Saturday, December 14, 2013

Taking Rick Reilly's point to the max

Rick Reilly, the writer for, recently caused a lot of conversation with his piece, "Guilt by Association." And the conversation is understandable because the piece was all about newly elected managers, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa getting a pass into the Hall of Fame because "the three managers being inducted oversaw at least 34 players who've been implicated as PED users and never noticed a thing wrong." Naturally, any conversation that includes PEDs leads to polarizing views. Half of Twitter is shouting, "Right on!" While others are saying it is the worst thing ever written.

While my position on the PED players and era is firmly established in the, "I don't care" category and do not believe in banning any players or managers from the Hall of Fame, you might think that this piece will fall on the bashing Rick Reilly side of things. But I am not going to do that. This is America after all and everyone is entitled to their opinion. It was not long ago that everyone was piling on Rob Neyer for something he said, and yet, he was bashing Reilly today. 

Instead of focusing on the writer and on his intent or moralistic leanings here, I would rather focus on the logic of what he is saying. And if I paraphrase the entire thing, then he is saying in a nutshell that if the players are not getting a pass on the PEDs they may or may not have used, then the managers who were in charge of those players should not get a pass either.

In one aspect, he is right in that players did things they should not have done and the managers may or may not have known they are doing those things. So by either turning a blind eye or at worst, not paying attention, they are guilty by association.

So that should then mean that no manager from the PED era should ever make it into the Hall of Fame because perhaps as high as 60 to 80% of all players in the game were probably using. If you take Reilly's logic to the max, shouldn't that be the case? Forget about it, Jim Leyland or Joe Maddon or Mike Scioscia or any others that might have a case in the future.

If you are going to make this argument, then you have to take it all the way. The common belief is that all segments of the baseball society fell down the rabbit hole in the PED era. The scouts, the commissioner, the league presidents, the managers, the general managers, the trainers, the union, the publicists, the agents, and yes, the writers and broadcasters all had to know that something was not right in the game and yet it happened anyway. They were all complicit.

Take Reilly's assertion to the maximum and Bill Madden of New York, Nick Peters of San Francisco, Rick Hummel of St. Louis, Tracy Ringolsby of Denver and Peter Gammons should not have gotten a free pass to the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. 

Madden covered New York sports including many of the same players Joe Torre is being accused about. Peters certainly witnessed the Barry Bonds superhero show. Hummel should be just as complicit as LaRussa. Ringolsby was writing when Matt Williams was playing and others in Denver. And nobody knew more people or had more connections in the game in his heyday than Peter Gammons. So take those on too, Mr. Reilly.

Speaking of Matt Williams: Now that he is a manager, what is going to happen if he wins ten World Series in his managing career? What a mess that will be, eh?

And what of broadcasters who often traveled with these players and stayed in the same hotels. Should Jack Buck have gotten the Ford C. Frick Award? He called McGwire's homers after all. What about Eric Nadel who was voted in this year after his lifetime of broadcasting the Rangers. Did one broadcaster cover more PED users than Nadel? Bob Uecker has covered Ryan Braun's career since the beginning. Should "Uke" be a Frick Award winner?

No, this blame and punishment thing can go on and on and thus it is all pointless. You cannot erase history by executing all those who participated in the bad things that happened. You cannot have a Hall of Fame that does not include the best players of their era. You cannot have a Spink Award without the best writers and the Frick Award without the best broadcasters.

Let it go. The numbers are staying. There are no asterisks. The players that created them, the managers who managed them and the writers and broadcasters that breathlessly reported them all need to be drawn in the times that they played, managed, wrote and broadcast. Blame does not get us anywhere. Heck, even the commissioner is going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. My point and response to Rick Reilly is not to blast him but to simply remind him that the entire game of baseball, including those who covered and broadcast it, are guilty by association.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bad pitchers are like bad boyfriends

The first day of my senior year in high school provided a shock. With my head on the desk in homeroom, attendance was being called and the name, Felicia Rivera, rang out. I suddenly lifted my head. That was the name of my first boy-crush in the sixth grade. I looked around and spotted this raven-haired beauty wearing a mini-dress in the back of the room. It was her but all grown up. I caught her after homeroom and indeed, it was the same girl who had moved away to Florida a week after I gave her an ID bracelet. Unfortunately, since she moved back, she had already found a boyfriend.

Still, I got to know her and got her a job where I worked. She did not have a car, so every day after school, I stopped at her house so she could get dressed and then I took her to work with me. She told me stories about how cruel her boyfriend was to her. I tried to convince her to take up with me instead and she always laughed and said I was too nice.

That pattern has gone on probably forever. Young girls are drawn to bad guys. The rogues with the leather coats with the shady criminal records. Nice guys finish last. This might be in part because of some motherly instinct that believes with a lot of love, the bad boy can change. Some do, most do not. 

So what does that have to do with this being a baseball forum? Well...bad pitchers are a lot like bad boyfriends. Teams cannot help themselves and believe a bad pitcher can change. How else could you explain that within hours of each other the Phillies would sign Roberto Hernandez and the Pirates would sign Edinson Volquez?

And these two have been really bad pitchers. And like bad boyfriends, the teams that signed them think they can change what they are. Good luck with that.

The Padres and Dodgers already tried with Volquez. Teams are tantalized by his one golden season when he came in fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2008. But then he was hurt much of 2009 and 2010 and when he was not hurt, he was awful. 

The Red eventually got very tired of him and he was a throw in for the big deal that sent Mat Latos to the Reds. The Padres thought they could fix Volquez. Plus, they had a much more favorable ballpark for him to pitch his home games.

It did not work. After sixty starts with a 1.545 WHIP and a -1.5 rWAR, the Padres gave up and released him. Thinking they too could fix him, the Dodgers picked him up soon after...for a pennant race, no less. Volquez responded with an 0-2 record for the Dodgers in six starts. Yeah, that helped their cause. 

So now the Pirates waltzed over to the boy with the leather jacket and think they can change the guy who had the worst RA9-WAR in all of baseball last year. Volvquez has pitched parts of nine seasons in the Majors. He has pitched 850 innings. His career WHIP is 1.505. In all of those years and starts and innings, he has compiled 1.7 rWAR. Bad boys don't change, honey.

Roberto Hernandez burst on the scene in 2007 as Fausto Carmona, a fake name with a fake age and who knows what else was fake about him. He won 19 games that season and earned a 6.2 rWAR. That was then, this is now. In that one season, he earned 6.2 rWAR, so you would figure his career WAR would be over that, right? Wrong. It sits at 4.7. That is a whole lot of ugly pitching in between.

The Rays thought they could fix him. The Rays can fix anybody. Heck, they even made James Loney look good. They could not fix Roberto Hernandez. On an otherwise winning team, he went 6-13. A ground ball specialist, he has one problem: Just about every non-ground ball goes over the fence. Granted, that might be fluky that a pitcher would have a 20% home run to fly ball rate.

That could be what the Phillies are thinking. After all, Hernandez throws strikes and he throws them often. They can fix him! Good luck with that.

But it has always been this way. Remember Sidney Ponson? Phil Hughes found a home. Harang and Saunders will again too. Heck, the Minnesota Twins make a charity drive of such pitchers every year. Someone is always falling in love with the bad boy thinking he will change. They rarely do. Sometimes, bad is just bad.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013 Fluke or Future - Shin-Soo Choo

General managers looking for outfielders had two really great choices this off season. One was Ellsbury and the Yankees have snatched him up. The other is Shin-Soo Choo. News about Choo's free agency have been rather quiet and you would figure that after the season he just had, GMs would be jumping all over themselves to land the Korean-born star. The fact is that you cannot even find his name on the first page of So what gives? Are GMs doing the same thing as me and wondering if Choo's 2013 was more fluke or a sign of future performance?

Choo might have been the steadier of the two outfield options. On-base percentage does not usually slump and Choo's has consistently been higher than Ellsbury. Choo has twice finished a season with a .400 or higher OBP. However, his walk rate did jump even higher in 2013. His walk rate has ranged during his career from 10.6% to 12.8%. But he had the phenomenal rate of 15.7% in 2013.

Can you call that a fluke? I don't think so. His plate discipline, always terrific, was even better (naturally) in 2013. He swung at only 20.8% of pitches outside of the strike zone. And he carried this consistently through the season. If you look at his splits, he never walked less than 17 times in any month of 2013. That is pretty remarkable. Add to the 112 walks (107 unintentional) the 26 times he was hit with a pitch and Choo was on base a remarkable 300 times on the nose in 2013.

That is amazing to me. But I think the part that is bothering teams is that Choo sort of got lost in 2011 and 2012. After being traded to Cleveland by the Mariners for Ben Broussard--one of the worst trades ever--Choo had terrific seasons in 2008, 2009 and 2010. 

But then, as memory serves, he was stopped for drinking and driving before the 2011 season and it seemed like he never recovered from that. And after a two down years, the Indians included him as part of a humongous three-team trade that included the Diamondbacks and Reds. Choo ended up being a one year rental for the Reds and he rewarded them with a fantastic season.

So what do you make of 2011 and 2012? If you look at 2008 through 2010, you get WAR values of 3.0, 4.8 and 5.9. Terrific, right? But then 2011 and 2012 and 1.3 and 2.4. Weird. But he was back to 5.2 fWAR (4.8 rWAR) in 2013. So what do you believe then?

I believe he simply got lost for a two year period. He now has four solid years of production. He is going to bat between .280 and .300. His on-base percentage is going to be between .380 and .400 and he will add 18 to 20 homers and 35 to 40 doubles. That is kind of hard to beat.

Unless you look at fielding data. Ugh. His fielding stats are ugly. And you would smartly say that Choo played out of position for all of 2013. The Reds played him in center field. He is not a center fielder and it showed. gave him a minus 13.3 runs below average. was even harsher and gave him -16.6. So fine, move him back to right field.

The problem was that he played 154 games in right field for the Indians in 2012 and scored -23.6 according to Fangraphs. B-R was much, much kinder to Choo in RF in 2012. My take is that if you put him back in right, he is going to be fine. He will be just below league average, which is doable with his offensive contributions. 

Oliver projections for the next five years show Choo peaking at 4.8 in 2014 and then going down a couple of notches every year for the next five, but still maintaining his on-base skills. I think that is a little conservative. I would be doubtful that Choo can maintain the .390+ wOBA he put up in 2013, but he is going to be a productive offensive player for the next five years. He has bad splits against lefties, but that does not happen nearly as often, so it is acceptable.

I do not think Choo's 2013 was a fluke season. He is a really good offensive player who is going to help whichever team he ends up with. I just wonder which team that is going to be.

Monday, December 09, 2013

2013 fluke or future - Colby Rasmus

Would you believe me if I told you that Colby Rasmus' slugging percentage was only seven points lower than McCutchen in 2013? Would you believe me if I told you that he had a more valuable season than Adam Jones? How about if I told you that he had a better defensive season than Span, Ellsbury, Blanco and McCutchen? I would not blame you if you would not have believed any of those. Neither did I until I saw them. Was this 2013 season by Colby Rasmus a fluke or what his future will look like?

What do the experts think? I like to look at projections, especially this time of year. The first thing I did was look at last year's ZiPS projection for Rasmus. While ZiPS was dead on for his total doubles and homers, that projection was for a full 588 plate appearances. Due to a couple of bouts with injury, Rasmus only played 118 games and compiled only 458 plate appearances. So Rasmus easily beat his power projections and his batting average and on-base percentage projections too.

But it is hard to blame ZiPS for what it came up with. After a breakout season in 2010, Rasmus ran afoul of Tony LaRussa in one of the most famous doghouse incidents in recent times and then got lost for a couple of years. All Rasmus could muster was a .688 OPS in 2011 and a .689 OPS in 2012. Therefore, ZiPS projection of a .749 OPS for Rasmus in 2013 seemed overly bullish. But Rasmus blew that away and finished with an OPS of .840, 91 points higher.

So the projections would be more optimistic for 2014, right? Wrong. ZiPS has not gotten to the Blue Jays yet (from what I could find). But Steamer and Oliver have put theirs out and they predict Rasmus to fall back to .771 and .770 respectively. Oliver goes further and gives a five year projection. That system never expects him to be as good as he was in 2013.

There must be obvious reasons for the lack of faith in what Rasmus did in 2013. For one thing, Rasmus had a BABIP of .356. That had to be lucky right? His last two seasons before that featured him not being able to achieve a BABIP over .270. But Rasmus once had a season with that high a BABIP--2010.

Obviously, the projections are not buying it. But perhaps you can consider that Rasmus had his best ever line drive percentage in 2013. He had never gone over 20% in that category before and his line drive percentage was 22% in 2013. You hit that many ropes and your BABIP will get a boost. You could say it was a fluke. But what if it wasn't?

Rasmus also had his lowest ground ball rate since (yeah, there is a theme here) 2010. And a higher percentage of those fly balls went over the fence than ever before in his career (17.3%). So more of his fly balls left the yard and his line drive percentage spiked. That will help your BABIP.

There is another thing the projections might be seeing and that is the strikeout and walk rates. Rasmus did compile his highest strikeout rate in 2013 and his lowest walk rate. His swing and miss rate was also the highest of his career. His strikeout rate in 2013 was just a bit higher than (oh my) 2010 and then went down in 2011 and 2012. The interesting thing here is that his percentage of swings at pitches out of the strike zone dipped under 30% for the first time in his career. So he is a bit more selective but is swinging and missing a lot.

Wasn't it the strikeouts that first put him in LaRussa's doghouse?

I can see where the projections might be skeptical of Rasmus. The BABIP, strikeouts and walks would put a analytic damper on things. But the projections also knock down his defense. And, again, it is a bit understandable. His defense was worth 11.5 runs above average in 2009 but then fell into the negative in 2010 and 2011. He bounced back with 2.1 runs in the positive in 2012 and then seemed to explode to 12.9 runs in 2013.

So it is easy to see what the "machine" is looking at. Oliver gives him a projection of 3.8 runs above average and Steamer, six. So Steamer is a bit more optimistic.

I get where the math comes from. The algorithms look at the cold hard data and that is the purpose. But what if there were circumstances involved the algorithms cannot see? Maybe the LaRussa thing really messed him up for a couple of years. Maybe he was immature and did not handle things well. The mental part of the game is something that cannot be measured.

Maybe he is in a better place in his life and in a more supportive atmosphere, the same one that made stars of Bautista and Encarnacion. Colby Rasmus is only 27 years old. I am being bullish here and thinking that 2013 might not have been a fluke. Maybe it is a case of a former #1 draft pick finding himself. Perhaps the future only gets brighter from here. I will feel a little more confident in that pronouncement if he can repeat or better his 2013 season in the year or two to come.

I will leave you with this last bit of mind wandering. Think of the defense up the middle of two guys LaRussa chased out of St. Louis. Think of how crazy good Brendan Ryan is at short and Rasmus is in center. Imagine how scary good the Cardinals could have been in 2013 with those two instead of Kozma and Jay!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Can Hamilton and Pujols bounce back?

When Robinson Cano signed his mega-deal with the Seattle Mariners, the two names that came up most often in stories and comparisons were Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. The two recent free agent sweepstakes winners were used as the counterweight of what can go wrong with signing long-term deals to players past their primes. Instead of "Remember the Maine" being used as a battle cry, we heard, "Remember Pujols and Hamilton." Forget the money for a moment. The two Angel players are going to get paid insane amounts of money. There is nothing to be done about that fact. But can they come back in 2014 and contribute?

Let's start with Josh Hamilton. Unlike Pujols, Hamilton appeared to be healthy in 2013. He played in 151 games, which, when it comes to Hamilton's past injury history, you would have taken gladly. But he did not produce and became all but forgotten in the grand scheme of things. His wOBA of .319 (OPS+ of 108) was the lowest of his career. His 21 homers were half of his 2012 season. His lack of luster in play led him to become, along with Pujols, the symbol of all that had gone wrong for the Angels.

So what went wrong? For one, he did not enjoy success hitting at home. After successful years hitting at Rangers Ballpark and putting up a career .964 OPS there, Hamilton could only muster a triple slash line at Angel Stadium of .236/.289/.401. That paltry .690 OPS at home compares pretty snugly to the career .717 OPS for his career in that ballpark. Sometimes you have to wonder if agents and players think about ballparks when considering offers. It is clear that Angel Stadium is not conducive to Hamilton's success.

Hamilton hit much better on the road. And while his .787 road OPS is much better, it is still below his standards. So what else went wrong then?

One key statistic is his pitch value against the fastball. In his two great years in Texas, his fastball pitch values were over 30 runs per season. In his lesser years there, his values against the fastball were still fearsome at 19.0 and 18.4 runs above average in 2011 and 2012. That plummeted to only 5.7 runs above average in 2013.

While he used to kill fastballs, Hamilton held his own against other pitch types. But in 2013, the slider killed him. While never previously finishing below -2.4 runs against that pitch and often scoring above average in most other years, Hamilton had a pitch value against the slider of -12.7 runs. Wow!

Word gets around on such things and pitchers exploited Hamilton with the slider. He saw the pitch 19.5% in 2013, the highest of his career.

The real thing most people talk about when it comes to Hamilton is his free-swinging ways. Much has been made about his O-swing rate or the rate Hamilton swings at pitches out of the strike zone. rates Hamilton's increase in doing so way more than PitchF/X does, which makes you wonder which one is more accurate.

If you believe Fangraphs, then his O-swing rate the last three years has gone through the roof. But if you believe PitchF/X, then he had a one-year blip in 2012 and his rate in 2013 was near his career norms.

Whichever is correct, there is no denying that Hamilton has no plate discipline. When a 30% O-swing rate or lower is the ideal, then Hamilton's PitchF/X career average of 39% is not good and never has been. But Hamilton produced despite that fact until 2013.

So is he done then as a productive player? I have a hard time making that pronouncement. If you look at his career, he has always had swings in his years. 2009 was otherworldly and then 2010 was not. In fairness, there was some injury problems there.

There is a little hope in that his second half of 2013 was much better than his first half. And he finished real strong in September, though it is troubling that his homer total fell off in the second half. Hamilton's batting average and on-base percentage improved dramatically in the second half, but his first half contained more power.

While there is hope that Hamilton bounces back in 2014, I don't expect it. Half of his games are in a ballpark where he has never seemed comfortable at the plate. Unless he can adjust to the slider pitchers are feeding him and get his groove back against fastballs, then Hamilton becomes an .800 OPS guy, which simply is not enough to help the Angels where they need to go.

So far the projections match my feelings that Albert Pujols will bounce back some in 2014. You have to assume that 2013's results were totally from injuries suffered to Albert's wheels. He tried to play and could barely walk, never mind run and still hit 17 homers in 99 games.

And yes, 2013 finished a three year arc of decline for Pujols that has seen his OPS fall from consistently over one to .906 his last year in St. Louis to .859 in 2012 and then .767 in 2013. I still believe much of 2012 and 2013's problems were health related but time will tell.

All I know is that for Albert Pujols' first ten years, he was right up there with the greats of all time. At the age of 33, he only needs eight more homers for 500. In only 13 years, he has compiled over 2,300 hits and over a thousand extra base hits. Does a guy like that just fall into sheep dip? Maybe. Maybe not.

Like Hamilton, Pujols has fallen off against the fastball. He killed them in the past and fell off in his last year at St. Louis to half his previous value against fastballs and then that was cut in half again in 2013. Pujols never had negative values against any pitch type in his first ten years but was in the negative on three different pitch types in 2013.

Steamer and Oliver both project Pujols to bounce back somewhat in 2014. Though that bounce back will not get him back to where he was in his first ten years, it is still a projection that is optimistic that he will have some impact for the Angels.

Personally, I don't think Pujols is done as a player and I expect one or two more big seasons from him. I do believe his health has not been optimal since 2011. If he can come back feeling good in 2014, then people may be surprised by what he does. Heck, Harmon Killebrew had an MVP season at the age of 33 after a down season plagued by injury. That slugger followed his MVP season with another great one at the age of 34.

For the Angels, you know that (if he stays healthy) Mike Trout is going to Mike Trout. But if Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols can recapture some of their past glory and give the phenom some support, 2014 might be a far better scene for the Angels than 2013 was.