Saturday, January 26, 2013

The first pitch means a lot

There is one statement I can make that I absolutely cannot get wrong. The first pitch of every plate appearance will be either a strike or a ball. A batter might put the ball in play on that first pitch, or it might hit him. But it does not matter. It is either a ball or a strike. And whichever that first pitch is has a lot to do with how successful a pitcher (or batter) is going to be. This is such a no-brain thing that you know pitching coaches have been stressing it since time began. Or perhaps I am giving them too much credit because the percentage of first pitch strikes has not always remained static.

How much difference does it make? In 2012, if the pitcher started the plate appearance with a first pitch strike, the subsequent plate appearance averaged a .612 OPS. If that first pitch was a ball, the plate appearance led to an .822 OPS. That is a 210 point swing in OPS. Is that significant? It sure seems like it to me. 

And those results seem to be rather static. For example, in 2011, when a first pitch was a strike, the plate appearance led to a .606 OPS and a first pitch ball led to an .821 OPS. In 2010, it was .615/.824. In 2009, it was .629/.852. The spread is pretty similar from year to year. The conclusion we can make here is that throwing a first pitch strike leads to a lower OPS and is thus important.

And for some reason, pitchers are getting the message. Whether it is an improvement in talent, some help from the umpires, or whatever, the bottom line is that the last three years--notably considered pitchers' years--first pitch strikes have risen somewhat dramatically and league OPS has tumbled. Smoking gun? I'm sure there are other factors, but yeah. It has to have some impact. 

Look at the charts I have put together. The first is my data. The first column is the total number of plate appearances that started with a strike. The second is the total number of plate appearances that started with a ball and that gives us a first-pitch strike percentage. The rest of the chart shows whether the pitcher was ahead in the count when the ball was put in play or whether he was behind. I thought those two items were interesting too and did show a slow change over time from 2001 to 2012. The last column is the league OPS for each season.

You should notice that things stayed pretty close in range from 2001 to 2009. There was just a slight increase in first pitch strike percentage. But the last three years have shown a dramatic rise in first pitch strikes. The chart should illustrate it better:

I am not smart enough to say that Point A is caused by Point B, but look at a similar chart that tracks OPS over the same time period:

I am sure that I am not breaking new ground here. It was simply something that caught my interest and I thought I would share it with you. Let's look at some individual pitchers for a minute.

In 2012, the three starting pitchers with the lowest first pitch strike percentage were Ubaldo Jimenez, Edinson Volquez and Ricky Romero. Jimenez and Romero had really disappointing seasons. Volquez had a slightly better season in 2012 than he did in 2011, but some of that had to do with pitching his home games in San Diego instead of Cincinnati. When Jimenez threw a first pitch strike, he had a 4.60 strikeout to walk percentage. When he threw a first pitch ball, his strikeout to walk percentage sank to 0.68. So yes, it mattered a great deal what he did on the first pitch.

The highest first pitch strike percentage belonged to Cliff Lee, which is no surprise at all. And that made a dramatic difference for Lee. When he threw a first pitch ball, his OPS against was .821 in the subsequent plate appearances with a 3.00 strikeout to walk ratio. When he threw a first pitch strike, his strikeout to walk ratio ballooned to 13.25 and his OPS against was .564.

For relief pitchers, the two leaders in first pitch strikes were Jason Motte and Craig Kimbrel. Yeah, those two guys had pretty good seasons. The two with the lowest first pitch strike percentage were Carlos Marmol and Ramon Ramirez, certainly not two relief pitchers that instill confidence when they take the mound.

Baseball has changed from 2001 to 2012. You can point to PEDs if you want to. But from what these stats tell me, the biggest difference has been a rise in first pitch strikes. There is a cause and effect in a plate appearance on whether the first pitch is a strike or a ball. And the stats show that first pitch strikes have been on the rise and are much higher than they were in 2001. Strikeouts have risen to record levels. Throwing first pitch strikes will not guarantee you will be a successful pitcher. But it sure does help.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Plenty of closer candidates for the Tigers

The Papa Grande era in Detroit is over. And that is probably for the best. Despite his 110 saves from 2010 to 2011 and despite being perfect in 2011, Valverde saw a serious reduction of his ability to fool or blow away major league hitters in 2012, particularly late in the season. And the eccentric closer was completely pounded during the last two post seasons. So now Valverde is gone and the Tigers need to find another closer. They were linked to Soriano most of the off season. That did not happen. Other closers came and went off the board. Some raised eyebrows at the unusual restraint of deal-making. But the truth is that the Tigers have plenty of candidates for the closer position. Let's take a quick look.

The most quoted name linked this winter to the closer's role has been Bruce Rondon. Rondon is yet another Venezuelan and is going to be 22 years old. The Tigers have stated publicly that they are confident that Rondon can step into the role. Rondon did save 29 games for Tigers' minor league affiliates last season and has big time swing and miss ability. But there are two things that make this move a bit scary.

First, Rondon has a rather alarming walk rate in the minors. This walk rate of 5.1 has elevated his overall minor league WHIP to 1.240. The second problem is that he has never pitched at the big league level and only had a small sample size of outings at the Triple-A level. Others can point to Kimbrel of the Braves and say that it can be done. After all, Kimbrel had a high walk rate in the minors. Where the comparison fails, though, is that Kimbrel had a much higher minor league strikeout rate and had a much lower WHIP.

Rondon seems like either wishful thinking or a long shot at best.

But that is okay because the Tigers have two other candidates. The first is Phil Coke. I have watched Coke for many years now and had never seen him turn into such beast mode as he did against the Yankees in the 2012 ALCS. Such a display, not only of stuff, but of emotion and competitiveness leads me to believe that he has the mentality for the role. The Tigers would lose his situation status for lefties, but they still have Duane Below.

Al Alburquerque is another possible closer. He certainly has the "stuff" to throw up there. Alburquerque missed a huge chunk of 2012 due to injury but was effective in the few innings he had. His strikeout rates are ridiculous and are in the Kimbrel-type territory. Alburquerque also walks a lot of batters but get a load of this stat: In 56.2 major league innings, Alburquerque has given up 27 hits. Woof. The Tigers wouldn't make a wrong turn at Alburquerque.

Then there is Joaquin Benoit, a guy the Rays turned around in 2010 when they recreated him as a strike-throwing artist. I like a closer that is not going to create his own drama with walks. And since those amazing Rays got a hold of him, his walk rate the last three seasons has been terrific. Benoit has periods of inconsistency, But there is no doubt here that he could do the job.

One last candidate is Brayan Villarreal, yet another Venezuelan, with big stuff and control problems. Villarreal would need to lower his walk rate as his strikeout rate is not quite as impressive as Alburquerque.

The bottom line here is that the Tigers can easily work this out and give the ninth inning to one guy and get the game finished in the win column. I have serious doubts they will really give the role to Rondon, but I have been wrong before. Alburquerque intrigues me the most with his strikeout ability with Coke being a close second based on what I saw in the post season. Either way, Valverde won't be missed and the ninth inning will be a lot quicker in Detroit this season.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How patient will Rays be on Wil Myers?

The recent acquisition of Shelley Duncan gives the Rays a bit more reliability in their left-field platoon paired with Sam Fuld. Duncan is a known quantity with a career .755 OPS against left-handed starters. Duncan can also provide the same flexibility with lefty-swinging James Loney at first base. Duncan blunts a bit of the question mark of if Brandon Guyer will ever hit major league pitching. But while Fuld provides excellent range in the outfield with somewhat questionable offensive capabilities, Duncan is more stodgy in the outfield. Will such a combination test the Rays and tempt them to see if Wil Myers can make the jump?

Myers, of course, is the highly-rated prospect gained from the Royals in the James Shields trade. While Royals fans like the idea of improving the rotation, there were collective groans about losing Myers, the most fascinating hitter in the Royals' organization. And rightly so.

Myers is only 22 years old but after Trout and Harper last year, the dynamic has changed for how young you can hope prospects to perform once they hit the majors. Myers flew through the lower minors since he was drafted in 2009. He hit a bit of a lull upon hitting Double-A in 2011 but blew it up in 2012 and then did very well in Triple-A as well. Baseball America touts his plate discipline skills and ability to hit for average. They rate him as the Rays' Number 3 prospect. Baseball Prospectus rates him first in the Rays' organization.

The Rays have never seriously played the clock on their young players like other teams. David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings are recent examples of really young players that the Rays have turned to if it gives them a better chance to compete. With that track record, it seems logical that Myers will not be artificially delayed because of service time issues.

If the Rays bring Wil Myers to Spring Training and he blows up the joint, perhaps the temptation will be strong to go with talent over proven major league players that are less talented. There is no doubt that the Rays would have done their homework when scouting him. There would be less of a need to "see what he can do" in the minors first.

Myers has struck out at a higher rate once he reached the higher minors and those rates (over 20%) are a bit of a concern. But it is hard to ignore that in 99 games at the Triple-A level, Myers put up a .932 OPS.

Yes, Myers will test the Rays and tempt them if he has a good spring. But the odds have to be taken that he will start the year in the minors. If the Rays struggle offensively out of the gate, that temptation will prove too strong and Myers will get the call. Either scenario is lip-smacking in the anticipation department.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The all time African-American team

Saying, "Happy Martin Luther King" day just doesn't feel right. And it is mostly because I lived through those days and they were not happy days. The world was upside down and upheaval was everywhere. It seemed that society was flying apart at the seams. Growing up in Bergenfield, New Jersey, we were somewhat shielded from the strife. Bergenfield was mostly Irish, Italian and Jewish at that time. But four miles away was a town called Teaneck and riots were occurring there. We heard about it and we were scared. But I am one that believes that celebrating Martin Luther King's life is the right thing to do. His cause was right and just. He fought it courageously and was gunned down way too soon.

So to honor his life today, the idea was to come up with an all African-American team of the greatest players at each position. That seems right too since it was Jackie Robinson's history-making introduction to the majors that opened the doors to others that have graced us with their play ever since. And Jackie Robinson preceded King and was a first step in what King and others were to accomplish. We still have a long way to go. Until all people are not only treated equally but that we all understand that all have the right to be created that way, we still have work to do.

Again, in honor of King and Robinson and with an eye on the grander themes than baseball, here is one Fan's thoughts on the all time African-American team. The criteria is based on statistics from 1947 to 2012. There is a debate if this list should include Hispanic players and it is a valid debate. But we can debate that another time. They were not included in this list.


We'll start with the outfield since this one is easy.

Not only were they the three best ever for their race, but they are probably two, three, four all time for all players. You can pick that order though.


Again, this is easy. It has to be the one and only:
Campanella's career was tragically cut short due to a spinal injury. But in his ten seasons, he packed in three MVP Awards. His offense for a catcher was great with a career .860 OPS, but he was also great defensively as he threw out 57% of all base steal attempts during his career. The rest of his contemporaries averaged 42% during that time. 

Now it gets a little harder. 

First base: 
This ended up as a toss up between Murray and Frank Thomas. There were other greats like Ernie Banks and Willie McCovey, but they split time in their careers between other positions--McCovey in the outfield and Thomas as a DH.

Second base: 
You would like to put Jackie Robinson in here for what he did. But Morgan was simply the best. Lou Whitaker and Willie Randolph are a distant second and third.

Jeter beats out Banks by a nose with Barry Larkin and Ozzie Smith a bit behind. Jeter had the highest wOBA among them and the highest wRC+ along with the highest WAR.

Third base:
This one was extremely tough to pick. Allen played more first base than third and also played the outfield. But there really wasn't anyone else.

Starting pitcher:
Fergie Jenkins a close second.

Relief pitcher:
There was nobody else that was close.

There you have it. One Fan's all time African-American team. And while you are at it, you must go and listen to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. You will be moved.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Craig Breslow - unsung reliever

One of the most fascinating players in baseball is Craig Breslow. To be sure, one man's fascination is not the same as another's. Breslow first appeared in my consciousness back in 2009 when I followed a cool blog called Jews in Baseball. No, I am not Jewish, but I always considered us Italians as the lost ten tribes since our mothers are the same. But anyway, Josh Borenstein, the proprietor of that site listed the daily accomplishments of Jewish players around the majors. Breslow was one of those guys. So I started following him too.

Breslow went to Yale University. He seems to always make the lists of smartest baseball players. He would have been a doctor or a scientist if he had not made it in baseball. But he has had an effective career in baseball so America lost a great scientific talent. Perhaps the scientific career would have had less bumps along the road.

Breslow might be the best relief pitcher in baseball that was selected on waivers three times and released once. He has now been traded twice in two years. That is a lot of roster manipulations he has been through. Was he too smart for the managers he played for? Well, those Red Sox are smart because they just signed him to a two-year contract to give the vagabond lefty a home for a couple of years.

He might have been a starter in his Yale days, but Breslow has only been a reliever in his professional career. He now has logged over 600 appearances in both his major and minor league careers and in all of those appearances, his lone start was in 2006 in the minors. He is left-handed, so naturally you would thing LOOGY. But he is not one of those. Oh sure, he is dominant against those who hit from the left side of the plate, but he has been effective against those from the right side too.

How effective? For his career, Breslow has allowed a puny wOBA of .280 against left-handed hitters. But it is only .293 against right-handed hitters too. He tends to walk more right-handed hitters, which was particularly seen in 2012. And that does elevate his walk rate higher than one would like. But those hitters do not hit him any harder. In an interview he did with a while back, it appears that he believes he can have some impact on BABIP with the location of his pitches. He must know what he is talking about because his career BABIP is just .266.

Breslow is not a hard thrower. His fastball is in the 91 MPH range. He has introduced a two-seam fastball to what has been mostly four-seams and his ground ball rate did rise in 2012. Fangraphs and PitchF/X disagree if his secondary pitch is a slider or a cut fastball. Since both agree that the pitch is around 84 MPH, slider seems like the better call. He also throws a change and a curve. All of his pitches were rated in the positive category in 2012.

As a reliever, his career strand rate of 76.6 does not rate among the best relievers in baseball since 2009, but it is still a very good strand rate. He has had a positive WPA in four of the last five seasons with only 2011 as the exception. His career OPS against in high leverage situations is just slightly higher than his career numbers.

The Red Sox would be wise to make him the eighth inning setup guy. For his career, he has an OPS against of only .578 when pitching in the eighth inning (149 appearances). They would also be wise to limit him to less than 70 appearances. The A's pitched him quite hard and he pitched 152 times for them in 2009 and 2010. Breslow would always seem to have a bad appearance when pitched too many days in a row.

Craig Breslow is simply a very good relief pitcher who should give the Red Sox some reliability for the next couple of seasons. His career ERA is 3.00 and it was less than that in 2012. He is especially good at getting left-handed batters out, but is also good at getting right-handers. It is hard to believe that teams would kick him around for so many seasons. Chalk one up on the plus side for the Red Sox this time.