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Stat Sunday: Shift is Pulling Pujols Down

March 1st, 2015

 

20%

 

…is the percentage of ground balls Albert Pujols sent to the pull side from 2008-2012 that went for base hits. That, along with his 40 percent success rate on grounders up the middle and to the opposite field, helped give him a rather healthy .264 batting average on worm burners overall, which was a good 30 points above the league norm.

Since 2013, though, grounders have been considerably less friendly to Albert. That overall batting average on ground balls has dropped all the way to .191, good for 40 points under the league mark. A fair portion of that can be attributed to his 2013 plantar fascia woes—which slowed him considerably—but the big culprit is the growing popularity of the defensive shift.

As Alden Gonzalez noted earlier this week, opposing teams shifted to pull for Pujols more than any other player from 2013-2014. According to Inside Edge, the shift was employed 268 times in all against Albert, representing nearly a quarter of his plate appearances the last two years. While his success rate on non-pulled grounders has remained constant at 40 percent over that time, his rate of base hits on ground balls to the left side has plummeted to under nine percent.

This wouldn’t be a big problem if Pujols adapted to the trend and started slicing ground balls away from the shift, but that simply hasn’t happened:

 

Albert's GB locations

Via ESPN Stats & Info

 

Year in and year out, Albert hits two-thirds of his ground balls to the pull side. Yes, there’s been a slight uptick in grounders to the right side, but at the expense only of balls up the middle. What’s more, Pujols seems adamant about not altering his approach with the shift on, telling Gonzalez: “I don’t care about that. It’s not going to change the way I hit.”

If he really doesn’t care, then we’re probably just going to have to get used to him having a sub-.200 BA on grounders from here on out. Teams are only going to increase their shift usage as he ages, meaning his percentage of hits to the left side might drop lower and lower. Pujols can still be a productive player in spite of all the shiftiness, he just needs to make sure his overall GB%—a career-high 45.7 percent in 2014—doesn’t climb any higher.

 

Should Andrew Heaney Start 2015 in AAA?

February 27th, 2015

 

Since the quashing of the reserve clause 40 years ago, MLB players have been afforded the opportunity to test the open market after accruing a specific amount of MLB service time. For most players, that opportunity comes after their sixth season in the league. But not for all.

Take the Chicago Cubs and über-prospect Kris Bryant, for instance. If the Cubs make Bryant their Opening Day third baseman and he never returns to the minors for more than 20 days, he’ll become a free agent following the 2020 season, checking in at six years of service time exactly. If, however, they hold off bringing him up for good until April 17—just nine games—he’s suddenly under the Cubs control through 2021, essentially seven seasons. Such are the eccentricities of MLB service time.

The advantage this provides to teams is massive. Even if Bryant becomes merely an average player, the decision here for the Cubs is a no-brainer—the value of an extra year down the road will always trump 12 days now, especially when those dozen days are a player’s first in the big leagues. He might end up being a bit more expensive as a guy with Super Two status—i.e. four years of salary arbitration eligibility, rather than the regular three—but the extra season of potential production would more than make up for the added cost.

The Angels also have a top prospect, Andrew Heaney, who’s ready to break into the bigs, but things are bit more complicated for him so far as MLB service time is concerned. Heaney’s clock started last summer with July and September stints in Miami. The left-hander tallied 47 days on the active roster in all, just few enough days to maintain his rookie status but too many to make extending his team control into 2021 a simple process.

The typical regular season consists of 183 calendar days. In order for a player to be credited with a full year of MLB service time, he must spend at least 172 of those days on a team’s active roster. (Hence the 12-day wait for Bryant.) Because Heaney already has 47 days on his clock entering this season, he needs only to spend 125 days in Anaheim to complete his first full year of service time, which would put him on track for free agency after the 2020 season. If the Angels want to get that coveted extra year of team control—like the Cubs with Bryant—they have to be willing to stow him in the minors for at least 59 calendar days. That’s a quite bit more than 12.

To make matters more difficult, the Angels can’t just rack up days by optioning him to Triple-A in brief spurts between starts. As a member of the 40-man roster, Heaney must stay in the minors for at least 20 days for his MLB service clock to stop1. If he’s recalled at, say, 15 days, those days are automatically added to his ledger as though he’d been with the team the whole time.

Fifty-nine days sure seems like a long time, but let’s delve into what exactly that’d entail in terms of outings for Heaney. Day 60 of the season is June 3, when the Angels play their 54th game. If we assume Heaney would take the No. 5 spot and start every fifth game were he in the rotation from Opening Day, he’d make 10 starts by that date. If the Angels instead work it so that they go with a four-man staff every time an off day happens to fall on the fifth starter’s turn in the rotation, then it’s nine starts.

There’s no definitive answer to whether giving up 10 starts now is worth equal or greater value than the potential for a full year of starts seven years down the road. We know the Angels are in win-it-all mode heading into 2015, but know close to nothing2 about 2021. And the fickle nature of pitchers as a species serves only to compound the uncertainty involved, making it a more or less blind bet. All we can really do, then, is assess the present.

A third of the season is not an insignificant amount of playing time, but it’s also probably not so much that the team’s current spot starters would be overstretched. Next to last year’s half dozen bullpen-by-committee starts, a choice of Nick Tropeano, Hector Santiago, or Jose Alvarez in the back of the rotation looks downright greedy. The trio all have the potential to put up strong numbers over a 10-start stretch, and at worst would be around replacement-level. Heck, one of them might even legitimately beat Heaney out of the final rotation spot with a strong spring. Wouldn’t that make things easy.

The Angels haven’t shown a propensity for playing the service-time game in recent years, but doing so with Heaney seems to be a defensible decision given the current state of the roster. His ability to marinate a little longer at Triple-A of course depends on Garrett Richards being healthy by Opening Day and no one else in the rotation getting injured between now and the first week of June. The likelihood of that happening probably isn’t great, but the possibility is there.

Right now Heaney is presumed to be the favorite to win the final rotation spot out of camp, but don’t be too surprised if the Halos ultimately decide to send him for a little more seasoning in the minors. At least for 59 days or so. Give or take.

__

1 You’ll notice this isn’t the case with Kris Bryant. That’s because the Cubs are smart and have yet to add him to the 40-man roster, meaning the 20-day threshold doesn’t apply. His clock won’t start until the moment his contract is purchased. The Rays did the same thing with Evan Longoria back in the day.

2 Other than that Albert Pujols will still be under contract…

Previewing the AL West: Houston

February 24th, 2015

 

2014 Results

70-92, 4th in AL West

RS: 629 (t-21st) RA: 723 (25th)

Pythag W-L: 71-91 (t-26th)

The Houston Astros were bad again in 2014, but they weren’t quite the dumpster fire of the previous three seasons. In fact, over the final two months of the season, they were nearly a .500 team. While the A’s were busy finishing their year on a disastrous 22-33 run, the Astros went 26-27, holding opponents to under 3.8 runs a game and giving a glimpse of what the 2017 World Series champs might have in store for us.

Young-ish starters Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh paved the way for the team’s 19-win improvement — second only to the Angels — with breakout seasons on the mound, while farm-system prodigies like George Springer and Jon Singleton finally made their presence felt in Houston. (It also didn’t hurt that Jose Altuve and Chris Carter had career years.) By the end of the season, it became abundantly clear that Phase Two of Jeff Luhnow’s needlessly extreme multi-year rebuild plan was at last in full effect; goodbye, No. 1 draft picks, hello, exasperating mediocrity!

 

***

 

2015 Projections

77-85, 5th in AL West

RS: 686 (t-13th) RA: 729 (26th)

If there was any doubt at the end of the season about whether the Astros had actually moved beyond of the “we’re totally tanking on purpose” part of their plan, the additions they made this winter should put it to rest. The front office didn’t just make moves in free agency — where they doled out lucrative deals to professional placeholder Jed Lowrie, veteran bullpen arms Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, and platoon-friendly outfielder Colby Rasmus — they also made quite the splash in the trade market. Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Hank Conger, and Dan Straily all joined the team via swaps, costing the Astros just a year of Dexter Fowler and handful of prospects.

Stat Sunday: The Angels and Pace of Play

February 22nd, 2015

 

3 hours, 17 minutes

 

…was the average time of an Angels game in 2014, the third-longest rate in baseball. That’s an increase of more than 25 minutes (!!) from 2012, when the club regularly breezed through games in well under three hours, and shared a spot with Seattle for the quickest average game length – 2 hours, 52 minutes – in the league. While some of this is probably explained away by the team’s increased emphasis on OBP the last few seasons, I think much of it comes down to individual hitter and pitcher pace, a hot topic around MLB this week.

Slowest pace, 2014, min. 300 pitches seen:

32. Efren Navarro – 23.259 sec
48. Kole Calhoun – 22.863 sec
72. Collin Cowgill – 22.437 sec
84. Mike Trout – 22.267 sec
108. Erick Aybar – 21.840 sec

 

The gap between the batter with the slowest average pace — Troy Tulowitzki, at 25.234 seconds — and the batter with the quickest —  Ben Revere, at 18.528 seconds — is about seven Mississippis, which is wider than you think. If Tulowitzki and Revere each saw 1,200 non-event pitches* in a season and held steady at those averages, Tulo would spend a grand total of 134 more minutes fidgeting between offerings from April to September. Even Nomar is blushing at the thought of two-plus hours of readjusting.

*I.e. All pitches that do not result in the batter running/walking to first base or the dugout, as those would do no good in helping calculate between-pitch pace.

The Angels had zero batters among the top 100 in pace last season, and only Josh Hamilton, Gordon Beckham, Howie Kendrick, and C.J. Cron came in at under 20.8 seconds between pitches, i.e. better than league average. I think I’m beginning to see from where the game-length issues are stemming.

But for all the hassle over the new rules to keep batters in the box, the overall spread for hitters pales in comparison to the almost 14-second divide between the pitchers. Mark Buehrle (15.802 sec) is, of course, the quickest gun in the game, while Junichi Tazawa (29.054 sec) is far and away the slowest.

Slowest pace, 2014, min. 300 pitches thrown:

35. Cesar Ramos – 24.502 sec
37. Huston Street – 24.463 sec
49. Cory Rasmus – 24.040 sec
71. Mike Morin – 23.387 sec
84. Tyler Skaggs – 23.043 sec

 

Jason Grilli (25.609 sec) and Kevin Jepsen (25.346 sec) were actually the Angels’ slowest workers last year, but they’re not around anymore. Among the 2015 Halos, only Matt Shoemaker (19.374 sec) and Hector Santiago (19.896 sec) come in under 20 seconds, which maybe explains some more of the team’s game-length issues.

Side note: I don’t know about you, but I’m rather grateful that all the 2015 team’s molasses arms are relievers. Can you imagine how much more painful C.J. Wilson’s starts would be if he operated at Joel Peralta’s “speed”? Yikes.

Anyway, there’s no telling how the new pace-of-play rules will impact the Angels from a performance standpoint in 2015 and beyond, but given that much of the team tends to sway on the slower side of things, there’s little doubt it’ll force many Halos to alter their habits somewhat.

Stat Sunday: New Zone Could Hurt Trout

February 15th, 2015

 

.349/.426/.592

 

…is Mike Trout’s slash line on pitches in the bottom third of the strike zone or lower since taking the league by storm in 2012. On pitches in the same location over that same timeframe, the rest of MLB’s right-handed hitters have batted a paltry .219/.295/.317. In case you didn’t do the math, that’s an OPS advantage of four-hundred six friggin’ points for Mike.

This massive split from the league norm is a big part of what makes Trout such a force in batter’s box: His single biggest strength on offense is the Achilles’ heel of just about every other hitter in the game, meaning pitchers can’t go after Trout in the same way they do the rest of the league. Well, I suppose they can, technically, but they won’t be effective.

 

Trout Low Pitches

Via ESPN Stats & Info

 

Teams caught onto this fact as the 2014 season progressed — steadily increasing their number of pitches up in the zone to Trout — but no one went so far as to abandon the low strike completely, despite Trout’s penchant for demolishing such offerings. Part of this is likely due to pitchers missing their spots, but it seems to me that it’s probably more a symptom of the strike zone bottoming out. In other words, with called strikes dropping closer and closer to the ground, pitchers are less and less inclined to attack the top of the zone no matter who’s at the plate.

 

Called Strike Heat Map

Kzonechange

Via ESPN Stats & Info

 

The change from season to season is subtle, but it’s still managed to get the attention of MLB higher-ups. Citing the plummeting strike zone as a reason for the league-wide offensive decline, this week the league charged a committee with correcting the strike zone upward by as early as 2016. This could spell bad news for Trout.

It’s not so much that the adjustment will cause an immediate, wholesale shift in the way pitchers go about their business — it took years for everyone to adapt to the last zone change. BUT, if pitchers have less inclination to live at hitters’ ankles, we may start seeing Trout get challenged at the letters a lot more than he is now. And he doesn’t do quite so well on those…

 

strike-zone (5)

Via ESPN Stats & Info

 

Halos Daily

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