Wednesday, May 26, 2010

And the Jays do it again!

Less than a week after scoring six runs on six solo home runs against Dan Haren and the Diamondbacks' bullpen, the Blue Jays scored three runs off of four hits against Ervin Santana. Three of these hits were, you guessed it, solo home runs. To go with their nine home runs in those two games, the Blue Jays also struck out nineteen times, while walking once. To reverse an old baseball saying, you can't hit a solo home run if someone is clogging up the bases!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Is Ortiz' Resurgence Sustainable?

David Ortiz has had a spectacular May so far (.351/.397/.754 with 7 HR), pushing back the questions of whether or not the Red Sox would have to cut him. In order to answer whether or not this start was sustainable, I dug into the underlying numbers a bit more. I should probably start with a fairly standard caveat about small sample sizes, particularly with the monthly data. I believe that some of these differences are striking enough to be "real", rather than an artifact due to sample size.

Looking at Ortiz' dismal April and excellent March, there were a few major changes that jumped out to me. To begin with, he cut down on his ground ball percentage from 45.7% to 20%. Ground ball rates are a nice way to look at batted ball data; unlike differentiating between a fly ball and a line drive, there is no qualitative decision when it comes to ground balls. 45% was slightly below average to begin with, but 20% would have been the lowest in the majors in 2009. Cutting down on ground balls is very advantageous for Ortiz for two reasons: first, he is incredibly slow. Last year, Baseball Prospectus "valued" his base -2.4 runs. Second, because Ortiz typically pulls the ball on the ground, the shift kills the effectiveness of ground balls. Unsurprisingly, Ortiz' batting average on ground balls is .125 this season, compared to a league wide average of .250. By eliminating ground balls, Ortiz is getting rid of nearly automatic outs. Keeping his ground ball percentage low would go a long way to maintain his resurgence; while Ortiz has never had a month with so few ground balls, Carlos Pena did only hit a grounder in 29% of his at bats last year, so it isn't unheard of.

The other aspect that Ortiz has improved in May is he is hitting for more power. After having only 7.1% of his fly balls leave the park in March and April, Ortiz currently has a home run per fly ball rate of 30% for May. While this isn't a career high, no one topped 26% in 2009 (Mark Reynolds) and you have to go back to his heyday in the mid-2000's to see any month with similar power production. At this point in his career, I think we can safely say those days are behind us. However, if Ortiz can continue to replace ground balls with fly balls, a regression in the effectiveness of the fly balls may be offset by simply hitting more fly balls. As far as the good news goes, if Ortiz continues to hit 30% ground balls, he should still approach 25 or 30 home runs. If that ground ball rate climbs back up to 40% or 50%, his average and slugging are going to plummet.

As a fun side note, Emilio Bonifacio had the fewest home runs per fly ball in 2009 (1.1%), with one . This home run was hit on opening day, when he also went 4/5 and stole 3 bases. Needless to say, it was all downhill from there.

I'm afraid that the paragraphs above constitute the good news; beyond the successful changes, there are some very scary trends. As a hitter ages, they typically have increased walk and strikeout rates. The general thinking behind this is that as bat speed slows, a hitter becomes more selective. At first glance, David Ortiz seems to confirm this. He's seen 4.57 pitches per plate appearance this year, versus a career high of4.19 coming into this season and his strikeout rates are up to 34.5%, versus a career high of 24.8% last year. Although his strikeout rate for May is lower than in March and April (37% vs 31%, although with only 63 PA in each month, we're looking at a difference of a couple strike outs), it is still higher than any single month during the 2009 season. While Ortiz has seen his strikeout rate increase, his walk rate has actually decreased both in 2010 as a whole, and during his productive May relative to April. Currently, his walk rate for 2010 is the lowest since 2002, his last year with the Twins, perhaps due to a career high in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. Although the pitches per plate appearance are up, it does not appear to be due to any kind of improved plate discipline.

While Ortiz has been marvelous this May, I believe the underlying numbers are cause for concern. While the change in his batted ball profile make him more likely to be a valuable member of the Red Sox, I believe that his poor plate discipline will eventually catch up with him. Perhaps due to his poor start in 2009 and 2010, more pitchers have been willing to challenge him, allowing for his aggressive approach to pay off. I'm afraid that once the league recognizes the fact that he still has a substantial amount of power, we'll be back to seeing bail out swings on sliders down and away. Hopefully I'm wrong, but if Ortiz becomes unproductive again, things could get very ugly between Ortiz, the team, and the media. In fact, even though he's hitting now, Ortiz is already lashing out at the media, particularly Buster Olney, who questioned Ortiz' ability to get around on an inside fastball.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Prospect Check Up: Anthony Rizzo called up to AA

I missed this news when it happened a week or so ago, but Anthony Rizzo was called up to AA recently, taking starting 1B spot recently vacated by Lars Anderson's promotion to AAA. Rizzo's final line at high A Salem was .248/.333/.479. The average is a bit lower than you'd like to see, although the questions surrounding him coming into this season were about his power potential. Rizzo is off to a nice start in AA, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts, and a couple of home runs in 34 at bats.

Since I can't talk about one without talking about the other, Lars Anderson is also doing fairly well at AAA, after destroying AA for a month. So far Anderson is hitting .250/.375/.476 with a couple of home runs. I'd say the most impressive thing about his play so far in AAA is his approach - while his strikeout totals have been high, he's showing a very nice batting eye. The strikeouts are something to keep an eye on though - he's striking out in 30% of his plate appearances so far in AAA and even when he was hitting extraordinarily well in AA.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The AL East Meat Grinder

Year in and year out the AL East gets a lot of publicity about being the toughest division in baseball. This year has been no surprise, but I thought I'd take a closer look at just how good the AL East has been this year. Even including the woeful Orioles (7-14 outside the AL East), the AL East is 9 games above .500 against the AL Central (32-23) and 12 games above .500 against the AL West (36-24). Unsurprisingly, this dominance is reflected in run totals. The AL East has the top FOUR scoring offenses in the AL, and the first, fourth, and seventh best pitching staffs (Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jay, respectively).

In a rather depressing note, the Red Sox have actually allowed more runs than any other team in the league. The park certainly has something to do with it, but this is hardly a team built on pitching and defense right now. Another contributing factor may be that the Red Sox have faced off against division rivals 24 times so far, and AL East teams average 225 runs scored, versus 175 for the AL Central and 172 for the AL West. If one were rather cynical, you could argue that's because those teams get to face the Red Sox and the Orioles' pitching staffs.

Looking at the Pythagorean won - loss records, using Bill James' quick and dirty formula - none of the teams really jump out as over or under performing. However, I'm not sold on the Blue Jays as a real contender - they've only played 12 games against the AL East, while the other 4 teams have played at least 18 games against divisional opponents. Also, their team OBP is a meager .310; while their power laden lineup offsets that, I don't think the starts by either Vernon Wells (11 HR) or Jose Bautista (12 HR) are sustainable.

Finally, in case there was any doubt in your mind, the Rays are for real. In fact, they're the best team in baseball, and it isn't even close. The Rays are second in the AL in runs scored and first in runs allowed. But that doesn't really show just how strong their pitching has been. Despite all those numbers above about how great the AL East is offensively, the Rays have allowed 128 runs this season, which is 36 runs better than the second place Mariners, who have the luxury of a huge stadium and a weaker division. If there is one weakness with the Rays, it might be their relief pitchers, especially with JP Howell missing the remainder of the season after reinjuring his shoulder. As the season goes on, we may see some of their top tier minor league pitchers filling a relief role, much like David Price did during their 2008 World Series run.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Another Prospect Check Up

Mark Wagner - C, AAA Pawtucket
This offseason I had touted Mark Wagner as a potential replacement for Jason Varitek as the back up catcher. Well, that certainly looks pretty silly now. Varitek is leading the team in OPS in limited at bats and is tied for second in home runs. Wagner, on the other hand, continued to struggle at AAA, posting a .226/.295/.396 line before breaking his hamate bone in his hand. This is a fairly common baseball injury, and the usual treatment is to simply remove the bone. Wagner will be out for another 4-6 weeks, but typically it can take a full year for power to return. Wagner will turn 26 in early June, so the window for him to become an established backup catcher is rapidly shrinking.

Jose Iglesias - SS, AA Portland
Jose Iglesias is the biggest international player the Sox have signed since Daisuke. The 20 year old Cuban shortstop held his own in the pitching heavy Arizona Fall League this year, and the Red Sox decided to be aggressive and place him in AA/ The scouting on Iglesias had been that his glove was spectacular and major league ready, but the bat was a question mark. So far in AA, Iglesias is doing his best to answer those questions. Even though he is only 20 years old, which is very young for AA, and is in his first professional season in the US, Iglesias has impressed, putting up a .308/.348/.423 line. I doubt we'll see him in Boston this year, but because of his glove and the lack of other prospects or solid experienced minor leaguers, it wouldn't be shocking to see him fill in for Scutaro if there were a minor injury.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Rest in Peace, Dom

Dom DiMaggio died today at the age of 92. Along with Johnny Pesky, he was one of the last connections to some of the great Red Sox teams from the 1940's and 1950's. The Globe has a nice obituary for him, but for those who are interested in the relationship between DiMaggio, Pesky, and Ted Williams during and after their baseball careers, I highly recommend David Halberstam's book "The Teammates".

An interesting note of Braden's perfect game

There have been plenty of thoughtful posts about Braden's perfect game by more eloquent writers than me, such as Joe Posnanski, or the more numerically inclined, such as Jack Moore at Fangraphs, who pegs the likelihood at 15.2 in a million. But the thing that I noticed is that the Rays have been victims of the last two perfect games. Since there have only nineteen perfect games in MLB history, it shouldn't be all that surprising.

What surprises me is that both in 2009 and 2010 the Rays are a very good offensive club. They're second in the AL in runs this year (174), only behind the Yankees, and 5th in OBP. In 2009, the Rays were 5th in runs scored and OBP in the AL too. There are two things that do jump out at me though - first, both games were day games after night games, and were "get away days", games before the team travels. The other thing I noticed is that Dallas Braden and Mark Buehrle have similar styles. Both rely on good control to minimize walks and a good defense behind them, as neither strike out many batters. Statistics from Buster Olney (Insider required) show that Braden and Buehrle had the lowest number of swinging strikes in all no hitters since 2007. Their pitching repertoires are also quite similar, with both having fastballs that top out in the mid to high 80's, but include a mix of 4 seamers, two seamers, and cut fastballs to go with a changeup and a slider.* If you guys can think of more pitchers in the AL with similar repertoires, I think it would be really interesting to compare how the have Rays hit against those pitchers over the last few years versus how they hit against other starters.

*According to Fangraphs' Pitch FX data, Buehrle hasn't thrown any sliders this year, but has thrown them regularly (12-22% of his pitches) over the past years. I assume that this may have something to do with a change in the classification system, rather than a change in approach.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Red Sox Week in Review: Sweep, then swept

It was a 4-3 week for the Sox, but it was very up and down. The week started off strong, with a sweep of the Blue Jays in Toronto, but the Sox were swept by the lowly Orioles in Camden in the next series. The bats woke up at home last night, with a 17-8 thrashing of the struggling Angels to open a ten game home stand. Hopefully the home stand goes well, as the Yankees come to Fenway for the weekend.

Overall the Red Sox scored a lot of runs over the past week (7/game), but also gave up an awful lot (5.9/game). A few very high scoring games bumped these numbers up though, with a 13-12 and and a 17-6 win, as well as an ugly 12-9 loss. These three games accounted for 39 of the 49 total runs scored, while there were also three low scoring, one run games scattered across the week. Thus far the Red Sox have played in 11 one run games so far this season, the most in the majors, and have gone 6-5, which is about what you'd expect. One interesting note is that the Red Sox are 1-5 in extra inning games, including 0-2 this past week.

Despite the high scoring games and a couple of close losses, the back end of the bullpen pitched well, in particular, the power right handed arms. Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard, and Papelbon combined for 14 2/3 innings while only allowing 11 base runners and three runs, one of which were unearned. The rest of the bullpen was a disaster though, with Okajima, Atchison, Wakefield, and Schoenweiss all getting roughed up. The problems with the bullpen after the top setup guys may account for the Sox' poor record in extra inning games; once Tito gets past the trusted arms, things get ugly fast. This is a bit of a surprise considering the Sox brought in a lot of arms to compete for the last couple bullpen spots.

Offensively, both Beltre and Drew are hitting well (13/30 and 11/28 respecitvely), although what really caught my eye is Tito's use of the bench. Unlike in past years, the Red Sox have been pretty aggressive with the use of pinch hitters, pinch runners, and defensive replacements; over the past week the Sox have used an average of 11 position players per game. This is probably due to the injuries to Ellsbury and Cameron, which leaves the Sox without a solid hitting center fielder with adequate range. Also, Ortiz and Lowell have been platooned, with Ortiz in particular being removed from the game when a left-handed reliever comes in. It will be interesting to see how Francona juggles playing time over the next week or two; neither Ortiz nor Lowell seem to be happy with the platoon situation, but Lowell is hitting and Papi is not. With only two lefties coming up this week (Kazmir and Sabathia), we'll see if they stick with the hot bat and start cutting into Ortiz' share of the platoon.