Monday, April 29, 2013

What has improved with Clay Buchholz?

Clay Buchholz has been the Red Sox best pitcher, and even edges out Dustin Pedroia as the Red Sox best player overall. He currently has a spectacular 1.19 ERA, and even more surprisingly, is striking out more than a batter per inning. While the ERA obviously won’t stay below 1.50, I thought it was worth a closer look to try and figure out where his strikeouts are coming from.

What Hasn’t Changed?
Before we get into the details too much, it is important to round up the usual suspects. Buchholz is not throwing a new pitch; he is still using the fastball, cutter, change up, and curveball that he has since introducing the cutter in 2011. Nor has he changed his approach. Buchholz still throws his four seam fastball about half the time and his cutter about 20% of the time, followed by his curveball and changeup with about equal frequency. Since Buchholz was hampered by injuries to start 2012, you might expect an increase in velocity, now that he is healthy, but we also don’t see a surge in velocity for Buchholz. In fact, Buchholz’s fastball is about one mile per hour slower than 2012. Buchholz’s control isn’t better either – he is still walking about the same number of batters (3.11/9 IP) and he is throwing the same number of first pitch strikes, too. Finally, and most perplexingly, we don’t see a change in his swinging strike rate.

Swinging Strikes and Strikeouts 
The big surge in strikeouts without an increase in swinging strikes is very odd. Swinging strikes and strikeout rates are tightly linked (R2 = 0.65 in 2012 for qualified pitchers), and swinging strike rate usually stabilizes before strikeout rate. Without an increase in swinging strikes, we should probably expect to see a big drop in Buchholz’s strikeout rate over the rest of the season. Needless to say, that would mean that he wouldn’t be the ace we’ve seen in the first month. Based on a linear regression from last season’s stats (it is still a bit early to be using 2013 stats), we should expect Buchholz to have a K/9 of 6.67, instead of 9.32. That strikeout rate would mean his expected ERA (xFIP) would be about 4.00 – hardly an ace, and maybe not even a #2.

A Silver Lining
There is one metric that Buchholz has improved significantly in – batters are swinging much less often at pitches in the zone this year (58%, compared to 65% in 2012). Currently, a 58% swing rate at pitches in the zone is the 10th best in the majors, and would have led the league last year. If batters aren’t swinging at pitches in the zone, that could mean two different things: 1. Batters are getting fooled by Buchholz’s pitchers, or 2. Buchholz is working the corners effectively, so although the pitches are in the zone, they are not good ones to hit. Looking at Buchholz’s heat maps showing where he is throwing pitches, nothing immediately jumps out at me to indicate that Buchholz is working corners better than previous years, however it is rather hard to compare the 2013 season to previous years because of the big difference in number of pitches thrown.

Trickier Pitches? 
If Buchholz is fooling batters, we might be able to see some improvement in the movement of his pitches. Thanks to PitchFX data, we have an amazing treasure trove of data. There is not a significant change in the amount of movement for Buchholz’s changeup or curveball, but he has added an inch of movement on his fastball and cutter (this combines both horizontal and vertical movement). Most of the movement for the cutter has been horizontal movement, which is not surprising as cutters often have more run when thrown slightly slower, and Buchholz is throwing his cutter two and a half miles per hour slower than last year. However, of the two pitches, only the four seam fastball has shown improvement. A big part of that improvement has been in the swing rate within the zone, as hitters have offered at fastballs in the zone 7% less often in 2013. The biggest improvement in that category is with the curveball; hitters have gone from swinging at curveballs in the zone 42% of the time, to an incredibly low 22% of the time. Although the overall movement of the curveball hasn’t changed, how it is moving has. Over his career, Buchholz has gone from having a fairly traditional 12-6 curveball (one that drops pretty much straight down, from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, if you were looking at a clock face) to one that has a lot more horizontal movement; at this point, he’s almost throwing a slurve (combination of a slider and a curveball), with over 10” of horizontal movement. Traditionally, most scouts prefer a 12-6 curveball, and a slurve often has a bad reputation, however, this pitch is working for Buchholz.

Looking Ahead 
Whether or not the slurve remains effective, particularly in getting called strikes, will be key for Buchholz’s continued success. I think a lot of that will depend on whether or not hitters adjust to the new, more horizontal movement of the pitch. If he can continue to fool hitters, he may be able to maintain an elevated strikeout rate, without having a typically high swinging strike rate. A regression to model strikeout rate using swinging strikeout rate and zone swing percentage indicated that a lower swing rate at pitches in the zone leads to a higher strikeout rate overall, and greatly improves the fit of the model (R2 = 0.83, compared to 0.65 with just swinging strike rate). According to that model, Buchholz’s K/9 IP would be about 7.50, leading to a much more palatable predicted ERA of about 3.50. Now that looks more like a #2 starter.

Koji Uehara in a Nutshell

This week was fairly representative of Uehara on the whole. He appeared in 4 games, throwing 4 innings. He showed excellent control, walking no one in those four innings, while striking out four batters. Unfortunately, Uehara gave up a couple of home runs - a shot to Billy Butler that tied the game in the 8th and a home run to Chris Young that cut the Sox lead against Oakland to one.

That is pretty much what you can expect from Uehara. Lots and lots of strikeouts (10.13/9 in 2013, 10.75 in 2012), almost no walks (a microscopic 0.84/9 in 2013, 0.75/9 in 2012), and lots of fly balls (59% in 2013, 51% in 2012). Sometimes, those fly balls are going to leave the yard, often times in bunches. Thankfully, they'll usually be solo home runs. The home run Uehara gave up to Butler was a crusher, leading to a Sox loss in extra innings, but on the whole Uehara is going to be an excellent contributor to the bullpen. The one thing we can't count on, though, is health. Uehara only threw 36 innings last year, and typically needs to have a day off between appearances. But while he is healthy, the Sox should enjoy the ride.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Breaking Down Webster's Debut

Thanks to the double header and the Lackey injury, the Red Sox called on Allen Webster. Webster was one of the two main prospects in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, and wasn't expected to pitch at the major league level outside of a September call up.

Good : The control. Coming in to this season, Webster had issues with walking too many batters (4.2/9 IP in AAA last year). The Red Sox believed this was in part due to where he pitched on the rubber, and shifted him to always throwing from the extreme first base side. So far, that appears to have worked. Webster walked three in 10 innings in AAA, and only walked one in five innings against the Royals, continuing his improved control from spring training (1 BB in 11 IP). At one point David Ross stuck out his right leg as Webster was getting set to pitch. The Royals announcers thought that it was a trick to confuse the batter, indicating that the pitch was coming inside when it really was going outside, but I'm not so sure. Perhaps Ross was simply reminding Webster to stick with his spot on the rubber. The release points from PitchFX indicate that he did a very good job having a consistent release point, both horizontally and vertically.

Bad: The command.The difference between command and control is a bit tricky, but to sum it up as briefly as possible, good control means you're not walking guys, good command means that you're putting the ball where you want it to go. Webster left several pitches either in the middle of the plate or waist high that led to two home runs and a double. He also got away with several other pitches. Thanks to his stuff, he may be able to get away with the occasional fat pitch, but major league hitters can handle a waist high fastball on the outer half, even if it is going 97. Webster only allowed two home runs in 130 innings in AAA last year, but allowed the same number in one start.

Good: The stuff. Webster had all three pitches working for him at points during the game. His sinking fastball was sitting mid-90s, and touched 97. He got several swings and misses from his strongly breaking slider and got at least one batter looking on a nasty front door change up. All told, Webster had five Ks to only one walk, had 14 swinging strikes (17%, an elite number, albeit in a single game), and on top of that he was generating lots of ground balls (7 GB outs to 5 FB outs).

Bad: The stamina. This is a bit of a nitpicky criticism, but Webster clearly is not quite ready to be a major league starter and take the ball every five days. The Red Sox were understandably cautious with him in this game, only allowing him to throw 84 pitches, but Webster was appearing to tire towards the end of his start. Although his fastball velocity did not drop significantly in the later innings, he didn't seem able to reach back to get to 96 or above in the fifth and sixth innings. Part of this is likely due to it being early in the season, as the Red Sox have taken to slowly building up minor leaguers arm strength, but Webster has had issues with stamina and efficiency in the past. In 2012 he only averaged 4.5 innings per appearance (24 starts, plus three relief appearances), but even if you toss out the three relief appearances that average is still only 5.4 innings per appearance. This is something that will hopefully improve over time.

All told, it was a great debut for Webster, and one that was probably five months earlier than the most optimistic projections indicated. It is still early, but so far the returns from the Adrian Gonzalez deal look promising. It wouldn't be shocking to see Webster be a contributor down the stretch, especially given the lack of other options should an injury befall a Red Sox starter.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

An elaborate hypothetical: Revisiting the two Adrian Gonzalez trades

The Adrian Gonzalez era in Boston was a tumultuous, abbreviated affair, lasting only 628 calendar days and only 386 regular season days. Sadly, those regular season days were the only games Gonzalez played, as the Sox missed the playoffs in brutal fashion in 2011 and clearly were headed nowhere in 2012. Following that disastrous finish to 2011 and several months in to the ugly 2012 season, the Red Sox managed to unload Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford on to the Dodgers, while acquiring two elite arms in Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster, along with two fringe-MLB players in Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus, both of whom are now in the Pirates system. In under two years, Gonzalez had gone from savior to scapegoat, impending free agent to owner of one of the richest contracts in baseball, from Theo Epstein as his general manager to newcomer Ben Cherington, and from the west coast to the east coast and back again. Now that the smoke has cleared a bit from the terrible 2012 that precipitated the events, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at both Gonzalez trades, as well as the contracts that were key to getting the deal done from the Red Sox's perspective, and see how the Adrian Gonzalez era affected the team.

The Original Deal
The original trade for Adrian Gonzalez with the Padres was an on again, off again affair. The Red Sox and the Padres had a deal in place, but the Red Sox wanted a negotiating window in order to secure an extension, as Gonzalez was set to become a free agent following the 2011 season. The Red Sox and Gonzalez were unable to reach an agreement during this initial negotiating window, and the trade seemingly had fallen apart. However, eventually the Red Sox and Gonzalez reached a deal, and the trade was officially completed on December 6, 2010. The Red Sox and Gonzalez eventually agreed to a 7 year, $154 million extension, but postponed announcing it until after Opening Day due to MLB luxury tax implications. It was the 9th richest deal in baseball history at the time. The Red Sox had finally found their impact bat to replace Manny Ramirez. Despite playing in a cavernous stadium and surrounded by a weak lineup, Gonzalez put up spectacular numbers, averaging 34 home runs and 105 RBI with a .900 OPS. On the road, he was putting up video game numbers; he hit almost two thirds of his home runs on the road, and his OPS was over .100 higher. Put him in Fenway Park, and he would be peppering balls off or over the Green Monster.

The cost for Gonzalez was high, but not astronomical. The Red Sox sent three of their top 10 prospects to the Padres - polished righty Casey Kelly, who had good stuff and an excellent feel for pitching, but who struggled in AA after being aggressively promoted; breakout first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was coming off  a 25 home run season split between A+ and AA; and toolsy outfielder Reymond Fuentes, whose youth and athleticism made up for his lack of production in the minors to that point. With an aging core, a lack of depth in the upper levels of the minor leagues, and David Ortiz coming off a mediocre season and one season removed from his terrible 2009, the Red Sox were clearly in win-now mode and were going to make a run at getting back to the World Series for the first time since 2007.

Evaluating the Original Deal
We now have over two years of perspective to look back on the original Gonzalez deal, and it seems to grade out favorably for the Red Sox. Despite the team's struggles at the end of 2011 and in 2012, Gonzalez was a good player overall, even factoring in his subpar 2012. Casey Kelly had to undergo Tommy John surgery this spring, and won't pitch until next spring training at the earliest. While he remains likely to be a major league pitcher, he does not have the stuff to be a frontline pitcher. Reymond Fuentes is no longer much of a prospect after continuing to struggle to translate his tools to production; Fuentes was not ranked by Baseball America, Fangraphs, or Baseball Prospectus when reviewing the Padres' minor league systems. The prize of the deal appears to be Anthony Rizzo, who will be starting as a major league first basemen; unfortunately for the Padres, he'll be doing it for the Theo Epstein run Chicago Cubs. Following a disappointing showing for the Padres at the major league level in 2011, Rizzo was traded to the Cubs for pitching prospect Andrew Cashner, in a rare prospect for prospect deal. Then San Diego GM Jed Hoyer, who had since become the GM for the Cubs, admitted to rushing Rizzo, but a bit more time in the minors seems to have paid off for Rizzo. Rizzo hit 15 home runs for the Cubs in half a season of playing time in 2012, and now is their starting first baseman. Sadly for the Padres, Cashner is now a reliever, and after all was said and done, they have very, very little to show from trading away their best player since Tony Gwynn.

The Out of Nowhere Signing
Days after the Gonzalez deal was completed, the Red Sox made another massive move, signing left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven year, $142 million deal. It was a totally unexpected move, but was well received by analysts and the fanbase alike, and the Red Sox were anointed the favorites in the AL East, and even the AL as a whole.

Opportunities Missed
The cost of the Gonzalez trade and spending $20 million per year on Carl Crawford was that third baseman Adrian Beltre, who led the team in WAR in 2010, was no longer part of the plan for the future. Beltre had signed a one year "pillow contract" in order to reestablish his value, and it worked like a charm. He signed a five year, $96 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Despite being in his 30s, Beltre has continued to produce at an elite level both with his glove and his bat, averaging just under six wins above replacement in his two seasons in Texas, and eaisly outproducing both Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Beltre was also a great clubhouse presence, so long as you didn't touch his head.

The Former Hero
The 2007 postseason cemented Josh Beckett's reputation as a clutch postseason performer. He was spectacular in his four starts, allowing only four earned runs in 30 innings, while striking out 35. His 2008 and 2009 seasons were not as strong, but he maintained an elite WHIP throughout. Unfortunately, everything fell apart in an injury abbreviated 2010. With free agency looming following the season, the Red Sox signed him to a four year, $68 million extension. In 2011, Beckett seemed to return to form with a 2.93 ERA, but his 2012 would be something else entirely.

The Summer of Discontent
I won't get into the details of the 2012 season too much, but it is important to recognize just how horribly things went. They opened 0-3, then 1-5. Bobby Valentine called out Kevin Youkilis, who was a major clubhouse figure and one of the hardest workers on the team, for not working hard enough.  It took them six tries when they were at .500 to get a winning record, before finally going to 25-24 on May 29. At the end of June they were 41-36, only to lose seven of the next nine games to limp into the All Star Break at 43-43. Will Middlebrooks, one of the few bright spots to the season broke his wrist August 11, to cap off a 3-8 slide. Carl Crawford underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow on August 23rd, finishing the worst season of his career and one that had been plagued by injury issues.  Josh Beckett put up a 5.23 ERA in 21 starts, while refusing to apologize or acknowledge his role in the infamous and likely overblowBut the real coup de grace was on August 23rd, when the Red Sox lost to the Angels in extra innings despite leading 6-0 after two innings, and 9-8 in the 6th, and 11-9 entering the 9th, thanks in large part to malcontent and bullpen arsonist Alfredo Aceves giving up five runs in an inning plus. By the next day, the Red Sox would be headed in a completely different direction.

Blowing It All Up
News of the deal first started to break on August 24th, when Adrian Gonzalez was held out of the lineup for the series opener against the Royals. Supposedly a massive deal was in place with the Dodgers, sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles. Deals this big are rare in August, as players have to clear waivers in order to be traded. If a team places a player on waivers and another team claims them, the original team can just let the player go, along with his contract, to the claiming team. If no one claims them, then they cannot be traded until the season is over. With about $140 million worth of guaranteed salary left of their deals, Carl Crawford, who was facing a year long recovery from elbow surgery, and Josh Beckett, with his ERA north of 5.00, cleared waivers easily, unfortunately, thanks to the contracts associated with them, they were less than worthless on the trade market. Adrian Gonzalez, on the other hand, was claimed by the Dodgers. Despite Gonzalez having the worst season of his career and with almost $150 million remaining on his new extension, there wasn't really any expectation that he would be traded. Teams place players on waivers all the time, in part just to gauge potential interest in them. Gonzalez was claimed by the Dodgers, meaning that no team in the American League put in a claim and that no team with a worse record than the Dodgers in the National League put in a claim either. This was a minor miracle, especially given that teams will often put in claims on players just to block potential deals. Perhaps no one thought the Red Sox could really trade Gonzalez. Perhaps no other teams wanted to take the risk that they'd be stuck with such a large contract. Either way, everything fell into place for Ben Cherington and the Red Sox.

The Boston Herald first broke the story (now behind a paywall), and other media outlets quickly followed suit in reporting that the Red Sox were able to dump the bad contracts of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, at the expense of Adrian Gonzalez. Not only that, but the Red Sox were receiving real prospects in return, primarily in the form of starting pitching prospects Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa. The Red Sox also sent cash to the Dodgers; normally $11 million is a lot to be included in a trade, but when you're shedding $285 million worth of salaries in the process, $11 million is a drop in the bucket.

Somehow the Red Sox cleared two contracts that were considered to be worthless.

Somehow, the Red Sox ended up sending less than half as much cash in their trade which cleared $285 million worth of salary than the Angels needed to send this spring ($28.1 million) to cover the remaining $42 million on Vernon Wells' deal.

And, most importantly, somehow the Red Sox acquired two starting pitching prospects who were in the upper minors and have front of the rotation upside.

God Bless Ned Colletti and the new Dodgers ownership.

In one move, Ben Cherington completely remade the franchise and set on the rocky road to rebuilding a successful team. Gone were the oversized free agents of the twilight of the Theo Epstein era. Gone was the playoff MVP of the last World Series team.

The Pieces Coming Back
In many ways, the players sent to the Red Sox are ancillary parts of the evaluation of the deal. They do, however, have the ability to turn the deal from a good one to an absolute fleecing. As I mentioned above, both Webster and de la Rosa have top of the rotation stuff. Both sit in the mid to upper 90s, with Rubby complementing his fastball with a devastating slider and Webster adding a slider to his heavy sinking fastball. As with just about any pitching prospect, there are major question marks surrounding them. Rubby de la Rosa is coming off of Tommy John surgery, and many scouts believe that both will end up in the bullpen, because of their slight builds and health issues. Only time will tell how they develop and what their roles will be, but as they are already in the upper minors, appearances this season or next are not out of the question.

Summing It All Up
In the end, it really comes down to this simple question: Would you trade the 2010 versions of Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly, and Reymond Fuentes for the 2012 versions of Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa? I think the answer is yes, but it is hard to say knowing that Rizzo will develop into a starter at first, but Kelly is facing Tommy John surgery. What if I threw in $250 million worth of financial flexibility? Not much of a question anymore, is it? Of course, to make it all work you need $250 million in bad contracts to begin with. For what it is worth, the architect of the $250 million worth of bad contracts agrees.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Home grown talent

When Theo Epstein took over the General Manager position before the 2003 season, he said he was going to turn the Red Sox into a "$100 million player development machine", meaning that they would develop their own players, so that they wouldn't have to go out and overspend on free agents. Now, more than ever, that philosophy is critical to success, given the rates at which teams are resigning their own players. Even small to mid market teams, such as the Reds, Mariners, and White Sox are resigning star players to often extremely long deals to prevent them from reaching free agency. The kings of this strategy are the Tampa Bay Rays, who have Evan Longoria under contract through 2023 (no, that isn't a typo) thanks to two different six year extensions, the first of which paid him only $17.5 million for six years (total, not annually), plus three club options totaling $30 million for the 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons. On top of that they have super utility player Ben Zobrist signed through 2015 for very reasonable salaries and burgeoning ace Matt Moore signed through 2019, if all his options are picked up.

So what does that mean for the Red Sox and other big market teams? Quite simply, if you don't develop from within you'll be forced to spend more money to get less production on the free agent market. Given the importance of developing from within, I thought I'd take a look at the Red Sox history in developing talent and where they are headed from here.

As you can see from the chart, the 2013 opening day lineup had more home grown players than any other year since 2003, when Epstein took over. A few minor notes about the chart - both Nixon and Nomar were still on the roster in 2004, however they did not start opening day. Nomar was limited to under 40 games before being traded and Nixon played 48 games, thanks to a variety of injuries. Because both were starters, but hurt, I've included them in the 2004 total. Also, I am counting Varitek as home grown, despite originally coming up through the Mariners' system, as he was a AA prospect when he was acquired and was not particularly highly rated at the time of his trade.

Now granted, Iglesias and Bradley were only in the lineup due to injuries to Stephen Drew and David Ortiz, respectively, but the new wave of talent may finally be arriving in Boston. Also, you might note that most of the bars stick around for six or seven years, which is how long it takes to accrue enough service time to become a free agent. For example, you can see the core of the 2007 - 2012 teams were Youkilis, Pedroia, and Ellsbury, but that the Red Sox are starting to see some of those players depart. Dustin Pedroia, who was in his seventh opening day lineup in 2013, isn't going anywhere, thanks to a contract extension through 2014 with a team option for 2015, but Youkilis was traded away before becoming a free agent and Ellsbury will likely either be traded or allowed to walk following this season.

With the departure of Youkilis and the imminent departure of Ellsbury, getting this new influx of talent is critical. The Red Sox have already anointed Middlebrooks as Youkilis' successor, thanks to a great few months last season, and Bradley turned heads in spring training with his .500 OBP, which he's managed to keep up for the first two games of the regular season as well. Xander Bogaerts may force his way into the discussion, after dominating high A and AA as a 19 year old, but at the moment his two most likely positions, shortstop and third base, already have young, cost controlled players manning them, in Middlebrooks and Iglesias. Outfielder Bryce Brentz reached AAA last  and struggled mightily, but a good season and he could be in consideration for an outfield job next year, should Ellsbury depart. Beyond Brentz and Bogaerts, the upper levels of the minors do not have any prospects who could make a difference in Boston over the next two years.

On the other side of the ball, things are not nearly as interesting. The Red Sox have really only used three starting pitchers they developed in the last decade - Derek Lowe, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and recently, Felix Doubront. Lowe was a staple on the Red Sox, albeit in a wide variety of roles from 1998 to 2004, when he was allowed to depart as a free agent following the World Series win. Since Lester's dramatic return from non-Hogkins lymphoma, which saw him go from being diagnosed with the disease to clinching the Red Sox sweep of the Rockies in the World Series in his very first post season start. Lester's 2012 was one of the worst in the major leagues, you can do a lot of damage with 200 innings with an ERA approaching 5.00, but he retains the skills to be a potential ace. Buchholz has been up and down with the Red Sox as well, with a 2011 cut short by injuries and a horrendous start to the 2012 season that marred his final line, but hopefully with the return of former pitching coach John Farrell both Buchholz and Lester can return to form. Doubront remains a rather raw, unfinished product; he has great stuff and can strike out a lot of batters, but neither the approach nor the results are there yet. If the Red Sox hasn't been so destroyed by injuries last year, he likely would have returned to AAA. However, with the lack of depth and Doubront being able to hold his own last year, he has another crack at the rotation for 2013.

While the major league home grown pitchers haven't been as interesting as the hitters, the reverse is true for the upper levels of the minors. Thanks to the Red Sox convincing the Dodgers to take on a quarter of a billion dollars in guaranteed contracts in exchange for the Dodgers' top two pitching prospects, the upper levels of the minor leagues are jammed with potential impact arms. Matt Barnes, a 2011 draftee, and Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster, the aforementioned Dodgers' prospects, all could be ready to contribute to the majors in the next year. Two college pitchers, Brian Johnson, a low ceiling, high floor lefty out of Florida, and Brandon Workman, a big righty with a great fastball and not much else, could also be contributing in the next few years, whether it is in the back end of the rotation or the bullpen.