Saturday, January 19, 2013

A cause and a blogger worth supporting

Many of us who write about baseball are aware of and appreciate Michael Clair and his blog, "Old Time Family Baseball." It is one of the quirkiest, different sites in the baseball realm. But Michael also has a view beyond the baseball diamond and to the world at large.

For the second straight year, Michael is running a "blogathon" to help raise money for Doctors Without Borders, a wonderful organization that helps people around the world. Last year, Michael raised $2,000 and this year he is shooting for $3,000. 

Not only does Michael runs posts every half hour over a 24 hour period, but he also has solicited the help of bloggers from around the country to "donate" posts for the cause. I was privileged to participate and I'm sure my contribution will appear sometime during the day tomorrow.

Do your old Fan a favor and check it out and donate to a worthy cause. It is easy to do and you do not have to donate great sums of money. Any sum will help. Of course, if you want to donate a lot, I'm sure he wouldn't mind. So check it out and help Michael if you can.  Thanks!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Jeff Samardzija under the radar

After years of being the golden boy and fan favorite who couldn't quite get there, Jeff Samardzija arrived as a starter in 2012. His record and ERA perhaps belittle the type of season he really had. His record of 9-13 with an ERA of 3.89 in 28 starts might not excite anyone. If you dig a little deeper, there was a lot of impressive stuff about his season considering it was his first full one in the rotation. Let's look a little closer. uses a statistic called the Game Score which has been talked about here before. Basically, what the statistic does is start a pitcher at 50 points. And then the pitcher gains points for innings pitched in the game and for strikeouts. He loses points for walks and hits. Anything over 50 was a good start and under 50 is a bad start. 50 is an average start. Samardzija had a Game Score average of 55.1, which was 5.1 points over average. And 61% of his starts were quality starts when the league average there is 51%.

Now you are getting a little better picture of how good Jeff Samardzija was in 2012. Also remember that the Cubs were a brutally bad club. The team lost 101 games in 2012 and the offense ranked fifteenth in a National League that sports sixteen teams. That offense was so bad that the team scored two runs or less in eleven of Samardzija's 28 starts. Nine of his thirteen losses came in those games. He was 6-4 in his fourteen games when the team scored from three to five runs, which is still not a lot of run support. Only two of his starts featured an offense that scored six or more runs.

And for a guy who was putting in his first full season as a starter, he got better as the season went along. In fact, he was killer in the second half. He was shut down early, of course, after he reached 170+ innings, but in his eleven second half starts, his ERA was 2.58 and his strikeout to walk ratio was a brilliant 4.21. His most dominating month was in August when in six starts, his strikeout to walk ratio was 6.0. He walked only seven batters in those six starts and still went 1-4 that month. Ugh.

A case could be made that if you could just throw out June, he would have been right up there with the pitching leaders. It was like he hit a wall in June or something. It was the only month that his strikeouts per nine innings fell under nine. Most of his months show him in the 1.050 WHIP rate or lower. But in June it was over two. He made five starts that month and lost four of them and had an ERA of 10.41. That is a lousy month!

But again, he was brilliant after and really the two months before it.

According to PitchF/X, Samardzija threw seven different pitches: four-seam and two-seam fastballs, a cutter, a curve, a slider a change up and a split-fingered fastball. His fastball averaged a very impressive 95 MPH for the season! But that wasn't his best pitch. The splitter was his best pitch. In fact, Fangraphs rated his splitter as the best in baseball both in total score and in value per 100 pitches.

The split-figured pitch probably accounts for the 34% of the time Samardzija enticed batters to swing out of the strike zone. It probably also helped him have the fifth highest swing and miss rate in baseball among qualifying pitchers too.

There is a lot to like here looking at his numbers and that is why it was a little disappointing to see the Cubs recently back off making a multi-year offer to extend him. It looks now like he will just sign a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. But then again, the Cubs control him through 2015 so there is time.

Jeff Samardzija had a very good first full season as a starter. It was an encouraging season that got better as it went along. If you take out June, he was one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball and really flew under the radar because of the team on which he played. It will be interesting to see if Samardzija can improve on his great season or if he will regress. If he improves, now that will be exciting! And the coolest thing about the pitcher? I can now spell his name without looking it up.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

John Jaso's plate discipline improves the Athletics

The Oakland Athletics won the American League West last season despite a virtual black hole on offense from the catching position. In 632 plate appearances by all of their catchers in 2012, the triple slash line from the position was: .204/.262/.325. That .587 OPS was abysmal and worked out to a 64 OPS+. And so it made sense for Billy Beane to use a couple of his pitching prospects for the on-base capabilities of John Jaso in a three-way trade with the the Mariners and Nationals first reported yesterday by Adam Kilgore. Jane Lee,'s Athletics beat reporter, later tweeted that Beane had been trying to get Jaso for months.

Jaso will also improve a team that led the league in offensive strikeouts last season. He rarely swings and misses (4.6% for his career) and rarely swings at pitches out of the strike zone. According to PitchF/X, Jaso has only swung at 19.3 percent of pitches out of the strike zone in his career. That leads to the rare statistic that Jaso actually has a higher walk percentage for his career than strikeout percentage.

After the season Jaso had in 2012, it now appears that the horrible season he had in 2011 was the fluke. In that season with the Rays, Jaso batted only .204 with a .298 on-base percentage. His season caused him to fall out of favor in St. Pete after a very successful 2010 and led the Rays to trade him to the Mariners. But now, Jaso has two of his three (somewhat) full seasons where he has put together an OBP of .372 with a 111 OPS+ in 2010 and last year's .394 OBP and 144 OPS+. Jaso had a .379 on-base percentage for his minor league career.

There is one offensive flaw Jaso does possess. He cannot hit lefties as a left-handed batter. His career triple slash line against southpaws is: .164/.302/.230 with a BABIP of .200. That's some pretty bad-butt contact right there. He does maintain his plate discipline but not much else.

But that's okay. The majority of pitchers in baseball throw from the right side and when the A's face a lefty, they can go with Derek Norris who hits much better against lefties.

John Jaso is also a very smart and reflexive base runner. I watched a lot of Rays games in 2010 and Jaso takes off immediately after a ball gets even minutely away from the opposing catcher. I saw him do that time and time again to get himself to second and third base. And Jaso has stolen ten bases in the last three seasons and has only been thrown out twice. He doesn't have a great base running score on the stat sites, but most catchers are way on the negative side and he is not, so that is something.

What about on defense? Well...Jaso is not great. He is a slight step down in that department from Kottaras and quite a big step down from Suzuki. Jaso has never had a good track record gunning down potential base steal attempts either in the minors or the majors. His defense is listed in the negative category. It's not that deeply in the negative, but it is not one of his strengths.

But if you believe in such things, he has a very good catcher ERA (CERA) and so does Norris who was among the lowest in that disputed statistic in 2012. So all Jaso has to do is not cause much harm behind the plate, receive his pitchers well and continue offensively as he has done two of the last three seasons. And if he does that, he adds two to three wins to the A's from the catching position.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An ode to Jeff Karstens

I am a sucker for guys like Jeff Karstens. And there is no rhyme or reason for the fact. It just is. Perhaps it is because he is a former Yankee and it is a personal habit to follow such creatures once they leave the New York nest. But he left a long time ago. Perhaps it is because he was not drafted until the nineteenth round of the 2003 draft. It is not hard to root for guys who had 573 guys chosen ahead of him in that draft so his signing bonus must have been like a Swiss army knife and some gift certificates to Wendy's. And yet Karstens still made it to the majors for a few emergency starts in 2006 and 2007. I root for guys like that.

Jeff Karstens is about as nondescript a pitcher as there is. He has pitched parts of seven seasons and has 91 big league starts and another 47 relief appearances. He has pitched in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh during some really challenging years there. He is not an All Star. He is not going to make the Hall of Fame. To look at him, he never seems to fit into his uniform. When he has attempted to pull off the scraggly, unshaven look affected by so many modern males, he just looks unkempt. His big league record is nondescript as well. He sports a career 26-40 record, good (bad?) for a .397 winning percentage. His career ERA is 4.44 and career FIP is 4.55. They are mundane numbers.

And yet, I find that I am not alone in my suckerhood for the guy. When MLB Rumors announced his signing by the Pirates for $2.5 million, it was after they unceremoniously dumped him to the non-tendered pile so the team wouldn't have to pay him more in arbitration. Any team could have had him at that point and yet he went back to Pittsburgh. The comments under the story are mostly from Pirate fans and they are mostly positive. Pirate fans appreciate him as a "bulldog" type of pitcher who hangs in there and doesn't get rattled and gives it all he has each outing. They like him. Some called it the GM's best move of the off-season.

Is such a discourse an insult to the Pirates' off-season? Perhaps for some. But for others, it was a heartily approved signing to get one of their own back that has become a fixture for several years. Two of those seasons weren't very good. His WHIP in 2009 and 2010 were above 1.4 and one season, he even went 3-10. But how much of that was due to a woeful team and poor defense?

As I look at his last two seasons, Jeff Karstens hasn't been half bad. He pitched 162 innings in 2011 and went 9-9 with an ERA of 3.28. His FIP was higher at 4.29, but that's not a bad season. In 2012, he battled injuries and was limited to just over 90 innings. But his ERA was 3.97 and his FIP was 3.32. Again, that's not bad. And if you dig a little bit, you can see some good things.

His fastball has always been an 89 MPH fastball. But at least it hasn't headed south. His strikeout rate was abysmal earlier in his career. But in 2010 and 2011, it rose to mediocrity at 5.3 and in 2012, it rose again to 6.6. That's not bad. Combine that with his ability to avoid bases on balls and you get a very good 4.40 strikeout to walk ratio in 2012. Now we are getting somewhere.

His walk rate of 1.5 batters per nine innings was the best on his team. His 1.8 BB/9 was the best on the team in 2011 too. That walk rate gave him the best WHIP among Pirate starters in 2011. And his WHIP was the best among the Pirate starters in 2012.

But let's go even deeper. And maybe these numbers will blow your mind a little bit. Karstens must be deceptive because of all pitchers who pitched 90 innings or more in 2012, nobody enticed a higher swing percentage on his pitches out of the strike zone. Batters swung at 36.6 percent of his pitches out of the strike zone. And that rate was very good in 2010 and 2011 as well with both seasons coming in at 31.2% and 32% respectively.

Of all pitchers with more than 90 innings, he was 18th in getting first pitch strikes. That is another nice number. He was tied for 22nd in swinging strike percentage. And we are talking about over 200 pitchers here. His home run per fly ball rate was 12th lowest.

Am I cherry-picking numbers here? Well, probably. But Jeff Karstens is not a bad major league pitcher. In fact, I would go ahead and say that he would be better than the third or fourth starter on a lot of teams in baseball. He needs to stay healthy this season. And if he does, Jeff Karstens will keep the Pirates in the game. He went 5-4 in 2012 despite having the eighth lowest run support among all pitchers with 90 innings or more.

No, it would not matter if these conclusions were reached. I would still be a sucker for the guy if he was terrible. But at least I root for a guy that is better than most people think.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Is LOOGY, Mike Gonazlez, worth $2.25 million?

The Milwaukee Brewers improved their bullpen this week with the addition of Mike Gonzalez. Yes, he is one of those left-handed specialists that is able to pitch in Major League Baseball well into their nineties. The deal calls for Gonzalez to get $2.25 million with incentives. Gonzalez will be 35 in May and has pitched for the Pirates, Braves, Orioles, Rangers and Nationals. Gonzalez pitched to a grand total of 151 batters last season in just under 36 innings. Doesn't that seem like a lot of money for so little pitching?

If you go by the WAR proposition, Gonzalez was worth 0.5 fWAR in 2012 which makes him slightly overpaid based on WAR. But relievers really cannot be judged by WAR like other players. But it just seems funny that the guy will be paid $14,900 per batter if he has the exact same season in 2013. Just for comparison, if Kershaw pitches his normal season, he will get paid about $12,200 per batter in 2013. Gonzalez is worth more per batter than Kershaw? You wouldn't think so. But then again, Cliff Lee made about $32,000 per batter last year, so there is always that.

Gonzalez is the lefty who comes out of the bullpen to get lefty batters out. He has been doing it since 2003. And he has been good at it. For his career, Gonzalez has faced 591 lefty batters (which still doesn't seem like much) and has allowed a slash line of .206/.278/.327. Yeah, that's pretty darned effective. His career against right handed batters has a .674 OPS against and that is nothing to sneeze at either. He has faced 1,076 of those.

Gonzalez has lost a mile off of his fastball velocity and two miles per hour off of his slider since his younger days and he is no longer quite as effective against right handed batters. But he still gasses those lefties. They had a .566 OPS against him and a .240 wOBA. Woof. That is futility he is causing right there. But there is something else to consider about Gonzalez. If you need a big out, he will give it to you.

In high leverage situations, Gonzalez allowed a .578 OPS. With men on base, he allowed a .472 OPS. With runners in scoring position, he allowed a .536 OPS. That is impressive. And those numbers are only slightly lower than his career numbers in those same situations.

Consider also that Gonzalez has had positive WPA figures in every season he has pitched except the first one when he was up getting a cup of coffee. His clutch number is well into the positive as well.

It will always be difficult to justify in the mind a value of a LOOGY that on many occasions will only pitch to one batter in a game. But some pitchers are better at it than others and Gonzalez is one of those. And when you also consider the circus that was the Brewers' bullpen in 2012, you can understand that team wanting a pitcher with a proven formula for getting guys out.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The somewhat maddening game of J.J. Hardy

One name that keeps popping up in rumors this week is J.J. Hardy. The Orioles shortstop has been mentioned as desired by the Tigers in a three-team deal that would supposedly send Porcello to the Cubs. According to MLB Rumors, that essential off-season site for us baseball groupies, Buck Showalter has said that the Orioles would have to be unbelievably overwhelmed in order to trade Hardy. And on face value, Showalter is smart to say that. Hardy was terrific at short last season. But his offense has become baffling and bit into his value in 2012. Hardy is difficult to digest in one sitting. But it is a Sunday and a day off, so let's tackle it anyway.

The facts are that we can make a case that J.J. Hardy has been the best fielding shortstop since 2005. Of all qualifying shortstops during that time, Hardy has the highest UZR, the third highest fielding percentage and the sixth highest number of assists with 2,000 innings less than, say Rollins ahead of him. He was easily the best shortstop in baseball in 2012. Brendan Ryan might have been better if he played enough to qualify. Hardy led the majors in chances, fielding percentage, assists and total zone runs saved over average. That's like the Triple Crown for fielders, isn't it?

Here is a stat for you: Hardy's 529 assists in 2012 was the 78th highest in major league history. That's pretty impressive. His fielding percentage was the tenth highest ever recorded in a season for a shortstop. That is impressive too. It is easy to see why the Orioles' took off in the second half after Machado joined Hardy on the left side of the infield. Good fielding is invaluable and really reiterates what a dumb move it was by the Brewers and then the Twins to get rid of Hardy when they had him.

After saying all that, we can then pat Buck Showalter on the back and say, "yeah, Buddy, good call." Except J.J. Hardy's fielding was only one facet of his game. There is also batting and running the bases. And Hardy wasn't good in either case and as such, was only the eleventh highest ranked shortstop overall last season in value. Heck, even Hanley was ahead of him.

But Hardy is a good offensive player, isn't he? He has hit over 20 homers four times in his career. The answer is that Hardy has had a couple of effective offensive seasons and a bunch of bad ones. 2012 was not one of the good ones. Fangraphs rates it as -16.4 runs bad. Consider that his on-base percentage was .284 and that his OPS was .671. He batted .238. That doesn't sound like Hardy, does it?

His 2012 futility came after a very good offensive season in 2011 and his WAR shows the difference. His overall game was worth 4.8 fWAR in 2011 but only 2.8 in 2012. Hardy has now had two seasons over an .800 OPS and three seasons under .700. Maddening.

One glaring thing to notice is that his walk percentage has disappeared. Before 2011, he walked in the 7.5 to 9.2 range each season. But that figure sunk to 5.5% in 2011 and went further down to 5.3% of the time in 2012. And he has gone from a somewhat disciplined hitter to one with no discipline at all.

Earlier in Hardy's career, he hardly ever swung at pitches out of the strike zone. The last two seasons, he has done so over 30% of the time. The last two seasons showed him having his highest contact rates on pitches out of the strike zone of his career. That is not a good recipe for good contact. And indeed, he set his career high in grounding into double plays in 2012 with 21. His line drive percentage is low and his pop up rate to the infield is high.

Most players in the majors are somewhat easy to predict. They will have a down season or two, but most of the time, you will see them fall in a range that is somewhat predictable. J.J. Hardy is not one of those offensive players. He is up and down and up and down with wide extremes. That makes Hardy one of the most maddening players in baseball. His fielding has always been top notch and that is the one steady constant of his career. He will save a pitching staff a ton of runs with his glove. But his bat? Well, that will depend on the season.