Monday, June 28, 2010

Meet the Red Sox new starting second baseman?

The Red Sox traded for Eric Patterson, the younger brother of current Oriole Corey Patterson, in a minor deal last week. In return for Patterson, the Red Sox sent Oakland Fabian Williamson, a minor league relief pitcher that the Red Sox had received in exchange for David Aardsma. Hopefully Patterson can match the success that Aardsma has had since that deal.

Eric Patterson was drafted by the Cubs in the 8th round of the 2004 draft by the Cubs, after his junior year at Georgia Tech. Patterson moved relatively quickly through the Cubs system after being drafted, reaching AA in his first full minor league season and AAA in his second. After a full season in AAA at age 24 when he posted an 817 OPS, Patterson had a cup of coffee with the Cubs. Although he had come up through the system as a second baseman, Patterson was used as an outfielder in his 7 game stint with the Cubs.

This was the apex of Patterson’s value as a prospect, as he was ranked 6th in the Cubs minor league system. After a strong showing in AAA (870 OPS), but a poor one in the majors, Patterson was shipping to Oakland. Just as with the Cubs, Patterson hit well with the A’s AAA affiliate in Sacramento, but was terrible when called up to the big leagues. This pattern repeated itself in 2009, and after spending most of 2010 as a bench player for the A’s, Patterson was designated for assignment to make room for Coco Crisp, who was coming off the disabled list.

Despite his struggles at the major league level, there is a lot to like about Patterson’s tools. For starters, unlike his hacktastic brother, he has an excellent eye. One scout quoted in the 2010 Baseball Prospectus Annual said that he was half the athlete Corey Patterson was, but twice the ball player. Also, Patterson has elite speed and is an excellent base runner. He stole 43 bases in 49 tries in AAA in 2009, and has yet to get caught in 22 major league stolen base attempts. In one aspect he is similar to his brother – contact. Unfortunately, neither Patterson can make consistent contact with the ball, as Eric Patterson’s career strikeout rate of 28.4% of his major league at bats shows. However, he did post 15-20% strikeout rates throughout his minor league career, so there is some hope for improvement.

Perhaps the biggest hope for improvement is that no one has given him a shot at full playing time. Granted, his performance hasn’t warranted full PT, but his minor league numbers indicate that he could be a viable major league second baseman. Pedroia’s 6-week DL stint may give Patterson the regular time at second to establish himself. Even if Theo and Tito decide to platoon Patterson and the right handed hitting Bill Hall (although I don't think either of them view Hall as a real 2B), Patterson will get the fat part of the platoon. If he does adjust to big league pitching, Patterson could be a valuable utility player for the Red Sox for the remainder of the season and beyond, thanks to his ability to play multiple positions and his base running ability. Also, because Patterson only accumulated 0.144 worth of major league service time coming into the season, he will be cost controlled for at least another two years. Overall, I think this is a great gamble by the front office. Patterson certainly isn’t going to Wally Pip Pedroia, but he has the potential to fill a gaping hole for the team now, and be useful down the road.

Walking Wounded

It has been a tough week for the Sox. A tragic gasoline fight accident amongst bullpen members left one game dead and another wounded in Colorado. Then, in a three game series against the Giants in San Francisco the Sox lost Pedroia for six weeks with a broken foot, Buchholz for a couple starts with a strained hamstring, and Victor Martinez for at least a few days with a broken thumb. These are just the latest in a rather long string of injuries for the team.

Update: So the Red Sox are going to place Victor Martinez on the DL after all. Hopefully he'll miss close to the minimum. With Mark Wagner and Dusty Brown, the two AAA catchers, on the minor league DL, it isn't clear who the back up will be. You wonder if the Red Sox will revisit Ianetta with the Rockies, although they've avoided making impulsive moves in the past.

The Sox "ace", Josh Beckett has missed about half his starts due to back and oblique injuries. When he was healthy enough to start, Beckett posted a gaudy ERA well over 7. If all goes right, Beckett would return in late July.

The expensive Japanese import, Daisuke Matsuzaka, has also missed about half of his starts for the team, mostly due to a sore fore arm. He has been solid, if unspectacular, in the nine starts he has been able to make, although it may be due to a bit of luck when it comes to keeping balls in the park (4.50 ERA vs a 5.13 xFIP, which is normalized for home run rate).

Even Clay Buchholz hasn't been spared. Trying to break up a double play in San Francisco on Saturday, Buchholz came up lame. Initially diagnosed with a hyper extended knee, Buchholz was later diagnosed with a minor hamstring tear. That sounds a lot scarier than it is; technically speaking, any strain is a tear. Buchholz is slated to be skipped in the rotation once, then return. The Red Sox have some flexibility here because they have two off days over the next week.

The guy who was supposed to lead the offense, Jacoby Ellsbury, has played all of NINE games all season, thanks to broken ribs courtesy of Adrian Beltre. Ellsbury was off the DL for a bit, before new fractures were discovered after he was unable to play effectively. Ellsbury is supposed to return sometime after the All Star Break, although very little information has been released since he went out to Athlete's Performance Institute in Arizone for rest and rehabilitation.

The player whose defense pushed Ellsbury from center field to left field, Mike Cameron, has battled an abdominal injury. At first, it was diagnosed as appendicitis, then kidney stones, but it turns out Cameron had kidney stones AND a tear in his abdominal wall. Ouch. This injury often requires surgery, but through rest and rehab, Cameron was able to come back after a month on the DL. However, for two weeks he wasn't able to play in consecutive games and is still bothered by pain from the injury.

Jeremy Hermida, the outfield depth for the Red Sox and one of the most talented 4th outfielders in the game, was another victim of a collision with Beltre. He was thankfully able to avoid breaking his ribs, instead just bruising them. Hermida has been out since June 9th and is looking at an early July return.

And finally we get to Pedroia, who Buster Olney argues is one of the most irreplaceable players in the game. The Sox are extremely weak at 2B in the farm system and off the bench, and even some of the players in the minors who might be able to fill in are hurt, such as Jose Iglesias, who broke his finger a week ago and Tug Hullet, who had been signed to be their back up infielder, has been horrendous in AAA. The Sox did snag Eric Patterson in a trade with the A's, although he's only slightly more of a real 2B than Bill Hall is. Patterson's minor league numbers are outstanding (.309/.363/.487 over 1300 AAA at bats), but he's struggled in his major league career (.224/.301/.340). We'll see if he can pull a Nava.

Yet somehow, despite all of this, the Red Sox are leading the wild card and only a game back of the Yankees. To start the season, if you had told me Beckett was going to miss half his starts and Ellsbury would have only played nine games by July 1, I would have taken 5 games back of the wild card in a heartbeat. I am not really sure how they've managed to do it, but they're just winning games.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Remembering the importance of small sample size

When doing any sort of statistical analysis, it can be really, really easy to fall prey to drawing conclusions based on a small sample, particularly when it fits with the overall story you are trying to tell about a player. Our minds try to create a pattern out of everything, even if it's more than likely (statistically speaking) just noise. Baseball statistics are no different, and in my curiosity I began looking in to it, figuring baseball statisticians that were both smarter and harder working than me had already figured it out. Lo and behold, I was right. Many statistics very quickly (swing rate for batters stabilizes within 50 PAs), while others, such as isolated power for a hitter or a pitchers walk rate, take most of a season. Here is a summary for when statistics for batters and pitchers stabilize, and for the more adventurous, the full, more detailed article is available as well, which goes in to the methods used to calculate these numbers. So, whether you are looking at a players stats trying to figure out if they'd be a good trade target in fantasy baseball, or trying to figure out why David Ortiz gets off to a slow start every April, keep these numbers in mind before drawing any conclusions.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Piling On: Some thoughts on Stephen Strasburg

Unless you live in a hole, you’re probably aware that Stephen Strasburg is a pretty good baseball player. In his three starts, he’s gone 2-0, with a hard luck no decision on Friday night. A lot has been made of Strasburg’s strike out totals, and rightly so. Strasburg struck out more batters in his first three starts than any other pitcher in MLB history. Currently, Strasburg’s strike outs per nine innings pitcher (K/9) sits at a preposterous 14.9. For some perspective, Tim Lincecum had a K/9 of 10.42, the highest for any pitcher who qualified for the ERA title. Looking at relievers, Jonathon Broxton led the way, with a K/9 of 13.50. In fact, Strasburg’s strike out rate is nearly identical to Eric Gagné’s MLB record of 14.98. Of course, Strasburg’s numbers are “au naturel”, unlike Gagné’s performance enhancing drug tainted numbers.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Strasburg has been his efficiency so far. In this era, pitch counts are heavily scrutinized from both ends – too few pitches and the old timers start to rant about back in their day pitchers would routinely throw 130, too many and you start to have people complain about a manager running a young arm into the ground. And that does happen; just look at the damage Dusty Baker did to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, both of whom had similar amounts of hype surrounding them as Strasburg. In order to protect their investment, the Nationals have played it safe and kept Strasburg on a relatively tight pitch count. In his three starts, he’s yet to top 95 pitches. That makes his strikeout totals even more impressive. You see, keeping a pitch count low and striking out a ton of batters simply don’t go hand in hand. From a common sense standpoint, you can induce a weak grounder with one pitch, but a strikeout takes at least three.

So far in his admittedly brief major league career, Strasburg is averaging 14.2 pitches per inning. That puts him in elite company, with some of the most efficient starting pitchers from 2009 – Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. But just how exactly does he do it? Swinging strikes, and lots of them. Batters are currently only making contact with 35% of his pitches out of the zone, compared to the MLB average of 66%. Unsurprisingly, Strasburg is leading the league in swinging strike percentage (15.8%, well ahead of second place Tim Lincecum). Not only that, but Strasburg is also top 3 in the league in generating swings on pitches out of the zone. Most guys that generate swings on pitches outside of the zone are command/control guys, who, if you’re feeling mean, could be labeled junk balers – Carl Pavano, for example. The intersection of guys who get batters to swing at a lot of pitches outside of the zone and guys who get lots of swings and misses when a pitch out of the zone is pretty much just Strasburg.

There are a couple of caveats, despite his amazing start. First, Strasburg hasn’t faced the strongest competition so far. The White Sox, Indians, and Pittsburgh are all in the bottom third of the league in terms of offense against right-handed pitchers, and the White Sox were without the benefit of a DH. Also, Strasburg doesn’t throw very many pitches in the zone. To a certain extent, this may be because he doesn’t have to, as evidenced by his ability to generate swings outside of the zone and because of his stuff, but the league may catch up to him a bit. Finally, we are talking three starts so far, but man, have they been impressive.

Update: Strasburg pitches on national television for the first time tonight, Monday, June 28, facing the Braves on ESPN 2. Sadly, Braves uber-prospect Jason Heyward will miss the game with a sore thumb. For those of you like me, who haven't had a chance to see him yet, this is a great opportunity.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Getting to know Felix Doubront

It looks like Felix Doubront will be called up for one or two startsto fill in for Daisuke Matsuzaka, so I thought folks might be interesting in learning a little more about him. Doubront is a tall and skinny 22 year old right hander, and was signed as an international free agent at age 16 out of Venezuela, and has spent six years in the Sox system. He throws a fastball in the low 90s , a plus changeup, and an inconsistent curveball. The changeup is his probably his best pitch, and as such he’s had a reverse platoon split in the minors. Baseball America rated him as the 18th prospect in the system. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus didn’t rank him in the top 15, and described him as “just kind of a generic solid lefty for me. [He’s] not a bad prospect, but not special.”

That said, this season Doubront has succeeded at both AA and AAA, and seems to have taken a step forward, cutting down on his walks and improving his strikeout to walk ratio. His overall numbers are solid- 6-1 with an ERA of 2.11 while striking out nearly a batter an inning and walking 3.3/9. Doubront is a groundball pitcher, and has yet to give up a homerun this season. Normal caveats about small sample sizes apply, since it has only been 60 innings in the minors, but if this improvement in limiting homeruns and keeping the ball on the ground is for real, the Sox could have a solid, inexpensive backend starter or swingman. Even if he’s not ready for the majors now, Doubront could still develop into a major league starter, given his young age.

Andrew’s wild ass guess stat line for Doubront’s start against the Dodgers:
5 1/3 IP, 3 Ks, 2 BBs, 6 hits, 3 runs

For further reading about Felix Doubront, or for his minor league stats, check out these links.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Red Sox 2010 Draft Signings

So far the only major picks to sign are Kolbrin Vitek (20th overall), who signed at the "slot" suggested bonus by MLB of $1.4 million and Bryce Brentz, who also signed at slot ($877,000). Workman, who was Baseball America's 16th overall player in the draft, and Anthony Ranaudo may be very difficult to sign. Ranaudo is represented by Scott Boras and is reportedly looking for top 10 bonus money, due to Ranaudo's status as the consensus #1 college pitcher and #2 prospect overall coming into this season. If either player signs over slot, then the Red Sox cannot officially sign them until the August 14th deadline. The rule is Bud Selig's clumsy attempt to rein in bonuses, despite the clear benefit for teams to go over slot; essentially, the thinking is that players cannot use deals signed by other prospects as leverage.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A closer look at a late round pick

Alex McCree, a senior from Georgia, was just drafted by the Dodgers in the 17th round. He is a former student of mine, so I took a closer look at his numbers and potential, and found some interesting things. To start, McCree is a very tall (6'6") left hander, with a plus fastball. Working as a short reliever this season, McCree struck out an incredible 38 batters in 22 1/3 innings while only 18 hits. Unfortunately, he also walked 32 and hit 6. Thanks to those numbers, an incredible 64% of the batters faced didn't put the ball in play.

Given how long a left handed reliever can have, plus how project-able McCree is, it seems like a good use of a 17th round pick by the Dodgers. The Dodgers clearly like his potential, as he was also a late round pick last year, as well, but instead he opted to return for his senior season. The key from here on out is going to be control; hopefully McCree will be able to return to his sophomore year form, when he posted a much more manageable 2.94/9 innings.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An interesting intersection of ecology and baseball

So just what exactly do the lake sturgeon, chironomid larvae, and the 2007 Red Sox world championship have to do with one another? More than you probably realize. The lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens, center) was once one of the most abundant fish species in the Great Lakes. However, thanks to demand for its meat and eggs and human development, the lake sturgeon is now uncommon. Despite their massive size (the largest individuals can be >6' and 200+lbs), sturgeon eat lots and lots of small organisms, like midge fly larvae in the upper left. Most of the large fish (salmon and lake trout mostly) that were introduced in the Great Lakes are piscivorous, meaning they eat other fish. If you're still here, stick with me. We'll get to baseball eventually, I swear.

Once the lake sturgeon population declined, the chironomid worm population exploded, thanks to the lack of predators. Not only were there no longer lake sturgeon to eat them, but the salmon introduced into the lake ate many of the smaller fish that normally would have eaten the chironomids too. The ecological term for this kind of interaction is a trophic cascade - basically, the change at the top of a food web can work its way down the food web. So what do lots and lots of chironomid larvae have to do with baseball? Perhaps you remember the common name for one species of chironomid - Canadian soldiers.

After the Indians dispatched the Yankees, the Sox were able to overcome a 3-1 deficit to advance to the World Series. And that, of course, led to the above right photo.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Red Sox 2010 Draft, Day 1

The first round as well as the sandwich round of the MLB draft finished was yesterday. The Sox selected at 20, 36, and 39. Picks 20 and 39 are from the Atlanta Braves signing Billy Wagner, while pick 39 is for the Mets signing Jason Bay. Because the Mets finished in the bottom half of the league, their first round pick was protected. Instead, the Red Sox will receive the Mets 2nd round pick, which is 57th overall. The Red Sox also lost their first round pick to the Blue Jays to compensate the Jays for the signing of Marco Scutaro.

Unlike last year, when the Red Sox selected Puerto Rican high schooler Reymond Fuentes with their only first or sandwich round selection, the Red Sox went with three college players this year: 3B Kolbrin Vitek at 20, OF Bryce Bretz at 36, and SP Anthony Ranaudo at 39.

Vitek was originally a second baseman in college, however very few teams believed he could stay there in the big leagues. Because of his excellent speed, many teams thought he would end up as a center fielder, although according to Pete Abraham at the Globe, the Red Sox seem to have him pegged as a third baseman.

Both Bryce Brentz and Anthony Ranaudo are juniors who had disappointing seasons after strong sophomore years. The Red Sox have tried to use this strategy in the past, drafting current Indians prospect Matt Laporta in the 14th round in 2005. It is a much bigger commitment to use a sandwich round pick, however, so the Red Sox must be hopeful they can sign both players. Ranaudo is a huge (6'7") right hander who can hit 95 MPH at times, but typically in the low to mid 90's. According to the scouting report from ESPN, he also has a deceptive delivery. Ranaudo missed some time early this season with a minor elbow injury, and ended up posting some fairly ugly numbers in 11 starts and 4 relief appearances - a 7.32 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP. However, the Red Sox are banking on his upside here, as he was exceptional in 2009, with a 3.04 ERA and 159 strike outs in 124 innings.

As an aside, the list of players the Red Sox have drafted, but failed to sign is pretty amazing. They include this year's 12th pick, catcher Yasmani Grandal, who dropped because of signability concerns, current Pirates top prospect Pedro Alvarez, the aforementioned Matt Laporta, and finally, Mark Teixeira. For those who enjoy learning missed opportunities like these, Fangraphs has been running a series on "The Ones that Got Away", the best players who were drafted, but not signed.

Bryce Brentz was hobbled by a stress fracture in his ankle during most of the season. He only missed a handful of games, but his junior season was considered a disappointment. While a .348/.444/.636 with 18 home runs is nothing to sneeze at, it is a let down following a .465/.541/.930 sophomore year. Another thing to keep in mind is that the level of competition is highly variable in college baseball, so numbers from the Sun Belt conference aren't equivalent to numbers from the SEC. Despite the weaker competition, ESPN's Scouts Inc wrote that he could end up second best college hitter in the draft, behind uber-prospect Bryce Harper.

Overall, the Sox seem to have done pretty well with the draft. Of course, it is impossible to really determine how good a draft is until you get four or five years down the line, but they scooped up some players who were viewed as potential top ten guys coming into this season. Keith Law listed the Red Sox among his "winners" of day 1 of the draft, and Epstein seems pretty pleased with it too, saying "We felt the draft broke our way."

Update: As I was writing this, the Red Sox picked another college pitcher, Texas SP Brandon Workman. Jason Churchill, of writes that the Sox have received "absurd value" so far. Also, he noted that because all four draftees have been college players, they could make an impact soon.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Advantages of Being Unique

Tim Wakefield is just about as unique as you can get in terms of a career path. He's been waived by the Pirates in his 20's, posted solid seasons starting and in the bullpen for the Sox, including one extraordinarily nerve wracking stretch as closer, and made his first All Star Game in his 40's. Throughout most of his career, Wakefield has been one of the only knuckleballers in the league. In the first half, you did have Steve Sparks in Detroit, and in the 2000's you had the occasional R.A. Dickey sighting, but hasn't been another established knuckleballer, particularly in the National League. At this point, Wakefield has been in the league long enough that most players in the AL have faced him a few times and at least have an idea of what they're getting into. However, because Wakefield was the only knuckleballer National Leaguers were facing, before this year with Dickey's resurgence and the rough start that Charlie Haeger has had in LA, I wondered - did National Leaguers fare worse against Wakefield because of the rarity of his pitch selection?

To start out, I limited the search to 2005 to 2009. I didn't include this year because I wanted to avoid confirmation bias by including Wakefield's marvelous start against the Phillies. Over that stretch, Wakefield made 138 starts - 119 against the AL and 19 against the NL. Against AL opponents, Wakefield was slightly worse than the average AL starter in every single category.

Wakefield Avg AL Starter
K/9 5.62 6.16
BB/9 3.13 3.00
K:BB 1.80 2.05
HR/9 1.23 1.12

Except, of course, in ERA and WHIP. Wakefield's ERA for 2005 to 2009 was slightly better than the AL average starter (4.61), as was his WHIP. The reason for Wakefield's success is quite simple, while most pitchers give up a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of about .300 and have very little control over that number, knuckleballers give up a lower BABIP, presumably due to weaker contact. Unsurprisingly, Wakefield's BABIP for this five year stretch was .258, compared to .307 in the AL for the same time frame. Those extra few outs make a difference, allowing Wake to succeed despite unimpressive underlying numbers. Now that we understand how Wakefield succeeds, how does he do against the NL? The answer? He does awfully well. For comparison's sake, I've left Wakefield's AL numbers in the table.

Wakefield vs AL Wakefield vs NL Avg NL Starter
ERA 4.54 3.66 4.46
WHIP 1.31 1.17 1.39

In 19 starts against the NL, Wakefield was transformed from a league average pitcher to a great #2. It is always nice to see your observations borne out by the data, but why did Wakefield do so much better against NL opponents? Were they just making weaker contact, resulting in an even lower BABIP? Striking out more often?

Wakefield vs AL Wakefield vs NL Avg NL Starter
K/9 5.62 5.61 6.47
BB/9 3.13 2.54 3.19
K:BB 1.80 2.21 2.03
HR/9 1.23 0.82 1.09
BABIP 0.259 0.251 0.303

As you can see from above, the answer is neither. Both his K rate and BABIP are essentially the same, instead, National League batters are walking less often against Wakefield and hitting fewer homeruns. Some of this might be attributable to facing the pitcher or small sample sizes (a pitcher can definitely get lucky home run wise in half a season's worth of starts), but I would guess it is a change in approach. NL players who are unfamiliar with the knuckleball may be more aggressive, causing a decrease in walk rates. Looking at pitch per plate appearance data would be one way to nail this down, but unfortunately that isn't readily available to me.

Others have done some really cool work on the knuckleball using PitchFX data, such as this article by John Walsh at Hardball Times from a few years ago.