Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Appreciating Brian McCann

As a Braves fan, I have been spoiled by watching Brian McCann play every day. McCann has been a fantastic player for the Atlanta Braves, but unfortunately this will probably be his last season donning an Atlanta uniform. I wanted to take a look back at the career Brian McCann put together in Atlanta.

As fans, we’re all conditioned to want the shiny new toy. We usually have unreal goals and expectations of prospects, that’s what makes us what we are. Earlier this season I couldn’t believe how many fans were ready to give up on McCann after Evan Gattis started the season off so well. Gattis was in a role that was tailored perfectly for him; occasional starting and pinch hitting versus predominantly fastball pitchers. He excelled and because of that success people were ready to trade Brian McCann.

Flash forward a few months; Brian McCann is doing Brian McCann things like posting a .290/.374/.534 line. He’s having one of his best offensive seasons in 2013. His wRC+ is at a career high of 150 and his wOBA is only surpassed by his fantastic 2009 campaign. He is reminding everyone just how good he can be; just in case 2012 made you forget. Shoulder surgeries are an untamable animal. No one is sure how a player will rebound from shoulder surgery, McCann’s power returned quicker than I ever imagined it would this season. I guess that means we should all thank the surgeon as well, because he obviously did a hell of job helping McCann get his strength back.

Brian McCann is one of 16 catchers in the expansion era to have an OPS+ greater than or equal 115 over the first nine years of his career. He comes in at 13th on the list, behind names such as: Mauer, Piazza, and Bench. As much as we usually trash the All-Star voting process and subsequent farce of a home field deciding game, Brian McCann has still been to 7 of them. He’s accumulated 5 Silver Sluggers to sit in his trophy case as well.

I hate when writers bring up how players “do things the right way.” I feel obligated to mention that with McCann though. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t remember one article or quote that made McCann seem like anything less than a standup guy and fantastic teammate. Sure, he was disappointed he didn’t get to start in the Wild Card game last season. Who wouldn’t be?

Brian McCann will probably leave the Braves after the 2013 season and I’ll be sad to see him go. Since McCann’s call up in 2005 he has been one of the most valuable commodities in baseball: a good offensive catcher. Every I got frustrated with Brian I would just remind myself we could be running Francisco Cervelli out there 90+ times per season. He left us with many great memories; including a few hilarious slides, gassed out triples, and a few F bombs. I can only hope he gets the respect from Braves fans that he deserves now and into the future. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Economic Efficiency Since 2008

I know that WAR isn't usually used to look at team success, but for the point of research I decided to use it that way. We heard from different schools of thought last season on the MVP; what does “valuable mean? Does it mean you helped get your team to the postseason with a hot stretch in September? Does it mean you’re the best all-around player in the game? Everyone seems to have a differing opinion. I decided to look back at the postseason brackets for the past 5 complete seasons (2008-2012). I wanted to see who made the playoffs while spending the least amount per win above replacement.

For 2008, Tampa Bay was head and shoulders the most economical team. You could have assumed that much, but look at how big the difference was from that season compared to other playoff squads. For the rest of the piece World Series winners will be in highlighted in green.

Tampa Bay spent less than $1 million per win above replacement. That’s pretty incredible. We have always known Tampa Bay’s front office was one of the smartest around, but it’s easier to see when the numbers are laid out.

In 2009, Colorado and Minnesota were essentially equal in their ability to have good team in an economical fashion.

The Yankees spent the most in baseball that season, but it ultimately paid off when they captured the World Series championship.

The 2010 results were a surprise to me. I didn't expect to see Texas be the most efficient team. Please keep in mind that the payroll number was their opening day number; I could not find an updated version that included their midseason acquisition of Cliff Lee.

Cincinnati and Tampa Bay gave them a run for their money and might have actually been more efficient once you include the second half salary of Lee. My second biggest takeaway from this data was the TB payroll. They had a substantial increase from 2008 to 2010. So goes the price of players getting older.

In 2011, Tampa Bay once again topped the list. No surprise there. After doing this research I don’t think the Rays get the credit they deserve for putting a very good product on the field despite having limited resources.

You see Arizona and Texas in second and third respectively. Texas once again had a low number; this time with a much larger payroll. The payroll increased, but so did their WAR total (42.2 to 56.6).

I couldn't help but think of the article Dave did in the baseball preview of ESPN the magazine this year while looking at the 2012 data. The parity in baseball is one of my favorite aspects of the sport. The sport allows teams many ways to win, whether it is through pitching and defense or simply having one of the most potent offenses in the sport. Three new teams entered the playoffs in 2012 that didn't make one appearance during the first four years of the sample. Those were Oakland, Washington, and Baltimore.

San Francisco won their 2nd World Series in three years in 2012, but the efficiency crown goes to Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. The oddest team in this sample to me was the Baltimore Orioles. They were the only team in the past 5 seasons to make it to the postseason with a combined team WAR below 30. The 2013 Orioles have already amassed 22.7 WAR this season. Granted, the 2012 Orioles didn’t have a full season of Manny Machado or Chris Davis mashing like he is this season.

We’ve noticed a change in baseball over the past few seasons. Front offices are now locking up younger players more than ever before. Plenty of evidence of that is in Dave’s trade value series. Parity is also at an all-time high. I took notice of how many teams had an average price of one WAR below $2 million dollars. In 2008, only one team accomplished the feat. 2009 saw two teams slide under the $2 million barrier. 2010 saw three teams make it and 2011 & 2012 each had four teams make the cutoff. There is a lot better evidence out there that teams are focusing more on developing and acquiring young talent, but the trend is nonetheless interesting. It’s a rich man’s game, but sometimes a poor man’s mindset is the one to have.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Dexter Fowler - Undervalued Asset?

Dexter Fowler has turned him into a very well balance CF for the Colorado Rockies. His career is on a very positive arc at the moment and it looks like the Rockies got a very good bargain when the avoided arbitration in the form of a two year deal worth $11.6 million.

Fowler came up from the minors with huge promise in the stolen base category, but wasn't as effective as many thought he should be. He stole 27 bases while being caught 10 times in 2009, but in the subsequent years after that his efficiency dramatically dropped. In 2010 he swiped 13 bags while being caught 7 times, then went 12/9 in 2011, and 12/5 in 2012. If you've ever seen Fowler run, you might be perplexed by his mediocre stolen base rate. In 2013 Fowler has been much better, stealing 12 bases on 14 attempts through only 71 games.

The aspect of his game Fowler has improved the most is his power production. His slugging has jumped over 60 points since his rookie season. Dexter set a career high in home runs in 2012 with 13. He got off a torrid start in 2013 to already muster 10 homer runs. Fowler's power is definitely trending in the right direction. You can credit some of it to simply growing into his frame with age and with swing changes Fowler has spoken about in the past.

My favorite aspect of Fowler's game is his ability to get on base at a high percentage. He can be a buffer for your lineup in a standard league or OBP setup. Fowler is a very patient hitter who takes a good number of walks. His BB% stands at 12.1% for his career, which does wonders for his OBP. He has also seen his K% go from: 23.1% in 2011 to 24.2% in 2012 down to 20.8% in 2013. Plate discipline stats became sustainable fairly quickly so it's fair to conclude his rate should hover around here for the time being. Dexter has also shown the innate ability to keep a high babip. He posses a career average of .352 on balls put in play.

Fantasy Value

 I felt Fowler was extremely undervalued coming into the 2013 season. His o-rank on Yahoo! was 189. Compare his 2012 with Austin Jackson's, who was ranked 88th. The following chart shows a few OF with their 2012 stats, 2013 o-rank, and current ranking.

It's odd how all three of these players are so comparable based on 2012 stats, but their rankings differ widely. As you can tell Fowler has dramatically improved on his o-rank. If you got him around his o-ranking value then you're already reaping the rewards of a well thought out draft pick. I don't see any reason for Fowler to begin slowing down any time soon. New manager Walt Weiss has made it known that Fowler has the green light on the base paths. The changes to Fowler's swing and his newly found effeciency on the base paths should allow him to flirt with 20/20 seasons for the immediate future. The fact that he plays in Coors Field is a major plus as well. If you have him in a keeper league anywhere near his o-rank, sit back and enjoy your value for the next couple of seasons. 

How Hard Is It To Sustain Success Without Drawing Walks? (RotoAnalysis)

Yasiel Puig has been in the news a lot lately. He's had phenomenal start to his career, well aside from the Diamondbacks' catcher Miguel Montero hating him. He's also had most of his success without drawing many walks, which inevitably has sent him sliding down a mountain into inevitable comparisons to known hacker Jeff Francouer. Francouer never tore up the minors the way Puig did, but it's somewhat of a fair comparison due to how much fanfare Frenchy had after such a quick start to an otherwise poor career. As Jeff Sullivan from FanGraphs noted, the league is beginning to adjust to Puig, now he has prove he can counter those adjustments.

Fangraphs lists the BB% of 7% to be below average, 5.5% is poor, and 4% and lower is awful. Puig's current BB% in the majors after 36 games is 4.5%. He did post a 9% walk rate in AA this year before his call up, so there's a little reason to believe he is capable of being more patient than he is right now. I'll take a look at some guys who had solid careers while also sustaining low walk rates. I took the leader-board at FanGraphs, sorted for year 2000-2013, removed everyone with a walk rate north of 8%, and removed everyone with an ISO (isolated power) below .175. The following players have compiled 15 fWAR since 2000 (players in bold are still active).

That isn't very many names. Of the 202 position players that accumulated 15 fWAR from 2000-2013 only 58 or 28.7% had walk rates less than or equal to 8%. The players above are the only qualifiers from those 202 position players. Players with a walk rate equal to 8% or lower and had greater than or equal to a .175 ISO that accumulated 15 wins above replacement during that time frame is equal to 7.5%. Adam Jones fell slightly below on a few parameters, but for comparisons sake he felt pretty accurate. Here is Yasiel Puig at the moment. I included his AA stats and his projections for the rest of the season.

We've noticed you can be successful without walks, but it isn't easy. All of the players from the first graph were all good to phenomenal players in their own right. It's unfair to say Yasiel Puig has to turn out to be as good of a hitter as Carlos Gonzalez or Adrian Beltre to be successful, but he'll have to follow their lead if he can't learn to draw walks as he gets experience. Adam Jones is my favorite comp on this list. His career production and Puig's projection from ZIPS are eerily similar. 

Personally I see Puig as a .270/30 homer/15+ steal guy in the future. If he can manage that he would be an unquestionable success; but I'm sure he'll never meet the expectations some people have for him at this point. Any player on that list would be a win (maybe aside from Vernon Wells because...ugh). Anything on top of the production these guys have managed is just gravy.

**all data courtesy of Fangraphs**

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Adam Wainwright: The King of the K/BB Ratio

Adam Wainwright has been absolutely phenomenal this season. If you prefer old school stats: 12-5, 2.30 ERA, with an 8.06 K/9 ratio. If you prefer advanced statistics, he looks even better: 2.12 FIP to go along with a 2.69 xFIP. My favorite stat about his season so far though is his K/BB ratio which in mid July now stands at a staggering 9. For every 9 strikeouts he walks 1 batter. You don't need me to tell you how good that is. The pitcher nearest his efficiency is Cliff Lee and he isn't even close.  I decided to compare Adam Wainwright's impeccable ratio to some of the greatest pitchers in the past 20 years. I'll take their best season (regarding K/BB) and see how it stacks up to the masterful performance Wainwright is putting up this season.

**disclaimer: WAR total is from their best K/BB season. Wainwright's is still counting**

Adam Wainwright is having a phenomenal year. His 9.00 K/BB is surpassed only by Cliff Lee's and Curt Schilling's most efficient seasons, respectively. I'm not really counting Smoltz, due to his best K/BB ratio coming as a closer with only 60+ innings pitched. Here are the following seasons since 1900 where someone had a K/BB greater than or equal to 9.

  • Bret Saberhagen (11 K/B 1994)
  • Curt Schilling (9.58 K/B 2002)
  • Cliff Lee (10.28 K/BB 2010)
That's it. Adam Wainwright is on pace to have the 4th best season since 1900 in regards to strikeouts-to-walks. Three pitchers have accomplished this feat in last 113 years. It's hard to fully recognize in the moment, but you truly are witnessing greatness when watching Adam Wainwright go to work this season.

What is making him this successful?

For one thing, control is the last aspect of a pitcher's game to return after Tommy John. Wainwright had a mediocre season in 2012. (his words, not mine) This season the control is completely back to match the velocity. In a podcast visit with Matthew Berry and Nate Ravtiz, he credited his efficiency to first pitch strikes. He said he made a concerted effort to get ahead, because batters gradually get statistically worse the further down in the count they get. Adam Wainwright does a great job of getting ahead; according to FanGraphs he throws a first pitch strike 65.6% of the time. That 65.6% is the best for starting pitchers in the MLB.  Wainwright's recipe seems pretty simple once you look at the data: get ahead early then force hitters to chase out of the zone. He also leads the majors in O-Swing% (swings at pitches out of the zone) with a 38.2% rate. 

Adam Wainwright is also phenomenal at mixing his pitches. According to Brooks Baseball Wainwright's first pitch mix breaks down this way: 14.5% fourseam fastballs, 36.5% sinkers, 2% changeups, 17.5% curverballs, and 29.5% cutters. Wainwright uses the hard stuff to get ahead. Once he's ahead 0-2 the mix stays relatively the same except for the fact that curveball becomes the go-to pitch. He throws his curveball 48% of the time when he is ahead 0-2. That might seem like it would make it easy but to guess what's coming, but good luck touching it. 20% of the swings taken on his curveball in that count ends in a big fat whiff. Wainwright's curveball has a horizontal movement of 8.21 inches on top of moving 9.33 inches on a downward trajectory. In other words, if Wainwright gets ahead of you, you're screwed.

Jordan Schafer & Nate McLouth - Valuable Again?

Jordan Schafer came into the majors with a fair amount of fanfare in 2009, but ultimately didn’t live up to the billing and constantly drew questions about his approach at the plate and his maturity. Schafer ended up being one of the centerpieces in the deal for Michael Bourn in 2011.

Nate McLouth on the other hand had experienced success in the majors before being dealt to Atlanta from Pittsburgh. Nate’s tenure in a Braves uniform was extremely forgettable. He posted well below average stats during his 2.5 years (.620 OPS in 2010 and .677 OPS in 2011). Nate eventually caught on with the Baltimore Orioles in 2012 and posted statistics much closer to his career mean (.342 OBP and .777 OPS).

Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth are two players on opposite ends of their careers. This isn’t to say that McLouth is nearly done; he’s only 31. Schafer on the other hand is still relatively young at 26. Let’s analyze how they revived their careers and see if there are any similarities.

Jordan Schafer

Jordan Schafer has bounced around from the minors to the majors, so the data is more limited than McLouth’s. Some conclusions can still be drawn. Jordan Schafer simply became more patient.

Everything is trending in the right direction for Schafer. He’s chasing less (O-Swing%). He’s also swinging less on pitches in the zone which leads me to believe he is waiting on “his” pitch and trying to work counts. Patience is definitely a virtue; Jordan has seen his walk rate increase to 12.3% this year. That is up from 8.3% in 2011 and 10% in 2012. Schafer finally seems to have tailored his approach to his game. He’s getting on base at a career high rate and I believe it is somewhat legit. Granted the 2013 season is small sample size in comparison to his career so I don’t completely buy it, but it does seem like Schafer has made fundamental changes in his offensive approach for the better. He’s become a very valuable asset for the Atlanta Braves as a 4th OF who can hit leadoff, run, and play defense pretty well.

Nate McLouth

I remember being very excited when the Braves traded for Nate McLouth. In 2008, the year before the Braves acquired McLouth, he posted a 3.5 WAR held up by a slash line of .276/.356/.497. It seemed like the Braves got a legitimate 20/20 threat in a position that is tough to fill consistently (CF). Then the wheels fell off. McLouth posted a -1.4 WAR in 2010 and a slash line of .190/.298/.322. He never recovered, was sent down to the minors and the rest is history. So what happened? McLouth’s plate discipline statistics stayed pretty consistent throughout his career, so what else might have changed?

As you can tell, McLouth has seen these rates fluctuate pretty badly. I don’t necessarily think the answer lies here; everything seems pretty normal. The uptick in the k-rate was alarming in 2010, but it didn’t slow him down much to have the same rate in 2012. If you compare 2013 to his best season (2008) notice how similar they are. McLouth is drawing less walks than any time in his career, but he’s also striking out less. Let’s look at his batted ball profile.

Now we’re getting somewhere. In Atlanta, McLouth didn’t drive the ball as well as he is now. His best line drive percentage in Atlanta was 17.10%, compared with 24.80% in Baltimore this season. He also saw a huge uptick in 2011 in his infield fly rate (IFFB). As a result of having more infield flies and flyballs that don’t leave the park his batting average on balls in play (BABIP)  suffered. Nate McLouth isn’t a huge power guy, so the more groundballs he hits (within reason) should raise his babip due to his speed. It’s simple really, when you don’t have huge power flyballs don’t leave the yard. When you have pretty good speed hit more line drives and groundballs more hits should fall in. 

As you can see, Schafer seems to have made fundamental changes in his approach, while Nate just seems to have gotten back to what he was good at in the first place. All in all it is good to see both of these players become valuable again. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Andrelton Simmons Leadoff Conundrum

If you follow me on Twitter, by this point you've realize I have a love/hate relationship with Andrelton Simmons. Whenever I see him track down a ball at deep short and throw the baserunner out with a simple flick I get giddy inside. The same feeling takes over when I see him call off Chris Johnson or Dan Uggla on a flyball, well because they're Chris Johnson and Dan Uggla. However, when I see him come up to bat I want to hide in a corner, or at the very least shield my eyes. I probably wouldn't feel so strongly if he didn't occupy the leadoff spot on a regular basis.

The Statistical Case Against Andrelton

The Braves and Fredi Gonzalez have batted Simmons leadoff in 53 games so far this season. His slash line in the leadoff spot: .230/.264/.336 or in simple terms: terrible. The Braves somewhat suffer from lacking a prototypical leadoff hitter. Someone who gets on base at a decent clip, works counts, and hopefully have above average speed. Simmons gets the spot by default for some reason. Whenever, Jordan Schafer gives BJ Upton a day off, Simmons hits eighth. How can you justify dropping your leadoff hitter to 8th when a reserve is playing? (Granted, Schafer has been a very productive player this season) It doesn't make any sense.

If you want to get a little more technical, one of my favorite offensive statistics is wRC+. This statistic attempts to value the total value a player brings to the game on offense. The stat is also park and league adjusted, which simply mean players aren't punished/rewarded for playing in a certain park or era. For example, Buster Posey plays in a terrible park for power so his HR totals will usually leave much to be desired as opposed to Curtis Granderson who plays in Yankee Stadium. Basically wRC+ attempts to value hitters on what they can actually control while leveling the playing field a little. For some context the wRC+ scale is as follows: 120+ excellent, 100 great, 80 above average, 60 average, 55 below average, 50 poor, and 40 is awful. The following is the list of Atlanta Braves by their wRC+:

  1. Brian McCann - 144
  2. Jordan Schafer - 143
  3. Evan Gattis - 139
  4. Freddie Freeman - 136
  5. Chris Johnson - 135
  6. Justin Upton - 123
  7. Dan Uggla - 106
  8. Jason Heyward - 99
  9. Andrelton Simmons - 72
  10. BJ Upton - 59
I only used the data for starters or subs who have played more than other bench pieces. Essentially we're giving our second worst player on offense the most at-bats on the team. Unlike Jason Heyward, who has improved tremendously lately (141 wRC+ in June) Simmons is been consistent poor to average (75,81,48 wRC+) in the first 3 months of the season. The last point I'll make about Simmons is that his walk rate (5.0%) is the worst on the team of anyone with at least 60 AB. That's not good enough for a leadoff hitter.

This post isn't only about bashing Andrelton Simmons. He is a tremendous SS. Every defensive metric I've come accross rates him as far and away the best defender in the game. He is a tremendously valuable asset for the Braves now and in the future, but he does not belong in the leadoff spot. Maybe one day he will, but 2013 doesn't look very promising.

*All data used was gathered from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference*