Friday, February 25, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: San Diego Padres

The Padres entered this offseason in a somewhat awkward position. On one hand, they’re a competitive team, and were knocked out of playoff contention by the eventual World Champion Giants on the last day of the season. On the other, their best player, Adrian Gonzalez, was coming to the end of a ridiculously affordable four-year, $9.5 million deal, and as a smaller-budget team they simply don’t have the payroll to make the kind of commitment Gonzalez would require in order to sign a long-term deal. In order to avoid the possibility of losing Gonzalez for nothing, the Padres completed the trade that had been rumored to be in the works for at least a couple years. In exchange for their All-Star first baseman, the Padres received a package of prospects from Boston including Casey Kelly, Raymond Fuentes, Anthony Rizzo, and Eric Patterson.

In addition to losing a large chunk of their offense, the Padres had some holes in their starting staff that they needed to fill. Mat Latos led the rotation with 4.0 WAR, and Clayton Richard impressed with 2.3 total WAR. However, after that, they were pretty pedestrian. Tim Stauffer, who totaled 0.8 WAR in 7 starts at the end of last year after spending most of the season coming out of the bullpen, is slotted into the 3rd spot in the rotation. New signee Aaron Harang is penciled into the fourth spot after his worst year in 7 seasons, in which he accrued only 0.9 WAR in Cincinnati. Moving from one of the most-hitter friendly parks in the league to what is generally considered the best pitcher’s park in baseball will certainly benefit Harang, especially because he’s allowed a flyball rate of over 41% in each of the last four years. Cory Luebke, Wade LeBlanc, and Dustin Moseley will compete for the fifth and final spot.

Their bullpen was the best in baseball last year, and though they traded away some of their relievers, they should maintain their status as one of the best in baseball. So they should mostly be looking to replace some of the offense that will leave with Adrian Gonzalez’s departure, and having a bit of defense both to replace Gonzalez’s outstanding glove and to help their staff, which does seem like it could leave something to be desired.

They’re paying roughly $3 million for their first-base patch job, which involved signing Brad Hawpe to a deal for $2 million for this year with a $1 million buyout on a mutual option for 2011, as well as picking up Jorge Cantu for $850,000. Hawpe put up 0.5 WAR last year for the Rockies and Rays, while Cantu finished at 0.0 splitting the season between the Marlins and Rangers. Instead of that $3 million, I believe they would be better served spending $5 million and picking up Lyle Overbay, who signed for that amount with the Pirates this offseason. Overbay put up 1.5 WAR last season, and has averaged 2 WAR per season over the last 3 years. He’s been a plus defender for the last 4 seasons (although he was basically league-average last year), and up until last year, he had put up a LD% of over 20% in every season of his career. Bill James and Marcel’s projections both have him bouncing back next year to finish with a higher wRC+ than in 2010. If the $2 million difference isn’t possible for the team’s budget, hold off on signing Chad Qualls and trust the bullpen to come back strong with most of the core personnel from last year’s outstanding group. Though the Padres can’t replace the production they received from Gonzalez last year, they can at least ease the blow of doing so by adding someone who can provide a little thump in the middle of the lineup. Hawpe and Cantu are both unlikely to help much in that respect.

Overbay is the Padres’ perfect pickup because he would allow them to pick up a pretty consistently strong hitter and a solid defender. He’d provide a veteran presence in the clubhouse and is much more likely to provide them a solid return on their investment than Hawpe (who’s played 8 total games at first in his career, all last season) and Cantu.

So that’s it for the non-playoff teams. I’m going to do a quick review of the offseasons for all of the teams who played October baseball last year, and then move into predictions for the coming season. I did pretty well in the playoffs, so I’m excited to see whether I can prove I know what I’m talking about over the course of a season.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Post: the Champs in the Field

I'm in the middle of my midterm exams, so SBTB has taken a bit of a backseat for the week. Today, we'll have another guest post from friend of the site Julian Tucker, and I expect to be able to get a post up by the end of the week. I'll be on Spring Break down in Scottsdale, AZ, the epicenter of Cactus League action, next week, so expect a full dose of posts as we prepare for the start of the season. Spring Training games start this Friday, and we're a month and a week away from regular season games. Get pumped.

Anyways, Julian's thoughts on the role defense played in the Giants' improbable World Series crown in 2010:

As a huge fan of the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and write about them. Congrats! Now that that’s over with, I would like to turn your attention to an aspect of the 2010 Giants that many people did not recognize: their defensive prowess. Widely thought of as an excellent pitching and average hitting team, defense was one of the big surprises for the Giants in 2010.

At the start of the year, the Giants’ defense was generally considered poor. Of the team’s Opening Day starters, only two, second baseman Juan Uribe and center fielder Aaron Rowand, were considered above average defenders. In left field, Mark DeRosa would be adequate but not stellar. Right fielder John Bowker was thought of as below average. It was also thought that after many seasons in the American League as a DH and first baseman, Aubrey Huff would be poor defensively. On the left side of the infield, shortstop Edgar Renteria was aging and did not have the range or arm he once had. Pablo Sandoval was generally considered good at third, but there were still questions. Behind the dish, Bengie Molina was often maligned for his propensity to allow passed balls and inability to throw out runners stealing second.

However, over the course of the season, the Giants almost completely remade their roster, and in addition to more offense, new players provided better defense as well. One of the biggest changes was Buster Posey taking over catching duties from Molina at the beginning of July. Although defense for catchers is a difficult thing to measure, I for one can attest to the fact that the difference between the two was night and day. Posey allowed fewer passed balls and ‘wild pitches’ than Molina and was also much better at controlling opposing team’s baserunners, throwing out over 50% of attempted steals while Molina did not crack 30%. Other changes were also taking place. Renteria landed on the DL for a substantial amount of time, which also coincided with Freddy Sanchez returning from the DL in early May. This shifted Uribe to shortstop, his more natural position. They combined for 8.0 UZR in 2010, solidifying the middle of the Giants infield. Aubrey Huff had a resurgent year on defense, silencing his critics by contributing a UZR of 5.4 in 2010. Perhaps most important was the change in the Giants outfield over the course of the season. By mid-May, Aaron Rowand had played (and injured) himself out of the everyday lineup, opening up center field for journeyman Andres Torres, who quickly proved to be one of the best outfield defenders in the league. He posted unbelievable UZR numbers in every outfield position, with 7.9, 6.9 and 6.3 in left, right and center, respectively. Nate Schierholtz, the local kid with a cannon for an arm, logged more than 540 innings in right field and managed a 6.4 UZR in limited playing time. Even Pat Burrell rebounded to post a spectacular 4.9 UZR in left field. In total, the team put up 56.4 UZR for the 2010 season, second best in all of baseball. In terms of more advanced metrics, the Giants were average or better in four of the five categories that make up Defensive Runs Saved. High scores in arm and range indicate that Giant outfielders did not allow many runners to take extra bases and the team’s position players were good at getting to batted balls and turning them into outs. The only area the Giants were lacking was their double-play turning abilities.

All in all, the Giants great defensive year was a key component in their successful season. Their defensive prowess undoubtedly saved runs and games and helped out the stellar pitching staff. With such a good defensive team behind them, Giants’ pitchers were able to outperform their FIP of 3.74 by 0.38 for an ERA of 3.36. While this could be considered a small amount, it was actually second best in the majors, and definitely shows that a team’s defense can have a huge impact on the success of a team’s pitching. As the Giants showed in 2010, when you take a great pitching team and put great defense behind them, the results can be wonderful.

Thanks to Julian for an awesome and very informative post. For my two cents, I think his conclusion about the synthesis of great pitching and great defense is spot-on, and the basis for some of the strongest and most underrated teams in baseball finding success. In 2011, look for the Giants to continue to benefit from the combination of pitching and defense, and expect the A's, Twins, Rangers, and Reds (especially if they choose to give Fred Lewis significant innings in left in place of Jonny Gomes) to profit from such an arrangement in 2011. In addition, the Red Sox improved their defense massively this offseason, and combining that with several starters who would likely be in line for a bounce-back year anyway could allow their pitching to outperform current expectations in a huge way. There's a reason PECOTA has them projected to win more games than any other team in baseball this season, and although their lineup will be fearsome, that projection is largely based on them being expected to give up only 676 runs, shaving 68 off last year's total of 744.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox are obviously a perennial contender, and last year was no exception. Despite being decimated by injuries, the Sox finished with 89 wins, which kept them out of the playoff picture as a member of baseball’s toughest division. Their main problems came on the run prevention side of the ball. The Sox scored 818 runs, second only to the Yankees in all of baseball, but gave up 744 runs, fourth worst in the AL. Sox outfielders were largely at fault for their uncharacteristic defensive ineptitude, putting up a combined UZR of –23.4, last in the AL. Their pitching will fix itself to an extent. Josh Beckett will return from a season to forget and attempt to bounce back from injury and ineffectiveness, John Lackey is likely to see much better returns after a season in which his FIP (3.85) was more than half a run lower than his ERA (4.40), suggesting 2010 was an unlucky year for the righty. Clay Buchholz will look to continue to climb after a breakout 3.7 WAR season. Jon Lester will be Jon Lester, continuing to establish himself as the world-class ace of a world-class rotation.

So what do you do when your outfield is handicapping your pitching by playing subpar defense? You go out and sign the guy who’s been second in baseball in UZR over the last three, and finished second in the AL in the stat last season, to a seven year, $142 million contract, of course. However, Carl Crawford doesn’t just make the big bucks for his world-class defense. Crawford has put up a wRC+ of over 120 in four of the past five years, and is second in the league over the last two seasons with 107 steals. His wRC+ of 139 last season marked his best offensive year to date. Crawford’s 29, and should continue to be a human vacuum in the outfield and a sparkplug at the plate in the prime of his powers. The only question is whether to shift him to right to allow him to roam free, rather than being impeded by the short left field in front of the Green Monster.

But that’s not all. Theo Epstein and Co. needed to upgrade the outfield, and they certainly did. However, with Adrian Beltre, by far the best defender on the 2010 squad, leaving in free agency, Epstein also wanted to improve their infield gloves. That’s the difference between the Red Sox and smaller-market teams. When you don’t have the cash for a huge payroll, you know what the situation necessitates and fill team needs. When have bills to burn, like the Sawx, you can go out and get what you want as well. The Padres couldn’t afford to sign Adrian Gonzalez to a long-term pact, so they traded him while they still could, receiving a huge package of prospects from Boston that included highly rated starter Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and outfielder Reymond Fuentes. Though Gonzalez had a pedestrian UZR of 1.1 last season, he does have an excellent defensive reputation (and his UZR of 5.8 in 2009) going for him. He’s also a tremendous hitter, and his already superb numbers will only increase as he leaves Petco Park, where power goes to die, for the much more hitter-friendly confines of Fenway. Gonzalez is essentially “Pujols lite,” contributing power and excellent on-base skills on offense as well as a stellar glove in the field. Well, sorta. Comparing Pujols to anyone is a bit of a stretch, which is why he may very well be worth $30 million per year.

So the Red Sox got their Perfect Pickup in Crawford, and then made another great move in going out to get Gonzalez. The BoSox may be the most improved team in baseball this offseason. The AL East standings will likely reflect that. Don’t expect them to miss the playoffs again in 2011, or really anytime soon. Next time, we’ll take a look at the Padres, and then move on to grading the playoff teams’ offseasons and gearing up for the start of the MLB season. I’ve also planned a trip to Arizona for my Spring Break, so I look forward to writing from Spring Training at the beginning of March.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Guest Post: the D'Backs On The Mound

Well, it's one of the greatest days of the year. The smell of freshly cut Kentucky Bluegrass is in the air and the familiar sounds of bat on ball, ball on leather, and Ozzie Guillen yelling at somebody can be heard once again. Pitchers and catchers for 17 teams have already reported, and by Friday every team will have opened camp and begun their 2011 Spring Training in Arizona or Florida. It's been a long winter, folks, but baseball is finally back.

In other exciting news, we've got a guest poster today. Julian Tucker, a dear friend of mine, put together a few pieces and asked whether I would post them here, to which I agreed. I'll try to throw up a post of my own by the end of the week, as we're pretty close to finishing up Perfect Pickups for the last few non-playoff teams from last season.

Anyway, Julian, take it away:

Few things in baseball were as bad as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pitching staff last season. As a fan of the San Francisco Giants, who also play in the NL West and an avid sports highlight show watcher, I can tell you that it seemed like everyday that the Diamondbacks’ bullpen would blow a lead and end up losing the game. Looking back, we can see that this pitching staff was historically bad, and all signs indicate that it has nowhere to go but up. In 2010, the starting rotation for the Diamondbacks was awful. They were middle of the road in terms of innings pitched, strikeouts per nine innings and walks per nine innings. However, they allowed an incredible 1.34 home runs per nine innings, which was worst in the majors by far. Arizona’s starting staff also induced the lowest percentage of groundballs in the league (40.7%) while allowing high percentages of line drives (19.2%) and fly balls (40.1%). They also posted a terrible 4.62 FIP, third worst in the league. What all of this says to me is that the Diamondback starters were incredibly adept at inducing fly balls, and an inordinate amount of those fly balls ended up in the seats for home runs. A common explanation for this was that Chase Field, Arizona’s home ballpark, was especially hitter-friendly early in the season due to the desert climate. OK, I buy that one a little bit. But, it doesn’t change the fact that in 2011, Arizona’s starters are going to have to get better at inducing more groundballs and less fly balls, especially early on.

Arizona’s bullpen exceeded the starters in terms of awfulness by a large margin. D-back relievers combined to save only 35 games, lose 32, strike out a mere 6.79 batters per nine innings while walking 4.59 and allowing 1.27 HR/9. They also allowed an unbelievable 12 percent of all fly balls to leave the yard. That means that basically one out of every eight fly balls hit off of an Arizona reliever went into the stands. From the stats, it is easy to see why they were so bad. They were not good at striking out batters, giving the opposing team lots of chances to make contact with pitches. Arizona’s bullpen handed out free passes like there was no tomorrow. Its BABIP of .310 was extremely unlucky, and should rebound to a more normal number in 2011. What is interesting is that the bullpen was actually pretty good at inducing ground balls instead of fly balls. With a ground ball percentage of 44.1% and a fly ball rate of 37.2%, the D-backs were about league average or better in those two categories. The problem was that so many of their fly balls went for home runs, as noted earlier. Whether this was truly due to the “Chase Field effect” or just bad luck, regression to the mean next year is practically inevitable.
Looking at some statistics related to win probability, the true scope of the damage caused by the bullpen is clear. A league worst -8.37 WPA and a -3.4 Clutch score show that not only did Arizona’s relief corps cost the team over eight wins during the season, it also faltered when it mattered the most in high-leverage situations.

After this nightmare in 2010, what has Arizona done to shore up its bullpen? Not a whole lot, surprisingly. The club signed J.J. Putz to a two-year deal to be the team’s closer, but other than that, Micah Owings appears to be the team’s biggest possible add for its relief corps this offseason. The team has traded for and signed several pitchers to be starters, including Armando Galarraga, Zach Duke and Aaron Heilman, but it seems like Kevin Towers is content to sign a good closer, a veteran relief arm, some fringe starters and hope for a rebound back to respectability in 2011. For that to happen, it would be helpful for Arizona pitchers to strike more hitters out, walk less and hopefully reduce its number of fly balls.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Chicago White Sox

Much like the Cards, the White Sox are excruciatingly close to being a serious title contender. After signing Adam Dunn to DH, they may be ready to do just that, as they’ve mostly kept together the pitching staff that led the league in WAR last season with 24.9 overall. Bobby Jenks, JJ Putz, and Freddy Garcia are gone, but the core of their bullpen and the bulk of the rotation will be the same as last year’s impressive staff.

The offense, on the other hand, could use a bit of an overhaul, as they graded out to a wRC+ of 100 that, by definition, is exactly average. As I’ve noted before, this isn’t the NFL, NBA, or NHL, where half the teams make the playoffs. Average doesn’t do it in baseball, so the White Sox will need to provide a bit more support for their men on the mound. Dunn is a good start, but the White Sox missed out on another opportunity to upgrade- and possibly even save some cash- when they re-signed AJ Pierzynski to a two-year deal worth $8 million. He’s been very pedestrian for quite a bit of time now, hovering around 2 WAR with an average of 1.86 per year over the last 5 years. Last year, he put up 1.8 WAR in 128 games, and at 34, he’s not getting any younger, making the two-year commitment a bit risky.

In addition, the White Sox do have some prospect help on the way. Though Tyler Flowers no longer has the prospect luster of a year ago after a brutal year in which he put up a .220/.334/.434 triple-slash in Triple-A, the Sox now have three catchers among their top 20 prospects, according to prospect maven John Sickels. If Flowers can regain some of his pre-2010 form, or if another of their catching prospects can continue to climb the ladder and show that they’re ready for big-league action, the Sox could find themselves in a tough situation, forced to bench Pierzynski or keep their promising prospects in the minors for longer than they’d like.

Instead of allowing the minimally productive and potentially disruptive Pierzynski to retain catching duties, I believe the Sox should have gone a different direction. Ramon Hernandez, also a free agent this offseason, ended up staying with the Reds on a one-year pact worth $3 million. Hernandez posted 2.6 WAR in only 97 games last season before relinquishing catching duties to the younger Ryan Hanigan, but Hernandez proved he can still be a productive backstop. Hernandez’s triple-slash of .297/.364/.428 compares favorably to Pierzynski’s .270/.300/.388, and his wRC+ of 113 far outpaced Pierzynski’s 78. Bill James’ projections have Pierzynski bouncing back to a wRC+ of 93 next year and Hernandez dropping to a 100, but even if they converge to the point where they perform at essentially equal levels, Hernandez will be the much better value as his deal is cheaper and shorter.

Though the White Sox may have done enough to give themselves a great shot at the AL Central title, it’s going to be a tight race where every win will count. The defending division champ Twins and much-improved Tigers will be right in the thick of things, and one good move (or one bad one) could turn the tide of this division in the direction of any of these teams. I believe the White Sox missed out on a chance to get better and conserve payroll by adding their Perfect Pickup, Ramon Hernandez.