BDD: Offensive Pro- and Re-gression

At Baseball Daily Digest, I clumsily title an article where I look at the most improved and the most regressed offenses in both leagues between last season and present time.

* Did you know that there’s not really a good antonym for “improved”? “Least improved” doesn’t work because it implies standing pat instead of actually getting worse. The English language has words for everything except this, apparently. I blame the English language for the clumsy title.

[...]

For as great as the infield has been offensively for the Rays, they have been getting awful production from their catcher (Dioner Navarro, 37 OPS+), center fielder (B.J. Upton, 54 OPS+), and designated hitter (Pat Burrell, 75 OPS+). How they’ve managed to lead the league in offense with three dead weights in the starting lineup is incredible.

Talkin’ Yanks with River Avenue Blues

For those of you who liked last week’s interview with Fire Jim Bowden, I’ve got another one for you. This time, in preparation for the Phillies-Yankees match-up in New York, I’ve talked with Ben Kabak at River Avenue Blues. RAB is one of the most thorough team-specific baseball blogs of any kind that I’ve come across on the Internets, so make sure you stop over there. I’ll give you another reason: Ben asked me a few questions as well, which I’ll link to tomorrow evening, or you can stop by RAB beforehand.

UPDATE: Click here to head over to River Avenue Blues. Sorry for the delay.

I asked Ben some tough questions, but I think he did all right. My questions will be in bold, and his answers will follow in normal typeface.

1. Brett Gardner got an inside-the-park home run recently after visiting a sick child at the hospital. She gave him a bracelet, telling him that it would help him hit a home run, sort of like Paul O’Neill in the Seinfeld episode “The Wink”. Only, in that episode, Kramer promised a sick child that O’Neill would hit two homers. O’Neill’s second homer was, like Gardner’s, of the inside-the-park variety, but it was scored a triple and a run on the fielding error. If something like this happened with Gardner the other night (losing the HR on the scorer’s decision) how irate would Yankees fans have been, knowing the context of the situation?

RAB: I’m tempted to say “throwing batteries at Santa Claus” irate, but then I’d be taking a dig at Philadelphia in my first sentence. Every time a home team loses a hit on an Official Scorer’s decision, the fans are generally irate, but I find Yankee fans to be a forgiving lot when it comes to the heart-warming stories. It would have been disappointing for a lot of people, including the little girl, but Brett Gardner is a bold, bold pick for that home run.

The more interesting part to this story though is the fact that nearly hit a second inside-the-parker a few innings later. He blasted what ended up a triple later in the game, but tripped rounding first. Had he not stumbled, he could have delivered two inside-the-park home runs in one game.

2. Rollins, Victorino, Utley, Howard, Ibanez, Stairs or Damon, Teixeira, Matsui, Swisher, Cabrera — who has the bigger left-handed advantage at New Yankee Stadium in the series?

RAB: It’s hard to pick one right here. The Phillies’ left-handers are a potent bunch. Ibanez has been tearing the cover off the ball lately, and Utley and Howard are no slouches. Rollins’ power doesn’t scare me too much right now, but all it takes is a deep flyball.

Meanwhile, Damon and Teixeira have been utterly mashing of late. Teixeira has 11 long-balls on the season and has twice hit home runs from opposite sides of the plate in the same game. Johnny Damon loves hitting into right field at the New Yankee Stadium and has 10 on the season. Still, I think the Phillies’ left-handed power is better distributed than the Yanks’, and I’d urge Burnett, Sabathia and Pettitte to keep the ball low and away to the big bats.

3. How would you grade the Yankees’ off-season acquisitions so far? Have Teixeira, Sabathia, and Burnett lived up to expectations or have they been disappointing?

RAB: Right now, I’d say Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia have lived up to expectations while A.J. Burnett has been slightly disappointing. A few weeks ago, Mark Teixeira was struggling with an average well below the Mendoza Line, but since A-Rod’s return, Teixeira has been on fire. He has eight home runs and 21 RBI this month and is well on his way to putting his poor start behind him. The same can be said of CC. He’s been utterly dominant after a rocky start. Only Burnett, with an ERA hovering around 5.00 and a bad strike out-to-walk ratio, hasn’t delivered the goods.

4. Which reliever do you trust the most bridging the gap between your starters and closer Mariano Rivera?

RAB: Oh the bullpen. We’ve written a lot about the bullpen at RAB, most of it under the rather ominous Death by Bullpen category. Right now, I go with Phil Coke against lefties and Brian Bruney as the primary set-up man. Those two don’t seem as afraid as other Yankee relievers to throw strikes, and they have been more effective at getting outs than anyone else. The revolving door of the pen with Jose Veras, Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez and now even Brett Tomko earning innings has been a big source of the Yanks’ problems so far this year.

5. Another silly hypothetical: two people are hanging on at the edge of a cliff by their fingernails. One is a Mets fan and one is a Phillies fan. You, a Yankees fan, have to help up one of them. Which one do you choose? Or, put another way, which one do you refuse to help and gleefully watch fall to his demise?

RAB: I’m glad I don’t have to make a real decision on this one. In an effort to curry favor with Phillies fans before a three-game set, I’ll say I’ll help up the Phillies fan. That way, when the Yanks win the series, at least I will have saved a life.

6. BONUS: Who wins the series? Is it a sweep?

RAB: I think the Yanks take two out of three. I like the Yanks’ chances on Friday because, well, I’m going to the game. I’ve seen A.J. Burnett make four in Yankee Stadium this year, and the Yanks have won all four of them. I’ll give J.A. Happ the win against Pettitte on Saturday. Andy has been giving up far too many baserunners to win, and the Phillies have an offense that will make him pay. Finally, the tie-breaker goes to CC. While Cole Hamels is a stud, Sabathia has been throwing lights out baseball this month. Over his last three outings, he’s 3-0 with a 1.12 ERA in 24 innings, and I’m not going to bet against that right now.

. . .

Many thanks to Ben for taking the time to answer my ridiculous questions. He was very political with his answer to #5, no? He’d make a great senator, and not the kind that used to play on the baseball diamond.

Head over to River Avenue Blues if you haven’t already. I’ll definitely be stopping by to get their thoughts as the Phillies-Yankees series progresses.

I’ll be begging for someone over there to lend a helping hand, or maybe a Heimlich maneuver.

Phillies/Reds Series Preview

Part two of the Phillies’ three-part, ten-game road trip lands in Cincinnati for a three game set with the Reds. The Reds, surprisingly, are above .500 at 20-17. They’re slightly below average with both their offense and their pitching staff, while the Phillies are Jekyll and Hyde in that regard with the league’s best offense and the second-worst pitching staff.

The Phillies have the pleasure of facing the Reds’ best starters in Johnny Cueto (1.93 ERA), Micah Owings (3.95 ERA), and Aaron Harang (3.44 ERA). Joey Votto (168 OPS+) and Jay Bruce (104) are the only offensive players on the Reds who are above-average in OPS+.

Nothing about the Reds team stands out as particularly unique. Average offense, average pitching… they even run the bases at around the league average (24 SB; league average is 22).

Cole Hamels will pitch the opener for the Phils. Since returning from a bum ankle, he’s pitched 13 innings with a 2.08 ERA, has struck out 16 and walked only 3, and allowed just 10 hits, seven of which were singles. Maybe hurting that ankle helped! Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton will pitch the second and third games respectively, and both have been very underwhelming this season, but you couldn’t expect them to keep their 2008 magic bottled up going into 2009. They’re simply not that good.

The hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark should not make Moyer or Blanton feel any more comfortable about rebounding from their slow starts.

Anyhoo… time for numbers. Hitting:

Philadelphia Phillies @ Cincinnati Reds, May 19-21

Philadelphia Phillies @ Cincinnati Reds, May 19-21

Pitching:

Philadelphia Phillies @ Cincinnati Reds, May 19-21

Philadelphia Phillies @ Cincinnati Reds, May 19-21

It should be an interesting series, especially with Raul Ibanez hitting in another hitter-friendly park. He can continue on his current pace for 59 home runs. Yeah, that’s right: the guy who has never had an OPS of .900 or above is going to hit 59 home runs this season.

BDD: Offense Up; Down with MLB’s Drug Policy

At Baseball Daily Digest, I point out that offense is on the rise once again in Major League Baseball, and that means that the drug policy has been a failure.

One thing is for sure: what we have right now isn’t working, no matter where you stand on the so-called issue. If you like ridding the sport of athletes who inject themselves with anabolic steroids, then you can’t like the fact that offense hasn’t been affected. If you dislike telling adult athletes what they can and can’t put in their bodies, then you can’t like the fact that has been no correlation between the tougher policies and a decrease in offensive production, yet the policies stay in tact with progress moving at glacial speed.

Andrew Carpenter in Pitch F/X

Thanks to an extra-inning affair last night, J.A. Happ was not able to make his scheduled spot start today. As a result, the Phillies had to make room for someone else to make the start, so they cut utilityman Miguel Cairo and called up Andrew Carpenter from AAA Lehigh Valley.

Carpenter pitched extremely well in 2007 for the Clearwater Threshers, his first full season of professional baseball in the Minor Leagues. In 163 innings, he had a 3.20 ERA, struck out 116 and walked 53. He was less successful when he was promoted to AA in ’08 (5.67 ERA for the Reading Phillies), and similarly less successful when he started the ’09 season in AAA (4.76 ERA for Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs).

Nevertheless, he was one of the few Minor League pitchers the Phillies could have confidently thrown into a Major League spot start, so there he was in Washington, slated to face the disappointing — but offensively potent — Nationals.

His line in his first Major League start may not be amazing — five earned runs in four and one-third innings — but he pitched better than it indicates. We’ll investigate using Pitch F/X.

It’s worth pointing out that, because Carpenter is a pitcher who had just one inning of Major League experience prior to tonight, the data isn’t as reliable as it is for other players. For instance, the data had average confidence values of 1.37 for Brett Myers’ curve, 1.09 for his fastball, and 0.83 for his slider. Carpenter, however, had confidence values of only 0.13 for his curve ball, 0.58 for his four-seam fastball, and 0.13 for his sinking fastball. A higher number, of course, means that the data is more reliable.

First, the data (FB = Four-seam; FS = Sinker; CU = Curve):

Andrew Carpenter pitch data

His curve had an average speed of 83.3 MPH; his four-seam fastball 88.6 MPH; and his sinker 83 MPH. As usual, take that with a huge grain of salt since the data isn’t as reliable as it would be for a more experienced pitcher.

Carpenter’s movement:

Andrew Carpenter's pitch movement

As you can see, there appears to be some mis-labeled pitches.

His average curve moved an average of .6 inches horizontally (towards a left-handed hitter) and 5.6 inches vertically. The average four-seamer moved -7.5 inches (towards a right-handed hitter) and 8.8 inches vertically. His average sinker moved -5 inches (towards a RHH) and 3.6 inches vertically.

A look at his overall pitch location (from the catcher’s perspective):

Andrew Carpenter pitch location

Andrew Carpenter pitch location

Andrew Carpenter pitch location

Carpenter threw his curve in the strike zone most of the time, but a lot of them were called balls by home plate umpire Eric Cooper. Carp also did a good job of keeping his sinker in the bottom half of the strike zone, and he worked both sides of the plate with his four-seam fastball.

Right-handed hitters were 4-for-8 (two singles, two doubles) with three walks against Carpenter; lefties were 4-for-10 (three singles, one double). As usual, we’re dealing with a small sample here, but in the future, it will be interesting to note if he has more success against lefties than righties.

Overall, he looked decent. He compares favorably to Kyle Kendrick, who also relies on a sinker. Kendrick’s sinker has slightly more vertical movement (about two inches more on average) but they both have similar horizontal movement in the 8-8.5 inch range. Additionally, both don’t have overpowering velocity with fastballs in the high 80’s mostly.

Did Andrew Carpenter pitch well enough to shorten the leash on the Phillies’ regular starting rotation, which had a 6.20 ERA going into today’s games? No, but if things continue to get worse, he’s arguably second on the list behind J.A. Happ. He could even find himself in the bullpen during the summer if the Phillies have to deal with injuries.

BDD: Let Madson Close!

At Baseball Daily Digest, I suggest that the Phillies should put Brad Lidge on the disabled list and let Ryan Madson close games in the meantime.

Counting tonight’s appearance in Washington, Madson has thrown 11 and two-thirds consecutive scoreless innings. In that span, he’s struck out ten, walked four, and allowed just seven hits, only one of which has gone for extra bases. Last season, mostly setting up for Lidge, he had a 3.05 ERA in 82 and two-thirds innings, striking out 67 and walking only 23.

The lucky-to-be-above-.500 Phillies don’t have the luxury of a multi-game lead in the division where they can play chicken by trotting out a dysfunctional reliever to pitch one of the most crucial innings of each game. Were it not for a never-say-die offense, the Phillies would be playing checkers with the Nationals at the bottom of the division, where the .300 winning percentages hang out.

The WSJ Likes Me

…and they may very well be alone in that regard.

Carl Bialik of The Wall Street Journal quoted me in a recent article he wrote about Raul Ibanez:

[...] Bill Baer was a skeptic of the signing before the season, and he’s not going to let a month and a half change his mind. “We need to wait for a decent sample size before we can draw any legitimate conclusions,” Baer writes on Baseball Daily Digest.

The WSJ’s crediblity just got flushed down the drain by quoting me. They had to learn the hard way!

Talkin’ Nats with Fire Jim Bowden

Jim Bowden may not have been fired (he resigned) but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to read about on the blog Fire Jim Bowden anymore. On the contrary: it’s chock full of anything you’d ever want to know about the Washington Nationals: scouting reports, stats, humor, and more.

With the Phillies on their way to Washington, Steven Biel — the author of FJB — was nice enough to answer a few questions about the Nationals. My questions in bold, his responses follow in normal typeface.

. . .

The Nationals clearly have talent on the roster with players like Ryan Zimmerman, Jesus Flores, and John Lannan. Why can’t they ever seem to put it together despite the talent?

FJB: The Nationals have some talented players, but the overall is not good. Their bats have definitely come on strong. Zimmerman, still just 24, is having the breakout year we’ve been waiting for. Dunn has been as good or better than advertised. Johnson is just always on base. Dukes is a special player. But this year, their pitching staff is just cripplingly bad. Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera just don’t give you any chance to win. The bullpen is almost half a run worse in ERA than the next worse group in the NL, but that doesn’t even tel the tale. In key situations, they’ve been just heinous. Late and close, hitters are batting .302 / .418 / .492 against them. Their bullpen is a total -3.02 win probability added for the season.

The bullpen has been in disarray seemingly all season. Can the ‘pen be fixed internally, or are the Nationals going to have to shop around for someone who can pitch the late innings?

FJB: Late innings? With our rotation you need to start looking to the bullpen in the 5th, which doesn’t help. You can’t fault Rizzo for not trying though. Joel Hanrahan, Julian Tavarez, and Joe Beimel are the only guys back there who broke camp with the major league team. Gone: Wil Ledezma, Steve Shell, Mike Hinckley, and Saul Rivera. Figure Logan Kensing will be gone soon too. Jason Bergmann’s been up and back down. In: Ron Villone, Kip Wells, Kensing, and Garrett Mock. There are some guys at AAA who will get a look. Tyler Clippard actually is doing very well in the early going. Jason Bergmann and Jesus Colome are there. They took a flier on Mike McDougal. Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Preston Larrison and Marco Estrada are all young guys who could get chances, though some of these guys may be needed in the rotation. But if any of these guys were obvious solutions, they’d be here.

Also, Manny Acta has taken some deserved heat for his bullpen usage. When he lets Saul Rivera pitch to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the 7th inning of a tie game with 2 lefties rotting on the bench… well, it would have been dumb even if Howard hadn’t hit a 3-run homer. And he’s got a rediculously quick hook, which made sense in 2007 when the rotation was terrible and the bullpen was very good, but this year he’s just exacerbating the team’s weaknesses.

On Monday, Sky Kalkman did some research at Beyond the Box Score and concluded that the Nationals were the unluckiest team in the National League. Do you buy that? Also, are there any Nats who you think are playing way above or way below their ability?

FJB: No, I don’t buy that at all. Their late-inning relief has been awful. When you just have miserable players in key roles, that means you’re going to have bad situational performances in key situations. That’s poor planning, not bad luck.

In fact, the Nationals are second in baseball with a .330 BABIP. Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman, and Anderson Hernandez have all been as good as they’ll ever be. Elijah Dukes, Jesus Flores, and Nick Johnson certainly have room to fall, when the slumps come. Their offense is ok, but it isn’t this good. Their pitching IS this bad.

Shairon Martis: Aside from the Ryan Howard grand slam on April 27, the Phillies don’t seem to hit him well. No one else has really hit him hard so far, either. Does he have a deceptive delivery, or a vast arsenal of pitches that would help explain his success? From watching him in his two starts as well as his WBC performance, he doesn’t seem like a guy who can shut down a lineup three times around.

FJB: His change-up is his best pitch. His command has been good, but he’s not missing bats at all. His 6.4% HR/FB rate is due for a correction, and he’s a pretty extreme flyball pitcher. He’s really struggled against lefties, so he’s a bad match-up for the Phillies, regardless of what’s happened to date. He gets a lot of credit for “poise” and “makeup.” Personally, I’m still a real skeptic about the Wowin’ Curacaoan, but I’d love to be wrong.

Last year, the team-high home run total was 14 from both Ryan Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge. Adam Dunn has 11 already and we’re only halfway into the month! What’s it like seeing someone who actually has that kind of power? The Nats haven’t seen it since Alfonso Soriano in 2006!

FJB: Yeah, it’s fun, no doubt. The Mighty Zimm is still the fan favorite though. It’s so great to see him healthy and hitting. And personally I can’t bring myself to ignore Dunn’s fielding enough to really fall in love. But he’s been a very good signing so far.

Okay, be honest: Is John Lannan being paid to injure Phillies players? In 2007, he broke Chase Utley’s hand with a fastball. Three weeks ago, he made Cole Hamels turn his ankle attempting to field a bunt. What’s up with that?

FJB: Philadelphians won’t like this, but when you crowd the plate the way Utley does, he’s going to get hit. If you like his toughness, fine. But you can’t get all riled up with he gets hit. It’s part of his game. But these days umps protect batters, don’t let pitchers throw on the inside corner, issue warnings for no reason, and it’s really not fair I don’t think. I don’t like the old school ethic of throwing at guys either though. Personally I think there should be a zone where the hitter isn’t allowed to enter, and if the hitter crosses into the “no crowding” zone, then the pitch would be automatically called a strike. That would make it fair for pitchers and also prevent injuries.

Which Nationals could we see dealt by the trading deadline?

FJB: Clearly the Kearns/Willingham/Johnson logjam needs to be cleared up. They won’t get a whole lot for either, but I can’t imagine Rizzo won’t figure out a way to make a move. Frankly, I could stand to ship out both Kearns and Willingham. I would also like to see them move Guzman–they should be able to get something back for him. He’s just a different guy since the Lasik. The $8 mil a year is a bad contract, though, especially given what happened with the free agent market last year.

. . .

Great thanks to Steven and make sure you stay on top of his work at Fire Jim Bowden. In his latest post, he breaks down San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy’s flawed logic in intentionally walking Ryan Zimmerman.

Phillies/Nationals Series Preview III

The Phillies have dropped their last three series, winning only 2 of the eight games. The bright spot is that Cole Hamels had a great start, his second since rolling his ankle against the Nationals on April 28. The Phillies will head into Washington, meet with President Obama, and then bunker down for four games in three days against the pesky Nationals.

As you might expect, the Phillies have good success against National pitching but the favor is returned, as the Nats love to hit against Joe Blanton and Brett Myers.

J.A. Happ will get the spot start in Saturday’s double-header. It is unknown who he will oppose (T.B.A. for now; could be Shairon Martis). Chan Ho Park and Daniel Cabrera will also pitch on Saturday.

If you’re looking for great insight on the Nationals’ side, check out my next post — an interview with Steven Biel who writes for the blog Fire Jim Bowden. For now, enjoy numbers!

Hitting:

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Pitching:

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Jayson Werth and Pedro Feliz Astound

Jayson Werth is a damn good baseball player: he can hit for average, he can hit for power, he plays above-average defense, he has a cannon for an arm, and he’s very efficient on the base paths. That last tool of his was very evident during tonight’s game against the L.A. Dodgers — a 5-3 victory for the Phillies.

J-Dub already had a stolen base next to his name in the box score going into the seventh inning. With one out against Dodgers lefty reliever Will Ohman, Werth hit a single to left field. Ryan Howard followed up with a strike out for the second out. That gave Werth good reason to move into scoring position with Jimmy Rollins due up (Rollins had been moved down in the batting order to try and get him out of his slump).

After Rollins worked a 1-1 count, Werth stole second. After the count ran to 3-1, Rollins was intentionally walked, putting runners on first and second for Raul Ibanez. That still wasn’t enough for Werth, though, as he led a double steal after the count went to 2-1. Ibanez worked a walk, loading the bases for Pedro Feliz.

This is where it got really interesting. Werth must have noticed that Dodgers catcher Russell Martin lackadaisically returned the ball to the pitcher. With Feliz facing a 2-1 count, he took a strike, and Martin took his time returning the ball to pitcher Ronald Belisario. As soon as Martin released the ball, Werth broke to the plate, and Belisario couldn’t flip it back to Martin quick enough for the out.

Jayson Werth stole home. And four bases in one night: second, third (twice), and home.

There were a couple other surprises in the game as well: Ryan Howard stole a base, and Pedro Feliz walked four — yes, four — times.

Feliz only walked more than once in a game three times last season: two apiece on April 19, June 6, and July 11. He walked twice once in 2007; thrice once and twice once in ’06 and ’04; and thrice once and twice four times in ’05. This marks the third game already this season (30 games) where he’s walked multiple times in a game.

His on-base percentage is now at .377. Consider that, since 2004 when he started playing every day, his OBP has finished under .300 in three of those five seasons, his newfound plate discipline is quite remarkable.