Saturday, February 02, 2013

Adrain Beltre - a product of his environment

Adrian Beltre will be heading into his Age 34 season with fifteen years already accumulated in his Major League Baseball career. Since his first (partial) season was at age 19, it seems like Beltre has been around forever. And Beltre has a chance to put up the kind of counting stats that will guarantee him a spot in the Hall of Fame, especially when you combine his fielding stats. But if you look at Beltre's career, his numbers have fluctuated greatly from season to season. Mariners fans have to be looking at what Beltre has done over his last three seasons and wonder what the heck happened. And Beltre had that one big year for the Dodgers and several not so big years there. Park effect has really been a factor in Beltre's career.

Where Beltre currently plays his home games is good news for him when it comes to piling on the rest of his counting stats because it is such a good hitters' park. For example, in his two seasons there, Beltre has a triple slash line at Ameriquest Field of .328/.369/.608. Yes, those numbers are pretty. But Beltre spent the bulk of his career playing his home games in Seattle and Los Angeles. Here are his slash lines in those two parks compared to his career line:

  • Dodger Stadium: .253/.316/.423
  • Safeco Field: .252/304/.411
  • Career Stats: .280/.331/.476

It becomes really obvious that all those games in those two ballparks had a severe impact on Beltre's career. Out of curiosity, I wanted to get rid of the stats in all three of his home ballparks to see if that could gives me some insight of what kind of offensive player Beltre really is. I realize that other stats already do this such as wRC+ and OPS+ for example. But I wanted more organic counting stats to see the difference.

So what I did was to take his career stats and subtracted all the stats from Dodger Stadium, Safeco Field and even Ameriquest since that park has inflated his stats a bit the last two seasons. I did not bother with his one season in Boston. So taking out those three parks, the rest of the stats give him a career triple slash line of .292/.340/.496. This, to me, gives a truer picture of the kind of offensive player that Beltre has been. Sure, I know these are sloppy stats because all the rest of his non-home stats have come in all kinds of different parks and conditions and I am no mathematician. But I do believe that this triple slash line gives a better picture.

If you take the triple slash line of his non-home stats and use those numbers for his whole career, Beltre would have 96 more hits than his 2,227. He would have 51 more doubles than his current 463. He would have fifteen more triples than his career 30. Surprisingly, the home run total works out almost the same and his walk and HBP totals go down. Here is a picture of my spreadsheet. Click on it to make it larger.

Now I realize that Beltre's career will be measured without any of this hoopla. And heck, he is already rated according to JAWS as the twelfth best third baseman ever. And that is only going to rise the longer he plays. Beltre seems destined for the Hall of Fame no matter what his numbers were in LA and Seattle. I just feel that those two parks dragged him down to make that HOF vote a little less than a slam dunk years from now. The odds are good that he will reach 3,000 hits, 450 homers and 1500 runs batted in if he plays five more seasons. 

In other words, the combination of his offense and defense will give him a ticket. They just might have been a little prettier if he hadn't had all those plate appearances in those two unforgiving offensive ballparks.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Jordan Pacheco - fooled by batting average

During the last week, I have been extolling the virtues (or lack thereof) of my first ever mock draft. And to be honest, the results so far show that despite comforting words from my MLB Dirt colleagues that I would do fine, I didn't. I am gaining new respect for the people that write about fantasy baseball and who are successful at playing it. Jordan Pacheco is the third of four players I have written about now who fooled me with his batting average and on-base average. As it turns out, those two stats are like gold plating aluminum foil.

I feel stupid, frankly. Pacheco quietly put together over 500 plate appearances for the Colorado Rockies last season. Who knew and how did I miss that?  He sort of symbolizes all that is wrong with the Rockies as they have spiraled into ridicule over the last couple of seasons. Pacheco is a guy who is going to give you a good batting average with little power playing two positions that require some power (first and third), can catch on occasion and can't field any of his positions. And frankly, his numbers are inflated by his home ballpark. And I was excited about picking him? Duh.

Pacheco was drafted as a second baseman / shortstop type. In his first year in the minors, he played those two positions and also third and did not play any of those positions well. The following year, the Rockies had the bright idea of converting him to catching. That first year, he had 21 passed balls in 44 games. But the Rockies kept trying and he finished his minor league catching career with a 24% success rate throwing out base runners and had 51 passed balls in just 294 games. He also made 27 errors behind the plate.

But the Rockies must have been intrigued anyway because his offensive numbers looked good. He hit at every level and had a minor league .308 average with a .380 on-base average. The batting average has translated to the majors but not the on-base percentage. In 2008 and 2010 in the minors, Pacheco walked eleven percent of the time. So far in his major league career, that rate is 4.2 percent. He only walked 22 times in 505 plate appearances for the big club.

And it turns out that his numbers are a Coors mirage. Pacheco's OPS at Coors was .878. His OPS away from Coors was .646. Twenty-five of his forty extra base hits were hit at home. And he is much better against left-handed pitching than he is against right-handed pitching by almost 80 points. He had a good on-base percentage against lefties and none at all against right-handed ones.

So Jordan Pacheco has no position, has offensive stats that are inflated by Coors, never walks, has little power and looks bad against right-handed pitching. Obviously, I am not very good at this fantasy draft thing. Not good at all. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Jose Altuve under a microscope

This is the third post in which I try to rate how well I did on my first ever mock draft. To this point, I liked my catcher (Mauer) and did not much like my shortstop (Desmond). Today, I take a look at my second baseman, Jose Altuve. When I was looking at the available second basemen, I saw Altuve's name and I saw the .290 average and .340 on-base percentage along with the 33 steals. Those things looked pretty good to me so I picked him. I knew nothing about the guy except that he was Freddie Patek-kind of short. Altuve is listed at five foot, five inches which is ridiculously short for a baseball player. I wish now that I had known more than just his size and a few counting stats.

It turns out that Altuve was tied with Murphy of the Mets as the sixteenth best second baseman in baseball last season. Since there were twenty-two qualifying second basemen last year, sixteenth isn't very good. What hurt Altuve the most in his ranking was his fielding. And this was a big surprise for me. Of all second basemen that qualified for the batting title, Jose Altuve ranked next to last with his fielding.

The reason this is such a surprise is that Jose Altuve has better than average range. Both his range factor and his range factor per game were above average. But still, his fielding earned him -15.8 runs in 2012. Among ALL qualifying middle infielders, including shortstops, only one scored worse than -15.8 (Weeks). Heck, even Jeter scored better at -15.2. And that was despite Altuve coming in sixth in putouts and seventh in assists.

The problem, it seems for Altuve is he simply did not convert enough of his chances in the field. If you look at scouting reports, part of the problem seems to be his release is not quick enough and he doesn't have a strong enough arm. Then again, what would expect for an arm from a guy who is five foot, five inches tall?

Jose Altuve is not a bad offensive player. His offense rated at 5.9 runs above average and his base running rated at 4.2 runs above average. He did steal 33 bases, but he was thrown out on 11 attempts, which makes his success rate of 75% marginal. But he did score 80 runs for a team that was woeful on offense, so his on-base skills are noted here.

His patience at the plate improved a lot over the 55 games Altuve played in 2011. In that small sample size, his rate at swinging at pitches out of the strike zone was 41.3% according to PitchF/X. And he improved that to 29.4%. For a guy with Altuve's game, that needs to come down even more. But he hardly ever swings and misses. He did so at a remarkably low 4.1% in 2012.

Altuve hits his fair share of line drives at 20.2%, but he hits a lot of ground balls. His ground ball to fly ball rate is 1.94. That is extremely high on the ground ball side. His BABIP on those ground balls was .277, so it works out okay for him since the league average is .238. One interesting fact, though, is that since he hits so many ground balls, he only popped out to the infield two times in all of 2012. At least he isn't hitting into cheap outs.

All in all though, I probably could have done better with my choice, which shows I shouldn't perform a writing career change and focus on the roto world. But there is a flicker of hope. Two projection systems I looked at believe Altuve will continue to improve offensively while improving defensively to at least not so harmful. Apparently, that is the best I can hope for.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ian Desmond - regression candidate?

I participated Sunday night in my first ever fantasy mock draft with the folks from MLB Dirt and others noted for their skills in that realm. As such, I was a bit of a saltwater fish trying to adapt to a freshwater pond. I was pretty high on my shortstop, Ian Desmond, until I started to dig this morning into his numbers a little more closely. Once I did, his 2012 numbers looked a little suspicious and less likely to be repeated.

I liked Desmond when he appeared on the board because of his combination of power and speed. He stole 21 bases in 27 attempts, good for a 78% success rate. His base running is not a fluke. Base running hardly is. His success rate was his best as a professional player and that shows he is getting more selective and is more savvy with his steal attempts. And his attempts have been consistent since he came into the league as the Nationals starting shortstop. So half of what I wanted, I will get.

The power number is another thing. His first full season, Desmond's homer to fly ball rate was 7.7%. In his second full season in 2011, that number slid a little bit to 6.1%. That means that his first 1,224 plate appearances did not show any big power. He showed a little more pop in the minors, but not enough to expect what he did last year.

Suddenly, in 2013, Ian Desmond's homer to fly ball ratio jumped to over 18%. Whuh? This jump is reminiscent of the jump that Kirby Puckett made all those years ago when he went from a slap hitter to a home run hitter overnight. But how many Kirby Pucketts come along? Heck, now I'll have to do a study, but for now, my best guess is that such a jump after that many major league plate appearances seems a bit rare.

Without delving a bit deeper, and until proven otherwise if he can repeat that homer rate, his home run total seems a bit of a fluke.

Ian Desmond is not a patient hitter. He swung at 38% of pitches out of the strike zone in 2012. That was the nineteenth highest in baseball. His swing percentage of 54.6% was the seventh highest in baseball. So yeah, the guy goes up there to hack away. As such, his walk rate is a puny 5.5%. The point of stating all this is that any on-base value Desmond is going to have is based on his batting average. And since Desmond hit a good .292 last season, his .335 on-base percentage was at least respectable.

But there are two signs that his batting average had quite a bit of luck involved. First, Desmond hits a lot of ground balls. For his career, his ground ball to fly ball ratio is 1.58. That is plenty high on the ground ball side. That came down to 1.38 in 2012, but that still makes him a ground ball heavy batter. And when he hit the ball on the ground in 2012, his average on that batted ball type was .306.

.306!? Just to give you an idea on how inflated that sounds, the league average BABIP for ground balls is .238. Desmond beat that by 68 points! Perhaps he beats a lot of ball out. Perhaps he hits his ground balls hard. His career BABIP on ground balls is .271, so that is lower, but still over league average. The career average is much better to expect than a repeat of a .306 BABIP on ground balls.

The second marker of a much less successful 2013 season for Ian Desmond would be his success rate on his line drives. Ian Desmond does not hit a lot of line drives. His 17.9% on line drives was the twelfth lowest in baseball among qualified batters in 2012. And that line drive rate was the highest of his career, which has averaged a very low 16.8%. Line drives are obviously and easily the most successful batted balls of all and Desmond does not hit a lot of them.

But when he did hit a line drive in 2012, holy smokes was it effective. When Desmond hit a line drive in 2012, his average on such hit trajectories was .753 with a BABIP of .740. The league average on such hit trajectories is .718 and the league average BABIP was .709. To be fair, Desmond has done this his entire career so like his ground balls, he has beaten the average BABIPs on such hit trajectories for three seasons now.

But he never hit .292 before. From all these things talked about in this post, it seems reasonable to expect regression in 2013. Two projections consulted for this piece have his batting average to fall in the high .270s range with a drop in homers from 25 to either 18 or 20. And again, with his lack of patience at the plate, a drop in average will mean a drop in his overall offensive game since so much of his on-base average is based on his batting average.

The good news is that Ian Desmond has been improving as a shortstop in the field. He scored positive numbers there for the first time in 2012 and he has always had great instincts and a cannon for an arm. The Nationals are going to be a team to beat in the National League East and all Desmond has to do is hold down the shortstop position and any offense he brings is a bonus. But as I have found out, drafting him for fantasy purposes based on his 2012 numbers might have been kind of misguided.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My first ever roto draft and Joe Mauer

Thanks to my colleagues over at MLB Dirt, I participated last night in my first ever mock draft. I had no strategy since I had no clue what I was doing and I never anticipated it would last three hours. But it was fun and it was a good exercise for a baseball writer because it forces you to think about players at different positions and make value judgements as to their relative worth. I picked Verlander first and Sabathia second. That meant that most of the great hitters were unavailable. So I picked the best of what was left in each of the next ten rounds or so. By the end, I was pretty happy with my team. The bonus of the whole thing is that I now have twenty-four stories I can write, one for each of my players. Today's inaugural entry is on Joe Mauer.

I was able to pick Mauer very late in the draft. I think I got him in the sixth round or thereabouts. This just goes to show how far his stock with people has fallen since his MVP season in 2009. It is perhaps also a verdict at how low the Twins have fallen and nobody seems to pay any attention. But after looking at Joe Mauer's 2012 season with fresh eyes, what am I missing?

After all, the triple slash line is pretty darned impressive: .319/.416/.446. That was good for a 141 OPS+ in what has become a pitching era. His on-base percentage led the American League. We are not talking peanuts here.

Another part of the fall in perceptions is that he doesn't just catch anymore. He caught 74 games, DHed 42 games and played first base another 30. And most people think his value lies only because he is a catcher. As if. The guy, no matter where he was playing, got on base 41.6 percent of the time! valued his season at 4.1 rWAR. came in higher at 5.0. That is hardly invaluable. Others say his salary, which is huge, is only valid if he is a catcher. Well, maybe. But Fangraphs pegs his value last season at $22.5 million, just a slight hair under his $23 million salary.

I do not have any quibble with that though because of all the value he gave the Twins in those years before he was making big money. I know that's not the way the world works, but the way I think, if a player's overall career value is way above what he has made in his career, he has been worth every penny.

I have already mentioned his triple slash line for his 2012 season. His career line is now: .323/.405/.468. What we see in Joe Mauer is one of the best hitters of his generation. His season in 2009 was obviously an outlier. But it was in the same way that Wade Boggs' was in 1987. Few would not call Wade Boggs a Hall of Fame player. And right now, Mauer's career stats are very similar to Boggs. Oh Boggs will probably have a higher peak and Mauer still has to go through his regression years, but still. Joe Mauer has been fantastic.

Consider a couple of things. In today's strikeout happy baseball, Joe Mauer's career strikeout percentage at 10.4 is lower than his walk percentage of 12.3. And as far as the walk percentage, he is only getting better as his 14% in 2012 was the best of his career. For his career, Mauer has only swung at 20.3 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. For his career, he has swung and missed only 4.1 percent of the time. This is a remarkable hitter.

He is not going to hit 28 homers. So what? Put him on the Yankees and he is sung praises around the world. Put him on the Red Sox and he would be their best player and Nick Carfardo would have a good attitude.

Joe Mauer fell to me in a late round because he is an undervalued player. Because he plays for the Twins and because he doesn't wallop a bunch of homers, he isn't sexy? Because his hair always looks so nice, he has become a joke? Oh please. Just mark him down in 2013 for .320/.400/.450 because you know it is going to happen. He is one of the players of this generation people will talk about for a long time.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Vernon Wells - Anatomy of a career's death

Vernon Wells was drafted in the first round with the fifth overall pick of the 1997 draft. His first full season for the Toronto Blue Jays showed promise in 2002 when he drove in a hundred runs. His star exploded in 2003 when he led the league in hits, doubles and total bases. After two middling seasons in 2004 and 2005, he again had a terrific season in 2006. He rallied for decent seasons in 2008 and 2010. But he never became the superstar 2003 promised. His last two seasons have been so bad that Wells has become a symbol of sorts of what can go wrong with a career and a GM decision. What this post will attempt to show is that the signs were there all the time.

Toronto Blue Jays general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, was heralded as a genius when he was able to unload Wells on the Angels an off season move before the 2011 season. The move has probably been the most mocked trade since Babe Ruth. It cost then Angels' GM, Tony Reagins, his career and led to the hiring of Dipoto. Dipoto, who has a reputation for using the new metrics from the analytic world most likely have never done the Wells deal if he was in office at the time.

And that is because there have been signs since 2004 that Vernon Wells had serious flaws in this game. In his early years (2002, 2003), Wells had good line drive rates which led to league average BABIP rates. But the flaw of his game in those years was a lack of taking walks. In his first three seasons, his walk rates were 4.9, 4.2 and 5.7 percent respectively.

His walk rates rose by a couple of points in subsequent seasons while his career lost some of its luster. So that really is not a smoking gun even though his last three seasons have seen his walk rates again plummet and even worse, his O-Swing rates rise dramatically.

What Tony Reagins should have seen and what Alex Anthopoulos undoubtedly saw was that there were several items in Wells' stats that showed that a little less bat speed would accelerate these hidden problems to the point that he would start tumbling to the point of uselessness.

Okay, these stats have been hinted at for long enough. Let's get to them. Two of them are striking. The first is that since 2004 and with a minimum of 5,000 plate appearances, Vernon Wells has had the highest infield popup rate in baseball. There is nobody even close. Damon is second and almost a percentage point and a half behind Wells. And this is not something that is new in Wells' career that suddenly rears its head. It has always been there. Wells never had a season where this rate was less than 12.2% and most years it was much higher. His career rate is 16.3% and that is what it has been since 2004.

It was mentioned earlier in this piece that Wells started his career with good line drive percentages. His first full season of 2002 showed a line drive percentage of 24.4% and his terrific season of 2003 showed a line drive percentage of 21.6%. But starting in 2004, his line drive proficiency dried up. And again, if we look at all players since 2004 with at least 5,000 plate appearances, nobody has a lower line drive percentage than Vernon Wells. Since 2004, his line drive percentage is 16.6%. And since 2009, his line drive percentages have been particularly woeful: 14.8, 15.9, 12.3 and 15.7.

Though those line drive percentages have been particularly bad in the last four years, the signs started way back in 2004 as they never again came close to his 2002 and 2003 seasons.

Add the low line drive percentage to the high popup to the infield percentage and you have a recipe for a low BABIP and again, continuing the theme of looking at 2004 to today and nobody with 5,000 plate appearances since that time have had a lower BABIP than Vernon Wells.

Combine a low BABIP, low line drive percentage, high popup rate and the fact that he puts a lot of balls in play thanks to low walk and strikeout rates and you have a recipe for the death of a once promising career.Wells had once improved his plate discipline to respectable levels but in the last three years, that discipline has gone out the window meaning even less good contact than before.

These numbers put the nail in two coffins. The first was Reagins' who should have seen these and the second was in the Blue Jays before Anthopoulos who gave him this massive, intractable contract that makes the whole story worse.

The Angels have tried to shop Wells all winter. But in today's day and age with analysts in front offices, nobody is going to make the same mistake the Angels did. They are stuck with a player who once looked like he was heading to a superstar career. Instead, he turned into the conversation of worst trades and contracts of all time.