Sunday, May 25, 2008

Daniel Cabrera

I'm watching Baseball Tonight for the first time in a week, since I'm on vacation, so you get two posts today. The ESPN talking heads just discussed the changes Daniel Cabrera has made this year to make himself a much better pitcher.

Well, Cabrera's numbers have certainly changed. He was a mediocre power pitcher, and now he's a mediocre groundball/finesse pitcher. Either version is capable of posting a 4.75 ERA with average defense and luck.

However, that's not what's happened. Cabrera was relatively unlucky last year, allowing a higher than normal percentage of his baserunners to score. This year, his defense is converting 77% of balls in play to outs. 77% is a ridiculous outlier: Derek Lowe was at 77% in 2002, which allowed him to post a 2.58 ERA that year, a number that ballooned to 4.47 in 2003, then 5.42 in 2004.

The culprit here is a completely unsustainable 12.6% line drive rate. I don't think I can throw 70 MPH, but if I never allowed a line drive, I might be able to hold down a bullpen job.

Cabrera has 42 strikeouts and 30 walks through 11 starts. If he can't improve those rates from here on out, his ERA from here on out will be roughly 4.75, just like the old version.

A Tale of Three DHs

At various points in late April:

- Jason Giambi was batting .109
- Jack Cust was sitting at .148
- Frank Thomas? .159 and picked up off the scrap heap.

Thomas, as you might have heard, was released by the Blue Jays, who claimed he wasn't good enough to start for them. Plenty of baseball writers were calling for Giambi's release, saying he was finished. As for Cust, he was declared a one-year wonder. Sentences like "You can't play in the Major Leagues with that strikeout rate" were written about him.

Were our three DHs (anyone who has seen Cust play the outfield knows he is a born DH) really finished as Major Leaguers? Let's take a look at their May stats:

Giambi: .333/.478/.667
Cust: .328/.471/.642
Thomas: .339/.425/.565

Now, none of these guys is a true .330 hitter, so each is playing well above his head. Still, that's a hell of a group of hitters right there.

A common misconception about regression to the mean is that a player who has underperformed up to this point will now begin to overperform until his aggregate season line reaches his established level of performance. That isn't how things work: we would have expected each of our DHs to post a May stat line more like .250/.375/.500. But no one should have sounded the death knell for any of these players based on 50 bad plate appearances.

It's a mistake baseball writers make every year. They should know better by now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Who Am I Betting On?

I'm not distributing my picks publicly any more, but here's an insight into what I've been betting on this year.

The number next to each team indicates where they rank in that category. 1 = highest, 30 = lowest. And no, this chart has no scientific value.

Total Total %

Risked Return ROI
Ari 16 3 5
Atl 25 8 8
Bal 27 6 4
Bos 13 28 26
ChC 23 27 30
ChW 9 23 21
Cin 15 29 29
Cle 4 19 18
Col 20 22 24
Det 6 30 28
Fla 22 9 9
Hou 26 5 1
KC 11 17 16
LAA 24 15 15
LAD 21 11 10
Mil 8 10 12
Min 17 26 27
NYM 10 18 17
NYY 14 20 19
Oak 7 4 7
Phi 3 25 20
Pit 12 24 25
SD 19 21 23
Sea 30 16 22
SF 18 14 13
StL 29 7 2
Tam 1 1 6
Tex 2 2 3
Tor 28 12 11
Was 5 13 14

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Power Rankings Are A Joke In Yo Town

A quick peek at ESPN's MLB power rankings shows the A's sitting at number 1 on the list. Now, I'm definitely a card-carrying member of the A's bandwagon. I picked them to be over .500 and stay in the thick of the division race this year, even though Vegas set their season wins line at 73.5. I bet them to win the AL West just about everywhere I could, getting about 20-1 odds on average, which even at the time was obviously a ridiculous line.

Still...are you freaking KIDDING me? Number 1? The A's don't have the best record in MLB. They don't have the best run differential or third-order record. They certainly don't have the most talented team: how many Oakland players are owned in your fantasy league?

What do they have? A great bullpen, a decent rotation, and a very mediocre offense that's hitting much better with runners in scoring position, obviously a fluke great clutch performance.

Nobody thought, going into the season, that the A's were a better team than Boston or Arizona. Why have they now surpassed those teams, despite their worse record? I imagine that the Colombian drug lords are very proud of whatever they've invented that caused ESPN to hallucinate like this.

Perhaps I should offer to sell my division futures to whoever compiled this list at a payoff of even money. That should be plenty good enough for such a prohibitive favorite.

Playoff Odds

Over at MLB Playoff Odds, I posted my estimates for each team's chances of making the playoffs, and their projected win total. They're based on a weighted combination of current season stats and preseason projections.

If you appreciate the odds posts, holler so I don't stop writing them up.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hong-Chih Kuo

In my last post, I tore down a pitcher who ESPN thinks has turned a corner this year. If Gavin Floyd isn't the next big thing, who is?

One possibility is Hong-Chih Kuo. In the last post, I talked about the three stats that matter most for pitchers. Kuo excels at only one of those--strikeout rate--but he's off-the-charts good at it: his career K/9 of 10.7 would be the second highest of all time if he had enough innings to qualify. Unlike Floyd, Kuo has posted decent groundball rates every year except 2007, and he's never had a big problem giving up home runs. Kuo's career HR/9 is less than half of Floyd's.

Kuo's career walk rate isn't good, but the most common path to stardom for a young pitcher is to debut in the majors with good strikeout numbers, then improve his control to cut down on walks. Think Randy Johnson in the early-mid nineties, or Tim Lincecum right now. Kuo already has the dominant strikeout rate, and his BB/9 has been consistently improving since he arrived in the majors.

Perhaps the best measure of a pitcher's true talent is his expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP). A pitcher's xFIP is what we'd expect his ERA to be with average defense and luck. Kuo's career xFIP is 3.85, and in 2008 it's at 2.88, one of the best in baseball. While Kuo has accrued these numbers as both a starter and reliever, his numbers as a starter are actually better for his career.

Two problems have plagued Kuo's career. One is his health: he's survived two Tommy John surgeries and several minor injuries. This is the biggest roadblock to his sustained success.

The other is that Kuo's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has been far worse than the league average. This could be a persistent problem throughout his career; on the other hand, I remember similar comments being made about Heath Bell as a Met, and since then Bell has done just fine in that department.

The Dodgers rotation is already crowded and could be even more so if Jason Schmidt can ever get healthy. Still, Kuo deserves a full-time shot. Don't be too surprised if he's starting for the Dodgers on opening day pretty soon.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Gavin Floyd

Gavin Floyd just flirted with a no-hitter for the second time in a month, and he currently sports a 2.50 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Has he finally turned the corner, as John Kruk suggests, after years of poor coaching from the Phillies organization?

Hell no, he hasn't. As any sabermetrician knows, there are three big things a pitcher needs to do to be effective in the long run:

- Striking out lots of batters
- Limiting walks
- Getting ground balls

Just about every starter with an extended track record of success in the majors scores well in at least two of these categories. There are high-K, low-BB guys (Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez); low-BB, high-GB% guys (Roy Halladay, Chien-Ming Wang); and high-K, high-GB% guys (A.J. Burnett). Some elite pitchers even excel at all three (Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter).

What about Floyd? Well, his line for the season currently includes a 19:18 K/BB ratio, which is unacceptable in the Major Leagues. It also features a 32.6% groundball rate, terrible by any standard, especially in a big home run park like U.S. Cellular Field. Of the three main pitching skills, Floyd has exhibited exactly zero this year.

What does all that mean? It means that going forward, Floyd's results are going to be very bad, unless his peripherals make huge strides. If asked to project Floyd's ERA for the rest of this season, I'd take the over on 4.50.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Why The Rays Can Defy History

Before the season, every projection system known to mankind was wildly bullish on the Tampa Bay Sun Rays. PECOTA led the way, forecasting the Rays to win 89 games and allow 220 fewer runs than last year.

A few analysts have balked at the predicted run prevention, citing how few teams in history have lopped 200 runs allowed off their total from one season to the next. Joe Sheehan is the latest.

I know it's usually not smart to expect teams to flout historical trends, but let me pose a hypothetical example. A team--we'll call them the Mephistopherays--wants a complete overhaul. They change the team nickname, the uniforms, and trade every single player on their team away, starting from scratch with an entirely new lineup and pitching staff.

Should we be surprised if the new team bears little statistical resemblance to the old one? Certainly not. While they're still the same franchise, the new players can be expected to perform like they have in the past, not like the guys they replaced.

Now, that's an exaggeration, but it's not completely different from what Tampa has done. They've added Matt Garza, Troy Percival, and Dan Wheeler to their pitching staff, ditching some dead weight along the way. They've completely overhauled the defense, getting rid of some legendarily bad gloves and replacing them with superior ones. The guys they did keep include Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, two above-average fielders.

Most teams don't improve by 200 runs allowed, but most teams don't go through that kind of overhaul. It would be silly to expect an infield of Brendan Harris, Josh Wilson, and B.J. Upton to improve by 50 runs defensively over last year. The Rays aren't doing that. They're hoping Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria can be 50 runs better than the guys they ousted, and that's not so unlikely at all.

As Sheehan points out in the article, the Rays are on pace to allow 654 runs this year. They won't do that--April scoring always lags behind the other months, and the league as a whole is scoring fewer runs than expected this year--but I'd be surprised if the number exceeds 750. And while I don't think Tampa will keep up their current 93-win pace, I'd be surprised if they don't win 84.