Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Astros first round pick castoff club

The projections for 2013 for the Houston Astros are all pretty grim. And that is understandable considering the team lost 107 games in 2012, have to switch leagues in 2013 and have a projected 2013 payroll of $14.6 million. Baseball Prospectus expects the team to lose 97 games in 2013. And any kind of optimism for the Astros to surprise anyone in the coming year would be supremely "pie-in-the-sky." But the second-year Astros' GM, Jeff Luhnow has done something fairly interesting in compiling a team with a starting lineup that will feature no less than five former first round picks and the rotation will feature one starter who was once the third overall pick in the country. What if two or three or four of those former first round picks were to suddenly recall that kind of promise?

Yeah, it probably won't happen. Most of them were given up on by their original drafting teams, which means something because you don't easily give up on a first round pick simply because of the money involved and the emphasis placed on their development. Even so, it is always fun to dream. Maybe a couple of the castoffs can find the star brilliance that garnered them that kind of pick placement in the first place. Let's take a look at who they are.

Well, yeah, Pena doesn't really fit the profile here. The guy has already logged twelve years in the big leagues and his first round pick (Texas) was way back in 1998. Pena is pretty much a known commodity. As a DH and occasional first baseman, he is going to strike out thirty percent of the time, walk thirteen to fifteen percent of the time and hit in the low .200s (if that). But he can still hit 20 to 25 homers and give the Astros an on-base percentage over .320 no matter how badly he hits. And that is worth something at least for a team like the Astros. Pena is going to be 35 in May, but who knows, he could have one more decent season in him.

Wallace was the thirteenth pick overall (Cardinals) in the 2008 draft and is already with his fourth organization. He mashed at every level in the minors (.307/.381/.491). But he hasn't hit his stride with the Astros in parts of three seasons and has only compiled an OPS of .699 (.304 wOBA) in 792 plate appearances. Unlike Pena, Wallace can hold his own against left-handed pitching though he does not walk as often against them. The problem with Wallace is that even if he can still put it together as a batter, his glove is fairly catatonic. It would almost seem that Pena would be a better option at first base to let Wallace DH, but Pena is a short-term option whereas the Astros hope Wallace becomes a big Major League hitter long-term. Projection systems see him progressing in the power department with a little fewer strikeouts and a few more walks. And they grant that his fielding will improve marginally.

Castro is not a castoff as he was drafted by the Astros as the tenth overall pick in the 2008 draft. In parts of two seasons with the Astros, the catcher has not shown the promise as of yet that he can become a top flight catcher in the majors. But part of that problem can also be attributed to some pretty severe injury problems involving his knee and his foot in that time frame. He is having a monster spring this year if that can be taken with any kind of optimism. His minor league career showed very good patience at the plate and much better defense than he has shown in the majors thus far. Projections for 2013 are soft and perhaps justifiably so. But Castro is going to get the opportunity to be the starting catcher this season and if he is healthy, could be one of the nicer surprises of 2013. I am going to keep an eye on him optimistically.

Dominguez was cast off by the now Miami Marlins  for Carlos Lee. The Marlins may live to regret that trade. Just add it to that team's pile of trash legacy for the last year. Dominguez can become a star that befitted his tenth overall selection in the 2007 draft. The third baseman is still only 23 years old and is hampered somewhat by a lack of patience at the plate. But that is combined with a low swing and miss rate and a fairly good strikeout rate considering. If he can be more selective and not swing at 33% of the pitches out of the strike zone, he could be quite good. The projections aren't buying it, of course. But he, at least, is one of the few players that ZiPS at least predicts will be league average for the Astros in 2013. I think he can be much better if his fielding improves (league average right now) and he gets in the lineup for 150 games. Thus far, he has hit too many ground balls in his brief Major League career and that probably stems from his lack of selectivity at the plate. His home run to fly ball rate was 20% in a small sample size. So, if he hits the ball in the air a bit more, he can hit 20 homers or way above projections.

Perhaps no player has ever engendered more arguments by Cardinal fans over the years than Tyler Greene. The Cardinals drafted him in the first round of the 2005 draft and then never really gave him a chance to be their shortstop. When he did get calls to the big club, they moved him all around the field--so much so that he has played seven different positions in his 266 games played. Greene had good hitting numbers in the minors, especially for a shortstop. But, whether because he is over-matched in the majors or because of a lack of a true shot at playing regularly, his hitting has never gelled in the majors. His .292 career on-base percentage is fairly pathetic. His fielding metrics are equally troubling. But then again, how much of that was from being bounced around and knowing he wasn't going to really get a shot with the Cardinals? He is going to get that shot with the Astros, especially now with Lowrie gone to the A's. At the age of 29 now, this will be a make or break year for Greene.

Philip Humber was the third overall pick (Mets) in the 2004 draft. After a long and winding road, he became a surprisingly decent pitcher for the White Sox in 2011. Then he started the 2012 season well and in his second start of the 2012 season, threw a perfect game. You go, Philip Humber! Well, not exactly. The wheels came off after the perfect game and his season went to hell in a hand-basket. The final numbers were ugly: A 6.44 ERA with a 5.77 FIP, a 1.539 WHIP and a 2.0 homer per nine rate. Woof, that is some stinky pitching. His ground ball rate tumbled and everything else fell apart. But Humber is pitching well this spring for the Astros so maybe he can bounce back to his 2011 form, which is certainly going to improve on the Jordan Lyles of the world.

Six former first round draft picks. Six possibilities to live up to that long lost hype. Of the six, Matt Dominguez and Jason Castro can be special. Tyler Greene could be a middle of the pack shortstop. Stranger things have happened. If it does, it still won't make the Astros a great team. But they could be a heck of a lot more entertaining than last season.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wade Miley - Everyone's favorite regression candidate

Wade Miley was such a surprise last year for the Arizona Diamondbacks that the surprise factor might have cost him the Rookie of the Year Award nod in a very close race with Harper. Nobody expected that Wade Miley would be the tenth most valuable pitcher in baseball in 2012. And his 1.79 walks per nine innings and 3.13 FIP were so fabulous that it had everyone scratching their heads. Thus, it is no surprise that Miley is everyone's favorite regression candidate heading into the 2013 season--so much so that it almost makes you root that he proves everyone wrong.

The problem stems in part because Wade Miley was never a prospect despite being a first round pick in 2008. He never made anyone's list of top tier young guys to watch. Plus, he never had the kind of success in the minors that he had in the majors. He never came close to the depth of his walk rate in the minors. For his minor league career, he averaged 3.1 walks per nine innings. How can that turn into 1.79? His minor league ERA was 3.79. So how did he manage 3.33 in the majors? And it was in Arizona no less, where the thin air flies baseballs. Add to all this lack of history, his mundane strikeout rate and skeptics abound.

The walk rate was a result of two things. First, he was very successful at throwing first pitch strikes, which he did at a 60% rate. Combine that with enticing hitters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, which he did at a 33.8% rate, the 12th highest rate in baseball.

His heat maps show that he pounded the strike zone against right-handed batters low and inside with his fastball and his change up and then threw is curve on the outer half and down in the zone or out of it. It was a potent mix of getting ahead in the count and then putting batters away on his counts. Forget about left-handed batters. They couldn't hit him at all. Left-handed batters had a triple slash line against him of: .200/.238/306.

But, yeah. It makes sense to look at his walk rate and state that he cannot repeat it. But the projections also predict that he cannot sustain his home run rate. His home runs per nine innings of 0.67 seem unsustainable along with his tiny 6.9% homer to fly ball rate. But that particular skill is one he did display all during his minor league career. His minor league homer per nine inning rate was 0.5.

And why can't he maintain that rate? He keeps the ball down almost exclusively. His ground ball to fly ball rate is 1.28. That is not an extreme ground ball pitcher, but it is certainly far from being a fly ball pitcher. So there is really no reason to expect his homer rate to regress. Sure, his walk rate is in uncharted territory, but not his homer rate.

At least most of the projections have him being somewhat successful. All the ones listed on his player page think he'll win more games than he loses, will finish somewhere in the 3.60 to 3.90 ERA range with a more normalized walk rate and a slightly higher home run rate. But Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA rating really is a lot more pessimistic.

That system has him finishing with a 10-13 record with a 4.53 ERA and only a 0.9 WARP. That is a pretty heady fall from his 2012 stats.

Again, there is nothing about any of those projections that are arguable except maybe the jump in homer rate. But the possibility is also there that Miley really found something in 2012 and that with more experience, his strikeout rate will improve above middling and he can keep his walk rate down. The key is his first pitch strike rate and getting ahead of the count. If he can continue that trend for another season, the projections will look a lot different next season.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I don't care anymore

With apologies to Phil Collins for melting his lyrics...

You can tell everyone that Braun's a down disgrace,
drag his name all over the place,
I don't care anymore.
You can protect all you want the state ball is in,
I just want to watch and hope my team wins
I don't care anymore. I don't care anymore.

I don't care what you say.
I don't like the games that you play.

Because I've been reading all the people that you call your friends,
And it seems to us all that you're mean till the end.
They don't care anymore.
And Braun can sit there and bide his time,
He made you lose when you botched his crime.
I don't care anymore. I don't care anymore.

I don't care what you say.
Nobody has ever played by the rules anyway.

I'm not with you anymore
You, MLB, and the BBWAA.
Let me be
I've got better things to do with my time.
I don't care anymore. I don't care anymore.
I don't care anymore. I don't care anymore.

Well, I don't care what you say,
You and your complicit BBWAA
Cause I'm not really bothered what you think of me.
All I want is for the Hall of Fame to be free.

I don't care what you say.
Where were you in the 90s anyway?
Let's just play ball,
I've got better things to do with my time
I'm not listening anymore
I don't care anymore.
Do you hear? I don't care anymore.
I don't care anymore.
You listening? I don't care anymore.
No more.

You know I don't care anymore.

Julio Teheran making believers

Julio Teheran is making believers this spring including the guy behind this keyboard. After being in just about everyone's top ten as a prospect in 2010, 2011 and even heading into 2012, Teheran got a bit blown up in his brief stop in Atlanta in 2011 and followed that up with a real downer of a season for the Gwinnett Braves Triple-A team in 2012. Suddenly, here he is in the Braves' spring camp and--albeit, in games that do not count--is pitching spectacularly. Maybe we counted this kid out too quickly.

Teheran fell in the prospect lists like Baseball America's from fifth to 44th. But at least he was still on the board. That might have been generous after his awful numbers in Triple-A last season. The numbers were ugly. His WHIP ballooned to 1.44. He gave up over ten hits per nine innings. And after allowing only fourteen homers in 287+ innings combined in 2010 and 2011, he gave up eighteen in just 131 innings in 2012. Heck, he even hit fifteen batters.

And it wasn't only that he was getting pounded a bit that was concerning. His strikeouts per nine innings fell to 6.7 after posting much better numbers in 2010 and 2011. Was there something wrong with him? He made  one emergency start for the Braves on June 10 and it was deceptively negative. He pitched four and a third innings and gave up four hits and a walk and struck out five. But four of his five base runners scored. He did pitch two scoreless innings on October 3 but that did little to leave a confused tale of what seemed like a wall thrown up in Teheran's face in 2012.

And so it was with a certain amount of skepticism that he was viewed as the Braves' fifth starter on Surely, the Braves would sign or trade for somebody else. But they did not and other candidates have fallen by the wayside. It really looks like Julio Teheran is going to be the Braves' fifth starter. And that could be a good thing if this spring is any kind of indication.

Teheran has started five games this spring. He has pitched twenty innings. And yes, these games don't count and yes, many players were off playing in the World Baseball Classic. But even so, you have to like what you see. He has given up only seven hits. He has only walked six and allowed two homers. Spring batters are batting .103 against him. And best of all, he has struck out 25 batters.

He looks overpowering and a complete opposite of last year's spring exhibitions when he looked over-matched and finished the spring of 2012 with a 9.37 ERA. Last year, he gave up nine homers and 22 hits in just 16.1 innings of work. What a difference a year makes.

Video of some of his performances seem to show a confident pitcher who is keeping the ball down, making great use of a fastball that is darting away from left-handed batters and a curve that he is throwing with some authority. It was kind of hard to tell, but those fastballs looked more like a two-seam fastball instead of a four-seam one he has featured exclusively to this point in his brief major league appearances.

The Atlanta Braves could push the Nationals this season if their pitching holds up. And if Julio Teheran keeps pitching the way he is right now, that pitching could be much better than expected. The projections for him are pessimistic and all in the 4.25 ERA range. But perhaps 2012 was just a blip and Julio Teheran can make believers out of all of us.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Any last hurrahs for Utley and Howard?

Once upon a time in our not too distant past, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were a two-man wrecking crew for the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2006, the two combined for 13.7 fWAR as Howard hit 58 homers and Chase Utley was in the second year of a five-year run that might be among the best runs ever for a second baseman. Howard has never matched the incredible numbers he put up in 2006, but he did hit 145 homers combined in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The two were part of a World Series Championship in Philadelphia in 2008 and were beaten by the Yankees in the 2009 World Series. Those were heady times.

Howard slipped in value in 2010 and 2011 and in his last playoff game of 2011, tore his Achilles tendon and only played in 71 games in 2012 finishing with a fWAR value of less than zero. Utley ran into a series of medical problems starting in 2010 and has played 115, 103 and 83 games respectively in the last three seasons. When he played, he still showed some value, but, as you can imagine, that value was about half of what it had been in that incredible five-year run.

So what will 2013 bring for the pair? Are their glory days gone for good? Can they (or should they) play a full season? The good news is that both are playing a lot in this Spring Training. Ryan Howard is killing the ball with four homers and four doubles accounting for half of his eight hits this spring. Utley has a homer and two doubles but is hitting about .200 in his spring games. Is the fact they are playing a full spring schedule a sign that they might just have some of that old magic left in them for the 2013 season? The projections are mixed.

First off, projection systems like PECOTA see the Phillies as a .500 team. And the projections for Utley and Howard do not seem to predict that they will make much of a difference to change the Phillies' chances of improving on that record. Let's look at both players and see if there is any hope for some sort of renaissance season for either or both of them.

Let's start with Ryan Howard. The five projection systems that list on Howard's player page do not have hope that Ryan Howard will be any better than he was in 2010 and 2011. The WAR range from the five systems project him anywhere from 0.9 WAR (ZiPS) to 1.8 (Fans34). PECOTA rates him much higher and checking in with Baseball Prospectus his projection there is a somewhat healthier 2.2 WAR projection. Despite the higher projection, PECOTA doesn't see Howard finishing higher than an OPS of .812.

While that is not that bad of an OPS, with Howard's diminished defense and base running, he still doesn't project anywhere close to where he was from 2007 to 2009.

You pretty much have to throw out Howard's 2012 season. The numbers simply do not fit in any category to his career numbers (or even his 2010 and 2011 numbers). His plate discipline went out the window and whereas he used to swing at only 25% of pitches out of the strike zone, that number ballooned to 37% in 2012. His strikeout rate also blew up from its already high 27.8% career percentage to 33.9%. Those numbers should be thrown out the window as a year adjusting to a bad wheel and not really being in any kind of shape to play.

But you cannot dismiss his 2010 and 2011 seasons when he lost some of his plate discipline and went from that aforementioned 25% to the low 30's percent range for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. He did not strike out more than he had before, but his wOBA or TAv (pick your favorite) was thirty to forty points lower than where he had been as recently as 2009.

The spring he is having is encouraging and perhaps is a sign that he can produce somewhere near where he was in 2009. But the odds seem in better favor of him staying at his 2010 and 2011 levels. He will need to regain some of his plate discipline of the past and make pitchers pitch to him to return to some semblance of his old form.

Oddly, the feeling here is that there is more cause for optimism for Chase Utley than there is for Howard. One of the reasons is that Utley's game is still more complete than Howard's. Despite playing only 83 games in 2012, Utley still garnered eight runs above average in fielding from and 5.5 above average at Plus, Utley still scores high for his base running skills.

The other thing to look at is that Utley's BABIP has been ridiculously low for both 2011 and 2012 at .269 and .261 respectively. If you look at his line drives, for example, his BABIP on line drives in 2012 was .528. That may sound high, but the league average is a hundred points higher than that. His ISO was off about seventy points from his super hero days. But his home run to fly ball percentage rebounded a bit in 2012 from a career low in 2011.

Looking deeper at Utley's numbers, he still maintained his plate discipline and he swung and missed at pitches at a very low 4.7%, the lowest of his career.

Most of the projections for Utley are not encouraging. They have him in the 3.2 to 3.5 WAR(P) range. All of them see his wOBA and TAv off by twenty points from his career average. Until proven otherwise, it is hard to fault these projections. But then again, both B-R and Fangraphs had him at 2.9 and 3.4 respectively for 83 games in 2012. If he plays 135 to 140 games, there is no reason not to think he can represent about a five or six WAR season. 

The key is their continued health. It is encouraging to see them both playing so often this spring. That seems to indicate that they are both healthy...or at least healthier. If they can both obtain 550 to 600 plate appearances, there is a chance that both can rebound nicely to some semblance of what they were from 2009. Howard is 33 and Utley is 34. So neither is ancient by baseball standards. It would be fun to see them both rebound in 2013. It still might not be enough to overcome both the Braves and the Nationals. But it would be fun for baseball.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A response to Jeff Passan's, "U.S. fans are boring"

Yahoo Sports, Jeff Passan, recently called American baseball fans boring and judging from this particular paragraph, it is because we do not watch a baseball game with the same fervor as a football or basketball game:
"Were people to tune in, they'd see baseball can capture the dynamism of college basketball and football, our two sports that feel as much like a rock concert as they do a sporting event. Much has been made of the United States not having the same passion for baseball as the Dominican Republic or Japan. That's rationalizing. And it's not true. If conventions were different – if players and fans both weren't boxed in to a preconceived set of emotions, reactions and morĂ©s – American baseball would be just like the rest of the world."
I get it. As a whole, we are just not that into the World Baseball Classic and we don't get ourselves whipped up into a frenzy like fans of the Japanese, Dominican Republic and others do. We don't get a rock concert feel at a baseball game. The games do not have a dynamism of college basketball or football.  And perhaps Passan--who I respect greatly--has a point that our baseball watching ways come a bit from who we are as a people and how we live our lives.

But I think Mr. Passan misses a point here. Unlike just about any other sport, baseball is obsessed with statistics and those statistics are important in only two ways, the regular season and less importantly, the post season. And since how well or how poorly our teams are doing is based on those statistics, anything that happens outside of those two parameters don't matter.

This even relates to the All Star Game. Do you ever hear anyone quoting All Star statistical facts? Nope, because the game doesn't count. It is also why Spring Training becomes a drag once the initial novelty wears out. Those games do not count either. And even when a prospect has a great spring, it does not matter. Contrary to beliefs, hardly anyone wins or loses jobs in Spring Training.

American baseball enthusiasts care about games that count. The World Baseball Classic will never count. Therefore, for the most part, they are viewed with sleepy eyes and viewership shrugs.

There is another point to be made here. Baseball fans are trained to be patient. Why? Because each season contains thirty teams that play 162 games each. That adds up to 2,430 baseball games a season. We know that if our team starts the season 10-1, it's best to not get too excited because a lot can happen over the next 151 games. 

How many college games do they play in basketball and in football? To my shame, I don't really know. But I know it isn't 162. Each contest, then, becomes more crucial and important. Baseball seasons in other countries do not consist of as many teams or as long a season--with perhaps an exception of Japanese baseball. 

And there is something else to be said here. We American baseball fans watch our sport with teams that are made up of players from around the world. The best talent of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic come here to play because this is where the money is. The World Baseball Classic gives these countries a chance to see and root for players that already fill them with nationalistic pride because they have made it as stars in American baseball. 

Our sympathies are torn when our favorite player like a Robinson Cano plays for the Dominican Republic team or some other players play for the Puerto Rican team and others. 

There is one more point I want to make. The American press has increasingly become a jaded press. I don't really mean "jaded" in a negative sense. But since Watergate, the key is to be about the truth beneath the hype. Our American journalists do not let nationalism get in the way of their reporting. I don't think this is true of other countries.

This World Baseball Classic becomes a series for national pride in other countries and I don't know for a fact, but I suspect that the press in those countries whip up some national fervor for the results of their teams. Thus those country's teams and fans are whipped up into more of a frenzy. There is less of a "fair" analysis of who the manager is and what moves he makes.

The American press, in comparison, will spend countless pages analyzing what Joe Torre did as manager and what moves he made that did or did not work. 

American fans will never really buy into the World Baseball Classic. The games do not count or mean anything statistically. They are a flash of games to be followed by a long, grueling season that is much more marathon than sprint. Yes, American baseball is more pastoral. The NFL has taken over our country of MTV-inspired sound bites because the action covers only sixteen games per season for each team. The games are played once a week. A typical baseball week consists of fifteen games a day for at least five of the days per week. With such a baseball season, and for such reasons, the WBC will never really catch on here. If that makes us boring, so be it.