Lucky vs. Good

Ian Riccaboni (@IanRiccaboni) of Phillies Nation wrote a piece examining past World Series participants and the connection between their success and the talent in the starting rotation. His finding?

What does this mean? Well adjusting starters’ WAR against the total number or regular season wins paints an even more confusing picture: teams with great starting pitching are just as susceptible as teams with pitching that carriers less of the load for their team. While great pitching will get you into the playoffs, it isn’t guaranteed to get you anywhere.

You’ve no doubt heard the axiom “pitching wins in the post-season”. It is a phrase repeated ad nauseam at the beginning of every October as teams set their short-series rotation, knocking some poor soul from the back of the rotation into the bullpen. The 2008 Phillies, 2010 Giants, and 2011 Cardinals showed us that a team need not excel in any one particular area to win it all; rather, a team must have a distribution of talent across all areas and the appearance of good timing. The Phillies were superior in every way to the Giants in 2010, but lost to them in the NLCS because short series produce a lot of variance, and most of it fell in favor of the Giants. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes”.

Ian contacted me and asked if I had any thoughts on what other factors could be influencing his findings and if randomness isn’t the only answer. I don’t think using WAR for pitchers, particularly fWAR, is the best statistic to use for this investigation. For one, pitcher WAR is influenced by innings pitched. Teams that bring up the stud pitcher in late June and ride him into the post-season (e.g. Madison Bumgarner) will have less pitcher WAR than the team who used the slightly above-average veteran since the start of the season (e.g. Joe Blanton). Additionally, eating innings makes a big difference over the course of 33 regular season starts, but when one ace is going up against another ace, the difference between the two will be minimal at best. Pitcher WAR will exaggerate the difference between two aces in one post-season game by accounting for regular season innings.

On a related note, Ian found that the American League seems to have much better results than the National League — roughly 4 WAR. Innings pitched comes into account here again because AL teams can leave their pitchers in longer as they are not forced to pinch-hit to attempt to score a crucial run late in the game. Last year, starting pitchers accounted for 67.8 percent of all innings in the AL and 66.9 percent in the NL. While this doesn’t seem like a lot, over the span of 20,000 innings (14 teams * 162 games * 9 innings per game), the 0.9 percent difference accounts for nearly 200 innings. Essentially, the AL is getting an extra pitcher every year when compared to the NL like this. When you account for survivor bias (better pitchers stay in the rotation longer, appear in more games, and stay in games longer), you have your 4 WAR difference.

Secondly, FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) uses FIP rather than straight runs allowed, so it is retrodictive rather than descriptive. A team with a large fWAR-ERA disparity will not be accounted for properly. For instance, the 2011 Chicago White Sox had an impressive 3.66 FIP but a 4.10 ERA. They finished second in fWAR to the Phillies, 26.4 to 27.5, even though the Phillies’ ERA was more than a full run per nine innings lower.

Since we’re interested in finding out how important pitching is in a particular post-season, we should use runs allowed to answer that question. Another method is a post-season only retrodictor, compared to the regular season ERA or its retrodictor. For instance, in the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals had a 3.86 ERA but a 5.45 FIP while the Rangers had a 4.65 ERA and a 4.64 FIP. During the regular season, the Cardinals had a 3.79 ERA and 3.75 FIP; the Rangers were at 3.79 in ERA and 3.98 in FIP. Were the Cardinals luckier than the Rangers in last year’s World Series? This particular method would say so.

Still, to Ian’s conclusion that it is better to be lucky than good, I would phrase it differently. It is better to be talented than lucky because talent will always give you more chances to capitalize on that luck. Sure, the 2011 Cardinals were an afterthought going into the post-season, but Albert Pujols did hit three home runs in the World Series while Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia — their two best pitchers — were phenomenal in the five combined starts they made in the World Series. For as unlucky as it seems like the Phillies were, they were still one run away from advancing to the NLCS because Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley produced offensively while Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels nailed things down in their three starts.

The post-season is absolutely a crapshoot. When you place eight teams into a scenario where a champion is crowned in a minimum of 11 games and a maximum of 19 games, variance takes over as commanding officer. That’s less than three weeks of games. The spread in talent between teams is already small enough — Rangers position players posted 4 WAR more than those of the Cardinals during the regular season — where luck has more of an impact. I would compare post-season baseball to Texas Hold’em, where baseball talent is the poker player’s stack of chips. Every player has the same chance of getting lucky, but if you have more chips, you can make luck pay off more for you than for others. To put it more bluntly, if you were entering the post-season, which rotation would you rather have while trying to strike lightning in a bottle: Halladay-Lee-Hamels or Carpenter-Garcia-Jackson?

As it pertains to the 2012 Phillies, their best shot at post-season success is to simply have their most talented players ready to go if and when they reach the NLDS in October. From there, they simply let the chips fall where they may.

Talking Belt and Brown with Wendy Thurm

There is an odd parallel between two prospects one wouldn’t have thought would be paired together: Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants and the Phillies’ Domonic Brown. Both were very highly-regarded prospects, but have had trouble finding full-time work at the Major League level, and not for a lack of skill. I caught up with Wendy Thurm, a Giants fan and fantastic baseball writer, to investigate some of the similarities between the two players. Wendy is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Baseball Nation. She founded HangingSliders.com, a baseball blog with analysis, commentary, poetry and humor. You can follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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1. Tell us a little bit about Brandon Belt the prospect. What was his ceiling expected to be, and where did he find himself in prospect rankings?

The Giants selected Belt in the fifth round of the 2009 amateur draft out of the University of Texas (Austin). A natural first baseman, Belt dominated the minor leagues in 2010, his first season of professional baseball. He hit .352/.455/.620 in 136 games from A+ to AAA. Baseball America ranked Belt 23rd on its Top 100 prospects list for 2011. He also was the Giants’ top prospect heading into the 2011 season.

2. What factors have contributed to his inability to obtain a job as a MLB regular?

The Giants added Belt as a non-roster invitee to their 2011 spring-training camp, with no expectation he’d make the big-league club. Then Belt batted .306 with five doubles and three home runs in 25 games, and outfielder Cody Ross sustained a calf injury, opening a roster spot.

In his first seventeen games, Belt supplanted veteran Aubrey Huff at first base, forcing Huff to play out of position in the outfield, with often disastrous consequences for the Giants. And while Huff struggled at the plate, Belt was worse, hitting only .192/.300/.269. With Cody Ross ready to return from the disabled list, the Giants optioned Belt to Triple-A on April 21. Again, Belt dominated AAA pitching.

When Buster Posey suffered a season-ending injury in late May, Belt returned to San Francisco. That visit, too, was short-lived, after Cardinals pitcher Trever Miller hit Belt on the wrist with fastball in early June, resulting in a hairline fracture. With his wrist healed, Belt returned to action, but at Triple-A. Again, he dominated. Again, the Giants recalled Belt, but only to take the spot of an injured player. Again, he struggled, was optioned, and then recalled. He ended the season with an unremarkable 225/.306/.412 line.

The Giants stuck with Huff at first base for most of 2011, in large part owing to his two-year, $20 million contract. The team also trusted Huff would eventually get his offense going. He didn’t, ending the season with a .246/.306/.370.

3. How would you have handled the situation differently, in terms of personnel?

Like many prospects who dominate at Triple-A, Belt struggled initially at the big-league level. What he needed most was regular playing time. What he got was a lot of skepticism from manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean. I wouldn’t have given Huff nearly as much time to get his game going. I wouldn’t have given outfielders Andres Torres and Aaron Rowand nearly as much time to get their games going. I would have found a way to play Belt, either at first base or in the outfield, nearly every day.

4. Do you think Belt’s career is redeemable, and if so, can it be done as a Giant?

Yes. Belt is still a top prospect with the potential to be a special player at the plate (and a decent one in the field). He performed well in winter ball in the Dominican League and has had a productive spring. And yet, there is still debate within the Giants’ front office about whether Belt will make the Opening Day roster. So it’s unclear to me whether he can succeed as a Giant.

I would have penciled in Belt as the everyday left fielder for 2012, leaving Brett Pill as Huff’s backup at first, and a nice lefty-righty platoon partner. Pill is a career minor- leaguer. In 53 plate appearances last September, he hit .320/.321/.560 while playing first base for a bit more than 110 innings. That would have given Belt the regular playing time both he and the Giants need, and set him up to take over first base when Huff’s contract expires after this season.

Instead, the Giants traded for Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan slotting Cabrera for left field and Pagan for center. Nate Schierholtz won the right-field job last season with outstanding defense and consistent hitting and was expected to be the everyday right fielder heading into spring training.

This spring, non-roster invitee Gregor Blanco is hitting the leather off the ball and running the bases like a gazelle. At 28, Blanco’s been playing professional baseball since 2006, but only has one full season in the majors. In 2008, Blanco played left and center field for the Braves and hit .251/.366/.309. Since then, he’s bounced around with the Braves, Nationals, and Royals seeing only 317 major-league plate appearances. His career line is .258/.358/.324.

From what’s been reported, it appears that Belt, Pill and Blanco are fighting for two roster spots. If it were my decision, based on what we know now, I would send Pill to Triple-A, make Blanco the fouth outfielder and give Belt most of the playing time at first base. Huff would see some action at first and in left field, leaving Bruce Bochy to juggle the remaining outfield playing time among Cabrera, Pagan, Schierholtz and Blanco.

5. Who do you see having the more productive career when all is said and done, Belt or Domonic Brown?

I hear about the parallels often in that both Belt and Brown are highly-regarded prospects who have not been giving the opportunities to prove themselves in the majors. I’m not as familiar with Brown, obviously, so it’s difficult to say who will have the “more productive” career, even just looking at past performance and projections. Belt has more power potential; Brown more speed. Each needs regular playing time at the big-league level in order to develop their skills fully and to play well consistently. My hope is that it happens – and happens soon – for both players.

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Thanks again to Wendy for taking the time to share her insight on Belt and the Giants. Make sure to read her stuff at FanGraphsBaseball Nation, and Hanging Sliders, as well as on Twitter @hangingsliders. Let’s hope her optimism about Belt’s future applies equally to that of Brown. The success of the Phillies in 2013 and beyond — some would even argue 2012 — has a lot to do with Brown’s ability to contribute.

Crashburn Roundtable: More IF Candidates

Paul Boye, Michael Baumann, and Ryan Sommers put together some thoughts on some more potentially-available infielders around the league. The Phillies are reportedly very interested in acquiring an infielder from outside the organization, and the list of names seems endless. Here are a few that weren’t covered by me in last week’s post.

Mark Reynolds

Paul: You know what you’re getting with Mark Reynolds: a whole lot of power and not a whole lot of contact. To be sure, Reynolds seems a likely candidate to park a ball or two out on Ashburn Alley at some point, but with fairly significant detractions at the same time. His defense is below average at its peak and borderline unwatchable at its nadir, so he only really plays third base in theory. He does have good plate discipline in spite of his shaky contact skills, so each plate appearance is not necessarily boom or bust, but something tells me the frustration of his fielding and nearly 68 percent of his PAs resulting in outs will outweigh the appetizing power.

Ryan: Reynolds is the most appealing of all of our options here. He’s 27 years old, he’s not terribly expensive this year and can be cheaply bought out next season, and hey, it’s Dan Duquette. A trade couldn’t be that hard to swing. There’s no need to worry about drastic BABIP swings with him either, since contact has never been a part of his game. For his career, 50.12% of Reynolds’ plate appearances have ended in either a walk, strikeout, or homerun. In the post-integration era, minimum 1000 plate appearances, that’s fourth among all hitters. Sure, strikeouts comprise an unfortunate portion of that trio, but his walk rate has been well above average too, and his HR/FB% would play mighty well at the Bank. Let’s be honest: if you’re reading this, you probably share my fetish for dingers and walks, and they’re sorely lacking in the Phillies infield as it’s currently projected, Jim Thome notwithstanding. Reynolds is the tonic.

Michael: I’ve always liked Mark Reynolds. I always found something endearing about the uncompromising nature of his game–swing as hard as you can and let the chips fall where they may. But here’s the thing about Mark Reynolds–you can be quite a valuable third baseman even if you strike out 200+ times in a season and play awful defense, so long as you make up for it in other areas. In 2009, Reynolds struck out 223 times and was more than 10 runs below average in the field. But thanks to 44 home runs, 30 doubles, 24 stolen bases, and a .260 batting average, FanGraphs credited him with 3.5 WAR.

But if those totals drop significantly, Reynolds goes from posting a .260/.349/.543 (his 2009) to a .210/.322/.459 (his combined 2010 and 2011). The power numbers and patience are still quite good, but that’s about all Reynolds can do anymore. But given his ability to play either corner infield position (not particularly well, I’ll concede, but still), odds are he’d be a useful player under the right circumstances. In fact, given the rapidly-eroding skills of Placido Polanco, the argument could be made that Reynolds (who is eight years younger than Polanco) would be a superior third base option.
So if Reynolds can be had without giving up anything the Phillies can’t replace (Joe Blanton straight-up, for instance), and if Polanco can still play second, and if he can keep his batting average, walk rate, and power numbers up, and if his strikeout rate is only stratospheric and no worse, then I’d absolutely support a Reynolds trade. But a lot of conditions have to be satisfied first.

Ryan Theriot

Paul: Now that we’re all intimately familiar with the pest that is Theriot following his 6-for-10 NLDS last year, how would he fit as an addition to this club? His defense at short could leave something to be desired, but he’s a capable glove and bat at second base. By “capable,” of course, I mean more along the lines of “palatable” and “acceptable,” which is the world we now live in with a post-prime Chase Utley likely incapable of reliving his best days. If a contact bat is what you want, you could do worse than Theriot. Just don’t expect more than three or four homers, even in CBP. Take the slap singles and be placated.

Ryan:

Michael: The good news: Theriot has experience at second, short, and third, and hardly ever strikes out. The bad news: Theriot is a dreadful defender, and about as bad a baserunner as you’d ever want to see. In fact, there’s been a baseball term, TOOTBLAN, created specifically for him. TOOTBLAN is an acronym for “Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop.” That’s not the worst thing in the world, in a vacuum. Hunter Pence, for instance, runs into outs on the bases all the time. The difference between him and Theriot, however, is that Thunderpants is good at other aspects of the game. Like hitting. And defense. Theriot blows.

Kelly Johnson

Paul: Wrist tendinitis nearly derailed a promising start to Johnson’s career. His 2007 and ’08 seasons with Atlanta were quite good, but he’s been up-and-down since. Part of that could be pinned to the injury, while some other part could be partially explained with a wildly fluctuating BABIP. At his best, Johnson is a more-than-viable asset with the bat who can also hold his own at second. He’s scheduled to make nearly $6.5M with the Blue Jays this year, so salary could be a sticking point. Among these candidates, however, he’s my top choice.

Ryan: In 481 PA last season, Johnson looked positively awful with the stick in an exceedingly hitter-friendly park. Toronto looked fondly enough on his prior accomplishments (2010 and 2007 in particular) to avoid arbitration for 2012 with a $6.375 million deal, so Anthopoulos seems committed to him starting every day for the Blue Jays. In fact, it appears they’re making somewhat of a project of it, directing him to focus on an on-base oriented approach in the hopes that he’ll return to form. That seems like a great idea, but, for one thing, it makes it unlikely that the Jays will want to deal him, and, for another, can anyone honestly imagine the Phillies trying that approach?

Michael: Can’t play short or third, struck out 163 times last season, walks some, but enough to be a particularly productive offensive player with a .222 batting average, which he had last season. The one thing Johnson adds is more power than anyone on this list except for Reynolds–a .212 ISO in 2010 and a .191 ISO in 2011. The real questions with Johnson are 1) Is he the guy who put up 5.9 fWAR in 2010 and had a 110 OPS+ with Toronto last season or the guy who had a .287 OBP with Arizona before his August trade and 2) How much would it take to get Johnson? Toronto just re-upped with the guy this offseason and traded two major-league infielders (bad ones, I’ll grant you) to get him last August, so odds are he’ll cost more than Ryan Theriot. But he did design the U-2 and the stealth fighter, so he’s versatile.

Casey Blake

Paul: Blake probably deserves a better epilogue to his Major League career than the one he’ll probably be saddled with: the guy the Dodgers traded Carlos Santana for (he was also drafted by the Phillies in 1992, but didn’t sign with the club). He gave the Dodgers some good-value play, but he’s 38 now (39 in August) and has seen his power numbers drop steeply in the last handful of years. Counting on Coors Field to revitalize his bat’s pop may not go as well as hoped, either. The Phillies already have an aging, low-power third baseman on their roster; a second would be redundant.

Ryan: A very old, just-barely-league-average third-baseman with good contact skills but no power to speak of; Blake is basically a new name for the very problem the Phillies need to solve. Simply put, there is a reason that, two days ago, the Rockies decided they’d be better off leaning on the likes of Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco at the hot corner. If history is instructive here, the neck injury that hampered him in camp will likely not be his last this season. The Phillies need to add productivity to the lineup, not groundouts and DL-bait.

Michael: Blake can still draw a walk, but the Phillies already have one mid-30s third baseman with limited power. Pass.