Saturday, February 01, 2014

Friday, January 31, 2014

So long, Lance Berkman and Michael Young

A couple of Texas institutions during the past fifteen years hung up their spikes this week. Between the two of them, Lance Berkman and Michael Young banged out 3,940 hits while wearing the uniform of teams from Texas. Berkman, of course, was the first round draft pick of the Houston Astros who had quite a career there and Young plied his trade with the Texas Rangers for his long career.
Though they were both drafted in 1997 and both were institutions where they played and banged out consistent .300 batting averages over the years, the similarity between the two players pretty much ends there. If the sun were Cooperstown, Lance Berkman was the Earth and Young, probably Jupiter. I said Pluto last night on Twitter, but that was a bit unkind and in response to another blogger who stated that Young retired on the cusp of Cooperstown. Young was not even close to that kind of player.
But Lance Berkman was. If he could have stayed healthier, he could have really put up the kind of numbers that would get him a plaque. Berkman's injuries led him to have only twelve seasons where he played more than a hundred games. Out of those twelve, he slugged over .500 eleven times and had over a .400 on-base percentage eight times.
Just to give you an idea of how different they were offensively, Lance Berkman had a career wOBA of .400 on the dot. Michael Young had a career wOBA of .342. Lance Berkman's offense was worth 433.6 batting runs during his career. Young's offense was worth 44.2, almost ten percent of Berkman's contribution. Berkman finished with a 144 wRC+ (same as his OPS+) and Young, 104.
Interestingly, they finished within six total bases of each other for their career, but Berkman compiled his in almost 800 fewer plate appearances. Berkman's 1,201 career walks more than doubles Young's career total.
Young was much more durable. In one twelve year stretch, Young played more than 150 games in eleven of those seasons. He also led the league in hits twice and batting average once. He made seven All Star teams and finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice.
Young was more of a cog in a wheel of some very good Rangers teams (and some very bad ones). Berkman was a contemporary with Biggio and Bagwell for years and was just as much as an offensive star as either of them.
Young will always be marked down a bit because he played half of his games in Texas Rangers' home parks, always considered hitters' paradise. Indeed, his home OPS for his career is 108 points higher than his road OPS.
Berkman just flat out hit no matter where he was. For his career, Berkman a .946 OPS guy at home and .940 on the road. His OPS was over .900 for every month of the year--over .950 for three of those months. He had a career .970 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position, a .926 OPS in late and close games and a .956 OPS in tie games.
Young played more valuable positions on the field and his versatility is somewhat what kept him a fixture for so long. That is not to say that he always played them well. Berkman played the bulk of his career as a left-fielder (while Bagwell was at first) and then as a first baseman: two positions that do not rate highly on the positional skill ranking. But he played them reasonably well most of the time.
Young was strictly a right-handed batter who was consistent against pitchers who threw with either arm. Lance Berkman was a switch-hitter who was much, much better batting left-handed.
Both players were considered good clubhouse guys. Berkman was known for his humor and for keeping things loose and teammates laughing. Young was a leader of his clubhouse in Texas for many years.
Both played quite a few post-season games. Berkman over-performed his career numbers there was killer in his two World Series appearances. Young under-performed in his post-season career.
As you have seen, Lance Berkman was twice as valuable a player than Michael Young. But both are gone now and after watching them for all these years, they are going to be missed. Baseball goes on, but every so often, you lose players that have seemed to be with you forever. Michael Young and Lance Berkman were Texas baseball and it won't be the same without them. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Edinson Volquez is not the next Liriano

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a bit like the Statue of Liberty when it comes to broken pitchers: "Give me your tired, your poor..." They took a seemingly broken A.J. Burnett and received two productive years from him. They took a seemingly broken Francisco Liriano and he had a fantastic year for them last year and even won a playoff game. Now, the expectation is that their next tired and poor pitcher to reclaim is Edinson Volquez. It's not going to happen.
I have to admit that I am biased against the guy. So let's put that up there right at the start. He has been the worst starting pitcher in baseball over the past three seasons. He gave up the most earned runs allowed in his league in 2013 and the most walks in 2012. But people still look at him as a "stuff" guy that just needs to figure it out.
The past is littered with such guys. Stuff doesn't always get you a good pitcher. Let's put some things in perspective here. Edinson Volquez has made 154 starts in his career and pitched a total of 850 innings. For all that pitching, he has the grand sum of 1.7 rWAR to his credit. To be fair, gives his career 5.9 fWAR.
Volquez has one good season to his credit--2008, his first year with the Reds. That season featured his best BABIP and his best HR/9 rate. He also featured a 75.5% strand rate. All of which lead him to a FIP that season of 3.60. It was a good season. But the rest has been a whole lot of nothing.
Are there legitimate comparisons with Liriano who had his own struggles with the Twins before coming to Pittsburgh? Well, yes, if you want to state that both had been disappointing. But there was always some concern (whether fair or not) that the Twins never believed in him because he did not fit their pitch-to-contact, low walk mantra.
I think the comparison ends pretty much there. After completing a successful 2013, Liriano now has three very good seasons to his credit in his eight years of pitching. Volquez still has the one. Liriano has a 2.41 strikeout to walk ratio for his career. Volquez is at 1.77.
Liriano has a 1.333 WHIP for his career. Volquez has a career WHIP of 1.505. Liriano has a devastating pitch, his slider, which has racked up 99+ runs in value over his career and a change-up that has given him 16.4 runs of value above average. Volquez does not have such a killer pitch and his highest pitch value for any of his pitches is his change-up which has a career run value of 5.9. Every other Volquez pitch type has a negative value.
Liriano has struck out a batter more per nine for his career more than Volquez while walking a batter less. I think the situation with Liriano and the Pirates last year was that the Pirates had something to work with, just like what they did with Burnett. I don't see the same canvas with Edinson Volquez.
Maybe I have been so down on Volquez for so long that I cannot see the silver lining the Pirates are seeing. I certainly can be proven wrong in thinking that there is no chance the Pirates turn him around. Some of his peripherals with his short stint with the Dodgers were better. So maybe that is what the Pirates see.
The projections are fairly kind to him. Two that I checked in with have him finishing with a 4.01 FIP. Another pegs it at 4.36 (his career average). Perhaps that would be good enough for what the Pirates are looking for. As a fourth or fifth guy in the rotation, that would be somewhat acceptable.
But those projections still like his 8.4 K/9 rate and look at his low LOB rate and high BABIP and say that he was unlucky. Perhaps. But perhaps he simply is not a very good pitcher who is what he is. I could be wrong. But don't count me as an optimist here that the Pirates will raise another pitcher from the dead.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why should people hold ill will to Jerry Remy?

We have a fundamental question to ask here. How much of a son or daughter's actions are the responsibility of their parents? How much hate to parents of mass killers should there be? The answer to the question has a lot to do with some angst being reported about the public's response to Jerry Remy returning to the broadcast booth in Boston.
Here is a typical argument against such a move written by Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald.  Buckley says quite frankly in the piece that Remy should not return. He later waffles a bit, but here is the major meat of his concern:
Yes, Remy struck all the right cords of grief yesterday when he expressed his condolences to the Martel family. He began the conversation that way and he ended it that way. And to look into Remy’s eyes is to see a man whose life, whose family’s life, has been thrust into chaos in the aftermath of the events of August 15. He also spoke of his 5-year-old granddaughter, saying, “This is a little girl who is going to grow up with no mother and no father. She’s probably going to have issues. We can’t even imagine at this point.”
And sadly, that’s what is at issue. To watch a Red Sox game on NESN this season, and to see and hear Remy engage in his famously upbeat and entertaining banter with play-by-play man Don Orsillo, it will be difficult not to think of that brutal murder, difficult not to speculate about the trial, difficult not to think about that little girl.
Basically, what Buckley is saying here is that if Remy returns to the style that made him famous as a broadcaster and made he and Orsillo one of the most entertaining duos in baseball is compromised by what the public thinks about what Remy's son did.
If you haven't heard what happened with Remy's son, you'll have to look it up. It is brutal and it is awful in the most unimaginable way. But again, the question remains: How much should the public hold Remy responsible for his son's crime?
I say none. I came from a broken home and my choices have led me to a productive and reasonably honorable life. Others have come from perfect households and much love to commit horrible crimes. Drug addicts, murderers and other bad things that happen to the children of families are their own choices.
I don't buy that a criminal should be let off because they were beaten severely as a child. Every human being has a thousand choices each and every day. Some of those choices are between self-inflicting and inflicting harms on others. Different choices can always be made and are not. Oh, there might be the odd disorder that renders a person incapable of making good choices, but I think those are rarer than most people think.
I have dealt with this personally with drug addiction within my own family. The child was loved and surrounded by care and good examples of what being a good person and a good citizen are. The child chose a life of drugs and stealing and crime. Despite the human nature that makes us blame ourselves as parents, the truth is that the child made all the wrong choices.
Jerry Remy did not commit that horrible crime. Jerry Remy did not turn his granddaughter into an orphan. His son did. Remy was a baseball player and then a broadcaster. That means a lot of traveling and being away from home. But Remy says that his wife was a great mother and I believe that. The son made the choices, not the parents.
Feel sorry for the grandchild and for Mr. and Mrs Jerry Remy and for Jennifer Martel's family. But do not deprive the man from going on with his life doing what he was meant to do. A horrible thing happened. Everyone does not need to be punished because of it.

Starlin Castro and his nosedive

Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs burst onto the scene as a twenty year old kid in 2010. In his next 445 games for the Cubs, he belted out 529 hits including 96 doubles, 26 triples and 27 home runs. He looked like the brightest young shortstop in the game. Before the spring of 2013, there were legal troubles and the entire 2013 season was a wash for him offensively as everything went downhill. What went wrong with Starlin Castro and will he right himself in 2014?
If you look at the counting stats, you can see just how far Castro fell in 2014. Here are his string of OPS figures for his seasons thus far: 755, 773, .753, .631. Which number doesn't fit in there? Yeah, it is that obvious.
There are many opinions as to what happened. Jeff Sullivan of believes that a more patient approach was forced on him and it backfired.  Another source, which I cannot seem to find at the moment, believed that BABIP was at least partially to blame.
Let's look at a couple of these insights to see what they are about. First. Sullivan makes a good point in that the Cubs encouraged Castro to see more pitches and he did. The problem, as Sullivan points out, was that Castro was very successful on the first pitch and by not swinging at the first pitch, he lost one of his best weapons.
Sullivan also shows that despite seeing more pitches, Castro did not walk any more than he did in the past and in fact, walked less. His walk rate was the lowest of his career and the strikeout rate was his highest.
The BABIP theory might be part of Sullivan's theory. Perhaps losing the first pitch to jump on, Castro's contact success suffered. If you look at Castro's heat maps for each of his years, his contact led to over a .300 average on just about every quadrant of the plate and even just off the outside corner and middle in as well.
If you look, then, at his heat map for 2013, only the upper third of the plate led to contact that was productive and just off the plate, middle-in was his happy zone. Every other quadrant of the plate was awful.
To me, the biggest "tell" is his success on line drives, or I should say the lack of it in 2013. Here are Castro's BABIPs on line drives for his career (starting in 2010): .738, .739, .716 and .593. Again, which number doesn't fit?
That is a naturally low BABIP on line drives. The Major League average is around the .660 mark. Castro has been super consistent in the number of line drives he hits per season. The difference was that in 2013, less of them found free space.
Starlin Castro also hits about 1.5 ground balls for every fly ball, or nearly 50% of his batted balls. Whether it is due to poorer contact, better defensive positioning or what, but his BABIP on fly balls also suffered. After being in the .228 to .254 range for his first his first three years, it fell off to .177 according to
The thing that hurts the most about Castro's season in 2013 is that he was particularly awful against teams in his own division. He was good against the Cardinals. He has always been good against the Cardinals. But look at these OPS figures against the rest of the division: Reds - .432 (!), Brewers - .599 and Pirates - .491. He has always been pretty successful against all those teams in the past.
So what does the future hold for Starlin Castro? That depends on a few things that helped cause such a bad season. Perhaps his head was in a bad space between the legal troubles last spring and the lawsuit and counter-lawsuit going on in the Dominican Republic. Perhaps he was just unlucky with his line drives and twenty more of them will fall in for him in 2014. Perhaps the Cubs will allow him to go back to hacking at first pitches. After all, he is never going to be a patient hitter. That is just not who he is.
The important thing for the Cubs is that Castro is a plus player at a thin position around the Majors if he has an OPS of .750. But another season in the .630 range will have to force them to rethink the future with him.
For the Cubs, Starlin Castro has to be better against his NL Central opponents and he has to have be better than he was in 2013. It will be one of the more interesting stories to watch in the coming season.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Tigers are getting defensive

The Detroit Tigers had the third best pitching staff (overall) in the American League in 2012 and 2013. They had the second best offense in the American League in 2013 and the fourth best (by OPS+) in 2012. That combination should land you close to 100 wins each season, right? But the Tigers won 93 games in 2013 and 88 in 2012. Those totals are not terrible by any means and got them to the post season. The missing ingredient has been defense.

The idea for this post came from a conversation between Neal Kendrick (@neal_kendrick) of High Heat Stats and Jacob Smith (@JTD_Smith) that started with this tweet:

Think about that for a second. Their starting rotation featured three pitchers in the top four in the American League. And Doug Fister was eighth! Their fifth starter, Rick Porcello, is a ground ball pitcher that needs fielders to field his batted balls.

How did that staff ever lose? They lost, at least in part, to fielding.

In the old school way of looking at things, the Tigers' fielding would have looked great. Hey, they finished with the least amount of errors in the AL and the highest fielding percentage. The trouble is, we now know that fielding percentage is nice if you are getting to a lot of batted balls. But when you are not, you have a lack of defensive efficiency no matter how good you are at catching and throwing the ball.

In 2012, the Tigers were next to last in the AL in defensive efficiency. In 2013, they were tied for tenth out of fifteen teams. In 2012, the team as a whole had a -31 runs below average according to Baseball Info Solutions. In 2013, that figure was worse and ended up at -64 runs! That is between five and six wins of bad defense. While we are not dealing with direct cause and effects here, it is a coincidence that adding those lost wins gets the team pretty close to 100.

Who is to blame for this lack of focus on defense for the Tigers? It is easy to blame Jim Leyland because he is gone now. But you have to give him some of the focus. Leyland wanted as much offense in the lineup as he could possibly stack. He would bring outfielders to play second base. You have to give part of the blame to the general manager and owner who signed the biggest free agent regardless of what it meant for the offense.

Whatever the case may be, it looks like the organization is finally paying some attention to defense. The Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder was one example of sacrificing a little offense to get much better defense. The move also allows Miguel Cabrera from third base, where he was a disaster last season, to first base, a position he is much more capable of playing.

If you look at just the infield (the outfield is okay), you have the following improvements from last year again based on Baseball Info Solutions and a projection of what will happen in 2014:

First base: Fielder to Cabera: -10 runs to -3.
Second base: Omar Infante and others to Kinsler: -7 to 12
Shortstop: Jhonny Peralta and Jose Iglesias: 0 to 10
Third base: Cabrera to Nick Castellanos: -15 to -5.

By my count, that is an improvement of 46 runs just in the infield. The infield improvement does not only improve the infield but also the pitching. The biggest beneficiary will be Rick Porcello and his 50+% ground balls. But it will also help the entire pitching staff.

The one question, of course, is how much offense the new infield will cost. Most feel that Iglesias' offense was a fluke last year. We don't know yet how Castellanos will fare at the Major League level. And you have to wonder how much Kinsler will dip leaving the friendly conditions of Texas.

Kinsler is a loss in offense compared to Fielder and Castellanos (naturally) will not equal Cabrera offensively. But even if the Tigers lose twenty runs of offense, that is more than doubled by the improvement of the defense.

You have to wonder if Iglesias and Castellanos struggle early on offense what the Tigers will do. Hopefully, the Tigers will stay with it. The team has come close to the promised land in the last two seasons. Perhaps with some defense, they can make the last hurdle to get there.