FanGraphs: Fan Projections

Great news, everyone! From FanGraphs:

For those of you who have been hanging around FanGraphs since at least last season, you’ll know that we carry various projections in the off-season, which are for the most part generated by computer programs.

This off-season, in addition to carrying the various computer generated projections, we’ve teamed up with Tangotiger of insidethebook.com to give you, the fans, a chance to generate your own projection line for each major league player. Hopefully our collective brains will be able to pinpoint things that computer systems don’t.

I was so excited that I already went ahead and submitted my projections for the notable Phillies returning in 2010. Because I like saving my wrongness for future hilarity, I took screenshots of my “projections” so I can share them with anyone who stops by the blog.

You don’t submit specific numbers; instead you select ranges from a drop-down menu. When submitted, some numbers are extrapolated (plate appearances, for example), others are simply sliced and diced (doubles, triples, home runs; UZR).

Click the screenshots below to view a larger version.

Hitters/fielders:

Pitchers:

You don’t have to be a blogger to submit projections. If you have any thoughts on how well Chase Utley and Cole Hamels are going to fare in 2010, stop by FanGraphs and submit your own projections.

Making Consistency Count

Believe it or not, the much-maligned starting pitching of the Phillies was fairly consistent in 2009, despite:

  • Chan Ho Park quickly being removed from the starting rotation
  • Injuries to Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer
  • Relying on Rodrigo Lopez for a few starts from the back of the rotation
  • Cole Hamels’ struggles

You’ve probably heard broadcasters and writers alike talk about getting consistent starting pitching and how important it is to winning baseball games. Similarly, I would wager that most baseball fans would prefer a pitcher who goes six innings and allows five runs every time (7.50 ERA) over one who alternates between six inning, shut-out starts and six inning ten-run starts (also a 7.50 ERA).

I haven’t seen any studies done to verify a relationship between success and consistency, so I used the Play Index on Baseball Reference to sort through starting pitcher performances in 2009. Does starting rotation consistency play a factor in determining regular season success?

Consistency, of course, is a bit of a vague term. Generally, when we call a player “consistent” we mean that he isn’t Jekyll (a metaphor for good or bad, your pick) one day, and Hyde (the opposite) the next. The same can be said about teams. In other words, the player’s (or team’s) performance, if consistent, has low variance. Thankfully, variance is one of the things easily measured using statistics.

First, a list of the 2009 Phillies’ starters average game score with standard deviation. The smaller the standard deviation, the more consistent the player is. Game score, admittedly, is an imperfect metric, but it’s good enough to help us reach a conclusion. If you’re not familiar with game score, click here.

Click the image for a clearer and/or bigger version.

Of the starters with at least 9 starts (arbitrary starting point, but I wanted to include Pedro Martinez), Brett Myers was actually the most consistent and Cliff Lee was least consistent (note that both have slightly smaller sample sizes than the other mainstays). That doesn’t mean that Myers was better than Lee, of course; it just means that Myers’ performances were more similar to each other than Lee’s.

From a logical standpoint, we would prefer that our worse pitchers have the most variance and that our better pitchers have the least variance. Myers (one of the worst) and Lee (one of the best) are not exemplary of this logic. Consider:

  • If Adam Eaton, a terrible pitcher, puts up a 9.00 ERA (6 runs in 6 innings) every single time he pitches, that would require the Phillies’ offense to score at least seven runs in order to win — a tall task. The Phillies’ offense scored seven or more runs 50 times in 162 games in 2009, 31%. Roughly speaking, the Phillies would only win three out of ten games started by Eaton. Over 32 starts, that comes out to about a 10-22 record.
  • If Eaton instead started 32 games and alternated between 6 IP, 0 ER and 6 IP, 12 ER performances, the Phillies will win a lot more games. They scored exactly zero runs only 7 times in ’09 (4%) and scored more than 12 runs four times (2.5%). The Phillies will lose 4% of the 16 good starts (15-1) and win 2.5% of the bad starts (1-15). That comes out to 16-16, six games better than the inconsistent Eaton.

The reverse logic applies for great pitchers.

Note that the above examples leave out some factors, primarily bullpen performance. Also note that the Phillies had a well-above-average offense, so they are more likely to win despite poor starting pitching performances.

This chart is an illustration of the frequency of the types of game scores the Phillies’ starters had.

Compared to the other 29 teams, the Phillies were in the top-third with the highest average game score (50.5), and in the middle in standard deviation (17). Thus, they were in the top-third with the highest -1 STDEV game score (33.5) and +1 STDEV game score (67.5). What that means is that about 68.2% of the Phillies’ game scores were between 33.5 and 67.5. The Washington Nationals, on the other hand, had about 68.2% of their starts between 31.5 and 60.5.

But is there a relationship between consistency in starts and regular season success?

Note: The standard deviations were rounded off to the nearest .5 or .0, which does not affect the conclusion — it’s merely done for convenience.

In 2009, there was no relationship between starting pitching consistency and regular season success. Running the data for past years will make the conclusion more accurate, but the numbers would have to severely differ from 2009′s in order to produce a significant r-square. 0.0002 is extremely insignificant.

This finding, along with the logical approach above, can provide insight as to which types of starting pitchers teams should target in free agency and in trades. Teams can make consistency count (a little) by acquiring very inconsistent back-of-the-rotation starters and very consistent front-line starters.

Roy Halladay is a great example of a consistent ace. His average game score in 2009 was 60.5 with a standard deviation of 15.5. Cliff Lee, of course, would be an example of an inconsistent ace, with an average game score of 56 with a standard deviation of 23 (in his Phillies starts). To put that in perspective, 16% of Lee’s starts were worse than a 33 game score; 16% of Halladay’s starts were worse than 45. In other words, Halladay’s starts are skewed much more favorably than Lee’s, regardless of Halladay’s slightly better average.

Meanwhile, Luke Hochevar of the Kansas City Royals had a terrible 2009, led all starters (with at least 120 IP) with a 6.55 ERA. His average game score was 43, but had a standard deviation of 21.5. There are various reasons why Hochevar himself would not be an attractive target for a team looking to maximize the back of its starting rotation (his 2011 arbitration eligibility being one of them), but a team looking to fill the back of the rotation on the cheap should look for free agents in the same mold as Luke.

Compare ’09 Hochevar (AVG = 44, STDEV = 21.5) to ’07 Adam Eaton (AVG = 42, STDEV = 15). Hochevar is much more preferable among pitchers of that skill level.

If all of the numbers and statistical mumbo-jumbo was too much, here’s a Cliff’s Notes summary of the above:

  • Consistency within the starting rotation doesn’t matter much, as it does not correlate at all to regular season success
  • Teams can make consistency within the starting rotation work in their favor (thus making it matter a little) by…
    • Utilizing inconsistent starters in the back of the rotation (ex. Luke Hochevar)
    • Utilizing consistent starters at the front of the rotation (ex. Roy Halladay)

Will Utley Make the Hall?

I was thinking about Chase Utley’s chances to make the Hall of Fame recently. As you are likely aware, he got a late start to his career, earning a regular starting job in 2005 when Placido Polanco was traded to the Detroit Tigers (for Ugueth Urbina and Ramon Martinez).

While we are certainly enjoying Utley’s everyday presence in the lineup and on the diamond, his late start would seem to hamper his Hall of Fame chances. Still, I was curious as to how Utley stacks up against baseball’s greats.

As Utley has only completed five full seasons, I used projected rates of decline from Baseball Prospectus to forecast Utley’s future production. Projected rates of decline were selected as opposed to raw WAR projections because BP’s WAR totals differ from those on Baseball Projection, which was utilized to find data for inactive players.

To get an idea as to how far he has to go to really earn a shot, I decided to first compare Utley to Hall of Fame Phillies Mike Schmidt, Richie Ashburn, and Chuck Klein. The following line graph plots each player’s WAR totals in order of best to worst. The graph also contains the average Hall of Famer’s WAR and the “replacement level” Hall of Famer’s WAR.

Click the image below to view a larger version.

Utley is slightly behind the path of Richie Ashburn, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1995 by the Veteran’s Committee. Simply based on this, it’s very hard to make a serious argument in favor of Utley.

Maybe there is an argument to be found if we compare him to other second basemen who have made the Hall of Fame, such as Jackie Robinson, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, and Rod Carew.

Note: Rod Carew played a lot of first base towards the end of his career.

That doesn’t help any. But then again, it is Jackie Robinson, Rogers Hornsby, et. al. The cream of the crop. How does Utley compare against other, less impressive Hall of Fame second basemen? We’ll look at Red Schoendiest, Bid McPhee, Bill Mazeroski, and Nellie Fox this time.

Despite looking considerably more favorable, Utley’s worst seasons still don’t match up. It really has hurt Utley that he missed the first half of his 20′s. It should be noted that there is no guarantee that Utley would have been as productive if the Phillies hadn’t used Polanco at second base. The extra Minor League seasoning may have been a critical factor in his Major League success (plate discipline, for example).

In order to make the Hall of Fame, Utley will have to age like fine wine. He’ll have to beat the projections year in and year out. Among other necessities, his defense can’t suffer, he can’t get injured, and his swing mechanics will have to stay relatively flawless. That’s a lot to ask, even of a player of Utley’s caliber. As good as Utley is — one of the ten most valuable players in Major League Baseball — his Hall of Fame chances are slim.

Hat tip to Beyond the Box Score for the inspiration behind this “study”.

BDD: Albert Pujols Is Good

At Baseball Daily Digest, I make an attempt to put the legendary career of Albert Pujols in perspective.

Just as you should have appreciated the career of Barry Bonds, and should still appreciate Alex Rodriguez, you should be very, very thankful that you have been able to witness the career of a living legend.

Utley > Howard

BBWAA:

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols was a unanimous choice in winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award for the second consecutive season and the third time in his career.

The right guy, again. This time unanimously.

However,

Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies and Price Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers, who tied for the league lead in RBI with 141 apiece, finished third and fourth, respectively. Howard (.279, 45 HR, 108 R) totaled 217 points and Fielder (.299, 46 HR, 110 BB) 203.

[...]

Also finishing in the top 10 were [...] Phillies second baseman Chase Utley (.282, 31 HR, 93 RBI, 103 R)

Howard got six second-place votes, Utley got none. Howard got eight third-place votes, Utley got two. Howard got seven fourth-place votes, Utley got two. Howard got five fifth-place votes, Utley got one.

  • Utley: .402 wOBA
  • Howard: .393 wOBA
  • Utley: 11.3 UZR/150 at second base
  • Howard: 1.2 UZR/150 at first base
  • Utley: 5.3 (EQBRR-EQSBR)
  • Howard: -4.5 (EQBRR-EQSBR)
  • Utley: 8 WAR (including base running)
  • Howard: 4 WAR (including base running)

As I mentioned yesterday, kudos to the BBWAA for getting the actual award recipients right. However, some of the non-first-place votes have still been baffling — this being one prominent example. Two Ryan Howards may only be slightly more productive than one Chase Utley.

Rumor Mill: Juan Castro

Ken Rosenthal and Andy Martino both report the Phillies — along with the Los Angeles Dodgers — are heavily pursuing Juan Castro as a replacement for Eric Bruntlett.

Castro has a career batting line of .230/.270/.332, good for a 57 OPS+. Defensively, he’s been decent up the middle with a 13.5 UZR/150 at second base and 6.1 at shortstop. At third base, however, he’s an unhealthy -13.2. In his limited playing time with the Dodgers last year, he was one of their worst base runners.

FanGraphs valued him as a replacement-level player in 2009 and about one win below replacement level in ’07 and ’08. In terms of salary, Castro has made about $1 million per season since ’04, but hasn’t been worth $1 million since ’06.

Instead of signing Castro, why not Adam Everett? He was the Tigers’ best base runner in ’09, his defense at shortstop is among the best in baseball and he’s slightly better with the bat. Without including base running, he has been worth over $4 million in two out of his last three seasons and has produced above replacement level every year since ’03. He made only $1 million in ’09 and would likely command a similar one-year salary going foward, just like Castro.

There are better options out there. Jerry Hairston, Jr. for instance. He won’t be making the $2 million he’s been getting just about every season since ’03 and he’s been worth 3.6 WAR over the past two seasons. Jamey Carroll. Mark Loretta. Make a trade and get a bench player thrown in a la Ben Francisco in the Cliff Lee trade.

Just not Juan Castro. We had Eric Bruntlett for two agonizing years, don’t make us wish we had him for a third!

UPDATE: Todd Zolecki and Scott Lauber both report that the deal is close. David Murphy reports it’s done, pending a physical.

BDD: No Respect for Zobrist

At Baseball Daily Digest, I give some props to Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays, who did not receive one vote higher than sixth place.

Zobrist was just as good a hitter as Cabrera as evidenced by his .408 wOBA. He was a supremely good fielder at two positions (30.8 UZR/150 at second base; 40.2 in right field*) and was an average base runner.

[...]

When you add it all up, Zobrist should have been given a lot more recognition for his fantastic 2009 than was shown in the AL MVP voting. There are only two players who, debatably, had better seasons than Zobrist: Greinke and Mauer.

Chronic Critics

Dajafi at The Good Phight has written a thought-provoking piece about suspending judgment on the Phillies’ off-season moves. Most of us in the Phillies blogosphere (including yours truly) were highly critical not only of most of Amaro’s dealings, but also of his hiring in the first place. In his year-plus as the Phillies’ GM, his record is a lot more impressive than ours (though I didn’t do so bad).

Daj notes that the Phillies are reported to be the favorites to land Mark DeRosa and have shown interest in Fernando Rodney, two players most statistically-inclined Phillies bloggers prefer to be passed over. He concludes his article thusly:

So when the Phils bring in Mark DeRosa, David Weathers, Brian Schneider and John McDonald as their big offseason additions, for once I’m going to try and keep the faith.

I certainly see his viewpoint and agree with him that there are just some things (probably a lot of things) that a GM is privy to that we bloggers are not. Whatever those things may be is certainly valuable in the evaluation of talent.

However, as we learned with Bill Belichick when he went for the first down on 4th-and-2 on his own 28-yard-line with 2:08 left and a six-point lead… you can’t judge a decision by what happens afterwards. Almost every honestly-performed statistical evaluation of the decision concludes that Belichick made the right decision.

Similarly, the game of poker — particularly Texas Hold’em — is riddled with instances of good decisions gone bad and vice versa. Last night, I played in a freeroll at a bar, and I had two instances of making extremely bad plays that worked out very well in my favor, one of which involved me bluffing all the way to the river only to back-door the nut flush.

Monday morning quarterbacks would say that I made the right decision to bluff all my chips away on the flop and turn even though I was clearly behind and should have had the discipline to realize that I was beat. Likewise, those Monday morning quarterbacks have maligned Belichick for his 4th-and-2 decision.

If we want to be scholarly in our evaluation of Amaro, we mustn’t resort to ex post facto evaluations. Even though Raul Ibanez was an MVP candidate in the first half of the 2009 season and was one of the Phillies’ most reliable hitters, that doesn’t mean that his three-year $31.5 million contract is now justifiable. He turned 37 in June last season, and most would agree that signing a player to a three-year contract with an average annual value of $10.5 million during his age 37, 38, and 39 seasons is ill-advised.

Overall, I agree that Amaro did a fantastic job rounding out the Phillies’ roster and for correctly evaluating his talent. Many, including myself, clearly underestimated him. However, let us not lose that critical eye we had last off-season. If Amaro does sign David Weathers and John McDonald, we should be just as critical of those acquisitions as we were of Ibanez and Jack Taschner. We need to be unwavering chronic critics.

The Case Against J.A. Happ

Now that we’re about two weeks removed from the end of the World Series, a lot of the anti-Cole Hamels sentiment seems to have died down. The calls for the almost-26-year-old to be traded have been squelched and the Phillies fan base is focused on a potential acquisition of Roy Halladay via trade or a free agent signing of Chone Figgins, Adrian Beltre, or Mark DeRosa.

It was just sour grapes after losing a World Series that the Phillies could have won just as easily as they lost it. With Cliff Lee only guaranteed to be in Philadelphia for one more year, Hamels still is the future of the pitching staff. I have cited the BP article by Matt Swartz ad nauseam, but for the purposes of the article I would like to stress it once again: Cole Hamels was the same pitcher in 2009 that he was in ’08. It’s tough to believe because his ERA and WHIP speak of a contrary position.

When we analyze a pitcher, we must realize what is and what is not within the pitcher’s control. We know that they can’t control BABIP, and that they have no real impact on the defense behind them, and they can’t always pitch in a neutral or pitcher-friendly ballpark. What we do know is that they can control their control (strikeouts and walks) and, to a lesser extent, their batted ball splits between line drives, grounders, and fly balls.

As Swartz aptly illustrates, the difference between Hamels in ’08 and Hamels in ’09 in terms of what he can control is minimal. QERA, FIP, and xFIP (which are different variations of the same metric) have his 2008 between 3.67 and 3.75 and his 2009 between 3.63 and 3.72. He struck out and walked hitters at about the same rate, and even slightly improved. The homer-prone Hamels we all grew to loathe actually allowed a fewer rate of home runs.

I did not go through all of that to discuss Cole Hamels, however; I did it to discuss Rookie of the Year contender J.A. Happ. As with Hamels, Happ’s performance in ’09 has led many to believe that his performance was wholly indicative of talent and not so much of luck. Such is not the case, however. We would be sending Cole Hamels overseas to be knighted if he had enjoyed the same luck that Happ saw.

In ’09, Happ averaged about 6.5 strikeouts and 3 walks per nine innings. Not bad in and of itself. However, Hamels averaged more than a strikeout more and a walk less, and his overall K/BB ratio was nearly twice as good as Happ’s. What that means is that Happ was having his pitches make contact with bats and being put in the field of play, something out of his control.

Considering Happ finished with a sub-3 ERA, it is no surprise to learn that he sported a low .270 BABIP, which compares very favorably to Hamels’ .325 BABIP. Simply put, Happ’s 2.93 ERA does not do us any favors in trying to evaluate his true talent level. According to FanGraphs, Happ had the biggest favorable disparity between his ERA and FIP — a gap of nearly one and a half runs per nine innings (-1.40).

Factoring in all of the luck, Happ pitched like Javier Vazquez but his true talent level is  similar to, say, the Twins’ Scott Baker.

To continue the comparison, here’s a look at what hitters are doing when facing Happ and Hamels:

If I told you that the better pitcher in this graph would be one who…

  • Gets hitters to swing at (O-Swing) and miss (O-Contact) pitches out of the strike zone more often
  • Gets hitters to swing and miss at (Z-Contact) pitches inside the strike zone
  • Overall induces less contact (Swing, Contact)
  • Gets ahead in the count more often

…you probably wouldn’t disagree with me. And that better pitcher would be Cole Hamels, not J.A. Happ.

That leads me into my main point: the potential use of Happ as trade bait. The ideal scenario would have seen Happ winning the NL Rookie of the Year award, as it would drive his trade value up regardless of whether or not we think GM’s actually pay attention to these awards with any vigor. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out as Florida’s Chris Coghlan won the award over a more-deserving Andrew McCutchen. But that is neither here nor there.

As you are most likely aware, the Phillies are one of a few teams seriously interested in acquiring Roy Halladay in a trade. During the summer, the Blue Jays rejected a package of Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Michael Taylor, and J.A. Happ, thinking they could get more either from another team or from the Phillies out of desperation. Turns out the Jays never could flip Halladay, so now any team that wants to acquire him will only be doing so for one full season and one potential post-season before having to attempt to sign him to a multi-year contract or allowing him to move into free agency (he will no doubt be a Type A, which will result in draft pick compensation for whatever team he ends up with).

So, the Jays’ new GM Alex Anthopoulos has a lot less leverage to work with than his predecessor J.P. Ricciardi did five months ago. However, the Jays still have near-complete control over Halladay aside from his no-trade clause. He is still a box office draw, and there will be competition which will drive up the price as well. Still, a package similar to Carrasco, Donald, Taylor, and Happ will never be offered.

The Phillies have big things in store for Taylor, Domonic Brown, and Kyle Drabek, their three most highly-touted prospects. Even for Halladay, it is unlikely that the organization would part with any of them. The next-best trade lure is Happ.

J.C. Bradbury, of the Sabernomics blog, recently posted a controversial article at The Huffington Post where he debunked several “hot stove myths”, one of which was:

GMs have made mistakes in the past and will make mistakes again, but they’re not dumb enough to act on a meaningless hot/cold streak. You can’t sell high or buy low and profit financially because all GMs understand these things.

While we don’t have the ability to go back in time and pinpoint exactly what information a GM used in deciding to pull the trigger on a trade or signing, we do know that generally, GM’s, like any other human, are prone to acting rashly on perceived patterns. They may wrongfully weight a small sample of innings or plate appearances and assume that the player will perform at the same level over a larger spread of opportunities. Or they will not heed — or be completely unaware of — large luck factors.

As such, the Phillies have a great opportunity with Happ. He pitched way over his true talent level last season and will be unlikely to repeat it without improvement in areas within his control. His value is as high as it will ever be. Hopefully Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is aware of this. If so, he has nothing to lose by picking up the phone, placing a call to Anthopoulos, and seeing exactly how he values Happ in a trade for Halladay. Hang up immediately if he demands Happ and Taylor, Brown, or Drabek. Otherwise, it’s time to sell high on Happ.

Over the past few seasons, the Phillies have struck lightning in a bottle on many occasions. Brad Lidge’s perfect season and an incredibly deep bench were a couple examples from ’08, and Happ is an example from ’09. In roulette, just because the ball lands on black several times in a row does not mean that it will continue to land on black, and nor does it mean that there is an intangible bias towards black. Likewise, the Phillies should realize that they struck gold with Happ last season, and now is as good a time as any to capitalize on it.

Image above courtesy The Fightins.