baseball Prospectus by 265. I'm not crazy about that method, though, for a number of reasons. I prefer the correlation between predicted winning percentage and actual winning percentage. On that basis, the standings are:

1. On the Field of Play  0.464
2. ESPN                  0.461
   FanGraphs             0.461
4. Baseball Prospectus   0.365

I'm not taking a victory lap. I was basically tied with ESPN and FanGraphs, while Baseball Prospectus lagged largely because of a few teams: It was way high on the Dodgers and Rays and way low on the Royals. 

The outlook for 2016 is more chaos in the American League. Baseball Prospectus has Tampa winning the East, ESPN has the Rays in last. FanGraphs has last year's West champion, Texas, tied for last. ESPN projects the Indians leading the Central with 84 wins with three teams (Royals, Tigers, White Sox) tied for second with just one fewer win. There's more consistency in the National League: All three forecast the AL East as Mets-Nationals-Marlins-Braves-Phillies, the Central with the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates 1-3, and the West led by the Dodgers, Giants, and Diamondbacks, in that order. 

Here are my picks, with brief comments:

National League East
Washington Nationals, 89-73: Everybody's picking the Mets, plus the Nationals have lost some key parts (pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen, outfielder Denard Span), and Jonathan Papelbon's still a jerk. Still, I expect a bounceback season here, becasue just about everything went wrong last year other than MVP Bryce Harper, and pitcher Stephen Strasburg is a a pre-free agency salary drive. 
New York Mets, 85-77: Yes, I know, defending NL champs, fantastic rotation, they re-signed Yoenis Cespedes and traded for Neil Walker. But they have several fragile and/or aging guys around the diamond, and they're not particularly deep.
Miami Marlins, 82-80: If they get a full year out of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez (I'm guessing they don't), they'll finish with a better record. This isn't a very good team, but they do get to play 38 games against the next two clubs.
Philadelphia Phillies, 66-96: There's hope. Former GM Ruben Amaro re-stocked the farm system on his way out. They've got some promising youngsters on the team now (Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola) and more on the way.
Atlanta Braves, 64-98: They're being picked ahead of the Phillies by most people and I don't know why. Quick, name some good Braves. Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran (who wasn't that good last year)...told you. Like Philadelphia, they're reloading, but the future isn't now.

National League Central
Chicago Cubs, 89-73: Everybody's top pick. I've got them winning eight fewer games than last year and still winning the division. What's right: All those young players who came up and contributed last season will be with the team all year. What's wrong: Not all of them will be as good. What pushes them over: The offseason acquisitions of pitcher John Lackey, outfielder Jason Heyward, and second baseman Ben Zobrist.
St. Louis Cardinals, 86-76: Was last year the least impressive 100-win season you can remember? Some guys are getting old, and losing Heyward and Lackey to the Cubs hurts, but this is still a good team.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 83-79: I'll explain this one in detail tomorrow, since I know Pirates fans won't like it. In summary, they were somewhat lucky last year, they lost 60% of the starting rotation, and it's unreasonable to assume they'll continue to be uncannily injury-free, exposing a thin bench.
Milwaukee Brewers, 75-87: They're rebuilding in a tough, tough division.
Cincinnati Reds, 72-90: See above.

National League West
San Francisco Giants, 89-73: This is more about having reservations about the Dodgers than love for the Giants, though I like the Johnny Cueto and Denard Span signings. (Jeff Samardzija, not so much). Expect some regression from surprise Rookie of the Year contender Matt Duffy, offset by more time on the field from second baseman Joe Panik, and Bruce Bochy's still the manager.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 86-76: This is a good club, and they've got some great prospects who'll chip in this season, but ye gods, have they ever been injury-prone in the spring. And to the degree that injuries put players into unfamiliar roles, the trend could compound itself. The Giants had an injury-riddled 2015; this year feels like the Dodgers' turn.
Arizona Diamondbacks, 81-81: I'll confess to a blind spot with Arizona and the Twins: I'm not convinced either front office is up to the caliber of the rest of the league. They've got some great pieces in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and outfielders David Peralta and A.J. Pollock, and they landed free agent pitcher Zack Greinke, but there are still a lot of holes.
San Diego Padres, 76-86: Last year they were the talk of the offseason, adding a lot of veteran talent and trading away a lot of young talent. Now they look like they're doing a bit of a rebuild. Oh well, they play in a great ballpark and the weather's always perfect.
Colorado Rockies, 75-87: Last season the tease was how good they'd be if Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez could both stay healthy. Now Tulo's gone, Gonzalez could be soon, and the relief from a very good farm system is still a year or three away. No tease.

American League East
Toronto Blue Jays, 87-75: FanGraphs and ESPN like Boston, BP still likes Tampa Bay, but I'm picking Toronto as the lone divisional champ from 2015 to repeat. The rotation lost David Price, but it gets a full year from Marcus Stroman, and can these guys ever hit.
Boston Red Sox, 85-77: The two big additions to the pitching staff, starter Price (via free agency) and reliever Craig Kimbrel (via trade), will get the attention, but a bounceback also assumes a return to form of at least one of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. (I'm buying the former, not the latter.)
New York Yankees, 84-78: Another year of remaining in contention while they wait for the big contracts paid to old players to run out.
Tampa Bay Rays, 81-81: Gotta love the pitching. Gotta wonder how they'll score runs.
Baltimore Orioles, 78-84: They've got a great manager, a top-notch bullpen, and they'll hit a lot of homers. But they don't get on base enough and the outfield, outside of center fielder Adam Jones, is, to put it charitably, unproven. But really, in this division, anybody could win, anybody could finish last. It's that close.

American League Central
Cleveland Indians, 86-76: Arguably the best starting rotation this side of Citi Field, an underappreciated bullpen, and a much improved defense from this point in 2015. Like Tampa Bay, the question is scoring runs, and I'm assuming they get most of a year from outfielder Michael Brantley.
Kansas City Royals, 84-78: Hey, don't get annoyed at me. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have the Royals finishing last in the division, ESPN in a three-way tie for second (and third and fourth). Get on them for not giving the defending World Champions the love.
Detroit Tigers, 82-80: Everybody talks about how Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is desperately spending on this team in order to win the World Series before he dies. Fine, but he turns 87 this July. Orioles owner Peter Angelos turns 87 three weeks earlier. How come nobody's talking about Angelos wanting to buy a Series before he dies? I mean, yeah, Angelos isn't spending the way Ilitch is, but the old-owner-pushing-in-all-the-chips-to-the-center-of-the-table narrative is a little ageist, isn't it?
Chicago White Sox, 80-82: Lefty starter Chris Sale is one of the game's under-the-radar superstars. But the big story out of this team so far this year is a 14-year-old who can't hang out in the clubhouse.
Minnesota Twins, 75-87: They have some promising youngsters, but their success last year had a big dollop of luck. 

American League West
Seattle Mariners, 87-75: I picked them last year and was really, really wrong. But this year they actually addressed their primary offensive weakness, an inability to get on base, and Felix Hernandez, who had an off-year (for him) in 2015, looked good in spring (12:2 K:W, no homers in 12.1 innings).
Houston Astros, 84-78: Three things about the Astros. First, they were 51-111 just three seasons ago. Second, from the day they called up Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa through the end of the season, they were 52-52. Third, they finished only a game ahead of the Angels for the second wild card. It's like people think they're the defending division champs. They're not.
Texas Rangers, 83-79: In contrast to the Astros, the Rangers actually were the division champs last year. But they were kind of lucky--their record based on run differential was five games worse than their actual--and their rotation, even assuming a healthy return from Tommy John surgery by Yu Darvish, has a lot of question marks.
Los Angeles Angels, 80-82. In center fielder Mike Trout, they have the game's best player, and he's starting to look like this generation's Ernie Banks: Great player whose team doesn't get him to the Series.
Oakland Athletics, 76-86: Another year in the cellar looks likely, but as in the AL East, if you squint, you can see them playing into October. The American League is a big tossup.

Those Shifting Pirates

Baseball Prospectus is running a series entitled "Winter is Leaving." It examines each team in the league. The author chooses something obvious about the team--e.g., the Giants article today talks about how Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner are both good--and expands on it. It's been an entertaining series, and, for those of you unwilling to pay for a BP subscription (despite my recommendation that you do so), it's free.

Anyway, I wrote the article on the Pirates. It's here. The obvious thing I discuss is that the Pirates shift their infielders a lot. The analysis is that the shifts are only the most visible manifestation of the Pirates' run prevention strategy: Get catchers who get a lot of borderline pitches called strikes, pitchers who, aided by the strike calls, generate a lot of ground balls, which are hit to infielders who are positioned optimally to make the play. It's the biggest platform for which I've written. If you click the link, I hope you like it.

And, to follow up on the blatant self-promotion, here is a link to the PowerPoint and here is a link to the audio for the presentation at the Society for American Baseball Research conference I mentioned last week.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Four More Games of Andrew McCutchen

Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote an excellent article describing why the Pirates are considering moving center fielder Andrew McCutchen from the No. 3 spot in the batting order to the N0o. 2 position. McCutchen batted third in all but one of his 154 games started last year, so this would be quite a change.

Traditionally, the No. 3 spot in the order is reserved for the team's best all-around hitter. Babe Ruth mostly batted third. So did Willie Mays. And Ty Cobb. And Ted Williams. And Henry Aaron. But that doesn't make it the optimal strategy. The Blue Jays' primary No. 2 hitter was MVP Josh Donaldson. The Angels used MVP runner-up Mike Trout in the No. 2 position more than anyone else. The Reds had Joey Votto, third in NL MVP voting, batting second more than anyone else. Stark explains the rationale for this proposed move:
So what the deep thinkers in the sport are beginning to understand is that the No. 3 spot might not be the best place to station your team’s best offensive force -- that it actually ranks behind the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 slots in importance, in fact.
“It’s about lineup construction, and the number of at-bats you get, and the weight that you put on the outs you make in those different spots,” Hurdle said. “It’s still an optimum place to hit, but it’s weighted differently now. When you look at it, most of the models that are put together are based on on-base production (from) guys at the top three out of four spots. So you still want a guy (hitting third) who can swing the bat and do some things. But it’s not the same, because the highest percentage of the time, they go up with two outs and nobody on.”
To reinforce that point, the Pirates showed McCutchen a list of hitters who batted the most times with two outs and the bases empty last year. And there he was, second in all of baseball on that list, with 158 plate appearances. Only Paul Goldschmidt (164) ranked ahead of him. Virtually all the names behind them were also No. 3 hitters. So you didn’t need to be Bill James to see the trend in those numbers.
Let's do some math, OK? 

  • Last year McCutchen had 682 plate appearances in the 154 games he started. That's 4.4 plate appearances per game.
  • Last year National League No. 2 hitters batted 10,963 times last year. No. 3 hitters batted 10,715 times. No. 2 hitters batted about 2.3% times more frequently.
  • Take McCutchen's 682 plate appearances in his games started and increase it by 2.3%, and you get 698. That's 16 extra plate appearances.
  • Those 16 extra plate appearances divided by 4.4 per game equals 3.6 games. Round that up and you get four games.

Moving McCutchen from the No. 3 spot to the No. 2 spot in the order is the equivalent to getting him for just shy of four extra games per year. Obviously, that's not a huge differences. But he's clearly the Pirates' best hitter. Four extra games of your best hitter in a division with three contending teams--well, it sure can't hurt.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What David Freese Means

This isn't really fair, but David Freese is kind of a one-hit wonder. His moment in the sun--granted, it was a big moment--was the 2011 postseason. That year, he batted .278 as the Cardinals beat the Phillies, three games to two, in the Divisional Series. In the fourth game of that series, with the Cards trailing two games to one, he came to bat in the bottom of the fourth with the Cardinals losing 2-1 and hit a double, driving in two runs and giving St. Louis the lead. In the sixth, he put the game on ice, hitting a two-run homer. He was MVP when St. Louis topped Milwaukee in six games in the Championship Series, batting .545 and slugging 1.091 with three homes and nine RBI. He was MVP of the World Series as well, batting .348 with a 1.160 OPS, remembered mostly for his game-winning home run in the eleventh inning of the wild 10-9 Cardinals victory in Game 6, enabled by his two-run, two-out triple on a 1-2 count in the last of the ninth, tying the score at seven. (Those hits erased the memory of his error in the fifth that led to a Rangers run, necessitating his extra-innings heroics.) The following night, in the Series-winning game, he got the Redbirds on the board with a two-run, two-out double on a full count in the bottom of the first, tying the score at two in a game St. Louis won 6-2. 
(Pirates fans will also remember that Freese hit a two-run homer off Gerrit Cole in the second inning of the last game of the 2013 Divisional Series against the Cardinals, starting St. Louis on their way to a 6-1 victory.)
As I said, that isn't really fair. Freese was good as a part-time player leading into the 2011 postseason (combined .298/.354/.429 slash line, a park-adjusted OPS 15% better than the league average, in 184 games spread over three seasons) and better in 2012 (.293/.372/.467, 29% better than average). He slumped to a pedestrian .262/.340/.381 in 2013, was traded to the Angels, was no better in 2014 (.260/.321/.383) before rebounding a bit last year, to .257/.323/.420. He was a late bloomer--he was 28 at the time of his postseason heroics--and he'll turn 33 at the end of April, a more or less league-average right-handed hitting third baseman who's never played more than 144 games in a season.
And, as of last Friday, a Pirate. The Pirates signed Freese, a free agent for the first time in his career, to a cheap one-year, $3 million deal. It represents a pay cut from what he made in 2013 ($3,150,000), 2014 ($5,050,000), and 2015 ($6,425,000). In other words, it was a very Pirates-like signing.
Signing David Freese says a couple things about the Pirates as they enter the season, it seems to me.
First, incumbent third baseman Jung Ho Kang is not going to be ready for the start of the season as he continues his recovery from last year's season-ending knee injury. I don't think anyone's surprised that Kang won't be ready for Opening Day. This deal, though, suggests to me that we may not see Kang until May, and he may be eased back into the lineup then. If Kang were to be out of action for just a few games, the Pirates would probably be content to plug Sean Rodriguez into the lineup, either at third or at second with Josh Harrison sliding over to third. Freese seems more of a weeks-long, rather than games-long, fill-in.
Second, the Pirates may try to move Michael Morse. GM Neal Huntington, when Freese was signed, indicated that the new Pirate will play first as well as third. With lefty-swinging John Jaso and righty Morse already set to platoon at the position, the Pirates would seem to be overstocked at first. Morse appears to be the odd man out, as he turns 34 next week, has less positional versatility (he can play outfield in the sense that Pedro Alvarez could play third base), and he arguably has more trade value than Freese. Morse has more power than Freese (.461 career slugging percentage, home runs in 3.8% of plate appearances vs. .417 and 2.5% for Freese) and, oddly, is cheaper. Morse is owed $8.5 million in 2016, the last year of a two-year, $16 million free agent contract he signed with the Marlins after the 2014 season. But the team from whom the Pirates acquired Morse, the Dodgers, are on the hook for the full amount, so the Pirates could market him as a "free" player.
Long term? Freese is a decent enough bench player. He's an OK third baseman, an OK right handed batter who doesn't have particularly bad platoon splits, and while he's played only 21 innings at first in the majors, he seems athletic enough to handle the position. He bolsters a somewhat thin Pittsburgh bench. But if his presence means that the Pirates are going to be without Kang for more than a few weeks, that's bad news. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Unintended Consequences of Rising Strikeout Rates

If you've read this blog for a while, you'll know that I don't like to see batters getting hit by pitches. In fact, you might say I'm a little obsessed. I wrote a long piece (FanGraphs version here, Banished to the Pen here) tracing this path:

  • Strikeouts have risen steadily.
  • As strikeouts have risen, pitchers are increasingly ahead in the count. More plate appearances ended on 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2 counts in 2014-15 than on 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, and 3-2 counts. That's unprecedented.
  • When pitchers are ahead in the count, they target the margins of the strike zone rather than the middle.
  • When they target the margins and miss, there are consequences that don't occur when they target the middle and miss.
  • While it's been well-understood that rising strikeouts have led to decreased offense, my research showed that they've also, through the steps above, led to fewer sacrifice flies, more wild pitches, and more hit batters.
I submitted the report to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and I was selected to make a presentation at the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix over the weekend. Really. Here's the program. It has an abstract of my report and my bio.

OK, that's it for links to stuff from the past. New Pirates-related content starts tomorrow.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

As I Emerge From a Long Winter's Nap

Hokey smokes, I haven't blogged here since the end of 2015? That changes now.

Actually, I've had a somewhat busy winter, publishing-wise, just not here. Let me bring you up to date. 

In October, I wrote about how the American League in 2015 had the greatest parity, measured by the standard deviation of wins among its teams, in major league history. FanGraphs link here, Banished to the Pen link here.

In December, I noted that four teams in 2015--the Pirates, Yankees, Nationals, and Phillies--had two catchers account for at least 98.5% of the innings caught by their teams, so their team didn't have to rely on a third catcher. Such teams, since 1969, have averaged 85 wins per season. Unfortunately, the trend doesn't appear to be durable. the 236 teams with just two players dominating catching chores one season, only 25% were able to repeat the feat the next year. FanGraphs link here, Banished to the Pen link here.

Still in December, I did an analysis of every batter hit by a pitch in a Pirates game last year. There were a lot, given that the Bucs led the league in both hit batters (75) and getting hit by pitches (89). I found no evidence that the hit batters followed a general pattern of retaliation, i.e., you hit my guy, I hit yours. FanGraphs link here, Banished to the Pen link here

Also in December, I discovered that hitters who changed their approach at the plate by pulling the ball a lot more or a lot less, or hitting it on the ground a lot more or a lot less, did better in 2015 relative to batters who hit more the same. But when the difference is generated by a lot more or a lot less of an action, it doesn't really suggest that, e.g., a batter would hit better by going the other way. FanGraphs link here, Banished to the Pen link here

In the new year, I discovered that players 35+ are slowing down--exhibiting worse batting skills as they age--faster than in the past. The reasons, I hypothesized, are PED and amphetamine testing, faster fastballs, and managers' insistence on keeping high-paid veterans in the lineup. FanGraphs link here, Banished to the Pen link here.

Also in January, I discovered that while on base percentage has been in vogue since the publication of Moneyball, slugging percentage is better correlated to run production than on base percentage. And don't even think about batting average. FanGraphs link here, Banished to the Pen link here.

And that doesn't even cover my big winter project. I'll get to that tomorrow.