Friday, January 04, 2013

Six things you might not know about Allen Craig

Allen Craig of the St. Louis Cardinals has done nothing but hit ever since he's had a chance to see Major League pitching on a regular basis. He did struggle in his first brief playing stint in 2010 for 44 games, but he also was asked to play five different positions and has played six different positions since he arrived in St. Louis. In his last 669 at bats, Craig has 207 hits, 33 homers, 50 doubles and has driven in 132 runs. And after a devastating injury cost him the first 43 games of last season, it appears that he has settled into being the Cardinals first baseman for the foreseeable future. Let's dig a bit deeper into Craig and see if we can find six things you might not have known about him.

1. Allen Craig has had a healthy home run to fly ball rate in his last two seasons. His rate of 18.3% of 2011 fell a bit to 17.1% in 2012, but that is still a very healthy power sustaining rate. However, his percentage of batted balls hit into the air have tumbled with each of his three seasons where it went from 39.3% in 2010 to 37% in 2011 to only 33.3% in 2012. It will remain to be seen if his more or less full season in 2012 shows more of who he really is as a hitter than his two previous partial seasons. Craig does hit line drives prodigiously but for the Cardinals to reap more of his power, he needs to get the ball in the air more.

2. Craig was more or less wasted for two seasons in the Cardinals organization at the Triple-A level. It is pretty obvious from looking at his 2009 and 2010 seasons at Memphis that he had nothing to gain by being there. He did get into 44 games at the big league level in 2010, but Craig finds himself heading into the 2013 season as a 28 year old looking for his first complete season thanks to his late start and injury history.

3. The longer Allen Craig sees major league pitching, the better his plate discipline gets. In his brief 2010 season, Craig swung at 33.5% of pitches out of the strike zone. That came down to 29.2% in 2011 and then down again to 28.6% in 2012. If he can learn just a little more patience, he will be an even more elite hitter in the national league as his low walk total holds him back a bit.

4. While Craig's plate discipline gets better as we have seen in #3 above, he is also swinging and missing at less pitches. Craig swung and missed at 10.2% of pitches in 2010. That came down to 8.1% in 2011 and was down again to only 6.9% in 2012. That was a lower swing and miss rate than Albert Pujols had in 2012 (7.0%). That's pretty impressive.

5. Even though Craig missed 43 games in 2012, he still came in 27th in the majors in WPA. He seems to be very good at being productive with runners in scoring position. That, folks, was an understatement. In 255 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Craig has an OPS of 1.055. Yes, that will do some damage. When there are two outs with runners in scoring position, his OPS was .992. However, Craig falls down a bit in late and close games in which he dries up a bit and that results in Fangraphs giving him a negative clutch score.

6. Allen Craig is not discriminatory on what he hits. He has positive scores against every pitch type except the change up. He has a healthy OPS against power pitchers and finesse pitchers, ground ball pitchers and fly ball pitchers and hits the ball well to all fields. Perhaps this is sneaking Numbers 7, 8 and 9 in here, but Craig really isn't a pull hitter, but when he does pull the ball, his OPS is a mashing 1.358 for his career.

It appears that Allen Craig is going to be one of the league's elite hitters the next couple of seasons if he stays healthy. He seems to have found his permanent home for the Cardinals at first base. But to offset the position value there, he will have to reverse his trend of less fly balls and hit for some more power. But Craig does have a career .515 slugging percentage so that is nothing to sneeze at. The two projections for Craig in 2013 seen so far are bullish for him and there is no reason why Craig can't continue to develop his plate discipline to add to what is already a pretty fantastic offensive arsenal.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

50 greatest players not in the Hall of Fame

Graham Womack has done it again. The guy is amazing as a compiler and a gatherer of talent. His third annual opus on his Baseball: Past and Present site featured writers from all the important places. Somehow, I was included too. Humbled. If you have some time today to read all the submissions and the entire piece, do so. It is epic.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Six things you might not know about Ian Kennedy

Ian Kennedy had some real pretty numbers in 2011 and some less pretty numbers in 2012. Even so, Kennedy's 2012 season ended on a high note and he finished at 15-12 to give him a two year win-loss record of 36-16, which again looks very pretty. Those 36 wins are the fourth most in baseball over those two combined season. But, of course, we all know that the win-loss statistic is not very favored these days in the analytic community. And for the most part, that is the correct call. As such, Ian Kennedy is not really considered to be an elite pitcher and nobody's list of the ten or twenty best pitchers in baseball would include him.

But there are some things you may not know about Ian Kennedy and you should. Some of them defend his lack of elite status and some fly in the face of it. Here, then is a list of things you probably did not know about Ian Kennedy's pitching.

1. Most of the batted balls off of Ian Kennedy are fly balls. Kennedy's ground ball percentage over the last three seasons has been 37.7 percent. Only thirteen other starters over that three-year time period have had a lower ground ball percentage. And this is despite increasing the number of two-seam fastballs he throws.

The belief here is that this statistic is the difference between his 2011 and 2012 seasons. In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks had the fourth best fielding runs saved from their left fielders and the best fielding runs saved in center field. Garardo Parra was terrific in left and Chris Young was terrific in center. In 2011, Ian Kennedy's BABIP on fly balls was .110 and .730 on line drives. In 2012, Jason Kubel played left field most of the season and Chris Young missed more than 30% of the season. In 2012, Kennedy's BABIP on fly balls was .162 and .784 on line drives. The Diamondbacks went from seventh in overall defensive efficiency in 2011 to 23th in 2012.

2. Ian Kennedy has been really durable. Kennedy has made 98 starts over the last three seasons, tied for seventh in all of baseball over that span. He has been a rock in the Diamondback's rotation.

3. Ian Kennedy is a strike throwing machine. Only five pitchers have thrown more strikes than Ian Kennedy in the last two seasons combined. In that same time period, he is tied for eighth in first pitch strike percentage. He was seventh over those two seasons for most pitches seen in the strike zone. And most people do not consider Kennedy a strikeout pitcher, but his 8.05 strikeouts per nine innings over the last two seasons is more than respectable. His strikeout to walk ratio has been 17th best among starters when you combine the last two seasons. And it is better than David Price and Matt Cain over that time period.

4. Despite his control, he is fifth in baseball in hitting batters over the past two seasons.

5. His five balks over the last two seasons are the second most in baseball. That's weird.

6. Ian Kennedy does not have a dominant pitch. That's right, everything he throws is rather ordinary. None of his pitches: fastball, curve, change up and slider have finished in the top thirty for pitch value over the past two seasons. There is not one pitch you can point to and say, "that is why Ian Kennedy is successful."

There you have it, six things you might not have known about Ian Kennedy. This observer has a real soft spot for him, so the perspective here is that he is a better pitcher than people think. But the numbers give mixed reviews. The best things he does are throw strikes and take the ball every fifth day. And he certainly wins a lot. The fact that he does not have a dominant pitch and has had a higher FIP than ERA the last two seasons tend to show that perhaps he isn't as good as this man-crush warrants. But what the heck, right? The heart goes where it will.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Six things you probably didn't know about Edwin Encarnación

Everybody is aware that the Toronto Blue Jays' Edwin Encarnacion went all Bautista on us in 2012 as he suddenly became a premier slugger in baseball. Everyone is aware that he hit 42 homers and slugged .557 en route to a .941 OPS. Everybody also wonders if he can repeat those numbers after coming from nowhere to have that kind of season. But there are things that you probably do not know about Encarnacion which may just hint that he is not a fluke.

1. Edwin Encarnación hardly ever hits the ball on the ground. Of all qualifying batters in 2012, only Josh Reddick of the A's had a lower ground ball to fly ball ratio and lower ground ball percentage. Only 33% of Encarnación's batted balls went on the ground for a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 0.67. And since 18.6% of those fly balls went over the fence, that is a good recipe for hitting homers. This is not a fluke as his career ratio is 0.80 and has been under 0.70 in two of his last three seasons.

2. He also has very good plate discipline for a bopper. He only swung at pitches outside the strike zone 24.5% of the time. That is the 25th lowest in baseball. And only 26 other baseball players (qualified for batting title) swung at less of a percentage of pitches than Encarnación who only swung at 41.6 percent of the pitches he saw in 2012. This shows that he has become adept at waiting for something he likes before pulling the trigger. The plate discipline is not a fluke as it was only one percentage point below his career average. The swing percentage was a marked improvement and could be one of the markers of his improved season. His career swing percentage is 46%.

3. For a big guy who hits for power, he does not swing and miss very many pitches. Only 41 qualified batters swung and missed less than Edwin Encarnación's 7.1 swing and miss rate. In other words, he is not just up there hacking. His strikeout percentage was only 14.6%

4. You can't pitch him fast or slow. Encarnación had the fourth highest pitch value against the fastball in 2012. His prowess versus the fastball was 30 wFB. He was also tied for fourth best against the change up. And he was seventh best against the curve. So what DO you throw this guy? Good luck with that.

5. He is a better than average base runner. Not only is it somewhat rare for a slugger to be good on the bases, but he is surprisingly effective at stealing. He doesn't do it a lot, but in 26 attempts over the past two seasons, he has been successful 21 times good for an 80.8% success rate. And that rate exactly matches his career success rate when attempting to steal a base.

6. His 2012 season was as good as it was despite a .266 BABIP. The low BABIP makes some sense since he hits so many fly balls. But still. He hit .286 despite a .266 BABIP. Can you imagine if a few more things dropped in for him? His career BABIP is .280, so he was a bit unlucky in 2012.

There you have it--six things you probably did not know about Edwin Encarnación. Those six things--especially the first five--show at least to this observer that like Bautista before him, Encarnación's season was not a fluke and that he can repeat what he showed us in 2012.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A long fondness for Dwight Evans

Dwight Evans fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in 1999 after three seasons. Only 3.6% of voters thought he was good enough for a vote. And yet, even the estimable Bill James thought Evans merited more consideration. I happen to agree. But then again, I am extremely biased as Dwight Evans was one of my favorite baseball players ever.

"But wait, William," you must be thinking, "weren't you always a Yankee fan?"

That is correct. And yet incorrect. After growing up in New Jersey, I went off to New Hampshire College in Manchester, New Hampshire in the fall of 1974. That January, I met and fell for the mother of my children. Except for a summer, I never went back to New Jersey. Married in 1977, we settled in her home town of Rochester, New Hampshire and lived there for several years and then moved one town over to Lebanon, Maine, where we lived until 1990.

Lebanon was in the sticks. It had gravel pits and not much else. And though cable television started making inroads in the 1970s, it would be years before it would be get out to rural wastelands like Lebanon. The only solution available until late into the 1980s was a television antenna. For years, the only stations we received were two network channels and Channels 38 and 56. Both of the latter were out of Boston and the former of those two carried the Red Sox games.

The period of 1976 through 1978 were great as a Yankee fan because there were three trips in a row to the World Series with two straight wins. But while they were thrilling, they were also exhausting with all the shenanigans of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. By 1981, it became intolerable after a strike and the Dave Winfield fiasco. That was the season Winfield went one for twenty-two in the World Series and became Mr. May. Steinbrenner's treatment of Winfield was a total turnoff and between the strike and everything, I was pretty disillusioned.

It was a period ripe for the Red Sox to steal my attention. They were the only team I could watch and players like Dwight Evans, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens brought me over to the dark side. I liked the Red Sox in the 1980s. The Yankees had become a circus and were away from my vision. What could I do?

While Boggs and Clemens thrilled me with their amazing heroics, it was Dwight Evans that captured my imagination. It's funny how a fan's perception develops totally separate from reality. I did not know that Evans was from Santa Monica, California. In my mind, he became the every-man kind of hero. He was the guy who had to work hard at his craft to be a good player. For a baseball purist, it was obvious that he worked hard at the fundamentals of the game. He worked on positioning, footwork and arm angles with his play in right field and worked extra hard to become a good offensive player.

That was probably true of 99 percent of all baseball players, but somehow, you could tell it about Evans. I related to him somehow. I noticed him as far back as 1975. He was only 23 when the Red Sox played that famous World Series against the Big Red Machine. He had started in the big leagues in 1972 as a 20-year old and after his first year cup of coffee, he averaged a little over 400 plate appearances in 1973, 1974 and 1975 as the Red Sox used a rotation that at times included Evans, Tommy Harper and Rick Miller.

But by 1975, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice thundered onto the scene and Evans became more of a regular but split some time with Bernie Carbo. Anyway, the 1975 World Series is famous for the Carlton Fisk homer that we see in highlights every post season and will until eternity. And some even may know that in that game, Bernie Carbo pinch hit and hit a homer that was as big as what Fisk did. But there was another big play in that game that is forgotten.

With the game in extra innings, Ken Griffey was on first in the top of the eleventh and Joe Morgan hit a shot toward Pesky's Pole in right. If it fell in or went over that short porch, the Red Sox might have been done for. But despite the ball slicing away from him, Dwight Evans raced to the corner and made a fabulous catch and for good measure, threw out Griffey at first for the double play. Fisk would hit his famous homer an inning later.

Dwight Evans was a good offensive player from his debut in 1972 until 1980. And with his defense, was a valuable player. But with Lynn, Rice, Yaz, Fisk, etc., Evans usually batted in the lower third of the batting order.

During the 1980 season, Evans became a disciple of Walt Hriniak, who was a disciple of Charlie Lau, who famously helped George Brett become a Hall of Fame player. In actuality, at the time, Hriniak was still a bullpen coach and Johnny Pesky was the "official" batting coach. But several players turned to Hriniak, who would eventually become the batting coach when Pesky retired in the mid-1980s.

Perhaps under Hriniak, or perhaps just his maturation as a player, Evans became a star in 1981. And he exploded. His OPS was 1.054 in April, 1.025 in May and ten games into June went at a clip of 1.018. But then the strike of 1981 hit. Oh no! The strike cost Evans all that momentum or mojo or whatever you want to call it and by the time baseball had lost forty-plus games, Evans would not be the same in the second "half" when he finished those months with an .838 OPS.

But still, Evans led the American League that season in walks, runs created, wOBA, OPS and Total Bases and tied for the lead in homers. In one of the biggest bits of post season idiocy ever, Rollie Fingers won the Most Valuable Player Award despite pitching in only 35 games. The award should have gone to either Evans or Rickie Henderson with a good case to be made for either.

Though Evans had his best season shortened, he was a star offensive player for many years after 1981. Before 1981, Evans averaged a walk percentage a little over ten percent. But from 1981 on, he was frequently in the 15 to 16.9 percent range. He led the league in walks in 1985 and 1987--both seasons over 100. He finished with an OPS over .900 in 1982, 1984 and 1987.

Other than 1981, Evans had his best full offensive season in 1987, his sixteenth season in the majors. His triple slash line was, .305/.417/.569. He was fourth in the majors in wOBA that season. But by then, the Red Sox were having Evans play half his games at first base, so his overall value was diminished.

Evans would play nineteen seasons with the Red Sox and twenty seasons overall. gave him 62.8 rWAR and Fangraphs, 71.4 fWAR. According to Fangraphs, Evans was a better player than Dave Winfield. Jay Jaffe and his JAWS system has Evans as the fifteenth best right-fielder of all time. Everyone ahead of him except for Larry Walker and Shoeless Joe Jackson are in the Hall of Fame and those two should be. And there are quite a few Hall of Fame players behind him.

All that is great. But besides the numbers, Evans simply thrilled this Fan with his grace, his professionalism and his style. Dwight Evans did things the right way. Or at least, that is the way I choose to remember him.