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Pitch F/X and the Third Base Dilemma

February 28th, 2012

Last time I contributed, I talked about the move involving Mark Trumbo going to third base. I got one comment on the article itself, but I’ve gotten a lot of comments elsewhere on Alberto Callapso in general. I’ve defended the third baseman a lot this offseason from would be detractors. They say he doesn’t provide enough offense. They say the Angels need more firepower to compete with the Rangers. At least, that’s the prevailing wisdom.

I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, but I created total run index (which I talked about last time) as a counter to that kind of argument. Teams get themselves in a lot of trouble when they neglect fielding and base running for a perceived hitting advantage. The Arizona Diamondbacks are doing this in left field by pushing Gerardo Parra to the curb in favor of Jason Kubel. Trumbo is coming off of a season where he produced 29 bombs and 87 RBI, but if we dig deeper we see that the change to third base is not defensible.

Callapso did have a sub-par 2009 season with the glove according to most defensive metrics, but if we stick to Fangraphs’s UZR we see that he was an above average fielder in 2008 with the Royals, and in each of the past two seasons with the Angels. Above average fielders don’t exactly grow on trees and Callapso was an above average hitter last season as well. However, it is the pitch f/x numbers for plate discipline that are the most interesting.

There are a few sources for pitch f/x data on the internet these days. I have the handy Bill James Baseball IQ 2011 application on my smart phone. It provides raw data and colorful charts for a variety of categories, but I’ve always been a sucker for plate discipline. Plate discipline can be measured on two different planes. First, we can measured the selectivity of a hitter by looking at the percentage of total pitches he swings at. In that way, we are simply looking at the relative aggressiveness of a hitter. Percentage of swings on total pitches is not necessarily a predictor of success or failure. When we look across the game, we see top notch hitters on both sides of the equation.

The stat that does matter is in determining what percentage of their swings came on balls in the strike zone (or zone for short). Unless you are Vladimir Guerrero in your prime, you normally experience more success the higher that percentage is. The Angels projected opening day lineup finished tenth in that category in data going back to 2007. This seems surprising given the additions of Albert Pujols and Chris Iannetta. Still, if we play the SAT game of logical questions, you can tell me which of the following doesn’t the belong.

  1. Peter Bourjos. . . . . . . . .47.3. . . . . .64.0
  2. Howie Kendrick. . . . . . .48.1. . . . . .65.0
  3. Albert Pujols. . . . . . . . ..39.8. . . . . .68.0
  4. Torii Hunter. . . . . . . . . .47.5. . . . . .69.0
  5. Bobby Abreu. . . . . . . . .34.2.  . . . . .73.0
  6. Mark Trumbo. . . . . . . ..53.0. . . . . .55.0
  7. Chris Iannetta. . . . . . . ..43.7. . . . ..79.0
  8. Vernon Wells. . . . . . . . .48.1. . . . . .68.0
  9. Erick Aybar. . . . . . . . . ..50.6. . . . ..62.0

Of  course, Angels fans can certainly correct my batting order. I simply tried to add in what would seem to make sense from the evidence above. The first number is the percentage of swings on total pitches and the second is the percentage of that player’s swings on balls in the zone. The Bill James IQ app has the league average at around 69 percent since 2007. The Angels aggregate lineup average came in at 67.0.

Alberto Callapso’s numbers since 2007 are considerably more in line with the rest of the Angels lineup than Mark Trumbo’s are. Callaspo came in with swings at 44.8 percent of pitches with 69 percent of those swings coming on balls in the zone. That would lift the aggregate average to 68.6 on its own. That’s good enough to elevate the Angels from 10th to 5th in the AL in plate discipline. It also would move them into the middle of the pack in terms of selectivity.

If we put all of this into plain English, it means that there are a number of different places we can find value. As Peter Brand in Moneyball said, “you aren’t buying players, you are buying wins.” Well, according to WAR Alberto Callapso was worth 3.6 wins better than the replacement level player a year ago. Mark Trumbo was worth 2.3 wins. Even if Trumbo gains a half win and Callapso loses a half win, Callapso still comes out ahead. Furthermore, Callapso has averaged nearly 2.2 wins a season in the last four. It’s time to stop apologizing for Callapso.

Goldstein: Trout Would Make Bank

February 27th, 2012

What if Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Matt Moore all became free agents today? Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein asked this question of insiders and published some of the responses this morning. Now would be the appropriate time to pull out your credit card and purchase a BP subscription if you don’t already own one.

Both Harper’s average offer and maximum offer truumped Trout’s, but the 20-year-old still warranted an outrageous average offer of eight years and $102 million. That’s enough to drive a Range Rover, among other things…

I discussed this type of scenario at length a few weeks ago when I polled Angels writers to see what it would take for them to trade Trout. When you look at the packages of players fellow writers suggested, it’s easy to see why teams would have no issue throwing $100 million at an unproven player.

The thought of nabbing a potential superstar during his prime is just way too enticing to avoid gambling. A team might end up looking stupid and being unable to add top talent on the free agent market for some time, but that does not outweigh the possibility of having five of the best Mike Trout years.

Hudson Belinsky can be followed on Twitter at @hudsonbelinsky.

Angels Sign Jason Isringhausen to Minor League Deal

February 23rd, 2012

The Angels have signed Jason Isringhausen to a minor league contract, MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez reported today.

A few weeks ago I wrote about potential fits for the Halos’ bullpen and Isringhausen’s name came up:

Isringhausen is coming off of a season where he reached the 300-save mark, which means absolutely nothing. His experience as a closer is irrelevant; he’s going into his age-40 season and just isn’t the same pitcher that put up all those rock-solid seasons as the closer for the A’s and Cardinals. Today, Isringhausen can strike batters with his modest arsenal, but isn’t the type of pitcher who can handle the high-leverage situations of the late innings.

I still don’t much care for Isringhausen in a late inning role, but he certainly has enough value against righties to be an effective middle relief guy.

Isringhausen can opt out of the contract if he does not make the team, according to Mike DiGiovanna of The Los Angeles Times. This means the deal has very little risk. I’m a fan of low risk deals that can only go well, so what’s not to like about the Izzy deal?

 

 

 

Bobby Cassevah: Ground Ball Machine

February 21st, 2012

Bobby Cassevah had his first cup of coffee with the Angels in 2010, making three short stints in the bullpen at the beginning, middle and end of the season. While his 3.15 ERA (3.63 FIP) in 22 innings was nothing to scoff at, he didn’t exactly inspire thoughts of greatness. His 1.0 K/BB and team-worst 3.60 K/9 seemed to place him in the echelon of back-up mop-up guys.

Back in AAA Salt Lake for the first half of 2011, Bobby put up a rather uninspiring, albeit PCL-handicapped, 4.76 ERA (4.70 FIP) in 22.1 innings.

Despite the relatively poor numbers, a back injury to Fernando Rodney in mid-June resulted in a call-up for Cassevah. He excelled enough in his first eight appearances that when Rodney returned in late July, it was Trevor Bell packing his bags for the PCL, not Cassevah.

Remaining with the club through to the end of the season, Bobby became an unexpected asset, amassing a 2.72 ERA (3.66 FIP) in 39.2 innings.

King of Worm Burners

While some of Cassevah’s success likely came from an improved K/9 rate (5.45), much of it stems from his extreme ground ball tendencies¹.

Just how extreme? The league average ground ball rate for all pitchers in 2011 was 44.4%. When the ball was put in play off of Bobby in 2011, it resulted in a ground ball a staggering 70.3% of the time.

Among relievers with 50 or more innings pitched the last two seasons, Cassevah’s ridiculous 66.7% GB rate is third in all of baseball, and he trails only wunderkind Johnny Venters in GB/FB rate.

Though Bobby had managed to accrue grounders at a 61.3% clip in 2010, at the time I attributed it to small sample size (only 22 innings) so I thought some downward regression was in order.

Well, with GB% and GB/FB rate stabilizing at 150 and 200 batters faced, respectively, and Cassevah now at 251 major-league batters faced over the last two seasons, it looks as though his numbers have normalized. They’re just not normal.

Primarily a sinker-ball pitcher, a look into Cassevah’s minor league numbers reveals that he has always succeeded in provoking a high level of ground balls. Between AA and AAA in the 2009-2010 seasons, for instance, Cassevah averaged an incredible ground ball rate of 73%.

So, Fewer Homeruns Then?

Along with standing among the league leaders in ground ball stats the last two seasons, Cassevah is also in the thick of the HR rate leaders: his 0.15 HR/9 and 3.1% HR/FB ratio rank 2nd and 5th in the league over that timeframe.

But while Cassevah has demonstrated a penchant for not giving up home runs at the major league level thus far—just one given up in 59.2 MLB innings—expecting it to stay that way is probably unrealistic.

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, the ability to induce heaps of ground balls doesn’t always correlate with a low home run rate². Thus, Cassevah’s HR/FB ratio will not stay at 3.1% forever. That does not mean he’s “due” to give up a bunch of home runs this season—regression doesn’t work like that—but don’t be surprised if he at least starts to drift closer to league average in that regard.

The only thing a surplus of ground balls does definitively do in regards to home runs is give batters fewer opportunities to hit them. This also extends to extra base hits in general, as most doubles and triples result from balls hit in the air.

Pitching to Contact

It would seem to make sense (to me, at least) that keeping most hitters from squaring up the ball—whether an artificial skill or not—would coincide with a large number of whiffs.

This is not the case for Cassevah.

While Bobby has been one of the best ground ball guys in the game of late, he has had the 10th worst K/9 rate of any reliever in that same timeframe.

What’s more, of the relievers in the top 10 in GB% over the last two seasons, Cassevah is one of only two pitchers with a K/9 rate under 6.00. Surrounded on the list by high K/9 guys like Johnny Venters, Mark Rzepczynski and Brad Ziegler, Cassevah’s lone pitch-to-contact compatriot is a guy by the name of Blaine Boyer. It may not always be the case, but most of the time it’s probably not a good sign if you’ve never heard of the guy to whom you’re being compared.

So what, if anything, can Bobby do to improve his strikeout rate?

He Should be All-Right

What Bobby should do—and what hopefully our no-longer-inept front office realizes—is never pitch to a left-handed batter ever again.

Take a look at the insane platoon splits Bobby has endured in his career so far:

As striking as the over 300-point gap in OPS is, it pales in comparison to the split in his K/BB numbers. Not only does Cassevah lack the ability to strike out left-handed batters, he also manages to walk them at double the rate of righties.

An inspection of his 2011 splits³ in regards to pitch selection and location reveals that much of this may be attributed to the way he goes after (or doesn’t go after) lefties.

vs. RHB – 2011

vs. LHB – 2011

The nice, evenly distributed palette of pitches exhibited against righties is thrown into sharp relief by the massive cluster of pitches effectively situated in the other batter’s box against lefties. Cassevah doesn’t just avoid the inside corner against lefties, he seems to avoid the outside corner as well.

His reliance on the outside part of the plate—and failure to actually hit it—against lefties is the key factor in his polarized K/BB splits. Bobby throws his sinker for a strike 68.4% of the time when facing right-handed batters, largely because he uses the entire plate. With lefties, in spite of throwing his sinker significantly more, he only hits the zone 54.3% of the time.

Perhaps Bobby could find more success against lefties if he were to adjust his game plan and attack the inside corner a bit more, but it’s probably an easier adjustment to just have him face them less, if at all.

Removing lefties from the equation completely, Bobby’s numbers look excellent. His K/9 rate jumps above 6.00—nicely into the realm of the other successful ground ball relievers—and his walk rate plummets into better than average territory.

If used effectively, Bobby’s unique ground ball ability can be a huge asset to the team going forward. The key will be to use him in situations that give him the highest probability of a positive outcome.

In other words, use him as much as possible against righties, particularly in double play or sac fly situations, and avoid using him against lefties whenever possible.

*All stats not linked were culled from Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus and Texas Leaguers.

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[1] Fun fact: There are four Bobby Cassevah highlight videos on MLB.com. In those videos he faces 11 different batters. The results: eight ground balls (three double plays), two strikeouts and one random stolen base by Coco Crisp I which we never get to see what the batter did. My money is on a ground ball.  …and yep, ground ball.

[2] HR/FB ratio for those with a proclivity for ground balls can be erratic and deceiving (see: Peter Moylan). For instance, if three of Bobby’s next five fly balls leave the park—but occur over 10 appearances—then his HR/FB ratio would be a bit misleading. It takes longer for a ground ball pitcher’s HR/FB to stabilize due to the simple fact that they allow fewer fly balls.

[3] PitchF/X was unaware that Bobby threw a sinker until 2011, so including 2010 data would throw things off a bit.

In Trout We Trust: Baby Halos Who Could Help in 2012

February 18th, 2012

We all love top prospects, but there are plenty of guys out there who will never show up on anyone’s top 100 prospects list that will become major league contributors. The Halos have a few prospects who could help the team in 2012.

David Carpenter

Carpenter’s numbers were off the charts in 2011, as he posted a 0.93 ERA in 29 innings in the Cal League before advancing to Double-A, where he didn’t allow a run in 18.2 innings. Minor league numbers are great, but tools are the best indicators of success in the major leagues. Carpenter doesn’t have a ton of velocity, but his command and control and his ability to keep the ball in the park should be enough for him to make it as a middle reliever. Middle relief comes and goes, so Carpenter could have a shot to help the Angels in 2012.

 Jeremy Moore

Moore is an interesting guy. He has a four solid tools, but his hit tool plays down a bit because of his awful plate discipline; he took 21 walks and struck out 114 times in 2011. There’s no clear spot for him in the Angels outfield, but an injury could make him the team’s fourth outfielder. He’s got the speed to be a pinch runner in late innings, and he’s certainly not a liability in the outfield.  

Andrew Romine

The 26-year-old enjoyed a few cups of coffee with the Angels in 2011 and could play a bigger role with the team in 2012. Romine is a defensive wizard at shortstop, and worked on his game at second and third this season. His bat is nothing special, but he has pretty good speed. Romine could help the Halos as a back-up infielder in 2012.

The Angels also have a bunch of very young prospects who could make the jump to elite prospect status this season. That’s a story for a different article, but many of those prospects will fail, a couple of them will rise up to top prospect status, and a few will find themselves in situations like those of Carpenter, Moore, and Romine. All three players should be a part of the big league team in 2012, and may have a chance to cement themselves onto the team for the next several seasons.

Hudson Belinsky can be followed on Twitter at @hudsonbelinsky.

 

Halos Daily

Dedicated to bringing you top notch Angels analysis!