Saturday, December 08, 2012

Vance Worley a nice move by the Twins

After trading Denard Span to the Nationals earlier in the off season, it seemed rather odd that the Minnesota Twins would also trade his replacement, Ben Revere. However, the Twins improved their present rotation with Vance Worley in the deal and also received a decent prospect in Trevor May. With the myriad of problems the Twins had last season, the pitching was the largest problem and Worley should be a nice improvement.

To be honest, Revere for Worley straight up would have been a good deal for the Twins. To get May in the deal as well is a bonus. You might not agree from casually looking at Worley's statistics for 2012. A 6-9 record with a 4.20 ERA and 1.511 WHIP hardly seems like an improvement for the Twins who gave up more hits as a pitching staff in 2012 than any other American League team. The Twins also finished next to last in runs allowed and homers allowed and were dead last in strikeouts.

But sometimes you have to go deeper than those surface stats to see the bigger picture. The linked article at the top of this post indicated that Worley battled most of the year with a bone chip in his elbow. The chip was removed in a September operation that ended Worley's season. If you look closely at Worley's numbers, you can see the effect of the injury in his pitching.

For example, His velocity was down slightly and his slider went from being a very good pitch for him in 2011 to being terrible in 2012. His fastball also went from 10.2 runs above average in 2011 (7.3 according to PitchF/X) to -0.6 in 2012 (-3.1 for PitchF/X). Clearly, the elbow problem had to figure into some of the loss of effectiveness in those pitches.

The clearest indicator of the problem came with how he fared against left-handed batters. In 2011, he held left-handed batters to a triple slash line of: .201/.271/.299. Those numbers went silly in 2012 and against those same sided batters, his triple slash line was: .312/.386/.462.

One last indicator of how the injury affected his pitching: In 2012, batters across the board had better plate discipline against Worley last season. During his cup of coffee season in 2010 and his larger season of 2011, batters would swing at 28 percent of Worley's pitches out of the strike zone. That number fell off to 26.4 percent in 2012. It seems pretty clear that Worley was not as able to fool batters last year as he did the year before.

Even so, Worley's season was not quite as bad as it looked. His ERA was 4.20 but his FIP was 3.85. His xFIP and SIERA were also lower than his actual ERA. Some luck had to be involved too as his BABIP rose to an extremely high .340 after finishing at .283 the season before. Also consider that in all nine of Worley's losses, the Phillies scored two runs or less.

What should we expect from Vance Worley in 2013? His strikeout rate should remain nearly the same. His 7.2 rate per nine in that category was almost a full strikeout less than his 2011 rate. But that will be offset from not pitching to pitchers every nine at bats. His three-plus walks per nine should improve as the Twins really emphasize that aspect. His OPS against at home last year was a ghastly .861 compared to .739 on the road. With friendlier dimensions at Target Field, those numbers should improve.

The key for the Twins will be how well Worley bounces back after his surgery. If his pitches return to the bite of 2011, then they will have made one heck of a deal. But even if he pitches to his 2012 numbers, which seems hardly likely, he will be better than three of the five rotations spots the Twins were throwing out there last season.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Fun with Randy Choate

The Cardinals have signed the ultimate LOOGY and got Scrabble a playmate. Randy Choate is a Cardinal. And not only is the 37 year old going to be the other "left-handed specialist" for the St. Louis club for 2013, his contract is for three years.

Now how can you call Choate the ultimate LOOGY? After all, there was Tony Fossas and Graeme Lloyd and Alan Embree that came before Choate. But Choate has taken things to the extreme. How so? How does this grab you? Of all the pitchers in history that have pitched in 475 or more games--and there have been 197 of them all told--none have pitched less total innings than Randy Choate's 309.

"But, William," you might ask, "a lot of those guys pitched in more games, right?" Well, yes, that's right. But it doesn't end there. All of those 197 pitchers and their innings pitched and games were moved over to a spreadsheet. Then the innings pitched were divided by the games. And of all those 197 pitchers, only one other pitcher had fewer innings pitched per outing.

Mike Myers pitched from 1995 to 2007 and averaged .613 innings per outing. Randy Choate has averaged .649 innings pitched per outing. So you could call Myers the king perhaps. But Randy Choate is right there.

But it goes beyond even that. Take Randy Choate's 2012 (Please!): Choate became the only pitcher in baseball history that pitched in more than 75 games in a single season and compiled less than 40 total innings. He actually pitched 80 times and 38.2 innings.

And there is more. Randy Choate is the only pitcher in history who made at least 80 appearances in a season and compiled less than 45 innings pitched. And he has done it twice! There was last season and he also did it in 2010.

But there is a reason, perhaps, why Choate continues to make a decent living. Of all the 197 pitchers who have more than 475 outings, none of them have given up less hits and less homers than Randy Choate. He has made up for the hit stat a bit by giving up too many walks in his career, but even so, that is pretty impressive.

Except Randy Choate is not impressive. His fastball zips in there at 86 MPH. His slider at 76 MPH is slower than most pitchers' curves. Even so, his career OPS allowed against left-handed batters is .563. For his career, left-handed batters have batted .201 with a .278 on-base percentage. His work against lefties would compare to a 68 OPS+. That's pretty amazing.

And yet, batters from the right side have gotten on base against him at a .404 clip. That kind of split has created what he has become. And what he has become is a guy who only faces lefties and if he ever faces a right-handed batter, it is by accident. 52 batters got that pleasure in 2012 and reached base at a .474 clip.

That is Randy Choate in a nutshell. He is the ultimate "left-handed relief specialist." And while people snicker at the longevity of his career and the slop he throws up there, he makes a very good living just the same and really does have the last laugh..

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Why so many bad hitters become hitting coaches

The thought about hitting coaches has been rolling around inside the noggin for quite a while and was crystallized last night at the news the Cardinals were seeking to make Bengie Molina their assistant hitting coach. Molina played thirteen years and was not a terrible hitter. Molina, one of the slowest players ever to play baseball even hit for the cycle once while visiting Fenway Park. But Molina had several flaws. First, he was allergic to walks. Second, he hit into a lot of double plays. These batting flaws made him a valued catcher who could hit a little bit. Now he is going to coach hitting.

Think about some of the more famous hitting coaches. There is Rudy Jaramillo, most recently of the Cubs and the longtime guru of hitting for the Rangers. Jaramillo played three seasons in the minors and finished with a career there of .679. Kevin Long, the respected hitting coach of the Yankees, played eight years in the minors and finished his career there with a .710 OPS. He hit a wall in Triple-A where he compiled an OPS of .595 in 471 plate appearances.

In fact, other than Mark McGwire, few hitting coaches could hit their own way out of a paper bag. So why then do they get where they are?

The most obvious reason is that great hitters get rich while they are playing and have no need to coach once they are done. This is a relatively modern phenomenon. No players got really rich before the Marvin Miller days and even the good ones would hang around the game. But say you make $100 million in your career? There is no need to coach then, is there?. Wade Boggs tried it for a year with the Rays. That was it.

And so the bulk of your coaches come from the rank and file baseball lifers. Kevin Long has been around forever as has Jaramillo. But can you be a good hitting coach if you couldn't hit yourself? Yes, well probably. It is often easier to see flaws in someone else than it is to feel your own body screwing up. Baseball lifers have been around coaches for years and pick up things along the way. So it makes sense from that perspective.

But it seems to be unique with baseball. For example, in real life, you wouldn't go to learn piano from someone who couldn't play the piano. Apprentices have long studied under masters. Sure, the apprentice can someday far outshine the master when gifted. But that has been the way it has worked for ions.

But in baseball, the coaching of millions of dollars of batting talent is left to guys who had no talent of their own. It's just weird. Of course, there are many experts that wonder if coaches have any positive or negative effect on their teams anyway. Kevin Long's prize pupil, Curtis Granderson, made Long look like a genius in 2011 but a dunce in 2012. That's baseball and players go in funks and on streaks no matter what a coach may do. At least that is what some people say.

Once the dust settles and teams fully hire their coaching staffs, we'll rate the teams according to the career of their hitting coach. Suffice it to say McGwire will probably top that list. But until then, let's leave you with some Twitter musings on where this post started. Say Bengie Molina coached his hitters on the way he played. What would that sound like? Maybe something like this:

Bengie Molina as a hitting coach: "You think hitting Kershaw is tough? Try doing it with fingers bent like pretzels."

Bengie Molina as a hitting coach: "Don't hit a line drive to an outfielder, cuz then they can throw you out at first base."

Bengie Molina as a hitting coach: "Shoot, I framed more strikes for my pitcher than I ever took in my life."

Bengie Molina as hitting coach: "Don't worry about that plate discipline crap. As long as you swing and miss less than 10%, you're fine."

Bengie Molina as hitting coach: "Being in tip top shape is overrated. Look at me! I played thirteen years."

Bengie Molina as a hitting coach: "Hit the ball on the ground. You can make two outs for the price of one and keep your pitcher in rhythm."

Bengie Molina as a hitting coach: "Swing at everything. Be aggressive."

Monday, December 03, 2012

Hanson just adds to the Angels' rotation question marks

The Angels of a year ago went into the season with their rotation feted as the strength of the team. Yes, they went out and got Pujols, and no one knew Trout was going to explode the way he did. The rotation was what impressed everyone. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana were considered a formidable top four and Jerome Williams was a cut above for a fifth starter. But the rotation did not work out as most expected.

Weaver was as good as ever, but Haren had health problems and was not as effective after the early part of the season. Wilson seemed rather ordinary for most of the season and Santana struggled early and often in the season. Jerome Williams could not stay healthy. And even Zack Greinke picked up late in the season could not help the team reach the playoffs in what has become a very tough division.

With Haren, Santana and Greinke all gone this off season, the Angels needed to rebuild a bit and Tommy Hanson ended up being their target. Knowing the Angels, they might not be done working to improve themselves, but Hanson was a pretty bold statement. After all, Hanson is only 25 years old and started his career with three straight seasons with a WHIP of under 1.2.

But Hanson adds another layer of question marks. He did not have the same sort of season for the Braves last season. His WHIP ballooned to 1.454 and for the first time in his career, he gave up more hits than innings pitched. He also gave up home runs at an alarming rate.

The Angels really did not give up much to get Hanson. Jordan Walden will cross the river to get baptized in someone else's pond. He joins an already deep bullpen for the Braves. But he had lost his closer role to Ernesto Frieri and it was apparent that the Angels did not trust him on the mound.

Knowing the little return the Braves allowed themselves to unload Hanson, you have to wonder about the pitcher the Angels are now counting on as the third guy in their rotation. The real big deal you notice right off the bat with Hanson is that he has lost three miles per hour on his fastball since 2010. The loss of velocity was shown across all of his pitches. Combine those facts with one strikeout per nine less in 2012 compared to 2011 and you see a few flags fly up.

From this perspective, the Angels have too many question marks in the rotation behind Weaver. Wilson just doesn't often seem that impressive and his numbers for the Angels were just a tick above ordinary. There are red flags with Hanson. Garrett Richards is pegged as number four and has not blown anyone away in either the high minors or in his two cups of coffee. Round out the thing with Jerome Williams and his hard sinker.

The good news is that the Angels have not given up much to get Hanson. But the not so good news is that Hanson is not someone to be overly excited about either. There are only three possibilities here. Either Hanson was not healthy and can get his velocity back. Or he is still not healthy. Or, finally, that at twenty-five, we've already seen the best of what Hanson has had to offer. The Angels are hoping that the first possibility is the one that they get.