Saturday, November 26, 2011

New Post Up Over at MLBDirt

Hey folks. This writer has a major show today and tomorrow. As such, the Fan could only write one piece and it's over at MLBDirt. Enjoy and see you tomorrow.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Jonny Venters - A Danger to Worms Everywhere

Jonny Venters is a walking, talking anomaly. And it isn't just because he spells his first name funny. In two years pitching out of the bullpen for the Atlanta Braves, Venters has allowed 410 ball hit in play (not including bunts). In those 410 balls in play, 290 have been hit on the ground. Being a worm that lives in the infield of Turner Field has to be a terrifying prospect. Venters leads the majors in ground balls percentage over the past two years at 70.5 percent. His teammate, Peter Moylan, is second at 69.2 percent. Nobody else is even close.

In simplistic terms, the trajectory of a batted ball can affect a batter's success. There are a lot more factors as a comment by Robbie Knopf on another recent post correctly suggests. The speed of the ball off the bat makes a difference too. What is counted as a line drive can be just as much a soft hump-backer to the shortstop as it can be a rope into the gap. But in general and simplistic terms, it's pretty hard to hit a ground ball into a homer. Perhaps an inside the park homer is possible, but if a batter hits the ball on the ground, it isn't going to go over the fence.

A ground ball has to be fielded of course. And that is often out of the pitcher's hands. But if you induce ground balls, good things can happen. They've happened a lot for Jonny Venters. The Braves have leaned on him heavily.  He led all relievers in appearances in 2011 with 85. The year before, Venters pitched in 79 games. The Braves were criticized at the end of 2011 for burning out the bullpen, but when you have the likes of Venters, Moylan, Kimbrel and O'Flaherty at your disposal, it must be a hard temptation to resist. And Venters has been amazingly reliable in his first two years in the majors.

Venters' numbers are eye-popping. In his two years, his ERA has been 1.95 and 1.84 respectively. He's given up only three homers in 171 innings of work for an astounding 0.2 homers per nine inning rate. He's only given up six hits per nine innings and was even stingier in that category in 2011 with a 5.4 rate. Venters has fanned batters at a 9.9 per nine inning clip for his short career. His only statistic that is a detriment is his 82 walks, good for a 4.3 walks per nine rate. He's also hit 13 batters, so his control could be better. His walks are one reason for his FIP to come in at 2.74 or +.85 for his career. But geez, you'll take that from a reliever, right? Especially when 22 of his 206 base runners have been erased with double plays.

But there is more. While the high ground ball rate limits fly balls, Jonny Venters also does a great job of limiting line drives. Batters against him only delivered a 13.7 percent line drive rate against him in 2011 and his career rate is 14.4 percent in that category. League average during that time span is 18.7 percent. Venters' WPA was an excellent 4.28 which means he shared a good part of win probability for the Braves whenever he pitched. Is Venters' low BABIP rate for his career of .264 a product of his lack of line drives and large numbers of ground balls or just luck? It would easy to argue the former. 

If 70.5 percent of Venters' balls allowed in play result in a .221 batting average against and a .245 slugging percentage, that means that eight out of ten batters against him are going to lead to good results (the other one being a strikeout). Indeed, Venters has been favored by a .530 OPS against for his career. Amazing.

While it remains to be seen how the stress of all those appearances will work against Venters in the long run, what we've seen from him in his two years in the majors has been remarkable. If he can withstand the high usage and continue getting pitch values of 12 runs above average on his fastball and 11.9 runs above average on his slider, we can continue to expect a bunch of worms to be traumatized for years to come.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tipping the Cap to Bruce Chen

After thirteen years in the big leagues, the Panamanian-born Bruce Chen finally got the payday of his life. Chen signed a two year deal with the Kansas City Royals valued at $9 million with another million and a half in attainable performance bonuses. Chen has been worth (according to Fangraphs) $12.4 million to the Royals over the last two seasons and though it was better for the Royals to get that kind of performance at a couple of million a season instead of perhaps five and a half, the Royals could still come out ahead in this deal so it's hard to fault the team for making it. After all, someone has to pitch for the Royals and Chen has gotten the job done for them over a two year span and while the Royals' line up has come alive with new blood, the rotation has continued to struggle. At least Chen gives them a decent chance to win on most nights.

And that's why you have to tip your cap to the guy. He's an anti-analyst hero. Again, just so this writer doesn't get into hot water, that isn't a slam on analysts, but a smile for a guy that just doesn't get his share of outs in the typically loved way. Chen will zip his two-seam fastball up to the plate at an 84 MPH clip. He doesn't strike out a lot of guys and he doesn't have pinpoint control. His homer per nine inning rate has never been pretty. Without the blow-them-away stuff, he doesn't induce a ton of ground balls. More of his batted ball are hit into the air. Several have compared Bruce Chen to Jamie Moyer (here's one) and the comparison is apt. Old school baseball folks would call him a "crafty left-hander."

The Royals are Bruce Chen's tenth team. A little more than half of his 317 career appearances have been starts. Chen has never been spectacular. At times he's been absolutely brutal. He's pitched for Bobby Cox, Terry Francona and Bobby Valentine but he's never pitched in the post season. His career ERA+ is almost average. His career Game Score is exactly average. He's had four seasons where his fWAR was over one and four where it was in the negative category. He's the typical journeyman who has finally found a home with the Kansas City Royals and after a series of one year contracts, finally has a multi-year deal.

So yeah, Bruce Chen has defied the odds. He has hung in there and taken his lumps. He's never been great but has sometimes been pretty good. And after all this time and after all that moving around, Bruce Chen has found a home and will get paid a pretty good amount of money. Good for you, Bruce Chen. Good for you.

A Thanksgiving Story

Today is Thanksgiving. It's a day to sit back and give thanks for the many good things you've experienced in your life. It's a time to enjoy family and good food and perhaps a football game. The day is a good reminder to step back and think about things. After saying all that...why are you here reading this thing? Okay, this Fan will give you the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps you did a Google Search on the Thanksgiving story. Maybe you want to know what this day is all about. This is the Thanksgiving story.

Once upon a time there were a group of people who once lived in the most powerful place on earth. Their voices were heard by massive amounts of people. As such, they became the keepers of the narrative. They didn't just report the story, they became part of the story. These leaders drove the story. Painting pictures with cultured prose, they plied their craft and held onto a few cherished ideas. A pitcher was judged by how many games he won and batters were judged by how many runs they drove home and by their batting average. The narrative was about the nobleness of the contests and about clutch performances. They weren't just the keepers of these precepts, they were the guardians of the truth.

And then there was a famine across the land. They found themselves in a shrinking world of slow sales and new ideas. The New World was the Internet and over in that place, there was bounty and freedom unheard of in the Old World these leaders came from. This New World was where people were spending their hard earned money now. Few people preferred newspapers anymore. Temples like the Sporting News were toppling as Internet content started starving out the leaders of the old world. Churches of the old world were closing in record numbers. Industry analysts predicted only gloom and doom.

Finally, these old world leaders felt they had no choice but to hop on a ship to the New World. They sailed the Mayflower to the New World and continued to try to write articles instead of posts. And once they landed in the New World, they found the natives.

These natives knew the New World. It wasn't new to them. Armed with spreadsheets and web design savvy, they could build a fire without a tinder box. They understood the landscape and how to search and be searched. Their methods were strange to the old world leaders and they had different deities than batting average and wins. It was sacrilegious. And at first, the old world leaders didn't want anything to do with them. 

The old world leaders settled near the open waters and build their settlements based on their previous ideas. They built new churches and created towns. But they couldn't survive that first winter. They were starving. They wanted to get paid for their content like in the old world. But in the New World, nobody believed in money. And the natives didn't care. Their livelihoods weren't based on their strange ideas. They already lived off the fruits of other labors. Some of the chiefs in the New World took pity on the old world leaders and tried to help them. The chiefs tried logic. They had pow wows with the old world leaders. But the chiefs and their people would never be anything but unwashed heathen. The old world leaders accepted the smallest of help but held rigid in their precepts. They became the Puritans and turned their noses up at the chiefs and the native people.

And this is where the story gets interesting. Because in this Thanksgiving story, the Puritans did not take over the New World. And they never would. The native people grew numerous and simply organized. Their mobility in the rough terrain was more nimble. The Puritans became outnumbered on a massive scale. They became walled in their fortresses of piety. The New World natives would forget about them and joke at the old world leaders' expense. The New World natives had tools that couldn't be defeated. When the tools weren't perfect, they tinkered with them and made them better. Heck, even a pitcher with one win over .500 won a Cy Young Award.

The Puritans held onto the wrong ideas. The New World natives knew that batting average meant little and neither did wins by a starting pitcher. Clutch was often random and small sample sizes were to be ignored. Data ruled the New World. And anyone with just a little sense could understand these New World ideas. Because they made sense. Oh, a few of the old world leaders were smart enough to adapt. The rest will die off of starvation and neglect. They may rant from a rooftop with what's left of their strength but few people are listening.

And so it was that even a poor native in the far-flung reaches of what became northern Maine could through the snow and ice find a way to attract over eleven thousand people to his tepee each month. While certainly not the sharpest tool in the native shed, this native is wise enough to not build a foundation on sand and stand rigid on ideas only partly understood. This New World still has a lot to teach us and this native will continue to strive to learn as many pathways through this land as possible.

For those of you who stop by to hear this old native speak, much thanks is given. To be able to write about something so loved is a wonderful thing. To be able to reach an audience is truly amazing and thanksgiving is every day. There is also much thanks to other natives that write so well and teach this old native so much. For one thing this old native understands is that art exists in the New World just as much as it did in the old world. And a powerful artist will always be appreciated.

Perhaps this retelling of an old story didn't hold true to the original. But it's this Fan's Thanksgiving story and this is this Fan's place. And that's the whole grand idea in the first place. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wade LeBlanc and Line Drives

Just to illustrate how slim news is about Major League Baseball around Thanksgiving, this writer finds himself writing about John Baker and Wade LeBlanc. The catcher and pitcher (respectively) were swapped in a deal between the San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins yesterday. Baker was an effective offensive player for the Marlins in 2008 and 2009 but scored weakly on defense as far as we can tell from catching defensive metrics. Baker underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and is trying to build back to his previous levels. The Marlins have already moved on in the catching department which made Baker expendable. But Baker is only 30 as a catcher when that position stays in relatively high demand so he could help the Padres. But Wade LeBlanc?

The catch phrase when LeBlanc pitched in 2011 was, "Duck!" Batted ball trajectories have been tracked since 2002 and since that time, no pitcher in baseball has thrown at least 70 innings in a season and has given up the 32.8 percent line drives LeBlanc gave up in 2011. Think about that for a second. Almost one out of every three batters that put the ball in play off of Wade LeBlanc hit a rope somewhere. Why is this a bad thing? The average of all major league pitchers (in 130,940 balls in play) in 2011 was 18.7 percent line drives allowed. Why is this important? Because the collective OPS for major league batters on all line drives in 2011 was 1.689 with a batting average of .722 (!) and a slugging percentage of .971. Yikes! In other words, line drives will kill you. Line drives are how most hitters get paid.

Certainly, this can be a fluke statistic. LeBlanc's line drive percentages each season since 2008 go like this: 21.9 percent, 16.7 percent, 19.2 percent and then the 32.8 percent last year. But there is enough other stuff to paint a bleak pitcher picture. LeBlanc has a career ERA of 4.54 and a FIP of 4.85 despite pitching half his games in a pitchers park in San Diego his entire career. His home run per nine inning rate for his career is 1.35. That's not good. His hits per nine rate for his career stands at 9.4 and his career WHIP is 1.425.

And those numbers just mentioned are pretty compared to LeBlanc's away splits. Wade LeBlanc has a career ERA at San Diego of 2.97. On the road, his ERA for his career is 6.16. Oof. To top it all off, LeBlanc isn't a power arm and he isn't a finesse pitcher. He has historically only struck out batters at a 6.29 per nine clip. In 2011, that figure fell to 5.76. A guy with a fastball around 86.6 MPH needs to throw strikes, right? But LeBlanc has a career walks per nine of 3.47.

Add it all up and LeBlanc isn't a very good pitcher. That he's pitched parts of four years in the majors might be chalked up to the Padres selecting him in the second round once upon a time and the fact that he throws from the left side. In 291 career innings, Wade LeBlanc has a fWAR of -0.3 and an OPS+ of 81. The Marlins must have seen something they like to trade for him. But for this observer, right-handed pitchers who throw like Wade LeBlanc don't last as long as left-handers do. And if he has another season for the Marlins in 2012 like he did for the Padres in 2011, the Marlins' fielders better put some extra padding in their gloves just in case.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jacoby Ellsbury Still This Fan's MVP

Congratulations to Justin Verlander for winning both the Cy Young Award and the MVP. His award is not without justification and will not go down in history as some kind of stupid vote. This writer simply feels that Jacoby Ellsbury had a season unlike few others in Major League history. That's why he was this writer's Stan Musial Award pick for the BBA. Jose Bautista won the award for the BBA and there was really no screaming at that result either.

This writer simply thinks that Jacoby Ellsbury had no peers in 2011. His combination of 30 homers, 30 stolen bases, 100+ runs scroed, 100+ RBI has only been done 33 times in baseball since 1901. Add in more than 45 doubles and now you are talking about something only seven players have done. Add in his 200+ hits and that's something only four players have ever done. Plus Ellsbury played nearly flawless in the field in 2011.

As good as Verlander was--and he was outstanding--and as good as Jose Bautista was, Jacoby Ellsbury was the most valuable player of 2011.

Nathan Signing Comes With Marginal Risk

The Texas Rangers again struck hot in the free agent market by signing Joe Nathan, the former Twins' closer to a two year $14.5 million contract. The move is not about Neftali Feliz's problems closing out Game Six of the World Series. If anything, Joe Nathan's post season record is even spottier than Feliz's. This is not about Feliz not having enough "steel" in big moments as Jon Heyman suggested in a tweet last night. Feliz is hardly the first closer to give up a series-clinching opportunity. Even the great Mariano has done that. This is more a deal about wanting Feliz to start games instead of close them. But the move is not without risk.

There is little risk for adding Joe Nathan as your closer. Last year was his first off of Tommy John surgery and Nathan struggled out of the box. But that is normal in having to build up the trust in his elbow and the strength needed to throw the ball 95 MPH. Nathan showed in the second half of last year that he was all the way back to form. His strikeout to walk ratio in the second half was at 4.40, higher than any of his salad days except for 2006 when he was nearly unhittable. Nathan's second half OPS against was .654. His fastball wasn't quite back to where it was in 2009 in either velocity or movement. But with another winter to build up his strength, he should be back to 2009 levels (although he is 37 years old).

Nathan needs to be nearly as good as he was in 2009 to earn his salary, so that's a pretty minimal risk. The risk is basically replacing C.J. Wilson, a proven commodity with Neftali Feliz, who hasn't started since he was a very young prospect in the Rangers' minor league system. The Rangers have had terrific success converting relievers to starters the last two season. C.J. Wilson made the move two years ago and has gone 31-15 since while compiling 10.5 fWAR. Then in 2011 Alexi Ogando made the switch and compiled 3.6 fWAR covering 29 starts and two relief appearances. Most importantly, Ogando maintained his velocity during the course of the season.

So the Rangers do have a track record of making this happen successfully. If they can hit the jackpot again with Feliz in the rotation in 2012, they basically trade Wilson's $20 million (if his asking price is to believed) salary for about $8 million for both Nathan and Feliz combined. If it all works out perfectly, then the Rangers won't lose too much performance and save themselves $14 million a year. Not a bad thing.

If Feliz can't make the transition successfully, then they might toast one of the best arms in their system. The Rangers sill have Scott Feldman under contract for one more season and Feldman could be more than adequate in the rotation as a Plan B. Feldman mitigates some of the risk and if it doesn't work out for Feliz, too many arms in the bullpen isn't exactly a bad thing. If Feliz can successfully make the switch, Feldman will make nice trade bait for needed pieces.

At least the Rangers are being aggressive and going after what they want. Jon Daniels did a good job of not terribly overpaying Nathan, especially with the market prices we've seen lately. The move allows him to keep from bidding against himself for Wilson's services and cushions the loss if Wilson signs elsewhere. Not a bad day's work for one of the best general managers in the business.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chase Utley's Alarming 2011

The 2009 World Series is still fresh in the mind of this Fan. The Yankees beat the Phillies, of course, in that series, but Chase Utley was on top of the world. He hit five homers that series and seemed unstoppable. The post season of 2009 was the icing on the cake for Chase Utley who might have been the best player in the majors in 2008 and 2009. He could field like few others at second. He hit for power. He walked a lot. He was a fantastic runner on the bases. He could do it all. Flash forward two years to 2011 and there are serious concerns about what kind of player Chase Utley is now and will be in the coming seasons.

Utley's situation after two injury plagued seasons is at a crossroads. Sure, he was still a valuable player in 2011. In only 103 games played, he still compiled a 3.9 fWAR (2.9 bWAR and 2.9 bWARP on the other two sites) and you could project that out over a full season and still have a terrific player. But you do have to figure durability into valuation equations and Utley has only played 115 games in 2010 and 103 in 2011. He was still very good in the field and on the base paths, which helped add value. But he was far from the hitter he was in 2008 and 2009.

The question that will need to be answered is how much his injuries contributed to his batting decline and if he will bounce back for more healthy campaigns moving forward. With Ryan Howard perhaps missing a large chunk of time in 2012 and the unsure status of free agent, Jimmy Rollins, Utley's return to form is a key to the Phillies this coming season. Sure, the Phillies have that golden rotation. But they do have to score once in a while. Utley in some ways symbolizes the Phillies' offense the past three years. In 2009, when Utley was flying, the Phillies finished second in the National League in OPS. In 2010 they fell to fifth. In 2011, they fell to seventh.

There really wasn't any part of Utley's offense in 2011 that provoked optimism. His ability to take a walk was still very good and led to a .344 OBP, but even that ability was down a bit from his career norms (8.6 percent in 2011 compared to the 9.7 of his career). His ISO of .169 and .166 the past two years respectively do not compare well to his .215 career average or to the .236 and .244 rates he put up in 2008 and 2009. His wOBA was down forty points last season from his career norm. Utley's offense has always shown some favorable home splits but he was still terrific on the road too. His home/road splits in 2011 were much more extreme with a slugging percentage of .508 at home and .343 on the road.

There is one fluky number that really jumps off Utley's Fangraphs page. And this statistic may be totally due to his thumb injury. The statistic is Utley's line drive percentage. Utley for his career has hovered between 18.5 percent and 24.3 percent. His career line drive percentage is excellent at 20.2 percent. So then look at his 2011 number of 12.7 percent and it just makes your jaw drop. For all 2011 players with more than 400 plate appearances, only Vernon Wells had a lower line drive percentage than Chase Utley. That simply has to show that something was vastly wrong with Utley in 2011.

The other glaring number was his home run to fly ball percentage. Utley's career norm in that category is 12.8 percent. That means that 12.8 percent of all the fly balls Utley has hit in his career have gone over the wall. That figure tumbled to 6.7 percent in 2011.

Chase Utley will be 33 years old in December. He's already beyond his peak years. Regression is to be expected, but injuries have sped up that regression in an alarming way. The Phillies are on the hook for $15.3 million for Utley the next two seasons. If Utley can be 90 percent of the player he was in 2008 and 2009, he can certainly earn those dollars. But after his last two seasons and particularly his 2011 season, it will be interesting to see if Utley can pull it together and again take his place as among the elite second basemen in baseball.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jason Heyward's Lost Season

The Atlanta Braves do not seem to be taking the kind of heat for their September collapse that the Boston Red Sox are taking, but it was just as bad. For fans, it was head scratching because they should have been a juggernaut right through the season. But a sub-par season from Dan Uggla didn't help after the high expectations there. What few realize is that Jason Heyward was worse...much worse than Dan Uggla. Heyward's collapse is notable when you think back to the start of 2010 when he was the talk of baseball. He was the next big thing. He made the All Star team his rookie season. He was going to be a super star. So what happened?

The obvious fact is that he hurt his shoulder and the balky wing joint totally messed up his mechanics. There were whispers on Twitter that he had developed into the worse swing in baseball. His final 2011 slash line of .222/.319/.389 doesn't come close to showing how badly his season went. To get the total picture, you have to dig deeper into the numbers.

What numbers? Let's start with his line drive percentage of 13.1 percent, the third lowest in baseball for players in 2011 with 400 or more plate appearances. How about his infield fly ball rate of 21.8 percent which was the highest in baseball for all players in 2011 with 400 or more plate appearances. Add in his ground ball rate of 53.9 percent, the twelfth highest in baseball and you have a recipe for a lost season for a player that was supposed to be the next superstar. Heyward put the ball in play 328 times and 187 of them were either ground balls or weak pop ups. That's 57 percent of his balls in play. Add in his 20.4 percent strikeout rate and you have a much bleaker picture than his slash line would ever give you.

It got so ugly during the season that Heyward's manager, Fredi Gonzalez, benched Heyward for several games in favor of the great Jose Constanza. The only positive side to Heyward's season was his continued terrific defense in right field and his base running skills. Those two positives at least made him a 2.2 fWAR player despite his batting woes. But certainly, a 2.2 WAR isn't what the Atlanta Braves were hoping for after his 5.1 fWAR season in 2010, another season abbreviated a bit by injuries.

Heyward is aware of his predicament. The once top prospect in baseball has been whispered in trade rumors this off season. He needs to turn things around in 2012. An article over at (which inspired this post) seems to show that he is committed to returning to form and that's a good thing. Heyward seems mature enough to understand that if he wants to succeed at the major league level, he has to work for it. This author admires his dedication and his positive attitude. But as always, the proof will be in the pudding in how he bounces back in 2012.

There are two things of concern though. The first is that he has a manager who does not believe in him. Even when Heyward was in the line up, he was frequently in the bottom third of it. The second is that either he didn't have coaching he needed to correct glaring flaws in his swing, or Heyward wasn't coachable enough to listen. Without inside access, the answer is unknown to which is the case. This author would speculate the former rather than the latter. But that is merely a guess.

The optimistic news for the Braves is that Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward played far below their ability in 2011. If both players return to form, the Braves could be a much better team without making any moves at all. It would be like trading for two great players. As a Fan of the game who got all excited when Jason Heyward made his baseball debut, it is hoped that Jason Heyward can get back to being the outstanding player he appeared to be in the first half of 2010. Heyward is important to baseball and he is important to the Atlanta Braves.