Saturday, February 08, 2014

Ralph Kiner and the 1955 pennant race

Ralph Kiner's play in 1955 almost made a difference in the pennant race between the Indians and the Yankees. Unfortunately, his back broke down in the home stretch and it was the Yankees who went to the World Series. Check out my post on It's About the Money, Stupid.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Allen Craig and his slugging percentage

There is a world of numbers available to the baseball writer and the ardent fan of the game of baseball. While this is a very good thing, the numbers can also make us restless and under-appreciate the great offensive game of some of the players we write about and root for. You see this with Votto in Cincinnati with people screaming that he takes too many walks and does not drive in enough runs. And you see it with Allen Craig and people talking about his power numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Craig slugged .555 and .522 in 2011 and 2012. He hit 33 homers in his first 733 plate appearances during those two seasons. He only hit 13 of them in 563 plate appearances in 2013. So what happened?
There are a combinations of things that lowered his home run total. The two main culprits are that he had less chances to hit them and on the chances where he did have the opportunity, those batted balls did not go over the fence as often. Let's break this down a bit.
Allen Craig hit more ground balls and line drives in 2013 than he has in any other season. And correspondingly, the percentages were higher on both. Of his batted balls, 297 of his 413 batted balls were either ground balls (45%) or line drives (26.9%). Obviously, ground balls are not going to go flying over the fence. And generally, line drives do not either. Of Craig's 199 line drives over the last two seasons, only five of them have gone for homers.
Having less of a percentage of his batted balls being fly balls means less of a chance for a possible home run. His percentage of fly balls went from 37% in 2011 to 33.3% in 2012 to 28.1% in 2013. The three years do seem to show a trend. His rate of ground balls and line drives have gone up in each of the three years as well.
Having less of an opportunity to hit a home run due to less fly balls can then be combined with less of those fly balls actually clearing the fences. Just like the other trends listed previously in the last paragraph, there is a three year downward trend for Craig's fly balls going for homers. That number was 18.3% in 2011 and went down to 17.1% in 2012 and then sank drastically to 11.2% in 2013.
Fortunately, Craig is very successful with his ground balls and line drives. His BABIP on ground balls was .279 in 2013, much higher than the league average. And his line drive BABIP and overall OPS with them are off the charts. And a 26.9% line drive rate is elite and right up there with Votto and some of the other great hitters.
When you have a great hitter like Allen Craig, you most often see a guy who is not pull conscious. And Craig is not a big pull hitter. Most of his batted balls are hit up the middle. He only pulled the ball 110 times in 2013. Center field and the gaps are the furthest distances to have to hit a fly ball for a homer.
But Craig is also doing less with the balls he pulls as far as power goes. In 2012, eight of his 108 pulled batted balls went over the fence. That number dropped to 4 in 110 plate appearances in 2013.
To tie up a little of what we have talked about so far, the data seems to indicate that there is a three year trend in Allen Craig hitting less fly balls and having less of those fly balls going over the fence. The numbers also indicate that Craig is not overly prone to pull the ball and when he has, less of those batted balls are going over the fence.
Add up this information and you have a recipe for a first baseman/outfielder with less and less power as the last three years have progressed. That doesn't mean that Craig is any less of a great hitter. But he is less of a slugging threat than he was when he first arrived on the scene.
Trends are more apt to continue or taper off than they are to reverse. The prognosis for Craig as a power threat is not good. To be sure, this has implications in the fantasy baseball world, but it also affects a bit on how often the Cardinals score and their willingness to play Matt Adams more at first because Adams hits more homers.
This need for more power by the Cardinals weakens the Cardinals' defense. Craig is a better first baseman than Adams and most outfielders are better outfielders than Allen Craig. The Cardinals' need for power due to less provided by Craig means less defense to play them both.
All of this sounds like criticism and it is not. Allen Craig is an elite hitter who, according to the numbers, seems to perform really well in the clutch. But unless trends are undone and Craig changes his approach, the trend for Craig is to hit with less power while his efficiency increases. More power would be nice, but most fans around the country would agree that having Allen Craig on their team's lineup would be mighty tasty.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Alex Avila-nche

In 2011, Alex Avila seemed to come out of nowhere to become one of the best catchers in the American League. He won the Silver Slugger Award, made the All Star Team, put together a wOBA of .384, threw out 32% of base steal attempts and put up a 4.6 fWAR, 5.2 rWAR season. However, that was he pinnacle of his young career and he has come crashing down the last two seasons. It has been an Alex Avila-nche.
Here are his last three seasons in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and wRC+:
  • 2011: .295/.389/.506, .895, 140
  • 2012: .243/.352/.384, .736, 104
  • 2013: .227/.317/.376, .693, 92
That is a pretty heady fall. But it was not just his offense that fell. He had, by the numbers, his worst fielding season and after three years of throwing out base steal attempts at a 30% clip or higher, he fell off to 17% last season. Many give the pitcher most of the credit or lack of it on stolen bases, but Avila has dealt with pretty much the same group of pitchers in each of his seasons.
What is to make of this drop of his overall game? No doubt, catching is a tough position and a catcher gets dinged up over time. That kind of abuse makes you give an extra pause to the kind of offensive players that Piazza and Posada were to hit so well for so long as catchers.
But there are other factors too. Alex Avila has very good plate discipline. But sometimes pitchers figure those kinds of patterns too. Avila, like Gardner in New York, takes the first pitch a lot. In a nearly one third of Avila's at bats last season, he took the first pitch and also nearly a third of the time, he was 0-1 in the count.
It is interesting to note that first pitch strikes really jumped for Avila last season. Up until 2013, the highest pitch strike rate against Avila was 56.9%. Last year, that jumped to 62.3%. So pitchers really tried to get that first strike against him and did on a much more higher occasion.
Why is that important? Because Avila is a .176 hitter after an 0-1 count. These scouts and today's pitchers are no dummies.
Another aspect that jumps out at you with Avila is his success rate against left-handed pitching. In his great year, he compiled a .779 OPS against lefties. In 2012, that fell precipitously to .539. In 2013, that number did a further Avila-nche to an awful .455. That forces the manager's hand and makes Avila more of a platoon catcher as we saw last year with Brayan Pena.
Alex Avila's great season of 2011 was aided somewhat by a very high batting average on batted balls in play. His BABIP that season was .366. The last two seasons, that has fallen to a little above average at .313 in 2012 and .302 in 2013. That is important too because Avila strikes out quite a bit. Last season, Avila struck out 29.6% of the time. That was a career high after averaging 24.1% for his career.
Add the two together: Less balls in play plus a lower BABIP and you have a nice recipe for a deep regression.
So where do we go from here with Alex Avila? He will probably get more playing time with Pena gone. The new backup is young Bryan Holaday. Holaday has done nothing to show that he is any great shakes as a batter. His small sample size the last two seasons should not give anyone any optimism that he is that good a hitter if you look at his minor league records.
Holaday will spell Avila against left-handed pitchers, but since there are fewer of those than the alternative, Avila will get most of the playing time. All the projections have Avila bouncing back to the 2.5 WAR range in value after he tanked at 0.6 last year. But he is going to have to stay healthier and make some adjustments.
Jeff Sullivan of had a fascinating article about the beating that Avila takes behind the plate. Perhaps that is the smoking gun here. But Avila is a catcher and that will not change. That being said, Avila does not have the makings for a long career as a starting catcher and unless something changes soon, he is going to sink out of sight.