Monday, June 27, 2011

An unexpected hole and unexpected production

Alex Speier of WEEI has a nice post about the right field production (or lack thereof) of the Red Sox. He writes that the Red Sox cumulative RF line of .220/.304/.336 is the worst in each of the three categories in the AL. An OPS of .640 (which, if you're paying attention, you already know has to be the worst in the AL) is a disaster, particularly coming from a position with an offensive premium. Typically, right field is the third most productive position, behind first base and left field. This was a surprise. While JD Drew's contract has been vilified, coming in to this season he'd earned his salary, despite not putting up many home runs or driving in many runs. However, Drew's numbers have taken a massive plunge in 2011. For a season with a minimum of 200 PA, this year is Drew's worst year offensively in every single category, including his triple slash (.232/.330/.326), but also more predictive numbers like isolated power, which is a good measure of a players power, without including batting average (.095 in 2011, .214 career) and strikeouts. Since 1999 Drew has been an average offensive player in his worst years, and an elite one in his best, but he has been hopeless in 2011. A left handed hitter, Drew has never hit lefties well, and the Red Sox have started sitting him against more and more left handers. Coming in to 2011, Mike Cameron would have seemed like the perfect platoon partner for Drew and the Red Sox bench in general. A right handed hitter capable of playing anywhere in the outfield, he could spell the entirely left handed Red Sox outfield of Ellsbury, Crawford, and Drew while still putting up solid numbers. Even in his old age, Cameron had put up excellent numbers against lefties - a .980 OPS in 2008-2010, granted with almost all of 2010 lost to injury. In 60 AB so far in 2011, he's only managed a .541 OPS. Perhaps Cameron needs to play every day, perhaps the injury in 2010 fundamentally diminished his skills, or maybe father time is finally catching up with him after a long and successful career, but no matter what, the Red Sox were counting on more. Last year's fill in, Darnell McDonald, made for a great story - finally making his MLB debut after over a decade in the minors, after failing to make it as a highly touted prospect. This year, McDonald has been even more helpless than Cameron, putting up a .381 OPS against lefties and .341 OPS overall. For some perspective, five starters on the Red Sox have an on base percentage that is better than McDonald's on base plus slugging.

Despite this massive black hole at a key offensive position, the Red Sox offense is one of the very best in baseball. The stars, like Pedroia, Ortiz, Youkilis, and especially Adrian Gonzalez have all contributed, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia has quietly shifted from offensive liability to offensive contributor. For the season, Salty now has an OPS of .762, good for 6% better than the MLB average and almost exactly the same as the AL right fielder average. Considering he's playing catcher, that's a hell of an offensive weapon. Saltalamacchia finally seems to be blossoming into the offensive player scouts thought he'd become and it is nice to see the Red Sox faith in him rewarded.

If it makes you feel any better about the state of the team, just pretend that the Red Sox managed to swing a trade for frequent trade target Kurt Suzuki (.626 OPS), and have the resurgent (at least for a little while longer) Jeff "Frenchy" Francoeur (.759 OPS) manning right. OK, Frenchy in right probably doesn't make you feel any better. On the bright side, we may see Josh Reddick finally stick. He had been passed by Kalish on the prospect ladder, but an injury to Kalish and a newly patient approach in AAA gave Reddick the call when Crawford went down. No, he's not going to continue hitting .414 with an OPS over 1.000, but considering how low the bar is that he needs to clear, he could be a nice upgrade. I'll probably write more on Reddick soon, but I will mention that his 2011 minor league numbers (.230/.333/.508) undersell him, because he was extremely unlucky on balls in play (.207).

Slightly ahead of the curve

The buzz is starting to build a bit about Ryan Lavarnway, who was one of the prospects I featured in "Three steps forward, two steps back" piece a few weeks ago. John Sickels of Minor League Ball has Lavarnway as his prospect of the day, and has good things to say about his defense. According to Sickels, we could see a September call up and Lavarnway could be a significant piece of the 2012 team. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) has a shorter write up about Lavarnway, as well. Both Sickels and Goldstein think Lavarnway can hit at the major league level and his defense has improved. In 45 AAA at bats, Lavarnway has a nice .356/.420/.667 line.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lackey's woes

ESPN Boston had a brief blog piece about whether or not Lackey's slider is the root cause of his struggles. Although Lackey is generating fewer swings and misses with his slider, the slider has actually been his best pitch, by Fangraph's linear weights. On a per 100 pitch basis, Lackey's slider is actually the sixth best in the majors. Looking at PitchFX data, there doesn't seem to be any change in the velocity or movement of his slider, compared to the four other seasons of data available.

What does jump out is a major decrease in fastball effectiveness. For his career, including the last two disappointing seasons, Lackey's fastball is about average (0.05 runs saved per 100 fastballs). However, in 2011 in particular, it has been horrendous (-1.71 runs saved per 100 pitches). Lackey is still sitting right around 91 with his fastball, so what gives?

The horizontal movement is about the same, but there is a massive decrease in the vertical movement of his fastball, based on PitchFX data. For the five seasons (including the partial 2011 season) that PitchFX data is available, there is an extremely tight correlation between the vertical movement Lackey's fastball and its effectiveness. In fact, the variation in fastball vertical movement explains 82.6% of the variability (R^2) in his fastball effectiveness! That's a damn good fit for a handful of points. It'd be even tighter, except his fastball has been so unbelievably horrendous in 2011 it makes a linear fit difficult. Fastball vertical movement is often described as "explosiveness". Despite what an announcer says, a fastball doesn't rise, but explosive ones don't drop as much as gravity would otherwise, thanks to spin.

Interesting side note: Lackey throws curveballs 20% of the time overall. However, when he's behind in the count is seems to be his go to pitch. In 1-0, 2-0, 3-1, and 3-2 counts he throws them 30-40% of the time, perhaps some issues have to do with predictability and pitch selection.

It isn't just Lackey's fastball that seems to be losing movement. Compared to 2009, his last season with the Angels, all three of his major pitches (fastball, curveball, and slider) have lost both vertical and horizontal movement, in inches (2009 points are hollow, 2011 are filled). On the plot shown they're moving towards the origin at the point 0,0, which would be a perfectly straight pitch. Again, the velocities are unchanged, but movement is key for any pitcher's effectiveness. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem like an easy fix. If it were one pitch I might think something was off mechanically or he was tipping, but everything across the board indicates that Lackey is in decline. Granted, that's probably not a surprise given that he now holds the leagues worst ERA, but it is a very scary thought given that the Red Sox have about $56 million tied up in Lackey through the end of the 2014 season.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dan Shaughnessy

Dan Shaughnessy is a hack. Don't just trust me, trust the internet. "Dan Shaughnessy hack" provides 280,000 hits. For years his go to schtick was the "Curse of the Bambino", which he turned into a book (currently 2.5 stars on Amazon). The Red Sox would never win, because of this apparent curse. Apparently, the phrase didn't even appear in a Boston or New York newspaper until the book was actually written in 1990. More recently, he played the role of nay-sayer for the Bruins just a few months ago.

Over the last few years, Shaugnessy's national profile has risen, with some column's appearing on Sports Illustrated's website. Even after the wins, he remained very negative and critical, penning his infamous article about Theo's bridge year comment as giving up, when in reality it was that Shaughnessy just didn't understand that the roster was in transition and there would be a lot of change until 2011, when the roster would stabilize. And look! That's exactly what happened. The Red Sox in 2010 weren't undone by giving up, they were undone by injuries. And 2009 and 2010 were bridge years - we had brief tenures by players like Alex Gonzalez, Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre, and departures by former key contributors like Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez.

Already reviled in the Boston area, he's doing his best to go national with that as well, by writing articles like this. After peddling doom and gloom in the Boston area, Shaughnessy is doing his best to epitomize the obnoxious Boston sports fan, essentially rubbing Boston's recent success in the face of every sports fan who doesn't root for a Boston team. When the Red Sox were downtrodden, he was a faithless nay sayer, and now that Boston is on top, he's crowing from the rooftops about the dominance of Boston teams.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Switched futures

Coming in 2007, Billy Butler was the 25th best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. He built on that preseason ranking with a .291/.412/.542 showing in AAA, before debuting in Kansas City and putting up a .292/.347/.447 line in Kansas City, which was exceptionally good for a 21 year old prospect. Given his struggles on defense, Baseball Prospectus predicted that "Butler should be one of the three best designated hitters in the league in two years."

Coming in to 2007, Kevin Youkilis had established himself as a useful, if brittle player in the major leagues. He had just finished his first complete season in the majors, playing a mix of third and first, and had accumulated a career .274/.379/.423 line. In 2007, at the age of 28, Youkilis had a career year, maintaining his batting eye, and adding a bit more pop. Although he was a useful player, he was hardly a star, especially given he was playing a premium offensive position and had never been a highly ranked prospect, as he put up moderate numbers in the minor leagues despite being old for the level at every stop. At the time, Baseball Prospectus wrote "He doesn't hit enough to play first base, and is an asset there only because he plays the position like a converted third baseman should, but he's locked in at the position following the Lowell re-signing. That leaves the Red Sox with a package comparable to Mark Grace or Wally Joyner at their peaks."

If you knew for certain that one of these players would hit .308/.404/.560 over the next three years and 18 wins over replacement, making him a star, while the other would hit a serviceable .300/.361/.459 and accumulate 5.5 wins over replacement, you'd pick the 21 year old prospect over the 28 year old journeyman every time, right? Well, baseball is a funny game. Youkilis developed an incredible amount of power, particularly for a player his age, while Butler's power plateaued in 2009 as a 23 year old and has been declining for a season and a half since then. Clearly Youkilis put some kind of hex on Butler, stealing his future career. Either that or someone did a hell of a job with Youkilis remaking his swing and approach to generate that kind of power.

As an aside, it makes me wonder a bit about what the future worry about Eric Hosmer, who is currently excelling with the Royals as a 21 year old, hitting an eerily similar .288/.341/.442. We'll see if Youkilis will steal his vital essence as well, to prolong Youkilis' career.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My take on realignment

The idea of realignment in baseball has gotten a lot of virtual ink around the internet lately, after Buster Olney brought it up (even if Jeff Passan beat him to the punch by a year). The argument is pretty compelling - a team in the AL East could be the third best in baseball, but miss the playoffs because they're competing with the Red Sox and Yankees. On top of that, they have to play the Red Sox and Yankees 34 times over the course of a season, or just over 20% of their games. It could even be argued that by playing a rival 17 times a year, you're diluting the meaning of an individual game and weakening the rivalry. But ultimately, I think it comes down to fairness.
You want the best teams in baseball to be in the playoffs. You also want a pennant race to matter. I think the solution is simple; go back to two divisions per league. If you really want to balance things out, you'd swap an NL team to the AL, but that would raise an entire suite of questions about the DH and would create perpetual interleague play. While this wouldn't necessarily change the number of interleague games, it would simply get people a lot more worked up and make it harder to even the playing field. So you'd have two divisions in both the AL and NL, and division champions would get home field advantage for the playoffs, which is a nice incentive given the impact it has on winning percentage. The remaining two teams playoff teams would be wild cards, and work the same way the current wild card system does. By having two wild cards you drastically reduce the chances that a deserving team will miss the playoffs.

This system could easily be modified to include Bud Selig's proposal to add a fifth playoff team per division. The teams who are second and third in the wild card standings could play a play-in game or series.
Geographically, splitting the AL Central between the AL East and AL West isn't really any worse than having the Rangers in the AL West to begin with. The four AL West (Angels, Mariners, Rangers, and Athletics) would be joined by the Twins, Royals, and White Sox, while the Indians and Tigers would join the AL East. You'd split some of the traditional rivalries in the AL Central, but that is unavoidable. In the NL, the five teams in the NL West would remain the same. You'd need to keep the Cubs and Cardinals in the same division, unless you'd want to spend the rest of your life living in fear of vengeful middle America baseball fans, so the Cubs and Cardinals would be in the NL West. That leaves the Red, Pirates, and Brewers to join the east coast teams (Braves, Phillies, Mets, Nats, and Marlins). So, the divisions would look something like this (moved teams are italicized):
AL West AL East NL West NL East
Angels Red Sox Dodgers Phillies
Athletics Yankees Giants Mets
Mariners Blue Jays Rockies Braves
Rangers Rays D-Backs Nationals
Twins Orioles Padres Marlins
Royals Indians Cubs Reds
White Sox Tigers Cardinals Pirates

Astros Brewers

If you look at a maps of the various stadium locations (original map credit:, you can see that the teams are split to minimize distances between intradivision teams. On the west coast, it is unavoidable to have long distances between teams, even in a 3 division set up. With only three AL teams on the west coast, including up in Seattle, the Rangers clearly don't fit geographically, and any other team wouldn't help the issue. As a side note, I love how the entire country of Canada is reduced to a single maple leaf. I guess if the Expos were still around things would be a lot more complicated.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Three steps forward and two steps back

I thought I'd check in with the farm system, taking a look at five players, three who have impressed, and two who have struggled a bit.

Three Steps Forward
Ryan Lavarnway is a catcher out of Yale who was drafted in the 6th round of 2008. Lavarnway's bat has always been ahead of his glove, especially since he was converted to catcher at Yale and was very raw coming out of the draft. Since then he's worked on his catching mechanics, but whether or not he can stay at catcher depends on whom you ask. Despite the questions about his glove, Lavarnway's bat has been remarkably consistent; in is last five stops in the minors he's posted an OPS of .907 (low A in 2009), .879 (high A in 2010), .888 (AA in 2010), and .869 (AA in 2011). He has a very nice set of skills, with solid power (.200 ISO) and a patient approach (walking in 10% of his PA). The Red Sox recently promoted him to AAA, where he took over the starting role from the recently traded Mike McKenry. Unsurprisingly, he's hit so far in AAA, going 3/9 with two doubles.

Chris Balcom-Miller came over to the Red Sox in the Manny Delcarmen trade last August. To get anything at all for Delcarmen was a minor miracle, especially since it was after the July trade deadline and Delcarmen had to clear waivers, but to get a solid prospect like Balcom-Miller is just gravy. Scouting reports before the trade had Balcom-Miller as a potential mid-rotation starter, who has good control and kept the ball on the ground. Although he was not among the Red Sox top prospects (ranked 26 by coming in to the season), and he’s done nothing but impress since then. He’s striking out batters (49 in 47 IP split between high A and AA), not walking very many (14, good for a 3:1 K:BB ratio), and generating a ton of ground balls (3.30 ground ball outs per fly ball out). That’s a spectacular recipe for a rotation work horse. There is always a risk that polished pitchers without great stuff (Balcom-Miller sits at about 90 MPH, which is pretty pedestrian for a right handed pitcher) will flame out as they reach the upper minors or majors, but so far, so good for Balcom-Miller. Other writers, such as Marc Normandin of Over the Monster, seem fairly bullish on Balcom-Miller as well, although he's failed to make the any of the traditional prospect top ten lists. Although the Red Sox rotation remains very crowded, with Lackey, Lester, Buchholz, and Beckett all under contract through 2014 is Lester’s very reasonable option is exercised, and the Red Sox have a lot of interesting arms in the minors (Doubront and Kyle Weiland and AAA, Balcom-Miller at AA, and Ranaudo and Workman in A ball), he could be very valuable to the Red Sox either as a trading chip or an injury replacement. Plus, his nickname is Baconator, what's not to love?

Anthony Ranaudo fell into the Red Sox' lap last year, thanks to a sub par season at LSU. Since then, he's been excellent. Ranaudo started the year in A ball, where he was dominant, striking out 50 in 46 innings, with more than three strikeouts for every walk. Since being promoted to AA he's succeeded as well, with a 2.55 ERA, but with far less impressive peripheral numbers (12 K, 6 BB in 18 IP). Eighteen innings is nowhere close to enough to make a real judgement on a player, but it is nice to see him pitch well after the Red Sox made them their most expensive draft pick last year. Given his experience and polish as a former SEC ace, Ranaudo could move quickly through the system if he continues to pitch well. Getting to AA this season, and maybe even a spot start in September, after the rosters expand, is not out of the question.

Two Steps Back
Drake Britton had an excellent season in 2010, especially given that he was coming off Tommy John surgery. The left handed starting pitcher struck out better than a batter per inning, and limited walks enough to maintain a 3:1 K:BB ratio. His success earned him a spot in Baseball America's top 100 prospects and put him in the Red Sox top 4. Unfortunately, in 2011, Britton seems to have taken a big step back. He appears to have lost all control (31 BB in 47 IP) and has a big decline in his strikeout rate (9.27 in 2010 at A, 6.27 at high A in 2011). This led to a very ugly 7.42 ERA and a 1-6 record. Britton is still very young, so there is time to fix whatever has led to the loss of control, but the current numbers are very worrisome.

Oscar Tejada also made big steps forward in 2010, which led to him being ranked the 9th best prospect in the Red Sox system, by Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus. Initially signed out of the Dominican Republic as a sixteen year-old shortstop, after three seasons of shaky defense he was converted to a second baseman in 2010. He responded with an excellent all around offensive season for a 20 year old middle infielder (.307/.344/.455 with 11 home runs and 17 steals), which was easily the best of his minor league career. However, thus far in 2011 his numbers have had more in common with his pre-2010 numbers, putting up an uninspiring .232/.297/.311 line in AA. If those numbers hold for the season, Tejada could fall back off the prospect radar, as the 2010 season will look more like a fluke than a development and his glove remains shaky, even at second base.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Predictions for the rest of the season

After a couple of very hectic weeks of travelling, I get to catch up on baseball a bit. First off, the Red Sox are amazing. This nine game winning streak comes with some rather historic production offensively, especially for being on the road. They're now first in average, on base percentage, and runs, and second in slugging. They're the easy choice to win the AL East and finish with the best record in baseball.

The darlings of the early going, the Indians and the Royals, both have struggled since the early season. The Indians pitching is starting to catch up with them, and the struggles of key offensive players like Carlos Santana and Shin Soo Choo have hurt chances. They're 4-14 since May 24th, and have watched a massive lead in the AL Central vanish to a Tigers squad that is 10-7 over that same span. It is hard to blow a 6.5 game lead that quickly, but the Indians have managed it. Sliding in Jason Kipnis at second base to replace the veteran Orlando Cabrera would help the offense, and Lonnie Chisenhall may eventually be called on to replace Jack Hannahan at third, but the pitching is a different story. Without many other options for their rotation in the minors, I think the Indians will continue to struggle and may quickly fade from playoff contention.

The Royals appear to have given their fans hope a year too early. Now 6.5 games behind the Tigers and Indians and 8 games under .500, their playoff hopes are pretty slim. Unlike the Indians, the Royals have an incredible farm system that will start to be showcased this summer. The top two hitters, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are both with the major league club, as is pitching prospect Danny Duffy. Left handed starters Mike Montgomery and John Lamb have both struggled a bit in the minors, but came into the season extremely highly rated by Baseball America. We could see them in July or August for some major league experience. If these arms develop as scouts expect, the Royals could be a force to be reckoned with in 2012. For now, their rotation is a mess.

The standings in the AL west were extremely tight, before slumps by the Angels (2-8 in their last ten) and Oakland (1-9, 1-12 over their last 13). Texas currently has a slim lead over Seattle, but looking at the runs scored/runs allowed numbers show that Texas (+35) ought to easily pull away from Seattle (-3).

The Yankees have been hitting well, almost as well as the Red Sox 330 runs, second best in baseball), but the wheels seem to be coming off their pitching. They've had great success so far this year, allowing very few runs (255, second best in the AL, only behind a park aided Seattle at 244), but the injuries are starting to pile up. Either they'll have to make a trade or turn to some replacement level players. I think that down the stretch the Yankees pitching will fade, but the lineup ought to carry them to the AL wild card. The lack of a strong competitor certainly factors in to that - I have little faith in the Yankees pitching, especially with Hughes and Colon on the shelf, but apart from the division leaders, the only teams that have scored more runs than their opponents are Toronto (+1) and Tampa Bay (+12). Both of those numbers are dwarfed by the Yankees league leading run differential (+75).

As far as awards, that's a bit more of a crap shoot, but I'll take a stab at it.

AL MVP: Jose Bautista. Coming into the season I had concerns about Jose Bautista's ability to repeat his spectacular 2010 season. Well, he's beating it. Pitchers have started to give him the Bonds Treatment, pitching around him rather than trying to get him out. To his credit, he's not swinging at anything out of the zone, leading to a sky high OBP of .489, 50 points better than Miguel Cabrera at #2. And he's leading the league in slugging (.709), 80 points better than David Ortiz. If votes end up following convention and voting for a player on a winning team (or get enamored with EBI totals), the obvious choice is Adrian Gonzalez, who is showing no ill effects of shoulder surgery or switching from the NL to the AL.

AL Cy Young: Jon Lester. He looks like he's through his early season slump after a rough May, and Lester is currently second in the league in strikeouts per nine innings. Couple his historic second half performance, a strong team behind him, and the fact that he's already 9-2 indicate that he's well on his way.

AL Rookie of the Year: Michael Pineda. This was a tough choice between Michael Pineda and Eric Hosmer, . I think we have probably already seen the best of Pineda's season, but he's been an ace, and is near the top in all the important pitching categories. He and Felix Hernandez are the big reason that Seattle is respectable this year. Hosmer has a very bright future ahead of him, especially given that he won't turn 22 until after the season is over, but I think because he's so young the power numbers that voters look for won't show up this season. If he continues to hit home runs at his current pace, he'll end up with about 17 on the season. Given his ability to hit for average, work the count, and his age that's a massive success, but it isn't all that impressive for a first baseman.