Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Let’s Make a Deal
John Williams

The 2006 Mets are thinking big. They are putting themselves in good position in terms of making the playoffs but with another starter they could really have a dominant team. But who? Two lefties are theoretical answers, Barry Zito and Dontrelle Willis. Imagining for the moment that both of them are available for an equal price of talent through trade, I think it’s worth trying to evaluate which of the two would be a superior pickup. Opinions of good pitchers among baseball circles tend to vary depending on what kind of year said pitcher is having. This has led many a team to sign a good pitcher to great pitcher money. Now if the Mets listen to me, maybe they won’t trade the farm for the wrong guy.

It is important to look at the peripheral stats for good pitchers over their careers, because these numbers will stay more constant than eras or wins (which will range from excellent to average for good pitchers in any specific year). Such swings in the so-called “sexy” pitching stats can lead a guy like Barry Zito to be labeled an ace one year and overrated the next year. Zito accomplished his ace label by winning the Cy Young in 2002 and has seemingly pitched himself into being labeled overrated since then. These are just a few examples of sites considering the Zito is overrated argument.
Zito is likely #2 starter at best (then watch as his opinion magically turns a 180 through the season)
Zito is Neato … But Overrated
Now here is proof of how a good pitcher can convince the easily swayed. These are Barry Zito’s stats for two select years of his career:







Year A







Year B







Which one of those years would you rather have? It’s a pretty tough call, slightly worse K/BB ratio in Year B, but that should be compensated by many more ground balls. Year A of course is Zito’s Cy Young winning 23-5, 2.75 ERA 2002 season while Year B is Zito’s 14-13, 3.86 ERA 2005 season. Is Zito a Cy Young worthy pitcher? Not really most years with those K-rates. Is he now unfairly labeled as overrated due to those sparkling 2002 stats? Yes I would say so. So what is Zito really worth? Well his career WHIP is 1.22 and career OBA against is 0.227. He has been pretty consistent too, only once having an OBA against over 0.230.

For comparison, here is a table of those career numbers for some well-respected active aces in baseball (also included Rich Harden, who is labeled by most as the A’s true ace):




Roy Oswalt



Johan Santana



Pedro Martinez



John Smoltz



Jake Peavy



Curt Schilling



Randy Johnson



Rich Harden



Barry Zito



Zito compares pretty favorably to these guys, he probably walks too many to be in company with them, but his stuff is just as good, as shown by his career OBA against. He might not be an elite pitcher, but he is a very good to great pitcher. At least he shouldn’t necessarily be looked at as a subordinate to Harden, who hasn’t established really established himself yet. Zito would be a welcome addition to any starting rotation in baseball, especially since he is just now moving into his prime years. Overrated? No, I don’t think so, not unless you expect 23-5 Pedro-esque years from him every year. Very valuable and very durable? Yes, absolutely.

Just to mention park effects briefly, Florida and Oakland are both usually thought of as pitcher’s parks (Florida more so the last 5 years), so if anything both pitchers are helped a little by where they play. Thrown into a bandbox like Houston would make them both look worse, but since the Mets play in a pitcher’s park of their own neither pitcher should deviate much once traded there. Speaking of deviations though, Willis has been up and down quite a bit in his brief career. Since he’s just 24 though, anyone acquiring him would in the best case scenario hope that he would duplicate his breakout year last year over and over as he matures.

D-train in his breakout year delivered the following line: 22-10, 2.63 ERA. Included in that were 7 complete games and 5 shutouts, when he was on he was really on. Even in his breakout year though his peripheral stats aren’t all that amazing. Here are his 2005 pitching stats versus an average season from Zito.





Zito AVG





D-Train 2005





Essentially Zito walks a bunch more guys than Willis but considering that is D-Train’s breakout year and nothing in his career came close to it beforehand, there’s not a lot here that makes me think Willis is a better bet. And this is all disregarding the fact that Willis has been awful so far this year while Zito keeps doing what he always does (1.12 WHIP, 0.205 OBA so far in 2006).

Willis is 4 years younger so who knows he could become consistently dominant, he certainly has the potential. But if you were the Mets, and you thought you had a good chance to win it all this year and for the next couple years, Zito has got to be the better option. He’s only 28 so it’s not like he’s only got a few years left, and his stats show that he’s consistently been a very good pitcher in his career, despite the changing opinions of him. And for postseason considerations, he’s only allowed 23 hits in 32 2/3 postseason innings to go along with 32 K’s (many of those against the Yankee lineups). The Mets could possibly do better with Willis in the very long run but why risk anything for a guy as inconsistent as Willis when the still young Zito has proven over and over that he is money in the bank?

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Overlooked Solid Starts Could Lead to Breakout Years
John Williams

Most everyone has heard about the tear Phat Albert has started the season on, or the starts Bronson Arroyo and Chris Shelton got off to. There have also been some more under the radar solid starts by talented players who may just now be taking their games to new levels. Here is my list of such players so far in 2006:

Eric Chavez: A wizard with the glove but often a slow starter with the bat, Chavez still managed to average 30 homers and 98 RBI the last 6 years to go along with a career 0.851 OPS from the hot corner. This year he has started very well, posting a 0.383 OBP, 0.627 SLG through 30 games. Projected over a full season his pace at the moment would lead to 53 homers and 137 RBI. He won’t reach either of those, but might finally start collecting some MVP votes. Maybe most importantly, his BB/K ratio of 16/17 is much improved so far from his 58/129 regression last year.

Austin Kearns: His age and career OBP/SLG (0.360/0.461) entering this year alone made Kearns a breakout candidate. Now to take into account the fact that he’s had virtually no regular playing time since 2002 due to roster jams and injuries, and that scouts have been raving about his potential for years and you’ve got yourself a player. Having unloaded another toolsy young guy, Willy Mo Pena, a healthy Kearns now has a regular spot in the Reds lineup and is raking. He’s got a 0.952 OPS and is on pace for 28 homers and 114 RBI, both numbers easily attainable for him. All he needs to do now is stay healthy and watch the numbers add up.

Casey Blake: Blake’s been around for a while and is over the hill by baseball standards. His 1.013 OPS so far this year is completely unsustainable for a guy with a career number of 0.779. It will be possible though for him to put up a few very good years late in his career in the mold of say a Melvin Mora. His plate discipline has always been excellent and his isolated power very good. Batting at the bottom of an incredibly talented Indians lineup should allow him to reach say 15-20 homers and 80 RBI.

Alex Rios/Vernon Wells: Two very similar guys with lackluster plate discipline but undeniable hitting talent. Rios has a 0.692 slugging and Wells has a 0.637 so far in 2006. Neither will last for the entire year of course, 0.550-0.575 would be more reasonable. Despite their lack of OBP skills, they should combine for 60-70 homers from the outfield for the Jays for this year and the next several, especially now that there is more lineup protection. Rios might have a higher ceiling than Wells, so we’ll have to watch if he ever goes all Sammy Sosa on us.

Brian McCann: Always a good but not great prospect, he hit decently well upon his arrival with the rest of the Baby Braves last year to the tune of 0.278/0.345/0.400. This year his OPS is up to 0.895, which makes him pretty valuable among catchers. More impressive is considering that his production has been done with a complete lack of support in the lineup spots surrounding him. Also impressive is that he’s only 22 so it’s not unreasonable to expect a very good career from him.

Nick Swisher: Damn, Beane was right again. Essentially willing to offer his family up to the baseball gods in order to draft “Nick the Stick”, as told in Moneyball, Beane has got himself quite a talent here. Although only batting 0.236 last year at age 24, Swisher’s 0.322 OBP and 0.446 SLG despite it made him somebody to watch entering 2006. There’s nothing not to like about his numbers so far this year as he is on pace for 59 homers and 146 RBI with a 0.718 SLG. Once he comes down a bit from his current pace he could still be a 35 homer threat and could very well keep getting better in the future.

Nick Johnson: Finally, at age 27, he is healthy and putting it together. Johnson entered 2006 with a career OBP-AVG of 0.118, nuff ced. It’s always been only a matter of time before he turned into a Mark Grace/Will Clark clone, so the 1.041 OPS he has so far this year is not all that unrealistic for him to keep up. If he played in a hitter’s park he could really make some headlines, but as is he’ll just keep being one of the tougher outs in baseball as he enters his delayed prime. Now just stop getting those freak injuries Nick!

Ryan Howard: Well no one is surprised that he’s on pace for 44 homers this year, but it is worth noting him because of how ridiculous it was for him to be stuck in AAA for so many years. He’s been ready to tattoo major league pitching forever and now he’s finally getting the fulltime chance with Thome moved out of town. He should give Adam Dunn suitable competition now as they both try to see how far pitched balls can actually be hit.

Also Could Breakout: Chad Tracy, Hanley Ramirez, Prince Fielder, Grady Sizemore, Josh Willingham, Jonny Gomes.

Brandon Webb: There is nothing impressive about Webb’s 36 strikeouts in over 58 innings pitched. Almost all of his other stats are very impressive however, since Mr. Webb is no ordinary pitcher. He is an extreme ground ball pitcher, and we are talking extreme. In 2005 his G/F ratio was 4.34, leaving Westbrook in the dust at #2, with a number of 3.13. Even Derek Lowe couldn’t beat 4.00 G/F back when he was a dominant starter. As important is his only having allowed about 1 walk/10 innings so far this year. Those two facts make his 2.30 ERA legitimate despite a 0.268 OBA against. He doesn’t have a lot of comparisons in the recent past so it’s not easy to project his future ability to keep not allowing homers in a time when so many are hit. I would think that for at least this year and the near future he should remain a dominant starter as he is just now reaching his prime.

Brett Myers: When Myers first came up in 2002 I swore that I had never seen a curveball like his before. Evidently major leaguers had though, since he’s never achieved the k-rates that his stuff seems to suggest. He did take a nice jump forward last year as he’s becoming more a pitcher than a thrower (cliché I know). It will be hard for him to ever put up really good numbers pitching for Philadelphia in that park but he could still improve largely on his good year last year.

Javier Vazquez: An interesting case, I think he is a good example of how talent inevitably wins out over all the labels a player can be given during his career. On the Yankees he was labeled soft and maintained a label of overrated last year in the desert. Really what he has dealt with is being a flyball pitcher in some parks where homers fly with frequency. He is still young and still has the tools to improve though, even pitching in homer friendly Chicago. His current 0.93 WHIP (2nd in AL) and 0.208 OBA (3rd in AL) are above his head and shouldn’t be expected to continue. He could win more than 15 though this year with an ERA in the mid 3s based on his potential and peripheral stats of the past few years which would definitely be a breakout for him from his previous couple more mediocre years.

Scott Kazmir: The Mets traded him for Victor Zambrano. Despite the early career diss from management, Kazmir is doing exactly what his minor league numbers would suggest. That is walking too many guys, but striking out enough to almost compensate. What’s helping him this year is avoiding the absurd walk games he had last year but mainting his strikeout rates. His current 2.94 ERA is probably above his head at this point, based on his high WHIP so look for that to increase somewhat. Even so he’s quickly becoming one of the best lefties in AL and definitely has the talent to put up big numbers in the future.

Chris Capuano: Maybe not so much a breakout candidate as a good pitcher who is having a great year so far, but his 1.04 WHIP and 2.14 OBA against are very hard to ignore. He doesn’t really have the stuff to be dominating, although he certainly has een making the most of it currently. He’s just one of the many guys on the Brewers who can easily put up numbers that would make them stars in New York, and are reasons that the Brewers are just Ben Sheets away from being a force.

Jose Contreras: A breakout year at age 34(+)? Contreras had a good year last year, but it was really just a year that fit his peripheral stats better than his ERA did in New York, though cutting down on his walk rate didn’t hurt. This year his WHIP (0.87) and OBA against (0.179) are absurdly low, especially taking into account his unimpressive strikeout numbers. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess really. His splitter and fastball combination have made him absolutely unhittable some nights this year so I wouldn’t bet against him having a very good season.

Jeremy Bonderman: He’s made my breakout candidate list for 3 years running now. He almost did it last year, but then struggled with injuries at the end of the season. Once again his ERA (4.40) is puzzlingly high for someone allowing much less than a hit per inning, doesn’t allow home runs, and who has a very good strikeout/walk numbers. That would seem to make him breakout candidate pitching in such a large park but then remember that he is still only 23 years old and it seems that greatness is inevitable. Why not this year?

Also Could Breakout: Kelvim Escobar, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Francisco Liriano, John Patterson.

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Moneyball in Action?
John Williams

Of course simplifying the whole jist of sabremetrics into “offensive walks=good” is silly. That said, what is going on with all the walks this year? The idea for this blog came from watching Red Sox games this year and seeing what appeared to be a pretty uncommon plate discipline exhibited. Five players (Loretta, Lowell, Ramirez, Varitek, and Nixon) in the Red Sox lineup as of May 11th had at least as many walks as strikeouts, a key stat for many very good hitters. And two guys who don’t fit this description, Ortiz and Youkilis, can draw walks with the best of them.

Looking at some more stats though, the Red Sox are doing very well but are hardly anomalous on the year. They rank 2nd in BB/PA in MLB, at 0.119 to the Yankees’ 0.123, so they're not far and away the best in baseball at drawing walks by any stretch of the imagination. Behind the Red Sox are the Reds (0.133), Dodgers (0.107), and A’s (0.102) to round out the top 5 in MLB. What else to these teams have in common? Last year any of them would be leading all of MLB in BB/PA as a team with their numbers from 2006 so far. In terms of BB/K (a great stat for gauging the effectiveness of both pitchers and hitters), 6 teams have higher values than 0.66 BB/K. That number would lead baseball or just about lead baseball the last 4 years (except for 2004 when the Giants’ numbers were slightly aided by Bonds’ video game-esque 232 walks.

So the team walk leaders this year in MLB are better than they have been the previous few years, what does that mean? It probably has more to do with sample size, but it also could have something to do with the “stuff” of opposing pitchers. There have been talks of the balance of power shifting back towards the hitter this year as home run rates are up, but this could be an even more telling effect being seen. Summing up all the walks and strikeouts for pitchers the last 5 years and putting them into the ratio K/BB yields the following graph:

The K/BB rate showed a steady increase for the last few years (in accordance with the general idea of many good young pitchers maturing in MLB) but has dropped off considerably this year thus far. There is just not enough 2006 data so far for the season to make any far reaching conclusions as to whether pitching has actually gotten worse this year or hitting any better. Pitchers often gain control through the year, so we shall see how this year goes. It is fun though to look at the numbers and note that excellent walk rates are powering some of the best offenses in baseball at the current time.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Illusions of April
By John Williams

The first 25 or so games played by each mlb team are no different from any other 25 game stretch of the year. Except for the fact of course that the games played in April can cause even the most even-keeled baseball analyst to start making some wild assumptions. Some of the teams with hot starts to the year were expected to succeed (namely the White Sox, Mets, Red Sox, and Cardinals) while some teams sitting at the top of divisions right now are a surprise (especially the Reds and Rockies). One of the many funny things about baseball though is that over the course of 162 games, almost every team has a good 25 game stretch at some point. This may be the best 27 game stretch the Reds have all season, but it is memorable for occurring right at the beginning. It doesn’t hurt to start the year off well, however. On this day in 2005, the White Sox, Angels, and Cardinals all were leading their divisions by at least 2.5 games and went on to finish at the top.

Looking at some other teams the story is different. The Orioles were 16-8 at this time last year, leading the AL East by 3 games over the Red Sox, and doing so in impressive fashion, outscoring their opponents 135-111. In the National League, the Marlins (with a 13-9 record) led Atlanta for the division, but went on to finish tied for 3rd in the division, playing only 1 game above .500 ball the rest of the season.

Very often a good indicator of future success of a team is their runs scored versus runs against but at this point the sample size is so small those numbers are even pretty useless for predictions. The Marlins were absolutely destroying their opponents with a 100-63 runs scored/runs against mark on May 2nd last year but ended up being outscored by the time it was all said and done. The Dodgers had the biggest turnaround of anyone last year, sitting at 16-7, 3.5 games ahead of the pack in the NL West at the beginning of May (outscoring opponents 125-97 at the time). The Dodgers finished the year at 20 games below .500.

This year there are a mix of some surprise teams doing legitimately well but there are also some teams with much better records than their run differentials would indicate. One player does not make a baseball team (Barry Bonds the exception), but a few players having ridiculously hot starts can sure buoy a team for a short amount of time. Combining production from unexpected places with a little luck in close games leads to some really gaudy W-L records for teams at this time.

The Reds for instance should be 16-11 (using Bill James’ reliable pythagorean expected W-L) right now as opposed to their 19-8 record. This 16-11 record would include the hot start from Bronson Arroyo, who has helped the Reds win 5 of his 6 starts. Making that 3 wins in the 6 starts, which is probably much more reasonable, would leave the Reds at 14-13 so far this year, a good record, but not a draw-dropping 19-8. That the Reds are playing like an above .500 team speaks to the strength and current health of their lineup, which would be hard pressed to continue at the current torrid pace. But their current record of 19-8 is largely a small sample size illusion. And keeping in mind they only have a 1.5 game lead over the Astros and 2 game lead over the Cardinals from all of this, it’s pretty likely their stay at the top will be very brief.

The Tigers are a good comparison to last year’s Marlins at this time. They both had talented teams, but both started the year on unsustainable tears. The Tigers are 18-9 and are outscoring their opponents by almost a 2-1 ratio (140-86). Were they perhaps underrated entering the season? Perhaps, but almost everyone would still agree they’re not going to continue having a 3.11 team era. They’re also excelling offensively so far, hitting .283 as a team with a .489 slugging percentage, in a pitcher’s park. There certainly is enough talent here on both ends to finish above .500, but when regression can be expected in both the pitching and hitting departments, the W-L record can surely be expected to even out.

The Red Sox meanwhile should be the poster child for how strange early season statistics can look. A team expected to win about 93-95 games is sitting at 15-11, looking as if they are right in line for that number. But wait, the Red Sox have actually been outscored on the year, 124-130. In fact based on expected W-L, the Yankees should have a whopping 6 game lead on their rivals already, and panic should be in the streets. This is a case though of the Yankees winning some huge blowouts and the Red Sox losing some huge ones of their own. If the Yankees did indeed have a 6 game lead right now instead of a 1 game deficit then I would be saying that the Red Sox were underperforming their roster strength (mostly due to some horrible batting stats with runners on) and the Yankees were over-achieving theirs (mostly due to some unexpectedly strong pitching). Instead the W-L looks normal while the other stats don’t, so while the Red Sox can expect to start winning some blow-outs the Yankees can expect to start losing some. Or who knows, maybe this year will be payback for the Red Sox finishing 3 out of the last 4 years with a better expected W-L than the Yankees, and yet never finishing ahead of them.

Raw baseball statistics, unpredictable as they are, almost always regress to a certain mean (at the players' and teams' true ability) after early fluctuations. A team finishing the year with a .650 winning percentage would achieve 105 wins, a number not usually reached by more than a team or two each year. Five teams right now though are playing above a .650 winning percentage. Even those teams playing legitimately well (actually outscoring their opponents specifically) are more than likely to fall back to earth. These are all just characteristics of small sample sizes in baseball statistics. Since “large enough” sample sizes in baseball tend to be around the length of a season however, we’re all going to have to wait around and see what actually happens as we do every year. Until then we say “Go Reds, win that division.”

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