An Object at Rest

David Murphy has written a very thought-provoking piece for his High Cheese blog for the Philadelphia Daily News. If you follow both the Phillies and Sabermetrics, then you’re probably well aware of the regression lefty J.A. Happ is likely to face in 2010. Those in the non-stats crowd were impressed by his poise last season and think he’ll perform better than do those of us who fancy numbers. Murphy tries to meet all of us in the middle, citing “The Pendulum Effect”:

[…] refers to the tendency of folks on opposite sides of an argument to make increasingly extreme statements […]

Staying on the science theme, I’d like to direct Murphy towards Newton’s first law of motion:

[…] an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force.

All right, so I’m stretching a bit. But the point is sometimes moderates become so concerned with being moderate that they become just as extremist as those on opposing ends. With all due respect to Murphy, I think he is an object at rest and he is willingly guarding himself against being affected by external forces, or the thought processes of those on either end of the stats/scouts spectrum. It’s evident about halfway through when he posts his “moderate’s creed”.

I am not going to go into the math as to why Happ will regress in 2010. Mostly because I’ve researched and written an article about it that may be printed elsewhere and I don’t want to blow my stack, and also because you can probably read the various reasons with some simple Google searching. So if you are interested in the methodology behind that, I suggest staying tuned for my article (I will post details as they come in) or checking out the work of some other writers who have covered the subject.

Simply put, the reasons behind Happ’s likely regression are statistically sound. The Sabermetric stats that frown upon him are based off of DIPS (defense-independent pitching statistics) initially developed by Voros McCracken and DIPS has evolved many times through the years. Each new advancement shines a little more light than its predecessor.

The reasons behind saying “Happ will regress” are facts. This is not akin to a liberal saying that a woman should have the right to choose or a conservative pushing for his right to carry a firearm. Those arguments are based on morals which are neither right nor wrong. Meanwhile, taking one particular side in the Happ debate does not mean you are an extremist; it means you are either right or wrong. Compromising between the two, as Murphy does, still leads to a wrong answer, albeit to a slightly lesser extent.

I don’t want to sound like the brainwashed stat-nerd that mainstream writers so often characterize. However, Sabermetrics have gone a long way towards enlightening us as to the truths in baseball. Many smart people have put in long hours of data analysis to reach these conclusions. As it pertains to the Happ debate, the stats crowd is right: he is likely to regress.

As Murphy points out, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible that Happ will have as productive a 2010 season as in ’09, it just means it’s unlikely. To say otherwise for any reason whether it’s sincere disbelief or to simply attempt a compromise is to be wrong.

Ruiz Makes It 25

As expected, Carlos Ruiz signed a contract extension, making him the 25th and final Phillie set to officially earn cash money in 2010. The Phillies website has the deets:

The Phillies agreed Sunday on a three-year, $8.85 million contract with catcher Carlos Ruiz […]

The deal — still pending a physical — includes a fourth-year club option of $5 million, with a $500,000 buyout, and performance incentives based on games started.

For the signings of Joe Blanton and Shane Victorino, we can just compare their salaries to their expected value. It’s trickier with catchers since a surefire method of evaluation has yet to be developed. However, we will glance at a couple of the best methods to date.

FanGraphs has valued the now 31-year-old Ruiz at 0.3, 1.7, 0.5, and 2.2 WAR over the past four seasons, an average of about 1.2. In free agent bucks, he has been worth a total of over $20 million, or about $5 million per year. Unfortunately, Ruiz’s defense is not at all factored into the equation as it is still but a silhouette amidst the Sabermetric landscape.

If we had to take a rough guess, how good has Ruiz been defensively? At Beyond the Box Score, Dan Turkenkopf ranked him as the third-best catcher in all of baseball at blocking pitches in the dirt last season. Dan also cites a similar metric developed by Pitch F/X guru Harry Pavlidis that ranked Ruiz as second-best in baseball. That makes sense — Ruiz’s propensity to block sliders in the dirt is part of what made Brad Lidge so dominating in 2008 and kept him just shy of embarrassingly incompetent last season.

As for throwing out base-stealers, Ruiz has thrown out 21, 31, 24, and 27% in his four seasons (2006-09 respectively) with the Phillies. The National League averages in those seasons are 28, 25, 27, and 29% respectively. In a very detailed post at Driveline Mechanics, devil_fingers had Ruiz 95th out of 115 catchers in “caught stealing runs” last season. Even if we only include those catchers with 2,500 plate appearances or more, Ruiz ranks 27th out of 35.

Overall, factoring in throwing out base-stealers, blocking pitches, committing errors and so forth, devil_fingers valued Ruiz at 5.4 total runs or roughly about 0.5 WAR. Add it to Ruiz’s offense along with position and replacement level adjustments, and he was worth close to 2 WAR last season or about $9 million. If Ruiz comes close to that next season, he’ll pay for his entire contract in one year in theory.

Even without the number-heavy evaluation (which, for catchers, should still be taken with a grain of salt as mentioned), Ruiz’s contract surely passes the smell test. The Phillies don’t have any catching prospects close to the Majors especially after trading Travis D’Arnaud to Toronto in the Roy Halladay trade. For roughly $9 million the Phillies extinguish any uncertainty surrounding the catching position and for $5 million more can extend Ruiz for another year in 2013.

Another interesting aspect of the extension is that Ruiz will continue to work with a pitching staff with which he is very familiar. While he will be teaming up with Roy Halladay for the first time, he has worked with Cole Hamels for four years, J.A. Happ for one-plus, Joe Blanton for one and a half, and Jamie Moyer for three and a half. He has developed a reputation for calling a good game behind the plate and with everyone sans Moyer locked up through 2012, keeping the crew together can become an advantage.

Ruiz may not be Joe Mauer, but he’s worth the money he’ll be receiving in the next three or four seasons. Meanwhile, Ruben Amaro continues his trend of signing players to contracts at market value or below for three or fewer guaranteed years.

Savvy Amaro Signs Contreras

And now for something completely out of left field… the Phillies reportedly have signed Jose Contreras. The 38-year-old right-hander is expected to pitch out of the bullpen and provide depth in the starting rotation in the event of poor performance or injury.

Contreras himself has had to deal with some health problems. He made 19 starts in 2008 but landed on the disabled list after a July 13 start that irritated his right elbow. He then ruptured his left Achilles tendon in his first start back off the D.L. on August 9. Last season, he missed a month between May 8 and June 8 when his right leg wasn’t right. But wait, there’s more! Contreras would miss two more weeks in September when he strained his right quadriceps.

Yeah, it’s not exactly a no-risk signing by the Phillies, but Contreras will likely earn much less than the $10 million he received last season between the Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies.

Despite his age and a bill of health that requires some serious finger-crossing, Contreras proved as recently as last season’s NLDS that he still has above-average stuff to compete against Major League hitters. During Games 2 and 3, his fastball consistently sat in the mid-90’s, reaching as high as 96 MPH. Contreras struck out seven batters in just over seven innings of work at the end of the regular season with the Rockies as well.

Over the past three seasons, Contreras has been worth 2.1-2.6 WAR with almost all of his innings coming as a starter. For the Phillies, a more reasonable expectation is at about 1.0 WAR since his innings total will likely end up half of what it has been.

His ERA of late may worry you, but ERA predictors are a bit kinder to him:

In each of the past four seasons, FIP has estimated Contreras’ ERA to be better than what it turned out to be. The biggest gaps come in ’07 and ’09 and it’s no coincidence that in those years he had a .334 and .325 BABIP respectively. As we know, pitchers can’t control their BABIP so we can credit most of that to a poor distribution of batted balls and poor play by his fielders.

Contreras, who induces ground balls about 45-50% of the time a ball is put in play, should fare better in Philadelphia given that he will have one of baseball’s best infield defenses behind him. Also inspiring confidence is his strikeout rate which at 7.25 per nine innings last season was his highest since 2004. However, that did come with a corresponding rise in his walk rate which at 3.62 per nine innings was his highest since ’03.

Overall, it’s a savvy signing by GM Ruben Amaro. Contreras has the potential to be a valuable member of the Phillies’ bullpen or provide a high level of production as a #5 starter in the event that Jamie Moyer cannot regain full health and/or Kyle Kendrick cannot capture his magic from 2007. This is the type of signing that winning organizations make. And to think it was only four years ago that the Phillies relied on Aaron Fultz and Adam Bernero to make starts.

Phillies Extend Victorino, Blanton

Yesterday, we learned that Joe Blanton is worth about $12 million in free agent bucks, assuming a level of production at 3.0 WAR. GM Ruben Amaro did a good job, then, in getting Blanton to agree to a three-year, $24 million extension, an average annual value of $8 million. That left Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz as the only Phillies with undecided salaries.

Tonight, Victorino agreed to a three-year, $22 million extension (AAV of $7.3 million). Since earning a full-time job with the Phillies in 2006, the Flyin’ Hawaiian has been worth about 16 WAR for an average of 3.2 per season. If Shane averages the same level of production over the next three years, his production will be worth about $14 million per season or $42 million over all three years, with the for-argument’s-sake assumption of $4 million per win.

For as much as we criticized Amaro for trading away Cliff Lee and signing free agents Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez, he has performed remarkably well with regard to arbitration-eligible players. Amaro had ten such cases last year and handled them all with great aplomb:

  • Joe Blanton: 1 year, $5.475 million
  • Eric Bruntlett: 1 year, $800,000
  • Clay Condrey: 1 year, $650,000
  • Greg Dobbs: 2 years, $2.5 million
  • Chad Durbin: 1 year, $1.635 million
  • Cole Hamels: 3 years, $20.5 million
  • Ryan Howard: 3 years, $54 million
  • Ryan Madson: 3 years, $12 million
  • Shane Victorino: 1 year, $3.125 million
  • Jayson Werth: 2 years, $10 million

Not one case involved a multi-year contract of more than three guaranteed years. In fact, of current Phillies, only Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have signed multi-year contracts of greater guaranteed length (5 and 7 years, respectively), but they were orchestrated by former GM Pat Gillick.

Overall, Amaro has paid close to market value to significantly below market value, and that trend is continuing as we head into the start of the 2010 season.

Currently, the Phillies stand at about $135 million, close to their self-imposed $140 million limit. As Amaro works to sign catcher Carlos Ruiz to an extension, they will be just about at max payroll. That will remove all of the uneasiness going into this season, and most of it going into 2011. The big question next year pertains to sudden superstar Jayson Werth.

Werth is unlikely to agree to stay in Philadelphia with an extension of three years or less, and certainly not for the amount of money Amaro seems to be comfortable offering. Jason Bay, a fellow corner outfielder with a much more limited skillset, signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the New York Mets. Werth has been worth about 3.5 total WAR more than Bay over the last two seasons and is regarded as a five-tool player. He could reasonably demand a contract between what Bay and Matt Holliday (7/$120M) received, such as five years, $90 million.

Whether Werth will get an offer of that caliber remains to be seen, but it is unlikely that the Phillies will be able to retain him. The Victorino extension appears to be a safeguard against losing both outfielders with the realization that Werth is most likely gone after the 2010 season. Amaro’s reluctance to trade outfield prospect Domonic Brown is, in retrospect, prescient as Brown would be the leading candidate to replace Werth.

Fortunately, the Werth issue will be one of few for the Phillies in 2011. Amaro has worked extremely hard to achieve that, and he’s done a bang-up job so far even if we’re dissatisfied with the thought of having one and not two former Cy Young winners atop a rotation that has reached the World Series two years running.

BDD: Angels Slipping Down

At Baseball Daily Digest, I nominate the Angels for having baseball’s worst off-season.

In essence, the Angels have swapped gimpy designated hitters, downgraded from Lackey to Piniero, lost Figgins and gained Rodney. Meanwhile, Roy Halladay went to Philadelphia, Cliff Lee went to Seattle, and Aroldis Chapman went to Cincinnati. The Angels wanted an ace pitcher and they ended up with Joel Piniero. It’s the kind of dream/reality contrast one would expect to find with the New York Mets, not the L.A. Angels.

Joe Blanton Is Worth It

From the Phillies official website:

Based on figures released in anticipation for a potential arbitration hearing next month, Blanton seeks $10.25 million for the 2010 season, but the Phillies are proposing $7.5 million, which is a bump of more than $2 million from his ’09 salary.

The most likely scenario is that the Phillies will win the case and pay Blanton $7.5 million in 2010, a result that fans will be pleased with. Since the odds of Joe being a Phillie in ’10 are at about 99.99%, the fan in me very much prefers the Phillies winning all of their arbitration cases as it allows the team more flexibility.

However, from what I’ve heard from Phillies fans since Blanton’s salary suggestion was reported, most fans don’t think he’s worth $10.25 million. I wonder if that holds true.

Blanton was inserted into the Oakland Athletics starting rotation in 2005 and has been starting regularly ever since. Since that time, he has compiled nearly 16 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), an average of over 3 WAR per season. His last two seasons (2.2 WAR each) have been the least productive of his short Major League career, but he still provides value out of the middle of the Phillies’ rotation.

The venerable Dave Cameron calculated the dollar value of each WAR at FanGraphs last year:

2005 – $3.4m / win
2006 – $3.7m / win
2007 – $4.1m / win
2008 – $4.5m / win

The value was about the same in 2009 — about $4.5 million per win. Given the state of the nation’s economy and a slight change in the baseball value zeitgeist among front office executives (see: Zduriencik, Jack), we can reasonably expect the 2010 value to be slightly lower, somewhere in the $4-4.25 million range according to most Sabermetric estimates. Jack Moore estimated the value to be even lower, from $3.5-4 million. Let’s just say $4 million.

The arbitration hearings focus on what a player has already done, not what he will likely do in the future. Even if the projections saw Blanton falling off of the face of the Earth and the Phillies offered a salary of the league minimum, he would still be awarded a pay raise if his performance in the recent past justified it.

However, what we as fans are focused on is what Blanton is likely to produce for the Phillies in 2010 and if his salary will be money wisely spent by the organization. So first we need to figure out what we can expect of Joe.

Blanton went into ’09 with a career K/9 rate of about 5.2. Yet he wasn’t a different pitcher last year. He threw the same variety of pitches at the same rates save for a 3% drop in curveball usage. He had an average BABIP and his batted ball splits did not alter drastically, just a 4% increase in fly balls and a similar decrease in ground balls.  Additionally, Joe’s walk rate stayed around his career average and his home run per fly ball rate bumped up a bit.

Overall, nothing too alarming and not much that can’t be explained by randomness. Except that strikeout rate. Joe averaged about 5.2 punch-outs per nine innings over his career, but it rocketed to 7.5 last season. Cyril Morong noted that strikeout rates are generally persistent:

[…] I found all the pitchers that had 1000+ batters faced in both the 2003-05 period and the 2006-08 period. The correlations for walk rates and strikeout rates from period 1 to period 2 were 0.736 and 0.767, respectively.

If you’re unfamiliar with correlation coefficients, the number can range from -1 to +1. The closer it is to positive one, the more strongly correlated one number is to the other. As for year-to-year persistence, Matt Swartz found a similar number in an entry for Baseball Prospectus.

Hopefully I haven’t lost you. All this means is that we can look at the huge jump in Blanton’s strikeout rate without immediately discarding it as aberrant. We found nothing alarming in his peripherals to cause reason for pessimism. The projections agree: Bill James, CHONE, and Marcel put him on a 4.06, 4.10, and 4.22 ERA next season, very close to his 4.05 ERA from last season.

All told, a reasonable expectation for Blanton in 2010 is a WAR at about 3.0. Multiplying that by our dollar value per WAR figure, $4 million, we estimate Joe to be worth about $12 million in free agent dollars. How do we interpret that figure? Dave Cameron explains:

[…] the best description of the question that the valuation is answering is “how much would you expect to have to pay to replace this performance in free agency if you knew that you were going to get this level of value exactly?”

In other words, if the Phillies went into 2010 without Blanton and wanted to recoup the 3 WAR lost, they should expect to pay about $12 million to free agents. That $10.25 million request submitted by Blanton looks a bit more reasonable now, doesn’t it? I sense a L’Oréal commercial in the works.

The Phillies and Sabermetrics

A friend of mine works at a hot dog slash burger joint in Chester, PA. I stopped by one day to taste-test the goods, and he recommended a special sauce they have. So of course I tried it and liked it. When I caught up with him later, I asked him what was in that sauce.

“I have no idea,” he said.

Interesting that the business does not even let its employees know what is in the sauce, like the recipes for KFC or Coca Cola.

Why do I bring that up? Apparently, the Phillies don’t utilize statistics in player evaluation. From Doug Miller on

“I think defensive statistics are the most unpredictable stats there are,” says Charley Kerfeld, a former big league reliever who now serves as a special assistant to Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.

“And since I’ve been here, we don’t have an in-house stats guy and I kind of feel we never will. We’re not a statistics-driven organization by any means.

“I’m not against statistics. Everybody has their own way of doing things. But the Phillies believe in what our scouts see and what our eyes tell us and what our people tell us.”

I’m skeptical as to Kerfeld’s honesty here, though he is certainly correct about the uncertainty of defensive metrics. For the same reasons that Coke and KFC and my friend’s burger joint don’t want us to know their secret ingredients, neither do the Phillies want everyone to know their thought processes in player evaluation. Such publicity would adversely affect them particularly in trades and drafting.

For instance, imagine Franklin Gutierrez — the slick-fielding center fielder for the Seattle Mariners — is on the trade market and the Phillies and the Boston Red Sox are the finalists in the sweepstakes. If the Red Sox know that the Phillies are proponents of defensive metrics, then they know that the Phillies may be willing to get into a bidding war for Gut’s services. So, the Red Sox wouldn’t jump out with an offer; instead, they would wait for the Phillies to do so.

Similarly, imagine the Phillies are trying to trade Jimmy Rollins. He is known more for his glove than his bat (sans 2007). The Phillies, by publicizing their use of defensive statistics, may alienate potential suitors because they realize that the Phillies could be valuing Rollins more highly than other teams and thus would not be willing to submit an offer or engage in a bidding war.

Simply put, teams do not want anyone to have access to their thought processes. If anything, Kerfeld is likely running a misdirection. That’s because the Phillies have consistently been among baseball’s elite defensive squads going back to 2002.

Note that the UZR data on FanGraphs only goes back to 2002.

It’s highly unlikely that the Phillies lucked their way into teams as consistently elite as their defensive squads have been. That’s not to say that, secretly, Phillies officials are poring over UZR and plus-minus data. Instead, the Phillies likely use a little of everything to various degrees. They probably do consider the word of scouts highest, then video scouting, and various sets of defensive data whether it’s UZR, +/-, PMR, or their own brand.

Another Sabermetric principle is that walks have value. The Phillies, since 2002:

From 2002-07, the Phillies were either first or second in the NL in drawing walks. They can thank Bobby Abreu for that, of course. But again, it’s highly unlikely they just happened to find walk-prone hitters like Abreu, Pat Burrell, and Ryan Howard on the team.

I’ll conclude this with perhaps the most damning bit of evidence that the Phillies are Sabermetrically-inclined: base running.

According to EQBRR on Baseball Prospectus, the Phillies ranked first in all of baseball in 2006 and ’07 (13.3 each), second in ’08 (13.4), and sixth in ’09 (0.5). Last season aside — likely caused by Jimmy Rollins’ down year which cut his base running opportunities significantly — the Phillies have been not only elite but once again consistently elite. It’s one thing to have a fluke season here and there but the Phillies are incredibly consistent.

Sabermetric studies have shown us that the “break-even” point in stolen base success rate is close to 75%. The Phillies’ success rate on the base paths will astound you:

  • 2004: 79%
  • 2005: 81%
  • 2006: 79%
  • 2007: 88%
  • 2008: 84%
  • 2009: 81%

Once again, not just elite, but consistently elite.

Of course we don’t know for sure, but I’d be shocked if the Phillies weren’t heavy proponents of Sabermetrics. They show all of the symptoms. You’ll know for sure if you ever see Amaro sporting a pocket protector or using a slide rule.

BDD: With Chapman, Reds Can Hope

At Baseball Daily Digest, I suggest the Reds have reason for optimism in the coming years thanks to a young core of talent.

Consider the Philadelphia Phillies when thinking of what the Reds’ future may hold. The Phillies, while a bit more successful than the Reds prior to their 2007-09 properity, built up a lot of hope in their Minor League system. They drafted Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Michael Bourn, Gavin Floyd, and Cole Hamels, most of whom eventually accentuated the likes of Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell for years.

The talent lived up to the hype: Utley turned into the best second baseman in baseball, Howard became one of the game’s premier sluggers, Hamels dazzled in the 2008 post-season; and the Phillies otherwise turned their prospects into talent elsewhere (such as trading Bourn to acquire closer Brad Lidge, who had a perfect season in ‘08).

BDD: The Insignificant Hall of Fame

At Baseball Daily Digest, I lay out my reasoning for not caring about the Hall of Fame.

I can’t imagine why a Hall of Fame induction would change anybody’s opinion about anything. Was Van Halen any less of an incredibly awesome rock band before their 2007 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Did you look at their discography and think to yourself, “They were good… but not ZZ Top good”?