Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Poof, It's Gone

Elite pitching with World Class velocity will be short lived. The human arm is not built to accelerate and decelerate at the speeds and angles required to throw a baseball over 90 mph. The risks to ill effects increases the harder each pitcher throws. For pitchers to stay healthy, they need to emulate Greg Maddux more than Pedro Martinez. On the other hand, no-one would kick a prospect out of bed for pitching like Pedro Martinez. For years, "mechanics" has been the beginning and end of stories related to pitchers' health. Yet, we still have professional pitchers throwing with an inverted W in their arm load motion that has continuously portended arm injuries. Teams need to teach against that tendency. It would also reward teams to stress the importance of pacing one's self. Starting pitchers will say that they obviously already pace themselves. Only relief pitchers can go max effort on every pitch. My guess is that most starting pitchers are still not pacing themselves enough. Matt Harvey was lights out, sitting at 96 mph on his 4-seamer. Wouldn't he have been able to succeed at 93, only reaching back for 97 a few times each game? How many more runs would he have allowed pitching that way? Would he be healthy today pitching that way? Is pitching that way even possible? Or, is there something fundamentally unnatural about constantly throwing to far beneath your max effort? I tend to think it's possible. Boxers will talk about throwing punches at Max effort, vs an effort that's sustainable for an entire round and a series of rounds. Boxing is about as primal a sport as we have. If boxers can naturally pace themselves, so should professional baseball players.

Jered Weaver is getting it done. He's living with a fastball in the upper 80's. He used to touch the mid to upper 90's, but has morphed into an effect pitcher who can hit his spots and induce weaker contact. His ballpark certainly helps him a lot. He knows that he can give up fly balls at home because they are likely to be caught by one of the Angels in the outfield. (Sorry.)

God help keep Yordano Ventura healthy, Sonny Gray too. Now that Jose Fernandez is following in the footsteps of Matt Moore, Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg and other phenoms by having the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his pitching arm replaced, Ventura and Gray are among the brightest young pitchers that come to mind. Come to think of it, I'd also like to see Andrew Cashner avoid recurrences of injuries of years' past. Alex Wood has a terribly ugly delivery, lots of body parts going in all different directions. Nobody expects Alex Wood to stay healthy much longer than Tommy Hanson did before destroying his shoulder. It's hard to change Wood's delivery if his results are positive and that's how he's most comfortable. Sadly, most have a feeling that these arms are to be used, much like running backs in the NFL, until they don't work anymore. If the player gets hurt, or worn out to the point of ineffectiveness, in a few years, then worry about who replacing the injured player in a couple of years. Hopefully, Clayton Kershaw's strained muscle in he back of his shoulder is a minor blip. The muscle he hurt is larger than the muscles of the rotator cuff. They are more resilient and have a higher likelihood of getting back to 100% fully healthy. If you hurt your rotator cuff, on the other hand, you're likely never going to get back to anything more than 95% of what you used to be able to do.*

*Okay, that 95% number is totally coming from a place that has no basis in fact. I'm guessing, making tj up, and don't even know precisely what it means. My point is that shoulder injuries to the smaller, more delicate muscles of the rotator cuff are more fatal than those to a larger shoulder, chest, or back muscle.

Back to hoping good things for some of the best young arms in the game... Madison Bumgarner has a chance to put together an extremely special career, if he can get back to where he was a year or two ago. Nathan Eovaldi is blossoming into one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball. That, alone, should be a red flag to the Marlins. Gio Gonzalez does not have great mechanics, neither do Zack Wheeler nor Michael Wacha. Have you seen Shelby Miller's numbers this year? He might already be broken.

The Nats have a good one in Giolito
(Photo by Patrick Cavey, MiLB.com)
In the minor leagues, we can worry about Lucas Giolito, Noah Syndergaard, Kohl Stewart, Hunter Harvey, plus a bunch of guys on the Cardinals, Astros and Blue Jays. More and more, amateur pitchers in high school and college are falling victim to the exploding elbow. We are talking about the best power arms of the future. Baseball needs to protect them better, but can they? We don't know of any one certain way that anyone can be protected.

Teams need to start calling up young pitchers as soon as they show they are one of the 11 best pitchers in the organization. We were all shocked when the Marlins decided to call-up Jose Fernandez at the start of last season. He was so young, and the Marlins were so non-competitive. Why would they start his service time on a lousy team? Why risk calling him up too early, letting him get hit hard if that the case? Why? We couldn't understand it, other than to think that maybe they were looking for a gate attraction at every fifth home game.

Looking back, how glad are we that the Marlins introduced us to Fernandez last season? A traditional team would have had him in a couple of minor league levels that last 18 months, and he would have broken his elbow before his Major League debut. The Nationals wasted a lot of Stephen Strasburg's bullets before finally calling him up. Teams, especially the rich teams, will probably begin to value potential Major League contributions of any elite prospect right away - while they're actually healthy. Many will say that the biggest problem with arm injuries is how unpredictable they are. No-one has agreed on proven best practices for maintaining health. It seems the actual problem is contrarian. My biggest issue with arm injuries is that they are becoming too predictable. Everyone's getting one.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Fun With MLB Leaderboards

Some really scary news about Antarctica melting was in the New York Times today. A radical climate shift is most certainly upon us. I'm sitting in a sweltering office in midtown Manhattan. There was snow in these parts less than a month ago, and it's over 85 degrees today.

Instead of running for the presumed safety of the Mexican hills, my humanity led me to an easier escape, one that would not increase my carbon footprint. If any of you have ever found warm comfort in the MLB leader boards on Fangraphs, you'll know the reward. After all, we may as well enjoy everything we can as long as we're on this greasy planet.

The following are a few of the more remarkable items we noticed in our perusal...

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The Cleveland Indians have two of the top 10 pitchers in all of baseball in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), but their ERA's are a rather pedestrian 3.89 (Zach McAllister) and slightly above average 3.48 (Corey Kluber). Their FIP's, which measure the outcomes that are fully independent of the pitchers' supporting cast are 2.61 for McAllister and 2.39 for Kluber, the 10th and 5th best FIP's among all qualified starters in Major League Baseball respectively. These are two of the largest differences between ERA and FIP in baseball, as well. A phenomenon like this could portend a brighter future for these two starters, but it will really depend on whether these pitchers are more so victims of bad luck (which will change) or a bad defense (which must be changed).

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Carlos Santana is a
good trade target. (David
Richard-USA TODAY)
Staying in Cleveland, you probably know that Carlos Santana has been struggling with a low batting average this season. You may not have known that it is as low as .148, or that is the third lowest among qualified batters - only better than Mike Moustakas (.147) and Raul Ibanez (.140). The strangest thing about his struggles is that he's walking more often than he's striking out, and he actually leads all qualified hitters with a 20% walk percentage, meaning that he's walking once in every five plate appearances.

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It's mid-May, and Troy Tulowitzki is basically flirting with a .500 on-base percentage, currently holding at .497. Chances are that he won't get above the .500 mark again this seasons, but a few hits in this next series against the Royals could make it happen. His season has been so remarkable already, that at 3.1 WARP on Baseball Prospectus, 3.6 WAR on Fangraphs, 4.0 WAR on Baseball-Reference, he's already been worth over 20 million dollars this season, at a conservatice rate around 6 million dollars per Win.

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Yangervis Solarte has the 15th highest On Base Percentage in Major League Baseball (.394). Seth Smith has the sixth highest (.419).

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Defensive statistics don't mean much, until you have at least 3 fll seasons worth of data, but just for fun, here are the Top 5 defensive players, according to the Defense rating on Fangraphs.

Fangraphs (2014 Defense)
Jason Heyward, Braves 10.9
Sam Fuld, A's/Twins 7.8
Mike Trout, Angels 7.2
Erick Aybar, Angels 7.2
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies 7.1

Tulowitzki is incredible. If you look at defensive leaders through the past 3 calendar years, Troy Tulowitzki is 25th among 1,426 players who played in the Major Leagues.

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With that, I think I'm sufficiently calmed down to face the rest of our peaceful existence. Enjoy the games tonight, everybody!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Players of the Fortnight

Lots of changes happening at the HQ of the ol' blog. I quit my job on Friday, which was a unique experience. Saturday, my baby daughter turned one fortnight old, which we celebrated with a brief walk in the park. As we revisit our most frequently used writing device, we get to give awards to the best players of the past 2-weeks. It just happens to be to the best players since my daughter was born, and that could only happen if we take a quick look at the leaderboards this morning. This idea for a recurring perspective came from an old professional scout who told me that he could tell who was playing well and who wasn't just by looking at their past 14-day stat lines. There's probably many lifetimes worth of bias in that statement, but I was about fifteen years old at the time and absorbed any seamhead knowledge I'd hear. We talked about bias, streakiness, and clutch the last time we gave away some virtual hardware, but without furthur ado, let us present our first Player of the Fortnight awards for 2014:

NL Batter of the Fortnight
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Pretty easy decision, as Tulo leads the National League in just about every offensive category the past two weeks. His high marks include 5 Home Runs, a .447 Batting Average, .552 On Base Percentage, .873 Slugging, .593 wOBA, and 272 wRC+. Tulowitzki was also one of just 10 players in the NL, with 30+ plate appearances the past two weeks, to walk more often than strikeout. That top 10 looks like this:

Carlos Ruiz, Phillies: 18 BB%, 5 K%
Anthony Rizzo, Cubs: 26 BB%, 18 K%
Neil Walker, Pirates: 13 BB%, 6 K%
Joey Votto, Reds: 23 BB%, 17 K%
Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks: 15 BB%, 9 K%
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: 17 BB%, 12 K%
Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers: 15 BB%, 11 K%
Travis d'Arnaud, Mets: 9 BB%, 6 K%
Carl Crawford, Dodgers: 6 BB%, 3 K%
Chase Utley, Phillies: 11 BB%, 9 K%

How about that Anthony Rizzo, leading the NL in BB% the past fortnight. Cubs fans should be happy about that. Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Jhonny Peralta, Aaron Hill, and Matt Holliday all had 1:1 K:BB ratios the past two weeks.

Honorable consideration: Yasiel Puig, Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Ruiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Miguel Montero, Todd Frazier

NL Pitcher of the Fortnight
Jose Fernandez, Marlins
The National League selections this time around are about as easy to identify as they've ever been. Along with Tulo on offense, who could the pitcher have been, other than Jose Fernandez? Craig Kimbrel, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jordan Walden are a few of the most impressive relief pitchers from the past two weeks, but they combined make the same number of outs as Jose Fernandez in the same time frame. Among qualified starting pitchers, Fernandez ranked first with a 0.00 ERA, 0.77 FIP, 1.66 xFIP, 0.19 tERA, 1.48 SIERA, 40.0 K% (!), and 1.0 fWAR.

Honorable consideration: Francisco Rodriguez, Craig Kimbrel, Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg, Johnny Cueto, Nathan Eovaldi, Brandon McCarthy

AL Batter of the Fortnight
Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
Believe me when I tell you, we wanted to go with a player who didn't even get enough PA's the past two weeks to be at the rate of a batter qualified for the batting title. Derek Norris had just 30 plate appearances over 9 games the past two weeks. He did not hit a home run, nor did he steal any bases. What Norris did very well was avoid outs. He led all American League batters with at least 30 plate appearances the past two weeks with a .520 AVG, .600 OBP, .568 wOBA, and 273 wRC+. Derek Norris walked more often than he struck out, but this was not as rare in the AL the past two weeks. Fifteen batters with at least 30 PA's walked more than struck out, and another ten had 1:1 K:BB ratios. We wanted to recognize Norris for his extraordinary contributions, but ultimately we gave the award to someone who affected more games and provided more value defensively. Norris was a pretty good pitch framer last season, saving 7.4 runs above average, but so far in 2014, he's at 2.4 runs below average, coincidentally tied with his teammate John Jaso.

Jose Bautista won a heavily contested race. He didn't lead the league in any well known statistic, but his .362/.474/.638 slash line, along with league average base running, was good for the highest Offensive score on Fangraphs.

Honorable consideration: Derek Norris, Josh Donaldson, Howie Kendrick, Nelson Cruz, Jose Abreu, Kyle Seager, James Loney

AL Pitcher of the Fortnight
Collin McHugh, Astros
What?! Who? What?! No way. Yes! The first time I ran the AL leaderboards, I forgot to set it to the past 14 days and was looking at entire season stats. Looking at it that way, three rookies have made fabulous showings, so far. Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and Yordano Ventura consistently bring world class pitching to the game. For the entire season, Tanaka leads the AL with a 2.22 xFIP and is second to Max Scherzer with a 30.4 K%. Ventura leads the league with a 1.50 ERA, but has thrown only 30 innings, compared with 42.6 for Tanaka. Jon Lester has pitched great this year, while curiously getting a decision in every game, as he sits with a 4-3 record after 7 starts.

Over the past two weeks, former Met Collin McHugh has lead the league with a 0.59 ERA and 0.8 fWAR. He has "only" thrown 15.3 innings, but he won both of his starts and garnered a 11.2 K/9 to exemplify his dominance.

Honorable consideration: John Lackey, David Price, Max Scherzer, Scott Kazmir